The Idyllic Present

Things that seem idyllic to us from the 1950’s were probably commonplace or even annoying to people then.

The alley full of kids playing kick the can was a dirty mosquito trap. The sandlot was an eyesore. The drug store was just a store. But to us, these are idyllic representations of things we long for.

What normal or annoying things today will seem idyllic in the future?

I started wondering this while sitting on a bench in front of Wal-Mart with my son. We were waiting for my wife and looking at a small fenced enclosure between us and the vast, nicely landscaped parking lot. The enclosure had large trees full of chirping birds. SUVs meandered in and out as we watched the birds and people coming and going from the parking lot.

Retail parking lots seem unsightly and annoying to most people. But as I sat I realized it was all quite pleasant. It reminded of some of the greatest attributes and ideals of our culture. Peaceful commerce. Exchange. Strangers greeting each other. Efforts to make parking both convenient and nice looking. Order, community, spontaneity, and individualism all at once. Convenience and attention to detail.

The suburban shopping scene is taken for granted or looked down on today. Someday, someone will see it in a movie and long to experience such an idyllic setting. They won’t be wrong.

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The Business Models of Sports Leagues

Most pro sports in the US are built around business models that make no market sense. They are quasi-monopolistic guilds classified as non-profits but run for profit.

The incumbent advantages and tribal fandom means they aren’t going anywhere soon. Still, there’s so much room for innovation, and I love thinking about changes to existing leagues, or brand new leagues, or even brand new sports.

The first thing I like to think about is more market mechanisms and fewer central plans. Price floors and ceilings and collective bargaining could get scrapped. The draft order being pre-ordained for losing teams could be scrapped. Imagine if draft picks had a true open market, and rookie contracts too. Teams would be forced to choose whether to keep a player or sign a new one. Picks would be weighed against free agents equally, with no bargain deals for new draft picks. This would be great for sports fans and media, because we’d get to have endless debate about whether a guy coming out of college was really worth picking up at the same price as an aging star. Comparison is the cash crop of sports talk.

I think about college sports a lot too. They’re a total corrupt racket top to bottom, and the players get the rawest end of the deal. Not getting paid by the school is one thing, but being banned from accepting pay to do commercials or other off-field/court activity while the college forces you to shill for their fundraisers? Sheesh. More talent will and should opt out of this high risk low reward charade if they have an alternate way to develop skills and transition to the pros.

Obviously, competing with college by creating a minor league is an uphill slog. Few things run deeper than college fan loyalty. I’d love to see some enterprising university sell their sports team. Split if off. Privatize it. Let it run as an independent business, paying the players, negotiating TV deals, etc. Let them keep the records, tradition, history, and mascot. Let them play in the on-campus stadium. Let students get discounted admission, and pay the university some fee every year.

You could turn pre-pro sports into something far more rational. Pro teams and scouts could get involved without scandal. Shoe deals could be made. Players could be traded. Players would do so much better for themselves, and fans would get to keep the same loyalties and colors and rivalries. Colleges would lose their stranglehold of control over the team, it is true. But they’d get great PR, avoid dirtiness of dealing with scandal, exploitation, fake-passing athletes in classes, coaches high salaries making professors envious, etc.

That’s just scratching the surface. I have a whole mental folder of ideas for leagues and sports, including some far-future ideas about gravity-free environments and what kind of sport works best with an extra degree of movement freedom.

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Life By Subscription

Once upon a time some busybody do-gooder paternalists said stuff like, “We need taxpayer money going to support music halls and concerts, because it is important that all citizens have access to good music, not just people with enough money.” (Never mind that most people don’t really care to go to the symphony or listen to NPR.)

Now for free anyone can listen to any music in the world on Spotify. For $10 a month, you can do all kinds of advanced stuff, no ads, special playlists, and hey, even listen to music selected by experts, bureaucrats, and NPR if you want to!

The idea that a monolithic monopoly needs to provide all kinds of services whether we want them or not is stupid. It’s always been stupid. But it’s easier to see the stupid now that our lives are comprised of a growing web of voluntary subscription services and Amazon delivers everything for free.

I look forward to the world of SaaS everything. Governance, dispute resolution, protection, insurances of all kinds, education, infrastructure, and more.

I’d like to pick and choose what services to pay for and at what level. The ability to do so will not only make every individual’s life better and cheaper now, it will create clear signals and incentives for providers to innovate and compete and build new stuff we’ve never imagined, easier, cheaper, better.

Sign me up.

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The Delicate Art of Listening but not Listening

“If I asked people what they wanted, the would’ve said a faster horse.” — Maybe Henry Ford

Changing the world means showing people something they couldn’t tell you that they needed.

Nevermind. They can and do tell you what they need. Just in the wrong language.

People will tell you what they need in a language composed of what they see around them. You need to listen carefully to the meaning but ignore the language. When they tell you “faster horse”, you listen and take it seriously as a clue to a problem while ignoring it completely as a solution.

Why faster? What does a horse do? Get you from A to B. OK. That’s a real problem people are telling you they want solved. Better A to B travel. Listen to that. But ignore the word “Horse”. That’s a solution word. For real innovation, you don’t want to listen to their solutions, only their problems.

If their solution was awesome, it’d probably already exist. But their problem is a source of all kinds of inspiration and opportunity.

This is a weird kind of listening. You can’t play the tortured creator who hates consumers because they demand things you think are crappy. The consumer is king and deserves utmost attention and respect.

But you can’t treat them as a solution generator either, and focus group your way to innovation by asking them to design it for you.

Your job is to be more keyed in on the problems people feel than anyone else. Listen to the pain. Your next job is to be less keyed in on the expected and proposed solutions than anyone else. Ignore the remedies.

That’s how you change the world. Introduce something nobody was asking for but everyone was asking for.

Easy, right? 😉

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What Intelligence and Insanity Have in Common

The brain’s ability to make connections.

There are many forms of intelligence. But all of them I can think of have a lot to do with making connections.

Mechanical intelligence sees the connections between parts of a machine. Social intelligence sees connections between people. Physical intelligence makes connections between actions and re-actions. Creative intelligence sees connections between disparate ideas. Entrepreneurial intelligence sees connections between different goods or services, or a new nexus between supply and demand.

A low intelligence person takes the discreet items in the world individually at face value. A high intelligence person sees causal chains, analogies, parallels, and processes that bind the discreet items in various webs.

If you’ve ever witnessed a high connections person in action, it’s fun and surprising. Where most people would see an umbrella over the lunch table, they’d see a wooden pole with canvas, think about their friend who sails boats, wonder about the material that makes sales vs. table umbrellas, then parachutes, then the different levels of wind-flow needed in each application. Before long they’re working out how you might have a single supplier for each item, or a new kind of material. This is how theories and businesses begin.

Our brain dices the world into discreet units for a reason. Seeing connections is a super power, but it can also be a curse. If you can’t unsee them, and your brain goes on a high speed runaway connection binge, you might lose your grip. Each event, object, and activity cannot be encountered and engaged discreetly if your brain is reeling six levels deep on connections.

There’s a reason meditative or hallucinogenic states where everything feels connected and all is one cannot persist while you try to brush your teeth and go to the office. Most of life is encountered in bites. And most of it has to be.

I think conspiracy theorists and paranoiacs have a ton of connection intelligence, but not a strong enough dissection filter. They see too many connections too much of the time. Pretty soon, everything reminds of everything else. Hence things like the “Illuminati confirmed” meme, where every shape, color, name, and logo on every product and commercial gets quickly connected to some kind of other symbol with occult meaning.

People often accuse paranoid conspiracy types of being stupid, or failing to see the meaning of things. The problem is they see too much meaning. They can’t stop seeing meaning.

The trope of the mad scientist, or brilliant mathematician who descends into ravings with old age show the same problem. Too many connections.

But there’s something interesting going on in there too. These are not stupid people, or people to dismiss out of hand. They see too many connections to handle, many of which aren’t useful. But they see a lot of useful connections the rest of us miss in our fragmented world. There’s insight to be found here.

I’m not sure exactly how to cultivate the ability to make connections and guard against connection overload at the same time. But I suspect most of us are in far more danger of making too few connections than too many.

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What If You Killed the What-Ifs?

I was talking to a friend this morning who was in a bad place. He’d forgotten to do some work over the weekend, and he wondered how to handle the inevitable let down when his supervisor found out.

He asked what he should do. I asked what his options were.

He said there were two. He could try to fake that he’d done the work and do a terrible job on his deliverables. Or he could preemptively fess up, say sorry, and ask how best to make it up this week.

I said option two sounded like it had a higher probability of limiting the damage than option one.

He responded with a series of ‘What ifs’. He was imagining all the bad things that might happen. I said okay, what about option one? Same what ifs.

I asked him if he could control what the supervisor did in response to whatever approach he chose. He said no. I said, “Then forget the what ifs. They are irrelevant. They’ll happen regardless. Focus on what you can control and pick the course of action with the highest probability for the least painful outcome. Then stop thinking about it.”

He felt paralyzed by the what ifs. Stressing over eventualities he couldn’t control froze his decision making process. He was going to default to option one, not because he thought it was better, but because he never had time to think clearly and choose due to all the worry about what might happen two steps down the road.

Kill the what ifs. Take the step in front of you based on the best evidence you have. See what happens. Take in the feedback. Adjust. Choose the next step.

That’s it. It really is that simple. But it’s hard. We worry a lot about many things out of our control, or only potentially in our control in the future based on a series of responses out of our control.

If you want less stress, think about fewer things. But think about them well.

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