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, via my organization, Marketing Showrunners.

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

My hypothesis right now? The key is to understand how to master the art of reinvention, 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. Consistently great work consistently changes in little ways, all the time. Thus, if we want to be innovative or creative over time, we need to master the art of reinvention. Marketing Showrunners exists to advance the craft of marketers making shows to build passionate audiences, and I can think of no better place than the MSR newsletter to explore this big, complex topic. Shows are, after all, a practice in consistency and little reinventions over time.

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 .

The Great Myth of Brand and Finding a Simpler Understanding

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Conventional thinking says we should grow reach.

Conventional thinking says we should look for more.

Conventional thinking says bigger is better.

Conventional thinking ... is conventional for a reason.

No matter how sound or logical, pervasive or pithy, best practices are lagging indicators, not leading indicators. On my newsletter, Damn the Best Practices, and really in all my work, I've long advocated for a renewed focus on resonance instead of reach. It's not just my little corner of the internet, either. Over the past 6 months, I've gone inside 10 of the world's best B2B organizations to uncover how and why they're prioritizing brand. In this docuseries, Exceptions, I profiled InVision, Zoom, Wistia, Help Scout, First Round Capital, Grado Labs, ProfitWell, Lessonly, Buffer, and Gusto. In talking to both their teams AND their customers, my eyes were opened to a simple fact: Great brands grow by prioritizing resonance instead of reach.

In the end, brand is merely the sum total of every experience others have with you (whether that's "customer experience" or "employee experience"). Every tweet, every email, every purchase, every MOMENT -- it all adds up to create the brand. In other words:

Brand is how others feel about your people.

Period. That's it. It's all about those two things: how they FEEL ... about YOUR PEOPLE.

Again, brand is the sum total of every experience they have. Every experience is created by people. Thus, every brand is built by the collective behavior of your people. That's all this is. We overcomplicate this, and we hide that blunt reality behind words like "company" and "department" and "campaign," but these are merely constructs. They are legal or theoretical entities. The words are shorthand for "the people who work for us." In reality, a "company" is a nonexistent, empty container -- that is, until we, the people doing the work, fill those containers with what we create. Brand is thus the emotional reaction that others have to our stuff that creates a brand.

And today, in this world of infinite choice, we choose to spend time with great experiences. In other words, we choose great brands.

In the business world, we tend to inflate these ideas into more sophisticated-sounding but ultimately meaningless ideas. We think building a brand means launching one-off “brand initiatives,” but in reality, EVERYTHING we do builds the brand.

We chalk up those discrete “brand initiatives” as things that don't drive results, but in reality, a great brand grows inbound results while making it easier to go outbound.

We think “brand” means putting some final polish on something or perhaps launching something fun or “viral.”

In short, the conventional thinking on "brand" is that it's a nice-to-have thing which is all about reach. In reality, it's all about resonance. It's the emotional response others have to our work.

Here’s the bottom line: Every individual has AN experience of our work. The only real question is: Are we being proactive about crafting a great one?

This idea was originally shared to my newsletter. You can subscribe below.


Posted on December 9, 2018 .

Worthy Or Not, Here I Come: The Cure for Imposter Syndrome

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My aspirational anchor (the method for setting goals that helps us make more contextual decisions) has long been “to tell the most emotionally resonant stories about work that I can.” This forces me to focus my time and effort on a few things above all else, each of which comes with a tradeoff: stories (not advice), resonance (not reach), and constant improvement (not expertise or any other notion of finality — the “that I can” part of my anchor). My biggest area for improvement is that third part (which is a bit obvious, I suppose, when you consider the third part is “constant improvement.”) 

I don’t know about you, but I often forget to ask myself, “Is this thing I’m creating better than my last?” In my drive to publish, I often release work without ever pausing to consider if I’ve really created the best story about work “that I can.” Instead, I prefer to rely on the number of reps that I put in, because I know I create a ton of stuff relative to the average bear. (Squirrels have me beat though. But they mostly publish clickbait.)

To get better at getting better, I plan to ask myself two questions before shipping my work. They won’t take long to answer, so I can avoid paralyzing myself, but they should be a part of my flow from here onward:

  1. Did I articulate the story’s conflict with enough clarity and emotion? (For those who missed it, here's last week’s email about why conflict matters to story, and how to build your own using the One Simple Story framework.)

  2. Did I tell the story my way? (This means that my quirks, beliefs, and voice must be fully present. I don’t want to create derivative work, nor do I want to create what I think will “work.” If I do either, it’s a sign I ignored the most crucial variable between my context and everyone else’s: me.)

I don’t think I’m alone in struggling with these things, and since I addressed #1 last time, it’s time to tackle #2. What does it mean to do the work "your way" anyway? Isn’t that a scary and vulnerable place to be? What does it mean to be fully present? And, of course, why would anyone care that I did it my way? Am I worthy of their time, attention, and love?

Uh oh. We’re stumbling towards the vast swamp of self doubt, with all its twisting vines of internal debate and the endless croaking of frogs. “Fraaaaud! Fraaaaud! Rippit (up). Rippit (up). Fraaaaud!”

Imposter syndrome plagues a lot of us. But if I’m being honest — and, for once, I feel awkward about being honest — it’s never plagued me.

"ALRIGHT, tough guy,” I hear you thinking. “Nice humble-brag, you greasy-haired egomaniac.” (Not the hair, c’mon…)

Look, it’s not that I’m a single cell better than anyone who DOES feel imposter syndrome. It’s just that the nature of my work has REMOVED the issue entirely. This might sound surprising, given that I’m basically a business personality. What could cause imposter syndrome quite like that line of work? It’s all about ME, isn’t it?

And that’s the issue. It can’t be all about me. It ISN’T all about me. I believe that to remove imposter syndrome — and, really, to do this creative stuff we all do WELL — we have to remove the self.

Hear me out, because I don’t mean “don’t bring your full self to your work.” Just the opposite. We have to bring our full self, but we have to bring it TO the right endeavor. Think of it like this: 

You aren’t the work. You're the vessel for it.

In Break the Wheel, I advocate for a simple switch in how we make decisions. Rather than act like experts, who have all the answers, I propose we act like investigators, who ask great questions. Whereas experts value absolutes, investigators value evidence. It might be helpful to know some generalized theory, but what really matters is asking question after question, finding clue after clue, as the case unfolds. 

Well, if you’re an investigator, then ultimately, your work isn’t about “who you are” but rather “what you’ve found.” You stop focusing on this implied notion of self-importance (“I AM something”) and begin focusing on your investigation (“I FOUND something”). 

When you’re investigator, it’s no longer YOU that must be worthy. It’s what you’ve uncovered. Anyone could have done it. You’re not special. But what you FOUND is. And that’s the work they came to see.

With this simple mental switch, we can beat imposter syndrome. Why are we worthy? Who are we to earn their time, attention, and love? We’re the people who spent meaningful time asking important questions and investigating them thoroughly. We're here to present to them what we found. Let them judge away! They aren’t judging us. You’re judging what we found. We can then step back, away from that thing we found, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them to try and see it their way. We shouldn’t feel any more afraid or attacked than if we dug up a rock from the dirt and had someone point out what they see to be true about that rock. That’s not a comment on us. It’s a comment about what we found. 

Who we are still matters, but only so much as it informs our pathway to the work. The person you are is the trusty magnifying glass you can use during your investigation to see the world a certain way. But you still need to pull out that objective truth, and yes, put that truth out there for the world to see or judge.

Ultimately, I think we're all just vessels. Like journalists or detectives, we’re on the case. We ask great questions, and we seek the truth in the world, through whatever we create. 

When someone exhibits imposter syndrome, they continually doubt their worthiness or authenticity, and they live with a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud.” When you’re an investigator, however, this seems silly. Fraud? As in, a fake? I don’t even see how that would be possible. How can you fake the fact that I embarked on an investigation? How can I fake this thing I found? I assure you, it’s quite real.

In this era of insta-fame and Insta fame, we aren’t actually the stars of our work. That’s how I can avoid imposter syndrome even though I’m more or less building Jay, Inc. That’s how YOU can avoid imposter syndrome, regardless of what you do. They aren’t here to see us, nor are they really judging us. They want to know what we’ve learned. They’d like an update on our investigation. Work that’s worthy of their time and adoration isn’t created by handing others your answers. It requires that you ask great questions. Every individual alive is capable of doing that. 

Now open your word processor, turn on the microphone, start your design, take your camera on the road, start your company, go for that promotion, or walk through that curtain ... and give them what they REALLY came to see. 

It’s not who you are. It’s what you’ve found.


This post was originally shared to my newsletter, Damn the Best Practices. You can subscribe below.

Posted on December 6, 2018 .

Most Brands Use Data Incorrectly When Trying to Be Creative. Here's How to Avoid the Issue.

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In the digital age, we can measure everything. We can measure clicks and views and how many of those views were unique. We can measure exit pages and bounce rates and conversion funnels. We can measure CPC and CPM and CPA.

OMG.

We can measure (extremely Chris Traeger from Parks & Rec)LITERALLY everything. And because we can measure LITERALLYeverything, we find ourselves buried in data. This can both help and hinder creativity. The difference?

Are you "Aristotelian" or "Galilean" in your approach to data?

It turns out there are actually two ways we can use data, and it doesn't matter if the data in question is qualitative or qualitative. (After all, "data" simply means "information stored for later use." It doesn't mean "numbers.")

In our quest to create exceptional work, we'd be wise to understand both approaches to using data. We'd be even wiser (I'm talking owl with a graduate cap on his head-level wise) to use one of the two in our work.

So what are these two approaches, and which should we use? Ladies and gentlesubscribers, let's meet our contestants...

The Aristotelian Approach

Up first, we have the approach espoused by Aristotle and his followers. A-Stots believed the world was best understood by first seeking theessence of things (what we might call absolutes). 

We can know a rock by knowing the essence of rocks. We can know a river by knowing the essence of rivers. We can know a frog by asking for its license and registration. (Kidding of course. Frogs are notoriously apathetic about proper identification.)

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According to this approach to data, the more we gather information about something, the more we can update our understanding of all versions of that something. We strive to get closer and closer to understanding THE truth. In this way, your brain becomes a sort of filing cabinet. The more we learn about things that exist in the world, the more we can divide and subdivide everything into various categories. Then, when we encounter something that needs interpretation, we merely pull out the right drawer in this ever-growing cabinet in our heads. 

There are two glaring problems with this approach: absolutes (the “essence” of something) and the past (the filing cabinet).

When we approach data with an Aristotelian lens, we plan tomorrow's actions by looking at yesterday's understanding of the world. We cling to absolutes, or as I like to call them, assumptions. In the modern workplace, where many of us face complex problems requiring creative solutions each day, it's dangerous to make decisions based on assumptions. That's where Galilean approaches to data can save us.

The Galilean Approach

Galileo pushed a more modern approach to the scientific method in his focus on testing variables. Whereas Aristotle sought to understand The Truth, Galilean approaches to data require us to seek A Truth. In other words, rather than make decisions based on assumptions, we test, learn, and iterate quickly based on the specifics. 

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When we view data with a Galilean lens, we embrace that context matters most. Effectively, Galilean decisions emphasize on firsthand learning, not theory or precedent. Rather than gathering up all the information (absolutes) we need to justify acting, we act to find new information.

As I wrote about in my book, Break the Wheel ("Break the Wheel: The spectacular new book from Jay Acunzo. Get yours now on Amazon!"), it's possible to make decisions with greater clarity and even speed when we make one simple switch: Stop acting like experts and begin acting like investigators. This means we no longer start our thought process by seeking everyone else's answers. Instead, we ask ourselves great questions about our specific context. Whereas experts know absolutes (what works in general or on average), investigators focus on evidence (what works in THIS situation).

Investigators prefer the Galilean approach to data. They realize that the Aristotelian approach hurts creativity. If we must justify every action we take using past precedent, well, we've all seen what happens:

  • The executive joins the company and begins to implement her playbook or hire "her people" without understanding this new team whatsoever.

  • The marketing team publishes list article after list article, bland piece after bland piece, because a famous brand or favorite expert or past moment of success suggests it's "the" approach.

  • A friend bugs you for yet another round of feedback for this new project they're going to launch, they swear.

  • A public speaker performs the exact same 45 minutes with every single speech.

  • ...and more, oh so much more!

In every case, these people build their work on a simple premise: "What worked there and then will work here and now."

Simple, yet faulty. Whether knowingly or (far more likely) implicitly, they're Aristotelian in their approach to data. The data says X. That's the essence. That's the absolute. That's The Truth. 

Cut. Copy. Paste. Ugh.

Don't Market to Vegetarians

Eric Siegel is a predictive analytics expert. While helping an airline brand figure out how to fill its flights more consistently, Eric noticed in the data that vegetarians missed fewer flights. Now, a busy executive or stressed-out marketer might stop there and say, “Great! The data has given us THE answer. We should market to vegetarians."

Thinking more critically and creatively, however, Eric wondered, "Whydo vegetarians miss fewer flights?" (Funny how that pesky question of "why" always slips past us when we just stare at the data.) Why do vegetarians miss fewer flights? Does the essence of a vegetarian include punctuality? 

Well, just think: How did Eric identify these people as vegetarians in the first place? That's not written on their ID, right?

The answer: They requested vegetarian meal options. Ah ha! It wasn't the fact that they're vegetarians that caused them to miss fewer flights. It was the fact that they personalized something about their experience! Whether because they were forced to spend more time with the brand, and thus it was top-of-mind, or because they were looking forward to their experience a bit more than the typical passenger, these people missed fewer flights.

By trying to contextualize an absolute, Eric found a true insight -- an insight on which they could act. Thanks to Eric, they realized,We shouldn't launch a giant campaign to target vegetarians. We should get more people to personalize something about their flights. 

And so they did.

And so they succeeded. 

It may have been cleaner for a chart or graph or statistic to point to THE answer, but remember: Reality is bag of crumbly cookies called Nuance Chip. (Inevitably available as vegan cookies soon...)

Which approach will you take?

Data informs. It doesn't instruct. That's why the need to be data driven is slowly given way to a new phrase among my personal community of tech entrepreneurs: being data informed. That idea hasn't leaked out of the tech bubble much just yet, but I believe it's the better approach to data. I believe it's the Galilean approach, renamed.

Just the phrase "data driven" brings to mind a six-foot, humanoid spreadsheet sitting on a horse-drawn carriage, only WE are the horses. But great work happens proactively, not reactively. When we're data informed, we isolate variables, test, and learn. We insert our own sense of taste and our intuition into the process. (As readers of my book know, intuition comes from the Latin intueri, which simply means "to consider" -- just like any good investigator does.)

If we're data driven instead of data informed, if we're Aristotelian instead of Galilean, then we base our decisions on one fundamental assumption: Our context here and now is exactly like to another situation there and then. In reality, of course, it's not EXACTLY the same. It's ALMOST the same, and considering the differences makes all the difference in the world.

We shouldn't make decisions by shrugging and saying, "Close enough."

Because close enough leads to work that's "good enough."

And "good enough" simply isn't enough ... for us.

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Posted on November 30, 2018 .