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.
What's good is difficult; what's difficult is rare. —Robert Farrar Capon
As an ex-school teacher 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:
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 (follow me on Letterboxd). 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 faves:
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 artists in no particular order:
Belle & Sebastian
Pedro the Lion
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.
I want to overhear passionate arguments about what we are and what we are doing and what we ought to do. I want to feel that art is an utterance made in good faith by one human being to another. I want to believe there are geniuses scheming to astonish the rest of us, just for the pleasure of it. I miss civilization, and I want it back. —Marilynne Robinson
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.
Only the autodidacts are free. —N.N. Taleb
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 Stuart 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)
Attend Evensong at St. Paul’s in London
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
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 (working on it)
Never get chicken pox
I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say the answer isn’t 42. It’s just not.
Just because your mind tells you that something is awful or evil or unplanned or otherwise negative doesn’t mean you have to agree. Just because other people say that something is hopeless or crazy or broken to pieces doesn’t mean it is. We decide what story to tell ourselves. —Ryan Holiday
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.