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Running Track HurdlesBlog Update: This is #8 of 27 posts, almost a third of the way through my personal challenge of revisiting all of last year’s blog posts in reverse order in a single month.

Appropriately enough, the post being revisited here is, “Close the Gap – Creative Perseverance,” which is all about producing a quantity of creative work in order to achieve that elusive thing called “quality.”

Since starting this challenge 10 days ago, I’ve been keeping some notes reflecting on the process. Here’s a cleaned up version of the notes so far :

January 6, 2015

Only a few days into this daily blog challenge and it’s… challenging.

Challenges include overcoming the pressing needs of too many urgent / semi-urgent things to do, all of which may provide the short term payback of that “getting stuff done” feeling. Must remind myself that this is a form of exercise which satisfies a less obvious need, and which may only have a harder-to-quantify longer term benefit.

Other challenges include competition from other creative pursuits. “Hey Danny, wanna come and play?”  Yes I do.  I also want to finish writing this post.

What’s encouraging is seeing how this daily regimen forces me to use an economy of means to crystallize and express ideas. More concise. More punchy.  Less complicated and overwrought. Also, improved workflow strategies.

The lesson drilled into me at architecture school continues to hold true: Constraints improve the quality of a design.

Idea-premise for a new training course on innovation and creative thinking:  “Innovation is mostly about finding the right set of constraints to apply to a given question.”

January 7- 8, 2015

One of the hardest parts of keeping a personal resolution — particularly an overly ambitious personal resolution — is figuring out what to do when the inevitable slip occurs.

Higher priorities are massively competing with this cute idea of one-post-per-day, and some of those priorities include sleep.  In one case I was too tired to start the post but then couldn’t fall asleep and so forced myself to get it done in one sitting. In another case I was too tired to do a good job finishing a post, so I went to sleep and wrapped it up the next morning.

Going into this I saw the folly of starting an editorial calendar with no initial delay, i.e. zero buffer of posts that could carry me through any 24-48 hour period. Now that I’ve experienced the result of that folly, it’s time for me to set up a better buffer of posts-in-progress.

When we declare a certain standard for ourselves and then fall short of it, we have a cognitive choice to make. On the one hand, we can call it quits and reevaluate the desirability and reasonableness of that initial standard. On the other hand, we can brush off our slip up and keep going… we can strive and we can be flexible at the same time.

Glass is hard, shiny and bright, but doesn’t do well under stress.  Nothing tall can be built solely out of brittle material.

January 10, 2015

All told, slipped back one day this past week, but now made up for it with a post over the weekend.

Keep going.

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The Autobiographical Lens

On The Usefulness of Complaints

When I hear someone vociferously criticizing or complaining about “those people” — typically, co-workers, supervisors or direct reports — I often notice an element of subconscious self-criticism (aka, transference) at play.  These gripes are a veritable Rorschach test which many people unwittingly administer on themselves. If they are my clients, it makes my job of helping them that much easier, since they can reveal both their external impediments of performance (“those people”) as well as their hidden, internal impediments.

6 Lenses Between Me and You

I’m not immune to this transference effect, either: When I find myself strongly criticizing someone’s behavior, it’s usually not long before I usually realize that what bothers me most about it is that it’s something that I also do… or once did. In some cases, it’s something I did in a ‘prior life’… but in many cases, the depth of feeling behind the complaint is a hint that there’s something I’m still doing, on some level, in the present, that I’m not too keen about.

It’s not just limited to complaints, though… it can come across in deeply felt statements of admiration, praise, urging and reassurance.

Many of the posts on this blog are just thinly veiled encouragement / admonishment directed at myself..and true to the Gemini spirit, I’ve been on both sides of almost every divide that I describe in those posts.

I don’t think this is an especially profound insight… nor is it unique to me… as Donald Murray says, “All writing is autobiography.”

However, I think it’s helpful to for both the reader and the writer to be reminded of this, for time to time.

So let’s extend Donald Murray’s axiom, as follows…

All criticism  is transference,

all praise is aspiration,

and all encouragement is perseverance.

Quote du Jour

“Before you act, listen.
Before you react, think.
Before you spend, earn.
Before you criticize, wait.
Before you pray, forgive.
Before you quit, try.”
– Ernest Hemingway

Lifespan of a Blog

This post serves as a placeholder for an ongoing, unanswerable question:   What is the typical lifespan of a blog?

The question is unanswerable not just because it’s a moving statistic.  The question is unanswerable because it is phrased incorrectly as a quantitative question, whereas the real question — the question behind the question — is qualitative.

The question-behind-the-question is something like this:  What are the typical scenarios that lead to the creation of a blog, and, for each scenario, what is a reader of such a blog likely to see over time, in terms of the amount and type of content posted?

For any given blogging scenario, how does the blog usually start out?  What does the frequency of posting look like, over time?  How does the blogger’s content evolve, both in terms of topic and style?  

Technorati puts together an annual report called State of the Blogosphere which offers answers to some of the above questions… too many answers, actually. I’m looking for something less statistical, more narrative.

Somewhere Out There, A Narrative

Somewhere on a laptop of a developer for WordPress or Blogger there’s a nice presentation about it.

The presentation is a couple of years old (some would say that it’s decades old, in blogyears) , and as with many discussions circa 2010, it discusses the continuing explosive growth of “microblogging” and how sites like Twitter and Facebook have taken some of the steam from what it archaically refers to as “traditional blogs.”

The presentation may have some stats on how the average length of a blog post initially declined in relation to the growth of Facetwitrublr, but then, ultimately started to increase as those sites allowed for more media-rich postings.  It says that traditional blogs have become a refuge for long-form writing.  The presentation almost certainly has a graph showing the steady decrease in the number of comments per blog post…. once again, the microblogging Twitumbookverse is the culprit. Thanks to the ambient intimacy of social media (social meds?), our attention and willingness to engage with text has become diffused… a warm fleeting breath of distracted amusement.

The one time that WordPress/Blogger developer gave their presentation, he or she was asked if their data had been controlled for blogcruft, the 50% or more of blogs that are spontaneously created as SEO marketing machines.  Of course s/he did.   Which is ironic, since right now s/he is working on a system that will improve the monetization of blogs through content-specific, analytically driven advertising.

Taking the Numb out of the Numbers

Meanwhile, in a search for a good blend of statistics-and-narrative, I came across this snarky summary by Caslon Analytics, a consultancy based in Australia, which managed to get its page high enough in Google results to gain my fleeting attention:

Some of the more interesting statistics in that analysis came on the ephemerality of blogs, but then, those stats came from a Stone Age source in 2003.  At that time, apparently the longest period of time that a blog lasted before becoming entirely inactive was approximately two-and-a-half years…. but… how many people were even blogging before 2001?   Anyone still left today, from those 1999 blogboom years?

Technorati says 95% of blogs eventually die within a few years.  Well, maybe Technorati said that… there was too much data, I forget exactly what they said.

Yes, the real question-behind-the-question is:  Why continue blogging?

It’s a follow-on to my opening question:  Why start blogging at all?  (an expanded version of: Why blog backwards?)

Blog Posts About Quitting Blog Posts

Ah, but then I found a nice post by Doug Noon, covering the topic, with some interesting commentary:

To me, the blog is about discovery and reflection. Not so much about passion. It’s a lot like beachcombing. I read stuff that people write.

I follow links, and follow links from links, heading off in all directions at once. I find stuff and I think, Huh? Where did this come from? Cool. I save it in del.cio.us. It’s a weird obsession. Then I try to make sense of this muddle by writing about it. It’s a system.

… (I) wonder if there isn’t a natural lifespan for a blog that exhausts itself like any other project a person takes on.

(..) I don’t know where this blog is going. I’m following an evolving set of interests.

I was particularly pleased to note that as an edublogger (a portmanteau of “educator” and “blog,” which is a portmanteau of “web” and “log,” which is a shortened version of  “World Wide Web” and a sailor’s “log book,” 1990 and 1842, respectively… okay, I’ll stop…)  Doug hasn’t given up and is still going strong:  http://borderland.northernattitude.org/2012/04/08/search-for-meaning/

Doug also brings in a post from Timothy Burke, where Burke contemplates discontinuing his blog :

(…) I think it’s fair to say now that most blogs have a fairly definite life cycle. Most never really outlast a brief initial burst of enthusiasm, but those that do last rarely hold on for more than about three or four years without either transmogrifying into some other kind of format (a group blog, a paid gig of some kind).

Mostly blogs ebb and flow with the life rhythms of their creator.  (…)

However, I think there’s also something about the form itself that poses a problem, and that the problem has gotten more acute as blogging has evolved as a practice.  A self-aware blog writer eventually starts to recognize static or repetitive patterns in their posting that threaten to devolve into schtick. Readers may not object: in fact, the larger and more stable a community of readers a blogger has, the more they may in fact come to rely on the blogger to merely convene or spark a rolling conversation among commenters, to be the rhetorical equivalent of comfort food.

For anyone hoping to sharpen and complicate their own writing, or to use a blog for exploration and discovery, however, this repetition and cumulative expectation can become a problem. I’ve talked here before about how much I find my sense of humor drains out of me when I’m writing here, because I’ve gotten trapped by compulsive reasonableness. When I write in this format, I find that my humor is sharpest when it’s snarky and a bit cruel (I don’t think this is true in person), so I often put it aside. There are times where that and other self-imposed limits and expectations frustrate me as a writer and even a thinker, however.

I’ve also hit a point where I’m frustrated by the rigidity of discussions across the blogosphere. (…). We’ve gone past the point where many conversations had the plasticity to go in unexpected directions. We’ve gotten instead to the point where many participants in the meta-discussion are defending fixed terrain, sometimes terrain that they’re paid to defend (…)

So I have to say I was recently tempted to (…) close up shop. I don’t think I will just yet. There are still a lot of things I enjoy about blogging: conversations I find rewarding, discoveries to be made, skills to be honed.  (…)

Many of those observations rang all-too-true for me. I liked them so much that I highlighted them above in bold.  See, there’s me being a snarky blogger… self-directed snarkiness, at that.

Notwithstanding the Seinfeld Principle of bowing out gracefully, it’s nice to know that some folks keep on blogging away, and will likely do so until their last dying keystroke. That tells me it’s something they do for themselves, not for some misguided quest for fame or fortune.

Hmmm, we could start a whole genre of Blog Posts Where the Author Considers (Threatens) Quitting their Habit.   You know, it’s that moment where, the blogger gets all contemplative and super-meta…  to the untrained eye, it looks like navel contemplation… but we bloggers recognize the signs… we know not to hang up the phone and keep talking to them… get someone to give them a hug and a warm cup of coffee…  don’t…  let… another one…  get away…

Here’s one that didn’t survive  (b.2009-01-25,  d. 2010-11-01) :

Thought as my second and proper full review I might just review blogging as a whole. Yep, rather introspective, there’s the obvious possibility of the whole infinite-depth-mirror going on, but I thought it worth at least getting down my thoughts on the blogosphere.

Most of the time, I think blogs are a massive waste of internet.

(…)

don’t know – I still think that in general that people who write on the internet are doing so without trying to be a world-class author so perhaps I should give them a break. You take the percentages of start-up, shut-down blogs – the whole blog abandonment rate is somewhere between 60% and 80%… that’s way too high to suggest there’s a great deal of good blogging going on.

Personally I’d like to see us get to a point where you can’t “start” your blog until you’ve posted 5 entries. That’d learn ‘em.

Anyway, we’ll see how I get on. Hopefully I’ll be around in a week or so but you never know.

It’s true. There is nothing new to say. There is nothing new under the sun.

Yet, just like a dandelion’s spirit of hyperseverence, there is a meaning in trying anyway.

The Dyslexic Star Who Shocked the Row

Over the past 18 months my spelling and grammar have gotten worse. I think this decline in writing quality is inversely proportional to my quantity of speaking in front of larger audiences, typically at conference-type events.

It seems that the more comfortable I get at being a live entertainer, the less punctilious I become. It’s gotten so bad that if I don’t triple-or-quadruple-check my writing — which I usually don’t in my informal communication — there’s bound to be a typo in there.

(I used to only need to double-check it.)

Recent examples culled from various outboxes:

  • “ok sound good to me!”
  • “np problem!”
  • I’ll give ‘em some extra homework between the sessons…
  • please check in with her and see if you she has bandwidth to touch base
  • “good luck with it and please stay in tocuh!”

Yes, even this blog post is crawling with spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, and missing words… although I’m cleaning those up as I write this…. mostly… I hope… I’m bound to forget about my shifting verb tense and probably need to tuck-in some dangling participles…

Trade-offs

While it’s possible for us to get rusty at something that we haven’t practiced in a while — particularly those skills which we haven’t developed up to a certain threshold — for the most part I disagree with the notion that our developed skills (vs. “in progress” skills) are subject to the Use It or Lose It principle. Moreover, provided the right resources and motivation, I believe in the infinite plasticity of the human brain: we can learn do anything we want to, if we set our minds to it.

However, I’m also coming to terms with trade-offs; it’s not so much an issue of “either-or” as it is “easier or.”  There are some things that — when we learn them — will tend to come at the expense of something else. In other words, the shortest path of advancement for one skill set may be through the erosion a previously acquired skill set.

It’s easy to forget how to… ..once you’ve learned  how to… ..but regardless, you’re unlikely to forget once you’ve learned how to…
design beautiful architecture be a facilities manager ride a bicycle
solve quadratic equations use Microsoft Excel add any two single digit integers
produce high quality work, efficiently manage others sail a boat
proclaim clear, absolute certainties equivocate hand-code tables in HTML 2.0
hunt gather sing “Happy Birthday”
express sincere love deal with betrayal tell a lie

Writing vs. Speaking

(…)

And thus it is rare that mathematicians are intuitive, and that men of intuition are mathematicians, because mathematicians wish to treat matters of intuition mathematically (…)  Intuitive minds, on the contrary, being thus accustomed to judge at a single glance, are so astonished when they are presented with propositions of which they understand nothing, (…) so… (…) that they are repelled and disheartened.

(…)

But dull minds are never either intuitive or mathematical.

(…)

There are some who speak well and write badly. For the place and the audience warm them, and draw from their minds more than they think of without that warmth.

Blaise Pascal, Pensées

Public speaking in front of large groups is a skill that improves most easily by ditching the rigors of impeccable writing.  Being a great writer is largely about being a great re-writer, continuously weighing and improving one’s word choices, sentence construction, and narrative flow.

The flow of a great live performance, on the other hand, comes from being bold and audacious with those words, sentences and narrative… from embracing the accidents and making those accidents a part of the performance. There is no hesitation, no going back to correct and re-do a line. A great public speaker dances with their audience, seamlessly moving from one phrase to the next. There is no room for worrying about the minutia of perfect syntax. From the perspective of the audience, the moment the performer has expressed their fear of failure, the failure has already happened.

I am born to preach the gospel, and I sure do love my job

Practice, of course, trumps any trade-off; there have been many great writers who managed to pull of great live performances — and no doubt they kept practicing both skill sets.

In writing, we can test out our ideas, make mistakes and correct ourselves.  We can develop a point of view, crystallize our thoughts, and refine our words until each point is sharp and sparkling. However, if we want to preach the gospel, at a certain point we have to stop crossing those t’s.

We’ve got to put the pen down, stand up, command attention, and connect with the people.

Starting a real conversation means putting our selves out there — not just our words.

Keep dancing.

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