Which is it? Yes.

Between you and me and this little internet thing, I gotta say, I really can’t stand the advice to “create for your audience.”

That’s a fine and rather dangerous line to dance down. I get the premise: We want to make stuff others love, because if we do, the good stuff happens for us, our careers, and our businesses. But here’s the thing: We can’t create purely for others. Try as we might, we’re incapable of removing ourselves from the work. Everything we do flows through everything we are.

When people do succeed in removing (most of) themselves from the work, we wind up with generic work. Clickbait headlines. Spam. Crap.

So what can we do? Do we create for ourselves, or do we create for them?

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Why not the Venn diagram overlap? That feels right, doesn’t it? If we found the overlap between what we love to make and what others love to receive, well, then maybe we’ll have a thriving creative career.

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But I’m not sold.

I dunno about you, but whenever I feel like I’m truly thriving, I’m putting stuff out purely for myself — and yet, somehow, at the very same time, it’s also for the audience.

As creators, I think we have to balance a lot of dualities in one mind. We have to possess an irrational confidence that we’re capable of doing something unique that can astound, bewitch, and delight people, yet at the very same time, we have to be humble enough to constantly improve, to never assume we know best, and never feel like we’ve finished our personal journeys.

We have to remain highly sensitive to the world around us, taking in everything as potential inspiration, maintaining a healthy wonder at things, yet at the very same time, we have to be skeptical, critical, and question everything we receive at face value.

We know there’s merit to those who came before us, yet we also know there’s merit in doing things our way, in not getting stuck relying on the convention.

We make things that belong to us. They make up our body of work and no one else’s. Yet at the very same time, we put them out into the world, where they become the property of others — others who can now judge them with equal merit to how we judged them when they were merely ideas.

Creators are these living embodiments of conflicting ideas, these dualities that have somehow been bundled together and wrapped into people.

So why, then, should I embrace that pithy notion to “create for the audience”? Because I don’t. Also? I do.

It’s not one or the other. It’s also not the occasional overlap of the two.

Strange though it may seem, there’s another hidden truth. Do we create for ourselves? Do we create for others? Which is it?

Yes.

The answer is … yes.

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Posted on September 27, 2019 .

How to make a movement

Movements, as the very name implies, are all about the feeling of motion. But not just any kind of motion. Motion that feels like its compounding over time. Momentum.

Movements we support, join, and love cause us to feel momentum.

In other words, the very idea that things are gaining steam creates the movement, not the fact that something is growing or something is big.

Increasingly, creating a brand people love is about creating a movement for a small number of people. It’s about resonance, not reach. So how does that change the work for us? How do we ensure others feel the momentum? We have to become students of the change at hand, providing the language, the platform, and the central node for the movement.

A few ways to start doing that:

1. Create your “one simple story” as a decision-making filter or lens on the world. Tell it overtly fairly often, and use it as a filter to mold everything all the time. Your one simple story is made of three parts: A status quo (“This was happening” or “this is how we’ve done it”); then some conflict (“but then this happened, which changes everything”); and finally, the resolution (“so this is the better way”). Your brand doesn’t appear in your story. Everyone you serve — prospects, customers, employees, potential new hires, partners, etc. — should see themselves in that one simple story.

2. Use plenty of examples all the time. Find your darlings, those stories you can tell and cite and bring closer and closer to your organization as partners and friends. Grow this list constantly.

3. Repeat the terms and beliefs of your movement until you get sick of them. Like the one simple story, you should become so familiar with key terms that “we” use that “they” don’t. Your belief system should be overtly written out. Why does this movement need to happen? It’s not just the success others experience. It’s something grander, something more transformative, something that isn’t described with the word “better” but rather something concrete. Describe the better way, and the belief driving your organization to achieve that better way. Don’t merely say, “It’s a better way.” How? Why? What is that better way?

4. Find and elevate your true believers. Don’t worry about creating a large audience right away. Don’t try to ‘reach” people. Again, this is about resonance. Focus on a small number of people reacting in a big way. When you see that visceral response, harness it: share what they’re saying, give them a platform, and get to know them as people. They’ll bring others to the movement too.

It all starts with one true believer.

I had to look this up — because #EnglishMajor — but the formula for momentum is mass-times-velocity.

In business, we’re great at talking about velocity. We forget about mass. I don’t mean more resources, by the way. I mean more examples, more proof, more stories. I mean a grander vision for the world for a narrower group we serve more deeply. I mean putting in lots of reps to get great at something over time, focusing on building our body of work rather than any one-off spike in success.

Everyone seems to be seeking their movements, but too many merely tell you there is a movement. “This is big. This is better. This is a movement.”

Meh.

True movement-makers actually show others what they mean. Want to make a movement? Help others feel the momentum.

— — —

We’re building a movement of marketers who make shows to more deeply resonate with our audiences. If you’re a marketer and want to join a small but passionate group who share the same belief about our work (see below), then head over to Marketing Showrunners.

Our core belief: Marketing isn’t about who arrives. It’s about who stays.

Join some of the world’s most creative marketers from companies ranging from Red Bull, Adobe, and Salesforce to Mailchimp, Zendesk, and Wistia. Start reading MSR >>

Posted on September 25, 2019 .

Are you usefully delusional?

The late, great Anthony Bourdain once said that to create something and expect that others spend time with it and like it, you have to be somewhat monstrous. There’s something not rational about that belief in yourself — and it’s the exact kind of irrational self-talk that we need.

When we’re “usefully delusional,” we have the confidence to act as if. It’s not just, “We can.” It’s, “We will.”

I’m not saying to let your ego out of the cage entirely, but, yanno … let it paw at the world a little bit.

When we create something in our image, something reflecting our beliefs or perspectives, something intended to be received by others, we’re doing something against the odds. No rational person would think they’d be capable of putting something out into the world that they just wanted to exist … to the delight of others.

Good thing we’re not rational.

We’re usefully delusional.

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For more on the power of self-delusion for the creative minded, read this wonderful piece from bestselling author AJ Jacobs.

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If you haven’t yet, subscribe to get a few short ideas like this via email each week. You’ll also get exclusive announcements, access, and experimental projects once every few months. Or you can support what I do by purchasing a book.

Posted on September 23, 2019 .

A visual depiction of my creative process

Recently, I was asked to participate in an upcoming blog post to be published by Wistia, the video software company. (Full disclosure: Wistia is a presenting sponsor and launch partner of Marketing Showrunners, the media company I founded to cover the growing craft of brands making original podcasts and video series.)

Probably 12% of the answers I gave will make the final cut, since I’m one of a few voices appearing in the piece. But the questions I got forced me to do something I haven’t in quite some time: articulate my creative process.

Do I have one? What would it LOOK like? Is there something I could actually draw to visualize it?

Turns out yes! And so, in case it inspires anyone else to be more process-driven in their creative work (which, for me, always unleashes better work), here are my unedited answers to the questions I received. Consider this a sneak preview, before the piece actually launches…

Question 1: How did you determine the overarching theme for each season of your podcast, Unthinkable?

For context, my show has been around since March 2016, and we have loose seasons with breaks in between. Some season have been 7 episodes, some 17. All have a consistent theme, or a topic we’re exploring. This was my answer…

It’s a whole lot of me getting angry at something that I think is broken in the marketing industry, then asking lots of questions and investigating them through story and science, then trying to distill into insights, themes, frameworks, and usable ideas. Said in a far less impressive-sounding way? I wish something wasn’t so crappy, then I try to figure out how to convince the industry to change, and in between I have no idea what I’m doing so I try a lot of stuff.

I call this “the quest,” which is a term I learned from marketing author and speaker Andrew Davis, who helped me see the importance of focusing the creative process on investigation rather than pontification. Think of it as the relentless pursuit of curiosity through research and creation, which I find leads to better breakthroughs than leaning back in a chair and trying to concoct “the idea.”

The quest was previously something I just kinda … did. But since that’s not very teachable, I tried to sketch it out below…


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Right now, because I’m doing both The Quest and running a media company for marketers who make shows (Marketing Showrunners), I’m mad at why so much “creativity” and “innovation” in marketing feels like random, one-off stunts. Why can’t we be more consistent? Shows require it. All of marketing needs it. Can we make creativity a habit, instead of a Hail Mary? That kicked off my quest in January 2019, and I imagine it’ll last another two years at least.

Question 2: How do you decide which lesson and story to tell in each podcast episode? Do you have the lesson in mind and then find a story to back it up? Or do you find an interesting story first and then extract a relevant lesson from it?

WOW, what a great question! To figure out what to publish, I sometimes start at a question or insight and try to fit a story that can illuminate it and make it knowable and concrete for marketers. Other times, I start with a story because it just feels right, then I try to delve into the details and figure out what insights I can rip out using voiceover on the show.

Whenever I get stuck, I absolutely have a bias: I start with a story thread that excites me and pull it, rather than get stuck thinking about the idea and trying to retrofit a good story to it. When we want to create great work, it’s tempting to gather up all the answers we think we need to justify creating. I find the opposite is almost always true and leads to even better work: create to find your answers.

Question 3: Do you rely on a specific story structure to craft each podcast episode?

Yes! I document the episode structure into a “rundown” for my episodes, which people can see in this template. That’s not a good template for ALL work — it’s a customized template to fit mine, built over years of tinkering, talking to listeners, and reflecting.

Shows are just the combination of three core pillars: the concept, the format, and the talent. A great show is the strategic combination of those three things.

The concept sits across the whole show, providing the highest-level filter. An exploration of X or an interview with Jane Doe would look different and unique on my show compared to any other show.

The format applies to the episode, and it prevents you from “hoping” you get a good final episode. Instead, you KNOW it, because you know the component blocks (larger sections with a discrete purpose for the listener) and beats (smaller moments that make up the block, informing production decisions like interview questions, sound design or B-roll, and more).

All this to say, I don’t know how to make a show any longer without starting at the strategic creation of an underlying framework, and the constant refinement of it.

Let’s put it all together now: Unthinkable is a show about work that feels unconventional … until you hear their side of the story. To create that kind of episode, we use a 6 different blocks, none of which the listener realizes are happening, but all of which helps us create consistent and ever-improving episodes. You’ll notice the blocks form what is essentially a logical argument, from why the story’s protagonist seemed to do something unconventional … through their story … and arriving at why it was logical AND why we should think more like them too.

Here’s that rundown:

  • Cold Open: intrigue the listener immediately and give them a reason to keep listening.

  • A Block: something “unthinkable” — what’s the conventional wisdom in this person’s or this team’s world? What did they do instead?

  • B Block: the “lead story” — what happened when they did it their way? How did they struggle against best practices, just like listeners might?

  • C Block: the first-principle insight — why was it actually logical and strategic to do it their way, instead of follow the best practice? What can we all learn regardless of our context?

  • D Block: their backstory — how did this person or team arrive at this compelling story? (Use supporting stories/moments to flesh out a fuller picture of the subject or subjects)

  • E Block: “exit velocity” — why is the story meaningful to them? To us? What insights do we now have on our journey together? Any questions this leads to that we might explore next? Finish on a punchy, memorable moment, followed by 1 call-to-action.

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If you haven’t yet, subscribe to get a few short ideas like this via email each week. You’ll also get exclusive announcements, access, and experimental projects once every few months. Or you can support what I do by purchasing a book.

Posted on September 20, 2019 .

Innovation isn't invention

When you hear the word “innovation,” what comes to mind? I always imagined a company like IBM or Google releasing something that sounds like science fiction. We never see it coming.

Maybe you picture some kind of crazy new CPG product, or a smartly explained philosophy for transforming the management of teams. Whatever the case, we typically believe that innovation is about creating something from nothing.

But we’re never able to truly start from nothing. Whether we launch a brand new project or even a brand new business, we’re still putting it out into a reality fraught with preconceived notions and preexisting conditions. There’s always a status quo. So to understand our mandate when we want to “innovate,” we first need to embrace that we don’t ever have a blank slate — not really.

And given that we’re always grappling with the status quo (which provides some additional context to what we create), and given that our jobs are to innovate on top of that status quo, we have to stop screaming “INNOVATE” across our organizations like anyone is ever able to do anything that radical. Unless you are quite literally a deity, that’s impossible. (Even then, you exist as a deity prior to creating something from nothing. Or do you? Do deities “exist” per se? is there a God at all? Hold on, I need to go walk outside for an hour…)

So let’s acknowledge these things. We can’t create from zero. We have to understand the status quo. When we sell in our new ideas, we have to discuss them in relation to what already exists — in their minds, so we can persuade them to adopt our story, or in the world more broadly, so we can effectively innovate in reality, not just in theory.

Thus, in reality, I don’t think my image of giant tech corporations inventing something out of nowhere is an accurate portrayal of innovation. Innovation is not so radical, not so far-ranging, and certainly not so out-of-the-blue, especially to those doing the work.

No, when we acknowledge that there’s always a status quo, we realize that innovation isn’t invention at all.

Innovation is RE-invention.

When we embrace that notion, we see more possibilities for different and better work. We don’t need to pull giant stunts. We can create small wrinkles on the status quo — refreshing changes delivering something welcome into the world that others didn’t expect.

If the goal was actually to create something from nothing, we’d hole up in a conference room and debate and pontificate, or else get stuck thinking about the sheer magnitude of the job. But the goal isn’t to do anything of the sort. The goal is to introduce refreshing changes to the status quo. This requires investigation, not pontification.

Innovation doesn’t require invention. It requires reinvention.

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If you haven’t yet, subscribe to get a few short ideas like this via email each week. You’ll also get exclusive announcements, access, and experimental projects once every few months. Or you can support what I do by purchasing a book.

Posted on September 19, 2019 .

The irony of "what works"

Once we discover “what works,” inevitably, it stops working. Introduce time and competition and expectations to anything, and suddenly, what once felt like a smash hit slowly wears away.

Time: The context changes. Maybe the thing we did no longer makes sense, or maybe we keep returning to the work so much, we’ve stopped caring as much.

Competition: The market saturates. Whatever we did that was a success thanks to its originality no longer feels like a competitive edge as others catch up.

Expectations: We exceeded their expectations once, which is great, except now their expectations have changed. We can’t keep relying on that same thing, because now they just expect it. That’s the paradox of exceeding expectations: Once we do, we’ve changed their expectations.

Whatever the cause, we experience something called emotional decay — the process by which an initial moment of innovation stagnates as others lost interest and we lose results.

It looks like this:

emotional decay

We move left-to-right from the local maximum (the point at which “what works” will return the best results it ever will, because others like it as much as they ever will), to diminishing returns, to stagnation, to this terrible moment where everything feels broken and we panic that I’ve decided to call the crapping point.

As a result of all of this, to get back up to where we once were, we need to “go big.” We jump in a room to brainstorm, hire consultants and agencies to put out fires, or fire people because we don’t have the money to pay them any longer. We have to trend-hop, leaping between ideas sold to us by experts online. We panic-search for the next big thing. It’s an all-out sprint to manufacture the next spike in the numbers.

This is simply unsustainable.

It’s also ironic.

In our efforts to cling to the tried-and-true, we’re trying to mitigate the risk of change. Why try new things when we’ve found “what works” and can keep repeating it? It’s risky to do anything new, exciting, creative, and innovative when we have our playbook and it’s paying off.

Except it’s not. It’s just a question of where the risk occurs, and to what degree.

When we cling to “what works” for awhile, and the effects of emotional decay render the thing stagnant or even obsolete, we then have to execute some kind of massive change to get back up to where we once were. That’s far riskier than making small changes all the time, trying little things when our results feel strongest.

In other words, when things are working is the perfect time to reinvent ourselves — not through big changes once it’s too late, but small and refreshing changes on the status quo made all the time.

If we normally change only after something stops working, what if we changed what was working while it was still working? Maybe then we’d avoid emotional decay. We’d never stagnate and never reach the crapping point.

The irony of “what works” is it’s a shortcut to do work that’s been de-risked. Except it’s fraught with risk. We just don’t see it … until it’s too late.

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If you haven’t yet, subscribe to get a few ideas like these via email each week. You’ll also get exclusive announcements, access, and experimental projects every few months. Or you can support what I do by purchasing a book.


Posted on September 17, 2019 and filed under Wrinkles.

Which box do you mean?

The science is inescapable: constraints breed creativity. Creative freedom doesn’t work. Just think for a moment about a project where you have total freedom. Here, I’ll give both of us such a task right now:

Write a blog post about ANYTHING.

Already, we have a few constraints our brains must grapple with:

Write: put your thoughts into complete sentences using the language you know.

A blog post: whatever you picture when you hear “blog post,” you’re now anchoring to that notion of this project.

About ANYTHING: we understand that we should pull from the entire universe of things one could write about, but since we’re incapable of being “one,” and you can only be “you,” you’ll inevitably pull from YOUR list of “anything” — work, hobbies, personal interests, observations from your life, etc.

Without ever naming what we typically think of as “constraints,” our brains have automatically begun constructing the walls of the box.

Next, given that same command to write a post about anything, we move to the obvious constraints that we mindfully seek: When will I write this? Using what app? How long will it be? Any stories or ideas I have percolating? Do I need to submit this to you, Jay? By when? And how?

We are incapable of action when given too much freedom, because complete and total freedom (or how we interpret that idea — the total lack of constraints) literally can’t exist in the creative process.

So when we say “think outside the box,” it’s a sign that we (or, more commonly, the corporate overlord willing to sound so cliche as to say that phrase to begin with) fundamentally do/does not understand creativity. Because it is literally impossible to think outside of all boxes. Our brains immediately begin to construct one the moment we start thinking or doing anything.

Thus, a far better question: When we say “think outside the box,” which box do you mean?

So often, when we yearn for creative freedom, we’re actually yearning for one of two things: We want a different box than the one we’re in, or we don’t understand the walls of the box we’re already in, and so we keep smashing into what feel like invisible walls.

“Think outside the box.” Okay … but which box do you mean?

Do we mean the box where the walls are made up of historical norms at our company? Do we mean the box that fits us into a mold of what someone in our position is “supposed to” act like? Or do we mean the box that shapes who we are as individuals, because I’m quite certain, I can’t demolish THOSE walls? What about the box that helps us understand who we’re serving on the receiving end of our work? Or the wall of our job’s box that has that big painted sign “BUDGET: $5,000; DEADLINE: December 5”? Do we knock that down?

And which box do we build so that we can truly get creative?

When we want to do exceptional work, the science is inescapable: Constraints are our strengths.

We don’t need freedom. We need a better box, or we need clarity on the box we’re in. If you’re a team leader, help the team both understand and agree to the walls of the box. Frustration comes when they dislike the current walls, or run into barriers they didn’t even know where there. Then, crucially, once the box has been made clear: STAY OUT OF THE BOX! Meddling can also lead to frustration and the desire for creative “freedom.”

If you’re an individual contributor, proactively ask about constraints: time, budget, team, inspirational sources, you name it. Help shape the walls of the box. It may seem counterintuitive, but it yields better work, more ideas, and more effective ideas.

Creative freedom doesn’t work. It doesn’t even exist.

“Think outside the box”? That’s missing the truth entirely. Which box do you mean?

— — —

My book contains an entire chapter on constraints and their effects on decision-making in the working world. Through story and science, we explore how to best construct a box that yields exceptional work, outlining the roles that team leaders play and the roles individual contributors play too. For more on that, consider buying Break the Wheel: Question Best Practices, Hone Your Intuition, and Do Your Best Work, on Amazon. Available in print, Kindle, or audiobook form (narrated by me).

— — —

New to my writing? Subscribe if you haven’t yet. You’ll get each new idea as it’s published — a few short posts per week. Subscribers also get exclusive announcements, access, and experimental projects every few months. You can also support what I do by purchasing a book.

Posted on September 16, 2019 and filed under Wrinkles.

Once we know what the work really is, we can't help but start

A career is just a vehicle for constant improvement: improve ourselves, improve our teams, improve our communities, improve our world. Careers are just the label we use to describe the arc of time that passes, from the moment we started working to the moment we stop working. All they are, really, are vehicles to keep improving between those two moments.

So when we decide that we can’t start doing something, or we need to talk to someone else over coffee to get it right, or find the “best practice,” or get more years at the corporate gig before we launch our own thing, or whatever story we’re telling ourselves, all we’re doing is delaying the inevitable: The work is NOT about being right in theory. It’s about getting in right in reality. It’s about constant improvement, the slow but steady progress forward.

When we delay our first attempt at something new, exciting, and ours, all we’re doing is delaying the start of the improvement process. And if we want to do great work and have great careers, shouldn’t we want to start improving right away, so we can do something great sooner?

When we sit on the idea and agonize and over-research, we’re failing to see what the work really is: constant improvement.

So you may as well start right now.

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New to my writing? Subscribe if you haven’t yet. You’ll get each new idea as it’s published — a few short posts per week. Subscribers also get exclusive announcements, access, and experimental projects every few months. You can also support what I do by purchasing a book.

Posted on September 13, 2019 .

Defining your "enough"

A quote has been reverberating around my mind for the past few weeks. I wish I knew who said it (if you do, please let me know?). It goes like this:

“Enough” is a choice you make, not a destination you reach.

Oof. Hits me right in the feels in the best way.

In the drive to build, to grow, to acquire, and to run, I can find myself getting swallowed by searching for that next thing, always. The more I grow in my career, the more momentum I build, the more I realize that nobody — and I mean nobody — arrives at that “next” level and goes, “Yep, this is it! I’m where I need to be.” Instead, they go, “Oh, okay, cool. I’m here now. What’s up THERE though? I’m gonna keep climbing.”

But sometimes, deciding “enough” enables you to focus on the here and now, to enjoy what you’re doing for its own sake, not the results. And a funny thing happens when we do that: we tend to get better results.

My “enough” for my media company, Marketing Showrunners, is to generate enough revenue to support a small team that loves working together and loves serving a small but passionate audience. That’s enough. I’m finding other areas where I’m finding my “enough” too.

For now, I’d simply ask more people to embrace this idea: Enough is a choice you make, not a destination you reach.

(Hat-tip to Paul Jarvis, who wrote the book Company of One and talks often about helping others find their “enough.” Find his book and other works here.)

— — —

New to my writing? Subscribe if you haven’t yet. You’ll get each new idea as it’s published — a few short posts per week. Subscribers also get exclusive announcements, access, and experimental projects every few months. You can also support what I do by purchasing a book.

Posted on September 10, 2019 .

Are you all about it?

There’s a flower shop near my home that uses a clever sign to lure customers into the shop. It says, “Come on in for a free rose if your name is Samantha!” Each day, they change the name. They’ve done Amanda, Tim, Bryce, Alicia, Tara, Lindsay, and Jason. (I declined my rose, thus sending myself home from this episode of The Bachelor in Rye Brook.)

We see that sign all the time, though it comes in different forms depending on the business. It’s a clever ploy to catch the eye, a pithy statement to acquire a customer, and a get-it-while-you-can deal to prompt an action. But these are just gimmicks, short-sighted approaches to marketing. They don’t change how the business operates.

But they should.

Imagine if that flower shop was all about human connection. They’d use that clever little sign to advertise not JUST that they have flowers (congrats, so do all your competitors), nor that they’re giving free roses to (checks today’s sign) Marie. Instead, if they were all about human connection, they’d use that sign to introduce you to that concept in a short, delightful way, before you tumbled into an entire business that was all about human connection.

They’d show you a slew of products you could personalize for that special someone. They’d follow-up with a touching, non-automated email or phone call or postcard. They’d remember your birthday and your partner’s. They’d hire empathetic people, participate in their local community, and partner with only the warmest of local business owners. Because to them, human connection isn’t a stunt to drive a sale. They’re not interested in whatever “works” before moving on to the next thing. For this business, human connection is the way to operate. They’re all about it.

We keep talking about things like “authenticity” and “customer-centricity,” and we’ve long talked about differentiation. But what we forget is how to turn these nice ideas into action. It doesn’t happen through one-off stunts or clever ploys. It happens everywhere across the business in small ways ongoing.

When an organization allows that core idea to seep into every nook and cranny of the business, those clever signs and messages aren’t gimmicks. They’re a tiny ray of light shining through, and if you decide to look behind the curtain, you’d be positively basking in sunlight. Because it’s everywhere. It’s not a gimmick or an ad. It’s the way they operate.

Whatever you do, whatever your “thing” is, ask yourself: Are you all about it?

Posted on September 10, 2019 and filed under Wrinkles.