True life: I kind of suck at email

Most days, I avoid my inbox before 1 PM. And I’m notorious for letting days pass before replying to emails that would distract me from making meaningful progress if I responded in real-time.

While this can be interpreted as pretentious, my intention is simple: To spend as much of my finite energy each day on producing creative output that generates new value, improves my skills and places me at the peak of my market — and as little on the ordinary tasks that don’t.

Email often fits into the latter category. And as Cal Newport writes in his bestseller Deep Work: Rules For Focused Work in a Distracted World:

“The default social convention surrounding email is that unless you’re famous, if someone sends you something, you owe him or her a response. For most, therefore, an inbox full of messages generates a major sense of obligation.”

In Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done, Jocelyn K. Glei nails why we feel this obligation:

“The true source of our love-hate relationship with email is that we treat it like a task when it’s actually a tool. We cede control of our workday — and our to-do lists — to the dictates of others in pursuit of a mirage called ‘inbox zero.’ Rather than focusing on what’s outgoing, we strive futilely to keep up with what’s incoming.”

Once I released the burden of judging myself for not being as responsive as I (or other people) thought I should be, it empowered me to focus on the creative priorities that served my community and earned the human currency to design my life on my terms.

The irony though is that email is at the core of my business. Besides my personal website that hosts this blog, my email operation is the only other mechanism I use to build my community, promote my offerings and share my creative point of view. And email’s value to the sustainability of my business exponentially increased when I decided to opt-out of social media.

What happened is I took a step back to realize that email is best used as tool — one that can carry the weight of damn-near all my business functions on its back — and not a task that traps me in a dizzying maze of what Greg McKeown calls the “trivial many” in Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less and pulls me further away the “vital few.”

So when I do carve out a few moments each afternoon for email, I relate to another one of Newport’s assertions in Deep Work: “The inbox is now a collection of opportunities that you can glance at when you have the free time — seeking out those that make sense for you to engage. But the pile of unread messages no longer generates the same sense of obligation.”

Never happens...

I’m on deadline and have two meetings this afternoon, so I’ll leave you with this:

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I’m giving myself permission to replace my most pressing worry with joy, gratitude or generosity. Join me? 🤗

One thing at once

In general, people — myself included! — overestimate how much we’re able to get done in a day. Most people can perform at the super intensity it requires to produce extraordinary work that people pay attention to and pay for between two and four hours.

And if you’re a recovering perfectionist like me, here’s what happens: You overcommit, realize you’re in over your head after the fact and then panic and/or beat yourself up for overcommitting and finding yourself in over your head.

What I’ve discovered is about how I used to plan is this: I only account for what I think I have control over. But there are forces at play that aren’t in my control. And that reality should be considered when I’m planning my productivity.

You’ve probably heard the maxim “underpromise, overdeliver” before. Usually, it’s regarded as a service strategy — a way to exceed someone else’s expectations.

But I apply those same words to my very own performance in my business. After all, why can’t I exceed my own expectations even if I’m the one who set them?

Instead of focusing on trying to get it all done at once, I’ve learned to devote my mornings to one creative project each day. I have a fixed deadline at 1 PM each afternoon, so whatever I’m working on that day — whether it’s creating my newsletter, designing a lesson for an upcoming training, or working on a client project — is due by then.

If I’m in a groove, I’ll bump the work for the next day to the current day. If not, no biggie: I completed the task at hand and can move on to ordinary tasks like emails, expenses and catching up on the news of the day without the judgment and beat-up.

Lovely

I saw this sidewalk painting last night when while walking downtown to meet some friends for dinner the other day and saw this painting:

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Isn’t it lovely?

The artist is Alice Mizrachi. She says in her artist statement: “I reinforce both personal and community-oriented identity, I aim to inspire creative expression and a sense of shared humanity. … Art is universal in its inherent ability to connect people from everywhere.”

Be sure to tell someone you love them today.

Self-made

In a couple of days, one of closest friends — Shahara C. Jackson — moves to Harvard (HARVARD!!!) to earn her Doctor of Education Leadership.

Shahara has dedicated her career to creating the change she wants to see, both in our education system and across the world. I’m giddy to see what she does with this coveted opportunity.

Friends and family came together this past weekend to celebrate Shahara. The entire farewell party was incredible (especially the hilarious childhood stories from her cousins!), but it was Shahara’s toast that left a lasting impression.

Though I was too preoccupied with wiping my tears to record the moving message, I’ll paraphrase her words:

"I’m not self-made. None of us are. And anyone who says they are is lying."

She then went on to name the people who have impacted her as so many of the people she’s impacted looked on. 

And on the train ride home, I couldn’t help but think of my tribe: my family, my friends, the mentors, the mentees, the strangers and this community of creators I’m grateful to serve with my work every day.

What makes us human is our ability to find common ground in the things that connect us.

I’m satisfied knowing that as Shahara opens this new chapter, we found common ground in celebrating all the breakthroughs that lie ahead of her.

Congrats and onward, my friend. Tell Malia Obama I said, "hey!"

More mirrors, less windows

One of the played-out myths of our generation is that in order to be accepted, earn a meaningful living or experience authentic connection, you have to live as an open book on the Internet.

But truth be told: Most people don’t care about 98% of what you’re sharing (and I’m being generous in that estimate). They’re just too bored or unfulfilled with their own lives and would rather distract themselves with yours. (Or they’re afraid of what would happen if they unfollowed you.)

As a society, we embrace people who “call it like they see it,” offer us unrestricted access to their lifestyle choices and promote their work product for our effortless consumption.

In the process though, we’ve sent this message: As long as you’re sharing something, then you’re adding value to the conversation.

That message serves only one side of the coin. And that’s the ad businesses that masquerade as social media platforms. They don’t care what you share as long as you’re sharing it on their app. Because that means they can track your behavior and tweak their algorithms to profit from your usage.

But let’s look at the other side of the coin for a moment. This open-book, live-in-public, real-time-sharing culture has eroded our collective creative expression. If anything goes, then why bother thinking about whether or not what you’re sharing generates a worthwhile experience for the recipient?

Well, for one reason, how we live and work online deserves more scrutiny because it has legit implications for how one can thrive in our new economy.

The market ultimately values extraordinary work from humans that can’t be automated or replicated by technology. Anyone who commands autonomy over their lives bought it with the "Human Currency" they earned from applying the intense focus, creativity and craft required to produce this kind of valuable output.

Work that meets this standard can be (and should be) created and with deliberation and empathy for how best it can serve an audience (and shared via channels that you own like a website or email list, not exclusively on social networks, which are nothing more than rented online spaces).

Ultimately, I encourage people to share more “mirrors,” content that reflects their community’s desires, motivations and interests — instead of “windows” that do nothing more than satisfy our voyeuristic proclivities (and line the pockets of social media investors and shareholders).

Then perhaps more people would realize that living in public isn’t a prerequisite to personal fulfilment.

My big sister: The original influencer

I inherited my mom’s knack for marching to the beat of her own stylish drum. (I may be off social media, but I passed the Insta-torch to my badass mommy.)

And you can thank my Dad for my persistent pursuit of excellence in everything that I do. (As he says: “If I touch it, I want it to be different.”)

But mark my words: My big sister Ty is where it’s really at.

If my family’s late-90s/early-00s lives were portrayed on a TV drama, my dominant storyline would have revolved around me figuring out how to be more like my sister, without annoying her too much in the process — something I failed at more times than I’d like to admit.

She was the original influencer before capital-I Influencers became a thing.

Ask Ty and she’ll suggest I was super popular growing up. But I would have traded being even more of an outcast than I actually was if it meant I got to be BFFs with my sis.

To this day, Ty is the best writer I know. So I became a writer.

She got back-to-back internships through the highly competitive ExxonMobil Summer Jobs Program in college. So rolled up my sleeves and got back-to-back internships through the highly competitive ExxonMobil Summer Jobs Program.

When she got a job at a nonprofit in our hometown, I started volunteering there so we could hang out together.

And I still attempt to mimic my sister’s handwriting — you’d think after more than two decades of practice, I’d have mastered her penscript, but I digress…

I loved Dru Hill, Boyz II Men, Next, Tyrese, Ginuwine (I mean, because if Ty did, how could I not?). I sat in the backseat of the car and cried when my sister found out Tupac died — I’d never seen my sister so devastated before and didn’t know how to deal.

My childhood’s cinematic holy grail included Clueless, My Girl, Love & Basketball, Forrest Gump, Mean Girls, Bring It On. I’ve rewatched more episodes of One Tree Hill than I’d like to admit. But that’s the cost of doing siblinghood with Ty Jones. And when it came to Moesha, I dropped my crush on Hakeem like a bad habit when I found out my sister preferred Q. 🤷🏾‍♂️

The highlight of my 15th birthday? When Ty gifted me an explicit version of Eve’s “Scorpion” CD. It was soooooooooooooo explicit — she knew Mom and Dad would never let me listen to such foul language; I knew Mom and Dad would scold her for letting me listen to such foul language. It was like our little secret. I loved when Ty trusted me to keep secrets.

She’s the source of two of my most cherished gifts: my niece Jordan and my nephew Micah. And I got the brother I always wanted when she married her high-school sweetheart.

Ty is even the reason I became obsessed with Lucky, the Condé Nast magazine I moved to New York City to work as a fashion editor and style columnist before it’s closure nearly three years ago. I’d sneak into her room and flip through the pages to see which clothes and accessories she tabbed with the stickers that were included in each issue.

It was like a window into her mind. One I didn’t think I was cool enough to ever get access to without slipping through the backdoor. Thank God, that’s not the case anymore. Ty tells me I’ve always been cool enough.

I think this fierce affinity for my sister was shaped by who she was during my most impressionable years.

Ty was a track star growing up. She was the real deal. This hotshot coach from our rival high school recruited her to join his program. My parents even rented an empty apartment nearby so her transfer would be legit. Ty and her talent was worth the investment, they would later tell me.

Track was Ty’s life. That’s the reason I’m able to vividly recount all the memories I shared above: There really weren’t that many moments that didn’t include track, so they stuck.

I was always impressed by how hard she trained. She could drive through the curve of her 400-meter sprint like nobody’s business. As long as her relay team was in striking distance when Ty got the baton, it was a sure thing that they’d finish in first place. Mondays were my favorite day of the week growing up — I got to brag about how my sister “smoked those slow-ass scrubs at Hanby Stadium last weekend.”

And what’s so cool about our relationship now is that the way I used to cheer for Ty is how she cheers for me now.

She’s one of the first to know what’s going on in my business — not to mention, she’s the ultimate Jane of all Trades: part strategist, proofreader, beta tester and therapist.

I know what this business is evolving into is largely because of my sister’s generosity and support. And I don’t take it for granted. I’m one blessed little brother.

“It is one of the most powerful times to be you”

The tail end of last year was turbulent, both personally and professionally. I considered moving back to Dallas — not because I wanted to actually be back home, but because I didn’t wanted a reprieve from New York City’s relentless pounding. I felt like I hardly had time to recover from one body blow before being dealt another one.

Obviously, I’m still in New York City. And once the dust settled, I experienced an overwhelming sense of optimism at the onset of the new year. Stars started aligning in miraculous ways and the labor of the past few years started to bear sweet fruit. I could see glimpses of the life I dreamed about with each passing moment.

About 19 minutes into his sermon on Sunday,  Michael A. Walrond, senior pastor at my church FCBC in Harlem, spoke words that affirmed my optimism and complete commitment to creating a life I love living:

“You know that this season is the window you’ve been waiting for. The window of opportunity that you have been waiting for? You know this is it. You can feel it in your bones. You’ve been talking to people to explain it. You’ve been saying, ‘I know that God is up to something in this season.’ You’ve been telling people, ‘I know right now is my time to move forward into the spaces that God has carved out for me.’ You know it. How many of you know it, feel it right now in this moment?”

Pastor Mike didn’t stop there:

“Now, if you really can feel that and know that, it is one on the most powerful times to be you. It is one of the most glorious times to be you when you know that you are on the cusp of something that is about to radically alter the course of your life. I mean, you’re on the threshold of stepping into a space that is about to ignite your future in a way that you’ve been dreaming of and hoping for all your life.
I mean, this is it. It’s as if every day you wake up and the hairs on your body start to stand up and you feel a presence on you because it is pushing you to begin now to walk in the totality of who God has made you to be. This is the window! This is the window.”

Then things got really real:

“And it is not as though there won’t be other opportunities down the way, but here’s the deal: You’ve had other windows before and you’ve been afraid to walk in that season. But now, you feel like you’ve never felt before. And you know that things are about to shift greatly in your life. Anybody feel that even right now? And the deep thing is that that moment, this window, this season, is also accompanied with all of your fears.”
I wish that there were times in my life when my faith could occupy the full space of my life. But I also know that oftentimes, my faith is in contention with my fear. And my faith ought to win but sometimes my fear has more of my help.”

But this season requires work:

“This is what this season is in your life. This is that window. It is beckoning you. It is the thing that requires your full commitment. You can’t want to forge into this new space with half commitment. You can’t seize the day if you’re not willing to stand in the moment and move forward.
You’ve been prepared for this moment. And let me tell you: There are things you’ve experienced in your life that did not make sense until right now. There were things that you have felt and been through that didn’t make sense until right now. It is as if there is a sense of clarity that is coming into your life right now that helps you connect thoughts that you thought were disconnected for a long time. And now here you sit in this pregnant moment filled with possibility. And here you are right now and now this moment is requiring your commitment.”

The entire sermon is worth the watch:

The fullness of my love

A couple of days ago I shared that I’m reading A Return To Love by Marianne Williamson. It’s actually my second go-round with the book. I attempted to read it a few years ago, but the words weren’t all that resonant since I didn’t really see myself as worthy of giving and receiving the kind of love Williamson wrote so intimately about.

I spent most of my life depriving myself and the people around me of the fullness of my love. I believed the lie that I was at once “too much” and “not enough” and invested my love into people, places and things that validated that belief. But instead of saturating my universe with more love, I learned it was easier to resist and retreat into a shell instead of summoning the courage to be as I truly am.

I made my work my shield, a solid form of protection from the formidable Boogie Men and Women who, in my eyes, were hellbent on exploiting my persistent insecurities around the living in my authenticity. I was clinical in my approach. I developed this alterego — a pragmatic, dispassionately analytical, unemotional go-getter who led with logic — and studied obsessed over my craft like my life depended on it. Because in my eyes it did: I didn’t feel like I was worth anything unless I made people feel like they were worth something first. People’s satisfaction with my work product was what fueled my existence because I denied myself the one thing that was potent enough to sustain me and everyone I encountered: Love.

Ask anyone who has watched me work, they’d tell you I’m still clinical in my approach. I’m meticulous with my systems and processes. I create templates for everything. I make it my business to not only what and how to do something, but why I’m doing it in the first place. If I can’t explain it, I don’t share it. And when I’m in Focus Mode, good luck wrestling my attention away from me — my Resting Work Face puts your Resting Bitch Face to shame.

The difference now is I realize the reason people in my life feel like they’re worth something is because I believe I’m worth everything.

I’m less afraid to unapologetically lead with unconditional love — both in my work and in my life. Because my work no longer exists to prevent people from experiencing the love I have for humanity. It’s a product of my love for humanity. It’s an example of how I live out these famous words found on page 190 of A Return To Love:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone, And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

We’re all worthy of giving and receiving this kind of love.

The new American Dream

In the August 6 cover story of New York magazine, Frank Rich reflects on the impact and aftermath of a year most of us are all too familiar with: 2008.

It’s when, Rich suggests, “America stopped believing in the American Dream”:

“Unlike 9/11, which prompted an orgy of recriminations and investigations, the Great Recession never yielded a reckoning that might have helped restore that faith. The Wall Street bandits escaped punishment, as did most of the banking houses where they thrived. Everyone else was stuck with the bill.
Millennials, crippled by debt and bereft of Horatio Alger paths out of it, mock the traditional American tenet that each generation will be better off than the one before. At the other end of the actuarial spectrum, boomers have little confidence that they can scrape together the wherewithal needed to negotiate old age. The American workers in the middle have seen their wages remain stagnant as necessities like health care become unaffordable.”

For most people who look and live like me, this version of the American Dream was never all that attainable, something Rich acknowledges and supports with context from historian Elaine Tyler May: “Even at this boom’s height, this egalitarianism was a myth as far as black Americans were concerned, but the white majority bought it: This bedrock belief in economic fairness ‘motivated white working-class and middle-class Americans to play by the rules.’ The assumption was that the ownership class would play by them too.”

And a decade later, we’re still paying the price:

“The mood in America is arguably as dark as it has ever been in the modern era. The birthrate is at a record low, and the suicide rate is at a 30-year high; mass shootings and opioid overdoses are ubiquitous. In the aftermath of 9/11, the initial shock and horror soon gave way to a semblance of national unity in support of a president whose electoral legitimacy had been bitterly contested only a year earlier. Today’s America is instead marked by fear and despair more akin to what followed the crash of 1929, when unprecedented millions of Americans lost their jobs and homes after the implosion of businesses ranging in scale from big banks to family farms."

“Everything in the country is broken,” Rich declares. “Not just Washington, which failed to prevent the financial catastrophe and has done little to protect us from the next, but also race relations, health care, education, institutional religion, law enforcement, the physical infrastructure, the news media, the bedrock virtues of civility and community.”

And while blaming this state of affairs solely on Trumpism is shortsighted, I agree with Rich’s assertion that “[Trump] saw a market in merchandising pessimism as patriotism and cornered it.”

But I’ll add this to Rich’s observations: Our culture has also done a poor job of empowering us to embrace worthwhile alternatives to the notion of a singular American Dream. While the new economy’s technological impact continues to redefine how we work and live, it’s also brought with it seemingly boundless opportunities to create new markers of prosperity besides job security and home ownership — including the personal freedom to earn a living with work that we’ve stamped with our own meaning.

Because the new American Dream is one where creators like you and me practice creativity to produce extraordinary work that we can then exchange for Human Currency — a term I’ve coined to describe the economic, social and cultural equity available to an individual to design, negotiate access to and sustain a meaningful life.

Access to this personal freedom requires creativity, focus and peak productivity though — skills that aren’t treated as valuable as they actually are. Instead, we circle the wagons on social media bogging our minds down with currency-zapping drivel that widens the resources gap between the companies who profit off of our attention and a generation of users who so willingly forfeit said attention.

It’s true: We’re the most educated generation ever, but we’re also the most distracted and disenchanted. Most of us came of age during The Great Recession, which meant at the same time we saw our job prospects vanish we turned to social media in an attempt to connect and cope with other people who shared our grim experiences.

But our longing for global camaraderie and optimism was soon exploited by for-profit ad agencies — masked as social media brands — and exacerbated by smartphone apps that function as 24/7 slot machines and offer you what technologist Jaron Lanier says are “shiny treats in exchange for minutes of your attention and bites of your personal data, which can then be packaged up and sold.

And it’s only getting worse for Generations Z and Alpha.

There’s more than one way to thrive in this new economy to enable the personal freedom that isn't as elusive as it may seem. But most of them require either access to mountains of money or fluency with technologies like artificial intelligence — both of which I don’t have.

But what I do have is the ability to create. And that’s an advantage humans will always have over technology. So that’s what I’m using.