The journey from having an idea to being a thought leader can be a long one. Those who walk that path learn very early that having a good idea to start with isn’t enough to keep them going and growing.
As hard as starting is for a lot of people, it’s actually not the hardest part — the hardest part is sticking through the rough middle and the plateaus that naturally come once you start getting your ideas out the door and getting known.
- Your first five posts or articles are hard to publish. The next 45 or 450 aren’t hard to publish, but are hard to generate, stick with, and see through. And turning those ideas into a long-form book is something altogether different.
- It takes a lot of courage to publish your first manifesto (or minifesto). Making that manifesto one of the foundations of your brand and a compass for your body of work is even more daunting.
- Launching your first paid product, class, event, or service requires a lot of confidence, courage, and trust that it’ll work. Creating a customer arc that successively educates and uplevels your customers, at the same time that you re-run your offers when they’re no longer fun for you, is a completely different challenge.
Books, brands, and businesses require significantly more than creative excitement and a flash of courage to build. Putting yourself out there in the beginning is hard, AND keeping yourself out there is a different type of hard.
It might seem like I’m saying that the thought leadership journey is all hard. And you might be one of the quickstarts who love starting new things, so the bit about that being hard might not resonate. The journey can be joyous, immensely fulfilling, and, for some of us, the thing we can’t not do. That said, I talk to enough people every day to know that the middle and end of the journey aren’t being discussed enough because so much of the conversation is focused on aspirational entrepreneurs and thought leaders. I’m writing this post primarily for people who are already on the path, and I want those who are thinking about taking their first step to understand the reality of it so that when they hit the hardest part, they’ll know that it’s a part of the journey and not a sign of their capabilities.
Clarity, Commitment, and Community Get You Through the Middle
Once you get going, what keeps you going is the right mix of clarity, commitment, and community.
Clarity is split two ways: clarity about your concepts and clarity about your purpose. It’s not that you have to know exactly what you’re talking about and exactly why you’re doing it, but getting clearer on both as you move along the path is the aim. Besides, in the marketplace, it’s not what you know that’s most important, but what you can clearly communicate with others. There’s no use in being the smartest person in the room if no one can understand you.
Commitment to the long game of sharing your body of work with the audience you’re developing helps you work through the middle when you’re thrashing or have hit a plateau. Commitment creates trust and focus and sets the bedrock for community.
Community not only is required for you to get business and brand lift, but also makes the journey easier and more fulfilling. “Community” here has several layers: it’s a mix of your pack, your audience, and the broader ecosystem your venture sits in. As much as the myth of the solo creative is propagated, the truth is that the majority of successful creatives (including thought leaders) have conspirators, supporters, patrons, champions, readers, and fans. The success of creatives is tied as much to their communities as it is to their own brilliance and work.
Three Areas of Focus, Three Questions for Each Area
Clarity, consistency, and community. You get it, but knowing isn’t doing. Here are some questions that I hope will help spur you to action.
- Have you identified and (publicly) shared the 3-5 foundational aspects of your body of work?
- Have you reflected on your purpose for developing your body of work, both for you and for your readers? (Where’s the spark?)
- Are there any aspects of your work that need to be minimized or abandoned so you can focus on developing the core components?
- Are you sharing your work consistently or at the frequency you like? If not, what needs to change? (Displacement is real.)
- Is there a project that you started that needs to be prioritized and moved from the “someday/maybe/when-convenient” bucket to the “active project” bucket?
- Which of your previous ideas or offers needs more attention? When will it get the attention it needs?
- Among your creative pack, whom do you feel most drawn to reach out to? When will you do it?
- Which customers, readers, or students do you feel the most drawn to engage with? When will you do it?
- Is there any work that your influencers and/or colleagues have done that you feel drawn to read, share, or discuss with them?
I’m providing the nine questions above not so you’ll do all of them, but so you have some options. Better to pick one and do it today or this week than to pick more and do none.
Which of the three C’s — clarity, commitment, and community — is your strong suit? Which one needs some additional effort?
If you’re in the early stages of the journey, choose one of the C’s and one question to focus on today. If you’re well on your way and are ready for some help in getting through the hard, keep reading.