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The lifeguard hack

Who am I to walk up to someone at a party and introduce myself?

Who are you to start a new project?

Who are they to give a talk on the main stage?

Don’t raise your hand–someone else might have a better question. Don’t ship that work, it’s not ready…

There are endless excuses, comparisons and reasons to hold back.


Unless you’re on lifeguard duty and someone is drowning. In that situation, even if you’re not the best lifeguard in the world, and even if the water isn’t the perfect temperature, and even if you don’t quite remember how to do the latest version of the cross-chest carry… you jump in the water.

Because it’s not for you. It’s for them.

Generosity unlocks doors inside of us.

The oracle

Resistance often shows up insisting that it can predict the future.

The voice in our head, the one that knows everything, also knows that you will be rejected, that the work will be misunderstood, that you’ll end up shamed.

Not just the voice, but the circle around us can do this as well if we choose to listen. Wearing the hat of the ardent supporter, they will try to protect you by predicting the demise of that next thing you were pinning your hopes on.

And it’s easy (and tempting) to give them credit for soothsaying because they know so many other things. They (“we” if we count the voice) know all about the failures and disappointments of the past. They know all about the hard work and all about how others have stumbled. And so, of course, they must also know about the future.

A lesson from a koan is really valuable here. Voices that purport to know the future–whether they are psychics, astrologers, family or the noise in our head–are pretty effective when it’s vague enough, but terrible when it comes to specifics. That’s because when it’s vague, we complete the story on our own, creating our own fact patterns after things happen.

The simple question to ask the oracle is: I have a handful of beans. How many are there?

As much as we might want an oracle, there aren’t any. What we need, it turns out, are supporters who trust us and have our back.

A Scrabble hack

It’s definitely a regular pastime of mine, and one of my favorite games. I usually play solo with the Word Master app.

The structure of the game rewards knowledge of really short words like qi and aa, but the exciting part happens when you find a seven-letter word…

The hack that would work if you’re playing in real life, with other people and actual tiles: On every turn, each player is allowed to turn one of the letters in their rack over and treat it as a blank, which could be any letter of the alphabet.

Suddenly, possibilities multiply! The number of 7 letter bingo words explodes. Instead of wrestling with 7 dependent variables, you have 6 and a wildcard.

The metaphor, as you’ve already guessed, is that every day we may have a chance to turn over one of our ‘letters’ and make it into something else, if we are brave enough.

Under the circumstances

The circumstances are heavy indeed. Systems work hard to maintain the status quo.

The teacher is doing the best they can. But the principal and the board and the regents and the parents…

The board member got elected with great intentions. But the state and the unions and the parents…

The textbook publishers want to do better, but the boards and…

You get the idea.

The circumstances conspire to put us under them.

The option is to start small, as small as possible. Small enough to work, big enough to put you on the hook. Build something that works.

And then, the challenging task begins: Get someone else to do it too.

Finding your voice

Not your metaphorical voice. I mean your actual voice.

It’s pretty clear to me that our speaking voice is not the result of the inevitable physical evolution of our vocal cords. It’s something our brain figured out how to do with the part of our body that keeps us alive by breathing.

And because it’s a late addition, there are a bunch of kinks in the system.

Talking while breathing is the beginning of the challenge.

But it’s also worth noting that the entire process is in the middle of a huge number of sensitive muscles and nerves. This means that when we’re talking (calling attention to ourselves) we’re also trying to keep all of that stress at bay. Add microphones, Zoom, and the high-stakes world of being seen, and you can start to understand why it’s so easy to get hoarse, to sound like someone you’re not, to develop tics, to amplify your stress, and a whole host of other challenges.

If you don’t sound like you, it might simply be because your brain is sabotaging the thing you’re trying to say. I used to riff about “no one gets talker’s block” but now I’m not so sure. I think most of us do.

If you’ve experienced any of this, I encourage you to find a good voice coach. Not because you’re some fancy keynote speaker about to go on the TED stage. Simply because you have something to say and it would be nice to be able to say it without pain. It’s easier than ever to have a few sessions remotely, and many people I know have found it life-changing. You can find someone nearby or even watch some videos to get started.

The world needs to hear from you.

So many accidents

The ones we notice are the negative ones. The time we slipped and hurt our knee, or the lingering illness that won’t go away. The gig we didn’t get, or the friend who is afraid or lonely.

But we’re surrounded by positive accidents as well, too many to mention. And often, we forget to mention them.

To be born when and where we were. To have people who give us the benefit of the doubt. To have a chance to read and to speak and to connect. To be surrounded by opportunities that others never even dreamed of.

And then, given those opportunities, the efforts expended and the care extended. The belief we have in others, the smile we offer or the contributions we make. All toward community and possibility.

I heard from two of my oldest friends yesterday, as well as from a dozen new ones. I met each of them accidentally. Every event opens the door for another one.

So many things to be thankful for. Accidents included.

PS anywhere in the world, feel free to check out The Thanksgiving Reader.

Books unread

I was sitting in a friend’s study the other day, and noticed that he had hundreds of books I’d never read.

Each was written, perhaps over the course of a year (or a decade), by a smart, passionate person with something to share. All of that focus and insight, generously shared with anyone who wants to take the time.

It reminded me of how much is out there, just waiting for us to explore and understand. We have a chance to learn and move forward if we care to.

Marketing as a service

Some folks think of marketing as something that is done to people. A hustle, a hype, a stealing of attention.

We need a name for that, but I don’t think that’s marketing.

On the other hand, calling dinner, “cold dead fish on rice,” while accurate, doesn’t really help people enjoy their sushi.

Human beings aren’t information processing machines. We’re not hyper-rational or predictable. Instead, we find joy and possibility in stories, in connection and yes, in tension and status roles as well.

When you care enough to see your audience with empathy, you’ll realize that they’re not happier if you simply recite a list of facts. Almost everything we engage with is a placebo at some level, and bringing a human-friendly story to the interaction is a way to serve people.

We need to not only have the ability to imagine what others see, we have to have the guts to go where they are and talk with them on their terms.

This means that we’re willing to be wrong on our way to being useful. We need to make assertions and show up with consistency, making promises and keeping them. Promises not just about the atomic weight of nitrogen, but about experiences and expectations that are sometimes hard to pin down.

Don’t make something that you would buy.

Make something that they would buy.

A freelancer’s dilemma

What do you own?
What are you really good at?
What do you enjoy?

Engaging with the marketplace requires creating value for people who have a choice.

And deciding what to offer your customers is your choice.

If you own something (a patent, a building, a process, a set of relationships) you can create more value than if you simply start over with new work each time.

If you are really good at something, having amassed skills and a reputation, it’s more likely that you will earn the benefit of the doubt and more easily create value.

And if you focus on being on the hook for work you actually enjoy, your days are better and it’s easier to do great work.

The freelancer’s dilemma is to figure out what to say instead of, “you can pick anyone and I’m anyone.”

And the entrepreneur’s job is to build enough assets that each transaction gets easier and more profitable.

It begins by being clear about what you own, what you’re good at it and what gives you satisfaction.

Aimless clicking

Wandering around in a digital swamp is a pretty common way to spend an hour these days.

Alas, most of us would never consider doing this in a forest. Walking over to a tree because it looked sort of interesting, standing there for a minute, then wandering away. Tree after tree, for hours.

The thing is, the digital wandering is mostly a waste. It doesn’t free our imagination, it stifles it. It’s as if this digital version of a tree has making us stressed out as a goal…

The next time we consider wasting an afternoon clicking on whatever baits us, perhaps it might make sense going for a walk instead.