"Do what I say" vs.
"Use your best judgment."
"I'm in charge because I have authority" vs.
"Take responsibility if you care."
"It's simple and easy but ineffective" vs.
"It's difficult and a bit complex, but you can handle it and it's more likely to work."
"It's the same as last time" vs.
"This might not work."
"Because I said so" vs.
"Show your work."
"Here's the kid's menu" vs.
"Learn to cook."
"You haven't been picked" vs.
"It's always your turn."
"You have no choice" vs.
"It's always up to you, if you care enough."
It's difficult to find the leverage to make a difference. At your job, there are probably people with more experience than you, more domain knowledge than you, even more skills than you. The same is true about your competition.
But there's one place where you can make your mark: Your attitude.
You can bring more generosity of spirit, more enthusiasm, more kindness, more resilience, more positive energy, more bravery and more magic to the room than anyone else, at least right now. Because you choose to.
That can be what you stand for.
These aren't soft skills. They're real.
Knowing where 'enough' is.
More might be better for awhile, but sooner or later, it can't always be better. Diminishing returns are the law, not an exception.
If we look to advertisers, marketers, bosses, doctors, partners and suppliers to tell us when we've reached 'enough', we're almost certainly going to get it wrong.
It's okay to stop when you're happy.
Is more always better? Sometimes, only better is better…
[Chip asked a friend, a professional, how does he know when to stop making things better. His answer, "when my budget runs out," is a sad commentary on how some of us think about 'enough'. It might let you off the hook, but as a professional, isn't the hook where you want to be?]
Ask someone what they do, and they'll probably talk about where they work. "I work in insurance," or even, "I work for Aetna."
Of course, most of the 47,000 people who work for Aetna don't do anything that's specifically insurance-y. They do security for Building 7, or they answer the phone for someone, or they work in the graphic design department.
Most people have been trained to come to work in search of familiarity and competence. To work with familiar people, doing familiar tasks, getting familiar feedback from a familiar boss. Competence is rewarded, coloring inside the lines is something we were taught in kindergarten.
People will do a bad (a truly noxious) job for a long time because it feels familiar. Legions of people will stick with a dying industry because it feels familiar.
The reason Kodak failed, it turns out, has nothing to do with grand corporate strategy (the people at the top saw it coming), and nothing to do with technology (the scientists and engineers got the early patents in digital cameras). Kodak failed because it was a chemical company and a bureaucracy, filled with people eager to do what they did yesterday.
Change is the unfamiliar.
Change creates incompetence.
In the face of change, the critical questions that leaders must start with are, "Why did people come to work here today? What did they sign up for?"
That's why it's so difficult to change the school system. Not because teachers and administrators don't care (they do!). It's because changing the school system isn't what they signed up for.
The solution is as simple as it is difficult: If you want to build an organization that thrives in change (and on change), hire and train people to do the paradoxical: To discover that the unfamiliar is the comfortable familiar they seek. Skiers like going downhill when it's cold, scuba divers like getting wet. That's their comfortable familiar. Perhaps you and your team can view change the same way.
The most common way to deal with the future is to try to predict it. To be in the right place at the right time with the right skills or investments.
A far more successful and reliable approach is to invent the future. Not all of it, just a little part. But enough to make a difference.
People rarely read to the end. And they almost never spend as much time reading your words as you spend writing them.
Which makes it ironic that the little phrases we use (in designing a simple form, or when we answer the phone) matter so much.
Being gentle, kind or human goes a long way.
Coming across as confident, clear and correct matters as well.
Microcopy is word choice. It's a glimpse of a smile or a slip of impatience.
When you start putting™ trademark symbols in random spots, using extra exclamation points or (this is the biggest one) adopting a false commanding tone and being a jerk in your writing, then you lose us.
We know that you feel like using words like ONLY, NEVER, PERMANENT and NOTICE, but we'd rather hear from someone we like instead.
Ask this question often.
Several times a day, at least.
Endogeneity is a fancy term for confusing cause and effect. For not being clear about causation and correlation.
It's one reason why smart people make so many mistakes. We think A leads to B, so more A gets more B. While A and B may have been related in the past, though, it's not at all clear that improving A is going to do anything about B.
There is, for example, an extraordinarily high correlation between per capita cheese consumption and the risk of being strangled by your bedsheets while you sleep:
That doesn't mean that eating less cheese is going to help you not die in bed.
Raymond Loewy coined the term MAYA to describe Most Advanced Yet Acceptable when it came to futuristic design. The thinking goes that people (the amorphous term for the lumpen masses) won't accept something too advanced, so we ought to lower our standards to gain acceptance.
But mass acceptance isn't nearly as important as it used to be. Pockets of commitment and enthusiasm are more important than being tolerated or even accepted by the disinterested masses.
Our hunch is that we need to average things down if we don't want to be rejected, that we need to offer a bit less if we're hoping to make change happen. Mostly, we tell ourselves to dumb things down and pander to people who don't pay attention, are afraid of forward motion and don't care much either.
But the horizontal nature of information flow means that the opposite is now true. We can be as positive and pure and advanced as we can imagine, and some folks will follow.
If we can fall out of love with the quick mass hit, the requirement isn't to lower the bar. It's to make big promises and actually keep them.
Would you have it any other way?
Drink enough water and you will cease to be thirsty.
And yet, a doubting person can be drowning in facts, but facts won’t change a mind that doesn’t want to be changed. More facts don’t counter more doubt. Someone who is shaking his head, arms folded, eyes squinted and ears closed isn’t going to be swayed by more facts.
Instead, doubt surrenders to experience. And experience can only happen if there’s enrollment.
If someone is willing to find the right answer, willing to explore what might be effective, what might be confirmable, then enrolling in the journey to ease doubt opens the door to personal experience. Which, magically, can let the light in.
Experience, working it out, touching it, studying it, repeatedly asking why with an open mind… these experiences engage us, earn our attention and gain our trust.
Doubt comes from fear, which is why it’s so difficult to earn enrollment. People don’t want to commit to working their way out of doubt, because doubt is a perverse variation of perceived safety, a paralysis in the face of the unknown. Earn enrollment first, a commitment to find a path, then bring on the process and the facts.
The work is difficult. Overcoming obstacles, facing rejection, exploring the unknown–many of us need a narrative to fuel our forward motion, something to keep us insisting on the next cycle, on better results, on doing work that matters even more.
The fuel you choose, though, determines how you will spend your days. You will spend far more time marinating in your fuel than you will actually doing breakthrough work. Richard Feynman was famously motivated by the joy of figuring things out. His scientific journey (which earned him a Nobel Prize) also provided him with truly wonderful days.
Here is a partial list, in alphabetical order, of narratives light and dark that can serve as fuel to push us to do work that others might walk away from:
- Avoidance of shame (do this work or you’ll be seen as a fraud/loser/outcast)
- Becoming a better version of yourself
- Big dreams (because you can see it/feel it/taste it)
- Catastrophe (or the world as we know it will end)
- Competition (someone is gaining on you)
- Compliance (the boss/contract says I have to, and even better, there’s a deadline)
- Connection (because others will join in)
- Creative itch (the voice inside of you wants to be expressed)
- Dissatisfaction (because it’s not good enough as it is)
- Engineer (because there’s a problem to be solved)
- Fame (imagining life is better on the other side)
- Generosity (because it’s a chance to contribute)
- It’s a living (pay the writer)
- Peer pressure (the reunion is coming up)
- Possibility (because we can, and it’ll be neat to see how it works in the world)
- Professionalism (because it’s what we do)
- Revenge (you’ll show the naysayers)
- Selection (to get in, win the prize, be chosen)
- Unhappiness (because the only glimmer of happiness comes from the next win, after all, we’re not good enough as is)
They all work. Some of them leave you wrecked, some create an environment of possibility and connection and joy. Up to you.