Three scrabble tiles on a wood table spelling SEO

Keyword research is an essential part of building an SEO strategy, but if you’re a small business, you may not be able to pay for popular industry tools like SEMrush, or have the time to learn how to use them. But this doesn’t mean that you can’t do keyword research. Here’s a list of tools and techniques for finding keywords that will help you get seen on the web.

A note about keywords; most keywords are actually going to be phrases. In fact, most search queries on Google use between 3 and 4 words. Google is also moving more and more toward prioritizing natural language search, so use keywords that people will actually type into Google when searching for products that you offer or topics related to that product.

1. Rank Tracker

Rank Tracker is a free SEO tool (with additional paid features) that’s kind of like SEMrush light. It’s going to have fewer features than the big paid tools, and the information it provides is going to be less specific. Still, it’s a great place to get started.

For a quick audit of your current rankings, it offers a ranking summary and a rank tracking tool. The ranking summary gives you information about how your page is ranking, and the rank tracking shows you what your site is ranking for.

Under keyword research, it has a variety of tools, including evaluating your main SEO competitors (these are people or businesses who are competing for the same keywords), searches related to your target keyword, questions related to your target keyword and so on. It’s very useful to have these lists; they’ll tell you what people are actually searching for regarding your product or service.

It also offers a search engine results page analysis tool, a domain strength tool, and competitive research. This tool may take a few minutes to learn, but I found the interface simple and intuitive.

2. Answer the Public

Answer the Public is a free search listening tool. It won’t give you search volume or difficulty, but it will give you a wealth of information about searches related to your seed keyword. I use Answer the Public every single time I do keyword research.

Type a relevant keyword into Answer The Public, and it will give you questions, prepositions, comparisons, and alphabeticals related to your keywords. These are essentially keyword phrases that are actually used in search and are related to your seed keyword.

It also gives you the option to download a spreadsheet of these suggestions for your reference. This will help you build a keyword strategy and a list of keywords to track.

There are limitations. Answer the Public restricts you to a certain number of searches per day, and this limit changes based on their traffic.

There are also a host of search listening features that you need to pay for. The cheapest option for a paid account is $79,99 per month, so it’s a considerable investment.

3. Google

Who better to give you information on keywords than Google? There are a couple of ways to use Google products to perform keyword research. One, you can use the search engine itself. Just search for a seed keyword. 

The search results will give you some insight. Check out the People Also Ask section on the results page. This will give you some information about what people are searching regarding your keyword.

Then scroll down and look thoughtfully at what’s ranking on the first page. A search for “SEO” brings up “ultimate guide” posts and “for beginners” posts. Since the Google algorithm is designed to give the user the pages that they are most likely to need, it’s likely that a lot of searches are looking for SEO guides and SEO guides for beginners.

Beware, though. These keywords might be very popular, but they’re also probably very competitive and difficult to rank for. In this case, you might use other tools to look for relevant but more specific keywords.

4. Twitter

Twitter is especially useful for identifying trends. There are a couple of ways to use Twitter:

The first is to check out the Trending section on Twitter. This will give you topics and tweets that are currently trending. This is a way to gauge interest on certain topics. The main limitation to this method is that trending topics may not be (probably aren’t, statistically speaking) relevant to your product or service.

This is where the search box comes in. Search Twitter for topics related to your business. You might get a lot of results that aren’t really relevant. If that’s the case, you can search Twitter for hashtags. For example, a search for #SEO revealed much more relevant results than a search for SEO, which brought up tweets about Seoul, Korea as well.

You can do similar research on Instagram.

5. Google Trends

Google Trends is a wonderful tool for researching specific keywords in depth. You enter a keyword and it will provide you with a graph showing its popularity over time, a map showing which regions the keyword is most popular in, and a list of related keywords.

This is a great way to understand the behavior of users looking for your product or service, and it provides a wealth of information.

You can also go to Trending Searches to see what’s popular in search. These trending searches are arranged by day, and search changes a lot from day to day. This is the risk in chasing trends; by the time you know they’re trends, they’re often already about to decline in popularity. 

These are all great tools and techniques to find and analyze SEO keywords that you might use to optimize your own website. They cover a few different stages of the keyword research process, and in combination can give you a really good start on your keyword strategy. Just remember to use natural language keywords and keep user intent in mind, and you’ll be able to improve your website’s visibility on the web!

A man's arm, writing in a book

A former manager of mine once told me that writing is easy, and in a sense they were correct. Writing is easy. Writing well, however, is not. I have more than a decade of practice in writing, and have spent that time studying and honing my craft. I have received praise from managers and clients alike, and written countless blog posts, for both clients and for myself.

Not every business can afford to hire a content writer, especially one that is skilled and experienced. These firms may need to write their own content. This is a brief overview of how to do just that.

Plan and Outline

You probably already know what topic you’re writing about, but you don’t want to just start writing. You need to know how to approach a topic. Specific is better; posts that answer questions are great. 

Once you’ve got your plan of attack, do your research. This may mean researching a topic, or examining a client’s brand voice. If you’re using facts, statistics, or quotes from other websites (and you should be), save those URLs! You’ll want to link to them in your post.

Outlining is vital. Different writers outline in different ways. For example, my outlines are usually just a list of the subheadings I plan to use. Some people will want more detailed outlines. Whatever works best for you.

Use The Inverted Pyramid Structure

The inverted pyramid structure is a method of organizing your writing so that it best engages the reader. You might recognize this technique from news articles; it’s frequently used in journalistic writing.

You want to start at the broadest part of your topic. This allows readers to determine whether your article is going to contain the information they’re looking for. It also prepares the reader for what’s to come.

In the paragraphs that follow, you will delve into greater detail, explaining different aspects of the topic at hand. These paragraphs are where you will use data to back up your message, and give the information that differentiates your article from others on the same topic.

Use Everyday Language

There’s a lot of temptation to use industry jargon or academic language when writing about certain topics, but you should resist that urge whenever possible. Using plain, everyday languages makes engaging with your writing easier, includes a broader audience, and makes reading your article faster.

A good rule of thumb is to aim for an eighth grade reading level for your writing. This allows you to explain complicated topics while including and engaging a wider audience. 

If you find yourself in a situation that demands jargon, make sure that you explain to the reader what that jargon means.

Use Short Sentences and Short Paragraphs

It’s always best to use short sentences and short paragraphs. A long sentence is a red flag that you may be sacrificing readability. Use sentences that are to the point, as these sentences tend to be more powerful and more engaging. Don’t combine two topics in one sentence. Break it up into two.

Short paragraphs make your piece appear easier to read. Readers on the web don’t want to be confronted with a massive wall of text. Using many short paragraphs also makes your content easier to read.

Each broad topic in your article should be in its own short paragraph. This will avoid reader confusion.

White space is your friend. It opens up the page and reveals the structure of your content. It makes the page easier and more pleasant to read. This makes your reader more likely to stick around.

Eliminate Passive Voice

The passive voice is the bane of every beginning writer. We often use it without thinking about it. But passive voice leads to weaker statements and longer, more convoluted sentences.

The passive voice is when a verb acts on the subject of a sentence. In contrast, the active voice is when the subject performs a verb. Let’s look at an example:

  • Passive voice: The red bike was ridden by Jane.
  • Active voice: Jane rode the red bike.

Do you see how the active voice sentence is clearer, more powerful, and shorter than the passive voice sentence?

In combination with using the active voice, choose action verbs whenever possible. A sign that you’re not using action verbs is that you’re using forms of the verb “to be.” This is also a sign that you might be using the passive voice. Here’s an example:

  • Non-action verb: Jane was rowing the boat.
  • Action verb: Jane rowed the boat.

Both sentences are in the past tense, but one is more powerful and engaging.

Every Blog Post Must Have an Image

I cannot stress how important this is. Quality images on your blog posts invite your reader to continue. Also, images will appear on previews of your work when they’re shared on social media, and posts with images are more likely to be clicked on.

Using images also lends authority to your writing. It shows professionalism and that you’ve put thought into the piece that you’ve written.

But not all of us are graphic designers. There are plenty of websites out there that offer free stock photos. I recommend Pexels and Unsplash.

The primary risk of using free stock photos is that someone else will be using that exact image. That’s better than not having a picture at all, though.

Every Blog Post Must Have Subheadings

Subheadings are so important! There are a few good reasons to have subheadings in your article:

  • They make your writing easier to scan and understand.
  • They entice readers to engage with your content by letting them know what they’re about to read.
  • Google places some importance on subheadings when indexing your website.
  • Subheadings make it easier for the Google algorithm to understand what your article is about.

Subheadings organize your writing, and should follow a logical path through your subject. This way, one concept flows easily to the next, making your message easier to understand.

Your subheadings should always be nested correctly; H2 (heading 2), with H3 (heading 3) underneath, then H4 (heading 4). Most content management systems will auto format these for you once you choose which heading level a piece of text belongs to.

Write a Great Title

Writing great titles is a skill that takes practice to learn. The title appears not just on your webpage but also on Google search results. A great title encourages users to click through to your page, but also to read your article. Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Great titles use action verbs.
  • Titles must be relevant to your content.
  • When writing for SEO, your title should contain at least one target keyword.
  • The ideal title length is around 60 characters.
  • Write your title after you’ve drafted your article.

Don’t get discouraged if you struggle a little with titles. They take practice to write well, but your efforts will be rewarded.

Review and Revise

Always give your article a second look and see if there’s anything that needs to be changed. Sometimes when we’re writing, we don’t see the mistakes we make. Reviewing your writing carefully will bring these to light. Here are some things to look for when reviewing and revising:

  • Spelling and grammar; they actually matter.
  • Length of sentences and paragraphs. Look for ones that should be broken up.
  • Jargon and academic wording.
  • Sentences in the passive voice.
  • Continuity of the article. Make sure the order of your topics makes sense.

Revision will help you write the best article possible. Every writer edits a little differently. Some swear by reading out loud to catch repetitive word use and awkward phrasing. Others print out their document and edit on paper. Try a few methods out and see what works best for you.

With this knowledge at hand, you’re ready to start writing blog posts for your business or your own website. Remember, the key to doing something well is always practice, and with practice, you’ll be writing excellent blog posts in no time!

A man, seen from neck to waist, wearing a suit

We’ve all had the experience of working for a bad manager. If we’re lucky, we’ve also had the experience of working for a good manager. Sometimes we don’t really know what separates the two; under a good manager, things seem easier, days go more smoothly, and we feel more engaged at work. But what do good managers do to get this kind of result?

My father was a manager of people later in his career, and as he grew into this role, he came to love it. The experience of managing people made him a more understanding and compassionate person. He read books on how to be a good manager. He started talking about emotional IQ and other subjects related to understanding and working with people.

His educational background was in engineering, mine is in business. It is from him that I got my love of management. I got my grounding in management theory from my undergrad and graduate education. This love and this knowledge have brought me to a particular understanding of how good managers work. My experience in the workforce has taught me how bad managers work. Unfortunately there are more bad managers out there than good ones. So how do you recognize a good manager? How do you practice good management?

Good Managers Lead From the Front

We’ve all experienced managers that lead from the back, giving orders without understanding what their team is facing. Truly good managers lead from the front; they understand the goals of their teams and the challenges they face. 

In order to do this effectively, managers must have a clear understanding of their team members’ jobs. All too often, we encounter people who are career managers, meaning that they specialize in management and enter firms and industries as managers without experience in the field that their teams are working in. These managers often do not put in the effort to understand the work that their teams have to do.

This results in frustration on the parts of team members, which reduces engagement with their work. This lack of engagement causes frustration on the part of the manager. Everyone is now having less fun, is less fulfilled, less engaged, and productivity suffers.

To lead from the front, aim for roles managing teams in industries you’ve worked in before. Failing that, engage with and listen to your team members. Understand the shape of their work and the obstacles to performance. Then work toward removing or mitigating those obstacles.

Good Managers Communicate Clearly

If you want a task done a certain way and you don’t communicate that effectively, the problems with the end product are at least partially your fault.

Your team cannot meet your expectations if they don’t know what those expectations are. 

Communicating clearly is more complicated than it sounds on the surface. Communication is not just conveying information, it’s also receiving information. Even if you master one method of communication, different people communicate better in some ways than others.

Here are some general tips for communicating well:

  • Actively Listen: Do not perform other work while engaging in communication. Pay attention. Offer cues that indicate that you are listening, including verbal and nonverbal cues.
  • Be Curious: approach communication with an attitude of curiosity. Virtually every communication offers an opportunity to learn. Curiosity will help you catch subtle cues that help you understand the other person and communicate with them more effectively.
  • Manage Your Emotions: many types of communication that we engage in in the workplace can be emotionally volatile. We can’t always predict or control the feelings that come up in a conversation, but we can manage how we express them. Managing your emotions will help you be a better listener and speaker.
  • Choose The Right Method: The best method for communication depends on both the purpose of the communication, and the person that you’re communicating with. Some people need complicated communications in writing. Some people are better able to absorb information through in-person conversation. Some communications need a paper trail. Understanding what works best is vital, and it’s a skill that often must be learned through experience.

Good Managers Support Their Team

There’s a widespread misconception that employees work for their managers, and I think this is a leftover from the days of Scientific Management Theory. The fact is, a manager’s job is to facilitate their team completing the work that they’re performing. In this sense, a manager works for their team.

The manager’s job is to help their team do the best work that they can do. Yes, this involves giving work assignments and instructions, but it also involves creating a work environment that is as low stress as possible, safe, and enjoyable.

It also involves motivating team members; striking the right balance between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and manipulating working conditions to activate the three basic components of motivation: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Good managers are also willing and able to take the time to coach and guide team members through technical aspects of their work, to listen to their team members, and to provide accommodations as needed.

Good Managers Tailor Their Approach

Each member of a team is an individual. Every single one is different. They have different communication styles, different motivators, and different learning styles. A good manager is able to recognize these differences and adapt their approach to best support each individual. This may involve a lot of trial and error, but it’s vital to leading and supporting a team effectively.

Good managers pay attention to the way people communicate, the areas in which people are struggling, the way they work.

This is a break from the Theory of Scientific Management, which supposes that all workers are more or less replaceable cogs in a machine, and that one single approach is going to work for everyone. Many managers still believe this is the case, and their teams and their work suffer as a result.

Managing effectively is a difficult job, and it involves a lot of work. You will never enter your first management position as a great manager; these skills require practical experience to learn. An academic background is absolutely useful, but some of it must be learned by doing. 

The management of people is also rewarding work. It’s worth taking the time to learn, practice, and develop those skills. Your team and your company will thank you.

Image of a dictionary

It was a shock as a writer entering a business field, seeing how many people are just casually using the word “utilize.”  Writers are smugly assured that there is no good reason to use this word, except in very rare cases (want to make someone sound like an officious prig in dialogue? Utilize it is), and entering the real world and finding the word in everyday use, well like I said. A shock.

It’s especially shocking in a business field because people in business use this word all the time. I don’t even know why. I noticed it first in undergrad among my peers in business classes. I deleted it from group papers ruthlessly. I asked my group members if they were sure they wanted to use the word in presentations, and when they said yes, I asked, “why?”

I often got non-answers, but the most common real answer I got was that it sounded more “professional.”

So I decided that it’s time to fight back against the notion that “use” and “utilize” are interchangeable, and that “utilize” is ever the better choice.

First, some background.

Why Do We Have Use and Utilize?

Contrary to popular belief, use and utilize are not interchangeable. That’s why we have both words. The definition of use is as follows: v. to employ for some purpose; put into service; make use of, and n. the act of employing, using, or putting into service: or the state of being employed or used. That’s pretty basic, right? Most native speakers of English will understand this intuitively even if they cannot define “use” on the spot.

Utilize, however, is different. Merriam-Webster states that “utilize” suggests the discovery of a new, profitable, or practical use for something. This means to put an item to use in a way in which it was not originally intended. Utilizing a hammer as a doorstop, for example. The intended use of the hammer is as a tool to pound things; but it would work as a doorstop in a pinch, and using it thusly would be to assign it a new and novel use. To utilize it as something other than what it was intended.

When I explain this, my peers have whipped out their phones and presented me with an online dictionary entry stating that use and utilize are synonyms. 

I want to be clear; when we use the dictionary definition to prove the meaning of a word, we must understand that the dictionary is a descriptive (versus prescriptive) record of the use of language. This means that a word like “utilize,” which originally existed as an independent word with its own definition, has slowly been used as a synonym for “use,” and thus the dictionary records and describes its use as such. 

In terms of descriptive versus prescriptive analysis of language, both have their uses, and both are vital to understanding language. So I’m not saying that the dictionary is wrong, or that it isn’t useful; I’m saying that it will come to reflect and enshrine incorrect usage of a word as the popular use of that word changes. Which means that in popular usage, “utilize” and “use” are considered synonyms. A surprise to nobody.

But the prescriptive argument against utilize is that it is not a synonym for use, and that use has come to take the place of the original meaning of utilize: “I will use this hammer as a doorstop” being a perfectly understandable and correct statement.

But let’s look at the descriptive case. After all, both are important.

If They’re Synonyms, Why Not Use Utilize?

From a descriptive standpoint, we must accept that “use” and “utilize” are synonyms in current use of English. So if they’re synonyms, and can be used interchangeably, that means that using utilize must be okay, right?

Not so fast.

The reason that we still should not use “utilize,” even though it is synonymous with “use,” is that the word itself is bad. It made sense to have the word “utilize” when it retained its own identity and definition separate from the word use, but now that the two words are used synonymously, use is always the better choice.

Utilize is a word that draws attention to itself, simply by virtue of its three syllable length. However, except for cases (like this post) in which “utilize” is itself the subject of discussion, it should never be the star of the show. It should be the supporting player, below the subject in both importance and stature. “Use” accomplishes this. “Utilize” does not.

Utilize actually detracts from what you’re saying. It hogs the spotlight, actually making your speech, presentation, or paper weaker and less compelling.

But does it make you sound more professional?

One of the main principles of good business writing is to keep things clear and concise; to minimize jargon and “fancy” words. The Harvard Business Review backs me up on this. “Use” is a simpler and clearer word than its misbegotten cousin “utilize” in every application. “Use” fades into the background, allowing the main point of your writing to shine through. It makes your writing easier to read (and easier to scan, for that matter), tighter, and more compelling. This is vital for all of the four main types of business writing: instructional, informational, persuasive, and transactional.

There is no case in which you should be using “utilize” in place of “use,” in your writing or even in your speaking. It does not make you sound smarter, it does not make you sound more professional, it does not strengthen your writing (the opposite, in fact), and it does not make you more persuasive or compelling.

Next time you’re doing an edit on a memo, an email, a document, or a piece of copy, remove all instances of utilize and replace them with use. It will strengthen your writing.

 

A book titled English Grammar on a table

I’ve made no secret about the fact that I care deeply about spelling and grammar. I’ve tried to tone it down in casual situations, because criticizing spelling and grammar can be ableist and honestly causes you to miss the point of whatever the other person is saying. So in my quest to be a better person, I’ve made a huge effort to keep my grammar criticisms to myself.

But what about in my profession?

I’m a content creator and SEO specialist. So I was wondering, what impact does poor grammar have on my job?

So I did a little internet sleuthing, and found this study conducted by Website Planet.

Their results were interesting.

Bad Spelling and Grammar on the SERP

So it’s important to note that the Website Planet study only tested ads, and not organic results. Their test showed that the ads with spelling and grammar errors performed up to 70% worse than the clean ad in terms of click-through rate (CTR). Interestingly, for searchers in the US, the spelling error performed worse than the grammar error.

Google doesn’t penalize poor spelling or grammar. Their focus on the user experience means that if the content performs well, it will rank better and/or cost less per ad. So this tells us there’s a user bias against poor spelling and grammar (Bing prioritizes error-free content, but this study was performed on Google, so that’s what we’re going to look at).

We know that copy quality matters. If it didn’t, nobody would pay me for my work. Grammar and spelling are a part of that quality, because on the internet, readability is a part of content quality. People who are on the internet aren’t going to waste time on content that’s difficult to read, and badly written copy erodes your credibility with the audience, causing you to appear less expert in your subject matter. It’s easier to return to the SERP (search engine results page) and find a more authoritative site than it is to crawl your way through badly written copy.

Poor grammar impedes readability. This is what grammar is; a system designed to make language consistent and readable. Some errors, like extra commas, slow the reader down directly by causing the reader to pause. Interestingly, readers pause briefly on a comma, longer on a semi-colon, and the longest on a period, so commas aren’t the only error that directly cause this pause. In addition, poor grammar causes readers to pause and reorient themselves so that they can understand the sentence.

So on the SERP, bad grammar serves as a signal to your readers to not click, which is the opposite of what you want them to do.

Bad Spelling and Grammar on the Landing Page

The Website Planet study also tested a landing page associated with the ads; one version that was clean and one version containing errors. Their results showed that typos on the landing page increased bounce rate by an astounding 85% in comparison to the clean landing page. In addition, the typos reduced time on page by 8%.

There’s a lot of junk on the internet, and people are cautious, especially when buying things. They’re less likely to trust someone who’s selling something and uses poor grammar, because they see it as more likely to be a scam. People are careful about where they type in their credit card information, and well they should be! 

So, especially if you’re an e-commerce site, you want your content to look as credible as possible, which means that you need to make sure that your spelling and grammar is up to snuff.

What it Means

This is important because all of these performance factors impact both organic ranking and thus the cost of your Google ads. Google’s ranking system focuses on user experience when they rank, and the ranking factors are selected to reflect that. That means that while Google may not penalize poor grammar directly, metrics like CTR, time on page, and bounce rate function as signals of a poor user experience, which results in the page ranking lower. Ranking lower results in higher costs for your Google ads.

So not only is there a direct cost in terms of your advertising spend (you’re either spending more for the same impact, or the same amount for more impact), but there’s an indirect cost in terms of potential sales lost.

By the way, while the Website Planet focused on ads, many SEO and marketing agencies agree that spelling and grammar have a negative impact on organic rankings as well.

While there is value in ranking for common misspellings of relevant keywords, I suspect that the damage that having the misspellings in your copy does outweighs the benefits.

The point is, you have to have someone skilled at the written word write your copy and do your SEO work, or all that labor will be in vain. When we talk about the importance of quality content in SEO, spelling and grammar are an essential part of that quality.

Is This Ableist?

Yes, it absolutely is. Are there people with disabilities like dyslexia and others that might have something worthwhile on the internet? There sure are. One of the things we love about the internet is that it democratizes media, allowing anyone to publish what they want, sometimes for free. But the internet is only as democratized as the people that use it, and that means that the internet is shaped by all of our biases.

This is also a problem for people whose first language isn’t English (potentially racist), and people who haven’t had the same educational opportunities that I’ve had. I lived in pretty wealthy neighborhoods growing up, so that means I had access to good (mostly white, that’s not a coincidence) schools as a kid. I attended a private school overseas for part of high school, and went on to higher education, studying writing as my minor and going on to graduate school. So if I’m being honest, my pickiness about grammar and spelling is a demonstration of racial privilege, economic privilege, and literacy privilege.

This is aside from my experience with business writing (which follows the same grammatical rules as other kinds of writing, but really is its own discipline) and whether you think of grammar rules as being descriptive or prescriptive. Both of those topics, however, deserve their own blog posts.

In the meantime, I’m hoping I can focus all my grammar and spelling nitpickiness on my professional life, and leave it there where it belongs.

 

Tony Hsieh in 2009

Wow, I’m having a lot of feelings about the death of Tony Hsieh, retired CEO of Zappos.

A lot of my friends would think it’s silly and pretty bougie of me to mourn the loss of a retired CEO, but Hsieh was a management hero of mine, and I don’t think we’ll see another one like him in my lifetime, or maybe ever. 46 is a very young age to die, and as a person in their forties, it’s also a stark reminder of my own mortality. So I’m going to take a few moments to remember what I knew about Hsieh, and what I admired about him.

He Was an Innovator

Tony Hsieh was a bold visionary, and he wasn’t afraid to try something new. This is one of his qualities that I have most wanted to emulate, but remains the furthest from my grasp. It’s hard to try something new, and to accept that in innovation, even a failure is a type of success. It is a milestone on the road to your goal; it is a part of the process of elimination. It was the willingness to try something new that made Zappos into a success; after all, buying shoes online felt, at the time, risky to customers. Not being able to try shoes on before making a purchase was a new kind of shopping. But Hsieh implemented ways to make customers feel more comfortable taking that risk, making that purchase, knowing that the returns process and customer service experience would be as painless as possible.

He instituted holacracy at Zappos, which at the time was the largest company to flatten its hierarchy to that extent. It had its problems, and the company later instituted more hierarchy, but it’s an incredible thing to try such a risky (there are benefits and risks to implementing flattened hierarchies) management structure at a large firm. Large firms are inherently less agile, so that switch must have been messy and difficult. I’m sure he had a lot of non-believers, in fact many people left Zappos as a direct result of the holacracy move. But to try, to do, and to fail and try again, that’s a beautiful thing that I wish I was more capable of.

He Understood the Value of Joy

Employee happiness was a big part of growing Zappos from its humble beginnings as shoesite.com. This was a revolutionary idea in the 2000s and early 2010s, even though it’s now commonplace for companies to at least pay lip service to valuing employee well-being. He dedicated himself to making Zappos a happy place to work, to the point that he offered new hires a $2,000 payout if they thought the job was not working out. This way, he gently weeded out those who would not thrive in that office culture.

Hsieh understood that happy employees, even when they spent time socializing on the clock, meant more productive employees and happier customers. As someone who spent ten years working in customer service call centers, their reputation for being efficiency focused is well earned. But this wasn’t Hsieh’s focus in customer service. His primary metrics for customer service performance had more to do with customer satisfaction than with cost efficiency. I can tell you from experience that a drive for call center efficiency is directly at odds with the goal of satisfying customers. I can tell you from experience that watching my call time climb distracted me from my real purpose on the phone; helping people. I can tell you from experience that miserable employees give poor service.

Were there downsides to the culture of happiness? Absolutely. But he understood that happiness had value in the workplace, and that’s important. His work at Zappos helped to shape the focus on employee happiness that companies now pay lip service to at every opportunity. Zappos appeared on Fortune’s list of best places to work several times as a result of Hsieh’s dedication to happiness.

He Understood Company Culture

The first thing I learned from Tony Hsieh was that you couldn’t train culture; you had to hire for it. And he did this over and over again throughout his tenure as CEO at Zappos. During the holacracy experiment, he offered several months severance to those who didn’t want to be in a workplace without job titles. I think this piece of learning is key for me; because we live in a capitalist system in which we must have jobs to live, anyone will adopt a company culture on the outside. Finding people that naturally vibe with the culture that you want to create is challenging, but it’s worth it in the long run. These people will thrive at your company, reaching higher levels of productivity and self-management.

Company culture is a thing that a lot of large companies talk about, but which few understand. Company culture percolates from the top down; if your managers don’t feel the company culture, they won’t hire for it and they won’t encourage it. Company culture is vital for both management and worker to understand; both must be able to determine what is and is not positive behavior in the workplace, because engaging in positive behavior boosts the morale of others. The definition of positive behavior, with the exception of some universals, varies from company to company and is communicated through company culture.

Workers thrive in the right culture, they will be more productive, more social with their teams, and more likely to help one another out and cross-work. Teams become more cohesive, employees become more engaged. It becomes easier to communicate team and company goals because everyone is using the same language.

He Chased Vision, Not Money

Well, he said he did, anyway. One can never know what’s in a man’s heart, and I have a hard time believing that someone could become that wealthy without chasing the money a little bit. But the bottom line was not his immediate focus, or he would not have engaged in such risky behavior as CEO.

Innovation is risky. This is why it’s easy to talk about but difficult to do; innovative failures can be expensive, and innovative failures in marketing or customer service have a very direct impact on the bottom line through sales revenue. But Hsieh showed us that the rewards that can be reaped through innovative success can be huge, and you absolutely do not have innovative success without innovative failure.

This is why large companies often espouse modern, innovative values, but are managed through philosophies that are fifty to a hundred years old. They are dedicated to pleasing shareholders, so they dare not risk the bottom line.

This is why the things I learned from Tony Hsieh pushed me toward small businesses in my career path. There’s more creativity there, there’s more room to grow, to try new things, and to remain on the cutting edge of whatever your career is. That’s the creative side of my work, and it’s what I love.

Goodbye, Tony Hsieh. You left your mark.

 

 

Zappos and Holacracy

Tony Hsieh has long been a management hero of mine. He is an experimenter, an innovator in management. In 2014, he began an experiment with the management structure at Zappos, shifting from a hierarchical management structure to a structure called “Holacracy.”

Holacracy is an extreme form of organizational flattening, which involved no job titles and no managers. In 2015, the firm switched entirely to Holacracy, resulting in a loss of some 30% of their workforce. Hsieh issued a kind of ultimatum; either get on board with the new structure, or take 5.5 months severance and leave the company.

The firm then organized itself into 500 nested “circles,” without formal leaders or managers, in order to approach different functions and processes.

Zappos was not the first business to implement Holacracy, but it was the largest at the time. This makes it a fascinating case study unfolding before our eyes, not to judge the effectiveness of Holacracy itself, but to observe the effect of flattening organizational hierarchies.

The Results

Implementation of Holacracy at Zappos was not without its problems. There was a great deal of confusion at first; employees wanted a manager to run important decisions by. Organizing payroll was challenging without job titles.

But the flattened organization has several strengths to offer. Roles shift over time, based on employee strengths and weaknesses and the work being done at any one time. This makes the organization itself more agile from the smallest circles to the largest, which enables them to respond quickly to changing conditions. Dynamic roles also allows the business to exploit the talents and skills of their workforce more effectively. Self-managing teams allow leaders (a Holacracy lacks managers, but not leaders) to crop up in different functions within the company, as needed, based on the situation.

Zappos is now, several years later, drifting away from strict implementation of Holacracy, instead encouraging a kind of free market exchange of skills between departments. However, their management structure remains more flattened than most companies of comparable size.

The end result of Holacracy seem to be that employees take on various microroles, based on their skillset and company need. This creates a great deal of flexibility but also introduces complexity, from the process of actually doing the work itself, to compensation, to hiring. These complexities must be managed. In fact, it’s complexities like this that drive growing firms to start implementing stratified and rigid management systems in the first place. Because of this it is reasonable to assume that the removal of rigid management structures simply reveals these sources of complexity, rather than creating them.

This is an important distinction, because what a flattened organizational system must do is devise ways to manage complexity without contributing to structures that strangle agility.

The Agility-Reliability Spectrum

There are benefits to hierarchical systems of management. They provide stability and reliability to the firm. They ensure a specific flow of information, and a predictable chain of command. There’s accountability built into the system for decision makers and for those in charge of implementing those decisions.

That reliability comes with a cost, however.

The rigid traditional hierarchy stifles innovation and limits agility. The business is slower to respond to changes in the market or industry, and as a result can miss out on big opportunities, or fail to adjust to catastrophes.

Managing Relationships

There’s more to it than that. A research study by University of Amsterdam found that rigid hierarchy stifled teamwork. More egalitarian teams feel as though they are all in the same boat, with the same goals and the same accountability, while hierarchical teams tend to underperform due to infighting. This idea may feel counterintuitive, but it makes sense in light of the fact that those with power may struggle against those beneath them to assert and maintain power, whereas those who are managed may seek to gain more power and responsibility, creating friction within the group.

Simply put, reducing or eliminating hierarchical structures in management allows incentives for workers to more closely align with the goals of the organization. When you are separated from top management by a dozen layers of management staff, your goals tend to be about self-advancement. Promotions, pay raises, increased power and responsibility. When on an egalitarian team, those pressures are reduced, and workers tend to take on goals in line with those of the organizations. They have more responsibility and accountability and take greater pride in their work as a result.

Removing layers of management also puts top management in closer proximity to their employees. This creates more transparency, allowing workers to have a better understanding of how their work fits into company objectives. It is more likely that members of top management will meet and know their employees, resulting in better management. This also results in greater mutual trust between worker and management, reducing pressures to look out for number one and allowing goals to align.

You can’t effectively manage relationships when there is no relationship, and the more layers of management that divide front-line workers from the firm’s decision makers, the harder it is for those two parts of the firm to know each other in a way that inspires trust and alignment.

Talent and Leadership

Flattened hierarchies tend to be more fluid, allowing workers to move from role to role as the situation demands. Different team members may take on leadership roles when tackling projects that benefit from their specific skill set, for example. This fluidity means that anyone has a chance to lead. This can allow management to access sources of intrinsic motivation, such as pride in one’s work, or a sense that one’s work matters, resulting in higher productivity and better quality of work.

It also allows workers to better demonstrate their abilities, giving management a better idea of who their team members are. Skills needed in an organization-wide project may be stuck in a front-line position, and with strict hierarchies, these skills may never be discovered, and the worker in question may never be able to work at their fullest potential for the firm. Flattened structures allow management to make more effective use of human assets in this way.

Flattened hierarchies also tend to foster decision-making from the bottom up, not to the exclusion of top-down decision making, but in addition to it. This means more ideas going into the problem solving process, and more buy-in from those who will be responsible for executing the decision in question. Decision making also becomes more efficient (to a point) because there are fewer layers of management for the decision to go through.

Words of Caution

There are times in which flattened hierarchies complicate things. Flattened hierarchies are difficult to scale to large firms, as more organization is often needed to ensure that even basic business functions, such as accounting and payroll, are done correctly. There are times in which flattened hierarchies actually reduce the drive to perform in employees, as they see no opportunities for individual advancement. Flattened hierarchies ask more from employees and from managers, requiring flexibility and internal drive. In essence, flat organizations require traits classically considered to be entrepreneurial traits in their employees and their managers. Flattened hierarchies can be more confusing, which was a problem in Zappos’ Holacracy experiment.

The goal, rather than flattening all hierarchies, is for firms to seek out and find the balance that works best for their industry, their managers, and their employees. This includes striking a balance between the confidence and comfort of employees, as well as making the right trade-offs between reliability and agility for the firm as a whole. Hierarchy springs naturally from human organization, and will always be present in some form. But the strict, rigid hierarchies that Frederick Taylor codified in his Scientific Management should be left in the past, and more human, humane, and flexible systems put in its place.

When I worked in customer service call centers, a job I did for ten years of my professional life, the fear was so pervasive you could almost smell it. Average Call Handling time (ACH) and After Call Work (ACW) were tracked to the second, and both were expected to be reduced. I achieved an ACH of 163 seconds one month; I was congratulated for it. Later I was disciplined for taking “excessive” bathroom breaks; my team lead suggested I drink less water while at work. I was told once upon calling in sick that I was developing a “pattern” of absences; I offered to come in with pinkeye.

I did routinely work sick. I had a friend drive me to work one day when I had a 103 degree fever and was too dizzy to drive.

Everyone worked sick.

I had several coworkers out for weeks at a time on psych leave. Management didn’t call it that, but we knew when it happened. Some never came back.

We all worked under constant threat of being fired. After all, front line employees were easy to replace, especially in a city like Bellingham. We watched people clean out their desks. We watched people escorted out by security. We knew our files were full of every disciplinary action ever taken against us, and we knew that they could be combined at any time to create a “pattern” that would lead to us losing our jobs.

It wasn’t until two years into my next job that I started to recover from this.

My next position was in the mailroom for a government office. Every time my supervisor wanted to talk to me, I broke out in a sweat. But the real problem came when mistakes cropped up in my work. I would do anything to hide them. I would make excuses when I couldn’t hide them. This sometimes prevented me from ever fixing those mistakes.

One day, my supervisor told me, “I don’t want to hear it. Just fix it.”

This may sound brusque, but it changed the way I approach my work. It was a revelation. I saw that my mistakes wouldn’t be punished, but that it was my responsibility to fix them. I suddenly understood that I was not in immediate danger of being fired. If I acknowledged and fixed my mistakes, it was not a big deal.

This changed my entire approach to the job. I plunged into my work, asked for sidework, learned tasks from other parts of the department so that I could fill in where I was needed. I eventually trained my replacement in not just my job, but in all of these side projects and tasks, so that I could leave the place in good hands and not waste my supervisor’s time. I was more confident, more professional, more productive, and more collaborative. By the time I left, my supervisor told me that I was the most competent person to have held the position.

Physiological and Cognitive Impacts of Fear

Fear has inescapable effects on the human body. The release of adrenaline and cortisol occur; the heart rate quickens, digestion slows. Blood sugar increases to provide us the energy we need to escape the source of our fear. We become hyperalert to the source of our fear, unable to properly focus on routine tasks.

The fear response is self-limiting. Once the source of the fear is gone, the levels of adrenaline and cortisol return to normal.

But when fear is chronic, when we spend most of our waking hours under the pall of fear, the stress response becomes chronic. Sleep is disrupted, the immune system no longer functions normally. We can experience headaches and digestive maladies. Memory and concentration are both impaired. We experience a greater risk of heart disease in the long term.

Does this sound like a productive employee? Someone who’s ill frequently, who cannot concentrate on their work, whose cognition is to one degree or another impaired? Who is focused, despite any desire to the contrary, on the avoidance of and protection from the source of their fear?

Fear, Trust, and Motivation

Fear can be a motivating factor, but it comes with great risks. It reduces confidence, inhibits collaboration, and stifles creative and innovative thinking. It prevents employees from taking the initiative, and reduces employee engagement.

Fear is an extrinsic motivator, and not a very effective one. Positive extrinsic motivators work better, for all of the reasons described above, but even extrinsic motivators vary from worker to worker; the rewards that motivate one employee may not motivate another. One-size-fits-all reward packages as designed by management may not be as effective as they hope, and can reach a point of diminishing returns as regards motivation. The task of properly employing extrinsic motivation has been described by psychologist Victor Vroom in his Expectancy Theory.

Expectancy Theory states that three factors are required to effectively motivate someone to engage in a behavior: expectancy, instrumentality, and valence. Expectancy is the belief that an increase in effort will result in an increase in performance. Instrumentality is the belief that the increase in performance will be noticed and rewarded. Valence is whether a reward is desired by the employee or not. 

All three of these factors are important. In management through fear, the reward on offer is that the negative outcome will be avoided. While this outcome may have the proper valence to the employee, without the belief that the performance will be noticed and rewarded (instrumentality), the motivating effect of that valent reward fails. Maintaining instrumentality requires that you have the trust of your employees, and fear poisons trust.

Intrinsic motivation is more reliable, but cannot be created; it can only be accessed and leveraged. It is more difficult to access because you have to know the person in order to know what motivates them, and building relationships takes time and work. And trust.

People ruled by fear do not confide their hopes and dreams and joys to the source of their fear. It’s important to know these things to access and leverage intrinsic motivation. To know these things, there must be some kind of intimacy present in the worker-manager relationship, and that intimacy is impossible without trust. Fear strangles that trust in its crib.

The process of leveraging intrinsic motivation is described by the Job Characteristics Model. This model states that intrinsic motivation at a job depends on three factors: skill variety, task identity, and task significance. This is moderated by two additional factors, autonomy and feedback, which increase or decrease the effect of the three primary factors. 

What’s interesting about the Job Characteristics Model is that all factors focus on the work itself. There is no reward or punishment here. Autonomy, the degree to which an employee can determine what they’ll work on and how they’ll work on it, requires trust from management that the employee will do the work at hand without being controlled by reward or fear. This trust must be mutual; management that is not trusted by its employees cannot trust those employees. Conversely, if employees are not trusted by their management, they cannot trust their management.

The Greasy Thumbprint of Frederick Taylor

Frederick Taylor’s Scientific Management is responsible for many of the toxic management tactics that persist in our management culture more than a hundred years later. While it is true that we largely no longer practice scientific management to the letter, and while it is true that we’ve moved beyond the kind of manual labor that Taylor was attempting to optimize, several aspects of his theory persist today.

The highly stratified management system, for example, that places managers above and away from the work they’re managing. The treatment of human employees as machines that can be tuned for greatest productivity and efficiency. The related idea that human capital is as disposable as physical capital. The fine-grained control over even the smallest tasks performed by the worker (micromanagement, in today’s parlance) and its attendant complete lack of employee autonomy. All of these things contribute to management by fear, and in today’s workplace actually reduce productivity and stifle innovation.

Because of this, there is a natural and severe power imbalance between the employer and the employed, and due largely to the widespread use of the principles of scientific management, employers have not been good stewards of this power. This has damaged the trust relationship, which leads employers to exercise more command and control tactics, which further damages trust, in a vicious cycle. Effective management, especially in the new economy, requires that we discard command and control management practices, and foster a culture of mutual trust in the workplace.

If you’ve ever grown your own produce, you know that the food that comes out of your garden just doesn’t look the same as grocery store produce. Maybe it’s a little lumpier, a little bigger, a little smaller. Maybe, like me, your tomatoes have some catfacing from a cool spring. Maybe there’s some insect damage. It doesn’t impact how the veggies taste, and if you’re like me, you’ll happily gobble down an ugly tomato or a weird shaped spinach leaf.

This is how Imperfect Foods entered my life.

The Business Model

Imperfect Foods is a business that sources grocery items that don’t go to grocery stores and sells them to consumers. The reasons these foods don’t go to grocery stores vary; maybe they’re too big, maybe they’re too small. Maybe they’re asymmetrical, or maybe they have scarring or blemishes. Maybe they’re just excess inventory.

20 billion pounds of food go to waste in the United States every year, and not all of that is due to the cosmetic standards of grocery stores, but a lot of it is. Imperfect Foods recovers a portion of that waste from the waste stream and puts it back in the hands of consumers.

In between 5% and 30% of any given crop is unmarketable; exhibiting any of the imperfections listed above that keep it off grocery shelves. These foods stay in the field and are plowed under, or farmers sell them to processors at deep discounts (often at a loss, actually).

We are tilling land and using water to grow food that nobody will eat.  

So not only is Imperfect Foods filling a much needed role in the economy (putting excess capacity to use), and reducing waste overall, their willingness to purchase imperfect produce from farmers helps farms too, allowing them to make some money off of food that would normally be unmarketable.

I have to say, Imperfect Foods is really killing it on social media. Their friendly, quirky voice plays well in the medium, the photos of boxes of produce really play well to their target market, and they have a great blog with interesting content, including upcoming partnerships with producers, ingredient spotlights, etc. I just spent the time waiting for my box to arrive reading through their blog posts. They also send out emails with recipes, which is nice. I don’t intend to make celery soup any time soon, but it’s nice.

They also will let you know on your account how much food waste you’ve saved, so that’s a feel-good moment as well.

Food, Water, and CO2 saved

Why Not Give That Food to the Poor?

We do! Many stores and many farmers donate foods that they can’t sell to food banks, and Imperfect Foods sources their produce after donations to food banks have already occurred.

The fact is, the problem of distributing food to the poor isn’t one of availability; of the 20 billion pounds of food wasted per year, Imperfect only captures about 25 million, leaving plenty to go around. To provide perspective, Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks, received 1.4 billion (with a b) pounds of produce in 2017.

The problem of feeding the poor is one of infrastructure. It is distribution, and the fact that many poor people lack the time or the means to cook fresh food. It is not that we don’t have enough to go around. Imperfect Foods is not taking that food from the mouths of the hungry. They are scooping up foods that would otherwise go to waste, and building a sustainable business from it.

In fact, as of January 2020, they’ve donated over 4 million pounds of produce to food banks, and also offer discounted boxes for those who qualify for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Ordering

So, on to my experience. I saw a friend posting about their first Imperfect Foods box on Facebook. With that post was a photo of a tremendous amount of produce spread out on a table. I craved that bounty. Like many people who have experienced food insecurity, I have a kind of obsession with food. I love cooking it, preserving it, saving it, eating it. I hate throwing it out.

When I saw I could get ten dollars off my first box using her referral link, I decided I would try it out.

So I signed up, and waited anxiously for my shopping period to begin on Friday at 3pm.

I signed up for the produce box, plus a meat pack add on.

When my shopping period opened up, I pulled up the website on my phone and started poking around. The thing I really like about this process was that I could remove things from the standard produce box (the contents of the standard box changes week by week) that I didn’t want and replace them with things I did want. Take out apples, add in apricots!

You don’t need the add on packs to order meat, dairy, or grains, either. You can add meat, dairy, and grains to your order a la carte. Items are priced individually so if you remove a two dollar item and add a three dollar item, you’ll be paying a dollar more.

Through the shopping process, they’ll let you know what some of the “imperfections” are that make the food unmarketable. Inconsistent sizing and excess inventory are common. It’s interesting to see what makes these foods unmarketable.

I found for me that it’s easy to go overboard, but you have a few days to complete your shopping so I just added everything I wanted and then came back in after my bloodlust had calmed and removed items I didn’t think I would reasonably be able to use.

Two things I learned. High interest items run out quick, so start shopping right when your window opens, if possible. Some items will become available again during the shopping period, so if there’s something you weren’t able to get, be sure to check back before the shopping period closes, you might be able to get it then.

The box arrived on Wednesday. They sent a text message when it was out for delivery, and one when it was dropped off. No contact delivery! Wonderful!

The Box

Produce Received from Imperfect Foods

I opened up the box and was initially a little overwhelmed. It was more produce than I was used to buying at once, so I was struck with this panic. What am I going to do with all of this? Where am I going to store it? What am I going to do with eight limes? Will my roommate disown me?

Then I took a deep breath and it really wasn’t so bad.

I took a couple of hours to process and stow the produce. One of the cucumbers, the bunch of celery, and the seven stubby carrots all got cut up into sticks for snacks. The blue cheese crumbles got made into blue cheese dressing for salads. The radishes got their tops removed and got put away. Four Valencia oranges went to my computer desk for mid-work snacks.

Nothing came in plastic bags. The only thing in my first box that was bagged separately was the apricots, and they were in a little paper bag, I guess to keep them from getting lost and crushed.

I got everything put away and the end result is that I ate way more fruit and veggies that week than the week before, and returned to the website on Friday at 3pm to nervously shop for my next box.

The Outcome

I like it! I plan to keep getting boxes from them. What’s important to understand is that you’re getting produce that would otherwise have gone to grocery stores, so the things that you get from the grocery store that are generally mushy and/or flavorless (hi, peaches) aren’t going to magically be better. This isn’t a CSA. However, everything I’ve gotten from them has been fresh and of as good or better quality than I would have gotten at the grocery store.

I haven’t done the math needed to determine whether I’m saving money over buying from the grocery store, but the fact of the matter is, I’m buying and eating a lot more produce than I do when I shop at the grocery store, so while I may be spending more money, I’m betting that my money is at least being spent better, if that makes sense.

There are real savings available in organics, which Imperfect does offer, but I don’t typically shop organics so I can’t really say that’s saving me money. But it’s nice for a treat (I got some organic grass fed butter in my last box), and they sometimes have some really weird interesting stuff that I might not otherwise have had the opportunity to purchase, so that’s cool.

The shopping process, the delivery, the product, and all the adjacent media really hits a lot of my buttons, so I’m really enjoying this service. Do I recommend it? I do, and I have, over and over again.

Here’s my referral link if you want $10.00 off your first box!

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s almost time to start shopping for my third box.

I want to start this post out by stating that I am not a licensed mental health professional, and the advice I’m about to give is not a substitute for real therapy and mental health management. They are only strategies I’ve learned along the way and tried to implement in my daily life.

I think sometimes we all struggle with confidence and self-image. When you like yourself, you’re more able to present your genuine self, and other people will like you more. You’ll be more willing to be daring, to take risks, to innovate, and to speak up about your ideas. You’ll be a more effective and persuasive communicator, and better at building relationships and community.

But how do we get through those times when we don’t feel the best about ourselves?

This is something I’ve struggled with for a long time. In fact, I still struggle with it. But I’ve implemented these strategies in my life and I’ve seen some success with them.

This is not a panacea, and it’s not easy. They’re work, and they take practice. But I think they’re worth it.

State Your Feelings as Feelings

When we’re struggling with negative thoughts, whether they’re about ourselves or about something in the external world, it helps to express those thoughts and feelings. But when we state them as fact, we are more likely to believe them. This is an apparent paradox that I struggled with a lot.

But a good friend said to me once that while your feelings are real, they may not be true

This was a statement that I thought about for days, and the more I thought about it, the more it changed the way I look at myself and at the world. And slowly, I started stating my feelings as feelings, and not as fact. For example, after making a mistake, I would not think I’m so stupid, but instead, I feel so stupid. The first is a statement on reality, and the second is an expression of feeling.

The cult of positivity exhorts us to avoid all negative self talk, but the negative feelings we have need to be talked about. This strategy allows me to explore and express negative thoughts without risking further embedding them in my mind.

Practice Mindfulness

I don’t necessarily mean meditation, though that’s a good way to practice. What I mean is redirecting your attention to what’s in front of you.

That’s difficult in this culture. It’s difficult when you’ve got long term goals to move toward and a dozen tasks needing your attention and “multitasking” is an assumed skill.

Multitasking is not really a thing. What looks like multitasking is really task switching, and it can actually lead to a reduction in work performance, feelings of overwhelm, and wondering why everyone else can handle things that you struggle with.

This is a simple concept. Note, without judgement, when you find yourself thinking about the future, or about a task other than the one that’s in front of you, note it, without judgement, and consciously shift your focus back to what’s in front of you. 

Despite its simplicity, this takes practice and work. You will find yourself worrying about other things many, many times in a day, and this experience can be very frustrating. Resisting the urge to judge these moments negatively has been one of the hardest aspects of the practice for me, but it’s also very important.

Celebrate Small Successes

While we all have larger goals to work toward, it’s important to acknowledge your small successes, your milestones. While many of us will beat ourselves up over every little failure, we will ignore the little moments of triumph; moments that can offset our mistakes in our internal landscape and help keep us more balanced, confident, and focused.

We must not let these little triumphs go unnoticed.

We should be able to take pride and enjoyment in as many pieces of our work as possible. Seeing each success as a thing to be celebrated generates more pride in yourself. Even successes that are only steps in a larger process can be celebrated.

These celebrations can take many forms, but they can be as simple as sitting back for just a moment and feeling good about what you’ve done. 

Instead of saving your pride for when you’ve finished the manuscript, take a moment to feel pride about the thousand words you wrote today. It’ll leave you more likely to sit down and write more tomorrow.

Compare Yourself to Yourself

Comparing yourself to your peers not only can result in you feeling badly about yourself, it can kindle feelings of jealousy and negativity toward your peers; impairing working relationships, collaborations, even friendships. When you do this, you’re only working with a limited set of information, and often we draw the wrong conclusions from this information.

Everyone has their struggles. When you compare yourself to your peers, you are ignoring their struggles, the piece of information we most often lack when making these comparisons. 

The best way to benchmark your performance is to compare yourself to yourself. Making forward progress in your craft or profession is always forward progress. Mistakes are always lessons to be learned that give you insight into what you’re doing. Comparing yourself to yourself gives you vital information on your own performance, and areas in which you need to focus and improve.

Comparing yourself to others doesn’t give that insight, because you don’t know where or how that person is struggling (we’re all struggling sometimes, somewhere). You can’t make the same judgments because you don’t have all the information. You’ll get a lot more benefit through introspection and striving to improve beyond your own past performance.

Understand Mistakes as Practice

Did you know that it takes the average smoker between 8 and 14 quit attempts to stop smoking?

The good news about this is that each quit attempt makes the smoker more likely to quit.

Because those quit attempts are practice.

When you regard your mistakes as practice, this opens the door to learn from them; to collect information necessary to improving performance on your next attempt. 

Mistakes are inevitable. What leads to success is examining and learning from those mistakes. Doing this requires one to regard those mistakes dispassionately, without judgement.

When we allow these mistakes to damage our self-confidence, we hamper our own ability to learn from them, replacing “how can I succeed” with “why I can’t succeed.” This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, sometimes even leading us to give up on even trying. Sometimes, this attitude of judgment leads to a fear of failure so intense that it rules out success.

Now, I’m not much of a self-help person. I’m actually a self-help skeptic. And I’m not here to say “my life was a mess, but through this set of behaviors I’ve turned it all around.” I will say that my life has been a continuous iterative process, trying to figure out what works for me, and how I work, in ways that are more likely to lead me to success. 

I offer these strategies to you because if you struggle, like I do, with self-confidence, one or more of these might help.

Oh, Bernie Sanders. To some, a rumpled and benevolent socialist uncle. To others, a bumbling but harmless elder, out of touch with the times. To still others, a real danger to the status quo from which they benefit. But the Bernie Sanders campaign is employing a branding strategy, intentionally or not (I think it’s intentional), known as hostile branding.

Hostile branding is a strategy of aggressive differentiation, often targeting the personal identity of the target market. Part of the strategy is to explicitly exclude those not in the target market, engendering feelings of exclusivity, aspiration, and/or uniqueness in the target audience.

In this post I want to take a look at some of the elements of the hostile brand, and see how they relate to the Bernie Sanders campaign in both 2016 and 2020.

Love it or Leave it

Part of hostile brand strategy is to choose a brand personality and stick to it, proudly and unapologetically. Bernie appeals on camera looking rumpled and disheveled, consistently and without apology or self-consciousness. He makes the same appeals over and over again, without adjusting to feedback that he recieves from the electorate. There are no apologies, sincere or not; no backtracking. He maintains the identity of “democratic socialist” despite the fact that it is alienating and frightening to some.

This forces people to either get in line behind Sanders or not. This is a part of why Sanders is a polarizing political figure.

Cult-like appeal

The Love-it-or-leave-it strategy results in a kind of us-and-them mentality among Sanders’s most fervent supporters. You’re either with Bernie, or you’re an obstruction at best, an outright enemy at worst. I had a friend tell me during the 2016 campaign that if you didn’t support Bernie Sanders, “you’re basically Ann Coulter.”

Yeah, we’re not friends anymore.

This cult-like appeal is not an accident; it’s a strategy employed by the campaign. Sanders made himself into the leader of a movement (hence his political group, named Our Revolution), and that movement has revolutionary change at its heart. If you’re not embracing that revolutionary change, you’re one of Them.

This appeals to people of a certain identity; it reinforces that sense of identity and in fact rewards them for it with a sense of moral superiority.

Less is more

Sanders’s campaign is built on dreams. Aspirations. A vision of what America could be. There’s no real roadmap to those ends; he doesn’t talk about what he’ll do to implement these things with an actively oppositional Senate (and House, maybe. Who knows what the future holds).

I’m betting this is also not by accident.

Bernie Sanders is campaigning against the system, against the status quo, against the Democratic Party itself! Having plans to actually implement his agenda would involve the admission that he’d have to dirty his hands by working with The Enemy. An admission that instead of breaking the system, he would have to work from within it in order to produce the results he and his supporters want to see so very badly.

Moreover, it would be a tacit admission of the fact that their revolutionary movement could fail. Bernie paints every moment of his vision as all but inevitable; his supporters see it as a righteous revolution. Admitting that it could fail invites the chill of reality into that vision, and cools the fires of the passion he’s worked so hard to inspire.

Perceived authenticity

Bernie’s lack of polish, his unabashed connection to socialism, his gruff manner, all of it lies in stark contrast to his political contemporaries. He is, in fact, breaking the rules. And breaking the rules, appearing to be different than others in the competitive field, is courting both success and disaster. Sanders’s willingness to maintain this persona in the face of possible disaster is a marker of authenticity.

Other politicians’ apparent bending to these rules of political campaigning makes them feel inauthenitc; it implies that they are willing to change themselves to play the game. 

This contrast is a strong differentiator; Sanders, as far as his stans are concerned, is not just another politician. And his apparent authenticity leads his stans to believe that he’s someone they can trust. He won’t just sell them down the river like the last politician and the last one, back into the mists of history. Bernie, as far as they can tell, is the Real Deal.

The Risks of Hostile Branding

Much of hostile branding is based around the alienation of the outsider. Lululemon alienates women who are “not meant” to wear yoga pants (meaning women who don’t adhere to the white, thin, young vision held by western beauty standards). American Eagle (and several other “fast fashion” brands) differentiated themselves unapologetically by refusing to offer sizing above the “straight sizing” range, excluding a large group of people from their offerings.

Most hostile brands see that there’s room to prosper within their chosen target market. The risk of alienating all others is factored into the brand’s strategy.

However, this can go two different ways: the hostile brand becomes aspirational for those it excludes, or the alienated become actively hostile to the brand, taking action against it, up to and including direct action, like calling for boycotts.

Because of this, if you’re running a branding campaign that relies on capturing the imagination of a large part of the population, you could end up shooting yourself in the foot by using hostile branding.

I’m not saying this can never be successful in politics; Donald Trump successfully employed hostile branding in much the same way Sanders did. The reason he succeeded is that he employed it while targeting a portion of the population that holds outsized economic and political power in the United States; white people.

Sanders cannot win with democrats this way, so it makes his use of this campaign strategy more complicated.

Hostile Branding and Populism

Populism is defined as “a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.”

It’s easy to see how populism and hostile branding go hand in hand. You find your enemy, your status quo, your establishment, your elites, and you position yourself in opposition to them. 

However, as mentioned above, you must find a target audience that is large enough to drive your brand to success. It is difficult to later incorporate those who have been alienated by your brand.

The problem is, many of the “establishment democrats” that Sanders explicitly positions himself against have done good things, and/or represent ideas that resonate with the electorate. I had someone tell me that Sanders supporting  Stacey Abrams is a line in the sand because of her connections with the finance industry.

Stacey Abrams represents a lot of things. She’s the first black female major party gubernatorial nominee in the United States. She was the first black woman to give a response to the state of the union address. And since her loss to Brian Kemp in the Georgia gubernatorial race, she’s dedicated her time to addressing racial inequity in voting rights.

Sanders is not his supporters, and did not come out in opposition to Abrams because of her ties to the finance industry, but Abrams is an establishment democrat, a member of the party. There are other examples of beloved establishment figures, and Sanders treads a delicate line when positioning himself against “party elites.”

Hostile Branding and National Politics

Regardless of your political inclinations, it’s easy to see why the democratic party is necessarily a big tent. It’s a more diverse party than the Republican party, and different groups within the party have different legislative and policy priorities.

The question is, can Bernie’s target market carry him to victory in the general election while he alienates the rest of the party?

I’m not so sure. People assume that his message of economic socialism will resonate with people, but the culinary union in Nevada vocally opposed Sanders during the primary, because they feared his healthcare plan would put their dearly fought for health benefits at risk. Sanders did not do well with southern black voters, despite his change in strategy from 2016 (which appears to mostly be not complaining about “identity politics” anymore), but he may be losing support from white middle america as a result of easing his stance on immigration.

It’s a delicate balance. Donald Trump could use racism to unite the largely white republican party. Given the democrats’ relative diversity, how can Sanders unite the party that he’s campaigning against?

He won’t do it by pretending that those other concerns don’t exist, that’s for sure.

 

Let’s get started with this: this post is not about buying stocks or saving for retirement.

This is also not about “self care” or being able to “treat yo’self.”

This is about investing in your future success. You’ll see more about that below.

During my adult life, I spend a lot of time being very poor. I was even homeless for a time. This kind of stress leaves its marks on you; one example is that I find it very difficult to spend money. It causes feelings of stress and anxiety, and the magnitude of those feelings increases along with the amount of money I’m being asked to spend.

I cried in the car on the way home with my first brand new television, for example.

I save boxes for abnormal amounts of time in case a personal financial disaster occurs and I have to take whatever new thing I’ve purchased back.

I’ve been working on getting better about this, but I still have a hard time making a clothes buying decision, for example. I will patch clothes and wear them until they’re rags, putting off replacing them as long as possible.

This is a problem when it comes to self investment.

Let’s talk about school.

I originally went to college as a teenager, using my college savings from my childhood. I was in a fine arts program, intending to transfer to a University arts program. When the money ran out, I dropped out. 

I resisted going back to school to complete my education because of the enormous price tag. It wasn’t until, unemployed after the Great Recession, my resources ran out that I filed my first FAFSA and entertained the idea of going back to school. 

I was able to do my first two years on grants alone, and I had to take out loans for the last two years of undergrad and for my MBA tuition.

The loans still make me incredibly anxious, even though I believe that this money is the smartest money I’ve ever spent on myself. I have learned and grown through my academic career in ways I do not think would have been possible on my own. Those loans represent an investment I’ve made in myself; new skills learned, new talents developed, new environments explored. Those funds represent me becoming a new and better person, and while having spent those thousands of dollars fills me with dread, I don’t actually regret it.

Now, you don’t have to spend thousands and thousands of dollars to invest in yourself.. There are small ways you can invest in yourself every day.

Here are some questions I ask myself when I consider investing in myself:

Will I Learn a New Skill?

This is, perhaps unsurprisingly, my favorite kind of self-investment, and perhaps the hardest for me to actually spend money on. The problem is, there are so many free learning resources available, especially in the internet age, that it gets difficult for me to spend money on it. But a lot of those resources are surface level only by design, in order to get you to pay for further curricula. And that’s when I have a hard time pulling the trigger.

But the fact is, there’s a depth of learning you’re eventually going to have to pay for to get results, unless you find yourself in the incredibly lucky position of having a friend who’s an expert who’s willing to teach you for free.

But look. Learning new things is always worth it. That doesn’t mean that all learning opportunities are worth it; some of them are garbage. For example, I have a hard time believing that writer’s conferences are worth the money they demand (there are reasons for this but that’s another blog post). 

But purchasing a course from Codecademy? Probably worth it. Many of the courses on Udemy? They’re also worth it (but you know, shop smart). Going back to school to complete your higher education? Almost definitely worth it. Adult Ed courses at your local community college? Definitely worth it.

If the skill you stand to learn is related to your professional field, all the better. But learning something you’re interested in is good too. It is not just personally fulfilling, but learning itself has benefits. You keep your mind more flexible, and make it easier to learn other things down the line. It may not make you smarter, exactly, but it does keep you from slowing down, and as an adult who returned to college, I can tell you that that’s important.

Will it Make my Life Easier?

This is the ultimate form of self-care for me (I know, I said it wasn’t about self-care, but keep reading). It may seem obvious, but making your life easier makes literally every other thing easier. We all have a limited about of mental energy to spend in a given period of time, and the mental energy you don’t put into vacuuming the rug every day because of your vacuum robot actually frees up personal resources to be redirected toward more important things.

And it’s not just doing those other things that makes things easier; it’s that you don’t have to worry about those things, too. Because that stress and worry uses up mental resources. Worrying about the fact that you haven’t had time to vacuum the rug, regardless of whether or not you actually vacuum the rug, costs you resources.  In fact, since the worry often lasts longer than the actual task itself, it may cost more resources than actually performing the task.

There’s this idea that we should feel guilty about outsourcing the menial tasks of keeping a life together, but here’s the thing; in prior ages, we had a member of the household specifically dedicated to performing these tasks. In the modern age, where many of us are a) single, or b) members of dual income households, we no longer have that option. If a meal delivery service, or a monthly visit from a housecleaning service, or a vacuum robot will make your life easier, relieve stress, and open up time for other things (like learning a new skill, perhaps?) then I say you should do it.

You still have to evaluate whether you can afford the expenditure, of course. I’m a poor grad student, and I cannot afford a vacuum robot. But man, when I re-enter the professional world and have the option to own a vacuum robot you know I’ll have one. I have a lot of things to do that are more important than vacuuming the rug. Don’t you?

Will it Make me Appear More Professional/Credible to my Peers?

Ah yes, appearances. So shallow and so unimportant, says the artist in me. Whose humanity is sufficiently represented by appearances? What kind of way is that to value human beings?

And yet.

I have always struggled with appearances as a concept. I have consistently been at odds with my appearance throughout my entire life, filled with despair that I didn’t look the way I thought I should. Not necessarily the way other people thought I should (though there’s plenty of that too), but also I never felt like I looked the way I felt. My appearances, though I would not have the words to express this until well into adulthood, never matched my identity.

And appearance is fundamental to identity. 

Investing in your appearance to confirm your identity is worthwhile because it improves happiness. Now, for some people that means clothes and manicures and hair appointments, and me, I’m honestly fine with patched jeans and graphic tees and Great Clips haircuts. But. These things will not make me appear credible to managers, recruiters, and clients. No, not even here in Bellingham, Washington.

So despite my lack of interest in blazers, after a long search process and a good online sale, I purchased myself a black blazer for job interviews, etc. I bought myself two knee length business skirts and a pair of slacks. I bought myself a blouse. I need some more blouses but like I mentioned above, I have a hard time spending money on these things. Most of these articles in fact still have the tags on them, even though the return period has passed.

This also relates to the first question; will a skill on my resume make me a more attractive hire? Will a PHP certification or a data analytics certification make me more attractive as a digital marketer? Almost certainly, even though there are managers out there responsible for similar hiring decisions that don’t even know what PHP is.

Having a certification on your resume, even if it’s only tangentially related to your field, also tells potential employers that you sought out, invested in, and completed an opportunity to learn a new skill, which says something about you.

So ask yourself the above three questions, and if your opportunity answers one or more of them, give it serious consideration. Of course, you still have to evaluate whether you can easily afford your options, and you may have to prioritize them and decide which will provide you the most value. But an investment in yourself is going to be the best money you ever spent.

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?

 

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.

“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.

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.

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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jc5FcsPARxM&t=

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.

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.

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.

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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fm15cmYU0IM&t=13s

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 was listening to the Business of Digital podcast recently, and their most recent episode was about mixing business and politics. The message was, don’t do it. The reason seemed to be that you’ll alienate half your customers by introducing politics into your marketing messaging.

Needless to say, I disagree.

In fact, I was really surprised to hear this from a marketing podcast.

The hosts framed the Nike ad featuring Colin Kaepernick as a gambit that the company was large enough to weather, but they’re wrong. The Kaepernick ad was a calculated strategy. Nike saw an opportunity to reach their target audience, and they took it. Surprisingly enough, Nike’s target market isn’t middle-aged white republicans. And those were the people we saw throwing away or destroying their Nike products on social media.

And that reaction was a really valuable part of the marketing strategy. It turned a huge corporate entity deeply embedded in the status quo into an enemy of the status quo in the minds of consumers. It’s a type of hostile marketing, and it wasn’t a mistake. It worked.

Gillette razors released an ad campaign tackling toxic masculinity. There was an overwhelming negative reaction online, largely from men who felt that the company was attacking masculinity as a whole. Pictures circulated on Twitter of men throwing their Gillette products in the trash. And while some news sites attributed financial losses to this ad, Ace Metrics, a marketing analytics firm, paints a different picture. They reported that only 8% of viewers reported that they were less or much less likely to purchase the brand, compared against 65% of viewers reporting that they were more or much more likely to purchase the brand.

This was also a calculated strategy. Gillette, an old brand, is faced with the challenge of winning younger consumers in the face of competition from companies like Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s. Metrics reported by AdWeek show that the conversation generated by the ad was largely favorable with younger people and with women, groups that Gillette had failed to reach previously. Additionally, whether the conversation generated by the ad was positive or negative, it brought life back to an old brand and struck a chord that reverberated with the current zeitgeist.

Pepsi attempted to capitalize on this climate by releasing an ad featuring Kendall Jenner, which failed miserably. The ad depicts Jenner as a model in the middle of a photo shoot joining a diverse group of protesters carrying signs with mealy mouthed, non-controversial slogans like “Peace” and “Join the Conversation,” and in the end saves the day by offering the police a Pepsi, at which point the crowd erupts into cheers. I guess you could say that the message of this ad is one of unity, urging the BLM and other racial justice movements to reconcile with police, even though police forces across the U.S. are notably hostile toward these movements. This trivialized a movement dedicated to preserving the lives and dignity of racial minorities in this country. Not a good way to approach this demographic.

Green marketing is without a doubt political, and it has been so successful that it spawned frauds engaging in green-washing; the practice of marketing a product as green when it really isn’t. A majority of consumers report that they’re willing to spend more on a product that they perceive as socially or environmentally responsible, according to Nielsen. This is particularly prominent among Millennials and Gen Z, but Boomers show a bare majority as well.

Green marketing doesn’t just work on consumers. Investors are increasingly searching for green investing opportunities, to the point that new financial instruments were created to capitalize on and fuel the demand for green and socially responsible investing.

And this is happening on a smaller scale as well. A small company called NerdyKeppie specializes in selling quality queerwear, and if they left their politics out of business they wouldn’t have anything to sell. Their business is by nature political, in part because they’re selling identity, and identity is by nature political.

Your engagement with politics may be more subtle, such as it is with digital marketing firm Intellitonic. The founders of the company got involved with non-profits local to Bellingham, WA where the company does business. These non-profits support sustainability, help for homeless youth, and community support for the arts. These may sound non-controversial, but here in Bellingham, they are political stances. This involvement embeds the company as part of the community.

On the other side of things, there’s an example of a “local” company that completely failed to take into account the politics of a new market. When Melvin Brewing moved to Bellingham, they didn’t consider how their bad boy image would play, and they got an education in social media disasters as a result.

So, we’ve looked at some large and small companies succeeding in using politics in their marketing, so let’s look at why.

The fact of the matter is, all identity is political, regardless of whether the people possessing that identity know it or will admit it. Especially now, with high rates of political polarization. We’re seeing a large amount of that polarization occurring between age groups, with older generations trending conservative and younger generations more liberal.

Older brands must reach younger customers in order to remain relevant, and brand and identity have been intrinsically linked for a long time. That link has only grown during the internet age, as identities that one is born into become less and less important. Younger generations, less tied to ideas of tradition, construct their identities themselves, and one of the ways they do that is through brands.

The right content is not the only ingredient necessary for doing this well. You must also deliver that content in a way that resonates and in a way that’s credible. This is one of the reasons the Pepsi Kendall Jenner ad failed; it failed to deliver a clear message, instead delivering a message of “unity” instead of taking a stand. Progressives viewed the ad as pandering and not credible, even though it was directed toward the political left.

Clearly not all brands need to approach politics this way. Tide detergent doesn’t need to focus on the political needs of its target market, although makers of detergents and other cleaners often benefit from green marketing. But Nike and Gillette market to facets of identity that are inherently political (age, race, gender). And in these cases, the political needs of your market cannot be ignored.