Start Writing… Just Start
A guy told me this in our first week studying together in Taipei.
This story is not a sad story, nor political, nor cringy to borrow from Elie Levine’s article on how-to-self-promote-without-turning-people-off. This is a story about wanting to write and finding the courage to do so. Elie wrote:
“Maintaining a personal brand doesn’t have to be cringey
In the age of working from home, life seems to bleed into work more than ever before. And readers respond to writers who give them a glimpse of their world beyond just the words.”
I don’t want to be an entertainer, an artist, or an influencer. I’m not sure I even want a brand. Whenever I have been “branded” in the past, it’s never been a positive experience or mentally healthy in the long run. So when Elie wrote that “you don’t have to be a “journalist-influencer” to draw eyes to your writing on social”, I felt more comfortable giving readers a glimpse of my world. Thank you, Elie Levine.
I’ll Start With My “Truths”
I do believe most of my “truths” from 10 years ago are still my “truths” today. Not because I’m in my own echo chamber, but because I’ve listened and learned and lived a remarkable, fortunate life. Most importantly, I’ve been graced with opportunities to reflect (both voluntarily and forced) on whether my daily choices are guided by what I believe to be “true” and right. I guess it’s my moral compass, which in turn defines my “personal culture”.
Where I have fucked up, which I have done more often than not these past 12 months, I’ve been in the envious if uncomfortable position to correct my path. Now days it seems this is a practice somewhat lacking in much of modern society. Whether we like it or not, we are living in a society where people accept there are such things as different versions of the truth. Unfortunately, these people include even those with a solid grasp of mathematics and science.
So I’m left to ponder if the truth I knew 10 years ago is the same truth I know today simply because I now have different ways of delivering it. If I changed every “I” with “we” in my last sentence, “I” think “we” all know the answer.
Stay with me. This is going somewhere.
At National Taiwan University, where I’m currently studying Chinese, there’s this guy who encouraged me to share my thoughts in writing. To not keep them locked away in my own brain, but to share them with others and see if they resonate. His reasoning is that everyone is different, and you never know if what you think, what you believe, or how you see the world, might be what someone else finds interesting. He posed”
“What if someone else might need to hear exactly what you thinking about, however trivial or deep, at this very moment?”
Before jumping off that ridiculously scary cliff, I decided to do a quick experiment to test his hypothesis.
Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due
Before I take that leap, however, I should name said individual. His shadow is around most corners in this story and it would be easier to reference a name rather than “that guy at Uni” all the time.
For the interest of this story, let’s call him “Paul”. Paul is an easy name to remember, it’s solid, been around a while, has street cred from a biblical sense if you are into that sort of thing, and well, it’s his actual name.
“work and life beyond the default path [including] thoughts on our relationship with work, the history of work, self-employment, a criticism of culture PR, creativity, learning, reading and other fun topics.”
Paul’s idea of fun is somewhat different than mine, but maybe that’s why I like him. That’s why I like reading his work almost as much as I like riding a bike with him slowly (because it appears Paul only does slowly) through the back streets of Taipei. Paul is slow in a Daniel Kahneman “Thinking Fast and Slow” kind of way. He is a deep thinker, but also a doer in a very real sense, albeit his pace disorients you at first.
So while Paul thinks a lot before doing, I tend to “do” first, then think after.
My belief system is somehow wired to tell me what is the right thing to do, even if it might not be the best thing for me. I don’t recommend my approach to life for anyone. There’s a lot of “post-doing thinking” that comes with my chosen path. It can be unnecessarily exhausting and stressful.
That’s not to say Paul and I don’t have a few things in common. 15 years my junior, born on exactly the opposite slide of the planet, in his recent blog I read words that could well have come directly out of my mouth:
“I was oblivious to trends growing up and it wasn’t until college that I realized my fashion choices were not aligned with the people around me. I figured out how to look better but my goals seemed to be avoid looking like a fool than having any underlying excitement about anything I was buying.”
I openly laughed when I read this comment. My attitude was exactly the same as Paul’s at that age. Apparently not so for my own nephew. This one quote took me back to a decade before in Shibuya, Tokyo when my brother and I took our nephews Jax and Mav on their first overseas holiday.
After a week on the slopes of Hakuba, we spent a few days wandering the alleyways of Harajuku, Omotesando, Shinjuku and surrounds. While waiting on a street corner for my brother and nephew number 2 to come out of a clothing store, a spiked mohaired skater loped passed, all leather, studs and piercings. I braced myself for the expectant derogative comment from nephew number 1. Instead he surprised me by saying: “Uncle Andy, we’ve really missed out on fashion in Australia, haven't we?” Proof he wasn’t my progeny.
As with my nascent friendship like Paul’s, it’s usually a completely random individual who gets into my head, and only over time it dawns on me the immense impact they have had on my thoughts, my actions, and the consequences of how I treat myself and others.
I can easily number on both hands people who, through whichever lens you look through, no one would ever expect me to be close to, let alone be friends with. These are people who probably have no idea have much impact they have had on me, or that I have so much respect for them. Sometimes, it’s years later that people even realize I am so close to someone. Maybe that’s a topic for another story: “People who changed my world…and you ever knew)”.
Now, where Paul is a deep thinker and got into my head by openly challenging me to write and publish, my husband Derek got into my head by taking a different path with a different objective. Fashion!
When we first fall in love, we all know the other person offers words of well-meaning but slightly over-inflated encouragement; even little white lies to build rapport and self-esteem in support of budding relationships. We all do it. It’s one of the unspoken joys of falling in love.
On the topic of fashion, however, it’s more of a challenge one partner takes on in the interests of personal achievement. And when you are gay and have body shapes similar enough to merge wardrobes, it’s the ultimate secret makeover.
“You look good tonight” said with an optimistic smile in your early months of dating will one day turn into “Really? You are wearing that?” well before your 5th wedding anniversary.
I knew I wanted to write, and Paul gave me a push. I knew I wanted to have a better fashion sense, so I turned a blind eye as my husband gently transformed my wardrobe.
It helps that Derek is more intelligent than I am, has much more EQ than I ever will, and “reads the room” in a way that at times embarrassingly magnifies my inadequacies. It also helps Derek used to be a model.
Derek has done modeling gigs off and on since being a baby on the side of a milk powder product. He transitioned to catwalks and catalogs two decades later, was his company’s “ambassador” on billboards, advertisements, parades and parties in this 20s and 30s, and did some side gigs on Suits, Start Trek etc during our short time living in Toronto.
Considering I’m a nondescript white Australian and he’s a glamorous tall Taiwanese, the number of close friends who said “geez, you two are starting to look like each other” missed the point. They kept referring to our face pics on social media, or when we walk into rooms together. They missed the subtlety of what even the ancient Greeks knew: “clothes maketh the man”.
Derek literally can wear anything and look good. And by “good” I mean fashionable, elegant. Be it sweat gear in a gym, military or work uniforms, or casual work clothes, he just turns heads. When we first moved in together and started mixing our wardrobe, our friends even regularly commented on if his outfit was new: the same clothes I’d been wearing for two or three seasons!
Derek didn’t succeed in making me fashionable, far from it. I won’t come close to turning heads the way my husband does when he enters a room. People won’t light up when I smile, they won’t lean in and listen intently when I offer gentle, sensitive advice when someone needs it the most.
But in our years together he has given me the confidence to be me. Not his version of me, not my narcissistic version of me, but the “me” that is the sum of all my experiences and learning, failings and successes.
Just a few days ago when I asked for advice on a decision only I could make, but that could possibly have a negative impact on us both, his response was “follow your heart.”
In the same way I give Paul Millerd credit for encouraging me to publish, I give credit to my husband for encouraging me to be someone better than I thought I could ever be.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not a humble person.
But I have always had a dream to write and it took many years and the encouragement of my friend/lover/husband to give me the confidence that what is in my head and heart has value. Derek held my hand as I walked up to the edge of the cliff. And then one of my newest friends, Paul, casually walked past me gave me a nonchalant push.
To The Experiment
Part 1 — My Personal “Culture”
There were a few times in a pre-social media world where my name was actually up in lights, albeit for a short time. I was asked for my opinions, and those opinions actually resonated with an audience. It was my version of “15 minutes of fame”. It was also when people generally gave their opinions only after they were asked for them.
In my experiment I wanted to find out how impactful or relevant the advice I was giving, or the views I was expressing 10 years ago, would be in today’s world with our pervasive channels of distribution. I mean, I was asked to return to speak at those conferences for the following few years so I couldn’t have been as bad as I thought I was (content-wise).
Audiences are different now, and we deliver information differently. Just because technology is different, and how we create and consume information is different, are the fundamentals we learn as we progress through life, are the way we do things, is our “personal culture”, of more or less value in our modern world?
Part 2 — Finding The Evidence
I decided to track down one of those presentations that were recorded a decade ago. Unfortunately, I was successful. It was awful. Littered with self-conscious pauses and misdirected or misguided jokes. I was looking anywhere but at the camera. I tell myself I was looking at the audience, but that was probably not true. You can take your pick, there was a lot to cringe at.
Watching yourself give presentations as your younger self is like watching a horror movie or a bus crash video. You know what will happen, but you can’t take your eyes off the screen. Even though I was cringing, I started to think the content itself wasn’t actually that bad.
Back then, apparently, I knew “my stuff”. I didn’t know how to deliver “my stuff”, but I knew it.
Clearly, this is not a problem for today’s generation of media stars, influencers, and content creators. Where a natural athlete metaphorically emerges from the womb wearing all the necessary game-day gear, the modern media generation understands lighting, presence, tone, and everything else required to engage an audience as though they were born with a conjoined media studio.
Part 3 — Knowing Your Shit
I found the most basic presentation I ever did and watched it enough times that I could actually remember being in the room. It was at a strategy conference in Hong Kong in 2012. The topic was boring as shit, or super insightful, depending on where you sit on the spectrum of listening to advice on, or learning the ins and outs of, being a “strategist”.
As there were quite a few presenters talking about complex valuation models, market entry strategies, re-platforming the technology of banks, and how to present “winning strategies”. Even after 10 years “winning strategies” still strikes me as the most stupid phrases I have ever heard. I see it’s made a comeback.
I decided to take the opposite approach. My presentation was simply titled Strategy 101.
Part 4 — Did My “truths” Change?
This is where process ends and the outcome is exposed for us all (me included) to decide. In our modern world it’s the thumbs down or thumbs' up moment.
Introducing myself with a solid “I am Andrew Tiernan and I’m a strategist” in a room full of people coming to hear people talk about strategy seems in hindsight a tad redundant. But it was a solid representation of my credentials and my first line of defense.
I spent the next 24 minutes expressing why it was not the title of the role, nor the complex tools and processes one uses to formulate effective strategies, nor the firm one works for that means you will be any good at being a strategist, let alone being strategic. Strategy consultants, it turns out, are easily offended.
I began with two definitions of strategy, which range from the 1640s legendary swordsman, Miyamoto Musahi to the more modern Cynthia A. Montgomery, the Timken Professor of Business Administration from the Harvard Business School, from her 2012 book The Strategist: Be the Leader Your Business Needs.
I’ll let you guess who said what.
Perception is strong, and sight weak. In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close, and to take a distant view of close things.
To make meaning, to be a voice of reason. and to make sure the right messages are passing to the right people.
While these two iconic definitions resonate with me, I think it’s important we all find our own meaning of strategy. Mine sits somewhere between the two above definitions.
Strategy to me isn’t a job that someone does. It isn’t a plan that you handover to someone else to implement. To me, strategy is a conversation, an ongoing dialogue. Strategy is about converging the conversations of knowledgeable people who all know what needs to be done, they just need a narrative to bind them. Strategy is also about knowing what not to do.
In my opinion the ideal strategist has business experience, they have critical assessment skills, and they have objectivity. They know when to step in and ask people to pause, to think things through (to make meaning), but they also know who around them has “smarts”, has a wise head, has been through cycles and who has done the hard yards before. They are facilitators and communicators.
That was essentially the first half of my Strategy 101. The second half covered how to go about doing this well…. these were my “truths” or advice I gave on the day. These are pretty basic foundations, but in today’s world of 5 second soundbites I wonder, would they ever reach an audience through modern communication channels?
When the message isn’t getting through, its not the fault of those receiving the message.
Anyone you will talk to at any particular time on any subject has a myriad set of their own personal and professional issues that has their attention, that they need to assess, mitigate or celebrate. It’s not their fault they don’t have the bandwidth to actively listen to what you have to say.
If your message isn’t resonating for whatever reason, look inside yourself. Change your approach. Think and act differently.
Make meaning for yourself first, before trying to make meaning for others.
If you don’t understand your market, the politics, the informal forms of communication that is influencing someone, don’t even bother opening your mouth to speak. If you can’t explain to yourself the importance of what you are doing for your customers, your shareholders, your peers, then why on earth would you bother tying to convince someone else why what you are doing, and what you might be asking of them, can have any positive impact on that person.
The Corridor Conversion is far more important than those in the Boardroom.
It’s not a minuted decision that’s made by any cooperate Board that determines the success of a strategy. Rather, it's the corridor conversation, or the coffee, or sitting together on the sofa, and now on Zoom, that makes any decision implementable and sustainable.
A decision is meaningless without the personal commitment of those required to implement it.
It’s much better to be interested, than interesting.
Now, this is really old school, and has probably disappeared from any text book or business school lecture. The “strategy guy” is cool. We see the future. We get wined and dined and meet ambassadors and business icons.
We run the risk of being too interesting when we are in any room, in any conversation.
Often executives are interested in us because we have access to external sourcing of information, data, “conversations” that our inward-looking organizations simply miss. But this can also go against us. Too much of the limited allotted time with any given person can be spent being the “interesting” person in the room.
The goal of my experiment was to see if what I believed to be true back in 2012 still holds true today, even with all the distractions of technology, social media and the pervasiveness of individualism. I have my answer.
We Are Almost Done
The goal of this story was to see if I could actually start writing, and in turn, finish an article. I now have that answer as well.
I only wrote with the intent of publishing this year, so time will tell how impactful Paul Millerd actually will be on this part of my journey. I’m hoping he is more impactful than Derek has been in influencing my fashion sense. But at least I’ve started writing.