The problem with big numbers

The problem is that they’re big, and that they’re numbers.

Our brains are not capable of thinking about “1,000 people” in a real way, let alone 10,000 or 100,000 or more.  We don’t know how take something amazing, or tragic, that happened to one family and multiply it by 10,000.

Emotions, whether joy, fear, or disgust, don’t amplify that way. We just hear a number.

And that fundamental limitation too often insulates us from reality and from action.

The missing Do button

It’s easier than ever to discover great new ideas. But I wonder how much better we’re getting at taking meaningful action based on the whirlwind of new ideas we’re now able to find.

How often do we receive a link to a great thought piece, read it (view it), get all jazzed up and then (wait for it…) forward it to a friend or tweet it?

Not good enough.

It’s great to share with others, but I wonder if, in taking that tiny action, we are giving ourselves the emotional satisfaction of having done something when, really, we’ve done nothing?

In the most obvious cases, this is about Like-ing a powerful video about a faraway tragedy.

But the pattern is the same if I see surprisingly good storytelling from USAID, or a fabulously clear, actionable piece about defining your brand, and all I do is share them.

What’s the action I’m committing to? What am I going to do differently as the result of coming across work that should change my thinking and my behavior? If all I do is share, the implication, at best, is that I’m hoping that someone else is more willing to act on something than I am.

Maybe we need a little help.

I fantasize about a Do button at the bottom of every article and viral video. Maybe this button links to a condensed Ship It book by Seth Godin and generates an email (or Evernote, or Google doc, or it gets pulled into Slack) describing exactly what I am going to do with this new thinking, with who, by when. The button helps us shift from “hey, this is interesting” to “this is what we’re going to do.”

To get us started, anyone out there seen a Do button that I’ve missed? Or want to make one?

And, if you like this idea, please DON’T just forward this blog post along.

Share this post, and any like it, with a commitment: think back to that one best idea you came across last week and write down what you’re going to do about it. As in (feel free to copy/paste/edit):

Hey Marcus,

Sasha Dichter’s blog post today got me thinking about that article I shared with you last week. We really need to change the way we run our team meetings, and my proposal is ________, which I want us to try at our meeting next week. As a next step, I’m going to….

(Bonus: commit to figuring out what your Do button is going to look like so that the next time a big idea rocks your world, you’ll take the steps to implement that idea to change your world for the better.)

The bottom line is that we are letting ourselves off the hook, and, in so doing, we’re not doing right by the people whose thinking we so deeply respect.  The truth is, these people aren’t interested in being a little bit famous; they’re interested in making something happen.  The best way to honor them is through the actions you take.

Tick tock

There’s no half hour longer than the one we spend waiting for something: our table to be ready, the show to start, the gun to go off.

We know this when it comes to the small things, but not the big ones.

So we’re content to sit back and wait for that next big project to land on our laps. We’re happy to cool our heels until we get promoted, because we believe the new title will get folks to listen to us in a new way.  We’re OK with holding court at the water cooler while we wait for our boss to figure out what we already know.

Speak up.  Act now.  Stop waiting.

That’s not what I’d do

You have two options when you hear this from someone you like and respect.

Either you decide that their wisdom, experience and perspective bring something to the decision that you didn’t see, and they are right.

Or you decide that there are things you know that they don’t know, things you can see that they cannot, and that even though it feels like 9 times out 10 you’d want to follow their advice, this time you won’t.

Either way, your job at this point is to hear the advice, process it, make adjustments, and take action with conviction. Getting stuck in between what both of you thought is almost never right, and moving forward tepidly is the worst outcome of all.

But that’s what I’d said!

There’s a stage in one’s professional life that is defined by spending our days figuring out right answers. Do this analysis. Value this company. Research this donor. Share your recommended plan of action.

This is an important skill to develop – we need to be able to understand a problem, take it apart, find out an answer and share that answer with others. But the half-life on this sort of approach is shorter than it initially appears. More often than not, the right answer is only worth the paper it’s written on, since what really matters is what people do. Indeed, Nate Silver’s great book The Signal and the Noise points out that pundits with the strongest opinions are most often wrong, even though they of course get the most air time. One of the tough realizations as we progress in our careers is that the right answer or the best analysis is nearly always a small part of the equation in getting people to act.

At a certain point, what the world is asking of us is that we to get out of the audience. The world doesn’t need more critics, sitting back with arms akimbo, taking mental notes for tomorrow’s water cooler conversation. We need more protagonists, people willing to take the risk of standing on stage, being on the line to make things happen.

What role are you playing?

Here’s a nice test: what do you think, and do, each time something goes wrong when you had been on the other side of the argument? What goes through your head each time someone else says what you were thinking (or said) in last week’s meeting, but it’s their comment that turns the conversation?

The safe, self-validating approach is to say, “You see, they should listen to me. I was right.”

But what really makes change is to use that as a moment of introspection to ask, “What is it that I’m doing, or not doing, that my great ideas aren’t shifting the way people think and act?”

And if it turns out that the reason they listened to that other gal, and not to you, is because of who she is – the experience she has or the position she holds – then go ahead and spend your time trying to influence her thinking. That counts too.

Just finding the answers, though, isn’t nearly enough. You can do more.

(Of course, the same logic applies to “I created great art, it’s not my fault that no one wants to see it.”)

You’re repeating yourself

Why yes, that’s on purpose.

Did you know that children often need to be exposed to new foods 10-15 times before they’re happy to eat them?

Same thing with ideas and action, it turns out.

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.