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Variance or deviance?

If you see things that don't meet the norm as 'deviant', then you are approaching the world with a mindset of mass, of conformity, of obedience. You are assuming that you can be most effective and efficient when the market lines up in a straight line, when one size does fit all, because one size is cheaper to make and stock and distribute.

On the other hand, if you accept differences as merely variations, each acceptable, then you realize that there are many markets, many choices, many solutions. 

Packaged goods, leadership or governance–when you expect (or demand) that people don't deviate, you're robbing them of their dignity and setting yourself up to be disappointed.

It's okay to say, "this thing we make, it's not for you," but I'm not sure it's productive to say, "you're not allowed to make the choices you've made."

How we watch video now

Forty years ago, Stanley Kubrick showed us 2001. The first 90 seconds are without dialogue and solid black. It's hard to imagine that working as the intro to a YouTube video today. 

Instead, our finger is on the mouse trigger, ready to leave in a moment. Not only that, but instead of leaning forward, we've got our shields set to level 7, wary of what's to come. As the video begins, a series of questions arise, unbidden:

Who sent me here?

What do I expect?

What's this about?

What else is on? (10,000,000 choices, not three)

What does this remind me of?

Hey, isn't that Hugo Weaving's voice?

Wow, he's cute…

Are they selling me something?

What's the joke here?

Are those stock photos?

What will I tell my friends?

Who would love this that I should send it to?

Okay, yeah, I think I get it… Next.

Movies were scarce and long and special and deserved our attention. TV was shorter, with commercials, but still live (now or never) and thus special. But video–video is ubiquitous and short and everywhere. You can transfer a movie or a TV show to this new medium, but it will be consumed differently.

Everyone can publish video now, and in many ways, almost everyone is publishing video now. A video won't work because everyone watches it. It will work because the right people do, for the right reason. The occasional video viral hit has blinded us to the power of long-tail video to build the culture and change minds.

Everything that's watched has always been watched through the worldview of the watcher. And video (and before that, movies and TV) has driven the culture. That culture-driving ability now belongs to anyone who can make a video that the right people choose to watch.

We don’t care enough to give you constructive feedback

But if we did, it would take a lot to speak up in a useful way. It's difficult to be a generous skeptic. Not only do we have to be clear and cogent and actionable, but we cross a social boundary when we speak up. We might be rejected, or scolded, or made to feel dumb. And of course there's the risk that we'll get our hopes up that something will improve, only to see it revert to the status quo.

So, most of the time, we don't bother.

But when someone does care enough (about you, about the opportunity, about the work or the tool), the ball is in your court.

You can react to the feedback by taking it as an attack, deflecting blame, pointing fingers to policy or the CEO. Then you've just told me that you don't care enough to receive the feedback in a useful way.

Or you can pass me off to a powerless middleman, a frustrated person who mouths the words but makes it clear that the feedback will never get used. Another way to show that you don't care as much as I do. And if you don't care, why should I?

One other option: you can care even more than I do. You can not only be open to the constructive feedback, but you can savor it, chew it over, amplify it. You can delight in the fact that someone cares enough to speak up, and dance with their insight and contribution.

Because then, if you're lucky, it might happen again.

The DoSomething lessons

DoSomething is a stellar success, a fast-growing non-profit that's engaging with millions of young people around the world. Most organizations can learn something from their recent experiences. Basically, their customers changed. They changed how they consumed media, how they connected with each other and how they acted. If it is happening among teenagers now, it will happen to your audience soon.

Here's some of what they chose to do:

1. In a short-attention span, long-tail world, wide might be better than deep. In a typical year, DoSomething would launch 30 projects for their millions of members to take action on. Each project was refined and designed for maximum engagement. Last year, they rethought their process and launched SEVEN TIMES as many projects–more than 200. With the same staff. 

2. Being present in the moment is a great way to engage with people who live in the moment (teenagers). Because they can invent and launch a project in days instead of weeks or months, it's way more likely that a project will be relevant. More important, they now live almost exclusively in texts, the most urgent permission medium of all.

3. In a short-attention span world, sometimes you have to go deep, especially when it's personal. DoSomething has invested a huge amount of effort and money into building a crisis hotline that works by SMS. The data they've compiled is stunning, but the lives they've saved tell the real story.

4. Change shouldn't be made for change's sake. Change should happen because you care enough to make a difference. 

Most organizations go too slow, study things too much and most of all, work to not matter too much, because mattering is a good way to get noticed and getting noticed might get you in trouble. The upside of working in a fast-changing world is that you regularly get a new chance to reshuffle the deck and start mattering. Here's their new book on a workplace culture that embraces this new posture.

The work non-profits do is too important to be afraid of failure, and their work is too urgent to honor every sacred cow. The same thing might be said for the work each of us do.

A bird in search of a cage

So much freedom, so much choice, so many opportunities to matter.

And yet, our cultural instinct is to find a place to hold us, a spot where we are safe from the responsibility/obligation/opportunity to choose. Because if we choose, then we are responsible, aren't we?

HT Kafka.

Give the people what they want

…isn't nearly as powerful as teaching people what they need.

There's always a shortcut available, a way to be a little more ironic, cheaper, more instantly understandable. There's the chance to play into our desire to be entertained and distracted, regardless of the cost. Most of all, there's the temptation to encourage people to be selfish, afraid and angry.

Or you can dig in, take your time and invest in a process that helps people see what they truly need. When we change our culture in this direction, we're doing work worth sharing. 

But it's slow going. If it were easy, it would have happened already.

It's easy to start a riot. Difficult to create a story that keeps people from rioting.

Don't say, "I wish people wanted this." Sure, it's great if the market already wants what you make… Instead, imagine what would happen if you could teach them why they should.

Curiosity plus an audio book –> smarter

My new audiobook from SoundsTrue ships today (see below) and it got me thinking about the magical power of repeated, semi-passive audiobook listening.

You sit (in a car, even) doing something else and at the end of the first, second or tenth listen, you are transformed, seeing the world in new ways. I marvel at this every time it happens to me–a good audiobook is a game changer. A good non-fiction audiobook gets you in sync with the author, slowing down your consumption and making the ideas more real. And for many people, it's a lot less forbidding than cracking open a book.

Steven Johnson's new book, How We Got to Now, is a perfect example. Beautifully written and professionally read, it will make you smarter, more curious and demands that you listen to it again.

Jared Diamond's book, Guns, Germs, and Steel is a classic in the same vein. It's a magical book, worthy of its Pulitzer Prize.

If you're curious as to why a few parents are endangering their children and their community by failing to vaccinate their kids, Eula Bliss' even-handed On Immunity will gently and clearly help you understand the deep cultural and psychological stakes. [… an update on polio.]

All three books are about the collision of technology and culture over time, and they're all fascinating. My new project isn't in their league, but in response to requests to do an unscripted audio…

My new audiobook isn't an audiobook at all, it's an audio-only live recording, available as of today via download and on CD in a few months. I recorded it during a weeklong seminar in my office, and it's organized into short essays. 100% of my royalties go straight to Acumen, and it's produced by my favorite audiobook publisher, SoundsTrue. After listening to hundreds of hours of their inspiring work, it's a privilege to be part of what they've built.

[UPDATE: a new interview with Tami Simon at SoundsTrue.]

The productivity pyramid (give yourself a promotion)

Productivity is a measure of output over time. All other things being equal, the more you produce per minute, the more productive you are. And economists understand that wealth (for a company or a community) is based on increasing productivity.

The simplest way to boost productivity is to get better at the task that has been assigned to you. To work harder, and with more skill.

The next step up is to find people who are cheaper than you to do those assigned tasks. The theory of the firm is that people working together can get more done, faster.

The next step up is to invest in existing technology that can boost your team's output. Buying a copier will significantly increase your output if you’re used to handwriting each copy of the memo you've been assigned.

The step after that? Invent a new technology. Huge leaps in value creation come to those that find the next innovation.

The final step, the one that that eludes so many of us: Figure out better things to work on. Make your own list, don't merely react to someone else's.

It turns out that the most productive thing we can do is to stop working on someone else’s task list and figure out a more useful contribution instead. This is what separates great organizations from good ones, and extraordinary careers from frustrated ones.

The challenge is that the final step requires a short-term hit to your productivity. But, if you fail to invest the time and effort to find a better path, it's unlikely you'll find one.

Almost no one

There's a huge difference between "no one" and "almost no one".

Almost no one is going to hire you.

Almost no one is going to become a true fan.

Almost no one is going to tell someone else about your work.

Almost no one is going to push you to make your work ever better.

If only 1% of the US population steps up, that's 3,000,000 people in the category of "almost no one."

If only one out of 10,000 internet users engages with you, that's still hundreds of thousands of people.

The chances that everyone is going to applaud you, never mind even become aware you exist, are virtually nil. Most brands and organizations and individuals that fail fall into the chasm of trying to be all things in order to please everyone, and end up reaching no one.

That's the wrong thing to focus on. Better to focus on and delight almost no one.

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