Category: Grab Bag

Grab Bag: Headline Versus Backstory

Ellen Fondiler | Grab Bag: Headline Versus Backstory

In GRAB BAG, I share extra stories, discoveries and gems that don’t quite “fit” anywhere else on my blog — but are too good not to share. Kind of like a piñata or a mystery box: you never know what’s going to be inside! Enjoy!


My friend Susan Hyatt has an unusual job:

She plans luxurious retreats for women to destinations like France, Italy, and Spain—where she takes her guests on life-changing excursions to discover extraordinary beaches, castles and far-flung villages.

The cost of attending one of Susan’s retreats: just shy of $10,000 (plus airfare).

Most retreats go from “empty” to “sold out” in a matter of days—sometimes, in just a few hours. Her most recent retreat—a 7-day adventure in Barcelona—filled up before she even finished updating the webpage to describe it.

Susan is not world famous. She’s not a household name celebrity. She lives in a small city in Indiana—not exactly a thriving hub of cultural and entrepreneurial excitement. And yet, almost every time Susan announces a new retreat to her Facebook community and blog readership, tickets fly out of the door in the blink of an eye.

How is this possible?

In a world where so many freelancers and small business owners are struggling just to make ends meet, how do you become someone like Susan?

The answer is:

Work incredibly hard, quietly and generously, often without much recognition or praise, slowly building a reputation and a client base, for approximately ten years of your life.

Then… you might find yourself in Susan’s enviable position.

“Work really hard for ten years” is not the advice that most entrepreneurs want to hear. It’s not “fast” and it’s not “sexy.” But it’s the truth.

It can be difficult to remember this, though, because typically you only see the “headline” of someone’s success, not the “backstory.”

You see the moment when the Olympic champion crosses the finish line, elated, glistening with sweat and triumph. You don’t see the 100,000 hours of training and discipline that led up to that shining moment—all of the hard work that happened unseen, off-camera, in the dark. But that’s a shame, because it’s so valuable to know about all of the work that’s been happening behind the scenes.

Let’s take a closer look at a few headlines—and backstories—from a few of my colleagues’ careers.

Paul Jarvis. Designer and software developer.

Headline: He’s got a smash-hit online course with over 2,000 students.

Backstory: He’s been freelancing for 17 years, slowly building expertise, skills, and professional connections that now allow him to teach at this level. For most of his career, he paid the bills as a website designer. “Teaching” is a relatively new pursuit.

How does he do it? Lots of grit and hard work. And a philosophy that if there is something he wants to do- he just starts doing it.

Gala Darling. Author and professional blogger.

Headline: She’s got one million blog readers per month plus a #1 bestselling book.

Backstory: She’s been blogging, tweeting, posting photos and sharing inspiration online—on a daily basis—for 10 years. Initially, she earned absolutely no pay. Later, as her audience grew, she was able to earn a very small amount of ad-based revenue. Still later, she developed other revenue streams: products, sponsored posts, books, and so on. It’s been a slow progression. There’s nothing “overnight” about her success.

Shauna Haider. Creative Director of Branch, a creative branding agency.

Headline: Self-employed, a the helm of her very own agency, with a client roster that includes Nike, Virgin Records, Forever 21, and other top brands.

Backstory: She put herself through design school, worked unpaid internships after graduation, put in her “dues” as an in-house designer for several companies, and—like Gala—has also been blogging (and sharing her design work) almost daily for 10 years. Her choice to “go independent” and run her own agency was a fairly recent one. She waited 8 years before making the leap.

What can we learn from people like Susan, Paul, Gala and Shauna?

What’s the moral to all of these stories?

The moral is that “successful careers” are not built on a single viral blog post or video, or a single piece of “good luck,” or one terrific mentor, or one glowing review, or thirty days of focused effort. It’s all of that—and it’s more than that. Mostly, it’s the cumulative effect of “continued effort” multiplied by “time.”

As Ramit Sethi has written, success is achieved slowly, over time. In fact, if you look closely at successful people, you will discover that for the most part it taken them 10 years to become an “overnight success”.

The next time you meet someone who seems to have an enviable business or career, say, “Tell me about the past ten years of your life.” Listen to their journey.

The backstory might feel even more inspiring than the headline.


Image: Willie Franklin.

What to do — and NOT do — when a job interviewer asks you a tricky, unexpected, or uncomfortable question.


In GRAB BAG, I share extra stories, discoveries and gems that don’t quite “fit” anywhere else on my blog — but are too good not to share. Kind of like a piñata or a mystery box: you never know what’s going to be inside! Enjoy!

Have you been watching the recent presidential debates?

I love politics — SCANDAL is my all-time favorite TV show for a reason! — and I’ve been watching the debates with total fascination.

Politicians do a ton of preparation to get ready for these debates. The hire brilliant researchers and speechwriters, they rehearse their arguments and counter-arguments, and they try to anticipate the types of objections (and personal jabs) that might come from their competitors. After all, they’re appearing in front of the entire nation—the pressure is sky-high!

Yet despite all of that careful preparation, occasionally, someone will ask a question—or make an accusation — that completely catches a politician off guard. You can almost see the panic creeping into his or her eyes as they think, “OH SNAP. What should I say in response to THAT?”

It’s really interesting to watch different politicians “bounce back” from a tough question, a mistake, a bungled statement, or a “deer in the headlights” moment. Some politicians bounce back effortlessly and move on with confidence. Others flounder desperately, stammer, freeze, and lose their audience’s faith and respect—in an instant.

How about you?

How do you handle tricky, unexpected or uncomfortable questions during a job interview, a performance review, a chat with a potential client, and other career-shaping conversations?

Do you freeze? Make apologies? Make excuses? Stutter? Avoid the question? Gracefully redirect the conversation?

Inspired by the recent presidential debates—and my past experiences as a company director and hiring manager—here are my tips on how to maintain your composure and leave your listener feeling impressed, even if you get side-slammed with a very tricky question:

DO NOT be defensive.

If someone asks a question that rattles you (Like, “How come you never finished college?” or “How come you’ve had seven jobs in the last five years? Can we count on you to stay here, or will you leave this company too?”) your initial instinct might be to go “on the defensive.” You might feel stressed, angry, or hurt. Physically, your body might start releasing neurotransmitters that signal “panic!”

Take a deep breath. Try not to be defensive. Try to answer the question in a calm, matter of fact tone. (A helpful tip: pretend that the person asking the question is a kind, caring mentor who wants the best for you. This person isn’t out to “get” you or “hurt” you. She’s just curious about you.)

DO NOT make excuses.

If someone asks, “Why did you leave that job?” or “Why were your sales so low that quarter?” or “Why did you drop the ball on this project? What happened?” do not make excuses—even if your excuses are somewhat valid.

Don’t say, “My dog died and I was totally spaced out that week…” or “Amy never got back to me!” or “The email went into my Spam folder!”

Those kinds of responses usually just make you sound whiny, unreliable, or unmotivated—someone who passively allows problems to unfold rather than taking decisive action to fix things! (That’s not you!)

DO accept responsibility.

It’s rare—and inspiring—to interact with someone who accepts full responsibility for his or her past actions.

If you made a mistake, say, ”I made a mistake.”

If you were wrong about something, say, ”I thought ___ but I was wrong. I’ve since learned that ___.”

If you dropped the ball, say, ”I dropped the ball. I ___ and I’ve learned from that mistake. Next time I will ___.”

Be straightforward and direct. Take responsibility, then explain how things will be different going forward.

Whether it’s a presidential candidate—or a potential employee—we’re all human and we all make mistakes. No one is perfect. But when someone owns up to a mistake and doesn’t try to dance away from the truth or assign blame to someone else? That’s quite unusual—and it shows deep integrity and character.

I hope you enjoy watching the rest of the presidential media interviews, debates and speeches.

Study the people who grip your attention, who impress you, and who immediately earn your trust. What are they doing “right” that their peers are missing?

There’s a lot you can learn from watching the pros. If nothing else, you’ll see that even the “pros” can occasionally get thrown off guard, freeze, stammer, or fumble during an important conversation—but it’s how you “recover” and move on that really counts.

Find great work. Do great work. Unlock every door in your way.


Image: Willie Franklin.

In the mood to smash a glass ceiling or two? Maybe even make history?


In GRAB BAG, I share extra stories, discoveries and gems that don’t quite “fit” anywhere else on my blog — but are too good not to share. Kind of like a piñata or a mystery box: you never know what’s going to be inside! Enjoy!

Years ago, back when I graduated from law school and got a job working in death penalty appeals, I was a brazen lady in a heavily male-dominated field. Poring over thick cases riddled with gruesome murder details? Most people didn’t have the stomach for it. But I found it fascinating, and for many years, I enjoyed being a female trailblazer. (After that, I wound up having kids and opening up a series of businesses, including a bakery—but hey, that’s another story!)

How about you? Do you like being one of a handful of women in a male-dominated space? Do you enjoy shattering stereotypes, defying expectations and proving people wrong? In the mood to smash a glass ceiling or two? Stand out from the pack? Maybe even make history?

It’s shocking, but even today, there are dozens — if not hundreds — of industries that are almost exclusively male-dominated. The reasons for this are complex: stigmas, outdated perceptions about what female are physiologically capable of, sexism, and lots of other-isms.

But as Margaret Mead once said, “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world.” She’s right. Sometimes, all it takes is a couple of strong women knocking on the door—demanding the right to enter—and refusing to take “no” for an answer.

If you’d like to be that kind of woman, here are seven male-dominated industries that could really use someone like you.

You could become a…


Out of all the detectives and criminal investigators currently working in the US, only about 19% are women. Re-read your old copies of Harriet the Spy—or a couple of female-driven detective thrillers for inspiration and get cracking on a few cases, gumshoe! This field needs you.


Airline pilots get to travel the world and can earn a lot of money. Top captains at Delta, American, United and Continental earn $150 – $160K per year and pilots for UPS and FedEx can earn over $200K a year.

But women currently hold a measly 2.6% of pilot jobs. Pass me an airsickness bag, because that number just made me feel ill! Channel your inner Amelia Earhart and head for the skies! As Amelia once said, “The most effective way to do it, is to do it!”


Women in sports are finally starting to get respect—and media attention—instead of being shuffled out of the limelight and treated like “lesser” athletes. But we still need more powerhouse female athletes like Ronda Rousey — a Judo champion who is so sensationally talented, the UFC decided to create a female division (after previously saying, “Never!”) just so that Ronda could have the spotlight and compete!

Think you’re “too old” to go pro? Think again. Legendary endurance athlete Rebecca Rusch — a 6-time world champion in adventure racing and endurance cycling, didn’t start riding bikes until she was 30, and didn’t become a professional mountain biker until she was 38 years old. Today, at age 47, she’s still racing and kicking major ass.


With hysterical gals like Amy Schumer, Mindy Kaling, and Tiny Fey bubbling up in media headlines so much recently, it may seem like women are running the comedy scene. Not so.

Surprisingly, a report from the Writers Guild of America states that just 18% of writers in the film industry are women. In a poll covering the top 100 standup performances of all time, 94 were men, just 6 were from women.

Is the problem that women just aren’t “funny”? I’ll let Amy Schumer answer that one. When asked why there aren’t any women hosting late-night comedy talk shows, she replied, “Because we get our periods at night.” #LOL #AmyForPresident


Women make up about 51% of the US population. So basically: half. Wondering what percentage of women are currently serving in the US House of Representatives? About 19%. Last I checked: uh, that’s not even close to half.

But if you want to work in politics, moving to Washington D.C. or running for election isn’t your only option. If you feel called to this field, there are loads of positions and opportunities you might not have ever considered.


Fox News has reported that if you look at the top 160 restaurants in the US, women hold just ten of the coveted head chef positions. That puts a sour taste in my mouth!

One (male) chef that I know told me that many restaurant kitchens are like “pirate ships.” “The cursing, the bro-talk, the hectic pace, being in a tight space surrounded by rude men all day long, some women just don’t like it so they leave the industry,” he explained. “Or they try to ‘toughen up’ and act like ‘one of the guys’, sometimes overdoing it and losing their true personality in the process.”

Sounds pretty rough, but if you feel called to the culinary arts, you can take a few words of encouragement from Executive Chef Roberta Adamo, who says: “Women make great chefs because multitasking is a way of life. We possess determination under difficult circumstances and refuse to give up. And we are sensitive to the needs and wants of others, our guests and staff alike.”


According to a local newspaper from the city of Saint Paul, Minnesota, zero women (I repeat: zero!) did construction work to help open the newly opened Green Line Light Rail, the largest public works project in the history of the state. Whoa.

This article on what it’s like to be one of the few female construction workers in America sheds some light on why women are disinterested in this industry. (Hostile environments + sexual harassment: just part of the grab bag of fun!).

It might be a tough road, but if you’re female and willing to work in construction, you’ll literally be reshaping history. Currently, less than 3% of these positions are held by women, so there’s a big opportunity to be a change-maker and leader.

There are so many other industries that desperately need more women, too — from architecture to medicine to law enforcement to pretty much every career that involves doing or teaching math. So ladies, we’ve got our work cut out for us.

No matter what kind of career path you’ve chosen:

How could you be a revolutionary—and shake up people’s expectations about what women are “capable” of?

Find great work. Do great work. Unlock every door in your way.


Image: The Pixel Project.

Want to be one hundred percent more inspiring, memorable, and hire-able? Tell a true story.

Ellen Fondiler | Grab Bag

You buy a ticket to go to a conference.

Two famous motivational speakers are headlining the event.

You are excited to see both of them speak.

The first speaker comes onstage and says a lot of really positive things.

“Go after your dreams!” “There is nothing stopping you!” “You can do anything you set your mind to!” and so on.

You listen. You agree. You applaud. The first speaker takes a final bow and you think, “Well, that was very nice!”

The second speaker comes onstage and you wait for another flood of positive, encouraging statements. But this speaker is different. This speaker tells you a true story.

It’s a true story from her own life. A story about a dream, a quest, a huge obstacle, a horrific betrayal, a time when she nearly lost all hope, and what it took to pull through.

Your jaw hangs open. You can’t believe what she has survived and what she has been able to accomplish despite unthinkable pain and adversity.

When she ends her talk by saying, “I’m telling you: you can do anything you set your mind to,” you explode onto your feet along with the rest of the audience. Standing ovation. Your heart is pounding and for the first time in your life you truly and fully believe that anything is possible. Sure, you’ve heard those words before… but now? You have a reason to believe.

The difference here? It’s pretty obvious.

The first speaker stated the facts. (“You can do anything!”)

The second speaker told you a story. (“You can do anything and here’s why…”)

If you want someone to listen to you, remember you, feel emotionally connected to you, and feel excited to be in your presence, simply “stating the facts” is not going to cut it. You’ve got to tell a story. Ideally: a true story from your own life.

Telling a powerful story can mean the difference between getting called back for a second job interview, or not, getting hired by a client, or not, securing funding for your concept, meeting the right people, getting selected for a speaking gig… or not.

Feel like you’re not a “good storyteller”? Don’t get defeated. Like anything else, it’s a skill that can be acquired and refined.


Here are some of my all-time favorite resources on the art of storytelling:

One of my favorite TED talks of all time. Watch it now — with Kleenex nearby.

• Listening to brilliant storytellers can make you a better speaker, too. Here are some great podcasts. Here are a couple more that I love.

• Here are some smart tips on how to tell a story that can land you a job — or help you garner support for your new start-up business.

• Still not sure how to tell the story behind your new business? More insights, right here.

Workbooks with fill-in-the-blank templates to help you craft sensational stories, wow prospective employers, and get the job you want. (Definitely check out this one and this one, in particular.)

You might think your life is “boring” or that you don’t have any “interesting stories” to tell. Let me assure you: you are wrong.

You do have stories to tell. You’ve lived. You’ve been tested. You have fallen and have gotten back up. You’ve learned things about yourself and the world. You’ve got stories, just waiting to be told.

Tell them.

People will respond differently to your words, immediately.

Your career will never be the same.

Find great work. Do great work. Unlock every door in your way.


P.S. Got a major career milestone coming up — like a job interview, a speaking engagement, or a business launch? Want to tell a jaw-dropping story that will grip your audience by the heart — but struggling to find the right words?

Talk to me about getting professional editing for your job application, website content, or presentation. I’d be honored to help you tell your story with even more clarity and power.

Image: Willie Franklin.

Shantanu Starick: How I Went Two Years Without Spending Any Money

Ellen Fondiler | Grab Bag

Ellen Fondiler | Read Of The Week: Shantanu Starick

In GRAB BAG, I share extra stories, discoveries and gems that don’t quite “fit” anywhere else on my blog — but are too good not to share. Kind of like a piñata or a mystery box: you never know what’s going to be inside! Enjoy!

This video features an amazing photographer — Shantanu Starick — who shares how removing money out of the creative process led him to a wider array of jobs and a much more fulfilling freelance career.

From 99U:

In 2012 he started The Pixel Trade project, a photographic journey to all seven continents of the globe. In exchange for life’s basic necessities Starick trades his skills as a professional photographer, reintroducing the bartering system into day-to-day life. No currency, no contracts, only his camera and an eager smile.

Halfway through the second year of the project Starick has set foot on four continents capturing leading designers and chefs in New York City, chewed on mangrove worms with Indigenous communities in rural Australia, traversed Irish farmlands with an injured ankle and came face to face with Atlas Mountain goats, who strongly suggested they share his fruit salad.

I loved his story. I loved his determination and grit and the fact that he hasn’t swayed from his mission. And I also loved how his journey has brought out the best in people- willing to share food clothing and shelter. It is really fascinating how we think we need to live a certain way — when in fact — if we just change the story, anything is possible.

Find great work. Do great work. Unlock every door in your way.


Image: The Pixel Project.

Old Masters: After 80, some people don’t retire. They reign.

Ellen Fondiler | Grab Bag

Ellen Fondiler | Read Of The Week: Ellsworth Kelly

In GRAB BAG, I share extra stories, discoveries and gems that don’t quite “fit” anywhere else on my blog — but are too good not to share. Kind of like a piñata or a mystery box: you never know what’s going to be inside! Enjoy!

Portraits of men and women in their 80s and 90s, who have enjoyed substantial and celebrated careers are asked : why their love’s labor is not lost but still to be found. Why do they persist with their work and creative endeavors? To what end is the unceasing effort to discover or create something new? Why not just rest?

The answers show a hunger for knowledge, a passion for creativity, a feeling of ongoing youthfulness, and awareness that because time marches forward undaunted, one must keep seeking the joys of being alive.

This article was an inspiration — a breath of fresh air in this youth-infused culture and a sense that for everyone, the best years lie ahead.

Some of the profiles include:

• Carmen Herrera, painter, 99, in her Manhattan studio. Herrera sold her first painting at age 89. Today her work is in the permanent collections at the Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Modern.

• Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 81, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

• Ginette Bedard, long-distance runner, 81. Bedard will run in her 12th consecutive New York City Marathon this year.

• Ellsworth Kelly, artist, 91.Last year, President Obama presented Kelly with the National Medal of Arts.

• Carl Reiner, actor, 92. Reiner published his second memoir, ‘‘I Just Remembered,’’ this year.

• Frank Gehry, architect, 85. Gehry’s latest project was the Foundation Louis Vuitton in Paris, an arts center sponsored by the LVMH Fashion Group.

• Betty White, actress, 92. White currently stars in the TV Land original sitcom ‘‘Hot in Cleveland.’’

Find great work. Do great work. Unlock every door in your way.


Image: Erik Madigan Heck for the New York Times.