sucking at something

During the holidays, my partner gifted me this sweet notebook that makes me think “Workers of the the world, unite!”
workers of the world, write

Right? This repurposed book cover would have suited something from the WPA, Marx or Trotsky. Or maybe Che Guevara – check out the mustache on the dude second row center. I love this thing.

My present has inspired this present to you: inspirations from my notebook. They’re like sticky notes, but with way less staging effort on my part.

We’ve also been watching Adventure Time, which is fantastic in a really weird way. Try watching it. It’s dark, but almost always ridiculously optimistic. sucking at something is the first step to being really good at something

So, this is a quote from an episode that inspired me so much I had to attempt drawing an animated character. Hey, sucking at something is the first step to being really good at it, right?

It’s an important lesson. How often do we reject a new way of working, or a new idea because trying it on will make us look stupid and awkward? I see this pattern more than I’d like – enough that I think it’s worth setting the expectation right away that we’re going to suck for a little bit, and that it’s the first step towards real goodness.

And, honestly, when you have permission to fail, sucking at something feels amazing. It’s like learning how to walk. You get to really see how you tick (whether that’s you personally or your team) when you get started on something you can’t do well yet.

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meaning is not a first world problem

A common reaction when I tell people what I do for a living [After “So you travel around the world doing trust falls?”] is that it must be nice to be able to afford to care about how much you like work. It’s true, I mostly deal in the problems of white collar workers – I’ve been where they are, and I can relate to them.

But they’re not the only people who struggle to find humanity and value in their work. They are certainly not the only people who deserve those things. Meaning is not a first world problem – or a first world privilege. It’s not merely the concern of people who already have “enough” to sit back and think about the luxury of meaning in their lives.

Umair Haque, as he so often does, says it better than I can:

What happens in a society that calls meaning a luxury — like a fleet of private jets, a dalliance reserved for the ranks of the idle rich?

As “consumers” we shop for the “everyday low price” — without regard for the vitality the butcher, the baker, and the barber bring to our communities, our families, and our lives.

As citizens, we reduce our civic selves to “voting” for the “candidate” who represents our most immediate, narrowest, perhaps self-destructive self-interest — the common good be damned.

As “workers,” “executives,” or “leaders,” we become little more than instruments serving the glacial goals of blind machines; puppets of shareholders, marionettes of markets, much less than thinking, feeling, judging beings, who stand tall for a more enduring and worthy ethos, even in the face of adversity, hardship, and disaster.

And so our economies, societies, and polities; our cities and towns; our culture and principles; our imagined future and intended present begin to fray and buckle and crack. That, of course, is the timeless parable of right here, right now, the dismal, failed status quo.

Fortunately people living in the poorest areas of the world, like the Mumbai slums that Haque’s questioner mentions, don’t buy into the idea that meaning is a luxury, either.

They’re changing the future of education.

They’re making and mapping cities built on complex informal economies.

They’re becoming engineers and tackling new energy challenges.

And hey? They’re recycling. (click on the “CC” button to get translated subtitles)

In other words – meaning isn’t a self-indulgent luxury. It’s not something you – or your team – should wait for, until it’s easier, the business is in less trouble, until people are feeling rich. It matters right now.

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find joy in study

find joy in continuous study
For some of us, studying and learning are exciting in and of themselves. If you’re one of these people, reading rarely feels like work, and you’d take “time off” for a class or inspiration. Your delight in learning may even come directly from work – in any case, you get this idea. You don’t need to be told to find joy in study. You just need to allow yourself to do what comes easily for you. In a team, you’re the ones investigating the causes of things, suggesting new routes and ideas.

Learning isn’t associated in everyone’s mind with joyful play, of course. We’re all different, and some of us have had some awfully dull, painful ideas of study drilled into our heads. Did you cringe when you read the word “study”? Well. What if you saw “study” a little differently… have you learned a dance? figured out your car or some other machine? accomplished some new physical feat? cooked a recipe you’ve never heard of? Those are all forms of practice, study and learning. Anything that gets better with repetition, tuning and trying again is, ultimately, continuous study.

What can you study today that makes you come alive? How does your delight affect your work?

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rule one in team performance

Rule 1 in encouraging good performance: Do not create frenemies.

Bob Sutton previews an article about problems at Microsoft. Sutton picks up on the same thing my colleagues have been talking about: that when people feel judged by how much more impressive or “visible” they look than their team mates, work falls apart. Looking cool, it turns out, doesn’t help grownups get things done any more than it helps middle schoolers. It just keeps you (maybe) from getting beaten up.

The article referenced hasn’t come out yet, but I’m interested in hearing more.

Rule 0, by the way, is “If you insist on measuring some form of ‘performance’, at least make sure it contributes to your true work.”

Updated to add: here’s a summary of the article in Vanity Fair.

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it’s alive!

I have to plug the new Endangered Bodies website. Because it is AWESOME. They’re a global collective to fight all forms of body hatred, which they do through local action.

The London team's billboard ad seems appropriate for our baby's first day out in the world.

A small handful of my colleagues have spent our spare time working with the hardworking Endangered Bodies teams (all volunteers themselves) in Buenos Aires and London to tie all these organizations together in one online package. They’ve been spectacular to work with, and I’m so proud of what we’ve done.

Today the new Endangered Bodies site takes its first little baby steps. Go check it out!

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bravely, wholeheartedly & applying themselves with dignity

I opened a Shambala Sun magazine today right to Gerry Hadden’s piece about journalism and meditation. He muses about the way he didn’t walk – choosing a journalist’s career over deep retreat some years ago, two paths that seem very, very different on the surface, but turn out to be different approaches to big ideas of Truth. Interesting, isn’t it, how many approaches you can take to the big stuff?

Here’s the quote that struck me:

“Both reporters and meditators are on quests. As the years pass, both will likely realize, if they’re doing their work well – bravely, wholeheartedly, applying themselves with diligence – that their quests are in vain. Reporters will realize they can never seem to find a story with a simple, discernable truth behind it, a clear right and wrong. The story is always nuanced, multifaceted, changing. And yet with each new assignment they set off after an ideal they know they’ll never find, never nail down, and in that there is a great thing to be learned.”

I see this in the clients I help to adopt change. It’s never simple, and there is never an obviously right or wrong answer. You only see the nuanced, multifaceted and changing nature of change, of collaboration, of team-making if you’re doing it well (“bravely, wholeheartedly, applying yourself with diligence”).

What about you? Do you feel yourself “questing in vain”? Is your work shifting, squishier than you imagined when you got on your [metaphorical, I assume] white horse? Maybe there’s something great to be learned there.

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why try agile?

Last week I completely re-worked the short presentation I share with nonprofit clients who want to get others in their teams excited about what agile practices can do for them.

If you’re a staff member or volunteer on a team, this stuff can be so very helpful. Check out the presentation: Agile – What is it and why should I care?. And feel free to ask questions. Or steal it!

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what’s under the table?

what's under the table?Does your team feel safe expressing every idea that’s relevant to your work?

Imagine your team sitting around a table. People either express what they’re thinking (putting their ideas, like cards, on the table) or they don’t (protecting their ideas by hiding them under the table.

When we work in teams, we most likely only talk about what’s on the table – that is, the issues, feelings and ideas that people have expressed and can talk about. It works great, as long as our team feels comfortable enough to get their thoughts out. When people fear the outcome of saying something, though, they start to push their thoughts under the table – this keeps them and their ideas safe from criticism, ridicule, or embarrassment.

The things we keep under the table have just as much bearing on our ability to participate in our team’s work as they stuff we do talk about, though. Imagine a team conversation when…

  • One member has been made fun of for always agreeing with the presenter, who’s a lot like them
  • One member just had a close relative die, and hasn’t mentioned this to the team
  • Another member learned before the conversation that their biggest work project is way behind & customers are angry
  • The member presenting has shared ideas before and had them shot down by the group; they’re worried about presenting again

How well is this group really going to be able to pay attention, listen and give opinions openly?

You’ve probably been at this team meeting before. It’s easy to spot – the group goes silent or listless… or, on the other end of the spectrum, gets confrontational with no real purpose. What do you do?

Lead by example, if you can – bring up something you’re keeping under the table that stops you from participating fully. Talk about how it’s holding you back, and ask others if they have similar thoughts to discuss. Ask your team members some powerful questions.

What hopes do you have for the team that you hesitate to express?
What needs to change so you feel safe expressing those hopes?
What issues, ideas or feelings are we avoiding as a group?
What could we gain by talking about these things?
What is holding us back in this conversation?

You can do this formally or informally. You probably know what makes sense for your own team members. What else has worked for your teams when you find yourselves stuck like this?

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aim for good

aim for good

unlike this cannon, which was aimed at union soldiers


I heard this idea at a coaching conference a year or so ago (thus my vague attribution – I don’t actually remember who said it), in a talk about powerful questions. Coaches spend most of their time listening and understanding, and use questions to help spark insight. What do you think happens when a coach sits and waits for the perfect question, the perfect phrasing?

Nothing. The moment passes. The coach loses connection with the person or team, because she’s stopped listening. Coaches have to aim for good questions, not great ones, because in shooting for great, we miss and don’t do anything.

Has this happened to you?

It happened to a team I observed a few weeks ago. They’re a software development team planning the next release of one module of a system. What they’re building is quite different from what they’ve built before – it’s challenging to figure out. Aaaaand… they got stuck. They got stuck on figuring out the perfect way to break up one small part that they actually understand pretty well. Then they got stuck in a semantic argument about the meaning of words about that same piece of work. These are smart people, and they stalled for an entire day on one thing… one thing that will probably change in another day or so.

They made so much more progress & such better decisions – they got much closer to perfect – once they let go of perfection and decided to be happy with “good enough” instead.

I think we all start to believe that there’s one perfectly right answer to every question, and we can stall just like this when we try to get our work exactly right. You’ve probably heard the Voltaire quote “The perfect is the enemy of the good”. Same idea. Fixate on doing a thing just right, more often then not, and you won’t get it done at all.

This doesn’t mean that all pursuit of awesomeness is useless! Ironically, the best way to let awesome emerge is to get out of the way. We aim for good to make room for amazing.

Today’s photo was taken in high wind, crouched in front of an aged cannon, squinting against the sunlight with one eye watching out for airport security types and my probably-illegally-parked car. I think it’s good enough.

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thinking about mortality is actually good for you

Check out this interesting little tidbit: last week Science Daily reports on connection between thinking about death and behaving more compassionately, thanks to a new University of Missouri review of earlier studies. I stole this link from Bob Sutton, btw.

I remember thinking when I posted a sticky about mortality and leaving a legacy a few months ago that this is really morbid. It may be, but it turns out a bit of morbidity is helpful.

This is not to suggest that you walk into your workspace tomorrow and announce to anyone who can hear that you’re all going to die. It may be true, but it’ll still sound like you’ve brought explosives – and you don’t want to scare your friends and colleagues. You could, however, go with the mindset that, like life, your project, your job, and your career are all impermanent. Do something that matters.

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