Moving forward, always

South Brent

“But I am being reborn and I need to take new risks.”

– Paula Coelho, The Zahir

I’ve written several blog posts over the past few weeks but, each time, I’ve saved them in draft, and that’s where they’ve stayed. (Don’t ask me how many hours I’ve wasted — way too many!)

I would have liked to publish them but, in hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t.

That said, the posts, in part, would have illuminated passages of time where I’ve stumbled forward or fallen back but, beyond that, they wouldn’t have mattered much. (When I write I always think carefully if, what I’m saying, is likely to be useful; and when I don’t feel I’m putting out something close to my best, I’d prefer to say nothing.)

Things have changed for me, not in an earth-shattering way — I still have my health and sanity (just) — but in a way that’s made me think carefully about my future, particularly regarding my paid work.

In case you’re wondering, I’m now permanently based back in Devon, having worked away in Southampton since January 2013. It’s not that I hated Hampshire (the hotel where I stayed was actually quite pleasant), but there’s something very special about living and working in Devon — and I don’t just mean I’m blessed to enjoy Dartmoor and the beach; but it feels part of who I am. But, notwithstanding its majesty, it presents a number of challenges, not least the fact that there are few, if any, businesses that have the potential to buy the (current) services I offer. (This will change in time by dint of me taking a different tack with my business development — the long tail of marketing will still be the focus of my efforts — and the fact that I will be offering new consulting and coaching services.)

In addition to the territory, the additional challenge I face arises from having made the schoolboy error of putting all my eggs in the Southampton basket; and this has meant I’ve lost touch with the local market. In point of fact, since January 2013, apart from a few speaking engagements, I’ve not had much time to work on my business development, and I don’t just mean filling the sales funnel. I mean to carefully consider, since the launch of this site bearing the title Awaken the Genius Within, what that actually means.

In short, what is my thing?

To some people they might think this a curious thing to enquire after, particularly given that I’ve been out of legal practice for well over four years. But trust me, it’s a question that every business should return to at least once a year to make sure there’s a clear line of sight between their marketing message(s) and what they actually do — too few businesses understand sufficiently what they do, and that leaves the customer/client very often bemused. On one level, I suspect, most people associate me with social media and nothing else. To others, they might not even think that, particularly given the number of topics I’ve written or spoken about. And to be clear, I’m fine with that at least to a point. But on another, more fundamental level, I find it as frustrating as you.

In addition to the ‘what is my thing‘ question, I need to be very clear about what it is I’m selling that people will buy? Up to now, that’s been easy to answer: (1) digital strategy and social media marketing; and (2) my expertise/presence as a speaker (I also do lots of other things but this is where I generate the bulk of my income).

But, I know in my heart that if I carry on trying to develop a scalable business in the professional services space I’ll end up frustrated in not generating a sufficient return on my investment of time and energy. I know how this sounds — I can’t be bothered — but the principal driver is the need to have more Devon-centric work and open up many more opportunities that directly chime with the Awaken the Genius message.

This issue — it’s more a long-term, financial concern — has dogged me for the last year, if not longer. And the truth is, up to now, I’ve not invested the time to come up with a satisfactory answer. That doesn’t mean I’ve done nothing. Far from it. In fact, I’ve even gone so far as to apply for and attend various job interviews in the hope of getting closer to home. As it so happens, none of the interviews have yielded job offers but what they have done, in spades, is provide invaluable feedback about where I should be spending my time.

In addition to the job interviews, I’ve also been slowly working through the thesis of my work and how I leverage that for financial gain. If you’d have asked me what my answer looked like a few weeks ago, I’m sure I would have come up with a plausible one, but, in my heart, I would have known that, even with my messianic zeal, it was unlikely to get off the ground save for, perhaps, a few speaking opportunities or one or two self-hosted events. The reason: something was missing.

Call it serendipity or good luck but something fell out of the sky which has, after some further thinking, brought everything together in a way that, at last, enables me to go forward with my business with much greater hope and certainty.  This piece of good fortune came in the shape of a short blog post from Derek Sivers, he of CD Baby fame. The title was ‘How to change or build your career’.

Now, I must admit that ordinarily I would devour anything Derek writes, knowing that it would have distilled his thinking from either reading a game-changing book or based on his experience (which normally involves a lot of time thinking through one or two key issues). If I recall now, this wasn’t how it worked. Instead, I printed off the blog post and saved it to Evernote, and for quite a few days carried it around in my bag, hoping to read it at some point. And then when I did read it, I immediately understood the takeaways, although again they didn’t seem that hot, particularly as I wasn’t trying to build a career any more but, instead, wrestle with my business that I just couldn’t mould into shape. (You have to realise that, up to this point, I was stuck in not being able to unlock the Awaken the Genius message — how paradoxical — or understand how I was going to make my freelance social media career tick from a Devon base.) It wasn’t until I went out and bought the book that accompanied the post, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, that things began to change (see the Storify below).

I know it’s hard to discern what’s going on, but these Tweets coincide with me slowly reading Cal Newport‘s book, and sharing my thoughts. You see, although Derek’s post was helpful, it didn’t unlock much of the book (his book review does a much better job) and forced me to buy and read it. And I also purchased the audio version – I do this with books that I really like and saves me the time of having to reread them (I listen to them mostly when I’m driving or walking the two dogs, Alfie and Fidget).

I’m not going to rehearse or expand on the main takeaways – Derek’s post does that for you – but the real nugget of the book is the commentary on ‘career capital’. In case you’re not familiar with the term, I take it to mean all those commercially viable skills you’ve amassed which makes you marketable both inside and outside of the company (or your business). The reason why Cal majors so heavily on expounding on this point is because of the thesis of work – following your passion is bad advice. He posits the reason why it’s bad advice is that without career capital or the right type of career capital, it’s very hard to match your work to your passion when you’ve not built up any or the right type of career capital (and gives a number of cogent examples). I must admit that, up to this point, if you’d pressed me, I would have been in the passion camp. But the more I thought about it by reference to my own work and trajectory, the more I began to accept that he was right. (I would caveat this acknowledgement by saying there’s one notable exception when I did follow my passion, namely cycling, but, by then, I’d built up a treasure trove of legal career capital that made it easy for me to win work and develop a small sports law practice.)

I know I’ve been here before, but my backstory is unremarkable:

  • holiday jobs in the service sector (five years)
  • engineering (three years)
  • recruitment (four years)
  • law (eighteen years)
  • social media (four years)

But, of course, I’ve been building great gobs of career capital through this period (I’m 47 and have been working since I was 13).

The book also asks you to consider your career capital market. In my case for the last twenty two years that’s been law. If I were to go back into private practice — and, yes, I’ve had a few of those conversations too — then it would be easy for me to see how I could apply my career capital, albeit this time, in applying the craftsman’s mindset (another takeaway), I would focus on becoming the best lawyer in the field of professional cycling (this would be the longest long tail that I would be happy to pursue). But, of course, I’ve no intention of going back into practice.

At this point, it’s worth reminding myself that the reason for leaving law was to reverse engineer the skills I’d acquired in social media. In hindsight said skills were scanty, but that didn’t stop me from believing that through sheer hard work, perseverance and self-belief, I could decode the market sufficient to grow my business. In hindsight, I was naive to believe that, even if I stuck to a career capital market that I knew well, i.e. law. For a start, back in 2010 there weren’t too many firms, local or national, who were pulling up the drawbridge on their marketing in favour of a ‘digital first’ message. Oh sure, a few were beginning to question the necessity to embrace LinkedIn and Twitter but they still hadn’t grasped the enormity of the connection economy, earning attention and creating remarkable content. I can’t say I blame them. Even with the multitude of issues thrown up by the recession, why would you want to change a (moribund) model if it’s working?

In reflecting on why I’ve stayed true to social media, I don’t really have a proper answer. It’s not the money! Perhaps it’s because I’m so bloody stubborn or, more likely, it’s because I have an overwhelming need to show how, with a bit of effort, a digital first business can be transformative both for the people who work for and within it but also for the customer base who is gagging for something remarkable (actually, different would be nice).

But what I’m missing out, in describing the last four years, is the insight that came about soon after I left practice in August 2010. It was so profound that I still remember the location and time: I was walking down Queen Street in Newton Abbot on my way to Costa for my lunch coffee and chocolate tiffin (this was before I became a vegan). For the last six months or so I’d been reading and listening to Michael Gerber’s book, The E-Myth Revisited. There was one passage that had haunted me. It was a quote from Rollo May’s book, Man’s Search for Himself first published in 1953:

‘”Thus freedom is not just the matter of saying “Yes” or “No” to a specific decision: it is the power to mould and create ourselves. Freedom is the capacity, to use Nietzsche’s phrase, “to become what we truly are.”‘

Now, of course, the premise of this quote is self-determination — we can either choose to live a remarkable life or not — but I saw it as the basis of my life’s work, particularly given, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with the science of success. (My first personal development book, which I still have, is Napoleon Hill’s book, Think And Grow Rich.)

You might wonder why I should choose something as seemingly random as a passage from a book without so much as a sniff of business planning or marketing to pursue as a business? In truth, I’ve no idea. I just knew from that moment forward my mission was to help people become the most that they could be.

And this is where I’ve turned to again in deciding my next steps, but this time underpinned by my reading of Cal Newport’s book, my extensive reading over the last four years and my career capital.

In taking time to analyse things, I’ve come up with a clear path that answers a number of obvious questions arising from the Awaken the Genius message:

  1. Are we are all possessed of genius (a good place to start is Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk, Your elusive creative genius)?
  2. How do I unlock my genius?
  3. Do I need a vision or purpose to become the most of anything?
  4. How do I make the most of what I already know (this is where Cal Newport’s book is so very helpful, particularly if you’re willing to apply deliberate practice with a craftsman’s mindset)
  5. How to change bad habits?
  6. How to develop new, better habits?
  7. Will this work in every area of my life?

I recognise that none of this is new but then what is? If, like me, you spend any amount of time reading around the subjects of personal development, success and spirituality, you quickly come to realise that nearly all of it, except perhaps the neuroscience, has been said before — in some cases a few thousand years ago.

As I wrote in yesterday’s post on Medium, I intend to write a great deal more about my journey. Specifically, I will create a blogging schedule for next year that will enable me produce a ‘best posts’ version for publication. I also intend to publish several manifestos (I’m working on the first at the moment; I intend to take my cue from the ChangeThis format) which will answer the aforementioned questions plus many more. I hope that these manifestos will codify my work, develop a number of key themes (Kaizen in particular) and offer something of value via either an email sign up or to any groups who might wish to hear me speak.

In summary, this is how I see things unfolding with my work:

  • I will build a business around Awaken the Genius Within
  • I intend to speak on this subject and less on social media
  • My client base will be Devon focused but not exclusively so
  • I will deliver workshops and training to those people or companies who believe that their current life is a metaphor for a higher calling (see Steven Pressfield’s book, Turning Pro)
  • I will practice what I preach, and openly share my story
  • I intend to apply deliberate practice with my work, which means I will spend less time online

I appreciate that I’ve a lot to do, but I’m not daunted. Indeed, for the first time in a very long while, I feel excited about what comes next. Don’t get me wrong. I recongise that I’ve a mountain to climb, and lots of obstacles to battle against but I wouldn’t want it any other way. I expect for a time there’s going to be a bit of juggling of projects, client demands and my (new) business development activity, but when I sit down from now on, I will have a much clearer focus. If nothing else, that will ensure that what I do moves me forward and I don’t end up back where I started.