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.

Baby Steps

This was the first personal productivity method that ever stuck with me, and it came from Richard Dreyfuss:

“Baby steps?”
“It means setting small, reasonable goals for yourself, one day at a time. One tiny step at a time… For instance, when you leave this office, don’t think about everything you have to do to get out of the building, just think about what you must do to get out of this room. And when you get to the hall, deal with that hall, and so forth. You see?”

Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss) describes his book Baby Steps to Bob Wiley (Bill Murray).

That’s what Dreyfuss (as Dr. Leo Marvin) offers as a path to curing the severe phobias of Bill Murray (as Bob Wiley) in the 1991 film What About Bob? (you can watch a clip of the scene here), which of course leads to increasingly wacky situations (and one of my favorite Bill Murray performances).

It’s a made-up conceit for the movie, but… there’s something very real and familiar about the idea that has always stuck with me. It’s simple enough for anyone to understand how it works, and it’s easy to remember and try for yourself. In fact, part of why it works so well for comedy is because it seems obvious and simplistic enough to be plausible, so there’s no way it could actually work, right? But it does, and it’s not a new idea.

The “Baby Steps” method is about learning to focus, but it’s also about learning to let go of the fear and anxiety that prevents us from finding that focus. Bob Wiley lives in constant anxiety about hundreds of ways he could get hurt or fail out in the world, and those phobias prevent him from being able to function. But focusing on one small, simple goal means putting aside all other fears. With all the resources of his mind focused on doing one thing, and all other anxieties on hold, Bob is able to finally able to venture out into the world.

Actually, “Baby Steps” isn’t about actions at all—it’s about making decisions. It’s about letting go of thinking of all the things you have to do, and deciding on one small, manageable task you can do right now.

Decide what you can do right now that will be useful, something you have to get done today, and give your full attention to doing that one thing. When you’re done, reward yourself with a little break, then decide to do another thing, and do that. Repeat.

It may not be easy or practical to apply this to your entire day. There will always be interruptions and things beyond our control, but we can find the smaller steps within those moments too if we need them. It may not be a complete solution to all your problems, but if you want a simple method for making better decisions about how you spend your time, “Baby Steps” is a step in the right direction.

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.

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.

 

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.

Time to Share

I’ve been sharing my process of preparing the keynote talk I’m presenting at the 2016 HighEdWeb New England regional conference on March 18—that’s today! This is the eighth post in the series; you can find an index of all previous posts in this series on my #ShareHuman page.

So this is it – the big day has finally arrived. No more tweaking of my slides, no more digging for photos online to perfectly express an esoteric idea. I’m about to be introduced, and it’s up to me to make a hundred people in a lecture hall care about something that has been churning and growing and evolving in my head for almost six months.

No pressure.

I wish I could say that I wasn’t re-writing and re-thinking just about every slide in my presentation during the 5 hours of solo driving I had to get here. I wish I could say that I wasn’t up past midnight last night finalizing all the details and last minute changes I could think of, and that I didn’t spill coffee on the keyboard of my laptop halfway through that, inducing a brief high-level anxiety attack.

I wish I could say that I didn’t have cartoonish and surreal anxiety dreams last night, that instead I slept for eight hours like an exhausted old man and awoke bright and fresh like a spring flower greeting the sun. I wish I could say that. But I can’t.

Because ultimately I’ve come to accept that this is just how I work, finishing even the longest marathons with a sprint to the finish. Try as I might, I can’t seem to change the way my brain works when creating something new. It seems to have to be forced into a corner or squeezed until it has no choice but to give up the ideas and solutions it held onto.

And the worst part of that is some of those last holdouts in my mind won’t reveal themselves until I actually start talking in front of this crowd of a hundred people whose time and talent and general awesomeness is very important to me. Of course, throwing in a healthy dose of pop culture references doesn’t hurt either. Mine include Harry Houdini, The Monkees, Doctor Who, Julia Child, Daft Punk, David Foster Wallace, David Byrne, Cher, George Burns, Douglas Adams, and Kurt Vonnegut, among others.

I will probably surprise myself just as much as I surprise my audience, and I may lose my train of thought along the way, but all I can hope for is that everyone leaves understanding something a little better than before, and takes away at least one little nugget in their tote bag of ideas that they can start to use in their work and in their lives beyond this conference.

I set the bar really high for myself as a keynote speaker because I know what I’ve wanted from keynote speakers in the past: knowledge, inspiration, and a touch of entertainment. I don’t just want to share my ideas—I want to make you feel something along the way. If you don’t feel differently at the end of my talk than you did at the beginning I’ll be disappointed.

But at this point there’s nothing I can do. The slide deck is locked and loaded, the introductory remarks have been rehearsed, and the butterflies are loose in my belly. There’s only one more thing to do and that’s start talking.

Let’s see what happens…