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Me & Now
Us & Later
This is the conflict every culture lives with. Modern industrialism has embraced the extraordinary power of instant gratification and has amplified it by reminding us that only you know what you want and need.
Fast food plus the me generation. What you want, when you want it.
Years ago, I co-authored a paper that, if implemented would probably have solved our shameful shortage of available organs for donation. In prioritizing people who need a donation, we’d settle a tie by sorting people by how long they’d been on the donor registry. If you’re not willing to sign up to give (one day far in the future) then you don’t get priority to get (when you need it). The self-focused need to be on the list early would essentially eliminate the need for a ranking at all, because humans have been taught to do what helps them now before worrying about later or everyone else. Enough people would panic and race to be on the registry that the shortage would soon disappear.
In our culture, turning the “us and later” narrative (you should sign up for the registry to help a stranger one day) into “me and now” (better sign up today or you’ll regret it) is a generous hack. We shouldn’t have to do it, it’s less resilient, but it would work.
How then, did the media respond to public health officials to flatten the curve on the epidemic virus (not perfectly, not soon enough, but they did)? They didn’t appeal to, “you should do this to protect strangers from getting sick.” They tried but it didn’t work well enough.
They did it by implying, “if you touch someone, you will die almost instantly and quite horribly.” And people, already frightened, embraced the feeling.
People generally aren’t wearing masks and socially distancing out of long-term philanthropy and insight about resources and epidemiology. It’s happening because of the panic of self-preservation.
A rational, generous, community mindset was effectively replaced by an immediate and self-focused desire to be safe. A generous hack.
A narrative of “save yourself right now’ is effective in this culture. In other cultures, less industrialized but hardly less sophisticated, an alternative could be a focus on “us” before “me.”
Without a doubt, short-term market needs are often efficiently filled by short-term selfish behavior. Resilience comes from a longer-term and more community-focused outlook.
The question is: Once people catch the virus and get through it (as most people will) and recover (as more than 9 out of 10 will), what will replace the selfish panic?
Cultural pressure is the sometimes unseen force that allows us to maintain civility. It helps us decide what to choose. People like us, do things like this.
As we face the need to pay for our recovery, for a new and more resilient safety net and for the shifts that our culture demands, will we have to resort to the short-term and the selfish yet again?
Pick your heroes. Whoever you look up to, my hunch is that it’s someone who took a longer and more inclusive view.
We can be those heroes.
If you’re under 14: “Good.”
It’s good that you’re feeling bored. Bored is an actual feeling. Bored can prompt forward motion. Bored is the thing that happens before you choose to entertain yourself. Bored is what empty space feels like, and you can use that empty space to go do something important. Bored means that you’re paying attention (no one is bored when they’re asleep.)
If you’re over 14: “That’s on you.”
As soon as you’re tired of being bored at work, at home, on lockdown, wherever, you’ll go find a challenge. You don’t have to quit your day job to be challenged, but you do have to be willing to leap, to take some responsibility, to find something that might not work.
Being challenged at work is a privilege. It means that you have a chance, on someone else’s nickel, to grow. It means you can choose to matter.
I’m glad you’re feeling bored, and now we’re excited to see what you’re going to go do about it.
The last eight weeks have been like no other. An unfolding tragedy, unevenly distributed. An economic freeze. A media frenzy.
It’s easy to be exhausted, especially since there’s still quite a lot of slog left to go.
Is it too soon to wonder what’s next? And at the heart of it: how can you contribute?
Average work for average people is going to be worth less than ever before.
Typical employees doing typical work are going to be less respected and valued than ever before.
And just as expectations are being shifted, new opportunities will arise. They always do.
So what’s next? A commitment to learning and to possibility.
The pandemic demonstrated, among other things, that we all have access to each other digitally. That if you want to learn something, the chance is there. That internet connections can be powerful, and that leadership is priceless.
The industrial era, struggling for the last decade or two, is now officially being replaced by one based on connection and leadership and the opportunity to show up and make a difference.
That’s why we’ve run 40 sessions of the altMBA and why we’re going to run another one this summer. We’re not going to wait for everything to be back to normal, because it never will, and because the best time to contribute is right now.
When I launched this four years ago, I had no idea that the world would shift in this way and we’d need new voices and new leadership so much right now.
I hope you’ll check it out. Today’s the very best chance to level up.
It’s a book for adults, but it’s okay to share it with your kids as well.
This book was beautifully illustrated by the extraordinary @hughcards.
I hope it resonates. I still remember how powerful story time can be. And thanks for what you’re doing to contribute.
[Here’s a simple communications hack for small teams and organizations:]
When times are changing and you’re adjusting on the fly, it’s tempting to send another alert.
The rules at the farmer’s market, the latest schedule for a changing event, the status of a server…
When I was growing up in Buffalo, they used to announce school closings on the radio. Twice an hour, we’d huddle around and listen to an endless list of schools (mine started with a W), wasting everyone’s time and emotional energy.
The problem with alerts is that they don’t scale. They create noise. Every time you poke everyone with a bulletin, you’ve taken attention away with no hope of giving it back.
The alternative is the bulletin board.
Want to know how you did on the exam? Go look at the bulletin board. The grades will be posted when they’re ready.
Want to know the latest situation before you head out? Go look at the bulletin board.
Social media got everyone into the bulletin habit, but we left behind bulletin boards too quickly.
And in our digital world, you don’t need to be a computer programmer to have one. Simply create a shared Google doc. It’s free and it doesn’t crash and it’s low tech. (And yes, there are many alternatives that don’t come from big companies).
Give people the link to view the doc. Include it in your Facebook post or your last email on the topic. “Click here to see the latest updates.” Don’t worry about whether your tweet or post (a bulletin) moves down the screen, because everyone who cares already has the link to your bulletin board and you’ve trained them to check it when they want to know the status of your event or situation. It’s not a great choice for a high-traffic site, but if you’re trying to coordinate a few hundred people, it’s a lot easier than trusting social media.
And you can even share editing privileges with your core team, so there’s no bottleneck for updates. You don’t need to get a programmer out of bed in the middle of the night to update the school closing list. It’s a simple thing to update the bulletin board, to keep making it more up to date and complete as your situation changes.
Information on demand is way more useful than information that demands our attention at moments when we’re not interested.
What brings out the worst?
One more question: Is it possible to adjust your life so that you show up more often in situations that bring out the best? Can you have an agenda, a rider or an itinerary that makes it more likely that the world around you is what you need it to be?
Because if you can’t, there’s one other option: Can you change your posture so that the situations you’re in a lot bring out your best instead of your worst?
Ideal situations are often rare—now more so than ever. But we can redefine ‘ideal situation’ if we choose.
The easiest way to get a contribution, advice or feedback is to present something that’s 90% done.
If you ask too early in the process, if you’re hoping for conceptual insights, you’ll probably be disappointed.
Human nature pushes the inexperienced feedback giver to wait until you’re almost done and then to offer feedback on little things. Tactics, not strategy. Colors, not shapes.
Which means that you either need to teach your team to be strategic professionals, able to give big advice early…
Or create enough room in your (private) internal schedule for redoing the work after someone has ‘tweaked a few things.’
Here’s what you had to do to go to a conference in Toronto:
Get a passport • Register for the event • Pack • Figure out how to get to the airport on time • Navigate the TSA • Find a hotel • Get to the event • (I left out about a hundred steps).
Here’s what you had to do go to a meeting in your office:
Own a car • Maintain it • Deal with public transport • Risk your life driving to the office • Make sure the dry cleaning was picked up • Navigate evil Bob in reception • (I left out another 100 steps).
And here’s what you have to do to be a positive contribution on a Zoom call.
The difference is that the first two are expensive, complicated and difficult processes that we’re already used to, so they don’t count.
Part of the challenge of a worldwide shift is that all of us have to engage in new effort that we’re not used to. It’s nothing we asked for, and the old effort disappearing doesn’t feel like much of a benefit.
But, if new effort is required, we have the chance to do what we’ve always done, which is figure out what works and to commit to it.
If you want to know how to work with new or limited resources, find a population that’s used to not having many alternatives.
Of course Harvard and the others are terrible at distance learning. They’ve had four hundred years of in-person lectures, tenure, accreditation and a waiting list to lean on. Our tiny team at Akimbo has run circles around them online precisely because we didn’t have the advantages they do.
It’s no surprise that American car companies had trouble shifting to fuel-efficient small cars, because their DNA was about wide roads, cheap gas and growing markets. The Japanese had to make do with none of that.
And a home cook who’s used to the unlimited aisles of the modern supermarket isn’t sure what to do when there’s not much to choose from. An Italian grandmother is a better guide in that moment.
When we have alternatives, we compromise instead of commit.
Find someone who has already optimized for the reality you’re about to enter and learn from them.
[The Fremen are the (possibly) fictional natives of the desert planet of Arrakis, who live with very little water.]