UNTHINKABLE: How One Brand Made a Documentary Film Seem Safer Than Yet Another How-To Post

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Nobody actually takes risks, especially in business, so what if the key to doing better work is making unconventional paths seem SAFER than the best practice? That's exactly what Clair Byrd, Clark Valberg, and the team behind Design Disruptors did. They took a massive project in scope and found a way to make each step seem safer than the last. They built a refreshing, eye-opening project without ever changing their team's goals. They did everything we aspire to do in our work in a way that seems, well, anything BUT Unthinkable. 

LINKS TO KNOW:

Design Disruptors site

Clair Byrd on Twitter

Clark Valberg on Twitter

Watch the original Design Disruptors trailer here:

Posted on November 19, 2017 and filed under EPISODES.

UNTHINKABLE: This Safety Message More Popular Than Rihanna Is Now a Global Phenomenon

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Unsurprisingly, one of the catchiest songs ever created topped the iTunes charts. It beat epic songs by Rihanna and Drake and narrowly missed topping Adele and even Gangnam Style. Away from the charts, this song sparked a global movement -- merchandise and microsites, mobile games and parodies galore. One song and one video, going crazy viral, and snowballing into something much larger than itself. And while none of that seems all that surprising in our digital world today, when you learn about who created this song -- and the insanity that ensued -- it'll seem like pure insanity.

You might even call it ... Unthinkable.

LINKS TO KNOW:

The DWTD website

DWTD on YouTube

Watch the original DWTD video here:

Posted on November 12, 2017 and filed under EPISODES.

The Problem with Marketing Is Not You (Seriously: An Imaginary Person Named "Not You")

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This is an updated excerpt from the Unthinkable newsletter. Every Monday, get one story or idea about trusting intuition to do better work. There are enough "best practices." It's time we did better than average stuff in this industry. Subscribe here.

I need to say I'm sorry for something. So here goes...

I'm sorry I focused so much of my time lately on serving Not You.

Not You is this ghostlike idea of audience growth. Not You is who I turn to when people ask how big my show is. Not You is kinda like You, but more of You. NotYou adds commas to metrics -- metrics that mean who-really-knows-what.

I've been focusing too much of my time on serving Not You. And not You. And that is totally wrong.

I'm sorry.


Here are just a few ways I've focused on serving Not You lately:

  • I stopped doing 1:1 video calls with You, preferring instead to spend that time promoting the show to Not You. (I remedied that with my signup sheet a few weeks ago. I'll be sharing another soon.)
  • I hesitated to switch to seasons, even though I knew it would improve show quality, for the stupid fact that Apple Podcasts favors weekly publishing over periodic publishing, thus ranking a show for Not You to see. (I made the call to use seasons on September 1.)
  • I scaled back my search for better stories to share with You, hunting instead for promotional tactics to increase the show's reach to Not You. (I spent all of October fixing this, banking 29 new story leads to research.)
  • And worst of all, I've been holding back a few completed episodes from You, because I thought I'd instead release all seven at once to get the biggest "pop" -- a pop so big that Not You would notice.

But who cares if I reach Not You? Who cares if Apple dings me? Who cares if I release episodes on an ad-hoc basis? Who cares, so long as You love the show?

I cared. Ugh...

I've been focusing too much of my time on serving Not You. And not You. And that is totally wrong.

I'm sorry.


I think my problem is that I had my priorities straight. Yup. Straight. My priorities matched some kind of imaginary, logical, linear list that, if used, will create some kind of imaginary, logical, linear growth. But great things happen crooked. So I better have priorities to match.

I'll be focusing too much of my time on serving You. Instead of Not You. Because that feels totally right.

I'm excited.


Starting now, I get my priorities crooked. I promise to invest an irrational, lopsided amount of time serving You, instead of Not You. If someone I admire in marketing says to me, "Jay, seriously, it's a nice idea, but you really need to care more about show distribution and growth," then I'll know I'm on the right path. After all, Not You isn't real. Not You will never not be anything but a non-existent thing. (Wait a sec... counting the negatives in that sentence... OK, I think I got it right.)

But You? You are very much real. And You are real great! You support the show. You help me improve it. You care about the mission. You rally others to join this mission.

You're bothered by suck. You care about craft. You can't stand commodity work, question best practices, and trust your intuition.

Alllllll those great things ... are things You do. Not Not You.

Thank You. Or, rather, Thank God For You.

I've been focusing too much of my time on serving Not You. And not You. Starting today, it's all about You. Not Not You.

(Err... You know what I mean...)

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Posted on November 8, 2017 and filed under IDEAS.

UNTHINKABLE: Scott Stratten's Got a Mean Man Bun and a Must-Hear Message

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Scott Stratten looks every part a blacksmith. He's mastered a rare craft in our digital world today, but make no mistake -- he's a master craftsman. And while he may not work with any type of metal, he still forges his work with red hot fire.

It’s Unthinkable.

LINKS TO KNOW:

Scott on Twitter

Scott's website, Unmarketing

Scott's podcast, the Unpodcast (shouts to fellow Un-names!)

Posted on November 5, 2017 and filed under EPISODES.

UNTHINKABLE: Grado Labs' Hand-Built Headphones Are Just the Tip of Their Iceberg

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If there was a Yelp listing for every industry niche, “Headphone Brand” would appear with the most possible dollar signs.

Big brands use bigger celebrities and spend some of the biggest ad budgets around to promote their products and, really, the emotion they want you to feel when you buy their products. Artists like Kendrick Lamar and Nicki Minaj, athletes like LeBron James, and brands like Apple, Sony, Bose, and more, all slug it out to deliver the same message in increasingly expensive ways: “These headphones are the best.”

This is a flashy, fast-paced industry niche.

So what in the heck do we make of Grado Labs?

In 1918, a Sicilian immigrant purchased a small building on a nondescript block in Brooklyn. Over nearly a century ago, while the world around this building changed at breakneck speed, the world inside plodded along. It was one kind of business, and then, gradually, another. It was led by one generation of Grado, and then, gradually, another.

They don’t advertise, not one cent. They don’t upgrade much, using the same old equipment in the same old building. And they even make their headphones by hand.

So why are they such a success in the digital age?

It’s Unthinkable.

Posted on November 5, 2017 and filed under EPISODES.

The Biggest Mental Barrier Blocking More Creative Thinking

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This is an excerpt from my weekly newsletter exploring the use of intuition at work. What does it take to trust our own creative abilities instead of yet another "best practice"? If you're bothered by commodity work, join the weekly journey here.

Last week, we explored a question: What is our "context"? We can use the details of our own situation to set up a sort of funnel, through which we can find clarity from confusion. So what's that funnel made of? We talked about the three distinct parts to your context, and why they're so crucial to understand if the goal is trusting our intuition.

If you missed that, go back and read it here. Today, as promised last time, we're knocking down a mental barrier in order to better investigate our context to find answers and ideas.

Now, admittedly, I wrote something last week that could be in the running for this year's Most Obvious Written Statement Award -- a glorious night where I dress my dog in a tux and hand myself a bottle of bourbon while a string quartet plays me out of my apartment. (#tradition)

Here's what I wrote: 

No two [situations] are exactly the same.

That bourbon is as good as mine! Because, uh, YEAH, no kidding. Every situation is at least sliiiiightly different than the rest. Duh. (Do we still say "duh"? I don't care. That statement was so obvious, I'm bringing it back just this once.)

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My point was, those sliiiight differences actually make ALL THE DIFFERENCE. Unfortunately, we have this mental barrier that's been built up over time that must come down before we can really see our situation as unique and find our answers within that uniqueness.

The problem isn't that we believe our context is identical to others. The problem is how we locate the differences. So let's first smash down that wall blocking our view. That wall is made up of two issues: We only notice differences that are OBVIOUS ... and we only point to differences as EXCUSES.

We're getting too theoretical though. Here's what I mean...

The Mental Barrier: Noticing differences that are OBVIOUS and using them as EXCUSES.

We rather easily point to our situation is different when those differences are superficial. We're shallow in our understanding of what makes our context unique.

My friend Carla Johnson calls this “Brand Detachment Disorder.” As a speaker, I'm hyper sensitive to this disorder (which we all have). If I stand on a stage and present a bunch of B2C examples to a room full of B2B brands, well, I run the risk of people's BDO kicking in and them saying, "But we're in B2B. That's different than B2C."

Yes. Understood. Citing examples that are B2B versus B2C, or old versus new, or large brands instead of small businesses -- all of these are obvious, superficial-layer things that we notice and say, "But my context is different."

This type of disassociation happens with all three pieces of our context -- pieces we established in the newsletter last week:

  • YOU: When comparing our work to other people we admire, we we think, “...but I'M not HER.” 
  • CUSTOMERS: When watching businesses thrive in different industries or stages of growth, we say, “…but OUR customers/clients aren’t like THEIRS.”
  • RESOURCES: When given lessons from outlier success stories, like the Apples of the world, we respond, “...but OUR budget …but OUR team …but OUR numbers…”

We do this quickly and confidently because the other thing is obviouslydifferent than our version of that thing. We’d much prefer that a speaker, for example, share case studies that more closely match our own. Because their situation is "just like ours."

But, of course, it’s not. Some other company that seems similar to you still has a unique context compared to your own. They could be a direct competitor who poached half your team and set up shop just down the street. EVERY context is different from others. The problem, however, is that the differences aren't always so obvious. But if we spend more time finding those subtle differences, we can use them as a kind of filter through which we can more quickly vet all that information out there, from best practices to new ideas. The less obvious difference might be THE difference between being average and exceptional.

I'm reminded of the story of Mike Brown, founder of Death Wish Coffee. 

In the episode “Best Practices,” he studied his competitors and talked to a bunch of experts to try and turn his struggling business around. His situation looked just like others … on the surface. But when he dug deeper and hunted for the less obvious differences — differences in himself, his customers, and his resources — he started making better decisions, faster. He found clarity by trusting his intuition, and he only trusted it because he knew his context.

To cite one example -- his customers -- Mike realized that most coffee shops sell to people who enjoy sitting down and sipping artisanal coffee. But Mike's customers were mostly transactional in how they drank their cups. They were truck drivers, construction workers, entrepreneurs, and other hard-chargers. This one small realization radically changed the course of his business, as Mike began to use a type of coffee that other shops would never, ever touch. Today, he runs a thriving coffee empire! (You can find his story here.)

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So, yeah, from the outside looking in, it's crazy what Mike decided to do -- because the differences aren't so obvious. But then you understand Mike's context and think, "Huh! That actually seems pretty logical."

So that’s the first problem with our understanding of "context.” We know ours is different from others, but we stop at the obvious stuff. We fail to capitalize on the less overt differences in our work.

The next problem is that we typically only find these differences when we’re being negative. We use them as excuses.

We say, "But I’m not her. But our customers or bosses are different. But our budget. But our team. But our numbers."

What if we turned each but into an and?

What if we stopped viewing the details of our own situation as limitations and instead viewed them as assets? 

When we say, “Yeah, BUT our situation is different,” we’re making excuses. We’re pointing out reasons we can’t do something. Okay, that’s fine. We’ve identified the truth: Our situation is different. And because of those differences, we can now do ... what?

“She succeeded this way, AND I’m not her. I’m funnier! I work in a boring industry in need of some fresh air! What if I used that to my advantage?"

“They thrive in that industry doing things like THAT, AND my customers are like THIS. They respect the art less. They drink coffee as a transaction. What if I combined my insights with things I saw in other industries?” 

“They have unlimited resources, AND I don’t. I can’t hire writers. I can’t build a huge blog. What clever new ideas can I try?"

When we’re being negative, it’s all we can do stop repeating the same excuse: “BUT! BUT! BUT!” 

And to that I say: YES! They want us to follow their best practice. They want us to put the work on repeat. BUT ... our context is different in ways they can't possibly understand as well as we can.

AND ... that’s how we'll find our answers.

Posted on October 29, 2017 and filed under IDEAS.

Be Better Than Best Practices

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This is an excerpt from the weekly Unthinkable newsletter. Every Monday, I share ONE idea or story about trusting your intuition to break from conventional thinking and do better work. Subscribe here.

Last week, we explored a question: How do we find clarity faster? When faced with Advice Overload, it can be difficult to know which strategy, tactic, tool, or idea we should apply to our work. But occasionally, our intuition delivers a lightning-strike moment of clarity. What if we could generate those proactively? Could we actually control our ability to find clarity on-demand, and do so quicker and quicker over time? That’s what we explored last week. 

If you missed it, make sure you go back and read it here. Today we’re going one step further.

Remember the graphic depicting what intuition might look like? We imagined it as a funnel. By pouring information into the top, the funnel puts some pressure on whatever goes inside — like best practices — and creates a more condensed stream at the bottom. This helps us get more proactive about alllllll that information out there and find clarity, faster.

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So, what does the condensing? What puts pressure on all that information? Our context.  

Best practices can’t account for the variables of our own unique situations, and so at best, they provide approximations or estimates. They create AVERAGE work and results. And while the expert can’t possibly know the details of our situation, we certainly can. If we understood our context, we could use those details to make the best possible decisions for us, in our specific situation. And we could get increasingly skilled at doing this, until our decision-making seems almost instant -- that's the power of intuition.

The people we admire as "geniuses" seem to have that instant clarity generator in their back pocket. That's because they've honed their intuition for awhile, so what they do feels magical. But it’s not. They just understand their own context better than we do.

But now I’m wondering: What IS our context?

If we’re going to press all kinds of best practices and ideas through that funnel, then, uh … what IS the funnel? Obviously, we aren’t walking around our offices carrying a giant funnel ... into which we pour information ... by cramming our notebooks into the company blender ... with a little bit of milk ... but two percent only because I'm watching my figure...

No! (Right? If you're actually doing that, please take a selfie.) The funnel is just a hashtag metaphor. So back in the real world, what's it made of? What IS our context?
 
I think our context is made up of three parts: YOU, YOUR CUSTOMER, and YOURRESOURCES.

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Think about it: In anything you do in your career, those three things are the fundamental pieces involved. There’s always a person or a group doing the work (you), a person or a group receiving the work (customers, or perhaps gatekeepers like bosses that we’re convincing), and then there's the means for making the work happen (resources).

And no two collections of those three things are exactly the same, most especially because YOU don't exist in other situations.

Of course, we all realize this in theory. But we rarely apply it.

So, perhaps visualizing the concept of "context" will help us all view intuition as a practical thing, rather than an ephemeral moment. Right now, best practices have the edge because best practices can be documented. They can be taught. They can (and are) listified by every expert -- the good, the bad, and the "I'm pretty sure you bought your followers and I'm shocked people actually pay you" (i.e., the ugly).

The way we can put original thinking on equal footing with conventional thinking is to visualize it, then go apply it. In other words, we need to investigate the three parts of our context to find our answers, rather than search for someone else's. After all, if we do what's best in our situation, then that IS the best practice. It's just not the AVERAGE practice being shared around our industry. But who cares? We've found the best approach for our own situation.

Look, I know you want to do better work. We all want faster, bigger, and better results, however we define that word. To do that, we don't need the very best best practice. We need something BETTER. Because we aspire to DO better. 

It's time we stopped obsessing over everyone else's answers for us, and instead, asked ourselves the right questions. THAT is how you investigate your context. THAT is how you trust your intuition.

Posted on October 20, 2017 and filed under IDEAS.

UNTHINKABLE: The Incredible Insight That Turned Death Wish Coffee Into a Monster Success

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If you want to break from convention and follow your intuition, where does that leave all those best practices out there? It's so easy to follow a list or do what someone else says works. But what if best practices aren't even the best?

Go outside the echo chamber with the story of a football coach bucking the trend and finding success -- and hear why his peers STILL think he's crazy, despite mountains of data from Harvard PhDs saying otherwise.

Then, hear the story of Mike Brown and Death Wish Coffee -- and hear about the cardinal sin he committed early on that actually wound up HELPING his brand grow.

LINKS TO KNOW:

Mike Brown on Twitter

Death Wish Coffee website

Posted on October 20, 2017 and filed under EPISODES.

What Does Intuition LOOK Like? A Framework for Finding Clarity Faster

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This is an excerpt from my weekly Unthinkable newsletter, which explores intuition at work. Sick of average results and commodity content? Get weekly ideas and stories about conventional thinking and the people who dare to question it. Subscribe here.

How great are those moments where, suddenly, you just know?

The idea strikes. The answer arrives. The path forward is suddenly illuminated with floodlights and neon signs and three friends jumping up and down screaming, "THIS WAY!" ... plus that one friend who still won't stop staring at his phone. (I see you, LARRY! DON'T EXPECT AN INVITE TO BE PART OF MY NEWSLETTER STORIES NEXT TIME!)

Freaking Larry.

My point is, few things feel better than those moments where confusion suddenly gives way to clarity.

That's the power of your intuition.

Intuition is like an instant clarity generator.

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But unfortunately, it doesn't always generate that clarity when we need it most. Those moments where we suddenly know aren't consistent. More often than not, the idea DOESN'T strike, and we don't know how to make sure it does. The answer DOESN'T arrive, and we don't know how to hasten it. The floodlights are off, the neon signs are broken, and every single one of your friends is sitting next to Larry, staring at their phones. 

Freaking. Larry.

So here's my question this week: 

How do we find clarity faster?

How do we get proactive and ensure that we're in control of our intuition? Because while the world paints it as some kind of mystical muse, we've uncovered something else over the past year of the podcast: Intuition is the ability to think for yourself. It's from the Latin intuir, after all, which means "knowledge from within." 

So how do we kickstart that process of thinking for yourself? How do we turn intuition into a practical tool that we can grasp hold of and wield?

I think we visualize what it actually LOOKS like. If we did so, we could avoid the situations where we're overwhelmed or confused or at a loss for ideas and answers. We'd be able to turn to it like we too often turn to that list of 17 Tips and Tricks.

So what does intuition look like? I think it looks like a funnel:

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In the top, you can pour all kinds of information: best practices, your ideas, others' ideas, inspiration, past precedents, and more.

And then, once you do that, this funnel called intuition does what all funnels do: It turns an overwhelming dump of stuff into a controlled stream of it.

Also, THIS feels like a good time for a new, periodic feature of this newsletter:


FIND THE FIRST PRINCIPLE

CLEARING AWAY CONVENTIONAL THINKING TO SEE THE FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH UNDERNEATH

THIS WEEK: FUNNELS

According to marketers, funnels work like this:

  • Lots of stuff goes into the top (e.g., Lots of website traffic)
  • Some stuff leaks out in the middle (e.g., Some of that traffic turns into subscribers, some does not)
  • A little stuff comes out the bottom (e.g., A few subscribers turn into customers)

That's how funnels work in the world of marketers.

But I ventured deep inside the world of actual humans -- you know, for science -- and I uncovered something shocking: Funnels don't actually work like that.

Think: How many funnels leak water from the sides while a little bit arrives at the bottom? How many funnels ooze olive oil onto your hand as you pour more into the top?

Answer: None. None funnels.

It turns out, when actual humans use a funnel, THIS happens:

  • Lots of stuff goes into the top
  • The same amount of stuff comes out the bottom, but it's now in a slower, thinner stream

Funnels don't leak stuff out the sides. Funnels turn an overwhelming dump of stuff into a controlled stream of it.

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So if intuition is a funnel, then it does what funnels ACTUALLY do: 

Intuition turns a massive dump of information into a controlled stream of it.

And it's from that slower, thinner drip of information that we can find clarity faster. 

Intuition doesn't magically find clarity for you. Instead, it orders things in such a way that lets YOU find that clarity. And while we can't make sense of all the information of the Information Age all at once, we could understand it better if we put some pressure around the sides of it, like a funnel does to liquid. In other words, if we press best practices and ideas through the constraints of our own context, we might find clarity faster. And it turns out that CONTEXT is crucial to all of this for one big reason:

Your context is always missing from the expert's best practices. 

Our context is unique. THIS moment in time and THIS collection of stuff creates a singular scenario. Our context presents several variables to the equation, not least of which is our very presence in the work. 

Unfortunately, best practices don't account for those variables. So the best result we can hope for when running such a faulty equation is an approximation of the best answer, not the actual best answer.

Best practices don't actually yield the "best" result ... UNLESS we consider the variables of our context.

Next week, we'll explore how we might do exactly that.

But for this week, try something: Try taking every best practice you uncover -- your own approaches from the past, your new favorite idea from an expert, everything -- and attempt to compare/contrast the things that might be different in YOUR context compared to THEIRS. You don't need to come up with the actual right answer or best path forward, but try to understand what fundamental pieces create your context (like the one I gave you above: YOU) and how those pieces might differ or change what's been dubbed the "best practice" for a given project. 

In the end, maybe you'll find clarity faster. Let me know how that goes!

Trust your intuition. - Jay

Posted on October 18, 2017 and filed under IDEAS.

Stop Obsessing Over Best Practices

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This is an excerpt from my weekly Unthinkable newsletter, which explores intuition at work. Sick of average results and commodity content? Get weekly ideas and stories about conventional thinking and the people who dare to question it. Subscribe here.

“Yeah but how do we KNOW?”

That was a question I asked my boss a couple years ago — or, actually, one of my three bosses. This particular boss was Rob Go, one of the three co-founding partners of NextView Ventures, the seed-stage VC firm where I worked for three years as VP of Platform (content + community + marketing).

Over lunch, Rob and I were talking about the most confounding problem in the early-stage startup world: How do you know when a company is close to seeing great results?

“I’m writing a blog post about this actually,” said Rob. I glanced up from my wrap of chipotle-grilled-doesn’t-matter-because-I’ll-have-that.

“The problem,” Rob said, “is that people squint really hard to see something is sort-of working. And so they tell themselves that with a few more attempts or a bit more time, the curve will shoot up-and-to-the-right.”

“But that’s almost never the case,” I said.

“But that’s almost never the case,” he said.

I crammed the final bite of wrap into my mouth, that glorious, tightly folded flavor bomb that rockets you to the top of Sauce Mountain.

“Welp,” I said. “Now we just need to convince everyone else they’re delusional.”


The article Rob eventually wrote was titled “The Shape of Traction.” It is, to this day, the piece I share with others the most. I’ve sent this to startup founders, CMOs, content marketing managers, podcasters, agency executives, even a few friends just thinking of launching their latest video blog idea. You can find it here, and I can’t suggest it enough. (Whether you’re in the startup world or not, building a business or creating content, we can all learn a thing or three from this way of thinking.)

Now here’s the problem, and why it affects all of us, regardless of our industry or the size of our companies…

We assume we’re THISCLOSE to bigger results by doing things the way we’re doing them now.

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Buuuuuut we’re really not:

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But because we convince ourselves that the path we’re on is THISCLOSE to better things, we behave in a number of dangerous ways:

  • We keep seeing average results for longer than we should tolerate.
  • When we finally get frustrated, we look for the shortcut, hack, or tactic to copy. This leads to even more commodity work, whether by glomming onto the latest trend or following what worked for us in the past.
  • We fall victim to the HYPE CYCLE. We view buzzy approaches or technologies as our savior. We view them with outlandish expectations … adopt them for too long … get frustrated when it doesn’t work … and either resign ourselves that we can only get so-so results or assume the salesman was sleazy and their oils were snake-y.

This. Has. To. Stop.

We have to stop obsessing over best practices like they’re going to save us. We keep following these things and keep convincing ourselves that we’re THISCLOSE to getting great results.

The problem is that, while a best practice might have worked for others, they’re not working for US. And so rather than find someone else’s best practice, what if we crafted our own?

What if the goal wasn’t to continue down one path, getting fine results until somehow (magically?) it shot upward? What if the goal wasn’t to SUCCEED quickly, but to LEARN quickly? Because, let’s face it, the things we’re using to SUCCEED quickly aren’t delivering on those promises.

According to Rob, the startups that gain traction the quickest and go on to build exceptional businesses operate like this:

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They launch radically different experiments in the name of moving QUICKER and seeing BIGGER results. Instead of enduring average results for too long, they drop what’s going okay in favor of finding what could be great NOW, not someday.

Too often, our strategy seems to be to squint really hard at what we’re already doing and convince ourselves we’re doing the right thing. After all, they said this path was, indeed, right. In fact, they said it was best.

We tell ourselves we’re THISCLOSE. But if you realize you’re not, then the choice becomes clearer…

If you want to be good, follow the best practice.

If you want to be great, craft your own.

Posted on October 18, 2017 and filed under IDEAS.