Regardless of your political persuasion, you’ve likely become a more engaged citizen now than ever before, because the grand experiment has not turned out the way you thought it would. You’re either completely depressed and dejected or surprised and elated. With the Republicans on one side and the Democrats on the other, the U.S. government is really the largest A/B experiment in the world. But that’s exactly what we forget: it’s an experiment.
We think we are watching politics, but what we are really watching is an A/B test. In A/B testing, one solution wins out over another. Tests always start with a set of assumptions. Assumptions are informed by values, such as: Liberty, Equality & Self-Government. A winning result means both sides to develop and refine their processes, prompting new questions, but one solution dominates.
The shock (and surprise) being expressed right now are reminders that we got complacent with our own values, and with the grandness of the experiment. We forgot the magnitude of the opportunity and the impacts of losing liberties.
Experiments require ongoing participation. Results are never taken for granted. Living in one of the greatest experiments of our time, we have the privilege of directly participating in through voting, activism, volunteering, or dedicating our careers to a regional problem or public service.
How many of us do two or more of those things on an ongoing basis?
When we don’t have to earn our rights by fighting a war, surviving a depression, or managing a natural disaster–all of which rely on government systems–we forget our core values and take our liberties for granted. We get complacent. We begin to feel entitled to a particular outcome from the great experiment. If this occurs, it means the refinements happening are no longer. Over time, the results of the test are less and less inclusive of the whole. The test has become, in fact, rigged to one side or the other.
We are consuming reason and facts and evidence and science and feedback—en masse—more than we ever have before. Synthesizing information is a messy process. So is governing. Meaningful shifts do not come from one test. They come from thousands of tests.
The longest game we’ve had in the oval office in a very long time is being replaced by the shortest game in that office, maybe ever. And the feelings experienced across the country (and around the world) is the “quick hit” once an A/B test returned “an answer” as if it were the last answer.
We need to remember that experiments are never over. There is only more refining. Another A/B test is coming.
My focus has been to study master craftsmen. Craftsmen are innovators, working on the fridge or trade, and focused on raising standards. I look at what they do and how they think can be applied in other areas.
Craftsmen tend to work alone. They are in community with other craftsmen, but they work day in and day out by themselves. They are in the business of playing with standards and elevating them. They do this through innovation and creativity.
There is great power in groups. We all know the kinds of things we can accomplish with strong teams. But this article focuses on the trouble we can get into when craftsmen encounter groups. And I want to point to a parallel that happens with people embracing creative problem-solving, trying to push through norms, and how organizations respond.
When groups grow, they become more coherent and pull together. They start to share an identity and see things similarly. They become powerful. These qualities can build cohesiveness on the one hand, and group-think on the other.
A challenge to both the craftsmen and the groups they interact with is that individuals outside the group are trying to work with existing standards, something the group is familiar with, and create something new. This difference gets aggravated by the fact that innovations are experienced as happening out of sync.
The cliche “they were ahead of their time” comes to mind, but no one is ahead of their time. People invent in reaction to something (an event, a set of ideas, etc.). This is why we experience innovations as unpredictable.
We rarely recognize them as solutions or potential answers to a problem. We don’t know what to do with them when we see them. They make us think differently. They change the way we understand and engage the world around us. They force us to learn something new.
The virtue of any particular innovation is hard to judge until you’ve tried it.
As a result, communities often fear what they can’t understand. More often than we would like, we circle the wagons believe around our beliefs, shunning the new idea. We don’t even want to give it a try.
History shows us that bad things can happen at least temporarily and good things are lost. They are lost often at a time when they’re needed most.
This particular fire is a cautionary story and it’s an important illustration of how the issue of learning well, how we can meet challenge head-on, and predict that it’s going to happen because it happens over and over and over again throughout history.
The fire-fighting crew this group was a very heroic bunch of young men between the ages of 17 to 22. They called themselves “smoke jumpers.”The last of them recently passed in 2014. They were the first firemen to parachute from a plane into remote areas to fight forest fires. The smoke jumpers were a courageous, elite group held together by their group values, their mission, and the courage to do accomplish a difficult job. They dropped into a chaotic environment with the few resources they could carry.
It’s most important to remember for this story is that these men knew if the fire came toward them, they could find safety on the top of a ridge. A ridge provides a natural break in the line of fire.
The innovator of the story, Dodge, was older and more experienced than the group. He could do everything the smoke jumpers could, but better. He had a great reputation and a lot of experience. He was also a reticent, quiet man. He took care of everything in the base camps. But he wasn’t one of them.
The day of the fire, he was their Foreman. They didn’t know him personally and it was the first time he had actually led them as a group. Left in the afternoon to meet the fire and they were on the ground fighting by five o’clock. We know because they found a watch that was melted indicating the fire confronted them 59 minutes later at 5:59. The incident happened in a very short period of time.
This is a familiar dynamic between communities and innovator.
In a crisis or pressure-filled experience, it’s never time that matters,
it’s the certainty with which we hold our views that seems to make a difference.
When they saw this fire the innovator saw one thing, and the group saw another. The kids saw something they could conquer they could tame. They referred to such fires as “ten o’clock fires” and laughed about them. But Dodge saw the fire and saw something different. He saw a fire that was about to explode and get out of control. He tried to move the group down toward a river that ran through the center of the fire, where they could safely fight the fire within relative safety. They would be able to exit through the river.
But the wind was so strong grass just burst into flame between them and the river and they were trapped. He told them to run. At this point, their only option was uphill, against a fire traveling 100 yards a minute. This was a race they would not win.
At that moment, he did something that at the time that no one had ever done before. He took a pack of matches out of his pocket, turned toward the fire, and lit a ring around himself. He had invented what is now called an escape fire. It is something that every forest firefighter has been educated in today and has saved many many lives since.
The term now means….
escape fire noun, \is-’kāp\’fī(-ə)r\
a swath of grassland or forest intentionally ignited in order to provide shelter from an oncoming blaze.
an improvised, effective solution to a crisis that cannot be solved using traditional approaches.
The fire was approaching fast. He called to his men and said to them, “Step with me into this fire.”
The team was running as their training had instructed them to do. Fifteen smoke jumpers ran for the ridge because that was the knowledge that they could rely on. But Dodge took his canteen out, watered a cloth for this face, knelt in the ashes, and laid down in the ashes of the fire he had burned. The fire burned over him. Other firefighters found a lucky pile of stone. But the fire caught the rest of the men.
Dodge, the foreman, survived the fire by staying in the circle he had burned in the grass. Two more made it to the top of the ridge, only to watch ten members of their team fall to the fire. Two more died the next day in a hospital. All but one died of smoke inhalation.
This is a sad story and I don’t tell it to make you feel sad. However, this urgency of communication and influencing between innovator and group is one that breaks down all the time. You only have to look back through history:
the first time we were told the earth is flat;
the first time someone said microscopic things are responsible for disease
the first time someone said vehicles can go underwater, through the sky, and into space
the first time someone said a computer could fit in our pocket
first time Lady Gaga said I’m going to be a rock and star Idol
Whenever groups come together, they have common beliefs and their identity is preserved by them holding on to those beliefs. Innovators need to understand that when they are calling people to come with them to a new idea
they’re inviting them into an unproven fire.
No one knows if someone says “I have the greatest idea in the world” if it’s going to work or if it’s going to be a disaster until effort happens. I think in every group we have to ask questions and assign mechanisms that allow us to be open to ideas we haven’t anticipated.
As innovators, we have to find better ways to communicate and accept new ideas while maintaining our relationships. There have to be better ways to pool ideas and share resources in times of stress.
I know that was an intense story, but I want you to think about how you go through your day and interact with others when you are a member of a community that is holding to beliefs, or an innovator approaching a problem from the outside-in.
You are both. You are going to be in communities that you’re working hard to build and you’re a creative innovator that has ideas that people around you will not understand. So the question that we all need to answer for ourselves, and it’s a different answer for everyone, is:
what is the one thing you can do if you’re a member of a community
to see what’s possible when what is presented
is something you don’t understand?
when you take the role of innovator
and you are telling someone what is possible,
and sharing how you see differently or more effectively?
In the end, learning new ideas, and really being able to try them on when it counts, is the way we move forward. It’s about getting over our own anxiety. Change is not the problem. I’m not entirely convinced that we even mind failure so much.
The problem for most of us is fear of deviating from a leading strategy.
The people in our circles of influence set our standards, what we vision for ourselves, and how we approach change.
Given the impact our peers have on us, it’s surprising to me that we select our them based on proximity.
Relationships are not necessarily formed people who have similar personalities and interests. It’s the people you literally sit next to, work with, or live near. Whom we find ourselves mingling with can have enormous implications. As Jim Rohn has wisely said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Similarly, international public speaker Portor Gale believes your social capital, or your ability to build a network of authentic personal and professional relationships, not your financial capital, is the most important asset in your portfolio. She wrote a book about it: “Your network is your net worth.”
Like the frog in a pot of slowly boiling water, we adapt to whatever environment we find ourselves. We have what psychologists call an “external locus of control,” where we believe factors outside of us dictate the direction of our lives. Thus, we live reactively to whatever life throws at us.
Who is in your smallest circle? How did they get there? Was it intentional or because they were close by? Do these people raise your game? Or, do they hold you back?
If you want to move forward in your life or career, you need to surround yourself with people who have higher standards than you do. Life is a reflection of what you deem permissible. You embrace what you are willing to tolerate. Personal experience shows us that most people will stay in unhealthy relationships for too long, nurse poor finances, and endure jobs they hate. If those things were tolerated, they wouldn’t be in our lives.
Recently, I’ve been working on a book. I had gotten it to a level I was comfortable sharing it out. I shared it with friends asking for feedback and got a few comments here and there. I took a writing class and in every draft, my teacher shows me why and how it could be 10x better, and she holds me to that standard.
Versions I was previously satisfied with now make me cringe. Were my standards that much lower than my writing teacher’s standards? At the time, yes. As she helped me raise my game, my standards increased too. Feedback is a wonderful gift.
The same thing happened during my doctorate research. I sent my advisor a paper I thought was good and he found it unreadable. He challenged me to rethink my outline, always centering me with the question, “what is the story I’m trying to tell?” His questioning forced me to continue to think deeper and deeper on my topic. It was challenging and even frustrating, but it made me better.
This kind of dynamic isn’t just for working relationships. What about your romantic partner? Do they help you rethink your standard for what is possible? Do they help you become a better person? Do they challenge you to think differently? Do you help them?
Generally speaking, at any given time, a small part of your group is moving forward, the rest mimic whoever they are around at the time (we want to fit in), and the rest are moving backward. I didn’t make that up, it’s the old 80/20 rule from economics.
The principle was suggested by management thinker Joseph M. Juran. It was named after the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who observed that 80% of income in Italy was received by 20% of the Italian population. The assumption is that most of the results in any situation are determined by a small number of causes.
Because we reflect on those around us, it’s important to take stock of who is in our circle and what standards they have. If they drop, we drop. If they raise, we raise. That is why phrases like “rising tides raise all boats” or “better together” are used to describe efforts of raising everyone in a corporate culture, or society at large.
There are people in your life that just by being around them have increased your thinking, creativity, and energy. Those are the kinds of people you need to reach out and collect. Those are the kinds of people you need to be more like yourself so that you are an example to others just by being around you.
The standards you embrace for your life and work are set by what kind of life you want for yourself. You determine what is permissible. You define a quality life and the quality of your work. If you’re fine coasting than those around you coast as well.
If you want to raise your game, you have to find the better players and learn from them. Change your circles, change what and how you learn.
The talent and “potential” you were born with are irrelevant, especially if they don’t help you realize it. We all know people in our lives with unfulfilled potential. Don’t let that be you.
The people in our circles of influence set our standards, what we vision for ourselves, and how we approach change. This fact is undeniable.
The question is: what are you going to do about it?
Carla Harris, Vice Chairman and Managing Director at Morgan Stanley, discusses the importance of Relationship Currency in your career as a keynote speaker at this year’s Judson Women’s Leadership Conference.
“Invest in relationships in your environment if you want to ascend to higher and higher levels”, advises Carla Harris, Vice Chairman at Morgan Stanley. Listen to Carla’s advice on how building “relationship currency” is a game-changing investment in your success.
Steven Pressfield had called himself an author for years, but he’d never actually finished a book. I wonder if that made him feel smug because he thought of himself as an author.
But the psychological pain of not producing kept building until he couldn’t stand it anymore. He decided to finally beat that devil he calls “The Resistance”.
He created a situation with no escape. Rented a cabin with only a typewriter, and shut off all other options. In his book Turning Pro, he writes:
“I had a book in mind and I had decided I would finish it or kill myself. I could not run away again, or let people down again, or let myself down again. This was it, do or die.”
“I didn’t talk to anybody during that year. I didn’t hang out. I had no TV, no radio, no music. No sex, no sports. I didn’t read the newspaper. I just worked.”
After an incredibly difficult year of wrestling with those inner demons and avoiding all temptations, he did it. He finished his first book. It wasn’t a success, but it didn’t matter. He had finally beaten The Resistance. He went on to write many successful novels.
He told this story in the great book “Turning Pro”, the third in his series of little books about the creative struggle, including “The War of Art” and “Do the Work”. Read all three.
When I read it in 2015, my own psychological pain of not producing had built up to an unbearable level. I had announced my first book but never finished publishing it. I attempted it many times, but each time I completed a version, I was overwhelmed by the publishing costs (just to get seen). I didn’t want it to be a vanity book. I wanted it to matter.
To make it worse, I was on the heels of graduate school, with a lot of pressure to start making a more steady income and start paying down mounting student debt.
To get to a version I felt warranted an editor, I did shut off all other options. Time to finish what I started.
I looked for work, but I said no to all requests. It’s not the nicest mantra, saying no, no, no all day, but it strengthened my sense of mission. I made a decision to stop deciding. I made one decision, in advance, to answer to all future things is “no” until I finished what I had started. It’s saying yes to one thing, and no to absolutely everything else.
In the beginning, when you are first learning, my advice is to assume nobody is coming. Sometimes, it is more useful to assume that it’s all up to you. This is not being negative. It’s about learning to manage the emotions that come up around early failure: frustration, boredom, depression. Self-management is an invaluable skill.
There may be times you will come out of tough, challenging situations requiring great reserves of strength, like when Aron Ralston got trapped in a remote canyon for five days. He had to cut off his own arm to escape because he knew nobody would rescue him. They made a movie about it called “127 Hours”. If he believed that someone would come, he would have just waited. But because he knew it was entirely up to him, he rescued himself.
When you assume nobody is going to help, you have to use all of your strength and resources. You don’t hesitate to experiment. You can’t wait, because there’s nobody to wait for. It keeps your focus on the things in your control — not outside circumstances. It’s productive pessimism.
Aron’s lesson of extreme independence also made him confront his hubris in going it alone. Knowing how to connect with others, be part of a group, and when to ask for help are equally important life skills. They force you to empathize and to learn through vulnerability. Strive to work with the best collaborators, stakeholders, leaders, etc.
But never count on their help. That’s the difference. Again, it’s about managing the tension of independence and interdependence.
Then, when someone does help you, you’ll be more focused with how you connect.