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Confusing identity with strategy

Who we are isn’t the same thing as what we do.

But sometimes, what we do can change who we are.

Our identity describes the person we see in the mirror, the groups we identify with, the version of ourselves (and reality) that we come back to over and over. “I’m not a writer,” or “I’m not an entrepreneur,” or “I’m not a leader,” are fairly definitive statements.

But when the world changes, opportunities change as well.

All of us struggle when our identity doesn’t match the reality of the world around us.

In the face of that confusion, it’s tempting to abandon possibility and to walk away from an opportunity simply because it doesn’t resonate with the person we are in this moment. But only when we do something new do we often begin to become someone new.

Uncountable

A mass noun is one that doesn’t take an S when we have more. “Butter” and “Information” are both uncountable in use, because when we only have only one unit of butter (or information) we use the same word as if we have four or six units. Butter is butter.

Uncountable words are understandably difficult to measure at a glance. They don’t fit easily into the industrial mindset, and we’re often pushed to find things that are less mysterious.

But it turns out that uncountable words like trust, honesty, commitment, passion, connection and quality are a fine thing to focus on.

Knowing it can be done

We can improve and magnify things in very short order.

Light bulbs, elevators, website technology–give it some time, and people will pile on and all of the important metrics will be sharpened, made more efficient and more powerful as well.

That’s not really the hard part. The hard part is doing it when people aren’t sure it can be done.

And in that stage of development, taking notes isn’t nearly as important as taking leaps.

If you do it once, we’ll figure out how to do it again.

You can’t beat the algorithm

When a new medium shows up that allocates attention, someone comes out ahead.

They win a Google search, amass a ton of FB followers, hit the jackpot on Twitter or even Clubhouse.

“They picked me!” and the attention feels inevitable. Others see the pennies from heaven and rush in to follow, eager for their share of traffic.

But there is no “they” and you weren’t picked. The algorithm needs to send attention somewhere, and for a while, it sent it over there. But it almost certainly won’t last. Because the ecosystem is changing, all the time.

You can’t post on a same platform twice, because the second time, it’s not the same platform as it was last time.

We have a chance to do work we’re proud of, and to do it for people who care. And maybe we can do it in a way that will lead them to tell the others. Traffic from an algorithm isn’t the point, it’s a random bonus.

No sense being a puppet, especially if you can’t be sure who is pulling the strings or why.

Decoding the sign

A “Deer Xing” sign isn’t there to tell the deer where to cross the road.

It’s there to let drivers know that this is the spot where deer often choose to cross the road.

Because deer can’t read signs, and even if they could, they probably wouldn’t bother to obey them. People, on the other hand, are far more likely to be killed by hitting a deer than they are by a shark bite.

A good signmaker is aware of “who’s it for” and “what’s it for.” In this case, the hope is that drivers will be more careful.

Too often, signs of all kinds (metaphorical signs, not just physical ones), are simply ALL CAPS YELLING about how the signmaker is frustrated about something they can’t control. If you can’t influence something, why are you yelling about it?

Untenable

You can build a city below sea level, and it might work for a while, but sooner or later, the water will win.

Trends don’t determine whether we’ll be able to accomplish something tomorrow. But seeing and then understanding the trends allows us to work with the wind at our backs, instead of fighting it.

Consider demographics, technology and science. All three are inexorably moving, and while they can be ignored, sooner or later, they catch up with our project and push against it. We can deny the facts of the world around us, with passion or even vitriol, but trends compound.

When you can, focus on something tenable.

Competition vs. activation

Innovators rarely have a competition problem. The challenge isn’t that your market is buying from an alternative provider–the challenge is that they’re buying from no one.

The work we do and the stories we tell when we seek to create activation are dramatically different from the mindset of competition, and yet the lessons from our culture (sports, mass merchants, politics) are all about competition.

“We’re better than them,” is a competition slogan.

That’s very different from, “things could be better,” or “you’re missing this new thing,” or, “people you admire are already using this.”

If you want to grow, you’ll need to get someone to not only decide that you’re worth their time and money, you’ll need to motivate them to act now instead of later.

The host’s rules

The language we use, the standards we adhere to, the kind of interactions that are permitted–this is up to the host.

You’re at a dinner party, and if you want to be welcomed back, you’ll need to be aware of the way things are around here.

On the other hand, if you insist on rules that are out of sync with the sensibilities and standards of those you invite, don’t be surprised if they choose not to return.

It all begins by understanding who is acting as host. It might be you.

Ending it gracefully

Just about every business, every initiative and every intervention fails sooner or later.

Since that’s demonstrably true, it’s worth considering how you intend to fail when the time comes.

You can pull out every stop, fight every step of the way, mortgage your house and your reputation–and still fail. Or, perhaps, you can quit in a huff at the first feeling of frustration.

The best path is clearly somewhere between the two. And yet, too often, we leave this choice unexamined. Deciding how and when to quit before you begin is far easier and more effective than making ad hoc decisions under pressure.

The discard pile

Walking away from something that we’re used to, even if it’s unjust or inefficient or ineffective–it usually takes far too long. Fear, momentum and the status quo combine to keep us stuck.

And so it builds up. The cruft calcifies and it gets in our way, making our world smaller, our interactions less human. What used to be normal is rejected and obsolete. It turns out that the status quo is the status quo because it’s good at sticking around.

But brave people stand up and speak up and take action. And far too slowly, the system starts to change.

Sunk costs are real, but we must ignore them. Culture changes, our standards evolve, opportunities arise.

Better is possible… if we care enough to walk away from what was and brave enough to build something new.

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