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Monday, July 21, 2008

When good bloggers get lost

I don't know if blogging has "jumped the shark," but I do know that quite a few good bloggers are moving away from blogging. Some are doing this consciously, and stating their reasons. Others just find themselves doing other things and allowing their blogs to go cold.

I think I know why.

In his post "Blog Pimping, or: Who Do You Want to Delight?" Merlin Mann of 43 Folders talks at length about pressure in the blogosphere to blog "smart" — to be so audience-conscious, so link-conscious, so Digg-conscious that you end up satisfying a big audience but boring yourself to tears the process. Mann observes:

But, ultimately, our most important decision may be deciding who we want to please, and what we’re willing to do, allow, insert, or put up with that potentially will make those people love, hate, or even feel indifferent toward our sites and our work. Not only must we contend with the institution, we also have to figure out who we want to delight and how. That’s where the art is, and it’s arguably the turning point for whether a young blog will get noticed or won’t.

Pandering kills passion. Formulas kill spontaniety. And writing what people want to hear, instead of what you want to say, will eventually catch up with you. You don't necessarily lose your audience, but you do start to lose yourself — and you'll surely lose the love you once had for your blog.

If you're one of the bloggers who started out full of fire and now find yourself sitting down twice a week and flogging some book you wrote, or product you endorse, or censoring your heart-felt opinions because they might offend a prospective client, take a few minutes to consider the costs and benefits of going back to your blogging roots. Look at your original posts — was your writing more distinctive and more compelling then?

Let me know what you find — even if you have to post your comments anonymously!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Summer reading: Beyond the bestsellers

I'd like to (belatedly) call attention to two delightful online projects that spotlight older or obscure books that are simply too good to be forgotten. You'll find "You're Still the One" (in several parts) on The Rap Sheet, the January Magazine crime fiction site run by J. Kingston Pierce. (What book did I nominate for the project? Check here. )

Over at Pattinase, Patti Abbott blogs every Friday about "forgotten books" and has challenged other crime fiction reviewers and bloggers to follow her lead.

If you're looking for great summer reads, start with these sites and then head to your local used book store -- or, where out-of-print books from affiliate stores are often available for a few pennies, plus shipping.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Changing the way we think about change

If there's any hallmark of this era, it's change — the unprecedented speed of change and the growing need for organizations and individuals to keep pace with it.

And yet, as organizations and individuals, we seem to be more comfortable getting into and staying in ruts — even when they are dangerous to our health and imperil our survival.

The problem, according to author Alan Deutschman, is that we often approach change in exactly the wrong way. My friend Tom Whitmore, a small business owner in the midst of his own changes, offers this review of Deutschman's thought-provoking book Change or Die. (Thanks, Tom, for sharing this via Writer Way!)

Deutschman, Alan: CHANGE OR DIE
(Collins, NY, 2008; 246 pp, $14.95, ISBN-13 978-0-06-137367-1)

One of the more fascinating statistics in this book is that 90 percent of the people with serious heart disease who are prescribed statins stop taking them within a year. Statins have been shown to reduce the risk of heart attacks significantly. Why, if these people are facing a life-and-death situation, are they unwilling to change their lifestyles even to the extent of taking a pill or two a day for the rest of their lives? Just as few follow through on changing diet, exercise patterns, and taking up meditation. In Deutschman's view, it's because these patients are being approached in entirely the wrong way by their health care providers.

Health care providers, like our prison system and most of the CEOs of large companies, approach people with what Deutschman calls the Three Fs: facts, fears, and force. These are strong motivators for a short period. They don't, however, lead to long-term change. Facts aren't enough; fears are good for a while, but fatigue sets in, taking away fear's power; and force generates rebellion. Anyone who uses these to try to motivate someone is very likely to get exactly the opposite result from what s/he seeks.

Instead of going for the head, Deutschman recommends going for the heart and using positive reinforcement. He puts forward three Rs instead: Relate, Repeat, and Reframe. Relating involves creating a new relationship, with an emotional component, with (generally) a new person -- developing a reason for actually wanting the change. Repeating involves practicing what one wants to develop -- "Fake it 'till you make it" is a standard way of saying this, used by Alcoholics Anonymous and others. Reframing involves changing the way one looks at a problem completely. Using long examples including the heart patients, convicted felons (at Delancey Street in San Francisco) and large corporations (GM and Toyota at the NUMMI plant), he demonstrates how well this approach can work. And he has lots of shorter anecdotes: these include how Microsoft engineers got Bill Gates to be a philanthropist and why AA works as well as it does for the people it works for.

It's a simple and useful model. I can see how it's been useful in my life, and how it describes why some of the changes I've made have worked well and others haven't. It's not a quick fix, and it's going to work differently for each person who tries it. It doesn't make the change any easier, and it probably doesn't make it any faster. At least, now I have a model that I can check back against when I feel the change isn't happening, and recalibrate my own reactions. I can recognize the people I'm Relating to, get myself over the hump of thinking I'm doing things badly as I Repeat them the first few times, and be open to recognizing when I've Reframed my world. And Deutschman gives me reasons to do that in my own way, which is very important to me.

If the book has a flaw, it's that it doesn't go far enough. Deutschman claims that his model is intended only for use when someone is seeking change and it isn't happening, or isn't happening quickly enough. And I think he misses a generalization: that this method of change may not be the only one, but it works powerfully in many more situations than the one he describes. It's used subtly all the time we're growing up: a good teacher is one who engages a student and builds a relationship, in school or in college. When someone starts a new job, he or she needs all three Rs to become a very useful part of the particular company he or she is working for. And there's a darker side: these same techniques can be used subtly to initiate someone into what other people might think is a cult. Rotary International, the Church of Scientology, the Unification Church and the Weather Underground all use or used these techniques, sometimes consciously, to recruit members. Knowing about the dark side of these techniques gives me a chance to be conscious of when they're being used to manipulate me. That's a tool I want to have in my mental toolbox. Now I get to practice using it.

--Tom Whitmore

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Home, again

I've been haunted by the significance of home ever since I left for college and my parents sold the house in Virginia where I'd grown up. They moved to away to Massachusetts, and I lost touch with both our old house and the community I'd known all my life. I felt oddly adrift, living in a series of dorms, group houses, and apartments, and didn't completely regain my footing until the mid-1980s, when I bought a bungalow in Seattle.

This year I found myself thinking about the idea of home again. Plymouth Housing in Seattle contracted with me to help write the client profiles for their 2007 annual report. The assignment took me back to a journalistic style of feature writing that I hadn't practiced in some years (though it had once been my favorite work). It also invited me to revisit some of my own feelings about home.

I interviewed five clients for Plymouth (and one for another housing agency, on a related project). After each interview, and in the middle of one or two of them, I found myself in tears.

For each of the people I interviewed reminded me of one of my close friends. As they told their life stories (most with some glorious high points, all with heart-wrenching low points) I could pretty much see where my friends' own paths could easily have led them to homelessness. (And, since writing the articles, I've become aware that a few of my friends have indeed been homeless for brief periods.)

I invite you to take a look at the 2007 annual report (click "2007") and read some of these stories. Another reason to check out the PDF is the beautiful photography by Doug Plummer.

Finally, a few words about the folks at Plymouth Housing and their extraordinary work. Plymouth does not focus on housing for working class families caught in the economic crunch; they focus on housing for individuals — the longterm homeless, the elderly homeless, and the homeless with complex health problems, often associated with substance abuse.

Plymouth is committed to the philosophy that secure housing is the essential first step in addressing the problem of homelessness at both the individual and community level. Think about it: Once you have a safe apartment where you can sleep, wash, cook, store your medications and have clean clothing, suddenly all else becomes at least possible. Plymouth's buildings all have onsite staff whose jobs involve helping residents move to the next steps: Getting health care, detoxing from drugs and alcohol, addressing financial problems, expressing themselves through art and volunteer community service, and seeking employment.

At Plymouth, I met residents who had served in the military, guarded a U.S. embassy, performed with a symphony, and created award-winning paintings and artwork. It was wonderful to discover that in Seattle, thanks to Plymouth, these people have found a home.

Juicy ideas

Thanks to Guy Kawasaki for pointing out Dave Knox's post on The Lessons of the Square Watermelon — case where out-of-the-box thinking led to an in-the-box solution.