The Constant is Change: How to Survive a TV Show’s Summer Test Run

Summer is here, and if you’re a TV producer, that means you get to do one of three things:

  • Enjoy your (forced) hiatus as you wait for your show to begin production in the fall, by seeing friends, cooking, traveling, and creating other projects, all while reveling in how responsible you were in saving during the year
  • Don’t enjoy your (forced) hiatus as you wait for your show to begin production in the fall, by refreshing Staff Me Up and posting your resumes on Facebook groups every hour on the hour, rueing that month-long trip you took to Thailand in the middle of the season
  • Produce for a summer test run

I’ve had the pleasure of doing all three. But for today, I’d like to talk more about what a summer test run is, and, if you’re considering this special brand of insanity, how to survive it.

Over the last eight or nine years, production companies have embraced the idea of testing talk shows over short summer runs of 10 to 30 episodes that air in June, July and August. This summer, Fox is testing four. The idea behind them, as Marc Berman lays out, is simple enough:

The primary reason, of course, is money. If a show fails to catch on — and many do — you avoid spending upwards of $30 million to launch a high-end production. But the model provides other benefits, too. Producers can use early feedback from test markets to tweak the show before rolling it out across the country. And for a station group like Fox, which has two stations in the same markets in a number of different cities (aka “duopoly”), these tests represent an opportunity to fill unused time periods.

Marc Berman, Test-run programs: the new normal in first-run syndication


Over my “career” (no TV producer I’ve known actually calls the freelance life that feels like monkeys swinging from vine to vine a sustainable career), I’ve helped launch five shows on networks like Fox, NBC, and CNN, and three of those have been summer test runs.  The shows I worked on produced 10, 15, and 30 episodes, and lasted from four to seven weeks. On two of them I was involved in all three stages of production (pre-production, production, and post-production), while the third mostly kept us out of the editors’ bays.

While the shows produced per week over a summer test run doesn’t appear exceptional (most daytime talk shows do 5 or 6 a week, while court shows can do upwards of 10), it’s the pain of squeezing the whole life cycle of a show into less than two months that makes these tests such an unruly beast. Essentially, you’re developing a brand new show (the starting point is often little more than, “Here’s a host, and an hour to fill), and delivering that brand new show to a network with highly demanding specs – two processes that have career paths and companies devoted to them – while also producing the show, all at the same time.

Having been through this strange, sweaty crucible three times, I wanted to put together a list of the best ways to survive the summer test run for those of you who are considering making the same move. I hope that, if you’re deciding to take a summer job, these tips will give you a glimpse of the environment you’ll likely find yourself in. If you’ve already taken the job, I hope they help you get to August intact. While there’s no shortage of lessons learned (and NDA-barred stories I can’t share), the following 10 tips will get you through the chaos that is a summer production.

  1. Controlled Panic – Don’t panic about what you can’t control. Because, invariably, you will be given a lot of news that seems panic-worthy. No segments to produce? Panic. Too many segments to produce? Panic. Canceled celebrity guests? Panic. Host doesn’t like you? Panic. Unless it directly affects you in your duty as assistant, PA, AP, or Producer, save your anxiety for actual problems you can actually work on.
  2. Backups on Backups on Backups – Getting to know the likes and dislikes of your executive producers, talent, and network in under a month, and then delivering what they want, is one of the bigger challenges of the summer test run. Because of this overly critical gauntlet, most of your ideas will die an early death. So, have a backup plan, or three. If you’re producing the celebrity interviews, have backups for games, questions, and surprising photos. If you’re pitching a human interest guest, have others who are available, or local options, or kid options. If you’re pitching a news story for the table discussion, think of two or three different conversations that could be had about it.
  3. The Work Week is A Week – You may get lucky and work 5 days a week. You may work 7 days a week. But my average for summer test runs is something like 6.33 days a week (repeating, of course). You can ask as much as you like in the interview process what the expected workload will be, but you’re going to get a conservative answer (“We’re totally going to leave by 6pm every night!”). The longer nights and weekend days may also be tied to new responsibilities and interesting roles, so the extra work isn’t a categorically bad thing. Just adjust your expectations: a summer test run doesn’t mean Summer Fridays.
  4. Serving Two Masters – While producing for television nearly always means getting approval from the show’s executive producer, as well as the network, the summer test run means you’re often getting regular, prolonged exposure to both groups, at the same time, as they butt heads on making the best possible show, while also appealing to a very specific audience. There aren’t rules on how to handle this, necessarily, just be aware that you’re about to experience some fun dynamics. You’ve got two moms now.
  5. Don’t Bitch About Pitching – Though the burn rate for ideas is higher during these pressure-cooker summer tests than a season-long run, idea generation is a part of television. TV is fueled by ideas. If you don’t like ideas being pitched, discarded, and born again from the ashes, you’re probably not in the right industry.
  6. Level Up – If you’re between jobs, this summer test run can be a chance to try on a new title for size. If you’re returning to a job in the fall, you can get experience you might not have otherwise gotten in the more ossified systems of a season-long show. From PA to Executive Producer, you have the chance to create opportunities for yourself, and grab on to the next swinging vine.
  7. Let Me Reiterate: Iterate – The show will change. The format will change. Your responsibilities will change. Then, they may change back. Roll with it. With new teams, raw talent, and lots of network cooks in the kitchen, the show’s identity will change a dozen times before you start taping. Then, if you’re lucky, it’ll settle in for the run. Likely, it’ll keep changing throughout. That’s the nature of this experiment you signed up for. Solutions are only meant to last for two or three weeks, not six or eight months, so don’t expect every iteration to be the most logical one.
  8. The Great Departmental Divide – Sometimes you’ll be staffed with long-time TV friends. Other times, you’ll know no one. Some staffs and stage crews have worked together before. Others come from wildly different backgrounds. During long office hours and longer tape days, strange allegiances form, between teams on the staff, between the staff and crew. Make an effort to keep communicating and checking in. Communicate, don’t fester. Bridge the Great Departmental Divide, and the show, and your experience on it, will be that much better.
  9. Eyeing the Finish Line – Freelancing is frustrating because the jobs keep coming to an end. How people handle the finish line speaks volumes. Some spend a lot of time and energy looking for their next jobs; their focus will wane, and they’ll make mistakes. Others keep locked in until the bitter end. What can you do about it? Handle your own business. Pace through to the finish.
  10. Closure? Yeah, Sure – Summer runs are like summer flings. Enjoy them in the moment – don’t worry about what’s going to happen in the winter. Don’t expect a satisfying conclusion where the show’s future is explained and everything makes sense. Go to the wrap party and celebrate that you pulled off making a massive show with a skeleton staff, and don’t worry about the show getting “extended” (spoiler: it won’t). If it’s going to get picked up for another season, you’ll likely hear about it in December or January.

While I’ve painted a picture of summer test runs that’s no doubt frenetic, frantic, and more than a little frustrating, it’s worth disclosing that my favorite job was one of them. I worked with an incredible host, a team as strong as Achilles (and yes, with a heel like his, too), and the show was perfect.

You do need to know that these summer tests are gambles. No one can predict the outcome from the start – that’s why they exist in the first place. While the payout for the show isn’t guaranteed, you can help your own odds. If you have the right attitude, and a lot of patience, you’ll leave the table with more chips than you put down.

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Introducing Monstrous Me

In a month and a half, I’ll launch the Kickstarter for my first illustrated book, Monstrous Me.

The book is a collection of monsters, each a grotesque exaggeration of a quirk, bad habit or poor quality we have inside of us, like the ogre who over schedules his life, but blames other people for ruining his calendar. The coffee addict that’s dying for another drop. The gnat that needs feedback on everything she does. The fitness addict who just needs one more step to feel good.

Or… maybe it’s just me? Are these just my bad sides?

Maybe I’m just the monster.


The Idea

Aunt Eek - antique monster

In January, I started writing again. Most of it was rhyming, nonsense stories as before, but instead of the 20-30 verse pieces that were typical for Fantastic Ballads, these pieces were similar to sonnets and clocked in around 14-18 lines. With names like the Flower Devourer, The Pitter Pattern, Mr. Tracks-It and Aunt Eek, they became a weekly exercise – and creative release – that fit in with an increasingly hectic television production schedule.

Soon, I reached out to artists on Fiverr to have  these monsters illustrated. The woman I ultimately connected with added so much more to each illustration than the art – she brought her personal experience, her curiosity and her humor, and each story was all the better for it. That led to a delightful month of collaboration and creation.

Then, as I was staring down five weeks of free time in March and April –  I presented her with what seemed like a crazy idea.

Instead of just one monster, or two, or three… what if we made 50?

And… released them all as a book?

She agreed!

So I spent March and April writing, rewriting, and killing off a bunch of ideas. Though we agreed to flesh out 50 stories with accompanying illustrations, the final edition will likely have less than 50 (two of the four pictured in this post won’t make the final cut) as we whittle out the weak and make sure the monsters that remain are the most monstrous.


Barista Fly, bar fly, caffeine fiend

Over the next handful of Mondays, I’ll post updates on Monstrous Me. Some will be more substantive and include breakdowns of the processes involved (self-publishing, crowdfunding, illustrator collaboration), and others will be more goodie-intensive (art and excerpts and animations, oh my!).

Right now, the manuscript is in the hands of the first round of editors, and the second round of edits begins in July. The first draft of sketches is coming soon, and I look forward to sharing a few of those with you.

With the Kickstarter campaign looming, I’m working through an outreach timeline and developing some promotional ideas and materials.


What’s Next

As I refine the book, and learn a new set of skills for promotion, design, and animation, the next few months should be chock-full of good, bad and ugly updates.

With respect to animation, I’ve been tooling around with Adobe Animate. My first three experiments are up on Instagram now, and the plan is to become less terrible at it over the coming weeks, so I can use the software to animate the monsters, and, hopefully, the book trailer.

When the edits and sketches of the monsters come in, I’ll release a few to show those baddies that are shaping up into book form, as well as some of the unlucky beasts that are writhing around on the cutting room floor, and why they met their untimely demise.

Also, to keep this from being a totally self-indulgent process (is it too late if I’m writing this on a personal blog?), I’ll host an in-depth interview with the book’s artist, Liz, on her inspirations, influences, and other projects.

I’ll get granular about the pleasures and perils of launching and sustaining a Kickstarter campaign, the cost breakdown of self-publishing a colorful, illustrated book, and any other technical goodies along the way.

Despite what feels to me like a lot of progress, there’s still so much to do. As I edit, revise, share and post about the goings-on (then, in turn, as I doubt, denigrate, disparage and internally eviscerate myself) of Monstrous Me, I appreciate you coming along on this ride. It’s going to be fun!

Besides, we’re all monsters, aren’t we?

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Clay on the Wheel

Clay on the wheel
Photo by Quino Al

To distract myself from the terrifying void of unemployment (or Runemployment, as I’ve taken to calling it, since I can run whenever I damn well please), I’ve busied myself with writing. Most of the pieces I’m working on are in the beginning stages, which means fighting through ugly first drafts until there’s something salvageable and less garbage-y to share with the world… but the fight is a constant.

For each time I’ve been able to get into the flow and silence the backseat nagger who reminds me how terrible what I’m doing is, there’s an equal number of times that the nagger has gotten the upper-hand. The hope with the writing and revising process is to shape, mold, fix, and (ideally) improve the piece into something worthwhile. The reality often devolves into a pity party led by a searing, scathing, self-deprecating monologue.

And yet, we all press forward, because the hope outlasts the starker reality, and the revisions do make the work stronger. It helps knowing, too that if you do a search for books about first drafts, the results show that you’re not alone in the rough starts, missteps, and bad beginnings:

  • 6 Baffling First Drafts of Classic Novels
  • Crappy First Drafts of Great Books
  • 5 Novels Whose First Drafts Were Scrapped Entirely
  • 5 Hilariously Bad First Drafts of Classic Books
  • 8 Famous Novels That Had Very Different First Drafts

What’s even more comforting is knowing that this process is not unique to writing – it’s part of creating. Drafting. Building. Singing. Making business models. Crafting. Sketching. Ideating. Pivoting. Sculpting. Leading. And other verbs. Here are a few articles from different creative genres:

  • See the Sketches JRR Tolkien Used to Build Middle-Earth
  • 15 Shocking First Drafts of Iconic Movie Characters
  • 25 Must-See Design Sketches of Your Favorite Sneakers

One of the day-camps I went to as a 3rd grader had a pottery class where we got to put a wet lump of clay on the wheel. As the wheel began to spin, we began to shape. Sometimes the lump showed promise; sometimes the lump became lumpier. Still, we had a lump of clay with which to play, and as long as we kept at it, there was still a chance for that clay to become a pot, or a plate, or a bowl, or an especially fine lump.

In that way, creating anything is just a matter of putting clay on the wheel – and keeping it there.

What I’ve wanted to do, and have yet to do, is interview creators from across different industries, from footwear designers and startup founders to architects and cooks. I want to know what their first drafts look like. How did they start? How did they refine? When did they know they were done (if there’s even a ‘done’)? What keeps them going?

Whether podcast, video series, recurring articles, or something else, I know that a repository of first draft diaries would be sweet solace to other makers and doers who are struggling with their own beginnings.

In acknowledging the gap between our vision and our skills, it’s like Ira Glass said,

“For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.”

Whether that gap is between your first germ of an idea, and the life you know you can breathe into it, or your very first piece ever, and the career you want to have ten, twenty, thirty years down the line, know this: the first draft is a constant. Even the professionals are beginners when they start a new draft, project, or business.

So how do they put the clay on the wheel?

“Ideas on Fridays” is a weekly effort to test, flesh out, and/or purge ideas from my brain. If you want to use one of these ideas – or collaborate on one – please get in touch.

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Finding Forever Homes for Adopted Dinosaurs

Royce Hall Dinosaur

In 2008, I had a room to myself at UCLA, and time on my hands. With that, my room became a production studio where I worked on animations, stop motion shoes, short films, scripts, projects and nonsense ideas, including an animated a 4-episode-long time travel series featuring Albert Einstein and short films about shoes and recycling (separate films, though, maybe there’s something cinematic about recycling shoes…). In short, it was a pretty productive year. Also, I went to class.

One of the sillier ideas I took on during that time was Adopt A Dino. Somehow (and this may have been related to a time-traveling Einstein) I ended up with a tube of plastic dinosaurs. Rather than risk stepping on them in the night, my friend Camille and I wrote index card-length adoption pleas for each of 30 different dinosaurs, took them out one morning around 5am, and placed them all around campus. On one side of the cards was the adoption please, and on the other, our Adopt-a-Dino e-mail address, just in case anyone wanted to send us their heart-warming stories of dinosaurs finding their forever homes.

Again, it’s a silly idea.

Our hope was to delight a person or two as they went about their day, be they a math student, law professor, coach or staff. We scattered these dinos across the graduate schools of business and law, both north and south campus, in front of the library, on Janss steps, and around the dorms.

Ultimately, we heard back from three dinosaurs (and their new families). The notes are below.

Dinosaur #1

The first photo is the one featured above came back without any note. It’s a dinosaur and Royce Hall. The sun is just rising. Some event is being set up. Likely, this Tyrannosaur is roaring along with the hourly bells. Though I don’t know about the home he found, I know he’s in good hands.

Royce Hall Dinosaur

Dinosaur #2

The second note came via a director at the UCLA Fusion Science & Technology Center:

Just wanted to let you know that I found a home today!
Some really big dude adopted me and brought me to his office. I love it here. Everything is green, just like me. And I have already made a lot of friends.
There’s an alligator, a fish, a frog and a bear. And so far, they all seem very nice and have made me feel very welcome.

Gotta go now. Time for me to explore more of my new home.

Mark (the dino)

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I couldn’t have dreamed of a better home. Big dudes, green things, and friends? That’s going to be tough to beat.

Dinosaur #3

Our little project was never any bigger an idea than scattering toy dinosaurs on a college campus, with biographies written in Sharpie on flimsy index cards. It’s a little project that we hoped might be a little fun for us, and a little silly to someone else. That anyone would indulge us by writing back was a nice surprise.

And then we got the third note.

Dear Whomever,

Just wanted to let you know what happened to the dino.

I teach writing at UCLA.  I had arranged for 33 4th grade students to come to campus today to interview my students about writing.

Last week, one of the 4th graders, a high-functioning autistic boy, flipped out, screaming he couldn’t, wouldn’t, absolutely no way go to UCLA!  When the 4th graders’ teacher told me Max wasn’t coming, I had to reassign my student who was going to interview him to join another 4th grader.  Yesterday I found out that Max had changed his mind.   He was coming to campus, but didn’t want to interview anyone, just wanted to go on the tour part of the visit.

On the way to campus I realized something horrible.  My students had decided that they would each get a little gift to give to the 4th graders.   Max, having no partner, would get no gift.  I felt terrible.   I had no time to run to the student store to get something.   I was trying to remember if there was anything in my office I could give him.  As I walked past the inverted fountain to my office in the Humanities building, still fretting about what to do, I saw something….

…a little dinosaur.  And Max had his gift.

When all the other kids walked out of their interviews holding their little stuffed bears, baseball caps, journals, t-shirts (and two 4th graders received footballs signed by the UCLA football team!), I handed Max his gift.

Thank you for brightening the day of a young boy who struggles so hard to get through life.


Now, we had no way of knowing this would happen.

But we do know, as self-evident as it is, that it wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t done anything.

I wish I could say this inspired me on a journey to start dozens and dozens of public arts projects, as I endeavored to brighten and uplift spirits young and old, in places near and far, for nine years and counting.

But it hasn’t.

Instead, this note reminds me that the little gestures, the ones you unknowingly make at the beginning or end of your day, in traffic or in class, with coworkers and with strangers, have unknowable impacts. And though they may be hit or miss, though you may only hear back about three of those 30 dinosaurs (I just have to believe that those other 27 found good homes…), some good will still come of it.

So, send those dinosaurs out there. You never know who needs one.

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The Best Books I Read in 2016

From the great libraries of Glendale to the beaches of southern Portugal, 2016 was a year of reading near and far. Though it was a year stuffed to the gill with big moments (a trip to Taiwan with my brother’s family, acceptance into a new-fangled MBA program, our wedding(!), and a Portuguese honeymoon) as well as consistent producing work, I found the time to read just over a book a week, a consistency that allowed me to discover some of my all-time favorites.

2016 also saw the fall of two of my favorite book-related endeavors: my first-ever book club, co-founded with my good friend Dave, sputtered to an end after 3+ years of hilarious discussions and stunning debut novels; and I pulled the plug on Connect A Book, as the costs, both time and financial, proved too great to maintain my book-y social network.

Below you’ll find the five best fiction books and non-fiction books I read last year.

The Best Fiction I Read in 2016

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal – This is a charming foodie novel about a girl with an incredible palate, told through the key moments in her life (while not always putting her at the center of the story), from before she was born to her mid-20s.

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson – This is science fiction with a side of humor, and despite being released over 20 years ago, Stephenson’s accurate prediction of our current virtual reality boom makes it feel prescient.

The Nix by Nathan Hill – The range and depth of characters is terrific, the story is incredible, and the treatment of how our memories impact, inform, and guide our lives is powerful.

You by Caroline Kepnes – The second-person technique is used to disturbing success in this thriller. Before long, you’ll find yourself understanding and agreeing with the protagonist’s deranged motives.

The Sportswriter by Richard Ford – The beginning of a series I’m excited to take on, this novel is about a man who’s floating along in life, gainfully employed as a sportswriter, but reflecting on career risks not taken, a marriage dissolved, and the loss of a son.

The Best Non-Fiction I Read in 2016

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NIKE by Phil Knight – A well-told story – bruises and all – of Phil Knight’s journey from the co-founder of Blue Ribbon Sports to his and NIKE’s rise through the world of sports. The book ends well before current times, but there’s far more to this memoir than the simple biography of a company.

Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler – Despite living in Glendale and driving by the Disney animation studio on my way to work in Burbank each morning, I knew little about Disney’s beginnings. This biography is phenomenal, an unflinching look at the personal sacrifices Disney made, and many of the controversial moments of his career.

The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business by Josh Kaufman – This is a guide for anyone thinking about starting a business, going to business school, interested in business, or, quite frankly, interested in how the world works. This helped clarify my understanding of the logistical side of running a business, and motivated me to apply to Smartly’s MBA program.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport – As the varied, digital seductions of our attentions continue to get louder and more vulgar, the importance of our ability to focus becomes more valuable, not just to our selves, but to the world at large.

Mastery by Robert Greene & The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene  – I can’t recommend this pairing highly enough for anyone who wants to take better control of their passions, their skills and their life.

Reading in 2017

Looking back at what I read last year showed a similar openness to years past. What I found lacking, though, were classics of any sort: biographies, novels, plays. I’m eager to bring more of those works into this year’s reading. What I’m pleased with is the consistency. Though I may not have read as much as the year before, I still read. It may have cost me staying current on a few TV shows, and I’ve watched far fewer movies, but I am okay with those trade-offs. Simply put – there aren’t substitutes for reading. Reading compounds. The more you read, the more connections you’ll make, whether it’s between books, between experiences you’ve had, or between what’s going on in the world. While I strongly recommend all of the books above, and have other recommendations (including The Best Books I Read in 2015), the strongest recommendation I can make is just that you read. Read often. Read weird things. Read great things. Read things. Read, and reward your curiosity.

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Smartly Week 5

Week 5 (One-Variable Statistics and Probability) is done, and with it, our (re)introduction to statistics. Weeks 6, 7 and 8 all build on what we’ve learned (Regression Analysis! Data Collection! Statistical Inference!), and after that, we have our midterm.

Officially, our midterm encompasses Accounting, Markets & Economies, and Data & Decisions… and I have officially not started preparing.

That changes this week, however, as I dust off an old friend, The Leitner System of Remembering Everything, and the Anki software that enables such a powerful system. Though it would’ve been smarter to make these flashcards as I moved through the lessons, playing catchup shouldn’t take more than a few weeks.

The books I’ve added for Week 5 are Naked Statistics and The Signal and the Noise.

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Books Read in October ’16

With October being my first month as a Smartly student, the shift back toward business reading is now in full effect. Accounting and copywriting and finance, oh my! While I still aim to read novels and other non-fiction books in my spare time, the bulk of my reading over the next few months will relate to the Smartly syllabus.

Best October Book:

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NIKE by Phil Knight – One of two books about running I listened to this month while running, Shoe Dog is a phenomenal history of a revolutionary footwear company, and ends up being as much a heartfelt memoir as a guide to running a lean business. The moments where Phil reflects on fatherhood, and sacrificing time with his sons to focus on NIKE, are similar to Hayao Miyazaki’s confessions in Starting Point; both men are driven toward greatness, while still being aware of the costs of pushing themselves there.

Other Non-Fiction Reads:

Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness by Scott Jurek – The other running book I listened to, Scott Jurek’s memoir details his rise as a runner, and the mental toughness it takes to succeed as an ultramarathoner. This book is a great companion piece for Born to Run.

The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future by Kevin Kelly – This is a Big Picture book. Kevin Kelly looks toward the next thirty years, and the way trends like “interacting, cognifying, flowing, screening, accessing, sharing, filtering, remixing, tracking, and questioning” will affect our existence. Perhaps the most entertaining part of each chapter is his first-person predictions of what a day in the life of the near-future looks like, once that trend has matured.

On Writing Well by William Zinsser – This classic work on non-fiction writing served as a great refresher for strong writing fundamentals, and I plan on referring back to it regularly.

Simple Numbers, Straight Talk, Big Profits: 4 Keys to Unlock Your Business Potential by Greg Crabtree – I chose this as a supplement to the first few accounting-heavy weeks of my Smartly degree. More than just the fundamentals that Accounting Made Simple breaks down, Simple Numbers includes accounting-based strategies for helping a business thrive that I hope I’ll get to apply soon.

Accounting Made Simple by Mike Piper – In the few times I’ve dipped my toes into the small business waters, I’ve never made accounting a priority. This book, short as it may be, lays out the basics of double entry bookkeeping in a practical, actionable way.



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Smartly Week 4: At Sea

With only 3 Smartly lessons scheduled per week, doing just the bare minimum has been a temptation I’ve done my best to avoid. This week, after past sessions filled with discussions and bonus reading, I found myself slipping to doing just enough to get by. While it’s convenient for me to blame “a busy time at work,” my dwindling motivation is a trait I deal with on a regular basis.

Whether it’s marathon training, beginning a new job, or creating projects, I struggle with committing when the payoff isn’t immediate. I find that initial burst of starting so addictive. It’s the fanfare of a ship leaving port. It’s motivating. It’s new. Then, after I’ve started, I’m just… progressing. The ship’s at sea. The thrill fades, and what’s left is the work.

Work isn’t as fun, attention-grabbing, or filled with promise as the potential of a beginning.

Work is process. Work is consistency. Work is sacrifice.

So, I think, “Why not quit?”

After all, I tell myself, quitting one thing will free up the time to begin something new.

So, why not?

Because the process, the consistency, and the sacrifice are as much a part of this as any one of the lessons on economics or trade, and to shortchange myself now would be to undermine the whole journey, and I won’t do that. The opportunity is too great.

The books I added for this week’s reading are Poor Economics and What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. I haven’t yet written about how effective these books have been in supplementing the Smartly courses, but I plan on breaking it all done after our midterm in a few weeks.

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Smartly Week 3

When I told friends and family I had been accepted into Smartly’s MBA program, most were surprised, and they all had questions. Questions like “Why?” and “What’s Smartly?” and “How much are you paying?” and “Are you still working?” and “Are you leaving your job?” and “No, really, why are you doing this?”

After a month of taking courses as a Smartly student, I have better answers to those questions than my first fresh-faced week, and I’ve laid out my responses below.


A little background: I graduated from UCLA six years ago with a major in Spanish and a minor in film. I now work in the entertainment industry as a talk show producer. What’s kept me employed is not the formal degree I received, but the hand’s-on education I earned through interning, working at the college’s TV station, and scrambling through a number of one-season-only productions. Over the past several years, I realized I didn’t feel secure merely getting traction in the entertainment industry. As Marshall Goldsmith says, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, so I began to survey my situation, my career, and what I might want to do next.

To broaden my approach, I took classes, including an Entrepreneurship series through Coursera and a Product Management class at General Assembly. I also read (a lot). I considered both online MBA programs, and full-time, traditional ones. I held back from applying, though, as my inconsistent schedule as a TV producer could mean difficulties committing to a traditional class schedule.

Then I found Smartly.

What’s Smartly like?

Being a Smartly student is simple, as the platform is based online, and on mobile devices.

The danger of Smartly is also its chief feature – its seamless inclusion in your life. If you’re disciplined, it’s a massive boon – you can get an education whenever and wherever you want. If you need to show up to a physical place at the same time each week and have an instructor assign you work, then Smartly is not a good fit.

Classmates are diverse, contributing international experiences, different ways of thinking, and alternative perspectives to our discussions. This provides more ways to think differently than I might achieve through self-directed learning, a non-interactive course, or by only reading books.

How much are you paying?

Smartly is free, and it’s not. Consider how much you value your time. To do Smartly well means committing each and every week to at least 5 hours. Depending on how you learn best (flashcards? Repeating lessons? Supplemental reading?) that can easily become 10 or more hours. For 5 months. If you’re employed full-time, that means sacrifice, and internalizing the trade-offs. I’m not paying for this degree out-of-pocket, but I’m trading off other experiences for the satisfaction of learning and growing.

Are you working? Are you leaving your job?

I am still working. I am not leaving my job. But jobs change. And jobs end. What got me into Smartly was the idea of having a solid understanding of business. What continues to excite me is the potential for education and experience. Though my classmates and I are guinea pigs – one fundamental part of the Smartly business model, the career network, has yet to be launched – it’s an exciting format of which to be a part.

So, really, why are you doing this?

I found myself in an industry where formal business experience isn’t required, but it’s beneficial, and in a position of management, where management experience is crucial. Being a Smartly student allows me to shore up gaps in my knowledge for my current position, and empowers me to look toward a future where I can combine my experience with a new education to create better opportunities for my coworkers and myself.

But until that distant and rosy future, I’ve got a Macroeconomics course to complete.

Week 3’s supplemental reading includes The Partnership Charter and Brain Rules.

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Smartly Week 2

Smartly Week 2

As I wrote about in my first week as a Smartly student, I’m supplementing the class instructions with additional books on the subject. Because the lessons are designed to be small and easily digestible, they can be attacked on the go. As a young urban professional (isn’t there some fun shorthand for this?), I appreciate being able to fit in an education around my schedule.

For fun, here are the places I Smartly’d from this week:

  • On a bench at 8pm, waiting to be picked up after work
  • On my couch on Saturday morning
  • In an Uber on my way to work
  • On my laptop at home before breakfast
  • On my phone, waiting to go pumpkin carving

The wonders of a mobile education – and with Smartly’s stated goal of democratizing education overall – is how flexible it can be. The downside of a mobile education – and one of my larger concerns – is how distracting it can be.

While the convenience of learning-via-app is empowering, it can also be seductive. When an app is my primary source of learning (not dissimilar to Duolingo), I rarely take notes or process the information afterward, because it’s so easy to flip to another app, or to then focus on whatever the next task is. To counteract this, I believe assigning myself reading is a way of insuring I focus for extended periods of time. With bitesize lessons that can be fit in here and there, it’s easy for one’s attention to switch over to another idea. For me, I fear I won’t retain as much as I’d like. I’m using books as a defense against that.

The other avenue that will likely help, but that I haven’t been as committed to early on, are the discussion boards. Last week, I spread out my lessons over the course of a few days. In that time, our discussion leaders posted articles, and my classmates hashed out their arguments. By joining the discussion late, I felt behind, almost as if any point I would make had already been made.

For this next week, I’ve already finished the three lessons on Microeconomics, so I should be better positioned to contribute. I plan on having the requisite lessons done before the discussions get posted so I can be a more active member.

Week 1’s books (pictured above) helped to flesh out the introductory accounting terms and concepts. Though Week 2’s lessons are an extension of Week 1’s, the books I’m reading for Week 2 are not. Instead, I chose On Writing Well and The Copywriter’s Handbook. There will be weeks the books line up with the course material, and other weeks where I supplement the lessons with books I believe will make me more well-rounded.

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