How does your intent for your work change your results? If your goal is to build something big, does that increase the odds? Why, then, do so many stories about huge successes start out the same way: with a shrug, and a quick, "I just wanted to brew some beer." ? Today, we explore the story of The Alchemist, makers of the industry sensation, Heady Topper.
Most brand-created podcasts are -- how shall I put this? -- IMPRESSIVELY terrible. So, naturally, Steve Pratt finds total creative fulfillment in that industry. Obviously. See, to invent the future of an entire industry and collaborate with some of the world's top brands, Steve gets to crash through one barrier after another. And as he excitedly does so, his weapon of choice isn't massive budget, a bestselling book, or a big "personal brand." No, instead, Steve calmly walks to the board and draws a simple graph for his clients to see.
From the outside looking in, his work is just so unlikely that you MIGHT call it ... Unthinkable.
Suzy Batiz had sworn off starting companies. NEVER AGAIN, she thought. But one sniff and one conversation later, she was obsessed. Her curiosity took over, and a decade later, she's built a 300-million-dollar empire. And all of it started by trying to solve a problem none of us care to even think about, let alone build a career around.
LINKS TO KNOW:
Check out the company's first viral video here:
Nobody actually takes risks, especially in business, so what if the key to doing better work is making unconventional paths seem SAFER than the best practice? That's exactly what Clair Byrd, Clark Valberg, and the team behind Design Disruptors did. They took a massive project in scope and found a way to make each step seem safer than the last. They built a refreshing, eye-opening project without ever changing their team's goals. They did everything we aspire to do in our work in a way that seems, well, anything BUT Unthinkable.
LINKS TO KNOW:
Watch the original Design Disruptors trailer here:
Unsurprisingly, one of the catchiest songs ever created topped the iTunes charts. It beat epic songs by Rihanna and Drake and narrowly missed topping Adele and even Gangnam Style. Away from the charts, this song sparked a global movement -- merchandise and microsites, mobile games and parodies galore. One song and one video, going crazy viral, and snowballing into something much larger than itself. And while none of that seems all that surprising in our digital world today, when you learn about who created this song -- and the insanity that ensued -- it'll seem like pure insanity.
You might even call it ... Unthinkable.
LINKS TO KNOW:
Watch the original DWTD video here:
This is an updated excerpt from the Unthinkable newsletter. Every Monday, get one story or idea about trusting intuition to do better work. There are enough "best practices." It's time we did better than average stuff in this industry. Subscribe here.
I need to say I'm sorry for something. So here goes...
I'm sorry I focused so much of my time lately on serving Not You.
Not You is this ghostlike idea of audience growth. Not You is who I turn to when people ask how big my show is. Not You is kinda like You, but more of You. NotYou adds commas to metrics -- metrics that mean who-really-knows-what.
I've been focusing too much of my time on serving Not You. And not You. And that is totally wrong.
Here are just a few ways I've focused on serving Not You lately:
- I stopped doing 1:1 video calls with You, preferring instead to spend that time promoting the show to Not You. (I remedied that with my signup sheet a few weeks ago. I'll be sharing another soon.)
- I hesitated to switch to seasons, even though I knew it would improve show quality, for the stupid fact that Apple Podcasts favors weekly publishing over periodic publishing, thus ranking a show for Not You to see. (I made the call to use seasons on September 1.)
- I scaled back my search for better stories to share with You, hunting instead for promotional tactics to increase the show's reach to Not You. (I spent all of October fixing this, banking 29 new story leads to research.)
- And worst of all, I've been holding back a few completed episodes from You, because I thought I'd instead release all seven at once to get the biggest "pop" -- a pop so big that Not You would notice.
But who cares if I reach Not You? Who cares if Apple dings me? Who cares if I release episodes on an ad-hoc basis? Who cares, so long as You love the show?
I cared. Ugh...
I've been focusing too much of my time on serving Not You. And not You. And that is totally wrong.
I think my problem is that I had my priorities straight. Yup. Straight. My priorities matched some kind of imaginary, logical, linear list that, if used, will create some kind of imaginary, logical, linear growth. But great things happen crooked. So I better have priorities to match.
I'll be focusing too much of my time on serving You. Instead of Not You. Because that feels totally right.
Starting now, I get my priorities crooked. I promise to invest an irrational, lopsided amount of time serving You, instead of Not You. If someone I admire in marketing says to me, "Jay, seriously, it's a nice idea, but you really need to care more about show distribution and growth," then I'll know I'm on the right path. After all, Not You isn't real. Not You will never not be anything but a non-existent thing. (Wait a sec... counting the negatives in that sentence... OK, I think I got it right.)
But You? You are very much real. And You are real great! You support the show. You help me improve it. You care about the mission. You rally others to join this mission.
You're bothered by suck. You care about craft. You can't stand commodity work, question best practices, and trust your intuition.
Alllllll those great things ... are things You do. Not Not You.
Thank You. Or, rather, Thank God For You.
I've been focusing too much of my time on serving Not You. And not You. Starting today, it's all about You. Not Not You.
(Err... You know what I mean...)
Scott Stratten looks every part a blacksmith. He's mastered a rare craft in our digital world today, but make no mistake -- he's a master craftsman. And while he may not work with any type of metal, he still forges his work with red hot fire.
LINKS TO KNOW:
Scott's podcast, the Unpodcast (shouts to fellow Un-names!)
If there was a Yelp listing for every industry niche, “Headphone Brand” would appear with the most possible dollar signs.
Big brands use bigger celebrities and spend some of the biggest ad budgets around to promote their products and, really, the emotion they want you to feel when you buy their products. Artists like Kendrick Lamar and Nicki Minaj, athletes like LeBron James, and brands like Apple, Sony, Bose, and more, all slug it out to deliver the same message in increasingly expensive ways: “These headphones are the best.”
This is a flashy, fast-paced industry niche.
So what in the heck do we make of Grado Labs?
In 1918, a Sicilian immigrant purchased a small building on a nondescript block in Brooklyn. Over nearly a century ago, while the world around this building changed at breakneck speed, the world inside plodded along. It was one kind of business, and then, gradually, another. It was led by one generation of Grado, and then, gradually, another.
They don’t advertise, not one cent. They don’t upgrade much, using the same old equipment in the same old building. And they even make their headphones by hand.
So why are they such a success in the digital age?
This is an excerpt from my weekly newsletter exploring the use of intuition at work. What does it take to trust our own creative abilities instead of yet another "best practice"? If you're bothered by commodity work, join the weekly journey here.
Last week, we explored a question: What is our "context"? We can use the details of our own situation to set up a sort of funnel, through which we can find clarity from confusion. So what's that funnel made of? We talked about the three distinct parts to your context, and why they're so crucial to understand if the goal is trusting our intuition.
If you missed that, go back and read it here. Today, as promised last time, we're knocking down a mental barrier in order to better investigate our context to find answers and ideas.
Now, admittedly, I wrote something last week that could be in the running for this year's Most Obvious Written Statement Award -- a glorious night where I dress my dog in a tux and hand myself a bottle of bourbon while a string quartet plays me out of my apartment. (#tradition)
Here's what I wrote:
No two [situations] are exactly the same.
That bourbon is as good as mine! Because, uh, YEAH, no kidding. Every situation is at least sliiiiightly different than the rest. Duh. (Do we still say "duh"? I don't care. That statement was so obvious, I'm bringing it back just this once.)
My point was, those sliiiight differences actually make ALL THE DIFFERENCE. Unfortunately, we have this mental barrier that's been built up over time that must come down before we can really see our situation as unique and find our answers within that uniqueness.
The problem isn't that we believe our context is identical to others. The problem is how we locate the differences. So let's first smash down that wall blocking our view. That wall is made up of two issues: We only notice differences that are OBVIOUS ... and we only point to differences as EXCUSES.
We're getting too theoretical though. Here's what I mean...
The Mental Barrier: Noticing differences that are OBVIOUS and using them as EXCUSES.
We rather easily point to our situation is different when those differences are superficial. We're shallow in our understanding of what makes our context unique.
My friend Carla Johnson calls this “Brand Detachment Disorder.” As a speaker, I'm hyper sensitive to this disorder (which we all have). If I stand on a stage and present a bunch of B2C examples to a room full of B2B brands, well, I run the risk of people's BDO kicking in and them saying, "But we're in B2B. That's different than B2C."
Yes. Understood. Citing examples that are B2B versus B2C, or old versus new, or large brands instead of small businesses -- all of these are obvious, superficial-layer things that we notice and say, "But my context is different."
This type of disassociation happens with all three pieces of our context -- pieces we established in the newsletter last week:
- YOU: When comparing our work to other people we admire, we we think, “...but I'M not HER.”
- CUSTOMERS: When watching businesses thrive in different industries or stages of growth, we say, “…but OUR customers/clients aren’t like THEIRS.”
- RESOURCES: When given lessons from outlier success stories, like the Apples of the world, we respond, “...but OUR budget …but OUR team …but OUR numbers…”
We do this quickly and confidently because the other thing is obviouslydifferent than our version of that thing. We’d much prefer that a speaker, for example, share case studies that more closely match our own. Because their situation is "just like ours."
But, of course, it’s not. Some other company that seems similar to you still has a unique context compared to your own. They could be a direct competitor who poached half your team and set up shop just down the street. EVERY context is different from others. The problem, however, is that the differences aren't always so obvious. But if we spend more time finding those subtle differences, we can use them as a kind of filter through which we can more quickly vet all that information out there, from best practices to new ideas. The less obvious difference might be THE difference between being average and exceptional.
I'm reminded of the story of Mike Brown, founder of Death Wish Coffee.
In the episode “Best Practices,” he studied his competitors and talked to a bunch of experts to try and turn his struggling business around. His situation looked just like others … on the surface. But when he dug deeper and hunted for the less obvious differences — differences in himself, his customers, and his resources — he started making better decisions, faster. He found clarity by trusting his intuition, and he only trusted it because he knew his context.
To cite one example -- his customers -- Mike realized that most coffee shops sell to people who enjoy sitting down and sipping artisanal coffee. But Mike's customers were mostly transactional in how they drank their cups. They were truck drivers, construction workers, entrepreneurs, and other hard-chargers. This one small realization radically changed the course of his business, as Mike began to use a type of coffee that other shops would never, ever touch. Today, he runs a thriving coffee empire! (You can find his story here.)
So, yeah, from the outside looking in, it's crazy what Mike decided to do -- because the differences aren't so obvious. But then you understand Mike's context and think, "Huh! That actually seems pretty logical."
So that’s the first problem with our understanding of "context.” We know ours is different from others, but we stop at the obvious stuff. We fail to capitalize on the less overt differences in our work.
The next problem is that we typically only find these differences when we’re being negative. We use them as excuses.
We say, "But I’m not her. But our customers or bosses are different. But our budget. But our team. But our numbers."
What if we turned each but into an and?
What if we stopped viewing the details of our own situation as limitations and instead viewed them as assets?
When we say, “Yeah, BUT our situation is different,” we’re making excuses. We’re pointing out reasons we can’t do something. Okay, that’s fine. We’ve identified the truth: Our situation is different. And because of those differences, we can now do ... what?
“She succeeded this way, AND I’m not her. I’m funnier! I work in a boring industry in need of some fresh air! What if I used that to my advantage?"
“They thrive in that industry doing things like THAT, AND my customers are like THIS. They respect the art less. They drink coffee as a transaction. What if I combined my insights with things I saw in other industries?”
“They have unlimited resources, AND I don’t. I can’t hire writers. I can’t build a huge blog. What clever new ideas can I try?"
When we’re being negative, it’s all we can do stop repeating the same excuse: “BUT! BUT! BUT!”
And to that I say: YES! They want us to follow their best practice. They want us to put the work on repeat. BUT ... our context is different in ways they can't possibly understand as well as we can.
AND ... that’s how we'll find our answers.
This is an excerpt from the weekly Unthinkable newsletter. Every Monday, I share ONE idea or story about trusting your intuition to break from conventional thinking and do better work. Subscribe here.
Last week, we explored a question: How do we find clarity faster? When faced with Advice Overload, it can be difficult to know which strategy, tactic, tool, or idea we should apply to our work. But occasionally, our intuition delivers a lightning-strike moment of clarity. What if we could generate those proactively? Could we actually control our ability to find clarity on-demand, and do so quicker and quicker over time? That’s what we explored last week.
If you missed it, make sure you go back and read it here. Today we’re going one step further.
Remember the graphic depicting what intuition might look like? We imagined it as a funnel. By pouring information into the top, the funnel puts some pressure on whatever goes inside — like best practices — and creates a more condensed stream at the bottom. This helps us get more proactive about alllllll that information out there and find clarity, faster.
So, what does the condensing? What puts pressure on all that information? Our context.
Best practices can’t account for the variables of our own unique situations, and so at best, they provide approximations or estimates. They create AVERAGE work and results. And while the expert can’t possibly know the details of our situation, we certainly can. If we understood our context, we could use those details to make the best possible decisions for us, in our specific situation. And we could get increasingly skilled at doing this, until our decision-making seems almost instant -- that's the power of intuition.
The people we admire as "geniuses" seem to have that instant clarity generator in their back pocket. That's because they've honed their intuition for awhile, so what they do feels magical. But it’s not. They just understand their own context better than we do.
But now I’m wondering: What IS our context?
If we’re going to press all kinds of best practices and ideas through that funnel, then, uh … what IS the funnel? Obviously, we aren’t walking around our offices carrying a giant funnel ... into which we pour information ... by cramming our notebooks into the company blender ... with a little bit of milk ... but two percent only because I'm watching my figure...
No! (Right? If you're actually doing that, please take a selfie.) The funnel is just a hashtag metaphor. So back in the real world, what's it made of? What IS our context?
I think our context is made up of three parts: YOU, YOUR CUSTOMER, and YOURRESOURCES.
Think about it: In anything you do in your career, those three things are the fundamental pieces involved. There’s always a person or a group doing the work (you), a person or a group receiving the work (customers, or perhaps gatekeepers like bosses that we’re convincing), and then there's the means for making the work happen (resources).
And no two collections of those three things are exactly the same, most especially because YOU don't exist in other situations.
Of course, we all realize this in theory. But we rarely apply it.
So, perhaps visualizing the concept of "context" will help us all view intuition as a practical thing, rather than an ephemeral moment. Right now, best practices have the edge because best practices can be documented. They can be taught. They can (and are) listified by every expert -- the good, the bad, and the "I'm pretty sure you bought your followers and I'm shocked people actually pay you" (i.e., the ugly).
The way we can put original thinking on equal footing with conventional thinking is to visualize it, then go apply it. In other words, we need to investigate the three parts of our context to find our answers, rather than search for someone else's. After all, if we do what's best in our situation, then that IS the best practice. It's just not the AVERAGE practice being shared around our industry. But who cares? We've found the best approach for our own situation.
Look, I know you want to do better work. We all want faster, bigger, and better results, however we define that word. To do that, we don't need the very best best practice. We need something BETTER. Because we aspire to DO better.
It's time we stopped obsessing over everyone else's answers for us, and instead, asked ourselves the right questions. THAT is how you investigate your context. THAT is how you trust your intuition.