“I think the big thing that really helps to find direction is curiosity: indulging what it is that you are naturally curious about, and not necessarily concerning yourself with what kind of an outcome it will lead to. Because I had no idea that any of what I did would lead to all of this.”
— Srinivas Rao, Author & Host, the Unmistakable Creative
Transcript, edited for reading:
Nikki: Welcome to Movement Makers, the podcast for business leaders and entrepreneurs like you who aren’t interested in doing business as usual, but who want to have an impact on the lives of those around you. You want your life to matter. You want your work to matter. You want your words to leave an indelible impression on those who hear them and you’re ready to show up, to speak up, and to do whatever it takes to change the status quo.
My guest this week is Srini Rao. He’s the host and founder of the Unmistakable Creative podcast, where he’s conducted over 600 interviews with thought leaders from many walks of life, who peak his curiosity. This has given him an incredible view into what makes some of the most impactful creatives successful across multiple disciplines. He’s also written a book, Unmistakable: Why Only Is Better Than Best. I can’t wait for him to tell you all about it.
Hi Srini, how are you doing?
Srini: I am doing great. How’s it going?
Nikki: Good! I’m doing good, thank you. So good to be talking to you, because I’ve been following you for a really long time. When did you first start doing Blogcast FM, as it was then called?
Srini: So, we started as this weekly interview series called Interviews with up-and-coming bloggers and that was in 2009. I think in February 2010 we took the weekly interview series and spun it out as Blogcast FM. So let’s see, where does that put us? At about 7 years now. I think at the end of this year it will be 7 years.
Nikki: That’s amazing. And now you’re of course The Unmistakable Creative.
Nikki: Talk to me a little bit about how you got into this in the first place. What led you down this path? I know that way back in the beginning you were in the corporate world, but that wasn’t good for you.
Srini: So there are a lot of dots and, like Steve Jobs once said, you can only really connect the dots looking backwards. So a couple of different things come to mind – some of which haven’t been revealed in previous interviews.
The idea that we’re born to create and the idea that you should always be making something, that goes back a really long way. I mean, almost all the way back to college. The only reason this is fresh in my mind is because I’m starting to map out my next book, which is all about creativity for the sake of creativity. When I look back at my life I can always pinpoint, if I were to plot it out on a graph, the times of my life when I was the happiest and most fulfilled almost always had to do with the times in my life when I was doing something incredibly creative. The funny thing is, even in the times when I wasn’t fulfilled, the things that made me not go completely insane involved doing something creative.
I had this job right after my senior year in college, my first post-college job, that I actually ended up getting fired from. During that job I did this summer writing project where one of our friends started what was effectively a blog, but before there were such things as blogs. We would all submit these journal entries about what we were going through in our summers and mine were better than everybody else’s. They were just interesting. It was the only thing I could do to keep myself from going completely nuts. So everybody who participated in this would look forward to reading these things. So I got this positive affirmation for writing these completely ridiculous stories. Like, I wrote about the time the guy at the hometown buffet tried to beat me up in the bathroom for looking at his kid funny for some strange reason. It was the most ridiculous thing. You’re going to the bathroom at the hometown buffet and some guys comes and throws you up against the wall and you’re like, “What the hell?” So clearly the guy had anger issues. I wrote about the horrible working environment I was in. So it was comical almost. It was comedic writing of my ridiculous antics of living in San Francisco and trying to survive this awful startup.
So that was one of the first inklings of it. Fast forward to 2009. I’ve graduated from business school and I don’t have a job. Coincidentally again, a time in my life when things aren’t going well and I turn to this idea that maybe if I work on a writing project, this will be something that is fulfilling. Blogs had just started to become really popular. You’re hearing all these stories at that time of people getting book deals from blogs. So I was intrigued by the whole thing. I thought, okay, well here’s potentially something I could do. It could be interesting. I don’t know what’s going to be involved. Actually, after trying to start a few failed blogs and even throughout 2008, 2009, I was constantly tinkering with the internet. I worked as an intern at Intuit as their social media intern. I didn’t get a job offer at the end of the internship, but throughout that internship every time a new tool came out, my instinct was, “Okay, what could you make using this tool?” So I started multiple blogs that nobody’s ever heard of.
Then finally, when I graduated in 2009, I told my dad, “Listen, if you lend me this $500, I can enroll in this course called Blog Mastermind by this guy named Yaro Starak.” So I enrolled in that course and one of the lessons in that course was to interview somebody. So I interviewed this guy Josh Hanagarne who runs a blog called the World’s Strongest Librarian. What ended up happening as a by-product of that interview is that it led to a 2nd interview, a 3rd interview. We’re at about 13 interviews when the guy who was the 13th person that I interviewed – and if you’ve read Unmistakable you know this story – he actually said, “I think you’re a much better interviewer than you are a writer.” Which is ironic seeing as I’m writing books now with publishers. I’ve never let him live that down and he’s still a good friend to this day. He actually was smart enough to say, “I think you’re onto something with this interview thing,” because this was before there was 100,000 podcasts on iTunes.
I think the iPhone 4 had just come out, so podcasts weren’t all that popular yet. So we thought okay, what the hell? Let’s see what happens. We took the 13 interviews and we launched it as a separate site called Blogcast FM. Then, between 2011 and 2013, something started to change. I think part of it was my personal interest. I just kind of lost interest in listening to people tell stories about how they had grown the traffic to their blog and all the tactical marketing things that you could read in a social media book. Every time I went to a social media event and there was a social media guru there, I was overcome by this feeling of, “Something isn’t right here. I don’t fit in with these people. I don’t feel like I belong here” and I kept wondering why. I thought, “Maybe this is the wrong group of people that I’m trying to cater to.”
Eventually what started to happen was more and more of the stories on the show started to change quite a bit. This was before we even rebranded as Unmistakable. One of the big influencers that impacted me in that regard was a guy named AJ Leon, because I came across him and I thought, “Well, this is really different. This isn’t like an online marketer talking to me about conversion rates and funnels and stuff that I just find absolutely mind-numbing. This is a guy who writes beautiful, inspirational artwork, but somehow has managed to blend it with a business that’s actually doing well. Doing amazing creative work that he cares about.” Also in that process a mentor named Greg Hartle, who had been a multi-time guest on the show, decided to come on board with me in exchange for a percentage of the company to mentor me through a big transition. So, in 2013, I self-published a book called The Art of Being Unmistakable. That then became freakishly successful through a series of strange coincidences, like me ending up on the Glenn Beck show.
Greg already had the foresight to see that we needed to re-brand the show. He said, “It’s clear that the most popular shows aren’t just people who are bloggers.” In fact, we wanted to not be limited to an audience of entrepreneurs, because we felt that that was such a limited audience. Not everybody wants to be an entrepreneur, not everybody wants to start an online business. So we thought, “What is something that’s universally relatable?” And it was stories. When we looked at our most popular interviews, they were never the ones with people who had built a popular blog or talked about how to increase traffic. The most popular interviews were the ones with people who had amazing stories about their life and their work.
We started to realize that we could get that kind of interview out of anybody if we asked a different set of questions. It wasn’t about how you did this thing tactically, but it was more about the story of your life and who you are as a person. Of course that also expanded the opportunity for guests, because when you look at Unmistakable Creative it’s very expansive in terms of who could potentially be a guest. So that really fundamentally changed a lot of things for us: how we went about choosing guests, how we went about interviewing them. So now, as a result, here we are 700 interviews later with bank robbers, drug dealers, performance psychologists, authors, entrepreneurs, artists, you name it. The sort of core ethos of all of those people is this idea of being unmistakable and standing out in a really distinctive way. So distinctly, in fact, that nobody could do what they do in the way that they do it.
That eventually led to a book deal with Penguin, which literally just happened. As of today, we’re about 6 weeks out from the launch of my first traditionally published book which is called “Unmistakable: Why Only Is Better Than Best.” So hopefully that brings us up to speed. In between, there have been other things that we worked on as well, like animated shorts and a live event called the Instigator Experience.
Nikki: Yes, I remember that event you had and I remember kicking myself, because I wanted to come and didn’t, and then you didn’t hold it the next year. I would like to, if you don’t mind, loop back to 2014 at some point in the discussion, because I know it was a challenging time for you.
Srini: Absolutely. Yeah.
Nikki: So, I literally cannot put your book down. I’m totally immersed in it. I think what I love most is that throughout you use this surfing metaphor throughout, so you can really visualize what you’re talking about. I wonder if you could expand on that a bit more. First of all, tell us a little bit about your relationship with surfing. I think this is a great story in and of itself, because it wasn’t a smooth start for you, was it?
Srini: Yeah, it’s funny that I could tell you my entire story and I didn’t mention surfing once. That’s a sign that I haven’t been in the water in 15 days. So yeah, I forgot to mention that during this period, another thing in my life started that would forever change it in a way that I couldn’t even have known when it started.
I started surfing in December 2008. That’s when I caught my first wave. I went to grad school at Pepperdine, which happens to be in Malibu, a world-class surf destination. It was one of those things that was incredibly therapeutic. It just seemed to make all my troubles go away when I was surfing. It just made everything that seemed bad not bad at all and it just became this thing that started to define my life.
The more addictive it became, the more I kept seeing that this thing was a profound metaphor for life and for creativity and for business, because it paralleled it in so many different ways. There’s just no way that you can get out of the water and not walk away with profound life lessons.
I jokingly said to Jonathan Fields, “This is one of the few activities that’s like a church, a gym and a bar all in one activity, because it meets your physical, spiritual and social needs.” It’s meditative, which is the spiritual aspect of it. You have your friends and other surfers, so there’s this communal aspect of it that’s social and it’s physical. It’s physically demanding and so you get what you would from a gym and it’s a helluva lot more fun. I remember years before Unmistakable came out, I started thinking about the idea that a book mapped out in surf metaphors would be what I’d want to write. That never left me. It’s just there was never the opportunity to do it.
So when we start organizing principles for [the book] Unmistakable, Robin, who was the writing coach that I worked with, asked, “What about surfing?” And I said, “It’s funny you say that.” When she called me to talk about it, I was literally driving by the water looking at surfers as I was driving up to Santa Barbara, I think for a friend’s wedding. So I said, “Yeah, it’s funny you mention that, because I have several notebooks somewhere that follow that idea of organizing a book into surfing metaphors.”
We can get into each of the metaphors if you want. I don’t know where you want to take it next, but I’ll let you guide where we go next with it.
Nikki: Yeah, I definitely would like to touch on each of them. One thing, first of all, that really struck me in the book was how you tried to surf and it didn’t really work out, at first. You kept giving up. Then there was this one moment when you finally caught a wave and you took it all the way into the shore. You write about how it was literally that moment that divided your life into before surfing and after surfing.
Tell me some more about that specific moment and why it just seemed to really kind of draw a line between what was and what was to come.
Srini: That’s a great question.
So, I was on the tail-end of a study abroad program in Brazil. I had all these friends from Denmark who we’d become very close with and they had started to run out of money. Originally, we were all supposed to stay together and be together until New Year’s Eve and they all had to go home, because they were out of money and school was starting for them. It was really disappointing to have your closest friends that you’d been with for 6 months not be able to spend New Year’s Eve with you. The whole reason I stayed until New Year’s Eve was specifically so I could be with them. I didn’t buy a return ticket until then.
So what ended up happening is I was with this guy who I really didn’t have a lot in common with, but he liked to surf. So finally, after days on end of just sitting on a beach, I decided to give this one last try. I remember it very distinctly. It was December 31st 2008 and for some reason it just clicked all of a sudden. I found myself standing up and I was like, “Oh my god, did that just happen? I actually rode it. Maybe it’s a fluke.” Then I did it again and again and again and I kept getting up and I was kind of like, “Wow, this is so exhilarating. Why does this feel so good?” What really did it was when I got out of the water and was just standing on shore. I was overcome by this incredible sense of lightness and happiness and joy and all these things that I’d never, I don’t think, truly experienced in my entire adult life. I’d never felt like that. The last time I remembered feeling like that was sometime early on in college.
Another thing that happened in the 10 years that I worked in corporate jobs is I developed a case of a very annoying digestive disorder. The thing that sucks is when you go to a doctor for this, they tell you that there’s no cure. That you just have to manage it through diet and all sorts of stuff. It’s one of those things where you’ll get a medication and it will say, “Side effects may include diarrhea, stomach cramps and constipation,” and I’m like, “Wait a minute. How are the side effects the very thing that it’s supposed to cure? That doesn’t make any sense.”
You could say that about most modern medicine or pills. So suddenly I felt this lightness that I hadn’t felt since before the IBS started and I thought, “Oh my god, I can’t believe this. This might very well be the cure for this thing that has ailed me for so long.” So I just fell in love with it and that day I remember the guy who rented us our surfboards, he invited us into his little beach shack and he and his wife made us a Brazilian barbecue and they lit up two joints. It was just the funniest experience and it was one of those things where my friend said, “Look at this guy. He has nothing and yet he’s so happy.” I just saw that somebody could get so much satisfaction from something so simple and I knew, from that point forward, that I would surf for the rest of my life.
Nikki: I love that. I think you had mentioned that at some point there was a job that you took and it lasted about two weeks and on one day of the second week you just closed your laptop and walked out, because you’d started to get stomach pains again. It was almost like it was related to this lifestyle or this work ethic that just wasn’t a good fit for you.
Srini: Yeah, I remember that day very distinctly as well. I hated the guy I was working for and I found that I was doing the exact work that I had gone to business school not to do, which literally involved me sitting around making cold calls. I thought, “There’s no way I am going to stay in a job where this is what you expect me to do, because I hate doing this.” So I realized that I had made a great mistake in accepting the job, because they made it sound very different than it was. So I ended up just walking out of the door. There’s not a day that goes by where I am not happy that I made that decision, because clearly it all kind of worked out pretty well.
Nikki: Yeah, I’d say so.
So let’s go back to your definition of what makes someone truly unmistakable. Let’s start with that and then go from there.
Srini: For the purpose of the book, the big thing that they kept coming back to was, “Srini, you have this brand called Unmistakable. You even have a book called The Art Of Being Unmistakable, but you’ve never once defined what the hell it means to be unmistakable.” I thought, “Yeah, that’s fair.”
So I define unmistakable as something so distinctive, so unique, that it’s immediately recognized as something that you did. Of course the example, I think, that really embodies what it means to be unmistakable in my mind is Mars Dorian. If you’ve never seen him, just look him up. The funny thing is when his work rolls through your Facebook news feed, when he does work for anybody, you can take one look at it and say, “Okay that’s Mars.” He’s the one who really planted the seed in my head of this idea. I never realized how far I would take that idea and how much it would impact my life. In a world that’s increasingly noisy, that’s increasingly valuable. Because when you want something that is done by Mars, there’s literally nobody who can do what he does. So you know, there’s no competition, there’s nothing. There’s no negotiation. We just literally email him and say, “Mars, we need this. Can you put it together for us?” That’s it. That’s all that ever happens.
The more and more I thought about it, I thought there’s got to be other people who meet this definition of Unmistakable. Like AJ Leon has the same sort of ethos when it comes to his work. When Misfit does something, you can tell that it was created by AJ.
SO I think it’s this very, very powerful idea that has applications across business, across art, across all forms of creativity and that’s how I defined it in the book.
Nikki: Yeah, Mars doesn’t have to put his name on his work. You just immediately know that it comes from him.
I loved as well what you said in the book about there not being a set formula to becoming unmistakable, because I just feel like the internet right now is rife with people saying, “Here’s your 12 step plan to make 6 figures,” or “Make 7 figures.” It just gets really old, because I could copy that exactly and I might see something close to the result that you’ve seen, but it’s not going to have the same depth or the same staying power.
Srini: Yeah, and I think the reason we look for that formula is because by saying, “Okay, this is the formula, I’ll depend on the formula,” that means we don’t have to take responsibility for the outcome. That means you can say, “Okay, well you know, it didn’t work out, so I can blame the formula. You gave me the wrong formula, so I’m going to go keep searching for the right one.” When in reality, there is no right formula. There’s no one thing, there’s no exact thing that you will do that will get you the result that you’re seeking. It’s a combination of a lot of different things.
I have a particularly unique perspective on this, because I’ve interviewed so many people and found out what it is that made all these people successful. I can’t say every single one of these people had this one thing that made them all successful. In fact, recently somebody asked what are the things they have in common? I wrote a piece on Medium about the 6 things that people with interesting careers have in common. The thing is they’re interesting, but you can’t necessarily quantify or say this result was produced by these things.
Nikki: That, I think, brings us round really nicely into, in that case, if you want to be unmistakable, how do you do it? If you want to create unmistakable work, how do you do it? I think your 6 surfing metaphors: the paddle out, the lineup, the drop, the ride, the impact zone and the stoke king of take us really nicely through it.
Srini: Let’s do that.
The first thing is the paddle out and the idea behind the paddle out in surfing is when you’re standing on shore, you have your board in your hand, and you get in the water and you paddle to what is known as the takeoff point, where the waves are breaking. That’s effectively a metaphor for getting started with whatever it is that you want to start. Even if you’ve never surfed before and think you would probably fall flat on your face, the only way you’re going to know that is by getting in the water and trying it. Yeah, you’ll probably fall flat on your face the first few times, which is no big deal. That idea of falling, that idea that they won’t be perfect, keeps so many people from starting in the first place.
So the paddle out in a lot of ways is a metaphor for starting, a metaphor for that first step and there’s so many things that keep people from taking that first step. External and internal. So the external is the voices of your parents, peers, society, whatever it might be, who you’ve heard your entire life saying, “Go do something practical. How is this ever going to work out for you?” Every teacher, every coach, every mentor has told you something in your life that makes you question whether you should do this thing that seems completely crazy.
Those people are actually easier to deal with than your internal critic. The inner critic is a bitch. That’s all there is to it. The inner critic is much louder than anything you will deal with externally and I think part of it is learning to tame the inner critic and part of the only way that you tame it is by creating things and by starting. Starting is the only way. It’s getting in the water that quiets the voice of the inner critic. So that’s the paddle out.
Nikki: I love that.
Srini: That takes us next to what is known as the lineup. Now the lineup in surfing is referred to as all the other people in the water and they’re a perfect metaphor for competition, because in any lineup, especially where the surf is good and the waves are good, it’s going to be crowded and there’s going to be surfers who are better than you are, inevitably. Especially when you’re starting out. Even now to this day, I know guaranteed if I go to my local surf spot called Trestles in San Clemente, there’s always going to be people in the water who can surf circles around me. Especially little kids, which pisses me off, but that’s a whole other story.
So basically the lineup is a metaphor for competition and we live in a world in which the lineup truly, if you look at it metaphorically from the standpoint of business and the internet, is incredibly crowded. You’re a copywriter and there are lots of people who are copywriters. That raises the bar for what is expected from you if you’re going to do this kind of work and you’re going to deliver what you do to your clients.
So basically it’s understanding and navigating competition and dealing with it. I think competition is where the idea of unmistakable becomes more valuable, because if you can figure out how to become unmistakable and you start to do work that is unmistakable, the whole idea of competition becomes irrelevant.
One example I’ll give you of this is we don’t end up on a lot of lists of 100 podcasts you should listen to or amazing podcasts by entrepreneurs. We’re always left off those lists. I am actually quite happy that we’re left off those lists, because I don’t want to be compared to those people. I don’t want to be compared to anybody, because comparison means you’re in a game of competition. So that’s the lineup in a nutshell.
Then we go into the actual process of riding waves. The first really big, important moment in riding a wave is known as the drop. It’s when you’re paddling. So if you’ve ever seen surfers, you’ll notice that they ride parallel to the water. You don’t see them riding straight to the shore and that’s because that’s how waves work. So what’s known as the drop is the moment right between when you paddle and when you push yourself up. You’re basically trying to get into this wave on an angle, so that you’re either going right or you’re going left. Look up a surfing video and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
That moment that is known as the drop is really the one that will determine whether the entire ride will be a disaster, whether you’ll wipe out or anything else. The drop is all about one thing, it’s about commitment. If you don’t commit fully on the drop, it’s actually worse than if you commit fully and you completely just eat shit on the drop. For some reason, when you hesitate, it makes everything much worse. So it’s all about commitment.
So what does that mean for us when we’re doing our work? That means that we have to commit to it for as long as it will take in order for us to actually manage to stand up, metaphorically speaking. I think that one of the things that we are challenged with in the world that we live in today is the fact that people are incredibly impatient. We all want to be successful yesterday, we want to start the blog today and we want the book deal tomorrow. If you look across success stories all across the internet, of anybody who has done anything of great significance, whether it’s building companies, amazing art projects, all sorts of stuff, it’s very rare that someone is a sensation immediately after they start.
The thing is there are some people who appear to become sensations immediately after they start. Then if you look at what they’ve done, prior to whatever it is that they’ve started, there’s a whole background that basically had prepared them for that moment, to be able to create what they have and to do it at the level that they do, which then takes you into the ride, which is when you’re actually finally standing up on a board and riding a wave. This is all about craft and mastery and deliberate practice and all the things that people who have talked about these subjects, people like Robert Green, people like Andreas Eriksen have found across the board. People who are just absolutely world-class at what they do. The ride is all about how do you become world-class at what you do and at the same time bring style and flair to whatever it is you do. So for us at Unmistakable, you know our website, you’ve seen our brand. Almost everything we do is not based on what somebody has taught us to do, but rather intuition and instinct. Things that we want to see exist in the world.
There’s also great care and attention to detail that goes into the craft of storytelling and the craft of building a podcast; the craft of interviewing. So much so to the point that I still read books about how to conduct interviews, even after 700 interviews, because I know that I can always get better. There’s never a sense of, “Okay, I’m done. I’ve arrived.” I said this in the book, life is a series of false horizons and every peak in our lives that we think is a peak, is actually a plateau. It’s just another place that you arrive at and then there’s the next goal and the next goal and the next goal.
This isn’t a bad thing, because it isn’t about saying, “Okay, you know what, I’ll never be satisfied.” It’s the idea that human beings, I think, are at our best when we’re continually growing and evolving. We’re not meant to remain stagnant. There’s no point in reaching a plateau and saying, “Okay, I’ve made it.” That’s not very interesting. So that’s the ride.
Then it takes us into what is known as the impact zone. If you do a search on YouTube it will probably make a lot more sense, but basically there’s what is known as a takeoff point and then the impact zone where you’re basically getting beat by waves on the head one after another, because you’re trying to get past the break. Inevitably, there’s no way to avoid the impact zone. The only way to avoid the impact zone is not to surf. So I thought this is really a profound metaphor for our darkest and most challenging times, because inevitably when you do something that’s hard, when you do something that is incredibly challenging or difficult or a gargantuan task, you’re going to be pushed to a breaking point. At one point or another. There’s no way to avoid that.
The thing is, you have to be able to keep persisting. To this day I don’t think I’ve had a single surf session where I didn’t at least once end up in the impact zone and have to figure out how to get out. Sometimes it literally feels like you’re never going to make it back to the takeoff point. You’re like, “Oh my god. When are the waves going to stop?” You’re taking 6 foot bombs on the head, trying to come up for air in between and every time you come up for air, there’s another wave that’s about to hit you on the head. So it seems like it’s never going to end, but eventually it all calms down and you get back out to the takeoff point. So that is all about persistence and grit and navigating difficult chapters of any creative endeavor or any life moment.
That finally takes us into the final thing, which is known as the stoke. So we were talking at the very beginning about this lightness and this feeling I had when I got out of the water for the very first time and how that feeling was really something that I knew would forever change my life. That really is the stoke. It’s the sense that it’s not necessarily for the number of waves you catch, but the quality of the ones that you do. That creation really becomes it’s own reward. That there is something deeply fulfilling about making and creating things, about catching waves. Really that’s why you’re doing it more than anything else. It’s the sense of fulfillment that comes from starting something and completing that.
So that, in a nutshell, is the metaphor for how surfing relates to creativity, life and unmistakable.
Nikki: I feel like sometimes when you’re trying to learn a lesson in your own life, you keep seeing that lesson show up in different places. So maybe you read something or you listen to something and it kind of really locks in those concepts into your head and you’re like, “Ah, that’s the lesson I need to learn.”
One lesson that I keep coming back to is that whole idea – it kind of ties in with the paddle out – “just start.” So Srini and I first connected in 2012. I still had my full-time gig. I was kind of dipping my toe in the water and trying to see if copywriting as a full-time thing for myself was possible and someone put Srini in touch with me. But I was so new to it, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. It’s kind of comical looking back. The same thing with this podcast. I decided that I was just going to start the thing, because I’ve been thinking about it for probably two years now and here I am. And my first interview is with you, someone who’s interviewed over 700 people. So yes, this is definitely trial by fire.
Something else I wanted to talk about is the fact that you committed to writing 1,000 words a day. Even though you were told “You’re not a writer”, you decided to write. So talk to me some more about commitment, how it’s really important to this idea about being unmistakable, and how you’ve committed yourself to your craft and how that’s made a difference to you.
Srini: So the 1,000 word a day idea actually came from a writer named Julian Smith. I was at this very unusual point. This was 2002. I still hadn’t thought that I was going to be the writer that I’ve become, but I found myself in this very unusual position in which I had a freelance writing gig for a website called Search Engine Journal. I had our newsletters, I was writing guest posts, I was writing our blog and I was doing interviews. I’d interviewed Julian Smith who, at the time, had one of the most popular blogs on the internet. He turned me on to this idea of writing a thousand words a day and I thought, okay, a thousand words every day. That’s not bad.
The other thing is, because I had such a high volume of content to produce, I knew that I couldn’t depend on anything other than a system to be able to produce that content, because I didn’t have ideas when I woke up every morning. I knew that I had to produce something every week for Search Engine Journal. I just had no idea what it was going to be.
So I thought, okay, you know what? If I write a thousand words every morning, no matter what it is, something will eventually emerge. Something will show up on the page, because it’s a thousand words. Some of that has to be usable. Bit by bit, it just completely refined the process of my voice. Now the funny thing is I’m reaching sort of a plateau with how that’s improving me as a creator and that’s deliberate practice right there. It’s like, okay, how do I push beyond a thousand words and how do I get to 1,200 to 1,500 words, which is what I’m trying to aim for now?
Getting into that habit fundamentally changed my ability to produce on a regular basis. Now the idea of a 50,000 word book, while intimidating, doesn’t sound impossible. I finished Unmistakable, and wrote the manuscript for it in 6 months, but I did it because of this process. So that’s one of those things where this habit of doing something on a daily basis, I think, regardless of what the habit is, can be profoundly valuable, because it really does change you as a person. It teaches you that you’re capable of coming up with an idea and committing to doing something on a regular basis.
That was instilled in me at a very early age. I had a band director in high school who kind of turned me on to the value of that. So I understood there was tremendous power in practicing something on a daily basis. So that’s sort of deliberate practice in a nutshell.
I think the idea of commitment really came from the fact that I committed to building Unmistakable and it took 7 years. There are numerous points along the way where I wondered if I should just quit and go get a job, or thought this was never going to work out for me, or maybe I just wasn’t meant for this. The thing is that most people don’t fail, most people quit. That’s what I’ve seen. People don’t understand there’s a big distinction between those two things. Somebody will say, “Oh, my business failed after a year,” and it’s kind of like, “No, your business didn’t fail. You just gave up.”
We talked about this earlier, people want things really fast. This is another thing I mentioned in the book and I can’t take credit for this idea. It came from Sam Altman who is the President of Y Combinator. He said, “If you’re going to build a startup, a long-term view is your greatest competitive advantage, because so few people have one.” His idea of a long-term view was 10 years. Most people don’t think about things like that. So I decided with 1,000 words a day, I’m going to do this for the rest of my life, no matter what.
I started doing it, I think, at the beginning of 2013 and 7 months after I’d started it had paid off, but you have to remember I had also been writing every day prior to that. I just didn’t have it so systematized. Now, that’s what I wake up and do every morning. I don’t think about it. It’s not something that I have to really consciously be aware of anymore.
Nikki: That brings me back to something else that you say in the book about it really has to be this internal motivation rather than an external motivation that keeps you going. You said that you would write a thousand words every day for the rest of your life, no matter what. It’s not necessarily that you’re writing for certain accolades or for external recognition. It’s for your own sense of personal fulfillment, which I think is really interesting.
Srini: I think that there has to be some level of intrinsic motivation. If your motivation is solely external, the problem is that you don’t have any control over a lot of external things. Like you don’t know that writing a thousand words a day is going to lead to a book deal. I couldn’t have known that when I started, you know?
Nikki: Yeah, definitely. So you had talked about some ups and downs and things like that. I really enjoyed the interview that you did with Jonathan Fields. You talked about some of those not-so-great times that you had and your battle with depression and I think surfing, to a great extent, was a remedy for that.
Talk to me a little bit about what was going on then and how you managed to navigate through that.
Srini: Just to kind of give people some context. We had been on this amazing rollercoaster ride in which everything just seemed to be firing on all cylinders. We did this amazing event, we launched this amazing brand, we made a lot of money all at once. I had a Wall Street Journal bestselling book and then all of a sudden it was all kind of gone. In a span of two weeks. I’d had a breakup that kind of made a mess of me. So basically you add all those things together and it sent me to this very dark place. I thought that it would lift rather quickly. I thought, “Okay, you know, whatever. Maybe this is a couple of weeks of being sad.” The thing is, it just got worse and worse and worse as the year went on and as it got worse, the problems in our business just compounded. We’re talking partners who bailed out and tried to take money from us and equity having to be paid back.
By the time we ended 2014 and started 2014, we had canceled the same event that had been wildly successful the year before. We were about 9 months from bankruptcy, based on what the balance looked like and our current burn rate. Everything was just in a shambles. It was one of the scariest moments of my life, because I thought, “I just spent 7 years to do this and arrive at this place where everything was falling apart.”
I’ve been thinking about this lately, because the next book is all about habits. I think that creativity and habits in general, I think you become much more hyper-aware of them when you’re dealing with depression. So eventually I had to take a lot of precautions, including taking medication, including watching how I slept, watching how I ate and making just a series of drastic changes. Not drastic changes actually. A series of little ones. Little, tiny changes to get back to a level of being able to maintain some semblance of sanity. Bit by bit everything started to improve.
I think that part of what I had to learn was, one’s expectations really do kind of get in your way when you have all these things. Often these moments are what stands between us and the next level of what we’re trying to accomplish. Not that I’d ever want to end up in that situation again. What’s interesting is we’ve had problems that are far more of a pain in the ass to have dealt with than anything we were dealing with at that time, but they didn’t seem as bad. Partially because I think I’d basically built this shell to be able to handle them. One of my mentors said, “The problems don’t go away. What changes is your capacity to handle them.”
Nikki: Yes, that is so true. I have to say I feel like you’re always so open about what’s going on. I just love how candid you are about it all. I think that that makes you so much more relatable. I think a piece of that is related to being unmistakable as well. Really owning who you are and all of those experiences and stories that make you unique.
So, I really want to know what it was like to be on the Glenn Beck show, because I know that you were back on there again a couple of weeks ago, right?
Srini: So the relationship I have with Glenn Beck is one of the more fascinating and interesting and weird relationships I have in my life. Glenn found me in 2013 when he stumbled up on The Art Of Being Unmistakable, my self-published book. What’s interesting is that Glenn is a very polarizing figure. People who don’t like Glenn can’t stand him. They hate his guts. At the same time I thought, “You know, whatever. Maybe they hate his guts, but clearly we agree on something.” I think it’s very easy to be closed-minded and say, “Okay, well this guy has said a bunch of horrible things on TV and I think he’s a total jackass,” and all of this kind of stuff. When somebody says, “I like your work, I think we agree on something, I think there’s something very profound about this,” in my mind it’s a chance to sit down and talk with somebody who clearly has done very well well in their life. No matter whether you love him or hate him, it’s hard to argue with the fact that he’s been successful and he’s had an impact on the world.
I remember very distinctly him telling me that there was a point in his life when he was ranked at number 4 as one of the world’s most admired people by Time Magazine, right behind Nelson Mandela. Then he went to work for Fox News. That’s what he told me. So I think the interesting thing about being up close and personal with somebody like that is you get to realize that, you know what? This is a person just like everybody else. Most people don’t realize that part of being unmistakable is having a viewpoint. Having a very strong viewpoint. You know, I have to credit our mutual friend Erika Lyremark for telling me that. Viewpoints make you appealing, but they also make you unappealing to certain people. Some people find you obnoxious when you have strong viewpoints. So that’s one thing I learned.
The thing you also realize, I think, when you’re up close and personal with somebody like that is that they’re human. They’re human, they’re flawed and they’re just like everybody else.
Nikki: Definitely, yeah. The last time Glenn interviewed you, he had mentioned that you didn’t want to go and be interviewed the first time, because it was just like, “Oh my goodness. This person is really up there and really influential,” but you went and you sat on the couch with him and you did it anyway.
Srini: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s a prime example of the drop actually.
So it’s one of those experience in my life that you kind of look at it and you’re like, “This is really surreal. I got to be on the Glenn Beck show twice.” You don’t take that for granted. No matter how much people hate him, you’re kind of like, “You know what, I can’t say anything but nice things about him, because he gave me a life-changing moment.”
Nikki: Exactly. So you’ve written this incredible book, and you’ve mentioned a couple of times that you’re already working on your next book. So I’m dying to know what is that going to be about? Can you tell us?
Srini: So the next book is really interesting, because it takes an almost opposing point to Unmistakable, which is all about how you do something that leads to career outcomes, whereas this next book is really creativity for the sake of creativity. We’re trying to mold it into The Artist’s Way for the internet generation. I think there’s great value in creativity and we’ve become very obsessed with monetizing our creativity and turning every single thing into some sort of professional pursuit and yet, maybe there’s value in just creativity for the sake of it, as this very therapeutic thing that makes us happy and does a lot of things for us.
The reason I don’t have a good answer for you is because we’re literally trying to mold that outline together as we speak and it’s just a lot of ideas that are all over the place right now. But a big part of it is also habits. Like creative habits and habit formation and using the psychology of flow and all that stuff.
Nikki: I definitely think that will be one to read then. When you mentioned that, when you don’t surf, something’s not right with you – like, the world is not quite as it should be. I feel the same way when I don’t write. Like I know when I haven’t been writing, because there’s not as much lightness to my day. There’s this sense that I haven’t really expressed myself.
Srini: I think that’s really common. As I’m starting to do the research for this [book], I keep running into this pattern. It seems people are at their happiest when they’re the most creative.
Nikki: Yeah, totally. Yeah, I agree with that.
One question that I really wanted to ask you is where are you going from here? So obviously there’s the book. What else lies in store for you?
Srini: I’m starting to do a lot of speaking at events and getting paid as a speaker, which is really cool, because I enjoy it. I think the next evolution is we want to get the business systematized and running like a well-oiled machine. We’re getting closer and closer every day, and trying to seek out more and more interesting and influential guests in the meantime.
One of the things that drives my guest selection is always curiosity. Recently I got pitched on some service that allows you to outsource your guest selection and I’m like, “Well, that’s half the art of what I do. I would never outsource that.”
Nikki: No, me neither.
Srini: Just as an example, I’ve been watching this TV show Narcos and become very interested in Pablo Escobar and it turns out his son has written a memoir about growing up as the son of Pablo Escobar. I’m, fingers crossed, going to try and get him on Unmistakable Creative. I’m reading this book and I just can’t stop reading it. It’s really fascinating. That kind of stuff.
I think the other thing is I want to be able to leverage the platform to be able to drive change. I’ll give you an example of something else that’s similar to that. Recently a woman named Nadia Lopez, who’s a principal at an inner-city school, wrote a book called Bridge To Brilliance. Nadia Lopez basically got on the radar of a lot of people, because one of her students ended up on Humans of New York.
I love the fact that Brandon was able to take a platform like Humans of New York and use it for social change and good. I’m hoping we’ll be at a point with Unmistakable where we have a big enough audience where we can impact that kind of change.
That’s it, in a nutshell. Events, if we do them, will be fundamentally different than anything we’ve ever done before.
Nikki: Awesome. I can’t wait to see what those are.
So one of the last questions that I want to ask you is, when you think about people who are struggling a little bit. Like you were back in 2009 when you were trying to find a sense of direction and what your next steps were. What do you really want them to know?
Srini: I think the big thing that really helps to find direction is curiosity. Like indulging what it is that you are naturally curious about and not necessarily concerning yourself with what kind of an outcome it will lead to. I had no idea that any of what I did would lead to all this.
I started everything I did because I was trying to find a day job. That’s all the entire purpose of it was. I wanted some project to showcase in order to get me a day job. That ship sailed really far off course. You know, everything I’ve done has really been driven by curiosity.
Nikki: So stay curious is the lesson?
Nikki: I like it. Well thank you so much, Srini. I really appreciate your time.
That’s it from the Movement Makers podcast this week. If you enjoyed this episode, then please leave a review on iTunes and subscribe so I can let you know about future episodes.
In the meantime, I want to know how you’re making a difference at work or in your business. So be sure to tweet @nikkigroom and let me know.
- Yaro Starak
- World’s Strongest Librarian
- AJ Leon & Misfit Incorporated
- Glenn Beck sits down with Srinivas Rao, author of “Unmistakable”
- Jonathan Fields
- Mars Dorian
- Narcos, a Netflix Original Series
- “The Bridge to Brilliance: How One Principal in a Tough Community Is Inspiring the World” by Nadia Lopez
- Humans of New York
Buy Srini’s book: “Unmistakable: Why Only Is Better Than Best”