Archive for April, 2008|Monthly archive page

Noise vs. Content

The internet and today’s technologies are a fascinating study, especially for one not bred on cyberspace.  I’ve spent the past six months almost continuously online, attempting to get a grip on commerce represented there, studying social networks and forums and internet marketing techniques.  One thing that strikes me in this investigation is how carefully you have to preserve your identity and purpose amidst all the noise.  It’s very easy for the internet to become the dictator.   You originally approached it as a tool for your business and if you don’t keep it in that place, it can quickly become a mere distraction and little real help.

Content is King, you read everywhere.  But there’s little to no instruction about creating great Content; the directives all pertain to SEO, marketing techniques and strategies, or the latest widgets.  A large percent of the material online makes fabulous use of these systems without first ensuring valuable Content.  In this way, the internet is far more sophisticated than its users and often produces the cyber equivalent of kids playing with guns.

The two social media sites, Squidoo and Twitter, exemplify this distinction.   At Squidoo, you share specific information designed to edify your readers.  At Twitter, you fatuously inform the world that you’re on the way to the airport, eating a hot dog, or coping with the sniffles.  Never having been much of a gossip, small talk, or chatter type, I have a horror of people ‘following me’ and have no interest in sharing the twists and turns of my everyday with anyone except my lover.  My point is that Twitter caters to the glitz and sensationalism with hardly a nod to Content; while Squidoo’s Content is an amazing tribute to the learning and creativity of 21st century human beings. 

It takes a while to understand the differences between the popular sites, and it takes inner strength to avoid being sucked in by sites that seem promising but actually offer only shallow solutions for you.  Depending on your purposes, Twitter may be just the thing you need (to keep track of a team’s progress, for instance).  By keeping your focus firmly on your real-world demands, you can separate the noise of internet hype from authentic and useful Content.

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Habit

“Habit,” says Vladimir in Samual Beckett’s immortal Waiting For Godot, “is the great deadener.” 

We think of habits usually as either good or bad.  We respect good habits, and are ashamed of bad ones.  But almost everything we do either follows or departs from habit.  Your daily routine, for example.  What does it take to get you going in the morning?  Is it not a series of rituals you’ve adopted?  When you arrive at work, is there not an habitual set of motions through which you go as you settle in to the day’s challenges?  When you go home at the end of the day, so you not savor a certain set of habitual actions as you wind down?  All parts of our days are guided by habit.

If you drop the need to label your habits either good or bad, and simply see them all as rote activities, you may be able to manipulate them to your benefit.  Departing from any habit is a huge refresher, a way to open your eyes and appreciate new possibilities.  It’s extremely healthy to ignore a habit or two on a regular basis; you can always go back to it.  Eat ice cream for breakfast, take a new route to work, vary your job routine however you can, lunch alone or not at all, spend the evening with a book instead of the tv.  Providing variety in your personal path will energize other parts of your life and responsibilities as well.

Cultivating helpful habits (like oatmeal, not ice cream for breakfast) is a major part of maturing into wisdom.  Let us not mitigate this truth.  But the higher reality is that any habit in the end is a ‘deadener,’ and at least varying our habits so that we’re not attached inextricably to any one of them is a basic of the creative life.

Doodling

Dr. Ken Hudson offers up a nice couple of paragraphs in his blog today about making improvements.  He notes that usually one improves something incrementally, using an additive method of modification.  But the other approach he suggests involves starting not with what you already have, but with an entirely new idea.  You work subtractively to proceed from your ideal new product to what is possible right now.

This brave approach requires skill in visioning.  Our education seldom promotes the development of creative vision, so few people practice it.  How often do you spend more than a second with a crazy new idea?  How often do you allow yourself to daydream in detail?  How open are you to the possibility of perfection, the realization of your dreams?

To envision means to open the door to a bit of chaos and lunacy.  It means to trust the process enough to actually dedicate some time to it.  It means to believe in and work seriously at creating a better world. 

Most of us are so oppressed that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to daydream.  If you want to rectify this situation, if you want to reawaken your dreaming capabilities, one way to start is by doodling.  While on the phone, or waiting for downloads, or at the doctor’s office, let your hand move a pen or pencil around a little piece of paper.  Don’t try to draw anything, just let the instrument make marks.  Follow your impulses with simple curiosity, and keep the pen moving without intellectual involvement. 

What does this exercise have to do with envisioning?  The successful dreamer has learned to allow and track the free flow of impulse.  Doodling can get you started.

Focus on others

I’m a member of a real-life (i.e., not online) networking group of business people.  While the group allows only one member per industry, and thus is competitive in that way, it is dedicated to the cooperative support of members in offering warm sales leads to one another.  Making these referrals and introductions is required of each member on a regular basis. 

It’s an old fashioned idea, still in full force.  And it reminds me of a fundamental rule in performance improvisation: Be responsible for your partner.

The way this works on stage is thusly:  one may think that one’s cleverness and charisma are called upon to stand out when in front of an audience.  But the secret to successful improvisations (as well as to any enactment) is to make the other guy look good.  Rather than asserting his own prowess, the actor  who is solely focused on cooperation with his partner has the most power on stage.

Success through focus on others.  This is contrary to common practice.  But consider the online emphasis on social networking and blogs; consider the fast-growing clout of Open Source; consider the increasing reality that before you can make sales (at least online) it is becoming necessary first to give something away.

Try making this significant switch in your thinking.  What if, rather than worrying about your sales, you deeply concentrate on making your customer look good, or on making your neighboring business look good, or on making your community look good.  Your own success will naturally follow along.

Breathing

Here’s a quick tip before we get serious about the work week.  It’s not easy getting up on Mondays, facing the long haul ahead, abruptly transitioning from Sunday’s ease to the ruthless pace and responsibilities of the work week.

There are several things I’ve learned as an adult that I can’t for the life of me figure out why they didn’t teach me early on.  For example, the color wheel – why isn’t this a given in elementary education?  And of course sex education is another.  But a less-mentioned biggie that is inexplicably ignored in upbringing is how to breathe.

We’re always told to take a deep breath when things are too intense, when we need to refresh any situation.  And we fill our chest with air, tightening up our shoulders, cutting off cirulation to the brain.  It helps to do this in that everything stops for a second, but the breath itself actually brings on more tension.

The directive should not be ‘Take a deep breath,’ but simply ‘Exhale!’  The inhale takes care of itself, but if you switch focus in a difficult situation to a complete, unobstructed exhale you will find relief.  Keep this little tip with you through this Monday, and let me know how it works for you!

Wonder

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Boy, we think our lives are complicated!  Tree holes are so full of mystery.  Enjoy a few this weekend.

Emptiness

One more post about listening before we let this topic lie for awhile.  We’ve looked at the importance and efficacy of listening.  We’ve talked about ways to incorporate regular listening in your daily life and business.  We’ve pointed out that listening can make the difference between success and failure in business.  (Can’t resist suggesting here that y’all watch a new YouTube video – “There’s no control, no leadership, only influence.”)

Before we let it go, this is a little meditation on how to listen.  Most of us are so out of practice that we really have no idea.  Our own internal monologue roars on and we’re oblivious to the fact that it blocks out much that we could benefit from.  We’re repositories of our life experiences and mainly spend our time being pushed around by those echos in the consciousness.  Listening requires hushing up this internal monologue, so that openness may be achieved.

You know the famous anecdote of the zen master whose student asked, How can I learn the truth?  And the master poured a cup of tea for the student, but did not stop pouring when the cup was full, so it overflowed all over the place.  Why did you do that, master?  In the same way, said the master, you are so full of your own thoughts that I can not fill you will the truth.  Go empty yourself, and then the truth will have room to enter.

It’s that simple, and that terrifyingly complex.  To be a listener, you must be willing to empty yourself, you must be willing to set your ego aside.  So learning how to listen is a lifelong endeavor.   For those who have never tried this, take some time this weekend to do something either completely relaxing or completely fascinating.  Notice how when you forget about yourself, in those rare moments when self-consciousness disappears, you are truly listening; and that is the kind of attention profound listening requires.

Virtue of the Small

A friend I knew some years ago had a web design business called Virtue of the Small.  I have no idea where the name came from, but I liked it very much. 

Yesterday, I called AT&T to have a phone line disconnected.  This is the telephone company, right?  Someone simply needed to make the note that I wish to cancel my service.  This no-brainer took me 30 minutes on the phone, half of which was waiting for a real person to answer and the other half was waiting (in silence) for the mysteriously long process of actually getting the line cut.  When I punched the right button to get the disconnect service, I was sent to a marketer, who, after being made to understand that I’m an adult who can really make her own decisions and who really does just want a disconnect, sent me on to the dark back office where they deal with those losers who don’t want to play the game anymore.

The most offensive part was the recording as I waited endlessly to be assisted.  Usually, such a recording will make clear that the company values your participation, and plans to be right with you.  Many of these systems even tell you how long the wait can be expected to be.  So why does the very center of this phone culture, the oldest and biggest and most experienced provider, merely give us a curt, “Our operators are currently serving other customers.”  Period.  Then this is followed by a lengthy encouragement to hang up and use their website instead.  Knowing it was highly unlikely that disconnect options are available on their site, I did not choose this option.

I may not be translating the experience in all its glory, but it was irritating in the extreme.  The problem with big business is that it’s extremely difficult to be self-aware.  The behemoths roll on of their own ugly accord, and human sensibilities are utterly lost.  AT&T, of all businesses, should have top-of-the-line phone answering and service.  Somehow, they’ve lost sight of that. 

At the point where your business becomes too large to factor in human sensibilities, cash in.  If your business has already passed that point and you’re still stuck there, do everything in your power (and more) to reconnect yourself and your services to actual human beings.  If your business is small and personal, count your blessings and be very careful in any growth initiatives that you do not outgrow your own skin.

Control

For various reasons, yesterday was unsettling:  a misunderstanding, an unexpected communication, a breakthrough, a reunion.  All these emotions in a short time made for an unusual Monday.  An out-of-control sort of feeling, and I’m left wondering what will come next.

 

Of course, all it’s about is a reminder that I’m not the center of the universe.  Amazing how easy it is to forget that.  When my control is strong, it’s inevitable that I’ll slip into believing the world’s my oyster.  I need reminders to stay on track:  the world may be my oyster, but it may not be your oyster, and success for both of us really lies in no proprietary oysters at all.  If you follow my metaphor. 

 

Not that it’s shameful in any way to feel strong and in control.  Those are marvelous moments, to be treasured.  But they are not the norm.  Nor is helplessness the norm.  The only lasting truth is the middle way, without attachment to either extreme.

 

Balancing chutzpa and humility is a sensitive part of the creative life.  How can you be daring, as creativity requires, without offending?  How can you have the courage of your convictions when pervading thought contradicts them?  How can you promote creativity in your business without losing control?