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Four Years, 10,000 Hours and My New Definition of Success

ten thousand hours

“In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.” - Malcolm Gladwell

This month marks my four year anniversary - or as I like to call it, my freeversary - as an independent creative. Four years feels monumental because it’s a self-enclosed time period for achieving something big. Four years is also the approximate amount of time that it takes to reach 10,000 hours - the “magic number” for getting enough practice to become a world-class expert at any one thing.

Milestones are a time for reflection and they can quickly turn to a time of self-evaluation. What do you have to show for yourself? In hindsight, were did you slack off, where did you falter, where did you get distracted? I remember applying for college and feeling like a wet turd when I had no school clubs to put on my application. I had a 4.3 GPA and a beautiful art portfolio, but goddamnit what was I thinking not joining ASB or Yearbook? It was so much easier to focus on what I hadn’t done than what I had done. And I had achieved a lot. But when you measure yourself against other people’s standards, it will never be enough.

One of my biggest lessons this year is learning to redefine my own standard for success.

People focus so much on the moment that you go freelance as “the big scary jump.” But once you jump off the cliff and arrive in your new encampment of freelancehood, old models of success can still haunt you. They did for me. In fact, they still do. I'm coming to terms with the fact that even though I diverged from the path, forging a narrow side trail to get to that batch of foxtails, I have carried with me the old guidebook. I have consulted the glossary to identify wildlife along the way, to read the stars, to find water. The path was different but the manual was the same. And I became imprisoned in my own abusive relationship of employer-employee. Only this time I played both parts.

Now I'm learning that it's not just about making your own path. It's about writing your own guidebook, too. The old rules don't work out here. They take you back to the same old miserable place of "keep your head down and get it done," and "put your time in," and "work your way up the food chain." Self-limiting beliefs that keep me in a box, that keep my creativity bridled, that keep my heart just far enough from my work to make it feel like work.

It's scary starting out. We cling to our handbooks for a sense of security and structure. But what I've found out here in the wilderness, is that the signs are all around me. The universe sends me signals to confirm or deny that I've made the right decision, and decisions are being made every day. Lead flow dries up. Lead flow goes through the roof. Clients give raving feedback and highlight where I added value. The work feels easy or it feels incredibly hard. These are the signs that I'm using to write my own manual. The guide to the uncharted territory that is my completely unique creative landscape.

I've gone off the traditional employment grid, but I've been too scared to veer completely from my old protestant ethic. The one that says, this is how you work. These are the hours. This is the business model. This is the marketing. These are the big ticket clients. This is the safest bet for long-term financial stability.

“If you believe that you have something special inside of you, and you feel it’s about time you gave it a shot, honor that calling in some small way — today.” – Elle Luna

Yes, it's totally natural to do anything you can to survive. Especially when you're out on your own. But I'm starting to question, is “following the money” really the best way to survive? Playing it safe can earn you a safe income and a safe pat on the back. But is anything really safe? What if I really did let myself experiment, stray from the old standards, invite the side of me to come play that has been standing at the trailhead waiting for the "go-ahead," the side that is the beautiful intuitive creative counterpart to my logical thinking surviving lizard brain?

My new mantra: define success on your own terms.

Working for yourself is a great place to start. But still, it's not the employment model that sets you free. It's the limitations we put on ourselves. Limitations like, "I don't have time to write outside of work." Well guess what? Since January 1, 2014 I've written at least 300 words every morning. I've been trying to give in to my heart just a little more, to experiment going one step down that new path each day.

The rewards have been astounding. And as I get nearer to my 10,000 hours as a self-employed creative, I realized it’s not just the writing and marketing practice that counts. It’s 10,000 hours of learning to trust myself. Of building enough confidence in my new guidebook to let go of the old one, burying it beneath the poppies.


Fuel for the New Year: 2013 in Review

Fuel for the new year

The past week I’ve noticed a new thought pattern emerging while I’m in the shower, at the bus stop or at the dinner table. Goals. Milestones. Resolutions. January 1, 2014, just a few weeks away. Like a traveler at the trailhead of a new journey, I find myself making quiet preparations. Rations, goods, emotional check-ins. Do you find yourself doing the same?

Today I realize I’m getting way ahead of myself. Before jumping into plans for the New Year, I need to pay my respects to 2013. So it’s time to pull out the binoculars and see the big picture of how far I’ve come – the triumphs, the challenges, the surprises and the shifts. This global view will be my fuel for the journey ahead – it will be my super magic nutrient-packed trail mix. And I’m going to fill it with just the right mix of chocolate.

Here’s my recipe for supercharging the triumphs of 2013 into a jetpack for the new year. Try it out and tell me what you think.

The Nuts

Nuts are the foundation of your rocket fuel. Fatty and delicious. So, how do you define success? This is the standard by which you will measure the past year. For you, does success mean:

  • Making rent for 12 months in a row
  • Sticking to an exercise routine
  • Spending quality time with people you love
  • Raising your rate
  • Signing new clients
  • Increasing profits
  • Traveling to new places
  • Getting published
  • Hiring new staff
  • Writing a chapter, editing a piece, finishing a song, or just making time to try

Make a mental note or jot it down. Now it’s time to add some jazz to that mix of almonds and brazil nuts.

The Fruit

Dried cranberries, mango, raisins and pineapple make trail mix what it is. It’s the tang. The sweet n sour. The kick. Fill up your trail mix with a little moment of appreciation for yourself and all the things you kicked ass at this year. Ask yourself:

  • Where was I dedicated?
  • Where was I patient?
  • Where was I challenged?
  • Where was I afraid?
  • Where was I brave?
  • What did I let go of?
  • Where was I uncertain?
  • Where was I wise?
  • Where was I generous?

Choose your most delicious fruits and throw em in the pack.

The Wild Card

We all love something obscure in our trail mix - wasabe beans, coconut flakes, honey-drenched sunflower seeds or whatever pleases you. Think back over your last year and find the wild cards.

  • What were you pleasantly surprised by?
  • What unexpected connection did you make?
  • What relationship turned out to be highly rewarding?
  • What did you learn about yourself?

Scour the bin for your wild cards and throw 'em in.

The Chocolate

Trail mix without chocolate is just boring. It’s the reward, it’s what we’re really digging for among all those peanuts and raisins. It’s the reason we eat trail mix at all. Right? So ask yourself:

  • Who did I help this year?
  • How was I of service to my community?
  • How did I invest in myself this year?
  • How did I take care of myself?
  • What evidence did I leave behind?
  • How am I different than I was on January 1, 2013?
  • What new skills, experience, connections, resources and portfolio do I have now that I didn’t have one year ago?

That’s the good stuff - that’s the nourishment that will get you through the next 12 months. Cuz chocolate makes everything better.

The Journey Ahead

Once you’ve taken a minute to marinate in the goodness of everything you put out this year, you’ll have a good hearty (and delicious) fuel pack for moving into 2014. Your New Years Resolutions might even be a little bit brighter.


In Memory of Ana Stenzel

 Ana Isa Power of Two

The best part of my business is getting to work with all types of amazing people, some of whom continue to influence me long after our project together. Ana Stenzel, who left this earth just one month ago, is one of those people.

One of my first freelance gigs was working on "The Power Of Two," a documentary film about twin half-Japanese sisters with cystic fibrosis (CF). The subjects were Ana and Isa Stenzel, two amazing women living in the Bay Area and entering their 40th year on this earth - despite doctors’ predictions that they would never make it past high school.

The twins each considered it a miracle to have lived long enough to graduate from Stanford, establish meaningful careers, travel the world, and share their story in both a memoir and documentary film. As close friends in their CF and organ transplant community seemed to pass away every week, Ana and Isa chose to continue living unafraid. They watched each other fall in love and get married; celebrating every day they had breath in their lungs.

Cystic fibrosis is a terrible disease that deteriorates lung tissue, and in advanced phases, can only be survived with a double lung transplant. Ana & Isa were fortunate enough to each receive new lungs and a new chance to breathe.

In one of my favorite scenes from "The Power Of Two," Ana & Isa sit around a table with a group of fellow lung transplantees. Each person describes what it felt like to take their first breaths after receiving new healthy lungs. My body felt like a temple. It felt sacred, full. It was ecstasy. It was life.

Ana & Isa’s story helped me recognize how lucky I am that no matter what worries I have, taking my next breath is never one of them.

My growing yoga practice has underscored this awareness of breath in the past year. In learning about all the benefits of full deep breathing, I have more appreciation than ever for what the twins went through. The majority of human beings go through the entire day without once noticing their breath, taking it for granted until it’s gone. And I was no different.

I'm now learning that breath is a powerful thing to pay attention to. It regulates our effort, our relaxation and our focus. It connects us to our physical space and to our physical bodies. It is the most basic building block to our waking reality. And without it, we’re nothing.

The Stenzel twins have been acutely aware of their breath from day one. And through voicing their most raw and intimate personal stories, these women empower an entire community of people that share the same struggles.

But they also have something to teach those of us without major health issues. When I spent time with Ana and Isa, their love of life was intoxicating. Their gratefulness for every breath, for every day. Despite all their suffering, I always felt like they were very fortunate. Because every day on this earth was appreciated, noted, and lived to the max. They had far greater perspective than any of us. They saw this life for what it is - an experience that could be over without warning, and one to be taken full advantage of while it lasts.

Ana Stenzel did take full advantage of her 40+ years on this earth. She probably lived more than most people do in twice that amount of time. It’s hard to believe she’s gone because part of me saw her as being invincible in the face of disease. But she leaves behind a legacy that will continue to inspire and encourage. A legacy carried on by her sister, Isa, and by a lifetime of writing and advocacy. A legacy that will continue to give people hope, to fight for change and to find comfort in common experience. She was an incredibly talented writer and compassionate leader, but most of all she was a selfless friend.

I was incredibly lucky to be part of Ana’s story even in the tiniest way. She is one of those people that in a short amount of time left a huge impact, and she will be missed.

Lost Your Creative Vision? Try Closing the Door

creating behind closed doors vert

In my old age, I’m realizing that something precious has been lost from my childhood. And I’m not talking about the loss of innocence or ability to spring into headstands (even years of yoga hasn’t helped that one). I’m talking about the ability to create behind closed doors.

I learned the metaphor of open and closed doors from Stephen King’s brilliant memoir, On Writing, where he advises:

“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right — as right as you can, anyway — it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it.”

When I was a kid, I’m told that I would sing and dance and draw and voice my ever-popular opinions without filter. Loquacious is the word my grandmother used. I got on stage and sang my heart out into the microphone. I sat around the preschool table and blew kids out of the water with my signature equestrian illustrations. I published a series of novellas featuring a fictional African elephant named Kilimanjaro and his band of exotic hoofed and horned friends.

Ever drawn to creative outlets, the same way I am now, one thing was different: I had no awareness of anything outside myself during the visioning process. I was blissfully carried away in a vortex of imagination that offered escape and yielded a product raw and entirely true to myself.

I’m sure you were the same way.

This is what Stephen King calls working behind a closed door - a mental force field around your raw creative power, free from self-judgment and practical application. A space for your creative genius to breathe and expand and reveal itself.

So what happened as I got older?

I became more aware of others, their perceptions, and how my performance had an impact on both. Sitting down to draw, write or sing felt like putting myself naked on a pedestal for everyone to see. I had forgotten how to create behind closed doors.

Through my schooling I began to approach the canvas and the blank page with thoughts like, how can I make this more conceptual? How can I create stronger metaphors? How can I increase the value of this marketing plan?

Those thoughts are all fine and good - after you’ve detailed the vision A to Z. These thoughts come from the “open door” mentality that is open to criticism, refinement and improvement. But as a writer and creative entrepreneur, the closed door is my greatest asset. It’s my time to tune in to something that no one else has, a perspective and an approach that is entirely my own.

And you have one too.

Stephen King says it best:

“When you write, you want to get rid of the world, do you not? Of course you do. When you’re writing, you’re creating your own worlds.”

I’m learning again how to create with the door closed. And it feels beautifully liberating. The joy is rushing back into my creative process. My voice is more and more true. People around me are responding to the shift in energy. My creative time is turning back to that impenetrable bubble of my childhood, that magic land of imagination that frees the mind and feeds the soul.

What have you been creating lately? Have you been doing it with the door open or closed?


Bringin Home the Aloha

It’s 11:30am on a Monday morning. I’ve been at my desk three hours trying to acclimate my body to the chair, the keyboard, the brightness of my screen.

“When did you get back from Hawaii?” my officemate asks.

“Our flight landed last night at 8:45pm,” my face scrunches as the words come out.

“Oh wow, you should have taken a day off to decompress!”

“More like recompress,” I think out loud.

And that’s exactly how vacation can feel sometimes - a cycle of compression and expansion and compression again. It took three days of thick Hawaii air just to start loosening up. By the end of our eight-day trip, I finally felt the Aloha steep into my bones.

I knew the transformation was complete when my husband and I went from cursing in traffic, “drive faster! Pick it up guys,” to joining my local brother-in-law hollering “slow down guys, what’s the big rush? This isn’t the H1.”

And as the cars slowed down, so did our heart rates.

Yes it’s the warm air and healing water that strips away all sense of stress, hurry, pushing. The diet of spicy ahi and brown rice does wonders for the system (and some Coronas don’t hurt). The bright wardrobe of dresses, tank tops and slippers (or flip-flops as we call them on the mainland) puts you in a state of endless summer that can’t be beat.

But it’s more than that. The true Aloha is a mindset. And that’s what I’m bringing home.

Fall has picked up quick - phones are ringing, emails are buzzing and social media is churning. There’s a fierce urgency in the city as if everyone suddenly realized they slept through the alarm. The vibe is energizing and inspiring, but it can also feel overwhelming.

It’s easy to get lost in the grind and forget the big picture. Sometimes we make promises to ourselves: if only I have 3 more networking lunches, 4 more blog posts, 10 more tweets this month. Goals start piling up faster than the “action required” messages of your inbox.  

Goals are good. Busy is good. Ambition is beautiful. But losing connection to your heart? That’s no bueno. And that’s where I try to remember the Aloha just a day behind me.

It’s a deep trust that things will work out, that the business will come, the money will flow, the relationships will be there. It’s patience and generosity and openness to feeling good. It’s allowing things to unfold. It’s letting your heart take the lead.

After a week of decompressing, returning to the city can feel like descending 100 miles an hour in a tiny deep-sea submarine. It’s an adventure all right - an adventure under pressure. The movement, the noise, the energy, the stress over making ends meet. It’s all around us.

But even with the chilled wind and foggy skies, I try to close my eyes and put myself right back in that warm ocean hugging my skin like a million down feathers. Floating without effort as the sun dances on my face and saltwater supports my weight.

Part of running a business is pushing through challenges and making it happen. And part of running a business is leaning back, opening up your heart and trusting that you’re on the right track. That you’re showing up. That your talents are valuable. That good things are on the way.

And trusting that there’s a whole lot of Aloha to go around.



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