Where blog posts really come from

One of the reasons I blog is so that I have a regular, disciplined practice of turning loosely-formed ideas into concrete, cogent, shareable posts.  Over and over again.  Until I get better at it.

Part of the power of repetition is getting to observe a process unfold repeatedly.  So, over the last 5-plus years of blogging (and of life), I’ve learned that most of the time my best ideas come through conversations.  When someone asks me a great, thorny, interesting question, and we engage in real dialogue about how to answer that question, I learn things.  This is a powerful piece of self-knowledge that I otherwise wouldn’t possess.  It informs how I structure my time and how I think about the conversations I need to have, and the people I need to interact with, to learn, to push my own thinking and my own understanding of the world and of my work.

Rare, though, is to have a photograph of that moment.

The most popular post I wrote in November was How do I get a job in impact investing?, and after I wrote the post I saw this tweet from Josh McCann.  It’s a photo taken the moment I was asked by the Warton Social Venture club how to get a job in impact investing. I was stumped, but I winged it, and we talked, and together we figured it out.

How to get a job in impact investing

Where do your best ideas come from?  Alone, or in conversation?  After a lot of reading and study or on the spur of the moment?  With a pad of paper and a pencil, a whiteboard, with a cup of tea or cranking at your desk at work, constantly jumping back to your Facebook feed (probably not)?

We all struggle with managing our time the right way.  Knowing where we get our best ideas can help.  This is one of the big ideas in Peter Drucker’s Managing Oneself, an article that’s worth rereading at least once a year.

Try it, you’ll learn

Irrespective of how much you care, about how hard you try to imagine every little thing your customers might need or want, until you are a buyer of your own product you’ll never fully understand what pieces it has and what are missing.  This means:

Using a new app for weeks until you figure out that the slow startup time actually matters in frequent use cases.

Trying the self-checkout line to discover that buying produce is a nightmare.

Creating presentations using Powerpoint to discover that the seven commands you use the most are on seven different menus, and three of them are buried two levels down.

Having your team member pitch you as if you were a potential donor to see what questions actually come up.

And of course giving to your organization – and to a bunch of others – to see what sort of communications you get how they make you feel.

The difference between a good experience and a great one is in the little things that are just right; and these are almost impossible to see from far away.

Fifty Pounds of Clay

I’ve just started reading The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything…Fast  by Josh Kaufman to gain more insight on how effective skill acquisition happens.  Kaufman begins the book with a list of ten principles for rapid skill acquisition, the 10th of which he illustrates with an excerpt of Art & Fear by David Bales and Ted Orland:

A ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups.  All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right side solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” groups: fifty pounds of pots rated an A, forty pounds a B, and so on.  Those being graded on “quality,” however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an A.

Well, come grading time a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity.  It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work and learning from their mistakes, the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Kaufman’s conclusion is that, “Skill is the result of deliberate, consistent practice, and in early-stage practice, quantity and speed trump absolutely quality.  The faster and more often you practice, the more rapidly you’ll acquire the skill.”

It’s a familiar pattern in human-centered design – rapid prototyping to get your hands dirty and learn by doing.  It’s how the strongest marshmallow towers are built.  Yet it’s easy to separate that approach from how we imagine our own goals of becoming better  at ________ (building Excel models; finding answers by ourselves online; becoming better public speakers; learning to fundraise).

Indeed my mental model of how to learn and practice started way at the other end: having played classical piano seriously for two decades, I had spent literally thousands of hours focused on the last 20% or 10% or even 3% of getting a piece “perfect.”   So it has felt completely counterintuitive for me to think that “just starting” is an effective strategy for anything but the most rudimentary of tasks.  And yet, through a deliberate process of unlearning, accelerated by plenty of healthy kicks in the pants from mentors, I’ve tried this other way, and over time I’ve started to rewire myself towards a different mindset: that I can learn new skills, and that the approach to take centers around starting first, being willing to feel like a fool at the outset, and sticking with things long enough to get out of that first, terrible phase.

(My first day on a snowboard, 13 years ago, I must have hit my head HARD against the mountain at least fifty times.  I was very close to walking away.  It’s only because I’d been warned that the first day is painful, and that the second day isn’t, that I stuck with it).

Imagine, then, that your job when imagining something you’d like to learn involves just two steps (not 10, not yet):

  1. Breaking that skill into its smallest component parts
  2. Practicing just one of those skills relentlessly

For example maybe the component parts of fundraising are: getting the first meeting, finding new funding prospects, holding engaging meetings, storytelling, listening, , learning to build from one meeting to the next, comfortably asking for money…. (there are more).

If you were to decide today that you’re a terrible fundraiser (by the way, you’re not) BUT you wanted to become a good fundraiser a year from now, data from the ceramics class would teach us that spending as much time as possible practicing just one those eight component parts (and I’m sure there are more of them and each could be narrower) for two weeks would get you much further along than spending two or three or four weeks reading books on prospecting and getting the first meeting.   This is why, for example, deciding to get rejected 100 times works – it is concentrated effort on a specific task, one that unavoidably gets our auto-correct mechanism to kick in an teach ourselves better ways to do things.

We know all of this in principle, but it’s a lot easier to say “fail fast” than it is to actually jump in first.  I find that imagining a giant heap with 50 pounds of finished pottery, some of it beautiful, helps me get out of neutral.

Skills for this century

The deadline for applying for Seth Godin’s summer internship is tomorrow, May 31st.  And the last 15 applications will be discarded, so today is effectively the last day to apply.  It’s a two-week internship from July 22nd to August 2nd.  All the details are here.

I thought the skills Seth is looking for were pretty indicative of must-have skills for the next century, no matter what line of business you think you’re in.  Everyone doesn’t need all of them (though why wouldn’t you learn all of them at at least a minimal level, since today you can, easily)?

Still, it’s impossible to argue that anyone is allowed, any more, to have none of them.

Seth_internship skills

Basically, the list boils down to:

  • Coding
  • Design
  • Writing good copy
  • Coming up with ideas
  • Selling stuff
  • Managing projects
  • Hustle

(I, too, give bonus points for Monty Python trivia but I’ll admit that feels a bit arbitrary.)

Not a bad list, though, sadly, it compares terribly to what we’re teaching in our schools (including business schools).

On this last point, if you have kids or you care about education, you really must watch Seth’s “Stop Stealing Dreams” talk at TEDxYouth.   And once the video inspires you, read and share Seth’s full manuscript with the parents and educators in your life.

33 voices

Moe Abdou runs a site called 33 voices and he recently posted an interview we did there.  It was a far-flung conversation and Moe does the heavy lifting of boiling that down to 10 maxims – in addition to posting the full audio of our conversation.

Actually interesting to see someone boil down a conversation to just 10 things, and makes me wonder how those 10 things might change over time, as well as depending on who you’re speaking with.

I do like the “best advice” Moe said I gave: Trust yourself and quiet the voice that’s telling you that you can’t do it.  Advice to myself as much as to anyone else.

33 voices mission is to educate, connect and inspire – lots of great content there including interviews with Babson College President Leonard Schlesinger on teaching entrepreneurship and with venture capitalist Tony Tjan on self-awareness.  Hope you find some good stuff there.

We can’t argue about pinball any more

It was my first summer internship at my first real job.  One day at lunch I had a mock-heated discussion with a colleague about whether pinball was a game of skill or luck.  I argued for “skill” and as evidence offered up the fact that pinball tournaments exist in the world, which wouldn’t make sense for a game that’s pure luck.

My colleague didn’t believe me.  He claimed that there was no such thing as a pinball tournament.

And so a bet was struck: I needed to prove, irrefutably and by the end of the workday, that pinball tournaments existed.

This involved rushing back to my desk, finding a Yellow Pages, searching for pinball dealers in the Washington, DC area, and, from there, cobbling together a list of contacts until someone would send me a faxed entry form for an upcoming pinball tournament.

Of course this story is quaint today because we can no longer argue for more than a few seconds about this sort of thing.   If this were happening today, the argument would be resolved between sandwich bites by typing “pinball tournaments” into someone’s smartphone.

Less romantic, more efficient.

The fact is that nothing factual is out of reach these days.  While it wasn’t out of reach 20 years ago when I made this bet, the friction has been reduced to zero.  So if you want to know the difference between a Roth IRA and a regular IRA; if you want to know what “suited connectors” are in Texas Hold ‘Em and when to play them; if you want to learn how to knit or sharpen a knife or which mortgage is right for you or even what this whole debt ceiling debate is really about….well all of these answers are literally a click away.

So our ignorance about any topic is, in the most literal sense, willful in a way it never was before.  This is great news for people willing to make two (just two!) decisions:

  1. To be the kind of person who seeks answers, even when it’s scary
  2. To choose where to deepen your knowledge and to act on that decision by spending your time accordingly

That’s it.

No more pinball arguments, but so much more freedom for those willing to take that first step.

Which skills are you practicing?

Maybe today, right now, you’re in a prestigious job (or one that promises to be).  It challenges you but it really isn’t your life’s work.

What do you do?  It’s especially hard to get out, because the pay is probably good, the whole undertaking is well-recognized by friends, peers, and family, and you’re continuing to grow and learn.

So you say to yourself: there’s no real risk in staying put.  I’ll be just as qualified (more qualified) to get that job I really want a few years from now as I am today.

But there is a risk, and it comes from confusing the ability to get the next job and the ability to do the next job.

To get really good at something requires very specific skills.  Selling isn’t the same thing as marketing isn’t the same thing as investing isn’t the same thing as advising isn’t the same thing as building a team isn’t the same thing as really understanding what happens when your suppliers give you crappy payment terms and you run out of cash.

So the risk is this: putting off (for years, maybe) starting to become really good at that thing you’re meant to be doing.

Sure this is fine, but what are you waiting for?