The Fine Line Between Poetry and Truth

As a writer, it’s easy to fall in love with the words.

They have such beauty to them, after all. Such form. When you say them, they sound musical. When you write them down, they grace the page. It’s like magic; the results are like a drug. They make you giddy.

Your writing is not matter-of-fact; it’s art. You are not mere scribe, but poet.

Many writers have fallen into an endless love affair with their writing. It’s no crime — it happens. It’s happened to many of us. But it is an ineffective mode for telling the truth — which is a writer’s ultimate goal, even when the truth is entirely made up.

Hemingway said it best — “just write the truest sentence you know.”

This requires you to be true to the ideas, not the words. The concepts you’re trying to get across, not the words you’re choosing with which to do so.

You must treat this as principle, as absolute: Content over words. Ideas over poetry. Always.

You can’t sacrifice the right word for the prettiest one, nor the most musical turn of phrase at the expense of saying what you truly mean.

It’s easy to get caught up in the beauty of your words and steer away from the truth.

For example — Faulkner and Hemingway. Faulkner is a writer known for his love of the sound of his own voice. He wrote paragraphs that seemed to stretch for miles — on and on and on. And that’s the edited version. He loved the words so much he got lost in them, was consumed. On the flip side, Hemingway was a pragmatic man, anchored in reality and constantly grappling with it — and his work reflected that. Before he spoke of writing truth, he’d already found it — for himself.

Words are beautiful. In shapes and designs, they become art. Their beauty compounds. They take your reason away, like a hard drug; disillusioning.

Make sure you never sacrifice truth in the name of beauty, nor pursue beauty from a place other than truth.

Do Things that Challenge the Way You See

 When I first moved to Charleston, I decided I wanted to learn how to paint.

There’s something so creatively inspiring about this place — the sunshine, the novelty of the palm trees mixed with the mire of the pluff mud. The colors of the houses on Rainbow Row — and all throughout Charleston, really. It’s such a beautiful town.

It’s also full of artists. I saw their work on Instagram before I came, and studied to internalize the style in their paintings — because it quickly became apparent to me that there’s so much here to learn from, and to teach, and so many questions I have to learn how to answer.

But in my small hand, you have to call you in, you’re still in the credits.

It was a conviction loosely held. I harbored no aspirations of being an artist, only a deep desire to hold brushes in my hands and feel paint beneath them, and see the color spread across the page, and to endeavor to see the shapes I saw in my head manifest themselves on paper.

First tries were rough, but they improved. I was artistically inclined growing up, so the medium was familiar, though rusty — like driving a car after a long time off the road. You know how to do it, but it feels a little foreign, like your muscles have to close their eyes and recall before they can begin.

Faces started to emerge from the color, as I started to get a feeling for the planes — what lines needed to go where to make them feel real.

The difference between a real face and a contrived one is stark. You look at a painting and you know immediately — either it is or it isn’t. It’s true or it’s not.

Like the Hemingway quote — “write the truest sentence you know.” The same holds true for painting (or, truly, for all forms of art) — paint the truest thing you can see.

This form of instruction — or perhaps permission — is terrifying and liberating all at once. Terrifying, because the expectations are clear (and frightening, if you don’t know how to capture the truth). Liberating, because it truly sets you free. You don’t have to worry about being creative, or inspired, or gifted — those all come later. In the interim, just focus on the truth.

And so I did. And I discovered something that I’d known once, but that I had forgotten — that the finished painting is only a fraction of the benefit derived from the practice, and that the ways it shifts your vision are the majority of what you’re taking away with you — because to paint the truth, you have to see it.

I started painting because I wanted to learn how to make something beautiful. I stayed because I wanted to learn how to see.

At the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, instructors require you to take a minimum of one other class in an entirely different medium.

People come to the Writer’s Workshop to learn how to write. Their instructors make them go and study something else.


No — an inobvious means to the desired end. To be good at your art, you have to learn to understand it from all angles — including via sister mediums.

When you want to be a writer and you study theater, you learn about conveying characters in an entirely different light. As a writer, your main end is to describe how a character appears, visually, to the outside world — or to describe in precise terms how it feels to be that character. As an actor, your job is to feel what it feels like to be that character, and to embody the nuance in the way the character carries itself in the world.

Understanding what it feels like to be someone else gives you an edge when you go back and try to describe it to someone else later. It makes you a better writer.

When you learn how to paint portraits, you learn to see the planes of the human face in a way you wouldn’t see them as a passive bystander — where the light refracts, where the shadows fall and curve, where the color darkens or turns pale. The shape of the eyes. The arch of the lips.

When you learn to paint landscapes, you see the nuance of color in a way you wouldn’t if the landscape was just a backdrop to be walked through, while your mind was somewhere else. So many passionate shades of green.

It’s akin to a woman learning how to do her makeup — as she learns how to use highlighter and bronzer, her face becomes a series of lines and angles, rather than something focused outward. It’s beautiful.

It doesn’t matter what you’re pursuing — learning to see from new angles makes you sharper and smarter. It hones senses that are usually left untouched, and it pushes you to continue growing, rather than staying still.

Learn a new art form. Challenge yourself to choose one that’s far separate from your medium of choice. But learn to see, and learn to see in a way that’s different than the way that’s grown accustomed to seeing.


How to be Successful Without a College Degree

I recently came across the following question: “How can you be successful without a college degree?”

This is one of my favorite topics — and the answer is much simpler than we’re often led to think.

You become successful without a college degree the same way you’d become successful with a college degree — by building skills, building a portfolio that showcases the ways you use those skills to create things of value to other people, and using that portfolio as leverage to work your way into positions of greater and greater responsibility (which, typically, is equated with “success”).

For example, imagine you want to work as a marketer. Here’s how this might look in action:

Step 1: learn how to run Facebook ads (building skills)
Step 2: run ads for small local businesses at a low cost to gain experience (building a portfolio)
Step 3: use those as examples to land a marketing role at a startup (leveraging your portfolio to gain a position of greater responsibility).

Once you’ve gotten your foot in the door with that first role, the process repeats — create evidence of your ability to be valuable (bringing in clicks/subscribers/purchasers through your marketing work), and then use those results as leverage to sell yourself for a higher-paying role at another company, or for a promotion.

The thing employers are looking for is your ability to create value on the market. That’s all.

Their opinion on what’s required for being successful on the market (the hard and soft skills you need to bring to the table) might vary, but the underlying principle is the same

Having a college degree doesn’t change your process for success at all. With or without a degree, the approach is the same — build skills, create (and showcase) results, use those results to sell yourself for better opportunities. Rinse, repeat.

Here’s the thing that most people don’t talk about: employers don’t actually care whether or not you have a degree.

A degree is just a proxy for your ability to create value.

I want to be clear on the logic behind why you don’t need a degree to be successful, but to obtain that clarity, we’re going to have to get into the weeds for a minute and get philosophical.

Bear with me.

A proxy is a substitute — a stand-in. In this case, a college degree is a proxy for your ability to create value in a job.

Here’s another example: money is a proxy for value. Fiat currency doesn’t actually have inherent value. It’s just a way of measuring the amount of value people owe each other.

A college degree is the same way. It doesn’t actually tell employers what skills you bring to the table, or what your individual potential is for being useful/creating results. It’s a generalized way of measuring someone’s predicted ability to create value, based on a set of hypotheticals (the person successfully completed college, which hypothetically signifies that they can: commit to something until it’s finished, consistently show up and get things done, communicate, think critically, manage projects, etc.).

The things the employer actually cares about are the things the degree signifies, not the degree itself — the same way someone who has $20 doesn’t actually want the piece of paper, but rather the things that piece of paper signifies (your ability to purchase $20 worth of things).

Having a college degree isn’t even that great of a signal of your ability to create value. Lots of people have them, but still aren’t effective in the professional world. And even if you have one, there are a lot of missing links of information an employer is looking to fill — like your ability to complete the actual tasks you’d be responsible for in a business. (Having a marketing degree doesn’t mean you can effectively drive results in a Facebook ads campaign. You have to have a Facebook ads campaign under your belt to prove that).

Which is why, degree or not, you’ll still need to follow the above formula to obtain success — build skills, create (and showcase) results, leverage results to land higher positions, ad infinitum.

Here’s another data point to consider: after a couple years in the professional world, people stop caring whether or not you have a degree at all. They care about what you’ve done and what you’re able to do, not where you went to school. Once you have some experience on your resume, nobody even thinks about your degree anymore.

Here are a few practical pieces of advice to help you not only execute on this process, but excel at it:

  • Build a digital footprint. We live in a digital world. If there isn’t digital evidence of your work, it doesn’t exist. Write blog posts, answer questions on Quora, establish your LinkedIn, post your projects on an online portfolio. Document everything of value you do. Anything you don’t document is as good as shorting your own stock.
  • Work hard. This is another absolute that’s consistent both with and without college. No matter what you do, you won’t be successful if you don’t put in the work to earn it. Success is a derivative of effort.
  • Don’t be too precious to do hard things. You have to pay your dues before you can rise.
  • Don’t hold out for the “perfect” opportunity. Take the opportunity that’s right in front of you, and then leverage it into something better. There’s no such thing as a perfect opportunity, only a perfect time to start — which is right now.
  • Get smarter. Make building your knowledge base your most consistent hobby. If you can, become obsessed with it. In its ideal sense, college is designed to make you smarter. Depending on the college you go to, it’s possible to make it through without becoming smarter at all — but if you embrace anything from college, it should be the ideal of knowledge. Knowledge — information — is one of the most important factors in the equation of success.
  • Stay curious. Cultivate your curiosity as much as possible. Curiosity is the road that leads to knowledge (which fulfills the point above), but curiosity is an end as well as a means. Build your curiosity muscle. It will make you better at tackling and solving problems — which, in turn, will make you a more valuable employee.
  • Maintain a definition of success. Don’t be afraid to change it as you learn and grow and evolve (because it will change — probably often), but make sure you always have a definition — and make sure it’s one that’s created based on your own values, not general societal definitions of “success.” Everyone’s idea of success is different, and knowing what yours is (what you’re striving towards) helps you bring purpose to your work— and purpose is the fuel that drives you forward.

This post was originally inspired by a question on Quora. Read the full thread here.

Photo by David Beatz on Unsplash

Quora Answer: What are the Benefits of Not Going to College?

There are a variety of benefits to not going to college. College is an expenditure of a number of resources — time, energy, money, etc. If you aren’t using those on college, you can be spending them elsewhere — namely, on something that’s in more direct alignment with your goals.

A few tangible, easy-to-measure benefits:

  1. You save money. Even if you’re working with scholarships, college is expensive; $20,000-$60,000/year is a steep price to pay as you’re starting your adult life. It isn’t guaranteed to pay off.

    Debt is a limiting factor in your decision-making process. You have to make choices that accommodate that debt until you pay your bills off — which will take years. Nearly 40% of students default on their loans.

    Not carrying the burden of debt means you’re able to make strategic financial decisions without factoring for your student loan bills. You can take a lower-paying but more strategic jobs. You can use that $20,000-$60,000 a year on something else — cars, a house, travel, other training resources, etc. College is a general investment. What specific investments might you make with that money?

  2. You save time. Why spend four+ years in school when you could be spending that same amount of time getting four+ years of working experience?

    In a lot of careers (especially in the business world) experience makes you more valuable than a degree does. Getting four years of experience means you’re four years ahead with savings, earning potential, competence, and status.

    Arguably far more valuable than four years of theory (but no real-world, tangible proof of your ability to create value in the workforce).

Those two quantities are objective and easy to measure — but there are a lot of other variables to measure, too.

College is a very general thing — a one-size-fits-all formula for launching your adult life. While it’s more specified than high school (different majors, etc.), it’s still a generalized system moving you towards generalized goals. There’s a lot more room for customization if you’re following a unique and specific path.

If you want to run a travel photography business, college might help you get there — but there may be much more direct ways of obtaining that goal (picking up photography gigs, building a presence online, networking with people already established in the space, establishing mentors, funding your own trips to build up your portfolio).

If you want to work in business, you might be able to get a degree in business from college — but going and working for a couple companies, gaining resume experience, building skills, obtaining references, and building your real-world competence is a much more direct route.

You’re working with finite energy and resources. The benefit of spending those resources on the most direct route to get you where you want to go is very high. If college isn’t the most direct route to get you where you want to go, then the benefits of not going to college will be substantial.

And as an extra bonus — not going to college makes you interesting. The world is becoming more and more friendly towards people who aren’t traditionally educated (the questions around college are becoming more and more prevalent) — so people will be tolerant of your decision, but they’ll also be interested, because you deviated from the norm and did something unusual.

Unusual = interesting.

Interesting = the formula for a good story.

Humans are storytelling creatures. We’re compelled by good stories. So on a human-interest level (and most of our interactions are impacted by human interest), you’ll get people’s interest when you tell them you didn’t go to college — and that’s beneficial too.

Read the full Quora thread here.

How to (and How Not to) Measure Value in Opportunities

My colleague T.K. Coleman says “If you want to be a developer at Google, don’t go be a developer for another company. Build your development portfolio on the side and do anything you can to get in with Google, even if it means sweeping the floors.”

There are two reasons why this is a valuable approach to take:

  1. It allows you to build relationships within the company. People hire and promote people they know and enjoy working with. The stronger your network, the stronger your potential for opportunity. In most cases this is a direct correlation.
  2. It allows you to better understand the company. When you’re on the inside, you’re constantly learning — about how the company functions, about the company’s philosophy and ideas, and ultimately, about its opportunities (which is what you’ll need to capitalize on in order to grow).

Here’s the key to this whole philosophy, though — sweeping the floors at Google isn’t just about doing time until you earn a spot on the development team (which in and of itself is a circuitous process, and will likely take a number of jumps from role to role before you make it to your final destination as a developer).

This is so important I’m going to say it twice — it’s not just about doing time.

Again, there are two important reasons why:

  1. “Doing time” implies that, if you fulfill your time commitment, there’s a guaranteed end result, which there’s not (you have to earn this stuff!)
  2. It implies that there’s only a payoff if you fulfill your time commitment and land the full-time offer. It implies you’re only getting something of value of you get the end result you’re looking for — and that’s a deeply limiting thing to believe.

Here’s the thing: both parties in this relationship are free agents, and that limits the potential for guarantees. There are so many variables at play. You might not do anything beyond sweeping floors to get attention, and therefore never open up opportunities for growth. Google might not need you. Google might have needs, but you might not be a good fit. You might sweep floors for six months (or even work your way up into a customer success or support position) and then realize that you don’t want to be a developer after all, or that you actually want to be a developer at a different company.

But, more importantly, this is a limited (and limiting!) mindset. It’s only counting the end result as a worthwhile measure of value — when really, that end result is a small piece of a very big puzzle, and a single source of value (out of a large number of sources).

Think about it: if you sweep the floors for six months and realize you don’t want to be someone else’s employee, but rather start your own company, is that wasted time?

It is if you only measure the value of outcomes based on a success/failure metric. You didn’t get the developer role you were shooting for. You failed.

But there are so many other forms of value you’re overlooking. In this scenario, you’re smarter than you were before. You have a better picture of how you want to move through life, and the things you want to be building. You’re better off (and better equipped for success) than you were six months prior when you started sweeping floors.

Might, then, this also fairly be measured as a success?

Even if you get let go (i.e. the opportunity ends, and it’s not on your terms), it can still be chalked up as a success. Maybe after six months Google goes through restructuring and lets go all of its floor sweepers. Might that also be measured as a success? You may not have landed an opportunity, but you have a better understanding about how a company like Google is structured internally. You’ve learned more about tech startups by being immersed in one. And you have some experience under your belt. You’re still better off than you were before you started.

Rather than thinking about success in terms of outcome, think about it in terms of internal value. If you’re smarter, or stronger, or faster, or more competent, or more skilled than you were before you started (even if it isn’t in the ways you initially intended) if you’re measurably different in a positive direction than you were when you started, then value has been derived from the experience.

This is a valuable way to analyze past experiences, but it’s also a valuable way of analyzing the opportunities in front of you.

I did an interview last week with Isaac Morehouse for his new podcast Career Crashers (episode should be releasing this week or next, so link coming soon). In the interview, we talked about my journey from college opt-out to career coach at Praxis — how I decided not to go to college in the first place, and how I built my way up to becoming the Apprenticeship Advisor and Community Manager at Praxis.

One of the points we talked about was my journey from intern (how I started working at Praxis in the first place) to full-time employee. The journey was a slow one — it took more than a year for me to ultimately land a full-time role. This is, in part, one of the realities of setting your sights on a small startup. The keyword in the last sentence is small — the staff isn’t substantial, opportunities are limited, and bringing on a new team member is a big deal (and a big investment). It isn’t something that’s done lightly, nor often.

I worked as an intern — and then as a contractor — for a long time before I was brought on into a full-time position, and throughout, the guarantees of a potential role were tenuous., and purely speculative I was never guaranteed a full-time offer, and it certainly wasn’t my reason for staying. I wasn’t busy holding out for a full-time offer. I was learning and growing in the role I was in.

Of course, I wanted the full-time position, so I could spend all of my time doing the work I loved. But the full-time role was never a measure of success in what I was doing. I was working for Praxis because it afforded me the opportunity to grow in ways I wanted to grow, gain experience working at a startup, gain proficiency and aptitude as an educator and a coach, be around my favorite thinkers writing about the alternative education space, and become a better and stronger employee and person. If things had turned out differently and I’d never ended up working full-time with Praxis, it still would’ve been time well spent, because it made me as an individual better.

Titles are an easy proxy for measuring value — that’s part of why we crave them. It’s a good thing to covet specific roles and jobs, especially as you grow in your career. But when you’re building towards something — especially if you’re in the early stages of your career, and have lots and lots of room to figure things out — don’t limit yourself by measuring the value of an opportunity based only on outcome, and don’t be afraid of taking a circuitous route to get you where you want to go.