Michael Jones is a New York City-based instructor, editor and recovering perfectionist. He’s also the founder of The Cool Humans Club, a members-only online education resource for modern professionals. Michael was formerly digital style editor and “Ask Michael” columnist at Condé Nast’s now-defunct Lucky magazine.
On “self-care”: “That’s the ultimate self-care for me: To be able to create meaningful work that people pay attention to and pay for so I can be with people I care about, contribute to causes and movements that matter to me, and give myself experiences that I’ll remember forever.”
On letting people down: “I have way too many unread or un-replied-to text messages. Way too many unreturned missed calls. Way too many events that I wanted to go to but ended up not attending. And I often feel like shit about it.”
On stress management: “I’m getting better at talking about what stresses me out when it stresses me out. It’s helped to have people in my life who care enough to be with me when I’m not feeling like the best version of myself.”
On being a “recovering perfectionist”: “I have to check myself when I compare my 24/7 reality to someone else’s highlight reel.”
On keeping work and life in perspective: “Whatever challenges I’ve experienced have ultimately been opportunities to learn and grow in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise.”
As we discussed earlier, you’ve had quite the journey. I’m curious about how you find balance (or the closest thing to it that you can manage). What conscious efforts do you make for self-care on a regular basis?
I opted out of social media this year, which eliminated most of the noise that stifled my productivity. It’s allowed me to devote my focus and concentration to producing meaningful work that generates value for the people I’ve chosen to serve.
Another habit I’ve adopted is to say no to everything. I used to be so exhausted from overpromising or committing to unwanted or unfair agreements. But by saying no to everything, it places the burden on the person making the request to convince me to say yes instead of me feeling like I have to say yes so people won’t think I’m less generous or humble or caring than I know myself to be.
Now when I get a request from someone that requires more time, money or attention than I’m willing to invest at that moment, my response is usually, “When do you need an answer?” or “How long do I have to think about it?” If I feel like I don’t have enough time to consider if it’s a responsible commitment, then I’m pretty sure I won’t have enough time to fulfill it. So I try to make sure I have space to really think about what and who I’m giving time to.
What I learned was that decisions aren’t isolated instances. If I’m saying yes to something, then I’m saying no to something else. Because there’s only one Michael but at least two choices — so something’s always going to get left unaccounted for. My goal now is to make sure whatever’s left undone isn’t mission critical to whatever I’m prioritizing in the moment.
I’m also fairly hard to reach now: My phone’s almost always in Do Not Disturb mode, I probably won’t answer your call if it’s unexpected, and I typically don’t make my way around to email until the afternoon. My most productive hours are usually in the morning so I’m vigilant in protecting them.
From a personal standpoint, I no longer eat red meat or drink alcohol. And unless I have a work or personal dinner planned, I eat before 7, which helps my body wind down so I can go to sleep at a responsible hour.
I’m also very pro-meditation and pro-therapy. I’m pretty much pro anything that gives you a safe judgment-free space to check in with how you’re feeling, what you’re thinking or why you’re choosing what you’re choosing.
Do you remember when you realized these steps toward self-care were necessary?
Honestly, my motivation really wasn’t or isn’t self-care. Most of my work and life is pragmatically designed so I have as much personal freedom as possible.
That’s the ultimate self-care for me: To be able to create meaningful work that people pay attention to and pay for so I can be with people I care about, contribute to causes and movements that matter to me, and give myself experiences that I’ll remember forever.
The reason I adopted these habits is because I knew that if I was going to do things like opt out of social, not immediately reply to email or operate a sustainable (and profitable) online business, I’d have to be an elite performer to compensate for my unwillingness to no longer work and live by the status quo. And I had enough self-awareness to realize that my previous rate of motion and level of performance wouldn’t achieve those results.
At this point in my life, it’s now more important for me to have autonomy over who gets access to me and my creative output than it is for me to sit front row at a show or get free shoes or an exclusive invite to a party or hundreds of retweets from live-tweeting the Real Housewives of Wherever.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of that. In fact, all of that used to be important to me and is still important to a lot of the people I care about. And honestly, if I was more comfortable with being monetized on social and could still perform at the level I can without it, perhaps I’d still be on it.
But the habits I’ve adopted are moreso a reflection of my current vision for my work and life instead of concerted effort to practice self-care. It just so happens that a lot of those habits contribute to my mental and emotional well-being too.
How do you fit in time for loved ones with your busy schedule?
I think it sucks to feel like you’re getting someone’s leftovers, so I make it a point to give the people who matter to me the best of me as often as I can.
I have a standing weekly Friday-night FaceTime call with my niece and nephew — it’s non-negotiable. And everyone who knows me knows that it’s a thing. I talk to my mom virtually every day, dad and I usually check in on Sundays, and my sister and I are always sharing hilarious stories about the kids.
I also have someone special who reminds me to slow down when I start moving too fast or feeling like I’m less than enough. I’m grateful for that.
There are people who know me who are probably thinking, “Um, you don’t fit in time for me!” And they’re right. I have way too many unread or un-replied-to text messages. Way too many unreturned missed calls. Way too many events that I wanted to go to but ended up not attending.
And I often feel like shit about it. But that’s where grace comes in. Some days I’m an awesome son, brother, uncle, friend, mentor, mentee, et cetera and a sucky business owner. Other days, it’s the other way around. I’m learning to be okay with letting people down because someone will always feel like they’re getting the short end of the stick no matter how hard I try.
Making and keeping friendships as an adult can be tough. How did you build a community of support in New York after leaving Texas?
I joined First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem a couple of weeks after I relocated to New York a few years ago. FCBC has a big young adult presence so that enabled me to build some awesome relationships right off the bat.
I’m also a graduate of Momentum Education, a personal and professional development organization that really helped me get clear on the life I dream about and provided the tools I needed to start creating it. Most of my non-fashion NYC relationships are either from church or Momentum.
But I’m also grateful for my friendships with non-New Yorkers. We’re super close and you’re in Chicago. And my BFF lives in Baltimore. And most of my fam is in Texas. And y’all’s love transcends geography.
Mindset is such a huge part of chasing and achieving your dreams and goals. Have you always had a positive mindset? Did you or do you ever struggle with that?
Of course I struggle. [Laughs] At some point on most days, I’m in tears wondering what the hell I’m doing and who the hell I thought I was to ever think I could do what the hell I’m trying to do.
I often refer to myself as “recovering perfectionist” because I don’t think I’ll ever not want everything I create to be perfect. But that’s an unrealistic and unhealthy standard. And perfectionism is usually the source of anything that’s not working in my life.
So now I just try to stack meaningful minutes on top of meaningful hours on top of meaningful days on top of meaningful weeks on top of meaningful months on top of meaningful years and let the universe handle the rest.
I’m also learning to let myself be seen, heard and acknowledged when I’m experiencing struggle. I give myself permission to share how I’m feeling with people I trust to love and support me right where I’m at. It’s still a work in progress.
What do you consider to be the biggest mental struggle in making a huge career shift like you did?
For me, it’s definitely comparison and perfectionism. I have to check myself when I compare my 24/7 reality to someone else’s highlight reel. And again, perfectionism is a daily struggle.
Before I started my business, I was always representing someone else’s brand. Even though my jobs were public-facing, I could hide behind a legacy like Condé Nast or Hearst or Bank of America. When I realized that it would be harder for me to do that with something I created myself, it was terrifying.
I was consumed with what people would think if I screwed up or experienced failure in front of everyone. But in the end, I understand that I’m going to screw up and probably experience failure in front of everyone, but winners focus on winning and losers focus on winners.
And I came to win. No matter how imperfect I may sometimes feel.
Talk a bit more about how you found the motivation to keep going after you found out Lucky was folding for good.
I mean, I was in my late 20s when it happened. I’m only in my early 30s now. So I realized I had the rest of my life in front of me. The biggest thing was to figure out what I wanted to do next and what it would take to have it turn out.
That’s where the support of coaches and mentors really came through. My friend Shahara always talks about how nobody is self-made and that’s true for me. Every step of the way I’ve had a tribe to help me make sense of everything.
I also knew I had a valuable set of transferable skills: I can write, I can edit, I can develop learning content and student experiences, I understand how to motivate people to take action, I can charm my way into any room or meeting, I’m a top-notch critical thinker.
And for everything I know I am, I also know what I’m not, which is super important.
The biggest challenge when I decided to start my business is that I didn’t have time on task. I didn’t come from a family of entrepreneurs and my journalism program in college didn’t really focus much on business. So figuring out how to promote and monetize my cool in a sustainable way that delivered value to my community was the biggest challenge. But I knew I had a chance to bounce back just fine.
What are some self-realizations you had during these trying times and how have they helped you to move forward?
I lived my dream before I turned 30 and I’m currently living a new dream. I’m actually grateful for the deck of cards life has dealt me. I live in a city with massive income inequality and skyrocketing rents, a city where the gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening as we speak. And I’m still here.
Whatever challenges I’ve experienced have ultimately been opportunities to learn and grow in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise.
Humans are so resilient and I think our setbacks and breakdowns reveal our humanity and show the world that we’re all doing the best we can with what we have.
Think about it: There are people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from or where they’ll lay their head tonight. Many of those people look like me or people I love. As marginalized as I am as a black gay man in America, I also get to check my privilege and step into gratitude after I’ve given myself however long I need to feel sorry for myself.
What outlets do you use for stress?
I mentioned it a little earlier, but I’m a huge fan of meditation. Whenever I’m stressed, I actually look for the source or trigger and give time to love and listen to myself. Stress is my body’s way of saying, “I’m trying to tell you something.” And in the past, instead of listening, I’ve happy-hour’d or swipe-right’d myself into poor decisions that added even more stress to my life.
I used to journal a lot, and I still do. But journaling became a way for me to document what or who was stressing me out instead of being courageous enough to address it or them head-on.
So I’m getting better at talking about what stresses me out when it stresses me out. It’s helped to have people in my life who care enough to be with me when I’m not feeling like the best version of myself.
What do you wish you knew when you started your journey into entrepreneurship that you know now?
Gosh, this could be its own conversation. [Laughs] I think a lesson I learned the hard way is that your business starts and stops with people. There is no business unless there are people who are willing to pay attention to and pay for whatever it is you’re offering them. In the beginning, I focused on inventing the wheel instead of being with people to listen to their struggles, motivations and desires and solving their problems with value whether they ever bought something from me.
Another lesson is that customers aren’t born, they’re made. And you make customers by shifting mindsets, attitudes and behaviors in an empowering way that removes any friction between you and the desired outcome your product, service or experience delivers.
Also, if people can’t understand it, they won’t buy it. So you have to package your brilliance into a product, service or experience people can relate to and instantly see the value of.
And the last thing that I learned pretty quickly, but is still worth sharing: Master a skill that’s critical to the success of your business — even if you don’t ever plan on selling it as a service. I invested thousands of dollars to learn how to quickly write copy (the creative and persuasive words that make people take meaningful action towards our shared outcomes) and now I save thousands of dollars because I can write my own emails and landing pages.
What’s one piece of advice you would give people who are going through a change in their lives when it comes to having the right mindset and taking care of themselves in the process?
Start where you are — even if you’re afraid or overwhelmed or anxious. You’ll pick up everything you need but don’t currently have along the way.
I once heard a story about how we all have angels assigned to support us in creating the work, life and world we want to see. But most of our angels are sleeping because so much of our life is lived within a comfort zone that we can manage. The moment we step out of a comfort zone that we can no longer manage alone is when our sleeping angels wake up and intervene on our behalf: Doors start opening up, people start helping you, money starts appearing out of thin air — all because you decided to take the first or next step forward.
I guess the piece of advice I’d offer is to give your sleeping angels a reason to wake up.
Michael’s tips for breaking up with social media:
1) Do a 30-day test drive. Avoid mentioning to your fans and followers that you’re signing off — just do it cold turkey. When people reached out to me via call, text or email, I shared I was taking a break but didn’t make it a priority to tell people. The goal is to see 1) if your work and life would have been distinctly better if you still maintained a presence on the platform and 2) if people cared you were no longer using the platform. For me, the answer to both questions was no. (Deep Work by Cal Newport has an entire chapter on how to quit social media. I strongly recommend it.)
2) Know you’re going to miss out. Jay-Z and Beyoncé released Everything is Love on a Saturday. I didn’t know about it until the following Wednesday. Most memes go over my head now. And I almost always avoid the hot takes to political and pop culture news. There’s really no way to stay up to speed on the news cycle when you opt out. But the world keeps spinning, the sun keeps shining, and the moon keeps rising. Be sure to make peace with your FOMO before you quit for good.
3) Leverage other marketing channels. If you use social to promote your online business, personal brand or side hustle, understand it’s not the only way to get people to notice what you have to offer. I use a combination of email marketing, SMS marketing, in-person activations and editorial storytelling to turn guests into members and drive traffic to my offerings.