The Sunscreen Effect

As an adult, I’ve finally learned to put on sunscreen regularly. I lather some on every morning before heading to work, I apply it liberally before heading out to the pool, heck, I even wear sun shirts.

But reapplying after a few hours, or after a run or a swim? I’m not so good at that. Once I’m all wet, or sandy, or both, it just feels like a chore, and I tell myself that the first coat was good enough and waterproof enough.

So it goes with ideas as well.

We have an initial exposure to a new idea, so we diligently engage with it. It helps us in some way, changes our perspective or gives us some new tactics, and we feel good.

The initial impact is important, but where deep, more fundamental change comes from is re-exposure and re-application. Even rereading that same idea at a different moment will allow you to interact with it from a new perspective and have it affect you in a new way.

This has implications for how we interact with ideas that feel new and important, and it also impacts our approach to spreading ideas: it’s not necessary, or helpful, to say something new each and every time, because your audience needs to hear something lots of times and lots of ways for a new and important idea to really seep in.

Like, say, this gem from Seth Godin, which I’ve heard a hundred times in a hundred ways, and I still need to be reminded of it a hundred more times:

I don’t blog every day because I have a good idea.

I have a good idea because I blog every day.

Or the wisdom I heard from Thulsiraj Ravilla yesterday while speaking to him about the importance of values to the Aravind Eye Care System, which has given sight to millions, and that I got to visit for the first time last week in Madurai, India:

Values mean nothing if individuals do not put them into practice through their actions.

There are truths we have all been exposed to, things that we know to be real and important, that we let ourselves dabble with and then dropped before they could really impact us.

It’s time to reapply.

Where blog posts really come from

One of the reasons I blog is so that I have a regular, disciplined practice of turning loosely-formed ideas into concrete, cogent, shareable posts.  Over and over again.  Until I get better at it.

Part of the power of repetition is getting to observe a process unfold repeatedly.  So, over the last 5-plus years of blogging (and of life), I’ve learned that most of the time my best ideas come through conversations.  When someone asks me a great, thorny, interesting question, and we engage in real dialogue about how to answer that question, I learn things.  This is a powerful piece of self-knowledge that I otherwise wouldn’t possess.  It informs how I structure my time and how I think about the conversations I need to have, and the people I need to interact with, to learn, to push my own thinking and my own understanding of the world and of my work.

Rare, though, is to have a photograph of that moment.

The most popular post I wrote in November was How do I get a job in impact investing?, and after I wrote the post I saw this tweet from Josh McCann.  It’s a photo taken the moment I was asked by the Warton Social Venture club how to get a job in impact investing. I was stumped, but I winged it, and we talked, and together we figured it out.

How to get a job in impact investing

Where do your best ideas come from?  Alone, or in conversation?  After a lot of reading and study or on the spur of the moment?  With a pad of paper and a pencil, a whiteboard, with a cup of tea or cranking at your desk at work, constantly jumping back to your Facebook feed (probably not)?

We all struggle with managing our time the right way.  Knowing where we get our best ideas can help.  This is one of the big ideas in Peter Drucker’s Managing Oneself, an article that’s worth rereading at least once a year.

Insight as a spectator sport

I recently reread Daniel Goleman’s 1998 Harvard Business Review article on emotional intelligence .  Goleman’s research showed that as individuals get more senior in organizations, differentials in performance are a function not of intellect and technical skills but of emotional intelligence.

When I compared star performers with average ones in senior leadership positions, nearly 90% of the difference in profiles was attributable to emotional intelligence factors rather than cognitive abilities.

Emotion intelligence, in Goleman’s definition, is comprised of:

Self-Awareness: the ability to recognize and understand your moods, emotions, and drives, as well as their effect on others

Self-Regulation: the ability to control, or redirect, disruptive impulses and moods; the propensity to suspend judgment – to think before acting

Motivation: a passion to work for reasons that go beyond money or status; a propensity to pursue goals with energy and persistence

Empathy: the ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people; skill in treating people according to their emotional reactions

Social Skill: proficiency in managing relationships and building networks; an ability to find common ground and build rapport.

So what do I do when you come across something like this – a potentially powerful insight that turns your current thinking on its head?  Do I totally revamp my hiring process?  Do I do nothing?  Or do I tinker around the edges?

As someone who’s constantly on the lookout for these sorts of insights, I know I don’t adopt every great new idea I come across.  Sometimes that’s because I don’t fully believe in an idea, but often it’s because I don’t have the guts (or the willingness to take the social risk) to try it (e.g. conduct all meetings standing up).

There are four possible orientations to great ideas.

  1. Never find them in the first place (don’t read the books, the blogs, watch the TED talks, etc.)
  2. Consume them and ignore them
  3. Consume them and incorporate them a bit around the edges
  4. Embrace them, test them out, and be willing to incorporate them if they work for you

While option 1 (living heads down, actively hiding from all the amazing ideas that are spreading) is the most obvious thing to avoid, it’s options 2 and 3 that are more subtle and just as troublesome.  You come across something great, but you don’t actually do anything to make it yours.

As in, “That sounds great, but we can’t really do it that way because….” or, worse, “Well sure that might work for her but that would never work for us because…”

The moment we have a bias towards action, we read/act differently.  We’re no longer couch potatoes, waiting to be entertained, we’re active learners leaning forward, taking notes in the margins, sharing the bits we like the best, starting discussion groups, having five other people read the same book so all of us can test out new ideas together.

We come across too many great ideas to allow insight to be a spectator sport.

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p.s. Viewed through this lens, we understand a TED talk (or a TED book), a Domino book, a great manifesto or a focused, passionate blog differently.  They are optimized for idea transmission and action.  A 250 page book may be what it takes to wring every last drop out of an idea, but the 80 page version probably gives the reader enough to act on.