New vs. Different

When do we decide to try something new? And how do we know if it really is new, and not just different?

It seems like everything’s been done already. But not everything that has been done was done well. Often things are done just good enough to be declared done. Good enough to meet the requirements by the deadline. Good enough to break even. Good enough to fill a gap until we think of something better.

Or, Sure, that’s been done before, but not by me. If it’s new to me, I’m going to do it differently, and the result will be different.

Why bother with the new, if different is enough?

Or maybe, let’s keep making what’s different different again. Let’s iterate our way to what matters. Let’s figure it out by trying something different.

Let’s keep working on something because we’re compelled to, because we can’t stop thinking about that idea, that detail, the way this interaction makes me feel, the way people get excited when they hear about it.

Sometimes we can set out to make something that is just different, only to see it become something brand new. A different kind of video camera spawns a whole new first-person video genre. A different actor plays Hamlet, or Batman, and somehow it changes our understanding of Hamlet or Batman because it is so different.

The key is to be sure that the reason to be different reflects an honesty at the core. It comes from a choice to express something genuine, not just what people want to hear or what they expect.

Let’s make what we’re making because we want to, because this is something we need in the world and we see no other way to have it unless we make it ourselves. Maybe others will like it too, maybe not. We’ll find out.

Or maybe we were lucky enough to have people come to us and ask us to be the ones who make this for them, and we agreed it was something the world needed. But we’re still making it for us, because we want the challenge. Because we have an honest need.

Maybe it’s a result of boredom, and we crave the stimulation of change. Perhaps it’s frustration with the current way of doing things. We’re not getting the results we hoped for, or the process is too slow.

Be honest about the goal. Start with different. Let the new happen on its own.

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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Dear Eric

It has now been one year since you died. I’m not sure we’ll ever know what happened to you, only that you were alone when your car left the road late at night, hit something at high speed, and you weren’t wearing a seatbelt. You didn’t survive. You were only a little more than a year older than me.

In some ways I’m surprised it’s only been one year since the accident; so much has happened in the past twelve months it feels like your death happened in a whole different world than where we are now. But emtionally, this anniversary is touching something raw within me, this first loop around the calendar back to a date I had pushed away from my mind. I think it was the suddenness of it, the shock, the seeming randomness of your accident that knocked me off balance.

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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!

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 →