Author: Jena

San Francisco-based copywriter and strategist. Idea machine. I'm never bored. Life is too delicious.

Why I blog about my failures

In my last post, I wrote about a time when I was viewed as a pathetic failure at work. I got an email (or two) telling me I shouldn’t do that. It makes you look inexperienced, they said. You look fallible.

A few days ago I traded emails with an executive coach. He wasn’t always an executive coach–first, he went through a divorce and the loss of both parents and a bankruptcy. All at once. When he got his head out of the water, he found that the experience had changed him. He felt less arrogant and more empathetic toward the struggles of others. Now, he says, his struggles help him to identify with the CEOs that he coaches on a daily basis. He helps them to learn to listen, be vulnerable and open.

Failures change us. If we allow ourselves to learn from them, we become wiser and stronger. The very scary truth for some people to hear is that I am fallible. Admitting that gives me strength: I don’t always have to be perfect. I don’t need to pretend that I am always successful simply because I am good, or paid by people to create cool things. I am still fundamentally human.

More and more in this world, great brands want an authentic voice–a human voice–writing their copy. Voices of failure and growth are real voices, and audiences identify with them. They are part of a universal story in which we learn from our failures and change how we do things. After my failure at my previous job, I made the decision to think long and hard about where I failed. I found at least one of the biggest reasons, and I’m taking steps to grow myself out of it.

The executive coach was interviewed for a magazine. He told them, “Humble leaders invariably are genuine, kind, open and vulnerable. They listen until they understand. Their honesty and optimism help build a team.”

I’m not the selfie-posting viral type whose big stories last for 15 minutes and disappear into the ether; I’m a quiet leader making real connections for brands to their audiences. Failures are part of my story, and that keeps me authentic. I can handle the fallout email.

I was asked to give a speech

I’ve struggled with something my entire life, and last week I told a room full of people about it in my first Toastmasters speech. 

My name is Jena Binderup and I am a copywriter, and I’m here because I have to be. A few months ago, I quit my job.

Let me explain.

I’m a writer. Sometimes people ask me how I became a writer, and it’s a very hard question to answer. I was born this way, Lady-Gaga style. I always kept a diary, I frequently got in trouble for writing too much, in fourth grade I wrote 5 chapters of a novel. Writing isn’t what I do; it’s who I am. I’m lucky because I’m good enough to get paid for my writing. I’ve won awards and been asked to speak places because of it.

But that’s not why I’m here.

This time last year, I was working as a copywriter in a corporate office. A woman—another writer, actually–began working in my department. She wasn’t a great writer, but she had fantastical skills in pitching herself and getting company leaders to love her. She was so good that I noticed something after a few months: she got credit for all of my ideas. How did she do that?

I thought about this for a long time. It worked like this:

I’d have an idea or a solution for a strategy, new project, or marketing piece. I’d bring it to her or my manager and it would get shot down immediately–then re-introduced by her a week or so later, to great applause. Meanwhile, every time something went wrong in the department, the woman found a way to blame it on me. She got promoted in six months because she sold herself constantly as an expert. But for me, it got to the point where my manager thought I was incompetent. After all, I never had any great ideas and I always made mistakes. I began to believe that I was on the verge of getting fired.

All the while, I was working as a freelancer on the side. One day, I got a big job from one of my freelance clients. It was big enough that it would take me a whole month to finish and it was going to pay me twice what I was making at my full time job. I called in sick the next day to work. I went to the park and stewed on what to do. The next day I walked into work and quit my job, effective immediately. My manager was angry, and it was the only time I’ve left a job on bad terms where they wouldn’t rehire me. But I don’t regret it.

Since then, my freelance career has taken off. My current clients love my work. However… while that was a toxic office environment, I still have the same problem. I see bad writing on billboards, marketing materials, pretty much everywhere. I know that I can do better. But when I pitch myself or my ideas to a client–especially one I really want–I talk too fast and too much, talk too little, minimize my successes, or say straight-up strange things. When I think back, I remember a few times when I actually apologized to people for my ideas. In doing all that, I have talked myself out of jobs. It’s a miracle that I am so busy.

A few months ago I told a friend of mine about my problem. “Why don’t you try Toastmasters?” she said.

“What’s that?” I said. “Some kind of California cult?”

She laughed. “No, look it up.”

I did. I came to a meeting and realized within the first ten minutes that I needed to stick around. I love public speaking, actually, and I’m good at it–a prepared speech with prepared materials, entertaining or instructing or involving the audience in an activity, is a strength. I love it, and I’ve been told that audiences connect with me. Selling myself is where I fall flat. So most of my speeches will be, in some way, me pitching myself, my work, or my ideas. I may ask people to interrupt me so that I am forced to think on my feet. I may bring my resume in here and ask people to quiz me on my qualifications. After all, like I said—I’m here because I have to improve to be as successful as I want to be.

Let the writing continue, because it will. But let the pitching begin.

Why I don’t have a portfolio website

You’re skeptical because you’re visiting the website on my business card and you don’t see a portfolio. I’ll make it even worse: A few months ago, I made the decision to quit my stable full-time job. I didn’t have another job lined up, and I wasn’t even looking. And I didn’t care.

What a nutcase, you’re thinking.

Yeah, it was a crazy move–the best crazy move I ever made. Because I don’t have a job to go to–I make my job. Every day that I wake up, I have to create a reason why someone would want to give me a paycheck. And people do. This life has given my heart a new pitter patter, because it means I’m always creating. Creating keeps me alive.

I’m getting to the point, so stay with me.

The past 4 months have been some of the busiest and the most stressful that I’ve had. I started a business, quit my job, got married, moved, spent 3 weeks in India, and found myself without 2 strong (or at least I had thought strong) friendships that I had expected to last for a small lifetime. Along with a few other things too. I didn’t have time to create a website, and I was starting to kick myself. But when I finally got some time I realized that I don’t need a full-blown website, at least not yet. I’m busy enough.

How can I be so busy? I don’t have an online portfolio. There’s no way people are hiring me.

Way.

The thing is, a lot of the work I’ve done is confidential. Increasingly now, I work with clients who prefer to remain confidential, or who only have confidential projects for me. I can’t display any of that work, so a portfolio would look empty and odd. But I’m busy enough, with room for more.

There’s an upside to keeping a low profile, it seems. And because it’s fun, I’m continuing to “blog,” which seems to have become a verb from the last time I tweeted. When I have enough public work, I may start a website.

Till then, you can always email me and find out more about how my writing can help you, your company, or your amazing cause that I would totally fall in love with, and work for free on. (Yep, I said work for free. But you have to be really amazing.)

Hope to see you on the inside of creative.

If you’ve Googled me and found this blog, you should know this.

If you’re finding this blog from a Google search or one of my business cards, know that:

  • I’m a solid writer and a natural storyteller who will give you excellent work that you, your readers, and your customers will love.
  • I’m working on a website and I’m aiming to have it up by the end of this year. But so far, I haven’t needed one to get work. I’m not exactly in a rush.
  • You can ask for samples of work from me directly. I don’t bite. (Well…)
  • I’m currently taking a hiatus from blogging to focus on paid client work… and a 2.5 week trip to India that includes a wedding in a castle in Rajasthan.

If you have a project that you think I might be interested in, get in touch.

If war poetry can be beautiful, then Kevin Powers is your poet. Here’s a short poem for Memorial Day.

There are so many war stories and so few that make us stop and think what war actually is.

I recently heard writer Kevin Powers on NPR’s To The Best of Our Knowledge. Powers spent 2 years in Iraq as a machine gunner, and recently published a book of poetry about his experiences. It’s elegant, casual, jarring poetry that makes you stop what you’re doing and be quiet. I’ve posted his title poem below. When I read this poem (and his others, which are also fantastic) I realize:

Death is not the most shocking thing about war; it is often the life that comes after.

For Memorial Day.

Image

Find more of his poetry here. Or here. Or just buy the damn book already.

A few downtempo songs to listen to while writing

My partner calls this “coding” music. He’s a software engineer. To me, it’s “writing” music. You say tomato.

If you have any to add… I’m listening.

 

In photographs: An eerie glimpse of urban life… right before mobile phones

I came across these photos today in PAPER magazine: images of New York City, taken by Gregoire Alessandrini in the 1990s. (Alessandrini was, according to his website, “a film student and a young writer/photographer in the 1990s.”)

Christopher Street. All photo credits: Gregoire Alessandrini.

I remember New York during these days. I grew up 3 hours from the city, and visited with my mother who lived there in the 80s with my dad, while she attended the Fashion Institute of Technology and he the Culinary Institute of America. My mother knew the city well, and I’d tag along on trips while she picked up fabric or whatever (I was a pre-teen, so everything she did was boring).

I still visit New York sometimes when I’m on the East Coast, and I’ve noticed a big change during the time gap: Manhattan now feels like one single flashing television screen, blasting things into my face. The place offends me.

These images remind me of a quieter time in that city. But why do I feel like it was quieter?

Unknown location; some people might remember these gas prices.

Because while I loved looking through these photos, something struck me.

Lafayette Street.

Location unknown; New Yorkers stand on street corner.

Nobody is holding mobile phones. No faces are obscured by people holding up iPhones to take photos or videos.

In fact, people are actually reading papers. Real ones.

East Village.

Location unknown.

Not even just phones – our experiences of, and the ways that we encountered music, were so different. Because the iPod wasn’t invented until 2001. In the 90s, New Yorkers walked down the street to the sound of the city and their own thoughts in their heads. (Unless they had a Walkman.)

Location unknown.

As I scrolled through the images, I wondered about how the people passing through them entertained themselves without a squawking Bluetooth or streaming podcast to do it for them.

Location unknown. But does it matter where it was taken? How many of these same people would be holding phones if this photo were re-staged and re-taken now?

The world has changed a lot in just a few years, folks. It’s a little eerie to look back. And I’m turning off my computer now and opening a real book. I’ll probably have to dust off the cover.

Before you do the same, visit Alessandrini’s original archive. It’s a journey – make sure to get all six parts.