The Hardest Thing

It isn’t figuring out how to solve the problem,

or deciding what approach will work best.

It isn’t sussing out what tactics to use,

or who will be your partners and your competitors.

It’s not figuring out product-market fit,

and it isn’t even hammering out how you’re going to convince skeptics of your story.

The hardest thing is figuring out what’s really important to you.

The things you want to work for.

The things that are worth sustained energy and sacrifice.

It’s the act of clearing away the dross, of quieting the voices that are the noise, not signal, streaming through your head.

The moment you state your goal is the moment you can’t hide from it.

It’s the moment you have to stop pretending that you don’t know exactly what it is that you are here to do.

Seth Godin’s Manifesto for Small Teams Doing Important Work

File under: Things I wish I had written & Things to print and have up on the wall.

The question this makes me ask is: is there ever a time that I’m not part of a small team? Is there ever a time when I’m not working on a tight deadline? Is there ever a time when the work isn’t important?

And, if no, then here are the rules of the road around communication, making and keeping promises, having a real Plan B, and keeping it personal, all while remembering not to question goodwill, effort or intent.

Thanks Seth.

A Manifesto for Small Teams Doing Important Work, by Seth Godin

We are always under tight deadlines, because time is our most valuable asset.

If you make a promise, set a date. No date, no promise.

If you set a date, meet it.

If you can’t make a date, tell us early and often. Plan B well prepared is a better strategy than hope.

Clean up your own mess.

Clean up other people’s messes.

Overcommunicate.

Question premises and strategy.

Don’t question goodwill, effort or intent.

“I’ll know it when I see it,” is not a professional thing to say. Describing and discussing in the abstract is what we do.

Big projects are not nearly as important as scary commitments.

If what you’re working on right now doesn’t matter to the mission, help someone else with their work.

Make mistakes, own them, fix them, share the learning.

Cheap, reliable, public software might be boring, but it’s usually better. Because it’s cheap and reliable.

Yesterday’s hierarchy is not nearly as important as today’s project structure.

Lock in the things that must be locked in, leave the implementation loose until you figure out how it can get done.

Mostly, we do things that haven’t been done before, so don’t be surprised when you’re surprised.

Care more.

If an outsider can do it faster and cheaper than we can, don’t hesitate.

Always be seeking outside resources. A better rolodex is better, even if we don’t have rolodexes any more.

Talk to everyone as if they were your boss, your customer, the founder, your employee. It’s all the same.

It works because it’s personal.

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]

Two ways to ask for help

Business schools and career centers have taught the wrong lesson: when trying to get noticed (for a job, an informational interview, etc.) send an email (those used to be called “cover letters”) that succinctly tells your story, touts your credentials and all the amazing things you have done.

The reason it’s poor advice is because for a job or an organization that’s special enough to deserve you, you won’t standing out from the crowd based just on what you’ve done and what’s on your resume.   There are too many great and accomplished people out there sending too many emails that look more or less like yours, so you can no longer distinguish yourself by a record of accomplishment.  You distinguish yourself by how much you care (and I don’t mean caring about getting that interview, I mean caring about doing something of value, of giving more than receiving); and you might distinguish yourself by work that you’ve done that we can see, feel and touch.

Your opportunity is to put effort into helping the person you want to connect with – offer them something of interest, something relevant to their work, an article they might not have found that they’d like to read, and explain why it connects to what they’re doing.  Create something that might help them meet their goals.  Share an insight, an actual insight, that they’ll want to hear.  Reciprocal exchange has a long history, and it doesn’t work because I am obliged to do something for you, it works because you showed that you care enough to do something of value to me, and I want to return that favor.

The reason people don’t do this is because it requires shifting the time/effort asymmetry away from the person asking for help.  In 30 minutes you could send a reasonably similar email to 30 people asking for 30 minutes of their time.  But it might take you four hours to do something remarkable to get one meeting with one person.  The worst part is that you might do all that work and still not get the meeting.

And that’s exactly why doing that work makes you stand out from the crowd.

One month, 100 rejections

There are great reasons, as a nonprofit, to look for long-term, sustainable sources of revenues, to build a business model that brings in earned income or investor capital.  Philanthropic funds are so hard to come by and often so expensive to raise.

But I also see a lot of intellectually appealing arguments made by founders about not being a traditional nonprofit, when what’s really going on is that they’re just not willing to get out and fundraise.  I’ve seen missions contorted and organizations drifting far away from their original purpose because a founder has decided “I’m not a fundraiser.”

The best part is: all of the best fundraisers I know also say “I’m not a fundraiser.”

(except for one, Jennifer McCrea, who is putting the mojo back into fundraising.)

Here’s the thing.  Most people aren’t fundraisers.  Most people find it petrifying at first.  Most people fail at first, feel like they are hitting up their friends, even feel a little bit ashamed.

But the part I really, truly don’t get is how you could be willing to devote years of your life to a project but not be willing to ask people to fund it.  And I don’t mean write grant proposals, I mean ask people who are philanthropically active to write a check to help make your dream possible.

So here’s my pitch: this thing that you’re willing to devote your life to?   Take one month and get out of the building, knock on every door you can, and promise yourself that you won’t stop until you’re actually rejected 100 times.  Keep track of the 100 rejections so it’s real and you’re making progress.

Because I’m positive you can survive 100 rejections.

Because I’m positive that even if you get rejected 100 times, your idea will get stronger by virtue of talking to all of those smart people.

And because I’m sure that if you set out to get rejected 100 times you’ll raise the money you need long before you hit 100.

Two runs

I just got back from vacation, which, when I’m not running after our three little kids, affords some time to exercise regularly.  I’m still running with my “barefoot” Vibram shoes (which I love, and which are the reason I’m back running after a 10 year hiatus), though infrequently enough that doing three runs in a week felt like a major milestone.

Trying to overcome my natural tendency to overdo it, my first two runs were identical and not too strenuous: 3.5 miles first thing in the morning on very flat terrain.

But of course the runs weren’t identical.

The first run was a first run after a few weeks off.  I felt sluggish, plodding.  For the first mile I was running into what felt like 15 mph headwinds, listening to a beautiful late Schubert piano Sonata which is great for inspiration but doesn’t seem to get the legs churning.  On the last mile of the run a new blister started burning and I slowed down a lot.  It was, overall, the kind of run you’re glad you did once it’s done.

Two days later, things felt totally different.  I felt light, felt like I was moving, I was listening to a “running mix” that always gets me moving faster.  I kept on picking up the pace through the whole run.  It felt great.

Thanks to the wonders of a new iPhone app called Strava, I was able to see how different the two runs really were.  The first one took 27:57 (an 8:08 minute mile).  The second took 26:41 (a 7:46 mile).

Yup, the difference between plodding / struggling /limping to the finish and “flying” was a minute and 13 seconds.

Sure, this could be a reflection of me as a runner, but it’s also about the stories we tell ourselves.

Our highs and lows aren’t so different from each other: we’re not as great as we think we are on our great days, nor nearly as terrible as we feel like we are on the bad days.  But the difference between showing up and staying home?  That one is monumental.

Showing up, fully, and giving full effort is what counts.

And going a lot easier on yourself on the days that feel like the bad ones.

Above and beyond

No one’s going to tell you that now’s the moment.