Start at the ending, in writing and life

Photo by Monty Allen on Unsplash

“Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.” Julie Andrews, Do-Re-Mi in The Sound of Music

As writers, sometimes we have to start at the end. In my previous books, I started at the beginning and wrote all the way through to the end. It’s how I outline, too. But with this third Emerson Page book, I have to take a different approach.

I started to write the beginning with my trusty outline in-hand and quickly found myself in murky waters. So murky that I was procrastinating, which I never do. I was afraid to sit down and write, and that fear was getting in the way of delivering my draft manuscript to my publisher under a tight deadline.

I have to find another way in. I stopped writing in my usual progression of beginning to end, and flipped it on its head. Today, I’m writing the last chapter of the book, the end of Emerson’s story arc. I know where it needs to take place and what needs to happen there. With that confidence, I’ll walk backward one step, one chapter, at a time.

To be honest, I don’t like that I have to do this. I’m a creature of habit and I like my writing habits. But this leg of Emerson’s journey is the most complicated of the three books. It has many more twists, turns, and surprises. The stakes are higher, and I have to give readers an ending that’s satisfying and true to Emerson’s spirit. To do that, I have to adjust my process.

Maybe you’re facing something similar, in your writing or in your life. Something isn’t progressing as you hoped. A surprise popped up that has thrown you off-track. You’re stuck, disappointed, frustrated, or maybe you’re all of those things.

Back up and look for a different path. How can you adjust what you’re doing? Is there another way forward, even it requires you to get comfortable with being uncomfortable? Maybe like me, you have to put things in reverse. Start with the goal. Then instead of asking, “and then what happened?”, ask “how did I get here? And here? And here?”

It may turn out that the ending is the very best place to start.


In the pause: The best innovation and creative processes have constraints

A canvas is only so big, a building so tall, a stage so wide, and a novel so long. The best creative projects have limits. Someone recently told me that people who work in innovation have to be comfortable with ambiguity and nebulous situations. I completely disagree. After nearly two decades of working in product development, innovation, and creative industries I can tell you that people who have an impact through innovation have to be comfortable with working within constraints.

Now, if you’re in the rare (and quite frankly, boring, at least to me) situation of not needing to have an impact, then do whatever you want. If you have all the time, money, and energy in the world, then the sky’s the limit. This article isn’t for you. It’s for the rest of us who have to operate in reality and who care about building projects that build a better world.

When I was just out of business school, I had an amazing boss, Bob G., who taught me that constraints are gifts. Now in my writing work with my Darden professor, Ed Freeman, we’re talking about how valuable the idea of limitation is when it comes to the human imagination. Constraints don’t prevent us from being creative; they actually free us. Once we have some definition, then we can let our imaginations run wild while being confident in the fact that we’re making progress.

We might be designing a product or service for a particular group of people. With that definition to the project, we can really delve into the process of discovering what this group of people wants or needs and why. That’s some of the most interesting work we can do in innovation.

Perhaps there is a specific social issue we want to tackle – ending hunger, alleviating poverty, or advocating for equality. Those goals have very different objectives and methods. To develop the most effective programs, we have to get specific about what we want to do and have a deep understanding of how what we choose to do will make a difference.

In short, to be creative and effective, we’ve got to eliminate the unnecessary so the necessary can speak. We’ve got to dampen the noise so the message can be heard. And the best way to do that is to define our limits.

So the next time you have a project in front of you that has constraints, don’t curse them. Thank them. They are there to help you focus and give you meaning. Use them wisely.


In the pause: Rediscovering awe in CRISPR

“He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.” ~Albert Einstein

In this year of pausing and reflecting more, I try to read, see, hear, or experience one thing every day that seems completely out of this world. Things that make me wonder. Things that make me stand in awe.

Today that thing is something known as CRISPR. In a very small and simple nutshell, it’s a “find and replace” function for cellular DNA. There is research underway right now at Penn, my alma mater, that is attempting to turn cells into cancer super-fighters.

Other scientists are testing the ideas of using CRISPR to take HIV, cancer, and Alzheimer’s right out of the cells where they exist at the genetic level. Elsewhere, they are creating healthy crops and looking at the possibility of reviving extinct species. There is a chance, and a healthy one at that, that CRISPR could change life on earth as we know it. And with it, there are mountains of ethical and moral questions that have no answers.

It’s my hope that in the coming months and years I will find a way to somehow participate in these conversations and help others participate, too. 2017 is poised to be another wild ride, and I’m grateful for the pause to help me process it.


Wonder: What do you do now if you work in healthcare?

Working for a financial services firm during the recession that started in 2007 has proven to be quite a blessing now that I have some distance from it. Just as the economy was in turmoil then, there are a number of industries now that face similar challenges to their business models and my current industry, healthcare, is one of them.

From this moment forward, I spend my time thinking about what we do now that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) may be repealed or recast in any number of ways. What products, services, and systems can help protect our most vulnerable people? I couldn’t have imagined that the painful lessons I learned in financial services from 2008-2012 would be useful in this way and so soon, but life’s like that sometimes. We go through hardship and difficulty because they have something to teach us that we will be able to use to help others down the line. I will try to hang onto that tough and necessary lesson in the coming months and years.


Wonder: Why this 10-year-old from Paris gives me hope for the world

My Facebook feed is filled with friends who are angry, sad, frustrated, confused, and at a complete loss about why there is so much senseless killing happening. I am, too. I worry about what kind of world we’re leaving for our children, and then I read this article from Time about a 10-year-old-girl named Eva who lives in Paris. She was granted a PhD level fellowship. Her pitch was: “The streets of Paris are sad. I want to build a robot that will make them happy again. I’ve already started learning how to code on Thymio robots, but I have trouble making it work. I want to join the program so the mentors can help me.”

Yes, technology can isolate us. It can also be used to build a better, kinder, happier, and safer world. And I think that if we begin to think about technology the way that Eva does, we’ll be able to build a better world together, a world in which every life matters.


Wonder: Finding inspiration in healthcare technology

“Medicine is a science of uncertainty and an art of probability.” ~Sir William Osler

I spent a good part of the weekend delving into the most recent healthcare technology innovations. A number of publications released their lists of promising new possibilities, and I was astounded by what’s on the horizon.

In a time when there is so much negativity and heartbreak around the world, this reading lifted me up. Nanobots in the blood to fight disease, mind transfer, smart hospitals (akin to smart homes), simulators for surgical training, the simulation of disease outcomes, DNA transfer, the increased appreciation and value of mindfulness, and augmenting human capabilities with sensing prosthetics. The list goes on, and it sent my mind spiraling upward.

It was also a reminder that no matter how bleak the world may seem, the desire for all of us to live healthier, happier lives drives an incredible amount of creativity. The power of creativity and the role of imagination in building a better world is always something we can count on.


Wonder: Project Rubeus and the beauty of small solutions

small_better_small“The problem with history is that it usually doesn’t go back far enough.” ~Reverend James Forbes

We have a lot of great big problems in this world. Sometimes I think they’re getting bigger, more numerous, and more complex because we think that all big problems need big solutions. Lately, I’ve been challenging myself to find the smallest solutions possible, solutions that are simple, easy, elegant, and inexpensive.

Project Rubeus is a perfect example of this. I’m trying to solve the problem students face having to sift so much history to make sense of the world around them. And because time waits for no one and history is being made every day, this problem will only get more complex with each passing day.

I could develop an enormous, expensive solution that boils the ocean in search of the most distal shreds that build a cohesive story with multiple perspectives. I want to focus on finding the smallest slice of a solution that works, and then go from there. Step by step, piece by piece, word by word. That’s how all great travels start, how all great works of art get made, and how all great books get written.

Just focus on the next and smallest step, see what you find there, and proceed with love. That is enough.


This just in: Innovation Station takes another small step forward

Innovation Station
Innovation Station

This weekend, I had the great privilege to work with a team on Innovation Station, a design for a new middle school design that marries storytelling and the product development process to teach core subjects and career-based skills.

The startup competition was sponsored by 4.0 schools and CityBridge Foundation in Washington D.C. I had the seed of this idea in 2007 and I’ve left it untouched in a file on my computer for many years. It was really an honor to be able to devote a weekend to it with a talented group of people, and see what we could craft together.

Though my team didn’t win, the experience was invaluable and I met a number of wonderful and passionate people who care as much about education as I do. And it’s got the wheels turning in my head. Maybe this is a new beginning…


This just in: Don’t let innovation be the enemy of improvement

Photo by Elisabetta Foco
Photo by Elisabetta Foco

In the push for wild ideas that get public attention, we’re doing ourselves a disservice. What companies and products need to focus on is improvement, not innovation.

The iPod was a better looking mp3 player that could be personalized. Virgin America didn’t do anything beyond providing stellar service to customers who were used to an industry that treated them badly. Starbucks decided to serve strong coffee prepared to order and gave customers a comfy chair in its cafes to enjoy it. Those aren’t mind-blowing ideas. They’re elegant improvements in industries that badly needed any improvement at all.

So don’t chase far out innovations. Most of that is just a flash in the pan that gets a lot of buzz for a short period of time and then dies a quick and meaningless death. What you want is a steady hum of improvement that inches up a step at a time. And those steps will add up not only to a staircase of innovation, but a meaningful long-lasting impact that makes the world a better place.