Don’t Optimize What Shouldn’t Be Done

I’ve been on a systems thinking kick lately and just finished reading Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows. Near the end, she quotes economist Kenneth Boulding:

Don’t go to great trouble to optimize something that never should be done at all.

What a wonderful reminder. I don’t know about you, but I frequently find myself going to great lengths to optimize myself in order to fit somewhere, to make something work. Without stepping back to ask—should I be engaging with this at all? Is this helping me get to where I want to go?

It’s easy to get lost in the weeds. It’s hard—but so very important—to ask if those weeds are worth the effort in the first place.

Where Did We Learn How To Ask Questions?

Questions about questions. My favourite.

At the 2021 SheEO Summit yesterday, I had the absolute joy of learning about curiosity from Chenny Xia. She took us through a few exercises to help us see what questions we tend to ask and why.

Questions tend to lead with who, what, where, when, why, and how. What’s interesting is which of those you find yourself using the most and the least. And where you learned how to do that.

For me, I seem to ask a lot of who, why, and how questions. I rarely ask when and where questions. Fascinating! What does that mean? Why aren’t I keen to explore time and place, or to orient myself in those ways?

I’m excited to explore that, and to explore one of the final questions she left us with:

“What would it look like for me to ask a diverse set of questions?”

How wonderful. And how very deeply needed in our world.

Thanks, Chenny.

Not Everything Has To Scale

If you’re interested in designing technology that “appeals to our humanity rather than exploits our physiology”, Alex Wolf is your person (and those are her words!).

In a recent episode of her podcast, The Feminine Influence in Human Friendly Tech, she talks about the impact of design that incorporates intimacy (among other feminine qualities).

Here’s the thing about intimacy:

Intimacy is important to user experience. But intimacy is hard to scale. And (most) technology needs/wants to scale.

A conundrum. However! As Alex points out, not every aspect of your business has to scale. Take Etsy as an example: the marketplace scales, the goods themselves do not.

A welcome reminder that not every element needs to be scalable for the system as a whole to experience growth.

Where Do You Spend Your Time?

Most of us spend our time here, *points above*, twenty steps ahead. Making contingency plans for things that haven’t gone wrong yet. Worrying what people will think about the stuff we haven’t made yet. Deciding what software we’ll upgrade to once we’ve reached a certain revenue, client, or audience goal.

We spend our time here because it’s easier to deal with future possibilities than present realities. Making stuff is uncomfortable. And we attempt to ease that discomfort by convincing ourselves that we can accurately predict the path forward.*

When really, we’d all benefit from spending a lot more of our time here, *points above*, in the present. Focused on the next right action.

And here, *points below*, on the big picture.

Where are you now, where are you going, and what’s the next right action that’ll move you closer?

Often, the work is shuttling between the two.

*Planning and milestones are important, ABSOLUTELY, but spending most of our time in the middle isn’t helping us. Especially when we’re focused on things outside of our control, like what people will think of us and/or our work.

The Art Of Noticing

If you’re not sure what’s next, it pays to pay attention.

Your notes app, your camera roll, your bookshelf, your inbox, your social media feeds… these are all records of your attention. They reveal what you’re interested in, what you care about, and who you’re becoming. Held together, they just might point you in the direction of your next project.

But no need to rush. Just as you can’t edit as you write, you can’t discern what threads are worth following as you’re tracking them.

For now, let yourself explore.

Clarity will come in hindsight.

Resistance vs Reluctance

Whether you’re leading a client or leading yourself, it’s helpful to be able to spot the difference between resistance and reluctance when faced with inaction.

Resistance is the fear we feel when we create something new. Steven Pressfield gives us this great rule of thumb: “The more important a call of action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.” We don’t act because we’re uncomfortable with the unknown and terrified of what might happen.

Reluctance is the unwillingness to do something. We don’t act because we’re simply not interested. Often, this is due to a lack of clarity or a misalignment between goals, actions, and values. Or, maybe we’ve changed our minds and want something different!

On the surface, they both look like inaction. But they’re caused by different things and thus need different treatment.

Getting clear on which you’re dealing with can help you ask better questions, provide better support, and get moving.

Creative Constraints

More options don’t always lead to better outcomes.

A blank slate at the beginning of a creative project sounds enticing, but often that excitement gives way to overwhelm and indecision. With so many possibilities, how do we move forward?

To get (or keep!) moving, it’s helpful to have constraints. Take options off the table. Give yourself limits, such as the amount of time or money you’ll spend on a project, or rules around how often, when, and where you’ll show up.

Giving your project limits frees you to get creative with what you do have.

Sometimes narrowing one lens is the best way to open another.

Notes From The Valley

When we’re in the valley (see above—super fun), our downward spiraling thoughts tend to stem from two beliefs:

  1. I shouldn’t feel this way
  2. I’m alone in this

We’re scared and insecure and doubting ourselves…. and we believe we shouldn’t feel that way. Because if we were really an artist, if we were really an entrepreneur, if we were truly good enough or smart enough or talented enough… we believe there’s no way we would feel like this.

Which brings us to that feeling of being alone. Our brains have this lovely way (looking at you, shame) of convincing us we’re alone in this. That no one in the history of creative beings has ever felt this. No one could possibly understand. No one can help us hold this. Or, perhaps most insidious, that we’re not worthy of help.

Wherever you are in the valley and whatever meets you there, know that you’re not alone. It’s all part of the journey—everyone’s journey.

And remember:

Life is at work in these valleys, too.

What Are You Willing to Say No To?

To loosely quote Elizabeth Gilbert…

“It’s not just saying no to things you don’t want so that you can have the stuff you do. It’s saying no to the things you do want, but just don’t want as much.”

This is the hard bit. Sure, perhaps you can do all those projects. But would they all be the quality you want? Would doing it all give you the life you want?

Be clear about what you want from your work. Be honest if what you’re doing right now helps you get there.

Saying no—or no for now—is more than OK.

Get in Motion

Making a decision is hard. Probably because we’re hellbent on making the right decision. Thanks to some delightful evolutionary wiring in our brains, we’re convinced that the more we think about it or the more information we gather, the more likely we’ll be to get it right.

There’s some value in this, of course, but there’s a limit to what you can see from where you’re currently standing. At some point, you have to do more to know more. It’s the new experiences that lead to new data.

Often, it’s helpful to remember the following:

Change isn’t an intellectual exercise, it’s an experiential one.

When in doubt, get in motion.