Shooting the Blame

Is it too soon for a shooting joke? I write comedy, so I need to know when it’s not too soon. Shootings seem to be happening so frequently that it’s always going to be too soon, which is unfortunate. Not about it being too soon to joke, but about the frequency of shootings. The question that needs to be asked is “Why?” In the case of the Elliot Rodger shooting, male misogyny and societal expectations of sex were blamed. In the Columbine shooting, bullying was blamed. In the Sandy Hook shooting, mental health issues were blamed. And in all shootings, lack of gun control is blamed. Notice a common theme here? No matter the news story, there’s always someone or something to blame, and this way of thinking is teaching people that they are no longer responsible for their actions. Why are all of these shootings happening? Here’s a hint, it has nothing to do with guns or bullying – it’s about character. Each of the people who carried out these shootings lacked character, and by blaming something else, we sacrifice character in order to explain why we do what we do, and this leaves little room for growth. The idea that outside circumstances explain why we do what we do has been the basis for social science as we know it – psychology, sociology, and political science – since the latter half of the 19th century. Placing the blame on the environment means that people are no longer responsible for their actions since the causes lie in the situation and not the person. But we don’t take credit away from anyone if they succeed at something. If an actor gives a brilliant performance, we don’t say, “It’s because of his acting coach and the fact that he had supportive parents,” we give the actor the credit he deserves. So why do we place the blame for someone’s negative action on outside circumstances?

            By blaming outside circumstances, it makes solving the problem at hand much more difficult. If you want to fix a leaking drain pipe, you don’t replace the faucet. When we blame the situation, it advocates being driven by the past rather than by the future. It makes us victims to someone or something else and we become powerless to change anything. We even miss out on the credit for our success, which undermines our confidence and proves that “nothing we do matters.” False. When we realize that we are responsible for our results, we look for what we might have done better and then work on that area. Rather than banning guns, bullying, or violent video games and movies, we need to educate people on real life skills that each of us use every day. Teaching self-esteem, confidence, personal responsibility, effective communication, goal-setting, and positive mental fitness is just as important, if not more, than teaching math, science, and history. If these shooters had just learned the power of taking personal responsibility for their actions leading up to these tragedies, their self-confidence would be at a healthier level and we wouldn’t be having this conversation today. But when we learn that our situations in life aren’t our fault through the media and our conditioning, we feel like our lives are out of our hands and we blame others for our suffering. We must stop blaming and start educating – ourselves and others – to take back control over our lives and make peace and cooperation our common goal. In developed countries, the world is arguably better than it’s ever been! We have more purchasing power than ever before, more people are going to college than ever before, there are more cars than there are drivers, and there’s an app for everything! But depression rates are growing – the mean onset age of depression is down from 29.5 years old to 14.5 years old in just 50 years! We’ve been going the blaming route for awhile now, and these senseless acts of violence are still happening. Isn’t it time to try something different? We all share this planet, why are we finger-pointing and focusing on the problem instead of focusing on the solution: becoming responsible for the one thing we all have control over. Ourselves. That is how we can bring positive change to the world, one person at a time.

Here’s an alternate take from my web series “Creative Differences” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oL8d0MSCKiU

They Live in Paradise…

“They live in paradise, I wonder if they’ll ever know it.” When Hindu guru Muktananda visited the United States for the first time, he noticed everyone rushing around the airport, in such a hurry that no one was taking the time to take it all in and really enjoy it. Our buddy Mookie came from a monastic lifestyle in India, where he had no running water, no electricity, and very basic food. He was astonished, not at the well-lit, well-furnished, shiny airport with dozens of choices of food and drink, but at the way people seemed to not be appreciating any of it. Many of us live our lives this way and we fail to appreciate and be grateful for the fact that the world is the best it has ever been. We don’t have to worry about our villages being pillaged on a daily basis, we aren’t executed for looking at a white woman wrong, and smallpox doesn’t wipe out populations anymore. There’s now 1 car for every 2 drivers, 1 out of 2 children go on to post-high school education, technology is helping us become more efficient, people have more rights in more places, and acceptance is being brought to the forefront of social issues. Yet, the number of cases of depression is the highest it has ever been and the median onset age of depression is now 14.5 years old, down from 29.5 just fifty years ago.

What is paradise? A yacht with an exotic parrot, sun tanned ladies and decanters of the finest scotch? A private jet with caviar, cashmere sweaters, and Bono? To one person those things might seem like paradise. To someone who hates boats and will never forgive Bono for siding with John Kerry in 2004, that might seem like a nightmare. The answer: paradise is whatever you make of it. Whether you live a life of diamond-encrusted jackets and constant visits to the beach, or you prefer microwave popcorn for dinner with a Netflix rerun of House of Cards, paradise can be anything. Disclaimer: I’m not saying “Hey, you should make microwave popcorn dinners and watch threesomes with the future president for six hours every night,” I’m saying, “Make the best of every moment, no matter what it is.” Even if you’re getting murdered and you let out a, “Lovely weather we’re having,” rather than an, “AAAAHHHHH!!! Don’t’ kill me!!!” the assailant will be thrown off by your unpredictable attitude, thereby leaving him vulnerable; all because you chose to make the best of the situation. If you’re bored, annoyed, angry, stressed, neutral, constipated, upside down on a jungle gym and panicking because you’re unable to figure out how to get yourself back on your feet – it doesn’t matter – always ask yourself a few simple questions. Is what I’m doing going to get me closer to my paradise? Is what I’m saying going to help or hurt my cause? Do I have anything in my teeth? If I were to make the most out of this situation, would it look like what I’m doing it right now? If in ten years, I were to be that perfect me on that yacht with a scotch in one hand, and a beautiful blue marlin in the other hand, would I look back at this moment and say, “Throwing that brick through that trashy skank’s windshield helped me get here.”? Chances are, probably not, because no matter how trashy the skank, truly happy people don’t hurl bricks through windshields. That’s not paradise. Just imagine enjoying life all the time. You don’t have to get pissed when someone talks about you, when the waiter brings the wrong type of pasta, or when the Patriots lose. In fact be the opposite. Even if the service is shitty, if you’re a good sport about it, your server will make sure to focus on you if you’re the nice table rather than the “table with the heinous bitch.” Although getting angry seems like the right thing to do at the time, those are your outdated evolutionary instincts telling you to fight or flight, and they have no idea what they’re talking about. They don’t have to worry about saber-toothed tigers anymore, so they take increased offense to the asshole who just made eye contact with you instead. Ignore them, because that bouncer in the corner will drag you out of that bar by your neck if you if you don’t. And believe me – no one likes to end the story about their night with, “Yeah, and then Jeff got kicked out of the bar so we left.” Thanks, Jeff. If we face a situation with a positive outlook, our brains actually become more creative than if we insist that being buried alive has ruined our night by panicking. When I say “make the best out of every situation,” I mean, “make the BEST out of every situation.”

A good situation to apply this principle to is work. We’ve all worked jobs we don’t like, but if you approach work with a positive attitude and a smile on your face, you have to have a better day than if you’re thinking, “I hate my job, I don’t want to be here, kill me.” Our brains act on what we tell them to act on, so if all we think about is how bored we are, we have no choice to be bored because we’re looking for the reasons to be bored. We’re willingly making ourselves bored and then we complain about it! There are always positive sides to everything, if we look for those rather than the negatives, we’ll find more reasons to be positive. All it takes is a simple shift in thinking. Even if you’re forced to sit through a boring presentation at work, with a different perspective you can even get something out of diversity day. A boring guest speaker can go from being a boring guest speaker to an opportunity to learn how to not give a presentation with a simple shift in thinking. It’s much easier to handle life’s punches when you can find the positives because, again, our brains act on what we tell them to act on. If you keep looking for the positive, it will become easier and easier to find it, even in the most trying of situations.

We can create our own paradise right now because all we have is right now. If we spend our days waiting for our paradise, then I hope you like waiting, because if we see it as always being in the future, there it shall remain. But if we decide to make the most out of our present, our paradise can begin right now. Who in their right mind doesn’t want that?

You Are the Writer of Your Own Life

Breaking News: You Have Been Given Full Creative Control Over Your Life!

As someone who received a Bachelor’s Degree in political science and wanted to pursue a dream in comedy writing, I had to train myself on how to write scripts – screenplays, TV scripts, sketches, etc. As I researched and wrote, I realized that the characters I was writing were rather robotic and way too similar too each other. So I began reading books on psychology and why people do the things that they do. What I discovered is that there are undeniable parallels between writing a strong script and life itself. As a writer, I have the ability to create characters and put them in situations where they must grow and achieve what they want in order to tell a well-rounded story. I have full creative control over what they say, do, and think. When I really analyzed this, I realized that I also have control over what I say, do, and think. In fact, all of us do. We’re the writer in charge of our own lives. We decide the ending and what it’s going to take to get there. So get ready to pick up a pen and start brainstorming because you have been given full creative control over the script that is your life. You know the phrase, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Well, figuratively speaking, that little stick of ink (or feather quill – which is what I hope you’re imagining), is the most powerful weapon in your arsenal. We have full control over whether the protagonist, you and me, saves the kingdom, wins the championship, falls in love, learns and grows, and has a happy ending. Or do we write a flat script with a stagnant protagonist that no audience would pay a penny to see produced? In this piece, I take five of the steps for writing a good script and turn them into five steps for writing a great life for ourselves. We have full creative control over our lives, so why would we choose to write anything other than the best? I’m going to show you how to write the life that you want:

1.) Research

As a writer, you don’t just begin writing a script without learning how to write a script. If you write a screenplay with no structure, it’s going to suck no matter how good the idea was. Life is the same way: if you don’t know how to live before you live, your life is going to suck, no matter how good your ideas are. This means learning about ourselves, including our psychology (our thoughts, conditioning, and emotions), our bodies (nutrition and exercise), our spirituality (meditation and prayer), and interpersonal relationships. If we don’t, we go through life letting our thoughts run on autopilot and we fall victim to our emotions, our bodies weaken and break down and we fall victim to sickness and fatigue, we fail to maintain meaningful relationships without conflict and we become spiteful and untrusting of others, and we never discover ourselves and our callings. There are thousands of books, documentaries, and online articles available that cover all of this thoroughly so this vital information for our everyday lives is very easy to access. Instead of “researching” Mila Kunis’ relationship with Ashton Kutcher, who is rumored to be in the new Star Wars movie, or a video of a toddler hugging a chicken, why not research ourselves? You wouldn’t trash your new car if you plan on driving it for the next ten years. You’re going to be together with yourself every day for the rest of your life, it’s probably a good idea to figure out how to make things run as smoothly as possible. I wouldn’t write a script about a congressman without doing research on how being a congressman works. You shouldn’t write your script without doing research on living a life worth living either.

2.) Brainstorm

This is my favorite stage of writing. It’s when I unleash my creativity without censoring myself or worrying how everything will work. I simply let loose. It’s when I’m in touch with myself most and I value that time because I know many people who don’t know who they truly are. Sometimes hours fly by without me even realizing until they’re long gone. Conversely, sometimes I worry about how I’m going to do something for so long that I miss the opportunity altogether. We all do this. How am I going to pay the bills? How am I going to find the time? How am I going to make a career doing that? All of the “hows” do nothing but create self-doubt and disrupt the creative process in your brain. I have to turn off the WiFi in my apartment when I write so I don’t distract myself on Buzzfeed or Facebook because it takes another half hour to get back into a creative flow. The same goes for stopping to ask ourselves “How?” It halts our creativity dead in its tracks. There is a place for “How” later in the process, but asking it while brainstorming will stop ourselves from considering all possibilities. Worrying about what might not work makes figuring out what will much more difficult because our focus is diverted from what we want to what we don’t want. If I write a screenplay about a character with super powers and spend too much time worrying about how realistic it is, I’ll never consider introducing a pond with radioactive waste that he swam in as a kid. All thoughts need to be considered because you never know which ones will end up growing legs (which is what happens when you swim in a pond with radioactive waste). As humans, we have a gift of creativity that no other creature has, so why do we stop ourselves from using it by worrying about something that hasn’t even happened yet?

3.) Create your character

There is an ongoing debate between writers about whether character or conflict is more important. The truth is that there should be no debate – character and conflict work in unison with one another. Without character, there is no conflict, and without conflict, we have no character. They’re two sides of the same pillow. Characters create and respond to conflict and their results come directly from their choices. If an external conflict arises – a tornado, an affair, or a murder – how the character chooses to respond determines the outcome of the story. Even if the character isn’t directly responsible for this conflict, how he responds to it defines him as a character. If the character creates the conflict himself, it is up to him to grow and overcome what he did. If the character spends his time relying on other characters and fails to resolve the conflict himself, he fails to show any growth and the writer has failed to create a true protagonist. You’ll never see a Jason Statham movie where the supporting characters kick the bad guys’ asses while he does nothing. No one would turn that script into anything more than tinder for a fire. The same goes with your life: if you let everyone else fight your battles, you fail to grow and your life becomes tinder for a fire since everyone else is living it for you. Create a dynamic character for yourself and grow to overcome conflict to reach your happy ending.

When you create a character, you have to start in the present. Where is the character when your story begins? What is he doing with his life? How does he view the world? Everything that has led up to right now has shaped these things. In writing terms, these past events make up the backstory. Every character comes equipped with a backstory, but what determines a dynamic character is what he does with it. You and I both have our own conditioning, or backstories, and they shape every facet of our current predicaments – our thoughts, ideas, beliefs, attitudes, emotions, and actions – all are based on our backstories. How a character recounts his past determines the course of action he will take in the present. Bruce Wayne watched his parents get murdered, so he vowed to wipe crime from the streets of Gotham so others wouldn’t have to share the same fate. He easily could’ve been traumatized and remained reclusive inside Wayne Manor, but then no one would tell the story of Bruce Wayne. Just like Master Wayne (Michael Caine accent), how we recount our past determines how we approach the present. If we’re paralyzed by the negative things that have happened, we fail to grow and we never become a strong character, ruining any chance of writing a compelling story for ourselves. Molding our own character means being fully self-aware and it sometimes takes being brutally honest with yourself, but this honestly will create a much more dynamic character in the long run.

Strong characters compel us as an audience, because they eventually overcome a limiting belief set by their backstory. We’re sucked into the story because we too want to overcome the limiting beliefs set by our own backstories, and we do it vicariously through the main character. The protagonist is never able to overcome conflict until he overcomes a limiting belief and acquires the necessary tools to become victorious. That’s exactly what our character must do to strike down the conflicts and obstacles that arise in our own lives. If we overcome a limiting belief set by our backstory, and grow to overcome our obstacles, we have created a compelling character that will achieve what we want.

4.) Outline

Outlining is one of the most important stages of writing your story. It is used to write screenplays, sketches, novels, plays, articles, and college research papers. I had a political science professor spend an entire week lecturing about outlining for an 80-page research paper that I wrote. Without that outline, I would still be in college trying to figure out how to write page after page on sex offenders and the rate of repeat offenses. Outlining gives structure to our writing and allows us to lay out our thoughts in a way that’s easily accessible and customizable. If I get off track when I’m writing, which I often do, I simply refer to the outline to get back on task. Just like outlining in writing is essential to create a successful piece, outlining in life, or setting goals, is necessary to create a successful story for yourself. In a study of Harvard MBA graduates, 84% had no specific goals, 13% had goals but didn’t write them down, and 3% had clearly written goals. In ten years, the 13% were earning twice as much as those without goals, and the 3% were earning ten times as much as the other 97% of graduates on average. Although this is simply a snapshot, it has become clear to me why the top 1% earn so much more than the other 99 – they have an outline for their lives. Try writing a screenplay with no outline or story board. Chances are, you’ll give up because there’s no structure and nothing to put you back on track, making the process frustratingly impossible. As you write, sometimes the outline will change and improve the screenplay. As you live life, sometimes your goals will change and improve your life as you grow. Sometimes something better than you planned will come along, but since outlines can be easily customized, we can make room for these unexpected surprises that can occur taking our screenplays from good to great. Remember as you write your life “a failure to plan is a plan to fail.” So outline, outline, outline!

5.) Write and rewrite

No one writes a perfect script the first time, but we have to write that first draft to see what needs to be improved and better understand how and where to make those improvements for the next draft. Sometimes you write a bad script, but as the jokes fall flat during the table read and no one laughs, you know what parts need strengthened or removed altogether. There’s nothing worse than hearing crickets when your script is being read aloud as joke after joke bombs, but once you get past that initial discomfort and all of the thoughts saying, “You’re terrible! It’s best to just give up!” you’re going to write a better script. You never learn to keep your eye on the ball if you don’t strike out first. The most successful people see adversity as a stepping-stone rather than a brick wall. Leading positive psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar states that it’s better to face difficulties and drawbacks early so that we’re better prepared to deal with the inevitable obstacles that will arise in our lives. There are even companies who train their new hires to fail so that they can choose to think dynamically and overcome their failures to succeed better at their new jobs. When crisis eventually rears its ugly head, these employees are ready to meet them head-on. If we meet adversity by curling up into a ball and giving up, we never learn what it takes to overcome it. In fact, we have a terrible habit of using the experience of one failure to expect failure in all other facets of our lives, a paralyzing choice that is anything but true. Yes, failing is uncomfortable, but we’ll never write our story to its fullest potential if we crumple it up and throw it away after the first draft. So instead of meeting failure with submission, meet it with the enthusiasm to write draft after draft until you tell the compelling story that you’re meant to tell. So pick up your feather pen, dip it into your ink well, and get writing without worrying about the first draft being great, because as long as you keep writing, it eventually will be.

Please comment – I would love to hear your POV!