Archive for the 'Conformity' Category


Using A Fork to Eat Soup

Snow RemovalLiving in a snowy state, I’m all too familiar with snow removal. This morning at 3:45 a.m. I had the pleasure of witnessing firsthand my city’s snow removal operation. Two road graders removed the bulk of the snow in the road. That’s when the entertainment began, and I got a well-deserved reminder that we don’t always use our tools wisely.

Two backhoes were moving steadily down the street. As they got closer, I realized they were clearing snow piles from driveways created by the road graders. The first backhoe turned into the driveway with its bucket upside down then dragged the snow backwards. This movement was repeated twice, creating a row of snow out in the road, which required an additional forward scoop or two by a backhoe to finish clearing the driveway.

As I watched these two backhoes, it became clear that neither was responsible for a particular action. One backhoe randomly performed one or both actions before moving on to the next driveway. Instead of backhoe #1 doing the initial removal with backhoe #2 doing the final clearing, the process appeared random and inefficient with each driver doing whatever struck his fancy.

Getting Stuck

This behavior highlights our very human tendency to get stuck in a habit, despite the options we have available. Much of our decision-making isn’t necessarily driven by what makes sense but by what we’re used to, even ignoring the potential of the tools we have at our disposal.  The comparison seems ludicrous, but imagine trying to eat soup with a fork in spite of a spoon sitting next to the bowl. That’s what some of our behavior looks like.

It even affects the way we use language. I’ve mentioned it before, but I still find it frustrating when people look at me oddly for using my full vocabulary. I try to take into account my audience and judge what words are best suited for the situation, but there are still times that I get grief for using “big” words. If a better word exists to describe something, doesn’t it make sense to use that word?

You Have to Look Past the Obvious

Despite the existence of an assembly line organization in meat slaughtering, it didn’t automatically replicate in other industries. Henry Ford saw the potential for improved efficiency and implemented the system in his factories, helping lower the overall cost of automobile production. Since then, other industries have implemented assembly lines, giving it little thought. However, it took one person in the beginning to see the potential application in another setting before assembly lines became a common practice. The same things happens with other good ideas or tools.

Thomas J. Watson, IBM’s chairman of the board during the first half of the 20th century, had the confidence to state, “I think there’s a world market for about five computers.” Luckily for Apple, Dell, HP, IBM, et. al., he was wrong (I have five in my possession at the moment). The things we can do now with the computers were only a dream when the first machine was built. Imagine what will be possible in 10 or 20 years. Again, such progress takes someone looking past the status quo and understanding the potential.

Doing More than Talking

We’ve been mired in talk of Web 2.0 for years, with a sprinkling of Web 3.0 beginning to enter conversations, and I’m not sure we’ve learned the lesson of Web 1.0: whatever the iteration, what matters more is what you do with the tools. Like my early morning snow crew, we stick with the tried, whether or not it’s really true. For me, this discussion is less about changing and more about trying. There’s no requirement that one must change if another option is available, but it seems silly to dismiss the option without fully understanding what’s available.

Image courtesy of Urban Eyes on Flickr.


Measuring Enough

The question of enough haunts me. It seems to come up most often when I think about my work, my physical self, and me as a whole. Is the work I do good enough to meet my clients’ expectations? Am I physically strong enough to complete a race I’ve entered? On the whole, I wonder more often than I like if I’m enough.

I think we’ve been trained from childhood to debate, to measure if what we do is enough. I’m convinced it starts when we’re told we need to share our toys. As a child, it seems, as far as adults are concerned, that you can never share enough despite you perception that you’ve been patient long enough. Then as we get older, there’s the question of whether you’re working hard enough in school. Then, are those grades good enough to get you into college?

On the personal side, growing up becomes about degrees of cool. Are you cool enough for the in-crowd? Are you pretty enough to get asked out by the hot guy sitting in front of you?

We each have a different standard of what is enough, often influenced by the people in our lives, popular culture, and that internal voice that never seems to shut up. That’s part of what makes enough such a dangerous way to measure any aspect of our lives.

No one else is living your life, and yet we’re all too willing to allow someone else to to have undue influence on whether we’re doing enough. We’ve become particularly susceptible when we wonder about our physical appearance.

It’s not natural for women in there 20s and 30s to believe they “need” plastic surgery, Botox, or collagen. And yet, if we only measured ourselves by what we see in movies and television, men would be perfectly chiseled with well-defined abs, a hint of stubble, and perfectly streaked hair. If you’re a woman, you’d be a size four or smaller with no visible wrinkles, toned from head to toe, with perfect teeth. If you see either of these images in the mirror, lucky you. If you don’t, you’re not alone. You’re normal. But why isn’t that enough?

Beyond the physical, we raise the question of enough about our work, our personal relationships, our community status, and our material possessions. I wonder if we’ll ever reach the point of saying, “We’ve had enough of enough.” What if we switched our focus to the quality of the experience and measured its value based on whether we came out better as individuals on the other side?

One of these days I’ll figure out the balance and turn the voice off for good. Because, ultimately, the question of enough is a trap that keeps you from pursuing the things that matter most to you. Aren’t you ready to escape?


Assembly Line Thinking

Duvel Assembly LineThe assembly line, courtesy of Henry Ford’s desire to make the automobile available to the masses, is an example of sheer efficiency that still amazes. The growth of American industry during the last century, I believe, lies in its adoption, but I also believe America’s future as an industry innovator is at risk if we don’t modify our assembly line mentality a bit.

We’ve applied assembly line thinking to just about every area of life. Public school, restaurants, and even airport security have adopted these practices. While some industries benefit, others are harmed by the lack of individual attention to detail. Sadly, the ones affected the most are the outliers of our population. If your tastes and your interests run down the middle, you’re set for life. Stray from the norm and you’ll become lost. In spite of the norms, society isn’t totally unwilling to change.

Chris Anderson’s Long Tail concept does an excellent job of capturing this changing attitude. In some ways, however, the Long Tail still occupies what’s perceived as the extreme. In our chase to capture ever more market share, we’ve confused quantity with quality. A current client has adopted the practice of vetting his customers and unless they meet certain criteria, he turns them away. The interesting part? My client is actively growing his business, but believes his client profile plays an invaluable role in the ultimate success of his business.

What’s Enough?

Adopting a less can be more approach appears to have its own rewards. I’m often asked when I plan to hire full-time employees. My answer often surprises. I have no plans to ever hire employees. My choice to work with a network of skilled individuals, equally committed to their own businesses, helps ensure that my work doesn’t slip into an assembly line. The second most common question that pops up is, “When do you plan on selling out and retiring?” This question usually only comes from people completely unaware of my business model. I’m the product or more accurately, what I produce is the product. That makes it a little difficult to sell my business without me, which defeats my plan to remain my own boss. Both these questions, however, are representative of our changing perceptions of what holds value.

For example, historically, when families started businesses, they employed extended family and gave future generations an almost guaranteed form of employment. Now, the expectation when someone starts a business focuses on when it will be sold for an obscene amount of money. People still chase things bigger than money, but money enters the conversation more often than is used to. Apparently many of us believe we’re only one IPO away from lifelong wealth.

Showing Your Passion

This new reality brings me back around to where I started. Assembly lines have their place and value, but they aren’t a one-size fits all solution. And while money represents a valid end goal, its potential to fulfill your passion feels very temporary. I’m probably in the minority, but if money is your only driver, customers can sense it. Instead of leading a community revolution, your market will be determined by whether someone else can duplicate your product versus duplicating the experience you offer.

If people can’t sense your passion, it’s difficult for them to feel passionate, too, making it difficult to build a sustainable, long-term audience. I was reminded of this cause and effect in Kathy Sierra‘s keynote at E-Tech this morning. Determine what you want to be really good at, commit the necessary time, and concentrate your efforts. You can also take cues from the most passionate of followers—die-hard sports fans.

Rain or shine, these people support their teams, often for little or no reward except for the chance to be there to share the excitement when the team wins. On top of that, they buy the gear and publicly identify themselves with their teams whenever possible. You can’t produce that kind of passion with assembly line thinking. What are you doing to create the loyalty that fills a football stadium when the wind chill registers 23 below*?


(Image courtesy of pickinjim2006. Some rights reserved.)

*The Green Bay Packers and the New York Jets NFC title game was played at Lambeau Field where the temperature at kick off was -1, with a wind chill of -23. (link)


Running from Instinct

Winter Moose

The other day, I looked up from my computer and saw this moose staring in my window. I’m not ashamed to admit I yelped in surprise. It’s not every day a moose wanders into my yard. My next instinct was to race for the camera.

Instincts are interesting things because they seem to happen with little explanation. You often don’t realize you’ve acted until after the impulse. Sometimes, if we’re prepared, we can fight our instincts, an option I believe we don’t always give due consideration.

One of my favorite Seinfeld episodes, The Opposite, includes the best line: “If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.”

In the best case, your instincts will drive you forward, prompting you to make the decisions best suited for you. However, sometimes we mistake fear or uncertainty for instinct and let it determine our decisions. Then there’s the conflict that our instincts can create. C.S. Lewis said, “Telling us to obey instinct is like telling us to obey ‘people.’ People say different things: so do instincts. Our instincts are at war… Each instinct, if you listen to it, will claim to be gratified at the expense of the rest.” (link)

I suspect the successful people we admire the most are individuals who’ve figured out how to balance acting on instinct versus acting against instinct. However, their strength lies in recognizing which course best solves the problem. For every person that claims to only listen to his gut, there’s another who only acts after careful thought and planning. The trick for each of us lies in figuring out how to create that balance between the two. Guts and brains, separate from each other, can only accomplish so much. Put them together and you might be pleasantly surprised at the results.



Roller Coaster Aging

Roller CoasterLast night, I came across this line in one of my current reading options:

“I remember forty—a hard age. It is the age when a man discovers that he is all that he is ever going to be. Some men are rather pleased at the discovery. I suspect your brother is not.”

Perhaps this author was somewhat prescient. Today, researchers announced the results of an 80-country study measuring depression in men and women. Apparently, hitting your 40s triggers something:

For men and women the probability of depression slowly builds and then peaks when people are in their forties—a similar pattern found in 72 countries ranging from Albania to Zimbabwe, the researchers said.

About eight nations—mostly in the developing world—did not follow the U-shaped pattern for happiness levels, Oswald and his colleague David Blanchflower of Dartmouth College in the United States wrote.

“It happens to men and women, to single and married people, to rich and poor, and to those with and without children,” Oswald said. “Nobody knows why we see this consistency.”

One possibility may be that people realize they won’t achieve many of their aspirations at middle age, the researchers said. (link)

It makes a sort of morbid sense that we use age/time to determine the plausibility of our aspirations. After all, we haven’t figured out the key to individual immortality, so our time in this world is finite. But with life expectancy in the U.S. edging towards 80, I wonder why we aren’t shifting away from focusing on the amount of time to focusing on our desires.

The data (for more of my thoughts on data, see this earlier post) would seem to indicate that a high probability exists you won’t be happy in your 40s. I suggest that it’s time to prove the data wrong. The first step would require that we stop associating a particular age with an event. Heresy, I know, but if we didn’t feel like it was a race against an internal calendar, perhaps we could make better decisions about the choices we’re pursuing.

I believe the key is to reframe the aspiration so that time doesn’t become the driving factor behind the decision. Reframing requires pushing against many of society’s traditions because we’ve become entrenched with idea of timing everything in our lives. Are you ready to throw the clock and the calendar aside?


(Image courtesy of Lava. Some rights reserved.)


Creating a Custom Experience

Today was my first official day training for an Olympic-length triathlon I try to do each summer. Every year, I wonder what possesses me to sign up, particularly during the last few miles of the race. However, once I’m finished, there’s such a sense of accomplishment. I’m nowhere close to winning (the winner usually beats me by at least an hour). In this particular pursuit, all I care about is finishing and beating my personal record (3 hours).

I’m curious, what pursuits do you continue with, in spite of or because of not being the best? What drives you to keep going after whatever goal you’ve set? I’ve been wondering about this question and its connection with social media. I’ll never have as many “friends” on Facebook as Robert Scoble or gain the master status of Chris Brogan on Twitter, but I don’t necessarily want to copy either one’s efforts.

I think that’s the beauty of these social applications and others like them: they’re a custom fit. In order to participate, I don’t have to meet a set standard. I create my own. In a world that can seem driven by standards, I’m excited by the continued growth of opportunities that let you create your own experience. How are you customizing your experience?



Practicing Openness and Acceptance

I have commitment issues about books, houses, and relationships. I confess these shortcomings because some might consider them aberrations in an otherwise “normal” life. For example, at any one time, I’m reading 5-6 books. It’s only difficult if I go too long between reading cycles because I forget some of the details.Acceptance

Regarding houses, I have little to no desire to pay a mortgage every month. In spite of “rent is tossing money done the drain” advice, I’m inclined to maintain the flexibility of month-to-month living versus a 30-year contract. Then there’s relationships.

I’ve found little to recommend the partnered version of life. Given the small, conservative community I live in, my single state perplexes more than a few people. I’ve adopted the standard line that I won’t be with anyone who doesn’t make life better than being single. So, here’s how my issues relate to you: I believe we’ve been told that fitting a niche is important and that aberrations need to be stamped out—and I think we’re ignoring it.

I can already hear people saying, “We’re living in one of the most open and accepting of times.” On the surface? Maybe. Dig a little deeper and I’m not convinced that we’re any less susceptible to the idea that people should fit, whether it’s within a family, a community, or another social group.

Technically, there’s nothing wrong with my commitment issues. They affect few if any people other than me, but the outward appearances they create leave me open to the criticism of others. Consider how you define people based on the brands they choose.

If you’re a Mac person, doesn’t part of you always feel a little sorry for those unenlightened PC people? If you’re a PC person, don’t you wonder why the Mac people pay more for essentially the same machine? What about how we define people based on the jobs they hold? As much as we might wish otherwise, we make our judgments.

I’m still undecided on the goodness or badness of this particular behavior (thus the post to hopefully start a discussion). For me, the bigger issue is how we ignore the role of these judgments. We make assumptions about general acceptance and then wonder why our country is closely divided on so many issues, including politics, business, and technology.

I hear it in conversations when I travel, among members of my social groups, and in blogs from the around the world. We pick up on the things that are different and use them to make our judgments. As our social networks continue to expand, breaking through the previous barriers of cost, distance, and language, our society may actually have to become what we’ve believed it to be: open and accepting.


(Image courtesy of Ryan Christopher. Some rights reserved.)

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December 2018
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