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I worked for a publisher in Washington, D.C., who almost always kept his office door closed. When he appeared in the doorway of my office, it was inevitably for one reason: to tell me I’d done something wrong.

You could find a lot of flaws with that management style, but I want to focus on just one: the way my boss closed himself off from conversation. It was a management gaffe then. But it would be an even bigger mistake now, in the Age of the Conversation.


Regardless of what you do for a living, if you’re not out there asking questions, listening, seeking input, collaborating and taking part in the larger conversation, you’re going to have trouble rolling with change. Because here’s the thing: a new style of conversation is transforming the way we do business.

Here’s where I’ve seen it happening lately:

1. Even Obama is picking up the phone to talk. According to a New York Times article, he makes at least two dozen calls a day in an attempt to stay connected to — and glean information from — the outside world.

It’s no surprise that President Obama calls heads of state and high-ranking advisors. That’s a given. But he’s also tapping into a group of people outside “the bubble.” He’s using his spare moments (not something he has in spades) to stay connected to a larger, more-fluid-than-ever conversation, because that’s where he’ll hear reactions that are relevant, unpredictable, maybe even perspective-altering.

2. Inspired by Obama’s presidential campaign, nonprofits are getting in on the act of using social networks to rally people around a cause. The best fundraisers are leveraging social networking tools like Twitter, Facebook and MySpace. They’re using micro-conversations, rather than enormous campaigns.

One example: Last month’s Twestival was organized on Twitter and raised more than $250,000 for clean water in Africa and India. The Christian Science Monitor described the evolution of Twestival this way:

The Twestival, which wrapped on Feb. 12, had little trouble generating buzz. Only hours after founder Amanda Rose made public her plans for the campaign in January, the news went viral, spiraling out across hundreds of blogs and Twitter feeds. Soon, Ms. Rose had secured a small army of volunteers and a team of corporate partners including TipJoy, which allowed users to contribute directly online.

3. Smart business leaders have stopped frowning on water-cooler conversation, and some (like biggies Cisco and Microsoft) fully embrace the collaboration that social networks spark.

I recently did an interview with Brad Brinegar, CEO of McKinney, an agency that propelled itself into the big league by taking innovative approaches to a business model that hasn’t changed much since the advent of television. At McKinney, they’re all about the conversation.

When you visit McKinney at their former-tobacco-factory offices, you’ll notice lots of gathering spaces. Brinegar says he spent a year planning a space that would force more collaboration and conversation between left- and right-brainers. It has 50 nooks and crannies to allow for “natural interactions,” Brinegar told me. The office is sprawled across one-and-a-half floors, instead of climbing vertically. There’s Wi-Fi throughout, a coffee bar, and no mail delivery — you have to pick it up yourself, which means you’ll likely bump into someone on your way there.


Meeting rooms at McKinney

McKinney Cafe

McKinney Cafe

He also compressed office spaces to a quarter of the size of previous offices. Why? “Creative people sometimes need to shut off the world and work. We made it private enough for them to have that space, but not enough to encourage them to perch there more than was natural,” Brinegar says.

Equally important, “it’s very easy to get to me,” he says. “I have glass walls, so people can always see me. My assistant has a heart attack because she can’t control the flow of people into my office.”

All hands on deck

All hands on deck

Initially, the new layout was so different from what they’d had before that a lot of people hated it. “But from the morning we walked in,” he says, “the agency entirely changed the way it operated. People that I’d always asked to collaborate all of a sudden were. The structure of the space released people’s natural inclination to collaborate.”

Another thing about a good conversation? It’s usually free. Which makes this one workplace trend sure to thrive throughout 2009.

[Top image from Twitter; all others courtesy of McKinney]

Maybe it’s because we’ve felt the premature hints of spring recently, or maybe it’s because my spending habits have been immobilized by the recession for too long now. Whatever the reason, I’ve been breathless over store displays lately, particularly ones that have trotted out their spring colors.

First, these A-line girls’ skirts, made by my friend Lizzy.

il_430xn57451653Lizzy’s one of those people who is mega-talented with a needle and thread but you’d almost never know it, unless you happen to show up at our neighborhood park for the Halloween parade and see the crazy-elaborate costumes she’s sewn for her daughters. She’s absurdly modest.

Here’s part of the bio from her Etsy profile page:

“For years I worked on set and in costume studios making, altering, shopping for, caring for, distressing and destroying all things apparel. I’ve made slacks for Brad Pitt and I’ve remade bras for Tyra Banks. I’ve dyed for Winona Ryder and I survived The Sopranos and now I’m making stuff from home.”

Next, these caramel-filled, chocolate-covered robin’s eggs at Parker & Otis. Like Jordan Almonds, they fit dreamily against the tongue, and the caramel filling is something unexpected. These are definitely going in the adult Easter baskets.


Also from Parker & Otis, some relish. Comes in hot or mild, and if you’re a person who likes a pickled cucumber now and again, this jar would love to introduce itself to you. P&O owner Jennings Brody told me exactly how to use it: Grill a 98% fat-free turkey burger, top it with P&O’s pimento cheese and this relish. It’s a life-changer.


Finally, something from Dolly’s Vintage. I bought a set of these one-of-a-kind hair clips for my daughter today. Just lovely, and they actually work. And at $10ish, they’re the perfect recessionary-ready splurge.


I love writing a parenting newsletter for Sesame Workshop. It’s one of my fun assignments, if only because I can document what’s going on in our household. I write about what the kids are doing, parenting challenges, what tactics we use to survive it all, etc. Since I don’t journal, it’s a way of preserving memories.

bozobopbigOnly here’s the thing: After I write a newsletter, a “panel of experts” on the Sesame side reviews it, weighing in on whether I’ve just given good or bad parenting advice. Imagine having a panel of experts milling around your house, raising a red flag when you’ve just done a poor bit of parenting. That’s kinda how it feels.

Recently, for example, I wrote about helping my kids handle feelings of anger or frustration. As in, what do you do when your 6 year old and 4 year old are both yelling at each other like two drunks, and you figure that at any minute, Patrick Swayze is going to have to come over and ask them to leave the bar? What sorts of tactics can you use to help them channel their emotions so they can have a non-yelling conversation?

One tip (which I heard from a mom friend who has twins) was to let your kid hit a pillow. You’ve heard this advice before, right? It’s nothing new.

Here’s what the expert panel said:

The act of hitting, even when directing the action at an object like a pillow, can actually strengthen angry emotions and increase children’s (or adults’) angry feelings rather than dispel them. We recommend sticking with the other great ideas — taking a deep breath and counting to ten.

In other words, hitting a pillow makes you angrier. Even though this wasn’t technically my advice and I don’t use this one at home, I still felt a bit like one of those parents on “Supernanny” who’s just been caught on videotape doing something patently bad.

That’s all to say that you and your kids may want to steer clear of this anger-management tactic.

Decor8 blogger Holly Becker doesn’t start her day without setting her hair in hot curlers (she is so my new idol) and applying some makeup (her current favorite: plum tones). French women won’t even open the door to the meter man if they aren’t put together. And Penelope Trunk believes a girl can’t be taken seriously unless she has proper makeup on.

Goal: Make like The Bloggess and try full-on personal grooming in the a.m.

Goal: Make like The Bloggess and try full-on personal grooming in the a.m.

Though I would truly love to be one of these women, I simply have not internalized the idea that a full-on morning beauty ritual will affect the outcome of my day.

My mornings are a whirl of lunchbox packing, little-girl dressing, coat (and hat and mitten) finding, and coffee drinking. Since I don’t have to dress for anyone but the parents I see at school drop-off and I’m already busy enough, I don’t worry much about my uniform: jeans and a ponytail.

And that’s the benefit of being a freelancer, right? You’re the boss. If you want to spend your day in fuzzy bedroom slippers, you’re entirely free to.

Mind you, I’m not working in my pajamas or anything. Right this moment, I’m completely dressed and my hair is brushed. But I think I may have a little spaghetti sauce on my sweater, and I’m noticeably sans lip gloss.

And I know this about myself: I have a tendency to forget about how I look when my head is fully engaged in freelance work. Before I was married, a roommate once had to stop me from dashing out of the apartment for lunch, wearing an ensemble that bordered on bag-lady chic. “Seriously, you can’t go out like that,” she said, god love her.

I wonder, would I be more successful if I curled my eyelashes before sitting down at the computer each morning?

For the rest of this week, an unscientific experiment: What tangible and intangible benefits might a freelance girl derive from stepping up her morning grooming habits?

I know you’re not supposed to laugh directly at your children when they’re trying to be serious or when they’re dabbling in naughty territory. I know this because I get paid to write about parenting, which should mean that I know a thing or two, but also because pretty much everyone is aware that this is not a good parenting tactic.

pirate-phoebeSometimes, though, it happens.

Yesterday, younger daughter huffs into the room. She’d been playing with her dad in another room, and judging from her expression, something wasn’t going her way. She says in her lilty, lispy voice, “Daddy is just a teeny, tiny, tiny, teeeeeeny, little, tiny …”

And this went on for a while, until finally she says, “teeny tiny bit … stupid. Just a little bit. I hate to say that in our house. But it’s true.”

Saying “stupid” in our house is like dropping the F-bomb. You just don’t do it. And I’ve been firm on this issue, because I’ve been hearing the word a lot lately, thanks to a certain classroom friend of younger daughter’s who says the word frequently at school. There’s always one, isn’t there?

But how do you not laugh at that? I literally had to turn away. I couldn’t even manage to talk about why she was angry or help her deal with her frustration because I was afraid I’d snort right in her face.

The upside is that I now have a new track to play in my head whenever I’m feeling bothered by a bad driver or stupid difficult person: “You’re just a little, tiny, teeeeny, tiny …”

On Valentine’s Day, a box of chocolates is all well and good. But it doesn’t exactly inspire cartwheels, customer loyalty, passionate makeout sessions, or whatever it is you’re going for. So, a recommendation: Go with something that has more personality than a Whitman’s sampler.

Three jolts of sugary marvelousness to hit the sweet spot:

xox-imgSouth ‘n’ France, based in Wilmington, N.C., marries sweet Southern ingredients with classic French techniques. The result? Hand-chopped, hand-rolled, hand-dipped bon bons in six fab flavors, such as Peanut Buttah and Pistachio (shipped anywhere). C’est bon, y’all.

Daisy Cakes: Durham locals, you normally find them in the Airstream parked near the Durham Farmer’s Market on Saturdays. But this week, call ahead to order a special Valentine’s cupcake sampler, wrapped up with a sweet pink ribbon. They even throw in a heart-shaped cookie cutter and cookie recipe. Exquisite flavors include a Vanilla Bean Cupcake, with passion fruit cream and milk chocolate buttercream.

Sugardaddy’s: Perfect for an office delivery Monday, after the sugar high of the weekend has worn off. Opt for an order of dunkable Brownie Biscotti — essentially made from the “cut away” edges of the edgeless brownies and blondies.

What else is worthy of mention?

(Photo from

Today someone reminded me of this piece, written for, so I decided to post it. It touches on three things I’m positively exuberant (and borderline obsessive) about — kids’ education, community and civic engagement. If we all put little more energy put into any of those three, we’d have a much better world on our hands. …

Poll your kids on whether to have pizza or Veggie Delight for dinner, and you’ll likely see a swift show of hands. Kids are capable of weighing in on much meatier matters, though. By encouraging children to be good citizens now, children are more likely to grow into adult voters. And not just warm bodies at the polls, but informed, engaged voters. In other words, good citizens.

My older daughter at the Kids Voting booth

My older daughter at the Kids Voting booth

To raise a good citizen of your own, try these ideas:

Bring democracy to your dining room table. Illustrate the power of voting by asking younger kids, “Have you and your friends ever had to make a decision about something that was hard to agree on? Well, voting is a fair way to make decisions.” Then take a vote on something – like what activity to do next.

Engage older kids in political debate by talking about issues that interest them – like making college more affordable, raising the minimum wage, or lowering the legal voting age. Then help them turn passion into action by writing a letter to the editor or volunteering for a campaign.

Make community service a must. You don’t have to save snow leopards in Nepal to show your children the value of giving back. Doing good in your own backyard fosters civic engagement, not to mention a deeper sense of connection to the community. Volunteer to stock shelves at a soup kitchen or clean up a local river. Get more ideas at The Volunteer Family.

Whet their civic appetites by giving kids the vote. If you don’t already have a Kids Voting program in your community, consider starting one. I’ve volunteered as a precinct captain for Kids Voting Durham for the past several years. And on every Election Day, I swear I’m brought to tears at least once as I watch those kids sliding their ballots into the box, brimming with pride.

Stock your library with civic-minded reads. For grades K-2, try Being a Good Citizen (Way to Be!) by Mary Small. The book explains that by picking up trash or planting flowers, you’re being a good citizen. For grades 5-8, the ABC book D is for Democracy walks kids through concepts like immigration, taxation, and even zeitgeist.

Both drive home the fact that being a good citizen isn’t just about rights. It’s also about responsibilities.

I’m not planning to go anywhere. But if spring travel is on your agenda, it occurs to me that you might want to know about Farecast, which I wrote about recently. According to these fortune tellers, now is a good time for snatching up cheap airfare and hotel rooms. Spring travel airfare is down 15% compared to last year. Now for the article:


Park you in front of the sale rack and you’re in your element — able to discern at a glance which items are snatch-em-up-fast-even-if-it-means-prying-them-out-of-granny’s-hands. And which need to be nudged down the rack with a flick of the fingertips.

homearrowguideBut when it comes to shopping around for decent airfare rates, you may as well be staring at listings on the Tokyo stock exchange. (“What does it all mean? Is this one a good deal? Or will I be metaphorically slapping my forehead in two weeks when the price plunges?”)

That’s why Farecast is the shopping buddy you long for. Seriously.

Its “know when to buy” technology compares and filters information from many travel websites to tell you whether to buy the airline ticket now (fares are bound to go up soon) or wait a week (your patience will repay you tenfold, Grasshopper).

And it performs the same trick for hotel rates. Once you’ve found the price that’s right for you, the site sends you packing to the airline or hotel site, so you can book direct.

Because this buddy knows better than to get between a girl and her deals.

You’re stuck in a rut, and you want to jolt yourself out of it. One way to break free? Meet someone new.

Lisa Bodell of futurethink

Lisa Bodell of futurethink

The other day I interviewed Lisa Bodell, CEO of futurethink. She’s a hybrid — a cross between a futurist and an innovation consultant. She says that meeting new people is one of the best ways to spark new ideas. (And here’s a woman who has to come up with new ideas.)

She told me:

“I have to meet one new person a week who’s completely different from myself. In one week, I met the admiral of the Coast Guard, the head of the WHO, psychics, the head of a group of maids … Every perspective counts. It’s the wild card that’s going to be the next big thing.”

Even before I spoke with Lisa, I’d heard about this tactic. My friend Ellen, who is not a futurist, swears by it. (And since Ellen is one of my smartest friends, I tend to do what she says.)

A few years ago, when Ellen was feeling a little stagnant in her career as a video producer, she sent a message out to her friends: “If you’re going to an interesting event, let me know — even if you think it’s not up my alley — because I might want to join you.”

Ellen started going to all sorts of events that she’d never dreamed of going to, and she met all sorts of people. Some of them needed help with projects, and she offered help and advice whenever she could. A handful ended up becoming clients. Most importantly, though, meeting new people led her down new paths. She began doing work that more closely resembled documentary filmmaking — a long-simmering dream of hers.

Their point, Lisa’s and Ellen’s, is this: Meeting unexpected people can spark new ideas, or energize your career in unexpected ways. You can’t possibly know. So leave room on your calendar for it.

I was 24, working as an editor for a magazine in Paris. It was my first job in publishing, and I had zero experience. To say I was lucky to land the job in the first place would be the understatement of the year.

Tish — whose current blog, A Femme d’un Certain Age, is there on the left — was editor-in-chief.

blvdcover2editAt 30-something (we never knew her age), Tish was already a veteran. She’d written and edited for Elle, W magazine, WWD and The Chicago Tribune, among others. She was easily the most fabulous woman I had worked with — always hilarious, super-smart, put-together, gracious, beautiful and talented. And as a new editor, I tried to soak up everything I could from her.

These days, as I’m banging out stories, it often occurs to me that the best things I know about editing and writing I learned from her. As it turns out, I also learned a few things that have nothing to do with editing.

The three most lasting lessons from my first mentor:

1. You do not want to lose your cool. No Drama Obama has now made this abundantly clear to us all. But I was lucky enough to learn it early in my career.

Here’s what losing your cool looks like: One of our writers was well-known, with great credentials and everything, so she was understandably peeved when she didn’t get paid on time for an article she’d produced for us. She came into our offices one day to confront the publisher. I was sitting with Tish in her office when we overheard the writer yelling wildly at the publisher about the whole situation.

This was years ago, so I can’t remember exactly what Tish said, but it was something like, “That’s really bad form. You never have to yell like that.”

I’m pretty sure that, in the moment, the writer felt gratified to be reaming out the publisher, who was admittedly a horrible person to work for. She paid many of us late and lousily. But in the end, the out-of-control writer lost a little of her luster, in Tish’s eyes.

So, make a mental note: You want to make something happen? Do it without making an idiot out of yourself. Also? People are more likely to do what you want them to do if you’re generally nice to them. (This applies equally to co-workers, waiters and DMV clerks.) The writer left the office that day without her check.

2. You’re not always as brilliant as you think you are. The first big feature I wrote was a collection of short profiles. It wasn’t supposed to be my article, but the assigned writer flaked out, so Tish gave me a shot at it. I was pretty sure it was the most brilliant article ever written, so I handed it over to my editor full of hope and expectation.

I still cringe thinking about what followed. As she started marking it up beside me, I began defending the writing, lobbying to keep this or that the way it was. After listening briefly, Tish put her hand on my arm and said, “You’ll thank me for this later.” It shut me up immediately. And of course she was right. I’m completely thankful to her.

Every writer needs a strong editor, just like everyone needs a person at work who will give it to them straight. When you’re just starting out in your career, doses of humility hurt. But better to swallow them early.

3. If you can, be funny. Of Tish’s many good qualities, her sense of humor would have to be at the top of the list (and it’s a long list). Humor is a tricky thing; there’s always the risk that you’ll come across as a Michael Scott (from “The Office”) or that you’ll deploy it inappropriately. But Tish’s humor worked for her. It’s one of the things that made people swarm around her. And I could see that she kept people near her who made her laugh. Including her husband.

Of course you can do your job without being funny. But if you can swing it, be good at making them laugh once in a while.

Another piece for the soon-to-launch “Little PINK book” (by PINK magazine). Thanks to Donna R., Carolyn K., Lizzy G., Deb D., Laurie D. and Elizabeth W. for the tips!


So here’s the trade: You shell out a few dollars. In exchange, you receive some eye-poppingly pretty jewelry or handbags.

Plus (and this is the best part) you can feel good about the fact that you just gave third-world women enough money to buy food for their families, send their kids to school, that sort of thing.

necklaceSound fair? A few of the best women-boosting, fair-trade goodies out there:

  • Candy-colored totes and messenger bags made from recycled rice bags. Who benefits: An organization that helps women who’ve been rescued from trafficking, so they can rebuild their lives.
  • More gawk-worthy totes! This time made from plastic bags from the slums of India. Who benefits: Urban women who gather and wash the bags.
  • Colorful strands of paper-bead necklaces and bracelets from Bead for Life. Who benefits: The Ugandan women who string them.
  • Jewelry from Ten Thousands Villages, like this slightly shimmery Seeds & Beads Necklace made by Maasai women artisans in Kenya. The women say they’ve been doing beadwork “since the first Maasai was born.”

What would the world be like without women helping women? We shudder to think.

(Photo from

Like pretty much everyone else, I’ve been obsessing over my career lately.

Since I began freelance writing full-time, I’ve felt the financial insecurity of the arrangement. There’s nothing so motivating (and terrifying) as knowing that to be paid, you have to continually create. Maybe that’s why I began thinking lusty thoughts about becoming an employee again. Because going somewhere every day and putting in your eight hours … that’s got to be less terrifying, right? Plus, writing All The Time can be draining.

Then I talked to Maggie Mistal, who made me realize that the fear was getting me nowhere.

Maggie Mistal

Maggie Mistal

Maggie is one of the country’s top career coaches, frequently quoted in The New York Times, etc., etc. She has a radio show on Martha Stewart Living Radio (on SIRIUS). She’s smart as a whip, but what I love most about her is that she’s also a cabaret singer.

Here’s how it started: After forever advising people to follow their dreams, she realized that she had to follow her own advice and do what she’d always imagined — go on stage. So she kicked off a “Follow Your Dreams” show in NYC. Between songs, she asks people to tell the audience about their own dreams. Why?

“You’re 10 times as likely to achieve a goal if you share it with someone else,” says Maggie. “So I’m layering in a fun, interesting ways to get people to do what they want to do.”

She’s actually coaching. In between cabaret songs.

And if you’re tempted to dismiss Maggie as just another person who is completely not in the realm of ordinary people, who can afford to do something frivolous like sing cabaret in between interviews with The New York Times, consider this: Maggie learned the hard way twice that pinning all your hopes and dreams to an employee can lead to disappointment. She went from working for Arthur Andersen (until it was taken down by the Enron scandal) to working for Martha Stewart (also indicted).

Her advice is to stop focusing on the fear. “Focus on creating and diversifying, because that’s where it gets exciting. Diversification is a way forward,” she says. “You won’t get so caught up in one thing that it distracts you from creating new things.”

Diversification. Marci Alboher calls it having a “slash career” — being able to answer the question “What do you do?” different ways, depending on whether you’re at a cocktail party, a networking event or your high school reunion. Your mom called it not putting all your eggs in one basket.

I know she’s right. But I’m wondering how I’ll ever find the time.

Say you need to make a decision between two options. Time is a factor, so you need to do it quickly. But you don’t have all the information you need — maybe 75% of it. Is it better to decide now, and be on time, or wait until you have all the information?

The other day, I interviewed a guy who works for agribusiness Syngenta. He does leadership training for the company worldwide. And he says there’s a formula for making good decisions under pressure, called the 40/70 Rule. Turns out Colin Powell referred to the rule in his autobiography; it’s a decision-making tactic used in battles. (“So,” you’re thinking, “agribusiness and the military cuddle up with this rule? Tell me more!”)

According to the 40/70 rule, in the situation above, you should make the decision. The rule states that if you have 40% or less of the information you need to make a decision, you probably shouldn’t make it. If you have 70% or more, you need to ask yourself, “Why haven’t I made a decision yet?”

Caveats: You may need more than 70% if making a mistake would be devastating. You may need less than 40% if you’re an expert and see the same trends every time you’re confronted with this situation.

Otherwise, take your 70% and make a decision. And move on.

I just wrote a piece for the soon-to-launch “Little PINK Book” newsletter (part of PINK magazine).  Unless you’re already supremely organized, you may find it useful.tab_cov_img


As spring approaches, thoughts turn to shorter hemlines and outdoor lunches. (So long, mercilessly dry skin! Hello, sunscreen!)

Almost as quickly, though, another feeling surfaces and this one isn’t all sunshine-and-happiness. Because isn’t spring also tax season? And weren’t you planning to come up with a better way to organize receipts by now, only you never did?

Paper receipts still litter the bottom of your bag, like the lining in some mama bird’s nest.

Solution: Turn to one of these nifty services for cataloging, organizing and accessing receipts.

  • Shove them in an envelope and mail to The service scans your receipts, then allows you to securely search for them online by store name, date, total and so on. Cost: Beginning at $9.95 monthly. Another service,, is similar. Cost: Beginning at $14.95 monthly.
  • Scan your own receipts with a NeatReceipts scanner and software. Bonus? It lets you divvy up purchases according to IRS tax codes. Cost: $199
  • Want the fast and dirty (and free) solution? The Evernote application lets you snap photos of receipts then automatically synchronizes them to your desktop. Text within photos becomes searchable, so you can find and view what you need later.

With a better plan for organizing receipts, you may find that spring in your step after all.

(Photo from


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