Breakfast

I woke up in the little hotel in Zhongdian, looked out the window, and saw the crisp lines of powder-white mountains. It was like being in a treehouse at the top of a tree at the top of the world, in every respect. Even the stairs leading up to the third floor, narrow and steep, invoked a rope ladder. In English, they call the place Shangri-La.

The hotel was rectangular and open in the middle, with a window to the sky shining fresh sunshine onto each level. There, the sun felt harmless, like a close friend. It was so cold you could see your breath. When the shops opened later that day, I would buy a scarf like a thick blanket, red-white-blue and so thick it fatigued my neck and shoulders just to hold it up. I put on every layer of clothing I had and waited for the group to assemble, mostly tourists from Australia and New Zealand, there for a bicycle tour led by our British guide William.

When we were finally together, William led us down the hill and around a corner or two to a tiny shop. The kitchen was near the street. A stack of round, shallow drums stood over a pot of boiling water, steam rising off the top. We sat down inside on tiny chairs around a tiny table. A small Chinese woman with Tibetan features, wrapped in gloves and scarf, brought us bowls of soup with heat peeling off the surface in opaque white curls. 

It was cold, but not unpleasant. The clear edge of the air made every line stand out and every sensation visceral. I dumped la jiao, a thick chili paste, into my bowl, waiting for the heat to pull it apart from itself. The spiciness brought my head to life. Soon, the woman began to deliver us drums from the front of the shop. Inside were steamed buns, chewy and full of soft meats. We ate as many as we could, slowly getting to know one another. 

I have had many memorable breakfasts in my life – thick Tibetan pancakes packed with scallions, warm fermented Cambodian soups, sprawling New York brunches – but my everyday waking choices are hardly even afterthoughts. I fry an egg or two, perhaps with some sausage, or I slice fresh fruit into a bowl of yogurt and squirt honey onto it from a plastic bottle. Anything healthier and more thoughtful than a scone added on to a to-go coffee and choked down in small crumbles on the bus feels like an accomplishment. 

But as I reflect this morning on that glorious breakfast in Shangri-La, it seems to me that each day deserves more. Waking up to life is such a gift. Waking to life, my own kitchen, and a refrigerator full of food seems even more fortunate. If the way we begin life each day sets the tone for what is to come, then perhaps the breakfast ritual deserves better. More attention. More sharing. More love. 

Codification

Tonight I went on a meditation walk through the Washington Arboretum. The idea was to be silent, even to myself. I noticed an overwhelming urge to name things. I saw a squirrel run up a branch and immediately named it: "Squirrel." Then I named the action. "Running. Scampering. Squirreling." I wanted immediately to assign that observation a code. 

Language has always given me delight. I think that's true for many of us. As children, one of the first things we do is ask what everything is called. In the Christian Bible, naming is the first task God gives to Adam. There is a profound delight in knowing what a thing is called, and sharing that name with others so you can talk about it with them. As an adult, I experience this delight in many ways: Learning foreign languages. Developing fresh descriptions for things that are hard to define. Reading a great article can feel like an epiphany:  "I felt the exact same way! I just didn't know how to put it into words." On the occasion I can write a piece that makes me feel like that, the resonance is even more profound.

Yet not everything has a name, and sometimes codification defeats its own purpose. Language has a way of flattening things. Perhaps what I saw was not a squirrel. Perhaps it was doing something that isn't fully captured by the words above. Perhaps its nature and its movements are deeper and richer than what I can give name to.

This happens a lot in my work. I spot an activity, then notice it is part of a trend, but of what, I cannot precisely say. If I only allow my brain to hold on to that which has a name, I lose the ability to observe. If my brain is busy searching for the code, it is unable to listen to its senses – the perception that allows it to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel what is happening. Essentially, by forcing myself into the confines of language, I limit what I am able to perceive. I reduce the world to that which has already been named.

For me, this little encounter with the squirrel was a beautiful reminder. As satisfying as it can be to codify something, sometimes, it's better just to observe. What I perceive to be happening may not be the thing I have the closest name for. It may be something much richer and more nuanced than that. By letting go of language, we let go of unnecessary limitations. We give reality space to breathe. 

Five Steps to Authentic Storytelling

Tonight, I am fortunate to be giving a talk for the 25th round ever of Ignite Seattle. I am excited, but I am also a little nervous. In all my years of public speaking, speech writing, and even speech coaching, I have never before given a public talk about something as deeply personal as what I am about to share tonight. 

For this reason, I wanted to remind myself of the best storytelling tips I have ever received, in the hope that they will keep me grounded on stage. I figured, why not share them, in case someone else out there finds herself in the same position?

1. Keep it simple. Life is messy and complicated. Every story has infinite potential subplots and interpretations. If you want to keep the audience's attention, keep the storyline straightforward and resist the urge to add words that don't serve that central story. As a friend of mine reminded me before this talk, "You only have room for one 'twist.'" 

2. Don't overthink your message. Usually, when I am helping someone prepare a talk or even a piece of writing, I first sit down and ask them some questions so that I can hear their gut responses. These first reactions tend to be the most authentic. It is so easy for us to get caught up in thinking about what we should say or what we assume the audience wants to hear, rather than just sticking with what is true for us. The result is usually some hybrid monster that feels like no one authored it. 

3. Watch your metaphors. I love metaphors. I like to think in images and can make pretty word pictures around just about anything. The problem? Metaphors can be a trap. I start trying to make the story fit the metaphor rather than the other way around. (This happened to me with tonight's talk, by the way.) The solution? Tell your story first and find the metaphor last–or, if you're already stuck in the metaphor, just let it go. Far better to tell the truth than to have an excellent metaphor.

4. Channel confidence. During my practice session, I was still pretty unsure of how I was going to make it work. I Tim Gunn'd it and just got up there and delivered the best thing I could. Even though there were some missing pieces (namely, that mismatched metaphor), authenticity allowed me to connect with the small audience anyway. As a bonus, that confident self has a far easier time being authentic and vulnerable than the one that is apologizing for her failures!

5. Even if it sucks, share it anyway. However imperfect this talk may turn out to be be, I am still grateful for the opportunity to share my story and hopefully connect with new people. In the process of preparing it, I have had to revisit personal weaknesses I thought I had conquered, confront narratives I had been holding onto though I no longer believe them to be true, and accept that I am not perfect even at this thing I used to get paid to do! There is simply no other way to learn than to get out there and give it a try. 

And with that, I'm off to Ignite! 

UPDATE: Everything worked out just fine! Check out the talk below: 

It's All in the Frame

I've been in some interesting conversations this week over the conflict in Gaza, especially surrounding a single question:

What is the maximum possible difference between what we say and what we do?

In other words, can you dehumanize a group of people verbally and still treat them humanely in practice? Some very intelligent friends of mine say yes. I could not disagree more. 

This is not the first time this argument has been deployed in defense of indefensible statements by politicians. "He's just playing to the base," for example, is a common excuse for using radical rhetoric with private audiences. Fair enough--we all use speech and other forms of language to explore the truth and try on new ideas, and it is not fair to hold people accountable for every thing they have ever said. 

But there is an undeniable link between what we say and who we become, and it goes a level deeper than just the social and political obligations we create when we declare ourselves on one side or another of an argument. The language we use constrains our very thinking.

Examples of this abound, not only in conflict studies or politics or public relations but in virtually every aspect of our lives. Take, for example, this article someone sent me to today based on a study led by the University of Toronto, which concluded that calling a partner your "soul mate" can actually destroy your relationship: 

The idea [with Lee’s study] is that if we are soul mates, then nothing will go wrong in our relationship, and it will be easy. A conflict makes a destiny-believer question whether the current partner is actually their soul mate, and then they give up on working it out,” Lee told New York magazine.

In other words, if you believe that conflict with your partner is a natural part of life's journey together, your odds of working it out are really high. On the other hand, if you use the language of destiny, such as "soul mate," you are actually less capable of seeing solutions.

As usual, science backs up what we already know: The language we use impacts how we think, and the way we think flows directly into what we do. We use words to name, define, and make concrete all the things in our world that would otherwise be impossible not just to communicate, but to understand. The way we frame problems--as inevitable or unnecessary, as static or as dynamic, as too big to tackle or as a series of surmountable obstacles--is directly linked to our ability to solve them. 

That's why I refuse to describe myself as either a strategist or a communicator, though I do both kinds of work. Communications is strategy, and vice versa. What we say becomes what we believe, and what we believe becomes what we do. 

Which takes us back to Gaza and the language of so-called "intractable" conflicts. Where people stop speaking of others as people, you can be sure the process of dehumanization has begun. Where hope of a solution has been lost, you can be sure no solution will be found. When parties believe that conflict is Biblically foretold and therefore inevitable, they curse it.  Yet the reverse is also true, and just as powerful: When we believe that we have it within ourselves and others to overcome conflict, we begin to see possibilities for peace.

Believing a solution is possible is not the same thing as finding one. But it is certainly the only place to start. 

What Now?

It's amazing how much anxiety those four simple words can cause. I was talking this weekend with someone who just got fired. She spent the first ten years of her career with the same company and was so dedicated to its success that it had become her entire identity. It's where her friends know how to find her. It's where she bought all her clothes. She'd moved through four states following jobs up the management chain. And now, suddenly, all that is gone.

Read More

Dealing with Rejection

Don't tell me to stop
Tell the rain not to drop
Tell the wind not to blow
Cause you said so.
Madonna, "Don't Tell Me"

 

Everybody's a critic. It's much easier to point out what's wrong with something than to create the thing to begin with. Reviewers, from grants committees to hiring managers to publishers, get used to being in a position of extraordinary privilege. Their personal opinion determines whether others' labors of love become reality. 

As someone who has been on both sides of that interaction, I'm here to remind you of one simple truth: The critics are always wrong. 

Earlier today, Distractify published an inspiring set of rejections given to some of the most successful creators of our time. Madonna "wasn't ready yet." TIm Burton's work was "derivative." Walt Disney "lacked imagination and had no good ideas." Thankfully, none of these visionaries let rejection stop them. 

I know how difficult it is to get negative feedback and move on. I need at least three hands to count the number of projects I started to work on with passion and then let go of the moment someone criticized me. The more I respected that person, the quicker I collapsed.

In the past year, I have watched at least four projects that were eerily similar to the ones I started achieve success. This tells me something: While my execution may not yet have been strong enough, there was nothing wrong with the idea. Had I kept going, that success could very well have been mine. But I removed that possibility, because I didn't see those projects through. I let other people convince me to give up. 

That doesn't mean that those of us who encounter failure are misunderstood geniuses who have the right to be upset with the world for not embracing our ideas. It simply means one of these three things applies:

  1. You haven't yet found the right audience. Even the greatest works of history have their naysayers. I guarantee you there is somebody out there who will love what you are doing, but it's up to you to find them, not the other way around. 
  2. Your work isn't quite there yet. Not fun to hear, is it? But the operative word is "yet": You simply haven't made it to the finished project. You get there only by exposing your draft versions to people and having the confidence to keep going when the feedback isn't great. (I mean, look at what this team went through on their way to Oculus Rift.)
  3. They can't see what you see. When something exists only in your imagination, you can't expect support. Funders, employers, publishers, and people in general are pretty risk-averse. Until you prove that your work is innovative/profitable/popular, most people will not get behind you.

Now, discrimination is a real thing. Plenty of great people are ignored because they don't fit pre-established criteria. I am not saying that this is fair. It isn't. But it's changed only when you keep pursuing your dreams. There is always someone out there who will look past your race, gender, or economic status when you give them the chance to do so.

So, if you are having trouble with the job search, or your proposal keeps getting rejected, or your friends and family think your art is weird, keep going. Ignore the voices that tell you to move in a direction that's inconsistent with your passions, or to give up because you don't fit the profile. Find editors and advisors who move beyond criticism to help you reach your goal. Surround yourself with people who have your back, even when no one can see what's in front of you. 

Then channel your inner Madonna and press on. 

***

Recently, I've helped authors prepare their work for publication in Foreign Policy, Huffington Post, and other national publications. If you're looking for the kind of editor who will help you overcome rejection on your own terms, you can contact me here

Editing as a Conversation

This morning, I got an email from a friend of mine who's just been through the painful process of publishing an article with a well-known international journal. The final product, the editor's version, had several inaccuracies that now embarrass her. She described the process as pure hell: "I never want to write again." 

My heart sank. This woman is an expert on a serious global problem that only a handful of people on the planet understand well, even those whose full-time job is to solve it. Yet the process of publishing an article with an aggressive editor was so demoralizing that she feels discouraged from ever trying again. 

How many people out there with stories to tell get so frustrated with the process that they just give up? [...]

Read More

The Art of Writing Performance Evaluations

Last week, I wrote about the science of writing performance evaluations. The message is simple--no matter who you work for, the evaluation is just qualitative data that decision-makers use to determine your pay and promotion. Your job is to communicate that data in the most effective way possible. The science is in figuring out what you really need to say. It's important enough that I built out a workbook to help my clients make that happen.

But there's a part of this process that no matrix can address-- [...]

Read More

The Science of Writing Performance Evaluations

It's that time of year again. My former colleagues in the U.S. Foreign Service all dread the approach of April, when the twin evils of taxes and performance evaluations come together. Everything they have accomplished must be described, rated, and reviewed in a written document that addresses 6 "precepts" and 31 specific skills, which will be used as the primary basis for determining promotion. Officers are told that they should appear to walk on water, so they begin to write in inflated, nonspecific language. It's a nightmare.

There are dozens of webinars and seminars and cables and emails and secret pdf's offering pages upon pages of advice. All of it comes down to this: [...]

Read More