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.

My Job

Is my job, right now, to tell you what I’ve figured out, and share my wisdom?

Is my job to show you all that I don’t know, and show my openness and vulnerability?

Or is my job simply to write half of the sentence, and let you fill in the…?

Each day, every moment, a choice.

And suddenly it’s up to you

I distinctly remember the first time I had this feeling in a professional setting.  I was three years out of college, three years into my stint in management consulting, working for a client who wanted us to do a bunch of regression analysis on piles of data to see how they could respond to the rise of mobile phone service.

[answer: stop running and hiding and burying your head in the sand. Mobile wasn’t going away.  Kinda obvious in retrospect.]

The terrifying bit was discovering that, on that client team and in the small office where I worked, I was the person who knew the most about what kind of analysis we should run – terrifying because I knew I didn’t know enough, and I definitely knew less than the client expected.

In retrospect, since most of the gap in what I knew was technical I should have found a way to find SOMEONE who could help me bridge the gap.  But how to better navigate the regression wasn’t the important bit.  The important bit, the part that sticks out is the “this can’t possibly be up to me” moment I experienced.  I felt like if it was all in my hands then something was massively broken, it was a temporary glitch in the Matrix and we’d soon get back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Because what did I know?

These moments are hitting people earlier and earlier in their careers, because we’re no longer asking people to walk a path or climb a ladder.  We’re starting to recognize that whole industries (music, books, finance, technology, energy, infrastructure, philanthropy, healthcare) are either already unrecognizable or will be within 20 years, so we don’t need young people to master the old tricks of the trade, we need them to reconceive everything.

I can shout that from the rooftops but I probably won’t get you to believe that it all should be up to you, today.

But I bet I can get you to notice the next “this is up to me” moment and have you pause for a second and say, “Wait a minute.  Maybe that’s exactly the way this is supposed to be.  Maybe I’m the perfect person for the job.”

Because you are.

Fundraising tip

Silence is your friend.

When you’ve shared the great work that you’re doing, when the person across the table from you is clearly excited and ready to jump in with both feet, and when you’ve asked them to make a significant donation…then be quiet.

They probably feel a little uncomfortable at this exact moment.  You probably do too.

If you’re an empathetic person (which you obviously are), you’ll be dying to rescue them from being uncomfortable, and you’ll do it by filling in the silence.

Don’t do it.

If the partnership is the right one, and the funding decision is the right one, then the kindest thing you can do is stay quiet.

Let them fill the silence by saying yes.

Enough with the bad news

You can subscribe to this blog using an RSS Feed (like Google Reader), or by signing up by email. I hope you do one or the other.

(NOTE: for those who find the phrase “RSS Feed” terrifying, it’s actually very simple. Google Reader, for example, is just a web page that puts all of your blog feeds into one place. It’s great.)

The email subscription for my blog is run by Feedburner. I don’t spend a lot of time on the Feedburner site. As long as it is easy for people to sign up for email updates I’m happy.

But Feedburner has one setting that has, slowly and persistently, been wearing me down. Feedburner’s default notification is that I receive an email every time someone unsubscribes from my blog, but I don’t get an email when someone subscribes.

Put another way: the default setting is to send me bad and discouraging news.

So, for the past few years, I’ve been occasionally getting emails like this:

Subject: so-and-so unsubscribed from Sasha Dichter’s Blog.

I almost wish the content were a little humorous. You know: “Sorry, we know you’ve been doing your best, but Sara decided to stop reading. It didn’t work out. Better luck next time.”

I let this continue for so long for two reasons. The first was inertia (finding the darn box to uncheck on the Feedburner site was difficult). But I also told myself that getting this feedback was important, because I could make some sort of connection between the unsubscribe rate and posts that I’ve written, and in so doing I’d improve as a blogger.

What I’ve figure out, though, is two things:

  1. The data are largely irrelevant. I have no idea if someone is unsubscribing because they have a new email address, because they started using an RSS reader, because they’d stopped reading months ago and finally got around to “blog housecleaning,” or because they actually didn’t like something I wrote. (plus it’s not even clear that creating strong reactions is itself a bad thing).
  2. My interest in getting the emails was a perverse form of rubbernecking. There’s a certain fascination with (and motivation) that comes from feedback that tells you you’re not doing a good enough job.

Enough already.  Yesterday I unchecked the box.

I finally figured out that this kind of negative feedback wasn’t helping me at all. It was feeding in to doubt, self-criticism and fear, and was making me more averse to taking risks. All bad stuff.

Are there places/people/things in your life that are set up ONLY to give you negative feedback? Have you been quietly telling yourself that it is useful or, worse, that you deserve it?

Any boxes in your life that you’ve been meaning to uncheck?

I never thought I could do sales

Years ago, when I was working as a management consultant, I had a four-month gig (that turned into a yearlong project) in northeast Brazil working on the privatization of six cellphone companies.  It was a dream assignment for me – new location, high impact, I spoke the language and had the chance to share what I’d seen in other markets.  Kind of what they say management consulting can be but rarely is.

The American guy running our four-person team, 10 years my senior, had started his career as a salesman.  He sold photocopiers.  This guy cemented my image of the prototypical sales guy: at the end of a 14 hour work day, when all I wanted to do was head back to my hotel room and decompress, he’d head straight to the hotel bar.  He was one of the most extroverted, garrulous, outgoing people I’ve ever met, always ready with a wink, a smile, and a strong slap on the back.

This guy was a walking, talking stereotype.  Unbeknownst to him, I let him do me an incredible disservice.

“I’m not that guy,” I told myself for more than a decade.  “I’m not most comfortable in a room full of strangers.  I don’t love making small talk.  I’m not always the most outgoing, talkative guy in the room.  So I can’t do sales.”

As I repeated this story to myself, I closed doors.  I limited myself.  I didn’t understand that just because I didn’t fit that mold didn’t mean that I couldn’t do this work.

I bring what I bring to the table.  And you bring what you bring.  It’s up to both of us to decide what to do with our talents.

But slamming doors before we’ve ever tried to walk through them?  Then we have no one to blame but ourselves when our path forward isn’t what we’d hoped it would be.


Confidence and Abilities

A woman I’ve gotten to know has had one of the most incredible professional trajectories I’ve ever had the pleasure to witness.  In six years she’s gone from an off-the-street volunteer/intern into a key player in a global organization.  It’s not just that her job title or her responsibilities have changed – she is a fundamentally different person (or, more accurately, she’s taken huge strides towards becoming the person she’s meant to be and who the world needs her to be).  Amazingly, the organization she works for has been able to keep up with her trajectory and give her bigger, more challenging roles.

When we talk about her career and her life, we keep coming back to the fact that one of her biggest challenges is having her confidence keep pace with her abilities.  While the people around her realize who she’s become, realize what a linchpin she is for her organization, at times the echoes of her former self, her former self-image, her former limitations, all reverberate, if only for her.

For a while I thought that this reflection was just for her, because most people don’t transform as quickly as she does.

But of course it is for all of us.

Most of us carry the mantle of our former selves – the intern we were, the person with the entry-level job clamoring for attention, with all those perceived limitations holding us back.

Worse, we make the mistake of spending time and energy clamoring for that bigger job, the new job title and formal responsibilities, energy that could instead be spent on actually doing bigger, better, more audacious things.  And we get even more confused when our asking for more actually gets us more, reinforcing the specious notion that real authority, ability, and voice come from anywhere but inside of us.


The weathermen are always wrong

They’re not, actually.*  For most days when no one is paying attention they’re usually right.

The thing is, we only pay attention when the stakes are high (“BIG STORM COMING!!” or when we’re planning for a vacation) and then when the forecast is wrong we remember that, hang on to it, and share stories about that day we prepped for the storm, canceled a meeting, stayed home from work…and the storm didn’t come.

Sure, sensationalist weathermen competing for viewer eyeballs play into this, so it’s fun to have them be the scapegoats.  But that’s not the point. The point is that people may talk louder about your failures than they do about your successes; or, worse, the naysayers speak up first and loudest, just when you’re getting going.  That’s the risk in showing up every day and putting yourself out there.

Don’t let the fact that the critics talk  – sometimes loudly – become an excuse for you not to show up in the first place.

*                       *                       *                       *                       *                    *

*NOTE:  here’s the chart (original analysis here) on the accuracy of weather forecasts.  If forecasts were 100% accurate, the solid blue line would lie directly on top of the dashed line.  Pretty accurate, actually.

The big ask

A colleague asked me today, “what different strategies would you use to ask someone for $250,000 as opposed to $50,000?”

The first thing to clarify is whether you’re asking the same person for these different amounts of money.  Put another way, are you asking “how do I get someone to shift from making a donation that’s not a big decision to making a donation that is a big decision?”  Or are you asking, “how do I get up the nerve to look someone in the eye and ask them for a quarter of a million dollars (or more!)?”

Regardless of which of these questions you’re really asking, in each case you need the same basic elements.  You need a story that is real, compelling, that has emotional content.  A story that you believe in, that you think is important.  A story that is true for you, for your organization, for its beneficiaries.  A narrative that resonates with and reinforces the world view of the donor.  A narrative that the donor can be a part of – can place themselves in and, in the best of cases, can help write themselves.

The size of the donation (the “ask”)?  It has to come out of this narrative and this truth – you can’t bolt it on afterwards and have any hope of success.

So, going back to the two questions, if someone is giving much less than then can, then the story is not holding true for them on some level.

If you are asking for much less than you should, then the story is not holding true for you on some level.

Which one is it?


Here’s something I hear all too often: “Oh, we can’t ask her to donate (buy) to this new project (product), she already gives (buys) so much.”

Which way does the value flow again?

Remember, remember, remember, people don’t give (buy) and get nothing in return. They didn’t give because they were temporarily hoodwinked, cajoled, tricked, or otherwise pushed unaware over some invisible line. They gave to accomplish something, to express something, to be more of the person they want to be.  And that’s true whether they give $50 or $50 million.

OK, so that’s easy to say and it sounds so sensible.

But if it’s sensible then the right thing to say when you’re creating something new, something exciting, something powerful, is, “Wow we’d better make sure we take this idea to the people who are our biggest supporters.  They’d be so bummed if they missed out on this opportunity.”

There’s a world of difference between “Please would you give to this?” and “This idea is so exciting, you don’t want to miss out on it.”  A bigger difference still when “you don’t want to miss out” is so real, is something you feel in your bones, because then it’s true and you and the person you’re talking to feel and know that truth.

And yes, this is just as true when you’re selling a project, selling a gig, selling a software solution as it is in philanthropy.

The conversation you want to have, the conversation you can have right now, starts with, “Imagine this amazing, exciting thing.  Wouldn’t it be cool if we could make this happen together?”

Not a zero sum game.  Abundance.

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