Forced Narratives

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Maria Popova celebrated nine years of her fantastic blog Brain Pickings last October. In her celebratory post, she listed several really important life lessons. One really resonated with me: “When people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them.” These moments — forced narratives if you would — are very dangerous because they test your own vision.

I read the post shortly after someone dressed me down and told me what they thought I was all about. There was nothing kind about it, and frankly it was a pretty disappointing experience. This person may have spent a total of 2 hours of time with me, and knew nothing about me.

If I embraced this person’s views as truth — as I would have 20 years ago when I was first starting my career — then I would have been crushed. Instead, I was able to see the forced narrative for what it was, anger and a last attempt at control.

In her post Popova stated, “assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for reveal a great deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.” It’s not for me to judge the other person, but the moment offered a powerful reminder to stay grounded in my own belief system.

It’s a Long Road

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I am at the halfway mark on my career lifespan if you were to assume that 65 is the assumed age of retirement. Frankly, I don’t think I ever want to completely retire, but the point is that one’s working life lasts a long time.

There are some people who walk the entire journey with you, but they are rare and often hard to recognize. I assumed some very like-minded people would be great colleagues my whole life and we pursued different paths. Other people who you didn’t think would be periodic players over a period of decades become just that, people who watch you and you watch them.

One thing you learn about people is that rarely are they one dimensional. Can you imaging if people said Leonardo Da Vinci was only a great painter, that he couldn’t do anything else? And Da Vinci believed them? How many inventions would have been lost to this world? His art would have been all the world had seen. Of course, just having the Mona Lisa wouldn’t be too bad ;).

When you watch a person over time you see their many sides. They are not just a writer, but also someone who can teach other people to write, and lead them to accomplish great things, a manager of sorts. As time progresses, they have a family and they become better able to administrate or become more tolerant of politics.

The point is you see many dimensions to a person. Not all of them are good either, but at the same time every person has strengths and weaknesses. The best come to terms with their weaknesses or at least come to understand them well enough to play against them. You learn to appreciate others for their respective skills, paths, and evolutions.

And when someone simply pushes a person you know into a label, a sense of disappointment rises. They don’t know Joanne (or Joe, if you prefer). And they don’t because they haven’t walked that long road with them like you have.

The Power of Introspection

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It took me a long time to publish this post, four months really. It took that long for me to understand the full power of that moment, that dressing down, and how I carried it with me.

Over the past few months I have been journaling pretty regularly, three or four times a week. It’s a fruitful exercise that helps me stay grounded on business, work through scenarios, and understand some of the emotions I experience as I move out of the agency entrepreneurial part of my life and into this next phase.

One of the biggest challenges I worked through was a sense of failure. But I have to tell you the biggest failure I experienced was not the loss of individual opportunities or even the painful end to Tenacity5. The biggest failure was my lost sense of qualification. That is what came

I used to look at opportunities in depth and really qualify them, not just to see if they would come in, but also to see if they were a match from a culture and offering standpoint. Really, this is sales 101. Anyone who is experienced in sales knows this, and I knew it, too.

Somewhere along the Tenacity5 journey I stopped doing that. And along that journey work became a grind. We took on projects we hated, and worked with companies that maybe we shouldn’t have. Unfortunately, that behavior continued after it ended, for a couple of months at least.

See, here’s where that dressing down comes in. If I listened to my gut, then I would not have entered into that relationship. I sensed trouble before it happened. There was a major cultural and ethos mismatch, and the warning signs were crystal clear.

When I think of that moment and the person in question, I don’t think about their forced narrative. This person has not walked that mile in my shoes, and cannot possibly understand my perspective. At least not yet.

Instead, I consider their roasting as a gift, for it reminded me to stay true to myself and qualify my opportunities well so that I select work opportunities that I truly care about, and with the people whom I can help the most. In the past two months, I have walked away from several business opportunities — including a full-time job offer. They were not matches. I believe the lesson has been learned.

What do you think about forced narratives?

The Acidic Taste of Failure

Sometimes you try to achieve things with all that you’ve got, and then you fail. Some say failure is good, that it teaches you what not to do, etc., etc.

I agree, failing is part of the process of learning how to win. But I never like failing, particularly when I feel like it happened on my watch because of choices I made.

I can feel the acid burning my gut. I always hate failure.

Last week I experienced such a failure. It wasn’t on a public project, so let’s not read too much into things. Nevertheless, I failed. What made it worse was that I felt really good about the situation, rehearsed and worked hard, and put in extra time to get ready.

When it was show time, the effort flew like a lead zeppelin.

It was so obvious that I was dead in the water from the get-go, and I had to finish the job. If the situation was a baseball game, the opposition had a 10-run first inning. No escape for three hours. Done and done. Good night.

At least I am laughing about it a week later.

Nevertheless, it bugged me. Looking back there were mistakes like a critical flaw in evaluating my audience. A big disconnect occurred. Plus, I was exhausted and that didn’t help anything.

So, I did what I always do when I fail. I got back up the next day, and started working on the next big thing, which is planning the 2014 edition of xPotomac (Patrick Ashamalla and Shonali Burke are joining me again as co-hosts this year).

Because that’s what I do. I get back up.

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It’s important to take away what I can from the mistakes, adapt so next time there is different outcome, and work towards the next success. Maybe I’ll experience a win, maybe a different failure, but always move a step closer to the solution.

I also took the necessary time to rest. Self-care remains one of the best ways to overcome failure. There is always more work, and sometimes I just have to put it on the backburner. If I treat myself like crap, I will surely feel and perform like crap, too.

But no matter what, failures still burn, some more than others. That’s what makes winning all the more worthwhile. Call it fuel.

How do you handle failures?

Featured image by Mike Stimpson.

The Audacity of Corporate Social Media Failure

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Image by Rick Audet

It was interesting reading all of the social media criticism about Google’s privacy policy changes last week. A measured critical tone offers refreshing context to the usual outrage pundits spout when analyzing the latest corporate social media failure. These dramatic declarations of “FAIL” include the anticipated demise of the brand’s entire reputation, the stupidity of the management team, and a lament about companies “never getting it.”

Another example: Last December’s dissecting of Apple’s rigid social media policy that bars any meaningful discussion of the company by employees. There was no great shocker here given the company’s approach to product development and public blogs that leak Apple product news. Yet, the company was painted black and evil for it.

OK. Apple just reported $13 billion of profit last quarter, its best quarter ever. Meanwhile, its more social media friendly competition never get close to performing on this level.

Let’s be clear. Marketing is not about pleasing social media aficionados. It should deliver ROI or outcomes that boost a company’s bottom line.

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Imperfection

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Image by Richard Cocks

Have you ever reviewed a piece of your work and shuddered afterwards? Do you get mad when one person criticizes something you invested a great deal of time on, even though dozens of others laud the effort?

Typos, incomplete theory, lack of experience, poor timing, fear of public speaking, a bad decision; just some of the many flaws that can “taint” work. It’s worse when flaws are beyond your control; vendors, friends, etc. You have to live with it.

Elusive perfection can drive you crazy.

Welcome to humanity. Flawed, troubled, imperfect, some learning, some not… We all screw up.

Imperfection is one of the most humbling aspects of life that will continue until it is over, and our ashes are spread across the earth. It is something we all must suffer. This maddening pain can only be relieved by embracing our personal imperfections. There is no escape.

All projects must end, every single one of them with some flaw, some aspect that can be improved. Rare is the perfect effort.

It’s best to look at what could be improved, be happy with what went right, and learn from the experience. Sometimes we must suffer the same mistake again. That may be our journey. This is the stuff of millennia of philosophy, theology, and human storytelling. It is not a unique phenomena; rather, a quandary every human being faces.

Salty Criticism

Sometimes criticism can sting like salt in a wound. Imperfection confronts us.

But can we simply say that our efforts are definitively in the right? It is unacceptable to simply say, “No, that type of criticism is invalid.” It may really be incorrect. But then again, time may reveal that critique was spot on. Our experience (or ego) at that time did not permit us to see it.

Wrong or not, criticism is a reality of the human condition, and the more public and well known you become, the more you will receive. But even the most humble of workers and family members suffer from the bruises of criticism. That’s why when in disagreement, it is often best to state our point of view – factually to the best of our ability — and move on.

The great fight is not worth it. In essence, take it with a grain of salt. Learn what you can. In time, things may make more sense. Or the critic was simply wrong.

This sector is one of opinion with many degrees of opposing views. If everyone agrees with you, you’re not talking to enough people. But it is important to remember that every single one of us — critic, critiqued and observer — are flawed. Imperfect.

Depending on how you view flaws and criticism, imperfection simply is. Or it is simply painful.

What do you think of imperfection?

Attack of the Fried Chicken Freaks

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Sitting on a panel about public failure this past week, the conversation revolved around negative comments and how to handle them online (Image by thebittenword.com). After five years on the internet as an opinionated blogger, I’ve learned a thing or two about negative attacks, comments and behavior from online communities. Heck, I’ve even been lambasted by friends for pointing out that fried chicken causes obesity, which in turn has been scientifically linked to breast cancer.

So what do you do when the fried chicken freaks attack in defense of their beloved fattening dish? This was laughable so I will use it as an example. Often, I don’t find the more malicious attacks to be humorous, though. And I will discuss those in a general fashion.

There are aspects of online confrontations that require reputation management, but there’s also an element of personal survival, too. It’s important to remember you’re the only one who has to live with yourself, and validation through others or the popular crowd does not necessarily equate to living in one’s skin.

Discussing Negative Criticism

It’s important to engage your critics directly. In fact, in my opinion, this is why BP’s social media during the Deep Horizon crisis has failed (see NPR story). You can’t run away from public criticism by simply delivering messages. When the fried chicken thing hit two weeks ago, I discussed this with my critic Jason Falls, and then his many fans, on Twitter.

When you find a conclusion — either agreed upon or in this case disagreement — end the conversation amiably. Meaning, don’t get into heated debates. I was not going to sway Jason and his friends, and the conversation was not worth a real throw-down discussion. So I took my licks and was quiet.

Public Attacks

Unfortunately, people will say things to you online that they would never say to your face. When someone attacks me online either publicly or on one of my social media properties and it revolves around an issue, I publicly address it. Usually, the person’s rhetorical tone drops.

If the rhetoric continues, I call out the personal attack. There’s no need to get personal, so bring it back to the issue. If the nastiness ensues, I consider the person a troll (even for one bad day) and disengage. If it’s on my social media properties, I give them a final warning, and then if it continues, they are escorted to the virtual door.

In the case of the nasty pot shot, particularly those that occur in the third person, I usually ignore them. In my opinion, that’s trollish behavior, and reflects on their character.

Gossip

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Our culture and its events breed egos and gossip like water encourages bacteria. Sometimes gossip comes back to you, and it’s mean-spirited, cruel and frankly, just flat out wrong. When a vicious untrue rumor hits, unless it has become public, turn the other cheek.

Ultimately, on a personal level it’s none of your business, and has much more to do with the gossiper’s character than you. It’s important to tell your source your perception of the facts, thank them for making you aware of the rumor, but also to ask them not to bring it up again. Why should you suffer at the hands of someone else’s tongue?

Factual Rumors

There’s gossip and then there are rumors based in fact. If the rumor is even somewhat true, well then, I suggest owning the factual wrong — either privately or publicly — as a reputation management precursor. But not only that, don’t just say you’re sorry, correct the wrong, address it so you can honestly say that it won’t happen again.

An effective apology means something. An empty one doesn’t. I remember in one case of really poor behavior, someone acknowledged general wrong doing, but said they saw no value in looking at the past. The outcome was not positive.

Hurt

Anyone who tells you this stuff doesn’t hurt is lying, in my opinion. It hurts a lot sometimes. Sometimes there’s so much negativity, or it hits me in just the right place, I want to die inside. I want to fight back (two a-holes don’t make a situation better), or worse, I just want to tear down my online profiles and never come back. I feel beaten down.

But I’ve learned that none of these reactions help the situation. The internet just accelerates normal brick and mortar life, and no matter what, I will encounter the same situations again later on.

What’s important is having compassion for one’s self, and doing what’s necessary to privately heal. Then come back. In the interim, remain professional and as even-keeled as possible, and if there’s nothing to add positively to the situation, quiet silence is an appropriate reaction.

In the end, people are beautiful. When we navigate these difficulties and continue to bring compassion to bear online and in our real lives, the end result is a better world. In life you fall down and get scars. But you do get back up and the pain fades quickly. So smile and be grateful for all of the positive things in your life. The sun still shines.

Fail Well

Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. ~ Confucius

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Many folks fail in business, and for a variety of reasons, some more common than others. In American business, particularly on the communications side, there’s a misperception that failure is bad. In fact, failure often creates the seeds of future success. Many, many people and brands demonstrate this, including Apple, Dell, Johnson & Johnson, etc., etc.

That’s why I’m thrilled to be a part of the When Failure and Criticism Are Public during DC Digital Capital Week on June 18th along with Jill Foster of Live Your Talk, Allyson Kapin of Rad Campaign, and Justin Thorp of Clearspring. It will be great to discuss failure in this setting, and ways to embrace it

A recent Paul Sloane article that Beth Kanter referred me to had one aspect of this down very well, the honorable failure. Sloane defines the honorable failure as an honest attempt at something new or different has been tried unsuccessfully.

I totally agree with this view. In fact, even successes offer lessons to be learned. I sold a company once. But a successful exit doesn’t mean it was a smashing success. In fact, many, many mistakes were made and some of them were public. I look at Livingston Communications as story book of lessons learned, good and bad that we can use to accelerate Zoetica’s success.

Where I really disagreed with Sloane was his labeling of the incompetent failure: People that fail for lack of effort or competence in standard operations. In this sense, while the person may not be right for the position, their decisions or lack of experience, in my opinion, actually engages in an honorable failure. Why? Because a failure can steer someone in the right direction, or a completely different one.

So I don’t deem dubbing someone’s failure as incompetent, regardless of how bad it was. Incompetence and such labeling continues a culture where we as a society are afraid of failure. Instead, I deem any failure an opportunity to learn a lesson or embark on a course correction. Whether we choose to pay attention to that lesson or direction is on us.

Experiential learning requires experience. And failure. Sometimes multiple failures. One of my favorite stories in the this vein came from Senator Mark Warner (R-VA), who founded Nextel. In a speech before the NVTC roughly ten years ago, he detailed how he failed as a lawyer and in two companies and in one point was massively in debt. He never gave up.

So, my friends, as the week begins, fail well.

Past Related Posts:

My Five Worst Professional Mistakes

Burying Negative News Stories and Posts

Confessions of a Start-up Junky

Keep. Moving. Forward!