Steal From Yourself: How to Improve Your Life By Drawing Upon Your Best Resource

Stop trying to reinvent the wheel every time you want something.
Publish date:
September 20, 2013

When I worked for this hilariously overblown Internet company called marchFIRST in 2000, we used the word "repurposing" a lot. Repurposing content. Repurposing ideas. Repurposing strategy.

It was a fancy way of saying, "You don't have to reinvent the wheel" for everything you're doing. Find what works and reuse it. Develop standards and processes to make your life as efficient as possible -- from professional query letters to a daily schedule to steps for accomplishing your goals.

Standardization does not have to mean the deathknell of creativity. It's quite the opposite. A lot of times organization can actually allow creativity to shine in a way that gets more attention than it's ever received before when it was buried in a chaos of your own making.

I speak from experience. For years I used to think I could only capture artistic magic if I made things as scattered, challenging and difficult as possible. I mean, I was an artist, right? Artists don't keep a routine. I had read Jack Kerouac.

Let me tell you a few stories about the kind of worker I used to be.

When I was freshly graduated from college, I set myself up for failure from the get-go. Instead of figuring out what I could do to believe in myself and produce great work, I turned every task I had to do into the most stressful chore imaginable.

I knew that when I wrote well, it must be some inexplicable formula, right? It came from some strange combination of circumstances I could never recreate again, lest I cheapen the whole thing. There was the one time I stayed up until 2 a.m., and my writing turned out well. Another time I binged on caffeine and sugar and nicotine, so those were probably ingredients to throw in the mix. I often felt stressed, so perhaps it was important to create a whole new level of fear and terror in myself every time I did something creative.

God forbid I try to identify structural elements in the work itself. That was for people who weren't going to live a big and interesting life like I was planning to do. Adventurous people with great stories don't have structure. Every day, every hour, every task -- anything could happen!

It was my job to ensure that.

With this philosophy in mind, the old me (in my first job as a reporting intern at The Washington Post) used to spend an entire weekend trying to find the perfect grouping of words to write a sentence that would start off a story I was writing. I had built up what I was doing to be the most important project imaginable -- writing the perfect sentence of all time to change the entire course of humanity -- and in so doing, I had resolutely set myself up for failure. That outcome was pretty much guaranteed.

Who knows what I even eventually came up with when I was writing back then. What I do remember is after the entire sweaty stressful weekend of work, all to churn out 750 words or so, my editor read that very first sentence (the "lede" it's called in journalism), and his finger hit the delete button repeatedly until all there was left was a blinking cursor.

He quickly read over my story, culled what the main point was and then wrote a lede that worked.

It took him five minutes.

I didn't say anything. I just sputtered in my own head, "But...but, I spent an entire weekend on that! That one sentence which probably passed the point of comprehension at a certain point because it had gone through so many revisions was my own personal version of E=mc squared! How dare you with your confidence and ease and joy you are clearly taking in your job simply make it seem as if writing can be from-the-gut, effortless and dare I say it (gasp) fun!"

I grew up in a fairly chaotic home with very few boundaries. Love and value often felt doled out through the ability to impress or perform or gain attention, and because of this I've often found this to be an environment that I am often comfortable with, subconsciously or not, and thereby create or seek out.

In this same internship at The Post, I would try to name my stories something funny. The file names were never standardized as was the preference (obviously) with the story's slugline -- "driverslicense," say for a story about a kid getting his driver's license for the first time -- and the date and the section. Instead, I would name that story "Icantdrive55." Oh how witty. Not really. All I was doing was creating more work for my editor by not following the standardized protocol of what was required.

What I learned: If you follow the big rules -- organization, standardization, reliability, accuracy, structure -- then your wit can pop in the story's writing, where it belongs.

I also used to be scattered in the process of interviewing.

Because I never wanted to be an arrogant jerk who acted like she had an opinion or would dare impose any form of logic or analytics or structure on the creative process, I used to approach this task like it was some magical mysterious sort of fairy dust, never to be captured or understood. I would ask whatever question came to mind. I would never say if I didn't understand something because the person I was talking to might think I was dumb, which would be a rejection, and I couldn't handle that. I never wanted to seem pompous by seeming as if I had formed some sort of thesis or conclusion, so I would basically make the process of writing as difficult as possible by refusing to decide on an angle or an outcome I desired ahead of time. (This was a key I later learned which was fairly essential to the blossoming of wonderful, focused writing.)

Wasn't organization one of the weapons of The Man? And I was punk rock, dude.

Over time, I had an epiphany. It was this: The most successful punk rockers, the sneaky ones who infiltrated the mainstream, are following that old adage from George Orwell's "1984" -- "If you kept the small rules you could break the big ones." Once I realized this, my life changed for the better.

Originally, my notebook or my tape recorder from talking to sources might never start with the basics. I used to be so terrified what people might think of me ("Boy, what a jerk, she doesn't even know what my exact title is..."), fearing that I might be like the Ali G character hilariously asking the most famous people in the world to slowly spell their name out. Because that truly can be read as the biggest affront ever to a person of overgrown ego.

But you know what happens when you don't do a standard process like that? Starting out with name, title, age, occupation, phone number, email address or any of the other details? (When I got more organized, I would also often write down what someone was wearing so that I could then figure out who they were in a picture later.) You get things wrong. Because you're so afraid of not looking omniscient (a mistake of the stupid; it is the smart people in the world who realize how little they know) that you don't get the basics of what you need.

There is a time and a place for stream of consciousness or associative creativity with zero rules, structures or boundaries.

Doing "Morning Pages," or when you are brainstorming for example.

My favorite technique for brainstorming is the improv game of "Advertising Agency" where everyone cheers and claps no matter what idea is thrown out, to encourage free-flowing associative creativity and no-idea-is-a-bad-idea type contributions. When done well, the game manages to silence for a short time internal critics or peer pressure censorship for fear of What Others Might Think.

But when you are approaching your work -- be it writing or running a business -- stealing from yourself is a huge secret to success.

Notice what works, and standardize processes to make your life easier.

Why do you need to write 25 different versions of the same letter you send out for say a job query or a freelance pitch or a "Here's what you need to know about my business" email? You don't. There's a handy trick in Gmail where you can even use a feature called "canned responses." Click on a saved canned response, and boom -- you've just standardized something that might otherwise drain you of time or energy.

Instead of looking at the perhaps unhealthy or immature habits that you've come to superstitiously associate with doing a good job (procrastinating until the last minute so that at a certain point you are forced to produce no matter what) see how you can recreate this sense of healthy pressure to meet deadlines in your own life. I've used an eggtimer before when putting together a proposal, so I didn't spend more than a certain length of time per page. Or have a friend who is on Gchat serve as your deadline buddy so that the two of you are keeping each other in check.

I find that when I write out goals I need to get done (from the smallest to the biggest), a few things happen: They get done. What seems like a paralyzingly overwhelming amount of to-do's gets reduced from a giant sausage into little slices that are manageable (I think a PhD thesis-completing friend taught me this sausage principle a while back). And, it feels great to get them done. This is why Stephen Covey struck gold with his system. People do love to check off boxes.

When I am afraid to really peer inside of myself (oh God, the things you might see), I will want to look everywhere but the main point. I will look at a side point, a side tangent, a side idea -- instead of getting to the heart of what I'm doing. Don't be afraid to look at yourself and what needs to be done.

What can I do to get to where I want to go?

If my current reality (working a temp job I don't enjoy, say) is very different than where I want to be (perhaps running my own business) -- what can I to remind myself a little bit of my passion and long-term goals daily? (For me, it used to be watching a "Daily Show" clip at the start of a job I didn't care about much. Comedy and intelligent writing and fearlessness connected with and nourished my soul -- and reminded me of where I wanted to go in my career.)

How can I spend even five minutes on what I love a day so that I can be nourishing and nurturing my long-term goals?

How can I remind myself and motivate myself with What I Want rather than focusing on What I Don't Have?

How can I make my life easier? How can I dispel the mystique of creating so that it is not some scary elusive thing? How can I support myself in getting things done?

How can I keep myself on track?

What can I do to recreate successes I've had and learn from (but not beat myself up about) outcomes that were not successful?

How can I recharge myself when I find myself discouraged or beaten down?

What mentors can I seek out to keep me honest with myself and on track?

How can I see the bigger picture and concentrate on what actually matters? (A long-term reward of not being reactive versus the short-term thrill of having a conflict or creating drama.)

How can I steal from myself?

Don't be afraid to repurpose from your life. Why the hell am I writing a self-motivating career article? Because I'm doing exactly that. I get more emails about this topic than any other, and I know that people need inspiration and advice, especially in this economy.

If you send out a dazzling email that gets you positive results, keep using that language. Set labels on your emails to follow up with people. Don't be helpless and realize that we live in an age where Google and social connectivity gives you an unprecedented degree of access to thousands of job sites, communities of like-minded people and the ability to create your own brand (even if you don't have a job right now).

Whatever you do, don't wallow. I love to wallow. It's the best. But don't steal that from yourself. Instead steal what works.

Look at where you've had success (the kind you feel good about a week or a year later) and start to build that into your life as a routine you feel good about. It doesn't mean that you can't triage your day according to what comes up -- of course there will be variations according to new opportunities that come down the line. But be honest with yourself. Are you doing something because it is a welcome distraction from what you really want (and thereby can't risk failure or rejection because you're not actually trying or putting yourself or your ideas on the line) or is it something that is contributing to what you want and where you want to be?

Really look at your life and your goals, and be honest. Be easy on yourself (paralyzing self-criticism and hatred doesn't do anyone any favors, especially you) but do be honest.

Run your life now like the mogul you want to be eventually (or whatever the case may be), and always see yourself as a player.


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