What it takes: a body of work

What does it take to develop as a writer, artist, filmmaker, activist, programmer, blogger, teacher, chef, athlete, landscape gardener, leader and manager, academic?

Whatever else you do, you’re going to need a body of work.

My two favourite children (those would be mine – simultaneously the best and most annoying children I know) love to draw. And they’re getting better at it.

This is how:

body of work childrens drawings

They draw pretty often, and they draw a lot. Then they draw again.

They’re far from artistic geniuses, but they have this at least in common with Da Vinci (7,000+ pages of notebooks) and Picasso (something like 50,000 artworks, of which we remember a few).

Do it now.

Be prolific.

Build, measure, learn

This post is a leap from Rule 2 of bootstrapping the non-profit: Do it Now.

This is such a key idea, and so interesting and relevant to Do it Now, that I thought I’d do something about it like, write now.

The idea is that when you’re developing a new business or organisation, there is so much that you don’t know that planning has less value – it will inevitably change when you know more.

Because of this, your focus needs to be on trying things out, working with what you do know – and your best guesses – and testing them out in the real world.

So we get the lean startup cycle:

The Lean Cycle
From Open Classrooms: The Learn Startup (this is supposed to be an embed but it isn’t working for me!)

The relationship between this and Do it Now is that the fastest way make progress – even if it’s only progress in knowing what not to do – is to go through this cycle quickly. One of the best ways of increasing your cycle speed is to take action – now!

Counter-intuitively, the more uncertain a situation it is, the more useful this approach – and cycle speed – can be:

When a project can be approached with a high degree of certainty, the best activity is to plan. As we have high confidence that the plan is likely to succeed, the best strategy is to execute what we know will work well. The focus can therefore be on executing the plan and monitoring progress.


When a project carries a high degree of uncertainty, the best activity is to learn. As any plan would make too many assumptions that would be hard to justify. The best strategy is to increase the speed at which we learn until we have discovered which plan would work the best. The focus must be on learning and discovery and checking any assumptions that we have.

Open Classrooms: The Learn Startup

Bootstrapping the non-profit organisation Rule 2: Do it Now

This is the second in a series applying Seth Godin’s rules of bootstrapping (see also here) to building a non-profit organisation.

Rule 2: Do it Now


Do it now. Not later, not next week, NOW. It’s better than later.

In the non-profit world:

Still do it now

Not much to add on this one. A bias to action is critical, and all things being equal, now is far better than later.

This blog is a great illustration – a month and a half ago I committed to shipping a blog post every day for 100 days. I would set the bar low if I had to, as long as I got something done. Every day.  I’m at 60 posts as I write this, and it dawned on me that it would have taken me an entire year to get this far if I’d committed do a post a week.

In Lean Startup terms, doing it now is a key way of increasing your cycle speed. They might be small steps, but you get something done, you can review it, you can do it better next time as you build-measure-learn. See the next post for more on this.

I guess a caveat for the non-profit world is that you need to tread carefully if we’re dealing with vulnerable people.

But do it now doesn’t mean ‘be a bull in a China shop’ – it just means being commited to taking action, to doing the next thing now.

If you know what you need to do next, then it’s easy – do that, or at least do the smallest next part of that that you can.

If you don’t have clarity about what to do next, the next thing to do is to find out. Do some research. Find the name of three papers. Get hold of them. Make notes on one. Email the person who wrote it to thank them. Each one is a tiny push of the boat (or flywheel, if you’re a Jim Collins fan), giving you a little bit more momentum and making it easier tomorrow.

Rule 2 says “I will not go to bed tonight until I have done X.”

Rule 2 of bootstrapping the non-profit

Do it now.

Thanks, Seth.

The meat is on the street

John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard movement of churches, wasn’t renowned as a systematic religious teacher.

Apparently people would ask him “John, when are you going to teach us the deep and crucial stuff – where’s the meat?”

And he’d answer: “The meat is on the street.”

That is, “Go out into the world. You will learn the deep truths of faith by doing it.”

Books, podcasts, blogs are very useful in learning to make positive change in the world. Ideas are wonderful tools.

But we learn our most important lessons by doing – by taking action.

The meat is on the street.

Go!

A crappy bridge

I didn’t manage to photograph the bridge, but I’ll post one of a similar bridge next time I see one.

It was a pretty sorry affair over a murky stream, just wide enough for a motorbike. Bamboo slats, no siderails, a strangely drooping curve.

Crappy infrastructure.

But here’s the thing: that bridge is an act of will. It’s there because someone wanted to cross the river, and they made a bridge.

It’s easy to criticise crappy infrastructure in developing countries and not ask this question: who built it, for whose needs?

It’s easy to talk about cultutes of dependency, and there is often reason to. But ask yourself this question:

When was the last time you built a bridge?

Choose what you want

Before I can post about hybrids I need to post about selective breeding. People have been breeding plants and animals for thousands of years. Before modern science all you had to do was:

  1. Choose two plants or animals that you liked.
  2. Breed them.
  3. Repeat for thousands of years.

The results are amazing.

Look at this before and after shot of the watermelon from James Kennedy:

James Kennedy's wonderful watermelon.
James Kennedy’s wonderful watermelon

He has more of these on his website, which I’ll definitely be going back to.

The point for your organisation is this:

  1. Know what you want – vision, values, culture
  2. Choose what you want, and keep on selecting for it
  3. Make it explicit – explain what you’re doing to your team and others
  4. Iterate for days, months, years.
  5. Be fruitful

A word of caution. the wrong type of selective breeding can cause all sorts of mayhem and monstrosities.

The moral of the story: choose carefully, and be on the lookout for unintended consequences.

The valley of crappy data

Joost Wesseling from the Dutch Institute for Public Health and the Environment on the iffy quality of readings from citizen air quality measurement efforts using cheap sensors:

If we don’t do these experiments now, then we also won’t have decent sensors in five years, which is also what we are aiming at.

We have to go through this period where we have crappy data from crappy sensors in order to get better data from better sensors.

Joost Wesseling

A second score

A tip on learning to take criticism well from Adam Grant’s Worklife podcast:

Every time I get feedback, I rate myself now on how well I took the feedback…

When someone gives you feedback, they’ve already evaluated you. So it helps to remind yourself that the main thing they’re judging now is whether you’re open or defensive…

You don’t always realise when you’re being defensive.

The second score is the score you get for how well you deal with failure, criticism, disaster.

Your first score might not be what you hoped for, but you can always give yourself a second score.

With thanks to Sharky for the recommendo.

Being prolific

How many ideas have you lost out of pure inertia?

I don’t just mean all the ideas you’ve had that you never did anything about – you lost those too, but many of them probably weren’t that good anyway. 

Doing something with an idea is often the fastest way to check if it’s important. You might do a bit of research and write down what you do, or seek out the right person for a conversation, or see if you can make something happen. If it turns out not to be important, or if it isn’t for you, that’s fine – you’ve cleared the decks for a new idea which might be a keeper. A stagnant pool of vague ideas costs you new ideas.

But the ideas you really lose, the good ones, are the ones you find down the rabbit hole once you’ve taken action on an idea and confirmed that there’s something to it. Things get more specific on contact with reality (or the customer!), and vague ideas begin to take concrete form, and new vistas of questions and actions open up.

This is what I mean by being prolific: making fast, small, low-cost decisions; taking action; trying things out. I don’t mean mindlessly, throwing proverbial mud on the wall. And of course there’s an equal and opposite principle of focusing and going deep. But you only go deep by diving in.

So if you think you’ve got good idea – why not take it for a test drive?

Why not now?

Air Pollution

The air is terrible in Jakarta at the moment – two or three times over the WHO recommended maximum. It’s easy to go down a technical rabbit hole here, which I won’t.

The question is – how can little us have an impact on such a huge problem?

Some thoughts:

1) Understand it better. Read about it. Measure it.

2) Talk about it. Find and join the conversation – or start one. Share what you know. Which ways of telling the story seem to stick?

3) Find people who are passionate about it. For whom this is their thing. (Warning – it might turn out to be you).

4) Meet people – in person. Go to an event. If there isn’t an event, make one happen.

5) Don’t think about step 5 until you’ve done step 4.