Episode 4: It's OK to Be Bad at Some Things

In this episode Isaac covers the importance of letting go of your perfectionism, the perils of the do-it-all-yourself mentality, and prioritizing what to work on. He talks to Dawn Ambuehl-Sadek of Maman Sucre about the ways that she’s acknowledged her own limitations in life and business, how she seeks help, and what she’s chosen to let go.

In the handmade business world, it’s incredibly hard to separate yourself from your products and your brand. When so much of what you make is tied to your personal identity, who you are inevitably bleeds into what you do. The inverse is also true—what you do (and why you do it) can start to define who you are as a person. If I asked you to look at your social media, your marketing, even your products and packaging and tell me what you see, I bet you’d probably say you see yourself. And when you see yourself in your work, it’s natural to want to be able to control every aspect of it.

Perfectionism is alive and well in the maker community, both fed by false comparison to others and egged on by our own desire to present ourselves to the world in the best possible way. We feel like we need to be perfect at everything and convince ourselves that every other successful maker out there is more perfect than we are. Striving for excellence is healthy—but setting unattainable standards for yourself goes a step too far and ultimately sets you up for some sort of failure. You’re human, not a Cylon.

On top of that, the DIY culture that bred the maker movement has a habit of making us martyrs for our own cause. We feel like doing it all by ourselves is the only way—whether it’s building a website, selling our products in person, courting wholesale accounts, or doing the bookkeeping. Sure, the rare renaissance woman or man out there may be able to deftly navigate all of these things like it’s second nature, but they are the exception, not the rule. A jack of all trades is a master of none. By trying to execute perfectly on every aspect of your business, you’re spreading yourself too thin, and you’ll end up dropping a ball (or five), or never succeeding at enough things to make long-term progress.

Some of you might be scratching your heads and thinking this sounds a little familiar. Smart cookies, you are! You might recall that in the last episode I talked about avoiding the “all the things” mentality when you’re trying to solve a business problem. Well the same principle applies to your business as a whole: You can’t expect to be a generalist when it comes to your business—if you’re going to build a business that’s sustainable, you need to identify your strengths, play to them, and find ways to balance your weaknesses by filling in the gaps with help.

I’m totally going to date myself here and insert a 90s pop culture reference, but Art Alexsakis was onto something—you can’t be Everything to Everyone. You’ll spin around and fall down, you’ll stumble and you’ll fall, why won’t you ever learn? Okay, okay, I’m done.

So here are two signs you might be on the path to DIY martyrdom:

  1. Have you noticed a to-do list sitting on your desk 42 miles long that encompasses everything from producing new work to designing a brochure to buying more paint brushes or hot glue sticks? Stop right there and seek help before you add one more thing to that list.

  2. Does your work suffer because you're pulling all-nighters to get everything accomplished? Are you missing deadlines? Are you unable to focus on channeling your creativity into doing what you love? Stop. You can’t do that to yourself for the long haul.

Okay, okay, Isaac. I get it. I can’t do it all by myself and I can’t be perfect at everything. But it’s all so overwhelming!

You’re right. Running a business, especially a handmade one, is hard work, and there’s always something vying for your attention. But I’m here to help. First, let’s talk about getting the urgent things out of the way. And I think it’s about time for that French lesson:

If you’ve ever watched one of those hospital shows like ER or Grey’s Anatomy or ever seen one of those movies about a viral outbreak or mass disaster, you’ve probably familiar with the word TRIAGE and the practice of assessing incoming casualties and ranking them based on how serious their injuries are. The word “triage” comes from the French verb “trier”, which means to select, separate, or sift. I like the last one most—to sift.

When a disaster or multiple casualty event hits, emergency responders will adhere to a three tier assessment for how to proceed with each injured person: 1) those who are likely to live regardless of treatment (not life-threatening), 2) those who are unlikely to live regardless of treatment (injuries too severe), or 3) those for whom immediate care could save their lives.

In a dire situation where resources, people, and time is limited, triage has proven itself as an effective way of helping the most people possible and preventing as many deaths as possible.

Now, I’m not trying to draw an equivalency between your business and a massive earthquake or tsunami, but you can (and should) apply the principles of triage into your own handmade business to make sure you’re sifting through and focusing on the right things at the right times, especially as urgent or seemingly urgent things come at you.

Let’s take the example of the 42-mile-long martyr to-do list as an ideal place where triage can make a difference: take a look at your list and first identify what has a high likelihood of surviving without immediate attention. These would be things that you can let go of for a bit and come back to later when you have more room on your plate, like:

  • Checking your social media stats
  • Revamping your bio on your website, or
  • Fiddling with your packaging materials

This is a perfect opportunity for color-coding, but I’m going to go out on a limb here to suggest something a little bit backwards: let’s label these things red, for “Stop! Do not work on these things right now!”

Next, go back through the list and identify those things that aren’t life-or-death, but definitely need to be addressed for maximum success. These might be things like:

  • Checking in on your wholesale accounts to see how things are selling
  • Updating your bookkeeping, or
  • Shopping for materials for your next product line or season

Label these items in yellow.

The items that are left should be highlighted or tagged in green. These are the most important things that you have just given yourself a “green light” to work on (did you see what I did there?). They will have the most measurable impact on your business and are worth working on first.

Triage will help you deal with the onslaught of “all the things” tasks that tend to creep in when you’re feeling like there’s way too much to do. But let’s talk about working a little more proactively and accepting your weaknesses.

Do you know what you’re best at in your business? What are the three aspects of your business that you simultaneously love doing and rock at doing day in and day out? Keep doing those things.

Now, what are the three aspects of your business that you absolutely suck at, or that you keep trying to nail and can’t seem to get it? I have a feeling one of them is related to money, amiright? (Yeah, that’s pretty much all of us.) These are the things you need the most help with. But you know what? THAT’S OKAY! I want you to know what you’re terrible at and accept that you probably won’t ever be very good at it. At the same time, I want you to know that there are other people out there who LOVE and ROCK at doing that thing. Wouldn’t it be great to let them love and rock that thing on your behalf?

Alright, so what about the things in between? You have two options here: you can either work at them to see if there’s an opportunity to build your own skills, or you can take the opportunity to seek out a tool (or a person) to help you do those things. For example, I struggle with time management, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I need a virtual babysitter to tell me I need to do my homework (though if that’s what you need, I’m sure they exist). Instead, I’ve found that using a time-tracking tool and scheduling work sessions on my calendar with reminders does wonders for me getting things done.

Now, I know some of you are probably yelling at me in your car, “Isaac, I’d LOVE to hire someone to do my accounting or post to social media, but I’m a young business and I can’t afford that.”

To that, I say: I hear you. The struggle is real, especially for someone who’s just starting out. For those things you suck at, here are my three points of advice:

  1. Make a plan to be able to afford those people or services in the future by setting goals to get to that point.

  2. Look for either free resources in your community or opportunities for trade with people who can help.

  3. In the meantime, do what you can to get by on your own, but accept that you won’t be able to do it perfectly. Figure out where “enough” is and start there.

You cannot expect to be everything to everyone with your business, and that goes for doing all the things all the time with all the awesomeness. Playing to your strengths and acknowledging, even embracing your weaknesses will help you sift through what’s most important to work on and focus on what will bring you success in the long run.

Episode Guest

Dawn Marie Ambuehl-Sadek is the owner and maker of Maman Sucre all natural, organic, aromatherapy bath & body products. Established in December of 2013, Maman Sucre products are specifically created for women and men with skin or scent sensitivities who are eco-conscious, who appreciate vegan, sustainable ingredients, and who still want to spoil themselves with the occasional luxury spa treatment without compromising their values. All products are handcrafted with loving intention in small batches and packaged with a signature vintage style.