Category Archives: connecting

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From networking with people to networking around ideas: How I stopped worrying about keeping in touch

I used to think a lot about how to keep track of the people I know, writing down notes about their interests in Emacs’ aptly named Big Brother Database (BBDB). I wanted to be the kind of person who could remember people’s goals and dreams, who paid attention to trivia from long-ago conversations. A little configuration allowed me to see my notes when reading or replying to e-mail from people, and I even wrote some code to track when I last contacted someone and filter the list of people so that I could focus on people I hadn’t talked to in a while. It was amusing to see a record and realize I’d actually known someone for years (these things sneak up on you before you know it!), and it was occasionally gratifying to be able to look up someone based on an interest I vaguely remembered them having and to make the connection with a book I’d just read or someone else they should meet.

I kept tweaking this system. Maybe there was a contact relationship management tool out there that could help me remember what was important to people’s lives or discover small-talk topics from people’s social media updates. Maybe there was an application that could help me act thoughtfully, beyond the usual flood of Facebook wall messages on someone’s birthday. Maybe there was a way for me to learn how to keep in touch. I asked people who networked for a living (mostly salespeople and politicians) how they managed to remember all these little details and reach out. They told me about spreadsheets and index cards, phone calls and e-mails: “Hi, how are you doing? Was just thinking of you. What’s up?” I was inspired by examples of super-connectors who somehow managed to remember everyone’s faces and names, asking after kids and pets and hobbies, effortlessly breaking through the limits of Dunbar’s number. (Or at least it seemed effortless; many worked very hard at this.) I tried out systems like Nimble and Contactually as a way to see people’s activity across platforms and remember to keep in touch. I tried ConnectedHQ (no longer available?) and Sunrise for people-related notes in my calendar. I followed Facebook and LinkedIn’s suggestions to greet people on their birthdays or job changes.

Still, those practices never quite felt natural. Maybe I’m just not a people person, at least not that kind. I never became comfortable with calling someone out of the blue, and I preferred posting stories on my blog instead of telling them one-on-one through e-mail or conversation.

I decided to try a different approach: I stopped worrying about keeping in touch. If people came into my life, great. If people drifted out, that was fine too. Instead of working on keeping those relationships going, I focused instead on being open to the conversations as they came up. Instead of reaching out so that I can hear about what people are working on and stay on their radar, I decided to focus on what I was curious about and be open to the people I’d bump into along the way.

Sure, I might have missed a few serendipitous connections with people who were quietly working on interesting things–but the world is full of other people who make it easy to keep up with them, like the way my blog makes it easy to keep up with what I’m interested in. I subscribe to a number of people’s blogs and I follow people on social networks. But for the most part, I care about ideas and conversations first, and then getting to know and keep in touch with people happens along the way.

It’s a very different form of networking, I think, than what I’ve read about in countless books. I still recommend books like How to Talk to Anyone (Lowndes) and Never Eat Alone (Ferrazzi) to people who are curious about building relationships with specific people or making the most of networking events. Me, I’m learning about how to talk to everyone. Instead of building a relationship with a specific person, I look for opportunities to help people around an idea or contribute to a group. Instead of asking a specific person for help, I ask in general, and people step forward if they’re interested. I don’t have to fear rejection, and no one has to look for tactful ways to say no; and if a request doesn’t get any takers, well, I’m where I would’ve been anyway.

In order to make that work, I need to make sure I have good ideas that people want to be part of, the confidence to share them, a platform for sharing them with, specific requests and ways people can get involved, and a way to celebrate how people are helping. I like that. It turns networking into something more than “I think you’re cool and I want to stay in touch” or even “You’re working on cool stuff; How can I help?” – it becomes “We’re all part of something bigger. Let’s make things happen.”

2014-01-05 How can I learn to bring people together
2014-01-05 How can I learn to bring people together

I’d been trying this approach over the past few years. Watching my dad do it was a real eye-opener. My dad works Facebook like a pro, posting ideas and stories and the occasional request. He has probably never taken notes on someone’s interests. He probably doesn’t spend time cataloging people’s goals and passions. As it turns out, he does take a few notes, and he asks my mom if he needs help remembering. (At least my sister says so!) Still, I don’t even know if it’s possible to remember all these little details about the thousands of Facebook friends that he has. If he got the hang of working with fan pages, he’d probably have even more fans. He might ask one or two people who come to mind, but in general, he shares and asks generally. And stuff happens!

2014-01-02 Making things happen

2014-01-02 Making things happen

I’m working on sharing, learning from people, asking for help, and making it easy for people to build on what we have in common. I’ll get there someday. It’s not so much that I want to keep in touch with a specific person; it’s that we’re both actively thinking about a topic, so maybe we’ll set up a conversation so we can exchange notes and learn together. It’s not so much that I want to have a wide range of skills in my roster of contacts; it’s more that I want to provide value to a wide range of people, and maybe some of them will want to help me when the opportunity comes up.

I was thinking about the way people are related to topics so that I can nudge myself to reach out more for questions and conversations. I like the idea of confederates: people who are actively learning about similar things, and whom I’m comfortable asking if I want a different perspective or I’m curious about what they’re learning. I don’t have any set schedule for reaching out to these people. If I learn something they might be interested in, I’ll mention it to them, but I’ll also open up the conversation to everyone who might be interested. When I started drawing out the map, I realized how lucky I was to have so many people I can learn from and who might find stuff I’m learning useful too. This is how I keep in touch now – through the exchange of questions and ideas.

2014-01-30 Confederates

2014-01-30 Confederates

So I might not build as close a relationship as you might with someone who takes the time to send you birthday cards or calls you up every quarter, but then do you really feel all that close to insurance or real estate agents who send you cards like clockwork? I don’t send “Hi, what’s up?” e-mails and I tend to not be very good at responding to them, but I’ll dive deeply into topics of mutual curiosity. My network is shifting to people who share what they know and what they’re learning. While that means I’m probably missing out on a lot of stuff that never gets shared beyond the small circles most people are comfortable in, there are so many good people out there focused on bringing everyone up–not just the people they’ve bumped into. It might also mean that I’m not as close to the people for whom these little gestures mean a lot, but it means that I draw closer to people who don’t have that need. It’s like the difference between someone who puts you on the spot when you forget your name and someone who helpfully supplies it at a hint of hesitation; someone who makes you feel bad for forgetting their birthday or anniversary or whatever, and someone who’s more focused on what’s good instead of what’s missing.

You don’t have to wish me a happy birthday, and you never have to apologize for replying slowly or not being in touch. Better to share your questions and ideas, and better to share that not just with me but with the world.

Learning from people

If I want to learn about more than I can explore in my own life, I’ll need to learn from other people. The easiest way to learn is from people who are already teaching: books, courses, and so on. Although I could probably spend my entire life doing so, it might be interesting to go beyond what I can learn from books and classes. That’s because books and classes have to be written for a certain kind of audience, and learning is further restricted by the time it takes to create these resources and the kind of people who can do so.

I can learn from coaches and mentors as well. Coaches may have explicitly thought about what they want to teach and how they want to teach it, but they customize the approaches and tips for each person (at least good ones do). Mentors might not have thought about the topics as much, so if I want to make the most of mentorship, I should get better at asking questions as well.

An interesting challenge is to learn from people who might not step forward as coaches or mentors. Some people have thought a lot about what they do as they improve it, but they might not have realized that other people would find that useful, or they might not have gotten around to sharing. Finding them is probably the key challenge; once we make the connection, we can have a geek-to-geek conversation. Other people do good stuff without having thought about how they do it – unconscious competence. In addition to the challenge of finding them, there’s also the challenge of articulating how and why they do things, maybe through interviews and observation.

2014-01-24 A path toward learning from people

2014-01-24 A path toward learning from people

I’m pretty decent at learning from books. I’m working on getting better at tracking how I came across a book so that I can thank people, and so that I can see the book in the context of the great conversation. I’m also working on translating ideas into actions and experiments. Books are familiar and well-understood.

2014-01-27 How can I improve my book-reading workflow

2014-01-27 How can I improve my book-reading workflow

Coaching, on the other hand… I could probably make better use of coaching, if I find good matches. Essentially, I’d be investing in faster insights and more effective learning. Could be worthwhile. What would make me say, “Yes, that was totally worth it. I grew in ways I couldn’t have done alone. Let’s continue.”? Path-finding, I think – a quick way to sort through decades of experience and all these resources.

2014-01-28 Understanding coaching in my life

2014-01-28 Understanding coaching in my life

What am I generally curious about? Systems, paths, estimates of effort and reward, other people to learn from, blind spots…

2014-01-15 General questions for coaches, role models, and mentors

2014-01-15 General questions for coaches, role models, and mentors

So that’s for formal coaching relationships. For informal learning, like the conversations we have over years of blog posts and the serendipitous connections we make on Twitter, I’m curious about getting stuff out of people’s heads and helping them share that with other people. People are learning all sorts of cool stuff, but (a) few people slow down and write about them, and (b) sometimes you really do need someone else to ask questions, so if I share what I’m curious about, maybe I can connect with people who have spent some time thinking about these things too.

Mel Chua and I were talking about interview techniques, and she mentioned how instant replays are great for helping people break things down. You watch people do something, you do an instant replay as you try to explain what they’re doing, they say “No, no, no, I did it because ____”, and you iterate until both of you have a clearer understanding. Sounds interesting. I wonder how we can do that online… Timothy Kenny‘s approach is like that too, except not in real-time. He analyzes the behaviour, and then discusses the model with people to see if it can be corrected or clarified.

Anyway, that’s my plan for getting better at learning from people – more conversations, and then eventually regular conversations. I think that will help me get to a more awesome place than I can on my own. =)

2014-01-15 Where I am and where I want to be

2014-01-15 Where I am and where I want to be

Have you deliberately worked on learning from people?

Exploring the idea of advice

I’ve been giving a lot of people advice lately (Google Helpouts, lunches/coffee with people, and so on), which is weird for me because I hedge what I say when I’m writing on my own. My blog posts focus more on the “Here’s what I tried, and here’s how it’s working for me” rather than “You should do X, Y, Z.”  When someone asks me a question or describes a challenge they’re facing, though, I have no problems offering suggestions.

I thought about what advice is like and how I can give it more effectively. I realized that there are actually lots of different ways you can help people by talking to them, and it’s not all about saying “You should do X, Y, Z” with minimal understanding of the other person’s situation. Here’s what I came up with:

2013-11-20 Exploring the idea of advice

(Click on the image for a larger version)

I’ve read about and tried a lot of approaches, so I really like the “Have you thought about…” way of helping people. I do that after a few “Tell me about…” so I understand the person’s context and we can build on things they’ve already tried. Sometimes people ask me about how I make decisions too, so I’m happy to walk people through that. (Especially if I’ve already documented it!) On rare occasions, I can tell people the name of the thing they’re looking for (ex: spaced repetition! cloze deletion!) which unlocks all these resources for them. When I’m writing on my own, I like using “Don’t miss… / Watch out for…” to help people save time.

Giving advice still feels odd. I definitely don’t want to become an “I know better than you” sort of person. I like using questions more than declarations anyway. Maybe I’ll find an approach that works for me!

How do you share what you know? How do you help others learn?

Google Helpouts update: Helping people learn, thinking about business strategies

After a few weeks of occasional 15-minute Google Helpout sessions with people interested in improving their learning and note-taking skills, I’ve learned a little more about what I like and what I want to focus on. It’s mind-boggling, but it turns out that I can actually help people with stuff. Yay!

I started with free sessions, and quite a few of my early Helpouts were with university and graduate students looking for ways to get through lectures and prepare for exams. I picked up a lot of questions and put together additional resources, which I’ve been sharing through Flickr (see the Learning category). Since the Helpouts were free, I thought about what would make it worth my time and theirs.

2013-11-06 Helping students with study skills

I got a number of inquiries from parents who were interested in helping their kids study better. I felt less comfortable doing that, although I didn’t run into the scenario I was most worried about, since the parents I talked to were generally upbeat about their kids’ studies.

2013-11-18 How do I feel about parents asking me if I can help their kids study

I decided to put together some quick tips anyway, building on our experiences with helping J- and her friends study. Then I revised my listing to focus on self-directed learners.

2013-11-18 Helping your child study

So far, it seems to be going well. Getting reviews like this makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. =)

Sacha was cheerful and obviously passionate about ways to make learning fun. As she introduced me to the various approaches of visual note taking I was surprised at how much freedom it gave me to personalize my notes. Newly armed with the confirmation that doodling is OK I’m excited to see how it effects my attention & recall of topics I’m less interested in. Sacha covered all the basics I needed to get started & even listed some online sites where I can learn more. I definitely recommend this Helpout! - James Derieg

I’d like Google Helpouts to flourish as a platform, and I enjoy participating in the private Helpouts Discuss G+ community with the other providers. It’s great to see lots of people experiment with business strategies and approaches for Google Helpouts. For me, I’m not (yet) planning to build a business out of it. I see it mostly as a way to make it easier for people to schedule quick one-on-one chats with me, and if I happen to help other people with what I’ve learned (and collect lots of great questions to write/draw about!), all the better.

2013-11-21 Google Helpouts Business Strategies

Google Helpouts also has to make sense for Google in the long run, too. Otherwise this might go the way of Google Wave and Google Reader! So I put my tech evangelist/strategist hat on and thought about some of the possible futures for Google Helpouts.

2013-11-18 Imagining Helpouts futures


We’ll just have to see how it goes!

I’m not opening up any Helpouts slots in December because I don’t know what my schedule will be like, but you can check out the resources I’ve shared at and sign up for updates on upcoming Hangouts on Air and new Helpouts availability. Let’s keep experimenting!

Google Helpouts update: Building the community

Google Helpouts is in the early days of the platform, and I’m fascinated by how people are figuring it out. The communities are based in Google+, naturally, because that’s where all the accounts are. There’s an official private community for accepted Helpers (Helpouts Discuss), and a couple of other unofficial communities like the Helpouts Trading Post. I pay attention to Helpouts Discuss and I check on other communities through my Google+ page. I like seeing how people adapt to tools and how tools also adapt to people.

After sharing my experience report on the Google Helpouts launch, I wrote about how I was thinking about scaling up. Here are the results:

  • Update the help page on my site and add different help options to it. Created landing page at with links to resources
  • Set up a mailing list for Hangout On Air, new Helpout availability, and new resources for different topics. No mailing list yet, but I’ve added a little more availability.
  • Schedule a Hangout On Air experimental Q&A. Scheduled! Details at
  • Test conversion through my own page. Keep the session free. Decided to jump to a token fee instead.
  • Package free resources: More progress – Flickr + blogs
  • Be firmer about session preparation. Maybe give guidelines: three questions? I didn’t have to lean on people or cancel any slots. =) I don’t mind the no-shows so much because I can always do something with the time, so it’s just about prioritizing slots for people who want them.
  • Switch to a token fee with a cancellation policy, especially if I can update the listing or autorespond with include alternatives when fully booked. Done! The listing links to, so people have someplace to go if I’m out of slots.

The conversations on Helpouts Discuss are great for inspiration. They’re also interesting as a way to see different approaches to challenges. I love it when people share how they’re working around the current limitations, and I’m happy to share my process experiments. Instead of waiting for Google to change things, I’d rather think: “What can I do right now to make this better?” As it turns out, there are lots of things one can do.

2013-11-17 Google Helpouts and action focus

This takes time and effort, of course, but I think it might be worth the investment. A great test for a plan is whether it still makes sense and whether people will still be okay with it even if you tell people about it. ;) Here’s how Google Helpouts fits into my current master plan:

2013-11-16 How Google Helpouts fit into my current master plan

I’m planning to learn from people’s questions and use those as prompts to fill in the gaps by writing, drawing, or organizing useful content. I’m also interested in helping the Helpouts provider community, because there’s a lot to figure out and many people don’t have the time, patience, or skills to do so. If I can get better at helping people learn and connecting with people along the way, then I can build on that network and those skills for future ideas as well.

For example, some of the other providers have been organizing informal Hangouts where we swap tips or even just work on things while chatting with people in the background. (It’s the virtual cafe!) For example, while I’m drafting this post, Matt Gibson is writing his biography for a new website. I’ve been taking notes of the more tip-oriented Hangouts so that we can come back to those tips later. Here are my notes from the first one I joined. (That was a bit of a scramble because I only started taking notes halfway through and I didn’t have anything set up – fortunately, my Cintiq was handy…)

2013-11-15 Helpout Hints Hangout - page 1

2013-11-15 Helpout Hints Hangout - page 2

I’ve been organizing the community tips into a logical order and writing them up, and Al Navas and I are planning a weekly podcast that will have panels and tips. This is fantastic! It gives me more opportunities to practise accelerating people’s learning in a brand-new field.

There’s a lot I want to learn that I can exercise through Helpouts – either helping people directly, or helping people who help people.

2013-11-16 What am I specifically interested in learning from Helpouts

I want to get better at focused conversations, content creation, video/podcasting, conversion… If there’s anything here you’d like to help me and other people with, please share! In the meantime, I’ll keep looking for the next little step I can take and how I can make things better. =)


Google Helpouts Update: People like it, so how do we scale this up?

It turns out that the newly-launched Google Helpouts platform is a great way to offer quick, focused help to people. 15 minutes is just enough time to ask a few questions to understand where people are coming from and share some tips and resources that can help them try out something new.

My note-taking Helpout is fully booked for the rest of the slots I opened in November. I’m keeping it to 15-minute slots for two hours a day or every other day so that I don’t get overwhelmed. My two other listings (Emacs geekery and introvert hacking) just went live. I added a few slots for those so that I can test the idea out. You can find all three at… but they’re probably going to be fully booked by the time most people check it out.

Requests for more slots are piling up in my inbox, and I haven’t quite figured out what I’m going to do about them. I really really want to connect! People have all these fascinating questions, and I’ve gotten great conversations and drawing prompts out of these Google Helpouts. But I can’t let it take over my work or my life, so I need to find a better way to scale up that don’t involve just adding more hours.

2013-11-07 Google Helpouts - sold out

One way to increase my impact without increasing my hours is to reduce the no-show rate. I think charging for a Helpout (even if I refund it on attendance) will drastically reduce my sign-up rate because people will need to set up a Google Wallet. I’m reluctant to introduce that kind of friction and effort when many of the people reaching out to me are blog readers (hi folks!) or students. I could be wrong about this assumption, so I should test it. Maybe charging will still result in sign-ups, in which case I may set the fee to a token amount (a cup of hot chocolate?) and inch it up until the slots reach equilibrium.2013-11-08 Wha twould make me feel comfortable with charging for a Helpout

I want to make sure that I’m overdelivering value and that I can still encourage people to contact me for free. I’ve started a discussion in the Helpouts community to find out whether my idea of directing people to free resources (Hangout on Air? Blog and mailing list?) that are outside the Helpouts platform is compatible with Google’s Terms of Service. Google doesn’t want Helpout providers to channel people off the platform and into non-Google-hosted paid services… Would they mind if I nudged people towards free resources if I’m out of scheduled slots? We’ll see.

If I go this way, I also want a significant non-Google-Helpouts-marketplace way of encouraging people to sign up. That’s because most people browsing it will probably focus on the free offers (I would too!), and I want to make sure that people who really want to talk to me can still find me. I could update the page about what I can help people with so that it lists different topics and options in a visually engaging way.

Anyway, assuming that charging fills the time 100% with people who show up prepared to ask questions and pick my brain, then that effectively doubles my impact. It’s still about 1:1 interaction, though, and it’s still going to be limited by hours. Another way for me to scale up the help I can provide is to collect the answers together. For example, here are some sketches that grew out of people’s questions over the past week:

If my goal for doing these Helpouts is to collect interesting questions that I can use to share what I’m learning and fill in the navigational gaps, then it’s in my interest to ask questions beforehand, share some quick resources, and cancel Helpouts if people aren’t responsive or if those resources answer the question so that other people can take the slot. (Be firm, Sacha!) The Helpouts interface doesn’t make it easy to keep track of the age of messages, but maybe using Google Mail with Boomerang will do the trick. Most likely, people who are engaged will then have follow-up questions, so we can fill in the next gap along the trail.

2013-11-08 How would I scale up helping people learn more effectively

People don’t need more information. They need to figure out where to start. For me, the value I provide in the Helpout is in the back-and-forth of a quick conversation that clarifies what people need. That way, I can either point them to the right resources or give them some tips in case there are no such resources handy. (And then I can build those!) It’s a little difficult to do with a group session, although maybe if I get better at Q&A, I might be able to pull that off.

So maybe what I need to do is:

  • Update the help page on my site and add different help options to it.
  • Set up a mailing list for Hangout On Air, new Helpout availability, and new resources for different topics.
  • Schedule a Hangout On Air experimental Q&A.
  • Test conversion through my own page. Keep the session free.
  • Package free resources.
  • Be firmer about session preparation. Maybe give guidelines: three questions?
  • Switch to a token fee with a cancellation policy, especially if I can update the listing or autorespond with include alternatives when fully booked.

Any suggestions?