Friday 28 June 2013

Keeping a balance : considering curating

I was introduced to a great new phrase to use in my organising work recently: Curating. This refers to capturing things, especially experiences, which can be shared and valuable for yourself and for others.

A few months ago I made contact with the lovely Joel Zaslovsky, who is based in Edina, MN, USA, and responsible for the fascinating Value of Simple website. The contact came about because he created a first-class post about the organising profession (you can read it here).

As a result of ongoing conversations, I found myself recording a podcast for him for use on his Smart and Simple Matters show (I'll shout about it when I know when it's due to be made available, probably later this summer). He interviewed me about my role as President of apdo-uk, about my background, about what brought me to professional organising, and much more.

A couple of days ago, Joel responded to my follow-up email after the recording, sharing with me a YouTube video of a talk he gave recently at Ignite Minneapolis ("a high-energy evening of 5-minute talks by people who have an idea - and the guts to get onstage and share it with their hometown crowd"). It gives some great thoughts and ideas about this topic, and it got me thinking.

'Curating' has an interesting place in the world of the professional organiser. It involves assessing the value of items and experiences, and having decided that they are worth keeping, choosing the most user-friendly and elegant ways of capturing them to share with others. Joel has some excellent suggestions for these tools, such as EverNote, Pinterest, or his "personal favourite" (mine too!) - the Excel spreadsheet. The challenge here is to make those choices to curate - or to abandon, forget and move on. In other words, whether to declutter and dispose, or to keep and to organise.

The truth is, of course, that as in all parts of life, the answer lies in finding a sensible balance between the two. While I have great respect for the work and philosophies for advocates of the minimalist life, such as the lovely Joshua and Ryan at The Minimalists, or the inspiring couple Betsy & Warren Talbot at Married With Luggage (who effectively sold everything they owned and invested the proceeds in travel and all the experiences that came their way), I recognise that this complete paring down of absolutely everything that is not completely necessary to your existence is not for everybody. I prefer to read the writings of such people to find inspiration, clarity, ideas and motivation; I don't have to stick rigorously to everything they say. And, more importantly, neither do my clients. My business is to make life workable, not necessarily perfect.

Joel observes, quite rightly, "Most of your experiences are empty, but some of them are powerful, even transformational; not just to you, but to everyone around you." These are the moments, the resources, that Joel believes you should learn to curate, to capture, to share, for the benefit of yourself and those you meet.

However, it struck me, when listening to Joel's talk, that "curating" could, in careless hands, come to represent the very opposite to minimalism, the enemy of true efficiency: a desperate drive to create records, to capture, to ensure absolutely nothing is lost.

I know from my own experience that this brings its own kind of clutter. I have met people whose organisational capability is quite stunning - they capture everything, from every morsel they eat to every item they buy - but their mechanisms for discrimination are sadly lacking. This kind of curating only exists, it seems, to give them an illusion of control over their lives and their belongings. Writing down a careful note of everything you eat does not necessarily mean that you don't overeat: it just means you can quantify it. [I speak from personal experience here, I assure you.] Noting every purchase doesn't stop you from buying things you don't actually need - just that you know exactly when and for how much you bought them.

I turned up a long-forgotten moment on television from my own mental filing cabinet (with help from that excellent aid to curating, YouTube). Ever Decreasing Circles was a gentle, beautifully observed sit-com, starring Penelope Wilton, Peter Egan and the late, lamented Richard Briers, which ran from 1984-1989. It's desperately understated, British and detailed; it is very funny, but often in a painful way. Martin - Briers' character - is "an obsessive middle-aged man who is at the centre of his local suburban community". He is a control freak of the first order. His life must be kept under complete, precise control, otherwise the whole thing will fall apart; the end of the world, in fact. The very first episode shows him (as he does frequently) disentangling the telephone cord, and asking his long-suffering wife "One thirty-five alright for lunch, love?".

The episode I particularly remembered - and finally tracked down - is the first one in the fourth series (1987). Take a couple of minutes to watch from 09:15 to 12:13 as next door neighbour Paul (Egan) takes Martin in hand to attempt to get him to relax his grip on unnecessary minutiae.

He starts with a pile of match results for the under-thirteens' football team, six years previously. The conversation goes like this.

"Do you actually need this piece of paper?" "Yes." "Why?" "To file." "Why?" "So that I know I've got it."

Any of my colleagues who has struggled to help a client to let go of inconsequential detritus will recognise this scenario. The point is that Martin's military-style precision in his record keeping has trapped him; but his organisational skills are superb. It's his skills in discrimination which are lacking.

As I thought this through, I recognised that my own style tends to the curating, too. My home is most certainly not minimalist; I am fortunate enough to live in a large property (which we don't own, I hasten to add; my husband is a minister in the Church of England, and it goes with the job). This gives me the luxury of being able to keep, and curate, items that in other circumstances would have to be disposed of. Specifically, we have one room dedicated to a library of theatre, music and literature. [That's the room in the photo at the top of this post.] These activities account for a huge amount of our leisure hours: we both love the theatre, as audience, performers and directors. We both have a fairly thorough knowledge of such matters, specialising in curiosities ranging from the Victorian & Edwardian operettas, through music hall and variety, to my personal enthusiasm for the works of Stephen Sondheim and Kander & Ebb. As such, in our wide circle of friends, it's no surprise that we are known to be 'experts' of a sort, and known to possess this library. Both our knowledge and the volumes are, of course, always available to anyone who wishes to make use of them. And, I would add, we are likely to find ourselves - at least annually, but more likely several times each year - involved in creating entertainments, workshops and fundraising events in our local community, for which these volumes will always be a valuable source.

A minimalist might look at our precious library, and say "But you hardly touch these volumes. They're clutter. You don't need them!". However, this resource is organised, acknowledged and available; the frequency with which any one item is required by us personally is neither here nor there.

An oft-discussed condundrum today is "the difference between a hoard and a collection". The difference is fairly simple. If, like us, you are fortunate enough to have sufficient space for the items; if you value them, display them, organise them and share them; if you can find them when they are required with minimal effort - it's a collection. If, on the other hand, the items are buried, invisible, inaccessible, forgotten, broken, mildewed or eaten by mice; if you cannot locate an item when it is required, by you or anyone else - then it's a hoard. Moreover, if that hoard takes up so much inappropriate physical space that it prevents you from living a comfortable, relaxed, hygienic life - it can't be classified as a collection in any true sense.

A final note. One of my favourite personal collections is a single folder containing assorted cards, notes and letters from my husband. I know where to find it when I want a sentiment-fest. I don't want to burrow through mountains of rubbish to find that card that he wrote to me within weeks of our relationship starting. I value it and I honour it, so I curate it.

We all have the capacity for curating. We take photographs, create videos, write diaries. If the things and the people and the memories that we curate are of value and interest, to ourselves and to others, for today and for the future, we can learn best practice to make them meaningful and useful. But in the same breath, we must be selective, choosy, discriminating. We must recognise the differences between the 'empty' and the 'transformational'; and when we can comfortably choose between decluttering and letting go or curating and organising, then we will be truly empowered.

Saturday 1 June 2013

Facebook and the like-whores

Oh, no - not Facebook again. I'm sorry that so many posts on here seem to relate to this topic... but this blog seems the best place to put it.

I read an excellent article this morning, and shared it. It relates to the tedious problem of 'like-whores': folks who create pages specifically with a view to building up vast numbers of likes and shares, purely with a view to selling those pages. The sensible and well-informed Gary Moyers, inspired by an article by the equally intelligent Becky Worley, has explained this clearly and simply. You'll find Gary's article here and Becky's original posting here.

Briefly, you know those seemingly pointless but sometimes mildly amusing posts that you see appearing, asking you to like and/or comment on the post to see something happening? (If you've ever responded to one of these, you know that nothing happens - in which case, you've probably metaphorically shrugged your shoulders and moved on.) However, as Gary points out, something has happened: "Your activity has now spread this image and the page into the news feed of all your friends."

The  one doing the rounds at the moment is a jazzy prism image (the triangle & rainbow bit comes from the album cover of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, if you're one of those far too young to remember such things).

You are exhorted: “OMG it really works! Step 1: Click on the Picture. Step 2: Hit Like. Step 3: Comment “MOVE” Then see the Magic!!” There is, of course, no magic. Nowt. Nada.

It all seems harmless enough: but, as Becky and Gary both explain, you have essentially bumped up the price of that page when it later is advertised for sale. It's pure commercial gold.

Well, if you don't mind folks making big bucks by these rather sneaky means, and it's done no harm to you or anyone else, why not? Because frequently these 'like and share' exhortations are distressing and are harmful. They often make use of genuine photos of, say, suffering children (have you seen the one about the 'mermaid baby'?) - and then say that if you share this photo, or like it, Facebook will pay x dollars, or pounds, or euros to relieve the suffering of this poor little person. It shouldn't surprise you to know that no such payment will ever be made, not by Microsoft, Facebook, CNN, Richard Branson or any other super-rich individual or corporation. What will happen is that the child's genuinely tragic situation has been exploited and abused. Can you imagine what the child's parents will feel if they see their son or daughter's photograph going viral over the internet in this way?


I know: I'm re-writing what's already been done perfectly by Gary and Becky as explained above, and doubtless by many other intelligent folks. However, I just wanted to add one other thing.

You might read this, and feel so upset and horrified, so unable to trust anything you read online, that you immediately decide to cancel your Facebook account. You can't take part in anything where such unpleasant things happen. You don't know what to believe any more.

Please don't. The internet as a whole, and social media in particular, have (like most things in life) huge potential for both good and evil. It's up to us to keep our wits about us and understand the difference.

A friend of mine has (as have I) a father afflicted with serious dementia. In her case, her father has become so paranoid that he locks himself into his house; barricades himself into his bedroom at night; sits all day with the curtains closed and a large stick within reach. This desperate over-reaction means that he can't enjoy his life, and is missing out on so much. However, it's also true to say that not many of us would leave our doors unlocked while we slept. It's the difference between taking sensible precautions and becoming paranoid.

So with house locks, so with the internet. Shut out everybody, miss out on life; invite everybody in without caution, risk life and limb. It's all a matter of commonsense.

Check this stuff out: don't panic about it. You wouldn't drive a car without passing a test first; why should your computer be any different? Search. Ask. Question. Learn. And - before you click - THINK.