elevator

The Best Advice So Far - elevator

Whenever someone learns that I’m a writer, they inevitably ask the following two questions:

  • What do you write?
  • Who is your target audience?

They’re reasonable questions. And you’d think that after a decade of professional writing, I’d have honed my elevator pitch by now. I haven’t. I’ve tried—really, I have. But it doesn’t seem any easier today than it was when I first started.

You know how people will ask you a question and a response comes directly to your mind, but then you edit it by the time it comes out of your mouth because you know that your first thought isn’t likely to be considered an “acceptable” answer? Like when someone you’ve just met asks why you’re still single or what your family is like. I mean, not everything in life has an elevator pitch (at least not an accurate or completely honest one), does it?

Funny enough, I don’t even feel awkward in actual elevators. Talking or explaining things isn’t my problem. It’s that my genre and audience don’t quite fit in any one nutshell.

The Best Advice So Far: Not everything in life has an elevator pitch.

Most of the problem can be chalked up to the connotations of words. For instance, consider the following snippet of conversation between an imaginary person (IP) and me:

IP: Are you liberal or a conservative?

Me: Yes

Well, that answer is certainly both short and true. But it doesn’t really answer the intended question. Let’s try again.

IP: Are you liberal or a conservative?

Me: I’m both. For instance, I’m conservative with my money but liberal with my willingness to help people.

OK, well, now we’ve got a bit more of an answer. It’s short enough. Yet while it does relay some important information about me, it’s still not what the asker is expecting. What’s more, given the question itself in isolation, my expectation would be that the asker was looking to place me on one side or the other of a line relative to their own understanding of those terms.

In actuality, if someone were to ask me that question, here’s how it would most likely go:

IP: Are you liberal or conservative?

Me: That’s an interesting question. I’m curious about what makes you ask and why the answer feels important to you.

Back to “what I write,” I often wind up facing a similar quandary where genres are concerned—like there’s an unstated expectation that determines how I’ll be labeled if I choose this word or that one.

For instance, is my writing motivational? Yes, in the sense that readers report back that it causes them to see the world differently and to make new choices.

But when you think of the word “motivational” as far as a type of writing or speaking, you likely think about certain key people (whom I won’t name) and, well… hype. Speaking rapidly and loudly, pumping up people’s adrenaline at conferences, telling them that they can achieve anything they want in life if they just believe hard enough and work hard enough and such. But what I’ve noticed is that, while people feel good after going to a “motivational” event or reading such a book, the heightened enthusiasm wanes almost before the trip back home is over or that book has made its way back to the shelf.

It’s like paying a hundred dollars for a one-time personal trainer at the gym—and then never going back after that first visit.

I was just telling a friend today that I don’t want people to need me to tell them what to think or to do next in life: to wait for the next talk or post or book for their fix. I want to open people’s minds to a new way of seeing the world and give them a set of starter tools with which they can strike out on their own and live in the unique and creative ways that only they can.

Likewise, I absolutely want to be inspirational, in the sense of encouraging people to live differently. I want to inspire an understanding, first and foremost, that we are each an agent of choice in our own lives and that, as such, even true victims of circumstance need not be ruled by  victim mentality. I want to inspire readers and listeners to follow their curiosity; to find fun wherever they are or make their own; to get reacquainted with their childlike sense of wonder; to engage with the people around them in meaningful ways instead of treating others as props, obstacles or means to an end.

But culture has also now dictated certain cumulative connotations to the word “inspirational” where writers and speakers are concerned. For instance, many people associate inspirational writers and speakers with religious writers and speakers. This brings to mind anything from the modern health-and-wealth doctrine to the writings of the Dalai Lama. And that’s not me.

How about “self-help”? Even when people review my books or try to describe me to others, if they use this term at all, it’s almost always in quotes: ‘self-help.’ That observation alone tells me that people who know what I’m about don’t feel quite right about trying to fit me into this category. And I agree. I definitely want people to learn to “help themselves.” But, honestly, I’ve never really understood “self-help” as a term to describe a type of writing or speaking. It seems a bit of an oxymoron, you know? How is reading or listening to someone else’s thoughts or perspectives self help? Isn’t it just… help?

Don’t get me wrong. I know many wonderful speakers and writers who do choose to identify themselves in alignment with one of the above genres; and it doesn’t decrease the value of what they have to say. I just know that I personally get to feeling all “slidy” inside whenever I think about applying one of these categories to myself. It just feels… off.

I can’t help but think that categorization by genre and “keywords” is more about marketing and money than anything else. I’ve become even more aware of this as I’ve tiptoed into building Amazon Ads, which require you to pull the curtain back on the inner workings of things where terms like “men’s self-help” and “women’s self-help” are differentiated and somehow result in more sales. And so we’ve been conditioned as consumers to believe that marketers understand our needs better when we see “men’s shampoo” or “women’s fiction.” (After all, isn’t it really just… shampoo or a novel?) Likewise, at the end of the day, is sound advice really gender-biased?

Which brings me to that second question: “Who is your target audience?”

Here again, I struggle.

The central theme in everything I write or speak about is “You always have a choice.” The basics are that while no one has every choice we might wish we had, we do nonetheless always have a choice. Here’s a short passage from the opening chapter of my book The Best Advice So Far:

If you don’t accept this truth—that you always have a choice—if you don’t remember it and live it, then you are left to play the part of the victim in life. You begin (or continue) to live as if life is happening to you, that you are powerless, oppressed by your circumstances. But, if you truly change your mind set to believe and live out in practical ways that, in every circumstance, you have a choice—now, you open a door for change. Instead of living as if life is happening to you, you will begin to happen to life. You will begin to realize the difference that one person—you—can make, that you are an agent of change in your own life and in the lives of others.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that we get to choose everything that happens to us in life. We do not choose abuse, for instance, and we can at no time choose to undo those things which have happened to us in life.

We do not choose illness. We do not choose when or how the people we love will leave us. Or die.

We do, however, have the choice of how we will respond in every situation, even the hurtful ones. Instead, so often, we pour our frustration and anger into those things we cannot change, rather than investing that energy into the many choices that we can make from that point forward.

Let that sink in. Even in the worst of circumstances that life may bring, you always have the next move. You have a choice.

And from the opening of the new 2020 release, TRIED & (Still) TRUE:

While “Know thyself” may caution us to be realistic about our own weaknesses, that does not imply that we should do so at the expense of being realistic about our strengths.

Most people are adept at exclaiming their own faults. Sometimes it’s even an ongoing conversation in their head. But identifying and speaking about their positive qualities feels—wrong somehow. Like conceit. However, consider this. If we do not identify and feel comfortable with our positive qualities and abilities, how will we be able to develop them and use them to their fullest potential?

If I don’t know that I have money in my pocket, I cannot spend it. It only makes sense that we can’t intentionally use or benefit from something we don’t acknowledge that we possess. Likewise, if I don’t know the strengths and positive qualities I possess, I will not use them very often or very well—if I use them at all.

This leaves me dwelling primarily on—you guessed it—my faults. And as I ruminate on those faults, it stands to reason that I will evidence them more frequently. If I’m unable to see my strengths, then I am left to see only my weaknesses. And if I perceive myself as a sum total of my weaknesses, change seems an impossible goal. It is too overwhelming.

All shadow and no light.

In fact, to make changes in an area of weakness implies that the goal is to move toward a position of strength in that area. Yet if I cannot be realistic about my strengths, I have no marker for where I’m headed or how far I’ve come.

Holding out just those two small examples, I have to ask: to whom does this type of writing apply? Who is the ‘primary target audience’ who would most benefit from principles and encouragements such as these?

Men? Women? Non-binary individuals?

Teens? Parents? Grandparents?

Couples? Singles?

Blacks? Asians? Whites?

Americans? Mexicans? Europeans?

College students? Business professionals? Retirees?

Low-wage workers? Billionaires?

Just randomly picking other themes from my writing:

“You have to start from where you are, not from where you wish you were.”

“Kindness still works.”

“Worry serves no purpose but to ruin the present.”

No matter how long and hard I think about it, I just can’t say that this type of person needs to hear such things more than that type of person. Best I can figure, this advice is universal.

And yet, even in their universality, my words are always specific. Personal. I never write or speak with a generic “everyone” in mind. I have individuals in mind. And so far, it seems to be working, since readers and listeners tell me often, “I felt like I just had a conversation with you, not like I was [reading a book, attending a talk, etc.].”

Just yesterday, I received another such email from someone I do not know who’s reading the new book, saying, “It’s as if you are sitting in our living room chatting.”

I love to hear this kind of feedback. After all, the reason I started writing for publication was that I realized no matter how much time I could devote to live interactions with people, I’d still be limited in how many people I could help and encourage. Writing allows me to have further reach, while still remaining personal in my approach. It just makes sense.

So if you were to press me for an elevator pitch on what I write and for whom, the best I think I could manage as far as an elevator-type pitch would be this:

“I don’t neatly fit any one genre. I write about a wide range of real-life topics from the central premise that ‘You always have a choice.’ And my target audience—is you.”

Five diverse faces: a young white woman, an older Jewish man, a middle-aged Hispanic woman, a white male teen, a young black male


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