Scott Stambach is an educator and novelist. He is a Physics/Astronomy Professor at San Diego City College and the author of the book The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko, nominated for the 2018 Dublin Literary Award.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I was born and raised in a small bucolic town in upstate New York with very little diversity in terms of people, culture, or ideas. Who can say for sure how this shaped me? I only know that I often wonder if I sensed the limits of the world I was growing up in and there was more to be discovered.
This is probably why I always felt this drive towards expansion and exploration; first, in the form of books, then traveling to India, and then leaving Upstate New York for San Diego where I went to graduate school in physics. I distinctly remember feeling the thrill of my world growing l bigger after each of these moves (even if I was also terrified).
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
I wish I would have clarified my values earlier. I wish I would have known that I do not have to believe everything my mind tells me. I wish I would have known that I can hold all my pain and every storm of emotions in my own indestructible awareness. I wish I would have known that no matter how scared or depressed I might feel, I can still do the things I care about.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
In the area of writing, it is not so much bad advice as bad representations of writers in film. They are all so cliché and one-dimensional! Tortured souls with writer’s block trying to write the great American novel. That is not all of us. Writing can be a healthy, enjoyable process. We just need to A) do it because it is a precious art, not because it will bring fame, fortune, and validation, and B) learn to enjoy the snags and challenges as areas to grow and go deeper into a story.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
I had intense social and performance anxiety in my 20s. My instinct for managing this storm of thoughts and emotions was to start saying no to the things that mattered to me (public speaking, romantic experiences, career opportunities.) But I soon noticed that the more I said no, the more fear I had, which made me say no even more, which shrunk my world even smaller.
At a desperate moment, I was so anxious I could barely speak to my best friend without being on the edge of a panic attack. It was around this time that I began saying yes to everything that mattered to me, no matter how scared I was. It was not easy, and it was deeply uncomfortable (almost impossible) to do scary things. But immediately my life started growing again. And while the fear is not gone completely (it doesn’t have to go anywhere if you befriend it!) those who know me today would never recognize the scared person I used to be.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
Clarifying my values and using them to guide my life choices no matter how scared or unmotivated I may be. This habit not only ensures success, but it ensures that success is coming from the right place. A place of meaning and fulfillment, not from a place filling holes of not-enoughness. We are creatures of meaning. Meaning makes life wonderful. Filling holes makes you feel like an imposter. Covering up our mistaken sense of unworthiness with accomplishments will always be a losing game.
What is your morning routine?
Wake up around 5:30, meditate for a half-hour or so, and write for an hour or two. Eat breakfast, walk my pup, jump into the ocean, take a shower, work again until lunch.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
Meditation. It the best practice I know of for catching the limiting stories we tell ourselves about what we are worth, what we deserve, and what we are capable of. Once we understand the role our stories play in limiting us, suddenly we are capable of anything right up to the very edge of human capacities. Example: Once upon a time, I believed this story: You went to school for physics, Scott. You are not a writer. How dare you try and write fiction? Imagine if I listened to this silly story. I would not have published an award-winning novel.
Clarifying my values. Mine are connection, contribution, creativity. What are yours? Community? Adventure? Curiosity? Thrill? Financial security? Leadership? Justice? Love? Growth? Performance? Whatever they are, if you clarify them and act in service of them, you will have a purpose, meaning, and direction in your life. This is priceless. Cultivating these things is the art of life.
Saying yes to anything that matters, even if it’s hard. Do this and life opens up in mysterious and beautiful ways that you might never imagine.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
Every night, I make a list of the things I want to accomplish the next day. Then I do it by hell or high water. But I’m gentle with myself if I don’t finish.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg: Often our approach to communicating in our various relationships are ineffective and alienated from the beautiful human needs we are seeking to meet through our difficult conversations. We can yell and scream to be understood, but often we aren’t even sure ourselves what needs we are trying to meet. But if we can explain our needs and make a clear request, it often touches the tender part of another person, making them more willing to see our perspective.
Get Out of Your Head and Into Your Life by Steven C. Hayes: I spent a lot of my life very afraid and anxious, saying no to all the things that mattered to me. Get out of Your Head taught me something so important: Even if you are feeling sad and scared, you are still able to move your hands and feet in the direction of the things you care about.
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle: No other teacher I’ve had in my life has better helped me understand that the contents of my head are not me. The stories that my mind tells about who I am are not me. The most powerful, indestructible part of me is the loving awareness within which all thoughts, emotions, and stories arise. When there is some space between awareness and scary thoughts, you no longer need to believe them or be overwhelmed by them.
House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski: This is the most creative and bold act of literature I have ever read. It did more than anything else in the world to inspire me to begin writing fiction.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
You are not your mind.
Fear is never a good reason not to do something you care about.