The plumber, the roofer and the electrician sell us a cure. They come to our house, fix the problem, and leave.
The consultant, the doctor (often) and the politician sell us the narrative. They don't always change things, but they give us a story, a way to think about what's happening. Often, that story helps us fix our problems on our own.
The best parents, of course, are in the story business. Teachers and bosses, too.
Who gets to determine how we react (or respond) to the things that happen to us?
Who chooses which media we consume?
Who gets to decide what we start, and what we quit?
Who decides what sort of learning to invest in (or not)?
Who gets to look for someone to blame?
Too much is out of our control, done to us, dealt to us, allocated unfairly. But in a culture in which more and more choice is taken away from those that identify as consumers or cogs, adults still own some of the most important responsibilities of all.
What if, in some sort of sci-fi solar flare cataclysm, it was impossible for humans to have more kids? No more babies.
How would we treat the last generation? Would we say to the youngest student on Earth, "sorry the school is really run-down and crowded and poorly staffed, but we don't want to invest in you?" Would we let the last generation grow up in poverty, or would we do everything we could to ensure that this one last time, we did it right?
To make the example a bit more banal, what if your organization discovered that it would never have another new customer? That the customers you've got now are the last ones you will ever have… Would you treat them differently?
Sometimes, when it seems like there's an endless parade of prospects walking by, it's easy to discount this particular person.
No new prospects, no more new web visitors, no more untouched email lists… And far more dramatically, no more new students, no more chances to open doors, inspire genius or create connection.
I wonder what happens when we treat children and customers like maybe, just maybe, they're the last chance we get to do it right.
Money isn't real. It's a method of exchange, a unit we exchange for something we actually need or value. It has worth because we agree it has worth, because we agree what it can be exchanged for.
But there's something far more powerful going on here.
We don't actually agree, because each person's valuation of money is based on the stories we tell ourselves about it.
Our bank balance is merely a number, bits represented on a screen, but it's also a signal and symptom. We tell ourselves a story about how we got that money, what it says about us, what we're going to do with it and how other people judge us. We tell ourselves a story about how that might grow, and more vividly, how that money might disappear or shrink or be taken away.
And those stories, those very powerful unstated stories, impact the narrative of just about everything else we do.
So yes, there's money. But before there's money, there's a story. It turns out that once you change the story, the money changes too.
I was invited to a fancy gathering the other day. Thirty of us, chatting amiably over drinks, then invited to sit down to eat.
A little slow on the trigger, I was the last one over to lunch. To my horror, there were only 29 seats at the long table. All of my Jungian anxieties triggered in one moment. No room for you, you don't belong here, you probably shouldn't have come in the first place.
After a deep breath, I walked over, got a chair from along the wall and scooted myself in.
Epic disaster, averted.
It turns out that in the connection economy, where the network effect creates value and abundance in those connections, it's pretty unlikely that there are precisely one-too-few chairs at the table you hope to sit at. And if there are, it turns out that it's easier than ever to bring your own chair.
Even better, start your own table.
In school, we teach kids to try out, to work to make the cut, to suck it up and give up when they don't. We forget to teach them that the better approach (the adult, real world approach) is to just start your own team. One hyper-ironic example: A friend didn't make it past the final try-outs for the improv club at school. Bummed out, he moved on, never realizing that he could start his own improv club…
If you're spending a lot of time worrying about musical chairs, it's almost impossible to be generous and connected. If you've got one eye on the lookout for when the music will stop and which chair you're going to grab, it's inevitable that you're not really focusing on the amazing people you're with. On the other hand, once you stop playing that game, it seems as though new chairs just keep materializing.
Starting at the age of nine, I played the clarinet for eight years.
Actually, that’s not true. I took clarinet lessons for eight years when I was a kid, but I’m not sure I ever actually played it.
Eventually, I heard a symphony orchestra member play a clarinet solo. It began with a sustained middle C, and I am 100% certain that never once did I play a note that sounded even close to the way his sounded.
And yet the lessons I was given were all about fingerings and songs and techniques. They were about playing higher or lower or longer notes, or playing more complex rhythms. At no point did someone sit me down and say, “wait, none of this matters if you can’t play a single note that actually sounds good.”
Instead, the restaurant makes the menu longer instead of figuring out how to make even one dish worth traveling across town for. We add many slides to our presentation before figuring out how to utter a single sentence that will give the people in the room chills or make them think. We confuse variety and range with quality.
Practice is not the answer here. Practice, the 10,000 hours thing, practice alone doesn’t produce work that matters. No, that only comes from caring. From caring enough to leap, to bleed for the art, to go out on the ledge, where it’s dangerous. When we care enough, we raise the bar, not just for ourselves, but for our customer, our audience and our partners.
It’s obvious, then, why I don’t play the clarinet any more. I don’t care enough, can’t work hard enough, don’t have the guts to put that work into the world. This is the best reason to stop playing, and it opens the door to go find an art you care enough to make matter instead. Find and make your own music.
The cop-out would be to play the clarinet just a little, to add one more thing to my list of mediocre.
As Jony Ive said, “We did it because we cared, because when you realize how well you can make something, falling short, whether seen or not, feels like failure.”
It’s much easier to add some features, increase your network, get some itemized tasks done. Who wants to feel failure?
Let's say you wanted to improve the katana, the legendary fighting sword.
You could ask your team to come up with a sword that's lighter, sharper and more durable.
Built into that charge is the requirement to compromise. And just about everyone who has come before you has tried to come up with the same sort of compromise, and your chances of a breakthrough are slim indeed.
Compromise gives us an out, because, with multiple goals, it's easy to play it safe.
But what if you picked just one?
What if you sought to make the sharpest katana ever? Or merely the most durable one? By optimizing for just one attribute, you've eliminated most of the compromise from the design discussion. As a result, you're far more likely to encounter something extraordinary. It might not be practical, but there's plenty of time to compromise later.
It's almost always easier to roll something back a little than it is to push it forward.