Saturday, December 28, 2013

editing vs revising

I've been thinking a lot in the last few months about the difference between what I call "editing" and "revising".

When you're editing, you've accepted that the work is near completion, and you're just trying to take it that last ten percent to perfection. In writing for example, editing is about cleaning up language, eliminating redundancy, cutting sentences that don't add value, etc. If the piece were not edited, it would still have a similar effect on the reader.

Revising, on the other hand, begins at a higher level. It starts with considering the goal of the piece of work, independently identifying the major pieces necessary to accomplish that goal and the optimal structure for those pieces, and then comparing that picture of perfection with the work presented.

Having put the right pieces in the right structure, revisers then go one step further to think through how to execute each piece effectively. They then compare that standard to the work itself and make the major changes required to meet that standard.

Revising is messy. We're smashing something to pieces to improve its innards and then building it back up again, stronger than before. It can be mentally exhausting, often even harder than starting something from scratch.

Editing is easier.

In the flurry of work that crosses our desk on a given day, it's easy to quickly review the language of an email or the layout of a newsletter, to glance through a wireframe and give a few suggestions before signing off, to listen to a holiday campaign proposal, ask a few questions, and give the thumbs up.

This is editing. It's easy, and it feels good. You got it done.

That's why editing is so much more common than revising.

The majority of feedback that any of us will ever receive will fall in the 'editing' category. We'll get back a few touchups, a sentence deletion, but otherwise, it's good to go.

It's rare to have people look at our work and say, "Hey, we should meet about this to make sure we're on the same page about what we're trying to accomplish here." Rare to get the kind of feedback that makes us say 'Gosh, was I really that far off?' Rare to get the kind of feedback that totally rearranges the pieces, or picks one piece apart entirely, sending you back to the drawing board for a second effort. Just think: when was the last time you started something entirely from scratch again?

I believe that if the majority of the work we do falls in the editing category, then it's a serious problem, for both individuals and organizations.

From an individual perspective, those of us seeking a better version of ourselves rely on our peers, our leaders and our mentors to make us better. It's why we've surrounded ourselves with these very people. Yet if they never take the time to pour the best of themselves into our work and come back to us with comments based on how they would have executed the task themselves, then we're missing out on the wealth of wisdom, experience and creativity that they have to offer.

For an organization, the problem is much larger and more urgent. An organization slipping into an 'editing' culture further reinforces its own mindset with each passing day. Members of that organization, stop expecting major revisions on their work, which naturally leads them to give less thought to their first efforts, and to provide less feedback on other people's work. Over time, people within the organization stop seeking real feedback (even when they ask for it), and are frustrated when genuine feedback is given to them. As a whole, the organization stagnates.

The worst part of this downward spiral is that the talented people who are asking the important 'whys' and are pushing for a continual reexamination of what quality means quickly find themselves stifled, even ostracized. They sense that there's no longer room for personal or professional growth, and leave the organization, only to replaced by someone who fits in a bit better and doesn't ruffle any feathers.

To those of us who care about our work, it's a scary possibility.
Yet, we have the power to change this.

The change of course begins with ourselves. The first step is to exhibit the qualities we expect in our peers. That means that we should critically examine our own feedback to other people. Are we editing or revising? It's a simple choice when we have time and space to think about it, but when the deluge of work hits our desk tomorrow and we go into crank-it-out mode, we must, must bring awareness back into our work, and give everything that crosses our desk the effort and thought that it deserves. Or, at the very least, communicate that we don't have time to give it the proper attention so that the creator of the work knows that they should seek feedback elsewhere this time.

Of course, of course this means that we'll ostensibly be getting less done. But we must value quality over quantity. Five projects executed well will always be more successful, profitable in the long run, and rewarding than ten projects that were phoned in.

Revising is a skill that must be practiced, like any other. I've briefly described the revising process and mentality above. The key is to start with the 'why'. What should the goal of this work be, why are we doing it? Then, with your goal in mind, pretend that you are doing the whole thing from scratch. How would you have approached it independently, creatively and why? Maybe even try it yourself, from scratch. Now, compare your own work to the work that sits before you, and provide feedback or insight.

If nothing comes immediately to mind, push yourself for an extra few minutes to sit with it. Often, the creative mind takes a little extra time to get started and to see new possibilities. Try changing something just for the sake of it, just to bring new light and perspective to the work.

If you do find that in the end, it is genuinely executed well, then articulate why. Provide positive feedback, and explain what was so well executed. This shows that you gave it genuine thought and effort, and gives the creator a green light that means something.

The beautiful thing about approaching feedback in this way is that it not only makes your time at work more interesting and joyful, but also improves the quality of your own first efforts because you're exercising the right muscles more frequently. Best of all, it sets a standard for feedback that your peers will respond to in kind.

If however, you find that your peers are not responding to the standard you have set, then use your standard to provide feedback on the feedback provided to you. When you send out a something for another opinion and a note comes back five minutes later that says, 'Looks good!', question it. Don't be abrasive, but point out that you were hoping for more. Challenge everyone around you to give you more, to genuinely move the work forward. Lavishly praise those who do come back with well thought through feedback.

Beautiful work is created by people who care deeply. If you decide that you want to be one of those people who care, then driving awareness into your work to move from editing to revising is a wonderful place to begin.

Any feedback on this post? Let me know.

I need your help to make it beautiful.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

advice to a new freshman

A close friend had a brother starting college this year, and asked for advice from those of us who have already been there. I stumbled across the email I wrote, and was surprised at how much of it I still agreed with - enough so that I wanted to share here.
  • Focus on collecting experiences, not grades
  • But work hard enough to do well - you win the respect of your professors & peers, and good grades still open doors
  • Intentionally select who you want your friends to be - you are the product of the 5 people you spend the most time with
  • Say yes. Again and again.
  • Go above and beyond to connect with the professors that you love
  • Connect with the authority figures in the administration - they will open all your doors
  • Get involved in work that's done in teams. All real world work happens in teams, and getting good at navigating them is paramount.
  • Don't watch TV, unless you're doing it socially (group tv shows were big for us), and limited in volume each week. You have better things to do. Turn it off.
  • Be a connector - don't close off your group of friends, even as you grow closer and closer to a few select people
  • Know your alcohol personality. Don't be that sloppy wasted kid who hurts himself & others. Get drunk with people who will take care of you when things go south.
  • Careful of drugs. You don't need them. You don't need alcohol either, for that matter, but it does help with the social scenes. The drug social scene is not one you want to be a part of. 
  • Ask for help, often. From friends, family, professors - ask. You're never alone. Ask even when you assume the answer will be no, and you will be surprised.
  • Decide on a few things you want badly, and lift heaven & Earth to get them
  • Study abroad for God's sake - DO IT. (sorry, I'm heated about this one - too many people stay home)
  • Get good at sex. Remember that it's 100% about the other person - bringing pleasure to a woman (or a man) is one of the great pleasures in life
  • Use a condom. Get tested. 
  • Take care of other people's hearts.
  • Fall in love fearlessly. Get hurt. Do it again, fearlessly. Love is the mirror through which we discover the best of ourselves.
  • Learn about food, and eat right. Stay in shape. It makes you happier.
  • Gain confidence speaking in public to a crowd. Learn to tell a story, and then learn to perform the story.
  • Then, listen more than you speak.
  • Hone your writing. Focus, focus, focus on learning how to write. Speaking & writing are the rarest, most powerful talents.
  • Respect the gift that your parents are giving you. When they ask for small things (to come home for a weekend), oblige them - go above and beyond to repay the enormous debt you owe them. But, remember that your life is your own, and you must, must, must chart your own independent path through the universe.
  • When seeking advice, inquire far and wide, and listen carefully to everyone. Then forget everyone, and make the decision with your perspective alone.
  • Games are a great, easy way to make new friends
  • Remember that everyone you are to meet from this day forward is your intellectual equal. Never treat anyone as a superior or subordinate.
  • Make sure you hustle after the jobs you want. The jobs you have in college will teach you more than anything about what you want to make your life's work immediately after college.
  • Be very aware of your relationship with money. Do not ever value it more than...well anything. Tip well. Pay for your friends from time to time. Forgive their debts without letting them take advantage of you. A few dollars between friends is nothing, but careful of leeches.
  • Get good at dealing with conflict. The most important human interactions we have are conflicts (the fun stuff is easy, the conflicts define the relationship), and the sooner you learn how to have great conflicts that move relationships forward instead of backward, the better.
  • Your goal in life is to discover what you love. Knowing this, be open, do many things, meet many people and examine how your energy takes to each one of them. When your mind is most alive, when you pour positive mental time & energy into something, you're in the presence of your passion. 
  • But look, don't stress it, don't try too hard. Relax. Everything that happens is intentional. You have nothing to be afraid of.
  • Listen to your big sister. And, take care of her.
  • Be in the present. Always.
  • Spend a lot of time examining your own mind. The best relationship you will develop is the one with yourself.
  • You are infinite. INFINITE

Saturday, August 10, 2013

learning to fly

I am nearly never meeting my own expectations for myself.

The loudest expectations criticize how I spend my time, how I treat my body, and how I spend my money. Simply put, I should be working harder, longer, smarter, I should be eating healthier food and exercising more, and I should always be spending less money.

These louder alarm bells of expectation issue forth a cacophony of minor dings and dongs of disappointment: I shouldn't have taken last night off and spent all morning on email, I should have gone for a run this morning instead of sleeping in, I should have gone grocery shopping so that I'm not spending $12 on this artisanal sandwich (and why am I spending $12 on a goddamn artisanal sandwich, and why is it on white bread, and did I need to add the Russian dressing?).

Most frustrating of all is not that I am not achieving my goals, but that in not achieving my goals, I am discovering something even deeper about myself: 'gosh, I'm a helluva lot weaker willed than I thought I was' which itself is a devastating revelation.

The relationship between my expectation and achievement parallels the classic antagonistic father & aspiring yet disappointing son narrative made so popular by literary and cinematic fiction. My expectations are always there, watching my every move and either loudly yelling or quietly frowning when I fail, while providing only a curt nod of non-disapproval when I succeed.

Classically depicted, this narrative is only ever powerful because in the end of the story, the father's endless berating was of course all for the son's own good. That treatment pushed the boy farther, kept him from complacency and ultimately made him a better man. Sure, the father could have learned a thing or two about compassion, but he learns that at the end, and with a single sentence and a pat on his son's back, all is forgiven.

It occurred to me the other day that I'm still waiting for my own expectations to have that compassionate revelation and kumbaya moment.

Instead, each time I succeed in meeting an expectation, it simply sets itself a little higher up and glares back down at me as though not a single thing has been earned or achieved. While my loving family, supportive friends and incredible team provide constant positive reinforcement, my internal critic furrows his brow and says 'NBD' without a hint of sarcasm (his use of text message acronyms further suggesting a lack of admirable taste).

Recently, I found myself trying to claw my way back up a particularly steep crag of expectations hell. This time, instead of renewing my will & determination for another climb, I leaped off the mountain, and discovered how to fly.

As usual, it seemed that the heart of the matter was the why.

Why eat healthy and exercise, why work hard, why spend wisely?
I discovered that by setting personal goals, I was accidentally defining the things that I needed in my life in order to be happy. And, by that definition, I was saying that I could not be happy without achieving those things.

Think about that.
It is a hell of a powerful statement to say "I cannot be happy without ____."

Given that perspective, it's no surprise that failing to do the things that are supposed to make you happy is just about the most frustrating thing in the world. You can't be happy when you're not succeeding, and every failure suggests that maybe you're not capable of succeeding, which leads you to the heavy handed conclusion that happiness is entirely beyond your reach and for every fault of your own.

Not surprisingly, I have since abandoned that premise.

I have a new one now: "I need nothing in order to be happy."

Given the deafening noise of our culture shouting the exact opposite ("You need this car, this clothing, and definitely this device, and only then will you have something closely resembling contentment!"), my new premise feels almost subversive or anarchic.

Yet I found that it has a number of startling implications, not least of which is that in this very moment I could be happier than I had ever been in my life.

Right here and now.
Impossibly, insanely, happy.

That joy is something that resides within us and emanates forth, rather than something soaked up like sunlight from the world outside us or by our own deeds. That each of us is a fountain pouring forth abundant energy and beauty, and that rather than spending our lives thirstily roaming the dessert in search of another oasis from which to drink, we must merely turn inside ourselves to sate our every last yearning.

And, drunk on our own satisfaction with this moment, where could there be room for good or bad, for disappointment or failure, for worry or regret? This is liberation. We are free from both our desires and our fears, free to pour our energy into whatever we wish, knowing that it cannot change what we are.

My favorite discovery is that no act of will can compete with an act of willingness.

If we are happy as we are, then those external things that we strove to attain or escape lose their power over us. When unhealthy food is not a source of joy or escape, it becomes delightful to eat well. When exercise is not a chore but another way to explore ourselves and expand our experience, we find ways to be active. When we're not trying to purchase joy on an ecommerce site or at the local pub, it becomes almost difficult to spend a lot of money. And, when we have embraced our life's work with open eyes and a clear heart, we lose the desire to separate our work from our lives. We enjoy them both, because they are equal parts of this beautiful human experience.

If you are wondering now, 'well does that mean you're now living up to all of your abandoned standards?', then I am afraid you have missed the point. All of this is not to say that through joy, we become perfectly healthy, hard working, wisely spending human beings.

The point is that we were perfect to begin with.
And that none of those things can change that.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

dealing with the imperfections

One of the things that drove me to entrepreneurship was my constant frustration with the inadequacy of the products & services that I encountered. From the long wait times on customer service calls to the shoddy service at a local diner, to the poorly organized shelves at a local department store, everywhere I looked I saw ways that the businesses I interacted with could be better.

For a long time I wondered, why don't the owners or managers of these businesses take more pride in their work? How can they stand by and deliver this sub-standard service to their customers? I wanted to be in charge, so that I could achieve the perfection that was so lacking in the world as I found it.

Now that I run my own business, I've discovered the truth on the other side of the coin: that given the explicit constraint in resources, a business owner has no choice but to decide which parts of the business will remain imperfect, and indeed must remain imperfect for the business to succeed.

Creating a business requires mastery of prioritization. Given a list of a thousand things we could be spending our time on, we have to pick a few of them to actually execute. Especially early on, we must, must make the decision to do a few things exceedingly well, rather than doing many things satisfactorily. We thus organize our resources so that majority of our effort focuses on the minority of initiatives that matter most.

This can be frustrating. There are about ten thousand things about CourseHorse that I would like to be better. I have great long lists of them in my head, and each time I experience them in our product, I cringe. Then, I remind myself that it's a choice we've made. That today, we are specifically abandoning perfection in nearly every aspect of the business, in order to pursue it on one particular front. That we care deeply, but that it's a tough love, that requires tough decisions.

As my thinking on the subject has matured, I've realized that one ethos that can vary from business to business is the question of how to prioritize. At CourseHorse we learned to intimately understand the needs of the end-user, and to use those needs as the organization's guiding light.

Yet different users have different needs, forcing a business to decide which needs matter most, and how it will deliver against those needs. These decisions come from the organization's values, which reside within the DNA of the founders. For instance, in a restaurant , does the founder care more about having the best tasting burger in town, or the fastest meal in town, or the kindest, most helpful servers in town? Each of these meets a specific customer need, yet a deep focus on any of them can negatively impact the others.

Now, when I encounter businesses, I try to understand the mind of the founders, based on what the company excels at, and where it falls short. How did they undergo that impossible task of carving out priorities? I take it for granted that they know the flaws & issues I'm encountering, and I empathize in solidarity - the imperfections are hard to stomach, but they make the pursuit of perfection possible.

Friday, February 15, 2013

leaping off rocks

I am afraid of heights.

I think it began when I was about ten years old. I was swinging on a vine over a steep hill in my backyard, and (of course) it snapped. I plummeted maybe about 20 feet and broke my wrist. If I put my mind to it, it's possible for me to imagine the feeling just before the fall. My sudden, unsupported weight, and the wild fear that accompanied it. I have been afraid of heights since that day.

In September, our team went on its first 'company retreat'. We spend labor day weekend in Westport Massachusetts, sharing a house near the beach. It was a fantastic weekend. Beautiful weather, incredible food, lots of healthy brainstorming, strategy and soul searching about who we want to become as a company, and as people.

We started every day by biking/running to the beach and diving into the Long Island Sound. On the coastline of Westport, there's a famous rock about 100 yards into the water. It's named Elephant Rock because from a certain angle, it looks uncannily like - you guessed it - an elephant bathing in the water. Upon swimming out to the rock, we discovered that there were places to jump from the rock into the water. There were three heights to jump from, and on the first day, without thinking about it, I ran off the lowest ledge into the water, and swam back to shore.

Immediately upon reaching the beach, I knew.
I had to jump from that middle height.

The whole day, the thought kept surfacing, until the next morning, it was all I could think. I swam out to the rock in anticipation, and of course, as I stared over the edge, my courage failed me. I hemmed and hawed, practiced the steps I would take before leaping, felt slightly sick. And then with a slow exhale, I made the mental leap and then made the physical one.

The moment I surfaced, again I knew.
I couldn't walk away without leaping off the precipice.

And so the next morning, I found myself back. This leap was actually a bit dangerous. The cliff of the rock was not sheer - it sloped out into the water. That meant you really needed to build a bit of momentum before jumping, or you'd hit the rock on the way down, which would almost certainly break a bone before you plunged into deep water. To make matters worse, the 'runway' was slippery, dusty with seagull droppings, and uneven. Hard to find good secure steps to build speed with.

Fear is a difficult thing to empathize with. Many fears are shared by everyone, but when people have fears that you genuinely don't share, it's nearly impossible to step into their shoes. Realistically, it was just a rock, and some water. I had probably jumped from higher heights as a child. And yet. I could feel my uneasiness spiking, the nausea swirling in my stomach as I peered off the edge.

What if I slipped? While running off the ledge, I lost my footing and slipped off the side, hit my head and collapsed into the water? There wasn't a lifeguard, and my friends could hardly be called strong swimmers. What if I jumped too soon and hit the rock on the way down? Why the heck was I doing this? There's no shame in walking away, you're not proving anything to anyone. Yes, it's ok, let's not split our head open.

There is a point in all our lives when we define our relationship with fear. There is nearly no pain that the external world can cause us like the pain we cause ourselves, and fear is one of our own biggest antagonists. It is not real. It is in our heads. And at some point, anyone searching for freedom has to step into the fire of their fear to discover that it doesn't burn.

And so I leaped.

I think about that moment whenever I encounter fear. Hell, if I leaped off that rock, then I can deal with this bullshit. Leap again, son. Like an anthem it has defined my approach to the things I'm uncomfortable with. Oh, you're worried about this? Time to leap. Time to leap, let's go. I find myself constantly searching for the next, higher rock to leap off of, actually searching for fears so that I can go put them to rest.

What sweet liberation, from a single moment.
It is incredible to think that we face such moments every day.
That the opportunity to change everything presents itself every day.

"This man leaped off a rock once."

I think I'd be alright with that on my tombstone.