Advice From 20 Writers for a Better 2021

Woman writing on a bright orange wall.
Photo: Gabriel Mitchell/EyeEm/Getty Images

We needed all the wisdom we could get to make it through this year. Luckily, we got a ton of it from the writers at Forge, who shared words that inspired us, comforted us, and made our lives better. Though we all might have some version of “coronabrain,” these nuggets of advice have stuck. Here are 20 pieces of wisdom to carry into 2021 and beyond.

Life

When you’re feeling overwhelmed by a challenge, tell yourself a story from the other side. kelly corrigan suggests a mental exercise: Imagine that the challenging thing already happened and you nailed it. Describe how you thrived.

If you’re struggling to juggle multiple goals, think of your life in seasons. You might have a season for work, one for family, and one for learning. “In nature, seasons exist so that all animals can have their time in the sun,” Niklas Göke writes. “If you manage your life well, all of the most important parts of it will, too.”

Welcome whatever happens as if you wanted it to happen. Darius Foroux explains that the Stoics called this the ability to “practice acceptance without disdain.” It’s a necessary gestalt shift for the world we live in now.

Emotional validation feels good, but it comes at a price. “It’s easier to text a friend ‘I don’t have to do this, right?’ than it is to sit down, do your own thinking, and own whatever conclusion you reach,” Kathleen Smith explains. Making your own decisions — without needing anyone’s approval — is harder but ultimately much more rewarding.

A crisis is a chance to define your new normal. Don’t let yourself be gaslit into resuming life as though nothing happened, writes Julio Vincent Gambuto. Instead, “take a deep breath, ignore the deafening noise, and think deeply about what you want to put back into your life.”

There is no bad weather. After months of everyone stressing about how winter would end our pandemic-safe open-air socializing, it feels like a revelation to hear, from writer Tim Heffernan, that “it’s absolutely beautiful out there.” We just have to bundle up.

Work

Stop relying on your boss to motivate you. There are too many shitty bosses, Kelli María Korducki writes, and anyhow, “the trick is to find motivation outside of the managerial construct that’s so deeply embedded into the world we’ve inherited.”

Your workday must, at some point, end. For bestselling author Cal Newport, literally saying “shutdown complete” is an effective way to end your workday and return to your personal life. Whatever your shutdown ritual is, make it a definitive end.

Idleness and laziness are two different things. The most surprising benefit of building breaks into your workday, according to time-management expert Laura Vanderkam: Idleness is a state that primes your brain to come up with a great idea.

A short email is better than a long one. Especially in a professional context, your digital missives should be typed with the convenience of your reader in mind, writes Victoria Turk. Wherever possible, aim for five sentences or less.

Instead of asking yourself “How long will this take?” try “How much time am I willing to give this?Rather than estimating how much time you’ll need, Remy Franklin explains, you can take some agency over your schedule. Just stick to whatever time commitment you’ve made.

Relationships and social skills

Assess your people with the “two beers and a puppy” test. Ross McCammon suggests asking yourself two questions: Would I want to have two beers with this person? Would I trust them to look after my puppy over a weekend? “It’s a step toward increasing the number of people in your life and work who you like and trust,” McCammon writes.

Assume that your friends and family can handle uncomfortable situations. As Kathleen Smith puts it, “Sensitivity is often control in disguise.” You may think you’re being kind, but “avoiding a topic altogether means making a choice for the other person instead of letting them be responsible for themselves.”

Anti-racist action begins by listening to Black women. “Doing so will better equip you to understand the complexity of oppression and what we can do to challenge it,” argues author and sociologist Crystal Marie Fleming. And the more you understand, the better equipped you’ll be to act with principle and purpose.

Observations get people to open up more than questions. Instead of asking “How are you?” Ashley Abramson writes, show that you’re paying attention — for example, with a statement like “I’ve noticed that you’re quieter lately. I’m wondering if you’re stressed.”

An awkward pause is a chance for someone else to speak. Don’t rush to fill it. As Kate Morgan notes, that dreaded moment in many a Zoom call can be a valuable tool for making sure everyone gets heard.

Creativity and writing

Writing is the final stage of a process. As Drew Magary writes in this story about how to write a lot, getting the words down is just the final stage. It’s the way to shape to the writing you’ve already been doing in your head.

Keep a “spark file” to brainstorm with past versions of yourself. Michelle Woo suggests keeping a notebook to capture all the random ideas that pop up and then putting time on the calendar to go back through that notebook later. After all, sometimes ideas just need time to simmer.

Before drafting an email or story, write at the top of the page: “After reading this, I want the reader to ________.” Michael Thompson suggests using the statement as your North Star, a strategy he learned from entrepreneur Conor Neil. It’s good to have a North Star before going into a job interview, too.

Creative innovation is a byproduct of great processes, not great ideas. It’s easy to idealize creativity as the fruit of inspiration. But in doing so, Emre Soyer and Robin M. Hogarth write, “Creativity can seem more mysterious and exclusive than it actually is.” To quote another sage creative thinker, if you want results, you better work.

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