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 often (whether formally through a tool of this sort, or instinctively) see more of the threats and fewer of the 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 declares 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, “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 decide what you think is most ideal only after assessing what might be done within your new environment.

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 this truly is a death sentence to your way of life, philosophy, or whatever.

But even if that’s the case, calm assessment with the intention of finding opportunities rather than things to be scared of or 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 that it’s time to build something new of your own, something that will cause the source of the current threat to look at you with alarm, wondering if its own days are numbered.

Update: April 18, 2017

I think even folks who keep an eye out for opportunities are prone to reactionary thoughts and actions. But the more you can whittle away at the time between learning about something new and possibly dangerous to your way of life, and beginning to think about how you might utilize it for your own ends, the better.


Not Our Histories

When there’s conflict in the world — and sadly, there 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 in which all the non-military civilians in a country got together and invaded another country. Civilians typically 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 the pursuit of more resources.

Second, those who are killed and killing are generally 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 gaze 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 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 pointing that gun seems to make sense to the person 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 be a moral choice.

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.

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

Update: April 18, 2017

I’m fairly certain I was living in Prague when I wrote this, and while there, a large number of my friends were Russian. Which was sometimes awkward, as we were having a bit of a PR scuffle with Russia, and the tempo of that scuffle seemed to be increasing; it made us all uneasy, though at the same time seemed so irrelevant to us.


The Relativism of Advice

Good advice can be a difficult thing to acquire, though you wouldn’t know it while 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.

But although it’s wonderful to have so much advice available, 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 can come across as negativity.

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 point people toward handy tools, and provide some insight as to skills they can learn, research they can do, and people they can meet.

This is a more truthful approach, 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’ll assume it was their own fault. Maybe they messed up step six? Who’s to say?

Definitive advice is often faulty from the outset. 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 build and to figure out how they want to travel, which will determine what kind of connections they’ll want to make.

This 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 in the right hands, but also essentially worthless to most people.

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

Update: April 18, 2017

Over the years, with this in mind, I’ve spent a lot more time providing frameworks and big picture concepts than checklists and five-step solutions. I could probably shoehorn some of what I want to share in these more familiar formats, but it still feels dishonest much of the time, because it leaves so much out, or paints a rosier picture that might set bad expectations.

There’s no real way to achieve willpower in seven steps, and that’s a necessary ingredient for much of what people want to achieve.

There’s no real way to become broadly well-informed in two weeks. That takes a lot of work and attention over time, and though it plays a key role in a lot of things folks might want to accomplish, promising people that end in that duration is setting everyone up to look foolish.