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Writing and Publishing

Call Yourself a Writer

I remember it well.

Alone, I sit in my home office. I should be working. I’m not. I’m distracted. In my windowless basement room, I swing the door shut and dim the lights. I know what I must do, but I don’t want to.

I’ve been writing and publishing for years, but I’ve never owned this reality. Now I must. It’s a seminal moment, of that I’m quite sure. If I don’t do it today, it might never happen. My gut rumbles. I inhale deeply and close my eyes as if eyelids will afford me protection from what I’m about to do.

Pulse racing, my lips move, but no sound comes out. On my third attempt, an audible rasp oozes forth, a murmur I can barely hear. Almost indiscernible, I think I just mumbled, “I am a writer.”

I try again. Eventually, my volume rises to a normal speaking level, but my words still lack confidence. A few months later I try this in front of another person. It emerges as a most pitiful attempt. It takes a couple of years before I can confidently tell someone that I am a writer. 

That was years ago. Now saying “I am a writer” flows forth without effort and no self-doubt—because it’s true.

At writing conferences, I occasionally teach a workshop for newer writers. I often lead my class in saying this phrase out loud: “I am a writer.” Their first effort is cautious, timid. But by their third attempt, they grin with confidence. We need to first call ourselves writers if others are to believe it.

I am a writer and so are you. That’s why you’re reading this book.

Learn more about writing and publishing in Peter’s new book: The Successful Author: Discover the Art of Writing and Business of PublishingGet your copy today.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is an author, blogger, and publisher with over 30 years of writing and publishing experience. Check out his book The Successful Author for insider tips and insights.

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Business Articles

It’s Your Move: Life Lessons From the Game of Chess

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

My cousins taught me how to play chess when I was in third grade. My parents, doubting I could grasp the complexities of the game, urged caution and tried to lower my expectations. Yet I forged ahead.

My oldest cousin patiently taught me the names of the pieces and how they moved. He gently quizzed me to gauge my understanding. Soon we played a real game. Despite novice errors, it was great fun. We played until he grew weary. Then I begged his siblings for a few games. But they had less tolerance for my sloppy play; by midafternoon we moved on to other things.

The next morning I challenged my instructor to play again. Before the day was done, I won my first game. He rallied, winning the next two, but I sensed I was beginning to challenge him. Seeking to avoid another loss, he feigned boredom and retreated to a safer activity. I then asked his brother to play. Discerning I’d advanced enough for it to not be too demeaning, he condescended to pick up where his brother left off. By the time their visit was over, I was hooked.

Practice Makes Perfect

Although my desire to play chess was strong, opportunities were limited. I asked family members, but each had a reason not to learn the game. My neighbor wasn’t much help either, having only passing interest. So I played against myself. Sometimes I would play the white pieces (which moves first and takes the offensive); other times I would take the black side (which responds and defends). Sometimes, I’d switch sides midway through the game, giving up a superior position to assume a lesser one.

These exercises may not have been the best way to improve, but I did get better. When it came time for a real game, my practicing paid off.

Study

Although enjoyable, playing against myself became wearisome. So I turned to books. First, I learned some esoteric rules, like en passant, which is seldom used in a real game. Then I studied opening moves and their recommended defenses. I also learned techniques, like the pin, the knight fork (a personal favorite), discovered check (a great way to confound your opponent), and gambits, as well as endgame tactics.

Having consumed several books, I zeroed in on one titled, “How to Beat Bobby Fischer.” The premise was that it was statistically more probable to beat Fischer than to force a draw—of course, he was nine times more likely to win than lose. I actually read, studied, and reenacted many of the sixty-one games he lost in Grandmaster tournaments. I reasoned that to improve, I needed to study the master’s.

Don’t Give Up

The unspoken credo among my chess-playing buddies was that you never conceded. No matter how dire the situation, we would never quit, playing to the end. Resigning a chess game was for those of lesser character. This perspective taught me two things.

First, I learned how to be a good winner, to be gracious to the other player as a person, all the while dismantling his army and backing his king into the corner for an acrimonious checkmate. I wanted to win but desired to not belittle my opponent in the process—after all, I would want to play him again.

Playing to the end also taught me to remain dignified in defeat. That’s much harder—especially when the vanquishing conqueror is relishing his impending victory too much. Yet, these moments perfect character.

Play it Again

Losing is never fun, especially when you deem yourself the superior player, but it does happen. I learned to accept defeat as part of the game and to grow in the process. It’s true that you can learn more in defeat than in victory.

It’s also important to not wallow in self-pity when setbacks occur but to shake off the disappointment and forge into the future. Regardless of how close I came to winning or how big the loss, my first response was invariably, “Wanna play again?”

Change the Rules

I sometimes played during study hall, where I could count on a worthy opponent is present. Once we organized a chess competition, complete with round-robin play and capped off by a single-elimination tournament.

My track buddy, Spencer, was in study hall, too, but he didn’t play chess. Still, he was attracted to it like a magnet. The variations of pieces and moves intrigued him. I tried in vain to teach him, but his attention span was too short. Tired of watching, he one day blurted out, “Let’s play checkers—all-kings-jump-your-own-man.” I’m not sure if he made this up or not, but I was willing to try. Lacking checkers, we used my chess set, arranging the chessmen like checkers. Since every piece was automatically a king, they could move forward and backward. Also, you could jump your own piece (though you left it on the board) to catapult yourself into enemy territory to capture your opponent’s pieces. It was a wild game and Spence played it with great abandon.

Playing all-kings-jump-your-own-man checkers with a chess set would elicit snide comments from casual observers, but we didn’t care. Spence changed the rules so he could participate and I was happy to oblige.

React Quickly

Aside from Spenser, the rest of us would sometimes play “rapid chess,” where you had to move within five seconds. With no timer, it was self-policing. It taught us to think astutely and react quickly. I had a knack for it, able to assess a situation and make a snap decision, sometimes on intuition or pure reaction. Games only lasted about five minutes and were so intense that it only took a couple to give me a headache.

I sometimes adopted a “rapid chess” strategy in a regular game. Although my hurried moves were not always ideal, their unending swiftness would unnerve my opponent, causing him to get flustered and make blunders. From his perspective, it was always his turn and he was always intently concentrating. I, on the other hand, was relaxed and having fun. I learned it was often better to make a quick decision that was good than to take time to make an ideal move.

Application

To imply that life is like a game of chess is a shallow metaphor. However, just as a good game of chess requires a thoughtful approach and sound strategy, so does running a successful business or living a worthy life.

It’s your move; what’s it going to be?

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is publisher, editor, author, and blogger with 30 years of writing and publishing experience. Check out his book The Successful Author for tips and insights.

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Business Articles

Going from Good to Better

By Peter Lyle DeHaan , PhD

I remember years ago as I gazed about my office, I am amused at its absurdity. It contained an eclectic array of form and function. Although my computer technology was first-rate, the room’s remaining accouterments were a varied collection emanating from different decades, with the diverging appearance and disparate degrees of utility.

In short, nothing matches. Of the six filing cabinets, three were metal, and the rest, wood. With different finishes, colors, and styles, there were only two that match. The four shelving units were likewise dissimilar: early American dark oak, maple-adorned particleboard, light oak veneer, and modular plastic. It was not much to look at, but it all worked—effectively and efficiently—to my complete satisfaction and utter joy.

My office, however, was not just about function, as it also contained a collection of sentimental artifacts: gifts from family and friends, trinkets from significant events, and a near gallery of wall hangings— the most elegant of which was a tastefully matted and smartly framed cover of my first issue of Connections Magazine. Next to it was an evocative gift from my eleventh birthday, a reprint, bordered with a simple homemade frame. Then there was a framed 3-D art rendering—the kind that you need to go slightly crossed-eyed before the hidden image emerges. On the far wall was an avant-garde depiction of a Monopoly game in progress. The remaining item was a black-and-white photo, housed in an inexpensive but seemingly ornate and likely antique frame. It was an aerial photo of my grandfather’s chicken farm, DeHaan Poultry, circa 1960.

The preceding description was written in 2007, but it remained fully accurate until a few months ago. For over a decade, my office configuration and contents had served me well. During that time, it had undergone a minimal change; even at the end, it lacked little in terms of functionality and efficiency, despite its visually diverse array of appurtenances.

So why did I want to ruin a good thing? Quite simply, I wanted to make things better.

Now when I had a colleague (see “Candy DeHaan Joins Peter DeHaan Publishing), it was impractical to have our respective offices on different floors, so I moved my office to be next to my wife’s.

Although the upheaval of my comfortable office was borderline traumatic, the ending result has been worth it. An efficiency expert would deem my new configuration to be even better, and a time-motion maven granted me high marks as well.

Moving also afforded the opportunity to simplify. Several things were discarded, while other items were elevated in status; files were scrutinized, the workflow was streamlined, and computer configurations were reworked. A new desk was acquired and a more practical printer connected.

Moving my office required an investment of time and money. It also took a while before I felt comfortable and effective in my new environment, but I’m better off having made the change. What I had before was good; what I have now is better.

What change have you been putting off in your office? Act now and enjoy the results.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is publisher, editor, author, and blogger with 30 years of writing and publishing experience. Check out his book The Successful Author for tips and insights.

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Business Articles

The Pursuit of Perfection

Do you want a staff of perfectionists?

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Some managers say “yes,” whereas others respond with a resounding “no.” The informed answer is, “it all depends.” Here’s why:

Of that portion of the populace who are perfectionists, some are blindly or proudly so. Others are self-aware of possessing this characteristic and informed about it; I call them recovering perfectionists. A self-aware perfectionist understands this condition, knowing how to tap into and celebrate the many strengths and benefits of pursuing excellence. At the same time, they know to guard against its limiting, self-defeating, and even paralyzing facets.

Doing research on perfectionism reveals a host of debilitating traits, starting with compulsiveness and going downhill from there. However, knowledgeable perfectionists can tap into the positive aspects of their natural tendencies when appropriate, that is, when it is to their advantage to do so. At the same time, they can usually avoid being handicapped by perfectionism’s alluring snares.

For a perfectionist, there are many traits that provide great value in the workplace:

  • Produce quality work: Perfectionists tend to produce high-quality work. They take pleasure in excellence and find satisfaction in a job well done.
  • Exceed expectations: If the boss expects a short summary, the perfectionist will submit a report. If achieving a 99 percent rating is admirable, the purist will aim for 99.9—and then 100. Being above average is not good enough; being the best is a self-imposed requirement.
  • Go the extra mile: Perfectionists often give more than asked. If a report needs to be five pages long, they will turn in six. If a product needs to have three new features, they will add a fourth and maybe a fifth. If they set a record last month, they will strive to better it this month. In sports, this results in shooting free throws while the rest of the team showers or taking 30 minutes of extra batting practice—every day.
  • Set high standards: Another trait is that perfectionists set high standards, both for themselves and others. As long as the standards are reasonably attainable, it is acceptable, and even admirable for the perfectionist to set a bar high—for him or herself. (However, foisting faultlessness on the others does little more than establishing the groundwork for future frustration, disappointment, and conflict between the precision-minded and the rest of the world.)

Of course, there are counterparts to these traits. One is procrastination. It is said that the perfectionist subconsciously reasons that the results of their work will never be just right—no matter how much time is invested—so why start? In fact, the project is often delayed until the last possible moment, so there is a plausible excuse as to why it’s not perfect: “I didn’t have much time to work on it!” Taking this to an extreme, some perfectionists miss deadlines and blow past due dates, often agonizing over some trivial or irrelevant detail.

Another side-effect associated with perfectionism is having problems in making quick decisions. Sometimes, they need to “sleep on it” to be assured of the correctness of their judgment. Other times decisions can be agonizingly difficult for them to reach. They fear making the wrong conclusion, that is, a less than perfect one. They delay a decision while awaiting more information, so they can conduct an informed analysis. Unfortunately, this mental paralysis is seldom cured by amassing more data.

Over the years I have often interviewed perfectionists during job interviews. As it becomes apparent that I am talking to a perfectionist, I segue into a special interview segment, just for them. “So,” I inquire, “Do you consider yourself to be a perfectionist?”

Their responses fall into one of three categories. The first one is shock or denial. If a person who has just exhibited several perfectionist traits is taken aback at the thought of being called one or disavows any connection whatsoever, I judge them to either be disingenuous or lacking in self-awareness. Neither are characteristics that I seek in an employee.

The second type of response to my perfectionist query is unabashed pride and total satisfaction in possessing this quality. To make sure I am not rushing to a snap judgment, I give them one last chance for redemption. “What,” I ask, “do you see as the weaknesses of being a perfectionist?” Occasionally, they will comprehend the importance of that question, using an astute answer to move them from this category over to category three. Usually, however, they give me a blank stare, as if my inquiry was nonsensical, responding that there is no downside or that they don’t understand what I asked. In a similar fashion, I don’t want to work with a perfectionist that has failed to realize the turmoil and trouble they can produce by their proclivity for perfection.

The third type of perfectionist applicant smiles at this question and begins to share their self-awareness about the shortcomings of how their version of perfectionism is manifested. They openly identify the less than admirable ways that it reveals itself in them and often proceed to communicate how they guard themselves and others against this tendency. This is the person I want on my team. Yes, they may require a bit more management effort from time to time, but doing so is worth the extra energy as the results will be an employee who produces quality work, frequently exceeds expectations, goes the extra mile, and sets high standards for him or herself. Isn’t that who you want to work with within your organization, too?

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is publisher, editor, author, and blogger with 30 years of writing and publishing experience. Check out his book The Successful Author for tips and insights.

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Business Articles

Are You Really Too Busy? Seven Steps to Reclaim Your Life

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Perhaps you’ve heard this story. Imagine you’re sitting in a college class. It’s one of those big classrooms, with tiered seating, able to accommodate hundreds of students. The class is assembled in expectation; what will the prof do today?

At exactly 8 o’clock, he strides in and without acknowledging the classes’ presence, reaches under the lectern and produces a gallon glass jar. He sits it on a nearby table. Then he pulls out a box of rocks and sets it next to the jar. Finally, he fixes his gaze on his students. Garnering their attention, he clears his throat, gestures to the rocks, and asks, “Who would like to show us how much you can fit in?”

Unable to contain himself, an eager-to-impress freshman shoots up his hand. Desiring to make an impression, Mr. Eager-to-Impress carefully places rocks in the jar.

“Is the jar full?” The professor asks.

“Yes!” the students reply in unison.

“Can you fit any more in?”

“No!”

Then the instructor produces a bag of pebbles. The students gasp; a hush falls over the room. Mr. Eager-to-Impress is in a quandary. Should he cut his losses and keep quiet or attempt to salvage his bravado. Hesitantly he raises his hand and then comes forward. With greater care, he places a handful of pebbles at the top and by tapping, shaking, and rotating the jar, they make their way to the gaps below. Satisfied with the results, he returns to his chair hoping for the best.

“Is the jar full, now?”

“Um, yes,” the students answer.

“Can you fit any more in?”

“No.” Their answer is guarded.

Next the instructor brings out a pail of sand. Many students smile. “How about now?” Eager-to-Impress is not so eager anymore, but feels his fate is already decided. Without being asked, he slinks back to the table and using the same technique, filters the sand through the courser maze of rocks and pebbles. Red-faced, he sits down, anxious for class to end.

The teacher gleefully asks, “Is the jar full now?”

No one ventures a response. Whatever they might say, they fear would be wrong; plus, no one wants to stand out like Eager-to-Impress.

The professor ignores their silence, “Can you fit any more in the jar?” More silence.

With practiced timing, the learners squirm in the hush of the moment. Without saying a word, the teacher reaches under the podium and brings forth a pitcher of water. Some students groan; others laugh. Unable to contain himself, the educator grins. “How about now?”

Slowly he pours the water into the jar, permeating every crevice. He fills it to the top and then overflows it. There’s no doubt whether or not the jar is full.

“What can we learn from this?”

Eager-to-Impress, wanting to salvage something from this debacle, summons his courage and hesitantly says, “It means that no matter how busy you are, you can always fit more in!”

“No,” the professor bellows, pounding his fist on the table. “It means that unless you do the big things first, they’ll never get done!”

I’ve heard several variations of this story. Since I don’t know who wrote it, I share my version with a nod to “Anonymous.”

I’m adept at handling the pebbles and sand in my life, topping it off with an abundant supply of water to make things seem full. However, I must be intentional to handle the rocks, those important tasks. Without deliberate action, I put off the big stuff until tomorrow, attending to life’s minutia, without tackling its priorities.

It’s an epidemic; everyone is busy. We’re busy at work and leave to be busy at home; we’re busy in recreation and busier still on vacation, needing to return to work to rest. Our busyness distracts us from what’s important, from what really matters, from those things that could truly make a difference.

I’ve pondered my own busyness and am working towards my cure:

1) Time Management: The thrust of time management is controlling how we spend our time to allow time to do more. This doesn’t bring relief, it just means we’re squeezing more into an already full day. Turn time management on its head, using it to control how we spend our time so that we do less.

2) Multitasking: When I multitask, I’m not really doing two things at once, but merely quickly switching back and forth. I fear my pursuit of multitasking has only served to make me ADD! Not only is multitasking counter-productive, but there’s also evidence it messes up our brain.

3) Keep a Time Log: I used to unintentionally irritate my managers by periodically asking them to keep a time log for a week; I’d do it too. They hated it and so did I, but the results were instructive.

Let’s look at some easy timewasters. How much TV do you watch a day? How much time do you spend online? This amounts to hours that could be put to a different use, attending to the big things, not squandered in passive activities of no real consequence. While we all need to relax, if we weren’t so perpetually busy, we wouldn’t need so much time to escape.

4) Just Say No: We tell our kids to say “no” to certain behaviors and would do well to heed our advice. Sometimes it’s wise to say “no” to good things in order to protect ourselves from over-committing and ending up too busy to do anything well.

5) Set Limits: My tolerance for work is about 50 to 55 hours a week. If things balloon beyond that, out of self-preservation I cut back until I again have a tolerable schedule. If I was self-policing to a 55-hour workweek, I theorized I could learn to limit myself to 45. It took some time, but I was able to do it. In looking at my output and quality during those 45-hour workweeks, I saw nothing that suffered. I was also more relaxed, less stressed, and had more free time.

6) Know Yourself: My tendency is to handle the pebbles and sand at the beginning of my day and attend to the rocks in the afternoon – if there’s time. This isn’t wise, as my time of greatest focus and peak energy is in the morning. Ironically, I was handling trivial stuff at my peak while reserving the important tasks for my low point. I’ve noted a similar cycle throughout the week and another that is seasonal. It takes concerted effort, but I strive to prioritize key tasks for peak times while delegating lesser activities to my lower energy moments.

7) Then Do the Big Things: Once we take steps to control life’s activities, we can attend to the big things. Without the pressures of trivial concerns, there’s the freedom to focus on the important, the life-altering, and the significant, removing us from the rut that all too easily goes from day to day, week to week, month to month, and year to year—all without noticeable advancement.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is publisher, editor, author, and blogger with 30 years of writing and publishing experience. Check out his book The Successful Author for tips and insights.