Fiction review: When It Happens To You

When it Happens to YouWhen it Happens to You by Molly Ringwald

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My expectations were low, but I’m a sucker for a good short story. Each one had a its own exceptional quality with a carefully woven thread between them.

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They say admitting you have a problem is the first step, so there you have it. Lately, a series of events have forced me to realize that being busy isn’t the same as being productive. The harder realization has been this:

  • My work is not my life.
  • My life is not my work.
  • Who I am has greater value than what I do.
  • My performance does not determine my worth.

It’s funny how one “ah-ha” moment can turn into an avalanche of change. It’s like when you discover a new word that you never heard of before and then suddenly you start seeing it everywhere, and you wonder how you missed it before.

It started a few months ago when I read The Now Habit at Work. I guess you could describe it as a self-help book, but I really expected it to be a book about productivity. Instead, the author starts out diagnosing my problems, and while he called me out on my procrastination, he really told me why I was dysfunctional– because I am a fraud.

Yep, you read that right. I’m not a workaholic at all, I’m just not who everyone thinks I am. I’m not as smart as you think, and I’m not as capable as I once was, and I’m afraid that everyone is about to discover my ineptitude. I should be fired.

See, the truth is, I’m my own worst enemy. If you know me at all, I’ve probably already convinced you by now that I’m a bit of an overachiever, a people-pleaser, and a perfectionist. And the world places a high value on these things, especially because I’m a woman. That’s not the tragedy though. The sad part of the story is that since 9 years old (I remember vividly the very day that this kicked in), I believed that I had to do something to earn love from my parents. I was trained to believe that performance equalled love. And that belief influenced every relationship after.

So while I’ve worked hard to do more, do better, and make everyone happy, in my head, I’m not doing enough, not doing it right, and ultimately not feeling loved.

Now keep in mind that I wasn’t conscious of this before reading The Now Habit, it just was. Then a few weeks ago, a second confirmation came in the form of a random channel selection that brought me to Dr. Brene Brown on PBS. It’s worth noting I do not watch public television, so my stumble on channel 2 was a mistake that I was trying to correct before I heard a few words on perfectionism. So I stopped and listened. And. was. sucked. in. For the next hour and half I stood in my kitchen and watched this program on her book The Gifts of Imperfection. And when Soupy came home, I started rattling off everything I had just learned about myself.

Brown gave me permission to be flawed. In fact, she encouraged it– when you are a perfectionist, you limit yourself because you’re too afraid to do something you might not be perfect at doing.

For the second time in my life, in a span of a few months, I was reminded that I don’t have to do something in order to earn the love of others. “There is no prerequisite for worthiness.”

The Now Habit even has a chapter on me titled “Procrastinators Use Ineffective Self-Talk.” So here comes Brown connecting all of those things I’m telling myself– that I’m a fraud, I’m not good enough or smart enough, yada yada– to that place of shame I’m stuck in.

And she had a better definition of shame than I did:

Shame is really understood as the fear of disconnection. Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, makes me unworthy of connection?

And the other thing that’s striking about her research is that the only difference between people who feel love and accepted and the people who don’t is that the former believe they are worthy.

Belief. That’s all. They have the courage to be imperfect, and they have connection because of their authenticity.

It takes some courage to be vulnerable, to find comfort in the imperfection. To let go of work as the source of your identity, and find connection and belonging because you are worthy of it. There’s a theme unraveling in my life right now, and the pattern will probably get clearer the more that I write about these random insights that are threading together. It’s a little unnerving, but I’m convinced that something within me has been unlocked. One thing’s for certain: I’m closer to the destination than I’ve ever been.

A “Bit” Overwhelmed

When I first started reading Bit Literacy, I’ll admit to having low expectations. I don’t know why, but I’m skeptical that anyone can really give advice about information management without really experiencing it exactly the way I do.

Lately (and by lately, I mean over the last five years — the last two overwhelmingly so), I have been so inundated with streams of data that it’s affected my overall productivity. I think it’s even contributed to what my doctor says is Adult Attention Deficit Disorder. When he suggested prescribing a daily pill, I decided it was time for me to get a handle on this. But how? I’ve lost control of the multiple inboxes, social media streams, RSS feeds, oh, and the actual non-digital conversations that are infiltrating my consciousness.

But I suspended my skepticism about the book mostly because it was a free download in iBooks, and what better book to test the new iPad app, right? I hope you see the irony in this.

Some of what author Mark Hurst says makes sense. His description of “busy man” syndrome speaks to a core problem I’ve long struggled with, that busy-ness equates to importance. In effect, we do this to ourselves by not setting boundaries between work and life. Suddenly our identity, our value is what we do, no longer who we are. As we become busier and busier, we adopt a lifestyle that is no longer sustainable.

Hurst, to his credit, doesn’t try to talk you into eliminating the sources of “bits.” Instead, he favors a policy of managing the data, which is to say, act on and erase.

So I adopted one of the strategies he suggests: inbox zero. This means emptying all email inboxes daily, and instead of storing email as your to-do list, use another system to prioritize tasks. Cluttering your inbox just doesn’t work. It’s a psychological thing. I can honestly say I agree with him, and Google has gone a long way in making this work through their task list integration. It’s not perfect, but it allows me to move email to a task list, prioritize, and add to my calendar rather than seeing it pile up in the black hole that was my inbox.

Hurst compares email to Chinese take-out. You can keep in the fridge for a few while, but soon enough, it’s going to get pretty funky. I’ve also started using Voo2Do to manage multiple to-do lists.

Hurst also recommends a “media diet.” You must constantly re-evaluate the information you’re consuming, recognizing that your time is a limited resource. It requires questioning what’s useful to you and getting rid of what’s not. I’ve had to do this. I’m a big fan of tennis, so I subscribed to tons of tennis news feeds. But I never had time to read them, and they would just stack up in my RSS reader, reminding me that I was a loser for getting so behind. Hurst gives you permission to eliminate the stuff you don’t have time for. “The bit-literate user is forever on a media diet and has to be in the habit of saying ‘no’… Every possible source is a ‘no’ unless it’s proven otherwise in a disciplined tryout.”

I’ve been trying some of the tools I’ve learned in Bit Literacy and combining them with similar book that I’ll talk about in a future post, The Now Habit at Work.

The 4-Hour Workweek

Re-reading this book but in a new context. The first time I read it, I was looking for an exit strategy. This time around, I’m looking at from a time management perspective: how to achieve more in less time and how to balance life with work.

“‘Someday’ is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you.” You can’t put things off waiting for the perfect conditions. I need to remember this and not put off doing what I want to do. I have a lot of things sucking up my time that don’t benefit me at all– most of it is information overload.

Two things I’ve long struggled with:

1. Doing something unimportant well does not make it important.

2. Requiring a lot of time does not make a task important.

“Being busy is a form of laziness– lazy thinking and indiscriminate action. Being overwhelmed is often as unproductive as doing nothing, and is far more unpleasant. Being selective– doing less– is the path of the productive.” -pg. 73

Pareto’s Law aka the 80/20 Principle: 80% of the outputs result from 20% of the inputs. -pg. 68

“Parkinson’s Law dictates that a task will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for its completion. It is the magic of the imminent deadline. If I gave you 24 hours to complete a project, the time pressure forces you to focus on execution, and you have no choice but to do only the bare essentials.” -pg. 75

I’m going to start applying this idea and create false deadlines for projects just to get them out the door. This may compromise quality, but it will actually allow me to get the essentials complete and then fine-tune. Requires some testing.

More Clues

Here are more notes from Cluetrain Manifesto:

“The Net was a powerful multiplier for intellectual capital.” (Talking about the beginnings of the internet.) -pg.5

There’s a difference between passive viewing (TV) and ROTFL -pg.7

“We are alternately the workers who create products and services, and the customers who purchase them.” -pg.9

Many large companies are still doing broadcast model on the web. Broadcast is the few dictating the behaviors of the many. New landscape does not equal mass– subtle nuances explode -pg.15

“Make mistakes. Debug on the fly. It’s fast, it’s furious. It’s fun!” “rock n roll” philosophy -pg.20 “Be shunned, be hated, be ridiculed, be scared, be in doubt, but don’t be gagged.” John Jay Chapman commencement address -pg. 45

***Positioning is not about a creating a tagline! “Positioning is about discovering who you, as a business, are–discovering your identity, not inventing a new one willy-nilly.” -pg.99

People are already talking about your business on the web, and you can’t control it. Why not join in the conversation. Your absence is of greater risk than your employees’ participation. “The web liberates business from the fear of being exposed as human, even against its will.” -pg.122

“Increasingly, a useful expert is not someone with all the answers but someone who knows where to find answers.” -pg.128

A while back, Drew brought me a book from his office that he thought I should read. I looked it over, saw that it was written in 1999 and set it aside. A few weeks went by. Then by some strange coincidence, one of my university friends on Twitter decided that since he was buying the 10th anniversary edition of Cluetrain, that he was going to give his old copy away in a Twitter contest. Days later I saw a reference to it again. Suddenly, it was as though I was seeing it everywhere. So, I moved Drew’s copy into the “must read” pile.

Cluetrain is rude and confrontational in a way typical  marketing books are not. Kind of refreshing actually, albeit sometimes smug. It’s about empowering employees to speak for you so your company will sound human again instead of relying on happy talk. Open, natural, uncontrolled– not the usual adjectives for business. Here are a few notes from it I’d like to hold on to:

From the 95 theses, I like #16: “Already, companies that speaking in the language of the pitch, the dog-and-pony show, are no longer speaking to anyone.”

#21: “Companies need to lighten up and take themselves less seriously. They need to get a sense of humor.”

#22: “Getting a sense of humor does not mean putting some jokes on the corporate web site. Rather, it requires big values, a little humility, straight talk, and a genuine point of view.”

Some of Their Words

Below is text from a post I wrote for our university blog. I had reservations about writing it because 1) I didn’t want to disclose too much personal information, and 2) I didn’t want to make this about me instead of about the book. However, whenever we encounter a narrative, fiction or otherwise, we come to it with your own experiences, and through the process of relating to the story, deal with those issues like therapy. So without delving too far in, I hope I struck a balance:

imageA few months ago, I started reading Dr. George Jensen’s new book Some of the Words are Theirs. I was intrigued by the premise of it, a sort of re-imagining of an absent, alcoholic father. The book is much more than this, relating stories extending from childhood to the present about his entire family’s response to a man he barely knew.

Upon his mother’s death, George came across old letters and photographs that along with his scholarly research about alcoholic narratives, prompted him to unfold a difficult truth the family had stored, a history still revolving around the father figure, George Sr. He actively sought out people who knew George Sr. before and after his paternal role began. He contacted Navy shipmates, co-workers, and others who had some affiliation with George Sr. just before he died.sign

But we learn a lot more in this exploration than a composite of George Sr. In fact, as much as George discovers who this man was, apart from shared biology, the character of George Jr. increasingly fleshes out.

Admittedly, it took me awhile to get through it, not because my father is an alcoholic (he’s not), nor was he absent during my youth. Still, I could easily relate to George’s story because the person that I know my father to be is in many ways a completely different person the rest of the world sees. As a pastor of a church, he is loved by many. But our relationship has always been complicated, and I have often reacted bitterly to the disconnect.

As George began to re-imagine his father from the perspective of colleagues, themselves strangers, to see him as a separate individual from their eyes, “outside the role of husband or father or alcoholic,” I tried to re-imagine mine, detaching the simplified labels. And as George says he began to care about his father, I decided to let my dad off the hook for what I deemed parental ineptitude, with a new appreciation that we all have things to forgive.

This summer, George will journey across the U.S., in Steinbeckian fashion. His blog provides us a somewhat day-by-day commentary on what he uncovers or encounters along the way.

If you favor 140 characters or less, you can also follow along on Twitter. (For the uninitiated, it’s the brevity that counts.)

This is another re-read for me. The Big Red Fez: How to Make Any Web Site Better by Seth Godin is a short book with, by his own admission, some simplistic answers. Every page should have a banana. Ok? What’s a banana? It’s the thing the monkey can find that’s obvious and easy.

But the reality is, unless you have a product or service that’s targeted to only one audience, you really cannot do this. It would be great if we could build a university presence with only the prospective student in mind. The bananas would be easy. However, our web site has to achieve goals for several constituencies. We’re not Amazon selling books. Or Dyson selling vacuums.

I love Seth Godin, and I think he just needs to stay true to his own banana on this one. Stay with being remarkable in marketing and leave usability to the experts. Anyone can point out problems and break-downs in the system. You don’t have to be an expert to do this. The expert finds real solutions to these problems. I’m afraid Godin has only achieved the former.

Krug Thoughts

Lately, I’ve been working on some documentation for a broad set of users. I’m challenged to write snippets of content that they might actually read and find useful.

As I re-read Don’t Make Me Think, the title itself being the most important rule, I wonder if I’ve held to the standards of making text useful. He reminds us to fore go using marketing lingo and use common terms that won’t make the user ponder. We’re task-oriented. We look for the trigger words that will help us complete the task. Too often, marketing folks (like myself) want to invent words to be clever. All we do is frustrate task completion.

Krug says, “Faced with any sort of technology, very few people take the time to read instructions. Instead, we forge ahead and muddle through…” I did a little usability test this week and found that to be exactly true. The user will blow by text  that explains the very thing they need to know in an effort to find something intuitive he or she will automagically understand.

A few other nuggets to remember:

It’s not the number of clicks that count, but the amount of effort and thought required I’ve put in to make a choice.
“Happy talk must die.” Users don’t have time for useless words.

Be conventional. It’s ok, and it will bring a level of comfort and familiarity to your users.

What makes for good design is a lot like what makes for good writing– what is effective in a particular context for an audience, achieving a specific purpose.

Watch ordinary users– usability testing is critical.

“‘I don’t like the colors.’– what you can count on at least one user saying in every usability test.”