Don’t Worry About Dunking

I always stand when I’m on the train. It’s my way of balancing—in my mind—the damage I do to my body by sitting for 8 hours per day. I also almost always wear sunglasses.

This particular day, I stood by the door, on my way home from a meeting in the Loop. It was something past seven o’clock, which meant I’d gratefully missed the rush hour crowds. Instead, of a car full of sardined people trying not to look at each other during their commute home, I was surrounded by people coming from appointments, after-work meetings, the gym, band practice—a car full of people pushing themselves to do more.

Trains are rather predictable. Full of stops and starts. The interesting bits are the people. I don’t remember which stop it was, but suddenly—just before the doors closed—a group of boys rushed into the car. Bursting with laughter and winded from their near miss, they raced toward the other end of the car.

Then, at the next stop, they came back to the end of the car I stood on. There were three. A skinny one, a tall one, and a fat one. Probably in ninth grade and all wearing the same uniform: khakis, white shoes and a white shirt. They were coming from school.

The best part about wearing sunglasses on the train is that you can watch people without making them feel uncomfortable. So, for a short moment, I watched these three boys. I watched the way they laughed and cracked jokes on each other, as only adolescent boys do. I watched as the fat one ate two packs of donuts without offering his friends any. I listened to them interweave advanced vocabulary with random cuss words. I watched as they discussed their favorite and least favorite teachers, friends and basketball tryouts.

It was basketball that turned the tide of the conversation. As they discussed upcoming tryouts, their faces lit up with excitement. The tall one said, “I just want to dunk!” The fat one replied, “Man, you can’t dunk.” And then the skinny, shy one said, “Man, I don’t care about dunking, I just want to improve my skills.” His friends laughed at him. So he said it again. They didn’t laugh the second time, which is not to say they understood.

With my sunglasses on, I watched the entire interaction…and smiled. The tall one got off first. They cracked a joke instead of saying goodbye. Then the skinny, shy one got off, one stop away from mine. He walked off the train. The doors remained open. He walked down the stairs. The doors remained open. I wondered if I should tell him that what he said was wonderful. The doors remained open.

Running after him, I finally caught him in the street.

“Excuse me!”
“Yes, ma’am?”
“I just wanted to tell you I was listening to your conversation about basketball.”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“Well, what you said was brilliant. It will set you apart from your friends. Keep that perspective, not just in basketball, but in life. Don’t worry about dunking. Focus on improving your skills, yourself. Let that be your focus in life. Dunking, success, it will come if you keep practicing. Don’t get sidelined by the flashy tricks.”
“Yes, ma’am.”

I’m rarely pray, but as I walked home, I said a small prayer that he would remember our conversation. That as he grows up, a young black boy in a mixed-class neighborhood, he remembers that he was smart enough to see what others didn’t.

Quiet the Noise and Go with Your Gut

I am, by nature and practice, a contrarian. At a very young age, I was encouraged to ask “Why,” or, “What if we do it this way instead?” This way of being makes it difficult for me to follow others. It also makes listening to  best practices, tips and tricks, and other markety catchphrases extremely uncomfortable painful.

Because I don’t believe there’s one way to do anything–and neither should you. (I find it hilariously telling that the same folks who tell you to blaze your own trail also tell you to follow their formula.)

The best way to do something is the way that feels right to you. Don’t believe me? Let me tell you a story.

Three months ago I left a vibrant, supportive online community that’s sole purpose was to help people like me grow their business. They offered funny and informative video courses and a forum that could slay Facebook for the #1 time-sucker. I spent countless hours connecting with people, having Skype calls, helping people and being helped. I love everyone in that community, especially the three amazing guys who created it. But in the end, I had to step away.

It’s taken me a while to articulate why, but I think I’ve got it now: I couldn’t hear my gut anymore. The endless opinions on branding, product development, web design, etc. began to create a cacophony of distractions around me. Instead of acting, I became increasingly overwhelmed with information until I was simply stagnant.

Slowly, this feeling that I was no longer working in a way that was true to me began to build. With it came a realization: I needed to stop listening to everyone, take a step back and do things in my quiet, deliberate, introverted way. I needed to stick to my gut about my business decisions.

So I did. And it’s been the best decision I could have made.

  • Instead of listening to branding “gurus,” who pushed countless tools for creating your brand, I focused on communicating my company’s values–which came from my own–and making damn sure that those values oozed out of everything I did.
  • Instead of doing everything myself, I hired a professional designer and focused on creating content.
  • Instead of targeting my current big business customers, I looked toward those I knew were underserved and thought about ways to create models & products that are affordable for them.

The results? After getting zero leads from my site for an entire year, I’m seeing 2 – 3 per week. After surmising that small businesses were underserved–mostly from a gut feeling and personal experience–I’m seeing 80 percent of my leads come from startups, solo entrepreneurs and small businesses. After ignoring the lean startup crowd and spending money on design and advertising, I’m hearing people tell me that my brand resonates with them.

There’s still so much work to do as I continue to grow my business, but now I feel more grounded, more productive.

So if you’re feeling overwhelmed with numerous opinions on how to build and grow your business, here’s my recommendation: Get out and do what feels right. Because the truth is: the same people giving you a formula to follow broke rules and went out on their own at some point. Advice from others isn’t a bad thing, but it can never replace your gut.

In Business, Celebrate the Mundane

I ate too many carbohydrates tonight. Not that I regret any of it. It was glorious gluttony. In fact, the reason I’m up at 00:17 to write this article is due to my fantastic carb-fest—so there. I felt justified in eating whatever the hell I wanted to tonight. Why? Because I showed up. I endured a day of dealing with tax documents, financial reports, and other un-fun tasks. I tackled tax documents and prevailed. I asked stupid questions. I questioned experts because, well, how else am I going to understand all this crap? I showed up and did the work I didn’t want to do and for that I deserve good beer, fries and mac and cheese.

We don’t often hear about the mundane parts of being an entrepreneur, especially online. Many have bought into the 4-Hour Work Week BS. Those are the people I care about, because they have no idea the level of hype they’ve just bought into. They don’t understand that you might spend hours outlining your process, creating systems (so you can get closer to that 4 hours), filing paperwork and, yes, dealing with tax stuff. They don’t know that even after you’ve done all that stuff, you might have to pivot your business and, yep, have to do it all over again.

I get it, though. Hype is more fun. Our dreams are emotion filled balloons—sometimes they float and sometimes they pop. It’s why people come up with an idea, then buy a domain and get business cards before they’ve even assessed whether anyone needs their service or product. Because analysis and planning isn’t fun. But it’s part of running and growing a successful business. In other words, you have a better chance of seeing your balloon float if you show up for the boring stuff.

So, go ahead, put that “you can be a rich online entrepreneur and work 2 hours a week” book down. Stop reading a million blogs telling you how great your life can be. Learn what it takes to actually start a business in your city, start researching your market, learn, analyze your audience and their needs. Oh, and find a good accountant to help you plan your tax strategy. It’ll be worth it in the end.