I’ve started out the year reading two amazing books that have been eye-opening for me. One, Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, I talk about HERE. The other is The Gratitude Diaries by Janice Kaplan.
As a religious person, the concept of gratitude comes up a lot in my life, but it usually feels heavy—like one more thing I’m failing at doing. But I love Kaplan’s book for two reasons.
1) It’s an academic look at gratitude—it explores the physical, psychological, and social benefits of being grateful. That’s a take I haven’t seen before, and she includes countless studies and ideas and anecdotes that make me feel motivated and hopeful.
2) Kaplan’s book, I think, means a lot more as a writer having read it in conjunction with Kleon’s book, because it shows me links I’d never considered between gratitude and being a successful creative person.
Here are a few points in particular in which the books intersect for creative types:
1. Enjoy the Journey:
Kaplan: I’ve had a “good career on paper, but none of it made me stop and say—I’ve arrived! Success at work is all about moving forward. Reach one goal and there’s still another to achieve…relish the moment and don’t fret about the next step” (14).
Kleon: “Take time to mess around. Get lost. Wander. You never know where it’s going to lead you” (67).
At a book launch of author Ransom Riggs, he said, “take the opportunities that come.” I love the idea of being grateful for the wanderings and the side projects and the little unexpected events along the way. It’s those that make the career fulfilling—not the perceived finish line that may or may not turn out as we expect.
2. Don’t Compare Yourself:
Kaplan: “It’s easy to look at someone else and think how lucky they are and
how wonderful it would be to have their life and success. But what any of us
feel on the inside is rarely the same as what is perceived on the outside” (15).
Kleon: “You’re only going to be as good as the people you surround yourself
Everyone has an entirely different idea of what success means. It’s all about comparing ourselves to our own individual goals—nobody else’s successes or failures. Be grateful to have access to smart, successful people. Learn from them instead of envying or comparing yourself to them, and be grateful for each success in your own journey.
3. Take Care of Yourself:
Kaplan: “Gratitude keeps us well because it is an antidote to stress. When you
are grateful, all the signposts of stress, like anger, anxiety, and worry
Kleon: “It takes a lot of energy to be a creative. You don’t have that energy if
you waste it on other stuff” (119).
Being grateful allows us to feel better physically and emotionally, leaving more energy to focus our creative lives. I don’t know about you, but when I feel well, I work well—and the opposite is just as true.
Kaplan: “Gratitude helps you find meaning—and some version of contentment—in the chaos” (256).
Kleon: “Creativity isn’t just the things we choose to put in, it’s the things we choose to leave out” (140).
Editing, deciding what needs to be cut, is essential to writers. Killing our darlings. The same is true in our careers and personal lives. We all have to find the things that matter to us, to make hard choices about what we have time for and what we don’t. Simplifying my life is something I want to focus on this year.
5. Connect with Others:
Kaplan: “If we put good into the world, maybe, just maybe, it starts to be returned” (302).
Kleon: “You don’t have to live anywhere other than the place you are to start connecting with the world you want to be in” (90).
I’m terrible at social media, but I love writing groups and conferences and face-to-face interactions. Whatever type of community you love—it’s there. You just need to find it, and then give and get support from those you admire or those with similar goals. Kleon says it’s especially rewarding finding people NOT doing what you’re doing. Make friends. Be inspired. Nurture connections.
6. Fake it ‘til You Make It:
Kaplan: "Gratitude is long lasting and impervious to change or adversity. It requires an active emotional involvement—you can't be passively grateful, you actually have to stop and feel it, experience the emotion" (14).
Kleon: “You have to dress for the job you want, and you have to start doing the work you want to be doing” (30).
Nothing—not being a grateful person, not being a successful writer—is perfect or easy when starting. We have to work at it—and enjoy it—until it becomes part of who we are.
7. Focus on the Positive:
Kaplan: “No road led right to the top and some didn’t get there at all, but gratitude at least let you take the scenic route” (292).
Kleon: “Instead of keeping a rejection file, keep a praise file. Use it sparingly—don’t get lost in past glory—but keep it around for when you need the lift” (115).
There’s always SOMETHING to be grateful for. Even if it’s just that we have the ability to see or think or write in the first place. Remember the good moments, the praise, the highs when we’re feeling the inevitable lows.
I highly recommend both books because they go into depth and illustrate the topics better than I can. But if you don’t look at them, my ONE takeaway would be:
8. Keep a Logbook or Journal!
Kaplan: at the end of each day, write down ONE thing that you’re grateful for that day. Just one. “Knowing [you] had to write something down every night changes [your] perspective on the whole day” (20).
Kleon: “the small details will help you remember the big details” (129).
Kaplan says to make sure that you don’t qualify—no negatives. It’s okay, in this private space, to be a Pollyanna and only look at the good. And as we remember the small positives, it makes the overall picture look brighter.
I’m trying it. I know it’s not easy. Amidst rejection and no apparent success and the doldrums of writing words that nobody every reads, it’s hard not to be cynical. But, I love the idea of gratitude as Kaplan presents it, and I really believe that if I focus on the positives as a writer, I’ll see more progress and have more energy and optimism. At least it’s worth a try!
My challenge to you:
Get a notebook. Every day write one thing you’re grateful for and one thing you accomplished as a writer. That’s it. Easy peasy. It doesn’t have to be big or life changing, just tiny glimpses of the good in life and the baby steps you’re taking.
Mine from yesterday?
I’m so grateful that my kids make me laugh.
I’m grateful that today I could sneak away long enough to outline most of my next project.
That’s it. It took me two minutes, and I went to bed happier and more excited for what I would achieve the next day. Try it. You might be surprised that life as a creative person feels just a little bit brighter.