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How to Prioritize Your Life

A few weeks back I was asked how I decide to do the things I do professionally. I write a lot, I have a podcast, I have a consulting practice and this website, and now I took on a full time job as Head of Growth at Gold Front, a category design studio.

Here's my answer.

Early Priorities

I've always been fascinated with electronics. As a kid, any toy with batteries was a toy that I could get down with. Occasionally, if my mom made the mistake of leaving a screwdriver around, I'd take apart a toy to see what was inside.

In the early 80s, the results weren't all that interesting. There was a tiny little board with a few wires, lights, and deedle-dee-boops. Nothing complicated. I wanted to see how it all worked. Now granted, I couldn't look at electronics and intuit their inner workings, but the curiosity was there.

Turning Knobs

When I was 8, my mom regularly took me to church. It was a Presbyterian church in the San Fernando Valley. I don't know how closely she identified with Presbyterianism, or if any of that even mattered, but we went and I attended Sunday school there. I looked forward to the lemon cookies.

The church lost their sound engineer. The job of the church sound engineer was to record sermons, turn mics on and off, and ensure there was no feedback on the micro. All the button-pushing and knob-turning happened on a 32-channel mixer, with a few hundred inputs on it. No one at the church wanted to do it.

Naturally, they asked an 8-year-old to take over. Me.

While I didn't take apart the mixer, I scrutinized the surface, as if with a microscope, and required an explanation of what every single button, knob, and slider did. The interim sound engineer was convinced I was up for the job, and I did it for a few years. Suddenly church had more purpose.

Finding My Love(s)

My first love is basketball. My second is hip-hop.

At around 20, I began to write raps. If you think that's a strange turn in the story, imagine how I felt. But the more I did it, the more it made sense. Hip-hop is an incredible form of expression — or at least it was — that includes storytelling, poetry, long-form writing, and the musicality of voice, all matched to hypnotic beats.

I wasn't a natural.

Why did I suck? Inexperience, for one, but I lacked an understanding of what made great rappers great. Artists are sometimes described as "gifted," "special," or "talented." All those things are true, but artists spend tens of thousands of hours sucking at something before you're aware that they exist. What makes them good? What makes them interesting?

After a lifetime of listening to and thinking about hip-hop, I broke down "what makes a rapper good" into six separate categories, in order of importance to me:

  • Flow: how does the cadence and rhythm of the vocal delivery and writing fit the beat?
  • Dynamics: how much variation does the vocalist use, in terms of volume, speed, density or sparseness?
  • Vocal tone: how does the voice sound? High pitched, deep, gruff, aggressive, smooth, else?
  • Word choice: how unique and well-fitting are the words they're using?
  • Topic: what are they talking about, and is it interesting and/or relevant to me?
  • Annunciation: how easy is it to understand the words they use?

And here's a perfect example of how it's all brought to life in verse, courtesy of Andre 3000 on Outkast's Elevators:

True, I've got more fans than the average man
But not enough loot to last me
To the end of the week / I live by the beat / like you live check-to-check
If it don't move your feet / then I don't eat / so we like neck-to-neck
Yes, we done come a long way like them slim-ass cigarettes
From Virginia / this ain't gon' stop so we just gon' continue

And that's how good hip-hop works.

Finding Purpose

Back in 2004 I had the hardest time understanding the state of politics. Americans were confused about what was going on in the world. Even worse, they were confused in diametrically opposed positions.

How could that be? How could half of the country believe one thing, and half of the country believe the complete opposite? And if that was the case, wouldn't reality land somewhere between the two?

Boiling all that down to a single, simple question, I was curious how people made decisions, and why they believed what they did. In other words, how do people work?

After dropping out of college to work and pursue music, I decided it was time to go back. I jumped through hoops to get back in, and majored in Political Science with a minor in Economics. I took classes on religion, Supreme Court law, environmental economics, and the political economy.

But this time I wasn't pursuing mere curiosity. Yes, I wanted to understand people more, and how that affects society. But I didn't want to be a broke ass musician. I studied, learned, and landed myself on the Dean's List every semester. A far cry from a former college dropout who accrued Ds and Fs the first go round.

This time I had purpose.

Prioritizing What I Don't Like

After undergrad I went straight to grad school to study environmental science and management at UC Santa Barbara. Quick aside: if you ever have the chance to visit or live in Santa Barbara, do it.

My goal all along was to go into consulting. I didn't want to work for the government or a non-profit, and most well-paid environmental professionals at the time worked in the oil or other extraction industries. While I drove a gas-powered car and had a natural gas stove and furnace, I didn't want to work in that industry.

So I took my dream job as Head of Marketing and Business Development at a biology consulting company. It was consulting. It was environment. It was business-y. I didn't know how to do the job, but it was mine to figure out

One of my initial questions about environmental work was why it moved slower than molasses on a freezing winter day. I had a first row seat to witness the process, and I finally understood why.

It was too slow for me. I didn't have the patience, or the mental fortitude to feel like I was eating shit my whole career to make a stepwise contribution to an exponential problem.

But I learned more about marketing and sales, and took an interest in how that worked. And more importantly why it sometimes worked, and why it sometimes failed, and how to spot the differences. At the same time, I was curious about self-employment. More than that, I felt compelled to fire my boss and instead make a living on my own terms.

After two years in grad school and three years at my dream job, I left the industry.

My Professional Priorities Algorithm

In February 2021 I signed on to take a consulting gig that would occupy half of my time. In practice, it took much more time than that.

And it's gone so well that I've joined the company full time.

Over the previous seven years I've started and run a top 1% podcast, had a successful solo consulting and training practice, and generally did whatever the fuck I wanted to do professionally and personally. It was all by design.

Why leave it all? How had my priorities changed?

They hadn't. If anything, my priorities have come into sharper focus.

Call it experience, or growing up, or knowing thyself.

The more I've thought about the question of how to prioritize my time, the more I've reflected on the choices I've made and why I've made them. And the question can't be answered precisely without first answering:

What does is mean to live a life well-lived? To live The Good Life?

Your answer is personal, as is mine. To keep the scope limited, I'll tell you how I think about spending my time professionally, and in this order:

  • I'm curious about it.
  • I can be great at it.
  • It gives me a sense of purpose and accomplishment.
  • The financial opportunity is big enough.
  • It's compatible with my personal interests, ethics, and family life.
  • It leverages my talents, skills, and knowledge.
  • I could be happy doing it for 5 years.
  • It creates more leverage and options than I have now.

If all these statements are true, then it's worth pursuing a major pivot in my professional life. If one of the statements is untrue, then I won't pursue it.

And that's how I set my priorities.