I started another book tonight, when I should have been studying for my Finance exam. The  working title is The Eight Greatest Fears of Sam Reichardt. I’m hoping by the time it’s written, long titles will be back in fashion.

This makes three active projects: No Chance in Hell (in drafting), The Falcon and the Bluebird (outlined, with chapter list), and the Eight Greatest Fears (in outline). This is probably not a great way to work, but once I get an idea, I am terrified of forgetting it, so I have to start developing it and writing it down right away. 

I don’t go through this beginning process all that often, and I was having thoughts about it, so I feel like it might be worth documenting here.

I have seen writers try to divide themselves into Pantsers and Plotters, that is whether you sit down and just start writing, or whether you make an outline first. I refuse to choose. I think both are useful tools in the writer’s arsenal, and that both are skills every writer should learn, because they lend themselves to different developmental problems. Thus, I am both.

But the outline isn’t the beginning.

The Beginning

In the beginning, there’s an idea. A mood. A theme. A concept that the writer wants to express in narrative. I work on this idea until I can express it in a one-sentence narrative. In this case (spoilers? but you’ll have forgotten all of this by the time the book is published, I’m sure) the idea was exposing oneself to fear, and the vulnerability inherent in bravery. There’s more to it than that, but this is the root of it. I work that into a narrative sentence: a woman sets out to face down her eight greatest fears.

The number eight has no significance here; I just liked how it sounded.

Now I start fleshing that out. Why does she do this? What does she stand to gain? What does she stand to lose? What obstacles does she face?

Note: I have not written anything down yet. This is all brain work, and most of it is back of the brain work.

The Structure

Once this idea has ripened in the back of my head sufficiently, I begin laying out the structure. I can’t tell you when your idea is ripe. It is a feeling, more than a specific stage of development. I often have to resist the urge to sit down and start writing, because if I write before my pre-writing is done, there will be a mess to clean up.

This process of laying out the structure is not really the outline; it’s what comes before the outline. I decide which structure I want to use, and start sketching it out on a notepad I keep on my desk. I almost always start with the three act, eight sequence structure from screenwriting. It’s very straightforward and without it I often struggle with pacing. The three act eight sequence structure helps me keep things tight.

I start mapping out the main plot points on to the eight sequences. I always, always have missing pieces here. It’s part of the process. It’s like you’re putting together a skeleton and you have missing bones. So where the bones are missing, I write down questions. 

Then I usually map this on to Dan Harmon’s plot embryo in order to square up thematic elements. The plot embryo is based on the Hero’s Journey, which as conceived by Joseph Campbell is kind of out of date and a little sexist, but the plot embryo kind of modernizes it a little bit, in my opinion, by loosening it up. 

So now I’ve got my plot points and my questions written down, and I’ve set up some thematic elements to include and have decided how the events in the story will reflect those themes.

Let it Age

This is the only solution I have to coming up with the answers to my questions. This is more back of the brain work. I have come to understand that a great deal of this creative work happens when I’m not looking. This is where those ah-ha moments come from; they are not bolts from the blue. Your brain has been working on these things while you’ve been going about your day, and when the work is done, the egg timer in your head goes ding, and the new answer is served up hot and fresh into your conscious mind.

This can take days, or it can take weeks. Don’t rush it. You’ll regret it if you do.

Flip back to the page of the notebook with your structure on it. Re-read it. Start jotting in the answers to your questions. This may bring you additional questions. If so, great. Write them down and start this step again. You are iterating. It is fine.

What happens if the answers don’t come?

There are two possibilities.

One, your idea might not be very good, or it might be incomplete. There are a variety of ways to build out an idea, including mind-mapping and brainstorming. I also particularly like telling someone else (a non-writer, that’s very important) my ideas and seeing what they come up with.

Two, your idea is good, but you’re not ready to write it yet. You don’t have the requisite experience or understanding. That is also fine. Put the page you were working on away and come back to it when it creeps back into your awareness.

The Outline

Now it is time to outline! Take your plot points, your thematic elements, and your questions and answers and open a file in your word processor of choice.

Start with the biggest simplest structure. For me, that’s Acts I, II, and III. Break it down a little smaller. for me that’s the eight sequences. Break it down a little smaller than that. For me, that means putting in all the little things I know I want to include that aren’t big enough to be main plot points. These can be in there for a variety of reasons; they can lead to a plot point, or support a thematic element, or whatever.

Keep doing this until you’re at the end of Act III. 

The Chapter List

I always write a chapter list before I start writing. I think about how long I want the book to be, and then I think about how long my chapters are likely to be on average. This depends on the kind of book, usually. Faster paced, more action oriented stories are likely to have shorter chapters, and more literary style books are likely to have longer chapters. Maybe I want a 150k word book, and I estimate that my average chapter length is going to be 3k words. I know I’m going to need around fifty chapters.

I know that Act I is going to take up the first quarter of the book (37k-ish words, in this example) and that tells me what needs to happen within those first twelve to thirteen chapters according to my outline. So I start writing down a one sentence description of what happens in each chapter. Some chapters will be blank right now and that’s okay! You’ll fill them in as you go.

This is important: you will not follow this chapter list to the letter. Things will change as you write, and that’s just part of the process. But the glory of the chapter list is that if I get stuck somewhere, I can skip a head (or go back) to a different chapter and keep writing while whatever I’m stuck on eventually gets resolved in the back of my brain.

There. Now you’re ready to write your first sentence. 

Easy, huh?

 

I’m working as a graduate assistant at the university that I’m attending. When I first decided to do this, it was just a way to make extra money and reduce my tuition costs. I found myself working for the marketing department, helping manage a work study project for nine undergrad students, and despite my expectations, I’m finding I really love my job!

The work study project is a new way of handling Integrated Marketing Communications curriculum. I’m excited to create and complete tasks related to my job, I spend time every day thinking about how to do things better, thinking of things we need to teach these students to get them prepared for creating content in the real world.

I think there are a few reasons I’m so excited about this work.

This is the way this class should always have been taught.

I took Integrated Marketing Communications as an undergrad as a marketing elective, and while the class did provide useful information and skills, the only practical experience we got was creating an integrated marketing communications plan, with a few digital assets.

In the work study version, we’re helping a team of students put together a real content campaign for a real client. This means that they’ll learn a lot of skills they’ll need as a marketing professional, and they’ll learn it by doing. I’m actually a little jealous of them. I’m trying to give them access to the skills I would’ve liked to have had when I started out creating content.

I’m learning too!

Another thing that’s really great about this job is that I’m learning too! I’m looking for and putting together resources for the team, and a lot of it is about stuff that I’m not an expert at, like SEO. Not only that, but I’m learning more about how to manage a team at the same time. 

I am passionate about learning, and one of my ongoing projects is to teach myself the skills that I didn’t get from a traditional marketing program. A lot of this material changes so quickly (like SEO) that it’s difficult to create curriculum that is evergreen, so I think a lot of it gets passed over. The program also dedicated so much time to theory that there wasn’t a lot of room for practical skills, so this gives me dedicated time to teach myself these things.

I like my team.

I’ll admit, I was kind of dreading working with undergrads. I just remember the intense frustration I experienced trying to work with my peers in undergrad; they didn’t care about performance or learning or intellectual rigor. They did all the work at the very last minute. They didn’t bother showing up to meetings (or class) on time, and I longed to be around people who took their education as seriously as I took mine. This is one of the things I love about grad school: people are there not because they feel like they have to be, but because they have a goal they want to reach, and they’re willing to work for it.

But the work study team is so small, and it’s full of people who want to be there. It’s a job as well as a class, so there was a selection process. I don’t know what that process was, or how many applicants there were originally, but these folks had to apply, which indicates they’re here because they want to be. So far, and it’s early in the quarter, nobody has had to be pushed to do their work. Nobody has balked at receiving feedback. A student even asked to have a meeting with me about the project. It’s fantastic.

I like my boss.

So far, and like I said above it’s early in the quarter, my boss and I have a great working relationship. I actually took the old Integrated Marketing Communications course from him, so we’re familiar with one another, and I think that helps. He treats me like a partner, a peer, rather than like a subordinate. He tells me what we need to get done, and we do it. I tell him something I’d like to do, and he tells me it’s a great idea and I should do it. In fact, I have a hand in shaping how this project develops.

I don’t know if I’ve ever had that kind of creative (and it is creative) freedom in a professional capacity before, nor this level of responsibility, and honestly I’m thriving. I’m excited about the work, I’m eager to handle tasks and assignments, I’m happy to engage with the students. I love it. I get up excited about the work I’m doing, and that’s a rare feeling for me.

My boss and I think similarly in a lot of ways. Not all of them, and I think that’s part of why this works. I think we’re complementary in our communication and work styles, and we’re both willing to put in extra work to make sure this is everything it can be, and that’s a wonderful environment to work in.

I’m passionate about the subject matter.

As I’ve said here before, I love digital content. It’s my favorite part of marketing. It’s a part of culture, it influences and is influenced by culture, and in that sense, it’s similar to my other love, fiction writing. I love how the internet has  democratized content, even though the results of that are sometimes suboptimal (hi, white supremacists).

So I’m able to approach the subject matter with all that passion and excitement, and I hope that I get to excite our students with my approach to the subject as well. And that’s aside from the fact that I get to help with something I love. And I get to immerse myself in learning and doing something I love. It’s really a win-win situation.

It’s the real world.

My experience with the prior Integrated Marketing Communications course was good, but the end result of the class was an IMC plan and a few digital assets for a fictional organization. The fact that this work is being done for a real client in the real world, the fact that we’re developing real assets and real content that will be available to the public, in fact intended to be distributed to the public, really excites me.

But on the other side of the coin, because we’re all doing this in the context of a university classroom, we have our training wheels on. The lower risk means that we have the room to make mistakes, to fail upward, as it were. This gives us the freedom to try things out, see if they work, and learn from them. We can take safe risks, and risk is vital to creativity. Risk is vital to learning.

I comfort myself with the fact that I’m still writing. In fact, I’m writing in ways that stretch my skills more than writing fictional narrative does, because I have more experience and practice with fiction. I am expanding the boundaries of the notorious comfort zone, and making myself a better writer all around.

But I still miss writing fiction.

It has been a long time, months, since I’ve written on any of my current works-in-progress. Since starting the MBA program, maybe longer. You might say to yourself, well winter break is the perfect time to dive back into the work you love! The fact is, I’m spending more time on professional blogging pursuits than on fiction during the break.

But Why?

I’m not sure. It’s complicated. It has to do with the way that long-form artistic work functions, I think. First, to start again, I would have to go through reams of notes and read through my manuscript again before I’d know where to start or what to do. Second, it takes a while to get into and then to get out of that particular mode of work (at least it does for me), so break feels like a short time to get back into it. 

I know that sounds odd for someone who can write a book in a couple of months, but it really does depend on the mode of work. I don’t like using the phrase “flow state,” because I think it’s misunderstood, but I think that’s the closest I could get to actually naming the phenomenon.

There’s also a lurking fear in there that being in my academic frame has changed the way I write, and I might ruin the good things that are already in the manuscript. The idea that there might be an abrupt change in tone or focus of the writing as a result of having taken so much time off the project is a real fear (whether or not it’s justified) and it feels safer just to let it lie until I can really focus on it.

Which, of course, will be never. Because artists have day jobs, and there’s always things to get in the way and it’s never the “right time” to write a novel, and all of the dozen other things I railed against when I started writing. 

It’s funny, I used to be able to write any time, anywhere. I remember coming home with folded stacks of scrap paper in my pocket, a new chapter, ready to be typed into the main document.

What Changed?

I don’t know, a lot of things changed. Some personal, some environmental. My brain is different, for starters, for a host of reasons. I lead a more structured life now than I used to, something that’s necessary to maintaining academic performance and robust physical health. I guess I am more of an adult now, which isn’t a good thing or a bad thing, but it is a thing. 

There are all kinds of things that adults let get in the way of writing, like meals and sleep and housework and social events. We trade the magic of writing half a book in a week for the drudgery of not living in filth and eating cold hot dogs at our laptops. Is it a worthwhile trade? I don’t know. Both modes of living have their ups and downs, obviously.

I appreciate the stability and structure of this adult life. I am grateful for the benefits it’s had for my health and general well-being. Structure helps me use my brain more effectively, understanding when to switch frames and tasks, and how to prioritize those things. There are massive benefits to not being a largely dysfunctional but tremendously productive author.

Unlike many famous white dude authors of the recent past, I don’t have a dedicated wife to take care of me, to edit my drafts and feed me and remind me to bathe. This seems to be a privilege reserved for artistic men. So I can’t hedge against sacrificing control of my life on the altar of creative pursuits in that way.

And the things that I’m doing instead are personally fulfilling and interesting in their own ways. But I still miss fiction

What Do You Miss About It?

Oh gosh. A lot of things. The risk is part of it. You can take risks in professional and academic writing, sure, but they’re different. In fiction it’s more about taking big risks that impact an imaginary world, while professional and academic pursuits involve taking smaller risks that impact my very real world. The sense of scale and feeling of recklessness are missing.

I also have this flair for the dramatic that isn’t satisfied by most academic or professional writing. You want to bring something of your personality to anything you write, obviously, because otherwise you could just get an AI to write it for you. Your personality, your voice, is what makes you marketable as a writer. But there’s a limit to the drama that you can inject into it.

In fiction, you can find ways to allow yourself to dramatize things to absurd degrees, though, and I do miss that. I miss the feeling of drawing out tension, the feeling of releasing that tension. I miss the ability to change the scope of the writing to serve my mood, zooming way in small or pulling way back. So I guess there’s an element of power to it too. I can make whatever I want, present it how I want the reader to see it, magnify the things I find important. I am the sole view into a fictional world when I write fiction; I am the final arbiter of reality, and my own propagandist. 

There’s an element of craft that I miss there too. I mean craft is a consideration in any writing, no matter how technical; things must be read and easily understood by your chosen audience, and that’s craft. But the options are almost unlimited in fiction. I could spend  three paragraphs writing about a rock on a beach, spinning it into a metaphor on the story’s theme, or whatever. There’s a lot less of that in professional and academic writing, and the rules you do it under are a lot less lenient.

I also miss the culture surrounding fiction writing. I miss getting to discuss structure and craft with other authors. I miss that particular camaraderie. 

So basically everything, I guess.

So What Are You Going To Do About It?

That’s always the question, isn’t it? What am I going to do about it? Am I going to keep whining about it and not change anything? Am I going to dip my toe back in with some short fiction? I really should write more short fiction. Or am I going to read through my manuscript and puzzle out where I left off and what I was doing at the time, and then plunge in?

Which is easiest? Which is most practical? Which is most satisfying?

Ten years ago it felt like there would always be time for more writing. But now I’ve got three books on the back burner and it’s been years since I last published something. My education is preparing me for a career that will involve full time work, which means writing in the cracks and margins. How much time do I really have left to prioritize my fiction? Forty more years, if I’m lucky? I’ve already lived forty years and I’ve only got two books out. You can see how the pressure starts to mount.

I do not and will not have kids, but faced with questions like these I often wonder how I would advise my children in this same situation.

It would probably be something along the lines of follow your dreams! I know you can make it work! or something equally trite. Something that ignores the complexity of real life.

Because that’s the really great part of fiction; ignoring the complexities of real life.

Because the complexities of real life are soul-killing and boring, and it’s that, more than anything else, that I would want to protect my children from as long as possible.

 

 

So I wanted to post an update regarding the Shanghai trip.

And I’ll give you the bad news first.

The Shanghai trip has been cancelled.

The faculty in charge of the trip say that they couldn’t in good conscience risk exposing us to the Wuhan coronavirus.

I am on a drug that suppresses my immune system, so I’ll admit the virus has been a concern for me, but I decided that if the university faculty decided that it was safe, I would still go. 

They have decided it is not safe enough.

But. And here’s the good news. Maybe.

They’re saying now that they may move the trip to a university in southern Taiwan. 

This is not a sure thing; they are gauging interest to see if it’s worth making arrangements. If we don’t have enough people willing to go on the trip, it won’t happen. Some members of my cohort already sound like they’re dropping out of the trip, so it’s a big question mark right now.

I really hope the trip goes ahead, though. Taiwan is a beautiful and culturally complex place, and I would love the chance to experience it. 

Also it’s warm and I’m very tired of the Northwest winter.

If the trip doesn’t go ahead, I’ll be offering refunds to all donors to the trip fund.

If the Taiwan trip goes ahead, I’ll still offer refunds in case any of my donors are uncomfortable with the change in location.

I feel that going to Taiwan will accomplish the same educational and personal development goals that I had for Shanghai, and if it happens, I’ll be really excited to go. I’ve never been to Taiwan.

That’s the update. Bad news, followed by possible good news. I’ll keep everyone updated as the situation develops.

Getting good at stuff is a constant pursuit of mine. Unfortunately, what that stuff is sometimes changes from day to day, which is a bit derailing. As an adult, I’ve gotten better at prioritizing and organizing things I want to get good at.

If you want to get good at a lot of stuff, that necessarily will make you something of a generalist. This isn’t bad; it makes you flexible, agile, adaptable. All of which are desirable traits in any professional role. But there will always be someone more expert than you in any single subject, so be prepared for that.

Getting good at stuff carries an important benefit other than just being good at stuff. You learn how to learn. If you’ve already learned how to learn, it helps keep that skill sharp. Learning is a skill, and if you don’t keep using it, it starts to degrade over time. Knowing how to learn keeps you agile, and it keeps you moving forward in both your professional and personal lives. But how do you get good at stuff? This is a question I wrestle with periodically, especially for things that my school doesn’t offer classes on. What follows are lessons that I have learned in my pursuit of getting good at stuff.

Use Professional Resources.

One of the resources I overlooked the most in my youth was my job. I was, like most college dropouts in their twenties, both bewildered and sure that I knew everything I needed to. I thought the garbage job I had would last forever, and that it would forever be appropriate for me.

Now that I’m older, I’ve found ways to look into my professional situations for things to learn. I learned about my last professional role voraciously, asking for additional projects, volunteering to help other departments, and finding tasks that I could take over from my supervisor. Not because I wanted to get more work done for my wage, but because I wanted to learn. You can nudge this to get it to work better for you. If you’re early in your career and working entry level positions, seek out a role that complements or assists a role similar to what you’d like to do in the future. Ask for extra work (assuming it won’t derail your existing duties). Offer to help during the end of year budget scramble. Take notes for meetings. Humbling yourself to assistant level tasks puts you in a great position to learn.

Use Academic Resources.

I have an advantage in getting good at stuff right now because I’m in an academic setting, paying to be taught stuff. And if you’re so inclined and have the financial ability to do it, I think going back to school is a great idea. Lots of master’s programs have evening and weekend programs available, and you can develop a skill set that complements your existing degree. Or, if you haven’t graduated from university, it is never too late to start. Going back to school was life changing for me. It helped me find direction, and if I’m going to be honest, it helped me see a future for myself where I wasn’t sure one existed. But you don’t have to make these kinds of commitments to avail yourself of academic resources. Many community colleges and some universities will offer continuing education programs where you can take one or two courses for not a huge amount of money, and these courses might just be enough to get you started. And once you get started, once you have the basics, there’s a lot you can teach yourself.

Use Your Personal Resources.

You have friends and family and coworkers that know stuff. Ask them how they got good! These people have knowledge that they might not even know is valuable. They won’t have the time to teach you every step of the way, most likely, but they can tell you how they got good at stuff, and even point you toward resources that will help you get started. You can even offer to work with them or assist them in doing the thing they’re good at, whether it’s fixing cars or carpentry or baking. And that’s not just a great opportunity to learn, it’s a chance to build much needed community bonds as well. Your friend or family member will probably be flattered that you want to learn from them, too.

Find Free Resources.

We live in the internet age! There’s dozens of free resources for learning all kinds of things, from languages to arts and crafts to coding! Fire up your search engine of choice and start looking. Some things to look out for:
  • Some websites will claim to have free resources but will want you to pay at the moment of conversion.
  • Some free resources on the internet are just not that good. If someone’s not getting paid to provide that service, it may be spotty or out of date.
  • You may need to cobble together multiple free resources to get the information you want.

Use Paid Resources.

Honestly, some of the paid resources available on the web are really good. When people make money off of providing information, they’re likely to put more labor into it and keep it timely. Some of these resources can be had at a really good deal; I bought a course on Python from Stackskills on a pay-what-you-want sale, and I still consider it to be a smart move. I haven’t done the course yet but I do have it bookmarked. Look, I have a lot of things I want to learn, okay? Anyway, there’s always the temptation to think that you can get what an online course is offering for free elsewhere, and in some cases that’s true, but the benefits you get when paying for it can include things like structure, timeliness, different course formats (video, etc), and even the ability to ask questions. An entire product category has sprung up around learning from experts on the web. If you can afford it, take advantage of it.

Don’t Wait; Get Started.

Regardless of how you choose to get good at stuff, the most important part is to get started. Is it more important for you to learn a thing, or to watch Hulu? (You can learn things from watching television too!) Sometimes you’ll want to watch Hulu, but sometimes you’ll want to put energy and time into getting good at stuff. When those times arise, get up, and get started.

A reader asked me to write about where the creative and the analytical intersect in business, and while I’m sure I’ve written around this topic before, I thought maybe I should try writing directly at it. Maybe by doing so I’ll hit on some things I haven’t covered or even thought about before. Maybe by doing so, I’ll express ideas in more concrete ways than I have before.

We do get better as we write more, after all.

Problem Solving is Creative.

What is creativity?
Creativity is defined as the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves and others. Human Motivation, 3rd ed., by Robert E. Franken
This is just one definition of a concept that often defies such encapsulation. Creativity is often thought of as the domain of artists and writers, and while the creative ability is essential in these fields, it’s about so much more than art, music, and literature. Creativity is about experiencing the world in novel ways, looking at things differently, and using that experience to find and develop solutions to problems. This may seem sterile, but if your creative act doesn’t solve some kind of problem, it will never make it in the public domain. Even art, despite the rarified position we give it in culture, is a tool used to solve problems. In fact, one of the common ways to measure creative thought is the “unusual uses” test. This is a test in which a subject gives as many different uses as they can for a common object (a brick, for example). The more different uses, the more creative thought is employed. This test measures creativity, and requires the subject to come up with practical uses for an everyday object; in short, ways that object can be used to solve problems.

Business is About Solving Problems.

What excited me the most in my study of business was coming to understand the whys behind business. Before I get started, this is a sort of a starry-eyed description and is in no way intended to imply that all business is good or beneficial. There are obviously bad, exploitative businesses out there. Business at its heart is about solving problems.

No, no, you say. Business is about increasing shareholder wealth!

Okay, well the truth is more complicated than that, especially these days, but even within this Friedmanist view, the way to build shareholder wealth is to solve problems. Specifically, to come up with solutions to problems that people will pay you for. Successful business (okay not all of them, some of them are terrible) do this well. Solving problems, as addressed above, is not a purely analytical process. Problem solving skills are taught in an analytical way, though, so this is how we come to understand them. But the truth is, effective problem solving involves both skill sets: the creative and the analytical.

Not Every Job in Business is Creative, But Some Are.

This is why business often requires multiple minds. Not because analytical thinking and creative thinking are opposites (they aren’t), but because we’re taught about these skills in very different ways, and so we tend to specialize. So we end up with people who specialize in the creative, and spit out idea after idea regardless of their practicality. This is incredible, the ability to just generate solutions. It’s also one of the ways we now measure creativity in experiments and studies, actually. But people who specialize in the creative often lack the structure (again, not due to inability, but due to how these skills are coded in the culture) to organize and execute these ideas. So we also need structure specialists, and that’s where we have those who have specialized in the analytical. They can take those ideas, structure them, rank them, test them, and find the ones that are the best for any given situation. Then they can measure them and present the results in digestible and organized formats for the creativity specialists to iterate on. Because these skills are culturally coded as opposites, we have structured most businesses to have different roles for the creative and the analytical, although we do see this separation breaking down in modern, effective business workplaces.

Creativity is a Business Asset.

The ability to take a problem and come up with multiple solutions is a tremendous business asset. Sadly, most workplaces are built not to encourage creativity, but to discourage, even punish it, because creativity carries risk, and successful businesses have a lot to loose. We waste a lot of creative assets in this way,

because of how we handle failure

. Again, modern workplaces are getting better at encouraging their workers to practice creativity, but American business has a long way to go before they’re taking full advantage of this resource, in my humble opinion. There are still companies and roles in which creative workers are considered to be an unfortunate nuisance, a regrettable yet necessary part of the value chain. But business has its fashions, and if “creativity” was the buzzword of the previous decade, “business analytics” is the buzzword of the current one. Business today is looking for data, reams of it, and the charts and graphs that go along with it. Whole business realms are now data driven in a way that simply wasn’t possible ten years ago, and this is the root of a lot of innovation. Not just in terms of supply chain efficiency and service effectiveness, but also in terms of sustainability. But don’t let the data analytics buzz fool you; the people who are making new ideas out of that data are the same people that have always helped bring signals out of noise. Creative workers.

Creative is not the Opposite of Analytical.

This is something that took me a long time to learn, and I still think it’s something I haven’t fully internalized yet. While there is a degree of chaos and risk involved in creative work, the structure of the analytical and the mess of the creative are not opposites. You do not sit on a spectrum between analytical and creative. You in all likelihood have both skills, and have developed one in preference to the other due to how you were socialized as a child. This is something I’ve struggled with most of my life. I was recognized early as a creative kid, an artsy kid. My parents encouraged me to develop that skill, and made allowances for my deficits in the maths and sciences. The message I received was clear; I was not supposed to be good at those things, because I was already good at this thing. And I labored under that belief for most of my life. It wasn’t until I got to college (the second time) and pursued a business education that I came to realize that I did have analytical ability. It is not as developed as my creative skill, not because I lacked natural aptitude, but because I had not developed those skills. I had never been told I had those skills, or that I had the option to develop them. During my second stint at college, I had the opportunity to undo some of that. I had opportunities to develop analytical skill. I was still behind where I thought I should be, because I had not been practicing these skills for the last twenty years. But I could get better. And I did. And the secret is, gaining more analytical skill did not make me less creative. Because these two things are not opposites.

Business is Creative.

One of the things that stunned me most on entering the study of business was how very bright and interesting and creative my instructors were. Granted, I entered a focus (marketing) that tends to collect more creatively skilled people, but still. The use of creative skills in this field had to be structured by research, by process, by data. Even classes outside of my concentration that required analytical frameworks only bolstered the usefulness of my creative skills. I went from planning to be an art major to being a business major, and I never felt a single qualm about it. No sense of self-betrayal, and after I was embedded in the program, no sense that I was a poor fit for the field. And that’s because business is creative, and creativity is business.

This might seem like an odd topic to write about on a blog that’s ostensibly professional, but it’s about an important part of who I am and what drives me.

I feel very nervous writing about it, in fact. Which is probably a sign that I should write about it.

A classmate of mine recently asked me when I came out, and my response, “oh, a year or two ago,” prompted a surprised response.

I actually came out to my friends as genderqueer before I came out as bi. In school, I am more willing to discuss my sexuality than my questions/understanding of gender. This realization led me to the understanding of how complex these contexts are, and as I develop friendships within my cohort these contexts grow closer together and overlap in uncomfortable ways.

This post is going to talk about sexuality more than gender. I think my feelings about gender and my identity are complex enough topics to deserve their own space.

Wait, You Came Out in Your Forties?

When you’re a bi woman, I think, and especially if your attraction to men and women (catering to the binary for the sake of simplicity) is roughly equal, it’s easy to believe that you’re straight. And this is what happened to me. As an artsy kid, I rationalized that female beauty that struck me dumb was an artistic appreciation. That the women that I wanted to fawn over in my life were simply people I deeply admired.

It wasn’t until age 40-41 that I started to recognize deeply gay feelings I was having for what they were.

I attribute this to my existing in a circle of friends in which queerness and same-sex attraction is very normalized. It suddenly seemed not so strange that I would see a woman in a midriff baring shirt and kinda want to squeeze her belly. That I would want to kiss a woman’s shoulders. It was no longer something I could pass off as artistic, as platonic admiration.

I went home and said to my roommate: “I’ve been having some very gay thoughts today.”

She leaned forward and said, “tell me more.”

And I did.

I really benefited from having someone to talk to about it in a non-judgmental way, someone with whom I could verbalize what I’d been feeling and sort of get things untangled.

A few days, maybe a week later, I came out as bi on Facebook.

Why Bi?

I identify as bisexual probably because I’m older, and it feels more comfortable to me. The bi identity is often accused of being binary and transphobic, but it means that I am attracted to genders the same as mine (homosexual) and those different than mine (heterosexual).

People say that “pansexual” is an identity better fitting this definition, but I don’t know, it just sounds so modern and wishy-washy to me, so I don’t use it.

Since coming out, I have felt a great deal more attraction to women than to men, and I’m not sure if it’s a case of waking up in a beautiful garden and wanting to smell all the flowers, or if it’s a genuine reflection of my orientation. Either way, I don’t know that it matters. I don’t think I’m a lesbian. I’m absolutely for sure not straight.

I think I might be done dating men. This is not a reflection of my orientation; I still find some men attractive. I’m just so tired of dating men and all the bullshit that comes with it, and statistically cis straight men are just not good in bed. This squares with my experience with sex with cis straight men. So why put in the effort if the sex is bad and the relationship fraught with societal issues around gender?

I also don’t know about dating women? This new (it’s not new, but more on that later) attraction is kind of scary. The thought of learning how to have sex all over again at age 41 is intimidating and women are beautiful and scary. But if I were to date, if I were to even eventually marry, I would prefer it be with a woman or non-binary person rather than a cis man.

See how complicated this gets?

How Could You Not Know?

Well, there were signs, right? I should have known.

Those girls and women that I felt compelled to make meticulously handcrafted gifts for, those were people I had crushes on. The teachers and professors that I worked so desperately to please, I found them beautiful. My often lackluster attraction to my male lovers, that was a sign, too.

The fact that I would make out with women whenever I was drunk and had a willing accomplice, that was a sign too.

But the fact is, since I was sexually attracted to men, and since I grew up in a time when “gay” was the worst thing you could be, it was a matter of internalized homophobia causing me to ignore those feelings, to rationalize them away, to be what I should be: a straight woman who has sex with men.

I had an advantage in this sense. I avoided harm that came to my contemporaries as a consequence of their sexual orientation. I lived as a straight person for most of my life, and I consider this a form of privilege, because I lived out of reach of the violence and hatred that was visited upon gay people during my youth.

But I also feel as though I gave up the opportunity to acknowledge and explore this part of me, and as a result, may have missed out on important, life changing relationships. I missed out on part of who I am. And I feel that loss now that I’m out. I feel it almost every day.

Why is This Important?

I mean, it’s personally important, right? Let’s not just take that for granted. But lots of things that are personally important to me don’t make it on to this blog.

As a marketer, I consider myself a cultural worker. As a writer, I am most definitely a cultural worker. And my identities and how they intersect absolutely impact my work in cultural spaces. That includes both writing and marketing. That doesn’t mean I can only market in queer spaces, but it does mean that I have an ability that straight people may not have to understand some of the ways messaging impacts queer communities (the LGBTQ space is very diverse and I by no means speak for or to all of the many communities covered under this umbrella).

It also means that I’m more likely to write in ways that include non-straight, non-cis people. This has cropped up in my fiction especially, where even before my late revelation, I had taken to writing queer and gender non-conforming characters. And that’s something that’s going to continue.

This is valuable, because as our culture is (slowly) becoming more accepting to diverse orientations and identities, we’re going to see more people like me; more people who were safe living as cis straight people and could reasonably pull it off coming out, and fewer teens and young adults who feel the need to hide their identities even from themselves to be safe.

The world is not getting straighter and more binary, in short. The internet age reduces information asymmetry and speeds social change. And writers and marketers will need effective ways to address those changes.

Aside from being personally significant, my orientation and my identity are a way to address marketing in a queering world.

I don’t know if any of this made sense, or if any of it is accidentally offensive. If you have comments, feel free to post them.

When you’re a student, money can be precious and the temptation to eat out can be overwhelming. Being able to cook simple, inexpensive, and satisfying meals at home can help you save some much needed cash.

Beans and rice is a time-honored student staple, but I think back when I first started living on my own, I didn’t realize they could be good. It usually ended up being a bowl of flavorless mush. This is, of course, because I was learning to cook beans and rice from bad recipes. Now, as an adult, having engaged in extensive bean cookery, I have a much better understanding of the humble bean.

Beans and rice provide a lot of nutrition for not very much money. Here’s two recipes, one for black beans and one for red rice, that are easy and tasty, and can be put together in an hour or so some lazy afternoon and stored for meals throughout the week. They’re tasty; I make them for myself fairly regularly, and what they lack in authenticity they make up for in simplicity.

Black beans:

  • 2 tbl cooking oil
  • 1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 jalapeno, chopped
  • two pinches whole cumin seed
  • 2 cans black beans, drained
  • salt to taste
Heat the oil in a pot. Add the onions, garlic, bell pepper and jalapeno. Cook over medium heat until soft, a few minutes. Add in two pinches of cumin seed and cook until fragrant. Add two cans of black beans, plus a quarter to a half cup of water. Cook for 20 to 30 minutes, until beans start to break down and a “refried beans” consistency is reached.

Red Rice:

  • 2 tbl cooking oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • 1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 1/2 jalapeno, chopped
  • 1 cup uncooked long grain rice
  • three tomatoes, pureed, or enough to make 1 3/4 cups of liquid
  • bouillon cube (chicken, or vegetable if you’re vegetarian)
  • Salt to taste
  • 2-3 tbl chopped cilantro
Heat the oil in a pot with a fitted lid. Add the onions, garlic, bell pepper, and jalapeno. Cook until soft. Add the rice, and cook until it takes on a slightly toasted look. Pour in the tomato puree, and dissolve the bouillon cube in the liquid. Bring to a boil, and cook for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand for 10 minutes, with lid on. Fluff rice; stir in chopped cilantro and salt.

They Work Together!

Do you see how well these work together? Similar ingredients, plus you can buy one onion, one bell pepper, and one jalapeno to make both! Each batch makes about four servings, maybe three if you’re a hearty eater. I like these together with some cheese on top and a little hot sauce. Especially nice during the winter. If you’re feeling rich, you can scoop it all up with some nice tortilla chips!

Pricing it Out

Let’s first make a list of everything we need, with prices. I’m pulling these prices from my local Fred Meyer via their app, so your prices may vary.
  • 1 onion $0.45
  • 1 green bell pepper $0.79
  • 4 cloves garlic $.50/head, so about $0.10 for this meal
  • 1 jalapeno pepper $0.20
  • 3 tomatoes $1.29
  • 2 cans black beans $2.00
  • 1 bouillon cube $1.79 for a jar of 25, so like $0.08?
  • 1 cup uncooked long grain rice $1.69 for 2 pounds, so about $0.43
  • 4 tbl cooking oil $2.29 for a 32 oz bottle, so about $0.15
  • cilantro $0.79 per bunch (I didn’t divide this out because it’s not like it’s going to keep until next time.)
  • whole cumin: you can get this in the latin aisle of most grocery stores for $1.99 and it’ll last you a year. Look for “comino entero” if the labeling is in spanish.
That’s $6.28 for a small pot of beans and a small pot of rice, which will yield 3-4 meals. Add cheese and sour cream, it’ll be a little more, but not a ton more. This stuff also freezes well, so if you have an afternoon off, make a couple batches and freeze them in snap top containers. (calculations do not include price of salt, if you don’t have any, steal some salt packets from a cafe on campus.) And they’re not difficult to make! If you can cook a pot of rice and use a can opener, you can make this! And perhaps most importantly, it’s real food.

I try not to make resolutions.

There’s a cultural notion surrounding New Year’s resolutions that is zero sum, make or break, succeed or fail, and if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll understand that failure is something I’m passionate about. In short, failure is not the opposite of success, but a part of the process of success. And when we make success a zero sum situation, we’re guaranteeing that we won’t succeed. Because that’s how that works.

I don’t like setting myself up to not succeed.

That having been said, I do like the idea of taking time to reflect on the past year, to think about what you want for the new year, and looking for ways to make that happen. For me, this often translates to setting goals for the new year.

I like goals. Because in a way you can’t not succeed at them. You set a time to check in, and if you haven’t reached your goal, you can evaluate what you’ve been doing and look for ways to get there more effectively. But if you work toward it, you’ll get there eventually.

Okay, you can miss goals, but for me the main way to make sure that will happen is to focus on what you haven’t done and fail to celebrate what you have done. Living and learning are iterative processes; you try things. They work or don’t work. You evaluate your results. You try something new. You make changes. You go again.

So with that in mind, here are some goals I want to achieve in 2020:

Learn PHP and JavaScript.

Good lord. I should have done this twenty years ago. I tried to do this twenty years ago, and I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Thankfully, now there are better tools for accomplishing this kind of thing. These languages are vital to a webdev these days, and while I’m not planning on going into web development, they’re useful for a digital marketer to know, even if it’s just for purposes of understanding what’s going on on a website you’re looking at.

This is going to be a difficult goal to measure, because what I want is an understanding of how the two languages work, specifically on websites. So I’ll say this; I want to complete the free curricula on Codecademy for both JavaScript and PHP before the end of 2020.

This leads into my next goal:

Create a WordPress Theme.

I want to create my own WordPress theme from scratch, even if it’s bad. WordPress is estimated to power as much as 30% of the web, so for any professional working in digital communications, it’s worth understanding. Not just that, but I remember fondly how personally satisfying I found web design back in the Web 1.0 days, and I’d like to get back into some of that. Plus, I want my own websites, which function at least in part as a kind of resume in my field, to demonstrate that I understand these concepts. I may not use my homemade theme (or at least my first one) on my own website, but understanding the way WordPress works inside and out will help me make tweaks to my own websites, making them both more personal and more professionally appealing than a free canned WP theme.

This one will be pretty easy to measure in that I’ll have a WordPress theme, but difficult because I have to define what that means. I want to create a WordPress theme that supports blogging (of course), and that works on both mobile and desktop browsers. I want to finish it by the end of the year, and I want it to have unique visual elements (not just Hello World on a white background).

Finish my MBA.

Okay so this one might seem like a no-brainer, but we’ve already had someone drop out of the cohort and we’re only two quarters in. The goal is to complete my MBA on schedule with the rest of my cohort by the end of summer quarter, 2020. It will require a lot of hard work and discipline, but I think it’s probably the most important of my 2020 goals.

Study SEO.

You might notice that this says “study” instead of “learn.” Well, that’s because I’m not really sure you can ever learn SEO. The field changes so fast that it’s not something you’re ever done learning. But it’s a vital skill in my field, and it actually wasn’t taught in any comprehensive way during undergrad and it won’t be taught in any comprehensive way in the MBA program, so I’m going to have to learn it myself.

I’m lucky, I have a good friend in the industry who can at least recommend resources for this, but I’m going to have to do the bulk of the work.

This is going to include reading some guides from well-known and well-respected SEO and digital marketing resources, as well as following news in the field for regular updates to best practices.

So this is another hard one to measure, but I’ll say I want to learn basics of SEO that can be applied to my own websites, and I want to become conversant with the basics of keyword research so that I can know which words are most useful to optimize for. I’m focusing on organic search (SEO vs SEM), because I think that’s the field that’s easiest to see big results in, and because if your SEO ain’t working, your SEM isn’t going to do much. Also it will be cheaper to experiment with my own website and see the results myself.

So that’s what I’ve got going on for 2020. What goals do you have for the new year?

“The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality of happiness, and by no means a necessity of life.”

-George Bernard Shaw

There’s been a lot of talk about happiness in the last decade, and it doesn’t look like that talk is going to stop any time soon. Everyone is looking for a silver bullet, a panacea, a way to ensure happiness, and not least among those searchers is employers.

I began to become skeptical of this search during the mindfulness craze of oh, was it the 2000s? I mean, there’s tons of research (almost entirely positive) on mindfulness and its benefits, including in the workplace. My own therapist insisted that I begin a regimen of mindfulness meditation (that lasted about six months and I’m honestly proud of myself, that’s way longer than I stuck with “gratitude journaling”) to help combat stress, anxiety, and depression. And when I say that I’m skeptical, I’m not skeptical of mindfulness itself, I’ve read a lot about it and it’s clear that it has benefits. I’m skeptical of employers pushing mindfulness as a cure-all.

What brought all this up today? I was going through Twitter and found this. You don’t really need to bother reading it too much, it’s probably the addiest ad I’ve ever seen on Entrepreneur.com. It’s basically a marketing piece for a kind of technology to reduce stress, increase happiness, and improve brain function. Maybe it works. I don’t know. But that’s not really the point.

Stress Has a Purpose

According to the American Institute of Stress, the term stress was coined in 1936 and refers to the “non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” If there’s a tiger in the bushes over there? Stress. If you have a big exam next week? Stress. The causes of stress can in fact be very individual, depending on a single person’s background and context. But tigers and exams result in very similar reactions in the brain and body. This includes the release of adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol; also known as stress hormones.

The purpose of these hormones is to give us the ability to enact the change that this stress response is demanding, whether that’s running from a tiger or staying up late to prepare for an exam.

Adrenaline gives you a surge of energy, and is responsible for that heart-pounding, amped up feeling you get from an immediate stressor, like avoiding an accident on the highway. Norepinephrine makes you feel more awake, more aware, more focused. Cortisol is perhaps the most famous of the stress hormones in all of this discussion of happiness in the workplace, because cortisol takes longer to be released in the face of a stressor, and it remains in your system longer. In fact, under chronic stress, you can end up with your body continuously releasing cortisol, with effects that can be disastrous.

Cortisol in periods of acute stress can regulate non-crucial body functions, such as reproductive drive, the immune system, digestion, etc, and redirect those energies to enact whatever change is needed. If we suppress those functions chronically, the result is increased illness due to reduced immunity, increased blood pressure (and sugar; this ties into my thoughts about the “obesity epidemic,” but that’s a different post), and can contribute to obesity.

Basically, too much cortisol can make us very sick, reduce our happiness and our productivity.

But stress has a purpose. Stress tells us that something has to change. Stress tells us to run away from the tiger, or that we need more money, or that we need better health insurance, or that we are in an untenable social situation at work. Some of those things we can change. Some we can’t. And that’s where my skepticism creeps in.

Your Employer Wants You to be Happy

Your boss wants you to be happy. The company wants you to be happy. Which is great and makes a lot of sense. Happier people are more productive. They take fewer sick days. They’re more creative. But what are your employers willing to do for the sake of your happiness?

This is the real question for me. Is your employer willing to pay you a living wage? Are they willing to give you the time off you need to remain emotionally balanced and functional? Are they willing to give you the medical benefits you need to not have to worry about medical bills? In the bigger picture, are they lobbying against government policy that would mandate those things?

Instead, are they pushing mindfulness, gratitude, or offering free massages as a band-aid on the problem they themselves are at least partially responsible for causing?

Pigs and Chickens

I have a metaphor that I use to think about modern happiness and stress in the workplace.

Factory farming.

Factory farming, every sort that involves animals, depends on packing those animals in as close together as possible. That packing allows them to produce more milk eggs and meat for less money, improving the bottom line. But there’s a problem; packing those animals in causes stress.

In chickens, this causes the birds to peck at one another, maiming and sometimes killing one another in the process. There’s an easy but expensive solution to this; simply give the birds enough room. Instead of doing that, we have a cheaper way. We cut their beaks off. It’s called “debeaking.

Similarly, pigs react to being overcrowded by biting off each other’s tails and ears, again sometimes resulting in the death of the animal. Additionally some of our modern production stock carries a gene that makes it more susceptible to stress. Not only that, but stress in pigs results in inferior meat.

The solution, of course, is not to provide these animals with sufficient space and stimulation to avoid stress, but to genetically engineer the stress out of them.

The Cult of Positive Thinking

So we have ended up in a place in which happiness is believed to be a choice. Gratitude journaling, positive thinking, mindfulness, and fancy technological wearables all promise us the possibility of being happy if we simply choose happiness. This mindset is used to lecture and shame everyone from the office griper to people with genuine mental illness.

But nobody is happy all the time, and sometimes unhappiness is warranted. Sometimes unhappiness is the pressure that gets us out of a bad situation. Sometimes unhappiness is what helps us realize that the situation is bad in the first place.

Your employer wants you to be happy. They want you to be productive. They bring in a mindfulness instructor to teach you to be aware of the here and the now and to ignore distractions, like the fact that you’re overworked and underpaid, like the fact that your family is hanging by a thread that could be cut by the next medical emergency. Like (for some of us) whether you will be able to feed your family for the next week. Like the fact that your manager is racist, sexist, or homophobic.

Being mindful will make you more happy.

But it won’t fix the real problems that could be triggering your stress response.

My creative side led me to marketing; I figured it would be the best way to use my talents in business. I was intimidated when I saw how much technical work was involved in the marketing field. I don’t consider myself a particularly technical person, and I worried at this lack when confronting things like stats and marketing research. Not only did I not have the aptitude, but I lacked interest in the qualitative data, finding it dry and absent what drew me in; culture, personality, connection.

Where Technical Meets Creative.

When I started handling some more technical marketing tasks in freelance work while in grad school, I found that there’s something there that fuels me still.

Granted, I wasn’t performing statistical analysis or digging through reams of quantitative data, but I was looking at faceless, nameless user data, and I found a great deal of satisfaction finding patterns and identifying problems and brainstorming solutions. This, as recent research has shown, is the root of the creative mind; solving problems. But in popular thought, creativity and analytical thought are often regarded as opposites, and this is what I had been told about myself for my entire life. When my SAT score came back less than perfect (at a still-respectable at the time 1360), my parents excused it by dismissing me as a “creative type.”

I believed my entire life that because I could draw and paint and write, that I wasn’t suited for technical applications.

This isn’t entirely incorrect. I’m not skilled at math, it was my lowest score in both the SAT and the GRE. The only way I got As in my math classes, from calculus to stats, was through tremendous effort and strategic coaching by my brother. I stayed up sometimes until four in the morning, my mind long since exhausted, weeping and doggedly pursuing my homework. The courses that frightened me the most were the ones I put the most desperate effort into, and that was the only reason I ever got reasonable grades out of them. It was a trial by fire, over and over and over again. I had to re-learn basic algebra in order to do any of it.

These experiences, born of being slotted back into my old path through mathematics twenty years after I originally left school instead of taking a placement test, cemented this idea that I would persistently struggle and fail with the analytical.

The Technical Experience.

But I found myself being tricked into doing the technical work. It wasn’t math, I’ll grant you that. It wasn’t processing reams of data. But it was technical nonetheless. Maybe that was what allowed me to believe I could do it; the fact that the data I was working with was qualitative. But the analysis was there, despite the lack of numbers, and I got to this surprising place where I not only felt capable of what I was doing, but loved it.

I was examining user behavior for a client website (the name of the client and the website are omitted, of course), and I was presented with a bunch of anonymized, qualitative data and when I first gulped down my trepidation and dove in, I found that I could imagine the customer journey from prospect to lead to customer, I could imagine various funnels and desired conversion points along that journey. And once I was examining the data, I could imagine each user’s goals and desires while navigating the website and search for ways to meet those goals and desires, points at which I thought I could reduce friction and increase conversion. I could finally use all the theory I’d learned, and it felt really good.

With the data stripped of identity, I could take the wide view and not get caught up in any one user’s story or journey. I came to view the website itself as a story, with a host of characters finding their goal, or getting lost along the way, and I could find ways to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. It was liberating in a way.

What I Learned.

I don’t know whether or not this experience will be a gateway that leads me to both a love of and competence with quantitative data, but if it does, I’m more open to it now. And that’s a really good thing, because exercises like this are going to be routine in a marketing career. Even content writers need to know what to write, and you need data to determine that. Whether you gather and analyze the data yourself or it’s handed to you by another department, you still need to interpret and use it.

Honestly? It was exhilarating to do the work. To see how my passion intersects with it. To find the meeting point of my passion and my fear and navigate it. It was a point of growth, both professionally and personally.

And the main lesson here is not to let fear dissuade you from trying. To not assume you’ll dislike something before you’ve done it. To try, even where you believe you might fail. Failure is a point of growth as well, and a life (and career) endured without risk isn’t worth pursuing at all.

This experience allowed me to fall in love with marketing all over again, and I’m a better person (and marketer) for it.

I set a goal over summer break to read something related to either marketing or management every day. The purpose was twofold: first, to keep my head in topics related to my MBA curriculum, and second, to give myself the feeling of having spent some time every day working at something valuable. I missed a day here and there, but all in all I consider it a huge success. I learned a lot, and felt more motivated during this time than in any other time in recent memory. Here are some of the lessons.

Pick Your Topics First.

Before you do something, you need to make a plan. Know what you’re doing, be smart about it.

I decided before reading a single thing that I would focus on materials related to marketing and management. Marketing because that’s my field of choice, and management because management skills are always relevant, in any business discipline, even in personal relationships.

Begin to build sources for this material. I used a Twitter aggregator to pull tweets from some marketing and management accounts (found by simply googling “best marketing twitter accounts” or adding accounts for websites that I already read regularly, like Entrepreneur or Inc). Make sure your sources are pretty reliable and providers of good relevant content. I had to remove a few accounts due to their spamming of boring listicles. I also used my LinkedIn feed to pick up articles to read.

The goal was to amass more articles than I could read so I could have my pick. I chose two articles per day to read. I tried to go for depth of content over breadth, and tried to make sure I read articles covering different topics each day.

I also included related topics. An article on leadership may not be about management, but it’s related and useful. I also included social media and content development as related subjects on my marketing feed. This allowed me to draw connections between these subjects, such as thinking about how leadership or interpersonal theory can be applied to management situations.

Pick Up A Pen.

I read with a pen in my hand and my journal in front of me. I took rapid logging style notes, taking down facts and figures, drawing quick connections to real world situations, pulling out relevant lessons (or “learnables,” as some in the business space might say).

For me, this was vital to the success of the experiment. It required me to remain engaged with the material to the end, it forced me to decide what would be memorialized in my journal from this piece, and required an honest evaluation of the material.

You might think this is cumbersome, that it would take too long, or even that it would distract you from reading, but I would urge you to at least try it. It’s worth taking the extra time. We’re awash in content these days and spend a lot of time reading through it with half our attention, and absorbing it passively without active engagement and evaluation of the material. Going “back to school,” as it were, and taking notes, is a way to re-engage the parts of your brain that are responsible for learning. And we must learn every day to remain relevant and agile.

Read With an Open Yet Critical Mind.

This may seem contradictory at first, but it’s vital.

I tried to come up with a statement starting with “but” or “also” for the main points of each article. I didn’t necessarily write these statements down, but just coming up with them ensured that I was engaging with the material.

Read things you don’t agree with and pretend that you do. Read things you agree with and pretend that you don’t. You’re not required to change your mind on a subject (I usually didn’t) but it allows you to think critically and pick up things you might be missing because of pre-existing biases.

Take Note of What Inspires You.

By “take note,” I mean actual physical notes. This can be useful from a practical standpoint if you have a social media or blogging schedule that you need to fill up (like I do), but it’s also useful from a professional/personal development point of view. Writing something down helps with retention, because you’re engaging different parts of your brain than you do when you’re only reading. Having the physical notes of what inspires you is handy to have around, whether it’s in a journal (like mine) or in a list format.

What inspires you may not be what you agree with. Sometimes it will be, but sometimes you’ll read something that you disagree with strongly enough that it will inspire you to do something different. This is also an important lesson.

It will help you pinpoint what you find motivating, what defines meaning for you in life and in your work. It can help you build a plan for future career moves, and identify interests that you have that you might not have known about previously.

Keep those notes. Revisit them. Scratch out what’s no longer applicable. Add to it. Modify it.

Limit How Much You Read in a Session.

The more you read, the less you’re able to engage with the material. The law of diminishing returns applies. Anyone who’s had to read from college text books knows this; at some point your mind starts to go numb, and you keep scanning your eyes across the page just to get through what you’ve been assigned.

Stopping after you’ve reached your limit gives you an opportunity to digest what you’ve read, store away what you’ve learned. I especially like to take a short nap after a reading session for this reason.

You can set a limit of time (thirty minutes, for example), or do what I did and read a set amount of material. For me it was specifically two articles, but had I been reading a book it would have been a set amount of pages or chapters. I chose articles because the information in the business field changes before a book on the subject can even be published, and because they’re short and easily digestible, but books are totally a good resource and many books in many fields end up being evergreen.

Once you’ve reached your limit, stop.

You can experiment with this, figure out when you start getting fatigued and have difficulty paying attention, and adjust accordingly. I suspect the ideal amount varies between people.

My Takeaways.

I don’t know if I’ll continue doing this throughout the school year, mainly because I may end up not having time between coursework and my graduate assistant workload. If I stop, it won’t be because I didn’t enjoy it. It was the single most motivating change I made during break, and it has made my life and my outlook brighter.

It kept me engaged with topics that I’m passionate about, and helped me stay on top of recent trends in my industry. And I like to think that it made me a more interesting conversationalist.

Time spent learning, whether it’s in a formal setting or an informal one, is never wasted. To retain vitality, we must always stay curious.

Read on, my friends.

Note: This review is not sponsored by Hello Fresh in any way.

I was lucky enough to receive a free box from meal delivery service Hello Fresh. I received three meals of two servings each, which was great because then I had dinner and leftovers for lunch the next day. They provided pre-selected meals, but allowed me to go in and make my own choices. I received the box on September seventeenth, which was pretty prompt. It was an intimidatingly large box, but what was inside were three paper bags sealed with labels for each meal, and three small packages of meat. The rest was packaging.

First Meal: Korean Beef Bibimbap.

I… ate this one before I decided to write this post. So, no picture.

Let me start off by saying that this meal was neither Korean nor bibimbap. It was a bowl of steamed rice with some fried ground beef and sauteed vegetables on top, with a soy based sauce. This may sound like a bibimbap, but it was missing some key elements, like pickled vegetables (kimchi, specifically) and the chile that is renowned in Korean cuisine, gochukaru. I used both of the packets of sriracha that were included with the ingredients, and it still tasted bland to me.

The ingredients seemed fresh and of good quality, with the exception of the green onion, which was wilted, and the ginger, which was so venerable as to be rubbery. I can understand that it would be hard to ship green onions without them aging a bit but in my experience, ginger is pretty hardy and if shipped fresh should have arrived in good condition.

The instructions for the meal were straight forward and easy to follow. Shaving the carrots into strips using a vegetable peeler (we have a Y-peeler at home) was time consuming and difficult, though it may have been easier with a straight peeler. While the steps in cooking the recipe weren’t difficult, it sure used a lot of dishes. Lots of little bowls that will all need to be washed, plus two pans. I wanted to cook the rice in the rice cooker but it was too small an amount to do so.

While neither Korean nor bibimbap, this meal once finished was tasty and filling, much better than a frozen dinner, but not nearly as good as actual Korean food. It probably feels more disappointing than it actually is because of that. Maybe better to call it an asian rice bowl.

I rate it 3/5.

Second Meal: Tuscan Sausage and Pepper Spaghetti.

This one came together much more easily, with way fewer bowls used. The ingredients seemed to be fresher in this bag, and it really only used two pans and a cutting board. When I saw it included crushed tomatoes as a part of the sauce I was hesitant because crushed tomatoes often taste overly salty or overly sweet to me. I plowed ahead anyway.

The ingredients included a packet labeled “Tuscan Heat Spice,” which seemed odd to me. You could just call it a Tuscan spice blend or something, especially since the finished meal wasn’t hot to me at all.

Tuscan Heat Spice.

Also, the instructions said to remove the sausage from the casings and throw the casings away, which brought to mind the question, why put them in casings at all? We all know you can buy bulk sausage; putting them in casings doesn’t do anything special to the sausage if you’re not cooking it in the casing and not curing or smoking the sausage, and it was already packaged in plastic, so it didn’t need further containment.

The meal came together easily, and was very tasty when it was finished. The peppers still had a little crispness to them, which was quite pleasing. The sausage and the sauce were both well seasoned, but the spices used in both seemed close to identical, leaving the finished dish somewhat one-note. The sausage was more notable for the difference in texture than a difference in flavor. Still, much better than canned spaghetti sauce, and easier than long cooking homemade tomato sauces.

This dish made a huge amount of food. It could easily have been three or four servings, especially with a side salad. I was stuffed after eating one serving as it stood.

I rate it 4/5.

Third Meal: Figgy Balsamic Pork.

I saved this one for last because I was a little overwhelmed by the idea of cooking a main and two sides in thirty-five minutes.

The meal kit came with two pieces of pork loin, which was nice; I wouldn’t have to portion them out myself. The green beans were nice and clean and fresh, and I didn’t have to pick any out for having soft spots. There were only three things to cut, rosemary, a single shallot, and the potatoes.

Putting the meal together went more smoothly than I expected. I got the potatoes in the oven, and it took me about ten minutes to get the green beans and the pork ready to go in, between tossing the beans in oil with salt and pepper, and searing the pieces of pork. Then another twelve minutes or so and the whole thing was done. I was amazed. So the recipe card is good, and the timing works out well. It’s clear that the recipes are being well tested before being sent out to the public, which is nice.

The roast potatoes were uninspiring, with a leathery surface where they browned and a dense but fully cooked interior. They didn’t brown up like the potatoes in the photos on the recipe card.

I used aluminum foil on both sheet pans for easier cleanup. I personally think this could have been cooked on one large sheet pan but I followed the instructions anyway.

The beans were tasty, though a little overcooked for my preference.

The pan sauce was cool because the process of making it teaches how to make a basic pan sauce, including adding aromatics and flavorful liquid, reducing, and mounting with butter. So while I’ve done that (many) times before, I could see how it would teach people with less experience in the kitchen a new skill, and I like that. I think everyone should learn to cook.

As for the finished product, the pork was cooked perfectly, with just a hint of pink on the inside. The pan sauce didn’t taste as much of fig as I’d hoped, and was a little sweeter than I normally prefer, but it was tasty.

I rate it 3/5.

In Conclusion.

My experience with Hello Fresh was a good one. I felt a little bit of pressure to get everything cooked before it spoiled, so I couldn’t get lazy and have an egg burrito instead. Despite the large amount of packaging, the brown bags that the ingredients are packaged in fit nicely in the fridge and it was easy to just pull out the one I was cooking.

I noticed that the bag has a little message about greenness on it:

I thought this was brilliant; it hints at another benefit of Hello Fresh that dovetails with the image of freshness communicated by the other branding materials. Though this message is a bit undercut by the copious amounts of packets and tiny bottles and jars that contained liquid ingredients, plus the plastic bags and boxes that contained some of the produce.

For those looking to pick up basic cooking skills, this would be a good way to learn. The instruction cards are clear and specific, and most importantly the instructions work.

For those with more money than time, I did find that these came together in around a half hour (with the exception of the bibimbap, with its time consuming carrot shaving), and the results were tasty and filling, each with some amount of vegetables, meats, and starches (though perhaps a bit heavy on the starch and light on the veggies, but that may just be the recipes I chose).

I did cancel my account with Hello Fresh, because the cost was around $60.00, including shipping, for two servings each of three meals. That comes out to around ten dollars a serving. If you’re someone who tends to eat out a lot, that’s a great deal, because it will save you money over going to a restaurant, and you’ll learn kitchen skills to boot. But for me, with experience in the kitchen and the time to shop for groceries, I can spend that $60.00 on a week’s worth of groceries, so it’s not such a bargain for me.

The idea of the “self made man” is a common one in American culture. It’s the idea of someone (a man, typically) becoming successful simply through their own grit and hard work and natural ability. Though the phrase seems to be less common now than it was in my youth, you’ll still hear it, mostly from older folks or from those on the political right. The idea persists in the culture, however, and that’s a problem.

Because the self made man is a myth, and it always has been.

Where Does this Idea Come From?

This idea has been around since the early days of the United States. The phrase was coined in a speech by US Senator Henry Clay in 1832, but there are those who regard Benjamin Franklin as the first self made man. At that time, the concept of the self made man was a man who divested himself of possessions so that he may then go on to build his own fortune; in the 1950s, the success of the self made man was considered to be strictly success in business.

As the term has been used over and over again, it lost the divestiture meaning, and came to encapsulate anyone who had come up in business, the assumption being that the success this person (again, a man) enjoyed was the fruit of their own hard work, grit, and natural talents. These days there are those who would apply the self made man label even to those such as Donald J Trump, who has little experience at all with divestiture of wealth.

When the phrase was used by Clay in his speech in the Senate, it was in reference to leaders of manufacturing industry regarding tariffs that were being debated at the time, and this is a subject matter that causes people to invoke the self made man quite often: taxes. The idea that it is immoral to take money from those who have worked hard to earn it on their own, with no outside help, is used to inveigh against wealth taxes, business taxes, high marginal rates, and even estate taxes (the irony is palpable) here in the United States.

Frederick Douglass, a former slave turned abolitionist, said in one of his lectures that there were…

no such men as self-made men. That term implies an individual independence of the past and present which can never exist … Our best and most valued acquisitions have been obtained either from our contemporaries or from those who have preceded us in the field of thought and discovery. We have all either begged, borrowed or stolen. We have reaped where others have sown, and that which others have strown, we have gathered.

Frederick Douglass

Success Comes From Community and Society.

The flaws with this view of success, particularly success in business, should be obvious immediately: nobody runs a wildly successful business on their own.

Even if you started the business on your own, with no business loans, no small business grants, no material inheritance at all from one’s family (even I got enough of my parents’ estate to buy a Playstation), business simply does not work that way. Especially in the context of post industrialization manufacturing business, while you may have worked to get the money to buy the plant and the equipment, your business requires the labor of employees.

This is vital. We often think about how much employees need their jobs (and we do) but we neglect how vital employees are to the businesses they work for. Tesla could not function without employees, and nor could Kellogg’s or GE. If they could, they would.

We’re nearing a point now in which business without labor may become a possibility, but even then we will have relied on the work and advancement of generations of scientists and engineers to make that possible. Scientific advancement in the fields of automation and artificial intelligence doesn’t just fall from trees.

In addition, all business require the support of society to succeed. This ranges from simple access to markets (markets are made of people, something we often also overlook; no business succeeds without customers) to basic infrastructure, from roads and utilities that are provided or regulated by society collectively, to high speed data connections, cloud storage, and other necessities of modern business.

Land and Labor.

So if we assume that, of the four factors of production, Capital and Entrepreneurship are both taken care of by our self made man alone (they weren’t, but let’s assume), Land and Labor are still unaccounted for. Land includes natural resources that become raw materials that finished goods are manufactured from.

Where do land and labor come from?

Here, in the US, they’re stolen.

Every business, every factory, every office in the United States stands on stolen land. Every natural resource we extract is extracted from stolen land. Resources once regarded as common pool resources, some non-excludable, are made excludable and captured for the pursuit of profit.

But even if that weren’t the case, even if we didn’t steal this entire country and engage in a (continuing) campaign of genocide against its original inhabitants, one could reasonably say that it’s impossible to extract an industrially significant quantity of a resource from a given parcel of land without it impacting neighboring parcels. One could say that the industrial processes necessary for industrial scale production cannot help but pollute land, air, and water that impact those on neighboring parcels. The land, at the risk of sounding a bit new-agey, is all connected; by plants, animals, water, and air. You cannot plunder land, even land you own, without impacting those around you, the society in which you operate.

But what about Labor?

Okay, it may be fair to have a conversation about whether or not labor is stolen in the current day (although it certainly isn’t traded on an open and fair market), but this nation from its very beginnings was built on stolen labor. And the early mercantile and agricultural success enjoyed by the fledgling US may never have been possible without it.

It’s worth noting that Henry Clay himself, who stood in defense of the self made men of manufacturing, was a slave owner. As was Benjamin Franklin.

So when you take advantage of US markets, of an economic system predicated on cheap (or stolen) labor, you’re benefiting from the legacy of slavery, even if you don’t currently own slaves yourself.

I’m not making a moral judgement on this. I’m just acknowledging this as fact. There’s no way that a business benefiting from our system does not in some way benefit from our past use of slavery.

Capital and Entrepreneurship.

The two remaining factors of production are capital and entrepreneurship. Capital refers to the machinery, tools, buildings, and other equipment needed to produce goods. Entrepreneurship is the spark that most people associate with the self made man; the grit, the willingness to work hard, and the intelligence that makes the self made man successful.

Capital does not spring fully formed from the hands of the entrepreneur. Though the self made man, without any material inheritance from his family, may have worked sufficiently to acquire the capital needed, there were employees that manufactured or built the capital. Inventors who created the machines. A society that has gone before that left fertile ground for the creation of this capital in its wake.

Surely entrepreneurship is the domain of the self made man, and his alone. Surely he is responsible for his intelligence and work.

Not so fast. Even with a lack of material inheritance from his family, the self made man benefits from the education he received throughout his life. He benefits from the cultural education that he received from his social standing (early examples of self made men were born to landed gentry almost exclusively, and were white, ensuring that they understood how to move in the world of moneyed whites. This persists today. I am a beneficiary of such cultural privilege). They benefit from not having to scrape a living from the unforgiving land with their crooked fingers, the benefit of which is the ability to think of things grander than one’s next meal.

These days, even those who have been educated only in private schools benefit from curriculum developed by the broader society (often in public schooling systems) and we all benefit from public schools as they produce workers of a sufficient education level to perform the work needed in our companies and factories. Public education also mitigates a wide range of societal ills, making a society that is more stable and more able to direct energy toward consumerism. A society that produces both workers and customers.

The Blindness of the Self Made Man.

I am floored whenever I hear someone talk about self made men in this day and age. The sheer blindness of it, to not be able to look behind you and see the hundreds (or thousands, or millions) of people who participated along the way. Schoolteachers and road builders, laborers and mentors.

It is a blindness that doesn’t see the connection that every business has to the land, to the communities that live on that land, to those that historically lived on that land. To the communities in which they do business, to the workers in those communities and to the customers that are the eventual end users where the chain of production terminates.

All of us are connected. All of us come from a place and a people, and we all carry the benefits and disadvantages that those origins provide.

This profound blindness impacts all of us, wherever we live, wherever we work.

Why it Matters.

Understanding where your business comes from and where it’s going confers a long term advantage. Understanding the community where your business comes from and in which it operates currently is incredibly valuable. But it matters on a much smaller scale than that.

Understanding the webs of, for lack of a better term, value, that connect us all gives one a unique view of the market, of strategy, and of marketing. It lets you see strengths and weaknesses that the blind self made man simply cannot see.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned throughout my life is that, without significant material inheritance, what little success I’ve achieved has depended heavily on a complex web of relationships, without which I would be nothing at all.

Understanding that allows for further success, and gives you opportunities to help others succeed.

I love stationery. I buy stationery that I don’t need, that I may never use, just because I love it and I want it. I struggle to find places to store all the stationery I have, and I shop for more. I have four different pen organizers on my desk at home, and they’re full.

Why Stationery?

I remember when I first fell in love with stationery. I was in my mid-teens, and I was in a store in Singapore, and I found the most adorable note cards. I bought them, because they were cute and funny and weird, and I took them home. Now, almost thirty years later, I still have one of those cards, stashed away in my stationery hoard. The rest are gone, I have sent them to people or given them away with gifts. But I still have this one treasure from my first dalliance with stationery.

New stationery transports me to a place where everything is fresh and clean and new and everything works. Nothing is a struggle; nothing needs to be tidied or repaired. I guess you could get this feeling from any new thing, but I don’t. There’s something about running your hand over brand new paper, about hearing the click of popping the cap off a new pen for the very first time.

I’m sure it has to do with writing, too. I’m a writer and an author, and we write all the damn time. I have in my youth written out entire chapters of novels on yellow legal pads with Bic ballpoint pens. I have put down notes on bar napkins.

The Meditative Quality of Hand Writing.

I really love writing things by hand, I take all my notes in lecture by hand, and write in a journal by hand, and there’s a way that the tactile interaction with the words that you’re creating connects you to the work, whatever work that may be.

Because of my arthritis, there are days when it hurts to hold a pen, but I do it anyway.

Having good quality tools to hand write with is important. The right pen can make hand writing things a joy. The right line thickness, the right amount of ink. I write quickly so I want a pen that just glides across the page when I’m in a hurry. For that sort of thing I typically prefer the Pilot G2, and I have this exact pen in several colors for this reason. Writing with the G2 is very nearly a sensual experience.

Since this pen glides across the paper on a pillow of ink, though, it tends to smudge, which makes it difficult to use for lefties.

I own two fountain pens, and they don’t glide in my experience, but there’s a very soft scratching sound as you drag the nib across the paper that gives me a little shiver down the back of my neck.

Inexpensive Pretty Things.

There are times when you want to own a pretty thing or two. Because I’m in grad school, money is often very tight, and the closest I get to owning pretty things is colorful paper and lovely pens. They’re not a huge monetary investment, so you can try new things without a huge risk.

I take comfort in the ability to buy myself small things that bring me a lot of joy, and I wouldn’t be able to do that with clothing or jewelry or any of the more popular retail therapy items. Even books really start to add up, at fifteen to twenty a piece new. But I can get a pack of diary stickers for six dollars or less. It’s an affordable luxury.

Retail therapy, when taken to extremes, can cause huge problems. But this is a way that I can get myself a treat without putting my ability to pay rent at risk.

The Hoard.

The real problem sets in when my stationery becomes too precious to me to use. I end up holding on to it for a special occasion, and as a result I collect piles of note cards, stacks of small stationery sets, boxes of thank you cards, and loads of pens.

I also sometimes order blind boxes of stationery (sort of a grab bag) just to see what I’ll get, and I’ll openly admit that while opening these boxes and seeing and touching the stationery items is gratifying, most of the stuff I get from these orders goes unused.

I stash them away in an attempt to keep my workspace neat. I consult my list of people that I’ve promised letters to, and sometimes, when I make the time, I extract a piece of pretty paper from its plastic sleeve, and I begin to write a letter.

Not often enough though. I love handwriting letters, and these letters often end up taking the form of personal blog posts, explaining or exploring topics with no prompting from the recipient. A description of someone I spoke with on the bus, or my feelings regarding my new haircut. Sometimes I get very self-conscious about it and stop writing.

I should write more letters. I should do it to make people smile, and to gently chew away at my stationery hoard, slowly making space for new stationery.

When I Can’t Buy, I Watch.

The thing that really blows my mind about this is that I’m not alone. There’s a whole stationery culture online, related to the scrapbooking and bullet journal and planner communities. So when I can’t enjoy brand new stationery of my own, I can watch haul videos.

Haul videos are nothing new, but often they feature clothing or makeup or other beauty and fashion essentials. But man, oh man, the stationery haul videos are the best. You get to see new products to buy, and often you get to watch people swatch their pens (a practice through which they write or draw with the pens to observe the color and quality of the ink and test out the writing experience), and even get reviews of the products. I have added many items to wishlists while watching haul videos.

The haul videos featuring Japanese stationery are the best, because east Asia, for a reason that I have not yet determined, has some of the best stationery out there. Here’s one of my favorite haul videos:

Not only is it one of very few stationery haul videos I’ve seen filmed by a young man, but I find him so charismatic and he’s so visibly excited by what he received.

Wishlists.

Not only do I watch haul videos when I can’t buy, but I shop and add new things to various wishlists. I have a wishlist on Amazon specifically dedicated to this, in fact. I also have a wishlist on JetPens and one on Goulet Pens.

You don’t get exactly the same emotional zing that you would get from actually buying, but it’s still satisfying. You get the feeling of having shopped for a product and found something you were really excited about, and sometimes you have the experience of finding something new and interesting. Not only that, but once it’s on a wishlist, you can always come back and buy it later.

We have a natural inclination to collect resources, and securing these items, whether it’s on a wishlist or in the mail on its way to me, and that tickles that urge for me.

Don’t Let Your Kids do Stationery.

Purchasing stationery really is quite habit forming. Unless your child has a penpal or some other such arrangement that will ensure that they use the stationery, I would not advise letting them get sucked into this world. It can be all-consuming.

This is a personal essay that I wrote for a non-fiction writing class. I thought some of you might find it interesting.

Tiger’s Nest.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery sits about six miles north of Paro town, perched on the side of a mountain. Reaching the monastery is a two mile hike, with seventeen hundred feet in elevation gain. The path is a combination of hard, rocky earth and more than seven hundred stone stairs. Tiger’s nest is a holy place. It is built around a cave where the Guru Rinpoche sat and meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days, and three hours. The first temple was erected there in the Guru’s honor by a distant cousin of the mad saint Drukpa Kunley in the seventeenth century. The original complex was destroyed by fire in 1998 and rebuilt and restored in 2005, but you can still feel the weight of veneration in the stones and timbers.

It was part way up those seven hundred steps that I realized I wasn’t going to reach the monastery on my own. I fell behind our group, and one of our guides came to walk beside me. I fell further behind, and he took my hand, helping me up the steps. Once we reached the top, we removed our shoes and climbed the Bhutanese stairs – which were more like a slanted ladder – into the monastery proper. We walked silently on stocking-feet across the old wood floors, looking at the murals in the monastery complex. We were ushered into a line of people, and at the head of that line was a small man in monk’s robes seated in an ornately carved wooden chair.

He poured water into my cupped hands with a dipper, and I smoothed the water over my head, as I had seen those before me do. I looked up at him, searching for confirmation that this was the right thing to do. He smiled and gave me a small nod.

I was still shining and damp-headed from the monk’s blessing when we left the monastery. I was worse on the way back. The guide who helped me down the stairs assured me that I was a “good work horse” as he held me up. I babbled to him about how ashamed I was of my weakness, and he smiled.

To the right of the path were dozens of small clay objects; mini-stupas. Objects of mourning, made of clay and the ground bones of the dead. Each one was a corpse, anonymous but not alone, left to weather away in the wind and rain. I didn’t know it then, but I was already sick.

On the path to Tiger’s Nest.

Mount Cholmolhari.

Mount Cholmohari sits on the border with Tibet, rising to 24,000 feet above sea level, the second highest peak in Bhutan. The Bhutanese do not allow people to climb their mountains. The mountains are sacred. Cholmohari has been climbed just seven times, claiming three lives in a 1970 attempt. It is home to goddesses and a sign post on the road to Mount Everest. We camped south of it, so over the next two days I would get to see it lit by alpenglow at both sunset and sunrise.

This was our third day on trek, and I was unable to complete even the first day’s hike.

They had put me on a little mountain pony, straddling a wooden pack saddle laid with blankets to make it more comfortable. They tied rope stirrups for my feet, and I had to squeeze hard with my legs whenever the pony went up or downhill to keep my seat.

I slid off the back of the pony when we reached Cholmohari base camp, and our guides helped me to a folding chair. I sat, at the edge of a tiny creek. Yaks wandered the pasture on the other side. I thought of nothing. I was exhausted. The trek guides worked on setting up the camp behind me.

When the rest of the trekking party appeared around a bend in the trail, they looked like a line of ants. I watched them walk in.

I was laying in my tent. The presence of the mountain throbbed in my mind, radiating so powerfully from the north that I imagined I could feel the gravity of its bulk pulling me toward it. Outside, the soft voices of our trek mates having conversations I could not follow. I imagined that they were talking about me. It was around thirty degrees out and lightly snowing. The cool air felt good, and I squirmed out of my coat. I dozed, and was transported to the dark and smoky dzong near Paro where we had listened in stunned silence as the monks drummed and sang. The music, like the mountain, had a gravity that I couldn’t deny. At the time I’d longed to be able to record it, but that wasn’t necessary. Even now, when I can’t remember the sound of it, I know that music has burrowed its way into me, changing me.

My sister scraped at the tent entrance. I roused from my half-sleep, sweating.

“Can I come in?”

“Sure,” I said, pushing myself into a sitting position.

She unzipped the tent flap and stepped in, not bothering to remove her shoes. She knelt on my sleeping pad, zipping the tent up behind her.

“How are you feeling?”

“Tired. Sore.”

She eyed me. “You should sleep in your sleeping bag.”

“It’s too warm,” I said.

There was a moment of silence.

“So I think you have pneumonia,” she said.

“Okay,” I said. She’s a doctor; I tend to give her the benefit of the doubt in these situations.

“And I don’t think you’re going to get better until you’re inside somewhere warm.”

“Okay. So what does that look like?”

“Well, I borrowed a satellite phone, and the closest place that can send a helicopter is India, and it would cost fifty thousand dollars.”

“Jesus.”

“We can do it if we have to. The travel insurance would cover it. But I think if you can, we should hike out.”

“Okay,” I said. My heart sank. I could get up and wander around base camp, I could get to the mess tent for meals, but I wasn’t up to even the short day hikes around the area that the rest of the trekking group had been taking.

She dug around in the pockets of her down jacket and pulled out two orange pill bottles.

“This is an antibiotic, and this is prednisolone.”

“Those are the dog’s antibiotics,” I said, eyeing the black canine silhouette on the label.

“Don’t worry, he doesn’t need them anymore,” she said.

She opened the first bottle and handed me a big, oval shaped pill. She opened the second bottle and handed me four round flat pills.

“We’ll ramp up the prednisolone over the next few days until we’re back in town,” she said. “It’ll help give you the strength for the hike.”

“I’ve been on prednisolone before,” I said. I took the pills, one after the other, with water from my water bottle.

“When do we leave?” I asked.

“We’ll head out when the rest of the group leaves to go over the pass.”

“So the morning after tomorrow?”

She nodded.

The first day of our evacuation hike from Cholmohari Base Camp was a blur. I woke up in my tent in a yak pasture the next morning. I dressed quickly in the chill air and packed up all my personal belongings. The hike was originally supposed to be three days to cover nearly twenty miles, but it had been shortened to two. We had been sent with insufficient provisions. Today was going to be our long hike, the one that would take us back to the nearest road.

I unzipped the door to the tent and the farm dog curled up at the entrance lifted its head. I pet it. It got up, stretched, and trotted away. I tossed my duffel bag out onto the frozen ground.

The guides brought us tea in plastic mugs. My sister handed me eight of the small round pills. The steroids. “I don’t want to go any further,” I told her.

“We have to,” she said. “Take your prednisolone and lace up your boots.”

“When we get back to town I can stop taking this, right?”

My fever had broken. I hated the prednisolone. I hated it every time I had to take it. It made me irritable.

“We’ll see,” she said.

I laced up my boots.

As we hiked, I was distracted by skull-shapes in the shadows and the stones on the trail. Not the terrifying death’s heads of the west, but quiet watchers, their empty eyes holding vigil from the edge of the path.

The sound of an old woman singing followed me down the trail.

When my right knee gave out underneath me, I sank slowly to the ground. I clenched the trekking poles in my hands, kneeling in the dust. Nobody pestered me to get up and keep going. They just stood behind me silently, waiting. I took a few deep breaths and pushed myself back to my feet. I reminded myself to lead with my left foot from then on.

We stopped on a sunny hillside for a lunch of mango jam and butter sandwiches and a single hot boiled potato. That potato tasted like heaven. My sister is allergic to mangoes.

I remember looking down from the trail into the blue-green water of the Paro river, and thinking I could just fall into the water and die. It wasn’t deep enough to drown in, but maybe I would hit my head, or the hypothermia would get me before anyone could reach me.

We reached the pickup point, a flat expanse of gravel surrounding a stupa. A place where the roads end. My sister grinned, I took a photo of her by the stupa. Our guides sat me in a folding chair and brought out cookies and hot chocolate while we waited. The cookies tasted like sand to me.

The stupa at the end of the evacuation hike.

We were picked up about an hour after our arrival. I dragged myself into the van. I half slept on the way back, snippets of conversation in English and in Dzongkha drifted in and out of my awareness. Nothing made sense.

It was dark when we arrived at Paro town. Our rooms were on the third floor, and I struggled up the stairs on ruined knees and ruined lungs. We would leave for Thimphu tomorrow. I would see a doctor there.

The City of Thimpu.

The city of Thimphu is the capital of Bhutan, and it, like the rest of this region of the country, is made of stone. It rests in a river valley at over seven thousand feet elevation, the fourth highest national capital in the world. Wild cannabis grows on the hillsides, and in the mountains sits the Great Buddha Dordenma, more than a hundred and fifty feet tall and gleaming with gold. Below the golden Buddha, migrant workers from India break rocks by hand and build roads, living in tin shacks along the highway.

The Great Buddha Dordenma.

I’m standing on my hotel balcony, smoking a cigarette. Below me, the city with its stone buildings and their stone roofs, abutting stone streets. I don’t know if our hotel is the tallest building in the city, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were. Jackdaws flit from roof to roof. Stray dogs bark and whine.

The buildings are a mish-mash of graceful traditional architecture and cement blocks that remind me of buildings in former soviet states, squat and anonymous. Bhutan is a country modernizing in a hurry and on a shoestring budget. Thimphu once had a single stoplight, but the locals didn’t like it and it was quickly removed.

I am a few days back from our catastrophic trek.

This is my last day off before I return to the exhausting schedule of tourism planned by our guides. I spent last night carefully draining the blisters on my feet with a needle and some alcohol pads. I was off the steroids, but had more pills to take from the hospital in Bhutan, where the doctor noted that in addition to respiratory illness, I had hepatitis. The pills were to support liver function.

Smoking in public is illegal in Bhutan, and breaking this law earns you scowls from the locals. As such, smoking makes me nervous, as the balcony feels like a strange space in between public and private. The smoke burns my healing lungs, but I am painfully aware that during the day I will not be able to smoke at all, so I make the most of it. I sit sagging on the side of one of the lounge chairs, still weak, my knees stiff and sore.

As the sun sets, the dogs set up their chorus below – they are most active at dusk and dawn, like so many wild things – and the smell of the city changes from stone to wood smoke. I long for the quiet of Paro, for its dusty streets and smiling children. I long for home, with its sea-level atmosphere and soft rains. I long for my younger self, who would have been up to the trek.

I was moving the donation money into my savings account, and guess what? The total in my China fund once the transfer goes through is $1,005!

This means a few things:

First and probably most important, the deposit for the trip (which is the tuition for the course) is taken care of. I’m fully registered for the trip, and can pay the deposit!

Second, I’m ready to start working toward airfare and visa costs!

Hitting this milestone means a lot to me, and it’s vital to recognize that I couldn’t have done it without the kind people willing to give me extra work, and the generosity of my amazing friends and family. This isn’t something I did, it’s something y’all did.

More important news: the grant from the school to help with the trip has increased from $800 each to $1,000, which means to reach my original funding goal I only have to raise another $500!

If you’re interested in helping out, you can donate here. Well wishes and enthusiasm also accepted!

I’m an MBA student with career goals. I’ve known for most of my life that I wanted to figure out a way to make a living writing, and while I usually envisioned making that money from my fiction, I’ve since discovered that I also love writing on the internet. This dovetails nicely with my course of study: business, and specifically marketing.

What is Content Marketing, Anyway?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines content marketing thusly:

Content Marketing

noun

a type of marketing that involves the creation and sharing of online material (such as videos, blogs, and social media posts) that does not explicitly promote a brand but is intended to stimulate interest in its products or services.

This is also known as “inbound marketing,” because it brings prospects “in” instead of the marketer “reaching out” with ads.

A huge amount of the content you read online, whether you realize it or not, can be considered content marketing. Some of it is explicitly so, with sponsored blog or social media posts (this is called “native marketing.” Most platforms require a sponsored tag for this sort of content).

One of the core realizations I had in my undergrad studies is that social media turns everyone into a marketer. Your friends on Facebook or Snapchat or what-have-you curate their lives in order to better support their personal brand, whether they know they are or not. We all do it. Social media would be a bleak place if we didn’t.

Content Makes the Web Better.

Okay, you might contend that corporate blog posts or commercially sponsored content make the web worse, but I would push back on that. Companies are out there creating all kinds of content, from gif spattered listicles to in-depth travelogues, and people are reading it.

But aside from that, let’s consider the alternative to corporate content: more advertisements. Companies are not going to stop advertising on the web, nor would I want them to (I’m in favor of an ad supported internet). Given the options, I would rather see companies producing well thought out blog posts, insightful articles, and hilarious tweets (tell me you don’t follow Arby’s on Twitter).

So why not allow those who have the time and the budget to create the content we admittedly crave?

People like it. We know because it works.

Creating High Quality Content Makes me Feel Good.

I suppose there’s a conversation to be had about whether or not this blog, or any of my social media channels, are high quality content, but I think they are, or I wouldn’t keep doing this. And writing it makes me feel good. Knowing that the five of you might read this blog post and learn something interesting or see things in a different way makes me feel good.

Also? I just love writing. I started my college career as a student of the visual arts, but found along the way that writing is really where my heart lies. Sure, my first love is fiction and that will probably always be true, but this makes me happy too.

Writing content on the web holds the possibility that I might help someone, even if it’s just helping someone feel less alone, or helping someone make a choice or decision of some kind. Even if I never hear from this person. This all goes back to my feelings on art, but that’s a subject for a different blog post.

It’s a Way to Reach Out to People I Would Otherwise Never Reach.

Let’s face it, my sphere of influence all told is pretty small, but it’s even more limited in analog space. I have maybe a hundred people I know who like and/or respect me, and might ask me for advice or hang out with me on a Sunday afternoon. It’s pretty well limited to Northwest Washington State, adding a geographical boundary to that sphere of influence.

But on the web, I can reach people around the world. I don’t, but I can. The kernel of possibility is there. And that makes my world feel both excitingly and terrifyingly large. That, in turn, makes the world feel less lonely and fractured.

You could say that any kind of writing on the web can cause that feeling, but I maintain that this blog is content marketing, as are my social media channels, and thus all of the tools I have for connecting with people around the world.

Content Influences Culture.

One of the incredible things the web has done, whether for good or for ill, is to give us all a much more direct hand in the shape of the culture we live in. Suddenly we’re all connected; discussions can be had, divisions explored (and exploited), consensus can be reached (or not), all of this between people whose reach was previously limited by geography. I think that’s incredible.

Not just that, this cultural influence extends beyond the web. Social media influencers become artists and models, blogs become books and books become best sellers. YouTube stars become organization gurus, and bloggers become journalists.

As much as some of us rail against the corporate influence on the web (again, I’m in favor of an ad supported internet), the web has flattened the media landscape, giving the humblest of us an opportunity to influence culture.

Do some marketers use this superpower for evil? Sure. But some make the choice to influence the culture in positive ways, and those are the moments of confluence that I live for.

Is There A Dark Side? Sure.

One of my instructors in my undergrad days sat the class down for a stern talk. “Marketing,” he said, “is a tool. And that tool can be used for good or for evil.”

Are there people out there marketing hateful ideas? Absolutely, particularly now. Are there corporations socially and environmentally green washing their brands while pursuing oppressive and degrading business practices? There sure are. But there are also companies out there doing good with their marketing budgets.

The web, and content marketing, lend greater reach and power to small businesses for less money than more traditional marketing channels, and those small businesses are more likely to do good with those smaller budgets than are large corporations, with shareholders to keep happy.

And I think, all told, content marketing on the web does more good than harm. And that’s what I’m most interested in in the end; facilitating the need to do good.

You know what listicles are: those “20 Reasons Why x” and “7 Moments When y” articles that populate the web. They’re everywhere on social media. The word “listicle” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2016, but this shouldn’t be considered the start of the phenomenon; they’ve been used in print media for many, many decades.

I thought we had gotten beyond this, but I’m still seeing listicles everywhere, especially in the marketing space, and I’m absolutely baffled as to why. I simply can’t understand the appeal, especially on industry sites. One would think we would be reading content with some depth to it, but no. Listicles, everywhere. I sat at my laptop, tears in my eyes, and wondered what was to become of us.

Listicles are bad. You should stop clicking on them. Here’s a list of reasons why. Number 4 might surprise you!

1. They Displace Content With Depth.

You cannot get into a topic in any real depth in a paragraph or two. As a result, when you read a listicle on a topic, you’re not learning anything about it, especially since most listicles are gripe posts and hot takes. I have finished listicles, especially industry ones, with the distinct impression that I’d been robbed; I had invested my time and my attention, and gotten nothing in return.

In this sense, listicles can be compared to the Letters to the Editor section of a local newspaper: opinion pieces with virtually no information. I guess content like this can be useful, I used to steal the Letters to the Editor page out of the paper when I was a teenager, but I have grown since then, and my desire for information has evolved since I was fourteen. I want content with substance.

2. They Feel Dated.

The listicle, as mentioned above, is not new. Cosmopolitan magazine comes to mind as one of the worst offenders (9 Ways to Please Your Man, etc.), and the web, for a moment, gave the format a fresh feel as suddenly you could find listicles on basically any topic. But that honeymoon vibe has faded, particularly as they format has led to deceptive headlines and spammy ads.

The format is so tired now that I had the privilege of listening to a writer read a personal non-fiction piece that borrowed the form of a listicle. That’s right; it’s so tired it’s being lampooned by the literary crowd.

The form has been used so much, in so many situations, that you know what you’re looking at before you ever click the link. Whenever I see an obvious listicle headline, I feel tired, weighed down, discouraged. Because I already know what’s behind the link, and I know it’s nothing good

3. They Encourage Clickbait.

For those of you who don’t know, and because the word “clickbait” has been subject to both misuse and overuse, clickbait headlines are headlines that are intentionally deceptive. This can include the hyperlink text or the snippet text accompanying the link, and they’re often not outright lies; they’re usually sensationalized or misleading.

Clickbait headlines are a scourge of the internet. They garner clickthroughs for websites that thrive on them, and can also be the basis of malware attacks and/or distribution. Clickbait functions by taking advantage of a “curiosity gap;” the headline gives enough information to make the reader curious, but not enough to satisfy that curiosity, leading the user to click through.

I think of myself as a pretty savvy consumer of web content, and as a result I don’t run into a lot of problems with clickbait headlines, but when I do it’s more often than not a listicle that’s involved.

Clickbait headlines are very easy to make for listicles, because it’s easy to play on the emotions of the viewer without fulfilling that promise within the article itself. So if you hate clickbait, and I know you do, stop clicking on listicles, because the two thrive together.

4. They Might Make You a Worse Writer.

If you’re a writer, you already know that you learn craft and style from reading. This is why it’s important for us to read from lots of different sources, both online and analog. It trains us in how to better communicate in text.

So it stands to reason that reading bad writing can make you a worse writer.

And listicles contain some of the laziest writing on the web. Along with the fact that they fail to reach any level of depth, they are often sloppy in both form and grammar. This is not a problem for most people, they’re written well enough to be understood, and the casual style lends itself well to communicating with most of their audience, especially since each entry on the listicle only has to be a few sentences long.

But craft is important, especially for people who are writing long-form content. And reading garbage only teaches you how to write garbage.

5. They Could be Bad for Your Brain.

Listicles are like the television of the web. Okay, no. Hulu and YouTube and Netflix are the television of the web, but listicles are similarly just brain candy. A few sentences per item, often based on the Buzzfeed model and filled with animated gifs and other visual elements, they allow your brain to coast in neutral.

The thing that keeps your brain in shape is using it actively, and your brain reacts differently to actual content than it does to listicles. This is something of particular importance to me, as I’ve evolved into a middle-aged husk of my former self and had to think about ways to keep myself sharp as old age looms on the horizon.

When you engage with long form content, your brain must analyze and organize the information as you absorb it. With ranked lists, such as listicles, that analysis is already done for you. It’s like simple carbohydrates instead of complex carbohydrates. One makes you work a little harder and rewards you with nutrients, and the other just gives you a sugar rush and a bit of a headache.

I’m not here to shake my broom at you and tell you to go read a book; in fact it’s safe to say that I do the majority of my reading on screens. But for your brain’s sake, skip the listicles.

6. They’re Often Emotionally Manipulative.

Listicle headlines are often written to pull on your heartstrings. A lot of people call this “clickbait,” but these headlines aren’t necessarily deceptive. They certainly can be, but clickbait is by definition deceptive, and what we’re talking about here is just emotional manipulation.

Listicles rely on provoking not just your curiosity, but on provoking emotions such as anger, outrage, surprise, inspiration, and excitement to get you to click through, and the headline is designed specifically to appeal to those emotions. Not only that but the content of the listicle is designed to keep you reading through to the end, often tickling those same emotional triggers, and often through multiple pages (which means multiple clicks and multiple ad impressions) along the way.

And often, you don’t even get the pay off for that emotional arousal, leaving you feeling unsatisfied.

7. They Work.

Listicles are easy. They require little commitment from readers in terms of both time and effort. You get a little emotional jolt out of them. There’s one out there (probably way more than one) that will confirm some existing bias you hold and that’s satisfying too. The link text is always tempting, and using the Buzzfeed model, you’re going to see some funny gifs, and who doesn’t love funny gifs?

They gain ad impressions, they support native marketing, they make money. You are buying that content with your attention and your browser space, which are hot commodities in the online ad space, and people are making money off of it.

Buzzfeed, perhaps the monarch of listicle publishing, made three hundred million dollars in revenue in 2018. This was not all generated from listicles; Buzzfeed also produces some fun video content and quizzes and heartstring pulling slideshow content, but it’s all in the same vein of mindless entertainment.

In Conclusion.

Your apportionment of your attention changes the web. What you look at, what we all look at, encourages some types of media and discourages other types. This is a kind of power. Use it wisely. Consider what you want the web of the future to look like; do you want slideshows full of gifs and blinking, flashing ads? Do you want thoughtful, in-depth content? Do you want to see a mix of both?

Consider what you want to see and apportion your attention accordingly. Me? Listicles make me feel tired.

There’s news! My school, Western Washington University, announced a travel scholarship for anyone who registers for the Shanghai learning abroad trip!

As a result, I have submitted my application just minutes ago. This commits me to going, and commits me to the $1,000 deposit. With what I have already raised, plus the scholarship, I’ll have enough to cover the deposit, but the scholarship money isn’t disbursed until January 1st, so I’ll still have to pay out of my own funds, PLUS I still have to generate funds to pay for airfare, the visa, and other travel expenses.

I’ve raised a little over $700 so far, as a result of my caring and generous community that has provided both donations and paying side gigs. I have a lot further to go, but I’m so close to getting to that first milestone!

Again, if you’d like to donate, you can use PayPal here.

I’m so lucky to have this opportunity and I’m so very lucky to have you in my corner.

So this post should be taken in with the understanding that I am 41 years old. I’m part of the generation that witnessed the beginning of the web, and that remembers a time without it. I am, as they say, an Xennial. Trapped between worlds.

I was there in the BBS days. I was there for Hamster Dance. I witnessed the rampant overuse of the gif. I have seen it all, some through the green monochrome monitor of an Apple IIE.

So I’m not new here. But also, I’m not quite a digital native, either.

There are too many bad websites out there. Even some really professional corporate websites are bad. And I’m here to tell you what I, a middle-aged grad student (clearly everyone’s target market), am looking for in a website.

Don’t Fear White Space.

It’s not just okay that every inch of your website isn’t taken up by widgets and feeds, it’s a good thing.

Personally, I’m an inveterate consumer of content. I have a wicked news habit I just can’t kick and I’m subscribed to more than a hundred podcasts. The stack of books I’m reading dominates the top of my bookshelf (and my personal reading log). So I’ve got a lot rattling around in my head at any given moment.

Extras, like a feed letting me know that someone just bought one of your products popping up in the corner, distract me from your content.

Company name has been edited out because they’re a company I actually really like.

Your use of white space directs the eye to what you want consumers to see. What you want them to interact with. I get that a feed like this functions as social proof, but I think there’s a way to do it that’s less distracting.

You want the design of the site to direct me to what you want me to see, and using white space (and plenty of it) does that. It forces the eye toward your content (or your CTA, or your buy button, or what have you). That doesn’t mean that it has to be all white space; you want a sidebar with other content? Great! I love content, I want to see what else you have to offer me. If it’s intriguing I might stay a while. But keep it simple, and use negative space to direct me around your site.

White space between paragraphs is necessary too. Break up any walls of text. Reading on a screen is already difficult, don’t make it harder than it already is, or you’ll lose me.

Use Animation Sparingly.

I know this stuff can look really slick, right? Finally, a website that moves! Dynamic elements, pieces of text that scroll over the background, reactive menus and other navigation elements! You have ultimate freedom to make the website you want!

Stop.

Too much animation distracts me from the elements of the website that really matter to you or your business (your content, your CTA, what-have-you). It can make pages frustrating to navigate and impair website performance.

And there are people who suffer from motion sensitivity that may not be able to use your website at all with too much animation. Remember, accessibility is important on the web, too.

Use Clear Fonts.

I was looking at copywriting portfolios online today, and I stumbled across one (that I won’t link to, I’m not here to start problems) that used a script type font for headings.

Why?

Folks, I know you think the script is pretty. I know you think it’s on-brand for you, especially if you’re a writer. But it’s difficult to read, and I’m probably going to pass on it and move to a website that’s easier to read. There is a wide, wide world of online content out there, and I’m not working for yours particularly unless you give me a damn good reason.

There is no excuse for making your website harder to read.

Using script fonts sparingly, such as in a logo or a header can look really classy and great, but don’t use them in the headings or body of the website content, or if you do, make sure they’re bold and clear enough to be read easily.

Pop-Ups – It’s Complicated.

Look, I’ve read a dozen articles about how well pop-ups work. I really honestly have. I have read most of them in a state of consternation.

I’m prepared to admit that in some circumstances, and in some contexts, they work on me too. I would be either a fool or a liar if I didn’t. But they’re also one of the fastest ways to get me to leave your website.

If I’m reading an article or blog post and your pop-up comes in the middle of my enjoyment of said content, I might close it and keep reading, but I’m less likely to visit your website in the future. It’s analogous to sitting in a park reading a book and then having some guy come up to you and try to sell you something. It’s distracting and disruptive and unpleasant.

It’s important to understand that as an unemployed grad student with no money, I am of course everyone’s target market.

Seriously, though, the least disruptive pop-ups are the ones that appear after I’ve reached the bottom of the page, and honestly to me that makes the most sense in terms of a customer’s sales journey.

And for God’s sake, keep it to one pop-up, please.

Use Contrast for Readability.

Maybe it’s my age, but I often struggle with readability on websites. I don’t know if you remember, but a few years ago it was really in to have medium grey text on a white background and it was nearly unreadable. It became so prevalent that I would close a browser tab out of spite whenever I encountered it.

Believe it or not, people are still doing it.

Look, it doesn’t matter how slick and well-designed your website looks if I can’t read it.

This is an accessibility issue too, there are people who are vision impaired who simply cannot wade through paragraphs of low-contrast text. And it’s both impolite and unwise to ask them to try.

In Conclusion.

There you go, my gripe post about websites. I feel like a lot of this ties into readability and site performance, which are two things that every blogger or web designer should concern themselves with. I don’t think they’re too much to ask.

I’ve been offered an opportunity, and I’ve decided that if I can accept it, I should.

As a part of my MBA program, I have the chance to take a course on competing in a global environment at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics. This is a very highly regarded school in China.

Of course, taking advantage of this opportunity isn’t free. While Western Washington University will cover accommodations and meals, I still have to pay for tuition, airfare, and visa and other expenses.

Before I break down my situation, let me tell you a little about myself:

I lost my last permanent, full time job in 2010, at the beginning of the “recovery” from the Great Recession. After that I exhausted my unemployment and my paltry “retirement” savings, leaving me completely broke. I worked part time and temporary jobs, and in fact, I haven’t had a full time permanent position since then.

Desperate, I filled out a FAFSA and found out that yes, funds were available for me to go back to school. This was a revelation to me; my parents said they were setting aside money throughout my childhood to invest and save for my college career, and yet somehow that money evaporated when I was an adult.

So I went back to school. I had no idea at that time that my passion would be in business.

I graduated with my degree in business administration in December of 2018, and made the decision at that time to pursue my MBA.

And that brings us to today. I still have no savings, and am still scraping by month to month.

But the opportunity to take a course at a prestigious foreign university is too huge to pass up if I can make it happen.

It will look great on my resume.

Having studied overseas, especially at Shanghai University, is going to look wonderful on my resume. It will open doors for me, someone who has spent ten years living in poverty, in terms of getting a good job and beginning to save for actual retirement. It will indicate my dedication to learning about my work and an ability to work well with those who are different from myself.

It will be a valuable educational experience.

I am passionate about the study of business in a way I never thought I would be. If you had told a younger me that in middle age, I would be furiously studying business and loving it, she would never have believed you. I’m fascinated with how business is part of the fabric of society and indeed of human nature. This is an opportunity to study how business impacts foreign economies, and the world economy. This will give me a more well-rounded view of my place in the world and the ways in which I can improve it.

It’s a chance to conquer fear.

I’m not embarrassed to say that I’m terrified to go. The idea of traveling to a foreign country on my own, going through customs and immigration on my own, navigating a foreign city on my own, is frightening to me. But my (former) therapist always told me that it was important to confront these anxieties in ways that are safe and constructive. This would be made more safe because I am traveling with classmates and our instructor, and thus less likely to become hopelessly lost in a city where I don’t speak the language.

My class needs enough people for the trip to go forward.

If we don’t have enough people committed to go, the trip may be cancelled, or the cost of it inflated until other classmates of mine can no longer afford it. It’s not a large cohort, only twenty people, so every one of us counts. If I get to go, not only does it benefit me, but it also benefits my classmates, who are people with the potential to get into business and change things for the better.

But I don’t have the money.

I presented this problem to my friends, and they suggested that I try to crowdfund it. I started that process and raised around $300 from my nearest and dearest, and I’ve started putting away my meager freelance income as well.

I’ve decided that if I can scrape together the $1000 deposit before the November 15th deadline, I will commit to going. This doesn’t cover the airfare, the cost of the visa, nor clothing expenses, etc. The reason I have to raise tuition costs for the course is that my partial tuition waiver from my work as a research assistant for the university doesn’t cover this course.

I’m almost halfway there.

After I get the deposit covered, I’ll start worrying about airfare and visa costs, and some wardrobe pieces so that I don’t look like a begpacker while I’m there.

I know you don’t know me well, dear reader, but if you have a few dollars to spare, every little bit helps. In terms of funding, I’m not using GoFundMe, I’m simply using my PayPal link. You can donate here.

I know it’s a lot to ask for people who may not know me, but I have to try. I have to try to make this happen.

If you’re not willing or able to donate, sharing this post with people would also help.

Thank you for reading.

Are you exhausted by blog posts about bullet journaling yet? How about Instagram posts, or YouTube videos?

Well buckle up, because I got something to say about bullet journals.

Full disclosure, I maintain a bullet journal (I will never use “BuJo” unironically because it sounds like a code for blowjobs to me) and have done so off and on for years now.

If you’ve stumbled upon this post and are wondering what a bullet journal is, it is, in short, a combination planner and journal maintained in a blank notebook. It is fully customizable, and was inspired by a system created by Ryder Carroll, featured in the video below:

Ryder says that his inspiration for creating the bullet journal system was to manage his life as a person with ADHD. As a result, it’s very useful for organizing and planning, replacing dozens of scraps of paper and post-it notes that might otherwise take over one’s desk, purse, pocket, or wallet.

A huge following sprang up surrounding the bullet journal system, and it evolved, taking on a life of its own that far outstripped Ryder’s original system.

Now, I’m not here to tell anyone what’s right or wrong, and even Ryder says there’s no wrong way to bullet journal; that’s the beauty of the system. It can be whatever the user needs it to be. It is infinitely customizable, adjustable, and modifiable. I mean, it’s a blank notebook, right?

The system that Ryder initially envisioned was a series of notes each day that could be migrated; ideas, additions to standing lists, things like that would go to what he called Collections. Tasks and appointments and events would be migrated to the days that they were to be attended or accomplished. So each day was a running list, and each day could be closed out when the items were migrated. Very helpful for ADHD and anxiety sufferers.

If you look up bullet journal or BuJo on Instagram or YouTube today, you will find people creating complicated, intricate spreads with hand lettering and artwork, trackers and systems, that really bear little resemblance to Ryder’s original system.

Initially I became enthralled with this content and put a lot of effort into creating Instagrammable spreads in my journals. I worked hard on it, particularly putting a couple of hours in at the beginning of each month to “set up” the journal. I was excited about this new project.

But after a several months of this, a problem raised its head. I wasn’t using the journal. My intricate spreads were blank, abandoned. This was for a few reasons.

It was too complicated.

The system I had pieced together was too unwieldy for me to whip out the journal and note something down. My “dailies” became nothing more than to do lists, and I tried to flip to the collections pages to make notes because the space pre-allocated for daily entries in my complicated system was not sufficient for little notes, ideas, etc. As a result, I would lose things. The ideas I was sure I would remember until I had a chance to sit down and page through the book flew out of my head before I got to my bus stop.

It was too stressful.

The pressure of creating new, fresh spreads that I could post soon shut me down completely. The worry that I would ruin something I’d spent hours creating kept me from using the spreads I had created. Then, with the trackers, they existed as a reminder of things I had failed to do, a record of my personal shame.

I started looking for answers.

Of course, I started looking within the online bullet journal community. I tried all kinds of keywords, minimalist, simple, etc. Even the “minimalist” bullet journal content was too complicated for what I needed.

Just as a note, the bullet journal community online has become intensely gendered. On the feminine side are intricate, artistic, complicated spreads. On the masculine side are bearded online media bros who celebrate the bullet journal as the ultimate tool for productivity and rationality and structure, all the while sneering at “female” bullet journal spreads. I’ve been trying hard to find content in this space that breaks out of this binary and have been frustrated at basically every turn.

So I went back to Ryder’s original system. I made a couple of tweaks, such as including monthly calendars (they help me know which dates fall on what days of the week for future planning), and I included a habit tracker, not for compliance, but for tracking mental health. And I started using the journal as Ryder originally intended; a list of notes and ideas, rather than as a fancy to do list. I also developed some personal rules for bullet journal maintenance.

My bullet journal rules.

I want to preface this by saying that I’m not telling anyone else what to do. If you find planner peace with complicated spreads, do it. These rules are for me

1. No Rulers.

A lot of people use rulers or straight-edges to set up. Hell, even Ryder does in the video above. But I really need perfection to not be a part of this process at all, so forgoing rulers helps me understand that this is a messy, spur of the moment process, and that perfection is not the goal. This helps with the anxiety I feel about using the journal.

2. No Boxes.

The heart of these complicated systems are boxes. Boxes for your days, boxes for your weeks, boxes for notes, boxes for to do lists. Boxes ended up constraining my use of the journal, editing what was important enough to include and what wasn’t, resulting again in my losing information.

Okay, I still use some boxes, for tracking things that only require a checkmark or something, but for daily pages, no boxes. I don’t care if a day takes up two pages. In fact, I would be pretty delighted if one did, because it probably means I did a lot of brain work that day.

3. Migrate at the End of the Day.

Everything goes on the daily list of notes. Everything. At the end of the day, appointments and tasks get marked off or migrated to collections, etc. That closes out my day. Nothing left un-dealt-with to keep me up at night. Everything has a plan or a place as appropriate. And it prevents me putting off writing something down until I can flip through to the right place, resulting in better capture of information.

4. No White Out.

I’m a creative worker, as a writer, and messiness is important to that process. Failure is a part of creativity, and allowing those mistakes to remain on the page allows me, perhaps counter-intuitively, to accept that. I may scribble them out and write the correction next to them, but no white out, no hiding mistakes. Only acceptance of my flawed self.

The result of following these rules is a messy, minimally decorated (I knew I would need to be able to work in my journal with just what I could carry in my purse), and honest reflection of my life, and looking back through it has made me feel good, helped me remember things, and encouraged me to consume media (books, movies, YouTube videos, articles) that I had noted down and then promptly forgot. I’ve captured more ideas, whether good or bad, than I had before. It has been a success.

And I couldn’t be happier.

“There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period.”

-Brene Brown

I am what my therapist would call “risk averse.” It’s one of the top priorities in my personal life, becoming inured to my fear of failure. Even small failures (dinner is too salty, I dropped something down the bathroom sink drain, etc.) can throw my entire day into chaos. But the thing is, I’ve been trained to be this way. And I think a lot of us have.

Volumes have been written about the value of failure, but the authors of these pieces never seem to be the type that have to worry about not making rent because they were canned for a failure at work.

In fact, as the personal development and productivity gurus of modern work culture tell us we must fail to learn and grow, American work culture remains intensely punitive toward failure. The end result of this is that development through failure is a privilege reserved for those who are financially comfortable enough to afford it.

I cannot count the number of jobs I’ve held where I’ve lived in terror that a single mistake would result in my dismissal. Jobs that are highly specialized but low skill are particularly bad about this, because management has limited the amount of training that they need to do to hire a new employee, so workers are all interchangeable and replaceable. Low skill jobs are always in demand, so this results in situations in which management maintains records of work failures for the express purpose of being able to dismiss an employee at will. Even if you’re not subject to this kind of dismissal, it results in a culture of fear and perfectionism.

At the same time, we’re told that employers want creative workers, innovation, and people who think outside the box. The fact is, the way we handle work cultures for most employees (this means not those on Google or Amazon campuses) actively discourages creativity and innovation.

This is often (but not always) a result of firm size; the bigger a firm gets, and the more levels of hierarchy between top management and front line employees, the more layers of people to worry about failure, and the more punitively those people will behave toward those who report to them. Top management has little influence on culture at the bottom of the organizational structure, because there are too many layers of hierarchy between them and the front line employees, and the culture moving down the hierarchy changes; like a game of telephone.

The result is that creativity (and, necessarily, failure) remain a privilege for those who are the least vulnerable. Which seems really backwards to me, because it’s the employees that are the newest to an organization that are most capable of thinking outside the box, because they have the ability to view the structures and processes from the outside, being less entrenched in them. And while, yes, some new employees enter into upper management, most of them take entry-level positions. Positions that are the most vulnerable in the event of failure.

And here’s the thing; as much as our employers would like us to be perfect, failure is inevitable. It’s not if; it’s when. And work culture denies us that humanity.

This was a problem for me at my most recent job. I was working as a temporary mail clerk, and every time I made a mistake I sank into a morass of anxiety, terrified I would lose my job. This reaction was due to the way work cultures at prior jobs had impacted me; job after job in which I knew that a single mistake could easily result in termination. Grace was never a guarantee. As a result, I attempted to hide or outright lie about mistakes I’d made that I couldn’t fix on my own.

Fortunately my direct supervisor at that job wasn’t as interested in the mistake as she was in my fixing it and learning from it, and by the time I left that position she regarded me as one of the most competent to hold it. She offered grace, and the opportunity to learn and grow. And honestly, those mistakes were the things that helped me learn the most about the position, to the point that when I was training my replacement, I knew exactly what mistakes to let my trainee make, and which ones to intervene in, because the mistakes would give me an opportunity to train her further.

Certainly, if someone is not performing acceptably at their job, it’s time for intervention. Sadly, for many of these positions, it is cheaper in terms of resources (time, money, effort, reputation) to simply dismiss an employee and hire another one than to regard an error as a training opportunity.

As much as many companies claim to value their front line employees, they certainly don’t act like they do.

These kinds of dismissals carry even more risk, because a termination on one’s record can reduce the chances of them occupying future positions.

If we really cared about having capable, skilled workers in these positions, we would approach failure with a bit of grace, because failure is not just inevitable; it is how we learn, it is how we grow, and it is how we progress. Not just as people, but as organizations and as societies.

I started writing here again for a couple of reasons. One, I was paying for the domain and I knew the site would look dusty and abandoned with no new content on it. Two, I had started posting some kind of ridiculously long content on Facebook, which is really not the venue for that. Three, I was writing extensively in Word files that would then end up saved on my laptop and forgotten.

Content is my business, so why would I put in that work waste it?

Writing is important when you’re a writer. It keeps your hand in, it allows you to grow in your craft. No writing, no growth.

The more I interacted with the website, the more signs of age were visible on it. The twitter widget with no posts. Content so ancient that it embarrassed me. Outdated information, like the podcast that no longer exists. Remnants of an era in which I apparently did not believe that blog posts needed pictures.

I did feel a terrible urge to delete all that old content, but I didn’t go through with it.

I stared at the now empty social media widgets.

The more I looked at the site, the more stale it felt.

Plus, the purpose of the site is a little different now than it was a few years ago. I’m not just writing fiction now, and I have an interest in copywriting/content marketing that I can explore and exhibit. The content I directed toward readers would be different than that I would direct toward potential clients and employers.

So I embarked on a website redesign.

I’m not going to tell you the redesign is complete (it isn’t), and I don’t know if it will ever be complete, or if I will continue tweaking it until I’m old and grey.

I struggled a lot with this. There’s a lot of conflicting advice. “Keep personal and professional content separate,” some people say. “You need a touch of your personality; people want to know who you are,” others say. “You are your brand,” still others say.

In the end, I decided this is going to be, whether I want it to or not, a mix of personal and professional content. As a writer, I am painfully aware of the fact that while I’m a very good writer, I am not now nor will I ever be the best in the world. I can’t just sell writing. In fiction, we say that we are selling our voice; that all the stories have already been written, but nobody’s written it the way you can.

I removed all outdated content (except old blog posts), and removed empty social widgets in favor of icons I found less tacky. I realized that if I’m going to link to my social accounts, I needed content there as well.

This is when things started to spiral outward.

When I stopped updating  this website, I also stopped bothering with social media with the exception of my private Facebook account. It’s been years since I tweeted or instagrammed. I had already been chastised for the lack of new content on my LinkedIn by our career advisor in the MBA program. My Facebook account was the only thing I felt motivated to update, because it was the most rewarding; populated with people I already knew, full of local and international news, and it talked back to me. I got replies and delicious likes, and so many pieces have already been written about how addicting feedback can be.

Other social media accounts were never like that to me. Twitter was like tossing messages in bottles into a vast sea. LinkedIn just wasn’t, you know, fun. It was scary, like being at an office party and worrying that you’ll say the wrong thing to the wrong people. Instagram, well, most of what one sees of Instagram involves models and “influencers” and restaurant plates. And though I take photos, I had no interest in that sort of thing, and I would never fool myself into thinking that the photos I take are good.

Social marketing advice in the writer space tells us to pick the platform that we work on best and stick with that, but I wasn’t even updating my “professional” Facebook page. Facebook limits visibility of professional pages so thoroughly that even my friends didn’t get to see posts to my page, and without feedback (and precious likes), my interest in it faded.

And so I started to ask myself, what can I commit to? Can I commit to a tweet a day? A photo a day? A LinkedIn post a week? What can I do? And I started to build myself a list of internet chores.

Most of these are words, and it’s good for me to write words. It’s practice. It’s growth. It’s my job. Instagram, well, it’s good for anyone who publishes on the web to have a repository of images to choose from, and ones you’ve taken yourself are even better, because you won’t see that same free stock photo on someone else’s thumbnail.

And it occurred to me how strange it is to set up a list of social chores. I’m not going to become Instagram famous. I’m not going to amass a huge Twitter following. But if someone googles me (and they will), these old accounts will come up. With old content. That may no longer reflect who I am and what I think and believe.

And I think to myself, is this a chore that other people do? Or do they stick with a social media platform that they’re most comfortable in? Am I the weird one? And, will it start to feel more natural to maintain these other platforms the more I do it? How thoroughly do I curate? Is poor content better than no content? Will I need a piece of social media management software to handle my own stuff?

The really strange thing about social media is that it turns everyone into a marketer, whether they like it or not, whether they know it or not. We all curate. We all do, We may not realize we’re doing it, but we do. We all are trying to decide with each post what parts of us we want to advertise and which are best kept private.

And in a way, I think that’s what I find kind of exhausting about it. Decision after decision after decision, not knowing what any of the stakes are.