Obama: Keeping It About the Work

President Barack Obama on the time he felt most broken, from his interview with Humans of New York:

I first ran for Congress in 1999, and I got beat. I just got whooped. I had been in the state legislature for a long time, I was in the minority party, I wasn’t getting a lot done, and I was away from my family and putting a lot of strain on Michelle. Then for me to run and lose that bad, I was thinking maybe this isn’t what I was cut out to do. I was forty years old, and I’d invested a lot of time and effort into something that didn’t seem to be working.

But the thing that got me through that moment, and any other time that I’ve felt stuck, is to remind myself that it’s about the work. Because if you’re worrying about yourself — if you’re thinking: “Am I succeeding? Am I in the right position? Am I being appreciated?” — then you’re going to end up feeling frustrated and stuck. But if you can keep it about the work, you’ll always have a path. There’s always something to be done.

Via Rebecca Petzel.

My Six Favorite Essays on the Groupaya Blog

A random interaction with an old friend earlier today caused me to search for something I wrote on the Groupaya blog a few years ago. That got me nostalgic, and I ended up reading every post on the blog.

It was great to revisit these, and it stirred up some useful, sometimes nostalgic memories. I’m proud of what I wrote in my time there (2011-2012), but I’m even prouder of what Kristin Cobble and Rebecca Petzel wrote. They shared some wonderful gems.

It’s unfortunate that the company no longer prioritizes real-time knowledge sharing, since there’s a lot of wisdom in that group from which the world could benefit. It’s understandable, though. Sharing what you learn openly and in real-time is challenging, even scary, and it’s not for everyone. You have to really value it to do it.

If you do, however, you’ll find that it’s not that hard to make it a habit. It’s also tremendously rewarding, as I’ve been rediscovering through my Faster Than 20 blog. The act of writing and sharing is valuable in and of itself. It helps you think, and it helps you find your people. I am constantly humbled by the people I meet and touch through my writing.

But the most valuable benefit of blogging this way is that your ideas become persistent. (This is also what scares a lot of people.) Others can discover what you write long after you’ve written it. That can lead to new connections and possibilities. “Others” sometimes even includes yourself! I find revisiting old thinking to be a hugely valuable learning process, if only to remind me of thoughts I once thought and have since forgotten.

Here, in no particular order, are my six favorite essays from the Groupaya blog that I wrote:

  1. What Does the Collaboration Field Look Like?
  2. Measuring Impact: How You Feel Also Matters
  3. The Illusion of Control
  4. Practicing for the Emergent
  5. The Skillful, Intentional Practitioner.
  6. The Secret to High-Performance: Constant Striving

Enjoy!

Making Hard Choices

Earlier this week, a familiar foe reared its ugly head: irritability. Every little thing was annoying me, and I found myself wanting to snap at people.

It’s something I used to feel constantly at my previous job, but that I haven’t felt in quite some time. Back then, I wasn’t taking care of myself, and I wasn’t in an environment that encouraged me to take care of myself. Last year was a giant reset button. I rested, recovered, and reflected. I got clear about what I wanted to do next, and how I wanted to do it. I started carefully putting into place the structures that I thought I needed to support me in being successful and in maintaining balance. On January 6, 2014, I pressed “Go.”

Six weeks into the year, I’m doing okay, but I’ve been slipping. Old patterns are starting to reappear. They’re patterns that come from a good place. I’m loving my work, and good things are starting to happen as a result of the seeds I’ve been cultivating. The problem is that, when I start seeing little seedlings sprout, I get excited and motivated, and I want to go faster rather than maintain my pace. This is how I overwhelm myself. This is how my performance starts slipping. Worse, the thing that suffers most is my health and my personal life.

What’s been different is that I’m far more self-aware this time around, and my structures have really been helping me.

  • I’ve been monitoring my self-care dashboard religiously, and I have obsessively made sure I’ve been maintaining these practices.
  • I’ve been good about playing basketball regularly, decent at seeing friends.
  • I keep a timesheet, so I know exactly how much time I spend working, where, and on what days.
  • I’ve been using SCRUM principles for realistic planning and a Kanban Board to track and prioritize my tasks.
  • I formed a “colearning” group with which I’ve been doing regular checkins, which increases my accountability.

All of these things have been working, and yet I’m feeling like I’m about to slip into the abyss again. The reasons are simple: I’m working too much, but I don’t want to slow down.

Earlier this week, I was in a meeting with Rebecca Petzel, where she said, “I’m better at setting boundaries than Eugene is, but I use his tools to help me do that.” She was paying me a compliment, but she was also being real, and she was right. All the tools in the world won’t help you unless you are committed to your goals.

So now I’m in an interesting place. I’m doing too much, and the pace is starting to get unsustainable, but I’m feeling the temptation to do even more. The solution is simple: Do less. Cut something out.

My brain and my gut knows all this to be true, and I know my body will eventually enforce it, but only after I put it through its paces. My heart hates this, and my habits are all oriented against doing it. I want to live a healthy, balanced life, but I also don’t want to stop doing anything that I’m currently doing.

So what will I choose? Because at the end of the day, you can put all of the structures in place that you want, but it still boils down to choice. Will this time be different?

Passing the Torch

We hired Dana Reynolds as Groupaya’s administrative assistant in the middle of 2012. She was a recent college graduate who had all the attributes we were looking for — hard-working, competent, detail-oriented, learning-oriented. She was also ambitious and aggressive, two attributes I love and relate to. She wanted to become an organizational development consultant, and she was looking for a place where she could learn the trade.

This past year, as I started to explore what I wanted to do next, I thought a lot about Dana. I knew she was learning a tremendous amount from working closely with Kristin Cobble, my former business partner, but I also knew that actual practice opportunities were few and far between.

My new mission, in many ways, can be boiled down to this: Creating practice opportunities for people like Dana. Changemaker Bootcamp has been my primary experiment, but I’ve been playing with other ideas as well.

Dana participated in my most recent Changemaker Bootcamp pilot, and I got to see first-hand how much she’s grown in the year since I left Groupaya. After my exit interview with her, we discussed her career goals, and I saw how hungry she was for practice opportunities.

A few weeks later, an opportunity unexpectedly cropped up. Meghan Reilly of Code for America reached out to me and asked if I would facilitate their staff retreat. I explained that I no longer do that sort of thing, but I asked if she’d be open to having someone less experienced facilitate the retreat, with me serving as backup. She very graciously said yes.

We had done this together once before. Meghan had reached out to me two years earlier about the same thing. I had just started Groupaya with Kristin, and I saw it as an opportunity to give our associate, Rebecca Petzel, some practice with me as backup. Meghan graciously agreed, and Rebecca killed. The difference was that Rebecca was far more experienced then than Dana was now, and she had known a lot more about the organization and the civic innovation space. Having Dana do it was risky, and I did not take the faith that Meghan and the other leaders at Code for America had in me lightly.

So we prepared. Dana worked really hard and put in extra time to make sure she was ready.

The day before the retreat, Dana and I were supposed to meet to complete our preparation. At the last minute, I needed to find a different location for our meeting, so I reached out to Rebecca to see if we could use her coworking space. Rebecca said yes, and she also found time to sit in on part of our meeting, which was an unexpected bonus.

At one point, Dana asked me if she could keep time during the retreat on her cell phone. I opened my mouth to respond, but Rebecca jumped in beforehand. She took off her watch (which her best friend had given her), and she handed it to Dana.

She explained, “When I did their retreat two years ago, I realized that it was hard to keep time with my cell phone. I didn’t have a watch, so Eugene loaned me his. Now I want to loan you mine, so you can use it tomorrow.”

It was a beautiful gesture, and the spot where I was sitting may have gotten a little dusty at that point. Dana ended up doing an amazing job, far exceeding my expectations.

I’ve been thinking a lot about mentorship this past year. I worked very hard to get to where I am, but the reality is that I was also incredibly lucky to have mentors who believed in me and who opened doors for me. The most important one — the one who set me on this path in the first place — passed away earlier this year. I feel a huge responsibility to create opportunities for others in the same way that he did for me.

I very much hope that my professional peers feel the same way. The kind of work that we do around collaboration is urgent and necessary, and a lot more people need to learn how to do it effectively. We have a responsibility not just to pass on our knowledge, but to create opportunities for others so that they can learn the way we did.

Seeing Rebecca “pass the watch” to Dana meant a lot to me, but what has been even more gratifying has been watching Rebecca work. This past year, she led a six-month collective learning process with a group of civic engagement funders that was innovative and transformative. There are only a handful of people in the world who could have done the work as skillfully as she did, and that handful does not include me.

I want to live in a world where there are thousands of people like Rebecca doing the kind of work that she’s been doing as well as she’s been doing it. Dana will get there, but we need many, many more. In order for this to happen, those of us who are already doing this kind of work have a responsibility to share what we’ve learned and to create opportunities for others so that a new, better generation can emerge.

October Progress Report on Balance and Impact

I’ve been on quite the adventure since I last reported on my journey toward life balance and greater impact five months ago. In a nutshell:

  • My mentor passed away this past July. I was already in a reflective state, but Doug’s passing kicked it up a notch, and it reminded me why I’m doing what I’m doing.
  • I completed a second pilot of Changemaker Bootcamp, and I felt ready to take it to the next level. That process turned out to be simultaneously discouraging and hopeful. It was discouraging in that I wasn’t able to get the enrollment I had hoped for. It was hopeful in that I think I understand why, I felt a tremendous amount of support from most of my peers, and I feel a renewed commitment to making this happen. I just started a third pilot this past week, and I have strong interest from a few organizations to do a cohort bootcamp for them.
  • I started doing weekly checkins with my friend, Seb Paquet, which are about to evolve into a much larger experiment on new, networked ways of working. More on this soon.
  • I’m launching a new website next week. More on this soon.
  • I recently took on a consulting project.

Yes, that’s right, I’m consulting again. Up until last month, I had been very disciplined about turning down consulting opportunities, staying laser-focused on my own experiments. Then, two things magically aligned. First, I started actively seeking organizations interested in doing a cohort version of bootcamp. Second, Rick Reed of Garfield Foundation made me an offer I almost, but ultimately couldn’t refuse.

The philanthropic and nonprofit sectors are notoriously poor at collaborating. The problems are both cultural and structural, and they are particularly frustrating given the social mission of these sectors. I’ve mostly avoided these sectors — particularly philanthropy — because I think there are bigger leverages for change with less structural and cultural baggage, and I’d rather focus my energies there. However, I’ve obviously made exceptions.

In 2003, the Garfield Foundation launched an initiative that would eventually be called RE-AMP (“Renewable Energy Alignment Mapping Project”). The goal was to reduce global warming emissions across eight states in the Midwest, but the approach was markedly different from other initiatives in the sector.

Garfield spent several months convincing other organizations — both foundations and nonprofits alike — to sit at the table together as peers and to go through a strategic planning process together to see what they would learn. It was a long, arduous process with missteps along the way, but in the end, these organizations aligned around a common strategy. The collective strategy was different from what many organizations — including Garfield — had originally set out to do, and it required these organizations to take a long look in the mirror to see if they were truly committed to letting go of control and following what had emerged from the group.

More importantly, the group developed networked structures for working together. Rather than creating a new, centralized organization to manage processes and make decisions, they found ways to pool resources and build the capacity of existing organizations within the network.

This investment in network alignment and capacity has helped shut down a number of coal plants and resulted in many new clean energy regulations throughout the Midwest, results that would not have been possible without these organizations working in concert with each other.

Rick Reed, the initiator of this project, has his roots in sustainability activism, but his current mission is to change the way philanthropy works so that it is more collaborative. RE-AMP was a great success, and now he — along with his co-conspirator, Ruth Rominger — want to see if the model can work in other areas. Earlier this year, Garfield Foundation put out a call to find networks of nonprofits and foundations looking to solve complex problems together. For the next three years, Garfield wants to work side-by-side with one of these networks, providing both financial and knowledge resources, to help it achieve its goals.

I first met Rick a few years ago at a talk he and Heather McLeod Grant (who wrote a wonderful case study about RE-AMP) gave. Heather invited me to join Rick and Jennie Curtis, Garfield’s Executive Director, for dinner afterward. As it turned out, Rick was aware of some of my work, about which he had some kind and generous things to say.

When Garfield put out its call for proposals earlier this year, Ruth called me to explore the possibility of getting involved with the project. The obvious thing would have been for me to be part of the pool of potential consultants for the network that emerges from this process, but I put the kibosh on that idea. I wasn’t consulting anymore.

Still, we had a wonderful conversation. I was curious to hear more about what they wanted to do, and I was taken by how much of a learning mindset Ruth (and, as I would later discover, Rick) possessed. They did not make presumptions about their past success, nor did they apologize for it. They had a sense of conviction around the basic principles in which they did their work, but they were also very conscious of how nonlinear their learning was, and they were not looking to impose a recipe onto others. They are both smart, creative, and passionate, and they both have a very nice presence.

Flash forward to this past August. I was ready to test the Changemaker Bootcamp model on cohorts, and I was looking for pilot groups, so I started calling up various people I knew — including Ruth — whom I thought might know of potential groups. As it turned out, both Ruth and Rick were intrigued by the bootcamp idea and thought that whichever network emerged from their process might be a good candidate.

Furthermore, Garfield was just about finished whittling down its 62 applicants to ten, but Rick was feeling a desire to bring in some external thinking to help raise the quality of their evaluation and possibly prune the list further. So he came up with the following ideas:

  • Invite some network thinkers and doers to gather together for a day and to provide feedback on the potential finalists. He wanted to use this process as an excuse to surface a diverse set of experienced viewpoints into a robust evaluation framework.
  • Invite some of these guests to participate in the subsequent site visits with the finalists.

They ended up organizing a workshop with three of my favorite people in the field — Taj James, Nancy White, and Odin Zackman. That alone was reason for me to participate, but I had two other selfish reasons. First, I am on an ongoing quest to synthesize my thinking into usable frameworks. Second, I wanted to see Rick and Ruth in action.

As you might imagine, that day was amazing. Rick subsequently invited me to participate in the site visits, working around my schedule so that I could visit as many of the candidates as possible. We’ve also been exploring the possibility of me joining the “brain trust” for next year. I’m still not entirely sure what that means, but I love the spirit of their intent, and if all the cards fall in the right places, I’m going to do it.

This project is different in significant ways from my past consulting projects, but the reality is, it’s still consulting. I left consulting for a reason, and for me to come back to it, the project needed to align strongly with some very specific goals. Truthfully, I struggled with this. I was hypersensitive about the possibility of rationalizing my participation rather than being disciplined and strategic about my choices.

I discussed my quandary with some close colleagues — Seb and Rebecca Petzel in particular — which helped quite a bit. But it was something that my friend, Mariah Howard, shared with me that really helped me see more clearly.

Improv is among Mariah’s many talents. She explained that, in improv, audiences love to watch performers scramble. A classic improv technique is to throw unexpected curveballs that force the performers to think on their feet. This opportunity, Mariah suggested, was one of those curveballs — new information that I didn’t have before when I was formulating my strategy and making decisions. She encouraged me to play rather than obsess.

My goal is to help as many people as possible improve their collaborative literacy by focusing on two specific leverage points: practice and artifacts. Those happen to be two things that Rick and Ruth value tremendously. I need a testbed on which to experiment with ideas. Rick and Ruth have created an amazing testbed in which the stakes are meaningful, and they have been extremely generous in inviting me to play with them. If we’re successful, it will be both a learningful and impactful experience.

I’m going to continue developing Changemaker Bootcamp (which will hopefully overlap with the Garfield work). I will continue to pursue my other experiments (although I’ve had to whittle down the list, always a good discipline). I’m going to leverage the tools and practices I’ve developed over the past year to stay focused on my goals, to adapt in thoughtful ways, and to live a balanced life. I’m going to take the time to reflect on and to share what I’ve learned. I’m going to take lots of pictures.

Most importantly, I’m going to have fun! I feel extremely blessed to even have the opportunity to do this kind of work with such incredible people, and I do not take that lightly. I love the whole range of projects in which I’m engaged right now. I’ve already walked away from the Garfield site visits inspired and challenged, and I’m looking forward to sharing more!