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Opportunity is now disorganized

It used to be well lit. Apply to a famous institution, get picked. Get the agent of an agent or A&R person. Get picked. Get good grades… get picked.

Now, many of the “pickers” have little influence or power.

Instead of the reassurance that comes from someone else telling us what to do and then rewarding us when we comply, we each have the chance to show up and contribute. And, if we can, do it again.

It seems crowded and chaotic and uncertain.

And then we get to do it again.

Just that one scarce resource

Growing our impact or profit usually involves maximizing something that’s valuable. And things that are valuable are often scarce.

Finding the one thing that is at the heart of your value/scarcity matrix makes it much easier to focus your energy on strategic decisions.

If you own a single store, you need to maximize the profit per square foot. Everything in your growth journey revolves around this.

On the other hand, Subway didn’t care about that at all, and instead focused on having as many sandwich franchises as they could. The resource they scaled was their franchise model.

If you own a factory, the slowest, busiest part of your assembly line is the critical path that has to be identified and optimized.

If you are a music teacher with 30 hours to spend with students a week, your growth is going to be about using each of those hours to maximum effectiveness (perhaps with more engaged students, or in developing digital assets or investing those 30 hours more carefully or profitably).

If you have a brand that consumers trust, you might be able to scale it by offering other products with that same brand name.

If you have a strong relationship with Target or Wal-Mart, you can scale that by bringing in new varieties to gain more shelf space. That’s why successful record labels got more successful by signing more artists. Studio time is easy to scale, access to DJs and rack jobbers, not so much.

If you have a permission relationship with 1,000 great customers, you can maximize the value (to them and to you) of each interaction you have.

And if you’re seeking to change the culture, you could focus on how to get your one precious and scarce agenda to become a movement.

Clues that you might not be trying hard enough

You usually succeed

You rarely feel like an imposter

You already know what you need to know

You’re confident it’s going to work

When they don’t know what they’re talking about…

People tend to do one of two things:

  1. not talk
  2. talk

Both are a problem.

If we’re facing an important issue at work, at school or in our community, our instinct is to let others who are better informed speak up. Which prevents people from voting on a school budget or even volunteering to speak in class. We need their input and their solutions, but without insight and understanding, folks understandably hold back.

At the same time, alas, it’s apparently becoming a badge of honor to speak up (loudly and often) when one has no knowledge, has done no homework and has no insight. That’s not helpful, but there it is.

The all-volunteer Carbon Almanac is a #1 bestseller precisely because it gives people a chance to know what they’re talking about. It’s an almanac, with more than 1,000 sources, so you can look up anything that seems surprising.

And because it’s inexpensive and easy to share, you can give one to someone who will benefit from it even more than you.

It’s helpful to know. And it’s helpful to talk about what you know. That’s how we make things better.

More than your share

The math is simple: many people do less than they should.

They might be selfish, but it’s likely that they’re struggling with a lack of resources or a story of insufficiency. Either way, in any community or organization, many people contribute less than their peers.

Whether it’s splitting a check, getting a project done or making an impact on the culture or a cause, if you want things to get better, the only way is to be prepared to do more than your fair share.

Because we need to make up for the folks who don’t.

Finding persistent invisible systems

Plastic was inevitable.

It took hundreds of years to perfect, but we built a system based on profit, convenience, productivity and markets.

Markets are extremely good at sniffing out problems that can be solved with transactions. If people care enough to buy something to fill a need, someone else is likely to try to make that thing.

Along the way, this market-need sensing mechanism leads to factories, to retailers and to marketing. No one is in charge, no one stays on top forever, and the outputs of the system keep shifting–more of what the capital markets, parts of the labor market and most of all, the consumer market demands.

And so plastic is inevitable.

It makes it easy to manufacture and ship some things. It can increase productivity. It can lower costs. It makes the retail process more convenient–and consumers love convenience.

Last year, earthlings manufactured and used a trillion plastic bags. The manufacturer and disposal of plastic has an enormous cost to people and the places we live.

But plastic persists as a commercial solution, because the system is invisible and resilient. Each member of the system does what they do, usually for good reasons.

Gaiam makes yoga mats and blocks. It’s run by people who care about their impact on things, and their customers are environmentally aware. Yoga blocks are made of semi-hard foam, but they last a long time, and most of their customers are okay with that tradeoff.

But these blocks are then shrink-wrapped in plastic. And then the plastic shrink-wrapped foam blocks are wrapped in a relatively thick plastic marketing band to make them easier to display at the store. And then, if you buy the blocks from Amazon, the shrink-wrapped, belly-banded blocks are put in a plastic bag before being shipped to you.

Gaiam says that they’d rather not do this, but the retailers they depend on require them to. And the retailers say that they’d rather not require this, but it would increase prices (and perhaps decrease sales) if they had to rely on store personnel to hand-sell them. And Amazon uses a stopwatch and a spreadsheet to figure out what’s cheaper and faster…

And so, a system.

Plastic is just one example. Industrial and cultural systems are all around us, with all participants doing what they’re encouraged to do and furthering the work of the system.

Systems almost never change voluntarily. They rarely change because some of the participants in the system decide that they would prefer new rules. Systems change when their inputs change and when the rules change.

In this example, the moment we charge an appropriate price for plastic, incorporating the significant costs of disposal and climate change, the system will notice and act appropriately.

Every system we live with has already been altered by the needs of some of the people impacted by the system. As impacts grow, the number of people affected grows as well.

Systemic problems require systemic solutions.

Expectation and delight

They dance with each other.

If expectations are too low, you don’t get the gig, and you’ll never have a chance to engage with a customer.

But if they’re too high, surprise and remarkability disappear.

As you succeed, it’s harder, not easier, to bring delight to the people you serve.

Often, this is replaced by the cognitive dissonance of sunk costs and luxury goods. People assert delight because they think they’re supposed to, because they don’t want to feel stupid–not because you’ve produced anything genuine.

Ownership and responsibility

You own your living room and your bedroom.

We take care of our front lawn for our neighbors.

And our trash (in all its forms) belongs to everyone.

Synchronization can be distracting

Both The Shawshank Redemption and The Big Lebowski bombed. If “bombed” means that during the first few weeks, no one went to a theater to see them. Since then, tens of millions of people have seen and talked about these movies.

Tommy James’ first record also failed, because no one played it on the radio for months. And then, one party promoter in Pennsylvania started playing it a lot, and it became a hit. He went on to make seven top 10 hits.

We are primed to pay attention to things that happen in a thunderclap.

But the events that change our culture often happen over time, distributed across parts of the population too small to notice.

The Grateful Dead were the #1 live touring band more years than any other… and yet they only had one top 40 hit. Connection was worth more than wide and shallow sync.

The first challenge is finding the focus and patience to work on the asynchronized adoption of important ideas. And the second is to not sacrifice the larger goal in a frenzied hustle for the big break.

Drip by drip makes a wave.

Naysayers (and the grifters)

Oppositional energy is easy to create and spread. Once you pick a ‘they’, then it’s simply a matter of doing the opposite of whatever ‘they’ recommend. It’s a lazy shortcut, one that divides, demonizes and causes us to suspend our instincts toward better.

It works great in marketing a sports team, but it stops being helpful in most other arenas.

Oppositional division is a magnet for grifters. A con-man, hustler, swindler or charlatan that can’t possibly do well with thoughtful scrutiny discovers that trolling and arguing is an easy way to bypass the normal examination of what’s actually on offer.

It’s not just the patent medicine door-to-door salesperson who does this. It’s large trade associations, industrial lobbyists, pyramid schemers, technobabblers and others as well.

Sooner or later, someone points out that there’s a grift going on. Hopefully, we see it before it’s too late.