The Pit: Where Creatives Fall Into Despair


“The Pit of Discomfiture,”writes Julie Zhuo , “is a place with which I am well acquainted, having spent a good number of years here on the way to every conceivable destination, all the while pretending I were someplace more pleasant.”

Every creative falls into a state of doubt (about themselves, their talents, or their passions) during their careers, and Zhuo is no different. She explains in a recent post on Medium:

When you are currently stuck in the Pit, it sucks. And it is extraordinarily difficult to admit, even to yourself. You either delude yourself into thinkingnothing is wrong with you (it’s the environment conspiring against you—the shitty weather, your boss, that meeting, the whole stinkin’ culture of this place), or everything is wrong with you (the way you look and talk and think and act—the very atoms that make up your being, in fact—all of it is wrong.)

There are two ways out: backwards or forwards — but only one leads to growth.

The first is to forego the whole adventure and take the elevator back to the start. Yes, it’s as easy as it sounds…

The second way out of the Pit is to wander through the dankness, tripping and stumbling in the dark until your feet strike something solid—a step, a slight elevation to push off of until you are just a few inches higher than you were. And then you do it again—trip and stumble and wander until you find the next step. And the next. And the next… This path is hard… Your ego will take a bruising on those jagged walls. You may get lost for weeks or months or even years. And everything you produce while on this path [seem like] garbage…

But at the end, know that there is nothing like it. To have gone through the Pit, to have climbed it rock by painstaking rock and emerged capable of creating the kind of work that pleases you, the kind that filled you with inspiration in the first place—nobody ever regrets the journey,

As Goethe once said, “Everything is hard before it is easy.”

Read the rest of the article here, or see Zhou speak at the 2014 99U Conference on May 1-2

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How to Get 90% of Your Work Done Before Lunch

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Over on Inc., Neil Patel, co-founder of KISSmetrics, shares 16 tips for getting 90 percent of your work done in the morning, after which you can push back from your desk to enjoy a leisurely lunch.

His approach is built on the Pareto principle, which holds that 80 percent of your results come from 20 percent of your efforts. Arrange the layout of your work day by front-loading, so that you’re executing the meat of your workload when you’re freshest and firing on all cylinders.

A few favorites from his suggestions:

Schedule your day the night before. Every day, you should list all your tasks and when you’re going to do them the following day. You will not be productive unless you plan out everything you’re going to do the next morning. Quick tip: Don’t schedule too much. Keep your to-do schedule light to actually accomplish real work.

Make 60-second decisions. Decision making is a time-draining vortex. When you’re faced with a decision in the course of your work, give yourself a one-minute limit. Your decision will be just as good, but it will take less time.

Do your writing early on. Writing is one of the most mentally demanding tasks. However, writing also has the power of focusing your brain and improving your productivity. Do you writing early in the day, and you’ll improve both the quality of your writing and the rest of your day.

Reward yourself at a certain time. Set the clock–a countdown timer if you have to. At a certain point, you’re going to stop. So, stop. Break out the kazoos, throw some confetti, and do your happy dance. It’s time to reward yourself.

What better motivation than a refreshing mid-day break and the knowledge that you’ve drilled through the bulk of your workload? You’ll be primed to zero in on the remaining 10 percent.


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Why Quitting Is OK

By Bettina Tan

By Bettina Tan

Conventional wisdom holds that the higher echelons of any industry are populated by people who never quit. But writer and designer Sarah Kathleen Peck suggests that quitting is not only OK, it can be richly constructive.

In a post on Medium, Peck describes what she learned from observing her enduring pattern of enthusiastically starting projects, pausing partway through, and beating herself up for failing to ship:

What was happening? Why was I quitting? Life happened. Things got hard, they got rough: deadlines built up. Real work pulled me in. The need to take a run and take care of my body surfaced. The competing pulls of attention and focus and deadlines wrapped me in their compelling arms. But something else was happening, too. Ten days of paper-crafting…led me to building an entirely new online program of my own.

Skimming the lessons in a business-building mastermind opened up a new way of creating sales pages. Reading half of a book propelled me into my next project. And then it hit me: what if I was getting exactly what I needed?

The idea is that quitting can beneficially lead to embarking on a different project that’s informed and nourished by the abandoned one. Peck suggests that it’s possible the ego is the only part of ourselves that actually cares about finishing, at least when it comes to exploratory creative work:

You don’t have to do everything to get something out of it…. No one said you have to get 100% done and be perfect to enjoy the fruits of your progress.

If you’re working on something that’s not beholden to someone else’s deadline or parameters, don’t finish for the sake of finishing. Quit to see what space you’ve opened up for something even greater.


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WALL-E & Why You Should Embrace Creative Wandering

On the commentary track (around 5:11) for Pixar’s animated film, WALL-E, director and writer Andrew Stanton discusses how the creative process can sometimes lead you to unexpected places and hard decisions:   

I always sort of always equate story development to an archaeological dig, in that you kind of know the dinosaur you want to dig up and where it is. You pick a piece on the ground and you start digging and you bring up bones and you start trying to piece together this dinosaur or the story you’re trying to find, but you just don’t have much say about which bones you’re going to get and what bones they are…

Stanton understands that sometimes everything about your dig will point to a tyrannosaurus rex. Then at the last minute you’ll dig up something and realize all your bones were backwards and you actually have a stegosaurus. He asks the hard question: do you shift everything around at the last minute to show a stegosaurus or do you just force it to be a tyrannosaurus rex?

Even if it extends the deadline, it’s better to realign your project then to force it to be something it’s not. When the creative process takes your concept for a spin, go with it. Stanton concludes, “I am very, very lucky that I work for a place that encourages last minutes ideas.”


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When Decision-Making Becomes Procrastination



Jason Norcross, executive creative director at advertising agency 72andSunny, knows that when you have too many ideas or options, it’s easy to overanalyze every option before making a decision. In an interview with Fast Company, he says the best option is just to pick one and see what happens:

The best way to learn, create and move forward is to be decisive. It’s OK to be wrong, but make a decision because then you’ll learn. At least you’ll know you’re wrong and can move on. As opposed to just over-thinking and debating things… If it seems like it’s meeting the brief and it’s the right thing to do, then pursue it. If it doesn’t come to life for whatever reason, then reboot and go in a new direction.

When you spend so much time trying to decide what the best direction is, you burn people out and stop making progress. No one has time for that. Select an idea that fits the solution and leave time to try another idea if it doesn’t work out. If something is going to fail, it’s better to find out sooner than later so you can change direction.


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Get to Inbox Zero: Email Like a Journalist

Photo by Herschell Hershey

Photo by Herschell Hershey

Lost productivity is costly. According to multiple research studies, the average person receives more than 304 business emails a week. The average worker checks their inbox 36 times in an hour, and then spends about 16 minutes refocusing after handling incoming email. The studies show that the annual productivity costs per employee are $1250 for spam emails, $1800 for unnecessary emails, and $2100-$4100 just for poorly written ones. 

Founder, and the author of Work Simply, Carson Tate, explains:

“We are all bogged down by the sheer volume of email we receive and to which we must respond. That volume grows even more daunting because so much of that communication is unclear, ambiguous and flat out sloppy. These sloppy emails waste your time. And they cost you hours each week. Which means they’re also costing you money.”

She suggests that we can dramatically reduce the volume of email messages we receive by crafting email messages using the key foundations of journalism: who, what, why, and how. It may seem obvious, but utilizing all four in one emails ensures that your message is understood upon the first read, and does not require multiple back and forth emails asking clarifying questions.

Who?  This breaks down into two sub-questions: “Who needs to respond to, take action on, or make a decision about this information?” Put their name(s) on the to: line. “Who needs to know this information?” Put their name(s) on the cc: line.

Why? Look back at the names on the to: line and the cc: line. For each name, ask yourself, “Why is this person involved in the project?”…Make sure the tone, style, and content of your email matches up—just as you would choose appropriate words, tone, and body language if you were sitting across a table from them and discussing the topic in person…

What? “What is the purpose of the email?…What are the key facts? What references or research data need to be included?”…

How? Ask yourself, “How do I want recipients to respond?” Describe this explicitly in your email. If there’s a deadline, say so. If you want an email response, say that…Never assume that people will understand what you want—tell them as straightforwardly as possible.


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Why Community Managers Are the New Brand Managers


Whereas brands used to push their products and messages out in what was essentially a one-way conversation, the social web has transformed it into a two-way conversation. Which means that we have to learn to speak authentically and honestly to our customers, and that we can’t hide when we make mistakes.

To learn how to deftly navigate this new dynamic, we chatted up one of the most talked-about brands on the social web—Warby Parker, the eyeglasses-cum-lifestyle brand that has been a mad success from day one. Here, co-founder and co-CEO Neil Blumenthal breaks down how to be okay with leading a brand that you can’t totally control:

Where do you think brands go wrong when they’re trying to build an authentic relationship with customers? 
People have extremely sensitive BS detectors these days. We’ve all been inundated with advertisements since we started walking and talking. So we can pick up on a brand’s authenticity—or fakeness—immediately. As a brand, you can only engender trust if you’re being transparent. Brands have never been able to control what their customers say about them, but now, thanks to the Internet, customers are more empowered than ever to disseminate their experiences with a brand. Companies can’t hide. If you make a mistake, or you do something wrong, it’s going to get out there. And if you’re not proactive about responding when it happens, you’re going to dig yourself into a deeper hole. 

What’s the best way to go about being “proactive” when something goes wrong? 
I think it goes back to transparency. The first thing to do is admit it. Explain what happened and apologize. Your customers can be very understanding provided that you enable them to be understanding, which means that you need to have an honest discussion with them and fess up when you make a mistake. 

For instance, think about if you call any of our favorite cell phone carriers. [laughs] It used to be that they were just rude and didn’t solve your problem. Now, they’re often polite, but they still don’t solve your problems. So, they’re getting a little bit better, but you still want to break your phone in half after one of those conversations. 

So being polite and friendly and apologizing is part of it. But it’s just the first part. Then you have to actually correct the situation. For us, that might be offering a discount, it might be offering free glasses, it might be doing whatever it takes to get that person a pair of glasses before they go on vacation. It’s the little things that make a brand great. It’s about being diligent with details, keeping your antennae sensitive to what customers want, and responding in a way that’s authentic to your brand. It sounds intuitive, but the fact is that many brands are not treating their customers the way they want to be treated. 

Do you think the dynamic of the social web means there’s more of an interplay between customers and brands than there’s been in the past? Can brands still control the conversation? 
I was talking to Troy Carter—an investor who also used to be Lady Gaga’s manager—the other day, and he made a really interesting observation. We were discussing Warby Parker, and he said, “It’s not your brand; it’s our brand.” “Our” being the public. And I think he’s right: You do not control your brand anymore. You can influence it and help guide the conversation, but there’s a limit to how precisely you can define your brand on your own. 

This idea that a brand will conform to a nice PowerPoint presentation with a strict brand architecture and messaging hierarchy is no longer the case. Your brand is part of conversations that are being had in the streets, on Twitter, and on Instagram. And the best that you can do is help influence that dialogue by giving people reasons to talk positively about it. These days, your community managers are your brand managers.

This is an excerpt from 99U’s new book, Make Your Mark, which features 21 essays and interviews on building a creative business with impact.

Get  “Make Your Mark” now –>


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