This summer I set aside four weeks and retreated up a mountain to focus on the AltMBA. Ever since it ended, I’ve been meaning to write a retro. At first I felt I needed some distance from it, then I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to say.
I figure it won’t get easier with time; ship it.
Why I Took It
It was hard, reading the materials, to know what to expect. Generally the vibe was a little hyperbolic – “this will change your life” and there was a lot of talk about being “ready to take the next step”. I think this is common in marketing speak for these kind of things. I bought into it for a bit, and was nervous in the weeks before it started. Eventually I embraced the idea that I’m generally effective at the things I set out to do and decided not to worry.
My concrete goal was get better at product. I’d also been thinking a lot since ~February about how I can get better at carving out time for strategic work. I didn’t have particularly strong or concrete plans for either of these things (and hadn’t made much progress on either of them), so I felt like this was a way to expose myself to things I didn’t know I didn’t know. My idea was that the things I didn’t know I didn’t know could be a way to break out of incremental progress, and achieve something more dramatic.
The idea that this would make me astonishingly more effective also appealed.
I met some interesting people, and during that period I did get better at carving out time for strategic work (there are other variables there).
Some of the exercises pushed me to reflect on current projects in a way that was helpful. One Sunday I created a 13 page document which outlined the progress my team has made becoming more effective through the lens of constraints broken. It was a pretty intense and emotionally draining experience – but also cathartic. It was a way of – and time set aside for – stepping back and reflecting that gave me a good sense of the progress we’ve made (and why).
It forced me to take time for myself – to finish work by 5pm in time for the meeting. To set aside Sundays to focus on it. It turns out, things can usually wait until tomorrow!
It definitely exposed me to people – and their ideas – I wouldn’t otherwise have encountered. It was interesting to understand what they did, what their challenges were, and what they were excited about. The website has all these tech companies on it, but the people who opened my mind the most worked for NGOs or Government.
They sent me a package of physical books. Why there was no e-book option in 2017 remains baffling to me.
At times it felt like it was by bros, for bros. Although the cohort was diverse (at least by gender, less so by race) the reading materials were not. All but two of the books assigned were by men (one by a woman, one by a man and a woman). Other reading materials in the prompts were also very male dominated. We were pinged for feedback at the midpoint, and I raised this – but they never followed up. At the end they gave out a collection of awards – all of which went to men.
All in all, the experience very reminiscent of the quote:
“Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”
Which captures the difference between representation and involvement. Women (and PoC) were invited to learn, but not involved as people to be learned from.
Aside: there’s a lot of emphasis of the idea of “emotional labour” which I think most women call “living in the world”. It’s an important concept, however the exploration of it really lacked some nuance there that I think is important.
Some Things I Learned
Bring Your Whole Self
For some people, I think each prompt built on the others, and they remained relatively focused on one topic from week to week.
For myself, I took the opportunity to choose each time which project would benefit most from the lens offered. The thirteen page document focused on my job. Another prompt resulted in exploring the idea and learnings of WTHIC.
I felt like this gave me a richer frame of reference to draw on. I also embraced the idea that my best work comes when the things I love, and the things I do, combine and build upon each other, entwine and grow. It’s where I create the things that are most me, done in the way that I am most able to do.
Write Without a Goal
The irony of realising this in a course that was mainly writing prompts – especially as someone who blogs regularly – is not lost on me. However whilst I jot down post ideas, when I sit down and seriously write something, I finish it and publish it.
Almost none of the things I wrote as part of the Alt made it to my blog – they lacked the purpose, the utility, the interest of what I consider to a requirement for a blog post.
The process of writing, though. That was still worthwhile. It’s different to write from a prompt than to an outcome. Mostly the value was in the process, not the output. A couple of times it produced something that never otherwise would have existed.
Feedback is Fine, Actually
The book from the reading that I got the most out of was Thanks for the Feedback (the one co-authored by a woman, #justsayin). I was also forced to give feedback on five posts three times a week. This was nerve wracking – I would read someone’s post and wonder if I really had anything to offer on that topic, could I really add any value.
And then I had a go.
Reflecting is Good
After each prompt, after you got the feedback, you would write “reflection script” where you try to capture what you learned and what you would do differently.
What was interesting here is that this was useful independent of the feedback itself. Even when there wasn’t much feedback, or the feedback was not helpful, or too broad to be addressed so immediately… the act of reflecting was still helpful.
I do reflect on things – I am almost entirely self-documenting. If I’ve learned something concrete, I’ll write it up and you’ll find it on cate.blog. But this immediacy of reflection, and it being a post-script rather than a post of its own, allowed for a different kind of reflection. The incomplete one. The one on the process, not just the outcome.
Fuck the Patriarchy
My memory is not clear on this, but as I remember it: in my last group, one of my team was being overly hard on herself. I got pretty worked up about the idea that it wasn’t her – it was the patriarchy. So I said “fuck the patriarchy” a lot and started evangelising the idea that it was okay for her to do things – for any of us to do things – because we think they are important.
Even if the patriarchy says otherwise. Because you know, fuck the patriarchy.
Another of my teammates pushed us to step back and take a broader meaning of this – to reject the things that don’t matter to you, the constraints you don’t believe in and choose not to embrace… and do you.
Do I Recommend It?
Do it if…
…You respond really well to external accountability. I really like Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies framework (from the book Better Than Before). A big realization at the start was that the advance communication was stressing me out because it was written for obligers. I am not an obliger.
…You want to create some momentum to ship small things (mainly to write more).
… You’re at a life crossroads and want a process and timeframe for stepping back and examining things. I was (still am) in a place of “I love my job and just want to get better at it!” but I didn’t encounter anyone else in my cohort who seemed to feel this way.
But it probably won’t…
…change your life.
- The idea of a network and community is nice, but probably more important if you don’t already have that. Or maybe it’s the inclusion aspect – but aside from a few individuals, this didn’t end up feeling meaningful to me.
- After some point productivity gains are marginal. I don’t think my effectiveness increased that much, but I did develop a habit of working 12 hour days which… well yes I get a lot done in them, at the expense of certain things that are also important (sleeping, meals, etc). This really wasn’t sustainable, and after the course ended I got really sick.
- The “it’s a sprint not a marathon” thing is catchy, but whilst there are some base things shared between them, sprinting really well doesn’t make a better marathoner – and vice versa. Less metaphorically: if you’re generally effective and just looking to be sustainably more effective, four weeks working an extra ~20 hours a week may not help with that. If you’re not very effective, maybe that’s a good way to kickstart.