TJ Neathery of Best and Niche Marketing: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist
A year of effort with no reward is more productive than hoping for a miracle every week. Live local. Find a community. Trust your gut on whether or not your art/product is good. If you’re going to create a flexible career for yourself, make good use of the flexibility. Life is meaningless, so enjoy it.
As a part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist” I had the pleasure of interviewing TJ Neathery.
TJ Neathery is a creative writer and owner of Best and Niche Marketing. After receiving his MFA in Fiction from Oregon State University, TJ knew that he wanted to place writing at the center of his life. So, he founded a creative content marketing firm to deliver fresh words to clients across the world.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up a missionary kid in the Mediterranean country of Albania. I was quite young when we moved, so from my perspective, I was in Dallas, Texas, one day and in Tirana (the capital city) the next. Being the late 90’s, the region had undergone some serious tensions. The country was emerging from a communist dictatorship and the Kosovo crisis was in everyone’s recent memory. But I just soaked it all up since I didn’t have anything to compare it to.
It was a truly international experience. I went to a school for ex-pats, so my friends came from everywhere: Albania, Brazil, South Korea, Hungary, England, etc. To me, being from somewhere else was normal, and this has definitely influenced my approach to creativity. I’m open to inspiration from all kinds of sources.
My family moved back to Texas in time for high school, which was another paradigm shift. I attended a small classical college prep school, and so spent a lot of time reading Plato and Dante and learning Latin declensions. But in a school where there weren’t enough students to fill all the clubs, I was able to dabble in various arts like video production, theater, and short story writing.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I think many creatives in America can point to a teacher along the way who encouraged them to develop their talents. I had a professor in college who played that pivotal role. Arna was his name. He took a friend and me under his wing in our last two years and helped us apply to grad school and polish some of our work.
Of course, he pushed us to enter the annual English Department short story contest. It turned out that my friend and I won first and second place respectively. The award itself… didn’t mean all that much. The public reading went terribly since the coordinator underlined the passage I was supposed to read with the lightest pencil ever made. It was terrible.
But afterward, my friend and I spent our $50 winnings on beer and pizza. It sounds small, but that moment meant a lot at the time. We just talked, laughed, and congratulated one another for our small accomplishment. I felt validated for my talents and felt like I belonged somewhere. I’ve been chasing that high ever since.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Thank goodness my cousin works out at Orange Theory! This is a story about how small connections can have big impacts on your career. One day she meets a podcaster at a spin class. Since she did social media as a side hustle, she and this guy start talking about his new company — a content marketing outfit that repurposed podcast content across platforms to build author brands. Pretty cool!
Naturally, she gets me involved since I could cover the email and writing production. I had just started my own content marketing company, Best and Niche Marketing, and desperately needed clients. And guess who our first client was? A New York Times bestselling author who gave keynotes to Fortune 500 companies. I couldn’t believe it. I never would have thought I’d have an opportunity this early in my business to write blogs and emails for someone with such a global presence.
I have to laugh when I think that none of this would have happened without good old-fashioned cardio in a Denver Orange Theory gym. Never underestimate the power of connections and putting yourself out there.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I’m currently supporting the book launch for a former executive of a Fortune 500 company. I’m in charge of email sequences and incentives. We published a leadership workbook two months ago that has gained traction. Next month we’re running a seven-day challenge leading up to the book release. Not only do I get to do creative work I enjoy, I get to learn from extremely successful business leaders along the way.
I don’t have to shut down my artistic side, either. Each workbook or challenge I create demands creative storytelling. I’m always looking for unique ways to position content so that it catches viewers’ attention.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
As a writer and entrepreneur, I’ve run into many interesting people. But interesting isn’t always a good thing. Some interesting people have a manic glint in their eyes that says it’s best not to involve yourself. You find a lot of people like this at local networking events. For example, there was a lady who hand-stitched stress balls for traumatized children. Then there was the man who wanted me to watch his thousands of his videos about how God was speaking to entrepreneurs through him. These people are so self-absorbed that you can’t step into their experiences. They’re interesting but in a distant way.
To me, the most interesting people are those who embrace their passions without shutting other people out. I found these people in my MFA program.
For example, there was a woman named Mackenzie who taught English in Montenegro. A classmate named Mike was obsessed with WWE and could name a dozen facts about every wrestler. Julia was from France and spent every summer on an idyllic island of the French coast. In workshops, these interesting lives came out in the stories we’d critique. Or we’d learn more about each other around a campfire. Either way, my fellow writers were interesting because they were full of people who were pursuing their passions. And they didn’t bulldoze if you got in the way of their achievements. They couldn’t be reduced to a single interesting fact or action. People whose entire personality can be summed up in a news headline… those people aren’t very interesting to me.
Where do you draw inspiration from? Can you share a story about that?
I often draw creative inspiration from challenges. If someone says I can’t do something, I’m going to try and do it. I’ve had this happen to me with writing. In high school, I had an intense philosophy professor. He had one class on apologetics, i.e., arguments for and against the existence of God. His final exam was one question, “Does God exist?”
Throughout the year, this professor told the class that the longest a student had spent on this exam was two hours. There was no time limit. Of course, I was determined to beat that time. I think I spent nearly four hours in that classroom. Nobody was left in the school once I finished. Was the essay better for the time I had spent? Probably not. I didn’t receive an A+, that’s for sure. But I have a competitive streak and that pushes me to create.
Now that I’m older, I’m trying to find inspiration within myself. Competition is powerful but exhausting. These days I’m trying to ask myself, “Who am I?” and create out of that space.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I hope that my essays and short stories can help others think outside the box and improve their lives. I’ve published an essay on the topic of moral scientists. To me, it seems like a lot of pain is caused by rigid rules for living. Unique and complex individuals are forced to shut down their true personalities just because someone more insecure that’s not how people “should” behave. But a moral scientist tries different hypotheses for living. They’re cautious, sure, but are willing to both experiment and admit when a project has failed and start over.
That’s why I titled my blog “How I Think about X.” I didn’t use this name because my thoughts are that much more important than anyone else’s. We probably need fewer people shouting their opinions into the void. But I named the blog “How I Think about X” because I write from the posture of self-reflection. If I can uncover how I approach the world, then perhaps I can live a little better each day, and then someone else might see my journey and benefit from what I’ve learned.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- A year of effort with no reward is more productive than hoping for a miracle every week.
When I was in my early twenties, I lost a lot of money in the stock market. I’m talking tens of thousands of dollars. My portfolio lost 90% of its value. I was trapped by the “maybe if” mentality. Maybe if the results are better next quarter then I’ll recover. Maybe they’ll release an incredible press release. Rookie mistake. Do your research, take your gains, and keep working. Don’t waste your life hoping for the unlikely.
The same goes for business. Don’t wait for that one big client to come knocking or for your e-book to sell a million copies overnight. Do the small things each day. Send another sales email, make one phone call, or gain 10 more followers. The small tasks add up.
- Live local. Find a community.
Many of us are taught to have global ambitions. We’re told to be the next Steve Jobs. Be the next Scarlet Johansson. Get your name in every household across all seven continents. Release a history-changing product or star in the biggest blockbuster. Those are the achievements we apparently should strive for.
But this mentality makes us look down on where we are right now. A future focus can be draining. When being the next Stephen King is the only achievement that’s “good enough,” you’re probably not going to care about local readings or finding a group of unpublished writers to work with. Surround yourself with other people who are doing good work. They don’t have to be famous or outwardly successful, but find a space where you can practice your craft around supportive people. If you are destined to be famous, you’ll get there quicker by living local.
- Trust your gut on whether or not your art/product is good.
Ask for feedback as often as you can, but don’t take it all to heart. If you truly believe what you create is valuable, then keep doing it. Otherwise, you’ll be paralyzed.
I once watched an interview with a member of The Band in which he described touring with Bob Dylan. This was after Dylan had switched to electric guitar, and his fans hated it. Everywhere they toured, people would boo and shout. The reviews were awful. But one night, Bob Dylan and The Band listened to a playback of the night’s show. Afterward, they simply said, “This is good. This music is really good. Let’s keep going.”
As it turns out, history was on their side.
- If you’re going to create a flexible career for yourself, make good use of the flexibility.
I started my remote business before the pandemic made remote work common. I wanted to be able to travel and write. I also hated working in an office 9–5 when I could have done the same amount of work in half that time.
But free time can become the enemy. I’ve declined contracts because I wanted to commit myself to a writing project, but then I discover that I don’t touch the project for two months. Once I finished what clients asked of me, I’d spend the day watching TV or going for walks. Ultimately, this paralysis is rooted in the need for outside approval. I can do what other people ask me to do, but I find it difficult to do what I want to do.
Don’t let your long-term goals fall by the wayside when you’re hustling to make ends meet.
- Life is meaningless, so enjoy it.
The longer I live, the more I empathize with the author of Ecclesiastes. America is addicted to grinding and hustling. This is extremely true in the entrepreneur space. In school, we’re pushed to get high grades to get into a good college. After college, we either climb the corporate ladder or start building our own empires through entrepreneurship. This is all supposed to provide security and make a name for yourself.
But in my experience, the hustle has worn me down. The constant pressure to perform exhausts and paralyzes me. And in the end, we can’t take our success with us, and someone else will enjoy what we’ve left behind. So, make sure you try to enjoy your work and connect with your unique purpose on this planet. Otherwise, you might look back on life with regret.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. :-)
My end goal is to start a writing workshop that truly gives up-and-coming writers the financial and social security to produce great books. Think of it as a writer incubator.
If we’re talking about felt needs in the market, American culture has not been kind to writers and artists in general. Art has been commodified to the point where books equal widgets that can be mass-produced. But people forget that widgets need a large capital outlay in order the start the factory and develop functional prototypes. Good art needs initial investment, too.
In fact, art is more like a tech startup. We need cultural investors who are willing to invest resources into writers. It takes time to build a receptive audience to scale. And on the same note, we need business-minded people to step in and see that these investments are treated responsibly. It’s time for someone to step in and create a healthy ecosystem that gives writers the support they need to create meaningful and beautiful stories that then give meaning to the rest of our lives.
We have been blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she just might see this.
I would like to have lunch with Marilynne Robinson. She’s one of the best living writers today. Her essays are a bit academic; they touch on many academic subject like theology, law, economy, etc. But I love it.
I’d like to discuss my writer incubator program. She’s been teaching writing workshops for decades and likely knows many people who would get behind the project.
For what it’s worth, I actually met Marilynne Robinson once in college — only for a minute. I nervously stuttered something about the weather as I handed her a book to sign. So, I’d like to redeem that moment!
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Follow me on LinkedIn at: www.linkedin.com/in/tj-neathery-profile
Follow me on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tjneatheryauthor
My personal writing can be found at https://tjneathery.com and the HowithinkaboutX.podcast
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!