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The problem with sarcasm

“Well, that was super helpful.”

Was it? Or are you trying to be sarcastic?

Because if it was helpful, you could simply write, “thank you, that was helpful.”

On the other hand, if you’re trying to express disappointment or displeasure, you could write, “I’m disappointed that you weren’t able to contribute more here. We were really looking forward to your input.”

The problem with sarcasm is that the level of displeasure is hidden. You might come across as snarky when you don’t mean to, or, the snarkiness you were sending might not land.

My new rule of thumb is to always assume goodwill and ignore any perceived sarcasm. Call it a Type II sarcasm-detection error.

It’s hard to imagine a situation where sarcasm is the most effective way to make your point.

The perfect mustard

If you ask for mustard at a French bistro, you’ll get a strong Dijon, handmade in a little village three hundred kilometres away.

If you ask for mustard at a game at Fenway, apparently you’ll get Gulden’s.

Within a rounding error, all mustard costs the same. It’s not about the price. It’s about coherence with the story. When a Marriott brings you the little sealed bottle of fake dijon from Heinz, they’re not offering you mustard, they’re sending a signal about what they think is fancy.

And at the ball game, the yellow mustard in a giant pump tells a story as well.

Is one better than the other? It’s a matter of taste and context. Of course, I have a favorite mustard and a narrative about what’s appropriate in a given setting, and so does just about everyone else I know. But favorite is different than ‘right’. There’s no absolute scale. How can a mustard be yuppie? Pretentious? Down to earth? It’s simply a condiment.

And yes, there’s a mustard analogy in everything you do. In how you shake hands, in the typeface you use in your presentation (and whether you call it a ‘font’), in the volume you choose for your voice when in conversation.

Being in sync is a choice.

Pivoting the education matrix

For the longest time, school has been organized around subjects. Fifth graders go to math class and then English class and then geography.

Mostly, those classes don’t teach what they say they teach. Sure, there are some facts, but mostly it’s the methods of instruction that are on offer. School usually has a different flavor than learning.

It turns out, the skills we need to use in life (and in school) aren’t subject specific. But we use those subjects to teach the skills we actually end up using. Everyone knows that the typical person doesn’t need binomials, but the argument is that problem-solving, etc, are totally worth learning and so we pretend to teach the subject when apparently, we’re teaching the skill.

Perhaps, instead of organizing school around data acquisition and regurgitation, we could identify what the skills are and separate them out, teaching domain knowledge in conjunction with the skill, not the other way around.

It turns out that the typical school spends most of its time on just one of those skills (obedience through comportment and regurgitation).

What would happen if we taught each skill separately?


Indeed, you are required to do all seven of these things in math class, but in what proportion? Is a kid who has trouble with obedience “bad at math,” or is it that the obedience part of a class got in the way of the analysis or problem-solving part of the class instead?

It’s entirely possible for a kid to make it through 16 years of organized schooling with a solid B average and never do much more than do well on just one thing–remembering what’s on the test. We’ve failed when we’ve turned out someone with just one of the 7 skills.

What happens if we are clear what we’re doing and why? Because obedience isn’t the point of math or science, but sometimes it’s taught that way.

And then, when obedience session is over, we can find other ways to approach the work at hand, developing the other essential skills. A 45 minute Creativity class that uses algebra is going to feel very different from a Leadership class covering the same material.

Some kids spend a decade in the school sports system and learn leadership and management and creativity and analysis. And some learn nothing but how to follow the coach’s instructions and sit on the bench. This has nothing to do with sports (or geography or biology) and everything to do with what we decide we’re teaching in any given moment.

Is there a cognitive difference between solving a chemistry problem and solving a crossword puzzle? Not really. Getting good at solving–putting on your solving hat and finding the guts to use it–is a skill that gets buried under the avalanche that we call obedience.

“How’d you do in Creativity today, son?” or perhaps, “Wow, you got an A in Analysis–that’s going to open a lot of doors for you…”

Bureaucracies over-index for obedience. They do that out of self-preservation, and because it’s the easiest thing to sell to clients, funders and parents (and to measure). But since we’re currently overdoing that one (they do it far more in other countries, though), we end up getting confused about what it means to learn a subject area in a useful way and we definitely under-develop people on the other six skills.

My guess is that most parents and educators are afraid to even discuss the topic. More here.

People don’t change

(Unless they want to)

Humans are unique in their ability to willingly change. We can change our attitude, our appearance and our skillset.

But only when we want to.

The hard part, then, isn’t the changing it.

It’s the wanting it.

Sneaky surveys (and push polls)

First thing: All open access online surveys are essentially inaccurate, because the group that takes the time to answer the survey is usually different from the general public.

Second thing: Don’t confuse a survey with a census. A survey asks a randomized but representative group some questions and then seeks to extend the answers to the entire group as a whole. A census seeks to ask everyone in the group, so that no generalization is required.

In general, you don’t need a census. What you need is a correctly representational group, which can be dramatically smaller than the entire population. The huge mistake is believing that you need to survey more and more people. You don’t. And your work to reach more people actually makes your survey less accurate not more (see the first thing). And yes, this is true even if you’re a solo creator wondering if your novel is any good.

In the age of good stats, the best use of a census is to establish a 1:1 relationship between what someone feels and who that person is. Asking every single person at a restaurant what they want for dinner is a census, a useful one, because you can then serve each person exactly what they want for dinner.

Third: You might believe the survey someone just emailed you to fill out is anonymous. It probably isn’t. Check out this explanation from Survey Monkey. It turns out that tracking by IP and even email address/name is a built-in feature. If you get a survey link by email or even as you browse a site, it’s a safe guess to imagine that your answers are tied in some way to your other interactions with the organization that posted the survey. Respondent beware.

And fourth: Asking someone a question can change the way they feel. Done crudely, this is called a push poll (“Did you know that Bob was indicted last year?”) but even asking someone a thoughtful question about their satisfaction can increase it.

Okay, two more things:

At the conclusion of the endless surveys when they ask you if you have anything else to add, don’t bother. It’s not like the CEO is busy reading your comments.

The single best way to figure out how people feel isn’t to ask them with some focus-group survey. It’s to watch what they do when given the choice. “This or that?” is a great way to get to the truth of our preferences.

Too big to care

The marketing math is compelling. It’s obvious that the most highly-leveraged moment in every brand’s relationship with a customer is the moment when something goes wrong.

In that moment, when a promise was broken, the customer sees the true nature of the brand. We make up stories about the brands in our lives, but we believe that when the promise is broken we’re about to see the truth of that story.

As brands get bigger (and bigger might be as small as an organization with just two people in it), policies kick in. Policies and budgets and bureaucracy.

The brand has become too big to care. I mean, it might be big enough to pretend to care. To have policies that appear to set things right. But they don’t really care.

The only way to really care is to have human beings who care (and to give them the authority and resources to demonstrate that.)

Once you’ve got that, it’s pretty easy to show that you do.

Surrendering curation and promotion

Facebook, Linkedin, Google, Apple and Amazon have very little ability to promote a specific idea or creator.

That sounds crazy, but culturally and technically, it’s true.

In 1995, Oprah got to put just one person as the lead in an episode of her show. That choice was a commitment and a signal. It said to her viewers, “there were many people who could have been on the show today, but I chose this person.”

In 2000, Random House got to pick one book to be their big business title for November. Just one. Their curation sent a message to bookstores, who stocked more copies as a result.

They were curators and their curation led to promotion and attention. There was a cost to picking junk, and a benefit to earning trust.

The tech giants have surrendered that ability, with the costs and benefits that come with it. They end up disrespecting creations and their creators.

It doesn’t matter if you know someone at Google or if Amazon promises that they’re going to heavily promote your new Kindle book. The people who work at these companies don’t have a dial to turn. Amazon is good at selling everything, but they’re terrible at selling a thing.

Apple gets some zing for a recommended podcast now and then, or for a heavily promoted record, but the same rule is generally true with them–98% of all their content is driven by the algorithm, not a human with something at stake. They don’t care which record you pay for, as long as you pay for something.

The platforms are built on the idea that the audience plus the algorithm do all the deciding. No curation, no real promotion, simply the system, grinding away.

This inevitably leads to pandering, a race to the bottom.

Netflix is an exception because they have so much at stake in the investment of their own products that they insist on curating and promoting, bending the algorithm in the direction they wish it to go.

When a site tries to do both (like Buzzfeed), it’s a perilous journey. The metrics and the algorithm will swallow up the best intent of taste and culture making.

Comparing % and mass

Direct marketers don’t care how many people they reach.

They care what percentage take action.

Brand marketers have trouble measuring action, so all they have to work with is reach.

If you can measure, stop worrying about big numbers when it comes to reach. Run away from the Super Bowl or a billboard on the main highway.

Small audiences are your friend, because small audiences are specific, and specific increases your percentage.

Three wishes

When you’re feeling stuck with your project, grab three index cards.

On each card, write down an element of the project that, if you invested time and money, would change for the better.

If those three things happened, if those three elements improved, what would happen to your project?

Okay, now that you’ve got all three… what are you going to do about it?

Where will the media take us next?

Since the first story was carved on a rock, media pundits have explained that they have simply given people what they want, reporting the best they can on what’s happening.

Cause (the culture, human activity, people’s desires) leads to effect (front page news).

In fact, it’s becoming ever more clear that the attention-seeking, profit-driven media industrial complex drives our culture even more than it reports on it.

Thoughtful people regularly bemoan our loss of civility, the rise of trolling and bullying and most of all, divisive behavior designed to rip people apart instead of moving us productively forward.

And at the very same time, reality TV gets ever better ratings. So much so that the news has become the longest-running, cheapest to produce and most corrosive TV show in history. Increase that exponentially by adding in the peer-to-peer reality show that is social media, and you can see what’s happening.

Imagine two classrooms, each filled with second graders.

In the first classroom, the teacher shines a spotlight on the bullies, the troublemakers and the fighters, going so far as to arrange all the chairs so that the students are watching them and cheering them on all day.

In the second classroom, the teacher establishes standards, acts as a damper on selfish outliers and celebrates the generous and productive kids in the classroom…

How will the classrooms diverge? Which one would you rather have your child enrolled in?

We’re not in elementary school anymore, and the media isn’t our teacher or our nanny. But the attention we pay to the electronic channels we click on consumes more of our day than we ever spent with Miss Binder in second grade. And that attention is corrosive. To us and to those around us.

The producers of reality TV know this. And they seek out more of it. When they can’t find it easily, they search harder. Because that’s their job.

It’s their job to amp up the reality show that is our culture.

But it’s not our job to buy into it. More than anything, profit-driven media needs our active participation in order to pay their bills.

It’s an asymmetrical game, with tons of behavioral research working against each of us–the uncoordinated but disaffected masses. Perhaps we can find the resolve to seek out the others, to connect and to organize in a direction that actually works.

The first step is to stop taking the bait. The second step is to say, “follow me.”