Learning to Love Absurdity

I’ve learned to love the absurd. Not in a “oh that’s interesting” sort of way, but in a way that is deeply appreciative of its value. You see, no true innovations occur without absurdity. In the past, when asked the question “What do you do?” … I would shrug in a “Nothing important” fashion, and say I make a living in a completely absurd manner … completely dismissing the possibility that there was value in what I was doing.

The thing I was missing was that simply the act of finding an absurd manner in which to make a living had huge value. I found people were attracted to me because I was doing things differently. It was inspirational to them. This blew my mind. Some days it still blows my mind.

But then I started hanging out with innovators, and learned that absurdity is a completely necessary element for Game Changers. If you are not willing to consider the things considered absurd in the current paradigm of whatever you are working on, be it business, a specific industry or technology, or your personal well-being … you are going to continue to get more of the same. There might be some tiny tweaks along the way, but nothing for which the term “Game Changing” might be uttered.

Me … inside the 3M lounge at SxSWi 2013

I spent a minute at the Visual Thesaurus with the word Absurd. Its relatives do not look flattering when speaking of serious issues. Ludicrous, laughable … but who thinks there is too much laughter in our world? Nonsensical, idiotic, ridiculous and preposterous … but all of these adjectives are from the position of comparing the absurd to the existing norms. At some point in the development of any extraordinary idea, the ridiculous is referred to as innovative; the ludicrous becomes ground-breaking.

In order to live an extraordinary life, you have to be willing to be ridiculous. The folks that sling those judgments are most often the folks living the smallest lives. I’ve learned over time that a great deal of criticism for my “failures” came from folks who never tried anything at which they could fail. Show me a person with a string of failures and I’ll show you a person willing to make an attempt. I give that more kudos than playing it safe.

I’m not saying one should quit their job and hike off into the wilderness to launch your next business idea. I’m actually frighteningly practical in my own attempts at new businesses; more likely to take on another job when I’m building a business idea than to quit something. (I love taking jobs that train me toward future projects. There is a great Jim Rohn quote: “Don’t ask what you get from a job, ask what you become in that job.”)

But a large number of people get stuck not in the “how-to” of a project, but in the “will I look like an idiot” part of an idea … and they never get started. Those of us that have started and succeeded at several things have one great understanding in common: “Failure is Feedback”.  Without some level of failure, a project will never be fine-tuned into its best articulation or formulation. Sure you could hit it out of the park with your first try … but how likely is that when you hesitate to try?? Really, think about it. Those people who keep trying things are living a more creative existence amongst their failures than you will ever find in a reliable 9 to 5.

What is keeping you from embracing your own absurdities? Is that what stands between you and your experience of an extraordinary life?

Do you have some failures you can tally on your way to creating something magnificent? If you don’t; it’s very possible that you are not really trying.

The Western Hermit

I’ve long held this theory: Since Western Culture does not have a respectful attitude toward Hermits or Contemplatives; folks whose nature lends them to these types of endeavors hide out in their workaholism. Our culture values productivity so much, it is the safest haven for folks who are wired to be introverts and or contemplatives. How many party or dinner invitations can be avoided with “I’m too busy, thanks.”? Using my own life experience for reference I can say the answer is “many” or perhaps more truthfully, “more than I can count”.

Yet I wonder if the workaholism is sometimes fueled not only as an avoidance technique for social requirements, but also a drive fueled by the feeling of not being finished. The thing never started can never be finished. That feeling of incompletion is due to the fact that the hermit nature underlying the workaholism has never been expressed … never been fed.

Photo by И. Максим

If the food for this Hermit nature is time spent in contemplation, then how do we justify that time, when we have been trained to manage the profits and losses in all of our endeavors? Where is the value? What are the risks?

In a society which reveres productivity, how to begin the contemplative path? And can one begin a contemplative path while maintaining the professional benefits of being a workaholic? Can contemplation be scheduled into a day-planner or checked off a To Do List?

Because we must admit, workaholics succeed. I don’t want to lose that edge, but I also want to live my fullest expression. So if my theory that a workaholic is a frustrated contemplative has merit, then it could be I am missing out on something that might just be wonderful.
Do you hide in work? Do you wear your “busy-ness” with pride? Talk to me about it in the comment section. I’d love to hear your take on this theory.

5 year planning

Old skills revisited

It felt really good to run a jigsaw for a while today. I’ve been passing along information gleaned from years of building wacky buildings at Renaissance Faires, and I still do a bit of design, but I hadn’t done much actual production in years. It was good. I had some thinking to do for a couple of assignments in Marie Forleo’s B-School, and repetitive physical work is so good for the thinking process. It was a beautiful and warm spring day, and I was able to get a little vitamin D while I was out there working in the sunshine.

These days, Phil and I only have time to do construction and design work on our own buildings. We planned it that way. Years ago, when we realized that construction was over 80% of our income, we set to change that, and started buying service businesses at festivals, sometimes trading our labor instead of dollars. I say we set 5 year plans, but I find that a 5 year plan never takes that long in reality. But 5 years is an easy thing for me to wrap my brain around.

Here are things to know about how I do 5 year planning for business improvements:

  1. I rarely look for *More* as part of my plan, because I live with complete confidence that I will always have “Enough”. I may look to replace one thing with another, but the 5 year shifts are always more about quality of life than about money.
  2. I start at analyzing what brings me the most stress, and set an intention to lessen that.  (This is possibly the biggest element of the process.)
  3. I’m totally ok with Phil having a different plan to reduce the same stress. Sometimes we agree on method, sometimes we do not; but I am convinced that our agreement of intention to alter that stressor has huge impact in making it happen.
  4. I don’t write it down. I know that runs counter to so much of what we are told about goal-setting, but these changes are given 5-year windows specifically because they are about life shifts rather than stair-steps to another place. Not writing down steps for these has allowed space in which magic happens, and we often find ourselves looking back from a place we hadn’t even imagined, piecing together what steps we took to get here.
  5. This has only failed me when I got incredibly specific about “the big step that was going to fix XYZ”. Little steps in a general direction often lead me to fascinating places I have not imagined. Setting plans around a “When X, then Y” format don’t seem to pay out. I am back to the drawing board, but not picking up the pencil this time.  This time I’m saying “I have some stress around ____. I’m looking for ways to either replace ____ in my financial portfolio, hire middle management so that I don’t have to manage ____ myself, or whatever comes up that lets me simply let go of it. Maybe I’ll miraculously stop feeling stress about the thing. It’s possible!
  6. We maintain forward momentum. We have been and always will love to work. So we keep working, including working at those elements of our lives around which we have stress. We are not wishfully thinking that the intention is set and therefore we don’t have to continue working forward. A goal without action is a wish. There is something about forward momentum that pulls magic in behind you … allowing it to then help propel you forward.

 

Gizzies, ready for sanding and painting. They are part of the facelift plan for my bakery at the Texas Renaissance Festival.

So that very non-scientific system is my answer when other entrepreneurs ask me how I grew my business from a 2 person construction and design firm to our multiple-holdings and 40 person staff. I don’t know the “How”, and the system only fails if I try to micro-manage it. We work forward from the “Why”, keep working, and the pieces fall into place.

Shoulds and Pushback

We rebels, outsiders, and outcasts have benefited from our ability to make our alternative way in the world. We’ve managed to create lives outside the normative systems by challenging the rules.

But what about the rules we’ve written ourselves? What of the things we *want* to do? When we are wired to push back against the shoulds, we often push back against our own wishes.

photo by Estevam Romera via Flickr

We write these rules for a reason. They are meant to help shape our lives further into our own private ideals, but these things require work.  Successful work requires commitment.

Our habit is breaking rules, and any requirement ruffles our feathers. It is easy while the thing is new and shiny … at that point we still know it is our idea.  But in that space between it being a new idea and it becoming habit is the time when it is just work, and we push back because pushing back is habit.

We’ve been pushing back longer than we’ve been doing whatever the new skill set is, and so our commitment to practicing guitar, or eating healthy food, or getting more exercise is challenged by our innate rebel. The fact that the rule to “practice guitar 5x per week” was one I wrote because I want the joy of playing guitar easily gets lost in the face of habitual pushing against what others thought was the *right* thing to do.

Pushing back is a valuable skill. If we want to have a life outside the narrow expectations of our surrounding world we have to push the window open. Questioning authority is wise, but when we question our own wisdom we have no guidance system and we spin out of control like a lopsided paper airplane.

We set up those rules for ourselves from within our own wisdom. The trick is how to retain our recognition of self-imposed structures; and allow them integrity so that they do not appear to us as outside influences, but as our own intelligence.

So I’m playing with how I use the word “Should”. I know I have some a lot of push back with that word, so I’m watching where I use the word Should, and rephrasing it to see how I can affect behavioral changes in myself using semantics. You see, I *want to* play guitar, and I *want to* live a long and healthy life. However, when I let those items shift into shoulds; my instinctive response is “You can’t make me”.

Can this simple shift alter behavior? I can only tell you that I feel less internal resistance when I change the phrasing, and that I am once again building up the calluses necessary in learning to play guitar.

How much life do you spend in your commute?

26 years ago my morning commute was a 30 mile drive along a beautiful stretch of Colorado Highway 82. The ritual involved early mornings of scraping ice or sweeping off snow, so that I could take my place in the parade of thousands of people who worked in Aspen, but couldn’t afford to live there. The Roaring Fork Valley is one of the most beautiful places in the US, but none of us were appreciating it. We were too busy watching for the deer and elk that shared the corridor, as the 2 lane highway separated the wildlife’s winter rangeland from their winter water source.

okay, this is actually east of Aspen, but when I drove the commute, 82 was still 2 lanes.

There was an addictive quality about Aspen. I’ve seen it in other places too. New York City is a good example. But the addiction is somehow tied to work, and overwork, and the idea that it’s worth a great amount of sacrifice to be ‘here’. No place else is as beautiful, as magical, as respected, or as important as this one, and the fact that you are working 3 jobs to afford the experience you don’t have time to experience … that’s just part of paying your dues. This infatuation with place is ubiquitous. It is the religion that underlies every worker’s forfeiture of personal time. Like crabs in a bucket … one worker’s escape must be viewed as insanity, lest they start to analyze their own situations too closely.

I flashed back to that time yesterday, when I ended up sharing 1 mile of my winter neighbors’ morning commute to Corpus Christi. I was headed into Rockport for an early morning yoga class. No scraping of ice was needed, but my fingers were cold, and I wished I had started the car 2 minutes earlier. The combination of cold fingers and a parade of unsmiling people at 7:15 launched me into the recollection of my morning commute experience, and I realized … I haven’t had a work commute in 25 years.

In all the time I’ve been building businesses, none of them required my joining the morning parade of people whose work is somewhere else. Yes, I have seasonal relocations. I live in 4 different places every year. But once I get there, I walk to work. I have 21.6 more work days available every year than someone who commutes 1 hour each day, 5 days per week.

I’d never quantified this before. To be fair I’ll take into consideration the driving for my seasonal locations. I drive for relocations 8 days annually because I’m leisurely about it and visit friends along the way. Still, that’s 2 weeks more life to live every year.

I’m not even touching on whether or not these commuters like the jobs they are driving to. What could you do with 21 more days in your year? Would you have a 21 day vacation? Would you walk on the beach? Would you start a new business? Would you finally get to that XYZ project, or perhaps you’d finish the project for which you’ve given up your weekends?

I really want to know.

Making the market

As an outsider businessperson, I’ve learned that creating a business outside normal parameters requires the constant thought “there might be a good idea here”. Do not expect there to be a trade show tailored to your new genre, just because you are making a living at it. Go to every event that seems to have the slightest relation to your business. Go to any trade show that might have one booth of interest to you. There are vast opportunities in between the norms.

Mexican metal sculptures, made from oil barrels and car parts. Canton, TX.

This weekend we are visiting the First Monday Trade Days in Canton, Texas. We have friends that vend there, and while December is a slow month, the venue can easily get over 100,000 people per day in busy months. The event is loosely themed toward Texas antiques and reproductions, but Commerce actually drives the market. The place is a mix of folks who have the best price, and wholesale to the other vendors who have fancier presentations. It’s rather a microcosm of the antique and fine junk industry. The large numbers of visitors, both shop owners and homeowners, allow a quick reality check as to whether or not an idea will sell.

However, there are work-arounds. Let’s say you locate a great source for antique doors; a great enough source that allows you to wholesale them. The masses of people coming to the event already have a basic shopping list in their minds, and there may not be room in the truck for the new find you’ve brought to the market.

 

 

Smart vendors are networkers. The door source goes to his friend who builds reproduction furniture and gives him a deal on doors. Antique doors start showing up as headboards, hall trees and sofa tables. Interior Designers and Pinterest users carry the idea further, and now there is a solid business wholesaling antique doors. That smart door wholesaler might also sell reproduction cast iron coat hooks and hand forged nails for the reproduction furniture builders.

 

 

 

The Husband and I are not in the furniture, interior design, or antique business. However we do like to talk shop with other vendors who, like us, function best with a series of deadlines and concrete up / downtimes. We might find a new scheduling tool that makes the lifestyle easier. We may find a new food idea to steal from one of the many food vendors that are scattered amongst the 7000 vendors in town for the weekend. Or, we may just buy some antique doors for a project at our house.

 

Addendum: no antique doors on this trip, but I *did* get this awesome @ symbol.

The mug is for scale …

About Rhonni

My story … an eccentric’s business strategy.

I’ve been self-employed most of my adult life, dissatisfied with the idea of a single career-track. I have managed to build multiple businesses within the umbrella industry of outdoor themed entertainment. Renaissance Festivals, street shows, music festivals … each have different flavors, but the business needs are very similar. I am continually surrounded with people who have invented themselves and their jobs over and over again. In my world … *this* is normal.

Tegan’s photo of me from 2010

While we are used to making up our life-plan as we go along, folks in my industry are not really different from folks who do a 9 to 5. The main difference between our world and the world of the 9 to 5-er is rarely (if ever) do you hear anyone say they don’t love whatever it is they are doing for a living. Conversations about Work-Life Balance don’t happen at our tables, because those conversations are for people who don’t like their work.

This blog is a place where, with the help of some talented friends and associates, I’ll share some of the eccentric business strategies, and professional know-how that has helped so many of us craft interesting lives. You’ll also find Diversions and Home-Life sections to the blog, because our lives *are* beyond the ordinary, and the stories are interesting and sometimes thought-provoking. Many of us are Multipotentialites, or Renaissance Souls, and so our strengths and our curiosities cover a wide range of subjects. (There’s a reason that category is “Diversions”.)

Back to the bio-bit … I currently reside in 4 places every year. I’ve travelled for over 2 decades “on circuit”, my roles including Carpenter’s Helper, Human Resources Manager, Painter, Designer, Food Booth Manager, Building Coordinator, Hairbraider, General Factotum, Brainstorm Queen, and Boss Lady. None of these jobs were clearly defined until I sculpted them to fit my skills. Skills were honed along the process. As I learned more about building, I moved from being a carpenter’s helper, to being the person that could be counted on to make the trip to the hardware store, and return with what was needed to keep the job going during our tight-deadlines while opening shows. When I decided our buildings were not pretty enough (I wanted to have so many requests for our work, we’d be turning some of them down.) I learned to build shutters, window-boxes, and decorative trim … so that more people were asking for our design and building services.

That was over a decade ago. Now, Mr. Rocks and I make most of our yearly income in the food business. We make enough there that we only work half of the year, and I’m looking at what to do with the rest of my time. I don’t like being idle. I like interacting with people. I like making connections, whether I am connecting a person with the perfect meal, connecting people who may be of use or interest to each other, or connecting people with ideas.

 
Let’s see where this goes.

Reality Check: Fantasy Building Designs Must Meet Local Codes

Sixteen years ago, The Husband (at that time boyfriend of 10 years) and I were hired to oversee the construction of an entire Renaissance Festival. This 11 year old show had lost its lease, and was moving to a new piece of property 3 miles away. I was the Building Coordinator; probably the first ever in the history of permanent Renaissance parks.
I was 30 years old, and my job was to translate building code for the builders, some of whom had been building in these parks for almost 20 years without ever seeing a building inspector. I’d been working festival construction for 10 years, and drawing for permits in several different building code jurisdictions.
To say there was some friction would be an understatement. Renaissance festivals as a whole tend to be populated by open-minded people. However, these people also tend to be anarchists of a sort. They’ve made a living for themselves within an alternative community, and sometimes the rule-enforcers can be subject to a bit of push-back. I think more of it was due to my age than my sex. In truth, it was mostly that I was on the side of the regulations, and my job was to tell these guys when they were wrong, before the mistake was big enough to be spotted by the inspector that was onsite weekly.

Detail on Hawkers Crossing Pub, by Lars Lunde

When we were hired, the piece of land was completely unimproved. A group of folks who’d been doing festivals for years had designed a park with no inner circles, in an amoeba-like shape, with each arm anchored by a major stage. The early part of my job was leading what we called “Machete Tours” of the new site. While the old site was still in use, I escorted vendors on the new site, convincing them the move was a good investment, and helping them choose 3 different booth locations on which to build. The festival management wanted to maintain some flexibility in regards to building design compatibility and craft mix, so the final decision was made by a management committee. (I’m happy to say almost all got their 1st choice, and none had to resort to their 3rd choice.) At that time, this festival was open twice per year. This meant that vendors were designing shops that would access 8 weekends of sales in the spring, and 5 more in the fall. They turned in some truly lovely building designs.

More of Lars Lunde’s work

The Husband (Phil) was hired as the builder of the festival’s structures. This would be the front gate, all of the stages, and a few other structures owned by the festival, such as the first aid/information building, and 2 major food areas. He didn’t actually have time to do any of these things. At the beginning of the project, we asked the Festival Management who the Job Supervisor was going to be. We hoped it was someone with some festival experience, and not simply a local person who owned a bulldozer. The answer to our question was a blank stare. When we were obviously growing nervous at this non-response, Management asked us, “What do you need a Job Supervisor to do other than what you two will be doing?” Phil started unfurling his fingers one at a time as he listed; “Someone has to lay out the park, decide where the road will be, decide on where the water, phone, and electricity providers will put in their respective utilities, lay out the parking lot, set elevations for individual buildings, set elevations for the grounds, design the campground …”. Just before Phil unfurled a tenth finger, he was made the Job Supe.
There is some discussion in the industry about whether or not it is beneficial to have building inspectors involved when trying to mimic a 400 year old village. (Refer back to the comment about Anarchists.) We are designing retail spaces that look like they belong in an English village in the 1600s. Levels and plumb-lines can make a structure look a bit “too crisp”. Builders voice concerns that inspectors drive up the cost of construction. The vendors that hire these builders hear that comment and agree … loathe to spend any more than necessary on the shops they build for only 20 days of sales or less per year. But building inspectors protect everyone. The Park and the Vendor are protected from the liability of a poorly designed building. The Vendor is protected from an unqualified builder, and the Guest is protected from injury. Qualified builders build to code anyway, so the price is consistent with or without a building inspector. I’d be leery of a builder who said he wouldn’t build on a site where he had to pull a permit.

A typical elevation drawing for a building permit. More drawings are part of the drawing package, including labelled header sizes over open spans. (drawing courtesy of Lars Lunde at MidKnight Construction)

 

 

In my experience, building inspectors are not arbitrarily difficult, although difficulties can arise from lack of familiarity with the unique buildings involved in a Renaissance Festival. With established parks, the city’s sales tax benefit usually ensures that the inspector wants the building to be able to open. In the best situations, inspectors visit throughout the building process, and coach through corrections in order to insure the design’s viability. Inspectors *will* hold the builder accountable to the permit-approved drawing; so there is no designing-on-the-fly other than trim and color variations. This is a small price to pay for the assurance that the building, and everyone associated with it are safe.

 

footnote: Much thanks to my friend Lars, who allowed me access to his portfolio at MidKnight Construction for the images used in this post.

There is Magic in Momentum

I’m not a person who looks for the next catastrophe. In fact, a friend referred to me (lovingly, I hope) as Pollyannic just the other day. But I’m sitting in a great place, wondering what the next project should be.

It’s not a great time to have such a drive. Our work season is in upswing, and we’ll spend the next 5 months making a year’s income … so we’re kinda busy. But there is wisdom in that phrase “You want to get something done? Ask a busy person.” There is magic in momentum.

There is a little voice in my head saying I’m not busy enough … that there is currently not enough momentum. Consequently I am seriously cooking on my next great thing, and allowing this personal blog to be just that, a personal blog by a successful woman with a really wacky business. Funny how once the pressure is off for the blog to “be” something … I want to spend more time with it.

Maybe not so funny.