Do not cross this line

This past Saturday I was at the Tate Modern in London when I happened upon an installation by minimalist artist Donald Judd.

The piece is a large box that–through its materials and coloration–is evocative of a fire pit. Around the perimeter of the box, about 3 feet out from the sides, is thick black tape, along with the words: “Do not cross this line.”

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I found myself wondering why that was there.

Was it to enhance the work’s visual impact? I could surmise that the piece was best viewed from certain angles and being too close would destroy part of the illusion.

Was it to protect the artwork? It’s certainly common for museums to have various admonitions posted to keep visitors from damaging the displays.

Was it part of the art? Maybe Judd was messing with us. In a museum filled with bold and innovative statements, perhaps this was his way to test and challenge us. Maybe my reaction was exactly what he was going for? What would happen if I crossed it?

Alas, I never reached a totally satisfactory answer. And I didn’t cross the line.

As I an enjoyed a post-visit coffee, it occurred to me that we are told not to cross certain lines all the time. Sometimes explicitly, other times the inference is clear. Often the lines that are set are completely arbitrary. Most of the time they are drawn as a means of protection.

The most insidious, I think, are the lines that we draw for ourselves out of fear. Fear of failure. Fear of embarrassment. Fear of discomfort. And on and on. Sometimes we aren’t even aware that we’ve set those boundaries. They’ve become part of who we are. They keep us stuck.

It’s obvious that drawing lines that don’t get crossed is part of any modern, well-ordered society. It’s also obvious that little that is innovative and meaningful happens without certain lines being crossed.

I guess if we’re going to have lines that we don’t cross we had better be sure they’re drawn in the right place to begin with.

 

 

 

 

Hanging around the edge of the pool

It’s pretty comfortable on the pool deck. We get to relax in a chaise lounge, soaking in the warm sun, taking in the scenery. Maybe somebody will even bring us a fruity drink with an umbrella in it.

It’s pretty comfortable being a consumer. It doesn’t take much energy to absorb while somebody else creates and produces; to catch while the other guy or gal pitches.

It’s pretty comfortable being a critic. Where’s the risk in pointing out the shortcomings of the innovator and the failings of the artist?

It’s pretty comfortable being a cheerleader. Not much chance of injury as we watch those in the arena from the sidelines and shout enthusiastic words of encouragement.

Of course nothing meaningful actually gets done through observation. Knowledge of a problem doesn’t solve the problem. Cheerleaders don’t win the game.

Let’s face it: there’s no shortage of people hanging around the edge of the pool.

What we need is more of us willing to take the plunge.

 

HT to Paul Shoemaker and Seth for reminders that inspired this post.

But first you have to believe

I’m all for market studies. And consumer research. And fact-based analysis. I’ve rarely met a 2 x 2 matrix I didn’t like.

I’m all for laying out reasonable hypotheses and putting together a sound testing plan. If I’m honest, I’m pretty solidly in the  “in God we trust, all others must bring data” camp.

But for me there’s no getting around this pesky little slice of reality. More times than not, the truly innovative, the remarkable, the profoundly game-changing, emerges not from an abundance of analysis and left-brain thinking, but from an intuitive commitment to a bold new idea.

More than a decade ago the folks at Nordstrom didn’t have an iron-clad, ROI supported business case when they made the big leap into investing behind channel integration. They believed that putting the customer at the center of what you do is ultimately going to work out.

Steve Jobs eschewed logic and conventional wisdom to pursue Apple’s strategy of “insanely great” products. He believed that leading with design and focusing on ease of use creates breakthrough innovation and customer utility.

Just about every successful entrepreneur adopts a strong and abiding belief in her product or service in the face of facts and history that suggest that, at best, they are wasting their time and money and, at worst, they are simply nuts.

On the other side–with clients and in organizations where I’ve been a leader–a lack of belief that getting closer to the customer is generally a good idea or that it’s okay to fail has resulted in an unwillingness to invest in innovation. Any meaningful action was predicated on a tight business case and, when that was lacking, it was easier to do nothing than to take a chance. All these brands are now struggling to catch up.

Obviously commitment to a belief is not, in and of itself, sufficient. Execution always matters. And there are certainly plenty of strongly held beliefs that are wildly misguided or morally reprehensible.

Yet, when I embrace the notion that just about every great idea starts with a belief not a compelling set of facts–or that often some people see things way before my logical brain can-the field of possibilities expands.

And I believe that sounds like a pretty good thing.

 

 

Reasons to hurry

We dodge in and out of  traffic, roll through stops signs and pass aggressively on the right, all just to arrive at our destination a few seconds earlier.

We reflexively respond to a text, even while driving, despite the obvious dangers and the virtual certainty that the message is neither urgent nor important.

We sit in lines for days to be among the first to get a new iPhone.

We pack our schedules with mind-numbing activity, only to move from one meeting or event to the next, in a Tasmanian Devil like frenzy.

We eat most of our meals as if we were in some sort of qualifying heat.

We’re quick to interrupt.

And even faster to judge.

Just what exactly does all this rushing about and false urgency get any of us? An ego boost? A rush of adrenaline to make us feel more alive? A sense of importance?

There are, of course, plenty of good reasons to hurry.

There are urgent and sometimes desperate situations which demand our attention right now. There are meaningful problems we all can help solve.

It may be as simple as calling that friend who needs to hear a compassionate voice.

It may be embracing forgiveness, rather than living in resentment and condemnation.

It may be tutoring an under-privileged child who needs help reading.

Perhaps it’s donating money to provide a safe place for victims of domestic violence to escape from their abuser.

The list of good and valuable reasons to hurry goes on and on.

And it doesn’t include cutting people off (literally and figuratively) or compulsively rushing to purchase some new gadget in the vain hope that it will truly make us happy.

But perhaps I’m too quick to judge?

 

 

And then a miracle happened….

During my undergraduate days I remember watching one of my professors work through a mathematical proof on our lecture hall’s chalkboard. This particular proof involved quite a few steps. At one point, as he scribbled the formulas and described his process, several of us noticed that he had made a mistake, thereby rendering it logically impossible to derive the correct result of his efforts.

As he neared the hoped for outcome, the professor paused, apparently realizing that he had somehow gone astray. He looked back at his earlier work. And then back again at where he had left himself. The seconds creeped by as we all waited and wondered how he was going to own up to and undue his error. After a few more awkward moments he finally exclaimed: “and then a miracle happened.” And then, without further explanation, he skipped the last steps and wrote the desired final answer on the board.

Over the years, I’ve noticed twisted versions of this scenario play out in many forms, in ways big and small.

The company that says they are committed to growth and innovation, yet has no real process or meaningful budget to support this goal.

The friend who constantly laments their life situation, yet keeps doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different outcome.

The sales forecast that’s based on faith, not science.

The talking head who meets resistance to his ideas and simply repeats himself, just more loudly.

The marketer who promotes average products for average people–and promulgates tired one-size-fits-all approaches–and waits for remarkable results.

The political leaders who think we can bomb people into loving and respecting us.

All of them have made fundamental mistakes along the way. All of them can’t own up to and address their errors. If they are honest, all of them are counting on a miracle.

Sure, there is a chance that lottery ticket will pay off. Maybe, just maybe, repeating the same unsuccessful tactics will finally yield a breakthrough. And perhaps there IS a divine force who–after they’ve picked the winner of this week’s SEC showdown and chosen among the Shias and the Sunnis–will turn His/Her/Its attention to whatever it is you are working on and fundamentally alter your course.

Perhaps.

Errant steps, periodic lapses in logic, flat-out mistakes and the occasional embarrassing failure are all normal parts of the human experience. And there’s no good reason to fight our humanity. But there are lots of reasons to examine our beliefs and challenge our default tendencies. There are plenty of reasons to get rigorously honest with ourselves.

From time to time, in some way shape or form, consciously or unconsciously, we are all hoping for a miracle to happen. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with hope.

But hope isn’t a strategy. And expecting a miracle to happen doesn’t really count as one either.

Nobody pays attention at first

Many famous and influential artists toiled in obscurity for the majority of their lives. In fact, some only found celebrity and critical acclaim posthumously.

There are plenty of examples of great spiritual leaders–Siddhartha Gautama and Muhammad come to mind–whose messages were largely ignored early on. It took many years for them to develop anything that could remotely be described as a following.

Most great entrepreneurial ideas are hatched in privacy–or among a very small tribe of like-minded folks.

You’ve never heard of the band you’ll be obsessing over in a few years time.

The next great writer probably hasn’t even written her first book.

And guess what? That blog you’ve been thinking about starting all these months. No one is going to read your first post. Or your second. Or your third.

Much of the time we’re afraid to bring our ideas, our art, our passion to the world because we fear others judgment or ridicule.  Somehow, we tell ourselves–despite never  having practiced–were supposed to be good right out of the gate. So often our ego protection tells us to not even start.

But most of the time, in the beginning, nobody is paying attention. And if we believe this and embrace it it’s actually very good news.

Because nobody pays attention at first, we get to try things out, experiment, be vulnerable, push boundaries, fail better.

Because nobody pays attention at first, we can create largely free of critics and trolls.

Because nobody pays attention at first, we get to practice, for real, not just in our heads.

If we fight through the resistance, if we begin to develop a following, there will be plenty of time for second guessing and reaction to how the world meets our work.

But right now, enjoy the anonymity while you can. And get started.

Move the fence

We’ve all got them.

Fences that dictate who we let into our lives.

Fences that set the boundaries of ideas we’d consider.

Fences that are all about, me, mine and I, instead of we, ours and us.

Fences that mean that if you’re on my side you’re safe, you’re good, you’re “normal”.

Fences that say I’m right, you’re wrong.

Many times, the area prescribed by our fence is arbitrary, determined by inertia, what our parents modeled or simply because “we’ve always done it that way.”

More often that not, we’ve constructed them out of fear.

The fact is that expanding the perimeter allows for a whole new world of possibilities, one that is never as scary as it may seem at first.

The fact is that until we all becoming more willing to move our fences out, we risk remaining hopelessly and sadly stuck.