The Specs

My dad taught me how to build bookshelves when I was a little girl. He was forever building them because the flow of books into my parents’ house was always in, and never out. I grew up thinking “library” was a home décor style, like baroque or shabby chic. So Dad built bookshelves. The fanciest kinds were built-in, floor to ceiling, with painted molding and shelf supports cut into the uprights with a frightening spinning blade called a router. The quick and dirty kind were made with cheap pine and strips of metal shelving supports. I’ve always been partial to stand-alone book cases, the kind you can take from apartment to apartment. When we were dating I made my now-husband a tall, narrow bookshelf for his Fells Point row house with 8 inch deep shelves, hand rubbed oak stain, and mitered trim around the top and bottom. It lives in our dining room now, and it leans only a little bit.

My first step when building is to stare at the space, or imagine the finished product, until some image comes clear in my mind. I look pretty weird when I am doing this: when my husband walks into a room and sees me staring intently at a wall he knows there is a trip to Home Depot in the works. When I have a vague idea of what a build should look like I sketch it on paper.

That is when the real work begins: the specs.

You can’t walk into the hardware store and just buy lumber, or screws. You could, I suppose, but you are going to waste time and money and – worse – find that your design decisions are driven by what you have already bought, rather than by what would work best. And so you take your sketch and you take your measuring tape and you start to figure. How high is the ceiling? How wide is the wall? How big is the biggest book I want to put on the shelf? If I want two shelves 24 inches high, and the rest about half that, how far apart, exactly, should each shelf be, given the space between the floor and ceiling? Ooops – have I accounted for the thickness of the shelving pine, and the fact that a “1 inch” piece of lumber is actually only ¾ inch thick? Don’t ask – it just is that way.

The end result is a sheet of paper with a sketch covered with lines, arrows, numbers, and notes like “shelf held up with quarter round glued and screwed into uprights.” Beside that are some scribbled math problems: 8 shelves x 2 pieces of quarter round each, each piece of quarter round 8 inches long, 128 inches of quarter round divided by 12 is 10.6 feet total. NOTE: buy 2 8-foot lengths quarter round. I do that with each component of the build. And with that I head to the hardware store.

Compare that to the way I might plan for a work project. Here is an example of a conversation I might have about a new assignment:

My boss: Lisa, could you draft a presentation for me on that new project data?

Me: Sure.

I make a note on my To-Do list (“presentation for boss”) and then, when I’ve got some time, I pull up the data, pull up PowerPoint, and start the presentation. I might outline it first, or just use slide titles as the outline and then move those around until I’m satisfied before I actually start writing content.

But wait: where are my specs? Yeah, I don’t really do those for stuff like this. But I could, and maybe I should. Maybe we all should spec things out a bit more carefully, especially when we are carrying out someone else’s vision, or asking someone else to carry out ours. Presentations, reports, workplans, strategies, studies, meetings…they all have characteristics and features that we can describe, if we put the time into it. And putting the time into it, and describing the features of the product we want sets a bar for success or acceptability for the person we are collaborating with, whether boss, colleague, client, or consultant. I don’t want to give my boss a presentation that doesn’t meet her needs, or that makes her say “Huh. I expected better of Lisa.” Or worse: “This isn’t what I was looking for. I think I’ll just do it myself.”

What would that conversation look like, if we were to talk about specs?

My boss: Lisa, could you draft a presentation for me on that new project data?

Me: Sure. Could you tell me more about what you want? Who is it for, and when are you giving it?

My boss: It’s for a group of muckety-mucks in D.C. next Thursday, but I’d like a couple of days to get familiar with the material, so could you send it to me by Tuesday morning? I want to show them how our program is linked to impact.

Me: Okay. How many slides, do you think? And do you want the text to be in notes, with graphs and stuff in the slide, or do you want the text to be in the slide?

My boss: Make it pretty. Text in notes, graphics in slide. Maybe 15 slides total. Oh, and could you please make sure the version you send is clean? I’d rather see it later but no errors rather than earlier and be distracted by making copy edits in my head.

Me: Sounds good.

This time I make more notes in my notebook than just a To-Do:

Specs for Boss’ Presentation:

  • 15-slides, graph and data heavy.
  • Talking points in notes, not in slides.
  • Audience: high-level influencers
  • Purpose: convince muckety-mucks that our program produced results
  • Due: Tuesday morning
  • Send only finished presentation with clean graphics and text

 

Power Differential

Simple requests are not simple where there is a power differential between requester and requestee. We understand that intuitively when we think about relationships with clear differences in power: parent/child, professor/undergrad, president/intern. But in an egalitarian, non-hierarchical organization like mine we can pretend that power differentials don’t exist. Anyone at all is welcome to sit at our Director’s table and talk with her about pretty much anything, so we can assume that people actually do talk about what concerns them. But power differentials are real and present, and they prevent people from responding to requests with full honesty – or sometimes with full information.

Mostly this is a management problem. People in power (if they are people of goodwill) want the best for their organization and the people who work in it, so they honestly do want to know what people think and they make efforts to find out, even if those efforts are blundering. I’ll talk about that some other time. What is on my mind now is how people with power can be blind to their own power, using it unknowingly, not understanding that their words have more power than other people’s words.

What makes me think about this now? One of my people was killed last week. A lovely young woman (who I never got the chance to meet) was shot in an armed robbery on a violent stretch of road. She was on our staff in Nigeria and was headed home to see family for the weekend. Nigeria is a dynamic, fascinating, vibrant country, but one where death comes frequently to people of all ages and callings. That is partly why we work there, of course, and why I do the work that I do. And so, to do this work, I ask my staff to travel within Nigeria, and to Nigeria, all the time. I travel there myself and so do my higher-ups.

Some years ago I was in a car accident on the same road the murdered young woman was traveling. As our car smashed into the one that had cut into us at high-speed, time slowed down, or appeared to, and I thought, “So this is how it goes.” I always thought that at the moment time stops you’d see the face of your child, or your lover, or your God – but all I saw was the dreadful spinning of the car in front of us.

So when I ask my staff to travel that road (both metaphorically and literally) I do it with the weight of my own fear. At least when it comes to travel I have lost my own blindness to the power I have over others, and that others have over me. At this point in my career my decision to take a specific trip (or not) is mostly my own. I will say yes or no based on some wiggly internal calculus of risk divided by benefit multiplied by anxiety and love. But when I ask staff on my teams to travel to places featured on State Department caution lists I know they also factor something else into their calculus: My judgement. My opinion. My power, such as it is. And in truth they may rest too much in those things, assuming that if I suggest a trip the trip must be safe, because why else would I suggest it? But I can’t keep my people safe. I don’t have that power.

What to do? I cannot remove the power differential between colleagues. As I said, in an organization like mine where we like to pretend hierarchy doesn’t exist it can be tempting to assume that people have enough power to make their own decisions. That’s a cop-out, and it ignores our own ambitions, desires to please, and respectful natures. And so I find myself looking intently at my staff saying things like “You don’t have to go. You can say no. Right up until the moment you step on the plane, you can turn around. I’ll never question that decision.” Most of the time I think that is enough. The hardest thing for me, though, has been using the power I do have to take that power away from another person, to ask someone to not go on a trip because I wasn’t sure they would say no to me if they needed to.

These days I also try to tell people about the trips I didn’t take: the one where a bomb went off in the city I was headed to, or the time I got sick just before getting on a plane, or the trip when I got the news my grandmother was dying. There are lots of other trips I didn’t take. But none of them came in the first five or six years of my career. In fact, in my late twenties I recall getting on a plane fourteen days after major abdominal surgery because…well, I don’t know why, really. At the time it just seemed like I shouldn’t say no.

Corporate Values

If you glance at a dozen organizations’ corporate values statements you will see a lot of the same words: integrity, honesty, passion, creativity, excellence, caring. They are fine words, all of them. Who can argue against integrity, or take a stand against passion? But they are just ink on a 3 x 5 card handed out to new hires unless organizations actively wrestle with what integrity or passion looks like at work.

Check that. It isn’t that organizations need to wrestle with what integrity or passion looks like at work, but that we need to wrestle with it. We as in you and I, the managers and the receptionists, the accountants and the officers, the admins and the directors. The words have no meaning unless we give them meaning.

Our organization has a values statement with four stated values, all very sincerely held: passion, integrity, resourcefulness, and caring. We talk about the values in new-hire presentations, and yes, we hand them out on cards for people to pin on their cork boards. But what, exactly, does it look like to have passion at work?

(I am now imagining the lurid cover of a bodice ripper, which probably isn’t the kind of passion that is going to lead to great program outcomes, or work life balance.)

So if passion at work isn’t X rated, what is it? I’d suggest it isn’t something I should define here by myself behind my computer screen, but that we should talk about in groups, probably with beverages. Imagine we have done that, and I am now standing in front of a group with my rustling sheet of flip chart paper covered with colored sticky notes. What would it say?

Passion at work is when…

  • Someone goes running down the hall to their boss’ office and breathlessly waves a sheet of paper in his face saying “the data are in! Guess what!”
  • Two colleagues lean over the conference room table arguing heatedly about whether to use the Extended Parallel Processing Model or Ideation as the theoretical framework for the new radio drama.
  • The wheels of bureaucracy get stuck, and an administrator spends countless patient hours calling, emailing, cajoling, to get a payment made so the show can go on (literally).

We could do the same for integrity, resourcefulness, and caring: we could imagine situations, role play, discuss, laugh. What do these words mean to us? What do we look like in relationship to each other when we live them out?

Why, exactly, should we do such a thing? Why bother? Will our work lives look any better if we’ve hashed out the meaning of caring at work? I actually think they will. Because caring at work doesn’t mean putting on your nice face and refraining from saying snarky things in the hallway. It means telling your staff to leave when the day is done, and leaving yourself. It means not sighing deeply when your colleague tells you they’ll be out for another doctor’s appointment (during proposal season). It means asking the quiet dude if he’d like to work with you on the new assignment, even though he was too shy to ask. And it means telling your boss when she’s said something that confuses or hurts you.

It would be easy to roll our eyes at corporate values statements. But I think we can do better: I think we can construct our own meaning for them, and live them out.

Rest

When I left for my vacation in Maine a couple of weeks ago I left a note on the white board outside my office: “On vacation in the woods. No wifi. So sorry.” I didn’t add “sorry not sorry,” but I could have. I wasn’t truly sorry at all, and if you accidentally on purpose leave your phone behind when you go on vacation (even if it’s a staycation on your living room couch) you shouldn’t be sorry, either.

We need to take our vacation days, and we need to take them fully. Many of us do take them all, especially those of us who don’t have that many days to begin with and parcel them out like the treasure they are, as well as those of us who must use vacation days for exciting things like parent-teacher-conferences, puking pets, or visiting aging Aunt Edna in rural North Dakota. But there is a thread running through our culture that says that we shouldn’t take vacation, that we should be busy night and day, that being a good employee means being available all the time. Even on vacation.

I get that it is hard to leave work behind if your boss expects you to take work with you, to keep the office in the back pocket of your jeans as you hike up the Appalachian trail. And so it is tempting to do just enough checking in to show your boss that you are still connected, still available, still valuable. The thing is, reading work emails or texts for 20 minutes a day doesn’t just take 20 minutes of your vacation away – it breaks the vacation spell. Work worms its way into your thoughts, and before you know it you are worrying about office politics while you are jumping through waves at the beach (or having a 5pm dinner at the Pizza Ranch with Aunt Edna). And that’s a shame. Breaking the vacation spell robs you of the opportunity to recalibrate your brain, and we all need that from time to time.

When agonizing about whether you really can disconnect or not, try to think about what will happen if you don’t respond to your emails. Will anyone die or suffer grievous injury? Will you get fired? No? Okay, then consider that you can disconnect, and maybe you should. I think we supervisors can undermine our words about disconnecting during vacation by sending emails to people who are on vacation, and then those people we send emails to believe we don’t actually want them to disconnect. We supervisors should stop that. And if you are on vacation and receive emails, know that there may not be any hidden rebuke in the fact that people are sending you emails; they just want to get the email off their desk. It will still be there when you get back to the office.

So, please: turn on that “out of office” email response, put a note on your white board, write your list of tasks to delegate to your colleagues, and get out of here. Scoot. Begone. Shoo. I don’t want to hear from you until you get back. Truly.

 

Jargon

The skills-building workshop will be facilitated to enhance effective capacity strengthening and leverage existing resources to implement evidence-based initiatives.

Have you read sentences like that before? Bet you have, and if you are anything like me you have probably written a few of them, too. This is awful writing, and not just because it is full of jargon (and the passive voice! It kills me!) but because the jargon masks muddled thinking. Sometimes we use jargon when we don’t actually know what we want to say. Jargon can be a crutch.

Jargon does have a purpose – it lets us speak to other people like us in shorthand. There is great utility in that: using precise, mutually understandable language in a technical discussion is helpful. The problem is that we let jargon creep into our speech and our writing when we are speaking to people who aren’t in our little in-group, and then they can’t understand us. But there is another, more pernicious outcome of jargon: we can forget what it actually means, and we can begin to use lots of words to say nothing at all.

How to know if a word is jargon? Pretty much every word in the sentence above is jargon – skills-building, workshop, facilitate, enhance, capacity strengthening, leverage, resources, implement, evidence-based, initiatives. Jargon, each and every one. Why? Because the word no longer has a plain meaning, but a context-specific meaning that someone who isn’t a co-specialist wouldn’t necessarily understand.

Want an example? Growing up, I thought my mom must be really, really good with a hammer and nails (though she always left the woodworking to my dad) because every couple of months she would disappear and go to a workshop. They seemed very important and tiring, these workshops. I was in high school before I understood that workshop just meant a group of people having a long meeting. Her work seemed much less interesting to me after that.

The CDC has a handy little glossary of jargon giving examples of jargon used in public health communication providing alternate, jargon-free sentences. That guide links to something called the Plain Writing Act which essentially says that government communication must be in words people can understand. Of course, the law isn’t itself written in words the public can necessarily understand, but okay. I was also amused to see that the website for the Plain Writing Act has a link for “OMB final PL guidance.” Sweet.

Using less jargon doesn’t just make our writing nicer to read. It can also force us to unpack the assumptions built into jargon and think about what we actually want to say. Take my example of “workshop” above. In a proposal I could write “conduct strategy design workshop with stakeholders,” and no one would bat an eye. But I could also write something like “the team leader will present data to project staff from around the country and set new goals based on those data. The group will then propose and discuss ways to meet those goals in the coming year and will document the plans.” It took me 2 seconds to type out “conduct strategy design workshop with stakeholders,” and 2 minutes to think through and write up the two sentences below it. That is the beauty and the danger of jargon; jargon is fast, but it leaves what will actually happen unsaid.

I realize we won’t do away with jargon, and that is fine. But I would like us to think about words, and what they mean, and whether there is a plain language alternative. And if you sit at your computer, wondering in what other way you can say you’ll “leverage resources,” and you can’t think of one, realize it may be because you actually have no idea yet how you’ll “get more funding.” The answer probably isn’t by facilitating another workshop with stakeholders.

Useless Skills

Yesterday my son and his friend found themselves heading over some Potomac river rapids that they weren’t prepared to handle. They were each in a little inflatable raft with a paddle when they hit a drop. My son bounced through okay, but his friend was tossed from his raft and for a breathtaking moment was underneath it in the churning current and rocks. He kept his cool, popped up, and swam his way safely to a boulder in the river. My son saw his buddy on the rock, swung his raft around with his paddle, and drove his way upstream to go get him. They rode triumphantly down the rest of the section of river together in a single raft. They have a story to tell now, those boys, joined by a jolt of fear and mutual reliance.

My second thought, when I caught up to the two later downstream, was: I’m glad my kid knows how to use a paddle.  (My first thought was what the hell was I doing, letting 10-year-olds go down rapids under their own power?) My son knows how to handle boats because he has had the opportunity, mostly, and because he is a water creature by nature. But boat handling wasn’t something I set out to teach him as a life skill, the way I have set out to teach him to read and clean a bathroom and eat his vegetables. Boats and water are a joy to him, and so he has learned to handle them. And when the time came, he had the skill to offer a useful service to a friend.

There are skills we practice at work and at play just because they give us joy. Messing about in boats can seem useless, until your friend needs a ride. Playing with images with a photo editor can seem useless until the boss needs graphics for the proposal due in an hour. Taking a course on climate change can seem useless until the manager is looking for someone with knowledge and passion for the subject. We can’t follow our bliss all the time. That shouldn’t mean that we don’t follow our bliss some of the time, though, even at work.

It doesn’t hurt to get known for your bliss, either. Sure, you could hide your secret obsession with bike helmets, or presentation software, or (ahem) management practice, but if people know about your obsessions and interests they can recruit you to indulge them officially. Then they become not just your own weird side gig, but valuable skills the organization can use when the need arises.

We need space and time to develop these side skills, these interests that start off as personal joy and end up as organizational strengths. No one is going to assign us a task like “follow your bliss for an hour a day” – although Google famously has had a policy encouraging people to spend 20% of their time pursuing their own ideas, so it isn’t ludicrous.  But we can do things like showing enthusiasm for a colleague’s side interest, or enrolling in classes that are a bit out of our wheelhouse, or allowing each other a little bit of flexibility to spend more time than necessary on a task to try it a new way.

This exploration is how an organization grows in new and unexpected directions: someone says “I have an idea,” or an opportunity comes up and someone says “hey, I know how to do that.” Because you never know – that offbeat skill just might be the one that gets you off the rock in the middle of the river.

Feedback to Myself

Last year, after 20 years away from rowing, I bought a boat. It’s a 26 foot long needle of Kevlar and carbon fiber, less than 12 inches wide at the water line, and when it is rowed well it flies. That, however, is the problem: rowing it well is difficult, and rowing it badly is easy. Naturally I want to row well, both because I like the feeling of going fast, but also because I simply can’t abide the idea of being bad at something I love. And so over the past year I have read books, watched videos, and even gotten myself to the starting line of a race, just to see how I stacked up. All these things have helped me row better. I have also worked with a coach. When I compare what I wanted out of a book with what I wanted out of a coach, though, I realize that out of a book I wanted instruction, while out of a coach I wanted affirmation, acknowledgement that I am making progress in the boat.

Yet when I hired the coach I justified the cost as wanting to learn if I was rowing correctly. The thing is, I don’t need a coach to answer that question – indeed, that question is best answered by the boat itself. I know, mechanically, what moves a boat – how to hold my hands, when to tap the blade out of the water, the right angle to bend my body as I move my sliding seat up for another stroke. When my boat feels like dead weight, when it rolls from side to side, when my oar blades catch the surface of the water as I go up to take another stroke, I know what to try. And when the boat picks up, balances well, and runs without catching and jerking, I know it has worked.

We have the same desire for affirmation at work that I have on the water. It is understandable that we want our bosses and colleagues to provide us feedback. What we sometimes ignore, though, is that we have a ready source of feedback at our fingertips. We often know whether we are doing well at our jobs or not – whether our documents move ahead or come back covered with red ink, whether meaningful tasks are checked off our to-do list, whether our ideas for solving problems actually solve those problems. If we take the time to really ask ourselves the right questions, we generally have a good idea of whether we are doing the mechanics of our jobs well. Just as my boat tells me if I am rowing correctly, your work itself provides moment-to-moment evidence of a job well done, or not.

Why, then, do we crave feedback from others when we often already know the answers to questions like “am I doing it right?” I can think of two reasons.

We don’t trust ourselves. Sometimes we don’t trust information that comes from inside us (or our boats). We trust information provided by experts, bosses, and books, but not that we provide ourselves. We have to get beyond that, not only so that we can build our own constructive feedback loops within our own heads, but so that when feedback does come in we have something to test it against. If you aren’t accustomed to looking first at your own internal data about your performance you won’t know how to judge other people’s feedback of your performance. Is the feedback useful and true, or is it criticism or flattery? Check your own assessment of your performance and you may have the answer.

We want to be recognized. Wanting recognition can seem self-centered or small-minded, and so we dress up our request for recognition by calling it feedback. Let me be clear that wanting recognition is neither self-centered nor small-minded; it is normal and natural and a key source of motivation for many people. Even if our internal feedback loop is humming along well, telling us what is working and what isn’t, we want to be seen. We want to be known. But this desire is different from feedback. Just as when my boat is giving me plenty of feedback in the form of speed and flow I still crave the attention of a coach to say “I see you and you are doing well,” we can know we are doing well at work and still want someone else to recognize it. To say it.

What does this all mean? Essentially, I think, we should be getting better at identifying what we need from our colleagues and asking for it specifically. Think through exactly what you mean when you say you want more feedback. Do you really not know what you are doing well and doing badly? In most cases you do, once you give it some thought (but if you don’t, by all means ask). What you want from your colleagues may be more subtle; you may want help, or connection, or recognition of a job well done. In that case, ask for it. For example, maybe you know you gave a fabulous presentation at the last staff meeting, but your boss didn’t say a word afterward, and so you don’t know if she is going to give you more opportunities to do more presentations. Instead of asking your boss “how did that presentation go,” which is disingenuous (you know it went well!) say “I felt really good about that presentation. Do you think we could find more opportunities for me to grow those skills?”  That opens the door to a conversation that leads to more than just a verbal pat on the back.

Of Resilience and Sparrows

Two house sparrows have nested in the bird house in my backyard. They are raising their second set of chicks right now. The first set died in early May. I had been watching the parents’ attentive flights in and out of the birdhouse, and the funny little wide-beaked heads poking out waiting for their meals. And then one day there were no little heads, and no more flights. The birds have tried again, as birds do. Nestlings have a breathtaking death rate. It isn’t only the house sparrows – there was the robins’ nest in the grape vine overturned in a storm and the ready-to-hatch eggs smashed on the porch, the featherless chick fallen from some unknown nest on the gravel walk, the birdhouse raided and knocked down by squirrels. There is also the juvenile starling I see every morning under the sedum and peonies, begging like any teenager for mom to serve up more snacks. I think that one’s going to do okay.

(The river of death running through my backyard brings to mind the Kahlil Gibran poem that contains the line “your blood and my blood is naught but the sap that feeds the tree of heaven.” I mutter those lines to myself a lot in the garden.)

There is a work-a-day word for the ability to make a new nest when the storm has knocked the old one down: resilience. This is the ability to roll with challenges, to right your boat when it is swamped by waves. Resilience isn’t being so big the waves can’t touch you, or building a nest so strong it can’t be overturned, or knowing so much you can’t be bested. Resilience is having the flexibility, self-belief, social network, and doggedness to regroup when everything has been scattered.

There are courses and books and degrees and institutes dedicated to community and organizational resilience. What interests me is how we can build little nodes of resilience within organizations and structures over which we don’t have power. Sure, in the end, that makes those organizations and structures stronger. But in the immediate term, the benefit of resilience accrues to us, to our colleagues, to each other.

What do I mean, really, by resilience in the workplace? Let me think of some actual examples. How about the staff member whose project was ending, facing a time with uncertain funding, who volunteered to lead a difficult process she had only participated in once before? With a choice of jumping ship or building herself a new boat, she built the boat. It was a good boat, too. Or the colleague who saw her contribution to the paper (a contribution she labored over) thrown out because she hadn’t quite understood what was needed? She was disappointed, but in the wake of the disappointment she worked on framing papers and the next one was better. This kind of refusal to be broken and deterred by failure and loss is what I mean by resilience. It isn’t avoiding vulnerability and risk, but finding a way to navigate through them.

While each of us can build our own resilience, we are more resilient as a group than we are as individuals. In the cases above, it wasn’t just the staff members’ resilience that mattered, but the willingness of their colleagues to be flexible and take risks. In a more rigid workplace, one more bunkered and entrenched with protective layers of formality and process, perhaps we wouldn’t have risked ourselves (our project’s reputation, our paper’s publishability) for each other.

As of now, the house sparrow’s second set of chicks live. Their eyes are open, and they look out of the bird house alertly, with none of the hatchling’s floppy vulnerability. They will fledge soon, and face a whole new set of risks and dangers. I hope they will not, this summer, become the sap that feeds the tree of heaven (literally feeding the hawks, I suppose) but whether they live or die I am quite sure that same pair of house sparrows will try again, and again, and again.

Insight

The frustrating thing about insight is its unpredictability. We all have flashes of insight, of understanding our challenges and their solutions, but those flashes are just that: lightning strikes that illuminate the page just long enough to read a phrase, but not long enough to take notes in the margins. And you certainly can’t plan on a lighting storm just when the proposal is due or the data come in or the team begins to come apart at the seams. But insight isn’t a gift of the gods or a sign of hidden brilliance. Insight is just your brain doing its own work on its own time.

Most work is controllable. We can decide to work well and thoroughly and we will do so. Every morning it takes about an hour and a half to slog through my emails, and I do it. Many days have meetings scheduled, and so I show up and participate. Most weeks, and certainly every month, quarter, and year, I have deadlines to meet and so I put pen to page (or fingers to keyboard) and produce documents. I control those things. What I don’t always feel like I control is the unpredictable presence or absence of insight, of the flash of lightning that will sometimes mean that a proposal wins, an argument convinces, or a decision makes life better for a colleague.

What is insight, really, and why can’t we control it? I really like this definition of insight: an instance of apprehending the true nature of a thing, especially through intuitive understanding. The true nature of a thing. So often I feel like I am peering into dim, murky light when I am trying to solve problems or even create text describing the world as it is, or as we would like it to be. When I am able to do that well it is because of that flash of light that allows me to see the true nature of a thing, and then I am better equipped to act on it. But why can’t we know the true nature of a thing without insight? Why isn’t the true nature of a thing – especially a thing like a behavior or an epidemic or a bureaucracy – apparent in plain light?

Maybe it is because we cannot see and hold in our conscious minds all the glittering bits of data that make up the true nature of a thing; intellect, while powerful, has bandwidth, and complex problems exceed it. If you think of intellect as the part of your mind that you direct to crunch data and answer emails and write text, imagine it operating in the plain, ordinary light of day. Beneath that self-directed activity, though, is the rest of your brain with its trillions of connections operating in a different, brilliant light. Just as you could never expect to run or leap just by ordering your muscles to fire (your intellect would make a mess of ordinary movement) you cannot expect your brain to solve every complex problem by intellectual effort. Sometimes you have to let your brain make the leap, undirected. And when that leap happens you see the light flash as the door between the unconscious mind and the conscious intellect swings open to let the insight through.

Is this all a little too woo-woo? Probably. I’m not much of a neuroscientist. But the truth is that we do find solutions to complex problems when we deeply understand them, and those solutions often come to us complete and without conscious effort, and usually when we don’t have a pen handy. So how to help urge insight along, make that flash a little more likely? I’ve got two thoughts.

Help your brain do the work. Insight isn’t magic – you can’t have insight into something you don’t know or don’t understand. Your intellect can help insight along by doing the work of learning, exploring, asking, and thinking. Give your brain the information and learning it needs to make connections, find commonalities, and make generalizations. Feed your brain with experiences, real and secondhand, to learn from. You need grist for the mill. Provide it.

Open the door. The furious intellectual work we often do to solve problems pushes hard against the door between our conscious and unconscious minds, but that is the same door that must swing open to let insight through. As long as we are pushing that door stays shut. When we do something like shower or run or daydream our busy brain relaxes, the pushing stops, and the door opens enough to let the light through. My advice? Smell the flowers, stare out the office window, look at the clouds, walk aimlessly. It’s the only way I know to call down a lightning strike.

Its Not Easy

I was not a good student. In fact, I was a really rotten student from the time we moved from wooden blocks to books, and all the way up through high school. I couldn’t read until second grade, and I spent third grade in the counselor’s office taking weird test with colored blocks as they tried to figure out why I couldn’t spell or do basic arithmetic. In fourth grade my dad made me a massive poster with the multiplication table and pasted it to the ceiling above my bed so I would see it even when I wasn’t trying to. In seventh grade my parents went nuclear when my school tried to track me away from the college-bound students, and then I spent endless hours weeping over my pre-algebra homework. High school, aside from literature and writing courses, baffled me – I did not understand, until the end, that other people actually remembered details of what they read the first or second time, and that it was unusual that no matter how hard I studied I barely passed.

School just sucked, and for good reason: I am probably dyslexic. That a writer is also dyslexic isn’t as surprising as it might seem – there are dyslexic writers and poets, like the poet Philip Schultz who wrote a slim book called My Dyslexia about his own struggle with the beast. Most of us do find our way, eventually, onto a path that lets our strengths expand and our weaknesses fall behind us. But you will notice if you and I talk about dates or data that I will never mention specifics – I will talk about trends, connections, meaning, but never the numbers themselves, because the numbers have disappeared from my memory as if I had never known them.

Why do I tell you this today? I had a wonderful conversation with a colleague I depend on and respect deeply. Her brain works very differently from mine, and we touch different sides of our work. We got on the topic of learning (we both have young children) and I told her a bit about my own schooling fiascos, and she said: “I always assumed that things came easily to you! That you were great in school, and that your path to where you are was straight.” I said I assumed the same about her – she seems like the consummate student to me. But she struggled, too, because while her memory is a steel trap (while mine is a bucket without a bottom) she had trouble with concepts. She did objectively great in school, while I did objectively terribly, but neither of us felt particularly good about ourselves at the time.

There are things we don’t know about each other, stories and experiences behind our interactions that would lead, if we let them, to understanding and a bit of grace. Our weaknesses, our cracks, our annoying foibles, they all have origin stories, the tale of how we came to be. These stories can seem immaterial at work, because no matter how hard or easy our path we are all now participating in the same race, and we must contribute to our team or fall behind. But knowing someone works harder than most to remember things (or organize their time or dress like everyone else or manage their pain or relate to their colleagues or get to work on time) gives us a tenderness for each other that makes it all much more bearable. We don’t need to know why someone has to work harder than others at something – it is enough to know that they do.

You should still expect me to remember what I should remember, of course. But perhaps when you tell me you’ll be on vacation the week of July 10, and I sheepishly ask you again the next day what week you’ll be on vacation, you’ll remember my leaky-bucket memory, think of your own leaky buckets, whatever they might be, and just tell me again. July 10, Lisa. July 10. And then I’ll write it down.