Plasticity

Can you change?

Are you stuck with your habits, your knowledge, your weight, your fitness, your interpersonal skills? Is your future a slightly different rerun of your past?

We spend an enormous amount of time and money seeking to reinvent and upgrade ourselves, working to give up something, start something, build something or change something about who we are and what we do.

And we usually fail.

It's tempting to say, "this is who I am, habits are hardwired, it's in my DNA, I'm going to live with it." Tempting, and an easy way out. 

Change is hard, sometimes nearly impossible. But if even one person as far behind as we are has dug in and done enough work to finish that marathon, to change that habit or to learn that skill, it means that it's not impossible. Merely (astonishingly) difficult.

Knowing that it's possible is 86% of the project.

       
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Decoding Apple as a luxury tools company

Hundreds of years ago, Hermes and Louis Vuitton started out as luxury makers of tools. If you needed a saddle or a suitcase, they offered an extraordinary option, both elite and useful.

Over time, they shifted gears, no longer competing on whether or not their luggage was the most useful, or their saddles the most efficient. They competed on luxury, which is a fundamentally different promise than the optimal design of a tool.

Patagonia is still a luxury tools company. The coats they sell cost more, but some professionals choose them regardless of brand, because in addition to tribal affiliation and the placebo that comes from buying a luxury good, they're still extraordinarily functional.

High end consulting and design firms also sell luxury goods. So do many conferences and elite restaurants and travel destinations. A big part of what you pay for is the story, the experience and the process, not the advice or the logotype or the learning you end up with...

Over the last year, Apple has heavily invested in the luxury component of their future. They've hired executives from Burberry and the Swiss watch industry and re-committed to their luxury-structured retail stores as well.

The challenge they face, the challenge you'll face if you choose to try to combine function with the top of the market, is that eventually, these two paths diverge. When Apple dumbs down Pages or Keynote or allows open bugs to fester for months or years, they're taking the luxury path at the expense of the tools path. Compounding the impact, when systems are upgraded, they often choose to break some of the utility and UI that their tool-using customers rely on. (When tools evolve and get more complicated, the cost of keeping the bugs out goes up. You must either choose to invest in improving the efficacy of the tool or in making it prettier/more luxurious/more popular. It's hard to do both.)

Do we change this system font because it matches our look or because it's more efficient? Do we sell these headphones because they sound better or because they carry a powerful tribal effect? Do we fix these bugs or build something new?

The tension of tools/luxury sounds like this: On one hand, you might hear, "you've lost your cachet," or, "the fit and finish isn't there," or, "I'm seeing the hoi polloi buying the brand at H&M and on the street, it's peaked." This is what happened to Uggs and to countless other brands before them. On the other hand, the tool maker fears hearing, "your analysis isn't crisp," or, "the food isn't as good as it used to be," or, worst of all, "there's a new guy making something that works better."

The luxury maker doesn't really fear hearing that her food isn't cutting edge. On the other hand, she lives in fear that she won't be seen as an essential choice by the fashionable elite. And the tool maker works to avoid the opposite problem.

Those tensions have undermined many large ad agencies recently, as they wrestle with how to help their clients do authentic social media at the same time they have to support the overhead and corporate-luxury positioning that TV enabled.

Honda cars are tools that have been painstakingly evolved over the years to function exactly as promised. But the brand is boring and profits aren't commensurate with how well they've solved the problem they set out to solve. On the other hand, few Jimmy Choo customers complain about their inability to run a marathon in profitable high heels.

It's possible (but unlikely) that Apple will become the first long-term cutting-edge tool maker that simultaneously exists as a profitable luxury brand. It's unlikely that your firm will pull that off as well.

At some point in the evolution of every luxury brand, the users who care more about tools than about luxury begrudgingly shift away to more functional options. Not all at once, but it has always happened (so far).

       
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This is not a promotion

The internet and big media are wrestling with chokepoints.

Cable TV companies, for example, are a natural monopoly in the home. Everyone only has one provider. If the provider has an argument with a TV network, they kick them off, the signal doesn't get through, the viewer gets nothing.

One of the arguments behind the common sense of net neutrality is that chokepoints and tollbooths aren't in the interest of the users.

Now, of course, online stores, if they get big enough, can act as chokepoints. And so can Google.

If you're used to getting this blog delivered for free to your gmail account, it might be missing (I understand the irony in telling you this via a medium you no longer get). That's because Google unilaterally misfiled my daily blog into the promotions folder they created, and I have no recourse and no way (other than this post) to explain the error to them...

(But you do: follow these instructions to get it back). Here's a video on how to do something you never should have had to do...

And it's not just my email that's misfiled. I just discovered that the Acumen course I'm taking online is showing up unbidden in the same promotions folder...

Permission marketing is about delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who want to get them. It's a disservice to reader and writer when an uninvited third party decides to change that relationship.

PS there are lots of ways to follow this blog for free. My favorite is RSS, which has no chokepoints.

       
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But what do *you* do?

Do you make your own paper? Do you start with wood pulp and mix and bleach and set and produce the sheets you use? My guess is that you save time (and a lot of money) and just go to Staples and buy a ream or two.

The theory of the firm shows us that when people work together in an institution, they are able to produce more than if they work separately. Ricardo makes it obvious that if one person mixes the dough while the other bakes the loaves, they'll get more done than if each did the whole job.

This explains one reason why big companies keep getting bigger. They gain economies of production and marketing as they specialize their workforce.

But what about the small enterprise, the freelancer, the soloist?

The web now makes just about every task outsourceable with a click. Not only don't you have to make your own paper (or hire a paper maker) but you can have someone process payroll and bills, design a website, answer customer calls, schedule appointments and a thousand other things you used to need to do on your own.

Which leads to the key question: When you can outsource everything, what do you do? When you can choose the kind of value you create, you are also choosing what you're going to outsource and what you're going to do yourself.

Here are three reasons to do something as part of your work, from worst to best:

0. Because you are the cheapest available worker. Because you need to do something, and it's more profitable for you to do this task than to pay someone else to do it. Because you can't find something more beneficial or profitable to do.

1. Because people (clients) will notice when you do it. That might mean that they notice your presence, or they notice the unique nature of what you create (your art) or they will notice that you've learned something doing this when it leads to you doing something great later on. Mario Batali doesn't cook for 99% of his customers (physically impossible), and they can't tell. And he doesn't design 99% (or 5%, I have no idea) of his recipes, because we can't tell. In fact, the only thing people can tell is that it's him on the TV, and that his decisions are guiding what his organization does next. 

2. Because you love it. Because the work matters to you, and this task, right now, is the best version of the work you can find.

Every time you hire yourself to do something (make paper, pay a bill, change a logo design), you've just decided not to do something else instead.

The first step: your job is to make decisions about what you do. And my guess is that what you do is make decisions.

       
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Solving the popular problem

"Do you know the head of FIFA?"

"I have come up with a way to speed up airport security dramatically..."

"How come the people in script development at Warner won't get back to me about my Matrix idea?"

If you're intent on making an impact by developing and marketing a big idea, two things to keep in mind:

a. avoid trying to contribute solutions to a popular problem. It's too crowded and the people you're trying to help are almost certainly not open or eager to hear from you. Their attitude is the most important factor in whether or not your idea gains traction, so if the door is closed, you're better off solving a different problem, a problem that's a lot less sexy but far more important and profitable for all concerned.

b. avoid seeking out the figurehead, the Richard Branson/Marissa Mayer person who appears to be in charge, just waiting for you to raise your hand with your great idea. You'll just waste everyone's time and get frustrated as well. 

Popular problems and figureheads represent shortcuts. Shortcuts in how you think about your project and shortcuts about finding acceptance. But all the work worth doing is about taking the long way.

       
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