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Blockbusters vs. building blocks

It’s the blockbusters that get all the hype. The home runs, the viral videos, the hits.

It’s the sudden shifts, the ideas that change everything, the fell swoops.

Fell swoops seem like they’re worth chasing, but a hit isn’t a strategy, it’s an event. Nice work if you can get it, but hard to plan on or build on.

It takes patience to avoid planning on swoops. It’s more productive to live in a house that’s built out of bricks, one at a time, day by day.

Here’s to a swoop-free journey.

It’s all horizontal (and books went first)

With enough top-down energy, it feels like the creator of an idea can broadcast it, anytime and anywhere. That enough hype/promo/media/leverage ought to allow a major publisher or network or candidate to bend the culture simply by yelling.

If you follow this road, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.

For 500 years, this hasn’t been true for books. And now it’s not true for anything.

Ideas spread from person to person. Horizontally. Because someone who encountered an idea cared enough to spread the word, to talk about it, to insist that friends and colleagues pay attention, if just for a moment.

If you can figure out how to embrace the true fans, they’ll go ahead and spread an idea–not because you want them to, but because they want to.

Your ability to reach a tiny group of committed fans is essential. But the work spreads because of the fans, not because you figured out how to spend money to interrupt more and more strangers.

Digital hygiene

“You do it like that?”

Every day, we’re at our machines, clicking and swiping and typing.

And it’s entirely possible that the methods you’ve developed are costing you at least an hour a day in wasted time.

That your desktop isn’t supposed to have 2,000 files on it.

That you don’t need to click the same sequence over and over to get through your inbox.

It’s possible that the ‘I’ll learn it later’ shortcut you took a few years ago is now a significant time tax on your day, every day.

The solution is fun and simple: find a smart person and have them watch you use the computer for an hour.

She’ll share ten shortcuts and principles that will amaze you.

And then you can return the favor.

It’s much more difficult to use a computer than it should be. But that’s mostly because they’re powerful, and power brings choices, and you may need some help with your choices.

This will take two hours

We have so many forms of “this will only take a minute” inputs.

We have Slack, which is optimized for, “yep, I saw that.”

We have email, which is optimized for, “I cleared my inbox” or possibly, “I’ll do this later.”

We have Twitter, which is optimized for wasting time.

And we have Facebook, which in only a few minutes, can make you feel left out.

But we don’t have a convention for important inputs that might take hours of work to respond to.

We don’t have a pre-sorted inbox for, “I’m ready to think deeply and work hard and change my posture and truly engage with this idea now.”

This is one of the best things about a good non-fiction book. It’s not for wasting time, it’s for depth when you’re ready to go deep.

If you spend your whole day browsing, then what happens?

 

[Typo update: There are typos on this blog now and then, and I apologize for all of them, the past ones and the ones yet to come. I usually fix them within an hour of publication, so if you’re ever wondering–yes, Bo Diddley was 1955, not 1995–just click on the title of the post and you’ll see the latest version, here, on the blog itself, almost certainly corrected. Thanks for your forbearance and patience.]

Bo Diddley

In 1955, Bo Diddley released his first record. It became a #1 bestseller.

The name of the track? “Bo Diddley.”

It was a song about a singer and his work.

That’s what it sounds like when you own it.

When you sign your work.

If you’re going to step up and create, it helps to own what you just did. You’re not simply another in a long line.

You’re you.

Three kinds of ‘forever’

There’s the forever of discomfort. Sasha Dichter taught us about this. The feeling we get during a temporary situation that feels like it’s going to last forever.

It’s one thing to tolerate a bumpy landing on an airplane, because you know it’ll be over in ten seconds.

But, a car-sick toddler doesn’t have that perspective. He’s wailing and sad because he thinks that this is the new normal, a permanent situation.

Too often, we quit in the dip. Not because we can’t tolerate discomfort for an hour, a week or a month, but because we mistakenly believe that it might last forever.

There’s the forever of plenty. This is when we erroneously assume that the stuff that’s good is going to stay good. That this moment, this leverage, these resources–we can squander them because they’ll be here tomorrow.

This sort of forever leads to heartbreak, because, inevitably, it doesn’t last. It can’t.

And there’s the forever of never. The dominant narrative of society is that you’re stuck with what you’ve got. Stuck in your status role, stuck in your skill set, stuck in your situation.

If you believe it, it’s probably true.

If you believe it, you just let yourself off the hook, which is comforting indeed.

And if you believe it, you’ve made life easier for the systems that would like to pigeonhole you.

But, even though it’s certainly harder than it ought to be, it doesn’t have to be forever.

 

[PS today’s the Early Decision deadline for the altMBA. The word continues to spread, person to person, with more than 3,300 alumni in 74 countries.]

Kinds of truth

“Gravity’s not just a good idea, it’s the law.”

A truth is a useful, reliable statement of how the world is. You can ignore it, but it will cost you, because the world won’t work the way you hope it will. You can dislike the truth, but pretending it isn’t true isn’t an effective way to accomplish your goals or to further our culture.

Most of the kinds of truth we experience are about the past and the present, and these are the easiest to see and confirm, but there are also truths about cause and effect.

Identity is the truth of description. A circle is round because we define a circle as round. You can say, “a circle is rectangular in shape,” and all you’ve done is confused us. Words only work because we agree on what they mean.

Demagogues often play with the identity of words, as it distracts us.

Axiomatic truth is truth about the system. The Peano axioms, for example, define the rules of arithmetic. They are demonstrably true and the system is based on these truths. Einstein derived his theories of special and general relativity with a pad of paper, not with an experiment (though the experiments that followed have demonstrated that his assertions were in fact true.)

There were loud voices in mid-century Germany who said that Einstein’s work couldn’t be true because of his heritage, and many others who mis-described his work and then decried that version of it, but neither approach changed the ultimate truth of his argument.

Axiomatic truth, like most other truths, doesn’t care whether you understand it or believe it or not. It’s still true.

Historic truth is an event that actually happened. We know it happened because it left behind evidence, witnesses and other proof.

Experimental truth may not have the clear conceptual underpinnings of axiomatic truth, but it holds up to scrutiny. The world is millions of years old. Every experiment consistently demonstrates this. Experimental truth can also give us a road map to the future. Vaccines do not cause autism. The world is not flat. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising.

If you want to challenge an experimental truth, the only response is to do a better experiment, make it replicable and show your work.

Personal experience truth is the truth that’s up to you. How you reacted to what happened can only be seen and reported by you.

And finally, consider cultural truth, and this is the truth that can change. This is the truth of, “people like us do things like this.” Which is true, until it’s not. And then people like us do something else.

Reach is overrated

It might be the biggest misconception in all of advertising.

The Super Bowl has reach.

Google has reach.

Radio has reach.

So?

Why do you care if you can, for more money, reach more people?

Why wouldn’t it make more sense to reach the right people instead?

To pick an absurd example, you can use a giant radio telescope to beam messages to the billions or trillions of aliens that live in other solar systems. Worth it?

I read an overview that pointed out that one of the cons of Amazon advertising was that they didn’t have the reach of Google.

This is wrong in so many ways.

Reach doesn’t matter, because your job isn’t to interrupt people on other planets, with other interests. Your job is to interact with people who care.

Running an ad on the most popular podcast isn’t smart if the most popular podcast reaches people who don’t care about you.

Perhaps it makes sense to pay extra to reach precisely the right people. It never makes sense to pay extra to reach more people.

Lifelong connection

It lives right next to lifelong learning.

Lifelong learning is the mindset of possibility. It is built on the idea that we can grow if we simply show up, ready to learn.

Lifelong learning is never finished, and achieving the mindset isn’t easy, because the existing bias toward competence makes it socially unattractive. It requires us to acknowledge that we don’t know enough on our way to learning more.

And lifelong connection? That’s our commitment to engaging with people who will help us see what’s possible–and that in return, we’ll support them on their journey.

This is not the easily monetized connection of digital social networks. Those networks seek to maximize a simple metric (likes, friends and followers, all three of which should be in air quotes because the words don’t mean what they appear to mean). It’s more difficult than that.

We founded the altMBA (and the other Akimbo workshops) with a focused commitment on lifelong learning. I believe that it’s our urgent obligation (and precious opportunity) to learn more and make things better for those around us.

What we’ve found, though, is that it’s the lifelong journey of connection that powers that learning. That surrounding ourselves with others on the same path is at least as useful as learning something new. To that end, we’ve spent the last year building an online community called Forward Link where the more than 10,000 alumni from our workshops are connecting with and challenging each other on the way forward.

At the end of each seminar, we invite our students to join with the others who are already part of our growing circle.

Drip by drip, day by day. It’s not dramatic, but that’s how we get there.

Toward abundant systems

Industrialism is based on scarcity. So is traditional college admissions. In fact, much of the world as we know it is based on hierarchies, limited shelf space, and resources that are difficult to share.

This leads to a common mindset: if it’s yours, it’s not mine. Sharing is something we teach to little kids, but in real life, we’re much busier keeping track of who’s up and who’s down in an endless status game.

But some systems are based on abundance. A language, for example, is more valuable when more people know it. The network effect helps us understand that for connection-based systems, more is actually better, not worse. Interoperability is a benefit. Cultural connection is an asset.

Wikipedia is more valuable than a traditional encyclopedia. That’s because there are unlimited pages and room for ever more editors. The system works better when more people use it.

The cultural turning point of our moment in time, the one that’s just beginning to be realized, is that education is an abundant system, not a scarce one.

Space on the Harvard campus is highly valued and also scarce.

But if we can break education out of the campus/scarcity mindset and instead focus on learning, learning at scale, learning that happens despite status not because of it–then we can begin to shift many of the other power structures in our society.

The more people who know something, the more it can be worth, because knowledge permits interoperability and forward motion. Knowledge creates more productivity, more connection and then, more knowledge.

It’s not enough, but it’s a start.

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