Where have all the blacksmiths gone?

For quite a long time being a blacksmith was a pretty good gig. Creating tools and other items from metal, as well as repairing them, was in solid demand for centuries. And, as it turns out, learning to forge, draw and bend wrought iron, bronze or steel is no easy task.

As we moved through the 20th century being a blacksmith didn’t get much easier. Sure, there were some technological advances but, by and large, it was a craft that required considerable skill and perseverance.

You might have noticed that aren’t many blacksmiths around these days. In fact, my guess is you’ve never even seen a working blacksmith shop (though you might know a hipster or two who have taken it up as a hobby).

Of course, the blacksmiths didn’t disappear all at once. But as new technology and substitutable products emerged–and began to achieve widespread adoption–the demand for blacksmiths waned. Eventually, the once common vocation became an anachronism.

I’m left to wonder how many blacksmiths saw it coming? How many realized they were doomed to extinction? And if they had that foresight, how many had the fortitude to let go of their once tried and true identity to forge (heh, heh) a new path?

I also wonder who are today’s blacksmiths? Could it be me? Could it be you?

And if it were, do we have the courage to leap into something new?

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The power of now. The power of no.

“Life is a series of moments, all called ‘now’.”      

– Unknown

“When you say ‘yes’ to others, make sure you are not saying ‘no’ to yourself.”

– Paulo Coelho

If you are anything like me, it’s often pretty easy to slip into a little time traveling–to lament what might have been or too worry about what the future holds. Unfortunately I lack both a time machine and the gift of prophecy, so this is not only a big waste of time, it can very easily mess with the serenity I desire.

If you are anything like me, you might find yourself frequently saying “yes” to things you really shouldn’t–perhaps out of a desire to look like a good person, to avoid hurting the other person’s feelings or merely because you struggle to trade off the essential against the expected or habitual. And then the resentment and self-shaming follows as we realize how our wants and needs once again take a back seat to the squeaky wheel or the self-inflicted obligation.

We can dream about having super-powers, but eventually reality rears its ugly head. And we can work hard to accept all the things we are powerless over (spoiler alert: it’s just about everything). But when it comes down to it, two “powers” can make a huge difference.

The power of now: the commitment to live fully in the present moment and to let go of the past we cannot change and the future we can neither predict, nor control.

The power of no:  the willingness to stop saying “yes” to obligations, mindless distractions, bad relationships and everything else that gets in the way of our living a life of purpose, connection and fulfillment.

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Failure is an orphan

“Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.”

– John F. Kennedy

If you’ve been on the receiving end of consulting firm or marketing agency pitches, perhaps you’ve noticed multiple firms taking credit for the same work.

Or maybe you’ve been part of an event celebrating the launch of an exciting new venture and witnessed how suddenly everybody wants to participate or to extol their contribution.

My personal favorite is the CMO who relentlessly bashed a new business idea we had, did absolutely no work on the project and then showed up uninvited to our launch PR event –which was in a different city than our headquarters–and managed to insert himself in between our CEO and the head of our new venture just as the press started snapping pictures. There he was the next day on the front page of Women’s Wear Daily and Ad Age beaming. And so it goes.

Of course when something fails, everyone scuttles like cockroaches when the lights come on. And it’s not typically not very hard to find someone to tell you that they knew what a stupid idea it was all along.

But when was the last time you celebrated a noble failure?

When was the last time someone in your organization got promoted or received a bonus because they were willing to take a smart risk, rather than sitting back until it became obvious or completely safe to act.

Conversely, when when the last time a Board fired a CEO for moving too slowly to counter-act industry disruption or for not doing enough experimenting?

Yes, there are plenty of ill-conceived ventures that should never have seen the light of day or should have been approached in a fundamentally different way.

But I’d wager there are far more projects that should have been started, but weren’t because individuals or organizations were too afraid of failure.

Without the risk of failure there is no innovation. And without innovation you and your company are likely toast.

In reality failure needs more friends, more cousins, more Godfathers, more parents.

It’s time to embrace experimentation, not resist it.

It’s time to adopt failure, not shun it.

Oh, and pro-tip: This works for personal relationships as well.

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Technique is overrated

Technically, Bob Dylan isn’t much of a singer. Neither is Jay-Z or Kanye. If Courtney Barnett turns out to be the next big thing it isn’t going to be because of her range or perfect pitch.

Kurt Cobain was certainly no Andres Segovia. Jimi Hendrix played his guitar upside down, backwards and strung “the wrong way.”

Not one of the Beatles could read sheet music. Neither could (or can) Duke Ellington, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, B.B King or Elvis Presley.

Growing up I can remember many times when my father would see some of the most influential Modern and Contemporary art and say “I could do that.” Perhaps he could. But he never did. Too bad, those millions would have come in handy.

Conventions, rules and technical standards obviously have their place. If you’re flying my plane or operating on my brain I’m counting on you to really know your stuff.

But for most of us, the work that matters doesn’t rely on a text-book approach, a finely tuned PowerPoint deck or a Board-certified anything.

The ability to evoke emotion, to connect, to create something meaningful, rarely requires mastery of an established protocol or any one tried and true skill or approach. The illusion that it does is what keeps us stuck.

If you’re waiting for perfection or just the right time, you’ll likely be waiting forever.

If you’re hoping that someone will tell you it’s okay to start, prepare to be disappointed. Chances are you’re going to have to choose yourself.

Do your research, study all you want and by all means, practice, practice, practice. Just know that you are going to have to start before you’re ready.

And if you really think you could do that, well then do it.

We’re waiting.

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Soul patch

I started with a small plot of land,

inherited it, really.

Before too long the soil became dry, cracked, brittle,

devoid of nutrients.

The surface became strewn with crushed beer cans,

long since drained,

the simple detritus of every day life.

Beneath the ragged crust worms churned and twisted,

seeking sustenance where there was none.

Seeds’ prayers for germination all went unanswered.

I started with a small plot of land,

battled it fiercely.

At times the sun beat down upon it,

the heat violent, unrelenting, without mercy

and nothing could find purchase.

Before long the frost came, savagery took root,

the hyenas’ cackles echoed throughout the night

until there was only surrender or fight.

I started with a small plot of land,

survived it, mostly.

With time, stubbornness punched itself out,

evil slowly acquiesced to goodness,

a dim light emerged.

Mercifully the aperture opened,

the soil got tilled,

new sources of water were found,

the unnecessary got thrown away.

Maybe, just maybe, something can grow here.

Tell a better story

You sell a product that is losing out to Amazon on price and convenience? Stop chasing your tail in the pursuit of ever lower prices or fanciful plans to get into the same-day delivery business. Tell a better story; one rooted in deep customer relevance and remarkability.

You run a non-profit that has trouble getting the attention of large donors? Stop trotting out endless statistics and convoluted theories of change. Tell a better story, one that connects emotionally, paints a clear picture of a brighter future and inspires hope in a new and different way.

You see yourself as someone who has to do something to prove their worthiness? Stop repeating the false narrative of victimhood or original sin. Tell a better story, one that rejects the abusive programming from your childhood and one that embraces the gifts of imperfection.

I get it. Facts can’t diverge from an experienced reality forever. But far fewer things are actually facts than we tend to think. And besides, data without a soul, an inspiration or an ultimate hero, is often meaningless.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s a lousy strategy for just about everything.

You may feel like you have facts on your side, but hearts and minds (and wallets) rarely open up to the overwhelming force of logic.

The best way to claim our worthiness–to believe we are enough, we have enough and that we do enough-is to buy into the story until it rings true. Until it becomes habit.

People buy the story before they buy the product.

If nobody’s buying the product (even when that product is you) maybe the time you spend trying to be like everyone else0 or burnishing your PowerPoint would be better spent crafting a better story, believing in it and watching it spread.

Hanging around the edge of the pool

It’s pretty comfortable on the pool deck. We get to relax in a chaise lounge, soaking in the warm sun, taking in the scenery. Maybe somebody will even bring us a fruity drink with an umbrella in it.

It’s pretty comfortable being a consumer. It doesn’t take much energy to absorb while somebody else creates and produces; to catch while the other guy or gal pitches.

It’s pretty comfortable being a critic. Where’s the risk in pointing out the shortcomings of the innovator and the failings of the artist?

It’s pretty comfortable being a cheerleader. Not much chance of injury as we watch those in the arena from the sidelines and shout enthusiastic words of encouragement.

Of course nothing meaningful actually gets done through observation. Knowledge of a problem doesn’t solve the problem. Cheerleaders don’t win the game.

Let’s face it: there’s no shortage of people hanging around the edge of the pool.

What we need is more of us willing to take the plunge.

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Shut up and play the hits!

Maybe you’ve been to the famous comedian’s show where by far the biggest laughs come from the bits you’ve already seen him do on Fallon. And Kimmel. And YouTube. And his five year old Netflix special.

Maybe you’ve excitedly gone to hear that marketing guru at a big industry conference and grown weary and uninterested when she begins by talking about her just released book, you know, the one you haven’t read. But you instantly light up again when she starts to riff on the ideas from a decade old tome that formed the basis of her TED talk that you’ve watched a half dozen times.

Maybe you’ve attended a concert by an iconic rock band and became impatient with the lead singer’s extended stage patter. And then as soon as they start to play the new stuff–or maybe some deep track from a classic album you’ve always skipped past–you know that’s your signal to head to the rest room or go grab a beer.

For any kind of artist–and we’re all artists now–it’s a whole lot easier to go for the well-tested laugh line, crank up the guaranteed crowd pleaser or simply default to the thing that made you popular (or at least accepted) in the first place. As it turns out, most of us like safety and there is safety in the familiar.

Organizations and brands aren’t a whole lot different. Most non-profits turn again and again to golf tournaments and galas to raise money. In the CPG  world, the core strategy is to churn out seemingly endless iterations of best sellers. And just about every retailer goes back to the well over and over again with minor tweaks to long-standing merchandising and marketing practices.

Yet the evidence is clear. Eventually we grow tired of the greatest hits. What worked well for so long, no longer does. And with more and more art and content and ideas and disruption being produced literally by the second–accessible to nearly everybody at any time, anywhere–what once seemed remarkable is anything but.

Is there an audience who only wants regurgitated versions of what you or your organization has always done, who can’t possibly accept new material, who has no interest in being challenged? Perhaps.

Is that the audience that’s going to get you where you need to be?

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A version of this post originally appeared at http://www.stevenpdennis.com  This blog is still in semi-stealth mode. New content will begin the week of September 12th.

Nobody pays attention at first

Many famous and influential artists toiled in obscurity for the majority of their lives. In fact, some only found celebrity and critical acclaim posthumously.

There are plenty of examples of great spiritual leaders–Siddhartha Gautama and Muhammad come to mind–whose messages were largely ignored early on. It took many years for them to develop anything that could remotely be described as a following.

Most great entrepreneurial ideas are hatched in privacy–or among a very small tribe of like-minded folks.

You’ve never heard of the band you’ll be obsessing over in a few years time.

The next great writer probably hasn’t even written her first book.

And guess what? That blog you’ve been thinking about starting for the last few months. Virtually–and maybe literally–no one is going to read your first post. Or your second. Or your third.

Much of the time we’re afraid to bring our ideas, our art, our passion to the world because we fear others judgment or ridicule.  Somehow, we tell ourselves–despite never  having practiced–were supposed to be good right out of the gate. So often our ego protection tells us to not even start.

But most of the time, in the beginning, nobody is paying attention. And if we believe this and embrace it it’s actually very good news.

Because nobody pays attention at first, we get to try things out, experiment, be vulnerable, push boundaries, fail better.

Because nobody pays attention at first, we can create free of the critics and the trolls.

Because nobody pays attention at first, we get to practice, for real, not just in our heads.

If we fight through the resistance, if we begin to develop a following, there will be plenty of time for second guessing and reacting to how the world meets us and our work.

But right now, enjoy the anonymity while you can. And just start.

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A version of this post originally appeared at http://www.stevenpdennis.com

Quitting is underrated

We don’t have to spend much time among our friends or on social media to run across the never give up, quitting is for losers, in-it-to-win-it ethos. There’s a whole socially acceptable narrative built around the notion that only weak people quit and that failure is never an option.

It’s ridiculous. It’s wrong. And it’s harmful.

Perseverance, grit, determination and hard work are certainly important to achieving our goals. But frequently our best work–the work that matters, disrupts, challenges the status quo–comes precisely because failure IS an option. It happens when we know “this might not work” and we choose to do it anyway.

Yet the best friend of an intentional choice to go out on a limb and take a risk is knowing when it’s time to quit. The point is not to avoid failure at all costs, the point is to fail better. Failing better means failing faster and failing smarter. It means knowing when to stop pushing too big of a rock up too big of a hill. It’s radical acceptance of reality. It means being vulnerable to the idea that despite our best efforts, despite what our original analysis told us, despite knowing that we might hurt someone else’s feelings, despite the real possibility of looking stupid, we simply need to stop.

I loved it when, in her now classic talk on shame, Brene Brown referred to TED as the “failure conference.” She called out the reality that all these great leaders and speakers we look up to had dared greatly and failed–many of them on more than one occasion. It was, in fact, a room chock-a-block with quitters. But not quitters who beat themselves up about it and became victims. They were all quitters who had indeed failed better. They eventually figured out when it was time to stop, learned from their mistakes and moved on.

It turns out that knowing when –and having the courage–to quit is exactly what frees us up to go and try the next big thing.

I wonder what we are all doing right now that’s worth quitting?

I wonder if we can muster up the courage to stop and simply say “no more.”

I wonder what amazing possibilities that will unleash.

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This post originally appeared at http://www.stevenpdennis.com  Brand new content will appear on this new blog very soon.