Tag Archives: Kate Haley-Goldman

“Murder your darlings”, and the importance of rewriting

This Friday I got a fat manilla envelope from IMLS. We had submitted a proposal for the IMLS’ National Leadership Grant program, and hadn’t made the cut. Disappointing, but not unexpected.  Competition was fierce this year, and we’d never applied before, so there was no institutional knowledge base to draw on.  I am super-excited that Rob Stein and Co. at IMA got some serious funding for TAP and TourML.

The envelope contained the reviewers’ comments on the proposal along with the “Dear John” letter explaining IMLS’s budget and criteria for rating proposals.  I didn’t have much time, but I skimmed them, trying to glean what I could. Going through anonymous comments on your work can be painful, especially when it’s a rejected piece, but it’s a great learning experience. It made me realize I needed to go back and reread the proposal before I went through the reviewers comments more thoroughly.

What happened?
This proposal was for a project I’ve been working on, in fits and starts, since January 2006. It’s been fleshed out several times, rejiggered a few times, and tweaked to appeal to different audiences enough times that I have trouble sometimes remembering which version of the project I’m currently in. As I skimmed the proposal before leaving work, it became clear to me that next time I was going to have to start from scratch and rewrite the entire thing.Why? I didn’t sketch enough for one. It also suffered form a bad case of cut and paste syndrome, combined with loving my darlings too much for my own good.

Sketching
Months ago I wrote a post on the importance of sketching, rapidly producing coarse-grained representations of your thinking.  If you’re a designer, you draw sketches, if you’re a writer, you write what I call “sketches” for lack of a better term. The point is that you make them, you make them right then in response to the situation that created the need for a sketch, and that the expectation is that the sketch is just a first approximation of something much more detailed, later. It’s hard for me to do, and I have to keep at myself to keep doing it, and not get hung up on making it “better” than it needs to be. Looking at my proposal, I think it suffered from not being sketched first. I took an existing document and reworked it, and then reworked it again, and again, but I never put it aside, sketched a fresh new proposal out and filled it back in with detail from older versions.

Kate Haley-Goldman talked about her methods for searching for inspiration in my series of posts on cognitive load. One of the things she said that I immediately recognized as truth was that taking ideas and rewriting them yourself is a way of making them your own, of internalizing something so you can find out what you can do with it. I think with this proposal, I hadn’t done enough rewriting, and instead monkeyed around with what was already there. This is ironic, given that one of my few rules of label writing is,

“The more you monkey with it, the more it sucks.”

The tyranny of Word
The trouble is that word processing makes it a lot easier to monkey, and rewriting is still every bit as hard as ever.  The tyranny of Word and cut and paste mean you have to be a lot more vigilant about flow and tone. Whole chunks of documents can move around!  If you’re doing something like writing a proposal for one funder and then writing another proposal on the same topic for another funder, the temptation to cut and paste is overwhelming. For me, I think it has a lot to do with preferring to work with text I think is “good enough” rather than rough, first draft-y text. It’s a syndrome Anne Lamott covered beautifully in “Bird by Bird”. She has a whole chapter called “Shitty First Drafts” that almost made me cry with laughter the first time I read it. She writes so eloquently about the feelings of unworthiness, the self-doubt and loathing that plague me when I read first drafts of my own writing.  It might be time to reread that book again.

Murder your darlings
Another problem I think the proposal suffered from was that it wasn’t tightly enough focused on what the funder wanted because I was too attached to ideas and chunks of writing that were important to me. As Orwell would have said, I got too attached to my own ego to make the document adequately serve the purpose it was intended for. Almost a century ago, Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch wrote  in “On The Art of Writing”,  “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.” Faulkner later shortened this to “In writing, you must kill your darlings.”  What they mean is not that you must not write things you like or love, but that you must be extra suspicious of them and be willing to expunge them when they don’t serve the purpose of the text.  This is why God created editors and first readers.  When you love a piece of writing, it’s hard to be critical of it. Grant proposals, with their straightjacket page limits and rigid format, are no place for deathless prose for the sake of deathless prose. They are place where your writing should be clear as glass, so that the ideas are immediately apparent by the reviewers who will decide its fate.

Live and learn, right?

Replies to “Dealing with your cognitive load” – Part four of four

This is the last of four posts summarizing replies to the question I posed about how people cope with the vast amounts of information coming at them.  In the first part, I described some strategies people use for managing information intake. The second post looked at how people store information. The third covered separating inspiration from information.

Thanks to the generosity of you all, I was able to share all kinds of strategies that you can use to think about how you manage the information coming at you via the Internet. However, none of them have any value if you never have time to use them. So this last post is going to be about personal professional development and how vital it is to museum professionals in this newish century.

Make is part of the schedule

calendar from Flickr user Jeremy Toeman


The best way I’ve found to make time to learn is to not treat it like a nice thing to do if you’ve got time.  It’s important, so put it on your calendar. Kate Tinsworth says, “I do set aside every other Tues morning from 9-11 for my whole team to read. Read whatever—I read blogs and articles online, but the others read more traditional evaluation journals, mostly. That time being designated helps a lot.” At my museum, Christine Reich has the Research and Evaluation department hold regular monthly professional development meetings, and everybody in the department is in charge of running one meeting.

I spend the beginning of each work day scanning my social media feeds like Twitter and LinkedIn, and browsing my RSS feeds for interesting nuggets. Thanks to suggestions from Jasper Visser and Kate Haley Goldman, I’ve also gone back to actually looking more deeply at a very few sites I like that usually get me thinking.  I find that making it a regular part of my day helps me keep abreast of things and keep it from getting out of control. My undirected web surfing seems to have gone down since I started being more directed.  Thanks to Bruce Wyman for nudging me to give RSS another go.

This blog is also part of my regular professional development. Making myself step outside the the daily grind and trying to synthesize what I experience going on in my work and consulting projects has been a great way to keep my thinking fresh and to crystallize half-formed thoughts. It’s a blessing.

Get out and talk to people

from Flickr user elthenerd

You may recall that in Part One, Nancy Proctor surprised me by saying she prefers phone calls over email for anything substantive. Kate Haley Goldman remarked on how conversations stay with her longer than other kinds of communications. Kate Tinsworth seconded that idea, saying, “I find that much of what sticks for me still comes from those (human conversations) too… be it at a conference or other opportunities to actually meet up.” I was talking to Nina Simon about conferences recently, and when I expressed my reservations about AAM, she seemed surprised. “I love AAM, because everybody I want to talk to is there in one place. I can have breakfast with Elaine, lunch with Kathy…” After that, I started casting my mind around for other highly-efficient museum professionals (or dare I say it, “thought leaders.” No, I daren’t…) they all share that drive to have high-quality interactions.

It may seem like a no-brainer that voice communication, or even better, face to face communication, is the highest bandwidth medium we currently have, but it is surprising to me how often people (myself included) will opt for a lower-quality method of communication. Probably the best thing I’ve done in this regard has been to emcee a monthly meetup for techie museum folks in Greater Boston.  It’s a broad, open group. We get managers, developers, teachers, vendors, students.  It’s different every month thus far, and it’s like a little bit of conference-going on a Thursday night. I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you can’t find one in your area, consider it an opportunity for you to step up and make some connections.

Save things for down times

Waiting at the station from Flickr user domesticat

Another way to make more time for yourself is to be more efficient about the time you already spend on routine tasks. I am great faffer.  Ask anybody who’s ever shared an office with me. But I’m trying to be better…

When I first started talking about this idea with Nancy Proctor, she scheduled our phone call during her walk to work. She also aggregates informational meetings with colleagues into regular 2-hour “meet-ups” instead of a zillion individual meetings. Somebody at Museums and the Web 2011 said the killer app for mobiles was that they were a way to “kill time while waiting for the bus.” I don’t know who said this, though I vaguely recall it being Seb Chan. (If you know, tell me. I hate misattributing quotes).  Kate Tinsworth downloads documents to read on her tablet when she’s not doing anything.  I’m excited to look at my schedule and see what undiscovered efficiencies are lurking out there.

Take charge of your professional development

Carpe Diem by Flickr user Darcy Moore

All of the strategies listed above have one thing in common. They don’t require anything aside from your own desire to learn.  As someone who has worked in a large institution for most of my professional career, it’s easy to succumb to the mindset of waiting for permission to do anything.  This is especially true of old-school “professional development.” There are forms to be completed, signatures to be garnered, and justifications to be gathered before any learning happens.  But in the current climate, waiting for anything seems like a recipe for getting left behind.  This is particularly true in exhibits, where new media and modalities (like mobiles) are promising to shake up the status quo. And when mobiles are old hat and everybody has augmented reality, there will be something else new.

One of my favorite parts of Rob Stein’s talk at the Tate Handheld conference last Fall was his use of the image of a bridge to symbolize how we deal with new technologies in museums. We have, in the past, tended to view new disruptive technologies as obstacles to overcome. There on the other side waits a land of peace and technological harmony. All we have to do to cross that bridge is… wait for Netscape and IE to duke it out, or wait for Java to save us, or  adopt HTML 5, or pick Android or iOS or web apps… The list never ends and Rob brilliantly  demonstrated the fallacy of the bridge metaphor. The reality is that we never reach the end. There is no place of stability where we can make a leisurely, fully-informed decision. So how do you keep abreast?

There’s a great post (actually several if you poke around) from Beth Kanter on personal professional development. You could also look at Harold Jarche’s model of networked learning for more technologically-oriented ways to think about your own learning.  I like them both, because they’re well-linked and can take you to a slew of other resources.  It’s worth being serious about.  I’m on the Advisory Board for this year’s Horizon Report, Museums Edition, and of all the technologies being considered, I don’t think a single one existed when I was in college.  And even if I’d graduated five years ago, I’d still have missed a healthy proportion of them.  So even if you’re fresh out of school, your expertise is aging pretty fast. And nowadays you have to contend with a yearly crop of freshly-minted museum studies MAs, with newer skills and lower salary requirements than you. The greatest benefit I find to taking responsibility for your own development is that it gives focus to your thinking.  I find a topic I’m interested in, and suddenly I see connections to it all over the place.  It focuses my information consumption and acts like a filter to help decide what *not* to consume.  And isn’t that a relief? Yes, it is.

Thanks for sticking it out this long. The next post will be a much shorter (I promise!) one listing the changes I’ve made to my routine based on this and a recap of what tools people use and how. It should be interesting.

Replies to “Dealing with your cognitive load” – Part three of four

Separating inspiration from information

from Flickr user Matthew Wynn

This is the third of four posts summarizing replies to the question I posed about how people cope with the vast amounts of information coming at them.  In the first part, I described some strategies people use for managing information intake. The second post looked at how people store information. This post will cover separating inspiration from information, and final one will discuss the importance of making time to learn. My apologies for taking awhile to get through this. It’s been a pretty fascinating trip, though.

When I posted about cognitive load and asked for your processes and practices, I was pretty vague in how I framed my question. “Information” is a pretty opaque term. And sure enough, the responses all went over slightly different territory.  Kate Haley Goldman applied her analytical eye to my question, and replied, “If I understand you correctly Ed, you’re interested in the processes and tools that we use to manage information.  I see that as different than the tools and processes for managing research, connections, inspiration, or products of creation.  Or workflow.”  Though I was tickled at how thoroughly she’d unpacked the question, the “managing inspiration” part made me sit up and read faster.

 “Over the last few months I’ve been thinking quite a bit about separating managing information and managing inspiration.  I find Twitter to be useful in all sorts of ways, but I’ve noticed that only occasionally do I find something that makes me think for more than 5 minutes.  Or something that truly inspires me there.  The content ebbs and flows like a YouTube video of the week, and I find that the buzz of the Twittersphere fascinating and distracting, but rarely provides concepts or insights that stick with me.  So I’ve returned to reviewing a much smaller set of sites regularly with my morning coffee (and the Firefox plug-in).”

There is some big truth in what Kate says. I find Twitter to be a great sort of links to useful information, news about what’s going on, and other things. But the information is usually something of short-term importance and relevance. I’ve don’t think I’ve ever gotten a tweet that has lead to me to something truly inspirational. (I’ll have to go back through my Favorites list and double check!) One of my motivations for this whole series was to heed Thoreau’s call to “Simplify, simplify.” and be more directed and less distracted. My answer to this has been to go back and gather loads of resources into an RSS reader and try to be brutal about not even clicking links unless they seem pertinent. My less-directed web surfing has decreased and so far, it feels like a good thing.  I’m working on being more like Jasper Visser, and replacing the nagging sensation that I’m missing something with the certainty that I am missing something, and it probably doesn’t matter that much.

The part of Kate’s response that really spoke to me, though, was this,

“The inspiration pieces I manage differently, and it changes depending on the type of inspiration.  Truly inspirational researchy things I sometimes try and re-sketch in notebooks, sometimes whiteboarding, generally after talking to someone about it. … For other pieces of inspiration, primarily visual, I’ve been doing some pin boards, which seems more effective for me than bookmarks.  I’ve been experimenting a bit with photo and audio more, but nothing very advanced.”

There’s a whole new post here, and I may have to dragoon Kate into having a long conversation about her experiments. One reason this resonates with me is that all of her methods for managing inspiration are kinds of sketching, which I wrote about awhile ago.  Taking some idea, internalizing it, and re-expressing it in your own way is crucial to the creative process.   So the obvious question this raises for me, members of the great hive mind, is, “What tools do you find most useful for mentally wrestling with content?”

This idea of managing inspiration is intricately engaged with the fourth and final post, which is about taking time to learn.  None of the strategies discussed in any of these last three posts have any value if you never have time to use them.  In this current austere climate, time spent on professional development, or on anything not directly serving a current funded project, is hard to come by.  I’ll wrap up with a post on making and taking time to learn on the job, and recap what I’ve learned and some of the changes I’ve made to my routine based on your wisdom.

Replies to “Dealing with your cognitive load” – Part two of four

This is the second of four posts summarizing replies to the question I posed about how people cope with the vast amounts of information coming at them.  In the first part, I described some strategies people use for managing information intake. This post will look at how people store information. The last two posts will cover separating inspiration from information, and the importance of making time to learn.

Storing stuff

The reason to go looking for information is so that you find information. Once you’ve found it, though, how do you keep track of it, store it, or tag it so that you can retrieve it later when you want it? As a digital Cro Magnon, I can’t help feeling that I don’t really have it, unless it’s on my drive in some form, where I can access it whenever, regardless of connectivity.  Call me old-fashioned… This leads to some strange behaviors on my part.

Storing PDFs

Reference collections from OSU Archives

I do a lot of research and often find things online that might be useful someday, but not immediately.  And the Web being a fickle medium, you can’t always rely on that article or review still being where it was six months or a year ago.  So PDFs get downloaded and sucked into my Mendeley reference manager. It’s a fabulous way to organize your documents, and generate bibliographies. And it’s got some great social features I keep meaning to use but never do… For webpages, I tend to capture local copies using Readability to strip out all the chaff and leave me the content. That then gets turned into a PDF and goes into Mendeley with the original URL so I can get back to it if needed. Kate Haley-Goldman will put research or even researchy stuff in Zotero or Endnote. If it’s more personal she keeps it in Evernote. She keeps meaning to make better use of Mendeley, but…

Storing links

"A man checks Twitter on an iPhone" by Flickr user stevegarfield

What about links? Twitter provides me with the vast majority of leads to pertinent information. I tend to favorite links that look interesting so I can circle back to them when I have time and check them out.  I also use Tweestream to archive all my tweets and give them back to me as a spreadsheet. I’ve never actually opened that archive, but knowing it’s there makes me feel better.  Tweetstream also provides you with interesting metrics on your Twitter usage which I glance at, but rarely engage deeply with. If I was in business for myself, then knowing who’s retweeting my stuff most often might seem more urgent. Kate Haley Goldman marks things she finds interesting on Twitter and on rare occasions actually goes back and looks at batches of things she’s marked, bookmarking the pieces she’ll want to see again.

Nancy Proctor loves wikis. If you’ve looked at any of her work, you’ll wind up on one her wikis. She captures the #mtogo hashtag to the MuseumMobile wiki as her way of hanging onto information of interest.  Bruce Wyman uses a third party service that listens to his Twitter feed and automatically captures any of his tweets with a URL into del.icio.us, so he has a permanent record of the things that he found interesting. And in general, his take on storing links seems to be broadly shared.

“As for general URLs and link mgmt tools (including del.icio.us), I rarely actually use them. MY general assumption is that if I need something again that it’s likely I can re-Google for it and saving links creates a cleanup headache and categorization activity that I just don’t have time for.”

Storing files

"Stored documents" by Flickr user profkaren

 

Lori Phillips, obviously more of a digital native than me, keeps a separate Google Doc for each of her main areas of research interest, where she posts her thoughts, chunks from emails, and links to blogs and articles that relate to the concept. That way she can keep everything all in one place, and also direct co-workers to it when necessary.

Kathleen Tinworth uses Dropbox for most of her personal and consulting file storage and sharing.  It’s not the most secure place, but it’s darned convenient.  My lovely and talented wife also uses Dropbox a great deal with her school teacher colleagues, both a way to share documents effectively and to get around some of the shenanigans that public school IT departments make users go through in the name of “securityiness.” I’ve used both Dropbox and Box.net for consulting jobs and am sold on their utility, especially when there are big files, like floorplans or label proofs that need to be distributed. Being me, though, I of course download everything and maintain a separate copy of everything on my hard drive. Just in case. ;-)

from the Powerhouse Museum's Flickr collection

An interesting practice that Kathleen brought up was using dication software for capturing ideas when you can’t write them down.  When I first got my iPhone I used to take voice memos while I walked to and from work.  It was great at first, but the act of going back and listening and transcribing them got to be a drag.  Kathleen uses Dragon dictation. The free iPhone app is actually pretty decent and it’s a quick way to capture things in real-time.

Storing images

by Flickr user clickykbd

Flickr. ‘Nuff said. Everyone uses it, it seems.

Next up, separating inspiration from information, and then some thoughts about making time to learn. Thanks to all of you who responded. I’m adding things to my repertoire!

Replies to “Dealing with your cognitive load” – Part one of four

The summer vacation season is almost at an end and the ramp-up into a new school year has begun. I had hoped I’d get out the follow up to my post about managing information overload ages ago, but you all are so insightful and generous with your thoughts that I’ve been sitting on a mass of really interesting replies trying to synthesize. In the end, I think I’m going to have to break this up into manageable pieces, quote a lot of you liberally, and point out the commonalities and surprises that I’ve seen arise. In broad strokes, I’ve seen four themes appear; managing information intake, storing information, separating inspiration from information, and the importance of making time to learn.

Set up systems to manage information intake
Being mindful and deliberate about how you expose yourself to the firehose of information that is the Internet is one strategy that many people employ.

RSS logo from Flickr user HiMY SYeD

One clear theme that emerged was the utility of RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds for aggregating the sites that you find worth following and alerting you when they change. I gave up on RSS several years ago for reasons I don’t recall, but reading your responses, I clearly need to revisit that decision. Bruce Wyman sums up the power of aggregating content using RSS, “I follow around 500 rss feeds broken down into about 20 different categories. I certainly don’t read everything every day, but I scan a lot of it… I fought rss feeds for a long time because I *liked* visiting websites and seeing their design and having the intended experience. But, it just took a lot of time and when I’d circle back periodically I’d need to make a mental note of what I’d last read and resync myself with the new content. It just became a pain in the ass at some point. Moving to a newsreader made a huge difference.”

Jasper Visser has a simple twofold strategy to managing his information intake; namely, “RSS and letting go. I use RSS feeds to keep up with the stuff that’s really important. If – on top of that – I accidentally read twitter, scan Facebook or (even!) peek at Google+ I consider that a lucky moment. With all these social networks I trust on serendipity to take my side.

Hardly any of the myriad of updates I miss every day really mattered in the long run. I don’t have to speculate on the iPhone 5 design (nor, really, does anybody) so I made peace with twitter just scrolling along on its own. If there’s stuff I’m really missing out on over and over again, and there’s no RSS feed to fix that, I consider it a business opportunity ” Jasper’s strategy of “letting go” I find very important. It took me years to reach the point where I could accept that I would never again keep up with all the information out there on the Internet.

Email overload by Flickr user kristiewells

Email accounts for a huge percentage of the digital information coming into my computer every day, and systems for coping with the dreaded inbox are a vital tool. Bruce Wyman and I both share a longing for an old Mac mail client called Eudora. Bruce said, “I used to do a ton of automatic filtering in Eudora and save things into discrete categories of people / organizations… Eudora was *fantastic* at searching, Mail less so.” This has been one of my greatest rants against Apple’s Mail app; it’s mail filtering is clunky, and searching is sloooooowwwww. I’ve got pretty much every email I’ve received since the Museum shut down its VAX mainframe in the mid 90s, and quite a few older ones I forwarded in time. I’m a geezer, I know…

In happier days, the bother of setting up mail filters that were accurate enough to capture and route the right messages to the right folders was more than repaid by the ease with which I could look at my incoming email stream, see where the activity was, and choose where to direct my attention at any given time. I can do some of that with Mail, but with nowhere near the granularity I used to. My inbox tends to be much more cluttered now and it is a drag on my productivity to have to wade through all those messages.

My favorite response regarding email was from Nancy Proctor. I had emailed several friends with personal requests to share their thoughts and strategies, and her reply began, “To start with, I tend not to read emails this long but prefer a phone call if there is this much info to exchange (not being snarky, seriously!)” Granted, the email was 577 words long, but this was certainly not the answer I was expecting! We had a good long talk and in the end I appreciated her insistence on having a single high-bandwidth discussion rather than a series of emails. The level of engagement that direct voice communication allows, with clarifying questions and answers and the back and forth about issues I find to be almost impossible with email. This point was echoed by Kate Haley-Goldman, who said, “I’m still thinking about a Curator article that Nancy, Titus, and I were discussing over drinks in the middle of the night a few weeks back.  (Was it useful because we were talking about it in person?  Because it was an in-depth article?  The drinks?  The middle of the night? Perhaps all of the above.) Personally, I think it had everything to do with talking in person. This is the reason I go to conferences. The conversations that happen in the sessions, in the halls, in the bars; that’s where the really valuable information is exchanged.

As a postscript to the email discussion, I offer this thought on “efficiency” and its pitfalls. A vendor I worked with had this annoying habit of never responding completely to emails. I’d thoughtfully gather up and email him all my thoughts on the latest version of what he had sent me, and he’d reply to the first question and ignore the rest. If I sent him three emails, each with one question, I’d get three answers. If I was efficient and sent one email with three questions, I’d get one answer. In hindsight, it was much more efficient to confine myself to one question per email. It seemed to reduce the length of time it took to get an answer. It certainly reduced the time I spent afterwards searching the email chain for that response on file formats that was buried in that email about the home page, or was it that email about the new comps? Since then, I’ve tried, with varying degrees of success, to treat work emails more like telegrams or IMs. If she had her druthers, Nancy would ditch most of her emailing for IM.

As a result of this, I’ve downloaded NetNewsWire and started trying to tame my RSS feeds, I’ve cleaned out my inbox for the first time in months, and if trees stop falling down, I might even take another whack at making better filters in Mail.

Next up, systems for storing the stuff you find once you find it. From there, I’ll delve a bit into a brilliant point Kate Haley-Goldman made about separating inspiration from information, and wind up with thoughts about making time to learn. Thank you all for your replies!