I'm Still Learning

In today's newsletter: Being comfortable with being new (and bad) at things, if you're thinking of starting a company, The Lion King, and more.

Hello, friends!

I launched paid subscriptions last week, and I’m feeling very humbled by and thankful for everyone who has signed up already.

Having your support means more than you know…

I left my full-time job as an editor at The New York Times last year and decided to become a full-time writer. I’ve been writing novels and screenplays full-time ever since, and I’m very lucky that I’m able to spend my days working on these amazing long-term projects. However, as you probably all know, it’s pretty hard to get novels published and it’s even harder to get movies made, and it’s not the easiest way in the world to make a living.

So, long story short: many, many thanks to everyone who is supporting my work by subscribing to this newsletter — you’re not only making it possible for me to spend some time sharing my life and thoughts with you here, you’re also making it possible for me to invest time in long-term big projects like books and movies (that you will get to read and see!).

(Note: If you subscribe before October 1st — tomorrow! — you can get 20% off by using this link: https://squarknotes.substack.com/3860a317)

Now for today’s topic:

I’m Still Learning

For those of you who have been following me/reading my stuff for a while, this will come as no surprise, but I love love LOVE learning new things. I’ve always been curious about things, have always loved reading, and have always loved learning things, and it borders on an obsession. (Ah hell, who am I kidding — it is an obsession.)

My love of learning has definitely evolved over the years. When I was a kid, I had to learn out of necessity to some extent. I was homeschooled up until around the sixth grade level, at which point my mom had to go back to work, my younger siblings went to public school, and me? Well, I had to teach myself. (I’m just writing about this in broad strokes right now, but if you want to read more about this, I did write a lot about it in my memoir, Whistleblower). So I educated myself through high school, and when I got into college, I fell even more in love with learning. I studied philosophy, then physics, and learned other things along the way, like how to be a decent writer, how to edit, and how to code — things that all came in very, very handy in later years.

And here’s where I want to stop and bring your attention to a distinction that we (i.e., collectively, as a society) draw between learning for a job (or job training) and learning for the joy of learning. So much of college (and of the rest of adult life) is about learning or studying things that will further your job or career prospects. You go to school to study business, or computer science, or whatever that thing is that you think you want to do the rest of your life. If you’re studying something that requires/allows for internships, then you go and do those internships so that now you have training for a real job. And then, if you’re lucky, you go and you get your job after graduation. And then, if the stars align and you follow all the rules and climb all the steps on the ladder, you keep working in that field, and you learn things along the way that help you (i) keep your job and (ii) move up in your company, field, etc.

Then there are the things you learn that have nothing to do with your job. Most people think of these things as hobbies, and we often say things like “oh I’m just learning how to paint watercolors for fun!” or “I’m learning yoga for fun!” or “I’m writing a novel for fun!” There are some things in this category in which it is more acceptable or normal (for lack of a better word) to be a beginner at — things like yoga, gardening, etc. come to mind. Then there are things that aren’t as common: physics, math, etc. (Programming is one of those things that was once in the “not so common” bucket and is now in the “normal and expected” category.)

Okay, so now back to my life: In my life so far, I’ve had a bunch of different “jobs.” I’ve been a physics research assistant. I’ve been a software engineer. I’ve been an editor. Now I’m a novelist and screenwriter. And one of the things that, I think, has allowed me to jump between these various things is that I don’t draw a distinction between job training/career training and hobbies. When I talk to people about what I do, and who I am, etc., I try to phrase it in ways that make sense; for example, when I worked at the Times, I’d say, “Hi, I’m Susan, I work as an editor at The New York Times and I write screenplays and novels on the side, and I play the violin and ride horses for fun!” But, in my head, it actually looks like this: “I’m learning how to write novels, I’m learning how to write screenplays, I’m learning how to edit, I’m learning how to play the violin, I’m learning how to ride horses, I’m learning mathematics, I’m learning physics, I’m learning about my place and role in the world, I’m learning how to dance, I’m learning…” and so on. In my head, I’ve stopped caring about the distinction between career and study and job title. In my head, it’s all the same: learning is the same as doing is the same as being. I am a writer because I write. Writing is learning. Learning is doing. Doing is being.

I have found that this mindset is life-changing because, when I stop thinking about becoming something as a goal (like “I want to be a writer someday,” or “I want to be a pianist someday”), and start thinking about doing something or being something in terms of learning (like “being a writer is about learning how to write,” or “being a pianist means learning how to play the piano”), then I stop caring or worrying about being bad at it or failing. And — aside from general constraints like time, energy, money, etc. — these things are so often what holds me back: the fear of really sucking at something, the worry that I’m wasting my time, the fear that I could be spending time on “something more productive,” etc. (And I’m guessing they probably hold you back, too!)

If I allow myself to be a student of everything, I allow myself to be bad, I allow myself to suck at something, I allow myself the opportunity to work and learn and improve and evolve. I give myself a little bit of grace. And this isn’t just true for things like studying something like, for example, computer science. It’s true for life, too. God, life is so much easier when I allow myself the grace to be a student! When I make a mistake, when I do something wrong, when I mess up, I can forgive myself and say, “you know what, Susan, it’s okay — you’re still learning.”

One thing I recently picked back up is ballet. I always wanted to dance when I was younger, but we just didn’t have the money or resources or even anywhere to study ballet, so it was just a daydream for a long time. Then, when I was in college, I did a year of ballet, and really fell in love with it. I was terrible, but I didn’t care. I loved every moment of it. Then, I got very sick, and had to drop out of the classes, and life went by, and before I knew it, I was married and had a baby — but still, I wanted so badly to learn. So I started taking classes again, and it was wonderful. Then I started a new job, and had no free time anymore. And then I found time. And then the pandemic hit! And then I had another baby, and, a few months ago, found myself daydreaming about ballet again. So here I am, thirty years old, taking lessons, and loving every minute of it (it helps that I found a really amazing teacher!). I’m so bad, but it doesn’t matter. I’m a student. I’m still learning.

If You’re Thinking of Starting a Company

Cool new thing: AngelList just launched their AngelList Stack offering, which appears to be a competitor to Stripe Atlas. Where AngelList’s product seems to differ from Stripe’s is around their fundraising and equity management tools. A really smart move from AngelList, I think, because they have been around for a while and really know what founders need and use on the fundraising side. (Stripe’s strength is that they understand the payment side better than anyone else.)

I love things like this, because they make it really easy to go from zero to having a real business in basically no time at all. I think that can be life-changing for a lot of people. If you’ve been thinking about starting a company, check these out, and let me know how it goes! (I keep longingly staring at both of these and wishing I had a good idea for a startup, but alas — I’ve got nothing!)

(Disclaimer: As you all know, I worked at Stripe for a little while and am a Stripe shareholder. However, I do not make a penny if you sign up for either Stack or Atlas, and the links above are not affiliate links — I’m just sharing them because they seem cool to me and I thought you might like them too!)

My Week

What I’m Listening To: I listened to this episode of The Screenwriting Life podcast and it really spoke to me. I’ve had a tough few weeks of writing, partly because I haven’t had as much time as I need and haven’t been sleeping because the baby hasn’t been sleeping, and when I sit at my computer I struggle to connect with my writing. Listening to this episode made me ask myself all kinds of questions about why I want to write and why I’m writing these specific things, and it helped me connect with my writing again. Highly recommend, especially if you’re in a writing slump!

What I’m Reading: Matrix, by Lauren Groff. A fictional account of the life of Marie de France, written with a sort of urgency and frantic-ness that I have seen in other historical fiction recently (the style reminds me of Hamnet). Really enjoying it so far.

What I’m Studying: This week, I’m studying Billy Wilder’s films, and watching lots and lots of interviews with him to understand his approach to writing and directing.

What I’m Watching: A bunch of Billy Wilder films (Sabrina and Sunset Boulevard are two of my favorites). Also watching the original Lion King on repeat with my daughter; I hadn’t seen it since I was a kid, and wow, it really holds up and is even better than I expected — it blew me away! What a masterpiece!

What I’m Working On: I’m getting a pitch ready for a project I’m really excited about and really love. Also revising a pilot that I feel really connected to. And working on two novels — one I’m actively writing, and the other I’m still outlining. All very fun stuff :)

If you’re a subscriber, don’t forget to send in your questions for Friday’s Q&A!

Until next time!

- Susan