Clint Willis: Thinker. Writer. Surfer.

I had the pleasure of meeting Clint Willis five years ago. Clint authored and edited an impressive number of books (Good Reads). The most recent one is called: The Boys of Everest: The Tragic Story of Climbing's Greatest Generation. Clint and I immediately sparked a conversation about spirituality, meditation and what it means to live a meaningful life.

When I was a little girl growing up in Beijing, I dreamed of living a Californian life. At the age of 27, I asked Clint: "What if I want to surf?" He responded, "You surf."

The good news is that Clint's answer didn't just stop there. He painted a picture for me on how I (or anyone else) could pursue their dreams and build a life around their passions. Clint's spirit awakened my own, inspiring me to start this podcast.

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Before we get down to business, here are a few fun facts about Clint:

  • An avid surfer who discovered surfing at the age of 50
  • Worked as an editor at Money Magazine before founding The Writing Company, in 1993
  • Regularly practices meditation, Yoga and surfs as much as he can near his home in Portland, Maine

In Part 1 of our interview, Clint dissects the construction of his company, The Writing Company, and answers questions such as:

  1. How to create and sustain a collaborative environment?
  2. What is the process to promote and regularly practice collaboration among writers?
  3. How does Clint create an effective peer-review system?
  4. What is their hiring process?
  5. What does it take to continue his legacy and embrace the company's unique culture?
  6. How does Clint recognize good vs. bad writing? What does "bad writing" mean to him?
  7. How did Clint come across surfing (at age 50!)?

In Part 2, we discover the answers to secret origin questions such as:

  1. Has Clint always been the kind of person he is today?
  2. What is Clint's psychological makeup that contributes to his success and lifestyle?
  3. A Day in Clint's Life (AM to PM) - what is his daily ritual?
  4. How does Clint practice yoga, meditation and mindfulness? Really, how does he get calm?
  5. How to be comfortable with change and uncertainty?

Do you enjoy this podcast? If so, please leave your comment below and share the podcast with your family and friends. Your support will keep me on track and bring many other unsung heroes to this podcast.

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Favorite Quotes from Clint: 

On The Writing Company:

"When I worked at Times, I loved delegating and teaching other people how to do stuff.  After I founded The Writing Company, we hired a few researchers for the stories I was working on. Then they became editors, writers, and project mangers."

"At The Writing Company, every interaction is a training opportunity. You are either teaching or learning, ideally both. When things happen, we have these cool conversations. If you do this consistently, it becomes a huge competitive advantage. Sometimes content feels like commodity. Our rendition is to provide writing that adds value and stands out."

"Over time we built a culture. We are a self selective group.  We hire people who value the experience and are generally oriented that the way we are. We have a meeting each month to go through a list of work and have people talk about situations and interactions they had, and how they handled them. "

On the roles of writers in the creative process:

"I really love the idea of bringing people who are first and foremost writers into conversations with client about creating content. Collaboration should not happen at the end of the story but at the beginning."

On collaboration vehicle:

"I love Google Doc. Love it!" (Google Drive)

On trusting and building a relationship with your client:

"Get client involved early on will create opportunities. Sometimes writers don't trust the client enough. A lot of times, clients offer crucial information writers don't give enough credits for. Don't jump to conclusions. We treat clients as collaborators. We make that space available. "

On being a young journalist at Times Magazine:

"Journalism was a serious job and I started off my career as a fact checker. I felt enormous responsibility. If a reader called in about the legitimacy of a story, that was on me. I was the youngest guy there with the least experience. Two or three those (calls) a year, you are out of the building. But it was fabulous training very few writers could have today."

On learning to write:

It took Clint a long time to be able to write the way he does today. "Writing teachers are often not writers, and journalists often don't know how to teach. I had to learn much of the skills on my own."

"Editing others' work is a great way to learn how to write. Your mind is free from organizational structure. There are so many decisions you have make when you stare at a blank piece of paper. When you have a draft, you still have decisions to make but many have been made for you.

"Editing others' drafts is a lot like playing music. Once you have the basics down so well, you begin to improvise.

On identifying good writing / what is good vs. bad writing?

"I have to believe it, it has to feel true. Every sentence is an opportunity for you to earn the reader's trust, or to loose it. The reader doesn't have to analyze it, she feels it. The more sophisticated the readers are, the easier it is for them to more quickly make these decisions and loose interest."

On building a lifestyle around your passion:

"Every decision I made was to clear some space, get some creatives in my life, be free. Once I'm free, I asked myself: 'what do I do with my freedom'? They informed how I make decisions."

On surfing:

"I learned surfing at the age of 50. I'm typically an earnest learner. Through surfing, I learned to be more free, and just go for it. Surfing shifted something in me. I do because I love it, and it loves me back. When you stumble on something like that in your life, you gotta feel grateful. It makes you wonder where that comes from, and makes you wonder what's around the corner. "

On daily ritual and mindfulness meditation:

"I usually surf in the morning, work late morning through afternoon, a few yoga classes a week, and I medicate everyday. I practice Jon Kabat-Zin's and Erich Schiffmann's guided meditation. If you are not familiar with Schiffmann, it's about being super relaxed and listening to what's around you, and dare to do what the deepest feeling tells you."

On learning to NOT live in a narrative:

"I wanted to live my life as it was happening, without constantly putting a narrative frame around it. It's not interesting to me anymore. It was a way to structure my life. 'Quit making a story about how that person is giving you a hard time'."

On reading the book Buddhist Brain and learning that:

"We are biased toward negative interpretations because that was what kept us alive. We needed to be alert to every possible threat. But that's not the situation anymore. We over-assess and over-identify which prevents us from living the life we want."

On feeling afraid as a 20-year old:

"I was afraid if I didn't get things right, I would be abandoned and alone and couldn't manage. I was afraid of being afraid.

On getting happy:

"It's hard to let go. We get our patterns set and we are stuck in them. We need to get safe enough o let go those patterns. Step 1, find a way to feel safe. Once we realize that we are connected to everyone. The picture is much bigger than we think it is. There's no permanent unchanging self that persists forever (or even more than a moment). Once you feel it, it is pretty liberating. You realize that there isn't so much to protect anymore. Even that clue can help, even as a conceptual possibility is really comforting."

On parenting:

"I wasn't a conventional parent but deeper down I was. I was pretending to be cooler than I was. At the same time, I always loved having them as kids and to be around them."

On having immense amount of admiration for people who help others:

"I'm still working on it. There's a lot I'm clear about intermittently. But I don't always feel that clear. The difficulties taught me a lot. I have so much gratitude for people who have figured things out and are present for people who are still figuring it out. I have immense amount of admiration for therapists, teachers, social workers and doctors. It's humbling when you encounter people doing what they do."