Hitters don't have much of an agenda other than, "swing at the good balls." No one blames the hitters when the pitcher has a hot hand and throws a no hitter.
Pitchers, on the other hand, decide what's going to happen next. Pitchers get to set the pace, outline the strategy, initiate instead of react.
When your job is in reaction mode, you're allowing the outside world to decide what happens next. You are freed from the hard work of setting an agenda, but in exchange, you dance when the market says dance. "I did the best I could with what was thrown at me..."
Finding the guts to move up the ladder is hard. When you decide to set the agenda and when you take control over your time and your effort, the responsibility for what happens next belongs to you.
What does Bob Dylan do for a living?
"Oh, I confound expectations."
And what about Jill Greenberg? Jill startled the art world with her spectacular retouched and lit photos of bears, of politicians and of babies. Quickly, people figured out how to copy her distinctive look, which is precisely what happens when you make any sort of important work.
And so, she re-confounded.
Being done isn't the point. In fact, being done is the only thing to fear.
Unfair things happen. You might be diagnosed with a disease, demoted for a mistake you didn't make, convicted of a crime you didn't commit. The ref might make a bad call, an agreement might be abrogated, a partner might let you down.
Our instinct is to fight these unfairnesses, to succumb if there's no choice, but to go down kicking and screaming. We want to make it clear that we won't accept injustice easily, we want to teach the system a lesson, we want them to know that we're not a pushover.
But will it change the situation? Will the diagnosis be changed, the outcome of the call be any different?
What if, instead, we went at it singing and dancing? What if we walked into our four-year prison sentence determined to learn more, do more and contribute more than anyone had ever dreamed? What if we saw the derailment of one path as the opportunity to grow or to invent or to find another path?
This is incredibly difficult work, but it seems far better than the alternative.
Tribal jingoism doesn't scale for the long-term.
In the short run, the fear-based attack on the 'other' is a great way to galvanize those likely to take up arms, defend the brand or send in cash.
But, fortunately, for all of us, the 'others' are able to band together. Fortunately, it turns out that connecting and understanding and most of all, granting respect, is the essence of the connection economy.
It's tempting to enjoy the short-term rush that comes from hating the other guys. It's certainly a good way to get the crowd on its feet. But it doesn't last.
When we're defending a physical castle, it's entirely possible that hating outsiders is a useful tool. But in a connection economy, hating the other almost always destroys the hater.
Tell me where to click.
Just about every web page is designed to cause me to connect, to buy, to approve, to move to the next step. Okay, great. Where is the button to do that?
(click to enlarge). This is the page you see when you want to refund an order on Eventbrite. Question: Should you click on the big green square or the big grey square? Answer: It turns out you click on the little tiny blue words.
Here's the page you see to log on to a New York State site. Question: Should you log in by clicking the big green button under the box you just filled in, or the smaller blue button across the page? It turns out that the green button (green for go) actually makes you start over.
Suddenly, everyone who builds a website is in the business of making tools, and it turns out that we're not very good at making tools, especially when there's a committee involved. It takes work and focus to create a useful tool, it's more difficult than writing a memo...
Simple question with a simple answer: What do you want me to do now?
And here's why it matters: Tech is expensive. Tech is hard to change. Changing tech has all sorts of side effects and repercussions.
Language, on the other hand, can be changed on a whiteboard. Language is at the heart of communication, and the only purpose of a website is to communicate.
Get the language right first (and the colors). Tech isn't going to fix your problem, communication is.
Actually, it's far more likely that you made a human of yourself.
When you drop your guard, opt for transparency and make an honest connection with someone, you're right on the edge of foolishness, which is another word for not-corporate, not-aloof, not-safe. Another word for human.
Most of the time, we persuade ourselves not to make a fool and so instead, we shut down a connection that could have become precious for us and for them.
It's not always easy to measure what matters. Sometimes, the thing that matters doesn't make it easy for you to measure it.
The easiest path is to find a stand-in for what you care about and measure that instead. For example, websites don't actually care about how many minutes someone spends on the site, they care about transactions or ad sales or making content that moves people to take action. But those things might be harder to measure at first, so they focus on minutes.
The problem with stand-ins is that they're almost always not quite right. The stand-in looks good at first, but then employees figure out how to game the system to make the stand-in number go up instead of the thing you're actually trying to change.
A good way to find out: If you had to choose between increasing the stand-in stat and increasing the thing you actually care about, which would you invest in?
Roses, chocolates and greeting cards are a stand-in for actual human emotions, a stand-in for caring and respect and love. But of course, it's way easier to make the expense on chocolate go up than it is to actually care more.
Political fundraisers use money as a stand-in for votes, and in the short run, it might be. But not forever.
Authors use bestseller lists as a stand-in for making an impact, and in the short run, it might be. But of course, one thing is a lot easier to game than the other.
The moment you start heavily investing in making a stand-in number increase, it's worth taking a minute to look at the big sign hanging over your desk (you do have a big sign, right?) that says what you're actually seeking to do, the change you're working to make. Make that go up, even if you don't have an easy stand-in handy.
Jazz became popular because an opera-loving engineer developed radio, which opened the door for an ignored art form to spread.
And rock and roll was enabled by the transistor radio and the FM band.
More subtly, consider the fact that real estate developers lobbied for suburban train lines to build their stations in hamlets where they owned a lot of land. A station, particularly an express stop, would lead to more residents, then more businesses, then more investment in schools, then a bigger station, an entire ecosystem based on one early choice.
The internet is no different. Decisions at the center change everything around the edges, for all of us.
Aaron Wall has been blogging about Google’s power for years, and his latest post makes an insightful connection:
Some of the more hated aspects of online publishing (headline bait, idiotic correlations out of context, pagination, slideshows, popups, fly in ad units, auto play videos, ... etc.) are not done because online publishers want to be jackasses, but because it is hard to make the numbers work in a competitive environment.
There are two parts to this equation: traffic and ads.
Google (the source of so much traffic) is under huge pressure from Wall Street to deliver increased profits, and until self-driving cars kick in, the largest share of those earnings is going to come from the ads they sell. To maximize their profit, Google has spent the last nine years aggressively working to increase the share of ads on each page in their search results, as well as working hard to keep as many clicks as they can within the Google ecosystem.
If you want traffic, Google’s arc makes clear to publishers, you’re going to have to pay for it.
Which is their right, of course, but that means that the ad tactics on every other site have to get ever more aggressive, because search traffic is harder to earn with good content. And even more germane to my headline, it means that content publishers are moving toward social and viral traffic, because they can no longer count on search to work for them. It’s this addiction to social that makes the web dumber. If you want tonnage, lower your standards.
Google’s original breakthrough model for indexing the web was realizing the power of the link. Great content earned more links, more links got a higher ranking, and there was an incentive to create more great content. This was an extraordinary virtuous cycle, the one that opened the door for quality content online.
It was Google’s decision to send people away from the site (compared to Yahoo, which decided to keep people on the site) that led Google’s growth. People came to Google hoping to leave Google to find something worth clicking on, and media companies eagerly worked to make content that would give them something to read. We've always counted on a media arbiter to raise the bar of our culture.
The gaming of the SEO system combined with the power of first page results (virtually all search clicks come to those on the first page of results) combined with Google's shift to controlling as much as possible of the unpaid clickstream means that this paradigm is no longer what it was.
That means that a thoughtful, well-written online magazine has a harder time being discovered by someone who might be searching for it, which makes it harder to scale.
If you’re a content provider, the shift to mobile, and to social and the shift in Google’s priorities mean that it’s worth a very hard look at how you’ll monetize and the value of permission (i.e. the subscribers to this blog are its backbone). And if you’re Google, it’s worth comparing the short-term upside of strangling the best (thoughtful, personal, informed) content to the long-term benefit of creating a healthy ecosystem.
Here's the key question: Are the people who are making great content online doing it despite the search regime, or enabled by it?
For the first ten years of the web, the answer was obvious. I'm not sure it is any longer.
And if you're still reading this long post, if you're one of the billions of people who rely on the free content that's shared widely, it's worth thinking hard about whether the center of that content universe is pushing the library you rely on to get dumb, fast.
We're all born creative, it takes a little while to become afraid.
A surprising insight: an enemy of fear is creativity. Acting in a creative way generates action, and action persuades the fear to lighten up.
It's one of the most profound and difficult lessons every MBA is taught: Ignore sunk costs. Money and effort you spent yesterday should have nothing to do with decisions you make tomorrow, because each decision is a new one.
Simple example: You've paid a $10,000 deposit on a machine that makes widgets at a cost of a dollar each. And you've waited a year to get off the waiting list. Just before it's delivered, a new machine comes on the market, one that's able to make widgets for just a nickel each. The new machine will pay for itself in just a few weeks... but if you switch to the new machine, you lose every penny of the deposit you put down. What should you do?
It's pretty clear that defending the money you already spent is going to cost you a fortune. Ignore the deposit, make a new decision.
Which makes perfect sense until it gets personal. And the work we do, the art we make, it's personal.
You produce a movie. The final scene is your favorite, the hardest to write, the one that you sweated to create and film. But in all the screenings you've done, the audience hates this scene, and when you show the movie without the scene in place, the buzz is fabulous.
Now, you're not just walking away from a deposit or some training--you're walking away from your best work, from your dreams, from you.
Part of what it means to be a creative artist is to dive willingly into work that might not work. And the other part, the part that's just as important, is to openly admit when you've gone the wrong direction, and eagerly walk away, even (especially) when it's personal.
Yes, we have to have faith in our ability. Faith lets us do our best work. But successful artists sally forth knowing that abandoning our darlings is part of the deal.
This two-part sentence tells us a lot about bureaucracy and the challenge of being in the middle. I heard it twice in one week from hard-working but underpowered people in organizations that should know better.
The first half, "I'm sure," is a statement of power. The speaker is trying to establish trust and authority with the customer by owning what is about to be said, speaking for the organization.
And the second half, "probably" is the waffle, the denial of the responsibility just claimed. Don't blame me!
Obviously, the symbolic logic here doesn't hold up. It's nonsensical to say sure and probably in the sentence. But it's a symptom of the impossible situation so many large companies put their front line in.
Either let them own it (not just the saying, but the doing) or teach them and empower them to hand the interaction to someone who does. You build customer loyalty and connection not by answering fast, but by engaging with respect and transparency.
If you see things that don't meet the norm as 'deviant', then you are approaching the world with a mindset of mass, of conformity, of obedience. You are assuming that you can be most effective and efficient when the market lines up in a straight line, when one size does fit all, because one size is cheaper to make and stock and distribute.
On the other hand, if you accept differences as merely variations, each acceptable, then you realize that there are many markets, many choices, many solutions.
Packaged goods, leadership or governance--when you expect (or demand) that people don't deviate, you're robbing them of their dignity and setting yourself up to be disappointed.
It's okay to say, "this thing we make, it's not for you," but I'm not sure it's productive to say, "you're not allowed to make the choices you've made."
Forty years ago, Stanley Kubrick showed us 2001. The first 90 seconds are without dialogue and solid black. It's hard to imagine that working as the intro to a YouTube video today.
Instead, our finger is on the mouse trigger, ready to leave in a moment. Not only that, but instead of leaning forward, we've got our shields set to level 7, wary of what's to come. As the video begins, a series of questions arise, unbidden:
Who sent me here?
What do I expect?
What's this about?
What else is on? (10,000,000 choices, not three)
What does this remind me of?
Hey, isn't that Hugo Weaving's voice?
Wow, he's cute...
Are they selling me something?
What's the joke here?
Are those stock photos?
What will I tell my friends?
Who would love this that I should send it to?
Okay, yeah, I think I get it... Next.
Movies were scarce and long and special and deserved our attention. TV was shorter, with commercials, but still live (now or never) and thus special. But video--video is ubiquitous and short and everywhere. You can transfer a movie or a TV show to this new medium, but it will be consumed differently.
Everyone can publish video now, and in many ways, almost everyone is publishing video now. A video won't work because everyone watches it. It will work because the right people do, for the right reason. The occasional video viral hit has blinded us to the power of long-tail video to build the culture and change minds.
Everything that's watched has always been watched through the worldview of the watcher. And video (and before that, movies and TV) has driven the culture. That culture-driving ability now belongs to anyone who can make a video that the right people choose to watch.
But if we did, it would take a lot to speak up in a useful way. It's difficult to be a generous skeptic. Not only do we have to be clear and cogent and actionable, but we cross a social boundary when we speak up. We might be rejected, or scolded, or made to feel dumb. And of course there's the risk that we'll get our hopes up that something will improve, only to see it revert to the status quo.
So, most of the time, we don't bother.
But when someone does care enough (about you, about the opportunity, about the work or the tool), the ball is in your court.
You can react to the feedback by taking it as an attack, deflecting blame, pointing fingers to policy or the CEO. Then you've just told me that you don't care enough to receive the feedback in a useful way.
Or you can pass me off to a powerless middleman, a frustrated person who mouths the words but makes it clear that the feedback will never get used. Another way to show that you don't care as much as I do. And if you don't care, why should I?
One other option: you can care even more than I do. You can not only be open to the constructive feedback, but you can savor it, chew it over, amplify it. You can delight in the fact that someone cares enough to speak up, and dance with their insight and contribution.
Because then, if you're lucky, it might happen again.
DoSomething is a stellar success, a fast-growing non-profit that's engaging with millions of young people around the world. Most organizations can learn something from their recent experiences. Basically, their customers changed. They changed how they consumed media, how they connected with each other and how they acted. If it is happening among teenagers now, it will happen to your audience soon.
Here's some of what they chose to do:
1. In a short-attention span, long-tail world, wide might be better than deep. In a typical year, DoSomething would launch 30 projects for their millions of members to take action on. Each project was refined and designed for maximum engagement. Last year, they rethought their process and launched SEVEN TIMES as many projects--more than 200. With the same staff.
2. Being present in the moment is a great way to engage with people who live in the moment (teenagers). Because they can invent and launch a project in days instead of weeks or months, it's way more likely that a project will be relevant. More important, they now live almost exclusively in texts, the most urgent permission medium of all.
3. In a short-attention span world, sometimes you have to go deep, especially when it's personal. DoSomething has invested a huge amount of effort and money into building a crisis hotline that works by SMS. The data they've compiled is stunning, but the lives they've saved tell the real story.
4. Change shouldn't be made for change's sake. Change should happen because you care enough to make a difference.
Most organizations go too slow, study things too much and most of all, work to not matter too much, because mattering is a good way to get noticed and getting noticed might get you in trouble. The upside of working in a fast-changing world is that you regularly get a new chance to reshuffle the deck and start mattering. Here's their new book on a workplace culture that embraces this new posture.
The work non-profits do is too important to be afraid of failure, and their work is too urgent to honor every sacred cow. The same thing might be said for the work each of us do.
So much freedom, so much choice, so many opportunities to matter.
And yet, our cultural instinct is to find a place to hold us, a spot where we are safe from the responsibility/obligation/opportunity to choose. Because if we choose, then we are responsible, aren't we?
My new audiobook from SoundsTrue ships today (see below) and it got me thinking about the magical power of repeated, semi-passive audiobook listening.
You sit (in a car, even) doing something else and at the end of the first, second or tenth listen, you are transformed, seeing the world in new ways. I marvel at this every time it happens to me--a good audiobook is a game changer. A good non-fiction audiobook gets you in sync with the author, slowing down your consumption and making the ideas more real. And for many people, it's a lot less forbidding than cracking open a book.
Steven Johnson's new book, How We Got to Now, is a perfect example. Beautifully written and professionally read, it will make you smarter, more curious and demands that you listen to it again.
Jared Diamond's book, Guns, Germs, and Steel is a classic in the same vein. It's a magical book, worthy of its Pulitzer Prize.
If you're curious as to why a few parents are endangering their children and their community by failing to vaccinate their kids, Eula Bliss' even-handed On Immunity will gently and clearly help you understand the deep cultural and psychological stakes. [... an update on polio.]
All three books are about the collision of technology and culture over time, and they're all fascinating. My new project isn't in their league, but in response to requests to do an unscripted audio...
My new audiobook isn't an audiobook at all, it's an audio-only live recording, available as of today via download and on CD in a few months. I recorded it during a weeklong seminar in my office, and it's organized into short essays. 100% of my royalties go straight to Acumen, and it's produced by my favorite audiobook publisher, SoundsTrue. After listening to hundreds of hours of their inspiring work, it's a privilege to be part of what they've built.
[UPDATE: a new interview with Tami Simon at SoundsTrue.]
...isn't nearly as powerful as teaching people what they need.
There's always a shortcut available, a way to be a little more ironic, cheaper, more instantly understandable. There's the chance to play into our desire to be entertained and distracted, regardless of the cost. Most of all, there's the temptation to encourage people to be selfish, afraid and angry.
Or you can dig in, take your time and invest in a process that helps people see what they truly need. When we change our culture in this direction, we're doing work worth sharing.
But it's slow going. If it were easy, it would have happened already.
It's easy to start a riot. Difficult to create a story that keeps people from rioting.
Don't say, "I wish people wanted this." Sure, it's great if the market already wants what you make... Instead, imagine what would happen if you could teach them why they should.
Productivity is a measure of output over time. All other things being equal, the more you produce per minute, the more productive you are. And economists understand that wealth (for a company or a community) is based on increasing productivity.
The simplest way to boost productivity is to get better at the task that has been assigned to you. To work harder, and with more skill.
The next step up is to find people who are cheaper than you to do those assigned tasks. The theory of the firm is that people working together can get more done, faster.
The next step up is to invest in existing technology that can boost your team's output. Buying a copier will significantly increase your output if you’re used to handwriting each copy of the memo you've been assigned.
The step after that? Invent a new technology. Huge leaps in value creation come to those that find the next innovation.
The final step, the one that that eludes so many of us: Figure out better things to work on. Make your own list, don't merely react to someone else's.
It turns out that the most productive thing we can do is to stop working on someone else’s task list and figure out a more useful contribution instead. This is what separates great organizations from good ones, and extraordinary careers from frustrated ones.
The challenge is that the final step requires a short-term hit to your productivity. But, if you fail to invest the time and effort to find a better path, it's unlikely you'll find one.
There's a huge difference between "no one" and "almost no one".
Almost no one is going to hire you.
Almost no one is going to become a true fan.
Almost no one is going to tell someone else about your work.
Almost no one is going to push you to make your work ever better.
If only 1% of the US population steps up, that's 3,000,000 people in the category of "almost no one."
If only one out of 10,000 internet users engages with you, that's still hundreds of thousands of people.
The chances that everyone is going to applaud you, never mind even become aware you exist, are virtually nil. Most brands and organizations and individuals that fail fall into the chasm of trying to be all things in order to please everyone, and end up reaching no one.
That's the wrong thing to focus on. Better to focus on and delight almost no one.