Two roads

When you write, when you speak publicly, there are two roads you can walk.

On the first road, your goal is to get people to believe you, to agree with what you’re saying, to consider you smart, credible, maybe even funny. On this road you communicate expertise and mastery. You amaze them with your technique and your wit. There’s a lot of entertainment value.

“She was such a great speaker, wasn’t she? I just felt so good after hearing her talk!”

On the second road, the only barometer for success is how much you mobilize them to act. This road is about showing a gap in the world that is unacceptable, maybe even a bit ugly, and helping them to see that they are the ones who can fill it. This talk creates passion, it ignites emotions, and, most important, it creates tension and discomfort that are only resolved through action.

Their reaction isn’t about how great you were, it’s about what they now have to do.

Which one are you going for?

One week later

What a difference a week makes.

I for one have experienced much more sadness than I’d ever have expected these last seven days, in addition to anger, confusion, self-reflection, and some dread.

So what has helped, and what has not?

The first moment I woke up from the post-election haze that had settled over me was on Thursday night. I was sitting on the floor with my two older kids, playing a card game as we usually do before bed, and one of them made a joke, then the other, and pretty quickly we ended up rolling with laughter, tears streaming down our faces. That moment snapped me back to the present, to things that are good in the world, to feelings of pure joy, silliness and love that broke through the wall of numbness that had started to form.

Since then I’ve been paying attention to what feels useful, to what is helping me to move forward.

What has helped the most is engaging in the actions I fear might be threatened, actions big and small that demonstrate tolerance, generosity and inclusion.

What has helped is reaching out to people who seem closer to the front lines, and asking them how, tangibly, I can help.

What has helped are people around me who have shown strength more quickly than I have, who have stood up immediately to show their willingness to live their values, to stand up for what they believe in, to be human embodiments of the basic goodness that feels like it is under attack.

What has helped is starting, slowly, to minimize my own social media rubbernecking, and to ask myself: what information am I seeking, and what am I going to do with that information once I have it? Will it inform how I donate? How I volunteer? What I create or get involved in to fight for the things that I believe in?

Because it’s never been clearer that the new today that we are living in demands actions, not hand-wringing, and that we don’t get to be appalled or disappointed or outraged if we’re not going to do something about those feelings.

I should also add that now more than ever I think it’s important to be both vigilant and specific. Vigilant about fighting for values I hold dear, and specific in my concerns, worries, and what I hope to protect. Lots of what seems to have gone wrong are the vague generalities each side throws at each other, broad statements full of the word “they” that stand in the way of real dialogue. And I’m seeing more clearly that everyone, including people I strongly agree with, finds it comfortable to talk about “they.”

A week later, I’m still struggling to make sense of it all.  But in the world we’ve found ourselves in, one that is as unpredictable as ours has just proven itself to be, one in which so many people are hurting enough and angry enough and feel forgotten enough that they feel like this man, and the people he surrounds himself with, are the best option available to them…that’s a world in which we get a limited amount of time to “figure out what’s going on,” because what this world needs is our concrete actions.

Finally, if you are lucky enough to work in an organization that represents and is fighting for values that are important to you, in whatever form, then the best place to start is there: redouble your efforts in that context, where you already have relationships, reputation, expertise and understanding, while also searching for, and committing to, taking action on a wider stage.

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.”)