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« July 2017 | Main

The problem with direct experience

"I'll know it when I see it," or perhaps, "I'll see it when I know it..."

We're hardwired to believe and understand the things we can actually experience. That's why no one argues about Newton's laws, but most people panic or shrug when confronted with dark matter, Heisenberg or quarks.

We're often good at accepting what's in front of us, but bad at things that are very far away or very very close. We have trouble with things that are too big and too small, with numbers with lots of zeroes or too many decimal places. And most of all, we fail when trying to predict things that are too far in the future.

Almost nothing in our civilization is merely the result of direct experience. We rely on scouts and technologists and journalists to tell us what it's like over there, to give us a hint about what to expect next, and most of all, to bring the insights and experiences of the larger world to bear on our particular situation.

The peril of roll-your-own science, in which you pick and choose which outcomes of the scientific method to believe is that you're almost certainly going to endanger yourself and others. Anecdotal evidence about placebos, vaccines and the weather outside is fun to talk about, but it's not relevant to what's actually going to pay off in the long run.

78.45% of humans tend to hate statistics because we have no direct experience with the larger picture. It's easier to make things up based on direct experience instead.

The solar eclipse is going to happen whether or not you believe it will, whether or not you have direct experience with previous eclipses.

When we reserve direct experience for the places where it matters—how we feel about the people in our lives, or the music we're listening to or the painting we're seeing, we have the priceless opportunity to become a better version of ourselves.

The rest of the time, standing on a higher ladder and seeing a bit farther is precisely what we ought to seek out.

Faux intimacy

True connection is a frightening prospect.

When you are seen by someone else, really seen, it hurts even more if you're ultimately rejected. When we connect, we make promises, buy into a different future, engage with another, someone who might let us down (or we might let them down).

Far easier, of course, to do something more shallow.

A friend on social media is not like a friend in real life.

And so, we sit at dinner, browsing on our phone instead of connecting with the person across from us. Because the phone promises instant gratification, an exciting dopamine hit, and plenty of faux intimacy.

Which is great as far as it goes, but no, it's not the same.

"I have fear"

There's a common mistranslation that causes us trouble.

We say, "I am afraid," as if the fear is us, forever. We don't say, "I am a fever" or "I am a sore foot." No, in those cases, we acknowledge that it's a temporary condition, something we have, at least for now, but won't have forever.

"Right now, I have fear about launching this project," is quite different from, "I'm afraid."

On being discovered

Wouldn't that be great?

Great if you could share all your wisdom on a popular podcast, or be featured on Shark Tank? Great if you had a powerful agent or bureau or publisher? Great if you could get admitted to an internship program that would lead to a well-attended gig on the main stage? Great if the CEO figured out just how committed you are and invited you to her office?

The thing about being discovered is that in addition to being fabulous, it's incredibly rare. Because few people have the time or energy to go hunting for something that might not be there.

The alternative?

To be sought out.

Instead of hoping that people will find you, the alternative is to become the sort of person these people will go looking for.

This is difficult, of course, because it means you have to create work that might not work. That you have to lean out of the boat and invest in making something that's remarkable. That you have to be generous when you feel like being selfish.

Difficult because there's no red carpet, no due dates and no manual.

But that's okay, because your work is worth it.

 

[Upcoming speaking gigs, many in Boston, all different: Philadelphia August 24, Boston September 14 with Zoominfo, then the Business of Software Conference on September 18th, then with Marketo in Boston on October 3rd. Moving on with Marketo to Chicago on October 4 and then with Brandemonium in Cincinnati on October 12. Finishing in NY on November 1.]

PS Adam Price has a new book out this month. He's Not Lazy is the kind of book that can dramatically transform a relationship for the better, changing lives for the long run. If you have teenagers, I hope you'll get a copy. 

Sloppy science

We can measure it.

For decades, every single year, scientists have visited the Galapagos and measured the beaks of a particular species of finch.

And year after year, with each generation, the beaks change, exactly as we'd expect from the weather patterns of the year before. Evolutionary biology works, and rigorous data collection backs it up.

For hundreds of years, though, science has gotten it wrong about gender, race and ethnicity. Eugenics and its brethren sound simple, but often lead to tragic outcomes.

The sloppy scientist says, "on average, across populations, left to its own devices, this group is [not as skilled] [neurotic] [hard to work with] [not as smart] [not as strong] [slower]" etc. They make assumptions without sufficient data, and the rigor is missing.

The first problem is that human beings aren't averages, they're individuals. And the bigger problem is that we're never left to our own devices. We are creatures of culture.

The math that we can do on populations of hedgehogs or pigeons doesn't apply to people, because people build and change and experience culture differently than any other species.

Your DNA is virtually identical to that of the hordes that accompanied Ghengis Khan, as well as most Cro-Magnon cavemen--pass one on the street and you wouldn't be able to tell that he's different from you. The reason you don't act the way they did is completely the result of culture, not genes.

It's culture that pushes us to level up, to dig deeper, to do things that we might not otherwise do. It's culture that finds and encourages and pushes people to become better versions of themselves than anyone else expected to find.

So it was sloppy/lazy/fearful science that said that women couldn't handle being doctors. And it was sloppy science that worked to limit the number of Asian or Jewish students at various institutions. And it's sloppy science that's been used against black people for hundreds of years.

And sloppy science said that a 4 minute mile was impossible and that a woman could never finish a marathon.

Sloppy because it doesn't include all the relevant factors. There's nothing wrong with the scientific method, but everything is wrong with using it poorly (and often intentionally).

What we need are caring human beings who will choose to change the culture for the better.

Not all of it, of course. Merely the culture they can touch. The people they can engage with. The human beings they can look in the eye, offer to help, offer encouragement and offer a hand up.

Once we reset the standard, it becomes the new normal, and suddenly, the sloppy science seems like phrenology. Because culture is up to us.

Sloppy science isn't science at all. It's the lazy or wrongheaded use of the scientific method part of the time, mixing in fear for good measure. Ignoring culture ignores the part that truly matters.

It's tempting to judge people by their DNA. It makes a lot more sense, though, to see people based on what they can contribute instead.

"But we needed the eggs"

Addiction to substances has been around ever since someone fermented grapes a million years ago. The opioid epidemic is the latest addiction tragedy, brought on by greed and disinformation.

It took longer for behavioral addictions to arrive, but they're just as real.

The ASAM defines it: Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. 

The thing is that we treat behavioral addictions differently because sometimes they're seen as a useful, profitable contribution.

We've gotten better, much better, at creating interactions and substances that are addictive. They get built and marketed because they're profitable, but the creators of these systems don't want to take responsibility for the impact they have on people. Behavior addiction is real, it's chronic and you might be suffering from it.

Get addicted to the rush at work, or to the endless flow of the online world, and your life changes. Attention spans go down, patience decreases, essential tasks are left undone, and most of all, our humanity starts to fade away.

Just because it appears productive, just because you bought it in a store or got promoted for it at work doesn't mean it's not addictive and worth managing. Even if you need the eggs.

Questions for the underinformed

For the jingoistic sign carrier, the impatient shareholder, the late-night goofball and the nascent entrepreneur in search of cash...

We've heard your rants, your threats, your plans. We understand that you are in a hurry for a simple, dramatic, obvious solution to whatever problem you face. 

"And then what happens?"

"Has this ever worked before?"

"How is this different (or the same) from those times?"

"What will you do when it doesn't work the way you hoped?"

Innovation is essential, but innovation isn't lazy. It takes insight and patience and experience to bring a new solution to an old problem.

Impatience is not a strategy.

Experience isn't free, but it's valuable.

And history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes.

Waves are free

When someone lets you into the flow of traffic, or holds a door, or takes a second to acknowledge you, it's possible to smile and offer a wave in response.

This, of course, costs you nothing.

It creates a feeling of connection, which is valuable.

It makes it more likely that people will treat someone else well in the future.

And it might just brighten your day.

The simplest antidote to a tough day is generosity. Waves are free, and smiles are an irresistible bonus.

An audience of one

More than ever, people, lots of people, hordes of anonymous people, can watch what you do.

They can see your photos, like your posts, friend your digital avatar.

An essentially infinite collection of strangers are in the audience, scoring you, ranking you, deciding whether or not you're succeeding.

If you let them.

The alternative is to focus on the audience you care about, interacting with the person who matters to you. Your audience, your choice. One person, ten people, the people who need you.

Everyone else is merely a bystander. 

Seeing and believing

It turns out that the more you watch TV, the more you believe that the world is dangerous. It turns out TV watchers believe that an astonishing 5% (!) of the population works in law enforcement. And it turns out that the more you watch TV the less optimistic you become. Cultivation theory helps us understand the enormous power that TV immersion has.

Given the overwhelming power of interaction, I'm confident that we'll discover that internet exposure, particularly to linkbait headlines, comments and invective, will also change what people believe about the world around them.

It's hopeful to imagine that we can change these outcomes by changing the inputs. Of course, the hard part is choosing to do so.

Every time I see a toddler in a stroller with an internet device in hand, I shudder.

If we want a better future, it helps to be able to see the world as it is.

Appearing to care

We know that your customers will put up with imperfect, but one thing that they'd like in return is for you to care.

Marketers keep making big promises, and organizations struggle to keep those promises. Sooner or later, it leads to a situation where the broken promise arrives on the customer's lap.

In that moment, what the customer wants most is someone to care.

Almost as good: an organization that consistently acts like it cares.

It's a mistake to believe that you actually have to care the way the customer cares, and that anything less means you shouldn't even try. In fact, professionals do emotional labor all the time. They present the best version of their professional self they are capable of.

When Bette Midler shows up on stage in Hello Dolly, the audience would like to believe that she's as engaged and excited as she was on opening night. And she might be. Or not. What matters is that we can't tell.

If you care, that's great. If you don't, at least right now, well, it's your job. That's the hard part.

Acting as if, doing it with effort and consistency, is what your customers need from you.

Bought

How much does it cost you in tolls to drive across town? In most cities, the answer is nothing.

How much does it cost you to take a bus or subway across town? In most cities, if it's available at all, quite a bit.

How did that come to be?

Mass transit is safer, cleaner and more efficient. It gives more people more access to work and amenities. A city with great mass transit works better for more people. Even those that don't use it. It's at least a useful public good as the streets are.

It's technically easy to put tolls all over a city, wastes no time, and it's economically efficient to make it incrementally free to hop on a bus and expensive to drive a car.

So why haven't we? Why, in fact, are we going the other direction?

Because left to our own devices, we go for the short-term cost savings at the expense of the long-term investment.

Because we like the status quo.

Because there's familiar profit in the car-industrial complex. The extraction industries, the manufacturers, the dealers, etc. It's an ongoing, widespread income stream. This generates cash to pay lobbyists and others to create a cultural dynamic in favor of the status quo.

It turns out that it's pretty cheap to buy outcomes that benefit a minority. And business loves a bargain.

On beating yourself up

Almost everyone does it. I'm not sure why.

After the fact (or even during it) all the blame, second-guessing and paralysis. We say things to ourselves that we'd never permit anyone else to say. Why?

  1. It leaves us bruised and battered, unlikely to do our best work while we're recovering.
  2. It hurts our knuckles.
  3. It distracts us from the work at hand.

Perhaps there's a more humane and productive way to instill positive forward motion. I'm sure there is.

At the very least, this is a dumb hobby.

When in doubt, connect

That's what fast-growing, important organizations do.

Making stuff is great.

Making connections is even better.

The taxi or the cruise ship?

The successful cab owner knows this:

Every ride is custom

People choose a cab precisely because they can ride alone, on their own terms

Empty trips are part of the job, and it's okay, because the next ride will pay for it.

On the other hand, the person who chooses to run a cruise line knows:

Every cruise is designed by me, and people sign up precisely because I chose well

People choose a cruise ship to be with other people, to benefit from economies of scale and to be part of something

Empty trips (or worse, half-empty trips) can put the line out of business

It's pretty easy to get into the cab business. Do a few rides for friends, then list online, or join Lyft, then go full-time.

On the other hand, it's much more difficult to get into the cruise business. There's a critical mass, and the minimum number is a lot more than one customer.

Each business can be a good one if you do it at the appropriate scale.

The warning, and the purpose of the metaphor, is to realize that it's not a matter of gradually going from one to the other. Remember that running a taxi is a fine sort of business, but don't expect to turn it into a cruise ship. And vice versa.

The money maximization distraction

The Rolling Stones have grossed more than a billion dollars in ticket sales and endorsements. Does that mean that they're better than Beethoven, John Adams and Zoe Keating, put together? Were the Bay City Rollers better than Patti Smith?

There are CEOs who make more in a year than 1,000 of their workers. Does that mean that they're 1,000 times more important or productive or worthwhile?

Money is a simple metric, and one that captures a certain sort of information about value and scarcity. But it's wildly inaccurate when it comes to measuring many of the things that actually matter to us. It can mask the emotions and moments and contributions that we work so hard on, the people that we seek to become, the contributions that we seek to make.

Profitable is not the same as important

Popular is the not the same as worthwhile

Expensive is not the same as well-done

And yet, because it's easy to rank and compare and change, we can get seduced into believing that money is the metric that matters the most, that matters all the time. If we only use money to make our decisions about worth, we're going to get it wrong almost every time.

Until we get significantly better at matching money to contribution, we need to embrace the difficult to measure. I'll trade you a great fourth grade teacher for a foreign exchange desk currency trader any day.

The Peter Possibility

Dr. Laurence Peter understood the promise and peril of bureaucracy better than most. Fifty years ago, he wrote, "managers rise to the level of their incompetence." The Peter Principle states that if you do a good job, you get promoted, until you reach a job where you're incompetent, and there you stay... meaning that sooner or later, the entire organization is filled with incompetent people stuck in their slot.

Bureaucracy promises us a safe spot, and it also offers the upside that if you do a good job, you'll get chosen, picked, promoted and will move up. So, keep your head down, do what you're told and you win.

We don't live in that world any more.

And the upside is definitely more positive and a lot more scary:

You (and you alone) get to decide if you want to move "up". If you want to be promoted, have more influence, more leverage and more responsibility.

Fearful that we'll expose our incompetence, we hide. Remembering the lessons of childhood, we wait to get picked. 

But the Peter Possibility points out that we're far more competent than we imagine.

That once we pick ourselves, we have precisely what we need to do generous work.

Feels risky

The gulf between "risky" and "feels risky" is huge. And it's getting bigger.

It turns out that value creation lives in this gap. The things that most people won't do (because it feels risky) that are in fact not risky at all.

If your compass for forward motion involves avoiding things that feel risky, it pays to get significantly better informed about what actually is risky.

The management of whales

In online gaming, a whale is someone who plays far more than the typical player. It's not unusual for 2% of the player base to account for 95% of all the usage.

The same thing is true at the local gym. All the money is made on the customers who pay and never come--the folks who are at the gym or the pool for 5 hours a day use far more resources than you could possibly charge for if everyone acted this way.

The management of whales, then, is a delicate balancing act—the people who love you the most are also costing you the most. If you have too many or they take too much from the buffet, your economics are shot.

In a traditional business, one where people pay based on usage, a whale is the difference between profit and loss. That person who eats at your restaurant once a week, or goes to see Hamilton six or twelve times... This is one of the best uses of customer data. You have the chance to find people who truly are your best customers, and to treat them accordingly. A business that gets this right will outperform one that doesn't by as much as 5:1.

But there are also whales when it comes to word of mouth. Most people tell no one. A few people tell a friend or two. But some people tell everyone. And they do it with authority. With leverage. And with persistence.

A whale like this is priceless. You can't bribe someone into becoming a whale, but you can dissuade them and disappoint them merely by not caring enough to notice.

Best of all, you have a chance to become whale-worthy. To design products and services that are precisely the sort of thing that heavy users will happily use, and that powerful sneezers will happily talk about.

Actually, it's not really about the management of whales at all—it's more like seeing them, leading them and respecting them.

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