Rituals: the Strange, The Inspiring, and the Straight Up Universal

In the past year, I’ve become fascinated with the idea of rituals. Not, like, the weird kind, where you have to do embarrassing things in order join some shitty club. More like the daily routine kind of rituals that inspire creativity and increase performance. Habits, if you will. We are creatures of habit, and those of us with the best habits tend to win in the end.

I decided to try out a new ritual, then. I tried listening to audiobooks between classes, so I bought Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.

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Sadly, the ritual never took hold for me; I find it annoying as hell to listen to audiobooks. The pacing is too slow, and every time I hear a good idea, there’s no way I can stop and reflect on it comfortably. Also, I space out and, as a result, probably have 50% less comprehension. I could probably write a whole post on the negatives of listening to books, but for now, I’ll just stick to my paperbacks. The book did get me thinking though, about my rituals and those of successful mentors.

Some of my strange past rituals:

-I took a poetry class sophomore year where we had to write an original poem and share it for the class every two weeks. We also had to write a process log. My professor thought mine was interesting. I’d always write my poems in one sitting on Monday nights. But before I’d write them, I’d drink 2 cups of green tea, go for a walk, and then pour myself one more cup of green tea during my writing session. While I wrote, I only listened to very loud dirty south rap.

-First semester Junior year, unless it was finals or some other busy time, I only did homework one day per week. That day (Monday), I’d take a bunch of preworkout mix around 2 pm, go lift weights for an hour, grab a protein shake, and then do all of my active work (no reading or research) for the next 4 hours with the remaining energy.

-Still today, before important meetings or final exams, I do one of two things. Option 1: I drink black coffee and play a game of chess. Option 2: I wake up early, like at dawn, and grab a cup of black coffee and a cigar with a friend. No last minute studying or preparation allowed. Then, on the way to the meeting or exam, I always listen to Kanye West’s “Power.” I’m a strange dude, but I usually ace exams, and I don’t have bad meetings. 

-As I noted in an article for RSVLTS.com, every morning, I wake up earlier than I need to, and I eat a big breakfast (always the same food: 3 eggs, 3 pieces of bacon, 1 grapefruit, and coffee with cinnamon), and I read for at least 30 minutes (twice a week, work out).

-I just added a new habit last month, as a result of a 30 day challenge: now, every night (almost every night) before bed, I journal and read fiction for at least 15 minutes. So far, it’s done wonders for my sleep.

What do you do before you write? Before meetings? Before you step on stage? Here are a few rituals of other people that I find interesting:

-Sigmund Freud smoked like 20 cigars a day.

-Hemingway woke up at 5am every day to write, even after a night of drinking (he was said to be ‘immune’ to hangovers). He also wrote standing up.

-Victor Hugo wrote naked.

-Tim Ferris “wrote from 11pm-4am or so, fueled by carefully timed yerba mate tea, Malbec, and Casino Royale left on repeat in my peripheral vision.”

-Ryan Holiday plays the same crappy song on repeat until it drones on to become a seamless blend of noise and focus

There you have it; we are all weird. There millions of other variations of strange routines successful people have used to become successful, many are direct opposites. Some work from 5-9 a.m, some work from 11-4 a.m. Some drink a shit load of coffee; other’s don’t. It’s important to find your groove, your flow, the state of mind that leads not only to a ludicrous corporate version of ‘productivity’, but to a more direct path to creative inspiration and mastery.

Distractions: Power and Limitations

Writing-and-CoffeeLast month, the first in a series of silly 30-day challenges every month of the year, I decided to take up journaling. This would be perfect. I had planned a trip to Ireland anyway–what better month to choose to journal every day? Anyway, I finished the challenge, and it was well worth it. The benefits weren’t obvious at first, but gradually became clear. I was more focused. I felt more organized, and over all, more level-headed.

Anyway, I found an entry from midway through the month. I’d been following a prompt for some of the days, and day 23 told me to write about distractions.

My personal distractions: spotty internet, James Altucher’s blog, e-mail newsletters, Netflix (House of Cards), SnapChat, and Instagram.

My real distractions are things I would never give up, though. They are things that fuel my lifestyle, and thus my passion to work in the first place. They are things like craft beer with friends on a Friday nights, spontaneously taking salsa dancing lessons this semester, playing chess, learning German on duolingo, and playing guitar when I’m tired of being ‘productive’. Sometimes I think I need more distractions. Sometimes, I want to learn how to play rugby, learn the violin, or learn how to paint. Once in a while, I spend an entire day snowboarding or skiing, and I don’t feel bad about missing out on work. So maybe, I missed the point of this prompt. I love my distractions. Some of them have even fueled career projects (see Madison Craft Beer Week, Arctica Race, WUD Music, etc). Most of them fuel my work in unrelated ways. Ryan Holiday claims that he’s always working. I understand what he means. It’s sort of like how triathletes have to cross train to avoid burnout. They work different muscles in different ways, and those muscles end up helping them out in the long run. So, yes, I could use some more distractions. You just need to find the right distractions.

(Don’t get me wrong, I could probably spend less time on SnapChat and Buzzfeed.)

The point of this post? I’m not sure. Maybe that a diversified life is in fact a productive life. Or that productivity is not an end in itself, but a buzzword that keeps people pinned to blogs telling you how to be productive. Perhaps, I’m just reflecting on the value of pulling more from hobbies and living an integrated, holistic, lifestyle. Better yet, I’m probably just distracting myself.

You Shouldn’t Run

You’re not supposed to go out jogging when it is -5 degrees. Your body is not naturally inclined to do this. It is more apt to conserve energy during these times, which is not surprising imagining the evolutionary reasons for this. Those that went for a whimsical run when it was so cold, instead of choosing to stay inside their warm caves, probably didn’t last very long. Natural selection can be a bitch. To an extent, though, the opposite is true today. It is those who go against the grain that outlast those who conserve their energy for fairer weather. Do you know what it feels like to run in negative weather? It feels wrong. Your muscles take more than a mile to warm up (figuratively, of course, because your muscles are always cold in negative weather). I can’t even explain the dry, icy, shallow breaths you’re going to take at first. It does get better, though. You do get used to breathing differently, and you get used to your legs feeling a bit numb. You get used to the precipitation around your nose and mouth freezing, and your sweat freezes, too. You run for a while; probably not as long as you would if it was 60 degrees, but you want it to be worth your time. And then, when you jog back to your cave, you open the door, and you’re suddenly sweating like it’s summer time. You feel good. You’ve ignored the gushing torrents of mediocrity that impale lesser souls, and instead, you’ve attempted to forge your own path to excellence. Excellence, here, is the decision to brave the elements for the sole reason you’re not supposed to, that it is not the easy decision that brings the best results. Today, mastery is reserved for those who push beyond immediate gratification, for those who believe that what hurts now may pay dividends in the future. To run in negative weather is wrong. But your obstinate refusal to be swayed by the climate is right.

 

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Apparently, I was right about sales

A very wise uncle of mine once told me that “everything is sales”, and I believed him. Intuitively, I felt like that was true.

In a sense, sales is connecting a consumer with a product in a way that benefits all parties. This, of course, applies to a wide variety of situations in life.

A few : presenting yourself as a potential dating partner, presenting yourself as actually a really good kid when you get sent to the principal’s office, divvying up work for a group project, moving people to do their share of work for said group project, selling socks, selling cars, selling houses, writing blog posts, writing term papers, writing most anything (selling ideas, of course), designing restaurant menus, calling venue promoters to persuade them to book your band, convincing your friends to do hilarious/awesome things, planning events, promoting events, getting people to ‘like’ your Facebook posts, serving others, starting a revolution.

Apparently, to sell is human. Or so goes the title of Dan Pink’s book.

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I just finished reading it. I’ll be damned if it wasn’t one of the best I’d read in 2013.

In it, he describes some interesting ideas about the nature of sales, and how it has changed in the 21st century. People still think of “sales” as something that pushy used car salesmen do, but it’s more than that. Sales, influencing other people, is something innately human. Not only that, but it’s a skill that can be learned.

Pink brings in a wide variety of academic literature and pulls from various fields, like acting (3 Essential Rules of Improvisation Theater: 1.Hear offers 2. Say “Yes and..” 3. Make your partner look good). He also describes how even traditional sales pitches have changed (6 Successors to the elevator pitch: 1. The one-word pitch 2. The question pitch 3. Rhyming Pitch 4. Subject-line pitch 5. Twitter pitch 6. Pixar pitch)

You don’t have to read the book, but you should learn the lessons: sales is everything. Hear me out: I’m not talking about pushy, sleazy, fast-talking sales. I’m talking about influencing people. To be able to move people is important. Moving people is a natural human function and can be used nobly. Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

“A world of flat organizations and tumultuous business conditions–and that’s our world–punishes fixed skills and prizes elastic ones.”

“So if you’re making your case to someone who’s not intently weighing every single word, list all the positives–but do add a mild negative. Being honest about the existence of a small blemish can enhance your offering’s true beauty.”

“So next time you’re selling yourself, don’t fixate only on what you achieved yesterday. Also emphasize the promise of what you could accomplish tomorrow.”

“The lesson: Clarity on how to think without clarity on how to act can leave people unmoved.”

“The lesson here is critical: The purpose of a pitch isn’t necessarily to move others immediately to adopt your idea. The purpose is to offer something so compelling that it begins a conversation, brings the other person in as a participant, and eventually arrives at an outcome that appeals to both of you.”

“Sales and theater have much in common. Both take guts. Salespeople pick up the phone and call strangers; actors walk onto the stage in front of them. Both invite rejection–for salespeople, slammed doors, ignored called, and a pile of nos; for actors, a failed audition, an unresponsive audience, a scathing review. And both have evolved along comparable trajectories.”

“Genuine listening is a bit like driving on a rain-slicked highway. Speed kills. If you want to get to your destination, you’re better off decelerating and occasionally hitting the brake.”

“Moving others doesn’t require that we neglect these nobler aspects of our nature. Today it demands that we embrace them. It begins and ends by remembering that to sell is human.”

 

22 Immutable Laws of Marketing (a review with 14 quotes)

Marketing is easy to understand. The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing proves it. Sure, some of the examples are outdated (the book was published in 1993), but some of their predictions were fairly prescient. The hard part of marketing is in the execution.
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See, the book relays a lot of advice that seems intuitive. Until it isn’t. Organizations, especially larger ones, don’t account for close up biases and office politics that affect decision making. The last chapter in this book is a warning. It says “many of these laws fly in the face of corporate ego.” Therefore, on paper they sound great, until groupthink and stress filled deadlines get in the way.
Here are 14 of my favorite quotes from the book:
1. “Many other computer companies (and their entrepreneurial owners) became rich and famous by following a simple principle: If you can’t be first in a category, set up a new category you can be first in.”
2. “The essence of marketing is narrowing the focus. You become stronger when you reduce the scope of your operations. You can’t stand for something if you chase after everything.”
3. “But don’t simply knock the competition. The law of the opposite is a two-edge sword. It requires honing in on a weakness that your prospect will quickly acknowledge…Then quickly twist the sword.”
4. “One day a company is tightly focused on a single product that is highly profitable. The next day the same company is spread thing over many products and is losing money.”
5. “But, for the most part, hype is hype. Real revolutions don’t arrive at high noon with marching bands and coverage on the 6:00 p.m. news. Real revolutions arrive unannounced in the middle of the night and kind of sneak up on you.”
6. “The most successful entertainers are the ones who control their appearances. They don’t overextend themselves. They’re not all over the place. They don’t wear out their welcome.”
7. “When you try to be all things to all people, you inevitably wind up in trouble.”
8. “The target is not the market. That is, the apparent target of your marketing is not the same as the people who will actually buy your product. Even though Pepsi-Cola’s target was the teenager, the market was everybody. The 50-year-old guy who wants to think he’s 29 will drink the Pepsi.”
9. “It’s much better to search for an opposite attribute that will allow you to play off against the leader. The key word here is oppositesimilar won’t do.”
10. “First and foremost, candor is very disarming. Every negative statement you make about yourself is instantly accepted as truth. Positive statements, on the other hand, are looked at as dubious at best. Especially in an advertisement.”
11. “History teaches that the only thing that works in marketing is the single, bold stroke. Furthermore, in any given situation there is only one move that will produce substantial results.”
12. “What works in marketing is the same as what works in the military: the unexpected.”
13. “History is filled with marketing failures that were successful in the press.”
14. “You’ll get further with a mediocre idea and a million dollars than with a great idea alone.”

An Ode to the Hidden Strength of the Underdog

“It was not the privileged and fortunate who took in the Jews in France. It was the marginal and the damaged, which should remind us that there are real limits to what evil and misfortune can accomplish. If you take away the gift of reading, you create the gift of listening. If you bomb a city, you leave behind death and destruction. But you create a community of remote misses. If you take away a mother or a father, you cause suffering and despair. But one time in ten, out of that despair rises an indomitable force. You see the giant and the shepherd in the Valley of Elah and your eye is drawn to the man with the sword and shield and the glittering armor. But so much of what is beautiful and valuable in the world comes from the shepherd, who has more strength and purpose that we ever imagine.”-Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants

Malcolm Gladwell just wrote a new book. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. Everyone hears about it when Malcolm Gladwell writes a new book. Surely, you have to at least skim it to understand which new theories your sophisticated friends are spouting at cocktail parties. Perhaps, I am too harsh. After all, I had only read Tipping Point previous to this one. Regardless, I’m going to explain why you need to read his new book, David and Goliath.

I’ve been reading up on the benefits of smaller armies. One of the big examples that comes to mind is that of Napoleon. Through his radically different war tactics, he was able to conquer vast areas of Europe using fluidity and smaller regimes that are more easily able to react to changes. The parallel to our time that is usually produced is that of Google, always adapting, forever fluid.

Then, of course, there is the cultural narrative that we assign to the “underdog.” You’ve seen it in a million sports movies, and you’re always rooting for the underdog to come out on top. You want Rudy to win. Those kids in Coach Carter, you’re on their side. Disregarding sports films, you’re still rooting for the unexpected, the challenging. Part of the reason that I bawled like a baby at the end of American History X was because I expected the underdog to change his ways and turn his life around; right as he was rising above his obstacles, he was taken away. (Maybe that’s a spoiler, but I’m sure it was vague enough for you too enjoy the movie still.)

We root for these heroes because we think they need our support. We think that it is them against the world, and we assume their side has less artillery. David and Goliath peers behind that facade, and instead, looks at the reasoning for so many underdog victories.

As it turns out, there is such a thing as a desirable difficultly. I’d always suspected it, but as he is famous for doing, Gladwell found an eloquent way to put it into words and back it up with studies and anecdotes.

One thing that I’ve been doing for a while is reading Stoic philosophy (Aurelius, Seneca, etc.). Why? Because I’m a nerd. But also because it teaches simple, day-to-day lessons, usually involving our perceptions and reactions to obstacles.

“Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces – to what is possible. It needs no specific material. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow; it turns obstacles into fuel. As a fire overwhelms what would have quenched a lamp. What’s thrown on top of the conflagration is absorbed, consumed by it – and makes it burn still higher.”-Marcus Aurelius

It’s important to view ‘obstacles as opportunities’, as Tucker Max would say. It’s also important to realize why a lot of these obstacles are opportunities, in the specific sense. Dyslexics like Richard Branson learn to compensate by listening and taking risks. Traumatic childhoods and lost parents produce a mental toughness and obstinate that facilitates ambition and goal reaching. The down and out, disheartened, and oppressed often resort to ‘trickster’ techniques–things that allow them a leg up on their oppressors. It’s this creativity that kills sacred cows and drives innovation.

These things happen on a daily basis. Let me show you:

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-The ski racing company that I work for is smaller than Spyder. This, however, is an advantage in the fluidity of our marketing strategy and the personal impact we have with customers. Everything is personal and the loyalty for the brand is tremendous. Even without the massive marketing budget of competitors, we are forced to innovated on the fronts of social media and public relations, which are often times more effective than traditional advertising.

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-Craft beer. A few weeks ago my academic adviser and I were talking about craft beer (What else? Classes? No, thanks.) He told me a story of one of his favorite bars in Milwaukee, Roman’s Pub, and how before the craft beer revolution, they had to stock the bar with craft beer. Why? Because the owner of the bar “didn’t get along with” a major distributor of macro beer, and allegedly told them to go to hell. From then on (1996), they stocked with local supply and specialty brews and became an early adopter of the upcoming trend in the beer world. Worked out pretty well for them, I’d say.

-I often lament the fact that I grew up in such a small town in the middle of nowhere. I’m not a fan of that fact. However, it did afford me opportunities that I couldn’t articulate before I read this book. Where my school was so small that it didn’t even have a soccer team (wtf, right?), this obstacle was also an opportunity. In the book, Gladwell talks about the benefits of being a big fish in a small pond. Certainly then, starting a band in such a small town made me a huge fish in a pond with no other musical fish. This was encouraging. Because of this, I had an identity I probably couldn’t have afforded growing up in New York City. Maybe. I mean, you can never say for sure. But, despite growing up in a small town in the middle of nowhere, I think I turned out alright and decently cultured, too. Maybe growing up there allowed me to appreciate exploration and other cultures more. I don’t know. But the obstacle part of the equation is overrated.

I know, if you tried, you could think of a million more examples of difficulties being used as benefits. This is a healthy way of viewing the world. Some circumstances are unavoidable. What you do with your circumstances is what matters. To end with another from Marcus Aurelius: “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

Why Musicians Make the Best Entrepreneurs Pt. 2

The day I went to the graphic design company to print a handful of t-shirts was the day I knew I was in business. Our drummer was the artist and now all I had to do was market well enough to sell all of our t-shirts, which we eventually did.

As I wrote last week, musicians and entrepreneurs are one in the same. Don’t misunderstand me: there are a ton of musicians who don’t understand the business side of it, and thus, don’t “make it”. The same goes for entrepreneurs. What I’m trying to say is that the most successful musicians have much in common with the greatest business founders. Since I outlined musicians’ self-motivation, their disruptive nature, their PR skills, and their branding ability, I’ve talked with a bunch of musician friends, and they’ve enlightened me on further similarities.

(If you missed part 1, check it out here.)

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Here are a few more reasons that musicians make the best entrepreneurs:

5. Creative Problem Solving

“This is how you discover–you fail your way to an answer.”
Anissa Ramirez

Here’s the thing: something will always go wrong. But as Tucker Max says, “Obstacles are only obstacles if you see them as obstacles. They can also be called opportunities.” When I started my band, we had as close to no budget as possible. You’d be surprised how well necessity breeds innovation for a few high school kids in a band, though. We found creative ways to spur controversy over our music, sought out local trend setters to sell to, and held creative fundraising events. On another note, shit always happens out of nowhere. Like, everything will be going well, and then you’ll be blindsided. Strings break, band members quit and bail on shows, and sometimes, only a few people show up to a concert because of an unnoticed scheduling conflict. But back to the obstacles quote: these things can be used as advantages.

Scott Adams put it well in a recent article:

“If I find a cow turd on my front steps, I’m not satisfied knowing that I’ll be mentally prepared to find some future cow turd. I want to shovel that turd onto my garden and hope the cow returns every week so I never have to buy fertilizer again. Failure is a resource that can be managed.”

All the terrible, annoying obstacles you face as a musician or an entrepreneur can be leveraged to be an advantage, or at the very least, can be neutralized with some creative problem solving.

6. Self-Education

“Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses – especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”
Leonardo DaVinci

When I first started playing guitar, I bought a couple of books to help me learn chords. To learn to write music, I was on my own. It certainly helped to emulate the bands I loved, like Blink 182 and Sublime. I learned all of their music, taught myself to play and sing, and then started writing music that sounded a lot like theirs. Eventually, I developed my own distinct writing style. That’s just one aspect of self-education in music. There’s also stage presence. There is no manual that I know of that teaches you how to connect with people while you’re on stage. There is no way, if one existed, that reading one would help a musician learn how to do it. It’s one of those things that someone has to observe the best, reflect, and then perform on their own. The whole process is trial by fire. Try it, see what works, cut out what doesn’t, refine, repeat, fail, succeed. Sounds a lot like the inception of a start-up, doesn’t it? There are a million business books written, but none of them are catered to your situation.

Bob Lefsetz says it well: “I’m not saying you can’t gain insight, but the people you’re reading about don’t resemble you, and too often the writers are doing it to make money and burnish their careers as opposed to genuinely trying to help you. Sure, it’s great to identify with what a writer says, but don’t overinvest, you’ve got to find your own path.”

Business schools obviously exist, but they can’t give you the real world experience of executing an organic idea. As Warren Buffet says, “The business schools reward difficult complex behavior more than simple behavior, but simple behavior is more effective.”

Simply put, you’ve got to test the waters for yourself to have any idea how to steer your ship.

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7. Grit

“I’ve got grit. Other than that, I’m not sure what lessons you can learn from me. But that’s what every successful person has, grit.”-Bob Lefsetz

Grit was recently named the best determining factor for success, and rightly so. If you can’t persist, you won’t make it. Or you won’t make it far. Even with a fair amount of luck, you can still fall down. The lesson is this: if you don’t have grit, you can’t stand back up. There will be nights, especially early on, that nobody shows up to your shows except your girlfriend. Sometimes, you’ll bomb the biggest show you’ve ever played. Seriously, when you stumble upon a make or break opportunity, you’ll probably break. It’s just the way things go. That’s why success is so elusive for many people. They don’t understand that after you fuck up the big opportunity, that’s when the real opportunity for success comes. That’s the precise time that you learn the most, and when you corner the niche that will bring you out of obscurity and into a sort of limelight. When you’ve got no safety net to fall into. you build grit. When you invest your soul in a product (or your music), your skin gets thicker. This is a good thing.

Malcom Gladwell says you need to invest 10,000 hours in something to master it. Do you think that anybody, during their 10,000 hours, didn’t experience pitfalls? They faced millions of them, mostly self-inflicted feelings of doubt. Again, that’s why success is so elusive. Most musicians, entrepreneurs, writers, athletes, human beings–most people lack the grit to push through these things. Combine grit with some creativity, charisma, and some open minded evaluation (below), and you’ll be on the right track.

8. Evaluation (R&D)

“It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”-Winston Churchill

Music is an iterative process. So is entrepreneurship. That’s one of the big points Ryan Holiday makes in Growth Hacker Marketing. He talks about how many successful companies started out as something entirely different than what they are now (AirBnB, Instagram). They were fluid enough to adapt to what would bring them success, and they executed the changes. They succeeded.

As for music, Bob Lefsetz said, “If you’re getting no reaction, you’re not doing it right. That’s the test. Not whether a middle man will sign you, but whether the audience believes in you, wants to hear more.”

This applies to how you’re writing your music, how you’re marketing music, how you’re negotiating with music venues, how you’re doing everything. It applies to the techniques you’re using on stage, especially. This is your art, and if it’s not working, make your art better or aim it at a different audience. There’s actually an audience for everything nowadays. But there’s definitely an art to reaching them.

If you’re a musician or an entrepreneur, though, you’re already a creative PR and branding genius. So go out and reach them.