Yet another gem from Gary Vee.
It was something he said in passing, talking about business and social media – It’s either you are on the offensive, going out there and conquering ground, or you are on the defensive, pulling back, trying to protect the little that you have, making excuses for why you can’t win.
And that is really a statement about life isn’t it? There are two options, two main ways of existing. It is either you are on the offensive or you are on the defensive. You are either conquering or being conquered, by life, by the unfair conditions, by other players, by your excuses.
It is the difference between those who get what they want and those who don’t. It is the difference between the warriors and the slaves. To get what you want, you have to fight for what you want. You can sit around waiting for an opportunity or you can go right ahead and create opportunity. You can be proactive, pushing your agenda, or you can be reactive, being at the whims of everyone else.
Too many times, we wait around for something to happen to us. We wait for the opportunity to fall in our lap, for the situation to resolve itself. We live as victims of our own lives. But we have the potential to be so much more.
It starts with the shift in mentality.
You have to move from the defensive to the offensive.
The key to possessing this supreme power is to assume the active mode in dealing with your fears. This means entering the very arenas you normally shy away from: making the very hard decisions you have been avoiding, confronting the people who are playing power games with you, thinking of yourself and what you need instead of pleasing others, making yourself change the direction of your life even though such a change is the very thing you dread. – 50 Cent & Robert Greene (The 50thLaw)
Sometimes things do fall in our laps. Sometimes we do get lucky. But…
Hope is not a strategy. Luck is not a factor. Failure is not an option.
To be on the offensive means to be actively moving towards your goals. It means to do the work. It means making the product. It means building the platform. It means networking and connecting with the people. It means searching relentlessly for the job, and while doing so, doing everything you can to make a buck. If you can’t get the job, then you will be the job. It means being awake to the reality of the world and attacking it as it is.
To the warrior on the offensive, there is simply no excuse that will do. The problems are not problems, they are obstacles that will be removed, climbed over or dug under or chipped away. Either way, the only acceptable result is winning. You can let your problems stop you, or you can rise to be bigger than your problems. The choice is up to you.
They can take away your resources, they can take away your choices, they can frustrate you. But they cannot take your mind, or your will and resolve.
To be proactive, is to set a goal in mind, a vision, and act in direct relation to that. Steadily, consistently. It means to take initiative, by yourself, even when you are not prompted to. It means to start. It means to create. It means launching. It means drawing a line in the sand and planting your flag. It means claiming your territory.
It means being awake. It being keenly aware of opportunities. It means increasing the odds of your success with relentless effort. It means doing the things that will actually move the needle. It is going above and beyond the call of duty.
Not to say that you will succeed. You will make mistakes and you will fail. But you will correct them, and you will keep going.
Some mistakes will be made along the way, that is good. Because at least some decisions are being made along the way. And we’ll find the mistakes, and fix them. – Steve Jobs
Your efforts on the offensive will sometimes land you in hot water, you will run into brick walls and obstacles. You will push, and the world will push back. But if you keep on learning and pushing, soon the world will yield.
What’s the alternative?
Being on the defensive? Complaining about how hard things are? Being bitter about the way things are today and the state of the economy or the attention landscape? What good will that bring you except coddle your fragile ego?
There will be a time for being defensive. There is a time for everything under the sun. Sometimes you will be on the offensive, doing things and expanding your reach. Other times you will be on the defensive. But you can only defend when there is something to defend. Are you defending your empire, your home, the life you are creating or you defending your excuse?
The best defence is a good offense.
So, go on the offensive this week, and the week after that, and the week after that. Do something you have never done before. Take a bold step, put yourself out there, reach further than you have ever reached before. That is how you will get what you want.
What do you think about when you think of success? Something big right? Like buying that house or buying the car. Hitting that number in the account or starting that family. Maybe it is bagging that degree, or chilling on a yacht sipping mimosas. Perhaps you more inclined to having a successful career or business as your benchmark for success.
We work diligently towards the big moments, the time when all our work culminates in something tangible. We daydream of the championship moment, the winning second. We desire some pomp and ceremony, whether it is the celebratory party or the humble brag Instagram post.
And they are wonderful.
However, in between our beginnings and these moments of climax lie the long days and nights of work, of mis-steps, of dashed hopes, disappointments or just plain mundanity. We face the thankless work, and unexciting grind. In this vast swath of dirt, we also find some glittering gems, the small wins.
The big moments we crave, the ones that we look to and pin all our hopes on, they add up to a handful, a baker’s dozen at most compared to the vast ocean of the trickling sand of day to day life. And that is why we celebrate them so much. They are rare, they are hard won. They are huge, and they are wonderful, they come with the euphoric rush and make for incredibly Instagram-able moments.
But as soon as they come, they go. We rise high and then float back to earth and are off to the next thing.
But while we grind and work towards those moments, the process does come with some rewards. Cups of refreshing drink as we run the marathon if you will. Sometimes, success doesn’t look like pomp and celebration. Sometimes, success looks like progress.
It is in the slight differences between our ‘before’ and ‘after’ pics two months into consistently putting work at the gym. It is realizing you are now able to complete a task in half the time it used to take you. It is getting deeper into your craft and understanding it on an increasingly deeper level.
Success is not just the big moments, it is also the small wins. The ones we tend to discount because they are not marked with fireworks in the sky.
The small win encourages us. It lets us know that all the blood and sweat so far is not for naught. It reminds us to stay strong, it inspires us to take up more, and to tackle the areas we have slacked.
The small wins are worth paying attention to and celebrating, because life is not about the big break, it’s about the many tiny breaks that add up to something great over time.
Sometimes success even looks like failure.
Shekinah is now an award-winning artist, but she first burst into our collective consciousness when she came second place at Idols SA in 2012.
So, it’s not necessarily about the win or loss, it is about what you do with it. Sometimes failing can be the best thing, because it can have the seeds of your breakthrough. Many successful companies and products have their roots in failure. Twitter pivoted from a podcast subscription network called Odeo to what we know it as now. Tesla probably exists now from soil made fertile by Better Place’s failure.
Thomas Edison said that Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work. In the same way success doesn’t always look the way we think success should look. Our focus must remain on doing the things that count, maintaining the action that increases the odds that we will get what we want.
If there is one thing I’ve come to see over the years of working and living is that generally, things tend to take longer than you think and certainly longer than you’d like. From small things like the design jobs I work on, to the bigger long-term projects, they can seem to drag on and on, and then life gets in the way and you lose focus.
To remain focused and consistent in the face of a seemingly unending struggle is sometimes a herculean task. But it is one that must be handled if you will succeed. Because that is part of the dip, that long chasm between desire and fulfillment. It is a battle, it is war.
There is a quote I often mention to my friends, that ‘the work belongs to you, but the results belong to God’. It is an admonishment and an exhortation to focus on what you control.
You can’t control when certain things will happen. You can’t control when that deal will come through, or if it will come through. All you can focus on is doing everything that is within your power – preparing, poking holes in your strategy and fixing them, making your case stronger, improving your art, improving your marketing and persuasion. You just have to do all you can, patiently waiting for your turn, ready for the moment Lady Luck smiles on you.
But where does the line fall between being patient and wasting time? It is a tough one for sure. Your being patient with your situation might mean that you are not being proactive enough or doing things that will move the needle forward towards your aims. But sometimes the right and hardest thing to do is nothing. Sometimes all you must do is wait and let the situation resolve itself, let the weather pass, let the opportunity present itself. Other times you must take initiative.
Whatever we choose, whatever the right action to be taken, it is important to remain vigilant. Because if you lose sight of what you are trying to achieve, if you begin to drift, you will soon enough find yourself caught off course and unawares. Be patient but stay vigilant on the goal.
There is the parable in the bible about the bridesmaids and the oil. The entire party is waiting on the groom and he takes forever to arrive. But eventually he does, and when he does, half the party has burned through their oil and can’t light their lamps. The other half were vigilant and better prepared with extra oil and were able to continue with lit lamps into the celebration because they remained goal focused even in the midst of a severely delayed plan.
And that is a form of persistence, not merely of action, but a keen presence of mind.
What do you do when you are blocked? When you are stopped, and all you can do is wait? What do you do when you are forced to take a break? When even though it’s all you want to do, you just can’t move forward yet? Do you give up and lose steam, or do you lean in and use this gift anyway?
Ryan Holiday shares Robert Greene’s distinction between alive time and dead time. The difference between the two is what you do with it. What do you do with your waiting time? Are you passive, letting your skills atrophy? Do you lose your momentum, or do you find some use for the time you have? Do you keep studying and honing the skills? Do you keep learning? Do you keep preparing, do you stay sharp?
Gary Vaynerchuk has the mantra of ‘Macro Patience, Micro Speed’, it is an incredible encapsulation of a deep-rooted truth, that in the long run, things just take time, that’s why you have to take the wide view, the macro view. But in the day to day, you have to act, you have to hustle, you have to be vigilant. You have to stay hungry and motivated.
That is the dichotomy, the paradox. To make haste, but slowly. To do all you can do today, and this year, but knowing that your dream might take months, or years or decades. In all that, you must play the time, you must keep on working towards the goal. It is a long-term commitment to perpetually being excellent in the short term. It is not easy, but it is necessary if you will get what you want.
Here is the thing about life. You will fail. In the pursuit of what you want, you will fall many times. That is guaranteed. Fear it. Run from it. Failure comes all the same.
We are not perfect, no matter how much we may wish we were. We make mistakes, we drift off course, we betray ourselves. We fail in our actions and our inactions. In the heat of battle and the thick of the day-to-day, we grow weary, we lose strength, we begin to falter.
The initial euphoria of giving chase to our dream wears off, and all that remains is the tedium of the day to day, the dull thud of the process. Fear and doubt set in, and we find ourselves in a fog, lost in the woods of life.
Sometimes we give it a valiant effort. We do everything we can. We practice, we prepare, and we try. We hack and slash. But despite our best efforts, things just don’t go our way. Sometimes because we just weren’t good enough. Sometimes for no fault of our own. Sometimes, it feels like the universe conspires against us.
What do we do in those times? How do we respond to failure, to setbacks, to not getting our way? How do we respond to the inevitable fatigue that sets in during our quest for what we want? How do we stay strong? How do we endure?
How do we bounce back even stronger?
First we stop
“Sometimes it takes a good fall to know where we stand”
The first thing to do when you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging. We have to stop whatever we are doing. Stop thrashing about. Stop running the scripts and patterns in your mind. Stop and breathe. Admit you have failed. But know you are not a failure.
Stop regularly even before you get walloped by a big failure or setback. Failure often doesn’t just come in one fell swoop out of nowhere. The signs of impending failure are usually there if we know to look for them. The missed routine, the sloppy preparation, the work that keeps piling on to the point of overwhelm. They start off as benign and then quickly grow malignant.
If you stop regularly and pay attention, you can recognize that you are failing before things really break apart. Unfortunately, it usually takes a serious failure or hit to our ego for us to finally stop. But once it hits us, once we see that we have failed, it is time to take pause.
Then we re-evaluate
“If you learn from defeat, you haven’t really lost.” – Zig Ziglar
This part is crucial. It is no use to rush over our failure, eager to get to our next attempt, desperate for success. But failure invites us to reconsider our goals, our plans, and our strategies. Failure is an opportunity to learn.
Look around you, look at what you have done, look at what has happened. Mull it over and try and pinpoint the place where you went wrong. Try to tease out the trigger. Did you get overwhelmed? Did you fail to address bad habits? Did you not take the time to rest properly? Did you simply lack knowledge or fail to give your efforts the energy they need?
Diagnosing and carrying out post-mortems on our failures is an extremely vital leaning tool. It can help us be better prepared on our next attempt. It can help us update our strategies.
However, do not get stuck here. It is fairly easy to turn this exercise into a compulsion. Turning a situation in your mind over and over again and being paralyzed by your analysis. The purpose of the reflection is to help you learn, adjust and ultimately improve your odds for success.
Then we re-connect
“Failure isn’t so bad if it doesn’t attack the heart. Success is all right if it doesn’t go to the head.” – John C. Maxwell
Failure is never nice. It hurts, it disappoints. It causes us to begin to doubt ourselves and our journey. Have enough failure, and eventually you would quit. In the pit of our despair, we can choose to give in to the pressure and let go. Or we can forge our will to succeed and keep on trucking.
To make this decision, we must remind ourselves why this matters, why this is important, why we have chosen this journey. We have to reinforce our sense of mission, our commitment to the cause. What excites us about our vision? What do we truly want to create? What would we like to see happen in the world, in our world?
Are our actions still aligned with our values? Is this road you are on leading you to what you want? Can we rise to this challenge and seek to conquer it? Or should we pull back and take another route? Do we abandon this quest all together for a better one?
We have to get back to our why. We have to reconnect to our sense of vision, our ambition, and our desire for what we want. This is our north star, and our decisions and actions must stem from it.
Then we press on
Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Once we are reconnected with our dream and vision, we take up new energy. With our faith restored, and our souls refilled, we embark on our journey again. We are creative and productive again. We are pressing towards the goal.
If it is a goal worth pursuing, it will not be easy, but it will be a little bit easier because you have failed, and you have learned. Now you have the opportunity to do something different, to try again more creatively.
So, we work hard. We do what we know to do, while staying vigilant against the things we must avoid. Knowing that we will fail again, but we have the tools to bounce right back.
I have been thinking about this idea for a while, and some time last year, I shared it as a tweet. After it gained a bit of traction, I knew at some point down the line, I would want to unpack my thoughts properly on the concept in a blog post.
So, here it is.
As creatives, we know all about the craft. To be a creative worth your salt, you must know your stuff. We get that. So, we practice, we work, we do what we do best, which is the craft. And that is most times, the most pleasurable part of our lives, working on and honing the craft.
And that part is important. It is the price of entry. The craft gives us a seat at the table. The craft is the soul of the whole creative ordeal. It is the muse we pay homage to every time we create. The craft is our raison d’être.
But on the other side there is commerce. Because everything exists in context. We live in economic systems that we have to contend and deal with. We have to make a living, we have to take care of families, and we have to fund our art.
For some reason, over time, we have absorbed the romantic idea of the starving artist as the prevailing creative archetype. We are comfortable with the person who loves their craft so much, they devote themselves completely to it to the detriment of their material needs. They focus exclusively on the craft and as such, they are unable to succeed in the real world of commerce. We nod knowingly and sadly at stories like that of Van Gogh who died penniless.
So, it becomes a two-option choice between starving for your art or giving up on your art and embracing something more ‘respectable’ to earn a living. Is there a way to reconcile this dichotomy? Is there a way to respect commerce and thrive as an artist?
A quick glance around would suggest that it is at least possible.
In every field of human productivity, there is a wide distribution of gains. You can find people at opposite extremes of the spectrum. There are peasant plumbers and there are multi-millionaire plumbing company owners. Some musicians play small taverns and cafes, others play stadiums.
Same with actors, same with comedians, same with visual artists. One tailor makes clothes in the back of her house for her community, the other one makes clothes that adorn super models on the biggest runways of the world.
In the same way, there are many creatives over the ages who were actually very successful. There are many artists even today, who dominate their fields and reap disproportionate rewards.
How do they do it? How do they win? How does Jay Z win, how did Andy Warhol win? How did Michael Jackson win? How did Da Vinci win? How did George Lucas win?
In his Book, Real Artists Don’t Starve, Jeff Goins shares the story of the startling discovery of Michelangelo’s true net worth by Professor Rab Hatfield – an amount in excess of $47 million dollars in present day value. This goes against the perhaps popular perception that renaissance artists were of meager means simply beholden to their benefactors. Apparently, this wasn’t the case, they were forces in their own right.
With razor sharp instincts, Andy Warhol rose from obscurity and poverty to become the most successful and highly paid commercial illustrator in New York in the 50s and eventually a celebrity and icon synonymous with the Pop art movement in the 60s. Constantly blurring the line between art and commerce, Warhol once remarked that “making money is art and working is art, and good business is the best art.”
Sean Carter aka Jay Z has built a $800 million-dollar strong empire spanning entertainment, fashion and hospitality by systematically parlaying his art and creativity and business smarts from one height to another and one endeavor to another.
Scott Adams made a fortune off drawing Dilbert Cartoons. Zaha Hadid left more than £70 million from her illustrious career in design and architecture. George Lucas created not one but two wildly successful film franchises, amassing a $5,4 billion-dollar net worth along the way.
I could list example after example of creatives coining it. And sure, these are the outliers, the absolute best of the best, but what principles may we glean from studying these phenomena? What makes some artists win at that level while others struggle to make it.
What separates Cassper Nyovest from the struggling rapper recording in his bedroom studio right now?
If you work your craft because you enjoy it and engage with it for the sheer spiritual pleasure of it, then by all means do that. There are few things of greater value than the soul nourishment that comes from creative endeavor.
But if you want to succeed commercially in your craft, if you want to be able to live off your art, and build a legacy, you absolutely must understand the business of your craft.
So how do we bridge the gap between art and commerce? How do we break the myth of the starving artist?
There are some principles I can think of as a starting point:
Learn about business
Business is really not that hard. In its simplest form, it is about finding a need and fulfilling it. The nature of the need and the nature of the solution is what will determine how much value you create and how much you get paid. Understanding in even the most rudimentary ways how businesses work will help you structure what you do in such a way that you are better positioned to succeed. The more you learn, the more sophisticated you get, and the more you can do.
If you want to win, you have to start to wrap your head around business. This is an underrated aspect of being a successful craftsperson. It teaches you to understand your worth, defend that worth, target those who value that worth and provide immense value to them.
It teaches you to learn your audience, to have empathy for them, to get a sense of what they want, what they are interested in, and what they respond to.
Learn the business of your craft
Every craft has its own business environment. As a designer, there are many ways to play in the market. From print design to UX, from working in agencies or corporations, to freelancing and building companies, there are numerous ways to be a part of the value chain, and each one comes with its own possibilities. The more I understand the business environment, the more strategic I can be and the better I do.
Put the business of your craft under such scrutiny. Where is the money? Who makes the most of it in your field? Who are the rockstars? Who plays at that level? Who pays at that level? What are their needs? Should you focus on consumers directly, or should you interface with companies? What are the different niches in your craft? Could you focus on just one aspect? Can you combine your craft with another? Do future changes in your field open up new opportunities to be seized?
There are a million and one ways to look at your craft differently and come out ahead.
Rewrite the rules if need be
Sometimes, If you really know what you are doing and you have paid attention to the business of your craft, you can actually change the terms of the game.
In 1979, George Lucas invested $20 million of his own money to finance the production of his sequel, The Empire Strikes Backand used this investment as leverage to finesse a deal previously unheard of in Hollywood, participating in up to 77% of the profits of the film and owning almost all the rights to merchandising.
Jay Z already in the full swing of his career, used his appointment as president of Dej Jam as an opportunity to regain ownership of his music masters, eventually starting Roc Nation and in 2008 signing a record-breaking $150 million dollar 10-year touring deal with Live Nation. In 2017, his new deal was worth $200 million dollars.
The more you understand about business, the more creative you can be, and the more you can rake in the rewards.
Which brings us to the fourth principle.
Bring your craft to business
Creative work comes with unique advantages because they speak to real and archetypal needs of human beings. As artists we are afflicted with a unique perspective on the world which fuels our creativity. It is such creativity that can breed innovation even in business.
Is there a way your knowledge of drama and storytelling can help you revamp sales as we know it, and help you move product in a way that feels almost effortless? Is there a way your skills in design and problem-solving can help you develop new hit products or new ways of servicing customers?
There are many ways creative skills can become an asset in the business arena. It just takes a little imagination.
If we are to succeed not just in our art or our craft, but also in the economy and our lives as a whole, we must not only know the craft, we must also understand the commercial context in which our craft exists.
And as we grow in this knowledge, we have the chance of getting what we want. We have a better chance of living the life we choose, funding the art we really want to make and having a real impact we know we can.
(Or, how to think about strategy)
Trying to get things done and pursuing a long-term goal can be daunting. You are aiming at an eventuality that is still quite far off. You have a sense of where you are going but don’t know quite know how to get there.
You see the mountain top, the main goal you are trying to accomplish, but you are still far off. You have started by doing it badly, but that’s just step one of hundreds of steps to get there.
Is there a way of thinking, a way of acting, that allows the actions we take to build on each other, to gain momentum, and build into a giant snowball racing furiously to our destination?
I think there is, and it’s a combination of strategic thinking and aiming for the domino effect.
Usually people’s efforts are haphazard, they are busy tied up doing a thousand and one things, but none of it is proactive, they are simply reacting to their environment. They end up expending energy in numerous directions, and achieving relatively little, running and running but staying in the same place.
But imagine if you could reduce or at least hone your efforts so they all work together to provide better results faster, building on each other to move you to the new place you desire.
That is the idea of strategy. Of achieving superior results with the same level of activity but just better directed. This is essentialism, this is the one thing, this is make less, work more.
Good strategy takes a look at the facts as they are. What are you really trying to achieve, what are the real problems in your way, what can you tackle and solve, in what order do you tackle them and what cohesive set of actions will you take to get there?
The domino effect is illustrated in the book ‘The One Thing’. Gary talks about lining up your dominoes. Each domino is an action or a mini goal. You place your goals in the right order, knowing what the one thing that would make everything else easier or move you closer towards your goal. You line that one thing up so that doing it will knock down the next thing that would make everything easier or move you closer to your goal. And so on and so forth.
Overtime, domino hits domino, and you build momentum with the energy growing and transferring with each action and toppled target.
For this to work, you need to have a sense of the interconnectedness of things between where you are now and where you are going. And you have to respect the order in which you are doing them. If you tackle the wrong domino, you will have wasted effort and need to double back to fix it.
It is like the designer or client that so eager to jump into the aesthetic design of a product without tackling the domino of strategy – who is it for, what do they need, why should they care. Or the fitness chaser running around in the gym without sorting out her nutrition first. Or worse still, a builder crafting the most gorgeous building without setting a proper foundation first.
You must strive to tackle your dominoes in the right order. In that way, each step you take would improve your odds of success.
When you let your moves stack on each other, each action creates a result that becomes the seed of the next action. So, with my business for instance, taking the time out to clarify a service offering – brand, design, digital – makes it easier for me to communicate and sell services. Taking time to define work processes for each service, makes it easier for me to work and replicate the process with clients. The design process includes me making mockups and prepping the products to look a certain way, which makes it easier down the line to showcase work done on the website, which then act as case studies and feed into content, which then feeds to sales and more work and growth for the company.
In that way, each move is made to make the subsequent moves easier, and the results of each move serve as the beginning of the next move.
To accomplish this, you have to be able to hold a vision of a desired result or situation, and then hazard a guess, a hypothesis of the possible ways forward, and then track a path that will lead you eventually to said goal.
Making your moves stack on each other can be weird territory. When you start, you don’t know anything, you are exploring options and looking for something that resonates, that grips your attention. And then you find it, and you keep working on it, you start to garner some recognition, some attention. Your moves start to give you a position that you can leverage to the next thing.
Sometimes it is easy enough, you can track your path fairly clearly, you have a good enough idea of what is needed, and the conditions are stable. Sometimes it is much harder than that, because the fog is thick, and conditions are constantly changing. You may not be able to identify all the dominoes, but you can work to increase your odds of success.
This is where you have to be woke to what you are trying to achieve and look for opportunities to move closer to that. Sometimes, you need to side step and tackle things obliquely. Sometimes it might even mean slowing down on the thing that has gotten you here, so that you can invest in the thing that will take you there.
But keep this idea in mind, hold a long-term view of your vision, connect the dots backwards and let each action become a stepping stone, and each lesson another arrow in your quiver, your moves will build and propel you to your destiny.