The Eye of the Storm

Like many, I’ve found my week and life disrupted by the Coronavirus.

First, over the weekend we decided to keep our 60 Decibels New York team working from home for the start of this week, since two of our team members live in Westchester County (which has been leading the nation in total number of Coronavirus cases).  Then I learned late on Sunday night that our school district was closing until March 18th.

One thing I’ve noticed over the past week is that we’re all on different Coronavirus waves. Each wave is separated by a few days or maybe weeks, and each brings with it a different experience of how real, and close, this pandemic is. I expect that what’s going on in Westchester County, where I live, is a lot like what happened in Northern Italy two or three weeks ago, and that what we’re experiencing will soon happen in other parts of the country.

The main thing I’m noticing is nobody seems to really know what’s going on or what to do. This is all new, uncharted territory, and outside of learning how to wash our hands better, everything else—figuring out whether and when to close things down, to practice social distancing or to quarantine ourselves—is a guessing game, especially in the absence of widespread testing.

What I’m personally experiencing is a low-level fog, a sense that there’s something potentially terrible going on out there, with “out there” not that far from home. I think a lot about the math of exponential spread: it would overwhelm our healthcare system and, potentially, cause significant and widespread fatalities. At the same time, I pray that we will look back at this as a crisis averted and learn from it for the future. I’m pretty sure that the best way to avoid the worst scenarios is much broader testing and changes in social behavior to lower the rate of transmission. But what that means in reality, on a national scale, is hard to imagine.

Despite these thoughts droning on in the background, boosted by my Twitter feed, the sun has been out, the early spring days are beautiful, and right now everyone I know is, as far as I know, as safe and healthy as they were last week. It’s all very confusing.

If a preview of having Coronavirus in your community is helpful, here goes. We keep getting drips of messages of closures and cancelations, including from stores and care providers we’ve never heard of.  Everyone who has been “thinking hard” about whether or not to close has closed. Our school’s messaging is broad and vague: there’s no clear plan for how long this will last, whether remote instruction will happen for our kids, and whether this is the start of something that will last much longer.

At each juncture we have no choice but to guess at how to act and what to do. No one has told us that we, or our kids, should stop seeing other people, so do we stop completely? Do we stop sort of? Do we stop not at all? Should we be buying beans and rice and canned goods like crazy, or just shopping normally? And why, of all things, are people stocking up on toilet paper? Is that really our biggest concern?

And, taking a step back, if this is going to be a long haul, will we look back at these early days and think how good we had it? Or will we think “if only we had done more, maybe we could have collectively contained this better?”

I honestly don’t know.

I do I wish that the people whose job it is to take away all this collective guesswork were doing a much better job. Isn’t it easy to take public infrastructure and the public good for granted until we really need it?

Insurance policies are a waste of money until disaster strikes. The ability to attend to collective well-being is quaint, antiquated, even un-American until we are all, collectively, at risk. The need for a functioning healthcare system for all is a politically charged, ideological question until, suddenly, we realize we are all in it together.

My hope is that our public infrastructure and civic leaders step up despite our systematic disemboweling of the public sector, and that our renowned private sector, so adept at saving us one day of delivery time on a pair of sneakers can point its problem-solving ability to a challenge of global proportions.

In the meantime, stay safe, stay positive, and let’s take good care of each other.

Your Best Work

There will come a day, maybe even today, that you produce something truly outstanding.

It’s you at your best, a commingling of great ideas, inspiration and a heavy dose of grit that got it over the line.

Most people who see it will be moved, maybe even inspired. They will let you know that you’ve done something truly important. You will be reminded that you at your best is really something special.

And some people, people who you truly and deeply respect…they will not like it at all.

Not because it’s not good.

Not because your best isn’t remarkable (it is.)

Simply because it is not for them.

Just like we can’t fool all the people all the time, we also cannot please all of them—and this includes people we like and respect.

The sooner we learn this lesson, the sooner we can get on with doing the work that only we can do. Because what they like or don’t like isn’t us, it’s the work.

We’re not here to please everyone.

We’re here to create concrete, meaningful, positive change for a small group of people.

Figuring out that those people are “not everyone” is incredibly freeing.

The Best Time to Start

Time is a tricky thing.

I remember like it was yesterday sitting on the floor with my newborn son, a famously bad sleeper, at a few minutes past four on a Saturday morning. It was pitch black out, I’d only slept a few hours, and we were up for the day. He sat in front of me, smiling and up for the day, diligently working on picking things up and trying to place them in a plastic shape-sorter that played a bunch of different tunes.

Day after day, week after week, my day would start at this hour—long before the neighbors, my friends who didn’t have kids, even the Marines. Being awake for hours before the sun came up each Saturday (and Sunday, and Monday) felt endless, as did that phase of life.

These days, things are a bit different.

My son, when he comes over to give me a hug, lifts his chin up a bit—he’s not yet a full head taller than me, but I expect he will be soon. We talk about his ceramics and logarithms, what e means, and about politics.

Just like that, in the proverbial blink of an eye.

Time is neutral, just doing its job day after day. Yet, despite its consistency, we fail to understand it. We get fooled into thinking we have forever, that tomorrow is just as good as today, for…

…starting that new project

…keeping a commitment

…telling someone we love them

…lending a hand

…letting go of a bad habit

…or starting a good one.

We have all the time in the world, until we don’t.

And waiting until a better time to start often means never starting at all.

We let ourselves believe that whatever is happening today will last for forever, and that we’ll never get free of the hard thing we are facing.

Just as easily, we can believe that we have “all the time in the world” when someday it will run out.

We reliably accomplish less than we think will each day and week, but much more than seems possible over the course of a year.

Assuming, that is, that we start today.

The 3Cs of great meetings

Most people hate meetings, a lot.

Responding to a 2015 Harris poll, 46% of people said they’d rather do “almost anything” over a status-update meeting. 17% said they would choose to watch paint dry, and 8% claim they’d rather have a root canal.

Admittedly, this just proves that 50% of all statistics are made up, inaccurate or exaggerated.

Still, we can agree that most staff meetings (or similar) are a drag and most people dread them.

In the face of this knowledge, your first option is not to have these meetings at all. When choosing between a terrible meeting that demotivates people and nothing, by all means cancel the meeting, send a memo instead, and see what breaks (if anything).

But you can also give your meetings a huge shot in the arm by reminding yourself of the 3Cs of great meetings: communication, connection, and celebration.

Communication is probably the meat and potatoes of your current meeting. We get together to share (ostensibly) essential information. To improve the quality of your communication, send content in advance, and expect people to have reviewed it before the meeting. Use the in-meeting communication to give context on what’s already been shared, emphasize key points, and have a discussion—limit yourself to the things that you can’t write down.

It’s the other two Cs that nearly always get short shrift.

Connection is the big one. I remember, two years into my first real job as a management consultant, noticing that I was consistently spending more of my waking hours with my work colleagues than with my girlfriend (now wife).

Without connection, these hours feel empty.

You can build in connection with rituals at the start of a meeting. Google CEO Eric Schmidt famously started all staff meetings with “trip reports” both about work and about his team’s weekend. The point was to give everyone a chance to experience one another as whole human beings, and to remember that we are more, and have more to offer, than our job and role at the company.

Celebration is the most rare. Why is this? Maybe we’re embarrassed to praise someone in public or to be praised. Maybe it’s just hard to deliver compliments in a genuine way. But this is a muscle we can easily build. Just think, in advance of the meeting, of something a colleague did last week worth celebrating. Best of all, this doesn’t need (and shouldn’t only) to come from The Boss. It can come from anyone to anyone. The easy shortcut: sentences that start with, “I really appreciated it when you…”

You’ll want to figure out how to make the 3Cs, communication, connection and celebration, work for your own culture. It will depend on how formal or informal you are, how important hierarchy is for your organization, and how you approach structure or lack thereof.

But all meetings—especially staff meetings or other regular comings-together of larger groups—should have elements of all three Cs, each and every time.

The Story of a Truth, Revealed

We all carry around The Story of Me: the things we know to be true, an admixture of strengths and idiosyncrasies, faults and foibles.

Our identity is a many-layered thing. At its deepest layers are the things about Us we are most sure of. These things, buried so deep, are the hardest to see: attributes and mindsets, tendencies and habits so firmly held they become invisible.

Then, one day, someone shines a new light on one of these until-now truths. This is a someone who cares enough, knows us well enough, is expert enough and speaks so clearly that the truth they’ve uttered cuts all the way to our core.

Like hearing our own recorded voice, or seeing ourselves in a video, something previously invisible is at the center of the screen, revealed. We can’t look away. It takes up our whole field of vision.

This is a tough moment.

This Truth was so deeply held it formed part of our identity—it touches on the story of who we knew ourselves to be.

It is natural, in this moment of revelation, to experience this new Truth as a flaw, one that eclipses our strengths, our natural talents, the things that make us special.

At first, preoccupied by this new Truth, our performance plummets. Because we can’t tear our eyes away, all we see is the ways it makes us less than we thought we were. Preoccupied, we lose our ability to do things naturally: the grooved behaviors that worked so well in the past feel off, but we don’t know what else to do, how else to act.

The natural reaction is to turn away, to hide from this new Truth. It feels so ugly and misshapen, making us feel clumsy, awkward.

That’s not the answer. We shouldn’t run from this Truth. It has, after all, been offered up as a gift by someone who cares.

Nor should we be sucked into obsession, seeing the Truth in our every action, being fooled into thinking that it is Everything.

Our job, instead, is to stand firm. The “it’s all I can see, I’m a failure, I should give up” stage will pass if we are patient and we can stay grounded. Our job is to live with the truth, not to hide from or banish it.

If we can do this, then, in due course, we’ll arrive at the next stop on our journey: the It’s Not Everything stage.

In this stage, we begin to see the playing field more clearly. A number of important Things that didn’t make sense—surprising impacts we’ve had on others, results for us or our team that were less than we’d hoped for—are explained by their connection to this new Truth. In the It’s Not Everything stage, we’re not fully comfortable yet, but a fog is lifting and we’re getting more clarity. With clarity comes progress.

Finally, in time, we arrive at the last stop in our journey: the New Story.

We’ve shifted, we’ve test, we’ve adjusted, we’ve trialed-and-errored, and we’ve loosened our grip just a bit on the way things were. We’ve integrate this Truth into the New Story.

This New Story is a more real story of Us. It’s one in which we’ve traded a shiny, but ultimately faulty, piece of the puzzle for a new one.

This new piece at first seemed imperfect and misshapen.

In time we’ve cleaned it off, honed the edges, and discovered it for what it really is: a stronger, more reliable, more real than the piece that was there before.

Remembering Jason Polan to Find our Inner Artist

The artist’s job is to see the world around him.

I didn’t know Jason Polan, or his work, until I heard last week that he passed away. Jason was a 37 year old artist who, among other projects, had the beautiful, outlandish idea to draw every person in New York City. He completed 11,000 drawings, and would have gotten much further had he lived longer. Jason’s drawings are raw, irreverent, deeply human, joyful, and full of life. As Jason once quipped, “I feel my drawings have gone downhill since I was about five.”

I particularly like this one.

Jason Polan drawing
Man on 6 Train by Jason Polan

The writer and artist Austin Kleon starts his homage to Jason with one of Jason’s tweets, “It’s like, anyone can figure out how to draw something. But it’s hard to tell people how to see something.”

If the job of the artist is to see, then we have two questions to ask:

Am I an artist?

What does it take to see?

The first question, ironically, is the easy one. Today, you’ve no choice but to be an artist, even if, to start, you do it with a tiny, lowercase ‘a’.

The artist is the person who does more than she is told, who sees something unformed and forms it, who sees something that is missing and takes the steps to create it. To do art is to create, and no matter how big or small you dare to dream today, what we need from you is the creation of things that only you can see, the making of things that only you can make.

But what about seeing? How, as Jason asks, do we learn how to see?

We begin by deciding that seeing is a thing that we do. For me, that decision came in the form of deciding, in 2008, to write this blog. It’s been reinforced by the daily and weekly decision to keep it up for the last 12 years over more than 1,000 posts. That commitment, week in and week out, to create original content moves me from looking at the world to seeing the world; and the act of writing about what I see makes think harder about what I’ve seen and what it means.

But you don’t need a commitment as big as a public blog you’ll write for a decade. Not, at least, to start.

Creating Space

What you need is a bit more space.

Last week, in a rush of enthusiasm, my 15-year-old son shared a drawing he created last summer. He didn’t think of it as anything special, just something he’d done one day at camp when he sitting at Saturday morning services, a bit bored and trying to pass the time. (Apparently, as we just discovered, he also taught himself calligraphy over the summer.)

Because no good teenage deed goes unpunished, a few days after sharing how beautiful we thought the drawing was (and talking more about my son’s art—he makes beautiful ceramics too), we had a conversation about time.

Specifically, would that drawing have ever been created if he’d had access to his phone, to Snapchat, to Reddit, to YouTube?

And, before we get on our collective high horse about teenagers and screen time, let’s turn the mirror back on ourselves: we can easily replace “teenage-phone-distractions” with our “grown-up” distractions: the crush of email, meetings, our news feed, the latest crisis at work, and, yes, Candy Crush and its ilk.

Boredom is the Artist’s Friend

Think for a moment about what happens when we’re bored.

Our idle mind gets jumpy. If we can remind ourselves not to get hijacked by endless internal thoughts and dialogue, we find a bit of stillness. Our mind wants to turn this open, unstructured space into something.

If we allow it room to breathe,  eventually our undistracted mind will chooses to create something.

This new thing, this interesting thing, is the (metaphorical) corner of the pattern my son drew: the start of something worth creating. Once we put this down on paper, we have a jumping off point. Then, having crossed the threshold from nothing to something, it is much easier to fill in the rest through a process that is as much discovery as it is exposition.

Our choice, then, begins with recognition that being always-on, always-busy eclipses the potential for any blank space. Without blank space, without a little boredom and the prospect of a blank page, we will never begin.

But begin we must.

A small shock to the system can help. Here’s a thought: try a painless, one-month commitment to something you want to create. Use Austin Kleon’s 29-day calendar (recently updated for the leap year), and see what happens when you do some new thing for 15 minutes a day.

Do it for Jason Polan, to make up for a fraction of the beauty lost when he passed long before his time.

Feels Like the First Time

I’m in an airport terminal for an early morning flight and I spot an Au Bon Pain.

Instantly I flash to the first Au Bon Pain store in Cambridge, MA where, nearly 30 years ago, I had my first ABP raspberry croissant.

It was still warm, crispy on the outside, and the cream cheese filling was just tangy enough to balance the sweetness of the raspberry. It was heavenly.

That memory is enough to get me to walk into this small, shabby Au Bon Pain outpost in LaGuardia airport. Their raspberry croissant is good, though it is but a shadow of the original. Even so, it’s created just enough of a positive flashback that I keep on coming back.

Whether we’re selling a product or a service, whether we’re a marketer or a salesperson or a philanthropic fundraiser, we are in the business of creating feelings, emotions and memories for our customers.

The strongest, deepest memories can create customers for a lifetime.

When your clients think about you, what do they remember?

 

Looking for a U.S. sales lead for 60 Decibels

Hello blog readers, I’d like to ask for your help.

I’m looking to hire someone to work directly with me to lead up U.S. sales for 60 Decibels.

As a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that 60 Decibels is the company Tom Adams and I co-founded last year to make social impact measurement fast, nimble and useful to the people working to create social change. Our goal is to put the voice of the customer back where it belongs: at the heart of social impact measurement.

We’ve had a great first year. We are working with some of the most dynamic, forward-thinking investors, companies and nonprofits around the world. In 2019 we spoke to more than 50,000 customers in more than 30 countries, delivering more than 200 Lean Data projects. We have a 30+ person team based in four countries. We work hard and we believe in what we’re doing.

The real secret to our success is a handful of loyal customers who show up as true partners. They push us to do our best work. They have high standards and ask us to keep raising the bar. And, quietly but consistently, they support our success by spreading the word to others about the good work that we do.

The salesperson I’d like to work with understands that this is the only approach to build something that lasts: client by client, day by day, doing work worth talking about.

The person we’re looking for has personal experience with social impact measurement. She might have gained this experience working as an impact investor, a philanthropic funder, or a social entrepreneur; or maybe she’s worked to provide impact measurement solutions to those sorts of organizations. Regardless of her specific path, she has significant first-hand experience with the problem we’re trying to solve. She’ll also understand that great selling starts with passionately believing in an idea. She’ll be an effective storyteller, always be looking to learn, and demonstrates all the hustle, resilience, and sense of humor that are the hallmarks of any great professional.

As a regular reader of this blog, I’m guessing you have a sense of the kind of person I’m looking for. Above all, I hope it’s clear how personally I take my work, the values I try to bring to it every day (reflected in our 60 Decibels values), and my willingness to share when I’ve gotten things right and when I’ve fallen short.

I believe that this sort of grounded authenticity is what ultimately empowers us to enlist others in our shared mission of making the world a better place.

The full job spec is here, and people can apply directly for the job here.

Applications close on February 15th, but I’ll start reviewing applications immediately, so don’t delay.

Running for the Train

As everyone in my family knows, I have a persistent, daily, absurd issue with running for the train.

Each morning, to get to work, I walk a half mile from my house to the train station. At a relaxed pace, that walk takes 12 to 14. Walking briskly, you can do it in 10-12 minutes. Most mornings I do it in 8-9 minutes, and when things get bad, I sprint to the train in 6 minutes.

Mind you, this is all while fully dressed for work. And it’s not because I’ve overslept: I wake up at least 75 minutes before the train, and often I’ve been up for as much as two and a half hours (to exercise).

But here we are in January, and, like any period after a proper vacation, I find that on the first day back I  leave the house “early” and stroll casually to the train. While walking, I inevitably remark to myself how enjoyable this is, not just because I’m not huffing and puffing but also because I’m not starting my day with stress and rush.

Yet, most of the time, by Friday of that first week I’m back to rushing.

There’s a quality that all our days acquire when we get pulled back into the thick of things. For me, that quality is “rushed.” You will have, I suspect, a different default vice than I do.

Of course, it’s obvious that my vice isn’t serving me in a productive way.

Though, strictly speaking, that’s not true—since I engage in this behavior day in and day out, it has to be serving some need. This need seems to be the belief in the importance of the few extra things I do before dashing out of the house, or maybe there’s a bigger story I’m telling myself about how cramming activity into every last minute will sum up to a more productive day or week.

And yet, just imagine if they changed the schedule and moved the train five minutes earlier. I’d adjust, instantly.

While I continue to ponder my own foibles, here’s a question for you: what qualities do you let creep in to your days that don’t serve you—things that cause stress or worry or simply the theater of busyness? What trade-offs are you making that you could let go of? What things about how “busy” feels might be open to questioning? What mindset shift would make that sort of change easy and lasting?

What would be your equivalent of “if they changed the train schedule…”?

Here’s to a great start to your near year and new decade.

Accompaniment

I got to spend the afternoon cooking with one of my daughters. We were making quinoa latkes, a recipe I highly recommend (even if you’re neither a vegetarian nor making piles of latkes for Hanukkah.) They’re delicious and, except for the bit where you cook them in oil, extremely healthy—they’re made with sweet potatoes, kale, quinoa, ginger, panko and eggs.

My daughter is a great baker and a good cook, so she’s comfortable in the kitchen. That said, even though she wanted to be in charge of making the quinoa latkes, she needed help, from time to time, in the form of accompaniment.

Accompaniment, when done successfully, allows someone to succeed at a new, stretch assignment while feeling supported along the way.

In this case, my daughter understood and could follow and execute the recipe. But there were a few steps that stumped her: How much should the boiling water bubble before turning down the flame on the quinoa? Do you use a peeler and grater on fresh ginger? How soft, exactly, do the sweet potatoes need to be?

Each of these questions was a quick, easy answer, small enough that they required very little from me, but important enough that without them she could have gotten stuck.

While she was cooking, I busied myself with other kitchen tasks: peeling and chopping up a big butternut squash and cutting up a pile of Brussel Sprouts for later. This was a good choice, because it kept me nearby—not pulled into another task—while also reminding me to resist my natural tendency to help a little too much (also known as “taking over”).

The latkes were great, and the lesson on accompaniment is one I’ll take forward into 2020.

When we accompany successfully we inhabit the essential space between giving too much freedom (“here’s what you need to get done, here’s how I’d like to you to do it, let me know if you need anything”) and too much direction (micromanagement). This allows the person you’re supporting to stay in the driver’s seat, even in the face of challenges, and to feel supported in overcoming these challenges without giving up control and agency. At its best, successful accompaniment begets pride in accomplishment, an increase in trust, and more confidence for the next task.

Of course, pulling this off when standing next to a family member, together in the kitchen on a relaxed holiday afternoon, isn’t too hard. Finding this balance—of staying present, available, and quick to help—in the midst of the push and pull of our busy days and jobs is harder.

The two must-haves are staying aware and being highly available and communicative.

  1. Staying aware: find a way to continually track, in a light-touch way, the progress of the person you’re supporting, so you always know whether things are on or off track and can be ready to help.
  2. Being highly available and communicative: it’s your job to demonstrate that the door is wide open and that, even though you’re not involved every step of the way, you are present and available. Being there to jump in quickly to solve a problem, and then pulling back again to give back the reins, is a great way to ensure that someone feels supported and still in control.

One final note: I want to thank all of you for accompanying me throughout 2019. I hope you’ve found this year’s posts useful, and that they’ve supported you in the important work that you do. I wish you all a happy, healthy 2020.