Denise Jacobs

Denise is the author of The CSS Detective Guide and a co-author for InterAct With Web Standards: A Holistic Approach to Web Design. She travels around the world to speak at prestigious conferences about all things web-related, from Creativity and Creative Inspiration, CSS3 best practices to Responsive Design. When she is not writing articles for influential publications such as A List Apart, .net Magazine and Smashing Magazine, Denise is a Web Design Trainer and Consultant at her own company, PapillonEffect.

You can check her website DeniseJacobs.com and follow her on Twitter @denisejacobs.

Published Thoughts

Retreat. Advance. Ret-vance.

When I was initially asked to contribute to this project, I played with the idea of writing up all of my thoughts in one fell swoop so I didn’t have to think about what to write every month. However, somewhere around the mid-point of the year, I decided I would much rather have my thoughts be a true accounting of what was going on with me at the point in time that I compose my thought instead.

So, here I am at the close of the year. Like many people, I take this time to look back at the last 12 months to assess where I have been to get a better handle on where I want to go moving forward. This year has been great in so many respects, but I feel I could have done so much more if I had been in a different mode. This year, and for several years, I’ve been in what I like to think of as “ret-vance” mode.

What is being in ret-vance? It’s being in-between “retreat” and “advance”.

Advance mode is when you feel like everything is “on and poppin’ ” — everything you initiate seems to work, situations fall into place, you meet exactly the right people at the right time. You get the job you want, you get the big promotion, you meet the person of your dreams, you launch the new project…you get the idea. You’re moving forward, pursuing what you want, and you have not only the drive, but also the energy and resources for it all.

Retreat mode is when you’re pooped, burnt out, stressed, tired. When you can only half-heartedly make efforts towards your goals if you can make any effort at all. When small motions seem like monumental effort. Sometimes when all of that is happening, what you really need is to just give yourself permission to take a break.

Ret-vance is somewhere between the two — a volley back and forth between bursts of moving forward and pursuing with gusto, only to fairly quickly feel stymied by fatigue, lack of focus, and resultant setbacks.

When looking at the past 3-4 years, I see that I have been caught more and more frequently in “ret-vance” mode. I see it with all of the projects that I have initiated and not been fully able to launch; with the ideas for blog posts, articles, and books I have planned to write and have not started on; updated websites for myself, my portfolio and so many other things; collaborations that I haven’t been able to make tangible. That which I have been able to accomplish, like contributing a chapter to Smashing Book #3, developing and delivering new presentations, and completing several client projects has countered the aforementioned stymied efforts. But I feel that I probably could have produced so, so much more.

Being in ret-vance is frustrating — especially when you don’t realize it’s happening.

The cure for ret-vance mode? I think it’s to choose. Make a choice: if you need to fully retreat, then fully retreat. Give yourself permission to not do those projects, to not go after stuff, to rest — completely. Maybe that’s why stuff isn’t clicking — because it isn’t supposed to and you need downtime to rejuvenate yourself.

Or, maybe you need to choose to advance: to really go for whatever it is you are focused on. Maybe you’ve been spreading yourself too thin and you need to take your hands out of a few pies to be able to just focus on one or two things and give them your all.

So, my goal for next year is to get out of ret-vance and to advance (as I feel I have retreated long enough): get rid of the areas in which I formerly believed I “should” be focusing my energy, but am no longer interested in; release that which no longer fits with me; and to fully focus on the things that I love, am passionate about and that excite me.

What mode will you choose for the next year?

A Two-Year Retrospective

I’m one day away from the very last of my speaking engagements for the year. I love speaking — I’m passionate about it and adore sharing my knowledge with an interested audience. So, when I am on the verge of a moment of wallowing in the fatigue that comes from sleeping in foreign beds, handling a bunch of different currencies, switching between languages, working to perfect my talks in limited time frames, and breathing the canned air of airplanes, I stop and look back at where I was 4 years ago.

Four years ago in 2008, I was working at a local company doing my least favorite work in the world: Project Management. The office was small, and the “cool kids” social circle even smaller. The AC was always at a temperature far lower than was comfortable for me, so I took frequent breaks to warm myself in the sun outside. My projects were big and unwieldy, and I got to exercise practically none of my natural visual and writing creativity. In short, I was miserable. I consoled myself with dreams of writing a book and becoming a speaker who travels to conferences all around the world presenting on subjects that were my passion.

Fast forward to March 2009 at SXSW. On that Saturday, I lamented to my friend Jen that what I really wanted to do was write and speak. She suggested that the quickest path to that end was to write a book. “I could write a book about HTML,” I said, “but does there really need to be another one of those?” Two days later on Monday, I find myself at the Great British Booze Up. Mysterious promptings to talk to a guy who was upstairs put me squarely in the path of my friend Robert and his editor Wendy. That conversation lead to a book deal with PeachPit, and my writing The CSS Detective Guide.

Fast forward to April 2010. My book has been released, and I was feeling euphoric with the accomplishment of one of my life’s dreams of being an author. Curiosity led me to check the Future of Web Design’s website for their upcoming event in May. My stomach flipped when I saw that the speaker for the presentation “The Graceful Degradation of CSS3” was TBD. I contacted them and offered myself as a speaker, and they said yes! Thus, my defacto speaking career was born.

Fast forward to today, November 2012. I know I certainly don’t speak or travel as much as a lot of people, but I am still proud that this life is something that I deliberately created. When I look at it in this light, I feel enormously empowered and powerful. I look back at the past several years of ways that I have changed my life dramatically for the better, and almost exactly the way in which I’d hoped, and I realize that I really do have the power to create whatever it is in my life that I wish for. This gives me an immense amount of hope about what I’m currently focused on bringing into my life in the near future!

So, be honest with yourself about your wishes and hopes and start making them happen. If I can do it, then anyone can.

Remember to trust in serendipity.

I’ve spent the last 4 weeks in Europe: one in Bologna, Italy for a conference, and the remaining three in Zurich to visit my oldest friend in the world and her two daughters.

These past couple of weeks in Zurich I’ve been holed up in my friend’s comfortable digs making the most of the free wifi. Why? My time has been spent between 3 major tasks: preparing a completely new presentation for my next speaking engagement in Paris next week, working on my current client project, and plotting out what my next professional move will be.

Consulting has fantastic benefits, such as time autonomy, interesting projects, and learning new things. However, for me the advantages are outweighed by the minuses of uneven cash flow, feeling isolated, and doing work that no longer interests me. In short, I am weary of consulting. I am ready to have a job again.

So, this week, I’ve polished up my resume. Throwing caution to the wind, via Twitter, have asked for

  1. peer review of it:

    I've just updated my resume for the first time in YEARS. Is anyone willing to look it over and give me some constructive feedback pls?

    and

  2. leads/connections

    Working upon finding my dream job where I speak/train, write & strategize around creativity-innovation-productivity. Any ideas/leads? TIA!

(and yes, I am still open to both if you want to help!)

I believe my efforts have tipped off the serendipity police, so to speak. I made the decision to really start pouring energy and focus into my “new position manifestation” process on Tuesday evening. That same evening, I got an email from my only other buddy in Zurich inviting me to an InterNations networker the next day. Having spent most of my time working from home, I happily signed up to attend.

I arrived at the venue, and did not even get into the door when I met another attendee who looked/felt as if I had met her before. I racked my brain, suggesting a litany of places where we could have known each other, but nothing matched. She asked me what I do, and I told her “I speak and write on creativity, the creative process, productivity and innovation,” which usually gets a polite response of “oh, that’s interesting…”. In stark contrast, this woman perks up: it turns out that she is taking a 5-day course on innovation management. She immediately suggests that I come by the course the next day to meet the professor, learn about both him and his innovation consulting firm called Brain Connection, and meet the other students in the class.

Seriously?! Yes, seriously. Excitedly, I send her an email and text the next morning to confirm that I can come by. I meet the group for lunch and have a nice conversation with the professor. On the way to the classroom from lunch, I chat with another person from the group, whom I thought was a student. It turns out that he works for a company here in Zurich called DenkMotor who is the other contributor to the event. What does this company do? They teach workshops and lead trainings on creativity, the creative process, design thinking and innovation.

Seriously??! Yes, seriously! Today, in just a few hours, I will be having brunch with the woman I met, the guy who leads the creativity workshops, and a couple other people from the networker. What’s going to happen? You’ve got me—the outcome could just be a nice meal with new friends.

But this situation makes me feel as if there is a sort of barely detectable force, a sort of magic even, shimmering right underneath the surface of our everyday existence, waiting for us to take notice. Clearly, serendipity is a part of that force, and I’m not complaining. In fact, I’m in hopeful expectation of the next “happy accident” and my new awesome job, whatever it may be.

A Life Decision Workflow

At this very moment, I’m sitting in the hospital with my 94 year old grandmother, who, a mere 4 days ago, suffered from a massive stroke. Most of her brain function is lost. Before the stroke, she was already blind from adult onset diabetes. At present, not only can she not see, but she can no longer move, eat or drink. She has been moved to the in-hospital hospice. Both husband and her progeny are waiting. While we wait, looking at her slack face and now snow white hair thinly covering her scalp, I am compelled to muse upon the expanse of life that we are given. I feel compelled to try to devise ways to improve upon my own life and make my grandmother’s contribution in giving me an opportunity to be born into this world worth it.

One practice that I can now see has led me astray is operating from a long list of “should”s. Some of my major choices in my life have been embarked upon based on thoughts such as these:

  • “I should play it safe and not let him know how I really feel”
  • “I should get a sensible degree instead of doing art”
  • “I should go help my sister with her business after I graduate”
  • “I should go into project management because it pays well”
  • “I should go ahead and get involved with him because he seems really into me”
  • “I should just work all of the time and not take time for myself — then I will be able to get more done”

You may have guessed that the outcome of many of these decisions ended up being…ummm, interesting. The parts of my life directed by shoulds were not enjoyable — indeed, many ended up being some of the worst periods of my life.

Watching my grandmother’s breathing progress from strong snoring to apneatic gasps, it is becoming increasingly clear that our time, energy, and attention on this planet are far too precious for “should”. This brings to mind two pieces of wisdom that inspire me: Derek Siver’s “Hell yeah!” and Frank Chimero’s Proposed Creative Workflow. I’m ready to embrace the simplicity, self-respect, and courage of “Hell Yeah”. I’m moving to embodying the trust and honesty necessary to choose only that which truly has heart.

If your previous life decisions have been governed by shoulds like so many of mine have, and you are consequently harboring a latent dissatisfaction with your life in certain areas, then join me in starting to question every single last “should” on your list. My idea for my new Life Decision Workflow is to replace all “should”s with “I can’t wait to…!” to test the strength of the idea. If this new version of the phrase rings true, then you know that not only does it have heart, but that you have a hell yeah situation on your hands. If not, then cross it off the list. I know it sounds trite, but life really is too short to waste.



My grandmother, Robbie Mae Lowe, passed away in her sleep in the hospital hospice on Sunday, 23 September 2012.

Don’t compromise professionally because something feels “safe”—for example, by taking a job that doesn’t fit or doing work that you don’t particularly like to do. If the fit isn’t there, trust that something even better is coming, and probably sooner rather than later. Stay true to yourself and your vision for yourself.

Also, trust that what may seem like a “missed” opportunity is probably just a different opportunity in disguise. You never know what is happening in the grand scheme of things in your life—what may feel like a huge disappointment you’ll probably realize is a blessing later. A seemingly promising path that looks like it stops at a dead end can be the foundation for pointing you in a direction that you hadn’t considered before.

In essence: Trust and follow your vision—it wants you as much as you want it. Listen to your gut. Stay positive and stay open.

Acknowledge Accomplishment

I spoke earlier about managing information overload to encourage self-referral and breaking the cycle of delayed gratification. The two factors of being other-referential and never allowing yourself to get what you want often add up to create a pernicious compulsion to constantly and relentlessly produce. Sometimes we’re just built this way, but sometimes…well, we may unconsciously be so driven because that seems to be what all of our peers are doing and we want to fit in and keep up with the Jones. One of the results from this cycle? Once we achieve something, we don’t celebrate it, always focusing on the next thing.

What’s the big deal? For me, when I don’t acknowledge an accomplishment, it feels like I didn’t even do it. Like all of that time and hard work I put into it didn’t even happen. And that’s a crappy feeling. And why would I want to keep going after big goals and put tons of time, energy and effort towards them where instead of feeling like “teh awesomesauce” afterwards, I feel like a loser? In contrast, when I’ve made a bigger deal of giving myself credit for achieving a goal, it feels great and I want to tackle even more.

Here’s an example from my own life: when my book came out in April 2010, the silence was deafening. I’m not talking about from external sources, but from myself. I threw no party, I made no big post on Facebook. I think I tweeted a few times, but other than that, NOTHING. Oh, I told folks that I would have a reading of some sort, I said I would have people over for a party with a book signing. But I didn’t – at all. I was already so busy running after the next big goal of preparing for my first international speaking gig at FOWD London, that the fact that there were actual physical copies of a book that I had spent 8 months of my life pouring my heart and soul into out in the world was swept under the rug. My celebration of having accomplished one of my life’s Big Goals of being a published author consisted of a few clicks of a digital camera, a couple of tweets, and a buried blog post.

Clearly, I need to work on celebrating my own successes, whatever I determine a success to be. I have a habit of constantly raising the bar for myself, setting my sights ever farther, and changing the set of criteria of when I can finally call myself successful. But I’m looking to change that for myself, and this is how I intend to do it:

  • I’m starting to plan how I will acknowledge the success of a goal in advance of finishing it and make a pact with myself that I will truly celebrate it. This means putting it in the calendar and everything.
  • Lately, I’ve been gathering up all of my accomplishments in one place (part of the process of revamping my website, actually), which has been a great reminder of all of the things I have done over the course of my career. I’m contemplating also making a collage poster out of the items I am proudest of to have a physical reminder I can look at regularly.
  • I’m also considering having one or several success buddies to share successes with. Part of the setup will be that we remind each other of any successes forgotten or overlooked.
  • I’m also practicing more mindfulness and being present and reminding myself that the accomplishment is happening NOW. The stuff that I want/need to do for the next thing is in the future. I’ll get to it when it is time.

Here are some more suggestions and ideas from 30 Ways to Celebrate Your Success:

  • Cross it off your master list of goals.
  • Give your goals a one-day break. Take a day off from work and treat yourself to a day of rest and relaxation.
  • Do something you enjoy but rarely take time to do. Take a trip you’ve always wanted to take, or do a new activity you’ve always wanted to do.
  • Take yourself out to an amazing dinner.
  • Reflect on the path you took and how much progress you’ve made.
  • Share your news with friends, family and colleagues (and clients if appropriate), either verbally, in an email or newsletter.
  • Thank everyone who supported you.
  • Have a party! (I still need to do this one!)

How will you acknowledge your next accomplishment? Start planning it out now so that you don’t miss it.

If you’ve ever read Alice in Wonderland, you’ll be familiar with the following passage:

“I’m sure I’ll take you with pleasure!” the Queen said. “Two pence a week, and jam every other day.”

Alice couldn’t help laughing, as she said, “I don’t want you to hire ME—and I don’t care for jam.”

“It’s very good jam,” said the Queen.

“Well, I don’t want any TO-DAY, at any rate.”

“You couldn’t have it if you DID want it,” the Queen said. “The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday—but never jam to-day.”

“It MUST come sometimes to ‘jam to-day’,” Alice objected.

“No, it can’t,” said the Queen. “It’s jam every OTHER day: to-day isn’t any OTHER day, you know.”

— from Through the Looking Glass & What Alice Found There, by Lewis Carroll

Let’s say that you, in fact, liked jam, and that’s exactly what you wanted. Some of us (myself a primary culprit) have lived or are living in the world of “jam every other day” with “today not being any OTHER day”. That is to say, we’ve lived or are living with extreme delayed gratification, to the point where there is no gratification at all, or if it is, it is extremely short-lived and difficult to appreciate.

What are you putting off until it’s “the right time”, such as the project (an article or book to write, app to develop; site, program or company to launch), that you really want to do, something new that you really want to learn, a fun new activity that you really want to try, a new exercise habit, a vacation or trip that you really want to take, the person (or people) that you would like to get to know better/spend more time with or become friends with? What piece or pieces of self-care are you pushing off because “you don’t have time”? In my own life, I can see so many times where “jam to-morrow” just didn’t happen—largely due to my own devices. In contrast, during the instances where I did get, achieve, or manifest what I truly desired, I was in-love with life and all of the possibilities that it had to offer.

So, if it’s “jam every other day” for you like it has been for me so often in my life, here is my recommendation based on what I’m currently learning and putting into practice: start looking at where you can make it “jam today” instead. Right now, I am making an effort to set aside small amounts of time to do the hard work (only because I am out of practice) of feeding my soul, and am trusting that it becomes increasingly easier the more I do it. I’ve already seen that when you give to yourself first, you then are able to give more to the world. And isn’t that what we all came here for anyway?

(…and if you’re curious, my favorite jam to date is St. Dalfour Fancy Plum. Yum!)

Comparisons Suck

I had a fairly recent DM conversation with Nishant Kothary (@rainypixels) about our love-hate relationship with Twitter (you can read his thoughts in detail here and here). For me, not only can Twitter be addictive, it is more often than not the promulgator of a down-spiral of self-flagellation based on comparing myself with the perceived achievements of others.

My anecdote to this pernicious virus? Boundaries. Rules. The first is a physical practice: to maintain my equilibrium, I only read @mentions and DMs. The second is a mental practice: be self-referential. There is a saying that you can’t judge a person’s outsides to your own insides. So, instead of beating myself up over what I have not done yet, I make a concentrated effort to look back and give myself props for the things that I have done and the progress that I have made in my life and career. If your inner critic is working overtime (I’m working on firing mine), then focusing on your own process and how you feel about it usually helps.

I’ve recently finished my chapter for the upcoming Smashing Book #3 (and #3 1/3). For me, writing sometimes (still!) is a very daunting process: my tendency is to believe that I have to produce everything on my own – that I have to formulate and articulate brilliant ideas whilst tapping away on a computer, isolated in my house with no more than my cats as outlets for conversation.

During this process, however, I’ve confirmed what I have been preaching in recent presentations: that collaboration makes the brain blossom. The comfort of knowing that I’m not producing something alone – that many people are involved and invested in making what we are creating collectively the best possible – gives me the space to be less critical of myself. I then feel that I have the space to explore to make mistakes and discoveries, and reach epiphanies of insight along the way.

I’m definitely fan and am ready for even more collaboration.

Personally, I am making an effort to incorporate more of a sense of play into my work. If there is no sense of fun or joy in what you do, then you may be doing the wrong thing. In my experience, it takes a lot of deliberate thought to challenge cultural norms and common beliefs to allow ourselves to find that work doesn't have to be hard – that it can be play – and to start structuring our work and lives to reflect this.

The sense of play and joy always shines through a website or a product – channeling that sort of positivity will only help to continue making the web a better place.

Reach for that which is just beyond your grasp

The web is about the availability of information and sharing knowledge through connecting. A practice that we always need to be exercising as web professionals is to reach for that which is just beyond our grasp: either in terms of concepts, ideas, skills, techniques, and even connections with other people. It is that which we haven’t reached yet—but desire to get to—that helps both ourselves and the industry expand, grow, and mature.

Where Creativity, Innovation, and Productivity Meet

My main preoccupation these days is the intersection or nexus point of creativity, innovation, and productivity. There are so many more tools and capacities on and with the web now, that I feel that we can start to shift our focus away from the “how?” and start focusing more on the “how better/improved?” and “how different?” and really zero in on methods to get to those answers consistently, faster, and with less effort.