2020 in Review

2020 will go down as a touchstone in human history. This was a year that saw a global pandemic fundamentally shift the way people work and live. While there is a tremendous amount of negative things that we can look back at, I’ve found that it’s always better to focus on the positive. I needed to take this approach for 2020 more than ever.

Each year, I sit down and review my journal from the past year to look at what goals I’ve reached, what the highlights were, and what lessons I can take away from the year. While a number of goals were unobtainable due to the pandemic, I still accomplished a great deal that I’m proud of:

None of this was done alone. I was reminded of the value of having a network of family and friends to be there for support and encouragement. It underscored for me the need to continue to support and encourage others where I can.

The lesson I learned this year wasn’t new, but really deepened an already held belief: Be content. Make the best of what you have. Focus on what you can do, and don’t fixate on what you can’t do.

Free but not cheap

I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote from Austin Kleon: “Free, but not cheap.”

There are a lot of free things that we consume everyday that have a cost behind it; a creator who is putting together and sharing work with the world without asking for direct payment in return. It could be art, podcasts, newsletters, blogs, etc.

We also ask friends or people in our network for help or advise. We don’t expect to pay for that help, and typically you wouldn’t. But is their expertise really free? No, it’s the result of hours of learning and experience, yet they’re willing to share this expertise with friends for free.

So how do you recognize the value of these free things? Share it with others. Pay it forward, as it were. And do what you can to recommend the work of others when you can, especially if you enjoy it and get some value from what that creator is providing you.

Maybe buy that friend lunch or a cup of coffee. Show gratitude to them for the time and attention they give to you. Doing this will show that you value the cost behind what you got for free.

The Value of Doing Something Badly

Fast Company published an article about how now is a great time to make mediocre art, and it reminded me of one of my favorite essays, The Perfect Game by G.K. Chesterton.  I encourage you to take few minutes and read the entire essay; but to summarize, Chesterton is playing a game of croquet with a friend and is getting beaten badly.  Chesterton’s friend asks him why he bothers even playing croquet since he is so bad at it.  Here is his response:

It is only we who play badly who love the Game itself. You love glory; you love applause; you love the earthquake voice of victory; you do not love croquet. You do not love croquet until you love being beaten at croquet. It is we the bunglers who adore the occupation in the abstract. It is we to whom it is art for art’s sake. If we may see the face of Croquet herself (if I may so express myself) we are content to see her face turned upon us in anger. Our play is called amateurish; and we wear proudly the name of amateur, for amateurs is but the French for Lovers.

Chesterton is saying that his friend only likes to play croquet because he is good at it.  But his friend does not love croquet.  It is really Chesterton who loves the game, because he continues to play even though he is so bad at it.

For me, this idea hits home.  I’ve been playing pick-up soccer for some time now, and I am very, very bad at it. I started playing soccer late in life at about 30 compared to most people who I play with who have been playing since they were kids. Yet, I have stuck with it over the years, in spite of jeers both internal and external because I love playing soccer.  

As time has gone on, I know I have gotten better at playing soccer; but that’s not really the point. I do it and keep going because I enjoy it, I do it for the love of playing the game.

This idea can really be applied to anything – art, music, learning.  If you really enjoy something, you should continue to do it for the love of it. As Austin Kleon says in his book Keep Going, having a daily practice insulates you from success, failure, and the chaos of the outside world. It’s good for mental health.

You don’t have to be a “professional” artist or creator. It’s fine to be an amateur. It means that you really love what you’re doing.

Working through obstacles

This is part recommendation/part lesson.

I was listening to the podcast Cautionary Tales by Tim Hartford on Bowie, Jazz, and the Unplayable Piano. In the episode, Hartford tells the story of jazz pianist Keith Jarrett and a concert he played in Cologne, Germany.

When Keith Jarrett arrived for a sold out show at the Cologne opera house, the piano that was there for him to play was not the concert grand piano he requested, but was a much smaller baby grand that was horribly out of tune and had broken pedals.

There wasn’t enough time to get the correct piano to the opera house, and barely enough time to attempt to tune the piano. There were two choices for Jarrett: he could walk away and not perform, or he could go out and put on the best show he could given the circumstances.

Jarrett went out and performed, working around the obstacles and playing improvised music as he went.

The show was not only a hit with the audience, but the recording was released and went on to become the best-selling solo album in jazz history, and the all-time best-selling piano album with over 3.5 million in sales. (It really is a beautiful album to listen to while working. You can stream it here)

The lesson is that sometimes when obstacles are put before us, we can either give up or we can press on and do the best we can. In fact, those obstacles can lead to new, creative solutions (which is the point of Hartford’s podcast). If we decide to press on, we never know how successful we’ll be; but it’s certainly more productive than giving up.

Just Finished: Mindfulness

Mindfulness by Ellen J. Langer

This book encourages active thinking. It encourages trying to look at problems and interpersonal conflicts from multiple perspectives so as to look for different options for resolutions rather than being locked into one way of doing things simply because that’s the way it’s always been done.

For me, the key takeaways were:

  • Try and see things from multiple perspectives and avoid unhealthy bias
  • Process beats outcome, but make sure the process is working well and not just a mindless construct to blindly follow
  • Think about and ask “why” a certain thing is done a certain way or “why” someone (or you) reacted a certain way
  • Do not get hung up on over-analysis. Make a decision and move forward. There will not always be one correct answer for every problem. Rather than looking for the right decision, make the best decision you can and make the decision right.

Summer Reading: 5 Books Every Entrepreneur Should Read

Having a summer reading list shouldn’t just be for the kids.  If you’re  an entrepreneur, you should especially buy out time for reading, because it gives you knowledge and insight that can help you grow your business.  Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerburg, and hundreds of other successful business leaders devote dedicated time, usually one hour or more, to reading each day.

I’m sure you’re thinking, “that sounds great, but I’m already super busy!  Where will I find the time???”   Stop and reflect on when you have a few down moments, and ask yourself what you end up doing.  Is it surfing social media on your phone?  Could that time be better spent reading a book?

There are lots of tips on how to read more out there, but here is what has helped me read more this year:

  • I’ve made it a habit to carry a book with me wherever I go.  The time you find yourself waiting in line, waiting in the dentists office, etc. you have something to read.
  • Read during a meal.
  • Block out time on your calendar to step away and read.  You’ll find you come back refreshed from the reading break, and maybe even with an immediate insight that you can apply to a project.
  • Go to bed earlier and wind down with a few minutes of reading.  This means maybe one less episode of your latest binge-show, but so what.

So what should you be reading?  Here are top 5 books that I either gift or recommend to budding entrepreneurs that I’ve worked with:

The 4 Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss – While the promise in the title seems to be about working less, this book is really about time management.  Specifically, the tips and tools in this book will help you make the best use of your time and learn how to avoid things that swallow up your precious time.  This book out of all the others has had the greatest impact on improving my professional life.

The $100 Start Up by Chris Guillebeau – This book is one of the best I’ve read that simply explains product management concepts like value, pricing, and identifying your market.  It has dozens of simple, actionable worksheets that you can use to define and document your business practices.  It also contains dozens of case studies of successful small businesses that you’ll find inspirational.

Show Your Work by Austin Kleon – This is the best book on social media that I’ve ever read, and it’s not even really about social media.  It’s a reminder of the need to share with people something that is useful, interesting, or entertaining so that you don’t just get “followers” but actual people that are interested in you and your business.

Poke the Box by Seth Godin – This short manifesto on doing work could be summed up in three words – Do, Start, Ship.  It’s an inspirational reminder that all the planning in the world won’t make your business successful if you don’t actually produce something and share it with people.

Brains on Fire by Robbin Phillips, Greg Cordell, Geno Church, and Spike Jones – This changed book changed the way I viewed marketing, focusing less on military terms like “campaign” and “tactics”, and instead taught me how to think about really talking to people and seeing what they want.  Worth the read just for the story of how this agency helped Fiskars scissors double their profits through growing an online community.

Just Finished: Brain Rules

Brain Rules by John Medina –  This book was recommended to me by a professor of music education as a good book for learning about teaching methodology.   Even as simplified as the science is, it’s pretty heady stuff (pun intended).  However, if you do any sort of presentations or teaching, there are some good insights on how to improve the way you present.  Here were my 4 key takeaways:

  1. Review a project before starting on it, go to sleep, then start the next day.  Your brain will review the patterns all night while you sleep and help you better tackle the challenge the next day.
  2. When presenting, you’ve got seconds to grab someone’s attention and only 10 minutes to keep it.  At 9 minutes 59 seconds you must do something to restart the clock – something emotional and relevant.
  3. Stories and examples reinforce memory.
  4. Our brains pay special attention to objects in motion, so include video and animation in presentations.

The Read List

This list contains affiliate links, which means if you click on the link and make a purchase, I receive a small percentage of the sale at no cost to you. These links are not a paid endorsement of a product or service.


Poke the Box by Seth Godin This book was less than 100 pages, but I found several notations in my journal for the ideas it generated. In summary, the book is about initiating, starting, doings, and then shipping – share the idea. But from there, what is the “idea” – what would I do if I had a TED talk? What could I build? The goal with “work” should be to generate unique learnings and interactions that are worth sharing.

The $100 Start Up by Chris Guillebeau The case studies of different micro business owners has been a great aid for me in ideation, reinforcing certain product management and business basics related to pricing, business plans, and examining a market. I highly recommend it.