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Can you see it?

Do you notice that you’re dressed dramatically differently than everyone else at the event?

That you’re driving at a different pace than everyone else?

That your question at the end of the talk lasted four times longer than anyone else’s?

That your band’s new single is half the volume of everything else that’s being pitched to this program director?

That your code isn’t commented and everyone else’s is?

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being different from the crowd. In fact, it might be the ideal path forward. The problem begins when you don’t see what’s not matching up.

The best way to transform the path is to see the path first.

History doesn’t always repeat itself, but it usually rhymes.

“You’re not that good”

These are the three problems with creative work.

The first is that when we begin, we’re not that good. This is a fact. The breakthrough for anyone on this journey is adding the word “yet.”

It doesn’t pay to pretend that we’ve figured it out before we have. It’s counterproductive to adopt a brittle attitude in the face of criticism. In fact, during this stage, “you’re not that good,” is precisely what we need to hear, because it might be followed with insight on how to get better.

The second is that once we start to build skills and offer something of value, some people are going to persist in believing that we’re not that good. Fine. They’ve told us something about themselves and what they want and need. This is a clue to offer our leadership and contribution to someone else, someone who gets what we’re doing and wants it. The smallest viable audience isn’t a compromise, it’s a path forward. Find the folks who are enrolled and open and eager. Serve them instead.

The danger is that when you hear rejection during this stage, you might come to believe that you’ve accomplished nothing, as opposed to realizing that you might simply be talking to the wrong people.

And the third comes full circle. Because it’s possible that in fact, we’re not that good yet, and there aren’t enough people who want what we’ve got. We’re simply not good enough for this part of the market. So we embrace that truth and begin at the beginning. We’re not good enough yet. We haven’t practiced enough, found enough empathy, understood the genre well enough and figured out how to contribute. Yet. At least for this audience.

And then we get better.

Sooner or later, these three problems become three milestones on the road to making a difference and doing work we’re proud of.

PS today’s the best day to sign up for the Freelancer’s Workshop offered by Akimbo. I hope you’ll join in…

Identity is often used against us

Identity feels permanent, powerful, emotional and fragile.

Identity has been used to unite college alumni (“we are!”), political factions and groups of all kinds.

Criticism is not in short supply, especially lately, and criticism aimed at us, at our core self, is particularly hurtful.

“I don’t like you,” is hard to wrestle with.

That’s why ad hominem attacks on appearance and other permanent attributes we all have are so difficult to live with.

But “you” is not the car you drive, the kind of wine you drink or how you feel about a certain issue in our society. Those are choices. Those are tastes. Those can be changed.

When I say I don’t like your idea, I’m not saying that I don’t like you. And if we’ve been persuaded by marketers and politicians that everything we do and say is our identity, then it gets very difficult to learn, to accept useful feedback and to change.

Evolving our choices and our tastes is part of being human. Establishing your identity as someone who is not static, open to change and eager for better makes it far easier to engage in a world where some would prefer us to do precisely the opposite.

All things being equal

Those are four words that are often overlooked when we focus on the rest on the sentence instead.

“All things being equal, pick the cheapest option.” Or, “All things being equal, go with the one that creates new opportunities.” Or perhaps, “All things being equal, stick with what you’ve got.”

The thing is, all things are rarely equal.

We rush over the equal part and race to the second part of the clause, going for the cheaper one or whatever the organizational default is.

It’s worth a cycle or two to realize that we might be missing nuances in our decision making.

All things are rarely equal.

The plan for day 100

What do you want to be doing 100 days from now?

What change do you seek to be making? With which skills? Surrounded by which people?

For that to happen, day 99 will need to be different from today.

And so will day 98.

In fact, so will tomorrow.

If we keep focusing on ‘what’s next’ we might never get around to doing the work we need to do to get us to day 100.

PS happy day 100 of 2021.

Perfect is not the same as perfectionism

Perfectionism is a cudgel and a way to hide.

Perfect is the often-attainable outcome of meeting spec. “That’s perfect!” says the delighted patron.

Modern perfect: A plane that doesn’t crash, a bus that leaves on time. Surgery that fixes a broken valve and a computer program that doesn’t cause a kernel panic. These are the building blocks of our built world.

Perfectionism is a way to berate others for not meeting imaginary standards. Or berating ourself as a way to avoid shipping the work.

The perfectionist desires an outcome that can never be achieved. That’s why they’re a perfectionist–to hide behind the impossible.

Few things outside of mathematics are ever truly perfect. But our definition of spec gives us room to do the work. The bus that comes early does no one any favors.

Making promises and keeping them is the path of someone who seeks to contribute. We need better specs, usefully functioning systems and more reliable promises.

Holding back for too long because it could be somehow better than spec, though, is a way to avoid contributing. And using power or privilege to insist that others meet our ever-increasing but ever-less-useful standards is unhelpful.

Better? Sure. Work for that.

But perfectionism is a defect.

“What’s the hard part?”

A useful way to get in sync.

“What’s the hard part” is a question that everyone on the team should be able to answer. But you won’t find out unless you ask the question.

You might discover that many people think the hard part is directly related to what they do all day. And you might discover that some people insist that the hard part has nothing to do with what they do all day–even if it does.

What is the difficult work that, if it went well, would transform the impact of this project? Where are the projects worth focusing on, the things that would be difficult to outsource in a productive way?

When we roll all of this up to the enterprise, it’s up to the CEO to be clear about what the hard part really is – the solvable problem that if it were solved would make a significant difference for the enterprise.

Almost all the cycles involved in creating and building something aren’t particularly difficult. They’re important, certainly, we can’t ride the bike unless it has wheels. But wheels aren’t hard to find and purchase at a fair price.

A team’s awareness and focus on the hard parts dramatically shifts the prospects for the project.

Fixing Zoom calls: Looking better and feeling better

It’s time to get serious about how we show up in remote meetings.

For a year, we slogged through it, but it was exhausting. Not only did we feel lousy at the end of the day, but other people rarely saw us at our best.

Now that it’s clear that the nature of work and meetings has changed forever, perhaps this is a good moment to embrace what’s possible.

I’ve put together a rig in my office that is noteworthy for two reasons:

  1. I can be present in meetings with far less fatigue.
  2. My Zoom presence is significantly enhanced, which makes it easier to get my point across.

Here’s a short sample.

And here’s a photo of what it looks like from my side.

Here’s how to do it.

First! It’s free, it takes about one minute and will change the way you feel at the end of the day. In Zoom, find the button for HIDE SELF VIEW. (Here’s a link). What this means is that as in real life, you won’t be able to see yourself. It turns out that looking in the mirror all day wears us out. You’ll have to change the setting at the start of every meeting (this should be high on their list of things to fix) but it’s pretty easy.

By hiding your face from your screen, you can focus more on everyone else in the meeting.

Second, also free: rearrange your workspace so that light is not coming from behind you.

The next steps cost more in setup and money, and I’ll cover them from easiest to most involved. Part of the magic of video meetings is that without a commute or fancy equipment beyond a phone or a laptop, people could join. But it’s become clear that it’s possible to deliver more fidelity and impact by investing in some tech.

Just as we don’t hesitate to buy a new outfit for a big meeting, or pay $500 for a plane ticket, these are investments, and in the scheme of your career, they’re pretty reasonable–and your boss should pay for them:

Get some LED lights. They’re incredibly cheap now (here’s a sample, but shop around.) Set them up to the left and right of your screen, a few feet behind it.

Get an external DSLR camera and hook it up to your Mac or PC. This is a much bigger commitment, but the difference it makes is startling.

You’ll need a camera, a tripod, and a capture box. Again, all three have alternatives, feel free to shop around. I use this capture box, but your mileage may vary. (And scroll down to the end of this post for a camera alternative)

How it works: The camera goes on a tripod and sits just above and slightly behind your computer screen. The HDMI output goes to your capture box and then into your computer. In Zoom, change the camera from your computer to the camera. Done. It also pays to get a power cable for your camera so it doesn’t run out on you. (You can add a microphone while you’re at it).

And then, there’s one last step, which has been the biggest leap for me since the self-view insight.

When you look at the camera in a zoom call, you’re not looking at the person you’re talking with. You’re staring over their head if you’re looking at the camera, or, possibly, you’re looking at them, but it appears to them that you’re looking at your keyboard. Either way, there’s no eye to eye connection.

This is unnatural. You’d freak out if you had a real life meeting with someone who never made eye contact. And it’s really tiring, because you end up spending your time not doing something humans evolved to do, which is look at each other.

The alternative? A beam splitter.

These are used for teleprompters. It’s basically a piece of fancy glass, at an angle, on top of a monitor or screen. Behind the glass is the camera.

You can look directly at the glass, and the camera behind it, but instead of looking at the glass and the camera, what you’re actually looking at is the teleprompter or the stuff that’s on the screen.

It’s magical.

This setup is now far cheaper than I expected. Here’s a typical beamsplitter with hood and mount, and here’s a monitor that should fit with it. Total cost under $300.

[or if you’ve already got a late-model iPhone or iPad along with a Mac, there’s a new app called Reincubate Camo, which is a much better product than the name implies. It allows you to skip buying an external camera and use the device tethered to your Mac instead. You’ll still need a tripod, still and you can probably make it work with the beamsplitter…]

The entire setup, all of the things that I’ve listed above, comes to less than $1,000–less than half of that if you already have a camera or use Camo. If you go to a meeting a day, that’s a few dollars a meeting over the course of a year.

It’s not for everyone, but if you are looking for the tools to be more productive, I hope it helps.

Jobs to be done

The dog needs to be fed, there’s a blog post to write, a report is due, there’s a meeting at 10, this form from the bank has to be submitted…

We can measure our performance (and our days) by how well we’re doing the jobs to be done. They focus our attention and our effort and create positive outcomes when we do them on time (and negative ones when we don’t).

12 or more years of school are nothing but this. Training in awareness of jobs to be done, and applying the minimum amount of effort to get those jobs done. Show me your list of jobs to be done and I’ll have a good idea of how you spend your time and the impact you’re making.

Easily overlooked, though, is the process of how something gets on our agenda or doesn’t. Working on voting rights, paying attention to voices unheard, grabbing possibilities for learning or growth or contribution–these are easy to ignore if they’re not on the list of jobs to be done.

And the people who do have these on their list… part of their job is to put their issue on our lists.

As soon as you sign up for a social network, it becomes a job to be done. And the moment you take investment for a new company, your jobs to be done completely change.

This gets meta pretty quick: one of the jobs to be done is to be clear about what the jobs to be done are, and whether or not they are the right jobs.

And another one of the jobs to be done is helping other people see that the things we care about belong on their list of jobs to be done.

If all you’re doing is the jobs you used to do, you’re certainly missing out on the contributions you’re capable of.

Getting better

The optimism and possibility that come from training and learning in groups is a miracle. It means that, with a little effort, we can level up, become more productive and enjoy the work more tomorrow than we did yesterday.

The folks at Akimbo are offering some proven and tested workshops… here’s their schedule for signups in April:

The altMBA is the first and most powerful workshop of its kind. The July session has its Early Decision Deadline tomorrow, Tuesday. Ask someone who has done it–70 countries, 5,000 alumni so far.

The magical Podcasting Workshop, with Alex DiPalma, has enrollment beginning tomorrow. It’s now in its eighth session, and there are thousands of podcasters out in the world today because of the foundation and framework this community workshop created for them. It will clarify your thinking and help you find your voice.

And the fabled Freelancer’s Workshop begins in about a week. You can sign up today and be sure you don’t miss a thing. If you are working on your own (like most of us) this workshop will help you stop running in place and find the clients you deserve.

This might be your moment to move forward.

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