"Boundary" is not a dirty word.

This is a jointly written post by Emily Kerr and Hilary King. We both work in social enterprise in different ways. Hilary is an applied anthropologist focused on alternative food systems in Mexico and the US and Emily is working with a place-based community organization in Philadelphia. As part of that, we are engaged in answering the question, “How do you build resilient, inclusive sustainable communities?” The posts in this series are related to this theme.

We write posts in response to prompts or questions that have arisen for us in our work lives. After a discussion, we try to distill our insights about those questions into these blog posts. The prompt for this week’s post was: “In what ways are 'boundaries' in and around our work alienating and in what ways are they supportive? What are the boundaries and supports that you've found helpful?"

A boundary is a division. Unlike in nature, where rivers, mountains, or roads already exist to divide up our landscapes, boundaries between our work and personal lives can be hard to make. We have to create and define them for ourselves.

This is particularly true when we undertake work that we want to bring our “whole” selves to, a conviction that seems increasingly common. Some of us have the benefit of making our schedules or organizations for work. Often, our friends are people we work with, and we imagine work people should be our friends. Given this, how do we make boundaries that help up be not only productive at work, but also energized outside of it?

Some patterns we've noticed:

  • Our needs around boundaries change. This isn’t a “set it and forget it" thing. Strategies for creating boundaries, and what we need as boundaries, are very fluid and shift according to what else is going on in your life.

  • For us, a good rule of thumb is to let work intrude personal time and personal time intrude work about the same percentage. Hard divisions between work and off-time tasks can be really tough to maintain.

  • Not creating boundaries can cause an atrophy of other skills passions that actually make us better at our work. No work can be everything, even though we demand and get a lot from our work.  

  • No need to create separations or boundaries that don’t actually work for you…. and be thoughtful about ways combining spheres of your life can be really dynamic, creative, and energizing. Particularly if you want to bring your “whole self” to the work you’re doing.

Strategies that we’ve found helpful:

  • Do a little more of things you find rejuvenating, even when you don’t want to. For Hilary, making time for ten minutes of yoga often helps me feel more rejuvenated than watching Scandal even if it feels like more work.

  • Schedule in your priorities. Em makes a week work plan and a daily plan for work but also for exercise and personal time. This helps her say yes or no to things according to her priorities.

  • Share your preferences with the people around you so that they can be supportive of you getting what you need. If you prefer emails to calls, let people know.

  • If you work with your friends, schedule work and friend time separately. Personal connections can be really rewarding within our work lives. Em and I ran Liga Masiva together, and found it helpful to know which of our selves were coming to meetings.

  • Think about how/when we will fret about work stuff outside work. For instance, writing down a list of to-dos at work tomorrow helps us not spend our “off” hours fretting about not doing those things right now.

Like everything, this is an evolving process. Hilary is more okay with a mish-mash between her work and personal life, but works hard to knit or do yoga to create non-work spaces. Emily makes harder lines between work and personal time, and this division helps her feel energized outside of work by things that help her at work, like taking a class on adaptive leadership. The idea is to figure out what boundaries best help you recharge in order to be most present both at work AND in the other areas that you love to focus your attention.


How to Say The Complicated Stuff Simply (or, how to not bore or infuriate people when telling them what you do)

This is a jointly written post by Emily Kerr and Hilary King. We both work in social enterprise in different ways. Hilary is an applied anthropologist focused on alternative food systems in Mexico and the US and Emily is working with a place-based community organization in Philadelphia. As part of that, we are engaged in answering the question, “How do you build resilient, inclusive sustainable communities?” The posts in this series are related to this theme.

We write posts in response to prompts or questions that have arisen for us in our work lives. After a discussion, we try to distill our insights about those questions into these blog posts. The prompt for this week’s post was: “Why is it critical to identify and formulate knowledge into knowledge into bite-sized pieces?”

One thing we have in common is that being asked what we do -- at parties, summits, or chance encounters -- makes us feel like crawling in a hole.

It’s not because we don’t like our work. In fact, the reason it’s so hard to answer concisely is because our work is so central to our lives. It is hard to “break off” a piece of that work that feels simple enough to be accessible, but also feels true. When we change how we speak in the hopes of making our ideas interesting and understandable, we fear we’ll end up stripping off the important stuff.

But there are critical reasons to get better at making bite-sized chunks out of what we know and do. For instance:

  • The effort to share your insights brings you greater awareness of what you know, what you’re learning, and what value that has.

  • Speaking simply makes it possible for more people to engage in what you’re doing.

  • Being aware of simplicity forces a focus on the core message, rather than on details.

  • The effort to connect around your ideas necessitates empathy with your listener, which is valuable in itself.

So what to do when you need to relay something you’re doing in as simple a way as possible? These are a few touchstones we’re trying to keep in mind as we explore that question:

  • Start with something people know about and link the unfamiliar thing to that. For instance, Hilary does radical and sometimes highly theoretical work in food systems. But she tries to mention how she’s understanding things like farmers’ markets, and what happens when producers and consumers talk to each other.

  • Use story, examples, or narrative, but only after the listener indicates they want that level of detail.

  • Trust that what you are doing is valuable and interesting - you often just have to find the right words to bridge the gap.

  • [And the counterpoint to the previous bullet.] Sometimes people don’t care very much about the work you do, and that’s ok. What’s important is meeting them where they’re at and connecting there.

  • Sometimes getting your point across can get in the way of connecting. So if connecting is important to you, sometimes you need to prioritize connecting over getting your point across at a high level of complexity.

  • Synthesize the ideas and put that synthesis in the person’s lap, rather than asking them to do any connection-making. If they want more, they’ll ask for it.

  • One trick to making something feel simple to your listener is by tailoring. If what we're saying is tailored to the knowledge, needs, priorities, and experience of our listeners, then it is inevitably more accessible to them.

This is certainly an ongoing exploration for us and we’re pretty amazed by folks like Seth Godin, Danielle Laporte, and Paul Farmer that seem to honor so much deep truth with such elegant communication. We’re taking baby steps toward bite-sized communication.


Choosing something better than perfect

On Sunday I gave a talk to 100 people of the Starting Bloc community.

Two days before the talk, I got some carefully considered, kind, and very useful feedback on ways to change it. The problem was, the feedback would take me far more than two days to incorporate and with my other work and travel, I didn't even have two days in which to do it.

The outcome of all of this was that despite the time, love, and insight I had poured into it, I gave a talk that I knew wasn't perfect.

That knowledge was almost debilitating at first, because I've had a lot of success with "perfect." Perfect essays earn As. Perfect presentations get a great response. Perfect interactions are not uncomfortable. But once I really accepted the fact that I'd be giving an imperfect talk with my whole heart, I felt liberated.

The resulting vulnerability, wholeheartedness, and presence added up to a wonderful experience for me and for many of the people there. Probably not for everyone, and probably not even for the majority -- but for some people, very strongly.

Now that I am working at a high level even as I try new things and explore new ideas, perfect is becoming a liability. Perfect is possible, but it involves so much delay, so much fretting, so much putting-off of connection, that it's not worth it. 

Plus, I've had the experience recently of what happens when I stop asking "How can I make this more perfect?" and instead ask, "How can I make this wilder, more wholehearted, more interesting?"

What happens is that I connect more, I build faster, I'm more vulnerable. What happens is that my talk is not bullet-proof but it is connective and beautiful and a little off-kilter and touches (some) people at their core. What happens, in some ways, is better than perfect.

Who is the hero?

Nancy Duarte helps people make better presentations. She's worked with all the big names: Google, Apple, and dozens of TED speakers.

In her TED talk, Duarte describes trying to figure out if there is a consistent pattern that great presentations follow. At one point, she settled on Joseph Campbell's "hero's journey" as a template:

"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."

It did make sense that the speech would be a hero's journey -- speeches are about the story, and vision, and overcoming obstacles, and adventure. But something about that model didn't seem right. Then, she realized in a flash the mistake she had made.

A speech -- the sharing of ideas -- is indeed a hero's journey. But the hero in the journey is not the speaker. The hero is the audience.

It's a meritocracy.

"You can claim any power structure is a meritocracy, just by defining 'merit' as the ability to thrive in that power structure." 

Keegan McAllister

You probably don't think you're a leader and you're probably wrong.

When you ask people, especially women, whether they see themselves as leaders, they usually sputter towards a soft "no." 

One reason for that "no" is a desire to deflect credit. The other reason is our belief that leadership is synonymous with authority. And with a definition like that, most of us don't qualify.

Few of us have authority, fancy suits, and best-in-class technical skill. Even fewer of us feel the authority we actually have. Plus, those with authority can be more invested in maintaining it than leading. 

So I'm advocating that leadership be explored outside the context of authority. Over the past week, I've been digging into some writing on leadership. I've been sitting with Ron Heifetz's model of adaptive leadership, this medley of pieces on "disruptive leadership," and Seth Godin's manifesto on the artist-leader. These models of leadership are different, but they all point to truths about leading that empower, challenge, and enable. 

Here are a few truths these brave leaders reminded me of:

  1. A leader is a person that leads. Ron Heifetz says leadership is an action, not a job title. Seth Godin points out that we look at leaders and think that we can't do what they do because we're not charismatic, smart, or powerful enough. But he says that it isn't that people lead because they have charisma; they have charisma because they lead.
  2. We lead more than we think we do. We lead our team of 3 when we go over project parameters. We lead our neighborhood through the ways we act as we walk its streets. We lead our families when we act from a place of fear. We lead through action and we lead through inaction. 
  3. A leader is the person willing to fail. I was surprised to notice that 5 of the 22 words in Meriam Webster's definition of entrepreneur are "greater than normal financial risks." So risk is not a pesky side effect of being an entrepreneur -- it's definitional. And Heifetz says that the word leader comes from the root "leit, the name for the person who carried the flag in front of an army going into battle and usually died in the first enemy attack. When the fundamental unit in entrepreneurship these days is "build, measure, learn", failure is not a potential outcome that you'd like to avoid. It is a fundamental building block of the project. Failure generates learning; learning leads to growth.
  4. It's about them, not you. One of the keys of Heifetz's adaptive leadership is a recognition that "the people are the problem and the people are the solution... leadership, then, is about mobilizing and engaging the people with the problem rather than trying to anesthetize them so that you can just go off and solve it on your own."
  5. Leaders commit to a problem, not a solution. When investors ask you about your revenue model, they don't want to hear that you've invented the perfect revenue model. They want to hear that you're committed to finding the perfect revenue model and that you've been working on solving that problem with intention and efficacy. Your solution is usually wrong, but your commitment  to a problem will bring you to the right solution.

My point is this: you're already a leader. How can you do leadership better?

"Business, at its heart, has to be a story of us."

"Business, at its heart, has to be a story of us... It's a story of us, together, that are looking to optimize our value. Unfortunately, a lot of what we see today is a practice of a story of me. And this is where I think that the sense of business as rooted in community, rooted in that interconnected, interdependent network of stakeholders is lost."

Doug Rauch

Hear more from his insightful talk here.


Walking the knife's edge

"You have to be courageous to be a painter. Every day, I feel like I'm walking a knife's edge. And you can fall off -- but you fall off, so what -- at least you made something true to you."  

Georgia O'Keefe

What Dolly Parton and ancient sages have in common...

Well, for one thing, Dolly Parton, Thoreau, and Krishna think you should clean out your closet and move the frick on.

In the back of my closet are the following things:

  • A gorgeous, expensive suit from a job I had 4 years ago
  • A red dress that fit for about 5 minutes
  • Paintings I wish were framed, boxes I could use, and books I'd like to read.
  • Photos I don't want to see.

Whatever we say about our level of self-acceptance, the back of our closet tells the real story. It's a dusty hodepodge of what we were, what we might have been, what we could be 5 pounds or $5,000 from now. And then I hear:

“Find out who you are and then do it on purpose.” Dolly Parton

"You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment... There is no other land; there is no other life but this.” Thoreau
“A man’s own calling, with all its faults, ought not to be forsaken.” Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita

I used to think of these notions of self-acceptance as frilly, happy thoughts. I'd grumble that "being in the now" was the same kind of feel-good suggestion as taking hot bubble baths at night: sounds relaxing but it's probably not going to help me much. 

I'm beginning to see, though, that accepting who you are is the only path to true achievement. When we don't accept who we are and where we are at, we create the endless opportunity to jump in and out of action, in and out of commitment. And just as commitment is a necessary condition of bold action, bold action is a necessary condition of any kind of success.

You don't want to send that suit to Goodwill because you might need it one day? Or is it because you would like to hold on to the person that wore it? When the crowded closet -- of things we might be or might have been -- confuses our subconscious about who and where we are, focused action becomes really difficult.  It's like the guy who's a true entrepreneur at heart but keeps checking job boards for stable gigs: the internal and external vacillation makes bold action -- and ultimately, success -- very difficult.

So clean out the corners and dust off what remains. Might-use-it-someday is overrated.

Now our minds just need to catch up with our tools.

Someone else makes buses and jeans and non-stick frying pans. 

Most of us wouldn't have a clue how to make any of the things we use daily. So we get used to seeing ourselves as non-makers. Even the craftiest among us generally does not see herself as a maker of the things that matter -- the things that make money and shape our world. 

With the advent of the internet, everyone talked about how now anyone could create hip-hop tracks, websites, and blogs. When I was 13 (in 1996) my brother's birthday present to me was my very own webpage. As I remember, it had some text and a few images, and I could customize it however I wanted (which seems to me now a crafty way my big brother conned his little sister into learning html, for which I thank you, Lar.) The idea was that I now had the tools to create a webpage in the same way that CNN or Petfood.com could. 

The thing is, I still didn't really have the tools to make the things that matter -- the things that make money and shape our world -- because I didn't have the money or skills to create outputs that approached the quality and functionality of the corporate guys. In fact, as recently as 2010, when I was building my last company, there was an obvious difference in design and functionality of Liga Masiva's website relative to the big guys, until we invested tens of thousands of dollars to make it work the way we wanted it to. Anyone could create a web property that made money and shaped our world -- as long as you had some pretty hefty knowledge and resources to make it look and work right.

But suddenly, something changed.* I haven't heard people saying much about this, but in the last 2 years, I have noticed a very sudden and significant change in the average person's access to real tools. There are now tools that let you make things that matter with tens or hundreds of dollars (instead of tens of thousands.) Now you can actually create an ecommerce site in a weekend that could knock off any existing site. You can actually learn to be a designer in months. You can actually create photos and sites and stores and design and platforms that are competitive with what exists. You actually have the tools to make things that matter. 

With the following tools, you can create things that work and look about 80% as well as what a professional would create for 1/100th the cost. (Whereas you used to be only able to get to about 20% as good on your own.) And, for most things, that is darn well good enough.** 

For instance:

  • Entrepreneurship. While startups and entrepreneurs has always had a bit of an aura of magic, I'm starting to believe that it's less mystical than we're led to believe. Become an entrepreneur by learning Lean Startup methodology (and putting what you learn into action), reading Paul Graham, going to the Unreasonable Institute, studying Seth Godin's works, and shipping something once a week. 
  • Photos. You can learn a few basic things about taking pictures with your iPhone and process the photos in the free VSCO app. With maybe 4 hours of practice, you can create photos that look 80% as good as a professional's, like we did at The Wild Easy. 
  • Websites. There are lots of free website and blogging platforms, with Wordpress and Launchrock probably the best among them. But for $8-$24/month, you can get a Squarespace site that will look badass right out of the box, and integrates seamlessly with pretty much anything you need to integrate to (like email, mailchimp, and ecommerce.) You need some html knowledge to get your Wordpress site working the way you want it to, and you'll eventually run into integration challenges that only a developer can help with, but Squarespace frees you from all of that. I have 3 Squarespace sites, and counting.
  • Analytics. If you can't get the information you need from the analytics in Google, Squarespace, AddThis, and Launchrock, then you have a more complex statistical understanding than I.
  • Design. I think that design (not about pretty-fying but rather about making things work beautifully) is now the foundation for business. IDEO offers a free course in human-centered desing for social innovation that beats any college course I've  taken, not to mention their HCD toolkit. And over on the more graphic-y side of things, Karen Cheng tells us how to become a designer in 6 months, while Lynda teaches the nitty-gritty, and Hack Design covers the basics. 

The reality has changed so quickly that we're still busy being employees when we could revolutionize an industry in a few months. The tools probably aren't the limiting factor anymore. So we just need to develop our courage, vision, leadership, and noticing to catch up with our brand new tools. 

*I don't want to overstate this transition because there are still so many impediments to the true democratization of making and publishing and owning the means of production. It's even arguable that for most people, in most places, very little has changed in terms of people being able to make things that matter. But for folks as privileged as me-- folks that finished high school and can count on a bed and food and access to a library-- there are some very really changes that it would benefit them to recognize and exploit.
**For many, many things, 80%-as-good-as-a-professional is not good enough. But for your jewelry site or magazine  or social movement or startup it almost certainly is. Once you get a thousand customers, go ahead and upgrade.

Why complain

"Why complain if you are looking

To quench your spirit’s longing

And have followed a rat into the desert."


Look like the solution, not the problem

Bill Strickland made a center that treats people like human beings and uses beauty as a key principle in supporting their work evolution.

Watch his TED talk and you'll hear things like this:

  • "My view is that if you want to involve yourself in the lives of people who have been given up on, you have to look like the solution, not the problem."
  • "I think that welfare mothers deserve a fountain."
  • "I built this building, and as you can see, it has world-class art... everywhere your eye turns, there is something beautiful looking back at you... In my view, it is this kind of world that can redeem the soul of poor people." 

Three things

Three things about this incredible piece on violence by the TED Radio Hour

  1. To the same degree that CNN is a waste of time, this piece is phenomenal. If someone were to tell me the idea of creating a radio hour of rehashed TED talks, I'd probably vomit. But the actual work is beautiful, enlightening and so valuable to understanding this place we live in. 
  2. There's not more violence in the world, but we suffer from it more than ever. As Steven Pinker's segment proves, violence is declining in our world. So why do we feel like it's increasing at a dizzying rate? Likely because 500, 100, or even 40 years ago, each act of violence was experienced by the people directly impacted by it. Today, each act of violence is experienced by whoever the news feed reaches, for however many retraumatizations (through tweet or blog post or video clip) a person can stomach. 
  3. A manhunt will find the kid, but the only way to prevent violence is to understand its context. As Phil Zimbardo says in his segment, "The line between good and evil -- which privileged people like to think is fixed and impermeable, with them on the good side, and the others on the bad side -- I knew that line was movable, and it was permeable... If you want to change a person, you've got to change the situation. If you want to change the situation, you've got to know where the power is in the system."

The problem

“The problem is that perpetually doing, without ever tuning into the center of our being, is like fueling a mighty ship by throwing all of its navigational equipment into the furnace.” 

Martha Beck

Why “Huh!” is the best response to most situations

“I shouldn’t feel that way.” 
“They shouldn’t do that.” 

...The two thoughts that cause me the most suffering, hands down. 

In either case, I’m arguing with reality. This party is hip and filled with interesting people, and I should want to stay (even if the reality is that my jeans are too tight and I can’t find a sincere connection.) The people I’m creating a product for should dedicate time to self development. (Well, the reality is that they want inspiration with no effort on their part.)

When we focus on what we wish was happening right now instead of what is happening, we are no longer able to interact creatively with reality. 

It doesn’t mean that we hop on out of the party the minute we notice we feel uncomfortable. It also doesn’t mean that we see a crappy situation and insist on marinating in it . But simply accepting a feeling or a situation (“Huh! I feel so uncomfortable right now”) creates space for responding accordingly. (“I’m going to try swapping this wine for some peppermint tea and go talk to that woman in the purple stockings.”) It’s when we reject the reality of what is happening that we’re stuck numbing, or pretending, or fleeing, or ignoring, or judging. 

And that, my friends, is how entrepreneurs make products no one wants. And how Emily looks up after 4 hours of should-ing to an emotional hangover of regret and frustration. 

So the next time you’re tired, or annoyed, or someone is doing something unexpected or unwelcome, start by saying “Huh!” Then describe to yourself what’s happening. Then, take a breath and see if you can spot anyone with purple stockings on to chat with.

Decisions are easy if you don't depend on your brain.

Some career paths are so well-trod that they become fixed. They're fewer and farther between these days: doctor, Wall Street executive, Registered Nurse. Career paths like mine, on the other hand, (that of entrepreneur-artist-person) have constant decision-making at their core. What project to take next? Which new hire to choose? How to lead this meeting?

And it can be  a struggle. Recently, in deciding whether to take a relatively minor teaching gig, I spent hours on the phone with friends trying to get clarity. I tried everything-- debating, making lists, asking for advice-- and everything just confused me more. Finally, intense frustration led to surrender. Once I exhaust the methods that don't work, I finally return to two tools that always work, if I'm willing to use them. 

1. Move towards what frees you. There's this story from the time of the Buddha (via Melissa Foster) that if you were blind and searching for the ocean, you would know you arrived because it would taste like salt. Whether you tasted a teaspoon or a ton, whether you could see it or not-- it would taste like salt. Your right path and the path to enlightenment is just like that. It will always taste like freedom. 

"Just as in the great ocean there is but one taste — the taste of salt — so in this Doctrine and Discipline there is but one taste — the taste of freedom."

2. Don't argue with evidence. The second part is that whatever feeling or taste exists at the beginning will continue throughout the entire thing. Ease, frustration, freedom, anxiety... they'll carry through from start to finish. Danielle Laporte quotes the Buddha as saying:

"As in the beginning, so in the middle, so in the end." 

A tightening in your gut when you're called for a second interview; frustration when you try to express a point; a strong dislike of the decorating in the lobby. They're all clues. It doesn't meen that you take one look at the lobby and flee. It does mean you take note, combine that observation with other knowledge, and make a decision using something more powerful than raw intellect to choose your next move.

So maybe it's not so complicated, if you're willing to pay attention. 

Obedience is only one thing you could practice...

We become something through practice. We become a weaver by practicing weaving. We become a cook by practicing cooking. We become data analysis experts by working through large data sets in Excel. 

At the public high school I went to, we practiced impressing the teacher, doing things on time, following directions, and performing well at the agenda presented to us, regardless of passion for the content. 

Paolo Friere and bell hooks advocated for education as the practice of freedom. They advocated for a pedagogy in which the content, the layout of the chairs, the way that knowledge was constructed, and, yes, what students did all were part of that practice.

Which begs the question, who do you want to practice becoming? Not to mention, who do you want your kids to practice becoming?