Patrick E. McLean : Just what it says on the tin.

The Curse (or Charm) of “What Do I Do Now?”

I’m going to blog everyday for a while. For two reasons:

  1. I’m trying to figure some things out, and writing is a very good way to do that.
  2. I know a lot of smart, kind and generous people. And if I do this in public, while it might be a little embarrassing, they will be able help.

In many ways, I lead a charmed life. And I don’t want anything that follows to take away from that sentiment. Make no mistake, I am dissatisfied, but I am constructively dissatisfied; consumed by a the desire to play a bigger, better game rather than a vulgar lust for more.

The thing is there might not be that much difference between a charm and a curse. Both work by means of magic. Both change your life forever. And both, I suspect, come with hidden costs. A charm might only be a curse that hasn’t screwed you yet. Just ask Achilles about his heel. Or Odysseus how helpful his cunning was after he blinded the Cyclops and incurred the wrath of Poseidon and couldn’t go home for ten years. Everything has it’s flip side.

Take, for example, self-employment. When you work for yourself, you can take off all the time you want. You just don’t get paid for not working. You don’t have a limiting job description. But, everything is theoretically your job. And you don’t always know if you are doing a good job, or what you should be working on.

I call this the curse of “What do I do now?”

Now I have made this independent life work — and work pretty well — for the majority of my career. But lately, well, there’s some re-evaluation going on. I’m rolling over into the second act of my life, and I’ve had the most profoundly strange experience. I realized, not only do I have the usual anxiety about what to do, but I also don’t know what I do. It’s downright bizarre.

In one sense, I have a perfect idea and record of what I do. I write some fiction, and I do projects for clients. These center around communication and strategy. But really, my clients have a problem and I fix it. That’s really it. I even have a pretty detailed record of exactly what I done that goes back for years, but, I still can’t explain what I do very well. This is even more embarrassing because a good part of what I do is explain what companies to their customers. As the saying goes, the Cobbler’s kids always need shoes.

Until very recently, being able to explain what hasn’t really been a problem. There’s work. I do it and money comes in. A bumblebee has no explanation for how it can fly, but it just bumbles through anyway. My wife got upset with me once (well, more than once, but let’s limit the discussion to this particular time, shall we?) and exclaimed, “Work just falls into your lap.” It does this because when you do a good job for one person, they tell other people. Which leads to the level of organic, non-strategic growth, I have enjoyed for years.

I would say that everyone should be so lucky, but there’s a lot of it’s that not luck. As Neil Gaiman observed in his tremendous, tremendous, tremendous commencement address to the University of the Arts (Philadelphia), you only need to do two out of three things to have a successful freelance career:

  1. Be a pleasure to work with.
  2. Do good work.
    3. Hit the deadline.

Most of the time, I do all three. I can’t remember the last deadline I missed.

But the problem facing me now is, I’m trying to move from ‘organic to non-strategic’, to ‘purposeful and vigorous.’ And to do that, I need to:

  1. think deeply about what I offer and am trying to build
  2. be able to communicate it quickly and effectively to other people.

My goal is to get to the thing I do best, that is uniquely me, that only I can do in the way that I do it. To move from being good, or even exceptional, to being singular.

You may notice that nowhere in here have I made a distinction between the branding work I do, and the novels I write. I’ll deal with this balancing act in more detail later, but the curious thing is, I am faced with the same struggle in both domains.

What do I do now? It’s a first-world problem for sure. And I’m glad to have it. But just because something is a first-world problem doesn’t actually mean it’s not a problem.

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