What Game are You Playing?

A lot of people I know use MailChimp to manage their mailing lists. It’s easy to use and has good tiered subscription options. So, when I heard that the company had been acquired for 12 billion dollars, I read a few of the stories to understand how a seemingly simple company could be worth so much.

Though I’m still not sure about the economics, or what drove them, my research did yield an interesting portrait of one of the company’s founders, Ben Chestnut. I liked in particular how he seemed to know exactly what game he was playing and trying to win each day.

In an article in the Financial Times, he said: “I kind of feel like I had my head down, tweaking things, improving things, and then I looked up and bam, it’s a $12bn company.” Later, he boils it down even more: “I would look at the previous balance, and then I would look at this month’s balance, and I would want to make sure that this month was greater than last month. That’s all I ever did.”

The article also reveals what he (and his partner) didn’t do. Here’s Chestnut reflecting on early investors, which he (and his partner) seemingly swatted away while not taking their money: “It felt like they were more like alien beings from another era trying to tell me how to run my business.”

What the founder and his partner did, what they didn’t do, and last . . . how they know they won: the article focuses finally on an outside voice (Wade Davis of Zapier). Regarding the deal that finally convinced the MailChimp founders to sell, Davis said he was surprised but “there were probably other reasons they felt this was a good outcome for MailChimp, for the customers, and for everyone.”

Most of us will never sell a company for billions of dollars. But all of us can seek to approach our work in ways that draw useful, healthy boundaries around it. The advice is simple:

Know what game you are playing.

Within that scope, define what you do and what you don’t do.

Repeat the doing and the not doing and protect against intrusions that would throw off the patterns, the discipline.

And then, perhaps most important, know how you know you’ve won and that the game is over.

Source: Financial Times (behind paywall).

Filling Up My Tank (and Yours)

Since school started, I’ve been trying to post something at RW Monday through Friday. I’ve mostly hit this target, and I’d like to continue to hit it. But that’s going to take some counterintuitive planning. In order to mostly succeed over the long term, I’m going to have to commit to not being perfect. And to routinely filling up my tank so that it never goes completely empty. The latter is just bad for the vehicle, right?

So I’m going to take off the last week of every month — even if I’m feeling great and filled with writing ideas. That last part is critical. I think my contribution will last longer, and have more impact over time, if I rest before I’m broken.

As for you, dear reader, I’ll also make a suggestion.

The point of the daily post was to help us both to build a habit. I wanted to connect with you each morning or at least predictably. Many of you have told me that you like starting your day this way. Or reading RW during your first coffee break of the morning. Or wrapping up your day with it, as a way to transition between work and home.

I love all of that, and I don’t want to get in the way of habits that are helpful to you. So during each of my “break” weeks, I suggest you still show up for your RW time. Keep the appointment, because it’s not so much an appointment with me as it is an appointment with yourself. You could scroll through the archive if you want. Better yet, though, you can just leave the 5 or 15 minutes completely open and let your mind go wherever it wants to. You could think about how your actions are lining up with your values and beliefs. You could check-in on progress on those goals that are most important to you. You could take the time to actually figure out what goals are most important to you. You could jot down a quick note of gratitude and send it to the intended recipient. Just don’t try to do too much. Tanks, this week, are for filling.

I’ll see you next Monday.

Steve

Bringing Food to Meetings

A recent rule shift at my school has caused me to think about one of my old habits — bringing food to meetings.

We’re not serving food at meetings for at least the first few months of school. This protocol is in response to whatever wave of COVID we’re currently managing. At first I thought, “great, this will save me some time and a good chunk of my budget.” But then I realized that buying food for meetings is an important part of my leadership behavior.

My days at work, like yours I’d imagine, fly by. No matter how slowly or quickly I work, no matter how attentive or head-in-clouds I am task-to-task, the sand flies through the hourglass of each school day. I look up and the students are already spilling out of the building, kicking soccer balls or tossing footballs, dancing across stages, piling into buses. My trips to the grocery store in advance of meetings, occasional as they were, offered me a guaranteed opportunity to lift my head in the midst of whatever day was rushing past, and to gain some perspective. These trips, which took about a half hour, were mini-leadership meditations focused on people.

When shopping for a meeting, I would always think first about the expected attendees. Would Tom — gluten free — be there? Would Mike — dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate — be there? Any vegetarians? Any foodies who might be intrigued by something unique? Any coffee fanatics?

Thinking about the particular tastes and needs of the people on each team is something I enjoy. Feeding people as a form of service is how I was raised; it’s a love language I learned on Sundays in my grandmother’s kitchen in her duplex in Jersey City. And, helpfully for all kinds of reasons, planning to feed people in meetings may have been the primary time during the week that I really thought about each individual on a team. Sometimes thinking about what someone liked to eat reminded me that their mom was still sick. Sometimes other memories surfaced, things to celebrate or just check on.

The bottom line (of this post) is that I won’t be practicing this particular leadership meditation for a while. And now that I’ve thought about what I’m losing — instead of my first thought about what I was gaining — I need to figure out a way to force an interruption, to throw a spanner into my work day every once in a while, to help me think about the people around me, the ones who so often go into the extra innings (i.e., meetings) that make all the difference for our school.

Three or Four or Five Purposes

I just checked the RW archive for a quotation that has been rattling around in my head for a while now. It came from an interview with Aswath Damodaran, and it turns out, it’s been collecting digital dust in a file called “cutting room floor.” Never published anywhere, it has still been an operating principle for me since I heard it.

Here’s some background. As we (Reshan and I) were winding down our interview, we asked Professor Damodaran a question he probably didn’t love.

We only have time for one more question, so I’ve got to ask you: how you have been so prolific? Eleven books, I lost count of all the articles you’ve had published, a massive online presence, trying to get ideas and valuation techniques democratized, and hundreds of thousands of people reading and watching your teaching. And then on top of it, being a professor and getting all these awards for best professor at NYU… Can you share any tips for people trying to be more productive?

And here’s Professor Damodaran, gracefully and humbly sharing some very practical advice:


I have to tell you, I’m a pretty lazy person, I don’t work more than 40 hours per week. What I’ve discovered helps me is to not compartmentalize – because if I thought of my life as, “there’s teaching, there’s research, there’s writing on my blog, there’s X, Y and Z…” then you very quickly run out of hours in the day. But almost everything I do spills over into almost everything else I do. So I’m constantly looking for ways to take whatever I do and get it to serve three or four or five purposes.

I’ll give you an example: about five years ago I read The Wall Street Journal post on Uber. It was a Thursday afternoon, and I said, “This will be an interesting company to value.” I did a very rudimentary valuation, because I knew very little about ride sharing; it took me about three hours to do the valuation, about three hours to write the blog post. I put it up on Friday afternoon. That blog post took a day and a half of work, but it essentially became part of my classes, it became an entire seminar that I do on valuing young and startup companies, it became a book called Narrative in Numbers.

Plenty of “content creators” (sorry!) start each day or each project by trying to guess what their audiences will react to or at least click. And plenty of publishers encourage this practice by trying to figure out if a proposed book will connect with the clickers and the reactors and the influencers. Damodaran speaks of a different, and I think better, way. Start by making the single best thing you can make. One thing at a time. And give that one thing the effort and attention it requires. Then figure out how it can be of use. Better yet, two uses. If it’s still rattling around in your head in a day or a week or a month, return to it. Add something to it. Make it more useful or differently useful. Share it again, perhaps in a new place or way.

As a teacher and learner, I see this method, too, as simply trying to create in a multimodal way — which is great for helping others to understand something that matters to you or just sticks around and won’t let go.

Broadcast Feedback

As is my practice, when I come across a definition that is new (to me) or better (than the one I currently hold) or more generous (to humans / teams of humans), I tend to catalogue it on RW. Describing the world, accurately and generously, is a moral act and forever unfinished.

As you may also know, I greedily read every word that Eric Hudson writes.

So, today’s post fulfills both of those conditions: highlighting something new (to me) and something from Eric Hudson.

I enjoyed Eric’s recent article about feedback in that it nicely staked out the territory of all the different kinds of feedback we could be considering in education. I also think it is very wise to think of feedback as an ecosystem — one that, presumably, can be healthy or unhealthy, appropriately diverse or inappropriately narrow. What jumped out to me, in addition to the robust ecosystem analogy, was Eric’s description of “broadcast feedback.” I hadn’t quite heard it described in precisely this way . . . and the definition itself will have an immediate impact on the way I think about how I use time in my classroom.

Broadcast feedback is designed for and delivered to a group. We often think of feedback as a private interaction between a teacher and a student, and in many scenarios, that’s appropriate. However, offering feedback to a whole group can spark meaningful conversation as well as avoid the repetition and redundancy that can come from giving the same individual feedback over and over.

When to Try It: Use broadcast feedback to examine student work together with your class. By gathering a group to examine an excellent model, you are providing useful information that students can apply to their own work. Do this live or use a screencasting tool like Loom to create instructional videos. Ron Berger has written extensively about the benefits of examining high-quality models with students.

I like, especially, the chance to design for “meaningful conversation.” And I thank Eric, as ever, for sparking plenty of that over the years.

Source: Eric Hudson / GOA

Technology & Design with Devika Patel

I liked sharing a “weekend long read” last Friday, so I’m doing roughly the same thing today. I learned so much from this conversation with Devika Patel.

Here’s how our producer described the episode:

Hear about how the facets of the human-centric design process invite us to embrace, and thrive in, ambiguity. Learn about why the design process plays such an important role in technology, specifically when designing features and modalities to meet the needs of consumers. Explore: How are companies beginning to thoughtfully integrate design technology, where previously, frustrations were high because most things were designed for the “system” and not the individual?

And here’s more about Devika. Happy weekend!

The Purest Information

This week I’ve been responding to a few early assignments from my Satire class. These assignments were all designed around a central goal: to help me to know, as quickly as possible, my new students.

In designing these assignments, I thought more about the mode of expression I was requesting than I did the actual questions or tasks. Why? Because, for me, when I’m getting to know a student, the purest information doesn’t come from a perfect sentence or a crisp analysis or something overly revised or processed. It comes from messy, raw, authentic, genuine responses.

So, early in a semester, I assign quick tasks that help me to hear my students’ voices, see their full faces (important during these mask wearing days), and observe their instincts in action. I assign tasks, too, that will encourage them to drift off script, away from any constructed narratives they may be carrying around with them.

(The tech all around us, admittedly, makes my information gathering easy.)

I ask them to respond to a Google form where some of the questions are highly relevant to our class and some of the questions ask them to share more openly.

I ask them to record and share with me a Quicktime video of them answering questions. One of these questions includes the story of their name.

And last, I ask them take a picture of a sample of their annotations and then send it to me.

All told, these three short assignments provide a small mountain of information for me. I hear voices and silences, fluency and disfluency, umms and ahs. I understand how each student approaches storytelling. I see which students like to elaborate on their ideas and which are more guarded. I see confidence or a lack of confidence. I sometimes see a bit of hubris, but this isn’t that common — high school students, generally, are pretty cool. Some students are funny. Some are serious. Most are in the middle. Some prepare too much and some too little. I see rhymes in the way they speak and the way they scribble. I see things that don’t rhyme but instead show possible forks in the road, possible roads not taken that, maybe, should be reconsidered. I see cross outs, stutters, start overs, stops, and let-me-take-this-from-the-tops.

I see becoming, and my job, maybe the best job in the world, is to stay out of its way, amplify it, encourage it, cheer for it, coax it, and then wave goodbye and wish it well when, a few months from now, our class ends and another one begins.

We Manage Most When We Manage Small

The title of this post is the title of a poem by Linda Gregg. Like all good poetry, it both steadies me and gives me a shove, offers both safety and edge. I’ve been reading it a lot lately mainly because the bit about managing greetings and farewells seems eminently doable . . . as my to-do list fills up and overflows and my good summer intentions are tested. I can do that, I think to myself, I can manage small.*

We Manage Most When We Manage Small

What things are steadfast? Not the birds.
Not the bride and groom who hurry
in their brevity to reach one another.
The stars do not blow away as we do.
The heavenly things ignite and freeze.
But not as my hair falls before you.
Fragile and momentary, we continue.
Fearing madness in all things huge
and their requiring. Managing as thin light
on water. Managing only greetings
and farewells. We love a little, as the mice
huddle, as the goat leans against my hand.
As the lovers quickening, riding time.
Making safety in the moment. This touching
home goes far. This fishing in the air.

*Apologies for the super literal reading of a poem that is much deeper than that. Then again, I guess I shouldn’t feel guilty for taking what I need from a work of literature.

Source: Poets.org

Homework Policy

For my Satire Elective . . . and possibly some of you.

An analogy I like to use regarding homework is that it’s like pushups.  If you tell me you want to get stronger, I will tell you that you need to make sure you do pushups 6 times a week.  If you skip your pushups, or try to borrow someone else’s pushups, or watch someone else doing pushups on Netflix or in a video game, then you won’t get stronger.  Years later, when you face a critical moment in your life — say, saving your nephew from falling off a swing or pushing your stalled car out of the danger of incoming traffic, you simply won’t have the strength.  It’s really as simple as that.  Do your pushups if you want to get stronger and save lives.  Don’t do your pushups if you don’t care about getting stronger or your future nephew.  But be honest about what you want so that we’re both on the same pushup page.  Like all analogies pushed too far, that one just died.  Anyway, when I ask you to read something, read it as hard as you can for the allotted time.  When I ask you to write something, do all you can to put the best words in the best order.  Do both of these things again and again, and you’ll become a better reader, writer, and thinker.  You’ll build stamina, speed, perspicacity, a bigger vocabulary, insight, and precision — all traits that will slowly but surely give you an advantage in almost any career and, I believe, almost any life.

Powered by the F250 Cigarette Lighter

I’m a big fan of the band Big Thief, so of course I was delighted to learn about the recording process for their most recent song. It unfolded during a power outage. In fact, it folded that outage into something brand new. Here’s guitarist Buck Meek painting the picture as only he can:

On the third day of the outage, I found Adrianne [Lenker] on the porch writing a new song, so I sat with her and we finished it together, with the rain falling from the gutters splashing over our guitars. James [Krivchenia] and Sam saw us writing, and quickly set up a four-track tape machine in the kitchen, powered by the F250 cigarette lighter out in the yard. They set up the drums by the sink, and Max [Oleartchik] plugged his bass into a Bluetooth speaker set on top of the stove. Take two had a great bark from Sam and Hannah’s pup Jan during the solo, but we ended up going with take three because it took us about that long to learn the chords. Then we made pancakes and sausages and ate breakfast for dinner.

So that’s some inside baseball for music geeks . . . and also a nice reminder that creativity finds a way, flaws can be part of the song, and sometimes the spark you need is in an old car out in the yard.

Source for quote: Rolling Stone

Source for photo of the f250 cigarette lighter fuse: Youtube

Link to the song: “Certainty”