This is a talk I gave at a Creative Mornings Cape Town online event on 30 October 2020. Creative Mornings is an international network of city-based chapters, who’d normally meet once a month in their city. The worldwide organisation picks a theme each month, and all its speakers that month speak to that theme. For this talk, that theme was ‘Transit’, the journey we take between two points.
Hi, it’s great to be talking to you, and thank you for giving your time to be here.
I want to start out by saying:
I believe there is no such thing as ‘advice’.
There are only other people’s stories. So, if I go and generalise in this talk and sound like I’m expounding some universal law, well, you decide for yourself whether our stories align, and take from this only what you find useful.
I also like to think everything happens for a reason that you can make up afterwards.
And those reasons we make up afterwards matter. Because if we didn’t make up stories like this for ourselves, our lives would seem unbearably random.
So, at first, what I really wanted to do today was tell a story about something I did. Some set of decisions I took that led to some beautiful book or exciting project. Because we do a lot of that at Electric Book Works, where my team and I make books and websites, and at Book Dash, the children’s book non-profit I help to lead.
But, this month’s theme is ‘transit’.
And the more I thought about transit, the more I realised that there is another story in all our lives, which is the story of what happens between the doing of things. When we’re no longer doing A, and not yet doing B.
So I thought back and asked, what happened when I wasn’t moving forward? When I was in the empty spaces. The passive spaces.
What Dr Seuss calls The Waiting Place.
One minute we’re trotting along, full of beans, in control. The next minute, we grind to a halt, often for reasons beyond our control. And find ourselves in The Waiting Place.
I suspect many of us are feeling stuck this year. I know I am, in at least one area: the healthcare non-profit I help lead, called Bettercare, has been flattened by the pandemic. We could no longer employ a wonderful colleague, and we’ve had to shutter most of our services. We are no longer where we were, and not yet where we want to be. We are stuck in the Waiting Place.
And when any of us get stuck, we take a seat on a kind of cosmic public transit, and wait. It’s as if we’re on a bus or a plane, sitting still: but whether we like it or not, we’re being moved from where we once were to where we will be. And we don’t know where we’ll land up.
And there’s a big difference between being on a trip we’ve chosen, and finding ourselves stuck on one chosen for us. But that’s the way the world works: whether we like it or not, either we’re doing the moving, or we’re stuck and the world is moving us. Life doesn’t stop. It just starts making our decisions for us.
In this swirling universe, there is no such thing as being stationary.
I have a funny story about public transit.
It’s become a personal metaphor for me. A few years ago, I was travelling to a kind of retreat near Merida, in rural Mexico, and had to fly via Mexico City Airport. So, Mexico City Airport had a lot of flights, but not as many gates, so several flights might board from one gate at the same time. This was pretty unnerving, but everyone else seemed totally fine with it.
So, I muddle my way to the plane, find my seat, and sit there for a long time, until another passenger clambers in and tells me that I’m in his seat. I’m a bit taken aback, and show him my boarding pass; and then his eyes widen and he tells me quietly that I am on the wrong plane.
Somehow, no one who’d checked my boarding pass had noticed. So after some general panic and confusion, the ground staff rocketed me across the tarmac in a small bakkie to the right plane – this plane – which, thankfully, was still waiting, despite my strange disappearance.
And I often wonder what would have happened if I’d landed somewhere entirely unfamiliar, on the other side of Mexico, not knowing where on earth I was.
Now, of course, every time I’m on a plane I know that I really might be on the wrong one. I hate that! And that feeling is what the Waiting Place is like.
You’re not making the decisions, and you could land up anywhere! So when life sticks us in the Waiting Place, it can be really hard.
But it’s going to happen. And it’s going to keep happening.
So, how should I make sense of these sudden stops?
If I can make sense of them, if I can make up some reason for them, maybe they won’t feel so unfair and disempowering, and I’ll weather them better.
Okay. So. There have been a couple of ways I’ve landed in the Waiting Place. Maybe you’ll recognise these in your own story.
Sometimes, the world just bursts my bubble. It’s like an earthquake, or a pandemic, or just bad luck. I don’t have the resources to weather the storm, and there’s nothing I can do.
And at other times, I push so hard that something breaks. Maybe I push myself till I get sick. Or I overspend on a project. I don’t manage my resources, and that’s totally on me.
In both cases, I want to understand what happened. And I want to know what to do with myself while I’m stuck in the Waiting Place.
Back in 2014, my startup, Paperight, was crashing.
I’d been through the crash of a startup before, five years earlier, but this was much worse.
At Paperight, we had a big, bold vision: we wanted every book within walking distance of every home. And what we did towards that was make it possible, and legal, for photocopy shops to print books out for you on demand.
You walk into any photocopy shop, ask for a book, and they could print it out for you while you wait. The copy shop pays a small licence fee, and you pay for that and the printing. And anyone with a printer-copier could be a reseller like this.
We could slash the cost of books by 40 per cent, and because we cut out so much of the supply chain – like warehousing and delivery – publishers still earned the same amount of money per copy as they did from their regular editions.
We had over four hundred registered copy shops, and two thousand books in our catalogue. We were winning innovation prizes around the world, we were congratulated in Parliament, and I was on TV and the covers of magazines. We were being generously funded by the Shuttleworth Foundation.
But all this time, we couldn’t sign the one kind of book we most needed: university textbooks. Those were the sweet spot: there was huge demand for them, and they carried a substantial licence fee that would have made us sustainable. But: higher-ed publishers just would not sign with us. They could not bring themselves to treat copy shops as legitimate booksellers, rather than sites of piracy.
And after five years trying, I eventually had to admit defeat.
It was a crushing blow to my confidence. And I was really bitter. I’d really thought we had a way to put every book within walking distance of every home, and to spark the kind of reading culture that every publisher dreams of publishing for. And I could not believe that so many people had brushed that off as wishful thinking.
Anyway, I knew Paperight was on the ropes, but we hadn’t made that public yet. I felt really stuck. Paperight’s future was out of my control.
And the thing about being a solo founder when everything’s coming apart is that you feel very, very alone. And I think something in that loneliness made me wonder, in a kind of petulant, ‘I’ll show you all’ way, if we really needed to work with all these publishers to make a real difference. What could we do without them? Did we really need their help to get more books to people? If we couldn’t distribute other publishers’ books, what if we just made our own books?
I remember going on these really, really long runs, because that was one place I felt I could think creatively. And on one of them, by the time I got home I knew that, even if Paperight was going to die, at least I was going to make children’s books and give them away.
I thrashed out the idea with my colleague Tarryn and my wife Michelle, and we called it ‘Book Dash’
And two months later we held our first book-making event, where we created two new children’s books in one day. By the end of the year, we’d published 20 books and crowd-funded thousands of free copies for children.
And back then, I could not imagine that today, six years later, we’d have published 146 books, and that next month a child will get our one-millionth free book, delivered in a Santa’s Shoebox for Christmas. A million books!
Still, all that was yet to come.
Right then, I still had a problem: I had no way to pay salaries.
I still had a dying company on my hands. I spent the next twelve months grasping at straws, and steadily letting the team go. Until eventually I shut everything down.
And to pay my own bills, I went back to the thing that had got me through the last time a business failed: doing freelance book layout from home, and trying to sell healthcare books with Bettercare, a little business I’d started before Paperight. But, man, I was finished.
The Paperight experience had wiped out my confidence: I had genuinely lost the ability to make decisions, or to feel sure about anything.
And while outwardly I kept up a brave face, inwardly I was giving up.
And to feel better about myself, I put more and more of my creative energy into our side project Book Dash, and some experimental software I was writing for making books.
And emotionally, those side projects were keeping me sane.
By late 2015, I was running on empty. I’d spent eighteen months in the Waiting Place, unable to make decisions with any confidence, and clueless about how I was going to piece a career together. I was sending out job applications, and not even getting replies.
Then, in late 2015, I got on that flight to Mexico.
The Shuttleworth Foundation, who’d funded Paperight, was gathering its fellows from around the world in a hacienda in the rural Yucatan.
But at the time I was feeling very rubbish. I had bad hay-fever and a bad cold, and my ears were all blocked. My skin was all broken out from stress. The last thing I wanted to do was travel forty hours to be with a group of upbeat entrepreneurs. But Michelle persuaded me, saying it would be a good break. And maybe she wanted a little break from her miserable husband, too.
So I made the trip, popping Disprins all the way.
As I mentioned earlier, it did not start well. Or, rather, it could have started in entirely the wrong part of Mexico, and who knows where I’d be now!
The Disprins thinned my blood so badly that one evening I had to leave dinner because a mosquito bite I scratched literally bled all over my shirt.
My ears got so blocked that I went totally deaf on one side.
And every day everyone was talking about their amazing projects and I just felt so awful that mine had crashed so spectacularly.
And even though I was trying so hard to pretend I was fine, eventually I couldn’t do it any more. And by the last day I was in tears in front of everyone, admitting how shitty I felt about taking three years of their funding and support and having nothing to show for it.
But no one minded. They were so kind. And that, I think with hindsight, was a turning point. Imperceptibly small. But a turning point nonetheless. Some kind of weight lifted. And somehow that moment marked the end of an eighteen-month stint in the Waiting Place.
And, a few months later, that experimental software I’d been working on had become the foundation of what is now Electric Book Works.
So, what do I tell myself about the Waiting Place now?
Well, the way I think about it is this: when I’m in the Waiting Place, I’m rebalancing my debts, and reinvesting in myself.
To explain what I mean by that, I need to take a step back.
To grow anything, we have to borrow from somewhere.
We get nowhere meaningful in life, or build anything significant, if we don’t invest something extra. And where do we get our resources to invest? We borrow. We get into debt to others, and to parts of ourselves.
I don’t just mean money debt. Just like we might borrow money to buy better tools, we borrow energy from friends for support. We borrow from our bodies by not exercising, not sleeping enough, and eating badly. We borrow ideas. We borrow from our education to support our families. We borrow from our families for our education. We are all, always, managing debt in many forms.
And, very importantly: this kind of debt is not a bad thing. Debt is inevitable and necessary. It is the lever by which we lift ourselves and others.
It’s closely related to what economists call opportunity costs: how by doing A we give up the opportunity to do B. Like the opportunity cost of a night out is a cosy evening at home. And the opportunity cost of a business trip is time with our children.
And the world will collect on those debts eventually. One way or another we’ll pay them, in money, or in kind, or in loneliness or shame, or, if we’re lucky, in the joy we bring to others with what we create. Or any number of ways. Climate change, even, is a kind of global debt collection.
And to create, we have to be allowed to borrow.
Paperight fell short because I couldn’t borrow enough.
Paperight needed one more thing that I couldn’t borrow: higher-ed publishers wouldn’t lend me their IP. They wouldn’t extend that kind of credit. And that, frustratingly enough, was their prerogative.
They didn’t have to lend me the credence that others had done. It doesn’t matter whether I think they missed an opportunity.
And then, when Paperight crashed, I was embarrassed and disappointed in myself. I’d been on the covers of magazines. I’ve given TEDx talks. I had made a compelling promise to society that we could fix book distribution, and society had extended me a line of ‘credibility credit’.
Society had said, ‘Okay, we’ll choose to believe you. You can borrow our trust. Here are prizes and acclaim.’ And when it didn’t work out, that debt came due in embarrassment and a loss of confidence.
By the time I went to Mexico, I was burned out.
I’d driven myself to exhaustion. I’d racked up too much debt against my own body. I’d borrowed too much from my stores of confidence, and didn’t have the strength to pretend any more.
I’d tried to push through that embarrassment and lack of confidence with hard work and late nights and constant worry. I’d borrowed against my body, and against my relationships, and I was in debt to them over my head.
That’s okay now. I took those deals and they didn’t work out. I was really lucky that I could borrow from other places to weather the storm: I borrowed from the bank for money, and from my family and my friends for support.
It reminds me how important it is that those who’re hit hard by the pandemic right now can borrow, in all kinds of ways, to weather this storm.
The Waiting Places are where my debts rebalance.
During those stopping times, those transit times in the waiting place, somehow those debts are slowly, slowly and steadily forgiven or forgotten, or find a new, more sustainable equilibrium.
And eventually, we become free of the worst of them, and find a balance again.
And most importantly I keep making stuff.
I’ve found that it’s critical to keep writing, building, creating, just for myself.
The first time my business crashed, in 2011, I built half a dozen websites as money-making experiments, in a kind of weekly contest with my brother. And during the last months of Paperight, on the side I was working on Book Dash, and writing the software that would form the basis of the business I run today. None of those felt very serious, and they weren’t solving my immediate problem of not having any money. They were purely self-indulgent creative projects.
But they helped. They were my investment in myself. And over time, they planted seeds of confidence that would regrow over months and years.
The very act of being creative is to renew your faith in yourself. Creativity is how we prove to ourselves that we can put more into the world than we borrow. That we are more than the accumulation of our debts.
And that once those debts are clear, and your luck is back, that you will still be standing there, a full person again with something to lend to others.
And so, in that waiting time, a kind of clarity emerges eventually, and brings my next destination into view.
So, I remind myself that a balanced life takes two things.
I tell myself:
Firstly, don’t get in over your head, to one form of debt or another.
And secondly, always work on creative projects that are entirely and only yours.
And this means that the balanced life I’m aiming for is not someone else’s idea of a balanced life. There is no universal formula for a balanced life. We each get to decide what debts we’re willing to incur for our balanced life.
I know I’m not going to stop being busy and overcommitted. I love being a busy, creative person. And that means being always in debt to something, and always making new things.
And as long as I am conscious of my debts, and making things for myself, then when I get stuck, the Waiting Places make more sense. Or at least, I know that they will make sense one day, for a reason that I can make up afterwards.