90% Failure Means You’re Doing Great

I heard an incredible interview today on WABE, the local Atlanta NPR affiliate.

Radio host Lois Reitzes sat down with Matthew Diffee, a cartoonist for The New Yorker, to talk about Diffee’s new book “Hand Drawn Jokes for Smart, Attractive People.”

During the interview, Reitzes asked Diffee about his work process, and Diffee explained that, on average, he submitted 10 cartoon ideas per week. And if he sold ONE of those ideas he considered it a great week.

“Ninety percent [rejection] means you’re doing great,” Diffee said.

Diffee went on to explain that many artists come up with three to five ideas and little more. Some, he said, only have their one cartoon–and if (or, more likely, when) that one is rejected, they have nothing else in the pipeline. They have no recourse for dealing with the rejection.

It reminds me of Seth Godin’s approach to shipping your ideas: you have to consistently come up with ideas–good and bad–before you land on something great.

Rejection is part of the creative process. It’s part of finding your way to where you’re meant to be.

Personally, this resonated with me because I haven’t written much for publication lately. I’ve been hiding behind contract work and the excuse of “not having anything important to say.”

But the truth is, I’ve had lots to say–I just haven’t wanted to go through the hassle of writing something, believing its good, and then going through the process of having people say, “No thanks.”

Sadly, that’s the life of a writer. Or a cartoonist. Or an actor. Or a musician. Or anyone else who creates things of beauty and value.

If you create, you must understand the inevitability of rejection as well as its value. Because each rejection has within it information to make you that much better the next time out.

Or, as my boss says, “Experience isn’t the best teacher. Evaluated experience is.”

The key is to keep submitting. Keep creating. Keep putting your work out there, and continually learn from each rejection.

Every artist is rejected; only those who keep creating and submitting make a difference.

Rednecks, Mud and Getting Unstuck

This week I’m participating in Seth Godin’s #YourTurnChallenge. My goal is to blog everyday this week (Mon-Sun) here on my site as well as on the challenge’s official Tumblr blog. Here’s my Day 5 submission.

Today’s discussion question (What advice do you have on getting unstuck?) resonates with me because I live in the South. That means sunshine, sweet tea, and plenty of trucks with large tires. For the most part, those trucks belong to young men who seem to enjoy taking their trucks with large tires into places where even trucks with large tires get stuck on occasion.

Usually, when a young Southern male gets his truck with large tires stuck in the mud, the first thing he does is give it more gas. This results in copious amounts of mudslinging, lots of noise, and the large tires sinking deeper into the mudhole.

When this happens, the young Southern male usually gets out of his truck, into the mud, and kicks the tires. This succeeds only in creating a frustrated young Southern male who’s now also covered in mud.

Next, the young Southern male will attempt to push the truck. He will call for others to come and help him push the truck. Now the process has yielded several frustrated young Southern males all covered in mud and who are now all tired.

This leads to cussing. Lots and lots of cussing.

Eventually one of two things will happen: someone will remember the winch on their truck, or they will call someone with a winch on their truck. Either way, someone with a winch will show up and get the truck unstuck. This will lead to cheers from some and hoots of derision from others. The young Southern males will sit on their trucks and laugh about the experience.

And then another young Southern male will drive his truck with large tires into the mudhole to see what happens.

I was never one to go off-roading/mudding. It just seemed like borrowing trouble. I do, however, know the pain of hitting a creative/intellectual/spiritual brick wall, and the lessons are surprisingly the same:

  • It’s okay to take on a challenge, but understand your limitations. Just because you have big tires/lots of successes/a huge ego, it doesn’t mean you should take any risk that comes along. Don’t deliberately seek out places you know will get you stuck unless you have a plan for getting unstuck.
  • When you get stuck, sometimes the more effort you give, the deeper you get. It’s okay to just pause and think about the problem for a while.
  • When you’re just spinning your wheels, the mudslinging gets widespread.
  • Trying to get unstuck alone is futile, but even friends can’t help if everyone repeats your mistakes. There’s a huge difference between asking people to help YOU solve the problem and asking them to HELP you solve the problem. Good leaders understand the subtleties.
  • Cussing doesn’t really accomplish anything. But it might make you feel better.
  • Know who has the winch. It comes in handy to identify the problem solvers (and the folks with the right tools) beforehand. When you can successfully identify who has the right tools to help overcome potential issues, you can take bigger risks.

That last lesson might be the most important of all, and leads to my last piece of advice for getting unstuck: have your own winch.

I doodle. I take walks. I listen to NPR. There are a thousand different ways I change my perspective or environment in order to overcome a creative block. Chances are, you have your own. Write them down, keep them close by, and don’t be afraid to deploy them.

It’ll be cleaner for everybody that way.

Keep the Train Rolling

This week I’m participating in Seth Godin’s #YourTurnChallenge. My goal is to blog everyday this week (Mon-Sun) here on my site as well as on the challenge’s official Tumblr blog. Here’s my Day 4 submission.

Today is my 39th birthday. One year away from 40.

I wrestle most days with feeling like a failure. The definition of success I learned growing up (marriage, family, steady job, plenty of money) hasn’t played out in my life. I’m almost 40 and still starting over in so many ways.

But then I stop and think:

  • I am a husband to a wonderful wife, Rachel.
  • I am daddy to two beautiful children, Ella and Jon, and a third, Ruthanne, who waits for me in heaven.
  • We have a beautiful home.
  • We have nice cars.
  • I have a wide and wonderful assortment of friends.
  • I rock Twitter.
  • I get paid to do what I do best: communicate (both written and verbal).
  • I’ve recorded and released an album with two of my closest friends.
  • I’ve written over 365 radio programs that still air to this day on 1700 radio stations worldwide (not to mention podcast downloads).
  • I’ve written and directed three short films, and won a Telly award for one of them.
  • I’ve written and published 5 books.
  • I’ve started three blogs, two websites, and one company.
  • I’ve pastored a church that was dying, and helped it not only die with dignity but give over $300,000 away to deserving causes as a last act.
  • I’ve performed over 30 marriages, many of those being the marriages of students who sat under my teaching and mentoring.
  • I’ve been privileged to write for a Fortune 500 company, a multi-national leadership firm, one of the nation’s largest churches, one of my community’s finest charities, and countless other people whose vision deserved to be shared.
  • I’ve interviewed entrepreneurs, civic leaders, spiritual leaders, and other interesting people and been privileged to share their stories with the public via magazine articles.

All of that by 39. Sure there are folks who’ve achieved more–but there are those who’ve achieved less. It’s not a competition anyway.

But more than all I’ve achieved, I’ve come to realize what I’m proudest of is that we–my wife, my kids and myself–keep looking for the next thing. The next step. The next challenge. We may fail, but as my wife is fond of saying, “We’re going to keep the train rolling.”

We don’t know what tomorrow holds, but we know this: if we win today, tomorrow will take care of itself.

It’s taken me 39 years to understand just what that means. Here’s to another 39 (and more) to keep living it the best I can.

Play With Me, Daddy

photo (22)“Play with me, daddy.”

I must hear that a couple hundred times a day. Sometimes, I’m ready to play, and it’s tickle fights, wrestling matches, Avengers figures, cars and trucks until we can’t stand it any longer. Other times, I’m not so ready to play, and I try to beg off. If you’re a parent, I’m sure you can relate.

But lately, I’ve noticed something. When Jon says “Play with me”, he’s using the word play in an entire different way. In fact, it may be an entirely different word.

I hear play and I think interaction, me and him using our imaginations to create scenarios and worlds where the toys we use and the time we share transport us together into another place. But it’s a separate togetherness: we each act independently within the game, each one doing what we imagine our characters should do. I think play, and it’s really all about collective yet distinct imaginative effort. Me and him as two.

When Jon says play, it’s less about imagination or collaborative effort. It’s more about him doing what he wants to do while I sit in the same room with him. Sometimes he’ll hand me a truck and tell me where to drive it. Other times he forgets I’m even there. The only thing he really needs is for me to remain physically present; my mind can be a thousand miles away as long as he can still use my arms as bridges and my belly as a mountain. I am another toy for him to use.

It’s ugly, but sometimes I get frustrated by this kind of play. My son has some cool toys, and the idea of just running the same four trucks over my stomach for an hour and a half makes me feel a little…I dunno, bored maybe? I want to line up action figures and trucks and Lego castles and create our own fantastic battles and worlds. I understand on a deeper level what play can really be, and I want to explore that deeper level.

My son, who’s only four, doesn’t get that yet. So he’s content to play at his level, happy to have a few small toys and a daddy who will simply sit with him for as long as he needs. He doesn’t know what he’s missing because he hasn’t learned there’s anything to miss. Developmentally, he’s right on schedule and I have to stop and remind myself that, as his father, I have to work with him where he’s at and gently expand his world a little bit at a time.

I bring all this up because it’s sort of where I’m at with God right now. For a long time, I’ve been content to play at my level, which is to do what I want to do while having the security of His presence. But God’s been gently expanding my world; He’s calling me out into places of much deeper meaning and discovery, not because I’m special, but because He has something He wants to show me. I still want to play with a couple of trucks.

He wants to help me build worlds.

Like my son, I’ve been content to just do my thing. But also like my son, I’ve learned to put my hand into my daddy’s and let Him lead me into something else. It requires trust and faith that He won’t lead me into situations where I’ll be hurt; it requires me loving Him enough to surrender to something that stretches me, pushes the envelope of what I think I can do. And when I find I’m at my limit, He lovingly picks me up into His arms and lets me rest, reassuring me that we’ve done enough for the day.

Sometimes, I worry about what other people might think of what He’s teaching me. But He doesn’t. And I trust Him.

Because He loves me.

Wherever He Leads

While walking along by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

– Matthew 4:18-22

ImageLast week, I read this passage to the students in my CLC class. It was the beginning of an exercise to help them think of leadership from a Biblical perspective. After reading it to them aloud, I closed my Bible and asked them: “Based on this passage, what made Jesus someone worth following?”

They looked at me for a solid three minutes. Nobody said a word. No one so much as whispered an idea to a neighbor.

Total and complete puzzlement.

Finally, one of the seniors said, “Honestly, I don’t see anything in that passage that tells me why Jesus was worth following. He just told them to follow, and they did.”

Another student piped up. “Maybe they followed him because the life of a fisherman was boring. Maybe they just wanted to do something exciting.”

One of the seniors rolled his eyes. “I bet they thought they’d get money out of it. Maybe the line, ‘fishers of men’ made them think that they would be doing something special.”

They continued on for a few minutes, each new idea prompting other new ideas, until we finally had a pretty good discussion going. After letting them bat the various thoughts around for a few minutes, I finally said, “What if they followed him because he was sincere?”

Once again, I was met with silence.

“What if,” I continued, “it wasn’t about what Jesus said, but more about Jesus himself? If it wasn’t about end results as much as it was about the One speaking?”

Still silence.

“When we choose to follow Jesus, when we fall in behind him and go wherever he leads us, we don’t always know how it’s going to work out. We don’t know that we’re going to have an adventure or excitement; we don’t know that we’re going to profit from our obedience; we don’t know, honestly, what the cost of following him will be. But there’s something about him – something in his voice, in his words – that compels us to give up what we know in exchange for the chance to follow him. Often, it means leaving behind the things that we have always held onto and embracing him instead.”

I paused.

“We follow, not because we are guaranteed to prosper, but because we are guaranteed to be with him. And that’s what makes the difference.”

Sometimes, we forget that following Jesus means following him – wherever he leads. The psalmist made it clear that we should follow the Shepherd even into the valley of death, and fear no evil, because he is with us. And if that means leaving behind people and places that are familiar to follow his lead into territory uncharted, so be it. We shouldn’t be afraid because he is with us.

This lesson came to fruition in my life last week. After a long time of wrestling with it, I resigned from my job as youth pastor last Thursday. One day I’ll write more about it, but for now, God is calling me into something much more frightening: the pursuit of a career that engages culture by making it. I want to write. I want to speak. I want to return to a time from my past where I can make short videos and podcasts. I want to do all of that and more.

I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. For the first time in my life, I’m literally waiting on God to say, “Go here.” And it scares the heck out of me. There are so many unknowns, and there’s such a part of me that wants to reign it in, take control, fix the problem, instead of trusting the One who has called me out to follow him.

It’s a scary place to be. But I’m with him.

And that’s what matters.