The breakthrough pop hit is so unpredictable that it's basically random.
You will always do better with a rational portfolio of second and third place reliable staples than you will in chasing whatever you guess that pop culture will want tomorrow.
Of course, it means giving up hoping for a miracle and instead doing the hard work of being there for the people who count on you.
[Update: It turns out the key word here is rarely. Just because I'm incapable of predicting the hits doesn't mean everyone is. I just heard from Scott Borchetta at Big Machine. He's had a #1 hit on the pop music charts every year for the last thirty. At some point, it's not luck, it's your profession.]
Just about all the ranting we hear is tribal. "He's not one of us, he's wrong." Or, the flipside, "He's on our team, he's right, you're blowing this out of proportion."
The most powerful thing we can do to earn respect from those around us, though, is to call out one of our own when he crosses the line. "People like us, we don't do things like that." This is when real change starts to happen, and when others start to believe that we really care about something more than scoring points.
Calling out our own jerks is the best kind of kneejerk.
Almost all the inputs, advice and resources available are about how. How to write better copy, how to code, how to manage, how to get people to do what you want, how to lose weight, how to get ahead...
Far more scarce is help in understanding why. Why bother? Why move forward? Why care?
And rarest of all, yet ironically the most important, is help and insight about getting to the core of the fear that is holding us back.
This is the cause of the unfinished novel, of the self-sabotaging aggressive marketing campaign and the speech that goes on too long. It's at the heart of too much, too little, and too boring as well.
You might need confidence in your 'how' to deal with your fear. You might have found your 'why' overwhelmed by your fear. But all the how and all the why aren't going to help much if we can't acknowledge that essential driver is, "where is the fear?"
Are we so afraid of it that we can't even discuss it?
One of the critical decisions of every career:
"Well, there's plenty more to do, I'll do the least I can here and then move on to the next one."
"I only get to do this one, once. So I'll do it as though it's the last chance I'll ever have to do this work, to please this customer, to ring this bell."
As little as possible. Or as much. The system might push you to become mediocre, but that very same system rewards excellence. The perception that the minimum is viable is built deep into our notion of productivity, but it turns out that the maximum is valuable indeed.
The biggest cause of excellence is the story we tell ourselves about our work.
It's a choice, a commitment and a lifelong practice.
It's possible you work in an industry built on perfect. That you're a scrub nurse in the OR, or an air traffic controller or even in charge of compliance at a nuclear power plant.
The rest of us, though, are rewarded for breaking things. Our job, the reason we have time to read blogs at work or go to conferences or write memos is that our organization believes that just maybe, we'll find and share a new idea, or maybe (continuing a run on sentence) we'll invent something important, find a resource or connect with a key customer in a way that matters.
So, if that's your job, why are you so focused on perfect?
Perfect is the ideal defense mechanism, the work of Pressfield's Resistance, the lizard brain giving you an out. Perfect lets you stall, ask more questions, do more reviews, dumb it down, safe it up and generally avoid doing anything that might fail (or anything important).
You're not in the perfect business. Stop pretending that's what the world wants from you.
Truly perfect is becoming friendly with your imperfections on the way to doing something remarkable.
Things that are going up in value almost always appear to be overpriced.
Real estate, fine art and start up investments have something in common: the good ones always seem too expensive when we have a chance to buy them. (And so do the lame ones, actually).
That New York condo that's going for $8 million? You didn't buy it when it was only a tenth that, when it was on a block where no one wanted to live. Of course, if everyone saw what was about to happen, it wouldn't have been for sale at the price being offered.
And you could have bought stock in (name company here) for just a dollar or two, but back then, no one thought they had a chance... which is precisely why the stock was so cheap.
And the lousy investments also seem overpriced, because they are.
Investments don't always take cash. They often require our effort, our focus, or our commitment. And the good ones always seem like they take too much, until later, when we realize what a bargain that effort would have been.
The challenge isn't in finding an overlooked obvious bargain that people didn't notice. The challenge is in learning to tell the difference between the ones that feel overpriced and the ones that actually are.
The insight is that when dealing with the future, there's no right answer, no obvious choice—everything is overpriced. Until it's not.
We can get more done, if we care enough. And trust enough.
From the brilliant Cory Doctorow's award-winning novella:
I love a good bucket brigade, but they’re surprisingly hard to find. A good bucket brigade is where you accept your load, rotate 180 degrees and walk until you reach the next person, load that person, do another volte-face, and walk until someone loads you. A good bucket brigade isn’t just passing things from person to person. It’s a dynamic system in which autonomous units bunch and debunch as is optimal given the load and the speed and energy levels of each participant. A good bucket brigade is a thing of beauty, something whose smooth coordination arises from a bunch of disjointed parts who don’t need to know anything about the system’s whole state in order to help optimize it.
In a good bucket brigade, the mere act of walking at the speed you feel comfortable with and carrying no more than you can safely lift and working at your own pace produces a perfectly balanced system in which the people faster than you can work faster, and the people slower than you can work slower. It is the opposite of an assembly line, where one person’s slowness is the whole line’s problem. A good bucket brigade allows everyone to contribute at their own pace, and the more contributors you get, the better it works.
...might also be the right one.
The fact that your path is unknowable may be precisely why it's the right path.
The alternative, which is following the well-lit path, offers little in the way of magic.
If you choose to make art, you are no longer following. You are making.
HT to JSB.
WHO are you trying to reach? (If the answer is 'everyone', start over.)
HOW will they become aware of what you have to offer?
WHAT story are you telling/living/spreading?
DOES that story resonate with the worldview these people already have? (What do they believe? What do they want?)
WHERE is the fear that prevents action?
WHEN do you expect people to take action? If the answer is 'now', what keeps people from saying, 'later'? It's safer that way.
WHY? What will these people tell their friends?
The best reason to brand someone with a pejorative label is to push them away, to forestall useful conversation, to turn them into the other.
Much more useful: Identify the behavior that's counter-productive. When we talk about the behavior, we have a chance to make change happen.
What would happen if the behavior stopped?
When we call someone misogynist or racist or sexist or a capitalist, a socialist or an abstract expressionist, what are we hoping for? Every one of us is on the 'ist' spectrum, so the label becomes meaningless. Meaningless labels are noise, noise that lasts.
If that person stopped acting like a _____ist, what would change? Because if there's nothing we want to change, the labeling is useless. And if there's a change that needs to be made, let's talk about what it is.
For generations, places with significant oil production have developed a different culture than other places. This extraction mindset occurs in environments where profits are taken from a captive resource. It doesn't matter if it's coal, tickets or tuition, the mindset is the same.
It's not about oil, it's about the expectation.
They're not making any more oil, of course, and the race is on to get it all. Get it now, or someone else will take it. Take it all, because there's no reason to leave it there. Make sure others don't take it, because what they take isn't something you can take. And when the reserve is exhausted, move on. To the next field, to the next market.
Not everyone in any given community has an extraction mindset, but the worldview is: Anything that slows down, impedes or interferes with more extraction is nothing but a challenge to be overcome.
Debt amplifies this urgency. And so some industrial farmers race to dig deeper wells to take the last remaining water because if they don't, the mortgage due on their farm might wipe them out. And so public companies race to maximize their short-term profits (and CEO bonuses), even if it comes at the cost of the long term.
Thirty years ago, I asked the fabled rock promoter Bill Graham a question that I thought was brilliant, but he pwned me in his response. "Bill, given how fast a Bruce Springsteen concert sells out, why don't you charge $100 a seat and keep all the upside?" (In those days, $100 was considered a ridiculous sum for a concert ticket).
"Well, I could do that, but the thing is, I'm here all year round, and my kids only have a limited budget to spend on concerts. If I charged that much for one concert, they wouldn't be able to come to the other shows I book..."
Bill wasn't just spreading the money out over time. He was investing in a community that could develop a habit of music going, a community that would define itself around what he was building.
Joel Salatin is a farmer, but he doesn't seek to extract first, instead, he's building a network, creating a long-term, sustainable culture that feeds itself as it benefits him.
In the words of Kevin Kelly: Feed the network first.
The network, of course, doesn't always want to do what you want it to do, as fast as you want it to happen.
This chasm between the mindset of extracting and the alternative of feeding becomes more urgent as networks (online ones, environmental ones, tribal ones) become ever more powerful.
The chasm is so deep, people on each side of it have trouble imagining what the other side is thinking. Some people show up in your email box or social network intent on taking what they can get (can I have a guest post? wanna fund my project? made you look...) while others are patiently weaving together a cohort of meaning.
It's expensive and time-consuming to choose a path that doesn't deliver maximum value today. Unless you do the math on what happens tomorrow. Tomorrow, the network is either more productive or less. Tomorrow, the network is either trusting or suspicious. Tomorrow, the network is either healthier or sick.
The promise of our connected economy was that it would reward the good guys, the long-term players, the people who cared enough to contribute. The paradox is that this very same economy has become filled with people who are easily distracted, addicted to shiny objects and too often swayed by the short-term sensation or by short-term profit.
The extraction mindset leads to intelligent short-term decisions. If it costs too much to exploit a resource, move on. The network mindset values the long-term impacts of co-creation.
The network (that would be us) then needs to decide if it will continue to reward short-term thinking in order to enhance extraction, or if we care enough about the long-term that we'll act up in favor of sustainability, raising the costs of short-term (selfish) action so it becomes ever more profitable to focus on the long-term instead.
Later is the easiest way to relieve the tension that accompanies now.
But later rarely leads to the action we seek and the change we need.
When you encounter the tension of now, caused by the urgency of action, veer toward more tension, not less now.
It's tempting to invest time, money and emotion into gaining control over the future. Security guards, written policies, reinforced concrete—there are countless ways we can enforce our control over nature, random events and fellow humans.
The problem is that while the first round of control pays huge dividends (keeping rabbits out the yard is a good way to make your garden grow), over time more control creates brittleness. The Maginot Line didn't hold up very well, and the hundred-year floodwalls don't work in the face of a thousand-year flood.
The alternative is to invest in resilience, to build systems that can handle (or even thrive) when the unforeseen happens.
In one case, you can say, "when the roads are smooth, when you read the instructions, when conditions are ideal, this is the very best solution."
In the other case, you can say, "if people don't read the rider, if the unexpected happens, if there's a surprise attack, we won't be perfect, but it'll work better than any other alternative, which is a pretty good plan."
Should you visit a college before you decide to go there?
Well, a one-hour personal visit is certainly visceral and emotional and it feels real. But it's also based on the weather, on the route you took to school, on the few people you met or the one class you visited.
None of this is correlated to what the four-year experience is actually like, or what the degree or experience is worth over the lifetime of a career.
By analogy, everything from how angry that last customer was on the phone to precisely how many degrees it is outside right now are not nearly as accurate indicators as we make them out to be.
You don't need an electron microscope to figure out if a ball is round. (In fact, it will almost certainly tell you something less than useful.)*
Too much resolution stops giving you information and becomes merely noise, which actually gets in the way of the accuracy you seek.
*[If you were able to shrink the Earth to the size of a billiard ball, it would be the smoothest sphere ever created. Hard to believe this if you live near the edge of the Grand Canyon.]
Harry Truman talked about where the buck stops.
For every project, for every organization that lasts, someone is holding the umbrella.
She's the one on the hook if things don't go well. She's the one who doesn't walk away from a problem, even if the office is closed. Most important, the person holding the umbrella decides what to do next.
It's fun to work on a successful project, and thrilling to invent, create and connect. But the real work comes when it's your turn to hold the umbrella.
It's entirely possible that you've let other people seduce you into believing that it's not yet your turn. Ignore them. There are lots of umbrellas just waiting for someone to hold them.
Watching the US candidates hustle and squirm about the upcoming debates shows a fascinating generational media shift, one that impacts all of us.
In this case, the system has announced that only the top 10 candidates in the polls get invited, which means that more than a handful won't make the cut, which of course feels like doom.
But TV isn't in charge any more. We each own our own TV broadcasting network—anyone who wants to put on a show, can.
If I were crazy enough to be running, I'd organize my own debate, challenging one or two of my competitors to an hour-long conversation, and then post it online. Even better, I'd challenge one of the candidates from the other party and have a substantive conversation. Bernie Sanders debating [pick your candidate]. It elevates both sides because each person had the guts to address the issues, to go head to head, to speak up and make a case.
The Debate Channel can't be far behind. No grandstanding, with chess clocks provided for fairness, no wasted time on moderators, merely conversations, some of which can't help but go viral and get ratings that would, in aggregate, compete with the TV variety.
Can you imagine a musician today who only performed on TV when asked to by Jimmy Fallon? No music videos, no online work...
And the rest of us? We can have our own debates. Debate patent trolling or which kind of activity tracker is best. Two brand managers or engineers arguing for their particular cloud solution. Or debate sous vide vs. grilling, your freelance skills vs. someone else's...
The game theory is clear: In a competition among many players, when two or three care enough and are brave enough to debate, everyone else becomes 'everyone else'.
The magic is the open nature of a billion-channel universe. The organization with an FCC license is no longer in charge, debates aren't something that happen to you, they're something you can choose to do.
Writing and speaking (essays, non-fiction, copywriting, direct interactions, speeches) can be easily sorted into two groups:
We don't remember what most people say when they greet us (at a party, or even a funeral) because it's banal. Most college essays, tweets and advertising copy fit right into this category. The prose we consume every day gets instantly processed, filed away and ignored.
The other kind of writing is super risky. It is the original, vulnerable work of the edges. This is the interaction that adds real value because it's not something we could have already guessed you were about to say.
The unexpected doesn't work because it's surprising. It works because it's valuable. Valuable because it brings new truth, because it says something we didn't already know.
Of course, expected writing is often important. We need to check the boxes, pay the toll, make it clear that we know how to act and speak and write in a situation like this one.
But unexpected writing isn't merely important, it's a miracle. If we already knew what we needed to hear from you, we wouldn't need you to say it.
[Here's a first step in moving from one to the other: Cross out every sentence that could have been written by someone else, every box check, every predictable reference. Now, insert yourself. Your truth and your version of what happens next.]
When I write about linchpins and people on a mission, I often hear from bosses who ask a variant of, "Any idea how I can find people like that for my business?"
It's unreasonable to expect extraordinary work from someone who isn't trusted to create it.
It's unreasonable to find someone truly talented to switch to your organization when your organization is optimized to hire and keep people who merely want the next job.
It's unreasonable to expect that you'll develop amazing people when you don't give them room to change, grow and fail.
And most of all, it's unreasonable to think you'll find great people if you're spending the minimum amount of time (and money) necessary to find people who are merely good enough.
Building an extraordinary organization takes guts. The guts to trust the team, to treat them with respect and to go to ridiculous lengths to find, keep and nurture people who care enough to make a difference.
Criticism is difficult to do well.
Recently, we've made it super easy for unpaid, untrained, amateur critics to speak up loudly and often.
Just because you can hear them doesn't mean that they know what they're talking about.
Criticism is easy to do, but rarely worth listening to, mostly because it's so easy to do.
Every fast-growing social movement, non-profit and brand of the last decade has grown because people have chosen to talk.
Not shelving allowances, coupons, A/B testing, Super Bowl ads, dancing tube men or Formula One sponsorships. Each can be a productive tool, but at the heart of real growth is a simple idea:
People decide to tell other people.
Start with that.