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Mistakes Matter, So Make More of Them

I’ve been doing a series of coaching calls with a wide range of successful people, to learn what’s holding them back in life. One of the most common fears: the fear of making mistakes. And it’s no wonder…

It’s election time. And political discussions tell us that anyone who makes a mistake should be shunned for life, barred from public office, and labeled a “flip-flopper” (especially if they change their mind as a result of learning from their mistake). Success literature, however, tells us that we should learn to be comfortable with failure and make mistakes! One of my most accomplished business school professors once said: if you’re not making enough mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks. How about you? Do you know how to make the most of your mistakes?

If you’re not making enough mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks.

Bad Outcomes Don’t Necessarily Mean Mistakes

Our school system trains us for decades that not getting the right answer means we were wrongand somehow didn’t work hard enough. Once we get into the real world, we bring that mindset along with us. If we don’t get the results we want, we assume we made a mistake.

This isn’t necessarily so. Here’s a thought experiment to understand why. Imagine you have two quarters. One is perfectly fair. It has 50%/50% odds of flipping heads or tails. The other is weighted. It has a 60% chance of flipping heads.

We have two Coin Operators, whose job is to flip heads. They’re allowed to choose either coin to flip.

Peyton, Coin Operator #1, chooses to flip the 50/50 coin and gets HEADS.
Harley, Coin Operator #2 chooses to flip the 60/40 coin and gets TAILS.

Who made the mistake? If we look at the outcomes, it appears that Harley made the mistake. But before we know the outcome, we would favor Haley’s decision to choose the coin that is weighted towards heads. Haley pursued the outcome using the right process, even though it was the wrong outcome.

“Stuff” Happens

I hear you cry, “But Harley made the right choice! The outcome should have been heads!” I agree! We really want to believe that our actions will give us the results we want. The real world, however, is sadistic: sometimes things work, and sometimes they don’t. We have a name for this. We call this luck.[1]

We can do the right thing, have bad luck, and get the wrong outcome. We can do the wrong thing, have good luck, and get the outcome we want.

This gives us a critical insight into the nature of mistakes: it isn’t the outcome that lets us know we’ve made a mistake; it’s what we did to get the outcome, our process, that lets us know if we made a mistake.

We’re not taught to think this way. We’re not given societal support to think this way. We don’t evaluate our political candidates this way. We don’t evaluate our employees this way.

But if you want to train yourself to get what you want in life, don’t measure mistakes by outcomes. Burn these definitions into your brain:

  • Success is using a high-quality process, regardless of outcome.
  • Mistakes are using a low-quality process, regardless of outcome.

Other People May Not Suck as Much as We Think

Deep down inside, we all love judging other people, especially politicians. But this new definition of mistakes means we need to be careful. If we judge them based on outcomes, we might end up deciding that the Peytons of the world are amazing and awesome and worthy of backrubs, while the Harleys of the world should eat rocks.

Unfortunately, however, unless we’re paying attention during the entire effort, we rarely know what process someone used to reach their outcome. That makes it harder to judge them accurately.

I took a mediation class, where I had the joy of mediating a 10-party negotiation between the heads of several organizations. Each organization cared about different things, with different priorities. The real estate developers wanted more land. The conservationists wanted land made off-limits to developers. The Mayor cared about economic development and tourist trade. The historical society cared about limiting changes to any part of the city.

The final agreement satisfied no one, but at least everyone was equally dissatisfied. To each organization, the outcome surely looked like a failure. But the representatives reached the best agreement they could, given the conflicting interests, the time available, and the fledgling abilities of the mediator.

It’s easy to say “my [politician, boss, representative] failed by not getting outcome I wanted.” If we really want competent leaders, however, we do better to judge the process they use. Do they take steps to understand the issues? Do they understand whose support is needed and build the necessary coalitions? Do they compromise where needed, and hold firm where needed?

When evaluating others, don’t judge their success and failure from their outcomes. Look as closely as possible at their process.

Getting the Most Out of Your Mistakes

Although mistakes are a sign that you’re really moving, stretching, and growing yourself, that doesn’t mean you want to make the same ones over and over. You want to learn as much as you possibly can each time things don’t work out.

When a mistake happens, hold an After Action Review. Take time to reflect explicitly on what worked, what didn’t, and why. Consider what happened on the ground—what worked out the way you expected, and what didn’t. What happened that you didn’t plan for, and what didn’t happen that you did plan for? Also consider what happened in your head. How did your a priori beliefs factor into what happened? Were your interpretations of what was going on correct? Where did you waste time paying too much attention to trivialities, and where did you miss opportunity by not paying enough attention?

Making mistakes, combined with a good after action review, helps you refine several important aspects of your future thinking.

Mistakes Refine Cause/Effect Thinking

We all have theories about what causes what. Some of our theories are pretty good. We believe that watering a plant will help it grow. We water the plant. It grows. Our cause/effect works, we’re happy, and the plant is happy (maybe even ecstatic, depending on how long it’s been since you last watered it).

Some of our theories really don’t work at all. “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back” isn’t orthopedically sound advice. If you want to protect mom’s back, teaching her proper posture and good form when lifting heavy boxes is a far better plan.

And some of our theories about cause and effect are sort of true. “Work hard and you’ll get ahead” certainly works great while we’re in school. But once we’re in the work world, the link between hard work and advancement is much more tenuous. In many cases, it doesn’t hold at all.

Avoidable mistakes often help us refine our notions of cause and effect. Many people believed that putting money into the stock market would result in a consistent, positive return on their money. In 2008, an entire generation discovered that cause/effect in stock investing is more subtle, and less dependable, than they thought. Next time a financial advisor happily informs them “invest in fund X and you’ll make 11% interest for 43 years,” they’ll (hopefully) know to refine their notion that giving money to a financial advisor automatically leads to a comfortable retirement.

Mistakes Refine Discrimination Abilities

We don’t just learn rules about cause and effect. We also learn how to discriminate between different situations. For example, with the label side down, a tube of toothpaste and a tube of athlete’s foot creme might look identical. One might simply look in the drawer, see a tube, squeeze it onto a toothbrush, and pop that brush right into their mouth and start brushing.

One might then discover one’s mistake. This will lead quickly to the learning that although tubes look the same face down, there are subtle clues as to which tube belongs in the mouth, and which tube belongs in the foot. For example, fine print on the back of the tube that says “for treatment of athlete’s foot and other topical fungal infections. Don’t eat it, you moron.”

That particular mistake is the one that got me to start paying close attention to the difference between tubes of cream.

Then there are my singing lessons, where my voice teacher forced me to listen to recordings of our lesson. When I was able to stop gritting my teeth, I began to develop the ability to distinguish between a tritone and a major fifth. It turns out that when you’re singing harmony, that distinction matters.

Mistakes help us refine the distinctions we make in the world.

Mistakes Refine Luck

And finally, mistakes help us understand the role of luck in what we’re trying to do. To return to our coin toss example, if we know Harley chose the 60/40 coin to flip, and it still came up tails, that tells us that luck played a factor in the outcome. While we would have prefered that Harley flip heads, we can be confident that the outcome of tails reflects luck, and not Harley’s abilities.

We might think mistakes are bad, but nothing could be further from the truth. Mistakes help us learn if we respond correctly. We should understand the roles luck and skill played in our outcome. Analyzing our process will tell us if we our good process gave a poor outcome, or whether we had a genuinely poor process. And we should refine our understanding of cause/effect, our discrimination abilities, and the role of luck. Our greatest advancement happens when we learn when things go wrong. To do anything else would be a mistake.

  1. If you’re a physicist, you call it a wave function. Or quantum mechanics. Or alternate universes, or something. But you’re not a physicist, so let’s stick with luck.  ↩

Time after Time: Put Your Decision-Making Time Horizon to Work

Put Your Decision-Making Time Horizon to Work

Think about the future. Notice what kind of events you expect to happen in the future. Think about the projects you have going on. Think about the good things you expect to happen, and how you plan for them.

You’ll notice that you have a preferred time horizon that you automatically use without thinking about it. For some people, considering “the long term” means thinking five months out. For other people, it means thinking ahead a hundred years… or a thousand years. I’m not talking about the time pressure from Wall Street or other managers; I’m talking about the mental timelines that all of us have, that we use to plan our lives.

Your Time Horizon Matters

The time horizon you use makes a huge difference in how you make decisions. If you naturally have a long time line, you may be able to create great long-term plans. You might not be so good at the short-term, however. Unfortunately, you have to pass through the short-term to get to the long-term, and if the short-term has some surprises, you can be caught unawares. I met a startup entrepreneur whose timeframe was years. He was mentally in a future where his company was already an industry leader. Unfortunately, he lived in that future and didn’t really pay much attention to the next six months. His company hit a few snags, and rather than focus in on the short term, he was so wedded to his long-term vision that he assumed “everything will work out.” It didn’t really penetrate that *he* was the one who had to make it work out.

A purely short-term time horizon is great for day-to-day survival. A short-term calendar has its own problems. It’s easy to make decisions that seem great in the short-term, but lead to long-term ruin. A friend of mine thought his decisions through about three weeks out from the present. Three weeks is less than a credit card statement cycle, however. Each month he would run up more and more credit card debt, because his decisions about “can I afford this?” never really considered the need to pay back the credit card, four weeks in the future. It took him 15 years to pay down the credit card debt he accumulated in college.

Use a Deliberate Time Horizon

Next time you make a decision—about work, or family, or home life—consciously consider the same decision and its consequences on a 2-week, 6-month, and 5-year time horizon. You may find that different decisions work best with different time scales. That’s a good thing! It lets you understand the interplay between short and long-term consequences.

My friend Michael Linenberger noticed that having a to-do list that’s so long your brain wants to explode also has a timeframe attached to it. Different items on your to-do list are associated with different time distances in the future. He’s designed a complete system to take advantage of how people think about time and activities to handle task management with no stress. His system meshes naturally with how people process near-future tasks differently from medium-future tasks, differently from far-future tasks. Today (immediate future), his book on the system is launching and I encourage you to check it out and buy a copy:

Next week (medium future), try his system for a week. Just do it for a week and find out whether taking timeframes into account improves your ability to juggle the demands of a task-heavy workload. Then in six months, if it’s still working for you, start asking where else in your life you can take timeframes into account, so you make better decisions and build your life into more of what you want it to be.

Good customer service requires substance and style

Good customer service requires more than just nice phone manners.

I had a customer service need today. I called the company, whom we’ll call Canadian Mozy, and got a very nice young man named “Johnny.” He seemed to have a genuine American accent, clearly understood my issue, and was able to respond in complete sentences. That’s a good first start. Sometimes, I call a company and someone with a thick foreign accent answers, introducing himself as “Biff Johnson.” That’s a bad sign, especially if you recognize the accent and know that folks in that culture rarely have names like Biff. When a company’s first instruction to their phone reps is, “lie about your name,” you know you’re in for a real treat.

A lot of companies know that having polite reps who tell the truth makes a good impression. Canadian Mozy certainly understood this.

Johnny listened to my problem and explained, “we used to do what you’re asking for. We see we’ve done it for you several times. But our new policy is that we won’t do it any more.” Interestingly, I was asking for something that had no business implications for Canadian Mozy. It did not require them to spend a penny on my request. It did not expose them to any additional risk, nor did it obligate them to anything in the future. It was free for them to provide, they’d provided it before, and some random mid-level pinheaded bureaucrat decided to retract the policy.

Politeness Wasn’t Enough

Did I get good service? Johnny provided extremely polite service. He was gracious and dealt with my hissing, booing, and making funny noises into the phone with professional aplomb. But he was powerless to fix the situation.

As a result, I’m pulling tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of business from Canadian Mozy and shifting it to other vendors. Though Canadian Mozy likes to trumpet themselves as a “partner” to the small businessperson, they aren’t. Their reps aren’t allowed to think for themselves, and the managers who set their policies don’t understand a whit about how to evaluate the actual business impact of a policy decision. They eliminated a policy that gave customers great value at no expense to themselves, and never thought about how customers might react.

This brings me to the much misunderstood truth about customer service:

  • Good customer service requires good style. Your customer support reps must speak the language of your callers, shouldn’t tell obvious lies, and should be polite, courteous, and trained to deal with irate, irrational customers.
  • Good customer service also requires good execution. Your customer support reps must have the training to investigate someone’s problem, and the ability to do something about it, especially when the request is one you’ve honored in the past and which has no downside for you but tremendous upside for your customer.

If you’re missing style or executions, customers get upset. In the language of kindergarten, good support comes down to this: be polite and keep your promises.

One Price Doesn't Fit All

But offering lots of options can destroy the buying experience.

I’m flying this morning. More accurately, I’m waiting in line after line after line at the airport. Once, I needed my boarding pass. Then I needed my boarding pass and driver’s license. Now, I need my credit card, too. Every line brings a new, extra charge. The check-in kiosk gleefully says it costs $15 for my first checked bag. At the gate, the little headphones cost me. On board, a pillow and blanket—once free free—now cost big bucks. And don’t get me started on the snacks.

Every price tag becomes a separate purchase decision. Every purchase decision makes an impression. The airline has me asking “Is this worth it?” a dozen times during a single flight. And every extra decision risks my deciding “No.”

Any good sales person knows you want your customers crying Yes, Yes, YES! As soon as I think No, they’ve lost me as a customer.

If you offer options, do it at once.

When you have lots of little add-ons that someone can choose up front, that’s fine. Call it “customization.” If I’m buying a new Mini Cooper, I get to run the Mini Cooper customizer. It becomes a game to choose the white racing stripes, chili pepper red paint job, fancy suspension, and cool hubcaps. Will I pay extra to customize? You bet. And since it’s a one-time fantasy fest, I only have to abandon common sense once to sign on the dotted line. Now I have my cool car with lots of options, and I love the chance to go into debt for life for my new tricked out Cooper. But only if it’s a single purchase decision, where the excitement happens all at once. One purchase, and I can enjoy my car forever.

Don’t take away what used to be free.

Of course, don’t customize add-ons that are expected as part of the base product. If I had to pay extra to make sure my Mini came with wheels, it would be annoying, not delightful. But since the car comes with wheels, all my attention is blissfully on my Speed Racer fantasies.

For Goodness’ sake, never start charging for something that used to be bundled into the price. People hate losing things. When once my plane pillow and blanket were complimentary, charging extra for them stirs resentment.

You might think airlines have to start charging for the extras or they’ll go out of business. Maybe. But maybe not. If they just tacked $50 onto the ticket prices and announced that they still give “free” blankets, pillows, and checked luggage, I suspect many people would be willing to purchase. All it takes is one nickel-and-dime experience to realize that a low price ticket might be a smokescreen for an expensive bundle of travel “add-ons.”

If airlines want to offer variable pricing, they shouldn’t charge extra fees. Instead, they could frame the choice as a discount: you get $7 off your ticket if you decline a pillow and blanket. More people would take the blanket and pillow (people often just accept the defaults), so the revenues would be higher. Yet those who really care can still get the lower price. Furthermore, people would be imagining their flight with all the goodies, and would be inclined to forgo the discount since it would seem like losing that amenity—and remember, people hate to lose extras.

How many purchase decisions do your customers make?

What’s your product or service? Do you offer it as a series of purchase decisions? Try an experiment: create an all-in-one pricing bundle and offer discounts for unused options, rather than extra charges for extra options. Track how many customers choose to the default options, how many customers purchase again, and how satisfied customers are with their purchase. You just may find that the best way to serve your customers is to charge them more.

[Note: the way decisions are presented to people makes a huge impact in what they choose. This is called “decision architecture.” You can learn all about decision architecture in the book “Nudge.”]

Cause and Effect in Current Events

Don’t be surprised when you get the expected result.

Stupidity is running rampant, world wide. It’s frustrating, because the mistakes aren’t rocket science. They’re really simple stuff. People forget their actions have consequences. Let’s explore some cause/effect you should keep in mind, through the lens of current events. Think how these apply to you, so you aren’t surprised by the utterly predictable.

(This is going to be a provocative article. If it offends you, recommend me to all your friends. The provocation may cause many unsubscribes from my list from people who would rather indulge in knee-jerk responses than think for themselves. Oops!! That sentence just lost a dozen, right there…)

Ignore the competition and you’ll lose. Detroit has been whining about how they couldn’t have forseen the current downturn. In business school in **1989**–twenty years ago–we did cases about how uncompetitive the car companies were, and how they were ignoring foreign competition, etc. Anyone who lived through the gas lines and 50+ mpg Honda Civics of the late 70s and hears Detroit complain that they can’t get 30mpg by 2020 should have nothing but utter contempt for the executives running the Big Three.

If you hit people, they won’t sit there and take it. Hello, Israel and Hamas. Are you listening? Kids beat me up in grammar school. It didn’t make me like them. And if I’d been bigger and stronger, I would have hit back. When Hamas broke a cease-fire and sent rockets into Israel, what did they expect to happen? It isn’t a matter of history, or who deserved what. Just that simple question: what did they expect to happen, other than violent retaliation? (Terrorists knocked down two of our office buildings seven years ago, and we started two wars over it, with a body count that some say is over 100,000 civilians. Clearly, if you swat someone who has more firepower, they just might swat back.)

Debt is bad if not managed wisely. Learn this: if you spend $10 today that you don’t have, how can you expect to have $12 to repay it with interest tomorrow? This only makes sense if you invest the $10 with the expectation of making $12 or more. Thinking of credit cards as free money is dumb. Thinking of a $1 trillion yearly budget deficit being used to fund expenses (e.g. war) rather than investment (e.g. R&D, research, education, infrastructure repair) is dumb.

Deliberate get-rich-quick stupidity will be appropriately rewarded. Banks have a thousand-year history of how to evaluate good credit risks. When they write mortgages to people they would never lend to under prudent guidelines, they shouldn’t be surprised when it all collapses. And by the way, every manager involved should be fired. I’d rather have a high school student running the bank than someone with proven bad experience.

Pay current expenses with current dollars. People get so upset and angry about tax levels. Get over it, people. Borrow-and-spend is _more_ toxic than tax-and-spend; you have to pay back with interest. Unless you are spending on investment that will generate a return, tax-and-spend is a much, much healthier policy. In any event, tax vs. borrow is just a financing detail. The problem is *spend*. (And anyone who still believes either party is more fiscally responsible than the other needs to have their head examined. As far as I can tell, the Repubs are abhorrently irresponsible, while the Dems are despicably irresponsible.)

Don’t borrow if you can’t repay. See the previous paragraph. This applies to credit card holders, home owners, governments, and investment banks. If you borrow $100, you have to pay back $110 next year, or even more in following years. Borrowing gives you the illusion that you have a higher standard of living than you can afford. The world will happily correct that misapprehension.

People do what you pay them for, especially if there are no perceived consequences. I’ll let you find the examples for this one. Just look at politicians, lobbyists, and CEOs of failed banks. (Why, please remind me, are any of those people still there? Aren’t we supposed to fire people who demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt their utter, complete, and total incompetence to run a solvent business?) This applies to politicians, too. If we connected their pay and career paths to desired national outcome measures, you would likely suddenly see a whole different set of conversations in Congress.

Does email overload help us?

Tim Sanders wrote a blog entry that references a Business Week article on information overload I commented on last week. The writer suggests that information overload might be good. There might be some valuable information, and besides, young people can handle it just fine.

Sure. In what universe? My Get-it-Done Guy podcast email and people’s reaction to my what is email costing you assessment, suggest many people of us feel our life force being regularly sucked from our bodies by information overload. It makes us jump from topic to topic. It interrupts us when we need to concentrate. And then we feel guilty that we still can’t keep up. Gee, that sounds like a resourceful emotional state for reaching our goals.

Yes, we’re getting more info. Yes, some of it’s useful. But that’s not the point! We need to ask: is it useful enough? Are the benefits—financial, social, or emotional—worth the cost?

For Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy (mentioned in the article), the answer is Yes. In email, they say things they would never say otherwise. Like that comment about the chocolate mousse, telephone pole, and garter belt. Who would ever say that out loud?

Of course, an anonymous suggestion box would fill the same function. Even better, the tipster could actually include the original garter belt. But apparently, those emails are amazing enough that Anne devotes a lot of time to her email. Since she’s gotten great results at Xerox, for her, the benefits might be worth the cost. (Assuming, of course, that her success is because of email, rather than in spite of it. Maybe a weekly suggestion box would be just as good.)

If you’re top dog, no one pays attention to how you use your time as long as you produce business results. The rest of us aren’t so lucky. Our pointy-haired boss gives us specific goals, and email can suck up a lot of time without moving us towards our real goals. That “Top 10 Reasons Working Here Sucks” email will only help you reach your goal if that goal is a new job at your major competitor’s firm.

When you’re deciding how much time to spend with your inbox, think long and hard about the benefits you’re getting. After all, there’s lots you could be doing with that time. Ask yourself if there is any other way to get those same benefits? If you hired a $50/hour assistant to read and answer your email every day, what would you tell him/her to process versus ignore? Are you following those same guidelines?

Being perfect in every way, I follow my own advice and am ultra careful with my email habits. Even so, I often get sucked in for up to 30 extra minutes a day. Since I’m perfect, that must be the perfect amount of time to waste. But there’s still a nagging feeling: that comes out to three weeks per year. If I’m going to spend three weeks a year blathering mindlessly, I’d rather do it wearing a bathing suit on a sunny Caribbean beach than sitting hunched over my computer in my basement office, looking like one of the Mole People. At least on the beach, I might get a tan.

So don’t take my word for it. Don’t take Tim Sanders’s word for it. And don’t take Business Week’s word for it. Your email time is productive to the extent it helps you get what you want out of life. Hold it to a high standard and if it isn’t performing, drop it from your life faster than that stalker you accidentally dated in college. With email, only you can take control; there’s no way to get a restraining order.

The key to ethical, sane behavior: the *little* voice.

Your little voice may have all the answers you need.

Have you ever wondered how certain corrupt businesspeople can keep spouting great, moral words while doing the exact opposite in their behavior? You wonder how they can wax eloquent about the need to give customers high-quality products while they happily substitute inferior quality raw materials to save costs. You wonder: are they insane? Probably not. Yes, they hear voices in their head. But we all do that. The problem is that they’re listening to the wrong ones.

In a New York Times article today, John Tierney discusses the science behind hypocrisy and how we fool ourselves. It seems when we distract our conscious mind, we listen mainly to our “gut” (or our “heart,” depending on how poetic an image you prefer), and we know when we’re doing The Wrong Thing. When our conscious minds are free, however, we use them—to self-justify. When we engage in hypocritical or anti-social behavior, our conscious mind goes to work creating justifications so we believe we’re doing the right thing, even when we aren’t.

In the past several years, I’ve become more aware of my own “heart voice.” When I have a troubling decision to make, or strong ambivalence about a situation, I sit quietly. Actually, my brain is usually shrieking gibberish about how unfair I’m being treated, or about how I don’t deserve what’s happening, or about how I’m an utter and complete failure at life because I missed “9 Down” in today’s New York Times crossword puzzle. So here’s this Shrieking Monster in my head, and I let it rant while putting attention on the middle of my chest. Then when the Shrieking Monster stops to take a breath, I quickly ask, “What should I do in this situation?”

Then I sit. After a few minutes, beneath the Monster comes a little, quiet voice. It’s barely even in words. And it has an answer.

The moment the answer comes, I know it’s the right one for me. It’s almost always the moral thing, the ethical thing, the loving thing, the passionate thing. In some weird way, it’s the answer I already knew was right, but just wouldn’t admit to myself. It took a chat with the Little Voice to bring it to the place where it could be heard over the Shrieking Monster voice.

The Shrieking Monster is the one that usually pushes me to do stupid things. It goads me to yell at people when I’m frustrated, to get petulant and childish when I could be forging alliances, and to beat myself up when I don’t do well, even if I did my best. The Little Voice, though, is my own internal Dear Abby: its advice is excellent, even if its hairstyle could stand some updating.

If you’ve never tried this, give it a shot. Ponder a decision that’s giving you angst. Maybe it’s an ethical quandry, or an issue with a co-worker, or that persistent fantasy about wrapping your boss in duct tape upside down, hanging from the ceiling. Choose something really, really important, like: is it fair that I always have to spend the 3 minutes to type up action items after a meeting?

Sit quietly with the situation. Your Shrieking Monster will helpfully point out how unfair it is that you have to type those action items, how your fingers ache, how it’s probably carpel tunnel syndrome and you’ll be crippled for life, and how you really deserve to be the boss and are just not deeply appreciated. Then sit quietly and listen to the Little Voice behind the shrieking monster. It just might have some good advice.

If it seems reasonable, give it a shot. You might find yourself acting more ethically, more morally, more professionally, and more happily. In other words, you just may find your little voice is the key to acting as—not just aspiring to be—your Very Best Self.

Find the article on hypocrisy at http://r.steverrobbins.com/hypocrisyarticle.

Groupthink, brainwashing, and politics: eek!

You have everything to gain by thinking outside your own box!

Click here to hear this article as a podcast.

Maybe you’ve been successfully brainwashed and just don’t know it. How would you? Pretend you were kidnapped by the People’s Liberation Front of Jordania, which originally attracted you by serving your favorite brand of spaghetti sauce every night of the week (yum!). They successfully brainwashed you, and now you would go on raids with them, eat with them (spaghetti!!), live with them, and genuinely believe in their cause. If someone said to you, “The PLFJ has brainwashed you,” you wouldn’t believe them. You’d go back to contentedly slurping spaghetti.

Schools brainwash us

This is more than an academic question, though it arises in academia as well. People attend schools where they learn certain ways of thinking and are taught that some thinking is preferable to others, or even that some thinking is “right” and some is “wrong.” For example, they teach that the Earth revolves around the sun, and not vice-versa. For centuries, people believed the opposite, and could even be put to death for suggesting the Earth orbited the Sun. So which is the brainwashed? Both have their belief systems, both indoctrinate new people into those beliefs, both have evidence that suffices for them, and both would view the others as living in a fantasy world.

In Business School, students are taught to do cost/benefit analyses, and many of them reframe their entire world in terms of costs and benefits. Great for balancing their checkbook, maybe not so much for making their Sweetie feel loved. “If I spend five minutes cuddling and my time is worth $45/hour…”

In contrast, philosophy majors are taught there are many ways to approach a problem, and may have a very different way of thinking about life (“Amour! Eros! Love! Let’s cuddle!”), and be lousy at balancing their checkbook.

Who’s “right?” Both are. And both have habitual ways of thinking that were taught by a school. How are the schools not brainwashing institutions?

Politics brainwashes us!

Scott McLellan, Pres. Bush’s former Press Secretary, just published a book that reveals how he now believes he had been manipulated and misled for years by Bush. It wasn’t until he left the administration, however, that he had enough perspective to question what he had been told and been living for several years.

We’re all brainwashed, all the time.

If you think about it, you’re probably the member of an exclusive club, all the way down to having your own language. Maybe you’re part of the business club, and you talk about “profits” and “margins” and “business models.” Or you’re a Swing dancer and you talk about doing a “Texas Tommy” (isn’t that illegal in 39 other states?). Or you’re a graphic designer and you know what “Pantone” means.

Now think about your organization. You probably have your own shared beliefs. Those beliefs are a form of brainwashing, and you don’t question them. Everyone takes them for granted, and those who don’t are marginalized or ignored. But the world changes! Yesterday’s “common sense” is today’s backward thinking. “Cars will never take off; they require pavement, and who’ll pay to pave a downtown when so few cars exist to use the roads?”

Sometimes, the world doesn’t even change, the conventional wisdom is just wrong. “The world will only ever need four computers.” “Customers will never buy water in bottles when they can get it free from the tap.”
“I’m really happy to listen to you talk about your ex-boyfriends, dear.”

Find freedom beyond your assumptions

In organizations, getting through your brainwashing is the key to innovation, creativity, and “thinking outside the box.” Indeed, it’s your shared assumptions that are the box!

The key to getting past your brainwashing is to seek out evidence that you might be brainwashed. Write down some of the reasons you know your business is successful:

  • People love our customer service.
  • We are the low-cost provider.
  • We hire the best and the brightest.

Now write down some of the reasons you know your competitors are doomed to fail:

  • They just don’t “get it.”
  • Our customers would never like their product.
  • We’ve locked up the biggest, most important customer.

Take the reasons you just wrote down, muster your courage, and spend some time exploring each one. If your belief is false, how would you find out? What data would you seek? What trends would you be following?

You don’t just have to re-examine your work assumptions. You can also list things you “know” about your family life. Stuff like, “my teenagers won’t listen to me” or “watching TV together is the highest form of quality family time.”

Start seeking some data. Start following some trends. Try a few alternatives. Find out where you’re following the herd, and where you’re really in touch with reality. You’ll learn how much of your life is groupthink, rather than YOUthink. You’ll find yourself thinking outside the box. Although it could scare people around you, it might open your eyes to a whole new world of opportunity. There are advantages to being the sighted man in the land of the blind, and not just because it makes it easier to button your shirt…

Update your user experience…or die!

Your survival could depend on it!

Are you up to date with your user experience? I have been coveting my friend’s iPhone. It is true I have both a Palm Pilot and a Blackberry but the iPhone is getting more and more attractive. Not just because it has got a nice user interface, the reason is deeper.

I have a Macintosh. Palm made $1.6 billion dollars in 2006 but they haven’t updated their Macintosh software in several years, maybe even as much as a decade. The software is clunky, hard to use and it doesn’t integrate with Apple’s synchronization system, which lets everything else synchronize beautifully with the address book and the calendar.

Blackberry paid $450 million dollars to quit a patent suit early and resolve it so they could stay in business, and their software doesn’t properly handle certain types of calendar attachments. Their browser is poor and they don’t handle a type of e-mail accounts called IMAP, which let people have their mail on a central server and access it from many places.

Oh! And by the way and by the way, they have never bothered to come up with a way to synchronize with a Macintosh. From the user’s point of view that makes this products fairly difficult to use on the Mac without third party software and even with the third party software it is usually not as good and has bugs etc. etc.

But think about it for a minute: 1.6 billion dollars and Palm can’t be bothered to develop an updated version of 10-year old software? Hello! Blackberry 450 million dollars to settle a suit? Where is the $10 million dollars that they could use to make the Blackberry compatible with every existing calendar system, contact management system and sales management system in the world. They haven’t bothered.

I donâ’t know why they haven’t bothered but it doesn’t really matter because there is something out that there will work for me and that’s called an iPhone.

Palm is reported to be looking for a suitor because sales are down and they just don’t know what to do. Palm– update your system! Blackberry, I don’t know. They think the iPhones are a threat and until Blackberry realizes that people aren’t just buying a slick little package; they also wanted to work with their computer, well they are going to lose people to the iPhone as well.

One final example: I recently changed insurance companies and my new insurance company has no autopay option for my premiums. In the year 2008? Excuse me? It hasn’t occurred to them that the user experience for virtually every type of vendor (particularly one with recurring payments) now includes the ability to pay automatically either by credit card or by bank debit. Now it’s true in the short term that’s not going to make a difference. But it’s remarkable because they are the only bill in my entire life that has to be written out by hand every month.

If they are falling behind on that, what else are they falling behind on? So think about your product. Have you tried your competitor’s products lately? Have you noticed if sales are falling, where are people going instead of your product? When you use and evaluate the competitors, look at the whole experience and what you will find is that there are very compelling experiences out there, some of which may not be yours.

Leap on them, surpass them, develop your own experience, put some money into what it will take to make your product fun, happy, easy, simple and streamline to use and you just might find that you will be able to stay ahead of the competition instead of going to them asking them to buy you.

Happy or Successful? Which will you pursue?

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On a recent birthday I was looking back at the strategies that my friends from high school and college and I employed to get where we are today. We assumed that success would bring happiness, and as far I can tell, we were wrong. It turns out that the two are separate, even though marketers would have us believe otherwise.The slogan for Cadillac is “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit.” Of course what your mind fills in is Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. As if a $50,000.00 car will actually make you happier. And maybe it will. But keep in mind, if your life fundamentally sucks, it’s gonna keep on sucking the moment you step out of the car and onto the concrete. So, if the two are different—if happiness and success are not the same—what’s the best life strategy?

We are certainly taught to believe that being successful will make us happy. Society tells us, our parents tell us, our teachers tell us, students in high school as young as 12 and 13 are already being lectured about college. I take it to an extreme. I have a 5-year-old nephew, I am thinking about his college, I am thinking about his high school. It’s ridiculous; I am missing his entire childhood because I am so busy thinking about making him successful in the assumption that thus will he be happy.

I also find that in career coaching new MBAs, they have an almost religious belief that they can plan out a 20-year career path. They say things like, “I will make my money and then I will be happy. Then I will do the things that are meaningful.” Then, then, then. As if, among other things, you can even control whether “then” ever arrives.

So strategy number 1 is: pursue success and hope for happiness. The other strategy is to pursue happiness and meaning and find a way to make a living doing it. This is the strategy where happiness leads to success. Which one is better? Let’s see…

If you go for success and you become successful and you find a way to be happy doing it, yeah, you’re happy and successful. If you go for happiness and find a way to make money doing it, yeah, you’re happy and successful. So, in the case where you can achieve both, it doesn’t really matter which strategy you choose, you end up happy and successful.

But the point we rarely consider is what happens if everything doesn’t work out. If you define your life as pursuing success but you don’t actually find a way to be happy while doing it, or you get to that point where you have the money and now you don’t even know what makes you happy because you have spent the whole time pursuing success instead of happiness, well, great. You’re successful, but you’re not happy. You walk into an empty house surrounded by beautiful gorgeous things. You have a lot of friends and they like you. Why? Because you have a lot of nice things that they want to borrow. You buy a cat, the cat puts with you because you leave its automated feeding bowl in place while you go work at office. It actually hates you because you’re never around. You are too busy working, but at least it will pretend to purr every now and then.

On the other hand, if you go for happiness and aren’t successful, at least you will be happy and you will have a life full of meaning. They found one of the big things that helps people be happy, for example, it is having family and friends and community. So, if you are happy, but don’t quite make it to successful, you may wander into your one-bedroom tiny apartment and be surrounded by friends and family and people who love you and a cat that purrs because it recognizes you—it knows who you are and it appreciates the fact that you feed it. You may not have the money, but you will be happy.

So, in the case where the future works exactly the way we want it to, it doesn’t matter whether you pursue success and then find happiness or whether you pursue happiness and then find success. But in the case where you can’t guarantee the final outcome, it makes so much more sense to pursue happiness and hopefully you can find a way to be successful doing it.

I have spent my life up until very recently doing the opposite. I have spent my life pursuing success under the assumption that it would make me happy and it is not clear that it’s been worth it. Missing a weekend with friends so that I can work hard and earn enough money that I can take time off and … spend a weekend with friends. Hello? This doesn’t exactly make a whole lot of sense.

What I would like to invite you to do today is to examine your own life and your own motivations—How do you work? Are you pursuing success assuming that someday will bring happiness? Are you pursuing happiness looking for way to be successful while doing it? Are you getting both? And I would invite you to play around a little bit. Try doing something from the other camp and find out if that works for you.

If you’re a Type-A Personality Workaholic, skip a day of work, call in sick and do something that makes you happy, that’s meaningful, and that could be a taste of the life you could be living right now, maybe in exchange for money but maybe not. Because when you pursue happiness, you never know what kind of opportunities arise.

I am now one year into a three-year experiment of living my life to the extent that I can get my Type-A Personality to do so. I pursue the things that make me happy and have meaning. The bizarre part is my life is less predictable than ever before. The things I am getting involved with weren’t even on the radar screen a year-and-a-half ago, however, some of them are grander and more exciting than anything I could possibly have planned. Make a choice. Pursue success and find happiness or pursue happiness and find success. Either way you have a shot at both, but in one case you guarantee you will be happy.