The Confidence to Cut

Jerry Seinfeld described the two personas we need to inhabit to be good writers.

The key to writing, to being a good writer, is to treat yourself like a baby, [to be] nurturing and loving, and then switch over to Lou Gossett in Officer and a Gentleman. and just be a harsh [expletive], a ball-busting son of a…When you’re writing, you want to treat your brain like a toddler. It’s just all nurturing and loving and supportiveness. And then when you look at it the next day, you want to be just a hard-ass. And you switch back and forth.

I love it: a gentle nurturer, treating my brain like a toddler, and then a hard-assed drill sergeant who is relentlessly reviewing, looking critically and, most important, cutting.

Most of the time, our writing has too many words. These extra words are a place to hide, an excuse for 80%-there thinking that’s directionally correct but still fuzzy.

The false safety of extra words and high-falutin language is how we avoid laying our ideas bare.

When we cut, our ideas stand naked and exposed to the world. They can be seen clearly, unadorned. The unadorned is bare, but it is also beautiful.

It’s an act of courage to cut away all the unnecessary bits, to stop burying our best thinking in extra blather.

We cut, we cut, we add a bit, and then we cut some more.

On and on until one of two things happens: either we learn that this idea isn’t good enough, or we discover the distilled essence of what we want to say.

Cutting is an act of confidence and bravery. When in doubt, cut.

AdAge is Wrong About The Lincoln Project

According to AdAge, the Lincoln Project, the anti-Trump PAC that ran ad after of scathing ad throughout 2020, was one of the best marketers of the year. In their words, “The conservative anti-Trump PAC made some of the most compelling and influential ads of the year.”

The purpose of the Lincoln Project was to get Republicans to defect from Trump. Disaffected Republicans created The Lincoln Project because they felt that Trump was destroying the country and the Republican Party. Their YouTube page has more than 350 videos, many viewed well over a million times, and they are some of the highest-quality political ads you’ll ever see.

The problem is, they weren’t influential.

In fact, 93% of registered Republicans voted for Trump in 2020, compared to 90% in 2016. Worse, according to a study by the Democratic super-PAC Priorities USA, the most popular ads had the least impact on voters in swing states,

The lesson is essential: we must always remember what marketing is.

Marketing is the act of persuading someone to take an action.

We consistently confuse who the “someone” is: it is not us, it is someone else.

The Lincoln Project convinced me of a lot of things; it also convinced Trump-haters of a lot of things. But I and they weren’t supposed to take a different action because of these ads.

As marketers, we struggle so much to create great content that, when we do, we’re quick to tell ourselves that we’ve done great work. And, we very well may have.

But our job as marketers isn’t to create great content. Our job is to persuade someone specific to take a particular action.

If you haven’t figured out who you’re trying to persuade, and if you haven’t figured out if they took the action, you’re not marketing. You’re just creating stuff and putting it out into the world.

Strategy and Conviction

Strategy is fundamentally about choices.

When we write down our (company, personal) strategy for the coming year, we are articulating the things we will prioritize differently, the things we will put more time and resources behind because we believe that doing so will lead to better results.

This means that all good strategy is about change. We implement our strategy by shifting from what we used to do—which was comfortable—to what we are going to do now—which is new, and therefore harder.

The bridge from here to there is conviction.

Conviction that the new path is right.

Conviction that we must give up some of the things that got us, even if that’s hard in the short term.

Conviction that even if we don’t see the yield of our new strategy immediately, we will give it time to play out before reverting to our old ways of doing things.

Conviction, of course, is itself a decision.

It’s a choice in the face of unknowns and uncertainties.

It’s a recognition that through the acts of believing and follow-through we shape reality, transforming something that could be into something that is.

Strategy without conviction is just words on a page.

 

My Call

The situation is messy, and it’s unclear who gets to decide.

I’m not sure that I know best – or even enough.

Nevertheless, I recognize that in this situation, a decision has to be made. So I’m using my judgment and I’m making the call. Because ultimately that’s my job: to make tough decisions and be responsible for the consequences.

The most important professional moments are defined by a willingness to step into uncertainty, to act, and hold oneself accountable for outcomes.

Not because we need more people to make good decisions. The answers themselves, whether right or wrong, are a dime a dozen.

What’s scarce is the willingness to take responsibility for success and for failure—to be on the hook for your customers and your team.

Privilege is

I’d written this blog post already, and then came across this TikTok from tWitch and Allison, which does a much better job at making my point on a visceral level.

If you didn’t click, here’s a paraphrase of what they’re counting down on their fingers. White Privilege is:

Never having been called a racial slur.

Never having been followed in a store unnecessarily.

Never having had people cross the street to avoid walking by you.

Never having had someone clench their purse in an elevator with you.

Never having had someone step off an elevator to avoid riding with you.

Never having been accused of not being able to afford something expensive.

Never having had fear in your heart when having been stopped by the police.

Never having been given a pass on a citation that you deserved.

Never having been stopped or detained by the police for no valid reason.

Never having been denied service solely because of the color of your skin.

Never having to teach your child how not to get killed by the police.

 

Here’s what I’d add to that list.

Privilege (white and otherwise) is also:

If you, or your kid, breaks something you love, you know you can get a new one.

If all your schools were always well-resourced, were not overcrowded, were filled with qualified teachers.

If you’ve ever had a private tutor of any sort.

Or private instrument lessons. Or private lessons of any kind.

If you expected, from the day you were born, that you would go to college.

If you’ve ever had an unpaid internship.

Or an informational interview with a powerful friend of your parents’ or their friends.

If you’ve never been truly afraid to walk down a dark street at night, or to your parked car in a garage, alone.

If you’ve rarely, if ever, been forced to be conscious on a daily basis of your race or another element of your identity—indeed, if you barely think about your race or other element of your identity if you don’t want to—because it almost never engenders an experience of outsider-ness or threat for you.

If you’ve never had to explain to someone else what it feels like to be a person like you—when “like you” is about a group you’re part of rather than “you” as an individual.

If, most of the time, especially in situations of consequence (classrooms, school and job interviews, sales meetings, industry conferences, fundraising pitches, board rooms), you are in groups made up of almost exclusively of people of the same race, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity as you.

If most of the people on TV shows, in ads, and in magazines look like you…

…and the same goes for the person who saves the day in nearly every movie.

If you don’t have a parent, uncle or aunt, grandparent or great-grandparent who was systematically persecuted, tortured or killed for some aspect of their identity.

And if you feel like you’ve had the choice of whether or not to pay attention, feel personally affected by, and act in response to the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Michael Brown, Terence Crutcher, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Freddie Gray, Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, Bettie Jones, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Laquan MacDonald, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, and Dominique White.

 

What I appreciate at the end of the video of tWitch talking to Ellen is his saying that he and his wife, and he and his in-laws, are having much deeper conversations about race than they’ve ever had before.

And, as he rightly says, while it’s not enough, it’s a start.

Until white people fully see the privilege we have, until we can see what Peggy McIntosh called (in 1989!) our “invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks” then we are, honestly, in no position to contemplate the steps we need to take to be part of the solution.

 

 

 

Adjusting Your Value Wheel

Each business has a value wheel – the collection of things you do that create value for your customers.

In each situation, and for each customer, you present these in a different way. One customer cares more about the speed of delivery, another about how flexible you are, a third loves that you have an office in Cairo right next to where their main supplier is.

While your value wheel has a few core elements—the handful of things (values, behaviors, promises you keep) that make you you—each customer’s next-level reasons for hiring you will differ.

Your job, when selling your wares, is to know which of these value wheel elements to present when and to whom, and to be facile enough in representing and rejiggering them to communicate just the right offering to each different (potential) customer.

If this all wasn’t easy to see a month ago, it certainly is now. A month ago, a big chunk of how we used to create value was taken off the table. Our new task is to see if the pieces we are left holding are enough that we can continue to do (a new version of) what we do, even in today’s new, unprecedented context.

For many industries and business models, the short-term answer is a simple ‘no’:

Airlines can’t be airlines if people don’t want to travel.

Most restaurants can’t be restaurants without seated customers

But there is also potential, even with a lot of change:

Schools, it turns out, could probably teach kids effectively without kids coming together (though most are failing to do this well).

Most services businesses, whose lifeblood used to involve face time (not FaceTime) with clients and going to giant conferences, are discovering that a lot of that was expected behavior that was mostly unnecessary.

For those of us lucky enough to still be holding enough pieces to stay afloat, the questions to ask are:

How do we clearly see the collection of pieces we’re left holding?

Might there be a way that THIS collection of pieces is, in fact, enough to do meaningful work?

If we imagined that this new normal were here to stay, what would we do differently? What bigger bets would we make?

(and finally)

What new things have we learned about ourselves, our capabilities and our customers that we want to preserve, even when things get back to “normal?”

To help take this forward, here’s a downloadable value wheel that you can print out and fill out with your team (virtually, of course).

Value Wheel

Resources for Remote Surveying

Much of the world has ground to a halt in the last week, and I expect it will continue this way for some time.

Our 60 Decibels team has been looking for ways we can help directly, and we’ve put together some resources I’d like to share.

First, yesterday we shared the 60 Decibels Remote Survey Toolkit. It is a new, free 19-page guide on how to successfully conduct research work remotely. This is a response to the fact that virtually all face-to-face research has stopped in reaction to COVID-19, and many organizations are scrambling to shift some or all of that data-gathering to mobile phones.

Since our 60 Decibels team has been conducting phone-based surveys for the past six years, we thought it would be helpful to compile some of the lessons we’ve learned about how to gather high-quality feedback and social performance data remotely. This Toolkit capture the most important lessons we’ve learned in speaking to more than 120,000 customers in 35 countries.

60 Decibels Remote Survey Toolkit

In addition, we have a network of more than 200 trained enumerators in 30+ countries who speak 40 languages (ready for the list? It’s awesome: Amharic, Arabic, Assamese, Bangla (Bangladesh), Bemba, Bengali (India), Bisayas, Burmese, Chichewa, English, French, Gujarati, Hausa, Hindi, Igbo, Japanese, Kinyariwanda, Kiswahili, Krio, Luganda, K’iche, Kannada, Malagasy, Malay, Malayalam, Mandarin, Marathi, Nepali, Oromo, Oriya/Odia, Pidgeon English, Portuguese, Punjabi, Q’eqchi, Shona, Siswati, Sotho, Spanish, Swahili, Tagalog, Tamil, Tigrinya, Telugu, Twi, Urdu, Wolaiytigna, Wolof, Xhosa, Yoruba, and Zulu.)

While we have, so far, used this network to conduct our own work, we’re having lots of conversations with other research organizations to see if we can help them keep their work on track. If this network might be helpful to you, please let me know.

Finally, we are going to take steps to integrate questions about COVID-19 and its impacts into all our ongoing 60 Decibels surveys. While there are already some great initiatives tracking the impacts of COVID-19 globally, like this one created by Harvard, Cambridge, Warwick, and 7 other universities, they are mostly online-only and won’t capture the voice of the 3.5 billion people who don’t have a smartphone.

While it’s just one small piece of a much, much bigger puzzle, we hope that the work of listening, especially to those most impacted by the many hardships the world has to offer, can continue through these challenging times.

Stay safe, stay positive, and let’s take good care of each other.

The Second Wave

A week ago, I felt ahead of the coronavirus curve. Our town had closed schools as of the prior Sunday night, so our kids were already at home. Our community had started social distancing and I was already staying home from work. Meanwhile, the rest of the country, and most of the rest of the world, was going about business as usual.

What a difference a week makes.

If last week my community was living through a first, early wave, this week everyone everywhere got hit head-on with a mammoth second wave, and it’s knocked us off our feet.

My sister-in-law runs a wonderful commercial bakery in Nashville, and nearly all the restaurants in town are running skeleton operations and will soon be shut down. She and countless others running small businesses have no playbook for “the economy grinds to a halt.” For now, she and the restaurants are doing what they can to keep paying their staff, but that can’t last forever. What happens 3-4 weeks from now?

She, and I, and every small business owner in the country and the world spent the early part of this week running all the numbers: our revenues, our costs, our cash. We’re trying to make plans but have no crystal ball to tell us how big a hit this will be and how long it will last.

Are we stopping everything for a few weeks or for a few months?

Come mid-April, will we have adjusted to a new normal, a pulled-back version of what we know, one in which everything functions, albeit at 60-70% its normal capacity?

Or is it possible that major parts of the economy, our school systems, our houses of worship, our community service organizations, and our social fabric all stay offline for months or longer while our healthcare system gets crushed by demand that is a multiple of its current capacity?

Honestly, it is all too much to get my head around.

And, in truth, while all of this worries me, I quietly fear that in a few months’ time I will look back longingly to a time when I was mostly thinking about changes in regular life instead of worrying about the health and well-being of people I know and love.

I pray every day that what we’re all doing will buy us the time we need and avert the worst-case scenarios.

Instead of trying to make sense of it all, I’m doing what I can to keep focused on the present, to do what I can to take care of my family and myself, to stay connected to the people I work with and the customers we serve, and to find ways, big and small, to support one another.

I notice that our 60 Decibels team is much more active online—new Slack channels are coming to life, and everyone is much more responsive. It’s become OK to spend time on a Zoom call just asking how people are doing, to speak about feelings and experiences. These are all good things.

I’ve also noticed is how differently time is passing. Without a regular schedule, the days have lost their structure, so they are bleeding into one another. A morning or afternoon might fly by, but the days themselves feel slow, sometimes plodding. Every time I count how long it’s been since schools shut down–8 days, as of today–the number feels woefully small compared to what’s to come.

I, along with a number of people around me, have…some sort of illness. It’s some combination of a low fever, a tight chest, aches, listlessness. Normally we’d take a DayQuill and get on with things, but now we realize that we could be the ones spreading this thing if we’re not careful, and of course its scary to think of the worst scenarios. So, we alert everyone we’ve been in contact with over the last 10 days (nearly nobody), while at the same time all deciding that there’s no point in trying to get tested because tests aren’t available.

This means we don’t know, and we won’t know, if we have a cold or the flu or the coronavirus, and I expect most of us never will. Even the relief of catching the virus, getting over it, and having immunity eludes us because of the embarrassing, dangerous lack-of-response to this pandemic that’s our reality in the United States.

At the same time, there have also been many wonderful moments over these last eight days. I’m definitely spending more time, and different time, with my children. We, and they, have gone for many more hikes. They are, by necessity, much more independent, venturing off on walks and through parks without us, the sort of unstructured free play that’s all but vanished in our modern, over-parented and over-scheduled era. I’ve taught my third-grade daughter how to add fractions—I didn’t just help her with her homework, I taught it to her from scratch. We’ve brought the ping-pong table back out and everyone’s eager to play. We are eating all our meals together and cooking even more than we normally do (which is a lot). Mostly, we can get the groceries that we want.

When they ask, we tell our kids this has never happened before, that it’s unprecedented. I think we’re failing to communicate the scale of our un-knowing. We are all children in the face of this new era that’s smacked us in the face, with no experience to guide us, no intuition to inform where we are relative to where we will be.

Stay safe, stay positive, and let’s take good care of each other.

The Best Time to Start

Time is a tricky thing.

I remember like it was yesterday sitting on the floor with my newborn son, a famously bad sleeper, at a few minutes past four on a Saturday morning. It was pitch black out, I’d only slept a few hours, and we were up for the day. He sat in front of me, smiling and up for the day, diligently working on picking things up and trying to place them in a plastic shape-sorter that played a bunch of different tunes.

Day after day, week after week, my day would start at this hour—long before the neighbors, my friends who didn’t have kids, even the Marines. Being awake for hours before the sun came up each Saturday (and Sunday, and Monday) felt endless, as did that phase of life.

These days, things are a bit different.

My son, when he comes over to give me a hug, lifts his chin up a bit—he’s not yet a full head taller than me, but I expect he will be soon. We talk about his ceramics and logarithms, what e means, and about politics.

Just like that, in the proverbial blink of an eye.

Time is neutral, just doing its job day after day. Yet, despite its consistency, we fail to understand it. We get fooled into thinking we have forever, that tomorrow is just as good as today, for…

…starting that new project

…keeping a commitment

…telling someone we love them

…lending a hand

…letting go of a bad habit

…or starting a good one.

We have all the time in the world, until we don’t.

And waiting until a better time to start often means never starting at all.

We let ourselves believe that whatever is happening today will last for forever, and that we’ll never get free of the hard thing we are facing.

Just as easily, we can believe that we have “all the time in the world” when someday it will run out.

We reliably accomplish less than we think will each day and week, but much more than seems possible over the course of a year.

Assuming, that is, that we start today.

The Story of a Truth, Revealed

We all carry around The Story of Me: the things we know to be true, an admixture of strengths and idiosyncrasies, faults and foibles.

Our identity is a many-layered thing. At its deepest layers are the things about Us we are most sure of. These things, buried so deep, are the hardest to see: attributes and mindsets, tendencies and habits so firmly held they become invisible.

Then, one day, someone shines a new light on one of these until-now truths. This is a someone who cares enough, knows us well enough, is expert enough and speaks so clearly that the truth they’ve uttered cuts all the way to our core.

Like hearing our own recorded voice, or seeing ourselves in a video, something previously invisible is at the center of the screen, revealed. We can’t look away. It takes up our whole field of vision.

This is a tough moment.

This Truth was so deeply held it formed part of our identity—it touches on the story of who we knew ourselves to be.

It is natural, in this moment of revelation, to experience this new Truth as a flaw, one that eclipses our strengths, our natural talents, the things that make us special.

At first, preoccupied by this new Truth, our performance plummets. Because we can’t tear our eyes away, all we see is the ways it makes us less than we thought we were. Preoccupied, we lose our ability to do things naturally: the grooved behaviors that worked so well in the past feel off, but we don’t know what else to do, how else to act.

The natural reaction is to turn away, to hide from this new Truth. It feels so ugly and misshapen, making us feel clumsy, awkward.

That’s not the answer. We shouldn’t run from this Truth. It has, after all, been offered up as a gift by someone who cares.

Nor should we be sucked into obsession, seeing the Truth in our every action, being fooled into thinking that it is Everything.

Our job, instead, is to stand firm. The “it’s all I can see, I’m a failure, I should give up” stage will pass if we are patient and we can stay grounded. Our job is to live with the truth, not to hide from or banish it.

If we can do this, then, in due course, we’ll arrive at the next stop on our journey: the It’s Not Everything stage.

In this stage, we begin to see the playing field more clearly. A number of important Things that didn’t make sense—surprising impacts we’ve had on others, results for us or our team that were less than we’d hoped for—are explained by their connection to this new Truth. In the It’s Not Everything stage, we’re not fully comfortable yet, but a fog is lifting and we’re getting more clarity. With clarity comes progress.

Finally, in time, we arrive at the last stop in our journey: the New Story.

We’ve shifted, we’ve test, we’ve adjusted, we’ve trialed-and-errored, and we’ve loosened our grip just a bit on the way things were. We’ve integrate this Truth into the New Story.

This New Story is a more real story of Us. It’s one in which we’ve traded a shiny, but ultimately faulty, piece of the puzzle for a new one.

This new piece at first seemed imperfect and misshapen.

In time we’ve cleaned it off, honed the edges, and discovered it for what it really is: a stronger, more reliable, more real than the piece that was there before.