Pretending to be someone I’m not

A few Saturdays ago I spent three hours helping my first grader with her math homework. It was a frustrating for both of us. The concepts weren’t making sense to her. I didn’t understand why she couldn’t focus. It probably didn’t help that I was trying work while she completed her homework (my attention was divided).

That night, I thought about my failings as a parent and how I wished the afternoon had gone better. I started to think through alternatives to help her learn and keep me from becoming impatient. How might I make learning fun for her and focus my attention on teaching her?

The idea I settled on was to pretend to be someone else – to role play.

The next day (Sunday) I told my daughter that I had hired a private tutor. “He has extensive mathematical training AND he is British. Mr. Shepard, the patient, British math tutor.”


I set up a flip chart and we started working away on concepts (doubles, making ten, adding by 8, and so on). I used my best British accent and was very patient. I tried to think “what would Mr. Shepard do?” (by the way, I just invented Mr. Shepard that day). Mr. Shepard thought of lots of fun examples and was complimentary

My daughter loved this time and it was a blast for me too. She learned the concepts and finished her homework quicker than the previous day. Mr. Shepard has not visited since, but I’m sure he will come again when the time is right.

This exercise got me thinking about the value of role playing – pretending to be someone else is a great way to gain empathy and take a stand. You may be wrong in how you are approaching the role, but there is no middle ground.

Imagine that you and a colleague are working on a presentation for your CFO. What if one of you pretends to be the CFO? Mannerisms and all – really get into her head. What questions would she have? What other information would she want to see on slide 4? What parts would she like, what would she not like?

This is an exercise in empathy – by role playing you are consciously stepping out of your shoes and into your CFO’s shoes. Also, you are taking a leap. You have seen your CFO in action, but thinking like she thinks takes inference. These leaps lead to insights – seeing the world from a different perspective.



But what if you are wrong? What if you completely misunderstand how your CFO thinks and you bomb the presentation? This is great!

Imagine the next time you are preparing for a presentation? You’ll remember how the last stand that you took needs to be adjusted. If you had not role played, if you had not taken a stand, what would you have really learned from the meeting about your CFO?

Empathy is a continual learning process. Attempt, fail, adjust, attempt again, fail again, adjust again, etc.

So the next time you need some inspiration, patience, or want to approach a problem the way and expert would, just play pretend and gain instant empathy!



November is National Blog Post Month (NaBloPoMo). This post is part of my post-a-day challenge. I have picked a theme for the challenge: song titles. These songs have been featured on live albums from KEXP (an awesome alternative radio station in Seattle), so at a minimum you will hear some great music.

There are two juveniles that are particularly close to me. I just tucked them into bed, but they went to sleep unaware that they took part in my personal and professional development. And it wasn’t just tonight, they help me grow every day.

Tonight we did something that they love. We played a game that is called “emcee.” I grab something that looks like a mic (tonight it was a half used tube of diaper cream) and then emcee the rest of the night. The girls sit on their beds and I start:

I want to thank everyone for joining us tonight. It has really been a special time. This is a really unique setting and makes me feel very close to you. I just want to run down the rest of the evening for you.

Next we will be brushing teeth. That will occur in the bathroom. It’s just down the hall to the left. After that we will floss – as you know it’s super important that we floss. One of the most important things we will do tonight.

After flossing, we will brush hair. We certainly don’t want any tangles in the morning. No one wants to start their day with tangled hair.

That about covers it. Let’s meet back in here in fifteen minutes for a special presentation. Thanks again for joining us. It’s been a real treat to be with you tonight.

They absolutely love this sort of treatment. They continually laugh and instruct me on what to say. All the while, I am getting better as a public speaker. I’m not sure why I had the idea to MC my kids bed time, but I am glad that I did.

Think about all the time you spend with your kids (or nieces/nephews). They are a great audience. They tend to laugh at your jokes. Why not try out fun stuff on them that could potentially improve you professionally?

Share what you’ve done. I’d love to have more ideas and opportunities to practice with my kids.

Choose to be excited


A few posts ago, I wrote about creating a #FAIL folder. One of the entries that occupies my #FAIL folder goes like this…a co-worker had just watched the 60 Minutes program on David Kelley and Design Thinking. When this aired in January, I was beyond excited. I felt like this 30 minutes lended validation to what I had been working toward for the past year. No longer was my way of solving problems just uncomfortable and unfamiliar, it was on 60 Minutes!

BUT…and a crucial “BUT”….but, this aired six months ago. So when my co-worker mentioned his excitement around the show, rather than choosing to be excited and stoke his excitement, I responded coldly…”you mean the one that aired six months ago?”

What a complete asshole move. I had a choice, I could have chosen to be excited, but it was old news to me and I made it known.

Why is it so easy to throw cold water on someone’s excitement? I’m guilty more that I’d like to admit. With my wife, my kids, people at work, etc.

You find yourself busy, disappointed, or just generally having a bad day and someone in your life is excited. They had a fabulous day, made an A on their spelling test, or read an article that they think you’ll find exciting. You have a choice…do you show support and celebrate whatever has made them excited? Or do you just respond with Eeyore like enthusiasm?

I’ve faced a similar choice today…and thankfully I chose to stoke the excitement. And what happened? I found myself becoming energized and excited along with my co-worker. It was infectious.

My take is that a life well lived is really about living for others. This means that much of the time you are denying yourself. If I am having a rough day, and someone comes to me with excitement, my natural desire is to stay busy, disappointed, etc. Denying myself means engaging with those around me and letting go of my to-do list, or inbox, or important project to instead be a human with other humans. To listen to what is on someone’s mind. To develop relationships that make life rich. To develop community.

I want to be excited when my family, friends and coworkers are excited. To laugh with them. To cry with them. To live life and build community. To make a choices that show I care for and love others more than I care for myself.

Will you join me?


Always improving


As I was reading to my daughters last night, I thought about two things I do while reading to them that relate to this idea of improving:

  1. When I read I try to work on voice inflection – not being monotone, using different voices – in general, I try to get into the story as much as possible
  2. I try to read long passages at a time without looking at the page. Read a sentence quickly to myself, look up, and then say the sentence out loud. I’m not sure when this will come in handy (apart from having to deliver a pre-written speech in front of a large audience) but it’s something I practice anyway

So after typing these out, I realize this may sound very strange, but my kids love #1 and they don’t even realize that I am playing a memory game (I had typed out “they don’t even realize that I am doing #2” but I decided that sounded ridiculous!). I read to my kids every night, so every night is an opportunity to use the time I have to also work on my ability to speak in public.

What is something you do every day that could also help you improve on a skill you need for your job? Do you have an opportunity to take on a leadership role at a non-profit that you are involved in? I had a co-worker who viewed volunteering to read scripture in church as a way to improve her confidence to speak in public. Is “always improving” a reason on it’s own to volunteer? Of course not. I read to my kids because I love spending the time with them…it’s one of the highlights of my day. That said, I’m always looking for ways to improve.

Learning prototyping with the marshmallow challenge

As mentioned in my last post about prototyping, Tom Wujec’s TED talk is an excellent way to learn more about prototyping. The title of the talk is “Build a tower, build a team.” I highly suggest that you watch the TED talk (it’s only 7 mins long), but I’ll give an overview what this exercise is, how to give one, and some of my observations (and the benefits) from conduction a marshmallow challenge.  I’ve given this challenge to adults as well as my daughter’s kindergarten class and it is a lot of fun. 


What is the marshmallow challenge

It’s an exercise where teams of 4 compete against each other to build the tallest tower out of 20 dry sticks of spaghetti, a yard of tape, a yard of string, and 1 marshmallow. Major rules: 1) you have 18 minutes 2) the marshmallow must be on top of the tower and 3) the tower must be built on a table – the measurement is from the bottom of the tower to the marshmallow (In other words, you can’t stack chairs on a table and win that way!)

How do I give one of these?

Go to Everything you need is here, including slides from Tom’s TED talk. The last time I did this, this exercise was part of an overview of design thinking.

What have I observed from these exercises?

First, the participants tend to have A LOT of fun. The competitive juices are flowing. The clock is ticking. They are trying to build the highest tower of anyone – ever – on the planet.

Second, it’s a great example in the importance of prototyping. The teams that do the best are the ones that build smaller scale towers and test out the structure with the marshmallow on top. I have a small sample size here, but most teams I see don’t even think about the marshmallow until there is a minute left. At that point, it’s too late and the tower ends up tumbling. Per Tom’s talk and my own observations with my daughters class, kids are always thinking about the marshmallow. (Note: I think this is largely because they are focused on who gets to eat the marshmallow after the exercise!) See the picture below. This is a montage from a recent challenge of teams’ marshmallows with about 1 minute left. Notice how many of the marshmallows are still on the table!


Back to the snowflake example, kids learn by prototyping and test out the structure along the way. In fact, kindergartners tend to have better structures than recent business school graduates! 

So what are the benefits?

Hopefully these are somewhat obvious by now…this is a great team building exercise and also hammers home the importance of prototyping. I like to end the challenge with a questions, “what project are you working on where you are waiting too long to put the marshmallow on top?” Then I give some tangible examples of thing that I have done to build prototypes.

As you can tell, I love this exercise and would encourage you to consider hosting your own marshmallow challenges. In the next two weeks I will be hosting a couple of challenges that should be interesting. First with a 3rd grade class (my guess is they will do better than kindergartners) and second with insurance professionals at the Retirement Industry Conference (my guess is they will do worse than the 3rd graders!).

I’ll report back on the results soon. Stay tuned!

Rapid Prototyping from a six year old


Kids are amazing prototypers. It is how they learn. Have you ever watched a two year old continually drop a toy to see what happens? She is experimenting. She is making sense of her world by doing.

I had a recent experience with my daughter that showed me that she is better at prototyping than I. We were making snowflakes – one of her favorite crafts. You fold paper several times. Next cut out some shapes. Then you unfold the paper to observe your snowflake – except that is not what my daughter did. She would cut a little then unfold the paper to she what she had made. Cut a little more and then check it out. Cut a little more and then it was done. My method was to cut, cut, cut and then unfold to see what it looked like.

What my daughter was doing was prototyping. As opposed to me – I was just cutting away and waiting until it was too late to change course. Have you made the mistake I have made before? Maybe it was with a project – you worked weeks and weeks without getting feedback. Or a presentation – you spent two days getting everything right before showing it to your boss. Try and take a cue from a six year old and check out your snowflake before it is too late.

I’ll save more on kids prototyping for later when I cover Tom Wujec’s TED talk.