“Was there ever a time when older people said, ‘Hmmm. I think it’s just right’?” – Neil Howe, Coined the term “Millennial” in 1991 and author of Millennials Rising

Aziz Ansari, Author of Modern Romance

Aziz Ansari, Author of Modern Romance. Use via Creative Commons permission.

My light reading over a long Labor Day weekend at the beach: Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari, the comedian best known for his part in the NBC show Parks and Rec. He takes an anthropological look at dating among Millennials where – no exaggeration – 35 percent of this generational cohort meet their significant others through online dating apps.

It’s hilarious. Listen to how Ansari work the book’s themes into his act with the embedded podcast below from NPR’s The Hidden Brain. He brings audience members – Millennials, of course – onto the stage and gets them to read aloud text messages received from members of the opposite sex. Start at about the 2:50 mark to hear how one poor guy bumbles a clear shot at a date.

And it’s utterly terrifying. I’m at the stage of life where I look at these things through the lens of a father whose young daughters are nearer to their first dating experiences than I am removed from my last. I read Ansari’s account of what boys text to girls in hopes of getting their attention, many of which are made public, he tells us, on a popular blog called “straight white boy text.” I won’t recount them here, but let your imagination run wild. I imagine my daughters nine or ten years from now, and my blood pressure spikes.

It’s these kind of anecdotes of the Millennial Generation that lead so many Gen X’ers and Baby Boomers to dismiss it. What are the common descriptions we hear? Coddled. Entitled. Craving praise. Living in the parent’s basement. Failures to launch.

Continue Reading…

Mark Spencer 1

Mark Spencer
Photo Credit: Digium, Inc.

Update: I originally published this essay in late-2012. My attention recently drifted back to the topic of disruption in the telecom industry, prompting me to revisit what Mark Spencer achieved with Digium and the Asterisk product. I’m no less impressed today than I was four years ago, and so I put this at the top of the blog list again. What Mark accomplished is impressive and a worthy model for other disruptors to consider.

Mark Spencer presents me with a philosophical conundrum. Before an interview earlier this month I text him to say I’m so excited about our conversation that I hardly slept the night before. (He is understandably cautious of my enthusiasm.) After we spoke, I’m so confounded by the way he chose to tell his tale that I don’t sleep well for several more nights as my mind grapples with what it’s heard.

Mark is chief technology officer and founder of a company called Digium in Huntsville, Alabama. It supports and develops for an open source telecom platform called Asterisk which Mark (for lack of a better term) invented. Digium is to Asterisk what Red Hat is to Linux. And much as Linux evolved into the open source alternative to proprietary operating systems offered by companies such as Microsoft, so has Asterisk become an alternative to closed technology from the likes of telecom giants Cisco and Avaya.

Not everyone likes the open source model, but enough do that Red Hat has made a thriving business out of providing software, support and consulting services to those that do choose Linux. Likewise with Digium. It has found a loyal and growing base of followers who align with Asterisk’s open source philosophy, its price and its flexibility. Some subset of those Asterisk users, mostly small- and medium-sized companies, find value in paying Mark’s company to help them use the platform.

I have little doubt that Mark bristles at my word selection in the paragraphs above.  That I call it “his” company and that he “invented” Asterisk. But those are accurate descriptions. Though he turned over day-to-day operations of the business to professional managers after raising a round of venture capital in 2007, he remains majority shareholder and has de facto voting control over board decisions. But Mark prefers inclusive language. Digium’s success is the result of the efforts of many, not just Mark, he points out several times in our interview. Asterisk’s adoption did not happen because of the code he originated, he adds, but because countless independent developers have committed their considerable energy and intellect to enhancing it and making it a better product for users.

Though its story is still being written, it’s not a stretch to call Digium a success at this point in its existence (which Mark characterizes as being in its late-adolescent or early-teenage years). The same applies to Mark. He has done more in his 35 years than most people could muster the ambition to even imagine accomplishing in their lifetimes. But he lets out a deep sigh when I ask him to tell the story in the context of this success.

Mark rejects my basic premise. “What is success?” he asks with implied disdain but unflinching politeness.

Call it success or call it something else, when he talks about where he is today and where Digium is, Mark has no interest in talking about the things he did. He takes me in a different direction altogether.

Let’s not tell a story about talent or skill leading to success, he intimates. Let’s talk about the importance of luck.

So it is this matter of luck, and its effects on outcomes – success or failure – that has kept me up more nights than I should admit since my last conversation with Mark.

Continue Reading…


Last January the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published results of a poll it commissioned to gauge the community’s ties to MARTA, the city’s train and bus commuter system. The data showed something surprising: people who rode MARTA were more than twice as likely to feel connected to Atlanta than those who didn’t.

Of the respondents who rode transit, 51% reported strong connections to the region. Only 23% of non-riders said the same. The reporters asked a Morehouse College sociology professor why this might be the case. “You interact and share space with more people,” she responded, “and that makes you feel a part of the community.”

I’m skeptical of these findings as I’m riding MARTA’s Red Line last December, heading from the airport at the south of the city into Atlanta’s Midtown. I was there on business, working at the time for a company whose smartphone apps alerted riders when their bus was arriving. We liked this notion of public transit connecting people to their communities. Indeed, we had a vested interest in promoting the idea. As an experiment during this trip, I opted to skip the car rental counter at the airport. For the next three days I would travel all around Atlanta using public transit whenever possible, walking as an acceptable alternative, and UberX car-sharing if there were no other options. I was curious how navigable the city would be without a car, and I was eager to test the premise behind the newspaper article. Does public transit contribute to an enhanced sense of community?

My earliest impressions made me skeptical. In that first train ride, as I traveled south to north packed tight with a few dozen fellow riders in our compartment, there was plenty of opportunity for camaraderie but no takers. Quite the opposite in fact. Everyone seemed desperate to avoid even the simplest forms of contact, keeping their noses pressed against iPhones, books and newspapers. No one was making eye contact with others. No one was talking with anyone else. Physically, we were all together, but each of us was pretending we were completely alone.

If polled by reporters from the Journal-Constitution, what would these together-alone passengers have to say? Would they report a stronger attachment to the community for having ridden MARTA? Continue Reading…


Note: I wrote this story for the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation. It was originally published on December 17, 2014 on JKHF’s Medium.com page.

Photo Credit: Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation


I. A Fight to Ignore

On a June morning this summer, a small group was working on a 16-by-16 plot of urban farm land in Southeast Raleigh when a fight broke out. Across the street two women were arguing over a cellphone. Shouting ensued, onlookers gathered, and the women began assaulting each other. The crowd grew, urging the fight on rather than breaking it up.

Akiba Byrd, a civic activist and entrepreneur, was supervising three youth and an intern on the farm that morning. He had been recently introduced to Nation Hahn, co-founder of the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation, who came to work with them on the project for the day. They watched intermittently as the fight persisted for what each says must have been half an hour. Nation mentions being disturbed and distracted by what he saw. It was so unfamiliar, and he couldn’t help but keep glancing up at it.

But each time he looked back at the youth on the farm, they remained heads down, completely absorbed in their work. They weren’t at all interested in the commotion across the street. For them, it was all too familiar.

As the fight raged, two little boys wandered up. They were holding ice cream cones. Rather than join the raucous, they wanted to know what all these big kids were doing. Why were they digging in the dirt? Farming was for the country, could they really do this in the city? Could they really do this in their neighborhood?

“They were completely fixated on this garden, this small garden,” Nation would tell me later, fascinated by the reaction.  “And it was like they were entirely oblivious to this loud and violent fight just across the street. They just stood there eating ice cream and asking questions about the garden.” Continue Reading…

Sport is vicious, what with the zero-sum outcomes of winners and losers. World Cup group play tames that a bit by giving a point for a draw and the hope of moving on. But the bitterness of that last minute goal – the beautiful arcing ball from the world’s best player, placed perfectly on the forehead of his teammate for the equalizer – threatens to linger. We were so close to the sure thing…to making it out of the group of death into the round of 16! Now the US Men’s National Team must face the juggernaut Deutscheland and rely (perhaps) on fate to see us through.

I confess to waking up last night, replaying the long pass in my head, agonizing over the “what-if” scenarios. What if we didn’t dawdle with that final substitution? Maybe the keeper of the clock would have added one minute less of stoppage time. That would have been enough to keep the ball from Ronaldo and his final assist. What if, what if, what if. My wife did the same, the what-if curse being worse for her as each soccer match transports Kate back to her own college-playing days. Now imagine what those players are thinking.

Were I in that locker room after the end-of-game jersey-swaps and given the chance to address the players, I would say job well done. Now let it go. Don’t let the what-ifs into your minds. You can control process, but the outcome is the domain of the fates. You had a good strategy. You were conditioned well and played hard. You left nothing on the field. You were prepared, and the process was right. More often than not that will be enough to see you through, a good process will create victory. But sometimes you can do everything right, and bad luck rears its ugly head. That’s what happened last night in the final minute of stoppage time.

Here’s a matrix from the 2001 book, Winning Decisions, meant for business but maybe better suited for sports. The US men were prepared. That high level of preparation gives them the best chance of landing in the top right square, “deserved success.” But sometimes unlucky failure strikes despite your process. You end up in the bottom-right quadrant.  All you can do is shrug it off and move on.

Preparedness Luck matrix B Shadow

The real test comes next. Is this team resilient enough to bounce back from being so close to a sure thing? Can they trust their coach, each other, and the process to bring it one more time against Germany? Can they use this matrix with its oversimplified logic to rid their minds of the what-if curse and focus on preparing for the next match?

I believe…

I believe that…

I believe that we will win.

The Future Credit: James Vaughn via flickr

The Future
Credit: James Vaughn via flickr

Not so long ago I spent an afternoon listening to a half-dozen entrepreneurs hawk their ideas for new companies. The event was called a pitch day, and it had an American Idol feel. The presenters stood before massive power point displays in the cavernous auditorium of a converted warehouse, spinning their best stories of why their concepts would attract the most eyeballs, customer subscriptions, or advertising attention. Each wanted to launch a fast-growing business – the next tech rocket ship – and made their case to the judges, a collection of investors spread in front of the makeshift stage in neat rows of plastic chairs. Winning meant the entrepreneurs got a little extra cash, fuel for their rockets, and a chance to turn their concepts into real startups.

The presenters had been honing their pitches for weeks, seeking that right combination of words, images, and dramatic delivery that might persuade the investors to pick them. The event was glitzy. The pitches slick. But the substance?

Of the six proposals, each could be boiled down to “the next” (fill in the blank with Facebook, Twitter or Google) for (fill in the blank with a sliced-up market segment). Each was a derivative concept meant to piggyback in some way off the platforms created by more ambitious entrepreneurs who came before them. These ideas were less about originality than they were about exploiting market niches that were not yet the focus of the platform companies. There was not much stretching for greatness.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Commerce has long thrived on tweaking others’ ideas, but at some point it seems someone has to push forward the vision thing. I believe it was frustration with a lack of startup imagination that prodded Bruce Gibney of the Founders Fund to pen this missive in April 2011. He called it What Happened to the Future? and attached this brilliant subtitle: We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters. From that letter:

The future envisioned from the perspective of the 1960s was hard to get to, but not impossible, and people were willing to entertain the idea. We now laugh at the Nucleon [a nuclear-powered car] and Pan Am to the moon while applauding underpowered hybrid cars and Easyjet, and that’s sad. The future that people in the 1960s hoped to see is still the future we’re waiting for today, half a century later. Instead of Captain Kirk and the USS Enterprise, we got the Priceline Negotiator and a cheap flight to Cabo.

It’s not a huge surprise why the pitch day ideas were so ho-hum. The entrepreneurs are running towards the money. Venture capital as an industry is more interested in backing the thing that seems most likely to get acquired (and thereby provide quick returns on their capital) than in backing bold bets. That makes sense. We need it. But we also need capital that backs the bold ideas. We need capital for the bets that might take years and years before paying out. I applaud Bruce Gibney and his colleagues at the Founders Fund for attempting to play that role. I applaud Google’s X labs for working on their own initiatives to change the world. My hope is that they prod more investors to take a long-term perspective.

When capital makes itself available for bold ideas, I expect we’ll see entrepreneurs tap into their more creative impulses. I expect we’ll see pitches that will bring promise of this future we’ve been waiting for.


Author’s Daughter, Sporting the Old School Wildcat Outside Senior Apartments

The arc of my life bends more to Davidson College than I ever would have guessed on a broiling August day some 19 years ago. That’s when my dad and I stuffed the backseat of a rickety Oldsmobile Cutlass with the bulk of my possessions and travailed the six hours of interstates 85 and 77 that connect Auburn to that town on the northernmost edge of Mecklenburg County.  I was 17 and more practical than most teenagers. My brain was certain the next few years would be a strict economic exchange: my hard work and indebtedness for a degree inked on lambskin that would launch me into a career. And that would be that.

But it became much more than that. Not only in my time there, but in the many years since.

Yes, that diploma arrived. It’s in a beautiful frame on the floor of my basement office, propped unceremoniously against a wall. It’s come in handy on my twisted path of a career, yet the benefits of the Davidson College brand have played out so much more in my personal life. My marriage traces back to the chance meeting of a soccer player who stole my study table one afternoon on the second floor of E.H. Little Library. That was 17 years ago. I proposed to Kate at that same table nine years later, and we were married in Davidson’s Lingle Chapel a brief six months after that. Standing at my side was Jason, my best man who had been my best friend through college, and in the church pews sat countless faces of loved ones whom Kate and I came to know only because we spent that brief time as students at this particular school.

This nostalgia envelops me in the hours since I’ve returned to Raleigh with Kate and our two young daughters. We spent the weekend back at Davidson reminiscing with old classmates at my 15 year reunion, and I’ve been in a contemplative mood ever since. There’s the warm glow of happy memories, but there’s also some recognition of our own aging and what it means for friendships. Continue Reading…

Victor Hugo. Credit: Unknown, Public Domain

Victor Hugo. Credit: Unknown, Public Domain

There’s nothing stronger than an idea whose time has come.

– Victor Hugo

In their 2006 book, The Starfish and the Spider, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom chronicle the power of organizations with no central control, no structured leadership, oftentimes no budget, and that tend to be volunteer driven. The authors call them “starfish” because they thrive despite (or perhaps because of) having no central nervous system. You cut off a leg, and they regenerate another.

Starfish organizations include Alcoholics Anonymous, Wikipedia, the abolitionist movement in England 150 years ago, and the Apache resistance to Spanish conquest in the 17th and 18th century Southwest US. As I considered last week, the idea can spread far and wide to include less known organizations operating in our communities, such as the F3 workout group that meets early each morning in Raleigh.

We’re so biased towards models of command and control, that it’s counter-intuitive to think that a group without a leader can somehow be more powerful and more successful than one with a manager at its helm. So what’s the secret to starfish success? The authors outline several success factors, and the one that jumps out the most is ideology. Here they highlight how it works with Alcoholics Anonymous:

At AA, the ideology is that people can help each other out of addiction. The twelve steps reflect the implications of this ideology. People who don’t buy into the twelve steps aren’t likely to stay in AA. But those who do follow the twelve steps do so rigorously…we can expect AA and its offshoots to be around as long as there’s addiction.

The idea is straightforward, and it serves a real need (addiction). The structure of the groups is simple and easy to replicate. If someone wants to start a new group, it’s like a fractal pattern repeating itself as its reach expands further and further. The power lies in the simplicity that makes it repeatable. If the ideology becomes too complex or too convoluted, the expansion collapses on itself.

As Victor Hugo put it above, there’s nothing stronger than an idea whose time has come. People will rally around an idea that speaks to them; that resonates. And in organizations that don’t provide economic compensation or status or other forms of incentive, the idea must have power, be simple, and be cogent.

Abe Maslow (Credit: Wikipedia)

Abe Maslow (Credit: Wikipedia)

50 years ago Abraham Maslow embedded himself in a Southern California tech factory to study its managers and culture. He kept copious notes and published his thoughts in 1962 in a sparsely-read tome called Eupsychian Management. The book was republished 37 years later, long after Maslow had passed, under the more accessible title, Maslow on Management. In it the great psychologist makes a distinction between the “doers” of the world and all those people who just talk, talk, talk.

After talking with various students and professors who “wanted to work with me” on self-actualization, I discovered that I was very suspicious of most of them and rather discouraging, tending to expect little from them. This is a consequence of long experience with multitudes of starry-eyed dilettantes – big talkers, great planners, tremendously enthusiastic – who came to nothing as soon as a little hard work is required.

We all know these types. I for one have to work hard to make sure there’s not one staring back at me each morning when I shave in front of the mirror. Someone recently told me I’m a great idea person. I think it was meant as a compliment, but my attention is piqued. I sure hope it’s not a euphemistic way of lopping me into that same category Maslow describes above.

Here’s Maslow’s technique from separating the talkers from the doers:

…I have tested people with these fancy aspirations simply by giving them a rather dull but important and worthwhile job to do. Nineteen out of twenty fail the test. I have learned not only to give this test but to brush them aside completely if they don’t pass it. I have preached to them about joining the “League of Responsible Citizens” and down with the free-loaders, hangers-on, mere talkers, the permanent passive students who study forever with no results. The test for any person is – that if you want to find out whether he’s an apple tree or not – Does He Bear Apples? Does He Bear Fruit? That’s the way you tell the difference between fruitfulness and sterility, between talkers and doers, between the people who change the world and the people who are helpless in it.

These are strong words from the father of Self-Actualization Theory. Here we assume Maslow must be this touchy-feely dude since his ideas are so often associated with kindness and making contributions to society. His views appear ironic even given that Maslow was first and foremost a thinker. I’ve never been quick to put theoretical psychologists into the “doer” category.

But he was also revolutionary. His bridge from talking to doing was constructed with rigorous testing, teaching, and writing. The hierarchy of needs thesis would have gone nowhere if he simply chatted with people about his novel concept. No, he had to go out and battle for respect in peer-reviewed journals. He had to promote it like crazy to earn acceptance and create his legacy. And his respect was not earned easily, nor did it come without wounds. It took years of grinding work that dilettantes are just not capable of.

What can we learn from Maslow’s view on doers versus talkers? My lesson is this: being an “idea person” brings little value to the world if you aren’t prepared to support the idea with all the grinding, thankless work it takes to fight through criticism and gain acceptance. This requires much more than brainstorming a few thoughts and patting yourself on the back because they feel so clever. The real value comes from transforming those thoughts from ideas to some kind of action. Even the tiniest action signals to the world that you’re serious, willing to work for your ideas, able to endure uncertainty, and not just another dilettante.

I. An Image Problem: Hercules & The Hydra

Hercules was a real jerk. That’s my conclusion after thumbing through the tales of his conquests last night in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. He’s lionized as the favorite Greek hero, but this dude had a serious case of roid rage, perhaps the first in all of literature.

To illustrate: his most famous adventures come from the “Labors of Hercules” in which he choked-out the fierce lion of Lemea, diverted two great rivers to clear years of accumulated animal filth in the Augean stables, and killed the many-headed Hydra of Lerna, a creature considered immortal until it met Hercules. But why was he checking all these chores off a list? They were part of history’s first 12-step recovery program, penance for a roid-rage fit in which Hercules murdered his wife and three sons. That backstory was conveniently missing from Disney’s cartoon movie. Seriously, we need to reconsider our heroes.

Hercules v. Hydra, Photo Credit:  Eagle Painter Wolfgang Sauber, Creative Commons License

Hercules v. Hydra, Photo Credit:
Eagle Painter Wolfgang Sauber, Creative Commons License

Here’s Hamilton’s description of the Hydra conquest:

The second labor was to go to Lerna and kill a creature with nine heads called the Hydra which lived in a swamp there. This was exceedingly hard to do, because one of the heads was immortal and the others almost as bad, inasmuch as when Hercules chopped one off, two grew up instead. However, he was helped by his nephew Iolaus who brought him a burning brand with which he seared the neck as he cut each head off so it could not sprout again. When all had been chopped off he disposed of the one that was immortal by burying it securely under a great rock.

Let’s refocus this tale from Hercules to the Hydra. Despite its evil reputation, I want to reimagine the creature in a more pleasant light. That ability to grow two heads where one is lopped off has been the source of nightmares, but I want to strip it of fear and turn it into a constructive metaphor for something we should want more of in our local economies. I’ll call them Hydra economies. Continue Reading…

Starfish, Creative Commons License

Starfish, Creative Commons License

Several days a week, before dawn, middle-aged men congregate in small groups around Raleigh. They meet at parks, school playgrounds, and open fields and spend the better part of an hour running through fitness drills. When done exercising, they gather in a huddle for chatter and reflection before breaking and heading their separate ways.

I first heard about these groups a year ago. Over the span of a few weeks, I was approached by no less than six men suggesting I might enjoy the experience. None were pushy. Each seemed genuine and friendly. I sensed no alternative motive, but I demurred. I’m slow to accept new commitments.

If asked last year to wager on whether these groups would still exist today, I would have bet against them. I would have said they’d peter out. People are just too busy and have so many easier options for working out. At best, maybe they’d continue with a small core of devotees. Certainly nothing more.

Well, prognostication has never been my strong suit.

It’s breaking out like a virus. From simple beginnings not many years ago, it has somewhere around 200 participants today. It’s grown from Raleigh to neighboring communities, and there are hints of it expanding even further.

Yet it has no leadership structure. No money changes hands. And there are few hard and fast rules about when and where they meet or how they conduct the workouts. It’s all happening in an organic, self-organizing way.

How? Why?

These are the sort of questions I’m pointing at Will (known in the groups as “Maize”) at the neighborhood pool over Memorial Day weekend. Since there are no leaders, I can best describe him as a champion of these groups. While we both keep an eye on our children splashing at the edge of the deep end, I ask him why this is taking off. What’s the secret?

“It’s the starfish principle, man,” he answers. “You want to understand, you gotta read The Starfish and the Spider.”

So I ordered the book and devoured it early this week.

But let’s step back for a moment. Why do I care?

Continue Reading…

Last February I got to hear John Mackey give a speech about a better way of doing business. He’s a founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods, and he stopped in at a Raleigh Chamber of Commerce event to promote his book, Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business.

John Mackey, Whole Foods CEO Photo Source: Joe M500, Flickr (Creative Commons License)

John Mackey, Whole Foods CEO
Photo Source: Joe M500, Flickr (Creative Commons License)

The book’s premise flies in the face of Milton Friedman’s argument that the business of business is business. While Friedman makes the case that the only purpose of a business is to increase value for shareholders (i.e., maximize profits), John Mackey says its obligations are better understood as a balance among five groups of stakeholders:  stockholders, employees, customers, suppliers and the environment.

Mackey actually takes it one step further. He says companies that serve the interests of all the stakeholders have a competitive advantage. They create more value and are rewarded by the stock market.

After his speech I had the opportunity to ask Mackey a question. “If conscious capitalism is such a good thing,” I asked, “why aren’t more companies doing it?”

He responded by saying, in essence, that it just needed a vocabulary, someone to give it a voice, a demonstration to the world that it is a better way of doing business. “I’m giving all of you a secret formula for building a successful business,” he continued. “It will be copied as others see you succeed with it.”

Whole Foods is meant to be the living example of this better model.

Fast forward to this morning. I’m enjoying coffee with a friend at my local Whole Foods. It seems a good time to reflect on Mackey’s secret formula. Since last year the Whole Foods Market stock price has been cut almost in half, dropping from $65 per share to around $37. It’s been a rough ride. Continue Reading…

Last night Larry Page, Google’s CEO, posted this entry on his Google+ account, “Google Self-Driving Car Project,” with the video below.

“Just imagine,” begins the company’s description a future with self-driving cars,

You can take a trip downtown at lunchtime without a 20-minute buffer to find parking. Seniors can keep their freedom even if they can’t keep their car keys. And drunk and distracted driving? History.

This is bold. It’s exciting. And it’s just one of several projects Google is juggling that could actually change the world. The company calls these “moonshots” and runs them out of its Google X division, an R&D skunkworks charged with making such bold – though calculated – bets on the future.

But the story here is one part fanboy awe over Google’s investments in ground-breaking innovation and one part befuddlement over how  little other corporations are putting into long-term R&D bets. Continue Reading…

Alex is an old linebacker, and a competitor still. Like me, he races the specter of his wife’s better runs. Unlike me, he tends to come out the victor. On Saturday she claimed a 7:45 pace on a four-mile morning run. On Sunday, he roused himself before dawn to push himself and run the same route just a bit faster.

He tells me yesterday that he likes to know when his workouts will end. It lets him know when to release his energy. If the workout ends sooner than he anticipated, he carries the baggage of unspent energy throughout his day. As in his football days, he wants to leave it all on the field. If it’s longer than expected, he may overshoot and lack the fuel to finish.

I’m different. When I don’t know where the finish line is, I turn to energy-conservation mode. I grind in a low-gear, going slow to make sure I don’t run out of gas and get stranded on the trail.


Credit: Dorando Pietri at the Marathon finish Olympic Games 1908 London, Public Domain

Too often, however, I’ve found myself carrying this approach to my work and long-term projects. These rarely present obvious beginnings and ends. They’re just very fluid by nature, and the pace is defined by an external authority. How do you meter out energy when you don’t know how long the project will last?

I’m finding value in defining those starts and finishes myself; in creating short-spurt campaigns within projects that have fuzzy parameters or jobs that just go on and on and on.

A campaign mindset creates the illusion of control and lets me know when to drop into low gear for long-lasting marathon mode, and when to toss in an all-out sprint to push myself, stretch my limits, and keep things exciting.

The latest exercise physiology teaches us that intense sprints create asymmetrical improvement in speed and increases in strength, provided they are followed by enough recovery. Grinding workouts at the same speed, distance or weight produce less desirable outcomes. Though they aren’t all bad, they can wear you down with the repetition of unrelenting routine.

But to sprint, you have to know where the finish is. You must have that promise that if you burn all your fuel, you’ll get the reward of time to rest and recover.

It’s easier to know the starts and finishes in sports than it is in work and our own creative projects. Even if he doesn’t know when the final horn with blow, Alex can feel confident that the work-out won’t go much longer than 45 minutes. He can release his energy accordingly. In work, the starts and finishes change. In projects, they get blurred. In both, the timeline is often defined by someone besides you.

My goal is to be the one to control my own campaign mindset, even if outside forces control the long-term beginnings and ends. In creative projects that might take months to develop, I can create shorter-term campaign “chunks” that allow me sprint to a milestone, cross the finish line, and then take some time to reflect, refresh and recharge. In work, I can create my own short-term goals; my own campaigns within the framework of a larger project that someone else may control.

I can sprint hard and grow through the intensity of stretching to reach my own goals, and then fall back into a more sustainable pace to recover. I can avoid too much grinding. And like Alex, I can find satisfaction from leaving it all on the field.