How I Became a Writer

In my Quora inbox there are, as we speak, no fewer than nine different answer requests for variations on the same question: “How did you become a writer?”

Gather round, and ye shall hear my tale.

howwriter.jpg

I Discover Chapter Books

About a month into kindergarten, in ye fabled year 1987, we went to the school library for the first time. We were read a story by one of the school librarians and then turned loose onto the two rows of children’s books at the front of the room.

I didn’t even make it to the shelves, however, before the school librarian stopped me. “Are you Danielle?”

I said I was.

“I want to show you something,” she said, and led me to one of the tall shelves full of “big kid books” that we’d passed on the way into the library. And that’s how I met Ramona Quimby.

Ramona the Pest was the first chapter book I ever read. It took me a little less than a week to read, on my own, in between kindergarten activities like playing with clay and trying to trace my name. And I was hooked.

I knew what books were long before that first library day. I’d grown up surrounded by them, and I was reading fluently when I started kindergarten. But something about Beverly Cleary’s work made me realize, at age five, that books didn’t appear out of thin air. They existed because somebody wrote them.

I wanted to be that person. I wanted to be a writer.

I Become a Master of Plot

Fast-forward to the spring of 1990. I’m now in second grade, where reading Beverly Cleary is pretty common (I’ve moved on to The Boxcar Children, Agatha Christie, and the Baby-sitters Club). My teacher announces that we’re all going to write our own stories.

Over the course of several weeks, we write stories, edit them, draw the accompanying pictures, and paste everything into those little blue booklets I wouldn’t see again until 2005, when I had to write law school exams in them.

My book was called The Violet That Played the Violin. That was also the entire plot.

That book was the moment that I realized that not only did books exist because people wrote them, but that I had now written a book. That meant I was a writer.

Writers Write

The Violet That Played the Violin had rocketed me to the pinnacle of writerdom. Suddenly, I was no longer a kid who wanted to be a writer; I was a writer.

And writers write. So I wrote.

I acquired the first of a truly staggering collection of blank books and wrote a short story, “The Cat Who Made a Quilt.” In the interests of full disclosure and also total self-embarrassment, here’s the full text:

Once upon a time in the old city of Swanland, which is now Paris, there was a cat. She loved to sew patchwork quilts. Almost everyone in Swanland had a quilt made by the cat.

Everyone except Old Barney, the bulldog.

The cat’s name was Kitten. Kitten said one say, “I want to make a special quilt, but I don’t have an idea.” So she set out to find an idea.

First she tried to think of an idea. All that popped into Kitten’s head were the ideas for her old quilts. So she asked her friends. They didn’t have any ideas either. So she went to the fabric store, where she usually got her patterns and fabric.

First she decided to make a quilt for Old Barney, to make him feel better. There was only one problem. Old Barney was her enemy, not her friend.

But she found a pattern. She found a pattern just right for a dog. It had dogs doing almost anything a dog can do outside.

Kitten sewed it together and then asked Anne, the prettiest poodle in town, to deliver it to Old Barney. Anne did, and Old Barney fell in love with her, and Kitten’s troubles were over.

So she went back to the pattern store, and got a new pattern. This one was beautiful. It had all sorts of different things on it. Kitten sewed it together and kept it in her family forever.

The End.

One can see the rapid evolution of my craft in this piece. It has a plot!

Starting at this point (May 1990), I was never without a working notebook again. Sometimes that notebook was the same notebook as the one I used for schoolwork, and sometimes it wasn’t. But I always, always had a notebook with me, and I got extremely itchy when I was separated from it.

And I wrote. Daily. Because writers write.

Stealth Writing and What I Learned from Fanfic

Nearly all of the “note taking” I did in high school was actually writing fan fiction. A friend and I had a joint X-Files fanfic that we’d pass back and forth between classes, each of us writing a paragraph or two instead of actually doing our schoolwork. I wrote the equivalent of two or three novels’ worth of fanfiction every year between tenth grade and the end of law school (ca. 1997-2007).

I had help from my dad as well. He and I wrote several stories and poems together when I was in elementary and middle school. There was Snow, the Christmas Horse, a novella about a poor family that sells its beloved horse and gets her back just in time for Christmas, and a 24-installment mystery in which the original American Girls (Kirsten, Samantha and Molly) search for a missing silver cup, which was probably the first piece of fan fiction I ever wrote.

Fan fiction was absolutely essential to my eventual career in which I actually write in exchange for actual cash moneys. Fan fiction taught me a lot about characterization, pacing and scene development. It also taught me why Shift+F7 is not your friend and why words ending in -ly will not in fact make your story better.

Where Ideas Come From

I honestly don’t remember having been troubled by “where ideas come from” when I was a kid. The point of being a writer was to write, not necessarily to have ideas for The Great American Novel or whatever.

So I didn’t always try to write fiction. Sometimes writing consisted of copying entire poems out of my dad’s Oxford anthologies. Sometimes it involved character assassinations of whichever classmate had treated me crappily that day. For two weeks in eighth grade, it consisted of trying to translate the US Constitution into ordinary middle-school English.

The point was to fill a notebook a month. I didn’t matter what I filled it with.

All that copying, translating and character assassination taught me a lot about writing, too. By copying, I started to see how other writers had constructed sentences and paragraphs. Character assassination taught me how to build characters convincingly, making their flaws and position within the story clear without sounding too melodramatic or unreliable as a narrator. Translation taught me how to state clearly what I meant.

By the time I left high school, the basic structure of my writing skills was already in place. My writing has improved dramatically during that time, but the fundamentals I fall back on today were all things I learned between the ages of seven and 17.

I learned them by writing. Because that’s what writers do.

Advertisements

A Day in the Life of This Freelance Writer

Yesterday, I stumbled across this article at Wait But Why, proposing a new way to think about the value of our time and how we use it. It works like this:

If you sleep about eight hours a night, that leaves about 1,000 minutes a day in which you’re awake. Think of these 1,000 minutes as 100 ten-minute blocks of time.

What do you do with each of your 100 blocks? Is what you’re currently doing worth the number of blocks out of 100 that gets devoted to it each day?

While neither the author of the piece nor I recommend trying to schedule every block every day (it’s an exercise in hair-tearing), it has provided me a useful way to consider exactly where my time goes.

So Where Does It Go, Exactly?

The 100 Blocks method is especially intriguing to me in the context of one of the most commonly-asked questions I receive on Quora: “What do freelance writers do all day?” “What does a day in the life of a freelance writer look like?”

While I won’t subject you to a list of where my 100 ten-minute day-chunks go, here’s what an average day in my freelance life looks like.

A Day in the Life of this freelance writer

Morning

6:30 am: I roll out of bed, because if I don’t, I’ll miss a chance to get a hug from my husband when he leaves for work. If I don’t get a hug, I am cranky the rest of the day.

6:40 am: I feed the cats before the sheer force of their STARVACEOUS YOWLING tears me to pieces. The cats wish it to be known that they WILL DIE if they are not given canned food at 6:40 am. No, the bowl of kibble is NOT SUFFICIENT. THEY WILL STARVE. I AM A TERRIBLE CAT PARENT.

7:00 am: The yowling has subsided. I sit down with my toast and tea to read the Internet. If the Internet is terrible, I read a book instead. The Internet is usually terrible.

8:00 am: I decide I should probably do something useful with my life. I load the dishwasher and clean the litter boxes in order to avoid selling my labor for money.

8:30 am: I sell labor for money. I may also blog, work on things for rehearsals (see “Evening”), send invoices, and so on.

12:00 pmish: I am done selling labor for money, unless it is Tuesday. On Tuesdays I get done at 1:00 pm, because 12-1 pm Tuesday is the Holy Hour of Client Meetings.

Not-Morning

12:30 or 1:00 pm: Having eaten whatever tasty glop was leftover in the fridge from the previous evening (or microwaved some chicken nuggets), I proceed to the gym for a hot date with the elliptical, weight room and/or pool. On nice days, I go into my backyard and throw things.

2:30 or 3:00 pm: I get home from the gym, or I run some errands, depending on which needs doing. When I have to schedule appointments, they’re nearly always between 2:30 and 5:00 pm. If I’m not running errands, I might do some composing, or photography, or spend 12 of my daily 100 timechunks murdering werebears in Skyrim.

Evening

5:00 pmish: Usually, the husband is home by this time. He makes food. We eat food. While watching Netflix. This is literally the only time we spend watching television at all, so I have no guilt whatsoever about abandoning the upper-middle-class manners of my youth to cram nachos into my face on the couch in front of the boob tube.

6:00 pmish: Time to go to rehearsal. Which rehearsal it is depends on the time of year and the day of the week. Candidates include marching band, wind symphony, drum ensemble, colorguard, and winterguard. Sometimes I perform in these ensembles and sometimes I yell at them.

8:30 pm: I feed the cats, because once again, they will STARVE without canned food, even though kibble magically appears in their bowl on the regular. Then I write fiction.

10:30 pm: I sleep.

On Wednesdays, I clean the house instead of selling my labor for money. Otherwise, things are pretty much the same.  A few times a year I go on vacation, during which I might spend an hour or two working in the mornings.

Your schedule as a freelancer may, of course, vary. My work time is scheduled with two major constraints in mind:

  1. When do I have the focus to do this work most efficiently?
  2. How can I get my work done in the handful of hours I have allotted per day to do so, which I cannot exceed because addiction?

As For the Blocks….

It’s interesting to me how quickly things fall into perspective when I analyze them in terms of the 100 blocks of time.

For instance: The gym costs me 120 minutes, or 12 of my 100 timechunks every day.

Prior to thinking of it as 12/100 timechunks, I struggled to go to the gym. It felt like recreation. It felt like “wasting time” or “ignoring my responsibilities” (because I wasn’t checking the clock every five minutes to make sure I hadn’t dissociated into some frivolous project, because ADHD means I have no idea what time is).

Now, however, 12/100 timechunks feels like a total steal. That time I spend at the gym manages my chronic pain, alleviates my anxiety, provides the only workable method for me to meditate, lets me catch up with my best friend by snarkily texting her between sets, and enables me to kick people twice my size through windows should I ever wake up in an action film.

I get all that for twelve percent of my day. That’s what we call “good value.”

It’s also made it easier to stop hating myself for things like scrolling Twitter, while simultaneously helping me put limits on things like scrolling Twitter. Yes, sometimes I just need to sit and scroll Twitter for 1/100 timechunks. That’s okay.

But I rarely need to do it for 3/100 timechunks. That’s when I start getting restless. So I can allot 1 timechunk to it totally guilt-free, then go do something else, again totally guilt-free.

For the record, I have allotted 11 timechunks today to selling my labor for money and 3.6 timechunks to the writing of this blog post. Now I will go devote about 2 timechunks to eating food and a few to preparing for this week’s Holy Hour of Client Meetings. Happy Tuesday.

Work Addiction is a Thing and It F***ing Sucks

Within the last month, I’ve told-all about my struggle with work addiction on Quora not once, but twice. Each time, I had no intention of spilling quite that hard, but I did.

It’s worth talking about.

reat one today!

Despite its etymological relationship to “alcoholic,” the word “workaholic” has almost pride-inducing connotations. An absurdly large number of us are proud to be workaholics. We put it on our resumes. We encourage it in our children. We cite it as the source of our success.

And we absolutely do not see the connection between this behavior and the mass burnout of an entire working generation.

This is why, when talking about my own struggles with overwork, I generally prefer the term “work addiction” to “workaholism.” I don’t want anyone thinking that my lifelong battle is in any way commendable or worth emulating.

Because it’s nearly killed me. Twice.

Workaholism: It’s Not a Party

The first time was in my late 20s, when I was trying to hold down a grueling law firm job with absolutely zero support in any area of my life. Less than zero support: the two people who were nominally “on my side” were incredibly high-maintenance emotional relationships. When the bottom finally did fall out of my life, their only concern was that I might no longer be there for them.

I did three separate stays in the hospital in 2009, ranging from three to seven days apiece.

I quit the law firm job, but I did not quit working. Oh no. I started freelancing.

Freelancing: The Work Addict’s Meth

The big problem with freelancing is that the ability to work anywhere at anytime quickly turns into the obsession that one should be working everywhere all the time. It sounds like paradise for the work-addicted, but it’s incredibly dangerous.

And being able to work everywhere all the time was, somehow…still not enough.

I went to graduate school. I took a teaching assistantship in addition to being a full-time grad student. I started a winterguard program at a school that was an hour’s drive from my house. I joined a fledgling small press.

At age 33, I was in the hospital again.

“How would you describe your problem?” the doctors asked me.

“My problem is that I have four jobs and I need to only have three jobs,” I said.

…The look the doctors gave one another was my first inkling that maybe, just maybe, I had a problem.

WTF Happened?

Billions of people work every day, but not everyone develops an addiction.

There aren’t good worldwide numbers for work addiction, but it appears to range near 10 percent of the working population in most Western nations. One study from Spain found that about 12 percent of the population met the criteria for work addiction. About half of USians consider themselves “workaholics.”

Not all “workaholics” are necessarily work-addicted. Dr. Mark Griffiths has argued that a behavior shouldn’t be characterized as an addiction until it meets six specific criteria:

  • salience (it’s the most important thing in your life),
  • mood modification (it produces a “buzz,” “high” or allays negative feelings like anxiety),
  • tolerance (you need to do more and more of the thing to get the same mood-modifying effects),
  • withdrawal (not doing the thing produces severe negative symptoms),
  • conflict (doing the thing causes problems with personal relationships, gets in the way of other beneficial life activities, or causes intrapersonal concerns)
  • relapse (left to your own devices, there’s a substantial chance you will do the thing again).

I’ve been 6 for 6 basically since I started middle school.

So if workaholism is “doing a lot of work,” work addiction is “I can’t not do the work.”

One of the things that landed me in the hospital the second time, in fact, was that I couldn’t decide which of the four jobs I should quit. It wasn’t just that they all had pros and cons; it was that even thinking about thinking about which to quit caused me so much angst that I simply shut down.

“I should think about quitting one of these jobs,” I’d say to myself.

*BLUE SCREEN OF DEATH*, my brain would reply.

Work addiction occurs when work-centric behavior becomes compulsive. Work begins to feel necessary for survival. Not in the “I need money to eat” way, but in the “if I’m not focused on this project then the tigers will eat me and I will cease to exist forever” way.

Often, work addiction is driven by an underlying issue (or several) that work becomes a means to avoid. It’s more common, for example, in people who are carrying unresolved trauma, either from a single source (like a car accident) or a series of accumulated sources (childhood abuse or bullying, relationship abuse). Work addiction can be the manifestation of a condition like obsessive-compulsive disorder or mania as well.

In my case, work is a way to avoid dealing with a lifetime of abuse, with chronic pain, and with several other things I just plain don’t want to look at. If given the chance, I will literally work myself to death rather than face those demons.

I tried. Twice. Before age 33.

Good Job Not Dying?

Lol, thanks.

Work addiction differs from certain other types of addictions, like alcohol or gambling, because we typically need to work in order to survive. Humans can thrive without ever taking a sip of booze or placing a bet, but we don’t do as well without working. Work is a common, typical, necessary and even healthy human behavior…usually.

So the challenge for me wasn’t to go “cold turkey” from work. It was to figure out how to contextualize work in a way that would also allow me to survive.

For me, that looked like:

Setting boundaries around work time.

“Work time” is now 8 am to 12 am, four days a week. (The 8-12 am slot on Wednesdays is housecleaning time.) I get 16 hours a week to get all my paying work done. That’s it.

As a freelancer, this was an option for me, but it also required me to radically rethink the types of projects and clients I accepted. With only 16 hours a week to do the work and a minimum gross income requirement around $40,000 per year, I can’t take things that pay a penny or two per word. I have to aim higher; I have to brand myself better.

Having to limit my work time forced me to reconceptualize my work content, which in turn changed my approach to work. It’s now a puzzle I only get to solve at certain times of the week. It’s recharged the joy I once found in working and sharply reduced the tolerance load.

Therapy and self-awareness.

I had started therapy about two years before the second hospitalization in 2015. During and after that hospital stay, however, I renewed my commitment to working on the terror of not-working and the reasons behind it.

My reasons are complex and long-lasting. They were baked in during my formative years, so I don’t have a “before” to serve as a benchmark. But digging through them has made work and not-work easier, and it’s helped reduce my risk of relapse over time.

I do lapse. I haven’t wound up all the way back in the work addiction hole, but I do catch myself perseverating over tasks from time to time. While my recent KonMari adventure has been enormously productive both for the organization of my household and for my psyche, there were phases that started to feel very much like my work addiction had. It’s the reason I’ve had to finish the process over time (and why the final blog post in the series has yet to be written).

Doing nothing.

During the second hospitalization, much of my work with my psychologist centered around “doing nothing.” We talked about the life-threatening terror that phrase struck in me. We talked about my absolute aversion to the concept and my intense self-loathing at imagining myself doing nothing.

And then I got ordered to do it.

I made a list of activities that, in my mind, constituted the dreaded “doing nothing.” They were amazingly innocuous.

Reading novels. Taking a walk for the sake of walking (not to run an errand). Playing video games. Scrolling through Facebook. Watching Netflix.

They were, in essence, the kind of things that other people look at and say, “If that’s your definition of doing nothing, then I’m the laziest slug on the planet!”

You’re not, of course; it’s that my sense of what counted as “things I have a right to be doing and still be breathing air and eating food” is pretty damn inside-out.

I was required to schedule two hours a day to “do nothing.” Those two hours had to be at a time I’d normally be awake, and they had to be spent doing something on my list of activities that constituted “doing nothing.”

…At first, I fudged this more than a little. I spent that time reading manuscripts (hey, it’s fiction, right?) or told myself that going for a walk would also count as my exercise time, so it was therefore “productive.” But as a rule, I did a pretty good job of avoiding paid work during this daily two-hour time slot.

Doing nothing has gotten easier since I started. It’s still not easy; it probably never will be. But I appreciate it more now that I see the profound effect it’s had on the quality of my work at other times of the day.

Tl;dr Work addiction is a thing. It sucks. It requires some long-term management and confrontation of some pretty terrible demons. But that effort is surprisingly non-fatal.

 

 

 

My First Year as a Freelancer Was a Decade Ago and OMFG: A Retrospective

I started freelancing in late 2009, when the recession was eating everyone’s lunch and then scolding them about missing their lunch.

“There’s no such thing as lunch, you slacking moocher,” the recession said. “If you want lunch, maybe you should create some jobs in the lunch industry, you mooching slacker.”

2009: The year everyone understood Atlas Shrugged, even if they didn’t read Atlas Shrugged.

Here’s what life is like in my world, ten years later.

My First Ten Years as a Freelancer_ A Retrospective

Do The Hustle

Ten years ago, freelancer platforms like Upwork and Fiverr were only just getting started. Most people avoided them, because they were inconsistent as heck: The pay was in the fraction of a cent, the available clients were utter shit, and living at the mercy of a digital Limbo competition was no way to survive.

(They haven’t changed, by the way. It’s just that a lot of people no longer avoid them.)

Content mill platforms, however, were a gold mine.

At least, some of them were. AOL’s SEED took nine months to pay me $30. Associated Content never gave me a single lead.

On the other hand, despite the terrible attitudes of its editors and its brutal ratings system, I made half my first year’s freelance income from Demand Studios. Demand paid up to 10 cents a word; if you were really good at writing quickly and meeting their style demands without thinking too much about the drivel you produced, you could make $200 in an hour or two, easily. Which is what I did.

(I never did more than a couple hours of DS work at a time, because the drivel truly was mind-numbing. Check out The Worst of eHow for some stellar examples of total crap Demand Studios produced, or read the forum archives at Demand Studios Sucks for just how badly the site treated its writers.)

Content mills weren’t my only source of income; I picked up several law firm blog clients right out of the gate, and I hung on to several of them until the bottom fell out of mass-produced law firm blogging. In 2009, I was making about 15 cents a word for 300-word, SEO’d posts on generic topics; by 2017, the same content paid about 3 cents a word.

Using Keywords to Keyword Your Keywords While Keywording for Keywords

I started writing before Google Panda launched, and holy hell did it change this industry.

It took a while to sink in. Prior to Panda, the number-one goal of most content was to stuff in sufficient keywords for the search engines to see it. Back in the day, search engine algorithms couldn’t account for factors like the length of a piece, how long people spent actually reading it, its connection to other highly-regarded information, and so on.

Pre-Panda, search engines pretty much only looked for one thing: How many times a certain word or phrase was repeated. Repetition was the engine’s number-one determiner of “relevance.”

As anyone familiar with the Kardashians knows, “relevance” is not equivalent to “quality.”

Panda and its later additions changed that. Google got smarter at determining how humans’ actual Internet behaviors function as indicators of quality, and it started rearranging search engine results accordingly.

Panda and its successors didn’t eliminate content mills, but they did knock the legs out from under content mills. Suddenly, everyone who had come up in this business by dashing off 300-word articles that repeated a specific keyword once every 100 words started seeing their pay rates drop precipitously, from 6 to 10 cents a word in the early 2010s to a penny per word or less today. If you can find one of these gigs for three cents a word, laugh all the way to the bank.

I Can Lead You WITH MY MIND

I haven’t done 300-word keyword-stuffed nonsense content for years. I can’t afford to. Times have changed, and I’ve changed with them.

Today, I’m still making ten to twenty cents a word, and I’m still writing only about eight to 12 hours a week. I’m even writing for law firms. But my business model has moved from quantity to quality.

In 2010, I might have dashed off eight or ten nearly-identical articles for eHow or LegalZoom and called it a day. Today, I spend that same 2-3 hours writing one piece for a SaaS company or a law firm.

I do my research. I cite legitimate sources. I use tools like BuzzSumo to help me determine what parts of industry conversations are not currently being had, and then I have that conversation.

What I do today more closely resembles “thought leadership” than the content mill races of the past. It’s more work. It requires more thought. I’m not convinced that writing for content mills taught me a single thing about how to do the job I have now.

But wow is this more interesting than that was.

Advice (This Is What You Came For, Right?)

I do think it’s harder to make a living as a freelance writer straight out of the gate than it was ten years ago. Back then, you could make decent money with no knowledge of any topic, as long as you could cannibalize anything else you found online and stuff it with the keywords your client demanded.

Today, making a living at this job requires more thought. Getting the types of clients who don’t pay a fraction of a cent does, too. In 2009 all I had to have was a fluent grasp of English and a pulse; today, I have to be able to articulate my specific skill set and explain how it intersects with a client’s industry-specific knowledge and marketing needs.

The advice I’d give new writers today, then, is this:

  • Don’t even bother with content mills or freelancer platforms. Seriously. Skip ’em. The pay isn’t worth the access to clients, and you’ll waste time grinding out mindless works that you could more profitably spend creating a writer website, articulating your value proposition, and finding clients who pay market rates.
  • Craigslist and LinkedIn are your friends. Yes, it takes longer to find jobs you’re equipped to do this way (although sites like Freelance Writing Gigs make it easier by aggregating jobs from Craigslist and similar sources). It’s also where you’re going to find clients who will pay anything like a liveable wage. All my best clients have come from one or the other.
  • Have a second area of expertise. I cannot stress this enough. Your biggest selling point for clients will be that you understand their industry and you can write. While companies are increasingly tolerant of hiring employees with the latter and training them in the former, those who hire freelancers don’t want to train you at all. If they did, they’d be looking for an employee, not a contractor. Know something other than writing, and look for jobs in that topic/industry.
  • Don’t quit your day job. This wasn’t an option in 2009, when so many people (myself included) turned to freelancing because we couldn’t get a day job to begin with. But if you have one, don’t quit it until you can live off 50 percent or less of your freelance income.

As for the industry itself, I think we’ve hit a plateau when it comes to the pace of change in writing demands. Search engine results are much more attuned to what humans find relevant than they were in the past, and what humans find relevant is content that addresses old topics in new ways, with excellent citations, and in sufficient depth to teach the reader something worth knowing. I don’t see that changing anytime soon, so I also don’t see an upheaval like Panda happening again anytime soon.

The next big wave of pressure on freelance writers is most likely going to come from our own current clients. The STEAM revolution is waking up companies and schools alike to the fact that a tech education isn’t enough: Our next generation of coders, scientists and engineers needs to be able to communicate effectively with a wide range of audiences, as well.

As students who got a more rounded education in communication and the humanities start to fill jobs in the STEM sectors, many of us who are making a living as these companies’ communicators are going to feel the pressure from their internal hires. We’ll need to reinvent ourselves again. I have no idea how, but I’ll be there for the ride.


This blog brought to you by my ego and the support of many wonderful people. For the price of a cup of coffee, you can be one of them. Donate here.

How Insurance Might Just Save Us All

I’m not going to lie to you, Internets: I kind of hate insurance.

My first job out of law school was in insurance defense. We were the lawyers the insurance company calls when you sue them for refusing to cover your claims despite the years of cash you’ve tossed down their gaping maws just in case something catastrophic actually happened. My job was to explain, over and over again in increasingly tedious terms, why You No Can Has Payments No I Don’t Care If Your House No Longer Exists and Neither Does Your Leg.

Some of the cases I defended were legitimately nonsense, like the couple that wanted a brand-new guest house build entirely up to code even though they freely admitted they did not live in their guest house and their insurance policy said in bold all caps on every single page “THIS POLICY COVERS ONLY YOUR PRIMARY DWELLING.”

Others were absolutely heartbreaking, like the patient whose insurance was rescinded after they were diagnosed with terminal cancer, leaving their family on the hook for $500,000 in medical bills because the insurer claimed the patient had never told them about certain test results, which it turns out the doctor never even ordered.

As a consumer, I kind of hate it too. I only pay for it because I know what happens if I don’t have it. Like the case in which a drunk driver hit a teenager, lacerating the teen’s brain stem and causing them to burn through $1.5 million in medical bills in the first six weeks, none of which they’ll ever even remember because they spent all six of them in a coma.

(PS: The ACA has decimated the number of cases like those last two, in case you’re wondering whether ordinary Americans really need government-supported health insurance.)

It’s important, but I still kinda think it’s crap.

…Maybe. Today may have changed my mind.

How INsurance Might Just Save Us All

I don’t practice insurance law anymore, but I do still write content for insurance publications and, increasingly, for insurtech companies. Today I wrote an article that as near as I can tell is the first of its kind: A how-to guide for insurance companies that want to encourage smart home device use, but that also don’t want to blow off their own legs in the privacy and security minefield those devices pose.

And fam? I think insurance companies might save us all. I really do.

Check out this creepy 150-page report from the Internet of Things Privacy Forum, arguing that smart devices are going to change the concept of privacy as we know it. The report argues that not only will we lose our sense of “private” and “public” spaces, we’ll even start losing the privacy of our own emotions, as devices get better at inferring emotional states from available data.

You didn’t want to sleep tonight, right?

The combination of artificial intelligence and omnipresent devices networked into a collection of information that expands exponentially and that only machines can currently parse presents risks. Huge risks. Risks that, like the size of the problem itself, we can’t comprehend.

You know who absolutely loves contemplating risk? Insurance companies. And they’re good at it. Like, really, really good.

Governments have been slow to address data security concerns with smart devices, even though it’s increasingly common knowledge that any smart device is a giant open hole in your network security with a neon sign on it that screams “Free Mayhem Here!” California passed a bill that won’t take effect until next year. Worse, the UK’s standards for smart device security are voluntary.

But if insurance companies decide to protect their own behinds while still accessing that sweet, sweet customer data, we’ll see much higher demand for smart device security, and we’ll see it in a hurry. Sure, that security will probably only go one way, which is toward insurers’ interests. But that’s still better than what we have now.

Okay, insurance. I guess I’ll hate you slightly less now.

 

Your “Thought Leadership” Was Written By A Freelancer

Ah, thought leadership.

What is it? We don’t know, but it sounds cool. Let’s do that.

How do we do that? We create cutting-edge, inspiring content, and we get it “out there.”

Okay… How do we do “cutting-edge”?

…I have no idea. Just call the freelancer.

your _thought leader_ is actually a freelancer(1)

It’s hard to pin down what “thought leadership” means these days. In some circles, it seems to involve hiring a specific brand of motivational speaker to waste your team’s time in the name of feeling good about not adding anything to your bottom line. In others, it’s all about regurgitating old-school business wisdom in 21st-century packages. Once in a great while, someone will point out that “thought leadership” should, y’know, lead somewhere – but the reason folks are fed up with it is that is so rarely does this in practice.

I first got introduced to “thought leadership” in 2016 or so, when a client asked me to “position [them] as a thought leader in [their] industry.”

At the time, I had no idea what this meant. I was a little intimidated by it.

Like so many others, I assumed that “thought leadership” implied I needed to communicate ideas worth having but that no one was talking about. That’s hard to do when, like me, you write for a half-dozen different industries every week. I’m good, but I’m not a top thinker in six different industries good.

Or am I?

Here’s why your favorite “thought leader” is probably a freelance writer in disguise:

1. Thought leadership isn’t about actually being at the top of your game.

Sure, it helps. But as with everything under the sun of late-stage capitalism, what you know is less important than how well you can distribute your image as a source of that knowledge.

To succeed as a “thought leader,” you don’t actually have to have cutting-edge, five-years-ahead-of-their-time thoughts. You need to be able to rearrange the ideas that are emerging today in a way that makes other people say “Eureka!”

You know who’s really good at finding current conversations, gleaning out the relevant bits, and repackaging them into a shiny, shareable 1500 words of new car smell? Freelance writers.

In fact, I’m about to drop that last paragraph into my LinkedIn profile.

2. Most thought leaders really want to be influencers.

I have never had anyone whose life work was research ask me to “position [them] as a thought leader,” and I never will.

There are a lot of reasons for that, but the biggest one is that wannabe (excuse me, “emerging”) thought leaders occupy industries in which turning your own name into a trustworthy brand is part and parcel of success. You don’t just need to be good at what you do; you need people in your industry to know you’re good at it.

The goal of thought leadership, in most cases, is to turn the emerging thought leader into an “influencer,” or someone whose platform is so large that others turn to them for access to their audience. That’s why “thought leadership” itself has become a commodity for which people are willing to pay money.

But how do you make the transition from nobody to thought leader and from thought leader to influencer? The right people to ask are those that sit at the nexus every single day: content writers.

Iv’e been in this business for about ten years now, and in that time, I’ve seen innumerable people, ideas, and methods come and go. I started writing in the “cram keywords into barely comprehensible content” era; today, I wouldn’t dream of writing for anyone but actual humans. I remember when we didn’t have names for “influencers.” Heck, I remember the screechy noise my 14k modem made.

In short, I understand how thought leaders and influencers get made. For someone who wants to make that climb, I’m the one to ask for advice.

3.  Writing is a separate skill set from thought leadership.

Some people who want to become thought leaders are legitimately great at what they do. It’s in everyone’s best interests for these folks to keep doing what they do.

But what they do isn’t building a personal brand, or writing world-class content, or connecting it to the work of others in their industry. To do that, they’d have to step away from what they do and learn how to research trending keywords, identify existing influencers, or strike the right “candid, yet professional” tone.

It’s a waste of their time and talent. That’s where freelance writers come in.

We’re the nerds who buy ourselves subscriptions to Buzzsumo for Christmas. We installed Pocket because we got sick of crashing our phone’s mobile browser with open tabs. We wouldn’t dream of committing to a headline for this post without comparing “thought leader” and “thought leadership” in Google Trends.

(Don’t believe me? This post’s draft headline was “Your Thought Leader is Actually a Freelance Writer.”)

In fifteen minutes’ time, I can tell you what conversations you should be having today, which ones everyone else will be having tomorrow, and which ones have already been consigned to the purgatory of memes and dad jokes. In twenty-five minutes, I can also tell you how your industry’s biggest conversations affect [insert other industry here] and vice versa.

We don’t want subject-matter experts to be able to do that. We want them to go on experting at their subject matter. Context and communication are freelance writers’ area of expertise.

Is it worth taking so-named “thought leaders” seriously? As someone who writes an awful lot of the content that appears under their bylines, I’m going to say:

Don’t take the title seriously. It’s a bit silly these days, and even Google Trends is predicting that it’s had its time in the sun.

But read the work. Some of it cuts right to the heart of topics you’d otherwise have to distill from ten or twenty articles on the same topic. Some of it will frame problems in a way you never considered before, leading you like magic to an answer that has eluded you. Some of it is just plain interesting.

I know. I wrote it.

 

Should You Hire Millennials for Leadership Positions?

A not-at-all satirical thinkpiece.

In my decade of helping brands position themselves as “thought leaders,” I’ve been asked for a thinkpiece on Millennials about once every other month. But this recent request in my inbox gave me pause:

Can you discuss whether companies should train Millennials into their leadership?

Yes, absolutely – and no, absolutely not.

Should you hire millennials for leadership positions_

There are very good reasons not to train Millennials for leadership positions in any business or organization. Here are three:

1.  They’re too young (until they’re too old).

Millennials have greedily occupied the younger end of the workforce, making up 100 percent of all workers ages 23 to 38 or thereabouts.

Their pervasiveness, and the trickiness of their ages, make Millennials a bad bet for leadership positions. Do you really want to put a snot-nosed 23-year-old college graduate in charge of your teams? And that 37-year-old you just hired for a quarter of what you were paying her 67-year-old predecessor: Do you really think your people are going to take someone seriously when they’re practically over the hill?

Millennials are straight-up too young and irresponsible for leadership positions, unless they’re too old to be taken seriously in those positions. It’s best just to give them a miss altogether.

2. They don’t value money.

Here’s a sampling of things Millennials have killed in the past few years:

Oh, yeah. And The American Dream.

What do all these things have in common? That’s right: They’re all sites of “conspicuous consumption,” or methods for telegraphing the unnecessarily large size of one’s paycheck.

Millennials, instead, appear to be spending more on education, healthcare, and rent. Seriously? When did those ever impress the Joneses?

These spending trends should give employers pause. If Millennials can’t be trusted to invest their pay in the sort of status objects that will make everyone on the block envy them, what can they be trusted with? Certainly not leadership.

3. Capitalism is doomed.

Capitalism is dying anyway, and not just because Millennials killed it. Whether you prefer to frame the oncoming problem as the accelerating approach of catastrophic weather changes brought on by climate fluctuations, a Biblical end times scenario, or the arrival of fully automated luxury gay space communism, the fact is that capitalism is drawing to its close.

Sure, failing to prepare a single Millennial worker for leadership will leave a 15+ year hole in your company’s continuity, as your older workers retire or die and the remainder are in no way ready to take the reins. But since your business and everybody else’s aren’t going to survive the coming climate/Bible/Federation utopia apocalypse anyway, why are you wasting time and money training anyone for leadership? Think of the shareholders!

In short: Training Millennials for leadership positions is a bad proposition. Stick to training everyone born before 1980 or after 2000, and leave your Millennial workers to do what they do best: an unpaid internship.