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Some problems are easier to sell

In order to solve a problem, you need to sell it first. To get it on the radar, and to have people devote time, resources and behavior change to address it.

Human beings in our culture are wired to pay attention to problems that are:

Visible–right in front of our eyes, not microscopic or far away.

Non-chronic–rationalization is our specialty, and the reason we learn to rationalize is so that we don’t go insane when faced with long-term, persistent issues. We bargain them down the priority list.

Symptomatic–this is a version of ‘visible’. If the problem has symptoms, and the symptoms are painful and getting worse, you have our attention. Symptoms that are stable or getting better feel much less urgent.

Painful–some problems have symptoms that aren’t so bad. And so we ignore them.

In our control–because helplessness is a feeling most people seek to avoid. The more certain the potential solution, the more likely it is people will acknowledge that there’s a problem.

Keep us from feeling stupid–because we don’t like feeling stupid, so we’d rather ignore the problem.

Status-driven–this one might be surprising. It turns out we like to focus our attention on things that will move us up the social hierarchy.

Expensive–problems that cost us money right now are ideal for this culture, because expensive = urgent.

Solvable–see that earlier riff about rationalization and chronic problems. If a problem doesn’t seem solvable, we’re a lot less likely to stake our attention on it.

This explains why cigarette smoking among the youth took so long to (partly) extinguish. It was a high-status activity, with no real symptoms for decades. It’s not painful and the visible side effects (thanks to billions of dollars in culture-bending spending by the tobacco companies) were seen as positive by many who participated. While the anti-smoking cause was definitely helped by the weight of evidence and persistent efforts by the medical community, it was higher taxes and enforced smoking areas that turned the tide. They made the problem expensive and a little shameful. People who didn’t want to look stupid or feel poor didn’t smoke.

Other problems that have a similar set of problems: Selling pre-need funerals. Addressing climate change. Balancing the budget. Bringing your kids to be vaccinated. Getting out of personal debt. Learning science and math. River blindness somewhere else…

If you’re working to sell a problem to your public, it’s tempting indeed to point out how shockingly irrational all of the instincts above are in practice. More effective, though, is to remarket your problem with a story that resonates.

Mastering the medium

We know what it sounds like when you’re great at AM radio, classical music or even reality TV. We can imagine the tone and content you’ll need to be really good at being on Broadway.

Jack Dorsey has made it clear that Elon Musk has mastered Twitter. He wrote, “I like how [he] uses Twitter. He’s focused on solving existential problems and sharing his thinking openly. I respect that a lot, and all the ups and downs that come with it.”

Before you decide to master a medium, it’s worth considering the ups and downs that come with it. It’s not free. It costs. Is it worth it?

Does being good at this medium help you achieve your objectives beyond simply being good at the medium?

Yes, you might attract a crowd on the Bachelor or at the local fight club. You could probably be a world-class javelin catcher as well. But to what end?

If you’re going to put so much effort into a form of media, it’s worth deciding if it helps you or only the people who run the platform.

If you don’t want to go to Toledo, don’t get on the bus to Toledo.

A common trap fueled by tribal rivalry…

Comparing the best example from our tribe with the worst one from the other tribe.

We do it all the time, and it hurts.

It hurts our ability to connect, and it hurts those we so easily dismiss.

Colors and numbers

By the time you’re six years old, you can count to infinity. Whatever number someone says, you will know a higher one.

The same is not true for listing colors. Most of us can’t even do all 64 Crayolas, and it takes real effort to keep adding one more to the list.

That’s a form of poetry. Identifying ways to comment on beauty. Seeking creativity when there is no obvious right answer.

There’s always going to be someone who will pay you (a little) to add one more to a running total. But the non-linear act of invention and magic is far more valuable.

The trap of early feedback

We skew our thinking based on the first feedback we get. That’s the moment of maximum fragility, and so our radar is on high alert.

But the math doesn’t hold up, and this high alert can destroy our most important work.

All salt is the same. If you add a cup of salt to your soup recipe, it’s going to ruin it. Continuing to add salt in this quantity to soup is always going to ruin it in the same way, because all salt is alike.

But all people are not alike.

If you’ve created something that will delight and astound 10% of the marketplace, there’s a 90% chance that the first person who encounters your work will dislike it. He might even hate it. In fact, if you do the math, you’ll see that there’s more than a 70% chance that the first THREE people will hate it. And if you give up then, you’ve just walked away from serving the people you set out to serve.

[Consider how much more resilient you might be if the first three people loved it. You might then persist in the face of 100 critics after that, simply because the early reviews were so positive. The order of feedback doesn’t change the ratio, but it certainly feels that way.]

Listening to the right people is a gift, a chance to learn about how to do better. Listening to the wrong people, particularly the early critics, is a trap. If you’re not careful, it can become a place to hide.

Workshop updates

Today’s the very best day to sign up for the Business of Food Workshop. It’s being run by the extraordinary entrepreneur and UC Berkeley professor Will Rosenzweig. You can see all the details here, and the first lesson (of ten) begins tomorrow, February 12th.

Participants include the CEO of a regional supermarket chain, leaders from Panera Bread, Nestle, Syngenta and Purple Carrot and most of all, entrepreneurs and ruckus makers from organizations you’ve never heard from (but will). We’ve assembled hundreds of people from around the world who care enough about the food infrastructure to do something about it. (If you visit the site today, click on the green leaf for a bonus).

Even though the lessons haven’t begun yet, we’re seeing engagement levels that are extraordinary, with students embracing the peer-to-peer nature of the Akimbo workshops.

ALSO! I’m thrilled to announce that we’re opening a new session of the Podcast Fellowship at the end of February. You can see details and sign up for more info as of today.

You should have a podcast, and the Fellowship helps you make that real.

Hard work

Consider two loading docks at small companies.

At the first, a tractor-trailer filled with heavy boxes shows up. The sole worker on the dock is tasked with unloading the trailer, asap.

He puts on his gloves and begins hauling the boxes, one at a time. He’s manhandling them off the truck and straining to stack them to the side. Eight hours later, he has a strained back, blisters and an empty truck. A day’s work, hard earned.

At the second dock, the sole worker looks at the truck and then heads next door, to the larger company and their foreman, a woman he met on the bus to work last week. “Can I borrow your hand truck and ramp for an hour?” It took guts to ask, he might have been rejected, but his calm manner and ability to connect worked.

An hour later, the truck is empty.

Who worked harder today?

For most of us, hard work is measured in insight, emotional effort, and connection. It’s been a long time since the economy fairly rewarded people based on brawn alone.

And now, consider the third company, where the person at the dock planned ahead and had everything ready as soon as the truck was scheduled to arrive…

Or consider the keyboard workers, one of whom does a repetitive task all day long, and the other who did the labor to find a plug-in or macro that would do it in a few minutes…


As Close as Necessary to Perfect

The thing is, with limitless focus and energy, just about everything can be improved.

That’s not the question.

The question is: Is this thing you’re working on as close to perfect as it needs to be? As close to perfect as your customer demands? As close to perfect as the budget can allow?

It’s not settling to walk away from something that’s CNP. It’s simply a smart allocation of your resources.

[Please don’t forget the opposite: BGE. Which stands for Barely Good Enough. The thing is, BGE rarely is.]

Productive choices (which?)

When you’re doing scary creative work, or work that requires emotional labor, it’s natural to want to walk away a bit. To distract yourself. To go shave a yak, mindlessly eat or bother someone in the next cube.

This is the main activity online, actually. People avoiding the real work.

One useful practice is to have forced choices that break up the work but that are also productive. Not fun, that would be a mistake, but productive.

Example: For the next hour, we either need to be developing a brand new strategy for your widget rollout or re-filing forty 1099s. One or the other, switch when you want to. If it gets too scary on the brand side, let’s do some mindless filing.

Or perhaps it’s answering HelpScout requests. Or auditing a specific set of financials.

The key is that it be something both important and unfun.

It’s a no-win situation. Unless you want to think of it as a no-lose situation.

It turns every distraction (in either direction) into a contribution.

What if you pretended, just for a little while…

What if you acted as if?

What if you pretended that you were glad to see me, happy to deliver this service, eager for it to be well received?

What if you acted as though you were more charismatic than you feel–more confident, more competent?

What if you demonstrated optimism about what’s about to happen next, even if you’re not sure?

It takes effort, more than most of us can expend day in and day out.

But what if you invested that effort, just for a little while?

It’s entirely possible that acting as if would actually create the very outcome you’re hoping for.

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