Tyler Durden’s Rules for Writing in the Zone, part 4 (of 5)



“someday you will die and until you know that you are useless to me”

Death can be a teacher and an ally.

When you become aware – truly aware – of your own impending death, it wakes you up to the gift of your life.  Every moment takes on a new importance.  You learn to engage with the here and now.

You might even contemplate the question, as poet Mary Oliver puts it, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

If you’re like successful blogger Chris Guillebeau, you ask yourself bigger questions than simply How can I earn money through my blog? Chris began his highly successful Art of Non-Conformity as his “legacy project”. It emerged from the story he wanted to tell people about his life and his desire to use that story to impact the world. (And then he started earning money through his blog.)

Part of what characterizes the experience of being in flow is an altered sense of time. Past and future disappear. There is only the sense of ‘now’. When you lift your head from your work after being “in flow” — in the zone — you may find that hours have disappeared without you realizing.

Truly knowing that one day you will die sharpens your focus on the moment.  It encourages you to ask bigger questions of yourself, to set goals and clearly define them.  Both these things are elements that will help lift you into the zone.

“Sticking feathers up your butt does not make you a chicken.”

Make sure that your goals are authentic.

An authentic goal is motivated not by external rewards but by what scientists refer to as “the third drive”.   If humans are motivated by biological needs (the first drive) and the urge to seek out rewards and avoid punishment  (the second drive),  we are also motivated by the challenge and inherent satisfaction of the task itself (the third drive).

In his book on human motivation – titled, conveniently enough, DRIVEDaniel Pink notes that “intrinsic motivation is conducive to creativity; controlling extrinsic motivation is detrimental to creativity.”  (He goes on to explain that as soon as you’re paid for creative work, what started out as ‘play’ begins to feel like “work”, which takes away the sense of autonomy that we need and crave.  This wipes out the third drive and puts us back in the second drive, where we act simply to seek short-term rewards and avoid short-term pain.)

“In the early 1960s, researchers surveyed students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago about their attitudes toward work and whether they were more intrinsically or extrinsically motivated….The less evidence of extrinsic motivation during art school, the more success in professional art both several years after graduation and nearly twenty years later.” Painters and sculptors who were intrinsically motivated, those for whom the joy of discovery and the challenge of creation were their own rewards, were able to weather the tough times….”Those artists who pursued their painting and sculpture more for the pleasure of the activity itself than for extrinsic rewards have produced art that has been socially recognized as superior,” the study said.  “It is those who are least motivated to pursue extrinsic rewards who eventually receive them.”

Those who do the task for the pleasure of the task itself, and are focused on the task instead of the outcome (and potential rewards), set themselves up to experience the zone – or what this psychology professor who studied happiness and creativity became famous for characterizing as “flow”.

In the zone, time disappears; you work harder, longer, and at a higher level.  So is it any wonder that artists who work for the joy of the work itself tend to be the artists who succeed?  Or that some people will tell you, “Do what you love, and the money will follow?”

“You’re not your job.  You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis.”

All the external things are statements and stories about who you are – or want to be – to the world, but for the real themes and truths of your life you have to look inward.

As Jim Loehr puts it in his book THE POWER OF STORY, we are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.  The human mind uses narrative to make sense of the world, to inject order and meaning through “chronology and cause-and-effect logic.”

“A story is our creation of a reality; indeed, our stories matter more than what actually happens.”

If the story you tell yourself is,  I start lots of novels but never finish any of them, you are programming your subconscious to ensure that that becomes your reality.  If you tell yourself, I have poor powers of concentration and am a total loser and can’t accomplish anything, your mind will accept this and make sure you live out your negative story.

Based on external reality, your story may be inaccurate or even a downright lie; but within the internal reality of your mind, the story you tell yourself about yourself is the only one that truly matters. It shapes your sense of self and dominates your future.

What is your true, secret opinion of yourself?  What are the stories you tell yourself that create and perpetuate this opinion, and how do you think they impact your daily life?  Will these stories help you achieve the things in life you want to achieve?  If not, how can you rewrite them?

Perhaps your rewritten story can include,  I sit down to my creative work everyday. I honor the process. My work is important.  I encounter my work and “write deep” for the rich satisfaction that it gives me.

This kind of commitment and self-awareness will open up the doors to the zone.
concludes tomorrow



Jan 1, 2010

7 comments · Add Yours

I have truly enjoyed these posts. I am looking forward to your fifth post. Your gift is your uncanny ability to reveal to your reader that kind of nebulous truth-substance that is hidden by the daily grind. I thank you for keeping me from embracing monotony while at the same time introducing me to its value and beauty.


I’ve been reading this whole series and can’t wait for the last post. You’ve got some really interesting ideas here and a very accessible style. I like your integration of other sources, they really help to flush out the whole concept of “writing in the zone”. I think too often people forget that writing is a very serious artistic endeavor.


thank you. this is a really great series. i got roped in by the fight club reference, but really dig the way you break down your argument. as a writer, i am always looking for a way to tap into the flow.


So this is what it takes to be a writer. I finally have the answer! There has always been a part of me that knew… just knew instinctively… that all those creative writing courses and workshops were just my way of holding onto a dream. What it really took was never discussed. Thank you! Now that I know the truth I am scared, but I have the starting point of my journey.


That is quite the comment, and I am really flattered. Thank you.


What it really takes is constant reading, writing, constructive feedback, & revising, but the other stuff really helps.


thanks for the inspirational grit. Your writing has a distinct edginess and unique voice. I’m encouraged (and challenged) as a writer by your efforts and reminded that the zone (whether we’re talking about writing, sports, or any other endeavor) happens when we fully put our heart into the process and fall in love with the moment. Thanks for putting your heart into your work and your words onto the web.

All the best & continued success in 2010.
Shawn @ MindOfChampions.com



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