Ten Common Grammatical Mistakes Writers Make

10CommonGrammar

When it comes to writing, whether you’re penning a blog post, an essay, a poem, or a novel, having sound grammar is a must. No matter how golden your plot or message may be, if your work is littered with grammatical errors, then you run the very real risk of losing your readers before they even get to the good parts.

Now, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned about writing is that there’s no skipping the fundamentals. You’ll need a fairly good grasp of grammar to secure a writing gig. And if you’re thinking of getting your novel published, then it’s safe to say that you’ll need more than just a good grasp. Think rock-solid, strongman-level clench.

Another (hard) lesson I’ve learned is that no matter how good of a writer you think you are, there’s always going to be room for improvement. Grammar, for all its rigidity, is actually quite the slippery sucker. It definitely helps to brush up on your grammar once in a while. That’s exactly what I was up to when I came across the following words/phrases. Think of this little list as a cheat sheet of sorts—that’s certainly how I’m treating it.

So, without further ado, here are ten of the most common grammatical mistakes even seasoned writers make.

1. Using i.e. and e.g. interchangeably.

 When I was in school, i.e. and e.g. were exclusively used for formal papers. Nowadays, however, more and more people are using i.e. and e.g. casually and interchangeably, usually when introducing further examples of what they were referring to. Now, like their ever-trusty cousin etc. (et cetera), i.e. and e.g. are Latin abbreviations. They actually mean very different things. The key to using them properly lies in knowing their respective definitions.

Let’s start with e.g., which is short for exempli gratia. Bit of a mouthful, but the first word gives you an idea of what it stands for. Exempli is pretty close to example, isn’t it? That’s because the phrase exempli gratia means “for example.” So, if you’ve been using e.g. when citing examples, then good job! You’ve hit the nail on its head.

As for i.e., it means id est, which translates to “that is.” So, if you’re referring to something specific to clarify or solidify your statement, i.e. is the way to go. Now, some people use the formula “i.e. = in essence,” which is a pretty neat trick too. Just don’t forget the Latin phrase in case the internet police come after you.

Some examples:

I’m thinking of binge-watching some shows this week, (e.g. Mad Men, Mindhunter, The Good Place, Brooklyn 99, Grace and Frankie), and then tweeting nonstop about how much work I still have to do. That’s the plan.

I’m busy doing creative research (i.e. binge-watching Mad Men).

2. Free reign vs. free rein

 Homophones are very tricky, especially when we’re talking idioms and common phrases. This one is particularly thorny, I think, because in a way both statements seem to make sense. Free reign vs. free rein. The first one conjures images of being a ruling monarch given absolute power to do as one chooses. The latter brings to mind how one can gently loosen the reins when horseback riding to allow the horse more freedom of movement.

These days, both phrases are used in magazine articles and news websites. But according to Merriam-Webster, the correct phrase is free rein. It means to be given “unrestricted liberty of action or decision.” The phrase was originally a term used in horseback-riding to refer to a way of holding the horse’s reins/straps. Sometime in the 17th century, however, free rein founds its figurative footing and has since been used to refer to “freedom of expression or action.”

As for free reign, it is but an eggcorn—it sounds right and feels right but is ultimately wrong.

Example:

Some days it feels as if the people have given a monster free rein to run the country into ruin. –dystopian novels and dissatisfied constituents

3. With baited breath vs. with bated breath

Another homophone, but an easier fix this time. If you read the first phrase again, you’ll see that it doesn’t make much sense. To bait someone is to deliberately try to annoy someone or make him/her angry. You use bait to catch fish or whatever else you want to trap or hunt—I’m hoping not humans. A clickbait is when you get lured to a website or webpage—oftentimes through misrepresentation of content. So, essentially, it doesn’t make sense to use the phrase, with baited breath.

As for bated, it refers to a diminishment or a restraint of “force or intensity.” So, saying with bated breath is perfectly acceptable. The phrase means the act of holding your breath in anticipation, anxiety, fear, nervousness, or suspense.

Example:

He waited for her answer with bated breath, but she said nothing. Her face remained impassive as ever, even as she made a move to take the ring from his hand.

4. Of vs. Have (as in should of/have, would of/have, could of/have)

Now, you may think this one’s pretty basic, but it’s a mistake that a lot of people make. Though not exactly homophones, of and have, (specifically the contraction of the latter), are close enough in sound to confuse a number of people.

Of, of course, is a preposition used to refer to the relationship or connection of two items, things, or groups. That is to say that you use of when referring to something or someone that belongs to or hails from something, someone, or somewhere else. For example, you say that “This painting is truly the work of a genius.” Or you can say, “Hermione Granger is the brightest witch of her generation.”

Based on that definition, you can see that it doesn’t really make sense to pair of with should, would, or could, especially if your intent is to convey regret or the possibility of something. As you’ll see in the following examples, the right expressions are: should have, would have, and could have.

Incorrect: She should of known better.

Correct: She should have known better.

Incorrect: Had I known about this sooner, I would of acted differently.

Correct: Had I known about this sooner, I would have acted differently.

Incorrect: I could of sworn that was you!

Correct: I could have sworn that was you!

5. Emigrated vs. Immigrated/Emigrate vs. Immigrate

Ah, emigrated and immigrated—another set of words similar enough in pronunciation to cause serious confusion. Again, the key to using the right word here is through learning each word’s definition. See, emigrate means leaving your country to live somewhere else. While immigrate means come to another country to live there. Essentially, you’re emigrating from your homeland, and immigrating to or into another country.

For example:

Due to the rampant property- and business-grabbing of President X’s government, people were forced to emigrate from X-land in search of better opportunities.

They immigrated to the United States in the 1980s.

6. Peak vs. Pique vs. Peek

Sneak peek or sneak peak? Piqued my interest or peaked my interest? These are some of the questions I’ve seen online regarding these three words. Here’s what each word means:

Peak means the highest point of something. As in, to summit the peak of Mount Everest.

Pique, when used as a verb, can mean two things: to excite or to stimulate, (ex. piqued my curiosity), and to feel annoyance or irritation (His glib remark left me feeling piqued).

As for Peek, well, that’s when you use your peepers to look at something, (ex. She took a furtive peek at the exam’s answer sheet.)

Now, as you can see from those definitions, if you’re talking about the opportunity to see something before its official release, (ex. movie trailers, book snippets), then you’re getting a sneak peek. If you’re after the word that describes either the metaphorical or physical pinnacle of something, then the word is peak. For example, Based on last night’s game, Dejounte Murray is back in peak condition. And lastly, if you’re referring to excitement, resentment, or curiosity being stirred, then piqued is the way to go. For example, Malcolm Gladwell’s recent round of interviews has piqued my interest in his new book, “Talking to Strangers.”

7. Compliment vs. Complement

Some time ago, I stayed in a hotel that offered an array of very nice freebies. While the items were very much appreciated, the misprint on the card that read “complementary,” threw me for a moment. I was pretty sure the proper word was complimentary, but I’m not ashamed to say that I did double-check with a dictionary app just to be sure.

Turns out, the right word is complimentary. See, while both of these words may be rooted in the Latin word, complere, which means “to complete,” time has allowed both words to develop their own meanings and usages. Let’s start with the one that comes closest to its Latin ancestor.

According to Merriam Webster, complement is “something that completes something else or makes it better.” While the adjective complementary means “goes together well.”

A compliment, on the other hand, refers to the expression of praise, admiration, or approval. As for complimentary, the adjective can mean either “expressing admiration” or “something that’s given for free.”

Here are some examples of how these words are used:

The gravelly quality of Johnny Cash’s voice, coupled with his emotional delivery of the lyrics, complemented the dark and painful message of the song Hurt.

The fact that Johnny Cash chose to cover the Nine Inch Nails song is a massive compliment to Trent Reznor’s writing and composing abilities.

While planning my wedding, I spent a lot of time looking for complementary colors that would fit our spring-literary theme.

The hotel offered the newlyweds a complimentary basket of fruits and a bottle of wine.

8. Between vs. Among

Though often used interchangeably, the difference between the two words is pretty straightforward. You use between when referring to specific or distinct items. And contrary to popular belief, these items need not be limited to two choices. While the word among is used when you’re pertaining to things or people in a collective and not distinct manner. (Or is it non-distinct?)

Examples:

When given a choice between coffee, orange juice, and tea, I always choose the first as my preferred breakfast drink.

Contrary to popular belief, there can be honor among thieves. (Though that honor is tenuous at best, if you ask me.)

9. Shoe-in vs. Shoo-in

Perhaps it’s the foot-in-the-door association that’s done it, but there seems to be a large number of people who use shoe-in when referring to a sure winner. The right expression when you’re talking about someone or something that’s certain to succeed is shoo-in. You know, as in when you urge something or someone forward, as in you shoo them forward.

Example:

With her aunt as one of the judges, she’s a shoo-in to win the pageant.

10. I could care less vs. I couldn’t care less

Now, unlike the previous entries where there’s a clear-cut right and wrong answer, this one has to do with what you want to say. Of course, the common expression is I couldn’t care less, as in I don’t care at all. Hence the contraction in couldn’t. But technically you can say I could care less, if that’s exactly what you mean. It all boils down to context.

Examples:

I couldn’t care less about who wins the next race. My team’s already out of the running, so it doesn’t matter who wins first place. (I don’t care.)

I could care less about the results of the upcoming elections, that’s true. But it’s not in my nature to be apathetic about something that affects my family’s day-to-day existence. (I care.)

These are just some of the trickier grammar problems I’ve personally encountered while writing, or seen online while doing research. I’m sure there are many more words and phrases that we can learn together. What about you? Any other words or idioms you’ve struggled with?

 

Writing Exercise: A Book that Changed My Life

My 2010 Copy of Sophies WOrld
My tattered copy of Sophie’s World

Some books will make you smile for a moment, others will make you weep and ache for days—I’m looking at you, Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel. But my favorites are the ones that stick with you forever, the ones that change the course of your life in one sitting. Now I’ve been fortunate enough to have read a number of life-changing books, and today, I’ll be featuring one of my earliest favorites—Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder.

It was one of my payday gifts to myself. The book had sat, fat, shiny, and bright blue on the cramped shelf, occupying more space than the other novels beside it. Price-wise, it was a bit more than what I’d pay for if I got another Penguin Classic. But I’m a sucker for hefty books in pretty packaging—one of my reading mottos being, “More pages = more bang for my buck.” So, with just a glance at the title and the author, Sophie’s World made its way home with me that night.

In case you haven’t read Sophie’s World, (a book I highly recommend but understand isn’t for everyone), here’s a bit of a warning: it reads more like a crash course on the history of philosophy than an actual work of fiction. Sure, the part that is fiction is very compelling and well-written, but the bulk of the book consists of philosophy lessons being fed via mail to the novel’s protagonist, 13-year-old Sophie Amundsen.

Now, this structure may be off-putting to other readers. And that’s fair. Most of the time, we pick up novels as a means to escape real life, not to be inundated by lengthy history and philosophy lessons. However, to me, Sophie’s World was the spark that started my lifelong love for Philosophy and Philosophy Books. Now, prior to this book, I have read and loved other think-reads from great authors like George Orwell, Milan Kundera, Alan Lightman, and Kurt Vonnegut. But Sophie’s World was the book that inspired me to really study philosophy. To read Plato, Sartre, and Kierkegaard (to name a few), to watch lectures, to take certificate courses in Coursera, and to listen to podcasts like The Partially Examined Life and Philosophy Bites.

By introducing me to philosophy, Sophie’s World has helped give direction to my life. It helped shape my life’s purpose, which is to keep learning, to constantly seek truth, and to always strive to do good. And for that, I am very grateful.

What about you? What’s one of your biggest literary game-changers?

Five Ways to Conquer Crippling Self-Doubt and Get Writing

5 Ways to Conquer Self-Doubt

Sylvia Plath once wrote, “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” It’s a lesson all aspiring writers know to be true, and yet so many of us still struggle to apply that universal truth in our writing. For a long time, I’ve tried to figure out what it is about writing that feels so distinctly torturous. Even when the ideas are there, when a rough outline has been sketched, each word carefully typed on page feels like it’s being wrung out of you. Paralyzing self-doubt crawls out of whatever hellhole it’s been hiding in to sit firmly on your shoulders, whispering again and again, “not good enough.”

But here’s the thing about self-doubt—it’s not all bad. In fact, there’s a perfectly good reason why we’re all hardwired to doubt our decisions and actions once in a while. The truth is self-doubt is an integral part of self-preservation. Think about it. Our ancestors needed that nagging voice to remind them to be cautious when approaching large prey or sampling the surrounding foliage. Their very survival was hinged on equal parts of bravery and self-doubt. Today, in its simplest form, self-preservation may take the shape of something as rote and innocuous as making sure your car’s in tiptop shape before embarking on a long drive or doing a sniff test before consuming last week’s leftovers.

Self-doubt also pushes us to do better. It teaches us humility, and consequently, open-mindedness. Imagine if we were all gifted with supreme and unshakeable confidence that bumbled into arrogance. We’d all be convinced that we’re always right and experts at everything. It would be disastrous. We’d either be foolhardy daredevils putting ourselves and other people in constant danger with our reckless behavior, or we’d be argumentative fools furthering mediocrity with the belief that everything we do is nothing short of absolute perfection.

The truth is, people who think they’re the best hardly ever want to get better—and that’s a tragedy in itself. You may be the best at something now, but if you let your skills stagnate, someone willing to work harder or do better will eventually surpass you. This is why it’s important to maintain a modicum of self-doubt. It keeps us in check.

So, if a little self-doubt is good, why am I writing an entire post on how to vanquish it? Well, see, healthy self-doubt has an ugly, hyper-inbred cousin, that’s just as bad as supreme arrogance—Crippling Self-Doubt.  Self-doubt ceases to be healthy the minute it stops you from trying to achieve your dreams.

As Shakespeare puts it,

“Our doubts are traitorous and make us lose the good we might oft win by fearing to attempt.”

Crippling self-doubt is the windmill masquerading as a giant. Now is the time to unleash your inner Quixote and drive that lance into that monster’s heart. After all, some monsters may be invisible or even imaginary, but if they cause you visceral terror, then these monsters are worthy foes that must be crushed. That being said, here are five ways to finally conquer crippling self-doubt so you can get started on your writing.

1. Get in with the right crowd.

We all know that saying from Jim Rohn that “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Now, there’s a lot of debate online when it comes to the truthfulness of that statement. But I do think that at the core of things, Rohn did get it right. It is important that you surround yourself with people who can help make you better. People who you admire, people you can learn from, people you believe in and who believe in you in return—or, as Aristotle puts it, Friends of Virtue.

As a writer, it pays to have friends who are writers or creatives too. Since you’re embarking on the same journey, it makes it easier to learn from each other and help each other become better at your chosen craft. But beyond having friends with the same interests and goals, I can’t stress enough the importance of surrounding yourself with positive people who will inspire you to keep reaching for your dreams. You need to be around people who will uplift you during moments of debilitating self-doubt, but will also be honest enough to provide real and helpful feedback when it comes to your work.

2. See failure for what it is: an opportunity for growth and learning.

“The test of whether or not a writer has defined the natural shape of his story is just this: After reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right.” – Truman Capote

There’s a gorgeous article from Buzzfeed called 20 Brilliant Authors Whose Work Was Initially Rejected. It’s a great read if you’re an aspiring writer struggling with fears of rejection. Without giving everything away, the list includes J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, rejected 12 times, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, shelved 26 times, Stephen King’s Carrie, turned down 30 times, and Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, given the ‘no thanks’ a whopping 121 times! Ouch!

Now, I recognize that there are two ways to take this information. If you’re prone to negative self-talk and catastrophizing (like me), then you can slide into a snowball of panic and say, “Shoot. If these literary giants couldn’t cut it, I have no chance in hell!” Cue the self-pity party for one.

But there’s another way to interpret that data, and that’s to see the one quality that binds these authors together. (I mean, aside from the fact that they’re all bona fide geniuses of the craft, of course.) Some call this quality, persistence. Others may call it grit. But I prefer the word faith. You need to have faith in your work and your ability, not just to write well but to adjust to rejection and see it as an opportunity to do better, try harder, or try elsewhere.

Rejection is a big part of the writer’s life. I honestly can’t think of a single famous writer who hasn’t struggled at least once in his/her career. Whether it’s agonizing over writing something of value or having trouble finding a publisher, it’s always going to be a harrowing and painful uphill climb. But you don’t become a writer just because you want the spoils that success will bring. I mean that’s a pretty hefty bonus, but that’s probably not the reason why you’re torturing yourself day-in and day-out trying to squeeze out one good page or a single great line.

You write because you have a story to tell. You write because there’s a voice inside you that won’t shut up until you put pen to paper and try to capture even the slightest glimmer in the treasure trove of ideas locked up in your head. You write because writing may feel like torture but it’s the one thing that you’d rather be doing for the rest of your life.

So have faith. Don’t let something as natural and paltry as rejection derail you from your life’s purpose. See rejection for what it is. A roadblock. A chance to recalibrate, to review, to revise, or to stand your ground and say, “My work is an orange, and if you don’t like it, I know somebody else will.”

3. Write in Solitude.

“Writing is a solitary occupation. Family, friends, and society are the natural enemies of the writer. He must be alone, uninterrupted, and slightly savage if he is to sustain and complete an undertaking.” – Jessamyn West

In an interview published in The Paris Review, Maya Angelou described her writing process, which was essentially checking into a hotel by herself and working for about six hours every day. J.K. Rowling is said to have written Harry Potter in various cafes in Edinburgh, with her baby sleeping beside her. Haruki Murakami, Stephen King, and Henry Miller meticulously set aside a chunk of their day for writing. Ernest Hemingway wrote early in the morning to avoid any and all distractions. He also wrote standing up, because, well, he’s Ernest Hemingway. And then there’s Jack Kerouac, who liked writing from midnight until dawn… by candlelight. Again, because Kerouac.

For the most part, it seems like all writers have their rituals. Some had very specific rituals like Maya Angelou, Ernest Hemingway, and Jack Kerouac. Others, like J.K. Rowling were content with carving out some semi-quiet space in a coffeeshop.

As I’m writing this, my husband sits across from me, pen in hand with a notebook open. He’s coming up with ideas for his next social media campaign. And apart from the occasional smile from over my laptop, we’ve pretty much left each other to our own devices. See, writing is mostly a solitary craft. You need time alone and aplenty to get in the zone of writing. You need ample stillness to listen to your thoughts and to have that inner dialogue with yourself that will help you build your work, word per word.

But what about collaborations, you might ask. Well, even when collaborating with other writers, there’s always a period wherein you need to stay quiet and focus on your side of the work. I remember watching a video of Neil Gaiman talking about writing Good Omens with Sir Terry Pratchett. He talked about how they divvied up parts of the book based on the characters and how most of their planning was done via phone. And look how well that book had turned out. It probably would’ve been very difficult for them to create Good Omens if they were peering over each other’s shoulders the entire time.

4. Resist the urge to compare yourself to other writers.  

“This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” – either Dorothy Parker or Sid Ziff

Let me start this section off by saying there is absolutely nothing wrong with reading other writers’ works, especially if the end goal is enjoyment or to learn from their writings. Humility is an important part of the writing process—especially if you’re just starting out. Plus, there’s always something inspiring about really good prose. I’m sure you know what I mean—that energized feeling you get when you encounter a particularly great idea. You know, when you read something that is so moving that it becomes a fulcrum for your own writing. When you feel that way about other writers’ works, then it’s a win-win situation. The writer earns a fan and you get motivated enough to do something great too.

I suppose the problem starts when you read something and end up with a completely different takeaway. If the piece is so good it’s just too good, feelings of inadequacy may bubble up, tipping you over into the state of insecurity and self-pity. This happens to me quite a lot. In fact, one of my unhealthiest habits as an aspiring writer is to look up every author of every single book I love. That alone isn’t too bad, except I zero in on the writer’s age upon the book’s publication and if the writer happens to be younger than me, I agonize over this detail for a while. Oftentimes I end up on Google with the following search terms: “Is 33 too old to become a writer,” “writers who started in their 30s,” and “Is it too late to start over in your 30s.” I used to do this every single time and honestly, that little routine has done me no good whatsoever. It doesn’t inspire me to write. In fact, it does the complete opposite. I end up plagued by crippling self-doubt. Totally unproductive.

Another unhealthy takeaway you might have is jealousy. It’s when you read a bestseller that you think is so mediocre or so bad that you start thinking you can do better. Again, let me come clean. I get that sometimes especially when perusing the contemporary poetry section of the bookstore. But as soon as feelings of jealousy and resentment come bubbling up, so does a little bit of shame. Just because the book is not to my liking doesn’t mean it isn’t good or that I can’t learn from it. Here’s one way to reframe the entire experience: books we don’t like become bestsellers because the writers must’ve done something right. Whether the writers are excellent at marketing their work or they speak the voice of the current generation, there’s a lesson to be learned from these writers. Don’t miss out on this opportunity to improve your writing, or at the very least, your attitude.

5. Set aside your editing cap and write your sh*tty first draft. (SFD)

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.” – Anne Lamott

Two months ago, I was having lunch with one of my closest friends who also happens to be a really good writer. I was bemoaning the fact that I couldn’t get started on my writing because I couldn’t get past editing and revising the first line. I asked her what her secret was. How was she able to churn out so many articles so quickly? She laughed and told me, “The first five drafts are terrible. The sixth draft is okay, but I do most of my editing on the seventh draft.”

That was really reassuring to hear. It also presented a bit of a challenge. See, ever since I started writing, I’ve always been the type to edit as I go. That’s why I’ve always been a bit of a slow writer. I believe the record was 13 hours to write a 400-word press release. I would go back and forth, changing this, erasing that, hitting delete on an entire document, all the while thinking “This is crap.” And I don’t have to tell you how quickly “this is crap” can turn into “I am crap.” By the time I reach the final line, I’d be so sick of my writing and hating myself so much that I would give the article a once over, send it out, and never read it again.

But this is one lesson that I’m determined to learn, and hopefully it’s one that will help you out as well. Don’t be afraid to write a sh*tty first draft (SFD) or a couple or even seven bad drafts. As Anne Lamott said, almost all first drafts are terrible. Just for today, embrace the terrible and just get that page done. Have faith in your idea and trust your own skill to create something that can be made better later on.

Keep the writer and the editor in you separate. If you write in the morning, set aside an hour to go over your work in the afternoon or the evening, à la Maya Angelou and Joan Didion. Sure, you might have to scrap a sentence or even a page, but hey, you’ll be writing! And that’s a terrific start to getting things done.

Book Review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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“The caged bird sings

With a fearful trill

Of things unknown

But longed for still

And his tune is heard

On the distant hill

For the caged bird

Sings of freedom.”

  • From the poem, Caged Bird by Maya Angelou (1983)

 

THE caged bird has long been the symbol of man’s struggle against the shackles of oppression. In his 1899 poem, Sympathy, African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, wrote about knowing how the caged bird feels. How it grieves for its loss of freedom, and “beats his wings till its blood is red on the cruel bars.” This image of the caged bird crying and clamoring for freedom is one that made an indelible mark on Maya Angelou’s young mind.

In her masterful 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, (the first volume of a seven-part series), Angelou herself is the caged bird trying to break out of a world rife with racism, sexism, and strife. Detailing her early years to her adolescence, this poignant autobiography shows us Maya Angelou’s transformation from a withdrawn and self-conscious child to a confident trailblazer whose works would eventually influence, give voice to, and elevate an entire nation.

(SPOILERS BELOW)

The Unwanted Child: An Attempt at Normalcy in Stamps, Arkansas

“Stamps, Arkansas, was Chitlin’ Switch, Georgia; Hang ‘Em High, Alabama; Don’t Let the Sun Set on You Here, Nigger, Mississippi; or any other name just as descriptive. People in Stamps used to say that the whites in our town were so prejudiced that a Negro couldn’t buy vanilla ice cream. Except on July Fourth. Other days, he had to be satisfied with chocolate.  (p. 49)

Picture this: Two small children onboard a train—a three-year-old girl and a four-year-old boy. They sit on the edge of their seats, clasping each other’s hands so tightly their knuckles turn white. They’re traveling from Long Beach, California, to Stamps, Arkansas, and don’t seem to have anyone else with them. A journey of over 1,500 miles with no one to watch over them. Their tickets are pinned to the boy’s coat pocket, and if you look closely enough, you’ll find tags on their wrists addressed to the porter. The tags read: “To whom it may concern…”

Nowadays, such an occurrence is hard to imagine. Nobody in their right mind would send two preschoolers on a cross-country train trip without adult supervision. And if someone ever did, it’s the type of event that would cause an uproar. The children’s parents would likely be sued for neglect. But times were very different in the 1930s. While it was always heartbreaking for train passengers to see these children frightened and alone, it happened often enough that the children’s parents never really got into much trouble.

The example above is by no means a pretty picture, but it is an accurate one. This was how Maya Angelou and her brother, Bailey, came to live with their grandmother, Momma, and Uncle Willie in the heavily segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas. Their parents had just put an end to their “calamitous marriage,” and likely thought that it was the best arrangement for their children.

After all, Momma was a strong, resourceful, and successful businesswoman. She was the proud owner of the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store—the Store that provided for the everyday needs of the town’s entire Black community. And true enough, Momma did a great job raising Maya and Bailey. She gave the kids as much love, care, and discipline as any great mother could give. But while their home life provided the children the stability they needed during those early years, it still proved impossible for Momma to completely shelter them from the hardships that came with living in the racist south.

At a young age, Maya and her brother became privy to the dangers and difficulties that came with discrimination. During the cotton-picking season, Black workers from town would enter the store, thrumming with optimism over the promise of an abundant harvest. By nightfall, they would return, deflated and bone-weary. Their hands sore from an entire day of picking prickly cotton, their hearts heavy and their pockets still near empty.

There was also the looming threat of the KKK riding in at any time, looking for an excuse to punish a Black man for one crime or another. Any man with dark skin would do. It was punishment by proxy. The segregation also meant that medical services were hard to come by; as nearby white doctors and dentists refused to treat anyone with ‘colored’ skin. As Maya later observed, equality only came in the event of a national crisis.

 “It was when the owners of cotton fields dropped the payment of ten cents for a pound of cotton to eight, seven, and finally five that the Negro community realized that the Depression, at least, did not discriminate.” (p.50)

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Choosing Happiness: Are You a Maximizer or a Satisficer?

A couple of months ago, I hit a slump—and I mean, I really hit it. Creatively, physically, socially, emotionally, financially, and mentally. Pretty much any other word you can append a –ly to. Ecumenically. As far as winters of discontent go, this one was admittedly pretty middling, but harsh enough to warrant a bit of sunshine. So, out went one of my favorite summer self-improvement reads, The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.

Now, one of the things I love about The Happiness Project is that despite having the word Happiness right-smack in the middle of its title, it’s not an overly sentimental, leap-of-faith, and hokey-ish kind of read. In fact, Rubin spends quite a lot of time citing different studies from psychologists, anthropologists, neurologists, philosophers, and other health and happiness experts. She looks at happiness as something attainable, something you can work towards through a series of actionable items. And I like that. During moments when it feels like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, I need to know that I can still bring my own lamp—light my own way.

So, while I’m in the process of sifting through muck, I wanted to share my thoughts about some of the ideas I’m currently reading about. For today, we’re taking a look at how a person’s decision-making process affects his or her happiness.

Maximizers and Satisficers: A Definition of Terms

One of my favorite ideas from The Happiness Project is something that Rubin picked up from the American psychologist, Barry Schwartz. In Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, he discusses how being faced with so many options can cause us anxiety, stress, and even analysis paralysis. He talks about two distinct types of shoppers—the maximizer and the satisficer.

Now, in the world of economics, it is assumed that buyers are geared towards availing of the best services and products available. Maximizers fit this assumption perfectly. The maximizer is the type of shopper who wants to make the best and the most informed decisions at all times. Even when faced with a product or service that ticks all the boxes, the maximizer won’t be able to make up his or her mind until all options have been examined or exhausted.

For the maximizer, there is always this nagging feeling that something better might be out there. In a way, you can say that maximizers are the consummate perfectionists of the buying world. The maximizer will not settle for anything less than the best. Now, according to an article from Psychology Today, the upside to not settling is that “overall, maximizers achieve better outcomes than satisficers.”

In a 2012 study from Swarthmore College, it was discovered that recent graduates with maximizing tendencies ended up accepting jobs with starting salaries that were up to 20% higher than their satisficing counterparts. However, despite earning more than their peers, the perfectionist aspect of the maximizers still had these graduates second-guessing their decisions. They were still asking themselves, “What if there’s a better option out there?” They were more prone to comparing themselves to others as a way of gauging whether or not they’ve ended up with the best possible outcome.

See, the main downside to being a maximizer is that you’re less certain about the choices you make. This makes a maximizing shopper more prone to disappointment and buyer’s remorse, which in turn lessens his or her happiness levels.

And happiness is where satisficers earn a leg up over their maximizing peers. See, unlike the maximizer and his/her sky-high expectations, satisficers tend to live by a more modest criteria. Don’t get me wrong, the satisficing customer isn’t about to settle for anything less than what he/she originally wanted, but once a product or a service meets the shopper’s requirements, he/she will have no qualms making a decision. And unlike the maximizer, the satisficer stops looking for other options, thereby inoculating him/her against buyer’s remorse.

This is the point that Barry Schwartz makes in The Paradox of Choice. Satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers because they’re perfectly content with “good enough.” They don’t agonize as much over their decisions; and if you think about it, that’s really not a bad way to go through life.

So, are you a Satisficer, a Maximizer, or are you a mix of both?

Now, the beauty of learning about these tendencies is that it lets us take a step back to evaluate what’s important to us and what works for us. Both shopping personalities offer great advantages. Some people are perfectly happy being maximizers, while others swear by their satisficing tendencies. Others still, are a mix of both. They’re maximizers when it comes to certain areas in their lives and satisficers in other areas.

So, which type are you? If you’re unsure about which category you fall under, here’s a Maximizer vs Satisficer Quiz from Psychologist World. Me, I’m 65% a satisficer and 35% a maximizer. How about you?

Quotes and Lessons from Carl Sagan’s Billions & Billions

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Celebrated astrophysicist, cosmologist, astronomer, astrobiologist, Pulitzer-winning writer, and world-renowned scientific genius Carl Sagan was a man that wore a multitude of hats. And boy, how he wore each hat so well! Beyond being a highly lauded scientist, he was a pop culture icon that brought the most complex of scientific ideas into the everyday consciousness of the everyman.

In Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium, Sagan condenses a plethora of scientific learnings and juxtaposes them with his views on humanity’s role in preserving the Earth and all its lifeforms. To quote the great scientist,

“We are privileged to influence and perhaps control our future. I believe we have an obligation to fight for life on Earth—not just for ourselves…”

He teaches this essential lesson through a series of essays (and transcribed speeches) dealing with various and seemingly disparate topics. Some of the topics tackled in his essays include the power of exponential notation and growth, man’s quick but ultimately limited progress in exploring the mysteries of the universe, the importance of morality, the great debate on abortion, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, how man is destroying the world through global warming, and the razor-sharp and double-edged sword that comes with technological growth.

Now, if that last sentence reads like a mouthful, that’s only because the book itself is overflowing with information that spans, not just the scientific plane, but the moral, the political, and the philosophical arenas of thought as well. Mind-blowing is one of the quickest terms that come to mind when I think of Billions and Billions, but it is a word that still feels greatly lacking. I’ve been awestruck by truly great text before, by works like A Room of One’s Own, An Unquiet Mind, and Existentialism is a Humanism. But this is the first time I’ve been both awestruck and struck dumb by one book.

Carl Sagan was truly a man that was larger than life, and much of his learnings (both personal and academic) have been poured out into the essays in Billions and Billions. I feel that any attempt from my end to come up with a standard review for this book will only come out clumsy and wanting. So, in lieu of an actual review, let me instead present to you a list of my favorite quotes and lessons from Billions and Billions. (Sagan’s quotes are in italics.)

Read and enjoy.

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In Preparation for Spring Cleaning: The KonMari Tidying Order

Some weeks ago, I wrote a post about how a messy workplace affects a person’s creativity and productivity. While I’d like to think that the messy state of my life and my possessions is simply the manifestation of my, gulp, creative mind, 31 years of transforming living spaces into pig sties has taught me what productivity experts have been saying and rhyming for the last decade—MESS really does create STRESS.

I can’t begin to count and recount the multitude of anxiety attacks I’ve suffered over “losing” key items like my keys, my wallet, other people’s paychecks, and even a land title/car registration or two-wenty. I once ‘lost’ my mobile phone only to find it ringing in the fridge.

Now, I know, these things happen to the best of us. The unprecedented success of Mari Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, is testament to how millions of people see the disorganized state of their affairs as a setback when it comes to their pursuit of productivity and happiness. Many of us perceive tidying as the hallelujah solution to most, if not all of our problems.

So, with spring, (and consequently, the period for Spring Cleaning), just around the corner, I thought it best to impart some of finest lessons I’ve learned from Mari Kondo’s ‘life-changing’ book—particularly the KonMari Tidying Order. I’m hoping that this will help you get a head start on your annual spring cleaning project too.

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