Eileen Webb is a content strategist and co-founder and partner at webmeadow, a firm that helps progressive organizations develop content and technology strategies to make the world a better place. Her background is in server-side coding and being that odd person who translates between the marketing and development teams. Webmeadow's offices are located on a solar-powered farm in northern New Hampshire; her Twitter feed is equal parts content strategy and pictures of poultry.
One of my favorite parts of big family feasts like Thanksgiving and Christmas is a fridge full of leftovers. It’s all the deliciousness of a home-cooked meal, and the only thing I have to do is reheat it.
Every post I’ve written for the Pastry Box this year has started as a small seed: a quote, or a thesis statement, or a brief thought. I keep a file full of these germs of ideas, and when it’s time to write I comb through until one of the snippets grabs me.
It’s the end of the year, and there are a bunch of entries still sitting in my file. I’m sharing these leftovers with you: thesis statements without essays to explain them, quotes without context, lines that quiet my heart and calm my breath.
“I’ve been conditioned to believe, since childhood, that an effective person takes care of problems as soon as they arise. That doesn’t sound like a bad thing. But it does have unintended consequences, the most obvious of which is that if you’re always attending to problems that arise, you get around to what really matters to you only after you’ve taken care of everything else.” Sarah Susanka, The Not So Big Life
Every word can create an opening or a closing. Choose words that create openings.
Elsewhere on the web, Krista and her colleagues explore all behavior with this single, brutal question: How’s that working for you? Eating paleo, hacking your sleep schedule, rewriting your project in Ember.js, entering into a committed relationship with animated SVGs: how’s that working for you? "The only correct answer is 'Great!'. If it’s anything else, you need to make adjustments."
“And then Therrot flung himself backward on the slope and howled at the hills, for true joy, like true pain, does not care how it looks or sounds.” Frances Hardinge, The Lost Conspiracy
When I lead a workshop, only a very small part of the point is to teach a particular skill like content modeling or writing for the web. What I’m really trying to impart is how to think strategically. I want people to learn to think things through.
“Because nothing works except what we give our souls to, nothing’s safe except what we put at risk.” Ursula LeGuin, The Shobies’ Story, A Fisherman of the Inland Sea
“Internal martial arts and acupuncture are designed to balance and heal the body. In doing so, they also recognize a give-and-take between the human body and the natural world. Unlike Western approaches, they are not really designed to conquer the ailments of the body so much as to return the body to a more natural state – whatever that state may be. This process is always healing, but it does not always cure.” BK Loren, The Way of the River
Ask if the story you are telling is big enough for you and others to be at peace. If it’s not, create a bigger story.
Two summers ago, I decided I wanted to start running. People seem to like it, and it looked like a hard-but-doable challenge. I dutifully couch-to-5k’ed, and kept running two or three times a week all the way through this fall.
My body is not a great match for running. I have exercise-induced asthma, so even one minute of mis-pacing will leave me gasping for air. I get wicked headaches when the wind blows in my ears. I overheat easily. Frankly, I’m kind of a mess. After a full year of regular running, I can reliably run 3 miles in 40-45 minutes. I can’t go further than that, and I can’t go faster. (If you are not a runner, know that a 14-minute mile is a profoundly mediocre pace.)
Now, if you know me (or have read any of my earlier posts), you know that I also practice yoga. My body loves yoga. I’m strong, have a lung capacity a doctor once called "absurd", and my natural range of motion is high. I can drop back from standing into wheel, or down into full splits with basically no warmup, and it feels good.
But while I’ve been focused on running, I haven’t done much yoga. I do a bit of stretching after a run, and a full practice maybe once a month. As a result, when I practice now, my range of motion is small. I feel tight, and stiff, and creaky.
I used to be fantastic at yoga and terrible at running. Right now, I’m moderately crappy at both.
The Awesomeness Approach
My experience represents, I think, a fairly typical approach to self-improvement: find a thing that I’m not good at, then put attention and focus on getting better at it.
- Find a thing you love and are already pretty good at. Put 90% of your attention on improving that even further.
- Use the remaining 10% to neutralize your weaknesses. The goal isn’t to get good at those things, but to get to a point where they’re not actively harming you or holding you back.
- Find other people whose 90% is your 10% – that is, people whose strengths complement your weaknesses.
Focusing on what you’re good at feels fun, and rewarding, and almost effortless. The idea here is to improve your natural strengths to an absolutely spectacular level, and figure out ways to work around things you’re not great at.
Oh gosh, I love this framing. I love it so hard.
A True Story
I have two good friends who are graphic designers. They design for the web, and so at some point dipped their toes into the water of writing CSS and HTML. It wasn’t a good fit: it didn’t match how their brains processed information, it wasn’t helping them provide a better service to their clients, and they weren’t having fun.
So they stayed with a more traditional definition of graphic design: they create using Photoshop, InDesign, and plain old paper. They don’t design directly in the browser, but they stay involved with the latest conversations about responsive patterns, component libraries, and performance budgets. They’ve found development partners who delight in CSS minutiae, which allows them to stay focused on doing what they love the most.
Without even intending to, they’ve been following The Awesomeness Approach. They’ve been putting all their attention on design – not stretching themselves thin with skills that they don’t enjoy – and where they used to be good, they are now amazing. They’re better at capturing moods, designing strategically, and working within client constraints than anyone I know.
Awesomeness all the things
It’s only been a week, and my life is already better for committing to The Awesomeness Approach. I’m good at content modeling and systems thinking – really good – and it makes so much more sense to stay engrossed in that work than to improve my paltry knowledge of social media strategy. My brain easily organizes information in a way that aligns with database schemas, so why have I been spending my energy trying to understand the politics of editorial governance? I’m not just giving myself permission, but a mandate: do more of what you love. Dive deep.
“Neutralizing” is such a powerful idea. It’s not about giving up, or faking it, but instead learning just-enough. It’s about understanding my limits, and knowing where I can find more information, without beating myself up for not having every answer on the tip of my tongue.
And partnering! Working with good partners is a joy. I love being able to hand off implementation details to an expert, to trust that someone else’s work will be so much stronger than my own. I love knowing that what we create together will be the product of all of our best efforts.
And, it probably goes without saying: screw running. If you need me I’ll be over here bent into some impossible-yet-comfortable shape, feeling awesome.
We sure do talk a lot about goals in this industry. Performance goals, engagement goals, career goals, personal goals.
Goals can be great: the clear definition of success tells me what I’m striving for, and gives me a finish line to cross so I know I’ve made it. Goals are also, in some fundamental sense, about being unhappy with where I currently am: there is something better ahead, and I’m not there yet.
Where’s the space for slow improvement? What if my aspiration doesn’t have perfectly defined edges? What if want an approach that gives me a clear path forward, while also allowing space for setbacks and recalibration? I want to acknowledge that changing behaviors and habits is hard, and that temporary dereliction is not permanent failure. I want a framing that encourages me to pursue grace in difficult times.
Screw setting goals. Let’s talk about setting intentions.
Goals are outcome-focused. They’re about striving, reaching, and putting attention on a theoretical future state.
Intentions, in contrast, are behavior-focused. An intention is a declaration of desired conduct, a statement about how I want to act as I move through the world, right now.
With something as concrete as a goal – “I’m going to run 4 miles with good form this morning” – the outcome is black and white: either I ran 4 miles, or I did not. (Reader, I did not.) There are so many reasons to not run 4 miles: fatigue, a wonky hip, MY EARS ARE REALLY COLD. But the goal does not care. The mileage remains un-run, the finish line uncrossed. The moment I turned around at the little bog instead of going all the way to the decomposing woodchuck, this morning’s run became a failure.
What if, instead of setting a goal, I set an intention: “I will run without hyper-extending my knees”? It doesn’t look very different from a goal. Here’s the crux, though: the moment I realize I have abandoned my intention, I can pick it back up again and continue moving forward. I realized at some point that I wasn’t bending my knees enough on a downhill stretch. I changed my behavior, and I kept going.
We can choose intentions over goals in all kinds of places in our life and work. Are you carrying burdens that don’t serve you? You can choose to put them down. If, three months from now, you realize you’ve picked them back up, you can put them down again. Living with an intention is a process, a long series of decisions, a continuous renewal and shedding.
A focus on intentions places a higher value on my behavior than on my outcomes. It ensures that both the journey and the destination align with my core values and beliefs. It ensures that the entire process, and not just the final product, is something we can be proud of.
If you want to learn more about the Buddhist roots of setting intentions, Phillip Moffitt’s Identify True Intention has been lodged in my brain and my heart since the first time I read it. “Forget judging yourself, and just work with the arising moment. Right intention is a continual aspiration.”
I spend a lot of time in charge of things. I think most strategists do – whether it’s a content initiative, a site performance project, or a trip to the zoo, our default approach to any situation is to evaluate options and plan a path forward. Start with editorial wireframes, switch to using the
<picture> element, head to the elephants first.
We also, for the most part, like being in charge. The subtitle for the author experience workshop I’ve been teaching this year is “Micromanaging for All the Right Reasons”, and my audience always laughs knowingly when that slide comes up. They get it. Strategists are a bossy bunch.
Last month my partner and I took a week-long singing workshop at a retreat in upstate New York. Neither of us has any singing experience, so I expected that it would be scary, and fun, and moving. I did not expect that it would also serve as a profound leadership detox.
I knew that, on a macro level, I wouldn’t need to make any decisions: we were staying on campus (so no need to drive or plan travel), our program went from 9am-10pm for the whole week, and the dining hall served 3 full meals a day. There was enough down time that we didn’t feel rushed or overtaxed, but not so much that I ever needed to figure out what to do with myself before our next session started.
In the sessions, though, I found places to give up decision-making at a much deeper level. To understand this, you may need to know a little bit about the shape of Circlesongs. In their simplest format: a single person stands in the center of a circle of singers and creates a small, repeating phrase of music. They feed this phrase to a section of the circle and those singers take the part and continue repeating it. The leader finds a new musical phrase to layer on top of the existing one and feeds that to the next section of the circle. And so on, around the circle, until everyone is singing and an entire interlocking piece of music has formed underneath us.
The week started with our instructors leading the circles, but quickly progressed to participants leading both large and small groups. Anyone who wanted to lead a song could. At first I was terrified by the idea and wanted no part of it. Then I grew more comfortable, and felt like I should lead a circle because it seemed like The Next Step. Then I remembered that the voice in my head is very dumb sometimes, and that doing things because I feel like I should is a terrible idea.
I settled in as a singer in the circles, and found benediction waiting for me there. Without the responsibility of being in charge, I was able to give my whole self over to the role of supporting our leader in each song. It’s a reciprocal blessing, to offer your raw energy and grace to another person, and to feel that person accept it and radiate it back with clear intention.
Being fully present in my support for another person – without analyzing, or managing, or planning – made me realize how rarely I get to do that. It felt like a continual release, to put down the burden of keeping the big picture in mind and to go where I was guided. I was reminded, through following the path of another's creation, how much of a gift leadership is to a group: the gift of safety, and comfort, and direction.
I’ve been doing my teams a disservice, I think, by leaving my strategist brain on all the time. Full-time leadership isn't sustainable. The muscles get overworked, the edge dulls, the gears start to strip, and slip.
In the same way that writers are inspired by reading, and chefs by eating, a healthy strategist can find rejuvenation by following someone else’s plan. I need to look for more ways to widen the channels that accept and direct energy, to trust in leadership other than my own, and to give the organizing and analyzing parts of my brain regular rest.
I’ve been lying to my clients.
I’ve been doing it for years, though maybe “lying” isn’t the right word. It’s not quite a telling of untruths, but rather a reluctance to lay truths bare. When I spot warning signs early in a project – a weary stakeholder, an overambitious writing schedule, a grandiose vision – I take silent note. I don’t bring the issue up, and in refusing to do so I create an untruth, a space where I know something but do not volunteer my knowledge, and I start to worry.
Mine is not a puppy’s worry, slobbery and bitey and anxious. My worry is a rigid juggling, a fluid set of movements that belie the contortions required to keep all the pieces in the air. I begin to rearrange schedules and adjust project plans to minimize the risk of fallout. I weave countermeasures into my strategy and deliverables, finding clever ways to protect success from misguided change orders. The juggling looks skilled, even graceful. I’ve had a lot of practice.
This worry comes from a place of arrogance, a place that says, “I don’t trust you to do this right.” It is an abuse of imagination, a subtle and belittling form of violence.
A few months ago I took an acrobatics workshop, where the physical safety of our partners depended on each of us being able to keep our balance.
As we were working through conditioning exercises, practicing unsteady positions on one leg, our teacher asked us to slow our movements down whenever we felt a wobble. The instinct is to speed up: to move quickly through the rough patch until you find yourself back in an area of strength. But to slow down, to stay with the weakness – it is hard, and humbling, and terrifying.
“Anyone can be steady when the body is all lined up and stable. Those places where you can’t hold it, and are starting to fall over – that’s where you need to work.”
This is where I wobble, this place where I work to minimize risks without ever sharing them out loud. This is where I need to spend time.
I started, a few projects back, an experiment. I decided to name my worries and write them down. I wanted to detail all the things I thought might go wrong, all the ways I could predict the project could be thrown off course. But of course I couldn’t share the raw list – it may have been true, and may have been helpful, but it certainly wasn’t kind.
Instead, I began to invert my worries. What did I want the project to look like? What could we all agree on, as a team, about the project’s guiding principles? Not the implementation details, or the content strategy, or the project plan, but the underlying philosophical approach.
Here are some lines pulled from these foundation documents:
Every question that we ask of a member needs to provide a benefit to them. If there’s data that we need (for reporting or administration purposes), we need to figure out a way to turn it into a benefit for the user as well.
Organization and information architecture should match the way users think about our services, rather than how we manage services internally.
None of the site content will be hidden behind a login. User data will be used to lightly customize the experience – for example, pre-filtering lists to match the user’s location – but an anonymous visitor should still be able to quickly find value in the site.
Not everything is a core feature. A core feature is defined as “without this, there’s no point in even launching the site.”
We are not trying to convince or cater to people who have low or no interest in environmental issues. Our energy is best used to reach people who are ready to take action, not to convince people that they should care in the first place.
I bet you can flip those declarations on their backs and see the soft worrying underbelly of each one. Hints of scope creep, of overreaching editorial plans, of unresearched user assumptions. These foundation documents hold a mashup of UX principles, editorial planning, and content and project strategy. They define what-is-not as often as what-is, and, the way I write them, are usually pretty blunt. This would fit right in:
I think “as a _____, I will never care about…” would be a really good “persona” pattern for building things that suck less.— Mat Marquis (@wilto) August 10, 2015
They’re specific to the project, and are not intended to be – cannot be – exhaustive. A team that’s totally aligned on audience definitions doesn’t need a lot of guidelines around that topic. But that same team, very fuzzy on development planning, needs those core ideas and approach spelled out clearly.
These documents don’t take the place of a discovery phase. For me, they’ve become the strategy-before-the-strategy, a Deliverable #0. We go through the document with our clients, making adjustments and additions until everyone feels the foundation is solid. When, inevitably, issues come up later in the project, we can react with grace, knowing that we’re making decisions based on principles we agreed to when we weren’t under immediate emotional stress.
There’s no magical key that can force a project to run smoothly. But by dumping my worries into this document, and inverting each one into a hope and an expectation, I’m converting my fears into intentions for the project. I’m giving voice to our ideals, dragging risks out into the light, and trusting that my clients are right there by my side.
Last Tuesday morning, I spent a few hours in a kayak watching a beaver drag twigs around a lake. The Tuesday before that, Aaron and I hiked to the top of a mountain with bald-top views of the Presidential Range. The one before that, we had a picnic at the base of New Hampshire’s tallest waterfall.
We live in the center of the White Mountain National Forest, 750,000 acres of public lands crisscrossed with trails and forest roads. The 29th edition of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s “White Mountain Guide” lists over 500 trails (and those are only the named ones).
One hot Sunday afternoon in the summer of 2004, we were arriving back at the Coppermine trailhead after a trip up to Bridalveil Falls. “That was so nice,” I said. “We should do that more often.” In my memory of this moment, there’s a record-scratch, or thunder in the distance, or a crow cawing. I think, though, probably there was just a nice breeze and some chickadees. “What a sad thing to say,” Aaron laughed. “We control our own schedules, and live in the mountains. What’s our excuse for not going out more?” We looked at our calendars and saw our next few Tuesday mornings open, so we blocked off the time and headed out to the woods.
That was 11 years ago, and we’ve gone out nearly every Tuesday morning since then. In the summer we hike or go kayaking. In the winter, we snowshoe, cross-country ski, or go skating on the 4-mile loop on a nearby lake. We’ve walked every named trail within an hour of our house, and we return to our favorites over and over through the seasons.
If we’re traveling, we sometimes reschedule to another day in the week. If one of us is sick or exhausted, we go kayaking on a calm pond, or on a flat and easy hike not far from home. Unless it’s actually unsafe to be outside, we go out in all types of weather. I haven’t kept track, but my best guess is that we miss no more than 6 weeks each year.
The weird thing about removing a chunk of time from our weekly calendar is that, as far as I can tell, we do the same amount in a week as everyone else. Work gets done, deliverables get delivered. No client has ever cared that we’re not available for calls on Tuesday mornings.
During the rest of the week, I have plenty of energy to devote to client problems, and do a decent job at keeping a level head during times of project stress. My standing appointment with nature is nothing less than a form of intense therapy and self-care, renewing my internal reserves while I clamber across streams and squeal at every tiny eft I see.
It’s easy to see the work calendar as a fixed beacon that the rest of our lives – our real lives – have to adjust around. Reclaiming a part of that schedule a decade ago, for the sole purpose of tending to our mental health and wellbeing, was one of the simplest and smartest decisions we’ve ever made.
Have you ever done Eagle pose? It’s like this: stand with your knees bent into a slight squat. Cross one leg over the other at the thighs, then work the foot of the top leg until you lock the ankle behind the calf of the standing leg. Do the same thing with your arms: bend your elbows and cross your upper arms. Hook the bottom hand around the top forearm, and bring the palms of your hands together.
Now take deep full breaths, and smile beatifically. And/or, fall over and swear. Either way.
Some schools of yoga teach that the point of Eagle (as much as any yoga pose has a point) is to find stillness and stability from inside the contortion. That’s pretty absurd: Eagle is an inherently wobbly pose. The body is all crunched-up, and yoked limbs can’t be used to counterbalance any swaying. There is little steadiness to be found there.
The lesson I’ve learned from Eagle is not to grasp towards a solid center, but to accept the instability. To know that while clever poise and agility are lovely when I can use them, having faith in the existence of my wobbly bird legs is itself a form of wisdom.
Despite all my best efforts and most fervent desires, sometimes I will find myself standing on unsteady ground with nothing to hold onto. I will lose my balance, and fall, and look like a fool. I will also, amazingly, shockingly, not die of this embarrassment. When I fall, I may just lift my foot back off the ground and try again.
Relationships will be challenging, projects will fall off the rails, entire elaborate plans will go to hell in a handbasket. But there is value in knowing that smooth easy perfection is not always a sensible thing to strive for, and that it is OK to have times that are hard and sad and difficult. That problems exist is not in itself a sign of failure or weakness. There are some situations where lurching and swearing are the best possible outcomes.
The grace found in Eagle is not the strong grounding of a rooted tree, or the elegant tension of a dancer. Instead, we can find some peace by learning to sway with the wobbling, by falling out and choosing to climb back in, by failing and continuing to move forward anyway.
“Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you.” I heard this a lot growing up, and I have a vivid grade school memory of glaring up at a girl who had neatly recited it at me and spitting back, “That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard, and you are stupid for saying it!” She burst into tears. Not, frankly, the finest moment of my youth, but it did get the point across rather well.
Words don’t just have power; words are power, and every time I examine my own language choices I find places where my words are reinforcing the oppressive systems that I otherwise work to dismantle. I’m not talking about getting rid of grossly offensive slurs (I mean: do that too, but that falls under “be a decent human being”), but more about the kinds of words that are not clearly, obviously, 100% offensive, that at some point you have to make a conscious choice about whether or not you’re going to use again.
The word “retarded” is a pretty easy example. The internal argument usually goes something like, “I would never ever refer to a developmentally-disabled person with that word; I only ever say it to refer to situations that are frustrating or needlessly difficult, so that's okay.” The counter-argument goes something like, “You are acting like a jerkface garbagepants.”
Listen, poppet, if that rankles – if you find that your eyes have just narrowed, and your pulse has quickened, and you'd really like to sit me down and string together words like "unwise" and "stifling" and "censorship" to explain how you feel about strangers policing your natural-born right to use all the words in the universe – then this piece is not for you. I don’t have the time or the patience or the desire to explain why some words are offensive even though you think they aren’t. Close the tab; move along.
For the rest of us, though: sometimes, even after making the decision to stop using a word, I still hear myself saying it, time and again. It’s hard to break language patterns and habits. Now what?
I’ve learned that I have to give myself an alternative, replacement word, and – here’s the key – it has to start with the same phoneme (that’s “letter sound”, if you learned to read before the age of Hooked on Phonics). That way, when my brain catches up with my runaway mouth, I can substitute in the new word without much interruption to my speaking rhythm. Example: The user registration flow on that site is not “retarded”, it’s “r…idiculous.” This is why fake-swear pairs like hell/heck and damn/darn work so well: you can change your mind even after you’ve started saying the word out loud.
A (Maybe) Helpful Starter List of Substitutions
Retarded Substitute: ridiculous.
Lame Substitute: ludicrous, laughable, ill-advised (if you can pretend you accidentally swallowed the i).
Sexy as a way to describe a feature on a website or a piece of technology or anything other than your partner in the privacy of your home and/or their ear, really. As Relly nicely summed up: would you ever describe the HTML5 canvas element as “erotic”? No, because that’s gross and weird. Same goes for sexy. Substitute: snazzy.
Crazy Substitute: crappy, cranky, crabby. Bonus points for "crabby" being something a 1980s sitcom dad would call me.
Nuts Substitute: nonsense, not OK (as in, “You logged me out after 5 minutes?? That is n…ot OK.”)
Insane Substitute: incredible, impossible, inconceivable!
You guys as a gender-neutral address for a group. Can we steal second-person-plural options from other dialects and languages? “Y’all” is good, and I could definitely see “you lot” fitting my own language patterns pretty naturally. Bonus option for those who claim some Western PA or Appalachia in their personal histories: yinz.
Those really only work for the full “you guys” usage, though. I’m just as likely to say the short form “guys”, and there are not that many words that start with a G-sound out there. What instead? Friends? Mates? Folks? Amis? Ustedes? This one is really hard.
Most of the words I'm trying to phase out of my speech aren’t used for their definitions as much as for their tone, so swapping for a new word doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence. I've found that once I have a solid substitution plan in place, it doesn’t take long before the new word completely replaces the old one in my normal speech.
Eliminating the word "just", though? As in the no-big-deal "you just need to install Vagrant"? Yikes. Still working on it.
I took a yoga class last week where the focus was rhythmic, continuous movement with the breath. If you do yoga regularly, you may wonder “isn’t that every class?” but the core of this session was keeping the breath at the same pace throughout and learning to move around that tempo, rather than adjusting your breathing to match your movement.
At one point we were doing a very simple movement, bending and straightening one leg in cadence with our breathing. The teacher acknowledged that this was no fancy pose, and said:
“The movement is just a device. The movement is a device to tell the breath how long to breathe.”
How much of the work we do is actually a device to help us focus on what’s really important?
The kickoff meeting is just a device to understand the personalities on the team.
The deliverables are just a device to tell the organization what needs to change.
RWD is just a device to get information to the user.
Devices are important: they are the tools we use to guide our attention and unite our teams. Rallying around a concept like RWD gives me a way to introduce related questions about content, performance, and long-term maintenance. Design and consulting deliverables keep us all on the same page with regards to project direction.
But, not uncommonly, I find myself and my clients getting stuck on the tools: you need to do an audit, because the other agency was going to do an audit. We have to do Instagram because other organizations do Instagram. I said I would make a complete list of taxonomy terms, so now I have to create one.
The devices themselves are not the point.
When we get mired in a rigid process, or have written ourselves into a corner with an overly-detailed Statement of Work, we’re paying too much attention to the tools, and not enough to the goals. We’re gritting our teeth and making our knee bend just so while unthinkingly holding our breath.
I’m making a conscious effort to write more ambiguity into proposals, and to give myself the leeway to adapt my work to do right by each project. Instead of promising a hierarchical list of taxonomy terms, I’m promising an understanding of the taxonomy framework, which may include an actual list, or a flow chart for creating new terms, or some other representation of the system. Instead of promising two design comps with two rounds of revisions, we’ll present variations in design direction in whatever way makes the most sense: style tiles, or Pinterest boards, or a slide deck, or full comps. It doesn’t need to be decided beforehand, and it doesn’t need to be the same for every project.
(Can you just do that, though? My most heartfelt advice for anyone running a business in tech: there is no industry standard. Treat your clients well, help them meet their goals, and you can put whatever you want in your stupid contracts.)
Putting the emphasis on the goals rather than the tools keeps my attention where it actually matters, and frees me from having to build out deliverables purely for the point of contractual fulfillment. It gives me the flexibility to look at problems from a new angle, to craft custom solutions, and to breathe.
There are stories that stay in my subconscious for years, then float up and reassert themselves over and over in a short period of time. It’s my own personal Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, and most recently it’s been happening with this Buddhist allegory:
Two monks are walking through the forest, and they come across an old lady who needs help crossing a river. They puzzle over what to do, because as part of their vows they both swore that they would never touch any woman. Eventually one monk shrugs, helps the woman up, and carries her on his back across the rushing water.
The other monk is horrified. All afternoon as they walk towards home, he’s lecturing about how the first monk has behaved terribly, and they’re going to have to tell the abbott, and he’s shocked that he so easily betrayed his vows.
Hours later, they finally get back to the monastery, and the first monk turns and says, “That woman? All I did was carry her across the water. You, though, have been carrying her ever since.”
Putting things down
Here are a few things I’ve recently decided to stop carrying:
That talk where someone declares that project discovery phases are overrated, and iteration obviates the need for advance planning. It feels like the speaker is calling me dumb and useless, and telling my clients that I am a waste of money. Actually, though, they are speaking from their own experience. They are not challenging me to defend my honor in a back-alley fight.
The article that uses the terms content strategy and content marketing interchangeably. This affects me exactly as much as someone declaring their intention to abandon the em-dash or oxford comma – which is to say, not at all. When I encounter someone in person who thinks the two terms are synonyms, we'll have to clarify what those terms mean to each of us so we can have a good conversation. Until then, I’m not letting this take up space in my head.
A giant agency that worked with my client 3 projects ago and made terrible decisions that we’re still cleaning up from. It would be nice to say “they were doing the best they could at the time!” but I’m just not that chill. That agency did a terrible job. But beyond the clarifying snap of my initial outrage, how am I served by staying angry? Anger clouds my judgement, colors my work, and makes me miserable.
That one company that got bought by that other company. Am I employed by either of those companies? No? Well.
Except not all the things
The lines are fuzzy: sometimes a subject sticks with me, and I choose to carry it where I might otherwise let it go. That’s fine; this is how we create change. I stick to my own rules for what I’m allowed to carry:
Do something. I get a small grace period where I’m allowed to rage and wail and gnash my teeth, and then I have to take action. Write, or speak, or build an alternative, or plan a coup. Screaming at the sky is not a (long-term) option.
Be clear about why I’m carrying it. The conflation of content strategy and content marketing is not “dangerous”. Someone writing a blog post declaring RWD is bad for performance is not “dangerous”. I disagree with those ideas, but I do myself a disservice if I pretend it’s for any other reason than protecting myself and my job.
Similarly, I care strongly about diversity in tech and eliminating mental health stigma, and I can fight those battles more effectively if I’m honest about the extent to which my desire for change in these areas is deeply selfish.
Don't look for trouble. Don’t follow links to articles that are likely to piss me off. Don’t read the blog of an author I always disagree with. Unfollow that person who tweets things that make me mad. I carry around plenty of anger about good and righteous topics, and their fires always manage to get fed without my needing to stick my hand in the wood stove.
Your topics and your rules will be different than mine, but this is an investigation worth undertaking. What are you carrying? Which subjects can you put down, and which can you not let go? How does each burden serve you?
Do what you're going to do; and with humor be aware that you might as well be doing the opposite. - R.K. Welsh
I don’t think that many of us who run our own businesses started with a solid plan. Sure, there was probably a plan, at least vaguely, but it was often more on the Underpants Gnomes end of the spectrum than we’d like to admit.
And yet, and yet. Here so many of us are – years and decades later – still running those businesses, and able to pay our bills and employees and health insurance premiums. Whatever we did, it worked out.
Finding your lucky shirt
The uniform for my high school track team didn’t change often, so everyone noticed when my friend Adam showed up for practice wearing one of the 1970’s-era shirts he’d found in a back storeroom. He ran a personal best that day, and it became his lucky shirt. He wore it to every meet for 2 years, and gave credit for his speed and skill to to this garish yellow poly-blend shirt.
You know this story, of course – Adam was a good athlete because he practiced, worked hard, and had a body that really loved running. Wearing the shirt gave him confidence, like Dumbo’s magic feather, but it wasn’t ever the lynchpin for his success.
Stumbling into success
In the first few years of running our business, every opportunity and success felt like the proverbial butterfly-created hurricane. If I hadn’t asked that one question during a sales call, or happened to read this relevant article just before writing a bit of code, or chatted with that person on Twitter who referred us a client, we’d be sleeping destitute in a barn somewhere, milking goats for a living. Everything only just barely worked out, and every piece of the puzzle was a crucial one.
The consequence of starting without a plan – but having things work out anyway – is that we deify many of our decisions as being critical to good outcomes:
- “It’s so important to have in-person kickoff meetings.”
- “Support contracts are the key to steady income.”
- “You have to speak at conferences.”
- “Daily stand-ups are mandatory.”
- “Real designers write code.”
None of these things are true. They are not absolute, or universal. They are also not wrong; they are true, and truly important, for the person who believes them.
They are lucky shirts. Garish yellow, poly-blend, sacred.
We act as if there’s a formula to success, and our own rules and edicts are the secret ingredients. We want there to be a formula, because it’s terrifying to admit that we have no idea if we could pull it off again.
The problem with our edicts is not that they exist, but that we present them to others as The One True Path, even though the most important part of my business development may be irrelevant to your work, and your never-fail approach to client management may be a disaster for my team.
Our experiences and lessons still have great value and are worth sharing, but we have to stop presenting them as law. Instead, we need to practice saying these words:
Here’s what worked for me.
If you are just starting, know that you will be confronted with plenty of business rules and pseudo-formulas. It’s easy to stall out before you even begin, anxious about your inability (or lack of desire) to measure up to them.
Practice saying these words:
That’s an interesting option.
That’s all they are. Every lesson presents a choice, not a mandate, and if the rules don’t match your needs – you want to live on a ranch and never have an in-person meeting, or you’re a graphic designer who finds no joy in learning CSS, or you hate public speaking, or you love public speaking – you can make it work.
Surprise ending: be nice to each other
We have a tendency to view disagreement as judgment: if she doesn’t follow my lead in switching to value-based pricing, or building a Yeoman-dependent development process, she’s saying that my choice to do so was foolish and dumb and I should go live in a cave. Well, no. She’s not saying that. It’s not a zero-sum game.
In this, as in so many other things, we would do well to be gentler with ourselves and others. Her choices are not an inherent judgment of mine, and my choices are not always, or ever, a good match for her needs. Our journeys are our own, and the key to each person’s success does not – cannot – lie on someone else’s path.
In 1997 I started my first tech job. After a few days of settling in, learning the environment, and getting my .bashrc just the way I liked it, I was given my first project: train an algorithm to be smarter about the ways it was grouping and categorizing porn sites. Because why wouldn’t that be an appropriate task for a 17-year-old intern?
Two summers later, a different company sent me on a sales call with a colleague who talked over me so much during the meeting that our prospective clients couldn’t hide their laughter. On the way back to the office, he proposed we “stop off for a quickie” in a nearby hotel. HR noted his behavior in a file, and did nothing. My first two jobs, and I was 0 for 2 on having a workplace free of inappropriate innuendo and advances.
Around that time I began practicing yoga. One of my staples is Yin yoga: where most American yoga is yang – warm, fluid, and flowing – yin is cool, slow, and still. You choose a pose and settle in for the long haul, staying in one position for anywhere from three to fifteen minutes. These aren’t the muscular poses of a yang practice – Warriors, Dancers, or Handstands – but are almost always seated or lying down, like Forward Fold, Pigeon, or Child’s Pose.
A Yin practice is designed to address the deep connective tissues that only respond to gentle and slow nudging. Its intention is to make subtle changes to the foundational structures of the body.
It doesn’t sound particularly challenging – how hard can it be to hang out in head-to-knee pose for five minutes? – but most people who’ve tried it will describe Yin as the most difficult practice they’ve ever done. When you’re not distracted by movement and breath and muscular effort, there’s only one thing left to put your attention on: yourself.
Yin poses are uncomfortable. Certainly not painful, but definitely uncomfortable. A few minutes into a long-held forward fold, your muscles start to let go of their tension and your fascia and tendons start feeling the tug, and it feels weird. It’s not dangerous, but it’s not exactly pleasant, and that’s when the real work starts.
What do you do when you’re feeling uncomfortable? My urge is to lash out, to declare “this whole idea is stupid” and to storm off. If I can work in some vaguely-official sounding arguments ("connective tissue is supposed to be stiff; that’s how it does its job”), all the better.
Some people react to discomfort by feeling anxious that they must be doing something wrong; that if this is hard it’s because they are failing and their bodies are terrible and everyone in the room probably hates them. Others look around and find someone who looks like they’re having a harder time, and feel smug and satisfied that at least they’re not as bad as that guy.
Whatever the reaction, we tend to have the same one, pose after pose, all class long. I’ve been doing Yin for years, and it often takes a little while before I remember that my reaction has nothing to do with the pose, and everything to do with how I behave when I’m feeling uncomfortable. I always want to lash out when I’m not in my element. People who turn vague doubt into self-loathing, or look for weaker people to judge: they do that every time they’re faced with discomfort, on or off the mat.
In Sanskrit that’s called “saṃskāra”, a word that roughly translates to a concept like “impressions” or “grooves”. They are behavior patterns that we fall into without thought, choices that we make because the ruts are well-worn into our decision paths. A Yin practice gives me a chance to jump the groove: I know that this pose won’t injure me, so what happens if this time, I don’t get angry? What if this time, I choose to let the fear of looking stupid wash over me, and through me? Do I survive? Am I still me? What have I lost? What have I gained? In a 90-minute class, I get 10 or 15 chances to be aware of my decisions, to be present with my urges, and to choose differently. There is a reason we call yoga a practice.
2014 was a shit of a year for women working in technology. We were barraged with everything from egregious threats of violence to run-of-the-mill condescension, from “ladybrains can’t make code” pseudo-science to arguments opposing something as simple as a conference Code of Conduct.
When I witness an erupting Twitter conversation, or read through article comments (I know, I know), what I see – spluttering, denial, derailing, and always alongside a rousing chorus of Not All Men – looks like nothing so much as people refusing to be present with their own discomfort.
Yes, many women are angry, and injured, and our public seething will make you uncomfortable. Sit with that. Let it wash over you, and through you. Breathe, and feel the urge to squirm, and choose to be still instead. For we who have been living with this discomfort our whole careers, you can handle not-reacting for a few minutes.
What do you lose when members of your community begin to speak freely about changing things that hurt them? What could you gain from actively listening to a conversation without sharing your opinion? What happens to you, and to us, if you make an effort to jump the groove?