I was asked by a marketing company the other day, “What makes you unique?”
Here’s my answer:
Almost every day, for almost 4 years now, I physically go upside down in a vertical position to do handstands.
Why, you may ask, would a middle-aged guy start to invert?
Well, lots of reasons, but initially, it was anger, frustration as well as an obsession with something that I was struggling to accomplish. I had already been on a quest for a year or two to be more mobile—doing functional movement and floor-based calisthenics. I was doing well, and seeing positive transformations in my abilities and well-being. My middle-aged body was feeling even better than I remember my 20-30-something body ever feeling. Progress. Except for one thing: Handstands. No matter how many videos I watched about how to do a handstand, my body just could not get completely vertical and upside down. My mind, fear, and old perceptions of what is safe and possible just would not let my body go upside down into inversion mode.
How did I get my mind out of my body’s way?
Below are some things I did:
- Got a coach. I got help from a coach. Seeing an advanced acrobatic, hand-stander at a public event, I went up and asked how he learned to do what he did so well. He agreed to coach me. His reassurances that I would not die, and then just being there, helping get me upside down for the first time. First against a wall. Then, away from a wall, as he spotted me (see photo above).
- Started. I took it one, sometimes tiny, step at a time. Conditioning for the strength to do it as well as practicing the techniques every day. One small, tiny progression every day to get a little more flexible, stronger in my core, more functional and fluid with movement, and more balanced and stable while upside down.
- Stayed consistent. I did it regularly, despite the slowness of process. Everyday, some form of balanced conditioning, flexibility and practice. Good for body, but also my mind to start understanding this as the “new normal.”
- Joined a community. I joined a community seeking the same goals. A parkour gym, Enso Movement, offering specific handstand training. Having a group who are after the same goals, who understand the daily struggles and who are always there watching, applauding, and accepting is always a big encouragement.
- Invested in myself. Sometimes, more investment in one-on-one, expert training for specific issues was needed. When I had a similar road-block with attempting to do cartwheels as I had had with handstands, I let go of my ego, and some cash, and invested in some private, expert coaching to get over the obstacle (see video below).
- Normalized it. Joining the parkour gym not only created community but also normalized the activity. Lots of people, of all ages (many older than me) were doing impressive things upside and sideways, and often with great speed and strange twists and turns. Tricking, free-running and floor acrobatics was happening all around me. Also, filling my Instagram feed with people doing handstands makes it a daily dose of seeing others achieve goals. Now, it seems like almost everyone does handstands (or should, or could) and I know there is lots more potential in the human body (and my body, no matter what age) than I had ever imagined.
- Set, specific, tangible goals. I like to use my birthday as a goal marker. One birthday it was a 10-second handstand, one it was 5 cartwheels, another was 5-6 steps walking on my hands (still having a hard time with this one). Regardless of how well I actually achieved the goal, the setting of the goal gave me something to shoot for and most of the time I achieved those goals as hoped and improved in the process.
What does doing handstands have to do with being a creative professional?
Everything. As a creative, I’ve found that I literally must:
Invert or die.
Regularly, progressively, daily.
The design, marketing, and advertising world is turned upside down regularly by new data, new apps, and new tactics to try and reach people. Every day you have to stay in the game, or it moves on without you. Things like A.I. (artificial intelligence), data analytics, Google ad words, behavioral insights, UX, UI, CX, etc, change the tactics. New Social media apps, and new platforms and measuring tools change regularly, as well.
Every day you have to learn something new and look at things from fresh perspectives. Every day you get a little behind and a little ahead at the same time. But, as long as you are still moving, striving, learning and listening, the daily practice leads to progress. Even some days, new unexpected achievements. Maybe a new and better impact. A new agility. A new way to measure. A new way to move and impact in the world more gracefully.
In both cases, it starts with your core.
In my creative practice, I consider my core to be strategic storytelling.
The strategic part
The strategic part means understanding the business needs at hand. This starts with research, data, analytics and behavioral insights into your customers and their beliefs and it ends with a strong agreement with your business stakeholders on a solid creative brief and brand discovery. Like proper physical conditioning, if you skip this core part, something will probably “hurt” or “suffer” later. Goals will not be accomplished. Knowing your audience will lead to talking to that one, right person in that one, right place with the right story just for them. That’s what “reach” really means.
The story part
The storytelling part is the specific practice. It’s applying what you have conditioned, stretched and warmed-up into a set of skills and movements that flow and become something beautiful and meaningful. It’s applying something very specific (relatable characters) in a skilled way (good story arch) to have impact (drama). In marketing, this is talking from a human to a human, and telling a story that brings three things: wisdom, wonder and delight.* It’s knowing them and understanding their needs and beliefs, and telling them how your brand is meaningful to them in a real, human way in a story filled with character, action, emotion and drama. You can only move a person to action if you first move their emotions.
To do all this, you have to invert. Look at your user, audience, fellow man, upside down or in any and all angles. From their perspectives, not your’s. Then, look at the story from their vantage point as well as research multiple angles in the most moving way. And, you have to learn new things constantly to not only research who they are, where they are, but also ways to reach emotionally into their belief systems that drive them.
Just like physical inversion, creative inversion has the same, important steps:
- Get a coach. Ask for mentors and listen to their advice. Go to someone whose expertise is a stretch outside of your core knowledge. For me going to an SEO Meet-up Conference recently, learning and asking questions is an example of this. Do information gathering interviews with experts in Google Analytics, or anything on the edges of your experience.
- Start. Do something small, or new. Learn UX visualization in InVision or Sketch. Try a new technique in Photoshop. Redo your website in a new, more modern way. Read how to hide you hashtags in Instagram. Post. Write.
- Be consistent. Invert daily. Practice your craft everyday. Take it one step at a time. No one learned PhotoShop in a day. And every new, useful and innovative thing to learn will take some time.
- Join a community. AIGA, AMA, SEO Meet-up, One Club, you name it. But, attend networks and see what your peers are up to.
- Invest in yourself. Get specific, extra training if you need it. Read books about behavioral economics. Then, do like I did, and see if you can get funds to study at Yale in a 3-day immersion in behavioral economics in marketing. Take online classes from Lynda.com, or through schools like Stanford for Design Thinking or an UX or a CSS course, etc. Every dollar invested in yourself will ALWAYS have a positive return.
- Normalize change. Hang out with people doing new things/different things. Learn from people doing B2B or B2G (Government), or B2S (Schools). Look at the ROI from an Instagram brand campaign. Stay up on trade magazine articles. If you are a graphic designer, talk to people doing other kinds of “design” than graphic design. Read about the new changes coming with AI and voice marketing.
- Set, specific, tangible goals. For example, if you want to write a blog post, break it into parts over several days, and set a deadline. Then, publish on the designated day. Don’t beat yourself up it it takes an extra day. Without setting the first goal, you probably would have never even gotten it done, even on that later day.
Your real competition is in the mirror, not across the room
In both physical and creative inversion, there are always others who have been inverting longer and/or better. Some have gotten it all faster, with younger, more agile bodies/minds or creative opportunities. Some have taken it to artistic or athletic levels that I can only dream of achieving. Some have won more awards as the best in game-changing efforts. But one must keep going. Against odds, obstacles and age. Against nay sayers. Against those that settle verses dream big.
Every day I can say, physically and professionally: Today, I inverted. It wasn’t perfect. No one will buy Cirque de Soliel tickets to see me do it (not today, anyway ;-)). It looks better done by some other bodies. It’s more dynamic and entertaining with many others. But, I will continue to do it. And every day I will get a tiny bit better. Every day more skill will come. Every day something new and magical will be discovered.
Today is the day to re-invert yourself, and turn either your physical, or your professional, creative practice on it’s head.
“The Strategic Storyteller: Content Marketing in the Age of the Educated Consumer,” by Alexander Jutkowitz , August 21, 2017