Want to be a better writer?
Write every day.

April 19, 2020

Want+to+be+a+better+writer%3F+%3Cbr+%2F%3EWrite+every+day.

I’ve been teaching writing for over 40 years, and so many students have wanted to know one thing: what is the secret or trick to it?

The trick to getting better at writing is to write regularly, write for an audience, get feedback and write some more. When I discovered blogger Seth Godin some years ago, I was first excited by some posts that seemed to apply directly to teaching and advising, even though he is not a journalist. So I subscribed to his blog and it shows up EVERY DAY in my inbox. I have quite a collection at this point, saving just a percentage of the daily posts. But it adds up.

Most students have more “free time” during this period of remote learning, and this won’t last forever. Maybe this can be an opportunity for some students, at least, to push themselves and try to write every day. No word counts. No multimedia. Just ideas and insights and questions and arguments and provocative statements and, well, almost anything that comes to mind.

Below is a selection of Seth Godin posts I have curated just this year. One way to engage students would be to ask them to choose one or two posts, and write a short analysis connecting the Godin posts to their work on student media or to high school more generally.

 

Compromise – Jan. 13, 2020

People talk about compromising like it’s a bad thing.

But we’re always doing it.

Even the most ardent vegan is killing tiny creatures in a glass of water.

There’s no economy on earth that is completely unregulated, nor is there one that’s completely state-controlled.

We’re never completely at an edge. We can’t be.

So now, the question isn’t whether or not to compromise. The question is where we’re going to be on the spectrum.

That’s a more useful place to start the conversation.

Time shifting – Feb. 22, 2020

If the people you seek to engage with have a choice, they’re likely to make a choice that’s in their self-interest.

The question is: When?

Is it in a high school student’s self-interest to light up a cigarette on a Friday night? In the short run, the answer might be yes. Ask that person in forty years if it was a good idea to be tricked by advertising and peer pressure into a lifetime of expense and illness, and the answer is probably ‘no’.

When we try to change behavior to make culture better, what we’re actually doing is trying to get people to change their timeframe. The more sophisticated an audience believes it is, the easier it is to help them see that there’s more than the next ten seconds in front of them. Mobs, on the other hand, only care about what feels good in this very moment.

The insight is in understanding that perception of time–not just money, not just features, not just narrative–is actually the driving force of much of what is happening when we try to change minds.

Not, “is this a good idea?” but “when?”

What’s a fellowship? – Feb. 24, 2020

For five hundred years, a fellowship was understood, Tolkien-style, to be a collection of humans engaged in mutual support.

It’s hard to imagine something more reassuring, challenging and productive, all at once.

To be part of an organized fellowship is a responsibility and also the chance to leap forward. Join the others, people like you, eager to see and to be seen, and most of all, to be of service. (Worth noting that ‘fellow’ it is not gender-specific and in fact is used in the Old Testament in reference to women).

A few decades ago, our status and selection-based culture shifted a common meaning of the word to describe a sort of prize. You get picked for a fellowship, maybe you even get some money, and you can definitely put it on your resume. Missing, too often, is the original magic, the idea that the others are there with you, side by side, together.

That new sort of fellowship isn’t really helpful to most of us. I’m more interested in the traditional, effective kind. Mutual support and a shared journey.

There are organic fellowships everywhere, which sprouted on their own, seemingly out of nowhere, and if you find yourself in one, that’s a wonder to be cherished. They don’t need a name or a published agenda. Simply being in it is sufficient.

For the rest of us, there’s the chance to go start one. Start a fellowship, invite some people along, and then do the hard work to keep it going. All for one and one for all.

 

Is everything going to be okay? – March 26, 2020

That depends.

If we mean, “Is everything going to be the way it was and the way I expected it to be?” then the answer is no. The answer to that question is always no, it always has been.

If we mean, “Is everything going to be the way it is going to be?” then the answer is yes. Of course. If we define whatever happens as okay, then everything will be.

Given that everything is going to be the way it’s going to be, we’re left with an actually useful and productive question instead: “What are you going to do about it?”

Communicating online (the big leaps) – March 28, 2020

It’s not just like the real world but with keyboards.

Leap 1: Attention is too easy to steal online, so don’t. Spam is a bad idea. Interrupting hundreds or millions of people doesn’t cost you much, but costs each person a lot. You wouldn’t stand up in the middle of a Broadway play and start selling insurance from the audience. Don’t do it with your keyboard. Permission is anticipated, personal and relevant.

Leap 2: There’s a difference between asynchronous and synchronous interaction. We know this intuitively in the real world (a letter is different from a phone call) but online, it’s profound. A discussion board isn’t the same as a Zoom call. It turns out that we can create rich and layered conversations with async communication, but we also have to be just a bit more patient.

Leap 3: More than one person can ‘talk’ at a time. In the real world, that’s impossible. At a table for six, we take turns talking. But in a chat room, we can all talk at the same time. Use it well and you can dramatically increase information exchange. But if you try to follow all the threads, or you miss what you need, then it’s actually less effective.

Leap 4: Sometimes we leave a trail. Most real-life conversations are inherently off the record because the words disappear right after we say them. But if you use a keyboard, or you’re attached to a server, assume you’re being recorded and act appropriately. And sometimes the people who are talking are anonymous (which never happens in the real world).

It’s possible, with effort, to transform business communications (and schooling) away from the top-down, synchronized, compliance-focused, off-the-record, hierarchical and slow status quo to something significantly more fluid and powerful. But we’ll need to do it on purpose.

GenC – March 30, 2020

It doesn’t really pay to classify multitudes by their age–every generation is complex and intermingles with all the others.

But it might be a useful way to understand the issues we’ve faced and where we might be heading.

Generation C was inaugurated with the events created by COVID-19, and it is defined by a new form of connection.

There’s a juxtaposition of the physical connection that was lost as we shelter in place, and the digital connection that so many are finding online.

Not just a before and after for the economy, but for culture, for health, for expectations. School and jobs are different now, probably for the long term.

No idea or behavior shift has ever spread more quickly or completely in the history of the planet. In seven weeks, the life of every single person on Earth changed, and the unfolding tragedy and the long slog forward will drive expectations for years. Expectations about being part of a physical community, about the role of government and about what we hope for our future.

If previous cycles of media were about top-down broadcast (from radio, TV and cable), the last few years have been about the long tail, about giving a microphone to anyone who wanted one. But now, the peer to peer power of the internet is dominating. The Kardashians won’t be as important as 3,000 people with a thousand connections each. Never mind a million people with 100 each.

Companies are now competing to see how few employees they have instead of how many. The lattices of the connection economy are racing to replace the edifice complex of the previous one.

And if COVID-19 and Connection are the first two C’s, the third one is going to be Carbon.

Because we’re going to need to pay. All of us. To pay for the dislocations and to pay for the treatment and to pay for the recovery.

Worldwide cataclysms are different from local ones. As we shift gears and seek to revitalize our economy, put people to work and build a resilient future, it might be tempting to drill and burn, and to try to adopt an emergency footing that disregards any long-term future more than a few months ahead. But GenC may be too wise for that. And they may be connected enough to speak up and overrule the baby boomers.

A threat and an enemy will focus public attention. For a long time, that enemy was other people or other nations, and an us-vs-them mindset was a great way to get attention or get elected. But just as we came to understand that you can’t bully a virus, you can’t personalize carbon either.

The worldwide challenge of carbon is not a problem for someone else, it’s a problem for all of us. Using carbon consumption as a way to pay for rebuilding our community brings all three Cs together.

Emergencies are overrated as a response mechanism. Preparation and prevention are about to become a more popular alternative.

My generation was the dominant voice for sixty years. A voice that worried about the next 24 hours, not the next 24 years. That’s about to shift, regardless of what year you were born.

What can we do that matters instead?

The semiotics of face masks – April 3, 2020

It’s difficult to get adults to wear bicycle helmets. (I wrote about this on the blog 16 years ago).

The reason has nothing to do with comfort or safety. It has to do with signals.

Semiotics is the science of flags, signals and other communications. It studies the very human act of judging something (or someone) based on limited information as we seek the message behind the signal, all in a quest for belonging and social standing.

Even more than helmets, face masks make a statement.

Ten years ago, if you wore a face mask at work, you were either a surgeon, a carpenter or a bank robber.

As they began to spread, mainly in parts of Asia, the mask was interpreted by some non-mask wearers as either a generous act (the wearer doesn’t want to infect others) or something slightly paranoid.

Then, when the pandemic first arrived in the US, masks became the focus of hoarding. Like toilet paper, it was a way to sacrifice time and money to get something scarce and reassuring. People weren’t reading scientific journals, they were grasping. The hoarding had the unfortunate side effect of keeping masks from front-line medical workers who needed them. It also created a sense of false security because many of the people who were using them had no clue how to use them properly, causing them to be worse off than if they hadn’t had them at all.

If you wore a mask on Main Street as you shopped in early March 2020, it was probably not increasing your social standing.

And then, as some newspapers shifted their stance and homemade masks began to appear, the story changes again–worth noting that even fast fashion has never changed this fast.

And so the storytelling continues. “Why is that person wearing a mask,” the non-mask wearer asks themselves. Is it to shame me? To let me know that they’re ill and I should steer far away? Perhaps it’s a way of identifying them as anti-social, because, after all, I’m not wearing one… Or maybe they’re smarter than me and I’m behind?

The narratives may also be shifting from, “how do I protect myself?” which is a self-directed desire, to, “how do I keep others protected?” This is generally a hard sell in the world of the Marlboro Man, bespoke disposable water bottles and the Hummer.

Notice that none of these internal monologues have much to do with epidemiology or public health. Face masks might help, it’s not certain, but the semiotics of social standing and cultural posture happen long before we actively consider the science.

Whether or not you choose to wear a mask, drive a Prius or even a pickup truck, it’s worth remembering that because we’re human, we start with two things: What’s the story I’m telling myself, and what’s the story I’m telling everyone else.

All models are wrong, some models are useful – April 16, 2020

That’s what makes it a model. The map is not the territory, and a model is nothing but a stripped-down approximation of what might be happening. By definition, the model for your problem, your organization, your opportunity–it’s not actually the thing being studied, it’s a simplified version of it.

At higher magnification, your model is wrong. It has to be in order for it to be a model.

And yet we need models.

We need a model because if the elegant, pure, refined model doesn’t work, it’s harder to understand why your messy, real-world situation is going to work.

Not all logical and structurally sound models turn into successes in the real world, but better to begin with something that makes sense.

 

On predicting the future – April 18, 2020

Two things:

  1. We do it all the time. Constantly.
  2. We’re terrible at it.

We spend our days guessing how an action will impact the future, and we’re often wrong.

And we spend the rest of our days hoping we were right or worried that we weren’t. We try to control the future by telekinesis and anxiety in equal measure.

When the future doesn’t cooperate, we spend even more time trying to change the next bit of future so that it ends up more closely matching the future we were hoping for.

What if, instead, just for a little while, we simply did our best?

And let the future take care of itself.

Because even if we don’t fret, the future is still going to take care of itself.

All that’s on us is to do our best work. Paying attention to models and the community and the people we serve.