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Progress is a trade

It’s easy to imagine that over there, just a few steps ahead, our problems will disappear.

Pessimists, of course, are sure that instead of disappearing, tomorrow will make things worse.

The truth is pretty simple: All we do, all we ever do, is trade one set of problems for another.

Problems are a feature. They’re the opportunity to see how we can productively move forward. Not to a world with no problems at all, but to a situation with different problems, ones that are worth dancing with.

HT to Gabe.

Narrative and feelings

Which comes first? The feelings, the facts, or the story we tell ourselves that leads to the feelings?

It’s surprising that I ended up at the college I went to.

Back in 1978, there were two ways to visit campus if you were taking a subway from the airport. One route went through Harvard Square, with its magical campus, and then via bus down youth-friendly Mass. Ave., past Steve’s famous ice cream parlor and on to the small school. The other route, the route the admissions office suggested when I called them, went through gritty Lechmere, then by bus past wood-frame houses built in the 1950s, then some more grittiness and then on to the back of the campus.

It would have been easy to use the feelings that the second route created in me, a solo traveler barely 17 years old, to invent a narrative about what was missing from this choice of school.

We like to think we make complicated decisions based on rational analysis, but most of the time, we actually make an emotional decision and then invent a rational analysis to justify it.

That’s why so many kids pick a school based on how it felt to go to a football game there in October. Or why it matters if it’s raining on the day you visit. Feelings first, then they create a story. Facts come in third.

If our goal is to help people make better choices, it helps to first create better feelings.

Bad arithmetic classes persuade people to not like math

Arithmetic is a chore. It’s a ceaseless list of things to be memorized, with few understood. It is easily replaced by an app on a phone.

Math is elegant, magical and breathtaking. Math involves little memorization and a lot of understanding.

If we teach kids math, the arithmetic will take care of itself.

“Let the market fix it”

After all, the marketplace is scalable, independent, self-funding, convenient and persistent.

Except there are problems that the market hasn’t solved, and probably can’t. A century into this worldwide experiment, the market hasn’t solved mass education, it’s made obesity and health problems worse, and it has dumped an enormous amount of long-term toxic waste into the world where we all live.

Patient capital can work wonders, but networked economies are becoming ever more impatient in their race for basis points and shortcuts.

When we hand a chronic problem over to the market, it might be because we can’t bear to look at it or take responsibility for the hard work and sacrifice it will take to solve it.

If the market can solve a problem, it’s a bargain. Markets are effective listening devices and resilient and often self-coordinating. But expecting the market to solve every problem isn’t useful.

Sometimes, the specific tools of the open market aren’t aligned with the problem at hand. Externalities, patience and incentives are all worth considering before we decide the problem will solve itself.

Improving what’s not there

It’s pretty straightforward to grease a squeaky wheel, or repair a broken window.

Far more difficult is to realize that your room would be a lot more pleasant if you added a window in the first place.

“I don’t want to play”

Tactical approaches can undermine useful strategies.

And knowing your goals and the reason for the game are the best way to avoid the problem.

Tactical thinking forces us to think in innings. It says, “here’s a situation, what’s your best reaction/response?”

The strategic approach has a different question, “Does playing this particular tactical game get me closer to the reason I’m here in the first place?”

Strategies don’t change. They’re not a secret. It doesn’t matter if your peers or opponents know your strategy.

Tactics, on the other hand, change often, and are usually best kept quiet.

So why do we get so hung up on tactics?

It begins with: Strategies can be frightening. If we say what we want and how we hope to achieve it, two things could happen: we could fail, and that would disappoint us, or we could succeed, and that would frighten us.

It’s easier to simply react by engaging in another tactical round that the world has presented to us. You can spend your days doing nothing but playing with tactics, and never realize you didn’t even have a strategy.

What do you want? What change do you seek to make, how do you want to spend your days? How will get you there?

Figuring out which games you aren’t going to play is a fine step on the road to figuring out your strategy.


Unrelated but timely: A post from 13 years ago about meetings, and my podcast from this week about the same topic.

“I did the thing that was…”

A simple but difficult fork in the road for the choices we make.

I did the thing that was:

expedient

easy

safe

what my boss insisted on

generous

brave

new

effective

done by everyone else

deniable

fun

resilient

scalable

unique

selfish

fast

convenient

in sync

remarkable

risky

self-aggrandizing

anonymous

the way it’s always been done.

Yadda, yadda, yadda

If you are talking with someone about important things, from the heart, with honesty, it’s entirely possible that what you’re saying contradicts what they expect.

It might be because of the indoctrination of a lifetime of growing up in a particular culture.

It might be because of personal experiences they’ve had with others that didn’t work out very well.

And it might be because what you’re saying contradicts what they’re seeing.

Whichever it is, they nod their head, politely listening, but don’t change their expectations at all. Because they’ve been taught through experience not to believe that things are going to be different.

If you’ve read ten employee handbooks that say one thing when the company does another, you’re likely to not believe the eleventh one.

When you hear a boss say ‘people before profits’, you’re likely to hold back before baring your soul and sharing your fears.

“Trust me” is easy to say, especially when you mean it, but hard to hear.

Showing tends to beat telling, and it takes a very long time to earn trust when you’re running counter to culture.

Directed marketing

There are ten people.

If those ten people were aware of what you do, trusted you and were enrolled in the journey of change you seek to make…

They might each encourage ten people to join in.

And that group of 100 people might be able and willing to help you improve your work, or to introduce you to resources you need, or to become clients.

Which might lead to more opportunities, conversations and improvements.

Step by step. Like building a house.

It’s not direct marketing, which is focused on action and measurement and a funnel. It’s directed marketing, because you’re generous and specific about precisely who the work is for. And you’re willing to ignore most everyone else.

Initiative takes effort

There’s a reason we hire a physical trainer, get a job and show up for work on time.

We see the value in someone else directing our actions.

On one hand, giving someone else authority over our effort is challenging, because they might not be aware of how much we have in reserve or what else we’ve got going on.

But the alternative is emotionally taxing: Taking initiative.

Instead of calling it “taking initiative” perhaps it would be more accurate to say “giving initiative.” Because it’s in short supply and we need more.

Deciding to do something that no one expected or ordered you to do.

Reading something or developing a skill on your own account.

Raising your hand, speaking up, launching a new project…

We’ve been trained to avoid all of these things. And the proof is that four-year-olds don’t have trouble with any of them. We know how, but we’ve been taught not to.

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