I’m going to go out on a limb here and share that I loved ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi.’ I thought it was fun and engaging, funny and more than a bit swashbuckling. I know there are plenty of people out there who disagree with me, which is fine, but there’s one theme in the film I wanted to write about today: hope.

Bucking the trend of the second-film in a trilogy being the bummer (‘Empire Strikes Back’ didn’t exactly finish on a high note), The Last Jedi ends on a very hopeful tone. The now-infamous “broom kid” looks to the stars and Rian Johnson leaves viewers hopeful for the rebellion. It’s a nice ending, a nice sentiment.

After a year that left a lot of people worn down – either because of their politics or the fact that Mother Nature seems bound and determined to destroy our civilization – hope seems to be trading on the demand side of the supply/demand curve. (more…)

“Write drunk, edit sober.”

Hemingway didn’t say it, though this quote is often attributed to him. And, to be sure, it’s bad advice. Have you ever tried to write while drunk? I have and, I’ll tell you, the output was no bueno. It was a jumbled mess of half-thoughts and homonyms which no amount of editing could salvage.

But, like many quotes real or fake, there is a lot of truth in this brief, four-word sentiment. No, it doesn’t have anything to do with intoxication. It’s about the merits of uninhibited creativity. Writing drunk, to me, means letting your mind wander, letting your thoughts be your thoughts and getting them out without judging them. Writing drunk means writing freely and not worrying about getting anything right.  (more…)

I was having a conversation about the future with my mom recently. We talked about my work, my family, all the possibility that lies ahead and all the work I’ve done and will do to get us there. She’s always been supportive, but she knows the road has not always been easy for me and my family. She’s also not one to offer a lot of wisdom or advice. She’s more likely to simply say that she believes in me and hopes for the best.

That’s probably why it was profound when she interrupted me and said something I can’t get out of my head.  (more…)

Life can be crazy in our house. With four children of ages from newborn to teenager, a busy professional life and a bustling social calendar, it can seem like I am constantly going from place to place, dropping off, picking up, checking off boxes on a seemingly never-ending list of to-dos.

If you have a family, chances are pretty good that you know the feeling. Everything begins to swirl together to the point where days fade from pre-dawn alarm clocks to falling into bed without much having been accomplished and, yet, a million things being done. Modern life is a constant uphill struggle to keep up and trying to keep your head above water, deliver on commitments and get through the days leaves precious little time to reflect or look forward. (more…)

What happens when you want to be more than one thing? What happens when your mind wanders and your heart leads you down two separate paths?

That’s what I’ve been dealing with for the last few months and it took me a while to figure things out. Now, before I go any further, no, this is not about my marriage, my family or even my day job. This is about writing.

I grew up writing non-fiction. I love writing memoir and self-improvement books, books that involve history and adventure. It calls to my better angels and draws upon my experiences as a journalist. But last year, I published my first book for middle readers and, apart from being exciting, it confused me a little.

Not only did I not go through a publisher (I went the Kindle Direct route) which allowed me to own the process and the proceeds, I wrote fiction from my son’s perspective. It was exciting. And since then, I’ve completed four more manuscripts for similar books, which is great… if it weren’t for the nagging feeling that I have more things to write for adults and every minute spent typing for kiddos is a precious moment lost toward that big, long list of other projects I want to do.

The grass is always greener, right?

I know this sounds like a lucky guy who gets to write for part of his living complaining about having too many ideas and creative energy for his capacity, but it’s not. Instead, I think what’s bothered me about the seeming conflict between my writing interests is that it goes against so much of what I see, hear and read about 21st century branding and success.

Everywhere I go, I hear people talking about being singular and identifiable. I read blogs and listen to talks about focus and purpose. I feel inundated with the idea of mastery. And it all feels a little misleading. It makes it seem like success can only be found by focusing on one thing, which is true to a point. But as a person in the audience, a person who sometimes struggles with direction and a sense of purpose, all the talk about singularity creates inner turmoil.

Or, at least, it did.

I came the realization a few weeks ago, that I was parsing the needlessly parsed. True, I don’t have a ton of time to pursue every single interest (not with work, family, a baby on the way, a dog in need of walking and all the youth sports), but that doesn’t mean I have to be monolithic. Writing can be my one thing, but it doesn’t have to be only one thing.

As a writer, I’m supposed to be worried about my craft, but in reality, I spend more time worrying about my audience. Publishers want reach from their writers before they buy books – which is very chicken and egg to me. And if you go the self-publishing route, you need an engaged audience to try and get yourself off the ground. Writing about more than one kind of thing for more than one kind of audience means worrying about that times at least two. This was what was behind my crisis in confidence these last few months. I thought, in order to be successful, I needed to pick a path and stay on it. But how could I do that with so many projects outlined and ideas bursting out from every corner? How could I kill half the things I wanted to do for the sake brand clarity?

In the end, I decided not to. I decided to focus on my craft and be honest about where I was going and what I wanted and hope that there is an audience out there that might be as interested in reading about Creative Productivity as they are about the adventures of Harrison James, Monster Hunter; who might be as interested in reading about History as they are about Thaddeus & Chuck, junior high detectives; who might want to read about my tiny adventures as they are about my Adventure Books series.

I had an identity crisis there for a while, but in the end, I’ve realized it wasn’t my identity that was fuzzy, it was yours and that the only thing I could do is pursue work that feels honest and true to me, stories that I want to tell and do my best to bring you along for the ride, which is focused enough for me.

Last night, I had the opportunity to give a guest lecture to a group graduate and under-grad students at DePaul University in Chicago. Okay, I couldn’t get up to Chicago, so I was technically sitting in my basement office and talking to my computer, but they were on the other end, so it still counts, right?

The class was on content strategy, something I have been doing for the last six years in an official capacity, but my entire adult life as a writer, journalist and editor. After my presentation, which was presented full-screen with my disembodied voice coming through speakers in the classroom, I clicked on the webcam and did a Q&A. There were the usual questions about what I see as the future of the field, what kinds of strategies I like (I forgot to mention Reebok’s ‘Be More Human’ experience. Look it up class.) and those I don’t like.

But, near the end of my time, I was asked – or maybe I assumed I was asked – if I had any advice for students getting started in the field. I’d never been asked a question like that so I didn’t have a canned answer to draw upon. My brain tends to thrive in moments of pressure like that and I arrived at two things that have, I realized, impacted my life and career more than any others. The more I thought about them, the more I realized that they are appropriate for more than just landing a job in marketing and can be applied to life in general. I learned both, but I’m not sure where or from whom. And I thought I would share them here this morning (don’t worry, I’ll go back to writing about my dog soon).

Three Useful Words

Throughout my career in its many forms, inquiry has been a consistent through-line. As a writer, a journalist, a strategist, a speaker, a consultant, asking questions and getting at the answers have been the watermark on my work and the basis of most of my thinking. And if there is one question that has been most useful to me, it is this three-word gem: To what end?

To what end is different than a simple why? Why can be related to motivation, it can be related to physics and chemistry and philosophy and religion. Why is nebulous and is neither specifically forward-looking nor backward-looking. Why is a big question without a specific answer. To what end, on the other hand, is about specificity of intent and is always future-facing. To what end is about motive and intent. To what end is about goals and objectives.

To what end forces you to consider not just that which is in front of you, but that which follows. It’s a great question to use in almost any circumstance. Training your dog – to what end? What is the ultimate goal of the training? If you can answer that, you can inverse your way toward a plan. Writing a book – to what end? If it’s fame and glory and riches and acclaim, you probably won’t write a literary criticism of Chaucer.

To what end, perhaps more than any three words, have had the biggest impact on my life, my work and my career. I think I might have heard my dad ask that question once and it has always stuck with me. I’m grateful that it has.

Reach Out Boldly

When I was in fifth grade, I fell in love with Air Jordans. The shoes. The shoes. I read an article about a guy named Tinker Hatfield, who had designed the most popular models of the shoes and followed an impulse to reach to him. I looked up the address for Nike’s headquarters on the back of a shoe box and wrote him a letter. He didn’t write back. I tried again. He didn’t write back until, after several letters, he did.

That early experience cemented something in my mind- that curiosity is only as good as the action it inspires. Over the years, I’ve reached out to hundreds of people I admire from a distance and have been pleasantly surprised at how many have contacted me back. I went through a phase a couple years ago of being fascinated by the work of author, blogger and human guinea pig Tim Ferriss. I found his contact information and reached out to him, knowing he was busy. But I really wanted to ask him a couple of questions. Not only did he write me back, he posted my message on his website as an example of how to contact busy people.

Some of the best experiences I’ve had in terms of growth have come from sitting down and searching for a way to connect with someone I’d like to learn from. They have come from formulating my questions, from focusing in on what I want from them and from reaching. You get rejected. You get ignored. But there’s value in learning that too. There’s value in understanding – through trial and error – how to connect with a stranger. I’ve been on the receiving end of some of these contact and I’ve got to admit, it’s a thrill.

There is always value in following the instinct to reach out.

I’ve reached my allotted time for today, but I thought I would share these thoughts because they seemed to resonate with the class last night and it made me think they might be useful to others.

We’ll chat tomorrow.

 

I’ve been working as a digital strategist for a few years now. It’s work I like. It’s work I’m naturally inclined to do well. At least I think it is. I think I do a pretty good job. Sometimes, I’ll tell people what I do and they look at me funny. Isn’t digital media just about cat videos and page views?

Fair enough. But not accurate. I like to think that all strategy – digital, analog, business, personal or otherwise – is about making rational decisions based upon a keen understanding of motivation and desired outcome. And it doesn’t have to be hard. So often strategy development is about asking one question over and over until you arrive at a satisfying and fruitful conclusion. Being a strategist is a lot like being a three year-old. You just keep asking: why?

Let’s say someone tells you they want to run a marathon. They’ve wanted to run a marathon for a long time but have had trouble getting off the couch. Ask them: why?

Why do you want to run a marathon?

Because I want to feel like I’ve accomplished something.

Why do you want to feel like you want to achieve something?

Because I don’t feel like I accomplish a whole lot.

Why don’t you feel like you’ve accomplished a lot?

Because no one recognizes me for the work I do every day and I feel like I’m not doing important things. 

Okay, if that’s the case, why haven’t you been able to get started?

Because I’m tired all the time.

Why are you tired all the time?

Because I don’t sleep enough. 

Why don’t you sleep enough?

Because I stay up late worrying about being successful.

That’s six ‘whys’ and now you can build a strategy that looks like something like this: Design a daily training routine that rewards small activities. Go to bed before 10 pm, get a reward. Follow your training program every day and get a reward – a social media high five, a congratulatory e-mail from a person who has volunteered to act as a coach. Just asking why takes the massive accomplishment of running a marathon and breaks it down into needs – recognition – and motivation – to relieve stress and not feel so alone – and informs tactics – celebrating small successes that will result in preparing for a marathon.

It doesn’t matter if you’re setting up a website for a Fortune 100 or figuring out how to get out of debt. Asking at least three whys instead a whole bunch of whats, whens, wheres and hows will often reveal opportunity from seemingly unrelated motivations.

I like the Why? Why? Why? model. I find myself applying it to everything from cutting down on e-mail to strengthening my faith. It works. Give it a try and let me know how it goes. And, since I know it can be hard to do it yourself, if you need help reach out to me.

There’s almost nothing that’s impossible. But don’t confuse activity for progress. Don’t mistake minimizing with efficiency. Don’t mistake tactics for strategy. Spend time getting your strategy right and the execution becomes easier, more effective and, often, fun.