November 19, 2019

What will you start today or what Seth Godin taught me about taking initiative

My bio has an interesting sentence – go ahead and look if you missed it. “I like poking the box.” What exactly does that mean? As a kid, you may have had a contraption or a toy of some sort where there was a button. When you pressed the button, the box made a sound or something popped up – when you pressed the button (initiated), something happened (outcome).

That’s essentially what the phrase, coined by one of my favourite authors, Seth Godin, means by poking the box and he wrote a short pithy insightful book called “Poke the Box” which I read and re-read on a regular occasion. I don’t know how Seth does it but every time I read the book, I feel motivated to act. To instigate. To start something.

I recently lended the book to a good friend of mine (What’s the difference between roast beef and pea soup? Anybody can roast beef) and after getting it back, I decided to read it again, probably for the umpteenth time. Here are the paragraphs, quotes and stories that really resonated with me:

Annie Downs started

Seth starts off with the story of Annie Downs, an employee of the Mocha Club, a nonprofit in Nashville that raises money for the developing world by working with touring musicians. Seth goes on to say that she told her boss one day, something that she had never said before. “I’ve got an idea, and I’m going to start working on it tomorrow. It won’t take a lot of time and it won’t cost a lot of money, and I think it’s going to work.” What was the idea? Not important. What is important, Seth argues, is that Annie changed something in herself. She didn’t do something that she was ordered to do, she took initiative and did something without anyone telling her to do it.

But anybody can do that. Ah but not everyone does it!

The components of making something happen

In order to make something happen, you need: an idea, people to work on it, a place to build / organize it, raw materials, distribution, money and marketing. Seth argues that you can find all of these things – in fact, there are entire industries devoted to each individual component. If you need ideas, you can find lots on the internet. Need resources? Go to upwork to find a contractor. Raw materials? Distribution? Amazon. Money? Venture capitalists, family members, even the bank will loan you some money. What’s the most important component? It’s not on the list – it’s the ability to start and say ‘go’. If nobody is there to say ‘go’, the project does not even get off the ground.

Inputs and outputs

Back in university, when I was taking computer science, I did what anybody of my intellect would have probably done – I programmed things, wrote some code and then looked at the output to see what had happened. If the output was not what I was hoping for, I tweaked the code and then looked again at the output. In a way, this is a great metaphor for really anything in life: if I do this to a customer, what will her reaction be? If I do this to my boss, what will his reaction be? If I do something different, my boss will certainly have a different reaction. What does this mean? I think it means two things – we need to constantly be inputting to get outputs – otherwise we cannot react or change the outputs. Second, I think it also means that by having constant inputs (i.e., poking the box), we can start to understand what is inside the box to help us in the future.

Look at any successful person and you will see the poking the box in action

Any successful person. Name one I dare you. All of them were successful because they constantly poked the box (started things). It also meant that everything that they did was not successful (but we also tend to forget about the failures). Mark Cuban has backed failed businesses. Mehmet Oz has lost patients. The more you do, the more you fail.

‘Go to work on a regular basis’

When you are doing hard work, it is, going to be hard. You are going to be rejected, you will definitely fail at times, you will probably start wondering when it will end and when you will be able to succeed. This is not the time to take a break, procrastinate by reading other people’s blog posts or nap. Make your schedule before you start and then follow your schedule no matter what. This also means that you should know when to end and not work nights or weekends if you don’t have to.

There’s a lot of mediocrity in the world – why?

A lot of us complain about broken systems. Look at the airport – my flight is late again. Look at the hotels – they lost my luggage. There is quite frankly, a lot of mediocre products and services out there – but why are they so mediocre? Seth says that it’s because we are willing to accept mediocre as long as the product, service or organization is not totally broken. For example, I have some cables underneath my standing desk at home which are supposed to be attached to the underside of the table but have since fallen off because the adhesives have worn out. So I took the cables, wrapped them up in a lot of tape and then stuck it to the underside of my desk. Cheap solution? Yes. Mediocre? Absolutely. Hm, now that I write this, maybe I should get better adhesives…

We live in a project world

Organizations around the world these days, at least the bigger organizations, all operate in a project world. People get together for a project, successfully execute it, then disband to form teams on other projects. Apple, Google, Ideo, Electronic Arts – all of these organizations focus and gather around projects. This is just to say that one of the most important things about these organizations and projects is the person or team that says that we need to start a project. Because without that motivator / initiator, you don’t have projects, and you don’t have anything really.

‘This might not work’

I love this four word sentence – it’s a great way of summing up some of the things that I have tried in my life that may not have been successful. Did I think that I was going to keep running public speaking sessions every month since I started at EY? Not at all but I have. There were certainly some speaking sessions where nobody has shown up but I continued to stuck it out. I’m also working on another initiative now to catalogue proposals – it’s a way of quickly assessing what other proposals we have done, which ones were successful and what content is inside to support the overall bid process. Are there a lot of gaping holes? Yes there are, but that doesn’t mean that I should not release it out in the world to get feedback.

‘The person who fails the most usually wins’

Wow! Great quote by Seth. “If you succeed often enough to be given the privilege of failing next time, then you’re on the road to a series of failures. Fail, succeed, fail, fail, fail, succeed – you get the idea.” Every successful person has had a string of failures. They must – if they are initiating all the time and starting things, you just cannot have a 100% success track record (unless you are really lucky or unless they have not shipped anything). You learn from each failure and that gets you closer and closer to success.

Be a dandelion and not a mammal

Mammals invest a lot of energy in keeping their offspring safe. It’s natural because mammals spend a lot of time and resources into their offspring (think humans and babies). But there’s actually another way to reproduce and that is what dandelions do. Dandelions have 2,000 seeds per year and they fire them into the beyond everywhere. Some of these seeds will end up on concrete and die and some will end up on grass, survive and copy. The important thing though is not that all of the seeds end up surviving and copying; the important thing is that every crack is filled with dandelions. This metaphor is a great way of thinking about your ideas. It’s not always about heavily investing in a blog post, an idea, or a deliverable – sometimes you have to spread your ideas far and wide but recognize that your ideas may not land with everyone.

Go Go Go! You don’t need permission. You don’t need approval. You just need to start.

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