Archive for the 'Career' Category

What’s your default mode?

Monday, December 26th, 2016

Cards on the table: I’ve decided to make my default mode writing-for-publication as a means of discovery.

(Or maybe I should label that “Fair Warning!” for those of you who decide to follow me. ;)

Here’s a thing I’ve discovered about myself as a writer: Setting aside some private correspondence with friends, family, and clients, everything I write needs to be composed with an eye toward eventual publication. Even morning pages, journal entries, and the like can be reshaped into something that helps others along the way.

What I’ve been doing up until now includes lots of introspective scribbling—what I call “noodling”—that doesn’t help much. I mean, it can be useful in its way, but I find that I tend to circle around topics rather than working all the way through them. It’s an unproductive sort of navel-gazing. That’s not fruitful for me or for others. From where I sit, we need a lot of fruitful thinking captured in prose (and poetry, and scripts, and every other artistic form) that frees us from the traps of division we’ve caught ourselves in.

Writing for an audience also includes a solid dose of introspection for me, but framed in a way to connect it with others’ concerns. It takes me out of solipsism into something much more fruitful. It performs work.

The practical implications of this? More minutes per day spent writing (that number of minutes should be in the hundreds for me, every single day, yet often it’s in the tens), and more pieces published here, in other venues, and ultimately in the form of books. You should expect to see more essays, more stories, more poems, more tweets, and my first books in 2017.

Lots of people write; many people want to write; some people were meant to write. This is me staking out my turf as a member of that last category.

A mercenary appeal: If there’s something you want me to write for you, please don’t hesitate to let me know.

An artistic/political appeal: If there’s some topic you want me to pursue in my work because you think I’d do a good job with it, please let me know that, too.

Now, over to you:

  • What has your default mode been?
  • What should it be?

Writing for a Living

Friday, January 17th, 2014

writing master

If you’ve been tuned in for very long, you know that I plan to make my living writing books at some point. Meanwhile, there are the pesky details of helping keep my family in groceries and health insurance and whatnot. This month, though, I’ve made a major step on my path toward being a full-time book writer: I’ve transitioned out of my W-2 job (which I liked) and into full-time freelance and contract work. It’s going great so far, and I enjoy the mix of working with several different clients and editors.

What exactly am I doing? It echoes my “What do you write?” post from last month. Here’s the modified list of what’s taking up my time, in descending order of how much attention it’s getting:

1. Content marketing

I’ll slightly adapt what I wrote in that other post: This has been my bread and butter for years, and contracting in this vein is taking up most of my time right now. Over the years, I’ve written or edited everything from Web site copy to technical papers to sales decks. For three different employers, this has meshed with running their social media outlets as well. My particular niche is enterprise B2B technology content marketing. That means I’m good at learning how to talk about a new type of technology that is sold into big businesses, then translating that into all of the content that helps sell that technology. (If you’re not familiar with this use of the term, “enterprise” here means “sold to great big companies.”)

2. Blogging

Besides writing here, I am taking paid assignments to blog on technology, business, and other topics within my range of expertise. This builds on the blogging I’ve done for past employers and as a sideline. (Here’s a recent example from the Intuit QuickBase blog: “The Cure after Diagnosing a Bad Project Manager.”)

3. Article writing for periodicals

It’s been a few years since I’ve written magazine pieces; it’s possible I’ll publish more of them this year than ever before.

4. Short fiction

My piles of draftwork are slowly taking shape into finished stories. My goal for this year is to submit 30 pieces — a mix of literary and speculative fiction — for publication. (You can see some of my fiction sketches on this very blog.)

5. Long-form nonfiction

As with short fiction, I have reams of notes and draftwork on nonfiction topics. I’d like to have a finished book proposal and an agent by the middle of 2014.

6. Novels

It may be that any novels I finish drafting this year will only ever see the inside of my filing cabinet. That’s fine by me, but I shall finish novel manuscripts this year.

In all of this, I would be happy to benefit from your well-wishes and your practical advice. If you know someone who might pay me for anything that fits under headings 1 – 4, that would be even better.

Thanks for joining me on this adventure!

Image source.

In work as in weightlifting: compound movements first.

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

deadlift-determination

Serious weightlifters follow a fundamental principle: compound movements first.

A compound movement is one that exercises multiple muscle groups rather than just one. In the picture, for example, the woman is about to perform a deadlift, which works all of the muscles in the legs and hips, as well as many muscles in the trunk, back, shoulders, and arms. One easy way to tell whether a movement is compound is that there will be a range of motion for multiple joints — in this case, the knees and the hips.

The distinction is with a simple movement, which calls primarily on one muscle and requires a range of motion through just one joint. A dumbbell curl would be an example of this. Ignoring the slight effort of the muscles in the hand and the shoulder to grip and stabilize the weight, the lion’s share of the work is done by the bicep, and the only range of motion is in the elbow.

Why do you do these exercises — deadlifts, squats, dips, chinups, bench presses, etc. — first? Because they work the most muscles, they work them the heaviest, and they work them all at once. If you really want to be strong, you do the lifts that allow you to move the most weight while requiring you to use more of your muscles at the same time. Only after you’ve done those big lifts do you move on to the lighter simple movements that allow you to focus on particular muscles. That’s how you get the strongest.

What’s the analogy to work?

It’s very easy to focus on the “simple movements” of the working day: cleaning up your inbox, reading headlines, making to-do lists, knocking off the little items on your list. I fall into that pattern myself, and in fact it can be a good way to warm up for the day. But it doesn’t get the Big Work done.

Think about your working life and your career for a minute. What are your equivalents of the squat, deadlift, and bench press? Maybe it’s the work that helps you close a significant deal, or develop a new product. Probably it will relate to some complex project — your research, your health, the book you’re writing. Ponder this for a minute, and maybe jot down a few things that occur to you.

If my analogy holds, these compound movements of your working life will call on you to:

  • Use multiple big skills at once. Thus my blazing-fast use of keystrokes to file Gmail into the correct folders doesn’t count. These need to be things like “product design,” “client communication,” “prospecting,” “storytelling,” or “project management.”
  • Deliver bigger chunks of value. Filing my email promptly creates value for me, because it helps keep my life less cluttered. But it generates bigger value by . . . no, actually, it doesn’t. It’s a beneficial thing to do — like a bicep curl — but it’s not worth nearly as much as finishing a writing project, pitching an article idea to an editor, or doing the research needed to write a book.
  • Perform joined-up thinking. Think about the examples in the previous two bullet points. Each of them requires bridging various ideas. In the software world, product design involves many things — researching user needs, designing interfaces, clarifying engineering requirements, and so on. Similarly, pitching an editor on an idea requires the writer to research the publication, come up with a well-formed and relevant idea, and then adhere to written and unwritten professional protocols for how to broach the subject and follow up. You get the idea: you don’t get to coast on one set of skills, or focus only on the fun parts. You have to follow through on the totality of the project.

Does this analogy work for you? What are the best examples of compound movements in your working world? And what can you do differently to make sure you focus on them first?

Image by Amber Karnes, used under a Creative Commons license.

What are you doing to stoke your ambition?

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

Lots of people make New Year’s resolutions, and of course most of them come to naught. We let ourselves get distracted by life, but more than that, our initial passion about the change wanes. The fire dies down.

What can we do to keep that fire stoked?

Some athletes — I’m thinking of Eddy Merckx, Tom Brady, and Michael Phelps — are famous for keeping chips on their shoulders at all times. Great entrepreneurs are the same way: Jeff Bezos has talked about the “divine discontent” that drives him to keep building Amazon. Their motivation stays high.

The key point here is that the motivation comes from a deep burning WHY inside of them. It’s not primarily about the technicalities of the sport or the business or whatever — it’s about passion.

I have big, big plans for this year. Not resolutions, exactly, because I don’t consider them to be at all in the same category as “floss every day” or “stop cursing” or the like. The things are going to happen. And when I start to slip on them, I go back to my sources of passion.

Some of those sources are petty, to be honest. Merckx could be petty about perceived slights, but it made him a better bicycle racer. I don’t dwell on these thoughts, but I will admit that I have a short list in my head labeled “I’ll show them.”

Some of them are a little fearful — leading me to work harder to stave off outcomes I don’t want. I think of the cautionary tales of people I know who have failed for want of ambition and smart, hard work.

The best ones are joyous, tied to big visions of how I want my life to be. Writing books, training hard, enjoying my loved ones, being a source of happiness for others.

This year, I’m honing my skill at going back to that well of motivation. When I start to flag in my work, I pause to rejuvenate that divine discontent, or to put the chip back onto my shoulder. It gets less accidental and more structured each day.

Does my approach make sense for you? What do you do to keep your ambition stoked?

Get a running start on 2014.

Thursday, December 26th, 2013

There’s an old saying — I first heard it from Will Smith, if memory serves — that if you stay ready, then you don’t need to get ready.

At the moment, I’m thinking about the contrast between that approach and the many people who will wait until New Year’s Day to launch into their resolutions. You know there are legions of people planning to write a book* in 2014 who are absolutely sure they’re going to start working on it in earnest — 300 words every day! — on January 1. But they’re not laying the groundwork now to support that resolution.

(* In place of “write a book,” insert “start a business,” “get in shape,” “make a career move,” or whatever suits your own life — and appropriately scares you.)

Get Rolling Now

Too many of us deny ourselves a running start on our projects. We dither, waste time with excess research, lose ourselves in the depths of perfectionism, and so on. Especially for creative people (and I’m including, for example, business entrepreneurs), the focus should be on whatever eases the process, yet we often seem to delay progress rather than speed it along.

Probably it ties back to classic psychological issues — fear of failure, fear of success, generalized anxiety, etc. But let’s not waste time teasing those out . . . since that kind of psychologizing tends to be another delay mechanism. Let’s commit, instead, to preaching the message of taking a running start.

Imagine yourself six months or a year or five years from now, when that 2014 resolution has turned into The Great American Novel, your own business, 80 fewer pounds of bodyfat, or whatever it is. Think about how you might share your story of success with someone else, starting with “In hindsight, I gave myself a running start by . . . “

Here are some suggestions for finishing that sentence:

  • . . . adapting a proposal template I found online. I didn’t know how to do a proposal and I was freaking out about it, but that made it much simpler.
  • . . . making a list of the 30 easiest things I could do to get the ball rolling on [Project X]. I just asked for pointers from some friends who had been down the same road, then made a list of all the things that made me think, “Oh, that would be easy enough.” It was a great jump-start for me.
  • . . . clearing out a nice, dedicated workspace for myself to get the work done.
  • . . . lining up a workout buddy and visiting the gym a week ahead of time to talk with the trainers, learn the equipment, and that kind of thing.
  • . . . getting rid of all the junk food in my house the day after Christmas. Just threw it all in a huge garbage bag and carried it out with the torn-up wrapping paper.
  • . . . pulling together all the notes I had made for my novel, organizing them, and re-reading everything. I was able to revise the outline even before New Year’s rolled around.

You get the idea: Jump the gun. Pull your thoughts together now. Start your outline, or expand it. Sketch out some things. Get your materials ready. Edge ahead.

What would you add to the list here? And what are YOU doing to give yourself a running start on 2014?

I will not be the bottleneck.

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

bottleneckThat’s my new mantra.

Yesterday one of my coworkers said, with a smile on his face, “I will never be the bottleneck.” He prides himself on working fast — and he doesn’t want the pressure of people waiting on him.

I get where he’s coming from, and I’ve been working hard in the same vein today.

When you’re committed to not being the bottleneck, you keep clearing things. You shorten your to-do list. You find anything that’s stuck and dislodge it — now, not later.

I’m a big fan of “master algorithms” that automatically imply other good habits. For me, “I will not be the bottleneck” invokes several other classic principles of good personal organization:

  • Track everything in one place. (If you’re going to avoid becoming the bottleneck, you can’t waste time keeping to-do’s in several places.)
  • Keep your inbox clear
  • Only handle it once.
  • No inventory.
  • . . .

So far, so good.

Are you a bottleneck sometimes? What do you do to keep that from happening?

Image source.

Goal #1: SFWA membership.

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

“Becoming a professional writer” is a little daunting. This is true even though I’ve been paid to write for many years now, and have a long list of professional writing credits to my name. The thing is, I’ve never published any fiction professionally — yet I intend to be a novelist.

(If you care to see some of the mini-fictions I’ve published on this blog, follow this link.)

New things, especially when they’re as risk-laden as publishing novels, can be scary if you tackle them all at once. For many people, these Big Projects are daunting enough that they never get started in earnest, much less see them through to fruition. Just think of all the people you know who would like to lose 50 pounds or pay off $50,000 in debt, but never create the necessary momentum.

To that end, I’m approaching my book-writing career in stepwise fashion. First up: becoming a member of the SFWA.

Finding a Convenient Milestone

I learned of the SFWA a few years ago via John Scalzi, whom I’ve met and whom I admire as a novelist, a blogger, and a person. John has served as SFWA president for a while now, and I like the direction the organization has taken under his leadership. (He’s rotating out of the presidency, but the observation still holds.)

While I’m sure I could go through my career without needing to be a member of any writers’ organization, this one seems like a good fit for me, and the membership requirements offer an excellent opportunity for setting an early milestone in my fiction-publishing career. Specifically, I need to publish three short stories in qualifying venues to join the SFWA. The main qualification is that the venues pay enough to meet the SFWA’s standard as proper professional venues, i.e., that they pay at least 5 cents per word.

Current tasks:

  1. Going through qualifying SFWA venues, noting terms of pay, preferred length of stories, and other relevant details for each venue.
  2. Going through my own draftwork to see what might fit best where, at least for a first round of submissions.
  3. Cranking ahead of draftwork to get the best stories ready for each venue.
  4. Submitting, revising, and re-submitting until I succeed.

Thoughts?

I Will Dance for Your Entertainment

Sunday, June 2nd, 2013

I intend to write books for a living. Perhaps you know this?

Here’s the rub: I haven’t been acting like it. I write all the time — columns and e-mails and project plans and tweets and whatnot — but I’ve been more than haphazard with my approach to writing serious prose.

Maybe the problem relates directly to “seriousness.” On the one hand, you can get overwhelmed by thoughts like, “Oh, shit — this is the real grown-up stuff. I’ll actually need to submit this. I’m not ready.” So the seriousness of it scares you off. On the other hand, you don’t actually commit to the work required to bring a particular project within reach. So you fail to commit seriously.

I’m not beating up on myself. Life has been hectic. I have a day job that I like — one that’s required to pay the bills — and to do it at all well requires an enormous outlay of time and energy. I have a family. I have friendships to maintain. I want to keep myself fit. And so on with the realities of a life full of obligations.

Yet I’ve allowed those obligations to shoulder aside my writing time, and to inhibit my growth as a writer. Which is a correctable mistake — one that I’m correcting now.

Here’s what I’m telling you: I shall endeavor to entertain you with my prose, as much as you’re willing to imbibe, and I shall continue until I am no longer physically able to write. I’m hoping that means 70 books or so.

Shall we dance?

Image source.

Networking Doesn’t Have to Be Hard: Cultivating Interesting Friends and Conversations

Monday, January 28th, 2013

When I asked my friends for their views on professional networking, Rachel summed up my whole philosophy in a nutshell:

“Don’t think of it as networking . . . think of it as finding friends and having interesting conversations.”

ABSOLUTELY. Many people are inherently interesting, especially when you get them talking about their own areas of focus, whether that means gluten-free cooking, coaching Little League, or enterprise sales. If you have so much as a slight interest in any of these things — or, even better, more than one of them — then you automatically have something to talk about.

Getting away from the Consumption Model of Networking

Bear with me for a moment as I put on my Cultural Critic hat. (Read: “Here comes a wee rant.”) We live in a society that promotes consumerism everywhere you look. We’re all encouraged by endless advertising, marketing, and unconscious peer pressure to connect with the brands and products and mass media that we consume.

If you do networking the smarmy way, it’s more of the same narcissism: How can I get what I want? Back-slapping, mercenary networking is in some ways about consuming the assets of others (their business contacts, the jobs they can give us, their money) for our own aggrandizement.

Contrast this to the kind of networking that Rachel talked about. In my view, that model includes things like:

  • Making real human connections with interesting people.
  • Being open to new ideas.
  • Celebrating others’ achievements.
  • Offering to help.

That’s a much, much better way to be, right?

Living Your Life as a Salon

If you’re willing to make it so, networking can turn your life into a sort of literary or artistic salon. In this context, networking is about finding and exploring the most compelling ideas and passions of interesting people.

Yes of course it’s to mutual benefit — just like all the members of a literary salon can walk away smiling from an evening spent together, enjoying the stimulation that comes with laughter, camaraderie, and new ideas. That’s what you’re going for.

Even better, the capabilities of today’s social media mean that you can do this at your own pace, and you can do it from anywhere.

  • Waiting at the mechanic’s shop for your car to be ready? You can read an intriguing article and share it with your friends.
  • Stuck in a backwoods location where no one shares your interests? You can find your birds of a feather online.
  • Stuck in a stodgy company that isn’t open to new ideas? You can learn and share with some of the most innovative practitioners in your field through blogs, Facebook, and Twitter.

Social media is particularly a boon to introverts. I’ve met some of the brightest, funniest, most engaging people online — only to have them tell me later that they’re extremely shy in face-to-face settings. Twitter and Tumblr and other outlets give them the chance to take that extra moment or two so that they can collect their thoughts and share them in a format that they can control. This means that anyone can participate in a salon-style life — without needing to be a wit like Oscar Wilde or a raconteur like Christopher Hitchens.

Good networking means connecting with interesting people, finding out more about them, helping them out, and maybe collaborating with them.

What do you think about this approach to networking?

Image source.

Networking Doesn’t Have to Be Hard: Changing Your Expectations

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

When I asked my Facebook friends what I should write about in this series — or their own key advice for networking — my friend Marcel replied:

Part of it is time and the other is putting yourself out there without expecting anything in return.

These are two great topics to address, and I want to talk about both of them in terms of mindset or expectations.

Putting in the Time

A lot of people, in my experience, regard networking as somehow separate from their other personal and professional activities. True, you DO have to put in time for networking to be effective — but it’s not an outrigger activity. It really should be woven into the rest of what you do.

Think of this way: if you’re a working professional, most of your waking hours and much of your human interaction unfolds in a professional context. Even if you work from a home office or a series of hotel rooms, your mind spends lots and lots of time in working mode.

From a personal perspective, it would be a shame if you didn’t cultivate and harvest enjoyable interactions and friendships from all that time spent. From a professional perspective, it would be a shame if you put in all that hard work . . . but your personal contacts and their friends didn’t know enough about you to appreciate your abilities and achievements.

Networking is really nothing more complicated than cementing the human relationships that accompany your professional life. And that’s worth your time.

For this post, I’ll leave that at the philosophical level. In later posts we can dig into more of the ways that you can fold networking into your ordinary daily activities: cleaning out your inbox, reading things online, attending business meetings, and on and on.

No Quid pro Quo

Marcel has it exactly right when he talks about “putting yourself out there without expecting anything in return.”

This cannot be overemphasized: Networking isn’t about keeping score.

Uber-networker Keith Ferrazzi emphasizes this in his book Never Eat Alone — and in all of his writing about networking. You’re trying to connect with people, help them out, find areas of common interest, and invest your life and theirs with more meaning. It’s not a point-scoring contest.

Now, if someone goes full narcissist on you — always taking and never giving — sure, give them a wider berth. And you don’t have to get buddy-buddy with every cordial person who comes along. But that’s the same whether we’re talking about a college friend, a romantic partner, a colleague, or the other parents who split carpooling duty with you. In other words, it’s common sense for dealing with human nature.

In professional networking, one of the best things you can do is lead with curiosity about the other person — or even an offer to help. Examples:

  • “Hey, Marcel — how’s it going? What’s keeping you busy these days?”
  • “Great to see you briefly at the school the other night, Alicia. Tell me more about your new role — sounds like you’re running the show over there now!”
  • “Thanks for the shout-out on Twitter, Bryan. I see from your LinkedIn profile that you’re between jobs. Anyone I could introduce you to? Or how else can I help?”

Easy-peasy. You’re starting and nurturing conversations with friends, right? No need to make it more complicated than that — or to keep score on who owes a favor to whom.

Does this approach work for you? What would you add?