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Earlier today, I came across an interesting article on Fast Company.

In short, photographers James and Karla Murray captured the same storefronts a decade apart, and show how much New York has changed over the past several years.

The piece, being told mostly in pictures, is really fascinating, and stirs some confusing emotions for me. Here’s an example:

We definitely needed another bank.

As you can see by that photo and others in the article, Manhattan is a radically different place than it was ten years ago. Sure, it’s cleaner, safer, and by most accounts a nicer city; it’s also gotten somewhat sterile, comparatively bland, and exponentially more expensive.

Welcome to the new New York, where gentrification is not just a necessity for a major metropolitan area, but seemingly the goal itself.

Before I go any further, let me make plain that I’ve long been of the mind that gentrification is in many ways essential to make room for the burgeoning population of a city, while creating profit in areas where there once was none. While I can’t say that I have no emotional qualms about the displacement of lower-income residents that usually comes part and parcel with gentrification, I can say that from a perspective of coldly detached logic, the process tends to make a city safer and wealthier.

And I will unequivocally say this can be and often is a good thing.

For example, as a New Yorker, I hate Times Square for what it is. But, I have to admit that I think it’s better (and infinitely more profitable) for the city as a whole that tourists and TGIFridays’ have taken the place of peep shows and drug dealers. I have to believe that.

While that example is probably one most people can agree with, being in favor of gentrification is an unpopular opinion, particularly for long-time New Yorkers, and most especially those of us who come from, as Dickens might put it, humble beginnings. A recent example might be that of Spike Lee, who went off on an emotionally-charged anti-gentrification rant that one might describe as a rambling diatribe.

For the most part, I agree with his points, even if I think that, had they been more artfully made, they could have had greater impact. There is one major issue I disagree with: he makes gentrification about race, rather than money.

But really, I have no right to make any sort of argument against that stance, because I am not the displaced–I’m the target market. And to be honest, gentrification has been good to me: it allowed me to live well and (relatively) cheaply, while at the same time getting to experience the rush of a changing cityscape. To establish context, I’ll give you the rundown.

When I was 26, I managed to escape the bizarrely strong gravatational pull of Long Island, which seems to ensure that most people are born and die in places no more than a few miles apart. As much as I love(d) Long Island, the time had come to make the move into the City. It was one of the best decisions of my life, and one that had profound effects on me, not least of which was that I got a first hand look at the gentrification.

To that, you should know that for the great majority of the years I resided in Manhattan, I lived in a neighborhood called Hell’s Kitchen. If you’re not from New York, you’re not aware that 10 years ago, that declaration would have brought a gasp to most lips. If you are from New York, you probably know where this is going.

Here’s the truth: for the better part of two centuries, Hell’s Kitchen was one of the most violent, disreputable, and disdained neighborhoods in the City (and perhaps, by extension, the world). The minds of non-New Yorkers always drift to Harlem or the Bronx when you talk about the darker side of NYC, and to be sure those are historically rough places. But only Hell’s Kitchen—the long time home of Irish and German gangs, low-level mobsters, and pretty much all of the prostitutes West of 5th Ave—was actually named for how rough it was.

But that was then.

Now, Hell’s Kitchen is one of the most up and coming neighborhoods in New York. Or, it was a few years ago. Now, HK is so established that it’s more of an “up-and-came” area than anything else, as it’s been called up and coming for a dozen years or more. These days, Hell’s Kitchen has more or less become North Chelsea: it’s full of trendy restaurants, bars specializing in craft beer, and beautiful glass high rises full of young professionals and tiny dogs.

I know this, because I was one of them—and like the rest of the current population of Hell’s Kitchen, I got there because of the rapid rate of late-stage gentrification.

When I moved into HK in late 2009, it was a changing neighborhood. I moved into a brand new building: 39-stories of ultra-modern, ultra-luxury made of steel, stone, and envy. I was the first person to live in my unit—a 2-bedroom panty-dropper that cost about 30% less than a comparable apartment just 20 blocks to the south (an older one, with an outdated lobby and shittier appliances). Despite being at least 20% bigger than the average 2-bedroom, the base price of my apartment was much less. And then on top of that, in order to fill the building, the incentivized residents by tacking two months of free rent onto the lease.

In short, I got a great fucking deal. And had a great fucking time.

Fourteen months later, I moved across the street into the brand new sister building of the one I lived in. It was even more awesome than my first apartment—in addition to larger bedrooms and an additional bathroom, the lobby looked like a hotel, and it had a roof deck was made for closing. I was also the first person to live in my unit. This time, they gave me just one free month of rent. Still, it was boss.

Again, I lived out my lease and left.

Just thirteen months later, I moved three blocks away, into another brand new high rise.

building #3

This one was even more modern, even more badass. It was a 75-story monolith of made of sleek black glass and impossible aspirations. Now that stainless steel appliances and modern appointments were no longer enough to stand out, the over-the-top amenities of this building also included a basketball court, an indoor swimming pool, and a dose of self-satisfied haughtiness owing to the fact that the entire building was LEED certified. Evidently there comes a point when living in style just isn’t enough; you have to be reducing your carbon footprint while doing it.

Because the building was so big and had so many units to fill, the management company turned to the age old trick of giving free rent. This time, it was four months—the net effect of which meant that I was actually paying $200 less than my previous apartment. Winner, winner.

The long and short of it is that I was able to experience incredible luxury and live in the kind of apartments normally reserved for the super wealthy. Although I was doing financially well when I moved into Manhattan and even better when I left, the fact is that people at my then age and income bracket can’t typically ball the fuck out in the way I did as a direct of the gentrification of Hell’s Kitchen.

As in any rapidly expanding area, new buildings were going up all the time, creating vacancy and competition; this, in turn kept rents sane. Well, sane for New York.  While it’s typical for rent in Manhattan to increase anywhere from 7.5% to 11% annually, the average rent in HK spent a few years hovering as close to stable as is possible in NYC, with new buildings charging only incrementally more than those that had been around for a year or so.

This is one of the intended effects of gentrification: younger people with promising careers and a more-than-modest-but-not-overly-impressive income get to inhabit impressive living quarters and drool-worthy amenities for the tradeoff of living in in an area that’s too far from anything to make it worth coming to, ensuring that your friends will never visit you, even though your apartment is nicer way than theirs. (Or maybe that was just my friends.)

Of course, the very name Hell’s Kitchen still carried some negative connotations at that time (realtors had been ineffectively trying to rebrand the area as “Clinton” for years), and given that such things can have a profound effect on the perceived safety and value of an area, HK continued to be fairly inexpensive whilst I was there, at least in a comparative sense.

None of this, of course, even begins to touch on the greater effects gentrification can have on an area as a whole. During my nearly four years living in Hell’s Kitchen, I saw the neighborhood change rapidly. There’s an obvious appeal to luxury housing that is somehow bearably affordable, and with new buildings going up at breathtaking rates, the population swelled. As a matter of course, new businesses opened to accommodate them.

This happened so quickly I can’t properly describe it. The best I can do is say that every time you walked down 9th Ave, you’d spot a new restaurant opening, or one that you hadn’t seen before. You’d say “wait…was that there before?” almost as often as, “oh, we should try that place.”

Strangely, this happened so quickly that many of these places opened over one another. It’s a strange thing: to fall in love with a brand new restaurant, only to have it close and reopen a month later as something completely different.

This happened with my favorite sushi place, my favorite dive bar, and my favorite Turkish restaurant—all within three months of each other. It was enough to piss you off, and make me second guess my admittedly smug appreciation of gentrification.

So I did some digging. People—and by “people” I mean me—tend to think gentrification happens overnight, but in my research I began to see that it was a fairly slow process. The seeds are planted well before you see the fruit, and if they don’t take hold you’ll probably never know.

In the case of Hell’s Kitchen, this began roughly a decade prior to my arrival. Between 1999 and 2002, several high rises cropped up, mostly on 12th ave. These buildings were nothing like the shining gems of urban luxury like the ones I described earlier, but they were new, and they were nice. As Hell’s Kitchen was still an undesirable area, they were also very cheap.

A few pioneering real estate developers—most notably Silverstein Properties—saw something in this much-maligned area: potential. Well, that’s just speculation on my part. I can’t tell if you they saw potential, but at the very least they saw underutilized space. They gambled and thought that if they were conservative and patient, they could help redefine the area. If they have been wrong, those buildings would simply have remained, but likely become rundown with less care; the investment would have taken longer to break even, but rent and limited vacancy in manhattan being what they are, it would have happened eventually.

But, of course, they were right: a scant 15 years later, the area is hardly recognizable.

Interestingly, short a time as 15 years is in the grand scheme of things, the area has changed more in the past 5 years than it did in the first 10. Gentrification has a sort of geometric progression—the bigger it gets, the more quickly it can continue to grow.

As I said, I do tend to fall in favor of both the practice and the process. I love the fact that a city as old as New York changes day after day, year over year. I know that gentrification is one of the things that has made New York a wealthier and more prosperous city. And I feel that for the most part, a 60-story high rise built with some architectural flair is less of an eyesore and of more benefit than a six story tenement.

I more or less believe these to be true…but as the pictures in the Fast Company article pictures illustrate, they do not come without cost.

The most heartbreaking of these is the lead photo for the article: world-famous CBGB OMFUG, the storied underground music club where everyone from the Ramones to the Police got their start, is now gone. And that is a tragedy unto itself.

e tu, CBGB?

I could write an entire article about the disappearance of small music clubs and how it’s damaged the music scene I love, but that’s for another day. For now, it is enough to say that it’s hurtful in the extreme to be reminded that CBGB is no more.

There is small comfort, I suppose, in knowing that while it’s been replaced with a retail shop, at least that shop is a John Varvatos store. If there’s one designer who personifies rock and roll, it’s Varvatos, and by his own admission he’s doing his best to keep the spirt of the place alive. And, as many musicians who used to play at the club have themselves intoned, at least it’s not a Starbucks.

So, I guess that’s the price gentrification has on the so-called gentry: guilt. Which is not as bad as displacement. But you’re responsible. Or, rather, I am. At least in part. When old neighborhoods become new, and poor areas become wealthy; when luxury shops open on the bones of historic music venues; when the culture of the area changes with it’s population, and it becomes ever-more the case that only the wealthy can live comfortably in Manhattan, I am at fault.

By and large, I think that the world, Manhattan, and even New Yorkers are better served by filling Times Square with a crowds of tourists dining at the Olive Garden than it would be by a bevy of hookers soliciting johns. But that cannot be said of all of the changes that have occurred over the past decade and a half.

Because I can tell you honestly, as much as I’ve benefited from and contributed to the changing landscape of the City, I can’t help but feel saddened by the inevitable loss of character this brings to these individual areas, and New York City as a whole.

I don’t think we can stop it, or even that we should necessarily want to. But I think we can all admit that it’s a sad day in Manhattan when at least it’s not a Starbucks is the best that can be said about anything.

 

I’m often asked questions about writing articles that will get published on sites other than your own.

There are a lot of really important aspects to doing this: write content they need; write in their voice; sell and re-sell your idea throughout the article. Stuff like that.

But, those things take practice.

So, if there’s one tip I can give you that will help immediately, it’s this: use fewer exclamation points.

On the one hand, this I’ll admit that this is a personal preference. On the other, I’m being deadly serious and I think that most bloggers can benefit from doing so, particularly with regard to getting published.

For context, let me give you a bit of insight. I hate exclamation points. Well, to qualify that, I hate them in prosaic or expositive writing. For salescopy and in dialogue, I’m okay with it.

Nearly half a decade ago, I actually wrote an entire article about this on RFS, which you can read here.

In that article–which I do recommend you read, by the way–I said, somewhat snarkily, that the frequency with which you use exclamation points is inversely proportional to your skill as a writer.

Then unbeknownst to me, my opinion is/was shared by a number of authors. Sci-Fi/Fantasy superstar Terry Pratchett, for example, has said that “a person’s sanity is inversely proportional to the number of exclamation marks they use!”

Of course, it’s worth noting that I wrote the aforementioned piece to be somewhat satirical and fairly hyperbolic. It’s also worth noting that I was being a bit of an asshole, because that was five years ago, when I was just getting started online, and in many ways I had no idea what I was doing.

Back then, I’d just started blogging, so I was hardly an authority on what makes a blog good. Then, as now, I did not make it a habit to read many blogs. Certainly, I was never asked to read a blog and comment on it’s quality.

That last point, however, has changed.

Since my silly little article decrying exclamation points as imbecilic was published on my silly little site, my blog was become one of the more popular fitness websites on the internet. It pulls more traffic than many sites which have been around twice as long, and is consistently listed among the top blogs to read. I have become one of the most well-known and influential figures in the fitness industry. I’ve written a best-selling book. I’ve published an entire manual on how to be an effective and popular fitness blogger.

More to the point, irrespective of the fact that I personally love and loathe my writing by turns and in equal measure, my blog is typically known more for the quality and voice of the writing than the content itself.

All of which to say is that, I’ve learned a thing or two about a thing or two over the past five years, and the advice I give about blogging is typically pretty spot on.

Given all of that, while my article of five years ago may have been a tongue-in-cheek jab at my least favorite form of punctuation, the fact remains that for reasons I was then unaware of, it was good advice. I was right, I just didn’t understand why.

These days, I’m sent dozens of articles per week, and asked for input. Some people are looking to write guest posts for me, others just want some insight on how to become a better writer.

And because I spend so much time reading, editing, and giving feedback other people’s writing, I’ve come to believe that my snarky insight of five years ago is true, and that eliminating the titular habit is the simplest high-leverage change you can make to improve the quality of your writing, the perception thereof, and the likelihood of getting it published.

Perhaps not surprisingly, nearly all of the people who send me samples receive in return a link to that old anti-exclamation point rant article. Because I stand by it now more than ever.

I could wax philosophic about my dislike for exclamation points ad nauseum, but the real reason for my suggestion to limit your use thereof is that they’re childish. If you cannot agree with that, at least grant that they appear childish to those of us who read things other than children’s books.

You can sound excited without using exclamation points. You can imply emphasis to make a point without sounding excited. And most of all you can make a point without implying emphasis. If you cannot demonstrate the ability to do these things, editors and publishers have no use for you.

Further to that, recognize that even in conversational writing–the language in which I contend most blogs ought to be written–the Law of Diminishing Returns is pretty apparent: the more often often you use exclamation points, the less impact they’ll have.

Here’s a quick three-step test to see if this applies to you:

  1. Go to your blog, and find the article you’re most proud of.
  2. Count the total number of paragraphs, and the total number of exclamation points.
  3. If you find that your paragraphs don’t outnumber your exclamation points by at least 2:1, edit the entire thing.

I make just about everyone who sends me writing samples do this. So much so that my former assistant use to refer to it as “the Roman Test.” I do this because I know it will help. Even if it’s not something you need to arduously work on, if nothing else it provides an additional lens through which to filter your writing, and I think that is of great value.

Now, before I close, I’ll offer this concession: this is mostly opinion based, and I could be totally wrong.

After all, I love and use semi-colons; quite a lot, actually. Kurt Vonnegut, one of my very favorite authors, hated semi-colons, however, saying of them, “…[t]hey are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

Which may be true.

Never would I seek to deter you from writing in a way that felt like your were pouring Truth and heartsblood on the page.

That said, I truly believe that, at least in fitness, your writing and chances of success will increase if you don’t sound like you’re jumping out of your goddamn chair with excitement all the time.

After all, it’s just fitness; let’s all just calm the fuck down, already.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written any fiction, and I’m doing my best to get back into it. While it’s certainly a struggle to get my mind to work in these different ways, I’ve always enjoyed making things up and writing them down. 

A practiced hand is a steady hand, however, so I have been creating and performing exercises to train the different attributes of fiction writing. One of those is storytelling. Of all of things, overlap between fiction and non-fiction is probably most obvious in terms of storytelling. You can tell a true story or one that’s made up, but if you tell it well, people will listen. 

Earlier this week, I went through such an exercise: I put down on paper a story from my childhood, things that happened long ago. I was forced to look inward and remember–not just events, but conversations and feeling and motivation–and recount in a way that was interesting. 

Three hours of reminiscing and 83 minutes of stream of consciousness writing later, I’d finished. That story appears below. There are some rough patches, but by and large I am happy with it. It’s an amusing story, breezily told.

I thought I would share with you, should you find it of any interest. I hope you like it.

–JR

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

And the Stars Winked Back

 

When I was 6 years old, my uncle Richard gave me a book about astronomy. It was a big picture book with descriptions of stars, planets, and super novas. I enjoyed reading all of it, but the part I liked best was the constellations. All of the more prominent constellations were outlined, and there were some stories about how they got their names.

One night, about a week after I got the book, I was flipping through the pages, and suddenly decided that I needed to know where the Big Dipper was. I suppose after days of study, I felt I should bridge the gap between theory and practice. My mom, who was very tolerant of my whims, took me outside to the hill in my front yard, and–sure enough–there it was, bright and shining overhead just as it looked in the book. With Ursa Major as my orienting point, I found the  the North Star. From there, I was able to pick out Ursa Minor, Draco, and Orion.

I was only other there for about 15 minutes, but was one of the best nights of my life.

In that moment, I thought astronomy was just about the coolest thing in the world.

When I was 7 years old, uncle Richard got me a telescope. Nothing fancy, but powerful enough to help you differentiate planets from other stars, or see craters on the moon. We’d set it up on that same hill in the front yard and observe as much as we could. On Christmas Eve, we saw a shooting star. It was the first I had ever seen.

I thought shooting stars were beautiful, and black holes amazing, and space travel fascinating. 

In that moment, I thought astronomy was just about the coolest thing in the world. 

When I was 8 years old, I decided I wanted to be an astronaut. I had read everything I could, and wanted to fly around in space. That was far off, so instead I acquainted myself with the heavens, and spent time learning all constellations in the summer sky. I would go outside to my hill, and lay on my back in the wet grass, staring at the sky, tracing the lines between stars.

It was like connect the dots, but I was linking the same points, forming the same pictures that astronomers as far back as recorded history have done. It made me feel like part of something ancient, something important.

I memorized the constellations and their positions in less than a day. Then I memorized the stories behind each one. My favorite was Cassiopeia; the arrangement of stars and the story were both appealing.

Despite have learned everything the sky had to offer that season, I would still go to the hill, still lay in the yard, and still trace the stars.

In that moment, I thought astronomy was just about the coolest thing in the world. 

Later that year, I wanted to learn the constellations in the winter sky. It was too cold to lay outside, so I turned to written material. After school one day, my mother took me to B. Dalton, a chain of bookstores that has long since shut down. We got a new book, one for “bigger kids”, with more science, and some math. I read the science. Ignored the math.

We also got something truly great: a star map. Just a basic chart of the sky, with everything labeled. I don’t now recall why, but I was more excited about the map than I had been for the Nintendo game I rented from blockbuster.

I loved the map.

In that moment, I thought astronomy was just about the coolest thing in the world.

A few days later, I was at school. For some reason, I had brought the book and map along with me; it would prove to be a costly mistake. During lunch, I was reading the book, with the map neatly folded next to me. Engrossed in learning, I didn’t hear the approaching.

I didn’t become aware of someone standing behind me until the moment a hand reached down and snatched the map. I turned in my chair, craning my neck to see who’d decided my map needed taking. I thought it might be a teacher, that I might be in trouble.

No such luck. Instead there was Joey Sweeney, a towheaded nuisance with a bowl-cut so stupid it almost mirrored his intellect. Joey happened not to like me, nor I him. I don’t recall why. Some benign comment or imagined slight that seemed important at 8 years old.

Typically, our animosity for one another played out in class, where I delighted in pointing out all of the ways he was wrong, about everything, and he delighted in pointing out that my clothes were cheap and my shoes were the wrong brand and full of holes to boot.

That day, however, we were in the cafeteria, eying each other balefully.

Joey was, in addition to being dumb as a sack of hammers, also a dick. At that point in my life, I wasn’t allowed to use that word, and wasn’t entirely sure what it meant, but I was completely positive that he was one.

With my map in hand, Joey began to tease me. Words like “nerd” and “geek” were used. He made fun of my books, and the fact that I read them. He made fun of my clothes. He made fun of whatever seemed like a good thing to make fun of; any thoughts that happened to tumble into his thick head tumbled out of his mouth in the form of insults.

I was standing at this point. Two or three of his friends were standing with him. Mine remained seated at the tame. I felt eyes watching us. His taunts grew more pointed, and he continued to mock the seeking of knowledge. Poor fool. He started waving the map back and forth in front of me, urging me to grab it. I took the bait and snatched at it, becoming more frustrated.

My own insults had started minutes back, and I don’t know what I said. Whatever it was, it must have struck a nerve. In a fit of rage, Joey held the map in front of my face and tore it, then tore the pieces again, throwing them on the floor.

I looked down, mouth gaping open. My map. I loved my map. More than that, my mom bought it for me. It had been expensive. I think. I didn’t know how much it cost, but I knew it had cost money, and I knew we didn’t have a lot of that. Furious, confused, and caught completely by surprise, my emotions got the better of me; tears welled up and I began to cry.

Joey began to laugh, pointing at me and bringing everyone’s attention to my face, red and tear-streaked. He added “crying like a little girl! hey little girl, don’t cry, little girl!” to his litany of jeers.

I lunged at him, bringing him to the ground. Teachers rushed over to separate us, but not before Joey had turned the tables, flipping me over and punching me in the ribs and face. We were pulled apart before I could offer any countering blows.

It was the first fight I was ever in, and the last one I ever lost.

Joey and I were taken by our respective ears and brought to the office of Mr. Goldstein, the principle. On the long walk down, another tear found it’s way down my cheek. Wounded more in pride than body, I felt hatred grow in my gut.

We were given a stern talking to, and asked a lot of very serious questions about fighting and whether we realized we could hurt someone.

After the appropriate amount of finger-wagging, we were dismissed. Despite serious words issued forth from serious grown up faces, I didn’t know what the resolution was. I really didn’t know what the punishment was going to be, or if my mother would be called or if I would have to write “I will not fight” on the blackboard a hundred times.

I left that meeting knowing only two things for certain:

In that moment, I hated Joey Sweeney.

And, in that moment, I HATED astronomy; it was stupid and I never wanted to look at stars again.

I didn’t have to deal too long with my hatred of Joey; my parents split up right around this time, and we moved to a different town and I went to a different school. Joey Sweeney faded from memory.

Astronomy was still on my bad side, however. I did not want to be an astronaut. I decided, not long after, to become a writer instead.

And so began my writing journey, which started off well. I learned that the first rule of writing was write what you know. I knew about stars.

My first piece was published when I was 9 years old. It was a submission to a literary newsletter, a short poem of just 11 words:

The boy.
The hill.
The sky.
and the stars winked back.

To my best recollection, that was that last I have ever written about astronomy, until now.

Many years later, when I was 23, I had occasion to think of astronomy again. I found myself, through a series of strange coincidences, walking arm in arm on a deserted golf course with a girl named Angela, looking up at the stars.

It was nearly 4am on a late spring eve, and nature seemed intent proving it: the grass was wet with dew, the trees swayed in the breeze, and the night was absolutely clear. Startlingly clear. The sky was black; a true black, a black deep and rich like velvet, a black that was inky and bottomless and infinite, as only a pre-dawn sky can be.

And the stars! They were out in all their glory, vibrant pinpricks in the curtain of night, shining fiercely, as though in defiance of the inevitable dawn. The heavenly ceiling above us hid nothing, held absolutely no secrets from my wide-eyed gaze. And I wasn’t the only one who noticed. My companion, whose loveliness rivaled the night sky, slowed her pace as her eyes were drawn inexorably upward.

We stood there, still as statues: legs rooted to the ground, necks craned back, pupils dilated like black holes drawing light into them, and basked in the gentle glow. We were unmoving, but not unmoved. I cannot speak for her, but I was thunderstruck by the beauty of the sky, and all the promise it held.

We couldn’t move. So we stared.

And stared.

We stared in complete, abject silence, until silence itself grew into a physical entity; we stared until the silence had it’s own weight, and then until the weight of that silence between us pulled so heavily I thought it would make of us broken things, forlorn and forgotten bodies on the grass, shattered by their own shyness. It might have been so, but for Angela: she broke the silence with a giggle, and then said, simply and truly, “this is beautiful.”

Feeling compelled to say something, and not knowing what else to say, I began pointing out constellations. “Here,” I said, draping my arm gently around her waist, “let me show you. There’s Polaris, the North Star. It’s very bright, so you can usually see it, even when it’s fairly cloudy. It lines up with Earth’s axis, so it doesn’t really move…that makes it useful for navigating.”

“Uh huh.” She moved a bit closer.

My hand drifted westward across the sky, finger pointing at a group of three stars arranged in a line. “That one is Orion, the hunter. Those three stars make his belt; over there is his bow.” I shifted and pointed back North. “There’s Draco, the dragon. He’s really shaped more like a snake, but you get the idea.”

We moved from constellation to constellation. “Here’s Leo Minor; there’s Sagittarius. What’s your sign? Scorpio? That one is right here.” My arm moved in slow arcs, gently touching each celestial body in its turn, tracing their lines with my eye and finger, as I had not done since I was 8 years old. I felt completely absorbed by the patterns splayed across the sky, drawn irresistibly back into the heavens. Until I became drawn irresistibly to something else.

It took me a while to realize it, but with each new star form I showed her, Angela’s body would shift slightly. She moved in small degrees, slowly pressing the curve of her body against mine. Her hand found my own; her head found my shoulder. It was only after several minutes and I recounted a few and stories that I became gradually aware of her closeness, aware of the touch of her breath on my neck, aware of her hand, shaking gently as rested on my own. Aware of the opportunity of the moment. She was giving me every possible indication, every opening.

By the time I got to Cassiopeia—still my favorite—the sexual tension was palpable. I indicated the batch of stars in the Northwesterly part of the sky, and began to recount the story behind the constellation: the story of a queen so beautiful, the gods grew jealous and wrathful; outraged by both her beauty and her vanity, they destroyed her country.

I don’t think I got halfway through it. I trailed off as she attacked me, literally jumping on top of me and pulling me into a violent embrace. Her arms wound their way around my neck, her hands tangled in my hair, her legs wrapped around my waist and began to squeeze. I slowed her momentum as I caught her in my arms, but we came together too quickly, and our kiss, made clumsy by it’s urgency, had an unexpected result.

There was a jolt of pain as she bit deeply into my lip, and my mouth began to fill with blood even as she filled it with her tongue. My senses were immediately overwhelmed by a slew of intense contrasts: the sharp sting of her teeth tearing my flesh juxtaposed against the softness of her lips; the coppery taste of my blood undercut by the minty tang of the gum she’d been chewing; the spicy notes of her perfume fighting against the cloying scent of cut grass. To this day, the memory of the amazing dichotomy of sensations as we kissed beneath the flawless night sky is one of the most vivid of my life; I can pinpoint the precise moment when, filled for the very first time with agony and ecstasy in equal measure, I felt the last remnants of my resolve crumble into nothing.

What followed next is easy to guess: my hands flexed without my consent and drove my nails into her flesh; my eyes, first forced wide with the shock of her bite, now closed tightly as I melted into her, and was wholly overcome. Our clothes were peeled off violently, and crashed into one another, merging in a tangle of sweat and flesh and lips and hands and pain and pleasure and savage, ragged breathing. We gave ourselves to the moment, gave into our most wanton, feral selves under the stars. The constellations looked down on us from the heavens, or so I liked to imagine; Orion and Perseus and Andromeda and all the others turning their gazes to marvel at our coupling. With such an august assemblage in audience, I could not help by put on one of the best performances of my life. I’ll spare you the rest of the details, but I assure you, it was glorious.

Some time afterwards, as dawn broke on the horizon, I once again found myself, through a series of strange coincidences, walking arm in arm on a deserted golf course with a girl named Angela, looking up at the stars.

As we approached my car, I was made aware of another coincidence, one of mutual association: her boyfriend. She checked her phone, and saw that’d he’d called three times. At that point, I had been dimly aware that she had a boyfriend, but knew very little about him other than that he seemed to be a dick. She didn’t seem particularly concerned or upset about the potential consequences our tryst, so I resolved not to be, either.

I opened the door for her just as the phone in her hand began to ring again. My gaze was drawn to the screen as it lit up, chasing the way the last vestiges of darkness. I glanced at it…and did a double take when I saw the name on her caller ID: Joey Sweeney. She ignored the call, but I couldn’t ignore what I’d seen. Nor could I stop myself from smirking.

As I closed her door and walked around to the driver’s side, I silently thanked the Universe for balancing the scales in such a satisfying way, cocking my head and grinning up at the night sky. And the stars winked back.

In that moment…I thought astronomy was just about the coolest thing in the world.

 

 

I got an email a few days back from a friend of mine posing a question that, since my book was published, I am asked at least once a week. My friend–let’s call him So-Crates–wanted to know my opinions on a PR company. Specifically, he was asking if using a particular PR company would be a good move for one of the people whose fitness business he’s a partner in. We’ll call this person Helen of Troy.

Here’s the email:

Hey Roman, I’d value your opinion on this.  Not sure if you know our friend [Helen of Troy] yet or not. Anyway, see her email below. I’m a partner with her on her business (we’ve been growing her list fast through paid ads on Facebook), but this PR agency thing ventures into unexplored territory for me.

Let me know if you think this particular PR firm is legit, and if the $5k per month they’re asking for 6 months is worth it’s weight in gold or not.

Helen is good on camera and wants to get more TV appearances, so this might be worth it if they can seal good deals for us.”

Below his email, he forwarded a short email thread between Helen and the PR agency in question. It was pretty long, so here are the most important paragraphs:

…[this company] handles the PR for people such as Deepak Chopra, Reid Tracy, Annie Kagen (who wrote Hungry for Change), Neale Donald Walsh, and many other celebrities that I’m sure you’ve heard of. They just featured Annie Kagen on Access Hollywood and have had other clients on Oprah, The Talk, Dr. Oz and The Doctors.

After a few phone conferences and research on their part, they feel that my brand could go national and be a huge enterprise. It’s worth noting that these ladies only take on 4-5 clients at a time and turn people away all the time.

With their help, we believe we can get in front of a national audience through major media (national TV, radio shows, and magazine covers). [One of the women at the company], who is good friends with the executive producers of the Dr. Oz show, said that a lot of people with great products do not get on the show because they are not “Ozified,” meaning that they are just not “great” on TV.  [Both representatives from the company] feel strongly that I have that presence and they can get me on a lot of talk shows, radio shows and covers of magazines.

So, as you can see, that’s a pretty appealing pitch. For anyone who has spent time and energy building a brand, being able to get national TV media is one of the highest goals. Not only does it usually lead to direct sales, but it’s a cool feather in the cap. There’s also a chance it might lead to something else. But, we’ll get to that.

I wanted to give So-Crates the best information possible, and so rather than simply give him my thoughts on the specific PR company he and his partner were discussing, I thought it more effective to completely lay out my thoughts on PR in general, as well as give some highlights from my own experiences so far. And I think it will help others, as well.

Overall, the point of this post is to address the question in the title: is it worth it to hire a PR company? It’s an interesting question, and once I’ve been getting asked a lot, lately. Hopefully, the information herein will help some people answer that question for themselves.

 

Should You Hire A PR Agency?

(Probably Not)

 

Before anything else, I want to address the elephant in the room, and state something as clearly as possible: for most people, PR agencies are a complete waste of money. That’s the sad an unfortunate truth.

This is not to say that getting mainstream media is useless, because that isn’t the case. Mainstream media is exceptionally valuable–particularly television–,and regardless of the business you’re in, you should be looking to get that kind of attention. But working with a PR company isn’t the same as getting mainstream media.

When you’re talking about PR, you’re dealing in a lot of ifs. The more important if is “this might be worth the money IF the company can do what it says it can do.” Put another way, IF a PR company could really guarantee you placement, I wouldn’t say that it was a waste of money. The problem is, you’re not guaranteed any outcome, at all.

When you hire a PR firm, you’re entering into a contract that obligates you to pay for services they may not actually render. Regardless of whether you actually wind up with any significant placement, you’re paying your them a pretty hefty monthly fee. No matter what.

Now, that presents two very scary problems. The obvious is that you’re paying for something you might not get. Less obvious and more scary is the realization that because of the nature of the business (payment regardless of delivery), most established agencies have no real incentive to perform well; you’re paying a monthly retainer either way.

I’ve spoken to a few people who work (or used to work) at PR firms, and they seem to agree that the average client stays with the company for 3-5 months, whether or not they get any valuable media in it. The monthly fee for a really good agency can run as high as $10,000 per month; but, for the sake of argument, let’s use the price that Carol was quoted by the PR company in her email, and call it $5K/month.

If your budget is tight, paying 5k/month for something without a guaranteed outcome is hard to justify. Even if you have a lot of expendable cash, it’s a risky move.

Recently, I was speaking at an event in San Diego, and the subject of PR came up. My friend Craig Ballantyne, who has served as a business coach for a number of high level people, is pretty outspoken against paying for PR, and used the example of one of his clients, who is a mutual friend of ours.

Our mutual friend, who I’ll call Penelope, received a pitch from a PR company very similar to the one Helen of Troy received: “your content is great, you’d be perfect for Oz, you’re awesome on camera, yadda yadda yadda.”

This woman is a pretty big name in the fitness industry, has a business that generates tens of thousands of dollars per month, and is very telegenic. Or, to use the term from Carol’s email, very “Ozified.” Despite those advantages, and the fact that she came with a built-in audience, Sarah got absolutely nothing from her PR company. Literally, not one placement. Not even on local media. Because, as I said, the biggest if is about whether they can do what they say.

Again, according to my friends in the publicity field (and a few friends who have used public relations firms), the average person pays for 3-5 months. Or, to quote Craig, “most people won’t even think to cancel until they’ve hit the 25K mark.” That’s basically what happened with Penelope: she stayed with the company for about 6 months, dutifully paying $5,000 every month, and sending in pitches as often as possible. Still, nothing.

I don’t care how much money your business generates, it’s next to impossible to justify paying $30,000 for absolutely no ROI.

All of which is to say, as I stated earlier:  for most people, PR agencies are a complete waste of money. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean that it’s a waste of time for all people. There are a few select types of people who can do really well with traditional public relations.

 

Who Should Use PR Company?

 

CELEBRITIES

 

For starters, it should go without saying that PR agencies are great for celebrities for three main reasons.

  1. These firms can help manage their brand, sometimes even working with a celebrity’s manager to look into endorsement deals.
  2. Additionally, PR firms work for celebrities to keep their promotion schedule organized and in check; for example, getting someone booked on 9 talk shows in a single week to promote a new movie or TV show is the job of the publicity people.
  3. Finally, PR firms do damage control when something goes awry–anything from a faux pas like saying “I hope [Anne Frank] would have been a Belieber” to something like putting a positive spin on a third stint in rehab.

 

BIG TIME AUTHORS

PR firms also seem to work exceptionally well for authors who can organically sell a ton of books. For example, in her email, Helen of Troy mentioned Deepak Chopra. Chopra’s books sell like crazy, and any time he comes out with a new one, he’s on all the major morning shows and all that.

With someone like Chopra, the level of success creates a big of a chicken-egg question, and you’ve got to question whether he’s getting on Dr. Oz because he’s selling a lot of books, or selling a lot of books because he’s on Dr. Oz. The answer is probably a bit of both, and it’s hard to quantify an answer, but I will say that his multiple successes make it a lot easier to get media.

So, if you’ve got one of those books that everyone is talking about, it’s not going to be overly hard to get some national media, and a PR firm can help you strike while the iron is hot and get bigger placement than you can get on your own.

 

Who Should Consider PR?

 

Mid-Level Authors 

Not everyone is Gwyneth Paltrow or Dr. Phil or Deepak Chopra and can move books by leveraging their platform. Not everyone is a Stephen King or Dan Brown or JK Rowling who has had some massive previous success and can move books based on that. If you’re one of those people, I have no advice for you–and I’m all ears if you have any for me.

On the other hand, if you’re an author who can sell some books, but can’t guarantee multiple weeks on the best-seller list or you don’t have at least a few ins to national media, a PR company might be able to get you some impressive placements.

Realistically, I’m a great example of someone who is a potentially good candidate for benefiting from a PR firm: I’m a best-selling author, well-known in my field, telegenic and well-spoken, and have some previous TV experience. If you’re in a position similar to mine (and, Helen of Troy isn’t, yet), then hiring a PR company is worth considering.

Based on my general position and attributes, we realized it was worth looking into, and leading up to the launch of ETA, we did check out a few agencies. In our discussion with various firms we picked up a bit of useful information and made decent connections, which was great.

The most impressive firm we were looking at was $11K/month, and predicted a three month project window. They were well-connected and had worked with a lot of authors in situations similar to ours with some good success with a very few people in situations similar to mine, so this particular agency was very, very appealing.

In the end, however, we didn’t pull the trigger. Why? Well, because of the main PR dilemma: we couldn’t be guaranteed a return. Sure, they talked a lot about potential placements–but, they couldn’t definitively promise to deliver a home run.

That lack of guarantee bled into a number of other considerations that led us not to hire them. And there really were a few reasons, outside of the obvious budgetary concerns. One of these is that we had the PR department of our publishing company working on major media. Given that the people at Harper were pitching on our behalf, we weren’t convinced that paying $33K for PR was going to get us any better results than the PR we were getting for free.

Of course, I must mention we didn’t get a lot of major, national media for the book; so looking back at it, I’m not sure if passing on an established firm was a misstep. But, that’s the way it played out, and it’s something I’ll definitely think about for the next book.

Anyway, if you’re in a similar position, you’ll beed to at least roll the idea of hiring a PR company around in your noodle. When you’re weighing your options, take a moment and analyze the types of media appearances that would be real home runs: if you’re in an industry like fitness, health, wellness or general self-improvement, then the home runs are Dr. Oz, The Doctors, Rachel Ray, Kelly & Michael, the View, Good Morning America, and the Today Show.

The reasons these are home runs is that it’s national media that brings with it two things:

  1. An Audience of Buyers – Something to mention upfront is that it’s going to be much easier to get on to one of these shows if you have an book to sell, rather than just an online presence. Holding a physical item has value to old school media, because they don’t understand (and therefore fear) anything digital. That said, whether you have a book or digital products, you’ll see a spike in sales, traffic, and opt-ins over a two week period after the media piece. How much is impossible to say, but I think a conservative estimate would be an 1000 new prospects during that period. Sounds like a lot, but when you consider how many eyeballs are actually glued to that show, you’ll realize that conversion from TV to opt-in is woefully low. A physical book that can be purchased in the book stores tends to do much better; not only will you sell a lot of copies directly, but you’ll often get better placement in book stores. The heading “As seen on Dr. Oz!” in a book display is going to result in a lot of sales, as well.
  2.  Implied Credibility – Outside of the direct benefit of increased sales, there are some indirect benefits as well. Getting on TV has a mystique about it that’s hard to measure, or even describe. People just assume that because you were on some show, you know more; they automatically impart more authority to you and anything you say. Secondly, being on TV makes you look like a celebrity, and the more famous you are, the more you can charge (and the more you’ll sell). Not to mention, if it’s a good appearance, if gives you great content that you can use to your benefit–every new person that walks through the funnel will eventually see the piece and be like ooh this chick is legit. If you’re savvy, you’ll be able to use that clip for sales and general marketing.

A good example of the value of the second point is the time I had an appearance on Good Morning America in 2011. Although it’s easier to get on if you have a book, it’s possible to get on without one. At that point, I had no book to pitch, just information to share. Somehow I managed to get on. Anyway, although I didn’t see a huge increase in sales or opt-ins immediately, we used that clip in the second FPFL launch and it did really well for us.

The funny thing is that I didn’t pay to get on GMA–it just sort of happened, as a result of working with a start-up who had a relationship with the show. However, for that appearance, it would have–in the long run–been worth it to pay, if it had come to that. You see, based on my metrics, I can tell you that using the video in the launch funnel made a LOT more people more likely to buy, and directly led to a lot of sales. I can comfortably say the video helped us do an extra $15-20K in revenue.

Even if I’d paid a PR agency to get me on GMA, a $5-10K investment for a $15-20K return is a solid pay off. The problem is, of course, that even if a PR company can/will get you placement on a home run show, there’s no way to know how long it will take from the time you ink the PR deal to getting on TV.

A good take home point is that if you are considering hiring a PR company, look at it like any other business decision, and assess cost:benefit ratio. That’s a bit more difficult in this case than most others because, again, you can’t be guaranteed an outcome, so it’s helpful to look at both sides of it.

The questions you need to ask yourself (as I did) are: 1) how much is ONE major appearance worth to the business? and, 2) how much are you willing to lose if you can’t get on?

To answer the first question, determine in advance what your break even point will be. First, estimate how much you believe you can stand to profit from a huge appearance. If you’re confident that you can stand to make–either immediately, or in the long run–an additional $25,000-30,000 (or the rough equivalent in book sales), from a home run appearance on something like Good Morning America or the View, then that’s your break even point.

Answering the second question just requires you to decide–ahead of time–your spending limit. If you can afford to shell out $30,000 (assume 5K/month for 6 months) to potentially hit a home run, that’s one thing. But, assuming you swing and miss, are you still comfortable losing the $30,000? If not, decide your comfortable loss threshold, and aim for that as a goal to get placement and head towards your break even point.

Deciding both of these things in advance is hugely important. The last thing you want do is go in without a predetermined idea about acceptable loss and knowing when to cut your losses. If you do that, you’re a lot more likely to fall prey to thinking about sunk cost and other crap that convinces you to make decisions because, well, I’ve already spent 30K, what’s another 5?  As you might imagine, that could very quickly become an expensive thought process.

 

Alternatives to Traditional PR

 

I said in the beginning of this article that PR agencies are a waste of money for most people. I probably should have said traditional PR agencies. There are a few new ways to get PR that I think are infinitely more beneficial to most non-celebrities than traditional PR firms.

While there are numerous ways to get publicity and press, some are worth paying for. Below, I’ve outlined the ones that I’ve used, and given some resources.

 

A La Carte PR 

As you by now know, my biggest problem with traditional PR is that you are obligated to pay and they are not obligated to deliver. What if that wasn’t the case? What if, for example, you could work with a PR company that only charged you if they actually booked placement on you?

Welcome to the world of A La Carte PR, which I personally believe will become the standard over the next five or so years. With a la carte PR, you don’t pay a monthly retainer. Rather than charging you a flat fee every month, these agencies will only bill you if they actually do something for you.

This solves the two largest problems with traditional PR: the expense and the risk. Since you’re only paying for each individual placement, even in a really good month with a few big placements, you’re probably not going to cross the 5K mark that a decent PR company would cost over that same time frame. Or, if you did, you’d be paying for a placement that was actually worth that kind of expense.

For example, I’d pay $5K to appear on the Dr. Oz show or Rachel Ray or something like that. I would do it in a heartbeat, no questions asked. Because I know the value that kind of exposure could have. And I have no problem paying good money for that exposure–I just don’t want to pay it for nothing.

As for risk, it’s pretty obvious that that won’t be an issue. Not only are you freed up from a huge monthly obligation, but you’re also freed from the fear of lack of results. Whereas traditional PR firms have no real incentive to perform well, a la carte PR firms are incentivized to do exactly that. The only way they get paid is if they perform successfully and get you booked. If they don’t, they don’t make money.

Resultantly, a la carte PR agencies have something most traditional ones don’t: hustle. And you can’t put a price on that.

The only potential downside is that because a la carte PR companies are still relatively new, they’re probably not as well connected or powerful as traditional, established firms. So, they may not be able to do quite as much for you. That’s temporary, though–a few years from now they’ll be on even footing.

For those interested, I have used an a la carte firm. They’re great, and I do recommend them. Check out PRServe.

 

Disruptive PR 

I really don’t know what to call this other than disruptive. Basically, this is the type of guerrilla marketing we used for Engineering the Alpha. Disruptive PR basically results in blanketing the space with information about your project. Think of it as a media takeover; for Alpha, we focused on the fitness, health, wellness, and beauty industries, and in a two week period published something like 30 articles and appeared on about 20 podcasts. (I’ll do a full launch breakdown with links to all of them at some point.)

This was possible because of a guy named Ryan Holiday. If you’re heard of Ryan, you know he’s the author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. In that book, he pretty much outlines how disruptive PR works. In addition to leveraging a lot of connections that Ryan, Adam and I all had, Ryan is very good at moving placement up the chain.

For example, during our Reddit AskMeAnything (which Ryan set up), we had Arnold Schwarzenegger stop by and answer a few questions. Ryan took that and sent it to a few news sites. The story was in turn picked up by the Daily Dot and the New York Post. Both sites ran the story because they thought it was cool that Arnie would stop by someone else’s AMA. That drove extra traffic to the AMA, which in turn drove more traffic to the book.

Personally, when you’re a “mid-level” persona (someone with a following of your own, but not a celebrity) I think disruptive PR is far more valuable than traditional PR, for a few reasons. The most obvious of these is that it’s easier to get placement on mid-sized online outlets than major TV outlets. If these outlets have a responsive readership, you’re a lot more likely to see conversions/sales than on TV. This is especially true if there are 30-50 of them, like we had.

Secondly, the nature of doing anything online is that it’s easier to get people do anything, compared to TV. Online, they just click a link. If they see something on TV, they have to remember the name, go to the computer, google it, go to the site, read, etc. It’s just too many steps, which is why the conversation are so abysmally low.

Finally, it’s cheaper, and has a pre-determined endpoint. I can only speak from my experience with Ryan (and I don’t know anyone else who offers the service), but the way he works is on a per-project basis, instead of a per month basis. Ryan and I had dinner and discussed the goals of the book, and when he signed on, he charged us a flat fee.

Now, we did establish a basic timeline that started the moment I hired him and ostensibly ended a month or so after the launch, but really, Ryan’s position was “as long as it takes, it takes.” I knew that if he had the opportunity to do something beneficial for the book and it was well after the launch, he’d still make it happen.

Overall, we paid Ryan about $15,000 for the entire Alpha project. Definitely money well spent; his company is great at what they do, and definitely helped us. If you’re looking to make a splash, I would check them out: Brass Check Marketing.

 

Do It Yo’ Damn Self

The truth is, you don’t need a PR company to get publicity; they certainly do a better job than you can, but if you’re willing to start on the local level, it’s not overly difficult to get some media.

I know a lot of people in smaller cities (Baltimore, Madison, Minneapolis) who are on local TV all the time because it’s a much less competitive market. You can just send out a press kit, or get in touch with their producers (much easier on local shows), and send out some pitches. Local news stations need content, so as long as you have some good content and make a pitch, it won’t be overly difficult to get placement on small, local news affiliates.

Once you’ve done that, you can then take the clips from your appearance(s) to bigger affiliates. Something to remember is that nothing says “you should put me on TV” to a producer better than proof that you’ve been on TV before. Using those clips allows you to work your way up the chain–under the best cases, you can work all the way up to the national level.

For further reading on how to do this, check out this blog post by Tim Ferriss on how he ratcheted all the way up to Dr. Oz without a PR company. Pretty impressive!

 

Final Thinkingzez

As I told my buddy So-Crates when I emailed him back, PR is tricky. Media is incredibly valuable, but so are time, energy, and money. Spending a lot of those three resources to get media may not be worth it, unless you can really guarantee a result.

Meaning that unless you’re super successful author, a celebrity, or on the cusp of becoming one of those two things, 95% of the time you’re better off skipping the PR companies and doing something less traditional. It’s been working out pretty well for me.

Hope that helps!

 

Last night, I had a farewell dinner. This being my last week in NYC before I depart for the Left Coast, some of my friends and I got together to break bread and raise glasses.

I’ve known them each for about 15 years. And in that time we’ve been through high school and college and new jobs. We’ve been through deaths in families and big moves, and recent engagements. We have, both individually and as a unit, grown from adolescence to manhood.  Together.

These men, my friends, have been there for the biggest changes in my life. They knew me when I was a chubby kid, and then when I was a ripped guy—and everything that’s come after. They were there when I started my blog and laid the cornerstone of what has become my little Empire.

And I’m going to miss them.

Our friendship certainly won’t fade simply because I’m leaving; I have no fear of that. And yet, there is a bit of preemptive nostalgia knowing that these men, who have always been like brothers, will no longer be a train or cab ride away.

Which is all the more strange, because although we’re all in close proximity to one another, we don’t see each other very often.

As if echoing my thoughts, in the cab on the way to dinner, my friend and roommate Ross made a comment: “funny that it takes you moving across the country for all of us to get together.”

There’s truth there.

Sitting at dinner last night, these thoughts would flit through my head.

I thought about the years growing up on Long Island, and how we lived about 7 minutes from each other.

I thought about working as camp counselors, and spending hours upon hours a day—every day—together.

I thought finishing a day at camp and heading to the gym for for 3 hours of training as a group, more than half of which was just talking and laughing and bullshitting.

And then flexing, because yes:

campflex

Getting our flex on during camp Color War
(l-r, John, Rob, Josh)

I thought about the nights spent fully in the throes of youth—the weekends in Atlantic City and bad beat stories. The nights spent chasing women and fun and memories.

I thought about all the time we spent together, and then followed the trail of memories to the point that started to change.

And changed it has.

“i went by
the place where you and i
wrote our names in wet cement
and for a moment remembered how it felt
to have no one understand
that that’s this dream
and they’re not part of it”

—the ataris,
fast times at dropout high

Although we all live in the same city, we don’t see each other quite as much as perhaps we’d like. There are jobs and businesses and travel and relationships that require attention.

Not a man among us begrudges the others their responsibilities or the time they take, though we do wish we could see more of each other.

Which made me think again of when we actually could, and did.

In those halcyon days of our misspent youth, we spent more time together and built more memories than anyone could ever hope to.

It was a special period of our lives; a moment frozen in time, unique to the circumstances of late adolescence and early adulthood, circumstances that changed as time continued its steady march.

And I miss it. I don’t know if missing it makes me feel sad, but it does make me feel something.

Part of that something is regret. Not regret for time spent, or for the changing of our lives—regret for my complete and abject failure to appreciate the beauty of that time while I was living it.

They say that youth is wasted on the young, and there is truth to that. But I think it’s also true that so few of us have a full understanding of the tenuous hold we have on any given moment of our lives.

Because we don’t appreciate the complete impermanence of our situation, we often fail to appreciate the situation itself. Until it’s over, that is.

I can’t speak for my friends, but not once during our early and mid-twenties did I step back and say, “wow—this is pretty amazing.”

I remember 10% of this night, but I am 100% sure it was amazing.
(l-r John, Ross, Evan)

 

And it was. It really was amazing that somehow, life delivered me a group of incredible young men, the best friends anyone could ever ask for. More amazing than that is the unfathomable reality that for the better part of a decade, we had complete access to one another.

We saw each other all the time—because in a way, we were each other’s main priority.

Sure, we had girlfriends, and jobs and obligations. But those things were temporary, and we knew it. Those girlfriends weren’t likely to become wives, the jobs not likely to become careers.

But we few, we happy few, we band of brothers—we were permanent. Our friendships were solidity and stability.

ac4

“…nice working with proper villains again.”
band of bros in AC
(l-r Josh, John, Evan, Ross)

My friends were the ballast that helped me keep my footing when the rest of life was an ever-changing landscape.

We are now, to a man, 30. Most of us are in serious relationships that require time and energy. All of us have careers that require the same. As yet, we none of us has figured out how to have more hours added to the day, and so being constrained somewhat by the limitations of our humanity, we’ve had to make some changes.

I spend much less time with my friends these days. But I do get to see them. Although the days of, hey, I’m bored, wanna come over and play video games? are over, we have over the past few years managed to get together for dinner on each other’s birthdays, and occasionally even see a Superhero movie on opening weekend.

Now, with my imminent departure, that will change. We will see each other during visits that have been planned months in advance. We’ll see each other at life events. We’ll see each other at bachelor parties and weddings—three of each in the next six months.

In NoLa for Josh’s bachelor shindig.
(l-r Evan, John)

When the time comes for it, we’ll see each for the births of each others kids. We will be there for funerals. The big stuff is there. The little stuff, and the in-between stuff—some of the best stuff—will, of necessity, change.

The bonds of friendship are as strong as they ever were, but I would be lying if I said that the changes in our interactions have gone unnoticed, or that I don’t feel the impending weight of those that are to come.

I face these with a calm equanimity bolstered by the surety of our friendships. One does realize, both psychologically and emotionally, that these changes are neither good nor bad; they’re simply part of life. But they do seem jarring when you contrast two different sets of circumstances on either side of that 10-12 year gap.

All this and more swam in my head as we sat at dinner, and I’m willing to admit that some was probably fueled by bourbon. I don’t know if anyone else felt what I was feeling. What I do know is that last night, we laughed as we ate and drank, laughed more than I have in a long while. We cracked inside jokes and told stories—many of them the same stories we’ve been telling for years.

We were, for a moment, once again in the full flower of youth, feeling for all the world like this night, this moment, is how it is and always will be. In that moment, I forced myself to step back and look at it and drink it in. I forced myself to appreciate it.

And because I did that, I can say that it was among the most beautiful and powerful moments of my entire life. And then it was over. But because I had taken a second to appreciate, to fully experience it, I was okay with it being over.

There’s a lesson here, I think. From now on, I’m going to make it a policy to stop and look around and appreciate the time I’m in, and the special and unique experiences it offers.

When I look back at that period, I am tempted to say it was the best time in my life. And I suppose, in some ways, it was: full of freedom, and adventure, and promise.

But it was also full of painful trials, failed experiments, financial uncertainty, and a lot of heartbreak—so in many ways, I must admit, it was also the worst.

Now, at 31, I have a flourishing career that provides both intense emotional fulfillment and financial stability. I’m in a place where I can actually have a relationship that teaches me and (hopefully) me a better man, each and every day.

If I could impart wisdom to my younger self, I wouldn’t warn him about the heartbreak, or tell him to avoid making certain decisions, or even advise that he spend his money more wisely. Those mistakes choices made me who I am, and helped me get from that place to this one.

I would tell simply tell 22 year old John to enjoy it. That’s the lesson I would impart to my younger self. If I had the power to distort space and time, I would go back and teach him that: to appreciate the uniqueness of the moment.

To be as clear as possible, I don’t lament the passage of time or the changing of circumstances; I simply regret not feeling as much gratitude as I should have at the time.

Today, right now, in this moment, I appreciate that I have people who care what I have to say; I appreciate that this post may help someone. I appreciate that you came to this blog and read these words and perhaps let some piece of my heart touch some piece of yours.

But true appraisal demands complete honesty, especially about impermanence. I acknowledge this might not always last. I accept the possibility that a week or a month or a year from now, the Internet might collapse or the technology might change or people just might straight-up stop giving a hoot about me and my stupid bat.

If that happened, I’d have to look back and feel satisfied that for a moment—this moment—I had a chance to make an impact. And that is something I will never overlook.

This, I think, is the only cure for nostalgia—a preventative dose of appreciation. 

So, yes: I’m going to miss my friends. And I miss our youth, and how often we got to see each other. But I’m excited for everything to come, and feel intense gratitude for all of the opportunities the present has afforded me. I’m looking forward to every new day, and to taking a second to just live it, and appreciate this special time in my life, this set of special and unique circumstances, which I will never again experience.

Because in the end, Ferris Bueller was right: life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it.

As a lot of you know, I do a fair amount of advising and consulting for all sorts of companies. This role differs in execution from company to company. With Fitocracy, I am an investor, and so I have some financial obligations there; but I also make suggestions and provide content.

In other companies, such as LIVESTRONG and LiveWell360, I’m more of a fitness advisor, and typically write blogs and article—but am often asked to help the business by introducing these companies to new customers, writers, and potential affiliates.

For others still, I do very little in the way of content creation, but I help with the products themselves, and then promote them. BioTRUST is a good example of this: I’m their “hormonal fat loss” advisor, which means that they call me to discuss new and exciting ingredients that either they or I have been researching that can help with…well, hormonal fat loss. BUT, they also don’t shy away from discussing business developments and asking for my opinions and suggestions.

All of this is to say that my services as a business consultant are as in-demand as my services as a fitness consultant—which is one of the reasons this blog exists; to discuss things related to business.

Which is what I want to do today. Although, this will be more of a rant in that regard.

In the interest of allowing you to experience this rant with the full understanding of why I get so worked up, allow me to provide some context. It’s necessary to understand (as I think most do), that my business is really 3-pronged.

RFS has three arms: Roman Fitness Publishing; Roman Fitness Consulting; and Roman Fitness Promotions. The first two are pretty self explanatory—as I mentioned, I do content creaton (RFPublishing) and serve as an advisor (RFConsulting).

The third arm—RFPromotions—is actually the one brings in the most revenue. This arm covers all income that is made via promoting products as an affiliate, or when an affiliate promotes one of my products.

As this happens every day, and I’m either making money from someone or they’re making money from me, I would venture to say that not only do I have an understanding of how affiliate programs should work, I’m also completely aware of how well they do work.

Put somewhat less delicately, I see the difference in revenue that is made by companies who offer an affiliate program vs. companies that do not. It’s astounding.

And so, of course, whenever I’m working in a consultant capacity, one of the first things I recommend is either starting a commission-based affiliate program, or revamping the current one to make it more attractive to potential affiliates.

My reasoning is this: if you make it easier for people to make (more) money promoting your product, they are a lot more likely to promote it.

Pretty simple, yes? I certainly think so.

Anyway, let’s get to my rant.

Recently, I was in California and had a meeting with some folks from an awesome company called Quest Nutrition. Those of you familiar with their products know that I am not exaggerating when I say that they make some of the best protein bars in the world—they’re delicious and they have like five ingredients.

In other words, Quest makes a high quality product that I really enjoy, and so I’m happy to recommend it to my readers. But, I would like to get paid on those recommendations, because, well, why shouldn’t I?

The folks at Quest are smart, and so, obviously, they have a nice affiliate program. Because it’s stupid not to.

Our meeting went well, and I’m happy to announce my NEW partnership with this awesome company. Quest and I are now business bros, and I’ll be providing content and, again, linking to their site. For their part, Quest is providing some free stuff for the launch of Engineering the Alpha, and of course paying me as an affiliate.

We’ll both make more money, and both get more exposure—and most importantly, we’ll both provide value for our respective customers.

In other words, affiliate programs are the best way to create mutually beneficial business relationships, especially online.

During our meeting, we talked a lot about business in general, but in particular companies that produce physical or edible products. Our conversation eventually turned to a brief discussion of one food company (producing mostly jerky-and-nut-type, Paleo-friendly products) in particular.

Now, I have a friendly relationship with this particular company, and I really like their products. Naturally, when they asked for business advice, I quickly acquiesced. Sadly, my advice has fallen on deaf ears—because despite my consistent advice and admonishment, they refuse to even consider an affiliate program. Won’t even think about it. “We’re just not interested in doing that.”

This, to me, is the very height of foolishness—and I said as much directly to the founder and everyone else on the conference call. An attitude like this bespeaks a business sense so bad that it warrants discussion. And that, of course, brings me to my rant.

The fact is, for most companies, affiliates can send you more traffic than you can ever hope to get on your own. That’s just what happens. I don’t make the rules, I just report them.

Your company exists for the twofold purposes of: a) providing your service to your customers and b) making money.

But you, in your infinite fucktardery, refuse to even consider a program that would, oh, I dunno…a) allow you to provide your service to an infinitely larger number of customers and b) make exponentially more money

Makes sense. If you hate money. Or success. Or happiness. Or puppies. Or just happen to be a fucking idiot.

When asked why they wouldn’t consider it, they said “our margins are too low.” Oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize. Do you know what companies with low margins ought to do to make more money? HIGH VOLUME. A business strategy that has been in play since the dawn of civilization.

Look, I get that your margins aren’t the highest. I get that high quality food is expensive, and your high quality food product costs a lot to produce.

But the answer, no matter what your margins are, is this: So. Fucking. What?

Who cares what your margins are if you can quintuple your sales in a matter of weeks? You’ll make that money back ten times over, if you can just get out of your own way long enough to make it desireable for people to promote your product. People like me—good businessmen—simply can’t countenance sending you thousands of clicks with a 0% chance of making money.

My opinion, put as bluntly as possible, is that if you don’t have an affiliate program, and you’re not willing to consider one, you’re a bad businessperson. A really, really, really bad one.

And as a good businessperson, please let me just spell it out for you as clearly as possible: if you’re not willing to consider a 5-10% decrease in your margins to increase your volume by like 5000%, you deserve—DESERVE—to go right the fuck out of business.

So.

Get your head out of your ass. Do what’s right for your business, your customers, your employees, and your potential business partners.

Either be at business, or don’t be in business.

 

Thoughts? Suggestions?

 

Think I’m a fucking idiot and want to tell me off?

 

Time to sound off in the comments!

 

I get asked to recommend books a lot—everything from fiction to business and everything in between. My collection (which I refer to as the Roman Archives), is exceptionally eclectic, and while I’ve certainly got a lot of fitness stuff, the 900 or so books I have in the apartment are about things far more interesting than that.

Today, I would like to give you some recommendations, and rather than just list favorites, I thought a random sampling would be more fun. I didn’t trust myself to be objective and not just pick my favorites and give you those. So, I devised a little system.

Being a bit meticulous with my collection, I have every shelf is organized by genre to the greatest degree possible. I figured I’d pick a book from each shelf. To randomize it further, I picked the same book on each shelf. I have 10 non-fitness shelves in my main room, so I picked the 10th book in on each shelf, from left to right.

Below is a brief description of each book, as well as why I think it might be a good read. You may not like every book or even every genre, but I think that all of these have value.

I hope you enjoy.

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10 Random Books from the Roman Archives

 

The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, by Fareed Zakaria. This is a book on what it truly means to be a “democracy.” Very relevant in today’s world, and VERY insightful. A great book to start with if you’re looking into politics. I view Zakaria as a true centrist, but he’s been described as a liberal (by the right) and a conservative (by the left). He does a fantastic job of summarizing a variety of viewpoints.

The Rebel Sell: Why Culture Can’t be Jammed by Joseph Heath & Andrew Potter. An insightful look into the profitability of counter-culture can increase profitiabily instead of stalling it. In short, sticking it to the man often helps to encourage our consumer-centric culture, making the radical opposition to it counterproductive. I enjoyed it because I have an interest  in subcultures and the way they pull the mainstream. Politically, this is neither right nor left; it offends both sides equally.

Androphilia: Rejecting the Gay Identity and Reclaiming Masculinity by Jack Malabranche. Along the same lines as Rebel Sell, it has a lot to do with discarding pre-conceived notions, but here, it’s of what it means to be “gay.” Good for that alone, but also because it can be applied to nearly any subculture that starts to buy too heavily into it’s own image. A friend of mine (who is gay and teaches LBGT studies at a university in NYC) recommended this and I loved it. Really interesting read.

Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach. I am hesitant to try and describe the book; I believe everyone who reads it will find something different in it. The plot details a man’s journey to become his own messiah, and by going along on his quest, you’ll learn about yourself.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Vikter E Frankl.  This is one of the most mind-altering books one can get their hands on. Deep and well written, it has within it the potential to change your perspective, if not your life. It is the author’s experience as a Holocaust survivor; but, his perspective as a psychiatrist allows him to tell it with an odd scientific detachment. A powerful story told in a completely different way.

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. This is a lighter book. An adventure story set in the near future, it has to do with technology, linguistics, and the despondency that occurs within someone when they have “come of age” and not really be satisfied with things. One of my favorite quotes of all time is from this book:

 “Until a man is about twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right set of circumstances, he could be the baddest motherfucker alive.”

Snow Crash is also a little bit awesome because it is one of the earliest examples of success in the cyberpunk genre.

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien:  My own personal history and love of the book aside, I think it is important to read because it was, quite literally, a game changer. Without question, nearly every book that has been since LOTR is in some way influenced by it. It is the second best selling book of all time, after the bible. It is the new mythology, filled with a history of history.

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. Once again, important for reasons beyond the scope of the story. This book launched a genre, made children’s literature commercially viable. Because of Harry, an ENTIRE generation of children started reading, and an entire generation of writers to pick up a pen and write books–sci-fi or otherwise–for children. Which in turn has an exponential effect on how children read. Even if you don’t care for wizards or children’s books, you must read this, if for no other reason than you should know about it.

On The Road by Jack Kerouack. Just incredible. Great not only for the story but for how it was written; totally stream of consciousness and brilliant. On the Road has been called the bible of a generation, in fact.

Very Far Away From Anywhere Else by Ursula K LeGuin – a coming of age story about a kid who is so confused he almost rivals Holden Caufield. Short, poignant, and well written, worth a read. I read this book when I was 13 and again when I was 30, and I found something different in it. It’s a bit emo, but you’ll finish it in an hour and it’ll make you think.

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Welp, there you have it: 10 non-fitness books randomly picked from my shelves. I’d love for you to pick up a few and share your thoughts; they may enrich your life–and at worst, may give you a better understanding of who I am.

-Roman

 

Okay you know the drill — let’s get  5 BOOK recommendations for me to dig into. They can be your favorites or just random. Inquiring minds want to know!

 

 

Being successful on the Internet is a strange thing. Not really in the way we measure it—the metrics for success are things like money and traffic and impact, and that part is pretty much like any other industry. The things that’s weird about being successful online is that there is no one path to get there. Even within a single industry like fitness, there is no one right way to do things.

At last years Fitness Business Summit, Craig Ballantyne gave a talk during which he profiled 9 different “types” of fitness businesses and discussed how each can be successful, with examples. He called me up on stage to talk about my approach, which Craig calls the “I’m really awesome” style.

I said that essentially, my model is be a cool guy. If you’re a good dude, a cool guy, and have interesting things to say, people will want to hang out with you.

Well, that’s pretty much what I do: I’m me, professionally. Of course, there’s more to it; I am an expert in my field, and ostensibly, people hire me for my expertise—but there are other experts they could hire. As near as I can tell, people are primarily interested in my professional services because they feel they could get along with me, or have fun at a bar with me.

So, if you were interested, that’s my business model: be cool.

But, I digress.

After Craig’s talk, he and I got dinner and had a conversation that I will never forget. While I acknowledged that there are a lot of business models, I wanted to know if success could be boiled to just one trait; if there was one thing that was necessary, one thing that every single person must do, regardless of business model.

Halfway through dinner, I made a Star Wars reference. Craig responded with an impression of Family Guy’s version of the Emperor—and it hit us like a thunderbolt.

Craig said these words:

That was it. The key.

No joke, this clip holds the key to success on the Internet. The second sentence the Emperor speaks unlocks the mysteries of the universe:

Something, something, something…complete.

That is your new mantra; those words are the only ones you need to remember if you want to be successful online. Forget the business books, forget the copywriting courses, forget the seminars. For now, ignore that shit. All you need is the Emperor.

Something, something, something…complete.

You see, the key to success—the thing that differentiates people who hit home runs from those who never get off base—is this understanding: your job is to finish something. Anything. Your job is to finish your product. Finish your blog post. Finish your eBook. Finish your DVD.

Something, something, something…COMPLETE.

Complete. That’s the key. Finish it.

Finish something. Literally, finish ANYTHING. Doesn’t matter what it is. I don’t care if it’s a manual on How to Train Your French Bulldog to Act Like a Dragon and you don’t think anyone will buy it. Only one way to find out: finish it and release it.

COMPLETE is the important thing—the something, something, something doesn’t matter. It seriously doesn’t. All that matters is the complete. Just fucking finish it. Finish it and put it out in the universe.

It’s never going to be perfect. If you’re capable of achieving a high level of success, then chances are you’re also critical of your work and never happy with the finished product. That’s good—you need that drive and that critical eye to grow.

But sometimes you must ignore it. You have to turn it off. You need to listen to the Emperor.

Something, something, something—COMPLETE.

Finish it. That’s the key—to everything. Finish the things you start instead of abandoning them to start five others. Sit down and complete your task, complete your product.

The metric you use to measure success doesn’t matter. Money? Fine: finish your product so people can buy and you can make money.

Traffic? Well, people are only going to come to your site and share your work if it’s actually finished.

Influence? Your projects can’t influence the world if you don’t release them for consumption. Finish it, release it, and watch your influence grow.

However you measure success, you can only get there if you complete something. 

It really is that simple.

There really is ONE trait that makes people successful, and it’s that they find it in themselves to finish something, anything.

If you can do that, then you can be successful. Your business model is irrelevant—you can buy traffic or do affiliate promotions or run a coaching program or even just be a cool guy.

As long as you FINISH something, you can be successful—so successful you can build your own Empire, fully equipped with a (complete) Death Star.

 

 

 

Welcome…to the Desert of the Real.  

(That quote has nothing to do with anything;
I just like the way it sounds. )

 So, anyway…

 

Hi. I’m John.

You may know me as Roman—and if you do, it means you know me from the fitness industry, and maybe you’ve read my stuff about diets or push-ups or fasting or supplements. Thanks for that, by the way. Reading my stuff, I mean.

But, I’m not going to be talking about any of that. Not here, at any rate.

Here, for the first time in a very long time, I leave Roman behind. Here, I am going to venture from the safe confines of that industry, and into territory that is unfamiliar to my pen. Here, I will slip out of the muscular carapace of Roman and, devoid of that armor, be perhaps more vulnerable but certainly more agile. Here, I will be, if you would be so kind, John.

And so we come to this blog, and this post. My First Post—an important one for any blog. It sets the tone from the outset and establishes (at least in the mind of the author, if not the reader) what will be discussed, and the way we’ll discuss it. Very important. Very important, indeed.

Is it less so here, because this is not actually the first blog post I’ve written, but rather my First Post on a new blog?

Ah! Now the tone is pontificating, instead of irreverent. Let us say, then, that we shall be irreverent, but make sure to throw in a dash of pontification every so often. Why not?

But enough of that. Back to my post—my First Post But Not Really.

Hmm…doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

Okay. Okay. This is how we’ll do it: we will say that this is my not my First Post, but rather my second First Post. Just as important as my first First Post. Perhaps more so. The writing of it seems altogether more comfortable, but no less strange than when on June 12th, 2009, I hit publish for the first time, and sent my thoughts spinning out into the void for anyone and everyone but probably no one to read.

That post was not really about fitness, despite that I was starting a fitness blog. To anyone who happened to stumble by, the post said, this guy is not like the others. This Roman fellow is different. At least, that’s what I hope it said. The intention was to set myself apart in the industry—to be funnier or less serious than others, to talk about things they felt they wouldn’t or couldn’t or shouldn’t.

I have spent the last four years doing that—especially this last year. So much so that a friend pointed it out to me and remarked:

“Of your last 8 blog posts, three were about super heroes, one was about Zoolander, two referenced Joseph Campbell, and one talked about Dungeons & Dragons. Maybe you should, I dunno, just write about fitness?”

Should I? Should I really shy away from who I am, and what makes me successful—talking about zombies and heroes and Zoolander and Campbell, instead of just carbs and protein and push-ups and CrossFit?

I think not. And so: a step away.

 

Moving Along, Not Moving On

The spirit of blog is very much the same: to be me; a different me than you know, but the most me I can be without bleeding on pages.

The logical question, I think, the one I’ve been asked the most is, are you done with fitness?

No, I’m not. I’ll never be done with it; I doubt I’ll ever move away from it much. This blog is a step away from fitness, but not to abandon it; simply a forum to openly discuss other things.

 

FUNCTION & GOAL

And so, the function of this blog is to talk about those things. That is the function, but not the goal.

The goal of this blog, aside from sharing thoughts and opinions and opening myself up to you, is to become a better writer. Specifically: to be more productive and less prolix.

To those ends, my aim is firstly to post here fairly often (which for me means 2-3 times weekly) and secondly to shore up my weaknesses as a writer. These are legion, but the most obvious weakness is my inability to exercise economy of words.  To learn that valuable skill, I am imposing a word limit on myself: 500-800 words per post (not counting quotes, headings, titles, and calls to action).

These things I will do while discussing things that weyou and I, that is, for what am I without you?—decide need discussing. Sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, certainly; but also movies, books, politics, business, angel investing and writing.

It’s going to be a good time. I think you’ll learn a lot from this blog, this experiment—perhaps even as much as I will.

I hope you’ll join me.

So, again:

Hi. I’m John.

What’s your name?