Save Your Breath
🦊 #63 — Learning to swim saved me from drowning in overthinking.
It’s great to be back writing to you after a few weeks off. While I was out, I received some exciting news: Quick Brown Fox was Featured on Substack! Our friendly neighborhood fox has been trotting all over the Substack front page, as well as the Reader Discover page. It’s a great feeling to be recognized in this way. I’m honored and excited!
A warm welcome to all of the new subscribers who discovered me through the feature. Thanks for following the fox! It’s great to have you.
I was visiting with my friend Jesse when I saw the email from Substack about being featured. After I excitedly shared the news, Jesse recalled talking to me about my newsletter over a year ago, when I had just published the third edition. He noted that I seemed really determined to keep going with it — to make it something “real.” During that moment, I was especially anxious about my newsletter. I was worried the third edition would be its last.
Today I want to tell you the story of Quick Brown Fox #4 — the edition that almost killed this newsletter.
Death of a Newsletter
To understand what fueled my fears at the time, we have to go back several years before I started Quick Brown Fox. I had just started my first newsletter, Laugh & Learn. It went out to an audience comprised mostly of former students from coding bootcamps I had taught. In each edition, I shared a variety of links, memes and ideas. I got great feedback on it — readers noted that was the perfect mix of informative and entertaining.
The problem was that each edition took far too much energy to write. It wasn’t the actual research or writing that drained me — it was my obsession with perfection in every edition. I made it far more stressful than it needed to be.
Sadly, I didn’t have the perspective then to see the real problem (my mindset). I only saw the symptoms (my exhaustion). I concluded that writing a newsletter was simply too much work. After the third edition, I gave up on it. Laugh & Learn silently disappeared. I was filled with guilt for abandoning my readers. I fell into cycles of self-criticism for giving up so soon. But the worst part was that even when I was motivated to restart it, I wouldn’t let myself. I refused to. I was afraid I would fail all over again.
A Fox is Born
Fast forward a few years to the end of 2019. I was working a full-time job at a big tech company, and I hadn’t published anything online in many years. It wasn’t just my newsletter that was gone, even the blog posts that I used to write had stopped flowing. That’s when I heard about a cohort-based course called Write of Passage. The instructor, David Perell, offered hands-on tools and guidance to help you find your writing voice and publish regularly. The course worked wonders for me, and gave me the push I needed to finally start a newsletter again. Quick Brown Fox was born. (P.S. I’m excited to share that I’m going to be an Alumni Mentor for the upcoming Write of Passage cohort in September!)
I published the first few newsletters of Quick Brown Fox bursting with energy. I had written a few essays in the course already, and was riding the momentum. By the third edition, I was beginning to get into a sort of newsletter flow, especially given its weekly cadence.
And then came number four. The mythical mark I never reached with Laugh & Learn.
It’s hard to express the chaotic web of emotions and fears I felt at that time. My mind was sucked into a vortex of irrational spirals. I could hear all the voices of negativity echoing, smashing against each other. It was like I was stuck in a cave with a million bats, each one screeching another reason that I’d fail. Again.
Just like that, all the writing flow I found in the first few Quick Brown Fox editions disappeared. Suddenly I had no idea what to write about. Every idea became too silly, too irrelevant or too hard to explore. I questioned the very purpose of newsletters, essays, and writing in general. The voices of self-sabotage bullied me into inaction.
Thankfully, I got through it. Quick Brown Fox #4 went live on February 2nd, 2020. I went on to write almost 60 more editions, including today’s.
How did I manage to get number four out the door? Looking back, I can think of three main factors that helped me overcome my publishing demons.
Firstly, I channeled my anxiety into my creativity. I embraced the principles of vulnerability and working in public. I wrote about my struggles, fears, and the overwhelming power of negativity:
Negative thoughts have significantly more power, weight, and longevity than positive ones.
When a negative thought penetrates our mind (born from a hurtful event, critical feedback, embarrassment, etc.), it can linger for days, weeks or more. Often, it can become a constant distraction. Worse, it can be debilitating, compromising our ability to function.
By contrast, positive thoughts are fleeting. We typically enjoy a compliment, happy moment, or joyful exchange briefly… and then quickly move on. So, even if we have the same count of positive/negative thoughts, negativity has far more staying power.
Secondly, I was a different person than the one who wrote Laugh & Learn. I had learned, through regular practice of meditation and mindfulness, how to observe my own thoughts. I became more resilient against being captured by them.
Lastly, and I think this is the most important factor of all, I learned to conserve my energy. I realized that I was using up all my writing energy thinking about writing. So I learned to make little agreements with myself: I’d allow myself to deliberate and tweak my work, but only up to a certain limit. It is hard to say exactly what the line is for this, but I can often sense when I’m getting lost in the preparation rather than the act. When it starts to go too far, I put a pin on thinking, and get to writing.
Save Your Breath
In closing, I want to share a powerful analogy for energy conservation which might help you in your own creative struggles. It came to me through swimming lessons. (Yes, swimming lessons. Bear with me…)
When I was a child, I didn’t really know how to swim properly. I hadn’t learned how to do breaststroke, and so I would get exhausted after swimming a few laps. I received some lessons, but they never really held. (I also had some pretty bad childhood swim coaches, some of whom would simply dunk me underwater to “resolve” my fear of swimming. It didn’t work.)
As an adult, I decided I wanted to learn to swim. For real this time. I was lucky to find an excellent coach at a gym. He started by hearing out my complaints about running out of energy. He watched me swim a few laps, and that was enough for him to see the problem.
He told me that I was trying too hard to breathe. I thought this was an absurd thing to say, since my problem was clearly that I was running out of breath. Surely I needed more breath, not less.
It was then that he gently guided me into realizing the folly of my ways. My panic around having enough breath was, in fact, the very thing that used up most of my breath. Anxiety takes up energy. And mine took it all. Effectively, I was suffocating myself out of oxygen.
Once he taught me to breathe, I could float across to the other end without taking a single breath. It took a lot of practice in staying calm and relaxed, but to my surprise, I learned to do it only within a few days. It taught me that I didn’t need to breathe constantly, and that I could drastically change what I could do by changing how I think.
I learned to relax while swimming. When I relaxed, I had more breath. When I had more breath, I swam farther, faster, freer. Months later, I was swimming with speeds I could never have imagined.
Panic, fear, worry and overthinking sucks up your energy like a vacuum. If you spend all your energy thinking about doing, you’ll have no energy left to actually do anything.
Save your breath.
In the end, the thing that stops us is rarely the task itself. It is our own self sabotage.
—Wind, Sand & Stars, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Bird Karma — Beautiful (albeit dark) short film about a dancing bird that chased one too many fish. Animated by William Salazar (who also worked on Prince of Egypt and Kung Fu Panda), it is an absolute masterclass in artistic detail, style, and story.
this + that too — I’ve been loving this energetic, nostalgic, powerful Spotify playlist full of joy. It was weaved together by none other than my brother Imran! If you like it, be sure to check out his other playlists (he just texted me to let me know the next one is coming soon!)
The Hidden Melodies of Subways Around the World — Another audio pick (via Drew Austin’s newsletter), this interactive NYT article is a fascinating journey through all the different sounds of transit systems around the world. The NY subway will always have a special place in my heart thanks to my time living there, I think my favorite is Vancouver’s lovely “upward arpeggio”.
I’ll leave you with a rough sketch I did on the plane back from vacation. It’s illustrating a scene from a fable I’m writing called Turtle’s Tide, part of my upcoming book of fables.
The storm quickly grows worse, and the crew retreats below the decks. The turtle stands alone at the helm of the ship. He’s in familiar territory, having steered the ship out of countless catastrophes before. His shell carries the scars of many battles.
“Onward!” he screams, into the seas that swallow all sounds.