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?

Writing with Negative Space

In graphic design and visual arts, artists use negative space to emphasize their subject. The same could be said of words, in particular stories where you leave enough to the reader’s imagination so they can enjoy the novel, essay, short story, or whatever it might be.

I received this nugget of knowledge at WorldCon last August. Stina Leicht mentioned applying the negative space principle to words during a panel on how to write yourself out of a corner.

Some writers will be quick to say negative space represents the show, don’t tell meme that is driven into every writer’s head who ever attends any sort of workshop. I’m not so sure I agree, though.

While no one wants to read a ton of drivel and boring details from the writer’s perspective, I’ve seen enough authors tell and get away with it. Great writers, in fact, like Philip Roth, J.R.R. Tolkein, and Kim Stanley Robinson. Some go as far as to say the show, don’t tell rule is the great lie of writing workshops.

In reality, “show, don’t tell” seeks to eliminate weak writing. Telling often fails to captivate, and leaves nothing to the imagination. “She was pretty,” for example.

Instead, we show. “Johnna’s brown eyes held my gaze gently. Her full lips curled into a small smile as auburn locks moved slowly backward toward her ears. I tried, but could not stop looking at her.”

However, note the absence of detail there. I did not show you what color or style her clothes were, what her body looked like, what her hands were doing, etc., etc. No, that is the reader’s purview. You assume she is pretty because of the narrator’s reaction, but she may not be.

Over-showing, in my opinion, does as much damage as flat-out telling. Like the straight forward tell, it robs the reader of negative space to imagine.

In considering tellers, the celebrated ones unveiled their stories in straight forward terms. I am stuck by their uncanny ability to do so in an interesting manner. For example, Kim Stanley Robinson gives us whole chapters dictating the scientific laws of the 2312 world through how-to manuals. It’s insane, but delicious, tickling your mind! When you finally understand who is narrating those chapters, your mouth drops open.

Robinson succeeds because he fuels the imagination with negative space instead of robbing the reader of an imaginary journey. It’s the art of grabbing enough to draw, while hiding details so the reader can fill them in with their own opinions, hopes, views and beliefs. A story that grabs the reader engages them in a form of mental interaction, even if they are observing through straight-forward telling.

That is the power of negative space in conjunction with a well-delivered written image.

Personally, I can develop my own expository style further, continuing to move away from tell to show. However, I don’t think a complete yield is the full answer, rather a commitment to tickle the reader’s imagination.

What do you think?

Mean Tweets

Have you seen Jimmy Kimmel‘s Mean Tweets skit yet? I finally did when the NBA version came out a week ago (below).

The tongue-in-cheek celebrity response to Twitter’s raucous social media culture pierces through a lot of hubris. Mean Tweets says what many of us involved in online community management feel.

Life as an online community manager, blogger or personality today requires dealing with some idiotic nastiness that people spew on social media
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Why Serial Complainers Lose Credibility

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So why do serial complainers lose credibility on and offline?

We all know these people, the kvetch or worse, the troll, the person that always brings a storm cloud whenever they discuss an issue.

Publicly everyone listens, privately they get dismissed on the back channel as a hater or worse. Eventually, people stop listening all together.

The title alone is the answer, specifically, repeat complaining.

In social communities the consistent malcontent becomes the equivalent of the boy who cried wolf. In fact, if the malcontent goes so far as to hurt others, they breed a form of reciprocity that no one really wants to see, vengeance.

A German study from the Institute for the Study of Labor shows that negative acts create a similar responsive reciprocity, a willingness to harm those who previously acted against the surveyed individual.
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Amazon on Negative Comments: Disregard 5%

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Image by Spi-V

In its Holiday Marketing Best Practices Guide, Amazon coaches online merchants to disregard negative comments until they reach a ratio of 5% of all comments:

“Most sellers will eventually receive some negative feedback. When it happens to you, put it in perspective: a 0-2% negative feedback rate is great! If your negative feedback rate is greater than 5%, review your business practices to correct any operational problems that might affect a buyer’s experience.”

Amazon has had its fair share of customer service issues over the years. But I agree with the online retailer’s guidance in principle, and use a similar barometer in coaching clients about negative commenting.
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Judging versus Supporting Others

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Image by Sabrintha Linda

You know the old glass is half full metaphor.

Well, that applies to the way we talk about and critique others. We can support the strong points someone offers, or we can tear them up.

This is particularly true of teams, communities and other group activities.

Harvard Business Review ran a great piece by Rosabeth Kanter a few months ago about creating a positive culture of respect.

“Winners can maintain high aspirations and act generously toward others,” said Kanter. “Losers are more likely to blame others and disdain them as mediocre, creating a culture of finger-pointing and infighting.”

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