A Labor of Love

Eleanor-HouseOne of the things I like best about my life is I have the pleasure of knowing so many creative people. Knoxville is full of them (most places are when you know where to look).

More precisely, I love talking to people who are creating. As a verb. These are the people who do their work because they’re compelled to. They can’t stop themselves.

I spend a lot of time with folks who renovate old houses. Fixing up a house that’s been occupied for 100 years is a devoted, creative act. In fact, the characteristics you must possess for historic preservation are the same you’ll find in artists.

  • Resolve. You almost never know the full extent of a renovation until it’s over and done with. You have to roll up your sleeves and resolve yourself to renovating anyway.
  • Imagination. Not the kind you use to picture what your house will look like (you can hire people for that). I mean the kind where you can conjure the feeling you’ll get when the house is done. Your imagination can make this feeling a solid thing — something to hold on to when the going gets rough.
  • Humility. You’re gonna need help. Ask for it.
  • Focus. Old houses require compromise. You will come across fixes you didn’t know you had to make, extra burdens on your budget. Your focus has to be narrow enough to make cuts when you need to.

I’ve been thinking about this parallel because a good friend of mine is renovating a house up the street. And, as part of her labor of love, she started a blog documenting the process. Go check it out: http://goodboneswithpotential.wordpress.com/

I, for one, gain a lot from watching a creative project like this unfold.

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Photo by yours truly.

© 2013 Sara Martin
WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR BLOG, EZINE, OR WEBSITE? Feel free, as long as you include this text with it:
“Sara Martin is an artist and writer based in Knoxville, Tennessee. Learn more ways to maximize your creative life at ModernSentiment.com/blog.”

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Clutter Inside and Out

Do you know what your biggest distractions are? Until this week, I thought I could name my primary attention killers: email and over scheduling are my top two.

Distraction is not my friend (it’s probably not yours, either). I’m a vision person and I work hard to purge distraction from my life so I can carry out my big ideas. Which is why it’s important for me to know my distractions, to be conscious of them. So I can catch them in the act and self-correct.

I thought I had most of mine identified. But here’s the sneaky thing about distraction — the most dangerous, consuming distraction is the one you don’t see. It’s so woven into your everyday life, you don’t even recognize it when you cross paths.

I discovered a blog this week that taught me I’ve got an enormous, hidden distraction in my life. I’m going to tell you what it is, but let me warn you, it’s going to seem anticlimactic. Which is exactly what it wants you to think. This distraction is particularly dangerous because our typical reaction to it is, “Eh, that’s not such a big deal, it’s pretty low on the priority list.”

You ready? It’s clutter.

Those of you who know me outside of my blog are probably thinking, “Are you kidding? I’ve seen your house and it’s impeccable 99% of the time. How can clutter seriously be the elephant in the room?”

Here’s how I reached this conclusion.

About a year ago, I read Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In the book, he quotes a statistic that stuck with me. Our attention can only process a fixed amount of information per second. It’s like having a limited bandwidth. Psychologists argue about the precise number, but the point is you’ve got an upper limit and it’s not all that high. This is why we can’t understand three conversations simultaneously. Or why texting and driving is bad. Our bandwidth is not infinitely expandable.

Additionally, not all information we perceive is equal. Our brains rank information so we can emphasize important input and the rest runs unobtrusively in the background, ready to come into focus if necessary.

Imagine you’re having a conversation with a friend in a coffee shop. The place isn’t crowded, it’s quiet, and your friend is going through a really hard time. You’re grateful for the subdued environment so you can fully tune-in to her words.

Now imagine that same conversation, but she’s talking to you while you drive down the freeway at rush-hour, on your way to a dinner for which you’re both late. Almost everything in your sensory range is important, so your brain can’t turn the volume down on anything. You’re looking for merging traffic and radar guns while you try not to miss your exit. The scenario is cluttered, so the experience you really want — to support your friend through listening — becomes diluted and ineffective.

What I realize now is the importance of the background, especially where it concerns our physical space. Yeah, I keep a relatively clean house (mostly thanks to my husband). But there’s still a lot of information in my environment competing for my attention. I’ve got mementos, collections, drawers full of just-in-case implements, and a spice rack with about 20 bottles I never touch. I’ve got wedding gifts I kind of liked but never use, boxes of photos I haven’t looked at in years, binders full of class notes from my architecture degree, and trial-size cosmetics grouped neatly in tupperware dividers.

After reading a few essays from The Minimalists, I feel like I’m looking at my house for the first time. What makes clutter such a powerful distraction is its ability to be camouflaged by organization. All my stuff is orderly, so I never saw how distracting it is. But when I consider it now, I recognize all the background thoughts that start ticking by when I look through my closet or open the pantry.

It’s amazing how much thought-clutter I’ve been taking for granted all these years:

“What am I going to do with those family vacation photos from 1998? Should I make an album? Or scan them? Or both? I wonder if I’ll actually make more Christmas decorations using these antique jars. How many half-full flash drives are hanging around my office? I need to write to Aunt Sheryl. That picture I have of her daughter is 2 years old. Mom got me that book, it’s supposed to be really good. Why don’t I read more? Successful people read a lot more than I do.”

On and on and on.

Now that I’ve shed some light on this monster distraction, I can see the damage it’s doing. It’s like my life is full of bookmarks and every time I see one, it cues 10 tangential thoughts, none of which are pertinent to my big plans and projects. It’s a serious buffer.

This is all very new. Like I said, I stumbled across that blog for the first time this week (thanks, Cal Newport!). But I can tell this is big for me. The more I examine the clutter in my life, the clearer it becomes that purging it will have a sizable impact. And, I count myself one lucky person because my husband is totally on board with spending half our Christmas vacation renting a dumpster and emptying every drawer in our sights.

I’ll keep you posted.

What about you? Have you thought a lot about the domestic objects in your life? How strict are you about keeping them pared down and does it help you focus? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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Photo by remind.

© 2013 Sara Martin
WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR BLOG, EZINE, OR WEBSITE? Feel free, as long as you include this text with it:
“Sara Martin is an artist and writer based in Knoxville, Tennessee. Learn more ways to maximize your creative life at ModernSentiment.com/blog.”

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The Funny Things You Can Learn

Until about three years ago, I defined education as two things. One: it’s the body of knowledge you accumulate throughout grade school plus the specialized information provided by college or advanced certifications. Two: it’s life experience and practice.

But my definition was missing a big slice of the pie. Three: education is a silver bullet that allows you to comprehend the nuts and bolts of practically any skill, even the ones that seem innate.

What I mean is, I never thought you could “learn” to be outgoing, confident, organized, a good conversationalist, or entrepreneurial. Until recently, I believed there was a long list of characteristics that couldn’t be acquired using the teacher-to-pupil delivery method. Even if you really wanted them.

Great news: I was wrong. If you find the right teachers, you can learn practically anything (I say “practically” because part of me is still so astonished by this realization, it seems too good to be true. Surely there is a limit to this super-power.).

Here are three examples of unlikely skills I’ve picked up.

Be an Entrepreneur

The mark of a good entrepreneur is resilience. You’ve got to be able to generate lots of different ideas and keep them at an arm’s length. You must learn to package and price things so one product can adapt to multiple situations. And you need lots of humility so you can quickly see when things aren’t working out and change course.

My three favorite teachers for learning to be entrepreneurial are Dan Miller, Dean Jackson, and Joe Polish. Dan Miller hosts the 48 Days Podcast. Dean and Joe share a weekly podcast called I Love Marketing. Both programs have drastically changed the way I think about business and growth. I still can’t believe the power of the education I’ve received from these guys.

Get Organized

Here, I’ve got one main teacher: Cal Newport. I first discovered him when I saw a guest post he did on a blog I read regularly. The article was called, “Drastically Reduce Stress with a Work Shutdown Ritual.” I was hooked. I use several of his organization methods to manage my tasks, projects, and to-do lists. I read every article and book he writes. Pure gold.

I haven’t ordered his new book yet, so if anyone’s looking for Christmas ideas…

Spark Conversation

Being a good conversationalist is top on my list of skills I’d like to improve. Quality conversation is the gateway to solid relationships with others, and I believe people are our strongest resource, regardless of your path in life.

I didn’t start targeting this one until yesterday and I’ve already uncovered some great lessons. There’s a whole series of articles about being a good conversationalist on The Art of Manliness. I started with this one. If this is a skill you seek, be sure to follow the “related posts” links at the bottom.

To converse well, you must ask engaging questions. NPR’s StoryCorps has an excellent page of questions that could work in lots of situations. Highly recommended for aspiring smooth talkers.

It might seem silly to you how giddy I am to realize that persistent study can yield these results. Maybe it’s not a true miracle cure if you still have to put in the diligent work of research.

But, in my mind, this type of education is absolutely a silver bullet. Before I understood how accessible these lessons were, I really thought there was an entire spectrum of abilities I would never have. Because they were the purview of gifted naturals.

So glad I got it wrong.

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Photo by GuyGringon.

© 2013 Sara Martin
WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR BLOG, EZINE, OR WEBSITE? Feel free, as long as you include this text with it:
“Sara Martin is an artist and writer based in Knoxville, Tennessee. Learn more ways to maximize your creative life at ModernSentiment.com/blog.”

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Circumstance, Attitude, and More Cooking Analogies

A little over a year ago, I made a career switch. Now that I have a new job and am launching a business with my husband, I was looking back at my writing from the last big change and remembered this post. I hope you enjoy it!

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I’ve mentioned before that I’m a very positive person. This is a helpful personality trait most of the time. But today I’m going to talk about a difficulty common to optimists: we tend to ignore circumstance.

The opportunities in our lives have two components. One is circumstance, which includes external factors such as people, timing, environment, and resources. The other is attitude, which encompasses our belief about what’s possible, our enthusiasm, resilience, persistence, curiosity, and all those go-getter traits.

Circumstance defines your opportunity. It provides metrics and limits that help you understand the objective.

Attitude fuels your opportunity. It provides energy and motivation. It drives us to find connections and build forward momentum.

Some people suffer from a lack of attitude. All they see is a jumble of circumstances and no potential. They don’t easily recognize patterns or clues.

I have the opposite problem. When I let my positivity go unchecked, I barely notice circumstance. I can look at any situation and think, “Wow, this could really be something. It could be anything!”

But it can’t.

A couple of days ago, I decided to leave a big project behind: my job. It took me a long time to make this decision because I believed I should have the power to transform that opportunity into anything I wanted. I had so much to work with! I had resources, great people, plenty of ingredients.

When I was honest with myself, though, I realized that what I wanted to make and what those ingredients wanted to be didn’t match. Finally, I began to understand circumstance for what it is — a valuable creative force, just like attitude.

Ignoring circumstance is like trying to be an alchemist. Or it’s like trying to make lemon scones when your pantry is stocked with potatoes and chicken broth. Better to shop for new ingredients than plow full speed ahead with your initial plan.

Attitude has supported me since day one. As far as I can tell, I was born with it. But my appreciation of circumstance is an acquired taste. It’s a product of observation and hard-earned wisdom.

Do pessimists experience the opposite? Are they born attuned to circumstance, aware of limits, and then grow to comprehend potential? Either way, I’m now convinced we must appreciate both if we want opportunities to work in our favor.

When I made the decision to leave my job, a good friend lent me a book called Difficult Conversations from the Harvard Negotiation Project. The best tip it offered was to think of ourselves as complex individuals. We get into trouble when we rely on labels like optimist or pessimist, because anytime we take a stand that contradicts our limited view of ourselves, we question our entire identity.

The book pointed me in a better direction. It helped me make room for two very different perspectives. In the past, I viewed circumstance as an excuse for failure. But I walk away from this experience with new-found respect for its influence in my life. Circumstance shapes our lives. It’s the landscape on which our attitudes are supported, shaped, and inspired.

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Photo by arinas74.

© 2013 Sara Martin
WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR BLOG, EZINE, OR WEBSITE? Feel free, as long as you include this text with it:
“Sara Martin is an artist and writer based in Knoxville, Tennessee. Learn more ways to maximize your creative life at ModernSentiment.com/blog.”

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What’s Your Buffer?

I want to talk about a specific kind of failure. It’s strategic, small, consistent, and self-inflicted. It’s a form of self-sabotage and I call it a “buffer.”

Here’s how you can tell if you have one (hint: I think we all have at least one…I think I have several). It’s a nagging problem in your life that’s so frequent and familiar you are beginning to assume it’s an immovable part of your personality. Some common ones are procrastination, overspending money, over-committing our time, emotional eating, social anxiety, always being late, chronic underemployment, and keeping messy, cluttered spaces. Any bothersome habit that’s a long-running distraction could be a buffer.

What does a buffer do? It insulates and helps maintain the status quo in your life. This is why we have them — our brains use them to protect us from the unknown life that could occur without them. Most of the time, a buffer is in place to protect us from failure. Big, scary, unknown failure.

Here’s how that works. When we believe we’re failing every day at something that should be easy (or seems easy to other people), we convince ourselves not to take real risks. We think, “Jeez, I can’t even figure out how to eat the right amount of food. How could I possibly have the discipline to run a marathon? I’m so bad with money, all my credit cards are maxed out. Clearly, I should never try to start a business.” Keeping that buffer gives you an excellent excuse to avoid reaching for lofty goals. And when we never reach, we never fail.

Buffers protect us from real failure by giving us a constant supply of predictable, safe failure.

There’s a big price for this protection. Buffers prevent us from fully experiencing life. They dull sensations. They lessen blows and diminish celebrations. They’re like a low-level static fuzz that prevents us from fully engaging with other people. Or from fully immersing ourselves in a new opportunity or project. They keep us locked in our minds so we can’t fully participate outside ourselves.

In short, they’re bad dudes. But, don’t worry, I wouldn’t have spent the last several paragraphs stressing you out if I didn’t think there was a solution. A cure for all buffers.

Discovering you have a buffer seems like bad news. I only recently started seeing my own. It’s actually great news. I think most people resign themselves to buffers and never learn the power they have to break free. So if you know you have a buffer, congratulations, that’s the first step.

Here’s how not to get rid of a buffer. Resist it by telling yourself you’re going to avoid that behavior at all costs. For example, if your buffer is over scheduling yourself, you might resist it by saying, “That’s it, I’ve had enough of being stretched so thin. No more wasting time online or getting sidetracked every time my email alert dings. Time to focus.”

The problem with that strategy is it’s like telling your brain not to think of a white elephant. The only way to avoid thinking about a white elephant is to suggest a totally different thought, without mentioning the elephant. You have to think of a behavior you’d rather have, in place of your buffer.

Instead of what you thought above, something like this will be much more effective: “I only take action on really important tasks. I decide what to do and when to do it. I keep my time to myself so it’s available when I find something suitable to spend it on.”

When you use those words, you’re giving yourself concrete direction. A real assignment to try. It takes practice and consistence (just like your buffer did), but if you persist in redirecting your thoughts toward the new behavior, it won’t be long before you’re finally free.

Unloading a buffer is an amazing feeling. Suddenly, results you could never achieve are easily within reach. You gain resources you’ve never had before. And you move from the position of out-of-control victim to proactive life leader. You are in charge of your obligations, your budget, your priorities.

What about you? What’s a buffer you’re struggling with right now? Or one you vanquished long ago? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

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Photo by Mattox.

© 2013 Sara Martin
WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR BLOG, EZINE, OR WEBSITE? Feel free, as long as you include this text with it:
“Sara Martin is an artist and writer based in Knoxville, Tennessee. Learn more ways to maximize your creative life at ModernSentiment.com/blog.”

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Million Dollar Mindset

money

Hello, everyone! First of all, my sincere apologies for the lack of posts over the past few weeks. I’m working on something BIG that I’m very excited to share with you.  More on that soon. In the meantime, I thought I’d rerun a few of my top posts. If you’re anything like me, you can use the occasional reminder of how to keep your mind pointed in the right direction. I hope this helps you on your way. Thanks for reading!

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Do you ever catch yourself believing something dumb? That happened to me this week. And, at the risk of sounding boastful (you’ll see why), I’m going to tell you what mine was.

I overhear a lot of talk at my office about the lottery. And it was really amped up last week when the Powerball jackpot reached $587.5 million. It seemed like everybody was buying tickets (I would have gotten one, too, except I almost never remember to stop by a gas station).

I don’t think about the lottery much, but sound carries easily where I work, so I often caught myself pretend-winning half a billion dollars. Whenever I imagine that kind of money materializing in my life, I get this feeling like, Alright, now I’ve got everything I need to make things happen. Let’s do this.

That tape was running through my mind, and I suddenly realized what a silly belief that was. Didn’t I understand that I already have resources more powerful and useful than a pile of money? It occurred to me that my own personal assets — the people in my life, my creativity, energy, optimism, marketing prowess, ideas — are more valuable than unlimited money (I warned you it’d sound like I’m bragging…sorry).

At least, the idea made sense to me logically. Money isn’t powerful in and of itself, someone has to steer it. And, if I had to pick one or the other — the money, or the gifts required to direct it — I’d rather have the latter because they’re harder to come by.

Then my thoughts started coming like dominoes. If I really believe that about myself and what I’ve already got right now in my life, then I’m going about things all wrong. Because I know how I would treat a lottery jackpot, and it’s nothing like how I treat myself.

If I won the lottery, I would give that money serious time and attention. I would make sure it had the best advisors and I would work hard to learn how to take care of it. All the hours I’d dedicate to managing it and putting it to good use, would feel like time well spent. It would be really important to me to be a good steward of that asset.

But I don’t give that kind of care to myself. I’m constantly pushing my needs down to the bottom of the list, into “if I get a chance” territory.

I decided to write this for two reasons. One, this incident was remarkable to me. I’ve got a serious track record of devaluing myself, and I’m stunned that these thoughts even popped into my head. Two, I know most of my friends have the same bad habit of underestimating what they can do, so I wanted to give them (and you) a message.

What you’ve got, right there inside of you, is invaluable. Even if you don’t recognize it, know what to call it, or where to apply it, I promise you’re sitting on solid gold.

Maybe you feel kind of like I do — hopeful that your value will show itself one of these days and worried that you’ll never discover how to coax it out. Maybe, instead of trying to serve the outside world all the time, hoping to stumble across your gifts, it’s time to invest on the inside. Even a half a billion dollars needs care and attention if it’s going to do anything good.

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Photo by darrendean

© 2013 Sara Martin
WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR BLOG, EZINE, OR WEBSITE? Feel free, as long as you include this text with it:
“Sara Martin is a writer, designer, and marketer based in Knoxville, Tennessee. Learn more ways to maximize your creative life at ModernSentiment.com/blog.”

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Sell Them What They Want, Give Them What They Need

sell-em-what-they-wantHave you ever heard the marketing advice “Sell them what they want, give them what they need?” It’s not popular advice. It requires us creative entrepreneurs to humble ourselves and our offerings in a way many business owners don’t enjoy.

Here’s what it means. You’ve got something really wonderful to share with the world. Maybe a book or e-course that helps people ditch their stress eating habit. Or maybe a meditation class that does wonders to dispel anxiety.

You love these offerings, you’ve worked hard to craft them. So your natural tendency is to give them descriptions that are unique and direct. You want to talk about them so they stand apart from the noise your audience hears about similar products every day.

This is a good impulse. You should promote your product by telling people how it’s going to help them, how they might be changed if they follow your advice. However, if you never reference the noise — the sales pitches your target market hears 99% of the time, chances are your message will never reach its audience.

Here’s what I mean. Say you’re a personal trainer and you offer a holistic program in which you give people the tools to finally, once and for all, stop relying on food to relax. To listen to their body’s cues about what exercise is enjoyable for them. If they purchase your program and truly hear your message, they could be rid of their addictive behaviors and self-neglect for good.

Now ask yourself this — what are the chances your potential customers are running a Google search for “How do I stop neglecting myself?” or “What exercise does my body truly enjoy?”

I’ll make it easy for you — they’re not.

If you really  have value to share, an important way to help people, you have to meet them where they are. They don’t know they need your in-depth process or the marvelous benefits you can help them achieve. They’re looking for relief from their symptoms. They’re looking for something that will help them feel better immediately.

With the personal training example, it’s pretty easy to guess what sort of relief your audience is seeking. Their actual searches look a lot more like this: “How do I lose weight for good?”

I’m not saying you have to cheapen your message and pander to the language of fad diet advertising. However, if you avoid using any of the familiar words your audience uses, you deprive them of the results they could achieve with your help. If you never use the word “diet” or “weight loss,” you give them zero chance of finding you.

So ask yourself. How important is it, really, for people to hear your message? How big is your conviction that your answers will change lives? If you’re serious about helping people, you have to speak their language. Once you’ve caught their attention, then you can teach them to ask the right questions.

Sharing something wonderful with the world takes humility. Figure out how to sell them what they say they want and then teach them how to desire what’s truly healthy for them.

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Photo by robtostes

© 2013 Sara Martin
WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR BLOG, EZINE, OR WEBSITE? Feel free, as long as you include this text with it:
“Sara Martin is an artist and writer based in Knoxville, Tennessee. Learn more ways to maximize your creative life at ModernSentiment.com/blog.”

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