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In Praise of Small Success

In Praise of Small Success

In Praise of Small Success

    Everyone these days is chasing after the billion-dollar idea. We look at the giants in the technology industry – Google, Yahoo, eBay, even Microsoft – and see companies that only a few years ago (or a couple decades ago in Microsoft’s case) were tiny startups struggling to get by. When they hit, they hit big, and made their owners more money than anyone on Earth had ever dreamed of having.

    Good for them. But their success has radically distorted the way most people look at their own lives, businesses, and prospects. The Google model of success is great – hooray them! – but frankly, it’s a little irrelevant.

    Most of us won’t have a billion-dollar idea. And even if we do, we’ll have it at the wrong time without the resources to make it a billion-dollar company. And you know what? That’s fine.

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    Oh, business books don’t think so. Peruse the shelves of your local bookstore’s business section and you’ll see book after book analysing, studying, describing, and generally fawning over the huge success stories. They all claim the same thing: follow the example of Apple, Starbucks, GM, Warren Buffett, or whomever and you, too, can be successful. Don’t follow their example, and you’re… well, doomed to failure.

    What a crock.

    First of all, visit a thrift store sometime and have a look at all the business books of yesteryear, and all the companies they held up as success stories. Compaq, Enron, Digital Equipment, Chrysler, AOL. Models to follow?

    But more importantly, it’s a false vision of success. Few companies ever operate at the scale the business gurus plot “success” at. And few of us need the kind of validation that building a billion-dollar business – or even a million-dollar business – provides.

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    I’m speaking out in praise of small success. The band that sells 50,000 copies of its album. The local dry cleaner who runs 6 branches citywide. The family with the chain of fast-food franchises. The couple that runs a popular pre-school and daycare. The painter voted Best Local Artist three years in a row by the city’s alternative weekly paper. The independent spirit who runs the city’s alternative weekly paper. The high school band teacher whose students win music scholarships year after year.

    I know it’s not flashy. But it’s good, damn good.

    1000 True Fans and the Stallman Model

    My thinking here derives from two sources. The first is Kevin Kelly’s notion of 1000 true fans. Kelly’s suggestion is simple: to survive as an artist doesn’t necessarily require a major label distribution deal, a wealthy patron, a contract with a multi-national publishing house, or an appearance on Oprah. All it takes is the cultivation – by whatever means necessary and possible – of 1000 loyal, devoted fans. People who will buy your books, records, t-shirts, paintings, or whatever else; who will travel hundreds of miles and line up for hours or days to see you speak, play, or perform; people who will spread the word, give your products (whatever hey are) as gifts, and talk you up to local business owners, media outlets, and other artists.

    If a thousand true fans are willing to spend just $100 a year on whatever it is that you do, that’s a healthy $100,000 a year income. Just from that core – others might well buy an album here and there, ask a library to carry your book, or purchase a print of your painting. But that core of true fan support is what sustains the artist, year in and year out.

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    Richard Stallman advocates something similar in his crusade for free (as in freedom) software. Again and again he’s asked how people can make money if they don’t charge for their software, and again and again he responds: by providing services related to their software. Support. Training, Customization. Made-to-order programs.

    Doing the right thing, Stallman admits, is not the fast-track to riches. Instead, he says, it’s a way for people who love coding to bring in a healthy income year in and year out. Coding for the software equivalent of 1000 true fans.

    Making a Living vs. Making a Killing

    What both Kelly and Stallman are advocating is making a living – a good, solid, stable living – doing something you love. It’s a living built on community-mindedness, social spirit, and a solid relationship with the people who buy or use your work. Yes, it means giving up the ability to “monetize” every interaction between a potential customer and whatever it is you make. But in return you gain the ability to focus on the thing you love, and the value it brings to other people’s lives, instead of the bottom line.

    Most of the business books on the shelves, and most of the businesses functioning  in our contemporary society, don’t have that luxury. They’re not focused on making a living but on making a killing – bringing in the big bucks, milking whatever they’ve got for whatever it’s worth, and making sure that not a single person derives value from their products without first ponying up some cash.

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    Of course, this hasn’t been without its successes. I’m not going to say there is no use for the kinds of innovations that some corporations have brought about – although it’s notable that very few corporations last more than a couple decades, and even fewer stay at the forefront of their field for even half that long. Microsoft is positively ancient by the standard of market leadership time (and there are plenty of folks who see their crown slipping); Apple is getting pretty ripe as well (they’ve been at the top of their game for about a decade now, in a rare corporate second  chance). Far more often the leaders of the pack give way to upstarts – remember Altavista?

    More importantly, the “making a killing” approach really is killing. Big corporations, especially publicly held ones, can’t afford community-mindedness, unless it yields a positive return for their public relations department. They can’t afford to build personal relationships with the people who buy, use, and live by their products – especially when, as so often happens, they are hiding information about health, environmental, and other risks from their customers. And let’s not forget that it was a handful of corporate leaders and financial players out to make a killing who brought the current economic crisis on us all.

    But it’s not to speak out against corporate greed that I am writing this piece. It is to celebrate the little successes, and to suggest that for most of us, they are more than enough to lead us to happy, healthy, and in the end regret-free lives. Because not a lot of people are willing to say it – certainly the folks who write business books aren’t. And it deserves to be said.

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    Last Updated on August 16, 2018

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    The power of habit

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to make a reminder works for you

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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