The “I TOLD YOU SO!” Excuse and How It Killed My Writing
My daughter was panting for air, sprawled out on a half sunk kayak . . .
Thank God she was safe. That’s really the only thing that mattered in the moment. But kicking us to shore, I wondered how the hell we’d gotten ourselves into this mess.
If it had just been me, the immediate sense of life and death wouldn’t have crossed my mind. But add my three-year-old into the mix — upside down, under water — and yeah, I lose my shit a little bit.
Stupid baby seals
It all started with a family of seals, soaking up the 4th of July sun. They were so cute. At least from a distance. Seals are actually pretty creepy up close. The way they pop up suddenly is a bit unnerving. Especially when you’re treading water, and it seems like they’re watching you.
My daughter and I paddled by a family of them, and I told the kid there was a baby seal to our right. Her sudden jostle in my lap threw us off balance. We didn’t rock back and forth. Not even a little. And with no real warning, we flipped upside down. Happy birthday America.
Now, I could use this story to write about how important it is to get back up again after you’ve failed. I could encourage you to learn from your mistakes — and to get back into your metaphorical kayak and go out again. I mean, you’ve already experienced the worst that could happen. And you survived. Learn. Go. And don’t make the same mistake again.
You’re better. Stronger. And, now, more experienced.
All of that may be true, so take it if you will. But there’s a backstory you need to understand.
Really, it’s my wife’s fault
Our family is relatively new to the glorious Pacific Northwest.
Since we’ve been here, we’ve tried to get into the culture to become one of the people. I’ve started wearing Toms every day. We eat salmon and seafood more often. We traded in my Chevy truck for a Toyota minivan — our swagger wagon. And my daughter and I have heartily embraced Taco Time.
But ever since we moved here, my wife has been relentless about getting us into the water. And not just the water, but the ocean. In a kayak.
I get it. It’s right in our backyard. Access is easy. And it just seems like the thing to do.
When my wife would mention kayaking, I always just rolled my eyes. I mean, it’s the ocean. Well, it’s the Puget Sound. I’m told there’s a difference. But in the drama playing out between my ears, it’s the actual, legit, deadly ocean. I’m thinking, the Perfect Storm, just so you have a reference point.
Even just recently, a local kid wrestled a baby dogfish shark near a dock just blocks from our home. A shark. Don’t miss that. I wrote s-h-a-r-k.
But it’s more than that.
Early on in our marriage, in fact, our first year anniversary, my wife and I did a “romantic” kayaking excursion together in Hawaii. And it was miserable.
We were in a 2-person craft, and I was crammed in the back. We trailed everyone. It was impossible to keep up — and to keep our tempers in check. My wife complained the entire time, accusing me of not pulling my weight. Which was a total lie. If she hadn’t turned around every damn minute, we would’ve gained momentum.
I’ll never forget the stink eye she gave me during the entire 2 hours of hell. I was a little worried her face would freeze, and I didn’t like the look. Seriously, we almost turned in our rings when we got back to the dock.
So when she started pushing about kayaking — it felt a little threatening for our marriage. And I would remind her quickly, before we went there again, “Remember Hawaii?”
A hit a little below the belt
But this time, the one that led to our 4th of July disaster, she hit a little below the belt. My wife got the kid involved. Man, she got the child so riled up and excited — I couldn’t say no. Because if I did, my wife was going to go anyway. With our girl. And here’s my thinking:
1) If they go, I need to be there in case something happens. I don’t want them caught out there alone. I don’t care if her Papa is with them. I don’t care that Gleeb will be close by. Their presence, while great, is irrelevant. I need to be there.
2) I didn’t want to miss my daughter’s reaction to such a massive experience. I mean, there’s something special about sharing first-time, big moments with your kids. And I wanted to be there to see the expression on her face, to hear the squeal of her voice. A second hand account after the fact wasn’t good enough for me. I needed to be there.
And even though I agreed, I fully expected — and was prepared — to eventually say, “I told you so.”
“I told you so” excuse
I’ve been ghostwriting for agencies serving nonprofit organizations for about 10 years now. And it’s been 7 years that I’ve started dabbling in my own personal writing projects.
During those 7 years, I’ve started numerous, and radically different personal websites and blogs. Most of them have followed a similar trajectory:
1) Spend a week developing a content strategy
2) Spend a few days creating a channel strategy
3) Spend a couple of weeks thinking through my website architecture
4) Spend a week building a website
5) Write 3–4 posts
And over time, I became so jaded by my own lack of follow through, I just expected to quit before I even began.
But in the beginning there’s some excitement. I’d get jazzed by a new idea. Share it with some friends to get feedback on my strategy. I’d start envisioning potential content structures — and thinking through a sustainable process for publishing. And it would feel like I held the entire planet in my hands.
But the farther I moved from planning, and the closer I came to the rubber meeting the road in execution — the more my failure instinct started to kick in.
Before I even gave myself a chance to succeed, like the whole kayak experience, I was waiting and preparing for the moment when I could officially tell myself, “I told you so.”
The more I think about this whole experience with the kayak, especially as it relates to writing, the more I’m convinced it’s about attitude.
Don’t get me wrong, no amount of positive thinking would’ve prevented my daughter and I from being dumped into the Puget Sound and swimming for our lives. That was always going to happen. And if it didn’t happen our first time out, it would’ve probably happened the second time or the third time. Hell, it could happen every single time we paddle out for all I know.
But my point is this: if we can’t get free from the “I told you so” excuse as our primary, instinctual response, then we’ll never give ourselves the opportunity to experience true success. The kind of success every one craves, but only a few achieve.
Making a really big deal out of small crap
We had some friends over for dinner after our kayak experience. In fact, they were the ones who loaned us their gear for our “adventure” on the water. So, on some level, I hate them. 🙂
When I told them about the incident — I was annoyed they didn’t share my sense of life-or-death drama. Really, to them, the whole thing was pretty unexciting. It was almost, just, blah . . .
“Yeah,” they responded. “It happens.”
It wasn’t a setback. It wasn’t a roadblock. It wasn’t’ even a failure (though my daughter may disagree). Really, tipping the kayak over was par for the course. Because that’s just what happens when you’re a kayaker — or at least, a crappy kayaker like me.
And it’s led me to think we have a tendency to make a really big deal out of small stuff. Our perceptions, when left unchecked, blow even the smallest thing out of proportion. Because it’s easier to tell ourselves “I told you so” than it is to do the work.
Again, this isn’t about failures and how we respond. That’s only part of it. This is about belief before the project even starts. Belief that we’re not defined by our pasts. Belief we have the ability to see a project through to completion. And then willing ourselves with every bit of grit we can muster to overcome what we feel are incredible odds — and keep working towards the finish.
Writing is gruesome work
Writing is difficult. And regardless of what you might think, a writer’s life isn’t sexy. Not even a little. It’s gruesome. And frustrating. That’s why I’m always a bit skeptical when I interview a writer who says they live to write. That it’s their passion — their oxygen. I can’t imagine. I don’t want to imagine.
To tell the truth, I don’t write for the love of it. I gave that sentiment up a long time ago. Because I’ve discovered, it’s an unrequited love. I don’t expect anything romantic from writing — for it to coddle me like some sort of lover. Or for words to just magically, blissfully appear on the screen . . . because it owes me something. That expectation has only ended in disappointment.
But I still get behind the keyboard everyday. And I do so, because I want to keep my skills and my writing muscle memory sharp. Sometimes, it’s just that — an exercise that seems as though it serves no real purpose. It’s not a story. It’s not an article. It’s just a string of words that come to my head.
However, there are moments when, during this seemingly innocuous exercise, a path suddenly appears and I follow where it leads. Most of the time, the short journey helps me find out more about myself. To explore who I am. And what I think. And how I feel.
And those are the moments that define why I write. To gain a better perspective and insight into myself. Look, even now, I have to force it. I have to force myself. I have to be tenacious, intense, and intentional.
When I stare at the blank screen, I have to take control of the moment and start slinging the words. And then give myself the freedom to, eventually, try and make sense of them. Or, be free to just close my computer and never look at the garbage on my screen again. But I always have to come back — to show up — the next day.
That’s what it means to fight the “I told you so” excuse. That’s what it means to push back against the resistance in our own brains that seeks to sabotage our every effort.
And if you’re thinking you’ll just wait until you feel like writing or until you just get over the “I told you so” excuse . . . you’re deluding yourself. Because the excuse already has you exactly where it wants you. You’ll be forced to merely dream of who you desire to be as a writer, but never attain it. Because you’re waiting. And not showing up. Is there a more apt description of hell?
If you want to be a writer, then you’ve got to shut up and write
If you want to be a writer. Then do it. Write. That’s what real writers do. And you must refuse to give up and give in.
When you feel the “I told you so” excuse, write more. Write longer. Just write. And write. And write. And write. It doesn’t matter if it’s any good. It doesn’t matter if it makes sense. The only thing that matters . . . is you have to keep going.
And remember, there’s always hope. Because even though you’ll never be truly free of the impulse to quit or the “I told you so” excuse, you wouldn’t feel it, or suffer from it, if writing didn’t genuinely matter to you and you weren’t on the right path.
Feeling the tension and its breath upon your neck is a good sign. But it doesn’t mean stop, that’s why you must keep doing what you’re doing and moving forward along your path. And for God’s sake, to keep writing.
Don’t quit before you give yourself the chance to begin.