Diet Coke, Fear of Failure and Living Urgently: The “special sauce” of getting stuff done.

(Editor’s Note: I do my best to follow the 70-20-10 rule for social media, in which only 10 percent is about some form of self-promotion. Today is one of those 10 percent days, so feel free to skip it if you feel I’ve already used up your willingness to tolerate me in promotion mode. -VFF)

Kelli Bloomquist, who was nice enough to do a guest blog for us, tagged me in a post a little while ago that had me feeling a bit awkward:


The people who liked this (and especially Kelli) aren’t slackers by any stretch of the imagination. Also, I don’t tend to like to reflect on the stuff I’ve done because I feel like I’m always one bad move away from becoming like every band VH-1 ever covered in a the “Behind the Music” episode. (Another way of looking at it is the way Satchel Paige did: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”) That said, there are times (usually when we have to fill out annual reports) that I look back and think, “Good God… That’s a lot of stuff.”

I once posted this photo of what my office looks like when I’m working on my books. It looks like an art museum for people with an organizational-chart fetish:


I don’t really think I have the “secret sauce” and I’m sure at least half of these things won’t be things everyone can do. Still, I promised that whenever someone asked me for something in relationship to education, media or the blog I’d do my best to deliver, here is the best answer I have in (more than) a few bullet points:

Amy Is Awesome

This is my wife, Amy. She rules.
If it weren’t for her, I’d never be able to do anything close to the amount of stuff I do. She’s the person who has to put up with me 24/7, make excuses for me when I’m on a deadline instead of at a gathering of friends, listen to me ponder whatever the heck it is I’m pondering and more. Above all of that, she’s the person who tells me, “Go do your work. It’s totally fine” and means it. Knowing I can do what I need to do without any more guilt than normally accompanies someone who spent 12 years in Catholic school is a real life-saver. She makes all this possible.
And to answer your question, yes, that is alcohol in her hand and yes, she needs an ungodly supply of it to deal with me, I’m sure.


Diet Coke

If you ever see me without one of these, call the authorities. Something is clearly wrong. I would not recommend my Diet Coke lifestyle to anyone, given that I have no idea how many I drink in a day or a week, but I am constantly surrounded by empty 12-and-24-pack cardboard boxes.

I am often accused of surviving on Diet Coke and snark. I plead the Fifth.


Fear of failure

I once read a paragraph about Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks and it made total sense to me:

“He grew up on the east side of St. Paul, the son of an insurance underwriter, and the only thing he ever feared was failure.”

I understand that failure happens and believe me, I’ve failed a lot. When I do, I try to learn from that failure to make sure I don’t end up repeating it. However, above all else, I make absolutely sure that I always put myself in the best possible position to not disappoint other people. That often means putting off stuff I’d rather do so I can meet a deadline or changing plans at the last minute to help someone in desperate need.

The downside of this is that I always feel like instead of succeeding, I’m avoiding failure. It’s an unfortunate byproduct of this approach to life, but like I said, it does help me get a lot of stuff done.


I’m not chasing someone else’s dream

What is good for other people isn’t necessarily good for you and vice versa. This was a big problem around a couple schools where I taught: If your classmate got an internship at a 50,000 circulation paper, you HAD to get one at a 100,000 circulation paper. If your roommate got a job doing TV in a top 50 market, you HAD to find one in a top 25 market. And on and on it went.

This happened in grad school for me as well: If someone got a conference paper accepted, you had to get two. If that person got published in a top-tier journal, you needed to get an article somewhere even more exclusive, even if the “publish or perish” lifestyle wasn’t what you wanted.

For a long time, I got caught up in that and I couldn’t see what it was doing to me as I tried to out-do other people. On the other hand, as I watched my former students chase each other up a never-ending staircase of glory, I saw several of them become more and more miserable.

It finally crystallized for me when a great kid who had been a business reporter and and had been happy at it, ended up in Kentucky, covering the night-cops beat because, “Well, everyone ELSE was going some place bigger, so…”

Eventually, I settled in here at UWO. It’s a great school and I love my students, but it’s not a “name” institution and I don’t care. I also have no interest in being in administration, even as my former doctoral cohorts and good friends become chairs and deans. I’m glad that’s what they like and if they’re happy, God love them for it. However, for me, that would be like getting a root canal with a meat cleaver.

Which is the point: I get stuff done because I like the stuff I’m getting done and I’m not worried that I’m not doing it at the Lord Almighty School of Journalism and Deification. I’ve turned down jobs elsewhere because I wouldn’t get to teach as much or I’d have to trade the newsroom for a suit coat and a gig shaking hands with rich donors.
If you like that stuff, that’s great. I’m just not going to be chasing you up that ladder.


“The Human Twitch”

I come from a long line of people who have difficulty sitting still. My father can’t watch a whole movie or ballgame without getting up and doing about nine other things during the process. If I ever see him laying still on the couch for more than 20 minutes and not snoring, I need to see if he can still fog a mirror.

My mother spent 45 years teaching grade school and middle school. She also directed plays, ran special programs and coached track well into her 60s. She retired a couple years ago, but does substitute teaching several times per week. Put those two individuals together and you have me, the person once dubbed, “The Human Twitch.” I have a hard time sitting still and an even harder time doing nothing. If I’m watching TV, I’m also trying to write a blog post while waiting for the stain to dry on the furniture I’m refinishing in the next room.

I also like to tinker, in the sense that I want things to work. I will often pull over to grab a broken lawnmower or vacuum cleaner someone left on the side of the road. I don’t need it, but I need to see if I can fix it. One year during a blizzard, a friend dropped off his dead snowblower to see if I could eventually get it to start. I stopped blowing my own snow, rebuilt his carburetor in sub-zero weather and got the thing running. I then used his snowblower to clean my driveway, just to make sure it would stay running.

Another time, shortly after I bought the Mustang, I discovered its heating system wouldn’t work. Was I ever going to drive this car in the cold? No. Did the car run just fine without heat? Yes. Thus, it made no sense for me to pursue this problem with the fervor of Captain Ahab chasing Moby Dick. However, that’s exactly what I did and when I got it working after three days of effort, I drove around with the heat on full blast, giggling like a demented clown.

It was about 90 degrees outside at the time.


Living Urgently

Amy and I had this conversation recently:

Me: I wish I knew exactly how much life I had left to live. I mean, like a cyclops does. It’d be great to know how much time I have so I could plan life better.
Her: You wouldn’t plan better. You’d obsess about the date to the point that you’d get nothing done. It would drive you crazy.
Me: No, I mean if I knew I’d be gone next year at this time, I’d panic less about getting another book done or meeting a deadline or something.
Her: Bull#%@%. You’d work twice as hard to make the deadline.
Me: Yeah, I bet I could squeeze in one more book…

I believe that there is an uncertain brevity to life. I have no idea if I’ll be around tomorrow or next week or next month or whatever. Then again, maybe I’ll be like my great-grandfather and live an active, independent life until I turn 100 and then die peacefully in my bed after a glass of nice top-shelf booze. (True story.)

The goal of some people is to leave behind a legacy or a monument to what they have done. My goal is to make sure I didn’t waste what I was lucky enough to get and to make sure I share it with whoever wants it.

The point is, because of that, I have this overwhelming desire to live urgently, to complete as much as I can while I’m here, to make other people glad they knew me, to help out in every way I can.

So that’s what I got. I don’t know if it’s the formula to success or a “secret sauce” to getting this stuff done, but it works for me.

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