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How much does it cost?

It depends.

Before we can even begin to discuss the price (how much to charge), it's important to understand what something costs to make. And the answer isn't always obvious.

If you want to know how much it costs to make the first one, to scale the operation up, to get the machinery, the systems, the staff… it might be a million dollars for a piece of toast or a billiard ball. Perhaps ten million.

Or the question might be: How much does the last one off the assembly line cost? After the entire system is up and running, after everyone's been paid by everything else that was produced today—the last unit the shift produced, what's the marginal cost of that one? In the case of our mythical billiard ball, it might be just a nickel.

But maybe we're talking about this particular unit, the one that was hand sold, that was customized, that was delivered to precisely the right spot at precisely the right time—all of that just in time customization and risk reduction cost a fortune.

And what about the externalities? What does it cost the environment, the community, the team?

Finally, perhaps we ought to consider the opportunity cost. How much better would it have been for us to spend our time and our capital and our risk to do something else, something more useful or profitable?

In the long run, all we need to do is divide our total costs by the total number of units we made. But in the long run, we're all dead. In the short run, the cost depends on what sort of decision we're trying to make.

Two kinds of practice

The first is quite common. Learn to play the notes as written. Move asymptotically toward perfection. Practice your technique and your process to get yourself ever more skilled at doing it (whatever ‘it’ is) to spec. This is the practice of grand slalom, of arithmetic, of learning your lines or c++.

The other kind of practice is more valuable but far more rare. This is the practice of failure. Of trying on one point of view after another until you find one that works. Of creating original work that doesn’t succeed until it does. Of writing, oration and higher-level math in search of an elusive outcome, even a truth, one that might not even be there.

We become original through practice.

We’ve seduced ourselves into believing that this sort of breakthrough springs fully formed, as Athena did from Zeus’ head. Alas, that’s a myth. What always happens (as you can discover by looking at the early work of anyone you admire), is that she practiced her way into it.

The unfair advantage

Here's a sign I've never seen hanging in a corporate office, a mechanic's garage or a politician's headquarters:

WE HAVE AN UNFAIR ADVANTAGE:

We care more.

It's easy to promise and difficult to do. But if you did it, it would work. More than any other skill or attitude, this is what keeps me (and people like me) coming back.

Better than who you know

The old-boy's network is powerful indeed, an unfair impediment to those that would seek to make a contribution, but it can be defeated with a combination of:

Skill (the result of practice and effort)

Technique (developing a point of view)

Extraordinary effort

Charisma (the confidence to care about connecting with others)

Passion

Generosity

Experience

Risk-taking (and not being confused by false fear appearing real)

Persistence

Consistency and keeping promises

Honest storytelling

It would be fair, efficient and honest if everyone had an easy introduction and got the benefit of the doubt. Until that happens, though, outsiders of all kinds will have to rely on all of these skills instead.

Do they celebrate on Saturn?

A hundred years ago, "everyone" wore a hat. If everyone meant men of a certain social stratum in certain cities. And people wore the hat because everyone else did.

And everyone is taking the day off and everyone is watching the big game and everyone is busy checking their status on Facebook.

Except…

Except that in other time zones or other communities, everyone isn't doing anything of the sort. And on Saturn, they've never even heard of it.

Peer pressure is a little like barometric pressure. It's constant, it's all around us and we assume that it's universal.

If it's not helping you achieve your goals, ignore it.

Getting clear about risk

There are potential horrible things in the future, perhaps your future or mine.

Unthinkable illnesses, weird accidents, lightning bolts of misfortune at random moments.

If you decide to focus on them, you can fill your days with despair.

On the other hand, pretending that it's not stupid to text while driving, to swim during a thunderstorm or to ride a bike without a helmet is dangerous indeed. Our awareness of potential bad outcomes can cause us to make really good choices to avoid those outcomes.

So, what's the difference between being concerned about an asteroid hitting the Earth and being aware of how dangerous driving a Corvair at high speed is?

Here's the simple approach: How much would it cost you (in time, money, effort, distraction) to make yourself ten times less likely to be at risk?

It turns out that wearing a helmet is a cheap way to avoid a lifetime spine injury. You get a 10x improvement for very little effort. Knowing about the risk is really helpful, and any time you're tempted to run the risk, remind yourself of its implications.

On the other hand, the only way to becoming one-tenth as likely to die from choking on food is to stop eating anything but soup. Hardly worth it. 

If there isn't a way to improve your odds, it's not clear why it's worth a lot of time or worry.

Worry is useful when it changes our behavior in productive ways. The rest of the time, it's a negative form of distraction, an entertainment designed to keep us from doing our work and living our lives.

The last Black Friday

Four years ago, I wrote about the media trap that retailers invented. With nothing much to write about the day after Thanksgiving, the media engage in a stampede to encourage everyone to go shopping on the busiest, least satisfying shopping day of the year. They spent millions to create a social dynamic that pushes people to engage in an orgy of spending, merely because everyone else is.

I think Amazon may have changed this forever.

As the malls continue to die, as retailers everywhere struggle to come up with a reason why people should spend extra time and extra money to visit them, the herd dynamic of Black Friday is fading. It's hard to whip yourself into a frenzy when you're sitting at home, in your bathrobe, staring at a screen.

In their race to out-Walmart Walmart, retailers everywhere forgot the real reason we need stores. Because shopping together makes us feel connected. Because it's fun. Because there's something about the shopping that's almost as good (or even better) than the buying part.

The buying race is over. Amazon won. The shopping race, though, the struggle to create experiences that are worth paying for, that's just beginning.

Thank you means two things

There's the "thank you" that I say when you've been reading my mind, pushing the perfect buttons, saying exactly the right thing at exactly the right time. This is heartfelt, but it's also selfish, in that it's about my narrative and no one else's.

And then there's the "thank you" of caring. Of effort. Of consideration. This is the thank you that recognizes the other, her effort, her kindness and her sacrifice. The thank you of showing up. This thank you has nothing at all to do with whether it's just what you wanted, and everything to do with the power of connection and care.

Have a wonderful holiday. And thank you, both ways.

Best practices

If you need an appendectomy, it's unlikely you'll die during the operation.

That's because the surgeon has been trained in hundreds of years of best practices. From Semmelweis to the latest in antibiotics, she knows what's come before.

Not only that, but the scalpel she uses is the result of 1,000 iterations over the centuries. Every device has been sanitized based on trial and error from the millions of patients who came before you.

Surgery is an engineering project, and it's based on best practices. Learn from the past, don't ignore it.

Art, on the other hand, is something we value because it leaps. Art is more than engineering–art is the thing that might not work.

But even art is based on best practices. Just not as much.

The playwright better have read Bellow and Beckett. The conceptual artist should be familiar with Duchamp. The photographer and designer needs to know Debbie Millman, Robert Mapplethorpe and Jill Greenberg…

Ignore it if you want to, but learn it first.

Yelling upstairs

When you’re cooking breakfast and the school bus is coming in just a few minutes, it’s tempting (and apparently efficient) to yell up the stairs. If a recalcitrant teenager is hesitating before heading off to school (I know, sometimes it happens), go ahead and yell.

Good luck with that.

The alternative is to turn off the stove and walk up the stairs. Catch your breath, then have a quiet conversation.

Not efficient, but effective.

This is an almost universal metaphor. We keep finding ways to rationalize various versions of yelling upstairs instead of doing the difficult work of engaging instead.

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