On gatekeepers

I tend to look at different mediums as a way to connect with people. I’m less concerned with the mechanics, often. For instance, podcasting. For me, it’s just another vehicle for connecting and getting a message out. More importantly, I’m interested in the stories other people have to tell and what they’re interested in sharing. I’m not as concerned about immersing myself in all things podcasting, going to every podcasting conference there is or becoming a hobbyist in the sport.

What I’m learning the past few years, is subcultures take their crafts very seriously. They’re not as happy about people showing up to the buffet late without a desire to participate fully in the statecraft of whatever rituals and exercises they’ve developed.

I love the DIY space between the start of something and before it becomes formalized. I liked the web before they started convincing kids they needed degrees in it. That empty space where people can tinker, communicate, share and fail is special.

Once there are gatekeepers, I’m a lot less interested in being involved.

Finding your inner superhero

Hit Girl from Kick Ass

Seems like these days, a lot of people are looking for mentors to help them navigate the waters of professional life. Who can blame them? It’s a scary world out there and it seems that for every person you know who makes it, a dozen more step out on faith and despite the Facebook & Instagram feed that says all is well, a more intensive glimpse at their lives would say others. Even if they’re doing great, we can all too often benchmark ourselves against what others are after in their own lives. This negates our own desires, goals and things that are motivating us towards whatever we really want to be doing.

If I had a dollar for every time I thought, “If I knew then what I know….,” I’d have a lot of dollars. The thing is, I’m less interested in going backwards as I am trying to move forward employing what I’ve learned to help me make better decisions now and in the future. So long as I do that, I don’t think past failures are all that bad. My dad always says — and I agree — it’s about making different mistakes not about making the same ones over and over again.

With that being said, I’ve been reflecting a lot about work lately. Talking to friends the past few years and hearing their own challenges, it’s pretty clear to me that lots of us are wrestling with many of the same insecurities, worries and wonders.

The thing I’ve learned more than anything, is nobody is going to save you. All of the advice in the world doesn’t make it any easier to act, if you’re not sure where you’d really like to be. I re-read most of “Escape From Cubicle Nation” this week. I read it a few years ago, but I wasn’t as ready for it. Because as I read it this time, I felt like it was written for me. All I did is shake my head vigorous as I got through the first few chapters. Reflecting on it a few days later, I’ve realized that my struggle is feeling that the uniqueness of my circumstances weren’t like anybody else’s.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that my mistakes were worse than everyone else’s and all of that somehow made me unfit for the future I wanted for myself.

I’ve been canvassing a lot of my friends and professional colleagues lately to bounce off of them how they ended up where they did. So much of our destiny is about the confluence of events that lead us to where we are at a certain point. More than that, it’s about choices. I think sometimes it’s easy to romanticize the amount that fate plays into our decision-making process, but when I think about everything that’s led me to this point right now, it’s really about a series of choices. Some of those choices happened twenty years ago, but nonetheless, there were choices.

When I set out to write this post, my goal was to come away resolved with a pact to write everyday for the next few days. Every time I read people who are involved in writing for a living, they talk about the commitment to the process. That no one is too good for practice and that sort of thing. All of this is instructive, except my job isn’t to write. It’s not even my passion, it’s just one of the most effective ways for me to reach out to you strangers and friends among you.

I’m less interested in doing things for the sake of doing them in 2015. It’s really about embracing a mantra of consciousness action. I want to do things that matter, while realizing that not everything I do will matter to anyone else. And I want that to be okay.

In a world full of ninjas, rockstars and gurus, I just want to discover my own inner superhero. I know he’s in there, because half of what’s propelled me here is driven by a spirit that’s far bigger than anything I can contain. The problem is, superheroes hide. We don’t see them all of the time, because if we did, they’d be the kind of fallible heroes that we don’t acclaim until they’re lost forever.

My goal in the coming days is to use this space and others given to me, for exploration of a different sort. I think we have a lot of power within ourselves to affect change in small ways and in big ways every single day. For too long, I’ve personally succumbed to the whims of whatever was around me for a fear of being perceived as something I’m not. In the process, I’ve masked my superhero and kept him out of situations where he could truly help.

The funny thing about superheroes is they’re usually normal people. I call them Clark Kent Tendencies. They bumble and are usually the last people you’d expect to save the day in their normal work clothes. It’s not until they put on the mask and go to work, that people become believers. Except, we don’t know who they are in real life and that’s part of the mystery. I have a lot of those Clark Kent Tendencies, but when I’m giving a talk or interacting with other smart people, I almost have an out of body experience because I don’t always recognize myself.

“Who is that guy? Wait, maybe I do know what I’m talking about!”

I remember thinking at a certain point last year, that I didn’t want to live the rest of my 30s doing things I didn’t really want to do or living places I didn’t want to live. I’m really cognizant of how important each day is and this is just my opening salvo towards living, working and doing better.

It starts by rediscovering my inner superhero.

Cooking Up A Routine

This morning I made breakfast. It was the first time in a while that I’d been home on a weekend day and decided to do it. Earlier this year, I was renting a different place and had this really great kitchen. In fact, the only reason I picked the place was precisely for the kitchen. Anyway, I would make this elaborate meals for myself in the kitchen because it was too nice a kitchen to let sit idle. In my new place, the kitchen is fine but just feels like that old place. I’ve always been busier since I first showed up here, so when I am in town for a rare weekend, I’m far less inclined to cook.

I like cooking because it gets me out from in front of a screen. There’s a payoff in the form of eating well and it lets me experiment in ways that usually turn out okay or at least, you can learn from for the next time.

I’ve been experimenting the kitchen for years now and I recall sometimes when I’m constructing something about the days of my first apartment in college where I would try to fashion together things and fail somewhat miserably at it because I just didn’t know what I was doing. I had no idea that a decade later I’d consider kitchen prowess among my top ten attributes.

The thing about routine is finding the intersection of where your goals and time meet together to keep your aligned. It’s easy when other people are setting the agenda, because you can run around for ages like a chicken with your head cut off. But when you’re the one making the commitments and when there’s nothing truly binding you to whatever it is you need to do next, I find it’s routine that helps center me in ways that no alarm clock can do.

Without thinking much about it, I woke up this morning and chopped some potatoes and put them into a pan and make this rosemary potato dish that I like. It’s fast, it’s easy and it tastes good. But it’s really less about the meal and more about all of the stuff that went into the process of getting me there that brings me the real satisfaction. As if, there were a dozens of other choices I could’ve made — not just today, but weeks and months before — that led me to this place where I’m making this breakfast at this particular time for myself. Music playing in the background helps too.

I’ve spent a significant part of the past seven years living by myself. One of the things I find satisfying about being alone with your own thoughts is using that time to envision the world you want for yourself in the future. It’s a bit of fool’s errand — you have no idea what’ll happen to change the landscape of your decision-making — but I like thinking about how whatever I’m doing at the moment will be useful later on. Whether it’s cooking or an Excel spreadsheet that I built five years ago or acting on a conference idea that took seven years to bring to reality, I’m a big fan of seeing the process work itself out.

All of that starts with having a process to get you places you want to be and being consistent about that.

Finding your flock in the working world

My understand is that when you see a flock of birds, the ones at the front don’t spend the entire trip leading. The birds take turns to conserve energy. The other thing I found most interesting about bird flocks, is that there are actually diverge leadership groups at different times trying to steer the flock elsewhere and some will indeed do that.

The funny thing is, the birds behind start to realize that the more of them that follow one, the easier the travel gets as they can draft behind the others in the flock and conserve energy. They take turns doing this and it makes the trip across long distances possible.

I think a lot about leadership and for a long time, I thought if you’re passionate, work hard and care about other people that folks would naturally see what you’re bringing to the table and want to support you towards your goals. This somewhat mistaken belief was borne out of years and years of supportive people identifying me as someone they thought should lead. I’m talking all the way back to grade school, where I’ve had teachers and peers who have mentored me, lifted me up and told me I was worth a damn when I didn’t always feel like it. For all of my penchant for leading, speaking up and sharing what I know; I’ve spent most of my life trying to recede to the back. But time and time again, people have refused to let me not shine my light.

For this I am beyond grateful.

My professional life has been marked by people who have pulled me aside or put me in leadership roles consistently. From the boss at the software store in high school who made me his 3rd in command a month after I was hired to my first boss in higher ed who decided that she had enough faith in my abilities to let me lead a redesign project & committee that was comprised of all VPs and our President and felt comfortable enough not to attend those meetings because she knew it was in good hands.

These kinds of experiences I have shaped how I’ve seen myself as I moved up the ranks, assumed more responsibility and accept greater challenges. Even when things don’t work out, I’ve come away with a much better understanding of what my role is. But more than anything, I’ve come to understand that not everyone is going to have your best interest at heart. Not everyone is meant to be a mentor, not every person who comes into contact with you is concerned about your professional growth or wants to see you succeed on mutually acceptable terms. The trick here is if you’re not fortunate like I’ve been to have great people support, encourage and bolster me and find yourself in an unsupportive professional environment is realizing that you have a responsibility to accept change and to make it work for you.

I don’t mean making the job work for you because not every situation is salvageable in that way. But if you’ve reached a point where you consider yourself a competent individual with some value to offer, then you need to figure out ways to demonstrate that. People will notice. Even if they don’t, you can’t let one situation define you. Your work, your actions and your strength of character will define you over a period of time. It might takes years and you might find yourself searching far and wide, but eventually you’ll find your flock.

But you need to get off the ground.

After the conference ends

Conference season is upon us, specifically for higher ed web nerds. I always enjoy this time of year, but it’s difficult when you go and have fantastic conversations with old (and new) friends only to come home and feel a bit defeated. I was talking to Scott Kubie at HighEdWeb Michigan and he made the comment about how conferences are better when a coworker can come, because the big ideas you get are that much sweeter when you can divide and conquer the event; or where major breakthroughs are experienced at the same time.

I agree majorly.

When a lot of people aren’t super aware of what kind of work I do online, it’s sometimes easy to gloss over the meatier parts of what gets covered at a conference for simply saying “it went well” and “it was good,” and not fleshing out the process or even that the conferences are intensive, chock full of information and go all day long.

While it can difficult to integrate everything you learn — especially at once — it’s no less important for us to come home and try to adopt at least one of the things we learn as soon as possible. Even if it’s telling people, “I learned a new thing I’m excited to try because…” it emphasizes the experience changed our perspectives and does more than just demonstrate the best parts of what conferences are about — people.

A position to fit the player

There’s a fallacy that we create job descriptions to find a specific kind of person. The other night, I semi-jokingly wrote what I thought about job descriptions I’ve encountered in the past few years for social media roles on Twitter. It’s as if you can picture the people sitting around a table, trying to check boxes in an attempt to create this perfect person.

Newsflash: That person doesn’t exist and they’re not perfect.

On the flip side, people seeking roles will often believe that they’re just one job away from the perfect situation. The role that’s going to give them the autonomy, compensation and fulfillment they seek in the workplace. For most of us, this just isn’t a real thing. There are going to be days that you don’t love what you do and that’s okay. Visual artist Chris Martin had a quote I read in Believer Magazine the other day that was instructive on this point:

The point of an artist is to find out what are the flavors that I must work with. Finding one’s freedom is about surrendering to your helplessness. I’m a painter. That’s what I do. And sometimes I’m very happy about that and sometimes it’s just what I gotta deal with.
The missing link for everyone is realizing that the goal should be to assemble great teams of good people. If you do that, the rest will take care of itself. We’re often so afraid that we’ll lose people, that we hire conservatively. Or we want people who stick to the plan, because it gives us comfort knowing there’s a plan, even if it’s a bad plan. Strategy isn’t ancillary, it’s primary and the sooner you realize that you need to invest in gameplanning, the better off your organization will be.

In sports, we see this in a variety of ways. Games evolve over time into new positions that didn’t exist a generation ago. Remember playing volleyball in gym class? You could only score points on a serve, but in 1999 to make the sport more viewer friendly, they completely revamped the sport and even created an entirely new position called a libero. Basketball has five positions officially, but the way people grow and change often results in players who don’t fit their position called “Tweeners” literally people who are “between positions.” In the corporate workplace, these people would simply be without a job.

We don’t hire for value, we hire for people’s ability to adhere to the landscape that’s been laid out for them. It’s not an accident that so many bright minds are going off to form startups or opt to consult. It’s not that they eschew rules, but rather, prefer not to play by an antiquated rule set which doesn’t befit the modern world.

It behooves us as leaders to build teams that can grow with our best people. To encourage them, it can often mean preparing them for their next job. In sports, coaches will start off learning under an experienced leader before going off and doing great things elsewhere. Proud coaches will cite their “coaching tree” of the players they’ve sent off into the wild. We see this at the highest levels of the corporate world, but for middle managers and front-line staff it’s less common.

As we age, it’s harder to make big moves. Consistency, security and added responsibilities trump ambition. Our goals change, too. But it doesn’t absolve us as leaders from creating environments that embrace the skills and talents of those we’ve been entrusted to lead. Learning what makes people tick requires time and an ability to care about something other than the bottom line.

Sports has the time to care about people, but treat just as disposal once they’re no longer up to snuff. Still, we can learn a lot about managing our own teams from taking a look at the playbook of athletics.

Resisting the urge to be average

It’s really easy when we get comfortable in our jobs to start to do the same things. That one bold thing that seemed radical when you first did it, eventually turns into routine. It makes sense. You feel the need to prove yourself when you first begin and want to endear yourself to coworkers. Many of us want to be seen as smart, knowledgeable and the folks you seek out when you want things done. At some point, this turns into the Silo King mentality. Where you are the gatekeeper of information, processes or the ways to business within the institution. While there might be a certain kind of rush associated with people saying, “Go see Mikey,” when it’s a task this doesn’t provide the mechanics for the institution to operate at its best.

My mindset is to provide people with the tools to do the best work they can. Even if it’s not something that’s in my area, if I know how to do it, I’ll do it for them if it easier and then tell them how so the next time they know. One of the things that I even myself susceptible to at times is the need to resist the urge to “know what you know.” Continuing education is easier these days, but reading books and arming yourself with knowledge doesn’t always come with the sort of benefits that you’d think. Institutions move slower than people, even though they’re comprised of people. You don’t always have the tools you need to jolt things into place and just because you feel like you’re right doesn’t mean you always are.

I think the best way to resist being average is to understand what your role is and to demonstrate it at a high level every day. Not just the camera is on and when people are watching, but when you’re alone. When you can take shortcuts and ‘no one will notice’ but you will. It’s that kind of commitment that ensures your own personal integrity, while demonstrating the values you want to promulgate; especially in a situation where you don’t feel adaption is happening. There are big picture issues that affect all of our roles and the key to staying on top of things is mastering your own domain rather than being frustrated with what we can’t change.

Even if that’s difficult sometimes.