Green hills below a vast clear blue sky

How To Survive Whatever Comes Next

I am part of the popular majority who did not vote for the person who is officially becoming President of the United States today. And like many others in that majority, I have been cycling through feelings of disbelief, anger, sadness, and disappointment since November. Every announcement about the leadership appointments and policy changes expected from the incoming administration are disturbing. All the ongoing investigations around intelligence breaches and Russian influence only make things seem uglier.

I am not happy about any of this. But I am not going to live unhappy because of it, and neither should you.

Regardless of who you voted for, regardless of what you expect to happen next, there is one thing we can all do to make our lives and this country better: we all have to wake up each day and make good decisions about how we’re going to live and work and communicate and contribute to the world in a way that is meaningful to us.

And as I’ve been writing about since this blog began, making good choices means staying HUMAN: Honest, Unafraid, Mindful, Active, and Nice.

Be HONEST with yourself and with others about what really matters to you. Follow the subjective honesty of your heart and your gut to help you understand your values, but don’t ignore the objective honesty of facts and data, especially if they conflict with your instincts. Feel confident that you could explain why you feel the way you do about things, why you choose what you choose, and if you don’t know why, be honest enough to say that too. That’s how we learn and grow.

Be UNAFRAID of bullies and threats against your beliefs and values, and be unafraid to be different, to stand apart from the crowd and share your honest self. And equally important, don’t be afraid to admit when you’re wrong about something. Admitting you’re wrong is just admitting you’re human. Now that news and social media can influence us so subtly that we’re not even aware of it, it’s highly likely that what you’re sure you understand today may change tomorrow as new information becomes available. Don’t fear that change just because it’s different, but also don’t be afraid to ask questions when the answers aren’t clear.

Stay MINDFUL of how you apply your time and attention every day. Do your work with purpose, informed with the honesty and fearlessness you’ve already built. Don’t lose sight of your values, and don’t be steered astray of your goals by taking on too much at once. Set goals that are important to you, that you know you can achieve, and measure your progress. Don’t just witness your life happening—participate in every day, and let yourself be absorbed in what you’re doing. Breathe, and know that you are breathing.

Be ACTIVE about nurturing your values and seek opportunities to grow. Learn facts, learn history, learn science and culture. See a movie about people who look and talk differently from you. Travel to a place you’ve never been. Discover something inspiring, and then share it with someone. Write about it, photograph it, sing it aloud. If you think you can make change in the world, don’t just stand in place yelling about it—go out and make the change happen. Don’t keep your self to yourself.

Be NICE to your fellow humans. Listen, be patient, be engaged. Ask people about their lives, about their worries. Give time to help when you know help is needed. Share what you can, give support to individuals and organizations that you think are making a difference in the world, and not just to feel good. Yell and scream at problems, not at people. Don’t hate, don’t bully, don’t demean. Be patient, be reasonable, and act with dignity. Be a good citizen, willing to work with others for the benefit of all.


As John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.”

I choose to focus on the good today, and be grateful for the bad that never came to be. I choose not to waste whatever miracles lie ahead but help make them happen. I choose to be Honest, Unafraid, Mindful, Active, and Nice.

Stay human, share human, and live a good life. We’re all still here, we’ll still be here tomorrow, and the day after that. Let’s make a heav’n of hell together today and see what happens.

Truly Productive Gift Guide 2016

I love giving gifts just as much as I love receiving them, so each December I like to share my own Gift Giving Guide For Productive Humans. There have been a number of distractions this season that put me behind schedule on all of my gift giving preparations (more about that in future posts), so this entry comes a lot later than usual—too late to be useful, perhaps—but I still think it’s worth sharing with you. And since the most productive gift anyone can give is more time, I will keep it short.

As with previous years, my gift list consists of only one thing, and the only criteria for this is that the gift be inexpensive ($50 or less), simple to use, and most importantly, it is useful and enables or supports productive work. It has to be a tool that you want to use, not a tool that gets in the way. If it’s also well designed and well made, then even better.

So without further introduction, my Truly Productive Gift for 2016 is…

The Amazon Echo Dot *

Maybe not what you were expecting from this list, and honestly I wasn’t either. But I looked back on the past year and thought about what tools I find myself relying on every day, tools that improved or even changed how I work. That usually means a tool that helps reduce my cognitive load, something to get tasks or ideas out of my head so I can focus on doing high-value work instead, or help me keep better track of how I spend my time and energy. The Echo Dot is something that can do all of those things in some ways, and yet in other ways it does more than I ever thought I would need.

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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.

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.

 

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.

Thank You, HighEdWeb NE

This is the final post in my 10 week narrative about the creation of my keynote talk for the 2016 HighEdWeb New England regional conference,  held at Mount Holyoke College on March 18. You can find an index of all the posts in this series on my #ShareHuman page.

So that went well, all things considered. Not bad for a first time keynote speaker, and I am so glad that it was for a room full of peers and mentors and friends that made me feel very welcome and comfortable right from the moment I arrived at Mount Holyoke College last week.

(Of course, you’ll never go wrong surprising me with a basket full of custom playing cards, fresh coffee, beer, books, and a gift card for my favorite purveyor of local meats—this HEWebNE planning committee did their homework and knew just how to make someone who’s naturally bashful about receiving gifts feel really special.)

And as much as being with all these people at this conference made me want to give my best, especially with so many great presentations before and after my talk, I could also tell that even if I had problems they would be there to support me. I could have failed spectacularly in front of this group, and it would have been hard to deal with, but I know they would have boosted me through it.

But it never came to that. As soon as I was able to start talking (and get a boost of good ol’ Moxie in me to help make up for only four hours of sleep) it all started to flow, and I entered The Presenter Zone… Continue reading →

photo by Chetan Menaria

Letting Go to Move Forward

I just had my last-ever meeting with my boss. She’s leaving our office  after 13 years of work in higher ed marketing for a big opportunity in a different industry and a different town. She’s taking a bold step, leaving behind an institution that not only helped shape her, but that she helped shape for others.

I’ve been trying to figure out how I feel about the whole thing and frankly I’m in a bit of a daze.

On one hand, I don’t blame her for leaving when she is. Our office and our campus have been on a very bumpy road this year, especially over the past few months. She stepped up to take on a lot for our team and was not rewarded well for her efforts. Combined with all the continued protests and negative vibes going around our campus, plus new leadership still just settling in and others vacancies still to be filled, I think her timing is actually probably perfect.

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