Your Point of View

If you’ve made the decision to put your own stories – blogs, videos, articles, poetry, spoken word, email campaigns, multimedia, whatever – into the world, there are two different kinds of gaps you can fill.

You can be on the lookout for untold stories and uncover them, becoming, over time, great at picking stories worth telling, the kind of information you’re able to uncover and the narrative that brings us along, engages us, and, hopefully, pushes us to act. This is what Serial was all about (except for the action bit).

Or, you can decide that the project you’re actually engaged in is to share your own point of view.  In this kind of project, you still tell stories but these stories serve as springboards to explore, elaborate upon and illustrate your point of view.

In both cases your job is to engage us, to connect with us, and, yes, to seduce us just a little bit. In both cases, we expect you to hone your craft. In both cases, you have the power to change us.

But because it’s so easy to underestimate ourselves, because we so often convince ourselves we have nothing to say, because we imagine that someday (someday!) we will have wisdom to share…we wait.

Because the act of deciding we have something to say feels a little too proud (“who am I to think that I can….?”), a little too exposed (“what if try and it turns out I don’t actually have anything worth saying?!”), a little too much like it’s the kind of things other people do (“they’re just good at that sort of thing…”), we put off starting. And we put it off some more. And some more. Until we prove to ourselves that we were right all along – we really don’t have a point of view worth sharing.

But that’s just not true. The dirty little secret is that the only way to become, tomorrow or the next day or maybe 10 years from now, someone who has something to say is to start to share our truth today.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Blogging

I’ve had a lot of conversations in the past few months that start with people saying, “I really have been meaning to write or blog, but I just haven’t done it. Any advice on how to start and stick with it?”

Here are 12 things that I’ve learned since I started blogging in 2008:

  1. A structured time to write. Stephen King is famous for saying that step one in writing is to put your “butt in the chair.” Not glamorous, but true. 99% of my blog posts have been written on the train that I take home from work. And most of them come out very quickly – in 10-15 minutes. But I’ve discovered that when I don’t take the train, I don’t write blog posts. That’s when I write.
  2. Make a commitment. Commit to how much you’re going to publish / write / post. I’d suggest you aim high because you’ll probably do less than you intended (because that’s life). And “publish” because I think creating finished work (to your own standard) is important, because it lets you practice sharing complete thoughts that engage other people as readers.
  3. Set it up so someone is reading. I’ve been blogging for more than six years now and I’ve written nearly 1,000 posts. I absolutely, positively, would have given up after six months if I didn’t have readers. I’ve grown to feel that my readers and I have an unspoken contract: they commit to taking the time to read, think and (hopefully) act on the things I write that they find useful; I commit to keep on writing. And occasionally, they comment or reach out to say how a post has helped them or moved them or taught them something. That feels great. [If you’re writing for yourself or in a journal, this “someone” could be a colleague, a boss, a friend you respect, and you could commit to sharing 5 things you’ve written every month. My hunch is that if it’s just for you, you’re writing a personal journal, which is also important work but is something different.]
  4. Ignore your inner critic. We ALL think that everything we write isn’t good enough (not good enough for us, and definitely not good enough to have others read it). The irony is that the more you let yourself censor your own work, the less of your own work you’ll produce, and the less your work will improve.
  5. Remember that it’s much more important to write a lot than it is to write well. This is basically the same point as the prior point, written differently. When I was posting nearly every day, it helped me tremendously to know that if a post wasn’t good enough, I’d have another shot at it tomorrow. It’s helped me even more to go back to posts I’ve published and try to remember which ones I thought were the “good” and the “bad” ones.
  6. Remove the “am I saying something new?” filter. Because no, you’re not saying something completely new and that’s OK. The point is that it’s YOU saying it, and we care about what you think and how you make us feel when we interact with your idea and your emotions.
  7. Ignore the outer critic. Yes, sometime between here and there people you care a lot about will tell you to stop or to do things differently. Listen to them, contemplate what they say, but don’t commit to doing what they tell you to do. Any creative, self-expressive process is inherently delicate, a flame that’s easy to snuff out. Protect it.
  8. Keep it short. I’m highly partial to 200-500 word blog posts. Every time I write something longer than that it’s because I couldn’t make it shorter. Yes you might have a more technical or expository topic than I do, but by and large if you want people to interact with your ideas you need to present them as simply as possible, with as clear language as possible, in as few words as possible. Use this work to practice not hiding behind elaborate, obtuse language.
  9. Have a strong purpose, loosely held. Especially if you’re trying shift from being someone who doesn’t write to someone who does, I think it’s helpful to have a specific intention plus the freedom to write about what you want to write about. When I started this blog I thought it would just be about fundraising, but I didn’t have enough posts in me on that narrow topic, and the whole construct felt constraining. What I’ve found since then is that through the process of writing this blog I’ve figured out what this blog is about, and I think my readers get it too.
  10. Discomfort should happen. The reason you’re doing this is to grow. Growth comes through doing things you haven’t done before, aren’t comfortable doing, and aren’t good at today. If it feels hard, risky, or awkward, you’re doing the right things.
  11. Do it because it matters. There should be some deeper purpose, which isn’t the same as an external objective (as in, “this is how I’ll land a book deal” or “this will help me when I’m looking for my next job.”) I started blogging because I wanted to understand the job I was doing – fundraising – and what it meant, and could mean, to me and to the nonprofit sector. Over time that focus deepened into wanting to understand, in a much deeper way, people who give to charity, which led to an exploration of generosity, which in turn opened up a lot of avenues of further exploration. Ultimately, this blog has become a vehicle for understanding my own purpose and for sharing things that I’m learning or being challenged by along the way.
  12. Someday you won’t be able to live without it. My blogging continues to evolve, and its purpose and continues to shift. It changes as I do. But it is now part of who I am and what I do, and I hope never to lose that.

For all of you out there reading, thank you. I wouldn’t be here without you.

For all of you out there thinking about writing, I hope this helps.

[title apologies: Hakuri Murakami]

Stand out

I recently had the chance to review 30 resumes from job applicants from top business schools.  The level of accomplishment in this group is just astounding.  Best grades, best jobs, speak multiple languages, have done things like volunteering in Nepal before hopping to a top job at Bain or McKinsey or co-founding an Argentine startup or, yes, working at Goldman Sachs.  And all of them have hobbies like “member of the Olympic archery team” or “have climbed three of the Seven Summits.”

What amazed me, beyond how wildly accomplished this group was, was that one out of the 30 had an online presence of any significance.  One.

One person whose body of work was readily available to see and explore.  One person whose mind and thought process and passions were easy to investigate.  One person who had more than a LinkedIn or page.  One person who had a readily-available portfolio of work that gives real insight into who she is.

If this top .0001 percent in terms of accomplishment is missing this opportunity, that means big opportunity for you.  You have a huge opportunity to stand out even among (especially among?) this crowd.

That happens by putting yourself out there and showing the world your best thinking, your best ideas, your best work, in a public place that they can find and explore.  Or, more likely (since you’re just getting started), you’ll start by showing the world the work you can do today, with the knowledge that when you keep on doing it, in a few months or a few years down the road, it will be great work.

What better way could there be to stand out from the crowd?

Better yet, you’ll be amazed at how you learn and grow through the process of pushing your own thinking in this way.

You’re repeating yourself

Why yes, that’s on purpose.

Did you know that children often need to be exposed to new foods 10-15 times before they’re happy to eat them?

Same thing with ideas and action, it turns out.

It used to be

It used to be that you could go to a meeting, or a job interview, without having really prepared in advance: without looking up the details of who someone is, what they’ve done, and where they’ve worked; without checking out their organization, the role they play, and who they work with; without skimming their LinkedIn profile, reading a few of their blog posts, and watching a video of them speaking; without seeing who they’ve helped along the way, or checking out the interesting, generous things that they’re involved with in their free time.

Now, skipping those steps is not allowed.  Now, it’s a sign that you’re unprepared and care less.  Now it’s a missed opportunity to have a conversation that’s more relevant to both of you.

The other side of this coin, lest we forget, is that just like you’re using The Google to figure out who you’re meeting and what their story is, people are doing the same thing before meeting you.

It used to be that them discovering nothing about you other than the boxes you’ve checked was enough.  It used to be, but it isn’t any more.

1 to 100

There’s a perpetual mystique about blogging.  How do you do it?  Where do the ideas come from?  How do you find the time?  How do you keep it up?  The notion underlying the question is that sharing one’s thoughts regularly and publically about issues that matter (to you, and to your tribe) is something most of us don’t know how to do or to sustain.

1 to 100_curious georgeSo here’s some data:  In the last 18 months, I’ve written about 200 blog posts, which sounds pretty respectable.  It’s almost enough content to fill up a book.    By way of comparison, I’ve also written 18,574 emails (so sayeth Outlook – so those are just work emails).  Even as a reasonably frequent blogger, for each blog post I write I shoot out almost 100 emails.

In 18 months, I’ve written down and shared an idea, a thought, an opinion 18,574 times.  18,574 times I’ve had a point to make, and even though most of the time the point is short or simple, I have an enormous amount of daily practice in taking my ideas, writing them down, and sharing them with others whose opinion I hope to shape in some way.   My blogging pales in comparison to this, both in terms of volume and time required.  I’m sure it’s the same for you.

If you don’t want to blog (or micro-blog, or whatever) that’s fine, don’t blog. But don’t tell yourself that you don’t know how to do it, because you do.

And if you’re on the fence, maybe it’s time to stop telling yourself how this is something above or beyond you – because it isn’t – and just start.

What I didn’t need to worry about

Last Saturday morning I had the chance to give the opening keynote address at Unite for Sight’s Global Health and Innovation Conference at Yale University.  The energy in this conference is just amazing, and my hat goes off to Jennifer Staple-Clark and her team who pull off a 2,000+ person conference every year with a full-time staff of just three people (that’s right, three).

The fun part for me was that nearly every part of my talk came from ideas I had developed on this blog.  The talk focused on innovation, where it comes from, and how to design and organize around it – with a particular focus on the structural elements in the nonprofit sector that orient us to extremely long cycle times and a massive “build” phase in the buld-measure-learn cycle.

Put another way, the focal point of the talk was the lean nonprofit, with context provided by the observation that my toothbrush was good enough and by the notion of the adjacent possible, themes I’ve explored in-depth in posts on this blog.

This served as an important reminder that one of the great benefits of blogging is the practice of taking ideas further and deeper, forcing me to mine my understanding of concepts that are influencing my thinking and to take the extra step of relating these ideas to my own work.  I literally don’t know where the ideas would come from if not for the discipline of writing this blog.

So thank you for showing up to read every day.  I couldn’t do it without you.

The one thing I shouldn’t have spent any energy on (though I certainly did): the size of the crowd.  The notion of speaking in front of a full house at New Haven’s Shubert Theater created a mantra of “2,000 people!” that I couldn’t keep from running through my head in the lead-up to my talk.  Of course the reality is that whether it’s 50 people or 2,000, it’s still my job to stand up there and share what I’m going to share, tell the stories I’m going to tell  – the size of the audience makes no difference whatsoever. (In fact, with the lighting I could barely see past the third row, so it’s as if the audience wasn’t even there in the first place.)

Just a lesson in how the mind tricks us into focusing attention on all the wrong stuff sometimes, especially when something is brand new and when fear seems like an appropriate response.

It never is.