Maxims

I intended, with the last post, to discuss Rework, the wonderful book by the gentlemen over at 37 Signals, but of course I got completely sidetracked. While much has happened in the two weeks since I finished Rework, I don't want to let it go without comment.

This is one of those fabulous books like Steven Pressfield's The War of Art in a few ways: it's a quick read; it's inspiring in that kick-in-the-pants, no excuses way; and it's filled with maxims, delicious little nuggets to write down and repeat until they penetrate my thick skull.

ReworkNotes.jpg

If I could distill my career cravings into a single work, it would sound exactly as they write in the book. The virtues they preach are the ones I'm striving to embrace with More Time To Write, the NerdKicks Podcast, and all my projects: work hard to create quality, meaningful projects; stay focused on serving the core principle of the project; out-teach your competition; and always, always move forward.

Of the four dozen nuggets of wisdom I captured, these are the two maxims I most will embrace (and most fit my Finishing theme):

  • Focus on quick wins: Momentum fuels motivation. The longer something takes, the less likely it is I'll finish it, so I must learn to break projects down into tiny decisions. Each little decision is a win that will propel me forward.
  • Out-teach the competition: Sharing valuable information is the best way to build a deeper connection with my audience.

Quick wins have the lovely effect of building that kinetic energy I discussed earlier, and I'm doing my best to find ways of building little successes and finishes into my day.

The latest personal projects finished:

  • I recorded a screencast and published a Google Alerts tutorial over on the More Time To Write blog
  • I edited the latest episode of the NerdKicks Podcast
  • I created a Projects page for this site
  • I published this blog post

Finding What Works

We're 15 days into the year, and it appears that this will be a big reading year for me. I've finished three books and am well into the fourth, and it brings to mind one of my bigger New Year's resolutions failures from a few years ago.

Back in 2009 or 2010 (somewhere in there), I kicked off the year with the goal to read a book a week. I've always been a big reader, and with my daily train commute, 52 books in the year seemed well within my reach. Successful writers read, and I wanted nothing more than to set myself up for success.

Quite the opposite.

By the end of February, I was already three books behind. By the end of April, eight books behind. Worse, I wasn't enjoying any of what I read. I felt frantic, racing through books without much thought for the content. By the end of May, I had the good sense to declare the experiment a failure. Pushing to meet a numerical goal ruined the joyful experience of reading.

But they say we learn more from our failures than we do our successes, and I certainly did learn a valuable lesson. I had picked the number, one book a week, after reading Stephen King's On Writing. I was in that tentative, beginner writer phase where I bought and obsessively consumed as many books on writing as I could, not because I thought they held some secret shortcut to becoming a better writer—thank heaven I had more sense then that—but with the hope that their wisdom would provide the activation energy I needed to pick up a pen every night.

Some books were amazingly helpful. On Writing, for me, was incredibly destructive.

As a memoir, On Writing is fascinating, and I loved it for that, but as a tome of writing advice, it really sunk my battleship. King states in several places that he believes that good writing is an inborn skill—either you have it or you don't—and you should have figured out if you have it at a young age. I hadn't written much in high school (I certainly wasn't submitting work for publication like King had) and this admonishment left me feeling utterly deflated. It conjured up the same feelings of despair I felt as an eighth grade gymnast watching the Olympics; I was past my prime. I'd wasted my life. Best to forget my dreams and sit on the couch eating Lay's Loaded Baked Potato flavor chips.

I tell you, I live a pretty clean paleo lifestyle, but if my brother walked into the room with a bag of those chips, I'd tackle him to the ground, no mercy. God in heaven, they taste as near to perfect as I think is possible.

In the book, King also wrote about reading several books a week. "I'm a slow reader," he writes, "but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction." I got it into my head that I would be a failure if I couldn't keep up at least 2/3 that pace. 80 x 2/3 = 53 books in a year. And so I gave up every scrap of my free time to failing. I felt defeated, and I knew I would never, ever be a writer.

But then I picked up Elizabeth George's Write Away and I was back in the game.

It was a worthy lesson for me to learn. Books offer great advice, but advice does not universally apply. To some, that may be an obvious concept, but as someone who has always been incredibly trusting of authority, it has been a painful lesson I have had to learn many times over.

And so my thoughts on Rework will have to wait another day, as I appear to have gotten lost in a tangent.

Here is my list of personal projects that I have finished since Wednesday:

  • I finished reading The Sherlockian, a book I've been starting and stopping since Christmas 2011.
  • I cleaned out my bedroom closet and straightened my office bookcase. It's not a complete finish of my office cleaning, but I'm celebrating small wins.
  • I made another batch of chili and the pulled pork from Make It Paleo, as well as cooking a beef roast (my recipe needs work) and a double batch of PaleOMG's pumpkin granola.

By Wednesday, I'm committing to:

Action

When a friend with good taste and good sense tells me I ought to read a book, I've found it's best to listen, and so I kicked off my New Year reading two books that had long been on the To Read list—a list long enough to fill an airport bookstore.

Both were quick reads and well worth the effort. The Go-Giver reminded me of reading The Goal in college, similar in that they both employ a parable to drive home their concepts. And simple though The Go-Giver's concepts are, they are powerful.

It's lovely, really, to be reading collected wisdom and thinking "Well, that's pretty obvious," and "I knew that," only to find myself in the next moment getting whacked upside the head with a flashlight, shining a light on one of my many [many] blindspots. This book revolves around five principles; the one that stood out to me as a true personal weakness: "Your income is determined by how many people you serve and how well you serve them." Spot on, and yet I have an intense desire to work closely with fewer people, rather than broadly with many. I shy away from connecting in person with other than my closest friends. It's very much something I need to watch in the coming year as I grow my business.

The true mark of a good business book comes after the reading is over. Does the book inspire any action? Or do you read it, appreciate it, and leave it to languish on a shelf, the lessons enjoyed but not truly absorbed?

I've taken a few actions directly related to that principle, and I have no doubt that I'll take more in the next few weeks:

  • I reached out to a college friend I've been meaning to contact (we're having lunch on Friday). I want to catch up and to see how I can help with the band alumni society, and well as any of his projects.
  • I reached out to see if I can volunteer with two different organizations that I find useful and fulfilling.

Next time, the other book, Rework by the founders of 37Signals.

And here is a list of the personal projects I have finished, beside the books:

  • Edited and posted the latest episode of the NerdKicks Podcast, our interview with Jeff Smith from Stella B and the Busted League
  • Made butternut squash soup and chili from Make It Paleo
  • Wrote every day
  • Did my weightlifting workout
  • Finally found the courage to say a few things I've wanted to say for a while
  • Wrote this blog post

Not too shabby. See you Friday.

Finishing

I begin each year with a theme rather than resolutions, one idea to unite my goals for the year. Previous examples: "Talk less, listen more" and "You have my permission to be bold." This year, my theme is a single word: "Finish."

I love starting projects, love the inherent novelty of exploring a new idea, the thrill of imagining all the possible ways to execute my new project. I think often of physics, and the difference between potential energy (the energy of a ball on the edge of a cliff, not yet fallen) and kinetic energy (the energy the ball releases as it falls). I live too much in the world of potential energy, in the energy of an idea not yet executed. I live in my head, rather than in action.

And then another fun project comes along, and I abandon everything for the next new shiny possibility, leaving the last idea to languish in the land of half-finished projects. I'm not even as far in the project lifecycle as Seth Godin's "shipping" concept, when one has to decide where done is. I struggle there as well, but not nearly as much as I do with idea hopping.

It comes, I think, from two places: I have an active, idea generating imagination; and I have a fear of making decisions. I become overwhelmed by imagined terrible outcomes—for an optimist, I'm skilled at visualizing awful possibilities—that I forget the incredible lightness accompanying a decision made and executed. Truly, is there any better feeling than a tough challenge tackled?

Teresa Amabile from the Harvard Business School offers powerful proof that that tracking our small wins motivates big accomplishments, so I've set up my own version of a work diary using this IFTTT recipe. When the email arrives, I hit reply, answer the questions in line, and email it to my Evernote account.

So this is my motto for the year: finish. To me, that means sticking to a project even as the potential energy begins to transform into kinetic energy, making decisions rather than thinking about decisions, and celebrating my tiny wins every single day.

Tiny wins such as finishing a blog post.

The Joy of Cardboard Boxes

Boxes, the workhorse of the efficient move. I've spent so much of this year assembling boxes, packing boxes, just looking at boxes. Sadly, they are not that attractive. But you know who doesn't care that they aren't pretty? Who views each new box as an exciting land of adventure?

These guys! Boxes are a chance to escape the dull routine of windsowsill, couch, carpet; a place to play hide-and-seek with a brother; a castle that needs defending from invaders. Once my move from Philly was complete, I just didn't have the heart to take the boxes away from my little explorers, but I was also sick of staring at cardboard.

That's when a silly notion entered my head. With a half hour's work and an old pumpkin-carving knife, I turned four old boxes into this:

That night while shopping, we made a detour to Home Depot for bit of paint, and if my mom hadn't stopped me, I would have been outside, spray painting in the dark. Instead I woke up early (7:00 a.m.!) and got straight to work painting. While the paint dried, I crafted the shield, banner, and flags.

Transient

I was ridiculously pleased with it and I just couldn't stop giggling! It was the purest fun I'd had in a very long, very sad and lonely time. I didn't care if anyone liked it and I didn't make it for any reason other than my own amusement. If the cats chewed it to bits the next day, what did it matter?

This silly kitty castle acted as the catalyst I needed to get me making things again after an eight month dry spell, unleashing a tsunami of startitis. Within a day I began a half dozen other projects, glitter shoes, a knitted shawl, various Christmas gifts. I had my groove back.

All it took was a few cardboard boxes. My cats conquered a castle and I recaptured the simple joy of creation.