Why Paying Attention Matters

I pay attention to emails like this—most people delete them. You’re about to understand why I ask “What can I learn from this?” before clicking delete:

Sent: Wed 2/9/2011 12:05 PM

To: John Barry, Joe Media, Cindy Publicist, Christina Marketer

Cc: Jack Editor, Sally Publisher, Jill CEO, Fran VP, Lloyd Author, Mike Agent

Subject: My Book is Incredible, You Should Review It

I just published my new book. I would love to send you a review copy. What’s your address?

–Neil Writer

P.S. I only want publicity, but knowing you would be cool. (Ghost writer exaggeration minimal.)

I could see the (often bad) query emails I receive as a nuasince, but I view them as an opportunity. In addition to being an opportunity to be kind and helpful, sometimes they’re an opportunity to meet new people.

Three lessons from Neil Writer’s email:

  1. Don’t bulk email your friends, or people you want to be friends with. This seems like common sense, yet people still do it. Building relationships is different than marketing a product.
  2. Don’t share someone’s contact info with the world. I don’t mind—my contact info is on this site—but other people do. (If you shared my cell phone number, though, I may feel differently.)
  3. Always see who is on the Cc line. You could make a new friend.

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Business is about Friendships

In business, we tend to spend most of our energy making deals, but in the rest of life our priorities are different. We buy things for our family members, we have friends over for dinner, and we give our time freely to those in need. The idea of treating business relationships differently perplexes me.

When I first started negotiating I thought it was all about the deal. It’s true that closing is all that matters when negotiating—just like shipping is all that matters when creating a product—but you rarely close because you spoke the right words. Closing is about trust.

Fast, smooth talking people are on their way out; soon they won’t have a place in the business world. The era of people willing to invest in relationships has begun, again. Many people predicted that social media would isolate us, but it’s done the opposite in business: It’s made it easier to get to know someone. Social media has done something else as well, that I don’t think many people have noticed. Social media has made it easier to find out if someone is telling the truth. It’s made it easier for me to trust some people, and it’s also made it easier for me to prove that someone is untrustworthy. (You heard that last line right—I’m verifying what you tell me.)

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Say Hi to the New Guy

I’ve often heard people say, “He’s not worth talking with, he’s new to their company—our ideas won’t get far with him.” I’ve found the opposite to be true. The person new at a company is the most likely to talk with you and promote your ideas.

When you’re new to a company, you want to prove that you’re valuable. Thus, you’re likely to promote any good idea that comes across your desk. Given, some people will just hunker down and do what they’re told instead of promoting new ideas, but these aren’t the decision makers. These aren’t the marketing managers, publishers, editors and vice presidents.

When I want help from another company where I don’t have a contact yet, I try to find the newest decision maker. Like me, they want new friends. And they’re willing to think outside the box, because that’s why they were hired.

The same is true in your own company. The new person on the team is the most likely to have crazy ideas, and to bring a new mindshare. I have a habit of taking the new person at the company out to lunch or to coffee. I genuinely want to get to know them, and let them know that I’m someone they can count on; I also want to hear their ideas, and help them promote the best ones.

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The Best and Worst Writing

“The best and worst of reading can be found in academic journals. A subscription to an academic journal that touches on your business, product, or service is guaranteed to provide something exciting enough to keep you up all night as well as hundreds of pages of text that can help you get back to sleep.” —Bob Pritchett, Fire Someone Today, pg. 131.

Academic writing can teach us two things: give us great ideas, and help us realize how bad writing can be.

Most academic writing is bad. Why is it that some of the most educated people in the world are the worst writers? Academics often speak jargon. As a consequence, the quality of their writing is diminished. Less jargon equals better writing. Simplicity is preferred. But if you get past the jargon, as Bob Pritchett (who I work for), says: you will find “something exciting enough to keep you up all night.”

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Here’s the Truth

“Here’s the truth that you have to wrestle with: the reason that art (writing, engaging, leading, all of it) is valuable is precisely why I can’t tell you how to do it. If there were a map, there’d be no art, because art is the act of navigating without a map. Don’t you hate that? I love that there’s no map.” —Seth Godin, Linchpin, pg. 188

Where’s the fun in having a map? We have too many people who live their lives in compliance—without questioning, or thinking for themselves. I’ve often said,May God keep us from being like thinkers.” That phrase holds true in business as well.

We need more people who are willing to risk everything for the sake of making something beautiful. Why do you do what you do? Be honest with yourself. Are rebels really that bad? No. Rebels against bad systems are great leaders, fantastic CEOs—they’re Michelangelos and William Blakes.

You may want a bunch of compliant lemmings working for you—I don’t. I want people who will challenge me. I want people who think all of my ideas are bad, and all of my writing stinks. Because if they don’t, my ideas and writing will never get better. I want people who will convince me that I can be better than I am. And I want people who are convinced that they can be better than they are. I want people who want to change the world. If they don’t want that, I don’t want to work with them.

But wanting something isn’t enough. You have to be willing to hire those kind of people, and then listen when they do what you hired them for: rabble rousing. If we really want free thinking, then we need to help other people be free.

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Know Thy Limits–Know Thy Self

I’ve seen too many people say yes to something only to find out six months later that they’re not capable of producing the project. Or perhaps even worse, they weren’t really called to it.

You have to expand before you invent. You can’t just wake up one day and decide to build a rocket to the moon, you have to start with building spontaneous combustion engines. And before that, you have to play with gun powder, and get a little burnt.

Highly-driven people—type-As—have a hard time saying no. This yes-only nature leads to both success and failure. It can help you produce lots of work, but the work won’t be quality, which means only one thing: you will regret saying yes later.

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Learn to Fail Faster

“Everything he writes is great the first time. It’s amazing: he writes it down and it’s beautiful. He doesn’t need to rewrite his work at all.”

When I heard someone lift up one of their leaders this way, I thought, “No way. It can’t be true. He just doesn’t see the process—he only sees the final product.” I still believe that. Writing is rewriting.

Good writers don’t publish their first draft. Good writers fail faster than other writers. They rewrite their work quicker. They find the best parts of what they wrote, condense their writing down to that alone, and then publish it.

Editing can be grueling. But that’s why it’s a science and an art. Like engineering, it requires both sides of your brain and thus isn’t for everyone. Nonetheless, I think anyone can learn to edit. You just have to be very hard on yourself. Like any art form, there aren’t shortcuts, but there are tricks. (More on that in a later post.)

No one is exempt from this rule. Everyone needs to edit their own work, and everyone needs an editor. My last “Letter from the Editor” in Bible Study Magazine went through five complete rewrites. But I didn’t spend more time on it than usual, because editing has become part of my process. The rewriting process actually takes me less time than the writing process used to.

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Failing May Mean Success

Successful people fail often. They generate bad ideas until they find a good one. They launch failing products until one is successful and makes up for all the rest. Nothing can replace the learning curve. Don’t believe me? Watch this video.

Now ask yourself: why not? What have you got to lose? Go try something. You may be successful. You may fail. But at least you learned. Next time, your chances of success will be higher. (It’s as if all hands on deck are telling me this message recently: Seth Godin and Scott Berkun, to name specifics.)

I’m not saying, “Go out there and be stupid. I’m also not saying, “Go out there and create something just because you can. And feel free to go bankrupt in the process.”

I’m saying something entirely different: “You have dreams for a reason. Ideas are in your head for a reason. Stop saying no to them, and start pursuing the best of them.” Because if you don’t pursue your ideas, you may die and the opportunity will die with you. Sounds extreme, but hey, you only get one chance at life. I didn’t make up the rules.

Shipping a Product is a Discipline

“The discipline of thrashing is to refuse to start work on the next step of the project until each item is approved, in writing. ‘Later,’ is not the way you ship.” –Seth Godin, Ship It

The best way to ship a product is to discuss every item of the project, make a decision, and then move forward. “Later” may not happen. People who ship products subject themselves to the decisions they (and others) have already made. They stick with their decisions unless their hand is forced. Don’t compromise, or go back, unless you have to do so. Most “have-tos” are knee-jerk reactions and actually aren’t necessary.

In old school project management, Seth’s method was described as: “Focus on project-critical tasks: the tasks that other things depend upon.” In other words, move the road blocks first.

What methods do you use to move road blocks? How do you move towards ship day, and then ship?

Note: Ship It is an affiliate link. I’ve been using it as a resource for a project I’m working on—I highly recommend it.

Anything Can Be Leading

“The truth is sir, you never really play at 100%—no matter what,” says Francous, the Rugby captain, in Invictus the film.

“Ah, in sports as in life.” … responds Nelson Mandela, the President of South Africa. … “What is your philosphy on leadership? How do you inspire your team to do their best?”

“By example,” says Francous. …

“That is exactly right,” says Mandela. “But how to get them to be better than they think they can be? That is very difficult I find. … Inspiration, perhaps. How do we inspire ourselves to greatness, when nothing else will do? How do we inspire everyone else around us? I sometimes think it is by using the work of others. On Robin Island [where I was imprisoned], when things got very bad, I found inspiration in a poem. … Just words, but they helped me to stand when all I wanted to do was lie down. … [Later, at the Barcelona Olympics, a song everyone sang] inspired me to come home and do better. … We need inspiration. Because in order to build our nation, we must all exceed our own expectations.”

Greatness is a concept that we often discuss, but something very few achieve. That fact is troubling. If most of us aren’t achieving greatness, or in the process of achieving greatness, then we must be doing something wrong.

Maybe if we led a little more by example, things would change. Perhaps accepting that none of us are really playing at 100% would make a difference. At one point, I wrote about my (then) new friend, vulnerability. Being willing to be vulnerable with my colleagues and friends has helped us all achieve greater things. I realized then, and now, that none of us ever play at 100%, and that our best moments are when we admit that we can improve, and then do so. We are better for doing so.

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