Sticky or Schticky? How an attempt to impress goes down in flames…and how to fix it.

Hotel wars are comically brutal attempts to (somehow) earn a visitor’s loyalty, or at least impress her with a novel convenience.  I’ve seen hotels leave small rubber ducks in the bathrooms, chocolate on the pillows (still?  really?), bottles of iced water on warm days, gourmet coffee on cold winter mornings.  Bath robes, eye masks, beauty kits, complimentary laundry and dry cleaning services, free breakfasts, and, my personal favorite, a washcloth folded into an origami flower.  Hotels…you have to love ’em.  But it was this sticky note, attached to my headboard, that highlights one of the basic challenges of capturing a customer’s emotional dedication: Great theater includes surprise and delight.

Surprising your customers with an emotionally positive experience on any scale is a surefire way to elevate their connection and response to your service.  That my duvet and sheets are “clean” is neither a surprise nor a delight.  To the contrary, I’m left wondering about the alternative.  What are the implications?  Is it unusual to clean the sheets?  Are they typically left stained or dirty?  You can see where I’m going.  Drawing one’s attention to something that would otherwise be considered a standard cleanliness policy does nothing to advance an Experience-positive agenda.  

Surprise is best suited for public consumption.  People want to participate in the surprise, or at least witness it.  Especially in terms of amazing service.  Clean sheets just don’t cut it.  However, were a person to visit the room, conduct a visual inspection, perhaps spray a nice scent above the bed or in the room, maybe light an aromatherapy candle…THAT would be a surprise.  THAT would mean something more than a pre-printed sticky note.  Best of all it would be participatory!  

The Experience Economy is causing smart businesses to evaluate the ways in which they can create a highly personalized emotional connection with their clients.  The opportunity for authenticity is tremendous.  The pitfalls of inadvertent corner-cutting are equally obvious.  Smart leaders will capitalize on the surprise and delight that occurs when a member of their audience participates in the drama, laughs out loud, nods approvingly, and says to herself “I can’t wait to see what happens next.”

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The Experience Economy Revisited Part 6: 10 Years Later

“There’s no ‘I’ in ‘Team.’  How many time have you heard this?  From coaches, mentors, managers—it’s a motivational snowflake.  It’s one of those feel-good clichés that’s been passed around for too many years as away to reinforce the notion that individual performance or identity doesn’t have a place in a well-functioning team.  Or, that you win or lose together.  But there’s a dangerous fallacy to the claim.  Great teams are, after all, comprised of committed individuals that aspire toward a common goal: profitability, job security, benefits, advancement, happiness.  And they feel these wins in an intimate manner in as much as they feel the losses.  Try telling someone who just lost her job that there’s no ‘I’ in ‘Team.’  Just stand a few feet back when you do.  The first fallacy of the claim is that the individual effort is lesser than the collective when in fact they are inextricably married together.

The second fallacy of the ‘Team’ claim lies in the implication that, simply by virtue of being a team, that shared success will occur. In an Experience Economy a business expresses itself as a ‘play.’  Actors, roles, stories and arcs.  And it ALL has to work well in order to captivate the audience.  In its worst expression “There’s no ‘I’ in ‘Team’ may go so far as to imply that an individual can give slightly less that his or her best effort.  After all, there’s a Team–a safety net(work)–around the individual that will help buffer the players against the reality of their individual contribution.  But this, too, is a lie.  The audience ALWAYS knows when there’s a weak player on stage.  The connection deteriorates.  The story stagnates in their hands.  Their role has to be buoyed up by a stronger actor.  It’s like casting Nicholas Cage in a DeNiro film (all due respect).

Weak individual efforts will destroy an Experience.  Plain and simple.  I spent the last weekend with a client discussing this topic.  90% of his staff attended the meeting on a Saturday.  Is that commitment?  Absolutely.  Were they being paid?  No.  But they were there.  And they understood one thing: Their Experience was broken.  All they seemed to hear were customer complaints.  The office team said they felt like their jobs had been reduced to ‘putting out fires.’  The Operations Manager said he’d never felt less effective at actually managing operations.  The field teams were bolstered only by the fact that whatever catastrophes were occurring resulted in overtime pay.  The Owner understood that all of this meant that profitability was eroded.  We listed the factors that were contributing to this decay: Material lists were inaccurate or incomplete; Customer expectations were not clearly communicated; Time frame promises were overstated; Problem resolution policies were not shared; ‘Loose ends’ were everywhere.  All of this despite the groups belief that a well-functioning ‘Team’ that delivered an amazing Experience was the goal.  We continued to disassemble the problems further–examining existing processes and procedures, people involved, accountability mechanisms.  100% of the problems that were happening began from the time of sale to the time of field execution.  The sales team was not playing its role in helping the administrative, operations, management, and field teams succeed.  And now everyone was suffering.  Perhaps it was a timely coincidence that the 10% of the employees who did not attend included 100% of the sales staff.  They were sending a pretty clear message to everyone else that day: We just don’t care.

The outward expression of a business is a total Experience.  But the inward expression of a business does rest on connected individuals playing very important roles.  There is an ‘I’ in ‘Team.’  In fact, there are lots of them that all have to do their best to ensure that their specific role is simultaneously exemplary on a smaller scale while helping the next player on stage to seem equally brilliant.  In other words, coordinated individual efforts around a shared purpose create the win.  And when the curtain falls at the end of the performance the actors themselves know they succeeded against the roar and clapping of the audience.

The Experience Economy Revisited Part 5: 10 Years Later

Silo: A tall cylindrical structure, usually beside a barn, in which fodder is stored.

At what point does structure prohibit innovation?  At what does does hyper-specific task definition prevent and an enhanced customer Experience?  And at what point do silos begin to develop sub-silos within themselves that drive great ideas deeper underground?

I understand the functional purpose of a silo.  They ensure some level of accountability.  They provide focus and, for lack of a better phrase, a ‘job description.’  They give something for managers to oversee and shape towards something better.  All good and necessary things.  However, I’m increasingly convinced that, in almost every company I’ve worked with, that silos have their limitations in terms of enhancing the total customer Experience.  In other words, silos foster vertical communication rather than horizontal idea sharing.  When things go right it’s easy to target Silo X as the source of greatness.  When things go poorly it’s equally easy to lay blame on Silo Y as the culprit.  But in the customer’s eyes the differences between X and Y are irrelevant.  They simply know they had a sub-standard Experience that is reflective of the entire organization.  And everything crumbles.

Recently a client brought me in to help conduct a sales planning and training seminar.  The entire administration team, management, owners, and sales staff participated.  It was a ‘first’ for this company.  But they had expanded into two states and felt it was time to reassess their market strategy in order to improve consistency and results.  Moreover, the client was (and is) facing intense competition from similar organizations.  It was time to determine the ways to differentiate and capitalize on lost opportunity.

Over the course of the first day we learned the following:

1.  People felt as though they worked largely in isolation and felt they had to make independent decisions

2.  Basic communication mechanisms were broken at many points

3.  There was gross disparity in basic customer/sales materials and messages

4.  Problem solving processes were ‘word of mouth’ at best and did not include detailed follow through

5.  The sales team’s blended close ratio had slipped below 20%

6..  Everyone thought they were ‘doing their part’ just fine

It was important that the owners hear this.  Their managers had been assigned the important task of managing silos.  And they did.  But in the practical application of a sales and market strategy the lack of communication, idea sharing, and process development between the silos had withered.  Their customers were experiencing a series of fragmented touch-points in which communication, sales tactics, customer management and problem resolution seemed to exist in a fragmented bizarro-business.  And they were voting with their wallet.

It wasn’t all bleak.  There were people that were experiencing success.  A salesman had devised and developed a very effective tool for communicating product benefits.  An administrator had built her own micro-network within the existing follow up process to smartly move information.  Yet another had taken to the habit of sending e-cards to customers as a way of saying ‘thanks.’  All great ideas.  But what we all realized is that sub-silos had been created.  These pockets of brilliance were successful on an individual level but had no impact of the broader customer Experience.  There was no sharing mechanism to help others become equally successful.  The Hero Factor had supplanted the Heroes Factor.

An Experience does not exist in isolation.  It is the product of a series of positive, interconnected ‘acts’ that draw the customer deeper in to the business.  There is cohesion and continuity.  The customer doesn’t fall through the cracks once the curtain rises.  With that realization–that the customer was being short changed at the expense of preserving “functional” silos (and that the bottom line was being severely punished along the way) we began asking some simple questions in order to repair the problem:

1.  What information MUST the entire team know about the purpose and practice of each other’s role in       the company as it pertained to improving the customer Experience?

2.  How could one silo improve the likelihood of success of the next silo?

3.  When customer service problems arose how could each function contribute to better, faster resolution?

4.  Was there a regular and open forum for sharing best practices and fresh ideas?

5.  What role did management play in encouraging cross-silo sharing and total team improvement?

6.  Did ownership set a clear vision for the quality of customer Experience they wanted to create?

7.  Were customers invited to participate in service improvement initiatives?

8.  Was each ‘act’ of the customer Experience clearly defined?

9.  What materials were required to make this happen?

10. What measurements would we use to track improvement?

I’d love to say that this was an easy discussion.  It wasn’t.  There were people who were defensive.  There were people who raised their eyebrows with that “Sounds great–we’ve had enough ‘flash in the pan’ feel-good talks before.”  And there were people that, at a gut level, knew that the company’s future growth was never going to happen unless something changed and people actually with each other to create a better Experience.  Regardless of the reaction the point was clear: Maintaining rigid silos had done little to create a vibrant, creative, enthusiastic Experience culture.

We spent the next three days addressing the pertinent questions.  Almost everyone had an opinion about the best ways to move forward.  Managers started to let their guards down.  Administrators spoke with lucid intelligence about sales improvement.  Sales people provided exciting, practical suggestions for problem solving.  Owners talked about ‘big picture’ visions of a first-class Experience that would create the market differentiation they hoped for.  Finally, plans were made and measurements were put in place.  We’d taken the early steps toward a defined Experience.

It’s been three months since that meeting.  Some of the participants are no longer with this company, believing that the direction is wrongheaded.  However, their weekly ‘fishbowl’ meeting at which everyone is invited to assess the program’s evolution, have sparked a renewed commitment execution.  Cross-silo idea sharing has become terrifically common.  Managers are working closely with one another as well.  Their blended close ratio has increased to 26% and Owners have set a clear 40% minimum target–believing that the value of the total Experience creates the differentiation needed to push back against competitors.  

Silos serve a practical function.  I’m not discounting that.  But amazing things can happen when the contents are viewed less as “fodder” and more as the future.

10. Who else needed to be involved?

The Experience Economy Revisited Part 4: 10 Years Later

Nobody likes a pitch.  Not anymore.  I’m sure there were times when it was effective. I’m also sure that there are people who watched Alec Baldwin’s stunning performance in Glengarry Glen Ross and thought to themselves: “Bad ass.  He’s right.  Coffee IS for closers!”  But not anymore.  Not in an era of such transparency and parity.  Not in an era of deeply empowered, networked consumerism.  Customers don’t have to tolerate a pitch any longer–they can do most of the research and leg work themselves.

The pitch fails because it is, at it’s core, a threat with a smile.  It is a threat to one’s normalcy–be it financial, time, schedule, lifestyle, comfort, safety.  As such the pitch man is reduced to little more than The Great Persuader–sprinkling dust and debris on the carpet before vaccuuming it all up.  He’s equipped with a quiver of tactics that, in today’s world, are scant more than manipulative devices.  Which people are hip to and easily side step with a ‘No thanks’ or ‘I need to think about it.’  Thus, the pitch fails.  It fails because it assumes and outside-in perspective toward customer alignment rather than the opposite.  It fails because the balance of power is misconceived as being in the hands of the Pitch Man rather than the other way around.  And, finally, it fails because it assumes that if the Pitch Man talks long and hard enough about enough (hopefully) relevant topics that the customer will finally relent and place an order.  The experience?  Non-existent.  A simple pitch will never create an experience.  True to it’s name, a pitch is sort of like saying “If I throw enough mud on the wall eventually some of it will stick.”

Many of my clients are B2C Owners and salespeople.  They spend countless hours in strangers’ homes, explaining products and services.  Listening, evaluating, proposing.  It’s a very difficult job if you’ve never tried it.  It’s also highly competitive and opportunities for a win are hard earned.  But as such, these same clients are taking the first nascent steps towards a re-shaping an Experience based proposition.  They’re dumping The Pitch and replacing it with things that are far more meaningful to a customer.

To begin, they’re moving radically away from a product-centric proposition.  This is not to say that they’re not integrating product into their discussion.  But their customers are both increasingly well researched and increasingly uninfluenced by product brand and traditional talking points.  Instead, these clients are beginning to recognize that, in order to charge a customer for your time, you have to create a proposition that has real value and significance aside from the nuts-and-bolts product discussion.  For example, in a recent planning session I sat with a group of Owners, managers, and salespeople and asked them a simple question: If you consider yourself NOT as a member of your current industry but as a father, a mother, a member of the community, or church, or neighbor…than WHAT are the topics that you’re keenly interested in?  And why?  It was challenging at first, but also illustrated how deeply entrenched we all are in our jobs–to the point that we eventually wear our own set of blinders.  The answers were along these lines:

1.  I want to be safe, and I want my family to be safe.

2.  I want to feel secure, financially and personally

3.  I don’t want to feel remorse when I make a major purchase

4.  I want to live in a thriving community

5.  I enjoy technology and the ways it’s (mostly) improved my life

6.  I want to have control and choice when it comes to spending money

7.  I need to trust the people in my outer-to-inner circles

It was a fascinating exercise.  It also had nothing (at least at first blush) to do with buying a product or service.  The next question was simple: “If we assume that we’re very much like our customers in terms of needs and wants, how much time do you actually spend connecting with the customer on THAT level and with topics like these?”  And it got a little quiet.  For us, the group, it was an important realization that the things we care about as people and consumers are highly emotional and equally personal.  A widget is a widget.  But in order to create an Experience people were going to have to let go of their widget-pitch and speak to customers in a way that was new and highly unfamiliar. 

In the end we agreed that the best thing to say to a customer was something along the lines of “We are a reflection of the people we serve.”  We agreed that to elevate the Experience and to truly charge for our time we were going to have to abandon the old talking points and build everything around the only perspective that matters: The customers.  

In the months since this initial planning meeting there have been stellar examples of small business Owners that have moved in an Experience direction.  

Project Ripple is one shining example.  Ripple is a community based services and sharing program started by a small business Owner outside of Toronto.  Recognizing that, like herself, many of her customers were increasingly committed to supporting local business, service, and support, this particular Owner uses Ripple as a way to invite customers in to the community support network.  Obviously it creates real differentiation as well.  Her business is slowly earning a reputation as a community-based change agent in as much as a place to purchase a product.  The financial reward is there to match, as top and bottom line profits have never been stronger in the company’s seven year history.  It’s a small example.  But it effectively illustrates how a small business Owner who builds her sales model around the customers’ priorities (in this case community support) can surprise and connect a customer on a more meaningful level.  End game: Project Ripple will be spotlighted on the Oprah Network.  I’m sure that will help their business more than a little.

There are many, many other examples of small business’ that are recognizing that The Pitch is a dead horse these days.  Instead, they’re asking better questions about what really matters to people in a personal, emotional level.  And they’re radically revising their market strategies accordingly.  As these business’ continue to move forward I believe we’ll see an Experienced-based era of kitchen table sales in which ‘the first person who talks loses’ feels like some sort of bad joke.  

 

The Experience Economy Revisited Part 3: 10 Years Later

As is true of everything in business, executing a great idea is far harder than generating enthusiasm for a great idea.  I see this played out all the time in my line of work.  It’s very easy to drop in to a city for a couple days, meet some talented folks, generate huge excitement for change, and then watch the results fade away.  I hate to say it, but that’s the reality.  Most business owners want to do the right thing but struggle with implementing.  Great ones have a knack for it, and there’s the difference.

So when it comes to executing new, Experience based practices the challenge becomes even harder.  The concept itself is too esoteric for many small business owners to “get” at first blush (who am I kidding, it’s difficult for ‘big’ business to get as well).  A time strapped business owner will sit in a seminar, listen to me talk about this topic, nod is head approvingly.  But I see what’s on his mind: “payroll is due”, “someone just quit”, “we don’t have enough leads”, “competition is brutal.”  Its understandable.  I get it.

But here’s what happens.  Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that this owner decides to take a bit of my advice and try to evolve his Experience.  Let’s say he likes the idea of a deeper type of emotional connection with his customers.  And let’s say he’s going to try and make it stick.  It’s at this point that the first and most obvious pitfall occurs: Service drives the Experience rather than the Experience drive the service.

Invariably they’ll start working with their Administrative team.  Front desk folks, sales coordinators, customer service folks.  And for one reason or another (maybe it’s just my industry) they start by changing their outbound greeting.  They’ll change it from “Thanks for calling ACME how may I help you?” to something that they think is clever or interesting.  So the greeting evolves to “It’s an amazing day at ACME where we’re happy to serve!”  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of real differentiation, but it begs the question: is this type of change a true step towards an better Experience or is it just a nicer sounding feature?  In other words, does it create a significant emotional connection?  Is it actually worth more to a customer?  When service drives the Experience a business may make superficial adjustments, but these don’t command a higher price in the customers eyes or make the company itself more engaging.  

There is, however, a different way of beginning this transition towards an Experience based business.  To illustrate the point I’ll refer to a client whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the last two years.  We started this journey together and I’m continually impressed with the steps they’re taking.  The business is small: 15 people.  And they’re in the heating and air conditioning industry–not exactly known for exemplary service let alone an amazing Experience.  

To begin, we spent huge amounts of time just brainstorming the type of Experience they wanted to create.  From the owner’s perspective the single most important connection that he wanted to establish had more to do with engaging all of his team in the customer’s interaction.  He felt that this type of transparency would allow him to better take down the walls between he and his customers while sharing the depth of talent he had on his staff.  He also recognized that his customers were increasingly mobile, increasingly digital, and increasingly well networked.  Now, he could have tweaked his administrative greeting, but he didn’t.  He asked the question in an Experience manner: From the customer’s perspective, what do I want them to feel from the very first moment they connect with my company?”  As I mentioned, his team concluded that Trust and Transparency were critical.  They immediately began to think about ways to create this type of credibility and eventually arrived at small, well produced video introductions of each team member.  These videos gave a customer an opportunity to put a face to a name, hear the employees voice and connect with their enthusiasm.  More importantly, it set the right tone and sent the right message: “Our company is an open book.  We’re not what you expect.  We’re comfortable sharing everything.  We’re different.”

At that point the execution became a matter of process management.  A decent camera, easy editing software, a little bit of scripting, and a morning breakfast meeting was all it took to create something that everyone was excited about.  And it worked.  Customer feedback was overwhelmingly positive in terms of what it meant to connect with the company on a personal level.  Moreover, customers themselves began to participate–and reciprocal video sharing started to occur.  Experience sharing is a norm for these guys now.

What appealed to me about The Experience Economy 10 years ago was the concepts loftiness.  That still appeals to me, more so now than ever.  But what’s more important is the practical implementation–watching my clients take these first steps towards an Experience based business and then actually doing it.  A funny thing starts to happens.  They slowly start asking different questions: How will the customer perceive this?  What will they feel?  How will we sustain the connection?  It’s remarkably exciting.

Moving forward, I’ll be sharing other ways in which friends and clients have been creating their own Experiences on a small business level.  There are impressive things happening out there!

The Experience Economy Revisited Part 2: 10 Years Later

“If, and only if, you charge for the time your customers spend with you, are you in the experience business.”  — The Experience Economy

This is one of the most challenging concepts for business owners to understand.  At any scale.  It illustrates the fundamental gap between a service business (in which a company charges for people and products) and an Experience-based business.  After all, an owner asks, how can I charge for time when my team delivers hard goods (cars or air conditioners) and services (maintenance, follow up, tech support).    And so as a business begins to plan its way into an Experience mode the best way to understand this evolution is through correlation.  

I was 8 years old when Stars Wars (Chapter 4, New Hope) was released.  The hype was unimaginable for me, a second grader.  My mother took me out of school to see it on opening day.  We stood in a line that literally snaked around an entire Seattle city block in order to gain admittance.  And in the interim we both became emotionally invested in the expectation, the anticipation, and the final realization of seeing the film.  Naturally it was a game changer.  Thankfully my mother saw fit that I should skip most of second grade to stand in the same line (albeit shorter) and see the film again and again.  I was hooked.  Did I own the film?  Of course not.  Was I collecting royalties for my visits?  No.  Loyalty points?  Not one.  But I went back again and again and again.  The film had connected with what I’ll call and emotional subtext that became a siren song in my young life.  It made an emotional connection and for that I willingly paid to sit in the dark and watch the Imperial Cruiser loom overhead.

As a business begins to transform itself on an Experience scale it should be attempting to accomplish the same effect (odd as that may sound).  See, services and products are commodities.  As such they can be found almost everywhere and at very competitive prices.  They are inert, lifeless.  The customer knows this and, unable to really tell the difference between company X and company Y, will shop hard on price.  But at every level there is an emotional narrative or subtext to the process of making a purchasing decision.  And if a business is going to thrive in an Experience Economy then it must connect itself to the terrific power of this emotional narrative and align its story line and activities with this emotional current.  In other words, it must compel the customer to gladly stand in line, to happily buy a ticket, and to do it repeatedly.

What are a customer’s emotional needs?  I don’t think it’s too surprising to learn that they’re very much like yours and mind: to belong, to feel valued, to feel safe, to feel part of something bigger, to avoid regret, to be happy.  All very basic yet mostly overlooked by the service economy.  After all a product is just a product right?  Wrong.  Too many businesses fail to recognize that by overlooking the customer’s emotional core they themselves become commodities.  

After a business determines it’s story line, it’s cast of characters, it’s arc then it needs to extend this outline to the audience’s emotional needs.  Does the story line speak to a customer’s need to feel valued?  Do the characters connect to the customer’s need to both avoid anxiety and feel secure?  Does the arc reinforce the customer’s need for basic happiness when making an investment?  If the answer is yes then the journey has begun.  If the answer is no then the real growth begins: the moment at which a business recognizes and starts to repair the emotional disconnect it has with its customers.

The Experience Economy Revisted Part 1: 10 Years Later

It’s been just over a decade since I read The Experience Economy for the first time.  Bought it in hardback as there was no way to download it to a tablet.  It looked imposing: black cover, a weighty title, degreed individuals pouring mountains of research into a topic that, at the time, was so far outside of my abilities that I was only able to understand it conceptually.  In other words, these men were writing about global organizations and C-level decision making in a way that was utterly disconnected from where I was: Managing a small business in the Northwest, sitting in my office, feeling the book’s importance but not understanding how to apply it.  I just knew it was a good idea.

I don’t think the authors could have fully anticipated how interconnected we’d all be by now, nor how the mandate for such highly individualized experiences would become the standard for consumerism in the 21st century.  But here we are, and a decade later The Experience Economy is more relevant than perhaps it was back then, and equally as challenging.

In theory, the concept is simple: Engage your customers in a series of interconnected experiences or ‘stages’ as the authors called them.  Connect each individual in the sales/service cycle in such a manner that a cohesive series of continually escalating ‘stories’ are told.  And then create an emotional connection by breaking the storied ‘fourth wall.’  These days words like ‘engage’ and ‘meaningful’ and ‘authentic’ are bantered around so freely that we hardly stop to consider the words true purpose, but the application of an Experience demands just that.  (note: when I share this type of information with clients this is usually the point at which people smile, nod, perhaps jot a note, and then, well, ask “How?”)

In a practical sense, in a small business sense, creating an Experience for a consumer begins with a simple series of questions: What’s our story?  Who are the cast members? What are their roles?  What is our story line?  These are big picture questions but they do require specific answers, forcing a team to drill down to the pertinent matter at hand: Does the business actually have any of these things?  In most cases the answer is ‘no.’  And the evolution begins.

For example, a business may have a cast of four or five people that play their respective roles in a customer service/sales cycle.  An administrator, a salesperson, a manager, a field team member, and an owner.  And in most cases each of these people remains somewhat disconnected from the other–operating as a function rather than a fusion.  The administrator may be outstanding at collecting the correct information.  The salesperson may be a real pro at capturing opportunities.  The manager may very well be an excellent resource for maximizing productions and people.  But do they actually work together?  Moreover, from the customer’s perspective, do they all seem to send the same message?  Do they each play a role in developing an emotional bond with the customer in a way that matters TO the customer?

These issues then become the jumping off point for the next critical question: What message does a team want to send, and how do they send it?

See, in an era of terrific parity and deeply individualized connections, total messaging has become more important than a product or a service.  People want to participate in something that makes them feel unique.  And in the course of determining the story behind this connection a more significant business transformation begins to occur.

Forget About Doing What You Love.

“Happiness comes from the intersection of what you love, what you’re good at, and what the world needs. We’ve been told time and again to keep finding the first. Our schools helped developed the second. It’s time we put more thought on the third.” — Oliver Segovia

As a young man I was encouraged to follow my dreams.  To do the things that I was passionate about and for.  This falls in to the “You can be anything you want to be” category of advice that well-meaning parents tell their children.  I’m not discounting the advice.  We are privileged to live in a country where the idea of limitless potential and passion is embedded in our national character.  But still, it rings a little hollow for millions of aspiring Fitzgeralds or Pollacks or Shaun Whites out there.  For most of us, passion is something that we eventually learn to fold into the daily necessities of being a professional adult.  To this very second The Food Network taps into the latent passion of millions of culinary hobbyists.  Yet passion and ability are two very different things.  Trust me, I’m no Jacques Pepin.

Ability.  We all have our natural abilities.  Call them god-given or call them learned and refined behaviors.  It really doesn’t matter.  You’re just good at something.  My brother has natural ability.  Baseball.  That was his thing.  As a young man he was physically gifted with the weapons needed to excel at the sport.  Probably still is.  One might argue that I have better abilities as a teacher or a talker.  It’s different for everyone.  But you have to do something, especially as an adult.  Doing what you’re good at is gratifying for a number of different reasons–not the least of which is that you don’t have to struggle quite so hard to excel.  And, if what you’re good at happens to be something that you’re passionate about then so much the better.  By contrast, if you’ve ever been in a position to do something that you’re not good at then you know the ‘pit of your stomach’ sinking feeling that happens when you punch the clock every day.  Sometimes necessity overrides ability and you have to do the grind in order to make ends meet.

Here’s a question: “What big ideas are you working on or associated with?”  By ‘big’ I mean things that are outside of your immediate sphere.  Things in your community?  Causes or movements.  Things that help others live better lives?  It’s a form of travel, really.  But travel in this case means moving outside of your comfort zone and down the unfamiliar paths that frequently involve a level of nervous anticipation as to what may occur.  People can be passionate about something.  And they can have natural ability.  And for most these traits will give them fine lives that meet their personal and financial needs.  But ‘why’ are these things important and ‘what’ is their best application?  Moreover, how can a person extend these gifts in such a manner that others benefit?  It’s a compelling question.  To extend the metaphor further, it’s the difference between taking an all-inclusive vacation and going off the beaten path to places that you’ve always imaged but were slightly afraid to tackle.    And therein lies the opportunity for us all.  Perhaps the finest expression of our passions and abilities is the application of these things in the world around us.  And perhaps the gratification we receive is a reflection of the world not only appreciating our contribution but, through small changes, thanking us in return.

So much of what I’ve read and been thinking about lately has to do with Gratification and Happiness.  What causes these things to occur?  Brain chemistry?  Habits?  Friends?  Philanthropy?  Most likely it’s all of these things.  But when considering what one does as a job I think it’s equally important to recognize that every day we all get up, get dressed, go to work (whatever that may be), make money, pay the bills, save a little, spend a little, and do it again (and again).  And if that’s the case then how can we get the most out of the requirements?  I’d love to go off the grid from time to time and surf.  Or start a small burger joint.  Or learn to paint.  It’s simply not what I’m good at.  Passionate, yes.  Good at?  No.  But these things give me motivation to learn and try new things.  I can ride a few waves.  And I can cook a wicked burger.  But I’m not great at either.  So I do what I’m good at (which I also care deeply about).  I teach others.  I speak and write and share information.  I help people see things in their businesses that can get them where they want to go.  It’s massively satisfying and gives me a quality of life that I enjoy.  But it’s the outer extension where the best stuff happens.  It’s the point at which others are enriched by what I do, or what you do, or what we all do together–that causes the most happiness.  It becomes ‘the perfect storm’ of passion, ability, and helping others that puts the real power of this combination into focus.

Ironically, you can be whatever you want.  The question is, however, is what you want the best expression of your total self?  So forget about doing what you love.  Do what you love, and what you’re good at, and what does the most Good.