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Two people you might need in your professional life

An agonist. While an antagonist blocks an action, the agonist causes it to happen. Even more than a muse, a professional agonist might be exactly what you need to provoke your best work.

And of course, a procrastinatrix. Someone who's only job is to hold you accountable for getting it done, now, not later.

In a world with fewer bosses than ever, when we are our own boss, these two functions are more important than ever. If you can't find a way to do it for yourself, spend the time and the money to find someone to do it for you. Neither job is particularly difficult to do, but it's hard to do to yourself. Two more job titles for the future…

[Thanks to Sunny for the nomenclature.]

When a conference works (and doesn’t)

When we get together with others, even at a weekly meeting, it either works, or it doesn't. For me, it works:

…If everything is on the line, if in any given moment, someone is going to say or do something that might just change everything. Something that happens in the moment and can't possibly be the same if you hear about it later. It might even be you who speaks up, stands up and makes a difference. (At most events, you can predict precisely what's going to be said, and by whom). In the digital age, if I can get the notes or the video later, I will.

…If there's vulnerability and openness and connection. If it's likely you'll meet someone (or many someones) that will stick with you for years to come, who will share their dreams and their fears while they listen to and understand yours. (At most events, people are on high alert, clenched and protective. Like a cocktail party where no one is drinking.)

…If there's support. If the people you meet have high expectations for you and your work and your mission, but even better, if they give you a foundation and support to go even further. (At most events, competitiveness born from insecurity trumps mutual support.)

…If it's part of a movement. If every day is a building block on the way to something important, and if the attendees are part of a tribe that goes beyond demographics or professional affiliation. (At most events, it's just the next event).

The first law of screenwriting is that the hero of a great movie is transformed during the arc of the story. That's the goal of a great conference, as well. But it's difficult indeed, because there are so many heroes, all thinking they have too much to lose.

What’s it for?

If, seventy years ago, you asked Henry Luce, "What is Time magazine for?" he'd probably talk about setting society's agenda, capturing the attention of the educated and powerful and most of all, delivering the best weekly news package he could.

Today, the answer is clear. The purpose of the magazine is to make as much money as possible. Everything else is in service of that goal.

It used to be that the profit enabled the magazine to reach its goals. Today, the goal is to reach the profit.

If you ask a typical food service manager at a typical high school what school lunch is for, the answer is probably not, "to educate kids about healthy food and help them to make nutritious choices for a lifetime." No, the answer is probably, "to feed as many kids as fast and as cheaply as we can, given the limited resources we have."

And if you ask someone working at a kitchen gadget company what the latest item is for, the truthful answer probably has nothing at all to do with pitting an avocado efficiently, or making a good cup of coffee. The honest answer would revolve around ease of manufacturing, pleasing the rep and the store buyer and most of all, producing an item that sells in volume and turns a profit without too many people sending it back.

In most b2b situations, the answer is always the same, "to please my boss."

Sure, we're good at making up backstories to explain our actions, to craft the 'why' that's ostensibly behind the reason we do things. But c'mon. The answer to, "what's it for" is all about what drives the person who makes the non-obvious decisions. If you're always having to recalibrate your actions to match someone else's decisions, that's the real 'for'.

Fedex used to believe that they were in the customer service business, and that speed and reliability were the driving factor behind everything they did. Now, it seems, they are in the profit business. That the purpose of all of those people and all of those trucks and planes is to maximize profit. The rest is merely a means to that end.

I think maximizing near-term profit can be a productive goal, especially if that's what those you work with and partner with expect. I'm pointing out that the spin of substituting something loftier can truly confuse people inside and outside of your organization. And of course, when the only rudder you have is 'profit now,' expect that your long term prospects are in doubt, threatened by those with a different goal, one more congruent with their customer's needs.

Economics often trumps good intent, particularly at scale and over time. Decision-making power accrues to those that spend and make money, one reason that industrialization and time suck the art out of so many things.

Being clear about what we're doing and why is the first step in doing it better. If you're not happy about the honest answer to this question, make substantial changes until you are.

Understanding idea adoption (you’re not a slot, you choose a slot)

In the last year, millions of people have bought a copy of 50 Shades. Here's the thing: they didn't all do it at the same time.

Some people bought it when it was a self-published ebook. Others jumped in when word of mouth started to spread, enough that it became a bestseller. Most people, though, waited until it was on the bestseller list, in piles at the bookstore and the subject of positive and negative discussion and even parodies. And a few people are going to buy it two years from now, after everyone else who was willing to read it already has.

Another example: Just about all of the people who read this blog have read one of my books, and yet, just about no one who reads this blog has read my newest book yet (less than 2%, surely).

This is what almost always happens. Individuals choose a slot based on what sort of leadership or risk or followership behavior makes them happy right now. Early adopters and nerds like to go first. But some people are early when it comes to shoes, or to mystery novels, or records, while others adopt early when it comes to political ideas or restaurants.

Most of the time, most of us choose to be in the slot of mass. The masses wait to see the positive reviews, or they monitor the bestseller lists. The masses know they have plenty of time, that they'll get around to it when they get a chance, and mostly, they are driven by what their peers (the early adopters, the ones who keep track of this stuff) tell them. "Why waste time and money on the wrong thing," they argue, with some persuasion. So they wait for proof. Social proof or statistical proof.

[Beyond mass: No, everyone is not going to sign up for your new online service or buy my new book. We're talking about pockets of people, micro markets. But within those micro markets, everyone is not the same. Within those micro markets, some people are itching to go first, and plenty of people are waiting patiently to get it right.]

The glitch in the system is that many marketers obsess only about the launch. They put their time and money and effort into the first week on sale, and then run to work on the next thing, when in fact, the mass market, those that choose to wait for more than, "it's new!" haven't decided to take the leap yet.

Perversely, marketers look at what typically happens after the launch and say, "it's not worth sticking with this, because stuff that doesn't take off right away rarely does." And the reason? Because it was abandoned by the marketers who introduced it and then ran off to play with the next shiny object. It's self-fulfilling.

The fact is that almost all the profits of the record and book businesses come from the backlist, from Pink Floyd and Dr. Seuss. Apple sold almost all of its iPhones in the months after each launched, not the first day. Because that's what the market wanted. The exception that proves the rule: The Super Bowl only happens once a year, and it's just about the only time that everyone does everything at the same time.

I don't think the job of the marketer is to encourage people to jump from one chosen slot to another. I don't think it's worth the time or the energy to get someone who is comfortable with mass to suddenly turn into an early adopter, at least for today. Better, I think, to live in and work with and embrace your market, to go where they are, not to pressure them to change their habit.

For truly important problems

You know something is important when you're willing to let someone else take the credit if that's what it takes to get it done.

The cost of neutral

If you come to my brainstorming meeting and say nothing, it would have been better if you hadn't come at all.

If you go to work and do what you're told, you're not being negative, certainly, but the lack of initiative you demonstrate (which, alas, you were trained not to demonstrate) costs us all, because you're using a slot that could have been filled by someone who would have added more value.

It's tempting to sit quietly, take notes and comply, rationalizing that at least you're not doing anything negative. But the opportunity cost your newly lean, highly leveraged organization faces is significant.

Not adding value is the same as taking it away.

Four reasons your version of better might not be enough

I might not know about your better, because the world is so noisy I can't hear you.

I might not believe it's better, because, hey, people spin and exaggerate and lie. Proof is only useful if it leads to belief.

The perceived cost of switching (fear, hassle, internal selling and coordination, money) is far higher than your better appears to be worth.

Your better might not be my better. In fact, it's almost certainly not.

Help wanted: Designing for growth

Just as the tech community has realized that coding and marketing can be turned into growth hacking, it may be time to redefine what we seek from graphic designers.

Prettiness isn't the point, and neither is sheer utility. The best designers working online are now using UI, UX and game theory to create services that spread. They're engaging in relentless cycles of test and measure and improve in order to determine what works (and what doesn't), replacing "because I said so," with "because it works."

Most important, though, they're learning how to use their significant visual and aesthetic chops to create series of interactions that actually generate better outcomes than the workaday stuff they're replacing.

I think there are two kinds of jobs now available to designers working online:

1. "Here, make this prettier"

and

2. "Figure out how to lead the process that helps us grow."

Squidoo is hiring someone for the second kind of job. It's an incredibly exciting gig, one that will allow someone to cross boundaries and lead. You will work with me and with Squidoo's entire team of developers and tribe leaders. Find out the details right here. Please read carefully and apply in just the way the page describes.

PS there's a bounty if you refer the person we hire. Have them mention your name and contact info in the application.

Deadline: Tuesday, Jan 15 at noon.

Who goes first?

Initiating a project, a blog, a wikipedia article, a family journey–these are things that don't come naturally to many people. The challenge is in initiating something even when you're not putatively in charge. Not enough people believe they are capable of productive initiative.

At the same time, almost all people believe they are capable of editing, giving feedback or merely criticizing. 

So finding people to fix your typos is easy.

I don't think the shortage of artists has much to do with the innate ability to create or initiate. I think it has to do with believing that it's possible and acceptable for you to do it. We've only had these particular doors open wide for a decade or so, and most people have been brainwashed into believing that their job is to copyedit the world, not to design it.

That used to be your job. It's not, not anymore. You go first.

Podcasts, live events and more…

Lots of hoopla and good news to share:

Hope to see you in Boston or London later this month.

For those that were out over the break, here are the three books now available for sale (thanks for the great feedback and terrific support). Here's the audio edition.

Thanks to the podcasters who interviewed me: 

Jeff Goins

Chris Brogan

Mitch Joel

Rise to the Top

Marketing Over Coffee 

Adrian Swinscoe 

Work Talk Show 

Social Media Examiner 

Duct Tape Marketing

The Game Whisperer 

Eventual Millionaire 

Blogcast FM

Kindle Chronicles

And a post from David Meerman Scott. Anne McCrossan. And with TED videos.

And Jesse Thorn on Bullseye.

The feedback from the worldwide Icarus Session was so good we've scheduled another one. And here's the bookmark project. 

Thanks.

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