Don’t Settle for Second Best

Yesterday was our work Christmas party. It was happy, successful, red and green, and had a cookie decorating contest.

We had 30 minutes and two cookies, and in classic creative nature, I spent 25 minutes on one cookie and 5 on the other.

The first was the passion of my heart, the brilliant idea borne of the several minutes of planning allowed to us before the decorating began. I planned out materials, shapes, colors, sizes.

The second cookie I threw together (by which I mean decorated) at the last minute after I realized I was the only person who thought my first cookie, my pet project, was beautiful. Even I am not entirely oblivious.

For your sake, pictures.

I’ll let you decide which was my pet project, but let me give you a hint: I love snow and trees and cabins and little stone paths and clear cold wintery days, and I’d rather draw a picture and a story than “ketchup on bologna” (pardon the unappetizing analogy).

The table unanimously decided that I should submit the ornament, so I did. And won second place. Which was cool. But that’s not the point.

I liked winning. Winning is fun. Games are more fun when you win (But be a good sport still, because even if you don’t win they’re still fun. I know, because I lose board games all the time and I still enjoy them.), everybody likes to watch football better when their team is winning, and in movies we always route for our favorite teams to achieve victory.

But I didn’t submit the cookie that I loved, I submitted the cookie that would look better to everyone else.

Pardon the philosophical grasp for meaning in a cookie decorating contest.

Most people who create things know what it’s like to love what you make. You think of a unique idea, work on it, put it together, spruce up the details, and pour love into it. Then you polish it up and introduce it to the world, and everyone raises their eyebrows because it’s different from what they’re accustomed to.

So you put together something that people are used to seeing, and you make it pretty but it’s not your heart, and you make it walk the plank into the great peopled abyss. And it doesn’t reach the water because people are so excited about it and they snatch it up before it has a chance to touch the salty drip.

But in your heart, you really still love the one you loved first, the one you poured your heart into, the one that was your best idea.

The cookie analogy loses some traction here, because I didn’t care this deeply about my cookies. I just thought about it a lot.

Writers (and all creatives) sometimes have to pause their pet projects, their grand ideas, to work on something that will work for them, something that the public will love, something that will put dinner on the table and shoes on the feet. It’s easy in those times to forget the first best idea. It’s easy to settle into complacency because you’ve discovered what people love, and you can do it well, even though you don’t love it too.

But at the end of the day, even after you’ve given the public what they want, and made something that people will love, don’t forget to do what you love.

Choose something, work hard on it, and make it great. Don’t settle for second best.

PS. Tomorrow is the last day of posts on this URL. Check out!


Tomorrow is Thanksgiving

I say thank you to a lot of people: the person who holds the door open for me, the waiter who brings me my drink, the cashier who sells me groceries, and the people who call me every day (“Thank you for calling…”). Not counting the phone calls, I say it at least a dozen times a day, to the person who stands back so I can walk first, to the girl who gives me my newspaper every morning, to the lady who brings donuts to work every few weeks.

I say thank you without thinking. It’s as natural as breathing or blinking or pulling my sleeves down when my forearms get cold. I say it without looking at who I’m saying it to, without considering what I’m thanking them for, without expecting them to take it sincerely, or even respond.

“I’m a thank you machine.”

No one expects me to mean it when I say it, no one asks for clarification, and barely anyone gives a resounding ‘you’re welcome.’ Our culture uses thank you as a filler—when it’s awkward or we don’t know what else to say but we feel the obligation to speak.

We say thank you because someone, somewhere, years ago decided that it was the appropriate and polite response to receiving a service that was bestowed voluntarily (or not). We say it because living in a sphere of entitlement that greets small favors with boorish self-satisfaction is disgusting to us. We say it because 2000 years ago, when Jesus Christ walked the earth, he healed people and praised them for their faith and gratitude.

We barely know what it means to give or receive true gratitude, because we often feel like we deserve what we’re given, and we don’t think it matters how we receive it, because after all, they owed me.

“Often the things we don’t expect shock us into true thankfulness.”

When I was in college, I didn’t have any money. Ever. I was paying my way through school, working constantly, sleeping not enough, and trying not to do poorly in the classes I was working so hard to pass. Needless to say, extras like good shoes and winter coats were optional (disclaimer: my parents love me and took very good care of me and weren’t neglecting me), and I didn’t often buy things for myself that I actually needed, because when you don’t have the money for something… You learn how to live without it.

One day, mid-October I scheduled time to meet with a good friend who was visiting from out of town. When he initially saw me, he looked down at my feet and raised his eyebrows. On my feet was a beat-up pair of hand-me-down Toms I’d gotten in high school and worn consistently ever since. On one foot four of five toes were sticking out, on the other three toes and the side of my foot were open to the chill fall air (a smarter person would’ve worn socks, at least). He commented about my shoes and I shrugged, noting that I’d probably buy shampoo and conditioner before I’d spend the money on shoes.

We hung out all day, ate dinner, and talked about a lot of things, both important and minor. At the end of the day as I was leaving, he handed me some money and said,

“Go buy yourself some new shoes.”

I didn’t look at it while he was standing in front of me, because I’d been taught that evaluating a money-gift in front of the giver is rude. I put it in my pocket, got on the train, and forgot all about it for about half an hour. When I remembered, I pulled it out of my pocket and flipped through the bills.

There were three hundred dollars.

Keep in mind, to a poor college student with a consistent average of fifteen dollars in the bank, all that money felt like the bank of England was cashing in all stocks and bonds. I counted it a few times to make sure it was really that much, then put it back into my pocket and searched for a tissue to dry the water that was mysteriously dripping down my cheeks.

The worst part about it was that I couldn’t say a real in-person thank you. But I think even if I could have, I wouldn’t have known how to do it well enough.

I would have spluttered and turned red and probably gotten out a “Thank you so much,” that didn’t come close to covering the depth of my gratitude or the kindness of his generosity.

But I have a feeling that to him, maybe that would have said it well enough.

It isn’t the carefully manicured “Thank you” that stays in the heart—it’s the messy, red-faced, teary-eyed recognition that reaches the sensitive parts of our hearts and mentalities. What if every thank you we said was for something we didn’t expect, for a gift that felt too large, for the life that we didn’t realize was so fragile but now we’re so grateful we still have?

“Being thankful shouldn’t be robotic—it should be a mindful and genuine reaction to a gift that we’re given that we don’t deserve. ”

It’s Thanksgiving tomorrow. There will be a lot of trite thankfulness, quickly said so we “can hurry up and eat.” If you were giving thanks for something that you weren’t expecting and you didn’t deserve, it might change your style of gratitude.

It might be a good change.