The words left his mouth with a chuckle.
I was sitting among strangers, fresh with jet lag, trying to wrap my mind around how I ended up on a farm in West Wales.
There were bits of hay stuck to the mud on my shoes and the color had faded from my fingers. Every breath of the room held in anticipation.
The phrase was wound tightly around the project that would steer my next four months. I hadn’t the slightest idea what it meant, but I smiled politely and readied myself through the silence.
“You’ll be writing a report. A book, rather. Roughly 140 pages in length. I want you to leave here with a printed copy in your hand.”
An uncomfortable laugh escaped from my nerves. He was serious.
He turned to face the whiteboard and continued. “Twelve weeks to print.”
His left hand clutched a black marker and my stomach dropped.
“The topic is stress.”
Questions stacked in my brain as he stepped aside to reveal the scribbled phrase, Don’t be dull.
In a matter of minutes, I had become a lead writer, researcher, coordinating editor, and publisher.
I had no idea what was going on.
As far as I was concerned, I was an intern that had decided to dabble in writing a few months before. I had never written a book. I didn’t know where to start.
I sat frozen in front of an empty Word document with my feet on a radiator.
Not only was I charged with the task of creating something that I wouldn’t normally take the time to read, I had to be accurate, helpful, and witty all at the same time. I was being asked to guide people through a topic that I had never been able to conquer myself.
I couldn’t decide if this was the opportunity of a lifetime or an absolute joke, so I did what any millennial would do. I turned to Google.
I spent weeks researching; compiling spread ideas, subtopics, quotes, and images; searching for anything that might contrast the sleepiness of an ordinary report.
Once I had enough to work with, I prepped for the one day of the week where my boss and I would actually be in the same room.
He was addressing each project by deadline. I pretended to listen to the running order and recited the pitch in my mind.
Then, it was my turn. I delivered it quickly, attempting to hide the waver in my voice. But instead of critique or direction, I received a half-nod and a question.
“How many days to print?”
I pointed toward the countdown that was taped to the wall and read off the number that bled through the mismatched sticky notes.
He clasped his hands and said,
Needless to say, the topic of the report quickly became the most ironic piece of it all.
I couldn’t sleep. My skin dried out. I was over-eating. I couldn’t focus. My creativity was at an all time low. And I was drowning in a pool of information. All while shaping chapters around the importance of taking care of yourself.
I was on autopilot, unsure of whether I should show the spiral or act like I hadn’t just cried in the bathroom.
I was terrified of writing in the wrong direction. Of not meeting expectations. Of failing. Of wasting my time.
So I wasn’t committing to my ideas at all. I was playing it safe. And I wasn’t pushing myself.
Then somewhere in the shit storm, I stopped fighting the confusion and decided to use it.
I realized that my greatest strength was the fact that I was confused, consumed, and bored by the topic. That I didn’t really know what was expected. That I had fresh eyes, and if I could make each section interesting to me, I could conquer this thing and make it “gettable.”
So I chose to make the issue human. Relatable. Beautiful. And approachable. And I gave myself permission to stumble into different ideas.
I still couldn’t see the big picture, but that was okay. I could focus on the pieces of it, on just getting one spread sorted. One paragraph. One photo. One idea. Just one thing. And once I did that, I could tape it to the cobblestone wall and make sense of it later.
And just like that, the wall was suddenly full.
I wish I could say that that was the hallelujah moment, but it wasn’t.
I still had an empty prototype staring at me from my desk, and a ridiculous amount of pieces that didn’t fit together.
I hated that little white book more than anything. It taunted me every single day and reminded me that I didn’t know how to make sense of my own vision.
I proudly referred to it as The Stupid, and did everything in my power to ignore its existence.
But that didn’t last very long. I was called out and given five hours to put my pages in that godforsaken thing.
Then came the grey hairs. I found one. And then four more.
I had gone through two Stupids, played messenger for my boss and designer for months, and had a pile of words that had not been read by anyone but myself.
I had absolutely no feedback and no way of knowing if all of my work was going to be scrapped or liked by the people that would decide what goes to print.
I was nearing the end of my sanity and didn’t know what to do. Three months of staring at this project was literally making me nearsighted.
Then the unthinkable happened. Four days before our original print date, I was handed thirty-six new spread ideas that needed to be researched and written. Thirty-six.
All while my work sat, unread.
That was the day I nearly hurled myself from the roof.
I put my head down and embraced the looming truth that the print date was being pushed back.
I kept working.
Three days later, I met with my boss, designer, editor at large, and experiment enthusiast / ideas guy. We went over all of the spreads, and again, six new sections were added.
If you would have told me at the beginning of my placement that this was the way the project was going to pan out, I would have panicked. And maybe even been a bit disappointed or discouraged.
But in the moment, I wasn’t. I was hopeful, and excited to see it coming together. I felt proud of my work, and confident in my ideas, but I also knew that these final pushes were going to make it that much better. And ultimately, worth it.
Even though there’s still an insane amount of work to be done in the next eight days, I’m writing a report. A book, rather. Roughly 140 pages in length. And I’m going to leave here with a printed copy of it in my hand.
So no, the report isn’t finished yet. And I still have no idea what I’m doing.
But I’ve poured myself into something, I’ve pushed myself further than I ever thought I could be pushed, I’ve held my own, and I’ve learned a hell of a lot.
Things got interesting.
I’m a better writer for it.
I’m a better person for it.
And The Stress Report will be better for it.
The Do Lectures - www.thedolectures.com