Lessons Learned from 30 Days of Blogging

Last month, I decided to blog every day. As I explained earlier:

For whatever reason, I’ve found writing hard to do the past few years, and this year has been the hardest. I’ve also been disinclined to think out loud, even though I’ve had a lot I’ve wanted to say and share, both personally and professionally.

Mid-way through the experiment, I reported:

What it’s been doing is helping unlock whatever has been inside of me. I’ve been precious about sharing what I’ve been thinking, not wanting to say them unless I can say them well and feeling paralyzed as a result. I’ve also found it overwhelming at times to try to blog. I guess things are crazy in the world right now, and it’s not only affecting my mental health, it’s hard for me to make sense of it all.

Blogging as a practice has reminded me not to be too precious. The less I try to say, the less overwhelming I feel. The more frequently I share, the less I have to worry about saying it all in one piece, which makes it much easier to write. Plus, even though I don’t think I’ve shown it yet, I’m starting to remember what it feels like to write well. I’m rounding into shape again, which always feels good.

The biggest surprise has been that sharing regularly has helped me re-engage with my broader community. I didn’t think anyone really followed this blog anymore, and because I’m rarely on social media anymore, the algorithms seem to have decided I’m not worthy of most people’s feeds. Still, some people are paying attention to what I’m saying, and getting to hear from them has been a treat and is also motivating me to write more.

After having finished the experiment, I’m not sure I have anything different to report, other than to say that I don’t think I had any breakthroughs after 30 days, and I want to keep exercising this muscle. I thought seriously about extending my project through the end of the year, but I opted against it for a few reasons. Even though it wasn’t particularly stressful, it wasn’t stress-free either, and I don’t need the added pressure this month. It also tires out muscles that I’m using for work right now. I can focus on developing these muscles more when work settles down.

In the meantime, I think the exercise still is helping me share more than I was before. This is my third blog post in December. I think a good pace for me is to be blogging about once a week, especially when those posts are more or less organic.

Maybe the most interesting thing for me was seeing what I chose to blog about. This wasn’t just a writing exercise, it was a sharing exercise. I aggregated all of the tags from those 30 days of blog posts and ran them through WordClouds.com to see if I could detect any patterns.

Not surprisingly, I wrote a lot about COVID-19 and the elections. It was nice to see that I wrote quite a bit about collaboration. This wasn’t my goal, but I admit I was curious to see how often I felt compelled to write about “work stuff” — the original purpose of this blog — especially when I had so many other things on my mind. I loved that I wrote about a lot about making — food and art and photography and stories in general.

Finally, I was curious about the people and places I wrote about. Here were people I knew whom I mentioned in various posts (not including my partner and sister, whom I mentioned often and didn’t bother tagging):

I loved seeing this list. My interactions with others play such a huge role in what I think about and how I feel, and I love being able to share this space with the people in my life.

People I mentioned whom I don’t know:

Places I mentioned:

  • Africa
    • Nigeria
  • Alaska
  • California
    • Bay Area
      • Colma
      • Oakland
        • Joaquin Miller Park
        • Mountain View Cemetery
      • San Francisco
        • Fort Point
        • Golden Gate Bridge
    • Los Angeles
      • Forest Lawn
  • Cincinnati
  • Santa Fe
    • Ghost Ranch

Psychological Safety and Swimming

I had a conversation with my friend, Eugene, the other day about psychological safety in groups. It reminded me of an experience I had several years earlier in an adult swim class.

I don’t know how to swim. My parents enrolled me in a swim class when I was five, but I wasn’t able to learn. Over the years, friends and family have tried to teach me, but no dice. However, all that trying has made me relatively comfortable in the water. I’m able to stay calm, even if I’m in too deep. I’ve even been snorkeling (with a life vest and a noodle, but it still counts).

Several years ago, I took an adult swim class. There weren’t that many of us in the class, and most of us were older with a good sense of humor about our incompetence. The teacher was young and way over her head. She clearly was a strong swimmer, but she wasn’t able to break it down for the rest of us. Still, she was kind and patient, and she was clearly trying her best.

At one of our first classes, a middle aged woman showed up with her daughter. The older woman was clearly terrified of the water. Her daughter held her hand and tried to help her stay calm. The first exercise our teacher had us do was to hold onto the wall and put our heads in the water. We were standing in waist deep water, there weren’t that many of us, and in addition to our teacher, there was a lifeguard. Objectively speaking, we were absolutely safe.

That didn’t help the woman. She started weeping, saying she couldn’t do the exercise. Her daughter and our teacher tried their best to calm her down, but she was inconsolable. Finally, her daughter led her out of the pool.

It was incredibly hard and sad to watch, and I was thankful she was surrounded by folks who felt compassion toward her and by her daughter, who could take care of her. Still, it didn’t matter if she was safe. She didn’t feel safe, and that feeling was real. Who knows where that fear came from? Maybe she had a traumatic experience when she was younger. Maybe she was just a fearful person. None of that really mattered in the moment. That space wasn’t safe for her.

Safety is contextual. You can’t be responsible for how people feel, but you can be empathetic and human, and you can act accordingly. The only thing that made that space even close to safe for that woman was the presence of her daughter, who held her hand the entire time.

Safety is also developmental. I didn’t start off feeling safe in the water. I learned how to feel safe in the water by spending a lot of time there and by having many loving guides along the way. Who is responsible for that development? I don’t know if that’s a useful question. All I know is that there were people who acknowledged and created those developmental spaces for me, even though they could have easily said to me, “Figure it out on your own, and then you can join me in the water.” Supporting people’s development is a choice, but that choice can benefit everyone.

Norms, Strategy, and Thanksgiving Duck Revisited

It’s been nine years since I and my family started eating duck for Thanksgiving. I have also happily introduced several friends to the concept, although surprisingly, I know of no permanent converts. Some (many?) of my friends actually like turkey. But I think the biggest factor is that culture, norms, and traditions are remarkably powerful.

I get it. My family ate turkey for over thirty years before converting. When I consider how much more I enjoy Thanksgiving now, and how much less stressful it is to prepare the meal, I marvel at how long it took us to make the switch.

I see individuals and groups struggle with this all the time. Goal-setting and strategy are more often an exercise in documenting what you’re already doing rather than a deep examination of where you’re trying to go and why. The latter requires that you make a choice, and making choices is hard.

That’s not to say that doing things because that’s why you’ve always done them is a bad thing. The most important thing is that you’re being intentional, and that you know why you’re being intentional. Chesterton’s Fence definitely applies.

Firing People and Being Fired

You can tell a lot about a person’s relationship to power from whether or not they’ve ever fired anyone and how. Do they understand the scope of their power, both formal and informal? Do they realize that not firing someone can be just as impactful in both positive and negative ways as firing someone? How do they deal with the aftermath?

I would love to experiment with getting folks to talk about their experiences firing others and being fired as a way to talk about power and to align around what success and failure might look like for everyone involved when power is wielded.

Polls as a Way to Measure Alignment

For the past few years, I’ve been thinking about developing a training called, “The Art of Aligning.” Aligning groups is fundamentally what my work is about. Like all things related to collaboration, I feel like folks can learn how to do it well by practicing.

I originally envisioned it as a face-to-face training, and I wanted to incorporate lots of somatic experiences to remind us of what alignment actually feels like. COVID-19 has pretty much put the kibosh on that for the time-being, but I think you can still develop a good training without it.

My approach to helping a group align is the Squirm Test, which consists of articulating what you think is the shared understanding of the group, and watching to see how much squirming happens while you talk. If no one squirms, you have shared understanding, which is a prerequisite for alignment.

Said another way, you help a group align by constantly testing for alignment and by making the results visible, so that the group itself can make adjustments accordingly. You’re essentially creating a tighter feedback loop than what normally exists when all you’re doing is tracking behavior.

I realized today that polling in elections is a manifestation of this same principle with all the same flaws. A poll is an attempt to measure alignment at various stages. Similarly, the Squirm Test is essentially a behavioral survey.

Polls are, by definition, imperfect. I continue to be baffled by people’s critique of polling in their post-presidential election analysis, because they seem not to understand this. Polls give you a guess as to where people are, so you can adjust your tactics and strategies accordingly, but at the end of the day, it’s still a guess. At least with elections, you have a clean measure in the end by which to see how off your polls were. In most things in life, we have to hand-wave those assessments also.

Bottom line: Alignment is hard.