A New Algorithm

The definition of the word algorithm is “a process that solves a recurrent problem.”

We come up against recurrent problems all the time. Here’s a list of things that are decidedly not a process:

. Wishing the problem didn’t keep cropping up

. Continuing to do things in the same way

. Ignoring the problem

. Working on other, smaller issues

. Getting frustrated

. Keeping your best ideas about a better process to yourself

. Talking about a new process, acting like you care a lot about doing things differently, but then continuing to act in the old ways

. Complaining

. Shooting down suggestions about doing things differently

. Blaming the people around you for not solving the problem

Your recurrent problems deserve a new algorithm.

Like a Match to our Fears

I spent some time over the holidays cleaning up several things on my blog. It has a spruced-up look and URL, it’s easier to subscribe, and I migrated subscribers to Feedblitz.

I mostly did this so it would be easier for you to share posts and for new readers to follow the blog (follow here).

One of the additional benefits is much better statistics: open rates, bounce rates, new subscribers, unsubscribes. Though “benefits” may not be the right word.

Ever since migrating, I have been getting a steady drip of emails letting me know about people unsubscribing from my blog.

At least that’s how it feels.

The truth is, I migrated a few thousand people and fewer than 20 have unsubscribed. But, like rubbernecking, I can’t seem to look away. The unsubscribes cry out, “Look at me! Think about what I mean! Contemplate why this person no longer wants to read!”

It’s hard to remember that Laura wrote me a nice note. So did Amy and Jamie. Arnie and Cornelius left comments on a recent post. And, and, and… If you listened to the conversation in my head, you’d think that all that good stuff never happened.

It’s a rule of thumb for the workplace and the classroom that people should hear four instances of positive reinforcement for every instance of corrective or negative feedback (though for marriages the ratio seems to be 5 to 1).

The question is, why? Why does the good stuff fade into the background and the negatives stand out in such stark relief?

The answer begins with noticing that it doesn’t happen everywhere: for things that we don’t care much about (“you’re terrible at ice skating!”), and for things that we’re deeply confident about, we’re mostly immune to this nonsense.

But in that wide area in the middle—the things that we care about, but where we’re not fully confident—we’re wide open to fear amplification.

Unfortunately, this “middle area” is really important. It encompasses all creative endeavors, since we are never fully confident our art. And it thrives in any area where we’re trying to grow, because, by definition, these are the areas in which we are both less skilled and less confident.

The fear waits like dry kindling ready to be set ablaze.

This kindling allows me to construct an amazing, elaborate tower of meaning around something as simple as one person in one place unsubscribing. It is the same thing that takes us, when we make a suggestion in a meeting that’s shot down, from the words we hear to, “he thinks I do terrible work, always. So he must think I’m terrible, always.”

As we interact with those around us, our job is to be especially deliberate about how we interact with colleagues–especially when we talk about their art and support their growth edges. Unless we work in organizations with cultures of consistently direct, tough feedback that people are accustomed to, we will stamp out personal growth if we trample, Godzilla-like, over areas where colleagues already are holding armfuls of doubt and fear.

And, for ourselves, we want to keep asking:

How much kindling are we carrying around? And is it really helping us?

Do we want to be the kinds of people who are ready to be set aflame, our fears blazing around us?

Do those flames make us more more connected? More powerful? More brave?

Do they make us more effective? More willing and able to do what needs to be done?

People will always carry matches, often unintentionally. Part of our job is to learn to douse all the fuel around ourselves so we’re not so easily taken off our game.

Oh, and I also changed my settings so I only get that unsubscribe email once a week.

 

2018 New Year’s Intentions

The word “resolutions” has lost its weight. It feels like something that we’ll give up on by the end of the month.

I’d rather start the New Year with a few clear, important intentions.

A real, serious intention says that you care deeply about making something happen.

It has quality that is much weightier than “I will go to the gym” or “I will eat less sugar” because it sits at the other side of a specific, narrowly defined set of actions.

An intention can be a North Star. It implies an orientation, an attitude, a sense of purpose.

A strong intention gives space for improvisation and new decisions based on new information. This makes them resilient, flexible, and powerful. You can change behaviors and tactics while still holding an intention firm.

I can only hold on to two, maybe three, serious new intentions at a time.

But each of them has the strength and the elasticity to hold within itself a breadth of important, meaningful, careful, substantive, and joyful actions.

(It helps to write them down).

Moments of Joy

It was a cold, cold holiday break, and I spent a lot of quiet time with my family.

I found myself actively appreciating the good fortune of having a warm house to sleep in in the face of brutally cold nights, and reflecting on the little things that fortify me, help me refuel, and make me feel fully alive.

Life is full of ups and downs, of intense periods and periods of renewal–it can’t all be about time for reflecting, relaxation and recovery.

But it is worth noticing these small moments, for they can easily be built in to even the busiest of times.

A good night’s sleep.

Preparing a meal with my kids.

Driving on a sunny morning to play a game of squash.

The calm I feel after a yoga practice, or 15 minutes of meditation.

Curling up with a good book.

Witnessing the moment when someone discovers they can do something they thought they couldn’t.

When snow just starts to fall.

Laughter.

Here’s wishing you a 2018 full of small, and big, moments of joy.

(and, to all you email subscribers, here’s wishing that you got this post safe and sound from Feedblitz. If anything seems funky, please let me know. I’m working on it.)

The three things you do best

I’d finish introducing myself, I’d explained what Acumen did—mission, vision, strategy, successes.

The person across from me is focused, intense, and attentive. He nods. He looks me straight in the eye, and says, “That’s great. So tell me, what are the three things you do better than anyone, the three things you do best?”

What a great question.

Not “what do you do?” or “what do you do well?”  Not “what motivates you” or “what keeps you up at night?”

Cut through it all and tell me what your organization does better than any other.

You can imagine telescoping this question to multiple levels: your entire organization, your team, your freelance offering, you as a professional.

What are the three things you do best?

You need to know this if you’re going to write a mission statement, or a website, or an annual report.

You need to know it if you’re drafting your budget for next year or your five-year plan.

You can even imagine structuring an open 360 team review this way: get your team together, ask each person to describe what they think are the three things they do best, and ask each other member of the team to answer that question about everyone else, discuss.

On whatever level you choose to answer, it’s a cut-through-the-fat way to explain who you are, what you do, where you shine, and, most important of all, the promises you always keep.

What are the three things you do best?

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Note: one of the three things I do NOT do best (or at all) is figuring out how/whether to migrate my Feedblitz RSS feed to Feedburner, and simultaneously deciding if it’s high time to migrate this blog from WordPress.com to WordPress.org. If you (or someone you know) does either of these things best, could you email me to let me know? I could use some unbiased advice, especially since FeedBlitz has taken down its migration guide.

 

Break the Internet

A few weekends ago, before the Westchester County elections, everywhere I looked I saw lawns dotted with George Latimer signs.

Latimer is a Democrat in an overwhelmingly Democratic county in an overwhelmingly Democratic state. Yet he had an uphill battle against multi-term incumbent Republican Rob Astorino. This is proof that in local politics, candidates aren’t fighting on the issues, they are fighting everyone’s natural tendency to stay home.

And all I could think was: since turnout is the problem, why do those signs say “Latimer for Congress” and not “Vote Latimer for Congress on November 7th and here is where you vote if you’re seeing this sign.” (Nevertheless, Latimer won).

It’s the same thing with Net Neutrality. We have this vague sense that it is a good thing, but the people who care more about it than we do are winning, mostly because we are willing to stay home on the issue.

Let’s not make that mistake.

The issue is simple: today, all content on the Internet has to be treated in the same way, meaning that folks like Verizon, Comcast, etc. can’t prioritize what you see or how fast download speeds are for different content. If Net Neutrality goes away–which is likely unless there’s a massive public outcry today and tomorrow–these companies will have much more control and power. They will be able to charge more for access to content, and one of the fundamental tenets of the Internet will have been broken.

Today there’s a massive campaign to “Break the Internet” which is a call to action for everyone to contact their local congressperson before the December 14th vote (this THURSDAY).

So here’s the deal:

  1. Click on the image below
  2. Fill in the form
  3. Or, if you don’t want to click anywhere, call the U.S. Capitol switchboard, tell them where you’re calling from and that you want to talk to your representative about Net Neutrality, and you in touch with your representative. Call 202-224-3121. And tell them you support Net Neutrality.

This video explains Net Neutrality nicely. Or, for a more out-there version, check this out. But don’t click first, call first: 202-224-3121.

 

Walking a Mile…

Easy to say that we sometimes walk a mile in others’ shoes.

But if we are honest with ourselves, we rarely take on that full mile, it’s often just a short leg.

And, even though we mostly just dip in, do we ever find ourselves saying, “Ah yes, things from this perspective look exactly as I expected them to.”

It’s OK, we cannot help but be protagonists for what and how we see things and for our own lived experience.

But we can notice how, time and again, it is only one perspective.

We can notice how it is nearly impossible to overdo understanding other points of view.

And we can remember that the only tickets that consistently get us from here to there are listening with deep curiosity, and having strong opinions that we hold loosely.

What Terry Laughlin Taught me about Swimming and Mastery

A month ago, at the age of 66, Terry Laughlin died of prostate cancer. I’ve never met Terry, but I feel like I know him through his books and videos. Terry is the founder of Total Immersion swimming, the revolutionary approach to swimming that can turn anyone (even me), into a relaxed, successful swimmer.

Terry Laughlin demonstrating freestyle in 2013. Photo by Robert Fagan
Swimming is a funny thing: on a planet covered by water, more than 37 percent of adults cannot swim the length of a 25 yard pool. I was nearly part of those numbers. Though I’m a lifelong athlete, from the age of 6 swim lessons terrified me, and as recently as three years ago, while I could swim 25 yards of freestyle, I’d grab at the end of the pool, panting, looking incredulously around me at the people of all ages, shapes and sizes swimming lap after lap without needing a breather.

In 2015 an arm injury finally got me back into the pool. Over the course of a year, I willed my way to swimming a mile. But there was always a sense of lurking panic, always a survival instinct kept at bay that could kick in at any moment—never mind that air is literally an inch away and all I need to do is turn my head to breathe.

I finally decided that muscling my way through the water wasn’t my goal, and, urged on by a friend who can swim across the Long Island Sound, I bought some of Terry’s books and videos.

The funny thing about these books and videos is that they don’t start with swimming. They start with floating.

Terry’s entire philosophy is based on the notion that all of swimming is taught the wrong way. In Terry’s view, we spend most of our energy in the water trying not to drown, which is why we get so tired and why we move forward so little. If we could learn to float and balance, we could swim effectively, efficiently, and with joy. As Terry famously states, “it’s not the size of the motor [how hard you stroke and kick] that matters, it’s the shape of the vessel.”

That may be, but “vessel shaping,” Terry Laughlin-style, can feel like a pretty silly activity.

Having read much of Terry’s Ultra Efficient Freestyle book, I eventually find myself in my local pool trying out Lessons One and Two from the book. They are titled “Torpedo” and “Superman,” and both involve pushing off the bottom of the pool and just floating with arms at your side (Torpedo) and extended (Superman). Over and over again.

Imagine, if you will, those same swimmers speeding past me, cranking lap after lap, and I’m just trying to float the right way. Funny, right?

But eventually I learn how to float face down and not sink.

And then I learn how to float on my back and not sink.

And then I learn to float on my side and not sink, and to extend one arm and not sink.

And then I learn to float on my side, with one arm extended, and face my head down and kick. And then I’m supposed to effortlessly rotate up to breathe. 

But I can’t. 

Whenever I try, I start to struggle, and then strain, and then panic. After a few tries, and lots of water up my nose, I stop. A few weeks after that, I skip to the next lesson and tell myself that this step probably wasn’t all that important after all. I work my way to the end of the book. I’m a bit of a better swimmer. But in my heart I know that I skipped the most important parts.

When Terry passed away, I had a sense of loss, and, in honor of him, I went all the way back to the beginning of the book to start again. A year later after I’d given up, I find myself back at lesson two, trying to learn to breathe on my side without panicking.

And it still doesn’t come easily to me. But I’m keeping at it. And this time, with a bit more perspective and appreciation, I’m also using it as a chance to learn about how I learn: to observe how committed I really am; and to notice the gap between the narrative I tell myself about what I’d like to learn (the videos I’m happy to watch, the book I’m happy to read) and how many hours I’m willing to spend in the pool—when I have lots of other priorities and lots of other ways to exercise that come more easily.

Most of all, it’s a chance to watch my own narrative of failure, because mostly I feel like I’m failing. Each time I fail, after blowing up water out of my nose and cursing a bit, I ask myself: do I really, truly, believe that I will fail at this forever? Is it possible that if I put in time and concerted effort, that I am the one person in the world who simply cannot accomplish this?

Yes, it’s possible. But it’s unlikely. And since  each next “thing” that Terry has me do is such a tiny increment on the last thing, failing this time means I never really mastered the last step, or I’m not willing to master the next one.

The frustrating, amazing thing is, it’s never Terry’s fault, and it’s never a lesson that doesn’t work. It’s really about what I’m willing to do: the time I am willing to put in, how deliberately I am willing to practice, how well I deal with the plateaus.

And while part of this endeavor is about my interest in learning how to swim, beyond that, I am interested in what Terry has to teach me, and teach all of us, about mastery. Because what Terry has done is to take his passion for swimming and create a program for self-taught mastery that literally anyone can accomplish. Each step is so clear, so well thought through, and broken into such small pieces that each can be digested and practiced if you have the will and the persistence and the capacity for reflection and self-observation. 

And what Terry’s done with swimming could be applied to just about anything. It’s a question of our willingness to take the time to deconstruct something, to deeply understand its component parts, and to commit ourselves to the often repetitive, focused, intentional work of rewiring our nervous system or our limbic system or our musculoskeletal system or our habitual thoughts and feelings, until they, slowly but surely, change.

This is how we can learn anything, without all the false stories about our own limits and the talent we do and don’t have.

If you want to get a taste of Terry’s joy, insight, and wisdom, I’d encourage you to listen to this podcast he recorded with Tim Ferris less than two weeks before he passed away. I found it deeply moving.

In the meantime, I’ll keep going to the pool, less than I’d like to think I would, but more than not at all. I believe that one day I will become an effortless swimmer, and I commit that until then, I will keep walking the path.

Here’s to you, Terry.

The Story-Reality Gap

Not long after a recent conference, I was comparing notes with an early-stage social entrepreneur about pitching to potential investors. The pitches at the conference had been heavy on dreams, lighter on reality, and we got to talking about how big the gap should be between the stories we tell on stage and what’s happening on the ground. 

Specifically, in service of telling our stories, when do we push the truth so far as to reach a breaking point?

Like all good questions, the answer to this one begins with recognizing the limits of black and white thinking: there aren’t just two types of stories, one full of puffery and half-truths and the other a grim, warts-and-all picture of reality so sober and honest that no one would ever dream of funding us.

Indeed, the real truth is this: we owe it to our ideas to tell stories big enough that there’s space for others in them.

Our job is to describe a future reality that will only come into being if the listener rolls up her sleeves with us to help make it happen. This reality can be a few steps, maybe many steps, removed from today, because the question the sophisticated listener is asking isn’t “is this exactly what they’re doing today?” it is, “do I believe that this person with this team, together with my help and support, can get us from here to there?”

With this as a given, we all have our own sweet spot for how we tell stories in ways that mesh with our personalities and worldview.  I’ve been persuaded both by big-picture dreamers and cranky cynics, the former because they help me see something that feels impossible but just-in-reach, the latter because if, with all their negativity, they tell me that they can make something important happen, I’m inclined to believe them.

My own version of selling builds off how I’m wired—I deeply value transparency and authenticity, and as a listener I want to understand where gaps lie and that an entrepreneur is thinking two steps ahead. So I pitch in this same way, always trying to walk the line of painting a big vision and acknowledging what doesn’t exist yet, the potential pitfalls, an how I’m going to address them. This is the balance that works for me, the space between a story I cannot tell authentically (because it feels un-grounded) and one that is thinking and playing too small.

Of course your sweet spot will be somewhere slightly different, a comfort zone with a natural set point on the spectrum between dazzle/charisma/vision and grounded, sober reality.

The non-negotiable bit is that, regardless of which style is most comfortable to you, it’s everyone’s job to share an evocative vision of an as-yet-unrealized future and help others see it.

Storytelling is just that…story-telling, and the stories you want to tell are stories about the future.

Why Ta-Nehesi Coates Won’t Call His Father “Billy”

A video of Ta-Nahesi Coats has been spreading like crazy online. In it, Coates responds to a question from a white woman in the audience who asks whether white people should be able to sing along to rap lyrics that contain the N-word.

For once, the Internet has it right. Coates’ answer is a masterful example of how to use narrative to address a difficult topic and to help others understand an uncomfortable truth. At a time when, as a society, we are caught in echo chambers and building up thicker walls that separate us, and when the preferred mode of response seems to be anger, vitriol and accusation, our opportunity as change-makers is to learn from Coates to become more skillful in talking in ways that others can hear.

What I notice about Coates’ response begins at the energetic level: one can imagine him feeling frustration, or exhaustion, or even anger, at hearing this question (again) from a well-intentioned white woman, but no negative feeling comes out. His demeanor conveys thoughtfulness and reflection, and, rather than put the audience on the defensive, he draws them in with accessible, sometimes humorous stories.

And not just any stories: he is making a deliberate point that “words don’t have meaning without context,” that this context is one of relationship, and that one’s right to use a particular word with another person starts with one’s relationship to that person.

Of course, he doesn’t say it that way. Instead, he starts by talking about his wife calling him “honey” and how it would be unacceptable for another woman to call him that if they were walking down the street. The audience laughs.

He goes on to describe how, when he was young and he would go see his family in Philadelphia, his family members would call his father, William Paul Coates, “Billy.” But “no one in Baltimore calls my Dad Billy, and..

…if I had referred to my Dad as Billy that probably would have been a problem. That’s because the relationship between myself and my Dad is not the same as the relationship between my Dad and his mother and his sisters who he grew up with. We understand that.

Indeed we do. It’s easy enough, and safe enough, to understand that there are certain ways we can and cannot address our parents. With this straightforward example, Coates invites us to step in at the shallow end of the pool.

Then he ups the ante a bit, both in terms of tension and humor, by saying, in furthering the point:

My wife, with her girlfriends, will use the word ‘bitch.’ (Pause) I do not join in! I don’t do that. And more importantly, I don’t have a desire to do that. You understand?

Indeed. With the story as foundation, and with the disarming humor of Coates saying that calling his wife “bitch” would not go well for him, we start to see the broader point.

With these two stories—told with all the humor and narrative and seduction of stories—Coates helps the listener experience that language and its usage sits within the context of relationship; that, if you do not have a certain kind of relationship with a person or a group, then it is not OK for you to use that groups’ language; and that it is normal for groups to appropriate potentially offensive language and use it in an ironic way. He has shared all these points in ways that are both approachable and repeatable, so that those who are ultimately persuaded by his argument are armed to persuade the next person with these same, simple stories.

With all of this scaffolding masterfully put into place, Coates then gets to the heart of the issue, and says, in no uncertain terms, that white people are not in relation to black people in a way that allows them to use the N-word. And he goes a step further to say, essentially (my paraphrase): and I think this is an instructive thing for white people to experience, because American society has taught white people that they can, essentially, say and do anything, and that it is the job of those around them to shift to accommodate that sense of entitlement and privilege. And, experiencing a time when you cannot, as a white person, use a particular word, is a great chance to feel what the everyday reality of everyone else feels like in this country.

No punches pulled here, but if you’re going to disagree with this hard-hitting truth, then you have to find your way to explain why Coates should be able to call his father Billy and his wife “bitch,” and that’s a heck of a hard argument to have make in any sort of objective way.

I hope you enjoy and share the video, and that you find space to work this sort of narrative dexterity into your own practice. To change minds, we need to meet people where they are, we need to ensure that they feel heard and respected, and we need arm them with the tools to see a different set of first principles in a way that doesn’t cause shame or separation. This is the opposite of creating a win/lose setup where to acknowledge my point of view, you need to discard your views and values, and essentially admit your own stupidity.

Much easier to accept is: “thank you. I’d never thought of it that way.”

Enjoy the video.