Is the internet our daily Portlandia, where we’ve all gone to retire young?

I ended up in the ER the last time I was in Portland (more on that some other time), yet I love The Rose City. The PDX is a vibrant collection of people and interests; in fairness I’ve only visited when it was sunny, but I loved it. The vibe, the art, the glorious glorious food, the people. It’s an amazing city for all the reasons that every article about Portland describes its unique nature. The IFC show Portlandia is the stylized and heightened caricature of the city, where it strikes me now that like my summer visits, Portlandia only films in the sunny months too.

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The New York Times Magazine published an insightful essay on the economics of Portland (and similar sized cities) and focused on the increasing ratio of highly educated, highly skilled workers that are underemployed (or even unemployed) because Portland represents the unique place in the US where people have decided to live and then follow their career once they’ve arrived. NYC used to be the same way (especially when I moved there in 1999 and Alphabet City was still stabby) but that city’s economics have changed considerably, pricing people out. Used to be that a person moved to a place to work in a specific industry - that’s less true presently.

Thinking about mindfulness (again already, I know), I can’t help but wonder if the internet has become our daily Portlandia - where Drucker’s knowledge workers make our way down all those interesting rabbit holes that manifest over the course of the day, withdrawing from the professional battlefield prematurely each day? I see it when visiting companies and walking among the offices and cubicles - the volume of bandwidth (mental horsepower and fiber) dedicated to chasing every interest in flight is stunning. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for breaks, coffee, great articles, creative diversions and sharing track suggestions on Spotify. I can’t help but wonder though: have we moved too far past the notion of delayed gratification (traditional retirement) to a new state of perpetual retirement as result of allowing ourselves constant permission to chase down the damn near every interesting tid or bit that pops up in front of us?. What happens to all of the ideas and ephemera that went unfollower or unfinished in the day - those that were so fleeting that we never get back to them, but could have been oh so brilliant?

In the same line of thinking, there’s writing about information diets and the power of those to cut out distraction. I think the Lent-like approach is off and unlikely to work over a long period. Denial isn’t a strong enough motivator: you can’t negatively incentivize yourself to apply better focus. Deciding to not eat internet Hershey bars for a month won’t restore mindfulness or deepen our attention. We’re smart, we’ll rebel against our own self-imposed tyranny. A more sustainable approach is to decide to ignore or avoid certain inputs (I’m looking at you Tiny House Blog) in order to give ourselves more (perhaps even an abundance of) time to focus on what we have declared is important. It might even be worth making a top five list of projects or actions that you declare important. Carve out the time for the big stuff, and reward yourself with a stop at your favorite purveyor of internet candy afterward. 

Behavior modeling, screen time and a paperback

I worked for Scholastic for over a decade and it was amazing to be around such talented teams wholly focused on reading and literacy. A few weeks ago I was sitting with my daughters, chiding the elder kiddo about screen time and letting her know it was time to dive into a book before bedtime.

She correctly countered that I’d been sitting with my iPad for as long as she’d been playing Minecraft on her device. After a long and convoluted explanation that I was reading the New York Times, Flipboard and a book on my Kindle, I realized that in my fascination with the convenience of reading on my iPad, I had mistakenly modeled the wrong behavior. Night after night, the kids thought I was gaming too (also, I’m not much of a gamer unless the Scrabble app counts).

So now, there’s always a book in my briefcase again (this one right now). The same book is in my hand when I’m reading in the evening. Sure, I still use my iPad for the NYT and Flipboard and the like, but the conversation really did make me think deeply about behavior modeling, vigilance and congruity when doing so, and the inadvertent ways we must contradict ourselves when demonstrating to our kids, our teams or our peers. 

Eh tu, Apple?

Apple recently caused all sorts of sideways publicity by pushing the newest U2 album to its iDevice/iCloud users. Lots of vexed customers and a bit of chagrin on the part of Apple led the company to release a tool to remove the album from users libraries. 

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This flap interests me on two fronts. At a one level, it runs a parallel track with Amazon.com’s removal of George Orwell’s 1984 from Kindle users libraries due to a copyright snag. What set users on edge was the new consideration that they may not own the digital media which they’ve purchased and was thereby licensed to them.

Moreover, the strident point is the new understanding that the existing interconnectivity of media companies and your personal library means Apple, Amazon or other content providers can slip into your digital library and add or remove content. Remember how upset Netflix users became when that company lost the license to 1000 or so movies in 2012 - and those users didn’t even own that content. Ignoring the easy irony that Amazon did this with 1984 (of all books), it is a stark change of mentality for those of us with sizable physical libraries. After all, no one is going to slip into my house and abscond with the dog-eared 1984 in my bookcase. (See also: I have big dogs).

Apple used to be known for blowing up Orwellian 1984 conformity; in this case a careful company has hamhandedly given its users cause to question whether they in fact own the media they’ve acquired. And perhaps, what does own mean?

As our digital lives expand and our digital possessions increase in value, I think these questions will increase exponentially in complexity. Apple has shown that what a media company giveth, it can take away - and that’s a big question for lovers of music, books, movies and lots of other media. 

What’s the tensile strength of your network?

Tensility in engineering and physics refers to the pulling strength of a cable or chain and how much force is exerted on either end of a one-dimensional rod. In networking, it’s important to consider the strength of the connection to each contact. Quality, not quantity. James Altucher talks a lot about surrounding yourself with the five smartest people you can find; as a means to become the average of those five people. 

Altucher too is 100% right about maintaining a constant and generous drip to your network - pushing out ideas that are aligned with what you know about your contacts. Over time, this comes back to you exponentially as your network begins to send ideas and contacts your way - introducing you to the right new person at the right time to advance an idea.

I’ve been lucky to know fantastic networkers over the years. I’m a closer to introvert/ambivert on Fast Company’s introvert to extrovert spectrum, so learning how to network effectively was a challenge early on. I compensated for my awkwardness with good note taking (nerd) and killer pivot-table skills (wait, nerdier still). No really, early on as a junior marketer, I got to know a number of brilliant execs based solely on explaining how pivot tables worked and then teaching their teams to use them. These colleagues couldn’t understand how our little department was able to cull through vast amounts of data so quickly and then spend our time focused on analysis. Likewise, I’m bilingual, and equally important over the years was offering help when colleagues needed assistance with something in Spanish (be it an email or simultaneous translation in a meeting). The critical point in my experience is to be creative and offer your network what you genuinely have to share. After a while, you become known as a go-to-person; a linchpin according to Seth Godin’s book of the same title. 

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Jack Black’s drawing of the history of music from the movie School of Rock illustrates how a network develops over time. The straight lines turn into a mind map, and the mind map is overwritten with lines that turn the connections into a vast web. At some point your network starts connecting you with contacts they think you should know. The game here is quality, not quantity. Quantity is akin to adding as many one-dimensional rods as possible. You want to expand, you want to find force multipliers that will help you transform what you aim to change. You want a web.

Run a test. Tomorrow, contact three people in your network and offer them an idea that’s appropriate to their interests or offer to connect each person with someone they should know in your network (check with the other person first) because you think there’s something great those two brains could accomplish together. Let me know what happens! 

Tags: netowrking

Why your sales team should care about content marketing

It can be hard to get your sales team to care about content marketing - especially once the reps learn there isn’t an immediate upside ($$$) for them in promoting it. In the first place, if you have marketing and sales teams that don’t talk to each other or plan collaboratively; or if you haven’t gotten to the point of thinking of those two teams as one customer acquisition powerhouse, you might be doing it wrong. More thoughts on customer acquisition in a future post.

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Why is content marketing important if you work in sales? Because, simply put, it’s the means to engage with all of your leads: suspects, prospects, marketing qualified leads, sales qualified leads, and even those blessed people on the verge of buying your widget where they are. Engaging customers when they are thinking about you - not interrupting them, putting a structured content-driven “get to know us” campaign in place, sweetens the pipeline making it more viscous. Content marketing is the ozone around your sales funnel that keeps your leads from passing outside your pipeline’s atmosphere toward making a different purchase. 

Content marketing doubles down on its impact on sales when we think about repeat customers and referrals. What content are you developing and cultivating for your return customers? Content marketing gives your return customers the chance to engage with your widget in a way that feels new to them. Especially important if your widget is expensive.

We compete for attention with any item sold on Amazon and across the web, so strategically we need to create an ecosystem for our leads to feel a connection to our widget and everything that widget stands for. Content marketing is critical to that strategy. Don’t skimp. 

One more thought re: The Death of Adulthood in American Culture

One more thought regarding AO Scott’s piece The Death of Adulthood in American Culture (worth mentioning that I found it so interesting that I’m still thinking about it). Why no discussion of LGBT themes and how these upend notions of traditional patriarchy?

Interestingly, two of Scott’s three examples of patriarchal shows, The Sopranos and Mad Men, both stand out for the way LGBT characters were ostracized by the lead characters on the show. Mad Men’s Salvatore Romano certainly saw a less bloody departure from that series than did Vito Spatafore on the Sopranos, but he too was excluded from the clubby traditional male environment of Sterling Cooper. Conversely, non-stereotypical LGBT characters in (mass) culture equally highlight the disintegration of the cultural construct of traditional patriarchy. 

Tags: media culture

On subject lines and punk rock

It was 2012 and we were  v e r y  s e r i o u s. There was once upon a time a team meeting to review subject lines for a big back to school campaign. In education marketing, back to school is the most important campaign of the year, thus the meeting took place in early June, and we were damn serious. 

The problem was the subject lines were leaden. No life, no lightness, and mixed with a bit of forced whimsy and rehashed vocabulary. 

What to do? I needed to loosen everyone up and I had been listening to Johnny Thunders on the way into the office that day. So I said try writing subject lines that sound like punk rock lyrics. Blank faces. Try writing subject lines that zip by like a line in a Ramones song. The designer was in, but the marketing team thought I was crazy. 

So to prove this out, I drummed my hands on the conference room table to a beat in the vein of “I Wanna Be Sedated.” Slowly, as the team realized that a) I was willing to look silly or even foolish in front of them (because afterall, the back to school campaign was going to determine our year); and b) I was just trying to get them to loosen up and collaborate without being self-conscious. Within 10 minutes, they began to produce silly ideas that became really great subject lines. In fact, we ended up having to vote great lines down because they created an abundance of great creative work.

I can’t usually write a great subject line. Sometimes I’ll nail a one-off winner, but I’m not creative enough to do it day in and day out like these talented folks. I’m not wired that way. What I can do is bring smart people together and get them to do great work because they want to. 

In the world of open rates, click through and CRM tracking of all customer experience on our web properties, The Ramones and a bit of silliness helped make that campaign our most successful ever. And that the work the team did in that meeting gave us subject lines that we were using and tweaking for months afterward. 

Mindfulness, or one tip to refocus your brain

There are two sayings I use to torture myself, I mean, to ensure I’m putting my focus where it needs to be. 

The first is are you doing what you’re doing while you’re doing it? So often I run into situations where I’m working on a project yet actively thinking about the next project. If this happens to you, do a simple test. As your self what you were thinking about when you took on the item you were working on before the current task.

If the answer is that you were thinking about this current project, instead of what you were supposed to be doing, I’d suggest developing habits to maintain focus and block out stimuli. For instance, I don’t let new email make any noise or show alerts on my phone or MacBook because whatever is hitting my inbox has a low probability of being more important than the task I’ve dedicated the next 15 minutes to solving. (Worth noting that I have text messages sent to vibrate my phone. In my way of thinking, texting is an interruptive technology where email is passive).

Try this: the next time you have a project in front of you that requires intense concentration, place three perfectly sharpened Ticonderoga pencils side by side on your workspace - away from the keyboard but in your line of sight. If you feel your mind start to wander, stop and look at those bright yellow pencils and use them as a reminder to refocus on the task before you. You can use anything for the exercise, but make the object something that stands out and do not leave them out all the time. You don’t want to diminish the power of the symbol. Putting a rubber band on your wrist might work too, but I’m absent minded and would end up walking around with a rubber band on my wrist all day. Trust me on this one.

Second self-torture tool in my kit is to say to myself (and my teams over the years): we say we don’t have enough time to do things right, yet we can always find time to do them twice. No one likes this message - you won’t even like saying it to yourself - it’s tough to take. I find that it’s wholly derivative of the earlier point. High probability that if you’re not focused, you’ll end up having to repeat the work. Don’t lollygag, but certainly give important tasks the time and attention they require.

We all face innumerable inputs and interruptions each day - I’m looking at you, Keurig machine. We can’t allow interruptors to take over our chance to work smarter. 

Sunday night thoughts on The Death of Adulthood in American Culture

AO Scott’s piece The Death of Adulthood in American Culture is a must-read for anyone who has to interact with other humans. I’m not going to restate Scott’s case here, he certainly doesn’t need my, ahem, help. What does jump out are subjects not discussed. 

To my eye, Scott cheerfully and indirectly explains many of the subtexts we encounter each day in the office: for instance if Gen Xers (my people) were raised on patriarchal media and the millenials were not (except I suppose in syndication), it could be argued that an underlying root cause of the inability of these two groups to understand each other has its genesis in a scarcity of shared cultural markers from early life. 

Scott, in his discussion of the death of patriarchy in culture doesn’t take the opportunity to call out the meta-themes of the disintegration of the traditional book and magazine publishing models, TV broadcast models and music distribution. These topics have been covered widely for years, so I’m not going to bother doing so here. It does stand out that both the content itself and the underlying industrial means by which the content is distributed are both experiencing the same death of the patriarchy. Traditional Publishing (control over when and how the reader would interact with a text); the Television Industry (control of when and where the viewer would watch content); and the Music Industry (control over how and when new music is released) have all seen the control systems they depend on splinter. 

Who else misses the joy of going to the record store on Tuesdays after work to pickup new releases?

Tags: media culture

Walking meditation as internal mediation

I believe in the power of long walks to think deeply about opportunities, big ideas or problems that need to be unsnarled. There’s a lot of writing about the importance of the walking meeting as a means for two people to really dig into a theme and activate more of their senses than would happen sitting in a conference room. I think that’s probably right, but what I’m focused on is establishing a space for internal dialogue. Just you and your guts.

Over the last few months, I’ve tried to up my game by adopting a couple habits I’ve learned about from practitioners of Zen Buddhism’s walking meditation. 1) I try to walk at the same time each night (I’m a night owl and an early bird, so don’t feel like you’re restricted to an evening walk), usually around 10pm for 60 to 90 minutes. 2) I put in my headphones and have a playlist I enjoy during these walks. The playlist is important because it is also used as a discreet timer - when it ends, you’re done. When it’s halfway complete, you should begin to aim your walk for wherever you’re headed next. Usually home, in my case. The playlist also functions as a subconscious trigger to your brain that you’re starting the process of tackling ideas that go beyond the day-to-day tasks and responsibilities we all have. Internal mediation is important too - this process enables me to honestly weigh all sides of a concept and figure out where I’m planting my flag. It’s important to finalize an opinion - doing so frees you to move on to something new.

I heard Kevin Kelly (co-founder of Wired Magazine) in an interview with Tim Ferriss comment that he doesn’t really know what he thinks about something until he starts writing; only with that effort does he begin to formulate and understand his own opinion. These night walks work the same way for me. It’s a space where I can figure out where I stand on a complex issue or complicated problem, or maybe even come up a new big idea. 

Oops: on developing new habits

I was thinking today about the process I use to implement new positive habits, especially now that I want to develop the habit of exploring an idea that interests me each day. Over the years, I’ve found a pretty simple plan that’s works well for me.

1. Spend time becoming aware of a behavior that you want to change or adopt. Be self-aware and honest with yourself. Spend a few days taking note of how often you find yourself thinking about the characteristic you want to change or the habit you want to develop. For instance, I need to get more exercise, I want to get more exercise and I hate exercising. That logic was strong enough for me to not really exercise for many years until I started paying attention to how often I found my thoughts wander to needing adopt a healthier lifestyle and working some cardio into my life. I love a good excuse to track data, so I did nothing more than mark down how many times this came to mind over three days. I was astounded that that exercise and my lack of exercise popped to mind 35 times in such a short period. I realized I was dedicating time to negatively reinforce a behavior that I really did need to adopt. That’s not productive.

2. Test out the new habit - whether it’s writing each day, meditating, gardening or getting exercise - I’ve found I have to adopt a small chunk process to get going. If I overly complicate my plan, or over-research possibilities, or obsess over new equipment (must remember to write about OCD in another post), I won’t ever get started. So instead, I start as basic as possible. In the case of exercise, I’ve gone with an app to get me to do lots of pushups and the well -known Couch to 5k running program. I’m nerdy enough to enjoy having my iPhone boss me around. Same is true with writing each day - I use a notebook and Evernote to draft and organize everything else I do - so no looking for a special new app to draft blog posts. Use what you have. And make an appointment with yourself for the first couple weeks to make sure you remember to do the new activity.

2b. I didn’t follow my own advice about making an appointment and forgot to post something yesterday. This after having just started a blog and tweaking html so that it looks just right… And here we find the source for today’s blog post.

3. Be patient. Research shows that it takes three weeks to three months for a new habit to form and for our brains to identify the new activity as a daily habit. The time it takes for the new habit to stick varies as much as people are different - our beliefs, stubbornness (ahem), and will power primarily. 

This approach has worked with creating new skills and behaviors in teams too. More on that in a future post.

Idea Gen, Collaboration & Collaborators

Reflecting on some of the best teams I’ve been part of - marketing, sales, or operations; local or spread across the globe - the characteristic that defined their superiority was an inherent trust in the creative process.

The best way to explore this concept is to define its polar opposite - the team defined by a contributor that won’t let go of an idea, or fully offer it to the team to put it through the creative process. This problem is agnostic - doesn’t matter the industry or domain specialization.

Experience with humans (you know, the beings that make up teams) leads me to the hypothesis that people unwilling to share their ideas - especially in a corporate environment - are generally scared to death that their current idea is their only idea, making them hyper-protective and convinced that someone will steal their idea. A deeper danger in this is that their own scarcity of ideas encourages them to believe their ideas have greater value than those of their peers. The opposite would be the creative flood that occurs when you sit down to discuss a project with a high functioning team that bashes through 50 ideas to get to the three that really sing.

These poor folks haven’t learned that by sharing an idea and doing the work that the idea demands of us, our brains are free to develop the next idea percolating in our subconscious. I’ve found that freeing the idea we’re working on - either through doing the work or sharing it or both - opens our subconscious receptors to take in more info and stimuli from our environment which then leads to our next idea/project.  

Test Post

Hello world, testing out options for text posting on this new Tumblr theme. so far, so good.