Posts by jcuene

Digital marketing & innovation leader. Founder of Fahren. Previously at GoKart Labs, General Mills, Ameriprise. MPLS. Husband to Andrea, father to 2. Lover of bikes, food, beer and rock'n'roll.

The Writing Habit

Photo by Lukas on

While I’ve known forever that writing – really, the thinking that goes ahead of it – was a powerful habit, I lost the habit years ago with the rise of Facebook, Twitter, etc. The act of consumption became too easy and it took over the urge to create.

I find myself at a cross-roads, professionally so I need to get back into the habit, perhaps now more than ever. The work that was fascinating and challenging for years isn’t as compelling as it had been. I’m a veteran of the digital marketing world, and the game has “slowed down” (as they say in the sports world). There’s some satisfaction in that: I can see the most important moving pieces now (not just the ones about to hit me in the face), I can see where the hard decisions are going come up (so I can prepare for them sooner). And, I’ve never been more confident in my recommendations to our clients. But, where in the past the creative work had been about business models, bold innovation, and transformational change, now the creative work seems to be at the surface and it seems – more than ever – transactional.

I’m going back to the basics. I’m going to write my way through this period, and do it in public, through writing.

Complicit in the Chaos Machine

I’ve been an advocate of technology, the internet and social media throughout my career. I’ve been a tech optimist my whole life and I’ve spent pretty much the entirety of my career helping organizations do more with digital tech to invent or grow their businesses. I’ve seen it as creative work, a mostly positive project. It’s been fascinating, grueling, thrilling and rewarding on a number of levels.

But what if the work I’ve been doing has, in a teeny tiny way, been part of the rewiring of America’s brain? What has been my little role in driving America nuts?

I’ve listened to this episode of the Rich Roll podcast, twice now. There’s a lot of conjecture going on, some smart, but hipshot analyzing. At the core, though, the Max Fischer argument resonates with my own experience.

Fisher argues social media is at the core of the divide in the US. It’s eroding our brains and attention, creating (indirectly and directly) polarization and undermines the sense of community (in the IRL sense) we need to keep functioning. I don’t really want to read this book, but I think I have to. And, I have to take it seriously enough that it might force a rethink of the work I do for the rest of my career.

I can’t help but think about how I’ve been a small part of this. In my role as an agency leader, on the client side, as an investor. More importantly, now that I’ve got a deeper understanding, what can I do? And, can I keep doing my current work?

Company Creeds?

Read this post today via Hacker News, about the power (and need) for writing and documentation in distributed orgs. Thoughtful post, and a good reminder for us at work.

Meanwhile, really curious about Automatic’s company creed. It’s their values, but in the style of a creed. It’s a little over the top for me, a recovering Catholic, but it’s a powerful idea.

And, happily, it reminded me of the Non-Conformist Oath, too.

Stick Together: Staying Balanced When Everything is Up in the Air

If you spend a lot of time online, (or at least paying attention to the news) you’re probably feeling overwhelmed. On one hand, the news is terrible: Ecological nightmares happening in slow motion, wars across the globe, economy in turmoil, inflation, infowars, 30% of the population in the US duped into thinking the election was stolen, your neighbors fighting over science and vaccines, etc. On the other hand, your Instagram feed is a steady stream of gauzy filters, happy overload, best lives, extreme positivity, hope, hustle, ambition.

Yet, we’re stuck in the middle trying to get through the day, and figure out post-pandemic norms. We’re languishing.

American culture seems to be driven by extrinsic validation. We like nice cars (because they signal success), expensive clothes (because they signal taste, style), big job titles, the right zip code, the vacations, the right causes, etc. We love likes, so we perform online to get the validation.

But, when the world is going nuts, when chaos seems right around the corner, when your planned path isn’t an option anymore, how do we stay balanced, centered, tethered, steady?

I’m struggling with this right now. I don’t have good answers, but i’m compulsively clicking on the links in twitter hoping to find an article to help me. I’m getting distracted by alerts from the folks barking for my attention. This guru wants me to take a class. That other one wants me to go to their seminar. No app will ever really help me get clear, despite what the ads say.

There are days when I feel like a Kurtz, who went up the river, leaving with optimism, now stuck in the wild, overwhelmed at what the Internet has done to us all. The horror. What has replaced all that hope?

So, I’m working at staying upright. A little yoga, a little meditation. More exercise, better sleep. You know its bad when i’m taking advice from Radiohead:

Fitter happier
More productive
Not drinking too much

I’m one of those guys that always put their head down and tried hard to do the work. I was never the smartest, I have been lazy, but i thought i could endure more work than others.

That approach is making this period of languishing worse, this acedia harder.

I want to be centered, I want to be still. But, my reptile brain is winning and I’m pretty sure my dopamine receptors are burned out.

I think the answer is pretty obvious, but hard for me to see sometimes: Stick together. Find your people, listen carefully, be of service, offer support, ideas and generosity. Be useful. Seek ways to help move something forward. Find ways to connect, even over zoom.

I was listening to the Ezra Klein podcast and the guest was talking about the way profound loneliness – feeling apart, being isolated emotionally, not necessarily just being physically apart – drives people crazy and makes them susceptible to crazy ideas (like QAnon, the Big Lie, conspiracy theories about vaccines, etc). This recalls the book Vivek Murthy wrote a couple years ago, where he made the argument there’s an epidemic of loneliness. Of course we’re all lonely. It’s part of what’s making us nuts.

So, let’s try to stick together. Let’s help each other get out of this bog of ennui and listlessness. Let’s help each other find a sense of balance in a destabilizing world. Let’s hang onto each other when everything seems up in the air.

Google Search is rotting and the results aren’t quality

I’m trying to teach myself a new technique (it’s a functional, marketing related thing) and i’m googling for useful articles. As i’m searching, it’s bringing me to a bummer of a realization? Google as a search engine has reached middle age: Bloated, lazy, coasting, going through a midlife crisis. All the ads. Hard to tell what is SEO chum and what is actually good content.

In trying to serve everybody, its not really serving anybody as well as it used to.

In a “meta” exercise, i did some searching and evidently this phenomenon is being seen elsewhere.

Google Search is Dying

Ask Hacker News: Has Google Search Become Quantitatively Worse?

@mwseibel: Google is no longer presenting high quality search results.

Its’s Working: Mostly Whole 30

I’m past the halfway point for the Whole30 (or, in my case, the mostly Whole30) and i’m pretty sure I can make it the rest of the way. More importantly, I’m not sure if I will go back to the pre-Whole30 days. It’s working for me on a couple different levels.

I’m doing the Whole30 for a couple reasons. First, to support my wife who wanted to do it as a reset after the holidays and all the things that come with the Holidays in a covid-driven time. I’m interested in experiencing how my body performs without all the grains, the alcohol, and (mostly) without dairy. And, like a lot of folks, I’m trying to re-evaluate the role food and alcohol plays in my life, overall, and how I use food when it’s not simply fueling a workout. More on that later.

In general, though, I feel much better. Lighter and less puffy, since I’m not having a beer or two each night. Sleep is solid, consistent, restful for the first time in years. I’m no longer waking up at 1 AM and staying awake for 2 hours, wondering why. I haven’t weighed myself (the point isn’t about weight loss), but I think I’m losing a little weight.

I’m going to keep going. I feel so much better, why wouldn’t I?

Create More, Consume Less

Has there ever been a better time in human history to be a curious person? Everything you could ever want to learn is right at your fingertips, a click away. It’s amazing to have the resources to find, learn, understand and connect to experts, especially when you really need them. And, of course, our brains love the stimulation and the spark that comes when we lock into a new concept.

So much to learn, so little time. Getting smarter every day.

But, we need balance in our lives. In all things. The risk in all the stuff out there – videos, apps, stories, tweets, reels, snaps, etc – is that “learning”, “research” turns into consumption, pure and simple. We can fill our heads with ideas and mental models and theories, but unless we’re doing something with the knowledge, we’re just letting it wash over us. “Learning” turns into distraction.

The flipside of consumption is creation. Making something new out of the materials we’ve found is a generative act that, when done adequately, results in a helpful contribution.

We have to put that knowledge into action, put it to work. Certainly, we can apply it in our daily jobs to sharpen our own abilities and improve the quality of the work we do. Better is to share the insights and ideas to make things better, easier, smarter, more rewarding for the folks around us. Ideally, we’re adding to the knowledge base by contributing insights, new methods and genuinely new ideas.

2022 is still just getting started. This year, I want to create more than I consume. Making music and art at home will keep me creative and engaged in the world. Creating for work – writing, podcasts, webinars, coaching – will give us a chance to push the ball of knowledge forward, and, hopefully, put us in touch with others who are trying to do the same thing.

Time is of the Essence

Tempus fugit. Every knows that in their head, but for some of us it creates a distinct, deep feeling. It’s January 1, 2022. Another year. Another clean slate, in a lot of ways. I can feel it in my body and in my gut that I’m not getting younger, that time is slipping away. I’m proud of what i’ve done with the time I’ve been given, but I want to make sure I make the most of the time I have left.

2021 was a shitshow in a lot of ways. People I love who died way too early, people i know and admire dealing with significant mental health issues, planetary crisis, democracy in peril, etc. I don’t have to list it out. We all experienced it.

I’ve got no new insight into time, but I do have a newfound sense of urgency, a new mindfulness about potential distractions.

Resolution #1 for 2021: Avoid distractions that take my time away from me.

Fable: The Book Club App for Social Reading

Really interesting funding story yesterday Fable: The Book Club App raised 20MM to build a platform for “book club” discussions. We shouldn’t be surprised, but there’s a whole phenomenon of “social reading” and a gaggle of booktokers (book-focused TikTokers). I was with a group of buddies talking wishing there was something like this for music.

Originally, i thought it was designed for existing book clubs, like the ones that happen in the real world over wine and not actually reading the book.

But, for Fable, you can see the product strategy:

  • Find engaging “hosts” – Leverage existing audiences (or their ability to build an audience) and incent them (revshare?) to build the platform
  • Engagement – Drive deeper engagement through prompts, questions, notifications
  • Repeat – Create milestones and “events” to create repeat usage
  • Revenue – Affiliate links via product sales and a premium experience

The promo materials on the homepage are weird, though: Sean Astin and Levar Burton mainly talking about reading and their love of books. How many shares did they get for that?

In Search of A Leadership Capability Stack

I just completed a project for a client that included a review of their digital marketing capabilities. Our job was to support the leadership team in developing a roadmap to improve a couple key marketing capabilities so they could go from “good” to “great” over the next couple years. It’s work every marketing leader should do.

As I met with leaders inside the org and as I tapped other folks I know outside the org for input, i realized the classic consultants dilemma: the roadmap is only the map. You might have the best plan in the world, but you need good drivers to reach the destination.

After we wrapped up the project, I knew the real work would come down to leadership: Decision making, maintaining prioritization, supporting the team, advising “up” and “around” all while delivering the “good manager” behaviors. Luckily, the folks we worked with were skilled, experienced leaders who were committed to their team and building the teams’ skills, first. (It was inspiring to hear them talk about growing the team’s abilities while rebuilding the capabilities). They are pros. They know how to do the job of leading a team inside a complex org.

But, i think leading the team is only half the battle. They also have to manage themselves.

I wish our work would have addressed need all leaders have today to build (or rebuild) their own personal leadership skills. Like any leaders of change, they’re going to need the “traditional” competencies a good manager/director/vp needs – Develop a vision, communicate the vision, create strategies, guide the team, build a plan, deliver results, etc – but they’re also going to need to be high performing at some personal leadership (or personal management) skills to maintain effectiveness. How do you fight politics? How do you recognize when someone else’s skills are getting in your way? How do you sustain the energy and effort to make real change happen?

Every leader today needs to build their own capacity to drive change and sustain their teams, otherwise the org and the work will suck the energy out of them.

What are the critical personal leadership capabilities a Director or VP needs to have today, to keep moving forward and not get crushed by change? What’s in your “stack” for leading yourself? Are you working on:

  • Staying centered – Intellectually, emotionally, in the present; When change and a dynamic life/work balance try to throw you off. Can you bring yourself back to the moment, in the present, and find “level”?
  • Staying committed – When there are reasons and pressure to change your mind; when politics or social dynamics may create the wrong sort of influence, do you have the ability to stay committed to your vision, to your decisions
  • Staying responsive – Knowing when to change direction, make a fast decision, pursue an emergent opportunity. Sometimes it means changing priorities. Sometimes it means stopping what’s not working
  • Creating Clarity – Having the ability to create a clear picture of the situation, to cut through ambiguity and “could be” or “Should be” to get at “what is”, and then create action. The ability to bring yourself (and possibly your team) back to focus.
  • Executive Functioning – Are you aware of how you make decisions and how you’re processing and acting on information. Are you responding intuitively all the time? Are you pre-processing and over- analyzing all the time? Do you know how your brain is or isn’t helping you over time?
  • Growing – Do you have the ability to add new skills, build new insights into your own abilities, take in feedback and modify what you’re doing to get better at it? Are you actively developing yourself? Making time to practice and review and reflect in an effort to build and grow?

I’m working on understanding my own “capabilities” stack as a leader/manager/individual. It’s definitely one of those “the more you know the less you know” situations. So, i’m trying to connect with more leaders to see how they are, in effect, managing themselves. I’m not looking for “hacks” or shortcuts, but i am looking for the ways these leaders are building a practice around their own development.

Ultimately, i wonder if I need my own Capability Maturity Model and my own roadmap, to get me from “current state” to my desired “future state”. Who do i hire to help me with that?

Beyond these skills, it’s also clear that every leader needs to have, for themselves, some assets to help them in their work. It’s the sort of obvious stuff – A clear vision for themselves, a trusted set of advisors, tools to help them learn and develop their skills, a sense of their own history, an actual plan to grow and develop – but that’s for another post.