Agility is the goal; bloat is the enemy

We’re going to be doing things differently over the next few weeks.

I got into this game — of spreading ideas, bootstrapping my own future, building things with other people — because I was tired of being told:

Not yet.

The committees, the board of directors, the need for approval are all great. But they’re not for me. I need to be able to shift and jive and punch what I’m doing into fourth at a moment’s notice.

I like to hustle. But it’s hard to do that when you need a dozen signatures of approval.

My dad told me about a time when he needed a part for one of his trucks. The P.O. was so large it needed to be approved by his boss’s boss’s boss’s boss. If he’d waited for that email chain to finally come back with a “yes,” the driver would have been out of work for a week. So, instead, dad just bought the part on his own.

He worried about what to do next after he got things fixed.

So, now Reframe:

Because we don’t need anyone’s approval, we’re changing the days we publish. (Try doing that on a dime at the New York Times.) Whereas we’re normally around six days of the week, we’re skimming back to a more essentialist schedule. Some of the data we’ve seen shows that there are days we publish when no one shows up.

In just a matter of two weeks, we’ve analyzed the data, brainstormed solutions and created paths for implementation. Back in the world of traditional media, this kind of change would have seriously taken years.

“But, Jon, that’s because those publishers are bigger than Reframe.”

It’s not about size. It’s about bloat. Bloat and fat.

There are plenty of one-woman/one-man shows, plenty of freelancers, plenty of small companies that move slow because they’re carrying unnecessary baggage. They lack responsivity because there’s too much space between them and their tribe.

Sure, we’re small, but we’re also intentionally fit. Every time there’s a chance to grow, it’s weighed against: Will this keep us from agility?

Lots of ideas get cut. And that’s on purpose.

We brainstorm. We try something. It fails, we brainstorm again.

And that’s so much more fun than waiting on the right email.

Tug boats, tin cans and an organization’s flexibility

There were three of them – presenters that is – when the session started. In-depth slides and thought out notecards were prepared. You could tell they’d practiced this quite a bit. They’d even chosen to wear matching attire. The presentation was poised for success. But there was a problem.

When the lights went down, I was the only person in the audience.

For a good 40 minutes, I listened – and was quite annoyed, to be honest – as they went through slide after slide on this topic they’d clearly studied a lot about. What they said was right, but what they said didn’t matter. Their presentation was on engaging your audience, but I wasn’t engaged.

Sitting there – quickly growing more and more bored of their rehearsed jokes and bullet-points – I wrote a short sentence in the margin of my notepad:

It’s easier to turn a tin can than a tugboat.

Tugboats are big and impressive and can move a lot of cargo. But tin cans. They’re light and agile and portable and it doesn’t take an entire board room to reroute course.

***

It seems everybody wants a shot at centerstage. We all love basking in the limelight. Authors dream of being the “next” Hemingway or Rowling. Entrepreneurs dream of being the “next” Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. I dream of being the next Seth Godin.

It’s all bullshit, though.

Any time we’re pretending or hoping or working to be somebody else, we’re posing.

Posing is when I lie about who I am to the people around me. And I really don’t want to be a liar. I especially don’t want to lie to my friends.

One of my dearest friends, Carl (he writes about education), once told me, “The world isn’t waiting for you to be the next whoever. The world is waiting for you to be you.”

When we pursue who we really are – whether that’s you or your company’s brand – we leave the world with trust. And the world could certainly use a lot more trust and honesty.

I think all this dreaming of being “the next …” comes from our attention to be bigger, more important. Social media and book deals have taught us that the larger our audience, the more respected we’ll be.

And the lie “fake it till you make it” has become more and more prominent.

The presenters I watched thought they were supposed to preach at the audience. Because that’s what the big presenters do. They wanted to be tugboats firing swiftly down the Mississippi.

But in posing — in faking it — they lost their audience. And the audience is really all that matters.

They can try to be a tugboat, but I like the tin can I’ve got.

How to gain precision and focus with just one word

There’s a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln that goes like this:

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I’ll spend the first four sharpening the axe.

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in a South African prison. It is said he spent that time deciding the one thing he would do when released. That one thing was: end apartheid. It only took him four years.

Both great men knew the power of precision.

A focused man’s abilities far outweigh the production of a busy one.

***

I cleaned my closet on Good Friday. The piles of clothes stacked waist-high around my living room. There was a lot to sort.

Looking at the mounds, I knew my donate pile *needed* to be larger than what I kept. So, I took a simplistic approach. In a three step process, I weeded through my entire wardrobe in a single afternoon.

First. I sorted clothes by their utility. Long-sleeve button ups, t-shirts, pants, socks, so on.

Second. I held up one piece at a time and asked: Does this fit?

Third. If it did, I asked: Do I love it?

Why force myself into something that’s uncomfortable or that I don’t care deeply about?

I like metaphors. About half way through clothes cleansing, it dawned on me: this method applies to life too. Why do something I don’t love if I don’t have to keep it around? Subjecting oneself to meaningless repetition of pointless task is, well, pointless.

Plenty of people say, “There’s not enough time in the day.” Sure. But we all have the same time in each day. Some people grow empires. Some barely make it to the bank and grocery store. Often, “There’s not enough time” turns out just to be an excuse not to leap. We’ve got to choose how we spend our time better. Or, at least, I do.

So I’m taking time to step back with each new inquiry. And also to reprocess things I’ve done for years or even months. Right now, nothing is a “yes” for me, unless I love it.

I’ll spend my time with what I love doing. Then I’ll backfill extra hours sharpening my axe.

Because no matter how long you give a man, he can’t bring down a tree with a butter knife.

Simplifying life: The art of choosing over being chosen

In the fourth six-weeks set of my fourth grade year, I hid my report card. I’d made a B.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been horrible at math. (I’m still terrible at it. I still use my fingers to count or a calculator to do simple division.) That six-weeks we’d done quizzes over multiplication tables and it didn’t go well.

I can remember hiding behind our computer desk after mom found out my secret, but they caught me eventually.

Dad wasn’t mad at me. He wasn’t upset with me. But — even at the age of 10 — I could tell he was confused because he’d expected better. He told me I needed to try harder. That I needed to learn math, but 12 years later, I know that’s not true.

Here’s the thing: no matter how hard I try, I’ll never be good at math. Even if I spent the next 48 hours memorizing formulas and tables I still would not be good at math. I’d be good at memorizing.

Memorization, habit and patterns are rarely good reasons to do something.

Choice — personally deciding “I like this and I don’t like that” — is the reason to start, to follow through, to show up regularly.

***

A couple books I read recently have been about choice. My favorite was “Essentialism: The Disciplined Art Of Less” by Greg McKeown, who suggests thinking about choice in polar terms.

McKeown says to ask “Do I love this or do I just do it?” for everything cluttering life.

With parchment paper and sharpies, I took this to heart and channeled down to bare essentials — to what I love doing. Things like: writing, leading and caring. Now, everything not on the list is on an organized path out.

I want to love the few thing I’m doing and I want to do them fully — with grace and care.

This means choosing to raise my hand less often, even though I love going first. And choosing to say less — waiting to say the right things, not just say things.

This art of choice isn’t selfish. It lets us provide our best to a world filled of (and expecting) mediocrity.

***

Hemingway famously rewrote the ending for “A Farewell To Arms” 47  times. He told George Plimpton of the Paris Review the reason for this was: “Getting the words right.”

If we wait for inspiration, we’ll surely be waiting for a long time

I’m in the middle of a slump as I write this. I haven’t produced words in weeks. And — for those who slave away at your art, you know this is true — there are plenty of reasons to not get up and work:

  • I got some bad news.
  • I stayed up too late.
  • A phone call came in right as I was sitting down.
  • I can’t seem to “get inspired.”
  • There’s laundry to do.
  • I wrote quite a bit more than usual the last time, so I can spare a day off.
  • And on and on.

I walk around telling people, “Hey, I’m a writer! Yeah! I write things!” and I imagine people thinking of me how I think of my heroes — Vonnegut, Thoreau, Bob Darden, Don Miller — at their desks.

When I think of a writer, it’s a picturesque scene: in an isolated cabin with warm coffee, a view of the sun rising over a glass-topped lake and divine connection from heaven to the artist’s fingertips. In my mind, the writer is pecking keys as fast as inspiration can come. Writing, in my mind, is effortless.

Perhaps I enjoy the possibility of people imagining me doing this. But each one of the men I listed will tell you: that ain’t how it works, kids.

Writing — any form of creativity — is not about magical inspiration. It’s about sitting your ass down and writing.

And so when I call myself a writer, but I’m not writing, I’m a poser. I’m not speaking truth to those who trust me. I’m lying to the people I love. Ugh. How horrible.

I’ve got this poster hanging from some tape above my desk. It’s a simple reminder. “Ship.” it reads.

Ship, everyday. Ship, even without permission. Ship, especially without inspiration. Ship when there’s disappointment or a full schedule or dozens of people grabbing for attention. Just Ship.

Ship not because you should, but because there’s a deep connection to your art that says you must.

Shipping is a term I picked up from Seth Godin. He uses it to mean: make art and share it with the world. And opposite of The Ship is The Resistance.

The Resistance comes from Steven Pressfield’s book, “The War Of Art.” It’s his label for the force inside our head that keeps us from Shipping. It’s the voice that tells us we’re not good enough, not smart enough, too busy or uninspired. The Resistance will keep you from creating and then beat you down for not showing up.

“If you take Resistance at its word, you deserve everything you get.” -Steven Pressfield

So if Resistance says I shouldn’t Ship, showing up is the only way to counteract the lie.

To Ship consistently, an artist has to show up consistently. It’s as simple as that.

Pressfield’s got another quote I drum up when I hear the voice creeping in:

“Resistance is always lying and always full of shit.” -Steven Pressfield