Want To Be More Original? Find Your Rubber Duck

Photo by Jordan M. Lomibao on Unsplash

I once watched a giant rubber duck sail away into the sunset. That’s not hyperbole. That’s a fact.

In the fall of 2013, artist Florentijn Hofman plopped a 54-foot tall rubber duck into Pittsburgh's Allegheny River. It sat there — or rather bobbed there — for over a month. Millions flocked to see it.

When the exhibit finished, they strapped the giant rubber duck to a tug boat and sailed it down the river. I watched the spectacle from my 31st-floor office. I’ll never forget that duck.

I won’t pretend to be an art connoisseur. I know Picasso is famous and the Mona Lisa is underwhelming. But a giant rubber duck floating in a river? How could Hofman take something so common and make something so original?

He found his rubber duck, literally and figuratively.

Okay, maybe I exaggerated on the sunset bit…

It’s Hard to Produce Original Work

This is especially true in the world of writing. Painters have a bit more leeway. A splash of paint here, a brushstroke there, and voila. A modern take on Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Writing is different. Finding fresh perspectives to contribute to the collective conversation is a daunting task. For young writers with little life experience, the difficulty is enough to make them give up. I know I wanted to quit in my early days.

Nevertheless, I still believe we all have something unique to say. It just takes a little effort to draw out our originality.

Trish Hall, the former Op-Ed editor of The New York Times, puts it a different way in her book Writing to Persuade:

“You have to think of something that’s not in the conversation, some wrinkle, some aspect.”

I like that idea of a wrinkle. A tiny fold in the fabric. A crinkle in the conversation. Something small and overlooked until you come along and ask, “I wonder what you’re hiding little wrinkle?”

Wrinkle, rubber duck, whatever you call it, the trick to being original is finding what’s weird enough to pique people’s curiosity, but familiar enough to guide them through your work.

But what does this look like in practice?

Unless your name is Florentijn Hofman, you’ll need to make a little effort to find your rubber duck. Luckily everyday life provides us with ample inspiration, as long as you’re paying attention.


1. Draw From Experience

Do you ever wonder if the colours you see are the same colours I see? Think about it for a second. When we look at a sunset, we both say we see a beautiful orange and red glow, but how do we know we see the same orange and red glow?

For all I know, you could be experiencing my version of neon purple and brown, but to you, it’s just as beautiful.

I remember being a kid and thinking there’s no way to test if we all see the world the same way. As it turns out, nobody really knows for sure if the color perception is consistent across our species.

But I’m getting off track…

The point I’m trying to make is that on a larger scale, we tend to believe we all view the world the same way. We assume our experiences aren’t unique enough. Like a rubber duck, our experiences feel common and ordinary.

However, this simply isn’t true.

The unique combination of your family, your upbringing, your friends, your social groups, influences you in subtle ways. Each thing lending its own color to your life’s canvas.

Yes, we may all see the same sunset, but how it makes you feel is unique to you alone.


2. Draw From Personal Interaction

My wife and I love watching Bon Appetit test kitchen videos on YouTube. They are borderline addicting.

https://youtu.be/xmRaWhae5e8
Want to see a professional pastry chef make Starbursts? I know you want to.

Recently my wife and I got into a deep discussion about what makes BA test kitchen videos so good. We came up with our own theories why including:

  • People subconsciously love “behind the scenes” content
  • BA created their own Marvel-like “universe” where “heroes” (test kitchen cooks) star in their own shows or play supportive roles in others’
  • The test kitchen crew didn’t initially sign up to be YouTube stars, thus giving them authentic relationships and personalities

The list goes on. Eventually, I’ll flesh out our theories into a full-blown article. However, this rubber duck of an idea never would have come about if the conversation went this way instead:

WifeI love these BA videos. They’re so good.
MeYeah.

The easiest way to find rubber ducks is to ask questions. Especially questions about things taken for granted.

WifeI love these BA videos. They’re so good.
MeYeah. But what makes these videos so good?
WifeIt probably has to do with the fact…

One question led to a 15-minute discussion and a draft for a new article in my Bear notes app. Ask questions. Take notes.


3. Draw From Ordinary Things

What do cookies and pandemics have to do with each other? Nothing. Besides cookies being a way to cope with social distancing (baking and/or eating), cookies are never part of a greater pandemic discussion.

However, this rubber duck combo turned out to be one of my favourite things I’ve written about in recent memory.

Want to find rubber ducks? Combine seemingly ordinary things together and see what you get.

For me, I love to cook and bake. I also love to write. I noticed on Medium a lot of writers offering up their forms of advice around dealing with a pandemic: how to stay productive, how to work from home, how to… you get the idea.

What I didn’t see were cookie recipes. That was my wrinkle, I combined two ordinary things and created my own rubber duck.


4. Draw From Irreverence

I think humans put too many things on alters.

Finding what others worship and gently bringing them back down to your level is an excellent source of wrinkles. How gentle is up to you.

Here’s a popular one you see on Medium every once and a while: morning routines. People love them. We love to write about them, we love to read about them, we love to think they exist. Morning routines are quintessential gurugobbleschtook. Yes, I resorted to making up words to express my disdain.

Morning routines, hustle mentality, kombucha, astrology, I can keep going. These are all things society holds in high esteem that frankly, I find annoying. If you’re ever stuck looking for your rubber duck, think about what irks you the most.

Anthony Bourdain made a career out it if. He is the patron saint of irreverent rubber ducks:

“Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans… are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit.”

Larry David is a close second.


5. Draw From Another Perspective

I’m sure a magic show would look a lot different from a birds-eye view. We’d probably catch the sleight of hand or see the secret trap door obscured to the normal sitting audience. Magicians use perspective to their advantage, why don’t you?

Take politics for example. No one “side” holds a monopoly on wisdom. It amazes me that a piece of legislation coaxes extremely opposite reactions from both sides of the political divide. One calls it detrimental, the other world-saving. What’s going on here?

What’s going on is people within political parties fail to take a peek at the other “side’s” perspective. They believe their “side” has all the answers. Want to be original? Steal some rubber ducks from the other “side.”

You’ll be surprised how one shift in perspective changes everything.


The Important Part is to Show Up

Most of us don’t want to be the person who stands up in a crowded room and speaks up. We’d rather blend into the crowd and stay quiet. The important part of being creative is shutting out the fear and showing up to create your work.

Yes, you will struggle to be original and will probably churn out masticated material from time to time, but this is required to develop your unique voice.

Being original takes practice and a bit of self-awareness. It's realizing every moment, no matter how boring or normal it seems, is a chance for you to add to your arsenal of rubber ducks.

As Seth Godin put’s it, “Getting your ducks in a row is a fine thing to do. But deciding what you are going to do with that duck is a far more important issue.”

Go, find your rubber duck. Create something original.

Give Yourself Permission to be Bored

Photo by Min An from Pexels

Boring people are bored.

The lovely Mrs. Betty Draper told me that. I know it comes from those times when advice was black and white - put a coat on or you’ll catch a cold, no pain no gain, respect your elders!

Of all the 1960ish life advice I agree with, Boring people are bored is kind of spot on. I look around at what we have today to distract us from our boring lives - Netflix, iPhones, Twitter -  and I think about how we’ve forgotten how to to be bored with simple things: taking a walk, talking to our spouse, making dinner. 

We can’t let those simple things be simple things without peppering in dopamine hits here and there.

I’m rarely bored, but it’s only because I keep myself busy. I’m a work-from-home parent of two boys which eats up most of my day. The few luxurious hours I get each day for myself are typically taken up by writing, reading, or exercising.

When I do have a few free moments - and I’ve had a lot more of those lately - I struggle. Time, to me, needs to be utilized or else it’s wasted. I don’t do boredom well, and I’m pretty sure a lot of other people don’t as well.

I say we give ourselves permission to be bored. Let’s make a pact:

I promise the next time boredom rolls around I’ll embrace it instead of shunning it.

I already tried it the other day. I sat in a chair. Just sat. No phone. No T.V.. I sat and stared at the wall. 

I can’t remember the last time I did that.

Time isn’t always money

I haven’t looked at time the same way since I left my full-time job 3 year ago. Back then I received a pay check every other Friday no matter how much or how little I worked.

It’s different when you work for yourself.

When you work for yourself every hour you spend is either costing you or earning you. It’s a tough reality to live with. Especially when your kids want to play, Do I play and lose $100 or work and earn $100?

But I think I’ve been looking at it all wrong, or at the very least, I need to look at it from a different angle:

Not all time is created equal.

What do I mean by that? I mean we are all humans, we’re not machines that need to be left on and producing widgets at all hours of the day. Downtime for a machine is detrimental to the books. Downtime for a human is essential for survival. 

Time isn’t always money, at least when it pertains to fleshy, warm-blooded, non-mechanical humans.

Give yourself a break. The machines are supposed to work for us. Not the other way around.

The phoenix rises from the ashes

If the phoenix rose from, I don’t know, a plush bedding of gold-shavings, the analogy wouldn’t work. From the discarded bits and burnt remains the phoenix rises and becomes its self once again.

As a creative, I need down days. I need days without output or productivity or inspiration. Every so often, I need to take a day, burn it down, and see what rises from it. I don’t know why it works, but it does. When I stop trying to force myself into creative work, creative work appears.

Even outside the realm of creativity I believe this still holds true. Sometimes I just have down days in general. I let it be. I don’t try to force it.

Instead, I see what rises from it the next day.

My 2019 Reading List

When 2019 kicked off I was dead set on reading one book a week.

52 weeks. 52 books. Easy.

Then reality hit. I was raising 2 kids at home, my wife had an intensive residency program to contend with, and I... well I'm just not that fast of a reader.

I quickly abandoned this goal and instead set out to accomplish a more moderate pace of 1.5 books a month. Or 18 for the total year if you don't want to do the math.

It's currently November 22 and as of today I've already successfully completed my goal.

Here's what I tackled this year:

1. The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy
2. Deliverance - James Dickey
3. Lord of the Flies - William Golding
4. Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
5. Company of One - Paul Jarvis
6. The Right Story - Bernadette Jiwa
7. 1984 - George Orwell
8. Classic Scrapes - James Acaster
9. Bird Box - Josh Malerman
10. The Devil in the White City - Erik Larson
11. Rich Dad Poor Dad - Robert Kiyosaki
12. Factfulness - Hans Rosling
13. Geography of Bliss - Eric Weiner
14. The Pioneers - David McCullough
15. Everything is Fucked - Mark Manson
16. John Adams - David McCullough
17. A Brief History of Time - Stephen Hawking
18. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck - Mark Manson

I'm still finishing up the Alexander Hamilton biography buy Ron Chernow, but after that I might re-read the Harry Potter series for the 8th time.

Or maybe a Charles Dickens' to get into the Christmas spirit.

I haven't decided yet.

That's the thing about books, the best one is the one in your hand.

I’m Low Key Starting a Podcast

I haven't made this well known yet, only because I'm not sure if I'm going to continue this project, but I've started a podcast.

Ever since ending the daily vlog back in January, I've been wanting to find (easier) ways to communicate what it's like being a stay-at-home dad and figured this could be it.

I've been known to put too much on my plate. So we'll see if this sticks around.

The one question I wish I asked myself before quitting my job

On June 9, 2017 I walked away from my career to, for a lack of better terms, pursue my own passions.

I do not regret my decision of quitting my comfy, secure job, but if I could magically transport back in time I'd have given myself one piece of advice:

Don't follow your passion. Find a problem, and passionately solve it.

It's so stupidly simple to comprehend I can't believe it's taken me nearly 2 years to figure out.

If you feel stuck in life, you tend to gravitate toward the personal development gurus who say Just follow your passions without laying down the roadmap in front of you.

It's so much sexier to think of yourself writing your novel as you galavant across the globe than sitting in your office cubicle (this thought definitely crossed my mind at one point).

But what the gurus fail to mention is that rarely do your passions lead to a livelihood (except for a lucky few).

When I used to sit in my drab office cubicle, I'd rack my brain trying to find the answer to one question:

What do I want to do with my life?

Instead, I should have been asking myself:

What problems do I enjoy solving for others?

This question is important for two reasons:

  1. It primes you to think about different ways you can provide value to the world by working through problems you find enjoyable
  2. It shifts your focus away from yourself and onto others (who will be the ones paying for your value)

So if you find yourself in a similar situation (the I-just-want-to-quit-this-job-and-do-my-own-thing situation), do yourself a favor and find a problem you enjoy solving and solve it for someone else.

Then find another person with a similar problem and solve that one.

Then another.

Then another.

Then you can start thinking about leaving that job of yours.

P.S. - This post was inspired by Paul Jarvis' new book, Company of One. A book I wish was around 2 years ago.

Not everything needs to be goal-oriented

I wrote an article almost two years ago called I have many goals but little motivation to complete them, is there something wrong with me?.

In it I outlined some handy tips to consolidate your goals, find more motivation, and take action every day. Your run of the mill self-help/productivity piece you typically find on Medium.

I’m proud of the piece, but reading it now after 2 years of self-employment under my belt (and a year of being a work-from-home dad), something doesn’t feel right.

Does everything need to be goal-oriented?

Do I really need to take action every day?

If I don’t have motivation, is there an underlying issue I’m not addressing?

As I’ve planted my feet deeper and deeper into the quagmire of raising a family and building a business, I think I have a new outlook I’d like to address here.

Does everything need to be goal-oriented?

No.

I want my kids to grow up to be kind, self-reliant adults.

How do you measure progress of something like that?

“Tuesday, February 26th - Henry built 3 structures with his Lego, all by himself. Still didn’t eat salad. Said ‘Please’ 7 times.”

One of the hardest parts of being a parent is the ambiguity around “Am I doing a good job?”

I can remember the same ambiguity around my career. How do you really know you’re making progress? By setting goals and achieving them, right?

Having goals isn’t a bad thing. But when we have goals for the sake of having goals, we’re distracting ourselves from the ultimate goal, finding happiness.

Do I really need to take action every day?

No.

Happiness isn’t found in ticking off all the boxes for the day.

Sometimes happiness is found curled up next to your loved one at the end of the day.

Sometimes happiness is found on a long walk in the middle of the work day.

Sometimes happiness is saying “No” to an exciting opportunity.

If you take away anything from this: Don’t beat yourself up for not taking action. You aren’t falling behind. You don’t need to “Do” to be worthy.

If I don’t have motivation, is there an underlying issue I’m not addressing?

Maybe.

After 280 days of daily vlogging, I quit.

I originally thought I quit because I was bored and unmotivated by the process.

After taking a few weeks away, I noticed the doldrums presented itself in other areas of my life.

Depression? No, nothing that severe.

But poor mental health? Absolutely.

For far too long I failed to acknowledge my mental health was taking a huge hit by trying to do too much.

If you find yourself with a lack of motivation, don’t ask “How do I overcome this?” Ask “Why am I feeling this?

The 80/20 rule to a happy, balanced life

After 280 consecutive days of daily vlogging, I quit.

85 days short of my ultimate goal of 365, I gave up on something that brought me tremendous happiness, but not balance, to my life.

If you're like me then we're the type of person who has to fill up our life with as many exciting projects, relationships, ambitions, and opportunities.

We don't get a lot of satisfaction from things, but rather experiences.

And so we fill our calendars with as many meetings as we can fit, we say "Yes" to every opportunity, we set goals for 10 different areas of our life.

We cram as much experience as we can, because the more we experience, the happier we'll be. Right?

Like hoarders we see on those TLC reality shows, after awhile, collecting too much becomes more of a burden than a source of happiness.

Yes, I loved making fun family videos every single day, but it was too much.

It cut into my sleep schedule.

It cut into my work.

It cut into the very family time of which I was intending to capture.

And so I Pareto-ed it out of my life.

If you've ever heard of the Pareto Principle (or the 80/20 rule) it's the idea that 80% of outcomes are determined by 20% of causes.

Examples (for clarity purposes, not actual statistics)...

  • 80% of revenue is from 20% of clients
  • 80% of wealth is owned by 20% of the population
  • 80% of crime is committed by 20% of criminals

In January I took a good hard look at what actually brought me joy in life, and following the 80/20 rule, I discovered it was only a few things I did:

  • Spending good, distraction-free, quality time with my two boys and my wife
  • Doing good, meaningful work in my business
  • Creating things that I enjoy creating

Of all the activities and experiences that make up my day to day life, these three categories bring about the most happiness in my life.

But life is made up of a valuable, and limiting resource: TIME. How do we find the right balance?

As much as I loved daily vlogging (creating things that I enjoy creating), it cut too much into my time to spend on everything else in my life.

So I applied the 80/20 rule even further...

Out of each specific area of my life, I looked at what 80% of things I could cut to dedicate my focus on the top 20% of things instead.

Daily vlogging fell in the 80% that needed cut.

Instead, now I'm focused only on a few smaller creative projects (this newsletter being one of them).

It's amazing what happens when you cut the fluff to focus on a few things.

In your life, what are you holding onto that might be bringing you happiness but not balance?

What story is playing in your head that's preventing you from saying "No" to the 80%?

What are the few things (the top 20%) that bring your happiness?

Why don't you focus on only doing those things?

Sometimes you need a little nudge to make a change. I hope this is that nudge.

9 Ways to Detox from the Rat Race

I’m leaving the full-time, cube-dwelling, butt-kissing rat race in less than a month.

Before you start commenting on how I’m making a terrible mistake, I am 100% confident in my decision and know it’s exactly what I want in life right now (see #9).

I can tell you that after 5 years in corporate America (plus 4 years of college priming me for corporate-land) this transition will not be easy for me.

Like most people, I need structure. Ambiguity makes me uncomfortable. Working on my own with no boss and only myself to hold me accountable has me worried, but only slightly (see #6).

I can’t show up for 40 hours a week and expect a paycheck anymore. It doesn’t work that way in entrepreneur-land (if I’ve learned anything from Gary Vaynerchuk, it’s that nothing comes easy).

However, I’ve taken steps to detox from the rat race and reinvent myself as a confident, self-employed, and capable pioneer.

If you’re looking to do the same, here’s how…

 

1. Shut off all superficial notifications

 

“You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.” — Winston S. Churchill

The human brain can only process a finite amount of information at any given moment.

When I pick up my iPhone and there’s an email, 2 Slack messages, a text, 3 Snapchats, and Medium comments demanding my attention, my brain isn’t capable of focusing on much else.

Other than a few essential apps (Evernote, Google Calendar, Messages), I shut off all other notifications from popping up and distracting me throughout the day.

Focus on what’s essential.

 

2. Create something before consuming

 

“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” — George Bernard Shaw

Similar to #1, I used to wake up and mindlessly scroll through my phone for the first 10 minutes of my day.

Now I have a new rule: I can’t consume anything (even breakfast) until I have created something of value.

I started a simple publication where I share my daily creation.

Some mornings I stare into a blank screen waiting for an idea to strike. Other mornings I can pound out a post in a few minutes. Either way, I feel more productive than skimming through Facebook all morning.

 

3. Read one book at a time

 

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.” — Stephen King

I’m a slow reader.

It also doesn’t help when I bounce around 3 to 5 books at any given moment.

This year I started focusing on one book at a time. I pick up a book, I start reading it, and it’s the only book I read until it’s complete.

Books are powerful tools, but so are toothbrushes. And when was the last time you shoved more than one toothbrush into your mouth?

Exactly.

By setting limits, I am able to extract as much knowledge as I can from one book without feeling tempted to jump to a new book if I’m bored or sense resistance to finishing it.

 

4. Listen to your body

 

“The greatest wealth is health.” — Virgil

I’m currently in the process of shifting my sleep schedule. It hasn’t been easy.

Instead of going to bed at 12:30 pm and waking up at 7 am, I’m trying to go to bed at 11 pm and wake up at 5:30 am.

My body has not enjoyed the change.

In my corporate heyday, if I ever felt an ounce of drowsiness, I booted up the Keurig for another cup of coffee. 6 cups later, I was wired.

Now, I pay attention to when I feel tired, happy, anxious, sluggish, and energetic. I even resorted to jotting down notes to help me identify the root causes.

~Worked out at 10:30 PM, went to bed at 11:20, woke up at 5:44. Didn’ t feel drowsy. Does exercising before bed help me sleep better?~

This body of mine manifests my thoughts into results. It’s the only vessel I got. I might as well understand what makes it work.

 

5. Enjoy leisure without feeling guilty

 

“Guard well your spare moments. They are like uncut diamonds. Discard them and their value will never be known. Improve them and they will become the brightest gems in a useful life.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

For the past 6 months I’ve bragged about how I don’t watch T.V. anymore and use all of that time to work on my projects.

Well…

My wife is currently studying for her boards and occasionally takes a break with an episode of 30 Rock on her laptop. And occasionally I might sit next to her and watch with her.

But only for one episode! Or two if Liz Lemon gets herself into a conundrum.

My point is that I’ve stopped beating myself up for enjoying leisurely time with my wife instead of being productive.

I’m still glad we got rid of our T.V. since it was too much of a tempting distraction. However, my wife is kind of important to me and I want her to know she’s more important than any of my work.

 

6. Focus your attention on one thing at a time

 

“Lack of direction, not lack of time, is the problem. We all have twenty-four hour days.” — Zig Ziglar

If there is one word to describe my experience in the corporate world, it’s this: Reactionary.

Here’s how a typical day goes:

  • 8:00, arrive at work, check inbox and calendar. Nothing surprising, I can finally work on that project I’ve been putting off.
  • 8:06 AM, email with “[URGENT]” in the subject hits my inbox. Never mind, I can work on that project tomorrow, this email is obviously more important.
  • 8:34 AM, IM: “Have you sent out the Daily X,Y,Z Report?” Shoot I forgot, I need to drop this urgent thing and send out this report. People are waiting for me.
  • 9:12 AM, meeting invite for 9:30 pops up on my calendar. Someone thought 15 minutes notice was plenty of time. Great, time to rearrange my schedule.
  • …(repeat until 4:30)…

Unfortunately, this is how I modeled my work routine outside of my full-time job. I simply reacted to what was pressing in the moment.

I’ve learned, or shall I say, I’m learning how to focus my attention on one thing at a time. Whether it’s writing this post, or answering an email, or talking with a client, I’ve noticed that solo-tasking instead of multi-tasking yields quality results.

**Recommended book to read: Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi**

7. Appreciate the climb and not the summit

 

“There is more to life than simply increasing its speed.” — Mahatma Gandhi

Results are king in corporate world.

But results are never enough.

Once you achieve 100, great now achieve 110. Now 120. Now 200.

When you answer to the shareholder, you better be ready to disappoint. Enough is never enough.

However, if you work for yourself and answer only to yourself, the climb and not the summit is what matter’s most.

Who you want to be is not as important as who you are becoming.

 

8. Engage in purposeful relationships

 

“Surround yourself with good people. People who are going to be honest with you and look out for your best interests.” — Derek Jeter

You don’t get to choose your co-workers.

You do, however, get to choose your network.

If you want to build more purposeful relationships, find people who want what you want in life. Help them achieve their goals. Give more than you receive.

If possible, form a mastermind group. Meet every week, be vulnerable, seek support and accountability.

I’m an introvert, I tried for years to “make it” as a blogger. But with no support network around me, I faltered.

It takes work cultivate relationships, but it’s the greatest investment you’ll ever make.

 

9. Be honest of what you want in life

 

“I don’t want other people to decide who I am. I want to decide that for myself.” — Emma Watson

For a long time I only did things I thought would make my parents proud. Go to college, get a good job, get a promotion.

I love my parents, but I don’t have to answer to them anymore.

This corporate career is the result of seeds planted by teachers, neighbors, and even my parents of what’s needed in life to be happy. If you have a college degree and a white collar job, then you are living the American Dream!

Except it’s not my dream. It’s not what I want in life. It took a long time to be honest with myself and accept it.

Leaving my full-time job to pursue my own projects and work is the first decision I ever made without worrying about what other people will think.

My wife’s opinion is the only one that matters to me.

As for everyone else, I don’t care what they think is best for me.

I know what I want, and I will put in the work to achieve it.

 

Bonus: Know your areas of opportunity

 

I don’t have weaknesses, only areas of opportunity.

If you struggle to hit your goals, it’s probably because you have an opportunity to improve in one of three areas: self-awareness, planning, or execution.

I created the Goal-Getter’s Self-Audit Workbook to help you find out which one.

Download your copy here.