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The Bright Red Sharpie of Life

I have been trawling through my archives for more standout posts and came up with this one.

I wrote this about 18 months ago – back in February 2013. I recall typing this one out on my iPhone while on a bus commuting either to or from an airport. I can’t recall exactly where I was. I want to say I was in Australia but I can’t say for sure. That (Australian) summer was an especially heavy travel time for me as a flitted between northern Australia and South East Asia doing, well, whatever I wanted.

That kind of freedom and opportunity gave me incredible clarity. In this piece I used a simple Sharpie metaphor to describe how my early adult life was dominated by meeting societal expectations, the pressure I felt to conform and the struggle I went through to eventually leave all that behind.

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As one navigates early adulthood and forges a path for themselves, you take the lead from the bright red sharpie of life.

There are boxes to be sequentially ticked off. You use the bright red sharpie to slowly tick off these boxes.

You don’t know it. But those boxes tick off items on an invisible but powerful list of social norms and conformity.

House, home, husband.

Tick, tick, tick.

Profession, career, travel.

More ticks.

The ticks don’t lie. The ticks should make you happy.

But deep down you know that you aren’t.

And so the bright red sharpie of life turns on you.

Instead of ticking off the remaining boxes like you expect it to, the sharpie keeps its cap on and starts tapping at you instead.

It taps at you from the very corner of your mind.

Tap, tap, tap.

The taps gradually get louder until they crescendo into a persistent scream telling you that it’s all so wrong.

TAP, TAP, TAP!

It builds to a point of fog and frustration and you can’t ignore it another minute.

Something has to change to make the tapping go away.

To make it stop, you make changes. Big, profound life changing changes.

You tell yourself change is good. But change is also hard. Insanely hard.

Now it doesn’t tick or tap. The bright red sharpie of life just draws. It’s a giant jumbled red mess. Like how a 3-year-old might draw a snowstorm. Or a thundercloud.

You wonder why.

Did you upset the bright red sharpie of life? Or were the tick boxes simply wrong to begin with?

With insight, bravery and the benefit of the healing passage of time, the sharpie begins to draw you a different path.

One without tick boxes or conformity.

You throw away the tick boxes altogether and call them out for what they are – an illusion and a myth.

Then the bright red sharpie of life stops altogether. No ticks. No taps. No chaotic red drawings of messy red thunderclouds.

With enough courage, you do away with the sharpie. It gets replaced instead with a plain white canvas to call your very own.

And what you’re left with is an understanding – that using the bright red sharpie of life to tick off boxes is right for some people.

But not for you.

Sarah

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My Fairy Tale Life

Here’s another post from the archives of my old blog. This is rare creative piece I wrote that offers an equally rare glimpse into my personal life.

This is one of my favourite posts because it perfectly captures a single moment in time. Reading this again nearly two years after I wrote it, it’s the context that underpins this piece, rather than the content itself that I think about the most.

I punched this piece out on my iPad while riding the M train from Brooklyn, where I lived at the time. I had arrived in New York about a month earlier and felt totally in awe and starstruck with the place. It was so new, so tall and so exciting. That contributed to the extreme naivety I felt at the time. Life genuinely felt like a fairytale back then – I had no job, no ties and was instead living inside my own ballet-inspired version of Eat, Pray, Love.

It’s interesting to compare this context with how I feel now about New York and life in general today. The naivety and passivity I once felt isn’t there anymore, nor is the veil of ‘I’m not worthy’ that’s so obvious when I re-read this piece. It has been replaced with a strong sense of me deserving my seat at the table; be it with any man I choose to date or just Manhattan itself. It is no longer the other way round.

Here’s the original post..

On this afternoon, I find myself standing on a kerb on 7th Avenue. Somewhere in the uber trendy Manhattan neighbourhood of West Village. It is an unseasonably warm and sunny Sunday, especially for October.

I am pressed firmly against the muscular chest of my date; a 6’2, delightful and utterly charming blonde Ben Affleck lookalike. I am nestled into the exact spot where I can smell what I imagine to be the coming together of both his aftershave and his deodorant.

One of his linen blazer coated arms is up over his head, expertly hailing a cab to take us uptown to a movie. His other arm is cupped lightly but sincerely around my right shoulder.

He is explaining to me the nuances of hailing a cab in New York City – something I have yet to do for myself. The light on top means occupied. The larger light means off duty. That means it’s at the driver’s discretion as to whether he picks us up. Two don’t and simply drive off.

I cannot believe how well I have managed to fit myself into this scene. I am rocking my long, beachy goldilocks to absolute stunning perfection today. They are blowing gently in the breeze from the oncoming traffic. My outfit is fitted and shows off my big blue eyes. This is me in my Sunday best and is as urban as I’m prepared to get in this urbanly dressed city.

I quickly shake off any thought that I am somehow not worthy to be here in this moment. I am not sure what he sees in me or why. It could be the blonde skinny ballerina factor who’s foreign and talks funny. It could be that I’m uncomplicated and accessible. Whatever the reasons, I am brave enough to go with it and to just not care.

He has already told me he doesn’t hate my taste in music. He seems engaged by my observations and views on life. He hates facebook almost as much as I do. He walks the sidewalk with a slow purpose and a quiet determination. There is something of a commonality going on here. But he is calling all the shots and I know it. As casual as I know that this is, I am here because I want to be. I keep getting invites from him that I just don’t want to turn down. I can handle this and wherever I don’t want it to go.

In a city that is so comprehensively dominated by appearances, I’m thinking we probably look great together. A little too great for my liking. As I’ve become accustomed to, I dutifully and skillfully suppress anything that resembles letting my heart come crashing in. This means that none of the people in the cars who pass by and happen to notice us are batting an eyelid, myself included. There is nothing out of the ordinary happening on this kerb right now.

In this cab-hailing embrace, I cannot help but smile. Whatever small part of me that pays attention to appearances coupled with the fleeting prospect of romantic perfection doesn’t want this moment to end.

But it does end, with the shift jerk on the wheel by a cab driver as he pulls over to pick us up. I curl myself into a ball to land in the black plastic interior of the cab. He speaks our destination to the driver. And as quickly as this moment was created, I am driven away from that kerb and deeper into my fairy tale life.

Sarah

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Book review — Smartcuts

Something different on my blog today – a book review.

Of a new book out last week called SmartCuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success.

It’s by Shane Snow, a young entrepreneur and journalist based in New York City. I approached Shane after he sent an email calling for people to read and review his book prior to its release. Although I’ve never met him, Shane is one of many New York entrepreneurs I monitor for their content and thoughts on the tech and startup scene in this city.

Shane’s journalistic credentials speak for themselves. His work has been featured in the New Yorker, Wired and Fast Company. He’s also the co-founder and CCO at Contently – an online editorial company that offers a software platform and marketplace for freelance journalists to connect with brands to deliver high quality content marketing.

So what is a smartcut? Shane describes them as strategies individuals use to achieve rapid, ethical and sustainable success. They are not short cuts – instead they are strategies for amplifying success such as lateral thinking, training from masters, adjusting from rapid feedback and thoroughly rejecting the traditional corporate ladder. Shane examines historical and current careers (ranging from President Lyndon B. Johnson to the dubstep DJ Skrillex) and explores what they have in common – they all used strategies (or smartcuts) to accelerate their success.

In a style similar to Malcolm Gladwell, Shane presents interesting, well-written and well-researched anecdotes to demonstrate and support his stance. Like how Gladwell writes, this is not a formulaic, cookbook style discussion or a how-to for replicating the same kind of career success for yourself.

Nonetheless this is an interesting and worthwhile book that makes a couple of salient points that I’d like to explore in more detail. Let’s begin.

1) Innovation extends beyond products or companies.

Apple announced last week a suite of new product offerings and every tech writer was quick to sing Apple’s innovation praises.

But innovation isn’t just about companies or products. What I think is cool (and what I think Smartcuts is really about) is recognizing that innovation is more than a hip company or snazzy product. It’s possible to have an innovative career and this book ultimately looks to find the commonalities between a handful of notable and outstanding ones.

2) New York City is THE yardstick.

Writes Shane of New York..

New York has indeed become a global yardstick – for artists, businesspeople, and dreamers of all stripes… If you can make it in New York, people assume you can make it anywhere.

So true. Because of this, there is tremendous value in being a New York City import and coming from an environment that’s nothing like it. Shane and I have that in common – he came from Idaho, I came from the suburbs of Melbourne. Coming from a far flung place makes you appreciate the quality and accessibility of everything that’s amazing in this city – be it culturally, professionally or socially.

Shane describes a sense of awe, of star-struck, and the push that comes being surrounded by such talented and high quality professionals at the top of their respective game. I feel exactly the same way about being here. I can identify with this book just that little bit more because of the New York City references it contains.

Bottom line – should you read this book?

Yes. This book will appeal to those with an interest in business, innovation, startups and entrepreneurship. More than that, Smartcuts shows us there is value in finding links and putting structure around interesting and divergent careers. It’s then up to each of us to emulate them.

Get Smartcuts via amazon.com. Link is here.

Sarah

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How I Became A Music Blogger

I hit the music blogging equivalent of the big time recently when I was offered a contributing writer role on one of the biggest indie music blogs on the planet.

I never intended to become a music blogger. I’m probably the last person you’d pick as having any interest in indie music, let alone an enormous driving passion for the space. And yet in 12 short months I’ve turned myself into a serious music writer on a serious music blog. What makes this even more remarkable is that I have no connection to the music industry whatsoever and I’ve never taken a writing class in my life.

So how did I do it? Here are some thoughts including what I think are the bigger lessons at play here.

1. I was already good at writing.

Long before I started writing about music, I already considered myself somewhat of a writer and blogger having maintained a personal blog for years.

That counts for more than you think. Blogging can be hard to do well because it’s difficult to get into the habit of regularly doing it. Most bloggers start out with good intentions of writing something every day or every week but very few are able to sustain it over the long term, regardless of the topic. Once you’re in that zone of always scanning your environment for your next post and making the time and headspace to devote to it, you’re winning the blogging war. Writing about music is exactly the same.

Bottom line: Blog well. Blog often.

2. I asked for what I wanted.

The two music blogging roles I’ve ever had, I got them both because I asked.

I mentioned to a friend that I was thinking about writing about music. He encouraged me to do so and before long I’d written some random commentary about a couple of random tracks. I liked what I was doing and quickly realized that if I wanted to have any kind of audience outside of my immediate friends and family, I needed to collaborate with a bunch of others music writers.

I found a niche blog that I liked, emailed them and asked if I could write for them. On the back of only a handful of posts on my own blog, they accepted me as one of their staff writers.

I spent a year writing for this blog. Solidly. I posted regularly and over time I started to see my audience, feedback and reach expand. I learnt the basics of how to write about music, I discovered a bunch of new sounds and artists and I found out how the industry and publicity machine works.

I started feeling an upswing and momentum that was taking me beyond my current blog and audience. I wanted to ride the good body of work I had built and leverage it. My thinking was – if I’m going to write for a music blog, I might as well write for one of the biggest and the best.

Like I did with the smaller blog 12 months earlier, I emailed the head editor of my favorite big-time blog and asked if I could join. After gentle persistence at my end and many email negotiations later, and I was offered a contributing writer role.

Bottom line: Ask for what you want.

3. I’ve been listening to music for a long time.

I built up my music knowledge and exposure over years and years. It goes back to when I was a kid and my father would fill the whole house with Pink Floyd and Jimmy Hendrix records. Or the every Saturday morning my brothers and I spent watching music videos on Rage. I have listened to so much music over the years that it’s developed into a big working catalogue and library in my head of what’s good, from where, what album and how music tastes have changed. It’s that back catalogue that helps me to spot a good artist or track to write about today.

I credit my younger brothers for exposing me to an electronic sound in my youth, thanks to their collective obsession with Radiohead, their interest in making music themselves and their awareness of the emerging drum and bass scene in Melbourne. The musicality and ear for music I have developed from years of dance training probably counts here as well.

The point is – you can’t teach someone good music taste, you either have it or you don’t. Because whether you like it or not, the music you listen to defines you. Do you like the idea of indie or non mainstream music and just don’t know where to start? Or do you still listen to the same CDs (!) you did when you were 17? Do you only know music that’s fed to you on the radio/tv/internet or do you take a more active role and explore different genres to find what appeals to you? All of these things say something small about your personality.

Bottom line: Develop excellent music taste.

4. I want to do it better than everyone else.

It might look easy enough to punch out 150 words about a cool piece of music but it’s a lot harder than it appears. The challenge of coming up with succinct, catchy and smart writing and the skill of being able to describe what you hear is what keeps me coming back to music writing. I want to do it better than everyone else.

It can be hard to stand out from the crowd of music bloggers because we’re all writing about the same thing and usually off the same press release. The information and detail you have to work with can be limited. With a little research and if you’re smart about it, you can always find an angle that no other writer has touched before.

Many music bloggers forget that your body of work as a writer is a collective that should reflect your own personality. To do this you have to inject elements of yourself; your opinions, your personality and a consistency into every post you write. That’s what brings the humanness and the interesting to music writing – not overdone and flowery descriptions of bass lines or vocals that some music writers try to outdo each other on.

Bottom line: Get so good they can’t ignore you.

5. I turned an interest into an option.

There’s a lot to be said for individuals who take on side projects outside of their day jobs and do them exceptionally well. I now have a dedicated avenue and an amazing platform to regularly indulge an interest outside of my day job. I have turned an interest into an option and something big enough that I could use it as a door to an entirely new career or industry, should I ever want to.

Bottom line: Create options for yourself.

Sarah

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Message In A Bottle

I wrote this post way back in December 2011. It describes a trip I took to an uninhabited island off the coast of Fiji and what I found buried on one of its beaches. This post formed the inspiration for a story-telling contest I entered and won several years ago.

I’ve had this story tucked away, hiding and unread for awhile. I like this piece a lot and thought I’d repost here to share now with my wider audience. ~Sarah

Fiji is one of my favourite places on earth. Get me away from the bustle and poverty that is the main island to search out its real beauty, its magnificent islands. I love Fiji because it’s close to home, the people are friendly, it’s easy to navigate and even easier to island hop. Parts of it, particularly the untouched and remote parts are visually stunning, both above the water and below it. Whatever you picture in your head when you close your eyes and think of an island paradise, Fiji has it.

On a trip several years ago, I was on large catamaran, spending the day island hopping. The final stop was to the island of Monuriki, an uninhabited island a couple of hours boat ride west of anything that resembled civilisation. Monuriki is famous because it is the island where the Tom Hanks movie ‘Castaway’ was filmed. It is a large island and its volcanic past is evident in the high mountain at one end that’s covered in rock and dense scrub. The islands surrounding it gave rise thanks to the volcano’s activities thousands of years ago.

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The main beach landing on Monuriki Island, Fiji

I remember this day because it was unbelievably hot. Every inch of shade on the boat to get to the island was taken up with bodies. No one, not even the locals, wanted to be in the sun that afternoon. Stepping off the dingy and onto the island, my feet weren’t prepared for the assault that was the hot white sand that had been baking under the sun all afternoon. I quickly headed up and over the beach away from the water and straight for the shade of the palms and scrub that dotted the main beach.

It was too hot to do anything. Draping myself over a palm tree that was bent almost to a right angle, I couldn’t help but think about how Hollywood made a movie here. Did they have to sweat through days like today? I thought about the only line from the film that I remembered, the one about the most famous volleyball of all, where Tom’s character unmistakably cries out, ‘Wilson!’

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Despite the heat and oppressive sun, I felt the urge to go exploring. Maybe I might find my own secret cave, just like in the film? I headed away from the main beach and towards the old volcano. Among the scrub under the palm trees, I noticed something out of the ordinary. At first it looked like a broken glass bottle and I was instantly wary, thinking shattered glass could be nearby and that I was barefoot.

On closer inspection, the bottle was intact, not broken. I fished it out of the scrub. It was clearly a wine bottle, with the wine and its paper label long gone and the cork still intact. The bottle was green but clear, probably meant for a white wine, with an imprint in the glass that said ‘Stonehenge’. I found out later that Stonehenge is a boutique winery in the Napa Valley area of Northern California.

The bottle had a piece of paper inside it. A long piece of paper, rolled up tightly into a small cylinder. To keep the paper cylinder in place, it was tied at the middle with what looked like a long length of regular brown cotton. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t open it. The cork was firmly in place, like it had never been opened before.

I had found a message in a bottle, on an uninhabited island in the middle of the South Pacific. I inspected it closely, turned it over, shook it, anything to give me a clue as to its origin or contents. How did it get here? Was is washed ashore from afar? Or more likely, had someone left it here for me to find?

With my new prize in tow, I proudly showed it off to anyone who would listen on the boat ride back. I even showed it to the boat’s captain. ‘Open it!’ was the common response. I couldn’t. I didn’t have a bottle opener. Wine and corkscrews aren’t commonly found on isolated islands in the South Pacific.

I took the bottle and its precious contents back home with me to Australia. I don’t often keep mementos of my travels, but this was no ordinary memento. I remember being fearful that it might break if I stored it in my regular luggage so I took it onto the plane in my backpack as hand luggage.

In my home, my message in a bottle took pride of place on the mantle. I looked at it every day as a reminder of the wonderful location in which I had found it. Over the years I have been seriously tempted to open it and read its contents. But mostly I just imagine what its contents might be.

Is it a convoluted map to a loot of buried treasure? Or is it a desperately sad love letter written to an old flame? Is it a marriage proposal to an improbable love? Is it a suicide note of someone who later jumped into the volcano and to their death? Does it tell me where Wilson ended up after Tom’s character lost him at sea? Does it contain the secret to curing cancer or solving global warming? Probably not.

And so it remains unopened, my message in a bottle. Leaving it unopened keeps alive the mystery of its contents and its original owner. Having said that, what I want to know is this.. did you write on a piece of paper, roll it into a cylinder, tie it with brown cotton, shove it into a wine bottle from Northern California, re-cork it and leave it for me to find on Monuriki Island off the west coast of Fiji? Drop me a line if you did. I have something that belongs to you.

Buy me a beer and let’s uncork that bottle for the final time, together.

Sarah

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The Benefits Of Idle Thinking Time

I maxed out the data on my mobile phone plan last weekend. I couldn’t be bothered figuring out how to pay the extra money to get another gig of data allowance to tide me over until my monthly plan reset again.

And so I spent the week without internet access on my phone. I could only get the internet in my apartment or at work. Maddening at first, I had to get used to a phone that couldn’t do much except be a phone. I couldn’t access the newspapers I wanted or my feedly, LinkedIn, twitter feed or my favourite tunes off soundcloud (that last one was especially difficult to live without.)

Now that I was no longer tethered to an iPhone, I noticed everyone else that was. I stood on the subway platform looking around at all the heads tilted downward, eyes down, looking at the screen in the palm of their hand. As the week went on I started to track how long it took for people to whip out their mobile device. For those who arrived at the subway platform without already looking at their phone, it took an average of four seconds for someone to reach into their pocket or bag and retrieve their mobile device.

It happens that a piece in the New York Times yesterday explores this exact issue. It argues, as does my 4 seconds average on the subway, that we are increasingly wedded to our mobile devices. We use them as a means to stay in a constant state of busyness and ultimately to distract ourselves from what’s inside our own heads. We have swapped idle moments of idle time for distractions on tiny screens and an overwhelming need to out-busy the next person.

All of this is not without a price. Turns out there are advantages in doing nothing and embracing ‘idle mental processing’. Benefits we are potentially forgoing in favour of the crazy busy that’s distracting us. Research cited in the NYT article says that down time as thinking time can make you more empathetic and more innovative. After all, it argues, ‘an idle mind is a crucible of creativity’.

The NYT article describes credible research studies that show the majority of study participants found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for even a short time. By a short time, I mean between 6 and 15 minutes – about as long as it takes to wait for the next subway. What’s even more alarming is one research paper found that 64 percent of men and 15 percent of women would rather administer themselves electronic shocks than sit idle with their own thoughts.

I have a natural tendency towards introspection. That other people don’t, to the point where electric shocks are a superior alternative, doesn’t make sense to me. I have written before about how downtime breeds clarity. My New York life is busy and full but I still cultivate the time just to sit and think. Usually left for the weekends and when I’m outside, it’s a way I can push back against New York and say yes, it’s okay to think idly sometimes and no, I don’t have to maximise every single minute to enjoy this city to its full.

I have to be careful, however. I have a tendency to over-think. Over the years I have learnt to find the line between helpful self-reflection and over-thinking and rumination. Dwelling and worry isn’t helpful. Thinking and processing is. The older I get, the better I get at it.

My week without internet access on my phone made me think about whether I even need internet access on my phone. Self-reflection might come easy to me, but even I get caught up in wanting to fill up the idle minutes in my day to day. I’m thinking about downgrading my mobile phone plan to get rid of the mobile data and to only include texts and calls. I’m hoping that by not reaching for my iPhone, my hands will stay empty but my mind will be more full.

Sarah

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Stacking The StartUp Deck And Other Lessons From LeBron James

It’s bordering on old news now but the second biggest thing in sports last week had nothing to do with the World Cup. LeBron James, the best basketball player and one of the best athletes on the planet made a low-key (by his standards) announcement that he’ll be returning to his hometown of Cleveland to play out his immediate basketball future.

The announcement got widely written up, even when the timing coincided with the end of the World Cup. One article that caught my attention about James’ announcement didn’t come from ESPN or Grantland – rather the Wall Street Journal wrote an interesting article centered around one important point – great teams need great culture, not just talent.

The LeBron years at the Heat are now somewhat overshadowed not by the 2 championships they did win, but by the two they did not. It goes to show that when you load your stage with rockstars, it can still underperform. Seems it took LeBron four seasons at Miami to figure this out. In the most recent NBA final series, Miami Heat were completely outplayed and outclassed by a superior, more cohesive and better drilled San Antonio Spurs.

What happened to the Miami Heat can happen in early stage companies too. Startups want to stack their decks and load up on talent to build and scale a great product. They want the best possible team they can find to fill out their early roster. It looks good to potential investors who want to see evidence of a capable, gritty and well thought out team before they’ll commit to the cause.

Sometimes all that talent comes at a price. Early startups are often solely focused on building and scaling a product and give little thought on how to people manage, what kind of culture they want and dedicating the resources to do so. Founders and startup CEOs are usually good at fund-raising or product building and can be underprepared or underskilled to deal with the business of managing and containing (the often considerable) egos that go with a rockstar team. It’s the missing link that deck stacking ignores – how each of these rockstars is actually going to work together.

Otherwise capable young entrepreneurs frequently expose their lack of people management skills or ignorance towards the importance of building a culture and early. We see the really bad examples play out in the form of harassment and other kinds of claims. Think about the recent revelations surrounding the SnapChat guy or what’s happening in the ranks of Tinder right now.

At the very least, early startups need to consider not only brute talent in their early employees but hiring on personality, diversity and emotional maturity as well. Stacking the deck in your favor is no longer enough. The challenge for lots of growing startups is to not make the same mistake that the best athlete on the planet did – ignoring culture in the face of great talent.

Sarah

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