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“Are you trying to sell me something?”

For a culture that spends so much time and money buying things, you'd think we'd be more excited when someone tries to sell us something.

But we're not.

The semantics are important here. What we really mean is, "are you trying to selfishly persuade me to buy something that will benefit you more than it benefits me?"

We're goal-directed, risk-averse and self-focused. We don't care about the salesperson's commission, of course. We care about our own resources.

The magic happens when the goals are aligned, when the service component of sales kicks in, when long-term satisfaction exceeds short-term urgency.

When someone acts in a way that says, "can I help you buy something?" or, "can I help you achieve your goals?" then we're on our way. And of course, it's the doing, not the saying that matters the most.

Make better tacos

In a competitive business like the local taco shop, here's how it's supposed to work:

Keep the place clean

Hire friendly staff

Make better tacos

Offer a fun, connected, even memorable experience

What often happens instead is that you coin some clever trademarks, worry about coupons, cut corners on ingredients and expand as fast as you can. What happens is that you build a moat around your business, get defensive about the status quo and race to the bottom. You're generic now, and you fight the battles that being generic forces you to fight.

And it's not just a business that makes tacos. It's monopolistic internet access, freelance graphic design and everything in between.

When in doubt, make better tacos.

Local scarcity

If you ran the local 5 and 10 cent store, you could count on a steady stream of customers to buy your knick knacks, notions and bobbins. After all, you were the only game in town.

And if you were the local Chinese restaurant, your delivery zone was just the right size that the only option some had for moo shu was you.

Local scarcity was sufficient for coaches, travel agents, real estate brokers, lawn care specialists and car washes.

But in the age of Amazon and online services, only the car wash and the Chinese restaurant are insulated now.

Local scarcity is insufficient. What else can you provide that makes me unlikely to click for an alternative?

Open or closed?

Culture moves in two ways. Open and closed.

If you're a teacher, in business, a politician, a parent, a leader, an oligarch, a media mogul, an oil baron, a salesperson or a marketer, you need to make a choice, a choice that will alter how you work with others and the investments you make in our culture and your craft: Do you benefit from a population that's smarter, faster and more connected than it used to be?

Do you prefer transparency?

Either you're riding the tide or pushing against it.

Are you hoping that those you serve become more informed or less informed?

Are you working to give people more autonomy or less?

Do you want them to work to seek the truth, or to be clouded in disbelief and confusion?

Is it better if they're connected to one another or disconnected?

More confidence or more fear?

Outspoken in the face of injustice or silent?

More independent or less?

Difficult to control or easier?

More science or more obedience?

It's pretty clear that there are forces on both sides, individuals and organizations that are working for open and those that seek to keep things closed instead.

Take a side.

Slow and steady

The hard part is "steady."

Anyone can go slow. It takes a special kind of commitment to do it steadily, drip after drip, until you get to where you're going.

Experiences and your fear of engagement

Want to go visit a nudist colony?

I don't know, what's it like?

You know, a lot of people not wearing clothes.

Show me some pictures, then I'll know.

Well, actually, you won't.

You won't know what it's like merely by looking at a picture of a bunch of naked people.

The only way you'll know what it's like is if you get seen by a bunch of naked people. The only way to have the experience is to have the experience.

Not by looking at the experience.

By having it.

But having an experience for the first time is frightening. So we try to avoid the fear by simulating it, putting the experience into a box that makes it like something else we've done, something that's safe. 

Of course, if you put a new experience in the box of an old experience, it's not a new experience, is it? Problem solved.

But you've also just cut yourself off from what that new experience could deliver. A new box. The entire point.

Better instincts

"Go with your gut," is occasionally good advice.

More often, though, it's an invitation to indulge in your fear or to avoid the hard work of understanding the nuance around us.

Better advice is, "invest in making your gut smarter."

The world is a lot more complex than our gut is likely to comprehend, at least without training. Train your gut, get better instincts.

How do this?

  1. Practice going with your instincts in private. Every day, make a judgment call. Make ten. Make predictions about what's going to happen next, who's got a hit, what designs are going to resonate, which videos will go viral, which hires are going to work out. Write them down or they don't count. It makes no sense to refuse to practice your instinct and to only use it when the stakes are high.
  2. Expose yourself to more deal flow. If you want to have better instincts about retail, go work in a retail shop. Then another one. Then a third one. If you want to have better instincts about hiring, sit in with the HR folks or volunteer to help a non-profit you care about do screening of incoming resumes.
  3. Figure out how to talk about your instincts so that they're no longer instincts. A thinking process shared is inevitably going to get more rigorous. Ask your colleagues to return the favor, by challenging each other to expose their thinking as well.

Different people hear differently

What you say is not nearly as important as what we hear.

Which means that the words matter, and so does the way we say them. And how we say them. And what we do after we say them.

It takes two to be understood. Not just speaking clearly, but speaking in a way that you can be understood.

Empathy is not sufficient. Compassion is more useful, because it’s possible to talk to someone who is experiencing something that you’ve never experienced.

Actual shortcuts often appear to be detours

The crowd doesn't understand this. They're always looking for a shortcut that looks like a shortcut.

If you're merely following them, you probably won't get anywhere interesting. It's the detours that pay off.

[PS speaking of shortcuts that look like detours, congratulations to Tom Peters, godfather of the business book industry, our George Washington, Simón Bolívar and Ada Lovelace rolled into one, for winning the coveted Jack Covert award. When Tom launched In Search of Excellence, his plan wasn't to invent an industry. It just turned out that way.]

The drip

Change, real change, is the result of focused persistence.

It's easy to get a bunch of people sort of excited for a little while.

The challenging part, and the reason that change doesn't happen as often as it should is that we get distracted. Today's urgent is more urgent than yesterday's important.

The concept of breaking news and the crisis of the day proves my point. If the world ended every time Wolf Blitzer implied it would, we would have been toast a long time ago. The organizations that actually change things are the ones that have a time horizon that's longer than 36 hours.

There are very few overnight successes. Very few entrepreneurs, freelancers, non-profits, candidates, spiritual leaders, activists or people in a successful relationship that got there with thunder and lighting. It happens with a drip.

PS this post is intentionally disfigured in honor of Break the Internet. I'm annoyed that we have to continually fight this fight, but it just proves my point. Drip by drip.

Keep showing up. If it matters, keep showing up.

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