WHY TALENT IS OVERRATED
The year is 15000 BC. A hunter stares out across the endless plain. His party has been running for days. It is hot. The terrain ahead is a dry, cracked parchment. He looks down at the tracks in the powdery red dust that coats his feet. To him, the marks are like neon signposts pointing in the direction his group must go. The animal is faster than he, larger and more dangerous, but he is not worried. The tribe will eat tonight. He knows this with the certainty of the most successful predator the world has ever known.
He is certain because he and his kind are proponents of the most effective hunting strategy of all time. He does not know it, but the strategy has a name. To him, it’s just the way it’s always been done. He will simply run the animal down. They will run until the animal can no longer. Until it gives up the will to live.
He is well-optimised for the task. He walks upright, doesn’t have much hair and he sweats, which means he can radiate heat and regulate body temperature. He can eat just about anything he finds, which makes it easy to find food when chasing his prey. If he can’t find food, that’s ok. His body will begin to consume itself so he can continue the hunt. His deadliest weapon is not a spear or a dagger or intelligence or tracking skill. It is endurance.
This is the concept of persistence hunting and we owe our entire existence and most of our outstanding achievements to it. Evidence of our basic nature litters the pages of history. In the ancient world invading armies would often march into enemy lands for years at a time. During these odysseys, their horses would often die along the way, while the men would arrive. Ready to fight.
218 BC: A Carthaginian general named Hannibal decides to cross the Alps bringing with him, elephants. This turns out to be a mistake and most of them are unable to survive the high altitude and severe conditions. The men – those who don’t plummet to their deaths from the many jagged cliffs along the way – still manage to complete the crossing and then INVADE THE ROMAN EMPIRE.
332BC: Alexander the Great on his conquests encounters the impregnable island city of Tyre. Most would have given up and turned back, but not Alexander. No, he decides to hang around and spends a few years building a mile-long bridge and succeeds in razing the city.
These stories and many like them, are all common themes in an age-old narrative. People often attribute success to intelligence and talent, but according to history we owe more to persistence, endurance, and tenacity. We see something we want and we go after it. That’s all there is to it.
Why did we go to the moon? Why are ulta-marathons a thing? We grind it out. It’s what we do. We like to struggle. In fact, we seem to need it. In times of abundance, instances of discontent, anxiety and depression increase. When times are good the suicide rate goes up. Think about that. We’re prone to killing ourselves when life is too easy!
It’s in our genes.
How did we get to the moon? We love to celebrate the giant leap, but we tend to forget about the million small steps. We like to pretend that we bound forward, but if you look at the tracks, you’ll see we lurch and stagger and scrape forward under the weight of our ideas. And somehow we drag our feet forward ever higher.
This inexorable forward momentum that cannot be handwaved and explained with a catch-all like talent. The trouble is we’ve become desensitized to staggering achievement and when it happens we’re quick to label it talent as if it were more than the final brick in a pyramid of small feats. We think it is the pyramid itself.
More and more these days we stop and we wait. We pause for inspiration and for the arrival of the earth shaking idea or for the natural gift to be granted by the universe or a deity of some kind. All it does it cost us time.
So, the next time you think you need more talent or a better idea, consider your prehistoric counterpart and remember that you carry the persistence gene.
Talent is overrated.
Imagine yourself in a vast open space. Laid out before you there is an endless selection of percussion instruments. Snare drums, bass drums, bongo drums, conga drums, kettle drums, cymbals, triangles and gongs. Beyond this is a group of people with the means to bring about your every wish and your greatest ambition. All you need to do is make enough noise.
Maybe you should pick the giant drum? That’ll be loud, yes? Ok, but what if it’s hard to bang? Maybe you’ll run out of steam. No? Maybe try a small, colourful drum and really go to town. Hrm. That might not sound so good. Ok, ok, how about a classic jazz drum?! No, wait! No one likes jazz anymore. Stupid idea. Rock! Everyone likes rock! Let’s go with the rock drum. People are checking Snapchat. Some have been distracted by an augmented reality experience. How about the African drum? Uniqueness – check! Diversity – check! But can you pull off an ethnocentric vibe? You don’t want to come across as some sort of cultural appropriation type.
We’re losing them!
Ok, let’s think outside the box. Forget drums! Let’s create a sound no one has ever heard in the history of the world ever! Let’s give them the Hornucopian dronepipe! (An entirely 3D-printed instrument that includes a two-string piezoelectric violin, one-string piezoelectric monovioloncello and a small didgeridoo). This is genius!
How do you play the Hornucopian dronepipe? The crowd is thinning. You are watching YouTube tutorials on dronepipe fingerwork. Screw this! New idea! We’ve got hands and feet! Can you say bongos and bass drum together? No one has ever thought of this before!
This is it!
Make a call. No messing around. Kinda hard to keep a rhythm, but let’s go with it. Three people seem interested. It’s a start. Hard to keep time. Maybe we should quit the whole bass drum thing? No one seems to like it anyway. Getting late. The crowd is pretty small now.
You’ve just realized the bongo’s kinda suck.
Making a noise is non-negotiable, but when we become over-influenced, we risk becoming paralyzed by choice. It’s easy to get distracted by the scale of the crowd and the tools available to us, but in our search for perfection, we must weigh the consequences of silence. With this in mind, consistency is better than volume. Persistence beats uniqueness and authenticity trumps creativity. Play for yourself, play for love, and you’ll play forever. The ones who get it, will hear it.
Which drum should you pick? The one you want to bang. End of story.
HOW SMALL AGENCIES CREATE THE RIGHT CONDITIONS TO WIN.
In geography class, you were taught that wind is caused by air moving from a high-pressure system to an area of low pressure. When the sun warms the Earth’s surface the air heats up causing it to rise – creating a region of low pressure. Nature always strives for balance and so air from the surrounding regions of higher pressure flows toward the low-pressure region. The result is wind.
As a small agency, your momentum is also dictated by opposing forces because creativity is driven by decisions. Like wind, decisions always flow from areas of high pressure, to where the pressure is lowest. It is very difficult – if not impossible – for a decision to go in the other direction.
Pressure manifests in the form of resistance to ideas, constant questioning, endless changes, hesitation or complete non-decision. To generate forward momentum, the agency must balance these pressures and create the conditions possible for the client to say yes.
Pressure has different sources. It could be internal from the corporate environment, external from market forces, or (most dangerously) from the subconscious depths of their own personal insecurities. It’s up to you to figure out the location and the nature of the resistance.
Whatever the case, the creative solution must produce an area of low pressure for the decision to go in your direction. Controversial ideas, big production budgets or complex solutions with many moving parts all dial up the pressure. Unfortunately, the good ideas tend to include one or more of these characteristics.
In a big agency, pressure can often be defeated by the agency’s power alone. An agency with a high profile generates enough energy on its own to create the right conditions to get their ideas over the line, but it is rare for a small player to possess this kind of clout. Of course, the easiest way to reduce resistance is to create work that is safe, inexpensive and unremarkable (and many do) but that doesn’t go anywhere good. Small agencies who want to punch above their weight must do more.
This can be achieved in a few ways. If you are highly charismatic, you may be able to influence the client. If you are a great performer you may be able to blow them away with presentation. If you are great at relationships, you may be able to build trust.
All of this works, but the most powerful thing of all is something a lot deeper and a lot more terrifying. The way I’ve seen it work best is when the agency is willing to feel the pressure on the client’s behalf.
THE MOST SELFLESS ACT IN THE WORLD
Feeling the pressure is no walk in the park. Are you ready to accept responsibility for your client the same way you accept responsibility for a family member? Are you honestly prepared to step in front of your client? Can you leave your own comfort zone, set aside your own deep-seated fears and desires and actually empathize?
Trust me, it’s not that easy. It’s easy to fake understanding. There’s no risk in feigning sincerity, but really feeling their pressure means really feeling their pain. Real, undiluted empathy is scary.
It’s also very, very, very powerful.
The most consistently persuasive small agencies I’ve worked with have an ability – either consciously or unconsciously – to understand the forces both internal, external, psychological and personal, exerting pressure on the client. The best ones have the empathy to sympathize and the ability to finesse their solution and lead the process in a way that disarms fears and builds confidence.
When combined with all the above tactics, time and time again they are the ones who win more projects and more pitches against far bigger foes. They are often victorious in battles they have no right to win
FreakerUSA.com sells the world’s most redundant product. A fabric sock that fits over your wine bottle. They started out making these socks in short, one-off runs with designs that are sometimes funky, sometimes rad and sometimes unspeakably hideous. Here’s a company that proudly brings nothing to the table. They are literally selling the rebranding of your wine. Like a symbiote they invade their host, take it over and reanimate it.
But unlike most wines, Freaker has some of the most loyal and rabid fans out there. People who will pay – in advance – for the privilege of adorning their $100 Shiraz with a $3 polyester sock. So, why is it successful? Well, it partly has to do with how they do business. Freaker got started through kickstarter.com. This platform tends to attract early adopters. People who get a kick out of seeing things take off, and who tend to be more loyal when they do.
What sets Freaker apart most though is its anti-establishment streak. A characteristic that is embodied by the company’s founder – a homeless-looking guy with a crazy beard who speaks like Keeanu Reeves on peyote. He’s the very antithesis of the polished, designed and packaged world of wine.
Not only that, his style somehow completely lacks pretense. He is so seemingly unaware and unphased by everyone else that you can’t help but be fascinated by him. He is either completely real, or better than any method actor I know. In a weird way, he’s the thing we all lack the courage to be.
So, here’s your chance to deface the status quo. If you’ve ever wanted to raise your middle finger to corporate society, now you can do it and have a drink at the same time. What’s not to like?
The Kickstarter role is important because the model means you’re not just buying a product – you’re active in its creation. As a backer, you’re buying a chapter in that story. Somehow a small investment becomes a bond for something with more substance. Although it appears that Freaker no longer does things through Kickstarter, this early co-creation by the community played a role in the loyalty the brand now enjoys.
This then is not a wine sock, it is counter culture. FreakerUSA sells an authentic way to say up yours to the establishment. Perhaps that’s why so many are so willing to fly the flag.
I’ll drink to that.
Everyone needs a purpose, but not everyone realizes it. Moreover, most people fundamentally misunderstand what purpose really is. They confuse purpose with objectives and busying themselves with distractions to create the illusion of progress
Your superficial objective could be to build awareness, gain followers, connect to new people and access new opportunities. Your higher purpose is the way in which you want to change the world for the better.
Purpose is better than passion. Passion comes and goes, but purpose is consistent. Purpose will sustain you. Because you have a worthy idea of how you will change the world around you for the better. My purpose – the thing I care most about – is questioning the way we think.
I believe that the more we think in the same circles, the more narrow our world view. Every time I’ve shifted my perspective it has led to new opportunities, new exciting ideas and experiences. These days I’m constantly searching for things that question my world view. I’m addicted to challenging assumptions. Discovering new ways of looking at things. Learning and trying new things. I’m insanely curious. As a result. I’m a completely different person to the one I was 5 years ago.
This is important because almost everything you see around you is the product of human thought. Which means in a very real sense, if enough of us change the way we think, we can literally make the world better.
WHAT GIANT BOXING ROBOTS TAUGHT ME ABOUT B2B SALES.
I have a shameful secret. One of my favourite movies of all time is called Real Steel. You know? The one with Hugh Jackman and the giant fighting robots? Well, the reason I like this movie is (one) it stars Sir Hugh Jackman and (two) it’s about giant fighting robots.
GIANT. FIGHTING. ROBOTS!
But the other reason I like this film is that it illustrates something I’ve observed about client acquisition and new business development, particularly in the business-to-business context. See, for years in advertising I watched many trying to be the hero. After all, it makes sense to tell everyone the superpowers we possess to solve their problems, right? The problem is that the customer doesn’t see us that way.
The thing is that in our own lives we follow one main character, every day. We see the doubts, fears, hard work, little missteps and big wins play out in a great never-ending story. We’re the protagonist in our own private movie and we’re the hero in this show. We don’t see our software vendor that way! Try to position yourself there and you’re competing for a role they’ve set aside for themselves.
So, back to the giant fighting robots! Think about it. You’ve got Jackman’s character (Charlie). He has talent and he’s a fighter, but he’s got problems. Something is missing. He makes mistakes and takes risks that cost him. He doesn’t know how to reach his potential. Then, something happens. A new character appears in the form of his estranged 10-year-old son, Max. This is the turning point. The boy has a different perspective and some unique skills that make him an agent of change.
He’s a guide.
The guide doesn’t save the day. He shows the hero the way to win. In the process, he not only saves his dad, he conjures the relationship between himself and the father he never had. And then, mechanised steel giants beat the ever-loving snot out of each other for 45 minutes to an hour. It’s awesome, go watch it!
To me, the parallels to the client acquisition process are obvious. If you truly want to make and keep authentic relationships, stop trying to be the main event. Be the thing that directs them to victory.
HOW TO BE THE GUIDE:
1. Let them tell the story.
People love talking about themselves. Give them a chance to tell their story and they will reveal valuable information to you. Ask lots of questions like, “how did you end up in…?” And “…what’s it like being a….?” And “…that must be super-stressful… how do you deal with…?”
As they tell you their story they will begin to think about their own private movie without knowing it. Show genuine interest and keep going deeper until they open up and you find out what’s really going on in their lives and their work. Not only will they feel good afterwards, you will have some information to work with.
2. Reframe what you do in the context of the story.
It’s not your movie poster, so don’t try to claim the headline. You’re not the: “world’s most amazing lawyer”. Rather, you: “give entrepreneurs the confidence to make bold moves”. Don’t say: “I’m the most efficient virtual assistant”. Rather, say something like: “I help busy people focus on killing it in business!” Figure out your role in the supporting cast of this film and tell them how to write you into it.
3. Frame your experience in the context of the story.
The client isn’t interested in your accomplishments, they’re only interested in their own happy ending. Don’t tell them how you worked on [MASSIVE PROJECT WITH HUGE DELIVERABLES]. Rather, tell them how their story ends.
If possible, tell them about another hero you worked with and what success looked like. Tell them the happily ever after. If the anecdote relates, people can’t help comparing themselves and they will already be picturing you in the story.
4. Wait for permission to enter the story as the guide.
You cannot appoint yourself to this role. Only the hero can do that. Sometimes, it takes a little time. In the film, Charlie dismisses Max time and time again before he starts to come around.
Resist the urge to jump in and disgorge information and action points. Resist the urge to respond to the first thing that looks like a gap and ham-fist your sales pitch into it. Wait for your cue. When they’re ready, they’ll ask. Your patience will be rewarded with trust. Otherwise, risk getting killed off in the first act.
5. Become the ultimate method actor.
Above all, be prepared to be part of this story for a long time. People aren’t stupid. They’ll sense when you’re only in it for a quick buck. Even if you say all the right things, your body language, tone of voice and a million other non-verbal tells will betray your superficial intent. You need to be genuine. The only way I know how to do this is to give yourself fully to the role. You won’t win any Oscars, but you will win the hearts and minds of clients and make friends along the way.
What do you think? Do you agree or am I way off base? If you have another interesting perspective to share, I’d love to hear it. For now though if you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment with a bowl of popcorn and 127 minutes of loud noises!
My website address is www.steeeve.com. As a freelancer I want to be on a first name basis with clients and steve.com was taken, but that’s not the reason I threw two extra vowels in there. I’m not just trying to be different either, although it may increase the likelihood that you’ll remember my name. The real reason has to do with the psychology of sound.
You see different sounds feel different. They each provoke a unique emotional response that has been hardwired into our psychology for the thousands of years since we started using phonetic language as a means of communication.
There’s “plosive” sounds like P, which explode out of you with power. There are “liquids” such as L, which sound smoother and more fluid. Then there’s the “Nasals” M and N, which feel more flat.
Compare the made-up words “molomo” and “shrikel”. Which one feels smooth or round and which one feels like it could have sharp edges?
They feel like they sound.
Steve with the sibilant S and the plosive T, feels sharp. That’s good. I want people to think I’m one of the shiny tools in the shed, but that’s not enough. You see, my business doesn’t work without relationships.
Friendliness is the foundation upon which great ideas are built. If we don’t feel safe to share, we can’t explore fearlessly. If we can’t laugh, we can’t express ourselves openly. It’s a process that should be more than professional. It may be serious, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.
That’s where the letter E comes in.
You see, E is rather special. Humans create this sound by opening the mouth slightly and drawing the lips apart.
You’re doing it now aren’t you?
E is a smiling letter. Through the psychology of sound it adds friendliness. In this way a simple tweak turns a name into a grin. For me, this is the perfect introduction to the creative relationship. Because in my game a smile is the generator that energises fertile ideas.
The image above shows how a particular machine shop delivers products to their industrial customers. It’s a basic, four-sided, ugly, plywood box. The only distinctive feature is that – in place of standard packaging peanuts – they like to fill the empty space in the box with toffees.
This simple, dead cheap change has a particularly brilliant effect. It adds humanity. It says something about those who’ve had a hand in the product. Most importantly, it’s uncontrived. That part is hardest to get right.
Not many companies put themselves into their products like this and those that don’t miss the opportunity to make a connection.
The danger with being too slick is that it erases authenticity. It tends to smooth over humanity. So go ahead and create a well-packaged thing, but be careful you don’t leave yourself out in the process.
AUTHENTICITY. THE MOST POWERFUL GROWTH TOOL.
When you forge a friendship with someone, what process takes place? Do you observe that person closely? Do you take meticulous note of how they behave and make calculations about what they require in a relationship? Do you then try to style your speech and appearance into some semblance of that? Is it just me, or does that sound creepy? It seems to me that trying to be something you’re not is a good way to create a relationship founded on mistrust.
So why do so many companies take this sociopathic route with their customers? Why do we spend millions trying to get into the mind of the customer and shape our marketing to reflect a mirror image of that customer’s needs, wants and goals? Won’t we end up in the same place? The strongest relationships happen more naturally. They are based on the authentic click that occurs when our truth is magnetically drawn to the corresponding truth of another. It is a metallic connection.
So we need to be authentic, right? Good.
If you ask any company if they think they should be authentic, most would probably answer yes. The problem is that many believe that this means talking the language of the customer. To them it means “real talk”, but authenticity is much deeper than that. To me, being authentic is about knowing oneself rather than knowing one’s customer.
Every company – just like every person – has two stories. There’s the one we tell ourselves and then there’s the real story. The self-told story is what we think to be true about our beliefs, goals and relationships. We want to have a successful career, to circulate within an appropriate social sphere, to marry a person of a certain physical profile, to drive a particular status symbol, to have a specific number of kids.
The problem with our self-told story is that it is clouded. For the person it is warped by your family, your upbringing, your peer group and the media. For the company, it is distorted by shareholders, staff, competitors, sales targets and the economy.
The self-told story often has very little to do with what truly drives us. Deep down, it is at odds with the true nature of the individual. It is the reason many people get divorced, accumulate huge piles of debt and stay in jobs they hate. It’s also the reason many companies have clients they don’t like very much.
This is unfortunate because the real story is 1000 times more powerful than the self-told one. The real story will energise you! It creates a positive feedback loop. If companies were able to express their realness they would strongly attract compatible customers and repel the incompatible ones who will inevitably grow to resent you. This is a net gain leading to better relationships, more success, better staff morale and yes, higher profits.
The problem is that self-honesty is difficult. It’s difficult for people, it’s much more difficult for businesses and it gets exponentially more so, the larger the organisation. Because we’ve spent our lives telling ourselves a different story. It is now encased in buzzwords and enshrined in mission statements. And if we can’t get to the realness, we don’t have a hope of expressing it.
It seems to me that what we should be doing less reflection and more self-reflection.