What Wins Me Over

Your enthusiasm is infectious.

Not your smarts.

Not your plan.

Not how prepared you are.

Not the product or the problem it might solve for me.

When I see how much you care, how excited you are, I can’t help but feel the same thing.

That’s what matters most.

We Work to Avoid the Work

We stumble across this all the time, when we sheepishly discover that a task we’d been putting off for days or weeks takes us just 5 or 10 minutes to complete.

“That wasn’t a big deal at all.”

Think of the mental calisthenics we regularly engage in to put off certain tasks: we schedule reminders, create lists, tell others that we are definitely going to get it done…next Thursday. This time and effort can end up dwarfing the task itself.

We tell ourselves that what’s going on is scarcity of time. Lacking time right now, it’s only logical that we spend a little time today to neatly place this task sometime in the future. But that’s just a smokescreen.

What’s really going on is a choice to spent time and effort today to gain emotional comfort today: “I’m willing do some work now in order to postpone something that I believe will be emotionally challenging now.”

Take some time to observe which sorts of tasks you put off and why: writing the first paragraph on a proverbial blank sheet of paper; reaching out to a new person; calling someone you’ve been thinking about a lot lately; having a difficult conversation about something that just happened; beginning a tough workout or a meditation.

At the heart of our perpetual procrastination is our over-estimation of the emotional labor a task will require and our willingness to create new work that enables us to  avoid shifting gears from a state that is busy with low emotional effort (read: comfortable) to one that requires greater emotional effort.

The ultimate irony is that most of the things we’re putting off aren’t all that bad, and time and again, if we just start, we find ourselves wondering what we were so worried about in the first place.

The only antidote is the practice of regularly doing uncomfortable-feeling things, and choosing to observe the repetitive cycle of: self-dialogue—resistance—starting—doing—relief. Through repetition we learn that our dramatic self-dialogue both serves no purpose and contains no meaningful information about the task that lies ahead.

Most important, what we find time and again is that our fear evaporates the instant we start doing the work: the act of crossing the threshold from anticipation to action causes fear’s  grip to loosen until, in the blink of an eye, we are free.

 

 

The Zoom bcc

Remember how email introductions used to work?

You would introduce two people by email, and then find yourself on a 20-message back-and-forth as they worked to schedule their meeting. Then we all collectively learned how to do this: you have introduced Janet to Kareem, and Janet replies, “Thanks so much for the introduction Sasha. Moving you to bcc:”

Janet and Kareem can then get on with their (hopefully useful to both of them) conversation.

Two things are going on here:

  1. There is standard, expected language for how to handle this sort of introduction.
  2. It is culturally acceptable to bcc: someone in this situation, a shift from “is it rude to drop this person from the thread?” to “it would be rude to include this person on all the follow-up emails.”

While Zoom has been a lifesaver during this pandemic, we’re still in the early days of learning how to navigate it: sound, connectivity, breakout groups, who speaks when and how, backgrounds, etc…

Our Zoom cultural norms are in their infancy.

I propose we create the Zoom bcc.

It’s for situations in which it’s clear that a meeting has too many people. Two or three people are having the entire conversation, and everyone else is just listening in.

Right now, no one knows how to handle this.

The people listening in end up choosing between:

  1. Staying focused and really listening (rare); or
  2. Doing some other simultaneous activity while pretending to be present in the meeting.

These are both bad options. Most people struggle to stay focused in an hour-long Zoom meeting if they don’t need to be there. They end up multi-tasking, an ineffective use of their time and a distraction to everyone else.

Instead, it could become culturally acceptable to drop a short note into the chat that reads,

“Glad you guys are having a great conversation. I’m looking forward to hearing the update, and I’m going to drop off now.”

The people who need to talk get to talk, the people who are less active have a choice about how to manage the situation: stay, and be fully present; or leave in a way that is understood to be both appropriate and professional.

Everybody wins.

The Paradox of Discipline, and Four Questions to Ask Ourselves

The more I listen to interviews with great creators, the more they echo the same themes. It goes something like this:

The act of creation is exceptionally hard and painful.

Writing, in particular, is torture.

It’s great to have talent, but without a disciplined process for creation, talent means nothing.

We human beings do everything we can to avoid the hard work of creating our art. To counteract this, we must create rituals and structures that make it impossible for us to hide: time every day in which the only thing we can do is produce. (For example, per Neil Gaiman, “I would go down to my lovely little gazebo at the bottom of the garden, sit down, and I’m absolutely allowed not to do anything. I’m allowed to sit at my desk, I’m allowed to stare out at the world, I’m allowed to do anything I like, as long as it isn’t anything. Not allowed to do a crossword, not allowed to read a book, not allowed to phone a friend, not allowed to make a clay model of something. All I’m allowed to do is absolutely nothing, or write.”)

We must be forgiving with ourselves when we are creating, and brutally tough on ourselves when we are editing and refining.

This isn’t going to be fun. But if we are to do our best work, if we are to give our gifts to the world, we have to be willing to grind out the effort each and every day, no matter how hard it feels and how little we feel like doing it on that particular day.

Now, I believe that these insights apply to everyone, not just to “creative” types. No one said that doing excellent, meaningful work was going to be easy, and I expect that writers and artists are just living the fully-distilled version of creating work that matters.

If these insights are to apply to all of us—and I believe they do—then we have four questions we need to answer honestly:

  1. Am I willing to care, at a personal level, about my work?
  2. Am I willing to take personal, emotional risk to put my best into my work?
  3. Will engaging in this kind of sustained, daily effort help me grow?
  4. Am I going to decide to learn how to put in sustained effort over time?

This framing feels fundamentally different from conversations about “work-life balance” and the perennial elevator small talk of “just three days until the weekend.”

In one view, work is something to be endured and minimized so we can refresh in our free time, and work being hard is an indication of something being wrong.

In another view, work being hard is the necessary precondition for it being meaningful, because there is nothing worth producing that doesn’t require risk and struggle.

While this doesn’t mean that all work we find hard is rewarding, it means that we cannot use “hard” as a barometer for something being wrong at work.

Somewhere, somehow, each of us has to find our own version of discipline.

For example, I don’t have access to Neil Gaiman’s gazebo, nor do I write fantastical fiction or comics. But both Neil and I need time alone, time to think, time with the proverbial blank page; time when we’re looking straight at a problem we don’t know the answer to; time when our job is to sit there until we produce one thing that is one small step in the right direction.

Discipline is often not fun. It is, at a minimum, the act of sitting with discomfort and delaying gratification because we know that this is what it feels like when we do real work.

Of course, most of us have not figured out what our art is, we don’t know what we are uniquely suited to do in the world.

That’s OK. We don’t need the full answer today. We need, instead, to decide to start doing meaningful, personal work as soon as possible.

And how do we start? Not with musing, reflection or pretending that if we wait long enough inspiration will touch us. That’s a great way of hiding.

Instead, we start with building a practice of creative discipline into our days, weeks and lives: we put ourselves in situations every day where we ask ourselves to make one small thing that we are proud of, one small thing that is over and above the exact thing we were asked to do.

With this mindset, our work becomes something we can take personally, and each thing we ship can be different and better for what we’ve put into it.

From the moment we decide to take our work personally, we start to show up like professionals, and, bit by bit, we watch the yield that comes from refusing to be swayed too quickly by the thoughts that all of us have: this is too hard; this might not be good enough; if I care a little less, then I won’t be hurt if I come up short.

Caring less and risking less are great ways to stay safe in the short term, and even better ways to ensure that we stay where we are in the long term.

Whereas if we shift our attitude towards our work and learn how to build discipline into our days, we set ourselves down the harder but much more rewarding path of sharing what only we have to offer through our work.

Two Extra Hours

When this pandemic is over, I will start commuting back in to work.

My commute is a 10-minute walk to the train, a 40 minute train ride, and another 10 minute walk to the office. That adds up to one hour each way, twice a day, five days a week.

The question is: where will I find that time?

Right now, my days feel full.  It doesn’t seem like there are extra minutes, let alone hours, waiting to be claimed.

And yet, two full hours a day, 10 hours a week, are apparently there for the taking, from one day to the next.

Which means that if I have something really important to accomplish, today, I apparently have 10 available hours per week that I could find if I really wanted to.

The point is: the barrier between what we are doing now and what we’d like to accomplish in the future is not a lack of available time.

The barrier is the myth of scarcity.

The barrier is our need to hang on to other seemingly essential tasks.

The barrier is our unwillingness to say that this thing is something I’m going to do, no matter what.

No fuss, no drama.

Like riding a train each day, just start doing that new thing, today.

The Measure of a Successful Day

What’s the measure of a successful day?

As we approach the one-year mark of this pandemic, we’ve all settled into our new routine. No matter how stable that routine is, most of us have come to the conclusion that we can’t measure productivity by the same yardstick as before.

Of course, it all depends on your personal situation. But I suspect that for many, our time, schedules, outside obligations and  overall sense of “I got this-ness” continue to vacillate day to day and week to week in this crazy life we’re living.

I realized a few months back that I need a new measure for my days. Not output, not hours worked, not even the metrics I’m shooting for in my annual goals.

Those are important, to be sure. But more important is, each and every day, to do (at least) one brave thing.

Brave is:

Writing something

Creating something

Supporting someone

Listening deeply

Accepting something new you’ve learned about yourself.

Letting go of an assumption, or a prejudice

Taking a risk

Pushing your limits

Not running away from discomfort.

 

One brave thing, each and every day.

No matter the pulls on our time, our attention, our attitude, our mindset, we always have the space for that. And acts of bravery have a way of adding up.

Writing Great Annual Goals

It’s the time of year when lots of folks are writing their annual goals. It can feel daunting. Too often this becomes an exercise in list-writing, task after task that we know we must get through.

Somehow, in the process of listing out everything we lose something: the meaning behind it all, the “so what.”

If I boil this exercise down to its essence, my thought experiment is: imagine it is December 31, 2021 and I’m looking back at the year. How will I (and, if these goals are for work, my boss) know how I did?

Here’s how you can bring clarity to the answer to this question.

Take a step back and write two short paragraphs.

  • Paragraph 1: if I’ve done this by the end of the year it will be a good year
  • Paragraph 2: if I’ve done this it will be a great year

Write in simple prose and focus on the stuff that really matters. Not each individual task, but where you will be and how it will feel. Most important, write paragraphs that are specific and clear enough that you, and the colleagues that will be looking at this with you in a year’s time, will be able to judge clearly how you did.

For example, when I think about 2021 for 60 Decibels, we obviously have goals around growth, revenues, profitability and impact. But those numbers alone aren’t my goals for the year. Rather, I’ve written down where I want us to be as a business and as a team, what questions we will have answered for ourselves and in the market, and the strategic milestones we will have hit that set us up for the next success.

What I write down doesn’t feel like a list of accomplishments, it’s more like a description of a location on a map: at this new (future) vantage point, thinks look and feel like this, they smell like this. Here’s who I am, and who we are, thanks to the miles we’ve walked. Here’s what we can now see thanks to how high we’ve climbed.

When I capture my goals for the year in these terms, everything feels more tangible, more visceral, and more motivating. Better yet, it’s easier for our team to understand where we’re headed and why, so we can all get behind that vision.

If it’s a good year, this is where we’ll be.

And if it’s a great year, this is where we’ll be.

Here’s to a great 2021.

Seen, Heard, and Lost

A few weeks ago, on a Friday afternoon, a colleague of mine sent around a great TEDx talk, Shawn Achor’s The Happy Secret to Better Work, which has been viewed more than 23 million times.

I took 12 minutes out of a busy day to watch it. I enjoyed it, and connected to our team’s conversation about it. One takeaway that rose to the top was that to increase our positivity and happiness, we should engage in one random act of kindness each day. What’s not to like?

The following Monday, I came across that same thread in Slack.

I wanted to jump back into the conversation, but I immediately discovered that, outside of the “let’s do more random act of kindness” takeaway, I remembered virtually nothing about the talk.

I watched the talk again, this time taking some simple notes. Here they are.

  • The talk is about positive psychology
  • When we focus averages–in education, in economics, in life–we fail to design and plan for the extra-ordinary. This is a mistake.
  • Our happiness is not objectively determined. If Shawn could look only at your externally-observable world (job, income, family life) he could only determine 10% of your happiness.
  • IQ does not determine job success. 75% of job success is determined by optimism levels, social support, and seeing stress as a challenge not a threat.
  • We need to reverse our mental model of happiness and success.
  • The wrong model is: Work leads to Success which leads to Happiness.
    • The problem with this model is that whenever we succeed, we move the goal posts (expect a higher level of performance), so we never get to Happiness, which we’ve put out on the horizon past Success.
  • Instead, our job is to raise our own positivity in the present.
  • Five things we can do to raise our positivity are:
  1. Practice being grateful for three things a day for 21 days;
  2. Journal about one positive experience per day;
  3. Exercise;
  4. Meditate;
  5. Engage in random acts of kindness by praising on person in our social support network each day.

Now, you should absolutely watch the talk. It’s a thousand times better than my notes, full of wonderful humor, sibling rivalries, and an actual unicorn story.

But if you’re like me, the talk, and this blog post, no matter how much you enjoy it, will slip through your fingers if you don’t take active steps to process it. I, for one, remembered less than 5% of the content.

Processing, for me, comes in three forms, each stronger than the last. I can:

  1. Document what I’m reading / listening to – by taking notes or writing a blog post.
  2. Retell the story verbally – sharing the content with others strengthens my recall, and it allows me to discover (and then fill in) gaps in my knowledge.
  3. Practice the new behavior.

When I fail to take these steps, ideas skim the surface of my consciousness and leave as quickly as they entered. When that happens, they are nothing more than entertainment.

Whereas when I shift from a passive consumer of content to an active processor of it, new ideas can stay in my brain and, over time, become part of my life.

More Than the Broken Parts

Since the start of COVID-19, I’ve been staying physically active but have been plagued by a series of small, nagging injuries.

At any moment, I have one or two parts of my body that hurt a lot, some combination of chronic knee pain from an old injury and new problems in my abdomen, forearm and, most recently, my heel.

None of these is serious, but all of them are quite painful, the plantar fasciitis topping the list of high-pain/low-severity injuries.

On the worst days, it hurts to stand up from a chair, to get down towards the floor to grab a shoe, to reach for a shot on the squash court or to start a slow jog. The pain is sharp enough that it makes me tentative. It is distracting enough that some days it’s hard to concentrate.

On the worst days, the pain is bad enough that it’s all I can see about my body—I get caught in a cycle of negative forever thinking. The hurt parts of my body so dominate my thoughts that when I look in the mirror I’m surprised: my physical reflection looks fine, healthy even, not like a series of broken ligaments and tendons that keep me from moving, from bending, from being carefree.

The mirror has it right this time. I am not just the parts of me that aren’t working. I’m the person who is active every day, chasing after squash balls and walking in the cold with my dogs and kids. Sure, a few things hurt sometimes, but mostly my body is doing a tremendous job of adapting, recovering and healing, even if it doesn’t do so as quickly as I would like.

So often, we discover a new flaw or limitation in ourselves and it paralyzes us. The “wrong” becomes our whole identity, our mind transforming it into all that we see when we see ourselves.

It is not all of us, it is just a small part of us. And it is not all bad.

It is there to teach us.

It is there so we can grow.

It is there to remind us that “now” is not “always.”

And most of all, it is neither our whole identity nor is it something that we are meant to endure until we can push it away.

It is something that we must, over time, integrate and incorporate into our understanding of self, making sense of and accepting this new part of who we are.

Then, in time, it can change and heal, and we can change and heal.

The Confidence to Cut

Jerry Seinfeld described the two personas we need to inhabit to be good writers.

The key to writing, to being a good writer, is to treat yourself like a baby, [to be] nurturing and loving, and then switch over to Lou Gossett in Officer and a Gentleman. and just be a harsh [expletive], a ball-busting son of a…When you’re writing, you want to treat your brain like a toddler. It’s just all nurturing and loving and supportiveness. And then when you look at it the next day, you want to be just a hard-ass. And you switch back and forth.

I love it: a gentle nurturer, treating my brain like a toddler, and then a hard-assed drill sergeant who is relentlessly reviewing, looking critically and, most important, cutting.

Most of the time, our writing has too many words. These extra words are a place to hide, an excuse for 80%-there thinking that’s directionally correct but still fuzzy.

The false safety of extra words and high-falutin language is how we avoid laying our ideas bare.

When we cut, our ideas stand naked and exposed to the world. They can be seen clearly, unadorned. The unadorned is bare, but it is also beautiful.

It’s an act of courage to cut away all the unnecessary bits, to stop burying our best thinking in extra blather.

We cut, we cut, we add a bit, and then we cut some more.

On and on until one of two things happens: either we learn that this idea isn’t good enough, or we discover the distilled essence of what we want to say.

Cutting is an act of confidence and bravery. When in doubt, cut.