Category Archives: Motivation

Tyler Cowen, Automation and Inspiration

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.

Tyler Cowen is behind the wonderful Marginal Revolution, a blog which makes economics as interesting as it can be. (He also was involved in a bizarre incident last week, when he was pepper-sprayed while teaching a class at George Mason University.)  He also has a new book out that looks fantastic– Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation.

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.

Photo credit:  Flickr

Adrian Blake has worked with Saturday Night Live, McKinsey & Co., and The Progressive Farmer and is a founder of a Social Media agency.

Adrian Blake.  Strategy.  Social Media.


Anne Lamott speaks the truth

We all hate to be bad at something.  As Kathy Sierra says, “The User wants to kick ass.”  And most of us don’t start out kicking ass.

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.

John Lennon described how he wrote Nowhere Man (for my money, the best thing he ever did).

“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”.

Keith Richards has similarly said:

(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.

Photo Credit: Flickr

Adrian Blake has worked with Saturday Night Live, McKinsey & Co., and The Progressive Farmer and is a founder of a Social Media agency.

Adrian Blake.  Strategy.  Social Media.


What Viktor Frankl can teach us

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.

He quotes Nietzsche: He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how. 

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Photo Credit: Flickr

Adrian Blake has worked with Saturday Night Live, McKinsey & Co., and The Progressive Farmer and is a founder of a Social Media agency.

Adrian Blake.  Strategy.  Social Media.


What we can learn from Winston Churchill’s painting teacher

Winston Churchill was under a lot of stress.

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.

Photo credit:  Flickr

Adrian Blake has worked with Saturday Night Live, McKinsey & Co., and The Progressive Farmer and is a founder of a Social Media agency.

Adrian Blake.  Strategy.  Social Media.