• Books
  • “You can’t tell people anything, you’ve go to show ’em.” Plus other storytelling lessons from Bruce Springsteen

    If you want to improve your storytelling, or simply enjoy good stories and like Bruce Springsteen, then I highly recommend Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.

    This isn’t ghostwritten and the stories often have a lyrical feel.

    He says his album “The Ghost of Tom Joad” marked the beginning of the second half of his career. It wrestled with the question what is the work for us to do in our short time here.
    This is the storytelling lesson:
    The precision of the storytelling in these types of songs is very important. The correct detail can speak volumes about who your character is, while the wrong one can shred the credibility of your story. When you get the music and lyrics right, your voice disappears into the voices you’ve chosen to write about. Basically, with these songs, I find the characters and listen to them. That always leads to a series of questions about their behavior. What would they do? What would they never do? You need to locate the rhythm of their speech and the nature of their expressions. But all the telling detail in the world doesn’t matter if the song lacks an emotional center. There’s something you have to pull out of yourself from the com you feel with the man or woman you’re writing about. By pulling these elements together as well as you can, you shed light on their lives and honor their experiences.
    In 1995 he gave solo acoustic concerts in support of this album, which gave him new storytelling insights:
    The nakedness and tightrope drama of solo performance is a nervous revelation. It’s one man, one guitar, and “you,” the audience. What’s drawn forth is the emotional nucleus of your song. What’s revealed is the naked bones of your relationship to one another and the music. If your song was written well, it will stand in its skeleton form…I found new subtleties in my vocals, developed a high falsetto and learned to use my guitar for everything from a drum to a feedback-screeching canvas of sound. By the end of that first night, I felt I’d discovered something not as physical but as powerful as what I did the with E Street Band that spoke to my audience in a new tongue.
    And this:
    Most of my writing is emotionally autobiographical. I’ve learned you’ve got to pull up the things that mean something to you in order for them to mean anything to your audience. That’s where the proof is. That’s how they know you’re not kidding. (p. 267)
    What is the equivalent of a solo performance in your business or career? How can you speak to your audience in a new tongue? As Bruce says, “c
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  • Books
  • Why boredom is the cure for boring email copy


    historyofboredom-42-34955923 (1)- FLASH.jpg

    It sounds counter-intuitive, but if your email copy and stories are boring, and you have a lack of ideas, it means it’s time for you to seek out boredom.

    To come up with ideas I always have to step away from the computer and disengage my mind by going for a walk, running an errand, taking a shower, sweeping the floor, or some other task that doesn’t require much in the way of thought. In doing so I come home full of things to write about.

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this Albert Einstein quote:

    Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.

    Of course I’d love to think that if Einstein was alive today he would instead say social media diverts the mind too much, not reading. I love books and often feel restless if I go too long without reading. I have made a decision, however, to read fewer books and reread my favorite books. To ensure that I read fewer books I am trying an experiment where I don’t read any library books and instead buy the books I want to read. Then I will either resell them or put them in a local Free Little Library if I don’t want to keep the book. This forces me to be more deliberate in what I read and retain more of what I read. It also makes it easier for me to seek out boredom if I don’t have a huge stack of books by my bed.

    Cal Newport advocates taking a break from focus rather than from distraction. This means you have scheduled blocks of offline and online time.He also is an advocate of batching (doing deep work in scheduled blocks of time). I highly recommend you read the chapter called Embrace Boredom in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

    Remember, when all else fails, get bored.




    Image Source/Corbis

  • Books
  • The comic strip approach to email copywriting

    Creating comic strips resembles email copywriting in certain ways. If you write email copy you can learn a lot from your favorite cartoonists.

    For starters, like a cartoonist, you must create on a daily basis and work under deadline pressure if you write for clients.

    Sometimes a comic strip is a single gag and other times there is a running story line for several strips. With email copy it’s best to mix it up in this way too (although usually without gags, alas).

    Therefore I’m always drawn to interviews with and articles about cartoonists.

    I recently discovered a 37 page interview with Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin & Hobbes, in the book Exploring Calvin and Hobbes: An Exhibition Catalogue. You can probably find it at your local library.

    It’s one of the only interviews with Watterson, who is something of a recluse. He ended the strip 20 years ago yet it endures in popularity even though he doesn’t do a thing to promote it. I read it in one sitting and savored every word.

    Here is something he said in the interview that resonates:

    Richard Thompson…said he likes to work with small things he notices and his example was “gravel in the street.” That might be a little too small, but I agree with him. Daily minutiae are not actually trivial. It’s a wonderful thing to draw your attention to tiny little moments and small episodes. There can be something simple, grounded, and true when you observe those generally unnoticed small things. I tend to like that scale. Whenever I go to a computer-animated movie, I think, “Oh, please, not another quest.” You know, must we always journey to discover ourselves, find home, and save Christmas?

    I love the unpretentiousness of cartoons. If you sat down and wrote a two hundred page book called My Big Thoughts on Life, no one would read it. But if you stick those same thoughts in a comic strip and wrap them in a little joke that takes five seconds to read, now you’re talking to millions. Any writer would kill for that kind of audience. What a gift.

    Indeed. Those daily details and small episodes are critical components of email copy. The “journey story,” not so much, that is for the about page or sales page. The “gravel in the street” components of the journey story are appropriate for the email copy, however.

    My current favorite comic strip is Bloom County, which Berkeley Breathed resurrected on Facebook in 2015. Without the deadline pressure of a newspaper his creativity is free to flourish once again. He publishes 3-4 strips per week and it’s well worth following his Facebook page for these gems.

    Scott Adams of Dilbert is my other favorite. I’ve listened to his podcast interview with Tim Ferriss a couple of times and it’s one I know I’ll continue to revisit. He gives writing tips and explains his philosophy of humor, among many other things.

    I also like Frazz and Pearls Before Swine. Even Garfield can get a smile out of me sometimes even though that strip isn’t as good as it was back in the 1980s. Garfield Minus Garfield is more fun.

    If you read comics, what are your favorites?
    If you don’t like Calvin & Hobbes, then you won’t care for lesson #18 in my A Year of Email Copywriting Course. And lesson 12 will be especially soporific because I analyze the storytelling structure of comics and apply it to copywriting. Oh well. Can’t please everybody.

    If you like books, please check out my book reviews.

  • Books
  • “You need to ask smaller questions”

    With every turn of the page of Humans of New York: Stories I was reminded of that saying “Be kind; everyone is fighting a great battle.” The micro stories that accompany each photo are fascinating. And must reading for anyone who is a writer.

    My favorite photos are the “microfashion” ones of toddlers in adorable attire.

    My favorite story might be the one on page 326:

    “I’m a neuroscience researcher.”
    “If you could give one piece of advice to a large group of people, what would it be?”

    “Listen to your inner voice.”

    “You’re a scientist. Isn’t ‘inner voice’ a spiritual term?”

    “Bullshit! You’ll hear scientists talking about following their inner voice as much as you’d hear a musician or priest.”

    “So how do you know which of your thoughts are your true inner voice?”

    “All of them are! The question is – how much weight do you give them? How much authority do you give your own thoughts? Are you taking them seriously? Or are you sitting in front of the damn tube letting other people tell you what to think?”

    “Studying the brain is like working in a toy store. Nothing could be more fucking fun.”

    “What do you think is the greatest weakness of the brain?”

    “That’s a lousy question! I’m not answering it.”

    “Why is it a lousy question?”

    “What do you want me to say? Road rage? That we get pissed and shoot people? That the newest parts of our brain should have been in the oven a little longer? How’s that going to help you? If you ask a crappy question, you’ll never get a decent answer. You need to ask smaller questions – questions that give you a pathway to finding some pertinent information. The major advances in brain science don’t come from asking crappy questions like, “What is consciousness?” They come from microanalysis. They come from discovering pertinent information at the cellular level.”

  • Books
  • On becoming a “dedicated spirit,” falling in love with a work, and the marriage of marriages

    David Whyte is my favorite poet because he also understands the corporate and business world and brings his poetry into business workshops. In his book The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship he describes how we have the ability to fall in love with another person, a work, and even ourselves.

    On becoming a dedicated spirit:

    “…we reach a certain threshold where our freedom to choose seems to disappear and is replaced by an understanding that we were made for the world in a very particular way and that this way of being is at bottom nonnegotiable. Like the mountain or the sky, it just is. […]The only question is whether you will respond, whether you will not turn away, whether you will turn toward it – whether, in effect, you will become a dedicated spirit.”
    We put so much emphasis on finding our calling or vocation when in reality our work often finds us:
    To glimpse our vocation, we must learn how to be sought out and found by a work as much as we strive to identify it ourselves. We must make ourselves findable by being seen; to do that we must hazard ourselves and make ourselves available to the world we want to enter. Finding and being found is like a mutual falling in love. To have a possibility of happiness we must at the beginning fall in love at least a little with our work. We can choose a work on a mere strategic, financial basis, but then we should not expect profound future happiness as a result.”
    He uses Robert Louis Stevenson as an example in the marriage section of the book, which is the only downside of the book, as Stevenson doesn’t interest me much. But Whyte’s insights on marriage are well worth reading:
    “Marriage is where we realize the other person actually is alive and has notions and desires that have very little to do with our own hopes and dreams. Marriage is where we have to be larger than the self who irst made the vows. Marriage is where we learn self-knowledge; were we realize that arts of our own makeup are stranger even than the stranger we have married and very dificult for another person to live with…Marriage is where al of these dificult revelations can consign us to imprisonment or help us become larger, more generous, more amusing, more animated participants in the human drama.”
    I really enjoyed his use of Jane Austen as a example of how to write even if you have less than ideal conditions for writing. If you are a writer Whyte pretty much eliminates any possible excuse you have for not writing:

    The greatest, most prized excuse for a writer is the lament over our lack of time in which to write. It is a false and paper-thin defense against another more difficult, underlying dynamic: The inability to have the will to find the time. It is quite sobering to find with experience that if we write only a hundred words a day – a normal paragraph – we will have a book of ninety thousands words in three years. Three years is about the average time for a good prolific writer to produce a new work, given that the first year is often spent not writing at all, the second year telling ourselves that we must write, and the third in a gradually increasing frenzy building up to perhaps three or four thousands words a day.

    The sober truth is that any of us can find the time to write a book, no matter the schedule of unstoppable events in our life. Finding the part of us that wants to write the book is a different matter altogether.


    Finally, I appreciate how he looks at the work/life/relationship balance in a different and more nuanced way. The “marriage of marriages” as he calls it:

    “…the need to live in multiple contexts, multiple layers and with multiple people all at the same time without choosing between them. A kind of spiritual and imaginative multitasking.”



  • Books
  • On parallel careers and creating your life list

    Being multi-dimensional is the key to happiness according to Living in More Than One World: How Peter Drucker’s Wisdom Can Inspire and Transform Your Life. This book is packed with helpful tips on how to reevaluate your work in the second half of life, particularly if you are a knowledge worker.

    A second successful second half of life includes:

    Developing a second career.

    Having parallel careers. These are something that didn’t previously exist in your life and are noncompetitive with your main career. They can morph into a second career or post-retirement career. They give you a window into other worlds and don’t necessarily give you an income. Of course these should not turn into the shadow careers Steven Pressfield warns against.

    Social entrepreneurship and volunteer work.

    There is an exercise called a Total Life List that is central to the book. It’s a private, ongoing exercise that involves creating a list of:

    1. Immediate family (current and future)
    2. Extended family (current and future)
    3. Closer work colleagues (people you interact with most often in the workplace)
    4. Friends (current and future goals)
    5. People in your various professional networks (current and future goals)
    6. Various places of current employment and (briefly) what your work entails (current and future goals)
    7. Professional affiliations and associations (current and future goals)
    8. Ongoing learning activities (current and future goals)
    9. Teaching (if any)(current and future goals)
    10. Volunteer activities (current and future goals)
    11. Work with nonprofit organizations, or social entrepreneurship (current and future goals)
    12. Mentoring (current and future goals)
    13. Outside interests of all types, including areas such as sports leagues, amateur interest societies, religious/spiritual activities or study, book groups, or creative areas such as writing, art, or playing music (current and future goals)
    14. Exercise and other mind-body activities (current and future goals)

    If, like me, you have never read any of Peter Drucker’s 40 books, then this book is a good place to start because it is a synthesis of his main teachings.



  • Books
  • On playing hurt and abandoning shadow careers: Steven Pressfield’s guide to creating your life’s work

    Sometimes a slim volume is packed with wisdom. Such is the case with Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work by Steven Pressfield.

    His concept of “shadow careers” is very interesting and one I hadn’t ever thought of before:

    “Sometimes, when we’re terrified of embracing our true calling, we’ll pursue a shadow calling instead. That shadow career is a metaphor for our real career. Its shape is similar, its contours feel tantalizingly the same. But a shadow career entails no real risk. If we fail at a shadow career, the consequences are meaningless to us.

    …Are you getting your Ph.D. in Elizabethan studies because you’re afraid to write the tragedies and comedies that you know you have inside you?…Are you working in a support capacity for an innovator because you’re afraid to risk becoming an innovator yourself?

    …If you’re dissatisfied with your current life, as yourself what your current life is a metaphor for. That metaphor will lead you towards your true calling.”

    That insight alone is worth the brief amount of time it takes to read this book. Fortunately there’s more:

    The amateur dreads becoming who she really is because she fears that this new person will be judged by others as ‘different.’


    Here’s the truth: the tribe doesn’t give a shit.

    There is no tribe.


    Each individual is so caught up in his own bullshit that he doesn’t have two seconds to worry about yours or mine, or to reject or diminish us because of it.

    When we truly understand that the tribe doesn’t give a damn, we’re free. There is no tribe, and there never was.

    Our lives are entirely up to us.

    Pressfield also writes about how a professional trusts mystery and that the Muse always delivers. Here are his five axioms derived from this principle:

    1. Work over your head. It’s possible to write from a place that is far deeper than your personal ego. For example, an author who writes a character who is smarter than they are.
    2. Write what you don’t know. Pressfield wrote a screenplay about prison life even though he had never set foot in a prison. More than one person asked him afterwards where he did his time.
    3. Take what the defense gives you. There are bad stretches in any endeavor where you feel like giving up. To fight the resistance Pressfield urges us to “take what you can get and stay patient. The defense may crack late in the game. Play for tomorrow.”
    4. Play hurt. There is never a good time to switch careers or start a new project. “Athletes play hurt. Warriors fight scare. The professional takes two aspirin and keeps on truckin’.
    5. Sit chilly.  This maxim comes from a famous teacher of horsemanship. Horses are highly sensitive creatures and will pick up on any anxiety the rider feels in the saddle. “Sit chilly” means to stay in your seat even in moments of terror or panic.

    I’m embarrassed to admit I still haven’t read Pressfield’s The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles even though I’ve come across dozens of admonitions to read this classic book. That one will now go to the top of my reading heap.

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  • Books
  • How to find fulfilling work

    The topic of how to find fulfilling work is such a first world problem that I was prepared for How to Find Fulfilling Work to be a book worthy of dissing. Additionally, because none of the stories and advice in the first half of address people who have the responsibility of providing for children, and therefore don’t have the luxury of taking a “radical sabbatical” and so forth, I was ready to toss it aside.

    But then I came to the three exercises on pages 88-93. The first exercise asks you to spend 10 minutes making a map of sorts of all the jobs you’ve held. I went ahead and listed everything, from my part-time jobs in high school and college, the temp jobs in between my “real” jobs, and also my self-employment. It’s the first time I’ve studied my work history in this way, rather than as something simply to put on a resume, and it was eye-opening. Another exercise asks you to list five jobs you might want to try if you have a year off to work any job you wanted. It was interesting to note both the patterns and wild disparities. The third exercise is to write a half page personal advertisement about yourself wherein you describe your interests and motivations (but don’t mention specific jobs) and then show it to 10 people you know in different walks of life and ask them to read it and recommend 2-3 different careers for you. I haven’t done that exercise yet but can see how it could be helpful.

    I liked the story of the poet Wallace Stevens. His day job was in insurance and he even declined a professor job at Harvard after he became famous. The Marie Curie story was interesting too.

    Yep: “without work, all life goes rotten, but when work is soulless, life stifles and dies.” – Albert Camus.

    “Where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation. – Aristotle. That sounds good but how to achieve it? This book will at least spark a few ideas about vocation and career.

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  • Books
  • Creating work that matters

    Seth Godin describes listening to audiobooks as a “practice.” It’s only very recently that I’ve taken up the practice of listening to audiobooks, preferring those that are talks and don’t also exist in print form. An expanded podcast, of sorts. Leap First: Creating Work That Matters is such a book.

    If you read his blogs and have read some of his books then there won’t be much new here, but that’s fine with me, because I haven’t tired of his message yet.

    Plus as one who endeavors to practice art, which he defines as the “emotional labor we bring to the table to make a connection” it’s a message I need to hear regularly. Audiobooks lend themselves to repeat listens more easily than rereading a book. I plan on listening to this one regularly.

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  • Books
  • How high will you fly?

    Seth Godin’s inspirational manifestos always hit the spot and The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly? is no exception.

    Sure, some, if not all, of the ideas in this book are variations of what he has said elsewhere, but it’s always good to revisit them. I should probably reread one Godin book each month or so. I like the 14 stories at the end of the book about various people who picked themselves and pursued their type of art even at the cost of stable jobs.

    Here are some of my favorite things from the book:

    “The resistance is a symptom you’re on the right track. The resistance is not something to be avoided; it’s something to seek out. That’s the single most important sentence in this book.”

    Habits of Successful Artists:

    Learn to sell what you’ve made.
    Say thank you in writing.
    Speak in public.
    Fail often.
    See the world as it is.
    Make predictions.
    Teach others.
    Write daily.
    Connect others.
    Lead a tribe.

    Six Daily Habits for Artists:

    Sit alone; sit quietly
    Learning something new without any apparent benefit.
    Ask individuals for bold feedback; ignore what you hear from the crowd.
    Spend time encouraging other artists.
    Teach, with the intent of making change.
    Ship something that you created.

    Are you active on Goodreads? If so, please follow my reviews there. I will continue to post my reviews of business books here on my blog.