Work labels: word salad and connotations

A couple of weeks ago I had a drink with someone who’s done some great work in their field.

As we chatted about our respective projects and areas of interest, he asked me what I called what I did.

This has long been a bone of contention and frustration for me, and I did my best to conceal my wince as I threw out some labels.

Teaching.

Educating.

Coaching. 

Facilitating.

Laughing, he remarked how I’d managed to saddle myself with some of the most maligned and misunderstood terms available.

What else I call this is still to be decided, but I know have a lens through which to look at the world.

The point here is that, like it or not, the labels matter and first impressions count.

We can pick & mix a word salad, mix in a new ingredient or two, choose one from the pre-packed aisle, or go out and do something completely off-piste.

The good news is, if the labels don’t fit, we can change them. 

And if we don’t like salad, we change that too.

We just may need a new set of lenses to do it.

Switching to Annual View

Whether we’re coming fresh out of a salaried role or have spent years out on the road as an independent, it’s easy to default to the monthly view.

Just like a calendar, the month is the most easily understood timeframe. No time differences to manage, or weeks starting on a Sunday vs a Monday.

Monthly makes sense – after all, it’s when our outbound payment obligations usually land.

Mapping monthly keeps us buttoned up and on top; we can pretty accurately make the plans for our spending and the spending of our time.

Monthly lets us see the regular cadence of revenue we need to cover our bases (hopefully with a little extra saving up or splashing out).

But for all its well-meaning design and manageable mathematics, as independent professionals the monthly view can do us a disservice.

In fact it plays a trick on us. It narrows our view, distorts our focus.

Instead, we can take our internal calendar view and switch to annual.

We lose the specificity and the safety blanket that monthly gives us, but we gain the optionality to go after something more, something better – both for ourselves and the people we’re serving with the work we do.

The annual view frees us up to think strategically, to invest time into the things we really want to build.

Our mindset starts to shift, our horizons begin to open, and our periscope tilts positively upward.

Sure, we need to switch back to monthly view every now and then – if we’re not meeting our obligations and keeping enough resources at hand then we cause ourselves stress, anxiety and pain. No one benefits when that happens. Monthly view is always there to check when we need to, and check it we should.

But when we default to annual view, something happens.

Lucky Number 7 – and a 40-degree day

Many of us are captivated by the number seven. It’s supposedly lucky (more on the reasons behind this were discussed on this NPR episode)

But what happens when we ditch it?

Look at a survey with respondents asked to rate a product or service on a scale of 1-10.

When someone rates what we’ve done as a 7, it’s good. 

Not great. Not bad. 

It’s good. Above satisfactory. Solid. Decent.

Do we want our work to get a 7? Maybe, but is it more valuable to us to receive a 4?

Is the 7 in fact a 40 degree day, as described by Idris Elba’s Stringer Bell?

As the late Alexander McQueen said; he’d rather you felt something about his work rather than nothing – even if that something was hating it.

When 7 disappears, something happens. 

Maybe we can get more lucky without it.

Two types of role model

When we think about role models, the person or persona we aspire to emulate, our minds will usually go to one of two places: the stand out success; or the person already in our life.

The one close by is relatable and real. We can see the path they’ve trodden, empathise with their emotions.

The stand out success is inspirational for the global impact they’ve made. Perhaps we admire their determination, their ability to scale a company, or abundant creativity.

Why do we tend to focus on one of these? 

Why not both?

Education opportunities are increasingly reflecting this: we have products like Masterclass offering new insight into world beaters’ process; and peer groups and accelerator programs allowing us focused, intimate time with people who are just a couple of paces further along the path.

The main challenges are relevancy and connectivity for the former; and scaleability (both laterally and vertically) for the latter.

But now we can more easily see both types, why not keep them in our field of vision? It’s not easy, but having two points of reference helps us avoid both under and overshooting.

Positioning: Get Uncomfortably Narrow

A lot of entrepreneurs and freelancers struggle with positioning. 

Often it’s ironic as the work many of us do is to help others communicate, tell stories, and stand out.

Yet, of course, we struggle to do this effectively for ourselves.

Here’s one way to think about it: get so narrow it’s uncomfortable. 

Get so narrow that it’s claustrophobic, nerve inducing. So it almost hurts.

Get so narrow you feel constrained, boxed in, typecast. The shackles and the straitjacket are on, and there’s little room for maneuver. [1]

This matters because once you’ve got there it’s possible to push outwards just a little and see something that’s specific, serviceable, and sizeable. Or more accurately – see somebody, see some people, some companies, some groups. There won’t be many, but they’ll be there, and they’ll be within your field of view.

For small businesses this gives us an advantage. Going the other way doesn’t really work; attempting to squish your mass into a narrow space won’t fit. There’s excess that doesn’t have anywhere to go.

As for trying to be everything for everyone? 

Maybe you can pull it off if you have the time, resources, fortitude and luck, but you just made it 100 or 1000 times harder for yourself.

Instead, start uncomfortably narrow.


[1] Here’s a personal example I suggested to the AMP NYC cohort I’m working with. 

Could I position myself to be the best facilitator of accelerator programs for media & entertainment business owners in NYC?

It’s extremely narrow, but I probably can. In fact, by doing this I’ve probably escaped competition. 

From there, it’s possible to start nudging outwards and finding more people who are interested in what I bring.

The Vessel & The Lens

Last week I had lunch with a friend who, like me, is a recent graduate of a coaching certification program. [1]

As we compared notes on our various projects, I used a word I’ve been thinking about quite a bit recently with regard to my new venture. 

The Vessel.

I explained this venture as being a vessel to contain and blend various elements of my skills, experience, and interests: coaching, teaching, content design, entrepreneurial thinking, storytelling.

As I spoke, he gave me a look before asking the questions he knew I needed to be asked.

What made it a vessel? 

What was important about that?

What else could it be?

Just because it’s a company doesn’t mean it has to be something into which resources are poured. 

What if it was broader? 

What’s the sum of all the elements being brought in?

What do they represent?

What if they represented a worldview?


A way of seeing the world, and how it could be in the future. 

A lens to see the world and the elements within it.

A lens to focus time and energies.

A lens to sharpen the view.

A lens to better see the people this venture seeks to serve.

Vessels are useful. Lens are powerful.


[1] The topic of two coaches meeting for lunch probably deserves its own post, and probably its own cartoon in The New Yorker – a joust of probing and empowering questions and wry ‘you got me with that one!’ moments.

KPIs: The slide snap

Here are couple of simple KPIs for all the teachers, facilitators, and keynote speakers out there.

1. How many times audience members take photos of what’s up on the screen.

2. The slide that get the most snaps.

These sound like strong metrics. 

Or are they? 

Do they in fact play to your ego and pride? Are they vanity metrics? 

And more than that, what if they’re indicating something is not working?

What if the reason the audience is taking photos is because there’s too much information on there for them to process? 

Because it’s too complex to make sense of?

Because you’re speaking too quickly, speaking without passion, using too much jargon, or referencing examples that don’t land with them?

Of course, it could well be your content is clear, insightful, beautifully designed, and just calls out to be recorded by your audience so they can spend more time with it. If so, it’s done its job.

Or perhaps there are some other metrics you could try instead.

Sampling: You don’t know it until you’ve tried it

Why the Hitchhiker’s 3 rules of technology reactions permeate far further

Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, came up with three rules that describe our reaction to technologies:

1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

These rules also apply outside of technology. Or rather, they apply beyond our typical definition of technology.

Read More

Dominant Design

When the car company uses dominant design, they may not even know they’re doing so.

When they see the company starting to mirror the most important parts of its product – that’s dominant design.

If the engine and chassis are more important than the radio and the seat covers (and in most car companies, they probably are), then dominant design in the company will probably show up as a big focus on structure and productivity. The motor and the main skeleton are what drives (sorry) the business.

And this doesn’t just show up in key objectives or operating style – the dominant design can appear through branding, hierarchy, communications, culture.

We’ve probably all got some dominant design elements in our work.

We can change the dominant design if we choose to – but it helps if we identify and understand its purpose first.

Have you seen it?

A simple way to get unblocked

You probably know the feeling: that project you’re working on just spins round and round; nothing moving; no new way of cracking the problem; no other route appearing.

You want the ideas to flow, but they won’t. 

The more you force them, the worse it is.

Or take a walk, take a shower, take a break.

Still no good.

Here’s something else to try.

Get bored, with constraints.


You could just get bored. This may help (as Neil Gaiman suggests when it comes to writing), but the constraints are important – especially when you’re an easily distracted soul or have other projects on the boil.

One type of constraint that can work well is a social convention.

For example, go to a talk.

It can’t be a talk on just anything – the constraints may not be strong enough to keep you there. It needs a talk on a topic you’re interested in, but where your expectations are moderate at best. 

What you’re ideally looking for is a talk on a topic adjacent to the project you’re working on. It should be the kind of thing you impulsively sign up for a couple of weeks in advance, then bail on the day before (be honest, you’ve done this).

Take a notepad and pen with you, and show up on time. You don’t want to be a late arrival, otherwise you’ll be breaking the social conventions. It’s crucial you’re part of the audience, as this reduces the chances of you leaving early or opting out.

Sit towards the back of the room, and listen to the conversation like you’d listen to music.

Don’t try too hard to listen, nor to do something else.

Wait for one of two things to happen: something you hear triggers an idea; or your interest and attention naturally wane.

If the first happens – write it. Draw it. Keep going with it.

If it’s the second – stay with it.

In either case, see where you go. You may be surprised at what shows up.

This has worked very well for me maybe a dozen times now.

Go out and try it yourself.

I just hope none of those event hosts read this.