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.

AdAge is Wrong About The Lincoln Project

According to AdAge, the Lincoln Project, the anti-Trump PAC that ran ad after of scathing ad throughout 2020, was one of the best marketers of the year. In their words, “The conservative anti-Trump PAC made some of the most compelling and influential ads of the year.”

The purpose of the Lincoln Project was to get Republicans to defect from Trump. Disaffected Republicans created The Lincoln Project because they felt that Trump was destroying the country and the Republican Party. Their YouTube page has more than 350 videos, many viewed well over a million times, and they are some of the highest-quality political ads you’ll ever see.

The problem is, they weren’t influential.

In fact, 93% of registered Republicans voted for Trump in 2020, compared to 90% in 2016. Worse, according to a study by the Democratic super-PAC Priorities USA, the most popular ads had the least impact on voters in swing states,

The lesson is essential: we must always remember what marketing is.

Marketing is the act of persuading someone to take an action.

We consistently confuse who the “someone” is: it is not us, it is someone else.

The Lincoln Project convinced me of a lot of things; it also convinced Trump-haters of a lot of things. But I and they weren’t supposed to take a different action because of these ads.

As marketers, we struggle so much to create great content that, when we do, we’re quick to tell ourselves that we’ve done great work. And, we very well may have.

But our job as marketers isn’t to create great content. Our job is to persuade someone specific to take a particular action.

If you haven’t figured out who you’re trying to persuade, and if you haven’t figured out if they took the action, you’re not marketing. You’re just creating stuff and putting it out into the world.

Strategy and Conviction

Strategy is fundamentally about choices.

When we write down our (company, personal) strategy for the coming year, we are articulating the things we will prioritize differently, the things we will put more time and resources behind because we believe that doing so will lead to better results.

This means that all good strategy is about change. We implement our strategy by shifting from what we used to do—which was comfortable—to what we are going to do now—which is new, and therefore harder.

The bridge from here to there is conviction.

Conviction that the new path is right.

Conviction that we must give up some of the things that got us, even if that’s hard in the short term.

Conviction that even if we don’t see the yield of our new strategy immediately, we will give it time to play out before reverting to our old ways of doing things.

Conviction, of course, is itself a decision.

It’s a choice in the face of unknowns and uncertainties.

It’s a recognition that through the acts of believing and follow-through we shape reality, transforming something that could be into something that is.

Strategy without conviction is just words on a page.

 

Snow Days

For parents and kids, the first big snow day of the year has frustration before joy.

We dig through boxes in the basement, trying to figure out where the snowpants are, if there’s any long underwear that fits, if every kid has a pair of snow boots they can still put on, whether we still own a sled. An hour can easily pass, with hot, half-dressed kids itching to go out as someone searches for that last, waterproof glove.

This is the well-known fact of startup costs in the form of hidden basement boxes and kids itching to build a snowman.

We know, intellectually, that these same kids of startup costs haunt us every day in the real world, and yet…

…we see a fabulous video by a competitor and shoot off a note to marketing that says “we need to make a great video that gets a million views.”

…we write one big annual report, while under-investing in content production the rest of the year, and wonder why it’s so hard to get it out the door.

…we get to the end of the year and turn to someone smart and say “what have we learned this year, and why isn’t it captured well?”

…we gloss over the tough bits of a work relationship – a behavior that’s hurting other employees, an issue with under-performance that hasn’t been addressed – and when we finally bring it up, the ensuing conversation is explosive.

The reason our intermittent behaviors are so much less effective is because of the weight of startup costs: we crank the gears of a rusty machine and hear the groans and creaks of under-use. While we occasionally create something magical when we try for the first time in a long time, more often than not the process of doing so is painful and the results are less than we’d imagined.

If we want to be great writers, we must write often.

If we want to have great teams, we must show up every day in ways that strengthen trust and communication.

If our goal is innovation, we must create psychological safety and a system for getting the best ideas out of everyone, and a process for turning great ideas into fabulous products.

If want to create a learning organization, we must, daily, find small ways to question and to capture, consistently articulating our hypotheses and results.

A family that lives in a ski town can get out of the house on a powder morning in 15 minutes, while the eager tourists miss the whole morning just trying to get their ski boots on.

For everyone out there

Who still is finding something to say.

A kind word for a colleague, a friend, or for themselves.

For everyone who still manages to find little, fun ways to support someone else.

Maybe just a little something: a virtual smile or a hug.

Making a plan to meet from across the street.

Quietly dropping off a bit of homemade food.

Or remembering to say thank you.

For everyone finding the energy, at the end of a long day, to help a kid with their homework, or to be present for playtime or bathtime or a bedtime story.

For everyone showing up at work every day despite the risks, even though it’s not appreciated as much as it should be.

And for everyone out there who is keeping on keeping on through these hard, hard times.

I tip my hat to you.

How to Make a Big Pot

I was chatting with my son, who is a potter, about what it takes to make really big pieces on the wheel.

Last year, he’d often come back from class to report that the piece he had thrown had collapsed. Week after week he’ spend two hours at the wheel and have nothing to show for it.

That’s not happening to him this year and I asked him why: is he being less ambitious with his projects or has he just gotten better?

He said the answer was pretty simple: speed.

Last year he would try to get a piece from tall to tall-and-wide really quickly – in two or three minutes. A new teacher this year explained that the process needs to take closer to 30 minutes. The simple fact is, the clay cannot transform and stretch that fast.

We often ask ourselves whether we are able to change as if it’s a binary thing. More often still, we notice our pace of change and feel it’s not fast enough.

Of course, change is possible, we just need to recognize how slowly or quickly we can stretch and transform.

Old habits, old mindsets, old attitudes, old limitations. They’ve made themselves part of our psyche and part of our personal story. We took years, maybe even decades to build them up. Should we expect that they’ll just fade away after a few minutes, weeks, or even months?

Our biggest barrier to change isn’t ability, it is attitude: the willingness to stick with things long enough to have  our efforts bear fruit.

Don’t let your results after a few days, weeks or even months dictate what you can accomplish. Your change, your stretch, your transformation – they’re all happening.

The trick is to understand, and to embrace, the pace of what is possible

 

Who Made Dinner?

Dads are often cast in the role of King of the Grill, flames licking up around charred hunks of meat, “ooh’s” and “ah’s” erupting as they place their masterpiece on the table.

But that ten minutes of hot, sweaty glory pales in comparison to the time and effort that go in to…

…figuring out what to cook.

…going to the store.

…planning the meal.

…chopping up the ingredients.

…preparing the marinade 8 hours in advance.

…making the sides.

…setting the table.

…welcoming the guests in a way that makes them feel welcome and at home.

To be sure, there are some jobs that really are unique in the value they create: the ability to open or close a sale, to get the best out of team members, to make key strategic decisions in uncertain times.

But lots of the time we get distracted by the flourish at the end, communicating, both explicitly and implicitly, that a few small, visible steps are more valuable than the heavy lift that happened along the way to make it all possible.

2020 Election Aftermath

What a roller coaster of a week it has been.

Some weeks last a lifetime, and this was definitely one of them. I won’t soon forget the feeling I had at 8pm on Tuesday night, when I heard Wolf Blitzer on CNN say that the results in Miami-Dade (Florida’s biggest county) were worse for Biden than they were for Clinton. Thus began the gut-wrenching, slow-motion electoral roller coaster that dragged out until Saturday before we finally saw the outcome so many of us hoped, prayed and worked for.

Before I start my Twitter and news holiday—I need a detox in service of my capacity to focus on Other Things—I thought I’d capture some reflections.

To be sure, the results are a tremendous relief. We were, in my opinion, on the precipice of falling fully into an autocratic society and we voted (by a small margin in the states that really mattered) not to fall off that cliff.

That said, we all need to reckon with the fact that 70 million Americans voted for us to stay on the path we’re on. 70 million Americans are willing, in my view, to trade the best parts of our history, values and institutions for a narrow sense of self-interest and the worst kind of identity politics.

I expect the meaning of all of this will be up for grabs for a generation.

But while I felt, after the 2016 election, a sense of curiosity to better understand the experience of hardship, loss and anger from white, working-class America, I’m tapped out of interest. I find it much more plausible that, rather than economic despair, what we are seeing laid bare is the reality of our engrained, deeply-rooted, institutionalized racism, fear, selfishness and xenophobia. Worse, we are doomed to repeat these mistakes if we don’t find a way to face them head on.

For a sobering take on how America voted, check out these electoral maps made by Ste Kennedy-Fields.

To be clear, it’s not that I don’t think the anger, or the challenges, are real. We’ve gutted our economy of well-paying, dignified blue collar jobs; our educational system sputters along when there’s ample evidence of how to fix it; drug addiction is spiraling out of control.

But hardship and outrage need a protagonist—which they have—a story, and, apparently, someone to blame. And I can’t escape the notion that the 2020 blame game can only be understood in the context of a deeply pernicious American identity narrative, one built on oppression and marginalization, one in which separation and demonization are central elements of our national narrative. Surely we can do better.

For a much much better articulation of this sentiment, I’d encourage you to listen to the words of Princeton Professor Eddie Glaude, “It’s easy for us to place it all on Donald Trump’s shoulders… This is us. And if we’re going to get past this we can’t blame it on him. He’s a manifestation of the ugliness that’s in us.”

Here’s to the first step in turning the corner.

 

10 Tips for Giving and Receiving Effective Feedback

For many of us, just hearing the word “feedback” makes us brace for impact—the word alone is the first of two shoes dropping.

What a shame. Feedback is how we learn and grow. It is the distillation of what it feels like to  work together, the experiential data that, if delivered skillfully and with care, feeds into our own, and our colleagues’, growth and evolution.

Without feedback, the only thing we all have to go on is our own, hyper-filtered story about what others think of us. That story is missing most of the important details about how we are experienced by others.

Perhaps the issue is that we’re not particularly skilled at giving or receiving feedback since we do it so rarely. To help bridge that gap, here are some tips to get you out of the feedback starting blocks.

  1. Start with SBI. It stands for “Situation” “Behavior” and “Impact” and it is the foundation of all good feedback. This is the practice of phrasing feedback as, “When we were in [situation], you [behavior] and that had [impact] on me.” SBI is foundational because it bounds the feedback to a time, a place, and a specific set of actions and their impact on you. You aren’t giving someone feedback about them as a person, and you are not claiming that your experience with their behavior is universal. You are simply describing your own experience with that behavior in a way that it can safely be discussed. Plus, the SBI phrasing makes the conversation much more actionable because it is so specific.
  2. Keep it positive. “Feedback” is often a dirty word because we only share what’s not working. I remember once being told by a colleague that he wanted to stay on a call with me after a client dropped off, and naturally I got nervous. It turned out his “feedback” was something very positive. If we only give feedback – and only use the word “feedback” – when we have a criticism, it’s no wonder that the word can feel heavy and that hearts start racing when we hear it.
  3. Remember the 5:1 ratio. According to Harvard Business Review, in the best-performing teams, the ratio of positive to negative feedback is a whopping 5.6 to 1. And remember that positive feedback also is best using an SBI structure. Don’t say “Great work on those deliverables,” say “I was so excited when I read that deck you wrote, because the headlines really popped, and they brought the data to life for me.”
  4. Never say “always” or “never.” “Always” and “never” statements are, by definition, about a person and not about her behaviors. They’re both inaccurate (no one does anything “always”) and they are much more likely to be experienced as personal attacks. Don’t use those words.
  5. It’s OK to talk about your own feelings. This is an important detail under the “impact” column of the SBI framework, as long as you won’t get too emotional if you share your feelings. Sharing feelings can help make the experience of impact more real and vivid, and it can help calibrate how big an impact a specific behavior is having. “During the final days of our project, when we were all pushing towards the deadline, you being less responsive than normal to my emails made me feel worried that we weren’t going to hear back from you in time on the final deliverables. I found that being worried made it harder for me to focus at a crucial juncture in the project, and I also had to spend more time managing the team to help fill the information gap and calm their nerves.”
  6. Stay curious. Remember that, if you are the person giving feedback, you are only describing your own experiences. You are not speaking the Ultimate Truth. Find a balance between speaking and listening, so that you can remain open to different interpretations of what happened. Similarly, as the person hearing feedback, try to stay curious. Cultivate genuine interest in what you are hearing, and avoid the mental trap of an internal dialogue refuting every point being made (or, worse, defending yourself at every turn to explain away what you’re hearing). What you are hearing is someone else’s truth. If it is different from your truth, your job is not to be right, it is to understand why you and another person—someone you like and respect—have such different perceptions of the same events.
  7. Reiterate what you’ve heard in your own words. One of the best ways to ensure that the person giving feedback feels validated and heard is to articulate back what you’ve been told. “So, I understand that these three behaviors—behavior 1, 2 and 3—are often having this impact on you and the team. Is that right?”
  8. This is not the time for ‘the kitchen sink.’ If you’re new to giving feedback, or if you give it infrequently, it can be tempting, when you get the courage to share your experience, to share absolutely everything. I call this the “and here’s another thing” trap. The conversation you’re having today is not a one-time occurrence, it is the first in a series of dialogues that should get easier over time. Your goal is twofold: (1) To have a productive conversation about a specific set of behaviors, both positive and negative, that you want to discuss; (2) To have a conversation that is positive enough for both people that you both are more likely to have conversations like this in the future. If you overdo it and share everything that’s ever bugged you about that someone, you’re likely breaking the 5:1 ratio and, worse, you could make it harder to have a similar conversation in the future. That’s not a good outcome for you or for your colleague.
  9. Make a plan. The best feedback conversations result in ‘contracting’ between the people involved about what both will aim to do more and less of in the future. It might take some time for both people to develop this plan, and that’s OK. Come back together to discuss the boiled-down version of what both of you will do in the future, and agree to check in on progress in two months’ time (or whatever interval works for you). This drives accountability and signs you both up for a productive follow-up conversation.
  10. Express receptivity. if you are the person receiving feedback, and especially if you are senior to the person giving feedback, the onus is on you to make this experience positive and productive. Part of your job, in addition to listening intently and with curiosity, is to overcome the natural expectation that more-junior people don’t give constructive feedback to more-senior people. Recognize that the person sitting across from you feels like they are taking a risk, and do everything you can to mitigate that feeling. The way you behave during and after this conversation will either justify this fear or chip away at it.

A useful feedback conversation is a choice by two people to invest in their relationship, to truly listen to each other, and to work together to become better partners. It’s not easy, and while it is going on it can certainly feel hard or unpleasant. But no person and no organizational culture can possibly reach their full potential without giving and receiving effective feedback. Have at it!

Two Plus Two Plus Two Plus Two Plus Three Plus Two Plus Two

My running, for most of my life, has been intermittent. My typical run is 4 or 5 miles, a solid running week is two or three runs. That means that at most I’ve run 12 to 15 miles in a week, and most of the time I’m in the 0-to-10 mile a week range.

In fact, I’d guess that in the last 25 years, I’ve had fewer than 10 weeks in which I’ve run more than 15 miles.

Last week was one of those weeks. But the magic was that it didn’t feel like I’d run at all. That’s because last week, I turned my morning walk with our puppy into a relaxed jog: 2.3 miles every day, 3 miles on Saturday.

The math of 2+2+2+3+2+2+2 is, literally, elementary.

The fact that a 15-mile week has been sitting there, hidden in plain sight from me for decades, speaks to the elusive power of consistency.

Little, nearly unnoticeable things that we do every day are so much more profound than our big efforts.

We build deep strength not through the strain of pushing ourselves in the moment but through the discipline of daily commitment sustained over time.

To become a great public speaker, work on telling mini-stories throughout your day when talking to colleagues and customers.

To become more capable of speaking truth to power, say one (just one) more real thing to someone you trust each and every day.

To become a better listener, commit to asking three follow-up questions once each day instead of jumping to answers.

To become more generous, say ‘yes’ to every request for a month.

And, yes, to get rid of that nagging pain in your neck, or shoulder, or ankle, or knee, find a 10 minute stretching routine and a time each day to do it.

Since the magic is in the consistency, you might need hacks that help you keep your promises. Here are five ideas to get you going:

  1. Find a buddy who will help keep you accountable. A spouse, a colleague or a dog will suffice. You could even get an Accountability Dude (or, presumably, Dudette) in Slack, or a Supporti accountability partner.
  2. Find a way to make your commitment public to someone. Put up a 30-day challenge calendar somewhere public, write a blog post or email to 10 people letting them know your plan, make a pact with one person at work.
  3. Make a dedicated time in the day. There’s a reason people mediate first thing in the morning, and a reason I used to write this blog on my train ride home. A fixed time and place where you do the thing you’ve committed to do makes all the difference.
  4. Plan for the dip. Somewhere in the middle life will happen and you’ll feel like stopping. Know in advance that this is coming and decide now that you won’t let it stop you.
  5. Respect the power of “every day.” It’s not the same thing as “most days,” not at all. “Most” is vague, “every” is absolute. It doesn’t allow for any slippage, and that’s the point.

The math is easy. Living the commitment can be too. You just have to start, and build the structures that will help you keep at it.