Archive for the ‘philosophy of work’ Category
Except for Bill Holm
The late poet and writer Bill Holm spent his days teaching at Southwest Minnesota State University. In the context of daily teaching, he was too busy to write his own works. But when class finished for the semester, he wrote his poems and stories and memoirs long-hand on the back of the memos he received at school. Interestingly, he was a gregarious soul who often welcomed people into his house but continued to write at the kitchen table even as he engaged in discussions with visitors.
But for many of us, writing is a solitary activity. Oh, sure: ideas pop in conversation. Careful, committed writers take note the idea on whatever scrap they have handy. And that scrap becomes useful when the writer is, yet again, sitting before blank screen or page.
Unless you are/were Bill Holm, it is the typical writer’s fate to sit alone.
This is not to say writers must be loners or introverts. Those are not necessary conditions, although they do often fit together.
But creating is only one part of writing. Yes, it seems like the biggest part of writing, doesn’t it? Creating and the aura around creating are certainly the most celebrated bits of writing.
But another part of writing is reading. Specifically, getting read. And that requires publishing, in one form or another. At its essence publishing is getting read by someone else. And for all the (quite true) advice about “just sitting down and writing” and “writing = butt-time-in-chair,” it seems to me there is still a missing piece: the reader at the other end of the writing. Written words need to find and land on their audience.
Here is a place where writers might learn something from copywriters. Copywriters have deadlines. They have people who expect copy at a certain time and quite often that copy is delivered verbally—often read aloud by the copywriter to the client.
Something happens when writing is read aloud to an audience. The text itself tends to shape and reshape and the writer hears it differently because of the people listening. The writer cannot help but see things differently when another person is also hearing the copy.
Many will say that some of their best writing happens during revising. I agree. Especially after having read something aloud to someone else and seen their reaction. It can be thrilling. Or depressing.
Butt-in-chair time is essential for writing. But sending your writing out—scary though it might be—is equally essential to hear how the ideas land and to revise with creativity and gusto and possibly increased motivation.
Image credit: Kirk Livingston, Brian Peterson/StarTribune
Seeing Need and the Power of Imagination
The leader’s peculiar gift is to help followers imagine how their work makes meaning. The leader makes personal how the organization’s work helps others, solves a human problem, makes the world better/more beautiful/safer, for starters. From that position of ownership (note that leaders may appear anywhere in an organization, position does not equal leadership) the leader imagines the next steps needed to move the organization forward. The leader acts on that vision and invites others in.
If you accept that the writer’s art is at least partly a reimagining or reordering of life, then you may be willing to consider the work of writing in business. Can writers in business look forward to how next steps unfold and then follow that thread backward to make those steps happen?
I say, “Yes.”
But not just because I do this for a living. [Full disclosure: I do this for a living]
It’s because writers in training are blind to this side of the life/work/art equation.
That’s a premise I’m toying with as I consider how entrepreneurship and professional writing fit together. I’m working through an entrepreneurial focus to the next Freelance Copywriting class at the University of Northwestern—Saint Paul, and I want to help English students see beyond self-focused essays and creative writing. A necessary starting point is inviting them to use their writerly tools to imagine life from that leadership/ownership/need perspective. I believe this can shift ownership to the writer and provide useful insight for right now.
Julian Sanchez’s tweet as the Senate report on CIA torture was released gets at this very concept:
Imagine forward and trace backward to locate solid actions. That is the leader’s gift—and possibly the writer’s.
Image credit: Kirk Livingston
The Shroud of Tuesday
What if your work stopped—on purpose?
We celebrate and expect constant productivity gains in our culture. Wall Street rewards those gains as they decrease the expense line of any business. We congratulate those people in constant motion who have momentum and trajectory.
But is constant forward motion sustainable?
Sure: looking back over the arc of our life we can cobble together a story about how we were always moving toward this invention or position or conclusion or achievement. That bit of personal cinema we learned from the biographer’s art.
In the moment, however, there are dormant times: work goes south, dries up, gets boring. There are times when it is not at all clear what to do next, which way to go, or even if this work will succeed at all. Doubts interfere. Even if you have a boss telling you what to do, there can be internal fallow times where you silently rethink your commitment to this job or that project or that leader.
We hate those times when work goes dormant.
We love movement and purpose, followed by lots more movement.
But dormant is not the same as death, despite how being laid-off feels like a mini-death. And when a work-stoppage happens it is hard to believe the rejuvenating effects of a release from movement. And yet, most of us do make it out the other side. And typically we have a new grasp of where we need to go and what we need to do.
I’ve always wondered how any living thing survives the bitter cold of the northern United States. Every winter I am amazed that cars start and water flows and life continues at 20 degrees below zero (F). Then March and April bring thaws and by May that dead-looking Maple blooms all over again.
Maybe the cycles outside my window are a better analogy for work: there are ebbs and flows. And maybe it is worth building up a bit of patience with slower times, and even to embrace them and allow them to do their hidden work.
Even on a Tuesday.
Image credit: Kirk Livingston
All day long.
“The work will teach you how to do it.”
Images of Pipestone National Monument
Image credits: Kirk Livingston
In versus out—does it even matter?
It does in Minnesota. It’s 33°F right now—not so cold—but in less than 30 days we’ll plunge well below 0°F and stay there for a month or two. Being inside matters when the outside temperature is cold.
About “inside,” you remember high school, yes? Being an insider seemed to matter there: being part of the groovy clique seemed to say a lot about your identity. But it turned out that the cost paid for being an insider was higher than we realized.
You get inside by exploiting insider behaviors: hang with other insiders, use insider words, allow the insider frame of reference to settle on you and gradually think insider thoughts. There is a certain warmth to being inside. Sometimes it’s safe and cozy. Sometimes staying inside means forming alliances and battling for diminishing territories. A friend recently used those words to describe his years inside a large retailer based in Minneapolis—he left when the cost of alliances and battles was greater than his paycheck.
The classic insider mistake is to think inside is all there is. And that mistake is murder when the layoff discussion happens in the HR office on a bright, cold Friday afternoon. Or when you graduate high school.
But being on the inside is good when you also recognize voices from the fringe. That sort of consciousness allows new thoughts to infect the inside, possibly even countermanding the inbred thinking of insiders talking to insiders.
Lately I’ve been stimulated by reading The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion, by Hagel, Brown and Davison (NY: Basic Books, 2010). In particular, their talk about what the edge person brings to the discussion seems fitting. The edge person is working at something different than the insider. The edge person is trying to accomplish something in a different way and so is asking different questions. The edge person asks questions the insider doesn’t even consider. And it turns out those questions are sometimes the very questions the leaders of the insiders wish they were asking.
My favorite scene in Canal Digital’s “Silver Hand” is at the bar when our hero tries to casually drop the Silver Hand reference.
What a lovely fail.
The smart insider acquaints herself with the habitat and questions of the edge person.
And vice versa.
Via Canal digital
Pitch the preachy. Scrap the sing-song. And definitely lose the lingo.
Sometimes a certain tone will flip a switch for me. And all the person says next is covered in darkness because the tone pointed me elsewhere—so I miss the message entirely:
- The VP standing before the group launches into a sermon and 93% of the audience tunes out before she takes her first breath
- The newsletter from internal communications plays out cheery, one-sided copy that feels as manufactured and questionable as a tuna sandwich from the vending machine
- A poetry recitation where the sing-song voice seems to have come from a different century
- The prayer that sounds like a sermon. The sermon that sounds like a lecture. The lecture that shows no interest in connecting with an eager audience.
Each communication event is an opportunity to pass information, true. But each event is also an opportunity to deepen relationship and build trust—both of which may be more valuable than the information in transit. To squander those communication events on vacuous, preachy or condescending fare seems a waste of time, money and consciousness.
Perhaps certain situations activate your autopilot and you slip into a particular communication mode. The status meeting, the Sunday sermon, talking to an employee. Talking to a child. Maybe we even have a special voice reserved for praying with other people. We may not even realize that we adopt a slow-meter pacing, using parlor words we pull from our big-bag-of-sacred-stuff.
Our autopilot mode can learn from the practice of that old poet-king. That old poet-king had a special voice for prayer too, but it wasn’t from the big-bag-of-sacred-stuff. Instead, it was the voice of desperation, of falling and not being able to get back up, of righteous anger on the dudes who done him wrong. The poet-king’s voice was a real voice, based on real bad stuff that seemed to be happening.
The lesson from the poet-king is this: keep it real.
Employees appreciate hearing what’s really happening, not some vetted-party-line version. Use your real human voice as often as possible. Real voices—the ones that we believe—find a way around buzzwords and corporate lingo.
Real conversation with real voices is the engine moving all of us forward.
Image credit: Kirk Livingston