The Paradox of Discipline, and Four Questions to Ask Ourselves

The more I listen to interviews with great creators, the more they echo the same themes. It goes something like this:

The act of creation is exceptionally hard and painful.

Writing, in particular, is torture.

It’s great to have talent, but without a disciplined process for creation, talent means nothing.

We human beings do everything we can to avoid the hard work of creating our art. To counteract this, we must create rituals and structures that make it impossible for us to hide: time every day in which the only thing we can do is produce. (For example, per Neil Gaiman, “I would go down to my lovely little gazebo at the bottom of the garden, sit down, and I’m absolutely allowed not to do anything. I’m allowed to sit at my desk, I’m allowed to stare out at the world, I’m allowed to do anything I like, as long as it isn’t anything. Not allowed to do a crossword, not allowed to read a book, not allowed to phone a friend, not allowed to make a clay model of something. All I’m allowed to do is absolutely nothing, or write.”)

We must be forgiving with ourselves when we are creating, and brutally tough on ourselves when we are editing and refining.

This isn’t going to be fun. But if we are to do our best work, if we are to give our gifts to the world, we have to be willing to grind out the effort each and every day, no matter how hard it feels and how little we feel like doing it on that particular day.

Now, I believe that these insights apply to everyone, not just to “creative” types. No one said that doing excellent, meaningful work was going to be easy, and I expect that writers and artists are just living the fully-distilled version of creating work that matters.

If these insights are to apply to all of us—and I believe they do—then we have four questions we need to answer honestly:

  1. Am I willing to care, at a personal level, about my work?
  2. Am I willing to take personal, emotional risk to put my best into my work?
  3. Will engaging in this kind of sustained, daily effort help me grow?
  4. Am I going to decide to learn how to put in sustained effort over time?

This framing feels fundamentally different from conversations about “work-life balance” and the perennial elevator small talk of “just three days until the weekend.”

In one view, work is something to be endured and minimized so we can refresh in our free time, and work being hard is an indication of something being wrong.

In another view, work being hard is the necessary precondition for it being meaningful, because there is nothing worth producing that doesn’t require risk and struggle.

While this doesn’t mean that all work we find hard is rewarding, it means that we cannot use “hard” as a barometer for something being wrong at work.

Somewhere, somehow, each of us has to find our own version of discipline.

For example, I don’t have access to Neil Gaiman’s gazebo, nor do I write fantastical fiction or comics. But both Neil and I need time alone, time to think, time with the proverbial blank page; time when we’re looking straight at a problem we don’t know the answer to; time when our job is to sit there until we produce one thing that is one small step in the right direction.

Discipline is often not fun. It is, at a minimum, the act of sitting with discomfort and delaying gratification because we know that this is what it feels like when we do real work.

Of course, most of us have not figured out what our art is, we don’t know what we are uniquely suited to do in the world.

That’s OK. We don’t need the full answer today. We need, instead, to decide to start doing meaningful, personal work as soon as possible.

And how do we start? Not with musing, reflection or pretending that if we wait long enough inspiration will touch us. That’s a great way of hiding.

Instead, we start with building a practice of creative discipline into our days, weeks and lives: we put ourselves in situations every day where we ask ourselves to make one small thing that we are proud of, one small thing that is over and above the exact thing we were asked to do.

With this mindset, our work becomes something we can take personally, and each thing we ship can be different and better for what we’ve put into it.

From the moment we decide to take our work personally, we start to show up like professionals, and, bit by bit, we watch the yield that comes from refusing to be swayed too quickly by the thoughts that all of us have: this is too hard; this might not be good enough; if I care a little less, then I won’t be hurt if I come up short.

Caring less and risking less are great ways to stay safe in the short term, and even better ways to ensure that we stay where we are in the long term.

Whereas if we shift our attitude towards our work and learn how to build discipline into our days, we set ourselves down the harder but much more rewarding path of sharing what only we have to offer through our work.

Two Extra Hours

When this pandemic is over, I will start commuting back in to work.

My commute is a 10-minute walk to the train, a 40 minute train ride, and another 10 minute walk to the office. That adds up to one hour each way, twice a day, five days a week.

The question is: where will I find that time?

Right now, my days feel full.  It doesn’t seem like there are extra minutes, let alone hours, waiting to be claimed.

And yet, two full hours a day, 10 hours a week, are apparently there for the taking, from one day to the next.

Which means that if I have something really important to accomplish, today, I apparently have 10 available hours per week that I could find if I really wanted to.

The point is: the barrier between what we are doing now and what we’d like to accomplish in the future is not a lack of available time.

The barrier is the myth of scarcity.

The barrier is our need to hang on to other seemingly essential tasks.

The barrier is our unwillingness to say that this thing is something I’m going to do, no matter what.

No fuss, no drama.

Like riding a train each day, just start doing that new thing, today.

The Measure of a Successful Day

What’s the measure of a successful day?

As we approach the one-year mark of this pandemic, we’ve all settled into our new routine. No matter how stable that routine is, most of us have come to the conclusion that we can’t measure productivity by the same yardstick as before.

Of course, it all depends on your personal situation. But I suspect that for many, our time, schedules, outside obligations and  overall sense of “I got this-ness” continue to vacillate day to day and week to week in this crazy life we’re living.

I realized a few months back that I need a new measure for my days. Not output, not hours worked, not even the metrics I’m shooting for in my annual goals.

Those are important, to be sure. But more important is, each and every day, to do (at least) one brave thing.

Brave is:

Writing something

Creating something

Supporting someone

Listening deeply

Accepting something new you’ve learned about yourself.

Letting go of an assumption, or a prejudice

Taking a risk

Pushing your limits

Not running away from discomfort.

 

One brave thing, each and every day.

No matter the pulls on our time, our attention, our attitude, our mindset, we always have the space for that. And acts of bravery have a way of adding up.

Writing Great Annual Goals

It’s the time of year when lots of folks are writing their annual goals. It can feel daunting. Too often this becomes an exercise in list-writing, task after task that we know we must get through.

Somehow, in the process of listing out everything we lose something: the meaning behind it all, the “so what.”

If I boil this exercise down to its essence, my thought experiment is: imagine it is December 31, 2021 and I’m looking back at the year. How will I (and, if these goals are for work, my boss) know how I did?

Here’s how you can bring clarity to the answer to this question.

Take a step back and write two short paragraphs.

  • Paragraph 1: if I’ve done this by the end of the year it will be a good year
  • Paragraph 2: if I’ve done this it will be a great year

Write in simple prose and focus on the stuff that really matters. Not each individual task, but where you will be and how it will feel. Most important, write paragraphs that are specific and clear enough that you, and the colleagues that will be looking at this with you in a year’s time, will be able to judge clearly how you did.

For example, when I think about 2021 for 60 Decibels, we obviously have goals around growth, revenues, profitability and impact. But those numbers alone aren’t my goals for the year. Rather, I’ve written down where I want us to be as a business and as a team, what questions we will have answered for ourselves and in the market, and the strategic milestones we will have hit that set us up for the next success.

What I write down doesn’t feel like a list of accomplishments, it’s more like a description of a location on a map: at this new (future) vantage point, thinks look and feel like this, they smell like this. Here’s who I am, and who we are, thanks to the miles we’ve walked. Here’s what we can now see thanks to how high we’ve climbed.

When I capture my goals for the year in these terms, everything feels more tangible, more visceral, and more motivating. Better yet, it’s easier for our team to understand where we’re headed and why, so we can all get behind that vision.

If it’s a good year, this is where we’ll be.

And if it’s a great year, this is where we’ll be.

Here’s to a great 2021.

Seen, Heard, and Lost

A few weeks ago, on a Friday afternoon, a colleague of mine sent around a great TEDx talk, Shawn Achor’s The Happy Secret to Better Work, which has been viewed more than 23 million times.

I took 12 minutes out of a busy day to watch it. I enjoyed it, and connected to our team’s conversation about it. One takeaway that rose to the top was that to increase our positivity and happiness, we should engage in one random act of kindness each day. What’s not to like?

The following Monday, I came across that same thread in Slack.

I wanted to jump back into the conversation, but I immediately discovered that, outside of the “let’s do more random act of kindness” takeaway, I remembered virtually nothing about the talk.

I watched the talk again, this time taking some simple notes. Here they are.

  • The talk is about positive psychology
  • When we focus averages–in education, in economics, in life–we fail to design and plan for the extra-ordinary. This is a mistake.
  • Our happiness is not objectively determined. If Shawn could look only at your externally-observable world (job, income, family life) he could only determine 10% of your happiness.
  • IQ does not determine job success. 75% of job success is determined by optimism levels, social support, and seeing stress as a challenge not a threat.
  • We need to reverse our mental model of happiness and success.
  • The wrong model is: Work leads to Success which leads to Happiness.
    • The problem with this model is that whenever we succeed, we move the goal posts (expect a higher level of performance), so we never get to Happiness, which we’ve put out on the horizon past Success.
  • Instead, our job is to raise our own positivity in the present.
  • Five things we can do to raise our positivity are:
  1. Practice being grateful for three things a day for 21 days;
  2. Journal about one positive experience per day;
  3. Exercise;
  4. Meditate;
  5. Engage in random acts of kindness by praising on person in our social support network each day.

Now, you should absolutely watch the talk. It’s a thousand times better than my notes, full of wonderful humor, sibling rivalries, and an actual unicorn story.

But if you’re like me, the talk, and this blog post, no matter how much you enjoy it, will slip through your fingers if you don’t take active steps to process it. I, for one, remembered less than 5% of the content.

Processing, for me, comes in three forms, each stronger than the last. I can:

  1. Document what I’m reading / listening to – by taking notes or writing a blog post.
  2. Retell the story verbally – sharing the content with others strengthens my recall, and it allows me to discover (and then fill in) gaps in my knowledge.
  3. Practice the new behavior.

When I fail to take these steps, ideas skim the surface of my consciousness and leave as quickly as they entered. When that happens, they are nothing more than entertainment.

Whereas when I shift from a passive consumer of content to an active processor of it, new ideas can stay in my brain and, over time, become part of my life.

More Than the Broken Parts

Since the start of COVID-19, I’ve been staying physically active but have been plagued by a series of small, nagging injuries.

At any moment, I have one or two parts of my body that hurt a lot, some combination of chronic knee pain from an old injury and new problems in my abdomen, forearm and, most recently, my heel.

None of these is serious, but all of them are quite painful, the plantar fasciitis topping the list of high-pain/low-severity injuries.

On the worst days, it hurts to stand up from a chair, to get down towards the floor to grab a shoe, to reach for a shot on the squash court or to start a slow jog. The pain is sharp enough that it makes me tentative. It is distracting enough that some days it’s hard to concentrate.

On the worst days, the pain is bad enough that it’s all I can see about my body—I get caught in a cycle of negative forever thinking. The hurt parts of my body so dominate my thoughts that when I look in the mirror I’m surprised: my physical reflection looks fine, healthy even, not like a series of broken ligaments and tendons that keep me from moving, from bending, from being carefree.

The mirror has it right this time. I am not just the parts of me that aren’t working. I’m the person who is active every day, chasing after squash balls and walking in the cold with my dogs and kids. Sure, a few things hurt sometimes, but mostly my body is doing a tremendous job of adapting, recovering and healing, even if it doesn’t do so as quickly as I would like.

So often, we discover a new flaw or limitation in ourselves and it paralyzes us. The “wrong” becomes our whole identity, our mind transforming it into all that we see when we see ourselves.

It is not all of us, it is just a small part of us. And it is not all bad.

It is there to teach us.

It is there so we can grow.

It is there to remind us that “now” is not “always.”

And most of all, it is neither our whole identity nor is it something that we are meant to endure until we can push it away.

It is something that we must, over time, integrate and incorporate into our understanding of self, making sense of and accepting this new part of who we are.

Then, in time, it can change and heal, and we can change and heal.

The Confidence to Cut

Jerry Seinfeld described the two personas we need to inhabit to be good writers.

The key to writing, to being a good writer, is to treat yourself like a baby, [to be] nurturing and loving, and then switch over to Lou Gossett in Officer and a Gentleman. and just be a harsh [expletive], a ball-busting son of a…When you’re writing, you want to treat your brain like a toddler. It’s just all nurturing and loving and supportiveness. And then when you look at it the next day, you want to be just a hard-ass. And you switch back and forth.

I love it: a gentle nurturer, treating my brain like a toddler, and then a hard-assed drill sergeant who is relentlessly reviewing, looking critically and, most important, cutting.

Most of the time, our writing has too many words. These extra words are a place to hide, an excuse for 80%-there thinking that’s directionally correct but still fuzzy.

The false safety of extra words and high-falutin language is how we avoid laying our ideas bare.

When we cut, our ideas stand naked and exposed to the world. They can be seen clearly, unadorned. The unadorned is bare, but it is also beautiful.

It’s an act of courage to cut away all the unnecessary bits, to stop burying our best thinking in extra blather.

We cut, we cut, we add a bit, and then we cut some more.

On and on until one of two things happens: either we learn that this idea isn’t good enough, or we discover the distilled essence of what we want to say.

Cutting is an act of confidence and bravery. When in doubt, cut.

AdAge is Wrong About The Lincoln Project

According to AdAge, the Lincoln Project, the anti-Trump PAC that ran ad after of scathing ad throughout 2020, was one of the best marketers of the year. In their words, “The conservative anti-Trump PAC made some of the most compelling and influential ads of the year.”

The purpose of the Lincoln Project was to get Republicans to defect from Trump. Disaffected Republicans created The Lincoln Project because they felt that Trump was destroying the country and the Republican Party. Their YouTube page has more than 350 videos, many viewed well over a million times, and they are some of the highest-quality political ads you’ll ever see.

The problem is, they weren’t influential.

In fact, 93% of registered Republicans voted for Trump in 2020, compared to 90% in 2016. Worse, according to a study by the Democratic super-PAC Priorities USA, the most popular ads had the least impact on voters in swing states,

The lesson is essential: we must always remember what marketing is.

Marketing is the act of persuading someone to take an action.

We consistently confuse who the “someone” is: it is not us, it is someone else.

The Lincoln Project convinced me of a lot of things; it also convinced Trump-haters of a lot of things. But I and they weren’t supposed to take a different action because of these ads.

As marketers, we struggle so much to create great content that, when we do, we’re quick to tell ourselves that we’ve done great work. And, we very well may have.

But our job as marketers isn’t to create great content. Our job is to persuade someone specific to take a particular action.

If you haven’t figured out who you’re trying to persuade, and if you haven’t figured out if they took the action, you’re not marketing. You’re just creating stuff and putting it out into the world.

Strategy and Conviction

Strategy is fundamentally about choices.

When we write down our (company, personal) strategy for the coming year, we are articulating the things we will prioritize differently, the things we will put more time and resources behind because we believe that doing so will lead to better results.

This means that all good strategy is about change. We implement our strategy by shifting from what we used to do—which was comfortable—to what we are going to do now—which is new, and therefore harder.

The bridge from here to there is conviction.

Conviction that the new path is right.

Conviction that we must give up some of the things that got us, even if that’s hard in the short term.

Conviction that even if we don’t see the yield of our new strategy immediately, we will give it time to play out before reverting to our old ways of doing things.

Conviction, of course, is itself a decision.

It’s a choice in the face of unknowns and uncertainties.

It’s a recognition that through the acts of believing and follow-through we shape reality, transforming something that could be into something that is.

Strategy without conviction is just words on a page.

 

Snow Days

For parents and kids, the first big snow day of the year has frustration before joy.

We dig through boxes in the basement, trying to figure out where the snowpants are, if there’s any long underwear that fits, if every kid has a pair of snow boots they can still put on, whether we still own a sled. An hour can easily pass, with hot, half-dressed kids itching to go out as someone searches for that last, waterproof glove.

This is the well-known fact of startup costs in the form of hidden basement boxes and kids itching to build a snowman.

We know, intellectually, that these same kids of startup costs haunt us every day in the real world, and yet…

…we see a fabulous video by a competitor and shoot off a note to marketing that says “we need to make a great video that gets a million views.”

…we write one big annual report, while under-investing in content production the rest of the year, and wonder why it’s so hard to get it out the door.

…we get to the end of the year and turn to someone smart and say “what have we learned this year, and why isn’t it captured well?”

…we gloss over the tough bits of a work relationship – a behavior that’s hurting other employees, an issue with under-performance that hasn’t been addressed – and when we finally bring it up, the ensuing conversation is explosive.

The reason our intermittent behaviors are so much less effective is because of the weight of startup costs: we crank the gears of a rusty machine and hear the groans and creaks of under-use. While we occasionally create something magical when we try for the first time in a long time, more often than not the process of doing so is painful and the results are less than we’d imagined.

If we want to be great writers, we must write often.

If we want to have great teams, we must show up every day in ways that strengthen trust and communication.

If our goal is innovation, we must create psychological safety and a system for getting the best ideas out of everyone, and a process for turning great ideas into fabulous products.

If want to create a learning organization, we must, daily, find small ways to question and to capture, consistently articulating our hypotheses and results.

A family that lives in a ski town can get out of the house on a powder morning in 15 minutes, while the eager tourists miss the whole morning just trying to get their ski boots on.