Browsing posts in: People & Relationships

Say “Yes.” How my mom inspired and changed my life.

This is a photo from my mom's surprise "Bon Voyage" retirement party we threw in 2012. (Please excuse her casual outfit, her friend that brought her to the surprise told her they were going to the greenhouse so she's wearing her work-in-the-yard clothes. There is no excuse for my brother's outfit though.)

This is a photo from my mom’s surprise “Bon Voyage” retirement party we threw in 2012. (Please excuse her casual outfit, her friend that brought her to the surprise told her they were going to the greenhouse so she’s wearing her work-in-the-yard clothes. There is no excuse for my brother’s outfit though.)

One of the people to make the largest impact and influence on my life has been my mother and her focus on always saying, “Yes.”

This may sound like a small or simple thing, but it’s made an exponential impact in my life. It’s really easy for people to say “no,” or be negative and put up barriers in their heads, make up excuses on why they can’t do things, but her focus and indomitable spirit has made me who I am and often opened me up to new adventures and opportunities that my peers passed over.

There’s so many reasons she has been an inspiration to me, but I keep coming back to this key value she instilled in me, along with all the tertiary values of sacrifice, focus, indomitable spirit and hard work that help make saying, “yes,” a possibility.

Her focus on frugality (almost to ridiculous levels) and living well below your means allows you to save and prepare for saying “yes” when the right opportunity presents itself. She raised me to appreciate people and our time with them, not material goods or fancy clothes.

She always said yes to doing things herself, from DIY projects to always taking great care cleaning/maintaining/fixing the things that you do have around things around the house, to gardening and enjoying nature’s bounty, to almost always cooking at home and only going out to eat on special occasions (which is a polar opposite to how most people live in DC, and it still feels weird to me). Even when I go home now, she puts up a fight when I want to take her out to eat. …maybe that’s swinging too far in the other direction, but it’s this mindfulness with her money that has made her financially secure on a public school teacher’s salary. She did her best to learn early about the stock market and how to make your money work for you, by founding an investment club with other teachers, and she passed these skills on to me.

Even when she didn’t want to say yes, she stepped up and did her best at whatever she tried. She didn’t set out to be a teacher, she originally wanted to be an entomologist but back in her day there wasn’t many opportunities for women to do much besides teachers or nurses, especially in the sciences. So she buckled down and became the best teacher she could be, with many awards, degrees and generations of glowing and thankful students. In doing so, she taught me to be the best at whatever you do no matter what it is. Similarly, one of my photographer mentors in Chicago, John H. White always relayed this story from his father:

When John H. White was nine years old, a teacher told him that he would grow up to work on a garbage truck because he was slow in math. At home, his father told him to grow up to be his best, to look for the best in others, and if he were to work on a garbage truck, fine—just be sure he’s the driver. White has said that this was a turning point in his life.

Her focus on public and community service and giving back through your life’s work, spending more than 40 years teaching generations of children also had a huge impact on me as I’ve worked through journalism helping the public good and now in government service. She has been a giving tree her whole life and gave that trait to me.

She also inspired me in saying “yes” to embrace travel as much and as frequently as possible and to seek out interesting and diverse people and events to learn about. In high school, I had a crazy eclectic group of friends from preppy jocks to metalheads to rustbelt gear heads to computer nerds to poets and artists, and looking back on it, I think part of that was founded by her always fostering me to embrace all sorts of different people, places and things to explore the world and understand more.

She seeded in me the intensity and indomitable spirit to say yes and chase my dreams and make them a reality. She also sewed a frank and sometimes cynical/realistic (depending on your perspective) view of the world, but always looking to find the best in people and life.

While she’s a bit more of an extrovert and social butterfly, people often say that we share the same laugh — loud, jovial and infectious; you can always pick us out in a room. I’m proud to carry her likeness, legacy and hope to instill the “say yes” values into the people in my life.

My best advice and lesson from 2015: Cull toxic relationships.

2015 has been a wild ride and major pivot point in my life. It was filled with many new adventures, many amazing successes, a massive career shift and the end to two long-term and toxic relationships that have exponentially changed me. If there’s any advice I could give my past (and future) self, it would be to cut ties with toxic and self destructive things. Life is just far too short.

I know people say this a lot because it will just infect you like a cancer and it almost becomes white noise. I tended to ignore it sometimes because I always wanted to hold tight and work through challenges and try to make things better than I’ve found them. My whole career has been focused on improving organizations that are in trouble or lost on digital — and we *have* made things better and achieved a lot, most of the time.

But along with that, you also need to know that some things you just can’t fix and if you don’t let them go, they will pull you into the quicksand with them. I’m still reeling from how much Stockholm Syndrome I had, how much I invested to try and fix an unfixable thing, and how much I wish I had cut ties so much earlier. …But such is life. Now I have a new, much more positive one and am seeking out and surrounding myself with more diverse, positive, high-achievers that will challenge me in good ways and help me become more excellent.

Onward and upward, to 2016!

Some of the best management advice I’ve seen this year from an Imgur product director

One of the best posts of management advice I’ve seen this year so far is, “21 management things I learned at Imgur,” from Sam Gerstenzang, a former product director at Imgur now at the tech investment firm a16z, which reminded me  of and reinforced a lot of hard lessons I’ve learned over the years.

There’s so much in this succinct piece that’s valuable but a handful of the first three are really hitting home right now (I’m dealing with an unmotivated person on a side project):

1. It’s terribly difficult to manage unmotivated people. Make your job easier and don’t.

2. Different people need different kinds of management. Be adaptable to figure out what drives each person’s best performance.

6. Fire quickly. If you don’t fire bad performers fast, you’re at risk of losing your good performers. Don’t underestimate the effect bad performers have on good performers. Your team will likely move faster even with fewer bodies. Finally, firing for bad performance is easier than having to fire good people because you’ve run out of money, so fire the bad people before you have to fire the good people too.

Check out the full list and save it to back to periodically. Repetition is sometimes necessary to learn these hard management lessons.





The Iron and The Soul

Henry Rollins The Iron and the Soul

Henry Rollins was one of my life’s biggest inspirations and passive mentors, especially in my late teens and early 20s after I lost my father. From his music, to spoken word, to books and other writing, Rollins made a humongous impact on my character and life (more on this later).

While doing some summer cleaning of my Pocket (formerly known as Read It Later) archive, I found a reminder of one of Rollins’ most popular pieces of mainstream writing from Details magazine back in the 90s about growing up, self esteem, discipline, physical fitness and life, entitled, “The Iron and The Soul.” This piece doesn’t appear to exist on Details anymore (the media is the worst when it comes to digital archives… more on this later too.) but it has become a legend among many — photo copied, cloned, reposted all over blogs, message boards and gyms around the world because of it’s impact, especially on developing minds and bodies. Here’s a passage:

It took me years to fully appreciate the value of the lessons I have learned from the Iron. I used to think that it was my adversary, that I was trying to lift that which does not want to be lifted. I was wrong. When the Iron doesn’t want to come off the mat, it’s the kindest thing it can do for you. If it flew up and went through the ceiling, it wouldn’t teach you anything. That’s the way the Iron talks to you. It tells you that the material you work with is that which you will come to resemble. That which you work against will always work against you.

It wasn’t until my late twenties that I learned that by working out I had given myself a great gift. I learned that nothing good comes without work and a certain amount of pain. When I finish a set that leaves me shaking, I know more about myself. When something gets bad, I know it can’t be as bad as that workout.

I used to fight the pain, but recently this became clear to me: pain is not my enemy; it is my call to greatness. But when dealing with the Iron, one must be careful to interpret the pain correctly. Most injuries involving the Iron come from ego. I once spent a few weeks lifting weight that my body wasn’t ready for and spent a few months not picking up anything heavier than a fork. Try to lift what you’re not prepared to and the Iron will teach you a little lesson in restraint and self-control.

I have never met a truly strong person who didn’t have self-respect. I think a lot of inwardly and outwardly directed contempt passes itself off as self-respect: the idea of raising yourself by stepping on someone’s shoulders instead of doing it yourself. When I see guys working out for cosmetic reasons, I see vanity exposing them in the worst way, as cartoon characters, billboards for imbalance and insecurity. Strength reveals itself through character. It is the difference between bouncers who get off strong-arming people and Mr. Pepperman.

Read the whole thing including the backstory on Mr. Pepperman.


Quote of the week: “When you say ‘no’ to something, you are saying ‘yes’ to something else.”

This past week I was struck by a quote from Tim Stringer on the Coaching for Leaders podcast:

“When you say ‘no’ to something, you are saying ‘yes’ to something else.”

I’ve heard and believed similar things, but not heard this so succinctly and perfectly. Especially in our society — and doubly so in DC — where it’s a badge of pride to CHOOSE to be ‘constantly busy.’ Most people don’t acknowledge much of what we do is a *choice* to be busy when it comes to work-life balance.

I, and a lot of people, think if we’re not running at 120% capacity, it’s very easy to say yes to things just to fill up your calendar but it’s good to have the bandwidth and space to say ‘yes’ to impromptu or urgent things, rather than having to book and plan out your ‘extra/side project’ schedule months in advance (which I actually just did for the next quarter… I’m glad I’m planning it, but after writing this realize I might need to just book 10% time for new/experimental things).

I’m right now wrestling with some side projects that I might need to wind down or walk away from because the initial commitment I offered has grown exponentially and unfortunately when other leaders in the organization have seen the extra work I’ve put in, they’ve lumped more on me, backed away and/or stepped down. I hoped that seeing someone putting in extra effort would inspire the culture and make the others reinvigorated to pull their fair share and work harder, but for some it’s had the opposite effect. There is one champion who I think is really excellent and working with me to improve the process and culture, and hopefully we can weather this storm and get some allies who will put in the time and effort needed. I’d hate to walk away from her getting re-inspired and her positive energy. Anyway that’s all to say, I’m thinking a lot about commitments, time, impact and how to choose wisely what to say yes and no to a lot lately so this quote struck me pretty hard at the right time.

If you don’t listen to the Coaching for Leaders podcast, you should check it out. It’s been one of my long-time favorites for podcasts on positive, realistic management approaches for all sorts of organizations.


Inspirational mentors: Nikola Tesla

Tesla in his lab

Happy Birthday, Nikola Tesla!

Seeing as Friday is his 159th birthday and this was on my list of entries to write about “Inspirational Mentors” in my life, I decided who better to kick it off with. (This series of posts will highlight people who have had huge influences on my life and what I learned from them. I use the term ‘mentor’ loosely here, because obviously I couldn’t have had a close mentor relationship with him, but I’ve read several books including his and watched documentaries and just about everything I can find on the internet about him.)

Tesla is probably one of the most brilliant, but unacknowledged scientists and inventors of our age (and not like Apple patenting a rectangle with rounded corners — I’m talking real, unique patents and inventions). Besides his creations, he was also a prolific writer and had some genius philosophies (check out this list of some of his best quotes/thoughts). It wasn’t until the past few years that his contributions to the world have been really elevated with The Oatmeal’s “The Greatest Geek Who Ever Lived” information campaign and museum erection and Tesla Motors (using many technologies he invented). Here are the core reasons I really admire and what I’ve learned from Tesla:

#1 – His amazing story reminds me of the miracle that is our live in modern society: One exceptional, focused, humble and hard working person can truly change the world and make it a better place.

#2 – If you want to make exponential change in the world on many levels, you can’t own/exploit/ride every single idea you create. Sometimes you have to birth them and see if they take flight. Sometimes you have to give the ideas to others to let them own them. Many modern inventors or non-workaholic people in Tesla’s shoes would have likely take one of his brilliant inventions and just rode the profits out of it, but he was so focused on creating he didn’t have time for that (and ended up getting exploited by Thomas Edison because of it).

#3 – Nikola lived the #AlwaysBeShipping work life. Hustlers are the best.

Nikola Tesla

#4 – The importance of having some nerd swagger. While nerdiness is becoming en vogue in pop culture right now, it wasn’t always and probably won’t always. He was evidently kind of a ladies man in the NY scene when we came to America. Being a nerd doesn’t mean you have to be a diminutive or socially awkward person. Own your nerdiness and live the dream.

Learn more about Tesla’s live and impact on the world:

Watch this: Inspirational and transformational management strategies from The Profit

The Profit

I’m not a reality TV junkie by any means, in fact, I avoid almost all of them (and most TV in general). But one show I’ve been hooked on over the past year has been The Profit, a CNBC show about turning around failing businesses with investor and consultant Marcus Lemonis who invests his own money, sweat equity and expertise to right the ship.

What I love about this show:

  1. As someone who’s dedicated his live to trying to fix, improve and impact legacy organizations from media to the government with varying levels of management, process and product issues, I really enjoy seeing Lemonis’ process and how he drops in to any type or size of organization– from Key Lime Pie bakers to car dealerships to a custom furniture family business — and applies a simple formula to fix it. And most of the time, he seems to pull it off.
  2. His simple formula is fantastic. Focus on improving: People. Process. Product.
  3. It’s real. Sometimes the deals don’t always work out or things explode and then end up in litigation after the business backs out of agreements or didn’t disclose debts or other issues. One of the things that drive me nuts about most reality shows is their predictable story arcs that make them seem scripted (and without a doubt, some are). The Profit doesn’t always have a happy ending and I appreciate the realness of that.
  4. Lemonis’ interpersonal skills have been really inspirational to me. The way he drops into these organization, finds allies, champions and diamonds in the rough, then raises them up and helps them rebuild were instrumental in my leadership strategy in the last year at the BBG. Most of the time, the core issue with the business is the people. Process and product are generally easier to fix. People are often the hardest thing to change in failing businesses, especially changing a culture or a hard personality (without just firing away the problem which sometimes you can’t). Often in the show (and in real life at these kind of flailing organizations) issues are caused by people who refuse to give up control, refuse to try a new way or hand over control to the next generation of leaders. So learning his tools and emotional intelligence strategies has been incredibly helpful for me as a manager.

Check it out on CNBC prime time, the web on Hulu (how I watch it).

Nine metrics to use to evaluate if you should take on a side-hustle project


Back in 2011, I hit at a breaking point in my life and needed to make a change. I’d took on too much across all my professional work, a fellowship studying mobile tech, co-directing the Society for News Design’s St. Louis convention, co-directing the NPPA Multimedia Immersion, working on the board of the Online News Association including several committees and as Secretary of the executive board, freelancing, plus more than two dozen speaking and teaching engagements. My health, stress and general well-being was way out of whack and I had to start making life changes and being more selective about what I take on, saying “no” to some opportunities. It took a couple years to wind things down and become much more selective (and I still fall back to my old ways and overload myself) but I developed a checklist system for evaluating projects.

I was reminded of this list last week at the 9th annual Multimedia Immersion (yes, this is one of the few things I didn’t wind down, yet) when the amazing, humble and world-famous photographer Greg Heisler was speaking on stage during our freelance/career discussion. He said he had a handful of tests/motivation points for making decisions about when he would pick up work and relayed some stories where he took less than the money he should have received for the opportunity to work with cool people or for future gigs.

Here’s my list that I developed (in no particular order) for deciding if/when to take on extra side-hustle projects:

  • Skills — To learn new skills.
    (It’s important to be constantly evolving your skills, living the kaizen way.)
  • Impact — For the impact it makes on the world, to do good.
    (I’m starting to be much more critical about what real and exponential impact some work can have and trying to find bigger/harder/more impactful things to take on after reading “Bold.”)
  • People — To be around and work with amazing people.
    (As many people say, ‘You are the average of your 5 best friends,’ so finding more awesome people to influence you and raise your awesome average is always good.)
  • Money — For the substantial money.
    (As in $100/hr rates or as an investment that will likely have exponential returns.)
  • Challenge — To be challenged, solve interesting problems.
    (This can take many forms and be a dangerous one because some challenges can consume you if you take them too far, but accomplishing difficult things can be very rewarding.)
  • Pleasure — For the pleasure/calling of doing the work.
    (Some things like maintaining a garden or brewing your own beer, may not be lucrative or extremely productive uses of time, but there’s a personal pleasure you can derive from the experience.)
  • Resume — For the future career opportunities that will grow from this.
    (Sometimes this is hard to gauge since it’s hard to know when a connection to make helping with a conference could lead to a job, but the line on your resume is a little easier to quantify.)
  • Reputation — To build character and status.
    (Especially building a reputation of serial start-up successes, so that when people think of you they know you’ll deliver and are good to your word.)
  • Appreciation — To feel appreciated.
    (Although this frequently doesn’t happen easily, openly or very clearly, so this should not be the primary motivator.)

Not everything I decide to take on has to hit all these points to get the green light, and some things might just be incredibly high value in one or two, but ideally, I try and only take on work that fulfills at least half of the items on the list.

If I work through this list and I’m still on the fence, I sometimes consider what a (soon to be former boss) Rob Bole, said something at a BBG staff meeting encouraging us to innovate and push the boundaries (which I have had scribbled on a Post-It note on my desk wall since): “When you have the choice between two different options, choose the most dramatic.” New adventures stretch and grow your character and experience more than doing lots of the same thing year over year over year.

A quick gut-check on living the Kaizen Will lifestyle

I found a great gut/perspective-check on the Kaizen Will lifestyle in The Atlantic this week from Barry Schwartz’s work (the author of The Paradox of Choice):

One of my favorite Schwartzisms is this: If you ever aren’t sure if you attended the very best party or bought the very best computer, just settle for “good enough.” People who do this are called “satisficers,” and they’re consistently happier, he’s found, than are “maximizers,” people who feel that they must choose the very best possible option. Maximizers earn more, Schwartz has found, but they’re also less satisfied with their jobs. In fact, they’re more likely to be clinically depressed in general.

The reason this happens, as Schwartz explained in a paper with his Swarthmore colleague Andrew Ward, is that as life circumstances improve, expectations rise. People begin comparing their experiences to peers who are doing better, or to past experiences they’ve personally had that were better:

As people have contact with items of high quality, they begin to suffer from “the curse of discernment.” The lower quality items that used to be perfectly acceptable are no longer good enough. The hedonic zero point keeps rising, and expectations and aspirations rise with it. As a result, the rising quality of experience is met with rising expectations, and people are just running in place. As long as expectations keep pace with realizations, people may live better, but they won’t feel better about how they live.

The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Read more at The Atlantic.

Buy It For Life: Eastpak backpack

Eastpak Backpack

Buy It For Life: My ole trusty Eastpak backpack

When I was trying to think of the first item to feature in my “buy it for life” pro tips, it didn’t take long to surface the one item that has been with me probably the longest time of my life — my black Eastpak backpack.

This is one of the very few items that has made it through decades of wear from Junior High School through backpacking across Asia as my day-pack and most recently on Safari in Kenya. While there are more fancy backpacks out there with more pockets, mesh liners, carabiner clips and more, this simple, two pocket design with minimal but functional padding gets the job done from toting my daily work gear to the office to working as a compressible and compact day pack while traveling.

Sure, it has some small holes developing in the bottom, (I’ve sewn a few over the years) and the zippers have been sent back to Eastpak to be replaced twice, but they’ve always held up their end of the lifetime warranty (although, it appears they have changed for new purchases and maybe even given up U.S. distribution) it’s still truckin’ and keeping all my gear together. I don’t think they make the same model as what I have, but here’s something similar if you want to pick up your own lifetime friend.