We need to build more bridges

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One ferry company has controlled the byways between Plattsburgh, New York and Grand Isle, Vermont for probably 100 years. There are other ferry stops, but this particular transit route is the route I take to work everyday and involves driving over a land bridge that then takes you to a ferry stop that’s about three miles long to the New York state side of Lake Champlain.

The New York side would love a bridge, the Vermont side would prefer to keep things status quo. Thus enters our ferry company. The ferry company has a monopoly on bringing cars over the lake to where they’d need to go. Not just cars, but trucks and pretty much any other vehicle. Some people will park cars on both sides of the border to avoid paying the fee for a vehicle & person. Workarounds aside, it’s just how it’s always been and no one has the estimated $1 billion it’d cost to build a bridge even if there were the political will.

You might be wonder, “what does this have to do with higher ed, Ron?” I’m getting there.

The real problem with the inefficiency of the ferry isn’t that it’s especially slow (it takes about 13 minutes) or punctuality (it’s usually on time during good weather.) The real issue are the barriers to entry put up to make it more difficult for riders to do what they want to do more efficiently without any explanation.

For instance:

  • The company eliminated round trip fares. Just because.
  • They don’t take credit cards. Only cash.
  • If you want to use a “commuter card” you have to pay in $200 increments and complete a print form that you either bring to the ferry company’s downtown office (only open during work hours) or mail it to them with your credit card information.
  • There’s obviously no app for tracking ferry schedules. But this would be borderline innovative to begin with.

All of this sounds like a company that has a monopoly and can do whatever it wants and does. The alternative for people who want to avoid to ferry is to drive 74.8 miles, which takes about as much time as the ferry, but requires a round about trip up towards one of only two bridges connected New York and Vermont.

So onto our real lives now. How many of us can think of situations where we make it harder for our customers, just because we can? Maybe it’s not intentional. Perhaps there are very good internal reasons for policies we enact, but do we think of the fallout of these decisions on the people they impact?

It occurred to me this morning that we all have ferry problems that we can fix in our own offices, organizations and workplaces to make it easier for people. We complain about silos, when the real problem are the bridges we refuse to build.

What are your ferry problems? Let me know on Twitter #ferryprobs

Own What You Know

One of my personal struggles with blogging, presentations or just plain opening my mouth most days is the fear I’m going to say something wrong. Not something stupid, just that I might be wrong and that’ll cause people to think I’m not as smart as they thought I was before. Now, this doesn’t stop me from blogging, presenting or opening my mouth. Nonetheless, it’s a real fear.

Meeting people from far outside of my professional realm who confront the same fears — and ironically giving them pep talks over it — made me realize I needed to deal with this topic once and for all. You need to own what you know. Your experiences are what brought you here and it’s incumbent upon you to share that with people who might need to hear it.

Fearing that your voice doesn’t matter does no one any good. It doesn’t mean you’re always right. None of us are. But it doesn’t diminish the responsibility we all have to share what we know.

What To Blog About

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I’ve been blogging off and on for a really long time. In my younger days, I pretty blogged about whatever was on my mind, whether it was politics or whatever random online games I’d been creating at the time. Then I got older, social media became the soup de jour and I didn’t dip my toe in again until I thought a personal blog made sense. And by make sense, I mean that I wanted to see whether any of the stuff clanging around in my head met muster.

That led me to Twitter. Most of my connections made these days are through Twitter or conferences. The other day, it occurred to me that blogging was responsible for my ascent and I should dive back in. Except, I’ve always wanted to dive back into it and have opted against it. Why not? A fear of saying something that might offend. If you’ve ever met me in real life, you probably understand that I have a lot of energy and personality. You also realize how boring I’d come off if I restrained all of that in an effort to sanitize content so as not to seem to controversial.

Herein lies the problem friends. When I had no followers on Twitter — it didn’t exist yet — and I wasn’t sure if anyone would ever read my blog, I was free to type whatever I wanted and felt emboldened to do so. Bottom line is, I just didn’t care very much. I just figured if someone found me, great. And if not, that was okay too.

I’ve written variations of this post in the past, but it’s still a conversation that comes up a lot. Not just for individual blogging, but for organizations. Here are a few tips.

1. State your purpose. If you want a professional blog, great. But you still have to give people a reason to care. Be comfortable with no one reading. Set a personal goal for why you’re doing it in the first place, so when you’re bored of it, you have a reason to keep going. This is likely to happen within the first few days, too.

2. Recognize that it’s work. Just because you can share, doesn’t mean you should. Once you decide to do it, recognize that it’s something that requires an investment of time to be great. If you can’t commit several hours a week to it, reconsider whether you really need a blog or not.

3. Know your audience. There are going to be surprises. You might find the people you really thought would be interested in your work are less so, but others like the content. What’s more likely to happen is that no one will read at all. You need to know who you want to reach. After all, you’re sharing something and figuring out what people are sitting somewhere yearning for a voice like theirs needs to be in your head.

4. Read other blogs. I know that when you start blogging, it’s easy to want all the traffic. It doesn’t work that way, friends. You need to see what others are talking about. Don’t be jealous. Sometimes, you can get into situations where someone will blog and you can use that as a chance to respond with your own perspective. Then people are able to read your blog and theirs. Ultimately, you need to be a better reader than a writer.

5. Know when it’s over. Blogs don’t have to go on forever. At some point, you realize that it’s time to shift, pivot or stop saying anything. That’s okay. If you’ve achieved your goals (or even if you haven’t) you can walk away knowing you tried your best.

Don’t be daunted to tell your story

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We’ve all been victim of telling a story that seemed funnier or more interesting when it happened, then when we were recalling it later online or with different friends who weren’t there. It can be awkward, but no less important to feel emboldened to recall stories that have meaning for us.

It’s hard to know where to begin, really. When I’m asked for a biography or find myself redesigning my personal sites for the 1000th time, I sometimes (always?) struggle with picking out the right information to showcase. Does anyone care about that one award you won as a sophomore in college? Or that you were office member of the year in your current role? Maybe volunteering really matters to you. Does it matter to someone reading your bio?

There are lots of blog posts out there telling the best ways to write a biography. But I’m less concerned about bios and more interested in how we construct our identities on the web. We tell our stories in myriad ways from the tweets we share, to the things we post on Facebook. For those of us with websites of our own, there’s a struggle to discover how much of yourself people need to see. Are you trying to consult? Just want folks to join you on Pinterest? It’s hard to know where the line is and so, many of us just buy a ton of domains to figure it out.

I asked a friend recently to read a sample bio I’d written for myself on LinkedIn. He looked at it and told me “this is great. Except you don’t sound like a human. I have no idea what you’re trying to say amongst all of these buzzwords. Speak human to me, Ron.” In a race to sound and be as “impressive” as possible, there’s a penchant to want to write in the third person and share as much esoteric impressiveness as one can fit into a few stanzas.

In resisting this urge, we give way to a much better way of seeing ourselves as people as opposed to characters. Our stories matter. While no one wants to read hundreds of words splayed on a page with no real end or reason, telling your story helps you stand out in a world where everyone is trying to fit into some kind of unnatural box that’s not made for them. The oddity of trying to conform to stand out, is probably a trap I’ve inhabited for too long.

While I still am not entirely sure what I’ll end up writing to replace what my friends helped me see wasn’t all that great, I realize that my best relationships online have been cultivated through the personal tidbits that people remember about me over the years. Think of your best self and project that in word and in deed. The words are likely to follow.

Thank You For Being A Mentor

For those of us who make the digital space our vocation, it’s easy to conflate friends with mentors. Mentors are our advocates, people who encourage, support and champion our work.

For many of us, having someone from afar valuing your contributions can be a huge boon to your self-esteem. Especially if you’re just starting out.

I mostly began professional blogging as a way to reach out to others who were doing what I do. I wanted to test my insights against a wider world of smart folks who might have perspectives different than mine. I wanted to be proven wrong, to some degree. What I found was more than just critical minds willing to engage, disagree or participate in sometimes theoretical conversations; but access to people who I could reach out to with questions about job and career issues.

Sometimes, it’s the people who don’t think of themselves as mentors who do the best job at it. As I’ve grown in my own career, I’ve tried to pay forward all of the things I’ve gained from mentors in my own life. When it comes to things like blogging, I’ve actively sought out new people who are sharing insights to discover folks who were once like me.

I think it’s always harder to break out as time goes on, because there ends up being more noise on the scene and we have a more difficult time — especially in social media — of synthesizing the voices as networks become more cluttered.

Nonetheless, few days go by that I don’t think about how remarkable it is to live in a world where borders become less important and enable us to cultivate broad, disparate interactions that can yield direct dividends in our everyday lives.

On First Impressions

I think it was instilled in me at a pretty young age that it’s important to dress well and look good. It’s less about money and more about making sure that you take the time to care about your appearance. There’s probably some politics to this, but I think at our core, we all want to reflect how we feel and if we’re feeling good, it extends to how we present ourselves through our outfits.

One of (many) things many of us don’t find out as kids are how to navigate the waters of dressing well and what that even means. We’re all probably seen enough “What Not To Wear” episodes to recognize that some of us are just less sartorially minded than others.

As I contemplate stepping into a different role, there’s a comfort (and a fear, frankly) associated with the first impressions and perceptions people have of you. A lot of this stems from when you first walk through the door. My music teacher in high school used to always say dramatically that when you walk in the room, everything should stop and people should take notice.

He usually illustrated this by throwing a music stand but that’s neither here nor there. His point is and remains well-taken.

For all of the chatter in my social media world about brand identity, personal brands, Klout scores and follower counts, few things have the same impact of a first meeting. It’s why so many people flood our inboxes trying to schedule meetings. They want that face to face. Whether it’s a date or an interview, folks are always looking to size up others to see what they’re made of.

Still, we don’t really spend a lot of time talking about clothes because it’s a personal thing. There are general dress codes and I know for men, the politics of these things aren’t as deeply fraught with controversy as they can be with women. All of these things are an entirely different conversation than I’m riffing off of here.

Ultimately, I just think it’s interesting to consider the idea of transition to a new place and how our look impacts how we begin building relationships and ultimately present ourselves to an entirely new audience. You lose the comfort of people knowing you, of having an established brand identity and have to rebuild and refresh.

It can be scary, but it’s a good opportunity to revisit, revise and revamp as necessary.