Corey is a user experience strategist at Blend Interactive. He does content strategy, information architecture, and other general writing and strategy-based things. He writes about content strategy at Eating Elephant and about feelings and stuff at Black Marks on Wood Pulp. He likes short bios. More at @mrvilhauer.
One Last Post
I've spent the past year trying to write things that matter. But, early on, I found myself measuring whether or not something "matters" not simply by quality of content, but by length. Did I say enough? Am I going to get those ThinkPiece Hits™?
This month - my last month - there will be none of that. Because I only have a few simple things I've learned - and tried to adopt - over the past year.
Understand that your job is just a job, and you can love it, and that's okay, and that's really exciting, but it's still just a job, so don't forget to do things you love, too. Nothing groundbreaking there. Or so I thought, as I slowly began fretting more and more about the things I needed to accomplish to "be good enough."
Related: stop comparing yourself to everyone else. Every time I think I'm going down the right path, I find someone who's doing it better. What's funny is that I also find people who are doing it just as well, but are happier because they're doing it the way they want to.
Love your friends. I guess I never have trouble with this. But, still. Do it.
Ignore someone else's platitudes. Like this post, for example. Because you are who you are and that's really all there is. Some emo cheesy bullshit in a Pastry Box post isn't going to tell you how to change your life. So ignore this post and do what you do.
Do what you do. JESUS I JUST SAID IT. WHY AREN'T YOU JUST DOING IT ALREADY?
Thanks, everyone. It's been a weird Pastry Box year for me. But I'm thrilled to have been a part of the last one. Fist bumps.
Five Hundred Pages In
Five hundred pages into a content audit, I had a laundry list of things we could to to make the redesign work. My client - a mid-Atlantic university - was angling for a new CMS and a new redesign, and I had spelled out some standard content updates. But I was still searching for that one punch. That one out-of-this-world idea. That one thing that would make the process seem legitimate.
What I didn't know was that the out-of-this-world idea was already on the page. Every meeting brought up the same pain points - events were created in multiple locations to serve different audiences, and news items needed to be copy and pasted across each department. I had dove deep looking for complex changes to their governance model and personalization opportunities, and here I was finding out that neither one was even necessary.
They just needed a calendar that worked.
The perception of what I think I know and what I actually know is the most frustrating thing I've encountered as a web consultant. I go into every situation convinced that I'm going to be no help - that I'm preaching to the choir, my ideas old hat. I fall into the trap of assuming that because I have the confidence to make a suggestion, that they already know that answer.
But that answer? It's not always the answer I expect.
I forget that sometimes my value isn't in ideas, but from being an outside source who can back up my client's ideas.
I forget that sometimes we're both looking for answers, and my experience in finding answers is more valuable than whether or not I know the answer.
And then sometimes the answer is so obvious to me that I forget how it's not obvious at all. For a bit, I feel better. For a bit, I know I'm actually helping. For a bit, I can look past the next 500-page audit, the next list of answers, the next pang of forgetfulness.
Fighting for MVP
It took me a while to understand the concept of a minimum viable product.
I spent my summers with my grandfather, who taught me that nothing's worth doing if you can't do it right. Perfect. I learned discipline, and that discipline involved working until things were done.
Not until they were okay. Until things were done.
My grandfather was an army recruiter. He was a store owner. He cut his own firewood and stacked it perfectly. He fixed small engines.
He wasn't obsessive - he understood that sometimes, things CAN'T be perfect. But the solution was easy: he simply didn't bother with those things.
He didn't know what a minimum viable product was. I'm not sure he'd ever understand it, either.
I have promised everyone I know that I am going to start writing a book. But, to be perfectly honest, I don't want to. I'm scared as hell.
I'm not worried about whether or not I have anything to say. I'm worried about whether or not I can say it all. That I'll forget something. That it will go to print incomplete.
These are real fears, because I no longer live in a world where I have to worry about this. On the web, mistakes can be fixed. There is no print run; no proof sheets or air date. The web is rolled out a bit at a time. Mistakes aren't remembered. They're just fixed.
A book, though. Those mistakes are there until the next edition. If there is a next edition at all.
My fields - content strategy and information architecture - can be approached from a hundred different angles. I approach it from the library science angle, because I identify with the completeness and organization of that angle.
Those of us who cherish the library sciences have difficulty with minimum viable product, because when you are organizing and cataloging books and files and content, you do so to completion. The idea that there are things on the edges can be maddening.
Which is why I had to teach myself, little by little, to accept close enough. And I suck at it.
But that's the web.
Minimum viable product can be learned. We all have things that we let slide for reasons of a faster launch. Despite my perfectionism with document design and kitchen cleanliness, I fail miserably with self-editing. I want every thought to be correct, but I can't be bothered to make sure the words are spelled correctly.
It's a twisted way of writing, and it comes from the pull of perfection: I know, as a writer, that I will sit on something until it has withered away, so I force myself to post fast and loose.
It's maddening to me. But, if I didn't do it, I wouldn't have anything to show for the hours I spend. This is one little thing I do to counteract perfectionism. It's one small step toward minimum viable product.
I've learned two things since working on the web.
First, sometimes, good enough is good enough.
Second, that first thing only makes sense if you understand there's always room to go back and make good enough a little better.
I still suck at it. I hope I can change. I'm not sure I can. So I have to just fight for progress, learning a bit at a time what good enough really means.
Tools, Dependence, and My War with the Road
It was dark when I stood up. There was a flash and a lot of movement, and then it was dark. Except for one streetlight, and then another. The road was a black canyon, kept awake by the steady blinking of my back taillight.
Instinctively, I moved every limb and concentrated on the pain. Where was it coming from? I was scraped up. I already felt stiff. My head was okay. My leg ... it hurt. My wrist felt shock. My shoulder. My foot. A slow inventory, done in a fraction of a second.
I had hit something. I didn't know what it was. It was dark when I stood up, but there were streetlights, now. I was on a residential street, by a school under construction for the incoming school year, a few blocks from my friend's house, no more than two or three miles from home.
I did the inventory again. I shook it off. I got back on my bike to ride.
I do a lot of thinking at my job, but I don't do anything without consulting with my tools. I have programs that I trust - programs that keep me honest, and programs that help me with the mundane tasks, and programs that lead me toward answers.
My job is based in thought and creativity - free of tangibles, stripped of weight, from project management to front end development to strategy and sales. But that creativity depends on tools. It is freed by those tools. I try to master those tools and I give in to those tools.
But, like, what happens when those tools fail us?
This had happened once before. When I was 17. I had stopped to adjust the tire on my bike, and I forgot to tighten the quick release, and then I headed down a hill about a half a block from my house. The speedometer on my bike said 21.5, though that could be an exaggeration from years of telling the story.
What happened at the bottom of the hill was no exaggeration. I lifted my front wheel to miss a bump. Ha! Look! It's like a mini-wheelie! My wheel had other plans; it kept on its path, independent of the front fork. I planted, and I flew.
These were the days before my feet were clipped into the pedals. These were the days before I wore a helmet. I was 17 and invincible and I was going to rule the world someday and then my fork hit the concrete.
And then I hit the concrete.
And then I slid.
Rumor is that my handlebars had twisted a full 90 degrees, and that there was a chunk of cement missing from where my fork planted. All I knew is that the one tool I had managed to master - this bicycle, my main form of transportation - had failed me, and I stood up and ran to my house, my hand against my face, blood dripping onto my favorite Sunny Day Real Estate shirt, hearing my friend laugh at me in the background because he had no idea what had happened.
The world had betrayed me. My tools had betrayed me. It would be years before I'd trust them again.
We learn our crafts through careful mimicry, pouring over the guides and handbooks and stealing bits and pieces from others. We look to others for confirmation as we try to find our own place. We grasp desperately for anything that can help us gain ground.
Through this process, though, we sometimes forget that those guides and handbooks are just that - they are guides. They show us one way to go, but it's up to us to read between the lines to better understand the theory, the practice, the nuance.
They are tools, and they are important. Because tools help us do our work more efficiently. We all have personal - and in some cases, organizational - methodologies, and those methodologies are important tools. They help us keep things on track, and they help vet our processes, and they make education and consistency possible.
They are also fallible. The programs and processes we build up are single points on a wide spectrum of work. From a pencil and pad to a bloated Omnigraffle template; from a discovery workshop to a wiki-based style guide - each tool helps complete one portion of an overall project. Which tools we use depends on the client, the task, the user.
I used to play a game called 24, where through basic mathematics functions you were tasked with taking four random numbers to a total of 24. Four numbers, different functions, but the answer was always 24.
That's what we do. We borrow and combine our tools in search of the right decision - mixing and matching on our way to 24. If we depend too much on a single process, we lose the ability to think on the fly. We don't know what to do when we have to go off script. We're not sure what's going to happen when our lights are too dim. When our life throws us on our ass. When we're looking up into the dark wondering what to do next.
I rode my bike for about 50 feet before my derailer snagged my chain and my bike ground to a stop.
"What the ..?" Like it was a surprise. Like I hadn't just torn myself apart and torn my bike apart, speeding down the road faster than I should have, in the dark. Like the chunk of concrete I had caught - a friendly reminder of the construction next door - wasn't real and that standing up was all I needed to do.
That's when I realized that things weren't going so well. My bike was in worse shape than I had thought. A shifter was off center, and back where I had landed lay half of my bike light, a scatter of its batteries, a button from my backpack, and a pen that had fallen out of a pocket.
Walking back to the scene - the scene I had simply tried to escape; fight or flight or just ride your bike away super fast, I guess - I could see that things weren't going well. I felt the blood on my elbow, could see the road rash on my leg. I took off my helmet, finally, and saw the inch deep crack down the side - a crack that continued several inches on the inside. The pain in my wrist came to the forefront, and my rib suddenly sprung to life.
I stared at my bike. The tool I trust more than anything, as an extension of my body, as a companion that's taken me across Iowa, and around the city, and across over 4,000 miles of road and trail, and I couldn't believe what it had done to me.
But as the night went on, and as the ibuprofen slowly took hold, and as I finally began falling asleep, I thought about all of the things I had done. Riding too fast. Depending on a light designed to be noticed and not detect obstacles. Foolishly staying out as late as I had. Thinking about anything but the road and my ride.
And I thought about the things my tools did.
My derailer broke away as designed, allowing the chain to go free and saving me from hundreds in structural damage. My backpack, which had weighed heavy on the way down, filled with a change of clothes, padded my fall and took the brunt of the road. My lights had worked perfectly until I had pushed them too far. My helmet did nothing except exist, saving my skull. Saving a lot more.
Inanimate and lifeless, my tools still tried to do their part, but they couldn't overcome my role. I depended on them for everything, and took a spill as a result.
I remember the first time I discovered that Pages for Mac didn't autosave documents. I lost a few hours of work. It wasn't great, probably, so maybe Pages did me a favor. But I didn't think it was so cool at the time.
I blamed Pages. But, really, I blamed myself for depending on Pages. For not confirming assumed functionality.
After being thrown from my bike, I blamed that chunk of concrete. I blamed my light for missing it. I blamed my clipped in shoes for not allowing me to be faster on my feet.
But it was all me. I depended on my tools, and they didn't live up to the task.
When a project doesn't go well, it's easy to blame the client, or our team, or the tools we used, or our lack of research or silos or subject matter experts or anything really. But with every strategic web project, there is a single point of failure: the person in charge.
No matter what, someday our tools will fail us. And that's okay. They're just tools. It's up to us to make them work.
While No Guitar Gently Weeps
“Right, when do I put the guitar on?”
There was no guitar. There was no part to play. There was only playback of a song - “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” a 26-minute long, nine-part opus celebrating a lost friend.
It was Pink Floyd’s tribute to Syd Barrett - an original founder, a drug-addled star, a mind lost at sea. Barrett was instrumental in Pink Floyd’s early sound - a weird mix of space psychedelic and Cambridge jazz. But over time, the drugs took hold. He became a liability on stage, and he couldn’t quite come back from the acid haze.
One day they simply decided he was too far gone. They didn’t pick him up for a show. They found a replacement. They said goodbye.
And seven years later, as they sat listening to a recording of what would become part of their iconic album Wish You Were Here, Syd Barrett suddenly was. Unannounced, overweight, balding. Only Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters recognized him.
Barrett was ready to play. He just didn’t realize the band had long passed him by.
There are industries that move slowly. The natural sciences are built on centuries of slow movement, the onerous crawl of evolution only allowing for so much new discovery. History doesn’t change, though our understanding of it becomes clearer. Water flows the same way and electricity rarely changes, so journeyman trades rarely have to scrap everything and learn again.
The web, however, stops for no one. In the past decade, every tool has changed. And while the concepts we champion are still as relevant as when A List Apart was still just that - a mailing list - the way we do things changes faster than we can keep up with.
This is not a sob story about how hard today’s web workers have it. We still sit in comfy chairs and clatter away at keyboards for a living; we still have the jobs our parents would have died to have, luckier than we may ever know. But we also have to understand that this is because we’re at the right moment in our lives to accept constant change.
Our web is one of shifting sands. Without the right balance, we’re bound to fall.
I wasn’t liked as a kid.
I should rephrase that, actually - I wasn’t noticed as a kid, which is all you need to know about my thirst for attention when karaoke night rolls around. I, like many of us who ended up falling into IRC and chat rooms as a kid, was simply unprepared to deal with the reality of relationships. I was afraid of being wrong.
I still am. Every word I write is an untapped grenade. I’m always waiting for one to explode in my face.
But despite this, I still love speaking. (Parts of it.) I still love going to conferences, and interacting with co-workers, and mingling and talking to smart people. I still think it's amazing when someone remembers my name. Who me? Little ol’ Corey? Aw, shucks.
It’s this writing, though, that’s helped me push away from that kid that wasn’t noticed. I gain a little confidence every time. I’m cool with the public, y’all - married dad looking for acceptance, apply inside.
But not so much, you know. Because. Ugh. That shit’s still hard.
See, I thirst to be seen. But on my terms. Then I’m ready to sneak back into my shell. An introvert, I guess; a term that’s both overused and still crucially important as we peek from behind our computer screens and realize our generation forgot to take the opportunity to talk to real people.
I don’t want to be forgotten again. I want to be a part of something great, and I’m scared shitless that I won’t be. That things are moving away from me. That I somehow missed the memo that we’re all supposed to be doing that thing and holy what where are you going and why aren’t we talking about the stuff that I know about?
My fear isn’t of being noticed. This isn’t middle school. My fear now is of becoming irrelevant, like I’ve seen so many people do before me, ignorant or arrogant in the face of change. My concern isn’t that I’ll be passed over or forgotten - it’s that I’ll wake up and find out I could have done something to stay in the loop.
Fear of missing out, sure. More like a fear of losing ground.
Over the past five years, I have built a strong core of friends who, to be honest, I am afraid to talk to.
They are industry leaders. They are independent consultants. They are people who have their shit together.
And sometimes …
Well, sometimes, they don’t have their shit together. Sometimes, they have no idea what they’re doing. But they admit that.
They. Admit. That.
What kind of black magic does it take? Where does that strength come from, to constantly improve and feel at peace and chase after new opportunities and generally free yourself of the need to worry about being informed and accepted?
At what point does it feel like things are going to be easy? When the keynotes start rolling in and the projects become second nature? Where is my lake home, and where is my peace of mind?
Sometimes, I get the courage to ask.
Sometimes, I say it out loud. “I’m … I’m afraid I’m falling behind.”
Sometimes, I show my cards. I reveal my secrets. I use all of my cliches.
Every time, I get the same answer.
“You’re fine. None of us know what we’re doing. Things move too fast to ever get comfortable.”
And I feel better. For a little bit.
I don’t know if it comes from my childhood - those days when all I wanted to do was be a part of the pack, settling instead for an eight-bit broad sword and a bowl of macaroni and cheese at home.
I don’t know if it’s imposter syndrome - as overused a term as “introvert” but just as damning for a person’s self esteem.
I don’t know if I’m just lazy. Or if I’m looking in the wrong direction. Or if the constant need to be sure I’m doing things right - an over-reliance on methodology, the inability to decipher good advice from bad - is making me doubt my common sense and intuition.
Maybe, it’s just that we all suffer from some kind of doubt, and for some that doubt makes us work harder, and for others that doubt makes us look at things we never thought we’d consider.
There’s nothing wrong with being behind on something, as long as we can admit the gap and work to close it. It’s the basic structure around learning - we work to bridge the spaces in our knowledge, bringing things closer and building a stronger infrastructure.
There’s nothing wrong with falling behind. There’s not even really anything wrong with not noticing for a while. The fault lies in knowing exactly what’s wrong, and moving on as usual.
And that’s what I fear. That someday I’ll just give up. That I’ll wake up one morning and find out I no longer have a place. That I’ve unknowingly been passed by - that I was learning the wrong things, going in the wrong direction, betting on the wrong horse. And I won’t care.
I’ll be standing in a room, my old friends staring at me, wondering where I’ve been. No guitar in hand. Hoping to play the next solo.
Five Paragraphs About Wasting a Day
Because writing is hard, and because thinking is hard, and because being on point all the time is hard, I sometimes have days where nothing gets done. Where I sit at my desk and spin my wheels for hours. Where I have to check the fridge every 20 minutes as if it was going to change. Where I no longer battle with the idea that I’m totally unqualified to do anything related to this industry - I know I’m unqualified.
At the end of these days, the drive home sucks. I wasted this day.
It’s this thought that gives me fuel - the shame of realizing that I could have just fought through it, that writer’s block and procrastination won the battle. My energy level increases and I look for small victories.
I clean the house. I do the dishes. I organize the bookshelf. I take care of things I’ve been letting go. I answer some smaller emails. I do something. And doing something helps.
I’ll never get the day back. I’ll never stop procrastination and writer’s block. But the small victories help, and I know that tomorrow will be better.
Biking, Failure, and the Myth of Perfection
Iowa doesn’t seem like a big state until you’re 150 miles into it, on day two of a week-long bike ride. But it is. It’s long and hilly and hot. Sometimes it rains. Sometimes they run out of pork chops along the side of the road.
Sometimes you have to stop. And that’s where I was.
RAGBRAI - the Register’s Annual Great Big Race Across Iowa - was a kind of legend in our house growing up. My father had made it all the way across when I was just a kid, and though he never did it again it was still a point of pride. It was a dream to me - to take a week off work and family and life and just ride, 75-some miles a day, alone and in my thoughts beside my wife and tens of thousands of other like-minded people.
More than that, though, it was a dream to find myself at the finish. To hold up my bike after dunking it in the Mississippi. To conquer Iowa.
And I had all the confidence I could do it. Until we approached Emmetsburg.
My knee tweaked. I fought the pain and kept going, riding harder, pushing up hills, against the wind, trying to stay in line. And, finally, as I rode into town, our resting spot for the night, the pain became too much.
Five blocks from our camp, I got off my bike.
I could barely walk. My eyes were stinging from sunscreen. I limped along.
And then I cried. Because I wasn’t going to be riding the next day - if at all. The dream was done, and I wasn’t prepared for how much that would hurt.
Sometimes, I speak at conferences. And while my talks are about methodology, and making things smaller and more usable for resource-strapped teams, and empathy for co-workers and editors, I ultimately fall on a common topic: the myth of perfection.
I talk about how the web is an imperfect ball of twine, tangled and knotted and unable to be smoothed out. There are inconsistencies that can no longer be unraveled. We are all learning this as we go. Rah Rah Do Your Best.
I stand up in front of rooms of 20 and crowds of 300 and I talk about how we can’t be perfect, and people tweet things and they come up to me after and say how great it is that I’m talking about how imperfect we all are and how brave. And that’s awesome. Except.
Except, really, it’s not about them, is it?
Over the past five years, through dozens of talks and articles, from conversations with clients and co-workers, among friends, at bars, as we’re walking, I stress the importance of finding value in the lack of perfection. This is my soapbox. This is what I think I believe. But I’m not trying to convince an audience of attendees or peers.
I’m trying to convince myself.
I know there are people out there who understand that perfection is a myth. Hell, I understand perfection is a myth. But I’ll be damned if I ever remember that when I’m staring down a deadline, tweaking and primping some unnecessary details, my head filling with doubt, my gut twisting like it’s spent too much time in the Gravitron.
I understand, but I rarely believe. I’m there, every time. Trying to make things perfect.
That’s what we’re taught. That perfection is accessible, that giving 110% percent is a goal. The urge to “try our best” is, by definition, reaching out for perfection - doing our best to make something perfect. Something flawless.
That’s a great thing to be able to do. That’s why we try to maximize our productivity, and that’s why we learn new things, and improve our methods, and practice practice practice.
It’s not that we shouldn’t try to be perfect - to make things as good as they can get. It’s just that we have to redefine what perfect means. To understand that being perfect doesn’t mean overanalyzing everything. That being perfect is a point in the distance that we drive toward, a black tower that guides our path.
Perfect’s a good goal, as long as we understand we’ll never make it there. You can still win the pennant even without a perfect game.
I Used To...
And with that, I can look back at all of my failures and realize what really happened.
I used to be a photographer. I used to be a teacher. I used to read and I used to write a lot more.
I used to be patient. I used to understand.
I used to be a lot of things, and I had reasons for letting off. I saw people who had done it better, or I had recognized my own inconsistencies. I gave the fuck up. I just figured if I’m not going all out - if I’m not impressing people - then what’s the point in trying.
And that’s too bad. I sought perfection in places where I’d never find it - not with my limited attention, not with my personal quirks.
But I’m getting there. I’m getting confident enough to try again. I’m just doing. I’m not worrying whether things will work out. I’m just doing the work, understanding it doesn’t need to be perfect.
I’m just doing things. And I’m just doing it for me.
Finishing Over Completion
The end is the end, no matter how many miles you rode in the middle. You get to the Mississippi, and you dip your tire in. RAGBRAI is over. You made it.
For a split second, I thought I had. And then I remembered day three. Who was I to claim this feeling? Who was I to say I rode RAGBRAI?
It wasn’t until the drive back - seven of us in the back of a camper, drinking Coors Light, our bikes wedged into the front and our sunburned legs wedged into the back - that I understood what RAGBRAI was. Not the start and finish. Not the miles, or the hills. It was the people. The community.
In the back, we had four people who had ridden every mile - sometimes more. We had two who had taken a day off to rest. We had one who had only ridden three of the seven days. But together in that camper, as things got dark and we retreated back west, erasing every mile, we were all riders.
Perfection be damned. There’s always future rides. At that moment, we were all together as finishers, even if we hadn’t completed it.
Everybody Knows This Isn't Perfect
Everybody seems to wonder
What it's like down here
I gotta get away from this day-to-day running around
Everybody knows this is nowhere.
— Neil Young, "Everybody Knows This is Nowhere"
The lights can be blinding when you wander into focus. When everyone starts looking at you; when you have become the subject of everyone’s sentence. There’s a pause, and in that pause there’s a choice. You let this bother you. Or you don’t.
Sometimes the choice is easy. You just do it. You have nothing to lose. The stakes are not high enough.
You do what you do. You entertain, you teach, you present, you learn. You are at the head of a conference table explaining your decisions. You are on stage in front of 200 people. You are in a discovery meeting justifying your position.
As you walk off stage, you have an idea of how it went. It went perfectly. It went horribly. It just went.
And then you look at the feedback.
The One Side
The first time I spoke at a conference, I nailed it. This is not bragging – I honestly had no idea my talk would go over as well as it did. But it did. And as I wandered amongst friends and conference attendees and other speakers at the conference party, I felt everything wash away. I had looked the beast in the eyes, and I had slayed it.
I can do this, I thought. Though, there shouldn’t have ever been any doubt. I am a trained teacher with a degree in secondary biology education. I had handled worse crowds as a fresh substitute, filling in for advanced-level high school Biology II classes, trying to reign the wandering minds of students that were only five years younger than I was.
Seriously. What the hell could a conference crowd do that an 18-year-old with senioritis couldn’t?
And Then the Other
And then, last week, I gave the talk of my life. I had worked and fretted and made myself insane over this talk. I took to heart all of the feedback I had ever received: make sure you give the crowd something they can act on. Be funny. Give a little bit of your own personality. Practice. Do it. Be it.
I nailed it. Again.
And then I looked at the feedback. It wasn't pretty.
I remembered back to the first time I ever led a discovery meeting, where my lack of experience had been exposed and I felt like a complete fraud. I went into the meeting with the idea that I could do this – that this was going to be a fantastic meeting – and left wondering what had happened.
When pressed, I had no answers. When prodded, I shuddered and hoped it would somehow go away.
Years later, I understand that the key to thinking on your toes is to assume you know more than everyone else. But that’s not my style. A fair number of us don’t think that way. It’s not introversion – the great over-diagnosed condition of the web era. It’s just that we hedge our bets and we assume that there's always something more to learn. We aren't wired to be forceful and confident.
But sometimes that’s what we need. We need to pretend we are forceful and confident. We need to play that part, like going against type in a community theater play. We need to stop assuming we’re Seymour and start playing the part of the Audrey II.
Ignore or Push Forward
When I walk into the lights, I want to be perfect.
I want to be Don Draper. I want to be Ginger Rodgers. I want to be every character in the Ocean’s movies.
I can’t be perfect, and you can’t be perfect, and no one can be perfect, because this shit isn’t scripted and despite the fact that we try really really hard we'll never be perfect. Every time we step on stage, we’re less than perfect. Every time.
Every time. We fail, because we want to be mistake-free, and we forget that mistakes are what make us normal. Relatable. Human.
And we could feel horrible about that. Or, we could stop worrying and just try to be good. Because we are good. It’s just that sometimes we freeze up under pressure. That’s what pressure does. That’s what humans do.
So I can’t be perfect. I just need to be good. And make an impact. Even if that impact doesn’t fit into the Hollywood storyline.
I got bad reviews – at least the ones I snuck a look at before shutting it down and ignoring the rest. I was completely and utterly shattered for two days. Why do I do this? If this talk sucks – a talk I gave specifically to a set of people that I thought would understand it, a talk that I thought had gone as well as any talk I had ever given – then what do I do?
Do I scrap it? Do I give up? Do I spend the next 21 days fixing it before I give it again, not knowing if anything I’m doing is going to actually help?
Or do I reframe the question?
Because the opinions of that vocal minority – the 8% of people who had responded – shouldn’t really dictate my feelings. They should not determine whether or not my performance and message were worth it to the rest of the group. I can allow them to represent a small portion, but I'll never know how everyone thought.
So I had a choice. I could trust my gut, or I could pay attention to a few people who gave me a bad score.
And, after a few days, it was easy.
I was going to trust my gut. Because regardless of the platitudes and positive feedback and negative vibes, my gut doesn’t feed me any bullshit. It just tells me when I think I’m doing okay.
And, to be honest, that’s about as confident a cheerleader I'll ever need.
Kill Your Processes
In the beginning, there are letters. They are shapes, and those shapes represent sounds, and those shapes and sounds represent two methods of communication.
We spend a lot of time in the beginning learning these letters —often without any larger picture. We know that these shapes help us spell, but we don’t dive into what it means to spell. We just do it.
The letters are tools. They are tools that help us create words. D-O-G. R-U-N. Good job. Here’s something else to spell.
But soon, words allow us to form sentences. And sentences allow us to take part in a language - a shared understanding of what things are and what they mean. We learn how to use words by using all of them we know - we write and we write and we end up with too many words, probably, because that’s what early writing is. Using everything at our disposal as if we’re playing gin, our score lessened by the cards we never used.
This is how we learn. We get the tools. We figure out how to use them.
As a content strategist, I spent a lot of time in the beginning learning about content audits and style guides. I defined the landscape around me by reading everything I could, creating a gigantic document, and putting my new knowledge to work. I wanted definition to shape my expectations. I struggled to find the edges of the industry.
Once we’ve found those edges, though? That’s when things get dangerous. We know all of the tools, but we haven’t quite learned how they interact. We know the terms, but we don’t know how to adapt them on the fly.
We know what we can do, but we don’t know what we should do.
There are two or three jumps we make as professionals within our field, where the learning curve veers sharply. There’s the initial ramp up of knowledge, and there’s the point when knowledge no longer helps - where we know all we can know. We have no more words to write. It’s time to edit.
I find that over the past decade, tools I thought would become standard pieces of my repertoire are nothing more than vestigial organs, their use superseded by either a streamlined process or a better tool.
Kill your darlings, they say. So I do just that.
This is how we learn. We figure out how to use the tools. And then we learn how to let them go.
A Few Words On Mismatched Minifigs
My son has taken the head off of every one of his LEGO minifigs. He has rearranged everyone’s hair, given them new pants, and tossed the weapons into a giant pile on his LEGO table. He has no regard for canon. In the story of Star Wars, it’s now Darth who shot first, doing so while wearing an old west sheriff’s hat.
Who does he think he is? Does he have no regard for how things are supposed to be arranged?
I work for a company that is often brought in to handle tangled development problems — tricky implementations that depend on someone else’s strategy. I pour over someone else’s wireframes and content models, and without fail I find something that doesn’t sit right.
Not because it’s wrong. But because it’s not necessarily how I would have done it. I’m quick to judge. I’m quick to compare.
Methodology is sticky in this way. We come up with our own techniques and plans and hold other people accountable to them, despite knowing that methodologies are, at heart, deeply personal. No one works like you do. No one works like I do.
Regardless of what we do, we have one real goal: to provide a valuable solution. How we get to those solutions — how we use the tools and techniques afforded to us, within the timeframes we’re allowed, among the people we trust — is completely interchangeable.
That thing you do isn’t the only way to do it, and neither is the thing I do.
So when my son’s throwing Superman’s hair on Aquaman’s body, I have to remind myself that he’s not trying to prove anything. He has one goal: to have fun playing with LEGO. How he reaches that goal isn’t as important as making sure it’s a success.
Understanding that my son doesn’t need to stay on canon is part of raising a kid.
And understanding that we aren’t tied to any specific methodology is part of learning our craft.
Asphalt vs. Dirt
Used to be there was one way to become a major recording star, and that’s by finding a major recording label. You could woo the crowds in Nashville and make the crowd swoon, but you weren’t going to make millions until Capitol Records showed up on your front step.
Had stage fright? Didn’t like to travel? Didn’t want a label producer tweaking your sound? You’re out of luck. You had two paths: you can be a gigantic player, or you could go home, unknown forever. You couldn’t both be successful and stay true.
And then, the independents rose in defiance, bolstered by 70s punk. There was another option — a way to be nationally known without exceeding scope. The floodgates opened, and suddenly everything started sounding a little different.
Updating the Path to Success
Most of us grow up assuming the road to success is paved — that regardless of the end destination, there’s one main artery with very few exits. You go to school. You get a degree. You work within that degree. You move up the ladder and retire at the top. Any other path is an uncharted dirt road, slower and more dangerous. Drive at your own risk.
It doesn’t take long before we understand the limitations of that career arc. The closer you get to the top, the more crowded things become. The road to success isn’t even a road — it’s a bottleneck of toll booths, weeding out people as the pack moves forward.
But, like those early record companies were usurped by both the advent of a viable independent record industry and the internet, so too is the traditional sense of success. Smaller voices are being brought to mainstream attention, and in some cases we're detouring around mainstream attention altogether.
Now, there is no need to aim for the top. You can do what you love — modestly, with attention to size and scope — without being tied to a larger concept of “success.” Those independent record labels? They were filled with fantastic artists who were trying hard to make great music — with or without the trappings of a major label arena act. Top-of-the-charts success was no longer the only path to happiness.
We’re learning this slowly in tech. Sure, some sectors are still focused on being that big dog mentality — getting backed by insane venture capitalist money, or becoming an agency executive, or landing on a powerful board of directors.
But not everyone. Not anymore. Sometimes, we’re just looking for a different destination. Not everyone wants to end up at the top. We’re slowly embracing the idea that sometimes staying small is exactly the right place to be.
On Being Happy With Small
Where I may have once measured my own success by where I fit along someone else’s career path, I now focus on what I can borrow to take me down my own road. I’m no longer looking for a map or compass — I’m looking for tools to help clear the brush.
We are fortunate to work in an industry where measures of success and worthiness have forked thousands of times. We don’t compare each other based on titles and location — we measure each other based on knowledge, community, and honesty. Which means what once felt like the traditional path — Work Hard, Get Bigger, Take Over — is no longer the assumed path.
Some people get to stay small. Some people thrive by staying small.
I may never work on a project as large as the New York Times. I may never speak on stage in front of 7,000 people. I may never own my own company. I may never write a book. I may never become the voice of my industry.
I’m okay with this, because these are not my goals.
My goal is to live a balanced life, where the work I do is important, where the time I have with my family and friends is plentiful, where I can grow and improve and do fantastic work. I don’t need the big stage to do these things.
Everything else is an added benefit. I might never get that hit record, but I’m going to have a hell of a time making something awesome.
If I could find a good quote, I’d put it here. Something smart from some science fiction writer about the future – about losing ourselves in documentation, about how our technology captures us and keeps us from enjoying life. Something from Le Guin. Something from Bradbury.
Instead, all I have is a few words about quitting things.
Last year I quit using Facebook. It changed things, but not in the way I expected. I assumed I was going to have more time to do things; more attention and focus.
I still don’t have those things. Quitting Facebook didn’t make the day longer. It didn’t sharpen my attention. To be honest, Facebook wasn’t even really my problem. It’s a sharing and documentation system – it’s hard to blame it for my squishy inability to let go.
Still, losing the system mattered. I found myself losing connection with tons of events and updates. I no longer knew what was happening. I would learn things second-hand. I was out of the loop.
It could be argued that I was already hearing things second-hand, though – the Internet itself serving as the conduit, my life collecting a series of updates and images and feeds, everything being filtered not through the eyes of experience but through selective representation. Only the things worth squirreling away were presented. I didn’t live: I collected and posted.
My relationship with social media is less about communication and more about collecting. Each experience becomes little more than a pin on a map – a single point of data free of any connection, the metadata stripped away. I had lists of past vacations and folders of photographs. I had a pile of Foursquare data that I could view a year later on Timehop. I had touch points but no feeling.
Getting rid of Facebook – which in turn forced my hand on several other social apps connected via Facebook – allowed my mind to ease off a bit. I stopped collecting, and became more deliberate with the few social networks I still enjoy. I’ve started writing again – the one data collection method that actually enhances my experience of an event or feeling.
More than that, I’ve finally been able to get a bit of clarity. I know that engaging with the web – posting status updates and making Twitter jokes and checking in on Foursquare – doesn’t approximate a life lived. Experiences and relationships and laughter and rage and the bruises I get from the knees of my children – these are a life lived.
I knew this. But I never acted on it. Until I had no choice – until I pulled the trigger and stopped judging things based on whether they’d make a good post.
It’s more clear, now, when I stop and think, “What makes this moment worth documenting?” knowing that when I put that thought into the world it’s not just another pin on a map.