Sunday, March 29, 2020

Self-Care for Now and Thinking about What we Know Right Now

Written by: Seema Rao

All, for the end of the month, I asked you what you're learning. I thought I'd share first, a bit of how I'm learning about myself. I went back to my roots this week, mapping out how I felt and was reacting. I made a little free brochure of my exercises, Self-Care for Now, and I'd love to hear if you have any you've enjoyed.

Now, onto the question:
Many of the tweets were about how we need to change, right now:
Others reminded us of our strengths but also the really tough place our field is in:

But perhaps the most telling to me were the ones about the ways we're trying our best and finding ways to cope:

No comment struck me as important as this last feels like the only path forward.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Museum Work Today: All the Feels All the Time

I’m not trying to make each week a Covid diary, but, well, it feels all-consuming. And I bet, many of you, like me, need resources, comfort, validation, and guidance.

For the last, some help with the path forward, I was recently asked to speak on a webinar. Many people more qualified than I joined the call as listeners. When I agreed, I honestly did it because I like the people who asked me—they’re good guys. Once I realized what I’d said yes to, I thought, I don’t really have much guidance to give other than my truths. It feels like realness is a gift worth giving right now. I’m sitting in my pajamas trying not to break into the wine most days. But in a way, maybe that’s the guidance we need. That all of us, even the leaders, are muddling through this. We’ve been ripped from one reality and forced into a new one. The rules keep changing and the fear seems continuous. It’s hard. And it’s okay to admit you’re not always okay with it; I sure as heck am not. We’re trying to make ends meet and hope we’re not meeting our end. This is REALLY hard, and it has affected me to the core. And it’s okay to admit this. It’s okay to show your bruises. And we need more people who lead by being truthful and intrepid and scared and nervous; people who still go to work, virtually, the next day.

The best guidance I’ve seen is often "small act" guidance. It’s the person who answers your question about zoom or the person who passes on their work at home policy.

Our reserved sector is just telling truths these days. And that’s a form of guidance. It’s the way that people share their real feelings on social. I’ve seen a number of these, like a tweet reminding us it might be hard to fully pivot to digital while mourning the loss of society as we know it. Damn straight, it is. And another person stopping to share tough things on some crazy thread about movies. It’s pretty tough to speak up for your truth to the world and 48 people you don’t know. That’s the kind of ordinary bravery that will help us survive. And to the others who engaged with her, and didn’t ignore the feelings, that’s also bravery. Also, to all the people in that thread having some fun, that is another form of bravery. There are many ways we’ll survive this. And at the start, there is no need to say one is wrong or not. They’re probably all important.

Our collective has given me comfort, though it is interesting, our field hasn’t necessarily. Like so many in this work, I’ve seen the bootstrap to wedding rental dichotomy of budgeting. The last ten years saw our work move toward the service sector as rentals become a very real part of our business model. As with the service sector, so our fate. It was the choice we made with the best intentions. Diversifying income streams made sense, on a level. But that choice also exacerbated our situation. But hindsight and time turners are not useful now. What's useful is to keep going.

I’ve been thinking recently about a very late evening in grad school when a friend and I were arguing about the Renaissance that could have been if it were not for the Black Death. Sure, there could have been an earlier Renassaince. Sure, it could have looked different. We've morphed ourselves into an alternate history. The future of our past was something we will never know. We need to stand tall in this present and get to another future. The hypothetical is for graduate school; the actual is for now. I hope we are not in the Black Death, but our society will be fundamentally transformed, if not due to the economic factors alone. Eventually, we need to say to ourselves as a field, 'what is the Renaissance you’re planning?'

Maybe that’s not the question for today though. Because to go back to comfort, I’d say let that question wait for a few days. Let the tough days be. The days when you learn of loss. The days when an original future disappears. Let the anger and frustration come out. Attend to the loneliness and helplessness. Confront new emotions and situations. Make part of your work and life be about existing in the now and taking care of yourself. Be kind to yourself and to each other. Assume everyone is living in a blender of emotions. Expect they've had a challenge. Allow for their emotions. Listen and care. Be as human and humane as you can. Get to the real, because it's all we have.

The future will come. We will have time for the Renaissance, but only if we make it through. And, given how resilient our field is, I know we can.

Now what? Here are some actions that can keep us moving forward: 
1. Some fun and games:
Most of us in this field are insanely resourceful. We are hardworking to a fault, (maybe take that down a notch.) We’re as smart as our better paid friends in other professions. The work we do matters. While donations are going down, global interest in museums seem a boom industry. People need us to lead the much needed healing that will need to come. And we will be able to help guide that. But perhaps, we’ll find in our 40 days in our deserted places a different way out, a way that makes this work not so precarious and not so hard. Perhaps our future will be brighter. Luckily many of us now have the time to think that future into a reality.

For now we can only do this alone, together. Let’s find ways to connect. Ed Rodley (with Koven Smith) have a wonderful idea, a global drinking about museums. I’m leading #MuseumGames with Mar Dixon, and we’re here to help you do games and hope you’ll join our weekly games.

2. I invite you to take to every platform you have to advocate for financial resources for our sector and org. Be the look so many dads are on FB. Keep up the story and make it personal. I wrote something and I got scores of likes, but other people's shares of it had fewer. Why? Bc my own friends and family like me, and are liking the message bc of me. Your dad doesn’t know me and could care less about becoming a member of a museum in Ohio.

 3. Let’s start a thread of resource documents. I’m going to start with mine about closures, with a caveat...PLEASE update reopen dates and delete out of date info. It will help all of us understand what our peer's most recent communications on their plans is. These dates will be changing. Let’s make the doc a living document to help us make informed decisions. Then go to twitter and add other useful resources to the feed.

4. Finally, here is a call for submissions that can help everyone:
Call for Participants: Museum Digital COVID-19 Research Study
We are living through history. Around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic is reshaping society. When Americans began practicing "social distancing" and following orders to shelter-in-place, museums and cultural organizations moved quickly to cease public visitation. But even as our institutions closed their physical doors, we have opened digital windows. We have adopted online tools to continue delivering on our missions, serving our communities, and engaging our audiences.

To document the beginning of this new chapter, professionals from across the sector have begun collaborating on a cross-institutional study. The working title of this research is "Effects of COVID-19 on the social and digital media of American Museums." The objectives are to create a record of this moment to inform planning for future emergencies, and document emerging practices.

This research will collect and aggregate metrics from standard digital reporting tools, then report on the trends uncovered. We will examine a variety of interactions such as web traffic, searches, video views, downloads of learning resources and kids content, virtual tour visits, and social media sentiment. This project follows a previous cross-institutional study on the motivations of museum website visitors. (Link:

Right now, we are building the cohort. We seek cultural institutions of all sizes, with collaborators of varied job titles across digital, social, education, curatorial, and marketing. While our focus will primarily be on US-based organizations, international organizations are welcome to contribute.

Express your interest in this research via the sign-up form. Please join us. (Link:

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

We've Gotten This Far

This month, I’d planned to have a celebration of the fellow people in museums, including your coworkers and colleagues you’ve never worked with. I set up some questions, and emailed people around the field. Then, a pandemic descended. In an odd way, it turned out to be an exemplar of what I was thinking of when I thought of the importance of colleagues I’ve never worked with.

As perhaps everyone knows, there is a virus actively propagating in every community in the country. The previous sentence is not hyperbolic. It is a public health crisis, and it is real. In this time when convenings have become treacherous, museums, zoos, and aquariums, as a collective, possess much of the affordable public space in the world. Their audiences also skew heavily toward the highest risk group for the infection.  

Last week, many in leadership understood we as a field could make the choice to help our community. Unlike franchise companies with a home office and national outposts, museums don’t necessarily have national resources to help them make choices like if they should close during “unprecedented times”. At the same time, arts and culture employs 4 times more people than the coal industry. Closing museums could have real impact on visitors but also strongly impacts on the economy.

Faced with such choices, museums did an amazing thing. They started calling each other, directors to directors, and front of house people to front of house people. Late last week, I was hearing from people around the globe with their concerns and their solutions. I reached out to contacts for work at home policies and email procedures. I heard multiple managers talking about how to lead from afar. The social media folks were in full-on energizer bunny mode behind the scenes.

We were all faced with some of the realest decisions of our careers, and we decided it’s better to do this one together. The shared google doc of closures blew up around Thursday afternoon, and in looking at it, I thought, maybe for the first time in my career, we are saving lives. The choice to close wasn’t easy. I read directors note after director’s note on websites about tough choices and challenging decisions. Our sector might employ large numbers but our budgets aren’t like the Microsoft and Google’s of the world. But, even in the face of challenge, museums made this choice.

For those of you reading it, much of what I said above is not news. I’m mostly telling that part of the story to set up this statement of gratitude. Thank everyone who helped us collectively make this choice. I thank everyone who worked on the many shared documents that helped us construct our public statements. I thank every person who shared how they were going to handle this crisis with our community. I thank all of you on social who shared honestly, and unsparingly, how your management was handling this. And, I particularly thank my peers in #musesocial; we’re a tough, funny breed. Despite being part of many museum committees and shared experiences, I never felt as much like a global field as last week. We were all in it together, sharing resources and trying our best. 

I point this out, because we all know our sector is at the beginning of something with this situation. I used to think of our field as a collective that cares for the past to share with the present in order to make a better future. And, I still that, certainly. But our future is spreading out in front of us as many divergent paths. If only museum professionals got to choose the fork ahead. Instead, the choices will be made by our donors and patrons, by our civic bodies and government offices. The future of museums is not just in our hands. I think everyone in this sector can fight the good fight. Everyone should show up at their Zoom meetings in ball gowns or pjs, putting in a solid day’s work. We should all help each other weather this storm. We should amplify the quiet voices and share the successes amidst our unfortunate circumstances. And we should take time away from this insanity. We should prioritize wellness. I say to all of us in our sector: You've done a good job. You've survived some tough moments. You're going to be okay.

But this is not a fight for us alone. We in our sector are not going to come out of this through our efforts alone. No social campaign alone will ensure the future of museums (#musesocial is good but come one). This fight is one that our communities will need to make with and for us. We’ve closed our doors for their benefit, and now society will hopefully be alongside us when we triumphantly open again.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The People at Work

I had something different planned for today. I suspect many of you could say the same.

COVID-19, the non-catchy short-form for CoronaVirus, ran roughshod over most of our days, hiding in emails and sneaking into almost all our plans. Abundance was in full effect in the corporate emails that filled my box. Caution was something I even found myself typing all afternoon.

This month's topic was about the people who make up the ecosystem of work. Last week, I rambled about how work is a system. This week, I thought I'd share the stage with others to hear their ideas about their colleagues. And, I will.

But, COVID-19 gave a useful coda to last week's post. If anything shows the interconnectedness of human behavior, infectious disease certainly can. With the near-global diffusion of cell phones, there are very few adults who don't know there is a virus on the loose. Collective meetings are ideal places for the virus to proliferate. People holding collective gathering spaces are working hard to make the best call about how to proceed. As one site moves to cancel, it sets into motion even more cancellations. The decision-making is happening like a Rube Goldberg, one event after another. And, we are all working through our choices together. There are probably plenty of workers right now trying to make these tough decisions, maybe even putting their health at risk. I appreciate them. Though, I also appreciate all the workers who are doing particularly hard tasks, keeping public spaces clean for example.

And, then onto the people at work...this whole month's topic started, because of a colleague. Early in the morning, I usually chat with a fellow early bird at my office. We were recently discussing some fairly banal, but important, issues about construction near my office. I've spent most of my working life at the mercy of city and state road construction, as Ohio seems to always been in repair ;>. As someone who doesn't always listen to local traffic, I was thankful for his insight. Much later, I realized most of us at work have these sorts of off-handed interactions with people--not exactly about work but incredibly important to your ability to do your job.

We often spend more time with peers than friends or family. They can make your lives more fun, easier, or livelier. They can certainly sink your day or make it shine. While I often read about manager-subordinate interactions, I don't often hear about peer interactions. Enjoy some tales that illustrate some of the ways peers make our workplaces worth it. 

What is something you learned from a peer? 
From time to time, step back and take distance from your projects, having a bird’s eye perspective helps to understand dynamics and situations that being immersed in the work don’t.  Amparo Leyman Pino 

“’Always assume goodwill.’  It's actually one of the first things that Dr. Gretchen Sorin, Director and Distinguished Professor at the Cooperstown Graduate Program, told my cohort in our first week of our MA program.  That advice has served me incredibly well over the last seven years, and it frames how I try to approach problems at my museum.  We're all on the same team, and we're just facing obstacles and doing our best to overcome them.  It also buys a lot of credibility among my peers, I think--people are more willing to work with you when they know you'll always give them the benefit of the doubt if they make a mistake.”  Fred Gold

"My mentor gave me a simple, but profound piece of advice as I started my career: recognize the people who work with you and acknowledge them for who they are and what they're doing for the museum. I manage docents, and I make sure I thank them for their service as much as I can.  But that also extends to my professional colleagues, too.  I work with incredibly caring and talented people, and it's important to recognize how vital they are to their communities and the museum." Andrew Palamara

“While you may find yourself in situations beyond your control (or above your paygrade), you can always control how you respond. Let your actions bring good, impact change, and make clear what you stand for, wherever you are. I think about that affirmation e v e r y day. I've leaned on it when establishing boundaries at work, claiming agency as an emerging museum professional, figuring out what exactly work/life balance looks like... I hope it can bring others some moments of clarity and action, too!” Andrea Ledesma 

So what about you? What's something you learned from a peer? Tag me so I can add your thoughts to this month’s summary post @artlust on twitter, @_art_lust_ on IG, & @brilliantideastudiollc on FB. 

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

The Systems of Work

This month’s topic is about the systems of people who come together to make work happen.

I once sat next to a man who worked at a museum about transportation. I’d been starving, and we were being served a delicious hot lunch (Thank you Pennsylvania Museums Association.) As I stuffed my face, the person beside me shared some information about train schedules, routes, and systems. After I was sated, we moved into a conversation about flex work. He asked me about how I ensured honesty in my teams when I told them that I trusted them to work their hours (rather than micromanaging). Recently, I’ve been reflecting on that conversation often.

Complex, largely mechanical systems are easy to measure in terms of productivity and efficiency. The supply chain is itself a field because the way goods move through our global markets are at the core of our consumer society. There are also pretty easy ways to see when the supply chain has problems. If you don’t get a delivery of apples, you know something went wrong.

In museum systems, the product and the means of production are intellectual and invisible. Many forms of labor are hard to quantify. In an old job, my team was responsible for tours. If someone was sick, I’d find myself in the galleries giving a talk on “Animal Ceramics” as a moment’s notice. The original speaker might have spent 10 hours getting ready, and I took 10 minutes. Of course, as I said last month, I had a decade of experience to draw from, so the visitors still had a fine experience.
With the complexity of work, pain points often emerge that seem hard to fix. People feel as if, “I keep saying that and nothing happens.” These issues occur though because the underlying interrelationships aren’t clearly and critically considered. For example, let’s look at one of my favorite topics. Think of the times something breaks down. A change is made in a label, and maybe in the collections database, but neither of those systems is connected to the website. Some power visitor who pays their $50 checks the website, and then goes into the galleries, finding the error. She emails the director. The director doesn’t like having to sort through this particular type of challenge and sends it back to the curator, who says but I told them about the change. (Now before I go any farther, I made up this scenario—I don’t want any of my present or past colleagues to be implicated :>)

The above scenario is at its heart about systems. In museums, with our low budgets, we often don’t have automated systems and as such we make human workarounds that are often made on an individual or ad hoc level. For example, I know that the room will only be set up if I had a print floor plan to X person at X time. These Band-Aid solutions work fine until people leave or the system gets another change (like your organization implements a facilities request system that sends some floor plans to the facilities staff).

We fix the problem at hand rather than trying to solve the whole system that causes the problems. Why? Training is likely part of it. We’re all often trained in a specific field, but not in how to run a department that accomplishes the work of that field. Time is another. It takes months to critically interrogate how work gets done and why. And, the benefits of such a look of one’s internal systems are not usually seen in the short term.

But, why do this? For each other. Work is a group activity. It’s about the other people in the system (visitors and co-workers alike). Understanding how you do work and why can help the work get easier and more efficient. You can find yourself in a better place to work.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

The up and downside of positivity

For the end of the month of positivity, I thought I’d share my own set backs, first.

I’ve always thought of myself a lightweight. Certainly that term can be dersive, leveled at someone with less than and not enough of whatever qualities as being valued. But, for me, it’s a certain type of lightness. I am a flitter, in and out of conversations, in and out of organizations. Once many years ago, my boss noted in a speech that I always have a broad smile on my face. I’m glad to be known that way.

Like all people, my insides broil and burble with the stresses of life. We all have things, as my boss said recently. We all have parents and friends. Some of us have children. We all hope and dreams. We all have boundaries on our times and our abilities. We all feel less sometimes.

The last few weeks have been particularly trying for me at work, in that a key person left, and in the interim, I found myself drowning in emails. I could feel the cracks in my exterior as they happened. I could feel the light in my eyes flicker, if not dim slightly. Personal things only make the cracks feel like deep fissures. The aches of life and work seem to make the fissures in your facade expand, like wood cracking from moisture.

Positivity isn’t about denying bad things. It’s about knowing you can change them or weather them. The world is neither all good or all bad. But, the world you see and react to is as good as you can make it.

And to end this month of positivity, I thought we could all think about all the amazing things are jobs teach us.

One evening not so long ago, I was sitting in the lobby of work watching a printmaking demonstration. The artist was masterful not only in her technical skill but also in her way with people. As I sat there, two colleagues came by.

We sat for a few minutes watching and chatting. Something came up about food trucks and curb clearance. I began speaking fairly cogently about chassis and disposing of oil. My one colleague, Katelyn, asked how I came upon this knowledge. I’d started a studio van once, I related. Another colleague, Reggie, then began to tell an amazing story of how she found herself cutting an enormous pumpkin at a state fair. I wished I could relate the enormity of the pumpkin or lessons learned, but alas, she was the one who lived that particular experience.

After we all shared more stories of “our other duties as assigned” triumphs, I started to think about how many interesting things we all learn at work. Often these odd assignments feel draining and take us off the path. Finding a balance in those is important, no doubt. But celebrating those little pieces of knowledge and skills as positive can also be helpful to your wellness.

Circuitous paths can be fun or at least funny. Off-topic can help you find new topics or refine your thoughts on the original one. If nothing else, you’ll get yourself a great story.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Positively Social

I was planning to write a post this week about positivity in management. And, I think I will, eventually. I have many thoughts, and a few notes on my dark forays into, well, darkness. But, instead, this week, I want to talk about the positivity of social media.

Listen, I’m not Pollyanna about much, and certainly not social media. It’s a time suck. It’s false social and often poor media. It’s disjointed and siloing. It’s hateful and harmless. All that bad exists in social. But there are bright spots of good. That’s what I want to showcase this week.
Work for many museum managers has gotten real recently, I suspect. If your fiscal year i
begins July 1, you’ve gotten past the blurry fun of the first half of the year and moved into budgeting. You are looking at spreadsheets. You’re trying to make tough choices. It’s keeping you up at night.
At the same time, if you’re in this field as both an avocation and a vocation, you can’t help but hear the constant drumbeat of change. The quicksand of philanthropy is underneath, and our footing feels precarious. I’ve buttonholed more than one colleague to try to talk about real solutions for salary equity. The problems in this field are real, and so many of us want to be the ones to solve them. Though, these solutions will only occur if we talk more.

I’m so lost as to how we’re going to get out of the mess that is the equitable support of arts and culture in the age of billionaires. It’s a big ole mess, frankly. That said, I know I’m solving this with others.

Enter social media. I started a conversation about salary as a percentage of operating costs. Mostly, I was trying to understand how to make sense of the field. I wanted some outside perspective. So many people responded, like Michelle Moon of the Tenement and Bruce Wyman of USD-Mach Design Consulting. Their conversations with me helped me continue and expand my ideas. It might have been a moment in their days but it had a big impact on me. I suspect many of us have dropped a note on social, without much thought, that had an impact on others. It might not be social like your coffee meetings with live colleagues at work, but it is a social form of meaning-making. I am truly appreciative of this resource.

Which brings me to the larger comment about social media. Museums are a very small sector (though larger than coal-mining!). The scale might feel suffocating. It’s hard to be in this a while and not know everyone. But, it’s also wonderful. It’s great to be in this a while and know everyone. The power of connections is what makes this whole crazy fieldwork. I suspect, and tried to test this on Twitter, but didn’t quite hit it right, everyone is about three degrees from everyone else. 

Think about that. Everyone can find someone else who can help them within three degrees. I’m not talking about a popularity contest. Being cool or popular isn’t the point. Instead, it’s about being three degrees from someone who can help you with your thoughts. Or being three degrees from someone you can help. We’re in a position, largely due to social, where we can make collective action happen every day on social media. Art Museum Transparency is one good example of this; as are #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson and #Museumsarenotneutral.

What are the ways you can make a positive impact, one social connection at a time? 

Next week, we’re going to talk about how the quirky parts of our job can be positive. Do you have a story to share about something positive that resulted from doing the “other duties as assigned” parts of your job? Tag me so I can add your thoughts to this month’s summary post @artlust on twitter, @_art_lust_ on IG, & @brilliantideastudiollc on FB. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Positivity starts with you

Pollyanna was one of my godmother’s favorite movies. It seemed a bit like a fable, this girl who looked for the good in everything. I hadn’t spent enough time with people to be think it was an unreachable fiction. But the world depicted was so divorced from my own life as to be basically as unlikely as ET.

Years later though, I remember hearing someone call another colleague a Pollyanna. I was surprised by their derision. Pollyanna wasn’t hurting anyone with her behavior. She was just trying to do her best playing the cards she was dealt. But, then I found myself interacting with the forced cheeriness of “I’m happy” colleagues. They wouldn’t speak negativity because they didn’t want to take sides, say. Or they would only talk about the successes, say. There were also the people whose idea of forecasting the future and budgeting was basically storytelling and conjuring. These were the people who call problems  “opportunities.” These folks use positivity as a coping mechanism and a shield. They often project, and even push, their attitude onto others. They don’t dig deeper into negativity. But like so many facades, the ugliness underneath remains. Potemkin villages don’t flourish; they just shine in the moment of inspection.

Why do people do this? Seeing the negative, voicing the reasons for such issues, and then finding solutions are all really hard to do. It’s hard to be willing to speak truth to power; it’s even harder to speak your own truths. You might be fooled by others (I know I often am), but the people many are most fooled by are themselves. So, people honest with problems is hard. Now, honesty is not negativity, though they can be kissing cousins. Honesty is about sharing good and bad.

Negativity is dwelling in the bad. They can sound like the same language. The difference with negativity is that it persists, permutating and propagating itself. Negativity has a velocity that can feel explosive. And, negativity loves power vacuums. So, the so-called Pollyannas often avoid negativity, in the way someone might avoid a potentially addictive drug.  Negativity feels good, at once a release of energy and people validating your fear.

But like a reformed sinner, I know the cost to your soul of negativity in the work place. The toxicity can erode your well-being. It fuels you, while at the same taking energy away from you. Negativity can eventually colonize your mind, and like a virus, just feed itself.

So, how do you not fall prey to the pull of negativity but also not be a Pollyanna? I don’t know if I have a universal answer. But, for me, it’s a bit about vigilance. You are the only one who can remind yourself to not be negative. You are also the person who has to remind yourself to be realistic. You might tell me that you can do your best at being positive, but you are mired in a toxic workplace. 

And, I’ll tell you the fight is real. I’ve been there. But, the best thing I did, and I had the means to do so, was to leave. I also made the very conscious choice not to continue to let my mental processes go back to that place. Old mental habits feel better than your most comfortable shoes. They’re well-worn paths are where your mind, if not trained, will take you. You have to push your mind to other, more positive paths. And, putting up a façade of positivity won’t keep you off those dark paths. Your mind will take you there when you’re in your quiet moments or when the stress short circuits you.

Try this. On a given day, measure your reactions. How many of them were realistic, but positive? How many were hopeful? How many were about growth and improvement? How many of them were defeatist or negative? Be honest with yourself on these answers. After you tally your responses, try to make one more positive reaction tomorrow. Give yourself a couple weeks of being a bit more positive. Then assess how you feel. If this move toward positivity feels good, what does it hurt? Who knows—you might be glad of the change.

Pollyanna wasn’t a fool. Being positive is just as easy as not. If you aren’t pushing people into false positivity or shaming people for their level of negativity, your positivity can make doing work easier. And, I do believe there is plenty of good in every work day if you look for it. As Pollyanna said, there is something about everything that you can be glad about, if you keep hunting long enough to find it.” You are the one who can find sources of gladness in your work life.

Is positivity part of your work process? Tag me so I can add your thoughts to this month’s summary post @artlust on twitter, @_art_lust_ on IG, & @brilliantideastudiollc on FB. 

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Positivity, Time, and Work

Last week turned into an empirical study in my own personal goal for the year (being kind to myself). I had written most of last week’s post at the beginning of the month. I only needed to dump it from the temporary file into blogger, but I couldn’t find the five minutes. Sure, there were five minutes somewhere. But, mentally, I just couldn’t. And, I could have beaten myself up. I could have thought of the scores of loyal readers, most of whom predate my authorship. I could have worried that people might be waiting for my post. Or I could do what I said in January. I could let it go. I could give myself a break. 

So, instead of stressing, I’m going to combine the last post for January and the first one of February. The topic for February will be about work and positivity. How do we harness positivity to make our own work better? 

For me, one huge step is to be confident in my own abilities, and honest in my weaknesses. Last week reminded me of a weakness. I can ignore work as easily as I can do it. In ignoring work, or procrastinating, I add new labor to my docket. I add the labor of worrying about the work I haven’t done. The worry becomes a shadow looming over me as I do whatever other actions I’m doing with my time. Now, last week, I forced myself not to worry. And, I did a pretty good job. But, it took real effort to stop worrying about undone work. There are times when doing the small task, like just finishing up this post, would be far preferable to the ghost labors of procrastination. 

Positivity in work is about making choices. Which tasks do I have to do to be less stressed? Which issues can I ignore because they don’t need my attention? Which elements of work are out of my control? What elements of this task can I control? When can I enjoy the fruits of my failures, compost for successes? 

Making good choices requires knowing yourself. For January, I was originally going to write about a practical goal I’ve set myself for this year. I’ve been trying to improve my work processes. You’re often the best person to improve yourself. As part of that task, I’m trying what I accomplish each week, and marking down how much of my time is spent doing each type of task (meetings, email, etc). 

I also tried to think critically about how long it takes me to accomplish something. I decided to do an experiment recently. In my early career, time was vast and free, or at least it felt like it. My energy was equally easily replenishable. I’d finish things right. No shortcuts were taken! Extra effort gains extra merit. But as it turns out, there isn’t really extra credit in the workplace. 

For example, two curators can be asked to write the same number of labels. One gets finished in ten hours and the other in twenty. Neither gets more credit than the other (if they’ve co-curated the show). Furthermore, lavishing ten extra hours on labels doesn’t ensure having labels that are twice as good. 

Why? Museum work includes many intellectual labors that draw on deep reserves of knowledge and years of experience. The person putting in ten hours from the example above might actually be putting in 10 hours plus 30 years of reading in the field. The person putting in 20 hours might have only 10 years of reading in the field. So, with 3 times of background, the first writer becomes twice as efficient. That said, experience doesn’t necessarily help. Some people are so mired in their process, and with years of using the same system, frozen in their ways, they can’t get faster at a task. Time, therefore, is not an indicator of quality. There are those people who say but I spent 20 hours on those labels—they can’t be half as good. There is no simple metric to understand how to consider efficiency and effectiveness in intellectual work. A good label is insanely hard to quantify. Just as porn was famously hard to define, good writing is easy to enjoy and hard to measure. 

Good writers are hard to manufacture. I’ve long asked applicants to write a short label based on a catalog entry. (In case you’re wondering, I shred the output after the job is hired. Their intellectual output should not be used for my org’s gain.) I did this because credentials often inveigle hiring managers. Your old prejudices and hang-ups, your own beliefs about credentials, are hanging out in your mind, no matter how you try to avoid it. Then, when you look through resumes, your unconscious brain might move you to a certain candidate. It’s hard then to say you’ve looked at apples and apples. You’re looking at a Harvard apple vs a Community College apple, say. Over the years, I found good writers didn’t come from a single background or training. They weren’t similar in temperament or attitude. Some people can just write. Some can’t. 

So, what does this aside about writing have to do with my experiment? Understanding work, time, and efficiency in museums aren’t easy or universal. Everyone’s process is different, and if you want to understand work in your organization, you should start with you. 

Over the holidays, as it was my first at my new job, I didn’t take a vacation. My boss was away, and I needed to be around. In this quiet period, I did three wildly different types of tasks. I performed an analysis of my organization’s attendance at programs for the last five years, I created the decorations for our new music series, and I worked on labels for an exhibition in our interpretation laboratory.

Data analysis isn’t strictly my job, but I’ve been asking everyone to start using data to help inform decision-making. (Notice I didn’t say drive). I work with a couple of data-obsessed folks, so my analysis was somewhat easy. Everything was at my fingertips, and I’m a bit obsessed with using excel as it was meant to be employed. 45 minutes later, I had some solid graphs and a couple of zip code maps to pour over. I made some quick conclusions and walked away. Later, as I was sending my findings to a colleague, I told them the exercise took me 1 hour. The active time was one hour, but there was that percolating time. It was as critical as my active time. In the workplace, we often don’t allot for these interstitial moments. Putting in the time to ruminate can be challenging, but in the end, essential. Smart workers often chunk rote tasks and/ or various types of tasks in order to allow space for deep thought. Also, it’s important to remember in organizations, work is often accrued time. I wouldn’t have been able to have that time, or data if a couple people hadn’t put in the initial labor to compile my source numbers. So, my 1 hour of work was also someone else’s 20 hours of work. Was all this time worth it? More on that later. 

After the data crunching, and before my analysis, I spent time preparing decorations for an event. It has been a long time since I made things. In an old job, I used to make all sorts of things. I’ve probably made more coasters than I’ll ever need. Most of the jewelry I wear are old samples. And I feel like if everything I’ve screenprinted in my life were lined up, it’d stretch coast to coast. In other words, I’ve got pretty good muscle memory and a great facility with scissors. It took me 20 hours to decorate 20 giant lanterns, make 20 T-shirts, print 4 large rolls of paper, print 80 tote bags, and make 12 banners. Now, I’m excluding the time in bed when I dreamed up the image, the hour to make the image for the screens (done by a colleague), the two hours to burn the screens (done by a dear friend), the half-hour of driving to get the screens and back. Experience not only helped me be efficient but in some ways, it helped me be effective. I chose an evergreen image we can use for years. I focused on big decorations so my efforts were maximized.

But experience also led me down some less smart paths. Work is often about patterns. Imagine you date a crummy person. Rationally, in the end, you say, no more bad people. Two decades later, you might find yourself recalling dozens of crummy people in your past. Museums have a lot of tasks that are terrible dates. For events, for example, you might decide you must have this particular set up. Sure it will mean you lose a weekend, and your porch will stink of indigo dye, but it’s worth it. The mission is worth it, you think. Well, friend, like that bad date, the mission doesn’t care about you. And your choice (I’m looking at you, Seema) was a bad one. I’d gotten into the bad habit of excusing the overage of hours for events and fell back into that pattern. (Though at a particular moment in December, a wiser me stepped in. We ended up with some indigo blue bags but more white ones.) I chose to spend time with my kids over wasting time getting the right blue. 

That’s the thing about work. Every single element is a choice. You might say I need to spend a good deal of time reading and searching before I write that label. You might feel you do your best writing twenty minutes before the deadline. You might think you have to write something out longhand first. Those are all choices. None of those choices are inherently wrong.

As to the last task, the labels, I’ve spent countless hours and none. At first assessment, I’m like the person who took 10 hours to write my labels. (I certainly feel twice as old as many). I’m a fast and slow writer. When I finally get to writing, I’m fast with the keys. But there are hours, weeks even, of time falling into every rabbit hole of research I find. I probably could change this method, but I’m old and I’ve never been good with tricks. Instead, I’ve chosen to set up systems to accommodate my process. I do things that are fast for me, like data crunching and silkscreening, by rote. I choose to sandwich rote tasks with deep tasks to give me time for both. I choose to allot a specific, very short, amount of time for tasks that don’t give me a high yield. 

In the end, I think the prepping data was a good use of my time particularly given that did the deep thinking part while silkscreening. My decorations were a mixed bag. The production was a good effort, but the batch dying wasn’t. While the products are a lovely blue, the products will not appreciably improve the event and as such it’s a poor allocation of my time. 

Finally, the hours I spend thinking about writing are an imperative use of my time. Ideas can be self-propagating but slippery. Their trajectory is hard to track; their path tortuous but exhilarating. In a knowledge field, ideas are our ore. We need them to fuel every part of our organizations and to propel our visitor-engagement. Does my scanning Blaire’s Moskovitz’s regular feature on museum collection connections to award attire look like goofing off? Sure. But then, hours later as I wait for a meeting when her thread sends me down a rabbit hole of colors, design and the science of looking, and then I find myself reenergized to write labels, I know that I wasn’t a detour. It was the scenic route—the richer, more enjoyable path. 

For me, time has an eggs/ basket quality. With these three tasks as my baskets, I decided the labels would take the most time, and that’s where I spent my time. 

Work processes aren’t a given or immutable. Reflecting on the time a task takes and if that is the right amount of time can appreciably improve the way you work and therefore how you feel about work. In the end, you might need to work longer. You might need to do things a certain way you perceive as right. And that is your choice. I made the choices that made me feel the most positive about my work and my output. 

What are some choices you make at work to help you feel good about your labors? Tag me so I can add your thoughts to this month’s summary post @artlust on twitter, @_art_lust_ on IG, & @brilliantideastudiollc on FB. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

NonProfit Work and Us

Alison Koch shared these thoughts originally as part of Museum Computer Network's 2019 Ignite. As I sat in an aerie above the stage, I DM'd her to ask her to share her remarks here. They were that true and that powerful. I hope you enjoy them. 

Written by Alison Koch

I think us non-profit folks have a particularly complicated relationship with work.

Mission statements can quickly come to justify all sorts of bad habits and behavior, both as perpetrated upon us by leadership and peers, as well as the ways we often end up treating ourselves. I mean, we’re not not curing cancer. Everything feels like it’s on fire, sometimes because the rainforest actually is!

So, on the one hand, we have a meaningful north star – a noble mission – but on the other hand, we are struggling with a unique existential crisis, limited compensation, and sky-high expectations.

How might we re-imagine the future of mission-based work?

First, I think that museums need to think about their staff as a stakeholder group worthy of just as much time, attention, energy, and evaluation as visitors or donors.

What would it look like if we investigated staff turnover with as much rigor as we courted lapsed donors and members? We love a comment card from a visitor, but how can we gather better, honest feedback from staff early and often before they quit or leave the sector? And how do you act on that information to save the relationship? An exit interview is too late.

We also know we can’t just sit around and wait for a magical top-down change. How can we as individuals take steps to make this meaningful work feel like a sustainable choice in the long-run?

First, please stop beating yourself up. Don’t let the mission be a weapon you wield against yourself. You are doing enough, I promise.

You don’t have to start at “Yes”. Get better at saying “No.” Or “Okay, but I need until June.” If you are forced to stretch or sprint unsustainably, speak up. Document your concern. Explain. Advocate. Don’t just drink your coffee quietly while the room burns down, because you are also flammable.

What small thing can you normalize? What big thing can you break and rebuild? With whatever power you have, do something that makes other people stop and say, “Wait, we can do that?” Every inch we can move in the right direction course-corrects leadership and sets an example for our peers. It’s no small feat.

I’m asking you to stay. We need you. You are too important not to be a part of the future of our work. If we all leave, there’s no one to show us how to do it differently.

Alison Koch is a digital storyteller, technical product manager, design thinker, dog mama, and perpetual American Sign Language student, currently serving as the inaugural Digital Content Producer and strategist at Playwrights Horizons theater in New York City.

First Image credit: Paru Ramesh

The Future of Mission-Based Work

Usually, I'm really positive and optimistic. In many ways, I want to believe the future is what we can make. Though, sometimes when I do literature review for projects, I find myself depressed on the future of the field. There are so many possible futures that would suck. How do we make sure the future is the one we want?

Alison Koch offers her thoughts about this. I included these ideas in a month about wellness, because as you see from her remarks, the future is about each of us.

Written by Alison Koch

I think us non-profit folks have a particularly complicated relationship with work.

Mission statements can quickly come to justify all sorts of bad habits and behavior, both as perpetrated upon us by leadership and peers, as well as the ways we often end up treating ourselves. I mean, we’re not not curing cancer. Everything feels like it’s on fire, sometimes because the rainforest actually is!

So, on the one hand, we have a meaningful north star – a noble mission – but on the other hand, we are struggling with a unique existential crisis, limited compensation, and sky-high expectations.

How might we re-imagine the future of mission-based work?

First, I think that museums need to think about their staff as a stakeholder group worthy of just as much time, attention, energy, and evaluation as visitors or donors.

What would it look like if we investigated staff turnover with as much rigor as we courted lapsed donors and members? We love a comment card from a visitor, but how can we gather better, honest feedback from staff early and often before they quit or leave the sector? And how do you act on that information to save the relationship? An exit interview is too late.

We also know we can’t just sit around and wait for a magical top-down change. How can we as individuals take steps to make this meaningful work feel like a sustainable choice in the long-run?

First, please stop beating yourself up. Don’t let the mission be a weapon you wield against yourself. You are doing enough, I promise.

You don’t have to start at “Yes”. Get better at saying “No.” Or “Okay, but I need until June.” If you are forced to stretch or sprint unsustainably, speak up. Document your concern. Explain. Advocate. Don’t just drink your coffee quietly while the room burns down, because you are also flammable.

What small thing can you normalize? What big thing can you break and rebuild? With whatever power you have, do something that makes other people stop and say, “Wait, we can do that?” Every inch we can move in the right direction course-corrects leadership and sets an example for our peers. It’s no small feat.

I’m asking you to stay. We need you. You are too important not to be a part of the future of our work. If we all leave, there’s no one to show us how to do it differently.

Alison gave these remarks as part of her 2019 Ignite Talk for Museum Computer Network.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

On Staff Wellbeing

This month we're talking about wellbeing. Last week, I told you some of my thoughts about my own wellbeing plan for the year.

Before I turn the blog over, I'm going to tell you the truth. I'm a workaholic. It might be obvious, given a full-time job, consulting practice, and weekly blog. I've thought a great deal about myself. How much of this is healthy? From my own side, I have so much energy, if I don't find plenty to keep my brain busy, I can go awry. But, as a manager, what does it show for my staff?

While I've always encouraged my teams to take time for themselves. I haven't always done this myself. Recently, I've really tried to turn off completely. I sent an email at 6 PM on 12/20 to a contractor. I received an out of office saying that emails received until 1/6 would be deleted. Now, I'm not sure I'd want to make people resend their emails, but the impetus of that out of office was to create a system of sanity when you return from holiday. In many ways, that's the key to wellness and work for me. Make choices that don't make it harder for you in the long run. So, if the pile of emails after vacation is stressful, then find ways not to have that.

This thoughtful approach to work and wellness is at the heart of the blog post for this week from Laura Crossley.


Written by Laura Crossley

Our wellbeing can affect how we feel about our lives, jobs, and relationships. It’s an essential part of us and something that is precious and needs to be cared for. Wellbeing at work can be affected by lots of factors, such as relationships with managers and colleagues, the amount of involvement people have with organizational issues and decision-making, job design and the level of control individuals have over their own work, work demands, and the acceptability of flexible working.

Writing on organizational resilience will tell you that staff wellbeing is important because it helps organizations; staff who feel good perform better, are more willing to go the extra mile, take fewer sick days, and are more likely to stay at an organization in the long-term. These are, of course, all great reasons to support the wellbeing of your staff. However, I’d argue this isn’t just about developing more resilient organizations; surely being nice to colleagues, showing kindness and empathy, and treating people with respect is basic human decency and ethically the right thing to do?

Self-care is important and it’s helpful to know the things we can do as individuals to boost our wellbeing but it’s not good enough to treat colleagues badly and think that’s okay because they can look after themselves. Employers and organizations have a moral and ethical responsibility to support the wellbeing of their staff and (in here in the UK, at least), a legal responsibility too.

So, as well as doing the basics of treating people with respect, what else can organizations do to support and promote staff wellbeing? As a starter, I’d suggest:

  • Put in place effective policies for managing people issues such as grievances and bullying, make sure staff are aware of these policies, and - crucially – ensure the policies are followed if complaints arise.
  • Give staff clear information about how to get wellbeing support inside and outside your organization. It shouldn’t be a chore to find out where to get advice and help.
  • Promote an environment where people feel as comfortable as possible talking about their mental health and how they are feeling.
  • Ensure jobs are reasonable and appropriate and give staff as much control as possible over their work. If you are a natural micromanager, I implore you to please consider the wellbeing of your staff and learn to resist the temptation to oversee every detail of someone’s job.
  • Empower, involve and value staff; ensure they feel comfortable about voicing concerns and include them, where possible, in decision-making. Communicate openly and often.
  • Encourage people to take breaks and holidays. Staff are people, not machines.
  • Cultivate a positive email culture. Do not expect people to respond to you when they are not working.
  • Invest in training for managers to help them manage empathetically and in a people-centered way.
  • Celebrate individual and team achievements and say thank you – it’s really easy and makes a big difference.

These are just some ideas and I’d love to hear what works for you and people in your organization.

We talk a lot in the sector about how the work we do has a positive impact on the wellbeing of visitors and participants. We congratulate ourselves on a job well done. But if your personal and organizational practices are negatively affecting staff wellbeing, I’d say there’s not a lot to celebrate. If we are truly to become a sector that promotes positive wellbeing, staff wellbeing must be made a priority.

Laura is Head of Content at the National Football Museum, Manchester, UK, where she is responsible for overseeing collections, exhibitions, learning and community work. Laura is on Twitter at @lfcrossley

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Wellness and Personal Intentions

This month, the topic is wellness. Self-care is part of wellness, certainly. But wellness is bigger than yourself. In a workplace, everyone’s individual self care impacts the overall wellness of the organization. One person burned out behaviors can start a tidal wave of negativity through an organization. (That said, that burnout is likely a result of poor structures in the org; but that’s a topic for another month.) So, this month, the topic is thinking about wellness individually and how it impacts work.
January is the traditional month for imagining a better you. It’s the time when you focus on good intentions, and then at the first stumble, you start feeling like a failure. It’s a month of high hopes and low vibes.
So, let’s spend this month talking about good intentions but doing away with low vibes. The low vibes comes in part from the arbitrary nature of choosing January 1 as the date for your resolutions.
Time is a construct. January is the beginning of the year as part of an old Roman clerical choice. April 1 had been New Years. Some faiths have New Years in the fall.
Point is: pick a day, and feel free to make it your day to make an intention. But day two is often when the low vibes start. For example, let’s say today I’m gung ho about writing. I’m going to promise myself to write every day. Imagine tomorrow morning I have a crack of dawn flight and then a crazy day of meeting and then family responsibilities and then...Point is, every day is variable. Any one day can foil your plans. If your goal is everyday for a year, you’ve lost a whole year of dreams in two days. But, that’s because you gave yourself very little wiggle room and your intention was huge.
Now wiggle room is tricky. If you hope to do better in the world, you’ve got so much latitude anything will satisfy your goal. As long as you don’t call all your colleagues idiots and cut people off in traffic, you’ve succeeded in your goal.
Huge intentions are also tricky. For some people, they are just the ticket. These are also the people who’ve lived a life of succeeding in tiny goals. Their life is full of positive feedback loops. ‘Write a book this year’ can actually happen for them. I made that intention one year. Before that, I’d written many, many published works. I’d written essays, books, and labels. In other words, I’d trained. And success has trained me. I made a giant intention, but I’d set myself up to succeed.
Setting Goals isn’t like planning an escape room. You’re not trying to set up a system where you have a 99% chance of not doing it. You’re setting up an intention for something you have a likelihood of doing. Pick something where the odds are good but without work not great. If it is something you’ve already done okay, make a huge intention. It will motivate you, and you’ve trained yourself up. If it is new, set up smaller intentions. Like, if you dream of writing a book, set down mini goals: I’ll write 1000 words this week of free writing, say. But notice, my intention above is concrete and achievable. It’s not like the wiggly intention of doing better. It’s also got a bit of wiggle room, in that I give myself one week to write a set of words, rather than giving myself daily targets. Assign yourself this goal every week for two months, and you might have the level of success to give yourself daily word count targets. Or you might decide reading is more your speed than writing. And either answer is okay.
Which brings me to my intention for the year. I’m choosing a single big intention for the year. But I’ve been training up. I spent the last couple years consulting. I worked a lot; and I loved the work I was doing. One year, I decided I needed to get ideas out there, but I didn’t have the money for an editor. (Any reader of this blog can tell ;) ) But I also decided my ideas mattered, and I wouldn’t be hard on myself for typos. I had the best editor in the world at my old job. I just never learned the skills to catch my own mistakes. It irked me at first to have so many typos on my blog. I’m the sort of person who finds typos in The Times in seconds. Then I realized I am no more or less smarter than I was when I had an editor. If I need the ideas out there, I’ll just give myself a break about the typos. They annoyed me when I reread my writing at first. Now a couple years later, I just shrug and fix them. And, my life changed drastically from my blogging. People wanted to hire me. The positive feedback loop proved being gentle on myself was worth it.
With this one practice experience under my belt, this year my intention is to give myself a break in all aspects of my life. I’m going to be honest with myself and shrug off missteps. This is not to say I’ll ignore them, but I won’t ruminate on them. I’ll learn from them and then let go.
I’m choosing this goal because I think it will change how I lead. I hope it will have positive effects on my work and my energy. I guess time will tell.  And then I’ll tell you :)
Personal goals can have big impact on the work place. How you see yourself spills out into the world and workplace? Don’t believe me? Pick a drastic change of attitude at the work day. If you don’t generally smile, spend one day deciding you will smile at everyone you see. Come home and write down how your day went. I did this exactly experiment recently. Not with smiling, bc I’m naturally smiley. I decided to walk slow. It was hard. But when I reflected, I noticed more people approached me to talk. I also realized I noticed more things about my work place. Changing for one day, and a small thing, can have big impact. I’m excited for the impact I’ll feel, and through me, my work place when I spend this year giving myself a break.
What are your intentions for the day, month, year? Share here or on social media.