Category Archives: Organization+Strategy

The beauty in complaining

My head buzzes when I am around people who start to complain too much. It's like an electric current goes through my head, starts building, and then my frazzled mind-space begins to implode under all of the pressure.

I like solving problems, and can be known to interrupt or interject with "Yeah, sure, okay, but — how do we fix this?" instead of patiently listening.

{I'm working on it. I'm a much better listener than I was five years ago.}

The worst is when complaints run in a continuous loop, as though their very existence begets more opportunities to begrudge the same thing over and over again. I'm sure you know exactly what I'm talking about. Someone who complains about the same thing over and over again, and yet does nothing to fix or change the situation.

But complaints aren't always bad.

Complaints are valuable — the first time.

If we can ignore the tinny-tin-tin buzz chattering complainers (I sometimes picture those world cup Vuvuzuelas as the pinnacle of a swarm of complainers, buzzy bees dancing around my ears doing nothing for nobody) then we can try to hear the music in the buzz. I like to think it has something to tell me — or you:

Every complaint is an opportunity.

Even the gripers have their merits: a gripe is feedback, a reflection on the world, information for a product or a process — and it can be something that reveals a way in which our environments can be different, changed, or better.

If the complaint stops at just that — a vocal expression of disapproval or — well, then it doesn't do much good. That's just whining.

And if a complaint happens more than once, it's time to act.

Sometimes I find myself repeating the same complaint in my head. If I hear myself say it more than once, though, I try to immediately think: What can I do about this?

A complaint is the first key towards solving a problem. The easiest problems to solve are ones we can readily identify.

A great way to solve problems is to look around and see that they exist. So the next time you hear someone complain, look again at what's being said.

Complaining about late buses? Then figure out a system for notifying riders of the bus schedule and arrival times. Complaining that banks aren't open on Sundays? Figure out a way to do banking on Sundays without going into a teller. Want to stop getting parking tickets? Make a map of the cities' street signs and rig it to your iPhone alarm clock. Complaining that you can't find things? Figure out a better way to stay organized.

Annoyed that telephones are stuck into wires in walls and you have to stand in one place to talk to someone? Oh snap, invent a cell phone.

Businesses solve problems.

People make stuff to fix problems you have — sometimes before you knew you had a problem in the first place — and it's in order to make your life a little bit better.

Often, the opportunities require work, effort, or time (hence the complaint) but they are certainly opportunities. They should challenge us to figure out how to do something better and figure out new solutions.

Often, it's just a small thing that can be fixed or tweaked to make something much better. Hipmunk gives Kayak a run for it's money on finding cheap airline flights. HootSuite, TweetDeck, BufferApp, and Meet Edgar are all variations on the same problem: coordinating social posts and sharing your work in the social world.

Making something slightly better or easier to use can be a huge opportunity.

Complaints should happen once.

Then they should spur you to action. Complain. Then think: How can I fix this?

The brightest people in the world — and the basis for many, many business ideas — comes from a simple look at something that doesn't *quite* work so well and coming up with a way to make it better. A greater challenge, of course, is to create a solution for a problem people didn't know they had: Apple's iPod, for example, solved a problem that many people didn't realize they had in the first place: the ability to carry an indefinite amount of music around with you in your pocket.

Many of the best businesses, in fact, understand a problem or an opportunity and then fix it before you even knew it existed.

An amazing example of this will come from Google's Cars, if the cars end up working very well (which I hope they do): the problem? People don't like driving, or at least they don't like driving on a regular basis, when the drive is the same day-to-day and they could be using that time (often 1-2 hours in traffic each way) for something else. Clearly, the public transportation systems and the way that they are run leave something to be desired in all of us — otherwise, we wouldn't have so many cars cramming into our cities and spaces. People prefer being in their own cars, under their own terms. Even when it's ridiculously expensive to own a car. I look forward to the solutions that stem from the opportunities of car sharing, private rides, and better public transportation.

If you're complaining about the same thing over and over again and you already know how to fix it, or you have an idea of how it could be better, then it's time to start working on it.

And if you've never thought about it this way before: every time you see something you don't like, from trash on the subway to long lines to confusing information, realize that it's probably a business waiting to happen, and it could be yours.

Listen to what other people are complaining about as free advice for what might be a great business opportunity.

What are people complaining about? What are you complaining about? How are you going to fix it?

Bam. There's your next business idea.

Go make something better.

How to write more handwritten notes.

I love checking the mailbox. I’ve had pen pals since I was seven years old — and it’s one of the ways Alex and I first met. Yet in today’s busy-busy world, how do you make time to sit down, get out the pen, and write a note? Here are a few tricks you might love: 1.Continue Reading

Hustle is a dial, not a way of being.

There are appropriate times to hustle in your business. Sometimes you’re hustling for a year or two on the side, creating your escape route and freedom business to jump ship from your corporate job. Sometimes you stay up late and hustle the night before a course launches, or when you’re putting the final tweaks onContinue Reading

Project hangovers, self-criticism, and the necessity of making messes.

I have a confession. Sometimes–more nearly like every time–after finishing a project, I hate it. My writing class? Sucks, obviously. Last week’s essay? Good God, that could have been better. All those open and empty drafts waiting to be finished? Seriously, could have worked harder to get those done.  And on and on… My brainContinue Reading

Making money as a creative entrepreneur: how I make money, where I spend my time, and what I’ve learned from launching my own ventures.

When I was four weeks old, my mother and father took our then-family-of-four from Germany to Idaho Falls, little baby and tiny toddler in tow. We were standing around in the living room, as my mother recalls (to be be fair, I can’t recall and I certainly wasn’t standing—more likely drooling), talking about the insaneContinue Reading

The best of the blog: behind the scenes on organization, archives, and new reading collections for your weekend.

What does 250 blog posts look like? A look back at the archives and the best bits from three years of blogging.Continue Reading

Are you minimalist enough? An experiment in giving up clothes for a year.

As a person with an apartment that has hundreds of books, I sometimes feel like my efforts to de-clutter and reduce the number of things that surround me aren’t enough. In my efforts to reduce clutter and consider minimalist–or simplicity–as a strategy, I began to doubt my efforts in being minimalist. And the thought begins to creep in: I’m not minimalist enough. What follows is the result of a year-long experiment in giving up buying clothes.Continue Reading

When I hold on too tight…

I’ve noticed that when I hold on to things, it doesn’t mean that they get better. When I held on–and I held on so tight! –the writing didn’t get better, the launch of my newsletter didn’t get any better; it got longer. It almost disappeared into the abyss of doubts and worries, of perfections and neuroses; itContinue Reading

Getting things done: how I take notes + snapshots of my moleskine + my nerdy highlighter system

Lots of folks have emailed me to ask me how I get everything done and what systems I have in place to keep myself motivated, on track, and organized. I love watching how other people work and learning what they do to stay organized–so I thought I’d share a behind-the-scenes peek into some of my systems.Continue Reading

Do less work by asking for what you want.

Ever need help with something and don’t know how to ask? Or worse, you think you have to do every step of it yourself? The other day I was chatting with a good friend of mine. A freelance graphic designer with a decent set of clients, he found himself too busy and overworked–and he beganContinue Reading