Extraordinary is made out of boring

Jenna was seventeen and she wanted more than anything, more than anything to be an artist.

She read and re-read biographies of artists, she studied and re-studied art books, she watched and re-watched movies about artists, and she repeatedly comforted herself and her artistic ambitions with the knowledge that her uncle Graham was a painter, and a good painter too, an Archibald finalist painter, so she would be a great artist too

The day arrived! Jenna set up her easel and said, “Today… I make art!”

Three hours later Graham’s phone rang, and Jenna asked if she could come over.

“You live four hours away!” said Graham.

“…yes? Pleeeease…”

“Oh sure, as long as you tell your mum where you’re going.”

Late that afternoon, Jenna’s car pulled up outside her uncle’s house, and her uncle pottered out in paint-bedaubed pants and shirt to meet her.

“Oh, you’re painting!” said Jenna. “I’m sorry!”

“Nah, it’s okay,” said Graham. “I was nearly done for the day. There’s roast beef for dinner, I’ll just go clean up then you can tell me what’s so urgent.”

Jenna spent an exquisite half-hour browsing through the art books in Graham’s library until he reappeared with two cups of tea and some gingernut snaps.

“So, what’s the…”

“IwanttobeanartistbutIdon’tknowIsetupmyeaselandIrealised”

“Woah there! Slower.”

“Umm, this is really embarassing, but you know I always wanted to be an artist well I finally set up my easel and started to sketch out a figure and I spent an hour getting the proportions on the arm right and I realised that this was very boring and I don’t know does that mean I can’t be an artist?”

Graham sorted out her words in his head and said, “So you’re worried that because the work was boring that you’re not cut out to be an artist?”

“Yes! Oh my god I’m doooomed aren’t I just tell me quickly so I can go mourn all my hopes I mean I’ve wanted this my whole life but obviously it wasn’t mean to beeee…”

Graham observed kindly, “You sure are a dramatic one. Jen, what made you think that art was interesting all the time?”

“Well, people talk about how amazing it is and how engaged they are and in the books and all…”

“Hmmm. Well, if you can stay tomorrow I’ll show you what it’s like. Would that help?”

“Yes, that would be amazing, thank you Uncle Graham, you’re so wonderful…”

“Yeah. Well, you’re welcome, I guess. Did you know that you’re just like your mother when she was your age?”

The next day Jenna followed Graham out to the back shed where his studio was. It was an organised explosion of paints and stretched canvases and propped-open books and photos and rags and pedestal fans. Two large easels were set up: one with a large photo of an outback paddock, and another with a landscape-sized canvas with outlines pencilled on and a half-painted sky.

Conversationally, Graham said, “I’ve been working on this one for three weeks now, it’s a commission piece for the owner of that station. I went out there and took these photos, there’s some great light out there. Okay, I’m going to start. You can talk, but I don’t promise to answer.”

Graham took twenty minutes to mix four colours of blue. He daubed a bit on a scrap of newspaper, frowned, then spent another ten minutes adjusting the colours.

He added a small bit of blue to the canvas, scraped back some of yesterday’s still-tacky colour, built up the blue again, scraped off another bit, added a touch of pink to the mix, used the smaller brush to add in an invisible streak of tinted blue, stood back from the easel and stared for a minute, scraped off another bit of blue, repainted a few more times, stood back to look at the canvas while he stretched (back popping grotequely), then back to daub for another hour while humming under his breath.

Then Graham shook his head and blew his nose. He picked up his brushes and palette knife and spent fourteen minutes rinsing the brushes and soaking them in turpentine. He turned to Jenna. “So, that’s the morning of an artist. What do you think?”

“Umm… well, I mean no offense, right, but it looks kind of ordinary.”

“Yep, that’s it exactly.” He looked at her woebegone face. “But it’s still great, though. It can be both, you know.”

He laughed: now she looked confused and woebegone. “Close your eyes for a second, wouldya?”

Jenna closed her eyes and reopened them when directed. At arms length there was another painting on the easel.

It was… an overwhelming explosion of sunset colours that nature was surely too classy to put on display. A neon-darkness corona against old old trees. A gobsmacking extravaganza of life and how it always pulls your pants down when you least expect it.

Jenna gaped, eyes wandering. “It’s… wow. Amazing.”

“Well, thanks. But I made it the exact same way I’m painting that one over there. One quiet morning after another of scraping and building colour with the occasional cuppa tea. With lots of paintbrush-cleaning and other jobs I don’t particularly care for.”

“I guess, but…”

But you’ve seen too many movies, pet. In the movies everything is done in montages that skip all the boring parts. And in books they write that it took so-and-so eight years to paint that portrait, but that’s just one line. It doesn’t describe every single one of those days, because most of those days are the same, and all of them involve quite a bit of very boring stuff: artist went for two-hour walk with dog, that kind of thing.”

“I guess I just thought it would all be magical.”

“Oh, don’t get me wrong, it still kind of is. Painting is the most fun you can have by yourself – don’ttellyourmotherIsaidthat – I mean, I forgot you were there for an hour or so. I don’t even mind the boringness of it all.”

“Why not?”

“The boring tasks… they let me think. They stop me from getting full of myself. And because you just have to do them, that’s all. To make roast beef you have to get a bit of blood on your hands, to make art you have to do a lot of boring ordinary work over and over. Still want to be an artist?”

“Umm, yes?”

“Good. I’m glad. Now get out of here, you have to be home before dark and we both know how your mum worries.”

The moral of the story

Here is a lesson it took me many years to learn; a lesson many people have not learned, especially about their marketing.

Doing magical work often feels the same as doing prosaic work.

Planning is entirely magical. Results are often pretty magical, too.

But doing the work is still doing the work: enjoyable, but very ordinary.

Here’s the important bit:

This doesn’t mean anything is wrong; it doesn’t mean that you need to make changes.

In regards to your marketing, the point where you start thinking, “Ho hum, I’m talking about this again, yawn” corresponds very closely to the point where people are starting to know you and remember you. (If you change your marketing so it feels bright and new and special, you reset the clock on memorability. Beware.)

Said another way:

How you feel about the work while you’re doing it isn’t a useful measurement of whether it’s any good.

Want to know about some measurements that are useful? Sign up for the Mo’Cash, Mo’Joy weekly newsletter and stay on the inside track!

Creative Commons License photo credit: Wallula Junction

What porn does wrong (and so do you)

sleepin with my shoes on
The door opens on a hot and lonely housewife in improbably high heels. The TV repairman senses the great depth of loneliness in her and makes a joke about his tool belt.

Next scene, they’re rutting with the mechanical precision of fornicating robots. It’s pretty damn hot.

You watch. Your groin is certainly fascinated, and sometimes that takes all your attention.

But your head isn’t in the same game as your groin. Your head is thinking…

Those are ridiculous breasts.

Jee-sus, do you have to look so bored, repairmanguy?

The trim on that kitchen counter is rather nice, I wonder where they got it…

After you’ve finished watching – and whatever else you’re doing – you feel faintly melancholy.

It worked, so you should be happy, but…

Somehow you feel cheap. Used. Resentful.

If you could get your money back, you’d probably try to.

And you think, Huh, that’s odd. Why do I feel so unsatisfied about something that worked?

To cheer yourself up, you hire an action movie. (Today is a day of testosterone.)

The credits explode through the screen and an unknown figure on a black Ducati with leathers and a full-face helmet crashes his bike through a warehouse door and screeches away on his rear wheels as the warehouse explodes in slow motion.

You don’t even bother to pause as you wander off to get a drink and some of those mini-marshmallows.

When you get back, the mysterious Leather Biking Guy – black-tinted helmet still on – is fighting a room full of improbably dextrous Korean gangsters. He does an amazing standing flip over one gangster to axe-kick the next one in the head and you involuntarily cheer.

But ten minutes later, you’re thinking…

Damn, is that Sammo Hung? He’s aged so well!

Why are all these warehouses so poorly lit? That’s unsafe.

That gangster is using way too much product.

You say, “Meh”, stop the movie and go put on Die Hard instead.

The moral of the story – home player edition

What was the mistake the action flick and porno made? Why did both leave you so dissatisfied?

You tell me.

I’m going to give away two prizes:

One free hour of coachsulting to the first person in the comments to identify what I think the problem is.

And another free hour to the person who comes up with the best answer that I didn’t think of.

You’ve got until Friday the 25th of March… hit me with your best shot.

(No pun intended.)

(Ew.)

[Edit: the competition has closed. Enjoy the amazing comments!]

Creative Commons License photo credit: mistress_f

How to recover after screwing up

Head in Hands

The multi-media conference-event South by Southwest (Nicknames: SXSW, Stinky Pete to its college buddies) wrapped up this week. I didn’t go because I am on the wrong side of the planet, but I hear from my many many friends who did that it was a hootenanny. Apparently some of those friends talked about me, as people do about absent friends.

Whatever they said, I bet it was better than what people were saying about me at SXSW last year.

I swear, by all the gods and little fishes, that this is going to be the last-ish time I write about this, because it never feels less awkward to talk about. But there are still some seriously important reasons to mention it.

A tiny bit over a year ago, I wrote a post that inspired people to ask whether I had gone completely insane. (I’m not linking to it directly anymore. I understand the gnawing pain of curiosity, so if you MUST see for yourself, contact me and I will send you the link.)

This post involved accusations with naming names, violent sexual imagery, and the raging flailing parts of me that are generally locked in the basement.

This post went live a few days before SXSW.

Many months later I found out that it was definitely a topic of conversation at SXSW.

Among all the people I most wanted to impress.

EGAD.

This could have been Game Over.

I was new, I had very little social capital built, and it would have been oh-so-easy for this one impulsive post to land me in Stay-Away-From-Her-She’s-Craaaazy-town. I could have permanently burned my rep with lots of people. I could have slunk away and never been seen again.

But it’s a year later, and none of those things have happened. I’ve guest posted for most of the people I named and offended. I have a full-time business. And everyone has more-or-less forgotten about the incident, and are focusing on the new (and much more fascinating) screw-ups that other people are making now.

This hasn’t been my only Epic Fail in business: when you’re impulsive, creative and a tiny bit febrile they will happen from time to time. The reason I’m still here is that I know how to manage my fuck-ups.

Here’s my advice for the inevitable mistakes we all make (if we’re not playing it safe, which is a mistake in itself).

Display appropriate shame.

Appropriate shame is a psych term, feeling proportionately bad about something we’ve done.

There’s two little traps in that sentence, can you spot them?

One, quite basically, is that you have to feel you did the wrong thing. If you don’t feel you did, then say so! You aren’t a politician, you are much better off being proudly unashamed than muttering lies. You might be a monster, but at least you’ll be an ethical monster.

The other is a sense of proportion. Brushing off a serious injury is cruel; publically flagellating yourself for a casual incivility is just dumb. If your feelings are way out of whack with your screw-up, then there’s probably something else going on. You’ll need to separate it so it doesn’t make things go so very much worse.

Make your apologies at least as public as your mistake.

Recently, I realised that I had turned into a bit of a launch zombie (“Buy my thing. It’s amaaazing. Grrr. Raaaargh.”) in the wake of DIY Magnificence and I had made my last few newsletters all about me and what I wanted instead of about my readers. So my next newsletter was the logical place to apologise to them; a full-page ad in the Times would have been overkill.

Make your apologies in enough places that they’re likely to reach everyone who was affected. It’s better to do more than you have to: the temptation will be strong to whisper it down a well at midnight and call it done, but this incident won’t have a chance of quieting down until the apologies are completed.

(And don’t you DARE bad-mouth someone in public and apologise in private. Bad form!)

Own your actions.

Factually describe what you did and did not do. “I promised Angela that I would call her on Tuesday, but I didn’t get back to her until Friday. By that time, the deadline had passed and we had missed out.”

Be a reporter of your failure, not a bard: brief, factual and as unbiased as you can manage, especially in your descriptions of other people’s words and actions.

Resist every urge to prettify your words: all that does is distract people from your mistake. (Which is why it’s tempting, of course.)

Explain a little, but don’t justify yourself.

There are times when it really matters to know the whys and wherefores.

“I went to the store but they were sold out.”

“I know I said I would get that done this week, but I contracted double pnemonia and I was in hospital.”

“I was being held hostage when I wrote that.”

Add any facts that change the story, but omit any that just make you look better. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, what matters is that you insulted me in front of my friends.

Show up and take it.

Don’t go and hide until it all blows over; that pretty much guarantees it never will.

Be open and available to criticism and feedback from the people who have a right to give it (i.e. the people you messed with). Let them choose whether this occurs in public – in your comments, say – or privately.

It’s pretty hard to respond well during a hysterical crying jag, she says from experience, but do your ABSOLUTE BEST to:

  • reply evenly and respectfully
  • avoid being defensive (Delete any sentence that begins with, “Yeah, but…”)
  • not deny anyone else’s feelings – they might not make sense to you, but that doesn’t mean the other person shouldn’t feel them

It’s cool to say, “I need some time to respond to what you just said.” when you know that if you reply right now it will be a knee-jerk reaction. (As long as you actually reply when you’re ready!)

Walk away from the keyboard, or use friends as sanity filters. You want to avoid adding any more misunderstandings, oh yes you do.

Don’t feel you must own other people’s interpretations of your actions.

You’re ten minutes late, and you’re responsible for that.

If the other party thinks that you’re a sociopathic jerk-off because you’re ten minutes late, you don’t have to agree.

Everyone has their own Stuff, and you’re not responsible for anyone else’s. You can say, “I’m sorry I was ten minutes late. I don’t agree that it means I’m a worthless human being.”

There are some people who will try to heap sixteen piles of shit on you for any mistake. You are not obliged to breathe manure just because they say so.

Figure out what you’re going to do about this situation.

Sometimes the answer is, “Not one damn thing.”

If you need to fix a problem, make concrete plans to do so. Tell anyone who needs to know.

You don’t need to broadcast every step of your plan to right what you hath wronged. Often, that’s based more in the desire to make yourself feel better, and much less about cleaning up your mess.

Figure out what you’re going to do to make sure it never happens again.

There’s almost always a valuable lesson or five to be learned from any screw-up. Once everything has blown over, analyse the event dispassionately and pick out the wisdom.

Here are some of my hard-won insights:

Never send emails at 3am.

Don’t set rigid deadlines when you don’t have to.

If you swear occasionally in articles you won’t explode like that.

It’s okay to describe behaviour, but don’t name names. (Except yours.)

Accept it’s never going to entirely go away.

This is part of your history now. People have long memories and the internet has a photographic one.

There’s always going to be a small stain on you.

Get back to normal.

The best thing you can do is engage fully with the process and then act normally. (Not like it never happened. Normally.)

Keep showing up to all the places you would usually go. (Have the same awkward conversations about The Event a number of times until it gets dropped.)

Keep doing your usual great work, writing your usual fantastic articles, displaying your usual excellent manners.

On the scales of judgement, Bad Deeds weigh anywhere from ten to a hundred times as much as Good Deeds. If you keep piling on the good ones, eventually they will outweigh the bad ones.

Watch with fascination as other people fuck things up.

Because ten to one they won’t handle it as well as you will.

Want to learn more from my mistakes – and my genius, too? Sign up for Mo’Cash, Mo’Joy, and receive a free 30-minute Marketing Check-up AND the inside scoop!

Creative Commons License photo credit: Alex E. Proimos

How to talk about your work

Everyone needs a getaway

There are six coloured flags blowing on the beach.

The sand is white and warm, pleasant to the touch.

You’ve put your bag on one end of your towel to hold it down as the wind picks up, and your shoes at the other end.

The sky is deep and blue and cloudless, the sun is fierce. Cool and delightful the breeze off the water, messing up your hair and making your lips taste of salt.

Later we’ll eat very hot chips with tomato sauce on them, to warm us after the cold water.

There’s sand between your toes and you feel wonderfully tired.

A small child chases a seagull.

The moral of the story

When you tell me about the work that you do, make me see myself in it as clearly as you saw yourself at the beach just now.

Use photos, use tiny vignettes like the one about the beach, use video… do whatever you can to make me imagine myself having the experience of your work.

Wearing it. Running it through my hands. Hanging up after a session, shooken up and inspired. With your work as a piece of my life, sitting just over there, no not next to the potted plant, next to the bookshelf. Using your techniques in my next sales call.

If you can make me imagine your work as a reality in my life, I’m already half sold.

Here’s another example using my newest product, DIY Magnificence.

You jump with delight as you see the box sticking out of your mailbox.

Everything inside is colourful, everything is so very touchable. You shuffle the flash cards through your hands a few times, but they’re too big and there are too many to do it comfortably. You pop them back into their bag and flick over and over through the workbook. Your eyes catch a question and automatically you start to ponder it. (“What work does feel easy to me?”)

A week later, you’re sitting on the grass in the warming sun. You’ve unearthed your old stereo to listen to the Excited CD – you could have used your iPod, but the birds are singing and someone over that way is mowing and it’s just too nice a day to miss the sounds – and spending an hour or two planning your next amazing work is a thousand kinds of blessing. You’re making furious notes in your usual work notebook because the workbook feels too precious to write on just yet. You’ve made ten pages of big underlined scribbly notes already and you’re ablaze with potential and yes-ness. Many of the notes are already crossed out as you realised they weren’t your best work. Some ideas are underlined six times, with arrows and exclamation marks.

Two intense weeks later, scared and overjoyed and proud, you’re ready to make your new work a reality. Your friends say, “I don’t remember the last time I saw you so fired up!” and you reply, “I know. I’m just ready to do a lot of things I’ve been holding back on… this is going to be the best work I’ve ever created. I can’t wait to see how it goes!”

A couple of the cards have been pinned up on your corkboard. The rest are sitting in a drawer, waiting for your Next Big Thing.

Be specific, be evocative, and most of all… be concrete. Engage as many senses as you can, and enjoy the benefits. (They feel like a warm fuzzy blanket that smells faintly of lavender, tucked around your feet on a howling winter night.)

Want some advice on how to get your clients feeling down to their toes how amazing it would be to work with you? Sign up to Mo’Cash, Mo’Joy today, and we’ll talk about it in your free 30-minute Marketing Check-up!

Creative Commons License photo credit: kennymatic