Last year we embarked on a great journey, and even though it was scary, it was the very best thing we’ve ever done. We were exhilarated and challenged, though I’m happy to say it has gotten much less scary over time as we’ve built up our “travel” muscles.
So how do we top something like that? Well, we could rest on our laurels and say for the rest of our lives that we did something really brave and awesome back when we were 40 (ah, the good old days!)…or we could continue stretching ourselves on a regular basis for the rest of our lives with big projects.
Which option do you think allows us to live the good life? Yeah, I thought you’d say that.
Putting yourself out there
Next week we’ll be launching our first big guide, and while you’ll be hearing more about that in days to come, what we want to talk about today is the fear of exposing yourself to criticism and potential failure and the willingness to go ahead do something anyway.
You see, even though we have written hundreds of blog posts in the last few years here, we have never asked anyone to pay for it or put ourselves out there as experts at anything but living our own lives. We’re just your friendly neighborhood bloggers putting out tips and sharing our experiences online for you to read or ignore, and we never have to know the difference. Hate our stuff? No big deal. You don’t have to read it, and because you didn’t pay for it you probably won’t make a fuss if you don’t like it anyway. You’ll just click off. The people who stay are not required to have any deeper commitment to us than their time (though so many of you do more – thank you!)
But if we put ourselves out there as experts at something, people with some specific knowledge around a topic and definite opinions on it that we put a price tag on and encourage people to follow, then we are also opening ourselves up to criticism, ridicule, and even tomato throwing. (You can see that my overly dramatic and neurotic 13-year-old self is making an appearance in this post, which makes sense since she has been hanging out in my life lately.)
I joke, but there is a lot of truth in this. We are all terrified to put ourselves out there as an expert – to answer a question in a class, to promote an idea in a business meeting, to offer a solution to a community problem – and we often shy away rather than risk an imperfect showing, a black mark against our records, or a dent in our reputations.
But you know what? By NOT risking those things, we are also dooming ourselves to stay in our same positions at work, dealing with the same problems in our communities over and over again, and letting people less informed than us impact our destinies (really, if Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck can speak up, why can’t we?).
Asking for feedback and accepting it
With that in mind, we started writing our guide to saving enough money to change your life about six months ago. The writing of it was hard – what do you include and what do you leave out? What is considered inspirational and what is considered too much ass kicking? Is this plan viable for everyone or just a few dedicated souls or somewhere in between? And does the need to get that idea out there depend on whether you have a big or small audience when your soul says it is an idea that must be shared?
I can tell you that the need to write means you WILL easily get the words on paper, though. What is much harder is to share those words with people who can make or break your project, people who will tell you what’s crap and what’s not and what you left out and what needs to be cut. And if you are too thin-skinned, you can let your specific knowledge – your expertise! – stay a hidden gem because you are too afraid of criticism.
It isn’t easy to hear that you missed the mark, but it is a worse feeling to know that you had the potential to release something great that could really help people – something that you specifically know more about than 95% of people in the world – and chose not to because you wanted to keep the Jenga version of your personality intact (really, when it falls you just put it back together and try again, right?)
In this process I had to be pushed kicking and screaming to ask for feedback. Reluctantly – oh so reluctantly! – I sent the first draft out for feedback and cowered in a corner waiting for replies. Yikes. There was definitely work to be done, and after dusting myself off I made a list of the specific pieces of criticism and how I could address them. I went about it as unemotionally as possible, though I can’t say I didn’t freak out just a little. I evaluated them and made many of the changes, keeping in mind Neil Gaiman’s quote that you can rely on people 100% to tell you the parts of your book that are not working but you can never rely on them to tell you exactly how to fix it.
I sent the book out for a second round of feedback to second audience, thinking I had solved all the problems. The feedback was even more detailed, and it felt like starting all over again. One very smart person told me the amount of detailed feedback was a good sign, that reviewers would not spend as much time and energy helping a crappy product get to mediocre, but they would help a good product get to great. Wise words, but still a bit of a shock to have so many points of feedback. I again made a mostly unemotional list of the feedback and how I would or would not address each item, and I again revised the guide.
Investing in professional help
Whether we like it or not, we are judged in how we present ourselves. After meeting reader Shea McGuier for lunch in a train station in London, I was totally convinced of her design abilities for our WordPress website clients. But I honestly never thought about her for our own project until I started researching the marketing of an ebook. Guess what value people place on a Word PDF ebook? Turns out, not much.We can give it away as a freebie to our email list, but not much else. If we want to really make an impact, we have to invest in the design and layout of the guide with a designer.
This is when I just shook my head. Really? Shouldn’t the content be enough? Then I remembered the chocolates we bought as a gift and how important packaging was to me. And then I remembered how much I loved the layout of Chris Guillebeau and Adam Baker’s ebook offerings and how I valued their information more because THEY valued them enough to professionally package them. I thought of all those freebie thrown-together ebooks out there and knew that no one would be able to tell the difference with ours before buying, which meant they likely wouldn’t buy.
I contacted Shea just to get a ballpark estimate, and I was surprised to see how reasonable it was to work with her, especially if I was able to do most of the formatting myself after she set up the basic structure. She created book covers, website banners, graphics for the book, the layout, and even the little favicon you see in the the address bar of your browser. The cover doesn’t match our logo, but it does match the colors so everything is cohesive. She thought of things we never would have, and because of that the guide looks as good as it reads.
I can tell you without a doubt that investing in your ideas with a professional designer and several rounds of casual and professional feedback will elevate your project higher than you ever dreamed. I can also tell you it will be painful to hear that some of your stuff sucks and even the good stuff needs some work. But I can also tell you that the end product is something better than you even imagined, something that you can even pitch to a traditional publisher, a magazine, and a literary agent (yep on all three). Would we have been comfortable doing this with our original manuscript in Word document? No.
Next I submitted the book to a professional editor. Angela Barton is a longtime reader of the blog who also happens to be a writer and editor, and her feedback was even more specific. She challenged me to make the “okay” book into a “great” book with some really pointed feedback, and I wondered if we were *ever* going to get this to a point ready for publication.
Then she got really in our business and made some suggestions regarding videos and pictures, and I realized she knew a whole lot more about this process than I imagined (it probably helps that she also works in the film industry). She set us off on a direction that turned the guide into a multimedia product, one that has a way of putting the message out for every type of learner. As I write this post, the guide is in the final stages of line editing to correct grammar and punctuation, which is basically the last thing.
Finally, we asked professional photographer Alison Cornford-Matheson (also the brains behind the expat site Cheeseweb) to take some new photos of us. She really captured what we are feeling after a year of travel, and it is nice to actually get some photos together since that is usually pretty hard for us to do.
Asking your network for help
When we asked for readers and other bloggers to help us by critiquing early versions, there were more offers to help than we could use. We got feedback on cover designs, names, and what to include in the guide. Last, we recruited some expert help with a chapter suggested by a reader – how could we have forgotten to include credit card debt in the first draft? Adam Baker, who is a pro at credit card debt elimination, is contributing a video chapter to our guide from his new You vs. Debt program. Other bloggers are throwing in their support to help us market the guide (remember when we talked about how to Live the Good Life and build a great network? the art of the ask? we’re walking the talk here). And readers like you are telling us they can’t wait to read it because they know we know what we’re talking about after years of writing about it on our blog.
In short, it is all finally coming together and we are just down to the last details.
Feeling the fear and doing it anyway
It may not take a lot to convince you that this guide needed to be out there, but it took a lot to convince me. And I’m betting the reverse is true about something you know a lot about and are keeping to yourself – at work, at home, with your friends, and to the world at large.
We’re conquering our demons and overcoming our fears by putting this guide out, and we challenge you to do the same thing the next time you’re scared to speak up, share your opinion, or let others benefit from your expertise. Yes, people might laugh. Yes, people might tell you you’re full of crap. They might even ask for their money back.
But you know what? You might also change someone’s life. (worth some potential embarrassment, dontcha think?)