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Circuses, pots, and cathedrals: three key stories

| passion, reflection, story

There are three stories I refer to again and again: taking the first circus, making more pots, and building a cathedral. They form part of my approach to life.

Taking the first circus

My parents told the story of the first circus to us when we were growing up. On her blog, she wrote:

It came from an anecdote that my husband and I read in the Readers’ Digest about a little girl in a town soon to be visited by three circuses. Her father explained to her that the family was not financially able to take her to all three circuses and could take her only to one. The first circus would be just a small one, while the third would be the best and biggest, and presumably the most expensive. “I’ll take the first circus,” she said, and so her parents took her to the first. A few months later, when the second circus came, the family’s finances had improved and they were able to take her to the second. And finally, they found that they could afford to get tickets to the third and most expensive circus.

Harvey Chua, I’ll take the first circus

The story of taking the first circus reminds me to take opportunities when they come up. I tend to be conservative and frugal, but I’m also good at figuring out when it’s time to take that leap.

Making more pots

In a previous blog post, I wrote:

There’s a story about a pottery teacher who divided the class into two groups. A student in one group would be graded based on the quality of one pot that they turned in at the end of the semester, while a student in the other group would be graded based on the sheer number of all the pots submitted throughout the semester. At the end of the semester, students in the second group–those measured only on quantity–had produced better pots than those who had focused on quality. In the process of creating a large number of pots, the second group had learned from their mistakes, while the first group had been paralyzed by endless theorizing about what a perfect pot would be.

Me, Of sewing more dresses and making more pots

I use the pot-making story a lot. For example, when I struggled with writing, the pot-making story reminded me to just get something out there. The pot-story reminds me that even mistakes help you move towards mastery.

Building a cathedral

Several builders were on a construction site. A visitor asked the first worker what he was doing. The first builder replied, “I’m laying bricks.” The visitor asked the second, who replied, “I’m building a wall.” The visitor asked the third, who proudly answered, “I’m building a cathedral.”

The cathedral story reminds me of the power of vision. Good vision can turn any work into a joy. The lack of vision can make even the most talented lost.

The story also tells me that vision can be created by anyone. Even though I’m a recent hire, I have a strong vision for what I want to help the company and the world become, and I have a strong vision for myself and who I want to grow into.

Circuses, pots, and cathedrals – shorthand for how I live. What are your key stories?

Thanks to Paul for the nudge to write about this!

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The sweet spot at work

Posted: - Modified: | career, ibm, passion, reflection

I had a wonderful conversation with my manager’s manager the other day. She wanted to know more about what I was working on with Innovation Discovery, and the other things I was doing at IBM. I told her the story of how I joined IBM after getting to know so many incredible people throughout the organization. Two and a half years later, I’m even more in love with the amazing people, talents, and opportunities within reach, and I’m doing work that’s exactly in line with my skills and passions.

“You’re so lucky,” she said.

Yes, I am. But it doesn’t have to be luck. I think we can help many, many people have these kinds of experiences, particularly as we get better at bringing down the walls of geography and organizational division. I want to figure out how other people in IBM and in other organizations can have these kinds of wow moments.

It reminded me of the “career best” moments described in The Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers into Great Leaders. “Career best” experiences are the highlights of people’s work—when they contribute something of significance and they feel successful. The concept was researched by Kurt Sandholtz and further developed by Gene Dalton and Paul Thompson. Dalton and Thompson wrote, “If individuals don’t understand their unique strengths or interests, they don’t have any basis for deciding whether a job or an assignment make sense for them.” Knowing what to say no to is as important as knowing what to pursue.

In The Extraordinary Leader, Zenger and Folkman share a model for leadership sweet spots: the intersection between competencies, organizational needs, and passion. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that Venn diagram is very useful in all sorts of life situations. I’ve used it to think about the sweet spots in life, too. It’s the intersection between what you do well, what the world needs, and what you love.

What would it take for more people to find those sweet spots for themselves?

I think self-awareness plays a huge role. I think a lot about what I like and don’t like, in what I excel and in what I’m merely mediocre.

Communication matters, too. My manager, my organization, and my clients know what I care about and what I’m good at. I can show people how what I do meets the organization’s needs and our clients’ needs.

My blog is my primary tool for both self-awareness and communication. Blogging solutions, tips, ideas, and reflections helps me think through things and share them with other people. Reading what I’ve written and what others have shared helps me understand even more.

So this is one of the reasons why I’m passionate about helping people connect and collaborate. The more we can encourage people to reflect and share, the closer they can move to their sweet spots.

There’s still a lot of fear and resistance when it comes to sharing. People are afraid of embarrassing themselves, or they tell themselves that they don’t have time, or they think they don’t have anything to share.

I used to say that maybe the reason why I share so much is that I’m new. I’m learning a lot. I don’t have the established networks or reputations that other people have. I don’t have a choice – I need to share as widely as I can, in order to catch up.

But not many new hires have embraced sharing, and they’re having a hard time finding their sweet spots. So maybe it’s not that. Besides, I’ll keep sharing even as I grow in responsibility and reach.

What is it, then? What can help people find those sweet spots?

How can we help people build those serendipitous relationships with unexpected mentors?

How can we help people reflect, share, and grow?

Or should I focus on finding people who already have that spark – who already know it’s possible, who know a little bit about their sweet spots, and who want to grow even more – and help them do amazing things?

What if more people could be fully engaged? How wonderful could this be?

The Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers into Great Leaders
John Zenger and Joseph R. Folkman, 2009
ISBN: 9780071628082

This is an affiliate link, but please feel

Google Books: The Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers into Great Leaders

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Training wheels for setting goals

Posted: - Modified: | life, passion, purpose

“Do you have any good questions to encourage people to set goals?” my mom asked. She’s been having a hard time getting people in the office to set personal and business goals. She’s tried worksheets, acronyms like SMART, motivational speakers,

I suggested providing a menu of suggestions, if people had difficulty answering open-ended questions. Generic suggestions –> concrete personal goals –> actions they can take to achieve that goal. It can be hard to dream from scratch. Ideas, guide questions, and role models help a lot. They’re like training wheels for setting goals.

When I’m brainstorming what I want to do in life, I find that reading and listening helps. I look for what resonates with me, and then I choose elements to incorporate into my plans.

What helps you set goals? How do you help other people learn how to set goals?

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Rabbit-holes of awesome

| passion, sketches


Interests can be rabbit-holes of awesome. There’s no telling how deep they run.

One of the things I love about exploring interests is getting inspired by people who are passionate about them. Book-binding, for example—there are people who are very geeky about book-binding. Same goes for photography, sewing, gardening, and all sorts of other good things. That’s what’s great about the Internet. It’s easy to find people passionate about an interest, no matter how niche it is.

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How I explore my interests

Posted: - Modified: | life, passion

Looking for your passions? You might be starting with the wrong question. Except in rare circumstances, passion doesn’t hit people out of the blue. You don’t just wake up one morning and discover a love for painting or polynomials. Passion starts small.

If you’re caught up in looking for the kind of burning passion that will turn your world upside down, you might miss the little things that lead to interests. Some of your interests will lead to skills. Some of your skills and experiences will grow into passions.

There are lots of guides on how to explore and develop your passions, so I won’t repeat the advice you’ll see elsewhere. Instead, let me share how I explore my interests, in case that nudges your mind.

I lucked into my big passions. I don’t remember learning how to use the computer, and I only vaguely remember teaching myself how to program.

One passion leads to another, almost without choice. My big passions span years and open up other possibilities. A passion for programming turned into a passion for open source, which led to a passion for personal information management and productivity via the unlikely conduit of Emacs. Personal information management led to a passion for social information management, social networking, and collaboration. Computing and open source led to teaching, which led to public speaking, which broadened and became a passion for communication. Looking back, each step—each evolution—seems natural and unavoidable. Each skill is a launchpad for other skills.

I think a lot about passions. I think about what I’m passionate about, how to explore that, and how to articulate that. But I’m not discovering things from scratch—I’m taking something that already exists, and I make it clearer.

This means that it’s difficult for me to help people get started and overcome inertia. Self-discovery is tough. Once you know the feeling of passion, though, it becomes much easier. I’ve thought a lot about accelerating new passions when you already have at least one. I don’t have as much advice for when you don’t know of anything you’re passionate about.

Against the backdrop of these big passions, I’ve explored dozens of interests. Many of those interests contribute to my passions in unexpected ways. Any one of those interests could become a passion—indeed, are passions for other people. I know more about exploring interests and developing them into passions than about finding passions right off the bad.


Where do ideas for interests come from? Many interests start in my curiosity about what my ideal life looks like. I think about what I might do or experience if I had all the time and money I wanted. I look for ways to start experimenting with those ideas now instead of later. It often takes less money and time than I expect.

Many interests grow out of existing ones. Sometimes they’re logical progressions. Sometimes they’re complementary pursuits.

Many interests are inspired by others. I talk to people I admire. I read books and blog posts. I flip through course catalogues. When I come across something that tickles my imagination, I see if I can give it a try.

How do I make it possible to explore interests? Living frugally means I can regularly save money in an “opportunity” fund that I use for experiences or education. This means I don’t have to worry about choosing between interests and bills. Minimizing commitments and keeping work-life balance means I can free up the time to explore emerging interests, which usually end up being quite helpful at work and in life too.

How do I explore interests? I find that teaching myself is more fulfilling and cheaper than taking a class unless I really need other people in order to explore an interest. It’s easier, too. I usually check out lots of books from the library and make time to practice. As I explore, I think about my experiences and share what I’m learning. Is it worth it compared to other ways I can spend my time? Are there more effective ways to achieve my goal?


What are you curious about? What do you want to learn?

Plan how to learn it. Make time and space for it.

Give it a try. If you like it, get better at it. You’ll like it even more as you get better and better at it. And who knows? Maybe someday, it will number among your passions.

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Thinking about improving the connective tissue of organizations

| connecting, ibm, kaizen, passion, purpose, work

Even though I’m a recent hire, people often come to me to find other people in the organization. It’s a powerful way to create value. I’m not the expert they’re looking for, but I can point them in the right direction.

I want to not only to improve my networking capabilities, but to build this knowledge into the organization so that it transcends me. This reduces my direct influence, but strengthens the organization and makes more things possible. Improving the connective tissue in organizations increases efficiency, effectiveness, and happiness. A fully-connected organization allows people to bring together the best talent and the best resources no matter where they are, and it enables people everywhere to develop their full potential.

Little steps matter. Relentless improvement matters. How can I help make that happen?

  • I can teach the processes I use to find experts and resources. This enables more people to do what I do, and provides a platform that people can build on.
  • I can map the different communities, groups, and people for the subjects people often ask me about. Making the map visible brings people together.
  • I can cultivate communities and make them the go-to point for requests. Communities can reach a lot more people, bring in fresh talent, and form more connections. Vibrant communities also mean that individuals aren’t points of failure in the network.
  • I can provide feedback to our toolmakers and cultural influencers. Again, the more things we build into the framework, the easier it will be for more people to make things happen.

It may seem counter-intuitive to spread valued skills, especially if the organizational model is that knowledge is power and scarcity creates job security, but I need to create exponential value. Instead of accumulating and holding skills close, I want to push as much value as I can into the structure and into other people. I want to braindump everything I’ve learned and am learning, opening it all up so that other people can take the next step.

I want to see this smarter, truly globally-integrated workplace become reality. I need to help lots of people know more than what I know and do more than what I do.

I can help make that happen from where I stand and with the levers I have (and build). I’ll get even better as I learn more about different parts of the organization, respond to more requests, and find ways to align my work even better with the organization’s strategies. What we learn here can help other organizations and networks, too.

It’s a worthwhile goal. I’m looking forward to seeing how the adventure will unfold!

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A toolbox of questions

| life, passion, planning, reflection

Darius Bashar asked Gary Vaynerchuk an interesting question at last night’s DemoCamp24: What questions did Gary ask himself? (Not quite answered, but it might’ve been hard to get the gist across.)

After the event, Darius posted some of the questions he uses to figure out more about passion.

I was thinking about the questions in my toolbox, and I realized that I approach things very differently from the way that many bloggers I’ve read (particularly those who push personal branding) approach this discovery process.

I do ask people about their passions when starting a conversation, but that’s an opener that’s there so that I can see if they light up. It gets them away from the name-occupation spiel. If people stumble and don’t have a clear passion, that’s okay.

Looking at the questions I see on these personal development blogs, I often feel that questions assume you need to have a clearly definable passion that you can easily differentiate from other things you think about. While many people respond to that challenge, others might feel even more discouraged.

Me, I like discovering my passions through small steps. I’m not looking for a huge flame I had been previously unaware of. I’m just looking for a spark I can cultivate. That often emerges when I focus on relentless improvement and on sharing, two of the categories I’ve listed here. Other questions help me clarify, develop, and expand that interest. Passion isn’t something I expect to spring full-formed (Athena from Zeus’ forehead?). It’s something I grow into.

Discovery is shaped by the questions you ask. Some questions are sheer rock faces that are hard to get a grip on. Some questions are paths already marked by others so you know where to go. Some questions give you a lot of holds so that you can work your way around tough parts. Some questions are the shortcut walking trail a sherpa points out to you. ;)

Maybe some of these big-picture questions might help you think about your interests and passions, and maybe some of the more tactical ones will help you think about other things you do. Here’s a Swiss Army toolkit of small questions I use to think about things, and I hope to add more as I learn!

  • Questions

    • Improvement

      • What worked well?
      • How can I make this even better?
    • Vision

      • What difference do I want to make, and why does it matter?
      • What can I do?
      • What can I help other people do?
    • Planning – dreams

      • What do my ideal days look like? How can I get closer to that?
      • What doesn’t matter to me? What can I say no to?
      • What do I want to build, experience, or share?
      • What are the different ways I can make that happen?
    • Planning – Career

      • What kind of value do I want to create?
      • What does wild success look like?
      • What skills can I develop?
      • What do I need to take the next step and scale this up?
      • Who can I touch, reach out to, influence, or help?
    • Planning – long term

      • What’s the best case scenario?
      • What are the curveballs that I might deal with? Probabilities?
      • How can I make a safety net?
      • How can I increase my chances of a favourable outcome?
    • Planning – short term

      • What are my priority items?
      • How much time do I have? Will it fit?
      • What important things should I plan for?
      • How can I have fun, learn, and create value?
      • How can I make this easier, more efficient, more effective, or more fun for myself and others?
      • How can I share what I’ve learned?
    • Sharing

      • How much can I share with the world?
      • Who might find this useful?
      • How can I make this easy to find, especially for me?
    • Conversation

      • What are you passionate about?
      • What does wild success look like?
      • What could make you even happier?
      • What do you need to get there?
    • Delegation

      • What part of this can I delegate?
      • What do people need to do this?
      • What does good output look like?
      • What limits are there?
    • Presentation

      • Why does this matter?
      • What should people do or feel?
      • What do they come in with?
      • What’s my key message?
      • What stories and examples can I share?
      • How can I organize this?
      • What interaction can I build in? What questions should I expect?
      • How can I make this even shorter and clearer?
      • What do I want to learn from this?
    • Evaluating a presentation opportunity

      • Why does this matter to the audience? To the organizer? To me?
      • What can I say that is new, will make people think, and will make people act?
      • How can I scale this up before and after the event?
      • What’s the context?
    • Writing

      • What do I want to say? Why does it matter?
      • How can I illustrate it?
      • Can I make it clearer?
      • What am I missing?
      • What’s related to this?
    • Free time

      • How can I be present and enjoy life?
      • How can I express love?
      • How can I move my goals forward?
    • Figuring things out

      • What’s the end point?

        • What has to happen before that? (and so on)
      • Where are we now?

        • What can we do right now to move toward the goal?
      • Why? (at least five times)
    • Social media adoption

      • What’s the immediate personal benefit?
      • What’s the long-term personal benefit?
      • What’s the social benefit?
      • How can we enable the social benefit with minimum
      • What are the challenges? How do we address them?
      • Who are out there?
    • Finding people

      • What are the details of the request?
      • What communities are relevant?
      • What keywords can I search for?
      • Who else do I know?
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