Learning, Life Hacks, On Writing

Pattern Minded

My happy place is an art studio where all of the items have their own section.

I love to draw. Ever since I can remember I’ve created doodles, pictures, paintings, and other kinds of art. And it generally comes naturally to me – the kind of skill that other people call “artistic” and that I call “just drawing” – until it doesn’t.

I’m not sure what this gap feels like to people who don’t draw, so I’ll try to describe it in terms most people find easy to understand: imposter syndrome. When I don’t “feel” like drawing, I come up with every excuse to avoid that practice. I stay away from art materials and all of those wonderful colors. I stop drawing because there’s no chance of messing up.

That’s really not fun. Sometimes it has lasted for years. I am not sure of the first time I had this feeling but I would guess it happened when I enrolled in a Ph.D program in History instead of renting an Art Studio and drawing for a living. Maybe not drawing was a good thing, though.

If I hadn’t taken a break from drawing I would have spent much less time with computers. I might have missed out on learning to program. I might also have not engaged with new technologies like mobile and social and local commerce.

I am drawing again.

 It doesn’t take much to get started again on drawing. Just a little bit of time.
The hack that got me going again? Repetition. Small pictures. Doodling. Pretending “this drawing doesn’t matter.” Because the real benefit to creating and writing about it is a pattern itself – the self-reinforcing loop that happens when you make stuff, and look back later to see whether it’s good – and its absence is an anti-pattern.

So if you see me stop drawing, ask me to draw you something. Give me a commission. It doesn’t need to be paid, and it can be just enough to give me an idea. Making art pays off for me in many more areas of my life than the artwork I create. That process of making is a pattern that leads me to a place where I build amazing things. 

Innovation, Learning, Life Hacks

We Need to Teach Digital Citizenship

(photo "IACP austin 2011: cooking with UT elementary kids at whole foods" by Sarah Gilbert)
(photo “IACP austin 2011: cooking with UT elementary kids at whole foods” by Sarah Gilbert)

How can we establish a local and national effort to better prepare young people to participate online? They need to learn how to identify and use tools; understand and model behavior that won’t embarrass their parents or themselves unless they want to do so; and connect with others and contribute in a positive way online and offline.

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” -Abraham Maslow

It’s easy to get attached to the first tool you pick up. It’s also easy to use that tool in situations where it doesn’t function as well. We need to teach young people that when engaging with other people, there are many ways to influence others. You can use your writing and snappy wit to shine on social media. You can wow a friend with a heartfelt thank you note. And you can impress a colleague by putting your phone away, making eye contact and having a great conversation. Digital citizens know when to use the right online and offline tools to make a great impression.

Would you like your words repeated by others?

The best tools are not very useful when you use them poorly. We need to persuade and teach our digital citizens to understand and model the right behaviors online. Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean encouraging them to be robotic or boring or perfect. It means helping them to understand the impact of their behavior so that they won’t embarrass their parents and themselves (unless they want to).

How would you behave if internet actions were more like being at a dinner party?

We also need to encourage our digital citizens to meet online and engage offline. Connecting with others is much more powerful in person and turns your interactions into meaningful lifelong relationships. You can connect with more than 150 people online, and you can’t really know them unless you talk to them, meet them face to favs, and connect to them on a human level.

Where do we go from here?

Becoming a digital citizen doesn’t mean giving up the tools and joys and horrors of social media. It means engaging with the world as a person and not as a persona. It means taking the time to go visit a friend instead of just clicking “like”. And it means making the effort to be fully engaged as a human with your surroundings while understanding the worldwide reach instant publishing can grant to spread your words and thoughts around the world in an instant.

Please contribute to the discussion by adding your thoughts below – what is the one thing you would teach a teenager about interacting on the Internet and understanding your impact on people?

Learning, Life Hacks, On Writing

This year, I learned to write

Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/jjpacres/
Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/jjpacres/

This year I learned how to be a writer. The easy part was deciding to start. The hard part was continuing to write. I don’t mean that any individual piece of writing was hard to start, or hard to finish. The hard part was realizing and understanding how much work there is to producing a great piece of writing, and knowing that much of the time, I wasn’t going to get there.

Unless I did get there. Much like the practice of drawing, writing only looks easy when you turn your head back at the body of work and say “that was good” or “that wasn’t so good”, and you have to do the work of writing to arrive at words that people want to read. This year I learned that whether you’re having a good day or a bad day doesn’t make the writing easier – it just makes it writing.

I thought I was doing a good job at writing before this year. Words, words, and more words have always been easy for me to produce. But not always words that conveyed meaning. When I left my last job I added “Writer” to my list of occupations – and started paying more attention to the craft of putting the words together efficiently, expertly, and beautifully.

Great writers (Orwell, Lamott, and White among them) sometimes explode off of the page and often state with absolute clarity facts and feelings. They bring intensity, passion, and verve to their craft, and it’s a joy to see it happen.

For next year, I want to apply this practice to other things that I do so that I take less for granted. When I talk to customers, I want the writing that I do to be as meaningful as the best essay I wrote last year. When I write emails, I want to make sure that the meaning is emerging in the smallest number of words that make sense. When I engage with my family and friends, I want to make those words matter even more than they do today. I’m certain I’ll often get my words wrong, confuse people when I think I’m being clear, and say different things than I intend. And I know I’ll be working at the practice of making them better.

Learning, On Writing

Is Blogging Still Useful?


photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/mariareyesmcdavis/

“What’s a Web Log”?
Once upon a time there was a Blog (web log). It was a place where you would go to read pithy insights, long form articles, and think pieces by people whose writing you respected. Over time this term was replaced and superceded by the simpler “blog”, which came to mean lots of things from “share a photo”, “create a domain name just to make a point”, and still “share interesting writing so that other people who care might have a good place to read it”.

Anachronisms happen fast.
The concept of blogging now seems quaint, like the rotary dial, a long-playing record, or a black and white tv did when I was a teen growing up in the early days of the Internet and computers. “Blogging” meaning “writing with the express purpose of placing your work in one place and finding an audience so that you can compete with other established publishers” now seems to be an outdated concept. The Blog is Dead.

The Conversation is Alive.
Yet there is this curious thing that’s happened to “blogging” or the activity we used to call blogging. Everyone who writes has turned into a syndication network of sorts, sharing almost everything almost all of the time. When was the last time you met someone who writes for a living and then learned that you could find their writing only in one place? In the same way that long form writing became “share photos in one place” and “share articles in another place” and “share random 140 character blasts” in a third, blogging no longer really exists.

There’s a paradox here. We’re both here having this conversation. It looks a little bit like a blog – having medium form content shared on a specific subdomain – and also has social features that allow you to upvote it (please do), share it, and comment about it. The blog has evolved from being an essay with comments to an almost constant conversation. To me this is a good change because it feels more like talking to other people.

What’s the use in blogging?
You might then ask, why write? There are lots of reasons to write every day (Dear Founders, Startups are Easier if You Write Every Day) and the most salient ones include:

  1. Get better at explaining your ideas to others – if you can’t form a few sentences that make sense to other people, you won’t be able to explain these same ideas in person.
  2. Explore a long-form idea over a series of posts. In the same way that you have a conversation with people over an extended length of time, your thoughts on a topic may change. Write about it – the results may surprise you.
  3. You never know who you will meet. Amazing people will find you because they read what you write. The possibilities are endless.
Customer Experience, Learning, On Writing, Startup

Stop what you are doing and remove half of your product

I love words. Probably too much. I love words so much that often use too many words when only a few are needed. It’s not because I want you to know about all the words. It’s that I want you to understand better.

Sounds a little silly, right? Yet often we make the same argument to customers when we present them with all of the choices they could make in our app. Don’t make just one choice – we persuade – make any choice you need to make!

By presenting too many choices, we run the risk of overloading the customer. You can hold 5-7 items in your active memory (you are probably using at least 1-3 of them right now). The chances of a customer remembering to do more than the next single thing you want them to do are pretty low.

Please, make it easier for the customer by picking the next thing you want them to do, telling them how to do it, and letting them know when they’re done. This might not mean telling them exactly what to do at the beginning of the process (though you should give them a suggestion).

If you provide a safety valve for the customer to let you know when things go wrong (a big “call us” or an “email us” button), you’ll win friends too. Make it easier for people to tell you what’s wrong. If they need you to add something, they’ll let you know – and they have a harder time telling you what to take away.

Try it – remove half of the choices on the front page of your app and see what happens. If no one complains, you probably removed things that didn’t need to be there. A good editor works wonders, whether editing a speech, and article, or an app.

Learning, Life Hacks, Product Thoughts

You are the product


Be outraged. Facebook is no longer allowing you to hide and not be found in searches. Instagram is including ads in stream and getting rid of the ability to stop auto-play. LinkedIn is selling your “endorsements”. Google is reading your email and serving you ads based on those emails. WordPress shows ads in exchange for free hosting in content to the world.

If these things bother you (and I believe they might) you must also acknowledge that all of these products and services do not cost anything upfront to use. Yes, you can argue that we are subsidizing them through our subscriptions with network providers like AT&T and Comcast, yet those companies have a more traditional business model than those in the online ether.

In the old economy, you pay for services and products in a lump sum or monthly, in cash or by financing a purchase. In the new attention-based economy (and yes, I do think it’s new), you pay incrementally with data, behaviors, and transactions over time.

Because we’re not used to the idea that we are the product, when we find our providers selling this data, we get upset. We wonder how this data (ours) could be sold to the highest bidder. Yet we created this data asset on a free platform (and willingly).

Some will say that the techniques used to get us to participate are coercive, manipulative, or downright evil. I think that the root of the issue is that we don’t control access to our own data. Today, the only way to avoid becoming a product is to avoid participating in this economy. Yet more and more economic models and businesses are being hybridized to include elements of *free* – it’s hard to opt out.

What should we do? Build alternate models: a model based on identity (and a paid one) is a good incentive to control how that identity is used and sold. Companies should offer this in the market as an alternative to *free*. If we all had an API of Me and a way to share some data that companies want to use to make us the product, we could know how the data is being used. We are the product, and now we need to learn how to shape that product in the new economy.

Learning, Life Hacks, On Writing

Where do you want to spend your time today?

photo by http://m.flickr.com/#/photos/paukrus/

Yes, I agree, we don’t have enough time to do all of the things we want to do. Here’s a thought exercise that might unblock you from that way of thinking. You need a map to point you where you want to go today.

First, think of all of the things you need to do (if it helps to have a limit, list 20). Now ask yourself: which of these things would really hurt if they didn’t get done? Your definition could include work, home, or life priorities or could blend the three.

Next, pick the top 5 projects from this list and stack rank them to find your most important projects. If you have challenges with the top 5, pick the top 10.

When you stack rank your projects, you force yourself to make decisions about where to spend time. If certain ideas never make it into your list, make an effort to change the priority or remove them from your list.

This list of projects is not very useful without an overall goal. The BHAG – or Big Hairy Audacious Goal (thanks, Tom Peters for this vivid image) helps to see where you are going. A goal that’s so big it is scary also forces you to think in new terms to solve a new problem.

As you solve these new problems, you will need help. Consider building a personal board of directors made up of amazing people with different strengths. Like the baseball manager who can bring in the superstar reliever, you need to find the people in your network who can give you unique insights when you need them.

Stack ranking your list of projects is clearly not the only way to organize your time. But it forces you to state what you are doing, arrange that list into priorities, and orient the priorities so that they point toward a “North Star”: your big goal.