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.


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.


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.

Noticing + Contextualizing + Sharing

A friend of RW recently started a new job. He’s in a major leadership role, and when he began to add events to his calendar, he made sure to schedule a near-daily “walkabout.”

As he walks, he pops in and out of classrooms and conversations and works hard to simply notice what and how students are learning.

When he returns to his desk, he writes down a few details about what he noticed.

Later, he evolves some of his noticings by connecting them to quotations from relevant educational research.

Even later, he polishes the newly formed pairing of noticings and research tidbits.

Last, he shares back whatever he has polished with the community that hosts his near-daily walkabouts.

I think this is good practice for a leader:

Walk around on-site.

Notice and then capture what you notice.

Contextualize what you notice.

Polish the above.

Share the above.


How Will You Decide?

Lately I’ve been getting a lot of mileage out of a simple question.

When I’m meeting with people and they are trying to solve problems, rather than jumping in to tell them how I might solve them or even asking them how they themselves are planning to solve them, I take one giant step back and ask, “What will your decision-making process look like as you attempt to arrive at a solution for this problem?” (Of course I try not to sound like a robot when I’m asking this question, but you get the idea.)

Each time I’ve used this question, it has led to some modifications in the proposed decision-making process. Often, that process needed to involve more input from more people, to move more slowly, to take into account more data, or simply — to end.

And talking about decision-making has some added bonuses.

It helps people to make better decisions not just once but many times. It helps me, as a “coach,” to know why people might be stuck in a certain performance pattern. And, last, it helps me to make my organization more transparent to the people whose daily decisions help it — hopefully — to thrive. On this last point: When you help to inform or upgrade someone’s decision-making process, you end up having to talk about all kinds of institutional stuff (for lack of a better word). This stuff could include information flow or architecture, politics, power dynamics, unspoken tension, relationships, competence, incompetence, money, meeting agendas — all the things that make a difference while not being written down in any manual.

The Grateful Farmer

I was very pleased with the results of the first homework assignment for my English class. I asked students to:

Email me a Quicktime video introduction that includes: your full name, your preferred name or nickname, the name of your favorite writer or filmmaker (or book or movie), and anything that I need to know about you as a learner or human being.      

I’ve been watching a few of these videos each day since I received them and taking notes (even if they are short). Besides learning the answers to each question, I am also learning about the ways students communicate (both orally and in terms of their body language), the fluency level of their speech, and their eagerness (or lack thereof) to connect with me.

Since I don’t know these students personally, and I’m trying to figure out how to connect with them as quickly as possible, all data is useful. To close the loop with each student, and hopefully open a new one, I’m replying to each of them with an email that acknowledges that I’ve watched their video, comments on something I’ve noticed about their video, and asks any followup questions that seem necessary.

As a teacher early in the year, I try to hang onto the mindset of a grateful farmer — happy to be planting seeds in even the smallest plots of land

How to Produce like a (Really Productive) Professor

Reshan and I recently interviewed Aswath Damodaran.  He’s both a giant in the field of finance and valuation and a standing-room only level professor at NYU Stern.  Our published piece revolved around his passion for teaching — and offered an incredibly refreshing perspective from a professor of his stature.  

During the interview, Aswath was kind enough to digress at one point and share some of the secrets of his productivity and his subsequent reach.  We couldn’t include these thoughts (or, really, tactics) in our published interview, but we wanted to share them nonetheless.

In short, he encouraged us to avoid unnecessary compartmentalization.  Instead of turning from thing to thing to thing, he suggested that, perhaps, much of what we do is really just one thing — turned, considered, and altered slowly. In his own words . . . 

If your work needs to be compartmentalized, you need a lot more time everyday, right? 

Right now, I’m writing a blog post for a company I value every year. It’ll take me about six hours to do the entire post with the valuation. I will put it up probably late this evening, and then make a 15 minute YouTube video right after I finish the post, because that’s not a big deal. I’ve already written the post; I know what I’m going to say. It’s just an extension of it. 

I’ll put it up, and it will then get watched probably by a couple hundred thousand people over the weekend; it will then get picked up in 15 different places; it will take off somewhere. That valuation will then go into my material that I will use to update my valuation notes for next semester. It will become part of the next edition of one of my 12 books. It’s going to serve multiple purposes. 

My first Uber evaluation, June of 2014, gave birth not just to a part of my class, it gave rise to a book called Narrative and Numbers. You never know where a post is going to go.

So you see that I can be more productive with a lot less time than if I compartmentalized everything. 

Later in the interview he added what we have begun to call the “Two Minute Rule.”

When you’re done with something, you just want to move on. I say, look, take the extra two or five minutes to make it usable on another front.  

For example, when I write an email which is a long email that answers a question that I’ve been asked before, I copy and paste it into a document, which then helps me create something that I can put on my website as a “frequently asked question.” 

It takes an extra two minutes, and I don’t want to do it. I’d rather move on, because I have other things to do, but that extra two minutes saves me god only knows how many questions I’ll get in the future on that particular issue.

Jazz / Pizza

I’m a fan of innovative process because it often gets the mind, body, or team moving in ways that, by habit or default, it has not. Often, new process yields new energy and creativity — and sometimes groundbreaking new products.

Here’s how Makaya McCreven makes music, in his own words:

We improvise, then I edit and rearrange and recontextualize that source material into a new distillation of ideas. Then I can take it and pass it to a DJ, who can remix those ideas. Then [we] take that remix and get a live band to learn the remix, then we can perform it as a live band and use it as a catalyst to improvise over that form or create something [else]. Then we have an additional piece of music that doesn’t resemble the improvisation but is a representation of an electronic-sounding remix of that first reimagination. And if we record that live band, we can chop it up all over again and continue the process. It’s a regenerative process of composition—using what was there to reimagine something new.

Source: Downbeat

And here’s how Tomasso Colao, the best pizza chef within 25 miles of my home, makes pizza:

It won’t be apparent to your naked eye that the dough Colao rolls out is made with powder-fine “00” flour from Naples, into which he’s mixed his 23-year-old natural yeast culture (Colao calls it “my baby,” and he feeds it with flour and water every day to sustain it). That dough — with various toppings — gets a 90-second ride in the oven. 


Listen for the distant rhyme — the “regenerative process of composition” — in the way both masters approach their work.

Hacking Reflection

The idea of hacking reflection seems counterproductive. Reflection, after all, is supposed to be a slow and thoughtful and even meandering process. Hacking implies something else entirely.

But I have found that, due to its very nature, reflection often takes a backseat to activity. You can race through your entire workday until the last moment — when you often have to hustle to a personal responsibility (picking up children, meeting someone for dinner, cooking dinner, etc.). Thinking about thinking (or systems, patterns, habits) feels like a distant luxury — costly and out of reach.

I hack reflection, therefore, because it is both important and impractical. I know it could probably help my future self find new meaning and purpose (and pathways), but my present self finds it difficult to schedule.

Without a hack.

Here’s mine: I don’t schedule reflection, but I do schedule small activities that require or drive it.

For example, writing a near-daily blog post is (a) easy to schedule, (b) fun to cross off a list, and (c) requires reflection. Since blogging is the sole writing activity in my life for which I refuse to take notes in advance, the activity is usually entirely backward looking. I sort through my memory to see what stuck with me — what made an impact or impression — from the day that has passed. Then I write about it until I’ve captured it clearly, publish it, and return to it later for further polishing if I have time. Regardless of the quality of the final product, the memory crawl is a form of reflection.

“Tidy up (physical world)” and “Tidy up (digital world)” are (a) easy to schedule, (b) fun to cross off a list, and (c) require reflection. You can’t organize your things without thinking about them, moving them, turning them over (i.e., reflecting on them); you can’t file documents without matching them to a category (i.e., reflecting on them).

“Read folder names” or “Read file names” is (a) easy to schedule, (b) fun to cross off a list, and (c) drives reflection. Even just a glance at certain documents reminds you that they exist, which reminds you to reach for them at the right moment, which helps you to make use of them when they can have an impact on a project or decision.

“Read your notes from _____” is (a) easy to schedule, (b) fun to cross off a list, and (c) requires reflection. Many leaders with whom I speak are very good at writing things down during meetings; actually looking at what they’ve written down, actually making sense of it by reading it, actually converting scribbles into fuel into motion, is something that frequently gets lost.

I’m a big fan of making sure that the important things aren’t lost. Tactically, this means assuring that they do not become insurmountable or rare. In fact, I try to make them easy and regular, falling in line with the conventional wisdom about fitness — if the best exercise is the one that you will actually do frequently, the same holds true for reflection.

Frequently, then: Adding reflection-rich action items to lists ensures that reflection will take place in your daily workflow. Crossing things off lists adds to a sense of momentum and wellbeing. And the reflection that can happen, even upon the completion of simple tasks, will feed your future plans and actions. That’s why you should hack an activity that, on its surface, defies hacking.