The Complete Flake’s Guide to Getting Things Done

Flaky_ape Are you smart and motivated and passionate, and have lots of cool things you’d like to get done, but somehow when it comes to doing them, you just . . . don’t?

Are you great at ideas but lousy at execution? Talk a good game but don’t get any results? Spend a lot of time thinking about where you want to go, but not much time actually moving your ass down the road that would take you there?

You, my friend, are a flake. Congratulations. We are a worldwide force. If we could all get ourselves moving in the same direction, we would change the world. However, that will never happen.

Most of us are creative and smart. We’re often very funny and really pretty charming. We get things quicker than a lot of people do.

What we lack is focus. Everything looks good to us. We want dinner in Paris and a dive trip to Fiji. Most of us care more about experiences than about stuff. But because we don’t take care of the “stuff” aspect of life, we don’t have the experiences we really want to have.

That, and we lack this “drive” thing. We have desire, but we don’t know how to engage drive. The wheels are turning, but the car ain’t going forward.

If you are a flake, you need to learn how to get things done. Getting things done (meeting goals, completing projects, all that irritating junk productive people do) will let you have better experiences.

We live in a world made of stuff, so it gets pretty painful when we blow stuff off. You actually can learn how to get things done. Here’s how.

What Do You Want Out of It?

You’re not going to get a damned thing done until you actually know what you want to get out of it.

I know this is making your eyes roll into the back of your head. You know all about this visualizing your goals business. You may have even forced yourself to write down exactly where you want to be in 5 years, 10 years, and 20 years, with all the little details that will make it real to you.

That’s a good thing to do, but I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about something much more general. (Much flakier, in fact.)

Just know what you want to get out of the thing you’re thinking about doing.

Do you want to do it to make some money? OK, why do you want money? What does that get you?

Sit down with a pen and paper (or a keyboard if you must, but pen and paper do something interesting to your brain’s deep wiring) and answer the question: “What do I want out of this thing?”

You can describe a scenario, or visualize images, or focus on how you’ll feel or what the material facts will be. If you adopt too much of someone else’s formula, it won’t feel real to you. Just answer the question in a way that makes you say, “Oh, yeah. That’s it. That’s actually exactly it.”

Getting Real

Now it’s time for something that the self-helpers don’t usually talk about. I got this from Robert Fritz’s Path of Least Resistance and I have found it to absolutely rock. Fritz calls it the “Pivotal Technique,” which I think is an apt label. If you need to turn yourself around in a major way, this is how you can do it.

Step 1. Get nice and clear about what you want.

Step 2. Get completely, impeccably, bullshit-free clear about where you are now, with respect to that.

That’s it, just those two. Simple but not easy.

Put another way:

Understand exactly what you want. Understand exactly where you are. Notice the difference.

Please note that there is not a follow-up step called “beat yourself to a bloody stump about not being where you want to be.”

If you’re in New York and you want to go to San Francisco, how much good does it do to beat yourself up about what a lame-ass you are not to be in San Francisco? How far west does that actually move you?

Not one millimeter? Hmm, interesting.

Figuring Out What’s Next

All those annoying productivity people will tell you that the next step is to make a map that goes from here to there.

The map has all the steps you’ll need to take. Those steps are probably broken into sub-steps. Along the way, you’ll identify the resources you’ll need to develop and the avenues that are most likely to get you to your goal.

Get real. You are a flake. You are not going to do all that. In fact, just the thought makes you want to go grab an ice cream, doesn’t it?

And here’s another thing. You don’t know the whole map. You’ve probably never been to this place you want to go. So what makes you think you can map it out? You can’t.

The best you can do from where you are now is to get a sense of where “kinda-sorta the right direction” is.

Flakes are flaky because the map seems impossible. Productive people are productive because the map seems real. The flakes are actually right, but fat lot of good that does us. The productivity people follow their imaginary map, and because they’re doing something, they get somewhere.

But there’s a way out.

All you have to do is figure out what’s next. This comes from David Allen’s Getting Things Done, which is a terrific system if you’re mentally ill enough to do all the ritual. (I am, and I love it, but most people aren’t.) But the ritual is mostly optional.

Just get an idea of what one action you should take next that will take you kinda sorta in the right direction.

If you’re going to San Francisco from New York, your next action might be “get on Mapquest to figure out what roads go west out of town.” Or it could be “call Greyhound and see what a ticket will cost me.” Or it might even be “wait until the sun goes down to see where west is.”

Those are all legit. They all set you up to start moving in the right direction.

Your brain might start blaring like a smoke alarm with 2,000 things you need to do next. You can’t do 2,000 things right now. Write down the things you think are at least somewhat important. Then pick just one to do next.

Allen is very smart about this. It has to be the single next thing to take action on. Not “get $900 for an airline ticket,” but “check Craigs List tomorrow morning for temp job” or “send mom a birthday card so I can hit her up for money next week.”

If you can’t do it in 20 minutes, it’s probably not the next action. Find the next action.

Do What You Feel Like

The flake’s superpower is that we are very good at doing what we feel like.

If you figure out your next action to take, and you don’t just get up and do it right away, do the Pivotal Technique again.

Understand what you want, and why you want it. Understand where you are now. Notice the difference.

Then do what you feel like.

Just keep cycling through that. As a flake, your unconscious is very good at protecting you from things you don’t want. If you don’t feel like moving kinda-sorta in the direction of your thing, there’s something about it you don’t want.

A great flake technique is to say something to yourself along the line of:

OK, unconscious mind, gigantic pain in the ass that you are, thanks for keeping me from doing something I don’t want to do. Could you do me one more favor and let me know what about it I don’t like? Thanks.

Ask yourself that question out loud before you go to bed. Maybe write it down on a piece of paper as well. Then forget about it and see what pops into your head the next day.

Once you can see what you don’t like, you’ll figure out a way around it. Flakes are excellent at figuring out ways around things.

Don’t Misplace Your Brilliant Insights

Because, as a flake, you’re more-than-average ruled by your unconscious mind, I can promise you will get useful answers to your questions. Your unconscious mind is actually a lot smarter than your conscious mind is. So you’ve got that going for you.

But, again because you’re a flake, you’ll probably lose track of those answers.

In fact, you’ve come up with terrific answers and lost them again many times already. It’s just how we flakes work.

So set up a flake-friendly way to keep everything. I call mine the compost pile. All the notes and ramblings and scribbles go in there, and eventually some of it composts into something I can use.

Flakes throughout history have used notebooks for this, and they’re not bad, but they’re hard to go back into. It might take hours to find that genius insight you had two years ago that will absolutely solve the nasty problem you’re facing right now.

So I like software. At the moment, I am addicted to the 37 Signals product Backpack. I keep blog post ideas, gardening plans, backups of eBooks I’ve bought, plans for world domination, etc. in there. On my Backpack home page are notes about the very next actions to take on various things I want to get done, and a few bullet points about what I want to focus on right now.

(I try not to focus on any more than four general areas at any one time, or everything immediately grinds to a halt. When I get ideas for projects outside my three or four focus points, I throw ‘em into the compost pile.)

The Plan in 7 Reasonably Painless Steps

  1. When you’ve got something to do, figure out what you really want to get out of it.
  2. Do the pivotal technique. Think about what you want, then get clear about where you are right this minute. Notice the difference.
  3. Figure out the next action.
  4. Do what you feel like.
  5. Rinse, lather, repeat.
  6. Start a compost pile for ideas, notes, plans and insights.
  7. Stick to three or four primary areas of focus.

That’s it. Fellow flakes, what kind of things are you trying to get done now? Making any progress? Let us know in the comments.

Related Reading

  • Rock Your Day. Dave Navarro is not a flake, but he has good ideas about getting past the mental blocks that keep us from being productive.
  • The Alternative Productivity Manifesto. Clay Collins’ take on whether we should be pursuing productivity in the first place, and how we might define that in a healthy way.

If you found this post useful, subscribe to my free email class on creating better content!

Are You Ready for Your Audition?

When I was about 20, through a series of complete flukes, I got a job working as a costume assistant for the U.S. tour of a small Russian ballet company. This was before Glasnost, Russians were exotic creatures in those days. We had the FBI come and ask us questions, it was all very interesting.
I didn’t know anything about dealing with costumes, but my friend K who got me the job did. We were traveling with the ballet company across 21 U.S. cities in 10 weeks. As it turned out, we didn’t have any of the union waivers we needed to actually work on costumes, so mostly we screwed around and chased boys and drank too much.
We did occasionally get a task to do, mostly photocopying or selling t-shirts. Finally, about 17 weeks in, we got the chance to work on a costume.
A red twill tutu needed new hooks and eyes sewn on it. The union wardrobe master ceremoniously gave this task to K, whose chief aim in life was to work on costumes professionally. But K had a pretty hot date, so she foisted it off on me.
“Er,” I said.
I’m actually fairly handy with a needle, if you’re talking about a little light hemming or even some embroidery. But this was a different animal altogether.
“Do it,” said K with a little pissed-off growl.
I figured what the hell. Since I didn’t have a hot date, I did it.

A few things to understand

First of all, there is nothing smellier than a pre-Glasnost ballerina. From the audience you see an ethereal smiling stick insect floating around like gravity didn’t apply to her. From backstage, you realize she’s sweating like a racehorse–and these costumes get cleaned maybe once a quarter.
Plus, these were burly, deodorant-disdaining Soviet ballerinas. It was bad.
Second, those costumes are made out of buckram, which as near as I can tell is canvas stiffened with concrete. I just about needed pliers to get a needle in and out of this thing. There was clearly a smart way to do this–but I didn’t know what that was.
I can still remember what it was like, eight sets of hooks and eyes, and me trying to line these stupid pieces of metal up properly, jamming the needle into my thumb trying to get it to go through the buckram.

I did manage to get all eight attached in a roughly straight line to this stinky red costume, but to tell you the truth, I didn’t do a very pretty job of it.

The punchline

Weeks passed, not much happened. K and I continued to chase boys and drink too much. One of the dancers actually defected, which, looking back on it, was a complete non-event, although we all thought it was very serious and important at the time.
As we were wrapping the tour up, I had a drink with the union wardrobe master, a sweet and funny guy who I liked a lot. We started talking about K’s burning desire to work on costumes professionally.
The wardrobe master snorted. “I don’t think so. I gave her a simple job to do to see how she handled it. She’s a total incompetent. She has no idea what she’s doing.”
I had no idea if it was worse to say nothing or to admit that she’d ditched the job and let me do it. I didn’t say anything, which was probably wrong. But there wasn’t much I could do for her at that point.

The person who could have opened many, many doors to the profession she wanted had given her an audition. Which she failed, because she didn’t show up.

When’s your next audition?

You’re getting more chances than you realize to strut your stuff for someone who could help you.
(I’m convinced that this is how the “Law of Attraction” really works. Great stuff doesn’t show up because you focus on it. You’re just able to suddenly perceive all the great stuff that’s always been right in front of you, because you focus on it. )
You’re distracted by trivia. You’re working on what’s easy because you’re scared to work on what matters.
Maybe you’re afraid of looking dumb, so you don’t show up at all. Maybe you’re watching performers audition on reality TV, instead of getting ready for your own audition.
You have an audition coming. It might be tomorrow. It might be this afternoon. What do you need in order to ace it? More courage? More stubbornness? Just more practice?
What could you do today to get ready?
Flickr Creative Commons image by Andrew_Baron

The One Thing You Can’t Afford to Blow Off


I have lots of friends who are entrepreneurs. Some have day jobs as well, others are making a full-time living in their businesses. Some think they “aren’t really entrepreneurs” because they run schools or nonprofits.

Some are successful and some are struggling, but we’ve all got one thing in common. We’ve maxed out our personal resources. Not our checkbooks or credit cards (although sometimes those too), but our creativity, our time, and our productive energy.

Scheduled maintenance

Ever work with a big, high-volume copy machine? High maintenance doesn’t begin to cover it. There’s always something wrong with the damned things–they start having hourly paper jams, or they get into the habit of sprinkling cheerful ink confetti on your documents. And of course they have pricy ink and toner that need frequent replacement.

The only way to keep these things running is to get ahead of the problem–to have the fix-it-up-chappie come out on a regular schedule to keep everything aligned and in good shape.

If you’re “too busy” or “too broke” to make that happen, the karmic law of disasters guarantees that the machine will break down spectacularly at the exact moment the FedEx guy is waiting for you to print out the biggest RFP of your career.

Scheduled maintenance is critical for any complex piece of equipment that’s working at or close to its maximum productivity. And the fix-it-up chappie will tell you that delicate equipment is a lot easier and cheaper to maintain than it is to repair.

How to get anything done

There’s a lot of verbiage out there about productivity, but most of it boils down to one central habit. If it must get done, you must carve out dedicated time for it. Twitter, gossip and television can all be fit into the spaces left over from real work. Returning client calls, hard thinking about business strategy and any kind of writing all need to be on your calendar. And in there for real, not just an Outlook appointment that you snooze every 15 minutes until you dismiss it, undone, at the end of the day.

You, my friend, are a high-maintenance machine.

You’re the complicated invention that can’t be replaced. Your work relies on your energy, your creativity, and your enthusiasm. And you can only fake those things on a very limited basis. Starbucks is a crappy substitute for creativity and life force.

By now, I suspect you’ve gotten my main point. You have to schedule maintenance on yourself. And you probably need to do that daily. (Sorry, workaholics. I don’t make the rules, I just write them down.)

You are too busy for a psychic breakdown. You are too broke to be forced into taking a week or a month off to repair your damaged nervous system. So start taking care of your machine every day.

Starting today.

The maintenance program

Figure out one or two times a day when you have a decent level of mental energy. Mornings are good for lots of people, but they might not be right for you. Don’t use “junk” time for maintenance–it’s too important. It doesn’t necessarily have to be your absolute peak performance time, but don’t use time slots when you have the creative capacity of a flatworm, either.

If you have a fabulous life, take an uninterrupted hour every day for maintenance. If you have a life like the rest of us, take 20 minutes in the morning and, when you can, another 20 before bed.

Use this time to do something just because you like it. It should be pointless and highly satisfying. Stupid is optional but not bad.

Read trashy books. Color with crayons. Take a hot bath, preferably with puppets or bath crayons. Make pornographic origami or models of Star Wars spaceships.

The one unbreakable rule: there must be no practical application whatsoever to maintenance work. Writing blog posts doesn’t count. Reading business books doesn’t count. Painting your toenails is iffy. Baking cookies is fair game, but only if you eat them all yourself.

Unless you are already magnificently sane and productive, and the words “homicidal rage” are quaintly foreign to you, nothing you regularly do now counts. Working out is great, meditation is great, but if you already do them and the machine is still making that funny grinding sound, you still need some stupid fun time.

The more uncomfortable this post makes you, the worse you need it.

If you’re mentally shrieking that this is pointless advice that only an irresponsible bonbon-eating slacker could give, you are in crisis. Your machine is just about to break, leaving you with a smoking pile of springs and burned gears and no way to get your work done.

Keep going the way you are and your work is going to start to get worse. The machine starts to disintegrate from the inside, corroding the parts that are very, very hard to see. You won’t notice it right away, but once the rust takes hold, it’s hard as hell to get rid of.

A broken machine means no work, or lousy work that quits getting results. It means crappy money, crappy success, crappy momentum. It means significant pain for the people who rely on you, whether they’re your clients or your kids. A broken machine is frustrating, massively inconvenient and painful as hell.

Step away from your to-do list. Buy a watercolor paintbox and some glitter before it’s too late.


Photo from

The Toddler’s Guide to Salesmanship

They wreck our stuff, kill our sleep and chase away our non-parenting friends. But we still love ‘em and want to take care of them. I’ve learned a lot about effective persuasive communication from my three-year-old.

And it only makes sense. Toddlers are too small to do much, and lack their own credit cards, but they need the same food, shelter, love and amusements that anyone else does. All they have are their powers of persuasion.

These suggestions aren’t (just) tongue-in-cheek. Try them out in your own communication to make some stronger connections.

Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself

Parents of young children are typically broke, frustrated, chronically anxious, time-crunched and sleep-deprived. In this, they strongly resemble customers.

Toddlers know that when you’re speaking to a distracted audience, you might have to repeat your message 6 or 7 (or 60 or 70) times to get heard.

Repetition at toddler levels will drive your customers out of their minds. But you can repeat your message a lot more often than you think you can. Just like exhausted parents, your customers are only listening to you with half an ear. Be sure you’ve made your point enough times for them to get it.

Grown-up tip: Look for varied ways to convey the same message, or you’ll run into Are We There Yet Syndrome.

Look for ways to surprise and delight

My boy imperiously demanded some animal crackers the other day. “Animal crackers!”

“Hmm, what could you say that would make me want to give you animal crackers?” I said, in that mom way I have.

“Animal crackers, darling?” he said.

Darling bought him a lot more animal crackers than please would have. Their ability to surprise us and make us laugh is a big part of what keeps toddlers alive on those difficult parenting days.

Grown-up tip: It’s not always easy for us to reproduce the sideways logic of a toddler. Start by capturing all your ideas, including (especially) goofy ones. Set aside some time regularly to noodle on communication ideas that are “too silly” or “can’t work for me.”

When you come up with something both simple and surprising, you may just have a winner.

Use the language of your audience

The other day, my always-entertaining small person looked me in the eye and asked soberly, “Mama, is Papa maybe not a morning person?”

One of the vastly amusing things about toddlers is the way they repeat our phrasing exactly. This gets kind of stressful when we start worrying about the kid getting kicked out of Montessori school for R-rated language. But mostly it’s one of the great joys of hanging out with little kids.

Toddlers know that we hear best when we get a message that uses our own words.

Grown-up tip: One of the less-known uses of surveys and testimonials is to find the language of your customers. Look through everything your customers send you for wording you can mirror back to them. Artful, “writerly” language isn’t nearly as important as using the words and phrases that your customers do themselves.

Added 6/21: Don’t miss Bob Hoffman’s brilliant observation in the comments below that “clients are just toddlers with money.”

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Flickr Creative Commons image by Kah_Zanon

Are We Allowed to Write About Politics?


By Sonia Simone

I'll say one thing for Dan Kennedy, the guy is up front about how much he hates liberals.

I subscribe to his marketing newsletter, and am constantly on the verge of canceling. He hates liberals in every issue. He hates liberal politicians and liberal voters and liberal businesspeople and liberal household pets. If he finds out Mother Teresa or Martha Washington were liberals, they're going on the list.

I find this annoying because the newsletter is a paid subscription, so I'm always mentally calculating what his hatred-of-the-month is costing me. But it is what it is.

Frankly, Kennedy is too disciplined to do something that doesn't work for him. My guess is that his political stance resonates with enough of his audience that he can create a rapport with a good chunk of them through that alone. It reinforces his brand of a politically incorrect, cranky, "no-BS" guy.

Kennedy is a sharp enough marketer that he knows he doesn't have to be all things to all people–he just has to be valuable and memorable to the "herd" he's built up.

So this is not an argument to leave politics out of your content. That's up to you. It works very well in some situations and not at all in others.

But I will give you a little cautionary tale. I recently subscribed to another newsletter, written by a good writer who's very smart about what he does. I happily read through maybe a hundred pages of past issues of newsletters, special reports, and all the other goodies you get when you subscribe to something these days.

Toward the end of my pile of reading material, out of nowhere comes a nasty, angry rant about the ACLU. Not a sentence or two, but a full-on, pissed-off vitriolic diatribe.

Now if you're going to randomly explode into a violent rage one day, I would suggest choosing a target that enjoys more universal hatred. The IRS (or whatever your local tax agency is) will do nicely. Al-Qaeda is always good. And I think even other telemarketers hate telemarketers. You can rant away at targets like this and not do much collateral damage.

But there are quite a few people (like me, as it happens) who find the ACLU an important and even heroic organization. If you're Dan Kennedy and you've spent 20 years blasting away at anything left of Idaho, you haven't created any additional ill will. Your customer either agrees with you, tunes you out, or leaves.

If this is your first shot at the left side of your readership, though, you might want to reconsider.

If you’re going to use a controversial position to define yourself and your tribe, keep it at about the same level all the time. Put it front and center when you begin the relationship, and refer to it often enough that no one forgets.

Don’t worry about scaring away some customers. If you're passionate about this position, it will help you find your tribe and bind them tightly to you.

On the other hand, if it’s not really that important to you, find something that is. The world has enough pissed-off people in it without you looking for ways to add to the rosters.

Flickr Creative Commons image by riotjane

Why Mom Was Right About Success

By Sonia Simone

your mom was right about success

Let’s face it, moms know everything. (Of course, now that I have a child, I realize how pitifully incorrect this is. Never mind.) Mom had it right on the big stuff, anyway. And she had it right because she loved you, and love is smarter than anything.

So as a last-minute mother’s day present, here are 6 (ok, 5) mom-approved tips for your own personal and professional success.

1. Just be yourself. If people don’t like it, they aren’t real friends anyway
There’s no worse waste of time, energy and money than trying to do work for clients who aren’t right for you. In the first place, it won’t work–you’ll go broke trying. And in the time you waste, you could have been connecting with dozens or hundreds or thousands of clients who would love and appreciate you.

Assuming you aren’t a sociopath with halitosis, spend as little time as possible dwelling on what you do badly. Focus on being unbelievably great at what you do well.

Consider constructing a 12-foot tall neon sign about anything you’re a little insecure about. Hot pink is a good color. (Mine reads: "World’s Least Competent Cold Caller.") This will, perversely, read as confidence, and the people who already liked you will start to put much more trust in you.

2. If you can’t say something nice . . .
I realize this somewhat contradicts #1, especially if you happen to be a snarky, edgy type of person who can hone an insult sharper than a San Quentin shiv.

Let’s face it. There are few pleasures that compare to trash talking, especially if you’re really good at it. That delectable shiver of superiority as your arrow hits the mark. The boom of approving laughter. Well-honed snark is a mighty, mighty drug.

There’s almost nothing about my life I would change, except for the times I’ve hurt people with something I have said. Even if the person you’re going after is Ted Bundy, you’ll do some collateral damage. Some nice, interesting, quiet person (who might have had something really remarkable to contribute) will be angered and hurt by what you’ve said, and you’ll never even notice.

The tricky part is, for some of us, this really is where our gifts lie. Some of us are Molly Ivins, or Bill Hicks. If that’s you, be sure to choose your targets wisely. Go after Google, or China, or network television. Remember the traditional journalist’s credo: afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.

3. If you’re that bored, go clean your room
Feeling stuck? Can’t move forward? Spinning your wheels and making no progress?

I’ll lay odds that somewhere, there’s some uncomfortable business that you need to attend to, but you’re putting it off. Maybe it’s getting over your number-phobia and talking with a bookkeeper. Maybe it’s coming to terms with your fear and loathing of marketing. Maybe it’s just a half-day of errands, running around to get your PO Box and business checking set up.

The things you put off not only mutate to ten times their natural size, they also start creating weird unconscious blocks in other parts of your life. Somewhere, where you can’t quite hear it, there’s a tape (I suppose these days, this is now an MP3) running that’s saying, "if I can’t even get it together to set up an email newsletter, there’s no way I can actually succeed at this business/project/fundraiser."

I don’t know what "clean your room" will mean for you, but you do. It popped into your head about four seconds ago. Write it down, right now.

(Waiting for you to write it down.)

OK, now before you can think about it too much, just go get it done. If you can physically get off your ass right this minute and get it finished, do that. If not, scribble on a post-it the next thing you need to do to make this happen, and then figure out exactly when you’re going to do that. Before the end of this week, please.

You’ll be happily surprised by how much energy this frees up. That same MP3 player will start playing a new tune, something more like, "huh, I guess I’m kind of a stud after all. Now that I’ve got that done, I’m going to do this other thing right now."

Sounds hokey, but it works. Like so much of mom’s advice.

4. Look with your eyes, not with your hands
OK, I wracked my brain and can’t figure out a way to translate this one to success. It just cracks me up when I hear myself telling my own kid this. Sorry.

5. If your friends jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, would you do it?
Never mind that the true answer to this is usually sure I would. Mom was trying to teach you that the right answer is no, and that’s good advice.

What works beautifully for Skellie or Clay or Caroline may not be the right choice for me.

My version of a great Copyblogger post (I thought the naked one was pretty good) looks significantly different from Brian’s great posts, or James’s, or Dean’s or Roberta’s.

Being inquisitive and paying attention and learning by observation are all terrific. God knows I built this blog on the foundation of a pretty transparent role model. (I believe Brian’s term for the early days of remarcom was "a shrine.") I can heartily endorse copying someone really good for a little while. But you do it to learn your own voice, your own obsessions, and your own unique contributions.

If you’ve ever bought something just because the ad or sales letter was irresistible, try to find that ad and copy it out by hand. Do that with any written ad that really pulls you. You’ll learn a surprising amount.

Copy wisely, copy from the best, then set copying aside and do your own thing. You really can conquer the world that way.

6. Look where you’re going
When all else fails, pay attention. The more lost you feel, the more curiosity you need to cultivate about where you are and what’s going on right this instant.

There’s a ton of advice out there about just about anything. Irritatingly, each of us has to build our own version of the map. We construct it with 10,000 jigsaw pieces in front of us, only 4,000 of which fit the puzzle we’re working on. Horribly inefficient, but it’s the only way to make something real.

Keep paying attention. The path will appear. Make sure your shoes are tied and you’ve got clean underwear, a kleenex and enough money to get a taxi home if you need to. You’re going to do just fine.

(P.S. What’s your own favorite bit of advice from mom? Let us know in the comments, please!)

Flickr Creative Commons image by basykes

The Hidden Cost of Playing It Safe

By Sonia Simone

safety pup

A lot of us put significant energy into keeping it safe. We don’t want to do anything that wouldn’t be tasteful. We don’t want to do anything that would get on anyone’s nerves. And we truly, madly, deeply don’t want to make any mistakes. If we get a complaint or some crabby feedback, we scurry back and "fix" what we did so it won’t upset anyone.

We guard carefully against "losing" any readers or customers. (When we should be putting more energy into truly winning some.) We play by the rules. We take pains never to offend anyone, and we believe fervently that that keeps us safe.

We are dead wrong.

Boring is dangerous
The problem with boring is, you don’t see the damage it causes. It’s easy to miss the huge majority who yawn and click the Stumble button again. You never see the customers who don’t come back because they don’t ever think about you. You have no idea of the business you’re missing out on because your communication is just too nice and normal for anyone to remember or talk about.

It’s easy to tell yourself that the problem is the short attention spans that are rampant today, or the monumental failure of the public taste, or that there’s too much competition. Those may all be true, but that doesn’t get you any business. It’s painfully easy to blame your lack of success on what’s wrong with everyone else.

Being boring doesn’t keep you safe. Maybe it used to, for a little while, but it doesn’t any more. If you want to really terrify yourself, pick up a book called Funky Business. The authors are Swedish economics professors, and come across a tiny bit like Saturday Night Live characters ("Ja, we go to discos. Also we wear black.") but they’ve got a razor-sharp analysis of the new economic primordial soup we’re all swimming around in.

I try not to swear on the blog, so I can’t tell you the Funky Business take on what the 21st-century economy boils down to, but I can tell you: it’s not playing it safe.

Remember when you were in second grade and there was that fearless, fast kid who used to swoop in and steal your Snickers before you really understood what was happening? That kid is still around, and he’s launching a lean, aggressive, competitive little business that’s about to do it again.

Being an idiot is not the answer
Being a damned fool works for some people, but I’ll tell you, it’s got to be genuine. I doubt the damned fool strategy will work for you, for one reason: damned fools don’t read my blog. Despite my best efforts, I use too many big words and I keep picking weird pictures.

So most of you reading this are, well, smarter than the general population. Which can be something of a handicap, quite frankly. Let me guess, history majors, lit majors, maybe the occasional dual-major in Russian and math? (Tell us in the comments!) And, of course, the usual collection of self-taught misfits who write essays (which you might call blog posts) for fun on the influences of Proust in Ren & Stimpy. You’re a bunch of smartypants, which is why you come here for advice.

So if Jon Morrow was right in his terrific recent post, and valedictorians make lousy bloggers (and/or marketers), what are we supposed to do about that?

Here’s Jon’s answer, which I like a lot.

Unlike high school, being a blogosphere “clown” is less about acting stupid and more about telling the truth in an interesting way. Sometimes they’ll laugh, sometimes they’ll get mad, and sometimes they’ll be thinking about your post two weeks later. Regardless, as long as you’ve captured and maintained their attention, you’ve won.

Your to-do list

  • Know what you know, then hold your ground. Don’t water your stuff down because someone got pissy about it. If you’re pissing some people off, you’re on to something.
  • Keep looking for interesting angles. Look for striking metaphors, startling examples, powerful stories.
  • Come up with some rituals to celebrate failure. There is no way to succeed except through good old embarrassing, stinky failure. I’ve just discovered Molly Gordon, and she has a great technique in her eBook Principles of Authentic Promotion called the "Failure Bow." The eBook is free when you subscribe to her weekly e-newsletter (the opt-in form is on the right side of the page).
  • Do at least one thing you think is a little tacky, just because you secretly love it.
  • Consider writing a journal every day, especially some freewriting where you keep your pen (or keyboard) moving for 20 minutes without letting yourself stop. Let the words sit a week or two, then go back through your journals and look for stuff that freaks you out a little. There’s something there you should be mining.

Related reading

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Flickr Creative Commons image by exfordy

Oh, Grandma, What Big Lies You Tell

Keeping company with wolvesI recently heard a recording of a certain successful Internet marketer. The recording was made some years ago, before he got quite so successful. He was telling a seminar crowd how good he was at the "sincerity thing."

He didn’t quite come out and say he was faking his sweet, goofy, ordinary guy style. But let’s just say that the fast-talking guy running through his bag of techniques to sell ice to Eskimos didn’t exactly strike me as Andy Griffith.

Is it working for him?

It seems to be. The guy is doing extremely well even if you assume he’s inflating his income by 10 times (Which I do). People want his product, which is probably perfectly ok. The schtick is working.

Does that mean you should do the same? Study techniques on how to fool people? Learn to be a better trickster and go buy a $1,995 information product (with a follow-up continuity program, of course, so they can keep dinging you for a few hundred bucks a month) on how to create more effective sheep’s clothing?

I guess that’s up to you.

There’s a sucker born every minute
I notice that a lot of the internet marketing folks (many of whom seem comfortable with the title "guru") have started to quote P.T. Barnum as a business mentor. Googling around, I find that Barnum apparently did not actually ever say the quote he is best known for, "There’s a sucker born every minute." His business rival did, after Barnum out-faked the rival’s fake and drew throngs to pay tickets for a literally gigantic hoax.

Barnum made a tidy career out of tricking the gullible. If that’s the kind of game you enjoy, I’m not going to be able to talk you out of it. (Anyway, you probably quit reading this blog a long time ago because I’m such a goody-two-shoes.)

When Godin’s All Marketers Are Liars came out, a lot of literal-minded people took him at his word. We all kind of believe that title anyway, right? Godin told us it was ok–in fact, desirable–to sell a product by telling fabulous stories of, say, fossilized stone giants unearthed from ancient burial grounds. As long as people didn’t feel abused or angry when they found out it was just a story. (That was the part a lot of folks seem to have missed.)

There’s a place for fairy tales
Fairy tales are fine. Fairy tales are nice, actually. They bring a lot of pleasure and sometimes they tell a deeper truth. Fairy tales and stories are what make us human beings and not clever hairless monkeys.

Swindles suck. Cons suck. People who snicker at the stupidity of their customers suck. And in the new wired world, swindles and lies always get found out. When the crowd comes looking for you with the tar & feathers, I won’t stand in their way.

I will always encourage you to be storytellers and spinners of fabulous yarns. In the same breath, I strongly discourage you from emulating the crowd of big bad wolves wearing grandma’s cotton bonnet. If you keep company with wolves, you’ll get eaten up eventually, no matter how much money they might tell you they make.

What a Toddler Easter Egg Hunt Can Teach You About Success

By Sonia Simone

Success is like a basket of easter eggs

My little boy went to his first easter egg hunt last weekend. Racing around to pick up cheap plastic toys filled with gross candy is his idea of a wonderful time, and he enjoyed himself thoroughly.

As usual, I discovered myself painfully out of the mainstream. While everyone else’s parents were mainly there to make sure their kid got a whole bunch of easter eggs, my main goal was to encourage my kid not to steamroll anybody else’s kids.

He did fine on the easter egg front–he got four, which when you’re 2 1/2 is a great haul. But the whole event got me thinking about how people view success, especially material success.

A lot of us look at jobs, wealth, and material stuff as being like that easter egg hunt. There’s a finite number of eggs on the ground. We’re surrounded by a large group of amoral, voracious toddlers primed for action. When we get the signal to go, we race around snatching up as many eggs as possible. And we don’t take any time to notice who we elbow out of the way, because when they’re gone, they’re gone.

There is actually another way to play the game.

Make your own eggs
During my little boy’s nap, I hid some more eggs around the house. I found some nicer metal ones that he could play with for a long time. (He has long had a weird fascination with easter eggs.) I put better stuff in them, stuff that he was actually interested in.

(Off topic: What kind of idiot puts Laffy Taffy in eggs for a toddler hunt? Note to all you easter egg hunt planners out there: toddlers are not physically able to eat Laffy Taffy.)

When you’re freaking out because the good stuff seems scarce–and maybe even not very good–and your competition looks overwhelming, consider how you might be able to step out of the game.

Instead of applying for jobs, make up a job and pitch it. Instead of jockeying with competitors selling the same junk you do, and letting Wal*Mart annihilate all of you on price, come up with something entirely new to do.

Make something no one else knows how to make. Do something no one else knows how to do. Create interesting conversations around that. Develop relationships with customers who become raving fans and bring their friends in for more of what you do.

Laffy Taffy is highly overrated. Its only benefit is to keep your competition busy chewing on nonsense while you make something cool.

Step out of everyone else’s game and make one of your own. It’s a lot more fun, and the goodies are better as well.

Related reading: Nice Seth Godin riff on this idea from March 31

Flickr Creative Commons image by booleansplit

Can Social Media Be Analyzed?

Is Social Media like Burning Man?

There are a lot of questions floating around about whether or not it’s possible to apply methodical analysis to business uses of social media, including buzzword-rich realms like content strategy, permission marketing, social media marketing, online community, virtual reality, PR 2.0, and whatever the hipster term of the week might be.

The diehard old school will tell you that conversation can’t be measured, that information wants to be free, and p.s. take poison and die.

(See Bill Hicks’ hilariously bitter and profane riff on advertising, Twittered by DoshDosh and not remotely safe for work unless your boss has a very good sense of humor.)

There is a traditional belief among social media oldsters (some of us have been doing this since the late 80s, god help us) that normal business ideas like ROI have nothing to do with the brave new world. It’s too weird, it’s too chaotic, and it changes too fast.

This view basically holds that online community is like a vast, 24/7/365 Burning Man, each participant vying with the next to be less predictable, less ordinary, and less interested in any conceivable commercial engagement.

Here’s my take
There is some truth to the oldster view. You can think of social media as a kind of hopped-up primal ooze, with various critters evolving out of it in no predictable order.

Trying to run predictive quantitative analysis on a MySpace or Facebook or Twitter campaign is a sucker bet. And a blog or content/community strategy isn’t like direct mail–the results aren’t linear. You can’t build a mathematical model and start plugging numbers in, unless your spreadsheet has a way to quantify "8th dimension," "monkeys" and "naked girls riding bicycles."

Taken as a whole, the social media world is not manageable or predictable. It’s a swirling ocean of chaos. The fashionable 5% of social media is in love with the weird, the disturbing, and the radically new.

Consider Boing Boing
Once you get the sensibility, it’s not hard at all to predict a Boing Boing story. But it’s impossible to manufacture a Boing Boing story (there is nothing on earth that shines brighter than faked weirdness). And it’s impossible to know how getting onto Boing Boing would affect your business.

Other than a brief but massive traffic spike, none of us knows what a Boing Boing hit would bring. "Make something Boing Boing likes" is a strategy for dopes, unless you’re doing it for the pure fun of doing it.

But, you know, there’s a lot of social media that is not Boing Boing. There are stay-at-home parents who blog about air freshener. (Really.) There are a whole bunch of normal people with day jobs who blog about their commute, or the jeans they like best, or who they’re thinking about voting for.

The great secret of social media is that most of its participants don’t have much desire to drop acid and wander the desert wearing only a feather boa.

Because social media is vast (and growing at a breathtaking pace) and populated by human beings, it’s inherently unpredictable. It’s a classic chaotic system. The weirdness of social media, on the other hand, has been overstated.

Sure, you can still find magnificent weirdness if you know where to look, (and some of us dig that) but you can also find rather nice, normal people who just want some good advice, some useful tools, and a place to hold a conversation. Possibly even about air freshener.

Additional reading:

  • Ranching Butterflies
  • Flickr Creative Commons image by MikeLove