Kristina Halvorson is widely recognized as the industry’s leading advocate for content strategy. She is the CEO and founder of Brain Traffic; the mastermind behind Confab, the content strategy conference; and the host of the popular 5by5 podcast, Content Talks. Kristina speaks about content strategy at international events.
“I don’t know how she does it.”
I hear this. People say this about me. Like, I’m standing RIGHT THERE and people will say it to someone else. It’s a cliché thing to say—I mean, come on, Sarah Jessica Parker starred in a movie called, yes, “I Don’t Know How She Does It”—but, okay. I get the sentiment. I own a business, travel weekly, write things, raise children, own a home, own a dog, have friends, etc. etc. … how do I do it all?
Hahahaha. I don’t. Please. No one does.
Here are but a few of the things I don’t do:
Cook. Once I revealed this to a friend-of-a-friend, who didn’t know me well enough not to act aghast. “But … but you have kids. What do you do?” Here’s what we do: dinner out, order in, eggs, tacos, and “snacking dinners” (i.e. “pick something from each of the five food groups and that is dinner”).
Yep. That’s about it. In my defense, I keep the fridge stocked with fruit, carrots, yogurt, cheese sticks, and broccoli because (weirdly) that’s the only vegetable they’ll eat without a fight. Cupboards contain granola bars, almonds, and low-sugar cereal. I make their lunches. They only get one “sweet treat” a day. They know what protein is and where to get it. And we do bake on weekends. Sometimes. But mostly, I listen to them argue in the backseat about where we should go out to eat while I drive around aimlessly and dream of a personal chef.
Clean my house. I have paid someone to clean my house every other week for 13 years. It’s not cheap, but it is the bedrock of my sanity. Don’t get me wrong—we pick up, we wipe things down, we sweep if we track in mud. My kids make their beds. Sometimes I make my bed. But we do not clean our own house.
What this means is that I have to be resourceful about finding chores for my kids to do—I’d feel like a hypocrite making them scrub the bathtub if I’m not willing to do it. They load and unload the dishwasher, fold laundry, pick up their rooms, set the table, pull weeds (well, okay, they don’t really do that unless I threaten them). But we work it out. And if I do experience flashes of guilt, it’s only because I’m thinking about Jodi Foster, whose family has done their own chores since time eternal, because—as she put it—“that is your real life. Why would you pay someone else to live your life?” I read that somewhere. It plagues me.
Attend local industry events. This one kills me. I mean, it KILLS ME. I was super involved with our local interactive marketing association (MIMA, one of the largest in the country) for six solid years before stepping down from the board. I’ve been to maybe half a dozen events since, simply because I’m always either out of town or with my kids. I hate not being able to participate in our professional community—but I simply can’t prioritize it. It’s actually embarrassing because I’m constantly encouraging people to start and attend local content strategy meetups. It totally sucks. But there it is.
Host parties. Don’t get me wrong. I love hosting parties. Just because I haven’t done it for like five years doesn’t mean I don’t love it. But it’s so much easier to let other people do it. Not that any of my friends do, because they’re as busy with work and family as I am. What I’m trying to say is, if you have one, please invite me to your party, and someday when I have one again I’ll invite you, too.
Date. My friends who don’t have kids regularly complain about how they’re treated by people who do have kids. It’s unintentional, of course, but most parents can’t imagine not having kids. So they send of signals like, “You childless people, you are selfish and deficient” (politely). Or they say things like, “Oh, you’ll come around at some point!”
I thought I understood, but lately I can actually empathize. Here’s the deal: when I tell people I’m not dating, they say, “Oh, you’re so amazing, I’m sure some great guy will come along soon.” Then when I clarify that I’m not dating at all, there’s always an awkward pause before they say, “Oh, well, you’re so amazing. I’m sure some great guy will come along.” As though it’s inconceivable that I don’t want to date anyone. Which I don’t. I am not lonely. I am not longing for romance or companionship. I am busy with work and fulfilled in my personal life. Dating is not a priority. And there it is.
Feel guilty about the things I’m not doing. Do I feel sad about some of this stuff? Sure. Sometimes. Do I feel guilty or regretful? No. That’s a waste of time and energy. This is where I am right now in life—it doesn’t mean I’ll never eat more vegetables, or date, or garden or do yoga or go to the orchestra or walk my dog every day or volunteer. Instead, I work hard to feel proud of what I am doing.
So, today, spend some time thinking about the good stuff you’re doing, too, okay? Caring for friends. Spending time with family. Taking an extra 5 minutes in the shower to just stare off into space. Making change, however small, for the better. Stop feeling guilty for everything you aren’t. Celebrate who and what you are.
[Coda: several years ago, I had a much bigger complex about this stuff. I said to my therapist-at-the-time, “You know what I think I should do is meditate.” She replied, and I quote, “Oh GOD no. You’d be TERRIBLE at that. Pick something else to feel guilty about.” So instead I committed to binge-watching TV. Do I feel guilty? Hell no. I win.]
I have no idea how people tolerate my forgetfulness.
I have to write everything down, then half the time I can’t remember where I wrote it. If an event isn’t on my calendar, it doesn’t exist to me. I don’t know your birthday. I can’t recall your kids’ names, let alone if you have kids in the first place. I don’t know if your book already came out, if you changed jobs, if you got married or divorced.
It gets worse: I worked side-by-side with a woman on a project for 18 months. Three years later, we crossed paths at a conference. I didn’t recognize her. Even after she reintroduced herself, I couldn’t place her name. She stomped off. I sent her an email apologizing for my idiocy. She never wrote back.
I was invited to speak in Finland in 2013. I told the conference organizer I was excited to speak in Finland for the first time, only to have her remind me she first met me in 2011 when I spoke at a conference in Helsinki. I mean, I FORGOT I WENT TO HELSINKI.
So, yeah. My memory—long-term, short-term, all of it—is for shit.
When possible, I make a joke out of it: I’m a flake, a typical creative type, scatterbrained, mom-brained, whatever. However, I do not find it funny. I find it insensitive, irresponsible, disrespectful, unprofessional, and absolutely mortifying.
It would be fantastic if I could come up with a defensible excuse for my poor memory. I’ve read up on the long-term effects of stress. I’ve researched ADD, ADHD, thyroid disorders, even early onset Alzheimer’s. It plagues me to no end.
The question, then, is how am I a functioning member of society?!
Well. I have my calendar. I have my address book. I have Evernote and TripIt. I have LinkedIn and Facebook. I have Lanyrd. I have search engines for my hard drive, my email, Box, Dropbox, and Basecamp.
So it’s not like I’m totally adrift at sea. If I need information, I can find it. I just may not be able to call it to mind as I’m standing there in casual conversation, or in a meeting without my laptop, or in an interview, or onstage in front of eight hundred people. For example.
But I want to be one of those people who never forgets a face, who can recall details about your life and our last conversation. I don’t want my employees rolling their eyes at me ten times a day because I ask a question about a topic we’ve already discussed. I don’t want to hurt my friends’ feelings because I forgot a personal anecdote they shared with me a few months ago. Because I care—I do!—so deeply. I just can’t remember what about.
Is it my dependence on technology that has crippled me? Is it a long-term side effect of what Linda Stone calls “constant partial attention”? Would it help if I put my toys and tools away? Did more crossword puzzles to get my neurons firing? Exercised more? Took ginko bilboa? Meditated? (Answer: no. It won’t. Tried it.)
Ultimately, there’s only one option. When I’m greeted by someone I don’t recognize or whose name I have forgotten, the best I can do is look that person in the eye and apologize. If I’m in a meeting and I’ve forgotten key information, I say so.
Sadly, there’s no app to avoid feeling like an idiot. Or, maybe there is. I can’t remember.
Yesterday, I bought a bike. I haven’t owned a bike for ten years. The last time I bought one, it was stolen out of my garage 48 hours later. I took it as a sign.
Truth is, I’m an anxious rider. I’m hyper-aware of my surroundings when I’m driving, and not having a rear-view mirror to depend on makes me really uncomfortable. (I’m too vain to put one on my bike; I hate my dorky helmet as it is.) So I grit my teeth and pedal and hope like hell I don’t get hit by a car from behind.
It’s a different kind of anxiety when I’m on a paved path or trail. I watch obsessively for bumps and rocks and holes in my path. The mere idea of falling makes my jaw clench and my heart rate skyrocket. That sickening moment of instability. The loss of all control.
I actually have what may very well be categorized as a phobia of falling down. I’m fairly sure I know where it came from: Three weeks before I gave birth to my daughter, I turned my ankle and went sprawling. I caught myself on my left hand, arm extended—my baby wasn’t harmed at all, but I dislocated my elbow, and it still gives me trouble. Worse than the pain, though, was having my two-year-old son watch me as I writhed around on the ground, screaming in agony. I finally caught sight of his face and was able to pull it together long enough to tell him, “Mama’s okay, I’m okay, just go with grandma, I’ll be home soon.” It’s his first memory. Thankfully, in the end, I was fine.
A few years later, I was running through the Memphis airport (on heels, natch) back to my gate to retrieve a folder I’d left on the plane. The same weak ankle turned, and I went flying forward, hitting the ground in a full-body slam. I went limping off to a quiet corner and sobbed for a full ten minutes before asking for help, which I received in the form of a wheelchair, an unnecessary ambulance ride to the emergency room, and $800 in out-of-state copays. Nothing was cracked or broken, but the bruises lasted for almost a month. Otherwise, I was fine.
Then, that winter, I slipped on the ice and hit the back of my head. Coincidentally, one of my employees slipped, fell, and hit the back of his head the very same day. He ended up with a concussion that kept him out of work for months. I had a headache for a few days, but after that, I was fine.
Now, every time my weak ankle gives way even the slightest bit, the immediate terror-induced shot of adrenaline is dizzying. I panic. It almost happened. I let down my guard. I. Cannot. Fall. Down.
I think the thing I hate most about falling—more than the pain or the embarrassment—is that, once it starts, I’m helpless to stop it. That millisecond when you know you’re going down and there’s no going back. Then, the long seconds after you land, waiting for the pain to hit, wondering momentarily if you’ve broken something, if everything is in its place, if you’re ever going to get up again.
And yet. I want to ride. I want to coast alongside my daughter, cheering her on as she masters her new skill. I want to race my son around Como Lake, feel the sun and wind on my face, see him stand up and pedal his hardest as we approach the steepest hill.
So, I bought the bike. I’ll wear the dorky helmet. I’ll push through the fear. And I’ll ride.
At this point, it takes a lot to try my patience when I travel. I’ve sat through some nasty layovers, dealt with multiple canceled flights, gotten into a (minor) rental car accident, forgotten my suitcase on a train, been stranded in Paris because of an Icelandic volcano … I could go on. But nothing—nothing—will get to me faster than a fellow passenger who is being a jerk. That said, I’ve formed some pretty strong opinions about how to be a good citizen of the open road. Here they are.
When you get in line, get ready to be next. Have your car rental reservation number ready. Get your driver’s license out. Make sure your boarding pass is pulled up on your cell phone. Take your shoes off and get your computer out of your bag. Just think ahead, like, three minutes into the future. The people behind you will silently thank you.
Don’t act self-entitled. See that overhead bin? That is for larger items. It does not have a special spot reserved for the passenger in 30A to do whatever he wants with it, regardless of whether or not he has a large carry-on. (I have had more than a few polite, firm exchanges with Mr. 30A about moving said smaller item.) Put your backpack under the seat in front of you, and save the big space for someone who needs it.
Respect other people’s personal space. I have a lot of “weird people I have flown with” stories, but the weirdest one is where the guy next to me leaned over and proceeded to blatantly watch “Weeds” with me … on my laptop. Dude was laughing. Anyhow, while that’s an extreme example, the principle holds: be respectful of the person sitting next to you. Share the armrest, never put your seat back all the way, keep your eyes on your own laptop, and save the loud cell phone calls for later. And, while I don’t need to tell most of you web introverts this, don’t talk your seatmate’s ear off about … well, anything.
Remember that inconvenience is a communal experience. Delayed or canceled flight? Turns out you’re not the only person dealing with it, so act accordingly. Be unfailingly polite to everyone, especially to the gate agents. They are not any happier than you are. Trust me.
If you see someone who might need help, stop and ask. Once, after a harrowing 20 hours of travel, I got off the plane in Minneapolis, only to get hit with a debilitating case of vertigo (weird but true). I slumped against the wall on the jetway, where I stayed for a full five minutes while dozens of people rushed by me to get to customs. I finally had to say, over and over, “I need help. I need help.” At last, someone stopped to see what was wrong—but not without a lot of huffing and puffing about going back on the plane to find an attendant. Not cool, fellow humans. Not cool. Whether someone seems to be ill or just struggling with a suitcase, stop and ask if they need any assistance. It matters.
Be aware of people around you. I’ll admit: the one thing that can really trigger me is when people just suddenly stop walking in the airport, then stand around in the middle of the walkway while passersby crash into each other trying to avoid them. Move to the side, people. Move. To. The. Side.
Work hard at being nice. Overall, I’m extremely intentional about being good citizen of the road. Moment to moment, I try to choose to do things that are polite, helpful, efficient, and friendly. That said, once in a while, I’m still guilty of glaring, being snappy, and “accidentally” kicking your seat if you put it back all the way. But I try.
In general, when traveling, work hard to keep your sense of humor. And remember … sooner or later, you’ll get there.
p.s. Register for TSA-Pre. Basically skipping the security line will put anyone in a better mood!
Once, I had a guy send me a photo of the window he had in his office. He said, “Here is the window I sit and stare out of every day.”
I would have thought, “What an unproductive jerk,” except that this guy happens to be one of the most passionate, brilliant, successful guys I know. And I don’t doubt that his ability to sit and stare out the window has been a huge contributor to his success.
That said, to me, the idea of sitting and staring out of a window as “work” is akin to thinking that watching “Battlestar Galactica” in the dark while drinking beer is “work.” (For example.)
To slow down is to slack off. To let go of stress is to lose your edge. I’m certain that, if an employee walks into my office and finds me staring out the window, they’ll think, “Great, I’m working for a lazy-ass who sits around doing nothing while I do all the work.” And this would not do.
Of course, every artist, author, poet, actor, thinker, and leader I admire has essentially said the opposite: clarity and creativity often manifest only after hours of doing … nothing.
I know they’re right. It’s only a matter of giving myself permission to stop and breathe for a while.
So, why is it so hard? What’s the worst thing that could happen?
(I won’t close a sale I won’t meet a deadline I’ll miss a funny tweet my inbox will pile up something will change I’ll be the last to know)
Step back. Get out the pen and the notepad. Stare off into space. Take some notes. Process, synthesize, and theorize. Check in. Change it up. See how you feel.
That’s where the real work happens.
This month, I remind myself, over and over: activity doesn’t equal productivity. It’s time to carve some space. Breathe some air. Pick your window, and start staring.
There have been countless women in my life who have counseled, supported, instructed, and inspired me. But, today, I’m not going to write about them.
I’m going to write about the men.
In 1993, Michael Dixon selected me out of 100+ applicants for a prestigious internship at a regional theater. He also inspired me to write my first short play, then later commissioned me to write three more.
In 1997, Tom McCullough and Chuck Rutherford agreed to let me essentially run their company of 30 people, despite the fact that I had no formal management training or experience.
In 1999, Peter Kitchak hired me for my first freelance PR job, despite the fact that I had no freelance—or PR—experience.
In 2002, Andrew Eklund hired me to do marketing communications for his web agency, which fundamentally changed the trajectory of my career path.
Also in 2002, Bret Busse and Steve Wallace recruited me to serve on a local interactive marketing association board, which ended up exponentially expanding my professional network, thereby helping me establish my freelance career in web copywriting.
In 2008, Peter Merholz invited me to come speak at his agency Adaptive Path in San Francisco, despite the fact that I was a complete unknown quantity. This eventually led to Jeffrey Zeldman inviting me to write for A List Apart; and then, in 2009, to speak at An Event Apart. These events irrevocably changed my life.
In 2009, Michael Nolan offered me a contract to write Content Strategy for the Web.
It goes on from there. Now, I’m a successful woman in business with a high national industry profile. Don’t get me wrong—for the past 20 years, I’ve done pretty damn well on my own. But I recognize that men provided several of the pivotal opportunities in my career. Men with influence. Men with power. Men who opened doors, who gave me countless opportunities to screw up and succeed.
If you’re a man with influence and power, actively use it to empower women. Look around. Listen. Get in touch with your own unconscious biases. Go out of your way to identify and recruit all the smart, driven women who surround you. You can’t shed privilege, but you can spread opportunity.
The #yesallwomen stories I’ve read this past week have been … I don’t have words. The rage I feel towards the perpetrators of sexual harassment is blinding and exhausting. But it doesn’t keep me from wanting to celebrate the good guys. And my hope is that, in celebrating the good guys, we recognize our shared moral responsibility to join their ranks: to actively, doggedly, tirelessly pursue a workplace that’s safe and equal for women everywhere.
At least once a week, I see a tweet from someone who’s written an article, blog post, or talk, and they preface the link to their work with something like this:
“I wrote a little thing…”
This really bugs me. I almost see it as an apology for the fact that they’re sharing it with me: “Sorry to bother you, but there is this little tidbit you may or may not be interested in, no problem if you’re not.”
And THEN, when I click over to the post, often I’ll see one or more caveats that read something like this:
“Maybe I’m crazy.”
“I don’t pretend to call myself an expert.”
“There are plenty of people who have addressed this before, and far better than I can here.”
“These are just a few ideas I’ve been kicking around, so take them with a grain of salt.”
People of Earth: Stop apologizing for your ideas.
If you have an idea, own it. Just because someone else has already talked about it doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t. And so what if it’s not perfectly articulated? So what if it turns out to be wrong? So what if you change your mind later?
When it comes to the Web, you are participating in a fluid, ever-evolving conversation. No matter your level of expertise, you belong here. In fact, as a Web professional, you are better positioned than most people to share your unique experiences, put forth hypotheses, and riff on other people’s thoughts. Because the Internet.
Here’s a big secret: when it comes to the great wide world of digital, we are all making it up as we go. We’re all just constantly throwing stuff on the wall and figuring out what sticks. Even the most well-recognized experts lie awake at night and worry about mistakes they made today … and what mistakes they’ll make tomorrow. Don’t kid yourself about that.
I don’t care where you do it: in a forum, on Twitter, on a blog, in an article, on the stage, at a Meetup, even just around the office. Step up. Speak up. You have a right and a responsibility to contribute. Replace “I’m not an expert” with “based on my experience.” Instead of “I might be crazy,” say “I’m excited by where this could lead us.” And for pete’s sake, don’t tell me you “wrote a little thing.” Give it to me in all caps: “JUST BLOGGED: My recent thoughts on something that’s important in my work.”
(One other consideration: I find that people who actively share their ideas on a regular basis are sometimes accused of “self-promotion,” which is apparently unattractive. Except I am quite confident that pretty much anyone who is successful in the universe has had to do a little bit of that. So get over it.)
GO BE SMART. BE PROUD. GO ON, NOW.
I know that, one way or the other, I’m going to screw up my kids.
I mean, every parent does—raising children is a messy enterprise, and even the smartest, kindest among us makes mistakes that have a lasting impact on their well-being. I will do something—lots of things—wrong. I already have. Something is already broken. I’m sure of it.
I’m uncomfortably, hyper-aware of this reality, every minute of every day. I’ll have a difficult interaction with one of the kids, and I’ll wonder, “Is this it? Is this the exchange that seals their future of unhappiness?” I worry about giving them too many options, or saying “yes” too often, which might result in a lifelong attitude of self-entitlement. I lie awake at night worried that I rely too much on their affection and approval—isn’t that codependence? What else am I doing wrong? How badly have I screwed them up already?
I don’t need anyone to tell me that I have fantastic kids. They’re smart, kindhearted, witty, generous little people. And logically, when I examine the facts, I know that I’m a good mother—or, at least, good enough. But how can I be more? How can I protect myself against their anger and resentment later in life, the kind I felt towards my own parents for so long?
And there it is. This neurotic, ever-present fear isn’t about potentially damaging my kids’ long-term well-being. It’s about me.
Acknowledging that has been a tough process. (Ironically, what I kept thinking at first was, “Now they’re going to hate me because I’m a narcissist!” Please be grateful you do not live in my brain.) Lately, my mantra has simply been, “Get out of the way.” I establish guard rails, then try to step aside. Let them walk their own paths. Be the best person I can be. Love them unconditionally.
Pretty sure that’s good enough.
Good Intentions: How Not To Run a Business
In 2009, I decided to rebrand my web writing agency, Brain Traffic, as a content strategy firm. I hired people I respected enormously to develop the practice and run the business. I networked like a crazy person, started speaking at conferences, and struggled through writing Content Strategy for the Web. Soon the leads were coming in fast and furious, from big companies with big dollars to spend. I’d found the right niche, hired the right people, and built a one-of-a-kind culture we all felt lucky to be a part of. By the fall of 2011, Brain Traffic was up to 22 people, and I started planning to expand the space again.
And now, let’s skip ahead to spring 2012.
Sales weren’t closing. My staff had run out of busy work. There was tension among leadership. Our overhead was eating us alive—we were barely making payroll. I laid off a few people (poorly, horribly), and our one-of-a-kind culture took a turn for the worse.
Before long, our line of credit was maxed out. I ran up tens of thousands of dollars worth of credit card debt. I borrowed against my 401(k). But the red numbers on the spreadsheets kept getting bigger, and finally, there was nothing left to do. I laid off 75% of my staff (at least, the ones who hadn’t already resigned). I felt humiliated, guilty, furious, helpless. My remaining staff was exhausted and traumatized. Going to the office was like going to a warzone after the troops had moved out. We were in a deep, deep hole, and crawling out of it seemed like an impossible task.
Now. This story isn’t about how Brain Traffic recovered (which it quickly did—last year was our best ever). It’s not about how perseverance and hard work will get you through your darkest hours (which, sometimes, it won’t). And it’s definitely not about celebrating failure (which, as Frank Chimero aptly points out, is really only celebrated by people who go on to be successful).
No. This story is about how I made business choices based on good intentions, and how a bunch of people lost their jobs because of it.
My intent was to be courageous, so I forged ahead despite the numbers. My intent was to work harder than ever, as though going through the motions would somehow get us through. My intent was to make good on my commitment to my employees and keep them on payroll no matter what the cost, because we were all in this together, and goddammit, I wouldn’t leave them behind.
It is so extraordinarily difficult not to mistake good intentions for values. My good intentions were solely focused on keeping everyone happy. But in the end, it turned out that courage meant firing my friends and digging into the terrifying spreadsheets. Hard work meant rebuilding a practice I hadn’t truly led in years. Commitment meant my five remaining employees showing up on that awful Monday, ready to have each other’s backs for whatever came next.
Today—every day—I have never worked harder to reconcile my values with my actions. I screw up all the time. I protest the outcomes, citing my good intentions. I suppose it’s something we never stop working on: accountability, both for the choices we make and the choices we don’t.
Our story continues.
This is the first thing I’ve published in over a year.
I’m guessing I’m the only baker in The Pastry Box kitchen who can say that.
Believe it or not, I stopped writing simply because I ran out of things to say. I needed to back off, go back to client work, shut up and learn new stuff. So I did that. And it was good.
Surprisingly, it turns out that you can’t just sit down and flip the writing switch back on. (Not that such a switch exists in the first place.) (Dammit.)
Sitting here staring at a blank screen, I know I have plenty of topics to tackle. How I’ve changed as a content strategist. The demise and recovery of my company. Things I’ve decided not to do for my kids. Being a leader. Giving the worst talk of my life. How we manage screentime in our house. Competing against your friends for project work. What happens when you change your mind about an idea you’ve been bullish about. Living in St. Paul. My brief stint as a playwright. The gift of working with people you love.
Thanks to the Pastry Box team for giving me a safe place to get my groove back.