What accountability does and doesn't do

three young women running on beach

In a way, all the things we do to help us get things done are tricks: Carving up our schedules in this way or that. Eating our biggest frogs first.

Even accountability is a trick of sorts. If you take on an exercise buddy or join a mastermind group or self-help organization like AA or Weight Watchers, you're hoping that the specter of peer pressure will keep you on the straight and narrow where your stated intentions are concerned. (And if you're hiring a coach or therapist, in addition some part of you is probably hoping that the pain of spending money will be motivating.)

Of course, we're usually drawn to whatever outside resources we end up choosing because we think they'll have tools and processes that will make our task easier, whether it's learning how to speak or how to avoid lousy relationships. No one wants a dummy partner. But most of  the efficacy seems to come from establishing a set of mutual expectations for improvement, and then not wanting to bail on the contract. Why is that?

After struggling with all kinds of change for most of my life and finally, FINALLY, getting a handle on a small portion of it at the ripe age of almost-50, I now believe that the real "magic" of accountability itself lies within me, not outside of me. As I said to my friend Dave Seah in our little Google Wave Experiment, there are no real consequences to not following through on anything I say I'm going to do with any of my accountability setups. No one will make me walk the plank. With the exception of one weird bet with my first-shrink-slash-astrologer (and another, even weirder one with my mother), I don't ever lay cash on the line, so there's not even that to lose. While ultimately, my shrink might "fire" me or my friends stop hanging out with me if I set up a really bad pattern of reneging on my word, 99% of the time, no one gives a crap whether I do or do not go through with x, except for their concern as my friends that I stay aligned with my own intentions. And the reason I'm reasonably sure of this is because I love my friends, warts and all; unless they started regularly and egregiously and personally letting me down, or hurting themselves, to the point where my intervention was useless, I can't imagine throwing them over because they couldn't quit smoking again.

So how and why does accountability work, really? What's really going on? Here are some possibilities:

Wherever two or more are gathered in His name

I'm not religious, but there is a sort of freaky hoodoo-something that happens in community, when the purpose of community is for the betterment of anyone in it. Chris Wells, who created the Obie-winning artists' "church"/show/gathering, The Secret City, and who has begun teaching the Big Artist Workshop in New York and Los Angeles, said it in our final class last Saturday: "Everything is better in community." (This, after being struck by something extraordinary that came about as a result of a group exercise.)

And it is better in community. I sometimes hate that it is, because I'm an introvert and, as my friend Gretchen Rubin likes to say, most of the time I'd rather just stay at home by myself and read a book all day. But as she also says, she almost always feels better when she rallies and does go to the party, the event, the meetup, the whatever. Part of it is action, of course, but another part is action with other people. We're these weird, self-contained fragments but we get the Big Juice from proximity to other fragments.

Darkness made light, the invisible made visible

It is really hard to see myself. Really, really, really hard. The beautiful parts and the not-so-beautiful ones.

In company, though, all kinds of things start surfacing, because the people around us serve as mirrors for ourselves, good and bad. I started having massive breakthroughs in self-understanding when I moved past plain annoyance with an acquaintance and allowed myself to consider what in me she was reflecting. People everywhere can serve as mirrors, of course, but when you choose a challenging accountability partner or two, you get improvement on steroids.

In any kind of accountability relationship, though, even one without doppelgangers, a great benefit comes from just dragging my trolls out from under the bridge, or at least getting the gang to train their high beams on them. And professional or not, anyone you're in an accountability relationship with is bringing a different perspective to your problem, and a much more objective one. That is illuminating, and illumination disperses shadow and darkness.

More on that tomorrow. For now, I would be very interested to hear about other people's experiences with accountability, specifically, how you think the "hoodoo" works on you.


Image by Mike Baird via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Quotation of the Day

"...and a little blog shall lead them."

My activist friend, Judy, who keeps me abreast of all important demonstrations, underfunded causes and Nefarious Evildoings of the Neo-Fascist Regime in Their Neverending Quest for Global Domination, is the one who pressed me to see The Corporation this summer. (Frankly, I would have preferred to see Riding Giants with my then-boyfriend and his surfing buddies, but I could sense that relationship was on the decline and felt my time might be better spent with actual friends who genuinely gave a crap about me.) Judy, ever the organizer, assembled a mini-caravan of people from our old workplace and my final Day Job, a stint in the research department of a large media-buying concern here in Los Angeles. Because while the company was home to many of the kinds of disenfranchised people you usually find doing monkey work in L.A. businesses, actors, photographers, radical lesbian feminists with multiple piercings and Interesting Hair, it was also a powerhouse media shop full of incredibly smart, wildly capable advertising mavens, and one of them had been interviewed for The Corporation, a documentary about the rise and rise of the corporate structure in America. (She was also very unkindly skewered for her zeal in various reviews, but we'll let that go for now.)

It was too long by a good half-hour and even the new seats at the NuArt haven't the heavenly, George Jetson-level of ahhhh that the ArcLight's do, but The Corporation kicked some serious documentary ass. In a surprisingly balanced way, it explained the trajectory of the American corporation from its (very) humble beginnings as a legal construct designed to protect and nurture fledgling businesses to the unassailable monolith it is perceived by many (including, in some instances, me) to have become.

Now, I do not hate business. Or advertising. Or money or power or Republicans. (Religion I'm a little shaky on, but since I've met some really cool, super-tolerant and loving people who are, in fact, devout followers of various religions, I'm trying to keep an open mind.) I think few things are inherently evil and none of the aforementioned (with the possible exception of religion) could begin to qualify. But as an observer of the media all of my life (both my grandfather and father were in the advertising business) and a player for a good chunk of it, I can absolutely agree that things have gotten out of hand, that the lust for money/power/total world domination has spiraled out of control and something needs to be done to shift the balance of power, especially in this country.

So how do you dismantle the corporate structure? How do you pierce the impregnable, scale the unscalable, attack the unassailable? How do you bring Goliath to his knees? (See? I do so like the Bible!)

With a David. Or rather, with a million billion zillion Davids. Only David, it appears, is manifesting in our time as the blog.

It's been all over the blogosphere for months and it's all over the mainstream media these days. Well, mostly. Time missed the boat with its annual cover, but ABC News and now Fortune have essentially anointed bloggers as People of the Year. We seem to have hit critical mass, and if my own usual place on the techno-assimilation scale is any example (I'm in that slim slice of the pie between Early Adopter and Mass Assimilation, kind of like the freaky, tail-end 1960-64 part of the Baby Boom I'm also in), blogs really are ready to hit the mainstream now. So even with the story about blogs, blogs are leading the way, which gives me hope.

The trick to toppling the reigning power is to find its weakness and expose it. To everyone. The corporation's weakness is not its bottom line but its unassailability, its Death Star-like way of sealing itself into an invisible sphere with a sheer face that makes it virtually impossible to attack. The secret, of course, is not to try to fight fire with fire, but with, say, darts or the Millenium Falcon or tickling, in the exact right spot.

I think the naked emporer construct is really the best metaphor* for the way blogs work vis-à-vis corporations. The Kryptonite Factor, which I discovered via Hugh MacLeod who discovered it via Rick Bruner who discovered it, I believe, via Engadget, was basically an exposé of a flaw in the ubiquitous mac-daddy of bike locks, the Kryptonite, wherein one bike enthusiast figured out you could bust the unbustable with a Bic pen. Kryptonite gets wind of the blog unrest and posts lame morsel of non-response on its corporate website (westandbyourproduct; ourproductisgreat). Blogosphere is outraged and goes wild; story gets picked up by the majors (New York Times, AP); Kryptonite is ultimately forced into action, admitting culpability by offering to exchange any affected lock, free. From the Fortune article:

"It's been, I don't necessarily want to use the word 'devastating', but it's been serious from a business perspective," says marketing director Karen Rizzo. Kryptonite's parent, Ingersoll-Rand, said it expects the fiasco to cost $10 million, a big chunk of Kryptonite's estimated $25 million in revenues. Ten days, $10 million. "Had they responded earlier, they might have stopped the anger before it hit the papers and became widespread," says Andrew Bernstein, CEO of Cymfony, a data-analysis company that watches the web for corporate customers and provides warning of such impending catastrophes.

I doubt that the goal of most blogs is to bring anyone down. There are as many reasons for writing blogs as there are bloggers. Well, that's not true; there's probably more like five or six reasons, and variations on a theme. But from my brief time in the blogosphere (8 months reading, 2+ blogging) I find that the blogs I frequent have two things in common: a clear voice and an honest intention. Transparency is key in the blogosphere, which is I think why the old school marketers are having kind of a rough time figuring out how to cash in on this whole blog thing. I spent years in advertising wrestling the twin demons of spin and obfuscation, and ultimately, I got plumb tuckered out.

Problem is, that's almost the sum total of weaponry in the marketing arsenal, and it's no longer enough. Blogs may be small but we wield the mighty sword of truth, and we'll wave it as we please.

The bike lock is buck naked.

xxx c

*I'm forever dancing through fields of metaphors, (punctuated by parenthetical remarks) trailing ellipses in my wake. Sigh....


Fortune: "Why There's No Escaping the Blog" ABC News: "People of the Year: Bloggers"