NON FICTION: Why ‘Keep Showing Up’ Isn’t Just Cliché Advice

Woman at soccer field practice

Photo: Jeffrey F Lin

People like to throw around the phrase ‘keep showing up’ as if it’s the solution to everything. Want to finally finish that novel? Just keep showing up. Earn a gold medal in your sport? Keep showing up. Trying to perfect that hard guitar solo? Keep. Showing. Up.

The thing about this advice is that it’s pretty easy to categorise it as cliché, a hackneyed term that somewhat inspires but lacks in lustre thanks to its overuse. It’s one of those phrases that belong with ‘Fake it till you make it’ and ‘There are plenty of fish in the sea’.

The thing is though, is that while it sounds simple, it does hold a certain truth. Of course, you’ll always run the risk of not achieving the thing you set out for, but if it were that easy, you probably wouldn’t even want it.

Photo of legs at a lakeside

Would you still want something if it was easily attainable? Photo: Simon Migaj

My own pursuits

Personally, I’ve gotten some mileage out of this advice. Last August, for some reason I decided to start practising penmanship, learn to read Chinese, and journal just for the sake of it.

I didn’t have any expectations. I just wanted to do the work and see where it took me. Weirdly enough, I’ve not missed a day of this morning routine ever since I started, except for that time I had to clock in sixteen-hour workdays in Myanmar.

That doesn’t mean that showing up’s always a breeze though. On most days I’d just stare at an ugly capital ‘T’, wondering if the day’s fifteen minutes will ever make a difference. Then I’d long for the bed when it comes time for Chinese lessons.

I didn’t even have a solid plan. All I knew was that I wanted to show up just so that I could score an ‘X’ in my habit tracker at the end of the day.

Eighty percent of success is showing up.

—Woody Allen

That meant practising penmanship by writing the alphabet thousands of times over. That meant Googling ‘top Chinese characters’ and memorising them by sheer will. There was no elegance to my execution. No expert opinion. Just my own ways of reaching my goals.

You’d think that there are better methods out there that would help me learn faster, and you’d be right.

Along the way, I’d come across penmanship books and worksheets that would significantly boost my progress. I’d also learn about Chinese radicals, helping me memorise chunks of characters instead of visually remembering individual ones.

But I wouldn’t have discovered them had I not started practising in the first place.

Sign saying Fail Harder

Sometimes the trial and error is worth much more than the research. Photo: Julian Dutton

Seeing results

I’d like to think that my penmanship has since improved, and that I’ve actually memorised enough Chinese characters to make sense out of the hawker-stall signboards.

As optimistic as my experience sounds, ‘just showing up’ is actually as hard as balls to follow up on.

After all, who wants to wake up at six in the morning when the bed’s so inviting and the snooze button’s just a hammerfist away? Why fire up a text editor when you can browse Facebook with the exact same amount of effort?

And we haven’t even talked about the boring side—practising scales in music, poring over documentation in programming, the editing part of videomaking—that makes for an inevitable part of every pursuit.

But that’s exactly the thing that’ll set you apart from the other schmucks who’re just in it for the money or fame (though I’ve come to realise that every professional claims that there’s no money or fame in their field).

That will also be the reason why you’ll hate showing up every day. You’ll think of another blank page and find it hard to even flip the laptop open. You’ll imagine the hour’s worth of sweat—and sometimes tears—and second-guess heading out the door for a run.

And this is when you do it. When you just shut up and show up.

Man cycling in cycling dome

The more you don’t want to do something, the more you should. Photo: Dylan Nolte

A practice of faith

Despite not seeing the worth in your day’s practice, you have to operate on faith and just show up. The suckier it feels before you do it, the better. Because that’s where the growth is.

Don’t let slip on the rose-tinted glasses on your behalf though. You could very well pursue your craft your entire life and still not see the fruits of your labour. That’s part of the journey we make as human beings.

Or you could always shrug your way through a career you’re not too keen about because it’s safe. Maybe it’s not practical to become an English writer in Asia. Maybe opening yet another online store is a stupid idea in this day and age. Why not do the responsible thing and trod down proven paths, am I right?

But wasn’t it Jim Carrey that said, “You can fail at something you don’t want, so why not take a chance at something that you love?”

Last year I quit my cushy job to write a novel, a terribly stupid thing to do in Malaysia, where writers themselves aren’t even paid much to begin with. But I made it a point to show up every day, to keep writing until I finish my first book, to do this one thing instead of wondering ‘what if’ later in life.

Silhouette of man leaping over cliff gap

It may seem scary, but what important choice isn’t? Photo: Kristopher Roller

Taking the leap

I didn’t know what I was doing. I still don’t. But I showed up every day. And as shitty as I felt my writing was, I still made it on the longlist of one of the most prestigious fiction competitions in the region.

Now I’m in talks of having the book published, and I’ve also just completed my second novel on a steady diet of 250 words a day. I’d spent eight years just dreaming about writing a book, and it took about just six months to come up with a publishable manuscript.

It was the showing up that ultimately led me to achieving these goals, and not researching how to plot or write a killer first chapter. I didn’t need to go balls out on my second novel too. It’s interesting how little you need to do when you consistently put in the work for a long period of time.

The willingness to show up changes us, It makes us a little braver each time.

Brené Brown

It’s not about the drastic actions, but the little insignificant choices you make each day that’ll one day turn into a monumental goal. For me, it was writing at least 250 words a day. For you, it could be picking steamed chicken over pizza. Or maybe spending a little time drawing instead of watching Netflix.

It doesn’t matter if you’re setting out to learn something new or drill a technique you’ve done a thousand times before. It doesn’t matter if you write on a laptop or on a legal pad, play an instrument with or without a metronome, run on the trail or on the road. It doesn’t matter if you don’t even know where to start.

As long as you show up, you’ll already have done eighty percent of the work. As for the rest, the universe has a funny way of helping those who help themselves.

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