There's Something About the Light

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Claude came from a traditional home. His parents expected him to take the usual path many of us imagined we'd take, though we likely didn't control that image. It was built in our heads for us. You know the one: finish high school, attend a good college, declare a safe major, and, upon graduation, receive our neatly packaged box labeled Career.

Everything in its place. Everything under control. But what do we actually control in this life?

As a young boy, Claude wasn't hearing it. He wanted to go to art school, not study economics, nor manage the family business. His mother, as mothers so often are, was strong for her son, defending his artistic aspirations to Claude's father and pledging to support the budding painter should he enroll someday.

A few years later, when Claude was 16, his mother died. The boy began thrashing. Wouldn't you? When we feel helpless, like we just don't control a thing, that seems to be the only logical response. Claude thus ran away from home to live with his aunt. Four years later, something else he didn't choose: He was drafted into the army.

Claude spent seven years abroad, seeing the world, experiencing the sort of vibrant colors and cultures that could inspire even the most timid of artists to paint. Claude was no timid artist, and yet once again, he didn't paint, because once again, he didn't control the circumstances. While in the army, he grew too sick to stand, much less serve, and so he returned home to his aunt. She agreed to watch over him if he agreed to enroll in art school once he felt better. And when he did, he did.

Finally, at long last, everything felt in its place. Everything felt under control.

Of course, it's worth asking: What do we actually control in this life?

Just a year into his schooling, Claude couldn't stand how instructors chose to teach their subjects. It all felt so traditional and staid. But what could he do? That was how it was done. They believed in painting carefully posed objects, people, and scenes. Everything in its place, everything under control. But Claude wondered, what do we actually control in this life? So he left campus, found a mentor, and began experimenting. He went outside, to the real world, where the messy effects of time tends to warp the world around us. There, he captured this reality with broken colors and rapid brushstrokes. Most notably, he studied and documented the effects of time on a given scene, painting the same thing over and over and over again, using a new canvas for each moment the light -- and his emotions -- changed what he saw. He painted a bridge. He painted a sunset. And of course, he painted some water lilies.

Nothing stayed in place. Nothing was under his control. Because, really, what do we actually control in this life?

So often in our work, when we try to create something consistently great over time, we ignore the effects of time. Instead, we prefer to find THE thing that works, then automate it. We want to find the solution and put it on repeat. I agree that when we identify something successful, we should lean into it, but "leaning into it" shouldn't mean more of the same. It should instead become a continual process of discovery to create an ever-more refreshing version of that thing. As time marches forward, changing the world in small and sometimes big ways, we need our work to do the same. This means relinquishing the need for precision, because it's a false sense of control. That absolute, final, perfect solution doesn't exist once we move away from theory and shine that ever-changing light of reality on our work.

"Paint what you really see," Claude once said, "not what you think you ought to see; not the object isolated as in a test tube, but the object enveloped in sunlight and atmosphere, with the blue dome of Heaven reflected in the shadow."

Factors outside our control will forever effect our work. No matter how successful something is right now, it's at risk of growing stale. We don't control that, and so we'd better get busy reinventing our work over time. Consistently great work consistently changes.

Nothing stays in place. Nothing is under our control. Not really. Because what do we actually control in this life?

Fortunately, there is at least one thing. Claude's story seems to offer us that much. We can't control all the variables that change and twist and warp the world and thus our work once we put it out into the world. But we can indeed control how we see the world. Namely, we can learn to see it through different lights. Sure, we didn't ask for THIS set of circumstances. We wish we had more, better, or different. We face boring tasks, repeat tasks, stale tasks. We can't control that. But we CAN control how we view them. We can choose to view them through different lights.

Claude did exactly that. He learned how to see the same things as everyone else ... in slightly new and different ways. Whereas his peers would want the absolute perfect bridge, he painted that bridge as it exists in the real world: ever-changing with the light. That's how he painted every bridge, and sunset, and of course, every water lily.

If the world is ever-changing, and we plan to put something out into the world consistently over time, then our work must also change over time. What we create doesn't exist in theory. It exists in a specific environment. Maybe start with the latter before thinking about the former.

"For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment," Claude said. "But the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life – the light and the air which vary continually. For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subjects their true value.”

Later in his young career, when Claude and a few friends wanted to showcase their art capturing the ever-changing world, the traditionalists turn them away. As a result, the group set up their own, independent exhibits. They showcased their in-the-moment paintings documenting how both the artist's emotions and the light could change each version of something. Claude in particular would paint and exhibit the same scene three, four, sometimes eight or nine different ways.

In the end, we are all doing our best to create something that makes sense for the here and now, but this is a fool's errand, as the here and now is ever-changing. The only thing we can do is to act like Claude and create versions of the work. We can keep evolving, keep refining, keep reinventing. Sure, we can create that one thing, paint that one scene, in the way that makes sense to us NOW, but the real key is to do it again, and again, and again, allowing the effects of time to creep into our work. The goal isn't to create a masterpiece. It's to create an ever-changing, always improving body of work.

Nothing stays in place. Nothing is under control. But what do we actually control in this life? We control how we view things. We can view the same-old, same-old in different lights. And, if we understand how time works, we must. We're not static. Life's not static. It's impossible to expect our work to be.

By capturing the literal, Claude reveals the figurative. Literally, the light changes all day, which thus changed how he painted the bridge, the sunset, and of course, the water lilies. But just as the sunlight changed the scene, the passage of time should change how we view something. We may have done the thing seven or 70 or 700 times before, it doesn't matter. We can choose to see it in subtle new ways, to reinvent and refresh what we create over time. I believe that's the only way we'll succeed over time.

Of course, the traditionalists may not be happy with us. They weren't happy with Claude and his friends. In a fateful twist, one art critic dubbed Claude's independent showcase "the exhibit of impressionists." This isn't true art, he claimed. It's so imprecise, so free-flowing and rough. It's a distant impression of the real thing.

Isn't it all?

The critic meant the title as a rebuke of their work, but the young group of independent artists turned the tables. So in April of 1974, when Louis Leroy published his scathing review, that young artist in love with the changing light merely smiled at his friends. He knew: everything we create is indeed an impression. It's our attempt to capture a moment, which is now gone. The only way to get closer to reality is to mimic reality, creating version after version, change after change ... because change is what "reality" really is. The sooner we embrace it, the sooner we can get on with the work. And so the young artist and his friends embraced it. They took a criticism and made it their moniker.

You may not know the group's name -- Impressionists -- but you've likely heard of the young artist. He's the man who always tried to see the world through an ever-changing light, because in truth, the light is ever-changing. So he kept painting version after version of the bridge. And the sunset. And, of course, the water lilies.

Claude Monet.

Posted on March 13, 2019 .

The Paradox of Exceeding Expectations (and How to Do It Regularly)

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There's a hotel in downtown Boston that, like almost every hotel in every city, offers a valet service for your car. Pull up, leave the keys, and take your ticket.

On this particular ticket is a number. The number uniquely identifies your car to the man at the valet desk.

Imagine it's later in the day, and you feel like taking a drive over the river into Cambridge. Maybe you want to walk around the campuses of MIT and Harvard or hang out at a local coffee shop, of which there are dozens. (They have an exposed brick surplus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.) Whatever your plans, you decide to drive -- not necessarily the best move, considering Boston's roads make absolutely no sense at all, but hey, I'm not gonna tell you how to live your life.

In your hotel room, you grab your ticket and scan the words printed just below your ID number. "Thanks for using our valet service! Call us with the number above, and your car will be ready in 30 minutes."

And so, you call the front desk about a half hour before you need the car. You expect them to say thanks, the car will be ready in 30 minutes.

But then the man at the valet desk answers.

"34891? Got it. Car will be up in 10 minutes."

It feels like a gift. You were thinking 30, and they said 10. You quickly grab your coat and head down to the lobby where, to your surprise, your car is already idling by the front door. You glance at your watch.

It's been five minutes.

The next day, you again decide to take out your car from the valet service. This time, maybe you'll head down to Boston's South End. (If you ever do, by the way, be sure to eat at SRV. Not only is it one of the best restaurants in all of Boston and my personal favorite, but the executive chef will be appearing on Unthinkable later this year.)

To start your trip to the South End, you once again pick up your valet ticket in your room a full 30 minutes ahead of time. After all, that's their policy, that's what's written on the ticket -- although you don't expect that to be what happens.

The man at the valet desk answers, and this time, you know what he's about to say.

"Okay, so 34891. Car will be up in 10 minutes."

You smirk. You know what's about to happen. Their policy is 30 minutes. They tell you 10 minutes. They deliver in five. That's what you expect will happen.

You quickly grab your coat and head down to the lobby once again.

The car isn't there.

Oh.

You glance at your watch. It's been five minutes. Okay, maybe it'll be six. You look at your phone. Two more minutes pass. Still no car. You gaze through the revolving door, feeling a burning sensation in your belly. You're kinda pissed off ... for reasons you recognize as completely irrational. Finally, after 10 minutes, the car arrives.

You know you shouldn't be, but you're annoyed. After all: Their policy is 30 minutes. They told you 10. And they delivered in 10. That should feel so refreshing, but thanks to yesterday, it feels frustrating.

Such is the compounding problem of exceeding expectations: As soon as you do, you've changed their expectations.

Every experience comes with a set of expectations -- the expectations we set for ourselves, the expectations we set for others, the expectations others set for us. The problem is, if we exceed them even once, then THAT becomes the new bar we must get over the next time. What was once exceptional no longer is.

It gets worse: This is a process that is largely out of our control. Yes, we know that THIS time, we might not have so much success, but we just can't help ourselves. We believe we will.

And yes, the valet service knows that THIS time, they probably won't deliver the car in five minutes, so they aim for 10, because that is well below the policy of 30 ... except YOU just can't help believing it'll arrive in five thanks to last time. 

It's necessary but far from sufficient to exceed expectations once. You have to do so consistently. Problem is, "expectations" are a moving target. The bar gets ever higher.

So how are we supposed to exceed expectations? Are we doomed to create an ever-higher bar? No, of course not.

But doesn't the valet need to keep delivering the car ever-faster, until it's instant? No, of course not.

Here's something that's well within our control that does indeed allow us to keep exceeding expectations: We can master the art of reinvention.

Not giant pivots. Not overhauls. Not stunts. Not shortcuts. Not random acts of creativity.

Reinvention. A process of consistent discovery designed to produce ever-more refreshing things. The path by which we can exceed expectations -- not by moving the bar higher, then leaping over it, but by constantly changing the rules of this game entirely.

For example, what if, instead of needing to deliver that car ever-faster, the valet service merely needs to create an ever-changing but ever-delightful experience? Wouldn't that exceed expectations? Here's how that might look:

  • The first time you call down, it was enough to merely tell you on the phone that the car would be ready in 10 minutes. You were expecting them to say 30. Now they must deliver the car in 10 minutes.

  • The next time, you now expect 10, even though the stated policy is 30. Why? You experienced the work, which changed the context, which changed your expectations. So this time, it's merely table stakes that they deliver the car in ten. So now, they face a choice: Can they deliver it in five? And the next time in two? Or perhaps, they can change the rules of the game. Instead of a transaction, they build a relationship. "Thanks so much for your patience, Mary! The car will be out in 10 minutes." That's what you expect, but you DIDN'T expect them to know your name. Not a hard thing for a hotel to know about a person: they know which room you're calling from and who is in that room; they identify each car by a unique number. But that tiny little reinvention of the experience makes it better.

  • The next time, you're expecting them to both deliver the car in 10 minutes AND know your name. Perhaps here, they deliver the car in five minutes instead. Or maybe that's impossible, and so they offer you a warm cup of coffee or a nice, gooey chocolate chip cookie. "Thanks for your patience, Mary!"

Consistently exceeding expectations feels impossible. The logical conclusion is that the valet service would merely have your car ready at all times, instantly. But if we embrace that consistently great work consistently changes, we'd stop focusing on the sliding scale of competency and focus on the wide array of ways to reinvent the work.

The goal isn't to find the one thing that works, then keep refining it. The goal is to improve the experience overall. That goes well beyond a single tactic or strategy. That requires consistent reinvention.

Everyone is capable of changing the experience in small ways. Everyone is capable of reinvention.

Posted on March 6, 2019 .

Different Is Better (Unless It's Not)

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The year is 1980, and I am ... negative-five years old. But for the purposes of this story, let's say I'm alive and kicking it in my John Hughes-approved outfit. I start my day by pouring myself a big cup of ... Folgers ... coffee ... I guess? ... because the joy that is a row of MacBook Airs shining their white lights against some exposed brick is decades away. I get acquainted with the morning news, not by casting any pods or scanning through a newsletter, but by turning a few crisp pages on that day's print edition. There, I see some alarming things: Mount St. Helens has erupted -- her first in more than 100 years -- clearly signaling the End of Times. The Iran-Iraq war has burst into reality -- clearly signaling the End of Times -- while teens and early-twenty-somethings are obsessing over this new toy called a "Rubik's Cube" -- clearly signaling the End of Times.

Meanwhile, in Detroit, Michigan (forever away from my home via the 1980 transit of choice, the horse-and-buggy), a former executive in this magical “car” industry is about to make the dumbest decision of his life. That executive's name?

John DeLorean.

Today on the podcast, a few short stories of why the ubiquitous advice to be “different” instead of “better” is actually a bit misleading. Then, I find some long lost clarity about why that’s the case — and why I can’t stand all those hacks and cheats out there. (Finally! I have the word to use.) Plus, we go deeper into the dumb decision made by Mr. DeLorean long before his car was immortalized in Back to the Future. (We will also get some amazing ideas for doing things that are different AND good from legendary recording artist and producer Pharrell.)

Just because you’re doing something “different” doesn’t mean it’s gonna be successful. Let’s take a quick journey through history, encounter a few eye-opening examples — some weird and some wonderful — and rethink our approach to creating consistently great things.

It’s Unthinkable 😉

Hear the story on the Unthinkable podcast below, or subscribe free via Apple PodcastsOvercast, or wherever you listen.

Unthinkable shares stories of conventional thinking in our work and the people who dare to question it. Each episode is a sweet-sounding, atypical approach to telling business stories and distilling insights that help us question conventional thinking in order to think for ourselves. Entrepreneur called it "one of the hottest podcasts out there." Salesforce called Jay "a creative savant," while Fortune, Forbes, Inc, the Content Marketing Institute, and others have all praised the show's unconventional style and sound.

Posted on February 27, 2019 .

How the Tech World’s Sticker Company of Choice Helps Rethink Creativity at Work

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It's easy to understand why the Octocat is so ubiquitous in the tech world. I mean, just LOOK AT IT:

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This adorable little creature is named Mona Lisa, though she's more frequently referred to as Mona, and even more frequently referred to as "GitHub's cat/octopus thingy."

GitHub is a popular developer platform and community acquired by Microsoft for $7.5 billion last year. With a price tag like that, you might assume that their marketing centered on massive ad buys and the brute force tactics that fellow tech unicorns exhibit. And while they surely have a portfolio approach to their marketing, one of their earliest tactics proved vital throughout the companies growth.

Stickers.

They're not alone, either. Alexis Ohanian, the cofounder of Reddit and a veritable tech celebrity, once called stickers, "The soundest investment I've ever made.

And whether it's GitHub or Reddit, your local developer shop or the next global tech giant, there seems to be ONE company behind almost every sticker purchase in the weird, wonderful world of internet startups. But here's the thing: From the outside looking in, they don't look overly creative. Sure, their website has some nice design, they have a clever name, and as you'll hear, they have a strong CEO as their leader. But it's not like they ooze the kind of whimsical tone of voice on social media or the articles and videos and podcasts or even the Octocat-like logo that all feel like requirements to be "creative."

I think NOW is the best time to share this story with you, as I was recently talking to an executive at a cocktail party following one of my keynotes. I'd remarked that creativity was desperately needed in industries beyond tech and media -- places likes finance, auto retail, and healthcare.

He scoffed.

As you'll hear in this story, his definition of creativity was so far apart from my own. Bridging that gap is something I'm desperate to try today on this episode of the show. If we can re-frame what it means to be creative, we might ditch our reliance on Random Acts of Creativity -- or its evil twin, Shortcut Culture. Both are born of the same parents, a sort of union between our need for short-term gains and our belief in finding THE strategy or tactic.

So, let's hear the story about that surprisingly dominant sticker company from one of their cofounders, CEO Anthony Thomas. (Their other cofounder prefers to remain anonymous. I wanted to interview him. I tried to find him online, asking around and everything. But I couldn't find his name -- nor did the company volunteer it. Just another mystery in an already mysterious story about what consistent creativity REALLY requires.)

Hear the story on the Unthinkable podcast below, or subscribe free via Apple PodcastsOvercast, or wherever you listen.

Unthinkable shares stories of conventional thinking in our work and the people who dare to question it. Each episode is a sweet-sounding, atypical approach to telling business stories and distilling insights that help us question conventional thinking in order to think for ourselves. Entrepreneur called it "one of the hottest podcasts out there." Salesforce called Jay "a creative savant," while Fortune, Forbes, Inc, the Content Marketing Institute, and others have all praised the show's unconventional style and sound.

Posted on February 20, 2019 .

This Concept Explains Why Marketers Fail to Consistently Resonate with Audiences

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"I don't understand!" she shouted. "This used to work EVERY time! What is happening?! What are we gonna do?!?! WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!"

Okay, so that's not really what she said.

This calm, cool, and collected friend and I were colleagues on a marketing team years ago. She was responsible for all things direct response, and I was responsible for the content. And her actual words were probably something like, "Uh, Jay? We're not gonna hit our quota this month. I don't get it. We did exactly what we've done a million times before. This should be fine."

But despite those calm, cool, and collected words, I caught a faint whiff of existential dread. (And since we were marketers talking about leads, by "faint whiff," I mean, a skunk wearing a vest labeled "FREAK THE EFF OUT" had just waddled across the office and took out decades of personal angst directly onto my teammate's face.

Apparently. 

Here's why she was so distraught. For years, the company had run the same playbook to generate leads. (The name of the company isn't important. Let's call it GrubSnot.)

For years, GrubSnot published multiple blog posts each day to generate traffic, and then pointed that traffic (always a nice way to refer to human beings) to a big, colorful banner beneath the article. This banner would advertise a FREE Ebook, but of course, "FREE" stood for "Form Requiring Endless Entries." Because marketing!

And so, month after month, year after year, BubsCot would rely on this approach. Publish blog posts, point people to an ebook, convert leads on a forced form.

Blog posts >> Ebook. Blog posts >> Ebook. Over. And over. And over. And obviously, over time, our audience decided, "We're over it."

Arguably, this was my biggest failure as a team manager. Despite my best efforts -- or maybe they weren't -- I couldn't convince CubSlot leaders to invest more heavily in longer-term approaches and higher quality content. By the end of my first year there, I was out.

But, I mean, I understand the resistance to change at RubsTot: They'd found their tried-and-true, and just like any company that does, they were beating the ever-loving (Grub)Snot out of it. If they decided to change, well, it would be after it was too late.

Hence the "Uh, Jay?" from my teammate delivered with "WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!" urgency.

At the time, I struggled to explain this objectively, but now, I realize: We'd reached the Crapping Point.

When Tried-and-True Becomes Tired-and-Terrible

The Crapping Point is one moment on a chart I'll share with you in just a second. I believe this chart can explain the effects of time on any project or company, no matter how exciting or hollow, big or small, well-intentioned or scammy -- and everything in between. My attempt to explain the affects of time on our work is part of a larger, ongoing exploration to understand one question:

What does it take to create consistently great work?

In the business world, shortcut culture seems to be engulfing everyone, while creativity has been twisted to mean Random Acts. Like a stunt double called in to substitute for the real work, we use our creativity to try and manufacture spikes through one-off ideas, rather than create operational approaches to innovation and improvement. As people obsess over the short-term, the need for consistency gets lost, and with it, the ability to create anything unassailable: original, resonant, and enduring.

Two weeks ago, I tried to diagnose the illness. The need to manufacture spikes is a symptom. Random Acts of Creativity are symptoms. What's the root cause preventing us from creating consistently great work? I believe it's stagnation

Even the best creative projects, careers, and companies run the risk of growing stale over time. There is no "set it and forget it." Over time, the resonance wears away, whether that's the resonance we feel when we create the work or the feelings our audience exhibits towards what we create. (BTW, trying to manufacture spikes in the numbers suffers from stagnation even worse than longer-term approaches. After all, what makes a spike is that both the up-swing and the down-slope stand in stark contrast to the line before and after it. In other words, just as quick as the numbers go up, they go down.)

Stagnation is the enemy. That's why, when my former colleague said, "We did exactly what we've done a million times before. This should be fine," she'd actually answered her own question. She just didn't realize it. We'd done the exact same thing a million times before. Yanno that old saying, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results"? Well, in our line of work, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the same results.

So let's try to regain some sanity here. To do so, it's important to fully understand the problem to then find a solution. Luckily, we can visualize stagnation as one part of a chart showing the resonance of our work over time. The natural decrease in that resonance in the face of time is something I call:

Emotional Decay

When we find something that works, something that resonates for us as the creators and for them as the audience, that thing undergoes a transformation we didn't ask for and probably want to prevent. We can most vividly understand that transformation by thinking about our own reactions to launching A Thing That Worked Real Good. When we create A Thing That Worked Real Good, our reaction to what's happening changes to match the change in resonance.

It goes something like this (follow the red line along with the words below):

"HURRAY! THEY LOVE US! THIS IS AWESOME! WE'RE AWESOME. THIS IS--Oh. Uh. Okay! This is still fine! This is fine! This is fine! This is--oh no. Okay. It's not getting any better. It's just okay. This is not fine. This is not fine. This is--OH GOD, NO! It stopped working! What happened?! This used to work! WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!"

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I call this process Emotional Decay. The resonance wears away over time. That emotional pull we felt as the creators of the work and our audience felt as the recipients can slowly, or steeply, decay. That is the effect of time on our work.

We can plot different moments we experience on this line, too:

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Once we do something resonant, rather quickly, the audience experiences Nirvana. They think, “This is the greatest thing I’ve EVER experienced! This is how EVERYONE should do this thing! I love this brand so much I want to marry it and have lots of little baby brands with it!"

Or something.

We've all been there: That jaw-droppingly beautiful video. That gripping podcast episode. That unbelievably enjoyable newsletter written by one devilishly handsome author and speaker who would never, ever fish for compliments in his own newsletter.

That kind of work sparks awesome feelings. (I refuse to say "joy." If you don't know why, congrats on leading a more productive life than most humans with a Netflix subscription.)

Once others feel Nirvana with our work, it can carry, begin, or deepen our relationship together ... for a time. Eventually however, we experience the Drop-Off. For instance, we start seeing diminishing returns from the tried-and-true thing, or we begin to check out of the work and look to automate it, or our audience stops feeling all the feels. They still love us, but the spark isn't quite there anymore. No longer unassailable, we're vulnerable to disruption and choice. (Anyone who's ever been in a relationship for awhile knows this feeling. But unlike dating or marriage, our audience doesn't care about hurting us when they immediately move on to the next thing.)

The issue continues: If we don’t do anything to refresh the work, we experience Stagnation. We keep trying the tried-and-true too long; we completely lose interest in the work on a personal level, and it shows; the audience expects more of us after experiencing Nirvana, but we fail to exceed those ever-higher expectations we've created; the market has caught up or changed in a way that renders our once-exceptional work stale.

Eventually, we feel like things are crumbling around us. Every month or quarter is a mad dash to generate spikes in the numbers just to reach quota. Every new trend feels mandatory. Every email from our boss or client feels urgent. We. Lose. Our. Ish.

We've reached ... the Crapping PointI dunno what happened! It crapped out on us!

What was once exceptional has ceased to be table stakes (stagnation), and it becomes downright crappy. That's been the plight of gated ebooks in B2B marketing for awhile now. That will be the plight of nearly anything that works today, unless we keep refreshing our work to succeed tomorrow.

When we refuse to admit we have a problem, we face the reality of Emotional Decay only after it's too late. Then what do we do? Typically, we try to manufacture a spike. We seek a shortcut, a hack, a quick fix. To escape that ever-urgent feeling that comes with the Crapping Point, we just start the whole damn process all over again:

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"HURRAY! THEY LOVE US! THIS IS AWESOME! WE'RE AWESOME. THIS IS--Oh. Uh. Okay! This is still fine! This is fine! This is fine! This is--oh no. Okay. It's not getting any better. It's just okay. This is not fine. This is not fine. This is--OH GOD, NO! It stopped working! What happened?! This used to work! WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!"

"HURRAY! THEY LOVE US! THIS IS AWESOME! WE'RE AWESOME. THIS IS--Oh. Uh. Okay! This is still fine! This is fine! This is fine! This is--oh no. Okay. It's not getting any better. It's just okay. This is not fine. This is not fine. This is--OH GOD, NO! It stopped working! What happened?! This used to work! WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!"

"HURRAY! THEY LOVE US! THIS IS AWESOME! WE'RE AWESOME. THIS IS--Oh. Uh. Okay! This is still fine! This is fine! This is fine! This is--oh no. Okay. It's not getting any better. It's just okay. This is not fine. This is not fine. This is--OH GOD, NO! It stopped working! What happened?! This used to work! WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!"

Over and over again, we tell ourselves the same lie: THIS time will be different. But each time, it's not. It's the same schtick, the same slide towards apathy or even animosity from our audiences. This trend or that trend, this guru or that one. It not only continues, it speeds up! It spins wildly out of control until we risk devolving wholly into shortcut culture, obeying each and every ridiculous Business Bro who appears in a YouTube ad in front of a sports car with a wad of cash in his slimy hand.

WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!

How to Survive and Thrive Instead

What if we cared less about the spikes and more about the trajectory of the entire line? What if we thought longer term? What if we could avoid the crapping point and use stagnation as a signal to take action? We could do so, if only we responded proactively to Emotional Decay ... before it was too late, instead of after.

That leads me to my fiercest belief about consistent creativity, one that's easy to agree with but hard to implement -- hence my year-long journey to try. My fiercest belief about consistent creativity:

Consistently great work consistently changes.

Creating consistently great work isn't about finding THE thing that works, then putting that on repeat. That ignores the issue of Emotional Decay. Instead, we need a new idea of what "consistency" means. The work itself doesn't repeat -- only the resonance it creates. But to achieve that, to resonate as time passes, we must change the work to make sense in each new moment in time. In other words, to truly avoid stagnation and combat Emotional Decay, we need to refresh the work.

Consistently great work consistently changes.

Does yours?

Posted on February 13, 2019 .

Crap & Back Again: Patreon CEO on the Hidden Shift in Quality of Digital Media & Art

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I'm a big believer in game tape.

As a former athlete, nothing was more powerful than sitting down and reviewing my performance as a basketball player on video: my cuts, my form, my defensive stance, everything. As a writer, podcaster, and keynote speaker, I only get video for one of those three things (and even then, it's sporadic), but I still go out of my way to consume my own work through whatever medium. I'm not trying to feel great about things (though I certainly get a hefty helping of ego boost when I stare lovingly at my creation, like some kinda warm and fuzzy Doctor Frankenstein). The point isn't to merely celebrate what I've built. Really, it's about empathy for others -- empathy for YOU, the one on the receiving end of my work.

If I don't see my work from your perspective, then how in the hell can I hope to create something better and better over time for you?

Thus: game tape. I am a voracious consumer of my own work. I pay special attention to where I feel bored and confused. And then, there are those extra special moments when I utterly cringe.

Yep.

Ever experience that? You put something out into the world, you have one idea of how it'll be in your head, and then you look back at it ten minutes or ten days or ten weeks later ... and oof.

My Ultimate Oof Moment

I launched my podcast Unthinkable in March of 2016 with an episode titled "Quality vs. Quantity." (Curious? You can stream it here.) In that episode, I declared my intentions for the show, planted a flag for content marketers who would listen to sprint towards something better than all the hollow, commodity crap so many brands publish, and I set out to explore what I felt was a ludicrous conversation marketers genuinely had, especially back then:

(Extremely Steve Urkel voice)  AH, SO, SHOULD YOU PUBLISH QUAAAANTITY OR QUAAAALITY?

I say "I set out to explore," and I mean that literally. I marched down the street from my then-home in Cambridge, MA, with my then-microphone in hand, recording the crunching of the snow and the whoosh of cars passing me on Mass. Ave, until I reached Harvard's campus. There, I started investigating this idea of quantity and quality as opposites.

And thus, Unthinkable was born.

Now, were you to listen to that episode, you might notice a bunch of things that I've improved upon as a podcaster and storyteller. But one thing in particular that you'd never point out actually drives me insane. It's not my delivery or performance per se, but a specific thing I said.

In this, the all-important, celebratory, exploratory first-episode, I said something I'm ashamed to have said just six seconds into the dang thing.

And today, in my 94th episode of the show, which officially kicks off Season 5, I reveal what that was, and I talk to the man who can set me and all of us straight: Jack Conte, cofounder and CEO of Patreon. Together, we'll deliver a plea about creativity in the workplace, and embark on a brief exploration of the evolution of the internet to learn why we should change how we communicate our value to others as creators. Surrounding Jack's most moving points is a chorus of other voices previously heard on the show: Chase Jarvis (CEO of CreativeLive), Deb Aoki (Sr. Experience Designer, Adobe), Josh Bernoff (author, editor, and blogger at Without Bullshit), Juliana Casale (Head of Marketing, CrazyEgg), Angela Schneider (writer and photographer), and Macaela Vandermost and Corey Fanjoy (both from Newfangled Studios).

That fleeting, missable moment is my worst game tape. I never again want to make that mistake. Thanks to today's episode, I'm confident I won't.

Hear the story on the Unthinkable podcast below, or subscribe free via Apple PodcastsOvercast, or wherever you listen.

Oh and check out the fresh new cover art for Season 5! Wuh-BAM!

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Unthinkable shares stories of conventional thinking in our work and the people who dare to question it. Each episode is a sweet-sounding, atypical approach to telling business stories and distilling insights that help us question conventional thinking in order to think for ourselves. Entrepreneur called it "one of the hottest podcasts out there." Salesforce called Jay "a creative savant," while Fortune, Forbes, Inc, the Content Marketing Institute, and others have all praised the show's unconventional style and sound.

Posted on February 7, 2019 .

What Ruined the Best Video of All-Time

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Our Undefeated Rival

Robby Novak delivered the line as earnestly as he could. He adjusted his jet-black suit and bright red power tie, furrowed his brow towards the camera, and spoke.

“I think we all need a pep talk.”

Millions would eventually watch him deliver this line. Robby's video has now received 44 million views, but who's counting? (YouTube. YouTube is counting.) However, few if any of those millions of people know Robby Novak’s real name. He’s on camera. He’s speaking to the viewer. He’s featured in hundreds of other videos too. But most people know him as something other than Robby Novak:

Kid President.

“I think we all need a pep talk,” said the nine-year-old, back in his 2013 video. The initial, haunting notes from a post-rock song then eases us into the speech. (The song is “Households,” by Sleeping at Last, as the closing credits later reveal). From that first line, delivered in stately fashion in front of a chalkboard, we cut to a sepia-toned wide view of Robby in the middle of a Tennessee high school football field. A few handwritten words slowly appear on screen:

TO.

YOU.

FROM.

ME.

(KID PRESIDENT.)

And then, in the most earnest, uplifting, and moving way imaginable, KP delivers his plea to the adult world.

“The world needs you to stop being boring. (Yeah: You!)

"Boring is easy! Everybody can be boring! But you’re gooder than that.

"Life is not a game, people. Life isn’t a cereal, either. (Well, it IS a cereal.) And if life IS a game, aren’t we all on the same team? I mean really, right? I’m on your team. Be on my team!

“This is LIFE, people! You got air coming through your NOSE! Your heart beat…” (drums on his chest) “that means it’s time to do something!”

The video continues for a couple minutes, as the music crescendos to that delicate place between uplifting and cheesy. Later, Kid President concludes his monologue.

“I don’t know everything (I’m just a kid!) but I do know this: It's everybody’s duty to give the world a reason to dance. So get to it!”

The music reaches its climax, and as it begins to fade out, you hear Robby's voiceover saying, “You’ve just been PEP TALKED! Create something that will make the world AWESOME!”

I have watched this video more times than any other video on the internet. That’s just the truth. I’ve watched this video so much, I can probably recite the whole damn thing, word for word, and re-create it, shot for shot. As a lifelong maker, a self-described emotions junkie, and a card-carrying member of the Sensitive Men’s Club, I. Love. This. Video.

But sometimes, I can’t stand it.

Sometimes, I’ll watch it several times in a row (I’m not proud, but I’m not sorry) before I need to take a break. It actually starts to annoy me — this, the most awesome of videos in this world. And so, I have to set it aside for weeks. Months, even.

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Our favorite song, or blog, or favorite follow on social media; our go-to restaurant, or jogging route, or that old reliable dish we like to cook ... they can all stop feeling as awesome as Kid President would like things to be. But for some reason, we seem to forget that reality when it comes to our work. Way too often, we act like the successful thing we've created, the thing that others find awesome about our work, will ALWAYS resonate with our audience. We'd be wise to remember that even the best things we create aren’t sufficient to build exceptional companies or careers over time. Clinging to and routinely repeating “what works” is a sign that we don't understand the power of the opponent we must all face: Time.

Father Time is undefeated.

He is infinity-and-0 in his career. He’s never met a project, a company, nor a person that he hasn’t in some way changed, worsened, or killed. The longer something sits unchanged, or the more the tried-and-true is tried, or the more often “what works" is experienced by our audience, the harder it is for the work to, yanno … work.

Time is the great equalizer. Every team and every individual plays by the same rules. Nothing we do can prevent time from somehow altering our work — not casting an adorable nine-year-old, or using chest-swelling music, or writing a tear-jerking talk track. Not ranking first on Google, or boasting a ton of followers, or hiring the best people, or coming up with a brilliant new idea, or going viral, or winning an award. Nothing is time-proof. As time moves, context changes, and so too must our work.

But does it? And how would that work anyway? Is there a process we can use to be proactive in the changes we make, instead of constantly reacting?

I don't know. Not yet. But I can't wait to find out. Before we get there, however, I need to tell you one final thing about Kid President: He’s fragile.

I don’t mean that figuratively. Robby Novak has osteogenesisimperfecta, which essentially means his bones are unusually brittle. He’s more susceptible to bone damage and breaks than the average person. In fact, in the pep talk video, you can occasionally spot a blue cast on his right arm.

Unfortunately, Robby's condition gave bullies at his school a reason to pick on him quite a bit. Of course, given his message to the world in the Pep Talk video, you might not be surprised to learn that he took a negative and turned it into a positive, through both his inspiring videos and his nonprofit work together with his adult brother-in-law and video producer, Brad Montague.

Just like Kid President, our work is fragile. (This time, I do mean that figuratively. Unless of course you make, like, blown glass penguins for a living, in which case I can haz one? It’s for my 8-week-old daughter, I swear. Also? It is for me.)

Our work is fragile because as soon as we push something out into the world, time begins to change it in ways we don’t control. It’s exposed.

We create our work in the past, launch it for today, and then it's dragged into the future kicking and screaming.

One of the big reasons I’m exploring this idea of consistent creativity throughout 2019 is to challenge the “kicking and screaming” part. What if we better understand what it takes to produce resonant work over time? Rather than getting dragged forward, kicking and screaming, we might take our cues from Kid President and dance our way forward.

Last week, I talked about how we usually approach this problem. (If you missed it, go back and read that blog post version of the newsletter, because it's a vital step forward in our exploration this year.) To summarize what we discussed: Our work often looks like an ongoing attempt to manufacture spike after spike in the numbers. We push all our chips into the middle of the table called NOW, and we hope we win big. Whether or not we do, our next move is still IDENTICAL (crazy, no?), as we splurge on yet another stack of chips and push them all in, once again betting that we can win big NOW. This frenetic, short-term approach has created a culture of shortcuts throughout the business world, and it has bastardized people's understanding of creativity, from an ongoing process to what I call Random Acts of Creativity.

In that article, I concluded that our obsession with shortcuts, hacks, cheats, and one-off creative stunts is actually a symptom. It's not the real illness. The real illness is what happens as a result of our manufacturing spikes: the drop-off.

Following a Random Act of Creativity, we have no system or process to continue arching the slope of the line north ... so instead, it drops off, and we're right back to concocting the next Random Act. I feel like saying to those teams who applaud themselves for creative stunts: Congrats, you manufactured a moment. The moment has passed. Now what?

For all their glorious highs, they've then got to grapple with the subsequent low forced upon them as time passes.

In our journey to push beyond commodity junk and create unassailable work, we agree that consistent creativity is more useful than random acts. But as we push forward in time with the work we create, even with our good intentions, we face the very same issue that random acts create -- because time is the great equalizer. So, the real enemy, and Father Time's weapon of choice?

Stagnation.

When we want to build anything great, we do so over time. And few things affect our work over time quite like stagnation, a state or condition marked by lack of flow, movement, or development. Left unchanged, the work we create, the knowledge we possess, and the behaviors we exhibit can all grow stale over time. Without evolving ourselves and what we do, and without re-inspiring or re-engaging the audience, we risk losing any emotional resonance we experienced before.

I call this time-induced decline from resonance to stagnation Emotional Decay.

Next week, we’ll aim to truly understand this issue of stagnation in our work and with our teams by deconstructing the various stages of Emotional Decay. This is my first time discussing the concept publicly, and so I'll lay it all out for you and invite you to give your take. My thesis is that we do indeed possess a way to combat Emotional Decay and to turn the negative affects of time into a positive tool at our disposal. More on that next week.

Until then, remember: Boring is easy. Everybody can be boring. But you’re gooder than that.

It’s our duty to give the world a reason to dance.

So get to it.

You can find Kid President’s pep talk here. While you’re browsing talks, here’s a clip from my speech at last year’s CMWorld that I just released publicly — I’m currently booking events in the spring after grounding myself for daddy duties this winter. Email speaking inquiries to jay@unthinkablemedia.com.

And as always, you can get a transparent look at my year-long journey to understand creative consistency via the travel log.

Posted on January 23, 2019 .

Let's Put an End to Random Acts of Creativity

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The article was mundane enough. So why did it make me so mad?

The title read, “Sample 11 of the Best B2B and B2C Content Marketing Ideas of 2018.” 

On the surface, there was no reason for my gut to start screaming to my eyeballs to go find something else to look at, ya dinguses. I mean, who hasn’t seen dozens of these articles before? Here was a simple, curated list of things, brought together in one piece because we as humans ascribe special meaning to 12-month time periods for … reasons.

I just couldn’t figure out why the hell this seemingly innocuous article bugged the snot out of me. And then it hit me, whilst blowing my nose: This article perpetuates a great misconception about creativity in the workplace, one that bastardizes our understanding of the idea. In fact, this article, whether intentionally or not, contributes to one of the worst things happening in business today:

Shortcut Culture. 

Regardless of whether we write blog posts or host podcasts or build and sell products or lead teams, we all tend to validate our success by looking for the same thing: a spike in the numbers. We want the work to work. But not just "work" -- we want it to crush. Like corporate versions of Ricky Bobbywe wanna go fast.

Can't you just feel the rush of witnessing that sudden boost in numbers? Don't you just crave a moment of up-and-to-the-rocket-hyper-ship-growth?

Imagine: you've had a long and stressful week. It's Friday, and you keep thinking about your couch, and Netflix, and that glass of special something, and that special someone snuggling up next to you (human, feline, canine, or otherwise). You're trudging towards that brief respite from the mad dash of constant business growth. Finally, mercifully, you decide to see how things are going. You peel open your laptop. You pull up the data. Your heart is clamoring to escape your chest and retreat behind your hands, which, without you realizing, are now covering your eyes. You slowly take a peek at the graph ... and, OMG, could it be?!

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THOSE SPIKES THO! 

You smile broadly and breathe deeply. Ahhhhh … that’s the good stuff.

Over time, we start to conflate “great work” with “outlier results.” No spike, no good. When we experience The Spikening, it forever changes our conversations too. We whisper in the halls, “Christina’s video was good, but it was no Holiday Video of 2012.” We hear from clients, " “Let’s really go big here. Yeah. Have fun with it.” We're poked and prodded by bosses, ever so passively, ever so aggressively: "We need our next version of the Ultimate Collection of Social Media Templates.”

In the blink of a very twitchy eye, our jobs become manufacturing more spikes. We're no different than whatever soulless monsters spend their time seeking the next Call Me Maybe or MMMbop or (gasp) Macarena. ("And now for the 16th time this morning, here’s Miley Cyrus singing her latest smash hit, Call Me MMMacarena!”)

And so it goes: The endless search for singular moments of spiking numbers. We wander through the desert until HALLELUJAH! We work away until BAM! We stress and struggle and strive until WHAMMY!

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Is this our fate? Is that what our work really is? 

When the greatest possible success we can have is a big spike, our jobs start to change. We don’t exist to deliver great work. We exist to manufacture an outcome that arrives faster and arches higher ... through whatever means necessary. Is it any wonder the business world is filling up with people and programs promising see-spikes-now schemes? The shortcuts. The cheats. The hacks, “secrets,” and gurus. The social media bros who mean-mug the camera for their YouTube pre-roll ads, promising that you, too, can make millions and buy a mansion and trick people into paying you—op! wait! ignore that! Did I mention THIS SWEET NEW CAR I BOUGHT?!

Ugh. I am so. freaking. sick. of shortcut culture in business. Even when we’re not desperately trying to click away from brotastic bullshitters, we still fall victim to endless content and ideas focused on short-term gains. We want Ultimate Guides to tell us everything we need to know, end of discussion, end of learning. (That’s what “ultimate” means, after all: "being or happening at the end of a process; final.") We create internal playbooks specifically so we can run them again and again. We seek out lists of tips-and-tricks from Yet Another Expert Interview Podcast, and we fall all over ourselves when someone claims to know EXACTLY what to say to a prospect, what to do with the algorithm, or what to buy to make the numbers climb rapidly, today.

Ahhhhh yes ... there it is.

So, why did that well-meaning list of inspirational marketing examples grate on me? Because it applauded something I call Random Acts of Creativity.

When we approach our work with a short-term focus or we actively seek shortcuts to juice the numbers, creativity becomes one-off. Like a stunt double, we call upon it to emerge from some trailer in the back parking lot of our brains, and we treat it like a stand-in for the real work. But consistently successful teams infuse creativity in everything they do. It's not a stand-in for the real work. IT IS THE REAL WORK. As the legend John Cleese often says, creativity is not a talent. It's a way of operating.

The business world is full of examples of Random Acts of Creativity replacing creativity-as-process: articles applauding one-off projects, awards for campaigns and viral pieces, and persistent requests to "jump in a room" to brainstorm THE idea ... just to name a few.

If we're going to create unassailable work -- original, resonant, always exceeding ever-higher expectations in others -- than we can't rely on Random Acts of Creativity. What if we stopped seeking them out entirely, and started emphasizing consistency instead? What if we created things made to STICK, instead of spike?

In the end, building exceptional companies and careers unfolds over the long arc of time. Zoom in and you'll find a rather zig-zaggy approach. Some things work and some things don't, all to a varying degree. What matters isn't the next spike. What matters is the slope of the whole damn line.

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We all want to create unassailable work. That is our shared goal. To achieve that, we know we need to be creative, to produce work that resonates emotionally with both us as the creators and the audience as the recipients. In our quest to do so, we face a choice: Fall victim to the popular dialogue around creativity, or prioritize consistency. I say, it's time to ditch the stunts...

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So what can we put in its place? Consistent creativity, sure. But how does that work? What's our solution to shortcut culture, the substitute that we feel better serves our shared goal?

Well, to figure out the cure, we have to diagnose the illness, and if I'm being honest, I don't think we've done that quiet yet. While shortcut culture and the Random Acts they prompt are obvious targets of our ire, I don't believe they're the root problem. The root problem, I think, is the core reason why RACs are ineffective in the first place. After all, none of this would matter if you could indeed use a single stunt to create a special career or company.

No, to find and diagnose the true illness here, and to build back up something new from first principles, we have to dig deeper. Why is shortcut culture ineffective? What happens when we rely on Random Acts of Creativity that hurts our cause rather than helps it?

I'll share my theory next week. 

Only one thing is certain in our shared journey so far: We're putting shortcut culture where it belongs...

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Posted on January 16, 2019 .

The Worst Career Advice I've Ever Received: "Be the Best"

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What's the worst advice you've ever received? Can you recall? Go ahead, I'll wait. (I literally can't move forward until you scan your eyes further down, so...)

Seriously, what's the absolute worst advice you've ever received? 


Prefer to listen to this story instead? Right this way to the Unthinkable podcast (or try Apple, Overcast, or Spotify).


When I was 27, I was put in charge of a content team of about 9 people at a high-growth, well-known tech company, and for the first time ever, I found myself in a purely managerial role. Unlike past leadership positions at past tech companies, where I was able to make stuff AND manage, leading a team of 9 at a rapidly scaling startup required that I ditch my beloved maker schedule (big blocks of uninterrupted time for deep work) and assume a manager schedule (30- or 60-minute blocks, mainly taken up by meetings back to back to back to back to blahhhhhhhhh).

Can I be honest? Sometimes I feel guilty about hating that experience. Everything about the job was supposed to be wonderful. The team was swell. The brand was sterling. The influence of our content around the industry was all that and a bag of clicks. The perks, the power, the pay -- I was supposed to love it. 

But I. Was. Miserable.

One day, I decided to share that fact with my boss, a director who'd been at the company for years and who, we all knew, was being groomed to eventually lead the entire department. 

"I don't feel like I'm being fully utilized," I told him. "I'm not doing my best work."

"Yep. I agree," he told me. Oh. Um. Thanks? (Turns out, he was NOT the best of bosses. That tends to happen when you're continually gazing upward in the org chart as a manager. You forget that the way to climb above is to better serve those below.)

I started clicking my pen nervously. See, the noise can distract a boss from his erstwhile attempt to fire you. Or so I'm told.

"I feel like I'm caught between two roles," I told him. "I'm in this manager position where I'm supposed to be a content strategist, but my love is to create."

"Well," said my boss, now placated by my magic pen, "you have to choose. Given where this industry is at, you could probably be the best strategist. You probably won't be the best creator. So, solving for enterprise value is solving for your career here: You should focus on being the best strategist."  

So it was settled. With a few tumbles of a tongue fluent in Corporate Bullshit, I had my marching orders: Shut up and go do your job as assigned. 

Here's the worst part: I thought he was right at the time. I believed he was. I was one of very few people in my position in the entire industry, and at a young age too. Whereas most content teams were one, two, maybe three people, I worked with NINE -- and we were hiring more. It felt like the world was my oyster, and my boss had instructed me to crack it open, toss out the pearl, and cram in some tips-and-tricks blog posts that ranked higher on search.

Blah. Did I say blah already? I don't care: Blah.

Looking back, I can't help but laugh at his advice, because what the hell does "the best" even mean in this line of work? That's so subjective. That's a fool's goal, I think. We don't keep stats to measure ourselves against others in our industry (and don't get me started on social followers).

LeBron James can aim to be the best. Maybe he measures that on most all-star appearances, or championships, or playoff scoring, or hell, merely the public narrative around a very public career declaring him "the best." But last I checked, global media outlets aren't publishing weekly rankings, opinion columns, and talking head TV shows to decide whether or not we're the best.

Be the best? Nuh uh. No thanks. Not a chance. Not a real thing!

How about, be the most fulfilled by the work? What about, find something that drives you ceaselessly forward, towards constant improvement, and learning, and joy, and the chance to bring your full self to your work? 

Or what about this:

Go on a quest.

That's how I frame this work we do: like a quest. It's an ongoing, never-ending exploration of just how deep this well goes, or just how dense this jungle is, or just how high this mountain climbs, or just ... uh ... how tasty ... the pasta ... is?

MY POINT ... is that I am hungry. For pasta, yes, of course, I'm Italian, BUT ALSO for the journey to understand and improve and create. Turns out there is no finish line in all that. There's no finally reaching the status of "the best." There's no "winning." There's only constant improvement, constant motion forward. That's all any career is. As my friend, the author and speaker Andrew Davis, likes to say: We go on quests.

So today, I'm excited to invite you to join me on my next quest, unfolding throughout 2019 and maybe beyond.

Together, we're fighting one enemy in the workplace (Shortcut Culture -- ugh), and we're striving to master one thing (creating unassailablework: original, resonant, and beloved by both us and them).

My hypothesis right now? The key is to understand how to create consistently great work, rather than obsess over Random Acts of Creativity -- all those shortcuts and short-term approaches the working world lauds to make the numbers go higher, faster, today. 

So why is this a "quest" anyway? Well, I know I have one of those careers where I'm supposed to have answers. The truth is, I have a ton of questions, and I can't wait to pursue them to see where they take me -- where they take us. My role in this working world isn't to dole out answers. I've written way too much already about the problem with experts and gurus and false "secrets to success." Instead, my work packages and presents what I've found, not what I "know." To quote Anthony Bourdain for the umpteenth time to you, this time via one of his tattoos: "I am certain of nothing." 

Creativity isn't a final destination. It's a never-ending quest. In reality, the choice presented by my old boss was an impossible one to make at all, because the outcome (being the best) doesn't exist.

What's the worst advice you've ever received? Can you recall? I was told to pick a job where I could strive towards something that doesn't exist. But this quest? It's very much real, and very much launching right now.

Starting today, you and I can let others obsess over the hacks, cheats, "secrets," and shortcuts. Starting today, we can focus all of our time on resonance, not empty reach. We can choose to think longer term, to build projects and companies that are unassailable and beloved. Let others profess to have "the answers." We have questions. And that's why this work is worth doing.

Screw being the best. I love the quest.

Posted on January 9, 2019 .

Don't Just Be "Different" - What It Really Takes to Consistently Exceed Their Expectations

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In 2006, two Boston-based entrepreneurs named Chris Savage and Brendan Schwartz launched a video software platform called Wistia. Over the next 12 years, they created some of the business world's most entertaining videos. In the words of Savage, their CEO, they take "emotional risks." As a result, their work stands out as a beloved exception in B2B. They feel like a breath of fresh air compared to most business content.

I've been a fan and follower of Wistia's since 2008, when I moved to Boston for my first job in tech, working as a digital media strategist at Google. Over time, I grew disillusioned with big company life, and I craved a path that would let me create for a living, rather than advise and sell as I did for the Big G. Looking around my own city, I took solace in the fact that Wistia was (A) a B2B business that (B) created lots of content about business topics and (C) embraced creativity and emotional risk-taking.

Over time, I got to know Wistia's people, and as my relationship deepened with them, I noticed two things that they did better than most. These two things are why I'm writing this today, and they lead us to our next big adventure together on my newsletter and on my podcast. Who knows? Maybe there's a book in here. There's definitely a speech. Regardless, here are the two things Wistia does better than most:

First, Wistia's videos have a certain consistency to them. They've created a unique identity thanks to a number of traits that, after watching just a few videos, become readily identifiable as "Wistian." They have a peppy, quirky tone, with a production style to match, a recurring cast of "characters" (employees on camera), and a propensity for quick-cut asides and jokes. White label a Wistia video, and you'd still know it was them. They know what works for their brand.

However.

Despite knowing "what works," and using that consistently, Wistia also proactively and consistently changes their work over time. They don't rely on the tried-and-true, beating it to death as so many teams do. Likewise, when they try something new, they don't merely glom onto the latest trend to evolve. While every corporation claims they want Hashtag Innovation, most of them treat change like they're buying a new Maserati: It has to be big, bold, and expensive, or it apparently doesn't count. Of course, then what happens? They hit the gas and careen wildly down the road. They have no idea what they're actually doing as they prioritize a trend or tactic without any real strategy. They aren’t driving change so much as the change is driving them. They’re reactive. They’re not in control.

With Wistia, it's different. Despite the stress and the fun of growing a young tech company, Wistia's changes still feel proactive, not reactive. "Someone screamed something from a stage? Who cares? What should WE do?"

Wistia doesn't let the change drive them. They indeed drive the change, both internally and, really, around the industry as a whole. Instead of careening wildly down the street, unable to control the horsepower of their Hashtag Innovation, they eaaaase onto the driver's seat. (Oooh, that feels nice.) They leeeean back as they start the engine. (Oh my, just listen to that puppy.) And they go cruuuisin' down the street. (Mmmm, yeah.) 

They seem to know what to change and what to keep. They make proactive changes over time, too, which keeps us engaged over time. Yes, I know roughly what to expect from them -- but not exactly what to expect. And that's exactly why I'm still a huge fan 10 years after discovering them. They continually change the right stuff about their work in order to exceed my expectations every time.

How?

Wistia isn't alone, either. I just wrapped up Season 1 of Exceptions, a 10-part docuseries about the world's most creative B2B brands. Each of them are breaths of fresh air in their niches: InVision (in the design industry), Gusto (payroll/benefits/HR), Help Scout (customer support), Lessonly (employee learning and development), First Round Capital (VC), Zoom (video conferencing), Grado Labs (my B2C example among the bunch, in consumer electronics), Buffer (social media marketing), ProfitWell (SaaS analytics), and yes, Wistia (video creation and analytics).

All 10 brands seem to do the impossible in today's noisy, conventional wisdom-filled world:

They avoid stagnation and consistently exceed expectations. 

What does that take to achieve? How can we do that too? I can’t shake this burning desire to know.

Welcome to Our Next Journey Together

In my first book, Break the Wheel, published in October, we completed the first leg of our journey together. We explored how to escape the endless cycle of best practices, conventional thinking, and trendy new tactics to do our best work. After two-and-a-half years of asking questions and looking for answers through story, we pushed ourselves away from conventional thinking. But now that we've done so, the big question becomes: How do we keep pushing? 

How do we avoid lapsing back into that endless cycle of best practices and commodity work Once we've raised our audience's expectations for what they can expect from us, making "exceptional" our new status quo, how can we continue to set the bar ever higher in their minds? If we could do that, we'd become the welcome exceptions in our niche, much like Wistia, and those other 9 brands, and about 50 other examples of work from all shapes and sizes that I've already gathered. All of these examples can be described with one powerful but under-explored word:

Refreshing.

Yup. They’re refreshing. Not "different." Refreshing. It’s a subtle difference but, as these things so often go, it makes all the difference in the world.

The Conventional Advice

The usual advice for standing out among all the noise is to be different. At first glance, it seems like this is the answer to my questions above. Want to avoid stagnation and consistently exceed expectations? Be different.  

Rather than try to win on competency -- slight incremental benefits that the competition lacks -- we strive to win on originality. Don’t be “yet another.” Be the only. Want word-of-mouth? Give them something remarkable, or worth remarking about. As I said in my book, if we want to be exceptional, we need to find and follow what makes us an exception.

However. 

I can't shake this feeling that maybe, just maybe, that idea doesn’t tell the full story.

In fact, recently, that sneaking suspicion leapt out from where it was hiding to reveal itself more fully to me. (Ew.) It pointed a gnarled and calloused finger my way and said, “HEY! You're one of those people who says things for a living! So if you want to continue this work you do, then answer me these questions two!”

  1. Isn’t the goal to be different and good, not just different? (Obviously, the goal isn’t to just pull stunts or try a bunch of gimmicks. We aren't rebels without a cause. We very much have one, or even several. We want to do work that others actually love. We need a more nuanced view here. We need the right MENTALITY. )

  2. What does that take anyway? (Obviously, we can’t just throw out everything we do and replace it with entirely new stuff. So how do we evolve with a purpose? How do we recognize when something is stale and needs to change? What do we change, and what do we keep? Clearly, we need a STRATEGY.)

A mentality and a strategy -- sounds like "nuance" to me. And nuance is one of those pesky but important things that requires genuine exploration and deep work to understand. As always, there is no One Simple Secret. So we better start our exploration.

The Problem with Aiming for "Different"

This idea that we should be “different” rather than compete on competency is far from new, but it was immortalized by the great thinker and speaker Sally Hogshead in 2015. In an article on her blog, she codified the idea into the pithiest and most memorable (and powerful) of phrases:

Different is better than better.

She writes:

We grew up with a myth. The myth says: Work hard to be “better.” Better than everyone else. Better than the other students in our classroom. In your career, be better than our competition… because that’s how to be the best. I’d like to end this myth right here. Your competitive advantage is NOT the way in which you are incrementally better than the competition.

She goes on to describe the benefits of competing not on price or efficacy of our product or fancier new marketing or technology, but by identifying and deploying our unique advantages.

"Different is better than better."

Be still, my beating heart. I feel like I can sprint through a wall just hearing that, don’t you? I think, “HELLZ TO THE YEAH! I’m gonna be different! I’m gonna do things MY way! I see you, Frank Sinatra! In fact, I’m so excited, I don’t even care that I just used the phrase HELLZ TO THE YEAH in public! Let’s do this thang! WOOOO!!!!”

However.

Then those questions creep in.

How are we different?

Also, are we different enough?

Also, are we different in some absolute, final sense, or must we keep finding different ways to be different over time?

Also, is our different a different that others really want?

Also, how do we achieve THAT?

Also…

Gah!

It’s hard for me to admit, and it may even border on controversial (settle down), but maybe being different isn't really the goal. In fact, without those pesky, nuanced things — the right mentality and the right strategy — we our thinking might be incomplete and dangerous.

It's incomplete because the goal is indeed to be welcome, not merely unconventional. Our work has to, yanno ... work. I could deliver my keynote speeches with my back turned to the audience for an hour. I'd be different. I’d also be terrible.

Unfortunately, saying "different-and-welcome is better than better" isn't all that tweetable. Still, I think a vastly underrated skill when crafting a career or company is knowing what to change and what to keep as we evolve our way forward. That’s how we can consistently create something different and avoid the real enemy in this exploration: stagnation.

Next, aiming to be “different” might actually be dangerous too. When we want to be different, we’re forced to answer one implied question that informs all our actions: "Different from whom?" Answer: The competition. But that’s never where we should start or focus our efforts. That’s a reactive, incremental way to craft our careers and companies. At best, that approach leads us to achieve what Sally Hogshead calls “a flimsy advantage that can be toppled in a millisecond by someone with a bigger following.”

What If We Focused on Being Refreshing Instead?

What if we found a smart, strategic way to continually refresh our work? What if we focused on feeling refreshing, not different?

Aiming to be refreshing, like aiming to be different, forces us to answer an implied questoin. However, this question focuses the work on something better than the competition. Rather than ask, “Different from whom?” we must ask, “Refreshing TO whom?” Answer: The customer. The audience. The client. The team. The community. The people we aim to serve.

Because that’s the real goal.

So, how can we refresh our work over time? What does it take to avoid stagnation and consistently exceed expectations? How can we ensure our work is embraced and beloved, not just once, but always, over time, in ways that resonate in such a deep way that they consider it refreshing?

As you can imagine, I've got some ideas for how this works. Mostly, I've got questions, and I’m starting a public journey to find some answers right now, with you.

So I hope you'll join me along this journey. Because while we all want to do exceptional work, it's simply not sufficient to break from conventional thinking once. We have to routinely identify stale patterns and evolve our way beyond them. Sometimes, that means making incremental changes, remixing our work.

Other times, that requires reinvention. Recently, that's exactly what Wistia did.

After 12 years of making the marketing world’s most beloved short-form videos, the team created a four-part documentary series, One, Ten, One Hundred, exploring the relationship between money and creativity. (Full disclosure: I was honored to be a consultant on this project.) The decision to reinvent their content followed a decision to reinvent the entire business, as Wistia had previously launched a new product, a Chrome extension to help you make beautiful video quickly called Soapbox.

Wistia continues to refresh their work. I think we should too. So let's journey together to uncover the subtle but powerful art of knowing what to tweak and what to keep as we evolve. Let's strive to be the beloved exceptions in our space. Let's avoid stagnation and consistently exceed their expectations. If we do, we might hear just about the best damn compliment to our work we can receive from others:

"THAT is how EVERYONE should do this."

How refreshing. 

JOIN THE JOURNEY: 2 ways to follow along with each question, story, insight, and behind-the-scenes content:

  1. Read and respond to my weekly emails. I'd love your thoughts, questions, and stories you think I should explore. I read and reply to every email I get. Subscribe below.

  2. Listen to my podcast, Unthinkable, for featured stories, plus a special behind-the-scenes miniseries called Creative Cafe, where I talk to some of the world’s best at continually refreshing their work (including Wistia's creative director!). Both types of episodes are coming in 2019. Subscribe free on Apple PodcastsSpotifyOvercast, and anywhere you listen.

Posted on December 17, 2018 .