Friday, August 21, 2009

Dare to Live Loud Colors

By John Gilstrap

Have you ever noticed how much of our lives are spent preparing for failure? We set our “sights high, but our expectations low.” We “say a little prayer,” while we “plan for the best but expect the worst.” Then, when good news does arrive (and let’s be honest: good outweighs bad in the end for most people), we hesitate to celebrate as we “wait for the other shoe to drop.”

Most people, it seems to me, are perfectly happy to be around others who talk themselves down, yet get uncomfortable around acquaintances who say positive things about themselves. We are awash in pejoratives for people who are confident in their own abilities—narcissistic, egotistical, too big for his britches, precocious, swelled head—but where are the pejoratives for people who keep their talents hidden?

I can’t think of a single one. Instead, we call those folks humble, and we pretend to hold humility in high esteem.

Such hypocrisy. Talent denied is a key ingredient for mediocrity—a lifelong role in the chorus while the soloists command the spotlight. Mediocrity is beige. It’s safe, it’s boring and it’s comfortable, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s no way to live life. I guess it’s fine for those who are genetically predisposed to the ho-hum; but if you want to squeeze all of the drama out of life, and certainly if you want to make a living writing books, or acting, or practicing any other art form, then you’d best start living loud colors.

Start by owning up to your talent. I think you owe God that much for giving it to you.

Somebody asked me the other day when I first realized that I could write well. Not too long ago, I would have hemmed and shuffled and said something self-deprecating about how a lot of people would tell you that I still don’t write well. I’d have played it for a laugh and then said something about having been lucky in my life.

In short, I would have dodged the question. But that was before my new commitment to honesty and living loud colors.

For this questioner, I took the truth for a test-drive. I told her that I’ve known I was a good writer for as long as I can remember. I knew it, in fact, long before I had any tangible proof that I was right. I knew it because I wanted so badly to be good. In elementary school, I was the one who wrote stories for fun, and then re-wrote them four and five times because I wanted them to be better.

I’ve known for as long as I can remember that I was going to be a published novelist. Truly, there was never a doubt. I had no idea how long it would take, but that didn’t matter because I was willing to do whatever was necessary to learn the craft. I knew it would happen because I wanted it so badly, and because I was well enough read to know that my stuff was good. I knew that my storytelling was better than a lot of what I bought at the bookstore. If, in fact, I never did publish a novel, it would have been because I’d died too early.

I’ve rewritten that last paragraph six times now trying to make it sound not-arrogant. If I failed, forgive me, because I don’t feel arrogant. I feel blessed. And it ain’t braggin’ if it’s true.

If you feel blessed by talent, you should say it out loud when people ask. Try it now. Come on, we can do it together: “I’m proud of the gift I’ve been given. I’m proud of the endless, continuing hard work I put into it. I will be successful.”

If you can’t say it, how can it ever happen? I’m not talking self-delusion here, or new-age gobbledygook about some Secret where visions make your dreams come true. I’m talking simple honesty.

When I’m elected king, children will be taught to drench themselves in the exotic colors of life and to pursue their dreams with focus and vigor. Beige will be outlawed for all but those who are born to be boring. Adults will be as honest about their successes as they are about their failures, and they will be utterly shocked every time they don’t win.

What we envision for ourselves defines who we can become.


  1. Yes. Thank you. I'm one of my favorite writers. Thanks for helping me admit it. :)

  2. I don't think that sounded arrogant at all, John--to know that one will one day become a writer is analogous to the man who knows that he will someday become a skilled surgeon. It's just something you know about yourself, based on an internal admixture of drive, talent, ambition, technique, and focus. It's all good!!

  3. What a challenge! And it's true. I've been sure for a long time that I will be published. I've never heard someone studying to be a doctor that said they hope they can practice medicine one day.

  4. This post fired me up to write a query letter today. A very good one too, to go with the very good novel I've written.

  5. Great post, John. The only person that's going to ring your bell is you. Everyone else is preoccupied with their own bells. And I agree with Brooke's comment. I have a lot of favorite books, but the 4 at the top of my list of favorites are the 4 I wrote.

  6. Good stuff, John.

    I've alway been fairly "humble" when it comes to self promotion. In fact, when I was told by my previous employer not to come back, I found myself in the uncomfortable spot of having to self promote.

    I'm an environmental engineer and a damn good one. But I was full of self doubt until I talked to a friend of mine who consults for smaller businesses that know nothing about environmental law. He told me than we don't realize just how much more we know about our profession than the rest of world.

    I used that advice and landed a great job in a tough economy on my first interview. Now my wife reminds me that now I have to do all the bullshit I claimed I could do.

    I try to be careful though. I think there's a fine line between confidence and cockey.

  7. I've seen John speak. He's confident, but in no way arrogant or cocky.

    I think I first knew I was a good writer when I found myself in a seminar with a dozen talented, literary writers and had earned their respect by the end of the semester. I'd tought I was good, and getting better, before that, but that validation made a definite change in how I viewed my skill level.

  8. Dana, I hope I didn't accidentally infer that John was cocky, even if I can't spell.

    I watch some sports and that may be the easiest place to see extreme examples of humble and cocky in action.

  9. Yeah! I like live in pulsing red, yeallow, blue and hunter orange paisleys with a salmon pink tie!

    Its not so much to make a statement, rather its bait to give me people to beat up when they make fun of my clothes...ancient Viking tactic ya know

  10. Read like an excellent example of how to be truthful without being arrogant. Nice one, and wise advice.

  11. John, this resonates with me: "I was willing to do whatever was necessary to learn the craft."

    That's the point I got to after 10 years of believing the Big Lie that you can't learn to write. Yeah, you need some talent, but that's less important than drive, hard work and persistence.

    There is, as has been suggested, a fine line between confidence and arrogance. I've seen, at writer's conferences, some sad examples of the latter. People who think the gap between unpublished and published is bridged by being cocky and in-your-face. And being loud about it.

    Who was it that said, "What you do speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you say"? You gotta believe in yourself, but let the words you write do the real talking. And if they don't, work harder at it. You'll have plenty of time to talk after you're published.

  12. My knees are sore from bowing to myself.

  13. I need to take you're advice! Sometimes I think I forget to even admit that I can actually write well - in England and Australia there is a definite tall poppy syndrome and I find myself all too often getting caught up in that cycle. Your post is a great reminder that I need to 'dare to live loud colors!'

  14. Will,
    Not at all. I had that wording in mind as I was still reading the post. We just happened to use the same word, Sorry if it may have sounded like I attributed it to you.

  15. Amen!!! Excellent post. Too many times we put ourselves down when we really shouldn't.

  16. Great post as always. I've seen John speak and I'd go back for more tomorrow.

    I've always held myself out to be competent and talented. Some do think I'm arrogant. I'm not, I'm just honest.

    Arrogant comes when you think you talent is somehow superior to everyone else's talent or somehow makes you entitled to more than someone else. There was none of that in this post or in John's attitude in person.

    There's nothing wrong with pride in yourself and what you do well.

  17. Thank you for this post. I am reluctant to say those words aloud. Since I was a child, others commented on my writing skills and encouraged me; but I never believed in myself. Now, in my retirement years, I am 47,000 words into my first ms! Yea, me! I can write.

  18. Sorry, have to babble a bit more.

    I was thinking about a comic-con I was at many years ago. It was an anniversary show and they had spared no expense getting the big names out on the floor. Some of the biggest of the big were there. The place just oozed with talented and renowned writers and artists. You couldn't turn around without tripping over a legend.

    The difference between pride and arrogance was evident.

    The proud manned their tables, signed autographs, posed for photos, and graciously made their fans feel like a million bucks. Some stayed well beyond their posted times.

    The arrogant also signed autographs. However, instead of focusing on their fans they bitched about their table placement, fumed and fussed at the crowds, made their attendants miserable, moaned and whined about their publishers, and disappeared the moment their signing time was up.

    Word gets around fast. On the second day, guess who still had long lines at their tables, who sold the most books, who got the most publicity, who turned the most casual fans into ardent fans, and who most likely impressed the publishers who had footed the bill to get them there and would be signing their next contract?

    Come on . . . guess . . .

    The guys in the bright colors. Long live the talented who are proud of themselves and what they do without forgetting who they do it for and why.