ignore everybody

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ie222jpeg[Essential Reading: “Everything You Always Wanted To Know About ‘Cube Grenades’ But Were Afraid To Ask.”]

BIG NEWS: My new book, “Ignore Everybody”was launched June 11th, 2009. You can read the first 25% below, and you can order the book here:

Amazon.

Barnes & Noble.

Borders.

800-CEO-READ. [great for bulk buys]

IndieBound. [to find an independent store]

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[Update: “Ignore Everybody” is on Amazon’s Top 10 Editor’s Picks, Business Books of 2009.]


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IGNORE EVERYBODY

So you want to be more creative, in art, in business, whatever. Here are some tips that have worked for me over the years.]

1. Ignore everybody.

2. The idea doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be yours.
3. Put the hours in.
4. If your biz plan depends on you suddenly being “discovered” by some big shot, your plan will probably fail.
5. You are responsible for your own experience.
6. Everyone is born creative; everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten.
7. Keep your day job.
8. Companies that squelch creativity can no longer compete with companies that champion creativity.
9. Everybody has their own private Mount Everest they were put on this earth to climb.
10. The more talented somebody is, the less they need the props.
11. Don’t try to stand out from the crowd; avoid crowds altogether.
12. If you accept the pain, it cannot hurt you.
13. Never compare your inside with somebody else’s outside.
14. Dying young is overrated.
15. The most important thing a creative person can learn professionally is where to draw the red line that separates what you are willing to do, and what you are not.
16. The world is changing.
17. Merit can be bought. Passion can’t.
18. Avoid the Watercooler Gang.
19. Sing in your own voice.
20. The choice of media is irrelevant.
21. Selling out is harder than it looks.
22. Nobody cares. Do it for yourself.
23. Worrying about “Commercial vs. Artistic” is a complete waste of time.
24. Don’t worry about finding inspiration. It comes eventually.
25. You have to find your own schtick.
26. Write from the heart.
27. The best way to get approval is not to need it.
28. Power is never given. Power is taken.
29. Whatever choice you make, The Devil gets his due eventually.
30. The hardest part of being creative is getting used to it.
31. Remain frugal.

32. Allow your work to age with you.
33. Being Poor Sucks.
34. Beware of turning hobbies into jobs.
35. Savor obscurity while it lasts.
36. Start blogging.
37. Meaning Scales, People Don’t.
37. When your dreams become reality, they are no longer your dreams.


MORE:

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1. Ignore everybody.

The more original your idea is, the less good advice other people will be able to give you. When I first started with the cartoon-on-back-of-bizcard format, people thought I was nuts. Why wasn’t I trying to do something more easy for markets to digest i.e. cutey-pie greeting cards or whatever?

You don’t know if your idea is any good the moment it’s created. Neither does anyone else. The most you can hope for is a strong gut feeling that it is. And trusting your feelings is not as easy as the optimists say it is. There’s a reason why feelings scare us.
And asking close friends never works quite as well as you hope, either. It’s not that they deliberately want to be unhelpful. It’s just they don’t know your world one millionth as well as you know your world, no matter how hard they try, no matter how hard you try to explain.
Plus a big idea will change you. Your friends may love you, but they don’t want you to change. If you change, then their dynamic with you also changes. They like things the way they are, that’s how they love you- the way you are, not the way you may become.
Ergo, they have no incentive to see you change. And they will be resistant to anything that catalyzes it. That’s human nature. And you would do the same, if the shoe was on the other foot.
With business colleagues it’s even worse. They’re used to dealing with you in a certain way. They’re used to having a certain level of control over the relationship. And they want whatever makes them more prosperous. Sure, they might prefer it if you prosper as well, but that’s not their top priority.
If your idea is so good that it changes your dynamic enough to where you need them less, or God forbid, THE MARKET needs them less, then they’re going to resist your idea every chance they can.
Again, that’s human nature.
GOOD IDEAS ALTER THE POWER BALANCE IN RELATIONSHIPS, THAT IS WHY GOOD IDEAS ARE ALWAYS INITIALLY RESISTED.
Good ideas come with a heavy burden. Which is why so few people have them. So few people can handle it.
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2. The idea doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be yours.

The sovereignty you have over your work will inspire far more people than the actual content ever will.

We all spend a lot of time being impressed by folk we’ve never met. Somebody featured in the media who’s got a big company, a big product, a big movie, a big bestseller. Whatever.
And we spend even more time trying unsuccessfully to keep up with them. Trying to start up our own companies, our own products, our own film projects, books and whatnot.
I’m as guilty as anyone. I tried lots of different things over the years, trying desperately to pry my career out of the jaws of mediocrity. Some to do with business, some to do with art etc.
One evening, after one false start too many, I just gave up. Sitting at a bar, feeling a bit burned out by work and life in general, I just started drawing on the back of business cards for no reason. I didn’t really need a reason. I just did it because it was there, because it amused me in a kind of random, arbitrary way.
Of course it was stupid. Of course it was uncommercial. Of course it wasn’t going to go anywhere. Of course it was a complete and utter waste of time. But in retrospect, it was this built-in futility that gave it its edge. Because it was the exact opposite of all the “Big Plans” my peers and I were used to making. It was so liberating not to have to be thinking about all that, for a change.
It was so liberating to be doing something that didn’t have to impress anybody, for a change.
It was so liberating to be doing something that didn’t have to have some sort of commercial angle, for a change.
It was so liberating to have something that belonged just to me and no one else, for a change.
It was so liberating to feel complete sovereignty, for a change. To feel complete freedom, for a change.
And of course, it was then, and only then, that the outside world started paying attention.
The sovereignty you have over your work will inspire far more people than the actual content ever will. How your own sovereignty inspires other people to find their own sovereignty, their own sense of freedom and possibility, will give the work far more power than the work’s objective merits ever will.
Your idea doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be yours alone. The more the idea is yours alone, the more freedom you have to do something really amazing.
The more amazing, the more people will click with your idea. The more people click with your idea, the more this little thing of yours will snowball into a big thing.
That’s what doodling on business cards taught me.
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3. Put the hours in.

Doing anything worthwhile takes forever. 90% of what separates successful people and failed people is time, effort, and stamina.

I get asked a lot, “Your business card format is very simple. Aren’t you worried about somebody ripping it off?”
Standard Answer: Only if they can draw more of them than me, better than me.
What gives the work its edge is the simple fact that I’ve spent years drawing them. I’ve drawn thousands. Tens of thousands of man hours.
So if somebody wants to rip my idea off, go ahead. If somebody wants to overtake me in the business card doodle wars, go ahead. You’ve got many long years in front of you. And unlike me, you won’t be doing it for the joy of it. You’ll be doing it for some self-loathing, ill-informed, lame-ass mercenary reason. So the years will be even longer and far, far more painful. Lucky you.
If somebody in your industry is more successful than you, it’s probably because he works harder at it than you do. Sure, maybe he’s more inherently talented, more adept at networking etc, but I don’t consider that an excuse. Over time, that advantage counts for less and less. Which is why the world is full of highly talented, network-savvy, failed mediocrities.
So yeah, success means you’ve got a long road ahead of you, regardless. How do you best manage it?
Well, as I’ve written elsewhere, don’t quit your day job. I didn’t. I work every day at the office, same as any other regular schmoe. I have a long commute on the train, ergo that’s when I do most of my drawing. When I was younger I drew mostly while sitting at a bar, but that got old.
The point is; an hour or two on the train is very managable for me. The fact I have a job means I don’t feel pressured to do something market-friendly. Instead, I get to do whatever the hell I want. I get to do it for my own satisfaction. And I think that makes the work more powerful in the long run. It also makes it easier to carry on with it in a calm fashion, day-in-day out, and not go crazy in insane creative bursts brought on by money worries.
The day job, which I really like, gives me something productive and interesting to do among fellow adults. It gets me out of the house in the day time. If I were a professional cartoonist I’d just be chained to a drawing table at home all day, scribbling out a living in silence, interrupted only by freqent trips to the coffee shop. No, thank you.
Simply put, my method allows me to pace myself over the long haul, which is important.
Stamina is utterly important. And stamina is only possible if it’s managed well. People think all they need to do is endure one crazy, intense, job-free creative burst and their dreams will come true. They are wrong, they are stupidly wrong.
Being good at anything is like figure skating- the definition of being good at it is being able to make it look easy. But it never is easy. Ever. That’s what the stupidly wrong people coveniently forget.
If I was just starting out writing, say, a novel or a screenplay, or maybe starting up a new software company, I wouldn’t try to quit my job in order to make this big, dramatic heroic-quest thing about it.
I would do something far simpler: I would find that extra hour or two in the day that belongs to nobody else but me, and I would make it productive. Put the hours in, do it for long enough and magical, life-transforming things happen eventually. Sure, that means less time watching TV, internet surfing, going out or whatever.
But who cares?
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4. If your biz plan depends on you suddenly being “discovered” by some big shot, your plan will probably fail.

Nobody suddenly discovers anything. Things are made slowly and in pain.

I was offered a quite substantial publishing deal a year or two ago. Turned it down. The company sent me a contract. I looked it over. Hmmmm…
Called the company back. Asked for some clarifications on some points in the contract. Never heard back from them. The deal died.
This was a very respected company. You may have even heard of it.
They just assumed I must be just like all the other people they represent- hungry and desperate and willing to sign anything.
They wanted to own me, regardless of how good a job they did.
That’s the thing about some big publishers. They want 110% from you, but they don’t offer to do likewise in return. To them, the artist is just one more noodle in a big bowl of pasta.
Their business model is to basically throw the pasta against the wall, and see which one sticks. The ones that fall to the floor are just forgotten.
Publishers are just middlemen. That’s all. If artists could remember that more often, they’d save themselves a lot of aggrevation.
Anyway, yeah, I can see gapingvoid being a ‘product’ one day. Books, T-shirts and whatnot. I think it could make a lot of money, if handled correctly. But I’m not afraid to walk away if I think the person offering it is full of hot air. I’ve already got my groove etc. Not to mention another career that’s doing quite well, thank you.
I think “gapingvoid as product line” idea is pretty inevitable, down the road. Watch this space.
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5. You are responsible for your own experience.

Nobody can tell you if what you’re doing is good, meaningful or worthwhile. The more compelling the path, the more lonely it is.

Every creative person is looking for “The Big Idea”. You know, the one that is going to catapult them out from the murky depths of obscurity and on to the highest planes of incandescent ludicity.
The one that’s all love-at-first-sight with the Zeitgeist.
The one that’s going to get them invited to all the right parties, metaphorical or otherwise.
So naturally you ask yourself, if and when you finally come up with The Big Idea, after years of toil, struggle and doubt, how do you know whether or not it is “The One”?
Answer: You don’t.
There’s no glorious swelling of existential triumph.
That’s not what happens.
All you get is this rather kvetchy voice inside you that seems to say, “This is totally stupid.This is utterly moronic. This is a complete waste of time. I’m going to do it anyway.”
And you go do it anyway.
Second-rate ideas like glorious swellings far more. Keeps them alive longer.
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6. Everyone is born creative; everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten.

Then when you hit puberty they take the crayons away and replace them with books on algebra etc. Being suddenly hit years later with the creative bug is just a wee voice telling you, “I’d like my crayons back, please.”

So you’ve got the itch to do something. Write a screenplay, start a painting, write a book, turn your recipe for fudge brownies into a proper business, whatever. You don’t know where the itch came from, it’s almost like it just arrived on your doorstep, uninvited. Until now you were quite happy holding down a real job, being a regular person…
Until now.
You don’t know if you’re any good or not, but you’d think you could be. And the idea terrifies you. The problem is, even if you are good, you know nothing about this kind of business. You don’t know any publishers or agents or all these fancy-shmancy kind of folk. You have a friend who’s got a cousin in California who’s into this kind of stuff, but you haven’t talked to your friend for over two years…
Besides, if you write a book, what if you can’t find a publisher? If you write a screenplay, what if you can’t find a producer? And what if the producer turns out to be a crook? You’ve always worked hard your whole life, you’ll be damned if you’ll put all that effort into something if there ain’t no pot of gold at the end of this dumb-ass rainbow…
Heh. That’s not your wee voice asking for the crayons back. That’s your outer voice, your adult voice, your boring & tedious voice trying to find a way to get the wee crayon voice to shut the hell up.
Your wee voice doesn’t want you to sell something. Your wee voice wants you to make something. There’s a big difference. Your wee voice doesn’t give a damn about publishers or Hollywood producers.
Go ahead and make something. Make something really special. Make something amazing that will really blow the mind of anybody who sees it.
If you try to make something just to fit your uninformed view of some hypothetical market, you will fail. If you make something special and powerful and honest and true, you will succeed.
The wee voice didn’t show up because it decided you need more money or you need to hang out with movie stars. Your wee voice came back because your soul somehow depends on it. There’s something you haven’t said, something you haven’t done, some light that needs to be switched on, and it needs to be taken care of. Now.
So you have to listen to the wee voice or it will die… taking a big chunk of you along with it.
They’re only crayons. You didn’t fear them in kindergarten, why fear them now?
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7. Keep your day job.

I’m not just saying that for the usual reason i.e. because I think your idea will fail. I’m saying it because to suddenly quit one’s job in a big ol’ creative drama-queen moment is always, always, always in direct conflict with what I call “The Sex & Cash Theory”.

THE SEX & CASH THEORY: “The creative person basically has two kinds of jobs: One is the sexy, creative kind. Second is the kind that pays the bills. Sometimes the task in hand covers both bases, but not often. This tense duality will always play center stage. It will never be transcended.”
A good example is Phil, a NY photographer friend of mine. He does really wild stuff for the indie magazines- it pays nothing, but it allows him to build his portfolio. Then he’ll go off and shoot some catalogues for a while. Nothing too exciting, but it pays the bills.
Another example is somebody like Martin Amis. He writes “serious” novels, but he has to supplement his income by writing the occasional newspaper article for the London papers (novel royalties are bloody pathetic- even bestsellers like Amis aren’t immune).
Or actors. One year Travolta will be in an ultra-hip flick like Pulp Fiction (“Sex”), the next he’ll be in some dumb spy thriller (“Cash”).
Or painters. You spend one month painting blue pictures because that’s the color the celebrity collectors are buying this season (“Cash”), you spend the next month painting red pictures because secretly you despise the color blue and love the color red (“Sex”).
Or geeks. You spend you weekdays writing code for a faceless corporation (“Cash”), then you spend your evening and weekends writing anarchic, weird computer games to amuse your techie friends with (“Sex”).
It’s balancing the need to make a good living while still maintaining one’s creative sovereignty. My M.O. is gapingvoid (“Sex”), coupled with my day job (“Cash”).
I’m thinking about the young writer who has to wait tables to pay the bills, in spite of her writing appearing in all the cool and hip magazines…. who dreams of one day of not having her life divided so harshly.
Well, over time the ‘harshly’ bit might go away, but not the ‘divided’.
“This tense duality will always play center stage. It will never be transcended.”
As soon as you accept this, I mean really accept this, for some reason your career starts moving ahead faster. I don’t know why this happens. It’s the people who refuse to cleave their lives this way- who just want to start Day One by quitting their current crappy day job and moving straight on over to best-selling author… Well, they never make it.
Anyway, it’s called “The Sex & Cash Theory”. Keep it under your pillow.
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8. Companies that squelch creativity can no longer compete with companies that champion creativity.

Nor can you bully a subordinate into becoming a genius.

Since the modern, scientifically-conceived corporation was invented in the early half of the Twentieth Century, creativity has been sacrificed in favor of forwarding the interests of the “Team Player”.
Fair enough. There was more money in doing it that way; that’s why they did it.
There’s only one problem. Team Players are not very good at creating value on their own. They are not autonomous; they need a team in order to exist.
So now corporations are awash with non-autonomous thinkers.
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
And so on.
Creating an economically viable entity where lack of original thought is handsomely rewarded creates a rich, fertile environment for parasites to breed. And that’s exactly what’s been happening. So now we have millions upon millions of human tapeworms thriving in the Western World, making love to their Powerpoint presentations, feasting on the creativity of others.
What happens to an ecology, when the parasite level reaches critical mass?
The ecology dies.
If you’re creative, if you can think independantly, if you can articulate passion, if you can override the fear of being wrong, then your company needs you now more than it ever did. And now your company can no longer afford to pretend that isn’t the case.
So dust off your horn and start tooting it. Exactly.
However if you’re not paricularly creative, then you’re in real trouble. And there’s no buzzword or “new paradigm” that can help you. They may not have mentioned this in business school, but… people like watching dinosaurs die.
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9. Everybody has their own private Mount Everest they were put on this earth to climb.

You may never reach the summit; for that you will be forgiven. But if you don’t make at least one serious attempt to get above the snow-line, years later you will find yourself lying on your deathbed, and all you will feel is emptiness.

This metaphorical Mount Everest doesn’t have to manifest itself as “Art”. For some people, yes, it might be a novel or a painting. But Art is just one path up the mountain, one of many. With others the path may be something more prosaic. Making a million dollars, raising a family, owning the most Burger King franchises in the Tri-State area, building some crazy oversized model airplane, the list has no end.
Whatever. Let’s talk about you now. Your mountain. Your private Mount Everest. Yes, that one. Exactly.
Let’s say you never climb it. Do you have a problem witb that? Can you just say to yourself, “Never mind, I never really wanted it anyway” and take up stamp collecting instead?
Well, you could try. But I wouldn’t believe you. I think it’s not OK for you never to try to climb it. And I think you agree with me. Otherwise you wouldn’t have read this far.
So it looks like you’re going to have to climb the frickin’ mountain. Deal with it.
My advice? You don’t need my advice. You really don’t. The biggest piece of advice I could give anyone would be this:

“Admit that your own private Mount Everest exists. That is half the battle.”

And you’ve already done that. You really have. Otherwise, again, you wouldn’t have read this far.
Rock on.
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10. The more talented somebody is, the less they need the props.

Meeting a person who wrote a masterpiece on the back of a deli menu would not surprise me. Meeting a person who wrote a masterpiece with a silver Cartier fountain pen on an antique writing table in an airy SoHo loft would SERIOUSLY surprise me.

Abraham Lincoln wrote The Gettysberg Address on a piece of ordinary stationery that he had borrowed from the friend whose house he was staying at.
James Joyce wrote with a simple pencil and notebook. Somebody else did the typing, but only much later.
Van Gough rarely painted with more than six colors on his palette.
I draw on the back of wee biz cards. Whatever.
There’s no correlation between creativity and equipment ownership. None. Zilch. Nada.
Actually, as the artist gets more into his thing, and as he gets more successful, his number of tools tends to go down. He knows what works for him. Expending mental energy on stuff wastes time. He’s a man on a mission. He’s got a deadline. He’s got some rich client breathing down his neck. The last thing he wants is to spend 3 weeks learning how to use a router drill if he doesn’t need to.
A fancy tool just gives the second-rater one more pillar to hide behind.
Which is why there are so many second-rate art directors with state-of-the-art Macinotsh computers.
Which is why there are so many hack writers with state-of-the-art laptops.
Which is why there are so many crappy photographers with state-of-the-art digital cameras.
Which is why there are so many unremarkable painters with expensive studios in trendy neighborhoods.
Hiding behind pillars, all of them.
Pillars do not help; they hinder. The more mighty the pillar, the more you end up relying on it psychologically, the more it gets in your way.
And this applies to business, as well.
Which is why there are so many failing businesses with fancy offices.
Which is why there’s so many failing businessmen spending a fortune on fancy suits and expensive yacht club memberships.
Again, hiding behind pillars.
Successful people, artists and non-artists alike, are very good at spotting pillars. They’re very good at doing without them. Even more importantly, once they’ve spotted a pillar, they’re very good at quickly getting rid of it.
Good pillar management is one of the most valuable talents you can have on the planet. If you have it, I envy you. If you don’t, I pity you.
Sure, nobody’s perfect. We all have our pillars. We seem to need them. You are never going to live a pillar-free existence. Neither am I.
All we can do is keep asking the question, “Is this a pillar” about every aspect of our business, our craft, our reason for being alive etc and go from there. The more we ask, the better we get at spotting pillars, the more quickly the pillars vanish.
Ask. Keep asking. And then ask again. Stop asking and you’re dead.
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11. Don’t try to stand out from the crowd; avoid crowds altogether.

Your plan for getting your work out there has to be as original as the actual work, perhaps even more so. The work has to create a totally new market. There’s no point trying to do the same thing as 250,000 other young hopefuls, waiting for a miracle. All existing business models are wrong. Find a new one.

I’ve seen it so many times. Call him Ted. A young kid in the big city, just off the bus, wanting to be a famous something: artist, writer, musician, film director, whatever. He’s full of fire, full of passion, full of ideas. And you meet Ted again five or ten years later, and he’s still tending bar at the same restaurant. He’s not a kid anymore. But he’s still no closer to his dream.
His voice is still as defiant as ever, certainly, but there’s an emptiness to his words that wasn’t there before.
Yeah, well, Ted probably chose a very well-trodden path. Write novel, be discovered, publish bestseller, sell movie rights, retire rich in 5 years. Or whatever.
No worries that there’s probably 3 million other novelists/actors/musicians/painters etc with the same plan. But of course, Ted’s special. Of course his fortune will defy the odds eventually. Of course. That’s what he keeps telling you, as he refills your glass.
Is your plan of a similar ilk? If it is, then I’d be concerned.
When I started the business card cartoons I was lucky; at the time I had a pretty well-paid corporate job in New York that I liked. The idea of quitting it in order to join the ranks of Bohemia didn’t even occur to me. What, leave Manhattan for Brooklyn? Ha. Not bloody likely. I was just doing it to amuse myself in the evenings, to give me something to do at the bar while I waited for my date to show up or whatever.
There was no commerical incentive or larger agenda governing my actions. If I wanted to draw on the back of a business card instead of a “proper” medium, I could. If I wanted to use a four letter word, I could. If I wanted to ditch the standard figurative format and draw psychotic abstractions instead, I could. There was no flashy media or publishing executive to keep happy. And even better, there was no artist-lifestyle archetype to conform to.
It gave me a lot of freedom. That freedom paid off in spades later.
Question how much freedom your path affords you. Be utterly ruthless about it.
It’s your freedom that will get you to where you want to go. Blind faith in an over-subscribed, vainglorious myth will only hinder you.
Is you plan unique? Is there nobody else doing it? Then I’d be excited. A little scared, maybe, but excited.
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12. If you accept the pain, it cannot hurt you.
The pain of making the necessary sacrifices always hurts more than you think it’s going to. I know. It sucks. That being said, doing something seriously creative is one of the most amazing experiences one can have, in this or any other lifetime. If you can pull it off, it’s worth it. Even if you don’t end up pulling it off, you’ll learn many incredible, magical, valuable things. It’s NOT doing it when you know you full well you HAD the opportunity- that hurts FAR more than any failure.

Frankly, I think you’re better off doing something on the assumption that you will NOT be rewarded for it, that it will NOT receive the recognition it deserves, that it will NOT be worth the time and effort invested in it.
The obvious advantage to this angle is, of course, if anything good comes of it, then it’s an added bonus.
The second, more subtle and profound advantage is: that by scuppering all hope of worldly and social betterment from the creative act, you are finally left with only one question to answer:
Do you make this damn thing exist or not?
And once you can answer that truthfully to yourself, the rest is easy.

[To read the remainder of IGNORE EVERYBODY- 40 chapters in all- please go check out the book, Thanks!

[Essential Reading: “Everything You Always Wanted To Know About ‘Cube Grenades’ But Were Afraid To Ask.”]

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Hugh MacLeod is a genius.  Genius.

Seth Godin
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His work acknowledges the absurdity of workaday life, while also encouraging employees to respond with passion, creativity, and non-conformity...   MacLeod’s work is undeniably an improvement over the office schlock of yore. At its best, it’s more honest, and more cognizant of the entrepreneurial psyche, while still retaining some idealism.

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Last year my State of the College address was 76 slides loaded with data. This year it was 14 cartoons that were substantially more memorable.

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