One of my fellow speakers (and fellow Bay Staters) at the MWEC Conference was Mike Schultz of Rain Group. He’s a tremendous speaker, and has written a couple of books about sales that have done well. I’m not a big fan of most sales books, because what sales requires more than anything else is personal discipline to run the process right and to keep on swinging the bat when things aren’t going well. There are lots of processes, and many of them work. (I’m most intrigued by what CEB has discovered in their work about The Challenger Sale– the most successful reps push their clients’ thinking, and don’t just buy drinks and nod their heads.)
Any number of sales methodologies will work. But if you don’t get rigorous about them, then every one of them will fail. Sales isn’t about being charming. Sales is about helping people diagnose and solve problems. And to lend a sense of urgency that prevents people from staying idle. Especially at a time when every buyer comes to the table armed with reams of content (that you and your competitors put on the web for free), sales reps have to be smart and bring something special to the table, not just spit out talking points and features.
Mike’s sales philosophy is simple and hard– every successful sales rep needs to do three things:
Resonate, or create the belief in the client’s mind that there is a real, relevant problem that needs to be solved
Differentiate, or show that you are not like everybody else, but in fact the only one who does what you do. (I like to call it distinctiveness, but hey, it’s his model.)
Substantiate, or offer proof that it actually works
That’s it. Very simple and clear, and every one of them is a meaningful challenge to execute.
Some people can do well on the first criterion– they are selling something that has real relevance to a real business problem. But for most of us, we’re not selling water in the desert, we’re selling nice, useful, perfectly adequate solutions to well-understood problems. Not a whole lot of urgency there. So how do you generate that resonance and urgency without compromising on intellectual integrity (a/k/a lying)? There’s a lot of homework to be done, to understand not only your client’s industry, but your client’s positioning within that industry. Not a shoeshine and a smile.
Differentiating can also be challenging. The narcissism of small differences means that we know exactly how we differ from our competitors, but those differences– significant in our eyes– really don’t matter much to customers. Is there really a big difference between Mazda and Hyundai? In the eyes of Mazda and Hyundai dealers I’m sure there are. In the eyes of car buyers, I don’t think there’s much. This also requires deep understanding about what your buyer cares about and doesn’t care about.
Finally, substantiation is the hardest for most startups. When you have no track record, how do you prove that your solution works? It takes a strong personal relationship and a steady hand on the tiller to pull this off. The guys from Accenture can afford to miss a beat– they have a bulletproof track record. You are selling a promise of what’s to come. That means you can’t miss a trick. It ain’t easy,and it’s one of the reasons why most startups fail. Until you have a track record, every sale is an act of faith, or to be more honest, a gamble. Sometimes you can play the startup card in your favor– “We’re smaller, we’ll hustle more.” But until you have a track record, this will be the hardest part.
Schultz’s three criteria are easy to remember but hard to deliver on, which makes them a useful mantra for every salesperson and executive. Until your sales machine is purring, you need to make progress every day on making your story resonate, your value proposition genuinely differentiated, and your value substantiated.
You also need to be running a disciplined sales process. This all sounds hard, and it is, but sales isn’t for sissies.
P.S. Check out Mike’s change.org petition about the Melody valve, which helps treat kids with heart trouble, and which needs an exception from FDA Standard Operating Procedure. Great cause, and great story.
Great crowd, and great programming. A good mix of old and young, with a standup comic in the middle. (Major points to the committee for booking him, and major points to Austin Anderson for working a very tough room. After lunch, no drinks is a suboptimal booking for any comic. He had a great set, persevered and earned my respect.)
My presentation was not so much about how to do a startup as much as what the personal and psychological cost of entrepreneurship can be. It’s a great ride, but if you’re not prepared– personally, emotionally, even psychologically– a lot can go wrong. Mark Suster described this very well in his post about Entrepreneurshit. Startups are hard. The rewards can be high, but they take a lot out of the people in them. We’re finally starting to have an honest conversation about this subject, and like everything else around mental health AND startups, it’s hard for people to be candid. Everyone wants to say it’s going great all the time, but there’s always something going wrong. And if you lie to yourself about that, you will have a much harder time. As Viktor Frankl taught, we all have to be very clear why we are doing what we’re doing, be brutally honest with ourselves, and be able to improvise. For entrepreneurs, even more so. A lot of people depend on you keeping it together. Don’t neglect yourself.
The slides are below, but are pretty minimal. (I’m learning from the great Idea Transplant that less really is more.)
A great day, and I’m sorry I couldn’t stay for the second day– great speakers, including Blake Lawrence from Opendorse, who is doing some appealingly disruptive things to the athletic endorsement industry.
Entrepreneurship is seductive, transformative, and grueling. The more honest we are about it, the more likely we are to have healthier companies and happier people. Take care of your customers, your investors, and your team. But don’t neglect yourself.
I spent this weekend on a silent retreat at a Benedictine mission house in Schuyler, NE. Why would I want to do something like that? First, a friend of mine, who is just as extroverted as me, suggested it, saying it was hard but fantastic. Second, it’s a very noisy world, and I thought it might be useful to find a way to turn down the noise a little. Third, it was organized by The Gravity Center, one of my favorite organizations. Thought it might be good to stretch my limits a little.
I had been informally working with Chris and Phileena Heuertz at The Gravity Center on messaging, as it was never clear to me what their tagline– “a center for contemplative activism”– meant. Well, now I think I get it.
As a divorced Catholic, my relationship with organized religion is somewhat, um, nuanced. I go to Mass on big holidays (unless I sleep late). As a divorced guy, I don’t take communion (unless I have the urge to). My relationship with Catholicism is a mess, and that’s too bad, because I grew up in it, and I know all the dance steps. But I also know that my life always goes better when I am paying attention to God. The hard part is to find a way to relate to God that respects my roots as a Catholic. I don’t want to go Protestant, or Jewish, or Ba’Hai, but the Catholic Church isn’t particularly open to me at the moment.
I arrived with no expectations, except for the sense that I needed to make some changes to get my life back into balance. Even if those changes involved yoga. I actually had no idea what I was doing there, but had faith that it wouldn’t be a mistake to check it out.
Where we were
The retreat took place at the Benedictine Center in Schuyler NE, about 90 minutes from Omaha and out in real ag-land Willa Cather country. The Mission House is like a modern comfortable college dorm, and across the street is a genuine monastery, where 12 monks from Germany(!) do their work. Spectacular, modern setting, and not what you expect to find among the cornfields. The isolation makes it deeply peaceful, and the fact that cellphones don’t work inside the center was not lost on me. The sound of the wind in the grass and bells from the monastery are the soundtrack.
It sits on about 20 acres, with lots of room for walking, including a minimalist Stations of the Cross circuit set up in a pasture. The fields look like this.
What we did
The essence of what Gravity Center does is Meditation (using Christian Traditions). Nothing shocking, but repossessing tools that aren’t often seen in a Christian context. Net/net, saying “Amen” instead of “Om.” But it works just as well.
Unfortunately, I think meditation has a branding problem. Meditation to me usually evokes worn-out hippie culture images of George Harrison solo albums, South Asian con men, and Jeff Goldblum in Annie Hall.
Or Tomorrow Never Knows, the one song everyone skips over on Revolver.
So meditation seems a little dated. But the idea of clearing the mind of chatter so that one can (a) be quiet, and (b) hear deeper wisdom makes a lot of sense, and has been practiced in the Christian Tradition for a long time. It also could not be more relevant to the life I am living (and most of us) are living these days– overscheduled, overstimulated, always living in fear of missing something.
The method we practiced on the weekend is known as centering prayer, and this is a useful guide to how it works. In principle it’s really simple– pick a word, focus on it for 20 minutes, and let other thoughts drift away. In practice, it can be very hard, especially for my fast-twitch, overstimulated brain full of social media, TV Theme songs, and to-dos. Fr. Thomas Keating introduces the concept in a short video here.
So what we did was practice a few kinds of Christian Meditation. Some of which are easier than others. The basic unit was a 20-minute “prayer sit” where we would sit silently in a circle (some on chairs, some on cushions) and chill. Like many things, meditation is something that is entirely doable alone, but there’s something helpful about struggling through it in the company of others.
Most of what we did was Centering Prayer, but we also did some passage meditation, lectio divina, and the examen. (By the way, here’s a great article from Harvard Business Review by a Managing Director at JP Morgan about using the examen as a tool to manage our fast-paced world. I’m sure the Jesuits are delighted that they’re making JP Morgan more efficient doing God’s work.)
What was the schedule?
The three values that we kept to were silence, stillness, and solitude. That had some challenging implications, but helped enormously in getting the mind to quiet down.
The retreat ran from Friday Night to Sunday Noon, with 40 hours of silence in the middle. During the silence, Chris and Phileena would talk us through everything we needed. Meals were taken in silence. We would have 20-minute prayer sits with short breaks. In total, we probably spent 6 hours in meditative prayer. Interspersed were lots of breaks (to be taken in silence and solitude) and tragically for me, three sessions of Yoga. Too many years of good living, sitting in comfy chairs, and not stretching have left me with the flexibility of a stainless steel stove. Running 2 miles a day doesn’t help either. I’ll just say everyone was very kind. In fairness, one of the sessions was spent completely still lying on the back as we were guided through controlled relaxation. I liked that part.
Was the Silence Hard?
The fact that the retreat was silent scared me the most on the way there, frankly because I had no idea what else we were doing. (If you had told me were doing meditation and yoga, that might have scared me more than the silence.) In context, the silence was a complete relief. I was thrown into a vulnerable position with a bunch of strangers (supportive, but strangers) and frankly, making small talk (I have a gold medal in small talk) might have been challenging. It was a huge relief to just shut up for a while. Also, the transformation you go through on a retreat like this is hard to articulate while it’s happening. Much better not to try to explain the unsayable to people you just met. The silence keeps you focused. The tough part was meals, as we all were trying to avoid eye contact with each other and eat in solitude. I will say this– eating in solitude changes the way you look at food. Every bite matters, so there’s much less mindless stuffing of the face. I probably ate one-third less than what I normally do, and almost every choice I made was healthy. Hmmm. (By the way, the food was great.)
Was the Meditation Hard?
It was very simple, which doesn’t mean it was easy. Clearing your mind is a very simple idea in principle, but where the rubber hits the road, it can be really hard to get those profane thoughts out of your head when contemplating the sacred. Pop songs, teenage crushes, perfect comebacks to long-ago insults, shapes and colors– so many things fill your head when you’re trying to clear it. It takes a lot of discipline to keep coming back to your sacred word. But when you do, it’s pretty transcendent. The time really melts away, and you go into a sleep-like state. Unbelievably refreshing but also disorienting. And I didn’t get to that place in every single 20-minute prayer sit. But I got there probably 5 times out of 8. I assume that will get better. But as Keating says in the video above– you can’t get this wrong. Simply to do it is an invitation. And that’s the point.
So what about the God stuff?
I was waiting for that question. Let me start with a few statements so you know where I stand.
God exists, but probably not in the shape of a nice Caucasian grandfather. Tom Wolfe wrote a spectacular article on neuroscience 20 years ago, where he pointed out that human beings may not be smart enough to understand the world the way it actually is. Who said there were only 4 dimensions?
The consensus was that since the human mind is, after all, an entirely physical apparatus, a form of computer, the product of a particular genetic history, it is finite in its capabilities. Being finite, hardwired, it will probably never have the power to comprehend human existence in any complete way. It would be as if a group of dogs were to call a conference to try to understand The Dog. They could try as hard as they wanted, but they wouldn’t get very far. Dogs can communicate only about forty notions, all of them primitive, and they can’t record anything. The project would be doomed from the start. The human brain is far superior to the dog’s, but it is limited nonetheless. So any hope of human beings arriving at some final, complete, self–enclosed theory of human existence is doomed, too.
Look at what we’re finding out about the Big Bang this year. We have only scratched the surface of how the universe works, so any definitive idea that God does not exist is just stupid. We don’t know, so all we can do is sense. And the fact that so many Homo Sapiens have reached out to the divine in so many places for so many years is an indicator of something. My bet is on God existing. But he doesn’t look like that guy on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Since we have no idea how God actually works, there is no one true faith. Every faith by definition is fundamentally flawed in some way, but they each can get us closer to God.
God has a relationship with you whether you like it or not. He doesn’t turn it off. Much of the time, we drift away from the connection to God, but the connection is still there. You can go away for a long time and God will still be there.
So having said that, this is what came through to me.
God’s presence is there all the time, but we drown him out with Facebook, with music, with drugs and alcohol, with reality TV, and other trivial things that fill the void in our heads. Most of us are very afraid of silence and stillness because we might not like what we hear in our own heads. The irony is that if you actually do get to a place of silence and stillness, you get to a place of love. (And the Buddhists and the Christians agree on this.)The best analogy I know is from the world of sound recording. Every recording studio in the world (in fact every room in the world) has its own room tone or presence. It’s the sound of a room when all the instruments and amplifiers are turned off. There’s a very low throb that is always in the background. And you can’t hear it when other noises are going on. You have to turn everything off, and then you can sense it. God isn’t always taking out billboards (despite what the roadsides look like in rural Nebraska). God is the drone note that underscores everything. And you have to turn off a lot of distractions if you want to hear it.
You don’t need sacred text to get there (although it’s a good idea). One of the many trivial things that ran through my head (while I was trying to clear my mind) was from The Wizard of Oz. “You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas.”
A second thing that was percolating through my head was the opening few pages of The Cat in the Hat. We were doing a lot of sitting, and so this came to mind.
“too wet to go out and too cold to play ball. so we sat in the house. we did nothing at all. so all we could do was to sit! sit! sit! sit! and we did not like it. not one little bit.”
So What Did You Get Out of It?
Great question. Anytime you do something hard with other people, there’s a spirit of camaraderie and teamwork, even if you can’t talk to each other. We all had each other’s back, and that’s a great feeling that doesn’t come around enough.
Also, the act of shutting the mind down 20 minutes at a time was really refreshing. I feel like my brain has had a good scrubbing, and a lot of crap that has accumulated there over the years was rinsed away.
The most immediate thing I took away was a different sense of time. I usually gyrate between being bored and afraid that time will drag out too long (so in need of distraction) and being stressed because there’s not enough time. After a few sessions of meditation, I realized there was always enough time. Having time with nothing to do is a blessing, not a cause for panic. The point is to be present in what you’re doing, not constantly distracted. Most of us live our lives (at least I do) in a state of constant distraction. That takes its toll on our performance and our relationships. Mindfulness seems like a confusing idea until you get there. John Lennon used these words to define rock’n’roll (and Oasis made a terrible album by this name) but the idea of mindfulness is simple– Be Here Now. This retreat made it a lot easier to Be Here Now.
Try and keep up the practice, or as Chris said, turn the practice into a discipline. So far, I am one-for-one, as I got up and did 20 minutes early this morning. One down, several thousand to go.
Like anything worth doing, it’s you vs you. And it’s not trivial to keep it up. But I see the fruits of doing it every day, and I am eager to get there. Wish me luck.
P.S. Here’s a good video that evokes what the weekend is like:
I will be appearing at two events in Omaha in the next couple of weeks.
On April 4, I will be telling Startup Stories at the Midwestern Entrepreneurship Conference at Kaneko. My speaking slot is at 3:05, and should run 40 minutes. MWEC is “a two day conference that is for college students, young professionals and aspiring entrepreneurs to learn from highly successful young entrepreneurs and a few seasoned professionals.” As my friend Dave Ball pointed out, by process of elimination, I must be a seasoned professional.
On April 15-16, I will be speaking at Infotec, the biggest tech conference in the Midwest. It’s a great opportunity, and should be a ton of fun, as I’m facilitating What’s Your Problem, an interactive problem-solving session.
WYP is a fast-paced, interactive problem-solving exercise, where we take the smart talented people of Infotec and set them loose on real-world tech problems offered by the attendees. The unusual mix of talents and perspectives at Infotec make for a unique collaborative problem-solving team. Ask the community about a difficult issue you’re working on. Or just participate and lend your perspective to another community member’s problem. This convention is full of smart people. Here’s your chance to work with them in real time.
I’m particularly looking forward to working with Dan Zarrella, Chief Data Scientist at Hubspot, and the smartest man in social media. (Really.) We will have a WYP session for each track– Business Intelligence, Mobile, Marketing Technology (where Dan will participate), and Security. Infotec has a great mix of tech experts, and tapping into the collective knowledge to solve real problems should be a great experience.
Tools are morally neutral. You can make something great with them or something mediocre. Look at what Pixar does with computer animation vs something like Food Fight. (Seriously, just watch the trailer. You will never be the same.) The demands on us as content creators mean that we have to create good material, and we have to create a lot of it. Making everything by hand doesn’t scale. And doing everything via algorithm just burps out more mediocrity into this noisy world. That means we have to find the sweet spot between the two.
His premise is that Average is Over— the skill set that powered successful Americans up until now is permanently changing. (In the words of the irreplaceable Marshall Goldsmith, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.) Up until now, success was determined by hard work, but also intelligence. Unfortunately, intelligence is becoming an outsourceable asset.
The key questions will be: Are you good at working with intelligent machines or not? Are your skills a complement to the skills of the computer, or is the computer doing better without you? Worst of all, are you competing against the computer? Are computers helping people in China and India compete against you?
If you and your skills are a complement to the computer, your wage and labor market prospects are likely to be cheery . If your skills do not complement the computer, you may want to address that mismatch. Ever more people are starting to fall on one side of the divide or the other.
And it’s blindingly obvious, but we overlook it—we’re already deeply dependent on smart machines.
Whether it is through Siri, Google, or Wikipedia, there is now almost always a way to ask and— more importantly— a way to receive the answer in relatively digestible form.
It must be emphasized that every time you use Google you are relying on machine intelligence. Every time Facebook recommends a new friend for you or sends an ad your way. Every time you use GPS to find your way to a party.
Algorithms are getting better and better, and if you don’t know how to work with the algorithms (not compete with them), the future will be increasingly bleak. It’s rational for employers to reduce costs if they can maintain quality, and as algorithms get better, more work will be taken away from humans and given to algorithms.
For content creators, this is a double-edged sword. Clearly, some of the tools we have are force multipliers. Sprout Social’s suggested followers and cleanup functions make it simple to arithmetically build your followers without picking people at random. Buffer and other queuing apps allow us to batch all our work into one period, and see them drip out at predetermined times. Even something as simple as an RSS feeder or Google News allows us to be on top of industry news in just a few minutes a day. As Clay Shirky puts it, publishing is no longer a job or an industry, it’s a button.
But at the same time, have you ever read machine-written prose? It’s getting better, and for some news functions, it will inevitably replace human writers, but there is a joylessness about it that condemns it to the purely functional. For something like the summary of a Little League game on scorekeeping app Gamechanger, it’s invaluable. But in terms of distinctiveness, we’re a long way from replacing humans.
It all depends on what you’re selling and how your customers buy. If you’re selling pure functionality at the lowest possible price, maybe algorithmic prose will be good enough. But frankly, if your brand sells that way, you’re probably not creating content to begin with. We’re all trying to help our buyer through the sales process, and that takes cultural understanding, nuance, and accessibility. For now, that means you need a human to write it. But the change will come sooner than we think.
If you write like a computer, you will be replaced by a computer. The human voice is the main difference between prose that connects and the fog of words that we all swim through on the internet. Make your writing as real and human and immediate as it can be. Your reader is getting drenched with joyless algorithmic prose, engineered for SEO and focused on product features. Write human stories about how your services changed someone’s lives. Tell stories. Not just to save your job from the rise of the machines, but because you only have one life. Do you really want to spend it cranking out shitty prose? Gaining a real audience today is hard. That’s why it matters more than ever to make that audience feel something.
Respect the tools that make it easier for us to create and distribute content, but even more importantly, respect your readers’ humanity. That’s how you make a difference.
One solution is to embrace what Anne Lamott perfectly dubs the “shitty first draft.” I hardly need to tell you what that means, but let’s use Lamott’s words.
The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page… Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go — but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.
This maps perfectly into Ed Catmull’s thinking, that Pixar’s entire method is to go “from suck to non-suck.”
If you’re noting a theme, you’re right. Creating content for your brand is much more about craft than art. The way to get something decent written is to start with something (anything). If you hide from the process and “wait for inspiration,” you will never accomplish anything. Your first drafts will suck. By definition. Get over it. Your first 20 completed posts will someday fill you with cringing embarrassment, just like your high school poetry. But there’s a big difference between someone who’s out there trying to create and someone who’s too afraid to try.
Does this mean you can just throw bad stuff out there? Of course not. You still have to respect your readers’ time and energy. Is any of this easy? Of course not. But if short cuts existed, you would have found them by now. If you’re afraid to step up to bat, you cannot get a base hit.
“I’d spent five hours that morning trying to write a song that was meaningful and good, and I finally gave up and lay down. Then ‘Nowhere Man’ came, words and music, the whole damn thing as I lay down”.
(P)eople say they write songs, but in a way you’re more the medium. I feel like all the songs in the world are just floating around, it’s just a matter of like an antenna, of whatever you pick up. So many uncanny things have happened. A whole song just appears from nowhere in five minutes, the whole structure, and you haven’t worked at all.
But if you’re not there with a guitar in your hand, the song won’t get written at all. By all means, be open to inspiration. But show up to work every day anyway. Embrace the shitty first draft and start creating. That act alone puts you ahead of most of the human race, who are still waiting for inspiration.
And read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Most honest book about writing I know.
Viktor Frankl made a titanic contribution to human understanding.
He was held in Auschwitz during World War II, and endured horrible privations. Maybe we’re all so familiar with the Holocaust that we lessen its severity, but it was as ambitious an act of cruelty as homo sapiens has ever been involved in. Every day Frankl and his fellow inmates worked at pointless labor, froze or sweated depending on the elements, and starved. As the war worsened, the welfare of these inmates became even less important to their jailers, and numbness set in for everyone. And then one day, the war was over, and Frankl was released. He had no one waiting for him. His wife had died in the camps. His family was dead. He had suffered through years of imprisonment and cruelty. So what exactly was the point of life? Why go on? More specifically, why did some prisoners survive the camp while others died? Conditions were equally cruel on all prisoners, so shouldn’t they all have met the same end? As a psychiatrist, he thought he might have a way to answer that question.
That question was answered in Man’s Search for Meaning. His principal finding was that those who survived were those who took meaning from life, or as he called it, “the intensification of inner life.” Even when there was no hope, they found meaning in getting up every morning and conducting themselves the best way they knew how to.
No matter what the circumstances, man has the right and the ability to choose how he reacts:
But what about human liberty? Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? … Most important, do the prisoners’ reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings? Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?
We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle. The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. … Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.
[E]verything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
Most powerfully, he says there is no point searching for a universal meaning of life. Every path is different, and one size does not fit all. I can have a meaning for my life, and that can be very different from the meaning that you have for your life.
What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. “Life” does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand.
We are all on a difficult journey through life, and there is no silver bullet. As Ben Horowitz says, there are just a lot of lead bullets. The work has to be done, the work is often hard, and there are no short cuts, no matter how much we want them.
The people who he saw survive the camps, and any other tribulations they faced (because the cruelty of human experience doesn’t stop simply because you’re released from prison) had these three things in common:
They had something bigger than themselves to live for. It could be love, it could be integrity, it could be their kids. It didn’t matter what it was, but they had to have something.
They had complete intellectual integrity. They knew exactly how bad things were, and they didn’t pretend that it was going to get better anytime soon. They were brutally honest with themselves.
They could improvise. They didn’t have a plan chiseled in marble, so they could react to opportunities.
Frankl wasn’t the first to inquire about the meaning of life, but his book has struck a chord that few philosophers have. It’s profound but short, and if you haven’t read it yet, do it now. It will stay with you for the rest of your life.
P.S. Nice post, bro, but what does this have to do with social media? Well, social media is communication, which is about understanding the audience and what they are experiencing. You are not the only one looking for meaning. You are not the only one who needs the truth. You are not the only one who needs to improvise. If you treat your readers with disrespect and churn out crap, you don’t deserve to be read. The bar is too high today. But if you connect to meaning, to intellectual integrity, and to opportunities, you will connect with your reader on a much deeper level. Are you churning out marketing copy, or are you trying to connect with human beings? You can use all the modern tools to do either. Twitter and Pinterest can deliver banal messages or meaningful messages. The choice is yours.
For content creators, Pixar is a fantastic organization to study. Part of it is because they make such good movies. You don’t have to have kids to get choked up by Toy Story or The Incredibles, or Ratatouille. Just check out this montage, without words, from Up.
That’s artistry. But you know what else it is? Craft. Sweat, and false hopes, and disappointments, and tearing stuff up and starting again.
Ed Catmull, the President of Pixar, has a new book out called Creativity, Inc., which is about how Pixar developed its culture. As someone who ran a magazine and has worked in creative industries a lot, I’m looking forward to hearing his thoughts on how to manage creative people (which is different from managing engineers), but I’m equally interested in seeing his thoughts on the creative process per se. The fact that Catmull is trained as a computer scientist, and not as a theatre director, is not lost on me. The common misconception people have about managing creative people is that they need to be coddled and kept away from the hard edge of business. In my experience, creative people are all different, just like engineers are all different. There is no one size fits all for them, but the best creative people I know live in the real world. They have always relished getting as close as possible to the business problem that needs to be solved. It’s not so much that they are trying to sell out and make something that is empty but popular. It’s that you can’t create anything great until you understand the cruel reality of the world.
Catmull’s thinking is deeply rooted in the real world:
People say they want to be in risky environments and do all kinds of exciting stuff. But they don’t actually know what risk means, that risk actually does bring failure and mistakes.
Part of being the successful Pixar is that we will take risks on teams and ideas, and some of them won’t work out. We only lose from this if we don’t respond to the failures. If we respond, and we think it through and figure out how to move ahead, then we’re learning from it. That’s what Pixar is.
Think about our industry, or the things that your readers are facing: The underlying technology continues to change, successful people are always getting older and aging out, and everyone is drawing new conclusions about what really works. There is no stable place. But there is this illusion that somehow you can get to a stable place, figure it all out. People have their fear: They want to be in a secure place; they want to know what to do; they want people to tell them what to do. And there isn’t anything that can remove that underlying piece of human nature. It is when we try to avoid, stop, or control change that we get into trouble
Unfortunately, even at Pixar, all of their ideas start out awful. And some of them need to be killed, even after a lot of sunk costs have gone into it. Years of work in some cases– Toy Story 2 had to be completely rewritten a year before release.
The cost of that becomes clear when you think of how a movie starts out. It’s a baby. It’s like the fetus of a movie star; we all start out ugly. Every one of Pixar’s stories starts out that way. A new thing is hard to define; it’s not attractive, and it requires protection.
One of the ways they manage this is a tool called the Braintrust. Its premise is simple: Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid. Read the whole piece, but the process looks scary as hell. The smartest people in the organization meet together every few months to review where they are on a movie, and are encouraged to be candid and solve problems. Not all of us have this luxury of having brilliant people give tough love to your content, but if you have guts to go through with a similar process, your content will get immeasurably better. We all have blind spots, and no one is enthusiastic about having the flaws in their work pointed out. But that’s the only way to kill mediocrity. Pixar has had 14 film releases, and every single one of them has been #1 at the Box Office. Even the Beatles and Michael Jackson didn’t pull that off.
But isn’t that the story of every successful recording artist? Over time they drive away anyone who will tell them that their new stuff is weak. They surround themselves with yes-men and lose their edge. (Elvis Presley, Lady Gaga, Kanye West– the examples are countless. Look at the Beatles after they stopped working with George Martin.) It takes a lot of bravery to expose yourself to real criticism, and very few people are willing to do it. But those that do have that discipline, keep their edge.
Part of Pixar’s success is surely due to the creativity of their team. But a hell of a lot is due to their process, and having the guts to do painful things in order to drive out mediocrity. Think of the world we live in now, with infinite choice and almost perfect competition. What is the point of producing anything that’s mediocre? Adding to the noise in this world is not a worthy end. Be cruel to your stories. Make them good enough to be worth taking up space in other people’s heads.
Creativity is a must-have. But, cruel as it sounds, so is Rigor.
France had just fallen to the Nazis. It was fully expected that the Germans were preparing for an invasion of the British Isles, and it was not at all clear that Britain would prevail. It was so bad that his usual stress management routine of Champagne, whisky, and cigars wasn’t working. Daily naps weren’t easy any more, and he was starting to feel the strain. Finally, one of his Cabinet Ministers mentioned that when he felt stressed, he went into his garden and painted; his troubles just fell away. Churchill, willing to try anything at this point, agreed to give it a go, and had the Minister’s painting teacher come to Chequers, the Prime Minster’s country house. The teacher and Churchill brought their easels into the garden, set up the canvases, and arranged the paints. The teacher said, “Now Mr. Prime Minister, just paint what you see.” Churchill thought hard and very carefully drew a thin and labored line, then stopped and thought hard. “Come on Mr. Prime Minister, just be free, and paint whatever you see.” Churchill added a second thin, tentative line. This cycle of encouragement and reluctance went on for some minutes until finally the teacher said: “Mr Prime Minister. Will you please hurry up and get done with your first hundred bad paintings so we can get to work on your first good one.”
This story is apocryphal but incredibly evocative. (I think I got it from Martin Gilbert’s spectacular Winston Churchill: A Life, which condenses his eight volume academic biography into one volume for the layman. He’s like the English Robert Caro.) Even Winston Churchill, arguably the greatest man of the 20th Century was afraid to be mediocre.
We all have a deep fear of sucking. But until we go through the phase of sucking, we will never be good. Most content creators are like Churchill in the first five minutes—tentative, afraid to commit, and not producing anything of merit. Look at the blogs and Twitter feeds in your vertical market—how many are actually taking chances and trying to do something good? It’s not that there are so many brilliant people writing blogs today—we’re still writing the rules of how to kick ass online. But most people aren’t even trying to be good. They just want to not get in trouble.
Unfortunately, the path to excellence leads through mediocrity. That’s the nature of learning new skills. We all start as beginners. Mastery by George Leonard is a great explanation of how we learn. And just like when you learned how to ice skate or type, you’re awful at first. If you don’t get serious about improving, you’ll never get better. But part of getting better is being willing to press “publish” even when your stuff isn’t that good. You should always do the best you can at any one time, but, like a 14-year-old boy asking a girl out on a date, sometimes the best you can do just isn’t any good yet.
The good news is that, when you start out, no one’s paying attention anyway—Google doesn’t care about you until you have 20 or 30 blog posts anyway, and in the early days, no one is reading your Twitter feed. Like a standup comic, you can be awful in obscurity. If you’re focused, you can make it to Page 1 of Google in a few months, but you won’t get there without taking a lot of swings.
Being bad at something hurts because we’re vulnerable. This is a terrific video from Brené Brown talking about the need to acknowledge your critics, make room for them, but not pay too much attention to them. Your job is not to make everyone love you. Your job is to show up and be in the arena every day. And sometimes that’s painful. But the only way to get past mediocrity is to go through it.
She puts it very well when she says “If you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I don’t care about your feedback.”
Don’t be afraid to write your first 20 bad blog posts. It’s the only way to get to your first good one.
As we have built ever more complicated machines and systems, we eventually come up against the limits of what anyone can keep in their head. For the most complicated tasks—like surgery or flying a passenger aircraft—we need something that allows us to build on what we know, but account for the fact that we’re mortals, and mortals mess up. That’s why we have the checklist.
Atul Gawande, a surgeon who writes for the New Yorker (that’s a pretty remarkable combination, by the way), wrote a terrific book about the power of the checklist called The Checklist Manifesto.
[Y]ou have a desperately sick patient and in order to have a chance of saving him you have to get the knowledge right and then you have to make sure that the 178 daily tasks that follow are done correctly—despite some monitor’s alarm going off for God knows what reason, despite the patient in the next bed crashing, despite a nurse poking his head around the curtain to ask whether someone could help “get this lady’s chest open.” There is complexity upon complexity. And even specialization has begun to seem inadequate. So what do you do?
Airline pilots are under the same strain to manage complexity. This is a great story about how the pilot’s checklist came about. Human fallibility is one thing you can depend on, and managing it is key to getting anything complicated done.
So what does this have to do with social media? Isn’t it just about cat memes?
For all of us content creators, it’s hard enough to create something original, but we also have to get that content distributed. In Hollywood studios, there is a fundamental difference between making movies and selling movies. Both jobs are hard, and require specialization. For the modern brand, you have to do both—come up with something clever, but also make sure you reach your regular audience by posting it everywhere it should be posted, make sure you are leveraging all the other audiences you are relevant to by getting others to share it, monitoring how the audiences are reacting to it, and scanning the horizon for good content to curate for your audience. None of it is that hard as single steps, but it’s almost impossible to hold it in your head at the same time. Constant partial attention is the curse of anyone taking social media seriously. That’s where the checklist comes in handy.
There’s no one size fits all, but having a written routine that you follow is surprisingly effective for exercise or for writing and promoting content. And it’s not just us.
Substantial parts of what software designers, financial managers, firefighters, police officers, lawyers, and most certainly clinicians do are now too complex for them to carry out reliably from memory alone.
But we are vain creatures, too. None of us think our jobs can be reduced to a simple recipe.
In a complex environment, experts are up against two main difficulties. The first is the fallibility of human memory and attention, especially when it comes to mundane, routine matters that are easily overlooked under the strain of more pressing events. (When you’ve got a patient throwing up and an upset family member asking you what’s going on, it can be easy to forget that you have not checked her pulse.) Faulty memory and distraction are a particular danger in what engineers call all-or-none processes: whether running to the store to buy ingredients for a cake, preparing an airplane for takeoff, or evaluating a sick person in the hospital, if you miss just one key thing, you might as well not have made the effort at all.
A further difficulty, just as insidious, is that people can lull themselves into skipping steps even when they remember them. In complex processes, after all, certain steps don’t always matter. … “This has never been a problem before,” people say. Until one day it is.
Checklists seem to provide protection against such failures. They remind us of the minimum necessary steps and make them explicit. They not only offer the possibility of verification but also instill a kind of discipline of higher performance.
I have my own publishing checklist, and I’ll share it with you if you ask, but it covers these basic sections.
Reading the news that matters to my audience (RSS feeds, Twitter lists, Facebook pages)
Filling the curation queue
Creating something new
Promoting the new content on the relevant platforms (owned pages)
Promoting the new content to people who might find it useful (chats, emails, tweets)
Monitor how my content from the last few days has been doing and adjust
The new world not only allows us to be our own media companies, it forces us to be our own media companies. A checklist lets you ensure that you’re not missing the important steps of an increasingly complex process.
It’s almost humiliating to think that a checklist improves performance, but it works at the grocery store, it works at the gym, and it works in social media. Best of all, it frees up your brain to worry about more important things.