Month: April 2011

Frrrrriday Rrrrroundup! #49

letters reading "shoot the freak" strung between two buildings

An end-of-weekly roundup collecting fffffive of the fffffoxiest things I fffffind stumbling around the web. More about the genesis here. Every dang Friday Round-Up here, you procrastinating slacker!

A useful (and very funny, and rather saucy) handbook for identifying idiots. [Facebook-ed]

How to fortify yourself against the marketing weasels trying to get into your pants. Er, wallet. [delicious-ed]

The Aid Contest of the Celebrity Exes. (Because sometimes, you can’t improve on a title.) [Google Reader-ed].

Making art is hard. Watching Austin Kleon talk about it is easy. [Stumbled, via Seth Godin]

xxx
c

Image by William Flavel via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Poetry Thursday: Narcissus and the World Wide Web

The Internet is full of shrimp
and Perry Mason
tonight.

When I woke up
it was wall-to-wall
awesome,
pulsing with possibilities for advancement
and intellectual growth
and emotional connection,
an endless road
there to take me anywhere I wanted,
anywhere in the world.

By noon,
I had turned it into
a moving sidewalk
between Terminals B and C,
some tedious ride
I’ve taken too many times,
with ads up one side
and mirrors down the other,
the better to get a good, long look
at the asshole who thought
she could outwit the Web.

But tomorrow is another day
like Scarlett said
on Netflix streaming.
Tomorrow I will bring that bitch
to her knees
just as soon as I check my email
and my stats
and a few select places
for mention of my name.

In the meantime,
let’s see what’s up with Della
and that stir-fry recipe…

xxx
c

Image by xJasonRogersx via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license. (And the full-sized, uncropped version is much better. You should take a look.)

What it takes to hew to you (Part 2)

leaf growing through a board fence

This piece builds on this one, which you may or may not want to read as well.

Once upon a time, when I was very much like I am today, only with a lot more income and a lot less happiness, I found myself shopping in a store that sold nothing but sexy ladies’ underwear.

Now, if you know me in even the most passing of ways, you know this is a very unusual thing, and if you’ve known me in the Biblical sense, you’re probably re-reading the above sentence to make sure it says what you think it said. For I am no more a lady of lingerie than I am a lady of pedicures, blender drinks or fancy jewelry. Not that I judge! To each her own, and more power to her. But I buy my panties plain, on the cheap and under duress. Any top/bottom color coordination happens strictly by accident, luck of the drawer, if you will, and most of it looks better off than on. Which, to my mind, anyway, is the main point of underwear vis-à-vis your vis-à-vis-type situations.

True to form, I was there at this sexy lingerie store under duress as well. My boss at the time, a chic and lovely woman whom I’m sure had no end of matching drawers in her own drawers, had extracted from me a promise: that while I was in Los Angeles on my next production gig, I would go to this particular lingerie store and buy myself some high-end undergarment of the completely superfluous variety. It had to be expensive, in other words, and it had to be sexy.

Half of the store was dripping with lace and the rest of it vibrated with the various colors of the rainbow. Promises or no promises, there were some depths to which I would not stoop, which pretty much left Sheer, Black and Clingy. I found some one-piece something or other that looked okay, sexy, even, I guess, given the right lighting and enough liquor. It cost $75 (I still remember!), it itched (the better, I supposed, for wishing oneself out of it) and served no actual, foundational purpose.

I tried it on at least fifty times, and wore it exactly three. Each time I felt not only stupid for having wasted $75 on a shitty piece of nylon but whatever the opposite of sexy is. And itchy. Off it went to Goodwill.

I am sure it made a terrific addition to some girl’s Slutty Olympic Swimmer costume that Halloween.

* * * * *

I was having coffee with The Chief Atheist while back, one of those occasional treats I look forward to with a genuine pleasure I would not have believed possible ten years ago when we were fresh out of the marriage. He is a sincere, smart and forthright fellow; also, he is hilarious. And for my part, I am fairly pleasant to be around now that I’m not a miserable wannabe stewing in her own hot soup of envy and denial.

At some point during the conversation, we were talking about the shapes our day-to-day lives had taken now that we were no longer together, and now that I was (finally) living alone. His, as always, is filled with lots of laughter and activity, always well-populated with friends, colleagues, or loved ones. Mine, by contrast, is filled mostly with quiet and work, punctuated by spikes of peopled activity, and dotted lightly with extremely low-key relaxation amongst one or two close friends. Excepting perhaps the financial freedom to have it all more so, neither one of us could be happier with the way things had turned out.

We had just about wrapped up the topic when he paused, smiled just a bit and said, “I never really got it while we were together, but I finally realized it recently: you weren’t kidding; you really did need more time alone than most people.”

He’s right, I really do.

* * * * *

The good news about the Internet is that it makes it really easy to get ideas; the bad news is that it makes it really easy to think you should be applying them to yourself, now!

The always-on, always-up nature of the Internet is great when you’re feeling low and need to get you some hot baby penguin action. It’s not so great when you’re feeling unmoored and adrift, in an in-between phase, unsure of what the next shore will look like, much less how to get there. This accounts for a lot of the business bipolar disorder you see on the web: constant overhauling of business models, flip-flopping of pricing, re-branding of websites, and of course, rampant copycatting of UI elements, visual identity and even language.

I’m not talking about evolution or emulation. Things can and should change, and we all learn by adopting and mimicking the styles of those we admire, all of us, even the geniuses (and if you don’t believe me, go rent the Scorsese documentary on Dylan. It’ll blow your mind.)

But if you’re doing things because you see other people doing them, beware. If you’re using things because so-and-so is, beware.1 Not only do you have no idea of why they’ve chosen do x, y, or z, you can’t even be sure it’s working for them. Or that it will for much longer. To borrow Seth Godin’s astute summing-up of the futility of emulation in this era of constant and rapid-fire change, “if you’re looking for a map…you’ve totally missed the point.” He was talking about business models, but it works for positioning, for identity, for personal trajectory as well. Today’s opportunity lies in uniqueness and novelty, in innovation and personal touch, and the quickest way to quash that is to lose the thread of yourself in the tangle of other people’s business.

Does this mean you should not surround yourself with people you admire? Read good things? Take in with an eye toward what works, what draws you in and delights you? Of course not. If anything, I would do more of it, and more broadly. As with food, so with brain food: the healthiest diets seem to be the most varied (provided you’re not just varying which drive-thru window you pull up to).

A good exercise for making sure you’re hewing to you is to be able to point to any element of your life and say why you chose it and why you love it. A sofa. A fragrance. A logo. An entrée. A cellphone. A lover. A project. A pair of jeans. A business partnership. A morning spent on Facebook. An evening spent with American Idol.

Even a blog post.

I wrote this one because I get challenged a lot for my business and marketing decisions, or the lack thereof.2 I can point to much of what looks crazy to the outside world and tell you why I do it my way. But there’s a distressing amount that I cannot explain with anything better than I don’t want to be like them. Or I hate that thing, over there. Or just I don’t wanna! You can’t make me!

Which, for a person who not only is into the whole self-actualization thing but who also hires herself out to help people sort out what’s working and what’s not, is not only hypocritical, but more than a little nutty.

On the other hand, who among us isn’t a work in progress?

* * * * *

Are you a philistine for not personally sweating each individual detail of your life? Hell, no. Neither am I, and I’ll wager I have a helluva lot more free time to muse about these things than you.

Could you benefit by thoughtful ongoing review of particular elements of your life, your work, your outward face, your inner workings? I cannot see how you couldn’t. The unexamined life, and all that.

If you don’t know who you are, start there. If you’ve got a pretty good handle on that, pick one aspect of your life (or your business, or your marketing) and start doing an inventory to see if things jibe.

Is this me or is this something I’m defaulting to? Is this something I want, or something I think someone else wants of me? Is this an outdated me, and am I okay with changing it?

It is not a speedy process; when you rush it, you end up with things like a $5000 website you hate in three months and want to completely change. Or a $75 onesie for whores.

Do not look to the left or the right. Look at yourself.

Chances are, that’s what that other guy you admire so much did…

xxx
c

1And of course, if you’re using things you dislike because you think you should, or you think it will get you there faster, just stop right now.

2A lack of a decision is always a decision. Think of it as passive-aggression against yourself, and see if that doesn’t move you to get off the dime and do something about something.

Image by k david clark via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Frrrrriday Rrrrroundup! #48

alissa walker & keith scharwath at the stecyk exhibit

An end-of-weekly roundup collecting fffffive of the fffffoxiest things I fffffind stumbling around the web. More about the genesis here. Every dang Friday Round-Up here, you procrastinating slacker!

Self-portraits in mixed media and drugs. [Facebook-ed]

A microeconomic look at the introversion-extraversion spectrum. [delicious-ed]

I suspect people only visit OKCupid for the charts the way our dads only read Playboy for the articles. [Google Reader-ed].

Speaking of OKC, if you want to know what makes a lady swoon, try “firm grasp of parliamentary procedure” and “dazzling ability to hold the floor for the side of right.” [YouTube-d]

xxx
c

Image by gelatobaby via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Book review: Do the Work

cover of steven pressfield's "do the work" and photo of the author

The good news is that you can change your life at any point, on any day, regardless of your age, health, financial status, technical ability or experience.

The bad news is you will have to continue to change it, you, pushing that c*cksucking boulder up that motherf*cking hill, every day of your life, regardless of your age, health, financial status, technical ability or experience.

Every day. No exceptions.

Because the way to change, to creating things that never before existed, to fixing things people didn’t realize were broken, to making anything, is not through daydreaming or wishing or fairy dust, but through work. Joyful, tedious, challenging, maddening, daily work.

Steven Pressfield’s newest book, Do the Work, is a sort of high-octane, super-condensed variation on his previous devotional for makers, The War of Art. It’s shorter and tighter and carries a greater sense of urgency, perhaps because Pressfield has weathered the daily battle of getting meaningful things done that much longer, but also perhaps because the change cycle has accelerated in the nine years since he introduced us to Resistance, that bane of all meaningful change.

Do the Work begins with a brief recap of Resistance, what it is, the many forms it takes, before diving into a step-by-step process of how to outsmart, outrun, and outmaneuver the bastard so that you can get your project out of idea form and into some real form. As Pressfield says up front, his language is that of the writer, creating drafts, shipping books, but the principles work for any type of serious endeavor, from the building of a world-changing widget to the mounting of a play to the recovery from illness. (I have no experience with widgets, but I’m a writer who’s brought a play from idea to stage and a patient who’s gone from bloody skeleton to robust health, so I can attest to the process being applicable across disciplines.)

The book as billed as a manifesto; it is, in that it clearly lays out a theory of life and a set of actions to take. It is a tactical field manual, brief but comprehensive, where The War of Art is more of a devotional: that book you keep nearby to dip into when things get bleak. Do the Work offers helpful tools for structuring your project: “start with the end” (i.e., getting clear on successful outcome as your first step); breaking your project into a three-act structure; getting the first iteration of your project out in its entirety however roughly and resisting the urge to refine, refine, refine as you go (my personal challenge).

Overall, it is a useful book full of specific tactics threaded through with wisdom and encouragement, most of it along the lines of “Resistance lurks everywhere, so watch out for his shady ass.” If I have a reservation with recommending it fully, it’s with the design of the book. There are many, many emphasized bits of text, not pull-quotes, but phrases or sentences writ in larger point sizes to underline (pun intended) a point. In one sense, this is good because it adds to the conversational tone of the book: it’s as if Uncle Steve is sitting there beside you, grabbing an arm for emphasis when he’s saying something you really, really shouldn’t miss. But the type design and layout falls short, and gets in the way of message delivery. You will have to work harder than you arguably should as a reader (at least, in the print version; I haven’t read the Kindle version yet).

I think the information is worth it, though. If you’ve not yet read The War of Art, I would even say to start here, with Do the Work. Because this is a book about starting, designed to help you start and see you through the thousand million starts you will have to undertake every day, until your project is done. And then, after a brief pause to acknowledge completion, to start the next project.

Which is something Steven Pressfield clearly does. He has taken the advice he got as a young(er) writer to heart, to start a new project the very next day after shipping the last. How else would he have a novel slated to come out in June and a nonfiction book to come out in October?

Read the book, but read it as you do your work.

Once again Team Pressfield has generously offered three books to give away to the right owners. Leave a comment below as to why one of them is you, and I’ll see about making that happen.

xxx
c

Disclosure! Links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive a modest affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: it helps keep this ship afloat. This particular book was furnished as a review copy, but furnishing a review copy does not guarantee a review. Curious? You can read my full book review policy here. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt’s excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.

Jacket art by Vincent van Gogh.  Author photo via Steven Pressfield.

What it takes to hew to you

car with stuffed animals glued to the outside of it

Back in my adhole days, I worked on an unusual account, writing ads for a unique product.

Not pretty unique or really unique or any other slovenly, modern crimes against a once-useful word, but unique, period: there were no other products like it. It was “automobile” when the only other choices were “horses” or “feet”; it was upper-case Kleenex before the name became the generic term for “disposable facial tissue.” It created a category and reigned as its sole entrant for a crazy number of years, considering its high margins and low barrier to entry.

I was brought on when this was changing. Not because I was some hotshot copywriter or had any affinity for the market (it was sports-centric, and I have always been, as The Chief Atheist liked to say, a non-athletic mug), but because I had a solid track record of making packaged goods sexy. Never met an incredibly dull product I couldn’t coax the sizzle from: cereal, deodorant, moribund shelf-stable dessert brands.

Plus, and this was at least as important as any so-called talent I had, I was user-friendly. The kind of copywriter you could take home to meet your brand manager.

* * * * *

My first sign that there might be trouble ahead was the laundry list of non-negotiables that had to be shoehorned into every ad. A dubious animated “demo” and an accompanying list of superlative claims that still lived safely in parity land. A tagline that made me die inside a little every time I had to type it. A goofy, no, seriously goofy, jingle. And I liked jingles.

But okay, it was a start. We would maybe not solve this in a fell swoop, but we would inch along, steadily raising their tolerance for the new and outré. I would earn trust and cred by delivering slightly better iterations, by remaining accessible and amenable throughout the endless rounds rounds of meetings, testing and production, even by learning something about sports so that I could discuss it like a non-nimrod. And when the time came, I would be poised to deliver the work this formerly unique, still unusual product truly deserved, in spite of itself.

The time, however, never came. Not in four years of working my ass off on that product.

It almost came. For brief and shining moments here and there, within the commercials themselves, even, it looked like it came. But if it had been the 17-year-old male that we were positioning it towards, it would have been walking around with the worst case of blue balls in the history of jacking off and balls.1

Why? Because what the protectors of this brand really wanted was to be “kind of” unique. Which, as we’ve established above, is un-possible. They wanted to stick their necks out with a guarantee that heads would not roll. They wanted exciting, breakthrough work that was familiar enough to be comfortable with. Award-winning work that did not make them in the least bit nervous.

And you can’t have those two things at once. Not in 1989. Not now. Not, period.

* * * * *

Believe it or not, this piece started out in my brain as a screed against modal windows.

You know, those things that pop up when you’re on a site, exhorting you to do something or other, usually to subscribe to the site’s feed, or to download something excellent and free NOW in exchange for an email address.

I hate modal windows.  I hate them almost as much as my friend Nathan does, and he really hates modal windows. We hate them because they are insulting, disruptive, and insistent, which is exactly why site owners use them. Well, they don’t use them because they’re insulting; they use them because of the disruptive/insistent part. It converts. I’ve talked to many of my fellow bloggers who use modal windows, and they all confirm that modal windows convert. (Interestingly, many will cop to disliking them as users in the same breath.)

So, could I increase my subscriber rate by adding a modal window? Most likely. Will I even try it? Unlikely. Not because I am right and all those people who are actually increasing their subscriber bases are wrong, but because I am me and I hate modal windows. Modal windows go against everything I believe in when it comes to good behavior online. They look like they are there to help the user, but really, they are there to help site owner. Me using modal windows makes me less me. For you? Maybe not. Maybe they make you more you. Maybe they are the Newest Sliced Bread you have been waiting for all of your Internet life, and to you I say “Mazel tov! Work the sh*t out of that modal window, my brother!”

But if I use them to get me somewhere faster, even if I get there, I lose. Even if I gain subscribers. Renown. Fleets of yachts and strings of polo ponies. Because a piece of me dies every time I vote against who I really am. I do not cease to be unique, but I trowel a layer of stucco over it.

And stucco, I think we can all agree, is not a thing you want to be troweled under.

* * * * *

For the past five or so years, possibly longer, my favorite quote has been this one from American opera singer Beverly Sills:

There is no shortcut to any place worth going.

It means there will always be distance, for which you may read “work” or “pain” or “doubt” or anything else you like, between you and what you really love. Will some pretty nice things fall in your lap? Of course. Or, well, we hope so. Treats are important! Nothing wrong with treats.

There is another quote that lodged in my brain fairly recently, though, by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado, and it’s pretty much the perfect companion piece to old Beverly’s:

Traveler, there is no path. Paths are made by walking.

No fast lane. No lane, period, and no finish line, it’s not a race. There’s just me and the road I create day by day, choice by choice. I can choose a thing that feels right and scary. I can choose a thing that feels awkward but safe. (And hey, I’m not a masochist: if it feels truly right and also pleasant, I’m gonna roll with that, too.)

In the course of all this walking, I’m even likely to take quite a few steps that feel very “me” in the moment but that in hindsight look like embarrassing missteps. Have you looked at your ’80s photos recently?

There’s a difference, though, between trying things on for size and doing things that don’t fit just because everyone else is. The first is life. The second, a slow, steady death.

If modal windows speak to you, for god’s sake, use modal windows. But if they don’t, and I confess, as a reasonably savvy user and longtime student of usability on the web, I truly hope they don’t, for the love of your very own self, please don’t.2

* * * * *

A final note, small but worth mentioning: hewing to yourself does not necessarily mean that the things you are hoping will happen will do so less quickly. On the contrary, they may happen faster.

Yes, the 10,000-hours rule holds (for anything with staying power), and yes, you do have to put yourself out there, but when someone really starts being herself, people tend to respond pretty quickly and word travels fast. It is intoxicating and alluring, what the lack of need can do. And really, when you are copy-catting around, that’s just your need showing.

Even if it doesn’t translate into the accelerated growth you’re hoping for, hewing to yourself is infinitely more sustainable. Not easier, but simpler.

And from the reports that have come back to me, infinitely more rewarding, in the real sense of the word.

xxx
c

1Actually, shortly after I left the business, I would argue that it finally came. It was not I that brought off this feat, but a wonderfully clever person who also happened to be a man, and one who did not particularly give a crap about solving problems within parameters, but just solving them. I wish I could have worked with him longer; he remains one of my favorite people I’ve ever met in advertising.

2I pause here to cede that there is a point at which an unwillingness to be obtrusive becomes just as hurtful to the user as the willingness to sock it to ’em and to hell with the cost. Like not clearly delineating where and how and for what one might be hired, for example, something I am taking pains to correct. I also confess that I’ve been woefully negligent about providing easy, front-page access to (1) my newsletter signup, (2) my resources for actors and (3) my articles on Crohn’s disease and the Specific Carbohydrate Diet. I defend #2 and 3 on the grounds that most people needing those pieces come straight to them via search. The newsletter thing I need to correct. I am officially on notice!

Image by Highway Patrol Images via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Frrrrriday Rrrrroundup! #47

hotel cabins against a blue sky

An end-of-weekly roundup collecting fffffive of the fffffoxiest things I fffffind stumbling around the web. More about the genesis here. Every dang Friday Round-Up here, you procrastinating slacker!

My favorite panel from SXSWi this year, how three (excellent) different writers approach writing, is finally available to listen to. John Gruber, one of the panelists, has helpfully provided a PDF of the slide deck on his site. [Facebook-ed]

When Alan Greenspan met Ayn Rand. [delicious-ed, via the urban sherpa]

I’ve had Mr. Rochester on the brain of late, but that’s only one reason I love this post from the always-wonderful Justine Musk. [Google Reader-ed]

A wonderful essay on why we insist on hating celebrities, using the Rebecca Black backlash as a jumping-off point. [Stumbled]

xxx
c

P.S. This was newsletter week, which is why posting was light. What? You’re not subscribed? It’s the non-suckiest newsletter around!

Image by bloggerskafe via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.