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.
Burnout is one of the most insidious and pernicious things that can happen to a creative. Most times, you don’t even see it coming. Especially if you are someone like me. Always eager to put body mind and soul on the line for the sake of design. Piling on work unscrupulously, systematically going against everything I have been writing about – essentialism and all that.
Sometimes I do it for the sheer masochistic pleasure, I like being busy, being caught up in many things at the same time. It does something for me. I also like being able to do the impossible, being able to pull rabbits out of hats. But at some point, it catches up. Usually around June, the halfway mark of the year. This is a pattern now, it’s not the first time I’ve complained about burn out in June. Maybe it being Gemini season also brings some complication to the table.
It starts with the irritation, the annoyance, the loss of perspective. For a time, I forget why I do what I do. I start to hate design. I start to lose interest in doing my best, I just want to do enough to get by. But in all that I still push, still winging, still pulling rabbits out of hats. Until I can’t. I’m talented, I’m experienced. I make it look easy, but it’s not.
Then the more serious symptoms show up. It gets harder and harder to get out of bed. It gets even harder staying awake. The smallest tasks drain all my energy. Doing the dishes, cleaning, making food, replying emails for 15 mins can send me back to bed for the rest of the day. I wake up and sit by my desk and look down into the creative well, and nothing. No spark of genius rises up to greet me. It is then I know I am utterly screwed. I have worked myself past the point of no return. There is nothing I can do but shut down.
So, shut down I have, I write this from an undisclosed location, stealing some time away from the world. For the first time in days, I feel a little bit clear. I reach down to the well, and there is something there, a bit of water, a bit of magical creative energy.
I broke my streak. I didn’t blog last week. I am hoping to be able to write two posts back to back this evening to make up for that. I really didn’t know what to write about last week. And I was exhausted and overwhelmed, it was hard to even marshal the strength to put two sentences together in any cohesive way.
I was going to write about the dip.
The Dip is a concept articulated by Seth Godin in his book by the same name. The Dip is that long chasm and space between the moment of excitement when you embark on a new journey/goal and the actual moment of fulfilment. It is easy to start, it is much harder to continue when you are smack in the middle and the initial rush has worn off and all you are left with is the freaking tedium of the grind.
The Dip is when you start off the year with the goal of blogging consistently, at least once a week for the whole year, and then you run into June feeling like you have run out of things to say.
There are two things to do in the dip. You can push through, or you can quit. And both are valid decisions. Winners know when to quit. In fact, winners are better at quitting than most people. The key is quitting the right things. The Dip provides you with the opportunity to really consider what you are doing and gauge its importance. Are you quitting because this thing is hard, or are you quitting because this thing was a mistake? And that is the kind of thing you have to wrestle with for yourself.
The Dip offers the opportunity to take a step back and catch our breath and gather our strength. The Dip is important because it separates the ‘men’ from the ‘boys’. It is the winnowing process that only leaves the truly committed and truly worthy standing. The Dip kills the competition and builds a moat of safety around what you do. If you use it well.
“Never quit something with great long-term potential just because you can’t deal with the stress of the moment” – Seth Godin (The Dip)
So, I’m in a Dip right now. I know I want to keep writing, I know I want to keep creating. I feel like I should shake things up a bit, change the format, maybe write about other things. For a while, I have been feeling a bit over the whole personal development thing. Not personal development as a whole, just my consumption of content has sort of slowed. I feel more concerned with doing and action over contemplation and philosophizing. But that’s how I feel today, I know that can easily swing right back tomorrow.
But I’m in my Dip. I am resting, I am reconnecting. I turn 30 in a few days. It is a sacred week. I’m doing some reflecting over the past decade and looking towards the next. It will come to me, I’ll figure out what to do.
There’s an amazing analogy I read yesterday over at Farnam Street. It’s so good, I’ll just paste it here verbatim.
Imagine sitting on a commuter train and your stop is near the end of the line. If you were certain that you were on the right track, you wouldn’t get off simply because the train stopped from time to time. You know that stops are part of the journey. You can learn a lot from them, and eventually the train will start moving again. Yet when it comes to the goals that are most important to us in life, we tend to jump tracks the second we stop perceiving forward momentum. We’re choosing the illusion of progress over what really matters.
It is okay to be still, it’s part of the process of moving forward. I feel like I’m in a stop phase right now. A lot of my actions and planning over the past 18 months lead to this month. I’m still, waiting for the verdict, knowing that from this point, everything will probably change, things will fall off, things will be added, but whatever happens, I look forward to it because I’m pointed in the right direction. It’s just a matter of being patient. Stops are just as valid as frantic motion. Savor being still.
(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.
Sometimes, the hardest thing to do is start.
Especially when you are trying to chase the dream, do something you have never done before, create something new. There is that initial feeling of ‘ugh, I don’t even know where to begin?’
Coupled with the weight of expectation, the desire for perfection or the right working conditions, it is very easy to never start. But there is a simple antidote to this problem of inertia.
Start by doing it badly.
The creative process works in exactly this way. The first strokes on the canvas, the first words on the page, the initial snippets of code…are always rough drafts. They are never perfect. But they are where we begin. It is very seldom that I am hit with a flash of inspiration and I’m able to sit down and crank the whole thing out in one sitting. It does happen, every once in a blue moon, but that’s usually not the case. And for something like that to happen, I am usually already in a primed state. I have been writing or creating for extended periods of time and I am in complete flow.
Instead, it is really just the act of just sitting in front of the blank screen, the empty canvas and feeling a bit intimidated. All you have to work with is the urge, the spark, the vague idea, the nebulous potential of what you want to create. And that is where you must start, somehow to make all of that concrete.
My blog posts begin as drafts in my notebook app. Just a few lines, or paragraphs if I’m lucky, outlining the core of what I want to say. It is rough, riddled with errors and sometimes incomplete and slightly incoherent. But it captures the core idea. It gives me something to work with. Instead of the blank page, now I have some words, I have some ideas, I have the pieces. Imperfect pieces sure, but nonetheless, something to work with, something to shape and manipulate, to cut out from or to add to. It is still a long way until it is finally done, but at least with the drafts, the process has begun.
If you want to get what you want, you must be able to get important things done. And to get important things done, you have to be able to start.
But ‘what if you fail?’ That is one great fear that can keep us from starting. It’s not just the pressure of perfection now, it is the fear of failure. Let go of that fear. You are definitely going to make mistakes. You are definitely going to fail first. Of course, you will, you don’t know what you are doing. You are not very good at this yet. But you are moving, you are not standing still. You are transforming your potential into actual reality. Your first steps are not great, but they offer learning opportunities that move you forward.
Allow yourself the luxury of doing things badly the first few times. You don’t have to be perfect. If you fail, it won’t be a train smash. Just start. There will plenty of time down the road to correct, refine and make it great.
Now, when you begin a project or a journey towards a goal, you start off with an ideal in mind, a mental picture of what you want to achieve. Let’s call it your ‘star’. As you move towards it, it also moves. Your initial vision or goal was based on your perception before you started. But, as you do things, you learn, you get feedback. Your actions create results, and in turn, they teach you, they change you. As you act and move, your vision evolves. Your star moves as you move towards it.
And I find that interesting. As you grow, your vision grows with you. You never know where this path will ultimately take you. So even your goal can be imperfect. You can have a target right now and hold an idea of where you are going, but you can’t really say for sure that you will end up there. You start off trying to make a couple home computers for the electronics store on the corner and then decades later, end up with one of the biggest brands in the world (Apple). Taking hold of a vision and following your star will lead you down some interesting roads and bring you to unimaginable destinations.
I personally have been chasing this dream of being a designer and building a studio for a while now. Fresh out of university years ago, I read Computer Arts Magazines a lot and decided I was going to have a design studio like the ones I saw in there. And into that dream was woven other ideas and things I want to do all revolving around being creative, making art, exploring ideas and creating interventions that provoke thought and instigate action.
From being a freelancer to working on teams, that dream has evolved over time to cover branding, and strategy and products and business. These things are revealed to me over time, only as I walk the path. The vision gets deeper, more layered, more defined, the same ultimately, but different at particular points in the journey.
And as I think back, I can trace my path through construction and architecture, to performance, to being drawn in by the conceptual and the digital, to loving graphic design and pursuing that and over time combining all these other ideas and interests into my present pursuit of branding, design and entrepreneurship.
The vision is a bit different now, but I would not have gotten to this point without following my star, even as I morphed and changed, my star has morphed and changed and moved.
So, it’s okay to start badly. With little skill and bad aim. Because, what is the alternative? Stand still? Do nothing? The time passes anyway. And if you are standing still, you are really moving backwards. That is not something you can afford.
So, think about the things you know you need to start. Whatever that might be – a new habit, a project, a business, a relationship, whatever endeavor. Start it. Start it badly. It is okay to suck at first but start.
However imperfectly, take that first step. Follow your star.
I’ve been watching a lot of Jordan Peterson videos over the past two weeks and this post was inspired by a video by the same name of one of his lectures. It is worth a watch.
Just over a year ago, I wrote a piece called ‘How to get important things done’ in which I gleaned and presented lessons and principles from relaunching my business site.
I had been previously frustrated by the fact that I always had these interesting ideas but never had the time or focus or discipline to work on them until they were finished and ready to ship. Eventually, I was able to break the cycle by working on and launching my business site in the midst of the general chaos of life and work. I have already reworked the design and content of said site, and there is a whole new version with new additions in the works.
That’s something I find interesting, as I learn more and understand more, the website has to shift and evolve over time to reflect that. So just after one iteration is done and published, the next one begins. But that is life, some things never finish, you just keep tinkering and making it better.
Over the past year, I have grown better at getting things done, in addition to the aforementioned iterations to the business site, I have revamped my personal brand and website, and that only took about a month compared to the 6 months it took me to do the business site. I have also built a framework on which hang multiple personal projects that I am working on, and so far, I seem to be making progress on most of them.
In this post, I share 3 principles and ideas I keep in mind as I try to push these projects and get them done while juggling work projects, life and relationships.
This is a rehash of an idea I spoke about in the previous post. If you want to get things done, you have to commit, and you have to sacrifice something else usually, to allow you to commit. There is no creative wall, there is no mental block, there is nothing standing between you and the work. You just have to set aside the time and sit down and do the work. That is the nature of getting things done, embracing the grind. If you just have one project you are trying to get done, all you have to do is focus, put in the hours and get it done. If you have multiple projects like me, this is more like a lifestyle, you are almost always working on something. Like getting and staying healthy, the idea is not just about bursts of activity and action. It is a commitment to a daily or weekly practice of putting bum to seat and slugging through the work.
You cannot fall asleep at the wheel, you have to stay awake to your goals and what you are trying to accomplish. A lot of things happen, a lot of things vie for our attention. We have work to do, families to feed, careers to attend to, people to take care of. There is always something. And it is easy, incredibly easy to drift. All it takes is a week or two of relentless pressure and distraction and you can be cast adrift for months.
So, you have to stay awake. If our projects are a priority we must remind ourselves of them continually. That is why I created a device to help me remember and stay focused. I retrofitted my year diary to become a reminder of the value I provide, my ultimate aims and the main projects I am concerned with for the year. Thinking about things in the context of 12 months allows me to carve out each part of year accordingly and know if I am on track or not. It is long enough to allow me to put in proper work, but also short enough so I can actually close and end projects quickly.
Death by a thousand strokes
Some of the things you want to accomplish are big projects. They are not the sort of thing you can knock out in an afternoon. You need time. Especially as a creative. We require huge swatches of time, blocks of time to really dig in, focus and create. Time to get bored. Time to think. Time to research and to absorb. Time to create. Many times, you can only get these pockets of uninterrupted time in 30-minute increments, sometimes we are able to block out whole days. But whatever you have, make the best of each opportunity.
I have open projects all the time. I could steal 30 mins in-between client work to read over a portion of my book and make edits. I could repurpose the hour break I’m taking watching a show to also collect visual reference material for another project. The idea is that these projects are not usually tackled in one fell swoop from start to finish, but are approached bite by bite, piece by piece, brick by brick. This frees us up to not to be too anxious, but to take our time, working and revising, working and revising, learning, making false starts and starting again. In this way, our masterpiece emerges by a thousand strokes made over time.
Getting important things done when they are not directly tied to your job or anchored in societal norms and expectations can be almost impossible. There is just generally a lot that gets in the way, and that is how too many of us die with our song unsung. The unique creative thing you were meant to contribute to the rich tapestry of life, for better or worse.
But crack the code, and be able to conceive a project, and see it to the end, for yourself, to your ends, not because someone told you so. That ability is extremely powerful and important in navigating an uncertain future and becoming antifragile. It shows initiative, it shows power. And even though you will inadvertently fail time and time again, if you stay the course and stay focused, eventually you will win, you will get what you want.