I know it’s here somewhere

My wife likes to needle me for (according to her) not being good at looking for things.  Needless to say, I disagree.

(Admittedly, I did recently speak to a senior marketer at Proctor and Gamble who told me that P&G has done studies in homes in which they move one or two items in the pantry, and women crush men in their ability to figure out what was moved….something about how men and women’s memories about of spatial relations are fundamentally different.)

I didn’t help my case when, the other day, I failed to find the little needle for the bike pump, so I could inflate a soccer ball.  This tiny needle floats around our house, usually in the “junk drawer” that’s full of pens, keys, stickers, and other small household overflow items.  I rifled through the drawer twice and convinced myself if wasn’t there.

My wife came downstairs, opened the drawer, and pulled the darn thing out in about two seconds.

Friendly marital banter aside, here’s what I’ve begun to understand: we look in a different ways when we’re sure something is there.  And this isn’t just about keys and pens and tomato sauce.

It goes something like this: if you’re not sure something is there, you’re looking in order to 1) Confirm/refute your hypothesis that the thing is there AND 2) Find the thing.  Conversely, if you’re sure something is there, you’re just working #2, on finding the thing.  Evidence along the way that indicates that it’s not there is summarily ignored.

This applied to all proverbial needles in haystacks, to problems big and small.  Knowing the answer is out there – you just have to find it – is a completely different undertaking than looking around, not sure if the answer is out there in the first place.  If you do the latter, you’re likely to throw in the towel far too soon, and you’re also likely to look in the wrong places. If you’re sure the answer is out there, you hang on to that conviction doggedly.

This is why looking tentatively is so problematic; why high-paid consultants often end up confirming what we already knew and discourage us from pushing boundaries into the unknown; it’s why great entrepreneurs distinguish themselves.

The chorus of naysayers loves to jeer that a better way isn’t out there.  And they win when we give up, because it confirms their own fears and the status quo that they love so much.

The thing is, a better way IS out there. And you’re going to find it if you look hard enough.

Confidence and Abilities

A woman I’ve gotten to know has had one of the most incredible professional trajectories I’ve ever had the pleasure to witness.  In six years she’s gone from an off-the-street volunteer/intern into a key player in a global organization.  It’s not just that her job title or her responsibilities have changed – she is a fundamentally different person (or, more accurately, she’s taken huge strides towards becoming the person she’s meant to be and who the world needs her to be).  Amazingly, the organization she works for has been able to keep up with her trajectory and give her bigger, more challenging roles.

When we talk about her career and her life, we keep coming back to the fact that one of her biggest challenges is having her confidence keep pace with her abilities.  While the people around her realize who she’s become, realize what a linchpin she is for her organization, at times the echoes of her former self, her former self-image, her former limitations, all reverberate, if only for her.

For a while I thought that this reflection was just for her, because most people don’t transform as quickly as she does.

But of course it is for all of us.

Most of us carry the mantle of our former selves – the intern we were, the person with the entry-level job clamoring for attention, with all those perceived limitations holding us back.

Worse, we make the mistake of spending time and energy clamoring for that bigger job, the new job title and formal responsibilities, energy that could instead be spent on actually doing bigger, better, more audacious things.  And we get even more confused when our asking for more actually gets us more, reinforcing the specious notion that real authority, ability, and voice come from anywhere but inside of us.


My impulse book purchase

Last week, for the second time, a friend recommended a book to me.  Rather than let the idea pass, I brought it right away on my iPhone to be read later on my Kindle, for $5.99.

The next day, she brought me a paper copy of the book for me to read. Suddenly I had two copies.

This has never happened to me before: making an impulse book purchase so fast that I ended up with two copies. In fact, for most people (outside of the most avid readers and book-buyers) “impulse book purchase” used to be oxymoronic.

No longer.

The demise of print newspapers and magazines has led to a chorus proclaiming the end of books.  I don’t buy it.  When the price of the book is (or could be) within the vicinity of the price of ringtones – 2.6 billion of those have been downloaded – and, perhaps more relevant, when the price sits somewhere between the going rate of an iPhone app and an iPad app AND they’re just as easy to acquire, there’s no reason to believe that people are going to buy fewer books, but there’s lots of reason to believe that how people buy “books” and what people buy will look a lot more like lots of other things we know about (online content, apps, games) than they will like the book business today.

That’s why it pays to pay attention to The Domino Project.  Why the time to start building your audience, your voice, your tribe is now, not tomorrow.  And why, whether we like these changes or not, it’s time to understand and embrace them.

Sarah Kay at TED

Daniel commented last week:

“Sarah Kay’s TED talk is up and amazingly, even with you setting the bar quite high, she totally shattered it for me.

Post it up for your readers.”

Here it is, and just keep reminding yourself: Sarah’s 22 years old, standing in front of one of the most intimidating crowds on the planet, and although I bet her heart was pounding, I didn’t see her break a sweat.

Out (f-cking) care the competition

I just learned last week about Gary Vaynerchuk from Seth Godin’s Domino Project (great post, Ishita), another great example of someone who pokes the box (you mean you haven’t read Poke the Box yet?  What are you waiting for?  It’s a top 100 book on Amazon, for goodness sake, and it will help you see that you don’t need to wait for anyone’s permission.    OK fine, I’ll write a review soon).

Then just yesterday a colleague told me that Gary’s talk at last weeks’ SXSW-Interactive was one of the top three at the whole darn conference.  Besides the entertainment value of Gary’s, uh, colorful vocabulary, (2 minutes and 4 seconds without dropping the “f-bomb”) Gary’s main message was that companies are going to win and lose based on who can “out care” their customers.

Speaking of caring (and not caring), the other night I was at Magnolia Bakery, which helped start the NY cupcake craze and which shamelessly charges nearly $3 for an (admittedly delicious) cupcake.   But service is slow.  The store is set up Disney-land style (pick your cupcakes here, walk down the long counter for the chance to buy more stuff, pay at the register at the end) which might work when there’s a throng of customers but makes no sense when you’d rather just drop six bucks in a jar and walk away with two cupcakes.

I was running late for a show, so I noticed when it took me (and the other six other customers in the store) nearly 10 minutes to buy cupcakes (two cupcakes per couple, so really three customers).  Bad enough, but much worse because there were 8 Magnolia employees chatting, working, and doing everything but notice that their empty shop had a logjam.  I even asked one of them if I could just pay and go, and she said she wasn’t assigned to the register.

“Too cool for school” might be an OK customer service approach when your shop is flooded with tourists looking for a “real NY experience,” but for the rest of us chickens it’s time to think seriously about out-caring the competition.  If you don’t believe me, read the blow-by-blow Zappos story in Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness, and remind yourself again and again: this is a billion dollar company with rabid fans who buy SHOES ONLINE.

While last week’s post about new humanism generated a lot of interest, some comments said that David Brooks’ arguments are old hat.  The ideas may not be new, but they’re certainly not mainstream (in business, in economics, in how we teach our kids), and I think it’s high time that changes.  It’s much more than a tweak to the old models….if you really take it seriously you have to throw the baby out with the bathwater and start afresh.

For example, the old way of thinking about customer service says that customers want the best product for the best price, and oh, yes, they want to good customer service too (read: nice-to-have, sort of like “soft skills”…can you hear the derisive sneer?).  The Zappos way of thinking says that creating an off-the-charts customer experience is the ONLY thing that matters.  For Zappos, it’s the end-all be-all.

It may be that Magnolia Bakery can ignore out-caring the competition because they serve up enough sugary, buttery goodness to anesthetize their customers (or, more seriously, because waiting forever confirms the story of cupcakes you flew across the country to try), but for the rest of us, it’s time to start out-caring the competition.

That means real relationships, every time.  It means you actually care, you don’t just act like you care.  It means you put emotional effort into everything you do.  It’s not easy to copy, which is why if you do it with abandon, you win.

That moment

You know that moment when you ask for something really big?  Big enough that it makes you nervous and makes the person you’re asking nervous?

Your empathy will scream out for you to rescue the person – and you – from the discomfort you just created.

Don’t do it.

Sit there.

Let the seconds tick by.

Now the best way for that discomfort to go away is to have the person you’ve just made a big ask of say “Yes.”


Try this: the next time you have lunch planned with a friend, have him meet you at your office.  Put him on your calendar.  But don’t tell anyone who he is or why he’s there.

Then, when you sit down with him, ask him what it felt like to be a new visitor to your place of work.

How long does he wait at reception?  Does the receptionist pass him to another person before getting to talk to you?  Is he attended to quickly or does he wait for a while?  Did people say hello to him?  Was he brought to your desk or to a conference room?  Did the experience make him feel welcomed, excited, intimidated, put off?  Does your office feel active and buzzing or empty and quiet?

How was he left feeling before your “meeting” even started?  And how does this compare to how you’d like someone to feel before / during / after a meeting?

Here’s how this often works:

  • You arrive and say who you’re there to meet
  • A receptionist call an assistant
  • You wait a bit
  • The assistant comes to greet you and takes you to an empty room
  • You’re offered something to drink
  • You wait a bit
  • The drink arrives
  • You wait a bit
  • The meeting starts
  • (elapsed time: 5-10 minutes if all goes smoothly)

This particular sequence of events might be fine if you want to make a very specific impression (namely, we’re big and established).  But if the impression you’re after is “nimble, cutting edge organization” consider re-imagining the whole shebang.

Maybe something along the lines of: person arrives, they’re walked straight to your desk.

The advantage you have against the big guys is that you’re NOT them.  In which case acting just like them (because that’s how they do it) is a huge miss.

I disagree

Each time someone says that to me (emails it to me, comments it to me), my first reaction is to be a little surprised and, if I’m really honest, just a tiny bit hurt. (“I can’t believe someone unsubscribed from my blog!” or “Really, they didn’t find that David Brooks piece compelling?!”)

But then I remind myself: if no one’s vehemently disagreeing, then no one’s vehemently agreeing.

“Vehement” is the point.

Conversations are the point.

I’m not advocating for being controversial just for its own sake, but do have something to say and say it….if you do that, some people will beg to differ.

And that’s more than OK, it’s great.

Pushing, prodding, exploring, tripping, falling, and getting up again…that’s what it’s all about.  Otherwise, you’re just standing there, not doing much of anything.

David Brooks on New Humanism

David Brooks’ column in this weeks’ New York Times is a must-read, so much so that I’ve pasted it in into the end of this post in full (and as soon as his talk from last week’s TED conference is posted, you’ll want to watch that too…along with Brooks’ new book which has just jumped to the top of my reading list).

Brooks proposes a “new humanism” that essentially does away with the notion of rational man that has been the dominant Western worldview the day since the French Enlightenment.   My friend Pip Coburn likes to talk about “mental models” – the simplifying assumptions we use to process everything around us.  Pip’s mantra is to remember that our mental models of the world are not the same as the world itself.  Easy to say, but hard to know when it’s time to live within our mental models and when we need to to step back and question the models themselves, lest they corrupt our thinking.

“Rational man” is the uber-mental model, the underlying assumption that defines how we process information about just about everything: kids’ aptitudes; what we teach and test (the SAT); how we hire (where did you go to school?); our belief that bankers won’t ALL act stupidly all at the same time; how we (the US) wage war and “build nations” and expect to be welcomed as liberators and not conquerors or even oppressors.

Even our language trips us up, because we gravitate towards words and concepts of dichotomy: if we are not all fundamentally rational, we must be irrational; if we can’t measure it with a number it must not be as important; “hard skills” matter when looking for great leaders but so do “soft ones”.

Here’s Brooks on some of the aptitudes we’ll need to understand, recognize, and cultivate in ourselves and those around us:

Attunement: the ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer.

Equipoise: the ability to serenely monitor the movements of one’s own mind and correct for biases and shortcomings.

Metis: the ability to see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations.

Sympathy: the ability to fall into a rhythm with those around you and thrive in groups.

Limerence: This isn’t a talent as much as a motivation. The conscious mind hungers for money and success, but the unconscious mind hungers for those moments of transcendence when the skull line falls away and we are lost in love for another, the challenge of a task or the love of God. Some people seem to experience this drive more powerfully than others.

When I read this, all sorts of things click into focus: not just Dan Pink’s Drive, about why intrinsic motivations are the only way to get the best people working in the most productive ways on the most important problems; or Dan Arley’s Predictably Irrational which shows that “irrationality” is not an aberration but is core to how we process information;  but also Clay Shirkey’s Cognitive Surplus, which paints a picture of a population that wants, in a very fundamental way, to act and create and connect…and which suggests that the last 50 years of TV-induced anesthesia/passivity may in fact be an historical blip.

I begin to understand in a deeper way why cellphones are the only new product in the last 20 years that has succeed on a massive scale with poor communities in the developing world: because our desire for connection, for being part of a tribe, for status and for information (in all its forms) trumps everything.

I begin to think in a different way about the importance of great teachers, about the hugely negative impact our national obsession with testing could have, since it comes at the expense of visual arts, language, music and dance.

And it becomes more clear why, as our social fabrics attenuate, as our sense of culture and connection fade, that we’ll increasingly drown ourselves in cheap, poor quality food that is slowly killing us.

The upside, and my most surprising and powerful revelation for me from last week’s TED conference is that we have an incredible and newfound power to create real, human connection in new ways – even asynchronously and across tens of thousands of miles (e.g. Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir).  If the recent events in the Middle East have shown us anything it is that as information flows more freely, as people are able to connect and to organize, power dynamics as we once knew them will change inexorably.

I see an incredible opportunity before us, but figuring out how to seize this opportunity requires a wholesale shift in how we think about who we are, how we process information, how we make decisions, and how we connect to one another.

Here is Brooks’ column in full.

Op-Ed Columnist

The New Humanism

Published: March 7, 2011
Over the course of my career, I’ve covered a number of policy failures. When the Soviet Union fell, we sent in teams of economists, oblivious to the lack of social trust that marred that society. While invading Iraq, the nation’s leaders were unprepared for the cultural complexities of the place and the psychological aftershocks of Saddam’s terror. 

The intellectual, cultural and scientific findings that land on the columnist’s desk nearly every day.

We had a financial regime based on the notion that bankers are rational creatures who wouldn’t do anything stupid en masse. For the past 30 years we’ve tried many different ways to restructure our educational system — trying big schools and little schools, charters and vouchers — that, for years, skirted the core issue: the relationship between a teacher and a student.

I’ve come to believe that these failures spring from a single failure: reliance on an overly simplistic view of human nature. We have a prevailing view in our society — not only in the policy world, but in many spheres — that we are divided creatures. Reason, which is trustworthy, is separate from the emotions, which are suspect. Society progresses to the extent that reason can suppress the passions.

This has created a distortion in our culture. We emphasize things that are rational and conscious and are inarticulate about the processes down below. We are really good at talking about material things but bad at talking about emotion.

When we raise our kids, we focus on the traits measured by grades and SAT scores. But when it comes to the most important things like character and how to build relationships, we often have nothing to say. Many of our public policies are proposed by experts who are comfortable only with correlations that can be measured, appropriated and quantified, and ignore everything else.

Yet while we are trapped within this amputated view of human nature, a richer and deeper view is coming back into view. It is being brought to us by researchers across an array of diverse fields: neuroscience, psychology, sociology, behavioral economics and so on.

This growing, dispersed body of research reminds us of a few key insights. First, the unconscious parts of the mind are most of the mind, where many of the most impressive feats of thinking take place. Second, emotion is not opposed to reason; our emotions assign value to things and are the basis of reason. Finally, we are not individuals who form relationships. We are social animals, deeply interpenetrated with one another, who emerge out of relationships.

This body of research suggests the French enlightenment view of human nature, which emphasized individualism and reason, was wrong. The British enlightenment, which emphasized social sentiments, was more accurate about who we are. It suggests we are not divided creatures. We don’t only progress as reason dominates the passions. We also thrive as we educate our emotions.

When you synthesize this research, you get different perspectives on everything from business to family to politics. You pay less attention to how people analyze the world but more to how they perceive and organize it in their minds. You pay a bit less attention to individual traits and more to the quality of relationships between people.

You get a different view of, say, human capital. Over the past few decades, we have tended to define human capital in the narrow way, emphasizing I.Q., degrees, and professional skills. Those are all important, obviously, but this research illuminates a range of deeper talents, which span reason and emotion and make a hash of both categories:

Attunement: the ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer.

Equipoise: the ability to serenely monitor the movements of one’s own mind and correct for biases and shortcomings.

Metis: the ability to see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations.

Sympathy: the ability to fall into a rhythm with those around you and thrive in groups.

Limerence: This isn’t a talent as much as a motivation. The conscious mind hungers for money and success, but the unconscious mind hungers for those moments of transcendence when the skull line falls away and we are lost in love for another, the challenge of a task or the love of God. Some people seem to experience this drive more powerfully than others.

When Sigmund Freud came up with his view of the unconscious, it had a huge effect on society and literature. Now hundreds of thousands of researchers are coming up with a more accurate view of who we are. Their work is scientific, but it directs our attention toward a new humanism. It’s beginning to show how the emotional and the rational are intertwined.

I suspect their work will have a giant effect on the culture. It’ll change how we see ourselves. Who knows, it may even someday transform the way our policy makers see the world.

What you can’t measure

So what was the measurable impact of….?”

Of course this question matters a lot, a ton, the most maybe.

The catch is that we fail to fully appreciate three truths:

  1. You can only measure a subset of the things that matter
  2. We end up convincing ourselves that the things we are able to measure are a good approximation of the whole
  3. But they might not be

A friend was nice enough to send this Skype chat along to me the other day (names changed):

[9:53:08 PM] Felipe: for lent, i’m going to do the generosity experiment

[9:53:24 PM] Felipe: 40 days of saying yes to everything

[9:53:28 PM] Felipe: you are warned 🙂

[9:54:22 PM] Samuel: wow

[9:54:27 PM] Samuel: 40 days

[9:54:28 PM] Samuel: are you sure?

[9:54:45 PM] Felipe: lent is 40 days…i have nothing to give up

[9:54:54 PM] Samuel: ok

[9:55:09 PM] Samuel: Sasha Dichter will be happy to note this

[9:56:17 PM] Felipe: it’ll be on a smaller scale than his, for sure…but let’s see how it goes

(I’m not sure it will be on a smaller scale, really.  The most profound and lasting changes are personal.)

Folks have been asking me: “do we have to wait until February 14th, 2012 for the next Generosity Day.”  Of course not!!!  Start, go, share, inspire others…and if you have a free moment let me know how it went.