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2×4: An Interview with Randy Murray

2×4: An Interview with Randy Murray
    2x4: The Interview Series

    (Editor’s Note: Welcome to the first 2×4 interview here on Stepcase Lifehack. 2×4 is one series that examines two topics — creativity and productivity — by asking those who make things on the web the same four questions on both subjects. This regular series of interviews began on Michael Schechter’s site as a way to better understand how those who create for the web approach their work. Participants to date have included Eddie Smith from Practically Efficient, Gini Dietrich from Spin Sucks, writer Yuvi Zalkow, Social Media blogger Danny Brown, Lifehack.org editor Mike Vardy and more. Going forward, Michael will be offering up regular 2×4 posts from an array of developers, designers, writers and artists from around the web. To learn more about the series or to read the previous interviews, check out the archives.)

    You can find just about anything on the internet. No matter what you’re interested in, chances are there’s someone out there telling you how you can do it better. What’s rare is someone who tells it to you straight, who says things you probably don’t want to hear, who makes you question things you’ve always assumed to be true. No matter what you’re looking to do, you need one of these people in your life. If you’re looking to write, you need Randy Murray.

    Randy is a writing machine. In fact, this very interview came back the same day that I sent it (after an already impressive day of writing). He splits his time between several interests including his corporate writing, his books, a well-liked personal blog, his recently launched book publishing venture and his love of playwriting. In other words, the man has a passion for words and the way we use them.

    I’ve only recently started to get to know him and could easily go on as to why you need to start following his work, but I’ll spare you and let Randy’s words do the talking. Without further ado, here’s a look at one of my favorite writers about writing, Randy Murray:

    Creativity

    Have you always considered yourself a creative person?

    Yes. But it wasn’t always about writing. Some of my earliest memories are of singing. I’ve always had a strong, room-filling voice. I remember singing “She’ll Be Coming Around The Mountain” at a school assembly, probably in the kindergarten or first grade and being surprised at how astonished everyone was. Singing and music came naturally and performing followed. I was also a voracious reader and dreamed of a life filled with books, maybe even as a writer.

    In high school I really blossomed as a performer, especially singing and acting. I even traveled with a Christian music group in the summers, not because of the religious aspects, but because I loved performing.

    In college I started off studying biology and chemistry with the intention of becoming a doctor, but found myself spending all of my time in the theatre. So I switched programs and followed my heart. That lead to graduate studies, initially in directing, but morphing into playwrighting. I wrote some plays, one really decent one, and earned my MFA.

    But earning a living as a playwright is somewhere between difficult and outright impossible. So I used my acting (auditioning) skills and landed myself a job as a technical writer and trainer at Bell Labs and spent the next 25 years in various roles in high tech, from writing thousands of pages of manuals, to running marketing, and eventually, as a Vice President of Operations. But the further away I got from writing, from creating, the less I enjoyed it.

    For the last two years I’ve done nothing but write. I’ve got a play in production, I’ve published one book with a 2nd on the way, and I’ve created a successful business writing practice. It’s the creative that drives me and I can only really be happy when I’m in the middle of writing, creating, or building.

    What mediums and inspirations do you gravitate toward to realize your creative goals?

    I write every day, sometimes just for pay, sometimes for my web site, First Today, Then Tomorrow, and sometimes on creative projects. Plays, the theatre, is where I believe my true, core creative spirit lies, but I’m tempted to write both short fiction and novels.

    If you had to point to one thing, what specific posts or creations are you most proud of and why?

    My play, “Grimaldi: King Of the Clowns”. It’s almost like I didn’t create it. It was thrilling to see it performed in Texas earlier this year and I’m looking forward to going to Scotland to see a new version I’ve written performed (it’s a short, one act version designed for street performance).

    And I’m digging writing and publishing on First Today, Then Tomorrow. One of the favorite pieces I’ve done there are “Look Up From Your Screen” and “Things You Cannot Convey To A Young Writer (Or Any Other Calling)”.

    Any suggestions for those who feel they may not be creative enough to unlock their inner artist?

    Get to work. If you love something, want to become an artist, go and hook up with those who are already doing it. Study, get training, do it. Suck a lot, but get better.

    I have a friend that tell me “Every writer has a lot of bad writing they have to get through to get to the good stuff.” I strongly believe that applies to all of the creative arts. You have to work at it.

    My oldest daughter is a jazz musician and my youngest is a visual artist. I’ve seen both spend literally thousands of hours practicing, experimenting, and learning. For years I hauled my daughter’s string base to lessons, listened to her play, badly, but slowly get better. And I’ve hung a lot of ugly pictures on the walls. Each of my girls started with a core drive and talent, but the artist was unleashed in them, as it was in me, through the work.

    Productivity

    Can you describe your current personal and professional responsibilities?

    I’m an independent business writer. I work with clients, typically through marketing agencies, and write all forms of business materials, mainly marketing, web sites, books, white papers, and presentations. Over the last 2 years I’ve worked with businesses of all sizes, including the biggest telecom, retail, and software companies.

    So basically, I write. I also consult, do speaking and training, and occasionally manage projects.

    I’ve also started a small publishing company, First Today Press LLC. This last year we published two books, my own Writing Assignments and Patrick Rhone’s Keeping It Straight. This next year we’ll publish More Writing Assignments, Patrick Rhone’s Enough, and books from at least four other authors. I’m very excited about this and I’m hopeful it can bloom into a stand-alone business.

    How do you go about balancing the personal, professional and digital?

    It use to be more difficult, but it’s much easier now that I’m working on my own and a bit more, um, mature (older). I do client work no more than 4-5 hours a day, unless I’m under deadline pressure. The remainder of the working day is for my own projects, keeping connected digitally, and running about. I keep my weekends and evenings free for time with my wife, and when my girls are around, I take off all the time I like. It’s sweet.

    I understand my situation is ideal. I make a good living, my wife works a regular job that had excellent benefits, and we’ve saved and invested wisely. Not everyone can do that. But if you can do it, even if it takes you twenty-five years like it took me, find a way to make it happen. I’m having the time of my life.

    What tools and techniques do you find yourself counting on to get through your workload?

    Solitude and quiet are my main tools. I can write with anything. I find I write best early in the day, at my desk, alone in my office, writing on my iMac. I am, and always have been, a complete Apple fanatic, although I can easily handle PCs, Linux, and Unix systems. I’m never more than a few feet from an iOS device, including my ever-present iPhone 4 and my 1st gen iPad. And I always have at least my Fischer Space Pen and a 3×5 card in my pocket, if not a full notebook or journal.

    I am a practitioner of Getting Things Done, but I’m not a fanatic about it. I also use the strategic planning and management practice called Structural Tension to quickly build goals and plans and execute them.

    What is the best starting point for the unproductive amongst us who are looking to get more organized?

    Clear yourself a little space. That’s the best way to start any project.

    Other than that, ask yourself what you really want. If you want to be entertained, that’s what you’ll be. But if you want to do something, prepared to be bored, to work hard, to become frustrated, and to make a mess.

    I hear people say, “I want to write, but I just end up playing games all night.” Maybe that’s what you really want. If so, cut yourself some slack and play. But if you want to write, to do anything creative, put the games and distractions away. If you can be tempted away that easily, you don’t want it enough to actually do it.

    More by this author

    2×4: An Interview with David Sparks 2×4: An Interview with Myke Hurley 2×4: An Interview With CJ Chilvers 2X4 Interviews 2×4: An Interview With Gabe Weatherhead 2×4: An Interview With Brett Kelly

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    Last Updated on October 21, 2019

    How to Be a Good Leader and Lead Effectively

    How to Be a Good Leader and Lead Effectively

    U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a contender for the 2020 Democratic nomination, is a reminder of why I am so drawn to leadership as a topic. Whenever I think it is impossible for me to be more impressed with her, she proves me wrong.

    Earlier this week, a former marine suggested that he had been in a long-term sexual relationship with the Senator. She flipped the narrative and used the term “Cougar,” a term used to describe older women who date younger men, to reference her alma mater.

    Rather than calling the young man a liar, or responding to the accusations in kind, she re-focused the conversation back to her message of college affordability and lifted up that “Cougar” was the mascot for her alma mater. She went on to note that tuition at her school was just $50 per semester when she was a student. Class act.

    But by the end of the week, news broke that U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, another contender for the presidency, had a heart attack. Warren not only wished Sanders a speedy recovery but her campaign sent a meal to his staff. She knew that the hopes of staff, donors and supporters were with the Senator from Vermont and showed genuine compassion and empathy.

    To me, she has proven time and time again that she is more than a presidential candidate: she belongs in a leadership hall of fame.

    What makes some people excel as leaders is fascinating. You can read about leadership, research it and talk about it, yet the interest in leadership alone will not make you a better leader.

    You will have more information than the average person, but becoming a good leader is lifelong work. It requires experience – and lots of it. Most importantly, it requires observation and a commitment to action. Warren observed what was happening with Sen. Sanders, empathized with his team and then took action. Regardless of the outcome of this election, Sanders’ staff will likely never forget her gesture.

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    You would have had to work on a political campaign in order to appreciate the stress and anxiety that comes with it. In this moment, staff may not remember everything that Warren said throughout the lengthy campaign, but they will remember what she did during an unforgettable time during the campaign.

    If this model of leadership is appealing, and if you are searching for how to up your own leadership game, read on for six characteristics that good leaders share:

    1. Good leaders are devoted to the success of the people around them.

    Good leaders are not self-interested. Sure, they want to succeed, but they also want others to succeed.

    Good leaders see investing in others just as important as they see investing in themselves. They understand that their success is closely tied to the people around them, and they work to ensure that their peers, employees, friends and family have paths for growth and development.

    While the leaders may be the people in the spotlight, they are quick to point to the people around them who helped them (the leaders) enter that spotlight. Their willingness to lift others inspires their colleagues’ and friends’ devotion and loyalty.

    2. Good leaders are not overly dependent on others’ approval.

    It is important for managers to express their support for their teams; good leaders must be independent of the approval of others. I explained in an article for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, that:[1]

    “While a desire to be loved is natural, managers who prioritize approval from subordinates will become ineffective supervisors who may do employees harm. For example, a manager driven by a need for approval may shy away from delivering constructive feedback that could help an employee improve. A manager fearful of upsetting someone may tolerate behavior that degrades the work environment and culture.”

    In yet another example, a manager who is dependent on the approval of others may not make decisions that could be deemed unpopular in the short run but necessary in the long run.

    Think of the coaches who integrated their sporting teams. Their decision to do so, may have seemed odd, and even wrong, in the moment, but time has proven that those leaders were on the right side of history.

    3. Good leaders have the capacity to share the spotlight.

    Attention is nice, but it is not the prime motivator for good leaders. Doing a good job is.

    For this reason, good leaders are willing to share the spotlight. They aren’t threatened by a lack of attention, and they do not need credit for every accomplishment. They are too focused on their goal and too focused on the urgency of their work.

    4. Good leaders are students.

    In the same way that human beings are constantly evolving, so too are leaders. As long as you are living, you have the potential to learn. It doesn’t matter how much knowledge you think you have; you can always learn something new.

    I have the experience of thinking I was doing everything right as a manager, only to receive conflicting feedback from my team. Perhaps my approach was not working for my team, and I had to be willing to hear their feedback to improve.

    Good leaders understand that their secret sauce is their willingness to keep receiving information and keep learning. They aren’t intimidated by what they do not know: As long as they maintain a willingness to keep growing, they believe they can overcome any obstacle they face.

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    As both masters and students, good leaders read, listen and study to grow. They consume content for information, not just entertainment purposes. They aren’t impressed with their knowledge; they are impressed with the learning journey.

    5. Good leaders view vulnerability as a superpower.

    It means “replacing ‘professional distance and cool,’ with uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure,” said Emma Sappala in a Dec. 11, 2014, article, “What Bosses Gain by being Vulnerable” for Harvard Business Journal.[2] She went on to note the importance of human connection, which she asserts is often missing at work.

    “As leaders and employees, we are often taught to keep a distance and project a certain image. An image of confidence, competence and authority. We may disclose our vulnerability to a spouse or close friend behind closed doors at night but we would never show it elsewhere during the day, let alone at work.”

    This rings so true for me as a woman leader. I was raised believing that any show of emotion in the workplace could be used against me. I was raised believing that it was best for women leaders to be stoic and to “never let ‘em see you sweat.” This may have prevented me from connecting with employees and colleagues on a deeper, more personal level.

    6. Good leaders understand themselves.

    I am a huge fan of life coach and spiritual teacher Iyanla Vanzant. In addition to her hit show on the OWN network, Vanzant has authored dozens of books. In her books and teachings, she underscores the importance of knowing ourselves fully. She argues that we must know what makes us tick, what makes us happy and what makes us angry.

    Self-awareness enables us to put ourselves in situations where we can thrive, and it also enables us to have compassion when we fall short of the goals and expectations we have for ourselves. Relatedly, understanding ourselves will allow us to know our strength. When we know our strengths, we will be able to put people around us who compliment our strengths and fill the gaps in our leadership.

    Final Thoughts

    Being a good leader, first and foremost, is an inside job. You must focus on growing as a person regardless of the leadership title that you hold. You cannot take others where you yourself have not been. So focusing on yourself, regardless of your time or where you are in your career will have long term benefits for you and the people around you.

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    Further, if you want to become a good leader, you should start by setting the intention to do so. What you focus on grows. If you focus on becoming a better leader, you will research and invest in things that help you to fulfill this intention. You will also view the good and bad leadership experiences as steppingstones that hone your character and help you improve.

    After you set the intention, get really clear on what a good leader looks like to you. Each of us has a different understanding of leadership. Is a good leader someone who takes risk? Is a good leader, in your estimation, someone who develops other leaders? Whatever it is, know what you’re shooting for. Once you define what it means to be a good leader, look for people who exemplify your vision. Watch and engage with them if you can.

    Finally, understand that becoming a good leader doesn’t happen overnight. You must continually work at improving, investing in yourself and reflecting on what is going well and what you must improve. In this way, every experience is an opportunity to grow and a chance to ask: ‘What is this experience trying to teach me?’ or ‘what action is necessary based on this situation?’

    If you are committed to questioning, evaluating and acting, you are that much closer to becoming a better leader.

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    Featured photo credit: Sam Power via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] The Chronicle of Philanthropy: Why Good Managers Overcome the Desire to Be Liked
    [2] Harvard Business Journal: What Bosses Gain by being Vulnerable

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