Paul Jarvis

Find your rat people

When most people think about rats, they shudder in revulsion. Rats are often associated with thoughts like: dirty, skin crawly, Halloween decorations, unwanted house guests or even laboratory subjects.

“Eww!” is probably the most common reaction for the majority of the population – let’s call it 99%, because the actual percentage doesn’t matter here.

The other 1% are the people that love rats and even have them as pets. They’re the ones that share cuddly photos of their rats on Instagram or exchange nutrition and medical advice on rat message boards (there are over a dozen thriving boards for pet rats, none of which the 99% have ever heard of). They’re the ones that treat rats with compassion and care.

As most of you know, I have rats that I treat like family. My wife and I would do anything for them.

Ohna’ (which means “skin” in Mohawk) is a wrinkly little hairless rat with a saucy disposition. She’s more interested in sitting as close to you as possible without touching than getting pet or cuddled.

Ohna’s sister, Awe:ri (which means “heart” in Mohawk, because she’s got a heart-shaped patch of fur on her back) has the opposite personality. She’s a rough and tumble tomboy rat who enjoys a good cuddle session and even squeals in delight.

They mostly sit on my lap while I work at my computer all day (Awe:ri was sitting on me as I write this. Ohna was climbing up my leg to join her).

I’ve used them in my branding. I’ve dedicated books to them and am one of those rat people that posts photos of them doing funny or cute things on Instagram. Ohna’s even got a dedication and illustration that looks like Jabba the Hut in my latest book (no one can resist her rolls of skin).

And I get flack for my pet rats, too. People call them gross and call me disgusting for having them. We have friends that won’t come into the same room as them. And I’ve often been told what a bad idea it is to use a rat in my branding.

There are even some veterinarians that won’t bother treating rats. We took Ohna’ into an emergency clinic because her breathing went downhill a few months ago, and the vet said there was nothing she could do (after giving us a $200 bill)—and we now know that what she was suffering from was a very common, very treatable condition.

Some vets are part of that 99%, either by specializing with their practice or just not caring about “exotics” as much. But, once we found a vet clinic that would treat rats, we got the right medication and figured out a treatment plan. All the vet techs and reception staff there fawn over her like she’s a celebrity.

I realized early on that there’s no reason to listen to those people that loudly hate on rats at me. Those people can unfollow me on social media or choose to not hire me for design work.

They’re not going to change my mind about rats and I’m not going to change theirs by arguing with them (I have changed the minds of a few folks about rats, simply by showing them how awesome rats really are).

If you don’t feel the same way as I do about rats, that’s cool. We are all passionate and interested in different things.

But for those people that actually call me out or sling insults at me for the type of animal I spend my time with, those are the people I give zero fucks about.

One of the reasons I love rats so much is because most people hate them. They’re the underdogs, the Panchamas, the “little guys” (literally). Too many people dismiss rats without knowing how smart, affectionate and loyal they are.

This has created a semi-secret club of “rat people”. We support and help each other. There are special handshakes, but obviously I can’t tell you about them if you aren’t already a member.

Bringing this back around (in the most obtuse way) to you, the reader, and your creative work:

You need to find your rat people.

Not literally “rat people”, unless rats really are your thing. I’m talking about the people that get what you do, appreciate it, and love you for it. Everyone else? You can safely ignore.

The ones who think your work is useless or worse, disgusting don’t truly matter. Their dissension should fall on deaf ears because they’d never support you, pay you or join your secret club. When you give up trying to please everyone your work becomes much more focused and valuable to the people that matter.

My mailing list is full of my rat people. My students in my courses are my rat people. The folks I connect with on social media and become friends with, even though we may be thousands of miles apart, are my rat people.

For your creativity to support you, you need to find your 1%. Your rat people.

These are the people who should get your attention. These are the people you should listen to, cater to and serve with your work.

Do what you love

“If we believe that personal fulfillment is really the ultimate purpose of labour, then who do we expect to do all the other jobs that are not so existentially fulfilling?”Mika Tokumsitu

Even as someone who works for myself and makes a living off of creativity, it’s not always fun and holding hands while letting the rays of sunshine wash over my face.

Most days, I bust my ass designing websites that require lots of rounds of revisions with clients, and we may not see eye-to-eye.

Or publication editors ask for revisions I don’t always agree with.

I butt heads with people that pay me, and some days I wouldn’t work if I didn’t have to. I sometimes miss out on doing things I want to do because I have to work. And I have it so easy (because I work for myself doing something I mostly enjoy) that I don’t even have the right to complain.

While I love doing what I do, it’s still work. I still get up at 6am or 7am everyday and sit down and work for most of the day. I don’t wait to be inspired because it’s a job. And I stop when the work is finished.

I’m lucky to have this life, which is afforded to me because I live in the first-world and grew up middle class. I don’t have to stress about how I’ll pay rent, afford health-care or wonder when we’ll be able to buy groceries next. I completely see the hypocrisy and classist edification of me even talking about this subject.

But if everyone’s job was simply to “do what they love”, who would collect garbage, work as a cashier, do data-entry or any other job that doesn’t seem as soul fulfilling? Those aren’t even lesser jobs either, they’re just jobs. Doing what you love for a job is awesome, but not mandatory or valued above anything else.

I’ve never understood why so many people are so concerned with only doing a job that makes them happy – as if anything else wasn’t worth doing.

Find a job that you don’t have to worry about when you’re not doing it. Or a job that doesn’t make you miserable every single day. And you’ll be far better off than a lot of folks.

As I enjoy telling my wife, work is called “work” and not “super happy fun time” because often it’s just tasks that need to be done. It doesn’t mean your life is less meaningful just because your job lacks existential value.

You aren’t your job. It doesn’t have to define you unless you let it. Plus, you can always do what you love in your spare time. I do.

Doing what you love doesn’t have to mean a job. It can be a hobby, a passion or even simply spending time with the people that you love the most.

What I’ve learned about creating meaningful work

Working for yourself is scary stuff.

When you work for someone else, it’s easy to blame failings or frustrations on the boss, the company or even the customers you’re forced to deal with.

But when you run the show, it’s all on you.

Self-employment is the ultimate life experiment, complete with an uncountable number of variables that come with large amounts of fear and challenges. But for those of us who do it, we don’t know any other way. We aren’t content with the status quo and feel the need to hack it. To innovate. To make something new.

I’ve been on this path for over 16 years, mostly writing and making websites, but I’ve also started a handful of other ventures that have absolutely flopped. I’ve also started businesses that did well but I ended up closing them down— it’s surprising how easy it is to build a business you hate, and then it’s nobody’s fault but your own.

Along the way, I’ve learned a few things, not just about doing well at working for yourself, but how I could actually enjoy working for myself.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

Just Start

Don’t think too much about starting something or you might talk yourself out of it. The caveat is that sometimes your ideas may be awful and not work. That’s why it’s important to start in small steps (with little to no money on the line). Every huge idea can be boiled down to a smaller one, sort of like a prototype. Start there, and start now.

I started writing my first book before I thought too much about it. At first I approached it from the standpoint that it was just a fun little project, just for myself. I didn’t know anything about writing a book or cooking (it was a vegan cookbook), and if I had actually thought it through, I probably wouldn’t have done it. It’s now sold thousands of copies.

Experiment

I like to frame my business ideas as experiments (no lab coat required). I do this because experiments don’t fail, they simply show results. Sometimes those results are great and point you in the direction for bigger and better things. Sometimes they just show you what idea isn’t worth pursuing.

The main thing, in either scenario is not to focus on the results but instead to focus on the work at hand. The Bhagavad Gita (an ancient Yogic text) says something similar—that we are not entitled to the fruits of our labour, but only to the labour itself. This is a bit of a heady concept, but understanding it keeps you from feeling entitled (which always leads to bad things).

Make Your Own Path

There’s no guarantee for success in business. So although it seems appealing or easier to model your business after one that’s successful in your niche, doing so won’t guarantee success.

And even it does, you’ve succeeded on someone else’s terms instead of your own. Since it’s not a sure thing either way, why not do things your way? I guarantee it’ll be way more meaningful, too.

Show Up

I write at least 500 words a day, every day, no exceptions. I’ve done this for at least a year. I do it especially when I don’t want to or don’t feel inspired. Why? Because I want to increase my odds of writing something good.

Some days what I write is utter garbage, and that’s ok, because that’s not the point. But unless I show up to work at what I do as often as possible, there’s no hope that inspiration will show up as well. And some days, when I think I’m horribly uninspired, my best work flows out.

We’ve got to get the idea out of our heads that our work (especially if it’s creative or art-related) is so precious that it requires almost divine intervention in order to be done. The best artists chip away at their creations like any other job. So if the muse is looking, she’ll see they’re hard at it and hopefully whisper in their ear.

Be Present

When you start doing work for yourself, it’s great (and fun) to have dreams, goals, plans about the future and when you might make it big. But what’s more important is to have clear focus on what’s directly in front of you—which, in most cases, is hard work.

The more present you can be with doing the actual work, the more actual work you’ll get done. As I said above, the more we focus on the labour, and less on the results of that labour, the better the work will be. We need to get out of our own heads sometimes and just do the work in front of us.

Launching is Better Than Perfecting

If the work we do is on a road that leads in two directions, one of those directions would lead to launching and the other (the opposite) would lead to perfecting.

Perfection isn’t something that can ever be attained with the work we do, and the more we walk towards it, the more it stays a distant dot on the horizon, always just as far away from us as when we started.

Whereas launching is a definite point on the road. We see it clearer the closer we get to it. And the best part is, we can actually reach it if we work at it.

I’ve ruined products by getting stuck in an endless loop of trying to make them better. Until I reached a point where I was so frustrated that it wasn’t perfect that I then lacked the drive to push it towards launch.

Getting something—anything—out the door is the most important part. Make it great, sure. But acknowledge where great leads to diminishing returns.

Stop Judging, Stop Comparing

We are horrible multi-taskers. Yes, I’m talking to you friend, the person who thinks they are awesome at it. I’m also talking to myself, for every time I leave social media open because I think I can do actual work and keep up with status updates and retweets and blah blah, all at the same time.

This multi-tasking, in one of its worst forms, appears as judgement and comparison. We troll the internet to see what other people are doing so that we can judge our work by comparing it to theirs. If they’re further along than we are, we tell ourselves we’ll never get to where they are. And this keeps us from starting our own thing.

There’s no true comparison because everyone’s different in terms of the values they hold their work to, and more importantly, everyone’s at a different place in their journey.

We also judge ourselves, often too harshly. We need to fall out of love with our inner critic—because it rarely, if ever, serves us.

Tiny Pieces

If someone told me “write a book!”, I’d freeze up and be overwhelmed. It wouldn’t get done because it’s too big a project to think about in its entirety. But if I break it up into outlines, chapters, single ideas, then it’s manageable. If I focus on one idea or chapter at a time, it seems doable.

The same applies with to-do lists—if you can check off those to easy-to-accomplish tasks each day, you’ll feel better about yourself and therefore have more energy to keep doing your work. If “write a book” was on there, you’d look at it every day and feel frustrated or awful that it wasn’t yet done.

Busyness Does not Equal Productivity

There aren’t badges handed out for the long work week, and if there were, I’d have gotten a few (in my early days, I used to work 80-100 hours a week) but they wouldn’t have been worth it.

Then I realized I didn’t need to work so many hours because I didn’t really have a good reason to. I wasn’t trying to make the most money or work myself to death (or at least sickness), so I stopped.

Instead, I began focusing on how I could get my work done in the most efficient way, so that I was then free to do other things—like hiking, hanging out with my wife and pet rats or travelling.

Work smarter, not more. And the best part is, the more you are present and focused, the quicker the work gets done.

Your Intentions Shine Through (even if you don’t want them to)

Whatever our intentions are, they are evident to others because we are mostly horrible liars. And sometimes we’re just lying to ourselves.

This is why sales pitches sound like sales pitches. This is why most commercials are immediately identifiable as commercials and not short TV shows.

We can innately see what the other person is really after. So why not be after something good? That way, when people see through what you’re really after, they’re happy about it, instead of angry or disappointed.

Whenever I do well with my work, it’s because I’m focused on helping someone or was excited to collaborate, instead of just wanting to making money off them. It’s an easier and better way to do things that ends up always “paying off” favourably.


The most important thing that I’ve learned (bonus #11!) is that the best advice is to listen to yourself. Everyone’s got an opinion about working for yourself (myself included, obviously), and while it’s all well-intentioned, nothing takes the place of trusting your own journey.

No artist ever said, “Well, I just painted my masterpiece… hello retirement!”.

There’s no end point (except maybe death? or going back to working for someone else?). There is always learning to do and growth that can happen.

I learn new things every day about what I do, and I’m thankful for it.

When is the best time to create?

The dishwasher is running noisily and probably should be replaced. There are at least 3 dogs barking outside (from the sounds of it, 2 large ones and one tiny one). As well, there’s a child screaming on the street — she doesn’t want to get in the car with her parents. Dinner, a vegan “meat” loaf, is cooking and since there’s not a working timer on the oven, I’m winging it.

Why am I telling you this?

Because this is when I am sitting down to work/write. I didn’t choose to write now, this is just the time I had today to do it. If I could, I would have picked a better (see: quieter) time. But if I don’t do it now, it won’t happen.

Most of us don’t have the luxury of having a quiet and empty cabin in the woods (where dishes are magically and quietly cleaned) with the only distractions being the ones we choose to indulge in (or chopping wood, which seems like it’d probably be a necessity and part of the creative process somehow).

Most of these noises/distractions are out of my control so I choose to ignore them, since they don’t serve me.

What is in my control though, are notifications on my computer/phone, having a browser with Twitter open in the background or a ridiculous “productivity timer” ticking down, telling me how long I should be productive for. What I can remove as distractions, I do.

Too many of us see our creative work, our works of art, as precious. So precious that we need to set the mood, like wooing a lover with flowers and candles, in order to get things started. The smallest piece of the plan that falls apart (like a dog barking) can make it seem like not the right time to dive in. Ruining the mood, as it were.

The right time to start working though is right now.

Mood and inspiration be damned. If small things help, like a moment of meditation, a word of thanks to the Muse, or a cup of coffee at your desk before you start, by all means: indulge. But if any tool or device becomes necessary for work to happen, it’s become a crutch and needs to be cut out immediately.

As artists/creatives, our highest and grandest reward is the work itself. Once we realize that, and set it as our intention, we cannot falter. All we need to do is keep working, and we’ve accomplished what we set out to do. It’s crazy simple.

When our craft becomes a daily practice instead of a route to take to a goal, it’s more rewarding internally. We feel accomplished not because we’ve been externally validated with praise, but because we showed up and did something. And we can’t feel defeated by the ridicule of others, because their words can’t disagree with the fact that we put in the work. We showed up and our part was accomplished. It’s not our fault if they don’t like it (or us).

Honest art is made from this place of art for the sake of art. It comes from our hearts or from a place we can’t put into words (other than a vague mumbling about “inspiration”). If we knew exactly where it came from, we’d channel it at will.

Creating great work is a numbers game. The more time we spend creating, the more likely we are to create something great. Even if we aren’t the best creators, we still increase our odds of brilliance with a routine daily practice of it.

“If you’re only going to write when you’re inspired, you may be a fairly decent poet, but you will never be a novelist — because you’re going to have to make your word count today, and those words aren’t going to wait for you, whether you’re inspired or not. So you have to write when you’re not “inspired.” … And the weird thing is that six months later, or a year later, you’re going to look back and you’re not going to remember which scenes you wrote when you were inspired and which scenes you wrote because they had to be written.Neil Gaiman

That’s why I’m writing right now. That’s why I wrote yesterday and that’s why there is no question whether or not I’ll write tomorrow.

I’m writing to create more blog posts, books or guest posts, but mostly, I’m writing so I write better. Most of the writing is utter shit that no other person will ever read. But sometimes it’s not, and every single time it’s better than if I hadn’t written anything.

As Steven Pressfield puts it, an amateur lets himself use fear as procrastination. He never says “I won’t write that book”, instead he says, “I’ll start writing that book tomorrow, when the time is right”. Whereas a professional knows that the best way to create art is for her to put in the work. Day in, day out, without fail and definitely not just waiting to be inspired. Because inspiration is more likely to come while she’s already working, since those channels are already open and receptive.

This is how I approach everything I do. I may not be the best at anything, but I make sure I’m the hardest worker. I’ve done the same with graphic design work for years. I don’t work hard seeking some external badge of honour, I just don’t know any other way to explore my work than by doing it as often as possible, every single day, without fail.

So fuck tomorrow. By then my dishwasher could be even LOUDER or the dogs may have somehow acquired megaphones. Now is the absolute best time to get down to creating art.

Every Entrepreneur is an Artist

There is no map, no guarantee of success. If there was, the map would have been photocopied (or reblogged on tumblr) by now. To move forward, to create what matters, we first need to get off the beaten path and into the unknown. There’s also no such thing as a big break

It could fail, and that’s ok. Great creations have always required great risk. Experiment, because experiments don’t fail, they either prove or disprove a point.

It’s easy to get sucked into an echo chamber with everyone else, saying what everyone else says. It’s safe, easy. But the best outcome can only be having the loudest voice in a small room. Our art demands our true voice. This voice is unique, honest and needed right fucking now.

We’ve fallen for the same rules and boundaries that held us in jobs for large corporations and industry, by thinking we have to agree with everyone else and not the rock the boat. By thinking we have to agree with or listen to the experts and leaders. By thinking true freedom to express ourselves would be nice… some day.

There is no formula for creativity. We can’t learn it from a book, a classroom or a blog post. Creativity comes from passion and heart, neither of which even understands formulaic rules or tactics. Art exists because it has to exist. It grows inside us and needs us to share it. Let inspiration strike and see how far it can lead.

Say something new. Be something new. Use your story as a lens through which your expertise can be uniquely told. People will disagree. Some might not. Draw your line in the sand. The people standing on your side can become your biggest allies, promoters, friends. Real connection comes from individuals, not the masses.

Every entrepreneur is an artist. A rogue agent. Someone who isn’t happy with the status quo and wants to stir it up a bit. Someone who sees past how things are into how things could be. This is most important work. It can change perceptions. This work is not achieved by soliciting reactions or praise from others, it’s achieved by ignoring what reactions from others might be trying something new because it needs to be tried. You’re the one who can try it. And then share it with the rest of us.

This is a rally cry to those who want to make a difference instead of making a name for themselves. This is for those who are more interested in connections than likes. This is for those of us who stick our necks out.

Revolutions require a few sleepless nights and shit disturbing. This is the rise of the conscious and creative class. Be bold with your art and venture bravely into the unknown.

Fuck Stats, Make Art

The title of this post is lifted from a talk Dave Olson (aka Uncle Weed) gave in 2009. The statement still resonates, because it succinctly emphasizes what’s important in the writing you do.

Trying to follow a formula, script or tactic to get more traffic, sales or followers never works in the long run because it screams inauthenticity. Your goals and desires echo in everything you do, even if you think they don’t. So if you’re focused on going viral or being popular or selling something, it’ll show. Copying what others did to gain success just makes you sound like an echo instead of a voice.

What makes the content you create awesome is that it’s a story told through your unique lens. It’s you, telling a story. It’s you not giving a fuck about anything but telling that story. It doesn’t matter if it’s a blog post about banking software or a video on how to make nut milk, the content will be better if you let your real personality shine.

Your genuine personality, draws people in. Writing to be liked or writing that follows a formula does not. It’s that easy.

How to find your unique voice

A brave new world

Too many people supervise others without making anything of their own. In a previous world, they were called managers, directors, foremen/forewomen, and critics. In this new world, that type of work isn’t required. Their best option is to move from managing to making.

If we banish corporate hierarchy from the new world of value-based work, we can get down to making something awesome. And it’ll free up those former managers to do the same.

Gone are the days of org-charts and arbitrary pecking orders. Now, ad-hoc teams come together to complete specific projects and collaborators can help your work shine even brighter (think: editors for your writing, engineers for your music, web designers for your websites… people who help to realize the vision of your work and take it from rough to polished to launched).

The world also doesn’t need a sea of promoters. We don’t need an echo chamber of “buy my thing now” on social media, without any compelling reasons to fork over the cash or credit card. You don’t need to toot your horn every day on social media to sell your work. Thankfully.

We need more people who make things.

Useful and meaningful things that change the world. These are the innovators, problem solvers and makers – the people who actually make and launch their ideas.

I’ve changed my domain name, my company name, and probably broken every marketing, promotion, and branding rule out there. I don’t even have a logo that has survived for more than a few months. For 10 years, I had a single-page website with two sentences and a client list (and I’m a professional web designer). And I still don’t have social media “follow me” icons on my website.

My clients are better salespeople and promoters than real salespeople and promoters could ever be. I don’t need to pitch my work, because my clients do it for me (which is great, because I’m an introvert who’s horrible at sales).

My clients aren’t promoting my work because I ask them to do it (I don’t), but because I’m entirely focused on doing great work that serves their needs. It may seem passive on the surface, but it takes a lot of effort to ensure every client is so happy with the end result that they shout it from the rooftop (or at least on social media).

It’s not enough to write or read about making stuff. You could devour every published book about productivity, but you’d be entirely unproductive, because you spent all of your time reading those books instead of producing something. I even suggest making something with meaning over reading any of my books!

You’ve got to actually do the work. You might not know what will come of it (unless you have a time travel device to visit the future, in which case, can I come along?) but that’s not important. Doing the work is what’s important – and if you’re more concerned with the outcome than the process, then maybe it’s time to move onto something you can appreciate regardless of how it’s received by the world.

The Sunday Dispatches newsletter, since 2012—written by Paul Jarvis and read by 30k+ subscribers.