Shedding Light

Yesterday was the equinox, one of only two days in every year (or in every orbit around the sun) when the amount of daylight we receive is basically equal to the amount of darkness. Where I live in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s our “autumnal equinox” because it signals the official transition from summer to fall.

This means that for the next ninety days or so—every day from now until the December solstice —the amount of daylight I see will be reduced. Soon it will be darker when I am up in the morning to write, and it will be dark when I leave the office at the end of the day. It will get colder, and trees will shed their leaves just as the Earth begins to shed off sunlight in exchange for a longer cloak of star-filled nights.

But yesterday, for one brief moment in this orbit, we were on a planet of equipoise, the sun directly at our equator, with both ends of Earth receiving an even balance of light and dark, warm and cold, energy and stillness.

For one day, in a moment that we could never really notice or feel, we all got an even share of something bigger than ourselves.

Work on Vacation

I am technically on vacation as I write this. I’m not supposed to be checking email, or doing anything related to work. I’m not supposed to be updating documents or spreadsheets or doing research. And yet I have done all of those things every day of my vacation within view of the ocean.

And you know what? It’s been an amazing vacation, and it truly has been restful and relaxing the whole time. So why am I “on vacation” but still doing “work” at the beach?

Because I’m only doing work I really want to do, and only for two or three hours in the morning. The rest of the day is devoted to being on vacation with my wife, playing epic games of miniature golf and skeeball, reading novels on the beach, and consuming copious amounts of fried and freshly shucked seafood and soft-serve ice cream. You know – vacation stuff.

Because the point of vacation isn’t simply about about “not doing work”—it’s about taking a break from the things you have to do and focusing instead on only doing things you want to do, and doing it all in as relaxed and leisurely a manner as possible. I asked myself, What is it I am taking a vacation from? and whatever the answer, those are the things I should not be doing.

Or to think of it another way: I choose to use my vacation time, “me” time, to finally indulge my energy and attention on all the things that I feel I’d rather be doing when I’m stuck doing work. What I’m taking a vacation from is the obligations to others, and focusing instead on just hanging out with my wife, being as leisurely as possible.

Did I bring a lot of material related to my work with me? Yes, because it’s stuff I really want to work on for myself. Lots books and notes to review for my upcoming conference presentations, but also my own beach reading material for kicking back on the sand under an umbrella.

Vacations for us mean leisurely mornings with few plans. Coincidentally, mornings are a peak time of energy and attention for me, a time when I’m most able to do productive work. By taking two or three hours every morning of leisure time doing some of the work I want to get done for myself, I am able to relax and use all my remaining energy and attention fully to enjoy the rest of the day free of distraction.

By allowing myself to indulge in doing the work I truly want to get done for myself, I am able to get rid of the nagging feelings of things left undone. It’s amazing how much even just a single productive hour can make on the rest of my day, all while still sleeping late and relaxing and enjoying the sights and sounds and cool breezes of Cape Cod in September.

So I won’t feel guilty about checking email or updating spreadsheets while I’m on vacation, as long as I’m honest with myself about doing it because it’s something I genuinely want to do, and will enjoy having done. The key is to keep it to a short, set amount of time, and then letting go of it for the rest of the day.

Scheduling a little time for productive work during vacation can be a wonderful thing as long as you’re smart and honest about it. Don’t work just to work, and don’t engage with anything you don’t feel drawn to. Vacation time is you time, and that’s what’s most important.

I’m happy I found this balance, and I’ve had a wonderful week because of it. In fact, thanks to fewer distractions on my mind during the day, I think my miniature golf game has improved – I’m almost making par for every course.

More importantly, I’m having a great time because I made time to work on vacation.

Doing Too Much

“You know, maybe we shouldn’t be doing this project right now…”

That’s not a phrase I hear often in meetings, and not a mentality I usually associate with myself or my hardworking colleagues. But until someone said it out loud, I don’t think it had ever occurred to me that not continuing a project was ever an option. And it felt so good to realize it might be true.

We have been talking for months about a small upgrade project that could have a significant impact, focused on the benefits it could bring to our users and the new things it would help us learn about them. And technically we could get it done. Those of us involved would have just enough time that we could build it, test it, and launch what we need to have something running within a couple of weeks.

But it wouldn’t be a great user experience.

Back in May, it seemed doable. But things change. Other priorities appear, time and resources become scarce, and the requirements for implementing an upgrade that once seemed so doable suddenly have a lot of question marks next to them.

With so many other projects going on, and so many bigger things we need to focusing our time and energy toward, it’s clear that trying to do this well on top of everything else simply wouldn’t work. Or, at least, if we wanted to do this, it couldn’t be done the same ways we’ve done it in the past. Not with the same people, and not without training others.

So the questions had to be asked now, before we committed: Should we really be doing this right now if we’re not sure we can deliver a valuable experience? What do we lose if we wait a year? Maybe if we wait, the other big things we’re working on will teach us something about this project that can help us make it even better anyway?

I am so glad I work with a team who aren’t afraid to be human and imperfect. To question a plan in progress is a sign that someone is paying attention from a higher perspective and being willing to talk about that is a huge benefit.

So now we have a decision to make, and it will involve further discussion, but at least we’re talking honestly about our work and what it means for our audience, and we’re unafraid to speak up about it and admit there are things we can’t do. We’ve become unburdened, and feels like a weight has lifted.

We are admitting we are a human team, and figuring out together when to ask if we are really doing something valuable, or perhaps we are doing too much.

Time Passing

Sixteen years ago today, I married my wife here in the beautiful town of Ithaca, standing under cover of light fog and misty rain just up the hill from the college campus where our lives first entwined.

Just three years later we moved to Ithaca for good, and it was this week nine years ago that we bought our first home, our own little parcel of the city we love.

It’s the same home where I now sit beside my favorite other person in the world, typing out this little thank you to the universe for all of it.

Let me always be worthy of all of this.

 

The Feedback You Want

I’ve been holding on to this for a while, but I wanted to share a bit of feedback from my talk at HighEdWeb NE this past March. I received a lot of very kind and positive notes, which was flattering, but there was only one note among all of this anonymous feedback that truly resonated with me:

I’m not sure it really came together to form a coherent whole. Also, I’m not sure it quite managed to be as inspirational as it appears like it was meant to be. Sorry.

I have no way of knowing who shared that, but that might be the best piece of feedback  received all year. Why? Because it was honest.

Honest, thoughtful feedback is the best kind of feedback to give, and the best kind to receive. But sharing that level of feedback effectively sometimes feels like more effort, and that may be why we don’t see enough of it.

Take a look at that quote above again. Within the context of all the other notes of praise and thanks I recieved, one may be tempted to label this particular note as “negative” feedback but actually there’s nothing negative about it—it doesn’t say “that was bad” or “you’re not a good speaker” or “I didn’t like this.”  Instead, this person took just a few sentences to share two specific areas where they felt the talk was weak, and they kept the feedback focused on the content and substance of what I was sharing. It wasn’t about me, it was about my talk.

And that was exactly the kind of feedback I wanted. As soon as I read that, my thought was “Yes! Finally, someone who felt the same way I did about this!” This one person confirmed my inner discomfort with what I had presented, confirmed my own lingering feeling there were still a lot of ideas and connections within my keynote that were not fully formed; that it was a cake that needed more time to bake but I rushed it and cleverly disguised the flaws with extra frosting in the hopes that nobody would notice.

Well, at least one person did notice. This person was paying attention, and very directly and succinctly offered two notes on where I might be able to improve. Both of which I needed to hear, and both of which I agree with.

The only part I don’t agree with is the “Sorry” at the end. Whoever wrote this has no need to apologize for not enjoying something the way others seemed to enjoy it. And nobody should ever apologize for honest feedback. If I had been given this feedback directly at the time, I probably would have offered to buy this person a beer. But there is a natural tendency to feel like a downer if you don’t enjoy something the way others do, and we become reluctant to share and be “that person” in the crowd.

Don’t let fear of being unkind stand in the way of helping others improve. Honest feedback that comes from a place of genuine support is a greater kindness than simply saying something was nice or okay.

Most anyone who has worked hard on creating something and then sharing it with an audience will crave thoughtful notes that are specific about something the audience liked as well as what they didn’t. As far as I’m concerned, honest feedback is that supports improvement is the feedback I most want to hear, and that’s the only kind of feedback I intend to give in return.

 

Sharing Human at HighEdWeb 2016

I’m travelling for professional conferences this year more than ever before, and participating in them more deeply than I ever thought I could. It’s not something I set out to do, especially after mostly laying low for 2015 and not attending much (well, there was that one thing). But I’m making up for that time away in 2016, with at twice the activity on my schedule in 2016, especially when it comes to events related to the HighEdWeb Association.

First off, I recognize that it’s a privilege to even be able to attend a professional conference at all, let alone to have the costs of such an excursion covered by my employer. I’m grateful for that support every single time, and for the same reason I am more than happy to trade off every other year and let someone else from our team attend. I have seen and felt the effects that a great conference of new ideas and perspectives can have on the work we do. The sense of community and support that comes from meeting and socializing with colleagues and peers from around the country has changed me and improved my work immeasurably, and I am so grateful to be part of it.

But this year I’m returning to HighEdWeb for 2016 and I’m excited to be on the schedule with both a pre-conference workshop and a conference presentation, and I can’t wait to share them both with my higher ed peers:

Human At Work(shop)

This pre-conference workshop is an expanded, hands-on version of the “Best of Conference” talk I gave at HighEdWeb 2014, focused on diving deeper into the details that I could only mention in passing in that original 45 min. presentation. I will share some of the specific steps and resources that have evolved in my own productivity toolbox over the past two years, but most of the time will be devoted to leading participants through a series of steps to finding their own best ways of getting things done. If you’re planning to attend HighEdWeb this October, this workshop will be a great opportunity to work on your own specific trouble areas, whether that’s email overload, task management, or just finding better work/life balance, and you’ll leave with a new perspective on how to organize your work and make room for all the amazing new ideas you’ll be hearing about during the main conference in the days that follow. I hope you’ll consider signing up for what should be a very productive afternoon together before the main conference begins.

Share Human: The Value of Sharing Beyond Authenticity

I’m also excited to be presenting a version of the talk I gave back in March as the HighEdWeb New England regional conference keynote. I don’t have a lot more to say about this talk here that I haven’t already explored in my posts leading up to that event, but I am looking forward to getting another chance to share a message that is personal and different and important to me. The challenge this time will be delivering my ideas in 15-20 minutes less time than I did for the keynote, a constraint I’m actually grateful for to help me hone the message of my talk even further. That means even if you saw my HighEdWeb NE keynote, you’ll probably see some changes in this version, but hopefully you’ll still feel the same feels as before.

Of course, those are just two things I happen to be presenting, but the entire schedule for this year’s HighEdWeb is seriously full of some amazing presentations. I already know I’m going to have to make some tough choices about what to see myself while I’m there.

But at this point, I wouldn’t expect anything less from HighEdWeb. The level of participation at this conference continually amazes, and so does the commitment of all volunteer organizers and committee members making it happen. I really hope you’ll get the chance to attend and participate in this great coming-together of passionate, like-minded communication professionals. Think about it if you must, but don’t wait too long (you only have until July 31 to get early-bird discounts). If you’re on the fence, maybe this video will help you make up your mind?

If you are going to be attending this conference and would like to meet up, please feel free to reach out on Twitter and let me know. After all the anxiety of my presentations is over, I know I’m going to need large doses of Memphis barbeque and beer, and I can’t think of anything that goes better with a great meal than a great conversation. See you there!

Corrections to My Annual Review

Dear Human Resources Representative:

I recently submitted my self-assessment portion of the college’s annual work review through the online Employee General Overview worksheet as required. However, upon further review, I have come to realize that there were some factual errors and misreported details included in the E.G.O. worksheet I submitted.

I request that you please append the following corrections:

  • When I estimated the amount of time I spend responding to emails, I was including the time spent on the many emotionally-charged responses I craft in my mind before an actual response is sent. The more accurate time should be 10 hours per week, not 50 hours.
  • Among my accomplishments for the year, I mentioned completing a major web content audit for our chemistry department in only one week. However, the actual work only took me about four days, and the rest of that time was spent watching videos of chemistry experiments and explosions on YouTube.
  • Under professional development, it should read “growing expertise in user experience” instead of usher experience. I’m already pretty confident in ability to usher, and almost none of it is useful in my current position at this college.
  • I was not honest when I said my “power animal” is a tiger—I was just trying to seem impressive. My actual “power animal” is a flying squirrel, and I’m not ashamed about it. Flying squirrels are awesome.
  • In my list of goals for the year ahead, it is accessibility that I hope to improve, not our excess ability. I fully support the improvement of any excess abilities if we have them, but feel strongly that accessibility is far more valuable for our community.
  • I don’t know what I was thinking when I included Phil Collins’ “Sussudio” on my desert island music list. Please replace it with Madonna’s “Borderline” instead. It’s a classic, and again, I am not ashamed.
  • I was wrong—it is *not* currently possible to patent or copyright a hashtag.
  • My correct Myers-Briggs profile type is “ENFP” not “R2D2” — I aplogize for the mixup.

Vacation Work

Apparently, I’m not good at taking enough time off throughout the year because it took me until last week to realize that I have ten days of vacation time banked that I have to use before this month is over or I lose it. But now that I’m being forced to use it, I intend to make the most of it.

For starters, I’m taking a full week off from work at the office to stay at home and do work instead. That is, I’m leaving behind my office email and calendar and meetings so I can retreat to bigger, deeper projects; pulling myself away from the demands of others to focus on the demands of my soul.

And I really do mean that. This is time off to feed my soul, my larger self, what makes me me. It is time indulge my creative hunger, dive deeper into the ideas I want to research and explore, and fill in the gaps of home projects that I’ve neglected for too long.

I will probably use some of this time to work on stuff related to my job as well, and that’s okay. We often think of that as a bad thing – we tell each other not to do “work stuff” while we’re away. But I’ve been in my job long enough now that so much of my “work stuff” is also “me stuff” that I care about. There things I want to learn and practice for myself during vactation time because I know they will make me better at my job when I return to the office. Why would we ever discourage that?

We understand the benefits of semi-annual offsite retreats for a leadership team or organization to focus on in-depth discussion and exploration of big ideas, long-term plans, and get to know their colleagues better. So why not use personal time away for the same purpose? Paid vacation time away from the office alone is a perfect opportunity to catch up on reading and research that has piled up; to explore my own creative ideas, make long-term plans, build skills, and find clarity.

I realize it is a priviliged situation to be in at all, to even have a job that offers paid time-off in the first place—I’ve had jobs in the past where this wasn’t the case. And to be able to have enough that I can spend this on my own, and still have real vacation time available later to spend with my wife traveling and not thinking about anything but the experience of being away.

It’s not like I don’t get alone time already. I’m usually up early enough to get an hour or two for daily reading and writing. And that morning focus is good, but it’s limited. It only allows for short writing sprints, iterating and editing blog posts like this, thinking out an idea as I go and redrafting, rewriting for a weekly goal.

A full week off for myself allows for something bigger, a chance to cast my net into much deeper waters and pull ideas and connections to the surface that for now I only sense are there, waiting to be found. But I am not setting any expectations, either. I have no specific goal of what I expect to find. The discovery process itself is the only goal I need.

At the end of this week I may not have much to physically show for it—no thick reports or manifestos, no charts or presentations—but I will have a more detailed map of the terrain than I had before. I will have a better sense of where I’m going, what the obstacles are, the challenges, and the opportunities, and I’ll be able to take my first steps on a path through it all.

I’m leaving the office for a week to work for myself from a fresh perspective. When I return to the office, I plan to bring some of that fresh perspective with me, wrapped in shiny foil swans like choice morsels from an indulgent feast of ideas.

Photo by Todd Quackenbush via Unsplash.com

Come On in My Kitchen

“Here’s a little taste of something new the chef is working on – let us know what you think.”

That’s one of my favorite things to hear when I’m dining out because it instantly tells me at least two important things about the people behind the food I’m eating: that they like to delight and surprise their customers, and they are still challenging themselves to create new flavors and improve the food they serve each day. Those are both key to a great restaurant experience, and vital to being a great chef.

Which is why any good chef has a test kitchen; some kind of designated area or block of time where they can play around with new ingredients, explore their latest inspiration, or just refine and improve and rethink the dishes they’ve been cooking for years. It’s a chance to riff off of other members of their team, to improvise and experiment, and practice new techniques in an environment where failure is okay.

In fact, failure is sometimes the goal of a test kitchen. Even a home cook learns that the best way to really get to understand an ingredient or technique is to fail with it repeatedly, usually in different ways and different reasons, and with each failure we discover a new limitation that, in turn, helps us more clearly see where the sweet spot of success lies, and a new dish emerges.

This is essentially the Goldilocks principle at work; with every variation we learn what leads to a result that is undercooked or bland, when a dish is burnt or overseasoned, and only with those extremes do we know understand for sure where our perfectly cooked, balanced flavors will come through best.

A good chef will go through dozens if not hundreds of variations of these variations for everything they make, learning how to dial in the best proportions of seasoning, of heat, of time, and how do adjust those to meet the variations of their ingredients every time they cook. The same goes for brewers making new beer, or winemakers with fresh grapes; for farmers looking for the best yield and the best flavors; for painters and photographers looking for the right mix of color and light; musicians looking for the perfect delivery and tone.

And of course, it applies to writing, where the real work is the iteration. Refining and reworking a page sentence by sentence to make sure the idea holds, that it’s not undercooked or overseasoned. The best way to know when you have good writing is to spend time on the writing that is less good, push the boundaries of voice and tone and plot and—

So I like to think of this space, my blog, as my test kitchen, and my goal is to put out at least one new dish every week. Each post is like a little something to snack on—sometimes salty and crunchy, othertimes rich and heavy, often just airy and simple and familiar—and I leave out on the bar to see who tries it. Often it just kind of sits there. Other times people reach for it and pass it around and I try to figure out why.

But as time goes on, and I continue to refine my work and learn to express myself better, I am also gaining experience that will make me more confident and better at putting the ingredients of a story together. I’ll know how much seasoning is needed to express a mood, how far to stretch a metaphor, or when I’m in danger of serving an idea that is overbaked.

And you’re welcome to come on into my test kitchen anytime and have a taste. Sometimes you’ll get a remnant of scraps I wanted to use up, or maybe you’ll get an early sample of something bigger I’m working on. No matter what you think, this chef appreciates your feedback, and hopes you’ll be back for another meal soon.

Dotting the I

I’ve been writing slower lately. Not that I’ve ever been a fast writer to begin with, but I suppose what I mean is I’m writing slower now with purpose.

I usually start every morning with an hour or two of reading and writing time. I’m up around 5:00 a.m. most days, and once I’ve got my coffee I’m sitting at the kitchen table ready to absorb ideas. Often those are the ideas of others from whatever book I’m reading, which I absorb by taking notes or annotating the text itself. Other times, often in that same morning block, I absorb my own thoughts and ideas by writing them down. The act of finding the words to express an idea—a thought or image or feeling—and then pulling those words into sentences is how I absorbing those ideas, moving them into my conscious mind.

Lately I’ve realized I absorb ideas best by writing them in longhand in my notebook rather than typing on a screen. Something about the physical motions of embedding my thoughts into the blank page with marks of dark ink feels like a rite, like something sacred. I like to use a fine-tip pen that flows cleanly and crisply, allowing me to write small and fit a lot on a page.

And here’s the thing about a good fine-tipped pen: it is precise. Which makes shaping letters and words feel almost delicate, and sloppy handwriting somehow more sloppy. Move too fast with a precise pen and the line may be too fine to read; write too small and the letters may be too close together to be legible.

So lately I’ve made a point of overcoming my worst handwriting habit by making sure I take the time to dot every lowercase letter that needs it—my “i” and my “j”—as I form the letter. Typically I would write out the entire word, then my hand went back to add the dot(s) over those letter forms as needed, or even more often, I would leave them undotted altogether. Overall the effect was messy and uneven. Now the results are neater and easier to read when I go back to it.

Just this one small change in how I physically write has made the act of writing more meaningful, and more effective for me. Now I am absorbing the letter and the word and the sentence more fully than before, and therefore absorbing the thoughts and ideas I’m writing more completely.

Taking the extra millisecond to add the final dot over a line feels slower than before, but it’s not actually all that slower. What moves slower is my brain, and that’s the real point of this. By being more mindful about the process and movement and actions of writing ideas, I am more focused on the ideas. I am more open to their message, more productive in their implementation.

When we talk about being sure to “dot our i’s and cross our t’s” we typically mean being sure that we have reviewed every detail of something important after it is nearly complete. But there is something we can gain by going slower in the first place, writing by hand, carefully and mindfully dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s in the moment we make them, forming every letter and every word with a greater sense of purpose.

I am dotting my i’s to honor my i’s, and the meaning behind them. And by writing with awareness, I know I will absorb what I am writing much deeper than ever before.