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Blog Conversation, Fear, and Going Back to Where We Started
Are conversations across blogs dead or is there a chance they can be revived?
I've been thinking about some version of that question for the last two years. While I'm not one of the true blog elders, I've been around long enough to experience what blogging was like before the rise of social media. I remember what it like was like before Twitter.
In many ways, I liked it a lot more. Maybe it was just where I was at the time, but I felt like I was writing to someone, rather than for someone or at someone. For what it's worth, the quality of my posts descend from better to worse as they move along the to, for, and at spectrum; if you're honest with yourself, you'll see the same pattern in your writing, too.
Aside from the direct conversation aspect of things, the pace of writing was slower. Obviously, as someone who prefers to explore and savor ideas rather than serve 'em up like fries, it was more gratifying to really work through things and share something thoughtful. And because we weren't bombarded by information at the same time that we've self-conditioned ourselves not to be able to read anything longer than 800 words without serious effort, more people actually read - and perhaps favored - those posts. It's no coincidence that some of my best writing happened before the rise of social media.
It's not just about creating, either: I actually read and commented on my conversants' blogs. They didn't have to pretend that I was reading - they knew I was and that, I believe, helped them write their posts. There was grip precisely because someone was holding the rope at the other end.
Now our communal practice is to click a social share button and move on. Conversations that once pushed us all along have been replaced by scattered votes of approval that, at best, generate more scattered votes of approval. Conversations that used to funnel and distill cognitive noise have been replaced by cacophonous shouting by increasingly more people with increasingly more numerous and powerful megaphones.
To be completely honest, I don't know if I would've started if the conditions were what they are now. And I probably think too much about how my actions are making it worse rather than better.
But that brings me to the question I started with. It's quite hard to tell whether the conditions are such that the stream will go the way it will and fighting it is futile or whether it's reversible. Obviously, it's a social behavior, so it has malleability at its very foundation, but social behaviors with sufficient inertia can be much harder to change precisely because, as a collective, we are averse to uncertainty and change presents uncertainty.
I learned long ago not to fight battles that are impossible to win. At the same time, the power of determined individuals is the only thing that actually creates positive change. The resolution for this tension usually boils down to whether the issue at hand is worth pushing forward, balanced with everything else I might put that energy towards.
You can probably tell why this has been on my mind for the last few years. It's something I care deeply about because the cacophony is one of the worst wastes of potential of the social and technological context of which we're in. All of us having access to a printing press is powerful, indeed, but not nearly as powerful as us all having access to each other.
That's the idealist in me speaking.
The empiricist in me observes what we're actually doing and the strategist in me sees where it's going.
When all of these aspects of myself converge, I only see a few options: 1) Play the game as it's being played 2) Change the way the game is being played 3) Play a different game altogether
I tire of 1 and don't like the present outcomes or the future it leads to. I care too much about it just to move to 3 without at least trying. So that leaves me with 2 as the only option that my heart is into.
When Doing It Wrong is Doing It Right
It feels weird to be taking what's otherwise a traditionalist stance. "Let's go back to how it was 6 years ago!" is not a particularly popular stance in such a tech-driven community. And, besides, we can't go back completely - the world is different.
Once upon a time, Productive Flourishing was a blog where we did a lot of things "wrong" but it was exactly right for who were and what we were trying to do. Whether it was courage, naivety, or a mixture of both, I feel like I did a better job of staying rooted to what we were here to do. We still do plenty wrong - not to be provocatively wrong, but because it sticks to our core - and we have our share of wrong things being done wrong. We've been working a lot this year to address the wrong things we've been doing wrong, but that's largely low-hanging fruit.
It's doing the right things right that's always the hardest to do (click to tweet - thanks!), and it's even moreso when doing them right for you means going against best practices (for whom?), trends founded on short-attention spans conjoined with do-it-for-me demands, and the 101 easy zen secrets to be successful just like everyone else.
[Here's where blogging conventions would suggest that I wrap this up with some question that encourages comments and feedback. But, true to the spirit of this post, I'm pushing forward and deeper rather than tying it off here.]
Why is this a big deal all of a sudden?
Something shifted when Stephen Covey died unexpectedly a few weeks ago. I admire his work and he's been a mentor from afar since my teenage years, and he's someone who I was looking forward to meet as a colleague some day. I wanted to put a book in his hand and let him know that his work was one of the inspirations to my own. I had no expectations that he'd actually read it, and, anyway, let's get real: those expectations are usually self-centered, anyway.
I'll never get that chance now. It serves as another reminder of how preciously short life is and how little time we have to do what we're here to do.
When I assess my great work, it goes far beyond the content that I've produced. It goes to how I've both built and lived in the communities I'm a part of and the space I've made for others to flourish. A chief question that I pose to myself is "have I truly shown up and done the best with what I've had?"
This is a question that guides my days, my months, and my years. And, upon meeting Stephen, I'd want to be able to ask and answer that question honestly.
My current answer to that question when I consider the end in mind: no, I haven't. I've done well. But doing well and having done well are two different things.
Excellence and Fear: Strange Bedfellows
Do one thing that scares you every day. - Eleanor Roosevelt
A clear sign of that is that I haven't been scared about my work since 2010 or so. I've been scared about cashflow at times, but that's not what I'm talking about.
I'm talking about doing something that truly scares you on a continual basis. I'm talking about dancing with uncertainty and having the creative courage to not know where things are going and to keep going anyway.
As I left Boulder a few weeks ago - read Jonathan's post to see what I was doing there - I almost emailed a handful of the people who co-inspire me to ask for help and accountability. I recognized that I'd gotten really good at being really good, but I can do better. I communicate with each of them frequently enough, but the truth of it is that I'm one of those coaches who's a pain in the ass to coach (ask Pam) and I can get squirrely with each of them singly, but I can't outsmart, outhide, or redirect all of them at once.
I still haven't done it because of two reasons: 1) it's a big ask to ask world-class coaches and thought-leaders to help you and 2) it scares the hell out of me. I can't tell which one of them is providing more inertial weight most days. (I can also get squirrelly with myself, too, hence the need of the dream team.)
A Safe Place to Suck
Last year, I was taking music lessons for the first time in my life. I enjoyed it for many reasons, but chief among them was that it was a safe place for me to not be good at something. Twice a month, I got to spend an hour or so doing something I enjoyed without my professional or personal credibility on the line.
It was a stark contrast to where I was in my professional career. Somewhere along the line, I became a socially-recognized expert about a few things, and one of the traps of expertise is that you stop giving yourself permission to not be an expert. Everything you do has to be excellent - after all, people are watching you. Your social and financial capital depends on your public displays of excellence.
This is true for everyone, of course, but it's especially challenging in small, public, and personality-based business. When everything you do can end up in Social Media, you have to be careful about what you do and say in public. For what it's worth, it's not just in public - private communications that you intended to remain private can end up in magazines, blogs, or other public media.
But here's the paradox: to truly do your great work, you have to embrace the fact that you might fail. And if your great work is in the public domain, you have to embrace the fact that you'll fail publicly. As Jonathan has so rightly pointed out in Uncertainty, it's failing in public that causes the fear and anxiety that keep most people from achieving greatness.
The reason for me being in the dream team's spotlight is that, under the way I'm thinking about doing it, I'd be failing publicly in front of my expert peers and colleagues. Despite what the rest of the world thinks or believes, they would know the difference between excellence and good-enough coasting, both because they know me and they're amazing at what they do generally.
(Have I mentioned how uncomfortable I get in these types of spotlights?)
If it's not obvious thus far, I'm incredibly demanding of myself. I wouldn't be asking them to help me be somebody else's version of excellent, but rather my own. To echo Lao Tzu, "he who masters others, I count as strong; he who masters himself, I count as truly powerful." The Sage wasn't quite as clear about the fact that some of us need others to master ourselves.
Ironically, I need a professional space to suck so that I can be truly excellent.
And here's the big reveal: doing this will require going back to where I started.
Get prepared for a big sigh of relief at the same time that you laugh with me.
I've pretty much completely scrapped the book idea I've been struggling with over the last few years. When I started the journey, the ideas in it were fresh, new, and imminently marketable.
But it was me getting away from my boomerang, which is the unique way that I pull productivity, planning, strategy, team-building, leadership, creativity, and personal development into a special type of harmony that helps people get their meaningful projects done in a coherent, organized, sustainable, and enriching way. Despite years of trying to get it into some type of soundbite, buzzword, or percieved-value altering phrase, I still haven't been able to do any better than that description. For that matter, neither have my clients, colleagues, or other branding or marketing experts.
Despite the description problem, you can probably feel it. It's what people want me to talk about. It's what people bring me to their events to share. It's what I wake up in the morning and want to talk about. It's the special sauce that our clients and customers get when they work with us.
It's why this site is intentionally called Productive Flourishing.
Harangued by Hacking
So how'd I get away from it? 'Productivity', as a domain of expertise, went somewhere in 2008 and 2009 that I didn't want to go. I wanted to distance myself from where it was going because I didn't want people showing up on our door wanting tips for how to cross-purpose shoe boxes, color code files, or the endless tips on how to hack technology. I also didn't want the discussion to be around the "more, more, more" mentality that people often think productivity conversations are about or engender.
Which is why I cringed inside when people asked me to speak about productivity or labeled me a productivity expert. None of that was a dish I wanted to serve because I didn't think that it was something that added the value people wanted it to. It was very similar to the way I cringe when people call me a power blogger or, worse, an internet marketer. (I know, this is all my baggage, not theirs.)
But I'm deeply curious, excited, and passionate about exploring the ways we work and live and how we can do it in such a way that we thrive - physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, and spiritually. I'm fascinated by how our actions embody us and how we embody our actions. I break down events and experiences into phases, stages, processes, and models so I can put them back together in different ways for myself and others. And my desire is not to cultivate within us a bias towards action, but, rather, habits of principled action on the stuff that matters.
And I can't not do it.
For instance, we went to the Oregon Coast during our summer team retreat in June. As Lisa and I were walking down the sand, I verbally pondered how long it would take for the rain-damped patches of sand to dry and what factors would effect that process. After 20 seconds or so of me listing off the different factors that might be at play, she laughed with me. Where most people would have just been enjoying the beach, I was enjoying the beach while thinking about this. When I see a foodcart, I wonder about costs, customer volume, hours of operation, and profit. (It annoys me, too, as I wish I could do better about turning it off.)
In hindsight, it's pretty clear that people weren't asking me to do productivity the way other people were wanting to do it; they were asking me to do what I was already doing and "productivity" was the doorway to that world for them and their audiences. I was projecting my baggage onto them.
(Go ahead and laugh. Seriously. It'll help you laugh at the ways you've done it with your great work, too. And, in case you need a soundtrack to go with this, check out Jack Johnson's "At Or With Me.")
Part of my frustration this year is how few products we have around this stuff. I'm tired of not having the worksheets and coaching aids for clients and workshop participants. I'm tired of having to explain an idea that I've worked out in my head to people rather than being able to give them the information ahead of time so we can work on just the application. I'm tired of not modeling the message of not recreating the wheel, which is essentially what I do every time I verbally share an idea that I've been sharing for the last few years simply because there's not an external anchor out there in the world yet.
My experience in Boulder a few weeks ago catalyzed my irritation into action. I decided that it was time to put some of this material together and ship it as a self-published book, which then set off a chain of thoughts about why I woudn't push it to the publishers rather than the other book I've been laboring around.
I didn't have a good answer besides not wanting to revise the proposal. And I had plenty of good answers for why I should push it out in favor of the other one. And the most important reasons I should is because I want to, it's natural, and because it scares me.
It scares me because I'll have to put up or shut up, even though it's something natural and motivating for me. I also can't hide in needing to read and learn more. Asking what people want isn't a great way for me to go about doing this, either - if people don't know what they don't know or how they want to learn what they don't know, how can they help you teach them what they don't know? (It's the whole market demand vs. market projection distinction I've discussed before.)
What Does All of This Have to Do with Blog Comments?
I highlighted earlier that the logical and motivating response to the state of blog commenting was to "change the way the game is being played."
A better way to address the challenge is to be concerned less about changing "the game" than I am about how my team and I are playing our game.
Which means we have to define the game we're playing.
Which means we have to live up to our own potential and thus get to live up to our own potential.
Which means we need to embrace that our future will unfold in ways we can't predict because we don't know what we can do when we really show up. (The strategist in me really doesn't like this one.)
Which means we'll need to embrace public failures, missteps, and be willing to change directions quickly as the ice cracks around us.
Which means eliminating a lot of unnecessary distractions, ideas, and bright, shiny objects so we can focus on our core work.
That's a tense, uncertain, and unresolved position to be that parallels the tense, uncertain, and unresolved nature of this post. These are the hardest for me to publicly share, which is why I normally don't. Not today.
To echo Forest Gump, that's all I have to say about that. There's nothing left to say (today, at least :) )but a lot to do.
It's good to be back and as terrifying as it ever was. Thanks for sticking with me over the last few years.