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What do you do when you know something isn’t quite working, such as a job, a creative project, a business idea, or a relationship? How do you turn that inner feeling of misalignment into a practical growth experience, so you can ultimately create or discover a better match?
I’ll share a pretty straightforward process that I use in such situations, one that has served me well for many years and continues to do so. I’ll walk you through a specific example too, so you can see how to apply these ideas on a practical level.
Identify the Broken Edges
The first step is to look at the parts of your problem area that aren’t working. Most likely some parts are working okay while other parts just seem out of alignment with what you want. Put your attention on those broken edges. What’s broken about them? How would you describe the main problem areas? What don’t you like about them?
Mentally place the problem outside of yourself, like a math problem to be solved or a broken object that needs repairing. Adopt the attitude that you’re absolutely fine as a human being and that something about the problem area is broken. You’re just doing this privately in your own mind, so if other people are involved, you definitely don’t need to pick a fight with them. Just give yourself permission to treat the problem as something external that’s broken, even if internally you’re feeling frustration, anger, resentment, stress, worry, anxiety, etc.
I often do this by journaling about the problem area and typing up a list of the broken edges. Sometimes I start by listing what I still like about the problem area, and then I look at the broken bits. But usually I don’t bother with the good stuff list, finding it unnecessary in most cases. If I treat the situation like a math problem, I don’t need to begin by journaling about what I like about mathematics or the nature of this particular math problem. I can just tackle the problem directly. But if you have a lot of emotion swirling around the problem, you may find it helpful to focus on the good aspects first, so you can calm yourself down enough to see the situation more objectively.
Go ahead and list however many broken edges come to mind. I usually come up with 3-5 of them each time I do this. You just want to hit the main ones though. If you come up with a list of 20 or more, you’re probably overdoing it.
Again, be sure to define your broken edges as external problems. Don’t define them internally. So don’t write down that the problem is that you feel needy in your relationship. Feeling needy is internal, and it’s just your reaction to the external problem. What might the external cause be? Maybe your relationship partner doesn’t touch you enough or say “I love you” enough. Maybe your partner isn’t very funny and doesn’t make you laugh enough. For the purpose of doing this step, blaming others is totally fine.
Get specific if you can. If you dislike your job, then what specifically do you dislike about it? Are your co-workers dreadfully boring? Does your boss fail to praise you enough? Does your cubicle smell funny?
A broken edge is a pattern that isn’t working for you. That pattern may be something pretty narrow and specific, or it may be something pretty broad and general. So define the pattern as narrowly as it actually comes up for you, but if it’s something fairly general, such as your boss’ overall negative attitude, it’s okay to keep it general.
Complain to the Universe
This next step is totally optional, but if you’re into subjective reality (i.e. the perspective that this reality is a dream or simulation), you might want to do it.
Imagine that you’re in a dream world that can create anything you want, and this problem is what you’ve been given instead. Now go ahead and complain aloud to the universe.
How did the dream world fall short? Do you think it can do better? Tell it where it messed up. Actually say this aloud, as if you’re doing the airing of grievances from Festivus.
You brought me a frigid and emotionally damaged relationship partner. What gives?
You gave me an employer who expects me to feel motivated doing insurance work in a beige cubicle. Seriously?
My coworker keeps coming into the office reeking of cigarette smoke. It’s disgusting – he smells like an ashtray. Can we drop this bozo?
What could you include in your complaint to the universe? What are the broken edges?
Turning Broken Edges Into Desires
It’s great to identify the problem areas, but of course you don’t want to get stuck there. Nobody likes an incessant whiner, the universe included. So the next step is to use these broken edges to define your desires.
This is usually pretty easy. Just look at each broken edge, and write down what it will look like when it’s fixed. If the broken edges weren’t there, what would you experience instead? That’s your desire.
Now you have a list that expresses what you want instead of wallowing in what you don’t want. And you can begin working on the specific transformations, which could involve small tweaks to fix the broken edges or letting go of your current situation and starting something new, now that you know where to look.
A Walkthrough – Building Community
I think it’s easier to understand this if I walk you through a specific example.
When I started blogging more than 12 years ago, one of my big desires was to build a strong and connected community of people who could encourage and support each other. Social support is a powerful growth accelerator, and I expected that helping people create better social support would be a big part of my path. And indeed it was.
I also know that many of my readers have very little social support for their goals. For many of them, my work (and often other online sources) serve as their main social support for personal growth exploration. Many don’t have strong social connections with other growth-oriented people that they can turn to for help, advice, accountability, and encouragement.
For me it’s normal to have many goal-oriented friends. I’m immersed in an extended social circle of people who take lots of action and share their results. That’s just normal to me. But I have to keep reminding myself that this kind of social support is not even close to normal for many of my readers. And this is something that really holds them back, usually by making them way more hesitant to work on stretch goals and take risks.
Helping my goal-oriented readers enjoy strong social support remains a high priority for me. I’ve taken lots of action in this area over the years, which did help people gain some social support that they wouldn’t have had otherwise, but each attempt suffered from some significant broken edges. However, each attempt also gives me more clarity about what kind of solution I should pursue here.
Let’s take a look at some of these previous attempts at helping my readers connect with each other.
Since commenting was part of WordPress when I began blogging in 2004, I started with comments enabled by default, so anyone could post comments on posts. For the first year, it was a good start, but it wasn’t anything to write home about in terms of helping readers connect with each other. Here are some of the broken edges that I experienced:
- Readers couldn’t connect with each other except by commenting on each others’ comments (too restrictive)
- Comment spam (no good automatic filters back then)
- Trolls (people baiting other commenters into pointless arguments, wasting people’s time)
- Low quality comments in high volume (lots of fluff instead of deep discussion)
- No ability for people to start their own threads on different topics (limited to commenting on my writing)
Note that these broken edges are relative to my particular vision and values. Your broken edges may not be the same as someone else’s, even for the same type of problem.
I think it was around 2006 that I started hosting in-person meetups, mostly when traveling. I’ve hosted free public meetups in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City, Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, London, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, San Jose (Costa Rica), and perhaps a few other places. A meetup usually lasts for about two hours, and it brings together locals who have common interests to hang out and talk. They’re usually pretty engaging, and we share a lot of hugs.
Here are the broken edges I found with meetups:
- Too short and too small to build much community
- Just a one-time event, so no longevity
- No real follow-up afterwards, so hard for people to stay connected unless they make the effort
- For bigger meetups, not enough time for people to get to talk to everyone
- Usually done on really short notice (often less than 48 hours)
- Unpredictable how many people will show up
Then there was social media. Let’s start with Twitter. I had a very active Twitter account for years with 30K+ followers. Here are some broken edges that I remember:
- Restrictions on post length make it okay for shallow connections but not for depth
- Difficult for community members to discover and interact with each other
- The most active participation is from the greatest addicts, who usually aren’t the most growth-oriented people
- Lots of chatter but not a good hangout spot for action takers (no accountability)
- Twitter owns the community, and there’s no easy way to move it elsewhere (lock-in)
I like that Twitter is highly scalable, the fail whale notwithstanding, and it’s a lively and active place. But the shallowness makes it pretty pointless as a community-building tool. I deleted my Twitter account in July 2014 and haven’t logged in since. Someone else later registered a new account under the same name, put up my name and photo, and began posting pure drivel while pretending to be me. People reported it to Twitter, and they did nothing even though it’s against their Terms of Service, not to mention that it’s illegal to impersonate a living person. So that’s another broken edge. I’m really glad not to have Twitter in my life anymore, and I actually feel a bit stupid that I invested so much time in it, but it was at least a learning experience.
On Facebook I maxed out at 5K friends for my personal account, then created a fan page and had thousands more people following it. We had a lively and active community there, but again this had some broken edges similar to Twitter:
- The most active participation is from the greatest addicts, who usually aren’t the most growth-oriented people
- Lots of chatter but not a good hangout spot for action takers (no accountability)
- An interface that seems like it was designed to distract and addict people
- Impossible to ban persistent trolls and spammers since someone could like a fan page, spam it, and then unlike the page, and there was no way to block this behavior (at least not when I used the service)
- Facebook owns the community (lock-in)
- Forces you to have an extra inbox to receive private messages, and no way to turn that off
I deleted my Facebook account years ago, then tried again with a more limited personal account, just to connect with friends. I ran into some of the same issues again and deleted that account in July 2014 (same time I dropped Twitter).
In October 2016 I decided to create a new Facebook account, which I only use on a limited basis for participating in few private entrepreneurial groups, one of which costs me $1000 per month to be a member. I have zero friends on that account, I set everything to the strictest privacy settings (so no one can send a friend request even if they tried), and I only post in the private groups. For that purpose it works reasonably well, and I’ve made some good connections with the people in those groups. Having a zero-friend Facebook account is very different; this actually solves many of the previous problems I had with the service. I’m able to participate in some high-value private discussions with some very growth-oriented people. The downside is that these groups are usually very narrow in focus, so I can only use it to support a fraction of my goals. However, this has shown me a working model that’s getting closer to what I’d like to create.
From 2006 to 2011, we had the discussion forums here. They became popular instantly because I fed traffic to the forums from my blog. We’d normally see between 500 and 1000 new posts per day, and we eventually passed 1M messages posted and more than 50K registered members. We did a lot of things right that made this work well for several years. Here were some of the broken edges with the forums:
- Lots of work to manage the community (at least a dozen moderators were needed)
- A sense of entitlement from some members, for whom the community became their personal online hangout
- Some good action alignment in the beginning which gradually devolved into mostly discussion (low accountability)
- Frequent attacks by spammers, including some hired to spam personal growth forums
- Hacking attacks due to forum software vulnerabilities
- A bigger load on the server and the need for more expensive hardware
From 2009 to the present, I’ve been doing three-day workshops in Las Vegas (16 of them so far). These have been great for community building since people who meet at these events often bond closely and stay in touch for years afterwards. There are some broken edges though:
- People have to travel, so those who don’t go to workshops are left out of the community aspect
- Workshops are only available infrequently
- Events are relatively short (just a few days)
- No formal community retention after the workshops (although there has been some informal retention like a WhatsApp group)
I know there are more reasons to attend a workshop than the community aspect, so I’m only addressing the community aspect here. For many people the community is a major reason to attend.
In addition to the major items above, there have been many other ideas considered over the years, many of which were ruled out in the idea stage. They tended to share some of the same broken edges as the items above.
Understanding the Broken Edges
Now let’s combine these broken edges together on one list. I’ll also simplify these problems, so we can see what we’re dealing with:
- Vulnerability to disruption (spam, trolling, hacking)
- Low quality interactions (too short, too shallow)
- Low availability (too limited in time or space)
- Inflexibility (limited to commenting on posts)
- Low accessibility (requiring travel, only available on certain dates)
- Little or no accountability (no skin in the game)
- No longevity or long-term retention
- Unpredictability (not knowing how many will show up)
- Difficult for community members to interact with each other
- Too much interaction with addicts instead of action takers
- Someone else owns the community (lock-in)
- Bad or distracting interface, forced clutter (for online communities)
- Cost to maintain or manage (time, money)
- Risk of the community losing its focus and becoming less useful
- Too much chit chat and not enough goal-oriented action by the members
Creating this kind of list can yield a lot of clarity about what’s not working. But it’s important not to stop there.
Discovering the Desires
Each broken edge points to a deeper desire. So what are the desires?
Let’s remake this list from the desire side instead of the complaint side, basically by listing the opposite result for each item above:
- Immune or at least less vulnerable to disruptive behaviors (spam, trolling, hacking)
- High quality interactions (long and deep… that’s what she said)
- High availability (daily interactions for those who want it)
- Flexibility (supports a wide array of personal growth challenges)
- High accessibility (no travel necessary, access from anywhere)
- High accountability (members have skin in the game)
- High longevity and long-term retention
- Easy for community members to interact with each other
- Favors and rewards action takers, not addicts
- Avoid lock-in (maintain the ability to move the community from one service to another)
- Clean, uncluttered interface (for online communities)
- Easy to manage and maintain
- A focused community that maintains long-term value for its members
- Lots of goal-oriented action by the community members and not too much chit chat
By looking at our broken edges and considering the opposite desires, we can create a practical checklist for evaluating other possibilities. This helps to narrow the search space, so we know where to look for an even better solution.
Seeing the Big Picture
When you create such a list for an area of your life, review the items carefully to gain a better understanding of the big picture. See how the pieces need to fit together. Get a better sense of what a viable solution would look like if you had it now.
The vision for this community is pretty simple. I want to facilitate (and belong to) a kickass personal growth community where the members help each other take a lot more goal-oriented action than they otherwise would on their own. This means we need to help the right people with the right attitudes connect with each other in useful and practical ways. In terms of membership, this would be bigger than a mastermind group but smaller and a lot more action-oriented than the larger communities I’ve experienced in the past.
Many of the items on my list above suggest that a private paid community would be part of the solution. An open community that anyone can join is too likely to suffer from low accountability, which leads to other problems like spamming, trolling, and attracting more addicts than action takers. Open communities are great for some things, but overall I’ve been semi-disappointed with the long-term results, both as a facilitator and as a member of such communities. Having a free community is great if you want to attract lots of people, but it’s not so great if you want to work with a more focused and dedicated group of people unless there’s some other qualification required, like needing some programming skill to participate in an open source project.
I’ve paid to be a member of some private communities related to personal growth or entrepreneurship over the years, with dues ranging from $5 per month to $1000 per month. Having a price tag makes a world of difference, especially in terms of connecting with action-oriented people. And usually, the higher the price, the more dedicated and action-oriented the members are. Making new friends is great, but if I’m paying a significant sum to participate in a community, I want to see some positive results in my life or business from that membership as well.
My list also suggests that an online community would be a better solution than an in-person one, ideally a place where members can interact every day if they choose to. A private forum or a private Facebook group could work for that aspect, but that alone wouldn’t be enough.
The community should be more focused on action than discussion. The purpose of this community would be to help its members actively work on their personal growth transformations, not just to have watercooler-style chats. The group needs a pulse that keeps it aligned with this action orientation, so it doesn’t drift into becoming just another a social hangout. One way to achieve that would be to have regular group coaching sessions or webinars, so the group keeps syncing to ideas that encourage action.
My #1 goal for 2017 is to make a stronger attempt at building this kickass community. The right people are already out there, and maybe you’re one of them. We just need to put the pieces together to make it work even better this time.
I’ve been working on this idea for a few weeks now, and I’ll share further updates about it in the weeks ahead. It’s hard to predict when it will launch since a lot of this involves researching different possible implementations (which takes time), but if you’re on my email list, you’ll be among the first to know when it does. This time I especially want to work on the accountability and action aspects. So it will definitely be a paid, private community this time. It will be online. It will be available 24/7. And it’s going to include lots of direct coaching as well, to help the members make faster progress towards their goals.
I also want to guard against over-engineering, so like all the other solutions I’ve tried, I don’t expect this one to be perfect either. One of the most important priorities this time is flexibility. That means not being overly dependent on any one service provider or piece of software. I’d like to work out a solution that allows us to keep the community intact, even as we continue to evolve it over time.
From Broken to Fixed
The point of identifying your broken edges is to avoid getting stuck in the broken phase. Solve your personal growth problem like you would a math or science problem. When people stay stuck for too long, they tend to internalize their problems, taking them to a level where they can’t easily be solved. But when you examine the broken edges of a situation, it helps you see the problem objectively. Then you can take action to fix what’s broken and move on. Additionally, the more of these repair jobs you do, the better you’ll become at repairing.