We tend to picture the world’s great thinkers and artists toiling alone in laboratories and garrets, waiting for a spark of divine inspiration. But great ideas are not hatched in a vacuum. Mozart didn’t construct entire symphonies alone at the piano. Einstein’s theory of relativity was dependent on the work of friends and colleagues.
Best-selling author Jeff Goins debunks this lone genius mythology by reminding us that innovation is derived from thoughtful collaboration alongside an ecology of talent he dubs, “tribes” — the “unique group of fans, friends, and followers who resonate with your worldview.”
We recently chatted with Jeff about advice on writing and building your tribe. Jeff is is a full-time writer who lives just outside of Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife, son, and a border collie. He is the author of four books, including the national best-seller The Art of Work. His website, Goinswriter.com, has been visited by more than four million people from all over the world.
How did you make the leap and find success as an author?
I didn’t make the leap. I built a bridge. There are no big breaks, only tiny drips of effort that lead to waves of momentum. Success takes time.
What is the best advice you can provide a writer when they first start out?
Write every day. Take your time. Don’t quit. You’ll get there eventually.
What’s your process for taking an early idea and evolving it into something more?
I follow what I call the “3-bucket system.” Writing isn’t one thing. It’s three things: ideating, drafting, and editing. I break those activities into three separate actions. All throughout the day, I capture ideas using an app called Drafts that syncs with Evernote. That’s the first bucket: ideas. I have a whole folder full of them for when I’m feeling dry in the creativity department
Then, when it’s writing time (usually morning), I’ll pull an idea out from that first bucket and start writing, usually around 500 words in one session. This process makes it easier to just start writing without having to think about what I’m going to write, because I already have a prompt. Once I’ve written about 500 words on the piece, I save it as a draft in Scrivener (if I’m working on a book) or in Byword (if it’s a blog post). This is the second bucket: drafts. I have a whole bunch of half-finished chapters and blog posts on my computer begging to be edited and completed.
Finally, I will pull out one of those half-completed drafts and edit it. I’ll polish up the flow and sentence structure and of course check for grammar and spelling. At this point, the piece isn’t perfect but it’s at least 90% done. I’ll either schedule it for a blog post or tuck it away in another folder called “Finished pieces.” This is the third bucket: edits. These are works that are more or less ready for the world to see. The next step is to share them with an editor or publisher or post to my blog.
If you were starting a new book project today, what would be the first item on your to-do list?
Incidentally, I am starting my new book. And the first item is structure. I have to have an outline before I even begin to do research. Of course, the research will point me in new directions most likely. But I need a place to start. And a basic chapter by chapter outline is enough structure for me to begin. Then I start reading books and articles (voraciously using Evernote’s Web Clipper to save interesting stuff for later), and writing the bones of what I want to say. It’s a very clunky process but I know of no other way to begin.
What daily habits keep you productive as a writer?
Getting up early has always helped me write first thing in the morning. When I don’t, it’s a fight to find time the rest of the day. I also try not to check email or mess around online until I’ve written for a couple of hours. Notice the operative word “try” there. Writing for me is really about grace and discipline. Discipline to keep you from stopping. And grace to keep you going when you mess up. Plus, it’s about the long game. The one question I ask myself every day is “did you write today?” If I’ve done that, albeit imperfectly, I’ve done my job.
You frequently write about “tribes.” Can you explain the importance of connecting closely with your community and what that means for other writers looking for success?
Seth Godin wrote a wonderful book about that. Everything I know about tribes I learned and continue to learn from him. In a nutshell, no one is a self-made success. One of the things that was impressed in my mind after interviewing hundreds of people for my last book (The Art of Work) was that every story of success is really a story of community. You have to have a tribe who supports you, and your job is to serve that tribe.
Where do you find inspiration for your work today?
I am inspired by everyday stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I try to infuse my writing with that spirit because that’s how I feel: ordinary. I think it’s important to write what inspires you. I am often simply writing to myself.
What is the best advice/lesson you got from a mentor or leader?
“You don’t have to want to be a writer. You are a writer. You just need to write.”
What drives you? What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Honestly, I’m pretty ambitious. I’m driven by the greats who have come before me and the high bar they’ve set. I’m trying to reach millions of people with my words and somehow change culture in the process. I guess it’s the belief that what I’m doing matters that gets me out of bed. That, and an earnest desire to not only support my family but make them proud.
Who are you following right now that is inspiring to you — authors, advisors, businesses or brands? Share some of the people doing exciting work that inspires you.
Seth Godin. Michael Hyatt. Jon Acuff. Malcolm Gladwell. Elizabeth Gilbert. Joe Bunting. Chase Reeves. Austin Kleon. Tiffany Trivett.
Google all those names. You won’t be disappointed.
What’s in your writer’s toolkit — apps, products, and tools?
Evernote. Byword. Scrivener. MacBook Pro. iPhone 6s Plus (I do a lot of writing on my phone). Kindle app. Audible. Moleskine.
Can you share what your writing process looks like? Is there a distinct phase of inspiration, research, writing and editing? Break it down for us.
I am always consuming content. 2-3 books a week. Input leads to output. I read widely and am always on the search for things that catch my attention. I love novels, biographies, and narrative nonfiction. So I am always reading to find more stories with interesting ideas to share. I chase down a lot of ideas that don’t amount to anything but that’s just part of the process.
What was the last book you read?
I am finishing up a book called Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, which has been good but a little dry. I still can’t get over Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy. A must read.
What are your favorite Evernote shortcuts or tips you can recommend?
As I mentioned, I basically use it to house all my ideas and research. Then, I either draft in Evernote or copy and paste to a minimalist Word Process. My friend Michael Hyatt calls it his “digital brain.” For me it’s more like my digital shed, full of research and crumpled up notes that I’m too scared to throw away. And unlike a shed, I can find just about anything I need in five seconds.
Anything else you would like to add?
My friend Andy Traub knows more about Evernote than anyone I know. Follow him.