The Next Finish Line

Yesterday, I ran a half marathon. If you know me from pre-2018, that may come as as shock.

For most of my life, I thought marathons were the stupidest thing a person could do. Why put yourself through something like that? Not just hours of doing nothing but running (BORING), but the pain too? No thanks. So when people brought them up, I made a point of saying you couldn’t pay me to do one. I even publicly declared this exact sentiment once, via tweet.

The thing is, life has a way of making you eat your words. Things change. You change. I used to hate brussels sprouts. Now I love ‘em.

Starting in May, I started to not hate running. It’s cheap. You don’t need equipment. And it’s one of the few things I can do now that doesn’t cause me more back pain. Exercise is important to keep you from going crazy, and I was going through some stuff, so, I started running, and started enjoying it.

It wasn’t long before I started thinking that running a half marathon was entirely within reach. I’m a natural runner, tall and skinny, long stride, played soccer my whole life. So I did something I vowed never to do. I closed my eyes, signed up for a half marathon and began to train.

Fast forward. As I was running for nearly two hours straight the marathon, I thought about a lot of things. One of my thoughts was the realization that running this marathon, and running it with a target time, was the first concrete goal I’d set for myself in a long time. Everything else has been like…write more, spend more time with friends, etc. No metrics. And when I noticed this, I also took note that it’s the only thing that’s given my life any structure recently, outside of work. I had to run, because I had a goal. And if I didn’t run, I wouldn’t accomplish my goal. A few miles later I was just thinking about the pain.

Seems obvious when you take a step back, but concrete, attainable goals are really really important. They have been missing from my life, and if you’re feeling a little wayward, maybe they’re missing from yours too.

Yesterday I crossed the finish line at a time of 1 hour 43 minutes and 59 seconds, a full minute and second ahead of my target time. I battled serious knee pain for a few miles but otherwise felt good during most of the run. It felt really good to accomplish. And now, I have to ask myself, what’s next.

What do you want?

And what are you willing to do to get it?

The Most Least Creative Hobby I've Ever Had

 

For as long as I can remember I've had a creative outlet. Over the years it's morphed, but it's always been there. Whether it was plugging in my bass guitar and practicing scales, or dipping my pen into a well of ink and scratching out some sketches, or fitting a spool of film into a camera and taking a photo walk. 

Since making writing and thinking creatively my profession, things have shifted. 

Years ago I had an informational interview with a man that started his own marketing company in Indianapolis. It was around the time when I had started wondering if the marketing or advertising field was more right for me than biological science. We talked for a long time, and though now, years later, I don't remember much of the talking points of the conversation, the one thing that stuck with me was this: working creatively during his day job had all but ended his creative endeavors outside of work.

I'll come back to that though. 

In early February I was feeling that typical Seattle deep-winter depression. Dark until 8am. Dark at 4pm. Not much motivation to work out. My friend Eric suggested we try rock climbing. And I thought it sounded like it could be a good solution—it's exercise that's not like running or weight lifting. Score. 

The first time I went rock climbing it was actually bouldering (shorter climbing challenges without ropes)—I wasn't allowed to rope climb in the gym without a belaying certification. And even the easy routes were scary and hard. Another friend that had climbed a lot was able to climb the routes so easily, and though she explained the technique, it eluded me. 

I wanted to figure it out. The same way I've wanted to figure out the bass guitar. Photography. Art. It was the same drive. The "unlocking".

Seven months later, and I'm still hooked. My forearms are rock hard. My fingers are strong. I can feel the tendons in them, tight like cables, curling my hands. I wake up with my hands in claws after particularly tough climbing days. I've "unlocked" many of the things I sought out to, and have many many more things to learn. For those of you that climb, I'm currently working on V4 projects and 5.11a is my current highest difficultly level. I've just learned how to lead climb and have led 5.10- routes, and it's so scary to me that my legs shake. 

Climbing is addicting because it's obvious incremental progress. It feeds your ego and encourages you to keep going. You start at 0, literally, for bouldering. And every level up is a huge achievement. It's progress you can feel, you can measure. You can always see the next step. My next level is a V5, and a 5.11+. I'm close. And you're always close to the next level. 

I've learned a ton in the last seven months. So many lessons you learn in climbing apply to life. You won't level up if you don't try. Some moves require you to let go and accept that you might fall. Fear can bring you down, you have to learn to accept it and focus on the task. Success is fleeting. It's all about the next project. 

Ok. Back to the creative stuff. 

Since starting my creative job, my for-fun creative production is all but nonexistent. I was worried this would happen—that my creative energy would be "used up" at work. But it's not even that. It's also that for the first time since...ever...my hobby is not creative. It's physical. And it's throwing me off. 

My questions out loud to the universe is...what is next? I can't go back to old projects—I try and they feel just that—old. Climbing is important to me now, and I'm still learning so much. But I need a for-fun creative outlet, and what that looks like isn't clear to me. Not to mention, with my climbing obsession, where do I find the time? Could the answer be as ironic as it seems? Do I just need to find...balance?

 

Work With What You’ve Got

The scariest thing about hitting the career-reset button is letting go of experience you’ve cultivated your whole adult life. Letting go of the things you became an expert in, that put food on the table and, like it or not, came to define you. Ever notice that one of the first things people ask you when you meet them is, “What do you do?” When you scrap this aspect of your life, erase large swatches of your resume, it makes you feel frighteningly vulnerable (and possibly a bit dramatic). What is my value? What can I bring to the table? What if I fail and go broke?

One of the benefits of starting out at a small agency is that I get the opportunity to work alongside people on every side of the ad business. I can smell the peanut butter and apples that the Project Manager eats in the morning and listen to our Media Director make buys on the phone. I can stand up and throw something over the wall to our Account Supervisor or watch our VP Creative Director work his design magic.

This close proximity gives me the unique opportunity to use two pieces of advice I was given before my internship – ask for work and learn what everybody in the office does. At the beginning of the internship, at a time when there was less writing to do, the asks gave me the opportunity to help our busy Account Strategist. The projects started out small, with “Can you pull all the social media of the competition for X client?” or “How about the logos of the competition for Z client?”

Here’s the thing. I grew up alongside the internet. I used just about every version of AOL starting with 1.0. I was in chat rooms before they got creepy. My librarian in 7th grade told us students about this great new search tool called Google, heard of it? So I’m familiar with internet rabbit holes. For those of you that aren’t, that’s where you power up your computer to pay your bills, and three hours later you’re on YouTube watching moon lander conspiracy videos.

When I was asked to pull competitor social media and logos, that’s what I did. But I also I buckled up and let the internet rabbit hole take over. Who are the competitors? How popular are they? What are people saying about them? I noticed that less-known competitors could be found buried in news articles, blog posts, and yelp reviews. I found everything I could that was even marginally related to the ask. I did what I’ve been doing in my free time since I was a kid, but in a far more focused way. Did I find another way to be useful when the services of my pen are not required?

Strategist pleased, she gave me more work. Bolstered by her encouragement, back into the internet rabbit hole I went, each time looking for more, more, now asked to thinking in terms of hypothesis, analysis, conclusions. Providing evidence to support my interpretations. Wouldn’t you know it, that sounds a bit like the scientific method to me! And what’s this I have here? A molecular biology degree? Well I’ll be damned!

After several of these projects, over a lunch check-in with my supervisor I was asked if, based on my experiences so far, I was interested in pursuing copywriting with a strategy bent, or strategy with a writing kicker. I was stunned. Me? A strategist? This is an option? It felt like someone told me I had a superpower I didn’t know about. Strategy Man. Internet bloodhound crossed with methodical scientist. Sleuthing and hypothesizing, digging and analyzing, collecting and concluding. Ready to learn and grow, facing increasingly challenging villains.

Discovering this other thing, this other way to be useful, felt like a huge step in my journey. It was great to find that I could contribute in a way that wasn’t just writing, a skill that can often feel nebulous and abstract.

Things can change fast if you let them. A few years ago I didn’t know what a copywriter was. A few months ago, I didn’t know what strategist was. Inviting change into my life opened doors I didn’t know existed. Asking for work has revealed to me skills I didn’t know I have. All of us have something new and different to offer – skills that are right under our nose, skills that we aren’t aware we can use constructively. They’re there to discover, if you’re willing to look.

 

Four Things I Learned During My First Month as a Copywriter Intern

As soon as I hung up my white lab coat and dove head-first into the pursuit of a career in copywriting (with a skeleton of a portfolio), I became a full-time networker. Classmates in Copywriting 101 had tipped me off that this would be the best way to land my first gig as a writer.

My planner filled up with schmoozy events, meet-and-greets, coffee dates, and informational interviews. Through many discussions, I received plenty of great guidance for a copywriter like myself, starting from scratch. Things like: ask for work and do it well, be curious, learn what people do, ask for clarification of expectations, and don’t fall in love with any ideas. Even so, there were some things that nobody told me about life at an agency. That few could have told me. Things that would have been really helpful to know. Read on, young copywriter, and be stronger for it.

Write and Don’t Stop

You’re being paid to write now. So write!

I like to think that I can handle pressure, but this was a kind of pressure I’d never experienced – the pressure to be creative on the clock. It’s something I’ve dreamed of for a long time, but in practice, the clock ticks loudly, the time flies by, and a blank page is daunting. Gone are the days of writing on an inspirational whim. It’s time to make your own.

Sometimes you get lucky and you have a week to spend on your first brief, brainstorming and writing. But inevitably the time comes when a client gives an urgent request, asking for, say, radio ads, which you’ve never written before. You have two hours. Go. That’s when the voice in the back of your head hits the panic button. Am I cut out for this? What if I fail?

The only way out is through. Write. Start writing and keep writing. Write all the terrible bullshit that comes through your panicked brain first. Read it. Read it aloud and keep panicking. But also keep writing. The more you write, the more you’ll work through your thoughts and find the good ones, the effective ones. Get good at writing while you cringe at your own writing. But please, don’t leave a blank page blank.

 Own Your Work

 In my first week I sent a rough draft to my supervisor for opinions. It was a word doc, no titles, no fluff, just naked copy. And the next thing I knew, it was circulating around the office for revisions. I was totally ashamed because I knew how rough it was. If I’d known it was going to circulate I would have waited, refined, dressed it up a bit.

Before you send any copy, to anyone, make sure it’s ready. Make sure that it’s not going to make you blush if everyone reads it. Make sure your words are wearing their best suit and tie and they’re ready to go slay the dance floor. If you aren’t done with the copy, don’t pass it along. And if you do want opinions on direction, print out one copy, stick it in front of their face, and leave with it in your hand, marked up. Your work represents you. Own it and make it as great as it can be.

Let It Go

Once you have written some things you’re not terribly ashamed of, pass them on for revisions and comments and let them go. It’s almost good to forget it was you that wrote it. So that if and when it comes back torn to bits, you aren’t all bent out of shape about it. Your personal writing may be sacred to you (I’m sure your poetry is fantastic, even if nobody ‘gets’ it), but your professional writing cannot be. You’re trying to write the most effective copy you can, for a purpose, for a client, that is paying money to have it written. Feedback and criticism is your friend. It makes you better in the long run.

 Voice Your Opinion

I am painfully aware of how little experience I have. Everything around the office is new to me. Because of this, I am constantly torn between sitting back absorbing information like a sponge, and giving my opinion on subjects I feel I have little authority to give my opinion about, possibly making myself look like a fool.

Here’s the thing. You will make yourself look like a fool. That’s part of being inexperienced. But voicing your opinions, in a respectful way, is a win-win. On one hand, you’re a set of fresh eyes, and your opinion may be the missing piece, the new perspective that sparks a different idea or direction. And on the other hand, you make an ass of yourself, or ask a stupid question (I don’t care what people say, there is such thing as a stupid question), and through burning cheeks you learn something you won’t soon forget.

Go Forth

 It’s one thing to hear advice, and an entirely different thing to learn the hard way. So go forth and write, early and often. Hopefully, I’ve saved you from my mistakes, so that you can be a pioneer in your own. 

Superstition and Why Persistence Literally Pays Off

There's been a lot of radio silence from me in the past two months, and there are a lot of reasons for that (like a three-week Seattle hiatus, and a pesky case of writer's block trying to write this article), but the biggest reason is superstition. I am a scientist, by nature, by education, and until recently, by profession, so superstition is not a sandbox I play in much. But when it comes to exciting new things, I get very superstitious. An exciting thing happened, and all could think was DON'T TALK ABOUT IT OR IT WILL DISAPPEAR. 

This superstition exists for reasons I'm sure most of us can relate to. You meet someone you really like, go on a few dates, tell all your friends how excited you are about this new person, and then she tells you she just wants to be friends. Or you apply to a job, get an interview, and then another, and feel excited, tell everyone how excited you are, and, whoosh, sorry, we went with another candidate. Failure is a part of life, but it's extra bitter when those people you told inevitably ask how things turned out and you have to tell them they didn't. In my life, it began to feel like when I opened my mouth to talk about something exciting that hadn't happened yet, it would, POOF, turn into a cloud of dust and float away in the breeze. 

So I've been quiet on here, because everything I had to say felt like it was too soon to say it, felt like if I talked about it as if it were real, it would slip away. Cautious optimism is my comfort zone. 

Two months ago I had an informational interview that led to today, my first day as a paid copywriter (What! Is this real life?). In the past two months, I've tried as hard as I can to not talk about it too much. Or if I did, to make sure to include the caveat, "but anything can happen!", or "it's not real until it is!", or "lots can happen in two months!". It made me feel better, like I was sacrificing some of my hopes to the fates so that they wouldn't be too high if things fell through, so the fall wouldn't kill me, only break a bone or two. It felt dangerous to act like it was real before it was. 

When I got the job offer via my email, I was sitting in my neighborhood library, writing, working on a project. My inbox lit up with a new email and as my eyes skimmed the content, the breath left my lungs. One of the few times in my life a bit of news has literally taken my breath away. A curious cocktail of emotions flushed through my body, and I teared up. Without self-restraint I would have screamed, channeling an eagle, or a jungle gorilla, turning the heads of every man woman and child in the quiet library. Everything I'd been working towards, coming to fruition. My big gamble, my giant leap, my all-my-eggs-in-one basket approach, succeeding. Triumph! 

As I thought about it, and my mind traced back the series of events that led to my actual job making actual money selecting actual words to go in actual ads, it dawned on me how amazing the journey so far has been, and I wanted to share it with you, in hopes that maybe it will inspire you, give you hope, or put a fire under your ass. I've shortened or omitted names to preserve anonymity (I am superstitious after all, it's still early enough that if I tell you too much it might POOF and go away). 

  1. Four years ago, living in Indianapolis, a designer friend told me he thought I'd be a good copywriter. Back then I didn't know what a copywriter was, but I knew I liked writing and being creative. 
  2. When I moved to Seattle, as I became less content with my career path, I looked up copywriting and took a class at the School of Visual Concepts. I loved the work and loved the creative process.
  3. I took another class, this time on creative concepts. The teacher was great and the assignments were fun. In this class, I met a woman that told me that a great way to network, and maybe get a job, was to ask for informational interviews. I'd never heard of an informational interview. "You never know, someone might like you," she told me. 
  4. That weekend I canvassed most Seattle agencies via email, telling them that I was interested in the industry, and wanted to know more about their agency.
  5. I got only one response from all the emails, and set up an informational interview. I met a guy named A. He was very nice. 
  6. From that informational interview, I was given four more names of people he thought I should meet. One of them was a guy named T. He was very real. He gave me three more names, and said I should always walk away from an informational interview with three more people to meet. 
  7. One of the names he gave me was a woman named B. She was very sharp. She gave me three more names.
  8. From one of those three names, I got an informational interview with M at the agency I am now employed at. I didn't ask for a position, didn't expect one, am still shocked that I have one. 

There are a lot of other moving parts involved, like taking on summer projects, and the countless informational interviews that were purely that. But it's incredible, the chain of events. I can't think about it without feeling the same sense of wonder and bafflement. 

I wrote previously about networking like a detective and I can't stress it enough. Be persistent, follow all leads, and never stop pursuing. My only caution is to keep exciting new things close to your chest, lest you tempt fate to steal them from your grasp. But hey, maybe I'm just being superstitious.