Steph Hay

Steph Hay loves watching BBC programs, doing CrossFit, and eating Pho. She's the founder of tougher.me, fastcustomer.com, and workdesign.co. She works on content, UX, and lean processes with clients like Happy Cog, UIE, and the World Bank.

Steph tweets @steph_hay.

Published Thoughts

One-sided problem solving

I started to write, “If you consider yourself a problem-solver,” but then I realized people PROBABLY don’t think they’re anything BUT that. I mean, who admits to being a problem-creator? Or a person unable to solve problems? Lame.

Anyways.

A pattern I’ve recognized in myself is this: When I’m dealing with a tough situation, trying to “figure it out” solo never results in quick, thorough resolution.

I was doing this one-sided problem-solving with one of my longest friendships; our lives were changing (AS THEY TEND TO DO) and so was our dynamic. I made loads of assumptions and noodled over why, what to do differently, etc. FOR SIX MONTHS. I finally realized this was one-sided problem-solving, so I called my buddy and word vomited what I was feeling. Turned out she felt the same way (SURPRISE! [duh]). Twenty minutes later we’d gotten past it with new understanding of each other. We both felt amazing. Hugs all-around.

What are you trying to “solve” alone that just needs to be a two-way conversation instead?

Thanks for your honesty, Captain Travis 

Our flight from SFO to DCA was slated to depart at 1:44 PM. We were fully seated at 1:47 PM yet still at the gate. Disgruntled sighs resounded. People checked their watches. Frustration filled the air.

The Captain piped up.

“Folks, this is Captain Travis speaking. One of our crew members had a family emergency, so we decided to get her on a Newark-bound non-stop. We’re waiting for another crew member to arrive before we can get up in the air. Should be about 10-15 minutes. We apologize for the delay.”

I felt sad for the crew member, and happy that United seemed to be doing the right thing by getting her home ASAP. I felt grateful to Captain Travis for being a transparent human. 

The sighs stopped. Naps begun in earnest. Watches went unchecked. 

We sat another 35 minutes, completely peaceful, before Captain Travis pushed back.

Three sketches on all I’ve learned about life

Sometimes life is all…

Everything is awesome!

Other times, it’s …

Everything is cruddy.

But in between, it’s like…

Things are pretty dang good.

Things in between the extremes are looking up, or maybe they’ve been better, but generally speaking, they’re lovely comfortable periods of quiet moments. I’m pretty sure that’s happiness.

Befriending a Wolf

I occasionally work from the neighborhood Starbucks. Normally I keep my earbuds in and my eyes fixed on the screen. But one day, a man with whom I’d exchanged pleasantries in the past walked up to my table and said, “Let me talk to you.” He grabbed an empty chair and sat down across from me before I could respond. So I took out my earbuds and closed my computer. This guy wanted to talk. 

It was amazing. 

He goes by Wolf. I heard about how he fought in the war in Bosnia, how he was put in charge of handling journalists who were covering the war, and how he met his wife (she was one of those journalists!). He moved here at age 42 to marry her, and he brought along his two teenage kids and his ex-wife (a basketball player; he found her a coaching job!). He wrote for the New York Post, then decided to start his own black-car service in DC, which he ran for a decade. He became the personal driver for a handful of politicians. 

Then, one Friday, he was getting his black car—a Mercedes—serviced at the dealership. He decided that he’d rather sell Mercedes cars than drive people around in them, so he found the manager, told him everything he knew about Mercedes (which turns out to be a lot; Wolf loves Mercedes), and got hired. He closed up his business that afternoon and started his new career the following Monday.

He talked to me about socialism, communism, sex changes, smoking (he’s for it) and vegetarianism (he’s against it). He touted his wife’s skills as a writer and editor—her journalistic resume makes me envious. He told me that lemon cleanses the liver, and he handed me a lemon juice container that he carries with him everywhere, and he told me to squirt some in my water bottle. I did.

An hour passed. I thanked Wolf for our conversation, but said I had to get some work done. He shook my hand, told me my handshake was strong and I must have Slavic roots in my ancestry, then suggested I park in a hidden lot “where finding a spot is really easy.” 

He called me Wolfette. I’m honored.

One day last fall I thought to myself, “Man, it’d be great to generate some recurring monthly income, so what can I build to make money?”

(Oh, you’ve had that thought, too?)

So I did a workshop with the smart folks at AgilityFeat, and we talked through nine different ideas I thought (a) could make money and (b) I wanted to put my energy into.

We talked about what minimum viable products might look like and early experiments to test markets or demand. We honed in on one idea, tougher.me, which CrossFitters like me would someday use to post their personal records. 

In January, I set out to find/cultivate an audience by creating a playlist a day using Spotify, posting it to musicforwods.com (WOD stands for “workout of the day” in CrossFit lingo), then cross-posting that to a Facebook group

Fourteen weeks in, Music for WODs is about to pass 24K likes on Facebook, while tougher.me is still in a very small beta working toward “viable.”

So here I am with two hobbies, by startup terms (i.e., “Pre-revenue” HA!) — one that’s fun to make, growing quickly, people are using on a daily basis, and is generating some grocery money through t-shirt sales. Another is fun to make, and I hope will grow, perhaps with help from the MusicForWODs Facebook audience.

In the meantime, I field questions from well-meaning folks who want to know if/how I’m making money. “How are you going to make money?” assumes I have a master plan. I don’t; I have experiments, sure, but the greatest thing I’ve learned so far is that “follow the fun” — as Patrick Smith once told me — is a pretty rewarding strategy to start with.

Beyond that, what’s so bad about having a hobby?

Waddle like a Duck

My first job out of college was at George Mason University. It’s where I cut my teeth on content strategy, UX, and IA before they were formal things.

But more importantly, it’s where I met my dear friend Audrey, who became my supervisor and mentor. I was struggling with the territorial attitudes of higher ed, but Audrey seemed to manage every working interaction with grace and a positive attitude. 

So one day I walked into her office and asked, “Seriously, how do you build bridges with these people?!”

She stood up, closed her office door, and said, “When I start to feel frustrated by them, I waddle like a duck, and their negativity just rolls off my back.” She flicked her hands up in the air. “That’s it.”

She then shook her whole body, waddling from top-to-bottom, laughed, and opened the door.

It really does work.

In 2001, I was writing my master’s thesis on Sesame Street, and Dr. Pat Washburn — the chair of my faculty committee — told me I should call the program's founders. 

Seriously? That caliber of person would NEVER have the time to actually help a grad student in Meigs County, Ohio. 

Try anyway.

So a few weeks later, I actually got the nerve to call Lloyd Morrisett. He created Sesame Street with Joan Ganz Cooney. 

When I dialed Lloyd’s number — which I found online in the white pages — I was in a hotel room in East Lansing, Mich. I had been there to support my former teammates on Ohio University’s swimming and diving team; they were at Eastern Michigan U for the MAC championship meet.

It was a Saturday morning around 10 AM, and my mom had joined me — but she was out for a walk.

So I took advantage of the window of privacy to pick up the phone and dial Lloyd’s number.

Looking back, it was a completely random time to make this phone call. But I felt a surge of courage in that exact random moment, so I went with it.

A woman answered. I asked if Lloyd was there. She said yes, then covered the mouthpiece to let Lloyd know the call was for him.

For the next 10 seconds, I immediately started bead sweating. Actual beads of sweat on my head. My heart was going bananas. I hadn’t prepared for the number to actually be correct, let alone that I might reach him.

So when he got on the line and said, “Hello,” I asked, “Is this Lloyd Morrisett?”

“Yes it is,” he said.

Unconvinced, I said, “The Lloyd Morrisett who created Sesame Street?”

“Yes,” he repeated.

My mind raced. Holy cow, now what do I say?

Well, I turned into a babbling idiot, choking out some stream of drivel that included words like “Wow” and “I grew up watching” and “really an honor.”

PULL IT TOGETHER, HAY.

Lloyd saying, “Can I help you with something, Miss…” brought me back to reality. I am a researcher calling to inquire about Sesame Street’s early days of planning. I have actual, substantive questions to ask.

Fortunately, I got them out in time to prove my worth, thanked him for his time and answers, and asked if I could follow-up by email with more questions as-needed. He obliged.

Over the next year, he gave me transcripts of initial planning discussions among Sesame Street’s educational experts, counselors, and creative folks … stuff that had never been cited before. I won awards for my research because of his help.

Nearly 13 years later, Lloyd is among my closest friends. We Skype most every week. He helps me navigate the up’s and down’s of jobs, relationships, and life’s uncertainties. We exchange health and fitness stories. He even recorded himself joking around about me in this video: http://vimeo.com/46041723

For a long time I wondered why he keeps talking to me, especially because he’s very wise and I’m very awkward. So I asked him one day, and he said that he was impressed by the questions I asked on that first call. Then I kept asking substantive questions, so he kept answering them.

Beyond that, we just became friends like anybody becomes friends — with consistency, laughter, honesty, and support. It just so happens that he created an exceptionally successful educational program beloved by children and parents worldwide, and I wrote about how it became part of our culture.

I still think about how I first dismissed the idea of picking up the phone and calling. I would have missed out on this friendship. I’m glad I tried anyway. 

I surprised my parents for Christmas this year

It had been five years since I’d been home to celebrate Christmas with my family.

After an 8-hour drive from DC, Matt and I rang the doorbell of my childhood home in Tiffin, Ohio.

My mom answered and subsequently shouted “OH MY GOD!” over and over.

I don’t think a hug from my dad ever felt so perfect.

Here’s the video (1m42s): http://youtu.be/Tdpe8OCKMlA

In those rare moments, the furthest thing from my mind is what’s often at the forefront of my mind on a daily basis.