3 Common Marketing Fallacies That Writers Need To Be Wary Of

Today I want to cover three common marketing fallacies that I see all the time. These are things I see that bump writers off track, and tend to leave them overwhelmed. Also, I’ll give my advice for what you should do instead. Okay, let’s dig in….

Fallacy #1: Following Trends That Offer You a “Simple” Key to Success

I see this constantly. A viable piece of advice to help writers reach readers is amped up to such a degree that it begins to eclipse all other proven strategies. Let me put this into context with two trends I have seen, encouraging writers to start email newsletters, and encouraging them to create courses around the topics in their books.

Email lists

The good. Yes, email newsletters and email marketing work! They are wildly effective ways to develop a meaningful connection to your core audience. Way more effective than so many other marketing strategies. I have sent a newsletter every single week since 2005, and am a huge advocate of establishing your own. Pretty much every single client I work with ends up starting an email newsletter. Love ’em.

The bad. I have loads of writers emailing me that their greatest challenge is “to grow their email list.” Let’s let that sink in… their single greatest challenge is stated as growing an email list.

It’s as though they have lost all perspective on their bigger goals. Such as, you know, writing a great book. Getting more readers. Feeling a deep sense of fulfillment in their lives. Nope, all of that is secondary to what they have become convinced of, which is, “All happiness is predicated on whether or not you have a big email list.”


Their thinking is so blinded by this idea of “If I have a big email list, my writing career will take off.”

This is something authors are sold on again and again. Not just “email is a core way to grow and engage your audience,” but rather “If you have a big email list, you WILL become a bestseller.”

This hard sell creates a sense of inadequacy in writers; that if they don’t have a big list, they are doomed to fail. And that simply isn’t the case.

Also, there is a big secret that no one tells you — you can have a small to medium-sized email list and still be wildly successful. You don’t need 10,000 subscribers. Or 50,000. With a list of a few hundred people, you can do a lot.

Can an email list be a part of how you grow an audience and engage them? Yes! I’m a huge fan. But it’s not your biggest challenge. It is one part of a larger strategy, one focused on writing, on readers, on engagement.

Online Courses

Wow, is there a lot of promotion around encouraging authors to create online courses right now. I began teaching online courses back in 2010, and the online course space was kinda quiet back then.

Today, I see these pitches constantly promoting online courses as “way easier than you think,” and then hint at revenue numbers anyone would love to have. “A six-figure launch” or statements such as “I earned $15,000 in just one day last month by launching a course.”

I’ll be clear here: online courses are AWESOME, fun, helpful, and yes, potentially nice revenue streams for you. I mean, look at this amazing one from Jennie Nash, and these from Jane Friedman. Go, take those courses! Become a better writer! You will love it.

But don’t be fooled into thinking that creating your own courses will be easier than you think to create, easier than you think to promote, easier than you think to sell, easier than you think to run, and easier than you think to create passive income.

It won’t.

It is all possible, yes. But it will be MORE DIFFICULT than you think. I’m simply encouraging you to be prepared for these realities.

I don’t just say this from my own personal experience, but from talking to dozens of others who run online courses. Now, I LOVED running online courses. Sure, it was a lot of hard work, but I enjoyed it. And here is something to consider: if you don’t love it, you will dread the process.

There are a huge number of ‘courses on how to create courses’ right now. Can you turn your book into a course? SURE, it’s possible. But no, it’s not for everyone. Do you want to spend all of your time running a course? Or writing?

But maybe you are thinking, “Dan, I totally want to create an online course — how do I do it?” Boy, do you have some options from:

David Siteman Garland
Joseph Michael
Derek Halpern
Lewis Howes
Amy Porterfield
The Book to Course Summit

Let me clarify — David, Joseph, Derek, Lewis, Amy, and all of the speakers at the Summit are lovely people. Smart. Passionate. Helpful. They offer wonderful resources. They are good eggs.

And if online courses are for you, go ahead and JUMP on these resources. But… don’t assume that since you are being sold courses on courses, that courses on courses is what you need.

Fallacy #2: If You Get “10,000 Followers” We Will Publish You

What agents & publishers mean when they say “We won’t consider publishing you unless you have 10,000 Twitter followers” is this: Can you give me some kind of indication or proof that you can meaningfully work to put this book into the hands of readers? Because that is difficult. We are going to try really hard. But you know what helps? If you — the expert on the topic, the person 100% embedded in your niche, genre, or industry — have spent a few years developing the relationships needed to help us out.”

Does anyone really know what to do with 10,000 Twitter followers? Will they really publish you just with that metric?


Instead, it is an indicator that you are a partner that can not only write a great book, but help it connect with the people who will appreciate it most.

Do you know what else they would care about just as much, or perhaps MORE than 10,000 Twitter followers? For starters:

  1. If you speak at 30 events per year.
  2. If you run a business that has successfully served your market for years.
  3. If you are actively a part of groups and organizations that your potential readers love.
  4. If you show them ANY metric that indicates that you have a big audience – it could be blog, forum, a social network, in-person, or so much else.
  5. If you show them a marketing plan more thoughtful and strategic than “I’ll Tweet about my book. Then Tweet again.”

Fallacy #3: Mimicking Your Literary Hero Will Make You Successful

The good. As anyone who has worked with me will tell you, I’m a huge fan of researching others in your field, and doing audience research. There is so much you can learn from other authors who have found success.

The bad. Too often, I see people try to mimic the actions of successful authors, while ignoring some serious things.

For instance, an author can learn that one of their literary heroes tried a marketing tactic that worked well for them, so they seek to mimic it. The key thing they forget: this marketing tactic worked well four years ago, and that author was one of the first to use it. But today, it is common practice that is no longer as effective.

Here is an example in terms of productivity: I have seen Stephen King cited many times in terms of how he writes — what time of day he begins, how many days per week, how long per day, how his office is set up. By studying this, we hope for a “life hack” — a shortcut to Stephen’s early success.

But what do we ignore? Or simply overlook?

YES, Stephen King’s habits can serve as inspiration. If you are inspired to write on the same typewriter as Stephen King — go for it. But don’t convince yourself that it gives you an objective advantage.

What do we ignore in Stephen King’s story? The years of drug and alcohol abuse that nearly killed him. (See this interview as well.) I see plenty of quotes about Stephen King’s productivity habits from his early years, and few reminders of his drug & alcohol regimen.

You can’t reverse engineer someone else’s success, pick out the bad parts, and think that this creates magical system for you to follow.

Stephen’s success is inspiring. But studying his “secrets to success” can’t overlook some very serious realities.

The Solution to These 3 Fallacies

Someone emailed me recently asking how I optimize my site for search engines. I told them honestly:

“I don’t. Caring is what I am optimizing for.”

I am optimizing for the deeply human connections that allow me to better understand creative people and how to serve them.

Not jugging SEO, metadata, and such because I have convinced myself there is a technology secret. Instead, I focus on the human secret of what it means to care, to engage, to listen, to help.

SURE, tech can give you an advantage. There are all kinds of stories of those who got on YouTube early, or Twitter, or LinkedIn, or gamed SEO years ago, and how it gave them an upper hand.

Which reminds me of my favorite quote:

“Caring is a powerful business advantage.”
– Scott Johnson

Most writers and creative professionals that I speak to are overwhelmed with all they are told they have to do. My point in this post is this: Focus on what matters most to you. Focus on people, not things. Pursue opportunities that make sense, but be wary of trends that derail your focus and take you off track.


“I feel like a fraud most of the time.”

These are words that a someone said to me recently:

“I feel like a fraud most of the time.”

They were spoken by a very successful woman, with credentials from decades of experience in her field. I shared this with a mastermind group I run, and people expressed how pervasive this sentiment is. One put it this way… how easily these thoughts creep into our heads:

“I got this job by accident.”
“They didn’t mean to give me tenure.”
“They published my article unintentionally.”
“They meant to give this grant to someone else.”

I’ve heard it called “Imposter Syndrome” by many, and “Fraud Police” by Amanda Palmer. This notion that, the moment you experience success, you fear it being taken away because you don’t actually deserve it.

Very often, we consider our hopes and dreams, and we think that the biggest barriers to achieving them are outside of ourselves. That Brené Brown will never reply to your email; that the agents won’t accept your query; etc.

Too often, the biggest barrier standing in your way is yourself. The biggest barrier standing in my way, is myself.

The good news is that this barrier can be removed by embracing a simple belief:

“Yes, I deserve this.”

For many — perhaps most — people, this is huge.

I look for this all the time — those who keep trying, and in doing so, find success that can be so rare. Let me give you an example. A client of mine, Sam Polk, had a breakout moment when he had an article published in The New York Times. It led to massive media exposure, and is the foundation for so many of the things he is working on now. This is how it happened:

“I submitted my essay ‘For the Love of Money‘ to the New York Times blind — I didn’t know anyone there, and sent it to their general email address. I didn’t hear back from them for a month, and so resubmitted it. That day I resubmitted it, I got an email back from the head OpEd page editor who said she was interested.”

The part of this story that resonates with me is that after a month of silence, he resubmitted the essay. Can you imagine that? Like, you email Oprah, don’t hear back, and then reach out to Oprah again.

Remember that moment in Shawshank Redemption when Andy begins sending a letter every week to the state, asking for funds to expand the library? Then, six years later, they give him a small grant in order to shut him up. His response? Begin sending two letters every week.

For Sam, it’s not just the power of persistance, but the value of believing in himself. Another thing he shared that shows the value of believing in your own work:

“I got my agent on my 82nd agent query.”

Eighty-two queries. Can you imagine that? The result? Sam’s book, For the Love of Money, is being published by Scribner in July.

Here is a similar note from author Tammy Greenwood, which she posted to Facebook:

Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 2.00.41 PM

So again, this is after she writes the book, after she gets an agent, they query the first publisher. Nothing. Then another. Nothing. Another. Nothing… on and on until they get to the 18th publisher. At so many points in this process it is easy to take your foot off the gas pedal in a moment of feeling like, “Well, maybe I just don’t deserve this. Everyone is rejecting me.”

Again, it is not just about persistence, but feeling as though you are worth it. That the book you crafted is worth it.

Another author I have worked with, Allison Leotta, is in the middle of launching her latest novel, The Last Good Girl. A couple weeks back, she shared this on Facebook:

Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 7.59.38 AM

Just consider the work involved in writing the book, in publishing the book, and in setting up the book tour and other promotional plans. Here she is tapping into her local community to help support her family as makes all of this happen.

It is a subtle — but critical — way of saying “Yes, I deserve this.”

You may be thinking, “Come on Dan, this is all obvious… of course Sam, Tammy, and Allison deserve this.” I agree with you. Yet, it may not be that easy on the inside. Let me give you an example…

One of the big draws of any conference for writers is the “pitch slam.” Authors are able to meet with literary agents one-on-one, and pitch their book within something like a two-minute time frame.

I can’t even tell you how many authors I have spoken to who have have told me that, after months of preparation, they pitched the agents loved the book idea! For instance, three out of five of the agents would have said, “Here is my card, send me your manuscript. I definitely want to read this.”

Awesome, right?

Yet what I have found to be a common reaction among so many authors is that they do nothing. They never follow up with the agent.

I hear that story again and again. There is always a specific reason about being busy, or the draft not being ready, or some other conflict, such as waiting to hear back from an agent they had already queried, or worrying that since the pitch slam was three weeks ago, they missed their window.

To put this as a sport metaphor: They had their shot, they took it, it went in the hoop, and… they walked off the court mid-game.

I work with a lot of authors, and I try to give advice to as many others as possible. To all of them, including those who are wildly successful, the first piece of advice I would give is this:

“Yes, you deserve this.”

Thank you,

Five steps to social media bliss

Again and again I hear from people that they struggle with social media. Two challenges always come up. Tell me if you resonate with these:

  1. Overwhelm – it takes a lot of time and feels like a distraction. You wonder how people manage it all.
  2. Effectiveness – your efforts on social media seem to fall flat, and you lack any real sense of connection with others. The “social” part of “social media” seems to be missing.

Bottom line: You just don’t feel good about social media, and it doesn’t give you a sense of accomplishment when you use it. It makes you feel like I did in the 7th grade lunchroom in 1986. Everyone had their Benetton game on fire, and I couldn’t figure out why my Smurf sweatshirt wasn’t gaining me friends.

So let’s — RIGHT NOW — solve this social media problem for you once and for all. I’m going to take you through five steps to social media bliss.

Let’s dig in.

Step 1: Put all of your eggs in one basket.

Whenever I see someone’s social media feed that’s lifeless, it is often because they are half-assing it. They are trying to do too many things and are spread way too thin. For instance, they’re trying to juggle all of these at once:

  • Twitter updates
  • Facebook updates
  • Tumblr reblogs
  • Instagram posts
  • Snapchat stories (okay, this likely won’t apply to you if you are over 13)
  • LinkedIn connections
  • and so much else.

Spreading your eggs among too many different baskets has you running around trying to ensure all the eggs are safe. You take the boring middle-of-the road strategy for each. You are out of breath just keeping up with it all.

But when all of your eggs are in one basket, consider the difference. You protect that basket as if your life depends on it. You are all in with that basket. You want that basket of eggs to hatch, to learn to fly, to populate the earth with your amazing creations.

That is how I recommend you view social media. Stop half-assing it on all the channels you are told you “have to be on.”

Should you be strategic here? Sure. Do the needed research to understand:

  • Who your audience is.
  • What social media channels engage them most.
  • Why that is — how it aligns to their passions or challenges.

You may even want to go through a testing period after you do this research. Set a time limit, like 60 days, to experiment with a handful of social channels. See what works for you, and test every assumption you have about if/how it engages your ideal audience.

Here is an example of how Leah Shoemaker, who is a designer on my team, focuses her social media efforts:

  • Leah loves Instagram because it is simple and visual – perfect for design work. When she used Facebook she found she was constantly getting caught up in links that weren’t on topic (click bait). Now when she gets distracted by social media, she is getting distracted by amazing artists’ work.
  • However, when she was running social media on behalf of other businesses she found Facebook engaged people in deeper conversations and was better for promoting events, and Twitter helped make real connections with other industry professionals.

She chose specific channels based on the effectiveness around her goals.

The first step here is simple. Pick ONE or TWO social media channels to focus on. All of the rest you should ignore. Think of it this way: it’s difficult to date 6 people at once, right? Impossible to meet the relationship needs to truly honor each person.

So view social media as a bit of a marriage at first. Invest in ONE person. Or in this case, one channel.

When I interviewed Dani Shapiro recently, she talked about how challenging it is when the device we create on is also the device filled with distraction — the computer.

So you could pop into Facebook or Twitter for a specific business purpose, and find yourself easily distracted by other things. I mean, Facebook and Twitter work really hard to distract you.

To help keep yourself on track, consider using time tracking tools such as RescueTime or Freedom.

Above I described how Leah chose specific social media channels for specific uses; she uses time tracking software for the following reasons:

  • To track how much time she was actually spending on certain websites so she could truly see where she needed to re-prioritize her time. In other words, she wasn’t guessing, and she wasn’t relying just on her emotions — she had actual data to see where she could be the most productive.
  • She set goals in the program, attributed different websites and computer programs into “productive” categories, and could then see visual charts and graphs as to where her time was going.

Charts and graphs make everything better, right?!

Step 2: View social media as a salon, not a press release.

If your marketing strategy is “Tweet about my thing, then Tweet about it again” you are in trouble.

Not only isn’t that really marketing, it is just the worst use of social media. Don’t think of social media as advertising, where you measure effectiveness by “reach” and “frequency,” but rather think of it as a gathering of like minds.

This could be a salon, a cafe, a dinner party, or that awkward collection of stranded parents in the corner at a five-year-old’s birthday party. (Yes, I have a five-year-old.)

What do you talk about? Two things:

  • First, if you are a caring and empathetic human being, you will first ask questions. You will endeavor to bridge the gap between you and them by seeking out stories, interests, and shared challenges.
  • Second, you don’t tell people what you do for a living. No one cares about the job that you took on a lark when you were 28 and have been trapped in for the past 15 years. Instead tell them what you are passionate about. How do you like spending your time? Don’t bore them with how you spend 10 hours a day at some job. Instead, focus on the one hour a week that lights your fire.

How can you talk about your values, your goals, the thing you most hope to create in the world? First, you have to know what your mission is, then you have to reach people who will also feel aligned to this.

Let’s say that you are an author considering how to use social media. Which option sounds better?

  • I wrote this book — you should buy it. (Advertising)
  • I wrote this book because I was really inspired by (INSERT CREATIVE HERO). They encouraged me to think about _________. Do you have any experiences similar to this? (Discussion)

One of these adds spam to the world. The other creates a relationship. Always invest in the relationship. It is “social” media, after all.

Step 3: Tell us what you want to say in your heart, not what you think we want to hear.

Find your voice. If you are just going to retweet the same things as everyone else; just mimic the “best practices” and trends of the moment, then please do me a favor. Don’t bother.

The world doesn’t need for you to be the millionth person to retweet something. What we need is your unique voice.

My son has been watching Mister Rogers, and it reminds me of his singular, powerful message: “I love you just the way you are.”

That never before in the history of mankind has there ever been anyone like you. And never again will there be anyone like you.

This is your moment. What would you like to say to the world?

Step 4: Reward those you are already connected to.

Every time someone tells me, “Gee Dan, I hate Twitter, I only have 60 followers,” I want to puke.

Can you imagine having a party and having 60 people show up? Or you have a book signing and 60 people are in line to meet you? That would be awesome right? Why is that a “dream,” but 60 followers on Twitter is often considered an embarrassing failure?

If I could encourage you to do just ONE thing, it is this: instead of vying for that 61st follower, why not instead focus your energy on making the 60 people who chose to follow you feel like the most special people ever.

No, this is not about catering to an audience, but rather, appreciating that you have one. You can still be your weird offbeat self. But perhaps pay attention to those who have opted in to care about you.

I mean, isn’t that what we really want? To be recognized. To be appreciated. To be… break out the Kleenex… loved?

This isn’t rocket science either. Ask your audience questions. Respond to them. For example, I wrote three blog posts recently that each asked a question at the end. I received dozens and dozens of responses, and then responded back to each one.

It felt AMAZING. Recognize those who recognize you.

Step 5: Identify five people to invest in.

Grow your audience by investing in them. Find five new people on social media whose work you love. Invest in them. Tell them what you love about their work and give them a follow. The key is to make this authentic — to truly find work that inspires you, and be honest with the person about how you feel.

Consider how much you would brighten their day by not just clicking “follow,” but sending a thank you Tweet. And perhaps not just that, but sending them a thank you email. And then perhaps sending them a thank you letter in the mail.

And imagine how much they would notice you if you sent them a plate of brownies. I’m. Not. Kidding.

There has been so much talk about “vying for influencers’ attention” in the past five years. Do you know what influencers like? Brownies. Do you know how many brownies they receive in the mail each year? NONE. Give them brownies. With a lovely handwritten thank you letter.

Free Worksheet

Click here to download my free worksheet that helps you take these five steps to social media bliss:

Social Media Bliss

If you would like to hear more of my thoughts on social media, here are some previous blog posts I have shared on the topic:

Are you still struggling with social media? Reply below and let me know how my team and I can help you with a specific challenge you are trying to work past.


How to become a bestselling author

I just launched a new series of articles with my friend, New York Times bestselling author Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. The aim is to provide honest, practical advice to writers negotiating the murky waters of publication, especially around their roles in publicity and marketing, where so much is expected and often so little guidance is offered.

The series is called “How I Book,” and we are posting the series on Medium.com. We are planning weekly posts throughout the winter and spring. Here are the first two:

This is a topic I will be talking a lot about in the coming weeks: how does one develop an audience for their work? How do you launch your work into the world in a way that is both compelling and filled with meaning?

Earlier this week I also published a piece on Writer Unboxed. Yes, it’s been a busy week of publishing articles! That one is titled Don’t Worry, It Only Gets Harder. Sorry for the ominous title. The crux of the piece is a quote from author Dani Shapiro. Despite being on Oprah, having multiple bestselling books, having been published in The New Yorker, Dani says this about the daily practice of writing:

“Not only doesn’t it get any easier, it actually gets harder.”

The piece encourages you to invest in your craft and your support system. This consists of your collaborators (yes, you need collaborators), your mental health (we DO NOT talk about this enough), your physical health, and doubling down on connecting with those who already support and love your work.

As I think about what it takes to develop a body of work that you are proud of, to craft and launch your work, and to develop an audience, I think that Casey Neistat explains it really well:

“There are two rules that I always adhere to: work hard and be brave. I think the essence of hard work is that you’ll never be the best-looking, the tallest, the most talented, the most capable. You’ll never have the most money. There will always be someone better at whatever you’re doing than you are. But you can always be the hardest working person in the room and I think the hardest working person will always win.”

“Life shrinks and expands in direct proportion to one’s willingness to take on risk.”

“I think when it comes to exploring, the act of exploration is the act of assuming risk. The greater risk taker is the greater explorer.”

When you consider what it takes to launch your work and develop an audience, what are the questions I can answer for you?


P.S. Yes, this is a final heads-up that registration for my Fearless Work course ends tonight at midnight.

Why I said ‘no’ to a free trip to Hawaii

Last week I was offered a free, all-expense paid trip to Hawaii. This included airfare from New Jersey, a hotel room with an ocean view, luau, hiking, the whole package.

The context was this: I was invited to speak at what looks to be an AMAZING conference. The organizer invited me herself, and I was bowled over by how impressive she is, and how thoughtful the event was.

I would be sure to meet some “heavy hitters” in the publishing world as well.

But after much thought and consideration, I said, “No thank you.”

Today, I would like to talk about why I came to that decision, and how this relates to how each of you can find more time and focus to do the work that matters most to you. At the end of the post, I’ll give you a small assignment to get you started.

What I Say YES to Matters More Than What I Say NO to

In the past few years, I have seen lots of articles and talks online about “the power of saying no.” This really seems to resonate with people, this word “no.”

For one, I think most people have a very difficult time saying no. We want to please others; we want to avoid conflict; and oftentimes it is easier to just do the thing they are asking than figure out how to get out of it.

I never resonated with NO though. What I focus on instead is saying YES.

Like, full-on, deeply, emphatically saying YES to a handful of things that matter most to me.

For me, saying no to Hawaii wasn’t a negative. It wasn’t a loss. It was saying YES to the things I care about deeply.

Very often, when I hear people talk about “the power of saying no,” it is in the context of removing things that they don’t want to do. For instance, “Say ‘no’ to going to the PTA meeting that you dread.” Or “Say ‘no’ to volunteering for a committee at work that you don’t believe in, but would only do so because of peer pressure.”

In the past few weeks, I have been talking a lot about what stands between you and your creative work (here and here.) Distraction is high up on that list.

This distraction includes real responsibilities, as well as new and shiny things. This may include checking Facebook constantly, or rushing over to Target for a big sale, or — yes — a free trip to Hawaii.

Something so appealing that it seems like an obvious “yes.”

Let’s try this out:

Me: Would you like a free trip to Hawaii?
You: Um, of course.

But this is so often why we are overwhelmed. Why we feel like we are constantly distracted. Always treading water. Always distant from our passion.

Distraction takes us away from devoting our focus to the things that matter most. The problem is not just that we say yes to too many things, but we don’t identify the few key things that matter most, and commit fully.

In other words: we don’t say YES to what we want with emphasis. We say “yes” meekly. This is a huge problem.

You may be asking, “Gee Dan, what do you believe in so deeply that a free weeklong stay in Hawaii would get in the way of?”

Two things:

  • My wife and son
  • My work

These are the two things that matter to me more than anything. The things I have taken huge risks in my life to focus on in the best way I can. The things that I wake up each and every day deeply thankful for. I don’t treat these as flippant obligations for even a moment. Instead, I view them as privileges I must honor.

Sorry if that sounds flaky, but that is genuinely how I feel. Let me explain…

To go to Hawaii without my wife and son means being away from them for a week, which is a big gap. I especially don’t like having such a big experience as Hawaii without them. Yes, I did the math on bringing them along. It doesn’t work out (I’ll take you through the math in a moment).

For my work — this is my passion. I love the work that I do, who I get to collaborate with, and the vision I have for what is being created because of it.

This is where math comes in. Right now I have a full plate of clients and projects. I LOVE working with these folks. To take a week off would require me to not charge them for that week. With a full roster of clients, that would cost me thousands in lost billing.

Likewise, to bring my wife and son along would cost at least a couple grand.

So, just for the sake of this post, let’s say it would be an outright cost of $5,000 to take this opportunity. That is still way less than a normal Hawaii vacation.

But then Diane Krause, who works for me, framed it this way: “Lotta money for a trip that’s not 100% vacation.”

In other words, I would be half-assing it.

There are things in life I gladly half-ass. I half-ass it when I wash the car. But I don’t half-ass it when it comes to my family or my work. I’m all in.

Are there very good arguments for going to Hawaii? Of course. As my brother pointed out, “It would take only one good connection that turns into a new client to make this wildly worthwhile.” In other words, going to the event could feasibly turn into tens of thousands of dollars of revenue.

And that is 100% true.

This is another aspect of saying YES vs. saying NO. I mentioned I have a full roster of clients. To me, that means I am saying YES to them as emphatically as possible. I will not trade a bird in hand for two in the bush. I see myself as a partner with my clients. I am invested in their mission.

Removing myself for that for a week because I am chasing some big name client does not resonate with how I like to work.

Another person I spoke to when weighing my options was Jennie Nash. She talked about how this opportunity was the shiny object that leads to distraction. She put it this way:

“EVERYONE would say yes to this. Even if it meant they would be busy and overwhelmed, and it meant their wife would be mad at them. It’s because they rushed for the shiny object and were distracted from what matters most.”

This is why Jennie and I are friends. For the record, my wife was very supportive of my decision.

But in this process, I wanted to fully own up to my motivations. At every step, I had to ask myself, “Am I considering taking this trip because it is a boondoggle?” This is the word I remember from working in corporate America, used to describe an expensive trip that executives wanted to take for personal reasons, only mildly justifying it for business reasons.

I didn’t want to just selfishly grab at a free vacation. That would not honor the incredible generosity of the event organizer. It wouldn’t honor my clients and my commitment to them. And it wouldn’t honor my own intentions to my work and family.

Clarity Should Provide Direction

When I wrote out those two things above, that my focus was intently on my wife and son, and my work, that sounded kind of trite, right? You perhaps nodded your head, “Duh, Dan. Of course those things matter to you.”

For me, being super clear about what matters is not meant to illustrate values, but instead to provide direction. It is a decision-making tool.

For instance, have you ever heard someone say, “The thing I want most in the world is to write.” But they never write. Or someone who says “Time with my mother is more important than anything.” Yet, they barely see her.

Clarity is a tool. One you have to use actively.

This is where a simple list of what matters most to me turns into a strategy. A strategy to creating the experiences and results I want most in my life.

In the Hawaii instance, it was a fun idea to imagine, but the bottom line is:

  • I would be creating distance between me and my family.
  • I would be walking out on my clients.

The two things that matter most to me.

In writing this post, I reflected on my decision-making process. How was a choice about a free trip to Hawaii something that could be viewed as strategic, instead of reactionary? How could it be filled with clarity?

These are the three steps I took:

  1. I listened to my emotions. What was my gut telling me?
  2. I wrote down justifications for going vs not going. I tried to clear away the sparkle of the phrase “FREE TRIP TO HAWAII.”
  3. I spoke to trusted business advisors. This consisted first of Diane Krause who works for me, then my brother, then Jennie Nash. And of course, my wife.

Below I am going to give you a small homework assignment that aligns with these three steps. I give each a title:

  1. Your true north
  2. Your map
  3. Your compass

But first…

Your Biggest Challenge

A few days ago I sent out a newsletter and asked “what is the biggest challenge standing between you and your creative work?” I received dozens of thoughtful responses. The big overaching theme in the answers was this:

“Me. I’m the biggest thing standing in my way. I can’t get out of my own way.”

Of all the responses, this one jumped out at me:

“My job was so draining that I always felt too tired and hopeless to try writing again.”

“Then, guess what? I got cancer last year. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. My friends and family couldn’t believe that I wasn’t wailing and grieving, but I saw it as a way out of my prison.”

“I have 4 ebooks out now, nearly finished with 3 more, and 11 more in the research stage. I’m almost finished with my first fiction, which I thought I could never write.”

“I’m loving my life and I get up every morning looking forward to getting back to writing. Never, in the last 30 years, have I woken up happy and excited like this. We are poor right now, but it is what it is. I don’t know if I’ll ever make a living by writing, but I bet my last years will be wonderful. This is better than retirement.”

“It sounds so trite to say life is short, but that is an understatement. I hope other writers don’t wait for cancer to free them from themselves.”

In other words, it took CANCER for her to get out of her own way, and to emphatically say YES to the things that mattered most to her. It took cancer for her to find her true north, her map, and her compass.

Again, this is where tactics fail us, and where strategy becomes essential. The scope of changes she needed to make in her life couldn’t be solved by downloading a new to-do app, or via a simple “life hack.” It required a massive reshift.

Scary, right? Not just the cancer, but the thought of needing such a shift. Most people hate uncertainty and change. I get that. So, let’s do a simple task to get things started for you…

Here is Your Homework

This is what I would like for you to do, the goal is to create a system that helps accomplish three things:

  1. Identify what matters most to you — your true north.
  2. Decide where you want to go — your map.
  3. Ensure you stay on that track — your compass.

Finding Your True North
Get out a stack of index cards, or a suitable substitute. Then, one item per index card, write down everything that is important to you.

When you are done, lay them out on the floor or a large table.

Move them around with the most critical things at the top. This may take some time. Try to create layers of threes. A row of your three biggest priorities at the top, then three beneath it that are a tiny bit less important, then three beneath that, and so on.

Take a photo of it.

Then, wipe away everything beneath the top three items. Have a trash can handy.

Again, this is not about saying NO, but about emphatically saying YES to the three things that matter most to you.

The final step is to honor those things. If you want to do meaningful work, but hate your job, then you need to address that.

Okay, now you have your true north.

Creating Your Map 
If you are following along with my emails from the past week, you should already have this one done. Answer this question:

If you knew you couldn’t fail, what is the one thing you would like to accomplish with your creative work?

Think about it perhaps not as a milestone to reach, but an EXPERIENCE you would live each day. Or an EFFECT you want to create in the lives of others.

This is your map.

Setting Your Compass
Your compass is what keeps you on track. What helps you make decisions when the variables aren’t so simple. This is not a “thing,” but rather, trusted advisors. Someone you can bounce ideas off of; who offers a different perspective; whose wisdom you trust.

Spoiler alert: this is not always someone from your immediate family. Sometimes it is someone who understands you as an artist before they see you as someone responsible for house and home. Someone who defines in terms of what you can create, not just what you provide for them.

I listed four trusted advisors above. How they became so varies:

  • Diane Krause is someone I hired. She is my go-to person on a day-to-day basis to discuss business and strategy. We use Slack (a text messaging service) to chat when we need to, without interrupting each other.
  • My brother is someone I trust implicitly. He also tends to have a slightly different perspective than I do, which is why I called him next. Clearly, this was a relationship I was born into.
  • Jennie Nash is someone I have a private mastermind group with — meaning we meet weekly to review challenges we are working through. As I have said before, Jennie is amazing.
  • My wife — my most trusted partner.

Two of the above are family. But TWO are relationships that I had to take efforts to forge in the past couple of years. I would encourage you to do the same. Map out clear steps to identify others who can be trusted advisors outside of your family.

This is your compass.

Take Action

In the next few days, click reply and email me the following:

  1. Your true north: The three things that matter most to you.
  2. Your map: A single sentence describing where you want to go — the experience you want to create in your life — with your creative work.
  3. Your compass: The first names of 1-3 people who are your trusted advisors.

These things represent clarity. The biggest tool you can have when battling distraction, overwhelm, and lack or resources.

On Monday I will send you another note with something really special I will be offering to help you take your true north, your map, and your compass and embark on your own journey to doing more of the creative work that you love most.