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Leap year meditation

Once in four years, just once, perhaps we could:

Forgive, forget, relax, care, stand out, speak up, contribute, embrace, create, make a ruckus, give credit, skip, smile, speak truth and refuse to compromise–more than we usually do. Pick just one or two and start there.

Hey, it's just one day.

Careful, though, it might become a habit.

Fade or gain?

An idea introduced to a population almost always fades away.

Send 1,000 people a coupon, and perhaps 20 use it. To get more usage, you either need to ping the audience again or find a new group of people.

This explains why marketers are always in search of new people to reach, and also insist on frequency of messaging–it maximizes the percentage of the group that is reached and minimizes the fade of the idea.

There's an important exception to the rule of fading ideas, though. Every once in a while, an idea starts with a small population and actually reaches new users, people outside the population. Instead of the idea fading, it gains traction as it spreads. Imagine a cold getting started at an elementary school but soon the cold infects parents, teachers and the co-workers of those parents…

Eventually, even these viral ideas fade away (if they didn't, then every single person on Earth would know about LOLcats and be into slacklining.) But before that happens, an idea spread by an excited tribe can have huge reach, particularly if it's digital.

One mathematical cause of this viral spread is the outlier who becomes quite active in sharing the idea. This superuser might tell a hundred or a thousand or more other people about it. Using his own pulpit, reaching his own tribe, the superuser raises the average (the R0 value) to over one, causing the idea to continue spreading.

Monday's publication of Stop Stealing Dreams has exceeded my expecations for feedback and impact. While a typical bestseller might sell 2,000 copies a day, this free manifesto was downloaded and shared more than 60,000 times since yesterday. I've gotten comments from around the world, and it's clear that the manifesto has struck a chord–and that's exactly why I wrote it. (Translations in two countries are already underway… I'll post them on the download page as they become available).

And now the moment of truth–will the people who read it, share it? Will they take the file and email it to 5 or 50 of their peers? Will they use it to start a conversation among parents or teachers or, best of all, students?


“It’s not prime enough”

"That number is too even… can you make the next one even odder?"

The thing about math is that it's right or wrong, on or off, yes or no. Seven is a prime number, there's no improving it.

The thing about life/business/culture and the things we make and do is that they are not math.

www.stopstealingdreams.com is ready to read and share

"What do you think we ought to do about education?"

My readers ask me that question more than just about any other. So here's my question back: What is school for? (Click the link to get to the free download).

I've just published a 30,000 word manifesto, totally free to read, share, translate, print and, most of all, use to start an essential conversation. It took a lot to get it to you, and I'm encouraging you to take a few minutes to check it out. After you read it, perhaps you'll write one of your own.

This is an experiment in firestarting–I'm hoping that removing friction from the sharing of this idea will help it spread. If you're interested in the topic (and I hope you are), please tweet or like the project page, download the files, post mirror copies on your own blog and if you can, email them to every teacher, parent and citizen who should be part of the discussion about what we do with our kids all day (and why). If just a fraction of this blog's readers shared it with their address book, we'd reach a lot of people.

If you get a chance, visit the page and give a shoutout to a teacher that's made a difference to you or your kids. Ultimately, our future belongs to a generation that decides to be passionate about learning and shipping, and great teachers are the foundation for that.

Stick to what you (don’t) know

One of the dumbest forms of criticism is to shout down an expert in one field who speaks up about something else. The actor with a political point of view, or the physicist who talks about philosophy. The theory is that people should stick to what they know and quietly sit by in all other situations.

Of course, at one point, we all knew nothing. The only way you ever know anything, in fact, is to speak up about it. Outline your argument, support it, listen, revise.

The byproduct of speaking up about what you don't know is that you soon know more. And maybe, just maybe, the experts learn something from you and your process.

No one knows more about the way you think than you do. Applying that approach, combining your experience, taking a risk–this is what we need from you.

Perfect and impossible

The definition of a revolution: it destroys the perfect and enables the impossible.

The music business was perfect. Radio, record chains, Rolling Stone magazine, the senior prom, limited access to recording studios, the replaceable nature of the LP, the baby boomers… it all added up to a business that seemed perfect, one that could run for ever and ever.

The digital revolution destroyed this perfect business while enabling the seemingly impossible: easy access to the market by new musicians, a cosmic jukebox of just about every song ever recorded, music as a social connector…

If you are in love with the perfect, prepare to see it swept away. If you are able to dream of the impossible, it just might happen.

The Trip Advisor tail wagging the real world dog

More than fifty years ago, Duncan Hines (a real guy, unlike Betty Crocker), turned the restaurant business upside down. He began certifying restaurants as clean and safe, offering a sign for roadside diners that wished to welcome travelers from out of town.

The existence of his certification changed the way restaurants did their job.

Today, it's sites like Trip Advisor and Yelp (among many others) that are transforming the way service businesses operate. Here's how it works: at first, a business might try to ignore the system, but then they notice their customers talking about the reviews and their competitors. So some stoop so low as to attempt to game the system, sending sock puppets and friends to post reviews. But that doesn't scale and the sites are getting smart about weeding this out.

The only alternative? Amazing service. Working with customers in such an extraordinary way that people feel compelled to talk about it, post about it, and yes, review it. It's not an accident that Hotel Amira is one of the highest rated hotels in all of Turkey. They didn't do it with the perfect building or sumptuous suites. They did it by intentionally being remarkable at service. And yes, the Holiday Inn in Oakland has the same story. They took what they had and then they deliberately went over the top in delivering on something that never would have paid off for them in the past.

Amplifying stories causes the stories that are built to change. Outliers are rewarded (or punished) and the weird and the wonderful are reinforced. Once people see what others are doing, it opens the door for them to do it, but with more flair.

The web changes everything it touches, sometimes in significant ways. Travelers ranted about poor service for a generation, but once the internet makes it easy to rank and sort and connect, the service has no choice but to change. Some businesses see Yelp and others as a tax, a burden they have to pay attention to in order to stay relevant, and they grumble about it. Others see these sites as the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to deliver service (which takes guts and care, more than money) to get ahead.

Ad agencies don’t run many ads for themselves

Spending money on your own account is a difficult psychological hurdle. Lots of small businesses get stuck in this chasm, happy to pitch, to network, to send out proposals and to work far into the night, but hesitate when it comes time to pay actual cash money for marketing, trade show booths or other sorts of media.

For the bootstrapper, for the woman who has worked so hard to get to positive cash flow, it feels dangerously daring, on the verge of insanity.

The question is: do successful businesses spend money on media, or does spending money on media make you successful?

(I think it's some of both.)

Engaging with criticism

If you need to find out how your audience is receiving your work, it's worth considering how you've structured the interactions around criticism. Sometimes a customer has a one-off problem, a situation that is unique and a concern that has to be extinguished on the spot. More often, though, that feedback you're getting represents the way a hundred or a thousand other customers are also judging you.

Some random ideas:

  • If you defend yourself to the customer, quickly explaining precisely why the policy is the way it is, why the product is the way it is, you are pushing the criticizer away because you're telling them they're wrong about their opinion. And they might indeed be wrong, but it's certainly not going to encourage more feedback.
  • If your front line people restate the criticism in their own words and are grateful to the customer for sharing it, everyone will benefit. You can always choose to ignore the input later.
  • If there's no way for your staff to easily send the criticism up the hierarchy, it dies before it reaches someone who can do something about it.
  • If senior people follow up with the customer with specific acknowledgment and thanks, you multiply the benefits.

Not every company needs to do this right to succeed (Apple succeeds and does not do any of these things–and as far as I know, Bob Dylan is in the same camp), but if you believe you can benefit from a cycle of feedback, it's worth a try.

The map has been replaced by the compass

The map keeps getting redrawn, because it's cheaper than ever to go offroad, to develop and innovate and remake what we thought was going to be next. Technology keeps changing the routes we take to get our projects from here to there. It doesn't pay to memorize the route, because it's going to change soon.

The compass, on the other hand, is more important then ever. If you don't know which direction you're going, how will you know when you're off course?

And yet…

And yet we spend most of our time learning (or teaching) the map, yesterday's map, while we're anxious and afraid to spend any time at all calibrating our compass.