The 2 Attributes that will Ensure You Have a Kickass 2019

A few days ago, while having a fun conversation with a childhood friend, something interesting happened.

This conversation is an annual ritual where we catch up at the beginning of the year (sometimes during birthdays) just to discuss anything and everything that’s happened since the previous conversation.

Now, there’s always a portion of the convo devoted to how much we hoped to achieve at the onset of the year and how off we were in our attempts to meet those targets. This particular year however, in the course of our discussion, I realised two things – we’d both been having the same failed projects / missed targets for nearly a decade.

Secondly, this particular year, I had fewer missed targets on that list than he did.

Surprised, I pointed it out to him and he asked how I was able to do it. I said playfully, I guess my new year resolutions worked.

I’ve had time to think about what exactly I did different and I want to document it here.

We all know new year resolutions don’t work (right?). Because, let’s face it, if you were going to start, you would have already done so last year. So this is NOT a checklist of things you need to do to succeed in 2019. The internet has enough of those already.

In fact, if I’m being honest, listicles exhaust me.

I’ve read so many listicles, at some point, they all began to meld into one another. I mean, it becomes very confusing when you’re reading the 10th article on “19 ways to have a highly productive 2019”.

 

If I take point #3 from article 2, combine it with point #7 from article 4 and double down on those 3 principles from article #1…

 

I figured out something in 2017, tested it throughout 2018 and it worked. Here it is:

At the core of every productivity hack are two fundamental virtues - diligence and curiosity.

We can explore a thousand and one ways to achieve more, to do more, to look, feel, think, speak and perform better but regardless of how you intend to go about it, these two virtues will determine just how successful you will be.

Diligence and Curiosity.

Diligence is basically hardwork. Despite the millions of apps available today, cutting edge tech and productivity hacks, there is no skipping the hard work requirement. Personal improvement takes time, commitment, resolve and focus.

Curiosity on the other hand is the continual desire to learn, to know more about a particular subject (not to be confused with that itch you have to keep scrolling on social media).

Diligence will help you master the right skills. Curiosity will lead you to the right information.

Skills + Information = Development.

On these two things, you can build a career and build it well.

In fact, on these two pillars, you can peg every personal development goal and experience impressive improvement across board be it in your relationships, health, finances, spiritual well being and so on.

Like I wrote days ago, I had a fabulous 2018.

One of the things I really wanted to do last year was pray more.

The thought kept bugging me all through the year but I kept procrastinating. It was in October that the realisation that, “Dude, you have just 3 months left this year. When are you going to pray?”

And that’s when I took a halt and revisited these principles – diligence and curiosity.

Curiosity – I (finally) began reading up on prayer, about people who did great things through prayer, about the significance of prayer in a believer’s life. I spent two weeks in really intense study and mediation. The activity fed with me with the right amount of inspiration and motivation to jumpstart my prayer project.

Diligence – Now that I was all fired up, I needed to plan my time. I sat down and looked at my day. I realised that in order to find the extra 2-3 hours needed for prayer, I needed to cut out social media. So I did. That provided me with the extra hours and (more importantly) mental and emotional energy I needed for my prayer target.

Then I got up and started to run with it.

The results have been outstanding.

This is a process that works. To be honest, I’m dazed at how effective it is.

I’ve used the same process to improve my writing, digital marketing and public speaking skills.

I’m using the same process to learn a new language and another new skill (this one is long overdue).

It’s really not complex.

If you’re a listicle kinda person, go ahead and pen down your goals for 2019. But remember, these two attributes will determine how successful you will be.

Photo Credit: Inc

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2018 in Review: Hit Me Baby One More Time

I’m writing this on the eve of 2019, the final day of the awesome year that was 2018 and I must confess, I’m reluctant to see this year end. Reason: it has been my best year ever.

In fact, I considered not doing a review this year cos of the probability of writing an article  that would end up more or less a humble-brag.

But if I get to share and review the awful years, it’s only fair for me to review the awesome years as well, right?

Career Testimonies

Got a raise at work!

Piggybacking on that, this also became the first year since 2013 (when I began freelancing) I did not have to do side gigs to make ends meet each month. In fact, I started turning down jobs!

I thought I was crazy the first time I turned one down. Like, why would you turn down money, Ibukun? But then I wanted my weekends back. For 5 years, since I began freelancing, I have rarely had my weekends to myself. However, this year, I took it back!

Now I have more time to read, study, visit people, attend programs and events, or just literally have a lazy day and sleep in.

I. Love. My. Job!

Have I said how much I love my job? Ok, I reeeeaaally love my job. My boss, my colleagues (who are fast becoming like family), getting paid to write, seeing my name in national newspapers etc. But at the top of the list is the fact that what we’re doing at SIDFS matters in really practical ways to millions of people. I also like the fact that I get to work on really diverse and interesting projects.

Speaking of projects, this year, our team organised and hosted an art exhibition at the Lagos Business School. It was a classic “fish out of water” moment for me. I was responsible for PR and ensuring people attended the event.

No Pressure

But thanks to that awesome team I work with everyday, we pulled it off and it was a blast.

Adulting 201

Got my own apartment!

Lessons Learned

I learned quite a few lessons in 2018.

First and perhaps most important on the list, is the difference between guilt and responsibility.

I’ve always felt that when my friends made bad decisions, it’s a reflection on me – that I’m a bad leader and friend. Like, why would my friends or students make bad decisions when they have me?

I’ve held onto this mindset for years so it’s a blindspot. But then one day, God flashed a question across my mind.

Who do you blame for your own bad decisions?

The question stopped me in my tracks.

I replied, “I dont blame anybody for my bad decisions. It’s all on me.”

The voice went, “Exactly”.

Basically, my stance meant people make bad decisions because their friends allowed them to. And as a person who has a library of bad decisions, that means I should blame people (aka my friends) for my own bad decisions.

That’s not true. And since we’re supposed to treat others the way we want to be treated, it means I had to let go of that belief. It’s not only wrong but harmful.

Secondly, spending less time on social media gives you so much time for other things. I drastically reduced my social media usage in November and, well… I had even more time to read (my first love), study, pray, and genuinely connect with people. That last part, connecting with people, means practicing mindfulness which was a really healthy exercise for me last year which I plan to continue next year.

Chasing God

In 2005, I embarked on the greatest adventure of my life. I committed myself to Jesus and resolved I’d spend the remaining years of my life chasing Him. Trying to become like Him.

I knew it would involve a lot of sacrifice but I had no idea just how much it would demand.

However, I’ve traded a life of fear, selfish pursuits and ego for a life of beauty, peace and contentment. It’s the best deal I’ve ever made.

Except for 2005, every year I usually spend more time down spiritually than up. This year, that trend was reversed. I spent more time up than down! And while there’s still a lot of room for improvement, I’m really happy about 2018.

Love: Pending

2018 was supposed to be the “I do” year. But in what is becoming a yearly trend, 2018 had its fair share of disappointments and heartaches.

I obviously still have a lot of growing up to do. So I’m grateful for a new year, another 365 days to become more selfless, generous, kind, patient and wise.

I’m still growing. I may know how to talk a big game but I’m still figuring a lot of stuff out. So is everyone else. So please give me (and everyone you know) some margin for error. We’ll need it to excel in the next 365.

Hope you’re ready do it all over again, this time, even better?

Rejection is an Essential Part of the Creative Process

It’s safe to say everyone above the age of five has experienced rejection at some point or the other.

My first memory of rejection is a bit vague but I know it involved a fine art competition in primary school. We were all supposed to draw something and the best one wins the prize. I remember standing in front of a classroom with the other kids presenting our work and mine not getting picked. I think some of the kids even laughed at my drawing.

I remember crying all the way home that day. I was inconsolable. It wasn’t until my dad got back and sat me on his lap that I stopped wailing.

I will never forget what he said to me that day – “I don’t know why they laughed at you but I know they can never laugh at you if you’re the one with the highest grades and taking the first position” (he spoke in Yoruba).

That statement hit me deep. I went on to score the highest grade every year onwards, from Class 3 to 5.

I’m grateful for that day, even though I had no idea how significant that day would be for me. With my dad tactfully redirecting my pain and embarrassment, he laid the foundation for something I’d have to do, and I’ve been doing, professionally everyday.

 

Creative work and rejection

I don’t know much about other industries but in the creative industry, rejection comes rapidly and often, and it hurts every single time.

It hurts because creativity involves tapping into the deeper cores of your soul. It requires a lot of emotional commitment and courage to bare your soul to the outside world. Then, to have that creation critiqued and shot down, or flat out rejected, is painful beyond measure.

Often, it feels like a part of you is being squished into tiny fragments and the aftermath can be psychologically intense if not properly managed.

Quick career tip for authors: Never ever ever read reviews of your book. Resist the urge. Also, stay away from Goodreads, if you love your self confidence. You’re welcome.

There was a particular month my stories got rejected by so many publishers, I actually gave up writing short stories for about a year. I mean, I had read about how hard it was to get published but my first hand experience overwhelmed me.

Creativity takes a lot of grit. Not only in producing new and awesome stuff, but also in receiving and managing rejection.

But here is the thing – over time I have come to appreciate the rejection process. Of course, no creative person presents his ideas or art with the hope of getting them rejected. But when (not if) they do get rejected, you should welcome it with open arms.

You know why?

Because rejection can make you even more creative, if you handle it right.

 

How rejection helps me write better

Creativity needs 2 things:

  •  a steady supply of diverse content for stimulation
  •  a feedback mechanism.

Rejection is simply feedback on steroids!

It forces you to look again at your work, exploring it from new angles.

I’ll use an example from my day job which involves a significant amount of writing everyday.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), my boss is also a writer and she has very high standards. We publish articles in two national newspapers every other week and every month.

However, the journey from blank page to press is always rocky.

I’ve poured my soul into some articles, writing and editing all night to meet a deadline, only for my boss to say, “This is not good enough.”

I’ve written articles that I swore couldn’t be improved upon, only to be told to go back to the drawing board and bring back something better. As depressing and often painful as that usually feels, I always end up coming back with something better.

Everytime.

Creativity is like a precious resource – you have to dig deep to reach the good stuff. And when you think you’ve run out of it, you dig deeper.

With experience comes the tendency to be complacent, lazy even. When you’ve been writing professionally for a few years, you can more or less do your job with your eyes closed. So we tend to “phone it in”.

Eeeh, whatchu gonna do?

Well, rejection is a really loud wake up call.  

No matter how good you get, you will still face rejection.

Tobias S. Buckell puts it this way – “I have oppositional defiance in me. Being told I suck fuels me to try harder.“ (Read the full article).

I like that. I think every writer should have that kind of attitude towards criticism and rejection.

Rejection, even though it hurts, can also be helpful, if you let it.

It also helps if you quickly learn to distance yourself from your work.

Like I always tell my friends – “Don’t tell me what I did well. Tell me what I didn’t do well. You don’t need to pamper me. I know I can write, I just want to write better. So tell me how I can do that.”  

I’m also reminded of this quote:

Be prepared to get knocked off the pedestal that all copywriters, art directors, and designers put themselves on. Because, when you think you’ve done your best, the right leadership will always tell you that you can do better, and they’re almost always right. – Mishal Jagjivan

I really love this quote because it is so true.

You can always do better.

Does it mean more work? Yes.

Is it worth it? Usually, yes.

In August, I wrote this piece for The Guardian on development and women inequity. I must have rewritten that piece several times over before it got a pass mark from my boss. I actually gave up on it at one point and simply moved on. But my boss didn’t want to give up on the idea. So she kept on my back.

I’m grateful for that because it is a really important piece and when we finally published it, the response has been humbling. In fact, if you walk into Lagos Business School today, right there on the screen behind the receptionist, you’ll see excerpts from the article, displayed for all staff and visitors to see.

It’s been there for two months and counting.

It resonated that much!

Everytime I feel exasperated and dejected at having my work rejected, I remember how much work it took to write something that really mattered, how many times it was rejected, how many times I started over and came up with something different each time.

Truth be told, the more awesome you think your work is, the more it needs to be critiqued. We are often too myopic to see the flaws in our creation, so flat out rejection is usually the only remedy.

Rejection is part of the creative process.

Expect it. Embrace it. Use it.

 

Writing Well For a Modern Audience: Rule #1 – Use White Space

Rules are meant to be broken.

I’ve heard that somewhere before, can’t remember where.

It’s a lie.

A more accurate statement would be, “Rules are guides and they can be broken but you must be armed with a “why”. A writer should only break rules when he knows obeying the rule is counterproductive.

Like I mentioned in the previous article, rules are not mandatory. They are like safe havens you run to when in doubt. You can ignore them but only when you know what you’re doing.

If you’re just starting out however, you need to appreciate rules.

Writing is a lot like juggling. It involves you throwing up so many words and ideas onto the page, trying to deliver some measure of coherence in your story. As you juggle, rules are your training wheels. They help you build your confidence and ensure you don’t get egg yolk on your face as you do your juggling act.

There’s a universe of incredibly useful rules out there. Today, we’ll be discussing the use of white space.

White Space

Let’s do a quick test. Which do you find easier to read?

This? :


Or this:


There’s a reason that first article has gotten 81,000+ claps on Medium (mindblowing, by the way!). The text is way easier to read than the second one which is clunky and claustrophobic.

The difference is the use of white space.

What is white space?

Whitespace is the portion of a page left unmarked or blank. It is the space between your words, sentences and paragraphs.

Quick note: even though it’s called white space, it doesn’t mean the actual space must be “white”. The blank space may be filled with any color as long as it is free of any text or words.

White space is all about formatting.

“Alternatively referred to as spacing, white space helps separate paragraphs of text, graphics, and other portions of a document, and helps a document look less crowded.”

White space is one of the tricks in a good writer’s repertoire. It’s way up there in the “tricks that will improve your writing exponentially” category.

White space gives your writing a shot in the arm, albeit in a covert way. Readers rarely notice your use of it unless you use it poorly.

So why do many people refuse to use it?

I don’t know but I have a hunch. I’ll use myself as an example.

I wrote my first essay (or composition exercise if you attended a missionary school like mine) in Primary 2. The topic was “What I Like About Myself”.

Just before giving us classwork, my class teacher scribbled four “rules” on the board:

Rule 1: Essays have 3 parts. Introduction, Body and Conclusion.

Rule 2: The introduction and the conclusion are one paragraph each.

Rule 3: The body has between 3 to 5 paragraphs.

Rule 4: Limit each paragraph to carry just one point each. Only one.

She spent about 30 minutes explaining each rule and its implications.

As my first introduction to prose writing, this would become the foundation of my career, who knew?

That was over 20 years ago.

It’s been several years of classes, courses and workshops, and more rules have been added. However, Rule 4 stuck with me. It’s safe to assume most literate people have this rule stuck in their heads as well.

To be clear, it’s a good rule, when taken in context.

Limiting each idea to a single paragraph helps you to reel in your thoughts and gives your writing some structure and clarity. In fact, it’s a great rule for kids learning to write prose. It’s also helpful if you’re writing for a print publication because space is a premium on that medium.

Weirdly, one of the things that put me off reading newspapers when I was younger was the cluster of words on each page. They looked so intimidating!

However, as a professional writer, Rule 4 has officially run its course.

We’re in the center of a digital revolution that means most of the prose being generated today will not be consumed on a sheet of paper but through a screen of some kind.

This means that, space is no longer at a premium – you can have as much white space as you want when you write.  

Look at all that beautiful white space!

However, using white space takes practice. It’s not as easy as saying, limit every paragraph to 4/5 lines of text (even though that’s a good start).

Using White Space

As a writer, think of yourself as a director. You’re in charge of what people experience when consuming your work. You have the control, whether you know it or not.

The trick to using white space is putting yourself in the reader’s shoes.

It’s easy to get lost in the writing itself as you try to capture your thoughts and give them life. But it’s also important to view your writing from the readers’ perspective.

How I do this?

Imagine yourself giving a presentation., let’s say a TED talk. The hall is packed with people ready to hang onto your every word. You have a 10-15 minutes for your presentation.

How do you deliver it?

You could decide to cram your words and sentences together, rushing through your presentation. That’s a bad idea though. It doesn’t matter how clever or original your ideas are, rushing will exhaust your audience quickly, or worse still, bore them.

On the other hand, I’ve watched a few TED talks and I noticed the best presenters always pace themselves. They pause often, sometimes for dramatic effect, sometimes to ask rhetorical questions, sometimes to let the audience soak in the gravity of what has been said (or about to be said).  

It’s subtle yet incredibly effective. It engages the audience and enhances the presentation.

Think of your articles as a presentation and the reader is your audience. Cramming your words together is like rushing through your presentation. We’ve agreed this is a terrible idea.

Instead, use white space the same way you’d use pauses during your presentation. As you write or edit, whenever you come across a sentence you feel you’ll pause before saying, start it on a new line.

Like this.

See?

It’s easy.

As a personal rule, I keep my paragraphs at a maximum of 3 lines, 4 maximum.

You can give your writing even more “pauses” using bullet points and sub headings.

Using white space is like a sculptor taking a block of text and chiseling at it till the project looks good, smooth, pleasing to see.

Without adequate white space, your writing looks claustrophobic, unfinished. And if it looks horrible, it will be hard to read.

When writing, your ideas are important. But if you want to give your ideas to have legs, to travel far, you have to work on your presentation.

So go on, start experimenting with white space today.

Cover Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Improve Your Writing With George Orwell’s 6 Rules of Writing Well

I recently saw a video of noob trapeze artists undergoing training. It’s not a particularly impressive sight.

Aside from their rigorous workout regimen which they maintain daily, they practice routines while harnessed with safety lines and swing above a safety net at all times. It’s not fancy but it is a necessary step on the path to wowing crowds with their death defying feats some day.

Writing is sort of the same.

While writing, like most artistic endeavours, can not be regulated, there are rules to this thing. Those rules ensure you don’t commit literary suicide on the pages of a blog or book. They also help you gain a footing since having literally millions of words available to you is a recipe for disaster.

George Orwell’s 6 Rules of Writing

When I was starting out, George Orwell’s 6 Writing rules was my first introduction to the world of writing well. So it is only fitting that I start this tutorial series revisiting them.

George Orwell’s 6 rules were the rails on which I built my style. No passive sentences, no clichés, no jargon, they all helped me quickly settle into a rhythm for what good writing should look and sound like.

I hope they help you too.

Rule 1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print*

*Replace print with wherever you currently get your news

When writing, writers scramble to capture and convey their thoughts with the best words. Unfortunately, we are predisposed to take the easy way out which means, we’ll use the first word or phrase that our mind conjures. Due to years of reading and consuming media, our minds are accustomed with clichés. That’s because they are easy and memorable.

But clichés are your enemy.

Regardless of which language you’re writing in, there are a hundred and one quite a few phrases that have been used to death overused. Avoid these like the plague as much as you can. Truth be told, you can’t totally eliminate them but by drawing your attention to the effect they have on your writing, (it makes it weaker not stronger), this is a very needful first rule. It also encourages you to try harder to avoid them and reduce their frequency.

Seriously, aren’t you tired of seeing things like, bury the hatchet, an ax to grind, viz a viz, out of the blue, a can of worms, armed to the teeth, easy as ABC, beat around the bush and so on?

These phrases are functional but forgettable. Most times, when you encounter such phrases in other people’s writing, your brain sort of hibernates cos it’s familiar and therefore boring. As a writer, using clichés makes you mentally lazy and also weakens your writing.

The next time you’re writing and your mind offers you clichés as the easy way out, turn it down and send it back to think up something more creative.

Rule 2. Never use a long word where a short one will do

A better way to write this is, never use a complex or long word when a short and simpler one will do the same job, sometimes even better.

This is Patrick Obahiagbon, former member of the House of Reps 2007 – 2011 and a legal practitioner.

wp-image-78475410

But you wouldn’t know that if you Googled him. From the search results, you’d think he was a circus act or a comedian. Nobody takes him seriously, even when he’s making a lot of sense. Why? That’s because he speaks using the most advanced and complex words in the English dictionary.

It’s worse when you’re a writer. Using big, long, or complex words will produce the wrong results, turning off your readers and making you sound conceited.  

Academics suffer the most from this. It is as though they are expected to sound complicated when the purpose of academia is to make knowledge accessible and understandable for as many people as possible. Ironically, I’ve also found that the ones who can bridge that gap – who can talk to their fellow academics as well as regular people like us, in clear and easy ways – end up breaking boundaries in their fields and crossing over into the mainstream.

The joy of writing is being able to convey your ideas clearly and skillfully. Using big flashy words impresses nobody. Complex and long words are not necessarily smarter. They are definitely tougher to read and understand. So, if there is a simpler, shorter word, use that instead.

Rule 3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out

I’ve talked quite a bit on self editing in past posts.

If you plan to go the long mile in this writing thing, one thing you must constantly do is, self edit. Or as Stephen King puts it, kill your darlings!

That’s right. Just because you wrote it and you liked it doesn’t mean it must make it into the final draft. Nope, there’s no such rule.

The rule is, if the sentence/paragraph will still make sense without the part under scrutiny, then edit it out. The more words we use to make a point, the less diluted its power is.

Be like Ernest Hemingway who allegedly wrote a short story in 6 simple words, For Sale: baby shoes, never used.

It takes skill to do something like that. Heck, I want to do something like that! That’s something we all should aspire to.

As you age as a writer, your aim should be figuring out ways to use less to tell more.

Rule 4. Never use the passive where you can use the active

Which one sounds better?

The ball was kicked by Adam” vs “Adam kicked the ball

I’m guessing you picked the second one. That’s because it uses the active voice rather than passive.

The active voice is powerful because it grants the subject matter urgency and oomph! This rule is frequently broken by (you guessed right) academics. Seriously, have you tried to read a research journal? It’s like an exercise in longsuffering. I have a theory for why academic writing is usually that way but it’s still a working theory.

It’s not only academics though. A lot of writers do this especially, mostly because we are scared of being assertive.

Anyway, active voice >>> passive voice.

Rule 5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Rule 5 is similar to rule 2.

If you are a non fiction writer like me, this is a tricky rule. But it’s still valid.

Over the course of your career, you’ll realise that the whole purpose of the written form is to aid understanding. When your writing is pleasing to read, it is more memorable and your ideas become sticky, gaining wide readership.

A lot of non fiction writing is usually technical knowledge targeted at other people within an industry. Hence the use of jargon. But research has shown that, just because you have a secondary school education, doesn’t mean you can read at that level. The average reader’s sweet spot is the 9th grade reading level (4th year of grammar school if you are in the UK, SS1 if you are Nigerian).

Yes, you read that correctly. Most of us have our reading ability hovering around the same stage it was when we were still in high school. This is why most of the bestsellers write at this level. 

That’s the sweet spot. If you want your work to gain the maximum audience it can, you have to dumb it down and make it simple enough for a 9th grader, even if you are a professor.

I try to run my articles through the readability website to see if I’m within the sweet spot. Quick note: This article is optimized for a 7th grader!

Rule 6. Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.

I like how George Orwell makes the last rule a disclaimer. It gives back agency and control to the writer, ensuring that he still goes into the writing project with his brain working, rather than just ticking boxes on a checklist.

When you write, everything you do is in service to the reader as well as the integrity of your ideas and thoughts. If obeying any of these rules will end up defeating these two things, damn the rules!

In Conclusion

Since I started writing professionally, I’ve followed these rules religiously. I still do, even though I broke them a few times writing this.

Writing is not easy but it is worth the effort of learning, practicing and getting better at. At the end of it all (another cliché!), what matters is that you put in the effort. I do hope these rules will give you the boost you need to producing better writing.

See you next week.

Header Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash