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Monopoly and network effects

Old-fashioned monopolies rely on some sort of coercion.

Perhaps you need to bribe FCC commissioners to avoid net neutrality, or simply influence a local board to permit you to, by law, be the only provider of cable.

Or perhaps you set up interlocking trusts that put a stranglehold on any competitors.

It’s not pretty, and left unchecked, it eliminates all of the benefits of free markets.

Modern monopolies, though, rely on the network effect. People want to join a social network because everyone else is already there.

When we see a monopoly that’s driven by network effects, it’s easy to be conflicted. Because, after all, network effects create real value. If there were ten phone different phone systems in 1962, calling someone else would have been almost impossible. AT&T seemed like a dream come true in comparison to that sort of chaos.

What’s missing from this analysis is that interoperability is more possible than ever. Companies that provide a conduit to the network can compete with one another fairly if none of them are the network.

Networks, whenever possible, should be peer-to-peer, autonomous and not for profit. The network that delivered you this blog post is all three. There are sections along the way that people and organizations choose to pay for and that definitely make a profit, but the resilient internet, the thing that’s managed to stick around for decades, that has dealt with a huge surge in the last three weeks, outlasts each of them.

The community where we live works the same way. While there are businesses at various points along the path, our support and connection and the magic of the people who see us and care about us is inherently peer-to-peer, autonomous and not for profit. And it’s worth celebrating.

But what could you learn instead?

The other day, I was talking to a friend in college. He was complaining about a lousy class he was taking, one that was now significantly worse because it was online. I asked why he was even taking it, and he looked at me like I was nuts.

He’s in it for the education, not the learning.

A colleague, recently graduated from a famous college, told me about the regime of clickers, used to make sure that students actually come to class and don’t fall asleep while they’re there.

The degree is what’s on offer, not fundamental change.

For a semester, I taught at the esteemed Stern business school at NYU, regularly ranked in the top twenty of all business schools. In every class, students angled for a way to do less work and have less engagement. One skill they had mastered was relentlessly narrowing the scope of their responsibility.

Compare this to the courses I taught at Mercy College, a local community college where most of the students had day jobs or small businesses. In every single session, they demanded more from me. More insight, more learning and yes, more homework. They made me stay late after every class. The difference was stunning—they were there to learn something.

None of this is surprising once you see how we got here.

Labor struggles with management. Management wants people to put in more effort, and never has enough to be satisfied—because productivity goes up if there’s more output for less money. In response, labor goes on defense and pushes to do less, because if they don’t, management will simply use them up and toss them out.

Organized education was built on this same model. There is a regular regime of measurement and testing. There are promotions, demotions and the risk of failing out. And at the end, the prize is a certificate that proves to management that you’re a suitable candidate for labor.

Contrast this with the joy of creativity. Of making something magical. Of art.

The artist rarely says, “I’d like to do less.” Instead, she wonders how to contribute more, because the very act of creativity is the point of the work.

You can learn just about anything now. Thirty years ago, that statement was ridiculous. In just one generation, we put everything you need to know about anything you want to know just a click away. The hard part isn’t access to it, the hard part is finding a cohort and a system that helps you do it. Because learning comes from doing.

We talk about ‘learning’ as though it’s as easy and natural as shopping or watching or doing errands. But it’s not. It’s a commitment, one that we regularly make up excuses to avoid. This simple idea from John Smith, for example. Easy to imagine, not that easy to do. Because you’ll have to get good at it as you go. Learning doesn’t have to be expensive to work.

Learning takes effort, and it’s hard to find the effort when the world is in flux, when we’re feeling uncertain and when we’re being inundated with bad news. But that’s the moment when learning is more important than ever.

[This week, we’re launching the 40th session of the altMBA. And for the people who signed up for it a few months ago, it will be a chance to actually learn something. Not to grind it out in search of a certificate, not to find a chance to do less, but to use the shift in our culture and the rhythm of our ideas to actually learn something.

Seeing the nearly 5,000 people around the world who have chosen to go on this journey together is thrilling. Year after year, we see the transformations, the shift in posture and possibility that happens after just a month. We’re looking for a few people to join us in July, I hope you’ll check it out.]

This shift is difficult to commit to, because unlike education, learning demands change. Learning makes us incompetent just before it enables us to grasp mastery. Learning opens our eyes and changes the way we see, communicate and act.

“What did you learn today,” is a fine question to ask. Particularly right this minute, when we have more time and less peace of mind than is usually the norm.

It’s way easier to get someone to watch–a YouTube comic, a Netflix show, a movie–than it is to encourage them to do something. But it’s the doing that allows us to become our best selves, and it’s the doing that creates our future.

It turns out that learning isn’t in nearly as much demand as it could be. Our culture and our systems don’t push us to learn. They push us to conform and to consume instead.

The good news is that each of us, without permission from anyone else, can change that.

The panopticon

There are three ways to tell if people are hard at work in an office:

  1. the boss can watch them go to meetings. And they can watch each other in meetings as well.
  2. the boss can watch them sit at desks in an open office.
  3. we can make promises to each other and then keep them.

It seems as though only the third one is a useful, long-term way to allow us to do our best work together. The first two can help along the way, but if a meeting or an open office exists as a convoluted way to do surveillance, you’re probably wasting precious energy and trust.

And while transferring our work to home makes #1 even easier and #2 irrelevant, I’m still lobbying for #3.

Helping leaders in college reboot

We’re announcing a free intensive today, especially for people who are finding their college journey disrupted right now.

If you know someone in that situation, I hope you’ll forward this on to them.

We’re looking for some students ready to leap forward. To shift from education to learning, from following to leading, from holding back to leaning in.

The months and years after school are often fragile. The pressure is on, trajectories are being set, and most of us were probably without a clue. Doing that in the middle of this disruption has to be significantly harder, and we’re trying to help.

The typical reader of this blog skews older than that, but you might know precisely the right people for this program.

It’s a five-day sprint, a virtual program with daily zoom calls, an insane amount of group work and a shift toward a posture of possibility.

You can see all the details and the application here.

Please share.


And if this program is not a fit for you, please check out the realskillsconference.com.

The lifelong fan

What does it mean that for forty years you’ve been a steadfast and true fan of a team? The Red Sox, perhaps, or even the Montreal Expos.

Over time, every player has changed. Every coach. Perhaps the logo, the stadium, the city and even the name.

So, what, exactly, are you a fan of?

The same is true for car brands, political parties and just about anything where affiliation drives our sense of self and community.

People like us do things like this.

This instinct is so strong that we suspend disbelief (and create belief) based on something as shallow as what logo is on the box. We confuse our rational understanding of what’s important with our emotional connection to a logo or a team name. It turns out that the name of the team (and the other fans) are a much more important part of our narrative than we realize.

Part of being a fan isn’t insisting that your team win every game–in fact, being a fan is defined as showing up even when you’re losing, even when the leaders are wrong, even when logic dictates that this makes no sense at all.

Once you realize that being a fan is an important part of your self-worth, the most generous thing you can do is speak up when management is about to do something stupid. Because when the fans speak up, it’s possible that leadership listens.

Enough little things

We rarely have complete control over the big issues.

But the way we interact with each other, the small kindnesses, the extra effort–it adds up.

One after another, day by day.

It might be enough to change someone’s day. And then the ripple continues.

Acknowledgments 2020

Authors get to put a page in their book thanking people who have quietly and persistently and generously helped.

But the page is rarely read, and it comes out infrequently and it’s not so timely.

It’s worth taking a second to think about people who are doing more than expected, more than they have to do, more than we can imagine.

I’m filled with gratitude for the healthcare workers who have shown up to do the jobs that they never hoped to have to do, risking so much to help people. From docs like Jodi who are beginning their career in the middle of this, to retired nurses who are putting on their scrubs to help out again.

And thank you to the frontline workers and volunteers in my town and yours, from the food market to the fire department, from the gas station to the police. They’re showing up and doing it with grace.

Thanks to Zoom for dealing with a 20x increase in traffic and not missing a beat. Just like so many other tech companies that are quietly doing what they said they would do.

Thank you to the non-profit leaders, entrepreneurs and project managers who have figured out how to pivot on a dime, protecting the jobs of their teams and serving their customers in new and powerful ways.

Thanks to every parent who is at home with kids, balancing competing priorities and still being there for the ones who need them. And thanks to resilient and patient therapists, teachers and spiritual leaders who are figuring out how to be there, fully present, even if it’s on a video screen.

I’m grateful for the unseen but not anonymous people who are delivering packages, maintaining webservers, fixing the things that break and showing up every single day.

And I’m glad that so many people are ignoring the charlatans who are trying to profit from panic and untested remedies, preying on the fear that comes with a pandemic. And proud of anyone who stops clicking on a media channel that’s in the business of profiting from the attention that comes with amplifying that same fear.

I’m inspired by the team at Akimbo, working remotely from dozens of locations, shipping important work and connecting our extraordinary community of tens of thousands of people.

Thanks to my colleagues at Random Penguin and the rest of the book industry, for focusing on sharing insight and wisdom, simply because they know it’s important, not because it’s lucrative. And to my friends from all over, who are sheltering in place but sharing good vibes in so many ways.

And I’m grateful to you, loyal reader, for taking the long view, for leading, for spreading ideas that matter and showing up and doing work that you’re proud of. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

If you’re leading despite/because of what’s going on around us, thank you.

[This is such a tiny fraction of the people I was hoping to be able to acknowledge. If you’ve got a list to share, I hope you’ll post it somewhere.]

(and here’s a list from three years ago)

The semiotics of face masks

It’s difficult to get adults to wear bicycle helmets. (I wrote about this on the blog 16 years ago).

The reason has nothing to do with comfort or safety. It has to do with signals.

Semiotics is the science of flags, signals and other communications. It studies the very human act of judging something (or someone) based on limited information as we seek the message behind the signal, all in a quest for belonging and social standing.

Even more than helmets, face masks make a statement.

Ten years ago, if you wore a face mask at work, you were either a surgeon, a carpenter or a bank robber.

As they began to spread, mainly in parts of Asia, the mask was interpreted by some non-mask wearers as either a generous act (the wearer doesn’t want to infect others) or something slightly paranoid.

Then, when the pandemic first arrived in the US, masks became the focus of hoarding. Like toilet paper, it was a way to sacrifice time and money to get something scarce and reassuring. People weren’t reading scientific journals, they were grasping. The hoarding had the unfortunate side effect of keeping masks from front-line medical workers who needed them. It also created a sense of false security because many of the people who were using them had no clue how to use them properly, causing them to be worse off than if they hadn’t had them at all.

If you wore a mask on Main Street as you shopped in early March 2020, it was probably not increasing your social standing.

And then, as some newspapers shifted their stance and homemade masks began to appear, the story changes again–worth noting that even fast fashion has never changed this fast.

And so the storytelling continues. “Why is that person wearing a mask,” the non-mask wearer asks themselves. Is it to shame me? To let me know that they’re ill and I should steer far away? Perhaps it’s a way of identifying them as anti-social, because, after all, I’m not wearing one… Or maybe they’re smarter than me and I’m behind?

The narratives may also be shifting from, “how do I protect myself?” which is a self-directed desire, to, “how do I keep others protected?” This is generally a hard sell in the world of the Marlboro Man, bespoke disposable water bottles and the Hummer.

Notice that none of these internal monologues have much to do with epidemiology or public health. The semiotics of social standing and cultural posture happen long before we actively consider the science.

Whether or not you choose to wear a mask, drive a Prius or even a pickup truck, it’s worth remembering that because we’re human, we start with two things: What’s the story I’m telling myself, and what’s the story I’m telling everyone else.

How would you like things to be?

We know how things are. How could we not?

And we see the emotional rut that so many have fallen into as well.

The question is: Will you embrace an emotional posture that models how you’d like it to feel instead? Today, this day, we only get it once. How do you want today to feel on an emotional level?

It takes effort.

But it’s a choice.

We can’t change how things are in any given moment, but we can change how we will approach today.

And yes, an attitude can spread. Begin with us.

Taking it very seriously

Today, April first, was the day for a particular greeting, the only one except New Year’s that’s simply based on the date. Happy.

It was a day that people on the internet understood that it’s possible to act as if and to do it with a smile. To pretend that we’re not on the brink of apocalypse of one of twenty flavors, that nerds are clever now and then, and that most of all, that it’s worth taking a moment before we believe what we just heard and decide to freak out about it.

Alas, we’ve been fooled too many times for that to work any more.

Fooling has become a business model, and so now, every day is April Fool’s day.

Act accordingly.

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