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Instant yes

The other day, a friend asked me for a favor. I gave him an instant yes.

The instant yes is precious. It's earned, it doesn't last forever, it's easily abused.

Not the yes of, "I'll look it over and if it makes sense or fits in my calendar or is profitable then of course, I'll do it," but the yes of, "yes."

Do you want to try our daily special, it's really good? Do you want to see my new project proposal? Will you come to this event I'm holding? Will you contribute to this discussion? Can I borrow $500?

How many people will give you an instant yes if you ask them? How many times has your organization (or you) earned the privilege of the benefit of the doubt? 

Obvious or elegant?

A friend used to eat a food, out of a white generic can, that had one word on the label: MEAT.

On the other hand, Vogue magazine isn't called, "That magazine with expensive dresses and skinny sad models". 

It's really tempting to believe that the answer to your marketing problem (what to name it, how to describe it, what to write about it…) is to be obvious, brutal, direct, hyper-clear.

And that can certainly work. It works for fire alarms. It works for actionable, compelling direct marketing copy.

But for the rest of us, the rest of the time, it's elegance that lasts. That's because elegance trusts the user to make the connections, gives the user the power to build a use case, earns a secondary meaning.

Hoover, Starbucks, Slack, Shinola, Highway 61 Revisited, the speeches of Rev. King, the By the Way Bakery...

Committees are bad at this. A group of untrained folks searching for a word or phrase tends to push toward obvious.

If no one says, "huh, I don't get it," you've built the obvious, not the elegant. Elegant takes a moment to get.

Obvious is a trap, the last resort of an artist who can't think clearly about what to do next.

Deconstructing urgent vs. important

A six-year-old who throws a tantrum and refuses to go to school is escalating into the urgent.

Going to school every day is important.

Mollifying an angry customer is urgent, building systems and promises that keep customers from getting angry is important.

Killing the bugs in the kitchen is urgent, putting in weatherstripping to keep them out for the long haul is important (as is avoiding carcinogens).

Fifteen years ago, Elian Gonzales was at the center of a perfect media storm. It was an urgent issue, one that involved heads of state. But it wasn't nearly as important as eventually normalizing relations and the well-being of millions of people.

In fact, breaking news of any kind is rarely important. 

Important means: long-term, foundational, coherent, in the interest of many, strategic, efficient, positive…

If you take care of important things, the urgent things don't show up as often. The opposite is never true.

Let's start with this: The purpose of CNN's BREAKING NEWS posture (caps intentional) isn't to create a better-informed citizenry. It's to make money.

The reason that tech sites, stock sites, scandal rags and others attract attention is because it's fun. It's emotionally engaging to be involved in a story when we don't know how it's going to turn out. When the story is unfolding, when it's breaking, we become emotionally connected to it.

And so the BBC devotes plenty of air time talking to someone at the location of a plane crash, even though he doesn't have a clue about what just happened. Because he might. Because we are there.

Unless you're a day trader, though, this drama of seeing the news unfold right now (italics intentional) is not going to help you make better decisions–in fact, it's going to make your decisions worse. It's also unlikely to make you happier. Or smarter. We're more likely to be afraid of terrorism than long-term atmosphere change, even though it's clear that the latter kills and injures far more people than the former.

The news we consume changes us. Not just the news manufactured by CNN, but the news manufactured by our boss, our investors, our customers.

Our choice, then, is to decide whether we want to engage in the hobby of living through other people's breaking news instead of focusing on what's actually important.

Volunteer engagement

It's possible that there's a woman who walks around your neighborhood every day, generously straightening up, picking up trash and improving things. Possible but unlikely.

Countless hours of volunteer engagement go untapped, because it's genuinely unlikely that people will contribute what they can, unencouraged.

The key elements are:

  • An agenda
  • Peer support
  • A hierarchy of achievement

The agenda is important, because it frees the volunteer up to do what's next, instead of figuring out what's next. The agenda makes it emotionally and socially safe to contribute. And the agenda lays out the road map of how we (however 'we' is defined) get from here to there.

Peer support is critical. "People like us do things like this." It's difficult enough to find the time and energy to contribute, but harder still to do it when one feels like an outsider.

And a hierarchy of achievement kicks in to amplify and encourage the work of the 10% of people who do 90% of the work. By recognizing those people as well as giving them more authority, the hierarchy creates a self-fueling cycle of impact.

Consider the Crisis Text Line. Or the millions of hours donated to editing Wikipedia. Or the application for TFA. Or umbrella organizations like New York Cares.

Volunteering is a spark that makes society work, but it takes organizations to build the support structures that keep it going.

Better structures lead to better work. People who care can magnify their impact by building structures that bring in more people who care.

Fear is easy, hope is real

Fear shows up unbidden, it almost never goes away if you will it to, and it's rarely a useful tool for your best work.

Hope, on the other hand, can be conjured. It arrives when we ask it to, it's something we can give away to others again and again, and we can use it as fuel to build something bigger than ourselves.

The first fifteen minutes

Learning something new is frustrating. It involves being dumb on the way to being smart.

Once we get good enough (at our tools, at our work) it's easier and easier to skip learning how to do the next thing, because, hey, those fifteen minutes are a hassle.

Learning to use the new fax machine, or a different interface on the voice mail or even, yikes, a new version of Photoshop. (I confess that I dropped off the Photoshop train a half dozen versions ago, much to my chagrin.)

And so we get in the habit of giving a half effort, not really reading the instructions, shrugging our shoulders and moving on. The professional in us that was always eager to find tools that added leverage becomes the complacent coaster, defending what's on the table as 'good enough'. 

The problem with evaluating the first fifteen minutes of frustration is that we easily forget about the 5,000 minutes of leverage that frustration earns us if we stick it out.

Yes, Isaac Asimov typed all 400 of his books on a manual typewriter. But I'm glad Cory Doctorow has a laptop.

1, 2, 3, 9

Most brands, most careers… they're not linear. Doing what you did, again and again, grinding it forward, that's a good way to finish a marathon, but it's not the way that most organizations grow.

Sooner or later, we need to leap.

We quit a job before our new business is humming along.

We go from hiring people when we have paid freelance jobs in hand to hiring people in order to build assets we can sell or leverage.

We go from a building that's too small to one that's too big (for now).

We go from having no ad budget to a significant one (because we know an insignificant one is a waste, worse than none at all).

We go from selling the next customer to investing in the lifetime value of the customers we already have…

It’s all a mistake

…until it works.

That's what innovation is. Mistakes, experiments, mis-steps.

Until it works.

The process isn't to avoid the things that don't work. Because that means avoiding the things that might not work…

Instead, our job is to eagerly embrace the mistakes on the road to the impact that we seek.

Resilience

Given how important it is, it's surprising we don't hire for it.

How easily do you bounce back from a disappointment? What is your reaction to change? As an investor, or a board member or an employee, are you seeking stability or impact?

Resilience is a skill, one that's probably more valuable than most.

The top things

Learning from history is cheap. And worth it.

What are the five best decisions your competitor or your predecessor made last year? 

Not only because they worked, but because they showed you a new way of thinking, something that went against your instincts or biases…

Every political candidate ought to be able to outline the five lessons learned from the men and women who came before–especially the positive things they've learned from those in other parties. Those unwilling or unable to do so are either demagogues or ignorant.

Every job candidate ought to be able to outline the five lessons learned from the leaders they've worked with previously. Those unwilling or unable to do so are not paying attention.

The number one thing to steal from your competitors: Wisdom.

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