Behind the curtain

Photo of brick buildings in downtown Portland -- across the top of one of the buildings in tall block letters reads, "Long live the wildcards, misfits & dabblers"

The past month or so, I’ve been having tons of conversations with people formally and informally, short and long, structured and meandering. I talked with former clients, mentors, colleagues in various forms, faculty and classmates in my coaching training cohort, people I had just met at the conference I was attending, and longtime friends.

In some cases, I particularly sought advice from someone—whether I’d specifically reached out hoping for advice or simply asked in response to a topic of conversation. And, tactical questions aside (like, where should I eat in your city), the answer was almost always the same.

“There is no advice.”

That was what my extremely real, dear old junior high school friend said. But that’s basically what everyone else said, too. And these are brilliant people. People I respect and have learned from. People whom I saw as further ahead on the curve. Who perhaps, at most, shared what they did in a similar situation, and then that they really weren’t sure but it had seemed to work. And that they were still figuring it out.

One person I had intended to ask for advice actually opened the conversation by wondering out loud about something with me, and the conversation took a lovely turn I hadn’t expected.

In other cases, I observed someone do something in a particularly skillful manner (ways I wanted to be able to emulate)—only to hear them afterwards share that they had been very uncertain of themselves the entire time. I have taken mental notes of what someone did or how they handled a situation to squirrel away for future reference, and then heard them question how they could have done it better.

To be fair, I’ve also had my share of being on the other side. Getting complimented or having people think that I’ve got it all figured out feels…scary. Like they’re going to find out* that I’m just making it up as I go along. (Even if I have a pretty decent track record of figuring things out.) And yet.

The most valuable conversations were those where we let each other behind the curtain and reveal the rest of what’s really happening.** Where we let go of anyone having the answers—of there being right answers, of answers being some sort of magic passcode that unlocked the door to some secret garden. Where we could sit in those questions together. Be curious. Be real with each other. I am forever grateful to all the people who let and continue to let me behind the curtain. And I am grateful to have worked with a coach who taught me to ask whether there a right answer actually exists when I am exasperating myself in pursuit of one. (Not that this isn’t a lesson I continue to work on!)

No matter how much someone seems to have it all figured out – we’re all just figuring it out as we go along. And in my experience, the people who frequently wonder about how they could have done something better – those have been the people I’ve learned the most from, whom I’ve witnessed be the best at what they do. They are the people doing tremendous things, because they keep asking themselves that question. Because they care to question if they are doing the right thing, and if they are doing it in a way that they can feel good about. But they don’t let it stop them from doing the thing.

Are there people who are, perhaps, objectively better at a particular skill or more knowledgeable in a certain area? Sure. There are certainly service designers who are more skilled at designing digital services or knowledgeable about designing experiences. But I’ve actually implemented programs and services, and specifically within a nonprofit and community-focused context. There are more skilled instructional designers and teachers than me, but I’ve actually had to answer customer support questions and besides, people always come away learning something they can apply—and that’s my goal. Doesn’t mean I can’t get better, or that I won’t.

So I’m going to change tack.

Instead of asking for advice, I’m going to ask people how they would think about a situation. What are the questions they ask? What are the factors they consider? When do they take a particular type of action? Who are the people they learn from? To ask them what goes on behind the curtain in their brains as they work on a problem.

In fact, it’s the kind of thing I’ve seen time and again in coaching others – people know more than they realize. And that includes you and me. The trick is in clearing the other muck out of the way first so we can see it.

What do you think about this approach? Have you had similar experiences? Take a different approach entirely? I’m curious to learn more.

*While, yes, this feeling is the feeling of being an impostor, I no longer believe that impostor syndrome truly exists. Rather, after learning more (I suggest reading “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome” by Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey), and after reflecting on multiple previous experiences where I was told that I didn’t know what I was talking about—sometimes publicly—by people who had significantly more power in the relationship, and the ways in which I’ve seen others knocked down for similar reasons, I’ve come to see this feeling as a preemptive protective measure against the ways in which insecure people attempt to maintain superiority. At least, I know that in my head—but I still feel it!

**(Spoiler alert!) The phrase “behind the curtain” comes from The Wizard of Oz, in which there is a scene where they find the big, scary wizard, and it turns out to be just a regular human guy behind a curtain operating a machine for special effects. While in the case of the movie (I don’t recall if that scene is in the original novel), the curtain is used for deception, I’m not talking about people putting up facades intentionally—although that happens, too, of course, and is simply human. But what I’m referring to here in terms of “what’s really happening” is that it’s easy for any of us to see things on social media or hear fragments of what’s going on with someone in a short, passing chat and come up with an image in our heads that is at best incomplete and, at worst, very skewed or completely misreading a situation. It’s natural to fill in any blanks and to want to connect the dots we can see—but important to remember that there’s always a lot that we can’t see and don’t have access to.

The power of actually sharing photos

Even if you haven’t done marketing and communications work, I bet that you’ve felt that magnetic pull of an image – especially on those sites and apps with infinite scroll and where the supply of cute animal photos (and now videos) feels endless.  We’ve all felt the power of an image that compelled us to click to see more, understood stories that told only in photos, and most of us have probably also fretted about what photo to use when sharing certain things on social media.  (Don’t worry, I fretted plenty over what photo to use for a post about the power of sharing photos!)

The St. Mary's River at the tail end of sunset, the sky pastel pink and yellow and purple and reflected in the calm water
The St. Mary’s River at the tail end of sunset, the sky pastel pink and yellow and purple and reflected in the calm water — I spent many many evenings and nights walking by the St. Mary’s River during college (at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, a.k.a. the best St. Mary’s!) because I love, love, loved watching the sunset in the water, the jewel tones at dusk, and the lights that shined across the river at night, and the sound of the water gently lapping. Even just seeing it now brings back lots of fond memories of long walks with friends and the types of conversations it seems that you can only really have late at night.

As a writer, it may not be surprising that when it comes to social media, I mostly use words.  However, I’ve really come to love sharing photos one on one.  With my parents, we often share pictures of what we’re eating and meals we’ve cooked.  My friends share photos of their pets and kids and gardens and bathroom renovations.  I’ll send a friend a picture of something I saw in a store that I know they would have liked or gotten a kick out of.  I’ll send the pet lovers photos of the cat.  One of the sweetest birthday presents I ever received was a video of my niece and nephew singing happy birthday to me, while I was half a world away.

Why does it feel so different than if I had seen the photo on social media, instead of in a message sent directly to me?  Isn’t social media still a way of sharing what’s going on in our lives or what we’re experiencing with friends and family?

Several years ago, I took a course on knowledge management where they had a number of really wonderful guest lecturers (I learned so much! Thanks, Tara and Piers!).  And one day, there were two people from an NGO I have unfortunately forgotten the name of, but they basically did work around storytelling and public health and helping organizations get better at storytelling to get their messages across.  And they had us all do an activity: We were paired up and then told to find a photo on our phone and share it with our partner and tell them about it. 

The magic that lit up that room.  Everyone was abuzz and they had to really get our attention to wrap up the activity.  Although the speakers were showing us the power of photos in terms of storytelling, here’s what I remember.

I remember how a group of us who had just met a couple days ago were now telling a near stranger about our favorite places, about how proud we were of our kids, about life changing trips, about loved ones who maybe were no longer with us.  In the span of a few minutes.

I remember that the room felt warmer.  That I felt looser and more grounded at the same time.  That while we had all been sharing, the space felt alive. 

Because we were building relationships with each other – with the person sitting next to us.  Even if one person was showing the photo and telling the story at a time, it was still a two-way street.  The other person made eye contact, nodded, smiled, made verbal acknowledgements, and/or asked questions.

And that’s the thing that gets missed sometimes in social media.  Don’t get me wrong – there can certainly be a power to sharing our stories and letting people in when we say, post a photo or even a written story on a social media site.  Obviously, I would not write blog posts if I did not believe there was also value in sharing things with a wide audience.  There’s a place for that and it is needed.

But sharing a photo with one person (or even one small group of people) directly is a way to connect, to build relationships, to let people in—to say, “I choose you to share this with.” 

There’s a conversation you can have in that space that you have created with the other person that you can’t have with an audience because you can each be equal participants.  The other person can contribute to the conversation and move it to another place – beyond simply responding to what you had posted or shared (though they can do that, too).  It’s easy for social media posts to get performative without necessarily intending for them to.  But in a conversation with another person, it’s not about metrics.

When I worked in offices, I tried to make a point of acknowledging people when I or they walked in.  Maybe it was a hello or head nod or a slight rap on the top of their cubicle wall as I went by.  Because all of us, we need to feel seen, too.  Feeling seen is different from being seen.

And that’s why conversations will never be replaced by posting and publishing. 

So I say…in this blog post…which I am publishing.  But if you want to talk, or have a photo to share, you can always drop me a line so we can have a conversation.