Editor’s Note: Talking shop with writers is one of my favorite things. On Wednesdays, in this space, I’ll post a short conversation with a writer whose work I admire. Leading off the bench is Jeff Goins, a Nashville-based writer.
Jeff Goins personifies what it means to live the “Portfolio Life,” his oft-used phrase. He’s a blogger, writer, podcaster and speaker, wrangles his own WordPress theme and teaches the online writing course, Tribe Writers.
Goins’ latest book, The Art of Work, debuted yesterday as a No. 1 Amazon Bestseller.
In this inaugural edition of Writerly Wednesday, Goins talks about finding your calling in a new world of work, how Serial influenced his writing and who he thinks would win in a game of Scrabble: Ernest Hemingway or Malcolm Gladwell.
Goins: My taste in books has kind of changed, and I wanted my writing to reflect that. I’ve gone through that experience over the last three years, leaving my day job, which was a good job, but was something that I didn’t feel like was my calling, my reason for being, and transition to a more meaningful career. The process: I wrote the book, and I didn’t like what I had written.
I had written a typical, self-help-y kind of book. I wanted to get more stories. I went out and started interviewing people. I cast a wide net, and asked them how they found meaningful work. I connected with hundreds of people, and chose a few that exemplified the themes I kept running into. I had to rewrite the whole book to what felt true. They all described [finding meaningful work] as less of a plan and more of a path.
The book reads different from your past work. Almost a different non-fiction genre from what delivered in the past. Do you plan to explore other genres in the future?
Goins: I don’t like doing the same thing over and over again. I like variety. I want to keep experimenting with different genres and writing books. I like experimenting.
How many months did it take to write?
Goins: I write books fairly quickly, so probably four months. I wrote the manuscript in a couple of months and then did all that research and re-wrote it over a few more months.
In the book, you tackle our traditional understanding of the 10,000-hour rule. Why?
Goins: It was a term coined by Malcolm Gladwell, and some people don’t actually understand what it means. It’s not a prescription for greatness. It’s just a description, meaning that people who achieve world-class performance tend to have a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice. But the psychologist who sort of originated that idea, which is called the “Theory of Deliberate Practice,” K. Anders Ericsson, really had some strict principles for what it means to engage in practice. Basically, he says, you have to do it to the point of utter exhaustion, and you have to repeat it over and over again.
I think that’s interesting when you think about that in terms of calling. A lot of people think it’s just put enough hours in. It’s really about practicing to the point that you’re almost sick of your work. I argue that painful practice is the best way to discern what to do with your life.
Playing guitar was that way for me. I played it all the time and then got sick of it. To me, that was a sign that I wasn’t supposed to be doing this.
When I started doing that with writing, I found that when I did it more and more and more, I loved it more and more and more.
You write about the “Portfolio Life” in the book, which you describe as a collection of often disparate activities that figure into our calling. So maybe someone isn’t just a “writer” now, but because of the economy, they also teach and consult, for example. What about that trend interested you, and how does calling fit into that trend?
Goins: That concept describes the world of work right now. Organizations are getting smaller. People want more freedom. They value their vocational freedom more. They think, “Well, I can freelance, or I can work for this company and that company and do my own thing and have more freedom over my life.” Forbes did an interesting study recently, where they predicted that by 2030, over half of the workforce is going to be freelance. In other words, you’re going to have a bunch of different gigs to make a living. For those of us who don’t want to be pigeonholed into a single job the rest of our life, that’s good news.
But in order to live into that future well, you have to have a clear idea of who you are, maybe now more than ever before.
You write about your grandfather in this book, who was a journalist. Did you pick up the craft of writing from him?
Goins: He died when I was 16 years old. I had more in common with him than any other relative including my parents. He was ambitious, a cultured guy. Loved to read, loved to write. A journalist. A painter. A playwright. Really a Renaissance man. I did all that stuff, too. It’s a weird thing. I don’t know if he inspired me to do these things.
I do remember at an early age always being transfixed at his house, which was full of bookshelves. Amazing, first-edition hardcover books. I always loved books. There’s probably something about that that struck me. I write about this idea in my book, about this spark.
I talked to the journalist Daniel Coyle about this, and he said we don’t really know where this comes from. For whatever reason, I caught this spark from my grandfather.
One of your animating ideas is that it’s a writer’s worldview that makes someone want to sit down and enjoy her work, not necessarily her subject or genre. How would you describe your worldview?
Goins: I’m really suspicious of the way things appear. I think of that as a prophetic worldview. A prophet is someone who is cutting through the clutter of what others are saying to make people feel good about themselves. I’m very interested in what the truth is, and how we discern that. My worldview is: Things are not really as they seem.
You were a big fan of Serial. What did you learn from that podcast as a writer?
Goins: What I loved about Serial is how they kept you guessing through the end. My wife hates this, but I’m pretty good about guessing how movies end, just because I’ve studied story structure. Although, I recently watched Gone Girl and was surprised by that.
But Serial did that. It was very easy to binge listen to that show. I’m learning from shows like that, AMC shows like The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad that just have these cliffhangers. I want to do that better—hooking and engaging the reader throughout my writing and keeping them guessing.
Have you already started working on your next book?
I haven’t. I’ve started thinking about it. I start thinking about the next book about halfway through the current book. I’ve started writing down some ideas.
What’s the last thing that you’ve read that you wish you’d written.
That’s a good question. I’m reading The Agony and The Ecstasy, by Irving Stone, about Michelangelo. It’s so good. Such great storytelling. I read a lot of biographies, but sometimes they are hard to read. This biography reads like a novel. I wish I could write non-fiction like fiction.
You’re an avid fan of Ernest Hemingway and Malcolm Gladwell. Who would win in a game of Scrabble?
Probably Malcolm Gladwell. He had more $20 words than Hemingway. Interesting thing about Hemingway: There is the thought that he wrote third-grade prose all the time. That’s not completely true. He had a command of the English language that was pretty enviable. What he did so well is cut all the clutter. Clutter is what wins you Scrabble game.
But who do you think would win in a barroom fight?
Hemingway has that one. Gladwell could probably outrun him.