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craft, Writing improvement

A Reading List For Life

In the next couple of months I’m going to be rolling out a book review series of business-type titles I’ve read recently. These are on my list because others have recommended them to me as I’m building my freelance business, as I’m networking, and as I’m just coming across interesting titles. That’s for another time, though. For now, I’d like to offer a different kind of reading list.

A reading list for anyone, regardless of what business you’re in, what job you do, or where you are in your relationships, spiritual journey, or in your training to hike the Sonora Desert with just two tubs of peanut butter for sustenance.

These are books that I think anyone would enjoy. Moreover, these are books that anyone would get value from, either in a new perspective on the world, new insights about personhood, or an interesting, deeper view of a subject than you can find on social media.

 

Writing Books

Elements of Style; Strunk & White

Strunk and White cover

This is the classic “how to make your writing better” book. It’s short, to the point, and doesn’t pull any punches. Whether you write for a living or not, reading this will give you a more persuasive way to say virtually anything you write.

The 10% Solution; Ken Rand

10Percent solution

This short volume challenges anyone to go back after they’ve gotten everything written and then cut 10% . Rand gives some tips on how to do it, but, more importantly, it’s the why that matters. When you’re trying to influence another, whether it be through written or spoken word, forcing a cut of 10% while still keeping the main message ensures that you’ve critically thought about what you want to say and the most effective way to say it.

Writing Down the Bones; Natalie Goldberg

writing down the bones

My instructor introduced this book when I was taking a creative writing course in college. Written by a poet and writer, about the writing process, Writing Down the Bones has been my guide for directing my writing practice for over 20 years. Highly recommended for inspiration on how to break away from the world, some rules to follow when writing, and general ideas about what to write about.

 

Inspiration / Memoir

Into Thin Air; John Krakauer

Into thin air

Krakauer tells the true-life story of a tragedy on Mount Everest. He is a journalist, so he brings a deft touch to telling the story of loss and misfortune. However, more than simply reporting what happened, Krakauer tells a true-life story with an intensity and authenticity rarely experienced in other narratives, because he lived it. He was a member of the expedition whose goal was to summit the highest peak on the planet, and his unique combination of journalistic skill and mountaineering background give readers a perspective unmatched in exploration narratives.

Never Let Go; Dan John

Never Let Go

Dan John is a former weight lifting and throwing coach for the United States Olympic Track & Field Team (at least, that’s how I remember it). This combination of memoir / essay / just-do-it missive is the first book I’ve ever read cover-to-cover and then went immediately to page 1 to do it again. John talks about weightlifting, about training, about mental and physical discipline, about diet, and about how to actually achieve results, not just talk about them.

When Breath Becomes Air; Paul Kalanithi

when breath becomes air

What do you do when diagnosed with a terminal illness? Kalanithi, a highly-acclaimed surgeon, decided to write down his thoughts as he experienced them, and luckily for us decided to publish them. “That morning, I made a decision; I would push myself to return to the OR. Why? Because I could. Because that’s who I was. Because I would have to learn to live in a  different way, seeing death as an imposing itinerant visitor but knowing that even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.”

 

Reframe Everything You Thought You Knew About A Popular Subject

Why We Get Fat; Gary Taubes

why we get fat

The old adage is Calories In (minus) Calories Out (equals) Change in Weight. If Calories In is more than Calories Out, we’ll gain weight, and vice versa. Taubes distills his weighty academic tome Good Calories, Bad Calories into a popular version, and for the good. Why We Get Fat examines, and refutes, many simplistic notions of weight gain and loss using scientific research. And he points out places where it would be good for more science, but we just don’t have it yet. This is essential for understanding that sometimes (okay, often), complex systems are complex.

Dataclysm; Christian Rudder

dataclysm

We’ve all seen the rise in dating apps like Tinder and OK Cupid. Dataclysm is from OK Cupid founder Christian Rudder, and provides a lot of behind-the-scenes information and analysis. The point of this book is that as much as people may say they wish for certain characteristics in their romantic partner, their actions tell a different story. Applications to marketing, to business, and to personal life abound.

The Prophet; Khalil Gibran

the prophet

This is a blend of philosophy, religion, and poetry. In The Prophet, the Prophet himself educates a town on their ignorance of the true valuable priorities in life: what work is, what money is, what society is, what love is. I loved reading this simply for the different perspective it offers on how to live a good life and the interconnectedness of us all.

 

Good Fun

The Calvin & Hobbes 10th Anniversary Book; Bill Watterson

calvin and hobbes

Watterson was at the top of the world with Calvin & Hobbes, his beloved comic strip about a young boy and his best friend. The 10th Anniversary Book explains much of Watterson’s thought process around developing the strip, the characters, even his arguments with his syndicate over licensing issues. Not just for fans,

The Sparrow; Mary Doria Russell

the sparrow

This sci-fi novel tells of the journey and return of Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest sent to Rakhat to proselytize the natives and save their souls. Many times sci-fi completely glosses over or ignores religion, both of us and them. In my opinion, this book provides the best treatment of considerations of religion in such a context.

The Time Traveler’s Wife; Audrey Niffenegger

time travelers wife

Another sci-fi, and this one was just amazing. Henry and Claire have a fantastic relationship, despite his inability to control his time traveling. But be careful – Henry’s life and Claire’s intersect in ways too numerous to count, and with consequences neither could have foreseen.

Hooway for Wodney Wat; Helen Lester

wodney wat

I love this book! I read it out loud to my daughter one evening, and the first time through I could not stop laughing. Yes, it’s a great children’s story with a classical message, but the physical joy of reading this one out loud is what makes it special.

 

What Do You Think?

Have you read any of these? Would you recommend something different to add to this list? Think I’m completely off-base? Leave me a message and let’s start the discussion. Cheers.

business development, Uncategorized

Best Rejection Ever?!?!

Do you ever get that feeling? That one where, despite all your best attempts otherwise, you just can’t hate the person who rejected you?

Maybe it was the girl next door whom you’d been crushing on since age 6. Maybe it was that boss who declined to transfer you, because you were so integral to the projects at hand. Whatever it was, we’ve all been there.

Rejected. Turned down. Heard, “I can’t that night, I’m washing my hair.”

And while rejections may sting, there are some things you can do when delivering a rejections to still maintain a sense of decency and respect.

The Setup

As a freelance writer it’s up to me to source my own work. I have to go out and hustle. I have to spread my name far and wide, like dandelion seeds scattered in the wind, and hope that they land somewhere fertile where they can grow. It’s on me to cultivate opportunities, make them work, and bring them in when they’re ready, so that I can keep paying the bills and planning for the future.

One element of that is applying for some jobs in my industry. Content creation, content management, and the like. I’d love to have 2 or 3 firms with whom I’m a regular contributor, perhaps working a set # of (less-than-full-time) hours each week or month.

One of those came across my radar recently from BizLibrary. I hadn’t heard of them before, so I read their website and liked what they do. Creating content for them could be right up my alley, so I applied.

The Action

Immediately (using an autoresponder, as all good companies should do) I got a response. “Thanks for your interest. We’ll be in touch!” (Paraphrased, of course, but you get the idea.) Based on my history with job applications, I prepared for a long, quiet wait.

I full expected at least 2 weeks to pass before ever hearing from BizLibrary again. This seems to be the modern experience, doesn’t it? You apply, you wait, you wait, you wait, and if you’re lucky the recruiter will get back to you in about a month. Well past the time you’ve given up and moved on to the next opportunity.

And that’s if you’re lucky! Most of the time those applications seem to go nowhere, and you’re left wondering at the existentialistic meaninglessness of shouting into the void. You wait for a response, you hope, you pray and…

Nothing.

But this time was different.

The Response

The day after I submitted the application, I got another message from BizLibrary. A response! Whaaaaat? So soon? Must be they need more information, I thought. But when I read it, I realized they’d made their decision already. In one day.

In case you didn’t see that, let me emphasize. THE DAY AFTER I submitted that application I got a response. Not a month later. Not a fortnight. Not a week.

ONE.

DAY.

DECISION.

I’m so impressed with this action that I’m going to post the whole response here:

Hi Stephan,

Thank you for your application to BizLibrary’s Content Writer/Editor role. After reviewing your work and experience, we’ve made the decision to not move forward at this time. I hope you don’t mind if we reach out to you in the future when a position opens up that may be a good fit.

We appreciate your interest in BizLibrary and wish you success in your job search.

Best,

The BizLibrary Recruiting Team

Where’s that [LOVE] emoji?

The Reaction

Okay, so why am I so enamored with this response? Why am I writing about it, and proclaiming my “loser”-ness for you all to see? Well, I have 2 big takeaways from this that I think many more could benefit from.

1. Decide Quickly

This came in the day after I had submitted the application. This means that they didn’t sit around waiting for two weeks to look all those who’d applied in bunches. They reviewed quickly, and they decided quickly.

Frankly, this speaks to a well-honed process. We can argue whether that’s “good” or “bad” later. But, the point is that BizLibrary has their process, they followed it, and they did what works for them.

What good would waiting do? You’ve got a set of criteria that you’re going to follow, you know what you’re looking for, make the decision and move forward.

2. Communicate Quickly and Clearly

Not only did BizLibrary decide quickly, they responded quickly. Frankly, all they had to do was push a button to send me an automated e-mail. That doesn’t take a lot of work. Plus they didn’t try to blow smoke up my butt and pretend that I’m an awesome candidate, and they really wish they could, but, gee, something else just kind of got in the way. You do hear that when people “don’t want to hurt feelings.” You know what? Being lied to actually hurts more than the truth. And we can see it. It’s not fun.

BizLibrary, on the other hand, told me the truth.

It demonstrates a lot of respect on their end. Respect for me, as an applicant. Respect for me, as a potential advocate for them. (See? I’m doing it now!) Respect for their other candidates, too, who will receive their own quick decisions and communications about their own applications.

I admire that.

I take it to heart. I’ve been guilty of the other method, of lamely waiting to see if that vendor goes away. I got some bids for subcontract work once, and rather than giving those vendors the respect that BizLibrary showed me, I just let them languish without even so much as a “Hey, I’m going with someone else.”

That’s my bad, and seeing how much better it could be is telling me I can’t do that any more. I won’t.

From now on, I’ll communicate quickly and clearly when I’ve made a decision.

Props to BizLibrary for being honest, up-front, good people. I may not agree with their decision, but I whole-heartedly endorse how they told me about it.

The Aftermath

Now, all that said, I do wish the hiring process was different. I wish there were more phone calls and fewer paper rejections. I wish there was more time taken and less use of software to screen for just the right key phrases. I wish there was more dialogue and less one-directionality. More feedback.

I wish there were more temp-to-perm jobs, where you did something for a month and if it didn’t work out, you move on. No harm, no foul, no bad marks on your resume because you’re now labeled as a “job-hopper”.

I wish there were more part-time jobs, in which people could practice or try something for 10 hours a week, or some small # of contributions each time. Then, employers would be able to fill smaller needs with skilled candidates who want to contribute in a specific way, rather than having to either: ask someone unqualified who’s already on the team to take on more, or go without until there’s actually enough work to justify a whole position.

Yes, some of those “wishful” positions may exist and are called “internships”. Why aren’t they more ubiquitous? And why do we treat interns like dung when they’re there, if we really are interested in helping them to understand what it’s like to be a part of our workforce in whatever capacity we’ve got available?

I recognize that this essay isn’t going to spark a revolution in the workplace. The current environment is a legacy holdover from the good old days. Those conventions around “work” are part of a bigger conversation, a cultural mindset that we all learned due to the primacy of the the assembly line model of employment for a hundred years. We’re not going to change this battleship with just one tugboat.

But, I’m willing to gas up this Scuffy here, and see what I can do. How about you?

The Take-Away

Sorry for getting a little off-topic there with that miniature rant. I really just wanted to say, when you’re rejecting someone, be more like BizLibrary.

Follow your criteria, and then communicate quickly. Your applicants are asking you out on a date. Clearly you’ve got qualities which are attractive to them. Be respectful, and treat them like the people that they are in your response. Everyone will be better off when you do.

business development, craft

6 Pros (And 5 Cons) of Working With Freelancers

Let’s see, we’re smart, funny, sophisticated, and we won’t drink all the good bourbon at your happy hour. That’s enough, right? Oh, wait, you want some value for your time here? Ah, makes sense. Without further ado, here are my observations on some positives and negatives to working with freelancers, whether they be for graphic design, creative content, project management, or something else.

Pro #1: You Don’t Need To Fill Their Schedule

Freelancers work project-by-project, or sometimes on retainer (which would be a set fee for a set amount of work each time period). This means you can get work done at the level you need, without worrying that you’ll have to continually find things for your freelancer to do to make her worth what you pay her. She can step in during crunch times and lend a hand to get you past a deadline, and afterwards you both can say, “See you next time!” without any hard feelings or obligations.

Con #1: They May Not Be Available Just When You Need Them

Because that freelancer has to keep her own pipeline full, she may not be as readily available to take on a large or urgent project right when you need the help. Her next two days to two months might be booked with work already, without any kind of flexibility to adjust for your project. This could leave you scrambling or working that overtime anyway, just when you thought you were in the clear.

Pro #2: They’ll Have Experience In The Tasks Your Asking For

People generally transition into freelancing from a previous career. Yet they don’t forget all the things they’ve done before, and that means when they’re promoting themselves as a freelancer in a certain area, they know what they’re talking about. Suppose you’ve got a new project or new expansion that you’re considering. If you have the choice of an internal employee with no experience in such projects or an external freelancer with extensive knowledge of best practices, you would probably do well to leverage that freelancer’s expertise for a project or two. If you give the whole thing to the new internal hire, it will probably get finished, but the after-action review will likely say “This could have been done so much better.” Adding that external freelance help can build your capacity while minimizing some risks.

Con #2: They Will Need Some Time To Learn About You

If you’ve got a niche product or industry, it might take a little time to help your freelancer understand just what your ideal customer is, what your unique market position is, or why you’re doing what you’re doing now. If you work with new freelancers often, this re-education process can get tedious. You might find that telling your own story becomes a hindrance to getting more of your work done, and so you’ll turn to internal people who already know what, why, and how.

Pro #3: They Can Focus On The Project At Hand

When you hire a freelancer to design a flyer, that’s all they’re going to do. They won’t get distracted by the March Madness pool, or reorganizing the mail process to make it more efficient. They will focus on what they’re doing for you, and not stick their noses into business they don’t belong in. You can get the work done without office politics, without losing focus, and with a sense of single-minded purpose that can often fade in a less-structure environment. Trust me on that one, I spent 16 years in offices. It’s easy to see why Dilbert hits so many nerves.

Con #3: Freelancers Aren’t Full-Time

That is, they won’t be devoting all of their time to your organization. They’ll be working on multiple projects at once, which means you might have to break down your project into various steps, when the alternative might be to just assign one big block of work and let it go. The freelancer will likely check in multiple times over the project lifetime, which may feel like dragging out the process and adding unnecessary feedback loops, but that’s because the freelancer doesn’t want to waste any time in the end redoing a project just because the final delivery “didn’t quite feel right.” As a result, you might feel like you have to “manage” the project more than with an internal employee.

Pro #4: Low Overhead

Freelancers are generally solo-preneurs, so interacting with them is talking directly with the professional. You probably won’t have a sales executive and an account manager in between you and your designer, a situation which, frankly, is easy to evolve into at larger firms. It’s a necessity of growth and specialization, but it does add some barriers into the communicative process. Plus, having such low overhead means you’re usually not paying for a fancy office space, multiple layers of middle management, and ancillary services that don’t add any value to your project.

Con #4: Their Hourly (Or Project) Rate May Look High Compared To Your Salaried Employees

This is a function of two elements. One, you are paying the professional directly, so they’ll likely need to allocate some of their revenue to support processes like bookkeeping services, supplies, etc. It’s not all profit for them.

And, two, your salaried employee is getting paid more than just the dollars on the paycheck. You’re also paying taxes, benefits, vacation, and coffee and Junior Mints in the break room. So a freelancer who’s charging $70 an hour is going to look real expensive, at first glance, compared to a salaried employee who earns $60,000 a year (really close to $30 / hour). But if you do the math on that salaried employee, they’re probably not being effective all 40 hours a week, 2,000 hour a year. Maybe 2/3 of their time is actually focused on work. The rest is bathroom breaks, quarterly meetings, and extra-long lunches. Add in taxes, benefits, and all the ancillaries, and I bet your hourly rate for your freelancer is really, really close. Don’t dismiss a quote out-of-hand just because it seems high relative to your current employees.

Pro #5: Wide Backgrounds Often Bring New Insights

While no good freelancer should be distributing confidential or proprietary information, when you work with someone who’s had a broad background of project experience, he is likely to have seen something that worked in another area that you had no idea about. You can leverage his broad base of knowledge to apply to a new situation. This wide reach approach means that you’re not just limited to things that all of your competitors are currently doing. You might be in hospitality and your freelancer can give you a feel for what works in steel production, or how an education group approached a similar problem. This expands your opportunities for success by expanding the marketplace of potential solutions.

This goes hand-in-hand with the next positive to working with freelancers, that they’re quick to learn.

Pro #6: They’re Generally Quick Learners

Freelancers have to be. They’re meeting new people, new industries, and potentially taking on new projects all the time. This means they need to know how to get up to speed quickly, to make connections on limited data, and to ask crucial questions that get to the heart of the matter. You might feel like this is “probing” or “intrusive”. Frankly, though, these quality questions will enable you and your freelancers to work better to create a more effective final product, and the discovery process can ensure that you’re able to clearly define what you want and why.

Con #5: Their Style May Not Be For You

Despite all the positives, working with a freelancer just might not fit your style. You might need to be able to check in more often than that freelancer is able to work with you. You may want to retain a lot of the creative control, rather than give your freelancer freedom to explore. You might not have payroll or vendor systems set up to adequately pay your freelancers. You may just like the regularity and security of having someone always on-staff that could do whatever you asked of them, without a project scope document and an agreement negotiation each time. And it could be that the freelancers you come across just aren’t that good at what they do, and so you’re willing to invest the time and money in a search for a permanent hire. If that’s best for you, then it would be a waste of time to try to convince you otherwise.

Conclusion

Hiring a quality freelance professional can bring new knowledge and insights to your team. She may also bring some headaches and challenges, too. Knowing beforehand what you want and why will smooth the process, and who knows? Your freelancer could even work herself out of a job by adding to the knowledge base and revenue of your team that you have the capacity and skill to hire someone else full-time. I’d call that a win any day.