The most viscerally painful critique I received was from my PhD advisor in a high-stakes, high-reward meeting before my defense. She’d reviewed my 320-page, 466-footnote project. She had much to say.

I, of course, wanted to be showered with praise. I also wanted appreciation for the work I had put in. I wanted approval that would not only validate my efforts, but would also free me from this project, which felt more like a boulder than a millstone around my neck.

Given these hopes, it won’t be surprising to hear that I didn’t receive anything like the praise I sought. Instead, my advisor was outraged that I hadn’t adequately cited her influence. Then, she picked apart my argument, piece by piece, pointing out its every weakness, and theoretically dismantling its overarching structure.

I was annoyed. Then incensed. Then devastated. I was also embarrassed—embarrassed that my work hadn’t garnered her approval and embarrassed that I wanted that approval so badly.

Today, more than ten years on, a major part of my work includes participating in similarly high-stakes, high-rewards conversations about high-commitment projects. I’m frequently the critic, but my work is also often the object of judgment. I still wonder: Why is it so hard to hear critique?

I’ve come to feel that critique hurts for a variety of reasons: It hurts because it mimics our inner doubts and insecurities. It hurts because it indicates rejection from a group we seek to join. Critique also communicates a strong signal that we must return to something that we long to release. It’s a painful indication that despite our efforts we haven’t achieved our aims.

I haven’t learned to lessen the sting of critique, but I have learned to view it not as evidence of universal disappointment but as an invitation to collaboration. It may not be gentle, thoughtful, or even particularly well-meant, but a critique frequently offers ideas that can make my ideas better.

Luckily, learning to view critique as collaboration isn’t a perspective shift that requires ten years to make. I believe I learned it back then, after the hurt of my advisor’s words subsided. When I felt capable of opening up my document yet again, I applied many of her suggestions. I ripped apart the garment I had spent years weaving, then pieced it into something new. It actually didn’t take nearly as long as I had feared, and once I was finished, I experienced the relief of utter rightness. The project was not only in better shape, but it had finally, finally achieved the form I’d been aiming at all along. 

Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to feel the pain of critique many, many times. It still hurts, but now I consider it an invitation to collaboration. When I accept, my projects benefit.

Writers are intimately familiar with the tension between the fresh-start promise of a potential story and the perpetual pain of a blank page. But when the new year turns over, most of us feel the discomfort between productivity and paralysis, too.

The calendar may be a construct, but we’ve tacitly agreed it’s a construct that renews itself on January 1. The implication of renewal suggests a new opportunity to rewrite our beginnings and endings, making plain the latent tension between doing and dormancy.

While we frequently discharge this tension through resolutions—declaration helps to provoke the momentum we need to act—resolutions don’t really work. This may be because resolutions borne out of a desire to discharge discomfort miss the mark.

It’s uncomfortable to feel caught between possible action and perpetual paralysis. But we shouldn’t seek to relax this feeling. We should think instead about trying to heighten it. 

The push-pull tautness of desire—I want to act; I don’t want to act; I want to act—is elemental. We rely on it, especially the uncomfortable friction it generates, to negotiate a generative balance between activity and rest. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s popular line suggests something similar: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Reframing irresolution as generative orients it to the future, aligning it with action. Withstanding such tension mistakes the locus of power. When we foster such tension instead, we open wide the world of possibility: “One should,” Fitzgerald writes, “be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.” 

This year, it might be worth resolving to work toward the generative balance that tension makes possible. In doing so, we sustain the conditions of imaginative possibility, which gives all action meaning.

Writing a book feels like—because it very often is—solitary work. But a published book is the result of coordinated teamwork. A roster of readers, reviewers, editors, copyeditors, production managers and production assistants, marketing managers and marketing assistants—and sometimes an agent or two—are responsible for binding a sheaf of pages into a brand new book. 

Some or all of the following people often have a hand in shaping a rough-draft manuscript into a clean-copy book:

    • First, the writer
    • Then, usually, a reader
    • And another reader
    • And another reader
    • Then, frequently, a more critical reader-reviewer
    • Next, often, a developmental editor
    • Then, after revision, another, second- or third-round reader-reviewer
    • Often, next, a copyeditor
    • And another, third- or fourth-round reviewer
    • At this point, possibly a query reader-reviewer
    • Or, a query editor
    • Upon submission, an editorial assistant
    • Then, an acquisitions editor
    • Next, an editorial board
    • Then, the acquisitions editor, again
    • Then, a developmental editor
    • Next, a copyeditor
    • Then, a production manager
    • Then, production assistants
    • Also, a marketing manager
    • Then, marketing assistants
    • Along the way, an agent might also read and shape words, sometimes serving as a reviewer, a developmental or other editor, and maybe as a copyeditor, too.

The point is this: We often feel alone, and this feeling of alone-ness can be amplified in the process of writing a book. Perhaps we assume we must go it alone. Perhaps we feel as though we really are on our own. But, in truth, no one writes a really excellent book alone. It takes a team of interested, thoughtful people to bring forth a book that matters.

When we’re faced with disappointments on a project to which we’ve committed time, effort, money, and emotion, it can be hard to know when to persist and when to quit.

On the one hand, grit can get us over the finish line, argues Angela Duckworth, even when our lungs are labored, our legs are heavy, and the race is too long. 

On the other, quitting the race can save us from overvaluing persistence for its own sake, claims Annie Duke. Why should we keep running, Duke asks, when we know we can’t win, and when a loss means more than just a hit to our pride?

To dig deep and show grit, or to pull up short and quit? It’s a timeless question many of us must ask about the commitments we care about, whether it’s a project, a job, a race, or a relationship.

It’s a hard question to answer because we often assess the costs and benefits of persistence versus abandonment only when things go wrong. Yet, when things go wrong, we’re not especially good at neutral assessment. The sunk-cost fallacy and other cognitive biases typically limit our thinking and confine our actions. We end up overvaluing our investments when they aren’t paying off, or blowing long-term equity in a short-term fit of pique.

Because life is uncertain and so many variables shape our experiences, there’s no easy way to decide when to show grit or when to quit. But we can get closer to the least-wrong answer by identifying the root of resistance. Ask yourself:

  1. Am I saying no (or, I don’t want to; I can’t: I don’t feel like it; I prefer not to; uggghhhhhh), more than I’m saying yes?
  2. What are my reasons for saying no?
  3. Are those reasons bounded by time and space, or are they existential and timeless?

The preceding exercise won’t tell you what to do, but it may give you enough clarity to make a plan. For example, if your resistance is rooted in overwhelm, take a break, or take steps to reduce contextual chaos.

If, on the other hand, your resistance is related to the possibility that we are mere drops in the swelling ocean of humanity, that there’s nothing new in its depths, and that nothing you say or do can really change the rhythm of the waves, well, quitting isn’t going to change that, so you might just need to make a plan to comfort yourself before keeping on keeping on.

Garden shears isolated on a white background

Producing quality writing depends on successfully wielding two opposing forces: creation and destruction (addition and subtraction; expansion and reduction). On the one hand, you have to make it. On the other, in the process of making it, you have to let go of some of what you’ve made.

Unsurprisingly, the letting-go part of the process seldom gets its due. Writers refer to it as “killing your darlings” or “the cutting room floor.” Though the pain of the effort is communicated through verbs like “kill” and “cut,” it is a fundamental part of producing quality writing.

In fact, journalist Kevin Sullivan, in conversation with journalist Chip Scanlon, cites it as the best writing advice he’s ever received: “Don Murray, my college journalism professor and friend, said you can always measure the quality of a piece of writing by the quality of what you cut.”

It’s hard to let go of our brilliant turns of phrase, or our tightly crafted paragraphs. It’s harder to let go of whole narrative arcs. But Sullivan confirms that quality writing requires us to recognize that what we’ve created will almost always benefit from what we can cut.

To make it easier, save your cuttings as clips. The benefit is practical—you can consult your clips to develop new darlings. It’s also emotional—you can keep what’s not currently required, saving it for another creation.  

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Books are big projects. They require time and effort and can be consequently quite difficult to complete. Many (many) writers have to work hard just to make the time that allows us to put forth the effort. 

So, when we finish a draft of a big-project book, we want to be done—done with the time-finding and done with the effort-expending. We want to be done done. Yet, despite the meaning of “finished,” a finished draft is never The End.

Instead, it’s usually the beginning of implementing the big changes that move a draft from finished to accepted. Big changes are often suggested by critical readers, developmental editors, or hands-on agents and often include the following:

  • Too long: The book needs to be significantly shortened
  • Too much: The book needs to be broken into two or more projects
  • Too general: A specific audience needs to be identified as the book’s target readers
  • Too oblique: The argument needs to be obvious and integrated
  • Too weak: The argument requires more, specific, primary, secondary, or other evidence
  • Too confusing: The argument needs to be positioned as the impetus of organization 

Suggestions like these can feel big—too big. It can be overwhelming and demoralizing for authors to realize that their manuscript requires even more time and effort for completion.

But big changes don’t always translate to big effort. Revision, even major revision, is far easier to complete than the hard labor of producing the draft.

In the same way that carving a stone is challenging, while mining stone is backbreaking, shaping a draft into manuscript form is part of the process of artistry. Once the backbreaking work of creation is finished, refinement often feels like relief.

Authors asked to implement big changes can take heart: The request is often a testament to the reader’s confidence in the author’s craft.

“But is it publishable?” For writers of half-ademic books, it’s a common refrain. The manuscript’s “half” status can feel like the source of trouble, causing writers to question manuscript viability.

It’s true that it’s challenging to publish a book that doesn’t neatly fit into an identifiable genre. However, genre adherence is not usually the answer to the viability question.

Rather, when doubts arise about a manuscript’s publishing potential, the cause is more often the writer’s sense of an ambiguous diffuseness in their story. 

To provoke a sharper focus, editors and readers typically ask, so what? As in, so what if people feel bad and sad about climate change? So what if kids in special education classrooms don’t receive comprehensive sex education? So what if our genes matter more—but also much less—than we typically assumeSo what? is an economically efficient editorial tool. It’s also an effective imperative to articulate an argument’s strongest expression. When you answer your manuscript’s so what?, you identify your manuscript’s reason-for-being.

And what if you feel you’ve already answered to so what? For these writers, it may be that it’s the questions that need to be made clear.

The order of operations for writing a book doesn’t always proceed logically. Consequently, writers (and especially writers who write out of an academic tradition), offer subtle and complicated answers to questions that they have never actually articulated, that perhaps no one has articulated. This frequently results in an obliquenesswhat I above refer to as a diffusenessthat fuels, from a hidden source, writers’ doubts.

In these cases, the necessary fit is not between manuscript and genre, but between the manuscript’s answers and the unasked questions driving exploration. Articulating these questions creates the space required for the answers, as well as for the manuscript that contains them.

Although he may be better known for his “2nd 4th grade” illustration skills, Tim Urban’s essays can be energizing. Exhibit X: His recent NYT editorial, in which he offers advice on how to approach time in a (near) post-Covid future.

The editorial is based on his “depressing math” posts from 2014 and 2015. There, Urban reminds us that although we tend to think we have all the time in the world, we don’t. Even if we’re very lucky and live a very long time, the experiences that define our lives—visiting friends and family, eating pizza, reading books—are not limitless. In fact, they’re depressingly countable. 

It’s gloomy. But it’s also galvanizing. When we realize that the life we (perhaps) passively live can be easily broken down into countable experiences, we can activate our agency to make different choices. Different choices can change the math, making the sum a little less depressing. 

Elsewhere, in Exhibit XX, Urban makes a similarly gloomy-but-galvanizing point about procrastinators. Based on his own rich experience, Urban argues that procrastinators frequently forget that, “No one ‘builds a house.’ They lay one brick again and again and again and the end result is a house.”

Urban here echoes Epictetus; indeed, the stoics have enjoyed a popular renaissance in Oliver Burkeman‘s and James Clear’s arguments on habit formation. Part of their message is that transformation is not the result of epiphany but the product of mundane persistence. (And persistence is most efficiently executed through habits.)

Taken together, depressing math and the procrastinator’s faulty memory can help us think about the mediating role we can play in our own lives. By intervening in the parts—whether in terms of the experiences that add up to a life, or in terms of the small steps that result in a transformative project—we can change the whole. From the perspective of the present, this kind of intervention requires a persistence that tethers it to the mundane. It’s often only from the vantage point of the future that we can see its bigger meaning.

Mass isn’t just “‘stuff’ that things can be made out of,” according to University of Copenhagen particle physicist, Matt von Hippel. Rather, mass is what “a high energy of interaction looks like.” 

Von Hippel has a provocative way with words. His claim that mass is energy you haven’t met yet refers to the surprise that, in particle physics, mass is less “stuff” and more a consequence of energy. A proton’s mass, for example, far exceeds the weight of its component quarks. It’s the energy of interaction, according to Von Hippel, that accounts for the extra weight.

His argument should certainly be isolated to its applied field, but it’s too provocative for detainment. When broadly considered against the relationship between parts and wholes, it offers interesting insights. Take, for instance, a book. Intense interactive energy is required to transmute letters, pixels, papers, and ink, glue, and binding into something as weighty as a story. The book in our hands barely compares to the narrative it provokes in our heads.

As in the relationship between a proton and its quarks, the relationship between words and story is not commensurate. Word count accounts for neither a book’s mass nor a story’s heft. Perhaps this is because a book is less a product of the stuff out of which it’s made than a product of the energetic interactions that result in its story.

Elsewhere, writing about the relationship between synchronization and the speed of light, von Hippel points out that our knowledge of the world depends entirely on the models we build to bridge perceptions and our memories. Another name for these models? Stories. Here again, insights from particle physics are relevant, but we already know how much the mass of such stories matters.


(Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA)

Although the American myth of meritocracy continues to crumble to smithereens, some of its fragments are worthy of consideration.

For instance, what does it mean when people who cannot succeed by virtue of their demonstrated abilities and merit, nonetheless continue to achieve? In this context (which is ours), what does success—or failure—even mean?

Success is typically communicated by signifiers of wealth, respect, or fame. It denotes achievement—which itself connotes effort—both of which confer the legitimacy collectively extended to success.

But when wealth, respect, and fame are gained without effort’s exertion, success becomes a more fragile, fluid word. It no longer refers to a meaning relatively fixed by the collective, and depends instead on the relative interpretation of a powerful few.

Failure is, or maybe was, different. Failure, denoted by lack rather than plenitude has always been fluid. We see this in the concept of failing up, where failure must be modified and fixed by its direction. The collective agrees, relatively speaking, that failure is not fixed.

To whom does it really matter if success and failure are now both fluid, relative terms? Well, for the collective seeking to award success and punish failure, it’s a problem. When we become less capable of consensus on what constitutes effort and exertion, we can no longer agree on who has won, and what, or who has lost, and how.

For the individual, however—for you—the responsibility of relativity can be a gift. Determining success and failure according to your own criteria is harder than it sounds, but it allows you to set a standard that matters to you. This is self-help at its most autonomous. Rather than reaching for a collective sense of success that appears increasingly empty, we can extend our efforts toward the kind of success toward which we want to strive. Of course, we can still fail. But, then again, we always could.