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When you’re not actively working to better yourself, it seems like the worst case is simply that you will stay in the same place.
But our skills are entropic in nature. They stagnate, deteriorate, and get worse over time. It’s like going to the gym and working out. You can’t just get fit once and ride on that for the rest of your life. You will slowly lose what you don’t maintain.
This also applies to our skills and what we do. You’ll go through seasons where you’re focused on one thing, but what’s happening to the other skills you aren’t focusing on? There’s no guarantee you can go back, pick up where you left off, and be just as fresh on things.
I’ve put together 8 ways to be constantly improving and keep those skills fresh and relevant.
1. Read Books
- 15:26 You can read from people that lived thousands of years ago. That’s amazing. It’s probably going to be the best of the best from 1,000 years ago because it wasn’t as easy to write or make books back then. People wrote by hand and if it’s been preserved, it’s probably good, like the writings of Plato. There’s more books in the world than you can read in an entire lifetime, which is overwhelming in one sense but also amazing in another sense. That knowledge is in a library or an Amazon Prime click away from coming to your doorstep. The world’s information is at your finger tips and most of it is freely available. You can get the very best knowledge of all human history in books.
- 16:39 Ben: My wife and I have been reading a lot about parenting and environmentalism. When we started to care about those things, we wanted to improve and understand those things better by reading books. It has dramatically shaped the way we raise our kids and live our lives. It’s incredible to me because it’s not just the reading of those words, there’s something that happens when you’re reading a book. By letting those words sink into your brain, they start to marinate and shape your thoughts in a way that shapes your actions. That’s the power of reading I’ve witnessed in my own life and you can apply that to so many different things.
- 17:51 Sean: Some of the most successful people—we’re talking billionaires—attribute everything they know to reading. They’re voracious readers. They read the writings of the people that have gone before them and they glean whatever knowledge they can. There’s so many timeless principles out there. You’ve lived as long as you have in your own life and you’re going to have one life, and you’re going to figure out a lot of stuff along the way. A lot of other lives have been spent on a single pursuit and finding out everything they can about it.
- 18:45 People have read about the people who have gone before them and then they’ve distilled that information down into a book. A book is someone taking all of their knowledge and spending months or years to put it together for you. Think about how valuable that is. It’s like the biggest life hack ever! It’s condensing years worth of experience into however many days it takes to read that book.
- 19:19 Ben: Some people don’t want to read a book on a specific technique because it’s outdated but the more you read, the more you start to see the underlying principles. The more you do that, the more you can glean the valuable principles from books that may seem outdated in your industry.
- 19:53 Sean: That’s exactly what I did for my licensing course within Learn Lettering. I actually want to adapt that part of the course and either make it exclusive to the Community or include it in my next course, Value-Based Pricing. I did this entire course on licensing, which is specifically for artists or people creating designs. Most of what I learned was from a book written in 1997. There was a lot that was outdated in that book but there’s a lot that still applies—how to negotiate, how to talk to people, the things you’re trying to accomplish, and the rights you’re trying to preserve.
- 20:40 All of these things still apply, it was a matter of adapting them. I adapted a lot of those principles to modern language and the context of the internet. You can read things from decades ago and still get 80% of what you would need to write your own book or blog post within a current context. It doesn’t have to just be books either, it could be a PDF download, ebooks, or blog posts. I recently sent out a PDF to people that subscribed at ValueBasedPricing.com—7 Value-Discovering Questions To Ask Your Clients. It was almost like a chapter of a book. I gave the questions but also wrote about each section. It’s highly valuable information that you won’t find in a library and it’s from a person who has done what you want to know. There’s so much out there you can read.
There are still many timeless principles you can discover and apply to your time and context.
2. Listen to Podcasts
- 21:57 This one is related to reading books and it’s a bit meta since we’re on a podcast. There are lots of podcasts out there. In a general sense, listening to podcasts is a fantastic way to improve continually.
- 22:22 Ben: When I started listening to podcasts, I was in the middle of a cabinet painting project. Not creative work at all, I know, but I had done it in my own house so a friend hired me to do theirs. Instead of mindlessly sanding and painting, I was listening to your podcast. That was also around the time we had started meeting and I asked you for other podcast recommendations. You gave me a list and I listened to so many episodes while doing that work. Even now, when I’m doing something where I couldn’t read a book or watch something, I can put on a podcast.
- 23:30 Sean: In the chat room, Caleb is talking about having a specific podcast to listen to for when you’re painting cabinets. What if you had a specific one for doing certain tasks, like when you’re in the shower? I’ve got a Bluetooth speaker in my shower—I’m not going to waste any time. You’ve got these little gaps in your life where you drive, walk, or do manual tasks. Fill those gaps with podcasts. I’m not ashamed. I have a Bluetooth waterproof speaker in my shower.
- 24:08 Ben: Some video shows out there, like seanwes tv, don’t always need the visual element to get valuable information from. I don’t want to limit it just to podcasts because there are other ways you can consume. When you can’t watch something or you can’t sit and hold a book in your hand, listening to a video show is a great way to continue to consume valuable information.
- 25:02 Sean: Caleb could have also been talking about a cabinet-painting podcast. Here’s the the beauty of it: someone very well could make a podcast about painting cabinets. If you’re about carpentry or making cabinets, there’s probably a podcast about it and if not, you could make it. We’re still somewhat early in the podcast world so I think it will continue to explode. There’s a podcast out there for you. You’ve heard about my launches, email growth, site traffic, podcast downloads—we’re doing pretty well here and I’m self taught. I started taking CLEP tests to get college credits and got a fifth of the way into a Computer Science degree before I dropped out. At that point, I had two businesses that were going really well. I continued to learn. I was homeschooled and I think the best part of that was learning to learn. I enjoy learning and it’s something I continue to do constantly. I’m constantly trying to improve things.
- 26:28 I’ve produced all of the music played on the podcast and we have jam sessions during the after-after show but back before I had Ableton live, I spent 30 hours on YouTube tutorials about it before I bought the program. I could have bought a course but I didn’t have any money back then so I watched the free stuff. Most stuff out there is free but I did have to go search for it and there was a lot of repeat information out there. If you have the money, buy a course that will save you time. I did the free stuff and I was able to use what I learned. That’s something I’ve continued to do. I’m big on self-improvement and learning so when it came to business, I immersed myself in the marketing world. I was a letterer and designer, not a marketer, but I immersed myself in that world. I bought books, I read blogs, I watched marketing videos, I listened to podcasts, and consumed that every single day in the gaps of my life for a dedicated stretch of about 2 years. I still continue to do that now. I started putting it into practice and I think the results speak for themselves.
- 28:01 Ben: Because of our shared experience in bringing what we’ve learned here to this podcast, now, when I listen to other podcasts, I start to hear things I disagree with and it further shapes my convictions about my values and the ways I should go about doing business. When you said you had a speaker in the shower, I was thinking that I don’t know if I would do that because I do some of my best thinking in there.
- 28:48 Sean: I recently bought a water-proof shower note pad. I’ll play a podcast and I’ll pause it to think at the points in the podcast where they give a great nugget. Throughout the podcast you might have six great ideas but you only remember one at the end. That’s why I’ll pause and take notes. I thought the same thing, “I have such great ideas in the shower, do I really want to fill that with podcasts?” But I don’t fill the whole thing—just enough to get me thinking. If something resonates, I write notes.
- 29:38 Ben: I guess I would take it on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes I need that “warmup time” when my brain isn’t really producing anything. It’s weird, sometimes, all of a sudden an idea will occur to me and other times I need fuel to direct my thoughts.
- 30:00 Sean: While I will listen to podcasts in the shower, I also have what I call “beanbag time.” I’ll sit in the beanbag, put my phone away, and don’t listen to anything. Nobody is supposed to interrupt me during beanbag time and I’ll just sit there. I get rid of mental distractions and let everything else melt away. It’s a moment of meditation and I’ll get great ideas there. I purposefully set aside these quiet periods. I know I said fill in the gaps of your life, but don’t fill in all of the gaps. Try to be efficient with your time if you find you’re wasting time. If showering gives you tons of great ideas, I’m not saying to change that. Don’t fill that with something else if you’re getting a lot out of it. If you’re taking walks, drawing, or doing things that don’t require your ears, and you’re not getting anything out of that time, then you might as well fill it with a podcast because you can learn things. Even though I’m replacing that time, I’m finding it somewhere else by taking quiet time in the beanbag.
- 31:42 Ben: Sometimes the purposeful setting aside of a specific time and place is exactly what your mind needs in order to be primed to think in those moments. I’ve come to expect that when I get into the shower I’m going to have good thoughts. It’s almost because of that expectation your mind doesn’t let you down.
- 32:30 Sean: Whatever your industry is, look around and find the good podcasts out there. Let’s be honest, there’s a lot of podcasts that are a waste of time too. They don’t get to the point, there’s no value, there’s no takeaway, they waste your time, they make you listen to sponsors, etc. I’m not going to tell you what the good podcasts are, you need to find them for yourself. When you find a good one, hold on to it tightly. Take notes, listen back to it, pause it, and really take it in. Aaron Dowd attributes his own personal improvement in the past several years to podcasts.
- 33:46 Ben: When I started listening to podcasts, especially when I started listening to and being a part of this one, my improvement was suddenly on a fast-track.
3. Take a Course
- 35:00 Sean: Courses, like books, are the condensation of someone else’s knowledge. It’s distilling down all of what someone knows about a topic. It’s all of their insight presented in a way that provides everything you need to know, and nothing that you don’t need to know. In a sense, it’s like a crash course—and that’s not to discount books. Books are valuable but it’s a different medium. It’s more of a story in a lot of cases and it’s wrapped up in a narrative. Due to the nature of courses, crafting that narrative isn’t a concern. It’s like a textbook in that they provide modules to be completed.
- 35:57 If you think of courses as an investment in yourself, the return is way better. It’s a no-brainer. If a course is $1,000-$2,000, that’s a ton of money, right? It’s a ton of money if you think of it as an expense but in the very next job you do, is this course going to enable you to charge more? To get a better client? To do a better a job? To discover more work? If it’s teaching you a skill that will allow you to make a better product you can sell more of at a better price, it’s valuable.
- 36:53 Ben: Sometimes it’s something as abstract as helping you to value your own work more so you understand the value of your work, even if you’re producing the same quality of work you were before. You feel more confident to charge more and that’s worth a lot. There are some objective things that go into valuing the services we provide to clients, the products we create, and the content we share with our audience, but the way we think about those things can have a bigger influence over what we’re charging when it really could be worth a lot more. Taking a course from a confident professional, and who instills that confidence in you, can help you feel confident in raising your rates in a way that doesn’t make you feel like you’re not taking something away from your customer or clients, but in a way that helps you realize your own value.
- 38:27 Sean: When I asked people in the chat room earlier what helped them improve, Caleb mentioned educational materials, workshops, subscriptions to courses, and reading online has been valuable to him. I know for me, it becomes a time thing. Courses have saved me a lot of time. You could work your way through free information on your own in weeks but it’s a matter of time. I feel like people don’t value their time enough. They live like they’re going to live forever.
- 39:24 Ben: It’s such a complex thing. How people think about the value of their time is influenced by many different things. Someone who has experienced a loss of someone they love goes through an experience that influences the way they value time. When someone has a brush with death, it changes the way they think about time. It’s no longer just an idea, it’s something they have an intimate experience with and they realize they don’t want to spend their time on things that don’t matter. Don’t get me wrong though, I’m not prescribing a near death experience for everyone. I was watching Gary Vaynerchuck’s video show and he was saying when he has a bad day, he goes to this really dark place and tries to think about what it would be like if he lost the people who are closest to him.
- 40:58 Sean: He uses the example of his mom. He says flat out that he imagines his mom dying.
- 41:05 Ben: I don’t know if I have the guts to do that in a way that causes me to experience those emotions because it seems like a terrible thing. There’s also some superstition around that, like if I think about it and it happens, I would feel like I caused it. The more familiar and intimate we can get with the idea that life is finite, the more we can value our time and be picky about what we spend our time on.
- 41:56 Sean: People say, “If you knew when you were going to die, how would that affect now?” What if you knew you were going to die next month, what would you being doing differently? What if you knew you were going to die in 50 years? How would that change the way you live? If you think about it, you’re either going to die next month or you’re going to die in 50 years, or in 100 years—but you’re going to die. We don’t wish a near death experience on anyone but if you haven’t experienced something like this or lost someone, the takeaway from this is you should be thinking of it that way.
- 43:16 Your time is limited here. If you can recognize that without having a near death experience, you’ll be better off. You’ll spend your time more wisely. We were talking about this because of how courses can save you time but the older I get, the more I realize how limited my time is. In the last episode, we talked about how hard it is to accept help or donations but that it can actually accelerate things. You can get more done if you’re able to bring on help. Time is the one thing you’re never going to get back, so I see courses, and any information that’s been distilled down, as increasingly more valuable.
- 45:10 Ben: In the chat room, Alice says, “A course is an expense if it doesn’t deliver on value.” I agree with that but when you’re trying to vet these courses, I want to encourage people to look for yourself in the testimonials. What are people saying that resonate with the goal you have for taking the course in the first place? A lot of what people will say is about the value they’ve gotten out of it. Some people might say, “I paid $300 on this course and then I made $5,000 more from my next client than I would have otherwise.”
Courses are expensive if you think of them as an expense.
When you think of them as an investment in yourself, they’re invaluable.
If you want to get ahead, you have to come out of your invincible mindset and recognize this is your one life.
4. Practice Secondary Passions on Sabbatical
- 46:23 Sean: Maybe it’s not the season for one of your passions or pursuits but I like sabbaticals because you can revisit those. Even if you’re not revisiting them every day, it keeps it from totally deteriorating. On sabbatical I play music and work on things I enjoy but doesn’t normally fall into my regular routine. It helps keep it fresh. I find that my piano skills are slowly deteriorating as I play less and less. If I’m lucky, I might play the piano a half a dozen to a dozen times a month right now. That’s not great compared to the 2 hours of practice a day I used to do growing up. At that rate, I’m basically slowing that deterioration. I don’t think I’m maintaining the same level, I’m slowing it at that point. It makes me feel a little bit better about the times in the future where I will enter a season that I can focus on music and I won’t have totally lost it.
- 47:58 Ben: We’re talking very specifically about skills but there are two things in play: skills and artistic or creative eye. In this instance, with your piano playing, your skill level might be deteriorating but the fact you’re doing something else creative is allowing your creativity to grow and increase. I’m a big believer in the idea that when you have other creative pursuits, each of your creative pursuits benefits because you’re approaching creativity from different angles and you’re bringing that creativity with you to other things. You might not necessarily be increasing in your skill but your use of the tools to accomplish a goal allows the creativity to still be there.
- 49:03 I don’t do a lot of painting but because I’ve done so much design and illustrating, when I come to the canvas, even though I have a basic understanding of how to use the tools, my creative eye allows me to make something that’s beautiful and is a well-composed piece. The area that I can improve on to make that even better is the area of skill but the artistic part is there because I’ve built it in. The sabbatical gives you an excuse to stop focusing on one specific artistic pursuit and it puts you in a different frame of mind. It allows you to bring back more to your main pursuit.
- 50:06 Sean: You’ve got the core, artistic eye and then skills around it. You’re mainly focusing on a main pursuit or work but then on the sabbatical, you go to another skill and that can help you refine that artistic eye in a way that affects your other work.
5. Ask for Feedback and Critique
- 50:39 The important part here is you want to ask for feedback from trusted people. It opens you up more because you trust these people and you’re willing to be receptive of what they have to say—even if it’s going to sting when they give you critique. It also saves time because if you post something publicly and say, “Anyone can give me feedback on this,” a lot of people are concerned about hurting your feelings so some of that energy has to go toward, “Good job! You could improve this one thing, but… great job!” All of this energy goes toward the feedback sandwich—the critique is in the middle and the compliments are the bread. Wouldn’t it be great if this person, who in theory is knowledgable because you’ve sought out their critique, spent 100% of their energy helping you get better, not just fluffing up their critique?
- 51:42 Ben: It’s like when someone who is health conscious goes to a restaurant and orders a hamburger, and they say, “Don’t give me the bun.” The bun makes the hamburger fun to eat but it’s not really good for you.
- 52:23 Sean: Critique and feedback is something you have to seek. Don’t just sit back and hope someone offers it without any solicitation. You should seek out and request feedback. You also have to be open and receptive, especially if you’re asking for feedback or critique.
- 53:16 You will get people offering critique, whether you like it or not. If you’re mature, you’ll be open and receptive to it. You don’t have to apply everything someone says but by being open, you’re going to get something that can improve your work if you allow it to. Even if you don’t apply 100% of their feedback, being open allows you to take it in, evaluate, and toss away what’s irrelevant. They’re not a part of what you’re doing and they don’t know all the facets so you can get rid of what isn’t pertinent and keep the good stuff.
- 54:14 Ben: Keep the stuff that really matters and will improve your work.
- 54:37 Sean: Get perspective from people that are in a different industry too. It’s good to get it from people in your own industry, especially those that are farther ahead, but from a different industry is also valuable because someone isn’t clouded by all of the domain-specific knowledge. Someone from a different industry can give you unique feedback and it can be very valuable. If you’re in the tech industry, seek out feedback from a tech novice because they can still read your blog post, try out your app, or interact with your new website design. That’s really useful.
- 55:19 Ben: Sometimes, the experts are attached to conventions that are no longer useful. You actually miss out on valuable information by not seeking out users who aren’t as well versed in industry standards. You miss that if you discount the source based on their experience.
Even if you’re not asking for it, it’s healthy to be open and receptive to critique all the time.
6. Set a Big Goal and Work Towards It Every Day
- 56:04 Sean: In the chat room Alice Watkins says, “Planning toward a big, impossible-seeming goal, identifying what tools, skills, and resources I don’t have yet is something that helps me with continually improving. Making plans to achieve the necessary tools/skills/resources, prioritizing these plans by how close I am to step #1 already, then deliberately creating the daily habits and mindset necessary to build on what I already have to gain the knowledge I need.”
- 56:37 Ben: Sometimes, one of the best things you can do is identify what you don’t have yet.
- 56:43 Sean: What I like about working toward a big goal every day is you’re forcing yourself to improve. You have to improve because if you’re going to accomplish that goal. You’re going to do something every day that will get you a little bit closer. You’re going to learn something every single day. Maybe the next step is something you haven’t done before or a tool you haven’t used, but you’ve got to do it. You’ve got to take the next step and it’s going to force you, every single day, to improve. You’re going to learn because you’re going to show up and do the next step toward your goal.
- 57:20 Ben: It takes some pressure off improving in a specific area because you’re looking at the goal, so you’re not so focused on one aspect that you psyche yourself out. You’re looking into the distance. If I look down at my feet when I’m running, especially if I’m going off road and making sure I’m not going to trip, I’m not going to run as efficiently and I’ll feel more tired than when I look ahead and I focus on a point that’s far off. The things that seem big when I had my head down don’t look as big in my periphery. There’s this magic that happens when we keep our eyes on a goal—we naturally tend to move toward what we’re looking at.
- 58:30 Sean: If there’s a hurdle, you need to learn how to surmount it. If your goal is to release a course and you work every day toward that, you may find you need a custom signup form for people to signup for the course. Go research it. Learn it, watch videos, read articles, and put together a signup form. If you need an autoresponder, research it and send the auto response. If you want to send your subscribers a PDF and you’re wondering, “How do I design a custom PDF to look the way I want it to? Is Illustrator, iBooks, or InDesign the best tool?” Go learn it and find it out! When you set a goal and work toward it every day, you’re going to encounter obstacles, which will force you to improve.
- 59:35 Ben: It’s not just setting the goal but also coming up with the things you need to do to get there.
- 59:44 Sean: Like Alice was saying, in a lot of cases you have to figure out what you need just to get to step #1.
When the focus is on the goal, you’re going to figure out whatever it takes to get there.
7. Be Open to Change
- 59:51 I like what Samuel said in the chatroom earlier, “You can be constantly improving by being able to constantly be open to change. If you aren’t willing to change then it’s hard to move forward after a certain point or peak in what you do.”
- 1:00:17 Ben: The goal is a motivator and it forces you to move forward but along the way, you might find yourself moving in a different direction. You might find that your goal is shifting and if that bothers you to the point where you close yourself off from other possibilities, you can end up stuck. When I’m so focused on accomplishing this one thing and having it look the way I think it should that I’m not open to other possibilities, I end up missing opportunities to improve and experience something that could have been much better.
- 1:01:07 Sean: Being open to change is really important because improvement itself is change. If you improve yourself, you’re changing.
- 1:01:25 It seems obvious when you say it but maybe you aren’t acting it out in your life. Maybe you’re stuck in your ways and you’re saying you want to improve but are you allowing yourself to be open to that? That might mean doing something uncomfortable or something in your circumstance has to be reworked. Maybe you have to say “No” to things. Maybe it means stopping something and starting something you haven’t done before.
- 1:01:57 Ben: It’s like wanting to lose 30 pounds but also wanting to keep eating brownies every day. Can I do that? I can love the idea of that but probably not. Envisioning is really important because when I start to think about the necessary changes, I start to freak out a little bit. When I envision what it looks like having accomplished that goal and I edit out the things I shouldn’t be doing in order to reach it, I paint this picture of what the end goal looks like. The more I see that, the more I will tend to act in accordance with it.
- 1:03:13 Sean: In the chat room, Sarah says, “I feel like I’ve changed so much since listening to this podcast. I was stuck in a way of doing things and I literally changed everything.” Changing things takes guts.
If you want to improve yourself, you have to be open to change.
8. Get Around an Amazing Community
- 1:08:44 Obviously, we have the seanwes Community, where you can interact with other Community members and watch the podcast live, but even if it’s not the seanwes Community, get around any community. Get around good people—they’re going to ensure you continually improve. I’ve definitely found this to be true with the amazing people in the Community. I wanted to share some of what they said earlier when I asked how they continually improve themselves.
- 1:09:30 These are some of their answers on how to continually improve: Aaron Dowd says, “Identifying goals and then breaking the goal down into actionable steps.” Cory Miller says, “Asking my wife, mentor, or best friend to ‘review’ me in a sense. Getting external feedback gives me motivation to better myself each time, even if the feedback isn’t positive.” Vivian Ciudad says, “Clearly knowing your weaknesses by asking feedback and accepting critiques. Noting them down. Work on them regularly, try again, get feedback, and so on. Daring to deliver even if it’s not 100% perfect. Not being shy. Trying to stay self-confident, even when there’s so much value out there already.”
- 1:11:07 That’s a big one. Shipping at 90% is hard. It’s hard not getting to the level that will satisfy your perfectionist mindset but you’ve got to ship it. You’ve got to be ok getting something out there that’s not 90%. We’re not talking about shoddy work but get something out there, and make a commitment to ship consistently. Every week we put out podcasts because that’s what we do and we get better at it by showing up. It’s not always 100% but I think the world is better served by a great deal of things at 90%, rather than a handful of 98% perfect things.
- 1:11:58 Tommy Creenan says, “I try to do some learning and doing every day. In the past it was easy for me to fall into the trap of doing too much of one or the other and not really improving at all.” It sounds like he mixes in some learning with the doing.
- 1:12:09 Ben: It’s the intentional doing, not just going through the motions. It’s focusing and being intentional about growing in an area instead of doing the same thing you’ve always done.
- 1:12:24 Sean: Steven Salazar says, “The cycle of learning something new, and applying that new thing in practice.” Samuel Gray says, “Seeing my weaknesses by seeking advice/critique that have different skill sets than I do, or a different perspective.” Lastly, Destiny Toro says, “Assessing what it is that I truly believe- about myself, about my life, about what I’m creating. Sometimes—well, often—I find that what I really believe deep down doesn’t match my goals, so I work to transform those beliefs that so that my inner world aligns to what I’m trying to accomplish in my outer world, my physical life.”