How screwing things up can be great inspiration

Legend has it that the great Ernest Hemingway once won a $10 bet at a bar by writing a story in six words. The story went like this:

For sale, baby shoes. Never used.

Isn't it amazing how our minds take those six words and fill in a whole world of a story behind them? Images of a father and mother, or perhaps just a mother, preparing for the birth of a child. A baby room lovingly prepared, clothes bought, a baby crib in the corner. Then tragedy. The baby didn't make it, the parents distraught. The empty crib, the feelings of emptiness and despair. And the heartache of getting rid of hollow memories, knowing there can never be another…

That's what my mind coloured in when I first read those words. And aside from just how powerful that six-word story is, I just had to wonder how Hemingway came up with these ideas? How did he manage to so consistently, seemingly without effort, come up with the most amazing stories told in his trademark simple, engaging style?

Ernest Hemingway was without doubt one of the great writers of our time, and like all the greats, his talent seemed effortless. But true talent is never developed without effort, and inspiration is never as easy as it seems.

So what do you do when you don't have inspiration? One answer is in thinking about how to screw things up.

I made a list of how I could screw things up

I've been stuck in an infamous "writer's dry spell" for a while. Over the last couple of months writing became more and more difficult, to the point where I was struggling just getting two weekly articles out.

Then I read Srinivas Rao's article How Writing for One Hour a Day Can Improve The Quality of Your Life, and decided to give it a try. I sat down and started writing earlier this afternoon. No specific ideas in mind, I just started whining about how I was stuck in a dry spell and how I could break out of it.

In the flow, I started writing down all the ways I could screw up an article. Bad headlines, no headings, no way to keep the reader's attention… The list seemed to just keep growing, and before I knew it, I had 10 items on my list. Yep, 10 ways to screw up an article without even thinking hard.

And that's when inspiration struck

Looking at the list of 10 ways to screw up an article, I realised that each way to screw up an article was, in itself, an article. So I backtracked to the 10 items and turned each item into a provisional article title.

Suddenly, I had 10 ideas for articles.

I wasn't convinced that this would work, so I chose another topic. This time it was "how to let business screw up your life". And 10 minutes later, I had another eight article ideas.

Repeat the exercise again, and another 10 minutes later an additional five potential articles on how to screw things up when you don't follow up with clients.

I was not only on to a new, or better, or different way of writing articles, I also realised that what I was going through would make a great article in itself (which is about as meta as you can get…)

How this works

Here's the original list of 10 things I wrote down for how I could screw up an article:

  • use a crappy headline
  • don't tell a story
  • use long, run-on sentences
  • present it as one loooong block of text
  • try to sound "official" or "smart"
  • don't give the reader the chance to scan the article
  • don't have a conclusion or summary
  • suck it out of your thumb (no experience, no idea, no research)
  • don't outline it before you write
  • don't use connectors

These 10 ideas are of course not the only ways to screw up an article; you will be able to think of more and better ones. But they were a good enough start for me to add provisional article titles to each:

  • use a crappy headline: the power of headlines
  • don't tell a story: why you need to tell a story (and how to do it)
  • use long, run-on sentences: how to write like Hemingway
  • present it as one loooong block of text: how scanning leads to better reading
  • try to sound "official" or "smart": why your voice is the most important thing in your article
  • don't give the reader the chance to scan the article: how headings make articles easier to read
  • don't have a conclusion or summary: why you need a conclusion in your articles
  • suck it out of your thumb (no experience, no idea, no research): how to research your subject matter
  • don't outline it before you write: how outlines help you write 100 times faster
  • don't use connectors: how to make a story flow

At this stage, I'm not concerned that all of these are good article titles, or even that I can write an article about each way to screw up an article - the point is that I've generated 10 ideas for articles which I can add to my article ideas list to use later.

It's your experience that brings the real value

One of my colleagues in a consulting firm once said: our claim to fame is that we've gotten it wrong more times than anyone else. And that experience is what clients paid for - we knew what was not going to work because we had tried it before. We could provide the shortcuts and optimal solutions because we knew what wouldn't work.

That's your experience at work - the value that you have that no one else has in quite the same way. So the process of writing down all the ways you can screw something up is simple:

just think of all the ways you've learnt to screw something up

All these "ways to screw up something" are born from experience. You've tried something, it didn't work and you learnt how not to do it. Or you read or learnt how to do something, forgot to apply it in your own work and learnt that you should have followed that advice.

Your experience is valuable because you can save others the pain of learning the hard way.

Another example of how to screw things up

My business is about helping solopreneurs, freelancers and small business owners build a successful business - and have a life. I've adopted the idea of the lifestyle business to capture this sentiment, and developed the Tornado Method as a framework for designing, building and running a business without losing what makes life worth living in the first place.

At the bottom of the Tornado Method framework is an element called Team, Culture and Personal Effectiveness, and that's where having a business - as well as a life - comes together. So my next topic for how to screw things up was how to let your business screw up your life.

Here are the eight things I wrote down together with provisional article titles for each:

  • Always work, never play: The power of play to build a business
  • Take the stress home: Use shutdown routines to leave the stress at work
  • Never plan for vacations: Why you need to pay for your next vacation now
  • Let your family life slide: You're not alone on this life raft
  • Don't make time to think how things are going: How introspection can help you build a business
  • Don't exercise: How exercise can help you build a better business
  • Always run on adrenaline: how calm can boost your business
  • Always react without thinking: the power of taking a minute

Even if my provisional article titles don't make a lot of sense to you, you should be able to understand at least the concept of each way you can let your business screw up your life.

Not just for writing

This technique was born out of my frustrations struggling with writer's block. But you can also apply it to many other situations:

  • how can you screw things up when you next go on a date with your loved one?
  • how can you screw up that next project?
  • how can you screw up landing that client who is ready to buy and desperately needs your services?
  • how can you screw up a relationship?

I won't claim that avoiding all the possible ways to screw something up is going to lead to success - but you'll be way ahead of the game if you can avoid even the top three ways to screw something up.

Your turn

So there's the principle and some examples. The process is simple:

  • pick a topic, any topic;
  • write down all the ways you can screw up that topic;
  • create provisional article titles for each way you can screw it up; OR
  • list the things you need to do so you won't screw up (you already know what not to do).

And of course you don't have to wait until you're stuck and don't know what to say or do - I'm planning to dedicate an hour a week to just thinking about ways to screw things up and brainstorm articles around those ways. I should have a library of article ideas I can draw on any time.

And I should also brainstorm all the ways I can think of to screw other things up - like relationships. You may find, like me, that you're guilty of some of those already. And once you know what you shouldn't be doing, you can stop doing it and start doing something better.

A story in six words

Ernest Hemingway was able to tell a heart-wrenching story in six words. He is celebrated for his talent and the works he produced, but that talent was not born overnight. He worked for many years before he got to that level and left us with some of the literary gems of our time.

I don't have the inclination to become the next Hemingway - I have other things I want to do. But I can learn from the greats, and I can learn from my mistakes and help others avoid them.

So celebrate your talents and successes - but don't forget that it's all the ways you screwed up that also helped you get where you are today. Use that experience to help yourself - and help others.

Previous article
Next article