Greg RothGreg Roth
We don’t always have to know where we’re going

By Greg Roth

We don’t always have to know where we’re going

This past week, on a video call with my coach, she asked me about the caricature sketch that hangs on my wall behind me. I said I didn’t do it, but I’ve always loved the style and think being able to draw and then hand that drawing to someone must be an incredibly fulfilling moment. She asked if that’s something I’d enjoy. I said yes. Then I thought about it some more.

The next day, I bought a sketchpad and looked up some YouTube videos on how to draw caricatures. (The two above are my first attempts.) Then, I emailed the local farmers’ market to see if I’d be able to set up there and do sketches in the future. They said “sure!”

This is yet another lesson in big goals versus little practices that carry you moment to moment. My goal is not to be a full-time caricature artist, because I don’t really even know what that means. Instead, it’s about seeing if I can learn to do a small creative task that is interesting to me but will also allow me some manner of pleasing other people. It’s doing what you want in the meantime versus planning everything out and trying to live up to an arbitrary standard. I have no idea if I have what it takes to be an actual sketch artist (destination), but that’s not going to prevent me from seeing what I CAN do and if I enjoy it along the way (journey).

Yesterday, I saw this update on LinkedIn from Adrian Segar: “I’m proud to have written three books (the latest was published this week) and over six hundred blog posts in the last ten years. After writing each book I was sure it would be the last one I wrote. Actually, I still am. Perhaps I’ll be wrong again about that…”

You don’t always have to know where you’re going to get somewhere worthwhile.

The rut and the groove

By Greg Roth

The rut and the groove

In the 1800s, when the population of the United States was roughly half people and half bears, pioneers headed West only had one legit means of travel: the covered wagon.

Pulled by horses, mules, or ox, these heavy wooden carts could tip the scales at 2000 pounds when loaded with supplies. Big wooden wheels would grind slowly over dirt, the weight pushing down into the Earth to create a depression. The first wagon would roll over the best version of the ground, flat, untouched. If you were 4th or 7th in line, however, you may be rolling over terrain that has been worn down by those in front of you. And if this was a popular trail, the impression could be dramatic: 6 inches, a foot, maybe more. If the width of this channel was only as wide as the wheel, then the wheels could get wedged into the gap and slow down or stop all together.

This is where the phrase “stuck in a rut” comes from.

Grooves are also spaces in between higher points on either side. It’s a Dutch word, dating back even farther to the mid-1600s, when it referred to a ditch or a pit, dug with a tool. In the early 1900s, as a result of the invention of the phonograph, grooves became circular ditches on record albums. The groove is where you wanted to be. It took you closer and closer to the center, but the whole point was more about enjoying every moment spent in the groove.

In any creative effort, getting into a groove is the best possible situation.

Ruts are a lot like tunnels of our own making. They are long and present a very limited view of what’s in front of us. No reason to look around because there’s nothing much to see. The only thing appealing about tunnels is what’s on the other side. The tunnel itself is boring. It’s something merely to be tolerated in order to reach a destination.

Grooves were made, intentionally, for us to find rhythm. They spin us around and take us on a ride. They show us what’s out there on all sides, while keeping us moving, always looking for what’s coming around the (never-ending) corner.

Avoid the rut by looking around and getting out before you’re in too deep.

Get into the groove by finding the right routine at the right time. And by making the most of the ride.

Don’t say no, make an unreasonable demand

By Greg Roth

Don’t say no, make an unreasonable demand

You may know Adam McKay as the director of such Will Ferrell movies as AnchormanTalledega Nights, and Step Brothers, or as one of the founders of the video platform Funny or Die. But before all that, he was a writer on Saturday Night Live for six years in the late 90s.

McKay originally auditioned to be a cast member but got turned down. So, he started starting sketches and eventually became head writer. But, he really wanted to direct short videos and try lots of ideas the show hadn’t been doing. Eventually, he got fed up with not getting his more daring ideas through, so he told his agent he wanted to quit.

His manager gave him one piece of advice: “If you’re going to quit, make an unreasonable demand. What would you want in your dream world?” This is slight variation on the technique in some negotiation training circles known as “Never Say No”. Smart people understand that “no” is a dead end. Worse, it’s a sour dead end. It piles up negative feelings against a brick wall where they fester. It’s better to use a “no” moment as a chance for redirection.

McKay came up with 5 “unreasonable demands” to continue as head writer:

  • He didn’t want to go to production meetings.
  • He didn’t want to be in the room for the actual show taping, which he dreaded
  • He wanted a raise
  • He wanted a budget for short films
  • He wanted to name his own screen credit

To his incredible surprise, SNL creator Lorne Michaels said yes. To all five. So for the next two years, McKay was “Coordinator of Falconry.”

One person’s unreasonable demand is another person’s opportunity.

Use the OAE framework to go from opinions to memorable stories

By Greg Roth

Use the OAE framework to go from opinions to memorable stories

This month, I started working with the Creator Institute, a book-writing program developed at Georgetown University designed to help first-time authors get their book written and published in about a 9-month period. I’m happy to be working on “The Challenge Mindset” through this program.

We have weekly Zoom calls with our instructor and fellow authors and on last week’s call, we talked about an interviewing technique, OAE, which simply stands for Opinion Application Example. This is how brains often think through topics in friendly conversation.

When you are looking for people to tell you stories, it’s often difficult to get them to dive right into the best experiences they have to offer. So, the OAE framework helps get the conversation going. Here’s how it works:

Opinion: You give someone a theme that you’re interested in — sometimes an intersection, like “personal development mixed with innovation culture” in the case of the challenge mindset — and ask for their opinion on the theme. They give you their broad impressions of what that means to them.

Application: Once they’ve shared enough that you understand their perspective, you ask them to switch their thinking with the prompt “how have you seen this play out, over the course of your life/career” to them toward more specific information.

Example: Finally, you ask them for their favorite example about this application, either personal or that they like telling, in order to arrive at a story you can use, whether that is for writing or testing your own ideas.

People will always tell you their opinions, but using the OAE framework helps you work through the opinions towards that magic story you’re looking for.

It’s not hard to take a stand, it’s just rare to mean it

By Greg Roth

It’s not hard to take a stand, it’s just rare to mean it

All around the web this past week, brands, celebrities, your connections on social media sites, are sharing their #blacklivesmatter thoughts, in largely disappointing fashion. First, it was a black square, which was roundly criticized for being phase 1 of “activism theater”, as I like to call it. Then, the posts started appearing. One after another, almost indistinguishable.

They mostly follow a template that goes something like this:

  • Personal: “I haven’t felt comfortable speaking up”
  • Brand: “We know this is a difficult time”
  • [further introspection about themselves]
  • “The time has come to take a stand”
  • #BlackLivesMatter
  • [applause and likes]

Well-intentioned in most cases, but also self-serving, tepid, and unconvincing.

Now read what Ben & Jerry’s had to say.

That is how you take a stand and mean it.

You are the one who helps

By Greg Roth

You are the one who helps

Over the weekend, an artist named Jammie Holmes orchestrated a tribute to George Floyd, flying a few of his last words in the sky above Detroit, NYC, LA, Miami, and Dallas, using planes and banners. Normally, you’d see this type of thing at the beach, promoting specials at the local bar. How jarring then to witness a solemn phrase like “Help I Can’t Breathe” appearing in a downtown sky in mid-afternoon, almost like seeing the words of ghost in a daydream.

Contrary to what you might think from recent events, when someone asks, it’s usually VERY EASY to help in a time of need. I’m not talking about skirting by with some vague words of encouragement or everyone’s favorite LinkedIn job search offer, “let me know how I can help”. I’m talking about opening your doors when you see someone outside, who doesn’t know where to go. Or in extreme cases, you could, I don’t know, TAKE YOUR FOOT OFF SOMEONE’S NECK. Not very complicated, really.

This is a newsletter about creative thinking and being a leader who gets the best out of everyone around them, professionally or personally. It’s (mostly) apolitical. I chose the name two years ago because being an idea enthusiast means championing the ideas that should be able to stand on their own two feet, but because of barriers — confusion, politics, ego, arrogance, ignorance, or just plain indecision — they need your help. Sure, the stories I include most often are set in a white collar world, full of marketing, products, software, presentations, intellectual pursuits, and the occasional TPS report. Fairly innocuous stuff.

What I hope is not lost on those of you who read every week, is that this newsletter is actually about who we are as the people who have the ability and influence to stand up for the ideas that need our brains, our bravery, and our enthusiasm.

Because sometimes, as it softly floats across the sky, the idea is actually a person, too.

Don’t kick your homework to the curb

By Greg Roth

Don’t kick your homework to the curb

Yesterday, walking in my neighborhood, I came across a sheet of paper on the ground that looked like an elementary school assignment. At the top was a headline “I Can Write 100 Words” and below, 4 columns with 25 blanks in each column. There’s no organization to how answers should be listed, it’s simply a container for listing 100 words. Sadly, only 38 words were filled in, which I’m guessing is the reason why it was hanging out here with me by the curb.

I see two different lessons here:

First, when we sit in meetings, or are engaged in conversation, or just thinking alone, this is how creative work often feels. Another to-do list to fill in. If we don’t make it to the goal, we label that s a failure. But this type of exercise — a “challenge” — isn’t designed to be completed as much as a tool for progress. The point isn’t to have 100, it’s to gain a better understanding of what we already know and what else we could discover.

Second, we need to balance the stockpile of knowledge with the ability to figure things out along the way. As this kid develops his grasp of language, they’ll hopefully move beyond learning words to figuring out different forms of words from a similar root. This is similar to creative exercises where anything — everything — can be a stepping stone to something newer, better, weirder, or different.

Committing to a challenges unlocks so much more than the actual work: focus, habits, systematic thinking, resilience, and maybe most importantly, self-expression. By using a very simple framework and working inside that challenge to explore everything that is possible, you create a very simple shift, from getting to giving. You give as much as you can to the challenge, as opposed to trying to get something from it. That’s a “self-expressive habit”, as Adam Grant labelled it in a recent discussion on my post in Next Big Idea ClubYou don’t win by winning, you win by playing. 

This issue is the 100th edition of The Idea Enthusiast Weekly newsletter. I’d be lying if I told you that I’ve achieved some big subscription goal, or that I’ve been able to “monetize the list”. That was never the point. I tried a monthly newsletter once before and think I got to maybe 5 issues and gave it up.

This time around, I’ve done this newsletter, first for myself, to lead me down a path to figure out what I want to talk about for the rest of my life, and second for anyone who wants to read it. It hasn’t made me famous. It has allowed me to fill in the sheet. But more importantly, I’ve exercised the ability to do a newsletter over and over again. That’s the accomplishment.

Find the challenge, focus on taking action, give what you can, then give again. 

By Greg Roth

My Personal Annual Report for 2019

1: Thx for the memories

What’s this? See here for the what and why.

Speaking (Keynoting)
For the first time this year, my speaking business made it to the main stage. After being asked by the American Society of Association Executives to be the closing speaker at the Spark online conference, they asked me to be a keynote at the Great Ideas Conference, where I coincidentally started my journey to being a professional speaker 3 years prior, as a breakout room speaker. As a result, I got asked to do a few other keynotes/retreats later in the year. Conceptually, good stuff.

Keynote
At the Great Ideas Conference, I debuted a new talk that I had developed through my weekly newsletter, the “challenge mindset”. It went well or well enough that I was featured as the lead in the day 2 recap of the conference. This talk was 25 mins, but by August, I’d expended the talk to 45 mins for the National Apartment Association’s AE Brainstorm Conference.

Workshops/breakouts/other
I also debuted a new version of my creative workshop based off the principles of the “design sprint”, a team collaboration process invented by former product designers at Google Ventures. I’m a big fan of the book and process and worked to develop it for the association world.

Newsletter
Over the course of 40 issues, I included links and short write-ups of over 300 stories. Collecting these every week means I have amassed a large repository of stories to use in talks and future writing.

Professional development 
I joined a few communities to improve my knowledge and business practices. These were of moderate value. A few were of almost no value. While I don’t know that I’d choose different avenues if I had to do it again (mostly due to budget, other options were much more expensive,), there’s 1 or 2 I would have turned down. The single biggest takeaway from these programs was that I need a solid sales database off which to work. I moved from trying to manage speaking leads in Trello to Pipedrive, a big improvement. The other is that you should absolutely work with Tamsen Webster, if you need a trusted advisor.

Travel and trips
SF, Hawaii, Palm Springs (2x), Colorado Springs, Minneapolis, Lansing MI, New Orleans, Atlanta, Tuscon AZ, Ithaca NY, Chicago, Baltimore, Richmond, Dewey Beach, plus a birthday trip to NYC to Seinfeld at the Beacon Theater for my birthday. We also hosted my family at Christmas for the first time. 

Home and family
In the Spring of 2019, we found out we’re expecting our first child, a girl, due early Feb 2020 (which is 2 weeks from this writing). As a result, we moved out of the city to the inner suburbs, from a 1-bedroom condo to a small house, with a yard and petanque court (french bocce). We did a hundred little things to set the house up for our new life. I discovered the joy of woodburning fires in the backyard. We go for lots of walks and enjoy our neighborhood.

. . .

2: Good riddance to bad juju

Speaking
Although I didn’t set a specific numerical goal for my speaking business, either in frequency or income, I wanted to see it grow in 2019. While I raised my prices considerably and booked the higher-paying engagements than ever before, there simply weren’t enough of them. Because of the timing of our new baby, my business may have to wait until late 2020 or even 2021 to “relaunch”.

Community
A bigger disappointment than the speaking numbers, subscriber counts and engagement in my newsletter hasn’t grown. I tried to start a private Facebook community for discussion, but it hasn’t worked in any meaningful way. This is part of an overall trend of less reading of the newsletter and less talk about it on social media channels. So, I will be retooling it and my approach in 2020. 

Time
Because this year had many transitions (business, home, family, etc), I spent an unsustainable amount of time dealing with “life problems”. Lots of medical appointments, home searching and home buying, moving into a new home, buying a car that needed more servicing than we expected and a dealer who was difficult to negotiate with, and so many other things that conspired to take up my time. This was a sore spot that needs alot of attention.

Health
Over the summer, I developed some form of heartburn or acid reflux that at times prevented me from doing much of anything. I was in constant pain for 12-14 weeks. I had to deal with the GWU Medical System, which is a full-time job by itself. I was in and out of doctor offices and had a dozen different tests done, but no reliable diagnosis. I also was diagnosed with sleep apnea and tried a CPAP machine, but that was immediately cut short by my chest pain. My sleep was almost nonexistent for weeks at a time. In the fall, I was constantly in need of a nap by midday, almost everyday. In order to have a successful business, developing a reliable sleep program is an essential priority for 2020. All of these health issues, coupled with the strain on my time, and our changing family life, made a large portion of 2019 a difficult year, professionally and personally.

Performing
I don’t believe I performed either comedy or music once in 2019. I did give the Children’s Sermon at our church twice, the great acclaim and many laughs.

. . .

3: A new hope

I have a few priorities for 2020:

Raise a child, help a spouse – We’re about to be a family of 3. I have plenty of baby books to read and sleep to miss out on.
Develop a health plan – Starting with a new wake up routine, I need to find habits that promote sleep, energy, focus, and productivity, along with a more consistent mood. 
Use a habit tracking system to work more in line with a targeted roadmap – There are too many days where I don’t know where I’m going.
Make more stuff – Whether it’s writing or drawing or eventually business products, the consume-create balance was way out of whack in 2019 and needs to be adjusted in 2020.
Create a more pronounced body of knowledge – Pull all this stuff together
Engage more in peer communities – I’ve taken the small step of bookmarking all the learning/discussion communities I belong to on the home page of my Google browser.
Less time browsing social media from a general sense and more time posting in discussions with likewise-inclined thinkers.

Obviously, these aren’t goals in part 3. They’re more like focus areas. The truth is, I don’t know what my goals are yet, besides improvement. I think I need to spend more time designing options to see which are “good bets”.

That’s it for now. May update this in a few days (1/15/20).

Try this year-in-review challenge

By Greg Roth

Try this year-in-review challenge

We’re only 13 days from the end of the year (and decade?), so resolution season is gearing up. Naturally, I’d like to do a 180 away from that. If you’re thinking about your 2019, here’s a little exercise you can try. Let’s call it the SRM Review.
  • Simple: Describe the single most important action that you took this year. What was the core idea behind that action? (and how did it turn out?)
  • Repeatable: What action did you take the most and why did that become a habit or system that you were willing to do with frequency?
  • Meaningful: What action or work project or lifestyle change did you develop a deep appreciation for?
The answers to these questions don’t have to be the same or even interrelated. They can be 3 completely independent actions or events, and they can be personal or professional (or even spiritual). What IS important is to recognize where our motivations and our actions intersect. Resolutions are about looking ahead, they’re about what we want to get. But doing an “appreciative review” such as this provides us with a chance to enjoy the work we already have done to improve our lives: what we wanted AND were willing to give to those wants. If you spend some time doing an SRM Review, I think you won’t need to make new years resolutions. You’ll start to shift from big goals and wanting resolutions to the types of simple, repeatable, meaningful actions you can take, maybe without even thinking about it.

Email me back with your answers if you like, or, even better share it with a friend, a colleague, a stranger (!), in our private Facebook group I’ve been neglecting, or on a social platform you don’t loathe.

You don’t always have to look ahead to get ahead. There’s a really powerful, inspiring way to look back, too.

See you in 2020.

Remembering a drop in the Ice Bucket

By Greg Roth

Remembering a drop in the Ice Bucket

As I was putting together my newsletter Tuesday night, I saw the news break that Pete Frates, the former college baseball player who inspired the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in 2014, had passed away. I never met Pete, but his mother, Nancy, was a Realtor who I briefly crossed paths with that year when I was running the speechwriting team at the National Association of Realtors. She had a great quote in one of the stories today: “I lost my son, but I gave him to the world.”

By all accounts, what Pete Frates did was something very simple: he poured a bucket of ice over his head then challenged someone else to do it. That very simple, almost silly, act then became repeatable and meaningful. It went from being a small, singular gesture to the perhaps the world’s biggest act of hope in 2014. More importantly, because it started small, it had a chance to grow exponentially beyond anyone’s expectation or even comprehension.

Small moments, built up over time, have a magic all their own that no huge sweeping epic effort can ever really touch. If you believe that like I do, you owe Pete and his family all the thanks you have to spare for showing us the way.

Do you have a Personal Giving Tuesday?

By Greg Roth

Do you have a Personal Giving Tuesday?

The most amazing thing to me about #GivingTuesday, the international movement to inject some selflessness into the consumer culture of the final 6 weeks of the year, is that it’s only been around for 7 years. That’s a long-overdue idea.

After giving thanks on a Thursday, we have a 4-day stretch of buy buy buy book ended by Black Friday and Cyber Monday. How quickly we, as a society, need another cleanse!

Which brings us to our own personal creative pursuits: couldn’t you use a Giving Tuesday for your work? Yes, on two levels.

First, we consume so much stuff on a regular basis that, if we don’t have a regular “give” for ourselves, we risk turning into just another consumer. But that’s not us, of course. We aren’t passive consumers of stuff. We want to make stuff, too. So, a regular “give” helps us develop the “making muscle” and establish the check-and-balance between taking and giving. This newsletter is my chance to give once a week after compiling so much stuff to share for 6 days.

Second, Giving Tuesday, as we know it, is a big deal because it happens exactly once, towards the end of the year. It’s a chance to make a concerted, coordinated effort to swim against the tide of the season. If you’re a creative person at any level — beginner, hobbyist, thinker, artist, writer, or otherwise inclined to make something or tackle a challenge — you also need one big Giving Tuesday. You accumulate a lot in a year. You need an opportunity to move on, emotionally, from what you’ve built up. Not because it will bring you great wealth, but because it’s time. This work was nice, but there’s new work on the way. It’s always about the new work, by the way. That’s the entire point of producing and making.

I did this last year by writing 50 thank you notes to people who hired me to speak and to some who didn’t. It doesn’t have to be about gratitude. You could also throw things away that are just sitting there. You can make a point hand 10 books you read to 10 friends (or strangers, sure). You can give ideas you don’t know what to do with to others who might appreciate them.

Your own Personal Giving Tuesday: one regular one and one big blowout.

Not for charity. Just for clarity.

We only gain by giving.

Everyone has a Red Balloon

By Greg Roth

Everyone has a Red Balloon

Yesterday, on a call with my coach, she asked if I’ve ever seen The Red Balloon. It’s a 35-minute French film from 1956 that is arguably one of the finest, and deepest, children’s movies ever made.

The story is simple: a boy meets a floating red balloon that appears to have a mind of its own. The boy and the balloon “become friends” traversing the streets of a very gray and cold-looking Paris, repeatedly getting separated and then reunited. The film has barely any dialogue or story, but it managed to weave together themes of wonder, innocence, loneliness, jealousy, perseverance, and ultimately, hope.

The balloon itself is always there for the boy. It follows him wherever he goes. But, at the same time, it’s often just out of reach, to the point where it seems as if the boy isn’t exactly sure what it is or what it means. Not to get too philosophical about it, but I think of the red balloon as representing the thing we were put on Earth to have with us at all times. I suppose it could be a person, a goal, work, hobby, passions, or just a value. We chase it, we lose it, it comes back, we protect it from others, we don’t always understand it, but we know it belongs with us. It’s too big, bright, and beautiful to ever let go of.

So, what’s your red balloon?

1 2 3 7
We don’t always have to know where we’re going
We don’t always have to know where we’re going
The rut and the groove
The rut and the groove
Don’t say no, make an unreasonable demand
Don’t say no, make an unreasonable demand
Use the OAE framework to go from opinions to memorable stories
Use the OAE framework to go from opinions to memorable stories
It’s not hard to take a stand, it’s just rare to mean it
It’s not hard to take a stand, it’s just rare to mean it
You are the one who helps
You are the one who helps
Don’t kick your homework to the curb
Don’t kick your homework to the curb
My Personal Annual Report for 2019
Try this year-in-review challenge
Try this year-in-review challenge
Remembering a drop in the Ice Bucket
Remembering a drop in the Ice Bucket
Do you have a Personal Giving Tuesday?
Do you have a Personal Giving Tuesday?
Everyone has a Red Balloon
Everyone has a Red Balloon