Creating Work With Soul
When my oldest son (then 9) started getting skeptical about Santa Claus, I knew the jig would soon be up, and if he discovered the truth at school or through a friend, it would spread like wildfire among our 3 younger children. As many parents do, I agonized over how to tell him and ultimately wrote him a carefully crafted letter, which I read to him when we had some one-on-one time. We laughed, we cried, we hugged. It was so tender, beautiful, and powerful. And, because of how I delivered the message to him, I don’t have to worry about him spoiling the secret for his siblings or becoming cynical about losing this remnant of his early childhood.
It was so wonderful an experience that I wanted to share it with other families. Would it be a blog post? An open letter? Some other kind of digital experience? Finally, I decided only a book could fully tell the tale. Over the course of 2 years, I authored, art-directed, manufactured, and self-published The Santa Book: A True Story.
When my colleagues at Boundless found out about this passion project, the social team requested that I write a blog post about it. I said yes and then thoroughly procrastinated. I wrote the first paragraph only to toss it out and rewrite it a dozen times. Then, I procrastinated more. Because what does a kid’s book about Santa have to do with life sciences marketing? Why would anyone care? What makes it relevant or valuable to you, dear reader, amid your busy day as a Professional Who Has Important S*** To Do? Imposter syndrome was in full effect, and I felt self-conscious knowing the reputation that self-published authors have earned (more on that later).
Amid this self-doubt, The Santa Book became the first-ever indie title to win the Bookstagang Future Classics Award (among 600+ submitted titles, including those from publishers such as Penguin Books, Simon & Schuster, Random House, etc). It went viral among children’s literature influencers, going on to earn a shining endorsement from notoriously harsh Kirkus Reviews. It was featured as an Editors’ Pick in Publishers Weekly. And suddenly, I knew why any of this would matter to you.
And so, I’m feverishly thumb-typing this blog in bed at 11 p.m. two days before it’s due, before I lose the passion and urgency to tell you this:
In any creative endeavor—in the pursuit of mastery of any craft—the single-most important thing is to protect the soul of your creation.
My little book is not so exceptional in its writing, design, or packaging. The thing that has made people fall in love with it is its soul.
“In a sea of holiday books that tread the same, well-worn paths, THE SANTA BOOK's innovative approach to the Santa Claus mythos is nothing short of groundbreaking—blending emotional depth with intellectual engagement.”
“Erin Eby and Madison Harper’s collaboration elevates the genre, offering not just a whimsical story but a life lesson wrapped in stunning illustrations and a poignant narrative.”
“THE SANTA BOOK stands out from the typical children’s Christmas book by using a sophisticated vocabulary and narrative style more common to literature for grown-ups.”
“This book opens up avenues for deeper discussions about community, responsibility, and the true meaning of Christmas that go beyond surface-level sparkle and cheer.”
“For parents looking to instill in their children a sense of awe, community, and shared responsibility, this book is a must-have.”
“THE SANTA BOOK doesn’t just capture the spirit of Christmas; it encapsulates the essence of humanity at its best.”
Protecting the soul of a creation is not an easy thing to do. In fact, it can feel impossible. Let’s be honest—much of what is out there is soulless (I’m not just talking about marketing), and that’s why those things that have retained their soul captivate us. They live and breathe and sing… and yes, “succeed.”
Creating work with a soul is a 2-step process. The first is imbuing the work with a soul in the first place:
- Reach into yourself and trim off a piece of your own. Plant it in your work. You’ll find your soul rooted in emotion, and the more powerful the emotion, the richer the soil in which it’ll grow. Fear, awe, regret, catharsis, anger, love, and combinations thereof. Once it’s there, resist taking it out. You will want to because you are human, and putting a piece of ourselves where others can see it makes us vulnerable.
- Let every decision you make about the work nurture what you planted.
- As it grows and takes on a life of its own, you will need to prune it so that it takes a clear shape. One of the most difficult parts of this process is understanding which components of the work carry the soul itself and without which, the piece will die. Those are the pieces you must avoid trimming back at any cost.
A colleague from early in my career understood this part so well. I was fortunate to work with the brilliant brand thinker Jeff Berman, who shared a smart way to boil down this concept in the context of marketing and advertising. In his work at Ogilvy in New York, he was championed as “the account guy who advocates for the creative work.” He did that by recognizing the soul of the concept and ruthlessly defending it against clients who reasoned their way into killing it. He calls it “Love the clown, lose the nose.” Meaning, without the nose, the clown is just a guy in makeup and baggy clothes. The nose is the soul of the clown. The nose is what you must defend if you’re creating a clown.
The second step to putting soul into your creation is where it gets really hard because now it must survive a gauntlet of attacks:
- Competing external interests who have a stake in changing the thing at the expense of its soul.
For The Santa Book, these competing interests included well-meaning friends and family telling me I “didn’t need another side project.” They said I was already spread too thin with a full-time job, four kids, and other hobbies. They said I’d never get it done. I also heard from would-be authors telling me not to self-publish because it didn’t work for them, so of course, it wouldn’t work for me. Manufacturers told me that putting a lock on a book was impossible, and I needed to take another approach (by which they meant, “We can’t accommodate that request, but we still want your money, so we’ll tell you it can’t be done.”).
- Making compromises yourself, usually because you’re exhausted from defending your decisions against all those naysayers and hand-wringers.
The compromise that was most tempting for me was giving up on my vision of a locked book. But the lock was an essential part of its soul that I had worked so hard to nurture. It was the nose of my clown. I must have tried 100 ways to include it. So many prototypes. So many little bits and bobs of hardware. Ultimately, I did solve it, but had I been tempted to compromise? Yes, sorely tempted.
As a self-funded project, compromising on quality for the sake of cost was also tempting. But again, if what I hope to deliver to families is not just a book but a ritual—a rite of passage shared by parent and child—the object that delivers that experience must live up to that promise. And so, the rich linen-textured cover, the foil embossing, the thoughtfully crafted endsheets, the quality of the hardware… yes, all of that is worthy of investment and all of those decisions, scary as they were at the time, are now paying dividends.
- Fear. Even though it nearly always compromises the soul of the creation, the safe route is always the most tempting one.
Fear of criticism loomed in my mind, so I didn’t publicize the book as much as I could have. I took a quieter approach that I’m sure hurt our efforts this year. It was also fear of investing in its success because if it were to fail, we would have so many sunk costs. We spent almost nothing on promotion and marketing and solely focused on manufacturing in year one.
Paradoxically, there’s also the fear of success! It may be mostly subconscious, but it’s real, and it can constrain you. If the book succeeds beyond my wildest hopes, my whole life will change. That’s scary and has implications that I probably can’t fully anticipate.
Had I not staunchly defended the soul of The Santa Book as I ferried it into existence, I’m 100% convinced that it would have fallen flat—just another print-on-demand holiday paperback on Amazon. But magic doesn’t come with free 2-day shipping, and I trusted that families would connect with and value the soul of this work enough to recognize that. I was right.
So, reader, whatever the thing is that you’re creating today—a campaign, a brand, a home, a relationship, a piece of art, or music—take a moment to look deeply at its soul with fresh eyes. See what first brought it to life. Note the edges of it, where it starts and stops. Feel the indispensable components of it, and recognize those that matter a little less. Nurture it vigorously and protect it viciously because when its own soul is truly brimming with life, it can reach out and touch the souls of others.