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Do You Deserve More Success?

By | reinvention, writing | No Comments

Let me preface what comes next by saying that, by any objective measure, I am a successful author. I have an audience. I sell books. I sell a lot more books than the average author sells.

It’s not enough to make a living, but there are names for the kinds of people who just write books for the money. And none of them are nice. There’s a lot of truth in the saying, “is it’s not possible to make a living writing, it’s only possible to make a killing.” Publisher’s Weekly reported that the average non-fiction book sold 250 copies a year. Fiction has to be less. I moved 3,000 of the Merchant Adventurer in a day. (Bookbub!) And while we all lust for more success, I am immensely grateful for what I have and where I am.

There is a quote from a play by Joseph Addison that has stuck with me. I picked it up from the book 1776 by David McCullough. It was a line that people like Jefferson, Washington, Adams and Franklin quoted to each other a lot in letters.

‘Tis not in mortals to command success, But we’ll do more, Sempronius,—We’ll deserve it.

It’s a lovely, stoic sentiment. And one well-suited to the lunacy of attempting to steal a country from the most powerful nation the Earth had ever known. And it begs the question, do I deserve more any success than I have?

To be totally honest, I think not. I can see stupid mistakes. I can see laziness (who can look back and say the could not have done more?) and distraction., I can also see someone who has not become an asshole Dad and husband in pursuit of his goals. But more than that, I can see ways that I have worked too hard in the wrong direction.

No shit, I think I have written too many books and too few outlines.

One must be driven to write a first book. And if had known how hard it would be to write the first one, I never would have written a second. But having made it through the first one — and damn if that didn’t take long enough. I started noodling ideas for stories in 1995. How to Succeed in Evil went live on Kindle in 2012. I am a tough opponent. — the next was easier.

With everything that I have written so far, there has been a mania. A fury. A feeling that demons were chasing me and I needed to write very fast. That I was already so far behind that — anyway, you get the idea. So rather than figuring out the story, I jumped right in and got lost. Or stuck. Or blocked.

This is not a pantser v. plotter discussion. Both ways obviously work. But if you rush or your are too nervous, nothing works very well. When you come to problem in a story you have to stop and think. And, upon reflection, I could have done that better and faster.

So the prescription for this, for me, is to write more waaaaay more outlines. Not quick, dashed out things, but really good plans for books. Make sure the conflict and the resolution is right. I can flesh out characters. I can craft witty lines. I can change the whole thing on the fly. But, right now, it feels that cranking out story architecture will help me get better and write faster in my increasingly limited time.

In one sense deserving more success is either writing better books, or writing more of them. I think I can get a little bit faster and a whole lot better. Better is what drives me anyway. But, in another sense, I think Guillermo del Toro was right when he said,

“Success is fucking up on your own terms.”

I certainly get to enjoy the luxury of doing that.

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Don’t Hire an Army When You Should Learn How to Fight

By | case study, reinvention | No Comments

This principle applies to more than far branding, but the way to say it in that domain is — A big company might not need a big agency. I’m they’ve already got a crapload of people. What they need is a better and more completely implemented brand.

I have long harbored this rather dangerous line of thinking. Dangerous, at the very least, for the advermarketing industrial complex in which I have worked for most of my career. It started for me with a broken Volkswagen window.

I owned a Volkswagen Jetta when Volkswagen’s ad campaign was particularly great. It was focused on an escape from a stylized blue-green hued world of corporate bullshit. Yeah, escape from the man! Buy a Volkswagen! Everything will be cool and better.

Except for the fact that Volkswagen had a design problem with the door windows. They would just randomly break and fall into the door. Like in the middle of a rainstorm. This flaw was well-documented but there was no recall. Even worse, the replacement window lift WAS EXACTLY the same. So you the window could break, you could pay $600 to get it fixed, drive off the lot and the window would immediately break again. (Especially if it was raining)

And even worse for the brand, the only place you could get the replacement part was a Volkswagen dealership. Thus connecting the wrong of all of this firmly with the VW. I have never seen a more acrimonious place, than the service department of the VW dealership I went to get my window fixed.

So sales and marketing literally climbed mountain to get someone to buy the car and the actual delivery of the product all but guarantees that a customer has been lost for life. Maddening. Heartbreaking. Terrible. Sales go down, agency gets fired, marketing director gets fired, sales guys get fired and it’s none of their fault.

And how much more so now?

It used to be that the only way to get a message out was advertising and PR. But now, everybody is their own media outlet and, even if they are a complete idiot, they are a trusted advisor to at least the fools they are friends with on Facebook. Which means, an effective brand must be a brand all the way to the core. You can’t hire someone else to be you.

My favorite, and more general application of this principle is from the turning point of the Peloponnesian War (420 B.C.) Athens decides they want to use their ships to seize the island of Sicily and make it a colony, including the city of Syracuse. Needless to say the Syracuseans aren’t happy about this. Unless they get help, they think, they are gonna get crushed. So they appeal to the Spartans. “Athens is your enemy,” they say, “Send and army to save us!”

The Spartans agree to help. But, instead of an army, they send one guy. A general named Gylippus. He organizes and trains the Syracuseans. They fight and hand the Athenians a crushing defeat, the turning point of the war, making the Syracusean campaign the very model for Vietnam War. The upshot, the Spartans explain, is that if they saved them, they would either be a Spartan colony, or forever need their aid. But by helping to make Syracuse a city that could stand on its own, they had not only saved a friend, they had created a worthy ally that they might call upon in times of need.

In my work, I try to be more Gylippus than Ogilvy. And making the companies that I work with better at working with their own brand has really paid off for me and them.

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What do you believe about work?

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This is an easy one for me to answer. I wrote a book on it. And I got to do it for a client. It was a strange, frustrating and wonderful project. An outdoor advertising company wanted to do a “Mission Vision Values” project. They said they wanted to be a cool company, like Apple. But c’mon, their a frigging outdoor advertising company! And the language they used to describe a lot what they did was awful. Like using the word cool.

But the thing was, the company, and especially the president had a great deal of vision. This was 10+ years ago and lots of people still thought Radio and TV were hot shit for local market advertising. But not these guys. They knew that a sea change was coming and pretty soon, outdoor — and spectacular outdoor — was going to be the most powerful way to reach a locality. You can cut your cable, you can get satellite radio, but you can’t even run away from outdoor because it’s along any route you might use to flee.

But this “Mission Vision Values” thing was awful. Two other firms — big design firms — had gone down in flames on this. And it was just me. We butted head something fierce, but I wouldn’t give it up.

So I got so sick and tired I said, I’m going to give it one last draft, then I’m done. And I sat down and wrote pretty much what I believed to be true about work. And that wound up being the spine of the thing.

It was simply designed and letterpress printed on thick paper bound together with old billboard vinyl, so you could see who was and wasn’t reading it in the organization. The more you turned the pages, the whiter the cover would turn. What’s below is the interior of the book.

(Oh, and after it went to press, I realized that Plato didn’t say that. It was Confucius. But nobody noticed. Shhhh)

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How Are You Going to Do It With Average Days?

By | reinvention | 3 Comments

You and I have both done extraordinary things. But the extraordinary is not predictable and not repeatable. By definition, most days everyone’s performance is just, well, average. In a statistical terms, all you can do is raise your average and lower your standard deviation. What’s amazing about great athletes is that all they are trying to do is do what they do in practice. A pro says, “If I can just go out there and play my game, I’m gonna win.” An amateur says, “If I could just play like somebody else.”

So maybe this questions really is, “How do I raise my average performance to a very high level?” or maybe it is, “How do I chunk my tasks so on any one day, I don’t ever need to pull off something miraculous.”

Or another way to look at it. Every day, I drop my kid off at daycare. And every day, who ever is sitting behind the desk says, “Have a great day!” I don’t know if this is a cultural thing there, or it’s part of the franchise playbook or what. But every time I walk out, somebody says, “Have a great day!”

So one day, I turned around and said, “Really? You think I need that kind of pressure. Can’t I just have a day? An ordinary, phone it in kind of day?” It got a good laugh. But let’s think about the franchise admonition — Have a Great Day!.

There are plenty of inducements for us to give it our all. And I think that’s pretty stupid in a professional context. To give it your all means that you are working at the very limits of your comprehension, ability and stamina. It can certainly mean that you have never really done it before (at this level) and you’re not sure how it will turn out.

This is great for art. But would you hire a guy who has only framed houses to build your custom cabinets? Do you want a transplant surgeon who’s not too sure about this whole kidney-juggling thing? Of course not. I think a pro is someone who is constantly committed to learning, but they are already so good, that they only really use 50% of their ability on a regular basis. Sure, they push themselves, but not when the meter is running. When the meter is running, that’s when the practice pays off.

How do you do it with average days? It depends on the particular “it”, sure. But, I guess I’m coming to realize that what I have to figure it out. Because there’s simply no other way to build a life or a business or anything else. The days of exceptional performance and incredible luck are just too few and far between.

Five Fundamental Forms of Writing

By | reinvention, writing | No Comments

I’ve had this idea rolling around in my head for a while. Everything that has been written, from a ransom note to Shakespeare to a technical manual to the blog post can be broken down into just a few fundamental forms.

  1. Story
  2. Argument
  3. Instructions
  4. Dialog
  5. Summary

So, take Romeo and Juliet, or the latest episode of your favorite T.V. show. They both are stories told primarily with dialog. And they both start out with a summary. “Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,” and “Previously on…” are really the same thing.

Plato used the character of Socrates in dialog to make and explore philosophical arguments.

A parable or fable is an argument hidden in a story.

I am making an argument by providing examples, and providing summaries the forms by way of definition. In fact, all of my recent blog post are a special kind of argument with myself — an essay — which takes its name from the French verb essayer, which means “to try” or “to attempt”. I’m literally trying these arguments out. (The fact that I am now doing this in public means I’m either brave or foolish. Perhaps both.)

Story

Story form is hard to pin down. We are creatures of story and it’s the form by which we most easily understand things. Even when this understanding is in error. What are those flashes in the sky? Oh, that’s guy named Zeus. He gets angry and throws them.

I think it’s hard for us to understand story form for the same reason that fish have difficulty understanding water — we’re immersed in it. But, for my essay, I will use Pixar’s description.

Once upon a time there was a _______.

Every day she would ______.

Until one day _________ happened.

Because of that she _________.

And then __________.

Because of that _________.

Until finally, she _____________.

Argument

Argumentative theory is beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say, this is writing that makes a case and attempt to persuade or prove.

Instructions

Writing good instructions is very hard. Right now, I think this is the best way to structure instructions. Often time we skip the first step and it’s always a mistake. To explain a game you should start with the object, then talk about the rules. As explainers or instructors, it’s too easy to get lost in the minutia. But starting with the goal gives the reader or student a conceptual hook on which to hang all of the information that follows.

  1. End Goal
  2. Important Warnings
  3. Required Components
  4. Steps (1..n)

Dialog

A spoken interchange. But I think this category (maybe it needs a different name) also encompasses monologues. A character is having a chat with themselves or a party or entity that can’t respond.

“Who’s on first?”
“That’s right.”
“What’s the man’s name?”
“Who.”
“The man on first base!”
“Who.”
“The first baseman!”

Summary

Biggest thing first. Then supporting points.

Less like this:

For the last 150 years, the Galactic Empire has pushed the frontiers of weapons technology. Malicious will, plus a limitless Research and Development budget, has resulted in the construction a fully-functional weapon of planet destruction. Grimly named ‘The Death Star,’ this is the most significant strategic issue facing the Rebel Alliance. This paper will explore our options for dealing with this horrible new weapon of oppression.

More like this:

The Death Star is very big and very powerful, but it has a fatal flaw. It won’t be easy to destroy, but it is possible. This document will show you how. (many Bothans died to bring you this memo)

Continuing to Think

Try my scheme on for size and see if it fits. Can you think of any other forms I’ve missed.

One of my questions is, what about poetry? It’s gotta be a fool’s game to try to contain and reduce the rare power of great poetry, but I’ll go out an a limb and say that lot of it fits. It’s just that poetic expression, for me, is always pushing the limits of what meaning can be contained in words.

Here’s a bunch of very good, but very different poems to try on for size.

The Second Coming — Yeats
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird — Stevens
Hope is the Thing with Feathers — Dickinson
Epitaph on Tyrant — Auden
Jabberwocky — Carroll
Bluebird — Bukowski
Ready to Kill — Sandburg

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What Makes the World a Better Place?

By | economics, reinvention | No Comments

I think this question is important for anyone to answer if they want to perform at their best. I am sure that many people who I would call evil believed that they were making the world a better place. That’s not my point. My point is, if you are going to call upon your utmost efforts, you can’t just be angry. You must believe that you are doing right. The Russians have a saying that captures this, “A true warrior does not hate the enemy. He loves what is behind him more than he fears what is in front of him.”

Small Answer: Making a Payroll

My first answer was ‘Making a Payroll.’ And I still think that’s right. It’ just not big enough. Jobs make everything better. Anywhere things are a mess, young people don’t have a job. And where youth unemployment is rising, trouble is sure to follow. Sure, you can think that religion is the problem. (And in many ways it might be) But for sure people with a job and something to look forward aren’t easy to radicalize.

August Sander was a German photographer who photographed everything. And particularly, he went around taking portraits of everyday Germans at the end of the Weimar Republic. Here’s one of my favorites

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But in the Getty Museum in LA (I couldn’t find it online) there is a picture that perfectly explains to me how Hitler happened. It’s picture of a young man, maybe 22 in a heavy overcoat smoking a cigarette. You can see the fire in his eyes, the cockiness in the tilt of his head. He’s full of energy. And the title of the photo is “Unemployed 1932”. You come along and offer that kid a uniform, a gun, a car (all German infantry units were mechanized) and some money — shit, that kid will shoot anybody you want.

On a more positive note, most paychecks support a family. Families, even when they are bad, are better than no families. And as true as that is, I think it is contained within a bigger truth.

### Capital Formation

For me, capital is what really makes the world a better place. By capital, I don’t mean money. There are many ways that money, especially the kind of money and financial system we have now, can be destructive of capital. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The three broad categories of economic resources are Land, Labor and Capital. Land being not just the stuff you put a fence around, but all natural resources that were here before we started scratching and squabbling over them. Labor, in this context is not the thing that forms a union, but the productive work of people. And capital is productive resources that we create using Labor and Land.

So, to make that really simple. When Robinson Crusoe spends all day fishing in the surf with his hands and is able to catch one fish. Labor + Land = Supper. When he doesn’t he goes hungry. One day, he gets lucky and catches two fish. Now, he could take the next day off from fishing, but that would leave him in the same predicament that he was in. Instead, he defers his gratification for the next two days and makes a net. Now, he only has to fish for an hour to catch a fish. Capital has made his labor more productive.

There’s all kinds of capital — Physical capital (shovels, buildings, trucks, roads, power plants), Intellectual capital (language, math, laws, the germ theory of disease, programming languages) but any kind of resource that makes our efforts more productive now and in the future. In a real sense, this is what Newton meant when he said, “he stood on the shoulders of giants.” A lot of other people did a lot of work that enabled him (and Leibniz) to make the leaps they did.

The Real Haitian Tragedy

As my then girlfriend, now wife, and I watched scenes of the terrible earthquake in Haiti I had a realization. I asked this question: “What’s the real tragedy here?” My point was, that the earthquake wasn’t the tragedy. The earthquake revealed the tragedy. And in my mind, the real tragedy was that the country was so poor that they didn’t have bulldozers and backhoes and jaws of life. They didn’t have the infrastructure that say, California does. They didn’t have the capital to build more robust buildings or more hospitals

The reason for this is not merely that Haiti is and was poor. The reason that Haiti never formed much capital because a series of corrupt governments stole it all. You can see the same script in Africa. That’s why, after decades of financial aid, 1/4th of the countries in sub-saharan africa are actually poorer then they were in 1960.

Poverty is instead created by economic institutions that systematically block the incentives and opportunities of poor people to make things better for themselves, their neighbors and their country.

http://www.spectator.co.uk/2014/01/why-aid-fails/

There are so many different mechanisms by which this happens that it’s easy to get caught up in individual outrage. Apartheid, for example. But central bank jackassery, confiscatory laws and ill-defined property rights all very, very bad from a standpoint of capital formation.

Where only a few in power are allowed to form or have capital then the result is crushing, hopeless poverty. Where people can reap the rewards of saving and of starting businesses — basically do these things without having their property stolen from them — wealth and rising wage rates follow.

Yes, there are a lot of other things that I believe deeply in make the world a better place. Kindness, music, stories. But without fresh water, plumbing, antibiotics and declining infant mortality rate, those things aren’t worth much.

Okay, Nice Worldly Philosophy Ya Got There. How Does This Translate into Action?

It makes me more entrepreneurial in my thinking. In many ways, I’ve resisted that for much of my life. Sure, you can say that being an independent author is a entrepreneurial activity, but to a limited degree. And, even with this hard-nosed world-view, entertainment is a great thing. Life is hard. To give someone an enjoyment that gives them a respite from whatever troubles them — and that that respite might help them understand themselves or the world a little better — that’s noble work. So, I’m certainly not going to stop writing. But clarity on this point makes me more business-like in my business-thinking.

It also explains why I don’t enjoy working with really, really big companies. In my current stance (and as far as I can see into the future) there’s really not a way for me to make a dent. They usually have insulated themselves from the pain of change through regulatory protection. So any change in these organizations is driven by a brave band of rebels within a larger system. Also, these unwieldy brutes just don’t have the growth potential. GE isn’t going to have a good year and suddenly double in size. Growth in an economy doesn’t come from behemoths becoming behemother. It comes from the creative destruction of small companies finding a better way and doing a better job for clients and consumers than staid, old companies.

So it clarifies the clients that are good for me. Let’s say Charter/Time Warner cable wanted my analysis of their business. I’d be happy to work with them, but I view my primary jobs as a consultant to see clear and speak truth to power. I’d have to tell them that their primary product is the misery of their customers. And that they only way they have gotten away with raising prices (for an increasingly substandard service) faster than the rate of inflation is that they use laws to keep out competition.

Of course, they know all this. And, as distasteful as I find it, I can’t blame them. They are just doing what everybody does. Exploiting the situation they find themselves in as best they can.

There’s certainly things I could suggest or develop that, on the margin, would make parts of the business work better, but man, that whole gig is rotten. The pressure of responding to the consumer’s wants and desires has been removed. The promise of gain and the fear of bankruptcy no longer motivates. So, the gravity of the situation is that a monopolistic company will tend to become worse and worse and worse, even as a number of well-meaning, hard-working and entrepreneurial employees try to make it better.

So, yeah. While I can have understanding for everybody in that scenario (employees, shareholders, highly-compensated lobbyists and customers) I can’t not see the situation for what it is. Probably not a great client for me.