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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.


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.

Trapped by the incoming

The incoming is coming to you because a while ago, you did something brave and generous and risky.

Incoming is great. It’s a reward for your impact. It’s a chance to serve and to make a difference. And it enables you to go to work every day.

If you spend all your time dealing with the incoming, though, you’ll have no time and no energy to create the next thing.

Every successful organization that has ultimately faded away via irrelevance has failed for this very reason.

Role models as a tool for decision making

Innovation is essential, but it’s rarely true that we do something that’s truly never been done before.

And that means that our work is toward something. We’re making decisions, taking risks and expending effort to get from here closer to there, where there is a place that’s been visited before.

Are you spending time in the gym trying to be more like Jackie Joyner-Kersee or Dwayne Johnson? Do your policies push our country to be more like China or Denmark? Will this policy create a place that looks like Bakersfield or Portland? Are you investing in the style of Warren Buffet or Mary Meeker?

The role model’s image brings with it all of the nuance that’s missing from a dry discussion of tactics. It forces us to get real and to look further into the future.

Are you really trying to be a Kardashian?

Time travel is exhausting

If you’re imagining your future and then looking back at today through a rear-view mirror, it can wear you out.

Writing a book (all caps, WRITING A BOOK) or preparing for a TED talk (already in all caps) can paralyze an ordinarily productive person.

At the same time, tweeting is easy for a lot of people.

That’s because Twitter makes the false promise that it’s all about now. Whatever. Write what you’re doing, or feeling, or angry about. It’ll be obsolete in ten minutes. No future, no rear view mirror.

On the other hand, a book feels permanent. It’s not for now, it’s for later. It’s your testament, something for strangers to read.

And so, when you sit to write your book (or your blog, for that matter), you imagine who’s going to read it, one day in the future. And then you reflect from that distant, amorphous place back to now.

Time travel.

Without a doubt, we need to do this now and then. We need the discipline to think hard about the implications of our actions. We need to plan, to envision, to make trade-offs. It keeps us on track, doing work we’re proud of.

But when you find that it’s paralyzing you, it might be better to get back to now. Sit around the campfire and simply tell your story. Your story as of now, for the people who are with you, now.

Embracing your incompetence

You can’t be great at everything. None of us are.

The question is: What will you do about it? What will you do about the areas where you don’t have the commitment, time or skill to be exceptional?

One approach is to never talk about it. It’s off limits. Do the work poorly, but pretend you don’t.

Another approach is to talk about it with zeal. Work to find resources you can use to avoid the things you do poorly. Find a cohort that will challenge you to get better. Find new and better ways to improve…

It’s hard to imagine that avoidance of the issue is going to make things better.

Selling insurance to your sister

There are people in your inner circle who trust you. Family members, close work colleagues, college alumni, dear friends–they will give you the benefit of the doubt.

Think twice before turning this circle into prospects by selling them products and services.

First, it doesn’t scale. You don’t have enough relatives to cash in on.

But far more important, these relationships are precious. These are the people who will help you level up, who see you, who care about your future. They are the ones who will tell you the truth and will challenge you to become a better version of yourself. Don’t burn this down on the lazy road to your next paycheck.

If your product or service isn’t good enough to sell to strangers now, it’s not going to be good enough after you sell it to your inner circle.

[On the other hand–if it’s not good enough to sell to your family, please don’t sell it to us.]

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