Why We Create

Before the year ends, read Jia Tolentino’s searing essay Worst Year Ever, Until Next Year:

In any case, someone will tweet “worst year ever” every few minutes until 2016 is over, and then people will begin tweeting “worst year ever” as soon as 2017 begins. They will type “worst year ever” because of spilled drinks and late Ubers, a new Trump story, a new dispatch—if she miraculously manages to survive until then—from Bana Alabed, the seven-year-old girl in Aleppo who’s been tweeting, with her mother’s help, her fears of imminent death. There is no limit to the amount of misfortune a person can take in via the Internet, and there’s no easy way to properly calibrate it—no guidebook for how to expand your heart to accommodate these simultaneous scales of human experience; no way to train your heart to separate the banal from the profound. Our ability to change things is not increasing at the same rate as our ability to know about them. No, 2016 is not the worst year ever, but it’s the year I started feeling like the Internet would only ever induce the sense of powerlessness that comes when the sphere of what a person can influence remains static, while the sphere of what can influence us seems to expand without limit, allowing no respite at all.

Perhaps it is the horror that swells, perhaps it is our awareness of it.

Yet I have friends who agree that this year was terrible culturally, and declare that it was their most fulfilling and happy year personally. This doesn’t diminish the personal pain that many others have gone through, but allows that there is a limit to the usefulness of abstract empathy. Despair is a passive verb. Even anger is more useful. One can both mourn and feel joy.

A shitty year is the most compelling argument for building oneself a joyful refuge. It doesn’t help anybody to freeze out in the cold.

It might be your best year ever. Please, fiddle while Rome burns. More than ever we need your songs.

Why We Create

If you feel like politicians don’t represent your attitudes, it is possible that you are not strange enough.

In the documentary Objectified, industrial designer Dan Formosa describes his lab’s approach to building new products:

“We have clients come to us and say, ‘Here is our average customer.’ For instance, ‘Female, she is 34 years old, she has 2.3 kids,’ and we listen politely and say, ‘Well, that’s great, but we don’t care . . . about that person.’ What we really need to do, to design, is look at the extremes. The weakest, or the person with arthritis, or the athlete, or the strongest, the fastest person, because if we understand what the extremes are, the middle will take care of itself.”

My take: This approach is currently being tested in the U.S. presidential election. We will find out whether speaking to the oddest, the angriest, and the most dogmatic at the exclusion of everyone else is a viable political strategy, or whether you really need to cater those in the middle: independents and undecideds.

More than that, this is a lesson for anybody who has something to say:

Who is your least interested audience? Who are your biggest opponents? Who loves your work? Who are your True Fans? Whether you are crafting a presentation for management, planning a protest, or starting a blog, these are the two audiences you need to consider. Shock your opposition to attention. Nerd out with your homies. No middle ground. No average users. The mean will take care of itself.

To learn about how Tim Ferriss used this principle to learn Spanish in 8 weeks, read The Four-Hour Chef.

Why We Do Better

Who wins a debate?

Who had the better argument?

Who seemed more likable?

Who showed more strength?

Who was more informed?

Who blinked less?

Who was more memorable?

Who was funnier?

Who convinced more people of their position?

Who had more empathy?

Who showed more certainty?

Of course, it doesn’t matter. Because the person that wins is the person that does the work, investigates the problems, builds the coalition, earns trust, takes responsibility for the outcome. This is the person that wins, whether they show up to the debate or not.

Why We Talk

Here’s how to land the job of your dreams. No need to spend weeks studying. Don’t bother learning about their business problems. Forget about power poses and positivity. All you need is One Great Story. Actually, just half of one.

On second thought, you will also need one accomplice, a wingperson, inside the building. And you will need to be skilled at thumbing your phone from your pocket, because you are going to signal them with a text message at the correct moment. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though.

Now, the set up: your interviewer brings you into a room. You shake hands, sit down. They start out by asking you a general question – it really doesn’t matter what it is – perhaps an inquiry as to how you would approach blah-dee-blah given schmo constraints.

You respond, “Funny story, actually,” and begin to tell your One Great Story. The story, given that it is great, takes several minutes to recount. You notice that your interviewer is initially confused, then annoyed, but eventually (and this is important) intrigued. The story is implausible, bonkers, and yet utterly relatable human drama. Perhaps there is a tangential dash through a stranger’s wake or an illicit three-way tryst with the ambassadors of two warring nations. This is your Great Story, so the details are really up to you. The action intensifies until you see beads of sweat on your interviewer’s forehead.

And then: you signal your accomplice. Your accomplice pulls the building’s fire alarm. Sirens blare, and your story is brutally severed.

There is a cognitive phenomenon called the Zeigarnik effect. Psychologists wanted to understand how waiters could memorize multiple complex orders for half an hour, and then completely forget the orders as soon as they were brought to the table. Their studies observed that people were twice as likely to remember tasks that were interrupted than those that they completed.

We understand this intuitively; we talk about closure as a means of letting go.

But we don’t want our interviewer to let go. We want our interviewer to fixate, to ruminate. On their long walk to the designated fire safety zone outside the building, they should be turning your Great Story over in their head, muddling the greatness of the story with the greatness of the storyteller.

Of course, if you’ve been paying attention, then you’ve already recognized the flaw in this plan. The firefighters arrive and scan the building. They give the all-clear. You’re going to have to walk back into that meeting room and sit down with your interviewer again. And you only prepared half a Great Story. That’s all you prepared. Shit. Your interviewer stares at you from across the table. What are you going to do?

Your heart clangs inside your chest. Your eyes dart around the room, searching. Desperate. Your mind grasps for an answer.  Then, blam, it hits you. Of course! All you need to say is

Why We Create

“The 8 hours you need to sleep each night, are my opportunity. The time you spend with your family and friends, is my opportunity. If you’re not maxed out, if there’s still a shred of humanity left in you, then you’re just leaving your lunch on the table.”

This brilliant blog post by Elaine Ou captures a common strategy: to expand to the widest possible audience, slash your margins. Instead of making $10 per sale, make $1. Instead of $1, make 10 cents. Instead of 10 cents, raise funding to give it away for free.

We often encounter the same incentives at our own jobs. Rather than money, the margin for our work is time. Instead of leaving at 6, stay until 8. Instead of finishing at 8, work on the ride home. Instead of finishing when you arrive home, work the weekend. Slash your margins. Track your metrics. Eliminate your inefficiencies.

When your team begins talking about efficiency, it’s time to find a new team. Efficiency is an endless war, one measured in minutes and dollars saved, not in people served or missions met.

Every four years, someone sets a new swimming record at the Olympics. Efficiency is an endless war.

And what’s the opposite of chasing efficiency? Spending more time: to listen, to build relationships, to tailor, to take risks. To serve fewer, better. To add humanity to your work. The more you add, the more you keep.

Why We Create

The work we do falls into one of two camps: performance or experimentation.

Performance is the work we do that creates value for others. It’s teaching in a way that your students understand. It’s building and presenting an analysis for your colleagues. It’s following the set of exercises recommended by your trainer. It’s giving gifts, offering compliments, telling jokes. It’s doing the dishes before your partner gets home. It’s delivering consistently, effectively, reliably, every morning. It’s following a well-trekked path to a beautiful destination.

Experimentation is the work we do to answer our own questions. It’s sending an email with emoji to see how the VP responds. It’s starting a vlog to help potential customers know you better. It’s debuting an unfinished song for your fans. It’s revealing your vulnerability to your friends. It’s staying in instead of going out on Friday night (or the reverse, if you’re over 30). It’s leaping into the unknown, uncertain, unskilled. It’s wandering a foreign city with no map.

Some people prefer performance or experimentation alone, but most of us require both to feel satisfied in our work. Chefs stay up late to dabble in their kitchen; physicists moonlight before a packed comedy club. Should you feel dissatisfied with life professional or personal, perhaps you’re starving to tinker, perhaps you’re thirsty to dance.

Why We Act

The assignment is due soon. The emails are gathering, the noisy horde is at the gates. You are getting older.

And yet, you sit and stare at the screen and feel that old tug in the gut. Get up. Goof off.

The puritans among us would have you not delay.

Forget them. Procrastination is not a vice, it’s a signal.

Perhaps you are not prepared to complete the assignment.

Perhaps your work doesn’t excite you.

Perhaps your work does excite you, but right now your brain needs a break.

Perhaps you should be spending time with close friends, or reading and gathering ideas, or asking the boss for more context, or raising your heart rate on a jog around the lake.

Don’t rush to a reason. Don’t even jump from your seat, not yet. Just listen. Procrastination is usually the answer, it’s just a matter of figuring out the right question.

Why We Act

There is an irony to the white-collar worker that advocates fiercely for a Paleo diet, because the relationship between corporate employees and freelance artists echoes the relationship between agricultural and hunter-gatherer communities.

For linguistic simplicity, let’s condense our subjects across timelines into freelance-hunters and agro-employees.

Freelance-hunters follow abundance. Life as a freelance-hunter allows for, and often requires, regular movement to new fertile spaces. Agro-employees tend to root to one place for as long as possible.

Freelance-hunters tend to share resources within their community: food, tools, technique, knowledge. Agro-employees protect resources via private property, trade-secrets, and patents.

Gifts and favors animate freelance-hunter economies, while salaries and taxes form the basis of agro-employee economies.

Gender equality is prevalent in freelance-hunter communities (though not a requirement). In agro-employee cultures, patriarchy prevails.

In freelance-hunter communities, reputation within the group is vital; reputation outside the group is not relevant. In agro-employee societies, the opposite is true.

Finally, it is curious to observe that the popularity of eating like a hunter-gatherer has reignited in parallel with the freelance economy. Call it the freelance artisanal revolution.

Why We Do Better

Developing a team of risk-takers is challenging foremost because culture is a bad dog: it resists efforts to train it. Posters on the wall don’t create a team’s culture, nor do mandates, hoodies, slideshows, or mission statements.

People follow incentives, systems, and other people. So to foster your risk-takers, you must:

  • Hire people that are weird and endearing.
  • Expect modeling from the experienced people on the team
  • Give people the trust and time to test their ideas,
  • But abandon stuff that isn’t working as quickly as possible.
  • Do not get overly fixated on metrics, which almost always miss something important and ineffable.
  • As a manager, know the difference between an interesting idea and somebody throwing shit at the wall.
  • Distrust grids, bars, and spreadsheets; trust curiosity, experimentation, and people who build relationships outside of their team.

It’s trendy for companies to outwardly praise risk-takers, mad scientists, and leaners-in, those intrepid challengers of status quo. It’s less common for those companies to tolerate the uncertainty and failure that accompanies real risk.

In many companies, the biggest risk you can take as a manager is standing up for your people’s permission to fail – messily, noisily, nobly. Do that, and your fellow adventurers will take notice.

Why We Act

In the world of professional wrestling, each performer is either a Face or a Heel.

A Face is virtuous, loyal, honest, hard-working, resilient.

A Heel is cocky, cowardly, dishonest, underhanded, cruel.

The success of a wrestler’s character isn’t always about the effort the worker puts in. The performers themselves, the human beings behind the characters, sometimes seep through the act: a kind glint in the eye, a smile that naturally settles into a smirk, a softness in the voice. Wrestlers who are ‘natural’ Faces are miscast as Heels that no one fears; wrestlers who are ‘natural’ Heels are miscast as Faces no one likes.

The more that the character pushes against the betrayal of their body language, the more the audience tunes out.

We are all performers in public spaces: at work, at parties, on Facebook. Most of us try to be Faces while we’re out there: earn smiles, appear virtuous, play by the rules. Behave.

Remember, body language always seeps through. Insincere Faces are sometimes liked, though rarely cheered.

But everyone loves a great Heel.