You only get to do this once, so how are you going to play?
There’s a time for gritting your teeth, grinding it out, pushing through barriers. No pain, no gain is often true.
But for everything that isn’t necessarily hard, what’s more of an incentive to show up – hard work or fun?
If little and often is the best way to build something, to help people, to grow – what’s going to bring you back often?
What’s going to make people want to come with you?
Life is too wonderful, funny, tragic and absurd not to have fun along the way. The older I get, the more important I think this is, and the more ridiculous it seems that we put on po-faces for so much of our working lives, as if curt nods and knitted brows signal expertise and authority more reliably than a bit of levity and, dare I say it… joy?
There are giants who loom large for us all: the Greats who laid the foundations and those who shook them – men and women who broke through and shaped the world.
In a sense, who made us.
There’s no need to name them – we know who many of them are, and we learn more about them as we go. And besides, there are too many to name and most are far away.
And there are the smaller giants: smaller people who stand tall in our eyes because they stood close. They gave us a boost, helped us see, carried us before we could walk or when we couldn’t walk any further. I won’t name these because I can’t – or rather, I can only name some of my own.
I would be part of the entourage and we’d go to some public event… and there outside the event would be the usual protesters about one thing or another. And I’d find myself trying to get Jerry [Brown, Governor of California] in, and we’re all of us late, “Come on, let’s keep moving,” and then he’d see the protesters and he’d veer off and go over and talk to them.
And we’re rolling our eyes, but here’s how he’d talk to protesters: he’d go over to whoever it looked like was being a spokesman, maybe they had the loudhailer or something, and he’d say “Glad you’re here, what’s on your mind?”
And they would start to say their trip, and he would listen for a bit and he’d say, “I think I got it… let me see if I got it.” And then he would say back to them their stance, often better than they had stated it, and you’d see them just melt. Because the thing that they wanted to have happen was for him to be aware of their position, and to understand it, and he’d just shown that he’d done that.
And they had the further hope that since it was known that Jerry occasionally changed his mind and his policy on things, that not only had he heard their position, he might even adopt it at some point. And so he could always engage and diffuse opposition with the fact that he could be persuaded out of a position that he’d publicly taken.
He was not a good speaker, he was not a charismatic character for the longest time, basically an introvert in public life, and yet that characteristic as much as any other – he did a lot of policy, he was very bright and eventually a very capable politician – but that characteristic I think opened him up to a very successful political career.
We’re staying at a simple hotel in North Sulawesi.
The setting is idyllic.
Our hosts are unfailingly pleasant and helpful.
Good food is served three times a day, at regular times… plus or minus an hour.
Our room is cleaned… intermittently, and our bin emptied when we take it to reception ourselves.
We have lights, running water, and even air conditioning… until the power goes off around 7 a.m. each day, after which there’s intermittent generator power until the evening. There’s no coffeemaking or showering unless the power’s on.
All of these things are fine, and part of the fun – but for the first few days the uncertainty was inconvenient and uncomfortable.
Problems like this can be made to disappear with little effort, at no cost, and without changing anything. All it takes is communication and a bit of consistency:
“We serve breakfast at 7 a.m. daily. Lunch will be served between 12 and 1 p.m., depending on what time the dive boat gets back.”
“We will clean your room once every three days. If you need your bin emptied between times, please leave it at reception and collect it empty later in the day.”
“Because we’re on a small island, the power supply is unreliable after 7 a.m. A thermos of hot water will be available for making coffee, and we will run the generator during the heat of the day, from 11.30 a.m. to 3 p.m. for air conditioning. Mains power usually comes back on around 5 p.m.”
These could be shared with guests before booking, and again on arrival, so everyone knows what’s going on. No more questions to staff, no more confused or disgruntled guests.
Communicate clearly. Create the right expectations. Fulfill them. Everybody wins.
We decided to explore the garden before we ordered our food. The manager caught us just as we were starting down the path. He was apologetic:
“Excuse me… sorry… the food can take a long time to come at the restaurant – up to an hour after you order it. We suggest that you order first and then enjoy the garden while you wait.”
It was good advice. The food took about an hour to come, but the gardens were big and beautiful, so we had a good time waiting. And the food was worth the wait.
We were glad he caught us, too – with two young kids, it would have been one of those minor parenting catastrophes if we’d explored and then ordered and then had to wait.
I chatted to the manager later, and he explained that people often complained about this, but the thing was, their food was fresh, often picked-to-order, and cooked ‘homestyle’. Good food takes time.
The thing is, he didn’t need to apologise – he just needed to turn the slowness of the food slow from a flaw (and apparently one that he had to explain and apologise for to every guest) to a feature.
Not: “Sorry to inform you, but the food takes a long time to come here.”
Instead: “We serve slow food here. Good, wholesome, freshly picked food which takes time to prepare. If you prefer fast food, go to McDonald’s. Please order on arrival, and enjoy the gardens as you wait.”
Promote it on the website. Put up notices and point them out to people on arrival.
“This is what we do and how we do it, and why. You are welcome.”
Make the wait deliberate, part of the experience that everyone signs up to and enjoys, and you’ve turned slow service into selling point – an oasis of time to share with friends. You’ve made a restaurant that prepares you to enjoy your meal at the same time your meal is prepared for you.
You’ve turned a complaining guest into someone who’ll tell their friends about the fantastic time they had slowing down for an hour in your garden-oasis.
When you show up and say “here’s my resume,” basically you’ve just shared your SAT score … with the HR people. And the HR people are charged with filling the slots with the cheapest competent people they can find.
On the other hand, if you build a body of work, if your body of work is irresistible, if it’s generous, if it’s remarkable, if your body of work actually changes things – they will call you.
A discipline, culture or scene is a network: a mesh of people, things, ideas and ways of doing things.
It might be tightly defined, with a clear centre, tightly woven middle, and a strong sense of a margin.
It might be clustered, with areas where the web is thicker and deeper, but with threadbare valleys inbetween, fading out to the hinterland.
It might be looser – candyfloss or mist – a ball of tenuous connections at a distance.***
Whatever the form – and if you zoom in or out far enough, they all look much the same – a key feature is that there are no edges. The margins are always porous, threadbare, and frayed, and everything is intertwingled.
We find our way into a network by joining it – by making points of connection, by crawling the web, ravelling the edges of the network.
For a field of study, we ravel the references, following the threads of footnotes and references to position ourselves in the network.**
In a culture or scene, we hop from person to artifact to text to place to practice, each one leading us on to another – and back and round again – as we get familiar with the landscape.
Some things to bear in mind
Thick cloth is hard to pierce, and it’s hard to break into the middle of a network. Change (including accommodating you) is slower and harder: the web is thick and tight, the connections harder to break and re-weave, and space is limited.
Networks overlap. A strong connection with a person (relationship, status) or an idea (expertise, reputation) in one field might help you cross over to the middle of another, different field.
The web is sticky. Once you’re in, you’re usually a bridge (in and out) for others. Be generous.
You add value to the network by bringing something new: new and valuable ideas, new tools or ways of doing things, new attitudes that make it more enjoyable to be part of the network, new connections (by connecting the dots within the network to thicken it, and by bringing connections to an entirely different network).
The network effect is powerful, and a source of tremendous value, and we need to understand how it works.
Networks depend on standardisation – a consistent, accepted standard for how computers talk to each other, or how all Lego bricks fit together, or how a community works – a shared language and set of expectations that make it easier to collaborate.
We need these norms – they allow us to communicate, to work together better and faster, to make assumptions, even to ignore each other in relative safety. Norms, the middle ground, are the gravity that holds us together, the board from which we spring.
And there’s the tension. Norms that are too numerous or too binding tie us down. Our instinct is to break free, but it’s a dance: without norms and standards (social-cultural, technological), we fall apart. There’s nothing to stand on, push off, be in tension with, break free from.
Without springs and gravity there are no trampolines, and no difference between flying and falling.