All posts by Hollis Easter

Garlic and Red Wine Mustard

During a visit to my then-girlfriend Kyla’s parents just outside Boston in 2000, I was served the most delicious mustard I’d ever had. It was sharp, fragrant, spicy, filled with whole seeds like the maille à l’ancienne I’d loved in France, redolent with garlic, and absolutely impossible to stop eating. Never before (or since) had I seen a mustard I would happily eat by itself.

Seventeen years ago today, I copied the recipe into a notebook I happened to be carrying, and I’ve been making it ever since. It’s from a long-out-of-print cookbook by Helen Witty and Elizabeth Schneider Colchie called Better Than Store-Bought, and I remember seeing lots of wonderful recipes in there. I’ve just ordered a used copy, and I encourage you to do the same.

As with most recipes, I find that this one tastes best if I consider the listed quantity of garlic as a lower bound rather than an upper one–add more until it tastes amazing!

Coarse-Ground Mustard with Red Wine and Garlic

From Better Than Store-Bought, by Helen Witty and Elizabeth Schneider Colchie.

makes 3/4 to 1 cup

  • 1/4 cup mustard seeds (Hollis’s Note: I usually use yellow mustard seeds)
  • 1/4 cup red wine
  • 1/3 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/4 tsp. ground allspice
  • 1/2 tsp. honey
  • 1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. pureed garlic, or more if you’re mincing with a knife (Hollis’s Note: I usually use 3-6 cloves)
  • 1 1/2 tsps. coarse kosher salt
  • 1 bay leaf
  1. Combine the mustard seeds, red wine, and red wine vinegar in a dish, and let stand for 3+ hours.
  2. Put mixture in container of food processor or blender and add water, allspice, honey, pepper, garlic, salt, and bay leaf. Whirl to a fairly coarse texture. (Hollis’s Note: this can leave the bay leaf quite gritty and sharp, so I usually put the bay leaf in after the blending is done).
  3. Scrape into the upper part of a double boiler. Stir over simmering water for 5 to 10 minutes, or until the mustard has thickened somewhat, but is not as thick as prepared mustard. (Hollis’ Note: I usually do this in a regular flat-bottomed saucepan, stirring carefully and watching like a hawk.)
  4. Scrape the mustard into a jar and let cool, then cap and refrigerate. The mustard will keep indefinitely.

Copied from the Tornheims’ copy of Better Than Store-Bought by Helen Witty and Elizabeth Schneider Colchie on 2000/04/16.

Sometimes I add half a chile to the mixture to get a spicier mustard. In any case, I love this stuff, and I hope you’ll find it as delicious as I do!

Dance Funding: A Proposed Experiment

I’ve been on the periphery of lots of discussions lately about dance talent (musician/caller) pay, particularly in the contra dance world. I have a few hypotheses and a proposed experiment that I wonder if any dance communities would be interested in trying out.

It’s hard to talk usefully about money without using actual numbers. Otherwise, everything gets mired in assumptions. So the idea of transparency is fundamental here.

For those who aren’t touring musicians or callers, it may come as a surprise to learn that dance professionals are often paid less than the cost of the gas it takes to drive to the dance. It’s not uncommon for the pay, per person, to be less than $15/hour after accounting for immediate expenses, not including longer-term costs like instrument purchase, music lessons, car repair, insurance, web hosting for band sites, etc.

To be clear, this isn’t meant to be a rant against dance organizers. They’re good people doing a usually-thankless job, and they’re working hard to preserve and protect their communities of dancers.

There’s an essential tension in that dances are community events, and we all want to make sure that people can afford to attend them. My dance organizer friends (I used to be one, too) often point out that raising pay is impossible without raising prices, and they share their fear that raising prices will make dances inaccessible to poorer dancers. This is an important point! But I find myself wondering what data exists to help guide us.

There are lots of assumptions all around about “what would happen if”. Do we have data? If we did, I think it would make life a lot easier for dance organizers (who currently describe not being sure what their communities could support) and talent alike.

Hypothesis 1: most dancers have no idea how much dance talent gets paid.

Hypothesis 2: many dancers can afford to pay a few dollars more.

Hypothesis 3: if dancers knew how much dance talent gets paid, many of them would be willing to pay more to help.

In conversations with non-organizer dancers over the years, I’ve found people to be almost universally shocked to learn that, in 2016, the people who drove 700 miles (or even 40 miles!) to play the gig might be getting paid less than $80 to do it. I have lots of anecdotal evidence for Hypothesis 1. Anyone want to propose an experiment?

I’ve heard a lot of dancers say that they personally wouldn’t mind paying a bit more. This is part of why I advocate sliding fee scales. We used this model very effectively at Epic Skill Swap, and it helped solve a lot of thorny financial issues. Many dancers are mid- to upper-level professionals working in the tech and education industries, and it seems like a safe bet that Hypothesis 2 is true. Anyone want to propose an experiment? Has anyone surveyed their dance community to get actual data (anonymized, of course) about SES and ability/willingness to pay?

My experience is that sliding fee scales work much better when the participants can understand what they’re being asked to pay for and can clearly visualize the effects of their involvement. Thus my proposed experiment.

My proposed experiment

My experiment relates to Hypothesis 3. It goes like this:

  1. The dance organizers acquire a portable whiteboard (you can make a big one for less than $10 from materials at any building supply center like Lowe’s or Home Depot). This whiteboard will be prominently displayed at the front of the hall next to the caller, either suspended from a speaker stand or mounted on some form of easel. The idea is that it’s passively in view of all dancers, in a direction they tend to look, all night.
  2. The whiteboard gets annotated in table format like this:
    Caller: Band:
    Guarantee per person: $x $y
    Current door revenue per person: $0 $0
    Pay per person: $x $y
    Thank you for your generosity!
    Will you help support our talent by giving some extra money to the organizer at the door?

    $x and $y are whatever the dance has offered as guarantee (not all dances do this).

  3. Periodically throughout the evening, but at least at the end of the first half (just prior to the last dance) and near the end of the second half, a dance organizer will update the board based on the amount of money taken in at the door. So then the tables might look like:
    Caller: Band:
    Guarantee per person: $100 $100
    Current door revenue per person: $64 $64
    Pay per person: $100 $100
    Thank you for your generosity!
    Will you help support our talent by giving some extra money to the organizer at the door?

    and, later,

    Caller: Band:
    Guarantee per person: $100 $100
    Current door revenue per person: $64 $126 $64 $126
    Pay per person: $100 $126 $100 $126
    Thank you for your generosity!
    Will you help support our talent by giving some extra money to the organizer at the door?
  4. This is important: organizers ask dancers to help with this, on mic, during the announcements section. They also cheer the dancers when the door revenues cross the threshold of beating the guarantee, and they cheer the dancers for their generosity at the end of the night. We’re very overt about seeking financial support and about thanking people directly, immediately, and specifically for giving it.

The idea is that transparency gives all the people in the room a chance to see what’s happening and to evaluate how that sits with their financial priorities and values, and it gives them both a clear mechanism for effecting change and a method for getting feedback and social recognition for their efforts.

I think you’d want to run the experiment for at least three or four dances before you’d have much useful data to look at.

What do you think? Anyone interested in trying it? What issues do you see? How could we improve the experiment? Any other ideas about experiments to try?

Thanks for helping think about this and talk about solutions!

To Feel The Chill

It suffices, perhaps, to say that this has been a dark time.

A time of hope transmuted into fear, a time of disbelief, a time of anger, a time of labor, a time of love, a time of mute horror limned by swastikas and flaming crosses in the night.

Lately I find myself drifting through the days scarcely recognizing the world I seem to live in–a place where love of money and the will to power seem to trump all other notional virtues, where form and style and subterfuge beat substance every day. Amid all the promises broken and grimmer promises made, it’s hard not to wonder what rough beast, as the poem says, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born. So much of “Second Coming” seems prescient today.

There’s been a sense that it is time to man the barricades, time to fill the streets, time to fill every Congressional voicemail box, time to place our bodies on the line to protect those in danger, time to gather nails and hammers and steel ourselves to rebuild every last thing that gets torn down. That this is a moment when, as a nation, we are going to decide who and what we are, and that we cannot–must not–be found unequal to the task.

I share that sense. But a different thought keeps nipping at my heels.

As I’ve been making calls, writing letters, and trying to find a way to keep moving and acting through the despair, I’ve been musing about how much our society shies away from the experience of discomfort and suffering. I’ve heard lots of friends say “we can’t waste time thinking about what happened; we’ve got to keep moving”. We do our best to focus on what needs to be, not on what is. We work hard to avoid having to feel, especially when the feeling that’s waiting is despair.

So we take a painkiller, we turn up the heat, we try to focus on the positive, we tell ourselves that it’s all part of God’s plan, and we do our best to transform our experience and recast it in a different light. We try not to wallow, and we strive not to dwell.

It’s not working for me. The abyss remains, and I remain conscious of it. It haunts the dark corners of the day, always ready to ambush the unguarded mind. Perhaps you’re feeling this way too.

I’ve been trying something new. Tonight, I lit a single candle, turned off the heat, removed my socks and sweater, and sat on the floor gazing into the flame. As the room cooled and twilight stretched into full dark, I noticed the way my body began to shiver and then shake.  I tried to feel more intensely, rather than less. When my thoughts drifted toward rights and democracy, toward safety and freedom, toward fear and anger, toward fascism, and away again, I did my best to follow closely, not trying to redirect.

For perhaps an hour or two, I did my best to live with the panic, to feel the chill of winter in my bones and in my soul.

It’s awful, feeling this scared. I’m terrified about the safety of many, many people I love–all of whom stand to be hurt both by our new president’s policies and by the ugly spirit of hatred he’s gleefully unleashed. I often catch myself worrying that, if I really let myself think about what’s happening, I’d be swept away, unable to function anymore, a chip borne along by an unrelenting torrent. So I’ve tried to distract myself, to “keep my eye on the ball”, to keep showing up for things that matter, and to avoid dwelling on the abyss.

Yet it remains.

I’ve noticed that the act of trying to avoid “going there”, of distracting myself from really thinking about how bad things are, takes a lot of work. It uses a lot of mental energy. I should say that it wastes a lot of mental energy, since the abyss remains and I remain conscious of it. And that waste of energy saps resolve and undermines effort until it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that the best lack all conviction–while the worst remain full of passionate intensity. That’s a loss we can ill afford.

So, I’m trying something new: seeing whether, in a darkened room lit by a single flame, I might be able to face what scares me and draw strength for fighting back.

So far, it seems to be working. After an hour of mild physical discomfort and serious anguish, I found my mind quieting down and turning, more calmly, toward doing what needs to be done. That’s a more productive headspace for me. Maybe for you, too.


The Naked Truth About The Trump Statues

This week, statues of Donald Trump began to appear, seemingly at random, across the United States. The statues depict him naked and fat. My slice of the social media world has absolutely exploded with glee about these pictures. The way the images are shared (and the commentary people add) usually makes clear that it is the fatness, combined with the small penis, that is “the funny part”. It makes clear that it is bad to be fat, and bad to have a small penis, and particularly bad to be both.

When you post pictures of the naked Trump statue, I think about the similarities to how I look in the mirror, and I wonder if you’re aware that you’re using my appearance to shame Trump. If you’re aware that the ridicule doesn’t just touch him–it touches me.

I wonder if you’d say, in other circumstances, that it’s not okay to attack people for how they look. I wonder if you’d say that mockery based on appearance is an ad hominem attack that has no legitimate place in our political sphere. I know you’d agree that it’s not okay for Trump to mock other people based on their appearance.

And the thing is, there are plenty of legitimate things to mock or attack Trump for. He’s advocated violence toward peaceful protesters, suggested that we should forcibly remove all of a certain kind of undesirables from the country (Muslims, in his case, but it still smacks of Lebensraum) in order to protect our freedom, implied that someone should murder his competitor for the Presidency, extolled his business acumen even though his business model seems to be rapacious thuggery filled with debts and empty promises, asked a foreign power to commit espionage against the government he hopes to lead… I could go on. There is plenty of material here. Nearly all of it is legitimate and based in scary facts.

What it says to me, when you post these pictures and laugh at Trump’s naked body, is that you consider fatness to be on par with these other issues. That Trump’s fatness is worth the energy to critique because it is as bad as his stances on Muslims and murder, his flagrant disregard for other human beings, his duplicitous and pandering words, his dangerous foreign policy approaches, and his evident disdain for millions of people.

It makes clear that you see fatness as a problem, that you see it as a moral failing deserving of correction and ridicule. It shows that some bodies are just not acceptable to you, because of how they look.

Isn’t this the same problem we’re trying to fight when we cry that Black Lives Matter? (they do!) Isn’t this the same bodily autonomy issue that touches on abortion and contraception and parental leave and Obamacare? Why is it okay to use someone’s fatness as a weapon?

Trump doesn’t have a monopoly on using bigotry and the politics of division to hurt people. Let’s do better, friends.


Fermata / Rokeby House (sound recording)

Ruth Whitney Picture
Ruth Whitney, 1922-2015

This year, Memorial Day is a fitting title—we’ll celebrate the life of my grandmother, Ruth Whitney, as we place her ashes into the ground.

I say “we”, but I won’t be among those present; I’ll be teaching workshops at Epic Skill Swap in New Hampshire and then performing with Frost and Fire at the Brattleboro Dawn Dance in Vermont. So we agreed that I would record myself reading Fermata, the poem I wrote shortly after one of my final visits to Ruth in the nursing home.

I paired it with Rokeby House, a tune I wrote years ago in honor of the Robinson family homestead in Ferrisburgh, VT—a stop on the Underground Railroad, home of noted abolitionists, and site of Frost and Fire’s first concert.

As a music student at Swarthmore years ago, I remember a persistent fear that my grandmother’s health would fail, and that I’d be called upon to compose a requiem mass in her honor. Too much time spent watching Amadeus as a child, I guess. I’d wake from sleep sometimes worried that I hadn’t even started composing, didn’t have any motives or ideas to work with… and that, when the time came, I would be caught without an answer, unable to help.

I’m not sure where that fear came from, but it faded over time, as most nightmares do. Time and Ruth carried on… and I stopped composing in the classical world and began defining myself as the traditional musician I’ve now become. I forgot about the requiem mass.

Ruth was a stellar musician, a world-class soprano who sang opera and the classics of the Western canon on major stages across the globe. It is fitting that she be remembered with music crafted in her honor. But as time has passed, my musical leanings have grown less ostentatious and more spare. No formal requiem mass. But I still wanted to honor her, and mark the occasion, with music. Here, then, is my reflection on the passing of her last hours, set to a tune I wrote. It’s simple, and I hope she would have approved.

I love you, Grandma. I hope that, wherever you are, there’s music.

Fix The Problem, Not The Blame

fix, verb.

  1. To repair, improve, return to service, heal, remunerate, compensate, or prevent from recurring. “She fixed the problem”, “the doctor fixed my bad knee”, or “we’ll fix it”.
  2. To immobilize, assign, stick, ascribe, prevent from moving, or render unchangeable. “Fix your eyes on this”, “it’s a fix”, or “the anchor fixes the boat in place”.

When a problem comes along, four fundamental questions travel with it: why it happenedhow we can fix it, how we can prevent it, and who’s to blame for it.

They’re all relevant. They’re all important. But if your aim is to fix the problem, do your best to let go of whose fault it was. Spend your energy instead on understanding what caused it and how to repair the damage.

Sure, problems are often caused by a person’s mistakes or poor decisions. That definitely belongs in your root-cause analysis, and you should make sure that the same thing doesn’t happen again. But once you’ve figured out why the problem happened and how to fix it and prevent it in future, it’s just not that useful to focus on whose fault it was. Fixing the blame—assigning it to a person—takes time away from other tasks and builds resentment, and you don’t get much value in return.

When people fix blame, what are they achieving? Okay, you’ve figured out whose fault the problem was… so what? How does that help you?

It certainly doesn’t make the current problem go away: if you break a bone, the doctor can’t fix it by saying “you should have been more careful!”. If your kid gets a bad grade, you can’t improve it by saying “I told you over and over again to study harder!”. Often there are action items in there—cautious behavior, better study skills—that are useful in making a prevention plan for the future, but the blaming part doesn’t add much value.

Yet we do this all the time. How often have you heard people yelling, when there’s a problem, about who should have done something differently? Shouting that someone else did something dumb? Arguing about responsibility and blame as if those things will somehow change the situation?

We rely on blame, thinking that it will motivate others not to make the same mistakes again, thinking that if we can shame people hard enough, they’ll stop screwing up. Sometimes, it’s even true: blame does motivate people to change their behavior. But it’s a poor tool even in the best craftsmen’s hands, and there are better ones available.

Accountability is important. I’m not asking you to pretend that people don’t contribute to problems, nor am I suggesting that we shouldn’t hold them accountable. I’m saying that blame—the hot, emotional, shame-filled Red Hat concept—isn’t very useful. Determine the causes, address them directly, and keep moving.

Fix the problem, not the blame.

Many thanks to Karen Butler Easter, who taught me both this concept and this framing in my early days as a manager.

Six Thinking Hats at the Hotline

How well do you think?

I’m not talking about your intelligence—I’m asking about the way you use your intelligence. Are you getting the most out of it? How can you tell?

Traditional schooling often models thought processes within specific disciplines but does little to address the thinking approach itself. We’re taught facts and techniques for doing things by thinking, but the thinking process itself often lurks out of view, seen only by the shadow it casts.

Edward de Bono has spent a career trying to fix that. He’s written lots of books about how to think more clearly, usefully, and intentionally; I’ve been using one of them, Six Thinking Hats, in teaching crisis hotline workers this spring. It’s a simple visual metaphor for making sure that we include different types of thinking in our processes and then getting people to commit to using them.

The book is well worth reading in its own right, but if you’d like a quick reference or startup guide, Martha Walker’s excellent guide is available through Virginia Cooperative Extension. I’ve used Martha’s guide in teaching my hotline volunteers and staff.

Playing roles makes us stronger

De Bono argues that people often aren’t willing to engage in certain kinds of thinking because they’re afraid of what those thoughts will say about them. Nobody wants to be the negative person who’s always seeing problems, and nobody wants to be the naïve positive Pollyanna either. We’re humans, and we’re concerned about what others think of us. When thinking in groups, it’s hard to get away from this basic truth: we often care more about others’ opinions than about what we’re working on. This makes it risky to say what we really think.

De Bono’s approach is to name the different kinds of thinking (he calls them different Thinking Hats) and ask people to step into “playing the role” of that Hat for a while. He points out that, in theater, prestige comes from playing the role really well—whether it’s a wicked witch or a lovesick teenager or an awkward professor or a heartthrob. So in the Six Thinking Hats approach, you might relax into playing the White Hat (facts and data) role, comfortable in your clear (though restricted) mission, and be able to let go of the social concerns because you’re just playing a role.

I think he’s really onto something with naming and talking about these social concerns. We are social animals. Since reading Six Thinking Hats, I’ve been really paying attention to the group dynamics in thinking processes, and I’m continually seeing people hamstringing their own thinking abilities because they get too wrapped up in worrying what others think. The roles—the Thinking Hats—shield the wearers from judgment, and that makes us all stronger.

The Six Thinking Hats

The Hats can be a little hard to see in the abstract, but bear with me. It’ll get clearer. For a longer description of the Hats, refer to Martha Walker’s guide or the book.

White Hat

White Hat thinking is concerned with facts, figures, and verifiable statements. It doesn’t care what those facts mean; interpretation belongs to other Hats. Judgment and conclusion belong elsewhere; clarity of perception is key here.

On the hotline, White Hat often relates to the details and available options in a caller’s situation. What has the caller already tried? What relationships exist? What bridges have been burned? What are the caller’s preferences?

Remember that White Hat needs things to be verifiably true and accurate. So White Hat won’t say “the caller can’t get to Canton to register for DSS help“, because we can’t show that statement is true. White Hat might say, instead, “the caller works in Star Lake from 8am to 6pm every day. Star Lake is 35 miles from Canton. The DSS office in Canton is open from 8am to 4:30pm every day. The caller doesn’t have a car. The caller says that a DSS worker told her that she’d have to come to Canton in person if she was going to apply for help.

(Think of White as the color of purity, of neutrality, of cold reason.)

Red Hat

Red Hat thinking is concerned with emotions and feelings. Unlike White Hat, where everything must be justified, Red Hat never has to justify what it says. Gut reactions are the province of Red Hat: get them out on the table so we can talk about them!

On the hotline, we use a lot of intuition and instinct in helping callers, so that application of Red Hat is pretty obvious, but it can also be useful for “putting ourselves in their shoes” and making sure that we’re giving them a chance to talk about emotion.

Red Hat thinking on the hotline might motivate us to say things like “something’s not right with this caller—I’m worried that she’s in danger” or “this caller seems like an inappropriate sex caller to me. I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s there.” An awareness of the need for Red Hat thinking might also lead us to say “I’m glad that you called to ask about these referrals. I’m definitely going to help with those, but first I wanted to check in on how you’re feeling. This sounds tough–how are you bearing up?

(Think of Red as the color of emotions, of love, of anger, of feelings.)

Black Hat

Black Hat thinking sees the negative side of things, the flaws, the risks, the holes, the missing pieces, and the dangers. It clearly discerns what may happen if we try a solution, wonders whether the plan is strong enough, and notices the small problems that may sink the whole ship later on.

It’s easy to see Black Hat thinking as negative in itself, but it isn’t. Black Hat gives us a chance to see problems and fix them before they have a chance to hurt anyone. Alison Green talks about this in her article about conducting “pre-mortems” on a project before starting, to make sure that the team addresses all the problems anyone could see coming. If we refuse to allow Black Hat thinking, we’re likely to trip over obvious, preventable problems later on.

I’ve found it really helpful to have a name for Black Hat thinking because it also helps to shift people when they are getting excessively negative. Saying “I’m hearing a lot of Black Hat; could we hear some more White Hat right now?” is clear and direct, and it doesn’t criticize people—it asks them to shift their behavior.

On the hotline, Black Hat thinking gives us a lot with regard to safety and planning. “What happens to our mobile crisis counselor if she’s in a client’s house and the client pulls a knife on her?” is a critical question to answer, and it’s better to answer it in advance. “This referral plan relies on the caller getting a lot of help from DSS, but what if he’s been sanctioned and doesn’t have access to that? We should look into other options.” Black Hat helps us make our plans strong by seeing how they’re likely to fail.

(Think of Black as the color of negativity, of absence, of darkness, of night.)

Yellow Hat

Yellow Hat thinking sees the positive, optimistic outcomes by carefully exploring what’s actually possible in a situation. It relies on curiosity and a belief that good things are possible and that we can always find a way to make the situation a little better. Where a Black Hat identifies a problem, the Yellow Hat responds by saying “okay, how can we tweak that so the problem goes away?”

I’ve noticed that new hotline workers tend to dive straight for the Yellow Hat when callers talk about thoughts of suicide. Sure enough, they start saying “but you’ve got to have lots of things to live for!” or “I’m sure things aren’t all that bad!”. The hard truth is that they’re usually right, but that it’s not useful to say so at that point in the conversation. Again, having the Yellow Hat label for talking about that behavior makes teaching about it a lot easier.

It’s genuinely useful to have the Yellow Hat when helping put together a complicated series of connections with other agencies, or when helping a caller to navigate difficult personal relationships or professional challenges. Sometimes callers need us to help them have faith that things can work out, and finding that faith is Yellow Hat territory.

(Think of Yellow as the color of sunlight, of buttery goodness, of daytime, of candles against the dark.)

Green Hat

Green Hat thinking is creative. I call it “third way” thinking, because Green Hat thinking often involves finding a third way out of a difficult situation where it seemed like there were only two options. It’s very easy to get locked into seeing a problem in a particular way because that’s how we saw it first, and it’s the Green Hat’s role to challenge those assumptions and look for additional options.

Green Hats are likely to ask “Okay, we can’t get the caller to Canton in time to register at DSS. DSS needs to verify the caller’s ID; can DSS do a Skype interview and have her show her ID on screen?“. Green Hat thinking gives us “we can’t afford really nice whiteboards, but we can make cheap ones out of bathroom wallboard from Lowe’s, and we’ll replace them if they break. It’ll cost us $14 for 6 of them.

Green Hat says “okay, we know that we’re trying to reach farmers, and that they’re really skeptical of Mental Health People in general. Who do we know that they trust and talk to regularly? We know that the dairy farmers all talk to the guys who drive the milk trucks, and they see them daily. Can we get the milk truck drivers to help us keep an eye out for farmers who are struggling?

(Think of Green as the color of growth, of new leaves, of finding a way, of adapting to your circumstances and fitting them perfectly.)

Blue Hat

Blue Hat thinking focuses on managing the thinking process. In a group discussion, the Blue Hat helps to make sure we’re hearing from all the Hats, helps keep the discussion moving, and has a degree of conversational control.  Blue Hats provide a synoptic view and help everyone use the Six Thinking Hats method effectively. At the end of the process, they’re usually the ones in charge of clarifying what the next actions are.

Blue Hats say things like “I notice we’re hearing a lot of Black Hat right now, and people sound pretty fed up about it. Put on your Red Hats for a second and tell me how you’re feeling.” It’s okay and expected for Blue Hats to direct people to wear different Hats for a while. (And the Blue Hat doesn’t always stay on the same person’s head.)

When working with callers, Blue Hat thinking is what helps us know when to focus on listening to details (White Hat), listening to feelings (Red Hat), thinking up solutions together (Yellow or Green Hat), or dealing with problems (Black Hat). Blue Hat thinking leads us to say “I think I got ahead of you–sounds like you want to say more about what happened with your partner. Tell me more about that.

(Think of Blue as the clear blue sky, of the view you get as a pilot at 30,000 feet, of openness and flow. (Thanks for the suggestions, Jerome!) Think of it as the Hat you wear when you’re doing process control.)


At first blush, the system may feel a little kludgy and silly. It’s important to acknowledge that (Red Hat!) because it’s hard to work on things when emotions are getting in the way. It may be hard to see how the system works together, and it may seem like it’s not really worth all the heavy mental lifting to learn how to use a new system of dubious value (Black Hat!). I encourage you to give it a try anyway, and commit to using it for an hour or two. I think you’ll like it. (Yellow Hat!).

I taught Six Thinking Hats to my new hotline workers this spring, and I was surprised by how quickly we all eased into using the Hats as shorthand for keeping ourselves on track. Before long, we were all wearing the Blue Hat, noticing when we had slipped into one Hat and stayed there for a long time. We directed ourselves to use different Hats to figure things out. The Hat metaphor helped us to notice when our thinking was getting stuck in a rut and, crucially, gave us a tool for getting back on the road. 

It takes some good facilitation at first. Keep reminding people that they’re being asked to play roles, and that they will “win” by playing those roles as fully as possible. Give people permission to try, to struggle, to fail, and to succeed. As with any other change process, it takes a little time.

By now you’ve surely noticed that, in Six Thinking Hats, we’re all expected to wear all the Hats, not just our favorites. If you’re like me, you’ve noticed that you tend to select a few Hats for yourself, leaning away from the others. If so, give yourself a challenge: practice donning the other Hats, too.

Thinking about how we think is really valuable. Intelligence is a fine thing, but it’s wasted unless we direct it down productive channels. Six Thinking Hats helps us see those channels and choose them consciously. Since we’ve started using Six Thinking Hats at Reachout, we’re coming up with good decisions faster than before, and we’re more confident that we’ve seen those decisions from all angles. This method works for us, and I hope it works for you!

Remember to buy de Bono’s book, Six Thinking Hats!


A vein flutters gently,
restive hands searching beneath the blanket then growing still,
silence punctuated by rasping breaths.

When winter brushes the leaves away, 
the bones of the land are all laid out to view,
crags and valleys softened only by snow.
It’s like that here, in this room,
your brow still proud as tired cheeks drift down and away.

Down the hall, a man cries for help.
I wish I could help him, or you.
But perhaps it is enough to have been here, to have said the words of love,
to have given thanks for my life, a river sprung forth from yours.

My earliest memories of you all carry music,
whether it be Beethoven, Bach, Orff, or Schubert.
I remember you pumping the pedals on the old reed organ
so I, legs far too short to reach, could play.

It’s for the conductor to decide how long this fermata will last,
whether a cadenza will be offered, how soon the final barline comes.
But if you listen still, please hear us when we say
that we are grateful, that we are sad, and that we love you very much.
And when it’s time for you to go, go well.

Getting Paid to Write

How is it possible that so much of the ‘content’ we read each day online, so much of what changes and challenges and inspires and enrages and entertains us, is written by people who are paid nothing for their work? Did you know that nobody’s getting paid to write most of what you see on the internet?

As I’ve dug into writing more this year, countless people have suggested that I’ll soon be getting rich. Guest writer gigs, book deals, long hot showers of endless money, all are soon to come! Over and over again, people have asserted two things:

  1. Good writing pays.
  2. My writing is good.

And yet, when you dig, most sites say things like this: “we regret that we are unable to pay people who write content”.

Savor how deliciously passive that statement is.

We regret that we are unable to pay people who write content.

Often, we regret that is omitted, leaving only the simple assertion that the business model relies on a class of workers who are paid nothing. Who, if they were actually considered workers, would probably be illegal because they work at wages far below the legal minimum.

What’s the problem with unpaid writers?

There’s money aplenty flowing through these organizations. Ad revenue, when you have a site that gets a lot of traffic, can be pretty impressive. Membership-supported sites can also rake in a lot of cash. There are expenses, to be sure—but these are businesses, not charities, and it’s safe to assume that they’re making money if they last a few years. AOL paid $315 million for ownership of the Huffington Post in 2011. Yet there’s no money to pay their authors?

I work for an organization that couldn’t survive without volunteers, and I’ve done a lot of volunteering in my life. There’s nothing wrong with doing meaningful work for free, and sometimes it’s a beautiful thing to donate your labor and choose not to be paid.

But I think what chaps my ass is that these organizations exist to sell a product—‘content’—to readers, and secondarily to sell another product—access to those readers—to advertisers and data miners. They’re fundamentally engaged in commerce. They require writers to sign over all publication rights for the work they’re submitting, so the company can resell and republish the work at will. Yet they don’t pay for what they’re selling.

And then they hide that fact. Here’s a question:

How many of the sites you read pay their authors for their work? Do you know? Can you find out?

It’s usually tough to find out. The answer usually lurks in the tall grass of the submissions pages, if you can find those.

I think it’s dishonest. People tell me all the time that I should be making money from writing, and that I should do it for [pick your favorite site]. It’s clear that most folks believe writers for these sites get paid. I think it’s dishonest for the sites to hide the fact that they’re just publishing donated material. The sites should acknowledge the gifts, so that readers can offer gratitude where it’s due.

But they don’t.

And yet we keep writing. We write for free, for the thrill of sharing ideas and passing them to others. Many of us write in hopes that, someday, the money really will materialize. We keep writing, and we keep donating what we create. We hope.

But I’ve also seen people stop writing because the hope dies. It doesn’t pay, and people rarely say “thank you”. We live in a world that measures value in dollars and kudos, and when people offer neither, writers eventually move on to other work. And their ideas disappear.

I find myself not clicking articles people post when I know that they’re hosted on ad-supported sites that still don’t pay their authors. It feels wrong to be complicit in aggregating lucre for those at the top when those at the bottom earn nothing.

There’s a line from John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy that comes to mind. One character, a double agent, ends up saying “I hate America very deeply… the economic repression of the masses, institutionalized. Even Lenin couldn’t have foreseen the extent of that.

I don’t know how we can have an online “content model” that actually pays people for creative work. But I think it has to start with acknowledging the truths about how our present system works.

And the truth is that very few people are getting paid to write.