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This is the last article published on the Pastry Box Project.

For four years, Katy and I have asked authors to contribute to our project's corpus, and we've had the incredible honor to publish brilliant texts–one new text every day–from brilliant minds during 1461 days (2012 was a leap year).

The concept at the origin of the Pastry Box is quite simple: bring people together and let them write about anything they want. If you do that, you should get some kind of testimony about our day and age. You should be able to grab some sense of our era. That's always been the goal of the Pastry Box.

I've always assumed that the sole fact of stating the project's ambition and giving complete freedom to the project's contributors would produce some kind of magical result.

And, in my humble opinion, it did.

It's possible that my vision of the project may be biased by the intentions I set for the Pastry Box, but when I read the texts published in 2012, I can see that the preoccupations of our writers were not the same as the preoccupations of the people writing in 2015, and that 2012 is in many ways a statement of what the web–and our world–was at the time.

I can't help but feel that the Pastry Box found itself at a particular juncture in time and that, in retrospect, we'll understand that the Internet was taking a major turn during the years the project was active.

The explosion of the mobile web, the accumulation of new developing tools and techniques, the rise of social networks as a mainstream apparatus for communication, the drastic changes in content production and distribution as well as in project's financing–not to mention start-ups philosophies–are amongst the things that make the Internet a complete different place than the one I knew when Ethan's first post went live.

At the time the Pastry Box started, there was a feeling that people were still trying to figure out the Internet, trying to understand which direction this thing could and would take. I now feel that a path has been found. I would be hardly pressed to describe it accurately, and there are obviously not just one single path when you take a closer look at the state of the web, but I can't help but feel that there is a general movement toward a certain direction. Time and distance are going to be needed to turn those rather abstract considerations into precise words, to understand the changes the Internet was undergoing, its transformations, and how it was shaping our world. But I know that the joyful chaos of the early 2010s is settling down to give room to a more normalized–and probably less creative–state of things.

I know that at some point, I will come back to the texts published on the Pastry Box to understand better what was happening circa the moment of my writing. Because I will want to understand the world I will be living in, how it works, and I how I should act in it. Its secrets.

The future is shaped by the present, and the present only exists as a result of the past.

Thank you so much for reading me, and for–still–reading the Pastry Box, no matter where you find yourself in the future.

In 2014, Anne Thériault challenged men to read more books by women.

Men aren’t encouraged to read books by women because on some level we don’t believe that those books were written for men. And yet no one ever questions why women would read books by men. It’s just taken as a given that books by men are the gold standard, and that everyone, no matter what their gender, should read them. -Anne Thériault

It made me take note of where I spend my literary money and time. Thanks to Good Reads, I can see that female authors took up a good chunk of space on my 2014 list. So while it wasn't a huge leap for me to dedicate 2015 to creative women, it was a satisfying one.

Guys, don’t be that guy. Read (and review, if that’s your bag!) books by women. If you consider yourself to be in any way an advocate for gender equality, then let that equality extend to the media you consume. Because women’s voices won’t get any louder if men aren’t helping to amplify them. -Anne Thériault

Of the books I read this year, here are my five faves.


Meet You There by Jessica Wallace

I dig a book that goes behind the scenes with its characters. One that zooms in on the layers and tough work of being human with other humans.

Meet You There is about fucking up, moving through trauma, fucking up a little more, self-forgiveness, and boundary setting. It's about finding a way to let our pain and uncertainty shape us without taking over.

This book was a big, fat hug. It reminded me to choose compassion and kindness over judgment. That our stories connect us and make us human. And that showing up for the people I love is the best and often only thing I can offer.

I almost never read a book more than once. I'll be reading this for a third time in 2016 for sure-zies.


The Rewind Files by Claire Willett

OMG this book is the funnest.

Badass, sassy, loveable, smart-as-hell female lead, anti-racism, familial bonds, friendship, time travel, un-boring history lessons, and brilliant writing. What else could a reader ask for? A good giggle? All the feels? Check and check!

Seriously. Read it before it hits theatres. Because it will, you guys.


Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

From my Good Reads review:

White friends, put Kindred by Octavia Butler on your reading list. I can't put it down. It's teaching me, breaking my heart, and making me a better ally.

I'm not normally a sci-fi fan, but this is the second time travel book on this tiny list of mine. It's the second time travel book that might make it into my fave books of all time.

Kindred takes us (and the main character) back in time to life in the antebellum South. It's an uncomfortable, educational, important read. Heart and eye opening. Send it to the front of your list. Start it today. It will change you.

I need more Octavia Butler in my life. We all do.


Landline by Rainbow Rowell

OMG A THIRD TIME TRAVEL BOOK. I guess I am into sci-fi. Trippy. I may need to re-write my bio on all the socials.

This book planted a warm fire in my heart that grew and grew and grew and still burns. Rainbow Rowell is masterful at character development and dialogue. Her books are all beautifully paced (I've read them all and you should, too), fun, relatable, and emotionally rewarding. If you've been in any kind of relationship, this book will make your heart sing ballads.


Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Ohai again, Rainbow.

Oh my sweet young people finding your way and falling in love. How my heart remembers and aches and cheers for you.

My 13-year-old daughter read this first. And now we're both goonie for school bus romance. "A touching tale of two misfits who find where they fit is together."

More wonderfully relatable characters that stay with you, on-point dialogue, and true-to-life circumstance. This is a writer who remembers what it's like to be a teenager, you guys.

Yes. Just, yes.

Honourable mentions

tiny beautiful things by Cheryl Strayed
Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay
Untamed State by Roxanne Gay
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
In the Woods (and the whole series) by Tana French

In 2016 I'll seek out (more) women, authors of colour, and queer writers. This list seems like a most excellent place to start. If you have suggestions, tweet 'em @shannonfisher!

It can be exhausting trying to keep up with everything. All the blog posts to read, the tools to try, the processes to adopt. It's the bitter sweet way of the web.

On one hand, it's a privilege to have access to so much insightful and helpful information from experts and peers. On the other hand, where's the time to digest all the content and then implement it? Similarly, as you get your head around one way of doing things, another post pops into your Twitter stream and you feel like you have to start again.

In 2016 I'm not going to try and keep up with everything. That's not to say I won't keep reading and learning from all the wonderful resources and people I have access to. It is to say however that I won't be putting any pressure on myself to know everything and to try all the things.

I'll be focused on what I'm doing as a content strategist at GatherContent. I can evaluate my own processes and methods, I can determine what is successful for us and what isn't. And in between all of this, I'll read and learn, but I won't feel the need to act on all the information that I consume.

I'm going to set my own pace.

Vision, Values, Methods, Obstacles, Measures

If you work in a company that is large like mine, you may be familiar with a formalized process to achieve alignment through goals and metrics. For us, our model to create alignment is called a V2MOM: Vision, Values, Methods, Obstacles, and Measures.

Every year, the company (via the CEO) will publish the V2MOM. Then the organizations (via the leadership) will publish and distribute their own, which are aligned with the company’s. Then teams (via managers) will publish their V2MOMs which are aligned with the organizations. And finally, individual contributors create their own goals, which are aligned with the team’s. These look like:

  • Vision

    What we want to do. This should be about 10–15 words.

  • Values

    What is most important about our vision. These are prioritized principles and that guide it.

  • Methods

    How we will get it. These are specific actions and steps to take. Again, this is in priority order.

  • Obstacles

    What may stand in your way. These are challenges and problems to overcome to achieve our vision.

  • Measures

    How we know we got it. These are usually quantifiable metrics. These are often linked to specific Methods.

We publish our goals on our work profiles, and we update them throughout the year. It’s a way to have transparency into what we’re all trying to achieve, and how we’re going to get there.

“…a clarified direction and focusing collective energy on the desired outcome eliminate the anxiety that is often present in times of change”
— Marc Benioff How to Create Alignment Within Your Company in Order to Succeed

In the last couple years, I learned that this isn’t just a model to use for your own personal job goals. You can use this on the major projects you’re working on. We used it while planning out our Design System. We are also using it to create our 2016 evangelism plan for our UX team. This is helpful for getting people aligned for a project across multiple teams.

2015 is coming to an end. A lot of people are thinking about their goals for the next year. Last year, my goal was simple. Do less speaking at events, and do more writing. I hit my goal — in 2014 I gave 18 talks and wrote 2 posts, while in 2015 I gave 16 talks and wrote 14 posts. But I don’t feel accomplished. I think it’s because I don’t really know why I set it. I just wanted to hit some metrics, but there was no vision or values behind why I was doing it.

This new year, I decided instead of a simple list of goals, I would write a personal V2MOM for myself. This way I have a more meaningful reason to hit these goals, and I have some measures that align to actual methods. Some of the goals here are redacted because they are very private and personal. But otherwise, here are my goals for 2016.

My Personal V2MOM

Vision

Be more organized, healthier, and more successful. Be a better person.

Values

  • Healthier me
  • Happy home
  • Success
  • Love my life
  • Peace of mind

Methods & Measures

  1. Better diet, exercise, & hygiene

    • Drink more water
    • Cut unhealthy foods
    • Use stand-up desk daily
    • Walk more
    • Go to the gym
    • Regular dental visits
    • Take care of nails & hair
  2. Take care of the house & those I live with

    • Keep home clean
    • Clean the litterbox every day
    • Do the dishes right away
    • Take out the trash
    • Make the living room into a more usable space
    • Hang out with the roommate
    • Play & cuddle with Zali more
  3. Do good work

    • Finish assigned tasks per week
    • Come to work earlier
    • Help out teammates more
  4. Be better with money

    • Pay off credit cards
    • Pay off a student loan
    • Save money for emergency fund
  5. Have a better social life

    • Throw a housewarming
    • Have a quarterly dinner party
    • Attend more meet ups
    • Go to more events like the Opera, Ballet, Symphony, and museums
    • Go on dates
  6. Do more good

    • Recycle and compost regularly
    • Donate 48 hours of my time to a non-profit
    • Stop using language that is sexist or ableist

Obstacles

  • Self-doubt
  • Over-committing to too many things
  • Temptation for unhealthy foods
  • Temptation for unnecessary spending
  • Procrastination, Laziness & Apathy
  • Being unorganized

For me, this is a pretty ambitious goal. If I don’t hit everything, I can move the goal to the following year. But as long as I’m making some sort of progress, I am okay with this. :)

In March of 2012 I had a genuine bona fide nervous breakdown complete with violent behavior and suicidal ideation.

I was lucky.* One part of that luck came during a a crisis call with an on-call psychiatrist. When I said, "I don't know what to do with all these emotions," he said, "Go for a walk. Keep walking until you feel better."

I am a couch potato. When my parents told me to go outside and play, I took a book. My fastest mile in high school was 9 minutes, and 16 minutes was nomal for me. The only time in my life I walked regularly was college and that's because everything was in different buildings. Besides, exercise is for jocks and sports people, not a geek like me.

On the other hand, what else did I have to do? And what else could I do? When in crisis, "follow the doctor's orders" is usually a good start. So I walked.

I walked about a mile a day the first week, and then it grew to two to three miles a day, and over the months it grew to walking half marathons. Some months I might walk 2-3 half marathons in 30 days (not in competition, just to walk) and other months I might walk 2-3 miles or less a week.

When I walk, I feel better. When I neglect my walking, I don't notice anything for the first few weeks and then I start to wonder why my anti-anxiety med isn't working, and then I come to my senses and start walking again.

When I start walking, I'm usually angry. Sometimes it's at whatever has me riled up. Sometimes it's at nothing at all. (Brain chemicals are fun that way! "Why are you so mad?" "Because that's what the brain chemicals are doing right now!") Many times I'm angry because I have to walk, and that means I can't sit on my butt eating Snickers bars and playing Minecraft, which is a lot more comfortable.

I hate walking -- well, I hate walking the first mile and a half. Sometime around the middle of mile 2 the brain chemicals in charge of "not hating everything" start to kick in and I actually start enjoying walking. By mile 3 I've hit my stride and I don't start questioning my sanity again until sometime around mile 7 when my hips and back are beginning to remind me that I am not a 16 year old. At mile 9 I hate everything that ever lives. At mile 12 I just want to be done and at mile 13.1 I am amazed it's over and I lived. (At mile 16 I want to cut my feet off, take a nap, and eat a burger the size of my head.)

I have never believed in the phrase "Walk it off", as uttered by macho gym teachers and boys who just beaned me in the head with a football / basketball / dodgeball / etc. or as a solution to skinned knees, sprained wrists, twisted ankles, etc. that come from being a klutz trying to avoid said flying spheroids.

And I hate -- hate -- that something as simple as taking a half hour walk and drinking a bottle of water can change my mood. My body's supposed to be in charge of my brain, not my brain in charge of my body. Even after three years I'm still not comfortable with the idea that "me" is defined as brain and body, and I'm not a computer lodged inside a meat suitcase.

But in matters of depression, anxiety, stress, anger, and other not-so-awesome emotions, I grudgingly and proudly admit it works way more often than not.

The fact is that the brain requires certain chemicals in certain ratios to work properly. My brain won't hold those ratios without some kind of intervention. Walking not only helps me reset things when I'm out of balance in big ways, it also helps me maintain good levels when my biggest crisis is "I got toothpaste on my shirt".

Here are some places you can walk if you need to:

  • Outside around your neighborhood
  • Outside on your corporate-provided walking path
  • Outside in the yard or on the road (but for pete's sake do it safely).
  • In your house or gym or office or whatever on a treadmill or elliptical.
  • In your office building. (Walk the longest chunk of hallway -- it probably leads to a stairwell -- up the stairs, down the long chunk to another stairwell -- and repeat until you've run out of floors. Then reverse.)
  • At the mall. My local mall is a 3-mile lap if I do both floors.
  • In your house, from the basement to the top floor and back.
  • From your kitchen to the living room to the dining room back to the kitchen. (If you don't think tiny ridiculous laps are a thing, talk to anyone who owns a Fitbit who had like 200 steps to hit their number for the night when it was 11:30pm.)
  • Anywhere you want.

Here are some things you can do while walking.

  • Play Zombies, Run! Despite the title, there's no actual requirement to run. **
  • Read. Yes, you can read and walk at the same time, especially on a quiet sidewalk or track. I'm currently working through Steinbeck's East of Eden and if that can be read while walking pretty much anything else can.
  • Listen to audiobooks or podcasts if you're so inclined.
  • Dictate your Great American Novel to your smartphone.
  • Talk to friends or family.
  • Work out the plans for how to do something creative not related to whatever's pissing you off.
  • Get ice cream at a place at least 2 miles from your starting point.
  • Analyze why some landscape designs work and others don't.
  • Count the trees

When walking for mental health, injuries are our enemy. Here are some tips for walking.

  • Get good running shoes from a place capable of analyzing your gait so you get injured less frequently.
  • Replace your shoes as often as you're wearing out the tread. If you've worn the tread out, you've probably also broken down the padding on the inside, and not changing shoes at that point just invites more injuries.
  • Bring water. Always. Even if you think you're hydrated. Because hey, water!
  • If you're walking more than 3 miles or 1 hour, bring a snack. Runner-types call this "fueling" and I call it "not being hangry or passing out".
  • Tell someone where you're going and when you'll be back.

To be honest, walking is not going to solve whatever problems sent me out on the walk. They're also not a cure for mental health problems and nothing in here replaces talking to an actual doctor and seeing a counselor on a regular basis. But as "tools in the mental health toolbox" go, it's one I keep on the top shelf.


* Some day I'll write about all that luck but that's not today.

I will say that a big piece of my luck came in the form of certain members of my family who had been down similar roads and had confided in me, and given me strict instructions on what to do when Shit Goes Wrong. For the record, those instructions were "Call me. And if I don't answer, keep calling until I do. And if you can't wait that long, here are other people you can call."

We have a standing agreement we could call each other in case of mental health disaster That agreement includes "It doesn't matter what time it is or where I am", "No judgements during the crisis - first we get to where everyone's safe." and "When the crisis is over, everyone will follow up with the appropriate health provider".

I'm not going to say it saved my life, but it sure as hell threw the odds in my favor. So if you have the opportunity to make an agreement like that with someone you trust, do it. »

 

** Zombies, Run! launched the week I had my nervous breakdown. That was another piece of luck on my part. I had a new game that required me to go outdoors and get sunshine while exercising, and I had a doctor whose orders consisted of "go outdoors and get sunshine while exercising". Obviously I didn't know I was going to melt down when I backed the kickstarter, but I am incredibly grateful that I had the right tools on hand at the exact right time to help motivate me to do the right things for my broken brain/body. »

This is what a developer looks like.

Have you ever felt excluded at an event even though you were supposed to be there, like a meetup or a conference after-party? Perhaps you gave a conference talk and one or two negative comments ate away at you, making it difficult to socialize. Or maybe someone assumed you were a developer’s spouse, or in another profession entirely, before you were assumed to be a developer.

Even as we are our own worst critics, other peoples’ comments can set doubt into motion. How can we break away from paralyzing sources of doubt and get back to our most brilliant and badass selves? Can you make yourself feel more confident even though you feel the opposite of that and want to run for the hills? This post explores how we can build ourselves up to endure (and hopefully enjoy) social situations in the technology field and beyond.

Act like you’re supposed to be there.

I’ve often heard the phrase “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission”, attributed to the celebrated computer programmer Grace Hopper. I may have taken that advice a bit too far, but I once crashed a giant, lavish party with a friend at a public park. We acted like we were supposed to be there, even though we clearly weren’t, and gained entry to the outdoor event of the decade. Now, I’m definitely not telling you to go party crashing; however, as I became an adult, I saw tangible value in showing up and acting confident. When paired with social awareness, I saw doors open as I navigated situations. (I fully admit to having some privilege here, as well.)

Fast forward a few years to working as a web developer in a male-dominated industry. At times, I was the only female dev on of a team of 25; it was common to feel outnumbered. I wanted to get into public speaking, and local meetups were a place to get started–they were also completely full of men. I remember overcoming nerves when giving my first talk on Accessible JavaScript at "Super Seattle JS", an event for speakers rejected from the CascadiaJS conference. I pushed any feelings of doubt completely out of my mind and tried to bring forward the strongest version of myself. I made some rookie mistakes but I survived–and learned that I could absolutely get up and give a talk in front of hundreds of people. I was supposed to be there.

Be yourself.

I’ve heard women say they dress down to fit in at meetups or conferences, so other developers will take them seriously. I say forget all that! Celebrate your personal style and wear whatever makes you feel most comfortable. If your style is t-shirts and hoodies, rock a t-shirt and a hoodie. If you sometimes like wearing dresses or skirts, own it and wear them with pride.

"I started giving all my talks in heels because:

A) Stage confidence

B) This is what a dev looks like"

-@Una

As I did more public speaking, my fear of being outnumbered subsided and confidence grew. I started showing up to tech events with the same unabashed confidence I had as a party crasher. While this might not reflect everyone’s personal style, I gave talks in dresses, shiny leggings, and sparkly jackets simply because I love dressing up; speaking was an excuse to do that. When I’m attending an event and not giving a talk, I never choose my attire out of a place of fear. You shouldn’t either, and I’ll tell you why.

Clothing can be used as a device to engineer your mood. Have you ever put on a pair of pants that were too small and you felt terrible? (Hi, I have.) Ever put on your favorite outfit and felt fabulous? Get comfortable so you’re feeling good when you present yourself at an event–your presence will more influential than your attire. You’ll show others that “this is what a developer looks like” as your authentic self, whatever that may be.

Do a power pose.

“Showing up and acting confident” is easier said than done, I know. As I started writing this post, I thought a lot about people who are more introverted. I’ve also learned personally that extroverts can become introverted under stress: after rough talk feedback, I tend to disappear for alone-time. When I was feeling particularly down after a talk recently, I got some great advice to “do a power pose.” Essentially, trick your mind into feeling more confident by inhabiting a fierce body. Put your arms on your hips like Superwoman and physically feel more powerful.

This advice comes from a great Ted talk by Amy Cuddy a few years ago titled, “Your Body Language Shapes Who you Are”, where she discussed the importance of nonverbal communication in social power dynamics. Her scientific research showed that as little as two minutes spent in a “power pose” can raise testosterone, the hormone affecting confidence, and lower the stress hormone, cortisol. This impacts how others perceive us in all matters of life, from job interviews to conference talks to product pitches. So do yourself a favor and do some power poses if you’re in need of a confidence boost.

TLDR;

By harnessing our power within, we can impact how others perceive us. But sometimes we need encouragement to show our most confident selves. To feel powerful before a challenging situation, do a power-pose: find your inner strength by “faking it until you become it.” Take pride in your personal style and dress however you feel most confident, not how you think others expect you to be. Act like you’re supposed to be there at meetups and conference events, because you are!

It's been a year since my cofounder and I let go of our team and buckled down to take on 2015 as a tiny, 2-person company. Turns out, 2015 had a lot in store for us: a couple high highs, a couple low lows, and a whole lot of just doing the work, grinding it out, one day after another. I'm proud of what we accomplished. I've never produced so much with so little. But for an ambitious company, the state of "tininess" is a special one: it's proud and independent, it's satisfying when it's not frustrating, and it's a lot of fun—when it's not driving you absolutely mad.

A tiny company is nimble. We were sitting in the last row at a presentation about ethics in data handling when I leaned over and whispered to my cofounder, "Remember that project you were talking about?"

"Yeah?"

"We should build it. Let's just build it."

He nodded. That's when the decision was made. A tiny company can make big moves fast. There isn't much research, many meetings or pitches or proposals, there aren't slide decks or whitepapers or lawyers or a prolonged stakeholder buy-in process. When you're half a tiny company there are only two people who get to decide, and in a single, quick exchange, you take the first step toward shipping a whole new product.

A tiny company doesn't have an office. Or meetings. Or HR. Or a vacation policy. Frankly, being half of a tiny company is kind of weird. It doesn't look very professional. This year, for me, it meant working in my basement office most days in my jeans and a tee-shirt and instant messaging with my cofounder till all hours of the night. It meant going out one or two days a week to meet up at a $10 per day rent-a-desk coworking space, or camping out at friends' offices. It meant constant, ambient chatting and almost no formal conference room meetings or inter-company email. We share a Slack account, Dropbox, calendar, and a GitHub account. You don't ask for a sick or personal day; when I needed to take a vacation, I said "Hey, I'll be offline these days. Take a look at these open tickets while I'm gone." There's no middle manager giving you side-eye if you show up to work late. There are no middle managers at all. You're both the bosses, the employees, and everything in between. 

Sounds great, right?

It is, until you check your bank balance. Which you do, several times a month.

A tiny company has a poverty mindset. When you're a tiny company you're tiny because you're just making ends meet, and that means every dollar that comes in matters a lot, and every dollar that goes out has to have a really good reason to make an exit. There are no off-sites or catered lunches or open bars or Monday morning donuts or Friday afternoon drinks or company-provided dual monitors or health insurance or retirement funds or even company tee-shirts with your logo emblazoned on them. There's you, on your laptop, constantly tinkering with a spreadsheet, brainstorming ideas for revenue growth or expense cuts.

A tiny company gets set back easily. When you're a 2-person company, one person's sick kid staying home from school means the company is working at half-capacity. One unexpected task delays development on everything else. One payments API deprecation can put the entire company's revenue stream into danger. Going to a conference, a dentist appointment, getting stuck in a long line at the DMV—all these things can slow down the company's progress because it's only two of you moving things forward. And if you're both not moving things forward, the company is standing still.

A tiny company wings it. In my time running my tiny company, I've had to get good at an array of tasks, which all have dedicated professionals who do only these tasks all day long in large organizations. Nowhere else can you be a software company's sole developer and also get to work on copywriting, email marketing, project management, user experience design, customer service, user feedback response, billing, managing a profit and loss statement, and reviewing stupid amounts of legal paperwork. (Okay fine, I'll admit I hired a attorney to do that last one.) Company tininess means your specialties and deep expertise matter less than your ability to learn just enough of the skill you need that particular day to achieve the goal at hand. Figuring it out and getting the job done brings a special sense of satisfaction, tinged with a hope that someday, you'll be able to hire one of those dedicated professionals.

Life at a tiny company is exciting, and difficult, but most of all, it's educational. In the past 12 months I've learned more about myself as a working professional than I have in any other year of my career. If you're committed to independence, pride yourself on rolling up those sleeves and figuring it out, and enjoy having more control (if smaller impact), life at a tiny, 2-person company is a daily education in capitalism, creativity, and survival.

Five Arguments I Won't Be Having in 2016

Like those rock stars that announce one final tour after which they will stop playing all their old hits, I'm making a list of arguments I won't be having in 2016. If you want to get your last points in with me on these, better do so fast!

  1. "Pockets in women's clothing make me look fat!" If you are willing to trade your own convenience to comply with the questionable aesthetic judgments of people who are unable or unwilling to differentiate between the contents of your pockets and your actual body shape (neither of which, by the way, are any of their business) in order to make you feel bad, we are never going to agree on this topic. (However, if you want to talk with me about how we might best overthrow the Handbag-Industrial Complex and mandate minimum levels of functional pockets in all women's clothing, I'm all ears.)

  2. "You should be using [INSERT TECHNOLOGY X] here!" If you're not one of my technical advisors (and believe me, you know if you are), I'm not going to have this argument with you. I love hearing about new technology and will happily listen to you talk about what you're using, what you love and hate about it, what you didn't expect but found out the hard way about it, and so on! But if that techsposition starts veering into a hard sell, combined with a side of "all the cool kids are using it!" then I will change the topic to anything else, even sports (which should give you an idea of how much I don't want to have this argument). I choose technology based firstly on the availability of reliable libraries and clear tutorials, and then by how cheaply I can run it. Boring? I don't care. Go try to persuade the folks on HackerNews, they will argue with you all day!

  3. "Here are all the things that are wrong with the new Star Wars movie!" I haven't even seen the movie yet and I know I won't be participating in this argument in 2016. As long as the new movie has Princess Leia, charming robots, and space explosions in full-on technicolor glory, I don't care about anything else. Pass the popcorn! (Besides, JJ Abrams gave me a mechanical pencil once, and with that ensured my uncritical movie ticket purchases for life.)

  4. "Women just don't like technology!" Anyone stupid enough to make this argument exudes clouds of endumbening particulate matter that will contaminate everyone and everything in a ten-foot radius. Even short-term exposure can cause rage flashes, disbelieving stares, and nervous "did he just say that?" laughter. Vacate the area immediately and alert passersby to the danger. If you encounter this argument online, close any open tabs and/or block and mute the infected individual.

  5. "Donald Trump: Performance Art, Fascist, or Performing Fascist?" When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.

And one meta-argument: I also won't be arguing about whether or not I should be arguing about these things. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I highly encourage you to make a list of things you won't be arguing about in 2016, too!

“This will do.”

I have a lot of stuff. I’ve also been labeled a “packing mouse” by my mom. She means packrat.

There are purchases made purely out of necessity—the kind of buying that’s like, shit my period is tomorrow and I am all out of tampons. I buy some things just because—that delicious pink mimosa candle smells too good to pass up, or a cute dress that’s on sale and makes my legs look skinnier. And then there are what I call my “maybe someday” purchases. Just in case. Maybe someday in the future, I’ll find myself in desperate need of this one thing and cannot realize my deepest goals without said thing. This last kind of buying—purchases made as some expression of my aspirations, a manifestation of my “someday” identity—is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently.

I buy sketchbooks in the hopes that someday I might become an artist; I buy new books with the far off idea that if only I learned more about X, then I could finally do Y. Or I buy endless new notebooks, each time hoping they’ll magically inspire me to become a more consistent journal-er. I buy countless pens and markers, convincing myself that I need such a wide assortment of writing tools and stationary supplies at my disposal before I can create anything of value.

As you might imagine, it’s a bit crippling.

Which brings me to my pen of choice—the unassuming yet reliable, basic yet versatile MUJI pen. My preference is the 0.38mm thickness.

MUJI is a no-brand brand, a minimalist Japanese retailer. Digging deeper into their mission and origin, I found this excerpt to be particularly resonant:

MUJI was founded in Japan in 1980 as an antithesis to the habits of consumer society at that time. On one hand, foreign-made luxury brands were gaining popularity within an economic environment of ever-rising prosperity. On the other, poor-quality, low-priced goods were appearing on the market, and had a polarizing effect on consumption patterns. MUJI was conceived as a critique of this prevailing condition, with the purpose of restoring a vision of products that are actually useful for the customer and maintain an ideal of the proper balance between living and the objects that make it possible. The concept was born of the intersection of two distinct stances: no brand (Mujirushi) and the value of good items (ryohin). MUJI began with three steps: selecting materials, scrutinizing processes, and simplifying packaging. MUJI’s concept of emphasizing the intrinsic appeal of an object through rationalization and meticulous elimination of excess is closely connected to the traditionally Japanese aesthetic of “su” — meaning plain or unadorned — the idea that simplicity is not merely modest or frugal, but could possibly be more appealing than luxury.

I have a deep love and commitment to MUJI. Everything I’ve bought from their store (they make more than just pens) has been high quality, durable, and extremely functional. Also, Ira Glass uses MUJI, and here’s his testimonial: “Lately we’ve been buying Muji notebooks and .38 Muji gel ink pens at the office for this purpose. They’re pleasant to touch and make the world seem like an orderly place.” So you should obviously be sold, because if it’s good enough for Ira, then it damn well should be good enough for anyone else.

Anyway, deep love. I read through their origin story, and their characterization of appealing to a rational satisfaction in their customers resonated deeply with me:

This is because we do not make objects to entice responses of strong affinity, like, “This is what I really want” or, “I must have this.” MUJI’s goal is to give customers a rational satisfaction, expressed not with, “This is what I really want” but with “This will do.” “This is what I really want” expresses both faint egoism and discord, while “This will do” expresses conciliatory reasoning. In fact, it may even incorporate resignation and a little dissatisfaction. MUJI’s goal is to sweep away that slight dissatisfaction, and raise the level of the response, “This will do” to one filled with clarity and confidence.

This will do.

The MUJI philosophy runs directly counter to so much of American consumerism, prioritizing “This will do" even over things that we really want. To be clear, it's a mentality I'm full well caught up in. Part of my consumption behavior is tied to me falsely or over-ascribing my hopes and aspirations to material things—I recognize this dependency is not rational, and leads down a path to becoming the very opposite of satisfied.

In 2016, I will strive for a consciousness towards rational satisfaction, learning to be content with something that does the job and not getting caught up in the spiral of things I *think* I really want. To not lose myself in the tide of maximization of material goods, continuing to buy more things or naively tricking myself into thinking they’ll let me take a step closer to some future imagined successful version of myself who is living her dreams. It’s a dangerous loop. Because I’ll continue to never actually feel satisfied, I will continue to want more things, when really—what I have will do.

And I should just put my head down and get to the work I dream of future katie doing, and just go after aspirations with what I’ve got—rather than making excuses.

There is a cost to doing work that does not adhere to your beliefs about the Web.

Sometimes it’s worth the cost. Sometimes it’s not.

One of the best ways to find great talent is to be open with the work you’re doing. Write about it, speak about it, share the successes and the failures. If you do this, the people who share your vision will be attracted to what you’re doing. And, when you are hiring, they’ll be ready.

The challenge this presents is that doing real workin the real world is about more than doing the best work possible. It’s about doing the best work possible in the context of the project. Unfortunately, that often means compromise. And every compromise you make can eat away at your culture.

I used to believe that culture was simply about hiring the right people. Now I know it’s more than that. It’s also the difference between what you say you are and what you actually are—the size of the compromises you choose to make.

There will always be forces pulling you away from what you believe about the Web. Begging for parallax, for fullscreen background videos, for scroll-jacking. There will always be a claim that prioritizing the user is “killing the soul” of the Web. And there will always be a time to compromise—a time when the right thing is not the right thing.

Just remember, there is a cost.

So, when the compromises come calling, measure the cost and decide carefully. And, whatever you do, make sure you can always tell the compromise from the vision.

Fast sites do not require insults

The snow stung my face after the neighborhood bully shoved me into the snowbank at the foot of my driveway. I couldn’t let my tears ice up: I had to get up and chase after the sheets of music he had knocked out of my band folder. Measure after measure now swirled through the air. He and his friends shouted “Thunder thighs, thunder thighs” at me as I tried to pull myself together so I could go to school.

A neighbor’s mom yelled at the bullies to leave me alone. That’s the one bright spot in an awful memory.

I was around twelve, overweight, and while that was one of the worst times I was mocked for my weight, it certainly was not the first or the last.

A quarter century later, I still struggle with my weight and my health. I also get the joy of reliving that moment all too often when I read an article about web performance.

These are all real article titles:

  • “Don’t Fall Victim to Web Obesity. 5 Preventive Measures to Keep Your Website Healthy.”
  • “Does Your Website Need to Go on a Diet?”
  • “Website and Human Obesity: When Correlation Isn’t Causation”
  • “Bloating Your Code: Why Are Websites Getting Fatter?”
  • “Modern Content Has Made the Web Fat—And That’s a Big Problem for Mobile”

Creating fast sites is crucial to a great user experience. I care deeply about front-end performance as a key component of making sure the sites we create work everywhere. Web standards, accessibility, responsive web design, front-end performance—these are all key to ensuring that the sites we create can be used in any browser, on any device, by anyone regardless of their abilities or the speed of their Internet connection.

So if our goal is to create more inclusive sites, why talk about how to do so with language that excludes and alienates so many people?

I am not the only web developer who struggles with their weight and associated health complications. If you have never had to wage war with your own body, bless your soul. From the outside, it’s easy to assume that being overweight is a simple equation of inactivity plus overeating. The reality is often more complicated and different for each individual.

Strict diets can have temporary benefits, but often lead to long-term yo-yoing between highs and lows. Eating healthy and getting exercise can help, but sometimes seems to have little effect. One person who eats relatively healthy can weigh a great deal more than someone who eats junk food day or night. Stress plays a large role in weight, so insulting somebody for their weight in the hopes that will goad them into good health often has the opposite effect.

Being overweight or not is a lot harder to control than many imagine. The interplay between genetics and an individual’s actions makes dealing with your weight challenging at best. The complicated personal factors involved are also quite unlike the more straightforward techniques that can be used to improve website load times.

It’s entirely possible that those writing articles about “website obesity” give little thought to the harm that analogy might cause. Caring about that is just another type of political correctness, amiright? Didn’t mean to insult anyone, stop being so sensitive, geesh. Just an analogy.

I’d like us to stop talking about “fat sites” not only because that language hurts my feelings, but also because this oversimplification obscures key ways we can make websites faster.

When people talk about websites being too fat or obese, this is shorthand for sites that have a larger total file size than necessary. Sites that load more files than are needed, sites that aren’t compressing files as much as possible, sites hoarding loads of JS and CSS that will never be used, sites with giant images far too large for small screens, and on and on.

Getting our sites to load just as much as needed and no more is a great goal, but we can’t stop there.

Often what’s equally important is optimizing the critical rendering path. Understanding how browsers actually work goes a long way to making your site faster. When you enter a URL in a browser or click on a link, how exactly does a browser fetch HTML and other associated resources? How does it process CSS, JS and images; how does it determine when to fetch each resource from the server, when to process that resource? How is the HTML, CSS and JS parsed into a DOM that can be rendered in the browser? How are server requests affected by different types of Internet connections, particularly wi-fi versus cell towers?

Understanding how browsers work can lead you to improve web performance with techniques like:

  • JS not strictly required for the first load of a page should go at the bottom of your source code, right before the closing body tag.
  • Load JS with async and defer, as appropriate, to move it out of the critical rendering path.
  • The transform and opacity properties are key to preventing the browser from re-rendering an entire page when making a CSS change based on user interaction.

That isn’t a comprehensive list of front-end performance techniques by any means, but these are examples of how there are many performance tools that have little to do with file size.

Other common front-end performance techniques are currently in flux as http/2 rolls out. Minimizing the number of server requests has long been a key performance recommendation. Aggregating CSS, JS and using SVG sprites for icons can all help minimize the number of times a browser needs to open a new connection with a server. However, http/2 will help minimize the overhead of each file request. So once browsers and servers widely support http/2, aggregation may become an anti-pattern. JS or CSS that is used on every single page can and should still be aggregated as much as possible. However if a resource is used on only a certain subset of pages, there will be much less overhead to load those files separately.

With http/2, as aggregation becomes a less useful performance strategy, there will likely be a renewed focus on only loading necessary resources on any given page. I fear that will lead to the all too easy analogy of obesity being used even more.

So here are some alternative analogies to use to describe loading only necessary resources:

  • “Loading desktop-size images on a small screen is like shoving a semi trailer into a Mini Cooper.”
  • “That CSS framework is like stuffing twenty clowns in a car when you only need one to make balloon animals at a kid’s birthday party. Terrifying.”
  • “If this page only needs one icon, and you’re loading thirty-two, ask yourself if you really need to bring the Death Star when just a TIE Fighter will do.”

To use shorter terms: many sites are overloaded, which makes them just plain slow.

You can easily find more expressive ways to illustrate a point about front-end performance than resorting to cheap, moralizing shots at how much people weigh versus how much you think they should.

Making “jokes” about a person’s weight is one of the last socially acceptable methods of insulting a person based solely on their appearance. After all, doing so helps to encourage people to be healthier, right? Just trying to help.

One of the great joys of being overweight is having people coming up to you at a conference to suggest their magical method for getting thin. Just take these pills, worked for somebody I know! Hey, go vegan, worked for me! Hearing that sort of advice out of the blue doesn’t help me. It only results in shame and frustration. Trust me, if somebody is overweight, they know it, and they’ve probably tried every trick in the book.

So don’t think that by using fat analogies you’re both making websites faster and helping to finally motivate people who are overweight to be thin. No, you’re using a trite analogy which has the bonus of potentially causing pain to those who struggle with their health by bringing back memories of countless bullies and personal insults.

You don’t know why somebody is overweight. You don’t know what other health complications they might have, what pills they are taking that cause weight gain, what physical complications might make it difficult to exercise, or what metabolic issues might make weight gain easy and weight loss hard.

A person’s weight is not at all like a website. So find another analogy. Get creative. By all means, work to make the web faster. Just find a way to do so without insults.

Sometimes I meet people for the first time (or maybe the second or third or umpteenth time) and I feel they come away disappointed. With me. I have disappointed them. I was not funny enough; connected enough; smart enough; not enough of whatever enough is. I know that sounds very insecure. My husband thinks maybe I am projecting. Perhaps. Perhaps that’s true in some cases, but I do know there are certain people with whom I do not connect and for whom I’m a disappointment. Of that I am positive.

And in these situations I come away feeling a little wounded, and wondering what I could do, or could have done, to make myself less disappointing, more likeable. I want to be liked. Is it embarrassing to say that? That I want to be liked by people? Don’t we all, to a certain extent? Life is easier when people like you tho’, right?

A while back, around 3am, I lay in bed unable to sleep, wavering between a medium and high anxiety setting, going over an interaction in which I disappointed. I tried to recall everything I said and analyse the point(s) at which I went wrong. I obsessed over it, over my failure to connect, my stupid jokes, my inane observations, my lack of knowledge on this or that, my stilted, awkward attempts at conversation. Then, in an attempt to take a mini-break from the toxicity of my own thoughts, I began to do what I often do when I’m discombobulated and in need of calming: I think about food, a beloved past-time of mine and one of the few things in which I feel confident of my abilities…. A green curry with jasmine rice; salmon with a lime and chilli crust served with mango and avocado salsa; a vegetarian taco with black beans, feta, and a generous helping of chipotle sauce and guacamole; thai salad with peanuts and lashings of chilli and mint and coriander and those little deep fried shallot things; a large bowl of spicy pumpkin soup with coriander pesto and crispy croutons; pan-fried haloumi with lemon, coriander and pine nuts...The list went on. And on. And on. Until it stopped and like a car in reverse, I backed up: coriander, or cilantro as they call it in America...I had heard recently that some people really really do not like coriander. What? Why? How can this be true? Social media investigations revealed that infact, some people not only dislike it but downright hate it, detest it, loathe it. For some it's due to a genetic variant; others have no biological reason per se - they just can't stand it. I saw people describe coriander in very dramatic terms: accursed, a mouthful of burning aluminium death, devil weed, devil vomit, death. They claim it ruins everything; it’s the ISIL of the herb world. There are poems denouncing it, websites dedicated to its downfall and scientific studies into those calling for its annihilation.

The depth of the feeling had me fascinated; the veracity of the hate - be it by an inherited trait or by choice. Coriander tends to feature in all the dishes I love most. I like coriander. My husband likes coriander. My small children who don’t like much, like coriander. My parents like coriander. My brother likes coriander. Tutankhamen liked coriander (about half a litre of coriander mericarps were recovered from his tomb). I can understand someone not liking something; but to HATE it, to hate coriander with such fervour, where their tone changes dramatically, lips recede and they physically recoil at the mere mention of it - that’s haters hating hard.

The thing that struck me in the middle of that anxiety-filled night of insecurity was that coriander is loved, and coriander is hated, but what remains the same is that coriander gives no fucks. In the face of all this disdain, this loathing, of people calling for death to coriander, coriander doesn't try to appease by trying to be parsley, or sage or thyme or basil or mint. It remains what it is: coriander. Unafraid and unencumbered by the haters, it’s there, doing its thing, in the way only coriander can.

Love it or hate it, I think there’s much to be said for coriander. It’s often raw, which takes guts. To just be itself. It's fine on its own, but it really sings when it’s with other ingredients, elevating those it works with. Now, granted, the attributes and platitudes I place upon coriander could well be said for many other food items, but I believe coriander’s different in that it’s rare to find something that is so divisive.

And I find that comforting.

It takes strength be real and true and raw. Especially in the face of disapproval and dislike and disdain.

So whenever I feel my anxiety levels rising over what others think of me, I now try to think of coriander. I try to think of those who love me, rather than those who don’t. I try to remember that nothing is liked by everyone. And in doing so I claim my space. I am claiming my voice and saying fuck yes, this is me, this is who I am, this is what I feel and think. If you don’t like that, then that is your right. But the right to be me is mine and I’m going to do just that.

“You are not for everyone.

The world is filled with people who, no matter what you do, will point blank not like you. But it is also filled with those who will love you fiercely. They are your people. You are not for everyone and that’s ok. Talk to the people who can hear you.

Don’t waste you precious time and gifts trying to convince them of your value, they won’t ever want what you’re selling. Don’t convince them to walk alongside you. You’ll be wasting both your time and theirs and will likely inflict unnecessary wounds, which will take precious time to heal. You are not for them and they are not for you; politely wave them on and continue on your way. Sharing your path with someone is a sacred gift; don’t cheapen this gift by rolling yours in the wrong direction.

Keep facing your true north.”

-Rebecca Campbell

For a long time, I resisted carrying any sort of bag (purse, what have you). This meant my pockets had to do a lot of work. One of the responsibilities my pockets bore was carrying a small notebook and pen at all times. It was a new year’s resolution I made one year, and it sure as sugar stuck, for years.

I was always comforted by the familiar weight of the notebook in my back right pocket, knowing that any idea that came to mind could be captured to paper. Sometimes, it was a turn of phrase or a reminder to complete a task. Other times, it was an outline for an essay or a fully formed poem. The few times I lost a notebook, it was as if I’d lost my wallet — my very identity having slid out of my pocket, left on a bus seat or sidewalk.

Perhaps a few years later, I realized that I was failing to carve out time for one of my most vital activities: writing. So I established another new year’s resolution to change my weekday schedule. I began waking up at 6 every morning (being a morning person, this didn’t take too much to get used to), taking 30 minutes for breakfast and internet browsing. Then, starting at 6:30, I had a whole hour to focus.

Most mornings, that meant writing - whether it was a freelance article, a blog post, a poem, or something else entirely. Never work writing - just my own. One morning was typically reserved for a three-mile run. Then at 7:30, I showered and got ready for work, out the door by 8. I got so much writing done in that morning hour, writing that never would have come to life in my tired, distracted, or socially engaged evening state. This is a common strategy for a writer trying to find more hours in a day, but it was a transformative change of habit for me.

The most worthwhile acts of discipline in my life have been built around the curves, lines and marks of the written word. There’s been no way around it. I've learned that just because something is important to me doesn’t mean it’s easy to find the time or space for it in my life. I’ve needed to put in the work to give myself those opportunities. Because those opportunities make my life more meaningful.

So here we are, my last Pastry Box column. It’s been an incredible honor — and an incredible challenge -- to write for this space every month. In a way, it’s been a notebook in my back pocket, and it’s been an hour in the early morning. It’s been a necessary discipline. And like discipline often does, it’s afforded me a tremendous freedom.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that as this column concludes, we are looking at the start of another new year. Maybe it’s time for a new resolution.

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.

So, how do I want it to end?

I’m 43 now; I’ve now been a legal “adult” far longer than not. I’m starting to see an end coming out there on the horizon, distant and fuzzy, but certainly closer than it was a decade ago.

Time is precious. Time is short.

When you’re younger, you crave attention and admiration. You want to be with people who are cool and can make you cool. But as you get older, you start noticing that some of your so-called friends are toxic. So you drop them. Things that you once felt compelled to do no longer feel worth the effort. You cut free from things not giving you value. You prune down more and more to the people you love and the things and activities that give you joy, the things and people that are worth the time and effort you put into them.

I have started making choices to invest time, in family, in friends, in people who ask me for help, for mentorship.

I put money into causes I care about that, things that I see as investments in the future. The environment. Libraries. Public health. Art. People.

I try to say “I” less and “we” more. (Clearly, that needs work.)

I don’t put myself out there as some “ally,” but as someone who, being a mostly-white male American, is going to make a lot of mistakes when it comes to non-white, non-male, non-American issues, but is going to keep trying until I get it right.

I write. These last two years have been my most prolific for writing. The comments and responses I’ve received from these months of the Pastry Box make me happy that others are taking my little words and turning them into far bigger things in themselves. They also make me regret not writing those years when I chose to work too hard instead.

But time is short. The end is coming. Like Monty Brewster, I am in a rush to spend my personal capital before time is up. Am I doing enough?

I have my own doubts about my intentions. Vain and egotistical? Perhaps. I worry that my need to invest in others comes off as pseudo-colonial, like I’m trying to fix other people, even though I shy away from offering pat answers… or even answers.

But all you can do is keep trying, failing, cutting free, learning from your mistakes, and keep pushing yourself — and others — to be the best possible version of yourself you can be. To be better than you were yesterday.

So how do you want it to end?

“Homosexuals”

“Females”

“Islamists”

“Thug”

These words represent biases.

Biases that I have, against the people who say those words.

The use of these words by someone I don’t personally know frequently and quickly triggers a series of alerts in my brain that make me instantly question the motivations of the person speaking or writing. I start to question how well they understand the issues they’re talking about.

These biases formed out of repeated exposure to people who use those words pejoratively, whether it’s deliberately malicious or indifferently bigoted. And as a result of repeated experiences with and observations of such examples, I am now biased against people who use those words.

I identify them as biases precisely because they are bad biases I should strive to avoid. These words, by themselves, do not a bigot make.

Perhaps the person saying “homosexuals” is talking about it more clinically rather than personally, or maybe I’m reading the statement out of context.

It’s possible the person saying “females” instead of women is a non-native English speaker who just hasn’t mastered the language well enough to also be aware of the linguistic connotations that exist (mostly in progressive spaces) around using “females” instead of “women”.

Maybe when someone says “Islamists”, they simply don’t know that the word is actually “Muslims”, but they weren’t intending their statement to come across as bigoted at all.

And someone saying “thug” could, theoretically, be discussing a person who was actually a violent criminal (or they could be talking about the original thugs in India).

The truth is that as much as I can jump to conclusions based on people’s use of such words, what they lead to is me getting defensive more quickly, and being more eager to respond harshly, even aggressively. These biases, even when they prove to be justified, encourage behaviors and attitudes that I consider downright unproductive.

I won’t get homophobic people to get their heads out of their asses and see non-straight people as people by being angry with them.

I won’t get sexist people to stop seeing women as a separate species by harshly criticizing every single misstep they make.

I won’t get Islamophobes to realize that 1.6 Billion Muslims are exactly as friendly and peaceful as Atheists and Christians are, on average, by condescending back to them.

And I won’t get racist people to stop using dog whistles by badgering them about how racist they are.

The anger may be completely justified, but how I channel that anger remains a choice, a decision, for me to make on my own.

My choice does not have to be your choice, absolutely not. But there is a certain calm, a sense of peace and hope, in consciously avoiding the anger, hate, resentment and harshness I’m so eager to throw at people who diminish and discriminate. Even if for no other reason than to avoid falling into the habit of such reactionary behavior and aiming it at someone who truly does not deserve it, who was using such a term unintentionally, or unawares of its loaded contexts.

With our global communication networks so entrenched into people’s lives, there is a new form of social learning we have to undergo — regardless of our age — to make sure our communication behaviors are inclusive and respectful online.

The online realm has often little more than a name and static photo to represent another person, and it creates a disconnect that disconnects us from the normal human social behaviors that we have (hopefully) cultivated in our lives when dealing with people face to face. When we can see the pain or conflict on their faces when we say or do something awful.

There needs to be room for people to make mistakes, to learn and not feel immediately attacked at any mishap. Establishing that room for mistakes requires a concerted effort on all our parts, for there is no such thing as a moral purity. We are flawed, imperfect and beautiful, and that’s what makes us human.

All of us have the capacity to learn and grow and overcome our biases and bigotries, however deeply ingrained on us they might be as a result of our societal education rife with systems of oppression and subtle messaging that wants us to tear each other apart.

Every step of the way is one where we must choose not to. For that is the most humane thing a human could do.

When I first started designing in 2009, I began as a specialist. I was told by instructors and professionals that it’s helpful to pick one thing and get really good at it. After dabbling with various design skills in school, I decided to specialize in e-commerce design for small businesses. I worked as a freelance designer for a few years and quickly became an expert on designing online shops and Shopify websites for companies who had outgrown Etsy. I eventually moved to New York where I got hired more and more to design marketing websites and UI for startups. If you know anything about designing UI for startups, you inadvertently become skilled in UX design as well. So, I naturally became a specialist in UI & UX design. Fast forward to December 2014 when I had an epiphany. I had been hired that year to do more branding than anything else! What the hell, when did I become a brand designer? In hindsight, it started after I designed a brand identity for one of my UI clients. Then, through word of mouth, I got hired to design more and more brands. And look at that, without realizing, I had become (dun dun dun) a #generalist.

I grew to love being a generalist because it meant no project was ever alike. Some days I’d be branding, other days would be UX, sometimes I would find myself doing interior design or even designing products. But, shoot fire, I still wasn’t 100% satisfied with my client work. I found myself spending half my time working for companies that had values I believed in, the other half was spent designing for corporations, or “The Man” if you will, for the big bucks. Half of my days were spent feeling crappy about the communication and relationship I was having with clients. Many of the clients I was receiving didn’t seek me out because I was the only designer for them. Rather, they were contacting a crap ton of designers and picking the cheapest one. The fact that they didn’t necessarily know who I was or have a genuinely good reason for hiring me meant they didn’t respect me and didn’t trust my design decisions. The entire process of working for these clients was gruesome. The lack of trust was ruining my spirit and in return had a huge effect the quality of my work. Now, pan to my amazing half of clients who loved me, loved my work and they genuinely trusted my judgment. They were excited to work with me, which made me want to impress them all the more. With those clients, my work was slammin’ and everyone was happy.

I had to step back and think how I could reframe my approach to client work to only attract the amazing companies I loved to work for. Maybe I was being too much of a generalist by working with any company. Even though I loved being a generalist in skill, could I be a specialist in values? The short answer is yes. I just needed to attract the kinds of companies I loved working for by saying, “I only work for these kinds of companies!” on my website and social media. The hard part was defining what those companies were. That’s when I made up a new term and started calling them “Happy Companies”. To me, a happy company is any business that is working toward making the world a healthier, happier place. That can either be through their product itself, through their company culture, or ideally both. Honing in and specializing in design for a specific type of company would allow me to practice any design skill I wanted. I found a way to be a generalist and a specialist all at once! Cool.

It’s been a whole year exclusively working for happy companies and it has completely changed my life for the better. Here are some ways it works for me, I think they can be applied to your own ideal type of company.

Benefits:

  1. When a happy company hears about my values and my mission, they know I’m the only designer for them. When they see my work and my website they think, “This Meg person is speaking to my company! She’s the only designer I could possibly hire! She’s obviously an expert in designing for my type of company! I trust her! Everything is amazing!”
  2. Blatantly saying, “I only work for these kinds of companies” turns off anyone who doesn’t fall in line with those values. This means companies who are sucky, bummed out lame-o’s aren’t going to contact me. Everyone wins!
  3. When I pitch myself and my mission to companies, It’s important that I tell them it’s okay if I’m not the designer for them. Rather, I offer to help them partner with a different designer who might fall in line with their values. This works because:
    • I stay in the good graces of companies that don’t align with my values. It’s always find it important to stay on the good side of all humans, because I never know what good could come out of it down the line.
    • It makes the perfect happy companies respect me even more. Knowing that I’m willing to sacrifice myself to provide them with the best possible design is impressive to them. :shoulder_brush:
  4. Because I am a generalist in skill and a specialist in values, no two projects are ever alike. This keeps me from getting worn out on UI design or sick of solving UX problems. Some weeks are spent honing in on brand strategy while others are spent designing something in a physical space.
  5. I get to have fun all day every day. I work for companies who love me doing work I love. What could be better?

It can be really freaking scary shutting the door to a great majority of companies and prospective clients. I get it. But once I did, it actually opened the door to a larger total number of companies. Being specialized in values has made me the #1 person for these companies to hire!

This was going to be about how to better understand your processes by giving presentations about them. Maybe someday I’ll write that piece. But I’m dealing with some other things in life right now, so in the meantime, enjoy this cat looking thoughtful.

Trixie, a good cat with a thoughtful face

All year I've been thinking about what I would say for my final Pastry Box submission. It has been a wonderful an interesting process for me. I've shared different slices of my life. From how-to-style articles, to pieces about quilting, and being fired. I feel like I've been all over the place, and yet true to myself all at the same time.

All along I thought I'd have something more .. well .. just more for my final submission. But here we are, and all I have for you is this:

Somedays, the hardest part of my life is understanding how to be my consistent self whilst I navigate the murky territory of choosing the appropriate behaviour for the isolated situations I participate in.

Remember to celebrate your wins, no matter how trivial others may think they are. I look forward to reading about all the parts of your journey as you navigate your own murky territory. It's a hard world out there, but I'm glad I get to share it with you.

In my thinking and writing about time for this series, I have unexpectedly had to ponder a concept that is much larger, hairier and more impactful than time itself.

You: “But Abby, what could possibly be a larger, hairier and even more impactful concept than time?”

Abby: “Judgement.”

We judge each other and we judge ourselves. We envision perfectionist ideals of what we are supposed to be doing with our time to be on the right side of good. We create lists of shoulds and should-nots that seem unbreakable yet remain seemingly unattainable. We perceive that society and those around us are judging us against these lists as we make choices about what we make time for.

You should read more. You should be eating a healthy meal. You should be on time. You should not spend so much time watching TV. You should take a day off. You should expose your children to more culture. You should weed the garden. You should take the car in for a tune up. You should go to the grocery store. You should go to the gym.

Sound familiar?

The judgement inherent in thinking about time has smacked me in the face over and over. I have even personally admitted (quite publicly to a live audience with data) my own thoughts about how I should watch less Netflix.

The more I think about this pile of shoulds, the more I believe that the first step for many of us is letting go of the judgement we carry around in the language that we use when talking about our use of time.

I should _ but __.

I propose a moratorium on the use of the words “should” and “but.”

When you say something like “I should read more but I never seem to find the time” you are writing off your ability to change. You are telling yourself that you can’t do something when in reality you are choosing not to do it. This also means you have chosen to do something else instead.

That thing that you chose instead may be an obligation or circumstance that is hard to change. In fact, your whole life might be overtaken by things like that.

How many times has the word “should” entered your mind this week alone? How many “buts” have you used to avoid changing something over the course of your life? These words haunt us and change our ability to accomplish things.

Too many people get lost in the shoulds and buts and as a result don’t even try to accomplish the things that they want to. Too many people who have a calendar full of shoulds feel like they are living someone else’s life or that their dreams are unreachable.

The power of could & if

Write a list of things you think you should do. Assign a but to each. Now try replacing every “should” with “could” and every “but” with “if”.

  • “I should read more but I get so tired at bedtime” becomes “I could read more if I made time for it when I wasn’t so tired.”

  • “I should write more but I am scared of the blinking cursor telling me I am no good at this” becomes “I could write more if I dealt with the insecurity of the subject I am writing about”

  • “I should make healthy meals at home but I never have the ingredients in the house when I’m tired and hungry after work” becomes “I could make healthy meals if I created a meal plan and grocery list to shop once a week”

  • There is power in the language that we use, even when talking with ourselves. When we use the word “should” we are applying judgement. When we use the word “but” we are giving ourselves an excuse. When we use the word “could” we are assigning possibility. When we use the word “if” we are admitting our responsibility in accomplishing whatever it is.

    That “if” might be a tactical habit to implement, or it might be a monumental psychological or circumstantial adjustment. Whatever it is, it is a reality you must face if you want to accomplish something.

    You might write these statements and think “I will never be able to do that” -- this is a perfectly acceptable and important result of this exercise. This means you have to work on letting go of the judgment of not accomplishing something you think you should. Carrying around the judgement of a goal you will never accomplish (or don’t really want to accomplish but think you should) weighs you down and changes your ability to do other things in your life.

    Letting go of certain career aspirations might be the key to you actually leading a healthier life. Letting go of being a perfect parent with perfect kids might be the key to having a life outside your parental responsibilities.

    Time can shield us from our fears.

    There is no better material for shielding us from our fears than time. If you fear being unhealthy, you can put time towards your health. If you fear being uncultured, you can put time towards immersion in cultural stimuli. If you fear being a bad parent, you can put time towards your kids.

    Whatever you fear, there are ways to use time to shield you from making that fear into your reality. While time can be used to shield us from our fear it can also be used to invoke our fears into reality. If you don’t put time towards your health, your fear of being unhealthy will likely be realized. If you don’t make time for cultural activities, your fear of being uncultured will be realized.  If you don’t make time for your kids, your fear of being a bad parent will be realized.

    There is no pause button on time. We use every second to either feed the fears we have or shield ourselves from them. The way you spend the seconds, minutes, days, weeks, months and years of your life represents the truth of who you are. The only person who knows this truth is you.

    Take your truth seriously and for goodness’ sake stop shoulding all over yourself.


    This is the sixth and final piece in my year long series about time. If you have enjoyed reading about this topic, sign up for my mailing list to stay in the loop about my next book called "How to Make Time"

Magically viable product

Instead of making the minimum, let's instead aim to make the magical.

2014 was a pivotal year for me. I changed jobs, I stepped up my Sass and JavaScript game, lived away from Austin for a few months, and saw parts of the domestic United States I had never seen before. I never could have guessed that was what was in store for me in 2014. I also never could have guessed that towards the end of the year, I’d have the opportunity to be a part of something that I had only dreamed of, but had convinced myself I shouldn’t even try. In a complete state of disbelief, I responded to an email I received exactly 365 days before the day of this post and I said “yes”. That email came from the Pastry Box Project. I still can’t believe six posts and a year later that Alex and Katy asked me to be a part of this. I read the PBP a lot—religiously almost. It makes me feel connected to our industry, it made me see that a lot of my own curiosities and fears about design and development are shared by others. I look up to a number of the writers, many who may or may not know the impact they’ve had on readers.

But with that, I want to touch on something I mentioned above, and I think this post is the perfect time to write about it. I “had convinced myself I shouldn’t even try”. I think back to that when I felt that way, and I think it was such a stupid idea (I don’t like using the word ‘stupid’ often but I think in this case, it's exactly the right word). For a while I let the open submissions deadlines whoosh by and convinced myself I wasn’t worthy. And that is a stupid, stupid notion. Gosh, if it weren’t for Alex and Katy, who reached out to me, I would have missed out on something I always wanted to do. Now, a year later, I can’t help but wonder how many other things I’ve let go by because I didn’t think I was capable of doing it. This frustrates me now to no end. It makes we want to go back in time in some fancy Back 2 the Future car and find that version of myself and shake her.

It’s a little ridiculous how we convince ourselves that we can’t do something. We’re so sure because we supposedly know ourselves better than anyone else, yet, we’re frequently wrong about our own capabilities. We frequently settle for less, convince ourselves not to do something because it’s easier and doesn’t involve rejection. We become complacent and think we made the right choice before ever having a chance to fail. The interesting part is that is when we fail. We’ve written the ending before writing the story.

Do yourselves a favor, fellow readers: try as much as you can to believe that you can do it. Sign up for that thing you’ve wanted to do. Say yes to the scary, exciting stuff. Say no to the soul-sucking, not exciting stuff. I think of Marie Kondo’s golden rule from her popular book: if it doesn’t bring you joy don’t keep it. Fear or self-doubt doesn’t bring you joy, so get rid of it. Don’t let your own fear stop you this coming year. You may have no idea what your 2016 is going to look like, but you have the chance to actually write it, yourself. At the risk of sounding like a motivational poster with an eagle on it, you won’t actually know until you try. Don’t wait for someone to ask you, but rather seek out what you’ve always wanted to do. Make a list and put it somewhere public, like Una did and before you actually do it, be like Jennifer and convince yourself—repeatedly—that you can do anything. Because you can and should. I hope the end of the year wraps up nicely, and I’m looking forward to what we do this coming year.

Improving The Client Experience

If you work in a web shop, then you work with clients. It can be easy to blame them when things go wrong. But I’ll let you in on a little secret. No client gives your company a big wad of cash and then plots how to undermine the team. They want you to win because it means they win!

With that in mind, here is a slew of tips from 25 years of client service.

Must Win Versus Checklist Clients
Choose who you work with carefully. A client who needs your service to succeed in business is much easier to work with than one who just has an assignment.

Start With A Clean Slate
Don’t bring any baggage with you into the new relationship.

Understand Your Strengths And Weaknesses
What mistakes do you constantly make? Where do you excel? Make sure and have a plan to keep you on top of your game.

Know Your Team
What motivates them? What do they do great? What bogs them down?

Know Your Client
Ask about previous projects. Ask what their fears are. Why did they select you? What do they have to accomplish for this to be a success?

Common Pitfalls
If there are things that go wrong frequently, talk with your clients about them up front. Together you can work to avoid the problems.

Clarity Over Comfort
Always be extremely clear in what a client should expect. Never avoid the tough discussions.

Be On The Same Team
Managing a project is like a game of frisbee, everyone is working together to keep things from hitting the ground.

Establish Trust
Learn who your clients are and what they like. Understand their knowledge level of the work you’ll be doing together. Avoid terminology they don’t understand. Take the time to explain things clearly.

Be Honest And Nice
Always share the truth in a clear manner. Being honest is not the opposite of being nice, but too often people feel that they should sugarcoat or position the truth. Don’t. Just say it with a smile.

Address Issues Early
Unexpected things will happen during your project. Once you know the details and have a plan for correcting the issue, share it with your client immediately.

Keep All Commitments Or Renegotiate Them
Everything is a commitment. From being on time to a meeting to replying to an email in a timely manner. If you can’t keep a commitment, renegotiate immediately.

Don't Overcommit
Always give yourself time to understand a commitment before making it.

Tell Stories
Use your experiences to educate clients about how the project will flow and how to keep things on track.

Don't Rush
Take the time you need to do great work. Manage expectations around schedules early and often.

Have A Rationale For Everything
There is always a reason you do something a certain way or make a specific recommendation. Take the time to explain it. It will build confidence with the client and keep things running smoothly.

Silence Is The Enemy
Clients fill silence with concern. Update them frequently, even if it’s just to tell them things are on schedule.

Manage Scope Creep With A Smile
Don’t shut down a client idea without listening to it and understanding its impact on the timeline and budget. Listen and share the impact of implementing the idea. Let the client make the decision on how to proceed.

Separate The Client From The Problem
When things go wrong, work together with the client to correct the situation. Don’t blame them.

Ask Why
Rationales are key on both sides. Clients who request a change should explain the benefit of their recommendation.

Be Firm But Fair
The client won’t always be right, but they are always important.

Don't Be A Buzzer Beater
Client’s don’t expect you to have all the answers. Leverage the knowledge from the team or conduct research when more information is needed to make a good decision.

Reply Now, Answer Later
When a client sends an important message, don’t ignore it. Reply back that you’ve received it and need some time to think about the best response.

Never Email When You Should Call
If you ask someone to read a message before you send it, delete that message and pick up the phone. Being able to hear someone’s voice and being able to respond in real time is critical for tough conversations.

Own Your Mistakes
When things go wrong, and they will, don’t blame anyone. Own the mistake and the resolution.

Be Thoughtful
Always look at things from the client’s perspective. If you just screwed something up, it’s probably not a great time to send an invoice.

And … exhale. That’s a lot of tips to try to incorporate, but you know the ones that will help you the most. Always remember that the client wants you to succeed and you’ll be surprised how much smoother your projects go.

It’s been a year since Alex and Katy asked me to write for the Pastry Box as a recurring contributor. Wow time flies. Initially I wasn’t really sure how to respond to their request. I was in the middle of a long break in my writing and became extremely rusty. At the time I felt completely uninspired to write, and wasn’t really sure why. Writing was a huge creative outlet for me back in the day (I’m talking 8+ years ago or so), and it was something I really enjoyed doing. But as time went by I found myself writing less and less, and focusing my mind on other things. The less I wrote, the less I wanted to write, it was like a self fulfilling prophecy. But after thinking about it for a while, I thought contributing to the Pastry Box would be a great experiment. By forcing myself to write, in a recurring format, and in front of a crowd, it would potentially fuel my excitement in writing again.

That didn't go according to plan.

Turns out that forcing myself to write didn’t mean I would find something I wanted to say. If you look back at my Pastry Box articles, they mostly avoid touching any real topic and are certainly not up to par with people in the roster (not that I stood a chance anyway). I use to have opinions on things, and was able to articulate them in an article format...

What happened?!

At first, this really concerned me. Why am I not able to share my thoughts anymore? Is it me? Is it a change in our industry? Maybe a little of both? I’m not really sure yet, but here’s my current thinking:

When you write something on your blog you are expressing a finite opinion. It’s static. There’s no room for tweaking, having a discussion, or evolving your opinion. It’s like freezing a point of view at a certain point of time, and then sharing it with the world. But that’s not how the world works. Not our jobs as designers, as we constantly iterate and improve our work. Definitely not our relationships, as that is a constant process of learning about others and yourself. The only way to evolve an opinion within the format of a blog post is to write a follow up, or to constantly edit the original one. Lame. That, to me, is a tedious process and one I’m less excited about as time goes by.

Blogging just feels a bit archaic to me. Social media, with all its negatives, better reflects the way we think when it comes to evolving an idea. It’s easier to post thoughts, get immediate feedback, have discussions, iterate on thoughts, and move forward with them. Sure there are certain milestones worth elaborating on in detail. Thoughts and concepts that deserve expanding on outside of the social media noise. But, for me, they are way less frequent and deserve my time and attention so that I can really formulate a strong case for them.

Who knows… This post is another static point in time, so I might change my mind. But one thing is for sure, I’m grateful for the opportunity Alex and Katy provided me to exercise this idea.

Seeya around the internet, folks.

12 December 2005. Excited yet somewhat anxious, I boarded United Airlines flight 955 from London Heathrow to San Francisco. I was working at a small agency at the time, designing websites for estate agents and other local businesses. Freelancing during evenings and weekends, I had recently started working for a small start-up called Ning, based in California. A few rounds of design later, I was offered a job and now booked on this flight so I could get a taste of the company.

I’d never visited America before. Besides wanting to know how this English-speaking country differed from my own, I was curious about the burgeoning technology scene in Silicon Valley, one slowly emerging from the wreckage of the dot com crash.

While Ning may have been small, it was the focus of much attention: one of its co-founders was Marc Andreessen, co-author of Mosaic and co-founder of Netscape. He and fellow co-founder and CEO Gina Bianchini were building a platform to help individuals create social networks around different interests. This was very much a nascent concept: MySpace had recently overtaken Friendster as the network of choice, while membership of Facebook was limited to college students. Twitter would be several months away from launching.


I was picked up at the airport by Gina and two product managers, Athena and Kyle. Even though it was the middle of December, the weather was bright and warm, as was this welcome party. As we drove from SFO to Palo Alto, I asked questions about the different things I saw whizzing past my window, no matter how inconsequential.

Palo Alto was a small, quiet town unbefitting a global centre of innovation. There were few features of note, except perhaps a British-themed pub, the Rose and Crown. Colleagues would be quick to recommend it, yet beyond a few photos of the Beatles hanging in the toilet and Guinness on tap, its theme was insubstantial.

Ning was based in an unassuming three-storey building, on a floor above a cosmetic dental practice. A dozen or so employees sat in a long room, with a few meeting rooms and small offices on one side. Every spare wall featured a whiteboard, and most were covered with scribbled network diagrams. It wasn’t glamorous, but this space was filled with positivity and potential, an atmosphere I found alien yet intriguing.

I ended my week of discovery accepting the role of lead designer, not difficult given the six-figure salary attached to it. The offer was well timed too: the agency I was working for would close down just a few months later. For the first time in my life, anything seemed possible. What a thrill!


Accepting this job required moving to the US, pending a visa application that would take nine months to complete. Thankfully, I was able to spend the first three months back in Palo Alto, getting to know my colleagues and the country that would soon become home. That this relocation was temporary, and the platform still in the early stages of development, meant the pressure was off: I could relax and embrace these new surroundings.

Those three months passed by quickly. Returning to the UK, I found myself removed from the people I had got to know so well. Conference calls reinforced this distance: a poor quality line meant every meeting felt like I was submerging my head in a fish tank, into which my only contributions could be a gurgled “hello” and “goodbye”. Thankfully, most of my interaction with the company took place via phone conversations with Gina, during which I heard her perspective on company developments — but by no means all of them.

Visa finally in hand, I arrived back in California that September, only this time I was greeted by an over-worked and demoralised team. I soon found out that the company has committed itself to an ill-judged and now severely delayed project that involved white labelling the platform for Playboy. Morale would improve as new projects were initiated (and this one was canned), but the honeymoon was over.

There was some good news. While I was away, the design team had doubled, with the arrival of David, an interaction designer. Theoretically my subordinate, David displayed a wealth of experience and depth of knowledge that only highlighted the shortage in mine. Whereas I would create pixel-perfect comps that reflected that week’s particular product strategy, he recognised the need to take a step back, understand broader goals and build consensus. He was also particularly good at spotting the straw man arguments to which I had become accustomed.

Collaborating with David was a fantastic and valuable experience. I quickly realised that being a capable and effective designer required developing skills beyond the reach of Fireworks. So why was I in a role for which I was so ill-equipped? During chats with Marc at the neighbouring diner, beyond getting his perspective on technology, politics and company strategy (conversations I now wish I’d recorded) he’d encourage me to seek a managerial role. At the time, I shrugged off his advice, not least because I had no desire to manage people. In retrospect, I suspect naivety and malleability were seen as a useful attributes for those below him.

I gradually became tired of the company’s controlling nature, of which these chats formed a small part. I was encouraged to stay in Palo Alto, rather than move to San Francisco. Once I did, it was suggested I use a mobile dongle so I could work on the train (work was never confined to office hours). My blog was scrutinised, the content of posts questioned, my desire to document lessons in this way curtailed or censored.

As my interest in social networking waned so did my faith in Ning. The content of all-hands meetings became unconvincing; the company was floundering as competitors grew stronger, yet its valuation would still increase. Disillusionment, frustration or disagreement were rewarded with pay rises and more equity, the prevailing wisdom such that any problem could be solved by throwing money at it. This contributed to an underlying sense that what I was seeing and hearing was largely cosmetic, my inner cynic only capable of believing so much. At the same time, I began to feel torn between two countries: this one full of potential and intrigue; the other maybe less glamorous, but ultimately where I longed to return, home.

By the end of 2007, the fateful conclusion to this adventure grew nearer. Attending An Event Apart that October, my eyes were opened to other possibilities and new creative endeavours. During the first break on the second day, I phoned my direct manager and handed in my notice. I say notice; having indicated my wish to leave, I was quickly shown the door.

I had spent almost two years at this company, one imbued with my personality: in-jokes (“blame Paul”), recycling initiatives (potato-based forks!) and distinctive design (I dutifully resisted the worst aspects of the web 2.0 look). Now I was shut out, this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity squandered.


While it’s easy to focus on the negative aspects of my time at Ning, to do so would be unfair. I made a number of friends, many of whom I still see and speak to today. I gained new perspectives that influenced my politics and informed my interests. It also gave my career a tremendous boost (during the course of my employment with Ning, I was introduced to Clearleft, a company I would later spend five years working for).

That I feel compelled to mark the anniversary of that initial flight, however, suggests that while the bitterness following my departure has long since passed, questions it instigated remain unanswered.

During a conversation with a friend and former colleague a few years later, he suggested my experience wasn’t typical, and that I should try working for another company in the valley. I felt unable to do so then and still do so today. Had my experience at Ning informed this judgement, or had I subconsciously reinforced it after the fact? After all, there’s no shortage of criticism being levelled towards the valley, whose selfish and inconsiderate motivations grow ever more loathsome and asinine — I’ve been hating on Silicon Valley before it was cool!

Thinking back to the job offer I received ten years ago, I doubt I could muster the same excitement were I to face a similar proposition today. I’m thankful I don’t need to measure the success of my career by how close I am to working for a technology start-up; been there, done that, got the Ning-branded T-shirt, cap and mug. Yet it’s also telling that I should consider this a measure in the first place.

Perhaps that’s why I get animated when people ask me about moving to the Bay Area, or working for a start-up. I have to check myself before giving any advice, saying something like “experience may have clouded my judgement on this”. Visits to San Francisco remain tinged with thoughts of what might have been, and reignite an internal debate as to whether I would have wanted it anyway.

Ning means ‘peace’ in Chinese. It seems I’ve yet to find mine.

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn. —Benjamin Franklin

We learn best when we’re doing. When we bind the inputs and outputs, taking what we’ve discovered on the journey and use it to make things, we internalise knowledge. We hardwire it into our brains.

As Benjamin Franklin puts it: “Involve me and I learn.”

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this series of a dozen thoughts on creativity for The Pastry Box as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. I started in January by stressing that the creative process involves a combination of inputs and outputs. These two sides of the creative equation, input and output, when coupled, work symbiotically.

As I put it when I embarked on this series, in Designing a Mind, inputs are critical:

Without constant input we stagnate. The secret to a wealth of ideas is simple: nourish the mind.

Fuelling the mind isn’t easy, it requires rigour and discipline. Put in that discipline, however, and the returns will be considerable. Your ideas will flow and, the more you apply yourself to priming the brain, the more you’ll see connections in the content you encounter.

Inputs on their own, however, are only half of the story. Outputs – the things we make and share – are equally important:

Our outputs define us. What we share shapes us, as both creatives and individuals. The work we do and the work we put out into the world paints a picture of us, it portrays us in others’ eyes.

Output is every bit as important as input. Our outputs can take many forms: words we wrestle, pixels we push, and code we commit. Output, just like input, is hard work (no one said this would be easy), but it’s well worth the effort.

To grow as creatives, to design our minds, we need to focus on both the inputs and outputs. Marry them and the rest falls into place.

Your life is a journey and, like any journey, it involves an endless series of collisions with new and interesting things. Open your eyes. Open your ears. Be receptive to what you encounter. Open yourself to new inputs and, as you travel, make things and share things. Your outputs, in turn, shape others, completing the circle.

Life is an endless series of exchanges: take from the world, give back to the world; always try to leave more than you took out; do that and everything should work out well. As you embark on your journey, I wish you Godspeed.

In Closing…

If you enjoyed this series of thoughts, you might enjoy my next venture, Tiny Books. Tiny Books are short, sharp books for creative entrepreneurs that explore the design of business and the business of design.

Intended for digital pioneers – creatives taking their talents to the rapidly proliferating digital landscape and harnessing the opportunities it affords – Tiny Books explore both theory and practice, applying theory through focused, downloadable worksheets. They are intended for what David Hieatt calls doers (individuals who ‘do’ rather than ‘talk’).

I aim to launch the first Tiny Books in 2016 and will be publishing an edited version of my dozen thoughts for The Pastry Box there.

Thanks for following along with my thinking, I wish you well on your journey. I hope to see you at Tiny Books in 2016 for more thoughts on creativity.

I've spent the past year trying to write things that matter. But, early on, I found myself measuring whether or not something "matters" not simply by quality of content, but by length. Did I say enough? Am I going to get those ThinkPiece Hits™?

This month - my last month - there will be none of that. Because I only have a few simple things I've learned - and tried to adopt - over the past year.

  • Understand that your job is just a job, and you can love it, and that's okay, and that's really exciting, but it's still just a job, so don't forget to do things you love, too. Nothing groundbreaking there. Or so I thought, as I slowly began fretting more and more about the things I needed to accomplish to "be good enough."

  • Related: stop comparing yourself to everyone else. Every time I think I'm going down the right path, I find someone who's doing it better. What's funny is that I also find people who are doing it just as well, but are happier because they're doing it the way they want to.

  • Love your friends. I guess I never have trouble with this. But, still. Do it.

  • Ignore someone else's platitudes. Like this post, for example. Because you are who you are and that's really all there is. Some emo cheesy bullshit in a Pastry Box post isn't going to tell you how to change your life. So ignore this post and do what you do.

  • Do what you do. JESUS I JUST SAID IT. WHY AREN'T YOU JUST DOING IT ALREADY?

Thanks, everyone. It's been a weird Pastry Box year for me. But I'm thrilled to have been a part of the last one. Fist bumps.

Support women-authored tech books

Looking for a gift for the designer or developer in your life? How about supporting women authors while you're at it? Here is a non-comprehensive list of great women in tech-authored books. Most have print and digital versions available, and I listed the prices that I could find at the time of this writing.

Front-End

CSS Secrets by Lea Verou ($33.99 digital, $43.99 print + digital)

Going Responsive by Karen McGrane ($22.50 print + digital)

Front-end Style Guides by Anna Debenham ($2.99 Kindle)

Lean Websites by Barbara Bermes ($4.29 print)

JavaScript Cookbook by Shelley Powers ($42.99 digital, $54.99 print + digital)

I wrote Designing for Performance ($26 digital, $33 print + digital). All proceeds are donated to various charities focused on supporting marginalized people in tech.

User Experience

A Web for Everyone by Sarah Horton & Whitney Quesenbery ($39 print + digital)

Badass: Making Users Awesome by Kathy Sierra ($23 print)

Lean Customer Development: Building Products Your Customers Will Buy by Cindy Alvarez ($20 print)

Colour Accessibility by Geri Coady (£3.00 digital)

Programming

Practical Object-Oriented Design in Ruby by Sandi Metz ($32 print)

Living Clojure by Carin Meier ($31.99 digital, $43.99 print + digital)

Head First Java by Kathy Sierra ($27 print)

Exercises in Programming Style by Cristina Videira Lopes ($38 print)

Geocoding on Rails by Laila Winner and Josh Clayton ($29 digital)

Definitive XML Schema by Priscilla Walmsley ($56 print)

How Do Calculators Even Zine by Amy Wibowo ($15 print, $8 digital)

Learning Node by Shelley Powers ($29.99 ebook)

Hello Web App by Tracy Osborn (digital + print: $29.95)

Sysadmin

Linux Networking Cookbook by Carla Schroder ($35.99 digital, $49.49 print + digital)

Unix Shells by Example by Ellie Quigley ($38 print)

UNIX and Linux System Administration Handbook by Evi Nemeth and others ($53 print)

Essential System Administration by Æleen Frisch ($38 print)

MongoDB: The Definitive Guide, 2nd Edition by Kristina Chodorow ($33.99 digital, $43.99 print + digital)

Introduction to Linux by Machtelt Garrels ($35 print)

How Does The Internet Zine by Amy Wibowo ($15 print, $8 digital)

Algorithms & Data Structures

Distributed Algorithms by Nancy Lynch ($140 print, $72 Kindle)

Learning JavaScript Data Structures and Algorithms by Loiane Groner ($45 print)

Probabilistic Graphical Models by Daphne Koller and Nir Friedman ($110 print)

Content Strategy, Information Architecture

Content Strategy for Mobile by Karen McGrane ($22.50 print + digital)

Content Everywhere by Sara Wachter-Boettcher ($39 print + digital)

How to Make Sense of Any Mess: Information Architecture for Everybody by Abby Covert ($20 print)

Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose (Voices That Matter) by Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee ($19 print)

Just Enough Research by Erika Hall ($22.50 print + digital)

Design

Designing for the Digital Age by Kim Goodwin ($37 print)

Design for Kids by Debra Levin Gelman ($39 print + digital)

Geometry of Design Kimberly Elam ($13 print)

Web Design in a Nutshell by Jennifer Robbins ($32 digital, $44 print + digital)

Designing Connected Products by Claire Rowland, Elizabeth Goodman, Martin Charlier, Ann Light, Alfred Lui ($43 digital, $55 print + digital)

Games or Native Apps

Game Localization by Minako O'Hagan and Carmen Mangiron ($54 print)

iOS on Rails by Diana Zmuda and Jessie Young ($39 digital)

The Gourmet iOS Developer's Cookbook: Even More Recipes for Better iOS App Development by Erica Sadun ($29 print, $18 Kindle)

I co-wrote the book Building a Device Lab with another great woman in tech, Destiny Montague. (£3.00 digital)

Hardware

Interconnections: Bridges, Routers, Switches, and Internetworking Protocols by Radia Perlman ($61 print)

JavaScript Robotics: Building NodeBots with Johnny-Five, Raspberry Pi, Arduino, and BeagleBone more than half authors are non-male-identifying ($23 print)

Mastering mental ray: Rendering Techniques for 3D and CAD Professionals by Jennifer O'Connor (rent print from $15)

Literal Twitter Bot Zine by Amy Wibowo ($15 print, $8 digital)

Tech Industry

Effective DevOps by Jennifer Davis and Katherine Daniels (Early Release digital $29.99)

Digital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age by Virginia Eubanks ($18 print)

Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows ($12 print)

Founders at Work by Jessica Livingstone ($13 print)

Git for Teams by Emma Jane Hogbin Westby ($42.99 digital, $54.99 print + digital)

Managing Chaos by Lisa Welchman $39 print + digital

Practical Empathy by Indi Young ($39 print + digital)

Lean Branding by Laura Busche ($26 digital, $33 print + digital)

Looking for a gift for a young adult in your life? Check out Brave New Girls: Tales of Girls and Gadgets, a collection of sci-fi stories featuring brainy young heroines. All revenues from sales of this anthology will be donated to a scholarship fund through the Society of Women Engineers. (I wrote the foreword!) ($14 print)

Additionally, here's a whole list from O'Reilly in honor of the most recent Ada Lovelace Day.

The Art of Self-Directed Learning

The title of this post is shamelessly appropriated from a book by Blake Boles. I heard him speak this week, after following his work for several years. Blake is a bit of a celebrity in the unschooling world.

In case you have no cause to know anything about “unschooling,” it’s pretty much what it sounds like. Not schooling. It’s a philosophy of education that says that kids (and adults for that matter) don’t need to be told what, how, or when to learn. And that, in fact, when they are, education becomes non-consensual and coercive.

Blake runs several successful programs for young adults, through his company Unschool Adventures. They range from semesters abroad in Latin America to 12-month Gap Year programs. But they all emphasize self-directed learning.

My interest in self-directed learning began when my son was about two. He was reading by then, though neither his dad nor I had any hand in it. One day he just blurted out, “No turn on red,” when we were stopped at a light. I was sure it was a fluke, but as the weeks went by, his reading continued.

Right about this time, most of the other parents we knew were busy applying to preschools. But when I thought about sending my son to school, I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. He was bright, curious, and not a big fan of sitting still and doing what he was told. He was sweet, but not a people-pleaser. And I was pretty sure that if I put him in school, he’d have some kind of label by the end of his first week — and it wouldn’t be “student of the year.”

So, I decided to homeschool. At first, I was drawn by all of the workbooks and curricula. The flashcards. The audio collections. But when push came to shove, I realized that the philosophy that made the most sense to me was “unschooling.” I didn’t have to make decisions about what my son should learn. All I had to do was make sure he had the time, space and freedom to learn what he wanted to learn.

Our adventures in unschooling lasted until he was five. He needed something more than the Boston scene had to offer. Through friends, we found Sudbury Valley School. Founded in 1968, the school allows kids from 4-19 to control their own educations. No tests. No homework. No curriculum. No mandatory classes. No segregation by age. It was a match made in heaven.

Over the last 8+ years, I’ve seen the power of self-directed learning, up close and personal. Looking at it from a UX perspective, it makes perfect sense to me. Too many students today have suboptimal school experiences. We have a shameful school-to-prison pipeline that targets students of color. We have pressure-cooker academic expectations that drive high-achieving students to suicide. We’ve had a generation’s worth of helicopter parenting that’s resulted in young adults who aren’t prepared to live in a world that’s unmediated by Mommy and Daddy.

No Child Left Behind is being replaced by Every Student Succeeds. But succeeds at what? Filling in ovals with a number two pencil? Creating a persona that looks good enough to get into an Ivy League school?

If we looked at education from a UX perspective, I think parents would be clamoring for a radical shift.

  • We would recognize that “one size does not fit all.”
  • We would respect children’s natural curiosity and drive to learn.
  • We would give our children the freedom to choose what, how, and when they learned.
  • We wouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge that the traditional education system—public and private — is “failing our children and society.”

Ultimately, schools should be created to serve the best interests of their end users: the students. There should be focus groups, usability tests, and a massive move toward creating an experience that provides delight at every touchpoint — from the first day of kindergarten to Graduation Day. I believe that self-directed education is a basic human right. And I wish that every child would have the opportunity to experience it for him or herself.

By most measures, I’ve had a pretty damn successful career. I’m not at “I can retire today” money and nobody’s erecting statues with my visage on them, but only the first of those holds any interest for me, and I’m not expecting it any time soon. (At current rates of saving and investment return, I should reach that state… right around the traditional age of retirement, actually.)

Of course, I’ve written a bunch of books that earned me some royalties, but books are not a way to become wealthy, unless you’re crazy lucky. Yes, you have to put in the work to write the book, but in the end, whether your book makes you coffee money or high-end-chrome coffee machine money is down to forces entirely outside your control. Certainly outside mine. When I wrote my first CSS book, nobody expected CSS to be more than a slowly dying niche technology. When I wrote the second, CSS had been declared dead twice over. When I wrote the third and fourth, it was just starting to revive.

I invested tons of effort and time into understanding CSS, and then to explaining it. Because I was lucky enough to put that work toward a technology that turned out to be not just successful, but deeply important to the web, the work paid off. But think of the people who put that same kind of time and effort into understanding and explaining DSSSL. “Into what, now?” you say. Exactly.

Similarly, when Jeffrey and I set out to create An Event Apart, there was no assurance that there was a viable market there. Nearly all the old web conferences had died, and those few that remained were focused on audience very much unlike the one we had in mind. Luckily for us, the audience existed. We worked really hard—still work really hard—to find and speak to that audience with the topics and speakers we present, but it would all have come to nothing if not for the sheer luck of having an audience for the kind of show we wanted to create.

For most of my adult life, I’ve been keenly aware of the incredible amount of luck that goes into success, and the awareness only grows as the years pass by. Just putting in a lot of hard work isn’t enough. You also have to have the sheer good fortune to have that hard work pay off. You can sink everything you have, money and soul, into building a place in life, only to have it all sabotaged and swept away by random chance. You can invest very bit of your life and fortune into an outcome that blind fate renders impossible.

So yes, I worked hard to understand the web, and to explain the web, and to write books and talks, and to create a conference series, and everything else I’ve done over the years—but I was supremely lucky to have that work come to something. An incredible combination of time and place and interest and birth and a million million other things made that possible.

More to the point, the existence of people interested in what I have to say made that possible. So I thank you, one and all, for all that and still more. Thank you for rewarding and redeeming the work I’ve done. Thank you for being of like mind. Thank you for your support. Thank you for listening. Thank you.

If you forget everything else I've written for The Pastry Box, that's the one thing I hope you'll remember. You matter.

You are a valuable person no matter your race, the gender you identify with, the country you're from, who you find attractive, what religion you practice, how well you practice your religion, or what your education level is.

Your value is not dependent on the kind of work you do. It is not dependent on the volume of work you do. It doesn't even depend on the quality.

Even if you quit your job today and spend the rest of your life on your couch picking your nose and watching Married with Children reruns, you have an intrinsic worth that no one can take away from you.

It is not dependent on how many of your body parts are working "as expected". It is not dependent on all of the expected ones even being present. You can have a chronic illness, a mental health issue, a disability, or a temporary injury. You are not broken. You are valuable the way you are. You matter.

It doesn't matter what your emotional state is. You can be stressed, angry, happy, terrified, or in mourning. How you feel, and how you present your feelings, do not determine your worth. You don't have to smile for a stranger to be a valuable human being.

You matter regardless of what car you drive, what operating system you use, whether you format code with tabs or spaces, what sports you follow, what teams you follow, what your hobbies are, what languages you speak, what cuisine you eat, or whether or not you use the Oxford comma.

No one matters more than you do, because you are the only you we have.

September 11, 2012

Dear Emma,

You’re ten. TEN. I may seem to be handling it well, but it’s making my brain hurt. Growing kids mark the passage of time like a brick to the face. Growing kids and movie release dates. After watching “Back to the Future” this summer and remembering it was made in 1985, I started researching retirement homes for your dad and I.

I’ve never written you a birthday letter, and I can’t guarantee I’ll ever do it again. I’m not the most organized or consistent of mothers. But I can make you smile when you're mad, do that thing with my nose, and outdo Beaker. It’s not like you lost out completely.

I’ve written a lot about parenting since you arrived on set. Most of it focuses on how overwhelmed I sometimes feel. I don’t always like parenting as much we've been led to believe a person should, but I'm not sorry you’re in my life. I love you. And boy do I like you. You’re my favourite.

When you were little, your dad and I went to a church-planting bootcamp. (True story.) There were about ten other young couples, all of us candidates to start baby churches. On our first night together, we were led through various getting-to-know-you activities. One was sharing two truths and a lie. Our job was to spot the lie.

“Parenting overwhelms me,” was one of my truths. Almost everyone picked it as my lie. I remember feeling disbelief followed by shame. I was certain every other parent in the room would respond to my truth with head nods and chest-pounds in solidarity. All these years later and that memory still gives me scrunchy face.

I spend unhealthy amounts of time keeping pace with high-functioning types. While the average person practices a little positive self-talk here and some shrugging off there, I'm hiding under the talbe because I misread a friend's glance.

There are times it’s impossible to believe I possess anything worth offering beyond a fermenting junkyard swollen with anxiety. You know on airplanes how they ask parents in to put on their masks before their child's in an emergency? It like my plane is in perpetual a nosedive and I’m stuck in a time loop putting on my mask, putting on my mask, putting on my mask.

I wonder how to offer you goodness when you orbit a broken axis.

Best birthday letter everrrrr!

I fight a lot of gross in my head. There’s a troll on duty that doesn’t sleep. I’m looking into having her terminated, but there’s resistance and paperwork and I lost my pen.

But you. Emma.

You make every healthy thought and habit and action worth the fight. You are hope and joy and love rolled into summer-bronzed skin and bouncy blonde hair. You remind me that not everything has to be complicated and that other things always will be.

You show me how to sit with happiness and have delicious slow bites of gooey donuty goodness. You challenge me to focus on being me, worry less about appraisal, and say what I mean. Because these are things I want for you.

You show me how to celebrate people. Since toddling you greeted everyone like a moonstruck groupie with smiles, giggles, and running hugs. Even with encounters separated only by minutes. My Little Goldfish, you are a party. People have always said that about you: Emma is a party! And it’s the truest.

You remind me not to vilify my tender heart. You feel the world as deeply as your mama, and I didn’t see beauty in that until you happened. We ride joy and sorrow full bodied, you and I. We get deep in the trenches of hurt and healing.

My angst with parenting is because I'm desperate to do this right. And because I fear I won’t. When I look at you, there is no denying your wonder. It fills a room. All of the rooms. And every space in my heart. You help me believe I’m doing at least some things right. Maybe enough that you'll be okay.

I love you, Emma Kristy Fisher. You’re the most beautiful part of my world. You lock light into place. You're the perfect ten. Happy Birthday.

Love,

Mama

Originally published on Truthfully.

Apparitions of idealism and the ghosts of true self

It's really easy to see why people get cynical, stop caring, shrink their world, build walls, and exponentialize the number of people they couldn't possibly give a flying f* about.

The past year I've just felt this constant beating drum urging me to give up and stop caring. At least to stop caring about so much stuff.

Buuuuuut that's not really doable for me.

The counselor I've been seeing thinks this is a problem for some reason. (Hah, what does she know! (I'm actually quite sure she knows a lot and is probably right. (Unfortunately, I've not figured out how to not think this way yet! (Yes, that sentence could have been written with fewer 'nots' and would've made more sense, but we're here inside the fourth Russian stacking doll parenthetical, so let's you and me just go with it and get the hell out of this paragraph with our dignity intact.))))

My pinned tweet for quite a long time has been: "Never come to conclusions about people. We are all in process. Be kind. I wish to keep these words in my head at all times." I have a difficult time writing people off. Even when they've hurt me multiple times.

I have a similar sentiment when it comes to the needs of the world—something derived from my belief that many problems exist because everyone thinks they're someone else's problems, and few of us understand that our behaviors (or lack thereof) and our privileged ignorance (willful or not) of the impact of those behaviors may in fact be the root cause. And thus, my aim is to remain open to evaluating and re-evaluating what the impact of my action and inaction is, and attempt to adjust my behavior accordingly.

Do you have any idea how hard this is? (Yes, of course you do. I know a lot of you fight this same kind of thing.)

Such ideals are fully irrational.

I know that I can't possibly have enough patience to maintain openness and warmth to everyone, nor can I address every single element of my complicity in the problems of my company, my circle of friends, communities I'm part of, or the world. (I've at least got a good shot of doing it within my family—and that gives me a lot of peace sometimes.)

People are hard. Ideals are hard. Life is hard. Being a person who gives a shit and stubbornly insists on doing things differently is hard.

But what else is there? And is the "else" even life?

I am a person of gut-level values and gut-wrenching ideals. I want to live up to them, even if I know I have no chance of doing so. Settling for less brings me peace and unrest. And when it comes to something I care deeply about, I absolutely can't stand not to do better than my best.

But I also have learned (the very hard way—as usual) that my unreasonable expectations for myself spill on to others as well. (This doesn't make me feel very good about myself, either, and tends to drive me to remove myself entirely from others, eager to avoid causing harm.)

Certainly a big part of this struggle is simply my personality.

Folks on our team started talking about Meyers-Briggs profiles recently and shared a site with a lot of information on various types. I'm an INFP, and I noted this line on the opening page of their profile:

...spread too thinly, they’ll run out of energy, and even become dejected and overwhelmed by all the bad in the world that they can’t fix.

I read that and thought, "Ha! 'Overwhelmed by all the bad in the world I can't fix' could very well be my Twitter bio!"

Anyway.

I've been reading Parker Palmer's Let Your Life Speak and there's this passage in it:

Engineering involves more than telling materials what they must do. If the engineer does not honor the nature of the steel or the wood or the stone, their failure will go well beyond aesthetics: the bridge or the building will collapse nad put lives in peril.

The human self also has a nature, limists as well as potentials. If you seek vocation without understanding the material you are working with, what you build with your life will be ungainly and may well put lives in peril—your own, and some of those around you.

"Faking it" in the service of high values is no virtue and has nothing to do with vocation. It is an ignorant, sometimes arrogant, attempt to override one's nature, and it will always fail. I stopped when I read this.

Palmer says that he spent a good portion of his early adult life doing just this—trying to shape his life after the values and ideals he aspired to and I realized that's most certainly been me.

I stepped down as CEO after 7 years leading a company I founded because I didn't even know where I wanted it to go—I just wanted it to reflect values that matter to me and I very badly wanted to make the people who were part of it me happy. I created something with so strong of a why (for me, at least) that I couldn't even answer the what.

Shortly after the above passage, Palmer mentions the well-known quote from Frederick Buechner, where he defines vocation as "the place where your deep gladness meets the world's deep need." He says:

Buechner's definition starts with the self and moves toward the needs of the world: it begins, wisely, where vocation begins—not in what the world needs (which is everything!) but in the nature of the human self, in what brings the self joy. I have so strongly invested in, pursued, and expanded the set of ideals that I hold, that I've often found myself out of control of my own life in many circumstances, enslaved by my own ideals.

The other night, I was trying to think about the difference between values and ideals—and I think ideals are just values with a good imagination.

I have an intensely vivid imagination. I'm haunted by ghostly hallucinations overlaying reality—seeing the "better" that's anxiously waiting someone with enough courage to release it from the prison of the status quo.

But those ghosts aren't friendly. They're beautiful but harshly critical creatures. It's overdramatic to say it, but those apparitions are sometimes torturous.

So, yes, I absolutely know I need to release some of my idealism (somehow?). I am simply not capable of being and doing and living up to the things that I've wanted and attempted to shape my life around. And I know that somewhere buried under the weight of those ideals is my true self, waiting to thrive.

But I know I don't want to lose my idealism.

A few years ago, I co-organized a conference with Paul Campbell called Brio—and in describing it, one of the phrases I wrote was: "We aim to provoke and sustain your idealism."

I know that others' idealism and dreams always provoke and sustain my own.

I had a conversation the other day with Liz McEnaney, who is in the midst of leading a project and a community who are creatively renovating a massive century-old riverboat which will take New York Cityfolk upriver in order to help revitalize the Hudson Valley.

I talked to Brian Bailey a few weeks ago about his vision for creating a sustainable online community with Uncommon in Common and he said that in designing the community, they often ask what the right way to do everything is—and intentionally choose not to accept the default path posed by most social networks, but reevaluate every decision, even something as mundane as subscriber account renewal and handling failed payments.

It was an absolute gift to be able to talk to Liz and Brian. Like a giant gulp of water for my parched soul.

And at one moment, what both Liz and Brian said echoed sentiments that I've felt: it is extremely hard to do new, hard, different things based on ideals that run counter to the status quo.

I'm coincidentally just finished helping organize a conference with the tag line, "because the status quo isn't good enough." At &yetConf, our theme centered on the intersections of technology with humanity, meaning, and ethics—focused on people who believe the world should be better and are determined to make it so.

We did it because we believe these are really important conversations, and we feel like creating an artistic experience to surround the event will make them all the more meaningful and impactful. We created a choose-your-own-adventure story experience for the conference, had a play that ran through the event, a ton of original music, a diverse variety of artists involved, and a visit to the world's first full-scale nuclear reactor to add some gravity to the questions the conference asked. (The art itself was simply a tool in service of better connecting people and helping them engage with the theme. As someone said to me recently, "Art has a way of getting inside you without having to be invited.")

My company's last event, RealtimeConf, was kind of wild, to put it lightly. And this one followed right in step with that one. But it was more difficult than anything I've ever done, and all along it really caused me to feel more isolated in my idealism than ever.

But why even do it the hard way?

Several years ago, after running a few events, I had a moment where I suddenly found myself saying, "I don't want to just make events. I want to create gatherings that profoundly and positively affect the lives of the people who attend them—events that empower people to change their world and connect them to people who will encourage them along that extremely difficult journey."

Every time I've attempted to do that, it has proven to be one of the most difficult undertakings I have ever attempted. I can say the same applies to the teams of people I've collaborated with on those events.

If you want to do something that goes against the grain, expect to get rubbed raw doing it. I surely have! And it never seems to get easier.

I've received more criticism for this event than anything I've ever been part of making. And, dammit, maybe I should have given up, but I didn't. Cos that's not something I know how to do very well.

A few months ago, I was completely overwhelmed with this feeling and I posted this tweet rant:

Try to do things beyond categorization that are as hard to describe as they are to pull off and there will always be pressure to tame them.

And every moment you'll have to decide whether to do the hard work of defying categorization or just pack it in and be like everyone else.

If you choose to do it differently, you will be—many times—utterly alone and everyone's expectations will make you feel like a fool.

People celebrate creativity and uniqueness when the work is done and the artist buried—rarely before, rarely during.

Do it anyway.

And I stand by those sentiments and that stubbornness.

I don't know how to release myself from the endless onslaught of ideals that just keep hanging around, in my face. I don't know how to silence the ghosts of "we can do better" that haunt me.

But I know that in order to be myself, I must wholeheartedly embrace at least few of them, and hold on to them for dear life.

My mother is born Asian (Korean to be exact). She looks Korean. And she was brought up in a Korean family, in Korea. Pretty darn Korean!

My father, however, is born an American citizen brought up in Chicago. His heritage is European — he is equal parts Italian, French, Irish, German. He and his brothers (from my observations) identify more with the Italian heritage than the other heritages. I assume it is because of what my grandmother told me: that her mother — the full-blood Italian — was a pretty strong figure in the family.

As for me? Well, as I have established in the prior two paragraphs, I am half-Korean, and half white. I was born an American citizen. I was brought up mostly by white people (since I do not know my mother or any of her side of the family). I definitely look Asian.

So how do people see me? Well… a few weeks ago, I conducted some Twitter Polls.

Here are the results from the polls. (If the embedded Tweets don’t show up for you, you can click through to see the poll results).

Based on the polls, it seems many people don’t see me Italian, German, French, Irish, or even more broadly — European. However, when it comes to race, whether I am white or not seems to be split a little more evenly.

So let’s see about my other side:

So… this is interesting. People are more likely to see me as Korean, Asian, or a person of color.

Now of course, there are a number of factors that most likely skew this poll:

  • the time of day that people filled out the poll could determine who is filling it out (what time zone? what country?)
  • how open a culture is accepting of me — from my own personal experience, I have found that some cultures are more accepting of mixed children being “one of them” than others.
  • the order in which I asked the questions — the polls expire after 24 hours and I asked them across the span of three days. After answering 5–6 of these questions, your perception may change but your previous answers are locked.
  • and, of course, I look Asian.

So… Where do I think I personally fall on this spectrum? Well, it’s complicated. When I am asked to fill out my race in a form, I tend to chose other. However, that is not always an option. So when I have to choose one, I choose Asian. Why? Because I look that way. But is that how I feel? No… yes… well… sometimes. I have faced discrimination from it. I don’t know. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

So what is the point of this? When I conducted these surveys, I got some criticism and skeptical tweets — why was I doing this? What was I trying to say? Why do I care? Why should I let others define me?

Well the fact is, I wasn’t setting out for anyone else to define me. Honestly, it was just pure curiosity. And I think these results are pretty darn interesting.

What Does Retirement Look Like?

We joke in my family about how my dad will never retire. It's not that he's not old enough. It's not that he isn't financially able to retire. It's not that he doesn't have enough wits about him to retire. It’s that my dad doesn't know HOW to retire.

In the States (with apologies, I don't know enough about other countries' cultures to comment), there's this cultural plan for everyone: you go to school, you graduate, you work at a number of jobs, you retire, you stop actively earning income. Not everyone follows this plan. Not everyone needs to follow this plan. Not everyone can follow this plan. The last step typically happens late in life, around 65, maybe 70 years old.

When I ask people what retiring means, I usually hear, "No boss!" That's often followed by, "Freedom!" and "Sleeping in!" and "Doing what I want!"

Which suggests to me I'm asking the wrong question. Their answers tell me they are thinking of a restriction-free future, rather than building a life they want to have now.

As near as I can tell, most people's view of retirement is the book version of a segment of life no longer spent working. "Book version" means you have the highlights of the main characters' actions, but you don't know anything about the details: the aches, the boring hours spent waiting for something to happen, the time spent in the bathroom, the laundry washing, the food preparation and subsequent cleanup, or the bathing.

The better question to ask is: "How are you going to fill your days?"

I think about this better question when I encourage my dad to retire. I don't know what my dad would do, and this saddens me. I don’t know how he would fill his days; his days are currently filled with his job and sleeping.

I, on the other hand, could fill up another lifetime with activities. I would build websites. I would go on hikes. I would finish the design of the locking mechanism I've been working on for years. I would visit friends in different cities, explore their areas with them. I would make new friends. I would set odd goals like "eat at every restaurant along this stretch of busy road" or "meet every person I follow on twitter." I would finally swim in every ocean.

When these thoughts come up, and I wonder how would I fill my days, I realize the answer is often, "More of what I do now," which means I’m doing something right. I mean, why wait for that mythical time to come along? Why not start doing some of those things now?

I have a linens problem. I love cloth napkins. I keep buying holiday themed hand towels. I’m obsessed with blankets. I can’t get anywhere near a West Elm during a linens sale. I’m currently sitting over and under about three different blankets. When we moved into our new house this spring we bought a $100 couch off a yard sale group for our new living room, and I bought enough new blankets to surpass the cost of that couch. Because there weren’t enough blankets available for the bedroom, den and living room.

I’ve asked my very busy carpenter husband to make a blanket ladder for storage, but I think he knows I’d just buy several more blankets to store there. It’s a problem really. But being wrapped up in the warmth of a good blanket is one of my favorite comforts.

I didn’t always have the means to support this little blankets obsession.

In 2007 I left my low paying job as a bookkeeper and found a job in tech. That was a life changing pay bump. I got completely out of debt with my first two tech Christmas bonuses. I bought myself a winter coat. I no longer have to wear three sweatshirts to bed to stay warm. I no longer need to borrow an electric heater because I can’t afford my gas bill. I can have all the blankets I want. And I can give all the blankets I want to give. So I will.

This Thanksgiving I ask you to remember the things you do have and if there was a time you struggled in life, remember the things you didn’t have. If you’re able now, give something you didn’t have to someone in need. Or look up your local shelter (people or animals) and find out what their urgent needs are.

If you make blankets, there are local chapters of Project Linus in all 50 states. https://www.projectlinus.org/

I know some people prefer to help animals in need, and they get cold, too. May I suggest giving a blanket or old towels to a Boston Terrier rescue? Cause lord knows when the temperature drops those little buddies shiver like they’ve never even felt warmth. Dickie, my extra shivery Bochi, will thank you for it.

Happy Thanksgiving. Stay warm.

Knitting people are the best people

I've written several blog posts about knitting in the last four years: patterns & open source; learning; knitting in meetings; and even just a general "knitting is awesome" post.[1] But somehow I've never written about one of my favorite things about knitting: the people.

I didn't start with the intention of connecting with others. I went to one knitting meet-up, which was cool (and Cathy taught me long-tail cast-on), but it was in a part of town I didn't often get to. I joined Ravelry[2], but mostly as a place to keep track of my stuff.

But two things happened.

Yarnaggedon[3]

first socks, almost complete
I wouldn't have made these socks if it wasn't for my local knitting gang. Now I've made quite a few socks!

He noticed a woman's bag at the coffeeshop, and complemented her on it, and then she said it was a knitting bag. Or something like that; in any case he is garrulous and curious, where I would've been tongue-tied, so he found out that she was in a knitting group, which met in our favorite weird little coffeeshop.

When I finally showed up, I was nervous as hell, but ended up finding great people and making. I've lived in the same town for more than a dozen years, and volunteered until I was exhausted and overwhelmed, but had found only a few friends.[4]

Like volunteering, we are there for the thing, and I've learned lots about knitting and gotten more daring and more patient with it. But unlike my volunteering experiences, we're also just there to hang out, relax, take a break from whatever else is going on. The very action of knitting is also conducive to chit-chat; the stereotype of ladies gossiping over their handwork isn't entirely wrong.

We all work in different fields but have overlapping social groups and personal histories. We're all a little odd, a little nerdy in slightly different ways, close to the same age but far apart enough to be interesting. (Also: So. Many. Tattoos. I might be the only one without?)

So friendships grow, in small ways, until these strangers become people I'm excited to see, people I trust. People who road-trip an hour together just to go to yarn shopping and have lunch with margaritas.

Conference knitting

Which is like meeting knitting, but fully in public. And when you knit in public, there's a pretty good chance that someone's going to say something, especially if they also knit.

Two things from that: first, we've got something interesting to talk about that isn't tech. Sometimes my brain is so overloaded that I don't want to talk about tech in between sessions, and my introvert self is overwhelmed by the usual "where are you from/what do you do" small talk. Talking about knitting keeps me manageably social; it also means I might end up talking to someone who does something really different in their work. We're bonding over something else.

Then, because for whatever reason[5] knitting is coded as a women's hobby, usually the people who will come up to you at a technology conference and talk about knitting are women. Given the ratios at some of the conference I've been to, it's really lovely to connect with other women. And again, we're not just meeting up as "women in [X]", we're connecting over another shared interest.

So one of my best Drupal event experiences has been a knitting "birds of a feather" session: taking over one of the meeting rooms and knitting, about a dozen women, one or two guys. Talking about knitting, of course: projects, yarns, yarn stores, but not entirely a break from the tech, either. Because we may look like a clutch of middle-aged crafters, but we're all still tech people, and we end up talking about the things we care about, because knitting is a perfect thing to do while having a chat with friends.

sweater in progress
This is what I was working on. It turned out quite nice.

So talking about Drupal projects, our work lives, what we'd do with Ravelry if we could. Because all conversations with technology-minded knitters end up being about Ravelry. Partially because we like to think about what it could do better, but also because it does what it does so well. Sharing your Ravelry handle goes with sharing your Twitter handle.

Because, also, the people that I've met because of conference knitting have become people who are some of my favorite internet friends. And vice versa: I've met knitting people in tech on Twitter and then delighted to meet them in person.[6]

I want to cram in all the amazing connections I've made with so many wonderful people because of knitting, and I just can't. And for someone who is as introverted as I am, who struggles almost all the time with social anxiety, that itself is amazing.

This hobby, that I took up out of a what-the-heck impulse, then discovered that I enjoyed purely for its own sake, has also been a stepping stone out into social worlds I might never have found otherwise. For that, I am immensely thankful.


  1. Eight longer posts (and 2 follow-ups) about knitting. I might have enough to put together a chapbook or something!
  2. Ravelry is the most amazing resource for knitters and crocheters. Project and stash tracking, a humongous database of patterns (including many available for free), and forums of all kinds. Also a great lesson about long-lived sustainable social networks. You can find me there as epersonae.
  3. I don't know where the name came from; they'd been meeting for maybe a year before I started, and it's what the Facebook group is called. If you happen to be in the Olympia, WA area, holler me up.
  4. The local librarians I've met through Goodreads are awesome people and good friends, but they all work together. So sometimes I feel like an outsider.
  5. Patriarchy sucks for dudes, too. I know there are men who knit, but it's definitely a more feminine hobby.
  6. One of my favorite "everyone is connected" moments is seeing someone I used to play Dungeon World with, who knits and studies insects, become connected to someone I started following because of Drupal & Git, who knits and keeps bees. (IIRC, they both also have bee tattoos.)

One night at dinner, my mom asked me to finish my vegetables.

“You don’t know me. You don’t know my path,” I said solemnly.

Her eyes widened.

“What do you mean I don’t know you? I raised you.”

Not to be dissuaded, I repeated, “You don’t know my path.”

My mom furrowed her eyebrows at her four year old daughter. I continued poking earnestly at my broccoli.

I kept muttering "you don't know my path" under my breath over and over. Finally my mom burst out laughing.

"I see you liked the Pocahontas movie," she said, smiling at her stubborn daughter.

To this day, my mom loves to tell that story whenever I see her.


Whenever I feel like I have no idea what I'm doing (which is often), I think back to Pocahontas being guided by the spinning arrow in her dream, torn between wanting to find her own path and the life her father wants for her.

Even though I don't have a Grandmother Willow to guide me, I still have the capacity to make my own decisions and not simply do things because I feel obligated, or because I feel it's expected by someone else. We make our own paths.

Back in college, I studied both journalism and computer science. Earlier this year, I took on a product management role in addition to engineering. I guess I’m into straddling the lines and combining different perspectives, disciplines and experiences. I am still working to balance the two, whatever “balance” may mean. I’m often asked, “What is your actual plan?” I get it, people are curious, and this question actually causes me a great deal of inner tension. Because I really don’t know. But I feel compelled to give people a better answer than ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, so I usually ramble on about how I fell from one into the other, rationalizing my every decision and interest, closely monitoring the asker’s facial expressions to reaffirm that my story makes sense. It’s exhausting.

I don't have a grand scheme, a master plan, besides simply taking one step at a time and focusing on outcomes. Because the work is what matters, not some arbitrary designation of title or boxes I put myself in. By focusing on tangible, objective outcomes that are not pegged to other people's perceptions, I can continue to channel my inner Pocahontas and chart my own course.

You don't know my path.

And frankly, neither do I.

Yet.

For a few months now, nearly everything I’ve done has been mediocre. I’m just barely getting all my work done, and it’s not as creative as I know my work can be. I’m making Bs in graduate school. I skip many of my weekly volunteer days. My house looks clean, as long as you don’t look under, behind, or inside anything. Exercise is walking to meetings all day and 15 minutes of stretching at night, if I don’t fall asleep first. Gmail has stopped counting the emails in my inbox; now they just say I have “many.” This post was due yesterday.

It’s not that I’m busy, because it’s about energy more than time. We all have limited amounts of energy. When we choose to spend it in one place, we’re pulling it from somewhere else. We can do a little of a lot, or a lot of a little, or try to find a balance in between. I have so many friends who do so many things, they feel like they can’t come up for air. Other friends feel like they’re not productive enough because all their energy goes to their family or their job or the book they’re writing. They’re mostly women—in my experience, we tend to put more pressure on ourselves this way. We’re all trying to find the balance, but we all need to swing a little far to the left or right sometimes. We don’t expect other people to be excellent at everything all the time. Why do we demand it of ourselves?

So this is where I am right now. Mediocre strong. Adding shame to the mix won’t help, so good enough will have to be good enough until I can do something about it. Projects will close. The semester will end. There will be new opportunities to say yes and no, and I’ll reallocate. For now? It’s all getting done, and that’s something to be proud of.

The law of the conservation of energy can be paraphrased as:

Energy can be neither created nor destroyed, only transferred or transformed from one form to another.

It’s fascinating to think that the Sun feeds plants here on Earth, and that those plants grow and die feeding other life forms—transferring their energy. And ever since the discovery of fire, humans have been taking the energy given by the Sun, stored in the form of wood, coal, oil, and natural gas, and converting it to other forms of energy for our use. (Go read “The Story of Energy” on waitbutwhy.com for a much better and more entertaining explanation.)

Of course, the implications of this for humanity are scary. Much of the news we read and hear, when stripped of the politics, is about this very thing. Energy. There is a finite amount and we seem to be addicted to its use.

But this addiction is true in many ways, even beyond the global concerns relating to the Earth’s natural resources. As organizations and as individuals, we are constantly trying to figure out how to get more work done. All this work requires energy, but we only have so much. In my past, choosing to work 60 and 70 hour weeks limited the energy I could spend on being a father, husband, brother, boss, friend. Those other roles suffered while I started my company. It’s been a long-time goal of my business partners and I to reach a more sustainable place—one where we as individuals are more balanced in how we spend our energy.

Similarly, I want the individuals on my team to be amazing Web designers and developers. But I also want them to be the best parents, siblings, children, friends that they can be. If I structure Sparkbox to demand an unbalanced amount of energy from my team, I am setting my people up for failure in other areas of their life. This may benefit me as an owner for a short amount of time, but the gain will most certainly be temporary. Viewing people as resources implies they can be used up. Instead, taking a longer view means we opt to see our people as renewable, but only if they are given the opportunity to develop.

I’ve recently hired a personal trainer and wellness coach. It’s been too long since I’ve been as physically fit as I should be. The active lifestyle of my youth has slowed as I’ve focused on my career and my family. Similarly, I’ve found myself fascinated to consider how the limited amount of energy I have in a given day is dependent on the food, water, and sleep I give my body as fuel. Recognizing this and learning about how the body works—what it needs to transform these into the energy I use for work and life—has made a shift to healthier choices easy.

I can already feel a difference. And it’s not just physical, I have a stronger focus on the important things in life and the discipline to prioritize them.

Life is short, and we only have so much energy. Let’s choose to do the work that matters, the work that will last.

You have an opinion about everything. I know you do. I've seen you sharing it on Twitter, and I'm sure you're sharing it on Facebook too. After all that's why you have a Facebook account, right? I'm kidding. No I'm not.

Here is the deal with opinions, specifically how you should share yours and how you should receive others.

If you are sharing an opinion, be sure to back it up. What do I mean by that? I mean be sure to tell me why you think what you think. If you can't do that, then your opinion holds no weight. It doesn't mean that your opinion is wrong, it just means that you're not smart enough to know why you think that way.

If you are on the receiving end of an opinion (read: if you have a social network account), and you hear an opinion that offends you, consider the paragraph above. If the person can't back up their opinion with their own thoughts then feel free to not be offended. A person who can't justify why they think the way they do doesn't deserve your time or concern.

All week, I’ve been exhausted. Like flat-out, fall-asleep-for-two-hours-at-8PM-sitting-up-on-the-couch exhausted. No volume of coffee has been able to prod me into a state of true alertness.

There are multiple reasons why, I suppose. My daughter is going through some sort of toddler sleep regression, prompting her to pad out of her room a half hour after bedtime to declare, “I’m all done napping,” or cry out at 5AM, “I WANT TO READ A BOOK!” Or the 4:30AM favorite: “I have a boogie.” This, of course, means I am experiencing a sleep regression, as well.

I’m also on the tail end of a massive and lingering head cold that knocked me off my game for a good two weeks. Let me tell you, co-leading a three-hour conference workshop on cold medicine (and flying back from said conference while not on cold medicine) are not experiences I’d like to repeat.

I also feel like I am just getting my feet back on the ground after a crazy fall spent riding a nonstop wave of deadlines, deliverables, presentations, conferences, and travel. The feel of a stable surface below me is comforting, but foreign, and I am still recovering my stride.

All week, the deadline for this column has been looming, like a thundercloud on the horizon. What invaluable system or framework have I developed for understanding my work, or the world around me? What experience, be it extraordinary or mundane, has transformed my perspective forever?

None. This week, I have no insights and I have no systems. I have no solutions to share.

Also, this week, everything seems fragile and uncertain. Everyone, it would seem, is either ignorant and crazy, or essential and unheard. Our values, the gravity that binds us to our purpose as a nation, feel tenuous. The fear and tension in the air is amplified by the gathering chill. And the backdrop of descending grey and bare, gnarled branches isn’t helping things much.

This morning, I looked around and everything just felt old and tired, and I wanted to run away.

But I didn’t.

Because my child will sort out her sleep. My body will heal. I will resume my regularly scheduled program, already in progress. I know these things.

And as precarious and unsettled as the world around us may be, we will carry on. We will challenge the ignorant and hold them accountable for their beliefs, and we will elevate the voices of those who struggle to speak for themselves. We will assert the necessity of our values, and we will not stray from them. We will gather together to fend off the chill, dissolve the tension, abate the fear. We will remember that the grey conceals a blinding, endless blue, and the bare branches are busy cultivating a brilliant bloom. I know these things, too.

I don’t have a four-step approach. I don’t have an epiphany. All I have is the stubborn determination to wake up tomorrow and try to do better.

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.

In an interview published this month, Dr Krista Scott-Dixon offers an alternative: The Awesomeness Approach. It looks like this:

  • 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.

Clearing your desk, clearing your mind

A while back, maybe 15 years or so, I was on the brink of leaving my job at Waterstone's Online when my boss called me into his office. I'd accepted an amazing (and it turns out life-changing) new role at The Science Museum. At the time I was excited about the new job but also quite sad at leaving my old one. It'd been my first grown-up role: in London, in an office, working with managers and reports and all that stuff for the first time. But also it'd been an astonishing time - when I started it was pre-Amazon, pre-boom - the web team was me and one other. When I left it was 80 or so. This was big and exciting - and I loved it.

I expressed this to my boss, and he said something that I still remember.

He told me that leaving a job was a necessary thing to do every so often, however much you love it. He talked about the build-up of stuff, the endless entropy that comes with work - how those projects you never quite completed, the emails you never sent, the ideas that never came to fruition - gather around you like dust: a continuous aggregation of matter - physical, mental, imagined, actual.

Leaving a job, he said, lets you literally and metaphorically clear your desk, an absolutely vital part of moving through your working life.

This has remained with me to this day - and not just when moving jobs. When I get bogged down I find it helps to think about where stuff has built up - not just the inbox but also all those places we put stuff to read later: Evernote, Trello, text files, Dropbox, Kindle, folders on your Mac desktop, piles of books around the house, articles pinned to walls, newspaper clippings. When you've found them, clean them, as if you're leaving that job forever. Empty your physical and mental drawers - put a line under it all, and move on.

Just removing stuff, ruthlessly, with no remorse, no looking back, no what-if's can sometimes be the best way to clear one's life and mind.

I ride the 41 bus to and from work in downtown Seattle. My house is about a 10 minute walk from the largest mosque in Seattle, and thus I share my neighborhood with Muslim families from Africa and Asia. So I ride in to work every day with people in every form of Muslim dress: burkha, hijab, simple headscarf, to no headcovering at all.

Sometimes, as I’m riding the bus, I think about my family, in Middle America, telling me of their fear of Al-Qaida, ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood. In my hometown people actively protested against a Muslim veterans group marching in the Veterans Day parade. If they knew I was on a bus full of “those Jihadist Islamists,” what would they think?

Then I look around the bus, and there's one constant: All these Muslim women on their cellphones texting, reviewing Facebook and Instagram, listening to music. Just like every other person on the 41 bus.

We fear “others,” people who are not like us. And it’s not just Muslims vs Christians, it’s religionists vs atheists, Republicans vs Democrats, Apple vs Microsoft, even people who read The Nation vs people who need the latest Kardashian news.

We need “others.” We need them so that we can define ourselves as the right thinking, right acting sorts, even when our thoughts and actions aren’t exactly the best. It’s easy to “other” someone. And each of us, no matter how hard we try not to, does it. We need someone to frame our beliefs and actions against. So we “other.”


Last year I chaperoned my daughter’s class on a nature sleepover trip to a local camp here in Seattle, one oddly positioned in between a housing addition and a golf course. Her school draws from the same neighborhood as the mosque, so you see the same mix of Muslim children in the school body.

(One thing I like about her school is that it draws all races, ethnicities, and income levels. The school ran an auction that drew multi-thousand dollar bids for African safaris and primo parking spaces the weekend before it ran a food drive for students and their families that were food insecure. Seattle can be a homogenous and segregated town; it’s good to be a part of a community that refuses to buy into that.)

At one point one of the boys, a Somali fifth grader that was almost as tall as me, got separated from his nature group wandering the woods; I was asked to get him back to his group.

He didn't know much English, and I'm an introvert with new people, but we did the best we could to communicate.

As we got deep into the woods, he stopped talking and started looking around. Tall firs and pines, birds, ponds with tiny fry and water walkers. And he was wide eyed to it all. I remember explaining water walkers to him — how they move on the surface tension of the water, and it fascinated him that they could do that, walk on water.

So, here’s this boy. His family emigrated to America as refugees from a generation-old civil war. His family lives just a few blocks from my house, he’s learning English, and they’re trying to make due in this cold, rainy, ugly lovely town in this alternately welcoming and "other"ing nation.

And he’s looking at these tall trees he’s never seen before, these bugs walking on the water. All things I’ve taken for granted.

"Wow," he kept saying over and over.


These “other” people are just like us. They live, they die, they eat, they stare at their Facebook feeds on their cellphones. But we forget this. We are quick to call people wrong, call them Evil when it’s their thoughts and actions that are off.

And people are often wrong. Heaven knows how many times I’ve stared in disbelief at whatever wrongness is bubbling through my social media feeds. Bad medical advice. Simplistic political thinking. And sometimes, they’re just being assholes.

But you can call someone wrong without denying their humanity. And you can recognize strangers, others, as different without living in fear of them.

You can grant them dignity, even as they may not grant it to you. When so many wish to deny dignity to others, the most unexpected, and empathetic, thing to do is a simple acceptance that the other person is a human just like you. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, "...whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." Our actions towards those who represent "the least of these" demonstrate how willing we are to give empathy and dignity to those we, or society, judge to be "unworthy" of it.

I cannot say it’s easy. I cannot say I’m any good at it. Sometimes the pinprick of fear comes to me on the bus. But when I see the cellphones, when I watch the awe of an elementary school kid, I remind myself that I’m just as scary to them, and it’s OK, we’re all dealing with our own personal shit, but dignity and empathy will get us through the day. And, ultimately, it will allow us to push back against the terror and fear so many profit off of with their words, actions, and bombs.

From Paris to Beirut: Look For The Humanity

The attacks in three different nations’ capitals last Thursday and Friday were terrorist attacks. Their respective motivations and goals vary, but the underlying reasons why these repugnant crimes were committed by cowardly, violent extremists are largely similar: people are afraid, people are angry, people want a kind of freedom they don’t currently possess.

These sentiments have manifested as violence time and time again, and are found in the history of any religion, and that of the non-religious. The reason for that is simple: we may have built a civilization, but humankind is not quite yet civilized. Taken as a whole species, we’re very much just in the process of getting there, and extremists have a much longer way to go, still.

Violent extremism tends to breed violent reactions — whether defensive or reactionary — and often there are only two ways of breaking that cycle. The first is where one party demonstrates a disproportionate and unbalancing display of power. Given the past 70 years of technological advances in weaponry, no one wants to open that door. The alternative is when diplomacy succeeds in convincing people (however begrudgingly) that violence is not a real solution.

As a mediating effort, there is nothing we can do for the victims, but there is value in supporting the victims’ families, and in preventing subsequent violence from taking even more lives.

There are many avenues that open up after a terrorist attack for people to go down and end up at violence: anger, gravely misplaced, at people who in some minor way are similar to the attackers. Anger at the establishment causing the problem to exist, or failing to prevent it from existing. Fear of others. Feeling like you have nothing left to lose. Feeling resentment and wanting to punish someone, feeling oppressed, and so on.

All of these avenues don’t close on their own. It takes a huge, loving and dedicated support network between people of all stripes coming together to do that. And that’s hard to do when you’re filled with shock, rage, fear, unhappiness, anguish or sorrow. Still, together we do stand stronger, and we are increasingly seeing people coming together in this manner.

Violence is a characteristic found in almost all animal species. What sets us apart is our great capacity for humanity, our humaneness. But for people to demonstrate their humaneness, it is important that they see and consider other humans to be exactly as human as they are themselves. That may sound painfully obvious, but unfortunately it is not so commonplace.

Parisians do not need to be humanized; they are not particularly mocked in diminishing manners across large parts of the world. Muslims, on the other hand, are routinely dehumanized in Europe and North America, to the point that we need more effective rebalancing against it. (Collaterally, so too are Sikh people, and atheists and others with Muslim-sounding names; bigotry is, after all, intrinsically undiscerning about directing its anger appropriately.)

In our effort to stop those who are walking down one of the avenues towards violence, it is all too easy for us to lose our own humanity (in a smaller way, but still). If we go by the rule that it’ll take whatever it takes to stop people from being violent against others, we have failed at excluding violence from our available methods.

We should not treat too harshly those who react to terror attacks with bigotry; they may traverse the avenue towards violence, but they originate from a place of fear. They react with anger and hatred because they either do not understand the complexity of our world, or wish to deny it out of a lack of faith in their ability to show the courage and compassion needed to differentiate between those who merely look like the enemy, and those who actually are.

It takes great humanity to accept that the problem is not simple, the enemy is not a clear-cut demographic we can label as “evil”, and that we all have a culpability in shaping the climate wherein these acts of terror occur. It takes great humanity to accept that the humans who committed such atrocities have gone through a terrible series of life experiences, and that, were we ourselves to go through those same experience, we might not have come out as morally superior as we may think.

We all carry that humanity inside us; we all have that capacity. Even those among us who, through environment or psychological or physical reasons, may not come across as if they do. It is there. In all of us. Human.

It’s who we are.

So look to the humanity in the aftermath of terror. Look to the humanity within yourself. And if you do it right, you’ll be part of the safety net spanning across all those avenues, keeping people from reaching that endpoint of violence, and embracing them with a more compassionate, humane message for the future.

It’s going to be okay.

In 2008 I sent a direct message to Stephen Fry. This was around the time he was very active on Twitter, following as many people back that followed him and replying to questions when he could. He replied to mine! I asked him how he combats writer’s block

He replied:

I combat writer's block by writing a diary, just a stream of words in which I talk to myself about how I can't write. Primes the pump x

Yes, he did include the kiss too. That reply has stayed with me and it's a method I have adopted on more than one occasion. It really does work. So next time you're staring at a blank piece of paper or screen, just write. Anything. Then the words you really need will follow, once the pump has been primed.

Exit-Voice Dynamics in the Tech Industry: How women in tech have had it up to here with this nonsense

This post is co-authored by Lara Hogan, Senior Engineering Manager and Michelle O’Brien, Political Sociologist and Demographer, Doctoral Student at the University of Washington

Lara: My favorite illustration for what it can be like to be a woman in tech uses a bucket. This bucket starts out full, but over time, it drains; like in the illustration death by a thousand cuts, little things start draining what’s in that bucket until we’re running on empty. From stereotype threat to harassment, from having my safety debated online to being asked, yet again, if it’s my boyfriend who codes, my bucket drains. The problem here is that, at least in my case, what’s in my bucket is not a renewable resource.

I wonder, how many of us have daydreamed about the day we leave tech? How many of us have thought about deleting Twitter and being done with it all? How many of us have intentionally reduced our activity at conferences and online, not because we want to slow our careers, but because of what we have to endure? How many of us have left?

Michelle: There is a socio-economic theory that fits this really well. It’s Albert O. Hirschman’s theory of Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. It basically says this: If a customer of a firm (or, a citizen of a state, as the case may be) is dissatisfied, she has three options.

  1. She can exercise voice, and by speaking up, she may affect the firm’s practices and create change.
  2. She can exercise exit, by leaving the firm and going to another firm. In this case, exit might also include leaving tech altogether.
  3. She can do nothing and hope for the best, while suffering the consequences of the grievance or the declining product.

Which of these options she takes is conditioned on loyalty, that is, how deeply she feels invested, either emotionally or financially to the organization.

Lara: I feel that. I think at this point after exercising voice, many women in tech have taken option two: leaving. And very quietly. Every time I see that harasser get a new, shiny job, I inch towards the Exit door. Every time I get mansplained to about Performance, the topic on which I wrote a book, I eye up other industries. Right now, I’m working with option one, speaking up; I’m here to try and make it better for the people who come next. But it’s definitely waning on me. And I’m wondering what happens when a lot of us do leave.

Michelle: What happens in the theory is that mass exit can signal to the ones left behind that there are widespread grievances and that the firm is losing its customers/innovators, etc. This can trigger collective action. However, if mass exit becomes too large, then it deteriorates the networks that are critical to effectively carrying out collective action and exercising voice. So that, if too many people leave, it depletes the human capital necessary for collective action and can stifle voice, so to speak. Basically, if the do-ers all leave, then who is left but the non-do-ers? And then the grievances don’t get aired, and the chances of change are diminished.

Lara: Wow. So what are you saying would happen to the tech industry?

Michelle: An organization facing mass exit can go through a pretty serious crisis because of this. Maybe it goes under. When political sociologists apply this theory to entire states and not just firms, we argue that the costs of going under are too high. Unlike a firm, a state cannot simply go under without some serious fall-out. (Think of the compromises that Greece was in the position to accept with Angela Merkel in the last few years. The Greek state has a very big job to do, pensions to protect, people to represent, so it cannot go under.) So what happens in states is that this pattern emerges between emigration of the highly talented (brain drain) and a peak in collective action.

Lara: Which is kind of like what we’re seeing now: a peak in tweets about women in tech issues, as well as the exodus of prominent women in tech. What happens next?

Michelle: It depends. Sometimes, like in East Germany, emigration fuels collective action as those left behind are struck by how widespread the grievances are, and how many people are leaving. They respond to the signal that mass exit sends. Those who were loyal to the regime stayed behind and protested because they had to. They had so much invested. They wouldn’t leave, but they recognized the damaging effects of mass migration, and critically, they believed that they could wield some influence on the state. Because they believed that their collective action would be effective, they protested. And the Berlin wall comes down at the end of this story. (If you’re getting goosebumps and want to read more, I recommend Steve Pfaff’s engaging book, Exit-Voice Dynamics and the Collapse of East Germany: The Crisis of Leninism and the Revolution of 1989.) Of course, tech is not East Germany. There are no violent crackdowns on protest, there is no Berlin Wall, there are no guards to stop women from leaving the industry altogether.

Lara: So what you’re saying is, there’s a framework to talk about what is happening in tech that could lead to some interesting revelations.

Michelle: Yes, I think two major points come out of applying this framework to tech. First, that there is a connection between women speaking up and women leaving the industry. Second, that an important (and actionable!) facet of whether women in tech choose to exit en masse is the perceived efficacy of exercising their voice in the workplace.

If previous experience has demonstrated that the cost of speaking up is low, and the probability that you will be heard is relatively high, odds are that more women will do what you’re doing: choose to stick around and make the industry healthier for those who come after you. If the reverse is true, however, and the cost of speaking up becomes too high - whether it is because you’re not being heard, or people are getting harassed or fired because they are speaking up - then the equation shifts and I think more women will exit.

Lara: What I like about this framework is that there’s hope that women will identify with something here and understand why. And that regardless of what they’re feeling, or how close they are to leaving, I hope they know that it’s normal to feel this way, and they’re not alone.

Michelle: Absolutely. There’s a role for women who are leaving. And there’s a role for those who stay behind, women and men. If the women who are leaving the industry are aggrieved and frustrated and harassed and have had it up to here with this nonsense - are the people who stay receiving that signal? Are they primed to hear the signal? Or are they shutting down? Turning off the radio? Plugging their ears and singing “la la la la” so they don’t have to hear it?

Lara: So there’s a role for each of us. I want to ask you, dear reader, what are you doing to change the tide?

For some people, November is a time for writing. For others, a time for growing a mustache. For me, November is a time for taking a breath or two.

The first week of the month, my biggest client has its annual conference, an event I’ve worked toward for the better part of the year. After that, it seems that all I’m left with is piles of scrap paper covered in months’ worth of notes, the remnants of to-do lists that have been superseded by more pressing tasks, and an inbox that, even if I’m lucky, still stretches its tail back to the previous spring.

I know I should be prepared for the November slump, anticipate what the future is going to hold, and have the next few months of work already lined up. In most cases, however, that’s not what happens. I come back from the client’s conference with the aftertaste of glory for a job well done, and the knowledge that in a few months everything will start again.

November is the time when I depressurize, when I learn to take my time. I pick up side projects only I and few others care about. I catch up on TV shows. I figure out if I can still play the violin.

Even during busier times of year I try to establish a routine that allows me not to jump head first into my day, but ease into it with at least an hour of reading—and I make sure that not all of the things I read are work-related. Anything I can’t do during those early hours of the morning will inevitably accumulate in several corners, both physical and digital. What I can’t take care of during some more relaxed summer weeks will have to wait until November.

No matter when it happens, the end of a project is bound to be followed by a sense of void, and by the impression that I’m not doing enough. Putting aside the piles of notes, ignoring the incomplete task lists, and trying, even just for a few days, to forget about the minutiae of work is a possible cure for this void, and a way to swat at the anxiety about the future, whose shadow is already peeking from around the corner.

Correlating the demands on, and capacity of, an individual

When I was unsuccessful in a job application a while ago, my mother gave me excellent advice.

It was entirely fair that I hadn't gotten the job. It would have been a stretch, but more importantly, I had read into the description elements which weren't responsibilities the employer perceived as valuable for the position. I believed I could do the job, but the job I thought I could do wasn't the position they were hiring for. My mother's advice was this: "Write the description for the job that they should have hired you to do."

As part of the application process, I'd researched the company, I'd talked to current and former employees, and I'd researched what that position looked like when it was in the context of a different company. Although I'd had extremely limited exposure to the inner workings of the company, I put on my consultant hat and wrote down the rationale for why my dream job should exist, how it solve problems for the company, and what the key responsibilities should be for the position. I didn't write it in first person. I wrote it as a reusable job description that just happened to fit me exactly. In my debrief call with the company to talk through why I hadn't been successful, I had the audacity to ask if I could send them my job description. My brutal optimism didn't win me a position, but it was a very powerful exercise.

This technique is older than the sun itself, but it had never resonated with me. It just seemed like setting myself up for failure to be so selfish; and in moments when I could convince myself that it wasn't selfish, I knew it was definitely arrogant to tell a company what exactly I should be doing for them. But mother sometimes knows best, so I sat down and wrote the description for the job I thought I'd been applying for. It included all of the reasons why my experience was an asset, and all of the problems I would help that company to solve. It clarified what made me excited to go to work each day.

The company was very niche, so the job description was unlikely to apply anywhere else, but it the description had elements which were transferable to other companies. I made the active transformation to someone who solved problems for companies as an employee, rather than an external consultant, and rather than be a puppet who should just be put to work. I gained confidence in talking to companies who'd never heard of me. I told them what kinds of problems I wanted to solve. I grew accustomed to saying "no, thank you" when their problems didn't fit my vision. Perhaps even more fun, I would think of who would be the best person I could think of for each role; I would make introductions when and where I could. (Later I realised I was actually networking and wondered who I'd become.)

I'm so excited with this new-found power, that I want to wave the magic wand so you can have it too. I want to weave a beautiful narrative that results in you experiencing your own transformation. Instead, I'll give you this homework:

  • Nicholas asks you to answer the following question: "Suppose you could design your dream job that you'll be starting on Monday. It's at your ideal company with your ideal job title and salary. All you have to do is tell them what you want to do at your job and you can have it. What does your job entail?" Read the blog post behind the question, it's great.
  • Amye told me once that she writes a one page executive summary for how she plans to rock the first several months of a new position before she gets an offer for the position and discusses it with the folks she's interviewing with.
  • My mum advised me to write my job description after I had been unsuccessful in my application for a job. If you've been applying for jobs recently that you haven't gotten, can you write the description for what you would have rocked for that particular company? Perhaps there are reasons why you're actually relieved you didn't get the job? Write those down too.

Each of these homework pieces ask you to clarify what you are after, and how this will help a particular company to succeed by your presence.

This story has a post script to it. At first I wasn't going to include it, but I've decided it's important. During a panel discussion on burnout in tech, Lorna gave the audience an absolute gem of advice:

If you quit your job without dealing with burnout you will bring your victim habits with you. Please deal with it.
Lorna Jane Mitchell

Burnout is an outcome of a misfit between demand on and capacity of an individual. There are a lot of resources about burnout, but the Velocity panel pointed specifically to Prof. Christina Maslach's work (video here). Even if you have no intention of moving to a different company, I encourage you to go through at least one of the exercises listed above either by yourself, or with a trusted friend. If you're on the road to boredom or burnout, it may just be the edge you need to re-align your passion, your capacity, and your employment.

Sometimes I wonder what I should be when I grow up. I didn’t end up where I am because I wanted to. That was never the plan.

But to be honest, there never was a plan.

...

I am, by all accounts, a grown-ass adult. I’m 40. I have three cats, two kids, and one ex-husband. I’ve worked in the tech industry for over 13 years. I settled into my career as a software project manager pretty early on, a job that didn’t fit perfectly, but was good enough.

At times I flourished. At other times, it was as uncomfortable as a borrowed pair of shoes.

No matter what you call the job, people in project, product, or engagement management roles fall into one of two camps.

There are the ones who enjoy the analysis. These are the guys with the amazingly detailed, multi-tabbed spreadsheets. These are whom I call “The Beancounters.”

The world needs Beancounters. The beans must be counted, for you need to know how many beans you have left. It’s helpful, too, to predict how many beans you’ll use on a weekly basis until the bean bucket’s kicked.

Some of my best friends are Beancounters.

I, however, am not.

I’m the other kind. In my mind, The Other Kind doesn’t have a name beyond that. In reality, the term “proxy product owner” is far too formal, but “experience manager” has the right level of raw emotion. 

Experience managers use every ounce of energy and inspiration, drawn from books they read as a kid and stuff they saw on Twitter and the silent nods they observed in the last meeting and that conversation they just had in the hallway.

They bring this to every client interaction, email, idea, and strategic roadmap. We draw connections. We own problems. We care, and we care deeply. For the most part, we are ourselves.

Spreadsheets are good when needed. I believe in MVS, or Minimum Viable Spreadsheeting. I believe in owning things. Policies and procedures should never trump people and practicality. It’s just common sense, and it’s my mantra.

Put simply, I’m me. WYSIWYG. And removing the “me” from my job, the part that brings excitement and passion and ideas and zeal, is completely impossible.

So when someone demands I do this, I lose my shit.

...

I don’t lose my shit in the classic way. I don’t throw tantrums; I don’t withdraw. I do, though, internalize it. I question what I’m doing. I question my skills. I assume I’ll never find a job in the tech industry ever again, not that I could update my resume anyway, as who would want someone who doesn’t have any tangible skills? I’m just an English major after all. I don’t have a CS degree; I don’t give a fuck about having a PMP. I can count beans, sure. Anyone can.

I can, but I’ll hate every minute of it.

When this happens, I start making other plans. It happened earlier this year, and I had intense fantasies about leaving technology completely. I needed a job where I could show my passion, feel the adrenaline of good ideas put into practice, and help people. Two possible paths emerged.

Both my mom and sister are educators. For a long time, I was convinced I’d missed my calling. I didn’t pursue it in college for several reasons. I didn’t really click with the Education majors around me. I also was very content with my Art minor, and got to spend hours in the darkroom swishing chemicals and even more hours at the kick wheel, throwing pots. I loved my dirty art student hands, stained for weeks. I also loved my intimate English classes.

I looked into going back for a teaching degree. The prospects were grim, and the courses looked costly. I knew I’d kick ass, but couldn’t make the jump.

The other option made more sense. I’d worked with oncology nurses for 12 years. I was a curious scientist in high school; I’d been inspired by amazing midwives during my pregnancies. I’d worked at the local community college back in the day, and I knew that their nursing program would get me a jump start on being an RN on the cheap. There’s been a nursing shortage for years. Pittsburgh has hospitals aplenty. I could enroll in the spring.

And then my tech job got good again.

I realize that those reading this may chalk me up as yet another swinger. Our industry is full of them. We love it, WE FUCKING HATE IT. We’re gonna change the world, WE’RE GONNA BURN THIS SHIT DOWN. Swingers are the “I’m moving to Canada!” of tech workers. Yeah, none of us want Trump to be president. But if he gets the gig, four years later, he’ll lose it, and things will change.

No job is awesome all of the time. But no job should suck all of the time, either.

My pressure to be a Beancounter had been miraculously lifted. It was a combination of staff changes, methodology changes, and overall common sense being applied. 

The sense of relief was nothing short of physical.

...

A few weeks ago I was in Colorado. Go ahead, make the weed jokes.

I was there to celebrate my best friend’s 40th birthday. She’s an event planner in a small mountain town, located literally at the end of the road. Mt. Crested Butte is the peak opposite Aspen, and it’s opposite in every way, from the townies to the snow birds. Yeah, there’s weed everywhere. It’s fucking Colorado. There’s been weed everywhere for years.

(I did have to laugh, though: Crested Butte has no pharmacies. I was sick as hell with a head cold during my stay, and the only place you could get Aleve Cold and Sinus was 30 miles away, in Gunnison. They do have at least three dispensaries, though.)

We flew in for the party, joined by another dear childhood friend, who is a nurse in South Carolina. The birthday party was off the chain (events in Crested Butte are not cheap, and my friend has some sweet-ass connections).

We partied like no one was documenting the whole thing on Facebook.

My nurse friend, Sheri, is amazing. We weren’t that close as kids — we had the same best friend, but were rarely together just the two of us — but as adults, we’ve grown closer. I call her my “Sheri-lama,” for her advice and measured confidence have a calming, peaceful effect on me.

The night before the party, we got to talking about jobs. Fresh off my I SHALL NOW BE A NURSE plan, I asked her how things were going. She works in a pediatric intensive care unit, or PICU, at a large hospital in the Charleston area.

“It’s good,” she said. “I’m making a difference. And I have to tell you about this tool I developed.”

My ears pricked up. After years at ONS, I knew that nurses don’t use the term “tool” lightly. Tools, in the nursing world, are processes or procedures used to place some semblance of formality on the chaotic, often tragic world they live in. They’re used as a way to support evidence-based practice, or EBP.

EBP, in non-medical terms (I was a “layperson” while I worked in healthcare) is a methodology that supports reinforcing practices that work because the evidence, or collected data, supports it. Instead of doing something because “that’s they way they’ve always done it,” good institutions seek to employ EBP.

(A good example is recommending exercise to patients undergoing chemo. The evidence says that people on chemo who exercise have a better outlook, increased quality of life, and better chance of survival. Twenty years ago, this was rarely recommended — why would they tell someone to take a daily walk when they can barely stand up without puking? Thanks to EBP, nurses and other primary caregivers now recommend exercise as part of a patient’s care plan. It’s saving lives.)

“Well,” she said, “I was involved in a sentinel event. It was in no way my fault, but I didn’t know how to deal with it. I was called to testify. I wanted to talk about it, but was told I couldn’t. They offered to ‘arrange a conversation’ [read: instituted psychiatry], but that wouldn’t be enough.”

At this point, I was curious to the point of shaking. October in CO is pretty chilly, though.

...

A sentinel event, I learned, is an unexpected, and preventable, death or serious injury (either physical or psychological) that is unrelated to a patient’s primary condition. For many reasons, the medical community discourages making “sentinel events” synonymous with “mistakes,” but patients’ families obviously feel otherwise. Every year, thousands of nurses and doctors are called to testify in wrongful death lawsuits because, well, it just shouldn’t have happened.

“Every time I go to work, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I send one child to the morgue, then wait for the next one to come in. One time, the patient I got was dead before they got to me. I knew it, but someone else didn’t. It was horrible. So I developed a tool to help us through situations like this.”

My friend developed a process. She developed a tool for anyone on her unit to use. When a traumatic event occurs, be it an unexpected death after a bloody gunshot wound, or the decision to withdraw life support from a 6-year-old child with leukemia who has been on their floor for months, anyone, no matter their rank or title, can ask for a debrief meeting.

During this meeting, they discuss what they did well. They next discuss what went wrong. They talk about how they can improve. They document all of this, and a report is sent out so that others can learn.

They talk about roles; what works, and what doesn’t.

“It happens so fast — someone has to be the leader, calling out meds. We also need a recorder, who tells us how many minutes pass between doses and takes notes for the chart. The rest are the ones who do the work.”

The roles are self-assigned, with staff naturally falling into one or the other. “They’re usually the same, but I’m better at giving compressions to an infant than an 18-year-old, so I don’t always give compressions. It depends on the situation.”

Her tool has changed the way this nursing staff operates. Examples of improvements including pre-assembling goggles (they come from the supplier with the lenses detached; putting a pair together while a patient is bleeding out in front of you is difficult) and ensuring that their “code cart” is unlocked (before it had a special code; putting in this code slowed things down, as remembering the code, and punching in numbers with a gloved hand while a mother screams in pain for her dying child, is also quite difficult).

The conversations about these events occur as soon as possible afterwards, while it’s fresh in everyone’s minds.

...

I listened in amazement. My mind spun with parallels.

“I need to ask you something,” I’d said. “Have you ever heard the words agile, or sprint retrospective? You know, in the context of software or product development? Because what you just described is exactly that.”

She hadn’t. Of course she hadn’t. And I felt like a giant nerd for asking. What she was doing was just the right thing to do. It was applying common sense. It was introducing a formalized process for reflection in an otherwise fast-paced, very chaotic, ever-changing environment.

...

We had a kick-ass weekend.

When I spoke with her afterwards in anticipation of writing this, we talked about agile a little more. She laughed. “That’s awesome. But how did you see the connection?”

“That’s just what I do,” I said. “I draw connections. It’s my job.”

And you know what? I love it.

 

Christian Bale famously lost 63lbs for the role of insomniac Trevor Reznik in Brad Anderson’s psychological thriller The Machinist. Bale’s disturbing body transformation happened over the course of 4 months during which he forced himself into a diet of a can of tuna and an apple per day, keeping himself isolated for prolonged periods of time and going without proper rest. His dedication to the role before filming even began is a common reference point for people describing method acting.

Method acting is a technique derived from Constantin Stanislavski, a Russian actor and theatre director who between 1911 and 1916 used a methodology to train actors in the quest for theatrical truth. In essence the goals of Stanislavski’s System were to portray actors on stage as natural, believable characters. To achieve these goals actors would rely on recalling emotional memories and past experiences to bring those feelings to the role they had to portray. Actors would also use “If” (often referred to as the “Magic If”) to answer the question “What would I do if I was in this situation?” by envisioning themselves in the character's situation. 

Like Christian Bale, many actors in the film industry such as Anne Hathaway, Robert De Niro and Joaquin Phoenix employ the modern day interpretation of Stanislavski’s System — method acting. The method starts before filming, giving the actor time to plan and prepare for the role and leaving them better equipped to deliver a stronger performance during filming with a relatable, believable character.

Don’t think that I’m suggesting that we as designers for the Web take on extreme diets or the kind of psychological experimentation that could be potentially damaging without professional advice. I can’t help but admire the lengths method actors go to for their art. Perhaps we can learn from the emotional investment they make to a role before production begins. Isn’t that the whole point of UX research? We throw the word “empathy” around boardrooms and company about pages to show that we care about the people we are making the product for. To me, empathy has become an empty promise — a buzzword to appease potential clients.

To be truly empathetic I believe it involves going further than a few demographically informed personas that we assume are going to represent real people who use the things we make. Think about the project you’re working on now - how much of a difference would it make if you lived as the person you are making this for? How would they feel using the product? Where does it fit in their everyday lives? My hunch is that we would be able to make more well informed decisions that resonate with those people by diving right into the role, then we would have better tools to answer “What would I do if I was in this situation?”

There is no doubt that with this approach it can be emotionally taxing. There’s a balance and a scale in regards to how far you pursue it.

After filming of The Machinist wrapped up Christian Bale’s next role was Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins. He gained 100lbs in six months and started rigorously learning martial arts for the many tightly choreographed fight sequences in the film in the pursuit of theatrical truth.

We work in an industry that gives us the ability to make a difference. A difference in our lives and the lives of others. Whether it’s providing content on an important topic in an easy to understand manner or breaking the monotony of the day with a fun game for your smartphone.

But mixed with exciting work are projects that suck the life out of us. Let’s face it, there is a lot of boring work to do. Much of that work is profitable, and we all have expenses.

But what if every project could be a passion project? Wait, hear me out. This isn’t a “follow your heart” post. It’s a “what if we think different” post.

The number of freelance producers working in the web industry is growing rapidly. They choose freedom and flexibility over perceived security. Combine this with the thousands of small shops seeking independence but finding comfort with a trusted team. There is a growing army of awesome to select from for your project team.

Companies like nGen Works and SuperFriendly have taken a fresh approach to the concept of a traditional web shop. Assembling independent teams based on the needs of a project versus availability. Normally this is done based on the skills and expertise needed to create a great solution. But what if we add the concept of passion for the project’s goals?

Obviously it makes sense to have people who care about a project work on it. But I’m saying we go further. Find the people who are already actively engaged in the subject matter of a project.

A craft brewery site built by a digital team of homebrewers. An airline app designed by a web team of flight enthusiasts. A Crossfit training site developed by the fittest geeks you’ve ever seen.

Ok, even I call bullshit on this idea. The time it would take to assemble passion based teams would be ridiculous. But… what if we could have one person on each team who was that passionate champion. Not a project manager but someone who fought for the user because they are the user.

We can do this, but we have to start thinking differently.

Let’s start sharing what we care about, not just what we can accomplish in terms of our capabilities. Let’s take the old music industry concept of liner notes and start tracking and giving thanks to digital producers we’ve worked with and highlight their contributions and passions.

We don’t need an elaborate plan to make this happen. We already have the ability to find needles in haystacks courtesy of Google and other technologies. We just need to start dropping the needles.

When you’re updating the content or your website, changing your bio on social media or publishing a blog post on a recent project, make sure and include your passions and hobbies as well as your skills.

Then be purposeful when you find new team mates. Don't just look for the best content strategist, find one that is crazy about hot sauce. You'll be surprised what a difference a little passion makes.

Words don’t grasp the truth firmly enough; they slip and slide around. — William Davies​

I grew up around books and languages. I’ve always had an unwavering belief in the power of words to clear up confusion and connect people in meaningful ways. Over the past few years — as I’ve starting taking writing a bit more seriously — those beliefs have only been strengthened as my editors have gently herded me into saying exactly what I mean.

Over time that belief evolved into something more. It became a cornerstone of who I am. I somehow convinced myself that this is how I could play a part in making the world a better place. If I could only show people how to use their words right, if I could just explain to them how easily the wrong tone can derail any meaningful discussion — if they could just see words the way I did… Then things would be okay.

Words became like math. An immovable science I could understand. Equations that could be balanced. A way for this introvert to bring order to a chaotic world. “Words matter”, I would murmur solemnly, almost certainly to silent eye-rolls around the dinner table.

Boy, was I wrong. Language simply doesn’t work that way. And I can’t believe it took me this long to figure it out.

A few weeks ago I got into an online discussion with a good friend about their words, while they were trying to tell me about a hurtful experience they had. Instead of hearing what he was trying to communicate (no, the irony didn’t escape me), I tried to convince him to be nicer, to use better tone, to use different words. It was the worst possibly way to handle the discussion.

The next morning I woke up — after apologizing to my friend — and I realized that something has changed in me. Something big.

I’ve lost my belief in words.

And then a William Davies paragraph about the rise of emoji, tucked away in a pretty weird article called Mark Zuckerberg and the End of Language, came back to me:

These strategies for circumventing language are examples of what the philosopher Slavoj Zizek has called the “crisis of symbolic efficiency.” Somehow, words no longer seem trustworthy or adequate as ways of representing experience. They don’t grasp the truth firmly enough; they slip and slide around. Best to find some more reliable way of communicating experiences between one brain to another.

This is how I feel now. I don’t trust words any more.

I used to believe if we could all agree on the meaning of a certain word, or the language we use when we argue, everything would be ok. I saw myself as a crusader for this cause, but it turns out I was just being condescending.

I used to believe in words. Now there’s a huge gap in my understanding of the world where that belief used to sit.

For now, I know I need to live with the emptiness a little bit longer. It’s uncomfortable, but I have to mourn first. For my naiveté, for my disillusionment, for the way I treated people unfairly because of that belief. But once that’s over, I hope to fill the void with something else that I’m now convinced is much more important than language: empathy.

I hope to grow strong in my ability to seek the meaning behind people’s words, as opposed to presumptuously telling them what their words mean. That’s where my energy has to go next.

the rothko chapel and creating spaces of intentionality

Welcome, everyone, to the Rothko Chapel. This is a sacred space for all. We invite you to unplug from technology while you are here. Quiet your phone. Let your emails wait. Turn off your camera. Snack later. Allow yourself to be completely present, a few steps back from our treasured works of art. The experience is in the silence.

A few weeks ago, I visited Houston and spent some time at the Rothko Chapel. I always try to visit some museum, art gallery or some place of cultural significance whenever I visit a new city.

The Rothko Chapel is named for Mark Rothko, one of the great artists of the twentieth century who played a prominent role in New York’s Abstract Expressionist movement. Rothko was commissioned by Dominique and John de Menil to create a meditative space filled with his paintings — an opportunity to shape and control a total environment for his work. He created a group of fourteen paintings specifically for this space.

I turned my phone off, put it away and entered the chapel. It’s a small space, an octagonal brick building with gray stucco walls. Large black and dark color-hued canvases of Rothko paintings adorn the walls. I sat on one of the eight benches towards the back, taking in the silence, enjoying the uninterrupted time to focus on my own thoughts. I opened my notebook and started journaling. My mind wandered back to the sign greeting you before entering. This is a sacred space. A space where the rules of engagement were made perfectly clear upfront, and by choosing to enter the chapel, I was committing to upholding their rules.

The Rothko Chapel is a space of intention. It’s a physically enclosed space, but open to everyone and anyone, of any faith or none. Visitors come with a purpose of their own, but the chapel also imposes a set of behavioral expectations on its visitors. It was refreshing, a welcome break from the overload of information I normally experience in a day. A small place to catch my breath, chill with myself and just let my mind wander, completely free of any sense of obligation.

I’ve long been intrigued by the art of physical space, and how the specificities of an environment affects our mood, behavior, and emotions. My space needs to reflect the nature of my work; I can never be productive in bed. I want a large table to sprawl my paper, notebooks, and other analog materials endlessly over if I’m trying to work through a high level, abstract problem. If I have a specific task I need to get done, I sit at my desk in my office — my space for focused thought and execution on my computer. But if I’m looking for some inspiration, I’ll park in a coffee shop and soak up the ambient sounds, observe the way people conduct themselves, eavesdrop on conversations, and just take in the space.

Rothko Chapel was created as a sacred space. A space that emphasizes silence, a space for people to be completely present. Enclosed, but open to everyone. A space to bring people together. It was so refreshing to sit in that chapel and have a breath of fresh air from being inundated with information. How do we translate a similar notion to the web? As creators of digital spaces, we can we be more intentional about the behaviors and experience we want people to walk away from our products with?

If you consider the sort of spaces we’ve built on the internet, by and large, it’s not a great look.

We have far too many spaces where marginalized people do not feel safe, are subject to harassment and obscene threats. Our current social platforms are all about publicness and broadcast. It’s about competing for attention and eyeballs and clicks, saturating people with things demanding their attention. Nothing is sacred.

If we impose some rules, some constraints from the beginning, can we help create social norms rather than letting conventions evolve wholly organically?

Space informs a particular posture, to borrow a concept from Matt Thompson and Robin Sloan. There’s a spectra of posture to think about when you consider how you want to fit into people’s lives. What’s the posture in which you want someone to consume something? Is it lean forward or lean back? Stand up and walk around? Curl up or scrunch forward?

Consider a movie theater. Dark room, surrounded by Dolby 5.0 sound, sitting upright facing the front. The very act of facing forward creates a distinct form for how we receive storytelling.

We’re constantly chasing what posture an audience is in, trying to reach them at the best moments and push relevant information to them. What about the opposite dynamic— where we create an intentional space, meant for a specific posture (which encompasses everything from mood to time of day, from weather to a person’s physical state), and simply let people come to the space on their own terms? And make these intentions very clear upfront, so people can judge for themselves whether they’re in or willing to get themselves into the right frame of mind to enter.

Let’s bring some of the intentionality of Rothko Chapel—an experience rooted in silence and being completely present—to the spaces we build and create on the web.

While we teach, we learn. —Seneca

Process matters. How we arrived at a destination is as important as the destination itself. (On occasion, I believe it’s more important.)

All too often, we have a tendency to focus on the finished product. What worked? What didn’t? Our focus on endpoints. I believe if we look a little more at the process – how we arrived at a solution, why we made the decisions we made – we might gain deeper insights.

The journey you took to get from A to B can often be the most interesting and insightful part of the creative process. That journey, if it (as it should) involves diverging and converging, is certain to reveal pathways not taken, possible routes unexplored.

Destinations are important, but journeys are often filled with opportunities, paths you didn’t take, which – at some point in the future – may afford their own potential. Spending some time after a project has reached its conclusion to think retrospectively about the process you used can improve you as a designer.

I love process posts, they offer an opportunity for others to learn, but – equally importantly – they offer you an opportunity to learn. To explain a process is to truly understand it.

Moving Brands’ wonderful Wikipedia Rebrand, a hypothetical rebrand for Viewport Magazine’s Brand Lab, results in an elegant, minimal brand, which belies its complexity. The end result is lovely, but the journey the studio shares has – for me – considerably greater value.

I use this case study, every year in week one, to show my incoming Interaction Design students how a typical design process might unfold. I use it to investigate the potential avenues a project might take and to underline that the destination reached is often just one of what might have been many other, alternative destinations.

Getting From A to B

Moving Brands’ Wikipedia Rebrand is about getting from A to B. It’s about the journey taken and how that journey might result in different destinations being reached. As interesting as the end result are the ideas that lay (sadly) discarded on the drawing board. In each of these unexplored ideas lies potential.

I’m fortunate to work with some incredibly talented students. Those that apply themselves find themselves making many, many journeys. These journeys - both short-term journeys on individual projects and long-term journeys as they move from one year to the next – are filled with potential.

I feel lucky to have a chance to nurture others’ journeys. I feel equally fortunate to get to see inside my students’ minds. At the end of the semester, when I’m marking the work, I find myself drawn to sketchbooks as much as the ‘finished work’. In the sketchbooks – filled with process – I can see the decisions reached and, equally importantly, the avenues that remained unexplored.

In each of these sketchbooks lies the potential to create case studies, thoughtful investigations – post-project – to share lessons learned. You don’t need to be a student to do this, however, anyone can share their process and in so doing create value. Why not take a project, break it down and share what you learned? I guarantee you’ll be thanked for having the courage to do so.

Often the only thing holding us back from sharing our process – drawing back the curtain and exposing the inner workings – is fear: fear of being judged; fear of failing; fear of so many things…. Forget fear. Be the one who throws open the studio door and shares the story.

Learning Through Teaching

The best thing about being an educator is the huge amount you learn along the way. There is no better way to learn something – to truly and deeply understand it – than by teaching it.

Anyone can be an educator, even students, all it takes is a willingness to learn and to share. Scientific studies have shown that those involved in teaching learn the material they subsequently share, more deeply. As Annie Murphy Paul puts it in The Protégé Effect:

Students enlisted to tutor others, researchers found, work harder to understand the material, recall it more accurately and apply it more effectively. In what scientists have dubbed ‘the protégé effect’, student teachers score higher on tests than pupils who are learning only for their own sake.

Learning in order to teach leads to deeper understanding. One way to do this is to share your process with others. This benefits everyone, those sharing and those learning.

Explaining your process to others forces you to break it down, to really unpack it, identifying the key decisions you made along the way. It affords an opportunity to revisit and question those decisions. If undertaken at the end of a project, as a means to reflect, it allows lessons to be learned that might apply to future projects.

Sharing the lessons you learn with others, putting yourself in the mind of a beginner, allows you to grow as a creative, reaping the rewards of teaching as learning.

Teaching can take multiple forms. Some of the best teachers I know aren’t in traditional classrooms, instead they’re exploring new ways to facilitate learning, and growing, themselves, in the process.

The classroom of the future…

We’re entering an age of the global classroom, connected, with participants scattered around the world. Thanks to the web we’re beginning to question long-held paradigms about education and how it might function. We’re finding new ways to spread knowledge. It’s an exciting time to be sharing.

In a world where anyone teach a Skillshare class (no teaching qualification required) education has changed, fundamentally. Pandora’s Box has been opened and there’s no going back. The web, with its ever-evolving potential, allows anyone to become an educator, which changes the educational landscape considerably.

You don’t need to run a Skillshare class to reap the rewards of learning though teaching, you might just share an insight to your process. One case study is all it takes to get the ball rolling and I guarantee that one case study will educate you, considerably. (Even better, it will help others.)

There’s a sizeable (and growing) audience out there that wants to learn. Why not be the one to teach that audience? As Austin Kleon puts it in his excellent book, Show Your Work!:

Think about what you want to learn, and make a commitment to learning it in front of others.

Pay attention to what others are sharing, and then start taking note of what they’re not sharing. Be on the lookout for voids that you can fill with your own efforts. Share what you love, and the people who love the same things will find you.

Share your work.

If you want to grow as a creative, take the plunge and share the story behind something you designed or built. Play to your strengths and enjoy the process of sharing process. The process will repay you many times over.

In Closing…

Process matters as much as outcome. Often the journey you’ve taken is as interesting, if not more interesting, than the destination you’ve reached. Opening up and sharing your process allows you to learn lessons retrospectively and affords an opportunity to learn deeply.

I’m looking forward next month to taking the final step in this year long journey. I’ll be exploring the idea, touched on briefly here, that life is a journey and one we should always be learning on. See you in a month for the final step of the journey.

Five hundred pages into a content audit, I had a laundry list of things we could to to make the redesign work. My client - a mid-Atlantic university - was angling for a new CMS and a new redesign, and I had spelled out some standard content updates. But I was still searching for that one punch. That one out-of-this-world idea. That one thing that would make the process seem legitimate.

What I didn't know was that the out-of-this-world idea was already on the page. Every meeting brought up the same pain points - events were created in multiple locations to serve different audiences, and news items needed to be copy and pasted across each department. I had dove deep looking for complex changes to their governance model and personalization opportunities, and here I was finding out that neither one was even necessary.

They just needed a calendar that worked.

The perception of what I think I know and what I actually know is the most frustrating thing I've encountered as a web consultant. I go into every situation convinced that I'm going to be no help - that I'm preaching to the choir, my ideas old hat. I fall into the trap of assuming that because I have the confidence to make a suggestion, that they already know that answer.

But that answer? It's not always the answer I expect.

I forget that sometimes my value isn't in ideas, but from being an outside source who can back up my client's ideas.

I forget that sometimes we're both looking for answers, and my experience in finding answers is more valuable than whether or not I know the answer.

And then sometimes the answer is so obvious to me that I forget how it's not obvious at all. For a bit, I feel better. For a bit, I know I'm actually helping. For a bit, I can look past the next 500-page audit, the next list of answers, the next pang of forgetfulness.

I have a love/hate relationship with gratitude. It’s the raison d’etre of my favorite holiday. It’s 1/3 of Ann Lamott’s foolproof trinity of prayers. And, research shows that it can do all kinds of things for you.

It makes you happier, boosting positive emotions like joy, pleasure, and optimism. It strengthens your immune system and lowers your blood pressure. It helps you sleep better. It makes you resilient in the face of trauma. And it also makes you more compassionate. (Ask a scientist!)

There’s no doubt about it. Gratitude is awesome. It’s life changing. It’s magic, if you ask Rhonda Byrne. And yet, every November 1st, I brace myself for the month-long onslaught of hash-tagged blessings — the cornucopia of humble-brags disguised as heartfelt expressions of thankfulness.

Don’t get me wrong. Over the past six months I’ve worked hard to develop a gratitude “practice.” I write a gratitude list every morning while I drink my coffee. And every night before I go to sleep, I think back over my day, pick the best thing that happened, and say “thank you.”

Actively cultivating an “attitude of gratitude,” is nothing new. Over 400 years ago, St. Ignatius of Loyola came up with he called the daily examen. This daily practice of prayerful mindfulness includes reviewing the events of your day with gratitude. The Buddhist practice of Naikan asks us to reflect on the past 24 hours of our lives and ask ourselves these three questions:

  • What have I received?
  • What have I given?
  • What difficulties have I caused?

Notice what’s missing? Neither one of these practices includes a step that says, “Tell everybody around you what you’re grateful for.” They’re deeply personal contemplative practices. They’re not about making sure everybody else knows how thankful you are. They’re about making sure that you see all that you have to be thankful for.

Gratitude has become a spectator sport. And November is its month in the social media spotlight. But I suppose I should be thankful. Come December it will be replaced by the just-plain-creepy Elf on a Shelf.

You work in Enterprise Software. You work in Design.

Your goal is simple: please your client.

Who is your client?

Your client is the user.

Your client is not the business client, product owner, project owner, or whatever your company has titled them who brings you an idea, a project, and a budget. You and that person are a team with a single goal: make life better for the user, so they give the company more money. Your product owner might think they're the client. You might even need to stroke their ego and pretend they're the client. They're certainly a powerful stakeholder that holds the purse-strings to this specific project. You need to work with them.

But if the project fails to deliver what the user needs, it's not the product owner who suffers, it's your user.

Your client is not your boss. (It's not your boss's boss either.) Your boss probably also wants to think that they're the client. They give direction and advice about what the managerial branches of the company want to have happen. They provide constraints, identify (and hopefully clear) impediments, measure your performance, and quite possibly decide your bonus or raise.

But if your performance doesn't positively impact your user, you've failed your client.

Your client is not the Executive Management Team although they certainly think they've got a say in the matter. They set direction for the entire company, deciding what large scale initiatives are going to entice the user to give the company more money, and deciding how that money's going to be spent. You must understand the direction of the company to see forward far enough to understand how it will affect the user. You must also know how to speak concisely and clearly enough that the Executives understand your user's pain. If that means data, bring it. If it means persuasion, join Toastmasters.

But if the company fails to respect the user, no matter what the vision, the user will fail to respect the company -- and seek out those companies they can respect.

Your client is absolutely not the Owner. I don't care whether the company is individually-owned, family-owned, private stock, public stock, or employee-owned. Those people paid a single price for a product - the company - and they are reaping the rewards of their investment. That's a good thing; most of us would not have jobs if we didn't collectively invest in each others dreams. And yes, your executives' vision is tied to pleasing the owners, and yes, your boss and your product owner's raises and bonuses are tied to pleasing the executives, and yours is too, and what the owners really want is more profit from their investment.

But if the company fails to create what the user needs, the user takes their money elsewhere.

That tends to have a negative impact on stock price.

Your client is none of these very valuable people without which the company could not run.

Your client is the user.

Your client might be the Randolph who is buying a roasted ham he researched on the website you designed so he can take it home to his kids for supper.

Your client might be Jane in Procurement using a B2B portal you designed so that she can buy the factory machines necessary to spice a ham for Randolph.

Your client might be Tanisha, who is using the application you built to design the marketing materials Jane looks at to buy the equipment needed to make Randolph's ham.

Your client might be Jose in customer service whose job it is to use the internal software you designed to provide Tanisha with technical support.

Your client might be your boss who uses the intranet site you built her to discuss better management practices with other team leaders.

Every step is a client who needs a product or service. Every step is a UX Designer building that product or service. Every step is bringing a user closer to a goal. It's clients all the way down.

But not up.

When you need to find the person you work for, the one to whom you owe your allegiance, it's not the folks who rank above you, it's the ones who you serve.

The people above you are there to guide you, assist you, pay you, and join you in serving your client. And like all teams, you must work together to accomplish your goals.

Your goal is simple: please your client.

If there’s one thing that’s made it possible for me to learn as much as I have, and create as much as I have, it’s that my default attitude about things, especially technical things, is that I’m probably wrong about them.

When I first took up CSS and it didn’t do what I expected from reading the spec, I started creating simple, focused tests of each property and its values, to figure out what I was getting wrong. Because I wanted to be sure, I built tests for all the properties, even the ones I was confident about understanding—and, in places, found out my confidence was misplaced. Eventually, those tests became the CSS1 Test Suite. Since I had discovered that, in a lot of cases, the browsers were actually wrong, I decided to document CSS support in browsers. That became the CSS Mastergrid (long since gone). On the strength of that resource, I started writing articles to explain how things worked, or didn’t, which led to writing my first book. And so on.

But it all started because I assumed I was wrong about how CSS should work, not that the browsers were fundamentally broken. Simple test cases seemed like the best way to find out. One thing led to another. In a lot of ways, you could say that my career was made possible by me assuming I was wrong, and setting out to determine exactly how wrong I was.

It’s not that I want to be wrong; in fact, I dislike being wrong. But I dislike continuing to be wrong much more, so I try to find out how I’m wrong, in hopes of becoming less wrong. It’s not even “strong opinions, weakly held”—it’s more “strong suspicion of error, strongly pursued”. In public, when necessary. (This is where it helps to be willing to look like a dork, or even a fool, as Kitt wrote about yesterday.)

When asking for help, this is the approach I take. When I post to mailing lists or forums, it usually comes out as, “Here’s what I think is so, but results don’t match that understanding. What am I missing? Please help me get it right.”

How am I wrong? Because I’m probably wrong.

Okay, after I don't know how many years, I think I may have figured out the trick, the secret, the thing NO ONE TOLD YOU, about how to become good at something. Except, I suspect someone did tell me at one point, but I wasn't listening.

I had given a conference talk where the audience was a tough one: they were quiet and somewhat non-responsive to my interaction attempts. I had been warned that this was expected, so I wasn't overly concerned. The post-talk feedback was positive.

I don't believe the subsequent speaker had been warned. Her interaction attempts were stronger, and they faltered just as hard as mine had. Whereas I just kept right on talking, I think the non-response threw her a bit. She spoke nervously for the rest of the talk.

The content of her talk was fantastic, the presentation well put together. She was engaging and delightful in small groups. So other than the audience, what was the difference between the two of us? What made her nervous in a way I wasn't after the same experience? I pondered those questions on my walk from the venue back to my hotel that evening.

And that's when I came across the secret no one told you (and by you, I mean me, and by no one, I mean, again, someone):

"Be willing to look like a dork."

Embarrassment about what others think has to be the biggest block to any learning. Embarrassment of looking silly. Embarrassment of looking stupid for asking the question everyone else is wondering about but no one is willing to make. Embarrassment of making a mistake because NO ONE EVER MAKES MISTAKES.

Right.

In sports as a kid, I couldn't hit the ball, make a basket, kick a ball, or do any of the skills necessary to succeed in sports. Everyone was laughing at me (they weren't). Everyone was better than I was (they weren't).

What if I hadn't cared and kept trying anyway?

My first few years (and by few, I mean ten) of going to a gym were a full-on waste of my time. Everyone is watching me (they weren't). I'm doing this wrong (so what).

What if I had embraced looking goofy and kept trying?

My first public speaking engagement was a thorough disaster. "We shall never speak of this again," were my words to Jonathan as I stepped off the stage after the talk. I still cringe when I think of that talk.

What if I had been willing to look like a dork and try again?

I was willing. And I still look like a dork when I talk, on stage and off. I am now okay with my style of full-body talking. I am okay being the gangly, embarrassed kid I was years ago, in a way that I wasn't okay with when I actually was that kid.

I'm willing to look like a dork in front of a crowd of 200 people to have the opportunity to share some knowledge that excites me, to have the opportunity to show them how to make some part of their work lives easier. I'm willing to blunder through some failed attempt at interaction to know what direction to take the talk.

On the walk back to the hotel, I decided that has to be how you get good at something: you care more for the skill than you do about what others think about your learning the skill.

You're willing to look like a dork.

This past summer, a friend took a course to learn HTML and CSS. It was her first venture into the world of code, the web, and building something digital herself.

We are in a Slack together with other friends, so we set up a #codehelp channel to be able to answer questions. It brought up some interesting thoughts, as on many occasions as my friend was working through things, she would have moments of self doubt.

I still have moments of self doubt, over and over again, ten years into building things on the web. Every time I talk with a designer and get a new design that needs to be coded, my first thought is, "How am I ever going to build this?" And, honestly, that feeling is pretty normal for me now.

Sometimes it comes because the designer is challenging me in a good way, sometimes because I'm not feeling confident, and many times because the blank text editor screen in front of me is just as challenging as the blank screen or piece of paper can be for a writer or artist.

But here's the thing that also came out of helping my friend last summer, it reminded me that I do know things. I successfully explained several different HTML elements and how to best use them. When it came to CSS concepts, I could talk about those as well. It reminded me of how much the web has changed in ten years, how much building things for the web has changed, and how much I take for granted as I sit down to write code; how many things are just there, in my head, that I know.

And the best way out of my moments of self doubt? Sit down and write the code. Open up the editor, start with the things I know, write the basic markup, start adding styles. Every time, by just digging in and not avoiding it, I remind myself of the basics, and I push myself to learn the things I need to know.

No matter how long you've been doing what you've been doing, especially if you are in the web world, there will always be something to learn. But it's been good for me to be reminded that I know some things, I have experience, and I can do this, no matter how my self doubt tries to deter me.

You're projecting. Don't be a dick.

The day before my first drink, Sally Bodenhammer snuck a flask into the girls' locker room and passed it around. I stayed outside the circle, peeling off my sweaty gym strip, watching. Someone tried to hand the flask back to me. I shook my head. Shocker, Sally sneered.

Mrs. Felk was my favourite teacher. The thought of her walking into the locker room mid-guzzle was enough to keep my lips off that flask.

I wondered if Mrs. Felk had ever been in the teacher's lounge when my art teacher, Mr. Dash, was trashing me.

"Piper Crest? Stuck up? I don't see that, Corey."

"Eh. She's like the rest of the French Immersion snots when they find themselves in a mostly-English class. She thinks she's better."

"Corey. You're projecting. Don't be a dick. And PS, your fly is open."

She spins on her non-marking heel and disappears. Take that, asshole.

I made an excuse about needing to get to science and hand in an overdue assignment. I could tell by Sally's smirk that none of the girls believed me and would say so the minute I left. Fuck them.

Danny Stilleto said Justin Derby is mad at me. Mad at me? We don't even talk, Danny. Mad at me for what? I asked. I think you know, Piper. He made his voice deeper to deliver that last doozie and then walked away. Jesus. That sat in my gut like Cheeseburger Regret for the rest of the day. Teenagers are such assholes.

I couldn't stop imagining the taste of alcohol. When Mr. Starb called on me in Social, I had to pretend I hadn't heard. I wondered how long the girls stayed in that circle, if they missed 4th period, if they actually got drunk. I wondered if Mrs. Felk walked in, mentally purging her list of faves, clearing space on her top shelf. Choose me. See me. Know me.

Mrs. Pollick told my mom during second-term parent-teacher interviews in grade 7 that I seem lonely and quiet. She said to tell me that her door is open if I needed a friendly ear. I didn't know she even knew my name. I waited two years too long to take her up on that offer and now she's gone. Probably transferred to a school with kids who don't suffer from oily hair and deforming acne. Where the halls have no flasks.

When I opened my eyes that morning, I knew I'd find a way to taste alcohol before the sun set. Everyone said they were leaving the house at the same time. It was meant to be. Dad was taking Kerby to physio and then a movie. Mom asked if I wanted to come to Safeway. "Mom. Do I ever want to come to Safeway?" I was already sweating, playing it cool. Like it was just another day for a well-behaved teenager to sass her parentals.

I remember slowly opening the liquor cabinet in case it creaked even though I was alone. I remember not knowing if I should start with rum or vodka or if there was a special way to drink either one. I settled on rum. It smelled better.

I'm currently taking a course on shorty story writing. This piece is from my most recent assignment on plot and drift. It's not full or polished, but I had fun writing it and thought you might have fun with the reading part.

Taking the Plunge (and Coming Up for Air)

Freelancing can sometimes feel like a roller coaster of emotions, and this post finds me at one of its lowest points. Eight months in, now seems like a good time to consider the ride taken so far, and consolidate some of the lessons learnt.

Since taking the plunge — which increasingly seems like an apt description — in March, I’ve enjoyed a varied range of work and experiences, just as I had hoped. It didn’t take long to land my first project. Working alongside my former colleagues at Clearleft, I pointed a co-operative retailer in the right direction as their online team set about a responsive redesign. Around the same time, I prepared a new talk, which I went on to present at a number of different events around Europe. I then spent much of the summer hunched over my laptop in various coffee shops as I wrote the corresponding article for A List Apart.

I welcomed this opportunity to think more deeply about the work I do, and enjoyed spending time travelling around Europe. Yet since the conclusion of that first project in July, besides a few week-long engagements, I’ve yet to find a project I can really get my teeth into. This fallow period has seen plenty of misdirection and introspection, and I’ve come to realise that freelancing is no place for arrogance, naivety or pride.

Foolish mistakes and valuable lessons

While I was working on that first project, I made no attempt to secure any follow-up work. To be fair, I wasn’t sure when it would end — at one point it looked like I may be contracted on it all year — but I could have used this period working in London to attend events and build my network there. When the project did finish, I decided to take a month off to concentrate on my own projects, and again, did so without looking for new clients. Projects don’t just fall into your lap because you have a respectable résumé and a few thousand followers on Twitter, and no amount of retweets can make up for such a colossal lack of business sense.

Of the enquiries I did receive, only a few piqued my interest. Only now have I recognised the need to be explicit about the type of projects I wish to work on. Refusing to work with certain organisations is perfectly principled, but I should be communicating loudly and clearly about where I do wish to invest my time and energy. That said, I could also be more open-minded; all projects offer learning opportunities, and some may even lead to greater rewards.

Following up on the first interesting lead, I thought writing a proposal would be enough to land the job, but I never heard back. Nor did I chase up, because a second lead followed. After a few weeks of back-and-forth, it was decided the project would be better handled by an agency rather than an individual. After third and fourth leads came to nothing also, I finally realised that chasing one lead at a time is not an effective strategy; nothing is guaranteed until a contract has been signed.

Birth of a salesman

It seems working for yourself leaves little room for maintaining any dignity. Selling myself is not something that comes naturally, nor does asking for help. The thought of tweeting about my availability, or asking friends and peers for referrals fills me with absolute dread. Doing so feels like an admission of failure, but in fact the opposite is true; I suspect having not done so is precisely why finding work has been difficult.

The good news is, having recognised these character traits, I can now start to adjust them. If finding work means gaining confidence and humility, clarifying my ambitions and being more positive and outgoing, not only will I become a successful freelancer, but a more capable person too.

At CSS Dev Conf, I was on a speaker panel where we answered questions from the audience. One of the attendees asked the speakers, “What is a skill or tool that you suck at?” I wasn’t able to answer the question because the microphone never got to me, unfortunately. But I’ll share it here.

Even though I was at a CSS-focused conference, my answer was going to be that I suck at CSS. This may come as a surprising answer to some people, especially as I’ve been talking and writing about CSS for 9 years.

Don’t get me wrong — I can still build a website or web application UI. I can still build a pretty, well-architected CSS framework and design system. But CSS has evolved and changed quite a bit and is now so much more capable and powerful — and now I am back in learning mode, again.

The list of newer CSS that I am clueless about is pretty massive. But my top three that I’m excited to learn are:

  1. Flex Box

    I only just started learning how to use Flex Box, as I’ve not been able to use it before at prior projects, due to browser compatibility. But we’re able to use it on my current project.

    I like it a lot. But there is still quite a bit about it that confuses me (like things that squish weirdly sometimes). I am making an effort to use Flex Box in all my new work I do, however, and hope that I’ll pick it up pretty well with time, just as I did with older layout techniques.

  2. Animations & Transitions

    These have been out for a while. But I’ve not really explored or played with these much. Now that motion and animation is gaining popularity in UI and CSS frameworks, I’m starting to dig into these as well.

  3. Blend Modes

    Blend modes look really cool. But I’ve not explored this yet. After seeing Una’s awesome CSSGram, I definitely am inspired and want to give it a whirl.

While I think I now suck at CSS (or the newer bits of it, anyway), I definitely still enjoy it and love working with it. It’s just time to up my game. :)

I like being organized. I like the idea of being organized. I like organizational systems and tidiness and a place for everything and everything in its place.

But.

I switched computers and accidentally messed up my SpiderOak setup and haven't quite got it back. Oh, and I also have a Dropbox account, and some of that stuff is in both places. Plus of course there's a USB key that's basically a decade-plus worth of files, and a couple of different computers, and a couple of Github repos, and maybe an old hard drive that has all my college files?

My desks -- at home and at work -- are a riot of piles and papers and trash and flotsam and jetsam. D&D stuff mixed with architectural design. Bills stacked with grocery lists.

I have calendars in at least three different places. I have half-a-dozen unfinished book reviews in Goodreads. I have partially started projects of so many kinds that it makes me a little nauseated thinking about it. (Knitting, home improvement, writing, programming.)

The proliferation of things and the desire to be creative runs up against the need for some sort of order and reason. (I feel like I'm not alone in this.)

And then time.

I'm certainly not as busy as she is, but still I feel hedged in by time. "I was going to..." sometimes feel like the sentence I say most often. The instinct is to then try to do ALL THE THINGS, which is a terrible idea. So little things.

Today I'm consolidating some photos, doing some laundry, sorting some papers. Writing this. Maybe I'll finish writing another thing I've promised to someone. And you?

PS to Relly: Knitting has taken most of what used to be my reading time, but OMG The Killing Moon was amazing.

PS to Jack: How Soon Is Now because it's entirely perfect.

There’s one thing I know for sure: life is full of ups and downs. I visualize these ups and downs as an oscillating line, with each peak and valley representing my emotional strength–or lack thereof–at that point in time. I can’t control the flow of events that cause these ups and downs, but I can manage how I relate to them. In other words, life feels like riding a big ocean wave.

Oscillating wave
Waves: traveling oscillations

Depending on who you are, the distribution of emotional highs and lows might be gentle and spread out; or, they might be sharp and condensed. I’m regularly in the sharp column: as my career has exploded and I’ve gone from one high point to another, I've started to experience more impactful lows. Sometimes I think, “if I was just more disciplined, I could be a gentle, measured emotional being.” But that’s not who I am. My mode of operation is the opposite of playing it safe. I'm playing a high risk, high energy game that I often win, but sometimes I lose–I put myself out there too far, and I crash and burn.

Success & downtime: yin & yang

If you give so much of yourself that you burn out, you’re left depleted for energy and purpose until something causes that wave of emotion to switch direction and rise you up again. For me, that something is usually a change in perspective, be it from solid exercise or doing something to break out of the routine. It could also simply be a good amount of time passing. However, despite my best efforts, sometimes a pileup of negative factors can make it hard to avoid powerful lows. It’s like I’m off on a negative vibes ice flow I can’t paddle back from at the moment.

What causes this, and how do you manage it?

A change in jobs, mourning the loss of a dear pet, the end of a relationship, endless side projects, unproductive self criticism after conference talks I practically ran toward–that was 2015 for me. In the past, I’ve been okay at managing life’s ups and downs. But this year was different. No matter how I tried to improve my mood, I kept tripping over my emotions and landing in a heap.

It was only after I started experiencing an upswing that I realized I’d had 3 big life events in one summer–no wonder I felt so lost. Any time a major event happens in your life, you’re bound to have some stress. Except, on top of normal life stress, I also beat myself up all the time. Each valley in my oscillating wave is a low point where I doubt, criticize and self-sabotage. I started wondering: what if, instead of beating myself up, I gave myself the same empathy I have for others?

An oscillating wave with arrows pointing to highs and lows. Feeling good: empathy for others. Feeling down: empathy for self.

Not too long ago, I received some life changing advice from Minh-Hai Alex, a nutritionist here in Seattle: she told me to “treat yourself like you would treat a friend.” I wouldn’t feel disgust for a friend who was down, so why would I pile that on myself? If we allow ourselves to feel self-compassion, we are able to grow stronger each day and start to feel better. Sometimes it’s difficult to get into this state of mind, and I often need reminding.

It takes time to work through the emotional fallout from major life events. I’ve found a few things that help the process along; I’d also love to hear your strategies for managing life’s highs and lows.

Getting out of ruts

…With exercise

For me, any form of physical exercise can make things feel better (at least temporarily). But when I’m at a really low point, my emotions and mind are at odds. Emotions say, “who cares, exercise won’t change my situation...” while, my brain says, “go for a bike ride, you’ll feel better.”

The genius of exercise is that it gives you more resolve and optimism to weather your situation even when you’re not exercising. It builds self-confidence and gives you space to detach from your troubles. So it’s worth doing, even if your emotions are sabotaging you. By starting small and keeping low expectations, each thing you do can help turn the boat around. Plus, you’re making your heart happy in more ways than one.

…By breaking out of your routine

Changing my perspective has been the most successful way to break out of a rut. Going to a movie or an art museum can help shake up your emotions for a few hours, leaving you with new (and hopefully good) thoughts. Every time I go on a trip somewhere I’m given freedom to look at things in a new light. When I come home, I undoubtedly feel better than I did before.

Jumping on a trampoline or baking a pie would also be be worthy ways to focus your time, assuming your stress is not pie or trampoline related. :)

…By spending time with friends

People who know you well can help you see the bigger picture. They know you at your baseline self, at equilibrium; by spending time with them, you can hopefully start to feel more centered.

After stressing over something minor because my tolerance for BS was empty, I got a particularly memorable comment: “I don’t know why you let those little things bother you, you’re such an f'ing badass.” It sort-of knocked me upside the head (in a good way), and my perspective started to shift. By now, a few weeks later, I can point back to a handful of personal conversations where I started to feel different.

…By choosing to be happy

When I’m at the start of an upswing and my emotional tank is slowly filling with self-confidence and calm, I still feel okay when negative vibes pop up–with less stress and more emotional bandwidth, I can choose to be happy.

Sometimes the only thing separating a good day from a bad day is your perspective. If you're beating yourself up about something, give yourself a break. Take the time you need to destress and heal, and then get back on the boat. Life is simply too valuable to miss out.

In one of my working mom groups, a common piece of advice is to "Put on your own oxygen mask first." Of course it's a reference to the airline emergency procedure speech we all hear before a flight takes off: "In the event of an emergency, please put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting others." In other words, you've got to take care of yourself before you can take care of anyone else.

Everyday life isn't an in-flight emergency. But when you've got a caregiver mindset and you're responsible for others, whether that's a small child, an ill parent, a fledgling startup, or a spouse going through a hard time, it's too easy to push aside your own self-care.

Last week, I found out just how dumb it is to delay putting on your oxygen mask.

About a year ago, I noticed that my allergies and asthma were acting a little worse, that I was wheezing and coughing more, that breathing didn't feel as easy. But being so busy renovating a house, running my company, and parenting, I put off going to the doctor for a long time. So long that last spring, I wound up in urgent care, hooked up to a breathing machine. I wrote off the episode as my "mild" asthma acting up because of construction dust.

Again, I let months go by until I scheduled a followup appointment with my doctor. After one conversation with her and a visit to my pharmacy, last week I got a new asthma medication. The first night, I took the tiny pill and went to sleep. When I woke up, I sat up in bed and took the deepest breath I had in over a year. I hadn't felt my lungs expand that much without exploding into a coughing fit in forever. I kept taking deep breath after deep breath. I felt like a new person.

I finally reached for my oxygen mask after gasping for breath for months. Months! Months of letting myself operate in an impaired state for stupid reasons—denial, busy-ness, and putting everything else in front of myself.

Being able to take a deep breath makes me a better person, more capable of helping others and getting things done. So does getting a full night's sleep, eating clean, cutting caffeine, and getting exercise. So does paying attention to my moods, and how my body feels, and doing something about it instead of ignoring it by occupying myself with whatever thing outside of myself that's keeping me busy-busy.

On a daily basis, I'm not succeeding at all of this, or even most of it. But from here on in, I'm going to try to remember how profound it felt to finally put on my oxygen mask. And every once in awhile, I'm going to ask myself the following questions. Join me, won't you?

What's going on with you that you've been putting off, ignoring, and that needs your attention? What deep breath are you denying yourself for dumb reasons? What would a couple of hours of investing in your own self-care yield? Do it now.

Tips for Learning What You Don't Know You Don't Know

Learning something new, especially a new skill, is one of the best perks of being alive. And we live in the golden age of learning stuff: coding, cooking, sewing, Minecraft hacks, flaming chainsaw juggling: if you want to do it, there's a zettillion blog posts, tutorials, MOOCs, downloadable PDFs, and Tweetstorms out there to help you do it -- not to mention countless YouTube videos ranging from the charmingly amateur to the terrifyingly professional.

If you want to learn something, anything, there's an expert out there just dying to teach you how ... and by and large, learning this way is very effective.

But every expert suffers from what's called the "expert blind spot": experts tend to forget that what they think is obvious is not necessarily obvious to a beginner. And nothing is more frustrating to a beginner than a giant "oh, that's obvious!" gap in the learning chain.

But if the experts can't see these gaps, what can help you get over them? Here are a few things that have worked for me.

  • Walk around and get lost

Trying to learn something new, especially something in an unfamiliar domain, is like moving to a new city. It can take weeks or months before you can connect all the different 'neighborhoods' in your head. The best way to explore a city is to leave your map in your pocket and walk around until you get lost and then un-lost again; semi-aimless wandering is also the best way to explore a new topic.

Every domain has its own overlapping "neighborhoods" online. You might start with some Pinterest tutorial, which leads you to a blog, which leads you to a forum, which leads you to a video (which is usually where you hit a stop, because ugh video comments). Click on whatever looks interesting, but set a time limit.

If something looks too obscure or technical, don't hit the back button: browse through it. Skim through to the end. You'll be surprised how much of what you thought you didn't understand will come back to you later in an "aha!" moment. Read things that are "over your head"! If you're just starting to sew, skim an article on couture techniques. If you're just starting to code, read something focused on 'scaling' or 'optimization'— but remember, you're not trying to do or even understand any of those "advanced topics" just yet; you're just trying to get an idea of where the boundaries of the possible lie.

It can also be helpful to see what basic concepts look like in as many contexts as possible. Search a recipe site for the name of a technique: what kinds of recipes use it? Look up terms on Safari Books and Stack Overflow: are they used just in one language or discipline, or across the board? Do a Twitter search: is everyone who mentions something in the same place, the same age, or referencing the same link?

Only bookmark the pages and information you come across if you are completely comfortable with never looking at them again. You don't want to be mentally dragging around a bag full of "Oh I should really come back and read this carefully" obligation-links, they will only slow you down!

  • Try to fail

Some tutorials (especially coding tutorials) like to begin things in media res. Great for a sense of dramatic action, bad for getting to "Step 1" without tears. It can be really discouraging to fire up a fresh terminal window only to be confronted by error message after error message because there were obligatory steps 0.1.0 through 0.9.9 that you didn't even know about.

If you go into a tutorial with the mindset of "I'm gonna get this done before lunch" you will be very unhappy. If you start instead with the goal of breaking stuff, you will get immediate gratification.

Don't agonize over which tutorial you want to start with—just try to build or make something related to the biggest thing you want to learn. If you want to learn to make great cakes and you're starting from zero knowledge, what flavor of cake you make doesn't really matter.

When you have "make mistakes" as your stated goal, you won't rush through the broken parts: the broken parts ARE the parts.

  • Ask dumb questions. Ask REALLY dumb questions.

And when you find a broken part, dig into it. Double down, don't just skip the step and hope that things will turn out okay. Every time you run into an error, write it down and look it up. Your batter looks weird? Take a picture and tweet it out and ask for help! Error message? Google it. Your stitches are all bunchy on the underside the fabric? Call your sewing machine repair place and describe it over the phone. Your hair is turning orange? Go ask a question in the forum!

Remember, you can ask the search engine of your choice all your dumb questions. It will never get tired or exasperated. It will never roll its eyes at you. It has infinite patience. You can (and should!) ask the same question over and over again with slightly different wording until you get an answer that makes sense. And because the ratio of beginners to experts is so much in your favor, even typing the most naive questions into a search engine is likely to get you an answer back.

One of the best dumb questions you can ask is "what's the difference between X and Y"? It doesn't actually matter if this question makes sense. When you ask this kind of question you will usually get one of these answers:

  • A. They are the same, they are just different names
  • B. They are different in Z respect
  • C. These two things are apples and oranges, here let me explain at great length why

If possible, try to ask questions that will generate a "C" response, because they will usually state more of what the answerer believes to be "obvious" than the other two answers.

(If the question is presumed to be a semi-riddle, such as "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" then people will ALSO fall all over themselves trying to come up with an answer.)

  • Pay the most attention to what you're told to ignore

There are a couple of phrases that should serve as red flags for any learner. One is "shorthand format", the other is "omitted for clarity". (And the most famous one, although used mostly in a joking way now, is "The proof is left as an exercise for the reader.") If you're watching a video, what parts don't have voiceover, or are hidden in a cut? Anytime you encounter a member of the handwavy evasion family, you should stop short and make sure you understand exactly what is being left out before moving on.

  • Meta up

Every time you discover a lacuna in a tutorial you will slot it into the category of "things people tend to leave out or gloss over." You'll remember to scan recipes to figure out if the eggs need to be at room temperature or the butter chilled; you'll double-check the list of dependencies that have to be installed before you can start the tutorial; you'll figure out which parts of the video you're going to have to play at quarter-speed. Eventually you'll be able to generalize figuring out gaps—a whole new skill!

Even better, deliberately paying attention to these kinds of omissions should help you get better at teaching others the things that you are an expert in. Instead of thinking "oh, this is obvious" it's always better to flat out say "This may be obvious, but ..." (Demonstration of this is left as an exercise for the reader.)

“Going up the ladder” is definitely one of the most interesting sayings in the English language for me. We don’t have that in Italian (and that’s another story) and maybe, I’ve started to think, for some very good reasons.

When you start your career, you start hearing this expression “Getting up the ladder” and it’s all a bit of blur, a bit of a dream. The ladder seems magic-beans-in-the-cloud-style and you are looking at it from the bottom up. It just looks like this vertically infinite thing, but it also seems like it could actually be an interesting journey for you.

So you start climbing while looking around, still not sure what’s going on.

The first few years go by, and you slowly work your way through promotions or (more likely) salary increases by just jumping from job to job (a trick nobody told you at career’s fairs!) until you look down and you’ve gone a long way up and you are small-medium management, firmly holding onto the ladder.

Instead I took a detour.

After a few years working in agencies as a web developer, I soon grew tired of companies “not doing the right thing”. I decided to take a bit of a break from suffering from other people’s wrong decisions and started contracting.

I guess this step could be seen as a long term relationship break. It can go two ways: you will just jump into a series of other serious(ish) relationships, or you can just have a series of no-strings-attached flings.

Despite being more inclined to choose the first option romantically speaking, I chose the latter in real life even if not so consciously. I spent two years of absolute “don’t give a damn what they’ve decided, I’m just going to do my bit and not worry about the rest” - and it has been so far, from a career input/output point of view, my best time ever.

I do recognise this might not be the same for everyone else, but where I am trying to get to is that, while contracting, the ladder for me (and I am sure it would prove to be this way for many others), turned into a bit more of a fairly large series of well-connected fire escape ladders on the side of a New York building: whenever there was a fire (within the company I would be contracting for), I could clearly see these ladders going up or down as a very handy fire escape, just by looking outside the window of yet another “rustic canteen” looking startup I had been offering my services at.

And if that analogy was not enough, contracting for me has been like having the emergency seat in a Ryanair plane: you might have to put all your bags away, but you have the emergency exit right there for you AND you get plenty of legroom! I knew at any given crisis time that I could escape fairly easily. Some contracts had 1 week notice (from either part), some others just 1 day. Hey, a day never made such a difference to my life!

Funnily enough though (and I’ve love for a psychologist to get in touch and explain the reasoning behind this), no matter how much I knew those stairs were there for me, I stayed in contracts way longer than I probably would have bet on! I “lasted longer” because I knew it was not forever, because I could quit any time. It’s like my brain would give myself a mini 1 day/week extension every time I felt like I should do a runner and somehow I stayed for months longer than I expected. Bear in mind, I was never in horrible situations, but the idea of having a possibly even better alternative was always there.

I stopped caring about what was happening around me and managed to work in startups I would have not believed in for 1 week as a permanent employee. Somehow knowing in a week or month I would be somewhere else, made it more bearable. I wonder if the same could apply to a prisoner – if they got to move around from prison to prison every few weeks, would they find it a bit more bearable?

When contracting though, I got told, you don’t always get time to do any training or any room to learn. You just get hired to do what you know best. So technically, I was not going upwards on the ladder any longer, especially from a “getting into management” point of view, or getting into roles with more and more responsibilities.

Well, if you hear just that (possibly from a recruiter trying to stick you on a permanent post), don’t believe in it: I was learning (by taking risky projects and learning on the job), I was more confident to experiment in my spare time, and I know a very good friend of mine has been getting contracts with huge responsibilities and even managing a team of supposed minions!

For this reason, I never felt like I was just going down the ladder, but rather slightly downwards, then upwards again and even walking on a completely horizontal bit of floor and mixed those up quite a bit, on this imaginary NY brick building. What I would find from ladder to ladder is just more money and a new skill I picked up on the way. By the end of my brief experience, my journey on the “untraditional ladder” was still worth a very special fuzzy but quite high up space on the “traditional” ladder.

I then found somewhere I really liked and I could not imagine myself anywhere else. And the building I had reached suddenly had another one of those upwards into the clouds single-direction ladder and I thought I was OK with it.

I realised it was expected of me to climb this one-way ladder, that it would get bumpy, and that I would even be given a bit of a load to take up with me. This load would of course increase as I got higher. I was still picking up new skills, although at a bit of a slower pace, but I was not finding money as easily as I had done on the “non traditional” ladder.

I am currently holding a very small load, but I can tell you, it has not been fun. I’m sweating, I had to switch hands a few times and almost fell over and I had to take on stuff others passed me on their way down. Not fun.

So I am questioning it, is this traditional ladder really worth it? I might extend my staying for a little bit longer to find out the answer, but I am conscious that the fire exit is not as close to my desk as before…

I suspect we, as an industry, care too much about how we get to great work and not enough about actually getting there.

I am just as guilty as the next person. I’ve spoken about the process we use. I’ve published my ideas about process. I’ve taught workshops and I’ve tweeted and I’ve read every process article I could get my eyes on.

Some of us sell our work based on our process. We talk about how it’s unique to us, about how we’ve put it through the test of time, about how our work is better because of it.

Some of us are just plain excited when we get to the end of a project and the result is great. So, we look back at what we did and reverse engineer a process for the next gig.

It’s not that this is bad. Honestly, we probably wouldn’t write or speak so much about process if there wasn’t a real desire for this content. The truth is, this stuff is hard and we’re chasing a moving target. Every project, client, budget, timeline, team is different, so it’s incredibly difficult to find a system that always generates great work and doesn’t destroy our relationships along the way. When someone thinks they have a piece to the puzzle, they share it. They share it, and we consume it. Supply and demand, baby.

But, great work is being done all the time. More importantly, great work is being done in about a million different ways all the time. There are an infinite amount of ways to get to great work—the one commonality among them all is a team of people that care about the end result. Seriously, go read any case study for any great project and there will be a section talking about how great the team was.

You want to do great work? Work with great people.

Now, I’m not telling you to forget about process. I just want you to realize that the most important part of your process is the people executing it. Focus on them, and watch the quality of your work improve.

I think it's fair to say that the majority of us want someone to "do life" with. Yes, we may have a spouse or a partner, but beyond that, we still seek relationships with others that have meaning and depth. Far to often however our relationships barely penetrate the surface. Not for a lack of want, but simply because we aren't willing to put in the effort. We're to self-centered, focused on our own goals, or perhaps stuck in our own routines.

It's easy to look inward and realize that you spend too much time watching TV, or that you spend too much time surfing the web when instead you could be spending that time investing in others. It's the areas that are not so obvious however that require the greater sacrifice if you really want to be intentional. Your kids nap time, your athletics/exercise, your weekend house maintenance. While none of those things are bad in nature, quite the opposite, they are easy to overlook when you're trying to find time to be intentional with others.

Quality relationships were easy when we were younger when we had more time and less responsibility. As we progress in our years our responsibilities grow, our time shrinks and as a result our relationships suffer. The sacrifice is great, and one person who is willing to make it is one thing, but finding a second who is willing to do it with you is exponentially harder.

Very few people are intentional anymore. The reasons are many and varied, but finding someone to be intentional with is actually really hard work; it's hard work because it requires sacrifice and sacrifice, self-sacrifice at that, is a muscle that no one wants to work out.

Note: Not 4 hours after I wrote this post (but hadn't yet published it), I received two phone calls from good friends being intentional. Friendships like this are rare, sweet and far more valuable than you can imagine.

As of this date, there have been 150 school shootings since 2013.

I’ve worked in or with higher education for more than a decade, and I love it deeply. Many of those shootings have taken place at colleges and universities, so every time word gets out of another shooting, my heart is sick. I feel helpless, scared, and angry.

And I’m not the only one. There is a deep kinship among people who work in this industry, which is more like a community than an industry, and an attack on one affects us all.

After all, as web professionals, we work alongside our users—the students, faculty, and staff who embody our institution’s missions. And we know the rhythm of a campus. It’s horrifying to imagine that familiar, comforting tempo irreparably disrupted by an act of violence.

In higher ed, you build systems to support the educational experience. And it is often said that the most important system you build is the one you hope you’ll never need.

It may seem strange, but when news breaks of a shooting or other crisis on a college campus, many folks working in higher ed digital communications will flock to the institution’s website and social media platforms. Because that’s the language we know. How are they communicating about this? How are they presenting this information? How quick and how responsive are the messages? How is their website holding up amidst the traffic surge? This is not Monday morning quarterbacking, per se, but rather a form of empathy. There is no judgment, only watchful concern.

After every shooting, the outcry is, “We must not let this become routine.” This is true. We can’t stand idly by and accept regular mass shootings on college campuses as a new norm. We have to lobby, to advocate, to call our representatives, to not let the topic recede into the tableau of “in other news.” But still, there is still so much we cannot control.

One thing that we can control, however, is doing our jobs really, really well.

We can fight routine with routine by building better communications systems and better processes, and internalizing them to the point that they become habit. In these circumstances, by spurring widespread awareness and prompting swift action, communications has the potential to save lives.

This may not be the reality we want, but it’s the one in which, for the moment, we exist. So we will do our damnedest to mitigate the impact of its unfortunate truths.

In the meantime, I know the tally will continue to rise. No. 151 is only days away. And there’s no way of knowing who or when or where. Or why.

So that's why another routine I need to instill in myself is to get mad as hell. To not shut up. To let myself feel that sick, twisted feeling in my heart because it reminds me that this is wrong and abnormal and horrific, that campuses are meant to be sanctuaries of learning and growth, and that no one should die for another person’s hate or pain. And to do this each time until there is no next time.

Do not be complacent. Get outraged. It's our job. It's everybody's job.

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.

One of my recent projects had “performance improvements” as a project focus. If we had set a performance goal – a strict budget of 250kb per page, for example – then we would have only two options: meet the goal, or fail. Instead, we set an intention: the user’s speed experience would have the highest priority in every design and development decision. When, as it turned out, the newest (and most profitable) ad network was a bit heavier than we planned for, we didn’t wail and gnash our teeth. We put the user’s experience first, prioritized that javascript to load last, and gave the site visitors the fastest possible experience they could have within that particular set of business and content constraints.

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.”

“If I knew that I could do what I do right now as a kid I’d find it a little daunting, because there was no linear way that I made it to where I am. I have a very wiggly trajectory. And some of it is luck, and some of it was talent, and some of it was just being at the right place at the right time. There’s no way that you could prescribe that.”
Kate Beaton

I’ve often struggled with having a clear vision of what I want to be when I “grow up”, despite the fact that I’m a successful engineering manager and have written two books in my field. Both of my parents had a “calling” for their careers early in life—mom’s a minister, dad’s a teacher—so by comparison I’ve always felt disjointed in my professional path. I’m a person without a concrete career goal or plan, and I routinely lose sleep over that fact.

This isn’t to say I’m unhappy with my professional path and where I am today—far from it—but I couldn’t have predicted how I got here, and there was never any overarching vision or plan behind it all.

As an example: While in high school I taught how to write HTML using Neopet’s tutorial. I had no idea these skills would factor heavily into my professional path (even my high school guidance counselor advised me against taking a course in visual basic). I built websites for friends and for college internships long before I was ever working professionally as a web developer.

That’s the way it’s been with most of the skills I now count as essential to my career - I developed them out of genuine interest, often didn’t have an immediate professional application for them, and didn’t necessarily have a coach telling me I could make a successful life out of these skills. Looking back now, however, I can identify a handful of the experiences that have led me here:

  • Applied to college as an International Studies major, but switched majors because world politics bummed me out
  • Became the program director, then general manager of the college radio station
  • Graduated college with a BA in Film & Media and a BA in Philosophy
  • Started my own photography business just before starting a project management job at a tech company
  • Grew the photography business, and grew technical skills at my full-time job
  • Over time, realized the photography business wasn’t my dream gig, so I closed its doors while it was successful
  • Job-hopped in tech, growing in technical skill sets and responsibilities (including management)
  • Got certified as an EMT because I thought maybe I’d want to try that
  • Picked up another large side business—running a really popular website with a business partner—until we, too, realized that it wasn’t our dream-forever-gig
  • Started doing a lot of writing and presenting. Wrote a book, and then a second book!

That’s about as linear as I can portray it.

What gives me reassurance about that lack of a goal or dream is that, reflecting on that list of gigs, I notice that each random piece of work pushed me forward in small and sometimes surprising ways. Here are some of them:

WorkOpportunity it led toBecause
College classes in Photoshop and web designMy first, second, and third jobs in techIt gave me the right skills to get started, and my professors ended up hiring me after college.
GM of my school’s radio stationManagementLearning from growing pains in leadership and failing at the “people stuff”.
Philosophy degreeWriting a successful bookI became a confident writer, good problem-solver, and learned how to take feedback.
Photography businessSecond large side businessI met my co-founder!
Owning/running a large websiteAll future tech jobsI finally had a sandbox to play with tons of new tech that I couldn’t implement at my day job.
Blogging for workTons of speaking gigsI was giving back to the tech community in a valuable and recognizable way and got hours of practice honing my thoughts and my niche.
Participating in a Ladies Lunch at a VelocityConfWriting a bookRight place, right time to pitch the idea to an editor at O’Reilly. And I took the risk to pitch it.

I’m also reassured when I trace my developed skill sets to their origin. The sampling of below skills have aided my career in every industry I’ve worked, not just the ones in which they originated.

SkillHow it startedHow it’s grown
Acting on trusted instinctStreet documentary photography requires you to “make it work” with just what’s in front of you. You’re not at all in control.It helped me be certified as an EMT. And helps every day making tough decisions in the moment at work.
Public speakingSmall lunch and learns within a companyKeynoting, speaking at dozens of conferences and companies, on a wide variety of topics
WritingPhilosophy papers for collegeBlogging, book writing, solid inter-team communication
Asking for a jobAsking if the company I loved interning for had any full-time openings when I graduated collegePitching two books!

I could list so many more things here: how the connections I’ve made on Twitter and at conferences have built my career. How the lessons I learned managing a wedding full of stressed-out people every weekend have translated to my tech job. How on more than one occasion, a random corporate-y dinner invite has led me to my next job.

Having a non-linear trajectory—a career full of photos, coding, EMTing, etc.—has meant it’s hard to distill down what actually leads to success. Very few parts of my career have been planned. My father used to joke that his kids’ successes were due to “half luck, half talent”. While I used to take issue with the “luck” part, the older I grew, the more I understood this to be absolutely true. For many of us, working hard and then being in the right place at the right time seems to be key.

If there’s any advice I have for those struggling with the same source of anxiety, it’s to pull random bits of experience from different corners of your life and see what it’s taught you. Find your sandbox to play in until you have things you can blog about, speak about, or give back to the community. Your experience, connections, and opportunities easily translate across industries; don’t feel limited to just the job or industry that you’re currently in. I have no idea where I’m going next, but I’m sure it’s going to be just as random as the things in my past.

The fourth wall is a term that I became familiar with many years ago in a media studies class. It's one of my favourites. Traditionally, it refers to the imaginary fourth wall at the front of a theatre stage, where there is f course, also a physical back wall and two side walls. The first known use of this term is cited as being in 1807, so it’s hardly a new concept.

Actors aren't meant to cross this boundary and acknowledge that there are people beyond the wall, the audience. Yet breaking the fourth wall is fairly common. An actor might acknowledge the audience or speak directly down the camera, addressing people. This happens a lot in sitcoms, Scrubs for example. Pantomimes practically knock the fourth wall down with their audience participation. It happens in films too. Norman Bates looks directly at the camera right at the end of Psycho. The fourth wall is also broken in Fight Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Amelie and many more.

On the web we don’t have walls but let's pretend we do and let's smash that fourth wall to smithereens with user testing, surveys and research. We can and should make our audience aware that we know they're there and we're listening. We're listening so that we can give them what they need, when they need it, how they need it, where they need it. Needs! How can we understand the needs of our audience if we don't acknowledge them and speak to them directly? We can't. We can only guess and an uninformed decision is a bad decision.

No matter what we're designing, building, writing content for, testing, all those projects have one thing in common. The fourth wall, an audience. We need to put them front and centre of our work, not relegated to being passive observers.

I was talking to my daughter. Her grades were very disappointing, and it’s because she’s not doing the work. So I pushed her on this, and she broke down, announcing she’s a total failure.

I knew the feeling. I’ve been afraid of failure all my life. And I chose an industry (the web) and a practice (UX) where failure is not only common, it’s an accepted part of the process.

There are many moments I want to crawl into a hole and hide when I’m working on design. They mostly involve the awkward minutes, hours, days I’m staring at a piece of paper… or a whiteboard… or my computer screen and waiting for the moment the ideas start to come out of me.

And every time, I feel embarrassed that yet again it took me three days to pull together a design plan I’m happy with. And every time, it turns out just fine, and I promptly forget the next time around to give myself the space I need to face my fears.


Five years ago, I went to Cincinnati to give a talk at HighEdWeb, the pre-eminent conference for people who work on the web in higher education.

I was incredibly nervous about what I wanted to talk about, and the anxiety had created a disjointed mess of a slide deck. I’d had a disaster of a presentation at SXSW the previous year, and it still left me shaken.

To make matters worse, plane trouble left me stranded in Salt Lake City, where I was stuck with all my fears in a dingy hotel room overnight.

Unable to sleep, I did the only thing I could do to assuage the anxiety: I rewrote the talk, piece by piece, on a hotel notepad at 4am. I ripped out slides and replaced them, fought the hotel wifi to get Creative Commons licensed photos off Flickr, and rethought the entire point of the talk. On the plane to CVG, more of the same, only with slower wifi, but I finally had a draft I could live with.

I got in for day one of the conference. Everyone was so… good at this. No, they were great. And my deck sucked by comparison.

I skipped out on some of the partying to practice the talk, twiddle a couple more slides, and in the end, write the talk out in longhand. (If you’re going to be anxious and neurotic, might as well go all the way.)

Day two and time for me to give the talk. It was 5:30am back home, I’d barely slept, and here I was with this ridiculous talk in this city I’ve never been in before and…

And that’s when the fear finally stopped. I was on stage. I’d been here before, a dozen times. I knew what to do. If I failed, it would be over in 45 minutes and I could get on with my life.

The words that came to mind were “F**k it. Let’s go.”

So I went. 45 minutes later, it was over. Only, it wasn’t. They had me reprise it the next day, twice. Then the conference attendees voted me Best Talk. (That was a hard one to explain to my skeptical coworkers who didn’t understand why I would “go to Ohio to speak at a conference when I was just the web guy.”)


And yet, the same thing happens every time I do anything creative. I spend time getting myself to “F**k it, let’s go.” Experience has taught me, to a point, that I should expect this, but it still doesn’t help when I’m in the midst of that moment of unknowing. And it doesn't assuage the feeling that I'm wasting time.

From the conversation my daughter and I had after her breakdown, I discovered we shared a dark fear: The fear that we’ll embarrass ourselves and look stupid because we don’t understand what’s going on.

Because that’s the feeling I’m really having in those minutes, hours, days before I start designing. I’m trying to understand. I’m trying to make myself not feel stupid. Getting to “F**k it, let’s go” is letting go of that fear and becoming dumb in order to understand.

So, I practice. I remind myself it’ll get easier if I do the work. And I remind my daughter of the same thing: The practice of the practice is what makes us smart, and the only truly stupid thing is living in fear.

And now she and I roll up our sleeves and do the work. She has her math homework adding and subtracting negative numbers, I have a messy project with disparate stakeholders and blurry goals. But I remind her to “F**k it, let’s go.” (Well, the PG version.) The fear isn’t worth the time we give it.

I just have to keep reminding her -- and myself -- of that.

12 Reasons Why I'm Leaving NYC

  1. Cocktail bars and speakeasies are too popular in NYC, I find the dim lighting and romantic atmosphere tiring for my fluorescent-trained eyes.
  2. Due to a thriving startup culture and overall urge for companies to have smart design, designers are in high demand. We are making more money today than ever before. My whole life I assumed I would become a struggling designer and entrepreneur. New York is making it difficult for me to struggle and I’m actually becoming successful. Gross.
  3. It takes me 1hr 10min to commute to the nearest Hot Topic store.
  4. Friends and family won’t stop visiting me, forcing me to show them around the coolest spots in NYC. I’m tired of sharing my favorite places with the people I love.
  5. It’s difficult and expensive to keep a car in NYC, forcing me to walk everywhere. I don’t like getting a healthy dose of exercise daily.
  6. With over 35,000 restaurants and 2,600 bars. I’m tired of having so many choices.
  7. The creative community in New York is too generous, kind, and loving. They keep sharing their clients with me, giving me compliments and hugging me. I need to be in an environment where people are selfish and don’t touch me as often.
  8. There are over 8 million completely unique individuals here. The average person farts 14 times p/day. That makes 112,000,000 farts in NYC daily.
  9. There are too many day trips, weekend trips and getaways “conveniently” located near NYC. I need to live in a city where it’s physically, and mentally, harder to leave.
  10. My neighborhood in Brooklyn has too much “community” with its summer block parties, farmer’s markets and community gardens. My neighbors keep calling me by name. I’d prefer to be somewhere with 0 human interaction, perhaps a feral cat colony.
  11. The subways are too crowded. They’re full of people who voluntarily choose a more environmentally conscious way to travel and sometimes I have to touch those people in a crowded car.
  12. A regular iced coffee down the street is $4.25.

New York, I love you. I’m not leaving you.

I am sitting at Kailua beach in Hawaii and writing this post; thoughts are fresh on my mind. This is the first vacation I've gone on with my family in about eight years.

It was about twenty minutes before sunrise and I was outside our rental home with my mother. As she was swimming in the water, I was looking for which direction the sun would rise. When Mom came back up to the beach, I asked her help me by holding my iPhone to 91 degrees east so I could set up my new GoPro I just bought to create a time-lapse video.

"Oh, this is so cool!" Mom said.

It was interesting that she was so impressed with such a basic app that often gets thrown in an “extras” or “cannot delete” folder in iOS. She told me about how they used a compass to guide them through the Pacific Ocean. I am of Vietnamese descent and my parents came to the United States in 1980 in a wooden boat that is about 1/8th the size of boats you see in a lake when people are partying during the 4th of July. They traveled from Vietnam to a refugee camp in Indonesia (where my older brother was born) to the United States in a wooden boat, all guided by an analog compass.

Along the way the boat my parents were on got boarded by pirates. Among the people executed were two of my dad’s brothers…my uncles I never got to know. Among the chaos, the pirates also took the compass.

Spending time with my family gives me an opportunity to re-listen to stories I heard as a kid, now with a different lens as an adult. To hear the hardships is quite the humbling experience. It makes you think that everything you complain about on a daily basis seems minuscule compared to what my parents went through. I hear friends share similar stories who grew up with immigrant parents about the hardships they endured and the risks they took for their family to live here in the United States. You don't have to come from an immigrant family to experience hardships or these stories, but it is a common theme amongst friends I've observed.

Here I am, with my family. Among them are my parents finally retired after providing for us after all these years. My brother, his wife, and their little child…my nephew and next generation of our family.

And then there is me…unmarried, childless, and I just quit my job. (This is not a complaint but a sharing of the difference in place-in-life)

Until about two weeks ago, I was the Director of Mobile Design at Black Pixel, a digital products group based on Seattle, Washington. I worked with some renowned engineers and very talented designers and testers. My first director role, the ability to work remotely, and got to work on some great projects.

But I quit. I still quit my job. A lot of people didn’t understand why I left. I think a lot still don’t. I honestly almost changed my mind about it many times, but there were events that validated my decision was the right one.

My parents literally gave up their lives to risk everything they had to go to the United States to raise my brother and I, and I just quit a very good job.

By the way, I quit my job with nothing lined up. This isn't the first time. I left HTC and ExactTarget (later acquired by SalesForce) with no opportunity lined up. For me, the exploration is necessary.

After we set up the time-lapse with the GoPro, Mom and I went to swim in the ocean. She's so happy now in the water; the same body of water that was once fear and uncertainty. She’s with her family, hanging out with her two sons, and her grandson. 

The waves calmed a bit and things got quiet; an opportunity to talk. I told my mom I was sorry. I told her I was sorry that I haven’t stayed put, personally or professionally. She gave that look—the look a mother gives you when they explain something you to and you better be paying attention.

She told me what I am doing with my life is exactly what they wanted. Mom told me that they came here for us to have the opportunity…to do anything with very little risk.

It was that moment I realized that risk in my mind is not very much of a risk. Leaving a job with nothing lined up? What is that compared to what my parents endured? The worst case scenario is I'd have to find a means to pay rent or move back with my parents. A big piece of humble pie, but in perspective, not a huge risk.

I have always been a risk taker; sometimes taking non-conventional paths or being in the midst of ambiguity. However, I always felt bad about it, but not anymore. I feel empowered by my family who endured so much for me to make the most of swinging for the fences.

In my own way, in a very different context, and not literally, I am entering uncharted waters. I am simply focusing on where I feel I need to go. I don't have a compass, but have a sense of where I need to go.

Risk everything. You really have nothing to lose.

Creating More Award-Winning Women In Technology

For a good chunk of my public school career, I was an award-winning kid. Academics, sports, and the arts put me up on stage. Being recognised for my achievements gave me confidence to tackle even more difficult things, and it gave me a line on my resume which acknowledged my interests and talents in ways that individual assignments couldn't. Maybe you too have won an award? Maybe you've never won an award because the things you were great at didn't fit into one of the predetermined categories that put people on stage.

Five years ago I created an award at my old high school to recognise and encourage young women in technology. The award is given to a girl who has demonstrated creative use of technology. She doesn't need to have the best overall marks. She doesn't even need to be enrolled in a tech program. From auto mechanics, to carpentry, to physics, to digital publishing, my old high school has a range of classes which might provide the space to show this creativity. It may even happen in a "non-tech" class, or on the sports field. The award itself has no limit to when and how creative technology is demonstrated.

The Ada Lovelace Award represents a whole bunch of things to me. It passes along the opportunity that I was given to be applauded by my peers, and my teachers. It asks teachers to think who has demonstrated creativity next to technology, and perhaps alters the way they think about presenting curriculum in their classroom, re-kindling their own love for a technique, or topic. It tells everyone who attends the awards ceremony that there is value in putting creativity into technology. And, of course, each year it makes another young woman an award-winning technologist.

Today is Ada Lovelace Day. Today, I challenge you to recognise and celebrate girls and young women in technology. One of the easiest ways I know to do this is to setup an award in a school. Here's how you do it:

  1. Think about what you would like your award to recognise. You're welcome to use my award criteria: The Ada Lovelace Award is given to the young woman who has demonstrated creative use of technology. Try not to make the award too specific, or it may be difficult to find a recipient.
  2. Decide on the value of the award--I suggest the value of one billable hour of your time. At the school's recommendation, my award was initially set at $50. This award is about (1) promoting young women in technology (2) giving a student a line on their resume. It doesn't need to be a lot of money, but it should be something you can afford every year. I have since increased the amount to $100/year.
  3. Phone up your alma mater (your old school).
  4. Ask to speak with the guidance department. These folks know everything. Tell them you're an alumni and that you want to sponsor an award. You will be redirected to the right department from here.
  5. When you are redirected to the right person, introduce yourself and explain that you want to sponsor an award. The school should work with you to come up with the exact criteria/language and the name of the award, and let you know if they already have similar awards. Be flexible.
  6. Write a cheque to the appropriate school division. (Mine is made out to the school board.) You should be issued a tax receipt for your donation. Ask the school about a donation receipt if they don't mention it.

The school takes care of selecting the student each year so no additional work is required. If you live in the area, the school might ask you about presenting the award. This isn't something that I have done, and I've never met any of the recipients. Some years I receive an email, or a hand written "thank you" note from the recipient, which is always a pleasant surprise.

For the first five years of the award, the school sent me a form letter a few months before the awards ceremony to remind me to send another cheque. The letter included the amount of the previous year's award and the name of the recipient they had in mind. I have since started sending a lump sum to cover multiple years at a time.

It doesn't take a lot of work, or money, to make a young woman an award-winning technologist--I challenge you to help me create even more.

This article is the result of 102 minutes of my life according to the stopwatch on my iPhone. These minutes have helped to define who I am. I am the discarded and accepted ideas that this piece contains or once contained. I am the corrected typos, and the time lost to indecision as to what I should say next. I am the ebbs and flows between anxiety and confidence that I am starting to understand are part of being a writer.

For 102 minutes, my keyboard and I have been colluding to turn something swirling around in my head into something that can swirl around in yours. I chose to spend this time this way because I hoped I would be better for having given these ideas my attention and focus. I chose to spend this time this way because I hoped you, dear reader, would get something out of having spent the time reading what I have to say.

How we choose to use our time moment by moment defines who we are and who we will become. I find this truth both interesting and terrifying.

I am a planner by nature. I like to think through what will happen and when. I like to make mental flow charts with all the errors and edges accounted for. This predilection for planning has always seemingly disagreed with advice I have been given around focusing on the present moment. I spent years under the impression that you could either be presentist or planner, but not both.

I started to believe that advice around staying in the present moment was meaningless to anyone who wanted to get anything done. For most of my life getting things done meant looking forward and learning from the patterns of the past. The present moments flew by without me much noticing. Everything was a longer con than one moment could impact.

But I was wrong to put the present moment into that small a box. I have finally come around to understand that whatever we do with the present moment is who we are. I have finally come to understand that we are always changing, always morphing, always a slightly different person than one moment earlier.

I have spent the last ten months tracking my time, reflecting deeply on what I do, when, how much and why. I have had the opportunity to discuss time with friends, family and strangers as a result of this work and I am still somewhat shell shocked by what I have come to realize both about myself and about those around me.

I have come to understand that many people see time as a hardship, a burden and a chore to dwell on, to wait on, to wade through, to manage and to resent.

I feel like I have been let in on a little secret: Time is truth. But with this quickly came the realization that many people don’t want to talk about time because they don’t want to face their truth.

I have talked to people who want to keep telling themselves stories about how time is in their way, never on their side. I have met people who truly believe that their life happens in the overflow of what time allows.

I have found that many people want to talk about concepts like life hacks, time management, efficiency, work/life balance and productivity in a vacuum of an unreachable perfect life and then they want to return to riding on time’s back toward wherever it decides to take them next.

I have also learned that there are good and fundamentally human reasons for all this avoidance and anxiety when it comes to time.

Time is a scary concept. No matter what age you are or what you choose to do with your life, time is something you can’t escape. We know from a young age that time is of limited supply, and yet we never know how little or how much we have left. No matter how hard we try to predict what will happen, when it will happen or how, time often has other plans we are not privy to until in the present moment.

I believe there are at least two modes for dealing with the uncertainty of our time.

Mode 1: Surf the Uncertainty

The first mode is to give in and ride uncertainty like a wave towards the whatever. People who are set to this mode believe that they were dealt a hand and now they are playing it out. People set to this mode put off change for another day, which will surely be an easier day than today. They stay in jobs they hate, they continue to spend time and heart on people who are bad for them, they keep behaving in ways they know are harmful or counter to who they wish they were. They seem to be waiting for change to be doled out, and are often left disappointed that today was not the day the world changed them.

I believe that people set to this mode are so because they believe that what they have is all they can ever have. For those in this mode, fate is written and their days are numbered.

Mode 2: Become the Uncertainty

Have you ever met someone who seems to have the confidence to be ok with whatever awful thing is happening in their life? They have just been diagnosed with cancer, and still seem to have smile on their face. They have just lost a loved one and yet they keep going towards their goals. They get laid off and manage to see it as a blessing in disguise.

These people are not unburdened by the dramas that uncertainty has dropped on their laps. They are not repressing their reality. Instead they are embracing the uncertainty, and they are becoming it.

People with their hearts and minds set to the second mode are willing to move heaven and earth to live the life they hope for. They are willing to keep trying even when trying feels like more effort than it is worth given the current climate. Sometimes they get what they want, sometimes they fail and resolve themselves to try again. They inflict uncertainty onto themselves because they see it as a superpower.

I have been lucky to be brought up by and surrounded by people primarily set to this second mode. I have also had the opportunity to watch people I care about flip the mode switch, taking a stab in the dark at their hopes after years of riding the wave of uncertainty.

This mode isn’t one we set once. We spend our lives vacillating between these two modes. This mode gets reset each day as our eyes flutter open and can flip with every breath or step that we take.

If you feel uncertain, welcome to the club. We all feel that way. If you feel like you are riding the uncertainty instead of becoming it, flip the switch just for a moment and be what happens next.

Technical Debt: More than Just Code

Wow, I’d thought, walking away from the first meeting. They really need some help. 

Their situation didn’t surprise me. It’s a story most of us have heard time and time again: A business adopts a technology, the system is poorly implemented in one way or customized in several, power struggles over ownership complicate communication, and the company limps along with these injuries for years. 

Where did it all start, and how did it get so bad?

We want a website! When do we want it? Now!

I figure it was around the mid-to-late 90s when Boards of Directors everywhere were forced to stop ignoring that “Company Internet Page” agenda item and finally take action. 

So they registered a domain name, sent somebody from the public relations team to Microsoft FrontPage training, and put up a one-pager with the company logo at the top, a horizontal rule, and a bunch of Times New Roman after that. 

Many of these companies eventually adopted primitive content management systems, but several failed to use them to their full capacity, and in most cases, not even correctly. At one of my first jobs, the company had a CMS, but couldn’t “M” the “C” in it very well because every page was just one giant-ass text field filled with HTML tags and inline styles.

The system was used by the publishing team, maintained by the IT team, and abused by everyone. (No one had had proper training, either.) I was eventually tasked with working in it, and my favorite atrocity was — on the homepage — finding the text “nbsp,” surrounded by white font tags, repeated several times over to create some white space between two article blurbs. 

Eventually the company dumped that CMS and got another one, but things didn’t improve.

It’s Mine. No, it’s MINE.

Things did start to mature, though, and around the “let’s have a fixed-width site with really tiny Arial font” wave of 2003, places were starting to train their developers in classic ASP and put out some simple data-driven programs for the web. The majority of these devs had only worked on grey desktop applications for internal processes — a timesheet app, or maybe one that made minor edits in the company’s customer database — and the battle for website ownership began.

At the place where I worked, the publishing team — the writers, and in our case, the folks with design skills — were suddenly told to “sit back and shut up” while the IT team selected (with very little concern for the actual needs of the other team), implemented (with seemingly no care for workflow), and controlled the content that went on the web.

Want something on the website? Send it to the IT team. They’ll decide what gets published.

Find a bug? Get in line, sister.

Need something on the website, like now, because it’s actually serious, not simply something I forgot, not “just-me” important, but “it affects our whole company” important. Well, maybe if you planned ahead more, like we do here in IT, this wouldn’t happen.

I once overheard two IT guys discussing the “absurd” request they’d gotten from marketing to kindly please have the ability to publish their own content. “Are they serious?” one had remarked. “I mean, they could just go and write ‘Fuck you’ on the homepage.”

I was an “IT guy” myself at the time, and knew the marketing team would save their “Fuck yous” for something else.

PDFs for Everyone!

Despite the IT team’s focus on control and ability to click the “publish” button, and despite the marketing team’s focus on creation of content, no one seemed to really worry about the quality or quantity of the content. 

Pages were created at break-neck pace. Everything, everything, everything the company published on paper — from journals to newsletters to flyers — was put out on the website. Microsites were created for every event, no matter how small. Vanity URLs appeared on stickers and buttons and magnets. Redirects to redirects were the norm.

The site had a tertiary nav that grew to a quaternary nav that grew to a quinary nav that usually had only one page under it. The site exploded with PDFs. Can’t find where it should go? Make it a PDF. No time to create a page in that beast CMS? PDF it is. 

I once asked who the site’s audience was. The answer? “The world!”

Rise of the Homegrown

As customers started to expect more and more functionality beyond static pages, companies were faced with a new problem: Finding an off-the-shelf program that did what they needed or writing one internally from scratch. 

Although many made noble attempts not to “reinvent the wheel,” their company’s need most often proved to be a very special snowflake for which no out-of-the-box system could suffice. 

Enter the homegrown system.

Homegrown systems, many developed as long as a decade ago, still live on in companies today. These legacy systems often took years to develop, were QA’d by the same guy who wrote them, and are referred to internally by the developer’s name. (“I dunno, that’s Bob’s app. If you have a question, you just send him an email.”) 

Oftentimes, “Bob’s app” has become so intertwined with a company’s processes that the idea of replacing it, even with a widely adopted and community-vetted OOTB program that does nearly the same thing, seems impossibly daunting.

Highly customized systems are no different. If a company did make the decision to purchase instead of writing a system internally, task number one was usually to customize it to account for the 10% or so of special functionality the company needed. 

Instead of working to change the internal process to adapt to what would be different, many places customized the fuck out of these systems, year after year, making any chance of upgrade impossible.

Documentation? Not on my watch.

Bob, the guy who wrote that app? He’s a nice guy. In fact, he’s a super-nice guy. Bob will answer your questions and not be a dick. Bob might even take your idea for an improvement and do it!

Bob, man, he’s the guy. 

But what Bob isn’t very good at, maybe because no one ever asked him to (but more likely because there wasn’t any time for it), is documenting whatever the fuck is going on in his app.

Bob doesn’t just not document his code — he’s the only one who works on it, so why bother? — he’s never written anything about what it does, how he changed it back in ‘09, or the third-party dependencies it has.

So when a company’s Bob leaves, as Bobs often do, they’re SOL.

Don’t Click That

Some places do have documentation, though. In fact, I once heard of a company that had an 80-page user guide. Problem was that the giant user guide was for their customer-facing eCommerce system. 

If a new user wanted to transact on the system, they needed to fill out the online form, wait 3 days for a customer service rep to hand-key them into multiple disconnected databases, wait for a confirmation email, and then schedule a training session with the one person in the company who knew how to train users on the how to buy something. 

The site was so complex, so tailored to the needs of the company’s internal systems, that a user off the street would be helpless if they tried to do anything. The idea of designing the system to work for the needs of its external audience was the farthest thing from their minds.

A New Hope

To borrow a phrase from a friend, and one I’ve heard repeated many times throughout my career, is that companies sometimes can’t get out of their own way. Their websites sprang up from a need to have a website, not necessarily as a way to actually meet their customers’ needs. 

In everything from terminology to functionality, serving the internal needs of the business came first — and for some, it’s still that way. Thousands of companies — even those with household names — are paying developers and designers to stamp out the smoldering fires of the past, so much so that focusing on the future becomes lower and lower priority. 

So many of the people working at these companies are tired. Tired of dealing with the bullshit, tired of the customer complaints, tired of the look their friends give them when they pull up the site on an iPhone. They’re convinced their company is the only one still operating this way. Their systems are full of technical debt — and emotional debt as well. 

They know things have to change.

That’s where we come in. We’ve been down these roads before, and we know the way out. And as we look into the frustrated faces of the people seeking our help, we can nod, listen — and assure them that they’re not alone.

The Internet has a Long Memory

My nephew has a social media account. He probably has a few I haven't found, and a dozen that his parents don't know about. In looking at what I believe is his main account, I have to wonder if he will ever move beyond this moment.

See, the Internet has a long memory.

When he is at his first job, the Internet will still remember his college days. When he is in college, the Internet will still remember his high school days. When he is in high school, the Internet will still remember his junior high school days, his elementary school days, and, thanks to me, his toddler and infant days.

He won't be able to move beyond those moments. They are there online. On Facebook. On Twitter. On Instagram. Out there for the world to see.

He won't be able to move beyond his mistakes, if he decides later that what was a good idea now turns out to be not such a good idea then.

He won't be able to reinvent himself in ways that I could when I was younger and my family moved to a different state, or when I moved away for college, or on to my first job.

There's a release in being able to reinvent yourself, in being able to leave a space and time, and become who you want to be, become who you can be. There's a growth that happens when you learn from your mistakes and leave a part of your history behind.

I worry about my nephew, about his generation and those after him. I don't know that they will ever have that chance to reinvent themselves.

The Internet has a long memory.

You Are A Special Snowflake!

In Guy Kawasaki’s book Art of the Start, he says it’s pointless to have a business plan when you start your company. The reason being that you don’t know what people will buy from you. I have found this to be amazingly true in all of my business ventures. Especially nGen Works.

When we started nGen, we were four people who wanted to try something new. Two designers, one designer/dev and a usability specialist. We never really thought about positioning ourselves. We only wanted to let everyone know that we were here and we were doing fun, innovative things on the web. The work we shared attracted our first wave of clients. Life was good.

As we became successful, we thought we needed to be a grown-up company. That led to a “business plan” and the beginning of some trouble. Not because we were trying to do things on purpose, but because we were basing our plans on what we saw others doing. What we perceived to be successful. As I’ve gotten to know many of the companies we admired in those days, I’ve found that a perception was exactly what we saw. Many of those companies were basing their plans on other companies they admired. None of us knew exactly what we were doing.

Over the 12 years nGen has existed, it’s been five different companies. Each reinvention wasn’t based on market changes or heightened awareness or landing a big client but on changes in the team. Sometimes it was as small as adding one person with a completely different idea of who we should be. Other times it was a slow shift to a new group who had skills and passions that changed what we could offer.

But I could never see the real reasons for the changes as much as feel we made good business decisions. That’s human nature, though. When something good happens we look in the mirror and say, “haven’t I done well!” And when things go to hell we look out a window and say, “look at what they did, those incompetent bastards!”

This newest iteration of nGen has grown based on the work that was coming in. Mostly design work with some dev needs. As the work needs grew, we built a team to support it based on individual character and skills. Like any company experiencing growth, there were challenges. Everyone had different backgrounds and different experiences. In many ways, the process was being developed as the team was being on-boarded and the projects were kicked off. The whole time more work was lining up.

With so many moving parts, it can be tough to figure out how to make adjustments. Recently we found that, with the best of intentions, we were becoming a culture of effort vs. a culture of delivering. The team was engaged and working hard, sometimes too hard. But we didn’t have traction. Some simple process shifts, specifically making and keeping good commitments, have already had a positive impact. As I watched the process of talented individuals learning to work together, I had a realization. We are building a team around our idea of what our company should be. What if we build a company around the idea of what our team could be?

What if this time we do it on purpose. Boil down what each team member is the absolute best at and put those capabilities on a list. Then see what, collectively, the team can be the best at when we add all the ingredients together.

*BEGIN SPORTSBALL ANALOGY*

Joe Gibbs is one of the most successful coaches in NFL history. What makes him a legend wasn’t that he won three Superbowls. It was that he did it with three different quarterbacks. Not just different in terms of their names, but in terms of the way they played the game. A huge reason for his success was he never put together a plan and then assembled a team to execute it. He assembled a team and then put together a plan based on their unique capabilities.

*END SPORTSBALL ANALOGY*

Jim Collins shares this idea in his book Good To Great when he says it’s more important to get the right people on the bus and then decide where you’re going.

So I challenge everyone reading this to take the next hour and ask yourself, what can I do better than anyone? Is that what I’m doing every day? Then ask what the individuals on my team are better at that anyone? Are they doing that?

We have to break out of this cookie cutter idea of what we offer as digital agencies. Just scroll down any one of our websites and you’ll see a variation on the same cool icons describing very similar processes.

Originality starts by focusing on what makes each of us different. So let’s embrace our quirky differences and let that uniqueness take the web back to a place of discovery and exploration.

So here we are. I have 2 more days until I need to publish something for the Pastry Box... and I have nothing useful to say. No tricks, no tips, no anecdotes, no tech or design news... I basically got nothing.

I use to see my writing as a way of giving back to our design community that I love so much, but in the past 2 years or so I found myself sharing less and less. This really bothers me. I have a ton of experience and there shouldn't be any reason why not to share that experience with others. So, why am I suddenly having such a hard time?

Dunno.

Perhaps in the meantime there are other ways I can give back? I've been spending my off time producing music, mainly finding and mixing music, and I've been enjoying every minute of it. So perhaps instead of sharing some thoughts on the industry or tips on how to work better, I thought I'd share some music in hope that it'll help you concentrate better while you work.

Here ya go

Choosing Nothing: Be Kind, Please Unwind

Every day, we make decisions on how we want to spend our time. I choose to keep coding and designing away, while watching tv. I choose to listen to audiobooks more than I curl up with a perfect-bound novel with a musky smell, just so I can also clean up the kitchen or chop some veggies at the same time. I choose to multi-task and feel more productive because of it. I feel like I’ve ultimately hacked “the system”. I keep myself busy, because I like doing things. But, I’ve realized something: I’ve forgotten how to unwind. Or rather, I had chosen to not unwind properly. I don’t mean unwind in the spa or vacation sense, but in a molecular sense of just a day, on a regular basis. Something that is routine, not something I wait to do weeks or months later once I’m utterly exhausted. An unwind that is a not a bandaid, but a regular process that isn’t packaged with another action. Rather, it’s a little bit of time every day that is reserved for choosing to do absolutely nothing.

A few months back, a coworker from NC was making arrangements to visit The Iron Yard campus I taught at in Austin. She asked where the closest yoga studio was and there happened to be one near campus, so I sent links her way and didn’t give it another thought. When she got to town, she asked if I wanted to go with her the next day to the yoga studio for a class she had signed up for. I was perplexed. I don’t do yoga and I’m busy, I thought. I also didn’t really know where to start or what to expect. As that thought crossed my mind I realized I hadn’t given yoga a chance, so I agreed, with a “sure, why not”. I had no idea what I was in for.

We went to a restorative yoga class, a type of yoga that helps reset the body and mind, and has more to do with resting in a pose than it does stretching or exerting oneself. Sounded easy enough. At first, I felt awkward, and within the first few poses, that’s when it hit me. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. As I sat there in a basic seated position resting between two other poses, I thought of nothing. My mind was blank and I felt completely rested and calm. As we moved to different poses, my mind continued to follow the directions our instructor calmly stated and my mind continued to stay blank. By the end of the class, I felt like I was floating as I took in and let out each breathe. As we walked back to the campus, my arms and legs moved with a purpose and my thoughts were organized. I felt in-sync between what my body and mind were doing together. Within a week, I was doing daily yoga poses by screen-sharing Yoga Studio, an app I downloaded on my phone, onto my TV. In every session, the instructor starts seats calmly breathing for a few minutes, reminding users to listen to their breathe. Most workouts end with the corpse pose, laying flat on the mat, with arms on the side, and eyes—whether open or closed—facing upwards, again, listening to breathing.

At the end of the day, it’s a lessoned learned from yoga, not necessarily a requirement or recommendation to do yoga, but to just do nothing. It works in any room. It works when staring out onto a neighborhood street. It’s a great idea if you need a break from code or while watching a rare eclipse. Sitting still and listening to our breath. It’s the simplest thing and it works wonders and can become a regular routine. We all make choices about how we spend our time. I choose to not give up my cooking, cleaning, and audiobook habits, because I very much so enjoy cooking and enjoying a book. Now, I’m also consciously choosing to stare at a wall and listen to my breathing, sometimes in yoga poses and sometimes just sitting on the couch. If we put the phones and devices away sooner, ignore all the noise, and pause for these unitasking breaks, I think we can remind ourselves to unwind in a more productive way, all while doing nothing.

Make stuff you love and talk about stuff you love and you’ll attract people who love that kind of stuff. It’s that simple. —Austin Kleon

The secret to success in our fast-paced industry is, I believe, straightforward: make things, share things and – last, but by no means least – be nice to people. That’s it, really.

Like most things in life that are worth knowing, it’s a blindingly obvious recipe for success, and yet, there are many that don’t quite get it. That, in some respects, explains why this month’s instalment on our creative journey echoes and amplifies some of the elements covered in last month’s instalment, You Are a Channel.

Our industry hurtles forward at an often alarming rate. At times it can feel hard to keep up (and I’m sure everyone – no matter how confident they may appear on the outside – worries at least once in a while about their ability to keep up).

To stay focused and to remain relevant it’s important to make things, always. Find something new, learn it and add a new string to your bow. It’s equally important to share things. There’s no point hiding your prototypes away in a closed off corner of the web; why not share them, for the benefit of others?

Lastly, never forget your Ps and Qs. Never forget to put in a kind word from time to time. What goes around comes around. If you’ve contributed, you’ve banked some good will; when you’re stuck next time, you’ve credit in the bank. Likewise, that simple ‘thank you’ probably reverberated more than you thought it did. (So few say ‘thank you’ any more.)

Make things. Share things. Be nice to people. Follow these three pieces of advice and I believe you’ll find life a lot easier (and a lot more pleasurable, too).

Here’s one I made earlier…

As an educator I’m fortunate to enjoy a career that calls for constant creation. In order to teach effectively, I need to be making, constantly. You don’t need to be an educator, however, to benefit from the act of constant creation.

Learning doesn’t end when you finish school, or university, learning should be lifelong. You should always be learning something. When you’ve pinned down the basics, move on to the intermediates, before tackling the advanced. When you’ve reached mastery of a subject area, move on and explore something new. (I explored this idea in Join the Dots, stressing the need to build a ‘Latticework of Mental Models’ to operate effectively as a designer.)

In his excellent book, Managing Oneself, Peter Drucker explores what he calls ‘The Second Half of Your Life’, stressing the need to keep learning throughout your life (preparing yourself for the unexpected consequences that may hit you later in life). As Drucker puts it:

We now accept the fact that learning is a lifelong process of keeping abreast of change. And the most pressing task is to teach people how to learn.

Understanding how you learn is an article (or even a book) in itself, perhaps the first step in the process is acknowledging that everyone has something to learn.

In my first few weeks as an educator, while delivering a series of workshops introducing and exploring Photoshop, I ‘collided’ with a student who, having failed to attend any of the sessions, told me, “I already know Photoshop.” I replied, not even Thomas Knoll, ‘knows Photoshop’.

Sadly, I lost that individual, as he ‘had nothing to learn’.

What ‘View Source’ Really Represents

Making is only one half of the equation, however, sharing is just as important. As Peter Drucker puts it: “No one learns as much about a subject as one who is forced to teach it.” In order to explain something properly, you really need to understand it. Deeply.

We’re fortunate to work in an incredibly open industry. ‘View Source’ changes our perspectives fundamentally. It allows us to look beneath the bonnet (or under the hood) and see how things work. It’s also the perfect metaphor for our industry, one that is founded on sharing, and collaboration at every turn.

This openness drives our industry forward, it relentlessly encourages innovation, but why stop at ‘View Source’? Why not go one step further and spend some time writing up what you did, exploring the how and the why for the benefit of others? Many do and, thanks to their generous spirit, we have a wealth of knowledge on which we can all draw.

As an educator I spend a great deal of time explaining how to make things, and I’m never less than impressed by the sheer volume of ‘behind the scenes’ walkthroughs that are there to draw on.

Very few other industries have, for example, tools like CodePen, which – more than, “a playground for the front end web” – represents an opening up of process and a shared learning resource. In addition to being thankful for what we have, where possible we might contribute to these resources ourselves, for the betterment of all.

Karma Matters

Lastly, after making and sharing, be nice to people. It costs nothing and it always pays off.

As a child, I grew up in Scotland, living for the most part with my grandparents. My grandmother was a stickler for manners, and rightly so. She always insisted on timely thank you letters and, whenever we finished a meal, we weren’t allowed to leave the table without saying, “Please may I leave the table, and thank you for my dinner.”

My brother and I could rattle off that phrase – “Please may I leave the table, and thank you for my dinner.” – incredibly quickly, but that phrase lives with me until this day. We were incredibly fortunate and my grandmother made sure we acknowledged that fact.

My grandparents passed away a few years ago, and I miss them greatly, but I’ll never forget the fundamentals that they taught me: always be appreciative, and when someone does you a kind turn never forget to say ‘thank you’, and acknowledge their act of kindness.

I always echo this sentiment to my students. As I put it:

You might go on to succeed in life, which is wonderful, but never forget who you are or where you came from. Treat everyone with respect. You never know what others might achieve, and you may meet them on the way up, when you’re on your own way, back down.

Karma’s important. Just as important as the benefits of making and sharing.

In Closing…

Make things, share things, and be nice to people. Simple. We work in a wonderful industry, characterised by openness and – for the most part – good will. Do your best to add to the world, not take away. Ask yourself, what might I do today to help others, and how might I share my hard-won knowledge so that others might flourish?

I’m looking forward next month to exploring the idea that process matters as much as outcome and that often the journey you’ve taken is as interesting, if not more interesting, than the destination. See you in a month for the penultimate step of the journey.

1.

It took me a while to understand the concept of a minimum viable product.

I spent my summers with my grandfather, who taught me that nothing's worth doing if you can't do it right. Perfect. I learned discipline, and that discipline involved working until things were done.

Not until they were okay. Until things were done.

My grandfather was an army recruiter. He was a store owner. He cut his own firewood and stacked it perfectly. He fixed small engines.

He wasn't obsessive - he understood that sometimes, things CAN'T be perfect. But the solution was easy: he simply didn't bother with those things.

He didn't know what a minimum viable product was. I'm not sure he'd ever understand it, either.

2.

I have promised everyone I know that I am going to start writing a book. But, to be perfectly honest, I don't want to. I'm scared as hell.

I'm not worried about whether or not I have anything to say. I'm worried about whether or not I can say it all. That I'll forget something. That it will go to print incomplete.

These are real fears, because I no longer live in a world where I have to worry about this. On the web, mistakes can be fixed. There is no print run; no proof sheets or air date. The web is rolled out a bit at a time. Mistakes aren't remembered. They're just fixed.

A book, though. Those mistakes are there until the next edition. If there is a next edition at all.

3.

My fields - content strategy and information architecture - can be approached from a hundred different angles. I approach it from the library science angle, because I identify with the completeness and organization of that angle.

Those of us who cherish the library sciences have difficulty with minimum viable product, because when you are organizing and cataloging books and files and content, you do so to completion. The idea that there are things on the edges can be maddening.

Which is why I had to teach myself, little by little, to accept close enough. And I suck at it.

But that's the web.

4.

Minimum viable product can be learned. We all have things that we let slide for reasons of a faster launch. Despite my perfectionism with document design and kitchen cleanliness, I fail miserably with self-editing. I want every thought to be correct, but I can't be bothered to make sure the words are spelled correctly.

It's a twisted way of writing, and it comes from the pull of perfection: I know, as a writer, that I will sit on something until it has withered away, so I force myself to post fast and loose.

It's maddening to me. But, if I didn't do it, I wouldn't have anything to show for the hours I spend. This is one little thing I do to counteract perfectionism. It's one small step toward minimum viable product.

5.

I've learned two things since working on the web.

First, sometimes, good enough is good enough.

Second, that first thing only makes sense if you understand there's always room to go back and make good enough a little better.

I still suck at it. I hope I can change. I'm not sure I can. So I have to just fight for progress, learning a bit at a time what good enough really means.

It’s not what you say. It’s how you say it.

For the longest time, every professional bio of mine has included something along the lines of, “My superpower is taking complex concepts and making them simple.” A Creative Director once wrote that on an annual review, and I’ve loved it ever since.

Lately, I’ve been working on a project that’s shown me just how valuable that superpower is. I’m part of a two-woman content/copy team responsible for writing a wellness & weight loss curriculum.

My co-writer is super-smart — works-in-a-research-lab smart. But, she writes at graduate student level, and our curriculum needs to be at a 5th-6th grade level. So for the past few weeks, I’ve been “translating” her writing.

When we first started, I thought I’d be able to tear through her lessons. I was surprised to find out just how time-consuming this kind of “writing” can be. Because it’s not just about finding two-syllable substitutes for four-syllable words, or sticking to a simple sentence structure. Those are the easy parts.

The part I love is reading the dense, complicated explanations of biological processes — like aerobic metabolism — and figuring out how to describe them in simple language. I like taking a 100-word paragraph and distilling it down to its core meaning.

This is painstaking work. But it’s as satisfying as untangling a ball of yarn or a chain you find at the bottom of your jewelry box. Sometimes I’ll hit a paragraph that can take half an hour to work through. Reading the “before” and “after” gives me a thoroughly geeky thrill.

This kind of writing is like hiking down a steep trail after a rainstorm. You’ve got to step carefully, picking your way around newly exposed rocks. You’re forced to slow down. To stick to the trail.

And afterwards, when I sit down to write for another client, another project, there’s such a sense of freedom. All the clauses! All the words! All the loping, wandering, saying-words-for-the-sake-of-saying-them joy of expression.

It’s so easy to write when there are no “rules.” When you can use any word. Make up your own sentence structure. Hear a rhythm in your head and follow it, without caring whether anyone else hears it, too.

But great poets are bound by meter and they make magic. So do musicians. I want to be like them. I want even the simplest 5th grade-level copy I write to be well written. I want it to flow. And when it finally does, that’s when my job is done.

Six to eight weeks.

When I worked in tech support, that was the magic number. Six to eight weeks after the software upgrade, the support calls would drop off. Six to eight weeks after the elevation, the users would understand most of the navigation and tools, adjust to the typography changes, and understand the new processes. Six to eight weeks after we went live, we'd finally get to take a breath.

We'd catch the worst show-stopping bugs in elevation, maybe as late as a two-week warranty, but it still took six to eight weeks for the calls to die down.

Call it a reverse honeymoon period, if you will: the first 6-8 weeks after launch all the users hate everything. New logo? Childish. New navigation? Confusing. New font? Hard to read. New imagery? Asinine. The concentration of "your website sucks" messages during that time period is 10x that of a normal day.

People hate changing.

(They don't actually hate change. Well, they don't hate change that affects *you*. They hate change that affects *them*. They hate changing.)

After the reverse honeymoon period, something amazing happened: all the adjustment complaints melted away and the tech support calls that were left were all real problems. Usually not showstoppers. Usually subtle annoyances we overlooked when we were heads-down in the project. Usually easily correctable. But lost in the shuffle of the complaints and frustrations of the previous six to eight weeks.

***

As an industry, we used to elevate big changes once a year, and some companies still do. Apple releases one OS. Microsoft releases one version of IE. Everything else is bug fix.

The web world has moved from one major launch a year to one a quarter to one every sprint. Maybe not the same functionality - even the best designers take weeks to rebuild a wacky purchase process - but *something* goes up every few weeks.

We have an unprecedented ability to find mistakes, fix them, and elevate repairs, whether they're in the requirements, the design, or the execution of the code. As soon as we hear of an issue, especially a hot issue, we can be on top if it.

That's great! Except that our users haven't scaled with the times. It still takes them six to eight weeks from launch until they relax into a new design, and during that time, they've got all the vitriol and panic necessary to convince a product owner that the launch is a disaster and everything needs to change right now.

A few years ago, the product owner would call and say "OMG THE FONT THEY HATE IT CHANGE IT RIGHT NOW," and we'd say, "Well it'll have to go up in the next elevation in three months," and by the time we got around to actually coding the change, the users had relaxed, the product owner had relaxed, and hey, this really wasn't such a bad after all, it was much more readable than the old one.

Today, we don't have the luxury of the inflexible waterfall process to stop us from making reactionary changes. So we can change the font again, and again, or first the font, then the buttons, then the spacing…. because there's nothing to stop us from constantly reacting to our feedback.

So I suggest this: heed your reverse honeymoon periods carefully. Remember your six to eight weeks. If silo A of your product is being upgraded, then as soon as that launch starts, move your development team to silo B, and stay there for at least 6-8 weeks, so that when you launch B's changes, A has had enough burn-in that your tech support folks know what's really wrong. Let your representativess do their jobs before you try to address the noise. Let everyone get through the 8 weeks of silo A's problems before you launch silo B's new upgrade, so no one's taking a trip on two reverse honeymoons at once.

Respect your users enough to give them time to change.

And then when you're done, buy those tech support folks some pizza or something. They're getting yelled at about everything you screwed up, after all. And they're doing it for six to eight weeks.

How many talks have I given over the years? How many times have I stood at the front of a room, on a stage or in front of a chalkboard or otherwise before an audience, and talked at them for an hour or so?

Lanyrd says 72 as I write this, with two more coming this year. But Lanyrd only goes back to 2003, so I already know it’s missing some of my past appearances. Everything from 1995 (or was it 1996?) through 2003, for example. The talks I’ve done for college classes and user groups in Cleveland. Probably others as well. So let’s round it off to an even one hundred, and pretend like that’s a meaningful milestone or something.

I used to talk about code, style, standards, all that stuff. It was all, as the cliché goes, subjects for which I had prepared not my talk, but myself. I knew the subject so thoroughly, I pretty much never wrote out a script. I wrote an outline, assembled slides or demos or whatever to support that outline, and then mostly improvised my way through the talk. The closest I got to rehearsal was back in 2007, I think, when my talk was two slides in Keynote and then a bunch of pre-created style snippets that I dropped into a live web page, saving and reloading, talking about the changes as I went. Live-coding, except without relying on my sloppy typing skills.

(That one was called “Secrets of the CSS Jedi”, where I took a table of data, marked up as such, and turned it into a bar graph live on stage, the summary line of which I still remember: “CSS does not care what you think an element should look or act like. You have far more power than you realize.” That was a revolutionary thing to say back then. We were coders once, and young.)

These days, my talks are nearly or entirely code-free, as I explore topics like compassion in design, and the ways that our coding has a profound influence on society now and into the future. The talks generally start life as 9,000-word essays that I edit, rearrange, patch up, re-edit, polish, and then rehearse. After the first two rehearsals, I re-re-edit and re-polish. Then I rehearse several more times.

The point of all this being:

I stumble through my rehearsals, getting more and more incoherent, getting more frustrated every time I have to start over, certain I’ll never get the words to work, increasingly convinced it means the ideas behind them have no merit at all, until I want to curl up in a cushion fort and never come out. I grapple with the fear that even if by some miracle I do have one or two worthwhile things to say, they’ll be buried in a flood of stuttered half-sentences and self-protective rhetorical tricks.

So I get nervous before my talks. Adrenaline surges through me, elevating my pulse and making my palms sweat as they get prickly, the cold fire washing up my arms and into my cheeks. I pace and fidget, concentrating on my breathing so I don’t hyperventilate. Or hypoventilate, for that matter.

I do this before every talk I give at An Event Apart, even when I’ve given the talk half a dozen times previously. I did it before I hit the stage at XOXO 2015. I did it before I started my talks at Rustbelt Refresh.

A hundred public talks or more, and it’s still not easy. I’m not sure it ever will be easy. I’m not sure it ever should be easy.

The further point being:

Every speaker I know feels pretty much exactly the same. We don’t all get the same nervous tics, but we all get nervous. We struggle with our fears and doubts. We all feel like we have no idea what we’re doing.

So if you’re afraid to get up in front of people and share what you know: you’re in very, very good company. I know this, because I am too.

If you have something to share—and you do—try not to let the fear stop you.

We’re all afraid up there.

Better than Christmas Morning

People frequently ask me whether I like or enjoy the work that I do.

In theory, I'm helping 10% of the population (though in reality, it's probably a lot less). It's not a huge percentage, but when you live in a country that has millions of people, does it matter?

In our personal lives, we spend much of our lives trying to make even just one person happy (usually our partner, or a family member). If you knew your work was making even just one person's life better, making them happier, would you continue to do it?

Honestly, my work day-to-day can seem very disconnected from the users. It's a lot of administration, organization/coordination, training/documentation, involving a lot of emails and other writing. I communicate with staff and other organizations, but (almost) never directly with the users themselves.

On occasion though, I get an email that tells a story. Every story I get is what keeps me motivated, keeps putting into perspective how important my work is to people.

It landed in our support email inbox, and while I don't remember every word, I will never forget these few words. The simple revelation that our service existed to a young girl made her exclaim that it was:

better than Christmas morning.

Until I saw it, I never thought about how much of an impact my work might have on another person's life, let alone that it actually affects a lot of people in a significant way.

Whenever I start getting the feeling that my work is pointless, I remember the stories, not just this one, but others as well.

If you haven't found your motivation for your work, then maybe you just need to look. Find even just one story of how you've improved someone else's life in a big or small way. Use it. Help yourself to keep going.

feel afraid. write anyway. repeat.

I have this fear tape (DVD? Blue Ray?) that loops in my head. I've never found the off switch. Fear doesn't have an off switch, I'm learning. It's one of my permanent passengers.

Embracing fear as a companion will probably always feel hard, but it's maybe less exhausting than always fighting it. Every so often, when I remember, I ask Fear to pull over, shoo it to the passenger seat where it belongs, and plunk myself back behind the wheel where I belong.

Fear seems to show up in my creative life a lot. And by a lot I mean every damn second. I've been working on ways to be more firm with it. Less angry. More understanding. This involves the occasional love note.

Dearest Fear,

Thanks for looking out for me. Writing is scary. It's true.

  • I worry people are rolling their eyes at me.
  • I worry they're bored.
  • I worry there isn't a "they."
  • I worry that the non-theys saying I write good are either skilled liars or have “Fifty Shades of Grey” on their “Literary Genius” list.
  • I worry that online writing has changed so much since I joined the scene in 1998 that everything I publish should come in the form of thought-provoking essays when mostly I just want to remember the time the dog ate my Crocs and I wasn't sure if I should discipline him or respect his activism.
  • I worry I’ll never stop comparing myself to other writers and that the answer might be to step out of the arena. Stop trying.
  • I worry that I’ll worry about this stuff forever and get to the end of my life and realize I have more wrinkles than prose.

But, Fear. Darling. Honey. Not one of those things are threatening to my life. I cross my heart stick a needle in my eye promise no one will die even if every single bullet on that listicle up there is true.

Here are some reasons me and my small, sweet creative self are going to go ahead and write anyway:

  1. If I don't write, I'll forget. And the kids Emma may or may not have will miss out on the joy of knowing their mother had a pee-off with the family dog.
  2. I don’t need readers. An audience is delightful, but not necessary.
  3. I, Shanner-nanner, can be my own audience.
  4. No one is going to show up and beg me to write and I'll be really mad when that fully sinks in and I tally up all the time wasted on tantrums and hiding in corners.
  5. Writing makes me feel fantastic. Fuck perfection and social shares, Fear — LET'S WRITE A THING.
  6. Even when I write the stuff that's already been covered, no one pens with my particular whimsically-punctuated charm.
  7. Creating something from nothing is intoxicating.

I see you, Fear. I'm sorry if I've been unkind. Pass the keys, buckle up, have a sip of water. We've got words waiting.

Big, squishy love,

Shanner-nanner

"I love building things."

It's my default answer for the very general "so what do you enjoy doing?" question. I do mean it though, speaking not only as a web developer but also as someone who grew up with as many LEGO and Airfix sets my limited allowance could afford to buy me. Building things, simply for the sake of building, always felt like this balanced act of both creative romance and playfulness that we find naturally deeply satisfying. Building is exciting; it gently reminds us that we're here to serve a purpose, and this purpose can even lean towards the fun side of the equation. 

Building is fun. Building should be fun.

However, nowadays I find myself a victim, deceived by my own words. A liar, accomplice of my own scumbag brain, a brain that for so long has prevented me from thinking and behaving like a child who's eager to make stuff. This scumbag brain immediately triggers six different alarms of guilt every time I even think about building something for fun, something that's not immediately going to make anyone else's life better, easier, more meaningful.

This scumbag brain is becoming a natural suppressor of fun because it tells me that building implies learning new and more exciting code, Twitter followers, Github stars, ProductHunt starlight. Any kind of building activity that can't possibly make it to my portfolio as a Web developer is naturally shut down because "it's not the most productive use of my time". Everyone else is building the next amazing thing right now.

A while ago, I bought a 3D wooden puzzle of a Volkswagen Beetle which I tremendously love. Just imagining getting it assembled fired my dopamine levels through the roof; so I bought it to force myself to act a bit more like the child I know it's in there. Hidden away behind the curtains of a frustrated web developer, who's always after the latest blog article about the dozens of new JavaScript frameworks that came out just last week. Because that's what I'm supposed to do.

I bought this wooden puzzle almost 8 months ago, it's not even half complete and most pieces are still in the original frame. But how to convince this scumbag brain of mine that the building act, as an obligation mindset, isn't always the best path to become more of who I want to be? We know creativity strikes when we're most curious, in that child-like mindset that generates creative playfulness. The same one that reconnects with our younger and carefree selves that once painted snowy scenes with green crayons because it looked so damn cool.

There's no guilt-free card for building for fun. And yet these should be the default; people need to make more fun things, both for ourselves and others. Don't allow the medium to dictate any constraints.

I'd like to finish this Beetle eventually. Its doors are nearly finished but the bonnet needs to be sanded down a bit so it can fit the main frame. When it happens, I'll probably paint it blue. No, green! Just like the fun snow.

Do We Really Need More UX Designers? Or Better UX Designers?

Of course this is a false dichotomy, in an ideal world. In an ideal world, we could have both, to the benefit of the field and possibly the world at large. But in practice, in the actual world, the first question creates a tension with the second and flips this result on its head; in our world of limited resources, our rush to create an influx of newly minted "UX" title holders by any means necessary might backfire, to the point where "UX" becomes a thing in name only.

Granted, it’s an uncomfortable thing to think about. It can sound elitist, or like we’re shutting the door behind us, or patronizing. But I bring this up because we may be on the verge of seeing things go really wrong.

We need to have an honest conversation about about UX education and how we can take on the responsibility of designing education systems towards the best outcomes. If we don’t, it’ll be done for us, and perhaps not in a way we’d like. And in fact, what’s happening now is that honest and heartfelt excitement for the field leaves the implementation to market forces, and market forces aren’t invested in, or delivering better UX designers, just more of them.

The Sitch

 How often do you get asked, "How can I get into UX?" For me, it’s at least weekly (probably my own fault, what with going to Meetups and all). The answer they’re looking for, when I press them, is a single or couple of courses they can take, and BAM, new, cool profession. It’s usually people who want to switch careers, from marketing and PR (a lot), graphic design, advertising (also a lot), and so on. I can’t say exactly what the vector is here, but it’s understandable that they’d be interested; all you awesome people make it look damn sexy. Whether these people have a grasp on what the field is, or think it’s just a lot of chunky glasses, casual wear, and whiteboards, is a question for another article (or for Laura Klein and Kate Rutter's excellent "Don't Be a UX Designer" episode of their What Is Wrong With UX podcast).

That’s the supply side. On the demand side, more and more companies are filling out a lot of teams with roles that feature "UX" in the job title, at least (I know more than one graduate degree holder working at large internet companies who are stuck restyling button corner radii for months). This may be buzzword compliance on their part, where the buzzword is "elegant" — seen in many a UX job listing — but it’s work. 

It’s not a surprising consequence, then, that programs, usually for-profit, have grown like topsy to meet this demand.

And the practical consequence is that UX hiring managers and recruiters are overwhelmed with dozens to hundreds of applications for every position with "UX" in the title. At one IxDASF talk, the speaker admitted she could only spend 15 seconds on each portfolio; if it didn't grab her visually, she discarded that person. In a field where much of the important work may not translate to gorgeous visuals, and where it's easy for schools to provide professional-looking templates to students (whether the content is effective or not)... well, you can see the problem.

I should say that these are all probably really, really nice people, who probably have laudable goals. But as Jon Kolko points out, there are wicked problems, and even tame problems often have unintended consequences. Teaching "you will be a UX professional in two months" usually means skipping exploration of the why, conditioning students to create what one UX director calls "fake work" (no time to go into the field, even to build personas), and little sense of what one doesn’t know.

Peter Norvig wrote (some time between 2001 and 2014, going by the copyright), about "Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years", with an obvious nod to "Teach Yourself $TOPIC in 24 Hours"; I have fond memories of Laura Lemay’s HTML book in that series. Go read it; I’ll be here.

A lot of what Norvig outlines translates well to UX. For instance, when he says, "Remember that there is a 'computer' in 'computer science'", think of it as remembering there’s a "user" in "user experience". Know what attracts the human eye, how human cognition and habits work, what the differences are between in-person and computer-mediated communication, how anonymity affects behavior.

Norvig also cites solid research that it takes people about 10 years to develop expertise. And this is 10 years of deliberative practice (as with a sport, you get better by training via specificity, intensity, rest, feedback). Again, this translates well to a UX practice and community at large.

Another consequence of this rapid minting of underpracticed UX designers is how it affects the field’s perception and role in industries, whether these industries are tech or shoe stores. Certain large companies have been lapping up 10-week graduates and placing them in "UX" positions, but I use quotation marks here because despite their job title, their tasks include slicing Photoshop layers, styling button corners at the request of product managers, and other production tasks. Now, production is great! That’s a good job, and needed! But that’s not UX, and this affects the field; how many times have you been interested in a posted UX position, or talked to a startup founder, or an HR manager at a large company, and found that their idea of UX is "make it look pretty"? As Irene Au writes, designers are responsible for shaping design team and company morale and mission, too.

The Problem

So these are the new blood who flood the job market. These are, by and large, the people who come up when we say "We need more UX designers." They’re armed with process speak, with portfolios built under the supervision of, or templates from, experienced designers, and with connections. Again, I’m sure they’re all nice and smart people, and it’s amazing what you can learn when you jump in and do — but is this what we want people to think constitutes UX? (Cue "Is That All There Is?") Will we see teams filled with designers who have been taught that design is a simple application of Process A then Process B and done, good design?

Maybe not. In the last year I’ve seen a lot of pushback from directors of UX, from hiring managers, even people who helped build curricula for such programs, against hiring short-term UX course graduates. On FounderDating, even one UX professional who contributed to one school’s curriculum design looked back on his works and despaired. But those are rumblings; the profitable schools are the flood.

The schools rely on the fact that barriers to entry in UX are relatively low (which is ok — many amazing professionals have arisen from what might be surprising backgrounds and experiences). There’s no certification in the field, though that’s often a bruited topic. Lives are generally not at stake (though sometimes they are; I show my students Mike Monteiro’s "How Designers Destroyed the World" talk). But the result is not just messy but perhaps detrimental to the field: anyone hiring for UX has hundreds of applicants, reducing initial screenings to 15 seconds per portfolio; the weak ties effect eventually partitions out opportunities only to those who’ve attended these (often costly) programs; the culture of UX becomes less one of human-centered but process-centered design.

And So

I don’t meant to discount, impugn, or slam anyone in particular. These can be good problems to have: demand for services, interest in the field (if maybe not always the mission; I could write a lot on the disjunct between what people think doing UX is and the reality). But we have to be aware that we keep an eye on the processes; even the best of people and the best of intentions can lead to unsustainable systems. Let’s ask people why they want to "get into UX"; let’s take more time in teaching and in hiring; let’s be vocal.

I believe we can all agree that conferences are great. When most of our days are spent staring at a screen and pushing buttons on a machine to make things happen, it’s easy to forget about the world that’s outside and all the other people on it. Tech conferences give us a nice, relaxed, friendly environment where we can discuss ideas, get excited about emerging projects & technologies, and even share our problems and frustrations with people that really understand them. We frequently end up with friends for life in there (you have no idea how excited I get when I have the chance to meet, in real life, the great developers & designers I follow on Twitter!).

However, there’s one element of tech conferences that drives me up a wall. It’s the conference swag — the freebies you get when you arrive at a venue and they hand you your ID badge. You know the usual: a tote bag filled with a couple of cables, pens, stickers, notepads, USB sticks, flyers, mugs, bottles…

Stop.

Please, just… Just stop.

It’s just too much. Too much plastic. Too much paper. Too much waste in a world that is already incredibly wasteful. I don’t need that. We don’t need that. I know, people love free stuff, but please. Stop it. I’ll buy my own tote bags, cables, pens, stickers, notepads, USB sticks, mugs, bottles, and all other things if I need them. Stop littering the world with useless crap. Most of the people won’t keep half of the items. I cringe when I think of all the raw materials that were used to make all of that.

I understand most of these items are provided (or pushed) by conference sponsors, as they believe (I guess?) it will increase their visibility, likability, subscribers, or overall Klout score. Believe me, it doesn’t. You can’t clean a bad rep with freebies. You can’t make me subscribe to your business plan with a free thermos. You will not succeed to impress me with an octopus charger. You know what you can actually do to make me use your service? Give me a free trial. Make the setup process a breeze. Give me the support you would like to have if you were trying out a new tool. Or even better, give tickets and grants to people that need them. Conferences are expensive; not every one can afford them. There are many groups of people who are marginalized in tech — consider offering grants to those folks (it will make your conference better for everyone). I’m pretty sure that you will have a more profound & positive effect helping the community this way than giving free bottle openers with your company’s logo on it.

We have conferences because we want to make things better. We’re trying to make a difference, to build communities, to make positive changes in our own lives (and possibly in the lives of others as well). So why are we suddenly ignoring this mission? Most likely, we’re just too used to our patterns. Broadly speaking, the purpose of conferences is to analyze the way we do things, to help us keep what’s good and beneficial, and to drop what’s wasteful and harmful. So let’s start asking these questions everywhere, not just in tech.

If you share this opinion and believe in organizing more environmentally-friendly conferences, please share this article and add the #StopTheSwag hashtag. Who knows? Maybe we’ll get through to some conference organizers, and prevent a few tons of CO₂ and garbage from being produced.

what journalism can learn from rap

If there’s one thing journalism can learn from rap, it’s that everything was better in the ‘90s.

The golden age of hip hop was characterized by the diversity, quality, innovation, and influence of the artists that emerged in that time. Names we still talk about today — Eric B. & Rakim, Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, the list goes on.

For journalism, the ‘90s were a simpler time. A time before the internet disrupted the entire industry, back when legacy advertising business models still worked, a time when media organizations were the primary source of news for most Americans.

Rap has always been interesting to me because it draws on so many genres to create something stunningly unique. This isn’t unlike what we’ve seen in journalism in recent years — look at the influence of fields like statistics and computer science in creating new disciplines of data journalism, editorial applications and tools, and computer-assisted reporting.

Rap can be poetic — full of word play, metaphors and snark. But at its purest, rap is the most powerful storytelling. The art form has provided a medium for those underrepresented in mainstream media to shed light on their neighborhoods, their communities, their story. “Our art is a reflection of our reality,” says O’Shea Jackson Jr. in the recent NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton.

“I’m living everyday like a hustle / Another drug to juggle, another day, another struggle” — Biggie Smalls, “Everyday Struggle”

Let’s consider rap on the axes of content and flow — each with valuable takeaways for journalism.

content

Sampling is okay.

It’s aggregation, and while that’s no substitute for creation, assembling different pieces of content and creating something where the whole is other than the sum of its parts can be compelling in its own right.

Listicles are the autotune of news.

It was kind of cool for a while, but we’re over it and let’s be real. You’re using the format to hide shitty content. I don’t really care about the 19 things I should know if I was born in the ‘90s.

We need better remixes.

The idea of “the scoop” in journalism kind of died with the rise of realtime platforms like Twitter. We should also kill the practice of dismissing stories just because they’ve “already been done.” That’s not an excuse to automatically shy away from covering something — rather, it’s an opportunity for remixing and innovation. Take the story of Brooklyn’s gentrification as an example. Not a new story. Pretty much old news at this point. But a couple summers ago, The New York Times remixed this story and told it through the lens of hip-hop:

“The mean streets of the borough that rappers like the Notorious B.I.G. crowed about are now hipster havens, where cupcakes and organic kale rule.”

Bring on the guest appearances.

Collaboration breeds greatness. HOV killed it on Ye’s “Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix),” dropping one of his most quoted verses: “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!” See also: Watch The Throne, What A Time To Be Alive, A$AP Mob.

We’ve seen guest appearances in journalism as well, and it’s produced some amazing work. Take the NSA encryption story that broke in August 2013, which brought The Guardian, The New York Times and ProPublica together on a groundbreaking story. Or think back to the 2011 WikiLeaks story, where The Guardian and The Times teamed up on the investigation and coverage.

flow

There’s metrical structure to rap verses. Each artist has a distinct flow — their command of rhythm and rhyme — which sets the tone and style for each song.

“I’m just a Chi-town nigga with a Nas flow”
 — Kanye West, “Dark Fantasy”

Similarly, every journalist has a unique voice. This bubbles up to the organizational level, so when people talk about “Timesian style,” there’s a general understanding of what that means. Mr. Obama. Mr. West. Mrs. Carter. The Times’s flow is markedly more uptight than say, The Awl.

Flow in rap and voice in journalism serve analogous roles. I’ve always been fascinated by the diversity in rap styles — from Biggie’s bounce-rhythm between bars to Twista’s ridiculously fast rhymes, from Jay-Z’s cool flow to ODB’s raw aggression. Each rapper owns their style, and publications should be more assertive about developing and owning their voice.

stray thoughts

Local is about celebrating place and integrating a native, authentic voice into the work itself. Our news outlets rep our cities just like rappers rep their cities. How can we embrace the flavor, voice and feel of our geographies and cultures in our content? I was running through the six with my woes…

We’re all familiar with the East Coast — West Coast hip-hop rivalry. But the media industry also has its own Biggie vs. 2Pac feud brewing. New York is arguably the media capital of the world and the East has long been home to most of America’s renowned publications. They own finance and politics. California is both the technological forefront and entertainment epicenter, industries that also substantially impact America’s cultural fabric. Vox Media acquired Re/Code, based in the Bay Area, and Buzzfeed also opened up a San Francisco office. Will we see the rise of a West Coast media capital with enough momentum to displace New York?

We need more feuds in journalism — minus the bloodshed. Competition is good, it prevents publications from stagnation and keeps things fresh.


if rappers were publications…

Gratuitous autotuning for your enjoyment.

  1. Kanye West is The New York Times: Critically acclaimed, and even though people like to shit on him, he really does do good work.
  2. Jay-Z is the Wall Street Journal: Basically hasn’t changed for the last 10 years. All content is behind a paywall. “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!”
  3. T-Pain is Buzzfeed: A repetoire full of club hits, but there’s actually some substance under all that autotune.
  4. Common is NPR: Socially conscious with cultural impact, especially among youths. All about engagement.
  5. The Game is The Washington Post: A major player on the national stage, but all about reppin’ his city. Old school.
  6. Kendrick is Quartz: Excellent newcomer a couple years ago that had everybody talking, but less buzzed about these days.
  7. Fetty Wap is The Awl: Strong following and earned respect by doing things their own way. Too cool to show up for awards. Hint of indie, but actually more of serious operation than you might think. Cranks out hit single after hit single, all the while making asymmetry look dope.
  8. J. Cole is Fusion: Backed by big corporations (Disney, Roc Nation), but appealing to a young, diverse, and inclusive audience. Doesn't shy away from addressing racial stereotypes and owning the dialogue in that space.
  9. Macklemore is the Seattle Times: Seattle about sums it up.

This post was inspired by a session I ran with my friend Trei at News Foo a couple years ago. I'm very timely. Also thanks to Rebekah, Marie, Ryan and everyone else who came, chilled, and listened to hip hop.

What it does, not what it is

The importance of the new iPhone 6s isn't that it can shoot 4k video. It's that people will make beautiful, emotive, touching films using it.

The importance of a website isn't the underlying framework, coding language or hosting, or whether you've used PHP, .Net or node.js. It's that people can see and engage with the importance of the images and words.

The importance of a stereo system isn't the fidelity of the speakers. It's the emotion that you feel when you listen to something astonishing.

A video camera from 10 years ago, a website that is simple, flat HTML, the tinny sound from a Bakelite record player - these can all do the job of their "better" counterparts. Watch a silent Harold Lloyd film, read a piece of incredible prose, listen to Beethoven on a crappy cassette and you'll understand pretty quickly that you don't need the latest and greatest thing to be deeply touched by what you see, read or hear.

Rejecting the new isn't the answer, of course. But focussing on what it is rather than what it does - that's the danger of the high-glamour, shiny, fast paced market we face every day.

Often, the new is a distraction - learning how to use a new phone, moving your website into the latest language, setting up your new stereo. Maybe that time and money would be better used in other ways, making wonderful things out of the tools you've already got...

Dear Tech Industry,

We are no longer just the outcasts in the basement who mysteriously make the computers run. We are everywhere. We are in every industry. Everything is digital and we run this town.

Now it's time to grow up and make a real difference. Be a good ambassador for our field. Treat each other with respect. Stop being horrible to each other. Be an example of what can really be accomplished in this world. Do good work with good people and for good people.

Support the towns and systems that support you. Spend some of your excessive pay on arts, culture, and charity. Just because you know more about technology than most people doesn't mean you're smarter than everyone else, but you do hold an important key to success. There is a world out there that could use your help. Your local charities, your city, your state, your country. Disruption from the inside is what is going to make a bigger difference in people's lives, and not just the lives of our fellow techies. It's harder, but do it anyway. Make us proud.

To those already making a difference in our civic tech family, non-profits, and expanding the minds of organizations everywhere, I've got your back. I hope the rest of our field will join me in supporting you.

Sincerely,
Jenn

The Customer Is Always Write

One of the most famous mantras of the retail and service industries is “The customer is always right.” Like with many, this bite-sized mantra works because there is a kernel of insight and truth to it. That said, anyone who’s ever worked in either industry can attest to it not being always true.

As a product designer your job is to entertain the customer’s requests or demands; your responsibility is to not simply do as they wish, but to suss out what they truly need, and then design a solution for them that also takes into consideration the myriad other requirements you have to comply with.

Whether you design physical or digital products, and whether you’re part of the retail, service or some other industry, balancing customer requests is rarely easy. Often, the easy solution is neglecting to take any action at all. Inaction is a form of action, in that you’re choosing not to do something. In a designer’s case it’s a decision not to add or address a product feature.

There is a parallel to this that writers are all too familiar with.

A long time ago a friend of mine showed me her work room, a simple study with a desk covered with notepads, various sheets of paper, the odd pen. An old iMac adorned it; her primary writing instrument. We’d been discussing the challenges a writer faces; a title she held professionally, and one that I aspired to hold one day as well. I had brought up writer’s block, something I faced as a blogger all the same, and in response she took me to her study. Behind the iMac, directly in her line of sight if she looked up, was a printed sheet of paper with a scant two words, bold but not overbearing: “Just write.”

The common advice for writers is to just write, write, write, because you can always rewrite a sentence once you know what’s wrong with it. So write terrible prose with imagined splendor. Screw up grammar with delight. Typo liek there’s no tomorrow. You can fix it in post.

The same holds true with product design, but the impact of it is much greater. If you just design a feature, you still impose very real work on the project and/or product managers, the developers, the Q&A team, and so forth. Plus, you don’t generally “just design” anyway: you want your UX team to research and understand the real user needs first, so there’s already the barrier of someone else having to do work before you even get to yours.

It becomes so, so much easier to choose inaction over going down a path you don’t know the destination of, just because the customer is asking for it.

This is where I want to propose a slightly tweaked version of the mantra I mentioned at the start:

The customer is always right about asking.

Much like “the customer is always right,” the web & software design industries have long had a mantra that was equally incomplete: “the customer doesn’t know what they need.” It goes back to the much older adage of the not-quite Ford quote: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

It’s true that customers will often ask for something they don’t actually need, and in the spirit of staying focused your job as designer (or founder, or responsible party of any kind) is to always bring it back to what the customer needs.

But there are times when we dismiss customers’ requests for reasons not quite sound. Whether it’s falling prey to the belief the customer “doesn’t know what they need,” choosing inaction due to it being the easiest path, or simply deciding not to prioritize something because you can’t quite figure out how to address the problem without impeding on other (business) concerns, there will be times where that decision was the wrong one.

There are times you should just write. Try, fail, get it all wrong. Then: fix it in post.

Have you ever taken a project where, along the way, you see that your client’s organization is not really setup for doing the kind of work required. You can feel the silos, you flip through the book-length spec documents, observe the handoffs, the pixel-perfect expectations. Often, it feels like you’re running into the wind.

Over the past few years, I’ve been observing what has worked as we’ve found ways to be successful in environments that don’t embrace the kind of flexible, iterative thinking required to do great work on the Web these days. The following is my attempt to explain how you can not only survive a large-scale, enterprise, responsive redesign, but how you can thrive.

Agree on the Goals

It’s our job to successfully drive a project from where we are, to where we and our client agree it should be. A start and an end. Simple. With this ultimately simple view of a project, the biggest challenge is that you and your client may not share an understanding of the goals of the project. So, as simple as it seems, you need to spend the time to agree on the goals—agree on what you’re building, where you’re going.

There has been a lot written about stakeholder interviews, user research, and clearly defining the goals of a project. So, I won’t waste time here explaining how to do this. Just know that, without this agreement, it’s nearly impossible to be successful in a client/vendor collaboration.

Measure the Project Drag

Once there is a shared vision of the goals of the project, you need to measure the project drag. Let me explain. Imagine for a moment that you are driving a car. It’s a beautiful day, so you roll the windows down and reach your arm out the window. You can feel the air flow, trying to slow you down, pushing against you. This is drag—“a force which tends to slow the movement of an object through a liquid or gas.” In this scenario, the object is your hand and it’s being slowed by the wind resistance as it travels through the air.

Project drag is much the same. It is all the forces that are trying to slow your project as you attempt to push it through the process and achieve the agreed upon goals. So, how to you measure project drag? Turns out it’s not as difficult as you think. There are two major factors that impact project drag. They are team size and organizational variance.

Team Size

Start by making a list of all the people who will impact your project. If you’re working with a small business, this might just be the CEO and the Director of Marketing along with two or three folks from your team. If you’re working in an enterprise environment, the size of the team can be massive. I’ve been a part of projects with over 50 people involved in the work. Stakeholders, Directors, Tech Leads, UXers, Designers, Developers, Security Leads, Sys Admins, Marketers, Web Producers, Brands and their Art Directors and Content Producers… The point here is that you need to understand the number of people who can make or break your project and the amount of influence they have on those around them. Generally, smaller teams will create less drag and larger teams have more potential for a high amount of project drag.

Organizational Variance

The size of the team needs to be considered alongside the organizational variance. What I mean by this is that you need to understand the differences between the organizations collaborating on the project (which is at least your organization and your client’s organization). This includes differences in company culture, process, approvals, communications, and the list goes on. What we’re actually capturing here are the expectations that each team brings to the project. The more variance there is between the organizations, the greater the project drag.

These two factors—team size and organizational variance—combine to help you understand the potential for drag in your project. It’s not that you’re bound to fail if you have huge teams with a great amount of organizational variance. It’s that you need to be intentional with how you shape the project.

Shape the Project

Put your hand back out the window. Turn it so that your palm is facing forward and feel the drag. Now, turn it flat, so that your palm is facing down. Notice how much the drag decreases.

We can use this to our advantage. If we know there will be a lot of drag, we can shape our project in a way that reduces the drag. Since it’s unlikely that you can greatly reduce the size of the team, we do this mostly by reducing the organizational variance. Look for areas of variance where neither side of the difference will dramatically impact this specific project and then be proactive about closing the gap.

Quick example: perhaps your team is fully invested in using Sketch to lay out static design ideas but your client’s designers (who will also be involved in the project) are using PhotoShop. Certainly, your team could probably work faster with the tool they love. But when you consider the impact this will have on the project—the drag it will create—it’s pretty easy to see how choosing to work in PhotoShop will reduce drag. You are closing the organizational variance gap. You are compromising. The same could apply with Sass or LESS, with Grunt or Gulp, with Slack or Skype. Even with something more fundamental like designing comps or designing in the browser. You get the idea. I’m not telling you to change how you work completely. I’m suggesting that selecting the easy variances and being willing to close them will help the project in the long run.

I was involved in a project once where we were not required to work within the client’s system for measuring progress. We saw this as freedom, so we jumped in and started working! We got a lot of work done in a short amount of time, but we were ignoring the organizational variance. Internally, our client was struggling because it didn’t appear that we were making progress. After some discussions, we shifted how we worked and fell into their system. This allowed us to demonstrate our progress and to start to build trust with our client. We got rid of an organizational variance and it decreased the project drag.

Another way to shape the project is to identify the project advocates and skeptics. An advocate is someone inside your client’s organization that believes what you believe about the project. They believe it strongly enough to fight for your ideas internally. If you’re just getting started with this client, chances are you have only one or two advocates, if any. And, don’t be fooled, if someone isn’t actively in support of your approach and involvement, they are a skeptic. Skeptics may actually work against the project, or they may just take a neutral stance, waiting to see how you do before the choose a side.

It doesn’t matter how good your work is, if you want to be successful, you need to convert the skeptics to advocates. Doing this is like adding an aerodynamic windshield to your hand. It lowers the project drag and gives you the opportunity to work faster.

So, how do you convert a Skeptic to an Advocate? Find out what they care about and shape the project to show value in that area. Demonstrate how your team and your way of working can help them. Pretty soon, you’ll have them advocating for your approach and you’ll continue lowering the project drag.

Repeat

The dynamics of a project change all the time. This kind of thinking works best if you are continually monitoring the situation. How many advocates do you have? How many skeptics? What is the influence of each? Are there areas of organizational variance which are causing problems? Find a way to close them. And, of course, keep a close watch on the goals of the project. If those shift, you could find yourself cruising 110 MPH toward the wrong destination.

A Community Supported on Obsolete Technology

People frequently express their abhorrence, or at least dislike, of obsolete technology that people use: Windows XP, Internet Explorer 8, cassette tapes, VCRs, "dumb" phones, you name it; which is why I frequently wonder why I can't get past obsolete technology that is no longer supported in my job.

My job is to provide accessible formats to print disabled. Some people describe it as "books for the blind", but that's a misconception, because print disabled covers a lot more than blindness. Any disability that prevents someone from reading, but can be solved by shifting the format (typically audio or ebook) qualifies. Think certain learning disabilities, physical disabilities that prevent holding a book or flipping pages, or sight issues but not necessarily blindness.

To get the job done, I use a number of not (well) supported or no longer in development software to create DAISY books (an audio book format specifically designed for people with print disabilities). To do this, I have to work with:

* software last updated in 2011,

* a plugin last updated in 2011 that only works in OpenOffice 3 and loves to crash,

* a Word plugin that was admittedly ported to Office 2013 in January 2014 (so hopefully will be eventually ported to Office 2016), but then relies on Microsoft Word and currently only work on Windows (we tend to produce the audio on Macs because the voices are way better).

Side note: If you search for alternatives to these, you may find what look like perfectly viable solutions to the "old technology" problem, but most free or paid software will typically be for producing human recorded DAISY, not generated text-to-speech using computer voices.

While there is a new version of the main software we use, it still seems like it's very much in development. The last time I tried it, it wouldn't even run. I followed the documentation carefully, but no matter what I did, it just wouldn't start. Maybe I just need to give it another shot, but that will be for another day. Until then, we cannot upgrade our versions of OpenOffice or OSX, lest the obsolete technology we use stops working.

Technology has been great at moving us closer to providing books to people who have (print) disabilities, but technology is moving at a very fast pace, and without extra help, I worry that they'll be left behind.

That means we'll be leaving 10% of the population behind.

More and more of our books are becoming accessible due to being "born" digital (sometimes done with accessibility in mind) and from modern digitization, but more needs to be done. Hopefully, things like MIT's FingerReader become successful, but that's not enough.

And it's not simply a technology problem: a number of the big-name accessible format providers (at least in the U.S. and Canada) are privately owned businesses that print disabled people (or public organizations on their behalf) need to pay extra for, in order to read the same books that everyone else can read, and then don't even own them. Also, a lot of the public organizations that produce accessible formats don't always share their collections with other public organizations.

It seems just another, typical problem in technology doesn't it? 10% technology, 90% people problem.

What can we do? Like most (if not all) big problems, I don't think there is a single solution, but perhaps this thought can make each reader think about this issue, and maybe each thought will turn into a single action, no matter how small, that will contribute to making life better for those 10% of people.

One of my favorite moments from a client stakeholder meeting over the past year came during a discussion with a group of undergraduate students. We were talking about the kinds of stories they looked for on their institution’s website, both as current and prospective students.

One student volunteered a perspective that made a lot of sense but I had never specifically heard articulated before. She said she wanted to see not just the stories of alumni who became incredibly successful- heads of companies or directors of national institutes - but those who were early in their career and still figuring it out, or even those who had gone through some kind of adversity.

In short, she didn’t want just the perfect stories, but the imperfect ones. She wasn’t just interested in the happy-ever-afters; she wanted to see the works-in-progress.

I recalled this exchange when The New York Times published this exceptional, must-read article in July, talking about how suicides on college campuses are influenced, in part, by the pressure to live up to the seemingly perfect lives that you see depicted via social media and other digital channels. When exposed to so many filtered, context-free snapshots of lives, some can’t help but draw comparisons to their own lives and feel at a loss.

I’ve been working in or with higher ed for more than a decade now, and I’ve seen (and told) a lot of stories. The most interesting have inevitably been the ones acknowledging that we walk complex, circuitous paths, like this 2013 feature from the University of Missouri about a transgender student’s experience.

We talk a lot about this idea of “authentic content,” and when you’re thinking about the stories we tell in support of our key messages, it makes sense to select stories that are real and relatable. But we’re still sometimes hesitant to paint an accurate picture of reality. Because reality means things don’t always work out like we planned. It means experiencing doubt, failure, or crisis. It means making a decision you regret, or changing your mind. It means that your ignorance precedes your enlightenment. It means being vulnerable and honest in ways that aren’t always easy. It means that people knock you down along the way. The outcome may be worthwhile, but the path is rarely perfect or easy.

I think about the student from that stakeholder meeting a lot. That Times article has also stayed fresh in mind, somewhat hauntingly. Because a lot of my job these days is thinking through how to use stories within a content strategy to communicate about an institution. And while I want those stories to inform, enlighten, and persuade, I don’t want them to alienate, disempower, or mislead. I don’t just want them to support a call-to-action; I want them to help people understand that, hey, amazing things are within your reach, but you don’t have to be perfect to get there -- because none of us are.

We are all imperfect works-in-progress. And that needs to be okay. We have a responsibility in our work to make that be okay.

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.

Public speaking is scary.

I'm not sure if there's another comparable example in which people have nightmares about doing a particular kind of work that they've never done before. I've asked a number of people about what scares them most about public speaking. A sampling of answers:

  • Voice cracking
  • Forgetting what I want to say
  • Being judged
  • Getting questions I don't know the answer to
  • Having a wardrobe malfunction

My own personal nightmare? The idea of tripping while getting onstage. This hasn't happened to me (yet) - but I sure do spend time worrying about it.

In addition to our basic fears about public speaking, we often are reluctant to think that anyone will want to listen to us speak. When I talk to people about getting into public speaking, what I hear most is that they really can't come up with a topic that they'd feel comfortable talking about, or that people would trust them to be an expert in.

In the interest of creating more resources for people looking to speak, I would love to find out more from you all about how you feel about public speaking. I've created a survey.

This survey is anonymous, and every question is optional, and hopefully it's easy enough to fill out quickly and share with others. The more data we can gather about what's on people minds when it comes to public speaking, the more resources we can create to help.

My goal is to learn more about what makes us tick in the context of public speaking - what we like, what we don't like, what scares us, what we have questions about - so that I can help to create more transparent, deep, thoughtful resources that address these topics and help encourage more people to try out public speaking.

Please fill it out!

When interviewing job candidates, I don't ask about strengths and weaknesses anymore. Instead, I ask about frontiers.

Frontiers are the places we haven't explored, but we want to (or need to). They're the places we know where need to grow and want to put the effort into doing so. And they're things we know we need to learn and we yearn to do so.

I ask for frontiers because I want to know if the interviewee feels like they have more to learn. We can rest on our laurels and coast, or feel like we've "arrived." I haven't found people who think they are a "finished product" to be great hires. I want to hire people who still hunger to learn more and want to strive to be better. When I talk about hiring for "upside," this is what I mean.

I also want to find people who are honest and transparent about where they need to grow. Do they know themselves well enough to know what they don't know? Do they also know where they shouldn't put their time and effort in growing?

Once I explain what I'm looking for (and, unfortunately, it usually takes a minute), the answers I get are very different from asking about strengths and weaknesses. They're things like "I want to understand the domain I work in more." Or "I want to learn how to do this Lean UX idea I read about." Or "I'm learning how to paint landscapes because I want to better express my design skills." By avoiding a loaded term, I can ask what gets an interviewee motivated to be better at who they are and what they do.

We need to have that hunger to explore. To learn more, to try new things, and to find new insights about how we work and how we work with others. In the best work environments, we are better at what we do every day because we want it and our employers nurture the exploration.

What are your frontiers? And how will you go about exploring them?

New York's hottest web framework is unicornThunderstorm.js. It has all the doodads you need to foo and bar your components with server-side tomfoolery. It's easy, just plug and play! Connect the flux capacitor to the spiderpug and you'll be abstracting over your synapses.

That's what I see when I read most READMEs for the first time. A lot of cool technical words mushed up into something to make people want to use your product. But, offers no real explanation about what it does.

Of course, we have to entice people to use our thing, I'm sure there must be more detail further in.

Just do 'sudo npm gulp rubygems' and you're ready to go!

Oh, ok.

This is a post about the walls we've built around our projects. Frolicking about in our bag of tricks, whilst others are trying to dig into our castle with a rubber teaspoon.

Here are some tips to make the process easier.

Documentation Driven Development

No functions, models or tools should exist without being documented. We often lose track of what we're doing, so I suggest writing your documentation first. Have a loose outline of what you want to achieve, so you can keep track of what you intended to do. Once you've written the code you can make any changes you need and flesh things out.

Many open source projects wont let you contribute code without having written tests first. I say the same should go for documentation. Documentation can become outdated so quickly, encouraging all contributors to keep documentation in mind from the outset will slow the ageing process greatly.

Language

Language is the most difficult thing to get right. As someone writing documentation, you have to create something understandable to everyone.

By default, your writing should be understood by individuals with a 12-14 year reading level. There are tools you can use to help you with this such as Hemingway Editor, which I used to write this post.

Avoid use of "easy", "simple" and "just". If you tell me something is easy and I don't understand it, I feel alienated. What is easy to you is not easy to other people. Avoid phrases like "so easy your gran could do it". My nan has no interest in using your Rails plugin. Nor, does she appreciate the implication that you simplified things especially for her.

Demos, Demos, Demos

You need demos. Anything from small snippets for your API methods, to full blown tutorials.

Have different demos to offer different contexts of use. As humans we struggle to grasp how to use something if we're not shown how to do the thing we want to do exactly. A few different tutorials gives variety and invites more people in.

If you can, have your demonstrations use different mediums. Whilst one person can get all the information you need through reading, another wont be able to grasp the concept until they've seen a video. Naturally, all videos and audio content should have subtitles/transcripts.

Be active in the community

Make yourself available to answer questions. I work with several open source communities and each have open Slack/IRC channels. One has a bot in their chat that alerts them to new Stack Overflow questions related to their framework. One has regular office hours every day and a dedicated FAQ application. All are active on Twitter and dedicate time to answering GitHub Issues.

My suggestions can be expensive in time, money and energy. When you're building something for the first time, all of this comes down to you. Focus on the documentation in the beginning. By doing that, you'll create a welcoming place for others and then they can start helping you with the rest of it.

It's okay if you don't get it right the first time. It's never going to be possible to have everyone understand your project right away; but at least replace my spoon with a shovel.

Hitting the Content Ceiling

We've hit the ceiling.

There's too much content. Correction, there's too much out dated, irrelevant, 'legacy' content on the web. This is the result of publishing to the web becoming easier and more accessible, of content being produced without enough people asking why and because once content has been published, it gets forgotten about as people move onto the next project or post.

Of course there's not a ceiling in the literal sense. It's the web, we can publish forever. That doesn't mean we should.

Why is this an issue? Well it means the web is full of content that no longer serves a purpose. If we do group it as legacy content, is that really the sort of legacy we want to be known for? About and team pages full of people who left many moons ago, old addresses after the office move, pages and whole sections about services that are no longer offered, blog posts from 5 years ago that are just no longer useful or relevant. The list goes on.

We've become digital hoarders and whilst we may not have to live with it, as in we perhaps don't look at our own content once it's out there, our users do. You need to make it your problem.

Content governance is tricky. It can be such a relief to get to the stage where you actually have something meaningful to publish, that the mere thought of having to define further processes for governance is one that can be hard to stomach.

Consider this, you may have lived with your content for months, but your users won't have. It's the first time they have seen it. Publishing is day one.

If you've done it the right way then that content will have been informed by a strategy, it'll be meeting business needs and user goals, it'll be written in a consistent and authentic voice and tone. No wonder you're exhausted!

But that doesn't mean it will always meet those needs and goals, or always target your audience effectively. As your business grows and evolves and as you perhaps target new audiences, where does the content already published fit?

As a content strategist who gets to speak to many different content teams from across varied sectors and industries, some agencies, some in-house, from lots of different countries, I'm hearing the same conversations over and over regardless of those locations and scenarios. We know governance is important, we expect it requires a lot of time and effort, we don't know where to begin.

Well the very fact those people have acknowledged that governance is important and necessary means they have begun. They have taken the first step. But where next?

Audits, inventories, documentation, workflow, there's a lot to consider. Once you have a handle on what content you have then you can start to plan for its governance. This is assuming you already have a website/published content. If you're starting from scratch then you can consider sustainable content from the beginning. Lucky you.

Here are some of my recommended content governance focused resources to give you a head start:

Sustainable Content Strategy Guide

Principles of Content Governance

Managing Chaos

The role of content inventory and audit in governance

It isn't easy to manage content when the to do list is filling up with other priorities, but it is a priority too. Stay relevant, make sure your content is useful, embed processes to make this easier for you and your team and let's stop shelf stacking content so it becomes an uncontrollable, unreachable pile of noise that will eventually come crashing down on us.

That was a tad dramatic but the point is, don't just plan for launch day, think beyond that and let's not be digital hoarders.

Taking Back Expectations

My sister and I have always been very close.

As kids, we pursued a host of entrepreneurial ventures: bike washing, because car washes were too mainstream and we were too small; rock polishing, which, to our great surprise, turned out to not be very lucrative; and an indie apple stand, where we exclusively sold Granny Smiths and discovered “sour tooth” isn’t really a thing. We didn’t limit our creativity to business either — after discovering our parents’ old typewriter, we spent two years working on a novel about the adventures of our stuffed animals. I wrote it and Nicole illustrated. Print date still to be announced.

This all goes to say that my sister and I have always been tight. Partners in crime. But I was unintentionally limiting the dynamic of our relationship with this preconceived notion of playing the “big sister,” always feeling the need to be the leader, compelled to project this aura of success and provide a shining star example of how to succeed.

A lot of this was self-imposed, and my sister fed into it. She’d always compare her performance to mine — academic, physical, emotional. I cast far too much of my shadow over her, and in trying endlessly to succeed (for her, I told myself, but the truth was more selfish than I’d care to admit), I eclipsed her personality with mine.

This compulsive need to over-assert myself, to display benchmarks of success, to prove my worth, stemmed from a place of deep vulnerability and self-doubt. And it manifested acutely in my relationship with Nicole. I’ve always found it hardest to be vulnerable with those who are closest to you. There was a limit to the realness I showed my sister.

She looked up to me, but I think what she didn’t realize was how much she was actually holding me up. Her validation, admiration, and unwavering support was something I needed, because I never fully believed in myself or my ability to succeed.

I spent a lot of time overcompensating for everything. Nothing ever felt like enough. I was never smart enough, never talented enough. Never pretty enough. Never skinny enough. Just never enough.

That was the wrong framing. It shouldn’t be about qualifying “enough,” because this idea of enough is inherently tied to your perceptions of those around you and comparisons to others. It should just be about yourself.

By always thinking in terms of “enough,” I stopped focusing on what my own internal bar for excellence looked like. I calculated everything outwardly based on what I thought others would think, and this drove me to lose control.

One summer weekend in college, I had my sister over to visit and spend a night with me. I was a sophomore, and my sister was a junior in high school. We went to a house party, and drank an appropriate amount of PBR to survive a hot summer night in Evanston. I started talking to a boy, which was fine. He was nice, I was vaguely interested.

But I soon left to take my sister home, and on our walk back, we had some Real Talk. She told me how unfair she thought I had it and that she felt she couldn’t measure up. She also pointed out how I was, in her eyes, skinny, attractive and could “get boys.” How she thought I did everything in high school — kept good grades, played sports, did extracurriculars and got into a good school. Now in college, all she saw were the times I made the Dean’s List, the internships I told her I landed, my close-knit circle of friends, boys hitting on me at parties… By all her external checkboxes, she counted me as successful.

I realized then I had done her a great disservice by selectively sharing only my accomplishments, and none of my failures or struggles. For every quarter I made the Dean’s List, there was one where I hadn’t. For every internship offer, there were miserable failures on technical interviews that made me think I never deserved to call myself a programmer ever again. Sure, I had found a great group of friends in college, but that was after enduring two years of intense bullying in high school where my “friends” pantsed me in the middle of the cafeteria, stole my iPod and then returned it to me (broken, may I add) months later, and drew cartoons of a blobby fat monster they named Fatie. The monster also had its own theme song. “Fatie fatie fatie, we made you out of lard…”

I finally opened up to Nicole about all of this. I told her how paralyzing my computer science classes were, and about shitty boys who had used me in the past. I detailed how grossly incompetent I felt on a daily basis. And I told her that somewhere in the middle of my junior year of high school, I learned how to make myself throw up.

I explained to her how every time I have a meal, it’s an intense battle with myself to not overeat. Because every time I feel even slightly stuffed, I think the only reasonable course of action is to shove my fingers to the back of my throat. It’s a concerted effort to talk myself out of this plan, to remind myself of the actual truths — that I’ll be fucking my body up in the long run, and having a bit of a food baby for the next couple hours will be okay.

Being vulnerable is really hard. It’s so easy to get caught up in the public personas of others, to only see the carefully edited Instagrams, the meticulously crafted Facebook posts and celebratory tweets. Realness gets lost. Even in close personal relationships – my sister is my best friend — it can be so scary and impossible to admit your faults out loud. But having done so, it only strengthened our relationship. I can be my full self, and not edit my life events to meet some barometer success before sharing them.

Embrace vulnerabilities as a means of accepting yourself and putting your true self out there.

See it as a way to take back expectations, and challenge any preconceived notions that you’ve tacitly accepted. To be vulnerable with someone is the most sincere form of trust — don’t cheat relationships.

Put the most raw, unfiltered version of yourself out there.

Not just for you, but also for the person you’re sharing yourself with, being honest does them a favor – especially if you’re in a situation where they’re looking up to you in some way.

It’s tempting to curate a narrative of yourself according to wins and other yardsticks of varying achievements, but we should strive to be more real and wholly representative of our experiences, disregarding the feelings of trying to be good enough in the eyes of someone else, and just be.

Connections are forged over real vulnerabilities, and these help make us better, stronger, and lift us up.

Being vulnerable opens up the possibilities for others to surprise you, to create moments of serendipity, to forge or strengthen relationships. I learned it’s not all about me, and we all need to rely on others — especially those who we feel might rely on us in some way.

My experience with my sister has reversed my idea of what it means to be the big sister, and our dynamic has changed for the better now that I’ve abandoned this pretense of being on some pedestal. At the end of the day, it’s no one else’s fault but mine for buying into that.

I’m trying to no longer run from those moments when I feel overexposed, and instead be the most honest version of myself, even if it means owning up to failures and letting insecurities creep through.

So. Tell me something about yourself.


I couldn't have written this without the amazing support and feedback from Nicole, Jacob, Winnie, and Grant. ❤

Learning to Act Like an Ally

A watershed is an area of land in which all water travels in the same direction, towards a common exit. Where I grew up, it was common to hear about the quality and quantity of water available in the headwaters, and how that might affect the health of the downstream communities. Although watersheds tend to cover very large areas of land, it is possible to get to the edge of a watershed. You won't necessarily be able to perceive the edge. You might be walking along through a forest and crossover from one watershed to another without even noticing. But there comes a point when the geology changes enough that water which falls to the other side of that point will sink into a different watershed and flow in a completely different direction. To exaggerate the idea, picture the ridge of a mountain. Rain falling to the left side of the peak will continue to slide down the mountain to the left; and water falling to the right will continue in its direction.

A "watershed moment" is a point in a person's life when they cross that line where the water stops travelling in one direction, and starts to travel in another.

In real life, there's nothing that prevents you from turning around on the trail and heading back into the watershed you've just left. But here's the thing: you don't always realise you're in a new watershed, so it's not always a trivial matter to simply turn around.

Recently I realised I'd entered a new watershed around the topic of gender identity. I've always done my best to be inclusive of everyone whose sex assigned at birth did not match their identified gender. I know I don't always get my words right, and I'm sure that I've unintentionally used the wrong words, or been unkind without even realising it. But the last year just seems, well, different. From the articles on sex vs. gender, to the media coverage of Chelsea Manning, and then Caitlyn Jenner, and Laverne Cox previously being named Woman of the Year, it seems like the world I live in has started to grow up in its respect and language when addressing transgender individuals. It's not like these events have been my first exposure to transgender individuals. But somehow, the response from the world just seems different.

Without being able to exactly track the geology of my history, I don't know for sure when the moment was when I entered a new watershed. I think it may have been Sara's article on identity, and forms, and triggers. Or maybe it was when I was applying for a job that had a diversity section which offered more than two options for gender. Or maybe it was when my friend asked me to sign a petition to allow people to self-define their gender. Or maybe it was something else. I'm not entirely sure. All I know is that I'm in a different watershed now and I can't stop seeing broken forms, and hearing language which conflates genotype and gender.

Most recently, I was asked to fill out a patient survey for NHS England to help the Ministry of Health correlate quality of care to different types of patients. The form asked my biological sex ("male" or "female") and it asked my sexual preference ("straight", "gay", "lesbian", "bi", there may have been other options, I can't remember now). In other words: from the acronym LGBT the "T" was missing completely from the form.

So I did what any cisgendered privileged British woman ought to do: I wrote a letter of complaint.

(Well. First I defaced the form and asked why there were only two options for "sex". Then took a picture and put it on Twitter. And then then I wrote my letter of complaint.)

This summer I filled out the GP Patient Survey. Unfortunately the survey did not have sufficient granularity with respect to sex or gender identity.

Under the heading of "sex" two options were provided "male" or "female". I did not attempt to fill out the online form, but I assume this was a binary option online and that only one box could be selected. I can only assume you mean "genotype" by this question? Additionally, there was not the ability to select an option other than "male" or "female" as should be provided according to the GDS manual for forms requiring sex (https://www.gov.uk/service-manual/user-centred-design/resources/patterns/gender-and-sex.html).

On the final page of the form, I was asked to specify my sexual orientation, but not my gender. This means I could not:

  1. Identify my gender separately from my genotype.
  2. Mark my sex assigned at birth as being different from my gender.

As a result of these omissions in the questionnaire, it will be impossible for the NHS to correspond the good health care service I have received as being statistically significant compared to individuals who are (1) intersex, (2) transgender, (3) non-binary. I would like to know how you are surveying the level of care provided for these individuals.

Kindest regards,

Emma

Then I emailed my letter to the NHS, the survey company, the Ministry of Health, the Conservative Party, the Green Party, the Labour Party (LGBT wing), and the Lib Dems. And then I waited.

To date I have received a response from the Conservative Party from their policy book (we had a lovely back-and-forth while I clarified that I was, indeed, looking for the Party's policy):

You may be aware that the NHS constitution commits the NHS to providing a comprehensive service available to all, irrespective of gender, race, disability, age, sexual orientation, religion, belief, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, or marital or civil partnership status. The NHS also has a wider social duty to promote equality through the services it provides.

In addition, NHS England has created a gender identity clinical reference group which has developed a new service specification and clinical commissioning policy. It has also established a transgender network designed to hear the views of people and to influence the strategic direction of services.

The Government is committed to combatting discrimination and is determined to break down barriers that individuals may face when seeking to access health services. That is why the Department of Health has invested in a number of organisations, such as Stonewall, to improve awareness and deliver more personalised care to all.

And a response from the survey company conducting the NHS England GP Patient Survey:

Thank you for your email and for your feedback about the sex and sexual orientation questions in our survey. This is an issue which has been on our radar for some time now and is something we will look into as we develop our survey further. Methodological constraints and sampling methods mean that this has been a complex issue to resolve.

I appreciate that the questionnaire in its current format does not allow those for whom their gender identity is different from their sex assigned at birth, and I'm sorry that this has been the case for you and for others this affects. As you say, it is important for the NHS to gather data on how its services are providing for intersex, transgender and non-binary individuals and this is something that in the future we hope to provide.

I found neither of these answers entirely satisfactory, but at least I got a reply.

If you feel like it's time you came into your own new watershed, there are some great web resources I can recommend:

Years, and years ago I remember watching the tension in my local community as one of our neighbours made a public transition to a new identity. The support my friend Denise was able to provide was inspirational. She matter-of-factly asked what name and pronouns she should use, and began using them. There was no discussion or questioning or hesitation. She did it without judgement and then carried on just as she had before. This ability to switch her words from yesterday to today without skipping a beat or changing her behaviour still blows my mind. Denise remains one of my role models to this day for her very simple, gracious actions towards our neighbour.

May we all be able to achieve the grace Denise once demonstrated in helping every neighbour realise the identity they were born to be.

Me and my new BFF Assertiveness

Up until a year go I barely knew the meaning of the word "assertiveness", and now it has become my personal goal. But like a diet, or training for a marathon, it’s proving very hard for me. It’s constant work I have to “put in” every day.

I’m going to list some tips for becoming more assertive and talk about how much I am enjoying the best change in my life, but I hope this can me more than a “10 steps to be more assertive” kind of article. I hope it can help you see things a little bit differently, or understand you’re not alone in this journey.

Being unassertive

I would start justifying why I am not a very assertive person by blaming my Catholic upbringing, but it would be a lie. My parents are not really that religious and I was not brought up “in fear of God”. But I think somehow some of the values that have been instilled in me were not quite right: we seemed to always “have to put up with it” or “have to do it because it’s your duty” or (the most damaging one I think) “you can’t say that because it will spark a family war”. Since I finally moved away from my home town, I have started seeing this in a slightly different perspective. I understand that while we were keeping quiet the rest of the family would always get their way and me, my mum and my dad ended up accumulating a lot of anger and resentment, not only towards my relatives, but also towards each other. Probably because we were frustrated by the impossibility of being assertive.

Growing up I applied unassertiveness to pretty much everyone I met. I managed to start relationships which made me very uncomfortable, just because I could not express my disagreement or discomfort about even simple things like “we always meet at your house rather than alternating a bit”.

I got to the point where I had (and still have, but with a much quieter voice now) a full blown accusation lawyer in my head stopping me from saying most things, because it would sound “too childish”, or “too stupid”, or “too nasty”, or “[fill the gap with anything you can imagine]”. The end result was that I would never speak up.

I ended up in situations I really hated, developing a sense of anger (which really was anger towards myself) and unhappiness, pretty much always ending up being fed up with the other person or job. I felt like the whole situation was so beyond repair (as I had kept all my disagreements quiet, they had piled up immensely) and the only way out was...out.

On my journey to Assertiveness Land, I also have met a few pretty obnoxious people I had absolutely no idea how to handle. I always compared them to the big monster at the end of a video game level.

If this sounds like you, then you’ve got a friend. So I'll try and help.

Two types of people

First of all I need to explain couple of basic concepts. Just discovering those has changed my life.

What is assertiveness? It’s expressing our thoughts and opinions in a firm and appropriate way without being aggressive, respecting the other person’s point of view and needs but still keeping our priorities in mind, and by saying NO without feeling guilty.

Easy, right?

It will become easier when you start changing the way you see others. That big monster at the end of the level is instead just being aggressive: they might speak so strongly, you feel like you won’t be able to object; it’s either their way or no way; they are implying they are better than you.

And how about that very annoying person who is not being very direct, but implying so very subtly that they are right and you’re wrong, or much better than you? This is my least favourite (as if the aggressive behaviour was any better!). You feel like “you can’t quite put your finger on it”, you’re not too sure he meant to offend you or he’s “just saying” so I still don’t know how to react… Well this person is clearly being passive aggressive.

I have not yet mastered how to manage either type of people, but I started by shifting the focus slightly. I saw every comment they would make as a personal “attack” and started really getting worked up while trying to work out “what had I done to get that person to say/do that to me!” Well the answer is quite often “nothing”, because that’s just how that person is and that person is most likely never going to change.

The biggest mistake I was (and still keep on) making was to assume that if I could change the way I behaved, the other person would change too. Maybe I can make them an extra cup of tea, maybe I can do a bit of their job for them, maybe I can buy them a little present. Well that never went well. I had usually a positive reaction there and then: a smile! A compliment! Followed by the same old bullshit after not very long. What was going on?

When I realised that’s how that person is and that she’s never going to change, the whole world started to shift slightly for me. You start thinking “well, if that’s not going to change, then I’m not wrong in trying to say X or do Y, so I’ll better just say it/do it and if they won’t react well, well, it’s their problem”. By shifting this responsibility, I have had a huge weight getting off my shoulders. I honestly feel like a much lighter, serene person. I am beside myself with joy at the results of just a simple epiphany.

So being assertive is right in the middle between the two behaviours (aggressive and passive aggressive) and it’s where we need to take ourselves.

Let’s communicate assertively

The key is how we communicate our ideas.

  • Don’t be afraid of what the consequences of what you want to say might be. Start by disagreeing slightly (even if you don’t feel strong about it) with somebody about something simple, like where to eat for dinner, and start watching for reactions. You’ll find out most of them will be quite relaxed and you’ll find people agreeing with you quicker than you can say “Assertiveness”. I also think that by practicing assertiveness and therefore sometimes disagreeing with somebody more and more, they will get used to you being open to this type of interaction. They will be more likely to expect it from you in the future, so it will get easier and easier.
  • Worrying about what others might think of us (my biggest blocker) will make it very hard to be assertive. Don’t let it trick you!
  • “I” is better than “you” to communicate assertively: try and say “When you do ##something## I feel angry/upset because ###”. By stating the reasons why you are feeling a certain way and the scenario, just stating facts without exaggerating, you can make sure that the person you are talking to will understand everything and you don’t become aggressive.
  • Stay calm but firm – this is like the nirvana of assertiveness because I find it very hard to recognise that the other person is being either aggressive or passive aggressive. I just get caught up in the moment, by either digging my own grave or not really knowing what to say in particular towards passive aggressiveness. I guess it would help to take a minute and really question what is going on before answering or ignoring the situation.

But as I said, I am still really working through this list and trying to put all these tips in practice. There are times when the “alert” bells ring and I can recognise this as an opportunity to express what I want and to be assertive. And when I do react in an assertive way, I feel amazing. The fear of what people would say is completely overshadowed by the joy of being able to say what I think, and that there are not going to be hours and hours afterwards of me moaning with myself about not having expressed my feelings or having said yes when I wanted to say no. I am suddenly lighter and free!

I have managed to start relationships where I am free to say what I feel and the other person is getting more and more used to me expressing my feelings.

I’ve realised it’s mainly what gets left unsaid that causes the most trouble and anxiety in me. Once a thought is out in the open and you have explained the whole situation, you have made the other person aware of exactly what you feel and why and you have given them an opportunity to do the same with you. There’s no room for doubts, or unspoken truths, so there will be no resentment or unfinished business.

This might sound unbelievable, but I now have a bit more spare time as a result of not constantly worrying about what others are going to say or about unresolved (in my head) situations. I also feel less anxious and I can enjoy life more .On top of this, while “practicing” I have often found that when I said what I thought, the other person would actually say “Oh sorry that was my fault”. What an expected surprise!

I have had plenty of positive assertiveness experiences so far, but the big monsters are still out there, or, even worse, the people who are abusing our un-assertive behaviour and are used to us never speaking up. I would say that this, combined with a passive aggressive behaviour, still makes a perfect confrontation bomb for me.

Cutting off dry branches

As part of my journey to assertiveness I had to re-assess the all the relationships I had. I tried to imagine how I could tell them what I really think and how I could consistently stay assertive with them. But where I had accepted fundamentally wrong behaviours like somebody constantly wanting to argue backwards and forwards, or letting other relatives control me through my parents, I realised change was going to be quite impossible, especially with people of older age, set in their ways and family dynamics I really could not find the skills in me to break.

So I had to end it. As sad as this is (admitting to myself I actually still can’t be that assertive to just deal with any situation or person), there are just some relationships that have gone way beyond repair. Even where the other person had communicated to me that they had changed, I still felt that going back, meant going back to that person I was that I don’t want to be anymore.

Post confrontation

Somehow though I am still very scared and unsure about the next phase: the moving forward. Sure it’s easy enough to be assertive about a food/restaurant choice, or a “let’s meet my part of town rather than yours”, but when it comes to big messages I am still scared.

If I'm talking with a person I might have offended when she said #that#, I can’t see myself having a relaxed relationship after that, like nothing happened.

Well, this is as far as I have gotten, I am afraid. I hope to be practicing a lot more assertiveness and to be able to cross the “what is there post confrontation?” bridge soon. I hope by sharing my experience I have given you some courage and inspiration. If you are to take a lesson from this very long article, I hope it is that you just need to stop and look at things differently (in particular why people are saying/doing something – are they just being aggressive because that’s how they are?). Say what you want to say, be the person you want to be, because it really is going to be like trying to make it through a crowded passage: as much as people might nudge you as you go past, they will make space for you and let you through and you might end up realising it was easier than you expected...

Strategic Procrastination

Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn't the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.

Those words (by Robert Benchley) are basically my mantra. I'm a chronic procrastinator, and for years I bought into the lifehackery promise that procrastination was something I could beat, something I could overcome, something that, given the right tools, I could eradicate from my life.

Unfortunately, none of the fancy lists, schedules, notebooks, time-trackers, prioritization aids, pomodoros, or other tools I've tried have done anything but provide temporary respite from my procrastinatory habits.

Chastened by my experiences, now I treat my procrastination as a chronic condition to be managed, rather than a disease to be cured (but feel free to email me your magic cure; I'm happy to try it).

The trick to managing your procrastination is to always have a completely unrelated useful and high-value task to turn to. (I know, obvious, right?) But so often when you're procrastinating, you think "Oh, if I can't make progress on INSERT NAME OF BIG ANXIETY-PRODUCING PROJECT HERE, I might as well binge-watch this ten-year-old television show/read all of Twitter/look for second-grade classmates on Facebook/research a disease I think this historical figure had ..." (You get the idea.)

Unfortunately, the same bad cognitive habits that lead to procrastination also blind us to those high-value procrastinatory tasks. So the goal is to have an easily-accessible never-ending list of no-deadline side projects to act as pressure-overflow outlets for procrastinatory behaviors.

A blog is the perfect procrastination outlet, but other great procrastinatory projects include:

  • a parody Twitter account
  • a writing project (e.g., a novel, a tutorial)
  • a personal website (you can ALWAYS update your personal website)
  • a code library (but not one you need for work)
  • contributing to open source, especially documentation
  • any project that requires you to collect and curate a vast number of images

And so on. Obviously, you don't want to have these side projects take over your life—they should just act as anxiety-absorbers for your procrastinatory tendencies.

The perfect strategic procrastination outlet should be a quick distraction from the thing that is driving you to procrastinate, should have tasks that can be fit into half an hour or so (the ideal length of a procrastination session), and should be something that you want to accomplish anyhow, and that makes you feel good when it's done.

If you're not in a creative mood (or perhaps that's what makes you anxious!) other great, quick strategic procrastinations include:

  • writing a paper postcard to a friend you haven't talked to in a while (paper is ideal because it's asynchronous and you won't get sucked into an all-afternoon Facebook exchange, plus, everyone likes to get mail!)
  • sending a note to your congressperson or other official about a cause you believe in
  • putting a favorite song on high volume and tidying your immediate surroundings for the length of that song
  • any physical-therapy type exercises (wrist stretches, etc.) that don't require a change of clothes or equipment

Strategic procrastination doesn't require you to be a superhuman task-focused machine. It helps remove the catastrophic thinking that leads to "What the Hell Syndrome." (i.e., "I'm not working on the BIG THING, so what the hell ... let me do something pointless where I'll feel even worse afterwards!")

Practicing strategic procrastination does require that you to be able to identify and choose tasks that advance you towards SOME long-term goal. You also need to be able to limit yourself to working on those tasks for half an hour or so at a time—enough to make perceptible progress and let off some procrastinatory steam. You don't want to embark upon the half-hour of tidying that leads to the full afternoon of rearranging your office, or the quick update to your personal site that turns into a full redesign. And you can't use those tasks as an excuse for a further "break" (that is, you can't say "yay me, I updated my personal site, so now I can read Twitter for an hour")!

The best thing about strategic procrastination is that, judo-like, it uses your bad habits as a lever to make good things happen. If it weren't for strategic procrastination, I never would have published a novel, or written an npm module, or set up the Vintage Pattern Wiki, or launched (just this past weekend, while suffering from a summer cold and procrastinating about writing THIS VERY ESSAY) the Semicolon Appreciation Society site.

But I still haven't finished watching The Gilmore Girls.

Living with the algorithm

Twenty years later, I still remember the meal.

I was on my first visit to Europe, outfitted with a backpack and a rail pass. The web was young, with limited travel info. Mobile wasn’t a thing. I relied entirely on the limited recommendations of my dog-eared Rough Guide. But on this particular Sunday night in Siena, the recommended restaurants were all closed. I wandered and wandered and wandered the quiet streets, looking for food.

*   *   *

Serendipity doesn’t happen to me much when I travel anymore. I actively manage against surprises. I select restaurants and hotels well in advance, thanks to the likes of Yelp and Trip Advisor. There’s little chance of a poor meal or room (or, for that matter, an unexpectedly great meal or room).

My efficient tools tune for comfort and confidence. I spend little time searching for where to eat or what to do, yet I reliably find experiences perfectly aligned with my tastes and expectations.

In 2015, there’s very little friction in my travel planning.

*   *   *

In 1995, it was all friction that night.

I walked the fringes of Siena, trying to decipher my Rough Guide’s poorly detailed map, just trying to find a spark of life and a bite to eat. I plunged down narrow streets chasing the mingled sound of laughter and silverware, only to find it spilling from the open window of a family’s Sunday supper.

I kept on walking—hungry, tired, frustrated.

*   *   *

In 2015, information comes to me before I even seek it out. Google Now pushes me information in anticipation of my needs; it sends me driving directions moments before I start thinking I should look them up. Facebook filters and sorts friends’ posts to show me information I’m statistically most likely to be interested in. Amazon somehow knows that I need more shaving cream.

We’re all beautiful and unique snowflakes, sure, but apparently our wants and needs can be boiled down to a set of probabilistic rules.

This is life with the algorithm. Planned, massaged, the edges filed down.

*   *   *

In 1995, it was a glass of chianti that finally took the edge off. And some truffle crostini. And a pappardelle sulla lepre to die for.

I’d finally found a little osteria off a blind alley. The place had just five or six tables, only half full. The father cooked, and the daughter managed the front. They fed me and then gave me my first taste of grappa and laughed as I described my misadventures bumbling through Tuscany. They sat down with me and my crummy map and suggested what I should do the next day. They welcomed me like family.

The meal tasted like victory, a triumph over the dusty challenges of travel. I was sure I’d never tasted food so delicious. It was a glorious night.

*   *   *

In 2015, I would have easily found an online listing for the delicious neighborhood spot that’s open on Sundays and treats you like family (no reservations, accepts credit cards, outdoor seating, serves wine and beer, open 11am-10pm).

In 1995, I had to find the place on my own. I had to earn its discovery. And that accident turned into one of many lifelong memories of that summer.

I don’t know if I’d even remember the place if I hadn’t found it with such difficulty. There’s something about friction that makes you think more, feel more, appreciate more. Challenge makes you see things from a new perspective.

*   *   *

Here in 2015, I’m routinely delighted by how easy the algorithm makes it to gather information, to find answers, to avoid waits or discomfort. But I wonder what I’m losing when everything comes with such ease and efficiency. It makes me ask questions.

The algorithm undoubtedly makes our lives easier. But does it also perhaps make them smaller, narrower?

How might we salt the algorithm with surprise and serendipity?

How might we season our interfaces with friction designed to encourage a pause and reflection?

When is the right time to coax people to slow down instead of hustling through?

How do we build algorithms smart enough to know they’re not smart enough?

How might we build human judgment and social interaction into our interfaces (and our lives) when the algorithm fails to anticipate that need?

How do we encourage ourselves to plunge into the unknown without first looking up the answers?

And most important: where can I get a recipe for that pappardelle sulla lepre? (Oh wait, the algorithm knows.)

Tweet, tweet, tweet. Blog, blog, blog. Buffer, buffer, buffer.

This year I have been filling nGen’s Twitter stream with retweets of Harvard Business Review articles because that shit is awesome. I was writing blog posts that seem to resonate with clients, prospects and the industry. And when it comes to creating some catchy headlines in the social department, ain’t nobody like me.

And so it went until one day I saw a big brand with a promoted tweet that said "Help us get to a million followers." WTAF?

A voice in my head screamed, “What the hell are you doing?" I had turned into some click bait marketing monster. But this is the way it works, right?

Nope. All of our solid new business leads came in through email and phone calls. Word of mouth still rules the day. I decided to submit my resignation as social media manager active immediately.

For the next two weeks, I didn’t tweet as nGen or post anything except for an episode of Friendly Fire, our podcast. And guess what. We got damned close to the exact same visitors on the same damned days. What I had been doing didn’t seem to matter at all. Why? I have no idea. But I was done.

The next day I told my business partner that I was an idiot. I had fallen into the trap of thinking that effort would equal success. If we want people to be interested in us, we need to be interesting. Not fake or clever or tricky, but real and engaging. That starts with finding something we love to do that other people want.

For me, it's having great conversations with people like Simon Sinek, Jason Fried and Daniel Pink. The chance to ask them about their lives has been an amazing gift.

So now it was time to put my money where my mind was. Earlier this year I had an idea for a new podcast that focused on the origin stories of successful brands. How did they get where they are? How are they different? Why are they loved? I had recorded the first episode, an interview with Aarron Walter, who leads the UX team at MailChimp. That afternoon we put the interview live on the nGen blog. It felt great! Finally some real content that people could get excited about and use to gain insights into their businesses.

At the end of the week, I logged into analytics and was amazed to find… we got the same damned number of visitors on the same damned days. But there was one exception. Two friends who I hadn’t heard from in awhile reached out to let me know they listened and loved the interview. One of them asked if we had any capacity to handle new work, the other I invited to be an upcoming guest.

As the author of the record-breaking blog post 250 Buzzwords We Love to Hate, I’m qualified to tell you vanity metrics are the biggest distraction in web marketing. So break the pattern and stop trying to follow a formula or a rigid schedule for your self-promotion. Instead, keep your eyes and ears open for things that consume your interest. Then type your fingers to the bone sharing your passion.

A few weeks ago I started working at the Department for Work and Pensions Digital Team. They sit under the Government Digital Service and we work to the same standards as they do.

3 days in and I was sat in a room in Leeds with 60+ other designers in a cross-government design meeting. The first outside of London and the largest held to date.

It was really interesting for me, I’d read and heard so much about the Government Digital Service before joining and I really wondered what it would be like ‘on the inside’.

We heard stories from every digital service, even the newest ones and they were all delivered by extremely passionate designers which was interesting as well.

Just the week before, 5 ‘big names’ from GDS handed in their notice to leave and everyone was wondering about what the fall-out would be. The thing is, there didn’t seem to be any. If anything, it was more of a flag planting exercise. There is still so much to do across government and everyone knows it.

The people in that room cared about the work they were doing, they were excited and they congratulated each other for doing a great job. They want to make a difference to a citizens life.

I talk endlessly at Industry Conf about using our skills to do good, and that’s one of the reasons why I joined, it’s the reason why I believe in the GDS and I’ve got to honestly say that everything you hear about them is right.

Week 4 starts now.

We're also hiring Interaction Designers in London, Newcastle, Leeds and Manchester, come and join me.

This year, in particular, has been the Year of the Book for me. I'm reading more than I ever have and it's great. And, through getting into reading a lot more, I've also rediscovered one of my childhood loves: the library.

I lived in a very small town until I was ten; population around 600. When I was very small, the town didn't have its own library, there just weren't enough people in the surrounding area to support it. So instead, this fantastic RV-like vehicle would pull into town every few weeks. The bookmobile had arrived. And I would return the books I had borrowed and browse around looking for new books.

But I left the idea of book-borrowing behind as I got older. I don't really know why, but it happened. Sure, in university and graduate school I went back to the library, but never for pleasure reading, always for research purposes.

But last year, as I was getting more and more into comics and realizing how much money the habit could cost me, a friend suggested the library. And that's how it all began. Our library carries the trade volumes of comics, so I got a new library card and headed to their website to search for the comics and books I was interested in.

Then something else wonderful happened. I discovered the digital lending portion of the library. This meant I didn't always have to go to a branch to get books. I could download them to my Kindle and read away. It isn't the best interface, but it works and, best of all, the highlights from my kindle stay with me, even though Amazon would lead you to believe otherwise.

But I also go to the library quite often. A familiar refrain in chat to my coworkers is, "taking a break to go to the library and eat lunch." And I've read a lot of great comics series through the library; Planetary, Freakangels, Fables, Transmetropolitan, and more. And I have a lot of things on my wish list that I'll get to eventually.

One of the reasons I really love going to my local branch is that it's a Carnegie Library, which makes it an older building by Portland standards, and it's still doing the same thing all these years later. And it is my community there, kids excitedly looking for new books to read, people using computers, classes in the private room, it's great to see all the activity.

Even though I'm using a web site or an app on my iPad to access the library a lot of the time, I still have that same sense of wonder that I did as a small child climbing the stairs of the bookmobile. So many good things to read, so many ideas to think about, so much waiting there for me to discover. You can experience it too, find your local library.

This is for everyone. —Tim Berners-Lee

The web is an incredibly powerful enabler. It allows you to move from the germ of an idea towards a reality in a very short space of time. The web is wonderfully empowering.

There’s never been a better time to embark on a career using the digital tools at our disposal. The infrastructure that underpins our work is, for the most part, free, and it removes the barriers to entry that previously stood in the way of creatives wishing to share their talents with the wider world.

Using the web, and the myriad of other tools underpinned by the internet, it’s easier than ever before to establish a presence and share your work with others. In short: You are a channel.

Put some thought into your channel and you can create a sustainable future that not only impacts upon you, but on the wider world, too. There’s never been a better time to start something.

Of course, we understand this and we are well aware of the opportunities that lie before us at our disposal. And yet, one thing holds us back….

Fear.

We worry, endlessly: “What if no one cares?” It’s only natural to worry. It’s only natural to find excuses not to start. We are, at times, conditioned to see the world through a glass-half-empty prism. Pause. It doesn’t need to be like that. We can, if we connect with just 1,000, find success. We just need to believe.

1,000 True Fans

Kevin Kelly, the founder of WIRED magazine, believes that any creative business can succeed with just 1,000 True Fans. Reflecting on Chris Anderson’s ideas (as outlined in Anderson’s excellent book The Long Tail), Kelly states:

The long tail does not raise the sales of creators much, but it does add massive competition and endless downward pressure on prices.

No one likes, “massive competition and endless downward pressure on prices,” however, Kelly believes there is a sweet spot on the long tail. As he puts it:

A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author – in other words, anyone producing works of art – needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.

Kelly defines a ‘true fan’ as one who will purchase anything and everything you produce, and he believes that 1,000 is the point at which one can balance nurturing the relationship with your fans and having a critical mass of fans that can sustain you. As he puts it, “One thousand is a feasible number. You could count to 1,000. If you added one fan a day, it would take only three years.”

Kelly assumes conservatively that a true fan will spend an average of $100 per year on what you do. Some, of course, will spend less and some will spend more. On average, however, that’s $100,000 a year (£65,000 or €90,000). After some modest expenses that’s a not insubstantial salary. Even better if this salary is a by-product of doing what you love.

Reaching Your 1,000

The web allows you to connect with your 1,000 in ways that – before Berners-Lee shared it with everyone – would have been prohibitively expensive. With the profusion of (often free) social media tools at your disposal you can now build a direct connection with your fans, sharing things that you, and – importantly – they, will find value in.

Reaching your 1,000 is easier than it’s ever been. I can’t stress this enough. The only person holding you back from succeeding in this empowering world is you. Let go, build something and share it. You might be surprised at the results.

We are, in this new world, conditioned to believe that success requires an audience that measures in the tens or hundreds of thousands. I don’t think that’s the case. By building deep connections with just 1,000 you can make a difference.

Size isn’t everything.

Focus on building deep connections and stay true to your values. Do that and, I believe, the rest will fall into place.

If you have an idea, build it and share it. Let go of your worries and see where the adventure takes you. If nothing else, you’ll learn a great deal on the journey. Let go. Make things, share things, and – along the way – you’ll learn tremendously.

Share Your Work

In my teaching at the Belfast School of Art, I encourage my students to: “Make things, share things and be nice to people.” I echo this in the consultancy work I do with young, fledgling startups. I encourage those I work with to put their work out there.

Do that and I believe you’re more than half way there.

We are incredibly fortunate to be living in a time when making things and sharing them is incredibly easy. It’s hard to imagine a time before the web, when the barriers to entry were so much higher.

I, like many others, was fortunate to embark on a career on the web empowered by the openness of a ‘View Source’ culture. The ability to peer behind the curtain and see how things were made empowered me tremendously. I believe in a culture of sharing, for the betterment of others. I believe that culture empowers not only those starting out, but those who are on their second, third or more ideas.

Make things. Share things. In so doing, you’ll learn the lessons you need to, to ensure your ideas are successful.

Lastly, be nice to people. I’m a firm believer in karma. What goes around, comes around. Being nice to people costs nothing. Try to see the good in everything. Do that and you’ll be rewarded, yourself, in time.

In Closing…

Sharing your work can be stressful, you find yourself worrying – ever fearful of rejection – but remember, sharing your work helps you to grow. What you learn on your journey will help you tremendously down the line. You’ll learn more by sharing than by keeping your ideas hidden away.

I’m looking forward next month to further exploring the idea of making things and sharing things and underlining the importance of releasing your ideas into the wild. See you in a month for the next step of the journey.

Tools, Dependence, and My War with the Road

1

It was dark when I stood up. There was a flash and a lot of movement, and then it was dark. Except for one streetlight, and then another. The road was a black canyon, kept awake by the steady blinking of my back taillight.

Instinctively, I moved every limb and concentrated on the pain. Where was it coming from? I was scraped up. I already felt stiff. My head was okay. My leg ... it hurt. My wrist felt shock. My shoulder. My foot. A slow inventory, done in a fraction of a second.

I had hit something. I didn't know what it was. It was dark when I stood up, but there were streetlights, now. I was on a residential street, by a school under construction for the incoming school year, a few blocks from my friend's house, no more than two or three miles from home.

I did the inventory again. I shook it off. I got back on my bike to ride.

2

I do a lot of thinking at my job, but I don't do anything without consulting with my tools. I have programs that I trust - programs that keep me honest, and programs that help me with the mundane tasks, and programs that lead me toward answers.

My job is based in thought and creativity - free of tangibles, stripped of weight, from project management to front end development to strategy and sales. But that creativity depends on tools. It is freed by those tools. I try to master those tools and I give in to those tools.

But, like, what happens when those tools fail us?

3

This had happened once before. When I was 17. I had stopped to adjust the tire on my bike, and I forgot to tighten the quick release, and then I headed down a hill about a half a block from my house. The speedometer on my bike said 21.5, though that could be an exaggeration from years of telling the story.

What happened at the bottom of the hill was no exaggeration. I lifted my front wheel to miss a bump. Ha! Look! It's like a mini-wheelie! My wheel had other plans; it kept on its path, independent of the front fork. I planted, and I flew.

These were the days before my feet were clipped into the pedals. These were the days before I wore a helmet. I was 17 and invincible and I was going to rule the world someday and then my fork hit the concrete.

And then I hit the concrete.

And then I slid.

Rumor is that my handlebars had twisted a full 90 degrees, and that there was a chunk of cement missing from where my fork planted. All I knew is that the one tool I had managed to master - this bicycle, my main form of transportation - had failed me, and I stood up and ran to my house, my hand against my face, blood dripping onto my favorite Sunny Day Real Estate shirt, hearing my friend laugh at me in the background because he had no idea what had happened.

The world had betrayed me. My tools had betrayed me. It would be years before I'd trust them again.

4

We learn our crafts through careful mimicry, pouring over the guides and handbooks and stealing bits and pieces from others. We look to others for confirmation as we try to find our own place. We grasp desperately for anything that can help us gain ground.

Through this process, though, we sometimes forget that those guides and handbooks are just that - they are guides. They show us one way to go, but it's up to us to read between the lines to better understand the theory, the practice, the nuance.

They are tools, and they are important. Because tools help us do our work more efficiently. We all have personal - and in some cases, organizational - methodologies, and those methodologies are important tools. They help us keep things on track, and they help vet our processes, and they make education and consistency possible.

They are also fallible. The programs and processes we build up are single points on a wide spectrum of work. From a pencil and pad to a bloated Omnigraffle template; from a discovery workshop to a wiki-based style guide - each tool helps complete one portion of an overall project. Which tools we use depends on the client, the task, the user.

I used to play a game called 24, where through basic mathematics functions you were tasked with taking four random numbers to a total of 24. Four numbers, different functions, but the answer was always 24.

That's what we do. We borrow and combine our tools in search of the right decision - mixing and matching on our way to 24. If we depend too much on a single process, we lose the ability to think on the fly. We don't know what to do when we have to go off script. We're not sure what's going to happen when our lights are too dim. When our life throws us on our ass. When we're looking up into the dark wondering what to do next.

5

I rode my bike for about 50 feet before my derailer snagged my chain and my bike ground to a stop.

"What the ..?" Like it was a surprise. Like I hadn't just torn myself apart and torn my bike apart, speeding down the road faster than I should have, in the dark. Like the chunk of concrete I had caught - a friendly reminder of the construction next door - wasn't real and that standing up was all I needed to do.

That's when I realized that things weren't going so well. My bike was in worse shape than I had thought. A shifter was off center, and back where I had landed lay half of my bike light, a scatter of its batteries, a button from my backpack, and a pen that had fallen out of a pocket.

Walking back to the scene - the scene I had simply tried to escape; fight or flight or just ride your bike away super fast, I guess - I could see that things weren't going well. I felt the blood on my elbow, could see the road rash on my leg. I took off my helmet, finally, and saw the inch deep crack down the side - a crack that continued several inches on the inside. The pain in my wrist came to the forefront, and my rib suddenly sprung to life.

I stared at my bike. The tool I trust more than anything, as an extension of my body, as a companion that's taken me across Iowa, and around the city, and across over 4,000 miles of road and trail, and I couldn't believe what it had done to me.

Betrayed again.

But as the night went on, and as the ibuprofen slowly took hold, and as I finally began falling asleep, I thought about all of the things I had done. Riding too fast. Depending on a light designed to be noticed and not detect obstacles. Foolishly staying out as late as I had. Thinking about anything but the road and my ride.

And I thought about the things my tools did.

My derailer broke away as designed, allowing the chain to go free and saving me from hundreds in structural damage. My backpack, which had weighed heavy on the way down, filled with a change of clothes, padded my fall and took the brunt of the road. My lights had worked perfectly until I had pushed them too far. My helmet did nothing except exist, saving my skull. Saving a lot more.

Inanimate and lifeless, my tools still tried to do their part, but they couldn't overcome my role. I depended on them for everything, and took a spill as a result.

6

I remember the first time I discovered that Pages for Mac didn't autosave documents. I lost a few hours of work. It wasn't great, probably, so maybe Pages did me a favor. But I didn't think it was so cool at the time.

I blamed Pages. But, really, I blamed myself for depending on Pages. For not confirming assumed functionality.

After being thrown from my bike, I blamed that chunk of concrete. I blamed my light for missing it. I blamed my clipped in shoes for not allowing me to be faster on my feet.

But it was all me. I depended on my tools, and they didn't live up to the task.

When a project doesn't go well, it's easy to blame the client, or our team, or the tools we used, or our lack of research or silos or subject matter experts or anything really. But with every strategic web project, there is a single point of failure: the person in charge.

No matter what, someday our tools will fail us. And that's okay. They're just tools. It's up to us to make them work.

That time I did $150k worth of work for free

No, that’s not a typo. And I’m not exaggerating.

It was 2007. My marriage was unraveling and my days as a baby-wearing, attachment parenting, home-schooling stay-at-home parent were numbered.

I needed to find a way to support myself.

I had worked as a freelance copywriter until the day before my son was born. Wrapped a project, celebrated with a team lunch, and went home to wait for him to arrive.

I’d squirreled away enough money to take a 3-month, self-funded maternity leave. But just about the time when I would’ve had to go back, the Internet bubble burst. It was perfect timing. I didn’t want to leave my son, and now I didn’t have to.

And then, all of a sudden, I did.

So, I created a LinkedIn profile, contacted people I’d worked with, and haunted Monster.com and craigslist. I’d only been off the treadmill for six years, but it felt like I’d been gone for a lifetime. Everything had changed.

Back in 2001, I was working 50-60 hour weeks and routinely turning down gigs that offered me twice my regular hourly rate. Now, nobody was hiring freelancers, and half my old copywriting colleagues had given up and taken “real jobs.” The other half was limping along, cobbling multiple 10- and 20-hour projects into a living wage.

And then, out of the blue, I got an email from a guy I’d worked with at the tail end of 2000. He’d hired me to create a library of personal finance materials for what was, at the time, the largest bank in Boston.

It was a dream project. The topics were fun: “Planning for Retirement” and “Buying Your First Home.” We had an unlimited budget, and I was able to hire two of my friends to write content with me. We worked remotely, but met once a week in Cambridge for lunch and progress reports. It was my first experience as a content strategist, and I loved it.

Having this guy contact me at the exact moment when I needed a job felt like a gift from the Universe. We met for coffee and he explained the project. He and a few buddies had developed a proprietary “thing” that allowed them to predict a particular kind of consumer behavior with 90% accuracy. They needed a web site, sales materials, and a blog. Did I want to take on all of the content and copywriting?

Of course, I said, “yes,” feeling a wave of relief wash over me as I envisioned a regular check coming in for the next few months. That, however, never happened. I got a check after my first invoice. But after the second and third ones went unpaid, I got a call from “Robert” instead.

Money was tight. The team was looking for some VC funding. Prospects were great, but it was going to take a little bit of time. “Robert” offered me a stake in the company in lieu of payment. He explained some very complicated plans that involved our start-up being acquired, and incremental payments, and possible government backing.

And just like Fox Mulder, I wanted to believe. I wanted to believe that this guy thought of me as a friend, not just a freelance contractor. That he cared about me as a person, since I’d cried in front of him more than once when he asked me how things were going. I wanted to believe that he wouldn’t knowingly scam me.

I worked without a paycheck for the next year and a half, draining my savings account to stay afloat. Fantasizing about being acquired and how maybe my tiny sliver of the company would equal enough money to pay the mortgage off entirely. Or maybe pay for the kids’ college.

Over the course of those 18 months, I steadily lost confidence in “Robert.” The focus of the company seemed to change on a whim. Maybe he’d made millions on other ventures, but it clearly wasn’t happening this time. Without that sense of hope and possibility, it became harder to feel enthusiastic about changing our strategy — and all of our written materials — yet again. Plus, the job was exhausting. I’d get calls at 6:00 in the morning, on weekends, and late at night.

So why did I do it for so long? That’s the $150k question, right?

I call it “Bad Boyfriend Syndrome.” As in, even a bad one is better than being alone. Fresh from a heartbreaking divorce, new to the workforce, I was the poster child for low self-esteem — personally and professionally. I was just glad that somebody wanted me.

And then one day, after a particularly contentious phone call, I was done. I told him that I couldn’t continue to work for free and he very politely wished me well. That was almost five years ago.

And here’s where it all gets weird. Because not two days after that phone call, I got an email from a woman who’d gotten my name from a friend who’d told her that I had a lot of healthcare writing experience. The woman was Mad*Pow’s Amy Cueva. We talked on the phone, I showed her some samples, and she hired me.

At the time, I’d worked on one healthcare project. Robert’s. But I had a solid portfolio of work to show for it, and it was enough to convince Amy to give me a shot. That has led to years of collaboration with dozens of smart, funny, inspiring Mad*Pow people doing work that actually improves lives. And when I added that work to my portfolio, it attracted other clients in the healthcare sphere.

I didn’t set out to find a niche for myself, but somehow it found me. It’s my bread and butter. And unlike the me of 2007, I know that I do it well. And that the folks who hire me are as lucky to have me as I am to have the work.

That time I did $150k worth of work for free? I wouldn’t be here without it, and here is an awesome place to be.

In his TED talk, Paper Towns, John Green talks about cultures of learning. He did not enter a culture of learning until high school, and from his point of view education until that point was a series of obstacles to overcome. For many, it seems, the culture of learning -- of desiring to learn -- starts at school.

For me it began at home. I can't say exactly how I know this, except that whenever I asked a question that was vaguely historical or scientific, my folks would do their best to answer it, and if they didn't know they'd call a family member who might. The TV ran much more PBS than it did CBS, NBC, or ABC. The bathroom magazine rack held a few comic strip anthologies, a book of bathroom humor I wasn't supposed to understand (and mostly didn't), and at least one copy of Reader's Digest.

Then, as now, the household bathroom was as much a refuge for five minutes peace away from the hustle of a household as it was, well, its intended purposes. You could get away with locking yourself in a room for ten or twenty minutes without question, even at the age of ten or twelve, so long as someone else didn't need that room's particular functions.

When I was old enough to understand the written word and humor, I started reading Reader's Digest for the quips that filled the space between the article's end and the page end. (There was no white space in a Reader's Digest. That lesson, which I absorbed unknowingly, has colored my design work in not-glorious ways ever since.) The problem was I'd often find myself reading the last paragraph of the article accidentally, then going back to the beginning and reading the whole thing. This led to reading whole chunks of the magazine. Although I never snatched one out of the mail as soon as it arrived, I was always relieved to see that a new issue was tucked in the magazine stand.

A condensed book at the back of the Reader's Digest got me interested in neuroscience and neurosurgery, and for a while that's what I wanted to be when I grew up. I'm pretty confident it also introduced me to Dr. Oliver Sacks, who in turn introduced me to all the ways a brain can go horribly, or humorously, wrong. Dr. Sacks was a neurologist and author who treated patients for everything from aphasia to Tourettes and beyond; he told stories of how the autonomous acts of the brain we take for granted sometimes stop working, changing everything about how we perceive the world.

I could write thousands of words on Oliver Sacks, but to do so, first I'd go reread all the books of his I own, then I'd go hunt down the rest and read those, and then I would write.

But Oliver Sacks died today, and my heart is too empty to do that. My ribs are on too tight, my chest hurts, and I wish Oliver Sacks was still alive so he could explain how a thought entering my brain about a stranger I'd never met could cause the physical symptoms of grief.

Dr. Sacks was an avid participant in a culture of learning. He opened his July 24 essay in The New York Times with a description of his thirst to learn:

I look forward eagerly, almost greedily, to the weekly arrival of journals like Nature and Science, and turn at once to articles on the physical sciences — not, as perhaps I should, to articles on biology and medicine. It was the physical sciences that provided my first enchantment as a boy.

He was, in short, a learner. But one of the common side effects of learning is teaching; the discovery of a particularly delicious sip of the universe must be shared with those others who thirst for its knowledge. A neurologist and author, Dr. Sacks' described the strange lands he explored to an audience with less knowledge than he in ways that they could understand and relate to. In their obituary of the man, The New York Times noted his desire to share not just the causes and symptoms of neurological mysteries, but how they affected the human beings who were involved.

Describing his patients' struggles and sometimes uncanny gifts, Dr. Sacks helped introduce syndromes like Tourette's or Asperger's to a general audience. But he illuminated their characters as much as their conditions; he humanized and demystified them.

This is a gift of learning that we in the User Experience world -- or really in any world where we represent the interests of others -- can share. It isn't enough to describe the quantitative effects of a poorly-designed form in terms of adoption rates and sales funnels and drop-out rates. We need to make our "users", the people we represent, feel real to everyone who shapes their experience. It isn't enough to draw up a persona that indicates what segment the user inhabits, which demographics they meet, and how the product or process fits into their goals. We need to illustrate how it should fit into the real person's life, and how it absolutely shouldn't fit into their lives.

Ultimately, we don't have "users". We don't have "patients". We don't have "sales leads". We have people. Dr. Sacks knew that, and he taught me that, though at the time I thought he was just telling me stories about patients and medicine and science and this weird universe we live in.

John Green explains that his culture of learning as an adult has shifted from the classroom to the Internet, from inquisitive people he's met in person to inquisitive commenters on Youtube (yes they exist) and the living learning space they inhabit.

For me, too, the culture of learning has shifted. I no longer discover new worlds of interest from the magazine rack in the bathroom. (I don't even subscribe to magazines.) I still read voraciously, probably a half dozen articles a day, but they come from blogs and journals and publications that almost exclusively publish online. (How much learning still occurs in the bathroom I leave to the reader to infer.)

I learned of Dr. Oliver Sacks in Reader's Digest. I learned of the good man's death this morning in my Twitter feed, where I learn almost everything these days that turns out to be important.

It's the phrase "I learned" that I hope he would have approved of most.

The Shape of Things to Come

Software may be eating the world, but we are shaping it. What we do now—what we build, how we act, what we tolerate—will profoundly influence how society develops over the next few generations.

That’s not because what happens now will change you or me. We’re unlikely to change much, if at all. We’re set in our ways, most of us.

Our children are not.

What they see online will seem normal to them, just as what we saw growing up seemed normal to us. And because there is no meaningful distinction between online and offline, what they come to accept as normal online will be seen as normal offline.

So the way we build our networks matters in the most profound possible way. If we build networks that make it easy to abuse and harass, and make it difficult to defend against abuse and harassment, our children will come to see that as normal, even desirable. Similarly, if we build networks where it’s hard to abuse and harass, and easy to defend against such attempts, that will become the norm.

System design is social design. The question is, what kind of society do we want to design?

And the more important question is, when are we going to start?

A friend from many years ago emailed me recently. In part of our email exchange, he talked about parts of his life I had missed in the years we hadn't been in touch. He let me know about a new hobby, and commented, "This is something I should have started thirty years ago."

Not much of the conversation stuck with me other than that comment of his, which was accompanied in my mind with the (possibly a) Chinese proverb:

"The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now."

In contrast to the quote, my friend's comment seemed hard to me. "Should" can be such an ugly word, especially when used with regret. It is judgemental. It is dismissive. It assumes you were wrong with a previous choice.

"I should have done this."

"I shouldn't have done that."

We are all making the best choices we can for ourselves, given the constraints of knowledge, time, and motivation at any moment. Who is to say that one choice is better than the next, even when looking back?

So, yeah, maybe my friend should have predicted the future with uncanny accuracy and known when he was five what he wanted to do for his entire life. I maybe I should be kicking myself for things I've done or left undone.

I'm not going to kick, though. Instead, I'm going to go plant a tree.

Today is the second best day to do it.

There is no compact Italian expression to translate the English “from scratch.” Even if I could find one, it would lack the self-congratulatory value it currently has, especially in American culture, where most things come pre-made and prepackaged. When it comes to food, the expression “made from scratch” seems to imply an intermediate state of being between store-bought and homemade: you buy the genoise, the custard, the can of whipped-cream substitute, and you have an Ikea cake, where the final product is assembled, not created. The from-scratch rhetoric values the process of making things rather than the substance of which they’re made.

In Italian, on the other hand, the priority is reversed, and the category by which food is judged is that of genuinità. For a few decades, food advertising has turned the adjective genuino almost into a false friend of the English “genuine.” A product that’s marked (and marketed) as genuino is not an unchanged version of an original model, no matter its source, but one that’s as close to nature as possible. One that’s actively good for you.

In Italy, homemade food is by definition genuino, no matter the amount of sugar it contains or whether it was fried in pork fat. For decades, advertising of industrial food, particularly baked goods, has used genuinità as one of its main selling points, and made it more perceivable through various strategies, among which:

  • A substantial strategy, which highlights the relative presence of ingredients that are assumed as being good for you, as opposed to those that are obviously (and often anachronistically) naughty: more milk, less cocoa! (Never mind the sugar and the trans fats.)

  • An aesthetic strategy, which minimizes packaging and possibly makes it transparent, to show that the shape of its content is as close as possible to something you could make at home. Compare that to the space-age appearance of something like the alien, American-born Pop-Tarts.

  • A mythical strategy, which links the origin of the product to an imagery of uncontaminated nature, and to parts of the country where everything is made, from scratch, at home.

Both the from-scratch rhetoric and that of genuinità are ways to deal with the overwhelming presence of industrial products in our daily lives. When it comes to food, being homemade, the opposite of industrial, has a connotation of natural and healthy in the United States (adjectives that carry their own special set of ambiguities and contradictions), but of genuino in Italian. The idea of genuino, however, ultimately trumps healthy and natural: as long as it’s something your grandma could have made, it’s better than anything anyone else could ever make for you. And when you start earnestly applying it to industrial products, the word loses all meaning.

Making things from scratch is an illusion too. A few years ago I stopped following a hipster on Twitter, exhausted from his self-righteous tweets about how if you don’t make your own pasta you can’t say you’re cooking homemade food. I guess he owned a wheat field by his house in Brooklyn. According to this worldview, authenticity isn’t enough, and the effort of production must go to extreme lengths.

That attitude isn’t limited to food, and extends to anything that has an aspect of craftsmanship. Once, on a web-design forum, I caught an Italian (because Italians are proto-hipsters, I think) ranting about CMSs, and saying that “a real website” must be completely hand-coded, and that people who use WordPress and Drupal are just cheaters.

I no longer take offense at such opinions, annoying and uninformed as they may be. If someone makes solemn judgments about what a real anything should be like, it’s most likely because they’re collapsing under the weight of their own inadequacy. That includes any statements about real men, real women, real Italians, real Americans, real Italian food, and so on. (I’m not listing real American food because, as all real Italians know, there is no such thing.)

Learning how to make things from scratch, be that making bagels or coding an HTML page, is certainly a good way to learn how a certain technology works: how to raise dough, what boiling bagels does to them, what happens to your diacritics before you learn about HTML entities and UTF–8—those are all things you can read about, but the experience of doing them yourself will make them stick to your brain a lot better. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a store-bought bagel, or a web page that was written entirely by a machine.

Any technology that takes some of the effort out of your daily process and allows you to get to your results faster shows the fallacy of an absolutist from-scratch rhetoric. PHP and MySQL are a way to make our websites dynamic. Does spending less time on HTML make me less of a web designer? No, because being a web designer doesn’t just mean writing HTML. Same goes for using SASS to write style sheets. By the way, you’re not a real web designer if you’re not using SASS. It’s 2015—come on!

It’s easy to fall for the from-scratch fallacy. It’s the myopic pride of thinking that whatever you’re doing today will always be good enough, and the way you’re doing it is the best possible way. It’s the delusion that using any prepackaged material, regardless of its source, is an inherently undesirable shortcut that will make what you’re doing less genuine, and less genuino.

Every new technology has some inevitable overhead. It forces you to spend time learning it, and, consequently, it redefines where the baseline is, thus making any attempt at defining what “from scratch” means almost completely irrelevant. My way of building a Drupal site from scratch will look nothing like that of someone who’s just starting out.

Different depths of understanding of the technology allow for different starting points: because my background is not in computer science, there are things about the inner workings of the Drupal core that I don’t (and probably never will) master. I might have a general understanding of them, but I’d rather let someone else get their hands dirty with that code and lose their sleep over it. I’m okay with that. I’ll buy the flour, but as tempted as I am by the idea of making my own yeast, the thought of purposely growing mold still kind of scares me.

Go ahead then, learn your basics, choose your frameworks, build your library of tricks, and remember that what makes your design process unique is not the number of lines of code you personally wrote, but your mastery of the medium, your understanding of your clients, and a commitment to never taking anything for granted.

This is What Forgiveness Looks Like

The thing I most wish my mother (and the world) understood about my decision to cut her out of my life eleven years ago, is that it was a decision rooted in love, not hate. Love for my attentive daughter who was becoming increasingly aware of how long it took me to emotionally recover from phone calls and visits with my parents.

my daughter and I at the beach

I didn’t want the Cirque du Scary, headlined by my mother and I, in the portfolio of my daughter’s childhood memories. I chose distance because when we’re together, I become the worst version of myself.

Can’t you just choose to act differently? Try harder?

I used to think so.

I just turned 40 and I’ve been seeing therapists since I was 19. I’m on medication for depression and anxiety. I’ve written through the anger. Cried out the hurt. Analyzed, mapped out, and charted the rejection — my mom’s and mine. I’ve done two residential self-help retreats — one was eight intense days specifically targeting the healing of childhood wounds.

And I’ve never stopped looking for answers.

When I look at that list, I don’t see a person who’s not trying. In fact, I’m going to go ahead and give her an A+. Her report card would read, “Shannon continues to apply herself fiercely to this assignment.”

I once shared a cab with three women en route to an after-conference party. The subject of families came up and one of the women mentioned the shit vacation she’d recently had with her parents. They hadn’t spoken in the two months since.

“I get that. I haven’t spoken to mine for nine years.” I offered. Another woman responded, “Two months is one thing, but nine years is extreme. You need to do something about that!”

Years ago, I was assigned a therapist who became obsessed with reconciliation the moment I mentioned estrangement during our first (and last) session. He said I had two choices: aim for reconciliation or find a way to remain indifferent to the situation.

I hoped he was wrong, I said, because for the sake of my mental health, I couldn’t be in a relationship with my mother and indifference isn’t my jam. "I'm not here to criticize you, but you're coming to me two years after not speaking to your mother. How is that not indifference?" He asked.

Indifference (noun): Lack of interest, concern, or sympathy.

The therapist asked if I would like to see my mom pay for what she'd done. How can a person both want revenge and remain apathetic, I wondered?

So why all the estrangement shame? Why isn’t my decision compassionately celebrated?

If it were a friend or partner instead of my mother, I’d be lauded as brave and aces with boundaries. Is it the sharing of blood? Is blood the thing that gives us license to indefinitely cause hurt?

In the movie "Parenthood," Keanu Reeves has a line that’s stayed with me since I saw it in the early ’90s. After his character shares with his girlfriend’s mother that his dad used to wake him up by flicking lit cigarettes at his head and demanding breakfast, he says, “You know, Mrs. Buckman, you need a license to buy a dog, to drive a car — hell, you even need a license to catch a fish. But they'll let any butt-reaming asshole be a father.”

The great thing about family is that even when things get really shitty you stick together. But that’s also the dangerous thing about family. Sticking together is the expectation and can be the opposite of what you need to be okay. To feel safe. To respect yourself. To stop eating and breathing guilt and shame and hurt and loneliness.

My mom is most definitely not a “butt-reaming asshole.” She can be lovely. Growing up, she held my hair back when I puked, sat at the end of my bed while I talked about my day, and — my fave — called me her “Little Chicken.” She shuttled me across the city to my best friend’s house every weekend, made birthday cakes with money baked inside, and worried when I got home late.

But it wasn’t enough.

I have deep compassion for the ways my mom was hurt by her own family. If I could go back, I would scoop my little-girl mom into my arms and tell her she is loved and worthy and enough. Nobody did that for her and she was unable to stop her wounds from leaking into our relationship. She parented from her own unmet needs, as all parents inevitably do.

When my husband and I found out I was pregnant, he was a pastor. Our world was full of people who wanted to shower us with love and casseroles. My heart-shaped uterus meant a breech baby and a scheduled C-Section.

Knowing the exact day and time of Emma’s birth allowed us to make a pre-announcement. Because we suspected we’d be flooded with visitors from our church family, we decided to tell everyone — even our parents — no visitors on that first day. We wanted to create a bubble to enjoy and absorb this being we created.

My mom did not respond well. She didn’t care that my in-laws respected our request. She decided being a maternal grandparent gave her VIP access. We fought daily the week before the birth. It was hard to see her make it so personal, but I stood my ground.

The moment they pulled Emma from my belly, my heart rate dropped. People panicked and I thought, “I want my mom.” From beneath my oxygen mask, I asked my husband to call her. Later, when I woke in my hospital room, safe and stable, I expected to see my mom. I knew she’d be waiting to hear how I was and be relieved I’d changed my mind.

My husband shook his head. “Sorry, Babe. She said she made plans she can't shuffle.”

Even writing this now, almost 13 years later, it sounds like fiction. I can’t imagine being so tangled in my own hurt that I’d make my daughter’s — anyone’s — birth experience about me. Maybe it was ridiculous to ask people to stay away that first day? But we were a couple of idealistic kids.

Even so, you show up. You. Show. Up. That’s your job as a parent.

When my mom finally came, two days later, she made little eye contact, noted that my husband's parents got to see the baby first, and left in tears.

I have a million stories like this. There’s no one thing I can point to and say “that was the end of us.” The end is the culmination of years of emotional neglect and abuse — a pile with more bad memories than good.

She did her best for me the way I’m doing my best for Emma. But it turns out that sometimes our best isn’t good enough. Sometimes our best leaves our little people wondering about the stability of their worlds, ashamed of the anger growing hot in their bellies, afraid these feelings about their own parents make them monsters.

And sometimes our best means we give our little people enough strength and courage to recognize and end destructive relationships.

My mom deserves forgiveness. I one hundred percent believe that and I forgive her. I forgive her, I forgive her, I forgive her. But forgiveness doesn’t mean I have to remain in a relationship with her and allow her to keep hurting me. Forgiveness doesn’t mean sacrificing myself to please someone or an entire culture of someones.

my daughter and I in the grass

I worry a lot that letting go of my mom means I’ll inevitably lose Emma. ''Grandchildren learn how to treat their parents by the ways in which they see their parents treat the grandparents,'' says Dr. Matti Gershenfeld. ''If you're estranged from your parents, the odds are your children will become estranged from you once they become adults. That's the model they're learning.''

Maybe? Or maybe I’m modeling radical self-love. The kind that allows a person to care for themselves by doing one of the most painful things imaginable. And instead of feeling shame and self-loathing, my daughter might know how brave she is.

It’s what I hope for myself one day.

my electric car
We call it the Bubble Car.

In May I bought an electric car, and then I wanted to track how much electricity I was using and whether the range was as good as given in the specs. [1]

I happened to have a blank notebook handy; it even had robots on it. (Thx, Lullabot.) But then I had to type everything into a spreadsheet to learn anything! I guess at least I wasn’t checking it with a calculator and pencil and paper like Mom with her VW van in 1980.

So I decided to make a web app. It’s been forever since I’ve made anything really entirely completely 100% from scratch. I have a blog for my personal site and at work I have a CMS. I’m used to using something else to do the fiddly bits. [2]

I’d already decided that my favorite CMS [3] was probably overkill. After staring at a blank text editor for a bit, I went poking around frameworks. Got annoyed and frustrated and went back to starting at my blank text editor.

Then our intern [4] overhead me talking to Justin (the designer) about my quandary. She recommended one that she’d tried, and her recommendation was purely on the quality of the tutorial!

Which this was the first one [5] that really explained how it worked, what it was for, and gave me an easy entrance to start doing stuff. Yes, of course the tutorial was a to-do list. But I was suddenly up and running, thinking about what I wanted my app to be doing. And with just a few hours of work I had something I liked, and that I enjoyed working on.

Which is the point, really.

I’ve had two other projects over the last few months: new projects, smallish projects, and projects where I’m scratching my own itch while learning something new. A photo gallery site, where I’m discovering the magic that is flexbox and re-exercising my design muscles. And a tool for Dungeons and Dragons games that I can share with my friends, while also learning some advanced Drupal data management techniques. [6]

Both of them have been fun to goof around with. I’ve learned some things I needed and some other things that are just interesting to know. They’re both related to things I want to do that aren’t really about the web itself or my day-to-day work.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a generalist by nature. What I’ve rediscovered with these projects is that there’s a lot of fun as a generalist to be had making hobby projects for the web. If you’ve been a web professional for a while, and if you have the time, try carving out a bit of it for something new and not terribly serious. You too may be able to rediscover a little bit of that fun.


  1. A 2012 Mitsubishi M-iEV, bought used with VERY low miles. The range is listed as 62mi/100km, and it looks like it gets about that, depending on how you drive it. I adore it!
  2. WordPress for the blog. Cascade Server is our current CMS; Drupal is our future CMS. For me, fiddly bits = authentication, writing to a database, reading from a database, sanitizing data. YMMV.
  3. I like Drupal a lot. Like, super a lot. OTOH, it’s not for everyone or for everything.
  4. She’s isn’t really an intern, but instead a “fellow”, but it sounds weird to call her that. Also, enjoy this Vine I made of her final project from her class this summer!
  5. Meteor, FWIW. I actually don’t think it’s important which one, only that it clicked for me.
  6. None of these projects are publicly available yet, and the car tracker may never be.

Thank you to the D&D&Drupal Birds of a Feather at DrupalCon for ideas for my D&D project; to Chad for introducing me to D&D and being my co-conspirator; to Justin McDowell for initiating me into the MAGIC! world of flexbox; to Naomi for the intro to Meteor; and to Justin (again!) and Anne Gibson for reviewing this piece.

Clarity, Efficiency, Consistency, Beauty

A few months ago, I wrote about my experience and learnings with style guides and moving toward a living design system. I was excited to see that post get some traction as many other companies are facing the same problems and are solving them in very similar ways. It’s exciting to see all the super cool tools and guidelines people are building and sharing.

On Tuesday, we released the Beta of the Salesforce Lightning Design System. It is a rush to see how people are responding to it. Turns out, enterprise design is something a lot of people care about. Who knew? ;)

So, a couple things I learned while working on this:

  • Enterprise design is a challenge I didn’t know I would fall in love with (until now). The title of this post (Clarity, Efficiency, Consistency, Beauty) is a listing of our design principles. They are ordered in priority. This is key.
  • The way I write CSS for myself on small projects is very different from the way I write CSS for an enterprise framework that is scalable, platform-agnostic, and configurable.

I’ll write in more detail on these later. We will have a ton of posts at our team blog, where we will go into great detail of various aspects: motion, the grid system, the CSS framework, etc, from various talented contributors on this project.

I’m hoping that we get lots of feedback on the Design System, especially from people working in the enterprise design space. Let me know your thoughts on Twitter or send me an email.

The time a bird shat on my laptop.

Before I get into the bird poop story, let’s talk about guilt.

Guilt is my method of self-discipline. When in moderation, guilt keeps me on track; it keeps me working on what I should, and it keeps me from ordering Indian food when I really shouldn't. But when unmoderated, guilt is crippling, particularly when it comes to sunshine.

Wait, sunshine?

Winters in New York City are miserable. Well, I can’t speak for Minneapolis or Chicago, but they’re still bad. You can’t cross a street without picking your way through ankle deep, black slush. The warm breath steaming from the subway grates is a toasty treat. Cancel your plans if there’s a snow storm; the trains won’t be running, you won’t get a cab, and the Uber surge will render you unwilling to purchase the dinner for which you are en route. You’ll have many an evening with Netflix, and the aforementioned Indian food will adjust your midriff accordingly...assuming the bicycling delivery person doesn’t slip on the ice (which happened to me before, talk about a guilt trip).

As you can imagine, when spring and summer finally come around it’s downright euphoric. New York is alive. Everyone is happy, the sun is shining, and cold-brew iced coffee is back on the menu. As long as you avoid the sweaty, shoulder-to-shoulder L-train situation, it’s bliss.

Back to guilt. I spend the majority of these precious sunshine-filled hours in the air conditioned sanctum of my coworking space, watching the perfect weather pass by through a window, emerging only to purchase lunch to eat back at my computer. I glance out the window and think, what am I doing?! I work for myself. I should be outside, catching rays because I can but…I want to work. I love to work. And working necessitates outlets and WiFi, amenities associated with the indoors. Catching rays isn’t really an option.

Or is it?

One particular day, on the way to said coworking space, I thought, I’m fully charged and it’s sunny as hell. I’m going to work outside. I’m going to catch those rays while writing HTML. I’m going to have my cake and eat it too.

You can probably see where this is going.

After scoping out the perfect, sun-soaked bench in the illustrious Tompkins Square Park, I whipped out my MacBook Pro and assumed laptop posture. The park even had WiFi. It didn’t work, but it’s the thought that counts, right? No matter, I connected to my hotspot, and my cake eating was underway. I was stoked.

I soon realized some flaws in this plan. First, the heat. Not the sun per se, but the actual laptop. It was scorching my thighs. Again, no matter, I moved my bag to beneath the laptop and on top of my sweaty legs. Problem solved.

But then the major flaw: battery life. The sun was strong, and my brightness was at max; I had ripped through about 40% in 20 minutes. My phone was quite warm as well, and the hotspot was crushing battery life. All of a sudden it was at 11%, and I hadn’t brought a cord.

Dark thoughts ensued. Is this really worth it? What have I accomplished so far? Am I, god forbid, wasting time? Did I make the wrong decision? Why do I torture myself when it comes to sunshine of all things? My mind started to wander, and I enviously eyed a happy, bagel-eating couple a few benches away.

Then it happened: a light colored something dropped right in front of my face. I see on the left of my laptop, below the screen, a wad of white and green bird shit. And with that shit, a waterfall of expletives, shoulds, and guilt. I had wasted my golden hours of morning productivity, and all I had was a shit-laden computer to show for it.

should have gone to the coworking space as usual. I shouldn't feel guilty for wanting to work instead of romping in the sunshine. In my short 26 years, it’s a huge accomplishment for me to even know what I feel like doing in the first place.

Yes, it’s important to be outside. Yes, it’s important to spend time away from work and the computer, to be in the sunshine, and to select work locations that are not under trees in a park. That being said, after this bird poop incident, I have a slightly different perspective.

The reason I’m not romping in the park right now is because I love to work. Isn't that the ultimate goal anyway, to love what you do? To enjoy work so much that it becomes play; to blur that work-life line? I don’t think it’s New Yorker workaholic thing, I’m going to say it’s a happy-person-thing.

But in conclusion, as my very wise mother always says, everything in moderation. Blur the work-life line, but not so much that a bird shits on your laptop.

How will people remember you when you’re gone? Will they say, “she contributed a lot”, or “he was a nice man”, or “she was a helpful mentor”? Increasingly, I feel, it’s how people describe you when you’re not around that means the most.

I remember being inspired as a kid by a female photojournalist from a local newspaper who came to my class. Every time I interact with a kid these days (I don’t have any of my own, yet), I think about how their experiences send them off in different directions...like my niece going to circus camp, or a high schooler attending Girls Who Code for the summer. As little as 30 minutes of your time spent with someone could dramatically impact their future. That we can inspire the next generation fills me with hope, lifting us above election seasons, wildfires, income inequality, gun violence and rampant misogyny.

Who inspires you, and why?

This summer, I spoke at a software development conference in Amsterdam and took my own bike, making a vacation out of it (I’m a bike nerd). At the speakers’ canal cruise around Amsterdam, I became acquainted with one of the keynote speakers, Mary Shaw, from Pittsburgh, PA. We discovered nearly identical plans to ride our bikes in Belgium later in the week. Not familiar with Mary’s work at Carnegie Melon University before meeting her in person, I was floored to find out I’d spent time with a recipient of the National Medal for Science and Technology, presented by President Obama, for her research on software architecture.

It’s not often that I feel starstruck…but I was so honored to speak at the same conference as Mary Shaw. She even came to my talk on Accessibility in Angular! It meant a lot to have her there, no matter how I performed. The next day, I saw Mary’s keynote, Progress toward an Engineering Discipline of Software. I loved her meta look at engineering–a job title growing in popularity in software–comparing it to arch and bridge design, from craft to industry. Definitions taken from civil engineering provided a lens for comparison with engineering of software:

“Creating cost-effective solutions...to practical problems...by applying scientific knowledge…building things...in the service of mankind."

Returning home after the trip to a new job and title, Accessibility Engineer at Adobe, I wondered how my work stacked up against those definitions. After her talk, I got to ask Mary’s take on it directly: she recalled, “building things in the service of mankind” and it was pretty clear that yes, engineering applies to accessibility.

The day after the conference, my travel partner and I sat drinking tiny cups of espresso with our bikes and backpacks on the platform at Amsterdam’s Centraal Station. And who did we happen to see? Mary Shaw and her partner, Roy, with their tandem bike packed in two suitcases, lining up for the fast train to Belgium. Despite feeling starstruck, I felt compelled to tell Mary and Roy about an experience I’d had speaking to an elementary school science class.

Me and Mary Shaw on the platform at Amsterdam Centraal
Me and Mary Shaw on a rail platform at Amsterdam Centraal

Make time for those coming after you; you might inspire someone.

Last summer, I was invited to speak to a 4th and 5th grade science class in rural Oregon via Google Hangouts. I prepared a small slide deck and spent 30 minutes explaining how I got to that place in my career. The kids came prepared some great questions; I talked with them how I would with my 8-year-old niece and 11-year-old nephew. It was a fun experience and the class seemed to enjoy it, even if they looked ready to run outside for recess. A few months later, I got an email from the teacher:

Marcy,

I just wanted to let you know about Tyler. She is a student in my class. I had her as a student last year as well. She has always been a little bit behind in her level and struggled with confidence issues. Ever since your talk earlier this year, I noticed a distinct change in her attitude in class. All of a sudden she started working harder, got excited about learning, wanting to do better all the time. A few months ago I noticed she kept making references to your talk and about how she wants to be a programmer like you. She even helped me do a presentation about STEM to another school district talking about how influential you were to her and how you helped her realize that she could do that as well. I think she really connected with you. You have made a difference in the lives of my students and I really appreciate that.

When I told Mary Shaw this story on the rail platform, she said, “YES!!”, complete with a fist pump. She seemed excited to hear of another female software engineer in the making. I felt whole in that moment, simultaneously looking up to Mary Shaw and realizing how I had impacted the next generation.

Becoming part of the cycle of life

Have you noticed how time seems to fly by? In writing this piece, someone told me, “how we affect the next generation makes us immortal.” What are you doing to positively impact someone in your life with the time you have?

Being a mentor requires putting your own ego aside and wanting others to succeed. Once I grew more comfortable with myself and less competitive with others, I found I had more room in my heart to cheer them on. Being a mentor means listening to what people want to do and encouraging them, while being strategic. It’s delightful and rewarding to see something positive develop from time spent together.

Make a difference.

As our careers mature, it’s important that we to contribute back to the world. Do work that matters, and you’ll make a difference every day. Or, if your job is sustainable but not as fulfilling, you could spend some of your time helping and connecting with others: volunteering with local youth groups, mentoring someone getting started in your industry, or teaching for a nonprofit. Organizations like Girl Develop It provide learning and career development opportunities to women and newcomers in technology–they often need teaching assistants and instructors. Other groups to check out: Nodeschool, Coder Dojo, or a local meetup.

There are many places in and outside of tech where you could give your time and expertise. Looking for some variety in your life? Contributions to organizations like the Humane Society or a local trail association would be just as appreciated. Find something that matters to you.

Coming from a place of privilege–like, being further along in a well-paying career–means you have something to offer those coming after you. Trend on positive, meaningful outcomes for others with the time you spend. Every little bit helps to make our world a better place. In nature terms, did you leave the trail in a better condition than you found it?

Wally on the Pacific Crest Trail
Rest-in-peace Wally, my beloved dog, seen here pulling me up a mountain trail in Washington State this summer.

Do You Want to Be Pretty?

My daughter will turn 3 years old soon, and she has lots of opinions. Opinions about what book we should read next, or whether she should eat another green bean, or whether it's time for tickles or snuggles or chasing her across the room or "by myself!" time. Certain things, though, she could care less about--like what clothes we put on her in the morning. Getting dressed is just a hurdle to get through so she can get back to play time.

I worry, though. It feels like a matter of time. Several of my most feminist friends are as dedicated to helping their girls to choose their own gender expression as we are, and they've succumbed to it. The tiaras, the tutus, the sparkles, the elaborate headbands and bows.

There's nothing wrong with femininity. There's something wrong with the fact that it's the default choice for little girls. And that if you're a little girl amongst other little girls in American culture, you're weird if you're not into it.

We haven't been able to stop it. The relentless onslaught of princess culture finds its way to our girl through the most well-meaning channels. Her grandmother, her babysitter, her daycare teachers. Without thinking they call her "princess", gift her baby dolls and plastic makeup kits, ask her if she wants to try on their earrings, suggest that she play dress-up, pick out the pink toys for playtime.

We counter-program like it's our job. I believe that it is. We put her in clothes that are not from the girls section [1]. We secretly donate the plastic lipsticks and hand-me-down frills. We encourage her when she pulls barrettes out of her hair and declares she doesn't like them. We buy toys that come in primary colors, with little boys smiling on the box. We stopped watching Thomas the Tank Engine because 90% of the characters are male. We encourage her love of Doc McStuffins, one of the only kid shows we've found that features a smart, capable girl who is the main character and protagonist. [2]

Still, it feels like it's coming. Our housemate, a bright, energetic 4-year-old girl, loves to play dress-up with her collection of princess dresses. She pulls our girl into it whenever they're in her room. I hold my breath, and hold my tongue. If my daughter wants to wear a princess dress, she shall wear a princess dress--as long as she's not pressured into it. As long as she knows it's not her job. [3]

During one of these sessions, my daughter was more interested in the dragon costume hiding at the bottom of the dress drawer than the dresses themselves.

"Do you want to be pretty?" the 4-year-old asked.

"Nope," my daughter said, without hesitation.

Nope. I think about that nope. I celebrate that nope. I will recall that nope when it turns into a yep, or a maybe, or a question about what pretty is.

I don't love the premise of the question, a question boys don't have to answer. But in the face of our culture's defaults, it is a question I hope my daughter has strong, varying opinions about.

Do you want to be pretty?

Nope, I don't feel like it.

Only if I get to decide what pretty is.

Yes, that sounds like fun.

Yes, and I want to be a leader, or a builder, or an athlete, or a scientist, or a teacher, or a doctor, too.

[1] The boys' clothes section is often just as bad as the girls. To avoid buying shirts that say things like "Daddy's little football star", we try to buy gender-neutral stuff, which is harder to find and often more expensive.

[2] Even with a stay-at-home Dad character, a Mom who is a physician, and Geena Davis of Thelma and Louise fame voicing a toy princess who tells a toy knight that she can do everything he can do, Doc McStuffins' stethoscope is still pink.

[3] Thanks to Caitlyn Siehl for her poem, It's Not Your Job

What even is engaging content?

‘We need to create engaging content.’ I hear that a lot. I have said it myself on more than one occasion and I have written an article titled Copywriting for Engagement. But no more. I want to create useful content and if that encourages engagement with our brand/product/service, then bonus. But ‘engagement’ won’t be the catalyst for my content production because what even is engaging content?

The definition of ‘engaging’ in the Oxford English Dictionary is:

  • obliging
  • absorbing, interesting
  • winning attractive

Ah! I suppose it’s fair if you want your content to be absorbing and interesting, but that doesn’t mean it is useful too, which it really needs to be. It has to serve a core purpose based on user needs, goals and expectations.

Another definition of ‘engaging’, from Google search results, takes us deeper into the rabbit hole of linguistic fogginess:

  • charming and attractive

When have you ever heard a client say they want their content to be charming and attractive. When have you ever wanted YOUR content to be those things? Please say never.

To pull us back to the surface, somewhat, this definition from dictionary.com is the nearest reason as to why you may describe content as engaging:

  • to occupy the attention or efforts of a person or persons

Ok, but like the first definition, this doesn’t mean this content is serving any purpose beyond someone reading it. Now what?

Measure all the engagement

Well that brings us onto the next tenuous issue with the adjective that has placed me firmly on my soapbox. Measurement. How can you measure if something is engaging? Social media shares, likes, follows, retweets, favourites and mentions all seem to be a common answer for how people measure engagement. It doesn’t add up though when you think about it.

Great, 75 people retweeted the link to your blog post. That’s the most you’ve ever had. Your content must be really engaging. Engagement with your content is successful. Now, how many of the people who retweeted that link are customers, or potential customers, or started a trial of your product/service, or joined a mailing list, or bought something?

Quality or quantity?

If your goal is to encourage and increase all of that social media interaction then you’ve achieved it. I would rather 100 followers who care about what content I’m sharing, find it useful and come back, rather than 1000 followers who won’t have any further interaction with my content beyond one retweet.

Usefulness trumps engagement

Having useful content that elicits engagement is fine, but that’s not where the spotlight should be pointing. To say you create engaging content sounds nice. It sounds like you are producing content that people like, and that may well be the case, but I struggle to see how engaging content can nurture real business benefits whilst helping your users achieve their goal. In most cases where engagement/engaging is used it can be swapped with a more relevant and accurate word:

Let’s write in an engaging tone

Let’s write in an authentic tone

Let’s use engagement as a measure of success

Let’s use increased trial sign-ups as a measure of success

Let’s create engaging content

Let’s create useful content that serves a purpose

The lost meaning

Through repeated and neglectful use, engaging has lost its true meaning. What’s worrying is if conversations about content are happening where engaging and engagement are used to inform and measure content, well it sets teams up for failure because if you were tasked with writing something engaging, where would you start? If you were tasked with reporting on the engagement of the company’s monthly content, where would you start? We’ve already acknowledged that social media stats seem to be the first stop, but then what?

Let’s focus instead on creating useful content. Our users will thank us for it.

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to read bedtime stories to my goddaughter, Jane. I sprawled on the floor in front of her crammed bookshelf, reveling in the assortment of completely unfamiliar picture books. (The last book I read aloud to my kids was most likely a dystopian YA novel.) I grabbed a few that looked promising and climbed into her bed.

After I read my two picks, a very giggly Jane handed me a book, saying, “You have to read this to me, Auntie Dana, ok? I get to pick a book, too.”

The book was B.J. Novak’s “The Book With No Pictures.” Cue internal eye-rolling.

I have an unseemly hatred for celebrity-written children’s books, born around the time Madonna penned “The English Roses” and fed by a growing list of authors that fill me with a stomach-churning mix of contempt and envy. Perez Hilton? Tori Spelling? Sharon Osbourne?

“Those people aren’t writers. They’re just famous, so they get book contracts. And write stupid books.”

So, even though my favorite podcasters at Pop Culture Happy Hour mentioned “The Book With No Pictures” favorably, I chalked it up to a momentary lapse of reason and continued on with my life. Normally, if they recommend something, I’ll at least check it out, but in this case, my bias was too strong. Until Jane thrust the book into my hands and demanded that I read it.

Although I started begrudgingly, it only took a few pages for me to realize that BJ Novak had nailed it — that thing that makes kids ask for the same book over and over. Or at least one of them. In this case, it’s the joy of hearing a grown up say absurd, vaguely naughty, and possibly forbidden words out loud. That’s the book’s genius premise: when you’re reading out loud you have to read every word on the page, no exceptions.

By the time I finished reading, Jane had laughed herself off the bed and onto the floor.

And that got me thinking about user experience. This book was more than just its content, the black words on the white pages. It was about the interaction between those words and me. And from Jane’s participation as a listener, hearing me read them. It came from our preconceptions, that grown ups don’t or shouldn’t say the word “butt.” And the thrill of breaking that rule. Whatever flaws I could find in the writing, they were trumped by the experience Jane and I shared when I read the book out loud.

Did I love the book? Not really. Lines like, “I am reading you this book with my monkey mouth in my monkey voice...and my head is made of blueberry pizza,” don’t seem all that inspired to me.

However, it was clear that Jane loved it. And seeing her joy made me happy, too.

It’s quite possible that my parents are the most supportive parents in the world. It’s also possible that they have some of the highest expectations in the world for my brothers and I. A quick example…

It’s late on a Thursday night. My mom and dad both have to work early the next morning. My two brothers and I are in my parent’s basement rocking out. Literally. I play keys, my brother Jesse plays bass, and our youngest brother Paul plays drums. For Christmas last year, I bought a couple new amps and a whole sound system, which we are putting through their paces. We’re having a total blast, so we don’t even notice the time.

Now, the door to the basement makes this kind of odd sounding squeak and no matter how loud we’re playing, we can always hear this sound when someone opens that door. So, we’re rocking out and we hear the squeak and we all suddenly snap back into reality, realizing just how late it is. Or—technically—how early: 1:23 AM Friday morning...

We stop playing. We listen. Dad is coming down the steps and we’re all looking at each other thinking he’s about to lay into us—tell us how he has to get up in four hours or something. Instead, he pops out of the stairwell balancing three glasses of milk and a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. He says, “All this hard work, you’re next show is gonna be so good!” And with that he disappears up the stairs.

I think about this moment often because it’s the first time I actually understood how my parents were raising us. They supported us in so many ways, but they also expected us to have great things to show for that support.

I’m now seven years into parenting and twelve years into running a business. There are a lot of parallels. In both cases, I want to avoid being prescriptive in how I instruct people—nobody likes a helicopter parent or a micromanager. In both cases, I want the environment to feel safe, to feel like experimentation is perfectly fine. And, in both cases, I expect great things from those involved.

To do quality work, we need a balance of high expectations and the support to meet those expectations.

One without the other is not enough—in fact, it can be damaging. Can you imagine how frustrated you would be if your leadership was continually concerned about your quality of work but every project was tight on time and budget? This is high expectation without the necessary support. Conversely, having a highly supportive environment but no expectations often results in laziness or entitlement. The balance is difficult to strike.

Creating a place where experimentation is the norm means we have to be OK with mistakes—not every hypothesis will be true. At the same time, we can’t only call out the successes of the team. There must be a place for critical analysis of each other, a place where honest and constructive feedback can be given.

Individual Expectations

We operated for five years without really taking steps to help individuals on our team set and reach their personal or career goals, without ever explicitly stating our expectations. If you want people to be challenged, you have to challenge them. Take some time to sit down with the people on your team and give them actionable, constructive, criticism. If you’re worried how people will receive it, ask them to critique you first. And, be ready to demonstrate (with your response) how you want them to respond.

Organizational Expectations

It’s great for individuals to know their goals. But what’s really powerful is when we understand how our individual goals are part of the bigger picture. A commonly shared vision can dull the sting of individual critique when that critique is being done in the pursuit of something bigger. Of course, this only works if you’ve done a good job of sharing that vision and if your team has bought in.

My parents had this down. They wholeheartedly supported us when we found a passion, but they also pushed us to be great at the things we loved. I want to do the same for my team. If you lead an organization, I’m guessing you want this too. Take some time to help your people understand their goals and make sure they know how those fit into the big picture. Remember to deeply consider how you can support them in achieving those goals. And, when in doubt, don’t forget that everyone works better with milk and cookies.

Who doesn’t want to follow their passion? Do what they love? It’s on posters and t-shirts. It’s nearly half of all Medium articles. You can turn your passion into a full-time job. Your passion can free you from the daily grind. Your passion is what you were meant to do! Follow your passion they say. I say, follow your passion... on the weekends.

See, the thing is, when we get caught up in only doing what we’re passionate about, we end up resenting and rejecting any type of work that we have to do that isn’t directly related to our passion. This type of mindset is a cancer to you; not to mention the person you work for. It’s a cancer because following your passion is more than simply “doing your thing”. If you’re going to follow your passion into a full time gig then your passion now includes accounting, business development, client management, sales, taxes, insurance, and so much more. Does that sound like your passion?

Perhaps it does, perhaps you look forward to spending 40-50% of your time “doing business”... if so, awesome! If not, it’s cool. Do your thing, do your 9-5 and rock it. Rock it so that you can get home and follow your passion on the weekends.

A couple weeks ago, I stepped out of the office, grabbed an iced coffee at the Au Bon Pain next door, and sat outside on the patio. Shortly, I would be joined by a social worker and a speech pathologist. I stretched out, relaxed and confident.

Flash back to more than six months ago, sitting cross-legged on my cramped living room floor with two evaluators from the local Early Intervention Partnerships Program. On referral from my daughter’s pediatrician, shortly after she turned 18 months old, she would be evaluated for her eligibility to receive support services for language development. After a battery of tests disguised as play, where I had to frequently fight the urge to exclaim “wait, she totally knows how to do or say that” or similar protests, she did indeed qualify to receive support for a mild expressive speech delay.

This was not a grave diagnosis. Z was (and is) bright, social, and healthy. But she was not acquiring language at the same rate as her peers. Would she catch up on her own? Maybe. Probably. But we decided to seek support.

I am lucky to live in an area where receiving professional support to help with her development is low-cost or even free, and readily available. Should she have had gross motor or other kinds of delays or disabilities, she could have received help with those as well. And thanks to knowing several other parents with kids around her age who received similar Early Intervention (EI) services, I did not feel a stigma in seeking them out for Z.

But the assessment weighed on me, and I can only wonder if part of that was because I ply my trade as a communicator. Without my words, I feel like I have little to offer. Selfishly and perhaps unreasonably, it seemed almost cruel that the communicator’s kid only reliably used a few words by the time she was one and a half.

This is all amplified by the inevitable comparisons you make between your kid and other kids. It’s so easy to put two kids of roughly the same age side by side and try to determine who is more communicative, more social, more physically adept, and so on. The comparison game is a losing game for everyone, since it is not a truly effective gauge of where a kid is at, but it will get you every time. I would cringe when a kid Z’s age or even younger could so much capably express themselves than she could, and I would be extra frustrated when I could not understand her needs or wishes.

I’ve talked to other parents who’ve struggled with well-intentioned comparisons against “the wide range of normal,” when sometimes that range didn’t apply to them. This can be difficult territory to navigate, fraught with strong emotions on all sides. It is disappointing to feel like your child isn’t normal and needs “special help.” What could I have done differently? You can’t help but wonder.

But as difficult as it was to accept the fact that we qualified for support, the support we received was great. Having Early Intervention available as an option gave us validation, information, strategies, and support. We established specific goals for the progress we hoped to see in the first six months. The social worker assigned to Z was flexible in being able to work with her in her daycare classroom. We chatted regularly about progress and strategies, and Z enjoyed her visits. When I finally, somewhat nervously sat down to make a word list, I found that Z knew more words than I gave her credit for. The list soon became not worth maintaining. Two-word phases appeared, soon to be replaced by the occasional three-word sentence, and we celebrated each step forward.

Back to the Au Bon Pain patio. It’s the six-month evaluation, looking back at the goals we established when Z began receiving services. As expected, she met all of her goals and is considered caught up to her peers in speech and language.

We now regularly have conversations about what she did at school that day (“I colored a purple car”), what she wants to do in the morning (“I wanna go to the baseball game and see the alligators,” obvs), what I should do (“Mommy, sit down on the floor right there, read this book”) and of course, the latest gossip on who-bit-who.

The progress she’s made and continues to make is remarkable. I’m proud. I’m relieved. I’m grateful. We are lucky to have these kinds of services available to us—I know not everyone does. And I am glad I wasn’t too proud or stubborn to seek them out.

Once we debriefed on Z’s communications progress, the EI staff and I set a new goal for continued services. But this time, we’ll be working on behavior. Since just because she may be able to communicate doesn’t always mean she wants to listen. Oh, toddlers.

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.”

So, enough.

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:

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.

Celebrating our achievements

If I were to describe my public “brand”, it’d be something to do with donuts.

Many people know that I enjoy donuts. So much so that when I give a talk at a company about web performance, often there’s a platter of donuts waiting, or audience members bring me a beautifully-wrapped donut afterward. People send me donut-themed gifts (though I am at a point where I have enough donut notepads and cards; thanks anyway! Please send actual donuts). My book release party had stacks of delicious mini donuts, and sometimes coworkers deliver donuts to my desk. So why the theme?

In 2013, I began celebrating career achievements by eating a donut. I had found that whenever something awesome happened in my career—maybe I got published, or promoted, or launched a project—I wouldn’t take the time to celebrate the achievement. I’m an achiever by nature, the kind who feels like every day starts at zero. Not deliberately marking these moments left me feeling like I wasn’t actually accomplishing anything. “Oh cool, that A List Apart article went up,” I would think, then move on with my day.

Once I realized that this was happening, I decided to be deliberate about marking achievements by eating one donut. Well, sometimes more than one, if it’s a really big deal. The act of donut-eating has actually helped me feel like I’m accomplishing my career goals. As I started to share this idea with more people, I found that it resonated with others, especially career-driven women who are routinely achieving goals and furthering their career but don't take the time to note their own success.

I decided to start celebrating in a public way so that more people may be inspired to find their own ways of marking their career achievements. These are those donuts. And now they’re what I’m known for.

So why have these achievement donuts resonated so deeply?

As women, we’re socialized to not publicly celebrate our achievements. I toe this line with the donuts. By pointing at a donut I can say, “hey, I did a thing” — without necessarily naming that thing or potentially coming off too braggy. It’s an incredibly fine line to walk, and there has been some private fallout about the published donuts. I’ve heard from men that they “don’t like” that I document and share these posts. I’ve heard tales of women, behind closed doors, who will say it’s too much, too public, too show-off-y.

Even in this section, I’m struggling to find the “right” way to explain that I have some substantial career achievements and am well-known within a section of the tech industry — without rewriting this sentence dozens of times to avoid sounding like I think I’m a big deal. Given that I have a non-trivial (there I go again) audience, and as a female figure in tech, what do I do with the self-imposed responsibility of showcasing a healthy way to champion oneself? How do I strike that balance between rubbing people the wrong way and being out there with bells on?

It’s ingrained in our society to coach women to not talk about their achievements, and yet we desperately want women to do so. I’ve seen many a celebratory GIF retweeted, electronically applauding for a woman who has done something awesome. I see so many women right now raising others up and praising them, too, and it's so great.

I think that’s why the donuts have resonated. When I tell women about it, often their first reaction is to think about what they should be celebrating right now, or what their version of a donut could be. I think that women need more models of achievement celebration. Julie Ann Horvath is a great example; I love seeing her tweets of accomplishments.

It’s true that this behavior is triggering to others — men and women alike. We all have unconscious biases buried in our brains. But I’m asking you: please do not let this prevent you from publicly celebrating your achievements. For me, sitting down with purpose and intention to inhale a donut means that I’m spending that moment celebrating a win. It means that I will feel like I’m really achieving something, and that I deserve a moment to enjoy it. We all deserve that, and we all deserve to see more models of it from other women. Find your donut.

Bernie Sanders, the White Progressive Hero Presidential Candidate for 2016, had his Seattle campaign rally disrupted by two African-American women protesting for Black Lives Matter. In front of a restive crowd of white Seattle liberals, they suggested the town is racist. And the lilywhite Seattle progressive crowd turned on them, shouting racial epithets, booing moments of silence for Michael Brown, and reminding everyone that just under that thin veneer of upright left-wing anti-GMO anti-corporate lay the dark, dark heart of a half-millennium of ingrained American racism.

And as someone who has been a Seattleite for two decades (this month), the whole incident hurt. Seattle does have a problem with racism, but it’s not firehoses, dogs, and firebombing. It’s the lasting effect of redlining, the inequity between majority-white and majority minority schools, and the complaining about “black men” driving through their neighborhood on the local chatboard.


A few days after the Seattle rally, the arguing over conference “codes of conduct” flared up again. And at the same time as that piece was published, Katie Kovalcin reported her trouble with a conference failing to protect the harassed.

Women, people of color, and sexual minorities complain they don’t feel safe at conferences and don’t trust conferences with their safety. They are pushing for “codes of conduct” to be standard around the industry. Male conference runners and attendees react by saying codes of conduct won’t work — often while appearing to belittle the very real concerns of a plurality of conference attendees.

But men have opinions, you see. And opinions must be expressed. The Internet is a place created to hold everyone’s hot takes, no matter how scattershot and ill-informed. But Someone Must Say Something About This. Someone Is Wrong On The Internet.

We respond like that Sanders rally crowd, wondering who the hell these people are talking about. A woman demands a safer web, and men freak out because we are safe how dare she say we are not. Someone who finds a Web community biased against people of color, and white folk freak out because but we are not racist stop saying we are racist. Someone asks for a Code of Conduct at a conference, and we freak out because it does not do anything and we’re all adults right? (And did we mention everything was fine until they showed up?)

We shut down. We don’t listen to the complaints. We don’t parse the solution to understand the problem it’s supposed to solve. We don’t think hey, maybe they’re not talking about me as the problem, but me as someone who can be the solution.


Our Weltanschauung within the web industry has stagnated. We’ve hidden from the real concerns of the world — racism, sexism, homophobia, economic inequality — partially because we promoted the Internet as this libertarian wonderland where “everyone is equal,” and partially because we’ve pretended the Internet was built and run by men, mostly white.

But now the world is on the web, and these billions of people are not mostly male, mostly white. And they are asking why women are being harassed for speaking out, why the word “f**got” is used on chatboards as a term of endearment, and why don’t we understand that our beloved “disruption” has economic and social consequences?

The Great Leveller that was supposed to be the Internet became more of a Great Mirror, reflecting back a broken, inequitable society that protects the powerful and predatory. And that Great Mirror reflects back all the heat and light of the powerful and the predatory onto the vulnerable with a painful intensity.


I’m angry. I’m angry that we’re still stuck in this world view. And I’m even angrier that the primary solutions people offer up are Get Off The Internet and Let’s Just Act Like Adults.

Get Off The Internet… well, in a time when 40% of the world's population and over 85% of the US has Internet access, when it’s well-nigh impossible to apply for a job without the Internet in almost every Western country… is this a stupid idea, or the stupidest idea ever?

Let’s Just Act Like Adults… I have been an adult for over 20 years now (in the eyes of federal, state, and local laws). What I’ve learned about adults is they’re assholes. They’re greedy, mean, vindictive, and selfish beasts who couldn’t give one squat about others unless it is in their best interest to give a squat about others. Asking humans to act like adults is meaningless unless there's agreement how an adult acts. We'd be better off telling people to act like kindergartners; at least they don't build websites to harass others.


As designers we’re taught, repeatedly, to listen to the users’ complaints about your work, because they are the voice of someone struggling with what you’ve designed.

We’re taught that when people approach us with a solution, we should talk to them and draw the problem out of them before agreeing with their solution.

We’re taught that when people say rude or negative things to us in critiques, they may be speaking out of their own exasperation and lack of control; it’s not necessarily a comment on us, and we shouldn’t take it personally.

And it’s not just designers; content creators and coders learn the same things, too.


A coworker and I talked about the Sanders rally kerfuffle over lunch. “I wish people would just stop and think before they expressed their opinion,” he said. “Too many people on the Internet just talk without really pausing and thinking it through.”

He’s right. We don’t stop to think, to listen. Instead, it’s straight to the blogs and the Twitters because The World Must Know.

We need to shut up and listen. We need to understand the problem before we try to solve it. We need to remember that we specifically may not be the problem, but we collectively may be. And we need to remember the role we play in this society.

The time for writing and advocating and opinionating will come, but in the meantime, when the vulnerable and disadvantaged speak, we shut up and listen.

No one cares about your opinion. They just want you to listen to their truth.

When I was 17, I was applying for University places. I don't remember deciding to do this, I did it because everyone else was doing it, because we were told that to get a good job, we needed one. At 18, I started a degree in Psychology, I was going to be a clinical therapist. Three years later and I was exhausted, so decided to take a year out to do something different before going back to get my Masters.

That never happened. I worked for two years and by 2014 I had no idea what I wanted to do, but it wasn't that. So, I started to teach myself web development. One epic montage of hitting a computer in my pyjamas and this year I accepted a full-time position as a "software engineer".

Before I got that job, I doubted my abilities. I wanted to give up because there was no way anyone would hire me without a "degree in computer science or related field". I held off applying for any job for a long time because even the internships wanted qualifications I didn't have.

It took me a long time to realise that in the web and many other professions, a degree is not necessary. As a person in web, you need to show that you have the knowledge and the skill to build things. That does not need a degree.

Why do many job applications list a degree as a need? I did some intensive research (wrote a tweet) and people wrote back to say that it gets rid of the people who aren't serious about the job. Others said it was a "nice to have" rather than a strict rule.

To both of those points I say: take it off of your job spec. You can't measure "seriousness" about the role someone is applying for by whether they have a degree. It's nonsensical. Would you choose the person with a degree who sees this as just another job, rather than a self-taught new starter who has enthusiasm leaking out of their eyeballs?

Having a degree as a "nice to have" on your job spec might seem better, but it's better to get rid of it. When looking for internships, I ended up avoiding any job that mentioned a degree. If I'm up against someone who is just as good, but they have that 'nice to have' degree, are they going to get it over me? I know I work hard, I know I'd be right for the job, but could a piece of paper cost me that opportunity?

I'd encourage any employer to remove qualifications from job specifications, unless you're hiring an actual rocket scientist. By opening your eyes to the amazing amount of talented people out there, you're going to be much better off.

I have worked with quite a few people in a few short months. Some had CS degrees, some didn't. There was no difference in 'skill' that was caused by a lack of a degree. We all push numbers and letters around until they make sense.

I sit at my desk every day and talk sternly to a computer to make it do things. You can do that too with practice. Go get a degree if you want one, but you don't and shouldn't need one for other people to see you as hireable.

An Open Letter to the Internet and All the Friends I've Made

Throughout my life, I’ve dealt with the same amount of insecurities as the next person. As a little girl, I wanted nothing more than to be a little boy. When I finally started shopping in the boy’s section and cut my hair in the third grade, I wasn’t prepared for the attention. As a 9-year-old who didn’t want to be the center of attention, it wasn’t easy to be made fun, teased, or screamed at and pushed out of the girl’s bathroom. I very quickly went back to being a girl.

Meg Lewis and FamilyMe (pictured far right) with my family c.1997

I was never uncomfortable with my body or the way that I looked. I just knew that I wasn’t capable of being any girl that I had seen before. On TV, I saw badass boys living a life of curiosity and adventure while the girls wore cute sunflower bucket hats and shopped at the mall (this was the 90s). Why couldn’t I have a badass life of curiosity and adventure?

Years passed, and I learned to become the version of myself who got the least amount of attention. I shopped at the same stores with the popular girls and followed along to whatever my pushy friends wanted me to do. When I was 13, I decided to tell my good friend that I wasn't completely myself with her. I remember it so vividly, we were sitting in her bedroom, and I said “I think I want to be different from everyone else. I want to start dressing differently and look differently. I’m tired of being the same as everyone else.” I remember the look of confusion on her face as she asked, “Why would you want to do that?”. She stopped talking to me a week or so later when I started making a change.

Who am I? Has been a confusing question for me since that day in 2001 when I decided to be “different”. When I started trying to figure out who I was, I began searching for the other people who were different. And, just like that (queue Jesus rays): the internet. The internet had all kinds of people. People who were just as confused as I was and others who were like no one I had seen before. My world began to open as I gained access to my first-ever real friends: my internet friends.

These internet friends helped me to choose which college I attended. They were there when I had a question about units of measurement. When it came time to choose a career and begin a life as a freelancer, they got me my first gigs. They provided endless tips, facts, and areas of guidance when I didn’t know where else to turn. Throughout all of my side projects, many failed blogs, and small victories, they have (virtually) stood by my side. Most importantly, they provided a place for me to live a life of curiosity and adventure, just as I've always wanted.

It was my internet friends who helped shape the mold of what being a woman means today. Through projects such as Badass Lady Creatives, Got A Girl Crush and eventually huge media outlets like Broadly, I finally feel as though I’m amongst a world of fellow women who refuse to fit a mold. Let’s not forget all of the incredible men on the other side who have supported me through every step of the way. Gender isn’t black or white. There have been so many influential men in my life who have allowed me to feel valid, extraordinary and understand the importance of being a woman.

I’ve come to realize that we can’t compare ourselves to anyone else. We are all very different from everyone, and that’s what makes us unique. We can use this as an ability to help shape the public opinion of women, men, and every area in between. Being born a girl isn’t the curse that I once thought it was, and I can’t thank my internet friends enough for making me see that. I owe you everything and hope I can return the favor.

Design, Dinner, and A Show.

Whenever I worked on design projects, I always used to get stuck. I’d become nervous, vulnerable, and incapable, questioning the project, comparing my work to others, and beating myself up. I’d do what a lot of fresh out of school designers would do, which was something that we were taught. In art school, I remember being told that to become a better artist and designer, my peers and I should try to emulate the greats, so we could learn their process and see a piece through the artist’s eye. There was a promise of being able to get back on track after that. As an UI Design Instructor at The Iron Yard for the past year, and as a university lecturer for the previous six years, I’ve uttered the exact same advice I received in school—except now, students are emulating Codepens and tracing over icons and illustrations on Dribble, and then getting back on track.

I uttered the same words, because in a way, I believe it’s true. I think we can learn a lot about process by learning from others, and finding out what works for us, and have a better understanding of our process. I’ve looked at Dribbble, design award sites, and other inspirational design resources. But in the past two years, I’ve realized that looking at other design only takes me so far. Things start to look the same, and I don’t feel as connected with them. I’ve also realized that when I get to that level of stuck, I’ve been subconsciously distracting myself with one of two other things: cooking and music.

I used to hate cooking, and now it’s something I love to do. From my friends’ MAD MENu watch party theme nights, to Caribbean dinner parties (when I’m homesick for Curaçao), to ramen nights for my design friends where they assemble their toppings, a lot of my creative process goes into that. I start with plain, unseasoned ingredients and work with them in different ways to get the flavors I want. Trying a new oil (coconut is wonderful!) or investing in a better pan has allowed me to experiment more, and usually with a delicious result. Some recipes take longer, and simmer for hours before I can serve a pork belly ramen broth with instant noodles (they hold the broth, well). In the kitchen I’ve become a lot less fearless, a bit more trusting of my five senses, and stopped trying to follow a recipe down to the exact measurements. If a lamb curry smells like my mom and dad’s kitchen, I know it’s right. I’ve started taking this approach with design, trusting my senses, and I’ve found myself less stuck. Part of it is also taking a break from design. A lot of design problems just need time to marinate and sort themselves out in our mind. And then, like any food enthusiast, I take photos and painstakingly edit them on my phone and post them somewhere. Hey, food pics are just a modern day still life. No one yelled at the greats for ‘ugh, making another cornucopia’.

With music, it’s a bit different, and its fairly new. I’ve always loved most types of music (yes, even electronic music from my Dutch island upbringing), and I’ve always been a not so great musician, a decent singer, or a dancer since I was young. I have three students right now who are musicians outside of their code school lives. We’ve spent days talking about design, and I always try to relate design to other areas outside of it. My students have helped me realize something else: design is a lot like music. If we think of mastering and editing, there are different tracks that are recorded on their own, and then brought together and adjusted to all work together. To me, that sounds a lot like Samantha Warren’s Style Tiles (a presentable collection of visual elements inventoried for a design concept) and definitely a lot like design, and a good way to go about it. Rather than just throwing elements on a page, bringing elements together and then making adjustments to them so they all play the same design song is our goal, isn’t it? For me, it was such an a-ha moment, and it has changed how I sketch, Codepen tinker, and experiment in the browser.

What these two things have taught me is that when we’re stuck, we need to look outside of design, not just at other design. We need to draw inspiration more and more from other outlets that allow us to make and that allow us to get unstuck. We can learn something new, see something different, and make something interesting that way.

If everything has gone according to plan, my third book is on its way to the printer today.

If everything has gone according to plan, I have stopped looking at the manuscript and all of the remaining errors have stopped breeding while I wasn't looking.

If everything has gone according to plan, I will not be a nervous wreck about what people will think of my work.

But this is not my first book and I know the book gremlins have their own plan.

Without people, time does not exist. Time is an invention of humans, so as much as it seems inseparable from the world we live in, it is actually only inseparable from humanity.

I have now spent the last 8 months observing and documenting my own use (and abuse) of time, and I keep running up against something over and over: the impact that other people have on our time.

We like to think that by carefully setting up our minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years that our time is all ours. One could even argue that we only give time to other people when we choose to, and therefore all of it is in fact ours. But I am finding this to not be the case.

Because shit happens.

People are late meeting us for lunch. People walk slowly, blocking the sidewalk you need to get where you are going. People make plans with us only to break them at the last minute. People drop by, stop by, call, text, email, tweet on their own timescale, interrupting us from whatever we had planned.

Sometimes these are beautiful happenstances, like running into an old friend on the street and deciding to skip your next stop in favor of catching up over coffee. Other times these are annoying distractions, like someone quitting their job suddenly leaving you holding the bag. And then there are the scary distractions, like having to drop everything to take a child or partner to the emergency room.

No matter how much or how carefully we plan our time, it is just not all quite ours to do with as we please. Thinking about time as something we can wrangle entirely will surely lead to the feeling like it is being ripped out from under you at least a few times a month.

Over the last 8 months I have collected the following 8 heuristics for keeping as much time within our own control as humanly possible.

Turn off needless notifications. Seriously do it now, I will wait.

There is nothing more obnoxious and distracting than a phone that won’t stop buzzing telling you everything from “you have a new follower” to “your favorite brand is having a sale on hoozie-whatzits.” I am now 8 months into not having ANY notifications on my phone or computer enabled and I can tell you that it is a gorgeous, wonderful and quiet world I have built for myself.

Don’t believe this matters? Ask the Journal of Experimental Psychology “Although these notifications are generally short in duration, they can prompt task-irrelevant thoughts, or mind wandering, which has been shown to damage task performance.”

You are most likely NOT on call for saving lives or anything else. And if you are, leave on those notifications during those times. The rest of them can be turned off. There is no reason for all the urgency we have forced on our psyches. I cannot quite quantify the time that this simple 5 minute task has saved me over these 8 months, but I can say that I will never go back to allowing software to steal as much time and focus as I was allowing it to before. I can also warn you that the withdrawal is real. So don’t be surprised when you experience phantom buzzing or the onset of mild depression from the realization that the world will not stop without you constantly being notified of changes to it.

Don’t take your device to bed with you.

I used to be a person who browsed first thing in the morning, and last thing at night. I stopped this behavior about 6 months ago after realizing how much it affected my schedule. I could get stuck in a rabbit hole of social media before I had even left my bed. The next thing I knew I was rushing to get my morning stuff in before the real start to my day. Same thing with nighttime. I could fall into a hole that would make my bedtime push out by an hour or more. Between that and the pretty well proven fact that the blue light emitted by our phones can negatively affect sleep patterns, I say there is NO reason for a device to be in your bed. Number 1 objection I expect here: “But I use it for my alarm” — to which I say simply: GET AN ALARM CLOCK.

Start & stop checking the internet at a certain time each day.

Some of the worst night’s sleep I have had this year have been based on checking the internet just that one more time right before bed. It is like a bomb waiting to go off. Opening the inbox or your social media streams just one last time might be the trigger that explodes right in your face. Things that could wait, and often should wait until the light of day can keep you up all night or give you nightmares. Or on the positive side, you can get so excited about something you see in there that it is hard to sleep. So set a time to stop checking the internet and stick to it.

Same advice on the other end. The worst way to start your day is checking the internet. It’s like leaving your whole mood for the day up to that same ticking time bomb. In my experience, setting an internet start and stop time makes checking the internet more like an experience you can look forward to and prepare mentally for. I can say my life is better for this small change. I can also report that no one has died waiting for my responses a few extra hours.

Don’t be late, be early.

Being early is something I was always told was good practice for job interviews, but I have applied this to my whole life for years now. I hate being late, it makes me feel stressed out and guilty. By planning to be early, I am almost never late. Because shit does happen. But if you have that extra few minutes of flex time, you can calmly know you have room to maneuver through whatever comes at you. Also, no one will ever be mad at you for being early. You will never miss something because you are early. You cannot say the same about being late.

Don’t agree to meet up with people who are always late.

If we have an appointment to meet up and you are more than 10 minutes late one time, I will totally give you one more chance. After that, if you are late we are never meeting up again. Everyone is a little late once in a while. But in my experience only perpetually late people are more than 10 minutes late twice in a row.

Being late should be renamed “time stealing” — when someone texts or emails to say “Sorry, I am going to be 10 minutes late” they should have to say “I am going to steal 10 minutes of your time” — it is rude and selfish to be late when it is preventable. It is also incredibly insulting to the person or people you are making wait. I have been particularly shocked by how many people are late to appointments where I am being asked to do them a favor or give them advice. This behavior is the surest way to be ignored in my inbox forever more.

If you have a good friend, colleague or partner who is always late, tell them how it makes you feel and how it makes them look to other people. It is shocking how oblivious people can be to this small personality tick of selfishness. Lateness is often a sign of deeper issues, so help them through whatever is leading to that perpetual lateness.

Estimate tasks, especially the ones you are avoiding.

In my opinion, estimation of time is a skill set that people don’t apply to their life often enough. I have had the fortune to work primarily in consulting settings and have gotten pretty good at estimating how long things will take as a result. But this is a life skill, not just a work skill.

Because mole hills often resemble mountains before time has been applied. People often put off hard, complex, emotional or monotonous tasks for fear that they will “take forever” when in reality most tasks do not take forever. It seems that anxiety is often a productivity killer, more so than the task itself. Anxiety eats time AND leaves you with the same to-do list day after day.

In my experience, the easiest way to get over this anxiety hurdle is to start with a baseline reading. Set a timer for yourself and say: I will spend the next 15, 30 or 60 minutes on this task to see where I can get in that time. By doing this, you can estimate how much time something will actually take and better plan for it in your schedule. I have found that usually when I actually dive in and tackle the task at hand, it takes far less time than my anxiety led me to believe. Once you know how long it will take, put it on your calendar and stick to it, like you would a meeting or appointment. If you find yourself still pushing it off, break it down into sub-tasks and try again.

Don’t multi task

Multi tasking is the most sure fire way for everything to take longer and feel harder than it actually is. It is amazing how quickly time can pass when we are bouncing between things and paying attention to more than one thing at a time. If you don’t believe me, google it. You’ll find a treasure trove of resources railing against multi tasking.

There are many ways to avoid multi tasking. One is turning off your internet while you work on other computer tasks. Another trick is leaving your devices in another room while you tackle analog tasks. Timers are also helpful for digital or analog tasks. Set a timer for 30-60 minutes and at the end of that time, allow yourself a few minutes to wander through the internet or whatever other distraction tasks are on your mind.

Your work will be better and take less time to do, I swear. Also if you are one of those people sitting in a restaurant or cafe with a friend or partner, multi tasking by checking your device while they try to talk to you, know that you are lucky to still have that friend or partner, and they may realize at some point that they deserve better. Put the device down, look them in the eye. Try it, you may find you actually like each other more for it.

Create routines to anchor habits you want to put into your life

This is advice I heard for at least two decades before I actually took it. I left it for last incase you need two decades to put it into practice.

I used to be a person who left everything about my personal life and self care up to the moment and day at hand. Everyday was like a snowflake, which I thought was good for me. I was wrong. There is a remarkable improvement that happened to me when I started adding routine to my life. All of a sudden I was the person I had always thought I could never be.

Once I strung all the little habits together, I was shocked how little time I actually needed to fit basic self improvement tasks into my schedule daily. The trick is the sequence, without an established order the task list seems impossible to fit in. Also the time between things deciding what to do next and avoiding the harder stuff becomes a total time killer.

The other trick is adding one habit at a time. So start with something you actually do everyday, like getting out of bed. We all do that right? Then add one thing. My first addition was drinking a glass of hot lemon water. Then I added 15 minutes of yoga. Then I added writing morning pages. Then I added breakfast (seriously I was 32 before I found the joy of eating breakfast consistently.) Then I added meditation. And suddenly (actually, many months later) I am the woman I always thought only existed on Pinterest boards and lifestyle blogs.

Routines can be set daily (like the ones I mention above) but they can also be helpful to think about setting weekly or monthly. Play with your repetitive tasks and see how much you can get them to adhere to a set routine. I have finally started grocery shopping at the same time every week and it alone has saved me hours and hours of wavering and worrying about when I would get to the store.

I always thought routines would be boring, but I have found the opposite. Routines leave you with the time you need to be spontaneous.

One other note on routines: Stop shoulding all over yourself. If you want to implement something into your routine, do it. If you just think you should, then prepare to struggle. Changes to something as personal as routine require us to truly want them in order to stick.

I hope that the above advice have been helpful to read. Just remember, none of this advice will keep shit from happening. Instead my hope is that these practices will give you a head start in not taking such a hard hit when it does.

Now go steal back as much time as you can and spend it with the people and hobbies that you love.

“Hey! Do you know the one about...?”

More often than not, these words uttered on the playground meant that I was about to learn a new, potentially lewd but always exciting, rhyme or song. The idea was thrilling.

“Miss Suzie” provided the excitement of almost saying “hell” without any guilt:

Miss Suzie had a steamboat
The steamboat had a bell
Miss Suzie when to heaven
The steamboat went to —
 HELL-o operator…

The “Fart Song” was always a hit, with its fast clip and customizable lyrics:

Goin’ down the highway
Goin’ sixty-four
(Insert name of friend) let a big one
And blew us out the door!

Taking bathroom humor to a new level, the “Diarrhea Song” was decidedly more graphic, yet we didn't have much past the first verse, as nothing really rhymed successfully with “second:”

When you’re sliding into first
And your pants begin to burst
Diarrhea (noise noise)
Diarrhea (noise noise)

And the epitome of the gross-out songs, “Gopher Guts,” usually surfaced around lunchtime as someone peeled open a sandwich bag, quieted only when the lunch duty teacher happened to pass by our seats:

Great big gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts
Mutilated monkey meat
Little birdy’s dirty feet…

Enough silliness, but the list goes on, and chances are, you have your own versions.

I've found the same thrill returns as an adult when I know I’m about to hear a new story from a co-worker or peer. The subject matter is decidedly different, but the idea of learning about something  somewhat secretive—maybe insider info that'll make me better at what I do, or a story of failure that I can learn from —remains just as exciting.

As we move between clients, companies, projects, and teams, there's still a teeming subculture of stories and secrets that pass between us. We tell our tales to show that we’ve been there, we made it, and we’ve lived to pass it on, and if an element of shock helps us remember it and want to share it, so be it.

I won’t claim to be a scholar in the folklore of childhood, but I do know what these little chants and songs meant when we’d recite them. Once you knew the words, and could repeat them to someone else, you were in on something.

Keep telling the stories, keep sharing the ugly details. When necessary, whisper ‘em. But keep these stories moving between us —it’s the only way we’ll all learn and grow. Because we’re all singing the same song, really, if with slightly different lyrics.

I’m in the cove of a Maine lake, standing on a dock. The far side of the cove is 300 yards away—not far, but then I’m not a great swimmer. This is my English Channel. I focus on the opposite shore and slip into the water.

* * *

Beginnings and endings are the exciting bits: the potential of a new project, and then the thrill of completion. The trouble for me is the stretch in between. I almost always find the middle to be long and tedious. I focus on the destination, with little patience for the journey. I walk fast, I work quickly, and I’m not kind to myself when I take too long. I just want to close the gap.

Thing is, beginnings and endings are fleeting; we spend our lives in the middle. It’s the middle where the work is done, where the puzzles are solved, where the words are crafted. Halfway through my fifth decade, it’s only now starting to occur to me that I should develop more patience for the middle—perhaps even affection.

* * *

I’ve only been swimming for a few minutes, and I’m already panting. My slow, awkward strokes barely seem to move me toward the other side. Focus on your target, Josh, just push through.

* * *

I just finished my latest book. It took me much longer to write than I’d planned—a big, fat middle to slog through. Now that it’s done, I’m proud of how well it came out, excited to see it ship in a few weeks. I’m glad I did it, but I didn’t enjoy doing it.

For me, writing long is a punishing process—a self-punishing process. I spend much of the time feeling slow, dumb, inarticulate, waiting waiting waiting for the words to emerge and the ideas to gel. The longer the book takes to write, the more the self doubt creeps in: will the words still be relevant; am I really cut out for this writing thing; did I really just eat two whole bags of Cheetos; do I even have anything meaningful to say; why am I so awful at this?

Thing is, I actually love writing. I’m good at it. I’ve begun to realize that my problem is not with writing but with my perspective—and my process. The process of writing a book, like tackling any other big project, is one of milestones large and small. Manuscripts are made up of chapters are made up of sections are made up of pages. I tend to focus on deadlines and daily quotas to power past those book landmarks. I obsessively watch the word and page counts pile up (or not). In other words, I write a book by trying to sprint to an endless series of destinations.

Turns out that’s a terrible way to write. It’s a perspective that drains the joy and satisfaction out of crafting words. Instead of investing so much intellectual and emotional energy in the future—in the deadline—perhaps I should do more to reconnect with the pleasures and challenges of the moment: of actually writing, thinking, puzzling, making.

Be here now, my extraordinary wife often tells me.

* * *

My arms feel heavy, and I’m not even midway across the cove. I flip over to my back to coast a little, to rest. Why am I even doing this?

* * *

I love my work. I’m an interaction designer, and my whole job is to collaborate with others to invent the future. We craft new and better ways to connect the digital and physical worlds. The work is fun, challenging, and all about releasing untapped potential.

Like every job, though, mine comes freighted with process, politics, personalities. All of those things need to be tended. They’re critical parts of getting the job done, and I’m good at managing those pieces. But they’re not the work. They are the pressures and stresses and constraints of the project. They shape the work, but they’re not the work.

Too often, in the long middle of a project, I let my perspective be molded by those external forces, by the deadlines and the milestones and the phone calls and the contracts. So while I’m fortunate to have such creative and fulfilling work, I’m also foolish enough not to enjoy it as much as I might. Because come on: this is when the puzzles are solved, where experiments are floated, where the new is invented. That’s what the middle is made of.

But I often let the rest distract me from the pleasures of the work I do. I’m doing dream work for dream clients. I can let myself enjoy it, to remind myself that, hey, this is not just a job; this is work I love to do. Lighten up.

* * *

Gradually, I start to work a little less hard at pushing myself through the water. I relax a little. I find a rhythm and a sustainable pace. I’m slow—wow, so slow—but I’m steady. The other side is still a long way off, but I’m starting to listen to my body instead of focusing on the finish. This feels good.

I’m passing the middle of the cove now, and I let my senses shift from the far side to what’s right around me. Sun-dappled water. Impossibly purple dragonflies skimming the surface. A loon’s call is the only sound breaking the stillness. It will be a nifty accomplishment to reach the other side, but right now in this moment, I’m in the middle… and the water’s fine.

If you’re in the creative services industry you’ve experienced it. After busting ass to deliver on time the client disappears. Unlike many industries, what we offer is time and expertise. If one client stalls out we either suffer financially or find another project. Inevitably that client waits in the shadows until we start a new project and then announce there is an emergency and work must begin immediately!

In the early days of nGen, this was a chronic problem. So we took a step to change this behavior before it ever started with new clients. We introduced the Pause Clause, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t work. Here is the current version of the Pause Clause:

If a client deliverable — such as input, approvals, or payment — is late more than 10 business days the project will be considered “on hold.” Once the deliverable is received and the project is re-activated it will be rescheduled based on nGen Works’ current workload and availability. Just to say it loud and clear, it could be weeks to get you back in the system if the project is put on hold.

When I’ve explained the Pause Clause to people in our industry, many companies implement it. Occasionally, I’ll get some pushback. Here are a few of my favorites:

  1. Our clients would never agree to that.

    Hmm … so, your clients think that they should come and go as they please, and you should be at their beck and call? You have bigger issues, mainly that your clients don’t respect you and never will. Not until you respect yourself. Your business will suffer from cashflow issues and your personal health will suffer as you stress about every project.

  2. We love our clients.

    Hey now! We love our clients, too. In fact, the Pause Clause protects good clients and keeps their projects moving and on time. It only impacts the clients who can’t make decisions or get things done in a timely manner.

  3. Sometimes our clients can't control approvals.

    WHAT? Okay, again you have bigger issues. Mainly, you’re not plugged in at the right level.

In all these years I don’t remember a client ever asking us to remove it, but I always take the time to explain why it’s there. The conversation usually goes like this:

Client: We’ll stay up to speed on all of our deliverables, no problem there.

Me: That’s great to hear. Sometimes it’s beyond your control, like legal reviews or content from another source.

Client: Would that cause us to miss our deadline?

Me: Only if those deliverables are late. But, now that you know, you can start preparing for those potential delays.

Client: Sigh. Okay, thanks.

The Pause Clause is beneficial for both the shop and the client. It sets expectations and starts a conversation about staying on schedule. Plus, you’ll rarely have to use it. Normally an email with the subject line “Pause Clause” is enough to keep things moving. Depending on the nature of the delays, you can be sympathetic and waive the clause or let them know you have to enact it but will do everything you can to minimize the delay.

I recently started a full time job, and I'm super happy. This shouldn't be a controversial thing to say, but whenever I chat with independent designers, developers, or entrepreneurs they look at me as if I've caught some nasty disease.

To be fair, I can somewhat relate. Throughout my career I've had large patches where I've been pretty autonomous, focusing on either my own design practice or on my own product or idea. So I've been on the other side of the coin many times and can relate to the sentiment.

In recent months I've been explaining the personal benefits of the move to folks, and one of these benefits I find super intriguing and thought I'd highlight here. This shouldn't be too mind blowing but...

as an employee (vs. being independent) I can focus less on myself and more on the team.

Duh. But my point is that when you are an independent designer, in a way, it's all about you and your personal brand. You're in a constant sell mode reiterating, throughout multiple channels, how fun and quirky you are to work with but at the same time a serious designer with a lot of experience and bla bla bla me me me.

Why should a potential client work with me? Well, you see, if you read my blog you can get a sense of me and some me and me. Why should they pay me large amounts of cash? Well if you check out my portfolio I did a lot of me in the past, which has yielded great me results and me me me.

And this isn't just a one time thing. You have to me me me every single time with a new client or a potential one. It's a repetitive thing you need to do constantly, and it's tiring. Even for a self loving person such as myself.

Not to say that as an employee you don't have to sell yourself, but that's the same with any relationship. It's more trust building than anything, and it's not as frequent as when doing client work.

Also not to say that marketing yourself is inherently a bad thing. It's not, it's a good thing. It's a must as an independent designer, developer, or entrepreneur. Some people love it too, and I very much respect that. I was just personally done with it.

The time not spent on me'ing has freed up mental space for me to do other things. You know, crazy shit like spending time with my family and friends. Wow, progressive thinking. The less I blog or market myself, the more time I can spend on my hobbies that wont interest anyone but myself, like infusing oils. Mind-blowing.

So I guess in short, one of the personal benefits of being employed (vs. being independent) is that I can focus less on myself and my own personal brand, and focus more on my team and its common goals. Again, this may be obvious to most folks, but I think it's worth reiterating for people like me that may have forgotten or had a blind spot to that fact.

Your Users Are Fainting Goats

You wake up at 4 am and decide to look at your email, and even though you know you shouldn’t, for so many reasons, it’s almost a reflex. You see a few messages—not many, maybe three or four, which is an okay number, not enough to make you think that some catastrophe has hit your server or one of your clients’. You could decide not to read any of those and go back to sleep, but you have no power against temptation at 4 am. Not to mention that at least one of the subjects starts with “Fw: R: Re: R: Re:” and you already know someone must be in trouble.

If you really can’t resist the urge to read the actual content of the email, do so with the full awareness of the fact that your users are fainting goats. Fainting goats—in case you haven’t stumbled upon them, metaphorically or otherwise—are goats that suffer from myotonia, a genetic disorder that makes their muscles go stiff when they’re startled. They don’t actually faint, but either topple over or start hopping around on all four legs for a few seconds. When the scare passes, they can get up and go on their merry way. Distressing as it may sound, it can also be quite entertaining to watch.

Receiving alarmed emails from users who suddenly believe they can no longer get anything done, or that the system you built has decided it doesn’t like them at all, can easily cause you to do an epic, Liz Lemon-style eye roll, and immediately jump on a response in which you explain, not without some snark, how they did something wrong, and how their expectations were simply misdirected, and how they should think logically before they send support requests drenched in despair. You, from the height of your knowledge of the system you built, can clearly imagine your users’ entire thought process, and can almost see them bang their heads against that specific feature that for you is so blatantly obvious.

But logic doesn’t work in the face of fear. Machines, even something as well-designed and most certainly pretty as that website you made, can be intimidating. Let’s face it: you, as a digital designer, should always assume that anything you make scares the crap out of most people who interact with it. A simple hiccup that may or may not depend on the code you wrote can make your users’ brains go into defense mode, their muscles spasm, their fingers automatically type that email in which they blame themselves for all that’s ugly in the world. As with fainting goats, that moment will pass. You can rest assured that in a few seconds everything will be back to normal. In most cases, they won’t sit there anxiously waiting for your response.

Make sure you resist the temptation of taking care of the matter right away. It’s maybe 4:15 am now, and you should go back to sleep, and leave your response for the morning. Your main goal in writing it should be to prevent or minimize the next scare. Ask for more information if needed—you know that a fainting goat in distress forgets to take screenshots and transcribe error messages. Explain what went wrong, reassuring them that it wasn’t their fault. Even if you believe it was their fault, consider that they didn’t build the system, and they don’t know it as well as you do. What may seem logical and sensible to you may appear arbitrary to someone else. Also, the web is a bitch, and can’t be trusted to behave consistently, which is precisely why we love it. (Now, where did I leave my Stockholm syndrome pills?)

No amount of user testing will prevent the fainting-goat effect, so there is no place for frustration at users’ requests for help. In-person training is useful and necessary, but most of that information will be forgotten in a heartbeat, and you can’t possibly do that for every single one of your potential users. What alleviates future scares is documentation. Writing documentation aimed at people (on top of code documentation, which you obviously always write) should be part of any web project, no matter how small. If after a day of coding you’re too exhausted to spend another hour describing everything you just did, make it the first thing you do tomorrow.

Documentation should be more than just a list of features and commands. It should be, above all, a narrative device that puts people back at the center of the action, helps them make sense of their work, and shows them that what you built for them is not a disconnected cluster of dumb tasks, but a structured process. Turning machine logic into narrative logic forces you to lower the camera angle and see your work from your users’ perspectives. It will also help you discover possible plot holes in what you’ve built. If the narrative works well, you’ll have spared your users a scare or two, and saved yourself some extra sleep.

A Good Writer Is a Good Thinker

We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect. —Anaïs Nin

When I’m writing, I’m wandering. I’m wandering (and wondering), gathering my thoughts and arranging them through the medium of the written word.

It can be on paper or on screen (increasingly it’s the latter), but the purpose is the same. Writers are adventurers, they are the travellers of knowledge, embarking upon journeys into the unknown, following link after link after link, before distilling the voyage they’ve taken into a map, a guide to their journey, that might – one day – help others.

The web – by its very nature – foregrounds the connections between different clusters of knowledge. Links link. One article leads to another. As you make the journey from destination to destination, all inevitably connected by that trail of links, you begin to tease out understanding.

It’s this drawing together, this weaving together of knowledge, that is the important part. Your journey is unique. The chances of another pursuing the same path, link by link (or book by book), is – statistically – impossible. Your journey leads you to discovery and, through reflection, comprehension. You see the connections others haven’t, because your journey is your own.

Thinking Through Writing

The written word allows you to shape thought. Spending some time ‘writing around your ideas’ enables you to get your thinking in order. As Josh Clark put it in January, writing here, for The Pastry Box:

Writing gives form and discipline to ideas. Committing notions to paper gives clarity, tests logic, and inevitably brings up even more ideas.

I couldn’t put it better. Clark goes on to state:

I don’t do this enough, and I miss it. Last year, I wrote only a single post. Most of my thoughts stayed trapped in my own head, untested by bringing them into the light.

Reading this resonated with me and, perhaps like Clark, was one of the reasons I committed to writing throughout 2015 for The Pastry Box. I wanted to release the thoughts trapped in my head and, as Clark poetically put it, bring them into the light. The simple act of writing – here and elsewhere – is keeping me on my toes, intellectually.

Whether you publish your writing or keep it private, perhaps in a journal, the act of writing allows you to clarify your ideas, teasing out your arguments, leading to further avenues of investigation. The written word keeps you sharp and agile mentally. It’s good exercise and, as everyone knows, the mind is a muscle that – just like any other – benefits from a thorough workout.

Making Sense of the World

Like many, I’m trying to make sense of the world. Like many, I’m trying to wrestle my innermost thoughts into some kind of coherent order that adds up.

The act of writing is a process. It’s one of self-discovery and moving towards understanding. Writing is incredibly powerful, and – like anything powerful – requires a lifetime of practice to master. Put the effort in, however, and the rewards will be ample.

Writing isn’t easy. It’s hard. This is why so many people abandon it. It’s a shame, because I routinely see – in my teaching – that the students who have the tenacity to persevere reap immeasurable rewards, forever changed through a process of reflection.

This is why I encourage my students to write. Through writing they make sense of the world, embarking on a journey from existing knowledge into new knowledge. They start to see the deep truths inside themselves, and by uncovering them, are forever altered.

Haruki Murakami, a wonderful author, captures this perfectly when he states:

I came to feel strongly that a story is not something you create. It is something that you pull out of yourself. The story is already there, inside you.

Stephen King echoes this thinking, writing:

My basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them of course)… stories are like found things, like fossils in the ground.

Words draw the story to the surface and bring it into the light.

A Playground of Words

Stories are formed from the experiences you enounter. The books you read, the links you traverse, everything you experience…. All of this slowly, but surely takes form, crystallising, inside you.

As a writer you reach inside yourself to pull this material out; you wrestle and you fight to give it form. As David Weinberger put it (in 2002):

You are what you write. On the web we are writing ourselves into existence.

The idea of, “writing yourself into existence,” can be intimidating. At the end of the day, however, there are considerably riskier undertakings. Writing is a playground, and playgrounds are where we discover, through the act of play. As Cat Noone puts it, in Your Writing Is Crucial:

The human brain does something very interesting when it writes… It creates order and structure to the input received. Understanding what happens in our brain while we write, it’s easy to see how it becomes the way we affirm our thoughts. More importantly, it is the way we share our thoughts, allowing others to prove or disprove them.

Sharing shapes you. As Noone puts it, writing not only affirms our thoughts, but allows others to participate in that affirmation in the process of play. Together we edge forward towards understanding.

In Closing…

Writing isn’t easy, but its rewards when one perseveres are plentiful. Like anything, practice makes perfect; put in the time and the pay off will more than outweigh hard work and effort invested. Stick with it, don’t give up.

I’m looking forward next month to exploring the idea that ‘you are a channel’ and that – by putting some thought into what you communicate – you shape your perception of yourself and others’ perception of you. See you in a month for the next step of the journey.

While No Guitar Gently Weeps

1

“Right, when do I put the guitar on?”

There was no guitar. There was no part to play. There was only playback of a song - “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” a 26-minute long, nine-part opus celebrating a lost friend.

It was Pink Floyd’s tribute to Syd Barrett - an original founder, a drug-addled star, a mind lost at sea. Barrett was instrumental in Pink Floyd’s early sound - a weird mix of space psychedelic and Cambridge jazz. But over time, the drugs took hold. He became a liability on stage, and he couldn’t quite come back from the acid haze.

One day they simply decided he was too far gone. They didn’t pick him up for a show. They found a replacement. They said goodbye.

And seven years later, as they sat listening to a recording of what would become part of their iconic album Wish You Were Here, Syd Barrett suddenly was. Unannounced, overweight, balding. Only Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters recognized him.

Barrett was ready to play. He just didn’t realize the band had long passed him by.

2

There are industries that move slowly. The natural sciences are built on centuries of slow movement, the onerous crawl of evolution only allowing for so much new discovery. History doesn’t change, though our understanding of it becomes clearer. Water flows the same way and electricity rarely changes, so journeyman trades rarely have to scrap everything and learn again.

The web, however, stops for no one. In the past decade, every tool has changed. And while the concepts we champion are still as relevant as when A List Apart was still just that - a mailing list - the way we do things changes faster than we can keep up with.

This is not a sob story about how hard today’s web workers have it. We still sit in comfy chairs and clatter away at keyboards for a living; we still have the jobs our parents would have died to have, luckier than we may ever know. But we also have to understand that this is because we’re at the right moment in our lives to accept constant change.

Our web is one of shifting sands. Without the right balance, we’re bound to fall.

3

I wasn’t liked as a kid.

I should rephrase that, actually - I wasn’t noticed as a kid, which is all you need to know about my thirst for attention when karaoke night rolls around. I, like many of us who ended up falling into IRC and chat rooms as a kid, was simply unprepared to deal with the reality of relationships. I was afraid of being wrong.

I still am. Every word I write is an untapped grenade. I’m always waiting for one to explode in my face.

But despite this, I still love speaking. (Parts of it.) I still love going to conferences, and interacting with co-workers, and mingling and talking to smart people. I still think it's amazing when someone remembers my name. Who me? Little ol’ Corey? Aw, shucks.

It’s this writing, though, that’s helped me push away from that kid that wasn’t noticed. I gain a little confidence every time. I’m cool with the public, y’all - married dad looking for acceptance, apply inside.

But not so much, you know. Because. Ugh. That shit’s still hard.

See, I thirst to be seen. But on my terms. Then I’m ready to sneak back into my shell. An introvert, I guess; a term that’s both overused and still crucially important as we peek from behind our computer screens and realize our generation forgot to take the opportunity to talk to real people.

I don’t want to be forgotten again. I want to be a part of something great, and I’m scared shitless that I won’t be. That things are moving away from me. That I somehow missed the memo that we’re all supposed to be doing that thing and holy what where are you going and why aren’t we talking about the stuff that I know about?

My fear isn’t of being noticed. This isn’t middle school. My fear now is of becoming irrelevant, like I’ve seen so many people do before me, ignorant or arrogant in the face of change. My concern isn’t that I’ll be passed over or forgotten - it’s that I’ll wake up and find out I could have done something to stay in the loop.

Fear of missing out, sure. More like a fear of losing ground.

4

Over the past five years, I have built a strong core of friends who, to be honest, I am afraid to talk to.

They are industry leaders. They are independent consultants. They are people who have their shit together.

And sometimes …

Well, sometimes, they don’t have their shit together. Sometimes, they have no idea what they’re doing. But they admit that.

They. Admit. That.

What kind of black magic does it take? Where does that strength come from, to constantly improve and feel at peace and chase after new opportunities and generally free yourself of the need to worry about being informed and accepted?

At what point does it feel like things are going to be easy? When the keynotes start rolling in and the projects become second nature? Where is my lake home, and where is my peace of mind?

Sometimes, I get the courage to ask.

Sometimes, I say it out loud. “I’m … I’m afraid I’m falling behind.”

Sometimes, I show my cards. I reveal my secrets. I use all of my cliches.

Every time, I get the same answer.

“You’re fine. None of us know what we’re doing. Things move too fast to ever get comfortable.”

And I feel better. For a little bit.

5

I don’t know if it comes from my childhood - those days when all I wanted to do was be a part of the pack, settling instead for an eight-bit broad sword and a bowl of macaroni and cheese at home.

I don’t know if it’s imposter syndrome - as overused a term as “introvert” but just as damning for a person’s self esteem.

I don’t know if I’m just lazy. Or if I’m looking in the wrong direction. Or if the constant need to be sure I’m doing things right - an over-reliance on methodology, the inability to decipher good advice from bad - is making me doubt my common sense and intuition.

Maybe, it’s just that we all suffer from some kind of doubt, and for some that doubt makes us work harder, and for others that doubt makes us look at things we never thought we’d consider.

There’s nothing wrong with being behind on something, as long as we can admit the gap and work to close it. It’s the basic structure around learning - we work to bridge the spaces in our knowledge, bringing things closer and building a stronger infrastructure.

There’s nothing wrong with falling behind. There’s not even really anything wrong with not noticing for a while. The fault lies in knowing exactly what’s wrong, and moving on as usual.

And that’s what I fear. That someday I’ll just give up. That I’ll wake up one morning and find out I no longer have a place. That I’ve unknowingly been passed by - that I was learning the wrong things, going in the wrong direction, betting on the wrong horse. And I won’t care.

I’ll be standing in a room, my old friends staring at me, wondering where I’ve been. No guitar in hand. Hoping to play the next solo.

A little while ago I sent out the following;

There were many thoughts behind that message and a bit of a personal story (and telling off) which needed expanding on.

I've never been good at prioritising myself over other people or things. I've got a personality type where I like to help where I can, and when you're like that you often forget to focus on yourself. This causes one of the biggest challenges. The time that is taken up when you're off helping other people limits the time you can spend on yourself.

For the past couple of years, I've written over and over again that I need to take a step back and almost re-design and re-engineer myself. I knew I had a problem that needed to be fixed and I most definitely knew that the problem was me and that putting it off wouldn't fix anything.

So, at the beginning of the year I pledged to myself that things would change. Over the past 4 months I've invested more in my personal health than ever before. I'm reaping the benefits. I'm fitter, stronger and healthier than I've been in 13 years*.

The investment that I've made in myself is both a time and financial investment. I dedicate at least an hour per day for personal fitness, I've rewired the way my brain thinks about what I eat and invested about £200/month over the past 4 months. I've cut back on the silliest of things I used to spend money on to help me on the journey I'm taking to become healthier.

The benefits and results from doing so aren't just physical, they're also psychological. Investing in myself has given me time to think, time to learn and most importantly time to become healthier than I ever have been in the past 13 years.

The next steps are to invest in learning again, for too long I've put this off because "I didn't have the time...", which is a brilliant excuse for just not doing it. I've figured that it is down to being afraid of not being able to learn. It's madness, true madness. To get through it, I sat and watched my two little girls who can pick up an object without having seen it before and start figuring it out in a matter of minutes, they don't know what it's like to be afraid and I'm now happy to follow in a 3yr olds footsteps.

Investing in your education doesn't and shouldn't stop at school or university. Our industry is so vast that there's so much to constantly learn even in our respective fields. Over the past few years there have been so many places that have popped up that you can do your learning, whether it's reading a book or online at places like udemy, treehouse, codecademy or skillshare, there's a plethora of places to go.

Try It

By picking any of the things above you'll start on your own journey, whether you want to learn something new or become healthier in body and mind, you can and will if you just start.

Start small, work towards something and enjoy the ride.

*I'm currently writing up a new article describing the changes and how things have changed which will be with you shortly.

I was recently giving guidance to a new designer about a website’s navigational architecture. He’d run into both technical and design constraints, and I convinced him to abandon the complex structure he was trying to use for a simpler layout.

“I know it’s better,” he said, “but I’ve spent three days trying to get this to work. It’s a shame to abandon it.”

It’s hard to walk away from a project. Sometimes we don’t get a choice; projects get cancelled, funding get shifted, staffing changes, assignments get juggled, technologies change. Of the first five projects I was assigned as an Information Architect, only one made it to production. Other times the project was one of my own making, a complex mess of decisions that added up to a problem in the design or the development. Wishful thinking and stubbornness are a great combination if you want a result that doesn’t actually work for anyone.

Continuing to work on the wrong solution just because we’ve spent so much time on it is an example of a sunk cost fallacy, the phenomenon where we justify increasing investment in a decision despite evidence suggesting that the benefits aren’t worth continuing. Letting go of a commitment we’ve already made is extremely hard, even when it’s what we have to do.

I can remember making the same complaint about a cancelled project when I was a new designer that my acquaintance was making now. “It’s a shame to abandon it.”

“Yeah, but you learned something, and you got paid,” my mentor replied. “You did what you were asked to do, and you’ll be a better designer for the next project. There will always be another project.”

Eight years and dozens of projects later, it’s still true. A day’s work learning something - even if it’s learning what not to do - is money well earned. The privilege of getting paid to learn to be better designers, even when that wasn’t the intention, is a pretty good deal.

Today, I learned something and I got paid. Whether that means the project is cancelled or not, whether it ships or not, the time wasn’t wasted.

I’m typing this as North America slowly unwinds below me, fleeing the rising sun that will still overtake us, light-headed and a touch giddy from a sustained shortness of sleep. If this all sounds a little bit familiar, you’re right, and thank you for following my meanderings over so many months. Anyone can write, but not everyone is read, and it’s always an honor.

I’m not going to write about my obsessions this time, at least not directly. But as it happens, I’m watching a movie about someone else’s obsession: Tim’s Vermeer. In short, it’s about the inventor of Video Toaster and Lightwave, Tim Jenison, and his quest to figure out how Johannes Vermeer did what he did so incredibly well. Tim hypothesizes that Vermeer used high 16th-Century technology in a novel and long-forgotten fashion.

In the process of making his case, Tim not only reverse-engineers the technique, he decides to recreate Vermeer’s studio, employing 3D CAD modeling and visualization, not to mention computer-driven lathes and mills and routers to build the furniture to exacting precision. It’s a fascinating contrast to the constraint he sets himself of only using materials that would have been available in the 16th century for the room and the painting itself. He puts a piece of wood into an industrial tool the size of a 1970s DEC mainframe and sends it commands to fashion a chair leg in the style of 16th-Century Europe, and then picks up a pestle to grind the pigments for his paint by hand.

In the end, he produces a painting that bears all the hallmarks of a Vermeer, a very close copy of The Music Lesson, even though Tim has never studied or even practiced painting of any kind. In the process, he uncovers a clue in Vermeer’s original, something not noticed in the 350 years since its production, that provides very strong evidence he’s gotten it right. It’s a really fascinating story.

And there I sat, seven miles above the earth, moving at a significant fraction of the speed of sound, watching the whole story unfold on my iPhone 4S plugged into a compact charging device, the movie streaming over wifi from a media server stowed away somewhere in the airframe. Far above me, a constellation of beacons circled in polar orbit, helping to keep the plane on course and on time as it hurled itself through the thin air.

Bathed in marvels, I watched a man who had birthed or helped birth some of those marvels resurrect a forgotten marvel and produce a marvel of his own.

Then I cued up Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, because the antics of an anarchic sentient raccoon are never not funny.

Let me repeat that back to you.

I was trying to explain to my dev lead what problem I was having that day. I wasn't sure how much background to give. I wasn't sure how well I had explained my frustration. He asked me to listen to him explain back to me what I had said, and I realized I had explained it well enough that he understood. He could help unblock me on the problem.

"Let me repeat that back to you."

We were in a heated argument. He was frustrated because he believed I wasn't listening to him. I was frustrated because he kept saying the same thing over and over again. So, in the span of one breath, I asked him to listen to me as I described what I thought we were arguing about, and why we were arguing. He realized I was listening. He felt I understood. We resolved our argument quickly after that.

"Let me repeat that back to you."

Out on the ultimate field, a teammate kept running the play incorrectly. The sideline wanted to pull her from the game, even though she was one of our strongest players, mistakes and all. When asked during a timeout what she thought the play was, we all realized the second interpretation of how the play was run. From her understanding, she was doing it correctly and thought the play was a crappy play. Only when she repeated the play back to us did we realize the error and correct.

"Let me repeat that back to you."

Why do we generally suck at something as crucial as being able to communicate with another person? I don't know. What I do know is that listening, and then repeating back what I heard, in my own words, does wonders for letting the other know my level of understanding, for letting the other person know they have been heard, and for helping the two of us move towards a better understanding.

Try it.

"Let me repeat that back to you."

Incremental Accessibility

You have a website. It looks good. You love it. Your friends love it. Your cat thinks its "just okay" but they're a cat, they don't care about the web.

But, it's completely inaccessible. The heavy page weight caused by all your funky animations mean it takes long to load on a mobile device. Your potential employer whose vision is poor can't make out the contrast between your background and your body text to read your CV. And myself; whose hands occasionally don't work well, can't navigate through your content using my wicked cool keyboard skills.

It can be overwhelming when you realise that a large percentage of the population may have a stressful experience with something you have built. You want to make it better but your line manager says its not the priority. Your client just doesn't have the budget and even if they did, you don't know where to start.

The first thing to realise is that it doesn't have to be done all at the same time. In fact, throwing a bunch of ARIA roles at your markup without thought may hurt rather than help.

Do it incrementally. Right now, you're inaccessible. Tomorrow, your images might have descriptive alt text. Next week, your design might have an improved contrast ratio. Next month your header navigation might have a more usable structure, with better headings and links with active and hover styles. With each iteration, more and more people could have an effortless experience each day.

Getting started with accessibility

Use your website with a screen reader

Listen to your website with VoiceOver (OSX) or another screen reading device like JAWS (Windows). Do it a few times, note down what doesn't sound right. Then close your eyes and listen again.

  • How is your content structured? Make sure each block of content has a descriptive header.
  • Do you have to wade through 27 navigational items before you get to the main content? Include a "skip to main content" link!

Accessibility compliance checkers

Use a command line tool like a11y or a script like tota11y to check whether your website complies with the basic accessibility tenets. Go through the accessibility checklist from the a11y project.

  • Do all your images have their appropriate alt tags, so someone can still understand what the image you've included is, even if they cant see it?
  • Do your form inputs have a label linked to it so I can tell which box takes my username and which takes my password?

Convince your boss

When it comes to accessibility, some people need a business case. This is not something this post will cover. The most I can say is that an accessible website means more people can have a positive experience with your website which can in turn lead to increased revenue.

Even if you do have the go ahead, where do you start in the code base? When I start working on a project that is already well into its existence, I set a rule of "if I touch the code, I can make it better". If you're adding things to your navigation, now is a good time to make it accessible. If you haven't been given the go ahead to start working on accessibility, this is an excellent way to sneak it in.

Thinking accessibly

No self-professed accessibility expert drank from a golden chalice and knew everything they needed to about accessibility. Like anything, these things take time.

Something I like to do is rate the experience I have on each new website I visit. Can I use it on my phone? How long did it take me to get the information I need? Is the content clearly labelled, is it easy to understand? You need to learn to train your brain to think about things from a different perspective.

By implementing carefully considered accessibility bit-by-bit, over time it will become second nature. Even better, you'll be able to build websites and applications from the ground up with an accessibility first approach. It's much easier to build something right from the beginning, instead of shoe-horning it in halfway through the process.

With each step, you'll be helping to make the web what it should be: accessible for everyone.

Headspace is my New Favourite App

I tried meditation about six years ago after reading The Mindful Way Through Depression. But it felt clunky, I decided I was a meditation dud, and gave up.

In January, a friend mentioned the Headspace app. Headspace was created by Andy Puddicombe "to bring meditation to the masses in a way that would cut the airy-fairyness out of it." (Nilufer Atik, The Telegraph)

IMMA GO AHEAD AND SAY YOU NAILED IT, ANDY.

I completed the free intro pack and lickety-split became an evangelist. I signed up for a year membership and made my way through the Foundation Pack, excited to unlock the rest of the Headspace library.

I began to notice some fun changes.

  • My squirrel brain slowed long enough to absorb entire conversations, podcasts, and lectures.
  • I could recap said conversations, podcasts, and lectures in detail (my recaps used to sound something like: "So this woman—or man?—who worked for a big important organization—or maybe a startup?—did a thing and then some stuff happened—or maybe stuff happened and then he/she did a thing?— that changed lives and woah. Cool, right?")
  • I realized I'd never really been present during my massages. I was always lost to all the chatter in my head. Massage is kind of amazing without Captain Anxio-brain busy spinning webs and making lists.

And then I one-two-skipped-a-few and almost jumped.

After my close call with the wrong side of a bridge, I decided meditation, like my anti-depressants and anti-anxiety meds, needs to be part of my routine.

Nearly jumping from a bridge shone some sobering clarity on what staying alive looks like for me. It looks like routine and vigilance and radical self-care. I don't get to relax when it comes to my mental health. Hope it just works itself out.

Which, to be frank, is a bummer. Depression comes with an American-sized serving of fatigue. The energy involved in that level of vigilance makes me instinctively reach for my pyjamas and a few months in bed.

But Headspace is something I look forward to. It's time for me to heal and build emotional and mental strength. With zero pressure and zero judgement.

Anxiety. I see you.

I had a therapist call me "sticky." "You feel everything, Shannon and it all sticks to you. You're sticky!" Yaaaaaaas! Because I ruminate. I grab onto a thought, hold tight, and ride that sucker twisty-town down to the bottom.

My anxiety is the command post for my mental-health-related quirks—that stickiness. Understanding this has been like discovering where that smell in the kitchen is coming from. Instead of selling the house, I can get to work chucking and scrubbing everything covered in potato slime.

When I finished the Foundation Pack and unlocked the full Headspace library, I went straight for The Anxiety Pack. I was so excited to tackle my anxiety that I briefly considered smashing through the entire 30-session pack in one sitting. (Zen, right?)

You may call me Teflon.

The Anxiety Pack introduces the practice of "noting." Noting is a quiet, huggable beast. You definitely want Noting on your team. Noting has meant that thoughts—the kind that typically latch onto and hatch bigger, scarier thoughts and pin me to dark corners for days and months—make an appearance, get a pat on the hiney, and slide on by.

I used to believe that the only way through sadness was through it. I believed I had to allow myself to feel it. Sit with it. Coddle it. Anything less would be a form of denial and stifling to my growth.

I still very much believe that sadness is a crucial companion to joy. But I no longer feel obligated to sit through five course meals with negative memories, regrets, or staggering what-ifs.

Meditation has given me the tools to avoid spirals triggered by clinging to thoughts and feelings. It's connected me to who I am without the tangled muck. It's escorted my anxiety to the back of the bus and put me behind the wheel again.

It's made me less sticky!

Headspace for everyone!

I've especially been sharing the good news with friends dealing with mental health issues, but I can't think of one single person Headspace wouldn't benefit.

If meditation interests you, but you don't really know where to start, Headspace is screaming your name. And if you've already got meditation buttoned down, I double dog dare you to try Headspace anyway. You might see meditation from a fresh, more delightful angle.

Mr. Puddicombe is not compensating me in any way for my Headspace happy dance. I'm this obnoxious all on my own because Headspace has opened up my world more than cute cat videos. Which is really saying a lot.

"Conflict is a part of life," they say.

A pretty painful part—yes—but a good part, too.

You're not going to do anything creative, new, or original without conflict.

Without conflict, nothing gets better—but they assuredly can get worse.

You'll never win. You'll never succeed. You'll never take a bow, receive a thank you card, raise a three year old, lower your debt, get your degree, land that client, finish that project, climb that mountain, build that community, have that adventure. You won't ever make your mark, complete your research, publish your book, or establish your legacy without conflict.

The absence of conflict is death. No struggle there at all. Just cold, dry, quiet peace.

If the options are cake or conflict: give me conflict.

But then give me the big slice of cake later because conflict is giant pain in the ass.

At work, we recently introduced some new interns to the team. As part of the introduction, the interns took turns playing Two Truths & a Lie, in which they shared (in no particular order) two facts and one lie about themselves and we would all try to guess what they are.

Looking back on some of the silly things I’ve done, I thought I’d give it a go myself. But instead of two truths and a lie, I’ll do 6 truths and a lie, just to make it interesting.

Only one of these stories about myself is not true.

  1. When I was 7 years old, my father decided to let me compete in a beauty pageant. His friends helped me get dressed, did my makeup and hair, and taught me how to do pageant-style walks and turns. I didn’t have nice shoes, so I borrowed some shoes that were way too big for me and they flopped as I walked.

    At one point while I was on stage, my dad’s friend tried to signal to me that I was not doing the correct stance. I couldn’t hear her and yelled to her from the stage, “What?!?!?!” and everyone laughed.

    When they realized that I was also supposed to do a walk in casual clothes — which I didn’t have with me — they had me put on another girl’s sweaty gym clothes she had just worn to do a talent routine in.

    Somehow I still won trophies and gifts, but my dad later revealed that it was because I was the only contestant in my age group.

  2. When I was 12, I made $50 a week babysitting three children (one girl and her two younger brothers) who belonged to a family from church.

    One time while I was there, I started my very first period. Freaked out, I called their mother. She told me where her pads were in her bathroom.

    I was so worried I would make a mess, I sat on a pile of newspapers, so I wouldn’t mess up their nice furniture. The little girl asked me why. I told her, “Um. You’ll understand someday.”

    Looking back, I realize I probably accidentally scared her.

  3. I rarely got in trouble during grade school, but the two times I was suspended were because a) I cussed out the principal and b) I got in a fist fight with a freshman girl.

    The first time, my dad had me write sentences a thousand times apologizing for what I did and hand it to the principal.

    The second time, my dad wasn’t as angry with me because my fighting was in self-defense (she had attacked me) so I spent my time just resting and listening to calming music.

  4. When I was in art school, I spent a lot of time hanging out with bands and other people in the music industry, largely because I made band websites as a freelancer to help pay my way through college.

    During this time, I met a famous new-metal band who had songs on MTV, and their most famous song was used in car commercials and movie trailers.

    I went on a date with the drummer.

  5. When I was about 10 years old, my teacher decided to put up a chart with all our names on it with 4 boxes to the right. She said that if we got in trouble for anything, she would give us a check. At the end of the week, she would have a pizza party. If you had 4 check marks, you would not get to go.

    Unfortunately, I had gotten in trouble for talking and drawing on my desk a few times and received all 4 check marks. At the end of the week, she gave the two boys and me (the only recipients of 4 check marks) a choice. She said that we could either choose to get a paddling, or not go to the pizza party. (This is back when paddling in schools was allowed if the school had permission from your parents).

    I really wanted to go to the pizza party, so I told the teacher I would prefer the paddling. She gave me one soft, swift pat on the butt with the paddle and told me, “You’re braver than the boys. They chose not to have the pizza party. Go on, have fun.” It didn’t hurt at all.

    I got to enjoy the pizza with my fellow classmates as the two boys sat a couple tables over with jealous looks on their faces.

  6. When I was 15, I went to a school dance and was standing by the wall like a wallflower. A boy I had a crush on asked the girl next to me if she wanted to dance. I was devastated and was about to start crying. But when I saw she was a terrible dancer, I couldn’t help but feel better about the situation.

    Another boy ended up asking me to dance instead. At first, I was reluctant to go with him, because I didn’t want the other boy to see me dancing with someone else. But I realized that a) he didn’t choose me so why should I care and b) I decided it was better than standing by the wall the whole time. So I went out and danced with him and actually ended up having a really good time.

  7. I won first place in a science fair in fourth grade for growing avocados through the hydroponic method of putting toothpicks in the pit and setting it in a glass of water. Though when I say I won it, I should really say that my dad won it, as he did most of the work.

So which one do you think is a lie? :)

My father’s name is Rex.

He is an intelligent man. Could have been, could have done anything I believe. Very capable, he tries things, takes risks, and is pragmatic. He chooses not to dwell on things that he is now unable to control - deeds done, mistakes made, words said. Find it and fix it, or forgive it and free it. He chooses to be positive.

He is interesting, and is interested. Interested in people, and curious about things; how they work, why they work they way they do. If something is broken, he enquires, investigates. If something is broken, he doesn’t replace, he repairs.

My father has simple, varied pleasures. He’s an avid reader - science fiction mostly. He likes a good beer, JS Bach, Creedence, and the Doobie Brothers. He likes going for long drives; he's mad about fishing; he loves chopping wood, and every evening, before dinner, he enjoys 12 Meal Mates, with tasty cheese and too much marmite. He eats food very slowly, savouring every mouthful, “conscious-eating” some might call it. He is careful to collect every fallen, errant morsel; waste nothing. Leave no crumb behind! This is how Dad is.

He is brave. He saved a baby from a burning house once. I found the article from an old newspaper, in a box at the back of my parents’ wardrobe. He doesn’t boast. He did what anyone surely would do, he says.

He is tough. Cuts, bruises, burns and blows don’t stop him, nor does a cracked head when an industrial sized chain fell from a 30 foot rafter in his workshop. Drove himself to A&E with his head out the window, careful to not get blood on the seat. Didn’t want to cause a fuss or make a mess.

By day, Dad fixes stuff. He's a fitter and turner by trade. He fixes cars, trucks, tractors, diggers, dozers, graders. Engines and everything else - huge and small. He fixes them when they're broken, burst, blocked, boiled over or blown up. He does this in the pit of his workshop or on the side of the road, in hot sun; in torrential rain.

My father gets up every morning at 4.30, to start work at 6am. My father is 69 years old.

I don't know a whole lot about fitting and turning and all that it entails. But I do know he is great at what he does. Brilliant, even.

He's old school. He doesn't necessarily do things the easiest or the fastest way. He does things the proper way, the right way. He’s a good man, and thorough.

But at the same time, he's willing and ready to adapt and improvise and innovate. If a part doesn’t exist, he’ll make one. If one way doesn’t work, he’ll find another. He’s Macguyver-esque.

We'll be driving down the motorway. Someone’s car has broken down on the side of the road. Dad will be the person to stop. He’ll be the person to try to fix their broken alternator or johnson rod, and he'll try to do it with whatever he has on hand. If his toolbox isn’t there, it’ll be with whatever is: a bobby pin, a broken pencil and plastic spoon.

He'll do what he can, with what he's got.

-

When I was 19 I had my first “proper” job, in an office, wearing a suit, 9-5, very professional. I didn't really like it. It wasn't that it was bad. It just wasn't good. I'd been trying to stick it out - maybe this is what work is supposed to feel like. Maybe that’s just the way proper work is.

I talked to my Dad. I expected him to give me a sternly worded reminder of the sacrifices my parents made, outline the privileged position I’m in and follow up with the responsibilities we all have and that like them or not - endure we must. I expected he’d finish with a trifecta of pith: “harden up; stop complaining; get on with it”, that sort of thing.

But he didn’t. Instead, he said, "every morning I get up, I have my shower and my toast and coffee, and I think about all the things I've got to do. The problems I've got to deal with. I think about how I'm going to fix them. I plan my day around all that. And I look forward to it. If you're waking up hating what the way you're about to spend your day, seeing no value, then, there’s a problem and that needs to be fixed.”

And so I moved on. It took a while. But still, I moved on, inspired by my Dad who likes his job and who looks forward to his day.

Now, this job of his is not one that pay heaps. It's really quite modest.

And he’s spent a lot of time doing it, forgoing other things. He wasn’t around that much growing up: always working. Late nights. Weekends. Holidays. They had time and a half then; double time on the statutories. That extra pay made a difference in our household.

He's not in a senior management position. He's not interested in that, never has been. He wants to be in there, his big permanently oil-stained hands dirty, getting under the machinery, fixing the problem, making it better than before. And in the fixing of the pistons and the distributors and the brake pads and the crankshafts, there is evidence of the craftsman at work. Of skill. Of care and respect for the work he does and of that which he works on. Here's a man who chooses to enjoy how he spends his working day.

He doesn't leap out of bed, singing a happy ditty, skipping out the door like some toothpaste commercial.

But he doesn't dread it. Doesn’t find it a drag. There is no drudgery there. There is no clockwatching, no wishing the working day away. He’s never pulled a sickie because he can't be bothered. He doesn't slag the job off. Yes, he talks about his frustrations and challenges, but therein lies opportunity - to fix, to make better. There’s pride there. Love for the work. Love for the opportunity the work presents.

He looks forward to the contribution he'll make. To the conversations he’ll have. To the people he'll get to meet. To the driving he'll do. To the problems he'll solve. Simple things perhaps. But stuff that matters to my father.

He has been in the job, for the same company, for 51 years, 5 months, 21 days. This dirty, messy, modestly-paid job he likes. That he looks forward to every day. Content and fulfilled and busy and challenged. Feeling everyday like he's helping in some way to make stuff and things happen.

To do that, for that long, and feel that good about it, I think, is remarkable. And inspiring. And wonderful.

To choose to enjoy what you do, to know you’re good at it or to work till you are, to know you are contributing, for it to be your craft - that there is real gold. It's wealth. That is, to paraphrase Thoreau, to be paid handsomely and made rich by the satisfaction which one’s labor yields. Propelled not by pecuniary profit, but instead by a sense of purpose, of pride in one's performance, and by passion for proficiency.

As Annie Dillard says, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Like my father, I want to choose to spend it fulfilled in the way I spend my days, fulfilled by the meaning and mastery of the things I do, the disposition I maintain, the contribution I make, and the help I can give. For that, in my eyes at least, will be a life well spent.

How do I get into UX?

Not a speaking engagement goes by without someone asking me how to get into UX. I take their card, I mean well. I might send them a list of books or articles to read. I might tell them the story of how I found a rocket ship of a startup. How that startup took a chance on me as their first support rep, and helped me shape my career with amazing support and on the job learning. I don’t think that happens very often, so I hate telling people that in answer to their question. How do I get into UX?

I haven’t answered anyone who asked after my last speaking gig because I’ve been trying to find a better answer to their question. There are days where I want to say, “Look, some days I still feel like I’m faking it till I make it, so ask someone who did this a more traditional way!” There are days I want to say, “Are you sure you’re ready for a specialized career path? Because it’s tough sometimes.” There are days I want to protect our turf and say “I know enough people looking for these jobs already, so back off.” Some days I’m nicer than others.

But what I think I should say is this, “It all starts with watching someone use your site.” That’s it.

It’s nothing elaborate really. If you want to get into UX, just call up a user - any user will do - and say, “Hey, can I watch you work sometime?” Or if you’re making something new, just ask someone - anyone will do - to use what you’re creating. Your recruiting demographics don’t matter in that first session. If UX is right for you, you’ll be hooked from the first session and you won’t be able to do anything else. That curiosity you feel, the need to know more - that’s what’s going to get you into UX.

Every few months, Ira Glass’s famous monologue about creativity surfaces on Facebook. You know the one, where he tells beginners to keep at it, even when they feel like what they’re doing is nowhere near as great as they want it to be.

Where was Ira when I needed him, back in 1989?

Fresh out of college, I moved to New York to become a writer. I answered an ad in the New York Times classifieds and within a few weeks was hired as a staff writer at a small Japanese trade journal that covered New York fashion, lifestyle, and entertainment.

That job paid the bills — barely — but the thrill of getting paid to write didn’t last as long as you’d think it would. It wasn’t good enough. I wanted to write for Spy magazine.

Spy magazine was my Everest. The pinnacle. It was the Saturday Night Live of magazines. Funny, cool, and exclusive. And I wanted it. So. Badly.

One afternoon, my coworkers and I lounged around the Upper West Side co-op that our boss illegally sublet as an office. She was out for the day, and we’d stuffed ourselves on our favorite $5 Chinese lunch special and expensed a stack of magazines. For trend spotting, of course. Vogue. Elle. W. Architectural Digest. Elle Décor. And Spy.

To this day, I have no idea what prompted me to sit down and write a letter to the Submissions department at Spy. Let me just say, I do not come from “horn tooting people.” I must’ve been high on MSG and perfume inserts — Calvin Klein’s Obsession, of course.

Possessed by freakish self-confidence, I poured my sarcastic, witty 20-something soul onto the page, sealed it up in a #10 envelope, and sent it on its way.

About a week later, I got a response from Spy: They would love to publish some of my work. Would I be so kind as to send them some pieces at my earliest convenience?

And here’s where Ira would have come in handy. Because, I never sent them any of my writing. Not one word. When push came to shove, I had zero follow through.

I wasn’t too lazy to write. I didn’t sit down in front of my comically gigantic pre-fingernail-sized-processing-chip computer and procrastinate the day away. I just went blank with fear. I had no good ideas. Who did I think I was? What could I possibly have to say that anyone would read other than to mock?

Life went on. I wrote for other magazines. I got married, moved to Boston, entered the realm of copywriting and savored the pleasure of being introduced as “one of our creatives.” (There, see, it’s real. I am creative! Because they said so.) I learned my strengths as a writer — I’m pretty good at making complicated things sound simple. And my weaknesses: “Dana never met an adjective she didn’t like.”

Copywriting was the perfect fit for me. I never had to worry about not knowing what to say. I had a creative brief, key messages, and concept copy right from the start. All I had to do was fill in the blanks.

I have made a career out of filling in other people’s blanks.

That’s not a complaint. It’s just an observation.

It’s been over 25 years since I got that letter from Spy. I have it in a box full of writing nobody’s ever seen. I’m going to take it out and put it above my desk. It can sit next to Ira’s encouraging words. Maybe it will remind me that I have my own blanks to fill.

“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” (Mary Oliver)

Your career: it’s about growth, development, building for the future. You’re on a trajectory which started when you left school with a couple of A-levels. You maybe went on to college. Your parents smiled as they could see that this was a career with legs, something going somewhere.

Your bosses’ job comes up. You go for it – it’s written in your path. You get more money, more responsibility, more budget.

A couple of years down the line and you’re head of department. Then five years later, VP. Then…who knows…

This kind of career is drilled into us. On the one hand, our parents’ generation has a lot to do with this – as lifelong career holders, that’s how it went for them, and they reflect that back at us.

But there’s also our environment: our peers, friends, government – and they emit a constant, never-ending background hum that growth is a good thing. If you’re not earning more this year than last, if your job isn’t bigger, more responsible, more important – well, then you’re failing.

To be seen to coast, just to relax into what you know and like? No, my boy! Get up that ladder. Show us your ambition!

It’s OK, strangely, for us to bust our balls for 20 years, sell a business and then stop working. Society forgives us for that. We worked so hard to get there after all. But choosing a path which enables you to coast, to find a balance, to just stay at the same level? Slacker.

We’re apparently keen on work-life balance, but try refusing that next promotion because you choose the extra hour a day at home with your kids over the increase in salary? Weird looks all round – and an unsettling feeling that you’ll be on The List when the redundancies come round, earmarked as the slopey-shouldered one.

We all accept it because everyone says it is A Good Thing, but growth is fundamentally broken. Sure, we maybe earned more this year than last, but then the bills, fuel, holidays, house prices and everything else have risen too. Net result? Not much, as far as I can tell.

As my company enters its fifth year of trading I feel this pressure to grow perhaps even more keenly than those who are employed by someone else. Almost everything is urging us to scale up – and I’m fascinated by this because it’s absolutely not something we are aiming for; it’s just the natural offshoot of an environment in which growth is expected. Almost by default (actually I think because we do a good job and are now known because of it) we have bigger clients, bigger budgets and better exposure than ever before. It’s obvious in abstract that bigger work follows that which went before – but also really interesting to watch it actually happening, month on month and year on year.

Round about now there are people in my position who would probably take on staff. But…I like the balance. I don’t want a £5k a month staff cost stressing me out. I have no desire whatsoever to work evenings and weekends. I want to hang out with my wonderful kids before they reach an age when they’re off all the time doing their own thing. I want to go surfing, write music, run, chill out with a cider, look at the sea.

This is not to say (dear clients!) that we don’t bust a ball when we are working. We produce great stuff, and we make our clients happy – and this is absolutely crucial to us.

But do we want to get bigger? No - but what is becoming clear to me is that it requires active effort to maintain – to coast – rather than grow.

I've found that these three things help:

1) Don’t be afraid to say no: it is strangely empowering. My hot tip is to find a friend with a similar mindset and share your “I said no!” stories with each other. It helps, and will bolster your confidence hugely.

2) Be picky with who or what you work with. See 1) but also don’t be afraid to turn down or push back about things you’re not comfortable doing. This doesn't always work - back at the beginning of Thirty8 Digital, we took on whoever and whatever we could - but it's a delight now to be able to pick and choose.

3) Remember why you’re here. This is the most important thing of all. If this means meditation or mindfulness, great. If that's not your bag, that's fine too. But just step away, regularly - and consider what you're doing and why.

It's all too easy to get caught up in the process of doing and lose sight of your horizon. Look at your kids, your partner, the things you find beauty in. Choose time with them over this strange thing we call "growth".

Choose to coast, and be proud of your choice.

They will take no for an answer.


These are perfectly acceptable answers to requests for your time and energy:

No.
No thank you.
Not right now.
Maybe.
Let me think about it.
I don’t have time at the moment.
I’m not the right person to help you with this.
I can’t commit to that.
I won't be able to make it this time.
I'm not comfortable with it.
I'm not interested.
I’m in the middle of something right now.
I’d rather not.

We all have to do things we don't want to do, but most of us do things we don't have to do. I make so many commitments because I feel guilty, I want people to like me, or I want to be important. It's almost never worth it. Insecurity and guilt are terrible motivators. So I'm trying to guard my time a little better. Saying no is hard, but I find it helps to be polite about it, adding a simple thank you or a kind word.

Take care of yourself. Spend your time and energy on things that matter.

Imagine the sound of your alarm clock, but infinitely louder. That’s what the burglar alarms sound like in Eastern European book stores at two in the morning when someone falls through their plate glass windows.

A brief pause, then another crash.

This time, it’s the two-thirds of the plate glass above him, coming down on his legs while he sits in shock on the table right inside the window.

“If he had been leaning forward when that fell. No. Stop thinking like that.” I try to focus, but…

Adrenaline.

The guy in the window is actually one of three guys I’m with. I am the only one sober—always the good guy—and the other two are running scared. Separate directions, eyes wide.

My friend tries to stand up, presses his hands down on the broken edge of the glass he just fell through. He falls back onto the table. I notice it’s full of travel books on display—like a hook in the water, hoping to snag a passer-by.

“You caught one,” I think.

Now the table is full of glass. Glass and blood.

I help my friend to his feet. I can hear police sirens. Part of me wants to wait for them to arrive so we can explain that it was an accident—always the good guy. My friend wants no part of that.

So we move off the main street and onto side streets, winding our way back to our apartment. Not far behind us, I can feel activity. The alarm is still ringing. We make it back, avoiding eye-contact with the few people we pass.

He does not want to go to the hospital. So, instead, I do a little examination of the damage. His hands are cut up pretty bad, but nothing very deep. We get them washed, cuts cleaned out and a few steri-strips. Good to go.

Then he says, “My leg feels warm.” I notice that both jean legs are torn just above the knee, so I have him shimmy out of them. There are two, three-inch gashes in his right thigh. There is stuff (human stuff) sticking out. His leg is red with blood.

I tell him not to look and direct him onto the kitchen table. Spot light on for a better view and all I can think is that I’m gonna have to stitch it up. I grab my sewing kit—a last minute packing decision, but right now it feels like the best. A match, a candle, sterilize the needle. Two shots of vodka for my friend (not that he needs more) and I get started. Human skin is a lot tougher than you think. I have to use a thimble.

That was almost twenty years ago and today he is still one of my best friends. There’s something about these kinds of crazy situations that bonds people in a way you can’t explain.

This experience has taught me a few things.

Difficult situations are really opportunities to strengthen relationships. In the moment they are no fun. But focus on making it through, and you’ll experience a new level of connection. I’ve seen this happen with clients and employees as well as friends.

When tough stuff happens, your true self shows. The other two guys were gone before I could even turn around. They left our buddy sitting bloody in the window and they left me to help him. I’ll let you form your own opinions.

And perhaps most importantly, always pack a sewing kit. Hopefully, you’ll just need to stitch a button back on. But in the off chance there’s more to it, better to be prepared.

On Being a Good Employee

It’s so hard to find good employees. Ask any business owner and they will nod in agreement. It’s staggering, really. I’m not even talking about job knowledge or specific skill sets. What I’m talking about are the intangibles–things that I think most business owners assume come with any job, and are (maybe not so much anymore) surprised when their employees lack these things.

If you want to be a good employee, you need ALL four of these traits:

Show up, on time

Is it really that hard? Yes, apparently it is.

Complete your work

If you need more time, ask for it. Otherwise we assume that you’ll finish it on time and/or on budget.

Don’t complain about your work

If you don’t like your job, you’re welcome to find a new one.

Take initiative

If you see something that needs to be done, don’t wait to be prompted, just do it.

I used to be an employer. I have friends that still are employers. When we found a person who exhibited these traits, we did everything we could to hang on to them. Skills can be taught, but the traits I listed above are unteachable. You either have them or you don’t.

I’ve been writing more poems lately. It’s always been the most effective way for me to effectively process my life and the world around me. (I’ve posted about this before, how being a poet shapes my work as a content strategist.)

If having a kid is like seeing your heart walking around outside of your body (spoiler alert: it totally is), writing a poem allows my brain to get out of my head and work out the equations of the world on paper. In the algebra of rhyme, syntax, meter, and diction, I can often solve for an elusive yet beautiful X.

There is something about sitting with a poem. When I was little, I used to gleefully accept my mom’s challenge to untangle some hopeless bundle of necklaces, links twisted and chains kinked seemingly beyond recovery. My sense of triumph upon seeing those necklaces eventually laid out—flat, straight, and distinct—could not be beat.

That’s how I feel when I am writing or revising a poem, as if my fingers are slowly but steadily retrieving treasure from what previously seemed to be a lost cause—that morass of thoughts and feelings in my knotted head.


Last week, I was working on a new project with one of our UX designers, talking through the homepage content hierarchy and presentation. Later, in presenting our ideas to colleagues, she said to me, “You wireframe with words.” I smiled. It was a great compliment. (Or perhaps just an observation. Either way, I was delighted.)

It's moments like that where the work feels not too dissimilar from poetry. In both cases, we are laying out language and structure to create a hierarchy of emotion and understanding. We are building a framework, a scaffolding upon which we will hang bedsheets and project our dreams, up which we will clamber to reach through windows of desire, through which we will squeeze and come out the other side simply because we can.

In those instances, even work can feel a little bit like magic.


A couple days ago, I was briefly called back to an old project—the client needed a new snappy headline for a page. I sat with it for a few minutes, fingers invisibly fumbling for words and eyes scanning messaging guidelines, until it came to me.

“Nailed it,” our project manager said, and I laid the newly freed necklace flat on the desk.

The idea of me leading a team, leading a company even, is absurd when I stop and think about it. I was the shy kid. Not just slow-to-warm-up-shy, but the kind of shy where if a stranger (or a teacher, or my friends’ parents) spoke to me I would freeze, deer-in-the-headlights style. People called me Chatty-Kathy as a joke. Everyone thought there was something wrong with me.

Fast-forward forty-odd years and here I am. Outspoken. Opinionated. Leading a team, a company, and senior-level clients. Pretty successfully, if I do say so myself. And I’m doing it with confidence, even though that shy, insecure little girl is still very much part of me.

I never intended to become a “leader”. I struggled to figure out what I wanted to do. Who I wanted to be. I come from a family of academics and knew that wasn’t for me, but I had no exposure to other options. I tried to follow the path of self-expression—one that would lead me to better understand myself. It was certainly a curvy path, full of surprises! I think, in a large part, it was my shyness that led me towards leadership.

I was the classic quiet kid with her nose in a book. As a child, reading fueled my imagination – Narnia and Black Beauty sparked years of creative play. As a teenager, Stephen King, Thomas Hardy, and Herman Hesse were my escape and armour from the world. It wasn’t until much later that I realized the richness that reading brought to my life. I learned to empathize with different characters in different situations; to understand that there are different ways to live and behave, and that very few of them are “right” or “wrong”. Reading showed me that I’m only a supporting character (at best) in anyone else’s story. To lead, I know I have to understand other people’s characters, motivations, and life plot. If they fit in my story, then my job as a leader is to support them in theirs.

In high school, even as I was honing my invisibility super-power, I longed to be noticed. The stage had an almost magical draw for me, so I started acting in community theatre. I learned that I could act confident as long as I had a role to play or a persona to put on. I got comfortable with discomfort, and nerves, and the possibility of making a complete fool of myself. As a leader, I typically assume the role of content strategist, mentor, or business owner. It’s a role that I still find scary at times, but it suits me.

When you don’t fit within the social norm, you’re free to find your own way. Arbitrary rules and authority have always frustrated me, so I quickly became adept at finding ways around them. My reckless independence tormented my mom (and teachers) during my teenage years but, in a more tempered state, it’s what drove me to chart my own course as an adult. I discovered that when you strike out in a new direction, on your own, people will follow. And then you find yourself leading them. Not by design—it’s just that they start wondering what you’re doing, and why, and asking if they can come along. And the more that people expect you to have answers, the more answers you learn that you have.

I think shy people rarely struggle with a big ego. I know I can’t do everything. I don’t want to. It’s why I’m a co-founder, and not founder, of a company. It’s why I have a team who each play to their own strengths, while I play to mine. It’s why I celebrate all of our team successes, and work hard to become completely replaceable. I’m thrilled to have a voice, and a position, and a very big say in how things happen, but I don’t hold tightly to that. In fact, what thrills me now is seeing our team grow into their voices, and find their positions.

That shy girl is still with me. She still gets hurt, and embarrassed, and frightened with some regularity. Occasionally, I’m still tempted to get angry with her, or deny her, or blame her. But not so frequently anymore. Now, I’m more likely to lift her up, give her a big hug, and take her hand so we can keep moving forward. Together. After all, it’s her experiences and perspectives that give me the strength and courage to be a leader. To be myself.

Last year, I changed my name, and it wasn’t because I got married. I had gotten divorced two years prior and finally felt like I was my old name, again. I subsequently changed it legally, and I changed it everywhere else that matters, too. I published a blog post about it in September, though I had decided to change it months earlier. I finalized my name change order in October after three visits to court, each with its own challenges. By December, people were starting to forget what my “old” name had been.

If you’ve never had to think about changing your name (hi, men!), I hope this post will help you understand everything it entails, from the SEO impact to the deeper emotional and interpersonal challenges. I do envy those of you who are never expected to wrestle with this issue.

If you’ve been thinking about changing your name, I’m hoping to assure you that, if you do, the process (though sometimes painful!) is one you can weather.

Our names on the Web

My name gives away my gender. When I use “Lara Hogan” or “lara_hogan” on Twitter, Facebook, or any other place on the Web, it’s recognized that I’m female. I’ve found that men don’t typically think about this, but women may think about this on a routine basis. When I comment on a site, how safe is it to use my real name? When I submit a pull request, would the tone of the response be different if I used a more ambiguous username?

My name being obviously female means that my LinkedIn recruiter spam is different. This means that the way people tweet at me is different. Names are not trivial. The importance and impact of one’s name, or how one uses one’s name, can’t be taken for granted.

So why use my real name on the Web, or on my published book?

One of the best pieces of professional advice I got was from a wedding photography workshop. The instructor recommended I change the name of my business (originally something ambiguous) to my full name. After all, what I was selling was me as a photographer, not my photos. Being genuine and transparent is important to me, and I think that this level of authenticity has been invaluable to my career, both when I was shooting weddings and now leading a team of engineers.

Additionally, I refuse to let the people who would threaten a woman for her work win. My book, my work, should carry the true name of the person who created it. I should not need to think about sacrificing this truth for my safety.

Fears about name changes

Here’s the list of risks that I weighed:

  • What impact would a name change have on SEO for my work? I’d contributed substantially to the Web, from writing widely-circulated articles and tutorials to giving keynote presentations at Web conferences. Would people still be able to find my work, given that there’s plenty of references to my old name on other people’s websites, outside of my control?
  • How do I handle the Internet legacy of my old name? Do I maintain redirects, email forwarding, etc.? How do I indicate that my old Twitter handle, for example, is defunct?
  • How do I tell my coworkers that this isn’t weird for me to talk about, and how comfortable am I sharing the full story of my name change?
  • How would a name change affect my professional reputation that I’d been building with the book and my public speaking? Would be people get confused about who wrote or said or contributed what?
  • Would there be public negative reaction on Twitter to my personal blog post about the change? How would I handle that?
  • Would there be awkward conversations with strangers at conferences about my name change? How would I handle those?

Unfortunately, I have had very few role models for this process. I did a lot of Googling to see if there were others that came before me who switched back to a former name years after their divorce; unfortunately, those keywords mostly return information about legality and divorce decrees. While I didn’t have a good individual role model for this process, talking to friends and family validated the importance I place on the authenticity of my identity. And while the fears I listed are certainly worthy of consideration, the logistics of changing your name are absolutely surmountable.

Changing your name on the Web

When I decided I wanted to switch back to Hogan, the timeline became dictated by when I could secure my new Twitter handle and portfolio URL. It took me a great deal of research to ensure that I had secured and could switch over to a new Twitter username without accidentally losing all of my followers; I had to make the time to set up and triple-check that I was setting up 301 redirects to my portfolio properly. There was definitely a lot of legal work required to get my name changed back to Lara Hogan but really, the hardest parts of my name change happened on the Web.

I announced the name change in a blog post, on Twitter, and on the general chatter list at work. I got an overwhelmingly positive response. I confirmed with my publisher that I would be able to get my full new name on the book. From there, I had an enormous list of websites to update.

A lot of website forms required I fill out a “reason” for my name change when I went to switch from “Swanson” to “Hogan”. Some websites even required me to make a phone call to get it changed. Some sites required documentation of the change beyond my new photo ID, and would ask why I was changing it. Frankly, it was no one’s business; that is not data that I need any website or business to retain. I would typically say, simply, “name change order”, and only once did a company push harder beyond that.

I still get random emails with my former full name on them; sometimes it’s a hassle to go and figure out how to update them. But since all of that legwork updating dozens of sites, and heartache fighting with web forms, it’s been nearly a non-issue.

Let me appease your fears.

If you’re thinking about changing your name, don’t worry.

If you’re worried about losing your established “brand” - don’t worry. It’s not hard for people to figure it out, especially if you in some way publicly note the change (the blog post really worked well for me). 301 redirects are a real thing. Email aliases are a real thing. It’s a pain, but it’s not an insurmountable one. I was able to change my name before my book launched, and I don’t think I’ve lost any traction in my public notoriety due to the name change.

The hardest parts are the awkwardness with people who assume I got married, and that’s why my name has been changed. It’s made speaker dinners awkward; it’s made book signings awkward. I choose to leave them awkward, which is an active choice that matches my attitude towards name changes and how I want to normalize this stuff. If someone says, “congrats on getting married!” I say, “Oh, actually no.” and move on or, “Oh, no, I got divorced some years ago.” and move on. If someone asks, “Why did you change your name?” (which absolutely happens at book signings and after I give presentations) I say, “Oh, I got divorced.” and leave space for it to be awkward. I believe it should be okay for those people to be really uncomfortable with the position that they’ve put me in - after all, they broached the subject, and now maybe their eyes are more open to what women sometimes need to deal with.

The questions I get - which I easily handle - are questions that men do not have to deal with while they’re working. The fears I have around using my real name online, and the fears I had around changing my name to begin with, are not fears that men typically encounter for themselves. While I applaud the men who have considered changing their last name to match their partners’, or who have deep discussions with their partners about last name choices, I also encourage all men to think deeply about the Web and how women are affected by these kinds of name choices.

Read more about women and the name change choice in this Cosmopolitan article about the difficulty of finding a woman's work history or street cred on the internet after her name change, this New York Times article about a recent trend of women retaining their given names, or this follow-up to the NYT article by Salon that investigates the language we use around name changes.

The UX of a cheese sandwich

In Brussels, Yelp insists the best place for a sandwich is a hole-in-the-wall above the Marche aux Herbs named for its owner, Tonton Garby. The line never seems long... only it is, because his average transaction time is something like 10 minutes. His sandwiches are cheap -- 3-6€ -- and all cheese (good cheese, yes, but cheese nonetheless). But that's not why they come. They come for Monsieur Garby.

Garby insists, through many signs, gestures, and languages, that he wants his customers to be happy. He's careful about picking cheese, friendly to a level that makes Americans feel inadequate, and always quick to remind you that if you're unhappy he will give you your money back.

Also, his sandwiches are not half bad. Mine was chevre encrusted in pistachios, green apples, and local honey. It was heaven.


When I was a kid in Oklahoma, John F. Lawhon was a mainstay of local TV. He'd come on during the news and tell you this sofa set was $499 today only, so you better come on down. One day, he sold off his furniture empire and retired. The next day, he was already bored. So he started talking to his old salespeople to understand what made them successful, what made them different from the run-of-the-mill salesperson. The result was a series of books on retail sales that became the standard textbooks in many business college classrooms.

Lawhon's theory was based on the radical idea that a salesperson needed to identify what the customer needed, show them the options, and help them make a selection they would be happy with. The customer had to feel confident that they were the one making the choice, and that the choice was the right one. No high pressure, and no pushing them into this sofa or that. In fact, he found that the best salespeople never got to the “pitch” or the “close” — instead, they reiterated all the ways the customer’s selection was going to work for them.

Lawhon found that happy customers are the best customers: If they are pleased with their choice, they will return and buy again, and they will recommend him to their friends. Being known for selection, fair prices, and a great experience was better in the long run than raking in money hand over fist on deals that left customers unhappy.


In the user experience world, service design is all the rage. (No, service design isn’t new, but when applied to UX, it is.) The UX community talks of creating massive, deep, systematic experiences that extend well beyond the the pixel-pushing pigeonhole we've been crammed into. UX is way bigger than simple images, understand. It's no wonder the Disney MagicBand garners so much hype in the design world.

So now we show how users and personas participate in the overall process of a system, when they engage, how those engagements work. We talk about uniforms and physical spaces as much as databases and web experiences.

On the one hand, this seems like the right thing to do. We want big, engrossing experiences! Look at all the ways the MagicBand works and all the different interactions!

On the other hand… this thinking isn’t simple. Take the London Underground’s “reclassification” of stations. Some are gateways, places that expect lots of clueless tourists. Others are local, places where the riders know how the system works and need no help. From an Pareto 80-20 view of the world, this makes sense.

But what happens when a “local” station gets an influx of tourists? What happens when a “gateway” station is also a heavy interchange station and all that “extra help” interferes? How does the system flex and morph to handle those situations which don't follow the pattern?

What are people to the system? Personas? Or humans? Does the system treat each interaction as an opportunity to make the life of a customer better, or as a theoretical transaction between Walter The Station Agent persona and Sophie The Out-of-Towner persona?

I'm sure Transport for London has thought about this -- they're systems thinkers. But what about the rest of the design world? Do we think about the transactions that happen in our systems, or do we think about the people?


Garby focuses on simple, long interactions to promote customer happiness. Lawhon focused on simple, smart interactions designed to identify customers needs… which ultimately lead to customer happiness.

We talk of delight. We talk of service design. We talk of “user experience.” But what we really want is happy customers -- humans -- whose engagements with our creations are at once positive and seamless. 600 page reports and plotter paper sized user journeys can’t create that, only inform.

What can create it is focusing on those singular moments where a person, in need of something, receives it. Whether it’s support, information, or maybe just a “You look confused — how can I help?” inquiry, it needs to remain simple, real, and human.

Tonton Garby gets it with cheese sandwiches. John F. Lawhon got it with sofas. Do we get it with our websites and wearables?

This month’s entry has been updated to contain the full length of my first proper fantasy short story (first draft, too). It’s ~5900 words, ~25 min. reading time. I hope you enjoy it!

A flicker of light from the distant campfire let Renn and Mikel know that they were on the right track in their journey. Renn considered how remarkably accurate Mikel’s sense of direction was. Or, perhaps it was just his great tracking skills. She wondered briefly if Mikel had any special gifts he had been withholding.

Throughout the past several months that they’d traveled together, Mikel had taught Renn many things, but told her little about himself. She didn’t mind; Mikel was the first adult person in her life that had respected her and taken her seriously from the moment they’d met, and that was enough for her. It made her feel grown up, which wandering the lands on her own had never quite managed to do.

The horses trod with a slow pace in the dark, fatigued from the long, hot and humid day spent crossing the Ologon Desert. All four living minds were grateful for the chill of night that had fallen upon them, as well as the gentle breeze relieving them of sweaty skin and heat-dulled senses.

As they drew nearer the camp, Mikel brought his horse closer in to Renn’s.

“Keep alert,” Mikel said to Renn. “People alone in the desert are not always the most welcoming to strangers.”

“Do you think it’ll be dangerous?” Renn asked.

“Not unless we become foolish,” Mikel said. Renn felt a pang of disappointment, then told herself off over that.

Mikel pulled his hood up over his graying hair. It was best not to let strangers know who you were before you knew who they were. That was one of Mikel’s rules of the wild, at least. He managed to survive long enough with it, so it must’ve had some validity.

Renn pulled her hood a little closer around her face, although her attempt to shroud it fully fell short. She bought the hood back in Abarran, with the help of Mikel to ensure she wasn’t getting played by the merchant for being young and naive. It was a highly suitable hood for protecting nose and mouth against desert sand storms. It worked less well for providing cover from prying eyes.

After fidgeting with the hood, Renn gingerly slid her fingers across her belt and pulled her dagger out slightly. Just in case, she thought to herself.

As the two rode in close to the campfire, they saw just one person sitting by the fire. The figure seemed to be male, based on size, build and posture, but Renn had a hard time discerning anything more than that. Their face was completely invisible, hidden in the shadow of a large hood pulled so far over the head that even the dancing flames of the campfire couldn’t reveal any features.

“May Jintu shine on you this eve, kind stranger,” Mikel greeted the figure as they halted by the edge of the light. With no return greeting, Mikel continued.

“Would it be possible for us to join you at your campfire for the night? We’ve come all the way from Abarran at the Sea, crossing the plains of Omoreci and the Ologon Desert. Our horses need rest. We have food and water aplenty, even enough to share some with you.”

The figure remained still and cross-legged on the ground. A short sword lay within quick reach next to them, and Renn eyed it with caution.

Several more moments passed, and the figure remained so motionless that Renn was starting to wonder if they were even alive at all. She clutched her dagger and prepared her mind, when…

“Ezaryu? Is that you?” Mikel asked, with uncharacteristic bluntness and a touch of surprise in his voice. He tilted his head calmly, but Renn noticed his hand was on his hilt.

The figure looked up, and for the first time Renn could identify a facial feature—a stubbled and chiseled chin, and a strong-looking jaw. 

“It is you, isn’t it?!” Mikel sounded more enthusiastic than anything at this point, and he pulled back his hood and dismounted his horse.

“Mikel…” the man said, mulling the name of Renn’s friend and mentor over in his mouth like a strange and distant word.

“I am glad to see you still remember me, Ezaryu! How fortuitous to find you here.” 

Mikel unloaded his bags from his horse, then walked it over to a nearby bush and kneeled to tie down the reins. He pulled out some hay from a saddle bag and threw it amidst the scant population of desert foliage. Ezaryu, meanwhile, sat still and kept looking ahead. Or possibly at Renn. It was hard to tell.

“Mikel,” Ezaryu began. Mikel looked up.

“Yes?”

“Do you intend to let your companion here know that she can exhale? And sheathe her dagger?” Renn froze and clung harder to her dagger. She hadn’t even noticed that she’d been holding her breath ever since Mikel recognized the man.

“Or is it I who should be concerned?” Ezaryu asked.

Mikel sprung to his feet and held out his hands reassuringly.

“No, no, nothing of the sort. Ezaryu, this is my friend Renn,” Mikel said, emphasizing the word ‘friend’ just enough to make clear there was nothing more to it. “And Renn,” he paused, contemplating his next words carefully. “Ezaryu… is someone I knew quite well, a long time ago. Now we are old friends. We are all friends here, in fact, and so it is time for us all to relax together.”

Renn breathed out and slid her dagger back into its sheath. She couldn’t tell if this Ezaryu person had actually considered her as a potential threat or not, but something told her she was better off not knowing.

With the tension gone from the scene, Renn dismounted as well and unloaded her belongings. She kept her dagger on her belt; less so out of caution towards Ezaryu, she told herself, and more for the ever-present threats of the Ologon desert.

“So tell me, Ezaryu, what have you been up to all these years?” Mikel asked casually, ignoring the fact—or perhaps not being surprised by it—that Ezaryu had still not moved almost at all: hadn’t greeted them, hadn’t even looked up to face them.

It would’ve creeped Renn out had she not seen far, far more troubling things.

“Meditating,” Ezaryu answered curtly.

“You don’t strike me as the calm and peaceful type,” Renn joked. Mikel frowned at her, but she ignored it.

“So she does speak,” Ezaryu said. “I’d almost thought you’d gotten yourself a mute child, Mikel.”

“Hey!” Renn interjected. “I’ve seen 19 winters, I’m not a child.”

Ezaryu, for the first time, turned his head to face Renn, instead of the flames, although still no more than his jaw was visible from under the hood.

“And how many times did you blink for that effort?”

Renn opened her mouth to respond, but Mikel hastily interrupted. “Actually, Renn found me more than I found her, really.”

Ezaryu’s hooded head now turned towards Mikel.

“Oh? Have you finally grown old, Mikel, or did you just become so rusty you let a child of 17 catch you off guard?”

“Hey!” Renn repeated.

“It wasn’t anything like that,” Mikel began. “I had gotten myself into a bit of trouble on my own, and she came and helped me out. I returned the favor by taking her along on my travels.”

Ezaryu paused. He seemed to be considering the possible aspects of this scenario, though for what, Renn couldn’t tell.

“In that case,” Ezaryu turned back to Renn, “I should thank you for saving the life of my friend, little one. It’s quite a feat for someone barely 16 to help the great Mikel. You must’ve been lucky.“

“I’ve had enough of this,” Renn said abruptly, jumping to her feet. “If you think I’m such an incapable child, why don’t you try and take me on? I can show you just how capable I am.”

Ezaryu faced Mikel, who remained silent while staring intently at the other two. Whether it was because Mikel was trying to figure out how to de-escalate the situation, or simply concerned for his own well-being in what might unfold next, Renn couldn’t tell. But she didn’t have very long to think about it.

Ezaryu sighed audibly, then swung his arms wide, one tossing his cloak up into the air, the other throwing something at the campfire. A giant fireball suddenly flashed into existence over the fire, blinding Renn and Mikel who both shot back defensively. Mikel tripped and fell backwards. The horses, tied down and still eating, started shrieking in fear and attempting to run off, but were unsuccessful.

Renn composed herself. In the midst of the burst of fire she had reflexively pulled out her dagger, and was now holding it firmly, aiming it at… no one. Ezaryu was nowhere to be seen.

And then, in what seemed to be only the blink of an eye, Ezaryu had gone from nowhere to be found to standing right behind her, his short sword held steady a mere inch from her throat.

“Because it is unnecessary to kill innocent life,” Ezaryu answered into Renn’s ear. She remained still instead of responding, her mind focusing intently. Mikel, meanwhile, was slowly pulling himself back upright to see what was going on.

Renn focused her mind some more and phase-shifted to about two feet behind Ezaryu, whose grip did not anticipate the sudden disappearance of Renn and fumbled into empty air. She lunged forward, flung her arm around him and thrust her dagger against Ezaryu’s throat.

“So how innocent are you, then?” Renn said.

Ezaryu smiled, and started laughing; a fatalistic yet strangely satisfied laugh. Renn was taken aback but did not loosen her threatening hold, even though Ezaryu seemed completely unfazed by his suddenly precarious situation.

Mikel gathered himself, dusting dirt and grass off his garb before calming the horses down. “Are you both done jumping at each other’s throats yet? I was hoping we could make it through the night without bloodshed,” he said.

“So you picked yourself up a Shifter, huh?” Ezaryu said back to Mikel. “Is that how she helped you as well?” Renn strengthened her grip on his shoulder, but her dagger hand started to relax.

Mikel nodded and sat back down by the fire.

“I was cornered by a pack of spearwolves in the Galacan forest. It was my own fault, I was careless and took my chance crossing it after nightfall. The first three I managed to take on, but then the whole pack showed up at once. They had me surrounded.”

Renn decided to let Ezaryu go, though remained curious whether he had felt threatened at all. There was something about his incessantly calm and composed manner that made it feel as if, even when she held her knife to his throat, he was still completely in control of the situation.

She secretly wished for that gift, if it was one.

“I shouted out for help,” Mikel continued. “Wasn’t really expecting any, but there wasn’t much else for me to do, the wolves were drawing nearer and I had nowhere to go.”

Ezaryu and Renn both sat down, but as they did, she finally saw his face uncovered and properly lit, and it took her by surprise enough that she stumbled and fell the last few inches while sitting down. Ezaryu had two scars on his cheeks, one underneath each eye. Under his right eye was a small tear-shaped scar; under his left eye, a much larger one, the full shape of it scarred by what seemed like a thousand tiny, meticulous cuts, cris-crossed across the skin. Renn couldn’t imagine who or what had caused that, but it must’ve been hellish to endure, she thought to herself.

Mikel noticed Renn’s reaction to seeing Ezaryu’s scars, but ignored it.

“Renn heard my cries for help,” he continued, “and she shifted into the circle with me. This surprised the wolves, but did not scare them off. However, she then shifted around from wolf to wolf, killing several of them while they scrambled into increasing chaos. I managed to take out two on one side; Renn killed seven, –“

“Eight,” Renn said indifferently, just not enough.

“Eight,” Mikel said with a smile. “The remaining wolves took off after figuring out that what they had cornered was something a lot more dangerous than them.”

Ezaryu turned to face Renn. “What made you decide to help him?” he asked her. “Surely that situation was still incredibly dangerous, even for someone with your gift.”

“He didn’t deserve to die at the dirty claws of spearwolves,” Renn said, and shrugged. “Besides, I didn’t think it was particularly dangerous for me. They didn’t seem that hard to kill.” Renn postured; she knew spearwolves were tough as nails and some of the fiercest predators, but she was also not terrible with her dagger.

“I took her in after that; offered to teach her how to travel and survive in the wild. Plus it was pleasant having someone to talk to.” Mikel said.

They sat in silence for a moment, staring at the campfire.

“Now Ezaryu, if you’re done provoking Renn about being young and immature, and Renn, if you’re done proving him right, I will cook us all some dinner. And then, with his blessing, I will tell you about Ezaryu’s scars. You seem quite curious to know how he got them.”


Renn’s green eyes were staring into the embers as Mikel cooked, trying hard to avoid looking at Ezaryu, or more precisely, at his scars.

After the dust had settled from her and Ezaryu’s minor altercation she had put her hood down and let her red and black hair flow down her shoulders. She rested against one of the larger boulders around the fire, gazing at the few lingering flames and thinking about how they reflected the current atmosphere of the campsite. She was still unsure of how to feel about Ezaryu, but she at least respected his calm and confident demeanor.

“When Ezaryu was born, or so the stories go,” Mikel began telling as he stirred the pot, “he did not cry as a babe, but he was wide awake. His parents were understandably concerned, but were told that this happens sometimes and it’s nothing to worry about.”

“But as he grew up and lived to his first winter, he still never cried. He expressed all the emotions you might expect of an infant, all except the crying. He would be angry,” Mikel said, “but he wouldn’t cry. He would be sad, but he wouldn’t cry.”

Renn looked over at Ezaryu, who stared solemnly at the fire. His facial scars gave him a look so worn and ragged he seemed almost Mikel’s age, but Renn estimated him much more in the middle between herself and Mikel. Even with his hood and cloak off and his face clearly visible, it was hard to figure him out in any way.

“Again and again, Ezaryu’s parents would seek advice from a healer or midwife about his lack of crying. Was he sick? Did he have an obscure illness? His eyes worked fine, everything else about him seemed perfectly normal in fact.”

Mikel stirred the pot some more, decided it was as good as it was going to get, grabbed a couple of cups and poured them each some root, bean, and desert toad stew. As he passed Ezaryu and Renn their cups, he went on.

“Eventually, his parents accepted their son’s peculiar nature, and learned to live without worrying about it. Ezaryu never expressed unhappiness about it, and grew up a happy, healthy and energetic child.

“The tribe he was part of lived in the area of the Bakerri river headwaters, not far from the plains of Omoreci. That whole region was, back then, suffering from ongoing turmoil.”

Mikel paused to eat some, but his appetite for storytelling around a campfire proved greater, continuing enthusiastically after barely a single spoonful.

“It was during this time that a lot of tribal territories shifted and were merged, most often due to violent conflict. Ezaryu’s tribe was part of that, having killed competing tribes’ members and having lost some of their own.

“Then one day, one tribe decided to take revenge for the loss of some of their warriors. They snuck into the settlement of Ezaryu’s tribe at night, and quietly killed the tribe leader as well as several other members of the tribe. Among those killed were Ezaryu’s parents, who were part of the tribe’s council. The assassins then snuck out as quietly as they had snuck in, undetected.

“After the alarm was raised in the morning when the first body was found, people quickly learned of the severity of the attack. Most the entire tribe leadership had been murdered, and no one knew by who. Not at first, at least.

“Ezaryu, who was about twelve winters old at that time, was heartbroken and furious. Yet for the first time in his life, he was also angry at his body’s inability to cry, and in a fit of rage, he carved the small tear into his own cheek, and with the blood he swore to avenge his parents. But it would be years before he would have his way.”

Mikel slurped some of his stew, deliberately pausing to provide dramatic effect. Renn was so engrossed that it wasn’t until now that she realized she’d been holding her cup without eating any. She quickly had some before it cooled down, as Mikel continued.

“Pledging to himself that he would personally avenge his parents’ death, Ezaryu started practicing his swordmanship every day, all day long, skirting much of his old responsibilities. He grew cold and distant, participating less and less in what remained of the tribe’s activities. It took a number of years, but the tribe eventually accepted the loss of its leadership. Having failed to recover successfully while constantly under threat of other tribes, they disbanded.“

Renn looked at Ezaryu, whose face showed no emotion, no reaction to this recanting of any kind. Aside of the occasional sip from his stew, Ezaryu remained motionless. Mikel went on.

“Now mostly living on his own, Ezaryu continued practicing his deadly skills, his life increasingly fueled by his need for finding out who killed his parents and exacting revenge. If you ever get him to tell you about this himself, he will tell you he did not see it as revenge, but as enacting justice and restoring balance.“

Mikel paused, and contemplated this. “I guess you could see it that way. His tribe did disband, and all of what they had built as a community had effectively been killed alongside its leaders.”

“Either way,” Mikel continued, “Ezaryu was now on his own. He grew up in isolation, bittered by these events, and became resentful of anyone who attempted to ameliorate his life. He started to piece together which competing tribe had been responsible for the killings, but he wouldn’t let himself act unless he was absolutely sure.”

Renn decided to like Ezaryu just a little bit more.

“The key bit of information came when Ezaryu befriended a man from the tribe he suspected. This man, whose name Ezaryu will not tell anyone to this day, confirmed to him that what he suspected was true, that this was indeed the tribe responsible for the nightly assassinations. Ezaryu questioned him about it further, but after some probing the man asked why he was so intent on this topic. Ezaryu then told the man everything, from how his parents were among those killed, to the tribe disbanding in the aftermath of the deaths of its leaders. He even told the man of his plans to avenge the deaths by killing those responsible.”

Renn’s eyes grew wide with anticipation, the cup of stew in her hands completely forgotten. “How did he respond?” she asked Mikel.

“That was the unexpected part,” Mikel said. “Instead of being alarmed, the man agreed to help Ezaryu achieve his goals. He was, it turns out, a traitor.”

“This man had been wanting to leave the tribe, but its structure and rules forbid it, and he would have been hunted down if he had tried to run away. To him, Ezaryu was his chance to escape. To Ezaryu, the man was his path to redemption. They became good friends, and practiced their swordplay together almost every day.“

Renn looked at Ezaryu again, who had a faint, melancholic smile glinting in his eyes, but otherwise his expression had not changed. The intensity in his eyes betrayed the idea that he was meditating and not paying attention to Mikel’s story, but the rest of his posture and face remained frustratingly unrevealing.

“One day, Ezaryu decided that it was time to confront the tribe, but something had warmed in his heart. This man had stirred something loose inside of Ezaryu, for instead of going in quietly to kill all of the tribe’s warriors for their crimes, he approached the tribe’s settlement in broad daylight and requested that those involved in the killing of his parents and his tribe’s leaders, many years prior, stepped forward to reveal themselves to him. He wanted to fight them with honor and give them a chance, rather than kill them in the dishonest way that they had killed his parents. But before that, he wanted them to admit to their crimes.”

“So what happened?” Renn asked.

“Nothing.”

“What?!”

Mikel held up his hands. “Nothing happened right then and there. No men came forward, no one admitted to anything. No one exactly denied that the tribe had been responsible for those deaths, but they would not acknowledge responsibility. So, Ezaryu told them he would return the next day, and warned that if no one stepped forward then, he would hold them all accountable.”

“However, when he returned the next day, something was different. All of the women and children were nowhere to be seen anymore, and instead, what seemed to be all of the tribe’s men had come out and started forming a circle around Ezaryu.”

“The tribe leader, Toric, walked out among the crowd. He told Ezaryu to ‘leave and never come back, or he would regret it with more than his life.’”

“Ezaryu refused to leave, so Toric called forward the very man Ezaryu had befriended. And then, without pausing a beat, he thrust his sword through the man’s chest.”

A small tear welled up in Renn’s eye, and a quiet gasp escaped her. Mikel continued steadfastly.

“Ezaryu screamed out, but it was too late. His friend was without a doubt mortally wounded, perhaps dead before he even fell to the ground. That’s when Ezaryu’s rage, all the years of built-up anger, resentment and bitterness, all came out at once.“

“Ezaryu almost exploded all over the group, moving with such swiftness and precision that the men, despite their much greater numbers, did not stand a chance against him. As dangerous as they were, Ezaryu was, quite simply put, a serious degree more dangerous. His sword quickly glistened with the blood of his enemies as he cut hands, arms, chests and throats while maneuvering through the throng of foes. He was the lone man with a clear mission amidst the chaos, and often managed a swift kill before someone had even figured out where he was.“

Renn stared at Ezaryu, and listened to Mikel with rapt attention.

“The most they managed to harm him was a couple of cuts across his arms and chest, but none so deep as to seriously wound him. Before too long, only Toric was still standing opposite Ezaryu. His eyes were bewildered, but he attempted to make use of the few paces of distance between him and Ezaryu to perform a targeted attack. Something that all the others had not been able to do as it had all happened too fast.“

“It didn’t matter,” Mikel said solemnly. “Ezaryu killed Toric with a single strike, his sword piercing Toric’s chest in much the same way that Toric had killed Ezaryu’s friend.”

“When it was all over, Ezaryu rushed over to his friend’s body, but it was too late for final words. He sank to the ground, broken by loss and regret, and… still could not cry.

“Ezaryu took a knife from one of his enemies and carved the larger tear into his own cheek, filling it in with one cut for each of the men he had just brutally slain.“

Renn stared at Ezaryu’s face, but quickly abandoned her attempt to quantify the lines in his scar. There were far too many to count, perhaps even if seen up close.

“As he sat there, he heard the cries of a woman returning to the settlement and seeing the blood bath. Ezaryu rushed away, his face still bleeding, his heart filled with sorrow and regret.”

Renn wiped the small tear away, and finished her stew. It somehow tasted worse.

“And that is the story of how Ezaryu got his scars,” Mikel concluded, then sipped some more. His stew had gone cold, but he didn’t seem to care.

The three of them sat there in silence for a while, each staring at the fire as tiny flames slowly lost their strength.

Renn looked pensive for a bit, before breaking the silence.

“That abandoned settlement where we stopped… did that belong to Ezaryu’s old tribe?” she asked Mikel.

Mikel turned to Renn, his face a mixture of surprise and confusion.

“Hmm, I don’t… I don’t know,” Mikel said hesitantly.

Ezaryu’s face remained stoically fixated on the red-hot logs of the campfire.

For a while, the quiet was broken only by the sounds of slurping stew and the occasional fire crack.

“So how do you two know each other?” Renn asked.

Mikel threw a small glance at Ezaryu before he answered.

“It was much less eventful. I was traveling, like I usually am, and came across Ezaryu not long after these events. His larger tear was still scabbing and, unsurprisingly, had gotten infected.”

Ezaryu finished his stew and put his cup down.

“I offered to help him with it,“ Mikel said, “and eventually he accepted, as reluctantly as you might imagine. But after staying with him for a few days to ensure the wound would stay clean and heal, I had gotten Ezaryu to open up a little, and had found him quite fascinating. So I asked him if it was okay if I stayed a while longer, which he agreed to.”

“Eventually we started traveling around together for some time. Ezaryu helped me improve my swordplay, I helped him heal his wounds, both physical and emotional. To the best of my abilities, at least.“

“But our joint travel was never meant to last for very long. So one day, we went our own separate directions, and that was the last I saw of him. Until tonight, that is.”

Mikel finished his stew and got up.

“I will wash this up,” Renn said, getting up as well and gathering the cups before Mikel could object.

“Oh thank you, Renn,” Mikel said. “Then I will prepare the horses for the night. Ezaryu, my friend, would you mind helping me tie them to that tree over there?“

Ezaryu looked up, and in one fluid motion got up on his feet. “Gladly,” he said, and took Renn’s horse by the reins and walked it over to the tree behind the camp. Mikel gathered his horse and followed behind.

“I hope you don’t mind that I went into so much detail,” Mikel said to Ezaryu, who was tying reins to a tree branch. “I just wanted you to know.”

“Know what?” Ezaryu asked, but just as he turned around to face Mikel, a crossbow dart plowed into Ezaryu’s right shoulder and pinned him to the tree behind him. A second dart struck his lower right arm a moment later.

Renn, after hearing the loud snaps of a crossbow firing, looked up from washing the cups and saw Mikel, standing in front of Ezaryu and holding a crossbow aimed at him. She dropped the cups and ran over, pulling out her dagger.

“I wanted you to know how much I knew before you saw your end,” Mikel said, his cordial demeanor completely gone.

“What is this?” Renn asked as she drew near, staring at the two men whose eyes were affixed at one another.

“This man,” Mikel said gravely, “brutally murdered all of the men in a tribe, most of whom were innocent. Their wives all widowed, their children half-orphaned. He does not deserve to live.“

Renn clung fiercely to her dagger, anger rising inside of her. Ezaryu, despite bleeding and being pinned to a tree, stared quietly at Mikel, whose crossbow remained aimed at Ezaryu’s chest.

“Renn,” Mikel said, without taking his gaze off Ezaryu even for a moment. “You want to be recognized and respected? This is your chance. Ezaryu is known in these parts as dangerous and a menace. Kill him, and no one will ever cross or disrespect you again.”

“But he’s pinned down and can’t defend himself. That’s not much of a kill,” Renn said.

“Oh, he may be pinned down, but do not for a second think that he is any less dangerous. It’s just his main swordhand that he cannot use.”

Ezaryu said nothing, staring back at Mikel without even flinching from the pain. Renn stood there, shaking and hesitating.

“Renn, there’s something else you should know,” Mikel said. “I believe the tribe that Ezaryu killed is the one your father belonged to.”

Renn swallowed and fought back tears, accepting what she had already suspected, and started walking towards Ezaryu. Mikel lowered his crossbow.

As Renn walked up to Ezaryu her hand firmly clasped her dagger. She knew he would remain calm, no matter what, but she did not know whether or not he would have some kind of trick up his sleeve, a quick move out of nowhere to respond with. She remained cautious as she approached.

“You know, Ezaryu,” Renn said, as she stood right in front of him and readied her dagger. “You and I have something in common.” She raised her hand, slowly and carefully preparing her dagger to stab it down into Ezaryu’s chest for a swift and honorable death. Mikel smiled.

Ezaryu stayed quiet, but now stared Renn directly in her eyes. His expression remained calm, his eyes at peace; he showed no signs of fear or panic. Renn stared straight back into those calm eyes.

“We both consider it unnecessary to kill innocent life,” Renn said coldly. She then swung her arm down hard…

…and phase-shifted herself right behind Mikel, landing her dagger directly into Mikel’s back with the full force of her swing, piercing his heart and forcing him to drop to his knees. The crossbow clattered to the ground.

Mikel’s smile turned into shock and surprise, while Ezaryu’s face showed some emotion—for the first time, Renn realized. He had a faint grin on his face.

Renn walked over to help Ezaryu as Mikel fell to the ground, but Ezaryu waved her off and grabbed the darts with his free hand and, without flinching, pulled each one out. He tossed them to the ground while walking over to Mikel, who was gasping his last few breaths.

“His name was Arkan,” Ezaryu said to Mikel as he kicked him over to look him straight into his eyes, “He was not my friend, but my lover.“ Mikel’s eyes widened in surprise, but Ezaryu continued.

“And now I want you to know something,” he said, as Mikel’s eyes grew even wider. “I know you’re Toric’s father. And I’ve always known.”

With a final strain Mikel looked at Renn, the question burning in his eyes, hoping to understand before his dying breath. But Renn just stared back at him in silence, her face almost as emotionless as Ezaryu’s.

Ezaryu and Renn stood around Mikel’s lifeless body in silence for a few minutes. Eventually Renn kneeled down beside him and pulled her dagger out of his back, then wiped it clean with a cloth she pulled from one of Mikel’s pockets.

“Mikel said that I carved the larger tear out of remorse for killing so many people,” Ezaryu said calmly. “The truth is that I did it for the loss of Arkan. He had returned love into my life, and I will always be grateful for that. And always mourn him.”

Renn got up and started heading back to the camp site, but stopped in her tracks when Ezaryu spoke again.

“What made you decide to kill Mikel instead of me?” he asked her.

Renn paused before answering, still facing away from him. “Some people are less innocent than others,” she just said.

“Mikel never told me about you, but he led us directly here and pretended it was a coincidence. I trusted him because he was the first person in my life to be honest with me in a long, long time, but when it became clear he came here to kill you, hiding from me that you killed my father’s tribe… Well, his honesty proved to be a lie. Perhaps all of it had been all along.”

“Harsh punishment for betrayed trust,” Ezaryu said.

Renn picked up a branch that lay by her feet. “There was more to it,” she said.

Ezaryu stayed quiet.

“The man you befriended,” Renn said hesitantly. “Your lover. Did he… have a family with the tribe?” Renn looked up at the stars in the night sky, feeling Ezaryu’s gaze in her back.

“He may have,” Ezaryu said.

Renn sighed. “I’d like to think he did,” she said wistfully.

Ezaryu walked up to her and rested his hand on her shoulder.

“I think he did, as well.”

They walked back to the camp together and sat down. Renn used the stick to poke the glowing embers for some last bit of heat.

“If you decide to sleep at my camp, you do not have to fear any danger in the night. I will keep us safe,” Ezaryu said.

“Even with your wounded sword hand?”

Ezaryu smiled. A full, real smile this time. Renn liked the sight of it.

“Mikel thought I’d finally trusted him with everything, that he knew everything he needed to know about me.” Ezaryu said as he picked up his sword with his unharmed hand. “He didn’t know… I’m actually left-handed.”

Renn grinned, but the grin could not hide her despondent feeling as she stared solemnly at the last glowing ember. Ezaryu got up and sat down next to her, putting his sword on the other side.

“I’ll tell you something else I’ve never mentioned to anyone,” Ezaryu said, and Renn looked up at him. “The first time after Arkan and I shared our bed, he felt really bad. I asked him what was wrong, and he told me he felt bad because he had a family. I asked him to tell me about them, and he did. He told me all about his wife, and all about his little daughter.”

Renn’s body froze, and she started tearing up, overcome with emotion. She looked at Ezaryu, her eyes full of tears.

“His daughter named Renn, who he said had a gift. She would’ve been born, oh, somewhere around 19 winters ago,” Ezaryu said.

Renn smiled through her tears, nodded quietly, and sobbed her way into a long and comforting sleep.

~ FIN ~

We’ve all heard children asking why over and over. I used to be that child and you probably were too. Weren’t we all? Here’s an example:

Child: Why can’t we go outside?

Parent: Because it’s dark

Child: Why?

Parent: Because it’s night time

Child: Why?

Parent: Because we need the night so we can sleep

Child: Why?

Parent: Because we need to rest so we have energy for tomorrow

Child: Why?

Parent: Right, bed time.

This line of questioning is good, however annoying it may seem. The child is showing a thirst for knowledge. They’re developing the cognitive ability to make logical connections as they gain a deeper understanding of the world around them.

Perhaps as adults we’re scared of being caught out if we can’t answer the question. The more we’re asked why, the further down the rabbit hole we might fall. We feel uncomfortable, we question our own knowledge and then we too begin to wonder why.

As we grow up, why gets replaced with more pressing and frequent questions like how much?, what time? and what’s for dinner? But it’s time to start asking why more often. Our web content will be better for it.

I was browsing BuzzFeed recently and as I scrolled through the listicles and quizzes one in particular caught my eye. The titles was:

Which Disney grandparent should be your next f**k buddy?

Huh! A quiz about sex, Disney and fictional, animated older folk. What a time to be alive. In all seriousness, it does beg the question, why?

Why has this been published? I’m genuinely interested in the reason. Link baiting? To provoke? A bit of mindless fun? I tweeted about it and someone replied ‘because it’s BuzzFeed.’ A fair response given the sort of content they are known for, and seemingly flourishing with.

I don’t know what the content strategy, production process, editorial values, guidelines and sign off procedures are at BuzzFeed. I wish I did. But what I do know is that publishing to the web is easier and more accessible than ever and as a result content is being shelf stacked higher and higher. That is, more and more is being published but not as much audited and governed. But it’s the web, there is no ceiling, we’ll just keep stacking and stacking. The noise is becoming deafening and irrelevant, inaccurate, outdated and poorly written content is finding its way into all crevices of the web. It seems we’re powerless to stop it.

Asking why can be the beginning of the noise reduction.

We want to start a company Twitter account

Why?

We think we need a blog.

Why?

I want to publish this article about how much fun our office is.

Why?

Let’s start publishing three posts a week instead of one.

Why?

There are so many other questions that need to be asked too of course. Who, how, when, where, then what and many more. But asking why when these request are made is a good start before any strategy is developed and implemented.

The person on the receiving end of your questioning may feel uncomfortable, they may feel challenged, they may tell you it’s bed time but there’s value in scrutinising everything until there are no uncertainties remaining in terms of whether the content/requirement leads you toward a business goal, helps a user and serves a real purpose and benefit.

Three Simple Ways To Turn a Good Client Bad

Before I talk about clients, let’s remember that those of us in the web industry are building the future. In the history of cool jobs, we win. We get to create and leverage the coolest technologies to connect people with things they love.

And yet … we love to bitch about how horrible it is being us.

The focal point of our complaints is almost always clients. But why? It’s simple. Clients refuse to embrace our superiority when they should exalt us in the highest! Or … could it be bad communication on our part?

Are there bad clients? Sure. We’ve known about them for decades. They are easy to spot, and if we let them in that’s on us. Here are some of the red flags we’re all familiar with:

  • Short deadline with no real rationale
  • Unreasonable budget
  • No time for research
  • Doesn’t understand their own business or customers
  • Goes dark frequently but shows up unexpectedly needing you to drop everything
  • No authority to give approval, but won’t connect you with decision-maker(s)
  • Disrespectful

If you take on a client who meets the above characteristics then that’s on you. Write your negative tweets and nasty blog posts, but you chose this. Proper scoping and the right questions will avoid all this pain. Fear of no other work or being greedy will lock you in this dungeon of despair.

But what about good clients? What makes them so hard to work with? I’ll give you a hint, it’s not them.

Using Bad Language

Several years ago I remember watching Cameron Moll explain to a room of conference goers how he estimates a project. It was as if everything went into slow motion after he double-clicked that rancid green “E” icon. As the Excel logo lit up the main conference screen, a collective group of moans and shrieks filled the room. And then he said something that changed my view of clients forever. “You guys don’t like Excel? Your clients use it. Why wouldn’t you use something they are familiar with?”

Familiar! This is one of the most important parts of establishing trust. Make sure the person feels comfortable and in control. If you keep things familiar it can be worth big bucks, just ask Gateway.

In the late ’90s Gateway had invested millions in creating a system that allowed a user to specify every possible component of their computer. They launched to the sound of crickets. Literally tens of thousands of dollars trickled in. After talking with customers, they found that they didn’t understand what they were being asked to do. It was confusing as hell. So instead of asking people to pick a processor, they changed it to say “Fast, Faster or Fastest?” They replaced complex choices with simple questions throughout the site. Cha-ching! Millions in sales.

As an industry, we love to come up with our own language that confuses not only the client, but often ourselves. And if the client knows what we’re talking about we call them “savvy.” The word “responsive” is a great example. Obviously we have to call this best practice something, but we can’t expect clients to know what these terms mean.

Ask your client how familiar they are with web practices. If you use the word responsive and they look confused they may not admit it, but they already feel lost. And that is not a winning relationship. Instead, use descriptive terms like “multi-device." Abbreviations like UX are just as confusing. Just say you want to make sure it’s easy to use.

For fun, here are some common industry terms that make many clients scratch their heads:

  • Responsive or Adaptive
  • Content Strategy
  • UX or UI or Usability
  • Accessibility

Setting Bad Expectations

You’re on a call with a new prospect who was referred to you from a great client. You feel really positive about this opportunity. She asks if your team has experience integrating with P.O.S. systems. Your heart sinks and you say, “All of that is figured out in the Discovery Phase.” She says "Great!", because what she heard was “YES WE CAN!”

You tell the team about the new opportunity. Questions get asked about budget and scope and you assure everyone it will be great. You didn’t get all the info, but the prospect knows that there will be a paid Discovery Phase. You did mention to her that she would pay for the discovery, right?

Sitting down for a nice lunch with the team when the phone rings, it’s the new prospect. She’s excited and has a bunch of ideas she’d like to share with you. She’s drawn them up and just wants to know how to share them. The last thing you want to do is kill her enthusiasm, but you don’t want to let her get set in her ideas before the discovery. So you tell her the ideas are a good starting point for discussion and you need to get a call with the team scheduled. She gets off the call thrilled that you like her ideas.

Eventually you are going to tell the prospect that they have to pay for the discovery. During the discovery the team is going to have concerns over the clients ideas. And then comes the moment when the client hears the P.O.S. system is a huge deal.

Your prospect wants you to be a real business. Act like one. Follow a good procedure or don’t be surprised when they go from excited to concerned.

Avoid Talking About Money

Unless you want your client to pay you in hours or story points, explain where the project is in dollars. Sure they can do the math and figure out 20 hours is $4,000. But they can also think you said you needed 20 more hours to do that and not expect the need for more money. Tell them it’s going to cost $4,000 though, and there is no mistaking what needs to happen.

The concept of buying story points has caused more heartburn, fights and potential lawsuits than any other miscommunication I’ve heard of. It feels like buying tokens at Chuck E. Cheese. You put in $75,000 and get out 14 story points. WHAT? But then story points aren’t always the same weight, it depends on the velocity. Just for fun, if a client asks how much a story point costs, share this equation … and no I didn’t make this up:

Average RSPC per product = ∑ RSPC¹, RSPC²……..RSPCⁿ / N

RSPC? Release Story Point Cost.

Methodology is cool. Confusion is not.

Remember, clients want you to win. They don't give you a lot of money and hope you screw everything up. It's easy to keep them feeling great. Use familiar language, set good expectations and always make sure they know the costs involved. Oh, and create something amazing. That always helps.

To ensure I am making progress towards my lifetime goals, every week I pull out my list of lifetime goals and ask myself, "What can I do this week to move me closer to achieving these goals?" The answers become my list of mini-goals for the week.

Each morning I create my to-do list for the day, adding my appointments, meetings, work tasks, maintenance items, exercise, and commuting. I'm careful to add items each day from my weekly list of mini-goals, and try not to plan more than 6 hours in my day. I recognize that new things come up, and planned things often take longer than I anticipate. Six is the magic number of hours for me for what I can plan and still complete. If I manage to complete those six hours of tasks in a day, I'm satisfied.

This past week, when I was reviewing my previous week and planning what actions to add from my lifetime goal list for this week, I noticed that four undone tasks for last week were the same four undone tasks from the week before. I remember looking at the items during the week, and thinking, "Meh, tomorrow." For a couple of these undone tasks, I did that multiple days in a row. This was unusual enough for me that I had to ask myself, "What is this telling me? What am I not acknowledging in myself?"

So, I added these mini-goals onto my weekly list (yes, again), and started listening in the morning, when I had a chance to add them to my daily list, and during the day, when I had a chance to do them, and chose not to do the task. I listened, and, being gentle with myself, tried to figure out why I wasn't doing these tasks.

The first thing I heard myself say was:

"I don't want to do them right now."

This happens. Sometimes I'm not in the mood to do a task. It's morning and I haven't fully woken up yet. It's the end of the day and I'm tired. It's lunch and I'm hungry. It's mid-afternoon and I want to finish this other, perhaps easier, task. It's any time of the day and I'd rather be reading a book than doing whatever this thing is.

Whenever it is, I can usually remind myself, "I don't have to be in the mood to work on this." As E.B. White said, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die w