More thoughts by Sara Wachter-Boettcher
2012 was a weird year. I wrote a book, moved 2,400 miles, started editing a magazine, and gave talks on four continents. I even pet a cheetah.
But it was also the first year in memory where I didn’t read novels.
Oh, I read all right. I downed blog posts and skimmed technical titles. Scoured web-professional articles and tried to keep up with the news. But for most of the year, the closest I got to a work of fiction was hurrying through a short story at the airport.
Sure, I’d started Ada or Ardor—a sprawling Nabokov tome that reads like a Tolstoy family drama, if old Leo were high on modernity, absurdity, and possibly mescaline—in January. And I was falling in love with it, too, in all its illicit eroticism and decadent allusion. Yet I put it down a third of the way through and never managed to pick it back up.
This isn’t like me at all.
At first, I thought the problem was a lack of work-life balance—that I was spending too much time slaving over projects and paydays, and not enough giving in to curiosity and culture. But the problem wasn’t just that I was working too much (though I probably was). It was that I’d cut off my nose to spite my face: In order to make more time for work, I was removing the very things that allowed me to get any good at my work in the first place.
You see, the truth about the web is that there’s no inherent there there. The only substance it has is the substance we give it—which means that if we’re not substantial people—people who’ve read far and wide, thought long and hard, and discovered what it is that matters—then the web work we’re capable of will always be shallow.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my work. I love thinking about users, helping organizations get more realistic about publishing, and making content memorable. I love my clients. I love writing about and working on the web. Most of all, I love the array of super-smart people I’ve had the chance to meet, work with, and learn from along the way. But if we don’t explore the rest of the world—if we don’t get outside our work and wander into whatever weird corners we fancy—we’ll never be able to give our work life. We’ll have a slew of “best practices,” but nothing worth practicing.
It’s not just about reading novels, of course. It’s about living fully—about experiencing the world in all its complexity and exposing yourself to ideas that are foreign and challenging. It’s about getting constant practice at thinking critically and connecting disparate concepts. It’s about building interesting things because you’re an interesting person.
So this year, I’m not giving all my attention to the endless novelty of web work. I’m making space for a Nabokov novel.
People ask me all the time how they can get started in content strategy: How do I convince my boss to let me do more? How do I go beyond being a writer or a content manager? How do I wrap my head around content as systems and sites get massive and messy?
Usually I end up tossing something out about asking tough questions and poking your nose where you don’t belong until people start incorporating you in their projects.
That’s not a lie, but it is a bit of a cop-out. Because I believe the real answer starts not in what you do, but in how you think.
The people who are best at strategic work—actually, scratch that, the people who are the best at practically anything —share a common trait: the ability to hold big ideas and minute details together in their heads at the same time—and to constantly, naturally, be vetting one against the other.
They can come up with a concept, then immediately find its weaknesses and figure out its feasibility. They can look at a bevy of tiny details and see which of them are actually important to the big picture—and which aren’t worth sweating. They understand that minutia like microcopy and QA matter, but they don’t get stuck on them so long the rest of the project suffers. They’ll dream up a cool way to personalize an experience, then immediately ask whether they have the data and logic to actually deliver it.
I’ve seen too many projects fail because the people with the “big ideas” didn’t see it as their job to care about the small stuff, too. And, just as detrimental, I’ve seen too many people waste their time and skill sets by getting so hung up on formatting a laundry list of content recommendations that they can’t see the bigger themes and opportunities.
Vision is lovely, but vision alone doesn’t ship. It’s the people who can carry vision through—and not just by handing off a plan or drawing a diagram, but by actually working through the challenges of execution—who are most valuable.
And boy could the world sure use more of them.
You’ve probably heard about the importance of empathy in design and communication work—of understanding others’ emotions and considering their feelings when we make things for them to use. Corey Vilhauer has called it “content strategy’s hidden deliverable.” Kate Kiefer Lee says it’s central to MailChimp’s content. Whitney Hess believes it’s the foundation of an “environment that encourages collaboration, iteration, and risk.”
But empathy isn’t easy. As much as I want to have it, as much as I believe in it, I fall down on the job a lot. I dole out advice better than I listen. I get frustrated with people who just can’t figure things out. I’m quick to be an editor when I ought to simply be a friend.
I think I might have found the real problem, though. We can’t begin being empathetic when another person arrives. We have to already have made a space in our lives where empathy can thrive. And that means being open—truly open—to feeling emotions we may not want to feel. It means allowing another’s experiences to gut us. It means ceding control.
Empathy begins with vulnerability. And being vulnerable, especially in our work, is fucking terrifying.
I’ve spent most of my life putting up one front or another: against middle-school taunts, against familial drama, against injustices both petty and profound. I suppose we all have. How else would we get through adolescence, through job rejections, through breakups and bad news and disappointments of all sorts?
Fronting isn’t bad; it’s human. It’s a shield—a way to cope, to keep others at a safe distance, to tell them the story we want them to see. But it’s also what’s keeping us from greatness, as Karen McGrane wrote last month in a column for A List Apart:
I’m comfortable when I can tell myself I’m in control, when I can attend to all the small details and various checklists that add up to “doing a good job.” I had to be forced into a place where I simply did not give a fuck in order to find out what I was really capable of.
Greatness, in other words, demands rawness.
I’ve probably read that piece a dozen times by now (and only two of those were in my official capacity as editor). I keep returning to it because I’ve never before had so many good things happening at once, and yet simultaneously felt so far from great.
This might surprise you if you know what I’ve been doing recently: taking over A List Apart, speaking at conferences, publishing a book. I am, as they say, doing well. Yet that book nearly did me in—and not because of the writing, either. I was simply scared of being exposed.
I was terrified that the things I’d been working on—mostly alone, mostly in a little agency in Arizona that was far from perfect and that didn’t really reflect what I wanted to be doing—were going to get called out as minuscule and silly. That I didn’t deserve to be doing this. That I’d let people down.
I did it anyway. I felt nauseous the whole time.
My fears were unfounded, of course. I’ve received inspiring emails from strangers. I’ve had mostly good reviews. I hear it might even make money someday.
I should feel relieved. I should feel ecstatic. But vulnerability doesn’t work that way. I still feel this intense desire to hide, to deflect, to cover back up all those parts I exposed to the world.
I’ve distanced myself from past projects; I’ve avoided pushing for the sort of work I really want; I’ve glossed over details to avoid admitting how little I actually know. I’ve worked hard, terribly hard, to make my checklist add up to a good job.
But I am not great. Not yet.
There’s a safety in creating distance—in carefully managing perceptions and avoiding the things that make you feel unprepared and unworthy. It’s easier to get by when you have a buffer.
But that distance not only keeps you from greatness; it also numbs you. It protects you from your own emotions, sure. But it also makes it impossible to feel anyone else’s.
I can’t afford to be numb. I have users to help. I have problems to solve. I have got to get more comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Empathy starts with vulnerability. And I’m still working on it.
I’ve been lucky enough to get a lot of feedback recently: book reviews, conference talk evaluations, post-workshop surveys. Reams of paper and multi-column spreadsheets and emails and blog posts all dedicated to evaluating little ol’ me.
I don’t always feel lucky, though. More often than not, reading a review of my own work (or, worse, dozens of them all at once) feels excruciating, overwhelming, and exhausting—even if it’s positive. It always seems to find the spots where I have the least armor and jab itself right in.
But I am lucky. I’m lucky people bothered to take the time to tell me how I did. I’m lucky people cared enough about what I said to tell me the ways in which I can do better next time.
Most of the notes I’ve gotten have been positive, but of course I have plenty of things to work on: Slow down. Get more specific. Make more obvious ties between the little things and the larger narrative. Calm down. Slow down.
No, really, slow down.
I’m working on those things, of course. (I think I’m speaking about 25 percent slower than I used to—which is only 25 percent faster than I ought to be.) But even more than that, I’m working on how I relate to the feedback itself.
For a long time, these waves of feedback would bowl me over. I’d get knocked into a state of panic, obsessing over all the things I could have done better. I’d end up tumbling, reeling, scrambling to regain my footing. This felt crummy, sure. But the real problem was that it also left me unable to do anything with the information—because getting back up off the ground had already sapped all my energy.
It’s hard to take change to heart while you’re coughing up saltwater.
These days I’m trying to let the wave wash over me without it kicking my legs out from under me. Either way I’ll end up getting wet—immersed in the criticism, soaked in my own imperfection. But if I want to get better, I can’t afford to get swallowed by it anymore.
It’s not just about me, though. It’s about our entire industry, as my friend Jonathan Kahn pointed out recently:
If we’re going to change culture, we need to give and receive feedback more, and we need to do it with kindness and respect. Which is HARD.
If you agree that culture change is critical to the web—that businesses need to adapt to constant change, that organizations need to get back to being human, and that becoming flexible and iterative is the only way to keep up—then embracing and employing feedback isn’t just a means to being better liked. It’s actually the foundation of a better web.
While my friends hawked video rentals and pulled espresso shots, I spent college working at my county’s rape crisis center. For $7.25 an hour, graciously provided by federal work-study funds, I trained volunteers and answered crisis-line calls. I wrote newsletters and set up card tables at local events.
But mostly, I talked to 11-year-olds.
Armed with laminated poster boards and nametags, a colleague and I would walk into a new sixth-grade classroom each week. For an hour at a time, three days in a row, we’d talk about staying safe, about saying no, and about being assertive. About the way boys and girls are often expected to be, and how that sometimes sets everyone up for trouble. About how abusers will sometimes tell you it’s your fault, but it’s not, no matter what.
At the end of each day, we’d collect “anonymous questions”: little paper scraps on which students could write down anything they were afraid to ask out loud. If they wanted, we always said, they could also ask for help and include their names.
In nearly every class in nearly every school, someone would write about abuse he’d experienced, or that of a friend who’d confided in him. They were often aching to tell someone.
We were just the first ones to ask.
Sometimes it took two hours in a cramped back room behind the principal’s office, sometimes ten rushed minutes in a quiet hallway. But each abuse disclosure unfolded in largely the same way: slowly at first, and then all at once. Stories and feelings and sometimes tears gushing forth, engulfing them. Engulfing me.
And then that was it. We’d pack up our role-playing props and poster boards, never to see those kids again. We couldn’t return to their classrooms or contact them at home, much less find out whether they had gotten help or their abusers had been stopped. We simply filled out the requisite forms and handed them off to the school’s administrators, hopeful—yet far from certain—that things would work out.
But I didn’t want a form. I wanted to make things right for those kids. I wanted to take them in my arms and tell them, unequivocally, that they were safe now, and that it would never happen again.
Instead, I left those sessions angry, sad, and drained. I was angry because they deserved better, and even angrier because I knew how hard it would be for them to escape not just the abuse, but feeling that they’d done something wrong, that it was their own damn fault, that they should be ashamed.
I wanted to wash the guilt away for them.
But life doesn’t work that way. Whether you’re a crisis worker or a web worker, it’s all the same. You can’t fix things for the people you’re there to help. You can only get them started.
In hallways and counselors’ offices, I may have loosened the seal of fear and shame that was bottling up a child’s voice. Yet she was the one who had to speak, and keep speaking, until her life changed. She had to regain her own sense of power, not be saved by mine.
My head knew this, but my heart wasn’t convinced. I’d still spend every drive back to the office the same way: shaking with frustration and wishing I could swoop in to make it all OK.
It wasn’t until much later, years into a consulting career, that I understood how foolish this longing really was. Promising solutions to people in need, even people in crisis, may be immediately comforting, but it’s ultimately dishonest.
At my best, I can ask the questions they’ve been aching to answer. I can light a path between the experience they know and the experience that could be. I can give them the space to find their way, and the confidence that their way is worth finding. But their problems will never be mine to fix.
Soothing CEOs with bon mots and buzzwords or tossing technology around like confetti won’t help. Real change comes from within. There’s no outsourcing it, no papering it over, no substituting someone else’s efforts for internal ones.
The world doesn’t need more solutioneers. It needs more advocates.
Here are the dates of Sara Wachter-Boettcher's future thoughts
- Sunday, 30 June
- Tuesday, 30 July
- Friday, 30 August
- Monday, 30 September
- Wednesday, 30 October
- Saturday, 30 November
- Monday, 30 December