Can vs How Can

Most Saturday mornings I lie in bed listening to Krista Tippett’s radio show, On Being. These mornings usually involve me drifting in and out of sleep, so I have the luxury of grasping small bits of the show and working them through in my own mind. One of those Saturdays, I heard an interview with a social psychologist, Ellen Langer. My mind heard and held, “can verses how can.” You have the link to the actual show in this article, so you can draw your own conclusions, but here are mine for you to ponder.


My mother taught me that “can,” speaks to ability, not permission. “Can I go to the park?” is very different from “May I go to the park?”

Can vs How CanWhen I go deeper than basic grammar, I realize can is usually answered with a single word. One word can be powerful, but what about situations involving metaphoric false positives (or negatives)? Sometimes yes or no comes too easily. Sometimes it comes from habit, tradition, past experiences, or fear. We’re not asking permission, we are trying to attain some perceived truth. Once we receive the answer, most of us stop asking the question. That can leave us stuck.

How Can

Adding the word how introduces process, troubleshooting, and possibilities. When we ask how something can happen, we force ourselves to examine the parts of the issue at hand. “How can I go to the park?” invites us to consider transportation, available time, wardrobe… We break down a simple situation into its component parts. This process introduces alternatives. “I don’t have enough time to walk to the park, but riding my bike will get me there faster.” How invites us to look again, to see the small options that could make or break a project. How gives us the chance to evolve with our environment.

Scientific research is full of how can. How can is the driving force in health care, automotive design, marketing, technology, and entrepreneurship. How can has the power to replace what no longer works with what does. Of course, we sometimes come back to the same yes or no, but we have a deeper understanding of why. Try an experiment. If you find yourself, your team, or your company asking the same questions, ask the deeper how question. Ask, “How can we find a younger audience?” Ask, “How can we avoid laying off employees?” Ask yourself, “How can I make this dream of mine into reality?” Go a little deeper, break down what seems simple. You might change your false negative into a positive.


7 Things Lady Gaga has in Common with Toads

You’re looking for the next audience-grabbing title for your blog? You could try one of the title generators out there, or you could dig a little deeper and tap into the next layer of your creativity. I generated this post’s title as a joke. There are a lot of articles with similar names out there, and frankly it’s starting to get dull and predictable.

There is nothing new under the sun

First, let me take the pressure off. There is no way you are going to invent something totally new, and if you do, nobody will like it for a good, long while (see Why Wait?). For example, sunrises and sunsets have included the same colors* since (brace yourselves) the dawn of time. They happen on a regular basis, they look largely the same each time they occur, and people still manage to find them beautiful and inspiring. People like familiar things. In fact, one of the most important ways we learn is through “generalization,” applying our impressions of one thing onto other things we see as similar — what Lady Gaga has in common with Toads (perhaps they are both occasionally psychedelic?). Generalization motivates people to click on titles like this, but people also get bored, and then they stop caring enough to click.

So, how do you balance familiar with fresh? One method is the rephrase game: “7 Things Lady Gaga has in Common with Toads” could become, “Lady Gaga walks into a Bar with a Toad on her Head, and Nobody Notices.” Need something punchier? “Lady Gaga and Toads: Two Bumps, Same Log.” The real challenge is getting the creative juices flowing. Relax, take a walk, sit and think about your breathing, make a list of stuff, anything. Once the juices start flowing, you are tapping into that next layer of creativity. That’s where all the good stuff is, but you’re going to have to trick yourself into it.

Boredom: Private Enemy Number 1

Are you bored? That means you aren’t engaged in what you’re doing. You’re going through the motions, phoning it in. The antidote is to change your scenery. Physically or virtually go someplace you’ve never been. Look at something differently by turning it upside down, or looking at it through a glass of water. Do something familiar in an unfamiliar place and notice how it feels, sounds, smells, tastes. These experiences expand us, because they force us to pay attention. We are engaged when we pay attention. That sunset you’ve seen throughout your life will look different in the mountains or on the beach. It’s the same sunset. It’s the same eyes. The geography makes it different. It’s a trick to engage ourselves. When we’re engaged and passionate about what we’re writing, our audience is engaged too.

So, does she have anything in common with toads?

In the end, it really doesn’t matter if Lady Gaga has anything in common with toads. Your passion for your subject builds your audience. Tricking into clicking only works for a while. Passion and perspective get you to the next layer of your creativity, and keep your audience engaged.

* published an article studying the composition and colors of the most effective images on Pinterest. The article recommends red, orange, brown, and very little blue — the colors found in a sunrise or sunset. 

Be the Guy Who Can Take a Joke

bo-catsI could be deported from Nebraska for admitting this, but I don’t follow football and I only have a vague idea who Bo Pelini is. I saw the photo on the right a couple of years ago. It’s one of those Face-in-hole images of the Cornhusker football coach, Bo Pelini. It’s funny. He looks a little slack-jawed. The cat looks annoyed. It’s all harmless fun.

Recently I became aware of a guy on Twitter, who calls himself @fauxpelini. I loved the play on words. I sat in on a conference call with him, and found him to be very bright and witty. He likes football and created a character around the persona of the coach. It is safe to say he has become a rousing success. He has nearly a hundred-thousand followers on Twitter and has the attention of the coach himself. A fan sent Faux the picture of Bo with the cat. When Faux adopted it as his Twitter photo it crossed the line from joke to brand. That’s why the Spring Game’s tunnel walk got so much attention.

I don’t know if it was Bo or a member of his staff who pushed for this, but it was a perfect bit of marketing. This short walk onto the field, cat in hand, showed a guy who doesn’t take himself too seriously. In that moment, he went from being the guy who’s “no Tom Osourne,” to the guy you’d invite over for beer and brats. Sometimes the gold goes to the guy who can take a joke.

Why Wait?

You have a fantastic idea and your friends say, you’re ahead of your time. This isn’t just a cliche. It might be true. You might be ahead of the curve. CBS Sunday Morning recently aired an interview with Pharrell Williams. In July of 2013, his song, Happy, was released as part of the movie Despicable Me 2. At that time, the song did very little on the music charts. According to the interview, “[Happy] went nowhere at first. “When they took it to radio, they were like, ‘It’s just too different.'” Four months later, they released a video of the song and it seeped into our culture. Why? Timing.

“When they took it to radio, they were like, ‘It’s just too different.'”

Pharrell has a lot of history behind him. He’s worked on big hit songs, producing some of the best-known artists in the industry. Work on this level sharpens your instincts. What the general public hears has typically been in the works for a year or longer. In essence, Pharrell has made his living being a year or two ahead of his time. He listens differently, and hears “no” differently. People in the entertainment business understand that sometimes you simply have to wait for the trends to shift. Why wait? Because it can make the difference between a near miss and a culture-shaking hit.

So, the next time you hear, “no,” wait. The next time you hear, “you’re ahead of your time,” keep working on your instincts. Four months or four years later, you might have a hit on your hands.

Getting my Master’s from Taxi

An early, stream-of-consciousness, writing session.
An early, stream-of-consciousness, writing session.

Some years ago I decided I would become a songwriter. I was never going to be the next Beyonce, and I wanted a private life. I was working in a job I disliked, for a company that didn’t value my creativity. I felt stuck and wanted a do-over. One day I took my lunch break at a local bookstore and browsed some titles. I ended up with a copy of Jason Blume’s Six Steps to Songwriting Success. I devoured it.

Writing wasn’t a new idea. I grew up in a writing family. My mother had a Master’s Degree in Theatrical Playwriting, and I am the fourth generation of poets on her side. She took me to poetry retreats. I sat in on workshops led by Bill Kloefkorn. I watched and listened, as he gently rewrote good, sometimes mediocre poems. One of these was completely transformed, simply by writing it in present tense. It was so simple, so powerful! I’ll be sharing some of Bill’s insights in future posts, and my mother’s are sure to slip in now and then.

I was never going to be the next Beyonce, and I wanted a private life.

After reading Jason’s book, I knew I had it in me to be a lyricist, a good one. I also understood that the industry needed more than a home recording of me and a guitar. I started talking about this with a composer friend, Kurt Knecht. He said he had a friend who had sold some songs through Taxi, and I should check them out. Taxi was also listed in Jason’s book as a reputable company, so I took a look. I started watching their video content, and decided to join.

I looked at this as coursework towards a Master’s in Songwriting. I used the listings as writing assignments. Submissions were exams. Critiques were the teacher’s markings in the margins of my papers. The Road Rally was an extended master class. It’s worked. I have become a songwriter. I listen to music differently now. I recognize a great hook when I hear it. I understand there are varying degrees of hits. I don’t just hear the melody and the lyrics, I hear what’s going on underneath, what’s driving the song forward. Most importantly, I’m not afraid to rewrite. My best doesn’t come out in one shot. Sometimes my great ideas need a little space to develop. Future posts will expand on all of these points, but now you know how it all started.

Why this is Brilliant!

The video above came across my desk this week. I work for a small company that bought a GoPro camera. Since then, I have been on the GoPro mailing list. Some of the messages I receive are catalogs of specialized mounts, but the ones I watch for have featured videos. I have watched models base jump in heels, hippies snow board, and ruggedly handsome men hang out with lions. I am hooked. This one in particular struck me as brilliant.

The Indie Band

Family Crest is your typical indie band. They wrote a good song, with a memorable hook. It is just different enough to be a little exciting. This band has a handful of videos on their YouTube channel. Bunches of them are static images with music over the top of them. Those have a respectable number of views. The band also has a fully-produced video that is nicely edited, it’s pretty and shows off San Francisco. That video has over 32,000 views. Then they filmed this with a camera strapped to everything that moves. More importantly, they let the viewer see those cameras. Now this video has over a quarter of a million views.

Product Placement!

This video is going viral because it has the power of a corporation behind it. GoPro features videos that show the cameras and what they can do. Add a great song and you have something people will share. Make it attractive to the right demographic and you get sales! Show 5 or 6 cameras in the same video, and you get multiple sales! This video represents a magic cycle. Family Crest created this video hoping to get picked up by GoPro. It paid off, and their video is being viewed by hundreds of thousands of potential new fans. GoPro is also seeing a pay off. This hits their demographic and every view is a potential customer.