How to do anything:
in 3 hard steps

sustaining a project with purpose, care, and humility

I was recently invited to talk with the Lifehack Flourishing Fellows, who are starting projects to improve the wellbeing of young people in Aotearoa.

Since co-founding Loomio a couple years ago, I receive these invitations fairly regularly, to talk with uni students or activists or start-uppers or social entrepreneurs about starting a project and holding it together long enough to make some positive social impact.

Regardless of the audience, I’ve noticed my advice basically comes down to the same three points. I’ve also noticed they are all really hard!

Here’s a little snippet from the recording of the talk, explaining what I mean by “prioritising the vibe”:

Full video

Here’s the full talk (20min + Q&A) along with a transcription for those who prefer reading to listening. It draws on a lot of the material in my recent blog post about caring organisations, but filled out with lots more personal anecdotes:

Transcript

Me and my whānau in about 1987

I was born and raised in the Wairarapa, and then moved over here for high school and have been here ever since.

I live in a really amazing house in Newtown, a big pink house there. It’s a house, but it’s also a community.

I used to stay at Garrett St, which is a house that Mark and Sophie lived in, and that’s the same thing: a community of people that are trying to do something more than just live.

Like Gina said, I’m involved with Loomio, I’m one of the cofounders of Loomio and a member at Enspiral. I’m involved with an arts collective called Concerned Citizens that runs a community space in Tory St…

All of these groups of people are all action-based groups that are trying to do something.

My identity is in the composition of all those groups.

The reason I’m working on Loomio is because there’s something about that group identity thing, and having multiple groups, for me that’s where I get my strength from and my confidence. The reason I have an ability to get up in the morning and do stuff is because I’m held by these groups. The work I’m doing is trying to help people find their group, start their group, do their group thing.

So yeah, the three hard steps:

Number 1 is: find something worth holding on to and hold on to it. For me the way to hold on to it is to write it down. When you write it down you actually have to force the words out, and show those words to other people, and see what they think. There’s a lot of fun and hard work involved in that.

Number 2 is: do everything with fun and love and colour and cups of tea. I call that prioritising the vibe. That means it should feel good when you’re doing it.

Number 3 is: hold on to the first thing that you wrote down, and throw everything else out every single day. It’s about trying everything.

I’ll run through each of those steps in a bit of detail.


The first one: finding something worth holding on to. It takes a long time.

From what I know about Lifehack, a lot of people that come to Lifehack are looking for their thing to hold on to. They know they haven’t found it yet and they’re like, ‘it seems like maybe somewhere down this way there’s maybe my thing to hold on to?’

For me, like I said, I moved over here for high school. Got to the end of high school and I went to the careers advisor and she said to me, ‘what are you good at?’ and I said, ‘maths and science’. So she said, ‘you should go study engineering’, so I said OK and then I went to university and I studied engineering. Then four years later I graduated engineering school with an engineering degree.

It was 2008 when I graduated. That was just when the global economy went nuts and there were no jobs available, especially in engineering in New Zealand. So suddenly I was out into the world, without school, without uni, without a job, without a boss or really anybody telling me what to do.

For the first time I had to stop and think, like, ‘what do I want to do?’

It was a bit weird waiting until I was 24 to ask myself that question, but I got there in the end.

When I’m invited to talk at universities, I’m like, ‘If there’s one thing you do at university, it’s figure out what you’re into. Don’t worry about the grades and stuff like that, that’s totally irrelevant. I got great grades in a degree I don’t care about that has no value to me.’

I didn’t figure out what I was into until after I left.

When I left I was sitting there with time on my hands (that’s the great thing about being on the dole is that you have as much time as you need). Somehow it finally clicked, like: ‘I’m a musician, and I know how to make electronics, maybe I could make electronics for musicians!’

Total lightbulb moment, a flash of the blinding obvious. I just wish that somebody had prompted me to think about that four years sooner, but so it goes.

So I got started making weird noise machines for weirdos that like weird noise machines.

The Brainwave Disruptor

I was really surprised to find that other people really got a kick out of the stuff that I was making. I’d build something, put it online, and then someone would see it and be like, ‘that’s awesome, can I buy it?’ and I’d be like, ‘huh? okay…’

So then I started making a whole bunch of these random weird machines. Eventually these quite awesome musicians would come to me and say, ‘hey can you ____?’ They were trying to commission me to make stuff for them. I got into building crazy machines for people to use on stage. I was working with Riki Gooch and he was like, ‘I’m on stage with a lot of electronic equipment and it looks so lame to be here with my knobs and buttons, I want something that’s more theatrical’. So I made him a device that picks up his arm movements and translates that into his computer.

That’s awesome work. What totally awesome work. It’s a real buzz doing that kind of stuff, to facilitate someone else’s dream and work on my skills. That was really awesome.

From that I got into teaching people about electronics as well.

DIY electronics workshop at CALH 2011

It’s one of those subjects that is really hard for people to get into, but it shouldn’t be because it’s actually really easy, they just teach it the wrong way. It’s kinda like maths, they make it sound hard but it’s not. They just teach you all the dumb stuff you don’t need to know and divorce it from your real life.

I was teaching because it is fun to show people like, hey these things are electrons and you can play with them! Electrons are awesome! Electrons are your friend (apart from if you have too many of them)!

That was fun. I was having fun. I wasn’t really making enough money to live on. I was kinda scraping by, but something in me still wasn’t full. It was good fun stuff to work on but it didn’t really… I was like, ‘do I really want to spend my whole life making products? Do we need more electronic junk in the world?’

It wasn’t quite there. It was awesome, it was motivating, and people liked it, but it just wasn’t quite the whole thing.

Then I met Ben.

Half of the Loomio founders: me, Ben Knight, Jon Lemmon ❤

Ben’s another person from Garrett Street with these folk. Meeting Ben was a moment where my life turned a bit of a corner. He’s just universally positive about everything. Everytime I see him he’s like, “I just met the most amazing person!” and I’m like, “you mean you just met a person?”

He’s just set with this really high default for everything, it’s really awesome to be around. It kinda rubbed off on me, I pay more attention now to positive stuff when I used to be real cynical and dark all the time.

Him and his partner Hannah and a bunch of others got involved with this thing called the Concerned Citizens, which is an arts collective that was putting on creative events that have some kind of social benefit.

Like, we’d host an art exhibition, raise a bunch of money, and give it to Women’s Refuge or something like that. A really simple format but it was my first taste that there’s something beyond just me and my weird interests, there’s a whole world out there and I can combine my interests with doing some positive impact.

That was really fun. That was hosting events, that was the work. From that I met so many people that were sorta on the same wavelength, like trying to do something good in the world.

From there, we hopped on down to — when Occupy Wall Street arrived in Wellington — Ben and Hannah and Jon and I and a bunch of others, we got involved with Occupy.

Occupy was my first experience of, practically, sitting in a circle with people. I don’t think I had ever done that before. It’s really basic right? It’s a good thing to practice, sitting in a circle.

Sitting in a circle at Occupy Wellington

Not just sitting, but talking to each other. Doing that kind of talking where one person speaks and everyone else listens, and when they’re finished it’s the next person’s turn to talk. One person speaks and everyone listens. I’d never been exposed to that before.

Out of that conversation, not just talking for the sake of it, actually trying to make decisions. Trying to get somewhere.

There are a bunch of people that have for some reason decided to live in the middle of the city for a couple of months, how are we going to operate? How are we going to feed people? How are we going to come up with shelter — our crappy $40 tent from the Warehouse doesn’t actually work for more than 2 weeks when you’re parked up in Civic Square.

We had to make all kinds of decisions together about how to structure our little community and we took it for granted, it was there before I arrived, that there was no boss. No one is in charge, were going to figure it out together. We figured it out by sitting in circles in talking it out until it was done.

There was a minor dash of tikanga to make that work. We had hand signals: ‘I agree with what you’re saying’, ‘no I don’t’, or ‘hell no I don’t’.

That process was the first time I’d seen that happen and participating in that. I said meeting Ben was a little corner in my life, this was like a full U-turn. It totally redirected the course of events for me. It just reset my understanding of what individuals are capable of and what groups are capable of.

Prior to that I’d just seen decisions being made by someone in charge saying ‘Right, you do this, go do that, do that…’ and everyone in the background kinda grumbling like, ‘this sucks, that person doesn’t know what they’re talking about…’

To see people just figure it out together, creating a space where everyone’s voice is actually valuable, noticing that

when you throw in everyone’s voice you can come up with something better than any individual would have had on their own.

…that was totally mindblowing for me.

At the same time as that was awesome and massively inspiring, it was also so frustrating to have to sit in a room — or not even in a room because we were out in Civic Square — to sit around outside in the cold for four or five hours, trying to make a decision sometimes. Sometimes there’s some real complex stuff you’ve got to work through. I felt like this isn’t realistic, like, no one’s going to do this, people have jobs and kids…

So we were stuck with this question, how do we share this experience and make it fit in the modern world we live in? Another flash of the obvious: we should put it on the internet! Make it so that people can have that experience where they can talk to each other, respect the different kinds of opinions and different perspectives and try to develop consensus together, without having to be in the same room at the same time. They can just participate in their own time.

With that idea, we were introduced to Enspiral. We didn’t know what Enspiral was, I still don’t really and it’s been three and a half years. Someone told me they like technology and they want to make the world better and I thought, ‘yep, sounds like us.’

We went to them, “hey, we’ve got this idea: we want to do the Occupy decision thing, but on the internet. Can you build that for us?”

They said, “No. But it’s a good idea, we love the idea and we want that too,” because Enspiral is a big group of people that doesn’t have a boss as well and they wanted to make decisions online too. They’re like, “we’re not going to build it for you, but we’ll help. You build it. You’re going to have to figure out how to build it, but we’ll help you.”

Enspiral people

So they gave us some space and connections, they just kept throwing people at us all the time, a consistent stream of people, like Chelsea. Over time, the idea and the space and the people, they stuck. What they stuck around was the purpose. That’s why my Step One is write something down, figure out what your purpose is. That’s the thing that we stuck to.

In the last three and a half years of working on this software, now ninety thousand something people have used it in a hundred countries in thirty-two languages. So many decisions have been made along the way, to navigate to get to that point, and all the way through, when you get to a hard decision, we just look at what we wrote down in our purpose: why are we here? Then all the decisions make themselves, when you go back to ‘why are we here?’

You’ll find it’s the guiding light, it’s the navigator. We don’t need a boss, we got a purpose.

I said these are hard steps. Finding your purpose is super hard. I notice that my purpose actually keeps evolving all the time and I have to keep checking in on it: what am I doing now? what am I doing now?

It’s number one for a reason, it’s the most important thing.


Point number two. Step number two. Do everything with fun and love and colour and cups of tea. I’m a big believer in cups of tea. The whole thing for me, I call it prioritising the vibe.

The thing about the vibe, when I walked in, well before I even walked in actually, when I got off my bike at the gate, and started walking up the hill I thought, ‘hmmm, this place has got some vibe’, y’know.

And then you come around the corner and you can see this incredible building and you’re like, “Wow, that building has got some vibe! There’s some real vibe in there.” This is DIY fortress architecture and I love it.

Tapu Te Ranga Marae. Photo credit: https://flic.kr/p/4GrcUx

Then I stepped in the door and I could see — I was a bit early, people were still in there working — and I could see there’s some vibe getting cooked. Everyone’s putting their thing in the room.

It’s such a privilege to have that experience. It’s awesome that Lifehack can host that kind of experience for people. The Lifehack crew, I couldn’t imagine a better crew to be cultivating that vibe for people. You know it right: it feels good. In your tummy, it feels good to be here. You can keep that good feeling, pretty much all the time, if you pay attention to it.

You have to pay attention to your tummy. I’ve got my head brain, my heart brain, and my tummy brain, and the tummy brain tells me when the vibe is right.

What that actually means in practice: it means that,

In our workplace, we respect feelings. Feelings are legitimate information.

Emotions for me, they’re like, they’re just inarticulate expression. Your emotion is trying to tell you something, and maybe you haven’t got an awesome way to say it yet, but it’s like “arggh I’m real stressed out about something!”

It’s really critical information, if you’re trying to work together as a group to achieve something, you need to have that information in the room with you. You can’t pretend that it’s not there. In a lot of workplaces you try to pretend like:

“I haven’t got feelings. I left them at home!
I’m at work now and I have my special uniform on that says No Feelings.”

We’ve said, nah, we’re having your feelings. Please bring your feelings, all your feelings are welcome here. We’re going to do what we can to make space for them.

It’s real simple stuff. You will have already practiced it here I’m sure: just sitting in a circle and hearing from everyone. It doesn’t have to be major, it doesn’t have to be an amazing speech or anything. Just hearing people’s voices. Hearing the quality of the voice, oh there’s a little shake: this person is nervous, they’re anxious…

It gives you so much information to just hear each person one by one by one.

Little practices like that, really simple stuff that allow people to arrive fully, and allows you to have full context about what they’re doing.

We do that all the time. Any meeting at Loomio, whether we’re talking about the business model or the capital raising or the software development, we’ll start with a check-in.

It’s really important, if someone’s got some strong feelings, you need to know about that. If it’s like, ‘my dog got run over’, that’s still relevant information, maybe you should take the day off! If it’s like, ‘I’m actually feeling really anxious about the cashflow’, that’s really important feelings to bring in, because then we can fix the cashflow.

We’ve seen it happen over and over again at Loomio. It’ll be just a mundane regular meeting, we start by hearing from people, and someone will say something… they can’t put their finger on it, “I just feel a bit uneasy. Don’t know what it is. Don’t worry about me, I think I’m having a weird day or something.”

Then they’ll sit back and the next person will be like, “I’m the same, yep, yep. Kinda anxious, kinda, doesn’t feel real good. Vibe’s not right.”

Then they sit back and the next person will be like, “I’ve actually been thinking,” they might have a bit more detail, like, “that strategy that we signed on to two months ago, it was awesome at the time, but I’m starting to really question it. It doesn’t seem right.”

As we go around the circle, by the time you get to the end of the circle you realise that work we did where we planned out where we’re going, that was wrong. No one feels good about it. We’re only doing it because everyone else thinks that everyone else thinks it’s a good idea.

By having space for people to be inarticulate, and not be awesome and make a really compelling argument, you get to the heart of the matter real quickly. You don’t have to wait til you get to the end of that plan and realise it was a dumb plan. You can just say “this doesn’t feel right.”

We respect the tummy brain as well as the heart brain and the head brain. They’re all good brains.


Then number three, the third hard step: hold on to that first thing, the one that you wrote down, and throw everything else out all the time. Keep throwing it out, keep throwing it out, keep throwing it out.

Because…

Most of your ideas are not very good. I’m really sorry about that. Same with mine, most of my ideas are not very good either.

In software development land, we’re lucky because we’ve got users. Like I said, there’s ninety something thousand people using the software, so we don’t have to worry about what our ideas are, we just listen to their ideas. When they say, ‘we need this’, then we say ‘ok we’ll make that.’

We’ve got all kinds of process and structure around how we “try everything.” We want to try lots of different stuff, we want to hold on to our purpose and throw everything else out and try and try and try and try. You need some kind of system.

There’s 17 people in co-op now, and if you have 17 people all trying different things it doesn’t work, you need to be systematic. We’ve got a lot of different containers, like, “For this three month period, we’re looking at this area, this is what we’re trying. This week, we’re going to try this part of this problem.”

We break it down and say, we’re going to look at this part. We try to hold loose to our own ideas, to our hypotheses. It’s like, I’ve got a hypothesis, how am I going to test it?

Breaking the vision up into ‘epics’, ‘features’, ‘stories’ and tasks

It’s funny, when you say, “I’m just testing this idea out”, somehow it frees you up. It makes it easy. You don’t have to be arguing your case and saying “this is what we need to do”. Instead it’s like, “I think this, this is my reasoning, and this is how I’m going to test it to prove whether or not it is a good idea.”

That’s an easy way to get a group of people to think together and learn together and point in the same direction together. Quite often, different people are going to have different opinions. So you can design the experiment together: okay I don’t agree with your hypothesis, this is how I’m going to disprove it. That’s fine, that’s really productive.

The way that we can hold that kind of space for that productive tension, is because we prioritised the vibe. That means everyone is quite capable of communicating to each other, and holding a different opinion.

It’s ok that your perspective is different from mine, which is different from yours, and different from yours and yours. It’s ok, we’ve all got a different one. We can hold them together.

We have this baseline, we’ve got our purpose. All of our feet are like old roots of a tree grown into that purpose. We’re like an old married couple of 17 people. They’re all grown together. We’re all playing footsies under the table, we can be disagreeing with each other up here, but down there we’re all knitted together, because that’s the thing that pulled us together in the first place.

So those are the three hard steps to do anything.


Q&A

[Question] How do you define your purpose now?

[Rich:] That’s actually going through a little process at the moment, but the one that we agreed to, that’s on the wall is ‘we’re here to make a world where it’s easy for anyone to participate in decisions that affect them.’

Each of those words means a lot to me. ‘Easy’, ‘anyone’, ‘participate’, ‘affect’: there’s so much work under all of those words.

It took a crazy amount of work to get those words agreed. Lots of different workshops…

I shared my story about how I came to my purpose. Then you’ve got all these other people, with their own totally different story. To find words that you can find the overlap between everyone’s core motivation comes from, that’s hard work and you’ve got to prioritise it. It takes a lot of time.

I think in the first stages of a new collaborative project, you can kinda get away with it, without having it written down, without being too specific. You’ve got enthusiasm and lots of vibe and that will get you through, but before the enthusiasm runs out you’ve got to write something down.


So what happens when the vision is set by 6 people and then it keeps growing?

[Chelsea] I can share because I was one of the not-6. I was probably #8 or #10. It was largely an experience of walking into the room, reading the wall, and going ‘cool, I’m home.’

So you buy into the vision that’s been set?

I guess every single person that’s shown up since, has gone on their own journey to realise the same thing, and then they’re like, ‘oh those are the words, yep.’

[Rich] It wasn’t like 6 people went away and wrote it down as well. It’s the product of a lot of conversations with a lot of people.


Can you talk about the stewardship model?

[Rich] Sure, yeah. I’m glad you asked, because I had a note to say that and I didn’t.

One of the things about the vibe is that we pay attention to how everyone’s feeling. We make it our job to make sure people are feeling as good we can make them feel. Sometimes there’s shit going on that you can’t fix, but…

Because we don’t have a boss, sometimes that can get tricky, not having a boss. A boss is a really good person to turn to if you’re having a hard time, “Boss, I need some time off. My dog ran over my girlfriend.”

So we haven’t got a boss and instead we have this thing called stewards. Up until recently, Chelsea was my steward, I was Alanna’s steward, Alanna was MJ’s steward, and it goes round in a circle. So if I have an issue, I can go to Chelsea and be like, “Chels, I’m freaking out!”

The stewarding system at Loomio

Or, more frequently actually, if some kind of conflict comes up, because that happens all the time, people have productive conflict. It can get a bit sticky, like I don’t want just you and me to nut this out, I want some support. So Chelsea would be the one that would come in and support me. Her job is just to support. She doesn’t have an opinion about the argument, she’s just there to make sure I’m ok.

That’s awesome. It’s really awesome to have that there and it’s awesome to be that for someone else as well.

As far as organisational structure stuff goes, that’s the number one for me.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been involved with some really hard work. We had a pot of money and we had to split it up between a bunch of people. There’s more people with claims on the money than there is money to go around. It was me and two others that were in charge of deciding where the money should go. Because there were more claims than there was money, that meant some of them were going to get disappointed. It meant I had to push back on people a little bit.

In the work over that two weeks, I realised that I’m not prepared to push back on someone, unless I know that they’ve got someone behind them, catching them. My first job for the first of the two weeks was to make sure everyone had someone standing behind them, and then it’s like, ok, now it is time to push.

We pushed, and we got to a place. At the end of it, everyone goes “this is a good result, we all agree with the process, yes I’m personally disappointed but I’m also personally supported.” Instead of it being like, some boss turning up and being like, here’s the decision, go deal with the feelings. We made sure the feelings were looked after first.


What’s your views on the size of a group that all these things can work with?

There’s a lot of people will tell you a lot of different things about group size. So far I haven’t developed a strong opinion about any of them, other than that I don’t trust any of them that are like ’15 is exactly the number!’

What ever processes you use, totally have to be context-specific. You have to realise what size group you’re working in. The difference between collaborating with 7 people and 9 people is totally different. Totally different.

That’s why there’s no recipe that you can just get online, like, how to run a group of 7 people. It’s so context-dependent.

That’s why we prioritise the vibe. Pay attention, is this working? No it’s not, so let’s change it.

Our structure and our processes have changed so many times. It makes it really hard when someone turns up for the first time, like ‘what the?’

It’s kinda why Enspiral is so hard to explain as well, because it’s changing so much all the time, but it’s changing because it’s growing. Adapting to the position that it’s in.


Have you ever lost the vibe?

The vibe comes and goes, right.

We just had this workshop on Wednesday, about stress and stuff like that. There was a comment that really highlighted for me how that works.

Like I said, in the last two weeks I was doing this really hard work. I was super stressed, I lost the vibe, hard-out. I was dark, wasn’t sleeping properly, like, “there’s too much expectation on me, I can’t carry this, it’s too much.” Just really exhausted, “why should I have to deal with all this crap”. I was losing it, like:

“I’m not the one for this job, I’m just making it up, we need a professional!”

The way that the vibe got saved was that my colleague Ben was like, “Rich you look stressed, do you want to go have a drink?” Just the offer, for starters, that was half the problem was fixed because someone else has noticed, there’s someone looking after me.

Yeah, each of us loses the vibe all the time, that’s why you have a group. They look after you like, ‘hey I think you need a few days off’, or, ‘let’s go climb a tree’, or whatever you need.

As we’ve gone through this, over all this time, I’ve got a pretty comprehensive diary in my head of everyone’s stress triggers, how they respond when they’re stressed, and what to do to intervene. You build up that catalogue in your head, when you get to know people in a deep way.

I know that when I’m stressed, I’ll try to take over. Do things my way because it’s a lot easier than trying to negotiate. When Ben’s stressed, he gets into a state where he can’t make decisions. So when I see Ben being stressed, I’ll go work with him and we’ll make the decisions together. I can go round the whole 17 people and tell you what the recipe is. We’ve just learnt that by paying attention to each other.