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.

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.