Nonfiction - Editorial

Originally published on Medium, February 10, 2016

How to get sh*t done
or, Practical advice—not vague bullshit—about pursuing your dreams and stuff

I’m lucky. Every day I get to work with people who’ve figured out how to pursue their dreams.How to make a big change or level up their talents or scratch their most existential itch.

And what I’ve found over years of working with and teaching creative people is that going after your dreams isn’t that hard. Not in principle, anyway (I’ll get to that). Which begs the question why more of us don’t do it when there’s something deep within us itching to get out and (eventually) pay the bills.

It certainly isn’t for any lack of encouragement. The Internets are chock full of inspirational messages and go-get-em TED talks. And still people are at a loss. I certainly have been, the answer plain as day in front of me but my mind too garbled with inspirational idioms. Where’s the disconnect?

So I did what any user experience designer would do: I sent out a survey. Because if you want to find the gap between what the market is saying and what people are hearing, you gotta talk to the users.

What inspirational messages or content resonate with you?

I reached out to my student alumni and the amazing community I’m a part of at General Assembly in Atlanta and asked them a series of questions about what their dreams are and what inspires them. Designers and developers and entrepreneurs, all actively pursuing their passions. And when I asked them what messages resonated with them, the answers weren’t all that surprising. They valued:

  • Real-world examples
  • Spotlights of people doing something authentically or uniquelly them
  • People working hard, persisting despite the odds
  • People supporting each other

What inspirational messages miss the mark?

Nor were their answers to the inverse question all that surprising. Except that examplars of these results are far more common:

  • Vague phrases or platitudes
  • Disingenuous speakers, often without examples
  • The implication of perfection
  • Messages that call for sudden, uninformed optimism
The Internets are sadly lacking in pictures of Hernán Cortés doing yoga in front of burning ships.

The Internets are sadly lacking in pictures of Hernán Cortés doing yoga in front of burning ships.

But most damning of all, perhaps, was the feedback that many messages are simply too-high-level. Twenty-minute videos of billionares taking on a cause or trust-fund babies who walk away from their Manhattan lofts and spend five years discovering themselves in Southeast Asia. These are not models for self improvement or for realizing your dreams. These are stories of entitement and privledge masquerading as lessons.

At their very worst, many messages are reminiscent of Cortés burning his ships, forcing his men to succeed in the New World or perish in the attempt. They present the puruit of passions and dreams as zero-sum enterprises, ignoring the reality that for every success there are countless failures—failures unrecoverable because of this all-or-nothing approach. They present the pursuit of our passions as something incompatable with rent, kids, pets, and the other realities of adult life.

And that’s bullsh*t.

The takeaway

What people are looking for is practical advice. Lessons they can learn from. Lessons they can imitate and apply to their own experiences and situations. People don’t want to find the thing they’re most passionate about, then do it on nights and weekends for the rest of their lives. They want to pursue what they love. Full time. And still make rent.

So, what’s your passion?

The only Alan Watts quote not used in a STRFKR song.

Now we get to real meat of things. And no one states it better than the oft-paraphrased all-around smart guy and Zen master, Alan Watts:

Watt’s question is often interpreted as: What would you like to do if you’d still make as much as you need to live comfortably? Or even uncomfortably. Money is typically assumed because Capitalism.

But I think this question gets much more to the point, and with greater authenticity, if we take it as intended: What would you like to do if you’d never make a cent doing it?

What would you do for nothing?

My survey respondants didn’t disappoint. Among their answers:

  • Learn a new career
  • Get better at what I already do and love
  • Educate people about design and how it’s not a frivolous skill
  • Always have something intellectually interesting going on
  • Write a novel
  • Create an animated series — and a game based on that series
  • Live abroad
  • Become a model
  • Ride horses again
  • Learn to knit
  • Evolve the ability to fly

But why?

And this answer can’t just be money. It might be a consequence of money, to be sure, but the pursuit of money in-and-of-itself is called a job. Even people who are passionate about making monet aren’t really doing it for the money.

Rather, why follow this dream, without regard to money:

  • To be happy
  • To help people
  • To be fulfilled
  • Because if I don’t, it won’t magically happen
  • To take care of my family (to take care of people)
  • To be financially independent

This is important because we don’t do what we do for nothing. And not all dreams and passions and causes are simple or carefree things. Many of them are hard—taxing of the mind, body, and spirit.

Consider the irony that the vast majority of graphic and visual designers, developers, and user-experience professionals use millenia-old lorem ipsumgibberish as fill-in text without knowing that very “Greek” is Latin for “Stop doing sh*t you hate for people you can’t stand. Especially on Mondays.”

Lorem ipsum. The irony is overwhelming dolor sit amet.

We should focus our time and energy on passions that are their own reward. Activities that Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi calls autotelic — that are goals and outcome in-and-of themselves. Why did Van Gogh paint for ten years before selling his first painting? It wasn’t because he was trying to log Macklemore’s 10,000 hours. And it wasn’t for money. It was because painting, for him, was enough. It was his priority.

The ear thing was an unexpected consequence.

How do you get sh*t done?

Many of us know what we want to do. We might even know why. But how do pursue your dream? How do you follow your passion? What if you’ve got a dog and a mortgage and a car payment?

Well, no vague platitudes or entitled TED-talk advice here. It’s simple and the best advice I ever got:

  1. Figure out what’s important to you
  2. Prioritize it

Drops mic.

Most of us struggle every day (or in even smaller units of time) to figure out the most important thing we need to do right now. We take inventories of what people expect from us, of what we’ve promised to do for others, and we prioritize our schedules.

This is 100% backwards.

Yes, we have bills. Yes, we have deadlines. Yes, crises will always crop up. If we didn’t, we’d be in Southeast Asia discovering ourselves as the ships burned. But if we want to do work that leaves us truly fulfilled—and if we want to enjoy doing it long enough that we might eventually make money doing it!—than we need to follow Stephen Covey’s sage advice and turn that equasion around and schedule our priorities.

The other six habits are a lower priority.

It really is that simple. Schedule it. Make your priority the one thing you build the rest of your week or day or morning at the coffee shop around.

And if you aren’t sure what your priority is, or how to wrestle everything else into an order you can make sense of, don’t worry. Use an Eisenhower chart to figure out what’s important and what’s urgent and what’s not.

Plotted on importance and urgency axes, writing that book, learning that language, or buying that house quickly shoots to the top.

Take a moment. Look at it. This might be the first time you’ve let yourself acknowledge this passion inside you.

That’s your priority. You might even have more than one. But everything else comes second. And as you plot more and more of the activities and items on schedule, you might just find that some of them are so unimportant or so uncritical that you can drop them altogether.

But don’t take my word for it

Among my students, I’ve seen dramatic changes in career by people who set their priorities and thrown in 100% behind those passions, cutting the chafe an focusing. And I’ve seen it in myself — by prioritizing teaching and writing and family, I’ve followed my passions to a new job I love, a book contract, and more time with my boys.

One of my very first students was a woman who, in her early thirties, moved to Asheville, North Carolina to enjoy that city for a year or two before moving on. But a decade later, she found herself in the same town, working the same unsatisfying job. This wasn’t where she wanted to be in that season of her life. But she figured out what she wanted to do, instead. She figured out her priority.

So she saved. And saved. And when she had enough she moved to a new city, away from her husband and friends, and spent several months training for a new career. And there was a light in her the whole while—even when she was exhausted and in tears—because she found something she loved doing. Something she could be passionate about. And when she finished our class together she went home and became the one-woman user-experience design department for a killer Internet of Things company.

Okay, take my word for it

And then there’s me. I first heard Covey’s nugget of super-simple but completely-actionable wisdom while driving to Florida for one of the last Space Shuttle launches. My toddler son was nodded off in the back seat, his orange flight suit already on, as I listened to The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. And since then, everything changed in my life. I began prioritizing my passions, my family. Even myself (that last one was harder to do than I care to admit).

But by prioritizing my passions and my family, I was able make some dramatic changes. I left the grind of #agencylife and got back into the classroom. Not for the money (obviously) but becuase I love teaching. And because the job also affords me the time to pursue creative work of my choosing, including writing novels, starting my own boutique design agency, and a recent week-long road trip to Wyoming to shoot a short film. Prioritizing my passions let me do things no agency 9–5 would’ve.

TL;DR

So figure out your passion. Prioritize it. And throw in 100%. You’ll suffer through Ira Glass’ gap for a while—your ambitions won’t live up to your taste at first. But that’s ok. Because the doing is its own reward. And while you’ll suck before you’re good and you’ll be good before you’re great, if you keep that passion prioritized, you will get there. And the consequences of a passion followed though will be waiting. Fulfillment. Satisfaction. A life well spent. And maybe some money for rent, too.

The clock is ticking. Listen to my boy, Shai. Don’t let your dreams be dreams.


The above was first presented as the keynote speech as General Assembly Atlanta’s Year of Yes event on January 14, 2016 at Ponce City Market. Then I lost my notes and pulled the whole thing from memory and Instagram. But trust me, it was inspiring as f*ck.