But I don’t want to do that, I want to do this

Some of the response to yesterday’s post (and just about every time I talk about ‘picking yourself’) is predictable, sad and frustrated/frustrating. I’d have a lot easier time if I was in the business of telling people how to get picked, if I was working to uncover the proven, secret, time-saving tricks guaranteed to get you noticed…

“It’s my turn.”

I know you worked hard on paying your dues, on building your skills and in being next. We all know that. But that doesn’t mean that the picking system is going to work when you need it to. It’s not going to get you into the famous college of your dreams, or featured in a PR blitz or published by Knopf.

“The only way for me to do what I love (play the flute, trade stocks, volunteer with kids, spread the word about my cause…) is to get picked.”

This is, to be really frank, nonsense. If, for example, you graduated from the Eastman School of Music, there are many ways to play the cello that don’t involve auditioning for an orchestra. You can play house concerts, you can play on the street, you can build your own tribe, you can organize your own ad hoc orchestra. None of these things are official, none of these things are automatic, none of these things are guaranteed. So?

If you want to devote your work and your efforts to getting picked, that’s your choice, and more power to you. But I think it’s dangerous to start with the assumption that you have no choice.

I heard from a writer who invoked the Josh Bell story about the famous violinist who is treated shabbily by the mass commuter audience, because of course, to them, he’s not famous at all. This is supposed to be proof that it matters if you’re famous (picked) as opposed to good. In Josh’s case, he’s both. But if you can’t be picked to be famous, at least you can become remarkable.

If you can’t get invited to the main stage of TED, then do a TEDx talk, and make your talk so good it can’t help but spread. And if you can’t get invited to a TEDx, then start your own TED-like event. And if you can’t figure out how to organize people, connect them and lead them, perhaps you could focus more energy and risk on that very skill.

If you’ve built an app that won’t be profitable unless you’re featured on the front page of iTunes, the problem isn’t with the front page of iTunes, the problem is with the design of your app. Ideas built to spread are more likely to spread.

If your plan requires getting picked and you’re not getting picked, you need a new plan. I’m betting it will turn out far better in the end, but yes, indeed, I understand that it’s harder than being anointed. Your talent deserves the shift in strategy that will let you do your best work.

The problem isn’t that it’s impossible to pick yourself. The problem is that it’s frightening to pick yourself. It’s far easier to put your future into someone else’s hands than it is to slog your way forward, owning the results as you go.

Grateful Dead vs. Bay City Rollers.

How big is critical mass?

It’s classified.

There’s a certain mass and size of plutonium that you need to create in order to start a nuclear reaction… a reaction that tips, that spreads, that cycles out of control.

In the idea business, critical mass is the minimum size of the excited audience that leads to a wildfire. People start embracing your idea because, “everyone else is…”

For every idea that spreads, it turns out that the critical mass is different. For example, if I want to start a yo-yo craze at the local elementary school, critical mass might be as small as a dozen of the right kids yo-yo-ing during lunch. In an environment that small and tightly knit, it’s sufficient.

On the other hand, the critical mass for a better word processor is in the gazillions, because the current standard is so deeply entrenched and the addressable market is both huge and loosely knit. The chances that you will launch a new word processor that catches on because everyone else is using it are small indeed.

TED talks don’t have to reach nearly the proportions of a typical YouTube video in order to have a significant impact, because the population of curious idea spreaders that watch and spread these talks is small and connected. The same isn’t true for a new music video from the musician you manage.

If your idea isn’t spreading, one reason might be that it’s for too many people. Or it might be because the cohort that appreciates it isn’t tightly connected. When you focus on a smaller, more connected group, it’s far easier to make an impact.

Building your backlist (and living with it forever)

Authors and musicians have one, certainly. This is the book you wrote seven years ago or the album from early in your career. The book keeps selling, spreading the ideas and making a difference. The album gets played on the radio, earning you new fans.

“Backlist” is what publishers call the stuff that got published a while ago, but that’s still out there, selling.

The Wizard of Oz, Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits and Starsky and Hutch all live on the backlist

Without a backlist, all book publishers would go out of business in no time. The backlist pays dividends long after the work is over.

Advertisers didn’t used to have a backlist. You paid for that magazine or newspaper or TV ad, and within just one cycle, it was gone, forever.

Today, of course, the work you put on the internet has a good chance of staying there for a very long time. The internet doesn’t easily forget.

That TED talk, then is going to be around for your grandchildren to see. The review of your new restaurant, or the generous connection you made on a social network–they’re going to last.

I almost hired someone a few years ago–until I googled her and discovered that the first two matches were pictures of her drinking beer from a funnel, and her listed hobby was, “binge drinking.” Backlist!

Two things are going to change as you develop a backlist:

–You’re going to become a lot more aware of the posterity of the work you do. It’s all on tape, all left behind. Just as you’re less likely to litter in your own backyard, the person aware of his backlist becomes more careful and civic minded.

–You’re going to want people to pay attention to your backlist… in my case, the free videos, various ebooks and printed things I’ve done over the years. In your case, maybe it’s your blog, or the projects you’ve built or the reputation you’ve earned.

Your history of work is as important as the work you’ll do tomorrow.

Signals vs. causes

It turns out that people who use Firefox are more likely to engage in certain online activities than those that use IE.

And it turns out that people who eat before bed are believed to gain more weight than those that don’t.

Perhaps using Firefox makes you a different sort of surfer, or the timing of the calories has something to do with your metabilism.

More likely: The sort of person who takes the time to install a new browser is precisely the kind of person willing to use a new web service. The kind of person who makes a habit out of eating when bored (just before bed) might very well be the kind of person that has to wrestle with weight.

We see the same thing in outbound marketing. Spammers in Nigeria continue to use poorly written, ridiculous pitches. Not because they cause people to give up their senses and send tens of thousands of dollars, but because the kind of person that falls for something so dumb is probably the kind of person who is also going to be easily scammed.

TED often attracts interesting people, but going to TED (love this hashtag) doesn’t make  you interesting.

People who order wine with dinner might be bigger tippers, but persuading someone to order a bottle probably won’t change the way he tips.

A fever might be the symptom of a disease, but artificially lowering the fever (ice bath, anyone?) isn’t going to do anything at all to change the illness.

Before changing the signal and thus assuming that this will change the outlook, it probably makes sense to understand what will change the causes of someone’s perception and habits, and use the signal as a way of figuring out who needs to be taught.

Is a famous thinker better than a great one?

Does a bestselling author have more to say than someone who has written a brilliant book that didn’t sell?

Does a tenured professor at Yale deserve more credence than someone doing breakthrough work at a local state school?

If the violinist in the subway has played to packed houses, does that make him better than the previously unknown singer around the next corner?

For physical goods, a trusted brand name certainly increases the likelihood of purchase, because the risk is lower. We figure that Nabisco is less likely to sell us an unflavorful dust cookie than some unknown brand at the health food store. For a new flavor, the brand makes it an easier choice.

An idea is different, though, because the only apparent cost is the time it takes to hear it. (That’s not really true, of course).

And yet we hesitate to invest the time to hear ideas from lesser-known sources. It’s not fair to the unknown inventor, but it’s true.

I think this is changing, and fast. The permeability of the web means that you don’t have to start at the top, don’t have to get picked by TED or a by a big blog or by anyone with influence. Pick yourself.

It’s true that when you pick yourself, people aren’t as likely to embrace your idea (at first). That’s because the personal risk of hearing new ideas from new places is the fear that our opinion of the idea might not match everyone else’s. The real risk of interacting with unproven ideas is the fear that we might not react in a way our peers expect. The desire to fit in often overwhelms our curiosity.

It takes quite a bit of work (and a lot of luck) to acquire a level of fame. The question that might be worth asking is whether or not that effort is related to the quality of ideas underneath. Harvard has been around for nearly 400 years. That doesn’t mean the brand name is worth as much as we might be inclined to believe.

Branding started with pottery, beer and biscuits. Now it affects the way we think about ideas, people and even science. Buyer beware.

Podcasts, live events and more…

Lots of hoopla and good news to share:

Hope to see you in Boston or London later this month.

For those that were out over the break, here are the three books now available for sale (thanks for the great feedback and terrific support). Here’s the audio edition.

Thanks to the podcasters who interviewed me: 

Rise to the Top

Marketing Over Coffee 

Adrian Swinscoe 

Work Talk Show 

Social Media Examiner 

Duct Tape Marketing

The Game Whisperer 

Eventual Millionaire 

Blogcast FM

And a post from David Meerman Scott. Anne McCrossan. And with TED videos.

The feedback from the worldwide Icarus Session was so good we’ve scheduled another one. And here’s the bookmark project. 

Thanks.

Podcasts, live events and more…

Lots of hoopla and good news to share:

Hope to see you in Boston or London later this month.

For those that were out over the break, here are the three books now available for sale (thanks for the great feedback and terrific support). Here’s the audio edition.

Thanks to the podcasters who interviewed me: 

Rise to the Top

Marketing Over Coffee 

Adrian Swinscoe 

Work Talk Show 

Social Media Examiner 

Duct Tape Marketing

The Game Whisperer 

Eventual Millionaire 

Blogcast FM

And a post from David Meerman Scott. Anne McCrossan. And with TED videos.

The feedback from the worldwide Icarus Session was so good we’ve scheduled another one. And here’s the bookmark project. 

Thanks.

The decline of fascination and the rise in ennui

A generation ago, a clever idea could run and run. We talked about Space Food Sticks and Tang and Gilligan’s Island and the Batmobile for years, even though there certainly wasn’t a lot of depth. Hit movies and books stayed on the bestseller lists for months or even years (!)

Today, an internet video or an investment philosophy or a political moment might last for weeks or even a few days. It’s not unusual for a movie or a book or even a TV series to come and go before most people notice it. Neophilia has fundamentally changed the culture.

The result is that there’s an increasing desire, almost a panic, for something new. Yesterday was a million years ago, and tomorrow is already here. The rush for new continues to increase, and it is now surpassing our ability to satisfy it.

When that need can’t be filled (which is not surprising, if you think about it) then we’re inclined to declare that it’s the end, the end of new ideas, the end of progress, the end of everything that’s interesting. Spend a week or two watching TED videos and once you catch up, you might find yourself saying, “sure, but what’s new now?”

If you’re in the business of making a new thing, this churn may be an opportunity, because it’s easier now than ever to send a hit up the pop charts, whatever sort of pop you make. But it comes at a price, which is that it won’t last, and you’ll quickly have to go back and make another one.

The real opportunity, I think, is in trying to build longer arcs. Now that the cycle of new is eating itself in a race to ever-faster, there’s a bigger chance to make long term change by consistently focusing on what works (and what’s important), not what’s new and merely shiny.

What’s important, what’s always important, is useful change.

You won’t benefit from anonymous criticism

I recently heard from a TED speaker who was able to quote, verbatim, truly nasty comments people had posted about her talk.

And yet, I’ve never once met an author who said, “Well, my writing wasn’t resonating, but then I read all the 1 star reviews on Amazon, took their criticism to heart and now I’m doing great…”

There are plenty of ways to get useful and constructive feedback. It starts with looking someone in the eye, with having a direct one on one conversation or email correspondence with a customer who cares. Forms, surveys, mass emails, tweets–none of this is going to do anything but depress you, confuse you (hey, half the audience wants one thing, the other half wants the opposite!) or paralyze you.

I’m arguing that it’s a positive habit to deliberately insulate yourself from this feedback. Don’t ask for it and don’t look for it.

Yes, change what you make to enhance delight. No, don’t punish yourself by listening to the mob.