On the Culture of Complaining

There has recently surfaced a heated discussion in Finland about relative poverty. People have been letting off steam about the outrageous bonuses of corporate executives, in contrast to poor people not making ends meet.

Initially, I thought that it is important for people to be able to complain about their misgivings. But now I’m not that sure.

Complaining is a way to ease frustration. But it is also a way to fake activity. If you complain about something you dislike, you have sort of done something about it. Then you won’t need to actually do something about it.

Finland is a pretty rich country, but I feel the poverty discussion here has lately gotten completely out of hand.

In some of the most discussed articles on Finnish poverty in the media, it turns out the Finnish poor are so poor that they can afford fresh strawberries only occasionally (Suomen Kuvalehti); that they have to buy the regular brand of yoghurt instead of the expensive brand (Helsingin Sanomat); that they cannot afford to buy their kids the latest smartphones (Suomen Kuvalehti); that they have fly to Las Palmas for the winters (Helsingin Sanomat); and that they can barely make ends meet with living in a house of their own, with two cars and three huge dogs (Ilta-Sanomat).

Seriously, I’m not making this up.

There is real poverty in the world, and even in Finland. The kind of poverty that really deprives a person of a future. But I think a far more pressing form of poverty is poverty of hope. And this has, as I believe the examples above show, sometimes nothing to do with money. You can be deprived of hope even enjoying material luxury millions of people would literally kill for.

Being in a situation that sucks gives you roughly two options. Either you can do something about it, or you can complain about it.

I think the culture of complaining goes a long way to explain how relatively well off people can consider themselves poor. It’s easier to complain than to do something about things. Founding a company, going to school, moving to a new city, downshifting – this all takes a tremendous amount of work. And on average, people are not willing to make such leaps if they don’t see it panning out well for them. If they don’t have hope.

Now, there are times when you do need to complain. There are outrageous corporate bonuses out there. People are doing crazy things in Russia and the Middle East. Electronics are produced in unimaginable sweatshops. And yes, there are really poor people out there. (Although I do hope the Finnish media would at some point interview some of them too. ). But after complaining – after identifying the problem – the next step is to do something about it.

Now imagine if people spent 50% of the time they spend complaining actually doing something about the things that bother them. Mind you, not 100% of the time, because complaining does serve a function in unearthing misgivings. But just 50%.

I suppose if people, on average, spent even 25% of their complaining time doing something about the things they complain about, we soon wouldn’t have anything to complain about anymore.


Tools Make Us Smarter

What exactly does it mean that somebody is smart? Scoring a high IQ in a Stanford-Binet test? Being good at math?

Paraphrasing Forrest Gump, smart is what smart does.

If you manage to get things done, to create new things and to produce results that impress, that makes you smart. So the question arises: how do we get there?

We have a set of genetic dispositions and learned skills that help us do smart things if properly deployed. IQ is one of them, but not the only one. A great memory or an intuitive capacity to find quick solutions to new situations help too.

But genetic dispositions are inherited, and skill learning takes thousands of hours. In addition to this, we have a really powerful way to quickly boost smarts: tools.

Our brain has been optimized by evolution to activities relevant for a hunter gatherer: hunting, planting and nurturing. It has not been optimized to build space rockets or to make scientific presentations.

As the world changes faster and faster, we need to adapt quicker than biological evolution allows. To this end we need tools.

We need a pen and a paper to keep trains of thought together. We need a Keynote app to visualize our thoughts. We need cloud apps to keep the things that pop in our head in store and to access them when we need them. And we need Google to help us share our information better.

Tools are not just something fun to have around, but they very concretely change the structure of our cognition.

The pen and paper very literally change the way you think. The Keynote app helps you share ideas in a way that you never could without it. The cloud app boosts your memory: you remember better by keeping your notes always available in the cloud. And Google adds up to what you potentially know. It even, as the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers argue, perhaps changes what you believe.

All this helps us to get more things done, to create new things and to produce impressive results. Like space rockets, scientific presentations – or better ways to garden and nurture.

Tools are not just things we pick up towards a goal. They change the very way we think.

Tools make us smarter.


The Illusion of Growing Up

This is a trend that has carried through millennia:

When people turn thirty, twenty-somethings start to seem overly enthusiastic, optimistic and unrealistic. And when you turn forty, fifty, and so forth, the effect just gets emphasized.

At first, it feels embarrassing to have once been such a dewy-eyed teen.

But there is in fact an advantage the teens have on us. They do not suffer from the illusion of growing up. Yet. They have another illusion to deal with. The illusion of the grown-up.

When we are young, it seems that there must be a magical age when everything makes sense and clicks to place.

Whether it be 18 years, 21 years, 30, 40, or getting to retire, at some point this *must* make sense right?

At 36 years, I have to admit I have not yet crossed that line.

But I did notice for a moment I started suffering from that backwards view that seems to demarcate growing up. Sometimes the young just seem so unrealistic.

But in fact it is they that are realistic.

Reality is not a fixed thing. It is created by what we do. And we only do things if we believe in them.

As we grow older, we are easily succumbed by the illusion generated by our earlier setbacks. A less experienced person does not have so many setbacks, and thus no illusion.

The less experienced – younger? – person can thus put themselves to play more freely and emphatically.

And create the future they want to create.

Or at least take a shot at it.

But the illusion of growing up is brought on by us starting to buy into the fact that the past is what defines the future.

But it doesn’t.

Actions define the future.

Only if we rise up again and again, to meet new challenges, to fail and to try again, to succeed and build on past successes, do we create the future and the world that we are looking for.

While history may create a bleaker outlook of the future, it does also create more experience that can, with emphatic action, put to play in creating new things.

Experience and dewy-eyed optimism. Now would that not be a tremendously powerful combination?

It is no wonder that most of the greatest innovations in the world were not, after all, created by wunderkinds. They were created by forty-somethings, fifty-somethings and sixty-somethings.

The ones who forgot to grow up.


On Fear

I’ve been thinking a lot about fear lately. One of the reasons is that I’ve been scared a lot.

One of my favorite quotes is the one attributed to John Wayne: “Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway.”

This has been something of a mantra for me. By accepting fear and going ahead anyway, you get things done.

Yet fear causes so much damage.

Racism arises from the fear of the unknown. Clinging to a job that sucks arises from the fear of the future. Parental overprotectiveness arises from fear of the uncontrollable.

Fear is one of the most destructive emotions in a dynamic society. It stops motion. It paralyzes.

I don’t enjoy living with fear. Especially in the last few months, I’ve been scared a lot about a couple of big ventures we chose to take. Scared what will happen if they fail. They didn’t, yet it’s less pleasurable than you’d think. Now it’s time to get scared about new things.

But even if these efforts had failed, so what? Isn’t failure one of the best catalysts for novelty? Fail often, fail fast, right?

Well, tell that to the fear.

Fear can paralyze. But in a paradoxical sense, it can also stimulate.

Like the base jumper looking down just before the jump. She’s going to be scared to death. And jump anyway.

It’s kind of like the Finnish idea of sisu the researcher Emilia Lahti has been making famous in the world. Turning obstacles into opportunities.

Part of me thinks fear is the signal of doing important things. Another part of me thinks it just sucks.

Sometimes it would be great to be fearless. But to the majority of us that’s probably not an option.

What is, is embracing fear.

It won’t take the fear away. But it will paralyze the fear, instead of letting it paralyze you. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, anyway.

Like in this passage from the Peter Gabriel song Darkness:

“When I allow it to be
There’s no control over me
I have my fears
But they do not have me”


Apple, Tesla and Next Generation Marketing

How do you deliver a strong brand message?

About ten years ago I bought an iMac. It was one of those white plastic 17″ ones back in the day. A great computer, although this unit had some quality control issues. Through its lifetime I had to take it out for repairs at least three or four times.

When the computer was 4.5 years old, it wouldn’t start. I called Apple’s customer service and explained the situation. They asked me to, once again, service the device. I told them that this was the fourth or fifth time that the same device would be serviced, which was becoming a bit frustrating. The customer service person asked me to hold the line.

When he came back, he told me that I was correct and that his supervisor had authorized to swap the device. I was amazed, and explained that was this really ok, since the computer was so old. He said yes. The next problem I spotted was that at that point Apple didn’t carry the white iMacs anymore. The cheapest model was a flat 21″ aluminum iMac, which was about ten times the computer I had at the moment. This, too, was no problem.

I took the broken machine back to Apple. And I was completely blown away, when two days later a UPS courier rang my doorbell and delivered a brand new 21″ iMac to my home.

I have told this story dozens of times, and I am pretty sure that while Apple may have lost a few hundred dollars in replacing the machine, this kind of marketing advantage is worth more than a thousand printed ads.

A few days ago, I was even more blown away what a great product by great people can do. I mean the two comics that Matthew Inman, aka The Oatmeal, drew of his Tesla car. The value of such a message is beyond calculation, what with The Oatmeal being super popular to begin with.

But this was topped off with Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s reaction. When Inman asked Musk for his help (with 8 million dollars to boot) in building a Tesla museum, what the super CEO tweeted in response was:

I would be happy to help.

People in marketing tend to occupy themselves with brand design, graphic desing, copywriting, typesetting and a gamut of different ways of communicating how cool a product is, whatever it is.

But what with the world being more and more networked, it seems there is a marketing methodology that blows all the Mad Men stuff out of the water.

This is already in my opinion the most powerful marketing methodology. It may well be on the way to becoming the paradigm for the next generation of marketing. And it’s really simple.


a) Be nice.
b) Build awesome things.


Evolutionary or Revolutionary?

A lot of the startup scene is about creating the Next Big Thing. Ever since the idea of the Blue Ocean Strategy broke through, startup entrepreneurs have been looking into creating the next big market disruptors or in identifying new demand where none existed before.

The problem with the Blue Ocean Strategy is that most blue oceans are blue for a reason: nobody’s interested, period. While entering a competitive market may be more difficult than creating one of your own, it does have one thing going for it: a competitive market is a proof of the fact that people are interested in the kind of product or service you’re building. So maybe a red ocean is not so bad after all?

Of course, going into a market with lots of established players with big pockets is not going to be very easy. There are, however, many crowded markets where nobody has been able to properly satisfy the actual demand.

Evan Williams, one of the founders of Twitter, elaborated this well some time ago when he pointed out that while Twitter was a breakthrough service, it was effectively created as an evolutionary step on the already very lively micromessaging market.

But where the competition failed, and where Twitter succeeded, was getting the mix of features just right to meet the demand that was already there, validated by the existing competition.

So maybe instead of looking at blue oceans – markets that have no providers yet – we should go after purple oceans. Maybe we should look at the markets out there that are competitive but not yet cracked. Like office software, speech recognition or home entertainment systems. The real red oceans are things like smartphones and gasoline driven cars, where the demand is real and the supply more than adequately answers that demand.

The purple oceans are the markets where the demand is real, but nobody has yet figured out how to properly answer it.

Perhaps the biggest breakthroughs are not, after all, revolutionary, but evolutionary.


Passive vs. Active Security

Human beings, to a varying degree, all crave security. This is why some of us stick to a lousy job and others amass all they can.

Security is a double edged sword, though. Even more so in a world where change is picking up pace by the day.

Security, in its classic sense, is static.

It is something that secures, holds in place. It means that you have the necessary resources, that you do not have to fear for personal safety, material loss or mental setbacks. This kind of security is provided by wealth, a well protected society or a welfare state. This is a passive type of security.

The passive type of security is more and more detrimental as the world keeps changing faster. This is well exemplified by the opposition market disruptors like Tesla, Uber and Airbnb have faced. Old players want to stick to an old world. Sorry to say, that world is gone already.

In the new world we need new security. And this is security that is not tied up in wealth or fame or the total penetration of a well trained police force. This is security that arises from individual dynamism: the capability to keep in motion, to dance with the changing world.

In a static world you can secure yourself by amassing wealth. In a changing world, nothing guarantees this security anymore. (To be frank, it didn’t before either. That’s why Scrooge McDuck never had enough.)

In a changing world, security is contained in change itself: your very individual capacity to change, to learn, to adapt and to create.

Security can also be found in searching for what you really want to do, to keep on learning new tricks every year, to keep tabs on what is going on in the world, and most forcibly, to find meaning in the service of the well-being of other human beings.

This is a new kind of security, one such that is not susceptible to the structure-disrupting forces of an accelerating world.

This is active security.


Imagination and Creating a Future

It strikes me as odd how we have been brought up to use our imagination backwards.

Imagination is one of the most powerful ways of thinking. It helps us create new things, to figure out new ways to solve problems, to shape the world into new shapes. Imagination is, as Einstein put it, more important than knowledge; knowledge is limited, but imagination contains the entire Universe. Yet we use it upside down.

Most of our imaginary moments are spent in filling in the blanks of everyday life. If a friend won’t answer your call, your imagination kicks straight in. Maybe she’s mad at you for something? Maybe she’s been in an accident and is now lying by the highway? Maybe she has decided to take a surprise retreat in Tibet, and you won’t hear from her in the next ten years? Of course, it could also be that she’s forgotten her phone home, but that would be, well, way too unimaginative.

And yet this kind of blank-filling is at best useless and at worst detrimental. It is not a rare relationship that has started to unravel at these imaginary musings. We are quite economical creatures knowledge-wise, and where we don’t know we usually imagine. Since imagination usually taps into the more emotionally laden visions, it does not serve us that well in filling up the blanks of the everyday life.

On top of this, there is the fact that we rarely use imagination where it actually serves us well: in imagining the future.

We have been led to believe that things stay more or less the same. But they don’t. And those people who are crazy enough to imagine a new world are the ones who actually end up creating it. Yet it seems that not that many people do.

In imagining the future, we can envision new products, new social settings – a better life for ourselves and our loved ones. Even the entire planet if one dares to dream.

And this is where imagination really shows its brawn. It is the compass for the future that can show us things we could maybe one day build. Without this imaginary vision, we will keep on sailing through a fog, towards a destination that nobody knows about.

We need more epistemic humility in our everyday life. We really know dreadfully little both about the big things in life, but also about the little things, like your friends’ not answering the phone. And we should really be wary of our imaginary reactions in filling up the unknown blanks between what we know.

We need more imaginary foresight too. While we know dreadfully little about how things stand now, and even less about how they will be in the future, we are not quite as helpless about the future as one might think.

As Peter Drucker once said, the best way to predict the future is to create it.

And the best way to create it is to imagine it first.


On Success as a Burden

I had a crazy first day at work this year. After a few weeks of Christmas holidays, I came back to work energized and happy to see the awesome bunch of people I get to work with.

About two hours in, we had reached two thirds of the entire months’ sales quota. It was really weird. While money is not by far primary to what we do, if you want to run a successful company, it does, of course, need to make some money. Now we had in a few hours brought in the majority of the sales we had projected for the entire month.

But then things went crazy. I received a couple of emails that confirmed that a few really long shots we had taken had come through. And as I was going home after the day’s work, mulling over these successes, the biggest breakthrough of the day (and the last half a year or so) landed in my email. I was completely dumbstruck. When it rains, it pours, I guess.

When I was walking towards my front door I realized we had had four independent big successes, big ones to celebrate on a montly or even a quarterly basis – on the first day of work, no less!

But I wasn’t happy.

We had had financial success, marketing success, a big deal come in and a few new doors open that I hadn’t dreamed could happen. All in the scope of one single day.

And while I do know from a truck load of studies money or fame don’t really contribute to happiness, I had in fact done all this while working with what I love, with people who I really admire and cherish. So everything should have been amazing.

But it wasn’t.

After some head scratching I got an inkling of what was going on.

A ton of studies show that lasting happiness arises from pursuing activities that are intrinsically rewarding – ie. fun in themselves; and spending time with people whom you love, with whom you are respected and with whom can be your authentic self.

I would emphatically argue that we have all this at work.

But happiness requires one more thing. Your attention needs to be where happiness is generated. In other words, in your work, or in your people.

And this is how success can go sour.

If you focus on your work itself, or the authentic interactions with the people you work and live with, you will flourish. But if instead, your attention is on financial success, the praise for your product, or in that huge marketing breakthrough, it will be shifted away from your real sources of happiness.

Now you do need those successes to keep going. A company that does not have financial or marketing successes is not going to be a company very long. But paradoxically, if you focus on those successes once you have them, you will not be happy.

Your attention will zoom in on the results that you’ve achieved.

And results are scary because they are static. Life is not.

What with life being a living, flowing thing, it is almost a given that many of your successes will eventually be gone. And that is scary.

We need successes to keep going, to have a direction for our work. But we need to zoom out from those successes once we have reached them, and carry on with our work, towards the next big thing.

The key is to keep moving.

To do what you love, with people you love.

And to cherish the doing and the people.

As Lao Tzu said:

“Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.”


Am I the Monkey Pressing a Button?

Rolf Dobelli gave an outstanding talk a bit less than a year ago at the London School of Economics. The topic was “The Art of Thinking Clearly”.

Among many of his enticing anecdotes was a classic poised to demonstrate the futility of leadership literature.

Dobelli argued that if you have five hundred monkeys who press a button to predict whether the Dow Jones goes up or down this week, about half of them get it right. Then, once you remove the ones who got it wrong, rinse and repeat.

Next week once again about half of the monkeys are correct. And in about twenty weeks there will be one monkey that will have predicted the stock market better than any known human stock broker in history.

As a consequence, business researchers will no doubt be tremendously interested in this particular monkey. They will analyze its habits, break down its routines. They will write scientific papers about it, write inspirational books about it. The monkey will serve as a guide to a gigantic amount of future wannabe stock brokers.

And all the while its success was down to pure chance.

This is a thought that deeply troubles me.

I have found tremendous inspiration in both leadership lit and in reading the biographies of the likes of Richard Branson, Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs. And all the while it may be that these people, generally thougth of as exceptional, are simply the ones that rose to the top owing eventually just to pure chance.

I don’t want to say that Branson, Edison or Jobs would be purely talentless. But obviously there are a gigantic amount of people of equal or greater talent who never get lauded in anecdotes or biographies.

And yet I find this idea somehow suspicious.

I suppose to be an entrepreneur, one must believe that there is a way to study and to get better in the game. To look up to the giants and to learn. That not everything is down to pure chance. Even if it cannot be codified in a routine or condensed in an all-encompassing anecdote.

But the curse of entrepreneurship is that you simply cannot know in advance. Nor can you, as a matter of fact, know it afterwards either. Because even if massive success were to befall you, it could still be down to pure chance.

You could still be the monkey pressing the button.

But the only thing that I am pretty sure is this (and I suppose this sums up at least something essential about entrepreneurship):

No books will be written of the monkey that never pressed the button to begin with.