The Jay Kim Show #43: Jeff Goins (Transcript)
Today’s guest is Jeff Goins, who is a professional writer. He is the author of four best selling books, including ‘The Art of Work’, which was his last book. This was a U.S.A Today, Publisher’s Weekly, and Washington Post national bestseller.
Jeff talks about how to find your calling. He explains his own experience of how he did so in sort of a roundabout way, which landed him on stage in Taiwan as a leading member of a Christian Rock band, but now he’s a writer. He’s a successful writer. His latest book is called ‘Real Artists Don’t Starve’. This is due out in June, and he talks about how being a starving artist is actually a myth.
You don’t actually have to starve to be an artist. Why we don’t make art to make money, we make money to make art. He’s a really nice guy, and very insightful, so I think you’re going to enjoy the show. Let’s get on to the episode.
Jay: Hi, Jeff, thank you so much for joining the show. We’re very excited to have you on today. Perhaps for our audience out here in Asia you could give us a little quick introduction. Who is Jeff Goins, and what do you do for a living?
Jeff: Thanks for having me, Jay. I am a full time writer and I spend most of my time writing books and teaching online courses for writers.
Jay: Okay, so let’s talk about how you became a writer, because I think that being a writer is not an easy thing to do. At some point, everyone in their lives realizes they want to do something, and this actually segues pretty nicely into your last book that you wrote, which I read, called ‘The Art of Work’. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about your journey on how you became a writer.
Jeff: Sure. I became a writer maybe not the way that people typically talk about this thing where they’re like, “I’ve always wanted to do this. I’ve had a passion since I was a kid and then finally I just did it.” I did not think of myself as a writer. For me, writing was this thing that I did on the side but never took seriously. If anything, I always wanted to be a rockstar. Before we started recording, you asked me if I had ever been to Asia, and I spent a month in Taiwan traveling with my band playing at these schools and out in public and at malls and stuff.
For a very brief season in my life, I kind of felt like a rockstar, because in Taiwan, they’re like, “Oh, you’re an American musician,” and they just assumed we were a really cool, famous rock band. I remember one time playing at this all girls nursing school just outside of Tai Pei. Have you ever seen the videos of when the Beatles play the Ed Sullivan show and these girls are fainting?
Jay: Yeah, yeah.
Jeff: This was that.
Jay: That was you?
Jeff: That’s what happened at this all girls school. We’re playing, and you’ve got these 16 year old nursing students, and literally they were fainting in the crowd.
Jay: That’s unbelievable.
Jeff: It was unbelievable, and it was great for my ego for like 12 seconds. We finished the show, and keep in mind we would play, like, in America, high schools and we’d have teenagers with their arms crossed and their eyes rolled and they just didn’t think we were cool at all. We’d been doing this for a year, so when we went to Taiwan and we felt like a big deal, we’re like, “Oh, this is awesome.” At the end of the show, they rushed the stage, and we had to run out the back like Elvis Presley style. It was amazing. Then, the next day, we’re walking around the city, and we walk past these girls wearing these school uniforms. They kind of look at us, and we look at them. Then, we keep walking.
Then, we look back and they looked at us, and they blushed and pointed and started waving their hands and stuff. I’m like, “Oh my God. They recognize us.”
Jay: They recognized you. That’s such a cool story. I’ve never heard that story before. What was the name of your band? What musical instrument did you play? Were you a guitarist?
Jeff: I was a guitarist, and I was the leader of the band, and we were a Christian band, so our name was CTI1421, and CTI stood for carpenter’s tools international. It was not a famous, super successful thing. Like I said, for 12 seconds, I felt like a rockstar.
Jay: That’s so cool.
Jeff: All that to say I didn’t always want to be a writer, and I did this after college, and at the end of my year of touring, I realized that music wasn’t as big a deal to me as I thought it would be. Basically, I chased my dream. I wanted to be a musician. I became a professional musician, and it was sort of underwhelming. I remember having a conversation with a friend, and he said, “Man, if I couldn’t play music, I don’t know what I would do.” I remember thinking when he said that, “Well, I would just do something else.” I realized in that moment that this wasn’t my passion. This wasn’t my calling.
This wasn’t the thing I was supposed to be doing, so I finished up with that and I was committed to the band for a year, and then I moved on.
Jay: Was there a financial aspect, financial constraint element as well that was kind of a push factor there?
Jeff: I mean, we didn’t make much money. I’ve actually never really been that interested in making money. I just never wanted to be broke. I left that. I moved to Nashville to chase a girl. I slept on a friend’s couch for seven months and took a couple of part time jobs and barely got by, but I survived. I pursued this woman who became my wife. Then, I worked for a call center. Then, I worked for a non-profit. About seven years into working for this international non-profit, I realized what I really want to do is I want to be writing. At the time, I was blogging. I was a marketing direct or, so I’d learned a lot about social media and I realized all this stuff I’m doing for our organization, brand building, copywriting, Facebook was starting to become a thing, Twitter had just started.
I could be doing it or myself, and I was really interested in writing. Writing was not something I wasn’t doing. It was just something that I’d never taken seriously, so I didn’t have an English major in college, but I was a writing tutor in college, because it was a way that I could make some extra money, and I’d always been good at this. I just never thought I could be a writer, because everybody tells you that writers don’t make any money.
Jay: Right, well thanks for that story, that back story.
Jeff: You’re welcome.
Jay: I appreciate you sharing that with the audience, especially the part about a rockstar in Taiwan. I think that’s really cool. It sounds like you’ve always sort of had a strong creative desire.
Jay: That was expressed early on in music. Then, you realized along the way that writing was something that you do appreciate and that you do enjoy doing on a consistent basis, so you talk about this notion in ‘The Art of Work’ that finding your calling or life’s work or life’s purpose is, let’s see how you put it. You’ll be able to clear this up much better than I’ll be able to, but you talk about how you have to be listening first of all in order to find that. A lot of that is a sort of mentality that it’s a journey and it’s not just the okay, I need to find it and then I’m done, right?
Jeff: It’s this idea of listening to your life. The quote is from a guy named Parker Palmer. He says, “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I need to listen to my life telling me who I am.” What this means is you have to listen to the voices beyond those of your parents or teachers or employers or friends. You have to listen to your inner voice, your intuition, wherever you think that comes from. You’ve go to start asking the question not just what can I do, but who am I really? When I was in Taiwan, one of the things that was interesting about Asian culture, especially that as a little bit different from western culture, and I’m sure you can relate to this, is it’s just the importance of family and the expectation of parents on their children to succeed and to honor the family.
I remember playing a show at a college, at a University in Tai Pei, and we met with all of these students, and they were talking about what are you doing? “I’m studying to be a doctor.” What are you doing? “I’m studying to be a lawyer.” Then, when we would ask them, “Is that what you want to do?” “No, this is what my parents want me to do.” There was this really … It was very interesting. This wasn’t always true, but it was true for a lot of the students. There was this angst between here is the thing that I have been told that I am and then here’s the thing that I personally feel that I am. I think we all have to, and I think in different cultures, that angst could be more or less.
We all have this angst, this tension between who we really are and who everybody says we should be and listening to your life is the first step in finding your purpose, living a life of meaning, not just doing work that makes you successful, but doing work that makes you happy, doing work that you feel actually matters.
Jay: You hit the nail on the head, Jeff, when you said that, because this actually is one of the reasons why I wanted to start this podcast is because exactly what you said. There’s so many people in Asian culture that feel this mold that they’re supposed to fill coming from society or their parents. It’s just not necessarily what they want to do, but they’ve never been allowed freedom to explore beyond that. For people that are in this rut so to speak, how do you begin to listen? What are the first few steps you should do? Let’s say I’m listening to this right now and I just heard you, Jeff, and what you said just resonated with me so loudly, and I’m like, “I’m stuck in my job because my parents told me they want me to be an engineer, but I really want to do something else.
I’m not sure what to do.” Give me the actionable steps I can do right now to start listening.
Jeff: Yes. It’s not just a question of what do I want to do? I think that’s a good start, but that’s not enough, so in western cultures, mostly in America, it’s sort of the opposite. It’s here’s what I want to do, and it’s right. This is what I’m passionate about, so I’m just going to go do it, and it’s very individualistic. I think there’s some really good things about honoring your family, finding a way to serve society, but you cannot sacrifice personal passion for the needs of others. You ultimately won’t be happy, and if you’re not happy doing what you’re doing, you’re probably not going to serve others very well. We all experience products and services that come from people who are really enjoying what they do versus people who are doing it somewhat bitterly.
You can tell the difference when you go to the grocery store and you’re checking out and the person doesn’t want to be there. You can feel that.
Jeff: What do you do? I think you ask yourself three questions. You could even pull out a paper right now and write this down. I often walk people through this exercise. First question is a question of passion. What do I love? Draw a little circle. Write the word passion in there, and underneath you can write what do I love? That’s an important question to ask. What do I love doing? What do I have an affinity for? What have I always enjoyed? As you already noted, Jay, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I’ve always been creative.
That was just something that was always true about me. I always loved art. I like music. I’ve always like writing and reading. I’ve always had an affinity for the creative arts, so I would have written creativity or art in there. What do I love? That’s the first question. The next question is what am I good at? Draw another circle, and you’re going to draw a Venn Diagram. You’re going to have this second circle intersect the first circle kind of in the middle between the two. This is the question of skill. What am I good at? what are the things that have come maybe more naturally to me than they have for other people?
Maybe you’re good at math. maybe you are physically gifted and you’ve always been good at sports. Maybe you’re just really good at solving problems or great intuition. Whatever that is, and you can make a list of several things, but you want to make a list of skills. For me, writing was something that always came pretty easily, performance, speaking, creating things out of nothing. These are all things that I didn’t really have to try very hard at, and I was always better than most people at them. Skill, you can make a list of your skills. That’s the second question.
The third question is the most important question, and it is depending on the culture, maybe the place where we start and stop, and it’s not enough in and of itself, but when you get the intersection of all three of these, you’ve got something really good. This is the question what do people want from me? It is a question of demand. It’s not what do people expect of you. It’s people going to you, Jay, and going, “Hey, I need help with blank. You’re really good at giving business advice. You read so many books that every time I have a problem you’ve got a solution. Hey, I have a sweater, and it’s got a hole in it. You’re really good at knitting. Can you help me with this?” These are the things that people are coming to you and asking for help with.
Maybe you’re good at computers. Maybe you’re a great cook. Whatever it might be, it’s not just skill, because there are things that we’re good at that nobody knows about, and there are things that we like that we’re not good at and maybe nobody has any idea that we like them. When you find something that you love, that you’re skilled at, and that other people want from you, you’ve got a short list. May not be one thing, but it’s a handful of things that you can begin to explore and go, “Hey, is this my calling? Is this where I should be dedicating my life’s work to?” It is not the end of this journey of going, “Oh, I filled in the three circles and this is what I’m supposed to do.”
It is a good way of beginning to narrow down all these different things that you’re doing. Typically, Jay, the thing we say is, “Well, do what you’re good at. Do what you’re passionate about,” or whatever. I think it’s really a question of finding something you’re good at that you love doing that meets the needs of others in some way.
Jay: That’s great. Thank you for that. That’s a great little exercise, and I think that finding what you love to do, drawing that circle out, and then the second circle, I often tell people to actually ask your friends and people other than your mom and your spouse that will probably tell you, well depending on how they react normally, but that will tell you that you’re the best, brightest person in the world, or whatever, but maybe someone on the second tier social circle, or someone that doesn’t know you as well but still is comfortable enough to give you honest feedback.
That kind of helps people cut through any distortions they have when they view themselves. Then, lastly, I like how you intersect that with what the people want from you. Some people are there, and they’re like, “No one asks me for anything, because I’m not good at anything,” right? I think that might take a little bit of maybe introspection and often times, the way people ask that question of you is not very explicit. It could be indirect, right? That’s a very good exercise. Thanks for sharing that, Jeff. Now, let’s say you found something and let’s say it’s knitting sweaters. Everyone comes to you because you’re the chief, best sweater knitter fixer upper out there, and so you found your calling, your passion so to speak.
Then, you realize that when someone comes to you to fix your sweater, you can only make, you know, a couple of dollars and you’re not sure how to make a living off of that, so now comes this whole concept of the starving artist. Okay, so maybe knitting sweaters might not be an art, but maybe you might see it as an art. The starving artist. You wrote a book. Your most recent book called ‘Real Artists Don’t Starve’. I’m excited. I’ve pre-ordered it on Amazon-
Jeff: Oh, thanks.
Jay: -which is out this summer. Is that right?
Jeff: Yeah, that’s right.
Jay: Maybe you can talk a little about your book and why you wrote that.
Jeff: Sure. ‘Real Artists Don’t Starve’ is sort of the next step in this process. Once you figure out what you want to do with your life, what your calling is, how do you turn it into a career? How do you actually make money off of it? Like I said, I’ve never cared much about the acquisition of money just for the sake of having things or having money, but money has always been a means to an end for me, which it allows you to do more things and most importantly, it allows you to do the work. It allows you to keep doing the work. If you’re a sweater knitter and you’re not getting paid to knit sweaters, then you can only knit so many sweaters before you run out of money, right?
Jeff: What do we do with that? I think the first think you have to do, and I live in Nashville where you’ve got a bunch of musicians and artists and authors. I’m surrounded by this mentality. I call it the starving artist mindset. It’s just this idea that you have to starve and suffer for your work. Somehow, the work is therefore more serious because you’re suffering for it. You see this with entrepreneurs a lot as well. You read the story of somebody starting a company in their garage and taking out multiple loans and basically risking utter bankruptcy. Then, one day it all just comes together and they get their big break.
They win big, you know, and they go public or whatever. For everyone of those stories, there’s a million stories of people that just failed. I think that’s actually not a wise way to build a business for most people. It’s certainly not a wise way to pursue your calling. I use that term, art, pretty loosely. I think entrepreneurs are artists. I think writers are artists. I think engineers are artists. If we think about what we do as art, I think that’s great. There’s a lot of conversation, especially in the business community these days, about the importance of creativity, but we can also sort of bring that starving mindset into our work.
An example of that would be the baker who gets up every day before the sun rises and bakes his bread and spends all day selling bread just to kind of make ends meet and break even. He’s just one bad decision away from the whole bakery going under, because he’s got this mindset that he’s got to stay at this certain level. He hasn’t given himself permission to profit and flourish. I think artists of all types need to give themselves permission to value the work that they do and take it more seriously so that they don’t starve and they can keep creating this important work, and we can keep seeing it.
My dad ran a restaurant for years and really struggled through that. Ultimately, it was a great restaurant. It was serving this small, local community. People loved it, but it just, from a business standpoint, it just didn’t work very well, and he had to close it up. Basically had to sell it for the cost of the equipment. You see this happen a lot in the entrepreneurial community, and it breaks my heart that artists of all types, people who have important, interesting work to share with the world, cannot figure out the business side of things so that they can not be a starving artist but become a thriving artist.
Jay: Great. This is interesting, because first of all, you’re bringing to light this whole notion of the starving artists, and you’re right, Jeff. It’s like the hero’s journey. It makes for a perfect movie, especially in entrepreneurship when you hear the guy who’s, like you said, levered up there, four loans, re-mortgaged their house, and just doing everything that they can, they’re on the brink of failure and then boom, they make it, right?
Everyone loves that story and loves hearing that story. First of all, your book, it sounds like it’s just acknowledging that, kind of explaining that this is out there, and then, you say that you talk about how you don’t have to starve an artist. What are some ways that artists who think they must starve until they make it big, what are some ways that they can thrive as an artist?
Jeff: Yeah, great question. In the book, I’ve got these 12 rules for how to make it as a thriving artist. If you follow these rules, it’s like eating your vegetables. If you eat 11 out of 12 of them, are you going to be pretty healthy? Sure. The idea is the more of these you do, the more likely your success is going to be. A few things that I think are really important that a lot of people overlook is first of all, charge what you’re worth. That’s an important rule. Actually charge money for your work. I remember working at a restaurant one time, and I watched the owner’s daughter give away drinks to all of her friends, because it made her look cool.
Well, I said to her, “Hey, you know this costs your dad money. He doesn’t get these for free, you know? You’re robbing him.” I mean, that’s an obvious example, but I see creatives do this a lot, writers working for free, artists working for free, and I’m not above trying to find ways to get your work in front of people, but we need to not make a habit of giving away all of our work. You even see this with startups. They give everything away for free and then they go, “Hey, we’re going to charge for some of this work, because we’re running out of capital.” It rarely works. It’s a hard thing.
Typically, you have to create something else at a premium. I remember reading about Evernote and how they had all this capital, and they had this huge community, and they were losing money every year because they just cost so much money. They had to create the premium membership to make it work. You got to charge what you’re worth. Another thing I think is really important that we tend to overlook is apprentice under a master. This is something that isn’t a business advice, but is good life advice. I think especially now, like entrepreneur is a way that everybody throws around. I met somebody the other day who is a 21 year old entrepreneur. I was like, “What does that mean?”
They’re like, “I have a side business.” I was like, I mean, I’m not above somebody being a 21 year old entrepreneur, but you having a side freelance web design business I don’t think makes you an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur is somebody who … The word means undertaker. It means somebody who undertakes a huge task, takes on risk, attempts to do something that hasn’t been done before. Typically is working with contractors and employees and is trying to bring something into the world that has never existed before. If you’re just a freelance web designer, I’m not quite sure you’re an entrepreneur.
Jeff: It’s this idea that everybody’s a master all the sudden. Everybody can just be whatever they want. You can be an entrepreneur. It’s no big deal. You can be a thought leader.
Jay: Yes, that’s another good one.
Jeff: Yeah. I think you have to apprentice before you get to be a master. One of the things I observed, I read over 100 books of history’s greatest artists, entrepreneurs, and creative minds, and almost all of them, without fail, had some season so formal or informal apprenticeship, meaning they went and did boring, tedious work for somebody else and used that experience to become great at something. Apprenticeship didn’t last. It wasn’t like an internship. It didn’t last a season. It wasn’t like a summer job at the high rise in the city where you get everybody donuts in the morning.
It was seven to ten years of doing work, basically in exchange for room and board, and hopefully by the end of that time you knew what you were doing. I think we should take the same approach to our art whatever it is. Certainly, take the same approach to business. I’m sort of tired of seeing people become though leaders and they start an online business and they want people to pay them for their expertise, but they haven’t spent a decade of acquiring experience and expertise to have the right to teach anybody else how to do those things.
Jay: That’s so funny that you say that. You’re preaching to the choir here. I’m glad you said that. I mean, it’s like exactly what you say. You throw up a landing page and all of a sudden you can change your LinkedIn profile to say entrepreneur thought leader.
Jeff: That’s right.
Jay: I love how you bring back the historical reference of what a true apprenticeship is and how that is really the only way to becoming a master is putting in the time, being patient, putting in the hard work, and learning your true craft. Only then will you actually produce something of quality where I think people will pay you for it, right? These are all great insights that I’m just getting from hearing you speak. Jeff, when can we expect the book to be on the shelves?
Jeff: Yeah, great question. It comes out June 6th, and I’m looking forward to sharing it with the world.
Jay: Very excited about that. We will have the link up in the show notes. Just a last few couple of questions for you, Jeff. I know that you found your life’s work, or task, which is to be a writer. How would you want people to remember you as? I’m taking a page from Michael Hyatt’s ‘Living Forward’ book, which I found to be very, very influential, just the way that he reframed the way you look at yourself. How would you want to be remembered?
Jeff: It’s a good question. I struggle to answer this, but somebody the other day told me, “Oh, Jeff, I’m so looking forward to this book. Everything you do is so thoughtful.” I thought, that’s a really great compliment. I think I want to be remembered as somebody who did thoughtful and interesting work. I aspire to write books and spread ideas that change culture in some small or big way. I hope people remember me as somebody who didn’t just say what everybody else was saying but said something thoughtful and thought provoking and hopefully change the way they thought about the world and the work we do and why it really matters.
Jay: That’s awesome. I’m certain they will, although I will remember you as the Taiwanese rock star.
Jeff: As you should. That’s awesome.
Jay: Man, Jeff, it was great having you on. Thank you so much for your time. Last question is where can people find you, follow you, and connect with you?
Jeff: Yeah, thanks. You can find me at goinswriter.com. G-o-i-n-s writer.com. Jay, you reached out to me and said something really nice. You talked about the beginner’s guide to building an audience, which is a free ebook that we give away on my website. If you go to goinswriter.com today, you can get that for free.
Jay: Great. Thank you, thank you for that. Thanks again for your time, Jeff. Really appreciate it, and good luck with the book launch.
Jeff: Yeah, thank you.
Jay: All right, take care.
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