Category: Pastry Box Project

April 18th, 2017

I’ve read Stephen King’s On Writing, like everyone else.

It bummed me out.

This post originally appeared March 21st, 2017, as part of SuperYesMore’s series “The Human in the Machine”.

This is a writer with a marksman’s ability to sit, focus, and write. Not just write, but create – worlds, intertwined, 800 pages long, one after another – not in that Danielle Steele way, but in a way you totally respect – and BOOM there’s another book, and there’s another, and there’s another.

And so I tried it.

I made a special time to write. It happened for three days. I’ve tried it over and over since then, with the same result.

I tried giving myself a word count. I’ve tried creating a project that might drive me. I’ve tried and I’ve failed and I’ve tried and I’ve failed and now I’m just tired.

So.

Productivity.

We Gotta Go, Gotta Get the Job Done

Here a few things at which I’ve failed.

I failed the 43 Folders method. I failed because my tasks don’t always line up into single-day voyages. They are multi-faceted, and they depend on other people for feedback, and they float here and there, dependent upon priority. And after a few weeks of shifting papers around, I realized 43 Folders wasn’t going to work.

I failed at Getting Things Done, because (though I love the Omnifocus system as an over-complicated reminder system) the time spent trying to break down large projects into smaller tasks was better spent adjusting on the fly when the process needed some on-the-fly adjusting.

I failed at Pomodoro, because Pomodoro is not conducive to an open floor plan. It’s also not conducive to a home with curious children, or a coffee shop with a few too many distractions, or any type of work that requires a chunk longer than 20 minutes.

I fail at most productivity methods because my mind, while well versed in overanalyzing and over-categorizing, is not set correctly for rigidity.

This is my struggle. All I want in life is for things to line up correctly, and I realize they never will. I seek what I may never have.

And so I was obsessed with productivity for a bit. And so I tried everything. And it never helped.

There’s A Million Things I Haven’t Done.

Here are the things I understand.

I understand that the concept of productivity is designed to help us make the most of our working hours so that those working hours don’t spill into our non-working hours; to use our time wisely when it’s wisest to use it, and to leave no strings attached when it’s time to let go.

I understand that most productivity models are focused on tasks, with break times in between. They focus the mind during certain points, and allow for space in between our beats – they introduce white space, and they create fertile thinking.

I also understand that most productivity methods are designed for very specific jobs. For careers that allow total immersion, that can Pomodoro their way toward a better solution. Follow my plan toward glowing health. Debbie Drake your way to a new future.

It’s that last paragraph that allowed me to exhale. Because I’ve read a Debbie Drake book, and it’s not really that helpful, to be quite honest.

In understanding the rigidity of most productivity models – models created by specific people in specific jobs and adopted by well-intentioned industries as a solution for their very similar jobs – I finally understood the quandary of modern productivity: that the methods that get named and praised and raised on high … they don’t really account for, you know…

…differences.

Funny, that. Seems a common thread among widely-adopted systems these days.

You. Me. We all work differently. And bouncing from method to method is akin to trying a new fad diet, or exercise routine. The best one might be out there, but in the process we begin to forget what makes us unique. What helps our minds work. Instead, we just try to fit.

I Am Inimitable, I Am An Original.

Stephen King has a solid method. It works for him.

But the entire time I read his book, I questioned him. Every chapter, I doubted him. Every sentence, I felt further from the truth. I needed one answer.

“What happens if I’m not you?”

Productivity? Good luck. My mind is a mess, as is the mind of most people I know, because minds are messy and so is our work and so is life.

I’m not worried about it anymore, because even though sometimes I stress and sometimes I give up and sometimes I wonder why the hell I can’t stop all of my bad habits, I still get the work done. I use my flaws to further my productivity. And it’s a weird magic.

And so I don’t worry about myself.

I don’t worry about myself, because I am myself, and there’s nothing I can do to change it. I work around it.

I’ve worked around myself for a lot of things. I will never be as perfect as a productivity model assumes. So I adapt. I create. In the way that I can. And it works for all of us, because it’s real.

It’s me.

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December 12th, 2015

I’ve spent the past year trying to write things that matter. But, early on, I found myself measuring whether or not something “matters” not simply by quality of content, but by length. Did I say enough? Am I going to get those ThinkPiece Hits™?

This post originally appeared December 5th, 2015, as part of The Pastry Box Project.

This month – my last month – there will be none of that. Because I only have a few simple things I’ve learned – and tried to adopt – over the past year.

  • Understand that your job is just a job, and you can love it, and that’s okay, and that’s really exciting, but it’s still just a job, so don’t forget to do things you love, too. Nothing groundbreaking there. Or so I thought, as I slowly began fretting more and more about the things I needed to accomplish to “be good enough.”
  • Related: stop comparing yourself to everyone else. Every time I think I’m going down the right path, I find someone who’s doing it better. What’s funny is that I also find people who are doing it just as well, but are happier because they’re doing it the way they want to.
  • Love your friends. I guess I never have trouble with this. But, still. Do it.
  • Ignore someone else’s platitudes. Like this post, for example. Because you are who you are and that’s really all there is. Some emo cheesy bullshit in a Pastry Box post isn’t going to tell you how to change your life. So ignore this post and do what you do.
  • Do what you do. JESUS I JUST SAID IT. WHY AREN’T YOU JUST DOING IT ALREADY?

Thanks, everyone. It’s been a weird Pastry Box year for me. But I’m thrilled to have been a part of the last one. Fist bumps.

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October 12th, 2015

1.

It took me a while to understand the concept of a minimum viable product.

I spent my summers with my grandfather, who taught me that nothing’s worth doing if you can’t do it right. Perfect. I learned discipline, and that discipline involved working until things were done.

This post originally appeared October 5th, 2015, as part of The Pastry Box Project.

Not until they were okay. Until things were done.

My grandfather was an army recruiter. He was a store owner. He cut his own firewood and stacked it perfectly. He fixed small engines.

He wasn’t obsessive – he understood that sometimes, things CAN’T be perfect. But the solution was easy: he simply didn’t bother with those things.

He didn’t know what a minimum viable product was. I’m not sure he’d ever understand it, either.

2.

I have promised everyone I know that I am going to start writing a book. But, to be perfectly honest, I don’t want to. I’m scared as hell.

I’m not worried about whether or not I have anything to say. I’m worried about whether or not I can say it all. That I’ll forget something. That it will go to print incomplete.

These are real fears, because I no longer live in a world where I have to worry about this. On the web, mistakes can be fixed. There is no print run; no proof sheets or air date. The web is rolled out a bit at a time. Mistakes aren’t remembered. They’re just fixed.

A book, though. Those mistakes are there until the next edition. If there is a next edition at all.

3.

My fields – content strategy and information architecture – can be approached from a hundred different angles. I approach it from the library science angle, because I identify with the completeness and organization of that angle.

Those of us who cherish the library sciences have difficulty with minimum viable product, because when you are organizing and cataloging books and files and content, you do so to completion. The idea that there are things on the edges can be maddening.

Which is why I had to teach myself, little by little, to accept close enough. And I suck at it.

But that’s the web.

4.

Minimum viable product can be learned. We all have things that we let slide for reasons of a faster launch. Despite my perfectionism with document design and kitchen cleanliness, I fail miserably with self-editing. I want every thought to be correct, but I can’t be bothered to make sure the words are spelled correctly.

It’s a twisted way of writing, and it comes from the pull of perfection: I know, as a writer, that I will sit on something until it has withered away, so I force myself to post fast and loose.

It’s maddening to me. But, if I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t have anything to show for the hours I spend. This is one little thing I do to counteract perfectionism. It’s one small step toward minimum viable product.

5.

I’ve learned two things since working on the web.

First, sometimes, good enough is good enough.

Second, that first thing only makes sense if you understand there’s always room to go back and make good enough a little better.

I still suck at it. I hope I can change. I’m not sure I can. So I have to just fight for progress, learning a bit at a time what good enough really means.

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August 12th, 2015

1

“Right, when do I put the guitar on?”

There was no guitar. There was no part to play. There was only playback of a song – “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” a 26-minute long, nine-part opus celebrating a lost friend.

It was Pink Floyd’s tribute to Syd Barrett – an original founder, a drug-addled star, a mind lost at sea. Barrett was instrumental in Pink Floyd’s early sound – a weird mix of space psychedelic and Cambridge jazz. But over time, the drugs took hold. He became a liability on stage, and he couldn’t quite come back from the acid haze.

This post originally appeared August 5th, 2015, as part of The Pastry Box Project.

One day they simply decided he was too far gone. They didn’t pick him up for a show. They found a replacement. They said goodbye.

And seven years later, as they sat listening to a recording of what would become part of their iconic album Wish You Were Here, Syd Barrett suddenly was. Unannounced, overweight, balding. Only Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters recognized him.

Barrett was ready to play. He just didn’t realize the band had long passed him by.

2

There are industries that move slowly. The natural sciences are build on centuries of slow build, the slow and onerous crawl of evolution only allowing for so much new discovery. History doesn’t change, though our understanding of it becomes clearer. Water flows the same way and electricity rarely changes, so journeyman trades rarely have to scrap everything and learn again.

The web, however, stops for no one. In the past decade, every tool has changed. And while the concepts we champion are still as relevant as when A List Apart was still just that – a mailing list – the way we do things changes faster than we can keep up with.

This is not a sob story about how hard today’s web workers have it. We still sit in comfy chairs and clatter away at keyboards for a living; we still have the jobs our parents would have died to have, luckier than we may ever know. But we also have to understand that this is because we’re at the right moment in our lives to accept constant change.

Our web is one of shifting sands. Without the right balance, we’re bound to fall.

3

I wasn’t liked as a kid.

I should rephrase that, actually – I wasn’t noticed as a kid, which is all you need to know about my thirst for attention when karaoke night rolls around. I, like many of us who ended up falling into IRC and chat rooms as a kid, was simply unprepared to deal with the reality of relationships. I was afraid of being wrong.

I still am. Every word I write is an untapped grenade. I’m always waiting for one to explode in my face.

But despite this, I still love speaking. (Parts of it.) I still love going to conferences, and interacting with co-workers, and mingling and talking to smart people. I still think its amazing when someone remembers my name. Who me? Little ol’ Corey? Aw, shucks.

It’s this writing, though, that’s helped me push away from that kid that wasn’t noticed. I gain a little confidence every time. I’m cool with the public, y’all – married dad looking for acceptance, apply inside.

But not so much, you know. Because. Ugh. That shit’s still hard.

See, I thirst to be seen. But on my terms. Then I’m ready to sneak back into my shell. An introvert, I guess; a term that’s both overused and still crucially important as we peek from behind our computer screens and realize our generation forgot to take the opportunity to talk to real people.

I don’t want to be forgotten again. I want to be a part of something great, and I’m scared shitless that I won’t be. That things are moving away from me. That I somehow missed the memo that we’re all supposed to be doing that thing and holy what where are you going and why aren’t we talking about the stuff that I know about?

My fear isn’t of being noticed. This isn’t middle school. My fear now is of becoming irrelevant, like I’ve seen so many people do before me, ignorant or arrogant in the face of change. My concern isn’t that I’ll be passed over or forgotten – it’s that I’ll wake up and find out I could have done something to stay in the loop.

Fear of missing out, sure. More like a fear of losing ground.

4

Over the past five years, I have built a strong core of friends who, to be honest, I am afraid to talk to.

They are industry leaders. They are independent consultants. They are people who have their shit together.

And sometimes …

Well, sometimes, they don’t have their shit together. Sometimes, they have no idea what they’re doing. But they admit that.

They. Admit. That.

What kind of black magic does it take? Where does that strength come from, to not only constantly improve and feel at peace and chase after new opportunities and generally free yourself of the need to worry about being informed and accepted?

At what point does it feel like things are going to be easy? That the keynotes start rolling in and the projects become second nature? Where is my lake home, and where is my piece of mind?

Sometimes, I get the courage to ask.

Sometimes, I say it out loud. “I’m … I’m afraid I’m falling behind.”

Sometimes, I show my cards. I reveal my secrets. I use all of my cliches.

Every time, I get the same answer.

“You’re fine. None of us know what we’re doing. Things move too fast to ever get comfortable.”

And I feel better. For a little bit.

5

I don’t know if it comes from my childhood – those days when all I wanted to do was be a part of the pack, settling instead for an eight-bit broad sword and a bowl of macaroni and cheese at home.

I don’t know if it’s imposter syndrome – as overused a term as “introvert” but just as damning for a person’s self esteem.

I don’t know if I’m just lazy. Or if I’m looking in the wrong direction. Or if the constant need to be sure I’m doing things right – an over-reliance on methodology, the inability to decipher good advice from bad – is making me doubt my common sense and intuition.

Maybe, it’s just that we all suffer from some kind of doubt, and for some that doubt makes us work harder, and for others that doubt makes us look at things we never thought we’d consider.

There’s nothing wrong with being behind on something, as long as we can admit the gap and work to close it. It’s the basic structure around learning – we work to bridge the spaces in our knowledge, bringing things closer and building a stronger infrastructure.

There’s nothing wrong with falling behind. There’s not even really anything wrong with not noticing for a while. The fault lies in knowing exactly what’s wrong, and moving on as usual.

And that’s what I fear. That someday I’ll just give up. That I’ll wake up one morning and find out I no longer have a place. That I’ve unknowingly been passed by – that I was learning the wrong things, going in the wrong direction, betting on the wrong horse. And I won’t care.

I’ll be standing in a room, my old friends staring at me, wondering where I’ve been. No guitar in hand. Hoping to play the next solo.

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July 12th, 2015

Because writing is hard, and because thinking is hard, and because being on point all the time is hard, I sometimes have days where nothing gets done. Where I sit at my desk and spin my wheels for hours. Where I have to check the fridge every 20 minutes as if it was going to change. Where I no longer battle with the idea that I’m totally unqualified to do anything related to this industry – I know I’m unqualified.

This post originally appeared July 5th, 2015, as part of The Pastry Box Project.

At the end of these days, the drive home sucks. I wasted this day.

It’s this thought that gives me fuel – the shame of realizing that I could have just fought through it, that writer’s block and procrastination won the battle. My energy level increases and I look for small victories.

I clean the house. I do the dishes. I organize the bookshelf. I take care of things I’ve been letting go. I answer some smaller emails. I do something. And doing something helps.

I’ll never get the day back. I’ll never stop procrastination and writer’s block. But the small victories help, and I know that tomorrow will be better.

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June 12th, 2015

Iowa doesn’t seem like a big state until you’re 150 miles into it, on day two of a week-long bike ride. But it is. It’s long and hilly and hot. Sometimes it rains. Sometimes they run out of pork chops along the side of the road.

Sometimes you have to stop. And that’s where I was.

This post originally appeared June 5th, 2015, as part of The Pastry Box Project.

RAGBRAI – the Register’s Annual Great Big Race Across Iowa – was a kind of legend in our house growing up. My father had made it all the way across when I was just a kid, and though he never did it again it was still a point of pride. It was a dream to me – to take a week off work and family and life and just ride, 75-some miles a day, alone and in my thoughts beside my wife and tens of thousands of other like-minded people.

More than that, though, it was a dream to find myself at the finish. To hold up my bike after dunking it in the Mississippi. To conquer Iowa.

And I had all the confidence I could do it. Until we approached Emmetsburg.

My knee tweaked. I fought the pain and kept going, riding harder, pushing up hills, against the wind, trying to stay in line. And, finally, as I rode into town, our resting spot for the night, the pain became too much.

Five blocks from our camp, I got off my bike.

I could barely walk. My eyes were stinging from sunscreen. I limped along.

And then I cried. Because I wasn’t going to be riding the next day – if at all. The dream was done, and I wasn’t prepared for how much that would hurt.

Convincing Myself

Sometimes, I speak at conferences. And while my talks are about methodology, and making things smaller and more usable for resource-strapped teams, and empathy for co-workers and editors, I ultimately fall on a common topic: the myth of perfection.

I talk about how the web is an imperfect ball of twine, tangled and knotted and unable to be smoothed out. There are inconsistencies that can no longer be unraveled. We are all learning this as we go. Rah Rah Do Your Best.

I stand up in front of rooms of 20 and crowds of 300 and I talk about how we can’t be perfect, and people tweet things and they come up to me after and say how great it is that I’m talking about how imperfect we all are and how brave. And that’s awesome. Except.

Except, really, it’s not about them, is it?

Over the past five years, through dozens of talks and articles, from conversations with clients and co-workers, among friends, at bars, as we’re walking, I stress the importance of finding value in the lack of perfection. This is my soapbox. This is what I think I believe.

But I’m not trying to convince an audience of attendees or peers. I’m trying to convince myself.

The Myth

I know there are people out there who understand that perfection is a myth. Hell, I understand perfection is a myth. But I’ll be damned if I ever remember that when I’m staring down a deadline, tweaking and primping some unnecessary details, my head filling with doubt, my gut twisting like it’s spent too much time in the Gravitron.

I understand, but I rarely believe. I’m there, every time. Trying to make things perfect.

That’s what we’re taught. That perfection is accessible, that giving 110% percent is a goal. The urge to “try our best” is, by definition, reaching out for perfection – doing our best to make something perfect. Something flawless.

That’s a great thing to be able to do. That’s why we try to maximize our productivity, and that’s why we learn new things, and improve our methods, and practice practice practice.

It’s not that we shouldn’t try to be perfect – to make things as good as they can get. It’s just that we have to redefine what perfect means. To understand that being perfect doesn’t mean overanalyzing everything. That being perfect is a point in the distance that we drive toward, a black tower that guides our path.

Perfect’s a good goal, as long as we understand we’ll never make it there. You can still win the pennant even without a perfect game.

I Used To…

And with that, I can look back at all of my failures and realize what really happened.

I used to be a photographer. I used to be a teacher. I used to read and I used to write a lot more.

I used to be patient. I used to understand.

I used to be a lot of things, and I had reasons for letting off. I saw people who had done it better, or I had recognized my own inconsistencies. I gave the fuck up. I just figured if I’m not going all out – if I’m not impressing people – then what’s the point in trying.

And that’s too bad. I sought perfection in places where I’d never find it – not with my limited attention, not with my personal quirks.

But I’m getting there. I’m getting confident enough to try again. I’m just doing. I’m not worrying whether things will work out. I’m just doing the work, understanding it doesn’t need to be perfect. I’m just doing things. And I’m just doing it for me.

Finishing Over Completion

The end is the end, no matter how many miles you rode in the middle. You get to the Mississippi, and you dip your tire in. RAGBRAI is over. You made it.

For a split second, I thought I had. And then I remembered day three. Who was I to claim this feeling? Who was I to say I rode RAGBRAI?

It wasn’t until the drive back – seven of us in the back of a camper, drinking Coors Light, our bikes wedged into the front and our sunburned legs wedged into the back – that I understood what RAGBRAI was. Not the start and finish. Not the miles, or the hills. It was the people. The community.

In the back, we had four people who had ridden every mile – sometimes more. We had two who had taken a day off to rest. We had one who had only ridden three of the seven days. But together in that camper, as things got dark and we retreated back west, erasing every mile, we were all riders.

Perfection be damned. There’s always future rides. At that moment, we were all together as finishers, even if we hadn’t completed it.

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May 12th, 2015

Everybody seems to wonder
What it’s like down here
I gotta get away from this day-to-day running around
Everybody knows this is nowhere.

— Neil Young, “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere”

The lights can be blinding when you wander into focus. When everyone starts looking at you; when you have become the subject of everyone’s sentence. There’s a pause, and in that pause there’s a choice. You let this bother you. Or you don’t.

This post originally appeared May 5th, 2015, as part of The Pastry Box Project.

Sometimes the choice is easy. You just do it. You have nothing to lose. The stakes are not high enough.

Yet, sometimes…

You do what you do. You entertain, you teach, you present, you learn. You are at the head of a conference table explaining your decisions. You are on stage in front of 200 people. You are in a discovery meeting justifying your position.

As you walk off stage, you have an idea of how it went. It went perfectly. It went horribly. It just went.

And then you look at the feedback.

The One Side

The first time I spoke at a conference, I nailed it. This is not bragging – I honestly had no idea my talk would go over as well as it did. But it did. And as I wandered amongst friends and conference attendees and other speakers at the conference party, I felt everything wash away. I had looked the beast in the eyes, and I had slayed it.

I can do this, I thought. Though, there shouldn’t have ever been any doubt. I am a trained teacher with a degree in secondary biology education. I had handled worse crowds as a fresh substitute, filling in for advanced-level high school Biology II classes, trying to reign the wandering minds of students that were only five years younger than I was.

Seriously. What the hell could a conference crowd do that an 18-year-old with senioritis couldn’t?

And Then the Other

And then, last week, I gave the talk of my life. I had worked and fretted and made myself insane over this talk. I took to heart all of the feedback I had ever received: make sure you give the crowd something they can act on. Be funny. Give a little bit of your own personality. Practice. Do it. Be it.

I nailed it. Again.

And then I looked at the feedback. It wasn’t pretty.

I remembered back to the first time I ever led a discovery meeting, where my lack of experience had been exposed and I felt like a complete fraud. I went into the meeting with the idea that I could do this – that this was going to be a fantastic meeting – and left wondering what had happened.

When pressed, I had no answers. When prodded, I shuddered and hoped it would somehow go away.

Years later, I understand that the key to thinking on your toes is to assume you know more than everyone else. But that’s not my style. A fair number of us don’t think that way. It’s not introversion – the great over-diagnosed condition of the web era. It’s just that we hedge our bets and we assume that there’s always something more to learn. We aren’t wired to be forceful and confident.

But sometimes that’s what we need. We need to pretend we are forceful and confident. We need to play that part, like going against type in a community theater play. We need to stop assuming we’re Seymour and start playing the part of the Audrey II.

Ignore or Push Forward

When I walk into the lights, I want to be perfect.

I want to be Don Draper. I want to be Ginger Rodgers. I want to be every character in the Ocean’s movies.

But.

I can’t be perfect, and you can’t be perfect, and no one can be perfect, because this shit isn’t scripted and despite the fact that we try really really hard we’ll never be perfect. Every time we step on stage, we’re less than perfect. Every time.

Every time. We fail, because we want to be mistake-free, and we forget that mistakes are what make us normal. Relatable. Human.

And we could feel horrible about that. Or, we could stop worrying and just try to be good. Because we are good. It’s just that sometimes we freeze up under pressure. That’s what pressure does. That’s what humans do.

So I can’t be perfect. I just need to be good. And make an impact. Even if that impact doesn’t fit into the Hollywood storyline.

That Moment

I got bad reviews – at least the ones I snuck a look at before shutting it down and ignoring the rest. I was completely and utterly shattered for two days. Why do I do this? If this talk sucks – a talk I gave specifically to a set of people that I thought would understand it, a talk that I thought had gone as well as any talk I had ever given – then what do I do?

Do I scrap it? Do I give up? Do I spend the next 21 days fixing it before I give it again, not knowing if anything I’m doing is going to actually help?

Or do I reframe the question?

Because the opinions of that vocal minority – the 8% of people who had responded – shouldn’t really dictate my feelings. They should not determine whether or not my performance and message were worth it to the rest of the group. I can allow them to represent a small portion, but I’ll never know how everyone thought.

So I had a choice. I could trust my gut, or I could pay attention to a few people who gave me a bad score.

And, after a few days, it was easy.

I was going to trust my gut. Because regardless of the platitudes and positive feedback and negative vibes, my gut doesn’t feed me any bullshit. It just tells me when I think I’m doing okay.

And, to be honest, that’s about as confident a cheerleader I’ll ever need.

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