How to Succeed While Actually Trying


“I wasn’t even intending to take that picture.”

That’s what Devin Allen, 26, said about the photo he took that wound up on the cover of TIME magazine. The city of Baltimore was caught in a zeitgeist of peaceful protests, police brutality, and riots, and Allen was an amateur photographer just trying to document the moment.

Except he was looking in the wrong direction.

“I actually had my back to all that,” Allen told the audience at Baltimore’s Creative Mornings meetup, where he’d been asked to discuss his work.

“And then I turned around…”

Right Place, Right Skills, Right Time

Let’s talk about business for a second.

Or life. (Most of the same rules apply.)

If you want to build a business, you probably spend a lot of time thinking about theory, strategy and process. That’s because it’s easy to think about success; it’s a lot harder to take action, and it’s even more difficult to take successful actions.


Because long-term success is rare.

Long-term success is the end result of a million smart, resourceful, resilient choices we make along the way. It’s the result of not giving up when we make mistakes. And it’s the result of mixing talent with passion with the right people, at the right times, in the right places.

Lots of variables, right?

And for every smart choice we make, there are a dozen bad choices waiting to trip us up, set us back, and rob of us our will to keep trying.

Screw up enough in a relationship and you may break up…

… but you can learn from it.

Screw up enough in business and you may give up…

… but you can always start over.

Screw up enough in life, though, and you may not get another chance.

“People think Baltimore is ‘The Wire’? It’s worse.”

Devin Allen is 26, but he’s already buried 20 of his friends. He says his best friends died back-to-back, one night after another. Why? Drugs. Streets. In Baltimore, a guy like Devin is more likely to end up a casualty than a cover photographer.

But Devin Allen wanted a better ending.

“Why did you decide to become a photographer?”

“I had a daughter. And I wanted to leave her something that would last.”

You’ve Gotta Start Somewhere

Devin Allen is an “amateur” photographer. He never went to school to learn how to take a “proper” photograph. He never studied the business of self-promotion, or networking, or media rights management.

“How did you learn to become a photographer?”

“YouTube. And trial and error.”

You don’t have to be an expert at what you love. You just have to love doing it, and you have to throw yourself into it with the kind of abandon that seems reckless to anyone who isn’t you.

“My mom was texting me when she realized I was out at the protests. ‘Come home now!,'” Allen says. “I show her that TIME cover, and I’m like, ‘You’re glad I didn’t come home now, right?'”

If you want to build something that doesn’t exist, you have to be willing to do all the hard parts yourself. You need the courage to take risks — and the resilience to recover from failure. You have to learn from your mistakes. And you have to be a mix of fearless, crazy, dedicated, humble, and hopeful.

It’s not an easy balance to strike. But every win counts.

Devin Allen’s camera is a Fuji with built-in WiFi. When he took the photo that would launch his career, he automatically uploaded it to his Twitter and Instagram feeds, just like he’d done for hundreds of photos before.

“And like immediately, there was a cop in my face: ‘Move!’ But he helped me get out of the way. After that, I stayed out and I just kept shooting.”

It wasn’t until Allen got home that he realized his photo had been retweeted over 500 times, and counting.

“I was like, ‘What?’ And then Fusion Magazine called, and then the BBC… and I was like, ‘Whaaaaaaaaaaaaat?'”

How to Turn a Victory Into a Success

Let’s say you’re a videoblogger who’s posted dozens of webisodes to YouTube. Maybe your videos get a few hundred views apiece, on average.

Then, one day, one of your videos skyrockets to 100,000 views.

Does that suddenly make you a web video expert?

No. It means you got lucky.


… but it also means you got something right.

The truth is, you probably have no idea why that one video became so popular.  It could have been…

  • The title
  • The description
  • The thumbnail image
  • A keyword within the title or description
  • A suddenly-relevant tag
  • Getting mentioned by a powerful influencer
  • Cross-posting to a highly-trafficked blog
  • A complete and total accident
  • Something else entirely

If you don’t know why it happened, all you can do is guess. And if your next video is back to getting a few hundred views, then you guessed wrong.

So guess again.

If you have one victory under your belt, you don’t yet have a winning system.

Victory means something worked.  Success means your system works.

But they both mean you have talent — so build on it.

You Don’t Have to Know Where You’re Going. You Just Have to Know Where You Don’t Want to Be.

Success looks inevitable once you’re there. But as anyone who’s ever succeeded will tell you, the route changes a thousand times along the way — and you have to be nimble enough to change with it.

For Devin Allen, becoming a statistic wasn’t an option. He figured that out long before he ever picked up a camera. He saw the kind of life his friends had chosen, and he knew he wanted something different.

“I changed,” he says. “I didn’t want to be that. I even dress more like an artist now. And sometimes I catch hell for it. People I know see my outfit and they’re like, ‘Man, what’s all this?'”

“And I just show ’em TIME Magazine.”

When he’s not taking photos, Allen works with the autistic and the intellectually challenged. That’s his night job. Creating positive change is something he does daily.

“Before all this,” Allen says, “I was going to move to New York. But I have faith in Baltimore again. I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying.”

Allen wants to teach photography to kids, so they can grow up with the power to tell their own stories.

“People keep asking me, ‘where’s all that TIME magazine money?’ It’s not about the money. It’s about saving the next child.”

“You’re gonna make mistakes, but you’ve gotta find yourself. People give up too early. You’re not gonna find yourself at 21.”

“We’re all photographers now. Keep taking those selfies. You’ll figure it out.”

You’ve just gotta start somewhere.


How to Invent More Time in Each Day


You can always make more money, but you can’t make more time.

And since there’s no shortage of spectacle competing for our precious 24 hours, finding smart ways to invest our minutes is increasingly difficult.

So if we can never gain time, why not invest in methods to maximize the time we do have?

All of which brings me to one simple suggestion that could make a giant difference:

You need a mental machete to cut through all your bullshit.

And here’s how you can do it.

1. Come to grips with the fact that you’ll never know everything.

Just because everything ever thought, written or created is just a Google search away, that doesn’t mean you need to see it all. You have bills to pay, loved ones to hug and a life to live. Stop feeling obliged to pay attention to things that aren’t furthering your own goals. (You do have goals, don’t you?)

2. Stop oversharing. The world does not need your next tweet.

The irony of social media is that by using it to retain human-to-human connections, we’re all just creating more white noise that actually creates cognitive and emotional overload.

So, at least once a day, stop yourself from tweeting, or updating Facebook, or posting on Instagram. Create one less piece of white noise for someone else to scroll past.

The world will survive. You’ll still be there. And you’ll have a few more minutes invest in something that matters.

3. Be content with learning in chapters, rather than volumes.

Some articles are so well-written, so dense with ideas and so richly embedded with quality links, that to fully experience and appreciate them would take a day at least, or possibly a full semester. And since so many of those links lead to other posts of equal merit, the opportunity (and the burden) of learning is infinite.

As rare as it is to find something that captivates us, it’s the fear of missing something life-changing that’s even more crippling… and so we keep reading on, and on, and on…

So how do you convince yourself to turn off the spigot of neverending knowledge? How do you know when enough is enough?

You don’t. But you do know when you’ve hit upon something you can actually use. So do yourself a favor: when that happens, pause the knowledge stream and switch gears.

4. Knowledge without application serves no one.

Maybe you found a new accounting app that looks useful.

Maybe you learned about a problem you feel compelled to solve.

Maybe two unconnected concepts you read about last month just collided in your brain while you were taking a shower, and suddenly the whole world (and your place in it) seems to make sense.


Now use it.

If you’re motivated to act, you owe it to yourself to follow through.

If that means testing out a program, doing additional research, making phone calls or asking questions, do it. If it means taking something apart, moving something around or smashing two things together, do it.

If you don’t do it now, you won’t do it later, because something else will have your attention. Insights can’t wait for optimal conditions.

Take more actions; open fewer tabs.

5.  Make your show & tell count.

The truth is, no matter how much we try to cut down on the volume of information we share, we’ll still be creating or sharing something.  There will always be another video that your friends just have to see, or another BuzzFeed quiz that you just have to take.

So at least make sure you’re not adding to the problem.

Before you share something, ask yourself:

  • Who will benefit from seeing this?
  • Is this actionable, or just informative?
  • What would happen if I didn’t share this?

If your answers are “I don’t know,” “No,” and “Nothing,” you can probably delete it.

6. Trade white noise for more time.

If you’ve always wanted to make, learn, or do something, but you never seem to get around to it, now’s your chance.

By making and sharing less white noise in your week, you’ll have more actual time to invest in what really matters to you.

So give yourself a goal, and see how your saved time really adds up.

For example, have you always wanted to learn a new language, but you just don’t think you have the time? Instead of sharing whatever you’d normally be sharing on Facebook, spend that time learning a few key words in that language. By doing this little by little, day after day, you’ll end up knowing a lot more of that language 30 days from now than you would if you never got started — and you won’t even have to give up anything important in order to achieve it.

You can’t create more hours in a day. But by spending your time more wisely, you can achieve more in the same amount of time — and that means you can make the most of the time you have.

Image by ExpressMonorail on Flickr.

The Relevance Economy


First, let’s agree that money is overrated.

Granted, in our capitalist system we all still need money and pursue it desperately. But as any chart of wealth inequity can show you, none of us will enter the top 1% anytime soon. Instead, we’re all fighting for scraps. (Not that this stops each of us from believing we’ll be rich.)

As a result, there’s new interest in commoditizing the one resource we all share equally: time.

Thousands of blogs and articles have been written about concepts like the attention economy, the influence economy, and how changes in perception affect the “market value” of your influence. And people are always devising new ways to monetize their influence.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. In a post-industrial economy, influence is one of the intangible resources we can each invest.

The problem is, optimizing for revenue only solves half the equation.

Instead, let’s look at how we can invest our time and influence using a more valuable data point: relevance.

Why > What

A new TV might cost $300. That’s a concrete price for a concrete item. The price may fluctuate due to supply and demand, but the price on the tag is the same for everybody, regardless of how much money they actually have.

But the relevance of that TV is different for each potential buyer.

If you’ve never owned a TV before, that $300 pricetag is your gateway to a lifestyle milestone. But to a person who already has a TV in every room, that same $300 TV is almost worthless. The price itself doesn’t change, but its context does.

How much you need (or want) something determines how relevant it is in your life, and that affects how much time and effort you should reasonably allocate toward obtaining it.

Now, pretend that TV is a reliable car. Or a healthy relationship. Or a job that fulfills you. Now how much is that goal worth, and how much of your time is worth investing in order to achieve it?

Why Mattering Matters

Too often, we spend the bulk of our time in pursuit of money, for the specific sake of possessing money.

We don’t necessarily know what we need it for, but we know that we do need it. Therefore, as long as we spend our time making money, we can forgive ourselves for not spending that time on anything else more relevant — mostly because we never ask ourselves what is relevant in the long term.

So, what happens when we ask ourselves what really matters?

If we identify our greater goals, and we redefine money as a means rather than an end, we’re left with a very different problem than “how do I make more money?”

Instead, we start asking, “How can I maximize my own relevance?”

This works both ways — by giving and receiving.

Also, unlike money, relevance is reciprocal. Reducing the wasted time and effort in your own life naturally means you’ll have more time and effort for what matters — and that increases the global demand for relevance.

So next time you’re reviewing your personal budget, or making a new life plan, be sure that what you’re optimizing for isn’t just more money for the sake of having it. Because while more money can make your life less bad, it doesn’t actually make it better.

Instead, make sure you’re aiming at a target you need to hit.

Then working on your aim won’t feel like work at all.

It’ll feel like a life. (And isn’t that the whole point?)

How to Get Influencers to Talk About You


Marketing a product? Offering a service? Creating something original?

In each case, you need people to do two things for you:

  1. Notice what you’re doing, and
  2. Talk about it with others.

If no one’s talking about you, you’ll have to spend a lot more time, money, and effort advertising your efforts. And shouldn’t those resources be spent making your actual product, service, or art better?

If your goal is to get people talking, there are lots of ways to do that.

But online, you have to make a distinction:

Do you want PEOPLE to talk about you, or do you want SOCIAL MEDIA PEOPLE to talk about you?

People Are People… Give or Take

PEOPLE like to talk about THINGS.

PEOPLE like to talk to OTHER PEOPLE.

SOCIAL MEDIA PEOPLE can generate a lot of online buzz.
PEOPLE can generate a lot of sales.

SOCIAL MEDIA PEOPLE like to get OTHER SOCIAL MEDIA PEOPLE interested in something, so they can feel like influencers.
PEOPLE like to be around other people who think like they do.

There are more PEOPLE in the world than there are SOCIAL MEDIA PEOPLE, but it’s the SOCIAL MEDIA PEOPLE whose buzz trickles down to PEOPLE and influences what they find interesting enough to buy / use / love.

Shout Loud So the Narcissists Can Hear You

SOCIAL MEDIA PEOPLE spend the bulk of their time ensuring that other people are paying attention to them.

To get SOCIAL MEDIA PEOPLE to notice you (or your company), you need to get their attention and hold it long enough so that they find something interesting about you — which, when they relate it to others, will make them seem interesting to other people. (And which will make you seem interesting by extension.)

Thus, when you’re promoting yourself or your work to SOCIAL MEDIA PEOPLE, you’re really providing them with a means to further promote themselves. Insidious, isn’t it?

Therefore, before you approach SOCIAL MEDIA PEOPLE with evidence of your own relevance, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are you more interesting than your audience thinks they themselves are?
  • Will talking about you to their audience make your audience seem more interesting to the people who listen to them?
  • Does your story come with hooks?
  • Does your story solve people’s problems in such a way that, by bringing your existence to the attention of others, the re-teller of your story will be appreciated as a problem solver?
  • Are you memorable, or merely distracting?

SOCIAL MEDIA PEOPLE love conversation ammunition. Don’t hand them blanks, or they’ll look right past you.

Photo by mukluk on Flickr.