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A Brand's magic comes from original thinking.
And original thinking comes from freedom from obligation.
Like all things, we have to balance our creative insights, with our justified experiences about how the world works. While we may dream of possibility, and fantasize about the way things could be, most often we are challenged by the internal narrative about how things are; which can only assume that things will continue to be the same.
But, as artists and creators, we have a special ability. The ability to create something from nothing. The ability to change things.
The ability to get a reaction.
When we create and share it with someone else, something new happens. We might recognize that we aren't alone, or that something we do can have an impact.
Art is not practical. It doesn't feed you (directly), you can't use it for fuel, or if you get sick.
But I'd venture to say that that's precisely its value.
This impracticality is at the heart of every great brand. Luxury is about impracticality.
You can tell a story like, "Instead of just going to the local well to get this water, this water is from the spring of a mountain in the Himalayas, blessed by a guru" and suddenly people will pay more for it.
We pay for impracticality because we pay for emotional connections to things, and emotional connections aren't rational. They're therapeutic. And they make us feel like our best selves, or like we are connected to others in the way we'd like to be connected.
And so a violinist wears a suit instead of baggy shorts and sandals on stage. What they wear, is part of it.
Is it more practical to wear a suit? Not really. But it helps us emotionally, and so we wear it.
I'm often in conversations with companies and brands about building, launching, and developing their products, and so much conversation starts with a spark of the imagination but dwindles into the world of practicality.
We have a part of our brain that tells us that if we're not practical, we won't survive.
If we don't do things *how they are* then we will be shunned, and we should shut up about *how things could be* because, well, that's risky.
But this line of thinking completely misunderstands the entire point of all of it. That, to create something without impracticality is to create nothing of emotional value.
And all of the value, which creates margin is in emotional value. I mean this literally.
One of the best books I've read in the last 2 or 3 years was by Rory Sutherland.
Rory Sutherland, Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don't Make Sense he says,
"When you demand logic, you pay a hidden price: you destroy magic."
"Engineers, medical people, scientific people, have an obsession with solving the problems of reality, when actually … once you reach a basic level of wealth in society, most problems are actually problems of perception."
Perception is our job when building a brand.
It's why I love brand and community building so much in the first place. It requires this type of thinking, which is counter to most of what we've learned.
So all of your success will in some ways be counter-intuitive.
And while you can learn from others, every great brand and business and artist is an N of 1. They are the only example.
They are like this or like that person, but they aren't.
They exist in their own category, even within the category.
Jerry Seinfeld is not Kevin Hart is not Jay Leno. Kanye West is not Tyler the Creator is not Kendrick Lamar.
An artist does something for the first time.
The practical person hides from that fact.
But the longer the hide, the more you fit in, and the less your art gets seen.
Then the harder you work, the more effort you put in, the farther you slide down the ladder.
And then you wonder why it appears effortless for others but so effortful for you.
It's not that everyone isn't working. It's just that you've misunderstood which area is the hard part, and you haven't developed your sense of walking out around the wilderness, where you can be wrong, stupid, and break things… which is precisely where artists learn to get comfortable.
And I'm not saying it's comfortable.
But it may be practical.
And deep down, it may be what you've been hoping for all along.
Training like a Pro
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What does training look like to you?
I've been digging deeper into the world of Tyler Cowen, a somewhat famous economist, and blogger.
He's got a great post you might like called, "How I Practice What I do"
He's prolific, like many others we look to, in that his output is incredible. He's blogged daily for about 20 years, and it sounds like he's been writing for many more.
What I find most interesting is not even so much the output in terms of the actual posts, many are interesting and I'm sure there are many I don't remember reading or that didn't have so much impact.
I think what I admire is the type of focus it takes. I don't mean focus as in the ability to sit down and read for hours, although he has that too. (He said he read 40 books on Tennis before an interview he hosted with famous tennis player Maria Sharapova).
But I think there's something in the focus, the sharp method of development that is relentless, and daily, on improving his own met-cognition, his own ability to process information and his ability to synthesize it.
Tyler's abnormal in that he's always been an economist, he's one of those people who's known what he wanted to do since he was young and pursued it intensely since then.
Early practice is a sign of most geniuses. But it's likely the former that creates the latter, and not the other way around.
This runs very counter to the artist's mindset of inspiration. Instead, it is about repetition and sort of wading your way through a very specific stream on a daily basis to continue to hone your abilities and skills.
There's something about this sharpness of focus. And, about the intention which allows you to shut out other people's priorities for yourself and instead develop in the direction you feel is most interesting and connected to who you are.
Each day I'm thinking more about my practices, where they are leading, and what the broader development arc is about. All so that I can stay on track with what it is that I love, but also so that I can avoid wasted time on things I "think" I should love.
I should focus just on the core and do that really well. Which, again, doesn't come easy to most artists.
So I'll pose the question Tyler asks at the end of his post...
"What is it you do to train that is comparable to a pianist practicing scales?"
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What if you work for the people you hire, and not the other way around?
What if your job as a manager or entrepreneur is like that of a coach of an NBA team? You set the strategy and the plays, and you do what you can to prepare everyone and train them to the best of their abilities.
What if you only spoke with your team members once per week?
With some asynchronous communication in between?
What if perks at your company were related to performance – and you had health, fitness, and diet coaches on-site, so that your team truly trains like athletes?
What if the people on your team had just one or a few simple, clear goals and outcomes each month, and they have the freedom and responsibility to make them happen, with you as support, and them as the lead?
And so you say to them…
"Now that we've spoken at the beginning of the month about this sprint ahead, I won't contact you again until the end of the month when you show me what you've made.
But of course, if *I* can do anything for you, answer questions, give feedback, I'm available 24/7, but that's on *you* to contact me with what you need, so just ask for it."
The team can talk as needed, any time. But no meetings should be pre-set in the future. And the time amounts are unnecessary. A meeting could be about sharing information or making a decision.
If you outline that ahead of time, and you stay focused, shouldn't you just spend as much time as you need to share that information or make that decision?
(30, or 60 minutes seem to expand the problem to that time amount, instead of the other way around).
What if your strategy was always distilled to half a google doc, just a few bullet points, nothing more?
What if we're all hiding behind complexity, shifting responsibility away from ourselves, hoping it lands on someone else. In the mix of all of the meetings, we forget that we do well in environments where we need to step up, but our default is to shy away. And in the mix of our leadership, we forget to keep things simple, and that our job is to enhance the focus, creativity, and productivity with a clear strategy, clear responsibilities...and then getting out of the way.
Real Leaders Give Compliments
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If you want to understand who in a room is generally holding most power within themselves and the group, look for the person giving compliments.
You'd think it would be the other way around, that the bully holds power because they put other people down.
But this aggression is a false-confidence. It's a display to appear confident, which in turn means that there is a doubt to their status, otherwise, there would be no reason to show this power to others.
Instead, the humble person who is giving compliments can only do so because they have so much power/abundance that they can give it away to others freely.
Leaders give compliments because they don't see others benefiting as a threat.
Leaders give compliments because they don't put others on a pedestal.
Only someone confident in themselves can compliment another.
To tell someone else, "wow, you are incredibly smart, and what you just did was excellent" is much more powerful than saying "what you did was terrible and I think you are stupid."
To complain about others and try and bring them down is an attempt to pull yourself up, relative to them, which means you believe you are "below" them in status to begin with.
This both feels terrible and is ineffective in relationships.
Real leaders give compliments.
Hiring for Depth
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In a world where decisions matter than ever, and complexity increases… value comes from understanding nuance.
Not to make this about COVID, but I believe we're all learning now that when we see the huge variety of interpretations, models, predictions…we realize that there is a massive spectrum in its complexity about what to do or how to interpret where we are.
There are no right answers, only an abundance of choices. And those that see the nuances and make informed decisions weighing out these options, fair best in working with the complexity.
This type of sense-making, prediction, extrapolation, is rewarded more than ever, in business and life.
And although it's easy to take sides, binary options are shallow and simple.
Truth lives on a spectrum.
And so when we hire, we must look for the spectrum of understanding.
So when you talk with candidates... you want to know what they have to say about the subject. What their views are, do they have them? What their considerations are, have they seen down multiple paths?
You want to see how they dissect an industry, or what they predict about it.
And so hiring today should be about a conversation, one where you learn something new and get a feel for how they see the world.
Hiring today should be looking at their writing, if they have it, where you see them think out loud.
Do they dig deeper into the topic, and point out things that you had never considered or seen?
Do they ask you questions? Are they trying to utilize your knowledge simply to learn more, even in one conversation?
We all know we want to hire people who are smarter than we are.
But how do you identify that?
If you can look beyond IQ and Hard Work, you can try and understand the quality of their understanding in a field.
Like a professional drummer, do they have a feel for all of their instrument, the snare, the high-hat, etc. Do they have that sort of deep knowledge about the nuances?
Today industries and skills change frequently.
But depth is hard-won through curiosity, self-reflection, testing, and failure.
Depth and nuance are harder to identify than shallow status signaling – about a school or a degree.
But that's the entire point about nuance – just because it's easy to spot, doesn't mean it's valuable.
Becoming Emotionally Dynamic.
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As artists, we have access to a wide range of the emotional spectrum through which we can tap into.
Great art can be created from passion and energy and it can be created from sadness or grief.
But get too stuck on either side, in the passion, or in the self-destructive, and we lose our dynamism.
And so creating art is a balance of emotions.
It's the full range that is the set of colors and paints. But without the complementary sides, the work suffers.
Because art is about connecting to the human experience.
And the full human experience exists in the full range.
What we're to do then, is to maintain a balance. To remember not to return to the same paint for every creation.
And this is the hardest part: To allow the part of you that you fear or keep quiet to show up and express itself.
To reach a full state of dynamic art that connects with people – we must reach in ourselves a full state of dynamic feelings that we can experience and then translate to those around us.
Training Remote Productivity
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Since 2013 I've worked for myself, and so I've experimented with all different types of setups and routines.
I'm fairly obsessive about understanding even subtle changes to my energy, productivity or wellbeing.
If you think about Olympic athletes, they train each day to stretch the limits of their ability, and they look at every possible variable for improvement.
I find it interesting that there is less of a focus in offices on coaching. And less of a focus of CEO-as-Coach relationship, where the CEO acts as an Olympic coach would – helping set structures, routine and even assisting with areas like diet, mindset, and health to help people perform at their best.
Here are some things I think about to perform at my best. Note that I'm also changing things up to test and learn and that what works for me might not work for you at all.
That said, with so many people working remotely now, I figure my last 7 or 8 years of practice has taught me some things…
Most people work at one desk, in one location all day.
I learned that my brain is better at completing certain tasks in certain environments. And that space really matters to me, which includes lighting, cleanliness, and things like the size of my monitor or desk.
If I had it my way, I would have multiple rooms in one office. Each room would vary.
I'd have a public room for meetings, open, with big windows and air.
I'd have a room for general admin, like email, etc.
And then I'd have a room with less technology, maybe even no phones aloud, that is for writing and deep work. This room would be fairly quiet with less bright lighting.
To simulate this in normal times, I'll pick a task or a set of them and go to a particular coffee shop. For example, I'll set up 3 hours of work, walk to the shop, do the work and then return.
The breaks in between help as well.
I like this app called Rise Science which tracks your sleep and then gives you a suggested schedule for your day based on peak hours of alertness.
Right now I'm getting up at 4:30-5 to work first thing in the morning. I find it's the only time I can truly do my deep work (like room 3 above) and I aim for about 2 or 3 hours of that if possible.
Work from ~9-12 is more admin, and I allow myself into my inbox, Slack, and Twitter (more often than I'd like).
Midday for me is low energy. I have a light lunch and this is when I tend to read, work out, or go for a walk and listen to podcasts.
If I work out, my energy starts coming back and that's when I like to take my calls if I can.
So I schedule calls for my afternoon.
Strangely, right after dinner (at 5) is another time where I have a lot of energy. I can get another hour, hour and a half in of work at that time before I shut down.
Of course sleep matters, and if you really pay attention it affects a few areas.
Anxiety. I believe there is a direct connection with a lack of sleep and anxiety. Low-grade anxiety is triggered by the body being overtired, and it's way easier to "put me over the edge" here where I notice it if my sleep is off.
I also think I can get too much sleep. And 8-10 hours actually reduces my energy during the day if I have that too many days in a row. So for me, it's a sweet spot.
I take Zinc and 5HTP before bed typically which I've found to help make a difference. I also use a mask as I don't have blackout curtains.
By far the biggest impact on my wellbeing is my diet. Next is working out. Then sleep.
I believe this is the order of things you should work on first. Everyone is different so just test how you feel.
For me, a diet of whole, non-packaged foods which are low sugar and generally low-carb is best for energy.
Breakfast is a protein shake with avocado for fat and greens (both real and powdered) which holds me over until lunch.
Lunch is a light salad (mostly greens) with a healthy dressing. Some nuts or meat can be added.
If I stick to this I have the most energy for work. But a bigger dinner with meat, eggs and some vegetables typically make me feel energized for that next hour when I complete the rest of my work. My weakness is Dark Chocolate.
As for supplements, I should probably write a post just on this.
But some that come to mind right now are Vitamin D which I believe makes a difference when you work inside often, as well as Fish-Oil.
I also typically use immunity mushroom blends in things like my smoothie and sometimes take it in pill form. I like the Stamets brand.
Coffee and Tea are used first thing in the morning, but I try and not have any more beyond that. I switch between Bulletproof coffee or Black tea and typically put that mushroom supplement in that to balance it out.
If I feel too caffeinated I take a supplement to balance that out, like L-Theanine.
I also have been experimenting with CBD tinctures, specifically the "Focus" blend from Mineral. I use one for sleep as well.
I could write a whole post on this, but I believe the above matters as much for productivity as actual habits or practices.
I generally follow Pomodoro, although I don't time it so much. I think lots of work habits revert back to working on things that are a priority and not getting trapped in email, so I spend more time trying to AVOID pitfalls than I do try to maximize successes.
A simple to-do list that is 3-5 points long is enough, and that could be on paper. I just use Notion and delete it again every day.
I also find that if I do something creative first thing, my day flows better. It's like a warm-up, so getting early success matters most.
Plenty of apps help me out as well but again that's for another time.
Hopefully, this helps you start to think about any area you haven't played with yet. This post could easily triple in length if I included all of the things I've tested or still test.
But it's all about what works for you. Ignore everything/all that doesn't apply.
But today we can train like athletes, and the tools and information are out there, so I thought I'd share.
How about you?
What is the best thing you've learned about yourself and work? What makes the biggest difference?