On Writing

When I was young—maybe 13 or 14 or so—I remember my father telling me about someone who had come to him asking for life advice. I remember this being an interesting moment for me because it made me realize there were people in the world who wanted my father to tell them what to do. Huh, I thought. Weird, I thought.

I also remember my father telling me that he generally always gives the same advice to everyone: Learn to write. “Learn to write,” he would say. “If you know how to write, you’ll always have a job.”

As it turns out, the guy he was advising ended up writing a screenplay for a movie any of us could have seen in the theatres. So, that’s cool. But what about us normal people?

Oddly, I took his advice to heart and worked hard at perfecting the art of writing. And I didn’t just learn how to write a coherent sentence with decent grammar—I learned how to write from different perspectives and with a variety of tones and voices. I learned how to listen, step into new shoes, and imagine. And a weird thing happened: I found myself being needed, not just for the fun stuff, but primarily, for the ability to write a coherent sentence with decent grammar.

I piled marketing strategy and copywriting best practices on top of this skill, and before too long, I knew how to use writing to get people to take action. It’s not magic, but it is an artsy sort of science. And by that I mean, it’s half data, half gut. And anyone who gets after you for the gut part is full of it (and also boring). All good marketing involves some level of instinct. But it’s also more formula than people think.

I’ve been writing marketing copy now for 10+ years, and I train others, too. I wholeheartedly believe messaging, positioning, and turning a brilliant phrase are the heart and soul of great marketing. And that’s why no matter how big my team gets, how many other projects I tackle, how busy I am, or how “in the weeds” executives may consider it, I watch this part like a…cliche. The words you use can make or break you, and they matter for people and for companies more than we tend to think they do—that is, until something goes wrong.

On Influence

As an ex-schoolteacher gone marketer, I have an unusual sphere of influence, perhaps. But I like to think of marketing as education at scale. Education is not only about imparting knowledge, but it’s also about ensuring people have the context for that knowledge so it will be both sticky and meaningful.

I’ve been a part of more than one venture where the marketer’s task involved educating the market about a pain point they didn’t know they had. And I credit my ability to create that sort of context as a marketer to my having taught junior high for eight years.

Our backgrounds have a way of shaping us in ways we usually don’t expect. And God has a way of orchestrating truly intricate and elaborate paths. Have you been paying attention? If you have for even a little while, you’ll know what I mean. Think about the people who have been put in your life. Think about how your oddest interests have had moments to shine. I know I’ve certainly had an eclectic past full of experiences and connections that have made me both who I am today and uniquely equipped for the work I do now.

As for reading, I do it sometimes. Some of the most powerful books that have influenced me are:

  • Ego is the Enemy
  • The Obstacle is the Way
  • Skin in the Game
  • Antifragile
  • The Supper of the Lamb
  • Bed and Board
  • Radical Candor
  • The Scapegoat
  • The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck
  • Linchpin
  • The Great Divorce
  • The Checklist Manifesto
  • The Power of Habit
  • The Elements of Style
  • Scary Close
  • The Effective Manager
  • Leadership and Self Deception

I tell people I prefer my stories on the screen. I read mostly nonfiction, but I spend a good amount of time in the theatre. We can debate all we want about the merits of reading fiction, but I don’t do it much. As for films, here are my top 10:

  • High Fidelity
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  • I Heart Huckabees
  • 10 Things I Hate About You
  • Frances Ha
  • Captain Fantastic
  • An Education
  • Run Lola Run
  • Lost in Translation
  • Rushmore

We might as well do music, too. I have a thing for artists who can weave deep and meaningful conversations into the everyday experience in a way that makes my brain feel both understood and challenged. Here’s a top-five in no particular order:

  • Radiohead
  • Belle & Sebastian
  • Pedro the Lion
  • Sufjan Stevens
  • Anais Mitchel

But more than books, films, and music, it’s people who have shaped my thinking and life in incredible ways. There are too many to list here, and I don’t want to run the risk of leaving anyone out. But people matter. They’re placed in our lives for a reason, even the bad ones. I am beyond thankful for the people who have taught me and given me opportunities to shine.

On Hobbies

I love building things and taking them apart to see how they work. I’ve dabbled building furniture and making cheese, and I was an avid gardener before leaving California. I’ll ferment basically anything.

But the underlying curiosity that drives all of this stretches into most parts of my life. I love dabbling with technology, and words, and org charts, and processes. And I have a wicked LEGO collection.

On Goals

Since 2004, I’ve kept a long list of life goals. And while I do participate in the occasional challenge or new year’s resolution, I think it’s much better to regularly review a list of life goals and the steps I’m going to take to achieve them. Here’s a few of the achieved and yet to achieve.

Achieved (A Sampling)

  • Build a kite that flies
  • See a Shakespeare play at the new Globe
  • Go to a biker bar
  • Eat baklava in Greece
  • Have a song written about me
  • Meet Stewart Murdoch
  • Ski down a black diamond
  • Visit a Buddhist monastery
  • Make soap while watching Fight Club
  • Work on an accreditation team
  • Experience tapas and Picasso in Barcelona
  • Drink the Bees Knees with Scott and Zelda (at their grave)
  • Scale, gut, and clean a fish
  • See a Broadway musical
  • Ride an elephant
  • Volunteer at a soup kitchen
  • Meet Alton Brown
  • Host strangers in my home
  • Ring a church bell
  • Meet John McCrea
  • Visit Facebook HQ
  • Plant a tree
  • Ride a motorcycle
  • Feed a giraffe
  • Do shots with Martha Stewart (this can be explained)
  • Kill and clean a chicken
  • Dabble in the stock market
  • Operate a carnival ride
  • Drink with Edgar A. Poe (grave, again)
  • Evensong at St. Paul’s
  • Meet Seth Godin
  • Toboggan down the Great Wall of China
  • Drink a bellini at Harry’s Bar in Venice
  • Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge
  • Have blue hair

Yet to Achieve (A Sampling)

  • Write a book
  • Go skeet shooting
  • Unplug for a week
  • Speak at a conference
  • Visit all 50 states
  • Hang out at L’Abri for a month
  • Learn to play the violin
  • Write and illustrate a children’s book
  • Learn to lucid dream
  • Take a yoga class
  • Read Lord of the Rings, I guess
  • Visit Oslo in the summertime
  • Go to Japan
  • Hand carve a piece of furniture
  • Get arrested for something noble
  • Crush grapes with my feet
  • Go to the Cannes Film Festival
  • Get my nose pierced
  • Have a floor to ceiling library with a ladder
  • Live in another country for a while
  • Go hunting
  • Throw a dart at a map and go where it lands
  • Live on a seastead for a year
  • Pick up a hitchhiker (and not die)
  • Be a keynote speaker
  • Get into Club 33
  • Start my own company
  • Never get chicken pox

On Life

I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say the answer isn’t 42. It’s just not.

On Cussing

I’m with Taleb on this. Strategic cussing is a fairly low-risk way of signaling independence and competence. I have always been more likely to trust people who swear, especially in settings where it’s generally frowned upon. This tells me they give an appropriate amount of fucks about what people think of them and are likely to tell it like it is no matter the consequences. This is one of the marks of a free man. And even though I run in the ranks of the employed, I am continually working to make myself the sort of person who doesn’t need to be. Plus, there’s something really great about a properly placed swear.

What I’m not down with is the profaning of holy things. No casual damning of people. No swearing to God (unless it’s an oath). I think this is a fairly clear distinction. “What the hell?” but not “Go to hell.” I mean, we’re not animals.