Rough Draft Packing

I find packing for work trips onerous and unduly stressful.

I think it’s the mental exercise of trying to anticipate the details of the trip (including weather, any free time, etc.) and the associated things to bring, coupled with my unrelenting desire never to check a bag (which is helped by having my One Bag to Rule Them All).

One thing that has helped is a checklist that I consult before international trips. I’ve built it up over the years and included stuff I might otherwise forget (international currency, water bottle, Oyster card, plug adapters) as well as things I need to do (set up international data plan). I don’t always remember to check this list, but every time I do I find a few things I might have forgotten.

My new addition is to do “rough draft packing.” The goal is to decouple the gathering of the things I know I will need from the mental work of making sure I’ve got every last thing.

The idea is borrowed from how I now write blog posts: instead of doing them all in one sitting, now, when an idea hits me, I just sit and write, unedited, to get the bulk of the post down on paper. I write until I run out of steam, which is hopefully near the end of the post, and then I leave the post alone for a day or two. When I come back to it, my job is to be a finisher and editor, not an author. This decreases stress and leads to a better finished product, since I’m almost never looking at both a blank sheet of paper and a deadline.

So too with rough draft packing: no stress about getting it just right, no running mental checklist in the background while folding shirts or counting socks.  I know the main categories (work clothes, sleep clothes, exercise clothes, toiletries, etc.) so I just run through these categories and make a pile of folded stuff all in one place. Then, I return to that pile later, see it with fresh eyes, and start to make any obvious cuts (“am I actually going to swim on this trip?”), and find the things from my checklist that I’ve not gathered up.

Somehow this approach takes the stress out while also helping me pack right.

For more advanced tips (almost half of which, to my surprise, I seem to use), here’s a useful list from T+L.

The Blog With No Pictures

My kids have a fabulous book called The Book With No Pictures by BJ Novak.

As you can imagine, it doesn’t have any pictures.

Its premise is that the rules of grown-up/child book-reading state that parents must read whatever is written in a book, no matter how outlandish:

This got me thinking about expectations, and when we meet them and when we don’t.

Take this blog: it also has no pictures. It also has a certain tone, norms, style. There are types of posts that I write and types that I don’t. Ways that I speak and ways that I don’t.

I’ve been thinking about what I choose to write, and how that interacts with the expectations I’ve set for you as a reader. There’s an unspoken contract here, one that I am keeping by writing the way that I do, and that you are keeping by reading, by applying ideas that you find helpful, and by sharing posts with others.

Mostly it feels right to write into the expectations I’ve created: I am sure I wouldn’t show up with nearly as much care or attention were it not for the pull of meeting (and hopefully exceeding) your expectations.

On the other hand, those expectations also set limits: things I might want to write but don’t, ways I might want to speak but don’t, topics I might want to cover but don’t.

This means that I’m making a choice when I come across an idea, or even a sentence, that falls outside of the lines. And it’s possible that I’m making the wrong choice, since those lines are both real and imaginary, a projection of my and your understanding of where they are drawn.

I could, instead, ignore them.

I could choose to write GLuURR-GA-wocko ma GRUMPH-a-doo, or I could shout out with anger, or I could choose to share a deep, real fear.

The thing I need to keep noticing, each time I sit down in front of a blank page, is that I am dancing with freedom and with expectations. I owe it to myself and to you to remember that it is indeed a dance.

You’re dancing too. Dancing with the expectations of those around you—whether friends, family, colleagues or customers—dancing with the lines you feel you’ve drawn, dancing with the lines you feel they’ve drawn.

Most of the time those lines are in the right place, they are useful.

Except when they are not.

You have more freedom than you think you do.

Without that freedom, a Book With No Pictures would never have been written.

 

Story Gardens

Whether you’re a writer, a blogger, a trainer, a facilitator, a coach, a speaker or a fundraiser, you need a story garden.

These are stories that illustrate and illuminate important concepts you want to share with your audience. These are stories they will be drawn to, understand and remember.

Like all gardens, they don’t come out fully formed. Gardens require care, cultivation, time and patience.

We begin by finding a place and a time to plant the seeds.

Most of the time, for most people, it doesn’t work to set aside big chunks of time to come up with fully-formed, engaging and useful stories. The pressure is too great, and the habit unfamiliar. High expectations and low output create frustration, so we quit.

Instead, take the pressure off and begin with a commitment to awareness, observation and capture.

Awareness of the concepts you’re carrying around that are looking for stories.

Observation of small moments—in conversations, books, memories, articles—that might become bigger stories.

And capture, so you can hang on to those moments quickly and easily, before they vanish. This might be a notebook, an email address you set up so you can send yourself ideas, the audio recording feature on your phone.

My capture process often involves just a headline and a few words. I include the moment I noticed, and a few words (max 1-3 sentences) about what it might become. I write down details about the moment that sparked the idea, so that these details, and the thoughts surrounding them, can find their way back to me.

Then you need a “going back” process: dedicated, regular time to turn those snapshots into somewhat-developed stories. The process is up to you, but dedicated, regular time plus deadlines will help a lot.

And then you need time to practice telling these stories. The sooner and more often the better.

For example, recently some members of Acumen’s Fellows team who facilitate seminars started holding hour-long Story Garden meetings. They sit around a jar filled with slips of paper, each with a core teaching point from an upcoming seminar. One team member at a time pulls out a slip and then tells a 60-second personal story to illustrate that concept. They’d give it a go, get feedback, and move on to the next person.

You could easily imagine doing the same thing with your fundraising team: pick 10 key selling points or examples about your nonprofit or social sector organization, get 5 fundraisers in the room and start picking pieces of paper out of a jar and telling your stories. Take and give feedback. Repeat.

A number of years ago I noticed that the best communicators I know speak in stories—all day long. What I’ve realized since then is that process of story capture, development, practice, refinement, selecting and discarding is both iterative and self-reinforcing. Once you start down the path and see that stories land with your audience, you’ll realize that this is something that you, too, can do. Then, one day, you’ll get to a point when you can hardly remember talking any other way.

Like a Match to our Fears

I spent some time over the holidays cleaning up several things on my blog. It has a spruced-up look and URL, it’s easier to subscribe, and I migrated subscribers to Feedblitz.

I mostly did this so it would be easier for you to share posts and for new readers to follow the blog (follow here).

One of the additional benefits is much better statistics: open rates, bounce rates, new subscribers, unsubscribes. Though “benefits” may not be the right word.

Ever since migrating, I have been getting a steady drip of emails letting me know about people unsubscribing from my blog.

At least that’s how it feels.

The truth is, I migrated a few thousand people and fewer than 20 have unsubscribed. But, like rubbernecking, I can’t seem to look away. The unsubscribes cry out, “Look at me! Think about what I mean! Contemplate why this person no longer wants to read!”

It’s hard to remember that Laura wrote me a nice note. So did Amy and Jamie. Arnie and Cornelius left comments on a recent post. And, and, and… If you listened to the conversation in my head, you’d think that all that good stuff never happened.

It’s a rule of thumb for the workplace and the classroom that people should hear four instances of positive reinforcement for every instance of corrective or negative feedback (though for marriages the ratio seems to be 5 to 1).

The question is, why? Why does the good stuff fade into the background and the negatives stand out in such stark relief?

The answer begins with noticing that it doesn’t happen everywhere: for things that we don’t care much about (“you’re terrible at ice skating!”), and for things that we’re deeply confident about, we’re mostly immune to this nonsense.

But in that wide area in the middle—the things that we care about, but where we’re not fully confident—we’re wide open to fear amplification.

Unfortunately, this “middle area” is really important. It encompasses all creative endeavors, since we are never fully confident our art. And it thrives in any area where we’re trying to grow, because, by definition, these are the areas in which we are both less skilled and less confident.

The fear waits like dry kindling ready to be set ablaze.

This kindling allows me to construct an amazing, elaborate tower of meaning around something as simple as one person in one place unsubscribing. It is the same thing that takes us, when we make a suggestion in a meeting that’s shot down, from the words we hear to, “he thinks I do terrible work, always. So he must think I’m terrible, always.”

As we interact with those around us, our job is to be especially deliberate about how we interact with colleagues–especially when we talk about their art and support their growth edges. Unless we work in organizations with cultures of consistently direct, tough feedback that people are accustomed to, we will stamp out personal growth if we trample, Godzilla-like, over areas where colleagues already are holding armfuls of doubt and fear.

And, for ourselves, we want to keep asking:

How much kindling are we carrying around? And is it really helping us?

Do we want to be the kinds of people who are ready to be set aflame, our fears blazing around us?

Do those flames make us more more connected? More powerful? More brave?

Do they make us more effective? More willing and able to do what needs to be done?

People will always carry matches, often unintentionally. Part of our job is to learn to douse all the fuel around ourselves so we’re not so easily taken off our game.

Oh, and I also changed my settings so I only get that unsubscribe email once a week.

 

1,000

This is my 1,000th post on this blog.

Now, I’m not a big believer in milestones. 1,000 isn’t different in any real way from 998 or 1,002, so why make a big deal of it?

On the other hand, one cannot be a purist about these things, and few would argue that there’s no difference between 1,000 and, say, 662.  And not quitting at 662 mattered.

To start, I hope that those 338 additional posts were useful to you. I hope that they’ve helped you to believe in yourself a bit more, to learn something you didn’t know, or to take a risk that you might not have had the courage to take, all so that you could serve others better.

Those 338 additional posts have also changed me. Most important, each time I think, “this might not work” I have 1,000 published blog posts that tell me to keep at it. I have proof of 1,000 times I didn’t give up, 1,000 times I thought something wasn’t good enough and I hit “publish” anyway, 1,000 times a blank page laughed at me and I laughed back.

Getting from there to here wasn’t a given. Yet for every time I wavered, for every doubt that cropped up, I saw someone raise their hand and share a post with a friend, or reach out to me to say, “this helped me, thank you,” or I glimpsed someone doing something with more bravery, care, and love. And, through those actions, the circle of gift-giving continued.

In trying to make sense of it all, I’m reminded of the fabulous meta-graduation speech given last week by Adam Grant, author of Originals, Give and Take, and Option B, at Utah State University. In the speech, Adam analyzed other graduation speeches, pinpointed their themes and gaps, and gave his own insights that honored and expanded upon what he found.

His advice to graduates centers on the ancient wisdom of Aristotle, who believed that we acquire virtues by practicing them, but that virtues should not be lived at the extremes: we should be generous, but not so much that we end up having nothing left to give; we should be studious, but not so much that we miss out on building genuine relationships with others; we should be proud of our work, but not so much that we always place it above the work of others.

Adam ends his speech with a story of his early self-described failures as a public speaker, doing so to challenge the advice (given in more than half of all graduation speeches!) to “be true to yourself.” Adam wisely takes issue with this advice, arguing that we must learn to distinguish between being true to our authentic selves today and being true to the authentic self we might someday become.

In Adam’s words:

When I was in grad school, a friend asked me to give a guest lecture for her class. I was terrified of public speaking, but I wanted to be helpful, so I agreed. I figured it would be a good learning opportunity, so after the class I handed out feedback forms asking how I could improve. It was brutal. One student wrote that I was so nervous I was causing the whole class to physically shake in their seats.

My authentic self was not a fan of public speaking. But I started volunteering to give more guest lectures, knowing it was the only way to get better. I wasn’t being true to myself, I was being true to the self I wanted to become.

This blog has been an effort to be true to the self that I want to become. Like all projects of this type, it is a forever-unfinished process of unfolding, of evolving, of learning and adjusting and shifting and renewing of commitment.

My thanks go out to all of you for reading, sharing, challenging yourselves, and doing the important work that you do.

My promise, for the next thousand posts, is to keep on being a tree falling in a forest. What keeps me going is that you keep on showing up to hear it land.

I have nothing to say

Most of the time, most ideas worth writing about don’t show up fully formed at the precise moment we stare at a blank sheet of paper.

Indeed, if we expect all of our useful, original ideas to show up only after we settle into the chair, we are setting ourselves up for a lot of frustration.

The ideas come at other moments.  Our job is to remain curious and attentive, so that we stop for long enough to notice our glimpses of passionate insight, of outraged exasperation or of simple, concise observation.

When these moments occur, we must hold on to them for long enough to write down the feelings we have, the core of the insight, and a few scratches about how the argument will flow.

Once that’s done, the writing boils down to the relatively simpler act of putting words around the thoughts so others can see them too.

Your Point of View

If you’ve made the decision to put your own stories – blogs, videos, articles, poetry, spoken word, email campaigns, multimedia, whatever – into the world, there are two different kinds of gaps you can fill.

You can be on the lookout for untold stories and uncover them, becoming, over time, great at picking stories worth telling, the kind of information you’re able to uncover and the narrative that brings us along, engages us, and, hopefully, pushes us to act. This is what Serial was all about (except for the action bit).

Or, you can decide that the project you’re actually engaged in is to share your own point of view.  In this kind of project, you still tell stories but these stories serve as springboards to explore, elaborate upon and illustrate your point of view.

In both cases your job is to engage us, to connect with us, and, yes, to seduce us just a little bit. In both cases, we expect you to hone your craft. In both cases, you have the power to change us.

But because it’s so easy to underestimate ourselves, because we so often convince ourselves we have nothing to say, because we imagine that someday (someday!) we will have wisdom to share…we wait.

Because the act of deciding we have something to say feels a little too proud (“who am I to think that I can….?”), a little too exposed (“what if try and it turns out I don’t actually have anything worth saying?!”), a little too much like it’s the kind of things other people do (“they’re just good at that sort of thing…”), we put off starting. And we put it off some more. And some more. Until we prove to ourselves that we were right all along – we really don’t have a point of view worth sharing.

But that’s just not true. The dirty little secret is that the only way to become, tomorrow or the next day or maybe 10 years from now, someone who has something to say is to start to share our truth today.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Blogging

I’ve had a lot of conversations in the past few months that start with people saying, “I really have been meaning to write or blog, but I just haven’t done it. Any advice on how to start and stick with it?”

Here are 12 things that I’ve learned since I started blogging in 2008:

  1. A structured time to write. Stephen King is famous for saying that step one in writing is to put your “butt in the chair.” Not glamorous, but true. 99% of my blog posts have been written on the train that I take home from work. And most of them come out very quickly – in 10-15 minutes. But I’ve discovered that when I don’t take the train, I don’t write blog posts. That’s when I write.
  2. Make a commitment. Commit to how much you’re going to publish / write / post. I’d suggest you aim high because you’ll probably do less than you intended (because that’s life). And “publish” because I think creating finished work (to your own standard) is important, because it lets you practice sharing complete thoughts that engage other people as readers.
  3. Set it up so someone is reading. I’ve been blogging for more than six years now and I’ve written nearly 1,000 posts. I absolutely, positively, would have given up after six months if I didn’t have readers. I’ve grown to feel that my readers and I have an unspoken contract: they commit to taking the time to read, think and (hopefully) act on the things I write that they find useful; I commit to keep on writing. And occasionally, they comment or reach out to say how a post has helped them or moved them or taught them something. That feels great. [If you’re writing for yourself or in a journal, this “someone” could be a colleague, a boss, a friend you respect, and you could commit to sharing 5 things you’ve written every month. My hunch is that if it’s just for you, you’re writing a personal journal, which is also important work but is something different.]
  4. Ignore your inner critic. We ALL think that everything we write isn’t good enough (not good enough for us, and definitely not good enough to have others read it). The irony is that the more you let yourself censor your own work, the less of your own work you’ll produce, and the less your work will improve.
  5. Remember that it’s much more important to write a lot than it is to write well. This is basically the same point as the prior point, written differently. When I was posting nearly every day, it helped me tremendously to know that if a post wasn’t good enough, I’d have another shot at it tomorrow. It’s helped me even more to go back to posts I’ve published and try to remember which ones I thought were the “good” and the “bad” ones.
  6. Remove the “am I saying something new?” filter. Because no, you’re not saying something completely new and that’s OK. The point is that it’s YOU saying it, and we care about what you think and how you make us feel when we interact with your idea and your emotions.
  7. Ignore the outer critic. Yes, sometime between here and there people you care a lot about will tell you to stop or to do things differently. Listen to them, contemplate what they say, but don’t commit to doing what they tell you to do. Any creative, self-expressive process is inherently delicate, a flame that’s easy to snuff out. Protect it.
  8. Keep it short. I’m highly partial to 200-500 word blog posts. Every time I write something longer than that it’s because I couldn’t make it shorter. Yes you might have a more technical or expository topic than I do, but by and large if you want people to interact with your ideas you need to present them as simply as possible, with as clear language as possible, in as few words as possible. Use this work to practice not hiding behind elaborate, obtuse language.
  9. Have a strong purpose, loosely held. Especially if you’re trying shift from being someone who doesn’t write to someone who does, I think it’s helpful to have a specific intention plus the freedom to write about what you want to write about. When I started this blog I thought it would just be about fundraising, but I didn’t have enough posts in me on that narrow topic, and the whole construct felt constraining. What I’ve found since then is that through the process of writing this blog I’ve figured out what this blog is about, and I think my readers get it too.
  10. Discomfort should happen. The reason you’re doing this is to grow. Growth comes through doing things you haven’t done before, aren’t comfortable doing, and aren’t good at today. If it feels hard, risky, or awkward, you’re doing the right things.
  11. Do it because it matters. There should be some deeper purpose, which isn’t the same as an external objective (as in, “this is how I’ll land a book deal” or “this will help me when I’m looking for my next job.”) I started blogging because I wanted to understand the job I was doing – fundraising – and what it meant, and could mean, to me and to the nonprofit sector. Over time that focus deepened into wanting to understand, in a much deeper way, people who give to charity, which led to an exploration of generosity, which in turn opened up a lot of avenues of further exploration. Ultimately, this blog has become a vehicle for understanding my own purpose and for sharing things that I’m learning or being challenged by along the way.
  12. Someday you won’t be able to live without it. My blogging continues to evolve, and its purpose and continues to shift. It changes as I do. But it is now part of who I am and what I do, and I hope never to lose that.

For all of you out there reading, thank you. I wouldn’t be here without you.

For all of you out there thinking about writing, I hope this helps.

[title apologies: Hakuri Murakami]

Stand out

I recently had the chance to review 30 resumes from job applicants from top business schools.  The level of accomplishment in this group is just astounding.  Best grades, best jobs, speak multiple languages, have done things like volunteering in Nepal before hopping to a top job at Bain or McKinsey or co-founding an Argentine startup or, yes, working at Goldman Sachs.  And all of them have hobbies like “member of the Olympic archery team” or “have climbed three of the Seven Summits.”

What amazed me, beyond how wildly accomplished this group was, was that one out of the 30 had an online presence of any significance.  One.

One person whose body of work was readily available to see and explore.  One person whose mind and thought process and passions were easy to investigate.  One person who had more than a LinkedIn or About.me page.  One person who had a readily-available portfolio of work that gives real insight into who she is.

If this top .0001 percent in terms of accomplishment is missing this opportunity, that means big opportunity for you.  You have a huge opportunity to stand out even among (especially among?) this crowd.

That happens by putting yourself out there and showing the world your best thinking, your best ideas, your best work, in a public place that they can find and explore.  Or, more likely (since you’re just getting started), you’ll start by showing the world the work you can do today, with the knowledge that when you keep on doing it, in a few months or a few years down the road, it will be great work.

What better way could there be to stand out from the crowd?

Better yet, you’ll be amazed at how you learn and grow through the process of pushing your own thinking in this way.

You’re repeating yourself

Why yes, that’s on purpose.

Did you know that children often need to be exposed to new foods 10-15 times before they’re happy to eat them?

Same thing with ideas and action, it turns out.