30 Days of Creativity

Stop playing around. Be serious. It’s time to grow up.

Do you remember hearing these words when you were 16, 18 or perhaps 23? At 18 I was hopeful about a future of writing and making music. By 19 I’d given it up in favor of being a responsible adult.

I spent most of my early career in the corporate world, mired in spreadsheets, trying to look the part of a professional, trying to fit in. It was awful. I hardly think I’m alone. The stories in magazines touting mid-life career changes & books on the quarter life crisis tell me I’m not.

I was lucky. I got out. Working for myself gave me control over my work, allowing me to work on projects I found more enjoyable. It was good, really good. For a while. Then I went into auto-pilot mode. As a friend likes to say, I lit the stove, put the burner on medium and began coasting through my career.I was so focused on paying work that I was building other people’s businesses at the cost of building one for myself. After a 10 or 12 hour day, my creative projects languished, sitting on a dusty digital shelf in favor of a drink in hand and a bag of chips. Most nights I’d find myself watching moving pictures on a screen to help me escape from my troubles. My own projects slipped from second place, then to third, then to the bottom of my to-do list. A few months ago, while searching for a piece of writing I wanted to work on, I realized it had been six months since I’d touched it.

At first I wanted to burn it all down. Then I remembered that I have to pay rent and oh, I owe some money to the government. I couldn’t quit my day job. And I didn’t really want to leave my clients. I loved working with them.

So I started with simple fixes. I immediately stopped working on a book about marketing that had been long planned. I said no to new projects that weren't an automatic yes. I thought I’d puke the day I put a message on my site that I was being selective about future projects. It was the first time I’d publicly limited projects in 10 years of business. 

Next, I taught myself enough code to create a little program I’d been thinking about for two years. Things started to feel better. It still wasn’t enough. I wanted more time for creative expression. Finally I had an idea. If I couldn’t completely reinvent my life, I could at least reinvent my day.

The Birth of 30 Days of Creativity

I’d found it so easy to put paying work ahead of long-term goals or work that is more satisfying but offers little financial compensation. In a small act of defiance, I decided to take the first two hours of my day to work on creative projects. Just as an experiment. The goal wasn’t to produce anything. It was just a place, free from rules, expectation or money.

I gave myself only two guidelines:

- Spend the first 2 hours of the day focused on creative projects that are just for me.

- No client work (or housework) allowed.

During creative time I could read an inspiring book, write, code, write tweet storms. I started by restricting creative time from 8 AM to 10 AM, but I’ve loosened it to the first two hours after I get up. I don’t even have to have my butt in a chair. The goal isn’t output; the goal is to exercise my creativity muscle by putting it (and me) first above any other work, be it client work, email or even housework. The only chore I do before creative time is walk my dog; I use that time to plan, scheme and dream about what I will focus on that day.

I wrote this on Day 10 of this experiment. I suppose if I were a proper marketer wanting to capitalize on this, I would have had a hashtag and started using it on Day 1. But I’m not doing this for marketing. I’m doing it for me. I’m doing this for 19-year-old me who let go of creativity in favor of strait-laced adulthood. She deserves to exist too; to have freedom to roam, and play, and create in my head. I feel like I'm doing this experiment for everyone who worried they weren't good enough to pursue their creativity. 

Want to join me?

I'd love to have company. Tweet me with your intention and use the hashtag #30DaysOfCreativity so we can share your journey. 

Losing My Creativity

Do you remember pumping your legs back and forth on the swing set, trying to reach far into the sky, only to jump off to see how far you could fly? Did you stay up late at night reading under the covers, hoping not to get caught? Did you write short stories as a kid which you then recited out loud to your parents?

We’re born creative, curious beings and remain that way until somewhere around adulthood the harsh world of reality sets in and we turn more pragmatic. The transition from a creative, carefree kid into a serious, logical adult is sadly not that uncommon.

My story began in Warren Michigan, the home of General Motors' headquarters and a gritty suburb of Detroit just on the other side of Eminem’s 8 Mile. My dad built concept cars for GM—cars that were designed to get 100 miles to the gallon and the first electric car that GM unveiled to the world. He has three patents for his innovative designs. Before she took care of us kids, my mom was an advanced composition teacher and accomplished accompanist. If they’d grown up after the depression, my parents might have made riskier choices in their careers. But as children of the Great Depression, their practical natures won out, and they settled into a pragmatic life—my dad in corporate America, my mom scrambling after four rambunctious kids.

Throughout my childhood I could be found doing three things: at the local library checking out stacks of books to read late into the night, singing or writing short stories. By high school, I had learned to play five instruments and was a classically trained singer who performed in four choirs. I was on the yearbook and journalism teams, was one of the school’s photographers, appeared in several plays and had a radio show with my best friend called the Perky Twins. We played Depeche Mode, OMD, New Order and Madonna. In my senior year, I took an independent study teaching myself how to compose music. That year I also took Mrs. Mark’s English class; notorious for her strict grammar rules, Mrs. Marks pushed me to work harder rather than to rely on my natural gifts.

The school released results of our class vote a month before graduation. Always thinking of myself as uncool and unnoticed, I was shocked to see I’d been voted the Most Talented girl of our class. I discounted the award, worried that as the most visible “creative” girl I got it by default. Learning that I'd won by a landslide made me sad. Not even 18, had we already so thoroughly given up creativity that I was the only one still expressing it?

Following graduation many of my classmates took a practical path, winding up at community college or working the line for Chrysler, GM or Ford. I went to a university known for its music program and for its reputation as a party school. My mom’s reaction to my desire to be a singer was tempered. Performing was highly competitive, best hedge my bets by having a back-up plan as a music teacher. Not wanting to be a teacher but not ready to give up my dream, I entered the college's competitive music program, where only the most creative, musically inclined and hard working would survive. Even though I finished my first semester with better than passing grades, my mom's words still rang in my ears. Fearing I wasn't talented enough to make it as a performer, but not wanting to be a teacher, I quit the music program.

For the next year, I plowed myself into writing and English literature classes. During spring break of my sophomore year, I sprung my new major on my mom.

“I’m going to major in English and become a writer!”

“All the smartest kids from your sister’s class are going to be English majors. Maybe you should be an English teacher,” my mom replied.

Rather than trusting myself or taking a risk, I decided her simple statements meant I wasn’t talented enough to make a living being creative, so I’d better choose a safer path. When I got back to school I didn’t declare an English major. Instead, I took up Psychology, a degree which often leads to jobs in business, but I secretly took as many film and writing classes as my electives would support. In my junior year I transferred to Michigan State University for a strong academic program, giving myself a better chance at success in the business or academic world. My creative pursuits relegated to a shameful secret, I looked at my future with a mixture of sadness and resignation, girding myself to fit in rather than pursue individual expression.

Somewhere in my thirties I started exploring what creativity meant to me as an adult with a responsible life. Today, I’m still rediscovering my creativity. My current day job as a CMO-for-Hire gives me some creative outlet, but I always ache for more.

I recently started an experiment I’m calling 30 Days of Creativity which I’ll write about in my next post. Check back in the next few days. In the meanwhile, I hope you’ll follow along and join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #30DaysofCreativity.

Don't Just Communicate, Make Me Feel Something

Seeking a bit of respite in different environs after being cocooned in my office for four days, it was time to venture out to a new coffee shop/restaurant/barber shop I'd seen while trudging home from the subway.  As I sat down at my table, this little sign greeted me.

The advent of the remote worker has inundated coffee shops with neighborhood denizens, faces stuffed in screens. These blue-faced laptop dwellers limit the shop's chances for customers who help them pay the rent and maybe even bring a bit extra home for the fancy wine they like to drink at night. It takes a whole lotta cups of coffee + tea to make rent, especially where I live in New York. No wonder they zealously guard their over-priced retail shop against these space invaders.

As someone who finds white noise the best sort of writing environment, I'm guilty of littering coffee shops with my presence. There's a shop I used to frequent whose method of driving away low-paying, long-staying laptop users was to  remove all power outlets in the seating area. One day they were simply gone, their sparks of light never to be seen again on this side of the counter. We've all seen the signs in establishments that are signed by "management." If this company wanted to go the authority route, they might have placed signs that said: No laptops after 5pm, the Management. 

One Goal, Different Messages

All of these coffee shops had the same goal: to limit the number of low paying, low turnover customers in favor of higher paying, higher turnover ones. Now, which of these places do you think you'd feel most comfortable? The one that was playful + upfront, the slightly passive-aggressive place or the one that used authority + control to set the tone in their establishment? 

Your intent is revealed through your words + actions. The place with the playful sign may need to maximize their earning opportunities but they communicate it in a way that makes me feel like they actually care about me. 

What Are YOU Communicating? 

There are plenty of ways to show your personality and influence how your customers + prospects feel when they interact with you. Of course there's your 140, the land that practically inserts humor into your tweets with lol cats and animated gifs. But there are plenty more.

Your 404 page. 

Landing page. 

Your newsletter signup. 

Your CTAs. 

Your email sign-off. 

Take a peek at these communication outlets. Ask yourself: Do they communicate rigidity? Do they sound drier than a tax document? How do they make you feel? Do they make you feel anything?

Most people walk around zombie-like, stumbling through the day. Wake them up. Make them pay attention. If you make them feel something they're going to remember you much longer. Now that you have your answers, don't you think it's time to get editing?

How I Learned to Stop Worrying + Love My Personal Brand

"I know the idea of a brand is something that I'm not supposed to care about...but I do think it's a part of my life, and I'm trying to just be in control of it, as opposed to ignoring it."    Anna Kendrick

This hilarious, “cool girl”, double/triple/quadruple threat articulates how many of us feel about personal branding. We're supposed to be too cool for that. We're supposed to be able to just magically gain lots of avid "fans" without caring a wit or trying too hard.  Clearly, personal branding is a loaded phrase for many. 

There are plenty who would threaten to vomit on you if you uttered this word in their presence. Ironically, many of these folks already have a large following on Twitter or their blog. A high percentage of them would disavow any knowledge of a "strategy." 

I don't believe them. 

Rarely can someone grow a following of 10,000 or more without thinking about to how present themselves. Perhaps they're like Anna Kendrick, uncomfortable admitting that they have a strategy for being well-liked or even well followed. I suspect many would like you to think they don't care whether they have 15,000, 34,000 or 10 followers. 

But here's the secret: they do care. 

Even the people who admit to wanting to have some sort of strategy to grow their audience say it apologetically as if they've made a faux paus. Why are so many of us ashamed to admit that we:

a. Have a personal brand 
b. Actually care about it?

Why We're at War With Personal Branding 
Social media  deserves a big heaping of the blame plate. In an age where selfie was named the word of year for 2013, we can all feel a bit insecure. Everyone looks so glamorous + put together. All these selfies, ebooks and humble brags disguised as tweets has allowed impostor syndrome to spread wider and faster than the virus in the Matt Damon-helmed film Contagion. It’s easy to think that you have nothing of value to offer and really, why would you want to add to the tweet storm of bullshit because somewhere deep down you know that all is not sparkly + wonderful all the time. 

For others, a personal brand feels inauthentic. It makes us feel like a phony. We think: having a strategy = being a fake.  You’re not supposed to care what people think right? Personal branding is so anathema for many in part because having a strategy seems to mean that you’re as fake as Barbie’s wildly distorted proportions.
Then there’s the “I can be anything I want crowd” and its the hatred of being put into yet another box. We're unique damn it! Not only do we want to be outside the box some of don't even recognize the box at all. Ahem, says the woman who thinks in circles, swirls + starts. 

Here’s the Reality
You have a personal brand, whether you realize it or not.

Ignoring personal branding because you think it’s fake is a sure way to ensure failure. Of course having a facade or acting our a role is no way to long-term sustainable success. Or happiness for that matter. Especially happiness. But having a well-articulated personal brand doesn’t mean you’re a sellout. It doesn’t mean you have to be a chameleon or anything other than you. 

Being yourself is like taking the speed train to success, happiness + everything else that feels like running naked through a field of flowers while clutching your favorite book.  I grew up with an engineer + mathematician so let's express this in a formula:

If you pretend to be (snarky, perfect, disinterested) it will be hard to maintain the facade when you (want to connect, fail or fall in love, sprinkle sappy emotions across the planet) which will lead to (loneliness, less business, sadness—maybe even despair). 

A Love/Hate Relationship With Branding 
When I was two-and-something years old my mother woke at 2 a.m. to find me in my sister’s crib. I had dumped out the entire contents of my dresser onto her bed. My mom found  me trying on outfits and asking my sister her opinion. Though my sister couldn’t quite talk yet I persisted in my fashion show, determined to figure how to best present myself. By the time I turned four, my wardrobe was decidedly blue and I had shunned pink + purple entirely as they were too girly for my tomboyish self. That Christmas I designed my own costume for a Christmas play my brothers, sister and I put on at home. I’d say thinking about how to best present myself started young for me. 

That's me with the dishcloth on my head.

That's me with the dishcloth on my head.

But. There was a time when I turned my back on personal branding after perusing a few profiles of popular personal branding haters (one called it a circus, another vowed they'd unfollow you if you ever uttered the words). 

I admit it. 
I wanted to be liked. 
I wanted to be cool. 
I shrank away from myself. 

It took me several weeks (ok, months) to pull myself out of the narrow space I crawled into and come out of the personal branding closet. I remembered that I have never been cool--and probably never will be. And what was as important in life as being myself? Not much. As I left my branding closet, I began to look around and saw that these haters were actually employing the very strategies that make branding effective: 

  • Have an articulated, genuine voice

  • Be passionate about a topic

  • Tap into the zeitgeist of an audience

  • Be real

In fact, one of the biggest seeming detractors, author Chuck Wendig actually articulated  in a blog post, Don’t Get Burned By Branding, the biggest tenet of true personal branding. "Own your voice. Live up to your name." I found many "branders" who doth protest too much. In a sense, their criticisms were right: adopting a fake persona is never the way to lasting success. But that doesn't mean you have to eschew all strategy.

Listen, artifice is never a good thing.
Sooner or later you’ll slip up and go back to being who you really are. The jig will be up. You’ll have to go back to being the nerdy developer who snickers at Star Wars jokes, the sensitive soul whose feelings get hurt or geeky person who loves to read rather than go out on a Saturday night (ahem, me). Or, you’ll have to find a new persona and start the whole shindig all over again.

How tiring is that? 

Yes, there are far too many people trying to game the system with their 6 Ways to…posts that are fluffier than cotton candy and fake personas but let's not throw the marketing baby out with the stinky bath water, shall we? 

Having a strategy for reaching an intended audience doesn’t have to mean that you’re fake or have to put on some funny persona you think people will like better. Your real self is all you have to be. When done right [read: effective] branding isn't about creating artifice--it's about revealing yourself. 

In 5 years everyone will have a personal brand they can articulate and in 10 years people will wonder that we even trifled over the term. Personal branding isn’t just about how you project yourself IRL anymore as we project ourselves into far more virtual spaces than ever. You can get ahead of it or you can allow others (even a machine) to take over your identity. You can pretend it doesn’t matter or you can get over your bad self and get ahead of the curve like Anna Kendrick and give your brand (and yourself) a little love. 

Five Ways To Use Your Profile Photo Effectively

Remember getting your class photo taken? I always tried to feign sick on school picture day.  Anxiety + dread punctuated the day, hoping I selected the right outfit. I hoped my eyes were open but not too big and my grin happy rather than goofy the moment the photographer clicked the shutter. It was so fraught with fear for my sister that in her Kindergarten photo I’m actually holding her hand just outside the picture while her cheeks are visibly streaked with tears.

Selecting the right photo is one of the hardest parts of the personal branding process. When asked to provide a photo for their website or a social media channel, most people run away from the task as if they were being chased by a swarm of bees. Photos seem to bring out the insecurity in most of us which means we’re not always a credible source when it comes to figuring out how to put our best face forward.

Relying on your own instincts when it comes to presenting yourself online is generally best but sometimes getting an outside opinion  can shift an undecided mind. If you want outside advice, here are two routes: 1) ask your friends and colleagues (but be careful who you ask) or 2) use Photo Feeler, a site which helps you test your photos. The site is relatively simple: register, upload your photos and get feedback. Voters on the site give feedback based on three key attributes: competency, likability + influence. I tested a photo I use on Twitter and one used on LinkedIn. Here are the results for my photos:

Photo A

Photo A

Photo B

Photo B

How to Use Your Profile Photo Effectively

While the Photo Feeler results may seem relatively clear, I opted not to change my profile pics after this little test. Here’s why + five things to consider when selecting a profile photo.

1. Context Matters

The voters on Photo Feeler are random which means they may come from an industry like banking or law where the dress is more formal rather than one which skews more informal. In order to truly judge whether a photo works, you need to see it placed in its native environment. For example, this is how Photo A looks on my site. Voters–especially those from my industry–may have responded in a different way to the photo as seen in this context. When getting feedback be sure they’re not comparing an apple with a watermelon. They’re both red but very different fruits.


2. Match your photo to your overall brand. While critical, your profile picture is just one factor in your online brand. The right picture when paired with the wrong bio will be ignored, mocked or even actively reviled. Match the tone + voice of your personal brand along with a well-thought out description to a photo that fits the mood. Having internal consistency is far more critical than a photo which contradicts the rest of your message. Brand first, photo second.

3. Know the medium. Formal dress is expected on LinkedIn but can be off-putting on Facebook, particularly for a more consumer facing brand. Twitter has a wide variance though it tends to run more casual but there are differences by audience. While this may seem like trying to rub your stomach while hopping on one foot, it shouldn’t be too hard if you have a well-articulated brand + marketing plan.

4. Understand your audience. Observe the customs + mainstays of your audience, understand what makes them swoon and what makes them cringe. And if you decide to go against the grain, you’ll do it intentionally. As for me, since I mostly work with software developers + entrepreneurs—a decidedly casual crowd–I use Photo A on my main outlets: Twitter + my website. Using photo B, especially in places my audience frequents online, would brand me as stiff, corporate and an outsider.

5. Be true to you. While a business suit may be expected, it may not be the right choice for you. Pick a photo that makes you happy every time you look at it. Use outside advice like that of Photo Feeler sparingly. Change your photo only when (and if) you receive many negative comments from your target audience.

A nurse recently revealed the top 5 regrets of people on their deathbed.  In the end, it turns out that you’ll regret not being true to yourself more than anything else. Being you is not only way to guarantee more prosperity when branding yourself, it will also bring more happiness–and that’s something you’ll never regret.

This post originally appeared in my monthly column on She Owns It