So, this column is approaching its third birthday in the fall. If this were a TED lecture, we’d be in the third act of my inspirational journey, where I tell you that I found the meaning of life and made myself wealthy in spirit and cash, and then put my hands in prayer and wait for applause because it all worked out.
Nope. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve leveled up. I’ve got new opportunities, successes, and different sets of problems. Life is better. I have a good life, but one that I now risk losing. My retirement plan cannot be DIE AT WORK.
New skills must be mastered. New failures, rejections, and fears abide. I don’t have it made. I’m still surfing uncertainty and hope I can learn new skills well enough to keep moving forward. So, seven thoughts that are percolating as I try to adjust my life to success and perpetual fear of failure:
- ENJOY YOUR VICTORIES WHEN THEY HAPPEN: Pulitzer-Prize winning author Richard Rhodes blurbed my book MAVERICKS OF WAR. “Jason Ridler’s Mavericks of War is that rarest of books, a visceral page-turner, which is also a deep examination of an overlooked human resource in war and international affairs—the expert outsider who works from inside while the ambassadors and the generals pace outside the walls.” HOLYFUCKINGSHIT! For those who have loved his blend of rigorous and populist history, this is praise from Caesar. And I want to enjoy it before I have to do another dozen things on my tasks list to grow a better career out of my successes. Smell the roses, blah blah blah.
- DO NOT CONFUSE A VICTORY WITH STABILITY: Everything falls apart, eventually. Pure stability is an illusion. Learn to take what’s been a success and build it, but don’t forget how everything is tangential. Things you cannot foresee will shake up your life. New ideas and challenges abound. The last five years looked nothing like the preceding ten. Neither will the next five. Learn to love it instead of fear change like a murderer in the alley.
- REMEMBER TO KILL YOUR PORN DREAMS: I’ve not had flights of fancy with the Brimstone series. I just enjoy writing the books and seeing where they lead. But then, I had no career in novels beyond Kindle stuff, so I’m starting from ground zero and enjoying the build. But with history… this is much tougher. Academia is a broken system, yet I’ve succeeded in making courses for major universities, and releasing both an academic and popular history project despite having zero-pull within the academy. I still hope these successes create more opportunities (my attitude with Brimstone), but a secret part of me wishes it will get me a job teaching history that pays well, that would offer stability and rates that I once expected. Then I look at the stats of positions to PhDs produced each year and go back to looking for other kinds of work while maximizing what comes of the work I have in play. Sure, I joke about getting a film deal with Brimstone or ending up on The Daily Show with Mavericks, but sometimes I find the daydream of being a full-time professor so intoxicating I need to smack it back down to earth with a steel chair. Success does not mean you get what you want. And it never has. It never will. The hope is that it keeps leading to even better things. And when it doesn’t, that’s cool. You just keep going.
- KEEP MAKING STUFF: There are two indicators in my life that my psyche is headed for a fall: I stop listening to or playing music, and I stop making my own work (fiction, history, whatever). I hate the terms “creative” and “artists” but I don’t have a better term. I need to play with abstraction, story, and joy. If I don’t, then work becomes my god. I worship it at my peril.
- EVERYTHING HAS A POINT OF COMMENCEMENT: When I was too poor to do history or fiction, I did tons of improv because I loved it and it fed my soul as I worked 60 hour weeks. Now that fiction and history have increased, my time for improv has reduced. I make the most of it when I can, because I’m an improviser4Life, but I can’t dedicate the same time that I used to. It sucks, but it’s okay. It sucks because I love improv and what it provides. But then I look and realize that everything moves in cycles. I had to stop history cold, and it was agony. But now it’s in bloom. Ditto novels. I can take improv into new spaces and places and always do more performance in the future. It’s just operating on a different timer now. You can’t do everything all the time, but that doesn’t mean you abandon things forever.
- INNOVATION COMES FROM SMASHING THINGS TOGETHER: I use improv when I teach writing. I use history in my improv. I find wrestling analogies for every occasion. I make opportunities and build a career because of what I can combine from my many fields. One or two may be in ascendance, and not every brainstorm sessions requires me to quote Randy “Macho Man” Savage. But it has led to working with ad agencies, three novels, and more fun than I can swing a steel chair at. DIG IT!
- THE FUTURE HAS THINGS IN IT, TOO: I’ve been so starved and surviving for so long I don’t yet trust the future. But I’m working on it. When I was burning out as a novelist, improv was waiting in the future. When I was burning out on teaching, writing history hid in a fellowship. When I’d given up on novels and focused on improv, a novel deal was waiting. And by waiting, I mean options and opportunities were created by me and others, and I was able to make manifest because I busted my fucking ass over the past twenty years to get good at some things.
The summation: avoid binary thinking. Everything or nothing. Failure or success. Doing or not doing. Life is experienced on a spectrum, not a circuit. You can’t do all things all the time. Pick your spots. Pick your battles. And don’t let fear derail you from taking the best swing you can make.