Peter Winick on What it Really Means to Lead People With Your Ideas

Peter-Bio-PhotoIf you make a living by writing, speaking, consulting, or training—in short, through leading people with your ideas—then John Butman and Peter Winick are two people who merit your attention. I’ve posted about John here, so let’s turn to Peter.

Peter runs a business called Thought Leadership Leverage that enables “thought leaders, authors and gurus to monetize their content through books, keynote speaking, the creation of training services and products and consulting and assessment tools.” In short, he’s about helping people make money and make a difference with their ideas.

I don’t envy Peter. He probably spends his days with people who suffer from guru-itis. This is a syndrome marked by intelligence, a burning desire to get published, a large ego, and an allergy toward crap-detecting one’s cherished ideas.

Working with gurus can be inspiring and exasperating at the same time. At any given moment, you might want to hug them or throw something at them. Peter offers more enlightened responses. Check out the following examples of his blog posts.

Does Your Content Enlighten, Guide, and Inspire?

Powerful content changes the way people think, believe, behave and act. It transforms mediocre groups into highly productive and engaged teams. It can, and does, alter the very fabric of global organizations, and in a few instances powerful content goes on to change the world.

Leverage 101: Using Academic Research to Strengthen a Thought Leader’s Message

Chances are you’re not the only person interested in leadership skills or productivity or whatever your specialty is—there are volumes of academic research, research done by people with lots of fancy letters after their name, that you can use to strengthen your content.

Does Your Work Sustain Behavior Change?

All good content leads to an observable behavior change. Your work may teach me to present better, be a better listener, be more innovative, generate more leads, close sales faster or manage more effectively. I can observe if it’s working or not based on how people behave after engaging with your body of work…. in the aggregate those small improvements correlate directly to a business result.

Controversy and Conflict: If Thought Leaders Aren’t Pissing Someone Off, They’re Doing It Wrong

The world is flooded with content today and most of it is just not good. In fact there’s a ton of thoughtless nonsense out there every day for people to waste their time with. It’s honorable to have a point of view, to stick with your guns, and be ok with offending some folks on occasion.

Why You Need to Create a Manifesto Now

You need to clearly and concisely articulate the heart and soul of your content, the essence of your platform. And most importantly, you need to be sure your manifesto doesn’t suck. Data is good but this is not a document that has an appendix or a table or a bibliography. It needs to explain to people why your work matters, why they need to embrace it, and why it’s urgent to their needs.

Writing a Manifesto – 5 Questions to Answer

What’s the problem that your work is trying to solve? The world does not need another leadership model, management model or sales model. It does however need thoughtful and impactful content that solves problems for individuals, teams, and organizations.

Why Writing a Book is Really Hard—And Something You Can Do About It

typewriterAs a young freelance writer and editor, I was a huge fan of process. I believed that there was a correct and friction-free method for writing—and my job was simply to discover it.

Now, after decades of searching, I’ve given up.

There’s no such thing as a fail-safe writing process—one that you wind up like a mindless toy and trust to deliver delightful results. What I found is that the writing process differs from project to project, from client to client.

In fact, writing is inherently messy. It resists algorithms. And the sooner we accept that, the sooner we can actually get something done.

The problem—writing as an undecidable task

This insight crystallized after I read a post by Cal Newport on the nature of “undecidable” tasks.

“The standard definition of a task for a knowledge worker is a clear objective that can be divided into a series of concrete next actions,” Cal writes. All you have to do is write a list of those actions, complete them, and savor the results. David Allen, creator of Getting Things Done, describes this process as “cranking widgets” like a factory worker. (You can see hints of this mindset in posts about the morning routines of productive people, such as this and this).

However, there’s a whole other category of tasks, Cal adds:

… those that have a clear objective but cannot be divided into a clear series of concrete next actions. For example: A theoretician trying to solve a proof. A creative director trying to come up with a new ad campaign. A novelist trying to write an award-winning book. A CEO trying to turn around falling revenues. An entrepreneur trying to come up with a new business idea.

Exactly. As Cal observes, these tasks:

… defy systematic deconstruction into a series of concrete next actions. There’s no clear procedure for consistently accomplishing these goals. They don’t reduce, in other words, to widget cranking.

With every book project, in short, you not only get to create a manuscript. You also get to create the process for creating that manuscript. And that process may differ from anything you’ve done before—especially if you’re working with a new coauthor or client.

This is true even though the milestones in a nonfiction book project—proposal, first draft, and revisions—are fairly standard. What’s easy to forget is that your options for reaching those milestones are probably limitless.

The solution—sinking into the creative mystery

As Cal reminds us, there is no easy way to complete undecidable tasks. He recommends that we “throw brain power, experience, creative intuition, and persistence at them, and then hope a solution emerges from some indescribable cognitive alchemy.”

In short, we live with problem of process for a while, let it work on us, and trust that a solution will emerge. This is a delicate blend of intention and letting go, much like the author of Alcoholics Anonymous describes the practice of Step Eleven:

Here we ask God for inspiration, an intuitive thought or a decision. We relax and take it easy. We don’t struggle. We are often surprised how the right answers come after we have tried this for a while.

Writing a Book to Transform Your Content

fall mapleFor idea entrepreneurs, writing a book is one way to gain clarity and credibility. These benefits can help you promote your products and services — and justify higher fees. All this becomes possible when writing a book transforms your content.

By content, I mean far more than the “stuff on a web site.” Content is the sum total of ideas, facts, instructions, and stories that you present to your audiences. Beyond web site visitors, those audiences include clients, colleagues, readers, and people who attend your presentations.

The unique benefit of a book

But why a book? Why not settle for something shorter—a manifesto, mission statement, speech, or article?

Because a book project offers the most sustained and rigorous way to develop your content. Shorter pieces are fine. But by definition they do not cover the full range of messages you want to convey. Writing a book allows you to develop content in the greatest depth across all the topics that interest you.

What content transformation includes

Content transformation is a broad and powerful concept. It includes many activities to enhance clarity and credibility. For example:

  • Creating — discovering and inventing new ideas, facts, “how-to’s,” examples, and anecdotes to offer your audiences. Another term for this is content refreshment.
  • Organizing — dividing your content into major topics and sub-topics that you arrange in logical and intuitive sequence.
  • Updating — revising your content to ensure that it keeps pace with the latest research and best practices in your field.
  • Refining — taking a microscope to your content to see if you can make it more precise, accurate, and useful. I sometimes call this content repair.
  • Testing — writing outlines and drafts that you can circulate to reviewers for feedback.
  • Documenting — finding credible studies and statistics to back up your main points. Doing this will distinguish you from countless other people who want to speak, write, and consult for a living.
  • Banking — creating large “deposits” of content that you can “withdraw” and present in other formats. Examples are presentations, articles, handouts, web pages, videos, slides, and future books.
  • Expanding — getting your message out to more people than you can reach by consulting or presenting.
  • Archiving — developing a legacy of content that can benefit people as long as your book stays in print, which could extend beyond your lifetime.

Notice that the above items are benefits that you can realize in addition to any advances and royalties on a published book.

And most of all…

Transforming your content transforms you. By writing a book, you discover what you know — and what you don’t know. This is the basis of learning and the beginning of wisdom.

Avoiding Word Choices That Kill Possibilities for Change

060As a writer, I worry about word choice. Even the smallest of these can open up possibilities for behavior change in our readers and listeners—or keep them locked in the status quo. Following are two examples and how to avoid them.

The language of resignation

Notice how many times you start a sentence with phrases such as:

  • “I have to….”
  • “I’ve got to….”
  • “I really should….”

These are all variations on the phrase I must. When speaking or writing based on this phrase, we hypnotize ourselves into believing that we are victims—that we have no options in a given situation. Psychotherapist Albert Ellis called it “musterbation.” I call it the language of resignation.

In this post, Michael Hyatt offers a useful alternative. In place of “I must” or any of its variations, substitute “I get to.” For instance:

  • “I have to exercise this morning” becomes “I get to exercise this morning.”
  • “I’ve got to go to work” becomes “I get to go to work.”
  • “I really should see my dentist” becomes “I get to go see my dentist.”

Yes, this is totally corny. But just try it. At the very least, you’ll disrupt a chain of negative thinking. And sometimes the change in wording actually becomes useful.

You can reinforce the change by looking for supporting evidence:

  • The fact that you get to exercise means that you’re still alive, still able-bodied, and still capable of aerobic movement. This is nothing to take for granted.
  • The fact that you get to go to work means that you’re still employed. Even if you hate your job, the fact that you’re working any job can make it easier to get your next job.
  • The fact that you get to see your dentist means that you have access to health care—and dental care that’s more gentle, overall, than at any time in human history.

I get to opens the door to expressing gratitude—and greater happiness. This is a useful strategy to offer our audiences.

The language of identification

A second experiment: Notice what you say in response to the question How are you? Depending on the day, you might say:

  • “I am exhausted.”
  • “I am angry.”
  • “I am sad.”

The problem with such sentences is that they identify you with an unpleasant emotion. You become the exhaustion. You are the anger. You fuse with the sadness.

If you ever choose to practice mindfulness meditation, you’ll gain access to another subtle but significant word choice. This happens because as a meditator, you simply witness what arises in your mind or body. Eventually you discover that thoughts and bodily sensations are constantly changing. And as Buddhists often remind us, anything that constantly changes is not “you.”

Let’s speak and write in a way that acknowledges this fact. For example:

  • “I am exhausted” becomes “I’m feeling exhaustion.”
  • “I am angry” becomes “I’m having angry thoughts.”
  • “I am sad” becomes “There’s sadness again.”

Tweaking those sentences puts a little space between you and the emotions. These word choices remind you that a thought or sensation is present but not permanent—something that arises but does not define us. This creates another possibility for change.

If we are not our thoughts or our sensations, then what are we? That’s another post. For now, some small shifts in word choice will do.

How Do You Know That Your Stuff Works?

_DSC6301I’m a fan of the Getting Things Done method (GTD) for managing projects as explained in David Allen’s best-selling book. Still, I felt some familiar concerns when I read Paul Keegan’s article about David Allen. Though the tone is upbeat, the following passage snagged my attention:

…Allen’s book is notable for being nearly devoid of research citations, footnotes, and other source material. Most of its assertions begin with the phrase “In my experience…” There is no research, for example, to back up one of the book’s central claims — that commitments made and abandoned are robbing our lives of energy and attention and that only when we close these “open loops” can we achieve a state of relaxed focus.

No research to back up the central claims… How often does this apply to my clients’ work, and to my own?

And does this bother anyone besides me?

This issue goes deeper. It’s one thing to lack rigorous evidence, but it’s quite another to dismiss the very need for it. Keegan notes this about Allen’s attitude toward GTD:

No studies exist proving that it increases productivity, decreases stress, or boosts the bottom line, Allen admits, but he says such questions miss the point entirely. “Anybody who experiences this and still needs proof didn’t get it,” he says.

Based on his videos and podcasts, I see David Allen as smart and supremely nice. Yet this attitude—if my stuff doesn’t work for you, it’s your fault—strikes a false note.

Assertions that are backed only by “in my experience” are examples of reasoning based on anecdotal evidence. And the problems with anecdotal evidence are legendary. Our cognitive biases—such as cherry-picking examples and making inaccurate observations—kick in immediately. The dilemma is that we love to tell stories (anecdotes) and frequently delude ourselves with them.

To his credit, David Allen has loads of anecdotal evidence to support GTD. He’s coached people on his methods for decades. His consulting business is doing well. And smart people such as James Fallows and Dan Pink swear by his stuff.

I endorse GTD, too. But I’m willing to admit that it might not work for everyone—and that it’s not scientific.

My goal is ask two questions about any nonfiction I write: Do I have evidence? And how good is it? The answers might disturb me. But least I’ll proceed with intellectual honesty.

Also see:
– Won’t Get Fooled Again—Three Levels of Credibility in Self-Help Books
– Six Signs of Well-Baked Content
– Who Is an Expert, Anyway?

Are Your Writing Deadlines Meaningless? (Part 2)

 DSC03551-BWFor decades I’ve struggled with scheduling book development projects—especially first editions of first books by new authors. Now I see the reason: many of these projects defy scheduling — and for good reason.

I explored this issue in Are Your Writing Deadlines Meaningless? Recently I found confirmation in a nice piece by Wyatt Jenkins about The Downside of Timelines. His post is about software development. Mine is about book development. Same deal.

What makes timelines so problematic for complex creative projects — such as producing 40,000 to 100,000 compelling words on a timely topic?

The main reason is that such development is not linear. Creative projects are often not a matter of setting a clear vision of the result and taking a straight line to implement it. Instead, developers typically stop mid-project to assess what they’re doing. And they may well conclude that the project needs to be significantly revised or even scrapped.

This is not a mistake. It’s called learning. There are some things that you simply cannot know until you get your hands dirty and start making parts and assembling them. Reality is messy and defies our attempts to beat it into orderly submission.

This is hard to explain to people who like to craft Gantt charts and schedules. I empathize with them. I like rules and order, too. But makers know that the process is full of surprises, detours, land mines, lions, tigers, and bears. People who write books, for example, might discover that they have nothing to say.

As Wyatt Jenkins points out, there are ways to hold creative people accountable other than chaining them to meaningless deadlines. My favorite strategy: take a cue from Getting Things Done by David Allen and commit to take the next action that will move the project forward.

In book development, for example, your next action might be to draft a table of contents or write the overview section of your book proposal. Either document is 2-4 pages—500 to 1,000 words. Such tasks are crucial and still small enough to meaningfully schedule and budget. Best of all, they’ll teach you a lot and bring you substantially closer to a finished manuscript.

P.S. There are exceptions to what I’m saying. For example: you’ve already got a book published and are doing minor or manageable updates for a   new edition. Then it makes sense to pull out your Gantt charts and schedules and abide by them. The more predictable a project, the more that tight scheduling makes sense.

P.P.S. I tweeted about Wyatt’s post:

Scheduling a book project? “You can’t schedule substantial complexity” [@wyatt_earp_]

And he replied:

Rephrase: it’s a ton of effort schedule? Additionally, output of “a schedule” is less valuable than output of “a working product.”

Excellent point: the time spent on detailed bids can instead be used to make a minimum viable product.

James Altucher on Writing, Publishing, and Becoming an Idea Machine

main-thumb-288636-200-fhgkbzymvtxxzdwnhcyyahhktlfzazijDo you know about James Altucher, author of Choose Yourself, The Power of No, and other books? Besides writing books, he’s blogging, podcasting, and doing just about everything else with a quirky voice that will immediately turn you off or win you over.

Today I want to highlight a few of James’s insights on writing, publishing, and idea entrepreneurship. Check out the following.

Can You Do One Page a Day?

Gene has been an adult for almost 25,000 days. He writes a page a day. A page is about 300 words. A paragraph or two. Can you do that? 25,000 pages. About 80 books worth of pages. Gene ended up writing 50 published novels, including many bestsellers and award-winners.

The Ultimate Guide for Becoming an Idea Machine

IDEAS ARE THE CURRENCY OF LIFE. Not money. Money gets depleted until you go broke. But good ideas buy you good experiences, buy you better ideas, buy you better experiences, buy you more time, save your life. Financial wealth is a side effect of the “runner’s high” of your idea muscle.

How to Self-Publish a Bestseller: Publishing 3.0

My most recent book, “Choose Yourself!” sold 53,000 copies since its release on June 3 [update December 30 – just hit over 100,000 copies], hit the Wall Street Journal Bestseller list, was No. 1 on Amazon for all non-fiction books for a few days and is still flirting with No. 1 in its various categories. This post is about what I did differently, why I did it differently, and how I think anyone can do this to self-publish a bestseller. I describe all the numbers, who I hired and why, and how I made the various choices I did.

33 Unusual Tips to Being a Better Writer

Write whatever you want. Then take out the first paragraph and last paragraph…. Take a huge bowel movement every day…. Bleed in the first line….

Why “50 Shades of Grey” Is Great Literature

Art can happen in every moment of your life. It’s not about colors or words or message, it’s about your personal authenticity this moment. You can be an artist driving a bus if you do away with conventionality and become the individual without masks, without jealousy, without intrigue, without hate.

How to Write a Book

Make an outline, it will help. An outline will allow you to jump around and work on those areas that interest you at that moment.

And just for fun:

The Ten Layers of Absolute Freedom

The Ultimate Cheat Sheet for Reinventing Yourself

An Ode to “How-To” Books

DSC_0517Most of my work involves writing and editing instructions — otherwise known as “how-to” books and articles. When telling people this, I used to feel a quiet inferiority.

This was especially true when I talked to “creative writers”— novelists, short story writers, and poets. When in the presence of people who were attempting vast and profound narratives, I felt almost embarrassed about writing how-to materials. They smacked of something utilitarian, “vocational,” and pedestrian — the artistic equivalent of working the night shift at a convenience store.

Well, I no longer feel that way. And if you’re writing a how-to book, you don’t have to, either. Following are three good reasons.

Timeless Usefulness

The label “how-to” can apply to instructions for doing anything that human beings consider intrinsically valuable. We can write instructions for ways to create health, wealth, happiness, knowledge, love, and even enlightenment. In fact, many best-selling nonfiction books are about these topics.

For example, one of my favorite books is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It was written by Robert Pirsig, a former technical writer (creator of instructions). This is a riveting book about how to cultivate Quality, how to stay sane, how to love your children, and how to realize your inherent peace of mind. To me, large sections of this book still stand as models of instructional writing.

We can take this up a notch and even say that society hinges on giving and receiving instructions. As Richard Saul Wurman points out in his book Information Anxiety:

You could argue that the motivation of all communication is the giving and receiving of instructions. Certainly the sum total of activity in the workplace involves the giving and receiving of instructions. As parents we are synonymous with instructors. And even in our social relations, we are communicating or “instructing” our friends and relatives as to our thoughts and concerns.


“How-to” books can be beautiful as well as useful. Have you ever read a set of instructions that helped you accomplish a task and did so without a needless word or an unnecessary step? This sparseness can evoke the simplicity and grace of a painting by Mark Rothko, a haiku by Han Shan, or a jazz guitar solo by Jim Hall.

Market Demand

The market for instructional books — shelved under the how-to, business, and self-help sections of your local bookstore — far exceeds the demand for literary fiction and poetry. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy fiction and poetry as much as anyone else. But if you want to earn money from writing and editing books, then “how-to” literature offers its own practical rewards.

In short, nothing is more important than good instructions. As how-to writers, we are engaged in a vocation that has its own esthetic and satisfies a basic human need. All writing is creative, and our work fuses the practical and the beautiful. We do something unique and useful, and it is a great way to earn a living.

Staying Loose Versus Staying on Schedule—Pause Before You Set a Due Date

Clock fleur de lisAt what moment do you schedule the due date for a book manuscript? When do you dare make the commitment to deliver?

I’ve answered these questions many times during my years as a freelance book editor. Clients require a due date. Publishers want to know when they can expect a manuscript. Of course. They have a right to make those requests. And I comply.

However, the truth is that I am often just guessing. Or telling people what they want to hear. Or both. And when my due date is unrealistic, I pay the price by working evenings and weekends and pulling the occasional all-nighter.

When will your book be done? I only wish I knew.

What I often want to tell people—and don’t—is that their deadlines are meaningless. People frequently set these dates without considering whether they’ll actually make time to write, whether they’ve done enough research, or whether they have anything to say in the first place.

For years I’ve seen my fear of setting due dates as a personal failing. But recently I’m reading about smart people with experiences that back me up. For example:

  • Leo Babauta, creator of Zen Habits wrote 50,000 words for his new book, scrapped them all on the basis of feedback from reviewers, and started over. I admire that. It’s gutsy. But can I produce 50,000 words for a client and then announce my intention to scrap them all? I hesitate to consider the consequences.
  • Denise Shekerjian wrote Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas Are Born, a book of conversations with 40 winners of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grants.” Many of these creative people testify to the importance of “staying loose”—allowing for time to experiment, flounder, fail, and wait for connections between ideas to appear on their own. But can I tell clients who have a production schedule that I need to “stay loose” for a while with their book project? I can just see the look on their faces.

So, when do you commit to finish your manuscript? And how do you set a date that spares you from suffering?

I’m no longer sure how to answer these questions. I’ve got hints, such as writing a book proposal first and allowing more time for the first edition of a book than subsequent revisions. But I feel largely in the dark.

If you’ve got answers, I welcome them.       

Never Face a Blank Page—Easing the Transition from Research to Writing

PICT0846One of my goals for the short time I have left in this body is to persuade you to avoid ghostwriters. (See this and this). My motto: Write your own stuff. With this goal in mind, I offer ways to reduce or eliminate pain points in the writing process.

One of these pain points is the transition from doing research to actually getting some writing done. You can ease this transition by seeing writing as an act of transformation rather than creation.

More specifically, you can approach research and writing as a process of:

  • Collecting sources (what’s already been written and said about your chosen topic)
  • Extracting juicy quotes from those sources
  • Revising those quotes

The beauty of this process is that at no point do you face a blank page or screen. The act of “writing” is simply taking the quotes you’ve already collected, rearranging them, rewording them, and adding your own ideas.

There are successful writers who use this method. Consider two: Steven Berlin Johnson and Cal Newport.

Steven Berlin Johnson on how to write a book

Steven Berlin Johnson is a science writer and author of several books, including Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. In a masterful post about how to write a book, he almost makes the process sound fun. Essentially, he:

  • Reads widely about whatever interests him.
  • Grabs interesting “snippets” from his reading—quotes from web pages, digital books, and printed books (making sure to note the source of each quote).
  • Throws these quotes into one big document with no hint of organization.

Then, when it’s time to write, Steven reads through his collection of snippets and groups them into separate chapters for a possible book. He describes this as working with “pieces of a puzzle that’s coming together”:

Instead of confronting a terrifying blank page, I’m looking at a document filled with quotes: from letters, from primary sources, from scholarly papers, sometimes even my own notes. It’s a great technique for warding off the siren song of procrastination. Before I hit on this approach, I used to lose weeks stalling before each new chapter, because it was just a big empty sea of nothingness. Now each chapter starts life as a kind of archipelago of inspiring quotes, which makes it seem far less daunting. All I have to do is build bridges between the islands.

Cal Newport on writing from a flat outline

Cal writes the fascinating Study Hacks Blog and has several books to his credit. One of Cal’s posts is about avoiding traditional multi-level outlines when writing a research paper. As an alternative, he recommends that you simply:

  • Create a list of topics that you want to cover.
  • Arrange those topics in a logical order.
  • Gather quotes related to each topic.
  • Arrange those quotes to follow your list of topics.

The result is a “topic level outline.” Then, when it’s time to write:

… don’t start from a blank document. Instead, make a copy of your topic-level outline and transform it into the finished paper. For each topic, begin writing, right under the topic header, grabbing the quotes you need as you move along. Remember, these quotes are right below you in the document and are immediately accessible.

This is essentially the same process as Steven Johnson’s: gather interesting quotes, rearrange them, and transform them into something that’s uniquely your own.

Have you ever done something like this? How did it work?