Hard-Earned Lessons from Podcasting that Apply to Any Career

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It’s been quite a ride thus far, this podcasting thing. I got to interview one of my favorite thought leaders, Seth Godin, I closed a deal with a sponsor for this podcast, and most importantly, I’ve met great peers that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. It’s been a great four months to say the least.

So I decided this episode would reflect how far we’ve come. Many of the beliefs and expectations that I had back in December have been shattered and reversed. These are lessons about podcasting, but really, they apply to any career path or project.

As I was reflecting on the biggest lessons, I noticed that some of them were mirrored by the guests we’ve had on, so where applicable, I’ll include some clips from the spectacular guests that I’ve gotten the honor to interview. Here we go, four hard-earned lessons, from the first four months:

1- Even when you think you’re talking to an audience of zero, someone is ALWAYS paying attention

I started this podcast for the same reason many others start a podcast, because I think I have a valuable perspective to share. Obviously this means I want people to tune in and listen.  It’s no fun talking to an empty room. But in the beginning it’ll feel like you’re talking to an empty room. You’ll make something you think is the greatest thing ever, (pause) and crickets.

Here’s the thing: it’s not an empty room. People are listening, even if it’s just a handful of individuals, SOMEONE is paying attention. It’s just, they don’t trust you yet.

You ever started watching a show, and a month later it gets canceled? How do you feel? Cheated right?! Like you just wasted your time. Well the same thing happens online.

At least one person is listening to your podcast, or admiring your art. I’m using ONE as a stand in for 10 or for 100, whatever the small amount is right now.   But they won’t tell a SOUL, just yet. They’re gonna sit back and see if you’re in it for the long haul. They won’t retweet you, they won’t like your post. And I don’t blame them. This is how it should be. You lose credibility if you recommend something and then you find out it was being made by a group of amateurs who weren’t committed to making something with a legacy.

But here is the good news: when you’re starting out, it’s easy to provide value to 100% of your audience, when your audience is just one. You’re batting a thousand if you do right by them. Ship a couple episodes, and they will step forward to claim their spot as a fan of your work, even if it’s just them. And now you have one believer. Justin Bieber has the beliebers, millions of them. You have one believer, and that’s just fine for now. Treat that one believer better than anyone else can treat them. Stop wishing you had a million followers right now and pandering to try to get them to pay attention: If you handle this right, all you need is the first undercover fan to spark the flame.  Seth Godin, one of the most popular authos and bloggers in the world, had a great way of putting it when we spoke in episode 12:

Seth Godin: I’ve never been on Oprah. I tried for a little while, but it became clear to me that the amount of effort to be on Oprah was gonna distract me from being able to teach and work with all sorts of people who  were eager to hear from me… that doesn’t mean i gave up or compromised. It just means I realized there’s a difference between doors that are gonna open and doors that aren’t… But if you’re spending a lot of time banging against a door that has no history of opening, you’re hiding. And instead it makes more sense to engage with people who want to hear from you, than yelling at people who are trying to ignore you… Again what I’m trying to put forward here is that it’s easier to start with people who do understand. Begin with people who have given you permission, who are open to going on this journey, who are early adopters. In 1984 Apple ran a commercial that was considered the greatest commercial of all time, and they ran it once. And it only appealed to people like me, to people it was for. The next year they ran a commercial that was an epic failure, because it was yelling at people who liked IBM computers… you don’t need to yell at people who don’t understand, what you need to do is organize and leverage the people who do understand.

Even if no one is telling you how great your art is, someone out there is still impressed. Continue to show up, and they’ll start trusting you enough to bring their friends along for the ride.

2- Getting the results you hope for will cost a lot more than you expected

Here is a sobering truth. Once you are shipping work that you’re proud of, once you are conquering Resistance, the amount of time and effort you’ll need to invest will be A LOT more than you could’ve anticipated.

Had I mentioned that I studied finance in College?  Some of that stuff stuck with me, and it’ll come in handy from time to time. In this case, if I look at ROI, that’s shorthand for Return On Investment, if I look at ROI for this podcast thus far, it’s depressing.  Even though there is a little bit of money from sponsorship coming in, it makes up only about 5 or 10% of the time and money I put in every week. I do look at it as an upfront investment that will eventually pay good dividends down the line. BUT, even when this income grows, and even once I’m able to live fully off of podcasting, there is still another clash with reality that I must accept, that any creator must accept, and I’ll use a quote from Van Gogh that sums it up: “No painting ever sells for as much as it cost the artist to make it.”

The cost involved in making something isn’t just financial, it is also in time needed to learn the craft, and it is in the suffering that was endured in the process.

If I tell someone everything I’ve given up to be able to produce this podcast, and the time that I put into it, they look at me like I’m crazy. It’s not worth it to them, even IF they like the product. And let’s say they don’t find it all that crazy, it’s still giving you a negative Return because of the simple fact that NO ONE ELSE VALUES YOUR TIME AS MUCH AS YOU DO. It is your time, it is your life, you can’t buy any of it back, so every minute spent working is one less minute you could be doing something else.

When I interviewed Brian Durfee, a fine artist and author, he held no punches, and arrived at some encouraging conclusions:

Brian Durfee: I tell everyone, that if they’re interested in making a life in the arts, that they’re gonna have to give up 75% of their social life… this eliminates 90% of people. If you don’t do this you’re not ever gonna make it.

Some of you already know this. To some of you this is sad news. But to most of you, this should be GREAT news. Brian tells us that 90% of people are already eliminated just because they won’t make the necessary choices. That leaves a small pool of candidates, and therefore OUR chances become greater.

If I decide to look at this podcast, this project, just in numbers, in what the outside world is giving me in return, then yea the payoff is pretty bleak. BUT if I choose to factor in how enriched I feel within, how excited I am to wake up every day, and how the quality of my interactions with loved ones have increased, then I realize I AM the one committing highway robbery here. And I’m perfectly fine with that.

So we’ve covered two lessons thus far: The first was that Even though it seems like no one is paying attention in the beginning, there is always someone paying attention. Leverage the attention of this silent tribe until they become a vocal tribe.  The second lesson learned: the results you’re hoping for will cost you A LOT more than you expected beforehand, but if you know HOW and WHAT to measure, you can rig the game in your favor.

3- A dream goal must be broken down into small dream projects or you will stall

I spent the first 10 years of my adult life sitting on my hands. Not literally, but you know what I mean. The way I justified it to myself was: My hands aren’t working but my mind is very active trying to find a way to my dreams. This approach is TOTALLY WRONG.

Figuring out where you want to be 20 years from now is a beautiful thing, but taking the first step towards a 20-year goal feels practically impossible. More importantly, dreams can and will often change. The best way to get started with a 20-year goal is to start working on a 20-month goal. And that goal should be broken down into 20 small projects that will help you get there.

I didn’t know this before I started podcasting. I was looking through a telescope when I should’ve been using binoculars.

Once more, Seth Godin:

Seth Godin: What I chose to do was to build a lifetime of projects. I posted about this, I’ve done hundreds of projects. Most of which failed. But any given one of them, even though it’s not a home run, has a shot at getting me on base. And if i can keep playing the game and playing the game, sooner or later, from the outside it looks like I’m an overnight success. And I like just playing the game, my goal wasn’t the end, my goal was the journey. Now we also discovered that, for people who aren’t independent, if you look at “how did you become the CEO of Ford Motor company?” Or “how did you become the speaker of the house?” Whatever it is, these people whose life has been a series of projects or a series of dips. They didn’t say “20 years from now, that’s what I’m gonna get, so I’m gonna slog through 19 years without any positive feedback” Our life, our career is a series of projects, whether they are connected or disconnected.

One of the reasons why podcasting is a very rewarding activity for those looking to stretch their creativity is because it’s episodic. It’s all about small projects that form a bigger project. Each week you re-start the cycle of creation. If you shipped last week, you celebrated and it was sweet, but this is a new week. You must prove yourself all over again.

But also, if you failed to ship last week, or if you thought the work was less than all you could give, this week you have a chance at redemption.  This is a great arrangement. Every episode has its own life cycle. It’s one more chance up to bat.

I encourage you to break down a Big Dream into small projects that force you to get out there and take some swings.

When you focus on getting back up to bat, you give yourself better chances of getting on base. After enough times of getting on base, you will eventually score.


4- The process is just as interesting as the product

This fourth lesson is one that I’m stealing outright from Austin Kleon. He is one of my favorite writers and author of the book Share Your Work. I’m including this here because I had read his book before I started the podcast, but because I wasn’t creating anything, it didn’t register with me as gospel.

But I have to tell you, it’s totally true.

The basis of Share Your Work is that you should start sharing your process even if you feel self-conscious about it. One of the main reasons is: everyone struggles to create their art. Even if someone isn’t interested in listening to your podcast, they might be interested in how your source your guests. You might know something about sending effective cold emails that a salesperson could use in their job. If you don’t share your process you are cheating yourself out of connecting with many  other audiences that could benefit from it.

I started sharing things I previously thought no one cared about, like how I built a spreadsheet to track all my work.  And how I set up my podcasting gear to make it much easier to start recording when inspiration strikes. I’ve gotten comments from people who don’t even listen to podcasts but that found my process helpful, and guess what, a few of them gave the podcast a shot  and have become loyal listeners.

“People really do want to know how the sausage gets made.” That’s a quote from Dan Provost that Austin included in his book.

A podcast isn’t just a podcast. One single podcast episode is technically an interview, a blog post, a little puzzle where you take bits of audio and arrange them in an order that makes sense, and then finally a finished audio piece. Sharing the steps that lead to the final product makes the final piece more valuable. It becomes a journey instead of a single event. And who doesn’t love a journey.

These are the four main lessons I’ve learned in the first four months of producing this podcast: someone is always paying attention, it will cost you a lot more than you expected, a dream goal must be broken down into small dream projects, and the process is is just as interesting as the product.

This product has so far been 16 episodes, That’s 16 at bats. 16 chances to get on base, and 16 chances to score. Many more to come.

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