Jean MoroneyThinking Tactics that Move You to Action

You can do anything if you put your mind to it

 

Thinking Directions



Book Recommendations

by Jean Moroney

Recommendations on this page:

  1. David Allen
    Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity
    (2001)
  2. Dennis Greenberger & Christine Padesky
    Mind Over Mood: Changing the Way You Feel by Changing the Way You Think
    (1995)
  3. Darrell Huff
    How to Lie With Statistics
    (1954)
  4. Charles Kepner & Benjamin Tregoe
    The New Rational Manager
    (1981)
  5. Gary Klein
    The Power of Intuition
    (2003)
  6. Alan Lakein
    How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life
    (1973)
  7. James Prochaska, John Norcross & Carlos Diclimente
    Changing for Good: A Revolutionary Six-Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward
    (1994)
  8. Ayn Rand
    The Art of Nonfiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers
    (Edited by Robert Mayhew, 2001)
  9. Barbara Sher
    I could do anything if I only knew what it was
    (1995)

David Allen
Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (2001)

If you feel overloaded by all you have to do, there is hope. "It's possible for a person to have an overwhelming number of things to do and still function productively with a clear head and a positive sense of relaxed control." So says David Allen in the opening line of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.

The way to have that relaxed control, he says, is to have only one thing on your mind—the work at hand. The question I had was, how do you do that? How do you eliminate distracting thoughts and worries about everything else?

David Allen's answer has two parts. First, thinking about an issue can get it off your mind. Specifically, you should think through a task far enough to figure out the next physical action to take on it. Then write down that next action in your organizer; that will get the task off your mind. Second, this thinking should be done as part of a regular planning session, which keeps your organizer up-to-date.

The key step is to record the next physical action to take. Suppose I wanted to set up a meeting to review a design for a project at work. The next physical action might be to call the project manager to arrange a time. That call, not a generalized goal like "set up design review," should go on my "to do" list.

Putting next physical actions on my "to do" list makes the list easier to use. In the past, when I didn't know exactly what I needed to do on a task, I put a generalized "to do" item on my list. Later, when I read the item on the list, I would wonder vaguely, "how am I going to do that?" and I would feel resistance to starting it. An amorphous task seemed too big to tackle without spending a lot of time, so I would put it off.

With the new system, when I look at my "to do" list, I see only a number of clearly defined actions. I can make a simple decision about whether or not to do a task now. If the task is "call the project manager," and I have five minutes and a phone, I can make the call; if not, no. It's easier to start, so more gets done.

In addition, generalized "to do's" no longer distract me. In the past, that vague thought, "how am I going to do that?" would percolate in my subconscious as an unresolved issue. This all but guaranteed that I would be interrupted later, interrupted by thoughts and worries about how to do the amorphous task. The idea "I should call the project manager" might occur to me while I was reading an important report. Or while I was trying to fall asleep, I might worry, "how will I get the drawings done in time for the meeting?"

Now, thanks to David Allen's advice, I resolve the issues in advance. I already know how I am going to do each task—I know the next action to take—so I don't worry in the background about what is required.

This is the double benefit of David Allen's organizational system. 1) You are ready to act, when you have an opportunity, because you completed, in advance, the necessary thought. 2) When you need to concentrate on something, your mind is free to do so.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to make more effective use of his time and energy. David Allen's fundamental idea is simple: you need to think through every issue at least far enough to decide the next action. On this base, he has built a complete time-management system that has dramatically increased many people's productivity, including mine. He's done it, not by squeezing more hours into the day, but by showing us how to achieve "a clear head and a positive sense of relaxed control."

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Dennis Greenberger & Christine Padesky
Mind Over Mood: Changing the Way You Feel by Changing the Way You Think (1995)

Emotions are our automatic life-reporting systems. We experience joy in our successes, eagerness to achieve the next goal, fear of a deadline we need to pay more attention to. Emotions are crucial to enjoying life and keeping it on track.

Unfortunately, emotions can also be wildly inappropriate, immensely disruptive, and unnecessarily paralyzing. To avoid the destructive effects of such feelings, many people are tempted to suppress them. But repeated suppression shuts down a person's emotional faculty—much to his detriment.

A more constructive way to deal with disruptive emotions is to recalibrate them, i.e., bring them in line with an objective evaluation of the situation. [Note 1.] You can learn this skill from Mind Over Mood by Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky.

The method taught in Mind Over Mood was first developed by Aaron Beck, the originator of the cognitive school of psychotherapy. He observed that emotions result from an automatic (subconscious) process of identification and evaluation. [Note 2.] Therefore, new factual information can change an emotion in an instant. For example, suppose you were frustrated that a car in front of you was stopping for no apparent reason. As soon as you saw that the driver was avoiding a collision, your frustration would vanish.

Beck observed that many disruptive emotions are based on mistaken or illogical "automatic thoughts." In effect, your subconscious jumped to a conclusion. Beck found that by systematically identifying and testing these automatic thoughts, you can align the emotions with an objective assessment of the facts.

The method he developed is explained by his associates, Greenberger and Padesky, in their step-by-step workbook, Mind Over Mood. The process of recalibrating feelings involves both introspection and logical analysis. First you identify your feelings and the situation that prompted them, then you identify the "automatic thoughts" that gave rise to the feelings, then you test the validity of the thoughts, and finally you re-evaluate the situation. The crucial step is testing the validity of the "automatic thoughts."

To help one test validity, Mind Over Mood offers a list of specific questions to ask oneself. They are gentle, effective questions that help to change one's perspective and notice overlooked facts. Here is a sampling:

"When I am not feeling this way, do I think about this situation any differently? How?"
"Are there any small things that contradict my thoughts that I might be discounting as not important?"
"Have I had any experiences that show that this thought is not completely true all the time?" (Mind Over Mood, p. 70)

So, for example, suppose I felt angry that someone had telephoned me, because the phone conversation interrupted my work. An outside observer could see that it is illogical to be angry with the caller—if I don't want to be interrupted, I shouldn't answer the phone. If I were calm, that's what I'd think, too.

But in the heat of the moment, I might feel angry. Let's say the "automatic thought" that came to mind was, "I hate interruptions." If I were to test this thought with Greenberger and Padesky's questions, I would remember that I do not always hate interruptions—sometimes I am eager for one. And, of course, I'd notice that I had answered the phone, which indicated that maybe I wasn't so averse to this interruption. My anger would dissolve as I began to see my role in being interrupted.

Greenberger and Padesky's questioning procedure helps me to look for evidence for and against my "automatic thought." It is one of the important reasons I recommend Mind Over Mood. Some cognitive therapists suggest that to test "automatic thoughts" one should simply look for logical distortions. I find that when I'm upset, looking for evidence is easier than looking for distortions. Once I have the evidence, I gain a new, clearer perspective, and I can identify any distortions in my old thinking.

Sometimes recalibrating one emotion reveals another, hidden emotion. For example, after recalibrating my anger at being interrupted by the phone, I might be angry at myself for having taken the call. I might need to do another round of emotional recalibration to deal with feeling guilty for this small lapse in self-discipline.

I find that recalibrating emotions is a terrific way to deal with emotional distractions at work. Often a few minutes spent analyzing a disruptive emotion can help me resolve an issue and let it go. And even when I don't resolve the issue instantly, going through this process gives me an objective perspective to help me decide what to do.

This method can't eliminate all distressing emotions—sometimes distressing emotions are based on perfectly logical thinking. What it does do is to ensure that your emotional reactions are scaled to the situation. You never have to feel at the mercy of an "out of control" emotion.

The ability to recalibrate one's emotions is a crucial skill for maintaining emotional health. For those who want to develop it, I recommend Mind Over Mood.

Notes:

Note 1: The method I am calling "recalibrating emotions" is referred to by Greenberger and Padesky as "making a thought record." Beck calls it "the three-column technique." David Burns, another cognitive therapist, calls it "making a mood log."

Note 2: Ayn Rand made the same observation. "Subconscious identification and evaluation" is her terminology. Beck would call this an automatic interpretation or appraisal of the situation.

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Darrell Huff, How to Lie With Statistics, 1954.

We are bombarded with factoids and sound bites in political speeches, subway ads, watercooler conversations—everywhere. It takes a sharp focus to separate the babble from the facts. For guidance with this important task, I recommend Darrell Huff's classic book, How to Lie with Statistics.

Some people might be put off by such a mathematical subject. But if you learned in grade school how to calculate an average and a percentage, you have sufficient math background to enjoy and appreciate this book. Huff gives the layman the essential knowledge he needs "to look a phony statistic in the eye and face it down; and no less important . . . to recognize sound and usable data in that wilderness of fraud to which [this book is] largely devoted." He achieves his goal in a brief 142 pages, using many amusing examples and a sprinkling of clever cartoons which capture the point and the humor of the prose.

Huff explains key concepts in statistics in simple terms, then shows how they are misused. For instance, he explains an "unbiased sample," and then recounts this story illustrating the difficulty of getting unbiased data: A firm surveyed people to find what magazines they read, but the results were contradicted by the circulation statistics of the magazines. "About all the survey had uncovered was snobbery," Huff concluded. People reported reading high-brow magazines (that in fact, had low circulations) and didn't report reading low- brow ones (that did have high circulations).

In another section he points out how statistics can be used to disguise a bait-and-switch operation. As a simple example, suppose "you can't prove your nostrum cures colds, but you can publish (in large type) a sworn laboratory report that half an ounce of the stuff killed 31,108 germs in a test tube in eleven seconds." The unwary reader will think this statistic impressive, although it shows nothing about the product's efficacy in the human throat. As Huff says later about another spurious statistic, "the only answer to a figure so irrelevant is, 'so what?'"

In addition to explaining statistical concepts and analyzing specific examples, Huff encourages the layman to ask logical questions to check the validity of a claim supposedly based on statistical data. Such questions as "Who says so?" and "How does he know?" help you maintain a proper skepticism when you read about a new investment strategy that has been "statistically proven" to double your money in two years, or a poll purporting to disprove what everyone knows to be true.

Taken altogether, this short book is a lesson in how to mobilize your common sense to evaluate claims based on statistics. It's an excellent, essentialized primer, which I re-read every five or ten years. When I'm finished, I feel re-armed to seek out the truth behind any number thrown my way.

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Charles Kepner & Benjamin Tregoe
The New Rational Manager (1981)

In the 1960's, Charles Kepner and Benjamin Tregoe translated a few key logical processes into simple, practical, teachable procedures. Since then, their methods have helped three generations of managers solve problems and make decisions at work. Their book, The New Rational Manager, explains their techniques. It is a classic.

To understand what Kepner and Tregoe accomplished, consider their method of "Problem Analysis," perhaps their signature tool. It is a step-by-step procedure for determining the root cause of a problem, such as: "Why is there oil on the floor here?" "Why are sales down in this branch?" "Why is the union threatening to strike now?"

The basic method for identifying a root cause traces back to Aristotle and Francis Bacon. Abstractly, it consists of three steps: concretization, differentiation, and integration by means of causal analysis. On this abstract, descriptive level, the same process is used to discover a murderer, to identify the source of someone's anxiety, or to find the cause of a mechanical malfunction. But such an abstract description does not provide step-by-step guidance, which many people want or need.

Kepner and Tregoe translated this abstract process into clear and simple steps, by designing a chart to capture the facts. The first column has spaces for listing factual questions to ask about the problem: What happened? Where? When? To what extent is there a problem? The second column has spaces for the answers. (The answers concretize the problem.) The third column has spaces for listing contrasting cases—cases where there is no problem. The fourth column has spaces to list what is distinctive in the problem case compared to the non-problem case. (This is differentiation.) The final column has space to list what changed. (This is the start of the causal analysis.) Kepner and Tregoe explain how to use the layout of the chart to zero-in on the root cause to complete the causal analysis.

Kepner and Tregoe captured the essential elements of a venerable logical process in a simple, straightforward procedure. I am not surprised that they can cite case after case where people used their procedure to find the root cause of a problem that had stumped everyone.

"Problem Analysis" is one of four analytical methods Kepner and Tregoe explain in their book. The other three methods are: "Decision Analysis," "Potential Problem (or Opportunity) Analysis" and "Situation Appraisal."

By calling these analytical methods, I mean they are methods that help one to isolate issues and to clarify the relationships between them, as the "Problem Analysis" chart does. In general, the techniques help one to organize key facts about a problem or a decision, so that drawing a conclusion is easier.

Of course, when you solve a problem, you need to do more than just analyze and organize the facts. You also need to imagine possible solutions and judge whether they are satisfactory. Similarly, when you make a decision, you need to do more than just lay out the facts. You need to invent alternate choices and judge how good they are. But as Kepner and Tregoe observe, a solid, factual analysis aids both creative thinking and good judgment.

I recommend The The New Rational Manager wholeheartedly. Its techniques are valuable both for individuals and for teams.

For an individual, this book provides a clear, no-nonsense explanation of how to analyze problems and decisions in a business context. The explanations help to clarify and simplify the conceptual steps that are logically necessary.

For a team, the book's techniques offer an even larger value. Kepner and Tregoe report that their procedures improve communication among team members. Teams find that having a common, accepted structure for analyzing problems and decisions helps them ensure that all the relevant facts get into discussion. For example, only after pooling their information using "Situation Analysis" did one group figure out that a puzzling quality problem on a tire was actually three separate problems.

I haven't used Kepner and Tregoe's techniques with a group. But based on the stories told in The New Rational Manager and anecdotes I've heard from companies that use the methods, I am certain that the techniques are invaluable in group discussions. The logical, step-by-step procedures could transform a muddled meeting into a coherent, productive discussion. No doubt, this is an important reason for the enduring popularity of Kepner and Tregoe's analytical techniques.

Notes:

This review is based on the 1981 edition of the book. I have not read the earlier edition (The New Rational Manager, by Charles Kepner, 1965).

In 1997, the book was re-released with the title,The New Rational Manager: An Updated Edition for a New World. I made a side-by-side comparison of the 1997 and 1981 editions, and found the differences to be insignificant. The 1997 edition is in print, and can be purchased directly from Kepner-Tregoe Inc. at: http://www.kepner-tregoe.com/. (Click on "webstore.")

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Gary Klein
The Power of Intuition (2003)

Let me precede my discussion of The Power of Intuition by explaining my understanding of the nature of "intuition." An "intuition" is just a thought, produced by the automatic (subconscious) integration of present observations with past experiences. Qua "intuition," the basis of the integration is not immediately obvious. That is, what is not obvious is the actual connection being made between past experience and present observation. The thought appears to come from nowhere.

Klein's view of what "intuition" is and how to use it is in basic agreement with my understanding. In his words, "intuition" is "not a mystical gift" but a "rational and direct outgrowth of experience." He says that the experience allows you to recognize what's happening and/or what to do; the recognition is what we call "intuition." He explains that "intuition" is not infallible, but that once you've recognized the situation, you can then quickly and efficiently verify whether your "intuition" is correct. If it is, you can act on it, and in fact you can act much faster than if you had used a completely analytical process.

For example, Klein described how a neo-natal ICU nurse had an "intuition" that a preemie had developed sepsis (a deadly infection). She then examined the baby and checked the baby's records, and found confirming evidence. She called the doctor and the baby went on antibiotics immediately. She had recognized a complex pattern of subtle physical symptoms; her fast action saved the baby's life.

The goal of The Power of Intuition is to help you develop your "intuition"—your ability to quickly recognize situations and action opportunities. Klein makes the case that you can do this by analyzing your experience and giving yourself practice exercises to build more experience.

I put this book on the "Thinking Tactics" reference list, because Klein's methods use the kind of active thinking I teach in my course. He suggests some excellent thinking exercises. For instance, he recommends using a "pre-mortem" exercise when planning a project: after the plan is set, pretend you can look into a crystal ball and see that the project ended in a complete fiasco. Then ask yourself, what happened? Why was it such a disaster? This imaginative approach will help you bring out all the potential problems that you can envision.

Ironically, the exercises are the reason I recommend the book to my students, and the reason I don't recommend the book to people who haven't taken my course. The exercises are very hard.

For example, in Chapter 4, Klein recommends making a "Decision Requirements Table" to evaluate and develop better "intuitions" regarding a "critical, difficult, or frequent decision or judgment." Here are the questions you need to answer to fill in the table:

1) What makes this decision difficult?
2) What kinds of errors are often made?
3) How would an expert make this decision differently from a novice? (Identify cues and strategies.)
4) How can you practice and get feedback to help you make this decision next time? (From The Power of Intuition, p. 41.)

These are great questions. Hard questions. How do you answer them? Klein assumes that you have a group with some experts, and can answer the hard questions by means of discussion. That's fine if it works. But when I tried to use this method by myself to analyze my decisions about priorities, I found it rather difficult. I needed the tools from my own course, particularly "thinking on paper," surveying, generating alternatives, and diagnosing floundering, in order to make progress. The exercises are good, but they require tackling some hard thinking.

I am comfortable recommending this book to my students, who have the tools to extract its value. Moreover, they might find it useful to go through the book in order to practice the skills learned in "Thinking Tactics."

For those who haven't—it is still a good book. Some advice: when answering questions for yourself, use the quickie technique I recommended in a recent newsletter. Simply give yourself 3 minutes to try to answer each question on paper. For more advice on "thinking on paper," see my recently published pamphlet.

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Alan Lakein
How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life (1973)

Every few years, I re-read How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life  by Alan Lakein. This little book helps me answer a crucial question: "What is the best use of my time right now?" Figuring out the answer can be difficult, particularly when I undertake new projects. It takes fresh thinking to challenge old routines and sort out new issues. Alan Lakein seems to know just what I need to think about to bring my priorities into focus.

For example, recently I have been working on marketing my business, a new endeavor for me. I found that I can generate ideas for how to get customers at about ten times the rate I can implement them. I became overwhelmed and confused regarding the best use of my time on this project.

I knew that the general solution to this problem is planning. So, I dedicated an entire Saturday to planning my marketing campaign. By the end of the day, I was much clearer on many specific issues, but I felt I needed two more days on it, time I couldn't afford. I was nowhere near having an actual plan. Clearly I was over-planning—which was not the best use of my time.

I was temporarily stymied. I knew that I had to plan to cut through my confusion, but planning was now part of the problem of overload. And then something Alan Lakein said flitted through my mind:

"Planning is really decision-making."

I recalled he had followed this with some advice:

"Take a piece of paper and head it 'I have decided.' You are now ready for five minutes of Decision Time."

I tried it. I pulled out a sheet of paper and wrote, "I have decided" at the top, and started writing down decisions about what to do. In 15 minutes I had a plan—not a future projection of all possible contingencies, or a multi-year task sequence—but a plan for the next few weeks, which was exactly what I needed.

Lakein had done it again. He gave me a simple, doable process that helped me focus on the essentials.

Ironically, this particular piece of advice had sounded to me like an oversimplified platitude. Now that I've tried it, I see that it isn't, and I understand why it is so effective. In my planning, I had focused on all the possibilities open to me. But what I needed to know was, which ones would I make happen? I needed to make that choice to reduce innumerable possibilities into doable activities. "Planning is really decision-making."

This incident is typical of my experience with this book. The advice is simple and easy to follow. It works extremely well, sometimes to my great surprise. When I reflect back on it, I can see why it was so effective.

Here are some of the other topics on which he has simple, surprisingly profound advice:

I could wish that Lakein spent more time drawing principles and integrating his advice into a system, but that would be ungrateful. What Alan Lakein offers is a broad array of advice that is true, clear, and easy to apply. It is advice on a subject that is important to everyone: figuring out what is the best use of your time.

Notes:

1) My thanks to Dr. Ellen Kenner, host of "The Rational Basis of Happiness," for recommending this book to me some 10 years ago. www.drkenner.com

2) You may wonder how this compares to the another book I recommended, David Allen's book. They complement one another. Alan Lakein's book will help you decide what to do with your time, including how to reduce your commitments to a manageable load. David Allen's will tell you how to keep track of those commitments in such a way that your mind is left free to think on your highest priority task.

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James Prochaska, John Norcross & Carlos Diclimente
Changing for Good: A Revolutionary Six-Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward, 1994.

Making & Breaking Habits

Bad habits. How do you break them? Good habits. How do you make them?

In the simplest cases, all it takes is a little willpower. For example, if you want to stop uttering filler words like "y'know" and "um," it's fairly easy. Be vigilant—notice the impulse to utter that filler—then inhibit it and direct yourself to pause silently instead. With a little practice you can automatize filler-free speech.

Unfortunately, if the change is more significant—if you are trying to stop overeating, or to start exercising, or to stop procrastinating, or to start a new work routine—then it poses multiple difficulties.

For one, it is difficult to make a major change without disrupting one's way of life. For example, if you start an exercise regimen, you might find you have trouble getting to work on time, or your appetite explodes out of control, or your social life collapses. We all have customary routines. In order to change one aspect of the routine, you need to minimize the disruptive effect on the rest of your life.

Secondly, a problem behavior such as overeating or procrastinating is perpetuated by multiple bad habits that reinforce one another. For example, a procrastinator often gets caught in this vicious cycle: Because he delays starting work, he has to work extremely hard as the deadline approaches. Afterwards, he justifies taking a period of self-indulgent rest to make up for his self-denial during the crunch period. But as he rests, he is in fact delaying the start of work on the next project, and starting the cycle again. To correct the overall problem, you cannot change one isolated habit. You have to dismantle the interconnected system holding the problem in place.

Finally, a significant change usually raises deep emotional issues that need to be addressed. Some bad habits, such as smoking and drinking, temporarily relieve anxiety. Some support rationalizations. A procrastinator might justify poor performance by saying, "This isn't my best work because I didn't have enough time." Some are tools of avoidance. For example, some overeaters use their weight to avoid intimacy. To make a change, you need to confront such emotionally-charged issues and rethink them.

In short, a significant change is difficult because one's customary habits are integrated into a stable, self-reinforcing system that feels emotionally secure. This is why people often need several attempts over a period of years to effect a permanent change.

For those who would like guidance with this complex process, I recommend Changing for Good by James O. Prochaska, John C. Norcross, and Carlo C. DiClemente. [1] The authors explain the process of "psychic surgery" that is required to change one's ingrained habits. Though the book draws its examples from cases of losing weight, stopping smoking, and stopping drinking, the authors properly treat the process as a general one. I had no trouble translating their advice for my own area of interest.

Prochaska et. al.'s basic thesis is that habit change has six distinct stages: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance, and termination. They find that different therapeutic methods are needed at each stage. Although they draw techniques from all the main schools of therapy, they derive their theory from the study of real people who have successfully improved their lives. The result is a systematic method, consisting of practical steps to increase one's desire to change, and to cope with the difficulties along the way.

For example, early on, a person generally has only a vague desire to change. The pros don't outweigh the cons. The authors show how "consciousness-raising" and "self-re-evaluation" can shift the balance toward change. But they caution the reader that he shouldn't plunge into action immediately. They have found that premature action usually ends in failure. Further preparation is necessary, to plan how to avoid specific problems and increase immediate benefits. In the book, the authors present an objective test to determine whether or not you are ready to commit to action.

The authors do not believe in condemning oneself to a life of "longing and deprivation." They seek to help their readers achieve permanent change, by means of creating a new way of life which provides its own rich rewards. When the rewards are rich, the old temptations lose their pull, and there is no conflict. This is what Prochaska and his colleagues seek for their readers.

I find this book inspiring. The steps for change are so clear, so logical, so doable, that I can't help but be motivated to look at my own habits and ask, "what improvement could I make next?"

————

Footnote 1: I must distance myself from two aspects of the book.

First, it expresses a paternalistic attitude in parts, particularly with respect to smoking. I, a non-smoker, was offended by the attacks on the right to smoke and the smoking industry.

Second, in an appendix the authors grapple with what they see as a contradiction between their advocacy of free will and their role as scientists. I applaud their intention, but I refer readers to Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand by Leonard Peikoff for clarification of this issue. There is no contradiction.

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Ayn Rand
The Art of Nonfiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers
Edited by Robert Mayhew (2001)

The Art of Nonfiction contains a host of insights about the writing process. I recommend it to all serious writers.

The book is based on an informal course Ayn Rand gave to some of her associates in 1969. Although a few sections presuppose the original audience, most of the book is of interest to any writer. She discusses a wide range of issues, including choosing a subject and theme, outlining, drafting, editing, developing a style, and solving writer's block.

In one of my favorite chapters (Chapter 6: "Writing the Draft: The Primacy of the Subconscious"), Ayn Rand encourages one to "learn to discriminate your inner states" as a means of diagnosing problems. She gives colorful names to some of the states she describes, such as "white tennis shoes" (resistance to starting) and "the squirms" (a contradiction in purpose that prevents progress). Knowing the differences helps you identify problems and solve them.

Ayn Rand's ability to observe and conceptualize her own mental processes makes this book a unique value. She can describe and explain phenomena which less introspective writers find ineffable. Her fresh observations will help any writer to understand the writing process better, and thereby write more easily.

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Barbara Sher
I could do anything if I only knew what it was (2001)

I wholeheartedly recommend Barbara Sher's book, I could do anything if I only knew what it was. Her purpose in writing the book is to help you find and pursue a career that "makes your heart sing." She includes many creative exercises for zeroing in on that ideal career. They include describing the job from hell, remembering what you loved as a kid, planning the next 50 years, etc.

Not interested? Already in the right career? Me, too. I never did any of those exercises. That's not why I recommend this book.

I recommend it for its excellent advice for how to pursue a challenging career—to pursue it despite old emotional baggage that sometimes gets in the way.

Inner conflict can make you stuck. And when this happens, Barbara Sher argues that you need to act. Endless self-analysis will only keep you stuck; action will give you new information and build new confidence. For example, she encourages some people who are stalled in indecision to take the wrong job—and do it outstandingly. Because you can learn a tremendous amount about the right job, by doing the wrong job well.

By nudging you into action, Ms. Sher helps you uncover and demystify feelings of conflict. "Start moving toward a goal...and [any] resistance will leap out of hiding and start trying to talk you out of moving," she says. And once you hear the little voice that is stopping you, she has excellent advice for what to do about it.

Her top suggestion is to identify the source of that little voice. For example, in one exercise you write out what each person in your family thought you "should" be when you grew up. It turns out that most resistance is based on stale opinions of others that you heard in the past. Once you see where resistance comes from, it loses much of its emotional power.

Throughout the book Barbara Sher expresses respect for feelings—without giving in to them. She makes a case that it is never laziness that stops you from pursuing goals—it's always inner conflict. But whatever the conflict, she makes it clear that you can make the life you want happen now.

I wish the title of this book were, "I could do anything if I only knew what was stopping me." But whatever the title, I think this book is of great interest to anyone pursuing a challenging career.

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