2017 Retrospective

The new year provides a natural self-reflection point. It’s an opportunity to review the past year, identify what went well and what didn’t go so well, then lay out plans to make the upcoming year even better.

This kind of self-reflection is a skill just like riding a bike. The more you practice the skill, the better you get at being honest with yourself and identifying your strengths and weaknesses.

Each year, I set aside some time to reflect back on the previous year and set some personal areas I want to focus on. You can read my 2015 retrospective here and my 2016 one here. I borrowed this tactic from Nate Green. If you would like some loose guidelines about how you can write your own retrospective, I would suggest reading his post here.

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Create More Value Than You Consume

“Think Different.” “Don’t be evil.”

It’s common for brands to have catchy taglines. The former is from Apple. The latter was made famous by Google. At Automattic, our goal is to “democratize publishing.” We also have a creed that helps to guide our actions with some simple statements.

In a recent Tim Ferriss podcast with Tim O’Reilly, I was introduced to another slogan (for O’Reilly Media), “Create more value than you capture.” The slogan has stuck with me since I originally heard it on the podcast.

The real implications of “create more value than you capture” extends beyond a company slogan and can really be used as a guiding value in your personal and professional life. It can influence the choices you make, the projects you pursue, the recognition you strive for, and how you treat others.

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Building a Rock Solid Career Reputation

I’m currently working my way through The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. The book is fascinating as it draws on dozens of historical examples to pull out key takeaways and suggestions for building power and influence. Each chapter is dedicated to a particular lesson or takeaway and how you can apply it to your own life.

A few chapters in particular have stood out to me, but one in particular (Law 5 – “So Much Depends on Your Reputation—Guard It With Your Life”) is applicable to some of the topics I’ve been writing about recently.

In the beginning, you must work to establish a reputation for one outstanding quality, whether generosity or honesty or cunning. This quality sets you apart and gets other people to talk about you. You then make your reputation known to as many people as possible (subtly, though; take care to build slowly, and with a firm foundation), and watch as it spreads like wildfire.

The two parts are then:

  1. Building a reputation.
  2. Spreading your reputation.

The trick is always “How?”. How exactly do you build a reputation? Perhaps more importantly, once you have that reputation, how do you spread that reputation without feeling like a selfish jerk?

This post will touch on the first piece – building the reputation. I recently wrote a piece on The Muse all about soft skills that will help you excel in your career. I have another one coming up on Todoist about demonstrating your value within an organization.

I wanted to pull together some common threads from the research I did for both that apply to building a reputation and some distinct points in the process that I’ve found helpful. In a follow-up post, I’ll discuss some thoughts on spreading that reputation and talking about yourself without feeling sleezy.

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We Should All Be a Bit Angry

A child yelling as he picks up a weight from the ground.

“I’m probably the angriest person here.”

That phrasing caught me by surprise. I was at dinner at the 2017 Automattic Grand Meetup in Whistler, BC. I was sitting next to one of the happiest and most enjoyable people I know.

This person went on to elaborate on what they meant. They weren’t angry about their current situation, the dinner, or anything else related to that particular point in time. Here’s a short list of things they were angry about:

  • Certain parts of the education system in the US
  • Gender gaps in tech
  • The lack of self-advocacy techniques shared with underrepresented groups (in and out of tech)

We overuse the term “passionate” to describe our various areas of interest. Passion implies a strong belief and an interest in learning more about a particular issue. Often times, passion stops there short of action, short of follow-through that changes the situation for others.

“Anger” is different. It implies something more than passion. Yes, you hold a strong belief about the issue. Yes, you want to learn more about it. But, anger doesn’t stop there. It goes a step farther – you’re actively working to change the game for everyone else.

Many would characterize themselves as passionate. Not many would say they’re angry.

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The Failure of Kodak: Why New Ideas Feel Risky

Way back in the 1970s, an engineer named Steven Sasson at Kodak invented the first digital camera. Sasson’s invention was ahead of its time by a few years so one would assume that this innovation would put Kodak at the forefront of the digital revolution.

If you have read one of the many articles on the topic though, you’ll know this isn’t the case. Despite being ahead of the curve, Kodak eventually fell far behind (filing for bankruptcy in 2012). The term “Kodak moment” now connotes missed opportunities instead of magic moments to be captured on film.

As Scott Anthony points out in his article on Harvard Business Review “Kodak’s Downfall Wasn’t About Technology,” the fall of Kodak has less to do with the actual digital camera technology and more about the culture of the company surrounding innovation and new ideas.

When Sasson originally brought his prototype to management, Kodak made a large chunk of their profits from selling film for their cameras. As one might expect, this new film-less invention didn’t get a warm welcome from leaders at the company. As Sasson recounts: 1

My prototype was big as a toaster, but the technical people loved it. But it was filmless photography, so management’s reaction was, ‘that’s cute — but don’t tell anyone about it.’

The first digital camera created by Sasson at Kodak

New ideas can be both incredibly exciting and intensely stressful. On one hand, new ideas are necessary to disrupt an industry and create a unique product/service. On the other hand, they represent a change in the status quo. By definition, a new idea is a departure from what you’re comfortable with and what you may have had success with in the past.

Let’s take a deeper dive into why new ideas are so difficult to adopt pulling from Adam Grant, author of Originals, and others.

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The Planning Fallacy: Why We Overcommit And How to Stop

Picture this: You have a day packed with meetings and obligations. Then, your best friend asks you to go out to lunch. After examining your calendar, you find a 45 minute block around noon that could work. You would still need to drive to the restaurant, order as soon as you arrive, and then get back to the office by 12:45pm to prep for your next meeting.

We’ve all been in a scenario something like this in the past, right? We’re already scheduled to the max, but a juicy opportunity presents itself so we squeeze it in determined we can make it work. More often than not, it fails. We’re late to the next meeting, over the deadline, stuck in traffic, etc. If “to err is human,” it seems like “to overcommit” is human as well.

Although it’s probably obvious, it’s worth diving into why overcommitment should be avoided. First, it puts us in a situation where we overpromise and underdeliver. That’s certainly not the fastest way to the corner office. Second, we’re putting ourselves in a stressful situation. Comparing your calendar and todo list only to find out you have absolutely no time available to get it all done? Not fun.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we overcommit to projects, events, meetings, and tasks in the first place? In order to understand answers to those questions, we first need to understand why we’re so bad at predicting the future. We’ll look at research from The Black Swan by Taleb, Stumbling on Happiness by Gilbert, and others to help us understand and more importantly, improve.

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You’re Not That Great (aka How to Stay Grounded)

“That’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” 1

That’s how Garrison Keillor ended his radio show, called Prarie Home Companion, for over 42 years. 2 Lake Wobegon was a fictional setting Keillor created for the show, but his famous send off line has taken on a new meaning.

Photo credit: Cover of Lake Wobegon audiobook by Keillor

“The Lake Wobegon effect” goes by many names (Better-Than-Average Effect, Superiority Illusion, etc) describes a motivational bias in which we tend to view ourselves favorably when compared to others. It has been easily illustrated in studies from driving skill to intelligence. In a YouGov study, 55% of Americans think they’re smarter than the average American. A study of New Zealand drivers showed that the average driver thought they drove slower than 85-90% of their companions.

Both of these statements can’t be true. The average is the average for a reason, right? Only half of us can be above average. That’s how statistics work.

Despite our best intentions, we view ourselves favorably when compared to others whether that’s inflating our own self-perception or degrading the perception of others in our own minds.

Why does this happen? More importantly, what can we do about it?

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How to Avoid Decision Fatigue by Setting Default Habits

Which internet browser do you use? Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Internet Explorer?

When I read Originals by Adam Grant, one of the most surprising studies involved just that—your browser. It turns out, your browser can be an indication of conformity. Grant references a study conducted by Cornerstone OnDemand. In the study, they asked customer support professionals about various aspects of their work, and they found a link between which browser the employee used and their level of performance at work.

Grant goes on to hypothesize that the link between browser and performance has to do with defaults. Internet Explorer comes pre-installed on all Windows machines. Likewise, Safari is pre-installed on Macs. If you use one of these browsers, you’re effectively saying “The default is good enough for me.”

On the other hand, Chrome and Firefox are both available for free download, but you have to actively go out and install them on your computer. It only takes a few minutes, but it requires you to actively think “I wonder if there is something better out there.”

The takeaway from the study (and Grant’s book Originals) isn’t that we should all go out and change our browsers. Instead, the takeaway is that we should question default decisions.

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What’s your creative advantage?

You're always competing against someone for your audience's attention. What's your creative advantage?

Competition is healthy. It drives up the quality of work we produce.

If you’re writing a blog, you’re competing with millions of other bloggers out there (with thousands more starting each day). You’re also competing with Time.com, Facebook, Twitter and every news outlets for attention.

If you’re a musician, you’re competing with the thousands of established labels and musicians already entrenched on your audience’s iPhones and Spotify playlists. You’re also competing with the thousands of indie artists and amateurs uploading their songs through GarageBand on their new Mac to share on YouTube.

If you make physical products, you not only have to compete with Target, Amazon, and other established brands that provide a one-stop shop for virtually anything your customer might want. You also have to compete with all of the new store owners powered by WooCommerce, Etsy, Shopify, and Square. Let’s go ahead and add in the entrepreneurs on Kickstarter as well.

The same concept applies for podcasters, painters, photographers, and any other creative out there on the planet.

In The Long Tail by Chris Anderson, he presents two simple facts applicable to creatives:

  1. The potential audience for your work is growing. Unbridled selection on the internet and powerful search tools means it’s possible for a consumer to find virtually anything they want online including your work. You can now build a diehard audience without the previous constraints of an existing distribution list, special connections, or physical proximity.
  2. Along with that potential new audience comes competition. While it has become easier and easier to reach your target audience, it has also become easier and easier to produce art as well.
A graphical depiction of the long tail
Photo credit: LongTail.com

This all boils down to a simple question: You’re always competing against someone for your audience’s attention. You have to identify your edge.

What dimensions of your craft can you compete on and have an unhealthy advantage?

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Do You Raise the Average?

Using the law of averages in reverse as an introspection exercise

You’ve undoubtedly heard Jim Rohn’s famous quip:

You’re the average of the five individuals you spend the most time with.

A quick Google search will turn up articles on LifeHacker, Entrepreneur.com, and more all pointing to the singular argument; who you spend time with matters. They influence how you think, how you act, and what you believe.

Generally, the “law of averages” focuses on what you adopt from others. Your mindset, beliefs, and habits are influenced by those close to you. We can flip the equation around though and look at it a different way. You influence the mindset, beliefs, and habits of your close friends, which leads to a simple question.

Do you raise the average?

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