Saturday, July 7, 2012

Acting My Age ...

This was taken at the "Art of Video Games" exhibition on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in D.C.
A few weeks ago I was out at a bar with some friends, including a few people in their 20s. We got on the topic of how old I was, and I made them guess. A few of them thought I was in my late 20s, which was certainly flattering.

But lately I’ve been thinking how dumb it is of me to want to be mistaken for someone younger, or to even care if I look younger than I am. It’s not just about vanity or being stuck on some number. When I’ve thought about it at length, I realize it’s been more about wanting to go back to that moment in my life when I never questioned I was inventing the world, one idea at a time. That was definitely when I was fresh out of college, working at a dot com in the '90s in Austin, Texas. And the guys I was hanging out with a few weeks ago ... they remind me of that time. I’m in awe of what they’re creating for social media.  They are wicked-smart, relentlessly creative, exceptionally talented people, not to mention generous and authentic with their knowledge and how they share it with others. I get around them and learn new ways to solve problems in my own social media projects for higher education.

The thing is, though, I haven’t exactly dropped off the face of the earth, with being on the forefront of well-executed ideas myself. I don’t know when I started second guessing that, or why I don’t do a better job of celebrating what I’ve built along the way. My younger friends certainly don’t doubt what I’m doing and have never made me feel like I should be worried about it. I'm still dreaming and inventing all the time.

There are circumstances that make my age what it is: I make it a priority to take good care of my body because I want to be healthy and strong as long as possible. My creativity is alive and kicking, and something that can alternately make me feel like I’ve lived a thousand years and like I’ve just been born, depending on what I’m developing and experiencing. My work in digital communications for higher education certainly feeds my need to examine and respond to all the amazing innovations that are happening right now, and transforming how we relate to people, brands, markets, places, products. That’s timeless, and changing too quickly to make me feel bored or stagnant.

My birthday is coming up later this summer, and usually that induces some major epiphany related to reinvention. This time around, I think I’m going to sit back and assess what’s going on with my career, my health, my life and just feel thankful. It’s been a challenging but incredible year, in terms of what I’ve survived and done and discovered in my 30-something-year-old world. I need to honor that more.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Last Hurrah of Father's Day ...

A public art work I came across while walking around in D.C. yesterday. It has a sign that says something along the lines of "Father's Day, Gone Fishing."
Social media is such a weird barometer for how transitory and simultaneous the world is. This year on Father's Day, one of my friends just gave birth to her first son, another friend lost his father to cancer. All of this was prominently announced on Facebook, of course.

I honestly tried not to think about my Dad when June 17 rolled around, because I miss him too much. Luckily, yesterday I was nowhere near old photo albums, or even paying that much attention to social media. Instead, I was walking around D.C. with friends looking for a good place to grab brunch, nursing a mild hangover and enjoying how beautiful the day was.

I got sunburned and I was late getting back to where I live out in the mountains of Maryland, but I don’t care, it felt good to be careless, mindless and unaware of time passing.

Does time even matter anymore, when we’re carefully curating every moment of our lives? Don’t we supposedly exist forever, in tweets, posts and Pins? I can’t bear to post one of those faded, scanned images of my Dad and me as a Profile pic, like so many people do when this annual celebration of dads rolls around. I know his presence didn’t last ... only until I was 15 years old. I don’t want to go back to that moment, and what it felt like to lose him, ever again, visually or otherwise. It's not that I begrudge people who need that on Father's Day. It's just that I can't relate to it, and I don't want to.

What I want to do instead is live every moment like it’s the day I decided his death wouldn’t hold me back in any way. And I’ve been doing that a lot lately ... traveling, doing art shows, writing anything and everything I want, running half marathons. Dancing in a club somewhere, where time appropriately stops, as it should, because I get lost in all that good music and the people around me, just existing in life, bright and flashing and full of possibility.

Friday, March 30, 2012

What Running a Half Marathon Taught Me About Personal Branding

Photo by Matt Ramspott
Okay, so every time I hear “personal branding,” I can’t help it, I think of Stuart Smalley on “Saturday Night Live.” It’s hard to say those words and not feel like a dork. When did living an interesting, meaningful life and knowing how to talk about it become a cheesy business experiment?

Then I think about the past couple of years and realize these lean economic times have led to many of us having new obsessions with the idea of reinvention. We’re grasping at snazzy marketing-savvy straws like “personal branding” to deal with the fact that many of us feel stuck right now. Maybe we’re unemployed and looking for work, or stuck in jobs we don’t like. Maybe we haven’t had raises in recent years because of budget cuts and furloughs (I’m raising my hand on this one). You start to feel really frustrated and powerless, and want to have a master plan in place to transcend it all, and something like “personal branding” is as good a plan as any.

In August 2011, I made a master plan to train for the CareFirst Rock n’ Roll USA Half Marathon in Washington, D.C. I did it for all the reasons most people have for doing a race the requires a ridiculous amount of running: stress management, wanting to get in better shape, blah, blah blah. But I also did it because my husband was getting ready to apply for tenure at the university where we both work, and I knew that process would be challenging for both of us. I wanted a new project that would remind me work isn’t everything.

While training for a half marathon, here’s what I learned about, yes, personal branding:
  • Remember your unique history. When taking on a new challenge, think about something difficult you overcame in years past, and what inspired you back then to get through it. For the half marathon training, I created running mixes featuring some of my favorite music that helped me survive high school. I would listen to Midnight Oil’s “Dreamworld” and suddenly getting to eight miles didn’t feel impossible anymore.  

  • Map out your master plan in an accountable way. Early on in my training, I went into my Microsoft Outlook and set up reminders for my daily workouts according to the half marathon training program I was following. No matter how many committee meetings or deadlines I had at work that left me exhausted and brain dead, I always knew how many miles I had to complete that day because of the little messages that popped up to keep me in check. When you’re taking on a new project, make it easy to stick to the tasks that get you there, in whatever way works best for you, whether it’s an email reminder or a list jotted down on a piece of paper and pinned to your refrigerator. In other words, don’t make it high maintenance for yourself to complete important steps in your process of reinvention.  

  • Selectively share your successes, but don’t hyper-broadcast them. Part of the fun of training for something like a half marathon is telling your friends, family and co-workers about all the runs you do, especially through a social media update of some sort. They usually chime in with supportive comments that make you feel validated you got in seven miles after a long day of back-to-back meetings and seemingly endless emails you had to answer. It’s great to seek out feedback; you just don’t want to over-bombard people with nothing but your updates on how awesome you are all the time. That’s boring and annoying. Instead, connect your project with something bigger and more universal. For me, that meant asking fellow runners for advice and sharing photos I took on long runs so others could enjoy them.  

  • Let your mistakes empower you and invoke empathy. Working toward a long-term goal means that inevitably you’re going to screw up from time to time. Don’t be afraid to admit when something really dumb or disappointing happened. Stay humble and real with your supporters who are listening to your progress, and they’ll feel more connected to your journey. One day I left my running shoes at home (I usually squeezed in runs over my lunch break), and had to drive all the way back home after my day was over to get them and then head out again to the gym in the pouring rain when all I wanted to do was crash on my couch. I shared this mishap, as tiny and insignificant as it was, on Facebook, and it made people empathize with me and how hard it is to stick to a rigorous training schedule. I in turn felt good about dragging myself out of my house to make that run happen.  

  • Channel your own bad-assed-ness. Somewhere along the way of getting ready for this half marathon, I became obsessed with the idea of creating superhero T-shirts for the race. My father-in-law, one of those amazing people who run and bike 17 miles a day well into their golden years, had also signed up for the half marathon, and I wanted to do something special to thank him for flying to D.C. to do it with me. I decided to go with green T-shirts because of the race happening on St. Patrick’s Day, and chose superhero names that related to the festivities, and what we were trying to accomplish: my father-in-law was “Green Lightning” and I got to be “Verdant Velocity,” a verbose superhero name that reflected my word nerd self. 

  • Share the spotlight with someone who has helped you. Though my father-in-law lives in a whole different time zone from my husband and me, he is still one of the most generous and supportive family members we have. He’s always got great advice about a project we’re doing around our house, or something I’m trying to figure out at my job. There was nothing more fun than running that race next to him. Not only did he check in and see how I was doing, but every mile or so, several people would see my father-in-law’s shirt and yell out, “GO GREEN LIGHTNING!” He loved ever minute of it. It made me happy to see someone who has been so loving and kind get a moment in the spotlight like that. He deserved it. He is a superhero, in many ways, with what he accomplishes and the ways he cares about people.
All in all, the race was FANTASTIC: my friends and husband and hundreds of strangers cheering us on as we raced through one of the best cities in the world on a beautiful day. I’m so glad I did it.

I don’t know what the future holds for higher education, or what interesting twists and turns my career might take in the next year or two. All I know is that I’m stronger than I’ve ever been, and feeling more fearless than ever about pursuing things that matter to me. I trust my creativity, intuition and ability to solve problems in a way that I haven’t for a long time. And I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Here's the link to one of my favorite half marathon training mixes on Spotify.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The BEST Valentine EVER That Social Media People Can Give

Engagement. Authenticity. Responsiveness. People who use social media for marketing and communications love these words. They use them with a sense of authority and power and promise.

I’ve used these words before, in various meetings and presentations. I like them. But I also hate them a little bit. Because they basically add up to this ironclad guarantee that social media marketers are supposed to make it work around the clock. They’re supposed to be staring down at their iPhones and their computers every other second, checking on something they tweeted, posted, uploaded, etc., to see if anyone’s commenting on it, liking it, REtweeting it, pinning it. To see if there’s something new they should say, in response to a question or comment or photo. Basically, these communicators, who in their previous lives were people persons ... people people?? ... are now auto-conveying emotion, meaning, humor. They’re becoming human robots with social ADD who are plugged in 24/7 to digital everything. The ones who are taking pictures of the Jumbo Screen at the Pearl Jam concert with their phones while the band is only a few feet away and could practically spit or throw a drumstick at them.*

But you know who hates “engagement,” “authenticity” and “responsiveness” the most? The significant others of the social media “gurus.” Ironically, these words used to describe the personality of someone who was a great spouse or boyfriend or daughter. Someone who paid attention, was spontaneously awesome in the real time of here and now.

Guess what? These words can STILL be used that way, in that context. Here’s how: If you happen to use social media as a large component of your job, do yourself a favor, and give your partner the BEST valentine ever! Grab your boyfriend’s hand rather than punch in another text while you’re out walking down the street to the restaurant where you're having what feels like the first dinner out in weeks with just the two of you. Turn off the damn device when you’re out to dinner. For God’s sake, DO NOT bring your iPhone into the bedroom, at least not into the bed. Put it somewhere where you can still hear the alarm, but you can’t reach it to fire it up first thing when you wake up in the morning. Instead, wrap your arms around whoever’s next to you --- your husband, your girlfriend, your dog --- and appreciate them for a little while instead. Ignore your status updates, your tiny blue birds, your blogs. Just exist for a little while, and remember why you feel so glad to have someone who loves you, and who you're also crazy about. And if you’re single, all this stuff still applies: Ultimately, the best relationship you need to have is with yourself, and you’re not a machine.

Here are a few other great words: “Unplug.” “Recharge.” And let’s not forget “Hootsuite” and “TweetDeck,” or, as I like to call them, “digital interns.” Take the night off and go have some fun, with your friends, with your girlfriend, with yourself. The digital world, changing at the speed of light, can’t exactly wait, but it will be there when you get back.

Flickr heart image above courtesy of qthomasbower. Pic of my husband and me above on right by the ever-talented Amanda Shea. *And yeah, I did go to a Pearl Jam concert once where people were really doing that, people with killer seats.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Big-Picture Communications: Be Nimble, Not Land-Locked

Public transportation: In Istanbul, Turkey, it can mean everything from a taxi to a subway to a ferry that carries passengers from the European side of the city to the Asian one. Yes, it is possible to be in two continents at once ... okay, not quite at once, but within a half hour ... in this vibrant city churning with people, places and cultures.

I recently spent a week in Istanbul catching up with an old friend, and I’m still thinking about the incredible 30 minutes we spent traveling over the Bosphorus during our ferry ride to Kadik√∂y. Everything ... the sky, the water, the crowded, overlapping architecture in the distance ... was glowing with that pinkish blue luminescence that happens during the last few moments before sunset. A young man was throwing handfuls of breadcrumbs over the side of the boat, much to the screaming delight of seagulls skimming the wind and light in whatever direction they pleased. Their persistent grace was awe-inspiring, an air dance that matched the tumbling, broken water falling behind them. And somewhere in this place between continents, moving forward seemed graceful, spontaneous, full of possibility and happenstance.

Now that I’m back in my daily world of deadlines and writing and social media-ing, I keep returning to that day on the Bosphorus because it reminds me of a critical truth about communications. We need to be nimble, and ready to change with the world changing around us, a world that can shift within hours, even seconds. Gone are the days when we have time to pin our hopes on something that's overly complicated and keeps us land-locked and unable to jump ship when needed.

Remember the fervor of Facebook Landing Pages and how much companies invested in them through design and links and other bells and whistles? Well, Facebook Timeline is coming to brand pages. We keep telling ourselves that global community is what drives the economy ... but are our companies, colleges and universities exploring the social media that is relevant to audiences overseas? For example, Qzone and Weibo are huge in China, Facebook, not so much. Will BlackBerries stay afloat, when the iPhone, Android and other mobile devices have taken on-the-go communicators by storm? What does it tell us about our priorities in the year ahead when in 2011, people spent more time on mobile apps than they did Web browsing? Is referring to social media as “social” no longer relevant, as we convince ourselves integrated marketing is key to our success? Maybe it should just be called "media" at this point.

The best creativity is by nature often spontaneous. And creativity drives the ideas that are populating the communications world around us, carrying us forward to the next horizon, the next conversation. The good news is that if you miss one idea, you can probably catch another one in 20 minutes or so. The bad news is if the ship has sailed and you’ve invested too much time, money and metrics into a specific system, you just might be adrift.

Here's a Spotify playlist that makes me think of the ride on the ferry over the Bosphorus.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

How To Be a Frugal and Fabulous Jetsetter

Frugal and fabulous. Do they belong in the same sentence? Absolutely, especially if you’re a travel junkie who’s feeling the pinch of the recession-or, let’s face it, the sucker punch of the recession-and realizing you will go insane if you don’t get away somewhere, somehow, soon.

My travels, for both business and pleasure, have taken me to Berlin, Beijing, Amsterdam, London, and Brussels, to name just a few places. And seeing my family typically involves flying everywhere from Atlanta to D.C. to Omaha. Along the way, I’ve learned a few tips and tricks that have helped me enjoy my trips to the fullest without completely killing my budget. 

Off-season travel can be AMAZING and very affordable 

If you want to travel overseas, going during the off-season, like winter, can be a great bargain. Ticket prices are jaw-droppingly lower during winter months than the summer, when most European cities are mobbed by tourists and can feel like giant, sweaty amusement parks. My husband and I found tickets for a January trip to Istanbul that are comparable to what you would pay to fly from D.C. to Seattle. Last year we spent Christmas in Berlin, where we not only enjoyed deeply discounted hotels, but we also had the city’s sights to ourselves, often waltzing into amazing museums that under normal circumstances would have had hour-long lines. It was so nice to linger in front of art works and artifacts and really take them in without visitors moving us along or blocking our view.

There is also something magical about a city in its bare-bones simplicity, without the distraction of crowds, something that makes it easier to meet and talk to people who live there, to walk up and down the streets and really see it. There are so many places I want to visit, and I love savoring the sights, culture and community of international cities during the off-season, when things are typically less expensive. 

Pack light and curate clothing carefully 

Travel is about completely immersing yourself in the world around you. You can’t do that if you’re stressed out hauling around a couple of heavy suitcases, a carry-on, your purse or briefcase, etc. And really, few people can afford to have that much stuff, with those hefty fees airlines charge us to check our bags. If you have a connecting flight, who wants to give the airlines an opportunity to lose your luggage? Not me.

When I fly, I try to pack everything in one of those rolling suitcases that are just small enough to pass carry-on regulations (be sure to check the specific regulations of the countries where you’re traveling ahead of time, as they can be different from place to place). I accomplish this by bringing a few basic black pieces that don’t require dry cleaning and can work well with colorful accessories like scarves and statement necklaces, which are much lighter and easier to pack in abundance. If I do bring a few clothes that aren’t black, I keep them in the same color range, like blue or purple, so I can mix and match and wear them in different ways. If I’m staying in hotels, I bring a tiny bottle of Woolite, so I can hand-wash my clothes in the sink and wear them over and over again rather than pay to send out laundry. Yeah, washing stuff by hand isn’t super glamorous, but smelling clean is! If I’m going somewhere cold, I’ll bring this pair of snug black tights that are lined with fleece and look great with dresses and skirts but can double as an extra layer under pants. A simple black merino wool cardigan, to throw over a T-shirt or a dress, is also good. You can find merino wool at stores like TJ Maxx and Marshall’s if you look around carefully, and it’s a fabulous find because it’s so light but very warm.

Shoes are the hardest part ... it’s difficult to decide what you have room to bring with limited space. Last year, I invested in a pair of Salomon weatherproof knee-high black boots that are comfortable, can be worn with everything and will hopefully last several years. I also tend to bring one pair of heels for dressier occasions and maybe my running shoes, if I think I’ll be able to squeeze in a workout while I’m traveling. I usually wear the bulkiest pair, like my boots, on the plane, so there’s more room in my suitcase, and stuff my other shoes I pack with smaller items, so every bit of space is used. Whatever shoes I bring, they all have to be comfortable, as I tend to walk everywhere and don’t have time for blisters, and they all have to go with my limited wardrobe.

There are a few beauty products I swear by that go with me everywhere, and save room in my tiny plastic bag for other stuff: Smith’s Rosebud Salve, which can be everything from a lip balm to a moisturizer on rough patches of skin. Benefit’s benetint rose-tinted lip and cheek stain, which goes on beautifully and is very natural looking. Benetint is nearly $30, but my current bottle has lasted me several years. I also love wearing perfume for special occasions, like a night out with my husband in a foreign city! Thierry Mugler’s Angel is my favorite, but you better believe I don’t tote that expensive, star-shaped hunk of glass in my luggage! Instead, I measure out a non-scented lotion, like Neutrogena’s Norwegian formula lotion, squirt some perfume in it and mix it up a bit, and voila, I’ve got my favorite perfume and a lotion in 3 oz.! 

Eat well and stay healthy 

If you are traveling overseas, you don’t have to torture yourself by trying to eat the meals they serve you on flights, which can be truly disgusting and unhealthy, especially during those twilight hours when your body isn’t sure what time it is. Instead of forcing down airline food, I'll stash a plastic spoon and one or two of those portable paper organic soup cups in my purse and ask the flight attendant for hot water, so I can hydrate them. I also sometimes brown-bag snacks from home like apples or nutrition bars, so I don’t have to buy overpriced airport food while waiting for my flight.

I’m a huge foodie and enjoy great meals when I finally get to my destination, but if I need to, I’ll splurge on cocktails or wine, and eat an appetizer instead of an entree, to savor something delicious but less expensive. I also drink tons of water and have a few packets of Emergen-C with me at all times, which I can down if I feel a cold coming on. 

Live in the world, not on it 

Don’t be afraid to walk around and take public transportation in the city where you're traveling, provided those areas are relatively safe. You can learn and experience so much more when you get out there and explore on your own, without a tour bus or taxi separating you from what’s going on around you, not to mention save money on cab fees. Exploring cities on foot also means burning more calories, meaning you’ll work on maintaining your weight while enjoying amazing meals.

Read up on places and their history, check out local websites and news, keep your eyes out for random fliers advertising events that might interest you. Don’t rely just on what guidebooks tell you to visit, but what catches your eye and what you hear about on the street. Wandering is the best, and often leads to the greatest adventures and memories. If you’re going to a country where residents speak a different language than you do, be sure to learn some phrases, especially hello, goodbye, please and thank you. In the end, you’ll probably make some terrific new friends who will appreciate your interest in their country and who will invite you back to stay with them-for free!

So these are some of my travel tips I’ve learned over the years. What are yours? Share them in the comments below! And get inspired for your next trip by enjoying this "Jetsetter" playlist on Spotify.