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Merchants of dissatisfaction

Many marketers are able to sell their wares by making us dissatisfied with what we already have.

It's not that far from, "This will make you happy!" to "You're unhappy/ugly/lonely/using obsolete technology, better buy this which will help fix the problem."

In fact, if you chart consumer happiness against advertising spend, I bet you'd find a juicy relationship. If the ads exist to make us unhappy (unless we buy the product, of course), then why is it surprising that we're less happy after we encounter enough ads? Just as the goal of cable news is to make us nervous so we'll tune in for more.

Why we stand for this is a mystery to me. Photo ht.



Fred had an inspiring post about the ability to always add one more thing. His old roommate called it N+1. Just when you think there's no more, you find a little room.

Perhaps it's worth considering an alternative. N-1. There are tons of things on your to do list, in your portfolio, on your desk. They clamor for attention and so perhaps you compromise things to get them all done. What would happen if you did one fewer thing? What if leaving that off the agenda allowed you to do a world-class job on the rest? What if you repeated N-1 thinking until you found a breakthrough?

Heroes and mentors

Mentors provide bespoke guidance. They take a personal interest in you. It's customized, rare and expensive.

Heroes live their lives in public, broadcasting their model to anyone who cares to look.

The internet has created a long tail of heroes. There are tens of thousands of musicians, artists, entrepreneurs, social leaders, politicians (okay, maybe not thousands of these), coders and colleagues to find and emulate. WWHD. What would my hero do?

I find heroes everywhere I look. I find people who speak to me over my shoulder, virtual muses, who encourage me to solve a problem or deal with a situation the way they would. This is thrilling news, because there are so many heroes, so freely available, whenever we need them.

For all the people out there using the fact that Jeff Bezos (or Jacqueline Novogratz or Husain Abdullah or Chris Anderson or Anne Jackson) won't be their mentor as an excuse for inaction, there are a dozen who realize that their example is enough.

Like a custom made suit, a mentor is a fine thing to have if you can find or afford it. But for the rest of us, heroes will have to do.

The book of the year

Kevin Kelly publishes books rarely. Each one is a keeper, and a new one is a special event.

His new one is out today. If there's justice, it will win the Pulitzer Prize.

Kevin's book could be sketchily summarized in fifteen or twenty blog posts, and I'm tempted to do so, but I think you should do the more direct thing and just read it. That way, as I steal from it again and again going forward, you'll nod your head in recognition of the power of what he's writing about.

Hint: it's as good as Guns, Germs and Steel, which I consider one of the most important big-thought books ever.

Bonus! Steve Pressfield's The War of Art is coming to ebook format for $1.99…

Time to get off the brandwagon

Marketing involves spending money and it's fraught with the fear of failure (because it often doesn't work).

This mix creates the perfect opportunity to play it safe and to follow the leader.

Jumping on the brandwagon, if you must coin a phrase.

Here's the thing: while the second imitator might make it pay, the third, the fourth, the tenth–not so much. The more you try to fit in, the worse you do. The more you rush to follow the leader, the less likely you will be to catch up.

What does ‘pro-business’ mean?

What makes a policy or a politician pro business? Some would tell you it includes:

  • Lower or eliminate the minimum wage
  • Eviscerate OSHA and other safety and pollution inspections
  • Make it difficult for workers to easily switch jobs from one company or another
  • Educate the public just enough for them to be compliant cogs in the factory system
  • Fight transparency to employees, the public and investors
  • Cut corporate taxes

I think these are certainly pro-factory policies. All of them make it easier for the factory to be more efficient, to have more power over workers and to generate short-term profits.

But “business” is no longer the same as “factory”. (Aside: Factories don't have to make stuff… they're any business that focuses on doing what it did yesterday, but cheaper and faster.) It turns out that factory thinking is part of a race to the bottom, to be the cheapest, the easiest place to pollute, the workforce that will take what it can get.

It's not surprising that there's tension here. If you are working hard to cut prices and improve productivity, you might view labor as a cost, not an asset, and you might want as little hindrance as possible in the impact you have on the community. On the other hand, a business based on connection and innovation and flexibility may very well have a different take on it.

I grew up not too far from the Love Canal. It’s a world famous toxic waste dump. While it helped the short tem profits of Hooker, the chemical company that dumped there, it’s not clear that looking the other way was a pro-business strategy. At some point, a healthy and fairly paid community is essential if you want to sell them something.

The oil sands project in Alberta Canada is a factory-friendly effort. So was the lead excavation in Picher, OK. Creating systems that leverage the factory can often lead to financial success (in the short run). The problem is that the future doesn’t belong to efficient factories, because as we train people to look for the cheap, we race to the bottom–and someone else, somewhere else, will win that race.

Perhaps we could see pro-business strategies looking more like this:

  • Investing in training the workforce to solve interesting problems, so they can work at just about any job.
  • Maintaining infrastructure, safety and civil rights so we can create a community where talented people and the entrepreneurs who hire them (two groups that can live wherever they choose) would choose to live there.
  • Reward and celebrate the scientific process that leads to scalable breakthroughs, productivity and a stable path to the future.
  • Spend community (our) money on services and infrastructure that help successful organizations and families thrive.

Once you’ve seen how difficult it is to start a thriving business in a place without clean water, fast internet connections and a stable government of rational laws, it’s a lot harder to take what we’ve built for granted.

Capital is selfish and it often seeks the highest possible short-term results. But capital isn’t driving our economy any longer, innovation by unique people is. And people aren’t so predictable.

Linchpins are scarce. They can live where they choose, hire whom they want and build organizations filled with other linchpins. The race to the top will belong to communities that figure out how to avoid being the dumping ground for the organizational, social and physical pollution that factories create.

Getting smart about the hierarchy of smart

Don't talk to all your employees, all your users or all your prospects the same way, because they're not the same.

The Dreyfus model of skill acquisition posits that there are five stages people go through:

1. Novice
–wants to be given a manual, told what to do, with no decisions possible

2. Advanced beginner
–needs a bit of freedom, but is unable to quickly describe a hierarchy of which parts are more important than others

3. Competent
–wants the ability to make plans, create routines and choose among activities

4. Proficient
–the more freedom you offer, the more you expect, the more you'll get

5. Expert
–writes the manual, doesn't follow it.

If you treat an expert like a novice, you'll fail.

Do you need a permit?

Where, precisely, do you go in order to get permission to make a dent in the universe?

The accepted state is to be a cog. The preferred career is to follow the well-worn path, to read the instructions, to do what we're told. It's safer that way. Less responsibility. More people to blame.

When someone comes along and says, "not me, I'm going down a different path," we flinch. We're not organized to encourage and celebrate the unproven striver. It's safer to tear them down (with their best interests at heart, of course). Better, we think, to let them down easy, to encourage them to take a safer path, to be realistic, to hear it from us rather than the marketplace.

Perhaps, years ago, this was good advice. Today, it's clearly not. In fact, it's disrespectful, ill-advised and short sighted. How dare we cheer when a bold changemaker stumbles? Our obligation today isn't to spare the feelings of our peers from future disappointment. It's to establish an expectation that of course they're going to do something that matters.

If you think there's a chance you can make a dent, GO.



You have my permission. Not that you needed it.

When the long tail is underwater

There are millions of songs on iTunes that have sold zero copies. Millions of blog posts that get zero visitors each day.

The long tail is real… given the ability, people create more variety. Given the choice, people seek out what's just right for them to consume. But, and there's a big but, there's no guarantee that the ends of the long tail start producing revenue or traffic. And a million times zero is still zero.

Sometimes, the best strategy isn't to to head farther and farther out on the tail. No, you don't have to make average stuff for average people. But it also doesn't pay to brainwash yourself into believing that super-extreme is the same as profitable.

Beware the Nile perch

It's a huge freshwater fish, easy to catch and eat, and tempting to introduce into non-native waters.

And when it shows up? It will eat everything it can and probably drive competitive smaller fish extinct. Good intentions are rewarded with plenty of Nile perch (for now) but a degraded ecosystem in the long run.

There are bright shiny objects you can bring into your life (that project, that employee, that new office) that might just push the other useful items aside. You get hooked on them or they demand more attention or they make too much noise and the less-shiny projects or people whither away.

An art museum brings in a traveling show from a famous artist. It's important, expensive, time-consuming and brings big crowds. For the next six months, all eyes are on the big show. And then, of course, a vacuum, because the important but less glamorous work didn't get done.

A lawsuit or a merger or a shift to a new office space might seem like a good idea at the time–but be careful what you wish for.

The Nile perch is nefarious yet applauded (in the short run). Don't be afraid to call it when you see it.