Okay team, here we are at week three of the Virtual Apprenticeship Challenge! And anyone else reading this but not taking part, keep reading because this is for you, too.
So the time has come. You sorta knew you would get to this place eventually, although you probably have told people that you never will, or maybe you just can't believe it's actually necessary. That's right: you need a website.
You need a website because if you are trying to build an identity, reputation or brand for yourself (note that I did not say business), you need a spot for people to go to learn more about you. This, unlike your social media accounts, is fully under YOUR control. As long as you pay those yearly fees, no one can take this away from you or dictate how you present yourself. I would argue that a website (and the blogs and mailing lists and links and information that go with it) is the only part you can for certain count on. Instagram is seven years old. It will probably be here in seven years, but maybe not. Will it be here in 15 years? 20? If you are trying to build the sort of reputation or brand equity that will allow you to do all sorts of things (sell stuff, teach stuff, share stuff) you need to be thinking long term. A website is the corner stone of how you do this.
I never thought I'd have a website. Now I have four of them. One for the tree farm, one for the editing business, one for the magazine, and one just for me. This last one is the most important. It started out an awkward amalgamation of the different things I wanted to share and promote, and this mix has gotten more comfortable and changed quite a bit over the two years I've had the site. The trick is that I make myself sit down every six months or so and overhaul the photos, the text, the very identity of the pages.
Now, I am not particularly savvy when it comes to technology. I was definitely snookered by the "drag and drop" claims made by the leading website builders, and then I had to spend a very frustrating couple of hours trying to figure out the way the software worked before I had any sort of familiarity with it. But I think it is crucial for you to be able to change your own website, at least one that doesn't handle complicated transactions like my editing one, which is built and maintained by a professional. So if I can do it, you can do it.
Like your social media handles, I would argue that you need to have your website just be your full name and .com. The reason for this is simple: life is long and things change, but you will always be you. Your website is not you putting on airs: it's you sharing who you are and what you have to offer, and that will of course change over the years.
So your challenge for this coming week is to make your website. I don't say this lightly. I know that is will cost you a couple of hundred dollars to buy the plan and the domain. I would recommend that you think about what you want your website to have in terms of options (store? mailing list? reservations?) The top builders-- squarespace, wordpress, weebly, shopify, wix-- all have these options, so do some research to figure out which one is the best fit. If you plan to try to sell, I would recommend getting the cheapest paid plan rather than go for the free one. Most of these will also host your domain and help you buy it, so figure that out too.
I know that this is a lot coming on top of continuing to carve and post, so if you need to do this instead of carving for a couple of days, do that. Use the photos you have been posting to flesh out the site, and in particular make sure there is a friendly picture of yourself on the home page.
Check out various makers' websites until you have a sense of the aesthetic, language and types of pages you want to make for yours, and then do a quick outline of what pages you want and what you want them to achieve. If you are like me, you might not want to actually enable the store feature but handle any sales in person, although I'm certainly not advocating for this.
Why bother doing this, if you think you are still a ways away from wanting to sell? Or maybe you don't want to sell at all, and think this is just wasted money. But what I'm saying is that this is a homestead. It starts out as a plot of ground with your stake in the center, and then log by log you build that cabin over time. You clear the trees and fence the pasture. This is your home you are making. And you don't need to know what you will use it for for it to be a good idea to start building it.
I know this is big. I know this is scary. I know this is not what you signed up for when you decided you wanted to take your carving to the next level. But I promise you, this will be the move that you will be glad you took three years from now. And setting it up is a one-time proposition. So put your shoulder to the wheel and push.
PS for those of you who already have a website, congratulations! I want you to update that website. Then I want you to start a blog.
For week two of the virtual apprenticeship challenge (and if you are reading this and aren't one of the 90 participants, don't worry, this is for you, too) I want you to start using social media with discipline.
Now most of you are probably thinking about the discipline of not spending hours poking around in the explore section of Instagram or not checking your facebook updates like a nervous tic. And we'll get to that. But this is about building your craft and laying the groundwork for you to start building a platform for yourself and for your craft, so I'm actually talking about the discipline of USING social media.
Since all the participants found me through Instagram, I'm going to talk about that, but really what I'm about to say can be applied to any app, any social media.
Starting tomorrow, I want you to start posting something EVERY DAY. If you already post every day, I want you to post twice a day. Whatever you are doing, double it. Already post three times a day pretty regularly? Make it consistent and then start using Stories and Live features on a regular basis.
The thing is, carving spoons (again, this is the basis for the challenge, but it can apply to WHATEVER you want to be doing with your life) can't make you a living in a vacuum. You need to build a following. This following will be built on the basis of your skill (hence you will continue to carve every day), but it will also be built by just being present.
Posting every day will build your photography skills, something I will go into in my podcast over this next week (if you aren't listening to my podcast, Emmet Audio, start. It's available on every major podcast platform and covers topics that are relevant to this challenge. It's short, it's daily, and it's just me talking). But a good photograph is not enough. You need to have something to say, also. Writing, "this is the spoon I just carved" is not going to get you to where you want to be. The good news is that the caption doesn't need to be just about what the photograph is of. You can talk about ANYTHING. Your grandma. Your philosophy. What is hard. What is surprising. What you love to eat. What bugs you.
You also need to start using hashtags, and be thoughtful about which you use and how to rotate them through so you are showing up in lots of places. Using hashtags is another podcast, I can feel it. Suffice to say, you get to use like 25 hashtags. If you don't have 10k followers, you should be making use of every single one on every single post. Check out people you think are doing a good job and see what hashtags they are using. Copy that. You want a medium sized hashtag, one that gets enough traffic to have your photo be seen but not so many that you immediately get buried. You will need to type them in each time, and this sucks, but it's also how you build a following. Suck it up.
Be mindful to not just post pictures of spoons. Remember that someone is following you because of the spoons, but they bond with you over you as a person. Be real. Be varied. Be interesting and honest. Don't get pigeonholed. Don't let your feed get monotonous. Pay attention to how your feed looks to someone just going to it and checking it out for the first time. Delete the weakest photos from time to time to improve the caliber of your feed.
And now, the hardest part for almost all of you, but I think the most important in the long run: change your handle to just be your name. Trust me. You want to be known for you. You want people to think of your name when they think of you, not some handle that sounds like a million others. I know this because I started out with a handle that reflected my tree farm, and then when I finally switch to my name I felt free, free to be ALL of what I am, free to interact openly with people, and they felt that shift. Things started to change. If you don't do anything else, do this. I will do a podcast to talk more about my thoughts here, but I cannot stress it enough.
Okay, so you are going to continue carving every day. You are also going to start posting every day. Make the photography the best you can, and be thoughtful about what you say. Use hashtags! Lot's of them. And make sure you interact with every single person that reaches out with a comment. You are building the community that you will serve and that will serve you from here on out. Carving is not enough. You must master this also.
For the next six weeks, this blog will be the deep context support to the Virtual Apprenticeship Challenge that I'm running. The VAC is a free challenge I'm running to help people gain a little more structure around taking the steps to make their spooncarving (or whatever your thing is) to the next level. It is intended to be very self directed, so these blogs will provide the real instruction while the challenge directions will be issued in a direct message to each of the participants.
Week 1 is about doing your thing every day.
That might seem like an obvious thing. But it's super hard to do. That means doing it when you'd rather go to bed. That means getting up early to do it. That means doing it when you're not inspired, or feeling rushed, or when you need to make some sort of sacrifice for it.
Sometimes it is fun too, don't get me wrong. But plenty of times, the discipline that is needed requires sacrifice. So why do it?
The reason you need to do your thing every day is because that is what it takes to get good at what you do. Carving for seven hours one day a week is nowhere near as helpful as carving an hour every single day of the week. And if your thing is as obscure as spooncarving, you need to be even better to reach the place where you want to be. Because while the competition is small, the pie of demand is also small. Competition is a topic for another day, but my point is this: if you want to start selling your work; if you want to gain a reputation that you can leverage into opportunities; if you just want to reach a place where carving (or whatever) feels like something you have mastery over, then you need to make the commitment to do it every day.
Now maybe you don't want to. That's fine. There is lots of room for everyone in the spooncarving (or any scene). But the 88 of you who asked to take part in this presumably wanted your feet held to the fire a little bit, so this is me doing it. This is some straight talk. You will need to sacrifice for it.
So if you are looking at the rest of the day and haven't figured out when you are going to carve, stop and make a plan. If you keep forgetting to make a spoon blank during the day and then can't use the axe early in the morning, go do that so you can set an alarm, get up while everyone else is still sleeping, and pay your dues. Incredible things are hard to do. You will need to sacrifice for it.
I would also suggest that you don't let yourself get too bogged down in any one spoons. Don't sit down on a fresh day and pick up an old spoon. The lessons you learned there are learned: carve something new, learn some new lessons. I like the idea of giving yourself just an hour (or an hour and a half, if you must) to carve, and to push to complete something in that time. That way you push yourself to learn lessons about efficiency, what is good enough, what matters and what doesn't, and where you are weakest. Even if you never intend to carve to sell (in which case this whole project might not be for you) this is a helpful structure. So push yourself to finish each thing in that time, to the best of your ability. It will be frustrating at first. You will need to sacrifice for it.
This discipline, this carving every day, will need to go on for a long time if you want to win at this. And by win, I don't win because someone else has lost. I mean win like you succeeded in doing what you dreamed of. I carved every day for a year before anyone paid any attention. And I was pretty bad at first. But I loved it and I was inspired and I was disciplined. And then, lo and behold, I found out that I had learned some things and could do some things. It will take you a long time before you gain any traction, and it is up to you, to your inner fire, to keep going in the radio silence. This is hard. You will need to sacrifice for it.
I still carve every day (or close to it, through a confluence of events I cannot carve today, ironically). And while it is true that carving is my sanity, my meditation, my balance and my purpose, that is not why I carve every day. I carve every day because that is what is required to achieve what I want to achieve. This is hard. But I am prepared to sacrifice for it.
A vastly underrated skill in my life is the ability to look at a situation as it changes, determine what matters, and shift course accordingly. My wife used to marvel at how I could see our landlord walking down the meadow from his house and go into mess management, stacking things and piling things and making the house as presentable as possible in thirty seconds. The point wasn't to actually CLEAN the house; that is a different skill. The point was to hide the baby diapers drying around the woodstove, clean up the mess of mail on the side counter and line up the boots to make a good first impression when he walked in the door.
I was once in a meeting for a non-profit I worked for in which we were asked to brainstorm what we could do to adjust to increasing pressures and expectations. Everyone else said that they could work longer, harder, multitask, leverage technology, etc. I was the only person who said I would audit my priorities and make sure I got the important things done and not sweat the rest. That didn't go over well, and not surprisingly, I didn't last long there.
This fall has been a bout of surprises, with my carefully calibrated time getting pinched in one way or another by accidents, illnesses and overreaching. This came to a head the other day when I was at the grove scything the meadow that I drive my truck on to get to the different staging areas for when I harvest trees and balsam greens.
I started off mowing everything nicely, really doing a thorough job. After several days of this I was feeling more pressure so I started mowing faster and more sloppily. Then I realized I didn't have time enough to do even that so I started just batting down the goldenrod and woody stuff. Then I hit a big patch of goldenrod as the sun was setting and the kids (who had been playing with the dogs in field) were getting cold. I realized I could stop and come back to it tomorrow, OR (and this is what I did) I could just walk around and cut all the woody stuff and let the grass and goldenrod go uncut.
Messy? Yes. Not the world's finest job? You bet. Get the job done? To the extent that was needed. The point was, I had more important things to spend my time on. By boiling the task down to what actually mattered I was able to keep myself on track and keep up momentum, even as the ground shifted under my feet.
This level of triage is something we apply all the time in our lives. And I would guess that more often than not, when we find ourselves overwhelmed or overworked, it is from a lack of exercising this principle. At any moment, we need to be asking ourselves, "what is the most important use of this time?" Because at the end of the day, our time is all we have.
Bend your standards. Make your effort count. Triage your life.
And oh yeah, you can now sign up for my blog! There's a button on the homepage of my website. Not that I know how to make use of that feature yet. But I know I sure like the convenience of the one blog I follow showing up in my inbox. So I'm gonna figure out how to do that for you, too.
Sometime ago, and I can't remember where (but it was probably on the Freakonomics podcast) I heard that one of the biggest correlations with success later in life was people who took the time to back into their parking spot. At the time I thought "what of load of hooey! Ha!" Clearly, I was someone who did not bother to back into spots. Logic has it that you spend the time either way, whether at the beginning or at the end, right?
Then we bought our house, and I started parking our truck over on the other side of the house to keep a space free in the driveway for visitors. There is a telephone pole on the opposite side of the street, and I can't tell you how many close calls I had backing out of that spot, where I came just inches away from crashing my tailgate into that pole. Finally I decided to commit to always backing into that spot.
And you know what? It's not the same thing at all.
When you are pulling into a spot, taking the extra minute of backing into the spot leaves you in a better position for the future, when you can pull out unimpeded. You can see the road and what for a safe moment to back in, whereas when backing OUT of a spot I have had numerous close calls. So backing in is safer and better in the literal sense.
I found to my surprise that it has deeper ramifications, though. When you take the time to prepare for your departure ahead of time, you are setting up a cascade of small decisions that together touch every aspect of your life. It's like making your bed in the morning. Because you made the bed, you face other tasks of the day with more determination and follow-through, and at the end of the day you have the pleasure or consolation (depending on how the day went) of getting into a bed that is made. Backing into my truck spot has meant that I carry some of that mentality with me, thinking at every step of everything in my day how I can make it easier for myself later by doing something now that I won't need until later.
Will it make me successful later in life? I don't know.
But I do know that it has made each day that I practice it a little more successful than it would have been otherwise.
Today my new apprentice Dano came over and as we worked we talked, a new phenomenon for me, mostly. One of the things we talked about was, what is the long term plan beyond just making more stuff?
It wasn't phrased quite that way, but I will repeat it, because it is a question I think we don't ask enough of ourselves as makers.
What is the long term plan beyond just making more stuff?
This is in the context of making a living. If you are making stuff just to make you happy, great. If you are at the stage (and really you never leave this stage) of learning a lot from the process of making stuff, also great. But it still bears asking, what is the long term plan for you to make a living doing this things other than just making more?
Sometimes making more works. If you have some way to scale up production, hire people, build a brand, then that's one answer. Sometimes making more works just scaling up your own time doing it, because it's something more lucrative like clock repair.
In my case, however, I can increase prices a bit, I can improve how much I make each day, I can improve the demand by building a strong customer base, but I still need to ask myself what the longer term plan is.
The answer, I think, is to shift the paradigm. Instead of asking how much of something I'm making, I should be asking how much value I'm bringing to the world.
Some of that value is in making a beautiful object for someone. Some of that value is in making spoon blanks available to people who don't have ready access to wood. Tool collaborations also fall under this umbrella. Those sources of value are limited by my time and energy.
More scaleable sources of bringing value are sharing what I know, both deliberately and through the process of making what I make. This can be teaching, and the @spoonesaurus account, and through posts on my home feed, and just answering questions.
Another way to bring value is to inspire people by sharing my path. Hence the blog, much of my feed, the book, the magazine.
The final, and most powerful, way of bringing value to people is to help build community. This is the Spoonesaurus Gatherings that Matt and I host, and this is the goal of much of how I interact on social media.
Some of these forms of bringing value are easy to monetize. You sell the spoon, the tool, the workshop. Some require more strategy. The magazine only exists because of the free content we share that serves as a proof of value.
So my plan? My plan going forward is to both work as hard as I can to support my family by doing all of these as much as I can, while at the same time recognizing that the scaleable parts are what will allow me to enjoy the non-scaleable parts for the rest of my life. I grew up almost fetishizing manual labor and turning up my nose at business as a mindset. That has been hard to change.
But I also recognize that I need a long-term plan that is more than just me carving spoon after spoon for the rest of my life. Love of that process is a huge part of why I do what I do. But I want something more, some connection, some value that I've made possible.
I want, when I die, to have achieved more than the sum of what I've made.
I've been getting a lot of questions lately about how long I've been carving spoons. Something in the zeitgeist, perhaps, but a number of people have wanted to know. I started carving in earnest (discounting a handful done in college and just after) five years ago now, and then made a bigger shift three years ago when I left a seasonal job to devote more time to spooncarving.
There is really no importance to these numbers. There is no magic number of years you need to be carving to be good, and it's not even really meaningful to think about it in those terms. We are each on a journey of developing our skills, and that journey is at its own pace and never ends until we die or stop carving. You could make the argument that there are more resources available now to carvers just starting out, better content breaking down how to go about it, and that this could shorten the time it takes to go from wanting to do it but being frustrated to that delightful middle ground of enough skill to begin exploring ideas. But you could also argue convincingly that the resources don't matter as much as the tenacity to pursue it daily, something that has always been possible.
That for me was the big turning point, when I stopped thinking of it as something I did seasonally or occasionally, and started having the discipline to carve every day. And then carve for a larger and larger portion of each day. If you are focused on running your own race, then the more you practice, the faster you will progress. So my three years of serious carving might be the equivalent of ten for someone who just carves a couple of times a week, because I carve every day for hours.
We all know this. We expect it in anything we pursue as a profession, that a six month internship or a year of devoting ourselves to really learning a job will move us to a completely different place. It is no different with spooncarving. Give me six months and I can have you carving at a professional level. But you will need to be doing it every day.
The harder thing to wrap our heads around is how to balance our expectations when we CAN'T pursue something full time, when it must remain a part time practice. That is the reality most of us find ourselves in with most things. Then it becomes even more important to close your eyes to the trajectory of others and just keep your eyes on the path, one foot in front of the other, and trust that you will get where you want to go.
In either scenario, the most difficult thing is to be patient with ourselves. It takes time to develop a skill. Even when you are proceeding at full steam, there is always a deeper level to go, sometimes a level that no one you can see has gone to. But the level still exists, how can it not? And if you are progressing in fits and starts, the need for patience is greater still.
Patience is even more important when it comes to building a business. Three years ago I reached out to 50 stores that I thought should be carrying my spoons. I had too high an opinion of my work then. Only one was interested, and that fizzled out. Now, two and a half years after being in touch with some of these, I am at a place where it makes sense to reach out again. We will see if it is a better fit this time. Certainly my work is much better and my prices more competitive. If you had told me back then that it would take several years for my ability to match my ambition of having such wholesale accounts, I would have been totally discouraged. Thankfully I didn't have a mentor to tell me that, and I found a way to pivot and adjust my prices to find demand and work my way back to this place. But it was not a sure thing and if I had gotten impatient with the outcome, I would probably have given up.
Everything you want in life will take more time than you think. And it will usually cost you more, in money or effort. That's just truth. The older I get, the more realistic I am about this, and I think it sets me up for more success because I realize that I need multiple irons in the fire, each heating at its own pace. Some will come to fruition in a years, some in five. When one is in full blossom I need to start up another one, because it all takes time. That's just it. Time.
Usually the days pass one by one and we don't really take note, just go on autopilot or react to whatever crisis demands our attention. To wrest back control of our time we need a plan, a long-term strategy of where we want to be and how we're going to get there. And then we just enact, and iterate, day after day after day. Small gains over time look like big gains overnight in the end. But don't let it fool you. That iceberg is mighty big below the surface of the water.
So recently I've been having conversations with a new friend and fellow spooncarver who wants to take the steps to find themselves in a few years in the spot where I am now, fully self-employed and in control of my financial outcome and growth. He has done a lot of things in life, and just had a kid, and is realizing that hustling for himself will probably have a greater likelihood of him finding himself in a position where he can support his family and live a satisfied, fulfilling life. We had a long conversation last week where I spilled my guts about how things went for me up until now, what I thought was important and things he should prepare himself for. Most of these points and topics are also in my upcoming book that's coming out from Chelsea Green Publishing this spring (I'd give you the title of the book but we haven't figured that out yet despite the book being written by now!). So if you like thinking about this stuff, you would probably dig the book.
I started off by warning him that whatever time frame for "success", whatever that means, he had probably needs to be doubled or tripled and even then it might not be accurate. That despite this truth, the most important thing is to start the thing you want to do, and not wait for the time to be right, or the thing to be perfect, or yourself to be qualified.
I talked about how important it was for me to come out from hiding behind a handle or business name and start building myself up as a brand (or reputation, if that phrase makes your stomach turn). How sharing the journey worked better than pretending to be on top of everything. How being thoughtful about how you portrayed yourself was important, but so was just being consistent about producing content.
While the goal might be to become ridiculously good at whatever your thing is, that's too high a bar to set for beginning. Instead, the true bar is, are you good enough to bring value to someone at a price point you can accept for now? If so, then begin, and let the economic incentive drive your improvement in your chosen thing by getting you to do a lot of it. I heard a story about Tony Robbins the motivational speaker (although I think he doesn't use that term) how when he was starting out, he looked at people in the field he was just starting in with so much more experience than him, and he set out to close that gap by just doing what they were doing, but doing four times as much in the same amount of time. You can do this same thing with whatever you do.
Say you have a job and you need to keep it until whatever you are starting begins to bring in money, right? Get up at five, or work in the evenings instead of watching whatever show you are bingeing. Keep kicking that can down the road. Telling yourself that you have no idea what you are doing with bookkeeping? Have the mild panic attack, take a deep breath and break that problem down into its constituent pieces. Nothing is so complicated that you cannot figure it out. You don't need to know the answers to begin. You do need to ask the questions and begin to educate yourself.
Remember that everyone, EVERYONE, started out in the same spot. Don't even bother comparing your situation to someone else's unless it is to reverse engineer what they did so you can do it too. Other than that, run your own race.
Spend your money on your business. Spend it on a bookkeeper to help you a few hours here or there, or on insurance, or on a printer or on a website. Don't spend it on buying more tools or clothes or dinner out or some new toy. You can waste a lot of money in life. Use your money to further your goals.
Speaking of goals, write them down. Figure out what steps would get you there. Write those down. Now throw that out because how you think you will get there is almost certainly not how you will get there. Business plans are not something that is written down that you adhere to. Business plans are the ever shifting sense you have of what is now possible that wasn't possible last week, or the week before, because you have been active and aren't in the same place now that you were then.
Be prepared to be poor. We have been poor for many years, and are just now in the strange space of not being poor and not NOT being poor. Part of this is that my wife has been in school for the last three years and will be for another year and a half. Part of this is that it takes time to build anything up. If you want to experience the joy, frustration and deep satisfaction of building something yourself, of owning it, then be prepared to tighten your belt, at least for a few years.
Finally, being self-employed, especially in these early lean years, means hustling. I was recently at an outdoor table at a fantastic Moroccan restaurant on a date with my wife, when I overheard a young man next to us say that he could never work for himself because he doesn't want to hustle. And I thought, "yup, spot on", because when you are pushing to grow something, the one thing you can't leverage is your time. You only have so much, and it will always be a limiting factor, used to the max. Here I am at 10:44 pm, finishing telling this to you and then I will go to bed and get up at 5:30 to hustle some more. That's just the truth. When you are supporting your family, or when you have big dreams, or when you can taste that this moment in history or in your life is a particular pivot point, how could you do any less?
So several years ago my mother gave us a CD of kid music by a guy I never heard of, named Justin Roberts. It took me a couple of listens to fall in love with it, but then it quickly became a touchstone for our family, with songs that are at turns funny, wise, tender, delightfully quirky and always musically lush and interesting.
Flash forward to three days ago when I had the face palm moment of realizing that I could hunt for more of his work on Spotify, and found that he had 10 other albums. Of course. Treasure trove!
As we started to dive into this guy's catalogue, though, there was an interesting realization: Somewhere in his 3rd and 4th albums, he underwent a sea change, and his music went from good to transcendent.
Now you may laugh at the idea of a kid musician being transcendent, but I spent several hours last night with tears in my eyes listening to his music as I compiled a playlist of my favorite songs on Spotify. Let me back up to explain.
Justin Roberts was a founding member of the indie rock band Pimentos for Gus, when he started working as a Montessori teacher. He started writing songs for his students, and then started recording them. So far, pretty typical stuff. His first couple of albums were very acoustic, with maybe some bongos, and for a younger crowd. But starting in his third and really changing in his fourth album, he started pulling in more rock sounds, electric, regular drums and bass, synth and horns. The vocals became more layered and cascading. His songs were clearly aimed more at the 6-12 crowd, and as such are still earnest but have more complexity. Often there are thematic nods (like a truly Beach Boys harmony wall on a song about kickboards) that evoke certain genres, and the words are just the right mix of earnest, true and goofy.
For anyone still wondering what the heck I could be tearing up about, I dare you to listen to these five songs: It's Your Birthday, Fire Drill, Trick or Treat, Recess and School's Out (Tall Buildings). You will see how this guy uses endless melodic hooks, satisfying chord progressions, backing vocals, horns and modulations to really make you FEEL. Something, even if you can't put your finger on it.
The thing that I have been obsessing about though, besides the music itself, is the sea change that you can feel in Roberts' music, where he brought in the chops he must have developed in Pimentos for Gus to this other music. The result is a music that is as satisfying as it is groundbreaking. He's been doing it for 23 years now, and the change happened on year 8. So that's interesting to me as well, the idea that wherever I'm at in my own life, there's probably a sea change coming up, something that will separate where I am now from where I will end up.
I like the idea of thinking in terms of sea changes, because they encourage the making of creative leaps. Like writing kid music with the complexity of adult music. I don't know what it will be for me, whether it will be more for my carving or my writing, but I'm inspired to think in this way. Often the juxtoposition of two related but generally compartmentalized disciplines leads to this sort of leap forward, but the very nature of thing means that it is hard to see in the moment.
So for now I pay attention. I listen to how the trumpet sings in counterpoint to the voice. I listen to the modulation at the end of the song and let that tug on my heartstrings. And I dream of the day that I figure out how to do that for myself.
Someone I recently met said the other day that they would love to pick my brain about how to start doing what I do, which is to cobble together a living on my own terms, by hustling at a bunch of complementary ventures. I told that person to give me a call, that I'd be happy to chat about my approach to business and earning a living, but it got me thinking about the topic in general and what advice I would give someone like himself, looking to start something that they could someday transition to, away from their current work. There are lots of pieces of this, but the thing I kept coming around to, the key, if you will, to the whole thing, is to figure out what your unfair advantage is.
Notice I didn't say passion. Nor did I say calling, or knack, or even opportunity. These are all good things to have, but they are not, in my opinion, as critical to the success or as defining of the direction of your career as determining your unfair advantage.
Your unfair advantage is what you have going for you that most people don't. Maybe that's lots of free time. Maybe that's some money to throw at this thing, or just financial security. Maybe it's a LACK of money or financial security. It can go either way. Maybe it's being the best at what you do (or really good, for all of you who dislike that kind of metric). Maybe it's just being FIRST. Maybe it's that you don't have kids or other expenses, whether by choice or chance. Maybe it's that you have kids to support and expenses to meet. Maybe it's your location in a city where things are popping or in the country where living expenses are low. Maybe it's your previous skillset or knack with understanding how people tick. Maybe it's your parenting or just who your parents are. Maybe it's your network of friends. Maybe it's your ability to express yourself.
Your unfair advantage is unique to you. There is no moral righteousness about it, and it's not worth wishing it were different. It's not what you have for your unfair advantage that matters. It's what you do with it.
The reason knowing your unfair advantage is more critical to success than, say, passion, is because a love of what you do doesn't help the bottom line turn out differently. You are looking for an in, a way to attract and connect with customers, a way to serve their needs (whatever that is) and a way to establish a reputation. You are looking for a way to make the math work in your favor. But for what? Your unfair advantage might have something to say about that.
Imagine you were really into coffee, and dreamed someday of doing your own thing, something to do with coffee. Let's say you are also a rock climber and live and understand that itinerant rock climbing lifestyle. Your unfair advantage, then, is that combination, and it is the obvious thing to do to start a little food truck (or VW bus, and yes, I know this has been done, that's why it's a good example) that you park at the logical place to serve coffee to all the rock climbers as they are coming on or off the wall. Get it? The unfair advantage over everyone else who wants to do their own thing with coffee is that you have the vantage point to see that this would be dope and to have the cred and knowledge to do something about it.
I have several unfair advantages. The easiest one to grasp and the least braggy is my access to premium quality wood. A year and a half ago, a tornado tore through my neighborhood, just as I was starting out carving professionally, dumping about four acres of forest to the ground just out my back door. For me, it is an hour's work to buck up and move into storage a ten foot length of veneer quality cherry, and there's a lot where that came from. So for me, selling blanks is an obvious move (although when I started selling them it was not my own idea and it was not obvious that there would be demand).
Another unfair advantage I have is my location in New England, 3-4 hours from a number of cities, ten minutes off a highway but in a lovely bucolic setting. This was also not premeditated, but it has made it much easier to have students come to me than if I lived in a more rural (or just less central) part of the country. Under those circumstances, I'd probably take my teaching to the masses instead of having people come to me.
Another unfair advantage is that I'm self-employed at this point, although I wasn't always and know what it is to sell your time and autonomy for money. Working for myself entirely means that I am free to schedule things as works for me, although I do need to be mindful of the needs of my wife and children. It could be your unfair advantage, however, to be employed, with the stability and predictability that brings. Unfair advantage is a mindset.
The point is, wherever you are, whatever you have going for you, there are logical choices you can make that will allow you to work for yourself doing something you love. You won't love all of it, all the time. You will probably be surprised at what you are actually doing (never in a million years did I think I'd be doing my particular mix of work). But you can shift things, bit by bit, in the direction you want to pursue. It takes time to get where you want to be.
And so if I was just dreaming about this sort of thing right now, I do what honestly I do every day, on some level: take stock of who you are. Think about where you live, what your strengths and weaknesses and propensities are. Think about how you want to spend your time, and how to serve someone else's needs. Think about how you will convince others you have what they need. Think about what you need to support in your life, and who. Think about what you've got going for you that few others do.
And then leverage that sucker for all it's worth.
My blog has evolved into a series of short essays on the nature of entrepreneurship, craftsmanship, and their overlap. If either of these topics is something you think about, you will probably like this.