The dominant narrative
Life is filled with nuance.
Our ability to perceive things, not so much.
We come up with a story (about an organization, a person, a situation) and all the data that supports it, we notice, and the nuance we discount or ignore.
So, if you believe that Whole Foods is expensive, you won’t notice the items that are a little cheaper, but the overpriced things that confirm your narrative will be obvious.
If you believe that your boss is cold-hearted, you’ll gloss over the helpful moments and remind yourself of the other times.
We engage in this narrative and people do it to us as well, and to our brands and our institutions, all the time. Insisting that they see the whole truth isn’t going to be a productive strategy.
It’s easy to pretend that the dominant narrative is insightful, based in reality and in sync with what we wish it was. Denying it doesn’t make it go away, though.
We can’t easily change the dominant narrative that people have about us, we certainly can’t do it by insisting that our customers or colleagues bring more nuance to the table.
Instead, we can do it through action. Vivid, memorable interactions are what people remember. Surprises and vivid action matter far more than we imagine, and we regularly underinvest in them.
Freedom and responsibility
Which do you want?
Freedom is the ability to set your schedule, to decide on the work you do, to make decisions.
Responsibility is being held accountable for your actions. It might involve figuring out how to get paid for your work, owning your mistakes or having others count on you.
Freedom without responsibility is certainly tempting, but there are few people who will give you that gig and take care of you and take responsibility for your work as well.
Responsibility without freedom is stressful. There are plenty of jobs in this line of work, just as there are countless jobs where you have neither freedom nor responsibility. These are good jobs to walk away from.
When in doubt, when you’re stuck, when you’re seeking more freedom, the surest long-term route is to take more responsibility.
Freedom and responsibility aren’t given, they’re taken.
Listening to smart vs. I’m with stupid
In what areas have you found that you benefit from listening to someone who’s really smart about the decision you need to make?
Not a self-appointed expert, but someone with experience, patience and maturity, someone who’s been educated in the field, practiced in it, someone who understands the history and the mechanics of what’s on offer…
Certainly, most of us would agree that in areas like removing a tumor, investing a nest egg or even baking a loaf of bread, listening to these folks is the way to go. Ignoring all of them is foolhardy.
Sometimes, in our search for the new thing, we mistakenly grab the foolish thing instead. “I’m with stupid.”
Challenging the status quo and going against all the the traditional rules of thumb is a great way to take a leap. But that sort of leap needs to be a portfolio play, part of a larger arc, not a matter of life and death, not the last spin of the wheel you’re going to get if you’re wrong.
[Worth noting that plenty of smart people shunned Semmelweis, Lovelace and Alan Kay. But notall of the smart people.]
By all means, take these intellectual risks. But not when you’re skydiving. Being uninformed doesn’t make you a renegade. It merely makes you uninformed.
Special orders don’t upset us
You ask the waiter to bring you the mackerel, but without the teriyaki glaze. He says, “the menu says no substitutions, I’m sorry.”
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with running an establishment around the idea that it is what it is, here it is, you can have it if you want to buy it.
You ask the waiter to bring you the mackerel, but without the teriyaki glaze. He says, “Certainly. Is there anything else I can offer to make it even more to your liking?”
Again, that’s a fine strategy. It recognizes that eating out is a choice, and that this establishment is in the business of treating different people differently.
Do you know what’s not okay? “Well, we don’t like to do this, but just this one time, I’ll ask the chef, but I hope it’s the only thing you want changed.”
Reading between the lines
If you’ve ever been rejected (grad school, an article submission, a job) you may have spent some time analyzing the rejection letter itself, reading between the lines, trying to figure out why you were actually rejected.
The thing is, there’s almost nothing written between lines.
People rarely say what they mean when they reject you. It’s just not worth the risk. Not worth saying, “I’m filled with fear about taking this sort of chance on you.” Not worth the blowback of saying, “you’re a miserable writer, the bane of my existence, and you will never amount to anything.” It’ll just come back to haunt them.
And of course, if you do read that sort of apparently honest screed in a rejection letter, it’s just as likely to be about the writer as it is about you and your work.
Make a pile of the thousands of rejection letters that successful people have received over the years and analyze them for insights and patterns—you won’t find much of use.
Short version: You got rejected. The words and the tone of the rejection aren’t going to tell you much, and every moment you spend dissecting them is a way to hide from the real work of making something that will resonate tomorrow.
If you really want to know why someone didn’t like your work, you’re going to have to put a lot more effort into it understanding the person who rejected you. Reading the tea leaves in the rejection letters and one-star reviews is pretty worthless.
The irrational thing about trust
The obvious and rational equation is that being trustworthy plus being transparent will lead you to be trusted. Verification of trustworthiness should lead to trust.
This makes sense. Being trustworthy (acting in a way that’s worthy of trust) plus being transparent so that people can see your trustworthiness—this should be sufficient.
How then, do we explain that brands like Coke and Google are trusted? The recipe is secret, the algorithm is secret, and competitors like DuckDuckGo certainly act in a more trustworthy way.
In fact, trust often comes from something very different. It’s mostly about symbols, expectations and mystery.
Consider the relationship you might enter into if you need surgery. You trust this woman to cut you open, you’re putting your life in her hands… without the transparency of seeing all of her surgical statistics, interviewing all previous patients, evaluating her board scores.
Instead, we leap into surgery on the basis of the recommendation from one doctor, on how the office feels, on a few minutes of bedside manner. We walk away from surgery because of a surly receptionist, or a cold demeanor.
The same is true for just about all the food we eat. Not only don’t we visit the slaughterhouse or the restaurant kitchen, we make an effort to avoid imagining that they even exist.
In most commercial and organizational engagements, trust is something we want and something we seek out, but we use the most basic semiotics and personal interactions to choose where to place our trust. And once the trust is broken, there’s almost no amount of transparency that will help us change our mind.
This is trust from ten thousand years ago, a hangover from a far less complex age when statistical data hadn’t been conceived of, when unearthing history was unheard of. But that’s now hard-wired into how we judge and are judged.
Quick test: Consider how much you trust Trump, or Clinton, Cruz or Sanders, Scalia or RBG. Is that trust based on transparency? On a rational analysis of public statements and private acts? Or is it more hunch-filled than that? What are the signals and tropes you rely on? Tone of voice? Posture? Appearance? Would more transparency change your mind about someone you trust? What about someone you don’t? (Here’s a fascinating story on that topic, reconstructed and revealed).
It turns out that we grab trust when we need it, and that rebuilding trust after it’s been torn is really quite difficult. Because our expectations (which weren’t based on actual data) were shown to be false.
Real trust (even in our modern culture) doesn’t always come from divulging, from providing more transparency, but from the actions that people take (or that we think they take) before our eyes. It comes from people who show up before they have to, who help us when they think no one is watching. It comes from people and organizations that play a role that we need them to play.
We trust people based on the hints they give us in their vocal tones, in the stands they take on irrelevant points of view and yes, on what others think.
Mostly, people like us trust people like us.
The mystery that exists in situations without full transparency actually amplifies those feelings.
I’m worried about two real problems, each worse than the other:
a. The trustworthy person or organization that fails to understand or take action on the symbols and mysteries that actually lead to trust, and as a result, fails to make the impact they are capable of.
b. The immoral person or organization who realizes that it’s possible to be trusted without actually doing the hard work of being trustworthy.
We may very well be moving toward a world where data is the dominant way we choose to make decisions about trust. In the meantime, the symbols and signals that mesh with our irrational worldviews continue to drive our thinking.
Worth thinking about
That’s one of the most important lists you can have. The list of things worth thinking about.
We live in the age of information surplus, when there are answers and shortcuts and highlights and notes and summaries for everything. But not nearly enough time to even be aware of them.
The key question isn’t, “what’s the answer?”
The key question is, “what’s the question?”
Is this area worth thinking about?
Should I maintain the status quo?
Is this good enough?
Your focus is the heart of your organization’s future. Your attention is irreplaceable.
The real question, then, is, “how much time are you spending deciding what to spend time on?”
Managing the very small business
How do you find, lead and manage employees in a tiny business (two to nine people)?
This is an organization that’s bigger than a solo operation, but it almost certainly involves everyone reporting to the boss.
Consider three options:
A team of equals: This is an organization staffed with people who have particular skills, skills that you don’t have. This is the Beatles. Or a three-person design firm in which each person is more skilled than the others in a specialty.
These organizations will never get big, and that’s fine. They are cooperatives of artisans, and two things have to happen for them to work. First, team members have to be truly gifted, as the entire enterprise depends on the unique qualities of each individual. That means that hiring and ongoing improvement are essential. Second, the ‘boss’ has to be a coordinator, not an iron-fisted dictator.
The pitfall: Sometimes talented equals forget that the key to their job is coordination, which often means letting someone else lead. And sometimes talented people come to believe that being a prima donna makes one more talented.
Fellow travelers: This is a group of people with similar goals, approaches and perceptions. As a result, the boss can say, “use your best judgment” and the right thing happens. This group is led more than managed. The good news is that it’s possible to train people to see and to care.
The pitfall: this isn’t fast, easy or cheap. Businesses often fail to spend the time and money to recruit, hire and train fellow travelers, instead, hiring what they can and then being disappointed when they try to lead.
Industrialized employees: These are cogs in the system, people who want to be told what to do, who are hired and trained to obey. These are jobs that get outsourced or people who work cheap. This team needs a manager, a manager patient enough to instruct, teach and measure.
The pitfall: Sometimes the boss is also busy getting new business, inventing new products and generally engaged outside the organization. As a result, he is hoping that he’s the leader of fellow travelers, but of course he never built that organization, so he’s disappointed, over and over.