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Stoic Saturday – Inviting Discomfort

In my last post, I talked about the Stoic technique of negative thinking. This is a mental practice where you imagine losing what matters most – people, security, status, whatever. The thing is, you don’t just imagine it then push it away; you allow yourself to feel the pain the loss would cause, as completely as you can. The ancient Stoics recommended this practice on the grounds that it would prepare you for catastrophe, if and when catastrophe happened, while also increasing your appreciation for the things you ought to value most.

Inviting discomfort can be thought of as the physical counterpart to negative thinking. Seneca the Younger recommended that his followers welcome situations where they would experience minor discomforts; a parallel to the mental and emotional pain invited by negative thinking. The reasoning behind this was also similar: by spending time hungry and cold when you could be fed and warm, Seneca argued, you will learn to better appreciate what food and shelter you have available – and, should disaster strike and inflict real suffering, you will be better prepared to weather the storm. If negative thinking is emotional exercise, inviting discomfort can be thought of as a vaccine against pain.

mansnow

 

Inviting Discomfort is not Self-Harm

It’s important to note the difference between inviting discomfort and deliberate self-harm. Inviting discomfort is not about the infliction of pain, but about periodically welcoming situations where discomfort will be experienced. Even more significantly, the purpose of inviting discomfort is to strengthen the self against future suffering: this distinguishes it from self-harm, which is focused on causing damage, whether deliberately or as a result of a delusion.

fasting

Fasting is an illustrative example. Many people fast, for reasons ranging from the religious to the dietary, and when practised appropriately fasting can be a productive and healthy way of periodically inviting discomfort into your life. It will not, however, be appropriate for everyone; and that includes people with eating disorders including anorexia and bulimia, who may already be driven to practice unhealthy and harmful forms of fasting. As with any mental exercise, inviting discomfort is not ‘one size fits all’ – the example of fasting shows this, while still being a potentially helpful practice for some individuals.

 

Inviting Boredom?

One possible modern parallel to inviting discomfort could be called “inviting boredom”. We’re so often surrounded by distractions – smartphones and the internet have changed our daily lives in many ways, some good and some bad – that it can be painful to remove ourselves from them, even for a relatively short period. If you’re never far from an online device, you’re lucky to have an easy way to invite discomfort in your own home. Remove yourself from your smartphone and invite boredom: it’ll help you appreciate the positive things technology does for us, downplay its negative effects, and help cultivate mindfulness into the bargain.

 

Inviting Discomfort

Being cold, being hungry and being bored are three ways you can invite discomfort into your life, to help you appreciate what you have while building emotional resilience to real hardship. They’re just the tip of the iceberg, though – how could you invite discomfort? Let me know in the comments, and tune in next time for more Stoic techniques.

hermitage

 

I’m away on holiday for a couple of weeks so won’t be updating during that time. It’s been a fun start on my personal blog here and I’m grateful for the followers I’ve picked up so far. I’ll be back by mid-August, but in the meantime feel free to drop me a line and subscribe if you want to know when I’m back in action. Cheers.

Stoic Saturday – The Power of Negative Thinking

No, I didn’t make a mistake (not in writing the post title, anyway). No, it isn’t my natural pessimism throwing me off course.

Since Norman Peale’s bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking came on the scene in 1952, the benefits of optimism and positive visualisation have been widely promoted and accepted as tools to change one’s life for the better. There’s a lot to commend the work of Peale and those who’ve followed him: sports psychology is one modern field which puts Peale’s theory into practice by encouraging athletes to visualise the success they want to win. Or, to quote one world-famous positive thinker:

barbie

Positive thinking and positive visualisation are powerful tools, with substantial proof for the claim that they can make a real difference. But what about the times when they don’t? What happens when, all visualisation to the contrary, your plans fail? What happens when you believe it, but can’t achieve it? A steady diet of optimism might be good for your health, but it can (ironically) increase your vulnerability to negative thoughts if things don’t turn out the way you hoped.

The ancient Stoics were well aware of the danger of positive thinking. Seneca the Younger counsels his readers that misfortune does the most damage to those who “expect nothing but good fortune.”[1] Epictetus, writing shortly after Seneca, agrees, advising against the assumption that one will always be able to enjoy the things one values.[2] Hope might spring eternal, but frustrated expectations are an easy path to anger, and even despair.

One simple Stoic answer to this danger is negative visualisation. The instruction is simple: instead of focusing on what you want to achieve and how you will achieve it, think about what you have and then imagine losing it. This goes for everything we find valuable in our lives, from material possessions to employment and security to friends and relatives. The loss of something valuable is just as hazardous to your happiness as a failure to gain or achieve something valuable. In some cases, such as the death of someone we love, the pain of loss can be great enough to overshadow any joy found elsewhere.

Negative visualisation is not intended to be a pleasant process. Imagining the loss of your health or wealth will be disheartening, while even just imagining the loss of a loved one can be painful. To the Stoic, the discomfort caused by negative thinking is comparable to the discomfort endured by an athlete in training. The athlete suffers short-term pain for the long-term gain of increased fitness and ability; the Stoic practicing negative thinking endures short-term discomfort for the long-term benefit of increased mental strength. Someone who has imagined the death of a loved one, resisting the temptation to push such unpleasantness away, will be better-equipped to survive such a tragedy happening for real.

Negative thinking doesn’t mean always imagining the worst. Unrelenting pessimism is no good for mental or emotional health: it runs counter to the purpose of Stoicism, which is to help people live their lives as well (and as happily) as they’re able. Negative visualisation is a tool to be used in times of reflection; a way to appreciate what you have without letting it control you, and without becoming a hostage to fortune.

The Power of Negative Thinking

To put negative thinking to work for you, set aside a brief period of time on a regular basis for reflection. This might be 5 minutes every evening before bed, or 15 minutes each weekend (the exact time spent thinking negatively doesn’t matter as much as your commitment to do it regularly).

While reflecting, contemplate the things and the people you value most. Imagine losing them: don’t resist any negative thoughts or emotions which come as a result, but try to feel them and process them as realistically as you’re able. Think about the future: how would your life be without that thing or person moving forwards? How would their absence feel?

As you finish your period of negative thinking, remind yourself that negative visualisation is a tool – a way to expose yourself to pain and loss before it reaches you. Enjoy the increase of appreciation for the people and things you imagined losing, and be proud of taking responsibility for your mental and emotional health.

Negative visualisation often involves thinking about death, but for Stoics the power of negative thinking lies in its ability to renew our appreciation for life. It’s a thought experiment which is also a powerful psychological tool; and the Stoic mission to help people endure hardships doesn’t end there. Next time I’ll be looking at the physical aspects of Stoic self-discipline: self-denial and taking on discomfort.

[1] Seneca, On Tranquillity, XI.6.
[2] Epictetus, Discourses, IV.V.27.

Freestyle Friday – The Worst Book I’ve Ever Read

What’s the worst book you’ve ever read?

I was thinking about some of my favourite books, across different genres and the fiction/non-fiction divide. It’s relatively easy to pick favourite books from my past: my long-term memory has binned most of the mediocre stuff, and left me with the works which most resonated with me. As a teenager, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods was up there; before that, Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy kicked off an enduring love for the genre he practically created. Neither work is hugely compelling to me now, partly the result of over-familiarity and partly due to change in my personal tastes and reading habits. They might not be the best books I’ve ever read, but they’re undeniably important to me.

First_Single_Volume_Edition_of_The_Lord_of_the_Rings

This is the all-in-one edition of The Lord of the Rings I first read at 10 years old. I skipped over all the Elven poetry parts. I still do.

I find non-fiction even harder to judge as works of writing. An interesting non-fiction subject can carry average writing, and even the greatest prose-smith is going to struggle to keep me interested in a history of rural gardening tools. It’s interesting, and perhaps telling, that the two non-fiction texts which stand largest in my mind’s eye are war journals: Michael Herr’s Dispatches, and Philip Caputo’s A Rumour of War. They’re both excellently-crafted pieces; particularly Dispatches, written by a journalist at the top of his game and the inspiration for practically any Vietnam film you might care to name.

mhd

Michael Herr: one of the best and most courageous writers of all time.

Great books. The  best books I’ve read? Maybe. It’s hard to tell. What about the worst book I’ve ever read?

That’s even harder.

I can think of some appallingly bad writing, including some works of fiction which have become bestsellers through the strength of their concept and the power of marketing. I don’t want to name names here for a few reasons. One is that I’ve no particular interest in upsetting anyone, either writers or their fans. Another reason is that I couldn’t vouch for any book I found truly awful as being the worst, because I never finish them. Why would I? I think they’re awful.

More importantly, books that make us cringe do at least fulfil one basic quality of art. They inspire a reaction; not a good reaction, sure, but better than nothing. For me, the worst book ever would have to be one which was borderline readable – readable enough to finish – but which left no lasting impression. This might apply more to fiction than non-fiction, but maybe not: even a school textbook can inspire reactions and create memories if it’s well-written; and if it’s not memorable at all, then it’s not fit for purpose.

This post isn’t a call to write badly; but it is a call to take risks. As a recovering academic I still write too many long and overwrought sentences. Sometimes my writing comes out flat – informative, but not compelling. Not the kind of stuff to create a lasting impression, in other words. It’s something I’m aware of and working on, but it’s sometimes tempting to fall back into the overwrought declaratives of my early career (there I go again).

Maybe it’s better to be remembered as falling short than to not be remembered at all.

Is boring worse than crappy? What’s the worst book you’ve ever read? Let me know in the comments.

Writing Wednesday – When Should I Avoid Clichés In My Writing?

That’s a great question. A real game-changer.

(Sorry)

Thing is, it’s not really a game-changer, is it? For one thing, we’re not playing a game. For another, it’s a question which has been asked before, and which many other keen minds have answered. It’s old hat.

(Sorry)

That doesn’t work either. A question isn’t a hat, and it isn’t clear what’s particularly bad about a hat being old; compared to, say, an old shirt or some old pants. That dog won’t hunt.

(Sorry)

If a question’s not a hat, I’m pretty sure a hat isn’t a dog; and what are we hunting, anyway?

Alright, alright. The conceit’s outlived its usefulness. I hope I made my point, painful as it was. While some clichés can sometimes be useful in your writing, they’re far too often a lazy substitute for truly engaging prose. When they’re at their worst, they can be incredibly distracting for a reader, ruining immersion and casting doubt on your talent as a writer.

Overuse of clichés is an easy way to give the impression that you’re either a novice without a voice, or a hack who can’t be bothered to put the time in to craft something worth reading. Neither of those outcomes is desirable. If I was a lazy writer who didn’t understand the source material, I’d say it was a real Catch-22.

Excising all clichés from your writing is probably too extreme a goal, and there are times when certain clichés can be productive. If you’re just starting out, though, it’s best to treat any cliché with a healthy suspicion. In particular, watch out for clichés which commit one or more of the sins below.

Clichés to Avoid: Top Cliché Sins

  • Too specific. Clichés which are too specific to a certain time, place or idiom run the risk of alienating a large part of your audience. This is especially true if you publish online, where you’re highly likely to have an international readership.
  • Vague or unusual. At the other end of the familiarity scale, uncommon or vague clichés run the risk of alienating everyone. If your reader doesn’t know what you’re talking about, they’re likely to think one of two things: either you’re too wordy for them, or you don’t know what you’re talking about either.
  • Outdated. Old-fashioned clichés which are no longer relevant to modern society appear even more hackneyed than your average cliché. The “old hat” saying used above is a good example of this: when it was first recorded in 18th century Britain, a smart hat was part of a gentleman’s attire, and a hat which appeared battered and old would give the impression of a man without means. An old hat might be comfortable, but it was far from a mark of elegance. Today, we (unfortunately) judge on appearances as much as ever; but hats are much less common fashion items, making the cliché anachronistic.
  • Inappropriate. There are two main ways a cliché can be inappropriate. The first is that it simply does not work as intended: referring to two equally undesirable options as a Catch-22 is a common misunderstanding of the basic narrative of Joseph Heller’s novel, and a mistake which calls into question one’s competence as a writer and a reader. A cliché can also be inappropriate in the sense of being offensive, such as a lazy appeal to a national or ethnic stereotype.
  • Substitute for facts. An overuse of clichés can sometimes be an attempt to mask the fact that the writer doesn’t know how to make their case as well as they imagine. “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” is stated as a self-justifying truth. “In the old days, children were more respectful” is another example, providing no supporting evidence save for its appeal to cliché.

If the cliché you’re considering using doesn’t fall into any of these traps (there I go again), it might be an example of a productive cliché. Clichés which work as descriptive imagery (“the tip of the iceberg”), or are idioms which fit your voice and that of your audience, are the most likely to be valuable additions to your writing. Don’t be afraid to experiment, even with one or two of the ‘bad’ clichés: writing should be a fun and creative endeavour.

Next Wednesday I’m going to look at another form of cliché – tropes, or genre conventions. What are some of your favourite and least favourite clichés? Let me know in the comments, or get in touch.

 

Marketing Monday – The 3 Tiers of Content Marketing

Marketing Mondays will – you guessed it – focus on some of the basics of content marketing. Today I’m going to outline what I see as the three tiers of content marketing, and show how a better understanding of them, and how they interact, can help you develop successful content.

I don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach to content marketing. Different businesses have different goals, which can be affected by everything from size and cashflow to values and mission statements. Goals, and the time allotted to accomplish them, have a big impact on marketing strategies; and content marketing is no exception.

That said, content marketing has its basic principles, and a good understanding of these is necessary to start building a strategy that works for you. At the most basic level, it’s important to grasp the difference between the three tiers of content marketing, and how they relate to each other. The three tiers are as follows:

  1. Content marketing strategy
  2. Content strategy
  3. Content plan

Think of them like a Matryoshka doll (pictured): your content marketing strategy is your largest doll, with your content strategy nesting inside that and your content plan even smaller and more focused. Your content marketing strategy, therefore, will determine the shape of your content strategy, which will in turn affect your content plan.

So what’s involved in each tier?

  1. Content marketing strategy. This is your largest doll; your macro-level strategy. Who are you creating content for? How is your content going to attract and help them? What’s the long-term benefit you’re aiming for? Typically, content marketing at its heart is about building an audience; ideally, an audience who are going to be likely to invest in your product or services.
  2. Content strategy. The next level down from your marketing strategy, your content strategy is concerned with putting your answers to the above questions into practice. A strong content strategy will define your brand’s voice, which should remain as consistent as possible. It will also involve fleshing out client personas, to nail down the image of your ideal target audience (age, gender, income, location and beliefs can all be part of this). Fundamentally, your content strategy will guide your content plan: the more rigorous and detailed you can be when defining the image you want to present to the world, the better.
  3. Content plan. Driven by your content strategy, the content plan is where you move to the tactical level. This means getting right down to deciding what you’re going to publish, when: valuable first steps for devising a content plan include keyword research, building content timelines around your client personas, and writing editorial rules (such as including external hyperlinks in specific situations, establishing a word limit, guidelines for formatting, and so on).

With a content marketing strategy driving your content strategy, and the brand voice and client personas developed as part of your content strategy structuring your content plan, you’re in a good position to start publishing regular content. Without applying this knowledge of the three tiers, it’s easy to publish haphazardly and inconsistently: not only does this have a negative impact in terms of SEO, it knocks your chances of keeping any interest you manage to drum up.

Here at Barton Writes, I’m publishing content across a few different fields:

  • Marketing Mondays
  • Writing Wednesdays
  • Freestyle Fridays
  • Stoic Saturdays

Consistency, regularity and quality are all more important than sticking to a single topic. If you’re doing your own content marketing, start with your marketing strategy and work your way down the tiers to put yourself in the strongest starting position.

If you have any questions or comments please don’t hesitate to leave them below; and if you’re interested in developing a bespoke marketing strategy that works for you, drop me a line. It’s what I do.

Stoic Saturday – Who were the Ancient Stoics?

Last week, I gave a (hopefully) straightforward explanation of Stoicism; what it is, and why you should care.

Want the short version? It’s an ancient philosophy that teaches how to achieve real happiness, and it doesn’t just talk the talk: Stoicism provides practical techniques to improve your mental wellbeing and emotional resilience.

Before diving deeper into Stoic practice, I thought it’d be good to look briefly at the ancient Stoics who have had the biggest impact on me, as a philosopher and an aspiring Stoic. They were interesting people living in interesting times, and it’s to their credit that what they taught remains relevant today.

Zeno of Citium

333 – 261 BCE

zeno

Zeno of Citium can reasonably be called the father of Stoicism. In his early philosophical career, he studied first under Crates the Cynic and then with Polemo at the Academy. Borrowing Cynical ethics and Academic logic, Zeno eventually founded his own school, where his habit of giving lectures at the Stoa Poikile led to his followers being called Stoics. He counselled these early Stoics to employ both reason and empathy in striving for “the good life,” which he defined as happiness married to virtue.

Seneca the Younger

c. 4 BCE – 65 CE

seneca

Seneca the Younger was a popular playwright and a successful investor as well as a philosopher, and he was exiled for the alleged crime of having sex with the Emperor’s niece. It’s hard to imagine a philosopher more removed from the stereotypical ivory tower than Seneca: he was even the personal tutor of the young Nero, who would ultimately have him assassinated out of fear of his influence. Seneca taught his students that satisfied desires only give birth to new and greater ones, and encouraged them to concentrate on appreciating what they already had.

Epictetus

c. 50 – 135 CE

epictetus

Epictetus was a high-ranking slave and imperial administrator. He is believed to have gained his freedom sometime after the death of the Emperor Nero, the man who’d had Seneca murdered. As a philosopher, his lectures were infamously long and uncomfortable. This was no accident; and the discomfort felt by his students was not just physical, but also mental and emotional. Epictetus called for ruthless examination of the self and its desires, and once remarked that if someone left one of his lectures feeling better, they couldn’t have been paying attention.

Marcus Aurelius

121 – 180 CE

marcus

After a celebrity and a slave, we come to an Emperor. Marcus Aurelius was the last of what Machiavelli would later term the “Five Good Emperors,” under whom the Roman Empire enjoyed unprecedented power, prestige and security. Marcus Aurelius was never renowned as a teacher or a preacher, and we know most of his philosophy through his letters To Himself. In thought and deed, Marcus was a Stoic through and through, applying its principles in the face of his physical frailty and the unparalleled stresses of being the most powerful man in history. Through his intelligence and wisdom, and facilitated by the practice of Stoicism, both Emperor and Empire thrived during Marcus’ reign.

From Zeno to Marcus, the ancient Stoics provide not only teachings but lives which encapsulate the meaning and value of Stoicism. Next week I’ll be getting my hands dirty with a practical Stoic technique to improve your happiness and emotional stability: in the meantime, let me know what you think, and feel free to drop me a line.

Freestyle Friday – How Not to Ask a Girl Out

Freestyle Fridays are intended to be a chance for me to write about topics which interest me, but don’t fit anywhere in particular. Today: How Not to Ask a Girl Out, as learned by 6-year-old me.

I’m not going to preface this story with the lie that I’ve got any smoother in the last 23 years. I’d like to think I’ve managed to internalise at least some of the lessons I’m graciously passing on, but I’d like to think a lot of things.

My first attempt at asking a girl out came in Year 1 of primary school. For non-Brits, Year 1 is our second year of school. No, it doesn’t make any sense to us either.

To clarify the context, I was 6 years old and I’m pretty sure she was too. I’m confident that most of the wisdom contained in these guidelines is timeless, but I make no guarantee as to its applicability across ages, genders, orientations or cultures. I am not a licensed romantic professional. I don’t think anyone is.

How Not to Ask a Girl Out (as learned by 6-year-old Matt)

  1. Don’t pull her hair. There are situations where this might be acceptable: these situations involve mutually-informed consent, at least one positive interaction, and both of you being considerably older than 6.
  2. Don’t cry when she tells the teacher that you pulled her hair. You might have heard some girls say they want a sensitive guy. This is not what they mean.
  3. Don’t ask her out via multiple-choice questionnaire. Specifically, don’t ask her out via a multiple-choice questionnaire you got your mum to help you design, and that you illustrated with a red felt-tip pen.
  4. Don’t get your dad to hand her the questionnaire because you’re too scared. Some girls are attracted to guys who are close to their parents. Some aren’t. No girls are attracted to guys who hide behind their father while he delivers their mail.
  5. Don’t hide from her for the rest of the day. There’s playing hard to get, and then there’s helping her forget you exist.
  6. Don’t follow her around for the rest of the next day in anticipation of an answer. Persistence can be a virtue; so can patience. I’ve read Nicomachean Ethics and Republic, and I don’t recall creepiness being praised even once. That’s a philosophy joke, in case you didn’t find me insufferable already.
  7. Don’t cry when she gives you her answer. See point 2.

There you have it: a straightforward 7-step guide, based on a collection of my past reflections and in no way referring to a specific incident in which I was the principal, tragic player. If you found my advice helpful, or if you have your own romantic insight to share, please do comment below. If you’d like to see more – or less – stuff like this on my blog, let me know. I’m all ears.

I’m going to be a killjoy and highlight that the above piece is intended to be humour. If you don’t find it funny, I don’t blame you; but please don’t take it seriously, and never act on my advice.