Why it pays to scare yourself every now and then

[Image courtesy of Pete at Flickr Creative Commons]

A few weeks ago, I caught up with a friend whom I haven’t seen for many years. We’ve sort of stayed in touch on Facebook and Skype, though it’s been mostly fleeting IMs, which aren’t really the same as face-to-face conversations. 

So when we did get together in person over a coffee, we finally had the chance to fill in all the details of the intervening decade.

My friend has turned his life upside down, changing careers, relationships, countries and outlook. He’s starting all over again, and putting the past behind him. I was excited and just a little scared on his behalf.

“But what about…” I found myself saying over and over again. What about money, prospects, the future, the disruption and the uncertainty of it all? 

“All that stuff is in your head,” he said to me with a sweep of his hand and a broad smile. “It really is.”

After we parted, with a promise not to leave it so long next time, I found his words swirling around in my head. The same head all that stuff is in. Could it be true that all the things I think I know are actually just impressions, which I could change as easily as flipping a switch?

And I’m not just talking about the personal sphere now. It applies equally to the professional one. What could I change? What could you change? What would the results be? 

Here are some ideas I came up with, or have recently heard about, or have even put in place myself (perhaps unconsciously betraying my desire to turn everything on its head): 

  • Forget about SEO. In the age intelligent search and natural-language processing, this is actually a no-brainer. Gone are the days when you simply dropped in keywords and phrases and the algorithm worked its magic. Now more than ever, you have to write for the reader, not for the search engines. But what if you forgot about them completely? It’s like doing a high-wire act without the safety net. An acquaintance of mine recently took this approach, and though he dropped in the organic search-engine rankings, his content was shared far more, leading to lots of new leads – and a big chunk of business. 
  • Do something different. Speaking of safety nets, I decided earlier this year to turn off my pay-per-click advertising for a while. The quality of the leads had dropped, so I decided to try an alternative approach. Instead, I sent out an email blast, and repeated it at regular intervals. The resulting business was much more rewarding – in every sense – than the PPC leads I’d been getting. But it required a proactive effort on my behalf, and a leap of faith as the advertising went dark.
  • Connect with everybody. I’ve always been a bit choosy personally and professionally about who I connect with. But a few months back, at the suggestion of yet another friend, I resolved to drop the barriers and connect with anybody who wanted to connect with me. And I started proactively connecting randomly and frequently myself. The result has been astonishing – new friends, new business, new horizons. 
  • Stop hiding and get personal. A client of mine is a serial coffee-drinker. Nothing unusual in that, you might think, except he rarely does it alone. As soon as he connects with somebody local online – on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter – he suggests getting together for a latte, cappuccino or americano. He tells me he got the idea from online dating, where endless chat rarely leads anywhere. He says that in life as in love, the direct approach is best, which is why he suggests a meeting at the earliest possible opportunity. And he’s found just what he’s looking for (business, I mean) on many occasions. 
  • Feel the fear and do it anyway. “How on earth did you get so many amazing referrals?” I said to a client recently. They looked too good to be true, but each and every one was genuine. “I just asked for them,” he said, looking at me as if I were very slow on the uptake (or very cynical, or both). And that’s exactly what he had done, over and over again. I’ve done it too, of course, but not often enough to get through the pain barrier. He, on the other hand, does it so regularly that he feels no embarrassment whatsoever. “What’s the worst that could happen?” he said with a twinkle in his eye. Indeed. 
  • Don’t make assumptions. We all do this, and we know we do – but that doesn’t stop us. I assumed my email campaign had failed, and then it miraculously paid dividends. I assumed that I’d never do business with a particular client, and then he popped up on the radar two years later. I assumed that I’d offended an unresponsive client, until I discovered that there was a personal crisis that swept everything else aside. I assumed that PPC would constantly bring in high-quality leads, until it stopped doing so.  If you can take a step back and realise you’re making assumptions with no real basis in fact, you’re on the road to recovery. Think of it as mindful marketing.

The list of things to turn on their head is potentially endless. Write in a way that makes you slightly uncomfortable. Give away valuable content without asking people to register first. Make that call (the one you’ve been putting off – because there’s always one). Stop trying to create the perfect sales email, and just send what you’ve got. Admit that you do some things badly, or not at all – and either live with the consequences or change. 

Stop endlessly polishing your blog post. Hit ‘publish’.

Then do something else that scares you.

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