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Teenagers are terrible at understanding this.
“How was your day at school,” is not a question asked to determine how a day at school was. It’s a (lousy) attempt at starting a conversation about feelings.
It requires empathy to answer a question that isn’t obviously about the answer.
The empathy to see that the person asking you has something else in mind.
Back when I was hiring dozens of people at Yoyodyne, I asked one of the hackneyed programmer interview questions (back then, it wasn’t nearly as well known.) “How many gas stations are there in the US?”
It should have been obvious that I didn’t actually want to know how many gas stations there were. That was easy to look up, and why would I ask someone I didn’t know a question like that?
Over time, I had to get more and more clear in my messaging. “Because I want to see how you figure out amorphous problems, help me understand how you would answer a question like…” Even then, it was a very powerful tell. Two people said, “I don’t have a car,” and left the interview. (That’s true, not hyperbole).
Other than name and phone number, when someone asks you a question, it’s worth considering why. Intentionally answering the real question is a great place to start.
A dozen states in the US have a Junction City.
A place with the claim to fame that it’s on the way to somewhere else.
You can do well being a stepping stone, a pathway, a place people go to get somewhere else.
Or you can be a place where people seek to be.
The story you tell needs to be different, though, depending on what it is you’re promising us.
When you’re traveling ahead of the curve, it’s silly to imagine that the road will be straight and flat.
It’s actually more like a cliff. With bumps.
That’s all part of the deal.
In fact, ahead of the curve the weather is pretty lousy too. Often with catastrophic lightning storms.
On the other hand, if you choose to work inside this messy metaphor, you get the thrill of finding a new path instead of merely following the old one.
On one hand, Uncle Ben’s rule makes great sense: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
And yet, it’s backfiring.
It’s backfiring because so many walk away from their great power. They walk away because they don’t want the responsibility.
We have the power to vote, but decide to stay home and whine.
The power to publish, but click instead.
The power to lead, but follow meekly.
The power to innovate, but ask for rules of thumb instead.
The power to lend a hand, but walk away.
Most people watch videos, they don’t make them. Most people read tweets, they don’t write them. Most people walk away from the chance to lead online and off, in our virtual communities and with the people down the street.
In a democracy, we each have more power to speak up and to connect than we imagine. But most people don’t publish their best work on a blog or seek to organize people who care on a social network. Most of the time, it’s far easier to avert our eyes or blame the system or the tech or the dominant power structure.
There are millions who insist we’d be better of with a monarchy. The main reason: what happens after that is no longer their responsibility.
When the local business disappears, it’s because we didn’t shop there. When the local arts program fades away, it’s because we watched Netflix instead. And when the local school persists in churning out barely competent cogs for the industrial system, it’s because we didn’t speak up.
Culture isn’t done to us, not if we don’t let it. Culture is what we build, and that’s powerful.
For generations, people dumped crap into the Hudson River. The river was so large and so swift that they assumed that the effluent wouldn’t come back to haunt them.
Of course, it did, killing the oyster beds and poisoning the public.
How big does a body of water have to be before we forget that we’re swimming in it? That it all comes around…
It turns out that the pool/river/tub that we live in is far smaller than it seems. The culture of the place we work, the vibe of the community where we live. It’s all more connected than we realize.
If you want to make a long-term impact, build the roads.
Stewart Brand points out that if you compare two maps of downtown Boston–from 1860 and 1960, for example–virtually every single building has been replaced. Gone.
But the roads? They haven’t changed a bit. The curbs and boundaries and connections are largely as they were. With the exception of a Big Dig, a Robert Moses or an earthquake, the roads last forever.
That’s because systems built around communication, transportation and connection need near-unanimous approval to change. Buildings, on the other hand, begin to morph as soon as the owner or tenant decides they need to.
When creating an organization, a technology or any kind of culture, the roads are worth far more than the buildings.
How do we do things around here?
It seems like our take on culture is that we’re right.
We shake hands properly, use a napkin properly, speak up at events problerly and even greet one another on the street properly.
When I’m in a foreign city, I’m always amazed at how (friendly/offputting/aloof/intimate) everyone else is.
But of course, everyone else is right as well. They’re the home team, so they’re even more right than I am.
The conflict seems pretty obvious:
We can’t all be wrong, which means we can’t all be right, either.
Culture, by its very definition, isn’t the work of being right. It’s the work of being in sync.
Culture is people like us do things like this.
So sure, the way WE do this is ‘right’ if right means, ‘the way we do this.’ But there’s little room for absolutes. Culture abhors the absolute, it is based in the specific instead.
The next time you bump into a culture that you disagree with, perhaps it might be more useful to wonder about how it got that way, and would happen if we did it that way?
How long would it take us to go from, “this is wrong,” to, well, sure, “that’s how we do things around here”?
Will today’s emergency even be remembered? Will that thing you’re particularly anxious about have been hardly worth the time you put into it?
Better question: What could you do today that would matter a year from now?
Why do smart people trade away so much money and freedom for just a little convenience?
We do it all the time. We take the easy path, the simple shortcut or the long-term bad deal simply because it feels easier.
The reason? Thinking is not worth the hassle.
Cognitive load overwhelms us. Too many choices. The stakes feel too high. Every day, we make 1,000 times as many different decisions as our cavemen ancestors did. We’re exhausted from all the decisions, and more than that, from the narrative we have about making them poorly.
Over the years, marketers have offered us one wonder or another in exchange for just a little cognitive load. And those promises have often been empty. Not worth the hassle.
So now, we’ll press the re-order button like a pigeon in a lab. It’s easier.
If you want people to stop and think, you’ll need to do two things: Make a very big promise… and then keep it.