This is why our plans suck.

Mt Kilimanjaro 1
You’re standing in the savanna, staring at your mountain on the horizon.

Under your bare feet the earth is red and warm, clay-sand with ants busily trundling down ant cul-de-sacs and ant super-highways.

Your mountain is snow-capped. Your mountain is shining in the dawn. Your mountain is where it’s at, playa.

There are two places for you to look, darlingheart.

Look at the mountain. Often. Line up that compass and get out your plumb-line and your sextant and your orrery. Keep your eye on the prize.

And look at your feet. Watch them moving. Look for black mambas lying across your path and useful plants and shiny rocks for keepsies.

Mountain. Feet. Mountain. Feet.

Do not, darling of my heart, waste any of your time scanning the savanna for frumious bandersnatches and lions and snarks and grumkins. Do not try and map the territory five miles hence. Do not concern yourself with chasms and cobras and conquistadors not in front of your feet.

(Most of those things aren’t even in the savanna, you know.)

You have no idea what the exact path between here and the mountain will be.

You may have to detour south to escape a furious glacier. You may stray north in search of King Solomon’s Mines. You might get a lift from the Archduke of Eagles. Any time spent planning the path beyond your ability to walk it is quite possibly wasted time. Any time spent worrying about obstacles on that path is almost certainly wasted worry.

When there is a pit-trap in front of your feet, then that is the time to think about it. Until that time, there are no such things in the galaxy.

There’s only you, and your feet, and the mountain.

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My writing goes back to the beginning. Except not.

stairways to ? (cc)

A long while ago, I made a public resolution: I would write less often but more betterer. (Essentially.)

For where I was in the spiral, that worked for a long time – I was clear enough on what I wanted to say that I could write glorious grandiose story-licious articles every week without strain.

But nowadays… not so much. The business has redefined itself again, and suddenly I have more questions than I have answers. So I’m not able so much to write the Kipling-esque How The Leopard Got His Spots kind of stories that I was writing six months ago. Suddenly I’m Carlos Castenada, but without the peyote. (Although definitely with the surrealism.)

So I’m going back.

Back to the rhythm and patterns that served me best last time I was in this place.

I’m going to write more often, and require less of myself in style and depth. I’m not going to make everything be poetry if it turns up and says, “Yo. I’m prose. Do you want this around the back?”

Because right now the choice is not presenting itself between write great articles or write okay articles. The choice is between write okay articles or do not write at all.

Also, as you can tell from the first person all over the place, I’m probably going to turn up as the main character more often. I often write these articles to clarify my own thoughts: sometimes that involves abstractions (writing about penguins) and sometimes it is extremely literal. I prefer the abstracted stories, but right now they don’t want to get written. So fuck it, I’m gonna write the words that show up and see what happens.

I will likely cull this work on a monthly basis – generally after I’ve written the story that better expresses what I’m saying. (Long-term readers with good memories may have noticed this happening.) The literal version isn’t very good – I’m certainly not happy with this as I’m writing it because it is pedestrian and puffy. But it will do until the story about hedgehogs that expresses my ideas better arrives.

It’s idea Lego, I think.

You have to build a lot of crappy Lego log cabins before you’re ready to build Minas Tirith.

The trick, of course, is that here the log cabins are created publically. Which is why I’m getting extremely meta-textual about my creative process – it’s like the crappy log cabin with a sign next to it that says “First attempt in new media. I am actually good at other stuff, you know.”

(Except less defensive. I hope.)

Many of you identify me as “a writer”. I never use that label for myself. I mean, I write, but it never feels like part of my identity to do so.

And since I don’t think of myself as a writer, I do not know if this reversion to an earlier (and less awesome) style is a problem or an inevitability. I can’t say I much like it – these articles are much harder to write than the ones that spring from my head fully formed like Athena, and they aren’t as good. (For good, read: enjoyable, memorable, likely to attract comments, likely to be mentioned in client calls a year later.)

But it is what it is. (Insert zen koan sound effects here.)

I’ve decided to get less judgmental about the quality and focus more on squeezing every drop out of the work as it shows up. If brilliant-hedgehog-stories turn up, I’ll write them. If ho-hum-workaday-tales are there, I’ll write those instead.

I don’t seem able to produce brilliant on command, more’s the pity.

So this is what you get until that damn hedgehog shows up.

I hope it helps.

Rock on,

P.S. There are still two seats left in The Pilot Light course starting soon. Stop dilly-dalling and re-re-reading the sales page (oh yes, I know that quite a few of you are doing that). I’m open to creative payment plans if the only thing getting in your way is money. So if you want in, register your interest today.

Creative Commons License photo credit: marfis75

Review: Situations Matter

Sometimes people send me free stuff and I review it! This review has an affiliate link to Amazon in order to feed my insatiable book-buying habit.

The two-line summary: If you nod confidently when I mention the IAT, Stanley Milgram or bystander apathy, and you have incorporated that understanding into your life and business, then you probably don’t need this book. Otherwise, this is one of those books everyone should read.

Whoever came up with the title for this book deserves a cookie, because Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World does exactly what it says on the tin.

Quite simply, Sam Sommers’ contention is this:

Most of the components of ourselves that we use to describe Who We Are (and much more, Who That Guy Is) aren’t static.

We describe people (and ourselves) as smart, or rude, or honest, or a terrible driver. But it’s not that simple.

We’re smart when there are standardised tests involved. We’re rude when we haven’t had enough sleep. We’re honest when someone is watching us. We’re a terrible driver when we’re running late.

So likewise, we’re dumb when building an engine. We’re polite when dealing with the elderly. We cheat when feeling insecure. We’re a fantastic driver when our child is in the back seat.

It’s the context that defines what kind of person we are in that situation: rude or polite, honest or cheater.

Sam proves this point over and over and over again with charming and accessible explanations of psychology experiments that explore the ways our behaviour changes depending on context. In fact, he uses so many examples across work, relationships, race, gender differences, education, and pretty every other aspect of human behaviour that by the end of the book you feel slightly poleaxed.

(I mean, reading non-technical psychology books like this one is one of my hobbies and I still walked away saying “Bwah. Brain full.”)

Why I think you need to read this book.

1. It will make you more self-aware and give you better responses to others. In short, you will be a better human being if you apply this understanding to your life.

2. You will also be a much better marketer.

Websites give you an unparalleled opportunity to create context. The tone, colour choices, images, positioning, names, information hierarchies… every single one of them is an opportunity to create the kinds of context that affect how people behave.

And of course we have all seen people who use this in ways that would have us sitting in the shower scrubbing ourselves for hours. Let us forget those people.

You want your work to have an effect – to create some positive change in your visitors and clients. And the more you understand about context, the more you can create an environment that is conducive to that change. Context is your invisible wingman, helping you rock it out in your business.

One tiny example

Long-time readers will remember the article I wrote after Naomi Dunford claimed she had received death threats. I wrote my own article about the knee-jerk victim-blaming I was seeing in the community.

That situation was explosively emotional. It involved accusations, counter-accusations, sexism, death threats and drama. There were 150 comments on that article, many by strangers who were not my regular readers.

And the conversation stayed polite, mostly on-topic and sane.

Other conversations happening on other websites at the same time were… not.

The difference? I was very, very, very clear about context. About how the situation (my article, my website, my take on the topic) defined the correct behaviour for commenters. And despite the outrage and fury and general unreasonableness topics like this create, most people behaved in line with that context.

Context is awesome. Situations Matter. If you’re not already acting accordingly, read the book.

Building the bonfire of your biz (and mine)

Fire man!
Ah, you wacky spiral. I love how you bring me back to an idea I know and teach, and make it a brand-new realisation again.

Cash and Joy, if it was shown in the metaphor of a fire, would be a campfire – enough to keep one person warm and fed, and shedding light out to the edge of the clearing it’s in.

A campfire is a wonderful thing. I’m proud to have built one and kept it alight for so long.

But I still hanker for a bonfire.

Every time I decide to myself now Catherine it is time we levelled up the biz! Epic adventures await and it’s time for the big leagues! then I tend to go out and find the biggest damn tree in the area and cut it down and drag it by the trunk back to the clearing and then dump the whole tree onto the flames.

As any of you who are campers/firebugs will know, what happens when you throw one big-ass lump of wood onto a fire is a great cloud of sparks, a dimming of the flame… and if you’re not careful, the fire goes out entirely.

Thus, worn out from the effort of tree cutting and dragging and all the rest, I tend to sink next to the fire and exhaustedly panic as the fuel smothers the flame instead of what I want to happen: instantly igniting, shedding light and warmth and hope across kingdoms and satrapies and city-states uncounted.

Often I end up kicking the entire log off the flames, so that overall I have lessened the fire instead of dramatically growing it.

In one of my more persistently dumbass moves, three months later I find myself doing the same thing.

That’s not the way to build a bonfire.

The best way to build a bonfire is:

  • get a steady flame built
  • keep consistently adding fuel to it
  • fan the flames

That first stage is full of frenzied action – scraping the flint and tinder, praying for smoke, moving the tinder in too quickly oh dammit, and puffing just hard enough on the first caught straw to get that precious flame to spread. It’s tiring and exhilarating and crazy, and thank mighty fuck I have already done it. (Flame-lighters, I salute thee.)

But the second and third actions don’t require gigantic transformative action. They require you to keep on going to the brush, finding chunks of fallen wood, breaking them down, and adding them to the fire. They require you to stand there with a newspaper, diligently fanning the flames at a steady rate so the new tinder catches.

And if you keep steadily doing those things, you end up with a bonfire.

This metaphor, you can see where it is going…

I’m going to try an experiment, and I invite you to observe it.

For the next three months I am going to avoid Gigantic! Level-up! Strategies! and all those “Hey, let me take care of this in one single email/article/flood of tweets” crapshoots.

Instead I am going to do what I advise my clients to do: I’m going to clarify three paths for my marketing – three ways for people to travel from never-heard-of-you to gloriously-happy-client-telling others.

And I’m going to just keep on doing them.

And I’m not going to do anything else.

Just showing up, writing a guest post every week. Following 20 new amazing people on Twitter every day. Writing more resources for Rise and Shine.

Building the bonfire with regular fuel and fanning.

Let’s see whether this metaphor holds up, shall we?

I’m betting it does.

P.S. I’m still giggling my way through the applications, but the next Pilot Light cohort currently has a couple of seats left. If you’re interested in building YOUR bonfire, please do check it out and put your details in if you want to chat about whether it’s right for you.

Creative Commons License photo credit: redeye^