As you work on your project (your presentation, your plan, your speech, your recipe, your…) imagine that it's the sort of thing that could be reviewed on Amazon.
Now, write (actually write down) two different reviews:
First, a 5 star review, a review by someone who gets it, who is moved, who is eager to applaud your guts and vision.
And then, a 1 star review, an angry screed, not from the usual flyby troll, but from someone who actually experienced your work and hated it.
Okay, you've got two reviews, here's the question:
Are you working to make it more likely that the 5 star reviews are more intense, more numerous and more truthful than ever, or…
Are you working to minimize the number of 1 star reviews?
Very hard to obsess about both, since they tend to happen together.
The thing is, if you work to minimize criticism, you have surrendered the beauty and greatness of what you've set out to build.
As of now, there are more minutes produced by the podcasts I listen to each day than there is time to listen to them.
I can't listen to something new without not listening to something else. Which makes it challenging to find the energy to seek out new ones. Rebroadcasts of radio shows rarely keep my attention any more, because the podcast-focused audio is so much more focused (but they are still popular on most lists, because they're initially more well known).
Blogging has worked for so long for two reasons: A. it's really easy to subscribe and to scan for the posts you like, and B. The good posts get shared.
Both of these are a challenge for podcasters now.
The New York Times says it prints "All the News That's Fit to Print" but it actually prints what fits, and what fits is what advertisers will support and readers have time to consume. Stories have to fight to get a spot.
Podcasts have the opposite problem–there's room for an infinity of stories, from an infinity of podcasters. But we're crossing a line and from now on, the game is less infinite than it was, because our time is finite.
Now, it's difficult to get on someone's list, and hard to stay there. The game is becoming zero sum.
[Here's a list of some of my favorites, by the way:]
99% Invisible, On Being, The Moment with Brian Koppelman, Mystery Show (particularly episode 3), The Gist, Dan Carlin's Hardcore History, Bullseye, Radiolab (of course), SDCF Masters of the Stage, and Cool Tools. There's also a fun Gastropod episode about my aversion to cilantro. And I just found out Christopher Lydon is doing a podcast, so that's now on the list.
The magic of Overcast is that they magically appear, one after another.
And the curse is that I'll never again be caught up. I'm okay with that, but it changes everything.
Selling change to organizations is difficult. One reason is that change represents a threat, a chance for things to go wrong. It's no wonder that many people avoid anything that smells of change.
Another reason is that different people in the organization have different worldviews, different narratives.
Consider the difference between "offense" and "defense" when confronting a new idea.
The person who is playing offense wants to get ahead. Grow market share. Get promoted. She wants to bring in new ideas, help more customers, teach the people around her. Change is an opportunity to further the agenda, change is a chance to reshuffle the deck.
The person who is playing defense, though, wants to be sure not to disappoint the boss. Not to drop a ball, break what's working or be on the spot for something that didn't happen.
Either posture, surprisingly, can lead to significant purchases and change.
Defensive purchases are things like a better insurance policy, or a more reliable auditor. Offensive purchases include sophisticated new data mining tools and a course in public speaking.
The defensive purchaser switches to a supplier that offers the same thing for less money. The offensive posture demands a better thing, even if it costs more.
Not only are people divided in their posture related to change, they're also in different camps when it comes to going first. For some, buying something first is a thrill and an opportunity, for others, it's merely a threat.
While we often associate defense with late adoption, that's not always true. The military, for example, frequently pushes to buy things before 'the bad guys' do. For example, the internet was pioneered and supported by the defense establishment.
And while you can imagine that some people seeking to make change happen are eager geeks of whatever is new, it's very common for a proven success (a titan) to wait until an idea is proven, then overinvest in putting it to use in order to continue to steamroll the competition. Trader Joe's did this with laser scanners… They like change, as long as that change is proven to help them win even more than they already are.
Play with the graph a little bit and consider who you are contacting and what story you're telling…
Why do most restaurants use an unhealthy amount of salt in the food they serve? I'm talking three to five times as much salt as the typical home chef might use.
For the same reason that lazy marketers spam people and unsophisticated comic book writers use exclamation points.
1. Because it works (for a while).
Salt is a cheap and reliable way to persuade people that the food is tasty. Over time, it merely makes us ill, but in the moment, it amplifies the flavors. It's way cheaper than using herbs or technique.
And that's why marketers under pressure push the limits in terms of spamming people or offering urgent discounts. And why Batman is so easily caricatured with the word: POW!
Cheap thrills. Shortcuts. Lazy.
2. Because they've been desensitized.
Cook with enough salt long enough, and nothing tastes salty after a while. And so the lazy shortcut becomes more than a habit, because it's not even noticed.
And so the marketer figures that everyone is used to being treated this way, so he ups the ante. And the other marketers around him are used to it too, so no one says anything.
The solution to all of these problems is to zero out. Play for the long haul. Take the more difficult route. Surround yourself with people who insist you avoid the shortcut.
Back to the basic principles, so you can learn to cook again.
The purpose of a company is to serve its customers.
Its obligation is to not harm everyone else.
And its opportunity is to enrich the lives of its employees.
Somewhere along the way, people got the idea that maximizing investor return was the point. It shouldn't be. That's not what democracies ought to seek in chartering corporations to participate in our society.
The great corporations of a generation ago, the ones that built key elements of our culture, were run by individuals who had more on their mind than driving the value of their options up.
The problem with short-term stock price maximization is that it's not particularly difficult. If you have market power, if the cost of switching is high or consumer knowledge is low, there are all sorts of ways that a well-motivated management team can hurt its customers, its community and its employees on the way to boosting what the investors say they want.
It's not difficult for Dell to squeeze a little more junkware into a laptop, or Fedex to lower its customer service standards, or Verizon to deliver less bandwidth than they promised. But just because it works doesn't mean that they're doing their jobs, or keeping their promise, or doing work that they can be proud of.
Profits and stock price aren't the point (with customers as a side project). It's the other way around.
Fear will push you to avert your eyes.
Fear will make you think you have nothing to say.
It will create a buzz that makes it impossible to meditate…
or it will create a fog that makes it so you can do nothing but meditate.
Fear seduces us into losing our temper.
and fear belittles us into accepting unfairness.
Fear doesn't like strangers, people who don't look or act like us, and most of all, the unknown.
It causes us to carelessly make typos, or obsessively look for them.
Fear pushes us to fit in, so we won't be noticed, but it also pushes us to rebel and to not be trustworthy, so we won't be on the hook to produce.
It is subtle enough to trick us into thinking it isn't pulling the strings, that it doesn't exist, that it's not the cause of, "I don't feel like it."
When in doubt, look for the fear.
Here's Randall Munroe's brilliant explanation of how the Saturn V rocket works. The brilliant part is that he illustrated it using only the 1,000 most common words (which, ironically, doesn't include the word 'thousand').
If you are only able to use 1,000 words, nuance goes out the window.
The typical native speaker knows 20,000 words, and there's your opportunity:
If you know 40,000 words, if you learn five words a day for a decade, the world changes. Your ability to see, to explain and to influence flies off the charts.
It's not about knowing needlessly fancy words (but it's often hard to know if the fancy word is needless until after you learn it). Your vocabulary reflects the way you think (and vice versa). It's tempting to read and write at the eighth-grade level, but there's a lot more leverage when you are able to use the right word in the right moment.
A fork in the road for most careers is what we choose to do when we confront a vocabulary (from finance, technology, psychology, literature…) that we don't understand. We can either demand that people dumb down their discourse (and fall behind) or we can learn the words.
It's hard to be a doctor or an engineer or key grip if you don't know what the words mean, because learning the words is the same thing as learning the concepts.
PS Here's a bonus to get you started, a book I wrote 23 years ago with the effervescent Margery Mandell: Download Million-Dollar Words. It's the not quite final galley, the only one I could find on my hard drive. (Free to share and print, but not to sell or alter).
The ignored secret behind successful organizations (and nations) is infrastructure. Not the content of what's happening, but the things that allow that content to turn into something productive.
Here are some elements worth considering:
Transportation: Ideas and stuff have to move around. The more quickly, efficiently and safely, the better. This is not just roads, but wifi, community centers and even trade shows. Getting things, people and ideas from one place to another, safely and on time is essential to what we seek to build.
Expectation: When people wake up in the morning expecting good things to happen, believing that things are possible, open to new ideas–those beliefs become self-fulfilling. We expect that it's possible to travel somewhere safely, and we expect that speaking up about a new idea won't lead us to get fired. People in trauma can't learn or leap or produce very much.
Education: When we are surrounded by people who are skilled, smart and confident, far more gets done. When we learn something new, our productivity goes up.
Civility: Not just table manners, but an environment without bullying, without bribery, without coercion. Clean air, not just to breathe, but to speak in.
Infrastructure and culture overlap in a thousand ways.
At the organizational level, then, it's possible to invest in a workplace where things work, where the tools are at hand, where meetings don't paralyze progress, where decisions get made when they need to get made (and where they don't get undone).
It's possible to build a workplace where people expect good things, from their leaders and their peers and the market. Where we expect to be heard when we have something to say, and expect that with hard work, we can make a difference.
It's possible to invest in hiring people who are educated (not merely good grades, but good intent) and to keep those people trained and up to speed.
And it's essential for that workplace to be one where the rule of law prevails, where people are treated with dignity and respect and where short term urgency is never used as a chance to declare martial law and abandon the principles that built the organization in the first place.
Yes, I believe the same is true for nation states. It's not sexy to talk about building or maintaining an infrastructure, but just try to change the world without one.
Here's something that's unavoidably true: Investing in infrastructure always pays off. Always. Not just most of the time, but every single time. Sometimes the payoff takes longer than we'd like, sometimes there may be more efficient ways to get the same result, but every time we spend time and money on the four things, we're surprised at how much of a difference it makes.
It's also worth noting that for organizations and countries, infrastructure investments are most effective when they are centralized and consistent. Bootstrapping is a great concept, but it works best when we're in an environment that encourages it.
The biggest difference between 2015 and 1915 aren't the ideas we have or the humans around us. It's the technology, the civilization and the expectations in our infrastructure. Where you're born has more to do with your future than just about anything else, and that's because of infrastructure.
When we invest (and it's expensive) in all four of these elements, things get better. It's easy to take them for granted, which is why visiting an organization or nation that doesn't have them is such a powerful wake up call.
"All men are created equal." But after that, culture starts to change things.
Almost nothing is evenly distributed.
Some people seek out new technology in an area they are focused on… others fear new technology.
Some people can dunk a basketball, others will never be athletic enough to do so.
Some people are willing to put in the effort to be great at something, most people, by definition, are mediocre.
We're puzzled when we see uneven acceptance or uneven performance, because it's easy to imagine that any group of people is homogeneous. But they're not.
And the distribution of behaviors and traits is usually predictable. Most people are in the middle, but there are plenty of outliers.
Here's one for technology.
And for stories.
And for medicine.
Treat different people differently. Not because they're born this way, but because they choose (or were pushed) to be this way.
1. What is it for?
If this piece of writing works, what will change? What action will be taken?
The more specific you are in your intent, the more frightening it is to do the writing (because you might fail). And, magically, the more specific you are in your intent, the more likely it is to succeed.
2. Who are you?
Writing comes from someone. Are you writing as scientist, reporting the facts? Are you an angry op-ed writer, seeking political action? Or are you perhaps the voice of an institution, putting up an official warning sign in an official place?
3. Who is it for?
It's almost impossible for a piece of writing to change someone. It's definitely impossible for it to change everyone. So… who is this designed to reach? What do they believe? Do they trust you? Are they inclined to take action?
4. Will it spread?
After the person you seek to reach reads this, will she share it? Shared action is amplified action.
Your resume is written. So is your Facebook update, your garage sale ad and the memo to your employees.
Writing can make a difference. Write to make a difference.