On June 21, I had the pleasure of speaking in front of a packed room at the Estrel in Berlin, for the 7th annual WordCamp Europe. Below is the full transcript of my talk entitled, Doing It Wrong.
I was interviewed by a local media outlet that was doing a story on my elementary school. I don’t remember exactly what the question was – something like, “What kinds of things are you learning in school?” But I remember exactly what I answered, or at least the part where I said, “like how Abraham Lincoln was the first president.”
Yes, for those of you unfamiliar with the history of the United States, Abraham Lincoln was not the first president.
The thing is, was that I knew it too. But for some reason, in that moment, I got it wrong. I was probably nervous in front of the camera, and speaking to people – adults – that I didn’t know.
I don’t remember what happened next. I don’t remember, for example, if the people around me laughed at my mistake; or if they corrected me and allowed me a do-over. I’m pretty sure that didn’t happen, but it would’ve been nice, right?
The only things I do remember are the words, “Abraham Lincoln was the first president,” and the feeling that stays with me to this day. The shame and embarrassment of getting it wrong.
I hear you say, “but it’s not a big deal for a seven year-old to make such a mistake.” Which is certainly true. Except one detail: my school was a school for “gifted” children. One of my classmates played concert level piano at the age of 5. Another discovered a mathematic equation that was later named after him. I was literally surrounded by geniuses, and I was incapable of giving an intelligent answer to a simple question.
Back then I asked myself, what am I doing here? Do I belong?
Today I ask myself, how is it that such a small person can have such a big emotion, can know this feeling of shame at such a young age and for such an insignificant error?
“Doing it wrong” has become my mantra. A mantra with a double meaning.
On the one hand, it represents an inner struggle. I have an image of myself at my best, of my ideal life, but gah, an ideal that I can’t always emulate. It speaks to the frustration I feel when I don’t achieve my goals, when I don’t fulfill my responsibilities…when I leave the housekeeping to the day before our guests arrive, when I eat something I know isn’t going to agree with me, but I do it anyways…
…when I completely redesign my slides on the Tuesday before my talk.
It’s that feeling of not being in control, like there’s a divide within myself that I can see clearly, but I can’t seem to bridge the gap between who I am and who I want to be.
On the other hand, it represents exteriors forces, ideals that are imposed upon me. Marketing, advertising, popular culture – messages that, even if subtle, even if on a conscious level I can rationalize them, they get into my head and my heart. They can make me believe I’m doing it wrong, that I’m not acting like I want, like I should. I am too fat, not fashionable enough, I should want to have kids and think like the people around me, I should be more ambitious, my car isn’t good enough, I’m not good enough just how I am.
These influences aren’t always passive. It’s the people around us. It’s a friend, a relative, a colleague. It’s someone who says to me, “That’s not how it’s done.” It’s some who judges me, who tells me I’m wrong, who tells me I shouldn’t do something because they think that I’m not able or I don’t need to or I don’t have the right.
This inner struggle and these outside influences put me face to face with myself with choices to make every day. They require me to be confident, to understand the difference between reality and illusion, opinion and fact.
And at the end of the day? I have one goal with every choice I make: to be right with myself.
Doing it Wrong might seem like an odd choice for a mantra. I could’ve gone with something like, “Accept everything as it is right now,” or, “be at peace with yourself.” It might seem more effective to put a positive spin on it, like when something bad happens to us and we look for that silver lining. Sure why not, I’m an optimist, it’s important to keep things in perspective; otherwise we can easily let ourselves become overwhelmed by life’s difficulties.
But I don’t want to hide my mistakes. I don’t want to pretend that I always have the right answer, and more than just seeing the bright side of things, I want to fully live my truth. Doing it Wrong is my way of vindicating my inner screw-up, delighting in my differences, saying that my way of doing things might not be like yours, and that’s fine by me, that I have the power to choose.
And, well, I think it’s funny. It’s a way to see myself for who and what I am, without taking myself too seriously.
Some things are clearly wrong. Lincoln was not the first president of the United States, and except maybe in a parallel universe, no one is going to dispute that fact.
However, some people claimed that George Washington wasn’t either. Interesting.
The first one to say it was Douglas H. Thomas, a descendent of John Hanson, who was elected as the first president of Congress on November 5, 1781.
The idea popped up again in 1932, in a biography by Seymour Smith. It wasn’t a popular idea, but it’s a matter of perspective. The post of president of Congress existed 6 years before the federal government was established, and 8 years before the general George Washington was to become the president of the United States.
Thomas and Smith questioned the very definition of “president of the United States” in wanting to give Hanson a more important place in the annals of history. It was their truth.
Today the idea that the Earth is flat like a pizza and not round like the moon or the sun or every other planet in our solar system seems ridiculous to most of us. We openly mock the Flat Earth society and its members who maintain that we are the ones who are wrong, and that space exploration is a big conspiracy that never actually happened.
But let’s not forget, that it wasn’t until the 16th century, and the first circumnavigation of the world by Magellan, that the idea of a spherical earth started to spread across the world. And this despite the fact that Hellenic astronomers had proved this hundreds and hundreds of years earlier.
Even the launching of a Tesla in space didn’t convince Flat Earthers that we’re living on a spherical planet. Their numbers are growing and they organize conferences in England, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, with people attending from the four corners of the…ahem…globe. There are beliefs and suspicions that are stronger than any proof or reason.
In 1961, Time Magazine published an article based on the research and findings of Ancel Keys, who linked high levels of cholesterol with heart disease. He promoted the idea that a low fat diet was better for our health, and that above all, we needed to replace natural animal fats, like butter and lard, with vegetable fats like margarine and corn oil.
Time came back in 1984 with a new cover that continued to denounce cholesterol. Americans were dropping like flies due to heart disease, and we had to do something about it.
Fast forward to 2014, and the war on butter is over, hooray! Scientists had new proof that everything we’d been saying about animal fats, and the link between high cholesterol and heart disease was wrong! In fact, the data showed that the diets influenced by these fat wars were found to be causing obesity and heart problems.
I’m not going to lie to you. I didn’t read any of these three articles. When I tried to subscribe to Time to gain access to their archives, I got a 404 not found. There’s probably an opportunity there.
What I find interesting here is not the debate on whether or not fat is good or bad for us, or even what the leading causes of heart disease are. But if you want to chat about the raw food cleanse that I did recently, I can talk about that for hours. No, what I find interesting here is the impact of the cover of Time magazine. Time has the largest circulation in the world for a weekly mag, and their reputation carries a lot of weight. For every one person who actually read any of these articles, there are probably dozens, maybe hundreds more people like me, who just saw the cover. We get this message that “science said”, when from what I can piece together the science that was reported was being cherry picked, and the science itself was far from giving us concrete answers about the questions that concern millions of people.
Science is not truth. It’s a reflection of our current understanding of the world around us. Sometimes what’s believed to be true depends on who has the loudest voice, the biggest influence or the most esteemed cover. The scientific method doesn’t prove theories, but works to try and disprove them. What we aren’t able to disprove becomes the truth, until new evidence comes along. And history shows us that we are constantly discovering new evidence, that our world is constantly changing, and with it, our perception of what is true and what is false.
There’s a pretty fantastic name for this too: The Pessimistic Meta-induction from the history of science. I’m not making this up.
We don’t like being wrong. Human beings want to understand the universe and we’re hard wired to want to be right, to know the answer, to hold the one and only truth.
If only we had an instruction manual, a how-to book on life. Would we follow it?
In school – that same one, but a couple years later – they gave us a test to see how well we followed instructions. The first instruction was: don’t fill anything out until you’ve read all of the instructions to the end. Ok, no problem. At the top of the first page, it asked for my first and last name. I went ahead and filled them out to save time. You already see this where this is going, don’t you? Yep, when I got through the rest of the instructions all the way to the end, the very last one was: don’t fill anything out, not even your name, and turn the test back in to your teacher completely empty. Even the simplest instructions aren’t easy to follow.
Ah, but wait a sec, how silly of me! We do have instruction manuals, how-to books on life. We have the bible, the Koran and the Torah. These three texts have a lot in common when it comes to questions of good and bad, right and wrong; but, there’s a lot they don’t agree on. Even their most strident followers don’t always follow their teachings, interpreting the texts in different ways or just not adhering at all to some seemingly simple instructions. Thou shalt not kill. But what if your life depends on it? Thou shall not steal? But what if you are literally starving and don’t have money for food?
When we moved to Normandy, my father-in-law came out to help us with the renovations. Now, my father-in-law worked a long time in construction, and he’s got mad skills. And more than that, he’s someone who likes to do things well – he passionate and takes a lot of pride in his work.
If you’ve ever painted an apartment or a house, you know that the hardest part is the ceiling. So when my father-in-law offered to paint all the ceilings, we were pretty happy. My husband and I were taking care of the walls, and just as we were finishing up downstairs, I noticed that the ceiling above the stairwell hadn’t been painted.
So I said, “Hey, papa, you forgot to paint above the stairs.” And he said to me, “no, I didn’t forget. I can’t do it, it’s not possible.” A bit confused I asked, “uh, what do you mean it’s not possible?” And he said, “well, yeah, without scaffolding to put in place, I can’t do it within les règles de l’art,” which roughly translates to “by craftsman’s standards” or within the “rules of the profession”.
So I said to him, “this isn’t the Sistine Chapel, it’s a stairwell. You just need to use the roller on a telescopic handle and voilà.” But no, for him it wasn’t possible. And so I took the roller and a telescopic handle and I painted the ceiling above the stairs.
In 1998, I opened my first web agency with two associates and against all odds. Only one of us knew anything about building websites, and it wasn’t me.
But they convinced me that this was the future, that the time was right and that the entrepreneurial life would be everything we could want.
One year later, one of us would leave, and again, it wasn’t me. Two years in and we closed up shop for good. We did a lot of good work in those two years, but in terms of strategy and our internal communications, we really got it all wrong.
One day I was sitting alone in the office, wrapping up some paperwork when the phone rang. It was the marketing director from a local company looking for a service provider – he’d found us in the yellow pages. He told me it was urgent. I explained, “I’m sorry, but the agency has folded.” And he asked me, “but are you available?”
My freelance activity started that day, and by the end of that contract I’d created two websites, a video, a CD ROM, and a tradeshow stand. I brought 5 other freelancers onto the project and made more money in a couple months than I had in 2 years with the agency. I should say that this anecdote isn’t relevant to the subject of this talk, but I love telling it. It’s one of the times when I got it really right.
But the story doesn’t end there, and here’s where we get back to the subject at hand. Because something unexpected started to happen. With my new title of freelancer, doors began to open to me, and I started meeting all kinds of people with all kinds of digital projects, and I kept hearing the same thing over and over. They would tell me, “yeah, I spoke with this developer, and he told me it wasn’t possible.”
For every service provider who would tell people, “It’s not possible,” I won a new account.
These service providers, for the most part, were engineers who had studied computer science in the 80s and 90s. And despite – or maybe because – the Minitel existed in France since 1978, the web was still very young in the early 2000s. The Minitel was an early version of a web-like service, but it was very rudimentary and didn’t extend outside France. It was still the Wild West where there was still everything yet to be discovered, or invented really. But for engineers with a formal education that taught them how to do things within les règles de l’art, many of them only saw a ceiling to paint with no scaffolding.
Yes, the debut of my freelance career was a great success. But that didn’t prevent me from making loads of mistakes. Sometimes I look back and that’s all I see – all the ways I got it wrong. So many, in fact that I could write a book about it.
I had a repeat of the incident from elementary school 10 years later, not with Abraham Lincoln, but with Kirk Hammett, the lead guitarist of Metallica.
In high school I had a teacher who trained us in public speaking – each week, a few students would stand up in front of the class and talk about whatever they wanted.
It was my turn and I started talking a bit about my life, including a recent night out to see one of my favorite bands at the time, Metallica. And so I start saying something like, “oh I totally love the singer Kirk Hammett.” At least it was the same band, I guess it could have been worse right? But still, it was a blatant mistake in front of the whole class, and you can bet that I didn’t live it down for a long time. As much as we like being right, someone else getting it wrong can be a source of pure enjoyment.
But this experience finally taught me something: I need to prepare before speaking in public. And luckily, otherwise I wouldn’t be here in front of all of you today. And if I say something wrong up here, I don’t want to know about – no really, just keep it to yourselves.
Some mistakes are less obvious. They aren’t black and white as mixing up band names, or understanding the level of quality needed for a particular piece of work, or even knowing that your way of seeing the world is different than the local majority.
As I built up my freelance business, I made assumptions about what that meant, and about what people expected of me. To be a freelancer was to be reactive and flexible, and to be cheaper than the agencies. It was to be accessible – to have that direct connection, a privileged relationship with my clients. It was also to be available – even sometimes in the evenings or on weekends – to do what was necessary to meet a deadline.
These are qualities that I accepted and that I could verbalize at the time. They were conscious decisions, and I was happy about them. Thrilled even. I was my own boss, and I was finally making a good living at it. This was my dream life.
We ask children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I want to be an engineer.
I want to be a doctor.
I want to be a warrior princess. (no, is that just me?)
When we’re adults, people ask us, “So, what do you do for a living?” And we reply:
I am an engineer.
I am a doctor.
I am a warrior princess.
Even if you would tend to answer that question as, “I work as,” I still find it interesting how the language we use illustrates how we occupy these roles, and how these roles occupy us. In the same way as to be a parent, to be a student, to be unemployed.
Our truth is connected to our identity. And our identities are forged in large part in these roles that we occupy.
So there I was a freelancer, who had accepted of my own accord everything that that meant. Except that I wasn’t actually aware of everything that it meant, or how the role would shape my identity and with it my truth and my whole life.
Because being a freelancer also means being alone. Sure I did some great collaborations and nurtured extensive networks, but at the end of the day, freelancers are only really invested in themselves, and more importantly, those I was working with were only really invested in themselves.
Over time, I started to notice the secondary effects of some of these qualities that I had valued and touted as strengths: reactivity, flexibility, accessibility, and availability. They didn’t come with well-defined limits.
I was a freelancer, and not much else. More and more, this role took up all the space in my life, and after a while, I didn’t recognize myself. I had smothered myself with this dream life that was no longer delivering on its promises. Once again, I had done it wrong.
In recent years we’ve been hearing about work-life balance and burnout.
Don’t worry, I am not going to tell the story of my experience with burnout today. You’re welcome. And you might be surprised to hear that I don’t believe in the idea of work-life balance. Sure, I just told you that my role of freelancer usurped my life, but the lesson for me wasn’t that I needed to better separate my personal from my professional life. The mistake I made was to conform to what I believed it meant to be a freelancer, instead of making my work as a freelancer conform to my own image, my own truth.
If you would like to talk about burnout – or anything else for that matter – I will head over to the Community Help Desk following this session and you come see me there. With the time I have left, I’d like to talk to you about yoga and about agile.
My freelance career did indeed end in burnout, and I took a year off to figure things out, find myself and rebuild. I ended up immersing myself deeply in yoga.
There’s a yoga teacher I love, Adriene, she’s got a fantastic YouTube channel and she starts her classes by saying, “remember why you get on the mat.” Why, indeed?
A lot of people only associate yoga with the physical practice of bending into all these fancy shapes, right? but there are actually 8 branches of yoga, starting with a set of values and principles on which to base our practices. They teach us about relational disciplines, our rapport with other people, such as honesty, truth, and authenticity; and the personal disciplines, our rapport with ourselves, like contentment, perseverance and self-awareness.
Then we have
- the physical practice, the fancy poses
- controlled breathing
- the sensorial discipline, or withdrawing from the senses
- and meditation
We can consider these 5 branches like the framework of yoga. They are a series of practices and ceremonies that bring us toward the final branch and ultimate goal: which simply put, is being right with yourself.
My professional reconversion didn’t take me very far, I decided to stay in the web industry, and with a well-defined role: project manager. When I was freelancing, I was all the things, I was project manager, designer, developer, teacher, consultant, strategist. I was a Jill of all trades – I did lots of things pretty well, but I didn’t excel at any one thing. I was really interested in focusing on just one thing, doing it really well, maybe even within les règles de l’art.
This lead me to join a company some of you may have heard of, and they introduced me to agile and the practice of scrum.
We speak of Agile as a methodology, but it’s first and foremost a philosophy, a set of values and principles on which to base our practices. Il teaches us to put people first, and about the importance of collaboration and adaptation. We also find in it contentment, perseverance and self-awareness.
With its daily standups, sprint plannings, reviews and retros, Scrum is a framework, a series of practices and ceremonies that allow us to achieve our goal: delivering business value.
Last year I worked on a project where we were collaborating with another agency that’s well anchored in the waterfall approach to project delivery. They resisted our desire – and that of the client – to implement scrum and take a more agile approach.
Especially their project manager, who I learned also practices yoga.
So I tried to help her understand the concept of scrum, which she thought was a waste of time, by comparing it to yoga. I told her that it was normal not to see the results right away, that they would emerge over time, though repetition, by doing. I tried to explain that the idea of standups, for example, wasn’t just to come together to give a daily update, but also to remind ourselves why we are getting on the mat. To make sure we’re aligned in our goals and across the team. I told her that I too worked waterfall for 15 years, and that I wished I had know about agile much earlier.
But as we know, some beliefs and suspicions are stronger than any proof or reason.
There’s also the fact that in a scrum team, there are no project managers. How is this hardened project manager supposed to project herself onto a methodology where her role isn’t represented? We’re not asking her just to change her practice, we’re asking her to change her identity.
Yoga and agile both teach us acceptance, and to embrace the inevitability of change; and they give us the tools to do so.
In environments where we put people first, where we value honesty and transparency, we can create spaces where it’s okay to make mistakes, where it’s okay to get it wrong, without fear of judgment or reproach. I don’t have one single, unique truth; I have values and principles that I apply to every area of my life to navigate its challenges and make sense of the world. They help forge my identity, they help me define limits, and they allow me to adapt more readily to the different roles that I’m brought to inhabit, without compromising myself.
In the same way that change is inevitable, we cannot affect change in others. And so the best role that I can inhabit is the one in which I’m right with myself. And all that I can hope is that in sharing my practice, my experience, I can inspire change around me, in the same way that others have inspired me.
This is from The Ethics of Web Design, a powerful talk that Morten Rand-Hendriksen gave at last year’s WCEU – it’s up on WordPress.tv and I highly recommend you check it out if you haven’t seen it.
I’ll leave you with a few aspirations, or maybe affirmations:
- I will check myself to make sure I’m not telling other people, “that’s not how it’s done.”
- I’ll ask, “why?” more often and make sure that the answer aligns with my principles and values.
- And I’ll keep doing it wrong, because that’s where the best stuff in life happens.
You can still view the livestream recording here: it’s the first talk on Track 1, Friday 21.