On Vulnerability

[Inspired by Brene Brown’s awesome TEDTalk “The Power of Vulnerability”, which I really recommend you watch before reading this post.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.]

[and also inspired by Amber N’s Things I Wish People Knew About Me]

Vulnerability is a scary thing. We spend a lot of time avoiding that feeling, but as Brene says, it turns out that vulnerability is a key component in connection, doing meaningful work, having fun, pretty much all that matters in the world.

This year has been a struggle for me to remain vulnerable.  Being unemployed since January in this current economic climate is a scary thing.  I decided early on to look for something that is a good fit for my skills and interests and that I can get excited about, rather than taking a job that I’d be good at but would not feed my passion and curiosity for exploring the stories behind why people love what they love.  This is great in theory, but in practice has been a constant struggle to not feel like I’m being totally selfish and silly (despite this being the right thing to do according to not just me), which leads to me putting up walls.

Image by JJSchad via Flickr

In any case, I can feel myself putting up new walls, and I think it’s reflected in my interactions online, and probably in person too.  So, this post is my attempt to ‘strip off’, if you will, and thrust myself outside of whatever self-imposed comfort zone I may have put myself in.

That said, here’s my Things I Wish People Knew About Me:

I had a very tumultuous adolescence. By the time I was 11, my parents (who had been together over 20 years) were in the process of fighting constantly and ultimately my mother moved out when I was 14 or 15.  I lived with my father until I was 25.  This became a situation that required many walls be put up to keep my emotions in check, and these walls still exist today, though I’m working on letting them go.

I never went to college, and I only regret it sometimes. People are often surprised by this, but after my traumatic teen years (including dropping out of Bronx Science, before landing at Urban Academy, which I’ve posted about before), I was in no rush to continue the educational process.  So I got a job instead.  Although I’m not convinced that college as it exists today is still a worthwhile investment, I do think that the social aspects of it could have been valuable for me.  This comes up in job interviews.

I have a really hard time giving myself credit for what others think I do well, therefore I’m often dismissive and have a hard time “selling my accomplishments”. Part of the challenge of growing up an only child and being ‘a smart kid’ is that the expectation that we will always do brilliant things leads to a self-censorship of anything we might not be good at.  This New York Magazine article explains it more eloquently than I can, but the gist of it is that somehow the goalposts for me being excited about the quality of my work is always just a bit further down the road.  I’m much more likely to brush off and discount compliments and praise than to own it. See also: this list looking sort of like a document of insecurities.

I’m a nerd for many things, so many paths seem interesting to me. I love baking (I hope to own a tea house with fresh-baked goodies when I retire), music is a central passion (I play five instruments, and DJed for over a decade in local goth clubs), I’ve even become a bit of a tea nerd lately (did you know there’s a social network called Steepster for tea fans?).  I’m always curious, always interested in learning more and it’s really easy for me to find something new to delve into (yeah, I’ve wasted more than a few evenings on Wikipedia)  My broad curiosity, while a great asset when tasked with exploring a topic, sometimes feels like it gets in the way of me being able to choose a focus. I sometimes envy those with a singular passion who can build a goal within it and drive toward it.

Curiosity is my favorite character trait in another person. You take your senses of humor and your big or small anatomical attributes.  Curiosity is where it’s at.  A curious mind is the baseline for all creativity, adventurousness and smarts.  I love curious people, and I hope to pursue my professional goal of feeding that curiosity for as many curious minds as possible.

So there you have it, five things I wish people knew about me.  It felt good to be vulnerable if just for a moment.

Thanks for listening.


Photo Credit: Thanks by kizzzbeth, on Flickr

On Authority: We don’t have it when we think we do.

Judge using his gavelIn this business, we all talk a lot about authenticity, transparency, engagement.  I’ve seen a ton of blog posts, tweets, and whitepapers that say “corporations are no longer in control”. We focus on the new meaning of influence.  This is all well and good, they’re conversations that need to be had, and they are admirable goals that can in fact map to business ROI.

We still make assumptions, though. There are still some old habits we continue to believe to be true. One of the biggest things I’ve been noticing people falling back on when interacting, especially on behalf of a larger organization is speaking from a position of authority.

Authority is one of those nebulous positions that seems to have more to do with our own self-image than about any particular knowledge.

For me, the most appropriate definition for Authority in this context is the typically inaccurate assumption that a given person or organization’s content has inherent merit based on its source, rather than on its actual value to the community.

We all still fall into this trap sometimes. Our blogs are full of posts about the great things we (and the companies we work for) do, we create sweepstakes (read: bribes) built around using a particular product, we try to tell people what to think and what to do. At this point however, it’s not a safe bet to make any assumptions about the authority your voice carries within community. A few of the reasons what we say often doesn’t have the sway we think it does are:

  • We have not built a trusted relationship within our community. You work for the company that makes the product? That’s great. So what? What have you done that would demonstrate to me that I should take what you say about your product seriously? As my friend Jason Falls says over at SocialMediaExplorer, “The trust you build is largely dependent upon the ability to convince them your intent is pure.” If you are the representative of a company, by definition your intent is to sell me on something, which tweaks the bullshit detectors in many of us.
  • We as consumers trust users more than creators. Say you’re a member of a cooking community. Which person would influence your engagement more: The Communications Director for All-Clad, or Bobby Flay? The truth is, unless you’re in a tiny micro-niche industry, there are other more publicly visible experts on your product than you. This already puts you in second place for ‘entity with authority’.
  • Assuming authority without earning the role of trusted advisor from the ground up makes us come off as obnoxious. Instead, (and here’s where the social media nerd comes out) start by listening, and then become a person-sized learning atom within the community.

All of this is hard for us to process. The loop of “We made it, of course we know best, don’t be silly.” is hard to break. For me, I’ve noticed that underneath stuff like that is fear.  There is a fear and insecurity that “if we don’t talk about ourselves, nobody else will have a reason to either”

I’m here to say that I don’t think this is true anymore, and that not always having to be authoritative takes a lot of the tension and strain out of our day.It frees us to lean forward, engage, learn, connect.

Interestingly, that may also be how we build up true credibility in the conversation, as decided by others around us.


Are we going about this whole communications thing backward?

(Inspired by Justin Kownacki’s post “I Tweet, Therefore I Am Empty“)

Theres an increasing backlash against Social Media as shiny object lately, and rightfully so. The concept of communicating online to meet business goals, when wrapped around this aura of Next Big Thing can easily mutate into the “Get me a Facebook account!” nightmare that haunts our dreams.

Every time we recommend a channel plan in place of re-learning basic communication skills and applying them to the betterment of the audience, we do everyone a disservice. It turns out that companies (and people) that are bad communicators are bad communicators, regardless of whether they’re communicating on Twitter, in person, via an ad campaign.

As those who are ‘in the know’ and focused on improving communications as much as we know how, should we be focused less on providing a friction-free way for the people within organizations to map their bad habits on to new channels (surely not a recipe for success)?

Or are we going about it backward? Should we instead be focused more on swaying people’s hearts and minds toward investigation and communication styles that we know to be more effective, even if it is technically ‘outside the scope’ of what we are officially responsible for?

How far up and back does our responsibility to influence the process and the mindset go?

Be a person-sized learning atom within your own community.

[This post inspired by a post that Rich Millington wrote about Why Most Companies Shouldn’t Try To Create an Online Community]

Most organizations really want a big following, not a community.

A following is an audience that interacts with you. A community is an audience that interacts with each other.

One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about in my capacity as a digital strategist is the choices companies make with regard to how they position themselves within the communities they enable.  I think as an industry we may be doing a disservice to the overall success of these communities by not stressing the following point:

Even though you are the creators of the ecosystem, that does not mean you are the most essential part of the discussion.

In fact, taking a stance “above” or “apart” from the rest of the community will only detract from people’s willingness to engage. Nobody likes to feel like ‘big brother’ is there, or that they’re being talked down to.  This is another example of ‘us vs them’ thinking.


Sheridan classroom

Whether people choose to start conversations or not is a function of how you position yourself within the community.  If you are the ‘voice of God’ and ‘the one with all the cool stuff, tips and tricks, and information,’ of coursepeople aren’t going to chat. You’ve made it clear with your tone that you don’t need their help, you can handle it all yourself.  People respond to that by going elsewhere.


Instead, consider become a person-sized atom of your community.  Answer questions, yes.  But also respond to unrelated comments, ask people for advice, take your cues from what people are talking about.

Pretend you’re not the administrator, just be a fellow user who happens to have access to some of your companies resources.  The only special power bestowed upon you as an administrator is control over the technical parameters of the community.  Your voice in the conversation is exactly the same as anyone else.

You will be much more valued as a humble human presence that is there to learn and grow and be inspired by those who choose to spend their time with you than anything you could say as ‘the authoritative voice of your product with all the answers’.

Or you could continue to build a “following” of people who don’t really care all that much.

Up to you.

What Matters In Life: Connection and Giving.

This post was inspired by an interaction I had with my friend (who I’ve never met in person) Erika Bitzer, who blogged about it on planpitchprint in a post called “Fate and Twitter”

For those who are connected with me online (or offline), I do try my best to help those around me as much as possible.  Whether it’s offering words of encouragement, sharing a link, or connecting people who might benefit from a relationship with each other (when Katie Morse posted a question on Twitter asking for people to summarize themselves in a single word, I chose ‘connector’).

I believe that underneath every effective business plan and underneath every interaction must be an intent to connect and give.  This is the killer app. Those looking for maximum ROI with minimum risk are missing the point entirely, both in business and in life.  Giving as little as possible while expecting support in return is a recipe for a lonely existence.

Often, we lose sight of why we’re actually here. We get buried underneath our day-to-day strategizing, planning, brainstorming, trying to stave off unexpected results.  We become afraid of surprises, so we try to plan for every contingency. We try to tie every interaction on a 1:1 basis back to a business goal (or, “what’s in it for me?”).  Slowly, the promise dies in a hailstorm of planning, structure and alienating language, and we end up with a social network presence nobody cares to visit, and we eat dinner alone in the dark.

Give us this day...It’s so important to take the time to flip it around, to think about feeding your communities, to connect and give whenever you can.  It’s important for your own mental health, the well-being of your company, the popularity of your twitter account, the survival of the species on this planet.

I know your CMO doesn’t care about connecting with customers on a one-to-one basis as much as shouting from the rooftops how great the latest version of gadget xyz is.

I know your product manager wants to do a retweet contest or ‘crowdsource the new tv ad!’. That’s not giving. That’s not making something possible that wasn’t possible before.

I know some people may read this and say ‘well yes, but you need to convert this into business speak and reframe it around making money or saving money in order for it to resonate’.

I call bullcrap.

Giving is transformative. Whether its a philanthropic donation, a link to something someone was looking for, a hug and a smile, or an amplified voice, this is the stuff that changes minds, changes lives, changes policies. And yes, this is also the stuff that makes me spend time on your fan page, buy your stuff, tell my friends.

So, for the sake of you, and for the sake of the world, think about what you can give and what you can make possible for just a moment. Get out from underneath all the bullshit and just connect on human level.  Just once.  And then just once again. And just once, again.