The Journal: My Encouragement To You In 2023
Common Discourse is a project designed to help others (and ourselves) think through creativity, focus, and intentional work—from Alex Tan & Alice Otieno.
Every Tuesday we share words from a journal, a few ideas, a quote from somebody else, and links worth sharing. On Fridays we invite a guest to share images from their camera roll and a sound that resonates with them. At the first of every month comes a long-form journal.
I’ve become decent at creating habits over the last couple years.
In bed by 10:30p, start the day with physical activity, write, research, read, cook.
I do most of these daily, and sometimes don’t, but the one thing I’ve been the most consistent at is shooting pool at a dive bar with my friends once a week.
Toward the tail end of the darkest pandemic period, we were desperate to do anything resembling normal life. Baking bread and Zoom Happy Hours weren’t cutting it any longer. So instead, we became obsessed with hitting balls into pockets on a felt table. In some ways playing billiards every week has reached the unrealistic TV show level of frequency, where nobody asks when and what time. We all show up after work every Thursday expecting to see everyone else there.
Since we started playing a couple years ago, we’ve hopped around the city searching for a spot that has all the right beats, landing us regularly at a tiny western-themed dive bar in Altadena that has been open and operating since 1953. Rancho Bar is the least Southern California feeling bar I’ve been to, and according to Billy Joel, is “The best damn watering hole west of the Mississippi.” This message is delivered on a platinum record that he dedicated to the establishment in 2003.
As you can imagine, this place is crawling with locals who don’t know each other at the beginning of the night and are best friends before its all said and done. Double D is a 58 year old animal rescuer and dog trainer who has been coming to the bar every day since he was 18. The bartender is a middle aged woman who apologizes for forgetting my name every week because she “had too much to drink last week.” And Hilly owns the Jamaican Jerk Chicken food truck in the parking lot. He comes into the bar when business is slow to critique my shot, but truthfully, I never have any idea what he’s saying to me so I just nod and laugh.
I’ve come to expect and love the strangeness of this place, but I suppose the last thing I’d ever anticipate was for a stranger at Rancho Bar to tap on my shoulder and say, “Hey, I really love what you’re doing with Common Discourse.”
An incredible thing that Alice and I uncovered toward the end of last year is that Common Discourse is read in 45 states and 82 countries worldwide every week. Apparently the folks at Rancho Bar like it as well.
In that reflection, I realized that we haven’t gotten to this point because of mind-boggling ideas or superior writing. Sure, we have become better over time, but the clear difference-maker is a decision that was made when I first started publishing my writing to the internet: Being brave enough to be bad at something new.
The timing of this journal coincides with the start of 2023, because like any maker, we all have an idea or desire to start something this year. And the blunt reality is, we’ll either face and overcome our uncertainties, or let it paralyze us.
Over the course of my life, I haven’t had the luxury of permission, certifications, or qualifications. Instead, I’ve had to decide to be somebody I wasn’t before.
At 20, I decided I was going to be a photographer instead of an accountant and college graduate. At 22, I decided I could find a way to conceptualize ideas as an art director. At 23, I decided that my friends and I could start a business and do it well. And at 24, I decided I could write words that might help myself and others.
With nobody providing the green light to take any of these risks, the common denominator in all of these decisions were wavering moments of doubt in my abilities, talents, or accomplishments.
Oh look, she has a name!
Impostor Syndrome was first introduced in an article written by two American Psychologists in 1978, where Clance and Imes defined impostor phenomenon as "an internal experience of intellectual phoniness.”
In their paper, Clance explained that impostor phenomenon can be distinguished by the following six characteristics, of which an individual who has impostorism must experience at least two:
The impostor cycle
The need to be special or the best
Characteristics of superman/superwoman
Fear of failure
Denial of ability and discounting praise
Feeling fear and guilt about success
Most normal people will experience Impostor Syndrome at some point in their life (at least 70% of us), and only few will learn how to manage it well. Failure to manage kills momentum, confidence, and potential—ultimately preventing great things from happening.
I don’t know the secret to feeling confident 100% of the time, and I don’t think I want to, as I believe its quite healthy to question yourself then find ways to move forward. But as I’ve spent my 20s “putting myself out there,” I’ve found a few things to be helpful—those things also being the difference between doing nothing at all and something of great impact.
Nothing To Lose
Every maker is obsessively looking for signals that their work matters to people. It’s why we have an unhealthy relationship to the data that is attached to creative output (views, likes, follows, subscribers, etc). We want to know if we are producing something that someone—anyone—finds valuable. But what if we reminded ourselves that we really have nothing to lose?
I had a conversation with a friend last week about pushing through self doubt. One thing we agreed on is that it’s likely we value the opinions of people who are projecting their fear of daring to go places that you’re willing to go.
While the conversation was brief, it reminded me to rewatch Steve Job’s 2005 Commencement speech at Stanford University, where he states:
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
Of course, the most impactful innovator of our time had no choice but to put on the blinders and do what he truly believed in.
And of course, it’s me, another writer quoting the excellence and achievements of Steve Jobs. And you, the reader, mentally responding with “BuT He’S SteeVe JobBs 🙄”
He’s Just Like Me Fr
One of the issues with using the success story of others as motivation is that we subconsciously give undue credit to other people who are successful around us, while we undermine our own efforts. Most of our peers are coming from similar places with parallel qualifications. And even if they seem more qualified on paper, they're dealing with their own impostor battles in different areas.
A profound but simple lesson I’ve stuck with was learned five minutes before a Club Soccer match when I was in high school. We were drawn against the best team in the state and our small town squad was preparing for punishment. Right before we took the field, my coach looked at me and said, “Remember, these guys are the same age as you. They wake up every morning and put on their own socks and shoes. They pour a bowl of cereal. They go to class. They come home and play video games. They’re just like you.”
We still lost but ever since that day it’s helped to remember that the people we look up to are a lot more like us than they are different.
Haley Nahman said it well on the topic of career advice:
"Impostor syndrome is founded on the idea that everyone else has figured it out except you. My career has shown me so far that people and experience can teach you a lot — but one of those things is that everyone is just figuring it out, too. My best tip for overcoming self-doubt is breathing through that lesson. You will find your confidence; just don’t rob yourself of the opportunity before it presents itself."
Explainability is Overrated
There’s such a thing as late-stage Impostor Syndrome. A point where you’ve made some notable things, dabbled in multiple spaces, but yet, you still are struggling with this idea of who you are.
Since the beginning of time, the answer to “What do you do?” could be answered with one word.
Finance. Sales. Education.
But today, most jobs exist in liminal spaces. One that says kind of like this but also not quite that.
It may have been fair to think that any explanation longer than a one-word, universally understood, job title was just an attempt to look more professional than you really were. But perhaps explainability is overrated.
Molly Mielke puts it this way:
But maybe you don’t need to be explainable. Maybe the most interesting perspectives come from being willing to occupy a difficult-to-define place, even if it means sacrificing others' understanding of you. The challenge then becomes committing to occupy that place far longer than most feel comfortable — long enough to cultivate a voice out of your curiosity that is confident enough in its own continuity to tell you exactly what’s worth committing to when the time comes.
Molly suggests that our willingness to occupy difficult-to-define places with peace of mind puts us on a path that allows for deeper impact. As the career landscape rapidly changes, it’s less likely that you’ll fit into predetermined boxes.
It has been almost three years in total of writing and publishing on the internet, with last year being the most consistent.
In 2020, I was embarrassed to write and ask people to read it—there were many times where I’d take 3-4 months off, then get really into it again for a couple weeks, then stop again for another 3 months. The flat line in the chart above explains a lot.
In 2021, I started to gain more confidence, created discipline in my writing habit, but generally still struggled with consistency. Specifically when dealing with self-doubt.
In 2022, Alice joined me and we went all in, seeing the the most impact and consistency in readership. While numbers feel good, it’s ultimately not what we’re aiming for. Anybody can be relevant, but it’s harder to have impact. Every week we get kind messages from others who say it’s their favorite part of the week and has helped them get through difficulties in their work and life—and to us, that means more than any number.
This story isn't about the success of Common Discourse, because quite frankly, this is a small project. This is a story about pushing through adversity, knowing you have nothing to lose, realizing that your heroes are a lot more like you than you are different, and if you can’t fully explain what you do to others, that’s okay.
My encouragement to you is this:
One of the most simple yet profound things you can do is speak up, make art, or create something you believe in. Your interests and unique experiences will have a greater impact than you can possibly imagine, even when it feels like you’re going through something in isolation.
When we find the bravery to take action, we can help others feel less alone, celebrate wins, and overcome losses because the things that feel most personal are also the most universal.
2023 is when you’ll finally start that thing you’ve been thinking about. And not only start it, but stick with it. You may begin with an audience of zero and you may get only a few clicks, shares, or views.
But if you make it with conviction—no matter how small or how personal it is—it will have value.
And if you build it with value, they will come.
Thanks for consuming!
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