I come from a family of runners and writers. Both pursuits can be difficult and, at times, discouraging. My brother and I were talking about running recently and laughing about the fact that he’d run the same route every morning for months, always thinking, “I have the worst luck. The wind always picks up when I turn back for home.”
We were laughing because of course, this wasn’t true. The wind was there all along. But he wasn’t aware of it when it was pushing him gently along, helping him toward his goal. As runners, we’re aware of our tailwinds for a minute or two, and then we simply don’t notice them. Headwinds, however, are nearly always in our thoughts because they’re quite literally in our faces.
As it turns out, this isn’t an experience unique to running, and certainly not to my brother. In all aspects of life, we are more likely to notice the forces working against us than those working for us. Not because we are negative or pessimists, but because the obstacles are the very things we’re trying to overcome, and therefore they have our attention. The things that are helping us along don’t require our attention and therefore don’t receive it to nearly the same degree.
In psychology, this is known as the Headwinds/Tailwinds Asymmetry. Tom Gilovich of Cornell University has studied this phenomenon for years, sharing his results in scholarly articles as well as this highly accessible podcast interview. It’s a phenomenon that shows up across the human experience, in areas from sports to politics to family matters.
In conjunction with this research, Gilovich also references the fact that who actively practice gratitude—which is, in essence, the act of acknowledging and appreciating your tailwinds—are happier and healthier. Those who don’t are more likely to not only focus on their headwinds—the obstacles in their way—but to succumb to greed and envy, two feelings that are essentially the opposites of gratitude. As you might guess, this does not result in happier, healthier outcomes.
Let’s return, then, to writing. It’s easy to focus on the (valid) writing is difficult for you and on the obstacles you’ve faced and are facing.
But have you tallied your tailwinds lately? Ever? Your list might include some of these:
- Your education and literacy (For so much of the world, this is not a given.)
- Access to libraries, and perhaps even a personal library
- Access to the materials you need to write, whether that’s a brand-new laptop or a notebook and a sharp pencil
- Writing software (Search and replace! Track changes! What incredible tools we have.)
- A supportive family
- Wise critique partners
- A writing community, including mentors who pay it forward
- Access to information (Google Earth! Google Translate! Straight-up Google! YouTube! Blogs like this one!)
- Emotional health, including a heart capable of empathizing with the characters you create
- Physical health, including healthy hands capable of typing
- Mental health, including a mind capable of creating
- A supportive and knowledgeable agent
- An editor or publisher who champions your book
- Readers who love your work (whether they number in the millions or we’re just talking about your mom)
My own list includes many of these, and I’m sure there are things I’m missing—advantages I’ve enjoyed for so long that I simply don’t see them. But the very act of writing this list has helped me appreciate all the forces working in my favor. The very act of listing your tailwinds, or even stopping to think about it, can make all the difference in outlook and, as a result, outcome. It’s certainly something I plan to practice on a much more regular basis.
(Originally published February 12, 2018)