Weekly-ish notes on navigating big change

Month: March 2013

Adventures in business, with artist Amy Crook

Today I’m delighted to have Amy Crook, an artist, designer and Starship Captain,  sharing what a life (and business) as an artist r is really like. You can find her work here and here.

Amy Croo

You’re a full-time artist, which sounds like you get to spend all day doodling and playing with art supplies, but what’s a typical work day actually like for you?


I'm a chronic insomniac and not a morning person at all, so the first two hours usually involve reading email, getting caught up on the internet, and blinking sleepily a lot. Then once I'm more or less conscious, fed and showered, I take a giant mug of tea and either do some kind of small biz development (like Starship chats on Wednesdays!) or move over to my art table. There I've got some lists of things I want to draw/paint, plus I have easy access to a lot of my everyday art supplies so I can just noodle around and create things. Since I post art every day, this is an important part of my day, plus this is when I draw up designs for new Etsy cards, and work on client commissions. Plus, it's fun!

Once my energy starts to flag, I'll move back over to my comfy chair and do client work, emails, art posts, Photoshop, and all the other work that needs to be done at the computer instead of on paper. I take frequent breaks to get water, eat little snacks, play with the cats and noodle around on the internet, which helps keep my stress levels down, but when it's time to buckle down and work I get done what needs to be done.

I usually get up around 10am and try to stop working by 10pm, but I take tons of breaks in the middle so that it works out to 8 hours of work, more or less. It's funny that I spend a lot more of my time these days working than I used to, but I'm much happier because I love the work I'm doing. My days off happen when I need one rather than on a fixed schedule, so sometimes I just don't do anything work-related on a Thursday, for instance, and instead spend the day watching movies, reading books, or playing iPhone games.

There are so many ways to be a full-time artist and I know you've tried a lot of them. How are you combining the options now? What has changed through the years?

For a long time I just did graphic design with the occasional bit of illustration work. These days, I have my direct sales of original art to patrons, my Etsy shop that sells cards and a few prints, commission work for both fine art and illustration clients, and I still have a small stable of design clients that benefit from my years of experience.

Amy Jelly Fish

What’s the next destination you’re working towards?

I'm working to skew things away from design and more toward art, and increasing my overall income while still remembering to stop working once in a while. There's a lot of smaller destinations hiding in that big end, like another coloring book, more non-holiday cards, increasing my visibility as an illustrator and artist, and finding more art patrons. For Q1 I've been focusing on really getting my website in line (I'm taking a class, that's another of my business development things!), and then Q2 is going to be about building my email list.

What new thing are you exploring?

I'm working on exploring more interesting watercolor techniques for my fine art, and also more ways to bring the things I love into my work. In my Etsy shop, I'm making more cards that are adorable but not holiday-related, so birthday cards and apology cards and prints of different things. I've got a tendency to do everything really slowly, one step at a time, so I'm being really patient with the slow shift, though some days it feels like watching tectonic plates move!

What’s your definition of success for your business?

For me, success is being able to live decently well and not feel stressed either by the work or by working too much. Since I've been freelance since 1998, I'm very keen on paying the bills, but I try not to let that get in the way of doing projects and art just for the fun of it — or just having fun, period.

I've got hard numbers, of course! For instance, this year one of my number goals is to increase Etsy sales by 200% overall. I'm working to keep up a steady stream of new products, which conveniently gives me art to post on my blog and originals to sell to patrons, so it fits into several of my other goals as well.

Amy Dr. Who card

What’s a recent lesson that you’re now applying?

Right now I'm trying to find the place where what sells meets what I love, and work there. It's a moving target, of course, but it keeps my enthusiasm up both because I'm making art I adore, and because I see money coming in, which is the best form of feedback. No matter how many people tell me they love X, if all they buy is Y then that's a much clearer path to success. But if I hated making Y then there's always Z to try next, as long as some things are paying off well enough to keep the lights on.

How to decide if you should buy a class or book

How to decide if you should buy a class or a book

I've spent the last 24 hours thinking and talking about how to know if something is right for you, where you are, with the business you have. You see, yesterday I opened the Starship to new members, and I've welcomed in three new members and heard from quite a few more. Our conversations have me reflecting on how I make these decisions in my own business, and how anyone knows that anything is the “right” for them. I have a few questions I ask myself before buying, whether it's a $25 guide or a $500 year-long adventure.

Do I know and like the person?

Does this person show up regularly and with integrity? Especially in a class, the way I feel about the person is going to impact my ability to learn. If you don't like who the teacher is, as a person, you're not going to trust the information they have and will spend time second-guessing everything. You learn better from someone you deeply trust. Also, if this is going to take longer than an hour, you want to like the person's voice and style, and look forward to spending time with them. (This is why it's so easy to buy anything Sarah or Diane makes – I want to hang out with them as much as possible.)

 Does it provide the structure that I need?

For me, this means something more than a simple PDF download. I learn best if the information is chunked up and delivered in pieces, and has some kind of accountability built in. The entire reason I joined Up & Running is that I needed a training plan and accountability on the regular.
But of course, not everyone learns in the same way, so this is something I've tested endlessly in the Starship. Sure, I've got great info on profitability or finding your customers, but how can I share that information in a way that results in real changes for the captains? The last 2 years have taught me that the best results come from apply-it-to-your-own business worksheets, regular emails that move you through the material, and then weekly and monthly check-ins with other explorers who are doing the same. It's a combination of question-asking and accountability-providing. This not only teaches information, it also keeps the regular movement of your business from where it is to where you want it to go. It makes big goals more reach-able and dreams more do-able

Does it fit with my immediate goals?

Is this thing aimed at what I'm working on right now? Even if the class has fantastic information, if it's not information I can use right now, I resist it.
Why? Because otherwise it will be a distraction from what I'm working on and I'll be frustrated that I can't put what I learned to work right away. (This is why we spend the first week of each quarter in the Starship setting individual goals and mapping out a path – so that you spend your time in the Starship working on your goals and avoid distraction.)

Does it fit in my long-term vision?

Is this going to help me build the kind of business I want to own next year and the year after that? Is this going to distract me by thinking about something short-term?
And the really hard question: Is this going to help me become the kind of person I want to be? Or encourage me to focus on being someone else.

This question is so hard to answer, but vital. There are super-compelling classes, books, and adventures that look fantastic. But if they don't promote my core values, or encourage me to be me, then I know they're not for me. Of course, the first step is to know what you value and define them, so that you can spot them (or their lack) in an offering. The values I look for in a class or book are exploration (trying and experimenting vs. certainty that THIS is the one true way), personal responsibility, sustainability (valuing the long-term over the short-term, conserving resources), and self-knowledge.  This reflects my business ethics and ensures I spend my time in integrity.


What do you ask yourself before you buy a class or book?

Follow your Enthusiasm


Follow Your Enthusiasm

This has been a weird week for me. For you, too, I bet. (Yesterday in the Holodeck Party everyone agreed: things might be going really well, but it's been weird.)

When things are weird and my work feels odd, there's just one answer:

Follow your enthusiasm.

If your enthusiasm is for your new project, work on it.
If your enthusiasm is on a break, because you have the flu, go to bed.
If your enthusiasm is for a non-work craft project, indulge.

Last week, I was seized by the desire to (finally) write about reading 100 books. It was just  this huge urge as I was getting ready for bed: Let's talk about reading! It wasn't at all what I had planned, but I did it. And your response has been lovely, I've never had so many fun conversations about books in my life!

This same thing happened to me last year, when I fell into (obsessing about) quilting. Instead of sitting down and starting to write, I opened up my design wall on Fabric.com and started moving stuff around. I pinterest-ed pictures of quilts until my brain bubbled. My to-do list wants me to give up on the quilting stuff, and go back to work. But I resisted the to-dos and you know what? I got everything done! I had the biggest Starship registration ever and created the huge + helpful Captain's Log (only available in the Starship).

It seems counter-intuitive, right? If you only have X hours to work, how can spending a chunk of them doing fun stuff leave you with enough time to get the “real” work done?

I have a theory: in your creative business, the “fun stuff” is the “real work”. 

Because your real work is to create something to share with the world. Your real work is to communicate truly and from your most you-like place. Your real work is to connect with others through what you create.


Enthusiasm is everything.

The only way you get to be good at the “real work” is to show up for it, to be awake for it, to listen and learn and apply and explore new areas of your business. And enthusiasm is the tool that wakes you up, that propels you forward, that sparks the curiosity that drives you to say “what about if I tried this?”. Enthusiasm is the thing that gets you through that awful middle part when you don't know what you're doing.

And enthusiasm is contagious. Enthusiasm for quilting, leads to enthusiasm for my fellow creatives, which brings me back to enthusiasm for my current project. When I clamp down a new idea, and don't let it bubble around and capture me, I lose enthusiasm for everything.

Keep the enthusiasm alive.

Here are a few ways to follow your enthusiasm without freaking out about missing “real work”

  • Identify what you're enthusiastic about, in this very moment. If you're totally swamped, this can be hard to do because everything is just so overwhelming. Instead of thinking about it as enthusiasm, look at your momentum. What comes easily? What do you get so absorbed in that you lose track of time? Enthusiasm isn't always jumping-up-and-down fun, sometimes it's just being really absorbed and feeling good about what you're working on.


  • Write everything down. From gift ideas to cookie recipes, to what you want to do with your business, write every last thing down.


  • You don't always have a choice on what you need to work on next. Bring your momentum to every project, by bringing in elements from your most enthusiastic project. This might be a playlist of music, working with the twinkle lights twinkling, or putting a stack of fabric on your writing desk.


  • Take enthusiasm breaks. Spend 5 minutes working on your most exciting projects every hour. From googling an answer to pinning some inspiration, to writing a list of what you want to do next, to ordering that book you want to read, keep your interest alive.


  • Give in. Do what you're excited about right now. Just about anything can wait for one day (or 2 or 3 hours) while you pursue what you're excited about. Instead of waiting to “reward” yourself for doing the hard stuff, start with the fun stuff! It'll cheer you up, get your juices flowing and put you in a better mood for the less-than-fun-stuff.


What are you enthusiastic about right now?


(I'm enthusiastic about the fabulous people inside the Starship. The ladies (yep, they're all creative women!) are enthusiastic about fabulous projects – from new products that we brainstormed to new wholesale orders to their next book launch that we planned! To hear their lessons, in their own words, sign up here.)

The Adventures

Every week is an adventure and this is the view, the path and the finds that made this one special. You can find all my adventures here, or follow along via email here.

The view

Our baby girl had her first lamb! Here he is, just 8 hours old!
A new lamb on Mom's farm! YAY!

Napping partners.
A lovely Sunday evening: tea, embroidery, and West Wing.
My newest project, a tea-towel (PS. You can get this pattern for 1/2 off!)

"Ran" (part of) a local 5k course, through a gorgeous neighborhood, with these cute arrows. Longest running interval yet (a whopping 2.5 minutes).
Checking out a local 5k course, through a beautiful neighborhood

Haircut! #yay
I got a haircut!

The path

I'm gobsmacked by the reaction to my How to Read 100 Books in One Year post! I'm so glad to have met so many of you and gotten your recommendations! I am doubly happy that a random idea is turning into such a lovely book club! If you're “in” the book club (to be “in” – just read the books!) you might like this TED talk by Ben Zander, author of Art of Possibility. (Thanks to the readers who pointed it out to me!)

The Starship opens to new members in 2 weeks. This week I got a pile of emails asking about it, so I wanted to let you know! If you're even flirting with the idea of beaming aboard this quarter, do sign up to hear the stories of current captains. They share their best business lessons (useful whether you join or not) and you'll get a good feel for what you can expect. Totally free, daringly honest, right here.

The finds

It's not easy to ask. Asking makes you vulnerable.”

If you don't like to ask for the sale, or ask for money, watch this:

via Kim Werker


Another thing that's not easy? Dealing with fear + mean comments. Here's a GREAT video on how to handle it:

via BrainPicker


If you follow me on Instagram, then you know I am (oh-so-slowly) taking up running. I tried the Couch to 5K program (I used an app) and really loved it for the first 3 weeks…and then I just couldn't seem to move forward with it. I don't know if it's the weather or the structure of the app…but I knew that if I'm going to run a 5K this spring (one of my 2013 goals!) I need a different kind of structure. And then I realized: The structure of the Starship has helped me and other explorers move forward on our goals…maybe I just need a version of this for my running? Something with specific lessons and check-in times and a community? And then I remembered, Alex Franzen had linked, long ago, to Up and Running! It's exactly what I was looking for and it started this week and I LOVE IT. I think you've got a few more days to join, if you'd like to!


What was your adventure this week?

The best of the 100 in 2012 books…and a new Book Club!

The to-read stack. (Today I posted about how I read 100 books in 2012, on TaraSwiger.com)

I am so delighted by your response to the book club idea! Before we jump into it, a few of you have asked over the last year what my favorite books have been, and while I find this oh-so-hard, here are my picks. Each book is linked to it's Goodreads page.

Books I didn't expect to like, but did:

Born to Run

Decoded, by Jay Z. Seriously! I could quote this all day.

Books I can't believe I hadn't already read: 

Life Together, by Deitrich Bonhoeffer

The Bourne Identity  – completely different than the movies, but that same kind of action and fun!

Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury. – “Like what YOU like!” Indeed!

Most engrossing: 

The Magicians
Gone Girl – there's a reason it's a bestseller and it will leave you gobsmacked

Wolf Hall (and the sequel) – my lifelong love affair with historical fiction was deeply satisfied

Everyone should read…

All of the Nora Ephron books. It might be because I watched When Harry Met Sally for the first time when I was 16 on February 14th (after being grounded and missing my first Valentine's Day with a boyfriend), but Nora Ephron is the voice in my head. To get her work is to understand me.

Quiet. Whether you think you're introvert or not, you're in some relationship with one. Especially important if your kid might be introverted! Fascinating and encouraging and reading passages out loud to Jay has totally changed the way he understands me, and our relationship.

Daring Greatly. I talked more about why I loved it (and needed it) here. I gave it to my mom for Christmas and want to give a copy to everyone who lives in the world!

Steal Like An Artist. 

Please Understand Me: Temperament, Character, and Intelligence. Ignore the lame-o title and read this to understand yourself and your loved ones better. Even if you're not a personality psychology obsessive (like moi), you're going to like it. Another book that I read Jay, leading to epiphanies about everyone we're connected to.

(Want more? Here are my fave books of 2010 and you can see all the books I read in 2012 here. )

Explorer Book Club

We're going to keep this little club super-simple. Each month, near the beginning, I'll suggest 2 or 3 books that you might like to read – one will be a biz-explorer pick (something to help you in you navigate your business) and one will be a general fun (or creativity) pick. If I fall in love with a piece of fiction, I'll share that. I'll provide links to Goodreads (so you can easily add it to your queue), IndieBound (buy from your local bookseller) and Amazon Kindle (if available).*

I'm an affiliate for Amazon + IndieBound, which means I get soy latte moneye if you buy it through the links I've used here.

At the end of the month, I'll open a discussion on the books, both here and on Facebook. You can chime on what you read and if you liked it, or suggest other books we might like to read.

Sound good?

This month's books:

The Art of Possibility, by Rosamund Stone + Benjamin Zander. I have clients whose entire businesses have been shifted by this book. (And another who insists all of her clients read it before they work together.)

Goodreads | IndieBound | Amazon


6 Thinking Hats, by Edward DeBono. It's an old-school business book (from the 80's!) but has a great system for making decisions or thinking through possibilities (an absolute must-have skill for an entrepreneur.) I just finished it this morning!

Goodreads |  IndieBound |Amazon



If you're joining me in reading these two books this month, say hello in the comments! If not, what are you reading?

*This low key approach is inspired by Gretchen Rubin's book club. If you like reading about happiness, you can join hers here.


How to read 100 books in one year.

How to read 100 books in a year

In 2012, I read 100 books.

That's (almost) 2 books a week.

When I set the goal (in February or March, after I realized I already WAS reading 2 books/week), I thought it was crazy. Way out of reach. But why not? I had a lot of long airplane rides ahead of me (Boston, San Diego, Seattle) and little did I know that I'd be in airports for looooong delays (almost 20 hours in LAX and 12 hours in Charlotte) and would have plenty of time to read.

Grateful for books, my oldest friends. 18 books away from meeting my 100 in 2012 goal (but only 7 weeks left.) This is what's next. #thirtydaysofthanksgiving #instagratitude

The real reason I set the goal is that I love to read. Love it!
But I often tell myself not to. Instead, I should be working. Or I should be reading something better (catching up on blogs, news, the latest marketing advice). But after an intense 3 months of non-stop writing to finish the book,  I decided to give myself permission to just read. As much as I wanted!

And I'm so glad I did, because I learned more about my self (and my business) than I could have from any single book. Here's how I made it happen:

1. Give yourself permission to do what you want to do.


For some reason, this seems like the most dangerous course of action. What if all I want to do is lay in bed all day in read? What if I never work again? That's the fear, isn't it? That if you let yourself set a desirable, fun goal, that you might give up on all the hard and challenging ones.

But what if that fun thing you want to do is exactly what your business needs? Or what if it's what your self needs so you can have the energy to work? What if it'll just feel great?

Turning simple permission (you're allowed to read!) into a big crazy goal, lifted my passion into something important. It suddenly mattered that I get to read everyday, it was a priority! If I hadn't committed to the big number, I would have continued to question each reading session: shouldn't I be doing something else?

2. Always have books at the ready.

Andre finds books snugglable
The photos throughout this post demonstrate the ginormous stacks of books I brought home, each week.

The key to reading a lot is to have plenty to read. 

It's silly, but I tend to worry I'm going to run out. Of everything. I “save up” the good stuff in life. I like to know I have a reserve. (Gretchen calls this as spending out – I'm glad to know I'm not alone). So I put off reading a book if I think I won't have anything to read when I finish it. And it's not enough to just books at the library, I need them next to me in the house, so I can grab it the moment I'm ready. (This is kinda like packing waaay too much knitting when you travel. You know you'll never get to it, but there is a slime chance, and you can't risk it!)

3. Always be adding.

This library obsession is getting dangerous... #canyouspotthecat
Having books at the ready is actually a multi-level affair. There's the having the books in my home, but there's also knowing I have even more books that I want to read. I have to know what books to bring home next.

It is absolutely vital for me to have a long list of to-read books and to be adding to it constantly.  For this, I use Goodreads. I find new books to read from everywhere – if it looks interesting in a book store, if a blogger mentions it, if the author has an interesting interview on Fresh Air, or On Being, if it's recommended on a podcast,  if the book I'm reading mentions another book.

The quickest way to recommit myself to reading, is to add a new book to my list.

4. Give up.

Picking books for my week away. Is this enough? Too heavy? Tricky!

Yep, I'm a fan of quitting. If I don't absolutely love the book, or I find myself studiously not-reading for 2 or 3 days, I pick up another book from the stack. I might go back to that left behind book, or I might just mark it off my list all together. There's no guilt, no pressure. Reading is something I love to do. So if I don't love reading this book, I remember that it's not me, it's the book. So I break up with it.

5. No judgement.

The library was very very good to me this week. Where to start?

I'm allowed to read whatever I want to read. I know it sounds obvious, but I can't believe the hangups I have about I should be reading, or what I'm embarrassed to be reading. I'd absolutely never pick up 50 Shades of Grey (I'm much too squeamish), but I'm often embarrassed about my hippy-dippy choices of books.

But you know what? I'm the one reading it. No one else. So no one else has to approve, or think it's worthy or even understand why I'm reading it. And I remind myself, as I stand at the check-out counter at the library that the librarians see much worse than me and my stack of yoga, religion, and infertility books.

That's how I read 100 books in a year.

But it's not about reading : these rules apply to everything. Whatever it is you want to do this year (that you really, really want to do, not just because you think you should want to do it), you gotta give yourself permission, keep inspiration at the ready, quit when something isn't working for you, and stop thinking about what other people think about it!

Books, coffee, lounge. In other words, my personal heaven. #birthdayadventure

Tomorrow: My favorite books of the year!


If reading a zillion (or even 5) books is your thing, I'd love to talk about books with you! I'm thinking about starting a super-casual book club right here. What do you think? Would you like a monthly creativity/business book suggestion?
Let me know in the comments.

Listening in

I've been quiet. Not just on the blog, but on the Explorer Lessons, the Twitter, and even on Instagram. It started out unconsciously…I just didn't have anything to say. I wanted to read all day. Dye yarn. Do quiet-ish things.

Plotting with beet/carrot/ginger juice. #unpluggedadventureday

But then Thursday, I purposely took break from the constant stream of feedback. I didn't check email, twitter replies, or even likes on Instagram. Instead, I drove to Asheville, explored, wrote. I didn't really know why I avoided all feedback until I was driving home at the end. And then it hit me.

I spend a lot of time (maybe most of it) listening. When I'm answering questions on the Starship or taking part of a Twitter chat or just reading blogs, I may be talking, but I'm also listening for the connection. I'm watching for the chords that tie it all together, for the deeper question people are really thinking about. (This book opened my eyes to my system-spotting + building – it's part of my personality type!)

Once I spot the connection, I dive into it. I write a blog post, shoot a video answer or, if it's a deep and twisty question, I create a class. For example, In December I got an email from a Captain about how she'd had a banner year…but paid herself nothing. Then I saw a few comments on Twitter saying “I invest everything back into the business.” I spot the connection right away: People don't know how to measure (and improve)  their profit. So I wrote, asked questions and taught a class about doing just that. It might not be my favorite thing, but it's undeniably vital to every business…and no one else seemed to be talking about the equations that I use…so I did it. (That's another part of listening – watching for great resources I can recommend – and making sure I'm not spending my time creating something that already exists in way that my people can absorb.)

I LOVE this deep listening and connection-spotting. It's the way I process the world and my brain does it even when I'm not working. But, if I'm not careful, all that listening can result in only thinking about things other people need…instead of creating what I need and want to create. So when I finish a period of intense listening and responding, it's time to stop in and listen to myself again.

It's  just like I'm always saying about finding and listening to your Right People. If you listen in, you'll definitely make what they want.

But that's only one part of the equation. The other half is YOU. You have to spend some time listening to yourself, learning what your skills are, and expressing (or trying to express) what you need to create in this world.

So I took the week to listen in quietly to myself..and I got a whopp of insight (at 7pm while washing the dishes) about how to clarify my message (see the Start Here page for the changes) and what I need to work on next (opening the Starship for the quarter and a BIG exciting project).

When was the last time you took a break from your listening stations and tuned into your internal frequency?