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

Where Technical Meets Creative.

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

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

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

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

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

The Technical Experience.

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

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

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

What I Learned.

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

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

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

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

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

Pick Your Topics First.

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

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

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

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

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

Pick Up A Pen.

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

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

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

Read With an Open Yet Critical Mind.

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

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

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

Take Note of What Inspires You.

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

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

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

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

Limit How Much You Read in a Session.

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

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

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

Once you’ve reached your limit, stop.

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

My Takeaways.

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

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

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

Read on, my friends.

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:

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.