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Missed it by that much

I got to the gate just as they closed the door and the plane began to back away.

It was thirty years ago, but I still remember how it felt. I think we’re hard-wired to fear these painful moments of missing out.

Deadlines don’t cause death if missed, but sometimes we persuade ourselves that it’s almost as bad. As a result, marketers and others that want us to take action invent cliffs, slamming doors and loud buzzers.

We put a rope at door, a timer on the clock and focus on scarcity and the fear of missing out. And as a result, consumers and students and co-workers wait for the signals, prioritizing their lives around the next urgency.

When everything is focused on the deadline, there’s little time to work on the things that are actually important.

When we build our lives around ‘what’s due’ we sacrifice our agency to the priorities and urgencies of everyone else.

More important is the bigger issue: Time is running out.

For all the things you might want to experience, not merely the ones that are about to leave the gate.

Time is running out for you to level up or connect or to be generous to someone who really needs you.

Time is running out for you to become the person you've decided to be, to make the difference you seek to make, to produce the work you know you're capable of.

Set your own buzzer.

Make believe problems

We focus on them and elevate them on our priority list.

Sometimes, we invent a fake problem and give it great import and urgency as a way to take our focus and fear away from the thing that's actually a threat. These fake problems have no apparent solution, but at least they give us something to fret over, a way to distract ourselves and the people around us.

And sometimes, we pick a fake problem that has a convenient and easy fake solution. Because, the thinking goes, we're taking action, so things must be getting better.

Short order cooks rarely make change happen. And denying reality doesn't make it go away.

Friction and traction

It's fashionable for designers and marketers to want to reduce friction in the way they engage with users.

And sometimes, that's smart. If someone knows what they want, get out of their way and help them get it. One-click, done.

But often, what we want is traction. The traction to find our footing, shift our posture, make a new decision. The traction to actually influence what happens next, not merely slip our way toward a goal of someone else's choosing.

Just the right amount of data

The digital sign at the train station near my home could show me what time it is.

It could tell us how many more minutes until the next train.

Or it could announce if the train was running on time…

Instead, it shows me today's date.

What am I supposed to do with that data?

Or consider the typical hotel bathroom scale. Accurate to plus or minus five pounds, it's worthless, because it doesn't help the user know how much weight has been gained (or lost).

In this case, the absolute number doesn't matter, it's the trend over time.

Information is data with a purpose and a context.

Shared reality, diverse opinions

We're not having a lot of trouble with the "diverse opinions" part.

But they're worthless without shared reality.

At a chess tournament, when the newcomer tries to move his rook diagonally, it's not permitted. "Hey, that's just your opinion," is not a useful response. Because, after all, chess is defined by the rules of the game. If you want to play a different game, begin by getting people to agree to the new rules.

In physics, it doesn't matter how much you want a ping pong ball to accelerate faster, your opinion isn't going to change what happens.

It's tempting to race right into our plans to solve a problem, but too often, we wrap our version of reality tightly into that proposed solution, without thoughtfully getting buy in on the reality before launching into the solution we're so eager to describe.

Shared reality is the foundation on which we can build trust, make promises and engage in a useful discussion on how to achieve our goals.

Appropriate complexity and risk

The best time to experiment in the kitchen is if you don't have 11 guests coming for dinner in three hours.

Or, at the very least, be sure to have some decent frozen pizzas on hand, just in case.

We often sign ourselves up for long, involved entanglements, and a good thing, too, because they can enable us to produce real value.

But our promises matter, and there's no need to raise the stakes at the same time that we're figuring things out. 

Professionals leave themselves an out.

A listening device

Jacqueline Novogratz points out that the market can be an efficient listening device. If you go to a person and offer charity or even a gift, there's not a lot of choice. But if you offer to sell someone something, you'll hear very clearly what's wrong with it, whether it's worth it, and how it can be improved. The transaction engages both sides in a discussion, and sometimes, the market causes the supplier to listen. Co-creation over time transforms problems into opportunities.

In fact, this is the single best explanation for why markets work. Voluntary engagement and the exchange of resources can solve many problems, particularly if coercion is avoided.

As soon as an organization achieves significant market power, though, it's tempting for it to not listen any longer. Coercion and market power feel more efficient than engaging and leading. Apple stopped listening to its biggest fans and focuses on the stock price instead. Companies with near monopolies (like telecommunications, Google, Fedex, etc.) begin to lose the listening skills they'd developed and instead respond by expressing their power. Extraction companies focus on lobbying instead of innovating.

This willful ignorance and lack of engagement can last a long time, but it never lasts forever. Someone who listens better eventually shows up and changes the game.

If you hold the small end of a megaphone up to your ear, it acts as an amplifier, helping you listen more carefully.

And if you want to be heard, you can move it to your mouth and share your ideas. Persistently, consistently and often.

The best way to complain is to make something.  The second best way is to say something.  And if you can organize others to say it with you, even better.

Hoarding doesn’t work

There's a contradiction built into our instinct to hoard: the more we do it, the less we get.

An idea shared is worth more than one kept hidden. Opportunities passed from one to another create connections which lead to more opportunities. Opened doors lead to forward motion.

Winning doesn't usually involve demolishing the opposition. Instead, for most of us, it's about weaving. A scientist without peers won't find a breakthrough anytime soon. A bookstore with one book won't work. A market with only one vendor will fail. And if you're the only cello player in town, your craft will disappear. Trust and connection and utilization support forward motion.

The primary driver of our well-being is our culture. A culture built on selfishness is harsh, brittle and short-lived.

We're not paying things forward. We're launching them forward, and it will boomerang back to us, eventually, somehow, in some form, if we do it often enough and with enough generosity.

Almost no one

We may dream of the mass market, but the mass market doesn't dream of us.

Almost no one visits your restaurant, almost no one buys your bestselling book, almost no one watches the Tonight Show.

Rare indeed is a market where everyone is active.

We think we're designing and selling to everyone, but that doesn't match reality. It makes no sense at all to dumb down your best work to appeal to the longtime bystander, because the bystander isn't interested. And it certainly makes no sense to try to convert your biggest critics, because they've got a lot at stake in their role of being your critic.

Growth comes from person-to-person communication, from the powerful standards of 'people like us'. And it comes from activating people who are ready to be activated.

The most recent Presidential election makes this clear: It's the non-voting bystanders who are in the majority:

Who didnt vote

Long-term strategy: Don’t be a jerk

In the moment, when you have power, no matter how momentarily, how will you choose to act?

Jerk comes from the idea of pulling hard on the reins, suddenly and without care. Horses don't like it and neither, it turns out, do people.

More than just about anything else, what you do when you have the chance is what people say about you and remember about you. The community pays careful attention to the restraint (or lack of it) that you show when the opportunity arises.

Whether you're a parent or a multinational, in the long run, the wheel is going to turn. It might be a minute, a day or a week, but your power is unlikely to last.

When we assume that everyone is a volunteer and that all power is transient, it's easier to become the person we're proud to be.

This is the essence of marketing–acting in the way you'd like to be seen and understood. Especially when you have the power to make choices.

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