(Still some TODOs in here, but I’m posting anyway and hope to get back to them)
I first came across Diana Butler Bass on her Twitter account. I can’t remember how I came across her, but I’ve appreciated her voice, her tweet-thread-sermons, her perspective on current affairs and more.
So when a family member gave me a book voucher to a local Christian bookstore that didn’t seem likely to stock much I was interested in, I was stoked to see they could order in one of her books. And that’s how I ended up reading “Christianity After Religion”. When it arrived and I read the praise on the cover from Richard Rohr and Rob Bell, I hoped I was in for something good.
The main point
Since the 1960s the USA (and other western nations) have seen a massive change in how they’d describe their religious/faith life. A common line has been “I’m spiritual, not religious” and rather than being a thoughtless throwaway line, this actually captures a big part of what this shift is about.
Rather than viewing it purely as a move toward secularism, DBB argues this is an awakening – in the spirit of America’s past great awakenings. This is faith evolving, not faith disappearing.
By changing the way kinds of questions we ask when we approach a life of faith, and by changing the order in which we ask them, we can participate in this new awakening – an exciting evolution in what it means to be Christian, or even what it means to be human – and some would argue, an exciting movement of God.
The “spiritual vs religious” dichotomy isn’t describing two opposites, rather it’s a lense to understand how our people’s experience of their faith is changing.
We can broadly break experience of religion of spiritual life into three categories:
Belief – how we understand the world and it’s meaning
Behaviour – how we choose to live, and the habits which make up our life
Belonging – the sense of community and shared purpose
For each of these categories, DBB looks at how Christianity (and American Protestantism in particular) has approached this category, and the questions it has deemed most important to ask. These are the “religious” questions. She then offers alternative “spiritual” questions: ways of revisiting the same category with a different approach, focused on lived experience.
Often when we think of “belief” in the context of religion we think of doctrine. Belief in a god. Belief in the Christian bible as an authoritative text about God. Belief in the resurrection, or the virgin birth, or the 7-day creation. Some things are easy to believe in – we’re pretty sure a person called Jesus of Nazareth existed – but many are increasingly hard to take literally.
TODO: copy the questions asked
This chapter concluded with some amazing examples of Christian communities writing their own creeds. Creeds were written by communities at points in time – a point DBB made in this twitter thread that I found memorable. After reading this section of the book, I journal led and wrote out, for the first time in a long time, not a description of what I no longer believed, but a description of what I still believe.
When we think of “behaviour” in the context of religion, we often think of moral guidelines. Don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t drink, don’t look at porn, don’t charge interest on loans… Do look after the needy, do love your neighbour, do attend a religious service etc.
Beyond this though, a lively faith usually consists of habits, or spiritual practices, that make up the day-to-day of our life. When the purpose of such habits isn’t understood, they lose meaning, they become meaningless rituals. But when learned carefully, many habits and practices have a transformative impact on your life.
DBB uses floristry as an analogy. Her family were florists for generations, and she learned the craft by sitting in the workshop with her dad, gradually gaining the skills herself. This kind of gradual exposure, where an experienced practitioner shows you, guides you, and gives you increasingly challenging work until you are fully competent – is similar to many spiritual practices.
Another thing we can learn from this analogy, is that people are less like to simply do what their parents did. Where successive generations in her family had all been florists, she has chosen a different career, because these days, you have options. When it comes to our spiritual habits and practices and rituals… this is even more true.
TODO: copy the questions asked
For a long time, belonging meant having an identity tightly linked to the religious community you are part of (and probably grew up in). “I am baptist” or “I am catholic” or “I’m part of Riverview Church”. There was an assumed stasis in this model: you’ve always been one of us, you are one of us, you will always be one of us. You’ve always been here, you are here, you will always be here.
But most stories of faith are journey stories: Abraham leaving the land he grew up in, Moses leaving Egypt, the fishermen leaving their nets to follow Jesus.
We need to craft a different identity that respects this journeying nature of faith. And a way of belonging that allows growth, change, pilgrimage and exile, and still offers community, acceptance and love.
A traditional approach to identity asks “who am I?”, and Christianity has encourage you to ask “who am I in God?” One of my favourite moments in this section was reframing the question: “who is God in me?” Where and how does God act in the world through my life? How can people I interact with experience God through my actions?
TODO: copy the questions asked
After examining these three categories and asking how we can revisit them through a “spiritual” lense, DBB did my favourite thing in the book: she suggested we reverse the order we tackle these questions in the faith journey.
Rather than beginning with “belief” (you must believe in the trinity, and creation, and the resurrection, and the virgin birth, and whatever other doctrine is hard to literally believe), then progressing to behaviour (follow these moral guidelines and adopt these habits) and then being able to experience belonging, DBB suggests we approach it the other way.
Begin with belonging: unconditional acceptance, loving community. From there learn the way of life: the habits and the choices that shape your faith (behaviour). And from here, you will begin to find your beliefs changing. You might find you believe in the resurrection after all: but it is coming from having experienced yourself countless ways where life overturns death.
By reversing the order we no longer have as our starting point adherence to a religious doctrine. Rather, we have as our starting point an experience of love and community, and the entire faith journey now takes that approach.
And when people say “I’m spiritual, not religious” – this is part of the distinction. The starting place is experience, and the whole journey is lived experience.
The book ended on a real message of hope.
DBB looks back at the three great awakenings of the past, and in the debate about if there was/is a fourth great awakening, she joins the group who sees the social and religious change beginning in the 1960s constitutes a new great awakening. People began exploring new ways of experiencing faith, experiencing God, and this came out of, and fed back into, massive cultural changes.
She describes her college campus in the late 1970s having multiple thriving communities and chapters of people taking their faith and discipleship seriously, resulting in a bold vision for what could be in the world. It certainly felt like a religious awakening. Something new and bold and exciting was happening, and it felt like God was very active in it.
But then she returned to the campus in the 1980s, this time as faculty, and the life was gone, the diversity was gone, the experimentation and bold visions for change were gone. Replacing it where some standard Christian groups pushing a standard political/conservative agenda.
DBB paints the growing political power of the “religious right”, the “moral majority”, Ronald Reagan and co, as a pushback against the awakening – and describes how similar pushbacks have happened in past awakenings. This time however, something that began in the 1960s is continuing over half a century later… the pushback was significant, and so the change is drawn out.
In describing past push-backs, she seems to describe the rise of Donald Trump. (The book was written while Obama was still president, but the rise of tea party conservatism was evident).
It’s interesting to frame the success of conservative evangelicalism – in political power, in megachurch attendance, in mindshare – not as the awakening, but as the pushback on the real awakening. Though it uses the language of revival, and the metaphors and service structures of past awakenings, this is actually by now the old thing, and the comfortable thing, and the thing some are trying to protect from change.
But as she describes this tension between the “old lights” and the “new lights”, she describes the new light in ways that I completely identify with: for all of the struggle I’ve had with the church and structure and faith I’ve grown up in, she describes exactly the bits that I’m still holding onto, the values I hold most dear, and the hope and vision I have for what a renewed world might look like.
In reading this, I suddenly felt less like I (and those like me) are stepping away from our faith, and more like the steps we’re taking are part of a journey of renewal. It does feel like upheaval and uncertainty, but it’s not an abandoning of faith, it’s faith finding a new form to match the world we now live in.
And the world we now live in is globally connected, and past modes of tribalism over religious dogma no longer make sense when we can see the other tribes, and see that they too are human, and we can see that despite our differences the fruit is good, and so we’re learning that our religion isn’t the only way to meet God, our tree isn’t the only tree that produces good fruit – we can learn from each other, and perhaps we can discover that God has been showing up to all people in all cultures and religions. And perhaps this acknowledgement that God can show up to anyone in any culture or religion should have been more obvious to us from the beginning:
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’Acts 17
And so every religion worldwide seems to have up-shoots of renewal at the moment. We’re seeing up close people who we’d used to consider “other”, and discovering they’re not so different. And there’s a tribalistic pushback, but in many ways, this renewal is underway and somewhat unstoppable. Any way of faith which defines at the outset that only some experiences are “valid” and “true” is brushing up against our lived reality that we’re finding God in all aspects of life, on many different and intersecting paths.
And this is where we can join in. By joining (or forming) communities. By embracing spiritual practices that lead us to experience God, to love others, and to grow in maturity, and by allowing our beliefs to be formed by the experience of God among us – we can be part of this renewal.
It won’t be the last time humanity’s relationship with the divine God needs to adapt and evolve. It’s not the last awakening. It’s not necessarily the greatest awakening. But it’s our generation’s awakening, and our chance to be part of it.
On Sunday I finished reading “Making Ideas Happen” by Scott Belsky (founder of Behance).
I’m the sort of person that has ideas. So many ideas. Some are ideas for apps or products, side projects or start-ups, cool programming libraries or fun creative projects. When I look back at my work history, I am proud of the things that I have “shipped” and finished, or if not finished, at least gotten it “finished enough” that other people could start using it.
But there is definitely a graveyard of good ideas that I was very excited about at one point in time, that I even thought were game-changing, and maybe even started work on, but never managed to finish or get out there.
As I was wrapping up 2016 and planning for 2017, I realised that I have several ideas that I actually want to see become reality. Two ideas in particular (tentatively named Enthraler and Model School) I’ve wanted to do for at least 5 years, and have kept not doing.
When we finally launched Today We Learned I found out the pain of launching a good idea too late, and seeing someone else carry a very similar idea to success. If I wanted 2017 to be different, and if I wanted to be part of these 2 ideas becoming reality, I had to get better at executing on ideas, pushing them forward and getting them out there. And all of this while having a full-time job that I really love and am already feeling stretched in.
So when my my sister Clare and her husband Zac gave me a book for Christmas that promised to help me “Overcome The Obstacles Between Vision And Reality”, I was eager to get stuck into it.
Disclaimer and caveat: It’s worth pointing out that I’m viewing this book as advice on creative projects, which I’m viewing as distinct to start-ups. Both of them involve ideas, innovation and execution, but there’s a crucial difference. If you want a start-up to succeed, you should probably not start with an idea. You should start with a problem that real people hate so much they’ll pay someone to solve it for them. Find a gnarly problem first, then let your ideas develop around that. Creative projects on the other hand, start with your idea. It’s a work of art, as if inspiration has visited and requested that you make an idea real, and it’s your job to make it. It’s as much about self-expression and creative fulfilment as it is about business development.
The first half of the book (“Organisation and Execution”) is all about getting it done. It’s full of practical tips to stay organised, stay focused, and keep pushing ideas forward until they’re ready. These have made a massive difference for me so far. The second half (“The Forces of Community” and “Leadership Capability”) focus on the relational aspects of ideas. Ideas feel their most exciting, and most pure, when they’re in your head. The moment you start sharing them, and inviting other people in to participate, things change. This might feel like your idea is losing potency as it gets diluted by others, but it’s only with their help (and with the new aspects they bring to the project), that your idea is going to be successful. How well you utilise these forces has a massive impact on your ability to consistently bring ideas into reality.
Organisation and Execution
The competitive advantage of organisation
The action method: work and life with a bias towards action
Prioritisation: managing your energy across life’s projects
Execution: always moving the ball forward
Mental loyalty: maintaining attention and resolve
I was really surprised by how prescriptive Scott is in this first section. His basic argument is that they key to creative success is actually finishing your projects and getting them out the door, and doing that as often as possible. The trouble is that ideas are exciting at the start, boring in the middle, a hard slog near the end, and then only get exciting again right before you launch.
So the key to all of Scott’s advice is to just keep you moving forward, one small step at a time, to get you through the trough and out the other side where your idea is finally a reality. To do this, it takes dozens of small actions. Focusing on these actions is the key principal in “The Action Method” – Scott’s big idea on how to do this.
Most other productivity books I’ve read have talked about the motivation and less about the mechanics of getting it done, but Scott is quite prescriptive. For example:
Organise your whole life into “Projects”. Not just work projects. Not just side projects. Even mundane things like “grocery shopping” and “remember to call mum” go into a project. He isn’t prescriptive about where to store your projects, but I’ve used Trello. I have one Trello board for my whole life. The lists I use are “Home Admin”, “Personal and Social”, “myEd”, “Enthraler”, and “Model School”.
Each project has 3 types of things you can store:
Action Steps – literally, a specific action you can take to move the project forward. The first word should be a verb: “Create nice styling for multi-choice component and upload to Github”. Or “Read through things Cassie sent me and send through feedback”. My friend Stephen had an interesting take on this, going one step further and having a super specific first step in the action. “Open gmail, read through the docs Frank sent me…”. The trick here is to make it so obvious what the next step looks like, so whenever you have half an hour to work on something, you can easily pick an action step, start it, and push a project forward.
Back-burner Items – these is where you keep possible future action steps that you’re not ready to commit to yet. Maybe they are ideas for much later in a project, or maybe they need some more thought before you commit to starting them. Keeping them in a separate place, where you can come back to them, but where they’re not confusing you as to what the next steps should be, helps hugely.In my “Enthraler” project I have 8 ready-to-go Action Steps, and 29 items in the Back-burner. That goes to show that when I start a new project, I’m excited about the possibilities and I keep thinking them up. But I know if I want to keep moving the project forward, I just pick one of the Action Steps I’ve already committed to, and all of the exciting future ideas are in the “Backburner” list where they won’t distract me.
References – this is for things which you want to remember but they’re not actionable. An example is finding a colour scheme I really liked for a project. In the past, I may have taken a screenshot of the colour scheme and added it to a task. But it’s not really an action I can take! It’s just something I want to store so I can look back if I need to. Now I keep things like this in references. Also helpful: meeting notes, contact details, etc. Keeping all these things in one separate spot helps keep the clutter down so you can focus on your next action steps.
Have a regular “review” session, say once a fortnight or once a month, where you go over your projects, see if the actions are still relevant and clearly defined, check what’s in your back-burner and references, and update things as necessary. He recommends doing this some place nice, like your favourite coffee shop. This is a part I haven’t had much practice with yet!
The Forces of Community
Harnessing the forces around you
Pushing ideas out to your community
One of the headings in this section is “Seldom is anything accomplished alone”, and I find it a perfect reminder. Some ideas are small enough that they can be accomplished alone, but even something like writing a song will benefit from collaboration. Not to mention the help you would need in producing, mixing, mastering, distribution and release strategy. And every project is like this – if you want it to become more than a hobby, you are going to have to bring other people into it.
A key part of this is overcoming the fear of people judging and criticising your work. Overcome the fear, then get feedback early, and get it often. You don’t have to listen to what people say, if you want you can hold on to the exact vision you have. But if you overcome the fear, and get the feedback, you will probably hear things that will make your project better, so it’s worth putting yourself out there.
There was a beautiful story in here about a story-telling course Scott went to, where people practised sharing a story, but the audience were not allowed to give “constructive criticism”. Instead, they were only allowed to share what they really appreciated, what made the story come alive for them. He found that as people iterated on their stories, this approach helped the “alive” pieces of the story shine even more, and somehow, the weak parts of the story began self-correcting with each iteration, but without losing the strength of the parts that really shone. I loved that!
One of the things that challenged me the most in the section was to actively self-promote what you’re working on, and to build an audience of people who care about what you’re working on. If you’ve ever read case studies on a site like “Indie Hackers”, you realise that a common story in side-project success or start-up success is that the person starting had an audience who really cared about what they were working on, so when they launched a new project, they had someone to launch it to. So don’t be afraid to self-promote and build an audience, and show them what you’re working on regularly. The fear you have shouldn’t be that you’re inflating yourself in front of others, it should be that you’re not giving your idea any air, and it might die in your mind without ever becoming a reality.
The way Scott consistently reinforced this was a wake-up call for me.
The rewards overhaul
The chemistry of the creative team
Managing the creative team
I’d been reading the book thinking primarily about my side projects, which are solo-shows for now. Scott offered distilled wisdom and advice from his experience and from the research conversations he conducted, and while it’s not immediately applicable to the projects I’d been thinking about, I can definitely see how it ties into my work at myEd, and how it will be important to attract more contributors for any project I do going forward. It identified a weakness in my approach to executing so far – the tendency to do it all myself.
Much of the advice given in this section was focused on character. So not so much “how to run a meeting”, but “when in a meeting, let other people talk first and make sure you actually listen”. Things like that. I really do believe that humble leaders attract talented collaborators, but more importantly, their humility and strength of character breeds loyalty – which you just don’t see as clearly when it is obvious the leader isn’t paying attention to your input and your ideas.
The difference it has made for me
Reading this book came at the perfect time for me. After closing down Today We Learned last year I began working full-time at myEd, but found I was still swimming with ideas for outside projects. By the time the new year rolled around, I had multiple projects I really wanted to run with, but was just not convinced I could push them all forward while still being effective at work 5 days a week.
This book, especially the focus on the action method, has helped me dramatically – and people have noticed. Most significantly my wife Anna – who keeps commenting that she can’t believe the change in how I work and in my energy levels, and in my ability to keep things moving – not to mention staying on top of things at home more effectively.
On a practical level, it has meant that I’m staying focused and effective at work, not getting stressed out by home administration (keeping track of finances, bills, investments etc) because I know I have everything tracked, and if I sit down at work, or sit down to do some home admin, or to give time to a side project, the next actions are right there for me to continue with.
Because of the stage of life we’re in – we moved across the country to focus on our work and our creative pursuits, and we don’t have young kids to care for and hang out with – we have a fair amount of spare time. I try to give 1 hour each weeknight to push a side project forward, and then a few hours of blocked out time on either Saturday or Sunday. With this rhythm I’ve been able to push forward my two main side projects to the point where both are almost at MVP (minimum viable product) level. And this has been during one of the most incredibly busy and stressful periods at work – coming home and having a different project that I can get into has in many ways helped me maintain my energy and positivity during some of the more stressful moments at work.
The challenge to think about how the community around me has also been incredibly helpful. As well as the two side-projects I’ve been pushing forward, there were another two ideas that I couldn’t shake, and that I wanted to help become reality – but you can only stretch yourself so thin before you stop being effective. By reaching out and sharing these ideas with friends, I’ve actually found other people working on similar things, and have been able to support them rather than carry it forward myself, and I’ve found this incredibly rewarding, while at the same time satisfying the creative urge that demands I be part of making that particular idea happen.
It’s been an incredibly timely book to read (thanks Clare and Zac!) and has helped me hugely so far. To anyone who has ideas but can’t seem to get them off the ground, I recommend it highly. I’m excited to see how the rest of my year pans out as I continue pushing things forward one action step at a time.