Stan Lee (1922-2018) – What If?

The exact cover of the Marvel What If that Dave’s brother kept in a plastic folder


Stan Lee was brilliant and prolific.

We know him for Spiderman, the X-men, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, Black Panther… for being the driving force behind Marvel Comics, now a multi-billion dollar, multi-media juggernaut.

It’s less well known that he started in the comics industry in 1939, aged seventeen, as a general dogsbody, lunch-fetcher and inkwell filler at Timely Comics (which would eventually become Marvel).

Lee must have had something about him – he became editor at 19 – but here’s the thing: he slogged it out writing comics – westerns, crime stories, horror and superhero work – for twenty two years without really hitting the big time. They say he chose Stan Lee as a pen name because he was worried he’d be embarrassed by his work in comics if he ever wrote the Great American Novel.

By the early 60s Lee was fed up, and ready to quit. The Fantastic Four was a last throw of the dice on his wife’s suggestion that he try writing the comics he wanted to write. There was nothing to lose.

He was forty-one years old.

The rest is history.

What if Stan Lee had never written the fantastic four?

Some takeaways:

Education for the future: which kids are ours? (2)

Which kids are yours?

Which kids are “our kids”?

It’s fine to start with your own or those closest to you. If those kids aren’t your kids, it’s hard to see how any others possibly can be.

So ask yourself: what will it take for those kids closest to me to thrive – to have the kind of future I hope they’ll have?

They’ll need to love and be loved, to stay safe, to have enough to eat and drink, to have chances to learn and make mistakes. They’ll need friends, peers, juniors, seniors, neighbours, teachers, colleagues, leaders, followers, allies and possibly opponents. They’ll need people to build infrastructure and people to operate and maintain it. They’ll need medical care. They’ll need places to go and things to do and see. They’ll need clean air and water and plants and animals and natural beauty. They’ll need practical skills and art and science and wisdom and faith.

Our kids need all of these and many more to live well and, eventually, to die well too. So starting from the future-that-is-becoming-the-present – that is, starting from right now, and forever after – our kids will need other people just to live, let alone to thrive.

And not just any people – our kids need as many of the right sort of people as possible – people who can flourish, and help those around them to flourish too.

So of course, we start with the kids closest to us – of course we do. But even in the unlikely event that you only cared about yourself and those closest to you, when we’re talking about education for the future and what our kids need, we can be clear that “our kids” can’t just mean your kids.

Our kids need other kids, and the adults that those kids will become.

Even the most narrowly self-interested definition of “our kids” has got to include other people’s children too.

Start with yours, and work outwards.

Leadership: say the words

Boy: “Are we going to give something to help the people in Palu*?”
Me: “Good idea – how much do you want to give from your pocket money?”
Boy: “Hmm…”
Me: “You choose an amount, and we’ll add ten times that amount.”**
Boy: Names an amount a little over one week’s allowance
Me: “Done.”

And so at 6.30 this morning my eldest son went to school with his own donation, and 10x his own donation in an envelope to send to Palu.

If he hadn’t said anything, nothing would have happened. If I hadn’t said yes, and told him what I’d give if he went first, he might have found it harder to give. We made it easy for each other, and everyone won.

If you’re with the right people – people who share your values, people who are ready to be led – sometimes all it takes to make a change is to say the words.

Even if people might not share your values, and might not be ready, it’s often worth saying the words anyway, because they might come with you, or at least be more likely to come with you next time.

Do you want to lead? Say the words.

Want to see change happen? Be listening for the right words, and be ready to say yes.

* (see this article if you’re not sure what he was talking about)
** I knew roughly how much he had in his piggy bank

Education for the future: what do our kids need?

How do we prepare our kids for the future?

There have been places and times where the rate of change has been faster than it is now. There have been wars, invasions, revolutions, disasters.

But I think people are right when they say that the rate of change in the world as a whole is faster than ever, and getting faster.

So the question becomes, how do we prepare our kids a future that’s becoming less and less knowable as change accelerates?

And I think the answer is the same as it always has been. The best – the only – way to prepare our kids for any future is by showing them a vision of a flourishing life, and by equipping them with the best tools we have to achieve it, and with the wisdom to use those tools well.

Bootstrapping the non-profit organisation Rule 8 (part 1)

This is the eighth post in a series applying Seth Godin’s rules of bootstrapping (see also here) to building a non-profit organisation.

Rule 8: Create Boundaries for Yourself

Create boundaries for yourself.

What do you do?

What don’t you do?

This is a variation on “It’s not for you.”

Any work we do is in tension with boundaries.

There are boundaries we don’t want. Limits to:

  • The number of clients we an reach and serve
  • The number of clients who want to engage deeply with us
  • Funding
  • The number of people we can manage well
  • The number of the right sort of people to manage
  • Our time, and the time of our team
  • How hard we can work
  • Our skills
  • The speed at which we can learn
  • Our ability to spot problems
  • Our ability to fix the problems we do spot
  • How much other people care
  • How much we care
  • Attention
  • What we can get permission to do
  • Add another ten of your own

And then there are boundaries that we choose for ourselves:

  • Given that we can serve a limited number of people, who will we try to serve first?
  • That is to say, who will we serve now, and who won’t we serve now?
  • Given that there aren’t enough of the right people, will we hire any people? Who won’t we hire?
  • How hard won’t we work ourselves and our team?
  • What values won’t we compromise (integrity, quality of product, quality of relationship, health of our team, the environment)?
  • The same logic applies to all of the above

It all comes down to decisions – I like the understanding of ‘decision’ as a ‘cutting off’ of possibilities. We need to acknowledge what we can’t do and identify what we won’t do so that we can focus on what we can do and will do – and do those things.

Identifying boundaries and limits is a really helpful flipside in the process of thinking through your what’s important to you (values), the change you wish to see in the world (vision), and what’s possible now.

Rewriting the world

The possibilities of the future are often lying latent in the field of our vision. We can’t see them… And then suddenly we do, and we re-write the world.

Tim O’Reilly

On the After On podcast

Made to Stick: Simplicity

Following Zinsser On Writing, here’s a snippet on simplicity from Made to Stick.

The first chapter is about reducing your message to it’s absolute core.

As with Zinsser, clarity of intent is key for the Heath brothers: it’s not enough that the message is simple, it must be profoundly important.

They use the military practice of sharing “commander’s intent” as an analogy to help us cut to the core of our messages.

In the military, commanders at each level of the chain of command summarise their intent or purpose in a couple of sentences at the top of a each of orders. This is done so that when (not if) circumstances change and the details of best-laid plans become irrelevant or wrong, troops can still make decisions and take action to achieve their commander’s overall purpose.

No plan survives contact with the enemy. No sales plan survives contact with the customer. No lesson plan survives contact with teenagers.


They suggest finding the Commander’s Intent for your message by adapting these prompts:

“If we do nothing else during tomorrow’s mission, we must …”

And

“The single most important thing that we must do tomorrow is …”

They continue:

Find the core of the idea. Weed out superflous and tangential elements. But that’s the easy part. The hard part is weeding out ideas that may be really important, but just aren’t the most important idea. The army’s commander’s intent forces its officers to highlight the most important goal of an operation. The value of the intent comes from its singularity. You can’t have five north stars.

It’s about discarding a lot of great insights in order to let the most important insight shine.

There’s plenty more in the chapter that I’ll share another time, but this is the main thing.

Easy question:
What superfluous and tangential activities are slowing you down?

Harder:
What good, productive activities can you set aside in order to achieve your main goal?

William Zinsser on Simplicity

Here are some excerpts from Zinsser’s ‘On Writing Well’, which I mentioned in yesterday’s post:

… the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what – these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank.

He’s right, of course… or mostly right (Zinsser concedes that there’s a place for well ornamented writing, as long as it’s well constructed)…

He goes on to ask how we can free our writing from clutter:

The answer is to clear our heads of clutter. Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for the muddy thinker to write good English. He may get away with it for a paragraph or two, but soon the reader will be lost, and there’s no sin so grave, for the reader will not easily be lured back.

Writers must therefore constantly ask: what am I trying to say. Surprisingly often they don’t know. Then they must look at what they have written and ask: have I said it? Is it clear to someone encountering the subject for the first time? If it’s not, some fuzz has worked its way into the machinery. The clear writer is someone clearheaded enough to see this stuff for what it is: fuzz.

Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.

This is brilliant advice for writing, and as I read Zinssler I find myself applying what he says about words to my work as a whole. Where are the adulterants and the clutter? Where am I unclear about what I’m trying to do? How can I spot and remove the fuzz in the machinery?

Few pieces of important work come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that changing things for the better is hard, it’s because it is hard.

And like good writing, it’s worth it.

 

Clarity. Simplicity. Focus.

I’ve been reminded about the importance of clarity and simplicity by three books in the last week:

  • Don’t Make Me Think, Steve Krug’s classic on web usability.
  • Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath’s great (so far) guide to how to make ideas memorable and impactful.
  • On Writing Well, William Zinsser’s brilliant and very funny book on… writing well. 

They all share a key message for communicators of any kind: be clear about your purpose, and keep things as simple as possible.

These ideas can help us improve any work that we do, and the rest of our lives too. Omit not just needless words, but needless activity, needless calories, needless consumption. Simplify. Focus. You’ll be amazed at how good you feel, and how much more you get done.

But simplicity and focus (like abstinence and diligence) are only virtues if applied to the right things in the right way, so clarity is key:

  • What do I want?
  • What am I trying to achieve?
  • Who is this for?
  • What makes this good?
  • What would make it better?
  • Why do people buy this from us?
  • What makes it worth it?
  • What will make people come back?
  • What is the contribution that only I can make?

A clear vision of what’s most important is the lens that makes it possible for us focus our energy, to decide what to do (what to think, even), and reduce clutter and friction enough that we have the time and the space to do it.

Clarity. Simplicity. Focus.

And now, it’s Friday night, and I have a clear vision of what it’s for: needless activity, needless calories, needless entertainment.

At the right times and in the right places, the needless is the one thing needful.

for any work that we do, and for our lives as a whole. Simplicity and focus are only virtues when applied to the right things: 

Setting the bar high

You’ve got to set the bar high too.

Set the bar high in the big, important things:

  • What am I working for?
  • Who am I working for?
  • How can I make things better… now?
  • What fruit will this produce in a day, a year, ten years from now?
  • How do I treat the people who have the least in each equation that I or my organisation are part of?
  • If someone joined all the dots of what we do, what picture would they get?

And of course, a great way to clear a high bar is to clear a whole lot of low ones on your way…