Self reliance

Last September, my son’s first grade teacher proudly said during the parents’ orientation session that one of her main goals for the year was that children finish the year able consistently to follow instructions.

Hmmm.  Useful to be sure, but it left me feeling empty.

School is a funny thing.  It teaches us so many valuable lessons.   It gives a set of tools that, historically, has helped us to succeed.  Yet it also passes along a subtle, unstated, pernicious notion: someone else out there knows better than you do.  Your teacher.  The expert.  The guy who wrote the textbook.

We have a first grade class with kids brimming with curiosity, and we have a chance to decide what, and how, to teach them.  In our decision to teach them to follow the schedule and listen to the teacher, do we instill a quiet but powerful notion of self-doubt, a need to stay within the lines, a belief that someone else knows best?

They say youth is wasted on the young, and it may also be that the work of great authors is also wasted on the young as well.  Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self Reliance was required high school reading at a time when I was in no position to have an opinion on whether I was trusting myself too much, too little, or just right.

Now’s the time to reread it, and The Domino Project has it ready for you here (sorry, the 100 limited edition hardcover copies already sold out), replete with relevant new reflections from the likes of Jesse Dylan, Steve Pressfield, and Milton Glaser.

Now you may be asking yourself how relevant an essay written in 1841 will feel, but I promise this baby is worth the reread.  It is a full-on kick-in-the-pants, and on the off chance you don’t find it inspiring (very unlikely), I’m sure you’ll impress someone with a great quotation about inconsistency being the hobgoblin of little minds (yes, that’s Emerson).  So, again, you can buy it here.

Here’s the bonus: you can sign up to a self-reliance pledge, with the support and daily encouragement of our friends at the Domino Project.   They’ll be putting up daily prompts from cool, inspiring bloggers/thinkers/rabble-rousers on (or you can get them by email) to help you stay inspired and keep on listening to the person who knows best: you.

Learn from the bards and sages in your life.  Absorb everything you can of their wisdom and experience.  Stand on their shoulders and honor them by developing a deep, abiding, fierce and humble conviction in what you believe.

In the words of Emerson, “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages.”

A better list

Lists are great – a systematized, orderly way to keep yourself on task and keep track of tasks.

Except of course that lists are usually an excuse – an excuse to do everything but the real work we have to do.

Some lists, full of seemingly important stuff, actually just say:

  1. Stall
  2. Stall
  3. Procrastinate
  4. Put stuff off
  5. Stall some more
  6. Look busy
  7. Have a meeting that looks busy
  8. Etc.

(By the way, your inbox is just a fancy list.  And don’t get me started on your Facebook / Twitter feed).

So how about this: keep the list, work the list, but act based on the knowledge that you’ll never get to the end of the list.  Knowing that, why not commit, once a day, to add one thing to the list (just one!!) that’s hard or scary, and commit to getting that thing done today.

Hard and scary is, it turns out, a pretty great proxy for “worthwhile.”

One item, once a day, every day, that terrifies you.

The elephant

Here’s the deal: he’s in the room, so you options are either to talk about him or to pretend he’s not there.

You can put it off, you can discuss other things, you can hide for a while, but he ain’t going anywhere (heck, he doesn’t even fit through the door).

Imagine how you’ll surprise people when you – you who appear to have most to lose if you bring him up; you, whose plan seems to hinge on him not being there at all – call him out, describe just what he looks like, acknowledge that he could scuttle everything.

Better for you to name him and explain why it makes sense to barrel ahead regardless.  It’s when someone else calls him out that you’ll be pushed onto your back foot and risk losing momentum.

I think with my brain, but…

I spent some time today talking with a great filmmaker and TV producer.  Her mantra for everything she creates is to what she called the “micro story:” that one, personal narrative that captures the whole.

We know this, but we don’t practice it.

We throw up statistics.  We create mash-up stories profiling a series of good projects and forget that the end result of the glossy portrayals is so much less than the sum of the parts.  We have conversations about giving to our organization that lead with programmatic jargon, budgets, abbreviations and ratios.

I think we’re afraid that telling real, honest stories will somehow be insulting to someone’s intelligence.  We know that “people respond to stories” but the woman across the table from you is so smart and so accomplished that of course she “really wants to dig in.”

What if we imagine our audience wearing block-lettered, tacky t-shirts (like the caps that Frank from 30 Rock wears) that shout out:



I bet we’d act differently, we’d inspire more often, we’d create genuine connection and a sense of hope.

The illusion

Three years since I first started blogging, I’m beginning to get a glimpse of the phantoms that real writers battle:

The illusion that, regardless of what happened yesterday, today you’ll have nothing to say.

The twinge of loss when you write something worth writing.

The pain of putting an idea out into the world.

The fear that something has left you that you can’t get back

It is like giving away anything real and true – love or friendship or money or some other long-treasured thing.  Our mind tricks us into feeling that these things we give away are ours, that they are finite, that the safest thing to do is to cling to them fiercely.

Over and over we practice creating and letting go.  We practice being open.  We dare to strive to be our best selves, reaching so far that we are exposed and vulnerable.  And yes, sometimes we fail. Our leap comes up short.  We crash into the chasm and end up sore, bruised and limping.

But mostly we discover that what we give away is a reflection of the abundance within us, is proof of our grace and all that we have to give.

So we sit back down again, ready to wrestle the illusion of scarcity to the ground, never giving up or giving in.

Work really hard

All the most incredible people I know work hard.  Really hard.  Crazily hard.

My first job out of college was as a management consultant.  The deal in those jobs is that you sign away your life for a few years in exchange for a professional experience that gives you a lot more exposure and learning than you really deserve, given what you know.

That was my experience.  In the first two months on the job I worked 7 days a week, 12-14 hours a day.  It was pretty miserable.  And that was a close approximation of the next four years.  Of course, I also learned a lot.

I also figured that working that hard had to be temporary.  It had to be, I figured, since the distinction between “work” and “my life” was a bright line.  Work wasn’t terrible, but it was definitely work = something I had to do.  Not working = fun.  Over time, the more I worked the less I felt I was living.  For me, that was exhausting.

That’s why I think passion and loving what you do win every time – because you want to be there.  Your mind is always churning with the next idea, not because your boss tells you to but because you’re doing your life’s work.

Of course you’re not going to love every job every day starting today for the rest of your life.  It takes some time to get there, since it’s a combination of self-discovery, trial-and-error, and chance.

If you’re not working at your dream job today, what do you do?

The easier, but ultimately limiting, option is to slog away at the job you don’t love, and steal every last minute you can for “free time.”

The other option is to make finding and living your passion a big part of what you do, starting today.  You don’t do this by quitting your job (assuming that’s not an option) but by taking the time you have when not at “work” to keep on working, not on your day job but at discovering and learning your craft and your passion.

Jump into your dreams today.  Find the 15 most influential/inspirational people doing/writing about the work you hope to do, and read them religiously.  Add in a few people who are going to give you a daily dose of kick-in-the-pants inspiration.  Get involved in conversations that will lead to opportunities for real-life interaction and opportunity. Learn the skills that will serve you in your life’s work – by setting aside the time today, rolling up your sleeves, and doing the work.

Stephen King famously said that step 1 in writing is “Put butt in chair.” That chair isn’t placed in front of a TV or a computer that’s browsing Facebook, it’s not a barstool and when you sit in it you’re not reading a trashy novel.

It’s placed squarely in front of the tools of your trade, the ones you hope, someday, to master.

The what and the why

We’re generally really good at and comfortable with talking about “what:” what we’re proposing, what the big vision is, what the plan looks like. We’re eager to spend our time constructing the argument, perfecting the slides, and standing up and making our big pitch.

“We want to do this and this and then this.”

But “why” often stumps us.  We treat “why” like it’s some sort of attack.  “Why” makes us feel defensive.

“Why” can sound to us like someone is tearing down the “what,” just without doing it directly.

Here’s a suggestion. Hear “why” for what it is: a chance to dig into the assumptions, the core issues, the strategic opportunity.  “Why” means: I share your goal of getting to the bottom of this one, let’s figure it out together by getting to the core issues.

More often than not, when someone asks “why” they really mean just that.


Re: Question

Never let an email go out of your inbox with this subject line.  Instead, answer the question in the subject line.

Why?  Why bother being persnickety about such a trivial thing?

Maybe it’s not so trivial.  The subject line is of each email you send is your headline.  Can you imagine if the NY Post’s headline today had been “Re: IMF”  (instead of “French Whine” in reference to Dominique Strauss-Kahn not being given any special treatment by the NYPD.)  Re:IMF doesn’t sell newspapers, and it doesn’t help your email get to the top of the pile.

The subject of your email is a trigger for people to read your note (or not), to read it immediately (or not).  Tweaking this is one more way to avoid letting your message get lost in the shuffle.

A guy I know puts my name in the subject line of every email he sends to me.  It’s pretty weird, pretty far outside of regular email norms, but I absolutely know when an email is just to me and when it’s to a group, and it makes a difference in how I respond.

So, for kicks, a list of norm-breaking email suggestions:

  1. If you are the author of an email, make the subject Tweetable.  (NOT “Question” but instead “Should we move the launch date up a week?”).  Flex those 140-character-or-less authoring muscles for something more useful.
  2. Have as few people as possible receive every email
  3. Especially when you ignore #2, establish that you want replies from people in the To: line.  Cc: means “I’m just letting you know.”
  4. If someone has written a vague, general email subject line, change it.  Reply to “Question” with “Moving up launch date [Re: Question]”  This way the email is still searchable under the original subject plus it’s more clear to everyone what’s going on
  5. When an email thread veers off to a totally different topic, start a new thread or change the subject line.  Having a conversation about a potential promotion in a thread whose subject is “Re:Staff Retreat” is just plain inefficient.
  6. If threads are getting really long, pick up the phone instead (yes, that counts as an email tip)
  7. If a conversation has become irrelevant to some people, drop them off
  8. If #7 makes you/them uncomfortable, move the people who are being dropped off to Bcc: and say in the note: “I’m moving Pankaj and Sarah to Bcc: and the rest of us will continue the thread.”
  9. Make your emails shorter
  10. Write each email as if the time of each of the person reading it is valuable – because it is, even if being loose with these sorts of things feels like a hassle to you.

I wish all the popular email programs made it a default to have the cursor jump to the subject line when you hit “Reply.”  In the meantime, my answer to “Re: Question” is “No!”

Tune in for mindless affirmation

File this ad for New York TV station WPIX under: I’m not even sure I get what they’re saying.

“If you’re thinking it, they’re saying it” is the slogan.  Huh?  It seems to mean, “We promise everything you see on our station will be an echo chamber that reinforces your existing opinions.  We swear we won’t challenge your thinking.”

I wasn’t tuning in to local news anyway, so this starts out as a post about a somewhat troubling and pretty weak subway ad.   But it’s a worrisome meme: watch us because you know we agree with you.

We’re getting more information flows are made just for us: we choose who to follow on Twitter and who our Facebook friends are, what blogs to read and what news sites to peruse.  Mass-customization might allow us to hone in on what most interests us, but it might also be code for “We swear we won’t challenge your thinking.”

Worse, there’s a lot more filtering of information than you might think.  Eli Pariser gave a chilling talk at TED 2011 in which he showed how Facebook is filtering his (and your and my) feed, showing a lot more updates from his lefty friends than from his righty friends.  And, one week after the uprising in Tahir Square, Eli showed how two people on two different computers got radically different Google search results for “Egypt”  – one got political news, the other got vacation and travel sites.

This makes it all the more important for us to decide why we read – for pleasure, for edification, to learn something, to challenge ourselves?  When I recommend a book that’s designed to challenge people’s thinking – like all the manifestos by the Domino Project (Poke the Box, Do the Work); or Cognitive Surplus or Drive or Made to Stick or Rework or even my Manifesto for Nonprofit CEOs – I always wonder what people who tell me they didn’t like the books really mean.

Does “I didn’t like it” mean “…because it made me really uncomfortable” or “…because I disagreed” or “…because this is different than the way I do things” or something else?

We have access to more information than ever, and it’s becoming less likely that we stumble across contradictory views.  This can’t be good for civic discourse, for our political process, for our shared values and culture.

Armed with this knowledge, it’s incumbent upon us to seek discomfort in what we read.  It also means, for the writer/blogger, how illusory and deceptive it is to strive for popularity.

Here’s Eli Pariser’s TED Talk

Good posts, bad posts, and the dragon

I have a confession to make: yesterday’s post wasn’t really finished.  I simply ran out of time, and even though I wanted to give it another read, to tweak it some, to tighten it and make it a little punchier, I just couldn’t.

So I published it.

And you know what?  I bet you didn’t notice, because my own inner critic screams a heck of a lot louder than you do.  And if you did notice, you probably didn’t care all that much.

I just finished Stephen Pressfield’s manifesto Do the Work (available for FREE on Kindle), the second book published by The Domino Project.  It’s an entire book about the Resistance, a malevolent force (an actual dragon) out to fight you to the death, to stop you in your tracks, to keep you from producing great art and for sharing your gifts with the world.

It will take you about two hours to read this book, and I promise it will stick with you for the rest of your life.  Every time you start to hesitate, to hold back, to put off something even a little bit, you’ll know that dragon is out there leering at you, snickering in the knowledge that he might win another round.

That dragon was telling me not to post yesterday, was telling me the post wasn’t good enough.   Tomorrow it will tell me that I don’t have a post in me, or if I do come up with something, it will tell me that what I do have to say isn’t good enough or insightful enough or clever enough to make it worth reading.

My ace in the hole is that I’ve already shipped.  I do it every day. I know how to win this battle.

And so do you.  Fight on!

(Here’s the link again to Do the Work, free on Kindle, in case something or someone held you back from getting it the first time.  Pressfield is the real deal, the author of 8 books, and he knows of what he speaks.)