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More than your share

The math is simple: many people do less than they should.

They might be selfish, but it’s likely that they’re struggling with a lack of resources or a story of insufficiency. Either way, in any community or organization, many people contribute less than their peers.

Whether it’s splitting a check, getting a project done or making an impact on the culture or a cause, if you want things to get better, the only way is to be prepared to do more than your fair share.

Because we need to make up for the folks who don’t.

Finding persistent invisible systems

Plastic was inevitable.

It took hundreds of years to perfect, but we built a system based on profit, convenience, productivity and markets.

Markets are extremely good at sniffing out problems that can be solved with transactions. If people care enough to buy something to fill a need, someone else is likely to try to make that thing.

Along the way, this market-need sensing mechanism leads to factories, to retailers and to marketing. No one is in charge, no one stays on top forever, and the outputs of the system keep shifting–more of what the capital markets, parts of the labor market and most of all, the consumer market demands.

And so plastic is inevitable.

It makes it easy to manufacture and ship some things. It can increase productivity. It can lower costs. It makes the retail process more convenient–and consumers love convenience.

Last year, earthlings manufactured and used a trillion plastic bags. The manufacturer and disposal of plastic has an enormous cost to people and the places we live.

But plastic persists as a commercial solution, because the system is invisible and resilient. Each member of the system does what they do, usually for good reasons.

Gaiam makes yoga mats and blocks. It’s run by people who care about their impact on things, and their customers are environmentally aware. Yoga blocks are made of semi-hard foam, but they last a long time, and most of their customers are okay with that tradeoff.

But these blocks are then shrink-wrapped in plastic. And then the plastic shrink-wrapped foam blocks are wrapped in a relatively thick plastic marketing band to make them easier to display at the store. And then, if you buy the blocks from Amazon, the shrink-wrapped, belly-banded blocks are put in a plastic bag before being shipped to you.

Gaiam says that they’d rather not do this, but the retailers they depend on require them to. And the retailers say that they’d rather not require this, but it would increase prices (and perhaps decrease sales) if they had to rely on store personnel to hand-sell them. And Amazon uses a stopwatch and a spreadsheet to figure out what’s cheaper and faster…

And so, a system.

Plastic is just one example. Industrial and cultural systems are all around us, with all participants doing what they’re encouraged to do and furthering the work of the system.

Systems almost never change voluntarily. They rarely change because some of the participants in the system decide that they would prefer new rules. Systems change when their inputs change and when the rules change.

In this example, the moment we charge an appropriate price for plastic, incorporating the significant costs of disposal and climate change, the system will notice and act appropriately.

Every system we live with has already been altered by the needs of some of the people impacted by the system. As impacts grow, the number of people affected grows as well.

Systemic problems require systemic solutions.

Expectation and delight

They dance with each other.

If expectations are too low, you don’t get the gig, and you’ll never have a chance to engage with a customer.

But if they’re too high, surprise and remarkability disappear.

As you succeed, it’s harder, not easier, to bring delight to the people you serve.

Often, this is replaced by the cognitive dissonance of sunk costs and luxury goods. People assert delight because they think they’re supposed to, because they don’t want to feel stupid–not because you’ve produced anything genuine.

Ownership and responsibility

You own your living room and your bedroom.

We take care of our front lawn for our neighbors.

And our trash (in all its forms) belongs to everyone.

Synchronization can be distracting

Both The Shawshank Redemption and The Big Lebowski bombed. If “bombed” means that during the first few weeks, no one went to a theater to see them. Since then, tens of millions of people have seen and talked about these movies.

Tommy James’ first record also failed, because no one played it on the radio for months. And then, one party promoter in Pennsylvania started playing it a lot, and it became a hit. He went on to make seven top 10 hits.

We are primed to pay attention to things that happen in a thunderclap.

But the events that change our culture often happen over time, distributed across parts of the population too small to notice.

The Grateful Dead were the #1 live touring band more years than any other… and yet they only had one top 40 hit. Connection was worth more than wide and shallow sync.

The first challenge is finding the focus and patience to work on the asynchronized adoption of important ideas. And the second is to not sacrifice the larger goal in a frenzied hustle for the big break.

Drip by drip makes a wave.

Naysayers (and the grifters)

Oppositional energy is easy to create and spread. Once you pick a ‘they’, then it’s simply a matter of doing the opposite of whatever ‘they’ recommend. It’s a lazy shortcut, one that divides, demonizes and causes us to suspend our instincts toward better.

It works great in marketing a sports team, but it stops being helpful in most other arenas.

Oppositional division is a magnet for grifters. A con-man, hustler, swindler or charlatan that can’t possibly do well with thoughtful scrutiny discovers that trolling and arguing is an easy way to bypass the normal examination of what’s actually on offer.

It’s not just the patent medicine door-to-door salesperson who does this. It’s large trade associations, industrial lobbyists, pyramid schemers, technobabblers and others as well.

Sooner or later, someone points out that there’s a grift going on. Hopefully, we see it before it’s too late.

The wisdom of the water tower

Look around the rooftops of many cities and you’ll see wooden water towers. New York has thousands of them.

The reason is simple and often overlooked:

In the morning, when every resident of the building is preparing for the day, there’s a need for thousands of gallons of water under high pressure. Providing that much power via a pump is expensive, noisy and difficult to maintain.

The system in use, on the other hand, takes two or three hours to refill the tank, using reliable, quiet and cheap small pumps. After that, gravity is all that’s needed.

Adding a reservoir to a high-demand system creates slack, resilience and efficiency.

Too often, foolish short-term profit seekers forget this, and use up what’s in the reservoir without keeping future reserves in mind.

“When do we get to the marketing part?”

It was early in the development of a new product, and someone asked this question.

I’m not sure the word “marketing” means what you think it means.

Later, we will get to the promotion and advertising part.

But right now, this is marketing. All of it.

The product. The warranty. The team. The color choices. The pricing. The way it feels in your hand. The urgency we have to tell our friends…

If you wait until you’re done before you do the marketing, you’ve waited far too long.

Indispensable or irreplaceable

There are 1,000 other high schools, and each one has a vice principal who isn’t you.

No, you’re not irreplaceable.

No one is, not really.

But if we work at it, we might become indispensable. The linchpin, someone who would be missed if they were gone.

Absolute and relative

It doesn’t matter that it’s not the Super Bowl or the World Cup. For this twelve-year old, tomorrow’s game is the big game, the biggest ever, and the emotional stakes are just as high.

It doesn’t matter that this illness isn’t going to be life or death in the next few days. For this patient, it feels that way.

Most of what we encounter is driven by emotions, and our emotions are always relative. When we’re shopping for a car or an avocado, we’re buying the way it makes us feel, not how it would make someone else feel.