July 12th, 2015

Because writing is hard, and because thinking is hard, and because being on point all the time is hard, I sometimes have days where nothing gets done. Where I sit at my desk and spin my wheels for hours. Where I have to check the fridge every 20 minutes as if it was going to change. Where I no longer battle with the idea that I’m totally unqualified to do anything related to this industry – I know I’m unqualified.

This post originally appeared July 5th, 2015, as part of The Pastry Box Project.

At the end of these days, the drive home sucks. I wasted this day.

It’s this thought that gives me fuel – the shame of realizing that I could have just fought through it, that writer’s block and procrastination won the battle. My energy level increases and I look for small victories.

I clean the house. I do the dishes. I organize the bookshelf. I take care of things I’ve been letting go. I answer some smaller emails. I do something. And doing something helps.

I’ll never get the day back. I’ll never stop procrastination and writer’s block. But the small victories help, and I know that tomorrow will be better.

June 12th, 2015

Iowa doesn’t seem like a big state until you’re 150 miles into it, on day two of a week-long bike ride. But it is. It’s long and hilly and hot. Sometimes it rains. Sometimes they run out of pork chops along the side of the road.

Sometimes you have to stop. And that’s where I was.

This post originally appeared June 5th, 2015, as part of The Pastry Box Project.

RAGBRAI – the Register’s Annual Great Big Race Across Iowa – was a kind of legend in our house growing up. My father had made it all the way across when I was just a kid, and though he never did it again it was still a point of pride. It was a dream to me – to take a week off work and family and life and just ride, 75-some miles a day, alone and in my thoughts beside my wife and tens of thousands of other like-minded people.

More than that, though, it was a dream to find myself at the finish. To hold up my bike after dunking it in the Mississippi. To conquer Iowa.

And I had all the confidence I could do it. Until we approached Emmetsburg.

My knee tweaked. I fought the pain and kept going, riding harder, pushing up hills, against the wind, trying to stay in line. And, finally, as I rode into town, our resting spot for the night, the pain became too much.

Five blocks from our camp, I got off my bike.

I could barely walk. My eyes were stinging from sunscreen. I limped along.

And then I cried. Because I wasn’t going to be riding the next day – if at all. The dream was done, and I wasn’t prepared for how much that would hurt.

Convincing Myself

Sometimes, I speak at conferences. And while my talks are about methodology, and making things smaller and more usable for resource-strapped teams, and empathy for co-workers and editors, I ultimately fall on a common topic: the myth of perfection.

I talk about how the web is an imperfect ball of twine, tangled and knotted and unable to be smoothed out. There are inconsistencies that can no longer be unraveled. We are all learning this as we go. Rah Rah Do Your Best.

I stand up in front of rooms of 20 and crowds of 300 and I talk about how we can’t be perfect, and people tweet things and they come up to me after and say how great it is that I’m talking about how imperfect we all are and how brave. And that’s awesome. Except.

Except, really, it’s not about them, is it?

Over the past five years, through dozens of talks and articles, from conversations with clients and co-workers, among friends, at bars, as we’re walking, I stress the importance of finding value in the lack of perfection. This is my soapbox. This is what I think I believe.

But I’m not trying to convince an audience of attendees or peers. I’m trying to convince myself.

The Myth

I know there are people out there who understand that perfection is a myth. Hell, I understand perfection is a myth. But I’ll be damned if I ever remember that when I’m staring down a deadline, tweaking and primping some unnecessary details, my head filling with doubt, my gut twisting like it’s spent too much time in the Gravitron.

I understand, but I rarely believe. I’m there, every time. Trying to make things perfect.

That’s what we’re taught. That perfection is accessible, that giving 110% percent is a goal. The urge to “try our best” is, by definition, reaching out for perfection – doing our best to make something perfect. Something flawless.

That’s a great thing to be able to do. That’s why we try to maximize our productivity, and that’s why we learn new things, and improve our methods, and practice practice practice.

It’s not that we shouldn’t try to be perfect – to make things as good as they can get. It’s just that we have to redefine what perfect means. To understand that being perfect doesn’t mean overanalyzing everything. That being perfect is a point in the distance that we drive toward, a black tower that guides our path.

Perfect’s a good goal, as long as we understand we’ll never make it there. You can still win the pennant even without a perfect game.

I Used To…

And with that, I can look back at all of my failures and realize what really happened.

I used to be a photographer. I used to be a teacher. I used to read and I used to write a lot more.

I used to be patient. I used to understand.

I used to be a lot of things, and I had reasons for letting off. I saw people who had done it better, or I had recognized my own inconsistencies. I gave the fuck up. I just figured if I’m not going all out – if I’m not impressing people – then what’s the point in trying.

And that’s too bad. I sought perfection in places where I’d never find it – not with my limited attention, not with my personal quirks.

But I’m getting there. I’m getting confident enough to try again. I’m just doing. I’m not worrying whether things will work out. I’m just doing the work, understanding it doesn’t need to be perfect. I’m just doing things. And I’m just doing it for me.

Finishing Over Completion

The end is the end, no matter how many miles you rode in the middle. You get to the Mississippi, and you dip your tire in. RAGBRAI is over. You made it.

For a split second, I thought I had. And then I remembered day three. Who was I to claim this feeling? Who was I to say I rode RAGBRAI?

It wasn’t until the drive back – seven of us in the back of a camper, drinking Coors Light, our bikes wedged into the front and our sunburned legs wedged into the back – that I understood what RAGBRAI was. Not the start and finish. Not the miles, or the hills. It was the people. The community.

In the back, we had four people who had ridden every mile – sometimes more. We had two who had taken a day off to rest. We had one who had only ridden three of the seven days. But together in that camper, as things got dark and we retreated back west, erasing every mile, we were all riders.

Perfection be damned. There’s always future rides. At that moment, we were all together as finishers, even if we hadn’t completed it.

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May 12th, 2015

Everybody seems to wonder
What it’s like down here
I gotta get away from this day-to-day running around
Everybody knows this is nowhere.

— Neil Young, “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere”

The lights can be blinding when you wander into focus. When everyone starts looking at you; when you have become the subject of everyone’s sentence. There’s a pause, and in that pause there’s a choice. You let this bother you. Or you don’t.

This post originally appeared May 5th, 2015, as part of The Pastry Box Project.

Sometimes the choice is easy. You just do it. You have nothing to lose. The stakes are not high enough.

Yet, sometimes…

You do what you do. You entertain, you teach, you present, you learn. You are at the head of a conference table explaining your decisions. You are on stage in front of 200 people. You are in a discovery meeting justifying your position.

As you walk off stage, you have an idea of how it went. It went perfectly. It went horribly. It just went.

And then you look at the feedback.

The One Side

The first time I spoke at a conference, I nailed it. This is not bragging – I honestly had no idea my talk would go over as well as it did. But it did. And as I wandered amongst friends and conference attendees and other speakers at the conference party, I felt everything wash away. I had looked the beast in the eyes, and I had slayed it.

I can do this, I thought. Though, there shouldn’t have ever been any doubt. I am a trained teacher with a degree in secondary biology education. I had handled worse crowds as a fresh substitute, filling in for advanced-level high school Biology II classes, trying to reign the wandering minds of students that were only five years younger than I was.

Seriously. What the hell could a conference crowd do that an 18-year-old with senioritis couldn’t?

And Then the Other

And then, last week, I gave the talk of my life. I had worked and fretted and made myself insane over this talk. I took to heart all of the feedback I had ever received: make sure you give the crowd something they can act on. Be funny. Give a little bit of your own personality. Practice. Do it. Be it.

I nailed it. Again.

And then I looked at the feedback. It wasn’t pretty.

I remembered back to the first time I ever led a discovery meeting, where my lack of experience had been exposed and I felt like a complete fraud. I went into the meeting with the idea that I could do this – that this was going to be a fantastic meeting – and left wondering what had happened.

When pressed, I had no answers. When prodded, I shuddered and hoped it would somehow go away.

Years later, I understand that the key to thinking on your toes is to assume you know more than everyone else. But that’s not my style. A fair number of us don’t think that way. It’s not introversion – the great over-diagnosed condition of the web era. It’s just that we hedge our bets and we assume that there’s always something more to learn. We aren’t wired to be forceful and confident.

But sometimes that’s what we need. We need to pretend we are forceful and confident. We need to play that part, like going against type in a community theater play. We need to stop assuming we’re Seymour and start playing the part of the Audrey II.

Ignore or Push Forward

When I walk into the lights, I want to be perfect.

I want to be Don Draper. I want to be Ginger Rodgers. I want to be every character in the Ocean’s movies.

But.

I can’t be perfect, and you can’t be perfect, and no one can be perfect, because this shit isn’t scripted and despite the fact that we try really really hard we’ll never be perfect. Every time we step on stage, we’re less than perfect. Every time.

Every time. We fail, because we want to be mistake-free, and we forget that mistakes are what make us normal. Relatable. Human.

And we could feel horrible about that. Or, we could stop worrying and just try to be good. Because we are good. It’s just that sometimes we freeze up under pressure. That’s what pressure does. That’s what humans do.

So I can’t be perfect. I just need to be good. And make an impact. Even if that impact doesn’t fit into the Hollywood storyline.

That Moment

I got bad reviews – at least the ones I snuck a look at before shutting it down and ignoring the rest. I was completely and utterly shattered for two days. Why do I do this? If this talk sucks – a talk I gave specifically to a set of people that I thought would understand it, a talk that I thought had gone as well as any talk I had ever given – then what do I do?

Do I scrap it? Do I give up? Do I spend the next 21 days fixing it before I give it again, not knowing if anything I’m doing is going to actually help?

Or do I reframe the question?

Because the opinions of that vocal minority – the 8% of people who had responded – shouldn’t really dictate my feelings. They should not determine whether or not my performance and message were worth it to the rest of the group. I can allow them to represent a small portion, but I’ll never know how everyone thought.

So I had a choice. I could trust my gut, or I could pay attention to a few people who gave me a bad score.

And, after a few days, it was easy.

I was going to trust my gut. Because regardless of the platitudes and positive feedback and negative vibes, my gut doesn’t feed me any bullshit. It just tells me when I think I’m doing okay.

And, to be honest, that’s about as confident a cheerleader I’ll ever need.

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February 21st, 2015

When it comes to web origin stories, I usually tune out. They’re often studies in longevity, attempting to give credence to the idea of experience over expertise, written to prove Original Gangsta status.

This is not that kind of origin story. This is not about experience. This is not about proving myself.

This is just a story about a blog.

1

To be clear, my actual web origin story begins in 1997, when I got to college and had access to a neighbor’s laptop, but for purposes of this post let’s assume it started exactly ten years ago. Well, ten years and one day, to be totally exact.

I had failed at being a teacher; after four years of college and two years of on-and-off substitute teaching, I gave up. I floated into call center management, and while I was making more than I would have otherwise made as a new teacher, it wasn’t by much. I had no direction. What I had wanted to be when I grew up wasn’t actually what I wanted to do anymore. Where do you go from there?

But I liked writing. I discovered that, at least, thanks to hours of downtime during late-night shifts at the call center. And I liked the internet. We all did.

So one evening I asked my co-worker – the one who made websites on the side – if he could help me set up a blog.

And on February 20, 2005, I launched cdub.driscocity.com.

2

I stole a quote from an author I’ve still never read. “The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.”

I was going to be a writer. An author. I was going to use this to hone my craft and publish things, to place my words into the domain of public criticism and learn from my bruises. I wrote about books and I wrote about music and I wrote about sports. I wrote for my friends, because that’s all who knew about it, and then I wrote for my state because the South Dakota Blogosphere was a small place and it was easy to be noticed.

We were a small club. We drew lines and started specializing. Politics over there. Sports over here. I was the one who wrote about whatever was on my mind – ramblings from a late-20s ex-punker.

I became an advertising copywriter, and I shifted direction. I started being more selective and deliberate. I gave myself challenges – writing about every Sioux Falls Skyforce home game we attended, or writing each month about the books I was reading – and I started looking inside.

I was prolific, then I wasn’t. I wrote about kids. I wrote about death. I wrote about careers. And then I wrote about myself. About adjustment, learning, being a better person.

I wasn’t a blogger. It was never my main focus. It was just a thing I did when I needed an outlet, and it helped me work through things before I dove in too deep. I don’t write to communicate – I write to discover, the process itself helping me figure out just what the hell I’m trying to say.

If I’d have had a blog when I was learning to be a teacher, I might not have wasted those years wandering down the wrong path. I might have found my passion a little earlier in life. But that’s the past.

3

We take it for granted now, this ability to set up your own piece of real estate on the internet, especially with how easy it’s become. You may not fully own it – you may just rent it from Facebook or Medium or Twitter – but it is your sandbox. It’s whatever you want it to be. That still amazes me.

What amazes me even more is when someone takes that sandbox and builds it into something more. I was never going to be that someone. I was always going to be someone who used and ignored.

It’s still amazing to me that I was ever able to get my shit together enough to do it. That I was ever able to actually create something that I could get use out of. That’s not me. Or, at least, it wasn’t.

4

Somehow, it worked. Every small advancement in my career is due in some small part because I started a blog.

I used my blog to get a gig as a book columnist.

I used my blog to get my first paid assignments at the local paper.

I used my blog to show I could succeed as an unproven copywriter.

I used my blog to gain a larger audience through 9rules.

I used my blog to reach out to those in the local web community.

I used my blog to meet the person who would give me a chance as a web person.

I used my blog to write a love letter to content strategy.

I used my blog to prove myself, to gush endlessly about my future, to be embarrassing naive and learn from my mistakes, to gain the confidence to speak out, to take every single step from being a failed teacher to a happy and content web strategist.

I used my blog to find my voice, and in doing so I found my calling.

5

I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life. And most of them can be found somewhere on this blog. Every misstep, each overeager blurt, every weird phase I’ve passed through on the way to something more stable and useful.

And, yet, I’ve done a lot of good. That’s all in here, too. I’ve written things that helped people – helped myself, to be honest. It’s weird to me, still. But it happened.

I don’t write here as much anymore, but when I do I hope to make it count. I hope that you’ve found something worthwhile in it – somewhere in this weird collection of 1,473 posts. And even if you haven’t, there’s always the future.

Happy 10th birthday, Black Marks on Wood Pulp. Thanks for all you’ve done.

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February 12th, 2015

Used to be there was one way to become a major recording star, and that’s by finding a major recording label. You could woo the crowds in Nashville and make the crowd swoon, but you weren’t going to make millions until Capitol Records showed up on your front step.

Had stage fright? Didn’t like to travel? Didn’t want a label producer tweaking your sound? You’re out of luck. You had two paths: you can be a gigantic player, or you could go home, unknown forever. You couldn’t both be successful and stay true.

This post originally appeared February 5th, 2015, as part of The Pastry Box Project.

And then, the independents rose in defiance, bolstered by 70s punk. There was another option — a way to be nationally known without exceeding scope. The floodgates opened, and suddenly everything started sounding a little different.

Updating the Path to Success

Most of us grow up assuming the road to success is paved — that regardless of the end destination, there’s one main artery with very few exits. You go to school. You get a degree. You work within that degree. You move up the ladder and retire at the top. Any other path is an uncharted dirt road, slower and more dangerous. Drive at your own risk.

It doesn’t take long before we understand the limitations of that career arc. The closer you get to the top, the more crowded things become. The road to success isn’t even a road — it’s a bottleneck of toll booths, weeding out people as the pack moves forward.

But, like those early record companies were usurped by both the advent of a viable independent record industry and the internet, so too is the traditional sense of success. Smaller voices are being brought to mainstream attention, and in some cases we’re detouring around mainstream attention altogether.

Now, there is no need to aim for the top. You can do what you love — modestly, with attention to size and scope — without being tied to a larger concept of “success.” Those independent record labels? They were filled with fantastic artists who were trying hard to make great music — with or without the trappings of a major label arena act. Top-of-the-charts success was no longer the only path to happiness.

We’re learning this slowly in tech. Sure, some sectors are still focused on being that big dog mentality — getting backed by insane venture capitalist money, or becoming an agency executive, or landing on a powerful board of directors.

But not everyone. Not anymore. Sometimes, we’re just looking for a different destination. Not everyone wants to end up at the top. We’re slowly embracing the idea that sometimes staying small is exactly the right place to be.

On Being Happy With Small

Where I may have once measured my own success by where I fit along someone else’s career path, I now focus on what I can borrow to take me down my own road. I’m no longer looking for a map or compass — I’m looking for tools to help clear the brush.

We are fortunate to work in an industry where measures of success and worthiness have forked thousands of times. We don’t compare each other based on titles and location — we measure each other based on knowledge, community, and honesty. Which means what once felt like the traditional path — Work Hard, Get Bigger, Take Over — is no longer the assumed path.

Some people get to stay small. Some people thrive by staying small.

I may never work on a project as large as the New York Times. I may never speak on stage in front of 7,000 people. I may never own my own company. I may never write a book. I may never become the voice of my industry.

I’m okay with this, because these are not my goals.

My goal is to live a balanced life, where the work I do is important, where the time I have with my family and friends is plentiful, where I can grow and improve and do fantastic work. I don’t need the big stage to do these things.

Everything else is an added benefit. I might never get that hit record, but I’m going to have a hell of a time making something awesome.

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February 4th, 2015

Here’s a bit of truth.

Time is limited. The things we want to do require time, and that time is not infinite. Our bad habits take time. Moving from place to place takes time. Sleep takes time. Eating. Sulking. Living. Ambition. It all takes time.

Aspirations, however. They don’t take a lot of time. They just require an active mind. Aspirations lead to great things. Aspirations lead to groundbreaking projects and pure joy and unbridled excitement.

Aspirations are timeless.

Putting them into reality, though. That takes time.

The value of those aspirations, the quality of our eating and sulking and living, the strength of our ambition – these things are all varied. They can all be debated and fought over. But time is limited. That much is truth.

I’ll go on.

A Problem

Over the past decade, I’ve seen a pattern in the people I respect.

They look for good. They admit when they’re wrong. They challenge things, and they further great causes – and when they can’t, they support those who can. They get less prolific, but they get more focused. Quality over quantity. Signal vs. noise.

They don’t feel the need to be everywhere at once. They admit when they’re overwhelmed. They balance their life. They make time for the right things.

They know when to disengage.

Me, however? I was having a hard time disengaging. I was part of the mid-00s blogosphere. I found a voice before I had learned moderation, and I loved being a part of something so big that I couldn’t bear to lose it. I was too afraid to disengage.

I wanted to connect with everyone. In doing so, I never formed a real connection with anyone. I pinned things in maps.

Some of those pins were valuable. They became friendships.

Some of those pins were redundant. They were my existing support, and they’d have been there without the map.

Some of those pins angered me. They angered me with their assumptions. With their transparent lousiness. With their pretentiousness. Things you can’t comment about on the internet, because even the most well meaning grapes seem sour when spelled out in 140 characters.

But the pins that angered me stayed on my board out of obligation. If you ask me what I’m most embarrassed about in the past five years, it’s that I kept my friends close, but I kept my unrelated annoyances even closer.

A Solution

I have aspirations, and those aspirations require action, and that action requires time, and I was spending too much time was spent wondering how in the hell that person has the nerve to be so transparently arrogant and why is this person actively channeling what seems like an overly sexist and naive line of thinking and oh my god I can see through the mindlessness and carelessness of this messaging so why can’t anyone else.

My aspirations were taken hostage by people who I thought I needed to care about. There was so much noise.

And then I had a weird and obvious moment of clarity, when everything came together – a few minutes after a rant about someone I barely know on a social network I barely liked. That’s when my friend Eileen asked a simple question.

“Why don’t you stop following that person?”

I mean…

Well…

So I did.

An Action

I unfollowed one. And then another.

Every time someone would raise my ire, I would examine that ire. Is this a one-time disagreement? Or is this just another in a long line of things that I’m irrationally angry about, another drop in the bucket of a relationship that, while beneficial or important in some superficial way, is ultimately bound for failure.

If I found myself getting frustrated over and over again? I unfollowed them.

I left Facebook altogether, which meant I left Foursquare. I left Timehop. I left everything that was tied to Facebook, and with that noise cancelled I began looking further out. I stopped worrying about everyone else.

I started worrying about me. Not selfishly, but practically.

And, with the support and backing of my friends and family, I have transformed that worrying into productivity. No longer comparing, fuming, fighting fights that weren’t worth winning. So much more time to do the things I love. So much more peace.

Change came not from new insights, but from the absence of some old ones.

A Resurgence

I have started writing again. I have started booking speaking engagements. I was on a year hiatus that, in some part, was fueled by the frustration of being a part of a toxic rat race of being The Most Right.

I am thankful that I am still an unknown entity, because I can use Twitter to my own specifications, unencumbered by random responses and thread-jacking.

Most of all, I’m thankful that I can somehow balance being both unapologetic and deliberate. That I can let go of someone and not care. That I can give myself space. That I can turn things down without guilt.

I have aspirations, and I am turning those aspirations into action. Because time is limited. Because my attention deserves more. Because I don’t need to be a part of everything.

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January 21st, 2015

I worked on a project for a few hours after work today. It felt really good to finally push some thoughts out. I was on a roll – lost in some jazz record recommended by Twitter, free-flowing through a kind of giddy atmosphere. I didn’t think. I just wrote. I just wrote, and then I wrote some more, and then I had a lot of words and I was happy and the sun returned to the sky and everything was beautiful again.

I took a break. I looked at my fantasy basketball team. I looked for another jazz record.

I returned to read through everything, and realized it was time to cut loose. Because the sun was gone now. This shit was horrible. Trite. Without passion or logic. Oof.

And yet, I still felt pretty good. It’s weird how the exercise of intense writing – unbridled spillage, really, with no real place in the world – can fail so spectacularly, yet still end up as valuable as publishing something fantastic.

There are a lot of clogs in our head. When they’re flushed out, they are often gross and unusable. Gotta keep flushing them out, though. Gotta keep flushing them out and throwing them away.

So I dismissed my day’s output. I filed it away. For later, maybe. Probably forever though.

And then the my internet connection disappeared. I packed up and went home. Exhausted from writing thousands of words. Refreshed that I decided to keep none.

Category: Writing

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