Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Just Because You Can?

Just because you can sell something doesn't mean you should.

But I suppose that as long as there are a couple of people that will pay for it, there will generally be a couple of people selling it.

Recently I was in the market for a car. For most of us, that means we need to think about what it is that we are really buying. I know ultimately we are buying a means of transportation, but it certainly must be about more than that. Which, I think, is really strange considering how much money we are actually putting into it.

You ever wonder why SUVs were so popular, that is until gas became more expensive than having kids? Roughing it, for many SUV owners, is going to a Holiday Inn. Camping? Out of the question - there are icky things like bugs out there, and you might get dirty. Actually using the 4-wheel drive? Well, they do drive in the snow maybe 10 out of the 365 days of the year. Maybe.

Buying In (p 49) says you bought in:

One reason SUVs became so popular is that they felt so safe: all that metal surrounding you as you towered over the punier cars all around. But of course, the data show rather convincingly that SUVs are far less safe than smaller cars. (And in fact, the feeling of safety may contribute to this, by lulling drivers into carelessness.) Before you blame this on big companies victimizing helpless, passive consumers from the old days before the recent revolution that gave us the power to hold them accountable, it's worth noting that journalist Keith Bradsher tells a somewhat different story in his definitive book on the SUV phenomenon, "High And Mighty." The SUV evolved largely in response to research into what consumers wanted and to what succeeded in the market. Carmakers conducted massive and detailed surveys, involving tens of thousands of consumers and research efforts "backed up by many interviews with consumers in focus groups," on a scale that dwarfed such efforts by politicians or media outlets. Consumers wanted four-wheel drive even though hardly any used it; they wanted to sit high in the vehicle because it felt safe, even though it wasn't. Auto executives seem to have been perplexed by and the engineers almost comtemptuous of what consumers wanted - but of courrse, they sold it to them anyway and in fact crafted advertising that played directly to consumers' dissonant desires.

My favorite car that I have owned was a Jeep Wrangler with a soft top. I loved that car. For the ten years that I owned it, it went on beaches, dirt roads, no roads, through the rain, and almost all of that with the top off (including the rain). It was a sad day when we traded it in. On that day, I realized that I was now truly domesticated: we traded it in for a minivan. A few years later I tried to regain my manhood by buying a motorcycle. I supposed it worked; that is what I called the stitches I received from laying it over once.

But my tastes are changing somewhat. Although I craved getting the 4-door version of the Wrangler, gas prices are making me aware of how much money I'm leaving on the roads, and my brain has turned a shade greener over the years. We went just about as functional as I can imagine: a Honda Fit. It's cheap, it has great gas mileage, and it will last long enough until an electric version of the Wrangler is available...


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Friday, August 22, 2008

How Women Work

This link purports to explain women. Never fear, it is not 900 pages long. Not that it is the final answer, but it does give a little scientific data on the feminine half of the population. And really, guys, don't expect scientific data to help explain what's going on in their heads. But at least its a conversation starter: "How has your amygdala being working these days?"


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Thursday, August 21, 2008

What Are You Looking For?

What is it that you really want in life? My friend Richard Beck thinks that you can look at pretty popular books and get a pretty good read on the populace. I think he makes a pretty good point as he reviews the book Your Best Life Now.

Dr. Beck is an experimental psychologist who teaches at the university from which I received my Master's degree. Besides being pretty stinkin' smart, he's also just fun to be around.

We have minds that hike along negative and neurotic trails when it gets a few quiet moments. But would our minds do that if we didn't have billions of dollars of marketing all around us constantly telling us that we should be dissatisfied with life? Probably, because you would still have neighbors, friends, and even family around you.

So what should you be satisfied with? And when should you work against the status quo? Making a list might make it easier to get up in the morning, ready for a content life that is still challenging.


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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Word Shamus

I would like to examine a new word. Well, it's not really a new word. But I would like to reexamine the word "Yes" because I'm not sure it means what it used to. And also because I really like the word "shamus."

"No," I believe, is still pretty concrete in its meaning. Although we might not like to hear it, I think we still pretty much know what it means when we say it.

Amazingly, there was more than one entry on the definition of "yes" on I thought "an affirmative reply" would pretty much sum it up, but I should have known that it would need more than one line to let us know what it means. Fortunately for us, (the fount of all knowledge) gives the additional information that it is the opposite of "no."

So, now that we have that cleared up, why do so many people have such a problem with saying "yes" and really meaning it? As in: "Will you do this?" and the reply: "Yes" ... "I'm getting to it" ... "I really meant to."

If you mean yes, really mean yes. Don't capitulate, don't mean maybe, don't pinky-swear or on your mother's grave. Say "yes" and do it. That might mean you really need to pause before you answer, you might need to think about your schedule or if your pet needs a bath or whatever it is you got going on. And really think about this - don't just say "yes" because you think we really want to hear it. I'd rather here "no, thank you" than "yes" and later be disappointed.

Are there some "yes"'s that you need to get done? Are there some "yes"'s that you've been putting off? Don't just do it for them, do it for you. To be that better you that everyone can count on.

A bold but reassuring synonym for "yes"? "Undoubtedly"


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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Nobody Knows Nothing

This may sound strange, but a bad place to be in is when things are easy.

Granted, a bad place to be in is when things are going wrong and when things are breaking, especially if you were the one that is the cause of the break. But if something is going wrong or is breaking, or for example when someone or some group is going through a period of anomie, then something new or something better was needed anyway.

Those are usually the times when our creativity and energy are the highest, when we perform the best. If you don't crack under the pressure.

In the article "Innovative Minds Don't Think Alike," Janet Rae-Dupree speaks of the dangers of actually thinking you know what you are doing, that you've got this one down pat. You enter a state when change becomes difficult because "Why break something that isn't broken?"

The danger is that something that is working pretty well doesn't stay that way for long. But when we are doing something pretty well, we get in this mode of static thinking - it will stay this way forever. Why shouldn't it? Meanwhile, the world moves on without us.

Take for example the horse and cart. There were people who had developed some pretty nice ones. When you've got one this good, why take risks on trying anything new?

But businesses and churches do this all the time. It is hard to move people from comfortable. But you don't grow in the big comfy seat - you become a couch potato.

Andrew S. Grove, the co-founder of Intel, put it well in 2005 when he told an interviewer from Fortune, “When everybody knows that something is so, it means that 'nobody knows nothin’.” In other words, it becomes nearly impossible to look beyond what you know and think outside the box you’ve built around yourself.

This so-called curse of knowledge, a phrase used in a 1989 paper in The Journal of Political Economy, means that once you’ve become an expert in a particular subject, it’s hard to imagine not knowing what you do. Your conversations with others in the field are peppered with catch phrases and jargon that are foreign to the uninitiated. When it’s time to accomplish a task — open a store, build a house, buy new cash registers, sell insurance — those in the know get it done the way it has always been done, stifling innovation as they barrel along the well-worn path.

The groove is on the other side of easy - when you are being challenged to grow and learn again.


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Monday, August 18, 2008


Sometimes, it is a good thing to walk in someone else's shoes. Yesterday I did that literally as I played two-on-two beach volleyball with some friends. I came back sunburned, aching, and with a mouth full of sand. It was fun, but I'm not quitting my day job to train for any summer Olympic sports. Maybe I could be ready for curling by the time the winter Olympics get here...


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Friday, August 15, 2008

Zero Gravity Thinkers

Are you stuck in a rut? Do you find yourself doing the same things over and over again, or are you struggling to find a new solution that seems to evade you?

We often think that innovation comes from those creative types that sit around throwing pencils at the ceiling most of the time, but every once in a while some moment of brilliance happens. Well, that scenario is probably true, but anyone can be part of the innovation process.

Where can you begin? By asking questions. Usually, just starting to ask questions can be a good start,but these kind of questions can get you down the right path.

In the article from a previous post, the author writes about this point:

In her 2006 book, “Innovation Killer: How What We Know Limits What We Can Imagine — and What Smart Companies Are Doing About It,” Cynthia Barton Rabe proposes bringing in outsiders whom she calls zero-gravity thinkers to keep creativity and innovation on track.
“I would ask my very, very basic questions,” she said, noting that it frustrated some of the people who didn’t know her. Once they got past that point, however, “it always turned out that we could come up with some terrific ideas,” she said.

While Ms. Rabe usually worked inside the companies she discussed in her book, she said outside consultants could also serve the zero-gravity role, but only if their expertise was not identical to that of the group already working on the project.
“Look for people with renaissance-thinker tendencies, who’ve done work in a related area but not in your specific field,” she says. “Make it possible for someone who doesn’t report directly to that area to come in and say the emperor has no clothes.”
Sometimes, we are our own problem. Past success usually means future stalemate, because the future is dynamic yet it is hard for us to let go of something that has worked for us previously.

Ask basic, simple questions that you think are probably petty and beneath you, and then start writing down answers or more questions. Ask other people, especially people outside of your organization. You might be amazed at the new paths that open up in front of you.


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Thursday, August 14, 2008

What Is That You Are Tapping?

Do you think that your point is getting across? Communication is much more difficult that we think it is or should be - like trying to throw a baseball to someone in a thick fog, all the while you think it is only a cloudy day.

In a nice article from Janet Rae-Dupree titled "Innovative Minds Don't Think Alike," she has this paragraph:

Elizabeth Newton, a psychologist, conducted an experiment on the curse of knowledge while working on her doctorate at Stanford in 1990. She gave one set of people, called “tappers,” a list of commonly known songs from which to choose. Their task was to rap their knuckles on a tabletop to the rhythm of the chosen tune as they thought about it in their heads. A second set of people, called “listeners,” were asked to name the songs.
Before the experiment began, the tappers were asked how often they believed that the listeners would name the songs correctly. On average, tappers expected listeners to get it right about half the time. In the end, however, listeners guessed only 3 of 120 songs tapped out, or 2.5 percent.
The tappers were astounded. The song was so clear in their minds; how could the listeners not “hear” it in their taps?

I am a professional speaker, so this catches my attention like a wild cat high on catnip being thrown in my face. But it should be relevant to anyone that has to communicate at all - teachers, business people, stay at home moms, people in any kind of relationship, etc.

I know what I am trying to communicate, but what I see in my mind has connections, both conscious and unconscious, to my life experiences and thoughts in a complex web. When I am brave enough to ask for feedback from people in the audience, what they heard connected in some way to an experience or thought that they had. It may go in the same general direction that I was thinking, but it may not. Which is ok. For my own purpose, getting people to think and ask questions is better than getting people to agree with me.

In future posts we will explore ways to make communication clearer, but in the meantime a healthy dose of realism about communication can keep your feelings from getting hurt and assumptions realigned.


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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Baby Fascination

Last week my brother, his wife, and their baby came to visit. While they were here we went to the Pittsburgh Zoo. At the zoo we showed my baby niece the baby tiger cub and two baby elephants. It was baby day for the Vaughts at the zoo!

Everybody waits in lines to see these babies. People seem to have a natural baby fascination.

So what is it about them that is really that fascinating? You always hear comments such as: "Awww, isn't that the cutest little thing!" Really? Have you really taken a long, close look at a baby hippo? They look like a 5 year-old went crazy with some clay. And while you're at, have you taken good luck at a baby of any kind? C'mon, they really aren't that great. And newborn humans look more like E.T. from the Spielberg movie than a miniature adult.

My personal opinion? It's the newness. It's a visual reminder of the mystery and beauty of life.

While we were watching the tiger club play with a trainer, everyone was snapping photos of this new creature frolicking around, playing and having a good time. We love that. We love their curiosity, their fresh eyes, and their playfulness.

At the same token, we love those aspects in all ages. We love being around others who are curious, who have fresh eyes, and who are playful and fun. But those characteristics are so easy to lose, it is so easy to get into a rut and just plod your way around. But you don't have to. So take your cue from a cute little tiger cub - enjoy today, be curious, and see life with some fresh eyes today.


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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Desire Code

I have been posting thoughts as I go through the book Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are. This week I would like to examine his idea of what he terms the "desire code." And no, it's not about whatever just popped into your head.

Rob Walker states that there is a fundamental tension between two desires that is shared by almost every human being:

  • We all want to feel like individuals.
  • We all want to feel like a part of something bigger than ourselves.

How we generally resolve the tension is by joining a group that seems distinctive because it represents our own individuality. Yet it is still a group. But it makes us feel important as an individual. I hope you get the picture.

He uses the story of skateboarders, who felt like they were outsiders and started forming groups. These groups provided a distinctive identity that made them feel good as an individual but also gave them a group of friends and a network of like-minded people.

I know as I read those two bullet points, I was like "Yeah, I want to feel like I'm unique and not just a part of the Borg. The last thing I want to feel like is some statistic that represents the average Joe (sorry Joe) that gets lost in the crowd. Forget Where's Waldo - where's John?" And then, "Man, I don't want to do this by myself. I kind of like people, especially when they aren't annoying me."

Walker's point is that in an age in which there is very little qualitative difference between products, brands help provide that connection with distinctive groups and identities that we wish to be a part of. As we do so, we also help interpret and create the identity, and the identity can can evolve beyond the control of the people who produced the product.

What I would like to ponder is the identity that I am pursuing. It certainly isn't a linear or singular identity - life if far more complex than that. But am I happy with the my own personal brand that people identify with me, or am I just settling for a common denominator that surrounds me?

There is a game called Imaginiff that is quite fun. You and your friends write down the names of people on the board, and when it is time for that name to be used, a card is drawn and something like this is read:

"Imaginiff ______ were a breakfast. What would she/he be?"
1. coffee and the wall street journal,
2. muesli and fruit,
3. croissant and cafe latte,
4. sausages, bacon, and eggs,
5. vitamin b injections,
6. pancakes.

Then everybody who is playing chooses the number that corresponds to what they think ___________ is, and put it upside down on the table. When everyone decides, you flip them over to see which one got the most votes.

So what if you emailed your friends and asked, "Imaginiff I was a brand. What brand would I be?"

I think it might be good to go shopping every once in a while to see if there might be a better brand, maybe an upgrade. Go for the best quality brand that you can be.


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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Tragedy of the Commons

Have you heard of the "Tragedy of the Commons"? As I understand it, it was first described by biologist Garrett Hardin. The cartoon basically describes the situation (if someone can tell me where the cartoon came from, I'll give them credit).

The basic situation is that if any one of the four shepherds chooses to be the nice guy and only stick with his 4 sheep, or only let his 4 sheep graze on equal grass, then he will feel trapped thinking that maybe one of the other shepherds might take more. It is a way of thinking that encourages you to take while you can, because no one else is going to.

This explains why we would make decisions that we know would ultimately hurt others, and thus ourselves. We know that we are relational creatures, yet we constantly make decisions that harm those relations - and thus, ultimately ourselves. Because sometimes we get the mistaken illusion that sometimes, someone else should sacrifice or get out of the way so that I can prosper. But it never works that way.

I think the Tragedy of the Commons is a common reality, but that is not the way that life has to work. When you realize that being a Giver rather than a Taker provides for everyone, then we all prosper. But you have to trust, and you have to give first.


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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Last Batman Post, Ever

At least, until maybe the next movie comes out. I just saw it in Imax with my brother and his wife, and the Imax version was amazing.

So, here is another conversation that fascinated me. Especially since I have a talk coming up about how we must be careful about making plans for the future:

The Joker: [speaking to Harvey] Do I really look like a man with a plan, Harvey? I don't have a plan. The mob has plans, the cops have plans. You know what I am, Harvey? I'm a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do if I caught one. I just *do* things. I'm a wrench in the gears. I *hate* plans. Yours, theirs, everyone's. Maroni has plans. Gordon has plans. Schemers trying to control their worlds. I am not a schemer. I show schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are. So when I say that what happened to you and your girlfriend wasn't personal, you know I'm telling the truth.
[hands Dent a gun]
The Joker: It's a schemer who put you where you are. You were a schemer. You had plans. Look where it got you. I just did what I do best-I took your plan and turned it on itself. Look what I have done to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple bullets. Nobody panics when the expected people get killed. Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plans are horrifying. If I tell the press that tomorrow a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will get blown up, nobody panics. But when I say one little old mayor will die, everyone loses their minds! Introduce a little anarchy, you upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I am an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos, Harvey? It's fair.

He is right: it is pathetic how much we try to control things. Our relationships. Our time. Control over our environment. You name it.

There is just something in the human person that gets antzy about the thought that there is mystery totally surrounding us at all times. We try so hard to peer into the fog of the future, get it wrong constantly, fail miserably, and just keep trying. These are just an amazing small sample:

  • "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." - - Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977
  • "This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us." - - Western Union internal memo, 1876.
  • "The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?" -- David Sarnoff's associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s.

We worry and stress about ridiculous stuff of which the vast majority of never happens. Frustration is basically the realization that you don't have control. Realize it now, and maybe you save yourself some trouble - but it means being ok with mystery.


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What's Your Take On My "Conversation With Stuff"?

In reference to this post, I am providing a list of the stuff that I bought over the last week:

  • breakfast at Panera's with a friend
  • dinner at Bob Evans (chicken-fried steak)
  • a Gameboy Advance used game for my youngest son (in exchange for work that he did)
  • 2 disc golf frisbees (one is tie-die, if that helps)
  • a custard and icee mix at Rita's with the fam
  • dinner at Denny's (I was there for 3 hours late at night finishing a talk; they are one of the few local places that are open 24/7)
  • Dunkin' Donuts on the way to church
  • the book The Thousand Faces Of A Hero
That is pretty much standard fare for purchases. I rarely buy clothes, although I do need to get a pair of jeans. Even when I do that, it is the exact same brand and style that I've been buying for the last two decades.

It could be a little more exciting, like maybe tickets to New Zealand or scuba gear. I am planning on doing sky diving for my birthday, so it's not completely boring. Track your expenses and post them on your blog, if you have one - see what people can deduce about you from your purchases.


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Monday, August 04, 2008

Comic Strips Stripped

In Garfield Minus Garfield, the tag line is: Who would have guessed that when you remove Garfield from the Garfield comic strips, the result is an even better comic about schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and the empty desperation of modern life?

Man, are they right! Jon is one sad, pathetic character.

Gotta be one of the funniest things on the web.


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Friday, August 01, 2008

What's That Droning Noise?

The family and I were watching the TV show Wipeout on Tuesday. There is just something funny about watching normal people bouncing off these huge balls and landing in mud. I don't know why it's funny, but bring me some more Wipeout.

We were right in the middle of pitying the fool that volunteered to jump through moving rings on a small platform high over water when the weather man broke in. I hate the weather man.

He went on for 40 minutes on the possibility that there may be tornadoes a county and a half over. 40 minutes of "Can you hand me that report? Yes, yes, it looks like clouds, and sometimes clouds can make tornadoes. Can you hand me another report? The clouds have moved 5 inches since the last report!" This went on for at least 40 minutes. Apparently, most people can't read the ticker going on at the bottom of the screen. Take 2 minutes to tell me that you haven't seen a tornado yet, and then leave until you really spot one! Avoiding the local news might be worth the cost of cable. I hate the weather man.


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