Two epiphanies and a miracle

So something has happened. I was approached by an indie publisher about writing a book on nation-building, and I'm going to do it. I am saying yes. That's not even the most profound thing to come from that experience. The profound thing was that I saw myself and my work through different eyes...through those of someone who saw me on the crest of my greatest work. Suddenly, I knew what I needed to do. All it took was one step; I was thisclose, and I didn't realize it.

Since that moment, clarity has come from every side, and I've taken advantage of it. (That's one thing I've learned...when clarity comes, you respond immediately. Don't wait.) I knew the next steps for A Small Nation, so I built them. The brand evolution became clear, so I implemented that (here's the new website: My business structures became clear; the way I continue to build nations became clear. The cohesiveness of all my writing and communication became clear. It was a miracle. And all because of two things I discovered to be true.

Respecting your nation's identity

The first discovery (thank you Ben Arment), is that when you have a deep respect for your nation's identity, that respect prevents your nation from fluctuating with your highs and lows...your moments of great strength and pure weakness. That's easier to do when the nation's identity is something you see as separate from yourself -- something you hold in your hands, but that is not a part of you.

When Ben said this to me, I knew it for the mirror it was. I believe you can have a powerful nation built on a personal brand if you have an unrelenting capacity to respect it and its needs (i.e. you and your needs). That's something us arteests tend to struggle with. I also don't believe that is a call for every tortured soul to stop using their own name as the identity of their nation. But it is something to think about. What do you need to be able to treat your nation's identity with respect?

Showing up in service and solidarity

The second is that sharing the work I've put so much thought, care, and hope into is truly a service and an act of solidarity...that withholding it in a defensive posture against guru-ism is the opposite. I know people talk about how "your work is a service to the world" and all of that, but sometimes I think we're just trying to convince ourselves. Deep inside, most of us feel like hacks at least half the time.

To counter that feeling, I used to subconsciously believe that subtracting anything false or agenda-driven in my communication meant sharing more cat-related wit and instagrammed breakfasts and less about the work of my life. Though I'm a big fan of both cat humor and breakfast, I know suddenly that this isn't true. No matter what we're sharing, there is some sort of agenda...something you're trying to accomplish by communicating. The reason a lot of business communication (even "authentic" business communication) rings false is because agenda runs under the surface, and people are pretty good at detecting someone's agenda without even knowing they're doing it.

That's why the answer is not "be compelling". Who knows what's compelling anymore, when the shock of the social web has worn off? Just tell your truth in a way that elevates the skills, behavior, and experience of the people around you. (And listen to Kathy Sierra talk about the business implications of doing this...her talk is brilliant, and her work has raised mine to a higher level). Be aware of your agenda if it's anything other than service, knowing that sometimes making me belly-laugh on a horrible Wednesday is the best service of all. Service is a many-feathered thing, and is not automatically serious and deep.

That's it, I think. I appreciate your support more than I know how to say; it occurs to me that the most accurate description of what you've been is the wind beneath my wings, and that gives me the greatest, biggest belly laugh on this terrific Wednesday.

In service and solidarity, Sarah J. Bray

Updates and new arrivals: I put together a free foundational mini-course on nation-building here (no login needed). I'm hosting Nation-Building Tuesdays every...Tuesday. I've already had someone I don't know call me an idiot on Facebook in response to the first directive, so I take that as a good sign. If you didn't get it in your email, sign up here. The next Tour de Bliss excursion is getting closer; if you've been waiting, your patience will soon be rewarded.

The worst way to do social media

The worst way to do social media is to sit down at a computer and read through hundreds of articles to find the two worth talking about that haven't already become ubiquitous. What a waste of hours that could have been spent making something brilliant! How depressing to work so hard for a handful of shrapnel! Over the years, I've created various systems for myself so that I can do the work, but also share the work. My motive used to be for my marketing to take care of itself, but it's become a different issue lately: more about giving out of love instead of withholding out of fear. I don't want to be afraid of new opportunities and expansion and the decisions I might have to make when that happens. Instead, I want to keep the people in mind who are coming and listening and investing their time with me. I want to do good for them, and I want them to know that there will always be something for them when they invest the energy to check.

So instead of focusing on a consistent outcome (x tweets per day; x facebook posts per day; x blog posts per day; x emails per week), I'm focusing on a consistent process that is built into how I experience my day.

BE myself, and become an expert at what that means. I find the things that make me feel the most myself, and then I do those things as much as possible. For me, that's being exposed to new ideas constantly. Mostly by reading books, but it's also listening to podcasts (while I'm making food) or reading books out loud to my kids (I choose good ones that also spark my own imagination). I also really enjoy meeting with a client or a colleague each day; those neurons bouncing off of each other have a profound effect on getting me inspired to do the next thing.

(Sidenote: my natural tendency is to turn "being Sarah" into "doing the things Sarah likes to do", as you can see above. "Being Sarah" without the "doing" part is something my brain doesn't comprehend yet...I'm working on it.)

NOTICE what's going on around me. For me, being on social media is a lesson in mindfulness. When I am mindful about the connections my brain is making or about what brilliant thing someone just said to me or what ironic thing I just witnessed, the world is an endless repository of inspiration that can be shared and explored. When I am not mindful of it...when I am worried and thinking too much about the future or about what people may be expecting of me, those are the times when I feel disconnected and uninspired to share (and those are the times I get lost in the black hole of checking all of my accounts a million times without contributing anything, leading me to think, erroneously, "Social media is RUINING my LIFE!").

MAKE something new. This includes writing or drawing or coding or designing or strategizing...whatever it is that I'm inspired to do with my ideas. I don't set out to make something to fulfill some sort of quota or obligation. I make something when I am inspired to make it, or when someone asks me to make it, or when I see a bunch of people having the same problem that I have (or, of course, when I'm working on a nation-building project with someone). Being myself and noticing the things around me naturally spurs me to make things in response.

DOCUMENT my epiphanies. This could mean documenting my actual process or simply sharing the thoughts I have along the way. It certainly means sharing anything I noticed that makes an emotional impact on me. It also means sharing anything I made, in a way that is useful and not merely self-gratifying.

Documenting is a habit, and it's one that is easy to fall out of, especially if I'm not mindful of my process and experience. It will be different for everyone. For example, I have several different places where I share (here, at A Small Nation, 2 mailing lists, 2 Facebook accounts, 2 Twitter accounts, sometimes Pinterest...HOLY WHAT), but the only one that is consistent is A Small Nation's Nation-Building Tuesdays. I recently decided to have one thing people could count on (and that I can count on myself for). Everything else is based on being myself, and then documenting what I'm noticing and what I'm making. I then decide the best place to share it.

Social media really isn't a big deal, but it can certainly drive you crazy if you feel like you're constantly "behind" or inconsistent or not one of the cool kids (btw, nobody's that cool).

Basically, live a glorious life; do glorious work. Let your work be the focus of your time, but don't let it be an excuse not to share your brilliance...instead, let social sharing fuel your best work with the mindfulness and connection it can bring.

Multi-tasking in human speech

"When we humans speak, we are not merely communicating information but attempting to make an impression and achieve a goal. And sometimes we are hoping to prevent the listener from noticing what we are not saying, which is often not merely distracting but, we fear, as audible as what we are saying. As a result, dialogue usually contains as much or even more subtext than it does text. More is going on under the surface than on it. One mark of bad written dialogue is that it is only doing one thing, at most, at once." - Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer

If I had no other skill than being able to communicate well, that would be enough. All those things going on underneath the surface! It's head-spinning to someone who doesn't do it by instinct.

That's why it's so hard to teach writing or speech-making or anything else; how can you teach the nuances of subtext? You can't. After surrounding yourself with examples of the type of work you want to be doing, you just have to do it, and learn from the feedback you're constantly getting. And remember that everything is feedback, not just the words people say.

What to do when you're stuck with a blank page

"Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going...I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, 'Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.' So finally I would write one true sentence and then go on from there."

- Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

In Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose says that she used to hear this, "and I've nodded my head, not wanting to admit that I honestly had no idea what in the world Hemingway was talking about."

Which is funny to me, because in my Tour de Bliss course on content strategy, we begin writing by asking ourselves each morning, "What is the most true right now?" Several of my students start out just as confused as Prose (and some never figure out exactly what I mean by it, try as I might to explain).

I don't think I knew that Hemingway asked this question first, unless it was lurking in my subconscious...I'm actually not sure when I first started asking it myself and began using it as a basis for what to write. But I understand what he means. He is talking about experiential truth. Not something that you learned to be true, but something you found to be true.

In the context of fiction, it might be something you witnessed or experienced, physically, spiritually, emotionally...something that resounds delightedly (or horrifyingly) true. This evening, for example, I thought of my late grandmother and how ironic it is that she raised 9 kids on a farm in the valley and couldn't cook. To this day, my dad is ambivalent about food.

This is the beginning of a fantastic story because it is true. What comes next is the writer's favorite answer to that honest question. What would family life be like if you had no grocery store around the corner and had to eat through your beloved mama's terrible way with livestock? How would your dad feel about it, after working as a sharecropper all day? How would he react, and how would each of the children respond, individually and as a group?

In the context of non-fiction, truth is easier to understand, but still people ask -- how do you know what is the most true? Or as Hemingway would put it, what is "the truest sentence"? For me, this is always the thing that incites the most passion in me. I feel it because I have experienced it, not like I experience a cup of coffee, but like I experience a shift in perspective. The room gets bigger. I am changed.

In the end, Prose gives up on the idea of sentences being "true" -- she says what he really means is that they are beautiful, which is no less hard to define. But I think she's wrong. A sentence can be true, even if it's not factually correct. That is what makes the reader go "YES!" Truth is common more often than it isn't...that's what keeps me writing. And that's why it's the best place I know to begin.

The benefits of reading out loud

"A poet once told me that he was reading a draft of a new poem aloud to himself when a thief broke into his Manhattan loft. Instantly surmising that he had entered the dwelling of a madman, the thief turned and ran without taking anything, and without harming the poet. So it may be that reading your work aloud will not only improve its quality but save your life in the process."

- Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer

It seems that my habit of reading out loud (with theatrics!) may be doing me some good after all.

We do ourselves a disservice

"Part of a reader's job is to find out why certain writers endure...You will do yourself a disservice if you confine your reading to the rising star whose six-figure, two-book contract might seem to indicate where your own work should be heading. I'm not saying you shouldn't read such writers, some of whom are excellent and deserving of celebrity. I'm only pointing out that they represent the dot at the end of a long, glorious, complex sentence in which literature has been written."

- Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer

This is part of every creative person's job -- not to base our work on that of the latest superstar, but to find the work that has endured over time, and pay close attention.

How to be great...quickly

We learn by being taught, but we gain true, gut-level understanding when we keep swallowing up worthy examples of a job well done. I become a great writer by reading the words of great writers. I become a great designer by surrounding myself with the work of great designers. It's a slow, gradual process, but it doesn't have to be. The way I learn things quickly (which is the fun part of building nations in fields I'm not as familiar with) is by not only surrounding myself with the best examples I can find, but by noticing the details and imagining the decisions that went into making them. Not by criticizing them, analyzing them, or trying to replicate them, but by paying close attention.

"I've always thought that a close-reading course should at least be a companion, if not an alternative, to the writing workshop. Though it also doles out praise, the workshop most often focuses on what a writer has done wrong, what needs to be fixed, cut, or augmented. Whereas reading a masterpiece can inspire us by showing us how a writer does something brilliantly."

- Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer

The only thing that matters

I’m convinced, finally, that now is all there is. After feeling the high heavens and rock bottoms of all my successes and failures, I know it’s true — this is really my life. I spent my 20s reaching high and wide for my dreams. So far, my 30s have been spent coming back down to earth and helping other people reach theirs. You know what’s strange about that? "Success" continues to find me anyway, somehow. Which makes me wonder over all the relentless striving — maybe I didn’t have to do all that after all? Maybe all those years of pushing were like rain dancing during a drought and believing that my gyrations are what waters the earth.

Or maybe I really did build a mountain in my 20s, and nothing, not even my refusal to strive, can tear it down now. I don’t know. What I do know is this — the thing that matters is doing the thing that matters. Doing it well and doing it without fear.

Thank you for your prayers and well-wishes. If I haven’t responded to your kindness, it’s because I put your get well soon letters in a folder for when I felt better, and I’m still looking at that folder thinking…wow. People are so nice. Thank you. (That may be as far as it goes…I have a history of making well-intentioned lists of people to thank; maybe instead of making lists, I should just thank someone already.)

An update on the upcoming excursion for the Tour de Bliss: it is coming (oh vagueness, how I love thee!). I’m hoping my next email to you will include new dates and a link for registration, but at the same time, I won’t put it out there until it’s ready and I’m proud of it. I hope we never rob ourselves of that birthright of all creators — of knowing that we did what we set out to do, and that it was good.

Our fragmentary culture

"Our generation is prone to amuse itself with fragmentary information and resources. We flip on the TV for brief programs, and then we think we know about the subjects they dealt with. A few paragraphs in a magazine and we think we've formed an opinion. What is happening so often is that we are merely forming a habit of amusing our interests and then forgetting the fragments. This is not education."

- Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, For the Children's Sake

This was printed pre-Twitter, in 1984.

For the Children's Sake by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay

"Look well at the child on your knee. In whatever condition you find him, look with reverence. We can only love and serve him and be his friend. We cannot own him. He is not ours. Neither would it be fit to use the fact that he is dependent on us to brainwash him into thinking any arbitrary thought or perform any arbitrary act that we may deem useful. We should not plan his life for him, so that he is being prepared for some great purpose -- even if the purpose we intend is a worthy one in our eyes."

- Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, For the Children's Sake

In our first year of homeschooling, we've been struggling to balance a child-led approach with one that dips the children's toes into many different fascinating things that they might not choose for themselves. I'm finding myself using more and more of Charlotte Mason's approach, which seems to allow for both. Copious amounts of unstructured play combined with short, impactful, interesting lessons.

Apparently, this book I'm reading is the one that re-introduced Charlotte Mason's philosophy to a whole new generation of parents and educators. I'm excited to dig in.

So Long, Insecurity by Beth Moore

"If having it all is a myth, then keeping it all is science fiction at its furthest fetch. The pressure is impossible, and the appetite of that beast is insatiable. one is more thoroughly seduced by the lie that security is circumstantial than somebody who has almost everything."

- Beth Moore, So Long, Insecurity

The Tender Heart by Joseph Nowinski

"Insecurity refers to a profound sense of self-doubt -- a deep feeling of uncertainty about our basic worth and our place in the world. Insecurity is associated with chronic self-consciousness, along with a chronic lack of confidence in ourselves and anxiety about our relationships. The insecure man or woman lives in constant fear of rejection and a deep uncertainty about whether his or her own feelings and desires are legitimate."

- Joseph Nowinski, The Tender Heart: Conquering your insecurity

I've added a new project to my field notes categories -- raising my limits. As much as I know about business and marketing and the state of the web, my own self is the thing that most often stands in the way of the things I personally want to do in the world.

As I'm reading about self-doubt and what it actually is (insecurity), I see so much of it in my life that I never noticed before. Ironically, it's mainly around productivity. I have a terrible fear of being lazy. It's also around making personal commitments that I'm afraid I won't be able to keep. Oh, and my house. I'm scared of my house being terribly messy and people finding out about it.

(I heard today is bring your neuroses to work day. Didn't you know?)

On freedom vs. structure

"So although on one side we allow for others and ourselves time and space for the bubbling up joie de vivre with all the energy, well-being, and freedom that come when we spend some of our time according to personal choices, on the other side we need structure. To be beautiful, the river needs its boundaries, or the waters actually become like the muddy Mississippi flood. So with our lives."

- Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, For the Family's Sake

And so with our work, too.

For the Family's Sake by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay

As I've been studying the "home" and what it takes to make a home that serves as a conduit for creativity, learning, and relationship, nature keeps coming up.

"Small children want to do a lot of things that get them dirty, and those things are good for children too. They love to dig in earth and sand, wade in mud puddles, splash in water in the sink. They want to roll in the grass, squeeze mud in their hands. When they have chances to do these delightful things, it enriches their spirit, makes them warmer people, just the way beautiful music or falling in love improves adults." -

Benjamin Spock, as quoted by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay in For the Family's Sake

(I find it hilarious that I am now taking lessons from Dr. Spock. I feel like a 50's housewife.)

Making the outdoors part of family life

"The task of getting everyone dressed and out the door is part of the rhythm of this time of year, and built into our days, just as the clothes rack by the fireplace is built into our furniture for the time being. Hats, mittens, snow pants, scarves, and socks dangle from its wooden frame, and as the snow melts we hear the drip as the water hits the woodstove and the hearth around it. It sizzles and steams, and we are reminded with each drop, that inside is warm."

- Amanda Soule, The Rhythm of Family

I always idealize spending more time outdoors, but it never works when I make it happen. It's always poor timing; no one wants to go; we don't know what to do, etc. I want to build the environment to make it easy to spend time outdoors. Compel them outside, instead of telling them to go outside.


  • Clothes rack by the back door with everything they need already there (it's easier to go outside when you don't have to hunt for your left shoe)
  • Jars/baskets by the back door to collect things in
  • Little books and pencils that they can draw/record findings in
  • A scavenger hunt list with things they might look for (not an "organized fun" thing, but just a list that they might find and be delighted by)
  • Mark out their own plot of earth in the backyard, using string and sticks (January is a great time to plan for the spring garden plot...seed choices will be slim in another month or so)
  • Start reading books about gardening/planting so that their brains start to turn (just read The Carrot Seed and The Curious Garden this evening, and they were fantastic)
  • Put out the seed catalogs, and let them know that they are allowed to order any 3-5 things they like. (We like Seeds of Change best, and Territorial Seed Company is another one we're looking at this year. Order their free catalogs to get a good feel for what's available; we love flipping through them and marking them up.)
  • A "nature table" indoors that they can put their favorite finds on (the school my kids used to go to used to do this, and everyone loved it)

I think this is a good start.

The Rhythm of Family by Amanda Blake Soule

During my annual Christmas/New Year's getaway to my parents' house (which lasted an entire fortnight...I feel so Austenian!), I did not read a single business/producticity book. In fact, I only read TWO books while I was there (plus A Christmas Carol, which doesn't count), and it turns out that was not enough at all. I was in major book withdrawal by the time I got home. One of the books I chose to bring with me was The Rhythm of Family by Amanda Soule. There are several things I'm going to be implementing this year, and I'll document them here.

"Nature's place as a reward in this journey needs little explanation. For it is there that we -- young and old -- can and do find much that we need in life: comfort, peace, curiosity's sustenance, adventure, and wonder. In the magical world of the woods, or the shore, or the park around us, our children can truly be free -- free to be themselves, free to explore, free to experience the wonder of nature's intricacies around them. In the natural world, we find ourselves much like children -- humbled and awed of what is in front of us. In the natural world, we can connect with our children in a slow, deep, and meaningful way."

- Amanda Soule, The Rhythm of Family


Take a look at my field notes

I have always been a nerd

And not the "real" kind who likes Star Trek (I didn't even know who Wil Wheaton was until Big Bang Theory), but the kind who has read everything in sight since she was 4 years old...including the ingredients of every food item in our shopping cart, as well every book that happened to reside in our house (including some my mom would have been shocked at me pulling off our bookshelves). I emphasize the every because I was very systematic about this. And not only would I read every one, but I would document my discoveries in little notebooks.

I still read everything in sight and keep little notebooks of data. I love learning. In fact, I think that's why I do all of this...the nation-building and the Tour de Bliss. They are fascinating ideas, yes, but what really makes me light up is that I never stop learning new things and implementing them and learning even more from my experiences.

And so, I've started keeping my little notebooks in a tiny new section of my website, called Field Notes. As is the rest of my site, it's currently in beta mode as I'm working on a way to organize it to make it the most useful to me. Topics I'm exploring at the moment: the concept of creating remarkable work (for the next Tour de Bliss excursion), slugs and other mollusks (for a collaborative writing project), home education within the creative life (as we're working through the kinks of our first year), and God (as I'm working out my faith in the context of public/private life). I have no grand ideas that people will actually read them (it is the rare soul who is interested in both marketing and mollusks), but I'm excited to be publishing something that is so true to who I am. You can read them whenever you like here.


Don't forget the toothpaste!

Last week, I shared with you about my disappointment in Tom's horrible-tasting toothpaste. Since then, I've received at least a dozen requests to keep at it...that other toothpastes would start tasting wrong to me, and that I would start to love dear Tom and his much-better-for-me-and-the-planet version.

Well, it's true. I kept at it, and one week later I can say that my teeth feel cleaner than they've ever felt, and the taste no longer makes me gag. I'm a far cry from spreading it on my toast in the morning, but it's become much less perceivable that this is anything other than the way toothpaste is supposed to taste. So I suppose my moralizing about the things I create needing to taste good needs an addendum. The things I make need to taste good, but people will get used to anything if it leads to a better way of life. OR! Things that are healthy are supposed to taste bad; that's how you know they're working. OR! If it tastes too good and it has everything else going for it as well, then people will think it's too good to be true. Insert bad taste to make it believable.

Or maybe the analogy just doesn't work anymore. Take it as you will.

Thank you for being here! Enjoy the Field Notes!

The Design Entrepreneur by Steven Heller and Lita Talarico

20121219-160242.jpg I love this booooook. I love it. Or rather, I love that it exists...I just started reading it.

The authors coin design entrepreneurs as "The 'I can do it all' generation". It's powerful to be a designer who can not only design, code, and "solve problems that involve making aesthetic decisions", but also one who can write, develop business strategy, and execute on the marketing front, all while having a first-hand understanding of the market and its needs.

There are blind-spots though...ways that design entrepreneurs get in their own way. Ways that I get in my own way.

For example, the problem of being a single flesh and blood a marketing world that needs brands to be "on" all the time to have credibility, it's hard to maintain as a solo act. And the problem with's hard to find structures that allow everyone to feel valued and heard without a lot of money and energy being put toward "management", while also being efficient at serving the needs of the project. (Maybe I perceive this as a problem because I hate being a manager. Or rather, I hate being a manager at the expense of doing creative work.)

"As the design disciplines become more interrelated, a rising tide of "I can do it all," or a sense of overarching confidence, has washed over the new generation of designers – at least judging from the increased number of design entrepreneurs. They are no longer reticent about jumping – sometimes head first – into other (albeit usually related) fields if their business idea demands it."

– Steven Heller and Lita Talarico, The Design Entrepreneur


How to learn any skill

  • Deconstruction: What are the minimal learnable units, the Lego blocks, I should be starting with?
  • Selection: Which 20% of the blocks should I focus on for 80% or more of the outcomes I want?
  • Sequencing: In what order should I learn the blocks?
  • Stakes: How do I set up stakes, create real consequences, and guarantee I follow the program?

Tim Ferris, The 4-Hour Chef

Note to self: Yes! This is how I can make sure that we are getting tremendous outcomes in the 4-week excursion format...DSSS.