Colleen Wainwright, aka the communicatrix, is a writer, speaker and marketing consultant with an extensive background in acting, advertising and design. She helps her clients figure out how to put forth their best selves. Even more impressive, she can help you be your best self. I think of her as one of my gurus—she just doesn’t know it. Colleen is smart, thoughtful, funny and not afraid to dig deep. She writes a kick-ass blog and a terrific monthly newsletter under her communicatrix banner. I’ve read her blog for many years and I'm very excited to feature her here.
1. In 2010 you took a “self-imposed sabbatical.” What fueled your desire to take some time off? Were there key areas of your life where you wanted to manifest change, or did you enter the sabbatical without specific goals in mind?
I didn't even enter the sabbatical with a sabbatical in mind.
Toward the end of '09, I did decide to close shop for the last two weeks of December. Even that much of a break is unusual for me, unless I'm forced into it by ill health or a grouchy significant other. But coming off of 2009, I sensed that if I didn't take a break, something really, really bad was going to happen. I'd narrowly avoided a full-on Crohn's flare earlier in the year, and there were other indicators as well: increased alcohol and caffeine consumption; sudden, inexplicable bursting into tears in the shower. (You may have some passing familiarity with the drill.)
Another contributing factor was my decision that fall to start private lessons in Nei Kung, an internal form of chi gong. No doubt all that chi moving around for the first time in a decade played a role in my decision to quit acting like a complete jackass and give my body a break.
Anyway, at the end of two weeks I was still zonked, so I decided to extend just a wee bit into January. Then end of Q1. Then, oh, how about May-ish?
Finally, somewhere around mid-July, I conceded what I probably knew all along: I was looking at a full reboot. I stared at the numbers in my long-term savings account for a day, took a deep breath, changed my "Hire Me" page to reflect unavailability through 2011, and that was that. (Oddly enough, a big job for January came in over the transom after this. Modern-age voodoo, as Roz Chast and my ex like to say.)
As for goals, I didn't establish any until mid-February. I ended up choosing ten, per Ginny Ditzler's excellent Best Year Yet goal-planning system, which I'd been using faithfully for four years to map out the coming year. This time around, though, I did a few things differently.
First, I partnered with a friend. He kept me a little more realistic about what I could reasonably do vs. the magical sparkle-pony fantasy agenda I usually dreamed up. Secondly, for the first time in my life I chose mostly "boring" self-care goals rather than hard-ass business goals. To read more books, for example—something I deeply enjoy, but never give myself time for. To practice my Nei Kung daily, get back on my Crohn's diet 100%, see friends twice per week, feng-shui my apartment from top to bottom. I even made "recover from breakup" a goal—with a deadline and action items! I did better on the "me" goals than the business goals. In fact, I've failed, or fallen way short, on my three business-y goals, and accomplished all of the personal ones. Quite a turnaround.
In hindsight, I think taking the sabbatical was my effort to gain clarity. I turn 50 in September, and that's a hard number to be cavalier about. I wanted to head into the back nine with the confidence that I was actually living my life, not sleepwalking through some carryover bullshit notion of what I thought a life was supposed to be when I was 20 or 30 or even 40. I'm not all there, by any means; I don't know that I'll ever have 100% clarity. But I do finally have some real, rooted confidence in my ability to judge what is right for me.
Finally, just to call out the elephant in the room, I realize that this was an insanely great privilege, being able to take this kind of time off. My intention was—and is—to gain clarity around my talents, such as they are, and my interests, so that I could start making a difference in the world. I'm not leaving a flesh-and-blood legacy, but I can (I hope) leave a useful body of work.
2. An overall theme in your writing last year was about downsizing—minimizing possessions and virtual distractions. You even titled one of your recent newsletters, “Adding by Taking Away.” What have you gained by decluttering your physical and virtual spaces?
Part of what I've gained, of course, is actual physical room. It makes moving around one's apartment much easier, and helps one realize considerable savings on bulk buys of paper products.
Seriously though, my home is a much, much nicer place to be in now. I've been able to arrange things to suit my creative process, which I've discovered requires surprising amounts of cleared horizontal space for working, and restful, clean space for preparing food and relaxing.
Psychic room is a little harder to quantify. I feel happier and more myself now, but this could also be a function of exiting a relationship that was no longer serving me.
Another big gain happened via the *process* of decluttering itself. I was amazed at how good it felt, how deeply self-caring, to take the time and energy to physically transform my space from something gross and icky and dirty and crowded and sad-making into something lovely, fresh, lively and clean that supported me. Damn, it feels good! It's made me much more aware and respectful of the necessity for and benefits of thoughtful attention to "soft" things in general.
However, there is yang to all this yin (or vice versa), which is that you start to see some of the things that had been safely hidden from view under the murk: filthy walls and dirty floorboards, for example, or really ugly habits and truths you'd deftly avoided by obfuscating them with crap. (For more on all of this, please see A&E's horrifying-but-compulsively-watchable show, Hoarders.)
It's definitely a journey rather than a destination, especially if you have the packrat gene. (Again, cf. Hoarders. Highly sobering stuff.)
3. As a marketing consultant who loves the power of a good decluttering, do you ever tell your clients to do a bit of un-marketing? If so, what’s one tip you like to give people to help them streamline their marketing plans?
Oh, my, yes. It may be what started me on the road to decluttering—that and my ex-boyfriend's attic. Seeing someone else's stuff and how it holds them back is much easier than seeing your own.
My #1 super-trick for better marketing is to get really, really clear on your objective, your goal. It's rarely easy, but it's far more effective than futzing with your blog theme or revamping your business cards or retooling your online-to-meatspace networking mix. When you're not clear on what it is you want—which takes time and reflection and sometimes outside help—the rest of it is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
But if you want a "trickier" trick, I'd say to ask yourself where most of your business or your clients come from, and then forgo something else to take better care of this area. For most people, it's referrals. Most folks—myself, included—are really abysmal at cultivating referrals. If you start tending the network of loyal fans you already have, you'll be amazed at what starts to shift.
4. You’re a big reader and seem to be a disciplined one. You set a goal to read 52 books in 2010, with a daily goal of 40 pages a day. What did you find to be the benefits of a reading schedule? Do you plan to continue that schedule in 2011?
The big secret to my self-discipline is my total natural lack of it. I have the attention span of a highly distractible toddler who accidentally drank his mom's coffee: a kind of permanent, free-floating case of Shiny Object Syndrome, as an old art director so aptly dubbed it. Hence, the immense benefits of routine. You don't have to think about stuff; you just have to do the stuff you're supposed to do! It's really quite freeing.
So for me, it was incredibly easy once I figured out the routine: I'd wake up, I'd make myself a cup of tea, then I'd get back in bed and read my 40pp. It's a little tougher now, because I'm trying to add in a morning walk first thing, and obviously, you can't take a walk first and read first.
But I'll figure it out. The main thing is that I rediscovered how great it is to read regularly, and to read books, instead of just bloggy stuff. (Not that there's anything wrong with that! This blog, for example, is awesome!) It really kicks your idea-generating machine into high gear, not to mention it being a great way to learn new stuff.
5. I know you love hacks—those little shortcuts that can make our tasks just a little bit easier. Can you share a couple of your favorite new hacks that you’ve incorporated into your life recently?
Twist my arm, why don't you? Okay, here goes:
*Learning ONE keyboard command from my most-used programs.* Lately, I'm all over Command-H (which is "hide" on the Mac—it makes a live program disappear) and, in Evernote, Command-Control-F, which lets you search your entire Evernote archives. (I heart Evernote, big-time.) In addition to speeding things up, there's a sense of accomplishment in acquiring a skill, which I think leads to more self-confidence, which is just better for neurotic, self-loathing anxiety cases like me. So even if neither of these two work for you, learning a few key commands for your favorite programs will be a big win-win. The kaizen way—incremental tweaks to improve performance—is, I find, a far more useful way of approaching change. Maybe that's the true hack here.
*Dragging files into x.* Okay, I just finished talking about not picking up my hands from the keyboard, but dragging a URL from the address bar onto the Evernote icon in the dock and watching it turn into a note is pretty much the most satisfying thing ever. I think you have to upgrade to the paid version to do it; I never tried it before I bought in. But it's awesome. Ditto with dragging pictures or URLs onto the Skitch icon, which, again—sorry—I think you have to pay for. Hey, maybe actually paying for the tools you really love and use—i.e., having the best versions of them—is really the hack, here. Oh, and if you have both paid Evernote and paid Skitch, you can pretty much rule the known universe. (Man, I sound like a total ad for them, but I'm seriously in lurve with my software.)
6. The first time I read that you were attending Toastmasters, I was surprised because you already had years of acting experience under your belt. Then I realized that public speaking and acting are two very different animals. When you step on stage at events, which instinct kicks in first—the acting or the public speaking one? How do the two skills complement each other?
They're hopelessly fused at this point. The gift of acting—the "inside-out", Method kind, anyway—is learning how to reliably open yourself up to being a channel of truth. Public speaking training is more about outside-in stuff: developing your voice, removing distracting tics and "um"s, etc. There's a bit of crossover in the training around stuff like sovereignty; in both acting and speaking training you learn to hold your ground, to not piss away your power with unnecessary movement. And of course, speakers are also learning how to write and structure material. Actors have to really work hard to learn this, via scene study and analyzing film scripts and literature and such. Most of them are too stupid or narcissistic or lazy to do this, unfortunately, which really limits their abilities to work except as the vessel for someone else's truth, which can really limit their ability to work, period.
In my monthly column for actors, I'm constantly hammering them to develop these "tangential" abilities. I feel they're integral to one's development not only as a true artist but that they're the key to a longtime, successful career as a professional.
7. What’s just the right amount of social media use for your taste?
My cop-out answer is "enough to feel connected, not so much that I'm neglecting my real work." Most days, it ends up being several check-ins with Twitter and Facebook, a few postings to delicious/Google Reader, and perhaps a blog comment or two. (I like to get them, so I think it's only fair to leave them.)
On bad days, I do too much of it, and feel awful at the end, like when you were a kid and ate crap all day at the amusement park. (Or when you were an adult and did it, for that matter.) On really good, productive days, I'll do much less.
I do almost always check in with Facebook in the morning to wish people a happy birthday. Corny, but again, I just love it on my birthday, and it's a pretty easy, friction-free thing to do.
8. Colleen, you’re a prolific blogger and you’ve talked about writing a book. How do you juggle your writing schedule so that you can keep posting those wonderful essays and poems on your blog and still find time to write a book?
Well, now, really—you don't see a book yet, do you? So I'm not that good of a juggler after all, am I, now?
If you've been doing the math, I've had more time than an entire retirement village this year. I had zero clients! And one less blog to write for! (My year-long marketing blog experiment, virgoguidetomarketing.com, ended in 2009.) And still, no book!
I've tried all kinds of things to keep me on track with the book writing this year: a "morning write" workshop, a writers' group, commitments made to my mastermind group. Then, somewhere in November, I finally gave up and asked my hypnotherapist. He'd helped me get back on my Crohn's diet with ONE session. (It was a holy miracle, I tell you. I could drive past Jack In The Box with impunity.) So we worked for a few weeks on it, and he made me one recording to help me establish good time habits, and another booster recording to help me with chunking my day. Slowly, they're starting to make a difference; I don't always write a ton every day, and I definitely don't write great stuff every day, but I write. It's a start.
Also, an angel from the sky descended to this mortal plain to help me—a regular reader/fan of mine, who is in the business of editing and coaching writers through big projects. She offered her services to me in support and for the first time in my life, I accepted a gift with grace and humility. Again, it's a start.
9. For many of us, our definition of success changes over time. What will success look like for Communicatrix in 2011?
Well, I don't officially have to lock myself into something until mid-February, when my new calendar year starts. If I had to guess from here, though, I'd say success would be more contentment with what I've done rather than so much angst over what I haven't. That plus some quality visits with good friends. Although I wouldn't say "no" to a million-billion dollars in the bank and a friendly, well-behaved terrier/collie mix.
Marketing column for actors: http://www.communicatrix.com/lacasting-articles
YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/communicatrix
Colleen Wainwright is a writer-speaker-layabout who started calling herself “the communicatrix” when she hit three hyphens. She spent 10 years writing ads and another 10 acting in them for cash money. These days she spends most of her time teaching other creative souls how to talk about what they do in a way that wins them attention, work and satisfaction and the rest of it horsing around on the Internet.