Posted on August 4, 2014 by Colin

On Message

The main difference between a person and a well-known person is the story they tell about themselves.

This applies to celebrities, internet thought leaders, and even sports stars and the like. The ones with the better stories tend to be the ones who capture the world’s imagination; or at least that of a measurable segment of the world.

‘Better story’ in this context means the story with the clearest message. Some of these people have million-dollar marketing budgets to help promote them, but all that money is wasted without a compelling and understandable message to spread. Maybe the message is ‘this person is an underdog who climbed their way to the top,’ and maybe it’s ‘this person is a real jerk, but the kind you love to hate,’ or perhaps it’s ‘this person stands for something, and here’s why they do so.’ In every case, however, their words, their actions, and their media (PR efforts, blog posts, Instagram feeds) support the story they’re telling.

Of course, all other things being equal, the musician with the larger budget behind them tends to win out. But generally all other things aren’t equal, because many of those who’re struggling their way to the top fail to tell a clear story, and don’t present within their story a clear, compelling message. Even if some label picked them up and threw money at their album, they wouldn’t necessarily be any better off. A garbled message is a garbled message, no matter how loud it’s shouted.

This isn’t to say that one should fall into the trap of always being ‘on message.’ Such a tactic is the branding equivalent of hitting someone over the head with a hammer: it’s unnecessarily aggressive, and tends to do more harm than good. Being perpetually on message flattens a person, and reduces them to the status of a one-trick cardboard cutout, rather than a capable, well-rounded person who’s focusing their energies on something that’s important to them.

Before spending a bunch of money on marketing, advertising, and PR efforts, it’s best to take a step back and clarify who you actually are, what you actually believe, what it is you stand for (or won’t stand for). Essentially, why anyone else should give a damn about who you are, what you do, and what you have to say.

Sort that out and you’ll find you speak more clearly, because there’ll be far less noise distorting your message. And when you enunciate your message in this way, you may find that having your voice heard, and amplified, is a far easier task than most of us make it out to be.

Posted on July 29, 2014 by Colin

Threats and Opportunities

There’s a tool in the entrepreneurial utility belt called a ‘SWOT analysis.’ The acronym stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. The idea here is that by identifying which factors — internal and external — fit within these four different boxes, it’s possible to get a better view of the environment in which you’re playing.

The SWOT, like any other tool, can be useful if applied correctly. I would argue, however, that we quite often (whether formally through a tool of this sort, or instinctively) tend to see more threats and fewer opportunities.

Which is a shame, really. Because to a creative person who’s paying attention, threats are always potential opportunities.

I see the fear in my peers’ eyes and words every single day. Many of those who work in publishing are unnerved by anything new and potentially threatening (strange for an industry supersaturated with creative people). If there’s an adjustment in who holds the power, a new distribution media, or a new gimmick announced by Amazon, something like 90% of the publishing world starts declaring that the sky is falling. The response is seldom, “Interesting, let’s see what we can do with this new state of affairs.” Instead, it’s often, “This new thing is bad and the old way was clearly better. I, for one, won’t stand for it.”

But the thing about threats and opportunities is that they don’t care that you don’t approve. They simply are, and will be whether you’re enthused or enraged.

Much better than knee-jerk alarm, I think, is to establish what you think is most ideal only after assessing what might be done within your new environment.

Okay, so let’s say Amazon has released some newfangled publishing product that will kill your existing business model and make you far less money per month. How could you use this new product to do business? Or how could you work alongside it? How could you work counter to it, using their new program as an example of what you’re not?

These are productive questions because they turn a threat into something that could help you. Sure, this new thing could just as easily not help you, and it could be that your industry — or your way of operating within it — is on the cutting block, and that this truly is a death sentence to your way of life, philosophy, or whatever.

But even if that’s the case, calm assessment from the standpoint of finding opportunities rather than things to be scared of / enraged about is the better solution. Because if you take a good, long look and there’s no possible gain to be found, you’ll know that it’s time to start honing another skill set and learning another trade. Or time to build something of your own, which will cause the source of the current threat to look at you with alarm, wondering if its own days are numbered.

Posted on July 20, 2014 by Colin

Not Our Histories

When there’s conflict in the world — and sadly, there very seldom is not — it’s important to remember a few things.

First, recognize that the people catalyzing conflict are generally not the majority in any given instance. It’s usually a militant group, a collective of extremists, or government officials who decide which outsiders are allies and which are enemies. They decide who is good and who is bad, and when and where violence will be used as a tool for political/economic/philosophical gain. They draw the lines in the sand, and tell us the people on the other side of those lines are different.

They yell ‘fire’ when they think it’s in their interest to take something from across the lines, or when things aren’t going well for them on their own side.

I can’t think of a single moment in history where all the non-military civilians in a country got together and invaded another country. Civilians in general want to live calm, peaceful lives. Violence occurs when those up top (or those who aspire to be up top) use those below as resources in order to gain more resources.

Second, as I just mentioned, those who are killed and killing are generally being used as expendable resources, and as such are victims or killers not because they did anything wrong or because the person on the other end of their gun/rocket/bayonet did anything wrong. These otherwise normal, decent human beings are acting based on fears — whether valid or manufactured — which have been trumped up by the same people who sent them into combat (people, by the way, who are unlikely to ever fire a gun, or look into the barrel of one).

The people who start wars, who terrorize, who kill without remorse, are the ones who need watching. The soldiers on the ground, the citizens in the crossfire, the corpses that results on both sides: they have far more in common with each other than with those who are handing them weapons or using them as human shields.

Finally, remember that the histories of ‘our people’ are not our histories. They are the experiences of people from our countries, from our faiths, who hold the same passports we hold, but that doesn’t mean their experiences apply to us.

That someone from my country killed someone from your country (or vice versa) at some point in history does not make us enemies. If we assume that it does, we’ll all have no choice but to be at each other’s throats. Forever. Till there aren’t any throats left.

I was having a drink with a Russian friend the other night, when news about rocky Russian and US relations flickered across the bar’s TV screen. We both looked at it, grimaced, and clinked our glasses together. What relevance does such a thing have to us? Are we supposed to give a damn about the priorities of these people who see us as nothing but foot soldiers to forward their violent causes and power-grabs?

The thoughts outlined above have pathetically little weight for anyone who’s currently in a conflict zone, and I know that. I am truly sorry if you’re stuck in the middle of a conflict that isn’t yours; a conflict based on someone else’s bravado, fear, or ignorance.

If you’ve got a gun pointed at you, I’m so sorry that you’ve been put in a position where that seems to make sense to the person who is holding it. If you’re the one holding the gun, I’m so sorry that you’ve been put in a position where that seems to make sense.

Let’s please remember that all casualties of conflict between humans are unnecessary casualties. We become so embroiled in the emotion of good guy versus bad guy, big army versus little rebels, people who look like me versus people who don’t, that it’s easy to forget this. People fight and die because other people convince or coerce them to do so. There needn’t be a single human death at the hands of another human if we don’t allow it to happen.

I wonder how we might convince the powerful that it’s not okay to use people as resources, and I wonder how we might keep these spenders of human life from achieving power in the first place.

Posted on July 14, 2014 by Colin

The Relativism of Advice

Good advice can be a difficult thing to acquire, though you wouldn’t know it from perusing the how-to section at a bookstore, reading the opinion section of the newspaper, or browsing just about the entire internet.

There’s advice everywhere. Advice on money, on work, on relationships, on food. Advice about how to spend your time, how to raise your kids, how to travel or work out or edit a photograph.

And some of this advice is good. For someone, at least.

Because although it’s wonderful to have so much advice, much of it is lacking a very important block of text, which I think would solve those on the receiving end a lot of time:

This advice is applicable to me, the author/blogger/columnist. If you are exactly like me in every way, in terms of gender, economic upbringing, education level, physical archetype, genetic predisposition, and every other variable a person might have, including experiencing everything I’ve ever experienced and having the same parents as me, this will probably work pretty well for you. Otherwise, results will vary.

I think this is something most of us know, but it’s easy to forget in the moment when we’re promised something we want. When someone waves a temptation in front of us, and doesn’t just offer to give us what we want (which would seem fake), but offers to tell us how to get it for ourselves (which feels more legitimate), we’re prone to ignore that little voice that says, “How can this possibly work for everyone?” We even ignore the secondary voice that adds, “If it worked, wouldn’t everyone be wealthy/raise perfect children/have rippling six-pack abs?”

What we’re failing to take into consideration is the context in which the advice is given.

I think most advice is given with good intentions, I really do. But I also think that — although it’s important to be optimistic about our efforts — sometimes we set ourselves up for disappointment when we ignore the fact that the guy promoting the fitness shakes is a professional fitness model, with all the habits, history, and genes that go along with a profession of that kind.

I’m almost embarrassed when I have to add the above stipulation to advice I give, because it comes across as me being negative.

In emails and when giving talks, audience members often ask me how they can travel the world full-time the way I do. I have to admit that I have no idea: I know how I did it, but I also have a set of skills that can be utilized from anywhere, a network of friends and connections I’ve been cultivating for years, and preferences that allow me to enjoy the difficulties of travel, where others might find only discomfort.

All I can honestly do in these situations is advise people on things that would likely be handy tools, should they choose to use them. Skills they can learn, research they can do, people they can meet.

It’s more truthful, but I also know it’s less exciting for those who receive this kind of advice. They want me to tell them exactly how to do it; a silver bullet. A ten-step plan to reaching their dreams. And when they don’t achieve what they hoped to achieve, they assume it was their own fault. Maybe they messed up step six? Who’s to say?

In many cases, I think definitive advice is faulty from the beginning. Not because the people divvying it out are scam-artists, not because the people receiving the advice are no-talent dreamers, but because the conversation the two are having isn’t the one they should be having. Instead of saying, “Here’s how you do this,” and then declaring the path the advice-giver took to be the correct option, maybe it would be better to step back and identify what the steps actually accomplished, and how they might be accomplished through other means.

I’m able to travel full-time because I have work I can do from anywhere, assets I’ve built that allow me to bring in money even when I’m not working, and connections I’ve made through blogging, meeting folks around the world, and helping people out whenever I can.

Rather than telling people to do exactly what I’ve done — learn to write, publish books, learn to do design work and some web development, start a blog and have people vote on where you move every four months — I might tell them to acquire skills that are useful in the online economy. To think about assets they could work on, and to figure out how they want to travel, which will determine what kind of connections they’ll want to make.

This concept is not about holding back advice: it’s about giving practical, actionable, versatile advice that can be utilized by anyone, no matter their situation. Otherwise, in order to be truthful, I’d have to tell everyone who asks me how they can do what I do that they should start by being white, male, about 5’10″, born in the US, left-handed, etc.

The world is full of advice, and much of it is useful when put in the right hands, but also essentially worthless when put in any others.

Consider the context of advice, whether you’re giving it or receiving it, and adjust what you say or take away as a result. If we all do this, we might find that the conversations we have become far more valuable as a result.

Posted on July 1, 2014 by Colin

Outdated Limitations

I love learning about industries outside of my own. There are many parallels to be found, and those parallels can make aspects of my work more clear because of their distance from my immediate concerns.

It’s rumored that the CD can play back 74 minutes of music because when it was developed, the president of Sony’s favorite symphony was Beethoven’s Ninth, which was 74 minutes long. He wanted to deliver a format that would play his favorite symphony in its entirety, and that determined the size of the now-ubiquitous (and outdated) CD.

Consider that this decision has resulted in a generation of music defined by a 74 minute cutoff. Songs have been scrapped from famous albums, left on the cutting room floor, because they wouldn’t fit within that framework. Likewise, songs that maybe should have been left on the cutting room floor have been added to albums, to flesh out a collection that otherwise would have seemed too short in an age where 74 minutes is synonymous with ‘album duration.’

The history of music is one tale after another of technology guiding sound. The advent of 45s changed the amplitude and volume of the music recorded, and the rise of cassettes did the same. Each new technology brought with it different strengths and weaknesses, and the music shifted to adjust to these variables. Gig bands had to change their sound entirely once they started recording, because some elements of their music didn’t sound right once committed to wax. Today it’s the same, whether the medium is magnetic tape, laser-etched polycarbonate, or 1′s and 0′s.

Just as music technology has warped and shifted and sanded and pruned the music we listen to, so has publishing technology changed the way we perceive and imbibe books, essays, and other written work.

For a very long time, a ‘book’ was a printed work of a certain length, and that length was set by how many pages it was economical to print using existing technologies. Just as CDs were definde by the somewhat arbitrary length of a specific symphony, the length of books were determined by the economics of the physical vehicle used to deliver the words (the paper, ink, and book-binding materials), rather than the words themselves.

This state of affairs is changing fast. Today, print on demand technologies have made printing and delivering physical books far less costly, and as a result, a book can be nearly any length the author desires. The age of trimming down or fluffing up a book to suit the ideals of the printing process are behind us in a practical sense.

That doesn’t mean we’ve moved on in perception, however. We’re still in a transition stage in determining what length a book should be. Our experiences with books for generations has been the same — same length, same look, same texture and weight — and it will be some time before we can fully move on to new standards, and feel the same nostalgia for a 70-page book as a 250-page book. It will likely be even longer before we can accept a book without weight, a book with interactive media, a book that doesn’t feel like a book. Eventually these things will become commonplace, and new standards will arise that kill our perception of how ebooks should be. It’s the nature of nostalgia to cling to things that remind us of moments in time, and new technologies, and the work produced with them, lack such history.

Like music, though, publishing will change. Like songs, the written word will adjust to fit the confines of its new technological reality. And like recorded sounds, this will be amazing in some ways, leading to new innovations and concepts and experiences, and in other ways it will kill the magic of what we’ve come to know. It will be uncomfortable and disconcerting. It will be a process some will work through, while others cling to the familiar at the expense of their exposure to novelty.

I think there’s value to be had in both old and new, and I think many other people share this feeling. You can see this in the analog movement in the music world, and a similar movement happening within publishing, with a renewed focus on handmade and limited editions physical works. These throwback methods work best, I think, when paired with forward-facing digital editions, but there will be some who will always prefer the old to the exclusion of the new, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s value in both tradition and innovation.

One takeaway from this is that there are numerous limitations put on our work that exist only because of tradition, not because they’re still actual anchors on our creativity. The length of books is a great example: many authors write books of about the same length because that’s the length of book we’ve grown up with. What if we wrote books that were 3000 pages long? What if we wrote books that were less than a page long? What would that look like? What kinds of stories could we tell?

Consider that you may be operating under similar limitations, and that you may be capable of a massive breakthrough if you’re willing to move past established convention and play in the wilderness. Consider that you may be a prisoner of outdated limitations, and that the only way to know whether you want to continue adhering to them — or would prefer to establish new limitations, based on variables you care about — is to step outside the walls and play.

Posted on June 29, 2014 by Colin

Universality

There’s something about offering another person a cup of coffee that has a universality to it.

No matter what cultural background you come from (in my experience thus far, at least), the gesture of offering a caffeinated beverage transcends gulfs of any size.

I’ve seen violent, physical arguments brought to a halt due to the introduction of tiny ceramic cups of coffee. I’ve seen incommunicative chasms bridged when one person offers another a mug. It’s a gesture that says, “I don’t care who you are, where you come from, what you believe, or where you’re going. What matters right now is our shared humanity. And to honor this connection we have, please let’s enjoy a drink together.”

We may not always think about it this way, but that’s the deeper implication. Whether we’re sharing our coffee, with its stimulants, or alcohol, with its inebriating properties, we’re sharing a universally understood object to acknowledge the things we have in common; even if that list begins and ends with, “We’re both human.”

I like that. I like indulging in that shared bit of humanity whenever possible. Because something else I’ve learned while on the road these past five years is that very few of us actually wish for there to be divisions between cultures and groups; organizations and governments might, but people on the ground? No.

With our labels removed, we’re all essentially the same. We have different musical tastes and opinions about the afterlife, and in some cases wildly conflicting views on just about everything. But so what? It’s the people up top — who are largely safe from the consequences of putting human beings at each others’ throats — who encourage us to care about such frivolities. It’s they who want us to be divided and consequently easier to rule.

The rest of us, though, we’re people who enjoy a shared beverage; who enjoy bridges, whatever form they might take.

We’re people who cherish the moment when, looking into a stranger’s eyes, wondering about their intentions, they show themselves to be a friend through their body language, a warm smile, or a shared cup of coffee.

Posted on June 22, 2014 by Colin

Significance

There are many significant dates in a person’s life.

A birthday, for example, is considered to be quite significant. Another year lived! Huzzah!

A year — 365 days — is a unit of measurement derived from the amount of time it takes the Earth to travel around the sun. Which is cool, but bears no actual relevance to a person’s life. There’s no set number of experiences a person has in such a time period. As milestones go, a birthday’s only significance is that most of us stop and take stock after about the same amount of time has passed since our last birthday.

Birthdays are dates of ‘relative significance’: something that is truly significant to us, but not significant on a larger, concrete, non-personal scale.

Consider another event of relative significance: New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1999.

Folks were going nutty over all the supposed meanings of such a switch, but in actuality the new (Gregorian) calendar was introduced to avoid using the older (Julian) calendar. Why? Because the older one documented a time period during which Christians were persecuted, and the new calendar was calibrated using the assumed dates of things like the birth of the Bible’s Adam, and the incarnation of Jesus Christ. There’s no orienting documentation for these events which are used as milestones, and as such, the modern calendar starts from an arbitrary point in time worked out by a Scythian monk in 525 AD.

Which means the year 2000 doesn’t have any absolute significance, only personal significance. It’s a number that feels different to us, being nice and round and big, and therefore living through that kind of transition — the year 1999 to the year 2000 — feels important. The only importance it has, though, is the importance we allow it to have.

Now consider the Y2K bug: an overhyped error caused by some computer code in which there were only two digits allowed for the year. The resulting bug, it was thought, would cause computers of all kinds to think the year 2000 (listed as ’00′) was actually the year 1900 (also listed as ’00′) and kill our financial structures, office spreadsheets, and AOL accounts.

Thankfully, this didn’t end up happening; the bug only impacted a very small number of machines. But such a bug is a good example of ‘practical significance,’ which is something that’s noteworthy in an absolute way.

No matter how you or I might have felt about transitioning to the year 2000, that bug could have had major repercussions, regardless. It was quite real in a way that was untethered from our perception of it.

Consider that many of the things we allow to have significance in our lives are not of the practical variety, but rather the personal. Consider, too, that items of personal significance only carry the weight you allow them to carry.

If you decide that birthdays aren’t important, then they aren’t important. If you decide that squirrels are significant to you in a way that other animals are not, then squirrels become ‘your’ animal. Recognizing that we have this power, over time we can experience fewer emotional entanglements with birthdays, or find greater joy in squirrels.

It’s not always easy to detach emotion from things that seem so deeply ingrained, but recognizing that they’re only important because you allow them to be definitely helps. And this is perhaps most true when it comes to traumatic, harmful, or restrictive things, people, or moments from our past that we allow to negatively impact our future. We decide how we feel about the things that happen to us, and we decide what we take away from such experiences.

There are few things more empowering than the realization that the most significant things in your life are whatever you want them to be.

Posted on June 17, 2014 by Colin

Artistry and Craftsmanship

Artistry is the ability to conceive of something that doesn’t exist yet. It’s a creative flourish that elevates what might otherwise be ordinary, making it new. Interesting. Compelling in some way.

Craftsmanship is a focus on how something is built, be it something physical, digital, or conceptual. It’s the construction of an idea or a chair. An applied solution that solves a problem, and solves it well.

Artistry tends to grow in a non-standard, sputtering, unpredictable fashion. One’s ability to be inspired may be catalyzed by a mind-blowing interaction with another person, a deep-dive into the history of a foreign culture, or a really great slice of cake. Or for no reason at all.

Craftsmanship requires a more consistent application of effort and energy to develop, but it can also be refined more predictably. Though one is unlikely to have a construction-related eureka moment, a slow, steady, iterative developmental process will almost always lead to vast improvements over time.

Artistry needs craftsmanship, because without coherent action, ideas remain immaterial and ineffective.

Craftsmanship needs artistry, because without new ideas and approaches, existing solutions — no matter how well-built — fail to solve new problems.

Most ideal is imbuing one’s work with both artistry and craftsmanship, as they’re far stronger together than independently.

Artistry gives us breakthroughs, but those breakthroughs wouldn’t survive a strong wind without craftsmanship behind them.

Our work, history, heritage, and discoveries wouldn’t survive our own lifetimes without craftsmanship, but without artistry behind such work, no one would care if they survived or not.

Posted on June 9, 2014 by Colin

Relevance

These days, many people know where Iceland is. At least in a general sense. Even more know something about the country — about the glaciers, puffins, funny sweaters.

A few decades ago, this wasn’t the case. The chances of a person knowing anything about Iceland were slim, because Iceland was outside their radar. It wasn’t, as far as they knew, relevant to their life.

Folks know about Iceland, now, because millions of dollars have been spent explaining why it’s important to potential visitors. Why they want to go there. Why it’s relevant to their life and aspirations. There are people who visited the country in the 80′s, who then told everyone about the puffins and such, but couldn’t get anyone to listen. It wasn’t that no one cared when these earlier visitors told them about the place; it’s that the place didn’t seem relevant to the listener, yet.

But talking about a country isn’t the same as explaining its relevance. Knowing something exists isn’t the same as giving a damn.

I could tell you, for example, that there is a sovereign nation called Comoros out there in the Indian Ocean. There’s another called São Tomé and Príncipe over off the West coast of Africa. Or another, Kirabati, Northwest of Australia.

But of what use would that information be without context? Without a connection to your life? Unless you’re a person who simply enjoy knowing things for the sake of knowing things (an unfortunately small portion of the population), there’s no touch point for you and these places. For these, or any of the hundreds of other islands, countries, landmarks, and geographic markers around the world that might be incredible, for all we know.

Relevance shifts and evolves as you grow. Over time, what’s important to you changes.

Suddenly, Kirabati pops up on your radar because you take up snorkeling, and it’s a string of islands in the middle of nowhere. Iceland appears because you’re ambitious and adventurous, and they’ve done a great job of explaining to foreigners why they are the country for your type of person.

Or you take up cooking, and spices solidify from the fuzzy nothing around your periphery. Or information about the events leading up to and following the Cold War take on harder edges, appearing seemingly out of nowhere, because you’re spending time in Romania.

These places, things, and bits of information have always been there; you’ve just never had reason to see them. To reach out and grab them. To investigate further.

Part of what inspires me to keep growing is thinking about what I’ve learned already; seen already; experienced already. Things I didn’t know to look forward to, because I didn’t know they existed. Things that have dramatically changed my life for the better.

Knowing that most of what’s out there is still unseen — supposedly non-relevant to who I am now, and what I want from life — gives me plenty of incentive to keep trying out new hobbies, living new places, experimenting with my life, and interacting with anyone who’ll share something of themselves.

I can’t wait to see what else is there on the map: invisible to me, and remaining so until I’m the person I need to be to see it.

Posted on June 7, 2014 by Colin

Can’t Live Without

If you had to make a list of things you couldn’t live without, what would be on it?

What people, possessions, ideas, foods, are so important that, without them, you would not, could not, wouldn’t even want to go on?

I aspire to keep my list empty. Not because I’m a hateful person, or vacant of joy. But rather because I prefer to internalize my happiness. I don’t want it to be dependent on anything outside of me; outside of my control.

Consider that you can have a life rich with amazing friends and family, foods and experiences, possessions and creations, and not lean on any of them. Meaning that if they were to disappear, you wouldn’t be crushed.

You’d be truly saddened by the loss of a loved one, obviously, and the destruction or loss of a phone or other gadget tends to put a pall over an otherwise wonderful night. But to not be able to live without something goes a step further than that. It implies that you are defined by these people, these activities, these things. They are such a part of you that, were they to disappear, so would you.

That’s not healthy. It’s not stable. It’s not something worth striving for, these entanglements with entities and objects outside your person. People can leave, and that’s their right. Objects can be stolen or destroyed, because such is the nature of objects. If you can find your happiness internally — your satisfaction with life derived from how you experience the world, not in the experiences themselves — then your quality of life is determined by you, not some external factor.

Don’t shut out the world around you, but don’t depend on it, either. Trust that you have everything you need to be happy already, and the myriad influences around you only add to that. You can enjoy the world more freely, in fact, knowing that you needn’t always be on guard against your wonderful thing disappearing; leaving you with nothing.

Because there is no nothing. Even in an empty room, you’ve always got you. Make sure you’re excellent company.

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