Is January Too Early For Blossoms?



In the world of moleskines, the specimen Emily Chow held up was on the more sizeable and serious end of the spectrum. This was no dainty, pocket-sized edition of the iconic notebook. Emily’s moleskine meant business.

“I use these pages for writing down the things I’m dreaming about, hoping for, and planning to do,” she explained, before rotating the notebook to display its back half. “And I use the pages on this side to write down the things I’ve experienced, the things I’m grateful for. When I’ve filled so many pages on both sides that the two halves meet, I want them to reflect each other. I want the same stuff to be written on both sides. That is my commitment to myself.”

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February 6, 2015

The Wheel of Obsession



I am obsessive. It’s both a very good and a very bad thing. My obsessive nature rotates within me like a water wheel, part of the time submerging my strength and exposing my attachment to nonessential details, and part of the time holding my capacity for productive learning up to the light. I know I am not alone. Strength is weakness and weakness is strength depending on context and even intention.

I recently gave my business card to someone with whom I’d been discussing my desire to work on more co-authorship projects. He glanced at my card and asked me why it didn’t express that intention more directly. Instantly, I thought about how the messaging on my card connected with my website and I felt a sharp tug of resistance.

You see, lately I’ve been spending a lot of time working on I comb through the copy, add and subtract links, integrate content, research best practices, and monitor everything on my Google analytics account with ever increasing frequency. I’m thrilled when the bounce rate drops, deflated if it nudges upward by even a fraction of a percent. I saw the words on my business card as a strong thread attaching to an intricate network of closely examined and laboured-over connections, and the idea of pulling that strand loose felt deeply threatening and potentially destabilizing.

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January 9, 2015

Defining ‘Salvo’: Thoughts on Whole-Brained Communication, Marketing, Mindfulness and the Internet (Part Three)


[Read Part One of this post here.]

[Read Part Two of this post here.]

When I talk about mindfulness in whole-brained communication, the militaristic metaphor of the salvo becomes a little bit misleading. If I am launching artillery or well-chosen words to overwhelm or captivate a target, that only describes a one-way movement or action. Mindfulness, once again, is sensitivity to the conditions of the ‘present moment’. It is being receptive to information as it presents itself. And it moves back and forth between communicators, rather than just from Point A to Point B, from speaker to listener.  If we communicate only to make a point or compel a specific action, we are practicing entirely goal-oriented communication. If we do this as professional communicators or marketers, we are continuing a tradition of so-called ‘interruption marketing’, where our call to consumers is epitomized by that blaring television commercial that attempts to yank their attention away from Family Guy for a few irritating seconds.

And as every Seth-Godin-worshipping new-school marketer knows, interruption marketing just ain’t the way of the future. 

The greater goal of a long-term, stable, trusting clientele is better secured by communications that are mindful—that is to say, sensitive to the information our clients are willing to share with us—which simply results in our saying, sharing, or selling things our clients are more open to receiving.  This is, I believe, what is at the heart of the movement for a ‘new’ type of marketing communications that has at different times been labeled ‘content marketing’, ‘permission marketing’, or ‘inbound marketing’ (and probably a zillion other things as various ‘thought leaders’ attempt to make their mark by coining new terms). It’s not that marketers have not always been trying to listen as carefully as they can to their target markets in order to deliver effective communications and more desirable products and services. (Isn’t that the purpose of every focus group?)  What makes this style of marketing communications ‘new’ or revolutionary is our radically enhanced capacity to listen. It’s the fact that the Internet has taken away every excuse to remain sealed off from the experience of our customers.

Like any schlubby Millennial, I ingest scary amounts of Netflix. Aside from the fact that this service gives me access to high quality video streams without subjecting me to ads featuring fulsome butt implants, Netflix is dear to my heart because of one thing: customization. Netflix is like that friend who listens to every word you speak, and is able to recall details from the dumb stories you tell her over beers. She buys you the best birthday presents and takes you to the restaurants that you like. Netflix just gets you, man. Because this service remembers everything I’ve ever watched and allows me to rate as many of its selections as my carpal-tunnel-syndrome-afflicted mousing hand can manage, it is constantly becoming more savvy about what I really, really like. By the time it’s suggesting I might like to see a ‘Moody Period Piece Featuring a Gay Male Romance’, I’ve long since accepted the fact that Netflix knows me better than I know myself.

That, to me, is the Internet, in a nutshell. Netflix—and more specifically, my personal Netflix account—is but one node in a network that runs on feedback and interactivity, leading to more elaborately customized niches of user (or ‘consumer’, when there is a monetary exchange involved) experience. It’s the Holodeck I always dreamed about when I was watching Star Trek: The Next Generation with my mom.

Now, I’m a person who thought Her was legitimately romantic, so the thought that Netflix can listen to me doesn’t strike me as particularly creepy. I accept that Google, YouTube, Facebook—all of these mega-nodes of interactivity—are listening carefully in order to customize my experience. Are there problems for humanity inherent to all of this rapid information technology development? Yup. But what else is new? Technology gives, technology takes away. That’s how it has always been. What’s interesting to me is the very human imperative at the heart of all of these technologies, algorithms, and processes: the drive to listen and learn.

So I define the ultimate ‘salvo’ communication experience, then, as a coordinated movement of complementary types of information (data and story) back and forth between speakers who are listeners, and listeners who are speakers. This type of communication is both goal-oriented (intended to secure particular outcomes) as well as mindful (sensitive to the conditions of the present). It is the type of communication that the Internet is facilitating to an incredibly rich and deep extent. And it is becoming the rule rather than the exception.

 [Author: Kristin van Vloten]

August 12, 2014

Defining ‘Salvo’: Thoughts on Whole-Brained Communication, Marketing, Mindfulness & the Internet (Part Two)


[Read Part One of this post here.]

[Read Part Three of this post here.]

Last week, when in a fit of orderliness I drew up the imaginary columns representing the contrasting yet complementary traits of whole-brained communication, I didn’t talk about the last two items on my list. So here, now, playing for Column A, is Goal-Orientation, and over to the right, representing Column B, we have Mindfulness. These two will now either wrassle each other to the death or together create beautiful music.

But first, I will define what I mean by these terms. Goal-orientation is the ability to articulate, and plan strategically for, measurable outcomes.

It tends to be associated with a future-oriented focus, and the tendency to evaluate and make distinctions (such as ‘success’ or ‘failure’).

Mindfulness is a sensitivity to the conditions of the ‘present moment’, like a weather vane that registers a change in the winds before anybody else feels the need to put on a sweater.

It tends to be associated with an attitude of adaptability and more fluid, less discriminatory thinking (ie. seeing everything as being ‘shades of grey’ rather than as ‘black and white’ or ‘good and bad’).

Admittedly, when we reach this latitude of the Whole-Brained World, the weather does get a little dicey. Here, the temperatures tend to swing to extremes before reaching a balmy equilibrium. And it’s true that it’s often easier to conceive of goal-orientation and mindfulness as being conflicting rather than complementary stances. But their harmonious coexistence is, I believe, at the heart of whole-brained communication, and the combustion of every salvo that really reaches its mark.

Because I work in marketing and communications, I will illustrate a constructive dynamic between goal-orientation and mindfulness within this context. Imagine I am selling widgets, just like that guy in the 1950s business textbook. I would like to sell a bunch of them. I’ve got a specific goal, in fact: x-amount of widgets will pay my mortgage and keep food on the table. So I market my widgets using all of my ingenuity, passionately declaring the benefits my widgets will provide to consumers. A certain number of people respond to my marketing by purchasing the widgets. It’s great. But because I have to keep paying this mortgage and feeding myself year after year, it’s in my best interest to have a stable clientele of buyers who are going to come to me for their widget needs again and again. So I make sure I talk to my clients about what they like and don’t like about my widgets. Based on what they tell me, I make modifications.  The next time I sell the widgets, I draw attention to the ways in which the modified model better meets the needs of my clients. I’ve taken care to ensure that the widgets are what clients really want, and that they won’t regret their choice to purchase mine, or hesitate to encourage other buyers to do the same.

This is the story of successful entrepreneurship, excerpted from Basic Business Boiled Down To Its Essence 101, One Zillionth Edition, right? But in this classic tale of widgets and consumers, the dynamics of goal-orientation and mindfulness are very much at play. It can be broken down like this:

1. Goal-Orientation: Company must sell X-amount of Widgets to Buyers.

2. Mindfulness: Company engages Buyers in a dialogue that results in the modification of future Widgets.

3. Synthesis of Goal-Orientation and Mindfulness: Both Company and Buyer have a proven, ongoing process for ensuring that their respective goals are compatible and complementary (ie. Company Goal: to secure a long-term, loyal customer base that will continue to buy x-amounts of widgets; and Buyer Goal: to purchase widgets that better meet their expressed needs from a trusted seller).

At no point did my Company abandon its original goal of selling widgets. But I realized that in order to ultimately meet my biggest goal (that of long-term financial sustainability), I needed to practice Mindfulness. I needed to understand the impact of my widgets on my customers’ lives. I needed to listen; to collect some of the rich information available to me via dialogue with my customers.  That sensitivity to the conditions of the present moment allowed me to adapt my strategy for achieving my goals, and even more than that—it allowed me to realize that my goals ultimately need to be compatible with the goals of my customers. I am increasingly aware that the goals I am most likely to meet are those that are supported or shared by many others.

(In part three, I will discuss the revolutionary impact of the Internet on marketing communications, and its implications for whole-brained communication.)

[Author: Kristin van Vloten]

August 7, 2014

Just Show Up: The Sparkle Project, Ethiopia, and Scary Storytelling


I spent most of my twenties in the non-profit world, working to raise funds for clean water development in poor villages across the planet. When I turned 30, I took a trip with a few colleagues and donors to Ethiopia. I had recently separated from my husband, who was in love with a mutual friend of ours, and was as miserable as I’d ever been in my life. When I got home, I joked to some people that whenever I was alone in my hotel, it looked like Martin Sheen’s breakdown scene in Apocalypse Now. And I really wasn’t exaggerating that much, except that in my own blubbering PTSD-style hotel room meltdowns I wasn’t drunk or high. But that’s just because I didn’t happen to know any Ethiopian dealers.

At one point on the trip, I found myself on top of a mountain that took eight interminable hours in a jeep to climb, speaking to a young Ethiopian mother through a translator. My job was to collect stories for fundraising proposals and web content, so I was intent on securing some good sound bites that would plead our case to the donors who could fund a water system for this particular village. I’d easily spent every minute of the jeep ride up to her hut ruminating on the changes that were taking place in my life and how miserable I was about them. I was being chauffeured to a Third World village where people were burying their children on a regular basis because all they had to drink was fecal-contaminated water, and I still couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that only six weeks earlier I might have been living as a wife to my husband for the last time.  I lived in cocoon of obliterating grief that nothing could really penetrate. I felt strange and a little guilty about it, but I also knew that I really couldn’t help it. But it’s safe to say that the concept of happiness was weighing heavily on my mind. Even then, I had a very definite spark of conviction—like an arrowhead glinting in a mound of dirt—that I was on a path to attaining peace and joy.

So I asked the young mother whom I was interviewing what exactly made her happy. She just looked at the translator blankly and then laughed. The translator asked the question a few different ways before explaining to me that what I was trying to ask just made no sense to the woman. We moved on.

A few weeks later, I was back home, creating a fundraising proposal that included her story. In my terrifically finite wisdom, I chose to interpret her laughter as incredulousness. Among other things, I wrote:

Her life is composed of strenuous and constant tasks, and the failure to carry out these things might result in the death of her family members. Her life is about neighbors and cattle and the weather and her crops and her children. The pursuit of happiness suggests a dimension of choice that simply is not a factor in her life.

The proposal ultimately helped to raise the funds necessary for the clean water system that eventually benefited this woman, and I was happy about that. But I always wondered whether I’d understood her laughter correctly. As far as I knew, I had told no lies, but I did take significant leaps of interpretation when I told her story because our time together had been brief and complicated by language and cultural differences. I worried about ‘using’ this woman and others like her to reach specific goals. I think it’s a big deal to tell other people’s stories. Sometimes it’s the best possible way to secure good outcomes. But it’s always a heavy responsibility. I think about that woman and wonder how accurately I portrayed her experiences.

I’m currently at work with Kristal Barrett-Stuart on something we’re calling the Sparkle Project BC, an initiative to connect young girls with the wisdom of older women who have carved out lives they are proud of despite major difficulties. We’re ultimately going to create Sparkle: An Inspirational Handbook for Young Girls, a resource centering on true stories and practical advice from accomplished British Columbian women. Kristal is a country singer and an inspirational teacher who just looooves herself some young women. She’s a great practitioner of taking your dreams seriously and doing something about them. Everybody loves her. I love her. The Sparkle Project is her vision and I’m honoured to serve it. The response to the project has been beyond what we hoped it would be. Now we are going to be responsible for sharing these stories—for telling them well, for placing them into a context from which they can serve their purpose with maximum effect.

I have to admit that I’m scared. I don’t want to interpret badly. I don’t want any of these wonderful women to feel misrepresented. Most of all, I want the project to be a success in terms of its primary goal—inspiring young girls to live with more power, confidence, and focus than our culture often teaches is proper or even possible for females. I would like to help turn the tide of self-loathing that girls are so often drowning in—that I so often have found myself swept up in, my strength knocked out of me. I don’t want my work to fall short of the opportunity represented by so many powerful women congregating around a single goal. 

But momentum accomplishes so many things for which we would like to take personal credit. The creativity and generosity being generated by these Sparkle women is giving the project a life of its own, and that momentum is what will create a movement of significance for young girls in need of inspiration. The truth is that this project is much larger than any single person’s contribution. It’s bigger than the work I will do. Even if I feel more put-together than that sloppy, sobbing, absent-minded woman in an Addis Ababa hotel room, it really doesn’t matter that much what version of myself shows up for this engagement with life. No matter how I feel, I am able to bear witness and interpret what I see and hear with good intentions. Just like that young mother on the mountaintop, these Sparkle women are speaking to effect changes in their world. I just have to show up and listen.

[Author: Kristin van Vloten]

July 22, 2014