“I’ve heard a lot about you,” the new employee at my client’s company told me. “The CEO sings your praises.”
Said CEO was also on the phone. I started to say, “Well, at least half of it is true.” And then I thought‚ why should I say that about myself?
Instead I heard a voice saying this:
“Aww…multiply it all by two.”
Who said that? Was it really me?
Reader, it was.
Fortunately everyone laughed. I did too. Later the CEO said I should multiply by two everything I’d heard about his new employee. So we were even; that felt right.
Toward the end of the call, the CEO tried to sell me on a new project they wanted me to write, a project I’ve already turned down once. “We think you’d do a great job,” he said.
“I know I wou—” A bout of nervous laughter stopped me in mid-word. “Can you tell I’m working on my self-esteem?”
The rusty tap of self-esteem
Have you ever had a rusty water tap in your garden? The handle turned freely last summer, but a winter of disuse has rusted it shut. So you tug and tug at it and you eventually decide the garden can wait another day.
The next time you try, you tug just as hard and the thing spews out water like Niagara Falls. You were treating it like a rusted-shut spigot, but someone loosened it yesterday and didn’t tell you.
As far as I knew, I was the only one with her hands on the spigot of my self-esteem. And it’s been tough to turn for ages. But after more than a year of coaching, something has shifted in me.
It feels marvelous, really freeing. But you don’t need Niagara Falls to water your hydrangeas. So while I’m banishing self-deprecating remarks forever, I’ll only turn on the self-esteem tap maybe once per conversation. I don’t want to over-water my clients.
The women at my table went wild, which surprised me. All I’d done was answer the ice-breaker question “What’s the most fun you’ve ever had at a business event?” For some reason, a 30-year-old story bubbled up in my mind. I’d locked it away in my story vault — probably haven’t told it more than twice since it happened.
But I told it that night.
And when I saw how my listeners reacted to it, I realized it’s not just an amusing story; it’s an important story. It says something about me and about how my clients value me. It points to possibilities—if that can happen to me, it can happen to you, too, when you own your expertise.
I had locked the story away for decades because it felt like bragging. I’ll bet you have a story vault of your own.
DIY — do-it-yourself. Is that the way you learn best? Me too.
I’ve been a DIY learner pretty much my whole life. One day when I was a toddler, I heard one of my mother’s teacher friends talking about my education. She mentioned the time—still some years off—when I would learn to count by twos.
“I can already count by twos!” I announced indignantly. And indeed I could. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing, but once she named the skill I recognized the game I’d made up with my grandmother’s playing cards.
Many years later, I bought something that looked like a counted cross-stitch pattern book and was working through one of the pieces when I encountered a stitch I couldn’t figure out. I went back to the store for advice and the proprietor said, “Oh, that’s probably in the beginners’ book.”
There’s a beginners’ book? I’d done it again—taken a skill that some people find impenetrable and taught it to myself.
For the record, it wasn’t counted cross-stitch; it’s a Norwegian craft called Hardanger. I made this altar cloth for my old church using the technique, which turns ordinary linen into something resembling lace. And, yep, I’ve still never had a lesson in my life.
If you’re a DIY learner like I am, you may think that what you already know about writing is sufficient.
Well, is it?
Are you satisfied with the work you turn out, or do you secretly wish you could be a stronger, more consistent writer?
You don’t need the “beginners’ book.” You just need a nudge in the right direction. Someone to point out great writing techniques you may want to emulate. Analyses to get you reading more intentionally—reading like a writer
And because writing can so often slip to the bottom of the to-do list, maybe you’d like a reminder every now and then, a writing prompt to kickstart your creativity.
A DIY writing program
That’s exactly why I created The Weekly What—a yearlong DIY writing program.
Every week you get a writing prompt. Use it or save it for the proverbial rainy day. And every other week you also get my personal analysis of a piece of great writing: a speech, a magazine or newspaper article, a blog, an essay. (Full disclosure: there may be more than one piece about baseball.)
Read and absorb these at your leisure. And then join us once a month for a group discussion with your fellow Weekly What-ers. Swap insights about the analyses. Talk about how you’ve used the techniques in your own writing. There’s nothing as validating as hearing someone else struggle with the same challenges you’re facing.
I’ll be releasing the next cycle of The Weekly What starting on October 4th. But register by October 1st and you’ll get a half-hour private coaching session with me, absolutely free.
If do-it-yourself hasn’t done it for you yet, this may just be the extra support you need.
As far as we know, Samantha Bennett and I are not related, but we’re both smart, funny, (and humble—can’t forget humble), and Steve Goodman fans, so I’m not ruling anything out. Originally from Chicago, Sam is a writer, speaker, actor, teacher and creativity/productivity specialist. She created The Organized Artist Company to help creative people get unstuck so they can focus and move forward on their goals. And she is the beloved author of two lavishly subtitled books: Get It Done: From Procrastination to Creative Genius in 15 Minutes a Day and Start Right Where You Are: How Little Changes Can Make a Big Difference for Overwhelmed Procrastinators, Frustrated Overachievers and Recovering Perfectionists (New World Library). —Elaine
You are an Upside-Down Duck
by Samantha Bennett
You know how ducks look so calm gliding along the surface, but underneath they are paddling like mad?
Sometimes I think you are the upside-down of that.
On the surface, you appear to be in chaos.
Too much clutter.
Can’t focus and don’t want to be hemmed in.
Dashing from one idea to the next.
Barely scraping by.
The people around you must feel like they are watching a high-wire act.
“Why doesn’t she just get a real job?” they wonder.
“Does everything have to be so emotional?” they sigh.
And you feel criticized and misunderstood and lonely and like you were born into a world that doesn’t have a place for you.
But I know the truth about you:
You are powerful beyond measure.
You have deep reserves of strength.
(After all, look at all you’ve survived…)
You have a light that is so bright—beyond the sun bright—you probably even got told to turn it down a bit.
(“You’re too dramatic, too loud, too big, too needy, too serious, too dreamy….”)
But just because you put your light under that bushel doesn’t mean it went away.
And as soon as you decide that it’s OK with you if your light shines into the world, you have some terrific opportunities. (Don’t skip over the significance of that decision: is it really OK with you if you get famous? Are you willing to lose a bit of privacy? Is it OK with you if you become more visible in the world?)
I’m here to tell you—there has never been a better time to be a teller of stories and a maker of things.
If you can wrap your head around the idea that the way you create is the way you succeed, you will become unstoppable. That is to say, you can create success in the exact same way that you create any other project. It can come from the same place inside of you. And it can feel as delicious as anything else you’ve ever made.
So what does that mean, exactly?
It means you can build a fan base by sending them love letters. Or by talking to them about Moroccan cooking. You can collect emails in exchange for a daily musing on reality television, or the work of Edward Albee. You can combine your talents and skills and put them on display to the world in a way that feels fun for you.
Here are a few examples:
A client of mine with a full-time corporate job was dreaming of starring in her own Oprah-style talk show. I told her to go outside right this moment and make a one-minute video about something inspiring and post it, and then do that every day. She took me at my word, and a year later she had several hundred short inspirational videos and a growing tribe of loyal followers.
Another client was a photographer who loved working in film (old-school film) and further, she realized that everything having to do with computers both annoyed her and aggravated her auto-immune disorder. So she began communicating with her clients and galleries strictly by mail, sending hand-written notes on lovely, creamy stationery. She became known as an exclusive, high-end, “artisanal” photographer, and now she keeps having to raise her rates because her schedule is always full.
I also had a client who simply could not get her marketing act together. She couldn’t finish her website, she didn’t like Facebook, she halfway started a podcast but then gave up….I was becoming concerned that her dream of empowering women and girls was going to end up in a dust heap of almosts-but-not-quites.
Finally I asked her, “What do you LIKE to do?” She said, “I like talking to people.” And it was true—she could strike up a conversation with a brick wall. So I said, “Fine. Do that. Spend at least one hour each day walking around places where people are gathered and have at least two conversations with strangers. Just see where it takes you.” Three days later she had talked herself into a meeting with the head of the local girls’ school to discuss adding her entire curriculum to their after-school program.
You are allowed to market your work your way. It almost doesn’t matter what you do—as long as you are doing something that lights you up and getting it out there.
Underneath your surface feelings of confusion, overwhelm, self-doubt and “sparkly thing” distractability, there is a calm, powerful knowing. Once you allow yourself to lean in to your strengths, your idiosyncrasies, and your desire to serve the world, you will get the opportunity to share your gifts in a bigger way.
You know that you have some very special skills that can really help people.
But you need to start making choices from your center of power and your inner wisdom. You need to lean in to your weirdness, your excitement and your nerdy-ness. Then you can stop relying on crappy part-time jobs and erratic windfalls. You can take control.
You can choose to live from your power, not from your chaos.
So quit thinking that you need to get all your ducks in a row, and instead embrace the odd duck that is so delightfully and unmistakably YOU.
Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join Elaine for her popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about growth.
I got drunk yesterday. On creativity—it would have to be creativity since I don’t drink alcohol. (Well, the occasional sip of a fine Champagne if it’s on offer. I mean, you’d have to be crazy to pass that up. But anyway, the creativity. It wasn’t mine—not yesterday. It was my writers’. And that was even better than Veuve Cliquot.
I spent yesterday morning in two private coaching sessions, working with writers on pieces so beautiful they brought me to tears. One was literally gut-wrenching, a powerfully emotional experience for both writer and reader. And then I went right into a webinar to celebrate the 5×15 Writing Challenge that ended yesterday. That session turned into an impromptu writers’ group—a taste of some of what we’ll be up to in the 90-Day Writing Challenge beginning July 1st.
And after two hours of emotions seesawing between the sadness and anger provoked by one writer’s piece and the joy of seeing the creativity unleashed by this group of writers—after two hours of that…what can you do?
What I was supposed to do was dive into my corporate speechwriting; I had a ton of work on my plate. But much as I love my clients, their content can’t compare with an emotional punch in the gut. Clearly I needed to sober up before I could work.
In a perfect world, I would have been able to take the rest of the day off. Sit with some of the emotions my writers stirred up. Celebrate their accomplishments. Savor the small role I played in facilitating them.
But the “perfect world”—at least my perfect world—bans all deadlines. And, alas, the world I currently live in does not.
So I took the dog for a walk and I took myself out to lunch. I drank lots of strong, hot tea.
But great writing doesn’t just vanish because you’ve upped your caffeine intake. It hangs around. Hangs…yes, I suppose I had a creativity hangover.
I did eventually get my writing done and delivered. I’d promised it to my client by close of business—and warned her that it might mean close of business in California. Or someplace in the Pacific. I got it to her before 5pm in L.A. Not ideal, since my client is on the East Coast. But if she’d heard the things I heard yesterday, she would have been drunk, too.
Yoda—the anthropomorphic turtle/Buddha from the Star Wars movies–offered a great kick-in-the-pants for writers. And, okay, Luke Skywalker too. Yoda said:
“Do. Or do not. There is no ‘try.'”
If you find yourself saying things like, “I have this idea for what I want to write—I’ve had it for a long time—but—” it doesn’t really matter how that sentence ends.
I don’t believe you’ll ever do it. And, honestly, I don’t believe you do, either.
You know how to write. You’ve probably been doing it since at least the first grade, forming squiggles into words. So write.
Don’t create a project so complex that you need a Ph.D. before thinking about starting. Don’t make excuses about software or hardware. Nothing to write on? Grab a pencil and the nearest roll of paper towels. Just start making those word-squiggles. Do it. No excuses.
Yoda would have hated Hamlet
I’ve been at least half in love with Hamlet, that melancholy prince, ever since I read Shakespeare’s play in high school. But if I met the guy IRL—”in real life,” as the kids have probably already stopped texting—I would shake him by the shoulders and scream, “Decide, already!”
I think Yoda would have yelled at him, too: “Be. Or not be. There is no question.”
Life’s too short for indecision. Decide what you want to do and do it. Decide what you don’t want to do and—here’s a shock—don’t do it. What’s so hard about that?
Okay, I’ll give Hamlet a break: Deciding whether you’re going to kill your uncle may not be quite as easy as “Steak or Italian tonight?” But deciding to write? It’s a no-brainer. Especially if you’ve made a commitment to do it.
The majority of the people who started my 5×15 Writing Challenge last week actually finished it—more than 73% of them! More than one posted their work with a comment like:
“Probably would not have written it but for the 5×15 :)”
There’s no “try” in that one; only “do.” And I love it. Yoda would, too.
You know things are bad when the staff wakes you up before dawn.
My trusty Canine Assistant, Fenway, roused me from a deep sleep at 4:30 a.m. (Yes, we share a bed; don’t tell HR.) The poor thing has been under the weather the last couple of days and she felt I needed to know, at 4:30 in the freaking morning, that she still hadn’t improved.
It was going to be one of those days when I had far more work than time, so I decided to accept Fenway’s nudge (perhaps she was just being a good project manager) and get out of bed. Some thirteen hours later, I am the literal definition of the phrase “dog-tired.”
And I have been working all that time, except for a brief interlude at the vet’s. “My dog has been listless all day,” I told them when I called. So of course she paraded into the office waving her tail like a flag on the Fourth of July.
Dog-tired at 5p.m. Friday
I had my finger poised on the trackpad, ready to click “shut down” when I saw an email from one of my writers. She wanted to sign up for the program I launched today (of which more later), but the math was wrong on the link—I had set the price $100 too high.
Clearly that wasn’t an error I could let slide until tomorrow.
So I fixed the link, pasted the revised code on my website, clicked “update” and…remembered that I didn’t yet have a blog written for today.
Commitment, right? It doesn’t get me on the exercise bike every day, but it did drag me out of a warm bed a the other night when I remembered I hadn’t made the next day’s To Do list. I wasn’t dog-tired then, maybe just puppy-tired. And did I say the bed was warm? Nice, fluffy duvet.
But I knew I’d lose half the next day if I didn’t have the To Do list I’ve gotten so used to over the last year.
Commitment is what’s kept me writing for well over 300 days in a row at this point. It keeps me posting a new blog on the “Seth Godin schedule”: Every damn day.
And it’s beginning to take root in the writers I work with. As we wrapped up the third 5×15 Writing Challenge yesterday, I unveiled the glorious sequel—higher stakes and bigger rewards for a super-sized commitment. And, just a few hours later, I already have a firm commitment from about a quarter of the people in the most recent Challenge, with previous participants looking to climb back onboard.They know that as hard as it is to commit to something, it’s easier when you’re not going it alone. They’ve experienced the power of a supportive community coalescing in just five days and they’re eager to see how deep the roots of our relationships can go in a longer challenge. I can’t wait to see that, either. And this new challenge will offer even more support: a weekly Writers’ Group, using Zoom’s interactive videoconferencing. And one-on-one coaching time with me.
“Elaine Bennett’s Writing Challenge is an adventure in Discipline, Discovery, and Desire,” one of my writers said. I didn’t set out to create something that profound. But, thanks to the diverse and talented group of writers who’ve joined my Challenges, that’s exactly what’s happened.
Your creativity called. It wants to be taken seriously. Join us.
Q: I’m afraid of writing. How can I push back?
A: Didn’t your mother tell you it’s not nice to push?
I realized the other day that I was doing it again: procrastinating. Day after day, this project appeared on my To-Do List. Day after day, it remained the only thing not crossed off.
And then I realized: Dammit, I’m afraid.
I’ve been doing this writing thing for a long time now. You’d think by now I’d recognize fear when it came calling. I do generally recognize it faster than before—that’s progress. (This piece isn’t due for another three weeks). But still, it chagrined me that Fear was able to slip on a trench coat and a fake mustache and slip right past my defenses. I tell myself I should know better by now.
Oh, one more thing. This project I was afraid to start? It’s a presentation I’m giving. About courage.
Afraid of writing? Join the club
Everybody feels fear around their writing from time to time. Whether it’s fear of starting to write, fear of your subject matter, fear of inadequacy…Fear, like the British royal family heading to a wedding, wears many hats. If only it would adopt their distinctive wave too, it would be so much easier to spot.
The best way to get over fear of starting to write is—you will not be surprised—to write. Make a commitment to just 15 minutes a day, every day. If that feels too long, do 10—or even 5. But do it. Find an accountability partner, or join a group. I’m in the middle of leading a 5-day Writing Challenge right now. But you can sign up to hear about the next challenge I’m launching. And proceeds go to charity—so if doing something good for yourself isn’t motivation enough, do something good for someone else.
If you’ve got it in your head that you’re not creative, or you don’t deserve to spend the time on yourself, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote her book Big Magic especially for you. Seriously. Read it this minute.
One thing I often remind my coaching clients—and it’s something that helped me when I was so afraid of writing that I never did it—is:
No one needs to see it.
I emphasize this to take away the fear that someone will read your writing and say negative things about it. Also to stop you from saying negative things about it pre-emptively. While you’re creating, you can keep your writing safe and secure in your computer. Unless you print it out or email it somewhere, no one needs to see it.
Someone does need to see it eventually
First maybe a teacher. A writing group. We all improve with constructive feedback.
But don’t get so caught up in this semi-private feedback loop that you never open your work up to the public.
Trust your instinct, yes. But don’t trust your fear. If your writing group says it’s good, if your coach says it’s good—then push your little bird of a draft out of the nest and publish it. Start a blog. Put it up on Medium or HuffPo. This gets easier the more you do it. Validation awaits you—and validation feels so much better than fear.
If your writing is stuck in the closet, read Austin Kleon’s book Show Your Work! I’m not usually a fan of exclamation points, but this subject deserves one.
If you missed out on being born great and no one’s lining up to “thrust greatness upon” you, no worries. Duckworth and the experts she’s assembled argue that you can still excel.
“Greatness is many, many individual feats, and each of them is doable.”
That’s Dan Chambliss. He’s not just a sociologist, he’s also a swimmer. And he combined his two passions by doing in-depth research on how swimmers improve. When Duckworth spoke with him about the intersection of talent and persistence, he pointed her to the 19th Century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche‘s writing on “the cult of the genius”
“For if we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking….To call someone ‘divine’ means: ‘here there is no need to compete.'”
Greatness: gift or endurance?
If you’re not the “best” at something—and I use the annoying quotation marks because unless you’re running a race or something, best really is a subjective judgment—should you just stop?
Nietzsche would call you a quitter. But, hey, he’s been dead for over 100 years, so nobody’s going to pay much attention.
Perseverance has gotten all the ink; we Americans do like our so-called Protestant work ethic. And it’s even been quantified in Anders Ericsson’s so-called 10,000-hour rule. It’s an easy formula to believe in: we can tick the 10,000 hours off on our calendars. But you can’t just bang on a drum for 10,000 hours and expect to become Ringo Starr. (Actually, maybe you can…) Ericsson specified that you have to engage in “deliberate practice”—setting new goals for yourself all the time, challenging yourself to make incremental improvements.
This isn’t the kind of thing they make movies about. As Duckworth writes:
“…the most dazzling human achievements are, in fact, the aggregate of countless individual elements, each of which is, in a sense, ordinary.”
A passion to improve
But who has the capacity to stick to something, through hours (maybe even 10,000 hours) of “ordinary” actions producing at best incremental gains?
You have to work hard. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, one hour can seem like 10,000—as any youngster who’s been forced to practice a musical instrument can tell you. (Or maybe that was just me.) But if you’re passionate about your pursuit, you hardly notice the time.
If you’re passionate about improvement, it’s easy to pile up the “countless individual elements,” the incremental gains that lead to greatness.
I was so fired up a couple of weeks ago during my Jumpstart 2017 five-day writing challenge that I routinely worked until 9 or 10 at night, stopping only when my dog insisted. Twelve-hour days during a holiday week? I should have entered the new year exhausted and worn out. But I loved what I was doing, supporting my hardy group of writers—and I loved what they were doing, too. Their energy and enthusiasm proved infectious. I was in the flow.
But I understand—and they learned—that a daily writing practice is the surest route to improvement. So they wrote for five days in a row and many have continued to write daily, which absolutely thrills me.
As for my own streak, today’s Day 257. Some days I write better than others. But I write. Because I love words. And because ideas are too important to express haphazardly. Especially these days, we need to communicate clearly, authentically, memorably.
The Challenge was so much fun that I’m offering it again, from January 23rd through 27th. Write for a minimum of 15 minutes a day during each of those five days and I’ll donate your $15 registration fee to charity. The vast majority of folks who started the first challenge finished; I’m hoping for the same outcome this time. Join us.
No doubt about it, passionate communication is really the only kind of communication that sticks.
You can stuff your draft full of rhetoric and metaphor and pull out all the tricks of the writing trade. You can write a speech so good it would make Lincoln throw down his stovepipe hat and tear up the envelope on which he wrote the Gettysburg Address. But if you don’t deliver your speech with conviction—if it sounds like you’re reading somebody else’s words—that beautiful literary confection will fall flat as a soufflé in a refrigerator.
“Passion is both authentic and charismatic. We don’t fully trust people until we’ve seen them get emotional — angry, sad, ecstatic — because these moments allow us to take the measure of their values.”
Passion builds a bridge that allows the audience to connect with you.
Now, I’m not talking about Pentecostal preacher-passionate. Unless you happen to be a Pentecostal preacher you’re going to look and sound pretty ridiculous if you try to mimic that. In fact, don’t aim to “mimic” anyone. True passion can only come from one place: inside you.
More from Nick Morgan:
“I worked with a speaker who was telling a personal story to a large audience and revealing information that had not been public before. There was a lot of tension on his staff before the big night. We talked with the speaker about many ways that he could indicate his passion to that audience, but in the end we settled on simplicity. He stood very still and told his story very quietly. The passion came through.”
Passionate communication and the speechwriter
Nick Morgan’s bio on Forbes.com identifies him as a “communication theorist and coach.” If you’ve never encountered that job description before—”communication theorist”—you’re not alone; neither have I. A sentence or two later we learn that Morgan helps “people find clarity in their thinking and ideas – and then deliver[…] them with panache.”
I’m a big fan of panache. And of clarity. Panache and clarity may grab an audience, but there’s no guarantee they’ll hold their attention. For that, my friends, you need a story. And, ideally, a speechwriter.
Because a speech needs to be more than passionate. It needs to take the listeners on a journey. It needs to show them the road forward, leave them with a clear call to action. With a writer shaping the passion and a coach encouraging the panache, you’ve got two of the three ingredients you need for a memorable speech. The third, and most important ingredient—passion—can only come from the speaker.
Morgan advises his clients to
“…prepare, just before the communication, not only what you’re going to say but how you feel about it: strongly, fully, and with all your physical being. That, after all, is where passion originates.”
I like the advice, but it skips over one key element. I’d reword it slightly:
Having prepared what you’re going to say, take a moment before delivering the communication to think about how you feel about your message. Feel the emotions strongly, fully, and with all your physical being. That, after all, is where passion originates.
Preparation is not the enemy
Too many speakers—and, apparently, speaking coaches—seem to feel that preparation signals a lack of authenticity. You won’t be surprised to learn that I disagree.
In my book, preparation signals a respect for your audience. And for the importance of your message. Yes, preparing with a speechwriter takes time. I recommend a minimum of half an hour on the phone or in person to give the writer the personal details that fuel your passion for the subject. (More, if it’s a long or significant speech.) And yes, that does add to the speaker’s already busy schedule. It’s an extra layer of complexity, for sure.
But do you want to speak with “panache” or do you actually want to say something and be remembered? No matter how passionate you are about a subject, you have to turn your passion into a call to action. Doing something like that might not be in your wheelhouse. But it is in a speechwriter’s.