Making Room for Ideas

I’m sharing my process for preparing the keynote talk I’ll be presenting at the 2016 HighEdWeb New England regional conference on March 18. This is my second entry in the series. You can find Part One here.

There’s something about the first of the month I’ve always found hopeful, so when I get the first day of the month and the first day of the week on the same day, like I did on Monday of this week, it always feels extra special to me. A Double First Day feels like the planets are in alignment (oh, wait – they actually are!) and the universe is telling me that this is a perfect day for starting something.

I chose this Double First Day to start focusing on a new goal: reduce my cognitive load as much as possible and give my mind more room for creative thinking. Because if I’m going to deliver the keynote talk I want to next month, I’m going to need all the creative energy I can get, not to mention all the time I can get to actually put it together.

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A Tote Bag of Ideas

As I wrote last week, I will be giving a keynote presentation at the upcoming HighEdWeb New England regional conference. I’m really looking forward to the opportunity because I know I’ll be able to use the time I’m being given to talk about something that has become very important to me over the past couple of years: sharing.

The working title for my talk right now is “Share Like a Human” and in the spirit of sharing (along with some inspiration from Austin Kleon), I thought I’d share some behind-the-scenes thoughts and processes as I put my talk together.

Starting this week, and over the next seven weeks or so leading up to #hewebNE I’ll be chronicling my progress as much as I can without giving away the actual content of my talk.

Why bother doing this? Well, in a lot of ways I’m doing this for myself as a way to organize my thoughts with purpose, and writing about a process or idea often helps me figure out the details of what that will be. But I also think it may be helpful to others working on presentations or talks of their own to see how another person prepares for it.

I don’t claim to be an expert at giving presentations, and the way I do things may not work for everyone. I build presentations in the way that works for my own needs and habits, using a structure and elements that draw on my past experience and training as a writer and performer. But whether you’re working on a keynote, a conference presentation, a classroom lecture, or just leading a discussion, I think there are elements everyone should consider and plan for.

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The Keynote Speaker

I’m so glad that I can finally talk about this: earlier this week, it was announced that I will be the keynote speaker at the next HighEdWeb New England regional conference in March. Crazy, right? It’s such a cool opportunity, and I’m honored and flattered to have been asked to fill this role.

I’m also pretty nervous about putting together a talk that lives up to expectations of everyone who will be there because I think of all these people as part of my tribe and their time and attention is important to me. Having been to many of these conferences myself in the past, I know that you want to come away at the end of it feeling like what you gained was worth the cost and effort of attending, and as a keynote speaker I think that is doubly important because I’m the only one on the program with a solo slot.

At the same time, I want to make sure I fulfill the needs of the committee that has been volunteering their time to organize and program this conference to be the best it can be. Having had the experience of being a co-chair for a similar event last year, I know how hard it can be to put together a program of presenters that feels balanced and addresses the interests of a variety of specialties from content and social media specialists to web developers and designers. You also want to provide opportunities for first time presenters to add new voices to the conversation, alongside HighEdWeb veterans who are reliably wise and inspiring.

For a conference like this, the keynote can provide thematic glue, set an inspirational tone, and hopefully, provide an additional reason for people to attend. It would not have occurred to me that my peers think of me that way, but it’s hard not to feel a bit of an ego boost when you discover they do:

No pressure, right?

Sure, for a moment it’s wonderfully flattering, but I’m at the point now where the responsibility of this role is sinking in, and I can see how high the expectations are.

But I wouldn’t have committed to this if I didn’t want the challenge, so I’m ready to step up to this “whole ‘nother level” and see what I can bring. Like Sondheim’s Little Red Riding Hood, I feel excited—well, excited and scared.

I’ve actually been committed to this keynote since early November but had to wait until it was announced to be able to really talk about it. So for the past couple of months the whole idea has mostly been in a holding pattern, circling my subconscious. Now that it’s out there, suddenly it’s a lot more real, and I have about eight weeks left to finalize my talk.

I feel ready, I know what I want to talk about, and what I hope people will take away from my presentation. I just need to get it all out of my head. So I’ll follow Little Red Riding Hood’s advice from the end of that same Sondheim song:

Don’t be scared.
Granny is right,
Just be prepared.

I’ve got my notes, and I’ve got the latest update of Keynote software ready with lots of blank slides awaiting my big ideas. Let’s do this…

Resolve to Evolve

I’m not making any resolutions for the New Year; I want to make evolutions instead.

A resolution is a short term goal, often about breaking bad habits and starting better ones: do more of A, less of B, stop doing C altogether. But I’m old enough now that I’m basically satisfied with all with the big choices I’ve made about my personal As, Bs, and Cs, and all the rest.

I’m no longer concerned with making or breaking habits; I want to evolve the habits I have into being the most effective habits for my future. I want to do more of what I’m already doing, do it in a more mindful, practiced way, and get better at it day by day.

I want to evolve my health habits. I’m already exercising regularly – how can I exercise better? I’m already eating healthy – how can I improve the quality of the healthy food I choose?

I want to evolve my money habits. I’m already saving – how can I save more? How can I improve my shared financial responsibilities? How can I improve my spending?

Now is the perfect time for me to evolve my career. I’ve had so many new opportunities appear around me, and shifting responsibilities for myself and others in my office creating challenging opportunities for all of us. I’m finally understanding what skills I bring to my job, what I do best and what others do better. I finally have a vision for the future I want to evolve toward. How can I level up in my work, take on more of a leadership/ownership role, and better put myself in a position where I can enable and empower others to be awesome?

The most tangible evolution I’ve made so far is that I’m writing and blogging regularly (and you may notice I’ve even evolved the design of this site a bit). But there is still more evolution ahead. How can I evolve my voice as a writer? What knowledge and insights do I have to share that is of value? How can I expand my ideas beyond a blog? What am I going to do about that book I keep thinking about writing?

Last year I wrote that my resolution would be “a long pass to myself in the future,” and I’m confident I caught that pass and ran with it. I didn’t get too far down the field with the ball, and certainly didn’t get any touchdowns, but sometimes a completed pass is all the victory you need.

Every completed play after this is just an evolution of the larger strategy, and evolution is the only resolution I want to make.

A New Year of Glad

Winter has officially closed its grip upon us here in the United States, making this the perfect time of year to catch up on reading that really long novel you’ve been meaning to read for so many years. If you’re an avid reader, you undoubtedly have one of those; a literary mega-tome that you keep hearing you should read, yet you just haven’t gotten around to it for one reason or another. Maybe it’s something classic by Tolstoy, or Proust; perhaps a more contemporary voice like Knausgaard.

For me, that “big book on my shelf I keep meaning to finally read” for years was Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. But that changed in 2009 when I finally made my way through the entire 1,000-plus pages thanks to a wonderful online reading group called Infinite Summer, which supported a community of readers making our way through the book all at the same time. Thanks to their combination of social media, community forums, and guest blog posts guiding readers through the book week by week, a novel that I may have left unfinished a third of the way through suddenly became a lot easier for me not only to finish, but to understand and become engaged with all the way to the end.

InfiniteJest cover

Now that we’re in book’s 20th anniversary year, I was thrilled to discover that a new group of talented and dedicated readers who appreciated Infinite Summer as much as I did are reviving the community for another go, this time as Infinite Winter.

I’m in for a second go at this, and I hope you will join us.

The plan is simple: read Infinite Jest with a few hundred of your closest friends with a goal of 75 pages per week from January 31 – May 2, 2016.

Of course, it’s not really quite that simple, because Infinite Jest is not a simple novel. But as I discovered the first time through, it’s the complexity of the book, and the mechanics involved in reading it, that actually make it such a great reading experience.

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Farewell 2015

Today is the first day of a new year, but I feel I’m still saying goodbye to the year that just ended. There have been a lot of changes in my world over the past year, and along the way I’ve had to say goodbye to some people who had an influence on my life in one way or another. So before I get too far into a fresh new year, I want to be sure I put out some final words of thanks to those I’ll be missing.

Thankfully, there have been a few I was able to actually thank personally, like the boss who hired me. She was a major anchor in my work life and career. Losing her set me somewhat adrift, but also gives me new freedom to grow and build on my strengths in the year ahead.

Another anchor many of us lost this year was that of Jon Stewart when he left The Daily Show, which seems odd to say because he didn’t die or completely retire, and I didn’t even know him. But like many of his TV audience, I still felt I knew him and I didn’t realize how much I really appreciated him being there throughout my week. It’s going to be a very different election year without him around, but at least there is hope that his sharp, smart, comedic voice will return someday in the future.

Same goes for David Letterman, who officially did retire this past May. Late night TV is definitely different now without him, his voice, his point of view, his connection to the old-school tribe of broadcast TV pros. I’ll understand and be okay if he doesn’t reappear in some way — he’s earned the right to disappear from view just like Johnny before him. But there will always be a small part of me that will hold out hope to see him reemerge, well-rested, full-bearded, and with something worth saying.

Sadly, there are others we lost this year that we won’t be hearing from again, but the work they left behind in our culture will continue to be discovered and influence other humans just as they influenced me with their creativity, their skills, and their dedication to making art, music, films, and even advertising that used those forms in new ways that hadn’t been done before. 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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Truly Productive Gift Guide 2015

There are so many gift guides out there this time of year, so I don’t like to add the the noise or piles of choices. The last thing the world needs is one more person pushing products in the spirit of commercial giving.

But this giving season is also an opportunity to offer something simple and thoughtful to someone we want to thank for being awesome, for being helpful, even just for being part of our life. And if we’re honest, sometimes it’s just a good excuse to treat ourselves to something a little special as a reward for our own achievements, or to help us accomplish our goals for the new year.

So in that spirit, and in the tradition of my first Truly Productive Gift Guide post from last year, I bring you a new recommendation for “one thing” that anyone who wants to be more productive should be giving or receiving this year.

My only criteria for this is that the gift be inexpensive, simple to use, and most importantly, that it be a tool that enables productive work. Ideally, it’s also well designed without being overly adorned. I like my tools to be useful and purposeful, with minimal decoration. Something that can develop a unique personality the more it is used.

Drawing on my own experiences over the past year, I’ve looked at all the tools that I have found the most useful on a daily basis, and realized that there was one tool that I’ve been using and loving every day more than anything else. This is something that’s almost been an extension of my brain ever since I picked it up, and I can’t think of a nicer gift for yourself or anyone else this year:

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Revised

This blog post has been revised at least eight times over the past week. Today is Friday, and I’ve been trying to maintain the discipline of posting every Friday whenever possible. But sometimes the thoughts I think I have to share at the beginning of the week revise themselves.

This started out completely different; a bigger, more complex idea with links to examples and images to embed and some kind of vaguely witty structure to link it all together. Sometimes it’s hard to think small.

But the more I write, the more I discover what it is I’m really trying to say, and all of a sudden I’m writing something very different than what I initially set out to do.

So this post has been revised. Updated in a lot of little ways, mostly deletions or small changes in the word usements I structure. Most of them you’ll never see unless I point them out.

But it’s a post. It’s some new content, something out of my brain and onto your screen. And more importantly, I shipped on time. I overcame the resistance, figured out how to not overthink it in the midst of so much else going on with my life, with my job, with my plans for the future.

I shipped. I met my goal. In the end, the only one who really cares about that goal is me. And sometimes the goal is revised.

Just like this post.

Thanksliving

I am thankful for every day.

Thankful for being alive and being aware of the world.

I am thankful for backyards in summer. A full moon in the snow of winter.

For dreams. For the ocean and the clouds. I am so thankful for clouds.

I am thankful for New York City. Chicago. Paris. London. Tokyo. Boston. Ithaca, NY. Deerfield, NH.

I am thankful for books. For lemons. For bicycles. For birds and squirrels. For apples. For yogurt. Chocolate. Popcorn. Bacon. Gravity. Baseball. Buster Keaton. The Muppets. Ice cream sandwiches. Iron Giant. George Carlin. Woody Allen. Nichols and May. Bill Murray. David Letterman. Peter Jennings.

For all the things I can’t remember, and everything I’ll never forget.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1996, standing in the back of a hushed theatre and watching Mikhail Baryshnikov dance to the amplified sound of his own heartbeat. Standing in a tent in Battery Park watching Zingaro dance with horses.

I am thankful for infinite knowledge at my fingertips. A computer in my pocket. Crossword puzzles. Rivers. Mountains. The Beatles. Bach. Moby Dick. Blood MeridianInfinite Jest. Autocorrect. Portal 2. Maple trees in March. Shakespeare. Jacques Tati’s Playtime in full 70mm on a huge screen on a Saturday afternoon.

I am thankful for the these words that let me be thankful.

I am thankful for my tribe.  Thankful for my wife. My friends. My families. For those who have left, for those who have died. For those I have yet to meet. For those I will never know who endure war, poverty, injustice, starvation, disease, and all those dedicated to helping them.

I am thankful for those who have fought for my country, for their country. Those who are smarter than me, stronger than me. For those who excel and those who strive to do better. For those who listen. For those who nurture.

I am thankful for teachers. Thankful for farmers. For makers, artists, builders, creators, explorers, storytellers, musicians, thinkers, editors, dancers, comics, athletes, chefs.

I am thankful for libraries, and for people who share. For procrastination. For poetry. For freedom. For the feeling of slipping on a freshly laundered shirt straight out of the dryer.

For hot water. Cold water. Clean water – anytime, anywhere. The first cup of fresh coffee. The last sip of old whiskey.

I am thankful for pockets. For paper. For pencils. For language. For learning. For learning to be thankful every day. Learning to give thanks and receive thanks.

I am thankful for my eyes, my ears, my nose, my tongue, my fingers, my toes, my lungs, my heart.

I am thankful for love. Thankful for being human with you. Thankful for our human-ness.

I am thankful for you.