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The power (and risk) of charismatic ideas

Charisma is a magical power. It enables humans to hotwire connection and build bridges long before the facts on the ground are clear.

Charisma creates rock stars, powerful scientists and con men, too.

Misused, charisma is often the road to tragedy, because it causes us to suspend disbelief and follow a leader we should have been wary of. On the other hand, charisma in the right hands is the engine that can move us toward better, toward outcomes we might have never achieved if we’d allowed ourselves to be paralyzed by the status quo.

Consider for a moment the charismatic idea. An idea, disconnected from the person who might have conceived it, that spreads from person to person. An idea that’s not only sticky, but viral as well.

I wrote about ideaviruses twenty years ago, but didn’t talk enough there about the very nature of an idea itself. That some ideas, like some people, are more charismatic than others.

When those charismatic ideas contribute to the culture, they create a forward cycle that benefits all of us (I’ll nominate “don’t litter” as an example.) On the other hand, sticky negative ideas (like false fear about vaccination) persist longer than they should.

Our job as marketers is to do the hard work of finding and nurturing charismatic ideas we can be proud of.

One place to start is to look at the ideas you’re trying to spread. Consider whether they’re charismatic enough to earn the effort you’re putting into them–and if not, how to replace them with ideas that are.

HT to the Distance Plan

Rationalizing your project

“I followed the recipe exactly, and it failed.”

That’s how many reviews of online recipes begin. Then the poster explains that he replaced the sour cream with yogurt (it’s what he had in the fridge), that he replaced the wheat flour with rice flour (it’s gluten-free) and he used the toaster oven instead of a real oven…

Once you are deep into a project, it’s yours. It’s underway. You have heart and soul and pride invested in it.

In the face of helpful advice, it’s easy to say, “sure, that’s what I’m already doing,” and then torture your description of the current project to make it sort of, almost, sound like you’re following the suggested new approach.

But you’re not. You’re merely wasting time and effort pretending you’re embracing this new way of doing something.

What if, just for a week or even a day, you acted as if?

What if you re-did your plan, or your perceptions of the world or your approach in a totally new way, the way that respects and embraces the thing you just learned. What if you followed the recipe by following the recipe, simply to learn the technique…

After that, after you’ve seen what it can do, then go ahead and see what happens when you re-adopt the cruft that had you looking for a new recipe in the first place.

In the age of unlimited access to recipes, the hard part about getting good advice isn’t getting it. It’s following it. And then you might be able to turn the recipe into insight.

 

PS First priority deadline for the August session of the altMBA is this Friday. When you’re ready to level up, we’re ready for you.

Anything you want

The paradox of choice is real, and it gets worse when the choices aren’t even multiple choice.

Confronted with the unlimited selection offered by any music streaming service, people choke. They pick an old favorite, a current hit or something banal. The same is true with the nooks and crannies of Amazon or most pieces of software–when people can have anything they want, suddenly what they want isn’t much at all.

People are good at “a, b or c?”. Not as good at “pick a card, any card.” And terrible at, “think of a number between one and a trillion.”

That’s one reason why writer’s block is far more common than roll-the-dice block.

If you’re on the offering side, it’s on you to be smart about the multiple choice options that can unfold new horizons for us. Curation can do better than “Shuffle”.

And if you’re on the choosing side, you can multiply your impact simply by embracing a method that pushes you toward new (and thus uncomfortable) options.

The compass and the map

Wouldn’t it be great if we always had a map? A set of step-by-step instructions on how to get from here to there, wherever we were and wherever we wanted to go…

Steve Pressfield relates this magical story:

A Gurkha rifleman escaped from a Japanese prison in south Burma and walked six hundred miles alone through the jungles to freedom. The journey took him five months, but he never asked the way and he never lost the way. For one thing he could not speak Burmese and for another he regarded all Burmese as traitors. He used a map and when he reached India he showed it to the Intelligence officers, who wanted to know all about his odyssey. Marked in pencil were all the turns he had taken, all the roads and trail forks he has passed, all the rivers he had crossed. It had served him well, that map. The Intelligence officers did not find it so useful. It was a street map of London.

I love this story.

Happy endings come from an understanding of the compass, not the presence of a useful map.

If you’ve got the wrong map, the right compass will get you home if you know how to use it.

Where are you headed?

“A good product at a fair price”

Some people say that marketing doesn’t work on them. That all they want is a good product, a fair price, and they’ll be on their way.

But that’s a marketing story as well.

Who decided what ‘good’ was? And ‘fair’? Your preference for the straightforward is still a preference. Your expectations for what you need are simply yours.

It’s all a story.

Great marketers don’t invent frills and fluff in order to create value. Great marketers have the wisdom to know that they will be judged and the practical empathy to go to where those that would judge them are.

The true cost of customer response

“Your call is very important to us.”

If you hear that, it means someone is not just lying, but also isn’t good at arithmetic.

Your company spends $6 on digital ads to get a click, and one in a hundred clicks leads to an inquiry. Which means that every inquiry sitting in the queue cost you $600. Inquiries are a bit like cronuts, in that they go stale quickly. Waiting an extra day to get back to just one person probably costs you more than the entire day’s salary of a customer service salesperson.

Your company spends $2,000 a day on rent for its showroom. And you paid that rent (along with all of those ads) for a month before John walks into the store. The uninterested, undertrained, under-compensated salesperson is finishing up a personal call, John gets bored and leaves. That (non) interaction cost you $20,000.

Jon, the reservationist, is overwhelmed by incoming calls, and he’s snippy when a regular calls for a table this Saturday night. So the patron, rebuffed and feeling disrespected, goes to a different restaurant, loves it, and never returns. Let’s see–10 business dinners a year at $200 including tip and wine–you can do the math.

“You can do the math,” while true, is rarely followed up by, “I did the math.”

Three deadlines (and Instagram!)

Here’s what someone posted yesterday in The Freelancer’s Workshop discussion board:

I was really just hoping to pick up a few insights from Seth. I got one of those yesterday, but meeting and interacting with other people struggling with the same things as me has been amazing.

The deadline to sign up for The Bootstrapper’s Workshop and The Freelancer’s Workshop is this weekend. Today’s your last best day to level up.

The next altMBA is now accepting applications, and the early deadline is April 26. Our August session is often one of the most powerful, because there’s more time to dig in.

And thanks to Sam and Taylor, we’re back on Instagram, experimenting with short-form videos and other interactions. See you there.

Dancing with infinity

If your little bagel shop suddenly had everyone in the world waiting in line to buy a bagel, that would be stressful indeed. You’d need riot police to keep order and you’d run out of sesame seeds in no time.

On the other hand, it’s easy to hope that your YouTube video, your Facebook post or your professionally published book be seen by everyone in the entire world. Because digital scales. Because there’s apparently no useful limit. Because you believe in it and more is better.

But more isn’t always better.

Better is better.

And better might mean more specific. More respected. More exclusive. More trusted. More cherished.

Dancing with infinity isn’t free, and if you do it too long, it’s corrosive. You’re busy being busy, instead of doing what’s important.

Make things better

I’ve come to realize that this is a controversial statement for some people.

Two issues, it seems:

  1. Better implies that what we have right now is imperfect. Better requires change, and change is scary. Better might be in the eye of the beholder. Better is an assertion, one that requires not just the confidence to say it, but the optimism to believe that it’s possible.
  2. Make implies that it’s up to us. Someone needs to make it better, and it might just be you. In fact, if you don’t enlist to produce better, you’re part of the status quo, which is a problem.

I’ve seen that there are pockets of our culture where both of these ideas are difficult to embrace. That authority pushes us to fit in, not to seek improvement, and deniability encourages us to whine instead of doing something about it. Power enjoys passivity in others.

Power doesn’t want you to get uppity, doesn’t enjoy your dissatisfaction, doesn’t want to be on the hook to continually upgrade all of its systems. And so power has sold a cultural norm of acceptance, deniability and ennui.

And yet…

Everything in our built world–the water we drink, the food we eat, the place we live–if it’s good, it’s good because someone, a generation or two ago, decided to make it better. And if it’s not good, or not good enough, only our action is going to make it better.

We can see the world around us, and if we try, we can see it becoming better.

It might be a podcast or a political campaign, an engineering insight or a more inclusive policy. It probably involves finding and organizing others on a similar path. It definitely takes guts.

I’ll reiterate my belief that we each have a chance to assert. To announce our vision, to propose a change, to do the hard work to make things better.

It’s on us, right now.

Make things better by making better things.

Impermanence

Beloved 1,000-year-old buildings disappear in the blink of an eye.

Celebrities we’ve never met die young. Babies are born. Music goes from cutting edge to current to oldies. Technology that was prized becomes obsolete. A medical breakthrough averts certain doom…

Our experience with time keeps changing. The concept of the time machine was only invented in the 1800s, and people who lived when they were building Notre Dame had little concept of what the world was like a thousand years before them, and no imagination at all of what the world might be like today.

We didn’t have time zones until we had clocks, and we didn’t have clocks until we invented cities…

As we’ve learned about history (not the details, simply the concept of it, that someone came before), we’ve also spent time thinking about the future. About our role in it and whether or not it will turn out the way we hope it will.

My hunch is that two things are true:

• We have much less direct control over the future than we hope, and that it will always surprise us.

• We have far more ability to make an impact than we expect. The only people who can change our culture (and thus our future) are us.

We can’t control the future, but we can bend it. And we can’t freeze the world as it is, but we can figure out how to be a part of it.

The work we do every day, the stories we tell, the paths we follow and the connections we make define our culture, and culture determines what’s next.

No guarantees, but yes, urgency.

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