Doing research for MailChimp is a remarkable experience. Every day I am asking questions and sharing answers with designers, PMs, engineers, founders. How do small businesses make decisions about their business? How do they use their mobile phone as a business device? How do they measure success? What do they need to succeed in a world dominated by the likes of Amazon and Wal-Mart? When they grow, how do they reprioritize? What makes running a business from Nashville, Boston, Paris, Sydney, Mumbai different? How can they use the trends toward remote workers, globalization, automation to share their passions and creations?
I created a Dante Twitter Bot (@speclplcnhell) that retweets when someone tweets “special place in hell.” Being a literature geek, I had a vision. Dante is making the map of hell even larger for modern life, given the popularity of this particular hyperbolic turn of phrase. While it was initially developed just for fun, through following it I have learned about a Twitter outside my own echo chamber. I have an expanded understanding of internet conversation, including another bot talking to my bot. Everyone should create and follow their own Twitter bot. (Also, I got 100+ followers in no time.)
I have been fortunate in my investigative travels. For the U.S. State Department, I went to Mexico City to talk with U.S. embassy employees from underrepresented populations about what it means to represent America. For the British Council, I went to Manchester to discuss with educators how to create online British education for students across the globe. For Diageo, I went to Dublin to discuss with Irish people how they felt about a big British brand buying Guinness. For GM, I went to El Paso to ask engineering students how they choose their major. Always wander, always wonder.
I am a minimalist. Everything I own fits into my Subaru. I believe in the advantage of access and that ownership is burden. I live less stuck, more agile. Every object has meaning for me. Every purchase is thoughtful. Each decision can be weighed against all I possess. I no longer bring many ownership biases to my working life. A couple of circumstances helped. Moving to Alaska in the winter got me to “duffle bag my life.” Losing fifty pounds meant clothes that I hung onto for sentimental and practical reasons were no longer a part of my context. Simplicity.
In 2000, I had one day to find insights on the future of cell phones. I observed that the strategy of existing industry messaging was irrelevant to typical shoppers. Three observations showed me the future. People listened to every ringtone when selecting a phone. They checked themselves out holding the phone in a mirror and those phone holsters/clips were very popular grabs at the register. I figured out that cell phones were not electronics like we thought then, but accessories, an obvious insight now years later. The strategy based on that insight would inspire a successful, award-winning creative campaign.
I love data. I was a calculus tutor in college. And, my first thinking job was to take substantial amounts of spreadsheet data from a mass spectrometer and clean it up, add pivot tables, show the patterns. This initial skill would serve me well as I dove into MRI, @Plan, and Simmons spreadsheets, and of course, the A/B testing of Verizon ad units or back-to-school catalog covers for Dell. However, finding the pattern is just where the fun begins. The questioning about “Why they exist?” makes me light up. “Where are the other patterns that further prove it?” #investigate
Strategy as a term is war-based. It was developed with an idea of borders and resource grabs. Does it apply to a global world with internet and a need to focus on sustainability? Words evolve in meaning, still rooted to the past but staying relevant to shifts in culture. I like this Princeton WordNet definition of stratagem, “a maneuver in a game or conversation.” Games and conversations are best when they just keep going on and on. They are about the collective action, not the final prize. Keeping things borderless and sustainable are how we build a modern creative strategy.
I was fortunate to get to work on Jack Daniel’s first global website. I’ll never forget writing the creative briefs in those early days of the web. That is when it dawned on me that there was no longer an audience and that we needed to strike that idea from our industry vocabulary. We had to develop a wireframe for infinite possibilities. We had to allow a very static brand to become fluid. While that v1.0 site is now long gone, the initial sparks it had on my digital strategy thinking during those frontier days had a lasting impact.
According to my StrengthsFinder self-assessment, I am a:
I have a desire to learn and want to continuously improve. The process of learning, rather than the outcome, excites me.
I focus on strengths to stimulate personal and group excellence. I seek to transform strengths into superpowers.
I have a contagious enthusiasm. I am upbeat and can get others excited about what they are going to do.
I can make things happen by turning thoughts into action. I am often impatient.
I crave to know more. I like to collect and archive all kinds of information.
I love machines. I tore open my first PCs to move stuff around and make inventions with superpowers. I actually was just breaking them. It is paramount we consider ourselves cyborgs and understand how our relationships with silicon and AI are going to inevitably shape culture, society, interactions and fundamental behaviors. I also strongly connect with this planet and nature. I was once a zoology major and “my favorite activity” is hiking. We are not simply inhabiting Earth. We are earth parts. The blending of these layers fascinates my consciousness and motivates my curiosity perhaps more than any other forces.
I recently took 4 weeks and 6,000 miles to drive across the country. Visited nine National Parks, sat in a natural hot tub on the Mexican border, watched a meteor shower at 2AM in Marfa, Texas, pub crawled Austin’s Sixth Street, spotted gators on a swamp tour in Louisiana, ate a muffaletta on the edge of the Mississippi and beignets at Cafe Du Monde, built sand castles on the white Gulf beaches of Florida, made a Hershey chocolate bar in Pennsylvania, pulled into Brooklyn just as a blizzard hit. I am touring Ontario right now. I have no address.
In February 2006, I conducted in-home website usability testing for Starbucks in Seattle, Chicago and New York City, the latter for one of their biggest blizzards ever. I climbed through snow to arrive at people’s homes with a warm smile and coffee. I learned so much more by being in people’s actual environments, interacting with all the layers of personal culture demanding their attention. Fortunately, I am often able to put people at ease with my demeanor, tone of voice and body language. It has helped me immensely in a career of needing to authentically understand and connect with individuals.
In my second semester teaching, I noticed students struggled to think like creative strategists. Therefore, I invented the “Culture Map” assignment. I gave each student a San Francisco neighborhood, instructions to go absorb and observe the culture and build a map. Students often wanted more direction and I would say, “Do you know what culture is?” Yep. “Do you know what a map is?” Yep. “There you go.” The assignment required them to create layered thinking based on POV, intuition, and observation. It got them away from screens, thinking beyond shopping, and how people are much more interesting than brands.
As I approached 40, I changed my health and lost fifty pounds. Equally striking to me was the reaction to my Medium post about the experience. I wrote it so I could stop retelling the story of how I lost the weight, including students scheduling office hour meetings to discuss. The piece has 4K reads and 228 recommends. I had a geek geek-moment when I saw Ev Williams (Twitter co-founder and creator of Medium) highlighted some phrases. Strangers wrote me how I inspired small changes to their health behavior. I truly understood what it meant to be my own channel.
Teaching is something we all think we can do because we all have been taught. But after teaching for a decade and hiring instructors, I can attest it is a developed skill. Learning is a flowing process that must build. As a department director teaching six classes a semester, I thought how an exercise fed a class fed a course fed a semester fed a year fed a degree fed a career. The layered complexity was diverse, immense and tangled. I learned how to seed an idea, inspire its growth, encourage its development and use its resource for further exploration.
(This one is more than 100 words, sorry.)
I once drove 3,604 miles from Anchorage, Alaska to San Francisco, that is further than Seattle to Miami. It changed me. Here is what I wrote before I took off:
I hope to see bears
I hope to swim in more lakes, than showers I take
I hope to say few words, read few statuses
I hope to have no clue what happens to you this week, until you tell me over a coffee, lunch or pint some time
I hope to see bison
I hope to get lost in my head and recall that which is hiding
I hope to dance with trees
I hope to literally stop. And smell the flowers
I hope to see goats and sheep
I hope to lose track of time and just sleep when I'm tired and eat when I'm hungry
I hope to hear silence and thundering waterfalls at the same time
I hope to wander
I hope to name the mountains what I think they should be named. If I am really lucky they will tell me themselves
I hope to breathe the best air of my life and therefore know life
I succeeded in this pursuit and forever changed.