Preserving Context

This is the fourth article about the FAOCAS (read: focus) process of Experience Curating. If you're new to this series or the concept of Experience Curating, click here for the article introducing curating your existence.


“Nobody moves, or the girl gets it!”

“His lips are moving.”

Let me guess: you have no freakin' clue what the three quotes are about. They're missing something crucial. Something… relative.

They're missing context… and all words are worthless without meaningful context.

Now let's try this again.

“I'm warning you! Stop fighting over that last piece of candy you stupid boys. Nobody moves, or the girl gets it!”

“How can you tell when a lawyer is lying? His lips are moving.”

That's much better with meaningful context, huh?

The wrong context turns a hilarious joke into an insult while the right context converts a so-so experience into a powerful one.

That's why preservation of context is a hallmark of a solid curating system. How you preserve context and what format that takes is (relatively) unimportant. You simply must capture the experience in the moment or quickly after it's over.

Delays in preserving context means that your memory starts playing games with you in ways you don't realize. Donna Bridge, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University, explains:

A memory is not simply an image produced by time traveling back to the original event – it can be an image that is somewhat distorted because of the prior times you remembered it. Your memory of an event can grow less precise even to the point of being totally false with each retrieval.

So if you really want to rock Experience Curating (EC), adding your personal layers of context is amazing.

It's the difference between telling your friend, “Here's a resource that might be helpful for your health thingy” and “Here's a link to a video I've watched, know is relevant to you, have added my own comments to (which I'm now sharing), and is useful because you're at the exact place this featured woman is before her transformation began.”

These quick steps will help you travel through the “C” in the FAOCAS process and separate the mediocre curators from the Experience Curating Hall of Fame.

1. Learn to Swim

If categories are the building blocks and logic is the glue of your EC system, then context is the nourishing river.

You've heard people say “it's all relative,” but what does that even mean?

[tweet that]

The context river challenges us to explore how one specific experience – like walking along the Mississippi River on a beautiful day – relates to another specific experience – such as walking along Venice's canals on a cold New Year's Eve – or a broader category of experiences like being awestruck by oceans, lakes, or waterfalls.

Your reality – even of shared experiences at the same time, in the same place, with the same people – can be radically different than everyone else's.

This is the most important principle “C” principle of FAOCAS.

Case in point: I love Excel spreadsheets like I love Trader Joe's dark chocolate. But unless you're a spreadsheet fanatic like me, you can only imagine the joy from chocolate. So you're going to need a lot of context to be convinced that spreadsheets are as awesome as mouth-watering deliciousness.

Here's how I'd layer on the spreadsheet context so you have a chance to “get it:”

  1. First, I'd ask you to read my article “Spreadsheets and You: How and Why to Put Your Life in Them.” This is where you'll learn about my “put it in a spreadsheet” philosophy and the many benefits of spreadsheets.
  2. Next, I'd recommend you absorb the “Spreadsheet Spotlight” category where I show you how to use spreadsheets for everything from maintenance tracking to naming your children.
  3. Last, I'd show you the spreadsheet I used as a playbook to create Experience Curating: The Book. It's The Digital Launch Playbook and I used my curating powers to filter years' worth of corporate project management and entrepreneur experiences into an organized archive of steps and best practices for rocking digital projects.

At each branch in the context river, I've given you the chance to say:

  1. “Interesting. Tell me more…”
  2. “OK. I get it. Spreadsheets are now my secret lover (just like dark chocolate).”
  3. “You're crazy! I'm going to cleanse my brain of your nutty spreadsheet talk with some Equal Exchange dark chocolate.

This is how a savvy Experience Curator does it and avoids overwhelming someone with a context bomb.

2. Explore Beyond the Surface

At first glance, parts of your context river might flow slowly and seemingly without significance. But focusing only on the surface ignores the vigorous breeze above and the whirlwind below.

My World Domination Summit (WDS) context was the potentially stale themes of service, adventure, community, and creativity.

I heard people say things like:

  • “Nobody leaves your life because you're too awesome.”
  • “Creativity is the new literacy.”

But seriously, what do those statements mean?

This is how I went above and below their surface:

  1. Nobody leaves your life because you're too awesome. Above the surface, I want people to think I'm awesome and the value I create is awesome. Below the surface, I feel this way because I want constant validation that what I'm doing matters… that why I exist is meaningful.
  2. Creativity is the new literacy. Above the surface, we all know that reading and writing are essential. But the ability to creatively add value is equally (if not more) important in the 21st century. Below the surface, I didn't have a sense of purpose until I started feeling creative and being creative at age thirty. Now, I've combined fundamental writing skills with what should be fundamental creativity skills.

Your experiences are like these statements: pleasant on the surface, but powerful – even transformational – when you go beyond the surface.

Pro tip: think about a dormant experience that is practically begging you to extract its rich context. It's never too late to add valuable layers if you preserved the original context.

The Bottom Line

An experience's perception changes based on who had it and who it's experienced for (among other factors).

For example, my paleo food cart experience during WDS is probably better than a vegan's who doesn't appreciate chicken tenders deep fried in 100% grass-fed beef tallow with coconut flour. But I experienced lunch only for me.

Contrast this one lunch with my overall WDS experience. I went to WDS to grow as a person and to connect with the people who could empower each other. In other words:

I paid $1,500.00 to have experiences that would make me more valuable to you.

I always remember who I'm experiencing something for as I decide which path to take and what value to extract.

I mostly pursue experiences that benefit others and I curate within that context. But I also simply enjoy some experiences – like paleo chicken tenders with a dark chocolate chaser – without wondering about its curation relevance.

I hope that your context river will constantly pull you back to question how your experiences can enhance the lives of everyone around you.


There are still two FAOCAS steps ahead as we explore “A” #2 – Access – and the “S” for Share.

For the comments: How do you avoid drowning in the context river? Are there any techniques you'd add to capture and build the context of your experiences?


Consider voting and commenting on my proposed SXSW 2014 talk, “Experience Curating: The World in One Spreadsheet.” The selection process puts heavy weighting on panels with large public voting and quality comments… and I could use your help with both!

Photo Credit: infomatique, Chiot's Run