When is it time to stop daydreaming and start doing?
I don’t have an answer to share with you, but I’ve fallen in love with the question. Let me explain.
I started this blog to explore how people transform artistic talents and outlandish ideas into real, viable careers. I wanted to hear about business models and self-promotion, not to mention multiple revenue streams and how to balance creative exploration with paying the phone bill.
All these stories are fascinating – and I still think they’re helpful for anyone who’s reading, scheming and planning. But last Saturday, I was chatting with the owners of a two-year-old Pacific Northwest craft brewery. (Please stay with me; this has nothing to do with hipsters and everything to do with creative business). Between sips of winter ale, I realized that I had one big question for the couple behind the taps: when?
When did you know it was time to stop boiling hops in the basement or backyard and start a commercial business? When did you know you were ready? The tasting room suddenly filled up and I didn’t get to ask the question, but the answer, I suspect, is both personal and practical. Surely, it’s a complex equation with variables like money, timing, bravado, serendipity and boredom. That’s what makes it so interesting.
When new marketing tactics feel tired by Friday, the question of “when” is refreshingly stable. It’s constant. Because really, once you make the no-turning-back decision, you can figure out everything else. Log the endless hours and assemble the puzzle. After, that’s what mentors, sleepless nights and the internet are for.
Bottom line: I’m on the hunt for interesting stories of “when.” If you’ve got one, please get in touch. God knows I’m spotty on social media, but I’m quick to make personal connections. Send me an email. I’d love to hear from you. Oh, and these stories don’t need to feature lightning bolts or lottery wins; just real, true examples of knowing when the time is right.
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I’ve been away from this space for a while. Yes, I was busy, but raise your hand if you think the word “busy” is meaningless. That’s not what I’m writing about today.
Instead, it has taken nearly a decade for me to learn that my creative rhythm (and my career as a whole) has two equal parts:
1. Exploration, experimentation and outreach
2. Production, focus and introspection
I continually move back and forth between the two. Sometimes it happens within a single day or week. In other cases, I go into one mode for months at a time – and that’s exactly where I’ve been. Space #2: working, thinking and producing.
I used to fret about this perpetual opposition, but I’ve learned that it’s entirely natural. I’m not going to apologize for anything – what I do, which projects I choose, or how I operate. To be blunt, I don’t care what my career looks like from the outside.
Instead, I value relationships, experiences, improvement, learning, humility, failure, strength, and satisfaction. That’s what matters, and the last several months have overflowed with all of the above.
I’ve also learned another huge and highly liberating lesson in recent weeks. Maybe it sounds familiar to you, too.
When you’re lucky enough to build a career around a talent and deep love, it can take you in some unexpected directions – namely, you often use your skills in ways that don’t uphold the fantasy. Maybe you apply your drive to real-world problems instead of fiction. You sweat through stuff that won’t hang in a gallery or live between book covers. But that quiet, behind-the-scenes work isn’t any less valuable.
The soft-focus version of creativity worships sleek offices, inspirational mornings, curated lives and clothes and spaces, and the idea that art is 100% pure. It’s tucked up on a pedestal, safe from the grit of money and time, confusion and exhaustion. If you work (and I mean really work) to pursue a craft, you know the difference between reality and the romantic cultural filters.
Don’t get me wrong; I love that everyone is creating and sharing such gorgeous images. Glossy blogs, pins, articles and photos provide endless inspiration and a stimulating daily escape. They celebrate the everyday beauty in this world. Elevating only camera-ready creativity to a mental (and public) pedestal is problematic, though, because it can diminish the joy that lies in everything else you do. You know, all your other work.
I used to think that I was failing if I didn’t have an independent side project on the go. But the past several months of focused production have revealed that it’s all creative. It’s all valuable. I truly love what I do – from technical, corporate writing to journalism to editing and everything in between. It’s honestly a joy and a privilege. Each project feeds the next and teaches me something startling and new.
Where have I been? Learning to lose the soft focus, and if you’re worried about how your art “looks,” I encourage you to do the same.
Work how you want. Live how you want. Creativity and true satisfaction can flourish in the most unexpected places.
You all know that I’m obsessed with finding clarity in chaos. I still love a good creative mess, but clarity is my north star. I get ridiculously excited about patterns and structures, because they scrub away the grime and let your work shine through.
Clarity is also one of the “principles of awesome content” in my new ebook. To help you create with more clarity, I’ve made a five-step checklist.
1. Use simple language.
You’ve heard this one before. Unfortunately, when most people sit down to write, they try to WRITE with a capital “W.” Formality can defeat the purpose, which is to communicate clearly. Straightforward language with a dash of personality always comes out on top.
Here’s an example from Nest, a great company that makes thermostats. Sexy? Hardly. But they do a damn fine job of explaining how their product works, why it’s needed, and why it’s unlike anything else on the market.
From the Nest website:
“Most people leave the house at one temperature and forget to change it. So Nest learns your schedule, programs itself and can be controlled from your phone. Teach it well and Nest can lower your heating and cooling bills up to 20%.”
Now in jargon-y “business” copy:
“The Nest programmable thermostat includes robust controls that provide mobile access capabilities, significant thermo-electric cost savings and a market-leading ROI. Our innovative technology enables domestic users to adapt the wall unit according to their individual needs.”
My re-write is pretty over-the-top, but you get the point. Write as you speak, and as if you were talking to a friend. Then go in with your best editing eyes and tighten it all up. No excess words.
2. Use metaphors (carefully)
A metaphor states that two unlike things are actually the same. Metaphors promote clarity because they help the brain transition between a known concept and a new idea. Here’s a (fake) example:
“The RocketBean brewing system adds jumper cables to your everyday coffee pot.”
Sketchy proposition and not the most elegant metaphor, but it quickly conveys the idea of enhancing something familiar with a novel twist. Just remember; where there are metaphors, there are also clichés. Every tired, terrible cliché was once a fresh metaphor.
3. Anticipate your audience
Get inside their heads. Once you’ve written a description or an introduction, think like your desired readers. What haven’t you said? If this was the first time that you encountered the product, service or idea, what else would you need to know? What’s the next logical question, and how can you answer it before you readers even get a chance to ask?
4. Apply the party test
You’re mingling, cocktail in hand, when the host asks about your work. It’s time to explain your project in 2-3 concise, yet creative sentences. I know, you’re sick of elevator pitches (yawn). What I’m talking about here is using enough detail, yet enough mystery to spark someone’s interest – a raised eyebrow and the phrase “oh, really?” You want to elicit follow-up questions, not the conversational kiss of death: “That’s nice.” Now apply this principle to your writing.
5. Wrap it in a story
Facts can taste bitter, but they’re infinitely more palatable when wrapped in a story. Here’s another strong Nest example:
“We didn’t think thermostats mattered either. Until we found out they control half of your home’s energy. That’s more than applicances, lighting, TVs, computers and stereos combined.”
Oh, really? Tell me more.
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If the Internet is a cultural barometer, everyone I know is obsessed with setting goals (and eating “paleo”). We’re frantically sharing work strategies, mood boards, productivity tips and day-in-the-life schedules that explain how to simultaneously start a business and train for the Tour de France (dope-free, of course).
I set goals, too. I like tough deadlines and I’ve never met a notebook or organizational app that I couldn’t get behind. But what’s the result of all this self-reflection? Maybe we’re getting stuff done (a phrase I’ve come to loathe), but are we getting any better?
To be blunt; am I a better writer today than I was three years ago? I hope so, but I can tell you with complete certainty that I am a better interviewer.
I do a lot of interviews, and I’ve yet to find a technology that can effectively transform my digital voice recordings into legible type. I’ve searched and tested and nothing works – and somewhere along the way, I realized that transcribing is more than a necessary evil.
Hearing a conversation again usually reveals something I missed, and at the very least, deepens my understanding of the story. Listening – repeatedly – to your own voice on tape, however, is a special kind of torture. The recording lays bare every high-pitched giggle, nasal tone and unexpected speech tic. It’s easy to get flustered, right there in the privacy of your own earbuds.
During all that tedious typing, though, comes real learning. I realize which questions elicit the best responses and how to make people feel at ease. I also learn when to shut up and get over myself, versus moments where I could actually improve the interaction.
The irritating necessity of transcription has now become my tool for self-improvement. It works – and it makes me wonder what else is possible. Creativity is beautifully messy and intangible, but the skills we use in its service can always be sharpened. Most of us would do well to stop the planning now and then and do some clear-eyed assessment.
I urge you to find ways to measure your progress. Build a personal report card. Score yourself with grace and honesty. Then laugh off your mistakes and chalk it all up to learning.
Now have a drink. You’ve earned it.
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“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.”
- George Orwell
If I could summarize my new ebook in three words, they would be “tell the truth.”
Truth-telling requires courage. It also demands clarity. Strangely enough, most of us have trouble with the small truths, not the big, life-altering stuff. We struggle to write and communicate honestly. So, let’s explore some truthful content in action.
Airbnb is a disruptive, paradigm-shifting online service that enables travelers to book private accommodations or list their own spaces for paying guests. It’s secure and surprisingly addictive.
Airbnb could have stuck with scripted platitudes, such as, “I love meeting new people,” or “I want to show off my beautiful city.” Those videos exist, and there are certainly people who share these motives, but the company wisely included hosts who also say that Airbnb pays the mortgage, fills in wage gaps, or funds their renovations.
Traditional business wisdom would advise against sharing these less-than-altruistic intentions and stick to selling rainbows and sunshine. Real people, however, have all kinds of reasons for renting out their homes – and if the space is clean, safe, comfortable and accurately presented, do those reasons really matter?
Yes and no.
If you’re deciding whether to book a room from a global hotel chain or an unemployed mother of three who rents her charming upstairs apartment, which will you pick? Well, that’s up to you. It depends what you want and what you need. The apartment is a “messier” transaction, to be sure, because it’s unpredictable, with all the potential joys and pitfalls of human interaction. But, you also know exactly where your money is going. The truth is something to embrace, not to hide.
Airbnb understands the power of truthful content. It’s compelling and it creates emotional connections. Being honest also sets the tone for the company’s online community – and when you’re renting a stranger’s home, halfway around the world, trust and honesty rate pretty damn high on the list of must-haves.
Learn more about truth and storytelling in my new ebook, Create Awesome Content.
I have a fun announcement to make today.
My first e-book, Create Awesome Content: Simple content strategy, writing and collaboration advice, is out of hair and makeup. All 101 pages are fully polished, primped and ready for their close-up.
Create Awesome Content is a straightforward guide to engaging your audience – whether you’re an entrepreneur, artisan, freelancer, consultant, small business owner or employee. You’ll learn how to develop a simple content strategy, write brilliant copy, and how to work with a writer if you start sweating when you face the blank screen (no judgment).
I wanted to demystify all the stuff that trips up smart people – from online storytelling to the difference between active and passive voice. In today’s noisy digital world, everyone needs awesome content to stand out from the crowd. This book collects all my best advice into a practical and entertaining package.
The book emerged from a conversation with my friend Paul Jarvis, who is a wildly-in-demand web designer (he built this blog and my professional site). Paul was writing his own e-book called Be Awesome at Online Business and suggested that I write a companion content guide. I filed the idea away in my massive mental “maybe” list (you know the one) and carried on with my day. A couple weeks later, Paul mentioned it again and I decided to start writing.
The book covers the most important lessons I’ve learned in nearly 15 years of working as a freelance journalist and copywriter. It’s fast-paced, informal and blends strategic advice about developing multi-platform content (including social media, newsletters, websites and articles) with a hands-on writing workshop.
Developing exceptional content is the single best way for creative people to connect with their audience. It’s part marketing, part storytelling, and part self-expression. It’s worth doing well.
So thank you for reading – and let me know what you think of the book!
“Where do you find your inspiration?”
I’ve realized that I despise this question – and I’m guilty of asking successful artists and creators the exact same thing from time to time. This blog is called Inspired Outsiders, after all. And tracing exceptional work back to its roots is a natural instinct. Who isn’t seeking a formula for everyday greatness?
Strong coffee + sunlight + art gallery visit + Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue = endless creative fuel
If only it was so simple.
Instead, I often feel overwhelmed by the information buffet available both online and outside in the real, rainy world. It’s paralyzing. When you’re struggling to accomplish big things and wrestle down your creative demons, where do you invest your attention? What’s worth reading and viewing and tasting and hearing, and what’s not?
I’ve always felt a (potentially misplaced) sense of pride about my omnivorous media consumption. I’ll read the New York Times and Marie Claire with equal absorption and watch both reality TV and esoteric foreign films. I’m not a cultural snob. But could my indiscriminate ways actually be harmful? Should there be more focus?
I have no idea. Instead, I often retreat into information hibernation. That’s where I’ve been lurking for these past few weeks. But spring is almost here. People are running around in bright pink and green pants. Things are blooming. It’s time to re-engage and figure it out.
In the meantime, here are a couple sites and stories currently piquing my interest:
I love this online image feed for creative people who know how to wield their iPhones. I didn’t even realize it was a social network until I signed up and posted my first photo. I thought it was all about the cool, retro-style filters. Regardless… I’m hooked.
A French transplant living in NYC, Garance is a photographer, illustrator and girlfriend of the Sartorialist. She recently launched a video series called Pardon My French. If you’re female, follow fashion, and dream of chucking it all for Paris, then you will enjoy these videos. If you’re a lumberjack or Monty Python devotee, please carry on. Ultimately, the series works because Garance has one of the most sparkling and likeably authentic personalities I’ve encountered online.
I just read this fascinating NYT magazine story about Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s side gig as an orchestral composer. The way writer Alex Pappademas describes the band’s 1993 MTV Beach House appearance (and Thom Yorke’s near-drowning) is laugh-out-loud brilliant.
Until next time.
In late August, author Ewan Morrison shared his bleak forecast for the publishing industry at the Edinburgh Book Fair. His core premise: If you’re a writer, publisher, photographer, journalist or even a porn star – anyone who earns a paycheque by producing original work for a passive audience – your professional days are numbered.
Morrison begins by predicting that paper books have just a generation left until their inevitable extinction. When 78% of Gen Y readers consume all their news online, for free (according to Bertelsmann CEO Richard Sarnoff), it’s easy to imagine a paperless future. Books as interior décor is not an outlandish suggestion in today’s market.
Next, Morrison cites Chris Anderson’s Long Tail model of niche consumption and his book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Morrison lists eight products and industries that have begun (or nearly completed) the downward spiral to free: home videos, music, porn, computer games, newspapers, photography, telecommunications, and the Internet itself.
According to Morrison, “every industry that has become digital has seen a dramatic, and in many cases, terminal decrease in earnings for those who create ‘content.’ Writing has already begun its slide toward becoming something produced and consumed for free.”
Instead of selling a product or content service, online businesses are selling your demographic profile to advertisers and sponsors. The content is simply what gets you there. Many business strategists now champion paywalls or subscription-based content (a model the New York Times is currently test driving). It seems everyone is filling their bar napkins with charts and scribbles, trying to flip longstanding production models and save the embattled content industries. Morrison, however, suggests all this brainstorming is just busywork:
“… ultimately, any strategy conceived now is just playing for time as the slide towards a totally free digital culture accelerates. How long have we got? A generation. After that, writers, like musicians, filmmakers, critics, porn stars, journalists and photographers, will have to find other ways of making a living in a short-term world that will not pay them for their labour.”
He says the only solution is to demand that writers and authors (and by extension, all professional content creators) receive a living wage for their work – a figure that’s entirely separate from how much they sell, to whom, and in what format. It’s a wage simply for doing the work and doing it well.
I hate that Morrison’s predictions will probably hit the bull’s eye. But, I just don’t know about the “living wage” argument. We’ve all become entitled consumers who demand top-quality free information and entertainment. At the same time, North American culture is increasingly polarized. People struggle to feed their families while we collectively pay the Kardashian family millions to get their nails done and plan blink-and-you’ll-miss-it marriages. It feels like there’s less cultural space to follow tangents, create for the sheer joy of it, or pursue niche pursuits – unless it will pay off in the free market.
So what do we want from art and culture? What does it mean to create? Who’s responsible for footing the bill? These are questions that keep me up at night.
Maybe it’s time to bring back the patronage system.
What do you think?
There’s something in the air. Every day I hear about a new conference, workshop, speaker series or educational event — and many of these sessions are aimed squarely at artists and creatives.
Online technology has made it easy to watch presentations long after the seats are empty. At the same time, in-person learning feels increasingly rarefied. We all have crazy schedules and a thousand voices competing for our attention. Taking the time to attend a live event or class (unless you’re earning a degree) is a leap of faith; you want to leave feeling inspired, and at the very least, better informed.
Here’s a sample of the growing number of creative learning events, Vanity Fair style.
1. The elder statesman
We all know and love TED — the speaking series founded in 1984 as a conference for technology (T), entertainment (E) and design (D). Today, there are two annual TED Conferences in Long Beach and Palm Springs, the summertime TEDGlobal Conference in Edinburgh, and a variety of affiliated fellowships, prizes and independently-organized TEDx events. With a mission to spread ideas, TED “brings together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives.”
TED became a widespread phenomenon, however, when the TED.com site launched in 2007. Suddenly, we all had a front-row seat for the world’s best TEDTalks. They’re free to watch, legal to share and re-post, and they’re very, very addictive. The most viewed talks of all time come from author Elizabeth Gilbert, scientist Jill Bolte Taylor, musician Jake Shimabukuro, and education professor Sir Ken Robinson, among others.
2. The rebel
Night School is what happens when a distinguished Seattle boutique hotel hosts filmmakers, writers, bartenders, artists, and musicians for salon-style conversations and eclectic performances. Established by curator Michael Hebb and Barbara Malone, co-owner of the Sorrento Hotel, Night School offers a bold mix of creative programming that’s designed to inspire and provoke. Expect to see more of these casual-yet-brainy gatherings at an indie venue near you.
3. The go-getter
Designer Tina Roth Eisenberg (a.k.a. Swiss Miss) launched the CreativeMornings breakfast lecture series in New York City in September 2009. The free monthly format has now spread to 16 other cities and counting. The predominantly tech-savvy crowd arrives bright and early to hear smart speakers and chug the free coffee. After all, there’s a still a full workday ahead once the applause dies down.
4. The local
Here in Vancouver, we’re lucky to have an intimate and increasingly engaged creative community. In addition to our own Tedx conference, we have CREATIVEMIX and a new CreativeMornings team, plus the big industry events, such as the Vancouver International Film Festival, the Vancouver International Writers Festival and many, many more. From Portland to Melbourne to Hong Kong and Copenhagen, I’m sure there’s a similar story playing out in your city. Creatives are hungry to learn — and they’re getting organized.
5. The iconoclast
Tomato, ToMAHto, PechaKucha or PehCHACHka; however you say it, PechaKucha night is a global phenomenon that blends learning with self-promotion in a lively social setting (drinking is encouraged). Launched in Tokyo in 2003 as a forum for young designers to share their work with peers and the public, PechaKucha presenters show 20 images for 20 seconds each and describe what’s up on the big screen.
Some talks are funny, some are dull, and some are downright exceptional. You never know what you’re going to get — and that’s part of the beauty of this fast-paced night out. The concept has ignited in cities and towns around the world. Wherever you are, there’s probably a PechaKucha night in the works.
I’ve long admired Vancouver’s In the House Festival. Born in 2003, this creative performance series transforms private homes and living spaces into temporary theatre venues. The eclectic, intimate shows often fuse music, dance, storytelling, film, theatre, spoken word, acrobatics and burlesque to create unique cultural experiences for hosts, audiences and artists alike.
Yesterday afternoon, I got a sneak peek at their third-annual haunted theatre installation. Just in time for Halloween, the House of Faerie Bad Things is a mash-up of puppetry, opera, aerial circus, belly dance, film and music. The one-hour tour takes you through 14 different faerie environments in a labyrinth-like space. Eight shows run nightly from Oct. 29-31st with an after-party for all ticket holders following the last tour.
“It’s a very different kind of scare than ‘here’s a dude with a chainsaw,'” explains In the House artistic director and show co-producer Myriam Steinberg, who suggests the eerie tour is best suited for visitors ages 12 and up. All the scenes pull their dark, often gruesome and macabre content from old faerie tales. But, “there are a few moments that are hauntingly beautiful,” adds Steinberg.
So why faeries? What’s so frightening about Tinkerbell, Ariel and her winged sisters — and what’s the connection to Halloween?
“It’s all linked to the same culture,” says artistic director and co-producer Chris Murdoch, whose studies in comparative mythology revealed that nearly all pre-Christian societies had faerie-related celebrations around harvest time, during the period we now mark as Halloween. People believed that the veil separating the earthly world from the supernatural grows thin as winter draws near. The stories and fables passed down from early civilizations provide a cautionary tale for the season. “I really enjoy faerie mythology and the tongue-in-cheek, dark humour in it,” says Murdoch.
I have to confess I’m usually a Halloween killjoy. Save for the occasional set of Mickey Mouse ears or the year I played a vampire victim, I usually let the day slip by without celebration. The House of Faerie Bad Things offers a new way to explore the dark holiday without resorting to the usual clichés. You’ll get an excellent dose of local theatre culture — and hopefully a good scare, too.
To buy tickets (they’re going fast) or for more details, visit the In the House Festival website.