Discovering Your Own Voice

Posted by Brad J. Ward | Posted in Higher Education | Posted on 08-16-2010

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I’ve been making a conscious effort to get back to blogging both here and over on the BlueFuego blog. After my blog post last Friday, I got an email from a friend/subscriber.

The email, in a nutshell, was this: “Less theory, more application.” They noted that my early posts on here (2007-2008) were more how-to’s and walkthroughs with the web! Or in other words, the content has gone from micro to macro, providing more top-level ideas and thoughts that take some consideration and application to make it relevant to what you do. It’s not just a “do this”, it’s a “think about this in regards to what you do.”

There’s plenty of reason for that. On one level, my work has shifted from being very hands-on with one school to now consulting 10-15 institutions at a time, where we seek to educate and empower them to do great work. Also, I believe the culture of sharing in higher ed marketing has gone awry. I’m very purposeful in what I post here now vs. then. I think this section from the book Rework sums it up well, especially for me as I continue to discover my blog voice. Read this:

Don’t Copy

Sometimes copying can be part of the learning process, like when you are an art student replicating a painting in a museum or a drummer playing along to John Bonham’s solo on Led Zepplin’s ‘Moby Dick.’ Where you’re a student, this sort of imitation can be a helpful tool on the path to discovering your own voice.

Unfortunately, copying in the business arena is usually more nefarious. Maybe it’s because of the copy-and-paste world we live in these days. You can steal someone’s word, images or code instantly. and that means it’s tempting to try to build a business by being a copycat.

That’s a formula for failure though. The problem with this sort of copying is it skips understanding — and understanding is how you grow. You have to understand why something works or why something is the way it is. When you just copy and paste, you miss that. You just repurpose the last layer instead of all the layers underneath.

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Plus, if you’re a copycat, you can never keep up. You’re always in a passive position. You never lead; you always follow. You give birth to something that’s already behind the times — just a knockoff, an inferior version of the original. That’s no way to live.

How do you know if you’re copying someone? If someone else is doing the bulk of the work, you’re copying. Be influenced, but don’t steal.

Understanding is how you grow. Copycats never lead. What you create is a knockoff. Isn’t that reason enough to want to do something on your own? To spend the extra time actually learning what it means than just copying it and moving on?

I am very purposeful about this, about not asking “I need examples of universities using ____ well” or “can you share examples in higher ed with me of schools that are doing _______”. There’s no real value in that, in my opinion. Plus, I am paid for what I know and truly understand, not what I can Google and regurgitate

Copying verbatim is just a shortcut to the end, skipping the steps in between to understand how and why something works on the web. (Don’t get me started on the other vendors and consultants who do this and then just repurpose your answers for their clients or presentations. :) )

Legwork. It’s a constant statement in my workplace. Legwork always, ALWAYS wins. But not everyone wants to put forth that level of effort. Do you?

And to close with my favorite quote from President Steven Sample at USC: “You cannot copy your way to excellence; rather, true excellence can only be achieved through original thinking and unconventional approaches.”

Comments posted (3)

I enjoyed this entry but it brought up so many conflicting feelings for me. On the one hand, of course we want to be great, we want to be leaders and all that. But, so many people, even or especially people in leadership, are afraid to go out on a limb and do something different because:
- we won’t look like the other guys so no one will know that we are an independent school/competitive university/liberal arts college/whatever!!
- the chance of failure is so much higher
- and, of course, the question of effort.
What to do?

Did you copy that section on copying on purpose? ;)

Honestly, thanks for being such an original and refreshing voice in higher ed. We certainly don’t need more people walking in lock step, and you’ve always been in a leader in questioning the crowd. I think that’s where real value in education comes in. Anyone can google the how-to. Give me questions, theory and understanding.

Looking forward to more blog posts, and best of luck as you develop your voice! I have a feeling you’ll have no problem.

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