Never Compromise

I’ve been an Aaron Huey fanboy since seeing his amazing photography of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation at Pop-Up Magazine a few years back. He’s the only person I follow on Instagram whom I don’t actually know in real life.

Yesterday, he posted a photo from his latest assignment. Because he’s a National Geographic photographer, he has a huge following (more than 40,000 followers) on Instagram, and his pictures get a ton of comments, most of which I ignore. However, one comment from this picture stood out to me, largely due to its boldness. It was from Andrew Griswold, who himself has a huge Instagram following. Andrew wrote:

Hey Aaron, huge fan of your work. My wife were just talking about this last night and I was curious how exactly do you become a photographer for @natgeo? As it being the holy grail of jobs for me I was just curious how your path brought you there. Would love to connect! Hit me up anytime.

I loved Aaron’s response:

Secret is to never compromise (no plan B) and you’ll likely need to shoot one thing deeper/better than its ever been shot before. Forget single images. Shoot a story.

Great advice for aspiring artists of all ilks, including social artists.

Doug Engelbart

My friend, mentor, and hero, Doug Engelbart, passed away a few weeks ago.

I first met Doug 15 years ago. He was 50 years my senior with a list of accomplishments I will never match. I was a feisty, curious kid in my early 20s, desperately seeking purpose in my life.

From the beginning, Doug treated me with kindness, respect, and humility. He never tried to put me in a box, as so many people — even close friends and colleagues — often do. He took the time to get to know me personally, to see what I was capable of and what I cared about, and he encouraged me to tap into those things.

For a while, I wondered why he treated me so well. Then I realized that he treated everybody that way. He did so because, more than anything, he cared about people. He cared about his family and his friends, and he cared about humanity.

People. That’s what Doug was about. It’s that simple. He devoted his life to making sure that we, as a society, didn’t forget our essential humanity. Unfortunately, he saw us heading in that direction, and he tried desperately to veer us away from the “cliff.” He was absolutely convinced that he had failed.

He was wrong. I don’t know if there’s hope for humanity, but if there isn’t, it’s despite Doug, not because of him. As he himself understood — at least intellectually — it will take a collective we to prevent such a failure. None of us can shoulder that burden individually. And — maybe as he didn’t understand, but as he practiced to a wonderful extreme — the way we treat each other is at the heart of any grand solution. It’s that simple, and — as recent events continue to underline — it’s also that hard.

The day after he died, my friend, Joe Mathews, asked me if I would write a tribute to Doug and to say a bit about why I thought he was important. I said I’d need a few days to collect my thoughts. I took two weeks, and I still don’t feel like I did him justice. You can read what I wrote here.

As powerful and prophetic as his ideas and his language were, and as important a role as they play in my life today, they were the least significant things that I got from Doug.

His biggest gifts to me were people and permission. He not only blessed me with his friendship, he introduced me to a larger community of like-minded, like-hearted thinkers and doers. Last weekend, at a celebration of his life organized by his friends, I was reminded of how many wonderful people I met through or because of him.

He also made it okay for me to make doing good my life’s purpose. He had chosen such a path for himself when he was 25, which was how old I was when I started working with him. If it was okay for him, it was more than okay for me. I wouldn’t be doing what I’ve done for the past decade if not for him.

I’m not intimidated by the professional bar that Doug set. Maybe that’s my gift… or my folly. I feel overwhelmed by his personal bar. Do good, be good, care about others, treat them well. Simple, but not easy. Regardless, I’m determined to try. It’s the least I can do to honor my friend and everything he did for me.

Doug's 85th Birthday Party

May Progress Report on Balance and Impact

“I think I’m probably going to end up like a Tex Winter at some point. Maybe like a Pete Newell. Pete was on the sidelines for a number of teams for maybe the last 15-20 years of his life where he just encouraged people how to play. He sat with Lenny Wilkens in Cleveland for a number of years. He was a helpful consultant. That might be what I’m left to do — be a mentor of some sort.”

Phil Jackson, 67-year old basketball
coaching legend on his basketball future

The end of May has arrived, month five of my self-imposed and hopefully temporary retirement. As I noted a few weeks ago, I have some clarity on some professional goals and even some ideas about how to achieve them. As expected, this whole process has been both exciting and scary. It’s also sometimes depressing. When you put your heart and soul and sweat and tears into something for ten years, it becomes a huge part of who you are. Unraveling that feels like therapy, in both good and bad ways.

Earlier today, I read the above quote from Phil Jackson, and I found it a huge downer. That guy won 11 rings. I know he’s 67 with bad hips and a bad back and that he doesn’t want to do the coaching grind anymore, but there are undoubtedly better ways for him to be contributing to the game right now. What’s worse is that I kind of see myself in his words right now, even though I’m 30 years younger and nowhere near as accomplished.

I still get consulting inquiries, all of which I’ve turned down so far. It’s nice to know that people still respect you. It’s even nicer that Groupaya is still around and that Rebecca Petzel is still working as a consultant, as I can point people to either of them and feel good about the referral.

But I find a lot of that hard as well. It’s hard to turn down great projects, especially when your bank account is going in the wrong direction. Chatting with people about this stuff gets the intellectual juices flowing. Then the ego kicks in, as I imagine what I’d do if I took on those projects.

When I inevitably refer the work to my peers, I’m sometimes deflated by what I imagine will not happen because I’m not taking on the work. A lot of that is pure ego, silly and wrong. Some of it is not. Either way, it can be hard to let go.

Sometimes, I see work happening in less-than-skillful ways, and I get angry and feel myself wanting to fall back into comfortable roles and patterns. “Hire me as a consultant, and I’ll show you how it’s done!” I think to myself. Maybe I’m right. However, if I’m honest with myself about what it means to make a true impact while maintaining my health and sanity, I remember why I’m trying to break out of that very mindset.

Earlier this month, I attended the wonderful Creating Space conference in Baltimore, where Esther Nieves shared her motto: “Slow the pace, stay in the race.” I try to remind myself of this constantly, and when I’m actually practicing it, I can see it working. I’m thinking about things in a methodical way, and I’m liking how that process is going and how balanced my life is feeling while I’m doing that. I’m talking to a lot of people, listening deeply, trying to challenge my own assumptions about what needs to happen in the world. I’m doing experiments systematically, and I’m learning a lot that way.

Still, it’s hard. It does not come naturally for me to go slow, even when I’m actually and literally running. I occasionally go on long runs with my sister, who is constantly encouraging me to slow down so that I can run longer. I just can’t do it. I get bored. I’ll end up stopping after five miles, completely gassed, and she’ll keep running another three or four miles.

When I’m not using all of my skills, I feel underutilized and unhappy. I just have to keep reminding myself that I’m going slowly right now so that I can figure out ways to apply all of my skills in a more strategic, impactful, and joyful way.

Which brings me back to Phil Jackson and the world of sports. Earlier this year, as I went through a process of personal visioning, I put together a list of role models. One of those people was Jon Gruden, the youngest coach ever to win a Super Bowl at 41. He’s been out of coaching for the past four years, to the constant surprise of many pundits, given that he’s still young and in-demand and that he’s a self-proclaimed football junkie who has never had (nor wanted) a life outside of football. What I love about Gruden is that he’s found outside-the-box and probably even more impactful ways to stay close to the game.

I know what I’m passionate about, and I know what kind of life I want to live. I’m in that outside-the-box mode right now, which is occasionally a struggle, but which has been great overall. I think good things are going to come out of this whole process, although I am impatient to figure out what those things will be. I’ll just have to keep reminding myself: Slow the pace, stay in the race….

March Progress Report on Balance and Impact

At the start of this year, I reported that I had left Groupaya in pursuit of greater balance and impact. In addition to closing out some client work, my plan was to pause, reflect, and play.

Two months into 2013, I would say I’ve had moderate success. My life is certainly more balanced than it was the past few years, but it’s only been moderately more spacious. It’s been very easy for me to fill up my time, as I predicted it would. Overall, I’ve been good about filling that time with life as opposed to “work,” but “work” has crept in a bit more than I would like. For example:

I could have said no to some of these things, but they haven’t been the main reason for my lack of spaciousness. The main reason has been poor boundary management with my remaining client obligations. Ironically, I’ve been missing a lot of the structures from Groupaya that enabled me to maintain those boundaries. I left the company to create more space for myself, but that also meant losing some structures that enabled me to maintain that space. In particular:

  • I no longer have a team and operational infrastructure supporting my work. A lot of this stuff is mundane (like invoicing and scheduling), but time-consuming. I’m also missing some of our team accountability practices, which helped keep me disciplined in my obligations.
  • I stopped maintaining a regular work schedule, which made it all too easy for obligations to pile up rather than distribute evenly. I’ve also missed some of our team’s practices that helped me maintain a strong rhythm throughout the week, like our weekly checkins and our virtual water cooler.
  • I eliminated my Wednesday Play Days. I figured that all of my time right now is supposed to be play time, so I didn’t need to carve out a formal day for this. I was wrong.
  • I stopped time-tracking. I have historically avoided time-tracking like the plague. But at Groupaya, I actually became one of the strongest advocates and enforcers of the practice, because it enabled us to quantify our progress in many areas. We learned a ton from the practice, and it helped us improve many of our processes. But when I left, I immediately reverted. One of the reasons you leave an organization is so that you don’t have to do stuff like this. This was a mistake. As it turned out, tracking time is a wonderful way to keep you focused and to help you maintain your boundaries.

The good news is, I don’t need to be part of an organization to implement any of these structures. Now that I’ve felt their absence, I’m slowly bringing these structures back into my life, tweaking how I implement them to better fit my current circumstances.

The better news is, I’ve managed to retain other structures from my time at Groupaya that have enabled me to create more space in my life. (I’ll share these structures in another blog post.)

The best news is, I’m much more relaxed these days, my life feels much more balanced, and I’m learning a lot from unexpected places. (Again, more details to come in a future blog post.) Highlights have included:

  • My work! (I know, I know, I’ve got problems.) I’m excited about a workshop I’m co-organizing with Rebecca Petzel next week on how consulting can have a more transformational impact on the nonprofit sector. And I’m super excited by the culture change work I’m doing with the Hawaii Community Foundation. I’ve been able to do these projects slowly and spaciously, which makes them all the more fulfilling. And I’m being disciplined about not taking on any more client work as I finish up these projects.
  • I spent a week with my older sister and her family (including my two awesome nephews) in Cincinnati.
  • I’m seeing and reconnecting with lots of friends. I’ve been negligent about this the past few years, and it’s felt really good to make time for people I care about.
  • I’m cooking more.
  • I’m reading a ton, including two novels, which has been great, because I almost never read fiction anymore. I love to read, and I know my life is appropriately spacious when I’m doing a lot of it.
  • I’m running and hiking more, and I’m starting to play basketball again regularly.
  • I’ve started to get more serious about photography.
  • I’m taking care of a lot of real-life stuff. I’m examining and implementing systems for everything from financials to information management. This will require several more months to complete, which makes me wonder how anyone manages to do this stuff without taking extended time away from work.
  • I’m learning and re-learning a lot about myself. I’m still trying to make sense of what I’ve learned over the past ten years, and I don’t have clarity yet on what I want to do in the future, but I see the fog starting to dissipate.

I’m having to tweak things here and there, and I miss my old team a lot, but beyond that, life is great.

Grant Achatz, Small Business, Worldly Impact

Life, on the Line is the remarkable story of Grant Achatz, chef/owner of Alinea in Chicago and widely acknowledged as one of the best chefs in the world. It’s a compelling play-by-play of the commitment, vision, and tenacity required to be the best. It’s also a beautiful tale of the mentorship (from Thomas Keller), partnership (with Nick Kokonas, co-owner of Alinea and coauthor of the book), and friendship (with Keller, Kokonas, and many others) that kept Achatz on track. There’s even a bad guy (Charlie Trotter).

Oh yeah, and then there’s the tongue cancer.

In 2007, barely into his 30s and shortly after reaching the pinnacle of the restaurant world, Achatz was diagnosed with Stage IV tongue cancer. The prognosis was horrible. Most people with this form of cancer lose their tongue, half their face, and part of their neck. Only 50% survive after surgery. Achatz didn’t see the point of living this way and was ready to give up. Then he got lucky and found his way into a clinical trial at Northwestern. He managed to survive, tongue and face intact, but he also lost his sense of taste for many months (a story well-documented by the New Yorker in 2008).

The book was a page-turner in so many ways, and it’s a great read for anyone into food, high-performance collaboration, design, or new media. It’s a well-told story overall, but in my current state of exploration around impact, there was one brief, throwaway line in the Epilogue that caught my attention:

Alinea is a small business run by a small group of people.

After reading all of the great things that Achatz accomplished, and knowing the broader context for his story, it was remarkable to see his restaurant described this way. I was somewhat incredulous, so I ran the numbers using hints from the book. Sixty covers a night at an average of $200 a cover, five nights a week, 51 weeks a year for the flagship Alinea (not counting his other two restaurants, book royalties, appearances, etc.) — about $3 million in annual revenue. Given the downtown Chicago real estate, the cost of sourcing countless top-quality, often obscure ingredients, and 60+ salaries, it’s a miracle that they make any money at all.

So yes, it seems quite accurate to call Alinea a small business. Somehow, I found this comforting and inspiring. I want to live comfortably and joyfully, and I want to make an impact. I think it’s easy to get into the mindset that you have to create some sort of global, financial monolith in order to achieve that kind of success, but I don’t think that’s right. I like small business. I’ve started two of them, and I’d like to be part of another one. You can do that and make an impact.

Achatz’s story offers somewhat of a playbook for doing that. (It’s not the perfect template. Work-life balance is clearly not important to him. Maybe that’s an inevitable trade-off, but I haven’t quite succumbed to that belief yet.) I think the basic formula is simple, reminiscent of Steve Martin’s career advice to young comics:

Be so good they can’t ignore you.

There are lots of things that have to happen in order to scale your impact, but it starts with constantly working on your craft, constantly striving to be the very best you can be. Do that, be a good person, and all that other stuff will eventually fall into place. This book was an excellent reminder of that.