Leverage time blocking. Years ago, I remember hearing about a writer who was in danger of having to repay a rather sizable advance because he hadn’t delivered on his promise to write the manuscript. Frustrated, the publisher gave him one month to turn in the book or repay the advance. Since the advance was long since spent, he hired a time management expert who taught him to time block. In this case, the coach convinced him to write for 90-minutes with no interruption, take a 30-minute break, write for 90-minutes, take another 30-minuted break, and write for a final 90-minutes. With 4 ½ hours of focused effort per day, he started and finished the manuscript in less than three weeks. That’s the power of time-blocking. My own version of that was to rent a farmhouse without wi-fi or human contact for a long weekend. In less than four days, I wrote an almost book-length manuscript for a blog.
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rob Sullivan. Rob is an International Speaker, Author, and Executive Coach. Sullivan founded SulliVanZyl (pronounced “Sull-i-vahn-ZALE), along with co-founders Barry van Zyl and Josseline Ross, to combine his work in the areas of listening, energy, and storytelling, with the work van Zyl and Ross were doing in the areas of creativity, innovation, and design thinking. Sullivan’s second book, which will be released as soon as early 2021, is called Signposts on an Inner Expedition: Trusting Your Internal GPS.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
This is not a career I picked; it’s a career that picked me. When I first graduated from school, my goal was to work in client service at Leo Burnett, the ad agency that created icons like The Marlboro Man, Charlie the Tuna, and Tony the Tiger. They didn’t hire me the first year I applied, but they did one year later. Almost immediately, people came to me for coaching saying, “How did you get a company that didn’t want you a year ago to want you now?”
What started out as a way to help job hunters evolved into a way to help sales people and other business professionals who weren’t doing a good job telling their own story. When I first got into corporate speaking, I was hired to train other people’s material. Before long, I developed my own content.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
There have been many. Getting diagnosed with lymphoma on my 48th birthday and going through four months of intense chemo had the most profound impact. That experience, which turned out to be the missing chapter of my book, literally brought together everything I had been writing about in terms of paying attention to the opportunities, energy, and guidance that constantly bombard us.
First, it clearly demonstrated the power of positive thinking, intention and even the language we use because I immediately rejected the idea of “fighting” or “battling” cancer. Instead, I recognized it as a gift and made the commitment to walk with it, learn from it, and master the lessons quickly. As a result, the doctors were genuinely surprised I made it through six rounds of chemo without ever needing a blood transfusion, without ever feeling nauseous, and without missing more than a few days at the gym. In contrast, some people on the same intense chemo regimen need blood transfusions after the first treatment.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
First, the only true bad experiences and mistakes are the ones from which we choose not to learn. And it is a choice. So, while this wasn’t necessarily a mistake, I would definitely handle it differently given the chance to do it over.
One year after I said goodbye to advertising to pursue a career as a bond options trader at the Chicago Board of Trade, I left the trading floor without immediate direction and without a next step. Since it was the Christmas season, I took a part-time job at Tower Records in Chicago, largely to feed my music addiction at a discount. I hadn’t really thought it through and didn’t anticipate the sad and sideways glances from former Leo Burnett colleagues who as much as said, “Oh, so you’re working here now?” Around the same time, my brother, Bill, started teasing me about being “downwardly mobile”. I still laugh when I think about that — especially since he was only 16 at the time.
What I learned from taking the leap without a back-up plan is the importance of not allowing myself to be influenced by the thinking of others. Some of the same people who thought it was cool and courageous for me to leave a great job at Burnett and take a 50% cut in pay to join an options trading firm were also among the first to say, “I hope you are going to be able to get your act together” when I left the trading floor. It’s like saying, “It’s ok to take a risk, but it has to work.” Nonsense. Learning to trust my intuition without regard to the opinions of others and honoring myself for taking risks without second-guessing and blame is what provided the fuel to get where I am today.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
The work I’m doing now is definitely the most exciting — the work itself as well as the opportunity to work with my partners. If you had told me when I first fell in love with Johnny Clegg’s music — the South African musician who sold 5 million albums and inspired Paul Simon’s Graceland album — that I would become friends with the band and travel with them in South Africa, France, and the UK, I would have thought you were delusional. And I would never have thought I’d be doing workshops with Johnny’s long-time drummer, Barry van Zyl. Thanks to our share passion for music and teaching, that’s exactly what happened.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?
There are two. First, I’ve never been particularly attached to my writing. I completely rewrote my first book at least four times until it felt right. Second, you have to be willing to tell a story someone would want to read. That means being absolutely authentic and open. I was genuinely surprised to discover how much more powerfully people responded to the more personal stories than to the business writing.
When I first opened up about the experience of lymphoma, it felt weak as a guy to raise my hand and basically say, “I’m experiencing this challenge, I can’t do it by myself, and I welcome your positive energy and support.” The reaction was completely unexpected. What felt weak to me was perceived as “courageous” and “inspirational” largely because it was authentic and heartfelt.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
I have truly been blessed by the number of amazing stories shared by friends and strangers who felt inspired to contribute. One of the stories I share that surprises people the most is what I call the “Love Lymphoma Connection.”
I have known for a long time that my body is quite literal. I spent the year before I discovered the tumors feeling very depressed, discouraged, and deeply sad because a relationship I was genuinely excited about — and that I thought would lead to marriage — ended in a painful disappearing act. I don’t blame her for what happened because I know I am 100% responsible for how I digest life. At the same time, the inescapable fact is that you can’t have negative energy coursing through your body continuously for a year and not expect it to have negative health consequences. So, it was no surprise at all that the largest of the tumors, an 8x7x5 centimeter mass, was sitting directly above my heart. The symbolism of that was not lost on me.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
We are bombarded by energy, opportunities, and guidance in the form of signposts on our journey that can profoundly impact our lives, the choices we make, and our capacity to maximize the joy and abundance we experience. When you know where to look and how to take full advantage of the guidance available to all of us, life gets that much more amazing. Many of these concepts are not the same ideas I was raised to believe, but I’ve come to recognize and appreciate their validity and power to make a difference.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
The biggest challenge with my second book was making sense of all of material I knew I needed to cover. Before I went through the journey with lymphoma, I had to stay motivated and confident in the belief that everything would eventually come together. Even though I wrote the first book with relatively little input, the second book forced me to put my fiercely independent nature aside and worked with two different content editors. Hiring them turned out to be a terrific decision because not every manuscript is going to flow effortlessly. The outside perspective was immensely valuable.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
Other than reading every Hardy Boys’ book at least twice as a kid, I rarely read fiction. Most of the reading I do now is for information. That said, I love books by Brian Weiss, MD including Many Lives, Many Masters, Through Time into Healing, and Only Love is Real.
How do you think your writing makes an impact in the world?
When the final chapter of my book was still in Facebook Note form, a number of friends reached out privately to thank me. In each case, they had been diagnosed with cancer after me and talked about how my attitude and approach changed the way they dealt with their own challenge. I’ll never forget another cancer patient — someone I never met in person — who said, “Rob, thank you. After I read the twelve installments of your journey, I shared them with my wife, my children, my relatives, and a few friends to help them understand what I was going through. You will never know how many lives you’ve touched.”
I also still smile when I think about my dear friend, Suzie Muller, who burst out laughing reading one of my updates in bed. Confused, her husband said, “I thought you were reading about cancer.” Suzie replied, “I am, but Rob’s experiences are hilarious.” That made me especially happy because the first editor, long before the tumors, encouraged me to add more humor to my writing. Neither one of us ever expected the missing chapter on chemo would be the one to get the most laughs.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Be grateful for the teachers and mentors who are most critical of your writing. As an undergrad, I was constantly frustrated by teachers I thought were overly critical of my writing. I found it disheartening — even maddening — to get a “B-“ when classmates who couldn’t write a grammatically correct paragraph would get a “C+”. It wasn’t until years later that I fully appreciated the high expectations and the way two teachers, in particular, pushed me to be more specific and compelling. When McGraw-Hill bought the rights to the book, other writers told me to be ready for the fact that the final product would likely be significantly different than the manuscript. After three rounds of editing, the manuscript was 98% intact — except for a few sections we moved to other chapters. So, I asked the editor, Denise, when the big changes were coming. Confused, she replied, “I have no idea what you are talking about.” “The BIG changes. To the manuscript.” “You’re losing me. I have no idea what you mean.” At that point, I shared what other writers told me about not being too attached to my writing and to “check my ego” at the door. Denise laughed at said, “That sometimes happens. But not in your case. You are already a phenomenal writer so we didn’t have to do that.” Had it not been for Pr. Maurice Geracht and Pr. Steve Vineberg at the College of the Holy Cross, that would never have happened.
- Don’t compare yourself to other writers. It isn’t just the classmates in your composition class you have to avoid comparing yourself to; it’s other professional writers. Not long after the book came out, I was on a panel with another writer who didn’t have anywhere near the same level of credibility from an experience standpoint. A few years later, I was shocked to see she had been hired for a prestigious writing job that led me to feel jealousy, an ugly emotion I don’t generally experience. Ten minutes after I heard the news about her new gig, I left the gym, hopped on my bike, and rode home feeling sorry for myself. As I rode west over the Grand Avenue bridge in Chicago, I heard a voice in my head ask, “Do you trust me?” After I answered silently in the affirmative, I took a deep breath and let go of the frustration and disappointment. About a mile up the street, I walked into Green Grocer, an organic store near my house, and saw a headshot of a local television personality on the wall. In that moment, I quickly realized that the Universe had other plans for me. I was never meant to only be a writer. My calling has more to do with speaking and television appearances. The prestigious writing gig would have been nice, but it would not have been the best use of my talents.
- Force yourself to write. I don’t particularly like the act of writing because it isn’t social and it tends to take a lot of time. However, I do like to read what I’ve written. It’s an amazing feeling to read a page and recognize the role inspiration, intuition, and internal guidance played in crafting the work. I don’t remember who said it, but whenever I am having a hard time focusing, I think of the writer who said something like: “I only write when I am inspired. And I force myself to be inspired at 8am every morning.”
- Leverage time blocking. Years ago, I remember hearing about a writer who was in danger of having to repay a rather sizable advance because he hadn’t delivered on his promise to write the manuscript. Frustrated, the publisher gave him one month to turn in the book or repay the advance. Since the advance was long since spent, he hired a time management expert who taught him to time block. In this case, the coach convinced him to write for 90-minutes with no interruption, take a 30-minute break, write for 90-minutes, take another 30-minuted break, and write for a final 90-minutes. With 4 ½ hours of focused effort per day, he started and finished the manuscript in less than three weeks. That’s the power of time-blocking. My own version of that was to rent a farmhouse without wi-fi or human contact for a long weekend. In less than four days, I wrote an almost book-length manuscript for a blog.
- Create a space that allows people the freedom to give you honest feedback. When I wrote my first book, I borrowed a technique I learned from my friend, Alex Kroll, a talented copywriter. When writing headlines for ads, Alex forces himself to write 300 different headlines. If he doesn’t find one he likes, he writes another 300. Using the technique to come up with a title for my first book for entry-level job hunters, I hit upon the idea of calling it, “Climbing Your Way to the Bottom” in recognition of the effort it takes to land your first job. Everyone said they loved the idea until after I spent a fortune on the self-published version of the book — another misadventure I highly recommend avoiding. Confused by the feedback from people who said they’d never buy it because it sounded too depressing, I went back to the people who had shared positive feedback about the title. To my surprise and disappointment, they said, “We thought it was funny. We didn’t think you’d actually use it.” Ouch.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I am already working on this in the sense that I am constantly reminding people of the power of their thoughts, words, energy, and intention.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you for a fun, thought-provoking interview.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!