Inside Supernatural Star Jensen Ackles’ ‘Very Hip’ Lake House in Austin

If you’re a die-hard Supernatural fan like us, you’re probably still reeling from the show’s finale and coping with the fact that there won’t be any new Winchester adventures for us to follow. But we’re not here to talk about that, but rather snoop into the private life of one of the series’ leading men. […] More

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How to Run a Virtual Brainstorm that Actually Works

Fun fact about pandemic life: Zoom fatigue is real. And not just real, but “widely prevalent, intense, and completely new,” according to Psychiatric Times.

Although we might be avoiding Zoom these days when an email or even a phone call (is it 1986 again?) will suffice, there's one place where video conferencing still shines, and that's the good ol' brainstorm.

Old school brainstorming was creative and connective and interactive—all things difficult, but not impossible, to recreate virtually.

When I picture brainstorms of years past, I see images of big tables full of candy and fidget toys and pens and Post-Its galore. Old school brainstorming was creative and connective and interactive—all things difficult, but not impossible, to recreate virtually.

Today we’ll talk about some virtual brainstorming strategies I’ve seen work really well. And then hopefully, you’ll give one a try. 

Choose your occasion wisely

brainstorms shouldn’t be a catch-all for any group conversation.

Back when our biggest workplace woe was a vending machine out of Diet Coke, many of us took brainstorming sessions for granted. But in a virtual world, it's harder to organize, facilitate, and get people engaged.

That's why brainstorms shouldn’t be a catch-all for any group conversation. (Often what you’re looking for is just a meeting.) Brainstorms are a very specific brand of discussion in which a collective of creative voices, ideas, and opinions are necessary inputs to achieve a valuable output.

Because of challenges like Zoom fatigue and burnout, I urge you to be stingy with your brainstorming sessions. They're a fabulous enabler of ideas and solutions, so do use them. But do so strategically and with clear intention.

Because of challenges like Zoom fatigue and burnout, I urge you to be stingy with your brainstorming sessions.

What are some great occasions to host a brainstorming session? Use them when you need to:

  • Add or refine product features
  • Define a path in a sticky situation
  • Solve a complex problem

These and many other scenarios call for a variety of perspectives in which there are no right or wrong answers, but only ideas.

In contrast, many other occasions don’t call for a brainstorm. Like when you need…

  • Approval or alignment
  • Receipt of a message or direction
  • Feedback on a mostly baked idea

These are not brainstorm moments—they're meetings with a much more defined outcome. See the difference?

Figure out the specific problem you want to address

Okay, so you've figured out that your situation calls for a brainstorming session. Now, it's time to make sure everybody who comes to the brainstorm is on the same page before you begin by creating a statement that lays out the specific problem and how you need to tackle it.

Your problem statement might be something like:

We’re losing market share on X product, and we need to define new features to attract Millennial customers.

And here's another example:

This client wasn’t happy with our last deliverable and we need to redefine how we’re engaging with them.

One of your goals is to keep the session short (because fatigue) while maximizing what you take away from it. A clear problem statement allows you to invite your brainstorming participants to get the creative juices flowing ahead of the actual session.

Assign some prework to get things rolling

Now that you've stated the problem or opportunity, it's time to let participants know you’re looking forward to a collaborative discussion and invite them to jot down some early ideas and send them your way.

You can then do some analysis ahead of the session. Did you spot any common themes? Any particular ideas you’re interested in having the group build upon?

Share your findings at the beginning of the brainstorming session. This will give you a strong foundation from which to build.

Get creative with tech 

Love it or hate it, video conferencing technology is definitely your friend in a virtual brainstorm. It allows you to create a purposeful connection amongst participants. But you have to understand how to engage them.

When I used to run in-person meetings with leadership teams, I was always intentional about switching up the activities every 30 minutes or so. I’d facilitate a breakout, and then we’d do a quick poll, and then I’d have people plot Post-It notes around the room, and more.

Keeping things changing and moving is a great way to keep adults engaged. According to the Harvard Business Review: "If you don’t sustain a continual expectation of meaningful involvement, [people] will retreat into that alluring observer role."

So take the time to learn the features of whatever platform you’re using, and make the session engaging. Some tactics you might try?

  • Use polls to test out early ideas
  • Use small group breakout sessions to create mini-competitions between your participants
  • Use a whiteboard to replicate a poster board people can plot virtual Post-It notes on
  • Use voting to prioritize or stack rank

Of course, talking is part of any brainstorm. But using technology can keep participants from slipping into the shadows without contributing.

Establish norms that serve your purpose

A brainstorm isn’t successful because of how smart its participants are, but because of how much freedom and space their voices are given.

A client once told me this story about a packaging company that was struggling with productivity. Their products had to be wrapped in newspaper before being shipped. But often, as employees were packaging product, they’d accidentally start reading the newspaper, losing precious packing minutes. These minutes added up to lost productivity.

One day the leadership team was brainstorming solutions to this distraction problem and one executive said, “Well, what if we just poked their eyes out?”

Of course, he wasn't serious—the question was absurd and meant to add a little humor. But it triggered a new line of thinking. Eventually, the company established a partnership with a non-profit organization that finds jobs for blind people.

Is this story true? I’m honestly not sure. But it’s a great illustration of the importance of free-flowing ideas.

A brainstorm isn’t successful because of how smart its participants are, but because of how much freedom and space their voices are given.

As the facilitator, what norms can you put in place to ensure that all ideas get voiced without judgment and everyone has a chance to speak?

Here are a few you might consider:

  • Use the improv rule of “yes, and.” It means that ideas are never knocked down, only built upon. (Don’t worry, they can get voted down later, just not during the brainstorm)
     
  • Use the two- (or one- or five)-minute rule. Ask people to limit themselves to two minutes at a time, even if they need to stop mid-thought (they can finish on their next turn). This challenges people to be concise and ensures that everyone gets a chance to speak.
     
  • Use a round-robin technique. Circle around the Zoom participants, calling on each person as you go. If someone isn’t ready, they can pass. But this is a great way to prevent introverts from getting overlooked.

What other norms will keep you on track?

Close out thoughtfully

Save a few minutes at the end of your scheduled session to check in on the process. How did it feel for everyone? What worked well and what might you skip next time? Do they have other tactics to recommend?

The best answer to “How do I host a great virtual brainstorm?” is the answer that your own participants give you.

When scheduled for the right occasion and with the right people, brainstorms are a fabulous tool. Don’t be intimidated by them. Just be open to learning as you go.

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The Average Salary of an Architect

The average salary of an architect is $76,100 per year. Have you ever wondered how much an architect earns? Becoming an architect requires an investment of money and time, but pays off in the form of a rewarding career that comes … Continue reading →

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Can Your Craft Become Your Livelihood? A Conversation with Grant Ginder

That creative thing you love—writing, painting, designing, composing—that’s what you do for pleasure. To relax, unwind, escape. Many of us hold a belief that the thing we love to do and the thing we get paid to do can’t be one and the same. Unless, of course, you’re Lizzo or Stephen King. 

But what if that assumption is wrong? What if there's a way to add a small revenue stream, or even make a full-time career, out of the creative thing you love?

Becoming a creative begins with creating.

I sat down with novelist Grant Ginder (author of The People We Hate at the Wedding and Honestly, We Meant Well) who boldly shares his advice on how he turned his writing hobby into a profession and how he believes you can follow his lead down any artistic path you choose.

What makes someone an artist?

When I asked Grant what makes someone an artist, he chuckled before confessing that even as a published author, he struggles to claim the title out loud.

"I think … so much of it is just a matter of taking ownership. [We tend to believe] you're not allowed to call yourself a painter unless you've sold paintings. But a painter is someone who paints. …I spend a lot of my day writing, and so I'm a writer. Getting anyone else to take you seriously is to take yourself seriously. And part of taking yourself seriously is calling yourself what you are."

Addressing the mindset of art as a hobby or creative pursuit only

Many of us carry a creative wish or talent inside of us. And yet so many believe that our art—the creating—is the thing we must do after the “real job” is done. Being creative happens separately from being a professional.

"My parents… encouraged me to follow those [writing] ambitions. And if I would've told them after I graduated college ‘I'm going to go be a writer’… they would have [said] ‘Maybe you won't be doing that.’

"When my first book came out, my parents had a celebration for me and my dad was giving a speech. He said ‘Grant said he was going to write a book and we didn't believe it!'"

Then, after Grant’s second book was published, his parents (supportively) expressed the same surprise.

"It was a mixed message. It’s not just your parents [sending you this message]—I think you have pressures from all sides; from school, from media, from just looking at the world around you. It’s like the only [artists] that matter are the ones who make a lot of money. I think it’s a very skewed way of looking at art."

Making the move from amateur to creative professional

It's all well and good to say that we should all support creative pursuits as a means to an income. But how do you actually get started on making it official? The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that becoming a creative begins with creating.

"For me, the creating part was learning to set aside time, and to protect that time, to engage in this particular craft… I would write on the weekends a lot. [I had to learn] to say no to things… [because] this is the time that I've set aside to engage in this process, and I'm going to engage in this process now. Holding yourself to that and getting other people to recognize and take that seriously [is essential]."

He also speaks to the importance of consuming the art form you want to produce. For Grant, that’s the novel. But he acknowledges that it's probably the same for other creative arts like painting or music. The process involves analysis and self-reflection.

"You read a novel and you want to write one of these things. [What do you like about it? Why do you like that? And how is that writer doing that thing? And so, [you're] coming at it as… someone who's trying to train themselves in a particular craft. I think that's kind of step one in producing something [creative]."

Finding inspiration and motivation

Sometimes you don't have the luxury of waiting for inspiration to strike you. You have a job to do.

What about inspiration? Do you wait for it to strike or do you just have to start?

Grant believes the artist simply has to start.

"I don't believe that I have to wait for inspiration to strike. I actually think that this comes from my training as a speechwriter, and from writing under deadlines. Sometimes you don't have the luxury of waiting for inspiration to strike you. You have a job to do."

He pointed to an idea he paraphrased from novelist Taffy Brodesser-Akner:

"You write a sentence. Just write that sentence. And it might be a really bad sentence, but the next one will probably be a little bit better."

"I'm also a fan of super messy first drafts. I think my writing is at its worst and my process is at its worst when I get way too precious. Am I in the mood? Is the light in the apartment just right? It's like, no, just roll up your sleeves and start."

Getting your creation out into the world

Once you’ve written or painted or composed the thing, is there a clear, step-by-step roadmap to getting it out into the world? Grants recommendations were refreshing. And relatable.

1. Do your research

"I used Google. When I wrote my first novel, I Googled ‘how many words are in a novel?

"I've always loved writing. I've always loved reading. And so, on breaks [from my speechwriting job], I would write. And, I kept that up. And then… when I reached that magic number [of novel words], I Googled ‘how to publish a novel.

"My path was like a Google Commercial."

Grant's googling led him to conclude that he needed to find a literary agent. And, of course, he then used Google to find out what a literary agent was. 

"Your research is really important [in figuring out] what the next steps are and how to prepare yourself for those steps."

2. Be scrappy

"I started realizing I'd never really read the acknowledgments in the backs of books before. So I started reading the acknowledgments… and authors thank their agents. So if I really liked the book, I would read the acknowledgments and keep a list of who the agents were.

"When it was time for me to query agents… I reached out to those agents. Some of them didn’t respond, but some did. It takes a while. You get a lot of rejections. But I told myself that for every rejection, I was going to send it out to two more people. You just chip away."

I told myself that for every rejection, I was going to send it out to two more people. You just chip away.

3. Make connections

"I assume this would translate to other fields—developing a network of other writers, painters, musicians helping each other … to navigate the landscape."

Grant had no prior knowledge of the steps to take in getting a book published. He had no connections. He had only a book, a wish, and a decent internet connection. And this is how he would advise any creator to figure things out as they go.

How do you handle rejection?

Grant mentioned rejection. And I wasn’t letting him off the hook. How, I asked, do you deal with rejection?

"There is this incredible vulnerability in putting something out in the world. It's something that you've sat with for years. And it's just [been] you, engaging with [it]. Then all of a sudden it's in the hands of everyone and they're allowed to think whatever they want about it.

"I think you have to get to this state—and I'm not there yet—[but] I imagine [it’s] like the author's Nirvana… where I’ve made this thing that belonged to me while I was making it. And I am now putting it forth for interpretation… [but] texts are meant to be read and processed in a variety of different ways. And I think that… the more you can lean into that belief, the happier, and probably the better writer you can be."

Grant's advice to budding creatives

I wrapped our interview with this question: What’s the one piece of advice you wish you could give your younger self?

Here’s a (slightly paraphrased) summary of the pep talk Grant wished he'd received.

"Just sit down and do it. Trust the process. One sentence will lead to the next sentence, which will lead to the next. Don't worry so much. Just write the book you want to write."

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