With more than half of the winter now behind us, I’m relieved to see longer daylight hours and some mild temperatures (apart from the windchill)! With the advent of Valentine’s Day, I’ve begun to dream of spring. Have you, as well?
Today, a light layer of frost covers my office window. But the sun breaks through it cheerfully, as I work another busy month at preparing your marketing and communications materials.
Last month’s issue featured Twyla Tharp’s and Dani Shapiro’s insights on creative failure and how to work through it. Thank you to those of you who wrote to tell me that you found that content valuable!
In keeping with that theme, in this month’s issue I provide a precis of Seth Godin’s latest book, asking from his point of view how we can overcome or surpass creative fear and failure. I’ll also feature Tara Mohr on the complementary problem of how often women–and some men–in business hide from our own potential. I’ll share some thoughts by writers in “Word Nerd’s Corner”; and I’ll update you on sundries in the usual “Shop News.”
Enjoy this issue and happy mid-February!
CEO, Elizabeth Shih Communications
On Surpassing Creative Fears and Failures: Reading Seth Godin’s What To Do When It’s Your Turn (and it’s always your turn) (2014)
Reading a new book by celebrated marketer Seth Godin is always an opportunity for growth, for creatives of any field. His latest book could well be paraphrased as “Feel the Fear . . . and Do it Anyway,” since it addresses the role of fear in limiting creative endeavours better than the original book of that title did (i.e. Susan Jeffers’ 1987 self-help study).
Godin has long addressed the psychology of creative work. In What To Do When It’s Your Turn (and it’s always your turn), he examines the challenge that fear brings — in relation to fear itself, to failure, to freedom, to “invented” suffering and to taking our turns, for those of us who work creatively.
These fears furnish a challenge that we must meet if we are to take our turns and contribute work that is meaningful to us and not only to others (or worse, to neither).
Godin says that in the contemporary, Western, post-industrial world, where we (mostly) no longer fear ferocious animals, rampant disease or crime, so we have become adept at conjuring up fear to the point of growing afraid at the very ideas of fear and of failure.
Marketers, education systems and other aspects of Western culture reinforce such fears on a daily basis. (Consider reality shows on TV, like “The X Factor” and “Dragon’s Den,” that feature the failure of most participants.)
Godin writes: “Failure is almost never as bad as we fear it will be, but it’s our fear that we feel, not the failure” (63).
In contemporary life, fear and failure become interwoven, so that “If you’re not willing to imagine failure, you’re unable to be free” (63). There is no pain-free path, so that if you regress to being a “cog” in the wheel who takes no chances, there you will feel the pain of “not reaching your potential” and of not having your contribution heard.
“The alternative,” Godin says, “is to experience the pain” and fear “of being free,” of living with “the opportunity to make a difference” (67). To do something that matters.
While Godin is always persuasive on the psychology of fear, he makes a tall order in recommending that we let our fear pass through us. He cites Frank Herbert as saying that after the fear has gone, “Only I will remain” (71)—that only the self will be left, resilient.
Here Godin tends to bracket off people with (increasingly common) histories of intensive suffering, trauma or other psychological issues, who cannot (or not easily) get past fear and the anxiety of their circumstances. These people are called upon as much as Forbes’ “Top 30” are, to take their turns.
But Godin commands this: “Avoid certainty. Pick yourself. Postpone gratification. . . .Dance with fear. Be paranoid about mediocrity. See the world as it is. Be the boss of you” (72). And take your turn.
Everyone fears failing at their work. But he says that we must view failure as being required “in the service of learning, of experimenting, of making things—this is essential” (131). When we don’t succeed, the most urgent next step we take should be to try again and to keep on “caring” (49). Instead, we often take the easy way out by walking away and contributing no more.
But we should focus our sights on being “remarkable” (not conventional), because staying afraid or ashamed of our failures and of fear, itself, allows “mediocrity and compromise”to creep in (141).
He challenges us not to hide behind “mythologies” like “writer’s block” or concepts such as motivation, genius, courage, bravery and inspiration, which we assume are compulsory for our success. By hiding, we fail to see the “cultural and economic shift” in the world that makes it our turn to create and to commit to the work of “pitching in” now (39; see Tara Mohr on “hiding” in article three of this issue).
We need to give up looking for ways to be “comfortable enough” to do the work, when in fact everyone is “capable of creating work that matters only if we’re willing to be uncomfortable while we do it” (45).
We also must stop “inventing suffering” by feeling anxious about failure in advance, as “tortured twisting and self-recrimination, judging ourselves for things we haven’t even done yet” (48).
So in Godin’s views, fears of fear itself, of failure, of freedom and of invented suffering can all function as roadblocks to our creative work. And he takes his title (What To Do When It’s Your Turn) from the idea that everyone is given a “turn” (in fact, many) to take and create or develop something extraordinary in their fields of interest.
You can be the person who waits for change to happen, to be picked to do the next demanding thing. This person, when metaphorically stuck on an escalator, waits and calls for help.
Or you can be an active turn taker who “makes change” that is “interesting [and] for the better, and . . . that connects us to someone else.” This turn taker uses his or her freedom to create, “to seek out the tension it brings” (16). When stuck on an escalator, this person starts to walk.
Godin writes that getting off the escalator appears to be risky, but really isn’t:“Standing still is the riskiest plan of all” (121).
Godin’s call-to-action is to be that turn taking agent of change who tolerates the discomfort that change brings. Don’t wait for permission or to feel “qualified” and don’t expect gratitude: “It’s merely your turn to give a gift” (103). Whether you succeed or fail in conventional terms, you will have endured and overcome your greatest fears and anxieties.
Godin says:“No place to hide is the only place to be” (114). All one ever has to say is “I made this. . . . It was my idea. I decided to do it” (114). And, let the critics go hang.
On Godin’s Contribution:
At times I question some of Godin’s arguments on psychology, in which some aspects of human personality are less malleable than he implies. At times he rushes over anxiety and related emotions. Many of these issues could provide the basis of other books on creative work and practice.
But he nonetheless shares valuable insights that resonate strongly with me. They may work similarly, for you.
You might be heartened to know finally that Godin practices what he preaches. His book jacket says that “he creates projects, many of which end up failing.”
To close, some of his early lines in the book encapsulate his argument well:
“[It’s] Your turn to Ship. Speak up. Stand out . . . .
Be missed if you’re gone.
Your turn to make a ruckus” (8).
Your efforts “might not work. It might not be fun. I hope you’ll do it anyway” (9).
How can you take your turn to regularly create something that has meaning and value to you and others?
What fears and anxieties can you set aside, to go on creating?
And, in doing so, how can you connect with others in your work?
Nerd Alert! Word Nerd Corner: Quotations on Writers, Reading and Writing . . .
— “The true writer has nothing to say. What counts is the way he says it” (Alain Robbe-Grillet)
–“The road to unfinished work is paved with good intentions” (Paul R. Martin)
–“The pen is the tongue of the mind” (Miguel de Cervantes)
–“If a young writer can refrain from writing, he shouldn’t hesitate to do so” (Andre Gide)
–“If you don’t read for pleasure, you’ll lose your edge as a writer” (Nora Roberts)
–“I never read a book before reviewing it. It prejudices me so” (Sydney Smith)
(Please send me your writers’ jokes and quotations via the “contact” page at www.elizabethshih.com. Next month, I return to “wordsmithing” with Bryan Garner: Stay tuned!)
From an Expert…
Who: Tara Mohr
Where: Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message (2014)
What: On “hiding” from our own creative potential in business . . .
Just as Seth Godin writes about the need to resist our own efforts to” hide” when creative work becomes challenging (see article one in this issue), Tara Mohr, an expert on women’s leadership, a business coach and author, argues that many of us women, and some men, hide our own capacities, agency and brilliance to avoid “playing big” in business and in creative sectors.
In her book, Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message (2014), Mohr names six specific strategies for hiding that we business creatives often unconsciously use to undermine our opportunities to play on a “bigger” scale. And we do so while believing that we’re being diligent or getting prepared:
(1) Hiding Strategy Number One: “This Before That”
Mohr’s female coaching clients often believe that there’s a compulsory order in which things need to happen. For instance, one woman says: “I need to save money for a web designer to build me a website, before I can begin to teach classes on x topic” (paraphrase). These are false and limiting stories that let women “stay in [our] comfort zone” (147). “This” does not have to precede “that,” Mohr says.
(2) Hiding Strategy Number Two: “Designing at the Whiteboard”
When a business creator develops a product or service without getting outside feedback from customers or other stakeholders, s/he is said to be “designing at the whiteboard.” This approach to work might seem reasonable, but usually “brings disaster” (128). For instance, an entrepreneur may spend hours revamping her resume without any information about what hiring managers are actually seeking for a position.
The work flops because it’s not anchored in the reality of the people whom we want to reach. This behaviour also feels safe to us because it’s free from the others’ “criticism and rejection.” (150).
(3) Hiding Strategy Number Three: “Overcomplicating and Endless Polishing”
Mohr cites the example of a woman who is a breast cancer survivor and wants to create a short, web-based guide for women with the illness. But she quickly overworks the project into an elaborate day planner with an online discussion forum. All of the ensuing costs and technical complexity stop her progress.
Mohr argues here that many businesses offer one basic product or service, so simple is often enough.
(4) Hiding Strategy Number Four: “Collecting and Curating Everyone Else’s Ideas”
Mohr writes that we women and some men often have an opportunity to speak when we find something that is “missing from the conversation.” But instead of saying it, we often “curate other people’s ideas about it” (153)!
Sometimes these other projects are needed. But more often they are designed to showcase other people’s ideas, instead of the more frightening work of “claiming [our] own thought leadership (154).
(5) Hiding Strategy Number Five: “Omitting Your Own Story”
Often women and some men who have successful careers don’t disclose to colleagues (and others) personal experiences that would help promote the “true aim” behind a project. To disclose personal experience can offer us an opportunity to speak on overcoming adversity and can make our work more influential.
Mohr uses the example of a survivor of childhood violence who becomes a successful academic, but hesitates to disclose her life experience to hide from advocating for others. Instead of sharing experience, we try to remain invisible.
(6) Hiding Strategy Number Six: “I Need the Degree . . . .”
Finally, often women and some men hide behind the need for education. Mohr doesn’t dispute that education is important. But postponing the need to earn a living for further education allows many women and some men to stay within a “psychological comfort zone.”
There we do not confront feelings of inadequacy in ourselves. We convince ourselves that further study will prepare us for stepping into “roles as leaders, creators and change agents” (160).
Mohr gives an example of a literacy specialist who thinks she needs a “degree in outdoor education” to be create an interactive program to teach children how to read.
What serves ourselves and others best is our authenticity and experience, when oftener than not we have enough education to prepare us for our work.
But here is good news: we’re already well-equipped to “play big.” And to play bigger is to create a better world, Mohr says.
We needn’t hide behind false strategies out of fear.
As Seth Godin says (see article one, in this issue), we need only to step up and “take the turns” that life presents us with.
What strategy for hiding have you used today, or in the past?
How can you take positive action to overcome something that’s intimidating you today?
In mid-January, I was inspired by a great presentation for Saskatoon’s Raj Manek Mentorship Program by Joanne Paulson (JCP Communications), on developing a communication strategy for one’s business.
Elsewhere, I felt fortified by hearing fellow freelance writers’ diverse approaches to non-fiction, business, creative and academic writing at my Freelancers’ Roundtable meeting. Thanks to its members for their invigorating words.
Also in mid-January, I enjoyed meeting self-employed local businesswomen from diverse fields at a monthly luncheon of the Saskatoon Women’s Network (SWN). Thanks to Dianna Chen-Bitinsky and Valerie Adrian for the warm welcome.
And thanks to a mostly balmy January, I have enjoyed walking along the Meewasin Trail. Given recent media coverage of the health risks of sitting too much, those walks have been therapeutic! I hope that you also are finding a reprieve for body and mind from stationary patterns at work.
About Us . . .
Since 2011, Elizabeth Shih Communications has provided B2B marketing and communications services on the Prairies and across Canada.
Do you need help writing your “marcom” materials? Please contact me through my website, via the CASL-compliant email form, on each page at www.elizabethshih.com.
Once I have received your permission, I’ll be delighted to discuss projects with you!
I help small- and medium-sized businesses create e-newsletters and related communication that secure good clients. Please visit my website for more information (www.elizabethshih.com).