Projects that go as planned make for boring stories

My projects are rarely as exciting as this so, where's the story?
My projects are rarely as exciting as this so, where’s the story?

I was pondering my last reflection, this blog, and my, still imaginary, portfolio and found a recurring theme: they lack is a compelling story. I thought about the elements of a good story arc and words like struggle, challenge, and conflict and resolution came to mind.

But, what happens when things go according to plan? A worthy accomplishment, but a boring story.


We started our trip in spite of the questionable weather forecast, but we were determined to arrive at our destination in time for my mother’s birthday celebration.  The weather turned out to be worse that expected and going over the pass, our car slid into a ditch–reminding me that I should have replaced the worn tires sooner. Unable to get a cell phone signal, we shivered on the side of the road as we waited for a passing motorist to stop and help us out. Finally, a helpful soul gave us a ride to the next town where we were able to get a hot cup of coffee and hire a tow truck. As luck would have it, our good Samaritan was going to the same town as my mother’s party and gave us a lift. We arrived just in time to wish her a happy birthday and share in the cake.

Compared to:

We saw that the weather looked bad going over the pass, so we put the snow tires on the car before we left for my mother’s birthday party. The weather turned out to be worse than forecast going over the pass so traffic was slow. The cars in the ditch alongside the road and their attendant tow trucks didn’t help. But, slow and steady wins the race. We got to the party a bit later than we’d hoped, but with plenty of time to meet some long-lost relatives and to sing “Happy Birthday!”

I about fell asleep writing the 2nd version. Beyond a beginning, middle, and an end, it had none of the elements of a good story. No conflict. No drama. No tension.

Just predictable results.

As I reflected on the adapter box, I really couldn’t find much drama to add to the reflection. The most tense moment that occurred during the project was when I was afraid I might damage the case. As a result, I took precautions like measure carefully, tape over the box to protect the finish, and…

…wait for it…

I didn’t damage it. It all worked out fine.


Which leaves me struggling between looking for stories like this flying story I posted in Quora, which have punctuated my life, and describing projects I’ve worked on–most of which are like the second story example above.

I suppose if I was a better writer, I could make the second version sound a little more compelling…

Maybe that’s the hidden opportunity in all this? Something to work on.

I’m a most-viewed writer

It was fun to see this in my Quora feed, this morning. The stats, however, show my fame might be fleeting with #11 nipping at my heels. But, for the time being, I’ll enjoy my moment in the spotlight. Gaining notoriety wasn’t a particular goal of mine, but I might as well enjoy it and it gives me the opportunity to ponder a few things before I dive into the rest of my weekend chores (ponder spelled: p-r-o-c-r-a-s-t-i-n-a-t-e).

Not many technical writers answer in Quora

This is a shame. To be more precise, the numbers show that not many technical writers answer Quora in the technical writing topics. It does show that almost 8,000 are following it, but I guess I was expecting it to be more popular, given the high quality of discourse between people in such a broad demographic. Even the topics by the most-viewed writer in Quora’s technical writing topics have had only 1,299 views in the past month. I suppose it could be because there are other forums that narrowcast to technical writers–LinkedIn’s professional writer forums are at least 2-3 times more subscribed, for example.

Why Quora?

I like Quora for its variety of topics, variety of contributors, and how they all get along. I like Medium, for many of the same reasons. Even as a pastime, I don’t mind answering the occasional technical writing (a.k.a. work) question, but I just don’t see them that often. A quick review shows that I’ve answered 18 technical-writing posts in the past three years. Statistically, I seem to have more fun (or, perhaps, just more to say) about flying and aviation, in which I’ve written as many answers in the past six months. In fact, my most read post is about an in-flight emergency I had while flying with a friend.

If it takes an in-flight emergency, or something with that level of drama, to make a popular post, it doesn’t seem fair to compare flying to technical writing. Honestly, flying lends itself to those types of stories much more than technical writing does. In all my professional experience, I can’t recall one life-or-death experience as a technical writer, which isn’t a complaint, by the way.

Anyway, check out my posts in Technical Writing—for the content, of course, not just to put some breathing room between #11 and me.

Writing it down

WritingWithQuillI added another goal to my blog vision project, today: to post my online resume and portfolio. It’s a goal that’s been rattling around for a while, but I’ve never actually got around to writing it down.

That this goal has been rattling around for so long (maybe 6 years, or more if I’m really honest) illustrates the importance of making things visible.

Reflecting on why it took so long to materialize, I came up with the following tips to prevent the next goal from taking so long.

Clear and well-defined goals are easier to commit to

Not knowing how to accomplish the goal makes it hard to commit to. Sure, I could have started with something like “have a great portfolio” as a goal (which was where I was 6 or so years ago, by the way); however, at the time, I didn’t have a clear idea about how to make that happen. To commit then would have just been frustrating and defeated the goal of having goals–actually accomplishing something. It could have been an aspiration, perhaps, but it wasn’t ready to be a goal.

“Portfolio” was the complicating word, in this case. I couldn’t think of anything that I had for a portfolio. In the intervening years, I’ve talked to people who frequently review portfolios and my definition of portfolio started to evolve. Once I redefined portfolio to mean something more along the lines of an annotated resume, that opened up the possibilities to something I could envision and see a path towards. I had a goal I could commit to writing.

Do it if it’s important. Don’t do it if it’s not.

Priorities are important.

While I wanted to have a portfolio (of any kind) since I finished my MS degree (2009), it hasn’t always been the most important thing on the list of things to do. Over the past few years, I would take it from the shelf, review it, and, until recently, put it back on the shelf in deference to something more important or, at least, more urgent.

In Agile Development terms, it never made it off the backlog.

Yesterday, however, it was well defined and with a clear path to completion, and it was important, so it’s now a goal. Had I made it a goal any earlier, it would have resulted in a lot of wasted effort (non achievable) and likely resulted in more problems (by neglecting what was important at the time).

A goal without a plan is just wishful thinking

Having a goal without a plan is what happens between the times you decide on a goal and create the plan to accomplish it. During this period, wishful thinking is a good thing, as long as it motivates a plan and the action to accomplish it. Stopping at the wishful-thinking phase, however, won’t get it done.

So, it’s on the list and I have a plan. Now, to make it happen!

Unleash the initiative

This morning on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS (Fareed Zakaria GPS – Aug 30, 2015), U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal (Ret.) was interviewed about leadership in the context of Gen. McChrystal’s recent book. His interview starts at [10:36:10], a little over halfway into the program.

I liked how Gen. McChrystal started by clearing up a misconception about leadership in the U.S. military–one that I’ve heard from people with no military background and summarized from the transcript here:

Zakaria: …[in] the U.S. Army, you give orders, people listen, your job is to appear imposing.

McChrystal: …everybody thinks that a sergeant tells you to do something and you immediately do it. … In combat, soldiers are much more frightened of the enemy than they are of the sergeant. So they do things for their leaders and their comrades. …so the ability to influence and persuade and build confidence in you as a leader and in what they’re doing becomes the key task.

Zakaria: So, when you looked at…successful examples of leadership, what you found…was a guy who really was able to win the trust of people?

McChrystal: You win the trust of people, and then you unleash their initiative…

Unleash their initiative.

That has a nice ring to it. He went on to describe how to accomplish this.

Zakaria: Somebody wants to be a leader in their organization, in life. What advice would you give?

McChrystal: One, it’s going to take personal discipline… The next thing is empathy. …those core, fundamental, almost value-like traits are the key.

It’s nice to hear that empathy is a core, fundamental, trait…even for an Army general.

Now, to go and unleash some initiative!

Day 1 with a motto

Look nice, but take some getting used to
Look nice, but take some getting used to

Still getting used to the idea. But, it seems to be working.

What does a motto do?

So far it’s helped me focus by organizing how I approach things. That’s something I didn’t quite expect. But, after trying it out, I kinda like how that works–a lot!


Well. Let’s consider each word.


It all starts from empathy. This is a new starting place for me, but I’m finding that it helps put things in perspective. I know my feelings, but that’s only one component in understanding a situation. It’s easy (too easy) to stop there. With empathy, I can include the feelings of others. With practice, I’ll be able to learn the source of those feelings to gain a much deeper and richer understanding of a situation. It’s been like turning on the lights in a dark room. (OK, maybe it’s more like turning on a night light, but it’s a start).


Empathy is great (I’m finding), but objective data still has a place. On the one hand it helps put empathy in perspective. Feelings and motives are important to understand, but they can vary over time. So having data helps separate spurious and transient feelings from more profound issues. Neither data nor empathy is more important than the other; instead, they work together to provide a clearer and more complete understanding.


As my motto was coming together, it started out as just: Empathy. Data. Success. But those shoes didn’t quite work (to stretch the metaphor). Something was missing. Initially I thought about Execution. But that seemed inappropriate for a lot of reasons. Even ignoring the multiple definitions of the term, simply “getting the job done,” or “processing the data” seemed necessary, but hardly sufficient to achieve success. There needed to be some sense of conviction to the process; hence, Enthusiasm.

If you’re going to do it, do it with vigor (while not ignoring the first two points, of course).


Finally, success. Does this mean riches? Maybe. But, maybe not. defines success as:

the favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors; the accomplishment of one’s goals.

That seems sufficient. A favorable or prosperous outcome seems sufficiently precise for the motto. Sure, the actual operationalization of  favorable or prosperous is going to vary from case to case, but in every case I can imagine, either one seems like a worthwhile goal.


And so begins day 1 with my new motto.

I have a motto

Today, I as reviewing the vision document and realized I didn’t have a motto. I’m fairly certain that I didn’t have one because I’ve found coming up with them to be quite a challenge. I honestly sympathize with my students when we’ve done the motto exercise in class.

But, today, I was feeling inspired and took advantage of the inspiration to come up with:

Empathy. Data. Enthusiasm. Success.

That seems like the right order and I like them because they seem representative of what I think are important aspects of life and work. To me they seem both inspirational and aspirational. Reflecting on them helps inspire focus and a certain amount of balance. That same reflection also reminds me of how much I have to learn about each–which suits my desire to constantly learn, grow, and improve.

I suppose the next step is the schwag (t-shirts, key chains, bumper stickers, and what not), but I’m still growing into them, so that might have to wait just a bit.


More goal setting

My blog vision is coming together. Shortly after my last update to the vision document, I realized I had another goal to add:

Limit blog posts to 500 words or less in size (about a 2-minute reading experience)

I’ve been aiming for this since the beginning–my intent being to keep each post succinct for the reader and force me to focus. As a result, I have a few posts still in the unpublished, draft state because they don’t meet that goal, but it’s been good practice.

In reviewing the earlier iterations of the blog vision, there seems to be some unarticulated elements. For example, the first goal was to generate content, but I’ve not set as a goal, develop an audience. While I do, eventually, want to develop an audience, my feeling is that I’ll need some set of content before promoting to an audience will be productive. So, the goal for this year is to accumulate that content. Next year, I might add “attract an audience” as a goal, but I don’t think I’m ready for that, yet.

The question that presents for this exercise is, should my long-term goal of developing an audience be included somewhere in the current vision document? That could be seen as a guiding, long-term goal, or a short-term distraction. As a long-term goal, it would help guide short-term decisions. At the same time, if having that in front of me might attract me to start trying to attract an audience before I have enough content to make it worth their while to stay–making it even harder to win them back, later.

I’ll need to think about that.

Setting a goal

Continuing on my site/personal vision and goal setting exercise (picking up from my last post on the topic), I updated my vision document with my first goal. Goals should be SMART:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Timely

So, with that in mind, I added my first goal:

Build base of content – at least 1, ideally 2, new topic(s) per week

My vision document is still a work in progress, but this is definitely a goal that fits within the vision and principles and is SMART.

I still have more things to consider. The biggest elephant in the room is the portfolio that I’ve managed to avoid for, well, for the past 35 years. Likewise, I want to add more CV material, etc. to tell more about me, but I need to keep the Achievable and Realistic elements of the SMART mnemonic in mind, while not ignoring the Timely one.

It might only be one step at a time, but it’s one more step.

Getting past authentic

I’m still working on the blog’s vision and goals and it occurred to me why authentic was such a sticky wicket–the meaning has been stretched some. To me, it’s summed up as “what you see is what you get,” and therein lies the problem: I don’t look like much, unless you know where to look, I suppose.

The challenge comes when having had to choose between making an impression or making an impact, I’ve preferred to make an impact. Sometimes, on a good day, the impact is what makes an impression. Oftentimes, however, the impact comes at the cost of making an impression, or at least an immediate impression. Sometimes, to be completely honest, I strike out and make neither (or worse). Those, I chalk up to live and learn, and try not to repeat them.

Back to the blog. If I aspire for the blog to have a positive impact and make an impression, but can I do that and be authentic?  I think so, as long as the impression comes from the impact. In a world that can’t see past the impressions, however, that’s going to come with a cost. But it’s a cost that’s lower, in the long run, than optimizing for impression over impact.

I think I can get past authentic now that I’ve operationalized it more clearly.

With that, I’ve updated my vision document.

In this latest update, I:

  • Added a new audience segment: Amateur radio. How could forget that?
  • Edited the vision to engage in a conversation, not just contribute (i.e. toss things into) one.
  • Added a new principle: to strive for craftsmanship.

The last one is a personal goal as well and speaks back to how I’ve operationalized authentic. I want this work to have a clean and professional sense about it. If it doesn’t now, I want it to work towards that goal as I go along.

Interesting. By clearing up one principle, I was able to reveal another.


So it begins

Press to start
Press to start

There’s no time like the present.

In the spirit of my last post, I started the vision document for the blog. This wasn’t as hard as I thought, but it wasn’t easy. I ran out of steam at the Principles section. I don’t think that means I’m without principles, just that I want to give them some thought–I want them to be something I can live with, if not aspire to.


That was easy. It took a little bit of thought, but only to decide how to articulate them.


That was pretty straightforward, as well. We’ll see how it holds up as time goes on.


And this is where it got a little sticky.

  • Be honest and accurate
  • Be constructive and contribute to improvement
  • Be authentic

Be honest and accurate – That was easy to put down on paper (virtual or otherwise). Without that as a starting point, the rest is just more Internet flotsam. But I could feel the pressure starting to build.

Be constructive and contribute to improvement – That’s going to take some growing into (so please have some patience). It’s not that being constructive is something I can’t do. Not at all. What’s going to be a challenge is tempering my critical comments (a.k.a. biting my tongue). It’s still too easy for me to slip into my curmudgeon persona. There’s a time and a place to call him to the front of the line, but, it’s usually better if he just stays at home in the rocker on the porch, sipping lemonade, and petting the dog.

Be authentic – …and that’s as far as I got in this try. I got stuck on operationalizing authentic. That shouldn’t be difficult, but for now, I’ll attribute the difficulty to the fact I did all this on a Friday afternoon.

All in all, not a bad start.