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Genes and memes

I have the K1a1b1a mutation in my genes, a mutation that happened a few thousand years ago. If you have it too, then you're probably one of the millions of people who are distant cousins of mine. Most of us are related, in fact, as we're all descended from just four different women.

Genes spread. The ones that spread, win.

People are not necessarily selfish, but genes are. They're selfish in the sense that the only genes that are around are those that were part of organisms that had grandchildren. We can't assign a personality to a simple bit of data like a gene, but if we could anthropomorphize, we'd say that the gene is looking for opportunities in the environment to exploit, seeking out advantages that help it get reproduced.

Seen this way, the millions and millions of years of slow evolution of species makes perfect sense. A mutation occurs, and if it confers an advantage on the organism that it is part of, that organism has more kids, the gene is spread. If it doesn't, it disappears. This is one reason you need a new flu shot every year–because the flu mutates over time.

Richard Dawkins took this idea and riffed (in a single chapter of The Selfish Gene) on how ideas follow similar patterns. Robert Kearns, for example, created the mutation we know of as the intermittent windshield wiper. Before his invention, all windshield wipers on all cars worked at just one or two speeds. After his invention started showing up on cars, though, other carmakers saw the idea and it reproduced, moving from a few cars to more cars, until, like an advantage spreading through generations of a population, it was on virtually every car.

Or, consider the growth of guacamole as an idea. In less than a generation, it went from an unknown delicacy (the first recipe I saw included mayo) to something commonplace. Tattoos have a similar if more permanent trajectory.

Ideas that spread win. Ideas don't have to be selfish to win, in fact, it turns out that the more generous the interactions an idea produces, the more likely it is to spread. (Back to guac: it spread partly because it's a party food, so people discovered it when others shared it…)

Seeing your business or your project as a multi-generational organism, one that you can mutate at will, is a useful way to help it grow. I've written about it here and here.

Done to us vs. things we do

Malaria, the atomic bomb, the McCarthy hearings, television's ubiquity, the decay of the industrial base–these are mammoth changes, changes that came from all around us, changes we had to withstand.

Today, we're faced with an entirely new kind of change–the changes we can choose to make, the changes that are available to us as opposed to changes that are forced on us.

While we still deal with top-down cultural change at work and at home, the degrees of freedom have dramatically shifted.

No one had to cajole you into living with the changes of the last fifty years, because here they were, like it or not. You had no choice. Today, most of the change—in media, in culture, in commerce—is there if you want it. You can choose to be a media company, a buyer, a seller. You can choose to go out on the long tail, choose to be weird, choose to enter the connection economy.

In many ways, this choice makes the change ever more difficult, doesn't it?

The future isn't so much about absorbing or tolerating change, it's about making change.

Too stupid to know better?

Frederick Taylor, father of 'scientific management', testifying before Congress a hundred years ago:

'I can say, without the slightest hesitation, that the science of handling pig-iron is so great that the man who is … physically able to handle pig-iron and is sufficiently phlegmatic and stupid to choose this for his occupation is rarely able to comprehend the science of handling pig-iron.'

If you treat your employees like mushrooms (keep them in the dark and regularly throw crap on them), it's entirely likely you will get precisely the work you deserve in return.

I’m an elitist

(You might be as well).

The market isn't always right. It's merely the market.

Mass appeal is not always better than doing something that matters.

Increasing shareholder value is not the primary purpose of a corporation.

News with a lot of clicks isn't always important news.

Selling out to get popular is selling yourself short.

Lowering the price at the expense of sustainability is a fool's game.

Only producing tools that don't need an instruction manual takes power away from those prepared to learn how to use powerful tools. And it's okay to write a book that some people won't finish, or a video that some don't understand.

Giving people what they want isn't always what they want.

Curators create value. We need more curators, and not from the usual places.

Creating and reinforcing cultural standards and institutions that elevate us is more urgent than ever.

We write history about people who were brave enough to lead, not those that figured out how to pander to the crowd.

Elites aren't defined by birth or wealth, they are people with a project, individuals who want to do work they believe in, folks seeking to make an impact. Averaging down everything we do so that it becomes cheap and ubiquitous and palatable to all is a hollow goal.

Modesty and hubris

When you're seeking to succeed with your art, it's helpful to see how those before you have done it. And so the conference was invented. The ones where recently successful internet entrepreneurs tell their stories are particularly popular right now, but you can certainly find designers, novelists and others that are generous enough to talk about how they succeeded.

Some speakers at these events are brimming with false modesty. "I'm incredibly successful and happy, it happened really fast and I have no idea what I'm doing." The appeal here is the same that works for the lottery. Someone has to win, it might as well be you, it's easy, buy a ticket.

Some speakers, on the other hand, bring false hubris to the table. "This is incredibly difficult, I worked harder than you can imagine, and only a perfect storm of effort and connections that were created directly by me led to this moment."

The truth, of course, is a combination of both. "I worked really hard, back against the wall, thinking I was going to fail, almost did, and I got lucky." And that's like hearing that there's a lottery and the tickets are very expensive.

But it's true.

Two magical sentences missing from most job ads

If you're working to build a unique culture staffed with people who make a difference, consider:

"If you're not looking for a job, this might just be the job for you"

and, once the job is under consideration:

"You know, this might not be a good fit for you."

Most jobs seek the low bidder, the person desperate enough to work cheap, or to sign up right now, and most jobs stress that 'this is a great place to work' (implying 'great for everyone.')

When you staff a place with idiosyncratic miracle workers who in fact have plenty of other options, it's a lot harder to fill those jobs, but a lot more likely you'll build something extraordinary once you do.

Posting this on Valentine's Day is not ironic. As important work gets ever more personal, so does hiring… "Who's available?" is not a good selection driver for work or for life.

[The flipside of the situation is also true: I frequently see job descriptions that are basically impossible to fill as specced. If you can't think of a single individual that you've worked with over your entire career that would be the perfect fit for this job–and work on the terms you're prepared to offer–there's something wrong with the job you hope to fill. Wishing is not a strategy.]

The problems you’ve got left…

are probably the difficult ones.

We'd all like to find discount answers to our problems. Organizations, governments and individuals prefer to find the solution that's guaranteed to work, takes little time and even less effort.

Of course, the problems that lend themselves to bargain solutions have already been solved.

What we're left with are the problems that will take ridiculous amounts of effort, untold resources and the bravery to attempt something that might not work.

Knowing this before you start will help you allocate the right resources… or choose not to start at all–this problem, the one that won't be solved in a hurry, might not be worth the effort it's going to take. If it is, then pay up.

The you called brand

From the beginning, a brand's legal purpose has been to let people know the origin of the goods. Literally, a brand, a hallmark, a mark of trade.

Over time, for some brands, it has become something significantly more. A mirror on our identity as consumers, tribe members and citizens.

When someone criticizes one of these brands, these 'us' brands, we take the criticism personally. So, if you're a Harley tribe member, someone criticizing Harley Davidson is like a personal attack. Same goes for those that identify so closely with Google, or the Catholic Church or an iconic politician. This is me, I am that, we are labels for each other.

At some level, this seems like Nirvana (oh, that's another one) for a brand. To be so closely identified with a tribe and a mission, it means that advertising is no longer the primary fuel for the brand's future.

The risk is that when your brand stumbles, you won't have to merely confront those non-customers that might have thought less of you. You'll need to understand that when you fail, we all do. It's personal, and you might need to do more than mutter an apology. High stakes.

[HT to Tom and Alan for the wordplay prompt.]

Quality of production

It's entirely possible that you are very good at (and have the tools to perform) a job that was really difficult to do a while ago.

The problem is that some difficult things keep getting easier to do.

Star Trek was cancelled twice during its original run for the simple reason that the ratings didn't justify the cost. Today, fans are making original Star Trek episodes for free. Many elements of the production are simply stunning.

Or you might be a wedding photographer with tons of fancy equipment, competing against the fact that every single guest at the wedding has a camera in his pocket.

Consider the fact that many restaurant meals weren't actually made by a chef, at least not in the restaurant in which you're eating.

Even people who sell real estate have discovered that much of what they did all day is now being done, sorted and presented, for free, in real time, online.

That doesn't mean that the game is over. What it does mean is that we have to figure out how to obsess over things that are truly difficult. Access to tools alone is not sufficient.

Uninformed or ignorant?

Uninformed is a temporary condition, fixed more easily than ever.

Ignorant, on the other hand, is the dangerous situation where someone making a decision is uninformed and either doesn't know or doesn't care about his lack of knowledge.

The internet lets us become informed, if we only are willing to put in the time and the effort. That's new–the ability to easily and confidently look it up, learn about it, process it and publish to see if you got it right.

Alas, the internet also creates an environment where it's possible to feel just fine about being ignorant. It's easier than ever to live in a silo where we are surrounded by others who think it's just great to not know.

"Ignorant" used to be a fairly vague epithet, one that we often misused to describe someone who disagreed with us. Today, because it represents a choice, the intentional act of not-knowing, I think it carries a lot more weight.

The more I think about this, the more I'm aware of just how ignorant I've chosen to be. Not a happy thought, but a useful wake-up call.