The Business Plan that Fizzled

This story begins three years ago, the night Ambition left me.

Ambition slipped away while I was sleeping; it took me a long time to make peace with her departure. Up until that night, I had this fire-in-the-belly that made me passionate about goals and achievement and being successful. And without warning, all of that was gone. The solid ground beneath my feet had become a sheet of ice. I slipped into the darkness below, spluttering.

Ambition’s departure set me on a different path than the one I’d planned. P and I began downsizing, and later we plotted our escape from corporate America. We traveled the world for a while, and a few months ago we came home.

I’ve written about those events, here on the blog. Reading bits and pieces, you might have put that story together. It’s the tale of my midlife crisis, spread out over time.

What follows is a piece of the story that I haven’t yet told. It’s about business plans, and fear, and the return of a long-lost friend. It begins with a sleepless night and ends with me shouting at the universe.

I hope you enjoy it. 🙂

The Business Plan that Fizzled

My story picks up in January, six months ago, while we were in Washington DC. I was doing laps around my friend E’s living room at two in the morning, brimming with anxiety. In a few days P and I would be in Spain, but I wasn’t nervous about that. Something else was keeping me awake.

After years of preparing for adventure, adventure had finally arrived! I paced the hardwood floor, first clockwise, then counter-clockwise. My body hummed with energy, without an outlet. I felt ready to explode! My career had always siphoned that energy off, before I went nuclear, but now there was nothing for me to pour myself into. Perhaps I needed a project?

Yes, I thought, with relief. That’s it! I need a project!

I already knew what I wanted. For years I’d squeezed my writing time around my day job. What if I treated my writing like a proper business? That’s the ticket! Hadn’t I dreamed of being a full-time writer? It seemed like an obvious choice.

I was one week into my travels, and already trying to sign up for a new job. Totally normal, right?

I gave myself a week to write the business plan, and by the time we landed in Madrid, it was ready to go. It was a beautiful plan, with a mission statement, and an editorial calendar, and checklists, and goals. The plan rolled out in front of me like a lush red carpet, and all I needed to do was walk forward.

That’s when the plan fizzled and died.

Like someone opening a gift to discover the box was empty, I sat down to write and discovered that I didn’t want to do it anymore! My motivation was gone. Absent. Kaput! The ideas that had seemed so exciting when I conceived them had fallen dead. My goals had become a list of odious chores.

Over the next few days, I tried to rekindle my enthusiasm and failed repeatedly. I fell into a state of depression. Unable to find my way back to being motivated, I got angry. See? I said. You took your one hobby and ruined it by treating it like a J-O-B. Don’t you ever learn? Can’t you just do things for fun? What’s wrong with you? 

I returned to my journal to sulk, and I didn’t touch my novel for over two months.

Staying away seemed wise. I didn’t trust myself not to ruin it.

Mental Gymnastics

Are you familiar with the term cognitive dissonance? It refers to the way we humans can believe two opposing things at the same time. When this happens, your actions don’t match your words.

I started working on my novel again in April, which is great, but I’ve been a hypocrite these last few months. I’m writing almost every day and enjoying it. I even started up a mastermind group for writers who are making the transition from hobbyist to pro. If you look at me, you’d say “Yeah, Cheri is pretty serious about her writing these days.”

But talk to me, and I’ll deny it! I will tell you loudly and emphatically that this is a hobby dammit, that it’s nothing more than that, and that I’m not taking it too seriously. Nothing to see here, I’ll say, while I discuss marketing plans and point-of-view with other authors. This isn’t anything serious, I’ll say firmly, while blocking out a good chunk of my day to work on a manuscript.

My words are saying one thing, and my actions another. I seem hell bent on talking myself out of what I’m doing, tamping it down, diminishing it even in my own mind.

What am I so afraid of?

I sat on that question for weeks, like it was an egg and I was the mama bird. Finally, it cracked wide open! What I’ve figured out is this: no, I’m not afraid of having a job, or of writing books, or of making commitments. Nor am I afraid of hard work. What I’m afraid of is one very specific and terrifying thing:

I’m afraid of becoming a workaholic again.

Weird! But it makes sense, given my history. When I love something, and I do it for work, it tends to consume my life. That’s why when I wrote that business plan back in January, and I got excited about it, it scared the ever-loving shit out of me.

Aha! I see it now! 

Three years ago, my Ambition wasn’t the only thing that left me. That was also the year when I decided that I hated being a workaholic.  And no, I wasn’t going back to that life, no thank you.

Again, I’ll say it. No thank you.

Being Kickass

“Aha” moments are great, aren’t they? Now that I understood my fear, perhaps I could do something about it. But before I could come up with any sort of plan, I was visited by someone I never thought I’d see again.

Three weeks ago, in the early morning, I woke up and found Ambition sitting on the edge of my bed, swinging her legs and waiting for me to wake up.

Hey, I said.
Hey, she said.

Me: It’s been a long time. I didn’t think you were coming back.
Her: I needed to leave. You understand why, right?
Me: I do.

(there was an awkward pause, during which we didn’t make eye contact)

Her: You know how you want to write books?
Me: Yes. It’s a hobby.
Her: Fuck hobbies. (she laughs) Go knit hats if you want a fucking hobby! I think you should do the writing thing. For real. Not just one book, but like ten or twelve books over the next five years. And I’m here to help, if you want me to.
Me: But… You know I can’t go back to the way I used to be, right? I’m not that person anymore.
Her: I know. But I think we can find a better way. We need to be kinder to each other. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do interesting things together, and be kickass. Let’s be kickass again. Please?
Me: A better way? What would that even look like?

Ambition stretched out her hand, and I took it. She pulled me to my feet, and she whispered into my ear. I felt that old fire-in-the-belly light back up, only this time it warmed me gently instead of burning me up. I relaxed, and she seemed to melt into me, taking her old place close to my heart.

I wanted to cry! Okay, I did cry, a little. It had been so long since I’d felt like myself.

Ambition was back, and so was I.

Shouting at the Universe

It’s summer in Seattle now, and my world is blue water and green trees and bright skies and the rattle of my keyboard. Since picking my pen back up, I’ve finished one manuscript and started another. My slow trickle of words is gaining speed, becoming something like a stream. Perhaps someday, a river? Meanwhile, Ambition and I are learning how to work together, differently than we did before.

In the morning, she whispers ideas for spy novels in my ear. I smirk and tell her that the ideas are great, but that they can wait until after P and I have gone to the park because it’s a beautiful day.

Okay, she says. Have fun! I’ll be here when you get back.

This feels too easy! I guess when you’re used to doing something the unhealthy way, the healthy way feels too good to be true. I’m asking my friends to keep an eye on me. Any sign of that old workaholic bullshit and you pull me out, you hear? But I think I’ll be okay.

If I look like this, take my computer away. Please.

Ambition’s proposal of ten or twelve books in five years sounds… kind of scary, to tell you the truth. I haven’t decided if I’m going to accept that challenge, but I’m thinking about it, and seriously.

Perhaps it’s okay for me to dream again? And to set goals again? Hell, I don’t know why I’m asking, because it’s already happening. Mostly, I think it’s time I stop being so chicken-shit. I’ve decided this much: if you ask me what I do, I won’t equivocate. I’ll tell you I’m a writer.

You hear that, universe? I’M A WRITER! IT’S MY THING. I’M QUITE EXCITED ABOUT IT AND I WANT EVERYONE TO KNOW. I HAVE GOALS AND EVERYTHING!

The universe replies, yawning with boredom: Sure, that’s nice. No one really cares. Besides, it’s been obvious to everyone else for some time now.

Yeah… I know. I guess I needed to say it out loud.

Coda

Every day for the last ten days, I’ve sat down to work on my new novel. And every time I sat down at the keyboard, the only thing that would come out of me was this blog post. It arrived on the page unwieldy and way too long. And because it’s so personal, I almost didn’t post it. But I figure all stories deserve an ending, even mine.

Well, this may not be the ending, but it’s an ending. It’s time for a new chapter, in this life of mine.

Now all I need to do is write it.

What The Heart Wants

We’ve spent the last three days on the road in a rented car, rolling down that long strip of asphalt that runs from downtown Seattle all the way to Boston. I’m writing this blog post from the road, propped up in bed in a shitty motel with no wifi, and perhaps if I tell you how I got here, I’ll begin to understand it myself.

That’s how this blogging thing seems to work.

After my last blog post, in which I wrote about my struggle with not-working, my brother in law gave me some good advice. “Go outside and skip some rocks,” he said.

I smiled, because it was a sweet thing to say to someone who needs an attitude adjustment. But even then, I angsted for a few days more, wracking my brain for ideas and coming up empty. Fun… Fun… what would be fun?

It turns out that fun is a heart-thing, not a brain-thing. Thankfully my heart had plenty to say, once I started listening.

Heart: I want to go back to coworking, so I can be around the buzz of productivity more often. I miss that!
Me: Okay, we can give that a try.

Heart: I want to do things with P. Not just exist in the same physical space. Like go on dates and stuff.
Me: Cool! Let’s plan some dates.

Heart: I want to write. But I don’t want to ruin it by turning it into a job. Please don’t ruin it!
Me: Okay, we’ll write. We’ll do it for fun.

Heart: I want to go to Montana!
Me: Why?
Heart: Do I need a reason? Let’s go! Let’s go eat some pie and stay in shitty motels like the Winchester brothers on Supernatural.
Me: You’re weird! But sure, if P agrees…
Heart: Montana! Montana! Montana!

Over the last month I’ve added 10,000 words to my novel, gone on a few lovely dates with P, spent more time with friends, and rejoined my old coworking space. It’s been fun, and weirdly productive too.

Somewhere along the way I stopped worrying that I had lost my purpose, and remembered that I am in fact, alive.

And perhaps being alive is enough?

What the Heart Wants

Life has gotten more interesting, since I’ve begun giving my heart what it wants.

My heart brought P and I to Montana, where we’ve seen forested hills, craggy mountains dusted with snow, bears and bison and white-winged magpies. We’ve marveled at the big blue skies, eaten strawberry pie, and even fulfilled my silly demand that we stay in shitty hotels.

We came to Montana because we wanted to, and it’s been a long time since I did something just because I wanted to, and without some secondary purpose.

It feels really good!

The Road to Bozeman

I want to tell you about another thing that happened, but I know it sounds super-weird.

The day after P and I booked our hotels, I plucked a book off my shelf at random because I wanted something to read. And inside that book, I found the story of a man on a mystical journey to Bozeman Montana with his son. The book was full of advice that felt like it had been written for me, personally.

To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top.”

“When analytic thought, the knife, is applied to experience, something is always killed in the process.”

“To the untrained eye ego-climbing and selfless climbing may appear identical. Both kinds of climbers place one foot in front of the other. Both breathe in and out at the same rate. Both stop when tired. Both go forward when rested. But what a difference! The ego-climber is like an instrument that’s out of adjustment. He puts his foot down an instant too soon or too late. He’s likely to miss a beautiful passage of sunlight through the trees. He goes on when the sloppiness of his step shows he’s tired. He rests at odd times. He looks up the trail trying to see what’s ahead even when he knows what’s ahead because he just looked a second before. He goes too fast or too slow for the conditions and when he talks his talk is forever about somewhere else, something else. He’s here but he’s not here. He rejects the here, he’s unhappy with it, wants to be farther up the trail but when he gets there will be just as unhappy because then *it* will be “here”. What he’s looking for, what he wants, is all around him, but he doesn’t want that because it *is* all around him. Every step’s an effort, both physically and spiritually, because he imagines his goal to be external and distant.”

“We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with the emphasis on “good” rather than on “time”….”

Friends, I don’t know why I took Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance off the shelf that day. I tried reading it in high school over twenty years ago, and found it incomprehensible. I didn’t know what it was about. It’s as if that story has been waiting all these years for the opportunity to whack me upside the head, at just the right time.

What I’ve learned is this: when I give my heart what she wants, a path lights up softly beneath my feet. And I’m reminded, yet again, that the destination doesn’t matter so much.

The Interview

When I decided to leave my job behind in order to travel and play, I had a lot of worries about how things would turn out. Was I making a mistake? Would I regret it?

These books will not tell you if you are making poor life choices.

In order to address those concerns, I traveled back in time to have a conversation with myself. What follows is a transcript of that interview.

Past Cheri (PC): Thanks for crossing the space-time barrier to answer my questions. I appreciate it.

Future Cheri (FC): My pleasure. Besides, I know how you love to over-think things and freak out for no good reason. What is it that you’d like to know?

PC: Does Trump win the election?

FC: It’s best if we stay on topic.

PC: Fuck! He wins, doesn’t he?

FC: Let’s pay attention to the things you have some power to control. It’s for the best.

PC: Well, that sounds dire… But fair enough. My first question is “Am I making a terrible mistake by stepping away from my business?”

FC: It’s too soon to tell, because I’m only four months down the timeline from you, but here’s what I think. You’ve got some growing to do, in areas of your life that have nothing to do with consulting. And it’s going to be hard for you to figure that out until you step away and give yourself some space. So no, I don’t think it’s a  mistake. I think it’s important that you take this risk.

PC: Alright. Here’s another question. I’ve always had a plan for where I’m headed. I’m used to setting goals, and going after them. What’s it like to not have that kind of structure? Am I going to wig out?

FC: Yes, you are going to wig out! It’s going to keep you up at night, and cause you a moderate amount of anxiety. You’re going to wonder what your life is for, if you aren’t achieving things. And you’re going to feel super guilty about not being productive. It’ll take a few months for you to get past those feelings.

PC: And then what?

FC: You’ve got a lot to look forward to! I don’t want to spoil it for you, but let’s just say the best is yet to come.

PC: As you know, I’ve got some remote consulting work lined up. How is that going to go?

FC: It’s going to go great, right up until the point when you realize you hate remote consulting and you don’t want to do it anymore. Ha! Isn’t that funny?

PC: Speaking of funny… do the Dems get control of one of the houses of congress? I mean, both would be good, but they get at least one, right?

FC: You’re going to love Spain, even more than you thought you would. The citrus fruit is incredible. You’re going to want to take home an entire suitcase full of lemons. In fact…

PC: It’s that bad?

FC: Ask me something else. Anything else.

PC: Fine. Am I going to get homesick?

FC: Yes! But that’s a good thing, right? You’re going to miss your city and your people. Three or four months is a great amount of time to travel, and when you get to that point, you’ll be ready to go home for a while.

PC: Am I going to lose weight, because I’ll be less stressed?

FC: No, dumbass. You will not magically become a size three because you are not working. However you are still welcome to track your calories diligently just like you could at home. Nothing has changed in that regard.

PC: Are you saying you’re the same pants size as me?

FC: Probably. I mean, I hope so. The food here is *really* good and I’ve been wearing stretchy leggings so…

PC: *Sigh* Am I at least going to write more, now that I have more time?

FC: Yes! Although not in the way you are probably thinking. You’ll be writing constantly, although much of it will be personal writing, and it will be useful because you’re “in transition” as the life coaches like to say. But you’re not going to start squirting out novels like diarrhea.

PC: Squirting out novels like diarrhea?

FC: Clearly my prose style is still under development.

PC: Clearly. Is there anything else I should know?

FC: I’d tell you to worry less, but I know myself too well for that. Ask P to swap out the acetaminophen in his first aid kit for ibuprofen. And you don’t need to bring your giant hiking water bottle. It takes up too much room in your pack and you won’t use it very much.

PC: Ok. That sounds good.

FC: Oh, and one more thing! When you get to the future, I’d recommend you *not* travel back in time for this interview.

PC: Why not?

FC: You’ve seen Futurama. You know that a time-travel duplicate is always doomed.

PC: So a tree is going to fall on you or something?

FC: Eventually. But for now I’m just gonna turn on the news and relax.

PC: The news? Why? It’s all political garbage, and President Obama is a lame duck.

FC: President Obama though…

Postscript: Future Cheri sat on the couch and watched President Obama give his weekly address. Just before it ended, she looked up at the ceiling, smiled, and informed the universe that she was ready.

A tree fell through the roof and crushed her.