2017 was the most successful year I’ve ever had in business, seeing me triple my income while spending next to nothing on advertising or promotions of any kind. Previous years had been far less lucrative, far more stressful, and involved spending a massive amount more on ads and campaigns that did very little to promote my business, and produced minimal tangible benefits.
What made the difference?
Well, I had an epiphany in 2016 that led to me shutting down my existing business, The Bookshine Bandit, and launching The Write Copy Girl. That epiphany involved two things I shall treasure for all time: The Big Leap, by Gay Hendricks, and ‘Life On Mars’ by David Bowie.
I’ll get to Hendricks’ fabulous book in a moment, but before I explain how that changed my life, a little context is needed…
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Is There Life On Mars?
I’m a huge fan of David Bowie for so many reasons, from his music, to his philosophies, and of course, his stint as The Goblin King, Jareth, in Labyrinth (fun fact, Jareth is currently top of my list of baby boy names for any potential sons who may come along in the future…that’s how much I love David Bowie). So it wasn’t exactly surprising that I found myself listening to a bit of Bowie one day in the spring of 2016, while having a read.
What was surprising was the catalytic effect of the combination of the book I was reading, my general frustration at the lack of inspiration I was feeling with my business at the time, and the song that came on.
For those of you unfamiliar with Life on Mars, have a listen, and then kindly indulge me for a moment as I explain what it’s all about (this is crucial to understanding the epiphany that tripled my income…I know, it doesn’t seem like it would be, but it is!).
I adore this song, partly because it’s a really catchy tune, but also because I’ve always strongly identified with the meaning behind it. Essentially it’s a commentary on the all-encompassing nature of entertainment, which has become so ubiquitous that life has begun to mimic art, and many of us are thinking, feeling, and acting, not as ourselves, but as the media and entertainment industry expects us to act.
The teen rebelling against her parents by sneaking out to see a film, only to reject it for being boring in a fit of youthful valiance, is the core of the first part of the song’s narrative, but it raises the (unanswered) question:
Is her rebellion an original response to her true thoughts and feelings about the world, or simply an expression of the rebellious values the entertainment industry was foisting on a generation of teenage baby boomers?
The rebellious teen is an archetype, and archetypes are powerful.
Do we rebel as teenagers because we genuinely want to buck the system, or do we do it because it’s so ingrained in the collective psyche that we can’t think to do anything else?
Is rebellion, in fact, the antithesis of its own supposed mission, and the ultimate form of conformity?
Bowie leaves the question hanging and posits a couple more fairly profound insights into the nature of society’s relationship with its entertainment:
The ‘actors’ who are unaware they are, themselves, starring in the ‘bestselling show’, because their lives are imitating the stories in the media, and they are unwittingly all playing roles.
And the question that gives the song its name, “Is there life on Mars?”, a reference to the radio broadcasts of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, which was entirely fictional but was so realistic it caused genuine and widespread panic as people worried there was a real alien invasion taking place.
The power of entertainment.
What Does David Bowie Have To Do With Business?
As entrepreneurs and marketers we are purveyors of entertainment, even if the wares we sell do not come in the form of films, books, songs, or stories.
Marketing of any kind requires content. It may be as simple as ad copy or the product descriptions on your website and packaging, or as complex as a regular and vibrant blog or vlog and very active social media accounts.
If you’re marketing you’re producing content, and content is a form of entertainment.
Depending on the type of content you’re producing the extent to which this is true will vary, but certainly if you’re blogging, vlogging, podcasting, or using social media or email marketing, you are putting out a form of entertainment.
It may serve an additional function of selling, but we only successfully sell by pleasing the people who consume our sales messages.
Marketing is all about storytelling, and stories are entertainment.
So the question becomes, what are we actually doing in our marketing – are we conveying a genuine, authentic message that will be truly valuable to our audience, that will inspire them to find and follow their best, truest selves, or are we simply perpetuating a narrative?
Are we tricking them into acting the way we want them to act, by perpetuating the view that this is how other people like them are already acting, and that they should therefore act this way too?
Not because they choose it, but because it’s what’s expected of them.
As with Life on Mars, the question is unanswered, and perhaps that’s for the best.
But when we find ourselves as marketers considering how best to genuinely serve our audience – and this is the heart of all good content marketing, providing true value without agenda to your audience for a sales strategy that is completely soulful – we must first look to the story we are telling.
Is it true to what we genuinely believe, or are we merely playing the role of the marketer, the pushy salesperson, the hustler?
Are the offers we’re expecting our audience to buy into genuinely relevant and valuable to their actual needs and desires, or do they simply cater to the needs and desires they are expected to have, and have developed through a kind of media-fuelled-osmosis.
Asking myself this question led me to make a fairly huge business decision:
I closed one business – a business I had spent three years building, which was turning a decent profit, and had allowed me to completely rebuild my life after losing everything – and I risked undoing all that good work by starting over from scratch.
I had a totally new business plan, a completely different target audience, and I was (at that point) only offering one service.
All because of a song?
Well no, my beloved Bowie can’t take full credit for this, as I mentioned there was also a book involved…
Creative Frustrations And The Big Leap By Gay Hendricks
2016 was a year I devoured every business book and personal development book I could get my hands on. It was also the year a lot of my creative idols died. It started with Bowie in January, and was still happening in December with Carrie Fischer. It got me thinking a lot about my own creative passions and potential, and exactly what I was (or more to the point wasn’t) doing with my life.
I was seriously frustrated, feeling that I had achieved amazing things with my business – paying off thousands in debt, liberating myself from my mum’s spare room, and achieving the freedom needed to allow me to work around a mental health condition that takes an alarming amount of management.
Yet at the same time I felt totally disillusioned with my business and life in general.
The problem came into focus for me in January of that year when I had taken a month out from client work in order to make sure I transitioned from living with mum to living on my own again without kicking off a relapse of my bipolar and winding up undoing all the progress I’d made with my heath.
I spent the month writing, working on my new novel.
It was the first time I’d been able to give it my full attention since starting my business and it felt so good.
When February rolled around and I had to get back to the client work, I felt physically sick.
I didn’t want to do it.
Any of it.
The only work I could stomach was the writing work I did for some of my clients, as several people had approached me asking me to write their blogs for them. I’d agreed, and enjoyed it so much I’d made it a regularly available service. But it was one service among many and none of the others involved writing.
Editing, proofreading, illustrating, graphic design, branding, you name it, I did it, but for reasons that still elude me, when I’d setup my business I hadn’t thought, ‘I love writing, how can I make money doing that?’, I’d thought, ‘What can I do that will make money?’
And this is entirely backwards.
I had been kicking this frustration around for a couple of months when I finally made it down my reading stack to The Big Leap, by Gay Hendricks and, curled up on my chaise lounge, listening to the aforementioned David Bowie track, clarity hit me upside the head.
I’d accomplished my goals when I started out as an entrepreneur – paid off my debts, got a new home, regained my health and independence – yet my frustration was coming from the feeling that I hadn’t.
As if there was some big, huge, unnamed goal that I’d never quite admitted existed, and the fact I was failing at it was slowly crushing the life out of me.
My creativity was at an all-time low.
I hated the work I was doing, and though it paid the bills it did nothing to light me up inside.
What I wanted – and what I had wanted for years – was to be a full-time writer.
This is something I hadn’t been able to admit to myself, and had spent years at university, training as and later working as an archaeologist and lecturer, because that was what seemed to be expected of me.
Maybe not archaeology perse, but something academic.
People with my book smarts just don’t spend their lives doing frivolous things like writing fiction. Training and becoming a researcher, and researching and writing about archaeology (which I do genuinely love) seemed like the next best thing.
It was what was expected of me.
But it wasn’t what I wanted to do.
When I started my business I fell into the same trap again. Freelance writing is tough, they said, there’s no money in it, they said, you’ll never be able to support yourself, they said…
Honesty I’m unsure who ‘they’ are, but I suspect it was a combination of things: media and entertainment representations of the impoverished author; the notion that you need to work hard and endure a job you hate for the sake of paying the bills; the view of certain members of my family that setting up a business was just never going to work long-term; my own personal views that were limiting me and causing me to self-sabotage.
It wasn’t that I wanted a limiting life doing a job I hated just to earn a paycheck, I just kind of assumed that was how life would inevitably be, because everywhere I looked, that was what I saw.
Reading The Big Leap was a major eye opener for me because it made me realise that, despite my belief that I was something of a rebel, a rule breaker, an anarchist, and alternative freak, I had actually spent my whole life playing it safe.
Even when I started my own business, which felt like a big, huge leap at the time, it was actually the safest option of the possibilities available to me.
Not a big leap, but a small hop.
As if I were a fucking rabbit.
I love rabbits but I have to say, as a person who firmly views her animal spirit guides as a wolf, and various forms of very big cat, the notion of being a hoppy little bunny rabbit really irked me.
I wanted to be a damn tigress. To genuinely live by my desire to go my own way and do my own thing, rather than talking the talk while running in the direction that everyone expected, and taking the path of least resistance.
Finding My Zone Of Genius
I’ve noticed in the business sphere that there are certain concepts you stumble across and suddenly, BAM, everyone is talking about them. I’m quite certain I’d seem mention of both ‘upper limits’ and ‘zone of genius’ prior to reading The Big Leap, as it was my intrigue over exactly what they meant that caused me to buy the book in the first place. But once I’d read it, suddenly it seemed everyone was talking about both.
Not only that, I kept seeing the latter abbreviated to ZoG, which to my Geek-infested brain registered as ZOG, as in the planet one accuses a person of being on when they’ve either lost their mind or are totally out of touch with the universe. (For my non-British readers, ‘Where’ve you been, planet ZOG?’ Is shorthand for, ‘What decade are you living in you Stone Age heathen? Drag your arse into the 21st century already!’)
And so it seemed to me at the time – I’d been living behind the times for entirely too long, and appeared to be the last person to learn about the concept of a ‘Zone of Genius’, or in fact to read Hendricks’ book.
For the benefit of those of you who are currently in the same state of ignorance I inhabited back then, I’ll briefly explain the core concepts of the book and why they were so profoundly powerful for me.
Hendricks posits that there are four ‘zones’ in which people operate: incompetence, competence, excellence and genius. That is not to say that some people are competent while others are geniuses, but rather that we all have certain areas at which we are completely incompetent, competent but not great, great, or certifiable geniuses. We all, Hendricks argues, have a ‘zone of genius’, an area in which we surpass virtually everyone else, and in which we cannot be matched by many (if any) other people.
By striving to work within our zone of genius as much as possible, we can create the best possible success in life. Just to quickly elaborate:
Zone of Incompetence
When you’re in your zone of incompetence you are constantly getting bogged down by tasks you’re not very good at, that other people can do far better than you. It’s best to avoid your zone of incompetence entirely – if you have tasks in your business that fall in this zone, delegate them to a team member who is good at them, or outsource them to someone else!
Zone of Competence
Working in your zone of competence is slightly better, in that you are at least capable of completing tasks, but other people are just as capable, and there are other things you can be doing at which you are far more skilled, and will produce far better results. The results you will achieve here a mediocre, so delegating/outsourcing things in this area will allow you to devote yourself to doing that which you’re truly good at.
Zone of Excellence
This is where you start getting genuinely good at stuff. You can do these things well, and even make a great amount of money while you’re at it. You’re not just capable, but adept, and quite comfortable working on these things. Yet even here, delegating tasks to other people can work in your favour, because there are still people out there who can do this stuff better than you, and stuff you could be doing that nobody else can do as well as you can.
Zone of Genius
Finally this is the sweet spot. The area of life that is urgently liberating for you, the path down which your true genius lies. This is the thing(s) that you’d happily spend all day every day doing, that you’re naturally incredibly talented at. Few people are as good as you at doing this stuff and even less are better. You should ideally spend all your time working in this area because the quality of results you produce will be far higher than anywhere else.
I have to say, something clicked in me when I first read about this concept. That there was a certain area I should devote all my time to, that would allow me to be even more successful than anything else, made perfect sense.
I had a successful business.
But I was working in my zone of excellence, occasionally even my zone of competence, but very rarely my zone of genius.
The reason for this was really simple – people were happy to pay me to do this stuff and I’d found ways of getting the work I needed.
But I was doing a lot of stuff that pretty much anyone with even basic design skills could do (that’s my zone of competence) and even more stuff that, while I was good at it, I wasn’t uniquely wonderful and didn’t particularly enjoy it (my zone of excellence).
Hendricks quite convincingly argues that by spending just 10 minutes a day focusing on your zone of genius you can reach a point where you’re working within it 70% of the time. And this is exactly what I did. I devoted 10 minutes a day to working on a plan for how I could shift my business into my true zone of genius:
The tricky part wasn’t actually figuring out what my zone of genius is, but shifting gears and getting out of my own way enough to do it.
Upper Limit Issues Holding You Back
It’s strange to think that the greatest block to our success is often ourselves, and yet it’s true. If you’ve ever found yourself perfectly happy in a new relationship and picking a fight with your other half over absolutely nothing, you’ve experienced what Hendricks refers to as an ‘upper limit’.
This is a slightly more difficult concept to accept, but once you wrap your head around it you’ll notice yourself doing it all the time. You may even already be aware of it and view it as ‘self-sabotage’ because that’s exactly what it is.
When things are going well, and we’re becoming more successful than we’ve ever been before (either in work or our personal lives), we start to get uncomfortable. We’re entering the unknown, and things are changing.
Change is frightening. We’re happiest when in our ‘comfort zone’, and will go to alarming lengths to remain in that zone of comfort, even if the ‘comfort’ is an illusion, and staying put is actually damaging us.
That new relationship is going splendidly and you’re super-happy. Happier than you’ve ever been before. And it’s seriously freaking you out. You’re really bad at relationships, something is bound to go wrong, nothing is ever this perfect…
And suddenly you’re having a blazing row about absolutely nothing.
Problem solved! Things aren’t so perfect after all.
The issue with this mentality and the ‘upper limits’ we impose upon ourselves is that they prevent us from growing. We struggle to break free of the established level of success we have achieved, and uplevel up to the next stage in life.
If you’ve started pulling in a fairly predictable amount in revenue each month but cannot get it to go any higher, no matter what you do, you’ve hit an upper limit.
You’re used to a certain level of income, and the thought of earning more is very uncomfortable. To help you stay safe in your comfort zone, you’re unconsciously sabotaging your income-generating efforts.
You stop marketing, you screw up a pitch, you miss an important deadline and the client doesn’t buy from you again, you neglect yourself physically and get a killer cold or the flu, preventing you from taking on work or finishing work you already have, and if you’re a writer you suddenly experience ‘writer’s block’.
There are loads of potential upper limits you can smash into that will derail your success and hinder the growth of your business, and until you’ve cleared those limiting beliefs and feelings out of the way, it doesn’t matter how much you try to work in your zone of genius, you’re only going to get so far.
If you truly want to create a super successful business, the key is – first and foremost – to identify any upper limits that may be holding you back.
For me, the biggest blocks to my own success was the belief that work is not enjoyable, and I’m very bad with money.
It’s supposed to be hard and horrible and stressful, that’s why it’s work.
Expecting to be able to spend all your time doing something you love is completely unreasonable.
I genuinely believed that.
It took a lot of work to be able to move past that and convince myself that I deserved to have the kind of life I actually wanted – the freedom to work where and how I chose, doing nothing but write, and then only writing for very select clients that were a good fit for me.
I was also afraid of earning more money.
The situation that landed me at my mother’s house was partly health-related, but it was largely financial. I became ill, fall into a very bad relationship in an effort to stabalise my life, and failed to the man I was with was (among other things) spending all my money and taking out large credit loans in my name.
I only found out after he set the house on fire, and I finally saw the situation clearly. As I tried to get a new place to live I discovered it was impossible – I was in thousands of debt, half caused by him, half caused by my own illness and the overspending that is part and parcel of mania. He’d also cancelled the home insurance policy to save more money for beer, and there was nothing to replace everything I’d lost.
The result was that I no longer trusted my judgement when it came to money (or men!). I’d frittered it all away before. I’d wasted it. I’d got myself in real trouble and driven myself to rock bottom because of poor choices (albeit caused by illness) and I was terrified of doing it again.
It seemed far safer to stay at the level of income I was at – hand to mouth, only enough to cover expenses, never anything left over for treats or luxuries, so there was never any money available to me to waste.
Breaking through these upper limits took time and concerted effort, and it wasn’t the kind of thing I did once, and never looked back. At the start of this year I realised I’d run myself straight into another upper limit that I hadn’t seen coming, and when I dug down into it I found it was the same two core issues again:
I felt I didn’t deserve the life I was creating for myself, and I was afraid of what would happen now I had a lot more money coming in.
Both times the thing that saved me was my zone of genius.
Working within my zone of genius, planning for a business that allowed me to spend my life writing, and gaining so many wonderful new clients who love and value me for my writing abilities is the single best thing I’ve ever done.
Not only for my business, but for my personal health and happiness too.
Invest In Your Inevitable Success…
So how exactly did I make that shift and get from running a business that left me uninspired, to one that fills me with inspiration on a daily basis?
For me it hinged on convincing myself that success was possible.
Part and parcel of a belief in your own success is investing in the inevitability of that success. In business one of the key ways of doing this is through the creation of valuable content that gets up close and personal with your ideal clients, what they are struggling with, and how you can help them.
The creation of such high-value content will cost you. There’s no getting around that. It will either take you a lot of time and effort to do it yourself (like I did), or a financial cost, if you outsource it to someone else. Which is more manageable for you will depend on your content creation capabilities, and your budget, and whether or not writing and content creation falls within your zone of genius.
But the quality and to some extent quantity of the content you create is a mark of your success.
To succeed, your business needs great content.
As it happens I built the entirety of The Write Copy Girl on this premise, in the sense that content was the only tool I had to market the new business and make it a success, and content was the only thing I was offering within my new business model.
That first six months is tough.
You have a brand new website and nothing but tumbleweed blowing through your blog. You worry the problem is the website itself, because you cobbled it together using your own DIY WordPress efforts and it’s not a super-slick, super-professional looking site,
Nobody is visiting your website and you feel it’s because of the website itself, or the fact you’re not paying for advertising. You’re putting out great content but it’s difficult to fight past the silence that content is greeted by when you first start putting it out there. This is especially true if your business is new, or you’re taking an existing business in a new direction to bring it into alignment with your zone of genius.
You feel like nobody is there to see it yet, and so that time and/or money you would need to invest in it would be a waste. You’d be better off spending those resources on a shiny posh website, some paid advertising, or both, so you can attract people to your site. Then it will be worth creating content!
You’re looking at it backward.
Through your content, you can craft an ULTRA specific message that speaks directly to your ideal client. The message that demonstrates your zone of genius to the world, and creates a space that naturally attracts to you exactly the people you want to be working with. Your content will have them hanging on your every word, and by the time you make offers available to them, it will be incredibly easy for them to say “YES!”
That is how you become successful in business.
You have to believe those people will be there, and that success is coming, enough to invest in the content needed to reach that point.
It’s a leap of faith.
A big leap!
Life On ZOG…
One final thought to leave you with, which brings us full circle and back to the point I made at the start regarding Life on Mars.
Your zone of genius should be completely authentic. It’s important to pay attention to what you’re really thinking and feeling about your business, to dig down deep and do the tough inner work needed to understand what your zone of genius GENUINELY is.
Not what the world and society have conditioned you to believe it is.
More than that, it’s absolutely vital that you create the content for your new freedom business from a soulful place of service.
Create the content your ideal clients genuinely need and want. Not what you think they need and want, not what you want them to need and want, but what will actually bring them true and lasting value.
Not read The Big Leap yet? I highly recommend it for all business owners it is one of the best personal books I’ve ever read and was instrumental in completely transforming my business (and life) to a whole new higher, happier, healthier level.