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Two Words to Define Your Career: Custom and Collaborative

Your life is custom. It is unique regardless of where you went to school, or how many other people share the same job title as you. No one lives as you have.

Likewise, your life is collaborative. No matter how much you have achieved because of your own experience, wisdom, and grit, much of it is created with others.

Custom and collaborative are two words I have been thinking a lot about in terms of how one finds success as a creative professional. How, in order to create a meaningful body of work, you have to both forge your own path, while constantly engaging with others.

Too often, people seek best practices to provide an easier path, perhaps to guide them, and as a gauge of whether they are ‘doing it right.’ Each culture seems to provide it’s own model for these paths in certain careers… usually implying that if you do well as a junior administrative associate in a certain job, that you will eventually advance through the ranks to senior administrative associate.

But most people get stuck the place that Dwight Schrute did in the TV show The Office: where his actual job title was “Assistant to the Regional Manager,” but he would constantly introduce himself as “Assistant Regional Manager.” He felt he earned the higher title, even though he has not truly advanced into that role.

Likewise, creative professionals sometimes seek the almost romantic notion of ‘going it alone.’ This can be based on an act of rebellion, rejecting other options laid before you, exploring territory that no one has ever prepared you for, or even encouraged. Other times, going it alone is due to scant financial resources, or because working with others can be complex, requiring trust, interpersonal awareness, deft communication, negotiation, and compromise. Perhaps these things can seem to remove freedom and potential from one’s vision of the work they are creating.

Yet, again and again, when I look around at the success that writers I work with achieve, their path is always custom, and always collaborative. So today, I would like to explore each.

The process I encourage many creative professionals to develop is one where they hone their craft, not backing away when they experience fear of the unknown. This less about creating a product (a book, an album, etc), and more about someone living as a craftsperson, a professional, and an artist. The skills and experience you develop on this journey becomes a story unto itself, and one worth talking about.

BEST PRACTICES ARE CHEAP, BUT CUSTOM IS EXPENSIVE

I have written previously about my skepticism for best practices (here, here, and here), and how they can seem like shortcuts, but often promise outsized results using tactics that only worked well a handful of times three years ago.

Of course, I don’t want to be too unreasonable in this regard – I use ‘best practices’ all the time, and much of the work we create is an amalgamation of practices that have come before us.

I suppose I discourage seeking and leaning on best practices too much is because I prefer to see creative professionals explore their vision in their own way, and LOVE the diversity that this process creates in the world. That some of the most exhilarating things that are created are by those who are ‘off trend’ – not to be cool, but because that is what is in their heart as a creator.

In this process of forging ones own path is where valuable experience and wisdom comes from.

CUSTOM IS A PROCESS, NOT A PRODUCT

The floors at the Apple retail stores have as much attention to detail put into them as any of Apple’s products. Years ago, Steve Jobs obsessed over using only a certain stone from a single family-owned quarry in Italy, as well as the complex task of matching nuances of colors in the stone when laid out.

Recently, Apple seems to be experimenting with a floors for their stores using a synthetic material that has a wavy appearance. As I obsessively read through any articles I could find on this, I remember a comment thread (that I can no longer find) where one commenter expressed concern over a seeming lack of quality in Apple moving from stone floors cut in standard 76cm x 76cm panels, to a new synthetic floor. The implication was that anything natural (such as stone) was a higher standard, and anything synthetic wasn’t.

Another commenter responded making the point that the new synthetic floors are custom designed and cut to exactly match their intended use. Specifically that each piece is cut and placed to fit exactly under product tables so that the placement of seams on the floor becomes as much about how a customer experiences Apple products as anything else. That this is CUSTOM, and custom is expensive, regardless of whether it is natural stone or synthetic material. There is a process hidden from view of the ability to value attention to detail, weigh options, design custom solutions, test and fabricate unique materials, and install custom floors that is separate from the material itself.

CUSTOM IS ABOUT CARING

I have been reflecting on this distinction in other ways as well. How some stuff you buy is ‘standard’ – the inexpensive stuff that delivers middling value of “it’s just good enough” – to other products that are ‘custom’ – expensive, well-crafted, and hard to find.

For more than a year now, I have been obsessed with this idea for a Halloween costume: a screen-accurate Luke Skywalker as X-Wing pilot from Star Wars. (yes, I am a total nerd.) I began my research in the summer of 2013, and then put the project on hold as my wife and I put our focus and purchasing and renovating our home.

This year, I pulled the trigger on moving ahead with the costume, and was shocked at what I found in the process. It turns out: you can’t easily buy a decent X-Wing pilot costume. Sure, there are plenty of the market – but many are cheaply made, and you are actually not even 100% sure what you are getting until you open up the package. Yes, they ‘get the job done’ – they are perfectly adequate for representing the character. But they have mixed reviews, yet still cost $60-100.

As I looked through these options, I became enamored with the concept of “screen accurate” – the attention to detail in sourcing a costume that is exactly as worn in the movies.

Knowing that there is an active community online around Star Wars, I began looking for other options. It turns out, there is a thriving prop and costume industry out there, where individual artisans obsess over every detail to create a screen accurate costume, basing them off of not just movie stills, but the original material used to create them for the movie, and surviving movie props.

I scoured fan forums, and actually created a spreadsheet outlining the many pieces of the costume, individuals I was finding in fan forums that crafted each piece, prices and quality.

In the end, I had to order twelve individual costume elements from five different sellers, from all over the US, plus South America.

As I explored all of this, I received help from fellow fans in the community, and got to know each of the suppliers. The base of the costume in an orange flight suit. The person I am buying mine from custom makes the flight suit for each order. He asked for 27 measurements to ensure it was the perfect fit for me. After I emailed the measurements to him, he then asked for 10 more measurements JUST for the gloves!

What I have found is that the depth of caring that goes into this can clearly not be mass produced. It has to be created by fans and craftspeople who care enough to make small runs or do custom orders. The process was also very collaborative, with lots of advice, ideas, and encouragement provided from others in the fan community along the way. I loved seeing the cottage industry that exists – how fans are able to earn part of their living from making screen accurate costume replicas.

I have to say, I started off looking for a costume, and now genuinely feel more a part of a community as a result of the experience.

WHO YOU PARTNER WITH MATTERS

Who you partner with matters, and this is inherently filled with risk. One of my all-time favorite movies is the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which tracks the career and process of master sushi chef Jiro Ono in Japan.

I was listening to the director’s commentary track to the movie the other week (did I mention I was obsessive?), and he mentioned how Jiro was constantly talking about how much he relies on the expertise of his vendors. That he purchases shrimp from a very specific shrimp expert; rice from only one rice vendor; tuna from the tuna person; etc. That every aspect of Jiro’s ability to craft sushi is collaborative, and that even though Jiro himself gets much of the accolades, he couldn’t possibly do it alone.

In fact, one of the main points the movie makes is something so intriguing. First it builds up our awareness of, and respect for Jiro himself: his lifelong honing of the craft in preparing sushi. But then, you become aware that his son, his apprentices, and his vendors are absolutely essential parts of the process Jiro has established. Jiro alone could do none of this.

NOT EVERYTHING NEEDS TO BE CUSTOM

Does everything you create, everything you buy, everything you experience NEED to be custom? Nope! You can buy consumer electronics in a store without amazing floors; purchase a $30 Star Wars costume and still have a nice time; eat sushi for $10 and still feel it was delicious.

Not every brand has to be as beloved as Harley Davidson, as obsessive as Apple, or as devoted to customer service as Zappos. And surprise! Cheap wine is cheap.

Some things need to be the cheap yet effective option; need to become a baseline standard of “good enough”; need to become a “best practice” to help people develop their skills. Each of these things serve a much needed function, and most of our lives are a big mix of ‘standard’ and ‘custom.’

THE CHOICE OF CUSTOM AND COLLABORATIVE

The writers I work with face so many choices of how to improve their craft of writing; how to publish; how to connect their work to an engaged readership. Many writers I speak to define their state of being as “overwhelmed” because of this.

I have said before that you can only prepare for, but not plan, for success. That oftentimes, no one knows what efforts will actually work, and this can lead many creative professionals to pursuing the “safer” and options of following best practices, rather than more complex “custom” solutions that have to forge new paths.

Obviously, a balance is what in order, but the trick of deciding what is best pracice, and what is custom is the difficult decision. I think one thing to be wary of is making these decisions based on cost alone. I remember talking to someone once who chose to not setup an email list for their business purely because they felt that $19 per month for an email service provider was too much. From what I gleaned, they made a business decision about how they engage with their customers based solely on $19, not on the long-term value of email as a communication channel. And that was shocking to me.

Regardless of what choices you make, your life is custom. Regardless of simple distinctions of “indie vs traditional,” “published or unpublished,” “best seller or not,” or so many others – your writing career is custom.

In what ways have you found your career to be either custom or collaborative?

Thanks.
-Dan

  • Lois J. de Vries

    Really enjoyed this post, Dan. Back in the day, the collaborative process of advertising and publishing involved warm, personal relationships with professional editors, graphic artists, typographers, and printers who were masters of their craft. Each respected the others’ expertise and all gave excellent suggestions that made my work easier, helped me hone my skills, and enabled me to produce top quality products for my clients. It’s heartening to hear that someone somewhere still cares enough to deliver that. But alas, even those of us who are willing to pay for it can rarely find that level of quality today, whether in clothing, appliances, lawn mowers — or publishing.

    In choosing products or services, I generally default to Adriane Berg’s Blue Suit Theory: Once you have determined that what you need is a blue suit for a business meeting, you can’t really make a mistake by choosing any blue suit off the rack. So, any adequate list manager, blog or newsletter platform, publisher, social media platform, etc., that does the job you need it to do is good enough, unless you need something “extra.”

    Quality takes time, as you discovered with your costume, and generally costs more. The wonderful collaborative communities of the Arts and Crafts Movement discovered long ago that, no matter how hard they tried and how good their intentions were, they couldn’t produce their very fine quality pottery, textiles, tiles, or furniture at prices everyone could afford. So today, their communities remain only as historic artifacts.

    For those who are capable of producing a very high level of quality or want to write in a narrow niche, I think it ultimately comes down to a personal choice of whether to continue to seek out those very few outlets that value that and develop another source of daily income (custom), or to accommodate the demands of the market in order to earn a living (collaborative).

    • Lois,
      WOW – thank you for your sharing your thoughts here – I love how you frame things in historical context. The Blue Suit Theory is an elegant way to frame the distinction. For Arts & Crafts Movement – you are reminding me that I need to do more research on that. Your conclusion of personal choice is a GREAT one, and absolutely a thing that many overlook. Thank you so much!
      -Dan

  • Carrie Ann Lahain

    The luxury in my writing life has always been TIME. I don’t have to divide my energy between my creative work and a standard job. Not that having so much time doesn’t lead to its own problems–now there’s a newsletter topic for you! But one of the trade-offs I’ve had to make is that I don’t have tons of financial resources to pour into my Indie career. So, I’ve had to take very basic low and no-cost platforms (WordPress for blog/author site, mailchimp’s free service, Createspace and Dreamstime for book design/book covers, Audacity for audiobook) and customize them as best I can–especially through unique, quality content.

    Now, closing in on the end of my first year of this journey, I have through ( my tiny earnings and careful birthday/Christmas wishlists) built up enough resources to up my game a bit. I’ve created a monthly marketing budget–It’s microscopic, but it does allow me to buy a little visibility for my two novels. I’ve also purchased a good quality microphone for my audio projects, though I will have to narrate them myself! Also, I’m attempting to leverage my resources by investing in courses/instruction that will help me continue to make the most of what I CAN do rather than fret over what I CANNOT. This way, as my resources grow, I’ll know how best to apply them. Great post by the way!

    • You frame this in such a professional way, and the idea of creating a budget – even if tiny – is genius. You are elevating that need, and creating a habit. That is often at the core of any financial foundation. THANK YOU!!!
      -Dan