Ritual Reflections

At a reception at the Lean Startup conference, where I was speaking last week, I struck up a conversation with a couple as waited on a food line. The three of us had started the day together in the hotel’s small, dark, grey gym, with ESPN blaring.

“How was your workout?” the woman asked, kindly.

“Oh, it was terrible,” I replied. “Truly, every minute was awful. But I finished.”

It was true. I’d had a tiring week, had rushed to catch my 6-hour flight to Las Vegas, wore earplugs all night because the hotel room was so loud, hadn’t eaten breakfast, and was feeling sluggish. I didn’t feel at all like running on the treadmill, but hoped that after I started it would get easier or better.

It never did. This is normal.

I exercise a lot, and at least half of the time I don’t really feel like doing it before I go. I mostly ignore that feeling and the accompanying thoughts, because they tell me almost nothing about what will happen once I get going, let alone how great I’ll feel afterwards.

I notice the same pattern with my kids. This weekend I had to wrench my 7-year old daughter from a lazy Sunday afternoon TV show to get her to practice her ukulele. As kids do, she vocalized all the feelings she had at that moment. “I don’t want to!” “I’m too tired!” “Can we do it a little later?”

But this morning, before school, without protest or prodding, she was in her room strumming away, belting out “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

It’s made me realize that most of what we do as parents is to try to instill good rituals.

Rituals of saying please and thank you. Rituals of putting dishes away after a meal. Rituals of how we go to bed. Rituals of doing homework early in the day. Rituals of always saying hello when we enter the house and goodbye when we leave. Rituals about using our phones and when we put them down. Rituals of reading before bed. And on and on.

These rituals only stick if they are for all of us.

My days are no different, filled with ritualistic behaviors: on the train into work, how I act when I get into the office, how and what I eat, what I do on a long-haul flight or how I get to sleep in a hotel room in a different time zone.

These rituals can be comforting, helpful and reassuring. They can be positive, well-thought out, and intentional. They can lead, day by day, to big positive changes.

Or, they can work against us: reinforcing the limitations we’re feeling in our lives, distracting us from what’s going on right now, buttressing our limitations…different flavors of short-term relief we trade, moment by moment, for a future we say we want.

Rituals are powerful because they help us push through the protests we’re feeling in our minds and bodies – whether we say them out loud like my 7-year-old, or we voice them silently. Rituals are a pre-determined set of priorities that free us from the decision of whether we should do this or that.

How we use our rituals is up to us. But when we watch someone who is doing something that seems impossible – running on a freezing cold and rainy morning; showing up perfectly pressed for work no matter what’s going on around them; always listening carefully; writing a blog every day — we should remember that what we’re witnessing isn’t a display of willpower, talent or skill.

It’s the result of ritual.

The missing Do button

It’s easier than ever to discover great new ideas. But I wonder how much better we’re getting at taking meaningful action based on the whirlwind of new ideas we’re now able to find.

How often do we receive a link to a great thought piece, read it (view it), get all jazzed up and then (wait for it…) forward it to a friend or tweet it?

Not good enough.

It’s great to share with others, but I wonder if, in taking that tiny action, we are giving ourselves the emotional satisfaction of having done something when, really, we’ve done nothing?

In the most obvious cases, this is about Like-ing a powerful video about a faraway tragedy.

But the pattern is the same if I see surprisingly good storytelling from USAID, or a fabulously clear, actionable piece about defining your brand, and all I do is share them.

What’s the action I’m committing to? What am I going to do differently as the result of coming across work that should change my thinking and my behavior? If all I do is share, the implication, at best, is that I’m hoping that someone else is more willing to act on something than I am.

Maybe we need a little help.

I fantasize about a Do button at the bottom of every article and viral video. Maybe this button links to a condensed Ship It book by Seth Godin and generates an email (or Evernote, or Google doc, or it gets pulled into Slack) describing exactly what I am going to do with this new thinking, with who, by when. The button helps us shift from “hey, this is interesting” to “this is what we’re going to do.”

To get us started, anyone out there seen a Do button that I’ve missed? Or want to make one?

And, if you like this idea, please DON’T just forward this blog post along.

Share this post, and any like it, with a commitment: think back to that one best idea you came across last week and write down what you’re going to do about it. As in (feel free to copy/paste/edit):

Hey Marcus,

Sasha Dichter’s blog post today got me thinking about that article I shared with you last week. We really need to change the way we run our team meetings, and my proposal is ________, which I want us to try at our meeting next week. As a next step, I’m going to….

(Bonus: commit to figuring out what your Do button is going to look like so that the next time a big idea rocks your world, you’ll take the steps to implement that idea to change your world for the better.)

The bottom line is that we are letting ourselves off the hook, and, in so doing, we’re not doing right by the people whose thinking we so deeply respect.  The truth is, these people aren’t interested in being a little bit famous; they’re interested in making something happen.  The best way to honor them is through the actions you take.

Walking the path

I recently had the chance to have dinner with a small group of amazing nonprofit leaders. Our host gave us all a gift by asking us to start the meal by going around the table and each sharing why we do this work.

Each member of the group was honest and open, and, in listening to story after story, I began to see that they were all essentially the same.

They were stories about role models, whether a mother or a grandfather, a teacher, a social worker, a friend.
Stories of seeing their own relative good fortune – because everybody is more fortunate than somebody.
Stories of the call to serve.
Stories of stubbornness in the face of the impossible.
Stories of discovering that their talents can be used for good.
Stories of getting hooked on the feeling of making meaningful change.
And stories of them fighting each day to keep walking the path and making a difference.

You may think, in hearing this, that these are other people’s stories, that you are still seeking out your purpose and your role, that others have arrived while you are still looking.

I ask that you consider two things:

  1. That you are on the path already. There is no moment of arrival. It is your job to keep walking, to keep listening, to push yourself to go closer to what is real so you can understand it, because understanding is the precursor to being useful. It’s also your job to invest in building the skills and the self-knowledge you will need to make a real difference – including confronting your fears and your self-imposed limitations.
  2. You don’t know it, but you are already inspiring others. The courage to look, to listen, to care, to dream – all of this already sets you apart. Each of the stories I heard started at a very young age, and the path from there to today was never straight.

Keep walking.

Are you a fundraiser?

There’s an old line that parents swap, and it goes something like:

People who aren’t parents think that there’s not a chasm between people who are and are not parents.  People who are parents know that there is one.

It’s not better or worse to be a parent, it’s just a different worldview and state of mind, a line that you cross and can never go back.

I think fundraisers experience something similar.  A good fundraiser is just as smart and savvy and capable and strategic as non-fundraisers – indeed much of what motivated me to start this blog was how frustrated I was to see that the nonprofit world sidelined fundraisers and fundraising and then wondered why it was so hard to scale things that work.

But there is something different about being a (good) fundraiser.  It means that at any day, at any moment, on some level you’re thinking about that revenue line, thinking about where you are in the year, how much time you have left, and what it’s going to take to get there.

This, too, isn’t good or bad, it just is.  It’s something you feel in your bones and in your gut.  And living with that feeling and that stress does take some getting used to.  I think the challenge of living with that discomfort is where lots of the burnout for fundraisers comes from.

My hope is that if we acknowledge it, if we say it out loud, if we share that this is something we are all holding, the weight that we are bearing gets just a bit lighter.

There’s only one

Tom Fishburne and I went to business school together, which means I was lucky enough to be a very early reader of his “Skydeck cartoons,” funny musings on what life is really like at Harvard Business School.  Tom and I knew each other a little bit at school, and have since gotten to know each other better as we’re each interested in marketing, storytelling and creating the path you want to walk.

In a perfect reflection of our brave new world, yesterday I saw a tweet of Tom’s that referenced a blog post he wrote, in which gave away the whole presentation (slides, text, the whole shebang) he did at the Do Lectures recently (yes, just writing that sentence made my head spin).

Tom’s presentation is a detailed, funny, honest account of the last 11 years of his life, and the path he walked from business school student to brand marketer to professional cartoonist.

If you’re at all interested in writing, publishing, spreading ideas, and how that all happens today (not how it used to happen and how we might wish it still were), check out Tom’s talk.  And if you work for an organization that wants to spread ideas in a new, creative way, you just might want to see if you can get Tom’s help.

Since Tom he was a kid he dreamed about becoming a cartoonist, but it never seemed like a viable profession (some facts: Bob Mankoff, the Cartoon Editor at the New Yorker, gets 1,000+ submissions a week for 17 cartoon spots, most of which are filled by veterans.  In 1995, Tom’s cartooning idols – Bill Waterson (Calvin and Hobbs), Gary Larson (The Far Side), and Berkeley Breathed (Bloom County) – all retired because of their frustrations with traditional newspaper cartooning).

Tom hadn’t cartooned in a while but, bugged by a business school classmate back in 2000, Tom started a weekly cartoon for the Harvard Business School newspaper.  Fun stuff that got folks’ attention, but definitely a hobby for Tom.

Upon graduation he worked in product marketing at P&G and then went on to work at method.  From all accounts, Tom really enjoyed this work.

Along the way, week in and week out, Tom kept cartooning, kept building his tribe (starting with just 40 people at P&G to whom he’d send his marketing cartoons), kept working.  Prominent folks (Seth Godin, Guy Kawasaki, the NY Times) wrote about his work which increased his audience, but it was all a labor of love – he was making no money, making time for all this in addition to his (big and growing) day job.

But slowly, paid gigs started coming in, and Tom realized that he might, just might, be able to make his passion into his profession. (all the details of how he made the decision here)

Fast forward to 2010: Tom, having just gotten a promotion at method, decides it’s his “now or never” moment – if he doesn’t leap now, he never will.  So he leaps.

Panic, fear, terror, ensue.  Tom is, after all, a SITKOM: “Single Income, Two Kids, Oppressive Mortgage.”

Yet nine months later (his goal was a year) Tom’s hit his goals to bring in from cartooning what he did working for method.  It’s all happening for Tom.

Of the many funny and insightful insights for startups/freelancers/how-to-pursue-your-dreams folks, the one I love the most is the quotation from Jerry Garcia: “you do not want to be considered the best of the best.  You want to be the only one who does what you do.”

The other big insight is about there being no shortcuts.  While it took Tom took nine months from the day he quit method to earn enough money to support his family, it actually took him 10 years and 9 months from the date he started cartooning to make this all happen.

The confusing thing about social media and the internet era is that the stories that spread are about overnight successes.  Yet the reality for most of the world is about hyper-specialization and methodical audience-building that pays off after a LONG long time.  The Web 2.0 meme is about speed, but for nearly everyone there are no shortcuts.

The big question to ask yourself is: how do you feel about the notion of becoming the only one who does what you do?

The moment you decide you’re not scared of that – and the moment you realize that you’re not going to know on Day One of your 10 year journey what exactly that thing is – is the moment you’re free to get started.

Tom is an amazing cartoonist and I love his work.  And at a time when the greats of a previous era are hanging up their pens, Tom’s just getting started.  That’s because, while there are thousands of really incredible cartoonists out there, there’s only one Marketoonist.