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Reverse Alchemy – Making Progress of WDS 2014

Published July 21, 2014

Back in May 2011 at a seminar, Frank Kern took the stage and began his keynote with a question:

“How many of you have used something you have learned this weekend to make some money?”

Only one guy raised his hand.

Frank Kern, who has Richard Branson’s golden locks and Robert De Niro’s nose, has made millions as an Internet marketer. He was therefore qualified to give business owners and entrepreneurs a good scolding.

He scanned faces in the crowd, muttered some token profanity, and delivered the medicine:

“Why come to a conference if you’re not going to put what you learn to work?

He had a point. Conferences, seminars, and, yes, even World Domination Summit can be a subtle form of paralysis: a bunch of like-minded people meeting up to quaff cocktails, swap business cards, and share invigorating conversations about life and dreams and money and dragons.

We must scrutinize our inactions, for they can become our habits.

Can is the operative word. Whether we realize it or not, we go sit in the dark and scribble notes because we want our lives to leave a mark, preferably a Picasso and not a greasy smudge.

The only difference between the two is long obedience to a certain craft. My hope is that this post will help a handful of the 3000 people who journeyed to Portland—my wife and I included—to perform Reverse Alchemy.

Rather than turn dross into gold, let’s take the golden inspiration, hope, and knowledge from Michael Hyatt and John Jantsch and Jadah Sellner and Elise Blaha Cripe and convert them into new habits and real, sustainable change.

We’ll roll out of bed a few moments earlier, answer fewer emails (or perhaps more), and invest our precious minutes in the work itself: the book, the quest, or even the boring but necessary stuff between the beginning and end of any worthwhile project.

But most of us need a nudge or two in order to unburden ourselves of lethargy. We need help regaining clarity. We need reminding that greatness is a tall stack of otherwise forgettable actions.

So how do we perform the reverse alchemy and focus on the small and achievable? One very small step at a time.

Maybe you remember proofs from geometry your sophomore year of high school. I preferred proofs to other types of math problems because there was usually more than one way to solve a proof. I disliked rules and rigidity (and math, for that matter) so proofs, which had some room for improvisation, were as close to building a campfire and being free, out of doors, as I was going to get.

The point is, there’s more than one way to start a blog, find a client, or transition from a “job job” to more fulfilling work.

So before the glow from WDS 2014 fades, and the shellshock of normal life gives way to lethargy and complacency, treat yourself to a little Reverse Alchemy proof:

1. Type out all your notes in Evernote. That way, you can access them on your laptop and smartphone at any time. If you don’t have Evernote, you can download it here for free. If you don’t have a smartphone, I envy you.wds 2014

2. Corral all those business cards, phone numbers, and cocktail napkin doodles, and using your phone camera and the Evernote business card tool, declutter and save them at the same time.

3. Jot down a quick list of anything you said you’d do for someone else: “I’ll connect you with my PHP developer.” “You should read The $100 Startup. I’ll mail you my extra copy.” “We should keep in touch. I’ll find you on Facebook.”

4. Keep your word. Follow through with all those promises.

5. Find your favorite speakers on Twitter, follow them, and say thank you. Tweet your favorite quote from each of their talks and mention them. If you don’t have Twitter, I envy you.

6. Now that you’ve cleared your plate of small obligations, take out a beautifully blank sheet of printer paper. Review your notes on Evernote and write down any ideas that you had. This should not be a task list but more like an inspiration board. For example, during one of the talks, I thought of a good name for a new blog. It’s a strong enough name to encompass and tie together the various subjects that interest me and big enough to grow into a brand. The name will go on my paper.

7. Now that you’ve put ink to your ideas, it’s time to organize them. Fold a second piece of paper in half and then into thirds. You’ll end up with six squares. At the top of the left hand side, write, “Old.” At the top of the right hand side, write “New.” (Or reverse the placement. Or don’t use headings. I certainly wouldn’t want to cramp your style!)

8a. Because this is an experiment in Reverse Alchemy, write “copper” in both of the two topmost squares, “silver” in the middle two squares, and “gold” in the bottom two. “Copper” represents smaller, short-term tasks and goals that don’t require a huge time investment—anywhere from a minute to a day. “Silver” dreams and ideas might take a week to a month. “Gold” is everything else.

8b. Now alchemy sometimes involves heat. Heat burns stuff away. So I now give you permission to aggressively, ruthlessly, perform perhaps the most important step: cross out items in all six squares and scourge them from your memory forever. All the ideas weren’t good ones. You don’t have time for all of them. Heck, you weren’t even all that excited about most of them. When we’re not right where we want to be, we cling to various dreams and ideas the way people in rough seas cling to life preservers. (Yeah, I’m going to mix alchemy and swimming metaphors. Deal with it.) But your self-enabled rescue won’t come from your surplus of ideas but from your tenacity: your stubborn ability to focus and follow through. Have you ever tried to swim while holding a life preserver? It’s inefficient and exhausting. So let go of some of your newly hatched ideas, schemes, and ventures. They’re not going to rescue you. Good habits are.

9. Now circle one item. You’re a Reverse Alchemist; choose one lump of gold to convert into humdrum action. The item may connect with a brand new or an old project, but it must come from the Copper category because must be achievable in a relatively short period of time. Don’t start with the mother lode. Focus on small, short-term, achievable. Why? You’re building new habits, and we human beings need quick successes to wet our whistles.

10a. Take out a third sheet of paper and write your one thing at the top. Then, write down every step you can think of from one to (hopefully not) infinity necessary to achieve it. Think in terms of a natural sequence of tasks: register the domain. Email that designer friend for a quote on a logo design. Pick a free WordPress theme. Connect the domain with hosting. Install WordPress. Upload the theme. Write a tagline. And so on. You get the picture.

10b. Finally, do task #1. It doesn’t matter if it only takes you 15 minutes. Crack the nut. Draw a line through it. Take one small, short-term, achievable action.

Then, stop. Put down your pen or close your computer. Reverse Alchemy is a marathon, not a sprint.

(There he goes mixing metaphors again.)

Give yourself permission to not be productive the rest of the day—at least as relates to the thing at the top of paper #3.

Celebrate your achievement with a double-shot mocha or a side of bacon.


Sustainable progress tends to be incremental. You’ll advance 15 minutes at a time, and the momentum of Reverse Alchemy will be like the climb up to the first big drop on a roller coaster. The cranking, lurching, rather unsettling ride tests one’s patience and intestinal fortitude. But without the boring part you don’t get the big payoff: the exhilarating plunge, the wind, the pure delight.

I sincerely hope you’ll take some of what you learned at WDS 2014 and convert it into action. Who knows, maybe you’ll be one of the speakers next year!

I’ll end with this quote from a famous Reverse Alchemist named Lao Tzu:

“Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”

Comments and Support:


    Holy smokes. Thank you so much for this post. I REALLY needed that. I am practicing a lot of what you’re speaking about, down to the 15 minute exercises to get me past my fear. But I was really needing that kick-in-the-pants this post offered.

    I’m so glad I found your site through Chris’ website.

    I just read “On Becoming an Alchemist” and was intrigued by your reverse engineering idea. I think I’m going to need to give that exercise a shot!

    Thank you!

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