Category Archives: Uncategorized

Reminder: New RSS Feed!

Dear wonderful subscribers to my feed,

I’ve upgraded my site and transferred it to a new domain, www.bethdunn.org.  Please update your feed settings by visiting me there and adding the new feed to your readers.  If you’re having any problems, please email me at beth@bethdunn.org and I will do my darnedest to make it right.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart,

Beth

housekeeping post

Dear wonderful subscribers to my feed,

I’ve upgraded my site and transferred it to a new domain, www.bethdunn.org.  Please update your feed settings by visiting me there and adding the new feed to your readers.  If you’re having any problems, please email me at beth@bethdunn.org and I will do my darnedest to make it right.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart,

Beth

creativity, play, and productivity

Play as Background Processing

I’ve always been a big fan of background processing.  You know, when you’re struggling with a knotty problem that you just can’t find your way through solving, but you take a break — take a nap or go for a run — and suddenly and without even trying, the solution just pops into your head, fully formed.

Ever happen to you?

We Need Creativity to Get Work Done

There’s a cultural bias in our country, indeed in most Western cultures, that says that the only way to get work done is to keep at it, come what may.  It seems counter-intuitive to us to consider doing otherwise. Worse, we are seen (or see ourselves) as slackers, as uncommitted, unfocused, or simply lazy if we take time off to rest our brains.

We might make an exception for exercise, because we see that sort of activity as goal-driven as well.  We are accomplishing something by exercising. Also, few people really stick to it, so we are also displaying persistence and determination, two values that also support the “keep at it, come what may” mindset.

But what about making time for creativity?

We Know It Works

Think about it: How often have you thought that you do your best thinking while gardening, that a sparkling new idea came to you while you were fingerpainting with your kid, or even that you do your best thinking while in the shower?

(I’m going to go ahead and claim the shower as a creative space, since so many of us perform our greatest arias in that particular concert hall.)

You know perfectly well that switching off your analytical mind for a while and switching on your creativity and sense of play tends to unleash tremendous problem-solving capabilties in yourself.  But how often do you make this a conscious part of your workflow?  How often have you deliberately scheduled an hour for yourself to open up the watercolor kit, pick up the threads of that short story, or break out the legos — as a way to help you think and work and problem-solve better?

Work is creativity. Work is creation. Otherwise, it is nothing but robotic task completion.

It’s Hard

It’s really hard to overcome this bias, because it is everywhere. The other day, a consultant I know mentioned that he thinks the best consultants have the worst websites, because they are always too busy to be working on other people’s (paid) projects to be working on their own.

I think he was wrong.

I think the best workers make a super-human effort to incorporate periods of unstructured play and creative endeavor in their daily lives, because they know that this not only makes them happier people, it makes them more effective and productive people.

True story.

Personally, I’ve been working on a number of creative projects lately, some that might seem downright frivolous.  But the weird thing is, they refresh me like a good nap on a rainy day.  After I’m done with one of these projects, I return to my “real” work with a more nimble and supple mind, loads more energy, and a smile.

And I usually find myself stopping (briefly) in the midst of these “play” sessions to scribble down a sudden thought I’ve had about work, a revelation about something I’ve been missing, a new way of looking at an intractible problem. A solution.

Who knew?

Here’s my latest “play” project, a collaboration with my friend Melissa Averinos, an artist, fabric designer, and entrepreneur here on Cape Cod.

First in a series. Unicorn Stories: Episode One — Seaweed.

is your organizational culture based on fear or trust?

Phot by SeenyaRita

Photo by SeenyaRita

I just came across this article by Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard Business School, in which she makes the case for enabling regular office workers to work from home one day a week.  She makes all the right points — about how this would cut down on traffic, emissions, hassle, sick days, etc. etc. — but I really focused in on what she said were the obstacles, or barriers, to making this change.

She lists:

  • accountability
  • collaboration
  • trust
  • personal responsibility

What interests me about this list is how similar it is to the attributes necessary for successfully integrating social media into an organization.

Rachel Happe of The Community Roundtable touches on many of these attributes when she talks about their Community Maturity Model. Her model provides a very clear way of thinking about how ready your organization might be for “socialization,” by looking at your organization’s

  1. Strategy
  2. Leadership
  3. Culture
  4. Community Management
  5. Content & Programming
  6. Policy & Governance
  7. Tools
  8. Measurement

Going back to RM Kanter’s list of barriers, I would assign all of these to Rachel’s category of culture. To me, this is the category that touches on and cuts through all the other categories.  An organization’s culture both determines and is determined by the organization’s leadership, who are largely responsible for devising strategy and the policies & governance that are supposed to support that strategy.  Even the tools that are used and the measurements that are valued are determined by the organization’s culture.

What it comes down to is this:

Is your organization based on a culture of fear or a culture of trust?

Now, sure, few organizations will jump up and say “Fear! We base all our actions on fear. Thanks for helping us clarify that.”

But fear is what lies behind distrust.  And distrust means that managers don’t trust their employees to be accountable, collaborative, or responsible.

Does this look like your organization?

In terms of working from home:

  • It means they don’t trust their workers to work from home and still get the work done on time and done well.
  • It means they don’t trust their workers to actually work from home rather than spend the time eating, shopping, or gadding about town.

In terms of socializing the organization, opening it up to the use of social media:

  • It means they don’t trust their workers to properly represent the organization online.
  • It means they don’t trust their workers to keep confidential information private.
  • It means they don’t trust their workers to respond to negative comments in a constructive way.

It means that they don’t trust their workers.

When I wrote last spring about the importance of creating an organizational social media policy, I commented on how trust should already be the cornerstone of an organization’s relationships with its employees anyway. I mean, you trust them with so much already:

It’s been said that companies would do well to remember that they have to trust their employees on these issues every day already — every time they talk to a customer, deal with a member, gab with a vendor, or work with a sponsor, you are trusting them to represent you and your brand responsibly, with discretion and integrity.

If you haven’t hired people you can trust to behave like responsible adults, then there is a deeper problem.

If your organizational culture is based on fear, then there is a much deeper problem. You might like to call it being “risk-averse,” but please believe me: this will cripple your organization in the days and months to come.

Exhibit A

Photo by Elizabeth Thomsen

Photo by Elizabeth Thomsen

Podcamp Boston 4 just ended, which means, really, that another year has just begun.

Podcamp is always a profoundly motivating and inspiring experience for me, and I have actually begun to track major changes in my life based on how they have spun around the axis of Podcamp, which always seems to serve as a hinge in time, often even as an active wedge for change.

So, to paraphrase a friend’s totally legitimate question to me this weekend:

What is the point of Podcamp?

I am always somewhat taken aback when someone says something about Podcamp being mostly about podcasting; I had sort of forgotten that that was the weekend’s alleged subject matter.  And in a way, I guess it is about podcasting, along with other related topics.  If you were to look at a list of the session topics, you might come away thinking that the conference is nothing but the nuts and bolts of podcasting, SEO, Twitter, and other “social media” type esoterica.

And, to a certain extent, it is.

But only on the surface. For me, podcasting is really just a front for Podcamp, it’s only the skin of it, it’s just the flashy neon sign that hangs out in front while the real card game goes on inside.

In fact, Chris Penn, one of Podcamp’s founders, writes eloquently about this essential nature of Podcamp here. And it’s something of what I touched on when I reflected on my experience at NewBCamp in Providence last year.

There’s something a bit more profound going on at Podcamp, and it has nothing to do with learning about what type of microphone works best for two-person interviews.

Chris Penn articulates it as a sense that we are capable of greater things, that we can in fact do things that other people tell us are impossible, improbable, and even unseemly. It’s true: there’s something unbelievably powerful about how Podcamps encourage everyone to participate — but not just to participate, to pass it on, to encourage others to participate as well.  It’s all part of the “Everyone is a Rockstar” ethos of Podcamp, and it’s sort of breathtaking to watch it in action.

Example 1

At one of the sessions I attended, a packed room of people sat and waited patiently for the presenter to arrive and begin.  When it was ten minutes after starting time, somebody suggested that perhaps the presenter was a no-show.

Suddenly, four people were at the front of the room, volunteering to improvise a presentation on the exact topic that was originally scheduled for that session.  They worked out a division of labor, each of them agreeing to talk about an aspect of the topic that they were particularly strong in.  Within two minutes, we were up and running with, I am convinced, an even stronger presentation than the one that had been planned.

I told this story to Chris Brogan (the other co-founder of podcamp along with Chris Penn) at lunch, and he just smiled and said That’s so Podcamp.

Example 2

I went to several of the bigger sessions in the main ballroom, where the topics were huge and diffuse, things like “What’s on our minds now?”  Sounds like you get to listen in on a conversation between the big thinkers in the field of social media, right? Hear what they think is coming next, what they are sniffing in the air, with their special powers of discernment and understanding…

In fact, what these sessions consisted of was a Phil Donohue-style session of passing the microphone around from one participant to the other, giving anyone who wanted to the opportunity to speak their mind.  Some people talked about marketing trends, while others talked about how sick they were of hearing about marketing, when it was relationships that really mattered; some talked about iPhone apps they would like to see developed, while others talked about the everyday violations of online data privacy and security that iPhones can now enable; some talked about how we all need to cool it on our collective narcissism and obsession with personal branding, while others suggested that we would be sunk if we didn’t work hard on our personal branding over the next year.

Fascinating.

Example 3

In his reflections on this year’s Podcamp, Chris Penn wrote about breaking the shackles of your own potential, about swinging away at our own “chains of doubt and fear.” At last year’s Podcamp, I was still dithering over whether or not I would jump with both feet into an MBA program that would require an hour-and-a-half commute each way, that would challenge my self-concept in ways that made me more than a little uncomfortable, and that I suspected would require me to leave my job and find new sources of income that didn’t come with the comfort and security of a salary. When I attended Podcamp last summer, I spoke with several people who, each in their own way, helped me make the hard decision to jump, and jump wholeheartedly, without fear or hesitation.

When I ran into one of those friends again at this summer’s Podcamp, he asked me how my leap was going, and where it had taken me. When I told him, he said that I should consider myself Exhibit A of how change can bring us places we never thought we could go, and how it can help us cover distances in a year that we thought would take a lifetime.

My story of change is somewhat similar to the one Chris tells about Chel, who was the lead organizer for Podcamp this year. Chel is really Exhibit A, but there’s no reason why we all can’t be.

So what is the point of Podcamp?

People.

I am not saying that Podcamp is about some airy concept of personal change and growth and self-fulfillment. It’s much, much scarier than that. Podcamp is about taking responsibility for your own experience. It’s about choosing to be the author of your own life, with all the blame and glory that goes along with that. It’s about realizing that your responsibility for your self is not just a duty to be all you can be, or whatever, but it’s also a duty to the community.

Because we need you to do that awesome thing you’ve been considering, even if it is just a Big Huge Hammock in Boston Common.

Because we need you to remind us that our lives can be centered around work that we are passionate about.

Because we need to see you do the impossible, so that we can begin to believe that we can, too.

dance dance revolution

If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution.

-Emma Goldman

“Trust your gut,” my friend and mentor says, when I am trying to make an important decision. My method has always been to imagine what it would feel like, deep in my gut, if I did NOT make a certain choice.  But she tells me to think, instead, of which choice makes me feel like I’m flying; which choice makes me feel like laughing out loud; which choice makes me feel like dancing.

Really?

Apparently.

Now listen: this goes for anything.  Sure, yes, life decisions, choosing a school, a job, a city to live in… but it goes for business decisions as well.

Deciding whom to hire or promote to an important position; determining whose advice to seek out, whose advice to trust; projecting sales in an uncertain economy; deciding how much to spend on a marketing strategy; and whether that marketing strategy should be purely traditional, or if it should include new and explored territory like social media…

…and how you will go about doing business in an online world where squishy concepts like “trust” and “authenticity” are thrown about with such reckless abandon…

So much about marketing, in particular, is reduced to spreadsheets and numbers. But so much about social media is about trust and reputation, which are pretty tough concepts to reduce to numbers.

Don’t get me wrong: I am all about the quantitative analysis and the gathering and crunching of data.  But once you’ve got your budget and you’ve got your spreadsheet and you’ve projected your figures, be honest: Doesn’t there come a quiet moment when you take a deep breath, calm your mind, and listen to your gut?

And don’t your customers do the same thing, too?

This is why I’m curious about how this process works, and under what circumstances we trust one another.

How does it work for you?  How do you decide whether or not to trust, to choose, to commit?  What sensations do you look for? Do you prefer to follow the sense that what you are doing is absolutely right, or are you more in tune with what feels dead wrong?  Does your intuition attract you to the good, or repel you from the bad? Does it use a carrot or a stick?  I’m curious.

Also: What makes you feel like dancing?

iron man

Lou GehrigSeventy years ago today, Lou Gehrig made his farewell speech at Yankee Stadium.  Most people watching the game that day barely understood how ill he was, or that his disease was already rapidly devouring his strong, athletic body with ravenous greed.  Within a year, he would be unable to walk. Within two, he would be dead.

While many tributes today have focused on his famous farewell speech, I prefer to focus on his life, and how he lived it.

I’m kind of a fan.

The man who would become famous for his unbroken streak of playing in 2,130 consecutive games was a man who knew the value of showing up.  I personally believe that this is one of the great secrets to life, and success, in whatever way you might define it.

Let me back up a bit.

I’m a Yankees fan precisely because of players like Lou. When I discovered the game of baseball for myself — when it announced itself to me and claimed me for a fan — I was already in my mid-twenties. A history buff and voracious reader, I gained access to the mysteries of the game by reading some of the great, touching, charmingly anecdotal, and sometimes epic histories of the game and its players.

My next vacation, we went to Cooperstown.  I wandered the portrait gallery in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and looked up the slightly flattened, bas relief sculptures of my newly discovered heros.  I have a particular fondness for pitchers, probably because of the essentially solitary nature of that job, balanced only when there is a good, strong, mutually respectful relationship with the catcher.

But players like Gehrig just make my heart sing — even though his story is a heartbreaker in the end.

What Gehrig did wasn’t particularly flashy, even though he was the greatest hitter of his time; some of his astonishing records still stand, and some were only recently breached (and those records may still actually be his, given the still-evolving steroids chapter on the game’s history).

Although he was blessed with natural talent and profound strength (especially in the legs — check out those thighs sometime), his most powerful and lasting gift was that of persistence.

He was a grinder.

His famous humility was lived every single day of his adult life by his unwavering persistence in suiting up, and showing up, for work, for life, every day, come what may.  He simply never felt that any excuse would be good enough to allow him to fail in what he saw were his responsibilities.

I think showing up is far more than half the battle — it’s practically the whole damn game.

To be physically, mentally, spiritually — not merely present, but committed. Really there.

That’s what wins.  That’s what works.  That’s what makes a good student, teacher, boss, employee, parent, child.

Not when it’s convenient, or when you’re at the top of your game, or you don’t have the sniffles, or you’d rather go for a walk, or sleep in late. Every day. Be there.

When Lou said he was the luckiest man on the face of the earth, he meant it. He was grateful, from the bottom of his heart, for having been given the chance, at least, to show up.

And so he did. Every day.

It’s guys like Lou that keep me showing up, every day, whether I happen to feel like it, or not.

What keeps you showing up?

crosswords or scrabble? what kind of puzzle-solver are you?

CrosswordWhich do you prefer, crossword puzzles or scrabble?

Your answer might say more about you than you think.

What if understanding what kind of puzzle-solver you were could help you break out of a rut, find a creative solution to a vexing problem, or make a really difficult decision a lot easier?

Me, I’m a crossword puzzler.  I like words — but more than that, I like thinking about the meanings of words. I love wrestling with a tough bunch of clues attached to a frighteningly blank grid of black-and-white squares.  I especially love sparring with my opponent — the puzzle designer — whose goal is to try to deceive me, baffle me, or at least temporarily confuse me, by the carefully selected and cryptic clues at the bottom of the page.

Now, lots of friends of mine are addicted to Scrabble. That is, they are addicted to the wildly popular online versions of a Scrabble-like game that is no longer called Scrabbulous. They know how much I love crosswords, so they wonder why I do not join in.  It’s the same thing, right? Placing letters onto a grid to form intersecting words? Only instead of competing against an unseen puzzle writer, I’d be competing against other people!

I used to wonder why I didn’t care for Scrabble, too. I mean, it’s okay. I think I own a copy of the game, somewhere. But I’ll tell ya, I don’t keep a game of Scrabble in the bathroom, and I don’t keep a set of letter tiles next to the bed. That’s where the crosswords live, in my world.

Well, it turns out that there is a difference — a big difference — between crosswords and Scrabble.

It occurred to me the other day, while I was reading something for school.

In a crossword puzzle, there is always an answer. Crossword puzzles don’t get published unless they obey a number of very strict, sometimes really esoteric rules.

In Scrabble, you are given a handful of random letter tiles, out of which you may or may not be able to form a word (in combination with a letter or letters already on the gameboard).

In crossword puzzles, you know a solution exists.

In Scrabble, you don’t know if a solution exists or not.

I like crosswords for the same reason that I always liked geometry — and disliked algebra — when I was in high school.  When you are solving a geometry proof, you know that the lines and angles need to obey certain rules, and that they have certain properties that you can trust. You can rely on a right angle to always be 90 degrees, you can rely on the angles that make up a line to equal 180 degrees… and parallel lines will never, ever touch.

I loved solving proofs in geometry and knowing the answer was there, somewhere, if I only looked at it in just the right way, if I just had enough time, and could focus, and knew all the rules.

(By the way, even though I am generally a fan of algebra, I didn’t like algebra once I was introduced to equations in which more than one answer was possible. Although when that happened once in a crossword puzzle in the New York Times, I have to admit it was pretty cool.)

Scrabble skeeves me out.  Scrabble is random. Scrabble does not guarantee a solution. Scrabble introduces more uncertainty into an already uncertain world. Scrabble is an unreliable narrator, and it’s for people who are much more comfortable with existentialism than I am.

So what does this have to do with anything?

Well, I’ve been wrestling with a number of intractable puzzles myself lately.  Writing projects that require creative ideas and persuasive arguments that I don’t currently have on hand. Interpersonal relationships that require sensitivity and tact that can occasionally be difficult to summon. Plans for the future that require nimble moves and rapid adjustments, when fear and doubt might instead turn my mental muscles slack and my intrepidity… anemic. (I told you I liked words.)

And the other day, when I remembered why I love crossword problems, I realized that I might be able to apply the same logic to my own problems.

Just assume that there is a solution.

Then find it.

See, when I fear that there might not be a solution, that’s when I panic, and my puzzle-solving synapses fizzle and sputter.  But if I just pretend… if I just act as if there is definitely a viable solution, then everything calms down and I can think.

So I tried it. And, for three consecutive mornings, I woke up with the answer — the solution — to each of my most pressing puzzles just sitting there, fully formed, in my head.

What if you’re a Scrabbler? Can you play a similar mind game on yourself? I’m not sure; I don’t know the mind of the Scrabbler as well as I know my own. But I would love to find out. Are you a Scrabbler? Can you play a similar trick on yourself, to force yourself to find the solution you crave?

Puzzles are, in the entirely standard meaning here employed, that special category of problems that can serve to test ingenuity or skill in solution.  Dictionary illustrations are ‘jigsaw puzzle’ and ‘crossword puzzle,’ Consider the jigsaw puzzle whose pieces are selected at random from each of two different puzzle boxes.  Since that problem is likely to defy … even the most ingenious of men, it cannot serve as a test of skill in solution. In any usual sense it is not a puzzle at all. Though intrinsic value is no criterion (of goodness) for a puzzle, the assured existence of a solution is.”  (Kuhn, 1962)

Kuhn, T.S. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, IL.


being there

Malyszko/Mount Holyoke PhotoA good friend of mine has this daughter, see. And this daughter is just insanely bright and accomplished. And a senior in high school.  So she’s been spending this spring wondering where she will spend the next four years of her life.  Fun times.

As it turns out, although she was admitted to several really excellent, top-notch schools, she was waitlisted at the college that she really wanted to go to — a phenomenally good school, one of the very best — and they found out today that she made it off the waitlist and has been accepted into full admission.

I know how I felt when I visited Mount Holyoke as a prospective student all those years ago.  How I had my interview in the admissions office across the street from campus, and then joined a group of applicants on a tour around the school.  When we walked across the street, and I set foot on the MHC campus proper, I swear to you that I felt the ground move.  No lie.

It sort of… throbbed under my feet. And I didn’t wonder anymore where it was that I needed to go to college.  The connection was immediate, real, and unquestionable.  And MHC continues to have a powerful effect on me, fifteen years later.

(As a side note, when I attended my 15-year reunion last spring, I taught a class as part of the Back To The Classroom series.  Coincidentally, my class was scheduled in the same building as the first class I ever taught, as a geology TA.  It was as a TA at MHC that I realized how much I wanted to teach, and when I taught in that building again last year, I remembered. Vividly. And then I went back to school that fall.)

I’ve had many friends over the years who never felt that sort of vital, visceral connection to their school.  Some eventually dropped out, or transferred from one school to another, over and over, never finding the right fit.  I really do believe that it’s all about the right fit (even if that is a cliche), and that you have to keep looking around, and physically set foot on each campus, to find the right one for you.  Brochures and websites won’t do it.  No marketing materials on earth can tell you if you have that visceral connection to a school (or any organization, as I later learned).  You have to be there.

So I’m thrilled for my friend’s daughter, who will now get that chance.  Yes, it’s a phenomenal school.  Yes, she is clever enough to have done well anywhere.  But the fact of the matter is, it’s the right school for her.

I know that I’m in the right school for me now, getting my MBA at Simmons.  And I’m glad that I know that this sort of connection is possible, and that I know that I need to insist on it for myself wherever I end up next, because, well, because school is hard.  Fun, exhilarating, challenging, sure, but sometimes it is nothing but hard, hard, hard work. And when the chips are down, you really need to feel like you’re in the right place in the first place — like you belong in a some meaningful way.  Like you have a right to be there.

So that the illigitimi don’t carborundum, as it were.

This summer, I’m concentrating a bit more on being here, on Cape Cod.  As a commuter student to a school in Boston over an hour away, I’ve lost touch with some of my closest friends, and missed the chance to establish new friendships with some pretty great people.  And as I begin the application process this summer to doctoral programs, I realize that this might be my last summer to just be on the Cape for some time.

So while I have a fair bit of work to do this summer (several related and overlapping research projects that are sort of insanely exciting to me), I’m planning on taking it a little slow this summer in my daily life. Get the bike tuned up.  Drive less, ride more. Go for long, rambling walks. Have lunch with friends. A lot.

I might suggest to my friend’s daughter that she do the same, even though I am sure all she can think about right now is SEPTEMBER SEPTEMBER SEPTEMBER. Believe me, I know that siren song very well.  It is one of my very favorite songs.

Because when you’re peering impatiently over the fence of your immediate future, you might be missing out on some really great stuff in the immediate now.

the streets of new york

I love New York: