Trouble Right Here in River City

 

The flood that raged down the Colorado last month was a startling reminder that the river isn’t just a nice recreational centerpiece for Austin. It is the defining geographical feature of the entire Central Texas region. And disastrous flooding isn’t just part of history. It’s the risk we take every day for the privilege of living in this location.

I got interested in the Austin Dam Disaster of 1900 a few years back because I saw the parallels with the Austin I had grown up with and resided in today. It’s one of the great themes of Austin’s existence to be a city on the move and on the make. But occasionally, Mother Nature administers a dose of humbling reality. Watching these events unfold over the last couple of weeks was like watching the 1900 flood come to life—fortunately, the consequences this time were far less permanent.

Austin was chosen as the capital of Texas in part because of the potential water power of the Colorado. But for the first century of the city’s history, the river was more of a foe than a friend. It may come as news to Austin’s many newcomers, but Central Texas happens to be the most flood-prone region of the entire United States.

The reason? Austin sits at the intersection of the Gulf, Pacific, and Plains weather systems—a recipe for rain events of incredible magnitude. Pair that with hilly geography, thin soil, and shallow creeks and rivers. Well into the 1930s, Central Texas was subjected to devastating flooding on a regular basis. And as we saw last week, even the full capacity of the six dams and lakes operated by the Lower Colorado River Authority can only mitigate a major flood event, not prevent it altogether.

View this post on Instagram

A rare view.

A post shared by LCRA (@lowercoloradoriverauthority) on

As in 1900, the 2018 flood began with an unusual series of rain storms that soaked Central Texas with the wettest September on record. On October 8, a rain bomb over the small Hill Country town of Junction dumped 12 inches into the Llano River in just a few hours, rampaging through an RV park and sweeping four people to their deaths. It was the LCRA’s job to move this water carefully through Wirtz and Starcke dams and into Lake Travis, which was specifically built to protect the city of Austin from flooding.

A week later, a weekend of heavy storms climaxed with a strong cold front. This time, the Llano came out of its banks even more disastrously. Most dramatically, the FM 2900 bridge at Kingsland was carried away by the force of the waters, and Kingsland, Granite Shoals, Marble Falls, and other lakeside communities endured major flooding. For the first time in history, all six of the Highland Lakes dam were open in a remarkably orchestrated ballet of floodgate operations. Lake Travis reached an astonishing 143% of capacity—the fifth highest on record.

Several people have asked me if the dams were ever in any danger of failing, as the “Great Granite Dam” did in 1900. Fortunately, the answer is no, that is not a realistic fear. The river is far better understood than it was in the 1890s, and the Highland Lakes dams are infinitely better designed and constructed. The LCRA performs frequent upgrades on the dams to keep them current—in fact, the river authority began work in August to replace the floodgates on Tom Miller dam at Lake Austin, one of the most extensive modernizations the dam has ever received. I believe the success of the Highland Lakes system is the most significant (and under appreciated) component in the exponential growth of Austin over the last 70 years.

The fallout for the city of Austin in 2018 was far short of the death and destruction wrought by the 1900 disaster. However, the city did not escape unscathed. On Monday, October 22, the unprecedented amount of silt contaminating the city’s drinking water supply caused Austin Water to issue a citywide boil water notice that remained in place for an entire week. For a short time, it was feared that the city’s water pressure might drop below the level necessary to supply the fire hydrants. Our 1900 counterparts didn’t have it so easy. Back then, residents digging out from the dam disaster had to haul water, and it was nine months before any basic utility service returned to the city.

Want to know more? Check out my book The Austin Dam Disaster of 1900, available on Amazon or at your favorite Austin bookstore. It also makes a great gift for the Austin history lover or the engineer in your life.

Honesty: Such a Lonely Word

Once upon a time, it was a big deal to publish a white paper. Not only did it have to be researched and written by someone like me, but it had to be designed, typeset, printed, and then mailed to the recipients. A white paper wasn’t mere “content,” a word that wasn’t in use then. It was an event. After all, there was no point in going to all the trouble of publishing this paper unless you had something important to say.

These days, I’ve noticed that my white paper clients are aware that their words are getting lost. The Internet is sloshing with throwaway content. Who has time to read any of it? My clients are turning their backs on puff pieces and looking to bring real talk back to the white paper. But as a society and business culture, we still don’t seem to be there.

Recently, one of my clients wanted to produce a paper on an extremely controversial issue facing their industry. All of their customers know that this issue exists. It is one of their primary concerns right now. It has even migrated from talk among insiders to the general public. Fear and misinformation have undermined confidence in the industry. Yet with every pass through the editorial process, the white paper was watered down. The original language surrounding the issue, gleaned from interviews and input from the company’s own subject matter experts, was “too hot to handle.” The language was massaged, softened, and made vague.

Finally the central point was removed altogether. The white paper spotlighted a non-controversial solution to the issue, which by the end was only obliquely acknowledged. Instead of a meaty discussion, customers were served yet another word salad, initially attractive but with no protein, no takeaway, and no action items.

As a pro I’m happy to create what my clients want. But I sometimes wonder where our business culture is going to find the courage to be authentic. Companies want to provide valuable information to their customers, but then let fear and distrust prevent meaningful engagement on even the most well-known challenges and difficulties. Too often we choose to write on high levels about the big picture, rather than grapple with the nitty-gritty reality that is right under our noses.

Why publish a paper if you have nothing to say?

How to Avoid Plagiarism

It’s easy to be self-righteous about plagiarism. After all, how hard can it be to acknowledge your sources and put forth original ideas? In reality, it’s not as simple as it sounds. After all, we all study our fields to see what ideas are current. Where do you draw the line between responding to trends and playing follow-the-leader? Where does the line fall between research and wholesale lifting of other people’s thoughts?

Let’s break it down. According to Merriam-Webster, plagiarism is the act of passing off someone else’s words or ideas as your own, without crediting the original source. So first things first: giving credit to your sources is not only the right thing to do, but it boosts the credibility of your own content. Your customers know which industry sources are high-quality and credible. You can work your research into your pieces gracefully by using  quotation marks, footnotes, or phrases such as “A 2016 study by the Institute of Peanut Butter Science uncovered a startling fact.”

Citing your sources is essential, but it is not enough. A good rule of thumb is that your paper or case study should be at least 85% original material.  In my experience, the most common cause of unoriginal ideas occurs when organizations decide to create content, but won’t do the heavy lifting upfront to generate some original and thought-provoking ideas.

My take: The kind of long-form materials I specialize in, such as white papers and case studies, work best when they spring from your own experiences. It helps to approach each project as part of a focused dialogue you are having with your customers. Invest some time in thinking deeply about them, what they want to learn about, and what you have to offer that is unique. Your customers want to read a good story about how you solved their thorniest everyday problems. And there’s nothing unoriginal about that.

Creativity Secrets of Les Paul

“Your boy, Lester, will never learn music.” So wrote a teacher to the mother of Lester Polsfuss of Waukesha, Wisconsin. Years later, of course, that boy was Les Paul, the world-renowned guitarist and inventor who revolutionized music by pioneering the electric guitar and inventing modern recording techniques, including multi-tracking. In fact, it’s hard to imagine what modern recorded music would be like if Les Paul (or his mother) had internalized that teacher’s “can’t-do” attitude.

Instead, the boy spent his days trying his hand at the guitar, harmonica, and banjo, begging for lessons from any local person who would give him the time of day, and building his own crystal radio set and later, his own amplifiers. By the time he was a teenager, he was in a country band. Hungry for more, he moved to Chicago and spent every off-hour on the South Side of Chicago with that city’s jazz musicians, learning everything he could about music.

I learned all this and more recently from a great documentary, Les Paul: Chasing Sound.  What struck me the most about it was how Paul’s creativity was fueled by his continual thirst for learning. Undoubtedly, Paul had natural abilities that were beyond the imagination of his childhood music  teacher. But without the desire to pursue them and willingness to be a beginner, they never would have developed. And Paul kept on playing music and experimenting well into his 90s. Eventually, he became the only person to be inducted into both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

There are some pretty off-the-wall concepts about creativity going around right now. One of the most destructive is the idea that a creative person comes up with mind-blowing ideas out of thin air. In reality, a true creative is forever a learner, focusing both on specific skills but branching out into a wide range of related concepts that pump more excitement and energy into the learning. Occasionally, I’ve run across people involved in the creative arts who weren’t learners, and they ended up as “wannabes.” It takes a combination of self-confidence and humility to admit you don’t know and seek out those who do.

Right now, I’m working on a white paper for a client about a piece of legislation that affects their industry. The client apologized for the boring subject matter! But no subject is boring if you have the chance to take apart the ideas behind it and experiment with fitting them back together—like Les Paul and his life-long quest to understand sound.

Whether business or pleasure, what do you want to learn about next? Whatever it is, give yourself permission to be the beginner. You never know where it might lead.

Today’s laugh:

Photo Apr 19

Today’s links:

Did you know cavemen were already dealing with “Big Data” issues?
The Human Factor: Cybersecurity’s Forgotten Conversation

Being Nice is a Skill

Have you ever worked with someone who made you pay a toll just to answer a question or give their input into a project? I think most of us have our war stories about that insufferable or arrogant colleague. I’ll never forget the guy who wouldn’t taking his turn washing dishes in the break room, explaining to the rest of us, “But I have a PhD!”

The truth is that people who are passive-aggressive, bad-tempered, or just full of themselves can take a surprisingly large toll on a project. Back when I used to interview candidates for my company’s technical writing team, I was known for my questions that tried to elicit the candidate’s temperament along with experience and skills. These days, as a freelance professional, I’m usually on the other side of the fence—and I’m more convinced than ever that being pleasant and sincere is a valuable skill all freelancers should work to cultivate.

Here are three assets that I think define that special something.

  • Thoughtful. In today’s collaborative environment, a cutthroat operator can wreak havoc on a project. Look for someone with an encouraging and supportive mindset. A thoughtful person is respectful from the beginning and a good listener who is focused on solutions and moving the project forward, not directing the spotlight onto themselves.
  • Generous. Even in a hard-charging environment, you’ll want to bring on board people who share (rather than hoard) their ideas and wisdom, and are generous with praise, thank-yous, and recognizing the contributions of the entire team—those “below” as well as “above.” One big red flag: someone who puts conditions on their cooperation.
  • Funny. Don’t get me wrong here. When I was on the hiring team, I steered clear of would-be standup comics and their thinly-veiled aggression. On the other hand, having a good sense of humor is a huge asset. All projects benefit from a person who is positive, light-hearted, curious, and knows how to laugh and smile.

What do you think makes for a nice addition to a work team—someone you actually want to work with on a repeat basis?

Today’s laugh:

fe338dd1-0986-48a4-b4c2-5e6941c501c8-original

Unknown Unknowns

Most people prepare for the known knowns— that is, the problems  we already know about and the known unknownssuch as what projects your customers will dream up next, or what your competitors might bid against you. The most haunting problems are the unknown unknowns—the things that blindside us, the problems that are coming our way that we don’t even know about yet.

How do you prepare for the unknown unknowns? Let’s take an example everyone knows about: data scientists blew the predictions about last fall’s election, while one astute observer (former president Clinton) got it right. What did he know that that all the data scientists didn’t know? What combination of knowledge and experience led him to sound the alarm while others thought the election was in the bag? And most importantly, what could we learn from it in our own businesses and lives?

As a writer who helps people explain complex products and services, I think it’s important to remember that no matter how good it is, any analysis is just a simplified way to think about a thingnot the thing itself. Sometimes people are so in love with their own explanation that they forget that!

Former president Clinton, an old-school politico, didn’t use an analysis to predict events. If I had to guess, he reached his conclusions via full immersion in his ecosystem, taking in information from multiple sources on a constant basis. He had a baseline, sure, but he kept tuned in as costly and irreversible events unfolded. To this day, I’m always amazed how many IT projects go off the rails because the people in charge don’t want to spend the time to involve their employees and customers and tap into the storehouse of knowledge right at their fingertips.

Usually, it turns out that so-called unknowns were known to plenty of folksjust not the ones who “mattered” when the decisions were being made. Think “connect the dots.” If you don’t map all the dots, you probably won’t get the right picture, no matter how clever you are or what you decide you see in the dots that you do have.

Today’s thought:

Photo Mar 17, 9 11 10 AM

Today’s links:

How We’ve Destroyed User Stories
Why So Many “Fake” Data Scientists? 

Decision Fatigue

After he retired, my grandfather wore the exact same outfit every day for the rest of his life: a blue short-sleeved shirt, gray trousers, black socks, black walking shoes, and a gray tweed stingy-brim hat, all of which he would buy at JC Penneys.

A practical man or a creature of habit? Most nights, Grandpa served himself his dinner from the crockpot and watched the Huntley-Brinkley report. He got his in-depth news from TIME magazine and belonged to a mystery book club. At the end of each day, he turned in with Johnny Carson and a shot glass of bourbon.

But wait! There was a method to my grandfather’s madness. By eliminating unnecessary decisions, he freed up his energy for the things he really enjoyed and wanted to do. He spent his days hiking in the woods and swamps, searching for rare wildflowers and ferns. In his retirement, he authored two guidebooks about the plants of Delaware and the Eastern Shore, where he made his home. He also traveled extensively in Central America and in Spain to pursue his passion for rare plants (he was a retired agronomist). The sunny front room of his home was given over to a huge variety of cacti, many of which he collected when he visited us in Texas. In his garden, he grew roses and the most delicious corn and tomatoes you ever tasted, which he shared with his friends all over the state.

These days, the sheer variety of choices available to us can be overwhelming. We have millions of songs, thousands of movies and TV shows, and hundreds of cable channels. We have a constantly refreshing social media feed clamoring for attention. In a large city like Austin, we have many choices about hip and cool things to do and decisions to make about how to get there and where to park.

In their book Willpower,  John Tierney and Roy Baumeister write about decision fatigue and how the variety of decisions in our culture is exhausting us. According to their study, your willpower is like a muscle that becomes fatigued in the course of a day. If you wear it out agonizing over what to wear, what kind of latte to order, or what to read next, you don’t have much brainpower left for the things you actually want to do.

Yet another invitation to live mindfully! Put your most important work first, and simplify your life so you can do just that. Turns out Grandpa was on to something.

Today’s laugh:

Photo Mar 20, 8 11 33 AM

Today’s links:

Empathy Bad, Rational Compassion Good
Fake News: The Insidious Side of Content Marketing
B2B Content Marketers Continue to Find SEO a Challenge

International Women’s Day: Five Great Role Models

Last year, I was privileged to work on several organizational and corporate history projects. I’m looking for more of this kind of work. It’s hard to put into words how satisfying it is to research and bring to life the history of a business that has truly stood the test of time, especially when the client holds the finished, illustrated book in their hands for the first time.

I’ve been involved professionally in the history field since 2000. A few years back, I was developing supplemental materials for a client who ran amazing tours for history buffs (alas, a casualty of the 2008 crash). I got to work directly with the historians to develop reading lists for the tours. But there was one historian who refused to work with me because I’m a woman. He said that a woman couldn’t be a historian. Fortunately, few people share his attitude these days, though there are still too many with unexamined prejudices about what women like to write about.

In that spirit, I wanted to take the occasion of International Women’s Day to salute five amazing women authors who inspire me. I chose these women because I recently purchased their books or have them near the top of my to-be read list!

Candice Millard has authored two of my favorite books of all time: The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey and Destiny of the Republic: Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President. She is one of history’s most gifted storytellers—I would read anything she writes! She is a former writer and editor for National Geographic. A mom of three, she writes during school hours. Her new book on my list is Hero of the Empire, the story of Winston Churchill’s daring adventures in South Africa when he was only 24 years old.

Lynne Olson began her career as a journalist, working as a political reporter for AP and the Baltimore Sun and as a foreign correspondent in Moscow. She’s authored seven books of history, most of which focus on World War II politics and diplomacy. There is so much to learn about today’s world by understanding our past. Her book on my list is  Those Angry Days: RooseveltLindbergh and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939–1941. Her next book, Last Hope Island, is about the tide of refugees who poured into Britain fleeing Hitler’s blitzkrieg. It comes out next month.

Mary O. Parker is a freelance writer from right here in Central Texas who writes about travel and nature. Her new book Explore Texas: A Nature Travel Guide, is original, substantive, and delightfully written.  Her husband Jeff contributed beautiful photography. Living in a big city, it is sometimes difficult to know how to connect with nature. This book does the heavy lifting for you no matter where in Texas your travels take you.

Zoey Goto is a London-based journalist and author who writes about fashion and design. She is also a mother and a banjo player! As an Elvis fan, I often think there is nothing new to learn about The King, but the new book Elvis Style: From Zoot Suits to Jumpsuits proved me wrong yet again. Full of great photos I had never seen before, this book is all about Elvis’s cultural influence and has many new stories about the wildly original, playful, and creative person he was.

Finally—have you been a witness to history yourself? You don’t have to be a professional journalist, writer, or researcher to share it. Some of my favorite books are behind-the-scenes looks at history written by ordinary people. Peggy Grande was personal assistant to Ronald Reagan for 10 years after he left the White House, until he became too ill from Alzheimer’s to be able to work. Before she went to work for Reagan, Grande was a salesperson at Nordstrom! Grande’s book The President Will See You Now is high on my to-be-read list.In addition to learning more about Reagan, I’m interested in this book because of my own experiences trying to help preserve the independence and dignity of my aging parents.

History is never “over.” It’s full of stories that need to be told—and sometimes it takes a woman to tell them!

Today’s thought:

Photo Feb 28

Today’s links:

What is the Philosophy of Data Science (and Should Data Scientists Care?)
The Nerdy Charm of Artisan, Hand-Drawn Infographics
How to Beat Solopreneur Blues

The Dip

Does anyone else remember the old Peggy Lee song, “Is That All There Is?” It’s about a woman struggling in the face of many regrets. This morning I was thinking about how projects (and lives) get off the tracks. Sometimes as professionals we can get so focused on accomplishing a certain goal that we can lose sight of what the whole enterprise was supposed to be about in the first place.

My business coach gave me a great little book—The Dip by Seth Godin—that contains a lot of wisdom about questions like these. Our society makes a fetish out of “winning,” but the truth is that real winners quit on things all the time. They just quit the right stuff at the right time.

At the beginning, when you first start a new endeavor, it’s fun. You could be taking up golf, or beginning acupuncture treatments, or starting a new job or your own business or beginning a new initiative with your work. It’s interesting and everyone is cheering you on. Over the first few weeks and months, it’s easy to stay engaged.

Then “the Dip” happens. You’ve harvested all the easy wins. The long slog to getting lasting results has begun. Perhaps you have 40 pounds to go, or three years on your degree, or you have two tiny clients and none of your sales prospects will return your phone calls. Your acupuncturist poked you full of holes and you’re still in pain.

It turns out there’s a secret to success in this all-too-familiar scenario, but you have some analysis to do. Suppose you have the idea to become a great snowboarder. You’ve left the fun, awesome bunny slope and now you are falling on your butt a lot. You have three choices:

  • Tough it out and become a great snowboarder.
  • Realize early on that you’ve encountered a Dip too wide and deep to cross with the resources at your disposal. Perhaps you simply don’t have the physical capacity to be good at snowboarding. Or perhaps your motivation slips away when you realize how tough it’s going to be. Write off your losses, swallow your pride, and move on to something you’re truly passionate about.

As Seth Godin writes, either of these choices is valid and constructive. But far too many people choose option three:

  • Stupidly invest a lot of time and money trying to get good. Then quit in the middle of the Dip before it pays off.

How many times have you done that to yourself? I sure have—lots of times.

When you are in the Dip and you know what you are doing is truly worthwhile and has potential—if you know that the pain would be worth it if only you could somehow get there—then that’s when you don’t quit! That’s when you rededicate yourself to it, with all the energy you’ve freed up from bailing out of those dead-end activities. Shedding that sunk cost will invigorate you. It’s a different way of thinking, and that helps you change the game.

Today’s laugh:

photo-feb-13

Today’s links:

Stepping Back is the New Going Forward
The Hard Truth About Lost Jobs: It’s Not About Immigration
Push for a Point of View

 

 

Rethinking Our Educational System

Recently I was approached by a potential client about coming in to train their staff (college educated young professionals) on business writing. I was excited about this opportunity and provided a potential course outline with some fundamental topics such as how to identify your audience, write task-based procedures, and set up a first draft. My jaw hit the floor when the prospect said, “This all looks good, but I need someone to come in to teach grammar and punctuation.”

The sad truth is that our educational system today is a mess, putting managers behind the eight-ball, saddling young people with huge debts, and imposing a heavy tax burden—and all with little to show for it. Not long ago, I worked with a great young creative writer with an advanced degree. He was full of terrific ideas and produced copy full of basic punctuation errors.

The educational system as it stands today came out of the needs of the post-war world to provide good quality standardized literacy and math skills needed in the world of the 20th century. It no longer does that, and also seems to be coming up short in teaching the self-motivation and critical thinking skills needed for 21st-century work.

I’m not a teacher and don’t pretend to know what the answer is—but as a citizen I would love to see a “moon shot” program to rethink the educational system from pre-K to post-grad.

Today’s tip:

16105861_1332680466805448_3813515313002683530_n

Today’s links:

Comparing Millennials with Baby Boomers
5 Things Successful People Do After Getting Rejected
6 Small Business Marketing Growth Strategies for 2017