Moving Beyond Mediocrity: Asking Yourself the Tough Questions

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Gasping for air, I told my wife, “We need to go to the emergency room.”

On our way to the hospital my breathing became heavy and labored. My chest didn’t feel tight, but it also didn’t feel right. My family has a history of heart disease. I wasn’t physically active at the time. I expected the worst.

Looking back, it’s not like I was drafting an outline as we sped toward the hospital that day. But as a writer, I would have thought that I could at least pull a long magazine article out of a trip to the emergency room and subsequent months of intensive medical testing, maybe even base a book on the experience. But my failure to do so provided an important lesson about my work as a writer and about life in general.

By the time my wife drove me to the hospital just a few blocks from our home, I couldn’t catch my breath. I gasped and panted and apologized and told her that I loved her. I didn’t know what was going on.

People wandered around the emergency room, others sat reading magazines. No one was bleeding or gasping for air. When they told me to have a seat, my breathing grew worse.

They didn’t understand. I was struggling to breathe. I couldn’t catch my breath. Was there something wrong with my heart? Is this how they always handle heart attacks?

I waited and waited. I tried to think of something, anything else. Finally I walked up to the desk.

“I think I really need to see a doctor now. I can’t breathe. I don’t know what’s happening to me.”

The nurse snapped at me. “Sir, you’re having a panic attack. Just sit down and try to hold your breath.”

I was indignant. It would have helped if they’d mentioned that when we arrived!

Finally they ushered me to the exam room where they promptly declared me physically fit. My mental state, however, was another matter.

Later, a series of tests affirmed their declaration from the emergency visit. I had no health problems with my heart or lungs. My doctor gently suggested that my problem was “up here” as he pointed at his head.

Great, I’m a mental case, I thought to myself.

No Shortcuts to Excellence

In the years that followed, I started to zero in on my issues with anxiety. The truth is, I was always nervous and excitable, fearing the worst. One therapist said that I was waiting for a “tiger attack” most of the time.

I reached a breakthrough with my anxiety one day when I received prayer, the kind that knocked loose something inside of me that had been oppressive, deadly, and abusive. I finally saw daylight. I got better. Years passed without an attack.

As a writer, I wanted to share the experiences with others. I wrote a book proposal in a matter of days, shipped it to my agent, and waited for her reply. A week later she gave me a big thumbs down. This wasn’t my book to write, even if I’d had a life-changing experience.

What I hadn’t realized before is that at least one in ten Americans has anxiety issues. One major attack hardly qualified me as an expert on the subject.

The Tough Questions

The process of writing book proposals over the years has challenged me to work through my writing ideas with a far more critical eye. Instead of slapping together a proposal based on a life experience or helpful insight, I’m forced to ask myself tough questions:

  • Do I have the qualifications to write this book?
  • Is this idea unique enough?
  • Do people care about this topic?
  • Will anyone buy this book if it is published?

Working on book proposals isn’t a matter of days, weeks, or even months. I’ve learned that it usually takes years for a great book proposal to take shape as I ask tough questions and sort out what works and what doesn’t. I’ve had ideas that I loved but couldn’t quite cram them into a succinct elevator pitch for my proposals. They’ve sat on my computer until the day I returned with fresh eyes and a new perspective, leading me either to move forward or call the whole thing off.

Putting out my best work means I’ll often answer my own questions in ways that aren’t flattering to myself. Years after killing the anxiety project, I thought of another book idea about working from home, but as I passed the idea through my battery of questions, I realized another writer I know is far more qualified to write it.

Swallowing my pride, I emailed her the idea.

I like to believe I can do anything, but that’s just a recipe for mediocrity. There are excellent book ideas that I should write about, but it takes hours of journaling, free writing, and answering hard questions to figure out which ones they are.

Sometimes we just need to acknowledge our limitations in order to do our best work

Ed Cyzewski is the co-author of Unfollowers: Unlikely Lessons on Faith from the Doubters of Jesus (which took five years to write) and The Good News of Revelation (which started as a terrible idea back in 2010). He writes about imperfectly following Jesus at

Image by Drew Coffman. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr.

Moving Beyond Mediocrity

This article is part of our series, Moving Beyond Mediocrity. How often in your daily life do you think, “I wish I could do better”? It’s the feeling you get when you realize you aren’t really trying. Your job, your family, even your hobbies: they are worth working harder. But what does it take to move beyond mediocrity? How do you quit using your education, your upbringing, your circumstances, even your faith, as an excuse to keep you from doing your best? Join us as we discuss giving it our all in our workplaces and our homes, in our communities and our churches, for the common good and for the glory of God. Also, consider inviting others to join you by sharing these stories via email, Facebook, Twitter, or networks you are part of.