Teaching an Old Dog (Me) New Tricks
Learning, Growing & Stretching
I’ve just finished a 6-week online course called Substack Grow (I know, I know, I’m a total dopamine addict, but my Harvard course is on summer break, so I couldn’t resist). It’s from the folks that are hosting this very newsletter, and whose inspiring mission (from co-Founder and CEO Chris Best) is to help writers live from their work and connect with their tribes. This is the second summer they’ve offered it. It was a real gift. Having done rather too many online courses of every possible hue, this was one of the better ones - hands down. Why? Because it was a perfect balance of content, community and upskilling. It was done with grace, simplicity and a lot of heart. Participating in it, I wondered why this combination is still so rare.
Community, Collaboration, Content
What did they do? Substack picked a couple of hundred or so writers who were publishing on their platform and seemed to be consistently producing content while growing readership. They created a cohort by linking us all together and encouraging us to meet, collaborate and learn from each other. They brought in alumni from last year’s Grow programme to share what they had learned – about writing, publishing and spreading the word. And they introduced us to all the tools the platform keeps developing to support its writers and readers. As I’m coming up to the first year of writing elderberries, which I started on my 60th birthday, this was a wonderful early gift for my 61st. Celebrate with me? I’m offering a discount to join… until Aug 11th.
I met a range of wonderful people doing inspiring, wacky or unexpected things. Charlie Rogers who writes about skills mastery for people in their 20s (we are co-authoring a piece comparing the priorities at the start of Q2 and Q3). Frankie Love who writes Frankly!, who shares her learning about how to make a (good) living off romance writing (she self-publishes to tens of thousands of avid readers). Nishant Jain who has created a vibrant community of urban artists, Sharon Hurley Hall who writes about anti-racism, Graham Ruddick, a former Times business editor, writing about the UK reality outside of London. There were others covering the tech world, food or finance in all their forms, the entertainment sector in-news... it’s a busy, buzzing writing world out there.
This was a passionate group. People who were generous sharing their time, their ideas and their stats. Writers, I discovered, are mad about stats. How many followers they have is a particular passion, metric and self-scoring form of flagellation. People are pretty obsessed with these little pictures we get from our writer dashboards. The key KPIs are: followers, paid subscribers and your ‘open rate,’ or what percentage of your followers actually can be bothered to open your missive (let alone pay for it). You are all opening at a flatteringly high rate. And here’s what my graph looks like, and you can see just that Substack Grow upped the trajectory - immediately.
For many, these curves promise financial independence. For others, it’s just pure ego. For most, writing just seems to be their favourite way to spend their time. I realise that, despite four books to my name and a decade of writing for HBR and FORBES, I’ve never really called myself a writer. Or given myself enough time to write. My first book, written age 47, was written from 7h30 in the morning when the kids hopped on their bus, to 9h30 when I started work. Like many of us, I’ve always had a clock at war with my pen. This newsletter is a welcome exception. I can while away a contented weekend morning with all of you. This new phase of older life invites a different way to design priorities. I’m determined to carve out more writing time in my next chapter. What would you like to have more time for?
What would you like to have more time for?
I’m a bit of a techie (few know my first degree was in computer science). In one Substack Grow session, I heard about some cool new tools that I’ve wasted a couple of days this week exploring. Scrivener, which is going to really help in writing my current book. If you feel you have a book in you, this may just be the tool that helps you unlock it. It’s made for writers of long documents, to format, publish, centralise and share (e)-books, manuscripts or any other long, complicated text that you will be spending weeks and months on. After a couple of days, I’m vouching for its promise. It looks like a blessing. I’ll keep you posted.
Another tool was Missinglettr, a social media support (if you are tempted, please use my referral link https://lttr.ai/0D2M, I think I get some kind of reward). It takes basic content from blogs or published posts of any kind, and automatically extracts a bunch of good-looking quotes that it then sprinkles across the online world in doses you can design and schedule. I laughed in delight at its prowess. It reminds me of Designrr, another vacuum of an online tool that will convert any blog or Word doc into a beautifully laid out book – automatically. It allows you to repurpose content in myriad ways for a range of readers and audiences. For any writer, content owner, or thought leader these are akin to magic super powers.
It’s a bit head-spinning. If you think Harvard is stretching, trying to keep up with the latest tech wizardry is more exercise than my strength gym class (more on that below). But I think it’s very much part of my growing conviction that if you want to stay active and engaged in your 3rd Quarter, you really want to ‘lean in’ at this age (I hated that title for Sheryl Sandberg’s book about women. But it is absolutely apposite for now). If you want to stay in the conversation, you keep having to learn new languages – intellectual, generational, technological - and physical.
So in addition to trying to get my brain to grasp the latest tools and apps (exhausting), I’ve been exploring what exercise should be added to my usual regime to engage in ‘healthy, active ageing.’ A friend I’ve been chatting with this year is Dr. Pat Roberts. She’s just finishing a year at Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute (DCI), and we’ve been comparing programmes and approaches. Her cohort has been testing a new online gym programme, called VIVO, aimed at the 55+. It’s focused on strength training, says Founder Eric Levitan, a former tech entrepreneur who was inspired by his own mother’s fall and subsequent failing. The idea is to democratise the personal trainer experience - and deliver exercise tailored to ageing. Vivo does this with small, live groups that meet regularly with experienced trainers – online. I joined a Stanford group with a VIVO trainer this week and sweated and squatted with the best of them (also exhausting). I am still feeling it a few days later. But I know that I need to up my physical game in my sixties. My usual regimen of yoga, biking and walking may not be quite enough. I’m (deeply) committed to moderation, but I think I’m up against an increasingly powerful counter-force. I’ve no ambition to be one of the extraordinary older athletes that my friend Alex Rotas photographs so beautifully. Like most people, I’m just after healthy longevity. But, as you know, it takes an ever-increasing amount of time and investment.
I watched a webinar from the Longevity Project, called Extending Life: Advancing Science, Changing Business and the three experts were pretty clear about healthspans and lifespans. Aside from centenarians, who seem to be a weird bunch of exceptional humans with genes that allow them to drink, smoke, eat too much and live past 100, the rest of us have a clear choice. Because we don’t yet know how to test if we’re genetically pre-disposed to long life, if you want to cover your ass (or at least shape it), there is only one answer: lifestyle. And that means the usual we’ve all heard about forever: food, exercise, and sleep. Those are the big three. Also relationships and community, but that’s a rather more complicated subject, worthy of another post entirely. Hardly news, but just another reminder and confirmation. Unfairly - and the big challenge of ageing inequality - is the related importance of education, post code and stress (although the Israeli doctor on the panel, Dr. Barzilai, noted that Israeli men are the world’s second longest living, making stress a very relative thing).
So readers. What are your longevity prospects? Here’s a quick online test if you’re curious. Or let’s just see how satisfied you are on your personal Big Three:
My lessons from all of these different inputs, teachers and advisors? It’s a long game, full of years of small steps. Life is a brick-by-brick construction. It takes consistency, persistence and a certain amount of stolid repetition. Most success looks sudden from the outside but is usually decades in the making. The writers who built thriving followerships took years to build their communities. The people who age well have regular, healthy habits. The ones who inspire me never stop learning and growing.
Enough. It’s time to go for a walk. The heat in Boston has let up a bit, so I will try to pry husband Tim away from his reading. He’s deep into a book I already read, recommended by (what else?) Eleanor Mills’ Substack newsletter. It’s Bonnie Garmus’ debut novel, the thoroughly delightful Lessons in Chemistry. A fun-but-serious feminist romp through the challenges women face in science, singlehood and parenting. The writing drips talent, the main character would be your best friend, and Six-Thirty the dog alone is worth meeting. He’s a model for us all. He never stops learning new tricks.
I hope you are enjoying elderberries half as much as I am. As a thank you for following, for all the generous and complimentary feedback, and as an invitation to celebrate my birthday with me, how about a discount for joining the elderberries community? Good until my birthday August 11th!