Recently I’ve been going through an identity crisis. I know what I want to do, and what I’m good at, and what I enjoy. But increasingly I’m becoming less relevant to my audience (“Great Derek, you want to write books and travel full-time. But how can you help ME?”)
On the one hand, I’m finally able to focus on my passion projects, including deep, well-researched books on what it means to be creative and make work that matters. On the other hand, the books I’m reading, collectively, are generating a massive mindset shift – possibly because they reconfirm or sometimes challenge my base instincts.
One of my new favorites is Body of Work by Pamela Slim (of “Escape From Cubicle Nation” fame). I’ve had the privilege of meeting Pamela a few times, but her message never really resonated with me – I’ve been a digital nomad without a real job for almost two decades. I’ve never had the cubicle experience.
THIS BOOK however, gave me some thrilling frameworks and at least a couple life-changing epiphanies. Since I’m also focused on creating my BEST work, my LEGACY work, this passage appealed to me:
“Your body of work is everything you create, contribute, affect, and impact. For individuals, it is the personal legacy you leave at the end of your life, including all the tangible and intangible things you have created. Individuals who structure their careers around autonomy, mastery and purpose will have a powerful body of work.”
Great… “autonomy, mastery and purpose” are pretty close to my personal values, so I’ve got a strong start. Of course this definition isn’t nearly enough. In my view, we need to do creative work that matters, which means focusing on our audience and creating things they need or want.
A lot of books on art or creativity disagree with me on this one critical point, so I was curious to see Pam’s views on what KIND of work was most valuable.
According to Pam, EVERY creative project must answer the following questions:
- What do you want to create?
- Who is it for?
- Why does it need to be accomplished?
- How are you going to structure the project?
- When does it need to be finished?
I love this simple framework for creating work that matters.
Start with your desire, but figure out WHO it’s for and WHY they should buy it? If you can broaden your intended audience or perfect your sales hook, you can increase the VALUE of your work by upping the emotional and cultural relevance to your intended audience.
After that, structure is most important, because if you don’t know what you’re making, you won’t know when it’s finished – structure is something you learn with research and analysis; look at people who have created similar things, and reverse-engineer.
This isn’t about stealing or copying, it’s about creating the best possible thing in the shortest amount of time, by studying the greats and finding inspiration. Creativity is about blending familiar things in surprising new ways.
Finally, WHEN = set a hard deadline. This is something I don’t do enough of, which is why I flounder and procrastinate. Pick a project, set a deadline, FINISH it.
It doesn’t matter if it’s perfect.
In fact, finishing things is the way to perfection. As Pam says,
“Create a word document with chapter headings, and write one paragraph of foolish nonsense. Put up a really ugly sales page with a two-paragraph description of your service and a PayPal button.”
In other words, validate your idea early, before you invest too much time into it. This is difficult for creatives to hear, because we’re often told to go into our cave and create until its perfect – but that’s terrible advice (based on a whitewashed Romantic ideology which has ZERO grounds in actual fact or reality… it’s a pretty myth that makes artists feel safe working on their craft without the stress or pressure to ever share it.)
I’m guilty of this, even now. Even though I’ve spent years putting out “good enough” projects. I still work on things and don’t feel comfortable sharing them or talking about them. I just finish and release.
#1 great art deserves and audience.
#2 nobody is going to market except for me.
#3 one “launch” is not enough.
Pam offers some very useful exercises to find the body of work right for you, which I’m going to complete for myself – I recommend you try them at home too (share your results in the comments).
What do you believe (Five things you know for sure)
- Everyone has creative inclination: skill comes from practice
- Not all creative work has value. Value comes from others.
- You can increase value by focusing on emotional and cultural relevancy
- Most artists are taught NOT to focus on value, which makes it hard to sell things, or build an audience.
- The “starving artist” mentality cannot be fixed by mindset and courage alone; artists can succeed much faster by addressing the core limitations inherent in their work.
Why do you believe them? (key life experiences).
I’ve seen it happen, thousands of times. It’s not an incidental thing, it’s the reason why the vast majority of creative people never find success: they don’t know what to make for whom – they only follow their limited inspiration, create sporadically when the mood hits them, and rarely finish things. When they do, they have no idea how to sell or market them.
Whom do you care deeply about serving?
Creative people with big ideas, who are having trouble translating their vision into words other people get excited about. I’ve learned that how you talk about the art is as important, or more important (especially online) than the art itself.
Luckily, these issues can be very quickly addressed and fixed by researching audience and finding the intersection between what they want and need, and what you’re excited about producing.
Who are the people you want to impact?
Writers, artists, creative entrepreneurs, coaches, speakers, visionaries and mystics. Anyone having trouble getting their voice heard. Every story deserves to be told.
What will happen in their lives as a result of your support?
With my support, creatives can quickly avoid the frustration, self-doubt, and repeated exposure to failure and criticism that can force them to give up too early. Sometimes you just need someone else to get what you’re trying to do and stand behind you. I can help them make their work MATTER, by finding the core value of the project and communicating the benefits in a way that will resonate.
Which problems do you want to solve? What do you want to fix?
Having no market or audience. Not being able to make any sales. Not being able to finish the work (due to lack of clear vision). Structural or content weaknesses in the work. Fear or uncertainty, which manifests as procrastination or lack of confidence.
Right now, the struggles to get your creative work seen are overwhelming: building a website and email list; figuring out social media; design and branding; publishing or posting invisible content; a weak funnel that leads nowhere; focusing on the work without telling the story.
Altogether, the barriers to success can seem insurmountable and take years to learn all the skills you need. I try to make some of those steps easier, with coaching, tutorials, templates or tools.
What could be made better in the world with your help?
- A step by step self-publishing course
- Creative empowerment and motivation, by shifting the focus to great work that matters.
- A book design tool so anyone can make beautiful covers without technical skills.
- A creative writing retreat and respite, to do your best work in a supportive and encouraging environment.
What drives you to act?
Freedom, for me and others, which includes the ability to follow your passion and create what you enjoy.
There was a really good example in the book:
Pulling drowning people out of a river is compassion. Justice is walking upstream to solve the reasons they are falling in.
This really hit me, because I’ve always been a bit of a justice warrior. I hate following arbitrary rules unless I can see exactly why they were made (if rules have no logic, I’m not bound to obey them).
Remember that starfish parable? A kid was walking on a beach filled with thousands of starfish, picking them up one by one and throwing them back into the sea. A man tells him, “why waste your time? You’ll never save them all?” The kid picks up another starfish and throws it. “To that ONE I made a difference.”
It’s a nice story, but the contrast between Pam’s example made me realize, I’m done with all that. I don’t want to save people one by one, I want to change the conversation and dialogue, I want to influence the industry, so they know the dangers and are more careful. Then they won’t need saving.
This exercise is to figure out your strengths, but it’s also good brainstorming to start putting together your story (more on that later).
Mentor, author, speaker, creativity alchemist, publishing geek, book designer, word magician
Boundless curiosity, genius insight, universal clarity, aesthetic intuition
Tenacity and focus, passion for discovery, empathy and conflict resolution,
Boy Scout in Oregon, Gaucho in argentina, philosopher in Malta, grad student in Taiwan, National representative for Amnesty international, CNN feature for writing in castles, sold 4000 books to Russian publisher, international student body president.
Freedom, creativity, adventure, artistic expression, revolutionary integrity (fighting to find a better or easier way, to reduce pain and suffering).
Many teenage heartbreaks, tendency to love too much, too deeply and the feel sting of rejection.
Several small scars from stupid accidents: carelessness and risky behavior.
HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN YOU ARE READY?
This section hit me hard as well.
“You look at the content you have created and realize that many more people could use it than the market you are currently serving.
You are a bit fatigued at putting all your energy into the “build it and they will come” model of content marketing and are ready for some bigger moves.
You have built significant visibility and trust in your market or workplace.
You have a basic business operations and systems in place, and have a clean and efficient way of serving your current customers.”
All of these points more of less fit me, although I’m still struggling a bit with that last one.
But I do feel ready, on the cusp of big and exciting things; also a little terrified of stepping up, because it’s more comfortable not to act.
Pam talks a lot about story, something I’ve really focused on this year. In order to attract my audience, I need a personal brand story that communicates credibility and trust, one that “empowers the storyteller and excites the audience.”
I’m learning to lead with story, and it’s so exciting, but I’m having trouble knowing exactly what to offer my audience. (In brief… I’ve been trying to quit services so I can focus on my Great Work, but I still need an income stream.)
Pam says there are four steps to actually making the work.
#1 Enjoy the adventure of your craft
(follow your bliss)
#2 Develop a mastery mindset
(become the best)
#3 Scope, test, scope, test
(get specific – a WORKING business model). Test by selling something short – an hour class instead of a six weeks program.
#4 Flex your creative muscles.
“In today’s world of hacks, shortcuts, and instant money making blueprints, I think we have lost appreciation for slow-brewing mastery in our work.”
In other words, and I think this is the path most creatives take: make what you want, until you’re good enough to offer value, then create a product for a specific market and see if they’ll buy it. Make something easy and quick to validate the idea. Gain confidence and security and feedback. Once you’re sure who your audience is and what they need or want, then focus on making something great.
In other words, don’t Make Something Great by yourself without testing the market. EVEN if you’re excited about it, and EVEN if it’s technically high quality, doesn’t mean anyone will actually buy it.
And you MUST sell your work, to sustain your creative lifestyle, so you can do more great work. After you’ve launched some things, you can ask questions like “is this scalable, do I enjoy this, do I want to do it again?”
I have friends who have lots of ideas but never execute on anything. Earlier today I was complaining to my wife about how other people are selling programs and courses for WAY more money, and they don’t offer refunds OR any personal help or feedback (my courses offer a ton… which is partially why I’m resisting launching them, because I already know that’s not what I want to do, even though it’s what people need).
But the truth is, my course isn’t selling because I’m not telling anyone about it! A few months ago in Bali I was complaining about this course not selling. I checked my funnel and found only 3 people had even seen the sales page. (1% is the average conversion rate, which means I need to get 100 people on the page for every one sale).
But, and here’s the important stuff: you can only improve with repetition. You can’t make an online course, launch one and quit to go work on something else. See if you can make it better. See if you can increase value and conversion. Query your audience and find out how to make the course more appealing.
Something I need to do, but don’t, is ASK more. There’s a reason for the saying, “try, try and try again” or “third time’s the charm.”
If you reach out to influencers, or anybody, make sure to check back 3 times. Launch a product 3x before making choices about what to do next. But that’s not all.
Pam introduces the 20X rule.
“Sow 20X the seeds for the results you want.”
So for example, if I have a 1% conversion rate and need 100 people on my sales page, how can I 20X it and get 2000 on the page?
Instead of 3 new products a year, test SIXTY. To be a full time creator, you need to test more ideas, more quickly. A lot of them will fail. Instead of perfecting one thing, launch fast, make stuff, don’t focus on being perfect.
The enemy of the entrepreneur is endless planning and perfection.
Since I don’t set deadlines and already feel like I’m doing “pretty well” I don’t have the motivation I need to make more stuff, but that’s bad – one of the cool things I discovered in an ancient philosophy manual is the idea of “drifting” (we still use the term, like “drifting through life” but I plan to write a book about the concept and trace it’s history).
The point is, creativity is a thrilling risk – there is freedom only when we sacrifice our comfort and strive for more. But to succeed, we must be all in.
“The act of creating is what sets us free, what gives our life meaning. And it is what will put us back on our personal and collective path to greatness.”
I need to think about the things I’ve done, and the things I haven’t done yet. Which has the most potential impact. I have some Big Ideas that could be gamechangers – I need to work on those, not on services to help other people with their big ideas (unless that’s what I’m being called to do: I’m uniquely qualified to help people turn their Big Ideas into real businesses, and it doesn’t take me long, and I enjoy it).
Other things though, I’m less excited about, to the point of avoidance. If I have something I’m dreading, I’ll procrastinate with Netflix ALL DAY and squeeze in a little work before bed. If I’m excited about my projects, I’ll work for 12 hours straight. This is why passion is so important, because passion is a procrastination killer.
If you don’t feel joy in the goals you have set for yourself, try changing your goals.
Ask yourself, what am I thoroughly grateful for today? What can I count on to make me happy, regardless of what is going on in my life. Focus on what you WANT (not what you don’t have). See the pictures of your ideal life, enthuse it. With the right motivation, and drive, people can make astounding, unexpected, nearly miraculous change.
Even so, fear is part of the process – not something to avoid.
“Fear is an essential part of the creative process. Work with it, and you will create a powerful, full-color, full-contact body of work.”
Fear is an essential part of the creative process. Work with it, and you will create a powerful, full-color, full-contact body of work.
You can help offset the fear by using Pam’s five step model, while also building your tribe and network.
“Getting picked is great. Buiding a tribe is reliable; it’s hard work and it’s worth doing.: – Seth Godin
“The more you develop your network, the more ease you will feel when you start new or challenging projects.” – Pam slim
“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it” ― Viktor E. Frankl,
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.