Rule #1: Assume nothing

Rule #1: Assume nothing

Given the luxury, I will sit around and wait for it.

Something will get my attention, like my eyebrows, which I will diligently proceed to pluck, or, God forbid, some Youtube title from the usual suspects (John Oliver, Wisecrack, Peaceful Cuisine or the Nerdwriter. Chanel, too, I’m not ashamed to say. I may end up with perfect make-up on a day I have no meetings, and that’s just fine.)

Sometimes, this will pour out of me. Sometimes it just drips, Chinese style, like some perverse hide and seek routine. Either way, I will need to pace myself.

If this doesn’t sound in the least familiar, think of your last presentation deadline.

Did you get a slice of the elephant done each day or did you gulp it all the night before? And how did you work your mind into it?

Maybe this will help. Smarter people than me have done it.

Book time to stare at the wall. Have a pad and pen ready. Eventually, a thought will cross your mind.

It might happen in an hour, but it might not. (I mean, for real, book me for an hour and I’ll have 10 ideas. Sometimes, one may be it, but can I guarantee that? Here’s what I can guarantee, who guarantees it is bs-ing you. Because you just don’t know. But you will get something, that’s for sure. And something takes you somewhere. I’m not channeling the Cheshire cat, I promise. I’ve just done this for a while.)

Back to the wall. It can get excruciating, and I totally understand why you would want to walk away from it. And by all means do, if you can. Outsource it to the likes of me.

But since we’re not faking it here, let me tell you, there’s no way you can outsource all of it. And you don’t want to, anyway.

Because what happens while you stare at your metaphysical wall is precious. It’s time you gift yourself into the ivory tower to see where you are. Possibly glimpse where you’re heading.

You might want to start that on your own. It helps to have someone to bounce ball with, throw stuff around, just to see what they hear and, ideally, rephrase it. Distill it into one liners, key questions or koans. The air will clarify around you, I promise. There’s nothing like the cold crisp tingle of an idea. Then you write it all down, real quick.

I always record these conversations. What you’ll say in the first one, you may never repeat.

It’s a twilight zone, where doors of perception swing open. I used to quote Huxley in high-school without really getting it (“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: Infinite”). I was a Doors fan, very much intrigued but not fully engaging the idea. For that, I can forgive myself. High-school is a good time to believe in the esoteric.

At 40, I’m more into basic questioning. What makes you say that? I’ll ask the dumbest of questions fearlessly. I’ll assume nothing. I have learned that to be the key.

Some of the most revealing conversations I’ve had had that in common: allow myself the time to be in the presence of the idea. Assume nothing.

Then, go through the same process: can I recreate it? Say it exactly as you say it. Can I generate it? Say it as if I was you, owning it. Can I generate from your world? Put on my magic VR glasses, enter your world and see what’s in there and describe it as your audience needs to hear it.

That, actually, is what I do. It’s how I get to your DNA (core, why, what, X-factor or whatever else you call them out there) and then am able to phrase it into your one liner, your pitch, your mini bio, your home and about page or your deck.

In one of the monthly sessions copy mama Amy Posner does at the Copy Clinic (Hogwarts for the likes of me), I’ve met this wonderful fellow copywriter from Toronto who specialises in interviews. Hannah Shamji is also a nearly registered counsellor, diving deep into issues she needs to keep contained but be able to capture. Think Harry Potter, pouring from his potion bottles to get lucky or go through other people’s memories.

Hannah and me, it turns out, have both a thing for immersion into other worlds to come out truth in hand, and the same Flat Iron Building poster from New York in our respective homes. My favourite takeaway from our first conversation: don’t question, ask. When you question, you’re already implying things, and that’s you, not them. Didn’t I say it? Yes, I did. Assume nothing.

I love playing for time, by the way. The more I get, the better. Something inside is shifting into focus, while on the outside I go for yoga or watch series. “How do I explain to my wife that when I look out the window I’m working?” Joseph Conrad, whom I have never read a line from and will not pretend otherwise, said it. And it’s true. I even moved my desk now, so I have a better view.

(I only work with innovators, btw. If you read this far, chances are you’re one. Lovely to meet you. Sign up for my posts, I’ll have good idea stuff coming your way.)

You catch that thought right now. (Take notes. They’re precious.)

You catch that thought right now. (Take notes. They’re precious.)

Listen, I have to break it to you, I love my writing. Before the world decides to jump on the wagon and call me the next best thing since David Sedaris, I’ll be in this tight corner, reading my own blog posts, not sure when I really came up with that.

Do you ever read your own words (emails, decks etc.)? And if you don’t know who David Sedaris is, do yourself a huge favour and grab any of his books.

I was laughing myself to sleep last night with his recount on the grieving owl. The one who peeks in people’s windows just to see how they decorate? Then will do the absolute faux pas: engage the prey. Bullet proof prescription for killing the killer instinct. But hey, it’s all for stuff that’s supposed to make him (it’s a guy, a widower, actually) a more rounded individual. Say something important and you get to walk.

Not that that’s what I wanted to say. I’m just sitting here waiting for Lady Grace to whisper something good into my ear. Instead she had me look through my notes. And here’s what I found:

***

So you lost your way: that tends to happen if you live long enough.

No idea when I wrote that. I think it came to me one late night. I must have jumped out of bed to write it down. It happens sometimes. When it does, it does.

***

You don’t get harmony without the cacophony. The instrument registers both. Did you get amazed at the beauty? Ascertain the abyss too. The creator’s, btw.

I got that after being really sad for many days in a row. It just dawned on me that this is probably why Beethoven was deaf. Too much music passing through the pipes kills it eventually. You end up hearing it all in your head. Purer. Does the tormented genius cliche ring your front door bell? There’s something in there. Not that I’m advertising for it.

***

On the Southbank quarter, a homeless person said good afternoon to me, some union newspaper in hand for sale. I barely heard him, and as I walked by he said “Do you have any idea what it’s like to be ignored this way?” and I felt so ashamed.

I was in London for the day and as I passed him by and heard I nearly cried. I did not go back to talk to him, it would have been the thing to do. Instead I pulled out my phone and dictated the above. It came out wrong and misspelled, but enough for me to remember years later.

***

– Have you tried, have you dated lately?

– I have a bit and when I say a bit I mean once in a year.

No idea when that happened. It must have been one of those sympathetic conversations, meant to push you in the right direction with the appearance of no agenda. So happy I took that down. For two reasons: 1. I will use it some day in my romantic comedy screenplay, my life’s work and humble homage to Nora Ephron. You saw her movies, if you’re from planet Earth. You’ve got mail, Julie & Julia, When Harry met Sally. 2. When I die a spinster, I will take this to my judgement day and prove goodwill.

***

For still mind to exist, there has to be a distinction that says thought-free. There’s no such thing as garbage free on a garbage field. (It’s garbage all the way down.)

That one came to me as I was playing Placebo’s Life’s what you make it on repeat. I have no recollection whose tag lines I was working on. (My mind needs that kind of workout to catch the next crisp wave of words.) It starts with emaciated kids rummaging an endless field of garbage somewhere far away enough so it stays a concept. It doesn’t.

***

Are you gonna be the boss of him or his goose?

That’s not even mine, but it so passes the crispness test. My cousin said it to me when he brought the dog over. Have a blast, the goose won’t mind. She thinks she’s the boss.

Anyway, what I mean is take notes. They’re golden. They help you know your product better. And our mind is such a cheater. We only remember 13 per cent of our flow. I’m working with these tech guys these days. They’re awesome. I’ve rarely seen someone know their product so well. I bet you they have shelves and shelves of notes somewhere.

PS. I love pig, I’m pork based. Pretty good, huh?

Go play. Grab a pad.

How to fire your inner impostor

How to fire your inner impostor

Midway through my hour with Merel, she told me I had it. Your copy is beautiful, you just have impostor syndrome. Gee, I do? I mean I do. I know I do. But does it even like me?

Yes. Your inner impostor loves you. It loves the grip it has on you. It’s got bad romance all over it. And you’re the sucker.

You know how all confidence stories are pretty much the same thing: hero takes on the world, hero meets adversity, hero gets help, learns lesson, finds inner confidence, hero aces it.

Every impostor syndrome story is different. But they boil down to two things: you need permission and approval from your customised Yoda. And until that happens, you’re in The Upside Down, dreading exposure. There’s no end to it. You have good days, but maybe you just got lucky. Bad days are confirmation.

Your inner impostor is a sales rockstar to a captive audience of one.

You know what else it is? It’s your inner confidence gone dark. It’s Spider-Man in a black suit.

It took me a second to realise the wonderful Merel didn’t have it. And that’s different from me snapping out of it.

Staying sober because you can and because you’re not that much into booze are very different things. It’s jaw dropping inspiring to see someone do it as gracefully, but can the addict do it?

This is not a high speed train to how love makes the world go round, or how tiny steps will take you to the moon, although they do. You’ve known that all along and the impostor handled both real smooth.

I’m not taking you to the land of fake it till you make it, either. I’m a tourist there, anyway. And I know for a fact my inner impostor owns this overpriced pasta restaurant there, with a view to the crowded piazza.

To snap out of it, you’re going to have to take some heat.

And it’s called Uncertainty.

What’s your inner impostor’s main pitch? What’s the mantra there? Variations of you’re not that good. As it seems. As other people who pay you the big bucks think. And other people who don’t, already know it. Etc.

To which the knee jerk is oh, but I am, I did this and that and everything in my wins notebook, and that’s just what I got myself to jot down. Action and reaction. You’re up for a short while, until the next blow comes. It’s a zero sum game.

Why know how good you are, anyway? Because if you’re good, you’ll make it, right?

It’s all about self image destruction and build-up. It’s temporary. It lays on top of this chunky layer called “You don’t know. You don’t freakin’ know. Nobody does. Not even your inner impostor.” And it’s that all the way down. Uncertainty.

And if you’re up for anything worthwhile, there will be uncertainty. A lot of hanging in there. A lot of reworking of the steps. A lot of searching for what works. Aim. Iterate. And aim again. Out there. Then something bigger takes over.

Merel has this amazing academy for women who play big. She powers up your iterations with olympic sales skills. It’s a killer opportunity. Inner impostor killer.

Before I hang up, she asked me in this soft paced tamer voice of hers:

What would you do this week if you were 10 times more courageous?

I’m over here iterating with guts. How about you?

In praise of word doodling

In praise of word doodling

This was supposed to be my epic post. A crisp, wow description of my method that would make everything clear in retrospect and especially forward. Which is why I could not write it for two weeks now.

First I was sick. Then I had the dog over. And then I just couldn’t and gave way to a decluttering challenge. I went through drawers of kitchen gadgets, boxes of makeup and some of my closet.

At least I was practicing what I preach. I always say circulate the energy when stuck. And when all else fails, go for a nap. I did that, too. When I woke up, I decided that I was going to write anyway, epic or not. And just like that, I was unstuck. Epic enough.

It’s been like that, lately. Transition after transition. At times like these, I go for the comfort of routine. Wake up, do the morning pages, meditate, get on the mat at least for a bit, breakfast with youtube, then work.

It structures the day. I got that part right, at least. The rest is yet undecided and I may break for a Netflix quickie in the process, but for now, we’re on track. And I cling on to that like a mofo.

All that’s needed beyond that is some brilliant ideas and some jaw dropping craft. Oh, wait, all those are clear as day.

Where do you get your ideas? From your head, says Neil Gaiman.

How do you write the most (and best?) children (and that’s just an example) books in the world? You wake up, you sit down and write for four hours everyday. As did Roald Dahl.

How do you come up with a joke? You sit down at your desk, and stare at the wall with a yellow pad and a ballpoint pen in hand. Says Jerry Seinfeld.

If looks like sitting is the mother of all skills. So I sit, too, waiting for some magic. Do I have anything at all? Right now, it really feels like I have nothing. Will I ever? That’s unclear, as well.

All I feel is my back slouching against the couch, and my shoulders misaligned and waving for attention. So I straighten up and take one breath. Is this boredom? If it is, let me get interested in the silvery green of my potted aloe.

I have just planted a whole new generation of baby aloes and am giving them out. I’d give you one if we were neighbours. But I can name one after you if you want.

While we’re sitting here, I wanted to tell you how I got scammed online. It’s the most ridiculous thing. I saw this ad on Facebook for a Birkenstock summer sale.

Everything was 23 Euros, and I was like a kid at the lollypop stand. I must have licked those pictures for almost half an hour before I chose five models. I had that gut feeling as I put the card number in, but ignored it and went ahead.

Later that night, as I was tapping away the day, accepting myself greedy and all (no, I did not need five pairs of sandals, so why did I order them), the lightbulb when on in my head. And I knew. Called the bank, blocked the card, etc.

And that’s when all the cracks in the lollypop stand pulled into focus. For one, it said 24 hour cancellation was fine but there was no button or email address for it.

I’m not even upset. I might get the money back. I’m sure as hell there aren’t any Birkenstocks in the mail for me, all the way from Singapore. But what a dupe!

All this time, I had been singing Macarena in my mind.

No I wasn’t. I was sitting with you, getting unstuck. The epic post is ready when it’s ready. The getting there, now, that’s epic.

I’m probably going to spend some time on a biscuit website. I love it. And on this new Japanese cooking channel on Youtube. It simmers my ideas like nothing else. Other than sitting, of course.

You know, this has a name. I call it word doodling. Some great things may come off it at times.

That’s when I want to have my legal pad and ballpoint pen ready. Or a voice recorder. Or something that does both. Like this new app I found, who does just that. It transcribes all my voice doodles and then I pick and choose from there. That’s my method, by the way. We talk about your idea, and then I pick, choose, structure and flesh out. All with your words or from the unseen iceberg of your work.

I had 22 minutes of recordings with Vivienne Westwood to go through when I wrote about our brief encounter at the Financial Times Festival. It must have taken me an hour to transcribe and mine the ideas for my post. I wish I had descript.com then. Oh, well.

Designer’s mind

Designer’s mind

Name your best actor. What do you go for? King of the jungle Christian Bale types? Big bear action figures like Chris Hemsworth (think Thor)? Or comedian monkeys: the Seinfelds out there?

The division, by the way, is not mine. Lorne Michaels, the creator of Saturday Night Live, spelled it out in an episode of Comedians in cars getting coffee. (I love Jerry Seinfeld the thinker, but that you know by now.)

I have to say these days I’m adding one more to Lorne’s list. The creatives. Who would that be in the zoo? The dolphins, maybe?

In real life, that’s Ethan Hawke. Of whom I have always been, let’s say, a composed fan. I never went overboard with the Sunset trilogy and there’s only so much I can say about Great Expectations.

But I just spent one hour listening to him on a New York Times Facebook live and when did it all flow by? And why did it end?

The guy is a spilling slot machine of quotes, stories of how Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando landed on greatness their so different ways (one learned lines and rehearsed the actions ad infinitum, the other was all about spontaneity) and how Macbeth and his wife were into this happy marriage. But guess what, she said “kill this guy, we’ll have it so much better” etc.

The man is positively flamboyant. And has three movies out this summer, of which I am promoting none, but will probably see all.

But here’s what I love about him beyond the spirit, and the culture, and the presence. It’s how he picks his work avenues and cultivates them with a designer mind.

Yes, he is an artist. And yes, he is an intellectual. And he is a creator. A writer, a director etc. But it all springs from his designer mind. Or so it looks from the output, at least. We never spoke. Yet.

How can you tell someone is a designer if they never make clothes or iPhones and cars? Well, you look for the principles of design at work.

What are the fundamentally important things?

Does the creator see things as systems? See them all come together?

Is the result both beautiful and simple?

Does it fulfil the purpose?

Everything gets stripped through these lenses. And it’s all done in a string of choices. Design is about making choices. What goes in matters. As does what doesn’t.

Any object you use is a work of design. You don’t really acknowledge it as such until execution goes beyond the mark of really good into exquisite, with a message printed on ribbon: “what the artist meant.”

So I think Ethan Hawke has the mind of a designer. He designs vehicles for whatever goes into his head to live into the world and run with the banner of his message.

One of his films this summer is a biopic. Some unknown yet great country singer-songwriter. Here’s a juicy bite of a designer mind at work.

“You know what biopics are like? You like Johnny Cash, right? Well, here’s a few of his main life moments edited to his main songs.”

(I am paraphrasing all over, but that’s the gist of it). “There’s a get-discovered scene, an ego-takes-over scene, a drugs-run-the-show-scene and an I-have-to-get-clean scene etc.” With one exception: Raging bull. That movie lives beyond the life of Jake LaMotta. Hawks says. And I agree.

And then Hawke went on and made a movie without any of those scenes in it. It went to Sundance.

Because a biopic should not be the story of the guy’s life. It should be a vehicle of the guy’s message, distilled from life facts. Whatever he was out there living, that calls to a distinct group of people called the audience.

Your copy should not be about your business. It should be about what it does for those you serve. Principles of design apply here too. Keep it to a minimum and keep the magic.

I heard one designer say it’s a fantastic journey to go there every time. Tell me about it.

The way of the bootcamp

The way of the bootcamp

Are you in charge of your work or some shrinking violet? Meaning are you walking into your office with Robert de Niro confidence or are you a lamb asking for permission to breathe?

Because if you are (a shrinking violet, a lamb, etc.), it’s alright. We’ve all been there. I certainly see it around me. But I see beyond it, too.

And know this: there’s a gateway. The bootcamp.

Here I am in the middle of nowhere in Romania, surrounded by 15 bright young things on a jaw dropping mission: deliver a (festival quality) doc in 5 weeks. Find a story, persuade the characters (village people) to surrender into an adventure they may have only seen on TV, film, edit and present to an international jury.

No wonder they’re not that enraptured with the postcard mountain scenery. To them it’s all story, story, story.

So they sit around soul searching for what makes them tick, and they scout looking for the character that will call them to action. Nothing an innovator or a thought leader hasn’t done. Except in office speak it’s stare at the empty page. Surf the web mindlessly. Streamline the email inbox.

There’s a galactic difference though. The bright things have a deadline. It’s all going to happen somehow. In a few days’ time they’ll have to pick something. Anything. And make it into a movie you may actually enjoy. Make it really good.

When things go right, it all seems so easy. The subject was obvious, the characters willing, the camera ready. How often is it like that, though?

How many glorious days do you remember? No, seriously. Take a moment and count.

There was that one when I went surfing and I caught seven waves. Also an epic aikido practise I had one Thursday in October a few years ago. I left the tatami all wet and light. There’ve been some amazing talks with my closest friends, mostly in London parks (not that we were too taken with the landscape at the time). And the elation of cracking some solid tag lines, hyped on White Snake tunes.

The rest is all a stream of days and weeks trying to pick the right battles, stay the course, score, pay the mortgage, and not take myself too seriously. (Don’t you just love it when people ask “why so serious?”. And when has the cryptic “Relax!” line ever worked?)

So I play a game of frameworks now. And that’s what the bootcamp is. It’s one sprint. (Or two, with a respite in between.)

For the 15 bright young things, it’s one month to the result: the screening for the jury. For me, it’s nailing the copy on one website. Structuring and getting a course off the ground. Nailing one thought leader’s voice.

Replicate it like fractals and you’re there in a place where performance does not exhaust you, you do it while munching nachos. Because the wiring is in place. You’re not wrestling with the bootcamp, you’re riding it.

My guys will find their stories. Historically, one in three films done in this setup ends up winning awards and hearts on the festival circuit. The framework is such that it takes (occasionally) shrinking violets and turns them into Robert de Niros, completely in charge of their work.

It’s not smooth. It gets messy at times. But it sure gets done.

PS: the pic of me riding into the sunset is taken by Ioana Ophelia, one of the bright young things, as we came back to base after an afternoon of scouting. We’ll hear from her again.

PPS: but the one with me and my 4 year old friend peacocking to a peacock (how more Bob de Niro can we get?) is taken by my best friend on one of the days we’d won the lottery. Because we were together.

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