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The Work Itself

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What does it tell you?

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Image Credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

December 19, 2014 at 9:33 am

Writers at Work: “How do you imagine that will unfold?”

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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.

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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.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Dormant Versus a Bias Toward Action

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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?

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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.

Every year.

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.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

December 9, 2014 at 9:24 am

Worthwhile work is hard: A visual meditation

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All day long.

It is difficult to unearth the material we need to move forward.

It is difficult to unearth the material we need to move forward.

 

Which is why we pray. And hope.

Which is why we pray. And hope.

 

 

“The work will teach you how to do it.”

–Estonian proverb

 

Images of Pipestone National Monument

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Image credits: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

December 5, 2014 at 9:54 am

The Cost of the Silver Hand

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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.

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Via Canal digital

Tune-up the Voices Talking Inside Your (Corporate) Head

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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.

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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.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

That moment when you only want to say truth

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Come, blessed ignorance.

Early in my writing life I let on that I knew more than I actually did.

You did too. We all did. We all do.

It’s part of the human condition: the word or name dropped, the subtle nod that hints we are in the know,

“…and, yes—please—carry on…certainly I get it.”

Whatever it takes to not appear stupid.

I tried impress Madison's potato vendors with my potato knowledge. I failed.

I tried to impress Madison’s potato vendors with my potato knowledge. I failed.

 

I learned this subterfuge early in life: laughing at my big brothers’ jokes and then stopping by the dictionary later to sort that word they used. Thankfully, there was no Urban Dictionary back then.

I squandered educational opportunities by pretending to know. Maybe my early undergrad years were perfectly set up to encourage the ignorant to remain so—and I jumped into that. It wasn’t until later in school that I went for broke and displayed my ignorance. That’s when I started learning.

One benefit of writing copy for a living is you get to ask the stupidest, most ridiculous questions. Questions to which everyone in the room obviously knows the answer. And actually that is when the fun begins, because the answers that pour forth are often strikingly dissimilar and uniformly telling, in that everyone has a different expression (and possibly a different idea) of this commonplace.

At some point stupid questions become a way of life: after you realize you’ll learn a whole lot more if you just admit you don’t know something. It turns out there’s really not that much to lose. Maybe you lose face with the boss. If so, your boss probably wasn’t that great. Maybe you gum up some well-greased process. If so, your question from the edge may actually open new ways forward.

The benefits of ignorance realized are immense:

  • The dumb questions is a verbal mark in the sand. And on the other side of that mark you get to actually start learning.
  • It is highly likely others have the same ignorance. You do everyone a favor by asking your question.
  • Asking the dumb question often unearths brand new, productive ways of looking at something.

Please—for the sake of humanity—ask your stupid question today.

Do us all a favor.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

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