Making Clarity

SUMMARY: Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about the business strategy behind the blog, and it’s been quite VEXING. It’s much harder to do this for myself. I can think of plenty of things to do, but I don’t have the sense of surety that I have when doing work-for-hire. Why can’t I do it for my own projects? Maybe I just need to apply my own for-hire project methodology to myself, as much as I don’t like the idea of it.

When I’m scoping out a new project with a client, I start by asking three questions:

  1. What is your intention; what is it that you want to make / have made?
  2. What is your motivation; what is the reason you are doing this right now, as opposed to later?
  3. What is your expectation; what do you think will happen after you have what you’re asking me to do?

I find that these questions, when posed in real-time over the phone or over coffee, will give me almost everything I need to know. The first question–intention–is posed so the prospective client can get all his/her thoughts out; people are usually fixated over what they want to DO by the time we meet, and are just bursting to let it out. The second question–motivation–gets into the rationale behind the action; this helps me map the prospect’s project priorities to the critical business context that drives them. This exposes the business case for the work, which is important because that is what ultimately drives the metrics for client satisfaction. Finally, the last question–expectation–tells me how the prospect sees the world. For example, I can often read between the lines to uncover unspoken assumptions and glean how they believe the world should work in the best case. These three questions are really just your basic WHAT / WHY / HOW line of questioning, designed to elicit answers in about 30 minutes of casual conversation. Afterwards, I structure what I’ve learned into a more detailed response that succinctly describes the valuable “core ideas” behind the project. While there are more questions I ask to get into the tactical planning behind a project, it’s these starting questions that give the project direction and structure. With the core ideas in place, we have a yardstick against all actions can be measured, which makes it a lot easier to figure out what needs doing at any given moment. Presuming the scope doesn’t change, of course.

Scoping work for hire like this is second nature to me, but for some reason I never apply the same rigor to my personal goals. I’ve talked about this blind spot at length before, but to recap:

I subconsciously believe that personal projects should come “naturally” to me, with an attendant sense of “yeah, this is what I want to do!”

In other words, I don’t expect personal projects to feel like the drudgery of work. One could debate whether this attitude is logical or not; I think that if you actually ARE doing something that comes very naturally to you, and you DO feel genuine surety in the process, it doesn’t feel like drudgery. Writing (or more accurately: thinking in sentences) is like that for me, but it’s just a skill. What I really want is something more than the practice of a skill…I want to be in a better place than I am now. Getting there is the point of having all self-improvement goals in the first place; they are stepping stones to that higher state of living.

Whatever THAT is, right?

The tough part about applying my three-question project process to myself is that I don’t seem have strongly-defined intent, motivation, or expectation…at least, not on first thought. However, after just a moment’s reflection, I am thinking the source of my confusion is the sheer number of thoughts I have on the matter; I haven’t chosen one to follow. In other words, I’m not committing to a project scope.

It’s unrealistic for me to jump from having nothing to having a highly-successful business with just one quick project. And yet, that’s what I want. Even the best clients want that, but are usually reasonable in their expectations given limited resources, budget, and time. So let me revisit the big three questions:

  • Intent – Build business income such that I don’t have to worry about where the money is coming from.
  • Motivation – I would like to stabilize my income, because it’s erratic due to the nature of my work.
  • Expectation – I will be independent and free, which I am right now already, but with the added bonus of having more money to work with.

I have written this many times before in different forms, and I find it highly irritating that I keep losing this focus, but there it is. The HARD part is pushing through the uncertainty that I feel, which is similar to the uncertainty any client feels when they’re outsourcing work outside of their domain of expertise. How can they evaluate the quality of the work as it is occurring? As my own client, I’m in the same position, and have to face my lack of expertise in making money in the quantities I would like.

There are a few approaches that come to mind:

  • I could look for a business expert to tell me what to do: they provide me with a pattern to follow, which requires less thinking on my part.
  • I could learn how to be a business expert: I determine what principles can be followed, derive metrics that make sense to me, and see what happens through experimentation, analysis, and iteration.
  • I can continue to do what I’m doing, which isn’t really working, and naively hope for the best.

There is also a set of personal criteria in place: I want to do this in a way that I like. That means that there’s an implicit value system that I have to obey (it’s the way my personality is wired, arguably, as an INFP). I see myself as having the following choices:

  • I could be a consumer, taking things in for enjoyment with the money I have, helping keep the economy going.
  • I could be a commenter, in the best case providing peer review, guidance, or inspiration so other people can be productive.
  • I could be a cog, a piece of someone else’s creative machine providing a necessary function. I contribute to the making of things, but am interchangeable with other cogs.
  • I could be a contributor, where I contribute toward a vision that is larger than myself, without being beholden to it.

In the above four roles, I don’t have to be “on point” or take any kind of responsibility. The following three roles, however, require it:

  • I could be a coordinator, directing the efforts of others toward predictable and efficient use of resources.
  • I could be a conduit, who is a courier of whatever is critically important (which can be a thing, idea or even inspiration) from a source to people with needs.
  • I could be a creator, a maker of things that didn’t exist before and/or meet a demand.

(On a side note: I didn’t intend for all of these roles to start with the letter C, but they just came out that way.)

While I plug into all of these roles at different times and in different context, I want to be a maker of new things, and I want to be around other makers. That is the identity I want to have, but I am sort of a masterless apprentice at the moment. If I were a journeyman blacksmith becoming a master blacksmith, I would have to make a “journeyman piece” to demonstrate my mastery of the craft to a board of guildmasters. However, since I am a self-accrediting entity with an undefined new craft called “Daveness”, it’s up to ME to identify just what such a piece SHOULD be. And THAT is a HUGE CAN OF PAIN, because inside it is EVERY project idea I’ve ever had but never did, EVERY golden opportunity that I let slip by, and EVERY vision that was beyond my ability to implement. This is not productive thinking, of course, but through the gloom I see one major commonality: they are all projects that required significant new learning to implement, and they couldn’t be done in a couple of hours. It doesn’t help that the time spent on personal projects is not billable, so the immediate financial incentive isn’t there either.

To be a maker, I think, requires being able to accept deferred reward. I’m hugely impatient with myself, so this is going to be a tough one to master. The useful insight from this line of analogous thinking is that I should expect the pieces I’m making now to take around 4 hours. Blog posts, new forms, and project analysis take about this long. This blog post has eaten up about 4.5 hours of thinking plus proofreading. It’s a good chunk of content, I think. By comparison, a true journeyman piece would be equivalent to good-sized project of around 40-60 hours, and a masterpiece would be in the 200+ hour range. I know from experience just how much time is spent doing creative versus clerical work, and this helps set my expectation.

So what am I making?

  • Off the top of my head, the low-hanging fruit consists of blog posts, form designs, form variations, printed pads, posters, novelty paper products, tutorials, and catalogs of stuff I like.
  • The harder work will be creating systems of forms with complete documentation, and new physical products that require more capital. Other pieces will be combinations of the smaller things I’ve made.
  • The hardest but most enduring work, I think, will be clarifying what I am standing for in a way that helps other people on a similar path. I guess right now, those are people who find getting started exceptionally difficult…I’m one of those people.

I know, still not particularly concrete, but it feels like I’m getting a little closer.