Don’t Give Up Your Power for Attention

My friend has a theory.  He thinks when people ask unbelievably dumb questions it’s not because they don’t know the answer or couldn’t find it themselves.  They’re capable.  It’s that they want the attention that comes from being answered more than they want their own power to independently get the answer.

There are a lot of examples of playing dumb as a way to get attention.  Emailing questions that are already answered on a website.  Asking how to listen to a podcast that’s already linked in the post being commented on.  Pretending to not notice when someone does something nice for you just so you can demontrate your surprise later in a more attention-grabbing way.

It’s a weird thing, and disempowering.  It’s actually kind of gross to observe.  I think a big part of it comes from the schooled mindset.  When you spend the first twenty or so years in a system based on pats on the back and ribbons and Dean’s lists and other forms of manufactured recognition by authority figures you learn to seek that kind of psychic and emotional reward.  There are few things teachers and experts and authorities with official sounding titles like more than being reminded that they know more than you.  They love an eager, pliable pupil.  When you ask them how to do things, raise your hand for clarification, ask them to expand on a point, or request a refresher on their material, you get positive attention.  So you develop a kind of learned helplessness.

It’s stupid and you should identify and shed it right away.  Operate at full power.  If you can discover or do something without anyone else’s assitance, do it.  If you can achieve goals without appealing to experts and authorities, all the better.  If you can create your product, start your business, write your song, or publish your book, do it.  You don’t need to focus group your supposed betters or ask every person you look up to to coffee for feedback.

It’s great if people like you and what you create.  It’s great to learn from others.  But get their attention by being the most you you can be.  Create something new and powerful, don’t pretend to be powerless in hopes of luring them in for a quick hit of, “She talked to me!”.  This is why mentorship can be dangerous.  Spend all your time seeking awesome mentors and you’ll forget to master what’s uniquely you and just build things.

Don’t play dumb.  The attention isn’t worth the loss of power.

Say Goodbye

Alright, time to be a little vulnerable…

I’m totally comfortable writing, speaking, podcasting, and Facebooking many aspects of my life and thoughts. But music has always been something I keep pretty close. It’s a private hobby and I’m a little embarrassed to expose it to the world.

I don’t write songs often anymore, but about a year ago a melody and lyrics popped into my head and I worked it into a song. After interviewing musician Tim LeVan Miller on the podcast I was inspired to try something I’ve always wanted to do but never made a priority: record one of my songs in an actual studio. I’ve only ever recorded them in one take with my iPhone voice memo app.

In other words, I’ve never really heard my own songs. When I write them, I hear them as they could be, with a full band, and parts that are above my skill level. I wanted to hear this song as I imagined it.

Tim was awesome enough to not only give me time in his studio, but to produce it, add a bridge, and play many of the instruments. I haven’t had this much fun collaborating on a song since my days in Second Floor Jungle (Kalamazoo’s most famous youth group coffee house folk band).

Anyway, here’s the song. I recommend listening with headphones to get the stereo effect. I also recommend listening a few times in a row. It grows on you.

I hope you like it. But most importantly, I like it, so I say success!

The Rest is Never History

You’ve heard a lot of stories that ended with, “And the rest is history.”  It’s not true.

The phrase conveys a sense of well-known, easy to plot steps from where the story left off to where things currently stand.  It’s the part that comes after the crazy, obstacle-filled origin story.  It’s the easy part.

In reality, “the rest” is harder than the beginning.

What about the heartwarming story of the guy who somehow made it through flat tires and lost keys and pouring rain to accidentally end up on the wrong blind date that turned out to be his soul mate?  After the drama of the first encounter it’s easy to treat the rest as history.  They went on more dates, got engaged, and got married.  But anyone who’s gone from first meeting to marriage knows that process is much harder to work through than first date nerves.

What about the aspiring actress who packs up all her things and heads to Hollywood, works as a waitress, auditions every chance she can to no avail, and then unknowingly impresses a big name agent she served at the restaurant?  Sure, the agent gets her her first part, but I assure you the rest is not history.  Countless people get their first part.  It’s not at all obvious or inevitable to them that it will produce a second, third, or Oscar winning fourth part.

The danger of believing the rest is history is that we’ll pin too much on that one big break or chance encounter.  There certainly are defining moments in our lives, but that’s because of the way in which we remember them and the easy identifiers that accompany.  The real story of success begins much earlier, with the choices that define who we are and what we bring to and can do with that big moment, and continues much later, with the way we use the power of the moment and parlay it into sustained results.

That couple had fights, and jealousy, and misunderstanding, and pain, and money problems, and disproving friends and family, and religious differences, and cultural divides, and different taste in food and Netflix shows to overcome.  Love at first sight is the easy part.  Living together and agreeing to the terms of a long term relationship is hard.  The part called history is what produces the outcome.

That actress had roles she hated, and typecasting, and dry spells, and pressure from family, and haters, and creepers, and unreturned phone calls, and money problems, and bad reviews, and stalled shows, and a new agent, and Twitter arguments, and TMZ to overcome.  Getting the agent and the first role is the easy part.  Handling fame, fighting to define a brand, and getting the next job before the current one is through is hard.  The part called history is the battle for continued growth.

“The rest is history” really means the rest is a longer, slower, less interesting slog through every mundane challenge and self-destructive mindset imaginable.  It means the rest of the story is something that can’t fit in a 2o-minute interview and doesn’t make for inspirational story time.  It means the rest is what transformed the subject from the person present at that fateful moment to the person standing before you.

There’s nothing automatic about history.

When we’re tempted to feel bad for ourselves because we haven’t had the big break, or think only in terms of achieving it, it’s good to remember that the break is the beginning, not the end, of the really hard part.  The challenges that follow the break are tougher and lonelier, in part because everyone else believes the rest is history.

Dig into any success story and look for the real process called “the rest”.  That’s where greatness is found.

Marketing as Creating

A lot of creative types have an antagonistic relationship with their audience, or at least with what they perceive it would take to have an audience large enough to make money from.  There’s this idea that just creating great stuff is fulfilling but won’t sell, yet marketing yourself to earn more money is selling out your true artistry.

Paul Cantor does a phenomenal job showing the complex, cooperative relationship between artists and the marketplace in his books and lectures.

My friend TK Coleman said something really profound in an email exchange we had with a frustrated creator recently.

“As artists, we not only need to be creative in our work, but also create in how we generate opportunities to do the work. If I’m a painter, then that makes me an artist in two ways: firstly, I have to create paintings. Secondly, I have to create the time, space, and energy to create paintings in a way that’s profitable for me.”

That mindset is powerful, and I think can relieve some of the tension between creating and selling.  It also reminds to be true not only in your creating, but in your marketing.  How you feel about your sales tactics will bleed through, so keep it genuine.

What History Really Is

The other day one of the Praxis participants posted this to Facebook:

“As a former history major in college and a college drop-out, I never thought I could love history even more then I did back in school. But as I go through the history module for Praxis, I feel like I’ve been cheated my whole life through school. Instead of learning about the greatness of government and its political figures we get to learn about individuals that have actually changed society for the better through markets and with an entrepreneurial spirit.

He found the secret.  Each module contains a core theme not directly expressed but conveyed through the broader arc of all the content.  The secret of the history module is to dispel the myth of Great Men.

Most history in textbooks and schools tells very little about how we got here.  How did humanity overcome environmental and social challenges to move from stone tablets to touchscreen tablets?  How did all the order we see around us evolve?  How did languages form, and great stories and myths, and breakthrough inventions?  How can the great fact of exponential human progress after the Industrial Revolution be explained?

Most histories are really only the history of those who have ordered and overseen the deaths of masses of people.  Military and political figureheads who pass laws and give speeches and take credit for all the good things that happen during their reign.  Even non-political figures like artists or entrepreneurs get portrayed as lone geniuses who never collaborated with others or engaged in a rigorous, messy, back-and-forth process in broader society and market.

History is now.  We are making it.  So has everyone before.  We want to open up the mind to the possibility that the great advances in society aren’t from Great Men or Lone Geniuses with top-down plans, but from the dynamic creative process of market and social exchange.  Whether hearing Stephen Davies discuss lesser known but more important dates in history, reading Anderson and Hill on how complex disputes were settled in a decentralized way in the American West, listening to Paul Cantor on Shakespeare and Dickens and the X-Files taking feedback from their audiences and incorporating it into their work, or watching Kirby Ferguson on how everything is a remix, the secret is there.  History is about a complex interplay of people and processes.  The pomp and parades and statues are easily seen, but they don’t tell of the fundamental force in society; creative individuals interacting and exchanging with one another.

Never Have a Magnum Opus

In yesterday’s post, I said,

“I’ve also found that viewing a post as the beginning of my own understanding of the topic, rather than my final word or magnum opus, is intellectually enriching and produces a wealth of new ideas down the road.  But more on that later…”

Now is the later.

My son spends hours every day producing artwork.  Sometimes he will go for several days on a single theme: a new super hero or comic book he’s created.  He is lost in the world he creates as he produced dozens and dozens of drawings, each with elaborate back stories.  Inevitably, whatever theme he’s on comes to a sudden and unexpected (for me, anyway) halt.  He gets a new idea, abandons his previous project, and moves right on to the next.

As a father, of course I find his creations delightful and I have a strong urge to capture them as whole works and preserve them.  He asked me once to help him turn his book of 30 different wizards and sorceresses (“Wizopedia”) into a website.  I was excited to help and began digitizing his drawings and typing in his dictated details on each character…for the first two characters.  Then he got bored and abandoned it for new ideas.

At first, I saw this flightiness as a weakness in him.  Perhaps it is to a certain extent and he’ll need to learn to see some things through to completion.  But the more I think on it, the more I see it as a strength, and the more I want to develop the same tendency in myself.  My son is not concerned about an artistic legacy at this point.  He’s not concerned about a shiny, neat and clean completed work to present to the world so he can bask in his accomplishment.  He’s not trying to create his magnum opus.  He creates for the sheer joy of it, and when he doesn’t feel that joy in a particular project, he moves to where he does.

When I think about the most interesting people, who’ve created the most interesting art or analysis, so many of them produced things until the very moment they passed.  Some of the greatest academic minds produce interesting ideas into their 80’s and even 90’s.  Contrariwise, there’s something sad about a person who produced a magnum opus, and then spent the remaining years living on that legacy, protecting it from being misinterpreted, and making sure the world was aware of its brilliance.  It seems perhaps the best thing to do after creating is to let your creation out into the world and, in a sense, walk away from it and start creating something new.

When I think about my life, I try to imagine it as an upward trajectory through time, rather than a great peak followed by a slow decline in my twilight years.  I want my greatest ideas, moments, experiences and creations to be those at the end of my life.  It seems natural that this should be the case, at least until the physical body’s aging prohibits it, as we accumulate more knowledge and perspective through time.  That is, if we don’t stagnate.

Rather than a single epic project, it seems a more interesting and challenging goal to see one’s entire life as a great work.  Let your whole catalog of creations, from beginning to end, be your magnum opus.  Never peak until you die.