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Give and you shall receive

Ryan Holiday has a monthly newsletter where he shares what he’s reading. It’s got tens of thousands of subscribers. Seth Godin has a daily blog where he shares short thoughts. Hundreds of thousands of people read it. Tim Ferriss records a podcast listened to by millions of people.

When these three authors write books, they go straight to the top of the bestseller lists. Why? Because they’ve proactively built a community of people interested in work they’re giving away for free. Their audience is, for want of a better word, ‘primed’ to reciprocate when there’s something available to buy.

Most of us aren’t working on things that millions of people would pay attention to. But almost everyone is working on something that 100 people would pay attention to, or 1,000. And, at various times, we all have ‘asks’, things that we’d like other people to do. It could be buy a thing, but also test or give feedback on an idea.

Too often, I see people ask for help and get no reply. We could chalk that down to a lack of kindness, or no-one caring. Or we could stop a moment and ponder… Have I been generous? Have I given without any thought of receiving? Have I primed anyone (or any group of people) to respond?


This post is Day 67 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

How to build ideological products that delight users

On Friday, I read this in a book that had been recommended to me:

Making a product decision from a perspective of ideology is either brave or stupid.

Jon Kolko, Well-Designed: How To Use Empathy To Create Products People Love, p.19

I’ve made product decisions which I’d say were ideological, so it gave me pause. Then, this morning, I read a short blog post from Seth Godin in which he said:

A principle is an approach you stick with even if you know it might lead to a short-term outcome you don’t prefer. Especially then.


It’s this gap between the short-term and the long-term that makes a principle valuable. If your guiding principle is to do whatever benefits you right now, you don’t have principles of much value.

Seth Godin, Principle is inconvenient

This produced a tension: who was right?

Then, picking up same book again this afternoon, I read an interview with Josh Elman, who has led product at a number of high-profile tech companies:

The hardest part of building something comes down to this: are you building it for yourself, or are you building it for how you believe most people will react and interact? It’s important and really powerful to get out of your own head and think about how other people will engage with a system or a product, and make sure you are making choices that are meaningful to them, not to you.

Jon Kolko, Well-Designed: How To Use Empathy To Create Products People Love, p.63

I feel like this helps to resolve the tension.

First, I start from the tech equivalent of the Hippocratic oath (“do no harm”). So I’m not going to work on betting apps, anything which negatively affects our societal response to the climate emergency, or ‘addictive’ services.

Second, I continue from the position of identifying communities of people to help. I spend time finding out, both directly and indirectly, where their pain points are and what would delight them.

Third, I put together a team to design and build prototypes to test with these people. We then iterate based on that feedback.

By doing this, you can have your ideologicical cake and eat it. When your values are in line with those of your users, then everyone wins.


This post is Day 59 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com 

Strengths and schooling

In a recent short post Seth Godin talks about amplifying your strengths rather than focusing on your weaknesses:

People don’t hire you, buy from you or recommend you because you’re indifferently average and well rounded.

Seth Godin

He’s talking about things from a business standpoint, but as a parent and former teacher, I can’t help but think about developing strengths from a learning and developmental point of view.

These things seem obvious to me:

  1. There is a baseline that societies can and should expect most people to achieve.
  2. People are born with different innate interests and tendencies.
  3. The context and environment in which people are raised affects what they find interesting.

As a result, it appears to me that following a broad and balanced curriculum up to a certain baseline would seem like the best approach for educational institutions. Beyond that, it makes sense for people to specialise based on their interests.

People develop at varying rates in different areas due to the three points listed above. That’s why I think we should allow young people to mix between year groups for different subjects, using an approach some people call “stage, not age”.

Imagine if we truly allowed people to follow their interests? Wouldn’t the ability to do so motivate young people more than the current system? Right now, educational authorities’ focus on exam results leads to the narrowing of curricula and the limiting of options.

It’s fashionable to say that we have a industrial education system for a post-industrial economy. That’s confusing means with ends. My argument would instead be that we have an education system focused mainly on the priorities of politicians and employers. What would a more community-centered vision for education look like?

Writing in 1971, Ivan Illich discussed in Deschooling Society the importance of learners finding others who share their interests so they can learn together and solve problems:

Creative, exploratory learning requires peers currently puzzled about the same terms or problems. Large universities make the futile attempt to match them by multiplying their courses, and they generally fail since they are bound to curriculum, course structure, and bureaucratic administration. In schools, including universities, most resources are spent to purchase the time and motivation of a limited number of people to take up predetermined problems in a ritually defined setting. The most radical alternative to school would be a network or service which gave each man the same opportunity to share his current concern with others motivated by the same concern.

Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society

Now that we have the internet, of course, the ability to find like-minded people is easier than ever before. Nevertheless, there is something immensely powerful about working within a shared geographical context.

This is why I return time and again to Chapter 8 of Keri Facer’s 2011 book Learning Futures, where she outlines what the ‘future-building school’ of the future might look like. I love the way that it manages to respect the specialist pedagogical skills available through schools, with the latent knowledge and talent available through communities:

Although half of the children’s time is scheduled in advance with master classes, tutorials or group learning programmes, one-fifth of their time, even from the youngest age, is dedicated to working on their own projects. The remainder is dedicated to collaborative and community projects where children seek out areas they want to work on together – whether this is exploring a new form of material that has just been developed in one of the labs upstairs, or in solving the problems of a particular group of local residents. Conversations with mentors at the beginning of each week allow the children to discuss their progress and their plans and to manage the different demands of projects and learning programmes. In these conversations, each child’s resource map comes into play. This rich map of their experiences, progress, interests and aspirations, as well as the resources that they have to draw upon at home, in the community and in their family, acts as a basis for identifying both where additional support might be needed and where the child and their family may have particular strengths and interests to share with collaborators or the wider school.

Keri Facer, Learning Futures: Education, Technology and Social Change

Given that the pandemic has put the lie to parents needing to travel to work every day, I think mass remote working in future could lead to this kind of situation happening in the next decade. We just need the will to change the system.


This post is Day 32 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

I am not Richard Stallman

Introduction

Yesterday I headed to Lifehacker to get my weekly dose of their excellent ‘How I Work’ series. However, this week they decided to hand it over to readers using their blogging platform (Kinja). I decided to take part and you can see my response here (warning: includes photo of my messy study!)

Marc Scott picked up on this via Twitter and wrote a masterful post entitled How I Do My Computing by !=Richard Stallman. A sample:

The Internet on my laptop runs really slowly and it’s quite difficult to see sites because of all the toolbars that take up half of the screen. Also when I load the Internet I get annoyed by all the pop-ups that suddenly appear for adult dating sites and on-line gambling. I used to get lots of annoying messages on the Internet about things like ActiveX, but a friend showed me how to change my security settings so they don’t come any more.

Class.

I am not Richard Stallman

At the end of Marc’s post he linked to original post by Stallman (of which his was a parody).

Wow. Stallman is hardcore:

I occasionally use X11 for tasks that need graphics, but mostly I use a text console. I find that the text console is more efficient and convenient for the bulk of the work I do, which is editing text.

and:

I generally do not connect to web sites from my own machine, aside from a few sites I have some special relationship with. I fetch web pages from other sites by sending mail to a program (see git://git.gnu.org/womb/hacks.git) that fetches them, much like wget, and then mails them back to me. Then I look at them using a web browser, unless it is easy to see the text in the HTML page directly. I usually try lynx first, then a graphical browser if the page needs it.

That’s as close to tinfoil hat-wearing as it actually gets.

The Moral

As Seth Godin often says, we need to surround ourself (intellectually, if we can’t physically) with outliers in order to challenge our thinking:

The crowd has more influence on us than we have on the crowd. It’s not an accident that breakthroughs in music, architecture, software, athletics, fashion and cuisine come in bunches, often geographic. If you need to move, move. At least change how and where you exchange your electrons and your ideas.

After all, as they say, bad habits are like a comfortable bed: easy to get into but hard to get out of.

There’s a political theory called the Overton window that is used to describe the narrow range of ideas that the public will accept. The degrees of acceptance goes like this:

Overton assigned a spectrum of “more free” and “less free”, with regard to government intervention, oriented vertically on an axis. When the window moves or expands along this axis, an idea at a given location may become more or less politically acceptable as the window moves relative to it. The degrees of acceptance[4] of public ideas can be described roughly as:

  • Unthinkable
  • Radical
  • Acceptable
  • Sensible
  • Popular
  • Policy

So at the start of the year, before the NSA revelations, it would be Unthinkable for an ‘ordinary’ person to adopt anything close to  Stallman’s approach. Now, however, it’s at least Radical if not Acceptable or Sensible.

Conclusion

I’m not suggesting that we crypto everything or become paranoid to the extent that it consumes us. What I am suggesting (and what I’m doing myself) is to review the connected technologies and services I’m using. If you want to do something similar then I highly recommend you check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Who Has Your Back? 2013 and, if you’ve never used Linux before, give elementaryOS a spin.* It’ll probably be an upgrade from what you’re using.

Questions? Comments? I want to read them. Add yours below!

Image CC BY-NC Maurizio Scorianz


*Want to go a step further? Try Tails.

On the mental cost of inventing new categories.

Now that I get Seth Godin‘s short, frequent, musings sent directly to my Pocket account (via this IFTTT recipe) I’m back to reading most of what he writes.

Recently, he wrote a post called I want to put you in a category that resonated with me in terms of the Open Badges evangelism I’ve been doing recently:

When I meet you or your company or your product or your restaurant or your website, I desperately need to put it into an existing category, because the mental cost of inventing a new category for every new thing I see is too high.” (my emphasis)

In fact, given that I’ve spent most of my adult life evangelising one thing or another, it really struck home.

Godin’s insight that got me thinking about my current work is his assertion that we should make it easy for people to categorise us and the work we do. What! But what I’ve got something brand new and never-been-seen-before? Then you need to be more careful. Why? The real danger is to be miscategorised:

“What is this thing? What are you like? Are you friend or foe, flake or leader, good deal or ripoff, easy or hard, important or not? Are you destined for the trusted category or the other one?”

No matter who we’re dealing with, whether internally within our organisations or externally to the rest of the world, I think it’s important to be aware of people’s existing categories and work with them, rather than against them. 🙂

Image CC BY ecokarenlee

9 ideas in search of a blog post.

Lighthouse River

Last month Seth Godin posted 9 ideas in search of a blog post. Here’s my version:

  1. Formal education should probably be free up to whatever level you want (and perhaps only compulsory up to age 11).
  2. 99% Invisible is the podcast that most often makes me see the world in new ways.
  3. I still haven’t figured out how to balance my photophobia and SAD. Thank goodness for Spring (and f.lux)
  4. Tools are constraining. This is both good and bad.
  5. Learning to touch-type at a young age (I think I was about 12) is possibly one of the best things I’ve ever done.
  6. Things I Learned This Week is back, phoenix-like, as a free weekly newsletter.
  7. There are no absolutes, only contrasts.
  8. People tend to be skeptical about non-physically-obvious medical symptoms.
  9. E-Prime blows my mind (via Simon Bostock)

Feel free to hit me up in the comments if you’d like me to expand upon any of these.

Image CC BY smlp.co.uk

The Pre-Digital and the Post-Digital.

Postdigital

Sometimes two pieces of writing from very different sources complement each other so well that quoting from each in the right order tells the story without superfluous words from the person doing the juxtaposition. These quotations are taken from Seth Godin’s Pre Digital (2011) and the 52 Group’s Preparing for the postdigital era (2009). All emphases are mine.

The intersection of technology and the social has often been a driver of social change. The mainstreaming and mass production of powerful digital tools has had a profound effect on the way that we live and learn. These digital tools have allowed us to speed up communication, publish our thoughts in any number of ways and allowed for new complex forms of collaboration. The speed and reach of this transition has had a profound effect on what it means to be a participant in society. The speed of the change, however, has left us with the mistaken belief that social change was somehow ‘created’ by the digital rather than simply played out on a the canvas of the digital; that the digital itself is the main driver of change. We would argue the opposite. (52 Group)

School is pre-digital. Elections. Most of what you do in your job. Even shopping. The vestiges of a reliance on geography, lack of information, poor interpersonal connections and group connection (all hallmarks of the pre-digital age) are everywhere.

Perhaps the most critical thing you can say of a typical institution: “That place is pre-digital.”

All a way of saying that this is just the beginning, the very beginning, of the transformation of our lives. (Seth Godin)

The transition to a postdigital way of thinking allows for that previously coded as ‘digital’ to be woven into the wider discussion of social dialects that people bring to their acts of collaboration… Texts have been recorded in spaces like Facebook and MySpace that have previously been the content of private conversation and casual face-to-face interaction. We have the (mis)fortune of having a record of the social grooming of our time, which, sadly, is often misinterpreted as a degrading our our social intellect. It is a manifest record of the facile “Hi how are you? Fine thank you”s of the older generation, which, when recorded 6 billion times might appear facile, but is, in reality, simply a confirmation of social connectedness worn smooth in repetition. (52 Group)

Postdigital aims to throw off the yoke of digital dogma, where the language of a perceived digital elite drives not only development, but also skews innovation, where innovation is only seen as being that associated with the “latest” technology… Innovation in a postdigital era is more effectively articulated as being associated with the human condition and the aspiration toward new or enhanced connectedness with others. (52 Group)

The 52 Group were/are made up of Dave Cormier, Richard Hall and Lawrie Phipps, amongst others.

Update: Also Dave White, Ian Truelove and Mark Childs (thanks to Dave Cormier in the comments)

Image CC BY gcbb

Innovation: where it’s at.

One of the things I love about having a blog is that it’s a space to think things through. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while and so needed to solidify my views by committing it to writing. 🙂

Interest can get you a long way in life. If you’re interested in something it fires your curiosity and motivates you to do something about it.

  • People interested in photography tend to buy a decent camera and practice until they become better.
  • Those interested in collaborative technologies tend to use them with others and evangelise their use.
  • Individuals interested in endangered species are usually the ones found donating their money and volunteering.

That’s why interest leads to an increase in awareness and skill level. That, according to Seth Godin in Linchpin, makes you immensely valuable:

But.

The commonly-followed trajectory is from interest to a job/employment in that area. Which is great. What you need to make sure of, however, is that you don’t lose the relevant, up-to-date domain knowledge (green circle) in your trajectory to the right of the Venn diagram.

Good luck. 😀

Modern procrastination and cycling trivialities.

iPhone photo of Alcan
A photo I took with my iPhone last weekend. It feels related somehow.

Introduction

Some days it feels like someone’s trying to tell you something. At first it’s subtle, but then the coincidences stack up until you’re left in no doubt that there’s a message in there somewhere. See if you come to the same conclusion as me. Here’s what came my way in a single day recently:

1. Seth Godin on ‘modern procrastination’

I don’t know how he manages to churn out gems like these every day and convince us that everything is related to marketing:

Laziness in a white collar job has nothing to do with avoiding hard physical labor. “Who wants to help me move this box!” Instead, it has to do with avoiding difficult (and apparently risky) intellectual labor.

“Honey, how was your day?”

“Oh, I was busy, incredibly busy.”

“I get that you were busy. But did you do anything important?”

Busy does not equal important. Measured doesn’t mean mattered.

2. José Gonzalez – Cycling Trivialities

I’m fond of music by the looks-Spanish-but-is-actually-Swedish-of-Argentine-descent singer-songwriter. Last.fm, to which I’ve been ‘scrobbling’ songs for over 7 years, is fully aware of this and therefore served up Cycling Trivialities by José Gonzalez (from his album In Our Nature):

Too blind to know your best.
Hurrying through the forks without regrets.
Different now, every step feels like a mile.
All the lights seem to flash and pass you by.

So how’s it gonna be.
When it all comes down you’re cycling trivialities.

Don’t know which way to turn.
Every trifle becoming big concerns.
All this time you were chasing dreams,
without knowing what you wanted them to mean.

So how’s it gonna be.
When it all comes down you’re cycling trivialities.
So how’s it gonna be.
When it all comes down you’re cycling trivialities.

Who cares in a hundred years from now.
All the small steps, all your shitty clouds.
Who cares in a hundred years from now.
Who’ll remember all the players.
Who’ll remember all the clowns.

So how’s it gonna be.
When it all comes down you’re cycling trivialities.

So what does this really mean.
When it all comes down you’re cycling trivialities.
Cycling trivialities.
Cycling trivialities.

3. Correspondence

I’ve recently become a fan of the work of Alexander McCall Smith. I tend to avoid ‘popular’ writers as I’m a bit of a secret book snob (I refused to read anything written after 1950 until I was about 25…) I’ve just finished his The Right Attitude to Rain all about a middle-age female Scots philosopher and her mini moral dilemmas. My favourite series of his was actually that featuring Professor Von Igelfeld as it reminded me of Frasier (the only TV sitcom I’ve been able to bear), but I digress…

On page 123 of The Right Attitude to Rain one of the characters is left alone to deal with his ‘correspondence’. We’re not talking emails here, we’re talking hand-writing letters. It struck me that this has been a much more normal thing to do (albeit for a certain class of people) for a lot longer than emails.

Conclusion

So if you’d experienced these three things in quick succession, what would you have thought? I’ll add what it made me think to the comments below later this week. 🙂

Daniel Pink on motivation.

I was very fortunate on Tuesday to get a last-minute invite (thanks to Ewan McIntosh) to a sold-out event at The Sage in Gateshead. The organisers of the event managed to get hold of Daniel Pink (Twitter), author of A Whole New Mind, as he came to the UK to promote his new book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. I’d seen Dan’s TED Talk last year (see below) and found it extremely interesting. I was slightly concerned however, that he would just rehash that talk. He didn’t. 😀

The warm-up guy for Dan was Caspar Berry (Twitter), former actor, professional poker player, screenwriter, television presenter, poker advisor on the James Bond film Casino Royale, and now consultant to large multinational companies. Caspar spoke about risk and the fear of failure. His main message was that in order to be successful you have to fail many times. If we redefine failure as long-term failure then this, as in poker, empowers us to take short-term set-backs, losses and ‘failures’. I appreciated his message, but felt that his constant references to how he was fitting a 45-minute presentation into 25 minutes a bit much to take. How hard is it to alter a slidedeck and tailor your talk for a particular audience? We teachers do it all the time… 😉

I made quite a few notes on Dan Pink’s talk. I love the way he signposted, as all good teachers and presenters do, not only what he was going to talk about but also how he was going to deliver it. A good presentation, he believes, consists of:

  1. Brevity
  2. Levity
  3. Repetition

It also helped that his slides weren’t used to drive his talk but used almost exclusively for quotations from academic and business journals. I have to say that I was impressed that one came from this month’s Harvard Business Review! In addition, he had obviously tailored his slides (spellings, colloquialisms) for a UK audience. It would be easy not to do that on a worldwide book tour. 🙂

Using props and audience interaction, Dan started by explaining that we all have a biological drive that motivates us to do things – hunger, third, sex, and so on. No-one doubts that. We also have a ‘secondary drive’ that includes things like money, reward and punishment. Most efforts to motivate people centre around these two drives: we throw money at people to be more productive and more innovative: we appeal to people’s hunger and desires. A surprising study, however, by the Federal Reserve Bank in 2005 showed that, whilst financial incentives worked in a linear way for purely mechanical tasks (more reward = more productivity), if even ‘rudimentary cognitive skill’ was required, performance was inversely proportional (more reward = less problem-solving). The study, initially carried out in the USA was replicated with even more profound results in India.

Dan gave lots of examples of companies changing the way they do business in order to increase creativity, innovation and profitability. These went beyond Google’s famous 20% time, thankfully. I’ll not list them here – you should buy his book! The (false) assumption that most businesses have is that human beings are fundamentally inert, that they need external motivation to do things. Instead, Dan says, we should assume that people are active and engaged. Look at toddlers, for example: they’re always engaged! It’s actually our default setting. The third drive, then, is ‘interest’ which Dan divided down into:

  • Autonomy
  • Mastery
  • Purpose

Autonomy is tapping into people’s desire to be in control of their own lives. Using the example of call centres, Dan talked of how they treat people like lightbulbs: one burns out so we get another from the shelf and screw ’em! Zappos.com, a company recently bought by Amazon for close to $1bn, do things differently. They offer people $2000 to leave the company after the two-week training period, figuring that anyone tempted by such an offer would cost them more in the long-term. Once they’ve completed their training and refused the $2000 they are set to work with one message: “solve the customer’s problem”. No timers, no scripts. Revolutionary autonomy. 🙂

Mastery is our powerful impulse to get better at stuff. In fact, a longitudinal study by Harvard Business Review of many companies found that the biggest motivator for employees across a whole range of industries was “making progress”. Dan talked about performance reviews, about how they’re not often enough. Imagine, he said, if Serena Williams received only annual feedback on her tennis. How would she improve? He encouraged us to take control of our own performance reviews and goal-setting, “calling yourself into the office” at the end of the month after having planned and set targets at the beginning of it.

Purpose is being part of a project bigger than yourself. Or, in the words of a McDonald’s executive, about having ‘a purpose bigger than your product’. For businesses it’s important to sell a dream or vision other than increasing profits by X% to motivate your staff. For individuals it’s important to motivate you for the smaller tasks and activities you need to complete.

Dan said he could sum up his message by saying “human beings are not horses”. Here’s how he puts it in a recent interview with Seth Godin (who also has a new book out called Linchpin):

Stop treating people like horses and start treating them like human beings. Instead of trying to bribe folks with sweeter carrots or threaten them with sharpen sticks, how about giving them greater freedom at work, allowing them to get better at something they love, and infusing the workplace with a sense of purpose? If we tap that third drive more fully, we can rejuvenate or businesses and remake our world.

Amen to that! I’ll definitely be incorporating some of these ideas into #uppingyourgame: an educator’s guide to productivity. 😀

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