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:

Value loop

Most businesses that prosper create value for their communities and their customers as well as themselves, and the most successful businesses do so in part by creating a self-reinforcing value loop with and for others. They build a platform on which people who don’t work directly for them can build their own dreams.

Tim O’Reilly, WTF?

This is a key to building a fruitful and sustainable business or charity – be part of your partners’ success story.

Make yourself so useful that they can’t imagine doing it without you, and are eager to pay for what you do.

Align your interests so that their success is your success.

Be such a source of good in your community that they cheer you on.

Be indispensable.

Seeds

Try thinking about your words and actions as seeds. 

One way to do this is to start at the end. Ask yourself “What kind of plant do I want to grow?” And try to plant the right seed in the right soil for it to flourish.

The other way round is to think about means: “If I do this, what is it the seed of? What kind of plant will grow from it, and where?”

This applies to almost everything – relationships, health, habits of thought, what we read, how we spend our time, who we spend it with, what we pursue, places we go, the motivations we allow ourselves to follow.

What seeds do you plant most often?

What could you plant more of?

What might you need to uproot?

Who are you planting for?

What’s left behind when you’re gone?

As we build our lives, organisations, communities – as we build a society – what plants will flourish best together, bringing life?

I love the parable of the man who plants a mustard seed, which “though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”*

You can’t see the future, but you have a pretty good idea of what sort of garden you want to live in, and a pretty good idea of what seeds you’ll need to plant. Sow those.

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*No, I don’t think that mustard is the smallest seed or the largest plant either.

Team performance (3): Learning and individual growth

Richard Hackman‘s third lens on teams and team performance looks at what happens to the individuals on the team.

Individual Growth

What happens to the individuals? Did they learn something? Did they grow and develop professionally, or was this a waste of their time or something that frustrated and alienated them?

Richard Hackman

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Team growth and individual growth are interrelated, but distinct. Team growth is (primarily) related to the team’s ability to work well together as a team, and whether their ability to get the job done is improving, and the improvement is sustainable.

Individual growth is about personal learning and development:

  • Are the members of my team developing their own vision?
  • Are they and exercising and deepening – or possibly redefining – their values?
  • Are they gaining new tools – ideas, skills, understandings – that will serve them and others well, beyond the team?
  • Are they developing significant relationships and resources that will help enrich their lives and the lives of those around them?

How is what you’re doing now going to make their lives better in future? How is the work of your team an act of generosity the teams of the future?

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I listened to Andy Kaufman interviewing Richard Hackman on the People and Projects Podcast.

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.

Education for the future: which kids are ours? (1)

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.

Stu Patience / Driverlesscroc

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“Our kids” can mean several things.

My biological children.

The children in my extended family.

The children of my friends.

The children of my neighbours, colleagues, fellow members of groups I belong to.

All the kids in my district, city, region, country.

All the kids. Everywhere.

Which kids are yours?

Who’s who?

How do you talk about who’s who in your organisation, and what does it say about your values?

One Acre Fund is an organisation that spends about US$100 million per year on their program, with 8,300 staff serving  760,000 families (or more than 4 million people) in more than six countries.

They are doing excellent work, and my impression is that they have excellent leadership, and top-level leaders worth making a noise about.

But look at their leadership page. There’s no org chart with the big fish at the top, there are no job titles until you hover-over – just a set of faces that represent the organisation ordered alphabetically by first name.

Who’s who isn’t immediately clear – but we learn a lot about ‘who’ One Acre Fund is, and what’s important to them.

Bootstrapping the non-profit organisation Rule 7 (part 3)

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

Rule 7: Charge a lot (but be worth more than you charge)

How does this rule apply to what a charity charges its clients? Is it ethical to charge your clients a lot?

Shakespeare’s Prospero said it best:

This swift business

I must uneasy make lest too light winning

Make the prize light.

The Tempest, Act 1 Scene 2

I’m not a subscriber to the argument that free things are always un- or underappreciated, but there’s truth in the sorcerer’s words: we value what is dear.

Or perhaps we should say, we value things that cost a lot as long as long as they’re worth more than we paid.

Think about the times you’ve felt frustrated by a cheap purchase that wasn’t worth it. Or the more costly, high-quality item that brought you satisfaction each and every time you used it. Rule 7 follows this logic – just as it’s possible to be cheap and still rip people off, it’s possible to charge a lot and still be generous.

In fact, charging a lot might be what gives you the space to be generous. It’s hard to give people the time and attention they require if you’re cutting corners and pinching pennies. Rule 7 asserts that it’s fine for a charity to charge its clients for its services – even to charge ‘a lot’ – as long as the client makes the most profit from the transaction.

And the fact is, even if the service that you provide to your clients costs them nothing in financial terms, they always pay something – time, attention, the effort of showing up.

When your clients pay a bit more of those things for what you provide, they think more about whether they really want it, and take it a bit more seriously. And just as if you’d charged more money for something, when people have bought in to what you’re doing, there’s a lot more that you can do, so you open up a lot of extra ways to create value for and with them.

As another poet put it,

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Bootstrapping the non-profit organisation Rule 6: Scale is not a Reward (2)

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

Scale and the Free Prize Inside

We left Rule 6 a little watered down: “Scale carefully and find the size that works for your organisation”.

There’s a type of scaling, though, that is a reward: when scaling in a particular way means that you make a free prize for someone (see also here).

There might be a scale at which you are able to give something to your customers (or to people who are not yet your customers – maybe even people who never will be your customers) at no real cost to you. Is there something you own that you can sell cheaply and easily – or give away – that adds tremendous value to them? Could you:

  • Share a resource or planning tool?
  • Grow big enough that you can offer a useful physical space to the community?
  • Thicken the network by connecting different groups of your users so that they can create value for each other – or for someone else entirely? How big does your network need to be to be useful?

If you’re working more in service of a vision (that is, in service of people) than profit, there is more than likely an asset of some kind that you already own that you can share with others.

You might also create a free-prize for your organisation by selling the asset in some way. This isn’t free, but if it allows you to serve more people in a way that creates value for everyone and pays for itself then it’s prizes all round. 

Or you might charge a litlte more, covering some of your overheads at no cost to yourself (prize for you) and allow you to serve more effectively and sustainably elsewhere (prize for the community).

The Business Model Canvas is a great tool for identifying assets that you could turn into prizes…