Get started. Then get inspired.

Empty chairs - New York, New York

I get a kick out of walking the streets of NYC taking photos… spending hours hunting for interesting scenes and compositions. I haven’t gotten out much this year however. And like many things, one can get rusty quickly without consistent practice.

So when I arrived in NYC the other day and started walking around, I found it hard to get started. Nothing was catching my eye. It’s like my photographic vision was completely offline. When I’m that far out of practice, I know images are going to be terrible. I started feeling resistant to the idea of even taking pictures. I didn’t even want to take my camera out. The more I walked, the less inspired I felt.

But I’ve been through that before.

The solution was to simply take the camera out of my bag and start shooting anything at all. To essentially embrace the fact that the images were probably going to suck and go ahead and shoot them anyway.

Just the act of getting started helped me find enough of a groove to keep going and enjoy myself for several hours. And although the images did indeed suck, all the shooting helped me jumpstart my vision.

I went back a few weeks later. Although I still struggled with vision and inspiration, I immediately took the camera out and started shooting anyway. My vision soon started clicking again and I made a few decent images, including one that I liked (featured above).

So what is the point of this?

In my post on Jack White and the creative process, I noted that one is not always going to feel inspired to do the work. You have to get started anyway. Inspiration is traditionally considered the thing that gets you fired up to do the work in the first place. And it most certainly is that. But just as often, inspiration comes as a byproduct of doing the work itself.

Managing Oneself – by Peter Drucker

Are the answers to: "What are my strengths? How do I perform? and, What are my values?" the keys to an outstanding career?

At a basic level, career (and business, for that matter) can be thought of like this:

  1. What you have to offer.
  2. What the market wants/needs and is willing to pay for.
  3. Getting in front of your market.
  4. Telling the market the story of what you have to offer such a compelling way that they want to hire you.

As you progress through your career—or even change your career—you will continue to touch on all four of these points repeatedly.

Peter Drucker’s essay, Managing Oneself, is about item #1 above: learning what you have to offer.

Most people think they know what they are good at. They are usually wrong. More often, people know what they are not good at—and even then more people are wrong than right. And yet, a person can perform only from strength. One cannot build performance on weaknesses, let alone on something one cannot do at all.

Drucker advises that you need to identify where you are strong and build on those strengths. Building on weaknesses will only lead to mediocrity.

Throughout history, people had little need to know their strengths. A person was born into position and a line of work: The peasant’s son would also be a peasant; the artisan’s daughter, an artisan’s wife; and so on. But now people have choices. We need to know our strengths in order to know where we belong.

We all have a vast number of areas in which we have no talent or skill and little chance of becoming even mediocre. In those areas a person—and especially a knowledge worker—should not take on work, jobs, and assignments. One should waste as little effort as possible on improving areas of low competence. It takes far more energy and work to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than it takes to improve from first-rate-performance to excellence. And yet most people—especially most teachers and most organizations—concentrate on making incompetent performers into mediocre ones. Energy, resources, and time should go instead to making a competent person into a star performer.

The conclusion bears repeating: Do not try to change yourself—you are unlikely to succeed. But work hard to improve the way you perform. And try not to take on work you cannot perform or will only perform poorly.

It is also necessary to find work that is A.) congruent with your values and B.) plays to your strengths while minimizing reliance on your weaknesses.

Many years go, I too had to decide between my values and what I was doing successfully. I was doing very well as a young investment banker in London in the mid-1930’s, and the work clearly suited my strengths. Yet I did not see myself making a contribution as an asset manager. People, I realized, were what I valued, and I saw no point in being the richest man in the cemetery. I had no money and no other job prospects. Despite the continuing Depression, I quit—–and it was the right thing to do. Values, in other words, are and should be the ultimate test.

… most people, especially highly gifted people, do not really know where they belong until they are well past their mid-twenties. By that time, however, they should know the answers to the three questions: What are my strengths? How do I perform? and, What are my values? And then they can and should decide where they belong.

Or rather, they should be able to decide where they do not belong. The person who has learned that he or she does not perform well in a big organization should have learned to say no to a position in one. The person who has learned that he or she is not a decision maker should have learned to say no to a decision-making assignment….

Equally important, know the answer to these questions enables a person to say to an opportunity, an offer, or an assignment, “Yes, I will do that. But this is the way I should be doing it. This is the way it should be structured. This is the way the relationships should be. These are the kind of results you should expect from me, and in this time frame, because this is who I am.”

And finally, he hints at the zig-zag nature of building a career where you can be an outstanding performer.

Successful careers are not planned. The develop when people are prepared for opportunities because they know their strengths, their method of work, and their values. Knowing where one belongs can transform an ordinary person—hardworking and competent but otherwise mediocre—into an outstanding performer.

It’s quite a short read at just a few pages, but it contains a lot of advice that you can start implementing right away to improve the quality of your career and the value you can offer others. The ideas and quotes above are just a taste.

Learning Spanish as an adult

Over the last few weeks, a few people have asked me how I went about learning Spanish as an adult.

A recent guest post on Tim Ferriss’ blog by Gabriel Wyner may be helpful for people that want to learn.

At a high level, the plan I followed was similar:

  1. Learn spelling and sound.
  2. Build a foundational vocabulary.
  3. Learn grammar, abstract vocabulary and patterns.
  4. Get as much exposure to the language as possible. Identify your trouble spots and work them out through self-study.

Although Wyner’s definition of fluency is a little too loose for my taste, the post is filled with solid insights.

Why watch the same movie twice?

I’m a huge fan of revisiting good movies again and again over the span of several years. But not just movies—books, music, other works of art, foods. Anything of quality is fair game, even if I was only lukewarm to it initially.

This quote attributed to Heraclitus comes to mind:

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.

In this case, the work you are revisiting is the same. You, however, are not. And the context from which you are experiencing it is not.

It’s rewarding to dive into the same good book every few years and find fresh lessons and insights waiting there for you each time. You see things you did not see and likely could not see at a previous point in your life. In a way, the fact that this happens is a sign of life—a confirmation that you are still growing in whatever areas that work covers.

An elegant answer to a personal question

"I believe we are here to contribute our verse. It is what I worry about, it is what I solve for."

Avinash Kaushik is somebody I’ve developed a great deal of respect for over the last year. I was originally exposed to his work when studying web analytics. Since then, I’ve come to realize that this guy could write an article called “The Best Sandwich I Ever Ate” and I would still be smarter after reading it than I was before.

During a recent Q and A on Yabbly, somebody tossed him a rather personal question:

What is the purpose of your existence? Do you believe in God?

To which he replied:

I love this poem by Walt Whitman, and I believe we are here to contribute our verse. It is what I worry about, it is what I solve for.


O Me! O Life!

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

I loved the fact that he didn’t dodge the question. He answered it honestly and concisely, but in a way that still lets him maintain his privacy.

Clayton Christensen on Hardship

I’m currently reading Clayton Christensen’s How Will You Measure Your Life. Before hitting Add to Cart on Amazon I spent a few minutes searching the web for things written by him and about him. I came away with several thought-provoking quotes and ideas, some of which I wanted to share.

From Forbes:

I’m an optimistic person. But for the first time in my life, with all my problems, I focused more and more on me–and it was depressing, literally. Sometimes I just wanted to quit trying to learn and speak and write again and just go into my basement and build furniture. I learned an important lesson from this. I learned that focusing on my own problems does not bring happiness. God didn’t say, “Okay. For those with problems it’s okay to focus on yourself. And for those who don’t have problems, I want you to focus on helping others.” Even in dire times God does not exempt me from his commandment to focus my life on others, because it transforms hardship to joy.

Another article ends with this powerful quote:

The person I decide to be has to be robust enough that it doesn’t matter what happens in my life… Life will happen to me. But I don’t want what happens in life to determine who Clay Christensen becomes.

The Accidental Millionaire – by Gary Fong

A Zen approach to business.

You probably haven’t heard of Gary Fong.

Even though I’m interested in photography as a hobby, I hadn’t heard of him until a photographer buddy clued me in. He is known as an innovative wedding photographer, entrepreneur and writer.

In The Accidental Millionaire, Fong tells us his life story so far, giving the details of the personal philosophy that has worked so well for him. This is not the same recycled self-help tips everybody else writes about. In contrast to vision, goals, tasks and actions, Fong’s more Zen-flavored philosophy comes down to exploring things that interest him, creating space for insights to happen and then working his ass off once something catches. He admits he acts on hunches, sometimes decides by flipping a coin and understands the role luck has in success.

[Read more...]

Jack White on Restriction and Creativity

I have a fascination with The White Stripes. It’s amazing to me how much they can do with so little.

In this roughly two minute clip, Jack White talks about the things that foster their creativity.

There are two main takeaways here:

1. You don’t always wake up inspired and you don’t really need to. Get to work anyway. You still may come up with something good. I would add that inspiration often follows getting started anyway.

2. Create a box and then work within that box. Restrictions and constraints can foster creativity. Too many options and a lack of constraints can kill creativity. The White Stripes have chosen certain restrictions and constraints to continually force themselves to be creative.