A New List

Over the weekend, I poured myself a cup of coffee, sat outside in the perfect October air, and thought about disasters.

Yup, I thought about all the things that could go wrong in my home. I made a list. And then I wrote down what I would do, who I would call, how I would proceed if some really bad or kind-of-bad things happened. I wrote down enough detail, but not too much; just enough to set a plan and some positive action in motion. I wrote for an audience that might or might not include me.

After printing out a few copies of the list, I stashed them in easy-to-find places around the house and made sure that my family knew where to find them. Few household tasks have been as gratifying. I’m not sure why.

I have a friend who will probably read this and then text me, “doesn’t everybody do that already?” I’m not sure, but they should if they haven’t.

Also, since she’s exactly the kind of person who would ask that kind of question, she’s the last line on the list: “If you don’t know what to do, call ______.”

When to Automate, When to Humanize

Recently, Reshan shared a meeting template with me. (I know, my life is incredibly exciting!) It included not only Agenda items and Resources, but also a section for Decisions & Outcomes, Expected Attendees, and Future Meetings. See below, from his blog:

An avowed meeting skeptic, I run more meetings than I’d care to admit, and lots of practice in that area has meant lots of speed and efficiency. I can churn out basic agendas very quickly. I’m good at running meetings (so I’m told). But like everything else, and to mess with a tried and true phrase about perfection, good can become the enemy of the great.

With that in my mind, I tried Reshan’s template last week. I was eager to mix things up, and a new, enhanced agenda template seemed like a fine way to start. Immediately, I found myself moving more slowly (a theme for the year, it seems). Working with the new template was like setting out to run and stepping into a quarter mile of wet concrete.

I had to put in a lot more effort, especially when I wrote my outcomes, something I had never done before. I had to think about each person in the meeting as I typed out the attendee list. I had to account for attendees who told me that they could not be present. And in order to write them down, I had to look up, via the search function on my calendar, our future meeting dates. This last step gave me a useful sense of the sweep of time — or lack thereof — that I would have throughout the year to accomplish the work of the team or committee.

I’ve run two meetings using the new agenda style. And though only time will tell if the approach leads to better team product and process, I can state fully and honestly that I’m putting more effort into each meeting. I’m being more clear — with myself and with others — about why we’re assembled. In the meetings themselves, I feel like I have a better grip on the bat or the ball or the spatula or the paintbrush (or choose your own metaphor).

Meetings are a key part of my core work responsibilities. Running a lot of them means I have improved to the point where I have to be really careful about automaticity. Finding ways to disrupt autopilot mode, to make old work new, to make daily, high leverage tasks more appropriately effortful, seems like an important, even aspirational meta-skill for modern leaders. Going further, an emerging leadership continuum seems to encompass when to automate, on one end, when to humanize, on the other, and all the messy minor steps in between.

Gmail Predictive Text Readymades

I’ve been paying close attention lately to the Predictive Text feature in my Gmail account. Often, it guesses quite well, suggesting the precisely right word to wrap up an exchange that need not go further.

But at other times, it’s just hilariously off the mark, offering absurd readymades that never cease to amuse me.* Here’s a recent favorite.

Each Friday, a poet-friend emails me — and an old-fashioned, hand-sewn email list of about 15 people — a line or two from his journal. This week, Predictive Text knew exactly what to (not) say in response:

_______

*Or perhaps there’s sarcasm in the algorithm? Doubtful, but in that case, the joke’s on me.

Only With & Only Here

I recently read an article called “We Must Own Our Own Futures.” (H/T to the great Eric Hudson.) It’s for educational leaders, and mainly, for educational leaders on the collegiate level. Its author, John D. Simon, is President of Lehigh University.

Here’s my favorite part:

[We] at four-year residential research universities should revisit and recommit to what we do that isn’t captured in componentized, knowledge- and skill-centric educational pathways.

Every industry should have their own version of this question. It assumes that computers exist and will continue to exist. It assumes that they can do all the amazing things they can — and will — do. It assumes that, increasingly, people will rely on certain technological affordances, blending them seamlessly into their own lives, giving them time and resources to do different things (or things differently). It assumes that the existing model could already be a dinosaur, hanging on because people can’t cut ties with legacies or sunk costs or defaults or routines.

Variations:

What can we only do when we’re together, in the same room? Are we doing that?

What can we only do when we congregate in this building or space? Are we fully invested and engaged in that?

Where is it possible to be more deeply human in that situation or exchange — or program or application?

What is uniquely valuable about this particular group of people, and is their work being amplified in the right way?

William Blake: A Tweetstorm

Yesterday, a sturdy and wild old friend came back to me.

I was scrolling through Twitter when I saw something strange, though not the typical kind of Twitter-strange. It was, simply, a quotation from William Blake.

I studied Blake in college and again in graduate school, and this quotation reminded me of why I liked his work so much, why I fell into it with an abandon that dragged me from Boston to Virginia and almost to Hollywood (I’ll explain that last part later).

For me, Blake served up precisely the right kind of difficult. His syntax was a bit off. His grammar and word choices skewed and scattered. He capitalized words haphazardly. He invited cognitive struggle, cognitive dissonance, muddy waters, daniel johnstons . . .

Also, when I was young and intellectually carnivorous, he inspired me. There’s no other word for it.

When I read his poems or looked at his art, he made me want to create my own poems and art. Understanding him meant making something of my own, and in fact, saved me from becoming a literary scholar. I was on that path, but Blake kept shoving me onto other, more creative paths. My final graduate thesis was a screenplay adaptation of his most challenging work, The Four Zoas, and that was the end of graduate work for me. (That screenplay and I almost made it to Hollywood; instead, we landed in a classroom, teaching English, which most days feels like pure luck.)

But back to the story at hand.

When I saw Kleon’s Tweet, I composed a Tweetstorm in response. A joyful Tweetstorm. It made perfect sense that Kleon would be looking into Blake, even if just for a moment. Kleon works daily at the crossroads of the Word and the Image; he loves seriously playful and playfully serious comic books and graphic novels; he’s a poet who sometimes works by subtraction rather than addition. All of those attributes are Blakean attributes.

And none of what follows is Blakean scholarship; instead, it is the work of enthusiasm, a.k.a., my version of laughing out loud at a movie theater or pumping a fist at a Bill Callahan show. It’s a gesture that fell out of me . . . my own way of encouraging a fellow writer who, in his own way, has carried Blake’s spirit into the (currently) modern age.

With all of that said, my Tweetstorm-Roadmap to the work of William Blake is cut & pasted (& linked) below:

The Four Zoas is pure energy — a savage comic book for the ages, filled with dead ends, needless complexity, and necessary obfuscation.  It was later reincarnated as Can’s Tago Mago. Just let it wash over you.  

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is the last artist’s statement you will ever need to read.  It beats all others.

Songs of Innocence and Experience is best absorbed in the way [Blake] intended it — find a good illustrated version and read the “plates” themselves.  Oxford Paperback edition is nice. 

“Auguries of Innocence” is a poem about Seeing by seeing.  Also, I believe it helps us understand what very young children might be up to.  

Blake’s letters are also very instructive.  In them, he hashes out the struggle between art and commerce.  He never fully learned how to channel his art-damaged weirdness into something that society deemed productive.  Good for us.  Maybe not so good for him when he was alive.   

Find, too, his aphorisms [okay, this should have said “marginalia” or “annotations“].  They contain multitudes.  

Blake and Twitter are odd bedfellows, but they felt just right to me this week . . . and now I’ve returned to a well that, once, was all I needed.

Communication

I learned again today, for the thousandth time (or more!), that communication is something we practice.

Every day.

And because it’s a practice, rather than a perfected state, we won’t always get it right.

What’s important, then, is how we recover, what we learn, how we apologize and forgive, how we express and receive gratitude, how we roll on, what we say next — or decide not to.