Reframing the Question

Adam is one of my closest friends. We don’t live near one another – he’s on the West Coast, I’m in the Midwest. We don’t see each other often – the last time was before Game 3 of the 2014 World Series (#weareGiant). We don’t speak regularly, but when we do, it’s as if no time has passed at all.

Adam bought and edited my book, And Now We Shall Do Manly Things. It was a very personal book and the relationship between writer and editor can often be very intimate. Lucky for me, we hit it off well and have remained close long after the book has disappeared from the clearance bin.

About 18 months ago Adam, a born and bred New Yorker, got married, left publishing and moved to the other side of the country. He was run down by the rat race. He was tired and cynical. He needed a change. And for the last year or so, he’s been fully embracing the Northern California life. He teaches karate – a lifelong passion – in Marin. He does freelance editing work. He’s found a bit of sunshine in his life.

Adam called me last night to talk. He needed some advice and, after more than an hour of the kind of catching up that happens in friendships like ours, he asked me what he should do for a living. His wife – vastly smarter, more talented and better looking than he – is a foreign rights editor and is very successful. Its been a benefit to his restoration, but now he wants to find his thing, to contribute to the family larder more consistently and take ownership of his work.

There’s just one problem.

“If you look at my resume, I’ve spent my whole life in publishing,” he says. From his perspective, it’s a liability. A decade and a half in one industry, a very specific industry, an incestuous industry where people are born, grow and die. He’s afraid the only thing he’s qualified to do is work in publishing.

I asked him about writing. Adam is a great writer, has a degree in journalism and has an innate sense of story that leaves me jealous. He said he’s started a bunch of proposals, but finds holes in them. He’s started a lot of things, but his deep knowledge stops him short.

Adam, it seems, knows too much.

I think we all do this. We all, at some time or another, pen ourselves in by expectations, perceptions and the kind of thinking that leaves you focused on all the reasons something won’t work instead of finding the reasons it will. I certainly think this way. I’m the kind of person that sits down to do something and am already envisioning two paths – one that leads to glory and success, the other to necessary and inevitable failure.

But I’ve learned a couple of things from very smart, successful people that have helped me tame my self-doubting beast and calmed me down considerably.

The first is the Really-Really. The really-really is a way of looking at a situation and deconstructing it to its component parts; of reframing an experience or opportunity around a sort of base definition. Take Adam’s resume for instance. He looks at it and sees nothing but publishing. If he were to take the really-really approach to it, he would break down the publishing into its component activities and redefine it through that lens. He sees ‘editor’ and believes it to be limiting. The really-really would define what an editor does: project management, contract negotiation, story design, production design, financial forecasting, industry and retail strategy.

When you break down something with the really-really, you see it not for what you think it is, but what it actually is. I do this with clients all the time. They come in saying they have a certain challenge, but when we spend time breaking it down with the really-really, a different, more manageable challenge often comes to light.

The second thing that has helped me is the practice of Selective Naivete. This is all about removing the long-term, two path thinking that people experienced in one area tend to do and instead reframing something in smaller steps. Take Adam’s writing for example. He sits down to write a book proposal and immediately sees all the reasons it won’t work. If he were to practice selective naivete, he would put his best ideas into a proposal and ask someone else how they could see it working. New-agers and self-helpers call these limiting believes, this notion that we stop ourselves from doing something before we even try. I like to think of it as a shift in perspective – from ‘why I can’t’ do something to asking someone ‘do you think I could.’

If I had known more about book publishing before I began working on the project Adam eventually bought, I would never have written it. A memoir about hunting in a divisive gun culture written by a suburban white man doesn’t exactly jibe with industry trends. But I didn’t, so I pursued the project based upon a hunch and my own desire. I asked questions. I asked for input. I didn’t allow my own doubts to get in the way because I didn’t have them. It can be very difficult, but choosing to ignore doubts and instead ask questions and respond to feedback is at the core of practicing selective naivete.

Time will tell which path Adam goes down. You may even see his byline on some posts on this site. My hope is that he figures out how to get out of his own way, reframe his experiences and allow his curiosity and instinct to overcome his vast knowledge. The world will be better with more of him in it and I truly believe, he will be happier for it.




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