I’m going to tell you quite a personal story about how changing one simple thing last year changed my earnings and work life dramatically. It starts with a story I heard from an old 1960’s business coach called Bob Proctor. I was listening to a podcast of his where he described the following situation. A gentleman was the owner of a medium sized, $10 million dollar enterprise. He was the sole owner of the business and employed a large number of staff for the time. It was during the 1980’s. Unfortunately he passed away unexpectedly and all of the staff members and senior management were worried about what his wife (who inherited the business) would do now that the founder and CEO was gone. Some thought they’d lose their jobs, some thought she’d sell the company, some even rubbed their hands together and hoped for a management buyout. What she did do, no one expected. She had never had anything to do with the business before his death, but came in for the first official meeting to tell the staff and board of directors what was going to happen. This is what she did.
She asked all of the Directors to tell her the following 3 things:
- What are you doing in your division at the moment.
- What is working well.
- What is not working well.
She went around the room and let all of them tell those 3 simple stories. After that was done she gave them all a very simple instruction. She said. “I want you to stop doing all of the things that are not working. I don’t care if we lose revenue, or what happens as a result of this. I want you to only do the things that are working. Anyone who doesn’t follow this rule when I come back and ask the same questions in three months, will be dismissed.” She then told them she wasn’t selling the business, and the benefits of any growth will be shared accordingly.
One year after she undertook this strategy the business had grown from a $10 million enterprise to a $30 million enterprise.
It got me thinking at the time I heard this about what I was doing with work. What parts was I doing that were actually working well, and which bits were not working out so well. I came to the conclusion that the things that always worked out best for me were Writing and Speaking. I was doing a portion of that as part of my work at the time. I was working in advertising and in some startups on the side. Whenever I did a keynote speech or did a pitch I smashed it. My writing for journals and blogs was getting good credence. It was probably about 20% of my time on the average week. So I wondered what would happen if I only did those two things. Even for the startups I work with – only write and speak about them to help them grow. I wondered what kind of an income I would earn as a kind of ‘thought freelancer’ on technology, startups and business strategy. So instead of just wondering about it, I decided to do it. My new mantra would be to ‘Think, Write and Speak’ for a living.
Since this decision – which was around a year ago – I’ve published a book and started doing keynote speeches through an agent. And this is the personal bit. After about some months getting organised (pitching the book & getting an agent for speaking), I’ve earned well over what I earned for the entire previous year in just 5 months. What is super cool about this, is that I’m managing to do this in only a small portion of my week. It then forms a kind of underwriting strategy, so that I can invest more time in some killer startup ideas I’ve got, but haven’t had the capacity to get done. I say this not to impress you, but to impress upon you. I’m pretty sure all of us have a muse like this. That small portion of what we do in our company, job or startup which we excel in. A muse we have natural talent for, and naturally put more effort into. I’m pretty sure if we all focused on this, we’d get the same results that I am seeing. Remembering of course that this is not some passion fantasy, but real work we already get paid to do.
Another thing which is really telling with this story is this simple fact: I am no better at these things than I was 1 year ago or even 3 years ago. I am the same person, with the same capacity. I simply sowed my seed in more fertile soil. Which also makes me wonder why we all act like trees, waiting for the environment around us to change and help us flourish. When we can instead choose to change our environment. Unlike trees, we don’t have roots, we have legs, we can use them to go elsewhere and change where we do our work for a more fruitful return. I think the biggest determinant of our income is taking the work we do to a place where that is valued at its highest.
Maybe the thing we need to change, isn’t ourselves, but where we do our work.
If you, like me earn your living through intellectual or emotional labour (read you don’t lift heavy things) then it’s easy to mistake the former for the latter. It’s easy to think there is a physical limit in our output capabilities, that there are only so many intellectual calories available to be burnt. And because of this we should probably save ourselves, just a little. Play it on the safe side so we still have some brain juice left for the important moment, the moment that really matters.
I used to think that too. But here’s what I found. The more I do, the more I can do. The more creative output I have, the more creative output I come up with. It feels like (at least to me personally) that the more I do, the more I receive back from the creative process. As if there is a creativity multiplier effect. I was was recently scrambling to finish the manuscript for my first book. During the process I was worried that blogging might interfere with the thoughts available for the book. I thought I should save my best work. I didn’t want to waste words on the non vital project. But what I found towards the end, was that the more I wrote the more I had. I just started pumping out the blog entries anyway, and on these days I had the largest and most prolific output for the book. It was counter intuitive to me.
The lessons for me is clear, the more we create, the more we can create. And as far as modern day work goes, it’s important we don’t confuse our physical limitations with our creative possibilities.