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One of my favorite mistakes

Posted in the following categories: Life Lessons, Problem Solving

Today is the second birthday of my book, Think Like a Rocket Scientist.

Over the past two years, the book has sold over 100,000 copies and has been translated to nearly 25 foreign languages.

It also changed my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

It connected me to amazing people all around the world whose lives the book touched.

It allowed me to give countless keynotes, in-person and virtual, to industry-leading organizations interested in applying principles from the book to define the future of their industry.

And it allowed me to leave my tenured position in academia to pursue writing and speaking full time.

Thank you so much for reading the book and for sharing it. You’ve been a crucial part of the alchemy that brought the book to where it is today, and I’m deeply grateful for your support.

To mark the book’s second birthday, I wanted to share with you a mistake I made when I was promoting the book—and what I learned from it.

The book was published on April 14, 2020. To promote the book, I had scheduled talks and keynotes across the country. That is, after all, what respectable authors do. Step 1: Write book. Step 2: Go on book tour.

Unless, that is, a pandemic shuts down all travel confining the author to his home. To add to that, Amazon decided to prioritize shipments of essential items, and books—according to the Amazon gods—were decidedly not essential, delaying some deliveries by days or weeks.

I spent several, deeply unproductive days wishing that the universe had dealt me a better hand. Why did this pandemic happen right when I was publishing my first book, scrapping my carefully laid plans? I could already see the hashtags attached to these woes (#firstworldproblems).

Once I crawled out of my canyon of despair, I realized my plans had been deeply flawed. I went back to first principles, and began to question the wisdom of a book tour. I had planned a book tour because that’s what other authors did—not because it was the most effective way to promote my book.

In other words, I was imitating other people. I was copying their tactics. But tactics, as Neil Gaiman reminds us, can be the subtlest of traps. Just because others are using a tactic or a tool doesn’t make it the most effective way to accomplish your objective.

What’s more, when you copy the “proven” tactics of others, you end up basing your decision only on success stories. Sure, that photo of hundreds of people waiting in line for Brené Brown to sign books looks impressive. But you’re not Brené Brown (and if you are, I’m a big fan). And you’re not seeing the hundreds of authors who walked into a Barnes & Noble to do a reading only to find a handful of readers waiting for them.

I went back to the drawing board and asked myself, “What is the principle behind the tactic? What’s the purpose of a book tour?” Engage with readers. Get the word out about the book. Sell more books.

Once I identified the principle, I could zoom out of a conventional tactic and see other possibilities I had missed. I ended up planning a series of virtual events, partnered with other authors who also had the misfortune of a pandemic book release, and created innovative digital bonuses for ordering the book and spreading the word about it. I’m confident these tactics were far more successful than an in-person book tour would have been.

Here’s what I learned.

Stop being a hunter-gatherer of other people’s tools, tactics, and formulas.

Instead, master the principle behind them.

Once you know what the principle is—once you know the why behind the tactic—you can create your own extraordinary how.

P.S. If you haven’t read Think Like a Rocket Scientist yet, you can grab a copy at this link.

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