The problem with thought leadership and the dark side of building expertise
My favourite thought leader, slash lifehacker, slash productivity-optimizer is Dexter Guff.
He’s an every-person millionaire who serves up all-you-can-eat #thoughtdogs on his podcast, Dexter Guff is smarter than you (and you can be too), which covers everything from: “How to start your own conference” to “Why everyone needs an executive assistant”.
Dex shares his proven strategies to help you live an amazing life, exactly like his, except it’s yours.
He’s a self-proclaimed guru that will totally change your life.
Oh, and, he’s completely made up by a comedy team (from Canada!).
Since nothing’s truly become part of the social zeitgeist until it’s been parodied, Dex’s character and podcast show are a parody of something that hits close to home online: the internet thought leader.
The podcast is so well done and so on the nose with current trends, reviews on iTunes routinely mistake it and him for the real thing.
Thought leadership as a trend
There’s a trend, where a person creates a personal brand, builds a bit of an audience then sells them info products. (Hell, I’ve done just that in recent years as well—we’ll circle around to that in a minute though.)
Status is achieved by revenue, which is then written about in a blog post, in an effort to be “transparent”, and by being guests on the same podcasts, writing for the same publications, running joint-venture webinars, and keynote speaking at the same thought leader industry events. It’s like a credibility circle jerk of audience sharing and social proof, in order to lend more credence to each boastful assertion of expertise. This then opens the doors to more revenue, internet fame and transparent sharing. Oh, and more transparent blog posts making 6-figures this month.
The problem is, as the Dexter Guff parody illustrates, is that anyone can be an expert. A thought leader. A guru. All you need to do is claim that you are one. In today’s world, simply stating that you’re an expert in something makes you an expert in that something. Seriously, that’s the only step (ps: by my online course on the one step you need to take to become an expert guru, now only $2,999). And once you become a thought leader, the next step is letting your audience pay to know exactly how they can achieve exactly what you’ve achieved – hopefully without as much work as it took you. In claiming expertise, in a personality-as-brands world, you can then get those speaking gigs, podcast guest spots and even sell your own online courses.
Author Dan Pink has said that we all want to achieve mastery without pain—which is impossible (it’s even impossible if you buy a $2,999 course). But the allure is so great, people continue to buy into it. And because people buy into it, others (thought leaders) line up to sell it. Why wouldn’t they? There are people with their wallets open, just waiting to become an every-person millionaire too. I’ve watched a few webinars myself, and stopped just short of punching my credit card into a website… they can be that convincing.
But how did this seemingly self-inflicted epidemic of narcissistic expertise come about? And more importantly, is there a way to close this Pandora’s box, which is overflowing with #thoughtdogs, like some eating contest for our brains gone horribly wrong?
Everyone should have a voice, not a soapbox
The nature of the internet means that everyone can have a voice—which is truly, at its core, a beautiful thing. Where things can go awry is when everyone’s got a soapbox, we treat their opinions as facts. And, anyone shouting from one has the answers we crave. By simply stepping up on to our box and shouting, we’ve begun to believe that shouting is the same as mastery or expertise. Even if it’s something learned second or third hand. Even if it’s something that only just scratches the surface of wisdom. Even if we don’t know the consequences of treating these shouts as facts.
This surplus (and it’s truly a surplus) of genius thought leaders espousing wisdom at us from on high could be directly related to our growing inclination to close-mindedness. (This seems like a large leap, but bear with me for a second.)
I remember a time when politics could be discussed at a dinner party, without someone shutting down or screaming, just because the person sitting across from them voted for the other side. Or when healthy debate was possible, in a joint effort to get to the bottom of something, instead of just needing to be right.
If society now fosters a “take a side” approach, over “I’d rather not make a decision until I’ve researched all the facts/evidence” or “It’s not that black and white, let me investigate further”, then we are only going to accept those whose thoughts line up with our own, and ignore those who run counter. It’s why one side calls the news channels from the other “fake”, for example — because as a society we now tune out or put blinders on to anything that doesn’t suit our views, regardless of facts. We listen only to the thought leaders who align perfectly with our views, and they exist in abundance, there’s a thought leader for every view.
So we blindly listen if someone says something we believe to be true. We assume that the experts we choose to believe in have the answers, and we shut off to anything to the contrary. Our side has the experts, theirs has a bunch of slack-jawed shysters, after all.
Where did our collective curiosity go? Why is it thought to be a detriment to our businesses or brands if we don’t know something?
Pick a thought leader who aligns with your views
Oscar Wilde said that experts are ordinary people, away from home, giving advice. The internet seems to be an “away from home” for us all, since every website I look at that selling anything claims to know how to “fix” my business, double my revenue, plug my leaky funnel, or similar. If only I buy their consulting package or $2,999 course, only then can I actually unlock my potential and success. And if I don’t bite, then I obviously don’t care about money, success, small furry animals. (Seriously, look at every newsletter opt-in message lately – I have to either click YES I WANT REVENUE or NO I HATE PUPPIES and take a side).
Knowledge and expertise aren’t static. It’s preposterous to think any one person has all the answers… or even 1/50th of the answers. Everyone, regardless of their status as a thought leader or guru or expert, is just trying to get by in this world, just like everyone else — trying things, failing a bunch, and learning as they go. If they don’t seem like they are, they’ve just got really good marketing behind them.
For myself (see, I told you I’d circle back on this), I unintentionally built a personal brand by working for clients who were masters at personal branding. I leveraged that to create and sell information (courses, ebooks, and the like). Where I veered a little, thankfully, from gurudom is that I’ve always been ok with not having all the answers. I also suck at looking like I have my shit together (I don’t, I seriously don’t — and it’s way too tiring to pretend to).
I see the trends in expertise and personal brands, because my feet are firmly planted in that world, whether I want them to be or not (wearing socks that don’t match). I see what works, like selling the idea that business is so easy, look how easy it is, you can have an easy business too. Or the idea that there’s a few key things you’re missing, and if you just knew those few things, you’d be successful, and by the way here’s my course to sell you those things you’re missing.
My own 2c (from my soapbox)
For my own products and courses (none of which have ever been even close to $2,999), I take an opposite approach, even if it results in fewer sales or a smaller audience. I attempt to sell the idea that we need to ask better questions of ourselves and of our businesses. I attempt to sell the idea that we sometimes need a nudge or a push in a specific direction, based on experimentation (and here are the experiments you can try). I don’t sell the idea that I’m a thought leader or any kind of leader, or expert, or guru. I try not to, at least. That seems like it’d be a false claim of wisdom on my part. Like I know more than the people I reach. I try to lean more towards thoughtful than leader, most of the time. And sure, there are a few areas I’ve spent years learning about, but as I mentioned, what I know isn’t static, and the only gains I make are because I routinely assume there’s more I don’t know than what I do know. I treat expertise as focused curiosity, on a specific topic, not an all-knowing answer I’ve got that you don’t.
I’d also rather you didn’t pick sides. I’d rather you not be with me or against me. You can unsubscribe without hating puppies, I promise. Seriously, agree with some things, disagree with others. Hell, I even disagree with some things I say or write after time passes. I’m still learning and growing and figuring my own shit out. There’s no army of minions to join here, just a loose grouping of people who are interested in learning about similar topics and who will come to their own, probably varied conclusions.
Finally, I’m not even saying the way I do business or approach selling information is the right way to do it, or that the people that do things the way I described above are wrong or unethical. If you want to be a guru, you’re free to be one. (It’s just a single step after all! $2,999 not even required.) There’d be no judgement from me. Investigate all of this further if you’d like, since nothing I’ve said is fact. It’s just me, standing on a soapbox, sharing my “expert opinion” in this all-you-can-eat #thoughtdog buffet.
Do you have what it takes to run a business? (Also: it’s totally cool if you don’t want to.)
It seems as though every article about running a business extols the virtues of casting down the shackles of full-time employment to be free and happy on your own.
No bosses! Run a business in your underpants! Travel the world with your laptop! All you can eat vegan burritos! (Ok, that last one can and should be be done in either type of job.)
I’m sick of thought leaders telling us that freelancing is the answer to all our problems, and that it’s the only sure-fire way to get ahead. In fact, I’ve worked for myself longer than most of those people (coming up on 20 years now), but I still don’t think it’s the best option for everyone. Hell, I even teach a course on the business of freelancing and still don’t think everyone should freelance—not because some people aren’t talented enough to freelance, but because it just doesn’t make sense for everyone, depending on what you want to do and how you want to do it.
The boss of you
When you’re the boss of you, there’s no HR department to handle payroll, benefits and training. There’s no accounting department to handle payables, receivables or to chase after folks who should have paid you but haven’t yet. There’s no sales and marketing team to spend their entire day drumming up new business and leads for you. On top of the main skill you use to make money, you’ve got to do all the other jobs as well.
With all this “Run a business! It’s better than whatever you’re doing now!” messaging online, people often end up falling in love with the idea of working for themselves without understanding the actual day-to-day work required to be their own boss. Or, as Austin Kleon cleverly puts it, people want to be the noun without doing the verb. We want the job title or business card or fancy website with a new logo on it, and we forget the daily rigours of running a business of our own. Having a brilliant idea or wanting to build a successful business is not enough. Ideas and dreams are nice but they’re also cheap and meaningless without taking action and doing the work to make them happen. The dream is the sexy part, where the glamour is, where it’s enjoyable to sit back and think, “oh damn, that’d be fun!” The harder, much harder bit, is making the dream happen every day. Which means sometimes you’re buried in accounting spreadsheets or on the third round of revisions from a client. The daily work and slogging away is what separates wannabe business owners from those that make it a reality.
Running a business requires both ego and purpose in equal measure
I started working for myself because I figured I could foster client relationships better than the agency where I worked. That became my purpose, not to be the best designer (which I’m not even sure is possible), but to run a business focused on client relationships. So ego is involved, not in a bad way, but in a, “I know I can do this better” sort of way. If you don’t think it’s possible or don’t care if it is, there’s no point doing your own thing. In that case, it’s fine to work for someone else—because they’re established and have people handling the jobs you probably don’t want to be doing anyway.
Purpose is required in that you have to have a north star that will drive you long term and not blink out. Wanting to get rich quick or achieve freelance fame isn’t going to motivate you for long, since neither are quickly possible, regardless of who you are. There are much easier ways to make money or get famous in the world. Why do you want to work for yourself? What will drive you to keep going if things get rough? If things take longer than you hope they will? When you’re stuck in the day to day minutiae of running a business?
Running a business is about choices
For me, I like choices. I like that I can choose to make less money by saying no to a project or a client or a customer that I don’t think is a good fit for me to work with. Unplugging for 3 months at a time is an option. Picking what I work on next, and not have that work handed down to me is huge. I like that I can work on Saturday if I want, and go hiking on Wednesday. This freedom of choice is my north star. Yes, it’s taken some time to get here. And, it’s required me to be ok with not having nearly as much as freedom in the beginning, because fuck, sometimes bills need to be paid and sometimes the best client isn’t the best fit but the one who’s here right now and willing to pay you this month. But still, even in the rough patches, that’s what’s driven me forward.
This piece isn’t meant to be a downer. It’s simply meant to challenge your idea of wanting to run a business for yourself. If you’re like, “Yup, check, I’m in,” then that’s awesome. Welcome and I think I can help. If it doesn’t make sense for you right now (or ever), then that’s cool too. Be stoked on where you’re at, regardless of where that is.
Do what you say you’re going to do
The dishwasher I bought that was supposed to be delivered last week isn’t here yet. I called the delivery company and they aren’t even sure where it is. The quote I requested from a fence company to fix my fence (a project worth a couple grand) still hasn’t come through. I was told I’d hear about that last week too. These people are the opposite of how to be impeccable with your word.
My point here isn’t to complain. I seriously didn’t expect either job to happen on time. Pretty much any date anyone gives me for something involving paying them or offering to pay them is late.
People often ask me for advice on freelancing and my answer is always the same. It may come across as stupid or reductive, but it’s what’s made me stand out a designer, and now as someone who sells products.
Do exactly what you say you’re going to do
Don’t waiver from this. Don’t do this some of the time. Don’t do this when it suits you. Always do this.
Almost every client I’ve ever had told me they liked working with me because when I said I’d get them something on a particular day, they’d get it. Other designers, they’d tell me, were late on most deliverables and once they were late, they’d start avoiding calls/emails.
I’m not the most talented designer, writer, programmer, anything. Hell, I’m even pretty damn lazy. But if I tell someone I’m going to do something, I do it. If I’m not sure I can get it done in the timeframe they want, I let them know (ahead of time) that it’s going to take longer.
Treat every agreement as a legally binding contract. Because on a societal level, that’s what it is. If you promise to give someone something, then do it. On time. Whether it’s a quote or a deliverable or anything else, it doesn’t matter. If you aren’t sure you can deliver, either say you can’t deliver or pitch a longer amount of time so you can be sure you will.
This forthright approach sets people apart. The fence company I contacted can’t even get me a quote, so how can I be confident they’ll do a good job on the work they supposedly specialize in? The dishwasher, which I sorely need because mine is leaking, gives me a mental note each time I clean up the pool of water it leaves on the floor to never buy an appliance from that appliance store again.
Any time you don’t keep your word, you’re not just letting that one person or business down. You’re losing the opportunity to work with every single contact that person or business has, because you can be sure as shit that they won’t ever send business your way. Or worse, they’ll tell everyone they know that you don’t keep your word. It balloons outwards, like our ever-expanding universe, where you haven’t just ruined your relationship with one potential client or contact, you’ve ruined the chance to work with everyone else they know and could refer you to.
Most of the time, missed deadlines aren’t a massive jerk move by the offending party. We all have good intentions with our time but most of us are absolutely shitty at managing it properly. Which is why it always makes sense to just double or triple the amount of time you think something will take. That way, even if life shits on your face or your dog pees on your laptop, you’ve still got time to deliver.
By doubling or tripling the timeframe, the worst case scenario is that you deliver on time. The best case scenario is that it takes you as long as you figured it would, without doubling or tripling it, and then you deliver early and look like a freaking superhero. Which is kind of the opposite of giving yourself just enough time to do your work, and delivering late because it took longer than you thought. In that case, you probably look like a supervillain (or at least a highly incompetent person).
I’m convinced that you can succeed in business by simply keeping your word and delivering on it. Just like how word travels fast if you miss deadlines, word will travel faster than deer jumping over my broken fence to eat my veggie garden if you always deliver on time. Everyone your satisfied client knows will likely hear about you. How awesome you are. How great it was to work with you. How everything you said you’d do was done, on time! Parades will be held in your honor, and televised so that even more people hear about you. (Ok, maybe not that last part, but you never know!)
It’s simple, really. What you actually do matters much more than what you say you’re going to do. Anyone can talk a big game or over-promise, but the actual follow-through is what creates lasting success.
For the last 15 years, part of my unique selling proposition is that I do what I say I’m going to do for the people who hire me. When I tell someone I’m going to do something, I do it (in the amount of time I say it’s going to take). Sometimes I do more, but never less.
Following through is much harder than it might seem, and that’s why people often fall short. Here’s how I make sure that I do what I say.
Never agree to or promise anything unless you are 100% sure you can do it
Saying “yes” is a contract. From telling someone you’ll call them for lunch next week to saying you’ll have a project finished in 3 days, anytime you agree to something, you’re asking someone to trust that you’ll do it.
Say “yes” only to things you are sure about — sure that you’ll make them happen and sure that it’s something you want to do. Half-assing something or not finishing a task is far worse than saying “no” upfront. Commit with complete conviction or don’t commit at all.
Telling someone upfront that you can’t or aren’t interested in doing something re-affirms your commitment to your current schedule and tasks. Saying “no” means you not only respect yourself; you respect the other person, because you can’t guarantee to finish or commit to what they want.
Have a schedule
Anytime you say “yes” to something, put it in your calendar and set a reminder (or several). These reminders could involve anything from completing part of a client project on a certain day, to making an agreement with yourself to work out twice a week. Own your tasks to ensure they get done.
And remember that most things will take longer than you expect, so account for setbacks, other commitments and the fact that sometimes life in general will throw you off-course.
Don’t make excuses
Sometimes things happen that are beyond your control. From car accidents to computer crashes to family issues, life is unexpected. You can’t account for everything when you make a commitment, so if something forces you to break your promise, own it—even if it’s not your fault.Don’t make excuses, just offer to make things right.
The truth isn’t always the nicest answer. It might not be what someone wants to hear. But if you’re not rude about it, in the long run, everyone is better off. Telling the truth makes life easier and much more productive. This especially includes being honest with yourself.
Sometimes the most unreasonable expectations are ones we put on ourselves.
Being “impeccable with your word” (via Don Miguel Ruiz) means you are being honest with others, and more importantly, with yourself. This is truly the secret to success and the most important thing I’ve learned in my life. You instantly become “that guy/gal” who people want to work with or have on their team. It may require you to think more carefully about your commitments, but in the long run, being honest makes you a trustworthy person who is valuable in just about every situation.
Stop trying to find the courage to follow your passion
There are countless books, bloggers and thought leaders that will tell you that the key ingredient to a happy, meaningful life is to find courage and start following your passion.
(As if courage and passion are all’s that required, and everything else is a minor detail that will eventually work itself out.)
I’ve previously argued that passion is a ridiculous thing to follow and can easily end up doing far more harm than good—mentally and financially. Its call is alluring, sure, and it seems like others have simply packed up their 9-to-5 lives, jumped head first into their passions, and ended up thriving.
What I’ve noticed though, is that there are two key ingredients that most of these “successful” bloggers don’t talk about it when they’re giving keynote speeches about how smart they were to make their leap into a more passion-filled work life. The ones that have made it by “doing what they love” had two things going for them first, both of which I believe are more important than the courage and passion they so lovingly go on and on about.
They were skilled at what they did before they took a leap. So skilled that they were doing well first, well enough that if their leap to something new faltered, they’d still be ok. Not to mention, what they leaped to was completely built off of the skills they were currently using that were in demand.
They were able to test their leap, with a smaller jump before they climbed to the top of the highest platform. So they didn’t just willy-nilly jump, they did a small jump first to make sure they could land it (i.e. there was enough demand for their offering), and not drown once they hit the water.
Courage and passion just sound better than skills and viability tests. I wouldn’t even want to watch a TED talk on the latter. But still, lifestyle designers that don’t end up living in their parent’s basement and eating the cheap ramen (no foolin, good ramen is DELICIOUS) were skilled before they started and figured out if their potential passionate life would be financially viable.
Even looking at my own life (and note: I’m definitely not a successful thought leader or lifestyle blogger), the changes in the type of work I’ve done over the last 20 years have only been successful when those two key ingredients were present.
Following your passion: my own story (x2)
I started my own business doing web design, only after I became an in-demand designer at an agency. I built up the skills as an employee until the clients of that agency wanted to leave with me when I quit. If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have even started working for myself (I only did because the clients called after I quit, wanting to bring their business to wherever I moved to). In fact, I wasn’t passionate about web design, or even passionate about starting my own business. I only found the courage to do it because I had a small list of companies who wanted to pay me from day one. I just didn’t quit my job and jump right in, willy nilly.
When I started selling courses, the same elements were present. I used the skills I had built for years as a designer to make courses on related subjects. And before I moved entirely into products, I spent a few years transitioning, waiting until I was sure products would make me enough money before completely diving in.
On the other hand, when I tried to pivot without related, built up skills into business consulting, a short while after I started working for myself, I had almost no bites from clients. I was young (and stupid) and thought that since I had helped design a handful of websites, I must understand how all businesses everywhere work. Consulting seemed far more fun than just designing websites, so I found the courage to start promoting that as a service. Except I was only just starting my journey as a designer and I hadn’t come close to building up the necessary skills to consult other businesses. My business skills weren’t in demand at all and I had never even tested them to see if anyone would pay for them before spending a ton of time updating my website to promote them.
The same thing happened when I tried to pivot into something I was passionate about without testing to see if there was demand. Years ago I started not one but two software companies. Yes, I was the designer, which was a skill I had built up and created demand for, but I started both companies without seeing if they were financially viable. I worked for months and months with partners to create each of the products that we hadn’t even come close to demonstrating anyone would be willing to pay for. Which led to both of them ultimately and spectacularly failing.
I didn’t start out with a passion to be a freelance designer or course maker. I didn’t even have the courage to jump head first into those jobs either. They both happened slowly after I honed my related skills to the point where they were in demand. The passion for those jobs followed, but only once I spent a lot of time doing them and getting better at them. And then, I only moved fully into them once I could prove (mostly to myself) that they would pay. In contrast, when I tried to be a consultant in my early twenties or even start two software companies, I failed completely because I hadn’t yet honed the skills required for those endeavours, they were definitely not in demand and I couldn’t demonstrate that even a single person would pay for them.
Following your passion (it’s great for hobbies)
So courage and passion can be great if you want to skydive or take up a hobby like playing Ukulele. But when it’s your livelihood, they should take a back seat to using skills that you can build up and validate with revenue. This might seem like a downer of a message too, but it’s not. Thankfully, you don’t have to waste time trying to figure out what you’re passionate about or hoping that one day you find the courage inside yourself to leap into them full-time. Passion and courage are almost impossible to control and can easily leave you feeling bad about yourself. It’s far easier to simply work at getting really good at something in demand and seeing how those skills can apply to something else. And then testing your idea in a small way to see if it will pay.
The problem with curated photos on social media
The other day I took a photo of an Orca (Killer Whale), not far off the coast of where I live and proceeded to post it to my social feed without comment. It’s a pretty good shot, right?
Let me list several problems with it—not as self-effacing humble-brags, but a deeper reflection on social media in general and how we perceive it.
Yes, it’s a cool photo, but I literally took 836 shots before I got this one. Most were of the sky or the boat (it’s really hard to take a photo from a moving, rocking Zodiac). The 50 or so shots that had whales in them were mostly out of focus, except for 4-5. This shot may look great on my social feeds, but it doesn’t show the rejected shots or the amount of time it took to get one good one. So it’s a very curated look at what happened that day.
Most days I don’t do anything nearly as exciting as taking a Zodiac out into the Pacific Ocean to see some Killer Whales. In fact, most days I don’t leave my house. Most days I spend my time at a computer (which makes for very boring photos). I only post to social media, especially photos, when something interesting is happening. Which isn’t often.
In taking this shot, and the 836 other shots, I removed myself from being present, in the moment, and just watching some stellar and intelligent mammals which I’ve only seen a handful of times. All to get a photo I could post on social media. So instead of simply enjoying the moment and admiring these creatures swim beside and around the boat I was on, I was fiddling with my camera, changing batteries (3 times) and looking through a little viewfinder.
In posting this shot, it helps build my personal brand of being a “gentleman of adventure” (something Chris Brogan called me, one time). When really, the most adventuring I do on a daily basis is filling my cup of coffee up to meniscus each morning, and hoping I don’t spill any.
By refreshing my social feeds to see who likes this shot, I’m acknowledging my need for admiration from people I don’t even know, on the internet. This doesn’t make me a better person or even increase the revenue to my business. I just crave validation.
By not adding a comment or giving context to the shot on social media, the post conveys that this is “no big deal” like I see whales every fucking day or something. Like, whatever and stuff. When really, I almost peed my pants I get so excited about whales and actually jumped up and down a little on the boat (getting excited and jumping isn’t “cool” though, so that’s never posted on social media either).
By mentioning it’s pretty close to where I live in this article, I even give the impression that I live somewhere awesome, or somewhere better than you. When really, I live in a fairly remote location, so it takes an hour or more to go get groceries. The boring drive to the grocery store is never shown (nor my attempts to pick out the perfect pear).
Not shown is the day before when I worked my ass off to make the money to afford to take a boat to see whales. Because working isn’t sexy, spending money is. (Making money is only sexy when it’s abstracted to some meaningless notion of making it while you sleep or eat vegan burritos.)
Yes, it’s just a photo, one of many on my feed, on one of two social networks I’m on. Yes, it’s not even the best shot (the whale isn’t breaching or spy-hopping even). But still, it made me think for a minute about why I wanted to take it, why I took it, and why I shared it in the first place.
Maybe the next time you take a photo and post it you’ll question your motivations as well. Or maybe you’ll think differently when you see a well-curated, edited shot from someone online and remember that their life is likely not all that or perfect. Better yet, maybe you’ll see some whales, jump up and down a little and be like, “FUCK YES, WHALES”. And forget you even have a camera or social media feed at all.
I’m sure you’re well aware of how much I hate banal platitudes and how they don’t correlate with steps towards actually taking action and ownership of our lives. Belief can be similar, in that simply thinking you can do something doesn’t mean you’ll actually do it. But it’s a good first step so as long as there are more steps.
For example: I believe I can write a book. So I start writing one. Belief is the catalyst, then action follows. Belief is simply confidence, which isn’t something just reserved for “confident” people (I’m the least confident person ever, but I still have it when necessary). Another example: I believe I can speak in front of 1,000s of people without peeing my pants. So I do (the speaking part, not the pants-peeing part). Belief is the spark, action is the follow-through.
So belief only works when you act on it, taking it from an idea in your head to something that’s tangibly controlled by your actions. Here’s how I see this working:
Assume what you’re taking action with will work
Not like some “The Secret” thing where the universe magically attracts what you desire while rainbows and butterflies shoot out of your fingertips. Or like imagining a parking space will magically appear simply because you need to park your car. You might as well also believe that invisible, transcendental gnomes, who live under city streets, push cars from the spot you want into an alternate dimension, freeing the space for you.
No. Just no.
Assuming what you want will work only happens if you take responsibility for it working. So if you want a parking spot, assume you’ll find one and keep driving until you do, probably in concentric circles around where you want to, moving ever outwards until there’s a spot. Transcendental gnomes not required.
So if you believe the book you want to write will be a success, you have to actually write the book, assuming it’ll sell out. Otherwise you’ve got a big dream that you’ve done jack shit about. (Being ok with it not working out after you write it is necessary too, I’ll explain that in the fourth part.)
You have to presuppose success. Otherwise, you’re constantly looking for reasons why your actions and work will be unfruitful. If you assume failure, then every setback will signal an “I told you so!” from your brain to you. Your brain is a jerk sometimes. Don’t let it be.
Assume you’re more like what other people think of you
We’re in our own heads so much that we see all our shortcomings, neuroses and problems constantly. Which is fine, we all have our own shit to work on and work out. We’re all absolute weirdos in our own heads. The good thing is that other people don’t see each and every one of those things, or if they do, it doesn’t matter nearly as much to them as it does to us. That’s because they’re also too busy thinking about their own shortcomings to worry much about ours.
For example, when I was a touring musician, if I played a bad note in a guitar solo, I’d assume everyone heard it, everyone judged me for it, and it would be all everyone would think about for the rest of the show.
(And since it wasn’t jazz, I wasn’t trying to play the wrong notes either.)
No one ever cared that I hit one bad note though, and most didn’t even notice it. So no one ever cared as much as I did about bad notes because it wasn’t a big deal to them. It never ruined the show for them. It only ruined the show for me if I let it.
The more we realize that everyone’s so self-involved that they don’t see our shortcomings or matter to them as much we think they do, the more we can be free to try things and make mistakes along the way. It doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, and it never ruins the entire show.
Remember that your actions are directly based on the software you run the most in your mind
Our brains are like a computer that has 2 apps, HeckYes and EpicFail.
If we run the EpicFail app, we become experts in our own shortcomings because that’s all the app does, it shows us why every action can be stopped with any tiny excuse for when a situation is less than perfect. The app tells us we can’t, we shouldn’t, we aren’t good enough to try.
If we run HeckYes, it shows us what we can achieve almost anything if we do the work. It gives us reasons why we can, we should, and that we’re good enough to give it a go.
Both apps do exactly what they’re supposed to do, with remarkable efficiency. They start running instantly after we open them, and they get to processing information through their lens.
So if we’re running EpicFail all day, every tiny thing that happens, from rain to a nasty email to a computer crashing to a stomach ache becomes a signal that our belief in ourselves is wrong and therefore all action that moves us towards what we want should be halted.
Whereas if we’re running HeckYes all day, the rain signals that it’s a great day to work inside, or the nasty email means we should delete that single person off our mailing list, or the computer crash means it’s a good time to get up and stretch or a stomach ache simply means we should eat something and then get back to work.
The same events happen while running both apps, but each app processes data in a totally different way.
If you’re confident what you’re taking action on will work and HeckYes is running in the background, then the final step is release. As in, you’ve believed, you’ve done everything you possibly can, and now it’s time to see what happens with factors beyond your control.
So if I’ve practiced guitar, rehearsed the songs daily for months, then when I step on stage, I’m releasing control. Whatever happens at that point will happen. I may play a “perfect” show (which I doubt is even possible), bad notes may be hit. But at that point, I’ve done the work, I’ve enjoyed the process of working, and the outcome is whatever it’ll be. Same with, for example, writing a book. If I did my best to learn and use my first-hand knowledge, found the best agent who hooked me up with the best publisher and editor, and together we put out a great book with a solid marketing strategy – then the book’s success or failure is now due to a million tiny little things going right or wrong.
Perhap the best part of believing, taking action and releasing is that if you had the confidence, did the work and put it out into the world then you’ll be fine no matter the result. You can always have another idea to act on, another show to play, another book to write, another rockstar parking space to find. Just like while doing the work you can’t assume failure, if you assume failure once the work is done, even if that work isn’t succeeding by your own definition, then it’s likely you’ll find some reason to stop trying. Whereas if you assume it’ll work out until it’s proven not to work out, you won’t dwell on the failure too long because you’ll be back at believing in something else and working towards that.
In closing, take action
Belief is only the first step to succeeding at something, action must follow. I honestly don’t think successful people are smarter, more driven, or possess some magic skill (from transcendental gnomes) that makes them somehow “better” than other people. I just think successful people assume they’ll succeed and then get to work proving themselves right.
You can’t eat excuses
Excuses are for the weak. Before you assume this is harsh judgement, consider the following:
A friend of mine writes and draws every day. He’s published several illustrated books, none of which have become international bestsellers, and English isn’t even his first language (though his books are published in English). He never went to art school or got an MFA in creative writing. Still, he writes and draws every day and makes a decent living doing it. I assume that if his computer stopped working, he’d revert to writing and drawing on paper. If he broke his left hand, he’d go slower, but write and draw with his right hand instead. Excuses that would stop some of us become mountains for him, and he’s skilled at mental climbing.
Another friend is also super talented. He’s published a few articles and illustrations online, and they’re great and even achieved a bit of notoriety. The thing is, he hasn’t published many of them. For him, everything has to be perfect to proceed. His oolong tea has to be brewed perfectly and sitting just so on his desk. All his chores have to be done. His kids have to be sleeping or at least not playing loudly in the next room. He can’t feel tired or stressed or even be hungry in order to create. If he starts to think about whether his work will be well received, a best seller, or criticized, etc, he’ll talk himself out of work for the day. Circumstances need to be just right for him, which means that most days he doesn’t draw or write. Excuses defeat him, and defeat him often. Unless the mountains turn flat and easy stroll, he just mentally stays home.
Both friends have very similar talents and skills. Very similar life circumstances too. Yet, the first sees problems as challenges to solve. The second sees problems as reasons to stop, or to never even start.
More and more, I’ve noticed that our reality is almost entirely based on our perception of it. So, if we think something is true, we’re mostly right. Once we begin to assume circumstances need to be perfect to proceed, that becomes the case. Excuses are a story we tell ourselves to not move forward. To not create. To not hit publish. To wait until things are perfect to start. Excuses are for the weak.
Can’t start freelancing unless you’re able to quit your full-time job?
Can’t write a book because your computer is too slow?
Can’t be creative unless you’re inspired?
People often ask me what inspires and motivates me to be creative. My answer is always the same: I’m not inspired or motivated every hour of every day – I just do the work I need to do for my job. Well, maybe I’m inspired to eat an entire bag of (family-sized) chips if I’ve got a craving. When I’m not inspired? I work any way. I don’t treat creativity like it’s precious. Which may sound like I’m not doing it justice, but I think the opposite is true. If I’m creative for a living, then creativity is my job.
A doctor doesn’t wait until she’s inspired to do surgery to save a patient’s life. A lawyer doesn’t wait for circumstances to be absolutely perfect before she tries a case for her client. They have work to do, so they do it. There’s no mental hacks or habits or tricks required.
Why is creative work any different? It shouldn’t be, especially when it’s your livelihood. If I’m a designer, then I spend my days designing. If I’m a writer, I sit down and write. Yes, sometimes the work will be shitty or not up to par, but it doesn’t matter. Yes, sometimes I’ll stare at a screen for longer than anyone should. But sometimes my work and flow for creating it is awesome. Indeed, the chances of awesome work and flow only increase if you work at it. If you wait until the house is quiet and your mood is just right and maybe a bolt of inspiration has struck, then you aren’t going to be creative very often. And if you’re creative for a living, that’s a big problem.
We all assume that motivation is required for creative work—but I think it’s the opposite: creative work is required for motivation.
And also, you can’t eat excuses.
What if I’m wrong? A self-guided practice of empathy
I’m not so much interested in the specifics of politics and party lines.
I leave matters like that for (hopefully) smarter people and do what I can by voting: on a ballot, with my wallet, and by putting my body where my beliefs are* when necessary.
What interests me is dialog and story. More specifically, intelligent dissent as part of dialog and story.
I find it interesting that for all the tools and technologies we have to communicate with literally anyone — anywhere — we mostly choose to congregate in groups with the exact same values, opinions and views.
This reality is fine of course, everyone needs a safe place to express themselves. What I find interesting though is how often the “other side” is dismissed and ignored, simply because they believe something different than what we do. They’re wrong, simply because their story is different from ours.
I like arguing and debating, I always have. Mostly because I’m a little shit disturber and like getting a rise out of people by challenging them. But also, I like to assume that I could be totally wrong in what I believe and argue it anyway. Why? It’s easy to believe something in a vacuum (like on social media – where what you see is mostly just echoes of what you already believe to be true). It’s much harder to be challenged by a belief and proven wrong, and then having to adjust a belief. Or, being challenged by a belief only to find that, under scrutiny, it’s proven to be true deep within you.
Case in point:
In a previous newsletter I wrote something I believed to be true. It was meant to stir up those thinkin’ thoughts I like so much. One person replied, saying they disagreed with the intro, and therefore unsubscribed, hoping never to hear another word from me again – simply because we disagreed on an intellectual level. Another person replied, saying they disagreed with a point in the article, and brought up where they felt I was wrong, and why they thought that was the case, challenging me to rethink what I felt to be correct.
Both people disagreed with me. But one shut down like an ostrich with his head in the sand because my views were different. The other person took the time to engage a little in an intelligent conversation, which I thoroughly enjoyed and even led me to change my mind (causing me to rewrite the original piece for its syndication later on).
Of course I’m not 100% immune to assuming the other side is wrong. I catch myself assuming the other side’s “stupidity” all the time. But when I catch myself doing that, I try to talk myself out of the dismissal and actually ponder it for a minute. What if I’m wrong? What if the other side is right? What would that change? Would me being wrong make the world better?
For example: if I’m wrong about climate change and humans aren’t causing at least some level of global warming, then I’ve not done any harm to the planet, animals or people by reducing my carbon footprint. Whereas if I wrongly believe climate change is invented by some grand eco-agenda and do everything I can to support fossil fuels and environmental destruction, then the world would be far worse off from using up finite resources and causing harm to life on the planet.
If regardless of us being right or wrong in what we believe the world is still better for it, then I consider that a win. And knowing if we’re right or wrong comes from studying facts and deep introspection. To keep from harming the world, we need to study why we believe something (and study the other side more too).
My own truths obviously come from a place of privilege too — I’m a middle class, white dude with a bit of an audience. The things I believe and choices I can make are based mostly on the fact that I can afford to make them. I can be a vegan because I can afford to buy food. I can debate the ethics of vehicle manufacturing because I can afford to buy a car. I can speak my mind about whatever I want, without the fear of repercussions (past the odd angry email or grammatically-poor death threat). I’m able to vote with my wallet and choose who to work with or for because I can afford to make those choices in the first place.
I write to share my ideas and express who I am. I speak for me. If you agree with some things I say, awesome! If you disagree with some things I say, that’s awesome too. I like debate and dissent.
What if each time we felt like sharing our beliefs, we instead took a moment to empathetically question them? For example, for myself: Would my mind change about something if I was black? Or a woman? Or gay? Or poor?
Empathy is important because someone can’t be both evil and truly empathetic simultaneously. (Check out this study done at Berkeleylinking cruelty to a lack of empathy.)
I used to think intelligence could solve many of the world’s problems, but there are a lot of assholes who are ridiculously smart.
What should hold more value in the world – and should be taught as a focal point in school – is empathy. Especially empathy for people who are different than us. We don’t have to agree with them, but the world definitely gets kinder if we understand that they are doing what’s right for them, same as us. The caveat here is if someone is hurting others with their beliefs. Then it gets tricky because they obviously shouldn’t be doing that. And I’m not talking about being slightly misunderstood either, I’m talking about actually and seriously hurting others, like gay bashing, xenophobia, discriminating, etc. Then we need to balance empathy (through education) with making sure they stop doing what they’re doing right away…
We all speak our own truth. But truth, on an intellectual level, is malleable and in the eye of the beholder. Truth is completely shaped by how we perceive our world. It’s different for everyone, which makes the world much more interesting.
We need to get more comfortable with the idea of uncomfortably challenging ideas.
Assuming we’re 100% right, 100% of the time is a recipe for never growing, never learning, never changing (for the better). And when we refuse to leave our social bubbles of likeminded, similar folks, it’s hard to really experience the world, and art, and expression, for what really is: varying truths and beliefs.
Intelligent dissent with others is what makes democracy different from fascism. Intelligent dissent with ourselves is what builds empathy.
Reconsidering our idea of truth is one of the most important things we can do to remove any “us vs them” mentalities and just become a larger group of “us” — all humans sharing this spinning ball, with varying truths and beliefs, but also a mutual respect.
Motivational quotes are ruining your life
There are few things that incite rage in me like seeing on social media quotes. There’s a few reasons why (other than, obviously, the fact that I’m a crotchety old man in training and get mad at most things on social media).
- “Work, sweat, achieve.”
- “Be amazing.”
- “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.”
- They “call it in” – since all you have to do is Google “inspirational quotes”, throw one over an Unsplash image, and boom – viral marketing achieved. It’s lazy and wholly unoriginal. Zero effort involved.
- Instead of sharing your own art, creativity or knowledge, they simply fill a void to generate vapid views, likes and clicks.
- They’re typically so out of context that they lose their original meaning and impact. If you want to be motivated into action, read a whole book on a subject. Not to mention quite a few of the most popular ones are misattributed (but it’s the internet, so who cares about trivial things like… facts).
- Yes, they fill a void and accomplish something, but it’s the wrong thing. These quotes make you feel like you can accomplish something without actually doing anything other than reading a line on Instagram about it.
You know what inspires me? Actually doing the fucking work.
Real work or real artistry doesn’t happen by reading quotes on social media. It happens when you actually do the work (which requires social media to be turned off).
Note: I’m not even looking at motivational quotes on social while I write this, otherwise I wouldn’t have the focus to write – but I sure would be inspired to write an article about this… one day.
I also think these quotes have the opposite effect the person posting them is after. That’s because they make us feel good and make us feel like we can accomplish something… but without actually accomplishing anything. Who reads a quote, throws down their phone and spends 2 months building an amazing software application or writing a book?
But then, I’ve never been interested in “inspiration” – I think it’s entitled bullshit – just like believing you have to follow your passion to truly win at life (totally untrue, and my passion lives behind a jar of pickles in my fridge).
Doing real work requires sitting your ass down and doing it, whether or not you’re inspired to. Creativity requires attrition through numbers (number of times tried, number of practice runs, number of hours spent honing your skills), not snow-capped mountain photos and a few choice words from Thoreau.
“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.”
(PS: I doubt he spent a ton of time refreshing his social feeds in the cabin he built.)
Mental strength and creative progress only happen through the experience and constant practice of putting our skills to work. I don’t want to look at mountain-tops, because that’s not going to get me in the shape I need to be in to actually climb mountains. It’s when you assume your best work isn’t behind you but in front of you.
Scientific research has shown that motivational quotes make us feel the same as actually accomplishing something. If that is correct, then that’s a very, very, very bad thing. It reduces our capacity and willingness to then take real action because we already feel good about ourselves and fulfilled (and creativity doesn’t typically happen when we feel those things).
If all it took to “be amazing” was to read someone posting “be amazing” over a nice photograph, then we’d all be there already. If only I had seen the words “be amazing” sooner, then I could have actually been amazing years ago! Reading those words totally unlocked amazingness for me.
The problem is deeper than these social media quotes. It’s that we all crave the end result and want to rush through or past the process of getting there. We know that strength and conditioning through daily exercise is really hard work. So we wish we could just teleport to the top of the mountain instead.
But to really get anywhere, we need to get motivated by the grind of our work. We need to find passion and excitement in the steps and process required to achieve our goals, and not just the fanfare we’ll see once we accomplish something.
As creative people, our highest and best reward is the work itself. Not the end result, not the outcome, not the accolades we’ll hopefully see once we’re finished, but the actual work. That’s where creativity and awesomeness lie. 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. And doesn’t involve a picture of a kitty that’s “hanging in there”.
I should write a book of “demotivational” social media quotes. Maybe pissing others off will be the boost they need to stop looking for the strength to work via social media and get down to butt-in-chair work instead?
“You tried your best and failed miserably, the lesson is: never try” – Homer Simpson
The point of inspiration isn’t to be inspired. It’s that sometimes we need a spark, a catalyst to propel us into action. If social media quotes on Twitter aren’t moving you towards action and instead just move you towards looking at more quotes, then maybe it’s time to make a change.
So maybe next time, instead of looking at inspirational social media quotes on building doors, you should actually try building one.
I put a lot of people off
I swear, I’m negative, I voice my frustrations openly and I call people out when they’re mean or do something they shouldn’t. I post pictures of my pet rats in the same places I promote my products. I make jokes about everything. I’m open about even my most unpopular opinions.
I could stop doing these things, or at least, not use the platform I’ve got to voice my opinion on… everything. Surely this can’t be good for my business or my brand or people respecting me as an authority in my field? I could be more “professional” and act like a real business person, right?
But I let just as much that’s bad/weird/offensive about me show as I do the good.
Here’s the thing, what I sell is myself: over and over again, regardless of what the product is. I wouldn’t sell a product if it wasn’t me. I wouldn’t tell a story if it wasn’t how I really felt. And who I am are all those good, bad and sometimes unpopular things.
I’d rather be honest and open about who I am, bad attitude, unpopular opinions, controversial views and all. You don’t have to agree with anything I say or believe in (I’d actually rather you didn’t, it makes things much more interesting). But know that it’s who I really am. If we met in person, you wouldn’t be at all surprised. The normal way I talk is the way I write my sales pages.
I’m ok if people buy or don’t buy things I make because of who I am and what I stand for. If you let your ethics and point of view into your brand, you’re going to leave money on the table. Because some people won’t agree, or worse, they’ll be put off. They won’t buy your stuff simply because of who you are.
One time I refunded someone for one of my courses because they said, “this is helpful but I can’t get over you saying “shit” in the first video lesson”. Another time someone told me they didn’t buy my mailing list course because they, “didn’t trust rainbows”.
I actually don’t trust online people who are only positive or only show their good, full-polished sides to their audience. Or who only share when things go right, or their wins, or things that make them look good. Or who only post staged and very setup shots on Instagram. Or who only start posting monthly income reports when they hit 6-figures/month…
Ever notice how the most “transparent” people are the ones who’ve achieved the most? Maybe there’s a correlation?… (For myself, the only reason I’ve ever posted sales reports of my best products is because I’ve also posted sales reports from the worst ones. And I don’t think I will ever post another sales report…)
I always assume those folks are hiding something. Or only telling the truth when it makes them look good.
And since trust is a precursor to commerce, I’d never buy anything from them (and eventually, stop paying attention to them too). So maybe you don’t make all the money if you just show your good side. Just like you don’t make all the money if you show your good AND bad side. Either way, there’s no gravy train of easy money.
So I’d rather be trusted by some than liked by all. Because who I am as a person is who I am in business and in what I make. I do my best, create things that I feel are genuinely helpful to others, and do it all while being myself.
Yes, it puts some folks off, but I’m cool with that. Because the alternative is trying to be someone I’m not, and then risking that I could put off the people I actually want to be around and enjoy connecting with.
So I put a lot of people off. Gladly.