One Person

I remind myself that if this post can create a change for just one person, then it’s a good post and a good day.

One person, not hundreds or thousands or millions.

An individual who experiences a small shift and does something different because of it. Someone, somewhere, who takes words and ideas and turns them into positive action.

That shift doesn’t appear in the stats, the likes or the shares.

Those numbers measure something else, and maybe that something matters a bit, but it is poorly correlated with the thing I’d really like to measure: the number of people who are more hopeful today, more committed, more empowered to make a change they seek to make. The number of people who take one more step towards their mission to create positive change.

The measure of success is you and what you do.

Ain’t no stat for that, so why do I keep on checking the numbers?

And why do you?

Where do Blog Posts Come From?

I’m always curious how others come up with blog post, so I figured I’d share my approach after 11 years of blogging.

Being a writer of any sort means paying attention, and blogging has kept me on a constant, quiet lookout for moments of insight: a topic I find myself or my team struggling through, a conversation or article that touches on a bigger theme.

These sorts of moments happen unpredictably in all sorts of places. When they do, I jot them down. If I’m in front of my laptop, I’ll write a headline or a few sentences in Word. More likely, I use my phone to send myself a short email with the blog title in the subject line and a few notes. These emails are sketchy at best, and they’re occasionally frustratingly indecipherable. But they often are enough to go on as long as I get back to them quickly.

I go back to these sketches of ideas on the train to or from work. I dedicate 10-15 minutes to the first draft of each post. If things are going well, that’s enough time for a decent rough draft. Or, I discover that the idea isn’t a post after all, and I let it go.

I save these as drafts on my laptop, and at any given moment I have 10-20 drafts at various stages of doneness. I label them as drafts so they’re easy to find, and I’ll return to them from time to time. All of this happens in Microsoft Word.

The morning before my publish deadline, I read through near-finished drafts and find a post that feels right at that moment. This is a time of polishing. I cut as many unnecessary words as possible, especially qualifiers. I push for specificity in my language and try to breathe life into the points I’m making (not “trying to make,” which I just edited out) with specific examples. Ideally, I proofread, though I should do a better job of that by reading the whole post out loud.

Letting posts sit, as drafts, for a few days or weeks is the biggest change I’ve made to my approach since I started blogging. I made the shift when I shifted to fewer posts (1-2 / week) than I used to publish (3-4 /week). I’ve no doubt that posts are stronger thanks to this change, but ideally I wouldn’t have traded quantity for quality.

Nearly everything I’m describing happens on the train I take to and from work. I do my best writing first thing in the morning, usually at the beginning of the week when my head is clear. I mostly edit at night.

Having a place—the train—where I do the writing helps: whether it’s sitting in the same chair or the same train, putting yourself in the same location to write seems required for almost all writers. As Stephen King famously said, “This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon. Or seven ’til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up.” Exactly.

My last step is to put the posts into WordPress, do a final reread and make last tweaks, and I hit the ‘Schedule’ button.

The best part is, eleven years and more than 1,100 posts in, when I hit that ‘Schedule’ button I still have absolutely no ideas which posts will have a big impact and which ones won’t. That’s all part of the process, one that’s equal parts faith and commitment.

(As a bonus, if you’re specifically interested in becoming a blogger, this post has helped a lot of people: What I Talk About When I Talk About Blogging.)

Brand New Ideas

None of your ideas is ‘brand new,’ not really.

Think of what it would mean to have a thought that no one has had before, ever.

It is, mathematically speaking, impossible.

Phew. Once we notice this, we can be duped into letting ourselves off the hook. If it’s all been said before (we tell ourselves) then no one needs to hear from us. Time to sit back, relax, and passively consume.

The problem with this story is what it imagines an idea to be: a formless, weightless thing that exists, objectively, somewhere out there.

This isn’t what ideas are at all. They are living things that take on meaning through the way they are expressed: their content, emotion, and form (the words, the medium, the imagery) all breathe unique life into them.

When we consume your idea, we take in all its indivisible parts: the idea is shaped by each irrefutably personal element you put on it. Only you could express this idea in this way, because there’s only one you.

This means that your job is not to tell us something we’ve never heard before. Your job is to tell us what this thing means to you, right now, in a way that is textured, imperfect and personal.

This allows us to understand what it means to us, right now, and why we might let it into our minds and our hearts, so that it can change us.

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.