Monday, September 30, 2013

What happened at Dare

Last week I witnessed something special. I don't even know how to describe it. It was Jonathan Kahn's labor of love, the inaugural Dare Conference. A group of around 150 people (I should note I'm really bad at quantifying things, so don't take my word on that number) came together to talk about how to be better workers, better coworkers, better humans.

It was hard work—not just for the organizers and speakers, but for attendees as well.

I sat in my chair and watched speaker after speaker open themselves up. They shared fears and failures and struggles, and they revealed their fragile humanity. Some of them were friends. Some were strangers. Some were speakers I've admired for years. And there they were, examining themselves and asking us to do the same.

To see these strong, brilliant people standing alone and exposed was tough. I wanted to rush to them and comfort them. I wanted to take away their vulnerability. I wanted to fix and soothe and say it will be okay.

Of course, that wasn't the point. The point was that we are all facing enormous challenges, and just knowing that, being willing to be okay with our imperfections, is the path to compassion and better working relationships.

I'm still working to get my head around that—the cognitive dissonance between what I logically know to be true and what I actually feel, which is an overwhelming urge to flee and hide my own failures and flaws.

But what I particularly loved about Dare was that it combined personal, vulnerable stories with some really practical tips for managing yourself and your relationships.

I learned about identity contingencies and body language and psychologists' tricks for overcoming fears. We were given tools to map organizational culture and tips for better project management.

In the most excellent improvisation workshop, we got to role-play scenes from participants' real-life work struggles. It was incredible to see the effect minor changes had on the outcome of conversations. Rather than meekly looking away when you deliver bad news (as if to agree, "Yes, this conversation is hard"), maintain eye contact and a relaxed posture, and suddenly everyone is comfortable and happy.

So even though the conference left me overwhelmed by the mountain of work ahead of me, it also gave me some great new tools to help me do it.

I feel grateful to have been a part of something as special as Dare. I'm proud to know so many wonderful people who took great risks to bring this conference to fruition—by dreaming it up, by doing the work, by sharing their stories, by showing up—and I can't wait to see what comes next.

Many thanks to Jonathan and his team for bringing this to us.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

An assortment of thoughts about Twitter and intimacy


What we do online is real to the people who care about us.

We live a lot of our lives online. We have conversations, flirtations, and even whole relationships online, and much of it is done in plain sight.  We’re exhibitionists.

We’re also voyeurs. We watch each other and speculate about conversations and goings on that float through our feeds. We seek emotional cues from and try to assess where we stand in the lives of those we care about, be they friend, crush, or colleague.

And though we accept the exhibitionism, we scoff at the voyeurism. It’s something we’ve decided should be shameful. “Creeping,” “lurking,” and “stalking” are the verbs we use for the audience half of our performer-audience activities.

When something posted online causes a reaction, we say, “It’s just Twitter,” or, “It’s just Facebook,” as if the medium is reason enough to dismiss the message and its accompanying response.

Our friend confides, “I know I shouldn’t care, but...” But he unfriended you, and it really fucking hurts. Why shouldn’t you care about that?

It hurts to see you’re not invited to the party. It hurts to see your love flirting with others. It hurts to see a peer get your dream job.

Our online lives are realities—sometimes the only realities people can see. By shaming voyeurism, we’re distancing ourselves from the emotional consequences our online activities have on others. We’re shirking responsibility.


When we live so much of our lives online, are we creating barriers to intimacy?

Of course, we’re putting a layer of technology between us and other people. More than that, we’re throwing bits of ourselves out to the world, casting a wide net of charm and flirtation. Within the context of an established long-term relationship, this may be fine and healthy. But what about those of us seeking to establish intimacy? The gap between “getting to know” and “intimate” seems to be widening, and it’s getting increasingly difficult to bridge.

We carry fragile egos, so we simultaneously look for signs that we matter to others while also being careful not to give too much away.

Voyeur brain scans their feed for something—anything—that will indicate they’re thinking about us as much as we’re thinking about them. Seeing nothing, our exhibitionist brain is careful to only post things that clearly communicate we are happy, complete, and successful individuals who couldn’t possibly care about the amazing date we had last night, which is so totally unimportant it won’t be mentioned or alluded to in any way whatsoever while we’re busy demonstrating our desirability by ostentatiously flirting with this guy over here.

We affect cool so we won’t appear overzealous and leave ourselves vulnerable for rejection. It’s a classic losing scenario, amplified by 1,000 thanks to the very public nature of social media.


It’s hard to trust a persona.

Twitter, for me, is a playground. I exorcise demons and exercise hyperbole. I’m liberal with emotions, and I’m flexible with fact. I firehose affection to anyone and everyone—sometimes genuine, sometimes ironic. I tweet exactly what I’m feeling, and I tweet the opposite of what I’m feeling. I tweet jokes. I tweet ideas. I tweet nonsensical babblings. I tweet anything and everything, and I don’t really give much thought to a “personal brand.”

Twitter is performance art. I play a persona, and it’s sort of a shattered-mirror reflection of who I really am. The trouble is (and the beauty is) that I successfully confound people and make it difficult for them to know where I stand or where they stand with me.

For an artist, to see evidence that what you’re doing has any effect on people is a thrill. But for a human, it’s lonely to be misunderstood and difficult to trust. 


What needs to change?

Intimacy in the age of social media requires commitment. If you want to get someone across the bridge from casual partner to lasting love, you have to be willing to sacrifice and be vulnerable. You have to become trustworthy in order to be trusted.

For me, that likely means a dramatic shift in my Twitter behaviors, sacrificing a large portion of what I’ve come to consider my art. For most, it probably just means heightened conscientiousness, putting yourself under the intense scrutiny of someone who’s trying to win your affection.

If we can admit that people are watching us, that what we do affects them, and that real intimacy requires vulnerability and trust—and if we’re willing to change based on that knowledge—we may just have a shot at intimacy, after all.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Beauty as a Moral Imperative

In the past week, I have been stuck on the idea of beauty as a moral imperative—that intentionally injecting and fostering of beauty might be key to living a generous, good life.

What is beauty?
Beauty is both universal and personal. It is immediately recognizable. It is a moment of sublimity, of divinity. The sense that you are experiencing something rare and substantial.

Universally, beauty is the symmetry of a face, the colors of a sunset, the petals of a rose, the chords of a song. There are certain things humans have celebrated across time and geography. Although I make no attempt to explain the phenomenon or identify the common threads, it seems clear that some beauty is universal, undeniable.

On a personal level, beauty varies. For some, it may be in the freckles of a spouse. For others, it lies in a sea of smokestacks. Regardless of the trigger, our experience of beauty shares some key characteristics. It is a physiological reaction—the figurative swelling of the heart, the stopping of breath, the welling of tears. However brief, it is a moment of pure, unadulterated peace.

We experience beauty in nature, in art, and in our daily interactions.

What is art?
Art is, perhaps, in the intentional interjection of beauty into our lives. Its goal is to transcend, to touch the sublime. It also strives to capture a bit of humanity. A friend recently described art to me as “pure humanity committed to a medium.”

Art is often grand and remarkable, but sometimes it is small and subtle. It’s a tiny gift placed lovingly into the pages of your daily life. It's the meticulously wrapped birthday gift or the fresh flowers on the cafe table.

Last week at Confab, content strategists from around the world gathered to discuss the state of the web. I was struck by how frequently the success examples, the case studies for doing content right, included pure art as a major element of their appeal.

For instance, one website sells trinkets on eBay. They buy thrift-store figurines and hire authors to craft a backstory about the trinkets’ origins. The seller then lists items with their accompanying stories for an enormous profit.

Although art is not about selling, people are willing to pay for art. We crave it. We seek something that exists only for the sake of adding beauty to our lives. We are hungry for acknowledgement and celebration of our humanity.

Why do art and beauty matter?
If art is humanity, and art is beautiful, then it stands to reason that humanity is beautiful—that sharing our humanity is a way to add beauty to the world.

In a recent New York Times article, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer proposes that technology has increased barriers between us and other humans. Through the guise of connection, we are actually increasingly separated from those around us.

"I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts."

The more we feel disconnected from the humans around us, the more pronounced our craving for humanity becomes.

Think about the last time someone shared an emotion with you, something personal and real. Did it feel special and rare? Did it momentarily transport you from your task-based existence into a special place, occupied only by you and this other person? Was it something you appreciated? Did you feel a swelling of your heart?

When we share a bit of our humanity, we add beauty to the world. We provide for another that glimmer of recognition, that briefly transcendent moment, that breath-catching thrill of beauty. 

We are starved, yet we each carry a buffet of humanity within ourselves. If we are surrounded by starving people, is it not our duty to share our bounty?

The moral imperative
My proposal is that the intentional injection of beauty into life—through art, vulnerable exposure of our humanity, and the creation of environments in which beautiful moments can bloom—is a gift and could be used as a moral compass.

Maybe rather than asking, "What is good? What is right?" in any given situation, we instead look toward, "What is most beautiful?"

When you are walking with someone and the light in the sky stops you short, when you're both standing in awe at the enormity of nature before you and you're overcome with the desire to throw your arms around this person and kiss them on the cheek, maybe this time you do. Maybe that's the most beautiful thing you can do. Even if you've never done that before. Even if it's outside the normal bounds of your relationship. Even if you're afraid.

If you direct your actions toward the creation of beautiful moments, you may also create lasting memories. You may strengthen relationships. You may lift others, if only for the briefest seconds, closer to the divine.

By cultivating beauty, we can elevate others and increase the overall amount of good in the world. Maybe that's all we can ever hope to do.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Shame, Loss, and Moving Forward

This has not been a great year for me. In January, I began a new job. In February, I left my husband. In June, I was laid off.

Following that, I swan-dived. I spent my summer and fall in a fog, making a series of unfortunate decisions that have left me feeling quite raw with regret.

I'm not here to justify or explain myself. I lost the two most important things in my life and made predictable, if not cringe-inducingly cliché, attempts to soothe my pain. Many of the mistakes were made with full awareness of the decisions I "should" have been making instead. But the problem with "should" is that it rarely carries as much significance in critical decision moments as fear, emotion, and need for belonging.

So, I sought salves. Hustle. People. Gossip. Alcohol. The perpetual appearance of fun, fun, fun. I'll show them I'm fine. Look how much fun I'm having! See, I'm totally great. 

Surely, no one was fooled. Not even I.

We've all watched people go through it. There's a reason it's a pattern; there's a reason cliché becomes cliché. Somehow this prescribed path forces itself upon you, welcome or not. This time it was simply my turn to make the mistakes, to play the part, to subject myself to shaking heads and clucking tongues.

Fortunately, the fog has lifted, and I'm ready to move forward. Unfortunately, the memory of my mistakes feels like a big, fat whale of shame, dumped squarely on my path forward. I have to find a way over, around, or through--unless I want to run far, far away in some wild, unforeseen direction. 

Frankly, my instinct has been to flee.

Instead, I'm writing this post. I'm telling my story as a confession of sorts, an admission of what's been wrong and a commitment to fix it. I'm hoping to shrink the whale by wrapping it in words (a notion about shame lifted from Brené Brown's Daring Greatly, which I just read and strongly recommend). 

I'm lucky to belong to several communities of supportive people who consistently celebrate the humanity of their members. I know I can count on them for compassion and understanding as I stumble my way back into the fold. And in return, I am committed to bringing my best positive contributions, to getting back in the arena and fighting, and to exploring and playing as we all march onward together.

With that, there's nothing left to do but get to work.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Give yourself

"Enthusiasm is the best protection in any situation. Wholeheartedness is contagious. Give yourself, if you wish to get others." 
- Dr. David Seabury

I stumbled across this quote in high school, and it has stuck with me ever since. I've often thought of it in moments of fear and uncertainty. As a person who tends to retreat when I'm nervous, I've had to actively cultivate the habit of enthusiasm, of wholeheartedness. I force myself to engage as fully as possible--to get on board, really on board--to shed aloofness. This is hard, and I don't always succeed. But when I do, I see tremendous results. People latch onto positive energy. 

For more than a decade, I've focused my attention primarily on those first two sentences, taking the third as a natural extension, a rhetorically pleasing add-on. I thought it was about giving up your dignity, being willing to be the first to make a fool of yourself so others can follow suit. 

Over the past few months, my understanding of this concept has morphed. Give yourself. It sounds so simple, but I believe it is a deeply nuanced art. 

It's a combination of honesty and empathy, servitude and dependence, openness and closure. To give yourself means to give the best parts of yourself, freely, and to allow others to see the rest, slowly. It means being genuine, being honest, and being engaged. But it also means protecting yourself and others, preserving the sanctity of your best self and your relationships. 

Honesty and empathy
Although I'm reluctant to position these two qualities as opposed, there is an extraordinarily complex relationship between them, often pitting them at odds. Honesty is rarely as simple as it sounds; the world is filled with more smudgy gray areas than clean, black-and-white facts. We deal in degrees of honesty all the time, from simply not commenting on a fashion choice we find distasteful to shielding a friend from the knowledge her spouse is unfaithful. To what degree each choice is right depends entirely on the relationships and circumstances involved, and it's measured in empathy.

I've read the arguments that suggest complete honesty is always the best approach, and I disagree. I believe we should always strive to be as honest as possible within the bounds of compassion. Have the bravery to deliver difficult messages where needed, but also have the strength to conceal unnecessary pain. 

We're inundated with opportunities to be both honest and empathetic, to walk the strange, curvy lines, to slice through the nuances on others' behalf. This constant navigation is a form of giving yourself. It takes a lot of energy to find the balance. 

Many choose to hide in a state of constant flattery, fake smiles, put-on demeanors instead. They "wear the mask that grins and lies" because it's easy, expected, accepted. But to really give yourself, you need to go deeper than that.

Servitude and dependence
Another facet of giving yourself is service. Do for others. It's obvious and straightforward. But equally important and often overlooked is the willingness to ask for help. People love to be useful, to provide value. Let others help you. Let them make your life a little better. It gives them a boost and strengthens the relationship.

As someone who detests admitting weakness, who prides herself on self-sufficiency, this has been a particularly difficult habit to cultivate. But the more I do it, the easier it becomes. I remind myself that a request for help is a form of a gift.

Openness and closure
This dichotomy causes me particular grief. Openness: a willingness to let anything in, to try anything once, and to experience new and different kinds of people. I excel at this. I'm almost pathologically open. I try new things, meet new people, and stretch my limits. Being open is a very simple way to give yourself.

But sometimes you encounter things and people that drain your energy, reduce you, infect you with negativity. That's when you need closure. Closure: cutting things out, closing things off. This is a brutal necessity in the self-preservation game.  In order to truly be able to give yourself to others, you have to be willing to be the best self you can be. 

I try every day to give myself to the world and to the people in my life. It's not always easy, and I don't always succeed, but I will keep trying. I will keep learning. I will keep doing better. Every day. For you.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Immobilized kittens

I once heard, kittens that are immobilized as they grow, that aren't allowed to explore three-dimensional spaces, are unable to develop a clear sense of themselves. They do not understand their shape or physical abilities the way normal cats do. They can't determine how easily they fit through spaces or how distance works. They need interaction with their environment to shape their understanding of their bodies.

Trial and error plays such an important role in growth. Like any animal exploring physical spaces, we humans seek out the limitations of our inner selves. We stretch and bump into walls and learn the limits of our intellect, our patience, our generosity. We learn what we can do and what we won't do. We learn the space we take up in others' lives. We learn how much space to leave for others in our own. We learn to maneuver and survive.

I'm thinking of this as I navigate the trickiest period of my life so far. It comes with a label: Divorce. And it comes with side effects: Pain, Confusion, Shame.

It's also the first time in my life I've had complete freedom to explore all the limitations of my own space. I can reach for anything without asking permission. I can take any risk, make any error. It's freeing and terrifying. I'm completely responsible for myself in a way I have never been before.

So, I'm falling, running into walls, and getting hurt. I'm finding the limits, and I'm making mistakes. I'm gaining a sense of my shape, and it's bigger than I thought, needs more than I thought, reaches higher than I thought. I'm sketching an outline, and it's a difficult process.

It's a challenge to mobilize yourself, but it's worth it. I'll be stronger for this. I'm coming alive in new ways. I'm seeing with new eyes.

What about you? How much risk do you take in your own life? How frequently do you test your boundaries, explore your edges? How often do you do things that scare you? Do you open yourself to getting hurt? Do you give yourself permission to make mistakes?

If you're not already doing these things, start now. Stretch yourself in ways that challenge you. Step into the world and throw yourself against every barrier you can find. See if they break. Slip around the edges. Learn the shape of your abilities, and keep pushing further.

And the next time you see someone flailing, failing, hurling herself into obstacles with fervent persistence, don't pity her. Be proud. Have faith that when she stumbles, she'll pick herself back up. She's finding her way. But offer her a hand. She may just need it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


For 30 days in August–September, I took a test run of coworking at CoCo Coworking and Collaborative Space.

Overall, the experience was great. It's nice to have a place to go to get work done, among other people, in an aesthetically pleasing environment (both of CoCo's locations are lovely).

When you cowork at CoCo, you're surrounded by a sense of community – a feeling that the people sharing your space also share a common goal of accomplishing something (not really the vibe in a coffee shop or cafe). And there's a relaxed openness. Come as you are, when you please, for as long as you like. If you want to talk to other people, great. If not, that's OK, too.

I really enjoyed the days I spent at CoCo and hope to try coworking again someday.

That said, I should admit that my coworking experience was not as complete as it could have been. I had great intentions, but it didn't necessarily work out the way I'd dreamed. I did learn a few lessons along the way, though. If you're considering coworking, maybe these will help.

Lesson #1
First, I am not working on any major projects at the moment, nor was I looking to start any. I had a naive hope that signing up for coworking would motivate me to show up and find inspiration. Instead, I woke up each day with no clear goals for the day, which made the idea of packing up and going to a public location to be an aimless drifter rather unappealing.

However, on days when I had a clear to-do list, getting there was much easier. And I did get much more done at CoCo than I would have done at home.

Take-away: Coworking is best for those who have work to do.

Lesson #2
Another barrier I put in my own way was a refusal to drive. I live close enough to the St. Paul location to bike, and buses are far cheaper than parking in Minneapolis. I thought, "I'll save so much money on parking! And I'll get so much exercise! And I'll learn how to be a car-free commuter!" What really happened: the "satisfactory justifications for not showing up" bar was substantially lowered.

Take-away: Plan realistically for coworking, which may mean factoring in additional parking costs or planning to be there fewer days than you initially thought.

Lesson #3
I'm a bit of an introvert. Although I enjoy many social situations and dislike extended periods of being alone, my default mode of operation is keeping to myself, particularly when I'm uncomfortable. Because of this, when I entered the coworking space, I shuffled to a spot, camped out, and tried my best to keep my eyes on my laptop for as long as I could endure it (usually around 4 hours). Then, I packed up and went home.

People all around me were enjoying friendly conversations, meeting, greeting, hand-shaking, deal-making, etc. But it was a little beyond my reach. I only met a couple of people, and only on my first day, when I was specifically introduced to them. Again, I suspect I may have done better if I had clear goals (i.e., "Meet at least one person today because you need new clients or your cat will starve.")

Take-away: Coworking has very clear benefits for the naturally extroverted, and introverts may need to try a bit harder (though don't we always?).

And that's all I've got. I wish I had more to report.

Thanks to CoCo for a great month!