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Non-machinable surcharge

I got a marketing letter from a colleague yesterday. Not a sales pitch, just an update on what they were up to.

I was delighted to discover that this mass mailing had a hand-lettered address on it, with little bits of water color for fun. It was slightly irregularly shaped, requiring an extra stamp because it wasn’t machinable. Inside, in addition to a personal (and personalized) note, there was a gift card for an ice cream cone. But the coolest part was that the card wasn’t from a national chain, it was from the local place down the street.

It obviously cost more in time to create than it was going to take me to read. It obviously didn’t go to a lot of people.

And that imbalance is now rare.

People eager to hustle are busy spamming lists of millions of people with an email that takes two minutes to write and poorly mail merge, giving the hustler a 2,000 to 1 advantage in time spent vs. time consumed. It’s a form of leverage that feels like theft to the recipient, because our time, the irreplaceable thing we all are given, was taken.

Of course, I don’t need an ice cream cone, and a small gift card isn’t a bribe. What it represents is care and respect. The opposite of hustle. It was done with sprezzatura, not with a transaction in mind.

None of it works unless you’ve already earned permission. It doesn’t work if it’s part of a clever hustle. It doesn’t work if it’s seen as spam or creates uncomfortable tension or a need for reciprocity. It simply works because it required a surcharge. Instead of using an asset, you can choose to build one.

[And yes, this is exactly the opposite of the way my bank answers the phone, the way most customer service is grudgingly offered, the way many publicists do their job, the way that organizations make foolish choices about attention and trust…] The question shouldn’t be, “does it scale?” Instead, it might be, “is it worth it?”

Interactions with the people who are enrolled and giving you the benefit of the doubt are a form of avocado time. They shouldn’t be optimized for efficiency or even leverage. Instead, it’s a chance to make a difference.

[Thanks Stephen]

Lucky breaks

Almost every project comes in a little bit late and a little bit over budget.

When things break, the breaks are rarely lucky ones.

Part of the reason is that in proposing the project we made our best guess and predicted the predictable. If we didn’t, the project would probably never get approved.

Optimists bring an expectation of possibility and goodwill. But they’re also aware of the math of coordination. Hiccups multiply.

Betting on lucky isn’t nearly as productive as simply establishing a platform where you can benefit from the occasional arrival of good fortune.

Abstain from abstaining

Even when you’re not completely certain.

Because we can never be certain about the future.

So we show up for the work, do the reading, engage with the problem. The challenge is to find a point of view if we don’t have one yet.

The exception is simple: if, after being well informed, you are willing to accept every outcome, you do us all a favor when you stand down.

Hiding doesn’t help us.

Five useful questions

They might be difficult to answer, but your project will benefit:

What’s the hard part? Which part of your work, if it suddenly got much better, would have the biggest impact on the outcome you seek?

How are you spending your time? If we took at look at your calendar, how much time is spent reacting or responding to incoming, how much is under your control, and how much is focused on the hard part?

What do you need to know? What are the skills that you don’t have that would make your work more effective?

What is the scary part? Which outcomes or interactions are you trying to avoid thinking about or interacting with? Why?

Is it worth it? After looking at your four answers to these questions, you might have a better idea of what it will take for your project to reach its potential. Does the outcome of the project–for those you serve and for you–justify what it will take to get it there?

False equivalencies

It’s a pointless form of argument.

“This scientist made a careless error in their paper, therefore we need to excuse a con artist who falsified an entire career.”

Or, “that restaurant served fish that got someone sick, therefore, there’s no reason for there to be a health inspection at my restaurant or any other one for that matter.”

Or, “there was a typo in this book from a major publisher, so I’m not going to bother with an editor at all.”

The open-minded respond by trying to defend the original error or the intent behind it. But that simply amplifies the false equivalency argument and leads to a no-standards race to the bottom.

The false equivalency itself is the problem, not the unexpected error.

Perfect is a trap.

The airline mile hoax

First: If you’re a frequent flyer on American and haven’t flown in over a year, it’s possible your miles are going to expire very soon. You can fix this by “donating” 2,500 miles here.

In the US, private lotteries are against the law. A lottery is a random drawing for a prize of value that you have to pay to participate in.

That’s different from a game of skill, in which the best performance wins.

Or a sweepstakes, which doesn’t cost anything to enter (which is why the rules so often say ‘no purchase necessary.’)

The question is: Is it a random/lucky thing to be able to trade in your miles for the prize you were promised? I think it’s pretty clear that as the points economy has gotten into the billions, the answer is yes. There aren’t as many ‘free’ seats per miles as there used to be. The airlines benefit when they offer fewer and fewer seats as a percentage of available points floating around, because then people are pushed to either ignore their miles or settle for something less than they expected.

Some people play with points as a hobby. For the rest of us, they’re worth way less than they appear. But mostly I wanted to remind you not to let yours expire. Thanks for staying safe by staying home.

UPDATE: After I queued up this post, AA and UA extended their deadlines. I’m glad! The rest of my rant still persists.

Disenchantment

It originally means, “no longer believing in magic.”

Humans like magic. It gives us solace and energy and hope.

In many ways, the rational era of science and engineering and evidence and proof eliminated any practical belief in magical forces. We know how and why the sun sets every night.

But we still desire magic.

Creating it for your customers and peers is a gift.

“No problem” is a problem

The right response to feedback is, “thank you.” Or perhaps, “that’s a great point.” Even if it’s not your job to change the system, or not your fault that things didn’t work as expected, both of these responses are valid and useful.

Feedback is a gift. It lets you know precisely what the other person wants or needs. After you receive the gift, it’s up to you to accept it or not. But shutting down feedback with an argument or by appearing ungrateful makes it less likely you’ll be offered it again. And if you’re getting feedback from a customer or a prospect, shutting it down makes it likely that they’ll walk away and take their attention and their trust somewhere else.

When you say, “no problem,” you’re letting yourself off the hook, refusing to acknowledge what was said and closing the door for a useful interaction. Because there is a problem. Exploring what the problem is is far better than denying it.

Over the circumstances

How do you act when you’re in charge? Or when someone else is in control?

How do you act when you win? Or when you lose?

Is there a difference between the times you’ve been given the benefit of the doubt and the times you wish you had?

The circumstances change, but perhaps the way we’d like to contribute, to be seen and to connect shouldn’t.

The circumstances are here, no matter what we do. It’s up to us to decide to be under them or over them.

Two ways to challenge the status quo

Slowly, or all at once.

Culture shifts slowly. “People like us do things like this.” Seismic events may make newspaper headlines, but they don’t rapidly change the way human beings in community behave.

Instead, the status quo erodes, redefining itself as it goes. If you’re the kind of person who believes in what’s all around us (which is most of us), then you won’t change your beliefs until the people around you change as well.

That’s why the smallest viable audience is so important. Focusing on a specific group of people, understanding their beliefs, engaging with empathy, creating new social norms and then, peer-to-peer, spreading the new normal.

Science, on the other hand, can shift more rapidly. A new paper detailing groundbreaking research on Parkinson’s disease, for example, can persuade 100 of the right doctors and funders of a paradigm shift. If they’re participating in the scientific method, they’ll do their research and change their assumptions.

And then, as always, it goes back to the slow move toward culture shift. It took twenty years for the medical community to embrace the fact that ulcers were caused by bacteria, not pastrami sandwiches. The bacteria didn’t care if the community believed in them, but the patients were glad the doctors made a new decision based on new information.

The culture is changing far more rapidly than it ever has before. And yet, it still changes slowly enough for us to grow impatient when important ideas and practices around health, justice and community are ignored.

And yet it changes. Persistent and consistent effort with focus is our only way forward.

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