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.

A No Excuses Guide to Blogging (PDF, EPUB, MOBI – free!); also, notes on publishing

This entry is part 1 of 19 in the series A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging

First, a quick announcement: A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging is now available as a free/pay-what-you-want e-book so that you can work your way through your excuses without having to click through lots of blog posts. =)

Mock-up by Ramon Williamson


Mock-up by Ramon Williamson

The cover I made for Amazon

The cover I made for Amazon

The PDF looks prettiest if you’re reading it on your computer or tablet, and the EPUB/MOBI version is handy for other e-readers. You get all three (and any future updates) if you grab it from http://sachachua.com/no-excuses-blogging, or you can get the MOBI version from the Kindle store (currently $0.99, but eventually they’ll price-match it to $0). The book is under Creative Commons Attribution, so feel free to share it with other people. =)

UPDATE 2014-02-13: Here’s a one-page summary!

2014-02-13 A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging - Summary of 10 blogging excuses and how to work around them

2014-02-13 A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging – Summary of 10 blogging excuses and how to work around them

 

- Behind the scenes stuff! – 

So this was about 8 hours of packaging after I’d identified the topics and asked an assistant to compile all the blog posts in a Word document. I edited the text to make it fit better in a collection, fiddled with the graphics, added more sketches, tweaked the layout some more, fought with section headers, and eventually created a PDF that I was reasonably happy with. I contacted a bunch of people on Fiverr about converting the DOCX into EPUB and MOBI. While waiting for a response, I decided to try doing it myself. It took me some time to clean up the messy HTML, but I’m reasonably happy with how the EPUB worked out. I had to tweak the EPUB table of contents in order to get it to pass the validator used by Lulu, but eventually I got it worked out with Calibre and Sigil. The MOBI was a straight conversion from the EPUB, although I wonder if I can get the background colour to be white…

2014-02-05 Notes on publishing

2014-02-05 Notes on publishing

So that was interesting and useful, and it would be good to do more. Here are some ideas for other “No Excuses”-type guides I might put together. Maybe self-directed learning and delegation, actually, since other people are covering the sketchnoting bit quite well.

2014-02-06 What other excuses can I collect and work around

2014-02-06 What other excuses can I collect and work around

There’s also this list of other book ideas, Thinking with Emacs, Tracking Your Time, Accelerating Your Learning with Sketchnotes, and this big outline. Lots to do. Looking forward to figuring out how I can get more of these out the door. =)

In the meantime… tada! http://sach.ac/no-excuses-blogging

Reflections on learning to be an entrepreneur

The other week, I focused on exploring ideas and becoming my own client. Last week, I focused on the systems I can set up in order to keep on sharing while I’m distracted by work or other needs. The other week felt happier and more self-directed, but on reflection, last week is great for long-term learning and growth as well. I just have to keep tweaking the balance. Some weeks might be more exploratory, and some weeks might be more focused on packaging things and building processes. I’ll probably spend more time on consultinfg going forward than I thought I would two weeks ago, but I can see the benefits of investing the extra income into building up my delegation skills and experimenting with business ideas. (Besides, my clients are nice, and I want to help them do well.)

2014-02-07 Adjusting the balance

2014-02-07 Adjusting the balance

Thinking about this balance reminded me of this conversation that I had with Ramon Williamson, who has been thinking about the differences between artists and entrepreneurs. He’s coming to terms with the fact that he wants to focus on just speaking and coaching, and he doesn’t want to deal with a lot of the other small things that are part of building a business. It’s like the way my dad focused on just photography while my mom took care of running the company. Ramon is looking for someone who can manage him. I think a lot of people are like that, even the ones who have been self-employed for a while. That’s why partnerships often make sense, and why people often struggle with self-employment or self-directed learning.

I think of entrepreneurship as learning how to build processes, then systems, then businesses. It turns out  actually enjoy doing this. I stayed up until 1 AM Sunday morning interviewing an applicant for a writing gig that I posted on oDesk. She seems fine, so I hired her and walked her through what I’m looking for. I’m excited about the possibilities. I briefly thought of agreeing to experiment with managing Ramon and using that as practice for developing my systems, but I’ve committed to doing public work that builds up my life brick by brick. So I’m going to invest in building up my processes and skills, but I’m going to do that with my own content. That will also encourage me to develop my “artist” side: writing, drawing, coding, sharing, and so on.

Does it always have to be a partnership between an artist and an entrepreneur, or can you do a decent job at both? It seems like artists need to partner with entrepreneurs, but entrepreneurs with artistic bents can sometimes pull things off on their own. I think it makes sense for me to focus on developing those entrepreneurship-related skills first. It might mean growing slowly as an artist, but I think processes can scale up art so much. For example, becoming really comfortable with delegation will allow me to imagine things that I can’t do on my own. This seems to be something that lots of people struggle with. Most people I talk to have issues with trust, perfectionism, and other barriers. That means that it probably doesn’t take that much effort to get good enough to distinguish yourself, so if I can get to that level, that would speed up my growth even more.

2014-02-08 Artists and entrepreneurs

2014-02-08 Artists and entrepreneurs

People’s interests and skills are unevenly distributed. In some areas, it takes a lot of effort to get good enough. In some areas, a little effort goes a long way. It reminds me a little of how one strategy for playing role-playing games is to be a munchkin: to maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses in a way that allows you to exploit the rules of the game. While that can lead to games that aren’t particularly enjoyable (unless you’re playing a game that makes fun of munchkinry), in life, a little of that strategy might be interesting. So, in the areas where I have unfair advantages–and in particular, unusual combinations of unfair advantages–I might be able to recognize opportunities for uncommon contributions.

This enjoyment of building processes and systems is one such unfair advantage. Coding is another, and delegation is almost like a people-version of coding. Frugality lets me take advantage of compounding interest. Reflective learning helps me take advantage of figurative compounding interest, which is enhanced by speed-reading my way through other people’s experiences and insights. Satisficing and optimism allow me to avoid the dangers of perfectionism and make it easier for me to experiment and trust. Self-direction lets me use these advantages to my own ends instead of being limited by someone else’s imagination or by a job description.

2014-02-08 Unfair advantages

2014-02-08 Unfair advantages

It is a handy combination of advantages. You should be out there, Ramon said. Joining the ranks of infopreneurs (many of whom seem to make their money by telling other people how to be infopreneurs). Making things happen. Living the life. I’m a little meh about the idea. I’ll grow at my own rate and at my own time. Plus, I like the free-and-pay-what-you-want model so much more than the buy-my-training-course-for-$X-hundred-dollars. I like the way it engages generosity and acts from abundance, both on my side (here is a gift!) and on other people’s. (Here is some totally optional appreciation! Make more stuff like this.) I’ll either figure out how to make that work, or I’ll eventually come around to setting prices. In the meantime, I can focus on building up those unfair advantages at the same time that I’m building up the things I want to make with them.

For example: delegation. I like framing my work as something that people can flexibly do more or less of, depending on their schedules and energies. It’s the same freedom I have with consulting, and I think it makes it easier for people who work for me as well. So it’s not a fixed “You must work 20 hours a week” thing, but rather, “Here’s a board with all the different tasks waiting for someone to work on them. Pick something you want to work on. You can work more hours on the weeks when you want to, and you can work fewer hours on the weeks that you need to. Just tell me if you need to be away for a while, so I can make sure that work gets reassigned.” I’ll check in with my virtual assistants to see if this is working for them or if they need deadlines or set times for focus and motivation. Eventually I might work up to asking for consistent time slots so that I have an idea of turn around times, but the system seems to be working so far.

I’ve been adding more people to my virtual team. There’s a range of rates (anywhere from $2-12/hour), and I’m working on gradually getting more of my assistants to deserve and totally justify higher rates. I proactively give them bonuses and raises, even. Instead of micromanaging who works on what in order to maximize cost-efficiency (approach A: different people for different skills; see diagram below), I’m experimenting with putting all the tasks on Trello and letting people choose from the tasks based on their skills and energy. If I’ve got good enough rapport with the team, then people might focus on the stuff that really justifies the value in their rate. I want to get to the point where people are generally cross-trained, so people can take the task and see it through end-to-end (approach D). I remember from Toyota’s lean method that this makes work better (versus the assembly line, where you only see your small part).

I’m also working on chunking higher-level tasks – the delegation equivalent of going up a level of abstraction, writing procedures that call other procedures. (See my list of processes) For example, I started with separate tasks to extract the MP3, add metadata, upload to archive.org, transcribe the audio, etc. Now I’m testing the task of posting show notes, which includes all of those. Maybe someday I’ll get to object-oriented programming!

2014-02-08 Delegation and task efficiency

2014-02-08 Delegation and task efficiency

I started by mostly working on my podcasting flow, but I’m also experimenting with delegating other processes to support learning or sharing. For example, how can delegation support my drawing? My process is pretty efficient at the moment (aside from some cross-referencing data entry that I don’t usually get around to doing myself), but if I batch things up more, maybe other people can help me tag my sketches and turn them into posts.

2014-02-05 Delegation and drawings - where does it make sense
2014-02-05 Delegation and drawings – where does it make sense

Writing is another good candidate, too. Podcasting and drawing help with writing, so it all comes together. I want to get even better at pulling stuff out of my head and out of other people’s heads, and getting those ideas into a form that other people can easily learn from. That’s why I’m experimenting with getting writers to help me pull out ideas from Q&As in transcripts and from all these thinking-out-loud self-reflections that may be a little too long and rambling for most people to make the most of. For example, a reader-focused tips post based on this might just focus on building systems and omit the role-playing games references. The end goal for that one would be to have a blog that mixes shorter, focused tips with long behind-the-scenes notes, and to have e-books (and maybe even physical books!) that flow well. That way, it’s good for people who just want a burst of inspiration so that they can get on with applying the ideas to their life, and it’s also good for people who like seeing the verbose tracing messages as I think and learn.

It’s a bit strange investing so much in the processes and output without yet building up the kind of audience and demand that justifies it, but I think it’s the Right Thing to Do to have transcripts and follow-up blog posts and all that jazz. If I grow sustainably and keep an eye on my finances, I’ll probably get to that take-off point right when I have the skills and systems to support it – and more importantly, the community. I figure it’s much easier to build great relationships with confederates/tribe people (Hi!) and provide useful resources for searchers while I’m not distracted by the mainstream yet, and I might not even bother with going mainstream. I’m just going to focus on you, and maybe you’ll find it so awesome that you’ll bring in a few people for whom this is also a really good fit.

That seems to be the general pattern of how I’m learning about entrepreneurship. I’m investing in the capabilities now rather than waiting for demand to completely drive it – almost like my own little MBA. Still cheaper than $80k+ for an MBA at Rotman, and you’ll get better value out of my “class projects” (like this free PDF/EPUB/MOBI of my No Excuses Guide to Blogging guide). At some point, we’ll figure out a proper business model. Maybe it’s sponsorship. Maybe it’s pay what you want. Maybe it’s membership, although we’ll need to find something that doesn’t involve just exclusive access to content, since I like making ideas as widely spread as possible. Maybe more of a coaching program? If you want me to sell to you, tell me how you want me to sell to you. (Comment, tweet, or e-mail me!)

2013-11-17 Should I sell to people more - If so, how would you like that

2013-11-17 Should I sell to people more – If so, how would you like that

(Although to be fair, there’s probably a lot of demand already out there. People have been asking me for an Emacs book for years. Look! I’ve started drawing maps and other Emacs tips. It will happen. I just need to sit down and share more raw material. This means you need to sit down and ask me questions about stuff I’m taking for granted.)

Maybe it’s a weird sort of entrepreneurship that I’m growing into, but I think it will be fun. How can I use what I’m learning to help you?

Stepping up to publishing

Number of sketches in blog posts

Number of sketches in blog posts

A nifty thing about experiments is that you can often see their impact when you review, even if the changes are less visible day to day. For example, I’ve resolved to be my own client and spend less time consulting, more time writing–and to be more selfish about my writing (that is, to give myself even more permission to write about personal reflections while figuring things out). It’s been a little over a week since then, and I noticed something interesting. I’ve drawn roughly the same number of sketches, but the difference is that I’ve been digging deeper into my questions over a series of sketches instead of scattering my sketches over a wide range of topics. That makes it easier to write a blog post that ties together different questions. To be fair, there’s a large set from last week that I haven’t written up, but I like this workflow so far.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to move towards writing things that are useful for both me and others. Ramon Williamson and Paul Kripp nudged me to think more about packaging and publishing my notes – creating an interface for what I know. Since I have a large archive and perhaps an idiosyncratic way of describing things, searching for tips can be difficult. A good way to find things is to ask me: blog comments, e-mail, real-time conversations (free or paid). If I take the time to organize what I know–to draw those paths through the material, and to translate/update reflections into tips–people will find it easier to learn. It takes work and it seems like a distraction from going ever onward, but doing this allows me to help people learn faster, so then we can all get to the more interesting questions.

I was thinking about whom I get to talk to because of this writing and sharing. A lot of people come to this blog because they’re searching for something specific: Emacs tips, for example. A surprising number of people explore more and stick around, because it turns out we have a lot of common interests or they like what I share. I know what this feels like – I love coming across blogs I resonate with too. These people are my tribe. (Well, sans tribal leader; I think of us more as peers. =) ) A few people become part of my life as confederates: I know what they’re interested in and I’m comfortable reaching out to them if I’m trying to figure something out. Different kinds of sharing reach different kinds of people. I don’t expect casual readers to read through one of my long reflections. I can serve them best with tightly-focused tips.

2014-01-29 Translating what I learn

2014-01-29 Translating what I learn

How can I make it easier for people to come closer and take advantage of what I’m learning? For searchers, I think it’s important to make talking to me less intimidating. I like questions. Writing clear tips and arranging resources into maps or sequences can help, too.

For people who would like to be tribe members, making subscription easier might help. I’m switching over to using Mailchimp so that people can set up daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly subscriptions, and I’ve written about using feed readers. If you want to subscribe to a subset of my blog (for example, just learning tips), e-mail me and I’ll help you figure that out. =) More importantly, though, I can build relationships with people by offering and asking for help.

As for confederates, I find that a lot of these conversations evolve out of the questions I post and the feedback I share after applying people’s advice. I can ask more questions and get better at learning from people. I can also pay more attention and learn more about people’s interests: checking out their tweets or blog posts, following them for the serendipity of overheard conversations.

2014-01-29 Building people's capacities

2014-01-29 Building people’s capacities

One of the reasons to publish is to reach an audience that might not even know that this could be useful for them. I feel like this about a lot of books – I hadn’t thought of looking for the information, but I’m glad I came across it. There are a lot of hoops to jump through before you can get to that level of reach, though. I don’t think I’d ever be up for a book tour. I like being home. =) I suspect that a very wide reach might be more hassle than it’s worth, but that might just be anxiety talking, and Stoicism might help me get past that.

2014-01-29 Calibrating the right level of reach or obscurity

2014-01-29 Calibrating the right level of reach or obscurity

So really, what are my excuses for not having packaged and published more? When it comes down to it, I really don’t have a good excuse. Yes, it’s tempting to keep pushing on to new topics, new ideas, new experiments. But if I skip the sharing part – or do it in a superficial manner, sharing my reflections without integrating it further – then I shortchange myself. As SketchyMuslims indirectly reminded me by quoting me:

The time I take to share what I learn is the most valuable part of my learning process.

The learning machine: How I turn what I learn into blog posts (me – September 2013!)

It’s not enough for me to turn my reflections into blog posts. I need to work on them again and turn them into insights that I can share with people. Maybe I’ll use the “reflection” tag to indicate stuff I’m mostly writing for myself (although other people can chime in, of course) and the “tips” tag to indicate stuff I’m writing mostly for other people. That turns it into something trackable. For example, this is very much a me-thinking-out-loud sort of post.

2014-01-30 Publishing - what's in my way, and how do I get past it

2014-01-30 Publishing – what’s in my way, and how do I get past it

One way that I like dealing with my excuses is to convince myself of the selfish benefits of doing something. In this case: Yes, books are good for helping people learn. They are good for serendipitous learning. They’re better at surviving than blogs are. More than that, books let people physically interact with ideas – to highlight, add notes, dogear, pass on to others… I’d love to eventually learn how to build these resources to help people learn, so why not sooner rather than later?

2014-01-30 On packaging and publishing

2014-01-30 On packaging and publishing

Besides, I can get a lot of benefits out of putting together books. The immediate benefit is that I can save time explaining things, since I can set people on a path that guides them for the most part. The secondary benefit is that I learn more deeply by revisiting the topics and organizing them into paths. The tertiary benefit (and the most awesome one!) is that I can help people learn faster, catch up faster, so that we all get to the point of asking more interesting questions. If I can help people learn more, I can learn more from them. And there’s the totally awesome feeling that Paul Klipp shared with me: that of getting a physical copy of your ideas into your hands! (I should definitely check out CreateSpace.)

2014-01-30 Thinking about my path to packaging and publishing

2014-01-30 Thinking about my path to packaging and publishing

The path is straightforward, and there really aren’t any barriers in my way. It’s all about butt-in-chair time: devoting some time to reviewing, revising, organizing, packaging. Well, there are some things that can help.

  • Questions! Questions are awesome because they help me figure out what people might find useful, what sequence might be good, and what’s missing. Ask me questions. Comments, Twitter, Google+, e-mail, Helpouts… Don’t worry about asking questions about things I’ve already covered before – in fact, please ask, so that I can make those things more findable and understandable.
  • Confederates and tribe members! I learn a ton by talking to people who are actively trying to figure things out too. =)

That’s how you can help. As for me, there are lots of little things I can do every day to move things forward.

2014-01-30 Small steps towards publishing

2014-01-30 Small steps towards publishing

The goal: More coherent, logically ordered, clearly written, other-focused chunks (maybe 15-30 pages?) that people can read at their convenience.  Let’s make it happen!