A good piece of writing advice for a character is to understand that a character is the center of his own world. Often even your worst characters are doing what makes sense to them. We, as creatives and business owners, function similarly, operating with a myopic viewpoint within our own frame.
In order to get the most out of what you’re doing—in your business and in your stories—you need to understand that you’re not the end all, be all. There is a whole world outside of your personal viewpoint.
The biggest mistakes that we’ve made with Sterling & Stone (and this is a recurring theme) have been building blocks to a much better place. It’s hard to look in the mirror sometimes, but once you determine where you can improve, even the biggest mistakes can end up being boons to your creative journey.
There are two sides of this. You have to be willing to first hear and then apply. Not everyone is willing to do that. A lot of people will hear constructive criticism and take it only as criticism. The benefits are lost on them. They’ve just been given a tool, and instead of doing something with it, they go fallow.
There’s a growing balance at Sterling & Stone. As a culture, we want to improve continuously, and the two-step process of both listening and applying has really taken a big leap forward this year. We’re reinforcing this idea with each other, and we’re holding each other accountable. There are times when we see one of our team members holding something back, and we insist that they say what they think needs to be said. As soon as we can fix these issues, the sooner we can make the company better.
And that’s the key. When you’re in a collaborative relationship, you have to be open and honest. And this applies even if you’re a solopreneur. Odds are you’re working with someone else at some point to get your story or product into the world.
But remember that there are a lot of nuances to open communication. There are a number of different ways that you can start a dialogue, all of which can elicit different responses. It’s important to understand these things about your collaborators, but it’s even more important to understand your own triggers. That way you’ll be able to put the proper incentives in place to overcome the problem at hand.
For example, some people will choose a punishment or reward that they’ve heard someone else use or that they’ve read about in an article, but it isn’t right for them. There are a number of reasons why this can go wrong. Perhaps their work cycles are asynchronous to their optimal schedule, or the reward isn’t in alignment with their personality.
Just knowing the nuances along with the big picture matters a great deal. You’re an individual with specific ambitions and a different lifestyle. You can’t simply adopt someone else’s system of incentivizing structures and expect it to work for you without considering what you need to adjust to fit your situation.
Johnny and Sean used to operate as if they were the same person. We thought that since we had Dave as a contrast to our crazy ideas, it would function to balance the company’s goals in a healthy way. We also saw it as binary. If Dave doesn’t want to do the strange, crazy shit that we wanted to do, then it must be that Dave is one thing, and we were another.
In reality, it turns out that Dave is on one end, Sean is on the other, and Johnny is actually somewhere in the middle. Treating Johnny as a one-to-one match with Sean led us into some pitfalls along the way. We structured projects with the assumption that Johnny could function exactly like Sean, not realizing that he works better as more of a nose-to-the-grindstone, articulative type rather than a cheerleader.
When we did the Apprentice program, we had both Sean and Johnny take the lead on the exact same aspects of the classes, assuming that their superpowers were equivalent. If we could do it all again, we wouldn’t take such a watered-down approach. Instead, we’d break the program apart and place each of us where we make the most sense.
Another example is that we used to do mastermind hot seats where we put both Johnny and Sean in the same situation. Sean functions much better in this type of environment where Johnny works best when he can step back and think before responding. Once we realized this, we adjusted to make better use of our team.
Ask yourself: What you good at? What are your partners good at? Until you take the time to start identifying and optimizing for these superpowers, you won’t be able to put together the best collaborative team.
An example of where this applies to writers who work in isolation is social media. Some authors do social media brilliantly. They understand how to use it as a tool to build community and amplify their outreach to fans and new readers. We [Johnny and Sean] hate that stuff. And we see authors who are trying it, hating it and not doing a good job, but are afraid to let it go because they think it’s the “one and only way” to market.
It’s so easy to default to the “standard advice.” And that leads us to do things that we totally should not be doing.
One of Sean’s great failings for a very long time has been with focus. Especially early on, he’s been the golden-retriever-chasing-squirrels kind of creative. He’d jump from idea to idea, project to project because there’s something beautiful in a new, unrealized idea. As the company has matured, we’ve had to learn how to hack Sean’s squirrel-chasing so that it works in conjunction with the company’s goals, rather than distract from them.
We all have our blind spots, and sometimes a punch in the gut is the best thing a friend can do for us. It can be the lifeline we need to become our best selves.
To frame this, it’s important to rewind a bit.
Growing up, Dave’s best friend was Tod. Tod grew up in a home with a less-than-ideal family dynamic, and Dave had always been the one who had his shit together in the relationship; he was always the one who’d help Tod through all his issues. Tod was the very first person who ever believed in Dave—believed that he could accomplish his dreams and be a writer one day. Eventually, Tod left home to join the navy. He’d come back home to visit now and then, and it was just like old times.
One day in February 1996, the dynamic changed. Tod came home to visit, and he kept pushing Dave to leave Florida and come to Virginia with him. He believed that Dave was wasting his life away at home, and a change in setting would spur him to realize his dreams. Tod offered to help him move away and find a job, whatever it took for him to get his shit together.
But Dave rejected it. He saw Tod as a friend who’d gone on to do awesome things and was now looking down on him. It annoyed him, and the change in the dynamic of the friendship was uncomfortable. When Tod left, Dave didn’t talk to him for weeks because of how sour their last interaction had been. But he knew that eventually it would blow over, and they’d be best friends again.
Less than two months later, Dave received a phone call informing him that Tod had died in a car accident. It crushed him. He’s carried that with him, reliving the pain of it in many ways throughout his life. It fucked with his head in a way that has limited him from reaching his true potential. He’ll see a goal, but, before he can execute, fear takes hold, telling him that he can’t do the things he wants to do, that it’ll end in failure and misery.
During the ten years that Sean and Dave have worked together, Sean has watched Dave self-sabotage himself over and over. They’d come up with a strategy, only to have it fall apart because Dave can’t fully commit to his own success. Eventually, Sean had to sit down with him, face-to-face, and tell him, that he wasn’t living up to his potential, and if he didn’t make changes, all the things he feared would actually come true.
To Dave’s credit, he was able to take that and recognize that he stood at a crossroads. He remembered the last time he said goodbye to Tod, and how he had rejected his friend’s earnest attempt to toss him a lifeline, to pull him out of the water.
This is why you can’t always be the hero of your own story. If you’re unaware of your blind spots, and you believe that you’re making all the right moves, that your work ethic is perfect, and you’re leaning into your superpowers in all the right ways, but you’re missing a big piece of the picture, you’re only hurting yourself.
None of us are perfect. We all have something that we need to fix so that we can reach our individual goals. When we take an active role to make a change for the better, it ripples outward, making not only our own lives better but also the lives of everyone orbiting around us.
Are you wondering what the ever-growing demand for superb storytelling skills means for your future? Check out our latest interview as Johnny and Sean dive deep into that question in “Storytelling Is the Future: How to Build On Your Self-Publishing Success.”
Download the interview from the info box or show notes in YouTube or head over to https://www.sterlingandstone.net/future.