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Personal Responsibility

As the clip says, "It's not a tumor." After two weeks of waiting, I laid just outside the CT scanner and the doctor came up and asks if I'd had any treatment over the last two weeks. I told him I'd been on antibiotics. He said there was no lesion and took me into the ultrasound room to double-check. I was naked underneath the robe so when he lifted it up to access my belly there was some embarrassment, but the ultrasound confirmed that there was no tumor on my kidney. It had been an infection and after two weeks of antibiotics, I was essentially free and clear.

While I tried not to dwell on my situation during those two weeks, it was difficult as I was largely at home and unoccupied because of the lunar new year holiday. I struggled to find the motivation to do much, sometimes, and often found myself laying in bed staring at the ceiling. Not thinking about the possibility of illness, but simply killing time. I determined I need to re-evaluate my relationship with sex--a decision that I may blog about sometime in the future, when I feel braver--and came to a new understanding of what I want to pursue in a career in my future. But ultimately, I got through the two weeks and had the test and came out the other end without surgery or thousands of dollars in medical bills.

All of that said, I can now turn to the point I've been thinking about off and on for a while. Personal responsibility.

"God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference."

-Reinhold Niebuhr

Previously, I've written about changing my locus of control. As part of that process it is necessary to learn how to take responsibility for my life, to understand that things are not done to me but that I have the power to do things, to act, and to be responsible for the way I feel, the way I behave, and the things I do. Ultimately, changing my locus of control was a process of taking personal responsibility for myself. But it is possible to take things too far.

When I was younger, I remember sitting down with my dad and having a discussion about goal setting. He had promised my brother a major reward if he achieved certain proficiency at playing the piano--performing a certain concerto or something like that--and he wanted me to set a similar goal with a similar reward. I remember the reward we ultimately settled on was a laptop, but there was some question as to the goal. My passion--even then--was writing, and we both wanted the goal to revolve around that pursuit. We finally agreed that he would buy me a laptop if I got a novel published.

I was in high school and wrote my first novel before I graduated. It was about a president who was involved with the mafia. Clinton was president at the time and I was still very much a self-righteous Mormon kid who listened to Rush Limbaugh, believed that Democrats were evil, and that Bill Clinton was the worst president ever. It was an easy leap to assume--considering Limbaugh's repeated claims of bodies piling up around the Clintons--that he might be involved with organized crime. I wrote the novel, despite my terrible lack of ability at the time, and may even have tried to submit to a few agents. I don't remember, but I had written a novel. A feat more impressive than playing a concerto, by the way, but I digress.

It was about this time that I was getting ready to head to college. I would be writing papers and doing research and all the academic activities involved therein. I would need a computer. This was before students regularly brought laptops to classes to take notes, but it would be a good thing if I had a laptop I could take to the library or the student union so I could work somewhere besides my dorm room. I think he saw justification in supporting his son going to college in his decision, but he explained his decision by saying that my original goal was unfair. Publication relied on the actions of others, possibly arbitrary judgments, and decisions of other people that were outside of my control. I shouldn't be judged by a failure on their part to agree to publish my novel. I had written a novel and done what I could towards achieving the goal. For that reason, he would buy me a laptop.

Though the lesson was late in coming, and I think informed somewhat by concepts he learned working for a large corporate entity--something that happened contemporaneously with my writing a novel--it remained an important one. The distinction between inputs and outcomes was necessary for success, for achieving goals, and for being happy. As Victor Frankl wrote in Man's Search for Meaning:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.

If we focus on the things we can control, even though that may be extremely limited--in Frankl's experience in the concentration camps during WWII he was only able to control his attitude--we have a much better chance at not only survival but success. As Frankl also wrote, "Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with any 'how'." He found that those camp inmates who focused on a purpose--maintaining an attitude of striving to fulfill that purpose--were the ones most likely to survive. Those who searched outside themselves for meaning, for some way to escape the things being done to them, and who focused on the things taken and the things lost found themselves growing weak and ultimately did not survive. Focusing on what is within our power, then, even in the worst of circumstances is the key to attaining peace and, I would argue, personal success.

As I've moved from being a victim of mental health towards becoming my own actor capable of influencing my own happiness, I've had to remind myself to focus on the things that I can control rather than the elements of a situation outside my ken.

Last fall I sat down and reviewed where I was. I had finished therapy and was in a good place, much better than I'd been for years--almost decades--and was ready to contemplate moving forward into territory that had eluded me for a very long time: making goals. It took me a while, but I narrowed my list down to three goals.

  1. Lose a hundred pounds.

  2. Be able to use Vietnamese professionally.

  3. Get a novel traditionally published.

The first two are obviously within my power. I can control what I eat, how much I exercise, etc. Using Vietnamese depends on learning vocabulary, practicing conversations, reading, listening, and the like. The third, however, at first blush would seem to harken back to my high school goal and be dependent on other people--something apparently outside of my control. Unfortunately, I have to obtain the appropriate judgment and decisions of the publishing gatekeepers if I want to become the published, and publishing, author I have long desired to be. I don't have a choice about that. What I do have a choice in, is how I go about soliciting those decisions.

Previously, I had submitted a novel to agents. I had done little editing and conducted no research on either the agents to whom I was submitting or the market for my book. The quality of the product I was pushing was inferior and I didn't even bother to find out if the people I was pushing it to were even the right people. When I inevitably failed to get published I turned to self-publishing as a fallback position and again failed. (Remember, though, that this was during years of victimhood and thus my ability to influence my own future was minimal at the time.) I had simply thrown shoddy work in the general direction of publication and, as a result, been rejected out of hand.

In setting my goal this time, I have adopted the advice of comedian Steve Martin, "Be so good they can't ignore you." I wrote a novel last year, From the Cradle. I edited it thoroughly. I read several books that I found with similar themes or elements to my novel to get an idea of how my story fitted in the existing market. I researched additional novels that had related themes and content. I targeted the agents representing the authors of those books. I am currently waiting to hear back from 22 agents. Unfortunately, From the Cradle is not a mainstream novel. It's a bit niche and I don't know whether I'll be able to successfully find a publisher for it without already having a history in the industry. But I'm not putting all my eggs in one basket.

Before I wrote From the Cradle, I wrote a thriller. A novel about a gang leader in Orange County in 2005. It's a popcorn read, the kind of book that would appeal to a wide audience and sell well. I am currently rewriting and editing it and have lined up a very literate friend to make additional edits as soon as I'm finished. By early May I should be ready to start researching the market and submitting it to agents as well. I am also currently editing a historical fiction novel I wrote several years ago. When I'm finished with it I will begin submitting it to agents, probably about the same time as the thriller. I am a third of the way through writing another historical fiction novel--this one more mainstream than the first--and should finish writing it by the end of this year. And I have already plotted and conducted initial research for a drama heavy thriller that I will start writing as soon as I get my current thriller project sitting in agents' email inboxes. I will edit each book carefully, conduct research into the market and agent interests, and target specific agents who are likely to be attracted to each specific project. By the end of this year I should have half a dozen books in circulation, each one better than the last.

Instead of relying on the actions of others, which are outside my control, I am taking every step possible to influence those actions. Each of those steps is within my control, I can take responsibility for it, and I will leverage my efforts to force the industry to accept me. It is not a question of whether I will get published traditionally, it is only a matter of when. My goal is to have a contract in hand by the end of this year.

The actions that I just outlined are only possible now that I understand I am capable of influencing my own life, and of taking responsibility for what I do. While my overarching goal involved the outcome of publication--something which is ultimately outside my control--I am focused on the activities that are most likely to achieve that goal, the inputs all of which are within my control. I have no doubt that within a short time I will succeed because I am doing the things which will result in success because I am acting within my sphere of influence rather than attempting to move those outside it.

When we shift from focusing on the external, the things that the world owes us, to a focus on the things that we can do for the world we begin to gain power. We not only develop the ability to control our attitude but gain the ability to influence our own happiness. No longer are we fighting against the powers that be, by posting criticisms on a celebrity politician's Facebook feed for instance, but rather on what we can do to change ourselves and to be content, or even find happiness.

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