If you’ve ever moved somewhere new, you know how hard it can be to make new friends and connections. But thanks to the social web, we have endless opportunities to connect, reach out, collaborate and meet (yes–in person!) new people, no matter where we are.
Even if you didn’t just move, you can always strengthen existing networks. The thing I love about the five unconventional social media approaches below is that they can lead to real relationships that enhance your life and work.
I’m generally not so big in thinking in terms of decades or generations or centuries or hunks of time in general.
Consider the Sixties. Is that decade really characterized by any one thing or mood or result or whatever? If Sixties means Civil Rights, then I smile. And who can deny that rock music steadily got better during the Sixties? But if the Sixties are all about thoughtless sexual promiscuity, the mainstreaming of recreational drugs, and the morphing of the Summer of Love into the Summer of Rape, then I do more than frown. I appreciate various Sixties’ efforts to free education as “the art of living” from the imperatives of technological productivity. But the movement away from boring “studies show” courses was too often in the direction of “studies” courses—angry and fake-empowering displays of identity politics (women’s studies etc.).
The Who, one excellent musical product of that decade, got us thinking and talking about “my generation,” which turned out, we found out later, to be a decline away from “the Greatest Generation.”
Is it really true that one generation can screw another? That’s what Joel Kotkin (citing Neal Howe, “a leading generational theorist”) claims. Boomer Americans, in their greed and shortsightedness, have trashed the global economy. And so they’re the cause of a world of hurt being piled on Millennial Americans.
Maybe it’s more fair to say that the Boomers were lucky. Their wonder and even peak-earning years were during times of strong and pretty constant economic growth and rising housing prices. But there’s no chance in heck the Millennials are going to get the same kind of breaks.
Certainly the Boomers lack of concern with public and private debt is causing many sober Millennials to face the harsh truth that they’ll be no entitlement programs and pension programs around when they get old enough or unfortunate enough to need them.
The Millenials, of course, borrowed lots of money for college and really astounding amounts for law school. But the jobs aren’t there for those with all that education, and their debt remains. The least that can be said is that they should have gotten better advice about avoiding debt, paying your own way, and so forth from those who mentored them.
Slighted in the extended analysis of the experts is the fact that it might have been selfish and shortsighted for the Boomers not to have more kids. Entitlements, pension plans both public and private, and so forth were Ponzi schemes we thought we could believe in: But it turns out that they depended on both economic growth and population growth.
Although it seems, at first, as if the big problem is not enough jobs, the basic reality is too many old people and not enough young ones. The ratio between the productive young and the unproductive old is tilting rapidly in the direction of the latter. So more of the old know that the safety net of funding and voluntary caregiving that comes from intergenerational dependence and responsibility is increasingly unreliable. They keep working, stuck with being increasingly on their own. They’re often hoarding jobs that should be passed on to the new generation. The least we can say is that the Boomers, increasingly lonely and anxious as they age, aren’t ending up as happy as they thought they would be.
It’s between hard and impossible to blame the Boomers for not dying as young or having as many kids as their parents. Maybe the MIllennials are screwed only in this sense: The easy good times enjoyed by their parents couldn’t have lasted forever, and their parents didn’t think enough with them in mind. A kind of relative indifference to the world that extends beyond oneself is hardly the same as screwing. Screwing is much more aggressive or at least passionate.
So the weakness of the Boomers is, roughly speaking, the moral liberation of the Sixties. That easygoing bourgeois bohemianism with scant attention to character formation and personal virtue works well enough when times are good. But it might be that the Boomers haven’t given their kids what they really need—both a moral inheritance a financial one—for when things are bad or at least increasingly uncertain.
We have become a society of specialists. Business thinkers point to “domain expertise” as an enduring source of advantage in today’s competitive environment. The logic is straightforward: learn more about your function, acquire “expert” status, and you’ll go further in your career.
But what if this approach is no longer valid? Corporations around the world have come to value expertise, and in so doing, have created a collection of individuals studying bark. There are many who have deeply studied its nooks, grooves, coloration, and texture. Few have developed the understanding that the bark is merely the outermost layer of a tree. Fewer still understand the tree is embedded in a forest.
Approximately 2,700 years ago, the Greek poet Archilochus wrote that “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Isaiah Berlin’s 1953 essay “The Fox and the Hedgehog” contrasts hedgehogs that “relate everything to a single, central vision” with foxes who “pursue many ends connected…if at all, only in some de facto way.” It’s really a story of specialists vs. generalists.
In the six decades since Berlin’s essay was published, hedgehogs have come to dominate academia, medicine, finance, law, and many other professional domains. Specialists with deep expertise have ruled the roost, climbing to higher and higher positions. To advance in one’s career, it was most efficient to specialize.
For various reasons, though, the specialist era is waning. The future may belong to the generalist. Why’s that? To begin, our highly interconnected and global economy means that seemingly unrelated developments can affect each other. Consider the Miami condo market, which has rebounded quite nicely since 2008 on the back of strong demand from Latin American buyers. But perhaps a slowdown in China, which can take away the “bid” for certain industrial commodities, might adversely affect many of the Latin American extraction-based companies, countries, and economies. How many real estate professionals in Miami are closely watching Chinese economic developments?
Secondly, specialists toil within a singular tradition and apply formulaic solutions to situations that are rarely well-defined. This often results in intellectual acrobatics to justify one’s perspective in the face of conflicting data. Think about Alan Greenspan’s public admission of “finding a flaw” in his worldview. Academics and serious economists were dogmatically dedicated to the efficient market hypothesis — contributing to the inflation of an unprecedented credit bubble between 2001 and 2007.
Finally, there appears to be reasonable and robust data suggesting that generalists are better at navigating uncertainty. Professor Phillip Tetlock conducted a 20+ year study of 284 professional forecasters. He asked them to predict the probability of various occurrences both within and outside of their areas of expertise. Analysis of the 80,000+ forecasts found that experts are less accurate predictors than non-experts in their area of expertise. Tetlock’s conclusion: when seeking accuracy of predictions, it is better to turn to those like “Berlin’s prototypical fox, those who know many little things, draw from an eclectic array of traditions, and accept ambiguity and contradictions.” Ideological reliance on a single perspective appears detrimental to one’s ability to successfully navigate vague or poorly-defined situations (which are more prevalent today than ever before).
The future has always been uncertain, but our ability to navigate it has been impaired by an increasing focus on studying bark. The closer you are to the material, the more likely you are to believe it. In psychology jargon, you anchor on your own beliefs and insufficiently adjust from them. In more straightforward language, a man with a hammer is more likely to see nails than one without a hammer. Expertise means being closer to the bark, and less likely to see ways in which your perspective may warrant adjustment. In today’s uncertain environment, breadth of perspective trumps depth of knowledge.
The declining returns to expertise have implications at the national, company, and even individual level. A collection of specialists creates a less flexible labor force, one that requires “retraining” with technological developments creating constantly shifting human resource needs. In this regard, the recent emphasis in American education on “job-specific” skills is disturbing. Within a company, employees skilled in numerous functions are more valuable as management can dynamically adjust their roles. Many forward-looking companies are specifically mandating multi-functional experience as a requirement for career progress. Finally, individuals should manage their careers around obtaining a diversity of geographic and functional experiences. Professionals armed with the analytical capabilities (e.g. basic statistical skills, critical reasoning, etc.) developed via these experiences will fare particularly well when competing against others more focused on domain-specific skill development.
The time has come to acknowledge expertise as overvalued. There is no question that expertise and hedgehog logic are appropriate in certain domains (i.e. hard sciences), but they certainly appear less fitting for domains plagued with uncertainty, ambiguity, and poorly-defined dynamics (i.e. social sciences, business, etc.). The time has come for leaders to embrace the power of foxy thinking.
Merriam-Webster says a mistake is “a wrong action or statement proceeding from faulty judgment, inadequate knowledge, or inattention.”
Smart mistakes take aim at the “inadequate knowledge” that is at the root of many creative or innovative projects. Consider the scene pictured above.
If your objective is to cross the brook without getting wet, you would carefully plan your crossing, looking for a path along a series of stones, each within a step’s distance. But even then, could you guarantee you wouldn’t fall in? If this is your first crossing, you would certainly have inadequate knowledge. A stone could be wobbly, or the surface more slippery than it appears. You won’t know till you try the crossing.
Smart mistakes take aim at the “inadequate knowledge” that is at the root of many creative or innovative projects.
When we confront a new situation, there’s no way to guarantee immediate success. You will take “wrong actions as a result of inadequate knowledge.” So what kind of steps can you take to ensure your mistakes are smart mistakes, rather than dumb ones?
1. Reduce the cost of failure. For the river crossing, it could be asking your friend to go first (joking!). Or it could be removing your shoes and socks so that they’ll stay dry. In other words, choosing a course of action that allows a mistake to have minimal cost. So your budget – be it financial, time or otherwise – can last longer. In his bookLittle Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, Peter Sims discusses how Pixar’s extensive storyboarding and Procter & Gamble’s rough prototyping processes allow them to gain important feedback early and cheaply.
2. Gain maximum learning from each attempt. Rita Gunther McGrath and Ian MacMillan, in their classic Discovery-Driven Growth, emphasize the importance of documenting assumptions and taking steps to validate those along the way. They recommend creating experiments specifically designed to test out parts of a business plan – business model, market size, development estimates, competition, etc.
If you were crossing the brook, therefore, you would want to use many senses – sight, hearing, touch – to analyze the situation as you crossed. Are big rocks more stable than small ones? Does a rock move when you first step on it?
3. Order your steps properly. Christian Terwiesch and Karl Ulrich, authors of the book, Innovation Tournaments, demonstrate that in creating a new product or service, the order of operations is crucial to success. Their great counterexample is Segway. Enamored by his technological vision for a self-balancing, easy-to-ride, 2-wheeled scooter, Segway inventor Dean Kamen invested in a full product design, supply chain and even lobbying efforts – before he had thoroughly studied the market or created product demos – relatively cheap and fast activities.
Kamen took the most expensive, most prolonged steps first. When he confidently sprung his product on the marketplace in December 2001, the hype was intense – and only after it died down did he begin to learn about the marketplace. Rather than fulfilling his VC’s prediction of reaching $1 billion in sales faster than any other company, Segway by the mid-2000’s had sold a total of 23,600 scooters – less than $118 million in retail revenue in four years. Segway was a high-profile and expensive failure. ”
Don’t do what Segway did. Do as much work as possible on paper first. Do the cheapest steps that give you the most information (see above steps 1 and 2), and only armed with that information plunge into a long, expensive development process.
And one final type of smart mistake…
Can you imagine a situation in the brook crossing where you would walk in the water, avoiding the stones on purpose? This is a deliberate mistake, an intentional act that defies your internal sense of logic. Why would you do something like this?
Our feelings of what makes sense and what doesn’t are shaped by our deepest assumptions. Those assumptions, for example that walking in dry shoes is more comfortable than in wet shoes, are mostly useful. But some aren’t valid, or have become obsolete over time.
Making what Paul Schoemaker, author of Brilliant Mistakes: Finding Success on the Far Side of Failure, calls “deliberate mistakes” is called for in this situation. In one example Schoemaker cites, AT&T Long Distance challenged its traditional credit-checking standards in a subset of accounts by eliminating credit-checking altogether. (Note that trying the change on a small sample reduced the cost of failure.) Did they think this made sense? No: they had every reason to believe that their long-trusted algorithms worked. But they had no other way of finding out whether their approach to credit-checking was still the best policy they could pursue.
AT&T learned that the increased bad debt that they incurred by approving everybody regardless of credit rating was far outweighed by the increased profit from the new customers who were brought on board. The “mistake” turned out to be the right approach.
— What About You?
Smart mistakes aren’t blunders; they are well-considered actions that reveal new information or challenge our assumptions. They should be a key part of your creative toolkit. How do you enable smart mistakes in your work?
John Caddell is the curator of The Mistake Bank, a site that collects stories of business mistakes and articles on learning from mistakes and failure. You can follow him at @jmcaddell.
A palliative care nurse called Bronnie Ware made a list of the biggest regrets of the dying. Her list seems plausible. I could see myself—can see myself—making at least 4 of these 5 mistakes.
If you had to compress them into a single piece of advice, it might be: don’t be a cog. The 5 regrets paint a portrait of post-industrial man, who shrinks himself into a shape that fits his circumstances, then turns dutifully till he stops.
The alarming thing is, the mistakes that produce these regrets are all errors of omission. You forget your dreams, ignore your family, suppress your feelings, neglect your friends, and forget to be happy. Errors of omission are a particularly dangerous type of mistake, because you make them by default.
I would like to avoid making these mistakes. But how do you avoid mistakes you make by default? Ideally you transform your life so it has other defaults. But it may not be possible to do that completely. As long as these mistakes happen by default, you probably have to be reminded not to make them. So I inverted the 5 regrets, yielding a list of 5 commands
Don’t ignore your dreams; don’t work too much; say what you think; cultivate friendships; be happy.
which I then put at the top of the file I use as a todo list.
The most successful innovators are consistently portrayed as possessing a passion that borders on dogmatism. They work tirelessly to bend reality to achieve their vision, with Steve Jobs and his “reality distortion field” serving as the prototypical example.
There’s no doubt that passion is a critical component of innovation. After all, innovation is awfully hard work, with plenty of false starts. Rosabeth Moss Kanter teaches that everything can look like a failure in the middle. Mike Tyson puts it another way: “Everybody has a plan, until they get punched in the face.” Passion is necessary to keep pushing when the punch inevitably lands.
And without passion it’s hard to do something that’s meaningfully different from what has been done before. It’s next to impossible to prove that a new idea will work. Passion and intuition are necessary ingredients for disruptive success.
But leaders overseeing innovation efforts inside their companies need to be careful of mistaking passion for competence. The philosopher George Santayana defined a fanatic as someone redoubles their effort when they have forgotten their aim. We’ve all encountered the innovator who keeps pounding the table, insisting that his vision is right despite mounting evidence (and bills) suggesting otherwise.
Passion only matters if it leads to an innovation that delivers impact, whether that impact is measured in revenues, profits, improved process performance, or something entirely differently. This is one reason why good venture capital investors dole out capital in stages. They are waiting to see if the vision that looks so great on paper bears any resemblance to reality.
When I’m evaluating entrepreneurs and their ideas, I look for “innovation bipolarity,” a version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first-rate intelligence: “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Entrepreneurs should be able to argue passionately that their idea will change the world, and then, without skipping a beat, honestly assess the risks standing in the way of its success and describe what they are doing to mitigate them.
Of course, there are examples of dogmatism and fanaticism triumphing in the face of healthy skepticism. But that’s not a scalable approach to innovation.
An endless series of difficult but achievable hills
BY: Seth Godin
Lightning rarely strikes. Instead, achievement is often the result of stepwise progress, of doing something increasingly difficult until you get the result you seek.
For a comedian to get on the Tonight Show in 1980 was a triumph. How to get there? A series of steps… open mike nights, sleeping in vans, gigging, polishing, working up the ladder until the booker both saw you and liked you.
Same thing goes for the CEO job, the TED talk on the main stage, the line outside the restaurant after a great review in the local paper.
Repeating easy tasks again and again gets you not very far. Attacking only steep cliffs where no progress is made isn’t particularly effective either. No, the best path is an endless series of difficult (but achievable) hills.
Just about all of the stuck projects and failed endeavors I see are the result of poor hill choices. I still remember meeting a guy 30 years ago with a new kind of controller for the Atari game system. He told me that he had raised $500,000 and was going to spend it all (every penny) on a single ad during the Cosby show. His exact words, “my product will be on fire, like a thresher through a wheat field, like a hot knife through butter!” He was praying for lightning, and of course, it didn’t strike.
There are plenty of obvious reasons why we avoid picking the right interim steps, why we either settle for too little or foolishly shoot for too much. Mostly it comes down to fear and impatience.
The craft of your career comes in picking the right hills. Hills just challenging enough that you can barely make it over. A series of hills becomes a mountain, and a series of mountains is a career.
“No one cares what you do. They care why you do it.”
That’s the premise of one of my favorite books, Start With Why, by Simon Sinek. In this book, Simon talks about how great leaders inspire action. He explains how the most innovative and influential people and organizations have an…