To Write a Great Story, Start with a Real Struggle

I appreciated this illustration on unconventional storytelling from Tom Gauld:

092082E1-DC5A-4463-A4DF-71D15799F53E When talking about adventures, I often relate the plot outlining of blockbuster movies and video games. What if the synopsis of a big summer movie was "So and so had to save the world from evil... and then they did?"

We'd think, "That's it?! How did they save the world ... what happened along the way? Did they lose something and have to recover it? How was the hero changed throughout the journey, and what was different at the end of the story?"

Challenge is the essence of adventure, and struggle is the root of any great story.

In fact, sometimes the struggle is the entire story. If the struggle is good enough, we're willing to overlook anything else. Why did the aliens invade the earth? Who cares—we have to defeat them!

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Life In the Tower, Somaliland Edition

Many thanks to everyone who has been reading or supporting the launch of The Tower, my new manifesto. If you missed it on Tuesday, you can pick up your free copy in a range of formats. I also want to thank my long-time friend and colleague Reese Spykerman, specialist in branding and magic, for her great work on the design. Reese truly raised her game on this one as we worked on telling a story through words and images.

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“What Should I Do With My Life?”

When I started AONC, part of the message I hoped to share was that it's OK to pursue an independent dream or idea. You don't need permission from anyone to do so. I'm not interested in criticizing anyone who wants a traditional life, but I also strongly believe in supporting those who want something different. The reality is that when you pursue your own agenda instead of someone else's, it's quite likely that some people won't understand. Yet, when you truly "wake up" from a life with terms dictated by someone else, the possibilities are endless.

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“We’ve Got Plans for You”

Amy returned from a working trip abroad. “Welcome home!” her boss said on the first day back at the office. Amy was a little disoriented, thinking of her days in Rajasthan instead of the office at home. “I want to hear all about India,” the boss said, although it seemed the boss mostly wanted to hear all about work. The boss said she had done a good job on the trip, which is always nice to hear. But then the boss said something else. “We've been talking while you were away, and we've got plans for you, Amy.”

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Swimming from Regrets

Image by NTMatt

The other day I was walking around the neighborhood and suddenly realized I had a big regret: for nearly two years, I had the chance to learn how to swim, and I kept putting it off. Now, my chance was gone, and I wished I could get it back.

Technically, I know how to swim. If you threw me in the water, I wouldn’t drown. I just mean that I’m a terrible lap swimmer. To recover from running injuries, I’ve sometimes added a weekly swim to my workout routine, but I’ve never enjoyed it. I’ve always known that a big part of my lack of enthusiasm comes from lack of knowledge, but I’ve never done anything about it.

Every academic quarter for the past two years, I thought about signing up for an intermediate swimming class, where I’d finally learn to breath better and correct a lot of my improvised (read: flawed) technique. But every quarter, something always came up.

A couple of times there was a schedule conflict. Once, the class filled up too quickly. Sometimes I didn’t realize when the deadline was, and by the time I thought of it again, it was too late. All good reasons (well, except for forgetting about it), but I believe that we make time for what’s important to us.

If it was important to me to become a better swimmer, I could have found a way to take the class.

But now, it’s too late. I’ve finished my graduate program and no longer have access to the nice university classes and the awesome student athletic center. I do pushups at home and run outside at least four times a week, so I’m keeping fit… but there’s no other Olympic-sized pool and amazing gym nearby.

It’s kind of sad. One of my most important values is to live life with no regrets, and while walking around my neighborhood the other day, I realized I had let one slip past me. I had let myself down; I saw it clearly this week, but I missed it when it counted.


I’m making a 5-minute internet movie that I’ll share with you when it’s done, but for now, the theme has to do with Time and Money. Another thing I believe is that in most cases, with most regrets we have, there is still enough time to do something about it.

We can’t change the past, and we might not be able to do exactly what we should have done a long time ago – I probably can’t take the University of Washington class, since I’m not a student anymore – but there’s often an alternative.

Sitting down on the curb outside my apartment, I composed this list of alternatives for my own situation:

  • There are two community pools within three miles of my apartment. They might not be awesome, but since I’m basically learning how to really swim for the first time, it shouldn’t matter that much.

  • There are YMCA classes I can take. Again, they’re probably not the same style as the university classes – but I’m a low-intermediate swimmer, not the next Michael Phelps.

  • Tim Ferris recently wrote about the Total Immersion method. His swimming story sounds identical to mine – he tried over and over on his own, but never got into it. This DVD helped him, so maybe I’ll check it out.

  • In his running/writing memoir, Haruki Murakami mentioned that he hired a private swim coach to help him improve the skill. A “private swim coach” sounds expensive at first glance, but I just need a couple of 30-minute lessons. That shouldn’t be too much, and if I’ve been putting this off for two years, it’s probably a good investment.

I’m not 100% sure which of these alternatives I’ll go with… but I will do something about my regret. I know that if I don’t at least try, I’ll always feel another twinge of regret whenever I hear someone talk about swimming.

If there’s anything I don’t want, it’s a life of regrets. That’s why I started writing on this site, that’s why I travel, that’s why I do anything I can to avoid working a real job, and on and on. It’s not to say that anyone who makes different choices will regret them. But for me, I would not be content if I didn’t do these things.

Living life to the fullest while helping others is what it’s all about.

Some might view my failure to take swimming lessons as a small regret compared to what they consider to be more major life failures. In a way, it’s true – if my biggest regret right now is not learning to swim, I suppose I'm doing OK.

But on the other hand, small is not the same thing as inconsequential. When it comes to regrets, that old saying about how if you don’t deal with the small things, you’ll end up making bigger mistakes was in my mind as I thought about this. I’m not sure if it's completely true or not, but I don’t want to risk it.

Life is too short to miss out on learning and the living. We’ve got art to create, businesses to grow, worlds to conquer. And as for me, I’ve got some swimming lessons to go to.

My question for you is:

Do you want to live with no regrets? How’s that going?


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