Samantha Bennett: Upside-down duck

Samantha Bennett
Samantha Bennett, photo by Erica Clendenin

As far as we know, Samantha Bennett and I are not related, but we’re both smart, funny, (and humble—can’t forget humble), and Steve Goodman fans, so I’m not ruling anything out. Originally from Chicago, Sam is a writer, speaker, actor, teacher and creativity/productivity specialist. She created The Organized Artist Company to help creative people get unstuck so they can focus and move forward on their goals. And she is the beloved author of two lavishly subtitled books: Get It Done: From Procrastination to Creative Genius in 15 Minutes a Day and Start Right Where You Are: How Little Changes Can Make a Big Difference for Overwhelmed Procrastinators, Frustrated Overachievers and Recovering Perfectionists (New World Library). —Elaine

You are an Upside-Down Duck

by Samantha Bennett

You know how ducks look so calm gliding along the surface, but underneath they are paddling like mad?

Sometimes I think you are the upside-down of that.

On the surface, you appear to be in chaos.

Too much clutter.

Too busy.

Can’t focus and don’t want to be hemmed in.

Dashing from one idea to the next.

Barely scraping by.

The people around you must feel like they are watching a high-wire act.

“Why doesn’t she just get a real job?” they wonder.

“Does everything have to be so emotional?” they sigh.

And you feel criticized and misunderstood and lonely and like you were born into a world that doesn’t have a place for you.

But I know the truth about you:

You are powerful beyond measure.

You have deep reserves of strength.

(After all, look at all you’ve survived…)

You have a light that is so bright—beyond the sun bright—you probably even got told to turn it down a bit.

(“You’re too dramatic, too loud, too big, too needy, too serious, too dreamy….”)

But just because you put your light under that bushel doesn’t mean it went away.

And as soon as you decide that it’s OK with you if your light shines into the world, you have some terrific opportunities. (Don’t skip over the significance of that decision: is it really OK with you if you get famous? Are you willing to lose a bit of privacy? Is it OK with you if you become more visible in the world?)

I’m here to tell you—there has never been a better time to be a teller of stories and a maker of things.

If you can wrap your head around the idea that the way you create is the way you succeed, you will become unstoppable. That is to say, you can create success in the exact same way that you create any other project. It can come from the same place inside of you. And it can feel as delicious as anything else you’ve ever made.

So what does that mean, exactly?

It means you can build a fan base by sending them love letters. Or by talking to them about Moroccan cooking. You can collect emails in exchange for a daily musing on reality television, or the work of Edward Albee. You can combine your talents and skills and put them on display to the world in a way that feels fun for you.

Here are a few examples:

A client of mine with a full-time corporate job was dreaming of starring in her own Oprah-style talk show. I told her to go outside right this moment and make a one-minute video about something inspiring and post it, and then do that every day. She took me at my word, and a year later she had several hundred short inspirational videos and a growing tribe of loyal followers.

Another client was a photographer who loved working in film (old-school film) and further, she realized that everything having to do with computers both annoyed her and aggravated her auto-immune disorder. So she began communicating with her clients and galleries strictly by mail, sending hand-written notes on lovely, creamy stationery. She became known as an exclusive, high-end, “artisanal” photographer, and now she keeps having to raise her rates because her schedule is always full.

I also had a client who simply could not get her marketing act together. She couldn’t finish her website, she didn’t like Facebook, she halfway started a podcast but then gave up….I was becoming concerned that her dream of empowering women and girls was going to end up in a dust heap of almosts-but-not-quites.

Finally I asked her, “What do you LIKE to do?” She said, “I like talking to people.” And it was true—she could strike up a conversation with a brick wall. So I said, “Fine. Do that. Spend at least one hour each day walking around places where people are gathered and have at least two conversations with strangers. Just see where it takes you.” Three days later she had talked herself into a meeting with the head of the local girls’ school to discuss adding her entire curriculum to their after-school program.

You are allowed to market your work your way. It almost doesn’t matter what you do—as long as you are doing something that lights you up and getting it out there.

Underneath your surface feelings of confusion, overwhelm, self-doubt and “sparkly thing” distractability, there is a calm, powerful knowing. Once you allow yourself to lean in to your strengths, your idiosyncrasies, and your desire to serve the world, you will get the opportunity to share your gifts in a bigger way.

You know that you have some very special skills that can really help people.

But you need to start making choices from your center of power and your inner wisdom. You need to lean in to your weirdness, your excitement and your nerdy-ness. Then you can stop relying on crappy part-time jobs and erratic windfalls. You can take control.

You can choose to live from your power, not from your chaos.

So quit thinking that you need to get all your ducks in a row, and instead embrace the odd duck that is so delightfully and unmistakably YOU.

Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join Elaine for her popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about growth.

Are longer lists better? — Frequent Questions

Q: Are longer lists are better than short ones?
A: [steam coming out of ears] I. Hate. Lists.

longer listsElmore Leonard said writers should always “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

If only we could identify those parts in advance, eh?

Well, some of them we can.

Like lists.

I hate lists.

They’re just plain lazy. And did someone say boring? Oh, you bet.

Bullet-pointed lists are meant to impress the reader, I suppose. Ooh—look at all the things! But to me bullet-pointing lists is like going to a networking event and throwing a big stack of business cards at a table full of strangers.

Would you ever be impressed by that? Ooh—hasn’t she been busy collecting cards!

Reader, I’m going to answer this one for you, because I know you’re not idiots. You would not be impressed by that. Not ever. Not only is it unhelpful—just like lists—it’s also downright rude. So don’t give your reader a bunch of things—tell them what’s special about each one.

Lists disguised as sentences at least show a bit more effort on the writer’s part. But they still lump everything together in an undifferentiated mass. If something is important enough for you to mention, it’s important enough for you to tell me why you’re mentioning it.

Longer lists are not better than short

If you insist on making a list, keep it short. And use what writers call The Rule of Three:

Wikipedia very appropriately offers three reasons this rule works. And they’re not presented as a list, either, so 10 points for Wikipedia:

The reader or audience of this form of text is…more likely to remember the information conveyed. This is because having three entities combines both brevity and rhythm with having the smallest amount of information to create a pattern.[2][3] It makes the author or speaker appear knowledgeable while being both simple and catchy.

I added the emphasis there. Now let me translate it into a more readable form: Your list will be more memorable, being shorter. Three is the fastest pattern you can create, and patterns are always more memorable. Plus, you seem smart—while being memorable.

I’d add a fourth use for the Rule of Three, because establishing and quickly breaking a pattern is not only memorable, it can also be damn funny. Breaking the pattern with the third item in the list gets a laugh because the listener recognizes the pattern with the second item and before they even realize they’ve recognized the pattern, you go and break it. For instance, you might imagine a flight attendant going through the airplane asking:

“Would you like coffee, tea, or Xanax?”

I didn’t expect that. Funny!

Breaking the pattern on the fourth or fifth item will only get you a confused stare.

“Would you like coffee, tea, soda, juice, or Xanax?”


The list that ate my headline

Back in the day, I sometimes wrote press releases for a—well, let’s be nice here—an extraordinarily picky client. For a press release about a famous artist, I wrote a headline that mentioned three of this person’s most iconic works. The client added a fourth. And a fifth. Still not enough variety. Pretty soon the headline was a laundry list—one of the longer lists you’ll ever encounter. (Pro Tip: Headlines are not supposed to take up half the page.)

“I don’t like the headline,” the client whined. “It’s too clunky.”


“That’s because you keep adding things to it,” I said. “Keep it to three things and it’ll be snappier”—and I named the artist’s three most iconic pieces.

I don’t remember how many pieces we ended up listing in the final headline, but I think only one of my suggestions made the cut. When the media wrote about the release, though, guess how many pieces they cited? Yes, three. Because journalists know what they’re doing. They also know an iconic image when they see it; all three were the pieces I’d suggested to begin with.

Don’t mess with the rule of three, folks. It’s smart, efficient, and journalist-approved. Tempted to publish longer lists? Don’t say Elmore Leonard and I didn’t warn you.

Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join me for my popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about change.

Explaining and losing — show, don’t tell

“…there’s a saying in politics: ‘When you’re explaining, you’re losing.”

I just finished reading Al Franken’s book, the modestly titled Al Franken, Giant of the Senate. (It’s a joke; he’s a short man.) And it seemed to me that his old political saying also applies to writing.

“When you’re explaining, you’re losing.” When you explain something to your readers, you lose their attention, you lose their capacity to retain your information. If you’re explaining in your marketing materials, you lose the sale.

“You should eat the steak at Joe’s” vs. “Joe’s serves a steak so tender that I barely needed the knife; once it hit my mouth, it practically melted away on it own accord.”

Which sentence makes you hungrier? And can you tell I had an excellent steak last night? (Though not at “Joe’s,” which exists only in my mind.)

Details! They’re what make Joe’s steak so juicy. And as soon as you hear them, you start to assemble the details into a picture in your mind. It may be a prettier picture for a carnivore than for a vegetarian, but even vegans will subconsciously create a story around Joe’s steak and file it away in their minds.

So let’s see how much you retained—without looking back at the previous paragraphs…

Think about Joe’s steak

What are the first words that pop into your mind?

Explaining vs. making an impact

Explaining makes us writers feel like we’ve accomplished something. There! I told them!
And that’s fine, if the purpose of your writing is to make you feel better. But if you’re trying to get other people to take action, explaining might not cut it.

For instance, some people think marketing means, I’ll tell everyone they need to join my program if they want to be a better writer.

Explaining Writing Unbound, the ideas, skills, and support you needBut effective marketing isn’t about explaining; it’s about showing. So instead of saying, “Register for Writing Unbound and improve your writing,” I might say something like:

Have you ever wished you could dial down the volume on the critical voices in your head and just write?

Most readers will be shouting, “Oh good God, yes!” So I might continue along the lines of:

If you just shouted, “Oh good God, yes!” – hey, I’ve been there too. I know how essential that skill is for writers, so dealing with your critical inner voice is one of the first things we tackle in my Writing Unbound program.

Explaining—”register for my program and improve your writing”—doesn’t invite the reader in. Also, “improve your writing” is a pretty generic claim. In marketing, specifics don’t just help readers paint a picture in their minds, they also make the readers feel like you know and care about what they’re going through. I’ve been in your shoes. I’ve succeeded; I know you can, too.

Al Franken’s right: “when you’re explaining, you’re losing.” It’s true in politics and in “real life,” too.

Time to kick your writing skills up a level or three? Join me for my popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about improvement.

Which comes first, the lede or the story? — Frequent questions

Q: Which comes first, the lede or the story?

A: That depends on what you’re writing.

The invaluable Josh Bernoff took on a linguistic chicken-or-egg debate in his Without Bullshit blog last week. Should you start with a story or a lede?

After I used some of his material in my Writing Unbound curriculum, several of my writers followed my, um, lead in subscribing to Bernoff’s blog. One of them asked for my opinion on his lede vs. story piece. 

So, should you start with a story or a lede? Yes.

And thanks to Josh Bernoff for bringing it up.

Lede or Story? 

Bernoff says:

“The best way to hook an audience is to start with a descriptive story. The best way to get people to read what you write is with a descriptive title and a few summary sentences…”

My writers glommed onto the concept of the lede the minute I introduced it. They immediately wanted to know all there is to know. (I love my writers; they’re a lot like me in that respect.) Story they understand. But the idea of starting with a story—well, that’s often hard to wrap your head around when you come from an academic or business background. 

I had defined lede as the first sentence of a piece of writing. Of course, that’s both incomplete and inaccurate; Bernoff offers a much more accurate description. Ledes mostly occur in journalism—when you need a start that’s crisp, engaging, and fact-filled. Blogs require ledes too, especially if you worship the Gods of SEO. And if you care about getting noticed in the free-for-all that is the internet, you need to consider SEO when you’re writing.

But the rules of SEO (mostly) help you create and sustain interest in your message. Your reading audience can disappear in an instant by turning the page or, more likely these days, swiping on to the next story. You need to grab their attention as quickly as you can—with a memorable lede—and reward them by giving them whatever else it is they’re looking for. If that’s analysis, then analyze. If it’s facts, then make with the facts. You can tell a story too, but it will have to be a short one in a short piece or it might overwhelm the rest of your content.

If you have the luxury of writing a longer piece—a feature story in a magazine, perhaps, or a speech—then by all means, open with a story. But you still have to grab the audience’s attention from the outset. And that requires—well, if not a lede then a sentence as catchy as one.

What commitment looks like

what commitment looks likeI had surgery earlier this week. You didn’t notice my absence because I banked some blogs in advance. That’s what commitment looks like. You do what you need to do to show up even when you can’t show up.

This part of the 15 minutes of writing I did the day of the surgery:

“But you’re having sur-ger-y.”

That was the spousal unit last night, pronouncing every syllable as if talking to a deaf person. Which I suppose in a sense I was.

I had just said that even though we had to leave the house at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m., I planned to get up early so I could do my 15 minutes of writing.

Yes, I’m having surgery today. But that is not going to stop my writing streak (day 303, thank you very much.). I’ll write tomorrow, too, hopped up (or, more accurately, down) on pain-killers. It might sound like gibberish, but I’ll be doing it.

Why write today? Would sleeping for 15 minutes longer really change much about the day ahead? I suspect there’ll be a fair amount of sleeping ahead for me today. Lying flat on my back, at any rate.

But writing for 15 minutes—this will give me a great sense of accomplishment. I don’t think I’ve done anything for more than 300 days in a row—except, the evidence would suggest, breathe.

My writing has improved significantly since I started. And I expect it will continue to. And did I mention the sense of accomplishment? I know I did. But 303 days in a row—it bears repeating.

Still, I wish I could think about something other than water.

Friday 2/24: what commitment looks like

Came through the surgery with flying colors. Faked lucidity long enough to get my Writing Unbound class started yesterday—thanks to our guest teacher, award-winning poet and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tina Kelley.

Tina talked about what commitment looks like to her: She outlined her own version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where her time flows to writing, rewriting, pitching her writing and then—maybe—to watching a TV show.

She also cited a very convincingly named statistic that 96% of everything we write will be crap. If you know that most of what you write will be bad, churning out the bad stuff puts you that much closer to something good.

And she talked about how writing more is the only way to write better. And to find your writer’s voice. All things I’ve said myself, but it’s always nice to have reinforcement.

That’s my 15 minutes for today folks. And today, that’s about all you’re gonna get.

Measuring consistent action – words vs. time

My second 5×15 Writing Challenge wraps up today. Several dozen intrepid writers announced their intention to write for at least 15 minutes a day for five days in a row: Consistent action! And, just like the Challenge I ran at the end of last year, nearly everyone who began the Challenge finished it.

It doesn’t matter what commitment you make to writing—it only matters that you make one. Others commit to a specific daily word count. I’ve never been much for word counts; I usually just write until I’ve said what needs to be said.

In fact, the one time I did ask about word count—my first time working with a famous graphic designer, I wanted to seem extra-professional. Famous Graphic Designer’s response: “I find the best writers don’t think about word count; they just write until they’ve said what needs to be said.” [headdesk] Need I add that although I wrote killer copy for them—the client loved it—I never worked for Famous Graphic Designer again.

But I digress.

I commit to 15 minutes a day of consistent action, writingI commit to time because it’s finite. On a tough day, the process of writing 400 words could stretch from dawn ’til dusk—but 15 minutes only lasts 15 minutes. If I’m on a roll and I have time, I’ll go longer; if my schedule’s packed I know I only have to find a 15-minute window. It’s completely doable.

Consistent action in 400 words (not less)

But here’s a great story of a writer who committed to word count as his measure of consistent action.

Neil Gaiman told this story in his essay collection The View from the Cheap Seats. Gaiman’s friend and fellow writer Terry Pratchett

“…wrote four hundred words a night, every night; it was the only way for him to keep a real job and still write books. One night, a year later, he finished a novel, with a hundred words still to go, so he put a piece of paper into his typewriter and wrote a hundred words of the next novel.”

That’s commitment right there, folks.

Congratulations to the 5×15 Challenge finishers. Keep up the (whether it’s good or not) work. You don’t need to judge your work right now. Just do it. Daily.

Are you jealous? Do you want a reason to write every day, too? And hone your skills in a supportive environment? Check out my 12-week program, Writing Unbound. Special pricing through January 30th.

Fun work – an oxymoron or a goal?

Is there such a thing as “fun work”? Should there be?

Tomorrow—January 27th—is one of those made-up holidays people like to mock. But I propose we honor it. It’s

International Fun at Work Day

And if you’d like to add it to your calendars, it’s the last Friday of January. Every year.

Now, I learned a long time ago that people have their own definitions of fun. Back when I was on Wall Street, the guys on the trading floor used to have a shoeshine man come spiff up their shoes while they moved their millions. But when one of the company’s rare female executives tried to emulate the tradition by having a manicurist make a one-time visit to a mostly female department—well, you would have thought it was the end of civilization as we know it. (Perhaps if she’d tried it on the last Friday in January…)

fun work can be productive workRegular readers will recall that I’m a big advocate for humor in business situations. This excerpt from The Levity Effect: Why it pays to lighten up by Adrian Gostick and Scott Christopher focuses on manufacturing jobs—the workers pressed their skeptical supervisor to give them some leeway to have fun if they exceeded their goals. But the authors’ conclusions apply to speakers as well:

“The research also shows that managers who have taught themselves to be funnier are more effective communicators and better salespeople, have more engaged employees, earn a lot more than their peers and are much thinner. OK, maybe not the last one.”

Note the humorous tag on the end. Does it detract from the message? Nope. It makes the message more memorable. And as I’ve surely said before, if you don’t want people to remember what you’re saying then why in the world are you saying it?

Fun work — an idea we can all enjoy

I hope you plan to celebrate International Fun at Work Day tomorrow. But don’t wait until next January rolls around to create fun work again. Do something—better yet, say something—to make your colleagues laugh, or at least smile, regularly. You’ll drive engagement, communicate better, and get thinner. Well, two out of three’s not bad.

Who would you be if you believed you could write? Join my 12-week program Writing Unbound—starting February 2nd—and find out.

Talking blue (and red) – practical advice in Robb Willer’s TED Talk

“Blue language” usually means swearing. Why? Not even Slate knows, though this article “Sacré bleu! Why is blue the most profane color?” offers some historical tidbits. But these days “talking blue” might describe a liberal’s inability to communicate with a conservative. You can articulate the liberal worldview until you’re blue in the face, but if the person on the other side of the conversation holds a conservative worldview, you will never understand each other.

Talking blue to your mirror

Or as social psychologist Robb Willer says,

“…when we go to persuade somebody on a political issue, we talk like we’re speaking into a mirror. We don’t persuade so much as we rehearse our own reasons for why we believe some sort of political position.”

That’s from his TED Talk “How to have better political conversations.” Have a listen and learn how to use “moral reframing” to step away from the mirror and begin the process of connecting with people more challenging than your reflection.

Like George Lakoff, Willer sees partisan messaging as rooted in different core values:

“…liberals tend to endorse values like equality and fairness and care and protection from harm more than conservatives do. And conservatives tend to endorse values like loyalty, patriotism, respect for authority and moral purity more than liberals do.”

You may recall the line in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life that every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings. Well, every time we frame an issue in terms of “fairness and equality”—talking blue—a liberal angel loses its wings.

If we want to reach conservatives, we have to stop talking blue
A screenshot from Robb Willer’s TED Talk

I get it: To me issues like LGBT rights are unquestionably about fairness and equality. And I don’t have to abandon that belief—but if I want a Conservative to hear me, I’d do better to talk about how it’s also an issue of patriotism. “We don’t treat people differently in this country; we don’t interfere in people’s bedrooms; that’s not what Americans do.”

I don’t know. I haven’t got all the answers. But Willer’s argument made me shout “D’oh!” and hit my forehead. We need to replace shouts with conversations; we need to replace contempt with empathy; we need to replace disdain with respect. And yes, both sides need to do this. But the more we embrace empathy and respect, the more the other side will as well.

So how do you do that?

Notice the way Willer combines liberal and conservative language at the end of his TED Talk:

“So this is my call to you: let’s put this country back together. Let’s do it despite the politicians and the media and Facebook and Twitter and Congressional redistricting and all of it, all the things that divide us. Let’s do it because it’s right. And let’s do it because this hate and contempt that flows through all of us every day makes us ugly and it corrupts us, and it threatens the very fabric of our society. We owe it to one another and our country to reach out and try to connect. We can’t afford to hate them any longer, and we can’t afford to let them hate us either. Empathy and respect. Empathy and respect. If you think about it, it’s the very least that we owe our fellow citizens.”

Discover how to communicate more effectively, more powerfully. How to find and use your voice. Join my Writing Unbound program. Special pricing through January only.

How can we convince anyone of anything? The great divide

Will the massive marches across the country and around the world this weekend convince anyone of anything? Or will they just scare the bejeezus out of people who don’t quite understand what’s going on?

will this convince anyone?
42nd Street, looking East from Grand Central, photo by my friend Liz

Saturday I marched through the concrete canyons of New York with 300,000 of my closest friends. We made a lot of noise as we inched (literally) along the streets of Midtown. Actually “inched” may give you the wrong impression about our progress. It took me two hours to travel the 1/6th of a mile from 1st Avenue and 47th Street to 2nd Avenue and 47th Street. According to my calculations, that’s a speed of about 0.08 mph. Normal walking speed is 3-4 mph. No wonder my knees still hurt.

My favorite chant—great cadence and a perfect rhyme:

“Build a fence
Around Mike Pence”

People carried signs—too many signs, too many messages for me to remember any one clearly. But the spousal unit showed me a photo of one, maybe from the Washington, DC march, that said something like:

“It’s so bad, even INTROVERTS are out here.”

To me, one of the most striking features of the march was its demographic diversity. I saw members of at least five generations: The World War II generation—a gentleman near me identified himself as being 90 years old— Baby Boomers, who seem to have prime responsibility for this calamity of an administration; Gen X; Millennials; and the youngest ones, Gen Z. At the train station I spotted three generations of women in the same family, all of them wearing pink knitted “pussy” hats—even the baby in the stroller.

Surely if opposition to what’s going on unites us across generations, we can actually do something about it.

Can marches convince anyone?

I vividly remember seeing my first march. During the Vietnam War students from the college down the street held a candlelight vigil and processed silently down the sidewalk across from our house.

My father turned off all the lights and lowered the blinds, ordering me to keep away from the windows (naturally, I disobeyed). He saw grave danger in the very orderly procession of a couple hundred college students. Young as I was, I knew he had them all wrong.

The scale and decibel level of Saturday’s march would have frightened my father even more. Then again, he might well have decided to join it. After all, he was a Republican back when Republicans resisted Communist influence. Doesn’t that seem quaint nowadays?

Marches are great for making a statement—and I believe the millions of us who turned out made a very strong and clear statement Saturday. But, really, can marches convince anyone to change their mind?

From “social media” to social interactions

Chanting slogans—even clever ones—is no substitute for conversation. And conversation—the one-on-one exchange of information—is where we’re going to get the most lasting traction.

It’s great that we’ve gotten away from the computer and into the streets. And massive action feels so good—it’s important to know you’re not alone. But studies have long shown that people become more supportive of LGBT rights, for instance, if they know an actual LGBT person. So I think we still need to fight these battles at the holiday dinner table. In tens of millions of conversations. Exhausting? Of course. But essential. And a lot easier on the knees than marching.

And so we return to the question many people—including me—have been asking since the election:

How can we talk to each other, instead of at each other?

More tomorrow.

Discover how to communicate more effectively, more powerfully. How to find and use your voice. Join my Writing Unbound program. Special pricing through January only.

Be courageous — Plan.

Sometimes you know in advance exactly when you’ll have an opportunity to be courageous.

Olympic athletes know the exact minute their contents will start. And they prepare relentlessly. Did you see the video of Michael Phelps in the ready room before one of his races last year?

You get the feeling that nothing could have thrown him off course. He was prepared; he was in the zone.

You know who else prepared to be courageous? Rosa Parks.

A decision to be courageous

Rosa Parks planned how to be courageousRosa Parks didn’t plan to take action on that specific bus on that specific date in December 1955. But she had already given the issue some thought—she and her husband had worked with the NAACP for years. So when the bus driver decided to widen the “whites only” seating and ordered Mrs. Parks to move from her seat, she knew what she needed to do.

“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in. I knew someone had to take the first step and I made up my mind not to move. Our mistreatment was just not right, and I was tired of it.” — Rosa Parks

I don’t mean to equate the courage of Michael Phelps and Rosa Parks. The worst thing that happened to Phelps is that his expression launched a thousand memes. And then he went on to win Olympic gold and even more fame. No one was going to throw him in jail—which is, of course, where Mrs. Parks landed.

But I think they both offer some lessons for us, as the United States returns to a time of widespread protest and deepening injustice. (I would love to be wrong about that, but as you read this I’m standing with tens of thousands of people on a street somewhere in Manhattan, so that’s how it feels to me.)

Lessons in courage

  1. Don’t let anybody throw you off your game. And by “your game” I mean your commitment to nonviolent action. Phelps may look like he’s about to murder the South African swimmer who’s trying to intimidate him. But he held his temper and kept his course.
  2. Think before you need to act. Don’t be surprised if you encounter injustice in the world—just deal with it according to the plan you’ve already devised. If you’ve mapped out a set of actions in advance then the only thing you need to figure out in the moment: Do I feel safe enough to put my plan into action? This article from Quartz reminds us:

“It is not selfish to put your own safety first.”

Some resources:

The Quartz article: “How to intervene in a racist attack”

And here’s an illustrated guide on “What to do if you are witnessing Islamophobic harrassment.” Most important point: Ignore the attacker.

And the Anti-Defamation League has some tips on combating prejudice online. Of course, engaging with the bigots isn’t easy—or particularly useful, at least in my recent experience. And your personal safety is just as much of an issue in cyberspace as in whatever passes for “real life” these days.

Do you communicate as powerfully as you would like to? As you need to? Beef up your writing muscles in my 12-week program Writing Unbound. Classes begin in February.