Become a Storymaker

Every day we are telling stories, many of which are about seemingly mundane events in our lives.

Why do we all find such interest in these boring posts, updates, pictures and videos - posted about what we are eating, where we are traveling to, what our pets look like or who we are hanging out with? Because at the core we are all linked by some of the same human desires. And experiencing “stories” is a core human desire, not only for entertainment, but touching upon our basic survival instincts. By experiencing other people’s stories, we seek to have a wider perspective on life and how to traverse it.

While we might think we are simply browsing mindless pictures of food or vacation shots, we are in fact satisfying a human urge to learn through stories. Woven throughout these constant streams of content (social media) and even more intentional content (blog posts, professional photography, videos, movies, books, etc.), are common threads and core emotions. By understanding why we all need stories in our lives, and also understanding why stories make us human, we can hopefully become better at making and telling stories in our own lives.

Today, more than ever before in the history of modern civilization, individuals are empowered with the tools to be story tellers, and the technology to see their stories spread far and wide in the blink of an eye.

The web and the technology that connects us all has turned our world into a world of stories. We experience them in short bursts of a Twitter update or an Instagram photo, we experience them on Vine or through blogs, and we come in contact with “content” created by other people for our consumption at an almost constant rate. When we aren’t consuming, we are creating and publishing for others.

When, in your day to day life, are you free from the content of others?

When are you simply existing in the moment? Not publishing, not sharing, not using some aspect of the web or technology to consume or publish information? It’s kind of amazing when you think about it, and then compare it to your daily life 20 years ago. If you’re as old as I am or older, you will recall a very different daily experience. I’m not saying that this is a bad change. What I am saying is that we owe it to ourselves to try to become better at telling these stories and putting out this content if we want it to matter. And for those of us for whom this is a job (writers, content strategists, photographers, videographers, creative directors, art directors, web designers, etc.), learning to become better at these things should help us to be better at our jobs.

At the end of the day, everything is about the story.

We started out as an evolving creature using stories to not only help us survive, but to create the culture that would eventually define us from all other creatures sharing this big rock. Storytelling was the key to what made us “human”. Through the telling of stories, we not only helped ourselves understand the world around us, but we left a record of our very existence. We used images to tell these stories, much earlier than we developed written language or even advanced verbal communication skills.

Somehow, communicating with images is almost instinctual for humans.

It is particularly fascinating that in certain caves where early paintings have been located, scientists have determined that several thousand years may have passed between the first set of drawings and another set; yet the visual language and imagery remained almost identical. This might lead one to conclude that communicating visually is a basic human instinct and not something that has to be learned or taught in order to hold value and contain consistent attributes. If you have never taken the time to really explore the cave paintings of Lascaux, I encourage you to visit this site and prepare to have your mind blown. Note: the mind blowing site appears to be down - but if it remains so - just google Lascaux cave paintings or treat yourself and watch the movie Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

Remember when everyone was freaking out about Facebook buying Instagram for 1 Billion dollars?

Yes you remember. Well, while we can definitely agree that Instagram was grabbing the lion’s share of tweeners and other juicy users at an blazingly fast rate, there was something else there in what Facebook was buying. Facebook - which I’m sure you can agree has become a shitstorm of political rants, spam, pictures of children with horrible deformities guilt-tripping you into hitting the “like” button and other useless and often incorrect information - is dying. It is dying because it has become overrun with all the crap that takes away from what we, as users, as humans, are looking for and looking to do.

We are looking for stories; and Instagram with its single image and short caption does a much better job at letting us experience stories than Facebook does with all its junk, clutter and regurgitated jokes or memes.

Facebook bought what it might see as a lifesaver, because even the people at Facebook understand that as humans, we will never stop needing to experience stories - and tell our own. And images, simple still images, are the most primitive and human way to do just that.

We can all agree that stories are a key component to our human-ness. Both the desire to tell them, and to experience them - through images, words, spoken word, art, dance, song, poetry, etc.

Which would lead us to think we would have gotten pretty good at story telling then, right? Well I’ve spent some time looking around at what the people around me are “creating” on all the networks we now have at our disposal for publishing stories at an amazingly fast pace, to an ever widening audience - and guess what - it stinks.

Generally, we suck at telling good stories.

Don’t fear, you’re not a lost cause though, because if you think back to your childhood, you were probably a very good story maker.

How many of you had imaginary friends? Or crafted elaborate tales around the origins of the swing set? Or faced death on a daily basis in the backyard with your squirt gun? I am often reminded by my parents, who still find enjoyment in the fact, that I had an imaginary friend named Tur-shi-sho, and he had a pet dog named Mupp. They would come to dinner often (we had to set place settings for Tur-shi-sho, and Mupp would lay at his feet at the table), I worried about them when it stormed, and generally felt about them as I did about the real world, because they were each a part of my stories.

We are naturals at this, if we only let go of the constraints we’ve been taught and the fear of being overly dramatic or specific in our story telling.

A really good story has an opinion, a perspective. We are not weather reporters announcing the temperature readings. At least, we shouldn’t be if we want anyone to tune in.

Remember when Twitter and blogs really started to take off?

Professional journalists were bitching because we started attributing value to user generated content, and immediacy, over trained reporting or journalism. This is the world we now live in, where we get so much “content” and inputs from so many sources. But when do we even stop to question the authority or “trusted source” for the things we are consuming? Wolf Blitzer won’t get the scoop when we can count on the guy living next to Bin Laden to tweet about the choppers dropping off elite forces in his neighborhood.

This era of self-publishing and social networks has definitely impacted the way we consume and produce data, and we’ve barely had a chance to think about how it’s impacted us as human beings.

Human beings, for thousands of years, relied on paintings, drawings, spoken word, poetry and epic tales written in early manuscripts to help us define the world we lived in and how we felt about it.

I’ve come to realize that most of my efforts at Fastspot, when boiled down, are really about helping our clients become better storymakers. Why? Because everything is a story. A brand is a story, a museum is a collection of many stories, a college is a place that allows people to create their own stories, a business is a place that often is selling a story to others. And with today’s technologies and networks, we are all expected to be telling these stories. Which we are doing but in the most dismal ways imaginable because we were never taught to be story makers, or story tellers. We have to learn some new skills if we are expected to have our stories rise to the top, out of the increasingly overpopulated world we live and publish in.

What makes a good story, and how can you get better at making them and telling them?

I think it’s important to recognize that every time you tell a story, you are re-creating it. Even the act of remembering the story is a creative process. The renowned author and neuroscientist Oliver Sacks has stated,

“We now know that memories are not fixed or frozen…but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorized with every act of recollection.”

And researcher Rosalind Cartwright reminds us in her fascinating book, The Twenty Four Hour Mind, that,

“Memory is never a precise duplicate of the original…it is a continuing act of creation.”

Let the facts of science free you from the constraints of sticking to “just the facts ma’am”. The entire notion is a fallacy. You, as the story teller, are the artist creating the story - every time you tell it.

Our brains are hard wired to seek out stories.

We actually get a chemical release that is triggered in the brain when we experience a fictional story. We prefer fiction because we like to live out situations vicariously through stories. Fiction allows our minds to live out ideas and situations which may never actually occur, in a way, preparing us better for an unknown future. This taps into our basic survival instincts.

Stories are also essentially the basis for most religions in the world.

This once again supports the premise that we not only seek out and enjoy stories, but we need them. They help provide us some comfort and understanding, just as they did for early man living in caves, about the world we live in and the unknowns we are faced with every day and throughout our lives. Harvey Cox, a highly regarded theologian stated,

“All humans have an innate need to hear and tell stories and to have a story to live by.” (Harvey Cox, The Seduction of the Spirit).

These aren’t trivial things we are talking about here, these stories we are asked to tell and publish in our daily lives, and I ask that we not forget how important they can be if we give them the proper focus and attention.

Start training yourself to look for the better story when you sit down to publish things.

It’s easy to get lazy and replicate the nonsense we are bombarded with daily, but stop for a second before you post that next update to the website or Facebook, and think, am I telling a good story? People mistakenly think that a great story must come out of the occasion itself.

For example, if you walked outside and a satellite fell from the sky and landed 10 feet from where you stood - you’d think you have a great story to tell. Or if your boring trip to the beach turned into a wild rescue attempt as you swam out to pull in a child stuck in a riptide, you’d have an amazing story to tell, right?

Wrong. You’d just have a series of unusual events to talk about; whether they were good stories or not is up to you.

How do you make them into great stories? Think about some of the best movies you’ve seen, or books you’ve read - were they all about epic unusual bizarre occurrences? No, probably not. Most likely they were simply well made stories that sucked you in. Stories that allowed your primitive human brain to enjoy living through someone else’s eyes, in order to help you address core things that plague your inner primitive mind.

Think about the thing you are about to publish, and ask yourself, “Why?”.

Many of us have heard UX professionals like Whitney Hess talk about the benefits of the 5 Whys.

The 5 Whys is a troubleshooting technique originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda and used within the Toyota Motor Corporation during the evolution of its manufacturing methodologies. It is a critical component of problem-solving training, delivered as part of the induction into the Toyota Production System. The architect of the Toyota Production System, Taiichi Ohno, described the 5 Whys method as “the basis of Toyota’s scientific approach . . . by repeating why five times, the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear.”[2]

Let’s look at a recent post a client had put into their website’s main page, arguably a place for important and interesting stories to be placed.

They started out with this:

“Red Tails. Veterans of the Tuskegee Airmen will visit the “college name” to share their World War II combat experiences.”

So here we have the ingredients to make a fascinating story, yet it’s put out into the world in a pretty lackluster way - and it’s not tapping into any of the basic human emotions we all are pre-programmed to respond to: Survival, death, fear, heroism, courage, good vs. evil.

Let’s see if by applying the 5 whys, we get a more interesting starting place from which to make and tell this story.

  • Why are they coming? Because it is important to remember the trials and tribulations of wars and those individuals who fought in them.
  • Why? Because war is the ultimate human sacrifice and gives us the freedoms we enjoy today.
  • Why? Because we must fight against the evil forces in the world that seek to overcome us.
  • Why? Because eventually we will all die and we want to know we died fighting for good in our lives.
  • Why? Because at our core, human beings are inherently good and moral and strive to exhibit this kind of behavior in the face of adversity.

Now here we have a much more interesting starting place if we are looking for the building blocks of our story.

We’ve gotten to some core human attributes - striving for good, facing fear, human equality.

And the story of the Tuskegee airmen is particularly poignant because these were African American soldiers risking their lives for a country that still didn’t treat them as equals.

This story, if given an opportunity to be better “crafted” to not only include an image (because we now know how important images are!), but also a more interesting starting point - might look and read like this:

The best stories have the best specifics.

We aren’t interested in generalizations. Yet it’s our inclination to start out with a generalization and then move into the details. This is probably because we were taught in school to write more from an editorial perspective, not a storytelling one.

We want to show, not tell, when we make stories. So start with specifics, details and imagery.

Get to the root of the emotion, and catch your reader’s eye by getting to the core issues of why the story matters in the first place.

You may say, OK Tracey, easily done with such an interesting story as the Tuskeegee airman, but how do I do that in my daily life. I went to Facebook and pulled the first post with an image that I saw. I wanted to see if I could apply the “Why?” formula to something completely mundane and get to something more interesting.

Here we go:

My friend posted to Facebook about how they were selling their old pickup truck that they’ve had for many years. There was a photo with a caption that said “Goodbye old friend.” The status update above the photo read:

“So sad. 12 plus years later….Bought before kids! We will always have awesome fond memories of life with the Red Truck. Now on to new adventures with the Jeep! Here’s to the next era!”

What happens to this story if we apply the Why technique? Let’s see.

  • Why are they saying goodbye to their old trusted friend Red Truck? Because they needed a new car.
  • Why? Because the truck was old and didn’t serve their needs anymore.
  • Why? Because they have 2 kids now and loads more shit to carry around.
  • Why? Because they are older now and their lives have changed.
  • Why? Because everyone gets older and changes and eventually we all die.

Amazing what the “Why’s” have revealed about this seemingly benign post about a truck. It is actually about death!

Now I realize you could take this in many different ways, and I encourage you to do this as an exercise - where does your story end up, or find itself fit to start out at?

I know I’ve covered a lot in this post, and I hope it’s given you food for thought.

We all want to be better story tellers, and we can be if we own the fact that we are the creative artist behind each story, each memory, each sharing of something between people.

I apologize for ending on a morbid post (although I believe that most stories are indeed about confronting the fear of death but that’s for another post). I’m really curious how you strive to be a better story maker if you are someone who is responsible for publishing content? Do you have tricks of the trade that you can share? How do you combat the urge to crank out another boring press release formatted news post? How do you try to ensure your stories are being consumed, and are worth it?

I hope this post will inspire you, as it touches upon the foundation of what I do every day, and probably what many of you do every day as well. Until then - I look forward to your stories, and I hope you enjoyed mine.

Next Story — The Never-Ending Website
Currently Reading - The Never-Ending Website

The Never-Ending Website

In the world of digital agencies, and institutions who manage large websites, we all know the routine. For one moment in time the website is shiny and new, everyone loves it, and analytics are an exciting present to unwrap every morning. Finally, the world can see your company or organization or agency for what it truly is — pure digital amazingness.

Fast forward a few months. Other fires have popped up and attention is waning. A few “just do it”s have created cracks in the nice new exterior, and you see that aging content that was once fresh and sparkly getting a little dull, as the days and weeks creep on. That’s just the way things go.

Fast forward a few more years and things have gotten dramatically worse.

It’s like a Mad Max movie throughout your digital ecosystem and let’s face it, everyone’s just scared to look anymore.

Sure, Dan from the library thinks everything is great, or Maria in the CEO seat is happy the numbers are holding, so what could possibly be wrong? But everyone else is knee-deep in outdated, unorganized, unappealing, redundant, buggy, website goo.

Eventually an email arrives in someone important’s inbox exclaiming — “Good grief your website is horrible!” Maybe the email arrives at the exact same time some numbers tank and some other alarms are going off, and the decision is made. REDESIGN THE WEBSITE! Horns blow, horses gallop off, and forces organize to destroy that which was once precious so you start over again. On the same. Exact. Path.

You think to yourself that this time you’ll do some research. You’ll get some of that fancy content strategy you’ve been reading about. You’ll even staff up to support it this time.

But in reality, you’re not even talking about how to avoid the next descent into eventual chaos, and the day the outside world once again lays eyes upon your “doorway to the world” and thinks “WTF.”

Not the marketing message most of us are going for.

There are a few companies and organizations who seem to have mostly avoided the need to radically change their websites. And yes, change is hard for humans — but that isn’t the reason these sites have remained relatively unchanged. I propose these companies planned for a longer term structure early on — and we should be doing the same thing in the sites we build for our clients. We only pursue radical and disruptive change when the status quo is absolutely untenable. That is not good planning my friends. That is stupid.

So how do we create a plan to avoid the need for radical change?

Let’s look at the evolution of a few very well-known digital properties. Apple.com and NYTimes.com. Two very different companies, who have maintained a fairly consistent online presence over the past 10+ years. For the sake of brevity, we are only looking at the evolution of the home pages and main navigation systems.

Let’s start by looking at Apple’s website evolution.

Below we have four screen shots from apple.com — from one of the earliest iterations in 1996, to a 1998 version where they went big on image and lowered the main nav, to 2000 / 2001 when the top navigation appears and begins to establish a framework that is arguably the most usable.

Jumping ahead to 2005, we can see that a few things change over the next four years. In 2007 there is a larger shift, but look closely at what changes. Not a lot. The site is actually simplified, with fewer navigation options and less content on the home page. One could argue this was in part due to the release of the iPhone, but several structural changes remain consistent as we move forward.

In 2009, Apple reclaims more homepage real estate for a variety of content. In 2011, they make a slight shift to the color of the main navigation bar and search field. You will also notice that since 2005, they’ve dropped the giant APPLE logo and rely only on their visual symbol to identify the company and act as a nav anchor back to the home page. This signals the company’s confidence that everyone knows what that symbol means, and frees up more space to focus on their products.

Next we get to 2013, 2014, and guess what — little is changing.

You know what is changing all the time? Their CONTENT!

The visual position and design of the navigation are still working, though slight changes in the categories have occurred. They have consistently presented a hero feature, with smaller feature stories resting below.

Heading into 2015 and 2016 we begin to see more refinement happen with the navigation design, as well as the entire site taking on the role of “Store” — thus the navigation item that used to be first goes away completely. The feature remains the same, as does the supporting secondary features. Apple has introduced a carousel, which allows for more content, although we’ve all read the studies about carousels. Maybe Apple knows something we don’t?

What is most interesting to me is what didn’t change over the course of 16 years on the apple.com website.

Apple is a company who makes beautiful products, and sells the idea of “thinking differently.” They managed to stay true to their brand and core values, with very little fussing over the website. They also applied their focus on simplicity and a pleasurable user experience to the site by using a streamlined and simple navigation system, and relying on large beautiful images and video to supply the content. Over the years the text decreased in general on the home page, even losing headlines above smaller content areas, while imagery, video and bold beautiful typography took center stage.

It’s a “less is more” approach, and it has worked very well for Apple, for a very long time.

Next let’s look at the New York Times.

This is a very different company, and a very different set of needs for the website. The two screen shots below cover five years, from the earliest online version of the NYT, to Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked. Many of us recall being glued to the internet for our information and updates. As you can see, the entire front page is dedicated to the news surrounding those events.

Next we have 2005 and 2008. The masthead has remained the same, and the left side navigation has remained a ubiquitous element in the layout. Advertising now takes up more real estate, which may be a signal that the company is trying to find ways to monetize itself. They are also changing their headlines and making adjustments to how copy is emphasized, and how typography is being used.

2008 sees a new top page tab system which introduces new opportunities to consume the content, as well as a more visible presence for the “Log In” and “Register Now” links. There is an adjustment to the columns and placement, which might be in part to the increasing screen sizes for most users.

However, overall, the feeling of the design remains relatively unchanged.

Here we see versions from 2010 and 2012. Top tabs and the left side nav remain, but advertising spots have been introduced in the masthead. There is still tweaking around placement and treatment for category headers and we see video, social and comments become a more visible presence in the designs. However, once again, I’d say the overall feeling is intact.

And below we have 2014 and 2016. This is where we finally see a more substantial shift to the overall design, about 13 years later! Across the top “Register” has changed to “Subscribe Now,” and links have been highlighted.

A “hamburger nav” has replaced the top tabs and search has gotten much smaller, while the masthead has remained the same with the brand placement and advertising slots on either side. The most noticeable changes are those to the navigation. The left side is now dedicated to content, the tabbed topic links sit below as a horizontal set of links, and the rest of all that nav has been tucked up into the hamburger icon and “Sections” link — which produces a rather large drop down nav with rollout secondary and tertiary navigation. While some may find it cumbersome to use, the increased dedication to content allows the overall design to be much more aesthetically pleasing, and, easier to scan and read.

You will also notice a steadily increasing amount of “white space” in the NYT’s website as it has evolved.

There’s enough data now to fully support the need for “white space” in digital product design, so the NYT designers are winning the battle against “putting it all on the home page,” or the dreaded “above the fold.”

Again, we see a very prominent brand, and a very popular website, make incremental shifts to its presentation rather than giant bold redesigns where everything changes.

The New York Times managed to set up a structure and approach that allowed them to evolve rather than redesign.

And with the increasing need to be in so many different places online (website, apps, social, sub-brands, etc.) who has time to focus on a redesign every few years? Think of all the other online properties and products under the brand that would need to also be updated or changed to suit the large dramatic redesign? It’s simply not possible for the New York Times, and this gradual evolution probably saved them tons of money in the long run.

Both of these sites are counting on customer loyalty and commitment. A complete redesign would require them to reestablish relationships and “teach” their visitors to use the sites all over again. That would be very disruptive to Apple, the NYT, or most organizations. We know that life events which cause the most change (a death in the family, divorce, relocation, getting fired) cause the most stress for humans, so why would we put them through that on our websites if we didn’t need to?

What I’m suggesting is that we are not looking far enough down the road when we redesign complex sites, nor are we giving enough consideration to content needs.

Flexibility and appreciation for the user experience can go hand-in-hand, and they need to. Radical redesigns are disruptive to users coming to a site who expected what they knew. Radical redesigns only work well for completely new users, users who have never visited the site before. And if you think about it, these users don’t even know it’s a redesign — for all they know, it’s been like that since 2005.

As long as the tweaks and changes have been made in support of user experience and content strategy, the user will be happy. As long as updates have been applied to ensure a modern experience that reflects a care and consideration for the user’s experience, they won’t care that the site may have looked the same for a long time. If the stories are good, if the content is useful, if the experience is intuitive, fast, and pleasurable — they will leave with a positive impression and happily return to your website.

I hope that by walking through these two examples, I can give you more ammo in your fight to embark on the next redesign in the smartest possible way. Trust me, if radical redesigns could make Apple more money, or get NYT more subscribers and advertisers, they would have done it. Other companies you can look to for slow evolutionary change vs. radical shifts are Facebook, Amazon and Google.

Let’s stop throwing away the baby with the bathwater, and start planning for a better bathwater system. Let’s start planning for a site that doesn’t need to be thrown out in five years. If we have that conversation up front, and make that a primary goal — every decision afterwards will be different, and better. I will discuss how approaches to structure, strategy and staffing must and will change if you take the never ending website (NEW) approach to your next redesign, in a followup post in September.

Next Story — What is Content Strategy?
Currently Reading - What is Content Strategy?

What is Content Strategy?

by Bon Champion

Published March 9th 2016

In an excellent post on her blog, Rachel Lovinger describes content strategy with a web-related analogy: “content strategy is to copywriting as information architecture is to design.” There are a million articles and posts out there on this topic, each with their own definition of content strategy, but that analogy is the best I’ve found. Unfortunately, as Lovinger notes, it uses one piece of web jargon to explain another.

Essentially, content strategy and information architecture are the planning, roadmap, and scaffolding that support and guide the finished work, whether that’s copywriting or design.

Most websites are collaborative efforts spanning years. To avoid mission creep and internal conflicts, a plan is absolutely necessary. Any content strategy should answer the five Ws: who, what, when, where, and why. I’ll tackle each in roughly the order they should be asked and answered.

Why

The first question when creating a content strategy is perhaps also the hardest: why are we doing this? What is the purpose of our content? Try to avoid shallow answers. Dig deep and try to surface tangible, measurable goals. Rather than generic goals like more traffic, aim for specific goals that can be attributed to your efforts. One example would be creating more clarity around the benefits of giving to the annual fund, leading to more gifts from a broader range of audience types. Goals like that suggest areas of focus for your content and make it possible to assess whether you’ve been successful.

Who

There are two big “who” questions to ask in a content strategy.

First, who are your audiences? The rest of the content strategy really hinges on this question. If your content strategy doesn’t align with the wants and needs of your audiences, it’s doomed to fail.

The second “who” is: who is your team? What are their strengths and how much time can they contribute? It can be tempting to outline an ambitious plan with new blog posts every day and a new video on the homepage monthly. But if you don’t have realistic expectations about content producers, those plans will stay plans.

What

The third “W” centers on assessing your content. What is your current content? What’s working and what’s not? What should your new content include? Content usually involves writing, but don’t forget about imagery, video, testimonials, music, GIFs, events, etc. Make a couple of big lists: what you have, and what you’d like to have. Use the things you’ve learned from “why” and “who” to slim those lists down to a reasonable library of content.

Where

Where on this website will the content be published? What belongs on the homepage? Where will you put content that’s good but old? And when thinking about “wheres,” don’t forget about social media. What kinds of content are being used to populate Facebook and Twitter? Is the social content reposted from the website, or is it unique to each platform?

When

Keeping content updated is one good way to keep your site useful to visitors as well as improve your search rankings. This doesn’t only apply to fresh or repeatable content like news and blog posts. Include an auditing schedule for static page content. Set a date when you can assess how the content strategy has worked, and whether it should change. Try to set up an ambitious but achievable publishing and review schedule, and then stick with it!

At Fastspot, these questions are at the top of mind throughout the life of the project. All of these Ws culminate in an overarching content strategy document that covers voice and tone, title selection, testimonials and profiles, publishing schedules and more.

Any site can look shiny and new on launch day, but there’s no finish line for a website. The real challenge is keeping up the good work and maintaining an impressive site for years on end. A rock solid content strategy is the best tool you have to reach that goal.

If you’re interested in digging further into content strategy, we recommend these resources:


Originally published at www.fastspot.com.

Next Story — The Future of Higher Education is in Pieces.
Currently Reading - The Future of Higher Education is in Pieces.

Stained glass window in Sagrada Família in Barcelona

The Future of Higher Education is in Pieces.

There has been much discussion about the viability and likely long term success of the traditional liberal arts college. Of equal attention is the increasing gap between the costs of higher education and those who can afford it (or afford to live with the debt they would have to incur). These conversations have reached the national stage, yet most focus on a “live or die” scenario, or a “tuition or free” scenario. The likely outcomes of both topics are to see radical transformation, and in fact, it’s already happening at a rather impressive pace.

The Internet Is the Disrupter

Clayton Christensen states that: for centuries education had “no technological core” (meaning it was bound by physical locations) and thus disruption was very difficult. Obviously that barrier has been brought down with low-cost ability to capture, stream and distribute content over the internet.

While most disruptive technology doesn’t necessarily provide an immediate increase in value or quality, it does quickly pave the way for those increases as adoption rates increase and old norms get broken down. Christensen states:

Examples abound. Small off-road motorcycles from Honda, Kawasaki, and Yamaha disrupted the hegemony of large, powerful bikes from Harley-Davidson and BMW. Transistors overthrew vacuum tubes. Discount retailing and home centers savaged the dominance of Sears. Online courses are barging into higher education. Drones challenge manned fighters and bombers. Nurse practitioners underprice medical doctors. Digital photography eclipsed film, and mobile telephones are replacing landline service. Outpatient clinics and in-home care pull revenue away from general hospitals.

These disruptions and transformations ushered forth by the internet were initially impactful in how we consumed music and news. As bandwidth increased, the offerings expanded to encompass streaming media, live events, movies, etc. But education still remained largely locked within the classrooms. MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) garnered some interest, but lacked the seriousness of a degree or certificate granting program and existed mostly for those who simply enjoyed learning for learning’s sake.

The book “The Long Tail” adeptly observed that as the access to variety increased with the spread of the internet and devices to connect us all to that content — we began to change as consumers. We began to expect options, selections, preferences, and the ability to find and consume exactly what we were looking for. Smart mobile devices have put that convenience and access into a much more personal realm — our pockets. We now live in a world where many of us are able to summon up exactly what we want, when we want it, wherever we are. Add in the abundance of apps and smart devices beginning to flood the landscape, where artificial intelligence is getting smarter by the hour at anticipating users needs and wants, and we will soon approach a time when the idea of asking, sorting or searching will seem tedious. Technology is becoming smart enough to “know” what we want.

The Digital Natives Grow Up

Combine the changing face of accessibility and distribution, the dramatic increase in the costs of higher education, and the evolving conversation around what is “valuable” when it comes to advanced degrees and skills, and you’ve got a situation ripe for disruption. Digital natives no longer see the world and their access to content in the same ways many of us who are digital immigrants do. I grew up with limited options, defined pathways, and an organized approach to moving through the world. College-bound young people simply do not see or experience the world in the same way, and higher education needs to catch up, quickly, to address this new landscape.

In the era of “do what you love,” those seeking advanced education have the luxury of seeking out highly specialized areas of focus. Their very particular areas of interest might only exist via online courses, or non-traditional programs, but they can be found. Institutions offering access to these non-traditional opportunities to study ones passion often present the argument that a degree from their institution is just as valuable to securing a good job as a degree from an elite liberal arts college. They even challenge the value of a traditional bachelors or masters’ degree.

Time will tell if our society and areas of industry support this declaration by offering these non-traditional graduates and certificate holders the same salary ranges and upward mobility traditionally reserved for those in the elite echelon of 4 year and post doc degree holders.

As many small colleges report dropping admissions numbers and far fewer “full pay” students, a few situations are playing out:

  1. Students are being aggressively sought after by a pool of “middle to lower tier” colleges. There is more competition for their applications and attendance. Ivies and elites won’t have much to worry about in the foreseeable future, but if you’re not at the very top, your institution will likely be facing challenging times, if it isn’t already.
  2. Students are opting for less traditional approaches to higher education due to the increased costs and perception of real value. Alternative avenues like CodeAcademy, online certifications, or community colleges seem both more affordable and more targeted than a four-year residential college. They promise to allow students to focus more on a skill set or gaining real world experiential learning, rather than a more general course of study.
  3. Many traditional colleges are reacting to this changing landscape by offering more options to students (online, part-time, adult-learner focused) to cast a wider net and offer more affordable solutions to a more diverse applicant pool.

As the landscape shifts, there will be a significant number of institutions who will not be able to survive, thus thinning the herd and forcing more radical change by those left standing — in order to establish some new form of stability.

The Landscape Has Already Changed

Here’s a small example of the kinds of alternative options that are springing up everywhere, to tempt those who no longer see the four year college degree as the expected and necessary path to their future. And Malia Obama is just the latest to join the “gap year” trend, which more and more bright and ambitious young people will consider in the future. Oh and what about Bernie Sanders proclamation that college should be free?

Yep, we’ve already got that option too:

UnCollege promises to make that “gap” year as beneficial as possible.

ALISON offers access to over 500 free courses and diplomas to select from.

There’s even a free school right in my own city — Baltimore, MD!

Alternative schools are popping up everywhere, and Evergreen State College is a good example of how the status quo is changing:

As Daniel Pianko states in his Feb 2016 article in Inside Higher Ed:

“In every generation since 1862, America has innovated on the form of the university. Until ours.” … “This period of stagnation in higher education innovation is tied to an anniversary we just celebrated — the 50th year of the Higher Education Act.”

Financial Concerns Hit Home

Pianko focuses on government oversight as a factor resulting in stagnating innovation in higher education, but we must also consider the recent recession, and the steadily increasing costs to participate in traditional higher education.

During the recession of 2008–2009, you had future college-bound young people sitting around the dinner table or the television with their parents directly experiencing the impact of the recession. This had to leave a mark, with the stark realization that the promised dream of college could now be a literal anchor chained around a family’s financial health. The costs for achieving the American dream of a degree now looked more like a curse than a necessary part of the process.

The College Board reports that the average student attending an in-state public university paid $9,140 in tuition in the 2014–15 academic year. But that was just 40% of the total cost of college for public college students who didn’t live at home during their studies. The typical undergraduate who isn’t living with family pays about another $10,000 for nine months of housing and food. Overall, undergraduates at public universities typically paid $14,200 in housing, food, transportation, textbook, and miscellaneous costs, bringing the total cost of a year at the average state university to $23,400. (http://time.com/money/3768807/college-living-costs/) This is a stark reality that is not being reported accurately, leaving many first year students to suddenly face a much higher financial burden than they anticipated, thus dropping out or suspending their studies to seek employment.

http://thechoice.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/15/current-college-students-struggle-to-survive-rising-tuitions/?_r=0

The New “Traditional Undergraduate Student” and “In-Person” Experience

While the traditional world of higher education will be negatively impacted, it’s important to recognize that where innovation is happening, there is a new kind of success. What is different is that this success is being achieved by mostly minority, non-traditional and lower-income students, who are embracing technology and flexibility to pursue their educational advancements in ways that work for them.

Clay Shirky writes: “At the current rate of growth, half the country’s undergraduates will have at least one online class on their transcripts by the end of the decade. This is the new normal.”

Over 95% of institutions with 5,000 of more total students reported distance offerings.
Every year since 2003 when the Babson Survey Research Group first began tracking online enrollment numbers, the number of students taking at least one online course has grown at a rate greater than that of the overall higher education student body.
http://www.onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/gradelevel.pdf

This new reality is an affront to many in traditional educational environments, and adoption to change is thus stagnated at many institutions.

Only 28.0% of chief academic officers say that their faculty members accept the “value and legitimacy of online education,” a rate substantially the same as it was in 2003.
Ref: Grade Level

At other, more forward-looking institutions, leaders are quickly acknowledging the importance of online education.

The proportion of academic leaders who report that online learning is critical to their institution’s long term strategy has grown from 48.8% in 2002 to 70.8% this year.
— The proportion of chief academic leaders that say online learning is critical to their long-term strategy is at an all-time high.
— The proportion of institutions reporting online education is not critical to their long-term strategy has dropped to a new low of 8.6%.

Many academics and faculty feel that “in-person” learning can’t be replicated online, and thus distance learning isn’t as effective. However, we will soon see a new disruptive technology impact the world of education — virtual reality. Suddenly, students from anywhere in the world can virtually sit in any lecture hall or class, and equally impactful, any student in any classroom can virtually transport themselves to any virtual experience or environment that is created. This has the potential to significantly transform not only accessibility of higher education but also the way in which education is provided. A lecture with slides of the Sistine Chapel versus standing on the marbled floor of the cathedral, hearing the echoing voices of choral singers, while gazing up at the masterpiece above you? You decide.

VR may be seen as the next logical extension of cyberspace. While scientists and programmers have explored the possibilities of VR since the 1960s, last year marked the first time that VR hit the mainstream, when many of us from a broad range of disciplines began to first see its possibilities.

And Here We Are — So What’s Next?

All of this is to perhaps state the obvious, technology’s increasing role in our lives will inevitably transform how we educate ourselves and our citizens. The advantages technology offers to those who are being left out by the costs and rigid structure of traditional higher education are significant and exciting.

As our country evolves and seeks to address issues like accessibility, income inequality, and different learning preferences, we have a tremendous opportunity to create a more inclusive (albeit very different) landscape for obtaining higher education. We also have an opportunity to ensure future young adults entering the workforce are trained and ready to do the work that is needed in today’s world, not the world of 50 years ago.

Tomorrow, will the degree matter or the skills and experiences the job applicant has been able to achieve? We have seen a huge number of higher education institutions aggressively integrate experiential learning programs into their curriculum and long term planning. Will we dismiss someone without the resume line item of a bachelors degree, before we look at all they’ve studied, how they’ve crafted their own unique areas of study, how they’ve become skilled in areas of critical and abstract thinking and writing? I can’t speak for every business, but as the president of a creative technology company, I can tell you I don’t care about the degree. I care about the mind, the way the person has applied themselves, the things they’ve sought out on their own. I don’t look for the degree, I look for the experiences, and I look for the ones who are driven.

In a world where experience should matter more than memorized data, where self-direction should show a budding entrepreneur mindset versus a slacker who can’t fit in, where “knowing yourself” should mean you’ll follow a clearer path towards fulfillment, we, as the companies responsible for hiring the graduates of this new educational landscape, have a lot to change in our own ways of thinking. If we see the emerging workforce coming from these less traditional approaches to higher education as having equal or elevated value, we need to reflect that reality in our hiring and promotional practices. Just as we strive to embrace diversity in our companies and ensure equality is the norm not the dream, we must rethink the weight we place on the traditional degree, and be willing to consider those who apply with a unconventional resume without penalty.

It’s not our college experience, but that doesn’t mean it’s not valid, or even, better.

Next Story — Escape Velocity
Currently Reading - Escape Velocity

Escape Velocity

The force required to change is greater than the pull of habits and systems which have formed previous success.

At some point in our lives we all wake up one day having the same feeling. The desire to cast off all constraints and repetitions from daily life, leave the mundane behind, and head out into the great unknown. Adventure awaits, along with enlightenment, a reconnection to the world and a presumed shedding of our all too comfortable and boring “skins.”

What does it take to escape the pull of routines, and when should we abandon things that have worked?

“Let us step into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure.” 
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Even as the fantasy is forming, we know it’s unlikely to be realized. As we age, our lives become more interwoven with things we can’t easily separate from, and responsibilities trump the desire for adventure and spontaneity.

The “mundane” is actually a lovely blanket of security that we become less likely to throw off from around our shoulders, the more we have experienced the true bitterness of a cold and foreign wind.

We might blame the trappings of adult life or the necessary structure of professional achievement, yet we are still products of our genetics, and we are a species that seeks to survive, like all species.

Survival sometimes involves casting out into the unknown, embracing fear and challenge, and seeing what is on the other side of the mountains. But survival more often than not requires repetition and routine. That strange fruit didn’t kill you, so you can eat it again. This cave hasn’t collapsed yet, so it’s still a good shelter. The fish are plentiful in that river, so we shall keep fishing in it. You are unlikely to abandon the fruits, cave or river, until something bad happens and forces you to venture into the unknown.

The failure of a previous survival system will force innovation and risk, as a matter of future survival.

But how do you innovate and change when the impetus is not coming from a survival instinct brought on from a dangerous or threatening failure? Initiating this kind of change goes against our genetic makeup, and requires a tremendous amount of force and conviction.

In physics, escape velocity is the minimum speed needed for an object to “break free” from the gravitational attraction of a massive body. The escape velocity from Earth is about 40,270 km/h (25,020 mph).

More particularly, escape velocity is the speed at which the sum of an object’s kinetic energy and its gravitational potential energy is equal to zero. If given escape velocity, the object will move away forever from the massive body, slowing forever and approaching but never quite reaching zero speed. Once escape velocity is achieved, no further impulse need be applied for it to continue in its escape. — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Escape_velocity

Science tells us once we’ve achieved escape velocity, we are in the clear. We won’t have to worry about getting pulled back to the thing we’ve sought to escape from.

Impactful growth or evolution, typically requires several periods of significant and turbulent change.

If we look back to the Great Oxygenation Event, about 2.3 billion years ago, we can see that a massive shift in how the Earth managed oxygen changed, and was most likely a necessary precursor for life as we know it.

Another period of radical tranformation occurred during the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, when it is estimated that 75% of the lifeforms (including all non-avian dinosaurs) on the planet went extinct when an asteroid hit the earth.

Yet the devastation caused by the extinction also provided evolutionary opportunities. In the wake of the extinction, many groups underwent remarkable adaptive radiations — a sudden and prolific divergence into new forms and species within the disrupted and emptied ecological niches resulting from the event. Mammals in particular diversified in the Paleogene,[18] producing new forms such as horses, whales, bats, and primates. Birds,[19] fish[20] and perhaps lizards[12] also radiated. — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cretaceous–Paleogene_extinction_event
Radical transformation both destroys and creates.

If we apply this concept to our lives or professional pursuits, it’s safe to say that if you create enough change and disruption, and create enough new things to replace old things, you will never return to the previous ways of being. However, if you don’t achieve the required velocity of “x”, you risk being pulled back to that which you seek to escape.

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” 
― Albert Einstein

If you want significant change, innovation and evolution, I suggest that incremental shifts and slow growth are NOT the best approaches to deliver substantial change. Be prepared to see some things die off as you strive to unearth and give birth to new ideas or ways of being. Be prepared for moments of extreme pressure and force to be felt as you undergo the rapid transformation. Be ready with the duct tape and the nails, because you’re job is to hold it all together while you are en route.

One could make the case that to proactively choose to change or evolve, we are getting a jump on what is going to need to inevitably happen. One could also argue that if we aren’t changing, we are becoming complacent, and complacency often results in eventual destruction.

“You will never be entirely comfortable. This is the truth behind the champion — he is always fighting something. To do otherwise is to settle.” 
Julien Smith, The Flinch

I personally believe that there is always room for growth and change, and I also have a persistent curiosity and compulsion to examine problems and look for new solutions. This is probably why I am an entrepreneur, a business owner, and a painter.

What are you hoping to get out of all this change? Generally it is a desire to get “more” or “better” or both.

There are a few times I can recall reaching for something equivalent to escape velocity in my own life, both personally and professionally.

In 1985 I was in my freshman year of high school. I was painfully awkward and insecure, and most days I would sit at the back of the class and watch all the other kids crack jokes and interact. It seemed so easy for them, why was I having such a hard time joining in? At that moment, sitting in that classroom, I decided to change. The only way I was going to find out what kind of person I was capable of becoming was going to require some drastic action. I started giving myself daily tasks to train myself to feel confident; talking to someone outside my sphere of oddball friends, asking more questions when I was in a group setting, trying on different attitudes and approaches to see what fit, and what didn’t. Every day a new challenge, every night, I went to sleep with a growing collection of experiences that began to drown out the insecurities, and create new behaviors.

My social experiments and observations became more interesting than my feelings of not fitting in, of not being “normal.” I realized people would only judge me as harshly as I judged myself, and my intellect and humor were far more powerful than if I had the right outfit on (which I NEVER did) or wanted to chug MadDog behind the bleachers (I didn’t care for drinking or sports). I went exploring my universe and found my circles, my planets, my people, and my passions. Suddenly a confident, engaging and free-spirited human being emerged, something I desperately wanted but could never have achieved if I hadn’t decided to hit the launch button.

Much more recently, about four years ago, I realized my company was on auto-pilot. We were doing good work, were relatively successful in our industry, and saw a slowly growing base of happy clients and long-term employees. What we didn’t have was a real sense of purpose. I mean, as much as we all love them, “websites” do not inspire me to get out of bed every day. I was really questioning what all this effort was going towards? We needed to push past our current horizon lines and see what was possible. If for no other reason, to see what would happen if we really started increasing the velocity and the intensity of what we were doing. This required taking some big risks, like moving to our new office space, like hiring some more people to help us maintain our acceleration, and letting go of people who were holding us back. It required a questioning of the very core of the company, and reaching out to many more mentors and people whose input I respected so I could gain perspective. It required me to push my team into new roles, and help them learn new skills. It meant literally changing every facet of what had been working just fine.

The end result after about 2 years of effort was the emergence of this “more” and “better” company, with a focused mission and spirit, and these evolved colleagues who had been with us on the ship. It was a wonderful and rewarding point to get to, after so much effort and many times questioning if the work would be worth it.

And now I’m finding myself in a state of required acceleration and change again, as we take a very hard look at how we are running our business and see if we can push ourselves into a new place where the trappings of our old company won’t clutter our vision, or fracture our approach. This voyage is still underway so you’ll have to check back in about 12 more months and I can let you know how it turned out — that’s my estimated remaining travel time. These are often long journeys.

Everything is in a constant state of change and evolution if we really look at things microscopically. Nothing is completely still, or stagnant. Even the new systems we create will produce their own kind of gravitational pull, and that will spawn new forms of innovation we hand’t necessarily expected.

You must determine what your required escape velocity is, and achieve it, or you’re doomed to return and have to start over again.
“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.” 
― Albert Einstein

There is significant effort in creating meaningful change. And you certainly risk failure to achieve the transformation. If you are responsible for moving an entire team of people through this process, you’re going to have to nurture them all, along with yourself. You’re going to have to watch every seam and latch, and ensure your team stays relatively intact. You can take a few bumps and bruises on the way, but you can’t have the whole thing blow up.

How will you know when you’ve reached escape velocity?

Everything will feel effortless, and you may even forget you’re sitting in the driver’s seat. You will find yourself in a place of endless possibilities, with little in the form of obstruction standing in your way. You will feel your view is far reaching and clear, and that the people who are with you are standing beside you, not behind you, free to explore this new “place” you’ve reached.

The artist Robert Henri writes in The Art Spirit:

“The object isn’t to make art, it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.”

When you find yourself in a state where great things are inevitable, you’ve reached escape velocity. You are free to create new things. You have changed.

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