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Revisiting conspicuous consumption

The reason you have a front lawn? It's a tradition. Lawns were invented as a way for the landed gentry to demonstrate that they could afford to waste land. By taking the land away from the grazing sheep, they were sending a message to their neighbors. We're rich, we can happily waste the opportunity to make a few bucks from our front lawn.

Conspicuous consumption has a long history. Wasting millions of dollars on a shark in a tank, or on $50,000 platinum stereo cables that sound an awful lot like $2000 stereo cables (which sound a lot like $200 stereo cables). And on and on.

In fact, the origins of the luxury goods industry lie in this desire to waste, in public. 350 years ago in France, Jean-Baptiste Colbert dreamed up the idea of bespoke, rare goods as a way of improving France's balance of trade.  LVMH and other huge corporations collect brands that telegraph scarcity above all else. Not that they're better at performing the task at hand, merely that they are expensive and rare.

(Interesting note: it's estimated that 20% of all the women in Japan in their 20s own a Louis Vuitton bag… scarce?)

In every city there are expensive hotels that are noisy, with $56 breakfasts, no parking, blinds that don't make the room dark and rooms that don't have enough closets. But the very waste of paying extra to stay there ensures that you'll be surrounded by others just as wealthy and just as interested in proving it.

Rich people will always indulge the desire to stand out, but I wonder if there's a new version:

Spending on and investing in time, not stuff.

And it's not so wasteful, this focus on craftsmen.

The new trend in spending money is to buy things that are painstakingly hand built instead of efficiently mass produced. It might not be a better price than what you could buy at Target, but the very fact that you can pay for an artisan to create it, an artist to design it, a talented worker to bring it to life–that act makes a powerful statement about what you can afford and what's important to you. Instead of a bigger house, it's a house that's built from scratch by craftsmen. Instead of a bigger steak, it's a handmade dish of local poached vegetables…

All marketers tell a story. The "this is the best price and value" story is just one of those available, and in fact, it's rarely the most effective for the audience you may be trying to reach.

Accepting limits

It's absurd to look at a three year old toddler and say, "this kid can't read or do math or even string together a coherent paragraph. He's a dolt and he's never going to amount to anything." No, we don't say that because we know we can teach and motivate and cajole the typical kid to be able to do all of these things.

Why is it okay, then, to look at a teenager and say, "this kid will never be a leader, never run a significant organization, never save a life, never inspire or create…"

Just because it's difficult to grade doesn't mean it shouldn't be taught. 

Never mind a teenager. I think it's wrong to say that about someone who's fifty.

Isn't it absurd to focus so much energy on 'practical' skills that prep someone for a life of following instructions but relentlessly avoid the difficult work necessary to push someone to reinvent themselves into becoming someone who makes a difference?

And isn't it even worse to write off a person or an organization merely because of what they are instead of what they might become?

High praise indeed

The best thing to say to an artist of any kind might be, "someday, people will think what you did is really important."

If it's popular with everyone right away, it might not be art, it might just be good marketing. But if it earns attention and respect over time, if it wins over the skeptical, then you've really created something.

One in a million

The chances of a high school student eventually becoming first violin for the Boston Philharmonic: one in a million.

The chances of a high school student eventually playing basketball in the NBA? About the same.

In fact, the chances of someone growing up and getting a job precisely like yours, whatever it is, are similarly slim. (Head of development at an ad agency, director of admissions for a great college… you get the idea). Every good gig is a long shot, but in the end, a lot of talented people get good gigs. The odds of being happy and productive and well compensated aren't one in a million at all, because there are many good gigs down the road. The odds are only slim if you pick precisely one job.

Here's the lesson: the ardent or insane pursuit of a particular goal is a good idea if the steps you take along the way also prep you for other outcomes, each almost as good (or better). If pushing through the Dip and bending the market to your will and shipping on time and doing important and scary work are all things you need to develop along the way, then it doesn't really matter so much if you don't make the goal you set out to reach.

On the other hand, if you live a life of privation and spend serious time and money on a dead end path with only one outcome, you've described a path likely to leave you broken and bitter. Does spending your teenage years (and your twenties) in a room
practicing the violin teach you anything about being a violin teacher
or a concert promoter or some other job associated with music? If your happiness depends on your draft pick or a single audition, that's giving way too much power to someone else.

Road Trip!

Digital interactions are highly leveraged and widespread, but there's nothing like face to face time to hammer home an idea. To that end I'm noodling with the idea of doing a series of day-long talks and seminars around the US this year (probably every three weeks). I often am hired to do private talks for groups, but it occurs to me that it might be more efficient and open to organize my own public talks as well.

Rather than just dreaming up the entire plan, I thought I'd ask for your feedback, connections, and suggestions, as well as see if anyone wants to help out. No promises, none at all, but if you have something to add to this, let me know. As always, thanks.

Failure, success and neither

The math is magical: you can pile up lots of failures and still keep rolling, but you only need one juicy success to build a career.

The killer is the category called 'neither'. If you spend your days avoiding failure by doing not much worth criticizing, you'll never have a shot at success. Avoiding the thing that's easy to survive keeps you from encountering the very thing you're after.

And yet we market and work and connect and create as if just one failure might be the end of us.

Are you rational?

Before you make any more decisions you need to answer that question.

A rational decision is based on testing and data and an understanding of the mechanics underneath the system you're working on. The more you know, the better you decide.

An irrational decision is based on gut instincts, conviction and faith.

No one is rational all the time. In fact, somewhere along the way we made 'irrational' into a bad word, but it shouldn't be.

There are card counters in Las Vegas who are rational about blackjack. And they make a decent living. The more they play, the better they will do. In the same casino, there are craps players who blow on the dice, wiggle their hips and wear lucky shoes. Inevitably, if they play long enough, they will be broke.

If you're running Adwords on Google, I hope you're making rational decisions based on clickthrough and conversion.

On the other hand, were you rational when you fell in love? Did you do the math? Medical analysis?

What about the last time you fell for an April Fools joke?

The very nature of faith is that you don't (and shouldn't be) rational about it. In fact, you're entitled to be aghast when anyone confronts you with proof. Proof and rationality aren't the point.

Same with fine art. If your taste in paintings or music or wine is based on some sort of rational analysis or Zagats-type survey, I feel quite badly for you. Deeper and more detailed information is not better information when you're making irrational decisions. If you need to hate on Copernicus in order to have more faith, something is seriously wrong.

When Chris Blackwell introduced reggae to the rest of the world (Bob Marley!), it was irrational. That moment in time was the best time to be working with Bonnie Raitt or Jackson Browne, not some unknown spleef-smoking guys from a tiny island in the Caribbean. No amount of rational analysis would have led an investor to back Chris. 

Irrational passion is the key change agent of our economy. Faith and beauty and a desire to change things can't be easily quantified, and we can't live without them.

Steve Jobs is irrational about product design. As a result, focus groups make no sense. Who cares what other people think? He has faith in his gut. Your website: is it rationally designed? Should it be? What about the process you use to create new products or ads? Or the way you pick the focus of your startup? There's room for both rational and irrational decision making, and I think we do best when we choose our path in advance instead of pretending to do one when we're actually doing the other. The worst thing we can do is force one when we actually need the other.

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