When you are ready

We were scouring blogs on “potty” training for kids recently. A common question around potty training is about the right time to do it. There’s plenty of advice on timing and the recommended range is between 2 and 3 years.

But, one of the wiser pieces of advice we read was from a blogger who said – a parent’s readiness is as important (if not more) than the readiness of her child.

We’ve found this to be true every time we’ve tried to make a significant change as parents (moving baby to her own room for example). Her readiness generally follows our own.

It strikes me that this is applicable for most changes we try to make in our lives. It is easy to look around for the best time to do so.

But, there isn’t a best time. The best time is when we are ready…

Not a race

Every once a while, it is worth reminding ourselves that it is not a race. It is also not zero sum. We aren’t in a competition in any aspect of our lives. The game doesn’t end in 90 minutes or a quarter or a year.

While our default state assumes all of that, it couldn’t be further away from the truth. We’re playing an infinite game. The objective of the game is whatever we decide it should be. And, our only real competitor for comparison is our past self.

An undercurrent of perspective

Of late, I’ve been thinking of two streams at work and in life. The stream at the top is the one that dictates our response to the flow of the day-to-day. It deals with our plans for the future, the crisis of the moment, and the many other highs and lows that we deal with in our journey.

Underneath that stream is another which isn’t easily touched – but is one we can choose to access. It flows thanks to the undercurrent of perspective. Reaching for this undercurrent means reminding ourselves that we’re not here for too long and that nothing we do will last for long.

This undercurrent can be mistaken for a morbid thought that needs to be shushed away. But, it isn’t. Instead, in reminding us of the end game, it teaches us to focus on the little that actually matters. Our petty competitions, factions, politics, and rivalries are all going to count for nothing.

It reminds us that our life might be shorter than we think. So, we’d be better served dealing with today’s issues with a smile (they will pass). And, as we’re all fighting the good fight, we could all be kinder to ourselves and each other.

Content, Structure, Structure, Delivery

In the age of 6 page memos and product press releases (thanks Amazon), writing has become a core skill at work. Great professional writing brings together insightful content, a logical structure, and good delivery.

Insightful content is what gets us through the door when we write. This is different from public speaking as you can get away without saying much and still give a good speech. Insert a few jokes, say things your audience want to hear, and you could give a good speech. But, writing well is much harder than speaking – your content shines through (or not).

Assuming you have insightful content, the element that most gets in the way of good writing is a logical structure. While many labor under the assumption that they’d be better if their grammar, vocabulary, and language was better, “delivery” generally helps move very good writing to great writing. Structure is what moves you from passable to very good.

The challenge with structuring documents is that our first draft is often our first attempt at thinking through the idea or question at hand. And, once we put our ideas down, the initial structure becomes art that mustn’t be tampered with – in our minds. That, then, gets to the challenge of good structure – we need to find ways to either separate the thinking process from the writing process by structuring our narratives upfront. Or, we must write our first draft and then do a complete rewrite by putting yourself in the shoes of your audience.

I expect to write more about structure as I spend more time learning how to do so. However, the first step is improvement is awareness. Today’s takeaway is simple – when you write next, obsess about structure.

Speed, velocity, tasks, and priorities

The difference between speed and velocity is a great parallel for the distinction between activity and productivity. Speed, like activity, concerns itself with movement. Velocity and productivity, on the other hand, care both about movement and direction. Velocity is moving toward an objective – speed isn’t.

Thanks Shane, from The Farnam Street Blog, for the visual

An easy trick to identify whether we’re moving at speed or at velocity is to ask if we’re task focused or priority focused. A task focus entails working our way down a task list (this can be an actual task list or take its more popular form – an email inbox). These task lists are never ending as it is easy for others to add to it. There is also never a lack of urgent things to be done and being task focused means walking out at the end of day feeling dissatisfied despite having been busy throughout.

A priority list, on the other hand, defines the 1-3 most important things you’d like to get done by the end of the day. This flows from a top 1-3 priority list for the week and contains the most important things you’d like to get done for the week to be successful.

Convert speed to velocity. It is only a worthwhile hustle if it counts toward something that moves the needle.

Managing perception and leading with it

“Perception becomes reality” – is one of the marketing’s cardinal principles. Taken to its extreme, it could mean working away at improving our perception, i.e. “our brand,” at the expense of everything else. In this race to improve perception, it is easy to forget that…

… companies renowned for good customer service start by providing great customer service.
… we get better at leadership by caring more about people, processes, and results than the next person.
… a person’s network is directly proportional to a person’s net worth – valued either by money or by character – sometimes both.
… and so on.

Perception undoubtedly matters. But, building a brand on perception is akin to vaporware. A select few manage to use the fuel from vaporware to build great products. Most don’t.

The most reliable way to build brands – organizational and personal – is by actually doing/building good things that create value and/or impact people in positive ways. Once you work on improving reality, it is critical to manage perception.

But, beware leading with it.

How we were sold tobacco, bacon and the ideal of thin women

Edward Bernays is one of the most influential persons in the 20th century. He is considered the father of “Public Relations” and changed how we think of mass marketing and advertising at scale. And, yet, it is likely you’ve never heard of him.

Despite his enduring impact on the world, there are many reasons for this lack of popularity. However, chief among them is a reluctance among the folks in his industry to talk about his work. So, you don’t hear Marketing professors or advertising executives mention him or his work. Not doing so denies some fascinating lessons that might shape how we think about the attention economy.

Edward Bernays and Propaganda
Edward Bernays was an Austrian American whose family moved to the United States in the 1890s. He spent the early part of his career as a Medical Editor and Press Agent. In both these roles, he showcased an ability to take strong positions on certain causes and successfully solicit support from the public — among them elite figures like the Rockefellers and the Roosevelts.

After the US entered World War I, he was recruited by the US Government’s “Commission on Public Information” to build support for the war domestically. Since a large portion of Americans had just fled Europe, this didn’t make much sense. But, Bernays coined a phrase — “Make the World Safe for Democracy” that became the meme President Woodrow Wilson needed. It gave the senseless war a higher purpose. And, Bernays began referring to his work as “psychological warfare.”

Bernays also added significant artillery to his propoganda techniques. He did this by incorporating the lessons from a then-infamous psychologist uncle who’d published work about how individuals are driven by unconscious needs, desires, and fears. Sigmund Freud, until then, was a relative unknown as he had been scorned by European society. But, his nephew, Edward Bernays, made him and his work famous in the United States and ensured he attained fame and prestige. Bernays applied his uncle’s insights to great effect by manipulating public opinion through mass media. As he became the world’s foremost expert in propaganda, he realized it was as powerful a tool in peacetime as it was during war.

So, after the war, he moved to New York and decided to counsel companies in propoganda. However, since the word propoganda was controversial and since its alternate “advertising” was too mundane, he decided to rename it “Public Relations.”

Why tobacco and bacon are great for you
Sadly, Bernays’ counsel was sold to anyone who cared to pay him well for it. And, chief among his clients were the tobacco companies and the pork industry. In his work with them, he demonstrated his skills as a master campaign strategist.

For example, he staged the “Torches of Freedom” event during the 1929 Easter Day Parade as a means of conflating smoking and women’s rights. Tens of millions of women threw off their shackles to claim their right to smoke in public.

His media strategy involved persuading women to smoke cigarettes instead of eating. He began by promoting the ideal of thin women by using photographers and artists in newspapers and magazines to promote their “special beauty.” He, then, had medical authorities promote the cigarettes over sweets.

Bernays also pioneered the covert use of third parties. For instance, he conviced a doctor to write to 5,000 physicians asking them to confirm that they’d recommend heavy breakfasts. 4,500 physicians wrote back and agreed. He arranged for these findings to be published in every newspaper across the country while stating that “bacon and eggs should be a central part of breakfast.” Sales of bacon went up.

 

The Engineering of Consent
Bernays called his brand of mass manipulation the “engineering of consent.” He worked with every major political power during his day to help provide the tools to non-coercive control of the mind. In 1928, he crystallized some of his lessons in his book “Propoganda.” Here’s a passage that describes his thought process about the importance of his work in society —

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”

Enid Blyton and Bernay’s popularity
When I was growing up in India, books from “Enid Blyton” (a British children’s authors) were recommended reading for all kids. I was a huge Enid Blyton fan myself. One of the enduring memories I have of her storytelling is her focus on food and her insistence — via various characters in the book — that “bacon and eggs was the best breakfast in the world.” As I grew up and learnt more about bacon, I couldn’t understand why she said that.

Now I do.

Edward Bernays held the masses in contempt. That’s why we don’t know much about Bernays. He simply didn’t care about popularity in the eyes of those who he held in contempt. As is evident from the Enid Blyton story, the impact of his techniques on society are undeniable. Every marketing and PR campaign since has used his techniques to shape our minds. We study his work in every case on mass marketing — without ever referring to him.

The incredible jump in the proportion of British workers who voted “leave” in the 2 months before the EU referendum would not have been possible if it wasn’t for Bernays techniques.

 

3 notes to ponder 

(1) Many column inches in the past year have been devoted to the role ads and social media have played in the tumultous political climate in the past couple of years. Here’s what scares me — a large proportion of the population is responding by consuming and discussing events on private messaging tools like Whatsapp. The Reuters Insititute confirms this trend among younger Americans. If you think polarized social news feeds can be propoganda carriers, you haven’t experienced the power of Whatsapp in spreading lies (see this and this).

(2) How would we go about learning marketing and public relations if we studied the life and work of Edward Bernays? I understand why professors and executives don’t want to talk about Bernays. Discussing his beliefs and techniques can seem akin to touting the power of the dark arts. But, every useful tool has its dark sides. And, the founding story of the PR industry is a great example of that. It is not an example we should avoid. Instead, it is a story we must learn from. It’ll make us all better marketers and, perhaps, better human beings.

(3) I was one among many who was surprised by the size of the impact of social media tools on the global politics. In retrospect, there were many warning signs. But, hindsight is always 20:20. That said, I don’t think I’d have been anywhere as surprised if I’d read the Edward Bernays story. The story of the propoganda maestro from a hundred years ago, it turns out, is very relevant today.

History doesn’t repeat itself — but it rhymes. It is why any attempt to understand the present and predict the future is futile if it isn’t preceded by an understanding of history.


Links for additional reading