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Staring Down the 500 Pound GorillaStaring Down the 500 Pound Gorilla

Staring Down the 500 Pound Gorilla

In the second of a three-part Convivium series drawn from a workshop he led at the Christian Writers’ Guild in Ottawa, author, lawyer and former MP John Weston maps his own experience to help others overcome fear of failure and deepen our lived faith.

John Weston
9 minute read

My cousin and fellow author Greg Weston says there are two simple rules for writing a book.  

Rule Number One: Don’t Do It.  

Rule Number Two: If you break Rule Number One, throw a party for all your friends, say goodbye, and disappear for a few months.

I wrote and published On!: Achieving Excellence in Leadership in 2017. But that’s not the whole story. I took several years to piece together the ingredients of the book, which began as letters to my children about lessons from political life.  

My first stab at consolidating the letters as a book was supposed to have started the week after the October 2015 election. I was sitting at our kitchen table in Vancouver with campaign manager Ed Arundell, our friend and one of Canada’s smartest, most insightful political advisers.

He’d worked for former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Tony Clement when Clement served as Ontario’s Health Minister. He’d also headed up the Toronto office of Hill & Knowlton.  

I’d just returned from holding a “Thank You” sign at the entrance to the Lions Gate Bridge, the bedraggled loser of a six-month election campaign. Ed listened as I related my plan. My wife Donna would return to Ottawa with our kids. I would go alone on a retreat to take two weeks to write the book. Ed said, “It’s October, it’s raining, you’ve just lost your job, you’re asking your wife to head to Ottawa, and you’re going somewhere alone to write a book? You might as well just end it all right now.”  

So he convinced us on a whim to head to Mexico for a glorious few days of warmth and recuperation. After Mexico, I still headed to Sun Peaks, B.C., stubbornly convinced I could pump out my book in two weeks. Yes, Greg Weston laughed at me. So did Bob Kelly, who kayaked across Canada and wrote a book about it called Solo. I set out to prove them wrong.

I should have listened to the cautionary words of Bob and Greg. 

I’ve never done anything more difficult in my life. Instead of two weeks, it took 18 months, 23 drafts, and two editors. Margaret Atwood would have done five books in that time. And Atwood wouldn’t have committed the rookie mistakes I made.  

In the process of writing the book, did I fear failure? Let’s just say that, at Draft #15, when I blew the manuscript up and started all over again, I really thought I’d never finish.

Writing a book is like taking on the fabled 500-pound gorilla. It’s tough. That’s why the great writer about writing, Annie Dillard said, “I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as a dying friend. I hold its hand and hope it will get better.”

On more occasions than you can anticipate, you return to the drawing board and rewrite. If you’re smart, you also get an editor, who kicks you in the butt.  

I’m grateful to say, my first published book is out there. It has spurred discussion about values in public life. It’s helped me focus on what I really believe about the direction of our country and democracy in general. It helped get me in front of the newly elected Conservative Party Board of Directors as their first speaker after the election.  

One of my former campaign managers observed, “So now I finally understand what you were trying to do!”  

Just as importantly, overcoming the fear of failure spurred me to tackle other challenges. I expanded the National Health and Fitness Foundation, whose mission is to “Make Canada the Fittest Nation on Earth.” I re-passed the B.C. Bar Exams, developed a practice in Indigenous Affairs and Government Relations, and tackled the development of a piece of land that’s been in my family for 60 years.

I’m convinced, I never would have succeeded at publishing a book if I had not failed at getting re-elected. And I never would have attempted some of the things I’m doing now if I had not coped with the fear of failure in completing the book. I learned that there are great lessons to be had from failure when you treat it as more of a friend, and less of a foe.

Here are six additional specific lessons that I learned in politics and writing:

Lesson #1: Get it in your Schedule to Write 

Each of us can readily think of reasons not to write. We don’t have time. We don’t have an agent. Our future publisher hasn’t discovered us yet. Maybe a writing coach hasn’t yet worked her magic to spark of our self-confidence.   

The most obvious thing I can say, as Annie Dillard would agree, is get down to work: “Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.” 

The motto of one International Writers Festival is, “Today we write.” The implication is, yesterday we may not have been writing. Get it in your schedule, and write!

Lesson #2: Look for Writing Mentors or Encouragers

As a writer, you take a big step when you attend a writing conference like this. You increase your proximity to people who can help you. There are people around you willing to improve your skills, make you accountable to deadlines, or introduce you to an agent. Maybe you haven’t found him or her yet. But you never will unless you take the first step to see that person out.

Just revealing your writing to another person takes courage. Find the courage and take advantage of the opportunity.

Back in 2016, when I was spinning my wheels on my book, local author and pastor Mark Whittall invited me to The Writers’ Table, a group that assembled Wednesday mornings at a coffee shop in Byward Market. The members said hello, then silently wrote for 40 minutes. Then we’d relate what we’d written, disperse, and get on with our day. Strange how that little routine helped galvanize my writing.

In the “Integrity” Chapter of my book, I talk about the important role of my Three Wise Men – David Collins, Bill Lee, and Will Johnston – smart, confidential, friends, and strong Christians who prayed for me and were available to guide me in character and faith matters 24/7. Their influence became apparent in that I soon began to anticipate what they would advise, whether or not I was with them. They influenced me even when they were sleeping.         

Lesson #3: Take Specific Steps to Improve Your Skills

In his famous business book, Good to Great, Jim Collins wrote, “Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life.”  

You have to recognize your skill set, brace for failure, extrude lessons from the failures, and work constantly to improve yourself.

Getting past the disappointment of the 2015 election was tougher than I imagined. Some of my fellow MPs who lost have still not recovered. But even though my heart wasn’t in it, I forced myself to take specific steps to improve all relevant skills, including my writing.

Maybe you’ll think I went overboard. But I’d been given the benefit of failure, the opportunity opened by a door closed. So I thrust myself forward with gusto, not really knowing where I was going. 

In addition to studying for the Bar exams, I got everything I could get my hands on concerning Indigenous Law.

I hired a Toronto consultant, Jaime Watt of Navigator, one of the best in the business of re-pitching professionals in a new light. Among other things, he provided me the first professional feedback I’d had in years on how to improve my writing and public speaking.

To that end, I also hired a drama coach by the memorable name, Jay Hamburger, director of Theatre in the Raw, in East Vancouver. Some of my best memories of my Year of Living Dangerously involved climbing up the rickety wooden stairs to meet Jay above a newly opened marijuana shop.

Lesson #4: Reframe Impediments That Sap Your Energy

Recently, I attended an event Donna hosted for her Stanford Alumni Club featuring a video by two professors, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, authors of the book Designing Your Life

To improve your effectiveness in life, the authors say, you need to come up with concepts for changing behavior. They term these concepts “prototypes.”

If a prototype doesn’t work, they say, reframe the problem or impediment, and try something new. It’s all about energy management, not time management, and reframing the problem is key to figuring out how best to invest your energy.  

Burnett and Evans use the term “reframe” in describing new approaches to deal with things in our life that consistently sap our energy. It’s often noted that many writers have trouble making progress if they leave writing to the end of the day. So, reframe the problem by changing your sequence. Write early in the morning before you start other things.

Being able to reframe problems makes us more willing to absorb potential failures. Rebecca, a young woman from Global Affairs who was at the Stanford discussion put it this way: “Product developers don’t expect their first prototype to be the last or perfect solution. So why should we expect our first solution to a problem in our life to be the last or perfect one?” You can’t experiment with new approaches, expecting each new approach to be perfectly formatted, the first time you try it. 

The same applies to writing. Every time I approach a speech or article, I end up throwing out the initial draft. Sometimes, as in my book, it takes 20 drafts to get it right.  

The ultimate edition is built on the shoulders of preceding failures.  

So, in a general sense, we ought not to fear failure, but to look at it as a steppingstone to success. Just make it your practice to reframe the impediment, so you manage your energy effectively, and profit from your failures.

Lesson #5: Emphasize What’s at Stake

You may lose track of why you’re even writing. You get lost in a character, style issue, or organizational quagmire. The solution? My drama coach Jay likes to hammer home the question, “What’s at stake?”  

After a mediocre performance of mine, he’ll inevitably put me back on the path to excellence by asking: ”What’s at stake?”

What a great question. In my work on the National Health and Fitness Foundation, it’s easy to dwell on the number of cities that have proclaimed National Health and Fitness Day. There are 308 cities that have now proclaimed the Day, which was formalized as the first Saturday in June in a bill Nancy Greene Raine, and that I got passed in 2014.  

But what’s really at stake is that Canada suffers from a sedentary crisis. Over 90 per cent of our children get less than 6 hours weekly of physical activity. Obesity is rising, along with cardiovascular disease and diabetes. What’s at stake is not unproclaimed cities, but the health of a nation. As Samuel Johnson put it, “There’s nothing like one’s imminent execution for the concentrating of the mind.”   

In your writing, cling to what’s at stake.

In his book ReImagine – Preaching in the Present Tense, author Mark Whittall says that the stakes for Christian communicators are particularly high. Though Mark is speaking to preachers, think of his words as applying to all Christian communicators:

The stakes are high. The meaning we seek in preaching [I would add, “or in writing”] is not mere human invention norsocial convention. Our goal is not so much to make meaning as to tap into the very source of meaning itself, and to do so in a way that engages the gathered community, is relevant to its lived context, and opens up the potential for transformation.

When your writing loses direction, focus on what’s at stake.

Lesson #6: Keep Track of Your Audience  

In 2016, I was at my lowest point in writing the book. The fear gripped that I’d never finish it. Worse, at times I felt I had nothing relevant to say. I happened to turn on Eleanor Wachtel’s fabulous CBC program, Writers and Company. Her guest was Ann Giardini, Simon Fraser University’s Chancellor, a lawyer, and an author.  

Giardini was talking about her latest book, Startle and Illuminate, a collection of her mother’s thoughts and advice on writing. Giardini spoke about a previous work she’d written but shelved because she’d forgotten who her audience was. On the other hand, in Startle and Illuminate, her audience was clear. It was herself, the recipient of her mother’s letters. That didn’t mean that the book would appeal exclusively to her family members. It just meant that the organization, style, and tone smacked of consistency because the author focused on an audience defined clearly as the daughter of a letter-writing mother.  

What I realized in my own writing is that I’d forgotten who the audience was, the persons to whom I was originally writing: my own kids. Once I re-centered myself, the book started to flow again. 

In Mark’s words, the task is “to speak in and of the present.” We need to tell stories that relate to our audience.  

Tomorrow: The Triumph of the Infinite

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