Ritual Reflections

At a reception at the Lean Startup conference, where I was speaking last week, I struck up a conversation with a couple as waited on a food line. The three of us had started the day together in the hotel’s small, dark, grey gym, with ESPN blaring.

“How was your workout?” the woman asked, kindly.

“Oh, it was terrible,” I replied. “Truly, every minute was awful. But I finished.”

It was true. I’d had a tiring week, had rushed to catch my 6-hour flight to Las Vegas, wore earplugs all night because the hotel room was so loud, hadn’t eaten breakfast, and was feeling sluggish. I didn’t feel at all like running on the treadmill, but hoped that after I started it would get easier or better.

It never did. This is normal.

I exercise a lot, and at least half of the time I don’t really feel like doing it before I go. I mostly ignore that feeling and the accompanying thoughts, because they tell me almost nothing about what will happen once I get going, let alone how great I’ll feel afterwards.

I notice the same pattern with my kids. This weekend I had to wrench my 7-year old daughter from a lazy Sunday afternoon TV show to get her to practice her ukulele. As kids do, she vocalized all the feelings she had at that moment. “I don’t want to!” “I’m too tired!” “Can we do it a little later?”

But this morning, before school, without protest or prodding, she was in her room strumming away, belting out “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

It’s made me realize that most of what we do as parents is to try to instill good rituals.

Rituals of saying please and thank you. Rituals of putting dishes away after a meal. Rituals of how we go to bed. Rituals of doing homework early in the day. Rituals of always saying hello when we enter the house and goodbye when we leave. Rituals about using our phones and when we put them down. Rituals of reading before bed. And on and on.

These rituals only stick if they are for all of us.

My days are no different, filled with ritualistic behaviors: on the train into work, how I act when I get into the office, how and what I eat, what I do on a long-haul flight or how I get to sleep in a hotel room in a different time zone.

These rituals can be comforting, helpful and reassuring. They can be positive, well-thought out, and intentional. They can lead, day by day, to big positive changes.

Or, they can work against us: reinforcing the limitations we’re feeling in our lives, distracting us from what’s going on right now, buttressing our limitations…different flavors of short-term relief we trade, moment by moment, for a future we say we want.

Rituals are powerful because they help us push through the protests we’re feeling in our minds and bodies – whether we say them out loud like my 7-year-old, or we voice them silently. Rituals are a pre-determined set of priorities that free us from the decision of whether we should do this or that.

How we use our rituals is up to us. But when we watch someone who is doing something that seems impossible – running on a freezing cold and rainy morning; showing up perfectly pressed for work no matter what’s going on around them; always listening carefully; writing a blog every day — we should remember that what we’re witnessing isn’t a display of willpower, talent or skill.

It’s the result of ritual.

A Great Yoga Practice

My yoga practice today
Happened next to a half-made bed
A few clothes strewn nearby

My daughter entered the room a few minutes in
Plopped herself onto the bed
To read her book

I stopped once or twice
Answered a few questions
And ended my practice mid-pose for bedtime

Yoga used to be a sweaty thing
Pushing through physical barriers
Bending further, deeper

This time I didn’t even break a sweat
The twinge in my back didn’t melt away
There was no savasana or Om

But afterwards
I feel joy and gratitude
For the people around me

Maybe it was a great yoga practice after all

 

3018

I was working in a spreadsheet and I mistyped a date, entering the year 3018 by accident.

And I thought, “that’s ridiculous, there’s no such thing.”

But of course there is. It’s a real, actual date, 1,000 years from now. It just doesn’t seem possible.

What if we could believe it was real, just as real as 2019– a date that is sure to come, whether or not we are here to see it.

What would our today, or our tomorrow, look like if we could see the direct connections between what we do today and what happens on this date in 3018?

Today, at least, if we live in the United States, I bet we’d go out and vote.

The blanks

Compared to you, the people you’re communicating with (customers, colleagues) don’t have the whole story. They don’t know each and every detail, they can’t see every tiny nuance.

How could they? They aren’t you.

What they have is the information they get from you, and a whole lot of blanks.

Most of these blanks get filled in by things outside of our control: their worldview, their filters, the mood they’re in that day. But some of them are filled by the story they tell themselves about our product or about us. And the last few are empty for no good reason, because we’ve not communicated the right things to them in the right way.

This means we have two jobs.

First, and always, to communicate better, with more empathy about what the world looks like from where they’re sitting and more specificity about what we want them to feel, believe and do after they hear from us.

And second, to remember that each time we communicate, we’re doing so on two levels:

On the level of what we say, we are transmitting information, content and meaning.

On the level of how we say it, we are building out the scaffolding that they’ll use to fill in future blanks about us: future expectations about who we are, our personality, our intent, and how much we can be trusted.

Think of it as two stories: the one they’ll remember today, and the one that will inform how they fill in the blanks tomorrow.

 

(Speaking of blanks to be filled in: welcome to all of you who just showed up thanks to Seth Godin’s blog post on Wednesday. I’m glad you’re here and thanks for subscribing! And for those of you who didn’t see that post, you might want to check out a few other blogs Seth recommended: Gabe, Fred, Bernadette and Rohan.

As Seth mentioned, this blog has a backlist of more than 1,000 posts on all sorts of topics including storytelling, generosity, fundraising and sales, social change, leadership, and a lot more. Mostly, posts are a mirror of what’s on my mind, ideas I’m working through, and ideas and advice that I’ve found (or, more often, am still finding) useful.

These days, you should expect 1-2 posts per week in your inbox, so if you’re not getting them check your spam filter.

Comments are welcome, sharing posts with friends is a gift, and if you want to reach me I’m easy to find: sashadichterblogs@gmail.com)

 

It’s alive

For your next sales-and-storytelling practice session, try this.

Think of your favorite popular song, one that everybody knows. Then tap out the tune on the table with your hand, and have the rest of your team go around in a circle and guess what the song is. Try it a few times and see how many times the song gets guessed.

How’d it go?

The answer is: terribly.

You can’t guess a song by just hearing the rhythm. But even so, when you’re the person tapping that “tune,” you can’t help but hear the song in your head. Nor can you help wondering (just a little bit) “why don’t they hear it too?”

This is your storytelling problem in a nutshell: you can see something that your audience can’t.

This something has a color and a smell and a texture, it is just about to burst with feeling and emotion and meaning.

Picture it.

Your stories need to help us see what you see. As your audience, we are begging you to paint this living, vibrant thing for us, to help us see what you see so we can feel what you feel. Let us, first, experience its texture and shape and possibility.

That’s your one and only job at the outset.

Once that’s complete we have a real, shared conversation about whether and how to make that picture come to life.

Seven Words

“I’m going to tell you a story.”

This was the first thing Acumen Fellow Aaron Kirunda said last week in a talk I heard him give at Acumen’s Partner Gathering.

Upon hearing those words, the audience leans forward a little bit, they relax, they open up. Because everyone loves a story.

Aaron’s story was about enjuba, his Ugandan organization that provides literacy training to 1.5 million Ugandan kids, anchored around hosting spelling bees. But that’s not where he begins.

He begins by telling us about two children who grew up in a Ugandan village. One of those boys dropped out of school, he never learned to read, he ended up cutting sugarcane, and he eventually struggled with alcohol abuse and parenting multiple kids out of wedlock.

The other boy, his friend, also had trouble completing primary school, but he had a mother who read the Bible to him and his brothers every night. That boy was fascinated by that ritual, of the family gathered together around a dim light and his mother’s own storytelling. He dreamed of one day being able to read that Bible, and eventually he did learn to read, as did his brothers. This reading ignited his passion for education, and he ended up being the best student in his district, which opened up doors to Uganda’s prestigious Makerere University and eventually to the London School of Economics.

This boy eventually made his way back to Uganda where he started up an organization to pass on the gift of reading to more kids like him and like his friend. This boy’s name was Aaron Kirunda. The organization he found was enjuba, which means sunshine. Seven years after he founded that organization, he came to New York to share his story, and I was lucky enough to hear it.

The reminder here is: I didn’t take any notes on this presentation, and I didn’t know Aaron’s story in this way before that night. But because he told me a story, I listened. And because it was a story, I not only stayed engaged, I remember it effortlessly a few days later. That means it stayed with me, so I can carry it around and reflect on it and contemplate its meaning.

The reminder here is: we want to listen to stories.

They keep us engaged.

They have a beginning, a middle and an end.

This makes them easy to remember – both their content and the lessons they contain.

So, it is our job as people trying to make an impact to tell stories all the time. Not just when we’re in front of a room of people doing “a presentation.” All the time.

These seven powerful words, “I’m going to tell you a story,” whether spoken or implied, can and should be used anywhere. The story can be about a challenge we once had at work, what it felt like when we heard hard feedback for the first time, the lead-up to an insight that hit us over the weekend, or a yarn about a friend we knew who also struggled for nearly a year before putting down roots in a new place.

“I’m going to tell you a story” is the beginning of a conversation that people will remember.

If they remember, it might change them.

If they forget, it definitely will not.

What’s it worth

At some point in every negotiation, the conversation turns to price.

Sometimes this is straightforward. It’s been discussed all along and you are formalizing what everyone expects.

And sometimes, a new prospect will come at you with some version of, “We really want to do this, we just can’t make it happen at this price. Could you do it for less?”

Can you?

Well yes, you always can do it for less.

But should you?

There might be good reasons to do it for less. The work is interesting and important and will allow you to grow. It will open new doors for you and your firm. You have available resources (time, people) that otherwise would lay dormant.

But if the price you’ve offered is one you’ve been paid before, and if clients keep coming back for more and referring new people to you, this means that, at the price you initially offered, the one you’ve been asked to lower, your work is a bargain: you’ve been delivering a lot more value than the price you’re charging.

What’s challenging is how uncomfortable  the “can you do it for less” moment is. The tension in the silence that follows this question makes you want to make the discomfort go away, which you can do by negotiating against yourself.

“Maybe,” you think, “this time I’m wrong.”  “Maybe, this time, my work isn’t worth it.”  “Maybe this client will get away and……..”

And what, exactly?

And there will be another client tomorrow. This client will see what you’re worth, be willing to pay that amount and, in doing so, will get be getting a bargain relative to what you’ll deliver.

Don’t uncut yourself, and certainly don’t apologizing for asking for what you deserve.

Instead, you might offer: “I’m confident that at the price we’re discussing, you will get more than you’re paying for.”

Then, when she ultimately say yes, it’s up to you to do something magical, which is exactly where you want to be.

How to avoid hiring a consultant for the wrong reasons

Before spending money on a consultant to solve an important problem, ask yourself what would happen if:

Everyone on your team set aside 8 hours to work on this problem.

You all agreed that this work is more important than the other urgent things going on, so you’ll honor that time commitment.

You empowered someone on your team to be the ‘consultant.’ This person has free rein to use the allotted 8 hours of each person’s time as she sees fit.

Those 8 hours can be used for prep time, for meeting time, for brainstorming time.

Those 8 hours have a new set of ground rules, some of which push against the established culture of your team or organization. Cultural boundary-pushing looks like: asking un-askable questions, naming established assumptions, noticing the many elephants plodding around the room.

It’s expected that some of those 8 hours are spent generously reaching out to smart, helpful people at just the right moment to see if 15 to 30 minutes of their wisdom could get you unstuck.

Once those 8 hours are used up, the results will be shared, along with no more than three recommendations for what to do next.

At an agreed-upon date, those recommendations will be discussed, decisions will be made, actions will be taken and resources re-allocated based on that decision.

I’d bet that in 90% of the cases the above exercise gets you better results faster, for much less money, than hiring a consultant. And, better, yet, if you still decide that you need a consultant it will be for one of the only two good reasons to hire one:

  1. The consultant is a scalable resource: the amount of time required to do this work really is more than what your team can spare.
  2. The consultant has unique skills or resources not possessed by your team, and you need those skills to get the job done. These skills could be creativity or design. They could be skills in managing group dynamics and creating space for important conversations. They could be the skill of teaching things your team needs to learn.
  3. There is no third reason, because most of the time you’re hiring a consultant so they can bring the discipline to focus on an important problem. But you don’t need to pay a consultant to do that, do you?

The right reaction to a mistake

I come from a family of musicians and have played classical piano all my life. So, naturally, all three of my kids play too. It’s not always easy, because unless they practice regularly at home, they don’t make any progress–and very few kids want to sit down and practice every day.

In an effort to bridge the gap between how I grew up (rules for how many minutes, and then hours, to practice daily) and what seems possible in our family, I try to spend a good deal of their practice time with them to help them make the best of it. Over the years I’ve worked on finding the sweet spot between the helpful role I can play as a more experienced musician; the somewhat stern role I need to play to push them to practice more productively; and being careful not to be too tough on them and take the fun out of things. It’s a delicate balance, one I’m still working on, and I don’t always get it right.

This fall, I’ve been noticing my middle daughter as she’s been making her way back to the piano after a summer at camp. She’s started doing something new that I think is just wonderful: when she misses a note that she knows she should get right, she lets out a small chuckle. It’s almost as if she’s saying to herself, “oh, I know that’s a B-flat, isn’t it funny that I played a B-natural.”

What a lovely, elusive reaction to a mistake:

I see myself making a mistake.

I observe the mistake, and see it clearly.

I note what I want to do differently the next time.

And I take the whole thing lightly.

This is not the typical response to a mistake. Normally, when we notice that we messed up we show up with piles of excess emotional baggage. This baggage doesn’t make us better the next time, nor does it deepen our ability to make a change. All it does is associate our misstep with self-criticism and an imprecise emotional mixture of fear, anger and shame.

Much better to notice with curiosity, be deliberate about what changes to make, and let escape a nearly silent little chuckle.

By when?

Behaviors around time and deadlines are some of the most important unspoken elements of your team culture

Do we ship?

Or do we delay?

Do we let plans and projects float around without deadlines?

And when we say the due date, what does everyone understand? Is it real or will we “do our best” to hit it? (or know that we’ll blow right past it?)

These elements of your culture can be seen in the most micro of interactions. As in:

The email you receive says, “Could you give this a quick read and get it back to me?”

Or, “Looking forward to receiving your thoughts.”

Or, “I’m slammed right now, can you please review this for me?”

As the recipient of these sorts of messages, you empower yourself and strengthen your culture of shipping by asking, each and every time, “by when?”

“By when” says you will hold yourself accountable to that date.

“By when” reinforces clarity for both of you.

“By when” is the first step towards making, and keeping, a promise.

And “by when” communicates (to you, to your colleague) that you have your own priority list, that your work is important, that the simple fact that someone senior to you (or not) needs something doesn’t mean it’s automatically at the top of your list too–unless they and you put it there.

Yes, be flexible, and create a culture of support, pitching in, and having each others’ backs. But your culture of hitting deadlines is only possible when we talk about time and managing priorities in all our interactions, and handle that precious time with intention.

Oh, and if you care about this sort of thing and want to strengthen your team’s culture of shipping, you must get everyone a copy of Seth Godin’s Ship It Journal. Download a free copy here, or buy a beautiful journal version from MOO.com.