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Ode to obedience

Obedience gets a bad rap.  We denigrate the ‘obedient’ one as someone lacking in spunk, spark, creativity and leadership.  Think about it.  If someone said, “oh, so-and-so, he’s sooo obedient!”  What would you think?  Something between ‘eew!’ and ‘yuck’!

We idolize the  rebel.  We create myths about the  independent souls who reject instruction, laugh at admonition, and defy convention.  And we mistakenly think that doing so is the required path to creativity, individual expression and happiness.

Rebel = cool, interesting, daring, creative, great!

Obedient = boring, dull, predictable, sucks!

This is an ode to obedience and a ‘watchout’ to the rebel.

When I look at what’s happening today I’d suggest that our problem isn’t a scarcity of rebels.  Everyone is a rebel.  We all have a social media platform and we’re all ‘mad as hell and not going to take it anymore!’

But if everyone’s a rebel, you can’t have a rebellion.  Just like the world of Lake Wobegon where everyone is above average, creating a culture where everyone is leading (or thinks they are) and no one is following (or is capable of doing so) can’t a movement make.

By venerating the rebel we risk eviscerating the heart and soul of what makes every society, organization, and business strong — the dutiful footsoldier who is dependable, reliable, trustworthy and … yes … predictable.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting we promote lemming-like, do-what-you-are-told without question society.  But lowly obedience – simply doing what others ask of you – is a dying art.

Consider the teacher.  When I teach all I really want of the person at the other end is to do what I ask them to.  Read the book.  Complete the drill.  Learn the lesson.  Great that you ask questions and all that.  But at the end of the day if everything is up for grabs, nothing get grasped.

Consider the parent.  OK.  You know that your children at some point will need to rebel.  You know that they need to chart their own way.  And you know that they will be stupid.  Why?  Because you were young and stupid once too.  There was a time that whatever Mom or Dad said, you did the opposite.  And now you’re a parent.  And you  plead with your children “Please!  Just do this … Just this once … Trust me … I know what will happen if you don’t … Just trust me on this one.”  But no … you’re fighting a losing battle

Why do we denigrate the obedient and venerate the rebel?

Here’s a couple of possibilities:

1. The great thing about being a rebel is that you don’t have to be ‘for’ anything.  The rebel knows only one thing – what I am against.  That is why I’m a rebel!  Down with this!  Down with that!  “Tear down this wall!”  What replaces all this?  Beats the hell out of me!  I’m just a rebel.  I tear things down.  I’m not responsible for building things back up.

Which leads me to my second point …

2.  Obedience requires commitment and perseverance – not really popular things these days.  We don’t like difficult.  Difficult is, well, difficult!  The great thing about being a rebel and being against something is that no one holds you much accountable on what you are for.  The problem with obedience is that it, by definition, means you have to be ‘for’ something and willing to both ‘follow’ that something as well as defend that something.  Following is not cool.  Defending is hard work.  Obedience is difficult.  Difficult is not fun.

So what does any of this say anything about business and brands?  I’d suggest that some of the great brands we often consider ‘rebels’ are not rebels at all.  They are brands that are obedient to their values and instill obedience in their supporters.  Virgin, Apple, Zappos, Trader Joe’s, Facebook.  These are not ‘anything goes’ type places.  No, they aren’t rebel at all.  They just have a point of view and are slavishly obedient to it.  They are brands of followers.  They are brands supported by people who do as they are told, in the way they are told to do it.  They are obedient.

So here’s to obedience.  It is neither boring nor dull.  Rather it requires conviction and discipline … Which is why obedience can be very unpopular.

Gratitude and the Spirit of Thanksgiving

When I was a boy growing up there was a hymn that I learned in church.  The song was about counting blessings.  There was a simplicity in both the melody and the words and the refrain went like this:

“Count your many blessings name them one by one.
Count your many blessings see what God has done.
Count your blessings.  Name them one by one.
Count your many blessing see what God has done.”

The beat slowed when you sang the part “name … them … one … by … one” as if to emphasize that the exercise of naming and listing was as important as the list itself.

This to me this – naming blessings one by one – is the lost concept of gratitude.

It goes beyond the art of being thankful in a general way.  Everyone can do that.  Thankfulness has become more of a courtesy than a sincere expression of appreciation.

Thanks!  Thanks alot!  Thank y0u!  Thank you soooo much!

Yeah, whatever.

Today is Thanksgiving Day.  We focus on what we’re thankful for.  So I started counting those things I am thankful for.  I started counting my blessings.  Whoa!  It was a long list.  And as I turned the page on the list I sensed that I hadn’t even scratch the surface.  There was so much to be thankful for … so many blessings.  The list got so long I got tired.  So I watched football (which was also on my list!).

This is a great exercise. I encourage you to try it.  Really.  Get a piece of paper and pencil and start making a list.  If you get stuck, get up and walk around.  Look.   Go online.  Check email.  Check Facebook.  Talk to a friend or neighbor.  Be creative.

Try thinking of blessings that you have (and take for granted) every day.  Go from the most esoteric to the mundane.

Sound boring?  What if I told you that doing this will actually make you healthier and have better sex?  Do I have your attention now?  Well according to a report in the New York Times:


Cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” has been linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others, including romantic partners.


So count your blessings.  Name them one by one.  There’s so much there.  We just don’t take time to see it.

Be healthy.  Be kind.  Be romantic.

Be grateful.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Hiding in plain sight

So now we know that all this time the world’s most notorious terrorist was living in a suburb of Islamabad.  And not only that, the town was also the home of the Pakistani military academy.  Not exactly a cave in the hinterlands.   It would be like this guy to have hung out for years in duplex outside of Quantico Marine base.

Hiding in plain sight.  This, my friends, is the story of life.

We miss stuff all the time, and it is hiding in plain sight.  Like the housing crisis.  Or the oil crisis.  Or the next retirement crisis.

This stuff is / was there.  Like, right there!  Right in front of us.  Clear as an unmuddied lake.  But we don’t see it.  Sometimes it is because the object of our affection or interest has craftily gone to the once place we’d NEVER think about looking.

Sometimes we fail to see or acknowledge what is in plain view because we’re either focusing on something else.   A version of the latter is called inattentional blindness.  It was the subject of a recent popular book which I highly recommend titled “The Invisible Gorilla”.  According to Daniel Simons:  “Inattentional blindness is the failure to notice a fully-visible but unexpected object when you are focusing attention on something else.”

Finally, there are those times when things can hide in plain sight because we find them too uncomfortable to face.

So which was it for the Pakistani Army?  Was it simply that the terrorist had outsmarted them by going to the ONE PLACE that no one would have ever guessed (including, by the way, the Bush and Obama administrations)?  Or did they not see it because they were too busy with other things?  Or did we not see it because they didn’t want to see it?

Most of the challenges we face are hidden in plain sight.  We know they are a problem.  But we don’t see them because we’re either (a) caught up paying attention to other less pressing but often more pleasurable things; or (b) find them too painful to confront so we pretend they’re not there.

Most of the solutions to our problems are hidden in plain sight.  We just don’t pursue them because it is inconvenient or uncomfortable.  This is certainly true for people.  Overweight?  Exercise and eat more fruits and vegetables.  Financial concerns?  Save more than you spend.  Unfulfilled?  Do only those things you are passionate about.

This is true for every organization and every brand.

We know we’re to focus on core competencies, invest in people, constantly improve the customer experience.  The principles that the big consultancies come up with aren’t rocket science.  They are pretty basic stuff.  They are things that most people in the organization ALREADY KNOW!  But they hide in plain sight because we are either distracted or inconvenienced.

Like our now deceased terrorist … most of our problems and their solutions are … right there hiding in plain sight.  And like the folks in the Islamabad suburb, most of the time we find ways to ignore what we know to be true.

When Progress Isn’t

Progress can set you back.

As readers of the JuiceBar know, I travel a lot. Most of that travel is in and out of Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia.

Anyone who has flown in or out of Dulles likely has an opinion about the airport’s famous “people movers” … specially made buses that were originally designed to take passengers from the terminal directly to the plane but for the past ten years simply shuttled people to the next concourse.

People movers were the things that everyone loved to hate.

Everyone wanted a subway or train.  Just like the other airports.  So the folks at Dulles built one.  A beautiful, shiny, open cavernous, glassy one.  Wide open spaces.  Smooth terrazzo floors.

Just one thing.  To get to TSA you have to go down.  Quite a ways down actually.  The lines there are long.  Then you need to walk.  You need to walk a lot.  If there were those guys in little carts, you’d want to hitch a ride with them.  You need to walk a long way and then go down again.  Way, way down.  To the shiny, glassy, train station with the smooth, polished terrazzo floors.  Now you need to wait.  When the train comes, jump on quickly or you’ll miss it.  While you’re on the train waiting to arrive at Concourse C, you should rest up.  You can’t drink any water because they made you throw that away at the TSA line, so just conserve your energy.  Because once you’ve gotten to the Concourse you’re going to be walking.  And walking.  And walking.  And that is just to get to the elevator that takes you back to the surface.  So you can walk some more to get to your actual gate.

This is the progress that isn’t.  It now takes me longer to get to the gate than before.  Much longer.  My only solace is that people now have to walk more so we get more exercise.  Maybe that will help solve our obesity problem.  Make every fly from Dulles.

The fact is that you now walk as much going in and out of the ‘new’ transit system than you would if you just stepped through the main terminal and walked straight across the tarmac to the next Concourse.

Now THAT would be progress.

I’m seeing a lot of progress that isn’t these days.

Scrambling for an electric outlet to enter something into an electrical device when writing it down with a pen and paper would do.  Twenty-five clicks to get a calendar entry to synch with all 11 of my appointment books when just having an old DayTimer would do the same in a fraction of the time.

Sometimes things get better for the worse.

Sometimes progress isn’t.

Famous People Behaving Badly

So here’s another down side of the new flat world of ubiquitous media:  we get to watch too many human car wrecks.  This is why I think Woody Allen’s ’15 seconds of fame’ is the cancer of the new millennium.  When you’re famous, we get to watch you screw up and in some cases melt down.

I don’t know Charlie Sheen and have only watched his show when I’m flying United (and even then only if someone has already filled out the Sudoku in Hemispheres magazine). By all accounts he’s a troubled fellow.  And there is lot of that going around.  Lindsay Lohan and Bobby BrownTiger Woods and Bret FavreMark Hurd and Bernie Madoff.  And let’s not even talk about politics and those crazies from upstate New York.

You can’t turn the page, click a screen or listen to a news cast without a story of someone doing something bizarre, creepy, sad and self-destructive.  And we get to watch it all – screen by screen – as they fall apart.

I am glad that I am not famous and screwed up.

Ok … I’m screwed up … but I’m not famous.

Which means that the only people that have to suffer through my miscreant behavior are my long suffering family and friends.  And they only get small doses of it in real time.  Not endless streams of audio and video and commentary and counter-commentary.

It pays to be unfamous.  You save a lot of wear and tear.  Both on yourself and those around you.

So lay low!

The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

This is a post about being a Christian.

Today there are a lot of people writing a lot of posts and articles about the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

And well they should.  He was a great man whose vision, oratory, writings and tireless work inspired a nation to turn away – albeit slightly – from bigotry, racism and hatred.

And it is his social and political accomplishments that you’ll likely read most about today and tomorrow.  His speeches.  His marches.  Lunch counters. Protests.  Non violence.

But I want to remind others – as I remind myself – that Dr. King was a Reverend.  A preacher.  A man of faith.  A Christian.

Funny how most of us gloss over that.

I bought my wife one of Dr. King’s books for Christmas.  It sits on the coffee table.  The title of the book is Strength to Love. According to Dr. King’s wife:

“If there is one book Martin Luther King, Jr. has written that people consistently tell me has changed their lives, it is Strength to Love.  I believe it is because this book best explains the central element of Martin Luther King, Jr.’ s philosophy of nonviolence: His belief in a divine, loving presence that binds all life. … By reaching into and beyond ourselves and tapping the transcendent moral ethic of love, we shall overcome these evils.”

Read the book.  If only a chapter or two.

And if you do I challenge you to try and divorce Dr. King’s vision of a world where ‘a man would be judged by the content of his character, not the color of his skin’ from his Christian faith.

His understanding of racism and bigotry was an understanding of how profoundly sinful we all are.  And his belief in non-violence and sacrifice was tightly linked to his meditations on Jesus and the cross

Read Dr. King.  And be reminded of the real meaning and spirit of the Christian faith.

You might find it very different from the Christian faith you see in popular culture or hear in political dialogue.

Jesus said that if we have the faith of a mustard seed we can move mountains.  Dr. King’s faith moved an entire generation.

Read Dr. King.   And pray that more will be inspired to, like Dr. King, recapture the revolutionary loving spirit of the Christian faith.

Sticks, Stones, and Words

When I was young, like many I learned the little maxim “sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me.”

It was a phrase tossed around to try and convince ourselves (and others) that the mean, horrible, and hurtful things that people said about you didn’t, well, hurt.

But of course we knew better.  Even back then when we were little.  We knew that regardless of how many times we told ourselves that words would never hurt us, words hurt.

Words do hurt.  In fact, words are more painful than sticks or stones because the hurt and damage they cause can last a lifetime.

Want proof?

Think back ten years to the last time you sprained an ankle while running; hit a finger after missing a nail; stubbed your toe; or taken a fall and broken something?

Remember?  It healed, right?

Now think back ten years to the last time someone you loved said something mean to you; to the time when Mom or Dad or brother or sister made some crude, careless remark; to the time when your boss or colleague cut you down; the last time you were publicly rejected or humiliated.

Still hurts, doesn’t it?

Words are doubly dangerous because they hurt you then AND they hurt you now.

But wait, there’s more.

Words are man’s most dangerous weapon because they can spread.  They are the world oldest pandemic.  They can create fear.  They can foster hate.  They can incite action.  Every mob, every pogrom, every instance of mass hysteria starts with words.

I am in the business of words.  I have a healthy respect for them.  I respect them because I know that in the right hands they can change people’s minds and motivate people to do things they otherwise wouldn’t do.

So those in the business of words, take note:

  • Call a person a Nazi
  • Say that what someone is doing is evil
  • Claim that certain people are a threat to faith and family
  • Compare those in office to Fascists, despots and mass murders
  • Assert that a person, party, or policy must be stopped at all costs

These words will eventually have their effect.  At some point, someone, will listen and will be motivated to act.

If not in Tuscon, somewhere else.

And when they do, know that you did your part to help.

Brain 1 – History (and Thanksgiving) 0

I’ve been plowing through a stack of books about the brain … how we process information, store it, understand it, and incorporate that information into our lives.  There’s no shortage of them.  The brain and its vagaries are hot topics, especially if you are in the behavioral marketing or communications sciences (that would be me).  I just finished a great read by Robert Burton.  It was the title that got me:

“On Being Certain:  Believing your are right even when you’re not”

Of course he wasn’t talking about you and me.  To steal the tag line from the late Senator Long, he was talking about “the person behind the tree”.  You and I … well, we’re sure we’re right.  Right?


Fact is, what we THINK happened in the past likely did not … at least not in the way we think.  We didn’t party as much (or as little) as we think we did in high school and college.   We weren’t as cool (or dopey) as we thought we were in our twenties.  And that summer road trip wasn’t as fun and bizarre (or mind stultingly boring) as we imagined.

Indeed … the road trip may not have even happened!

Fact is, after you finish reading Burton’s book you begin to rethink everything about what you think you know.  Because according to him a good chunk of it is something we made up along the way.

Burton explores the ‘hidden layer’ of the brain that enables us to – among other things – reinterpret history.  It is this subconscious layer that makes us certain about things that either allows us be certain about things that are either (a) dead wrong; or (b) didn’t happen.

He gives the example of Ulric Neisser‘s famous Challenger explosion study.  Ulric, a professor and psychologist, the day after the Challenger study asked his students to write down the details of that day.  Two and a-half years later he asked them again and guess what.  In a mere 30 months less than 10 percent told the same story.  A quarter of the participants told a ‘strikingly different’ story.  Most interesting was this – when shown their own original account many clung to the ‘new version’ of history.  As told by Burton:

“Many expressed a high level of confidence that their false recollections were correct, despite being confronted with their own handwritten journals.  The most unnerving was one student’s comment, ‘That’s my handwriting, but that’s not what happened.'”

I’m imagining it is why all those politicians – both left and right – say stuff about themselves that isn’t true.  Maybe it is why Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have – as noted recently in the New York Times – created their own myth about the origins of Thanksgiving and the demise of American socialism and rise of American capitalism.

Doesn’t have much to do with truth.  But for them it has become their reality.  The past is metastasized, digested and recast.  And viola!  Out pops a new reality.

This is a sad reality for people like me that are in the communications business.  Every day someone can wake up and decide that they are going to change history.  Their ‘hidden layer’ is going to process the next wave of information and decide that you’re no longer cool.

Shoot, they may even decide that you are downright evil (e.g. you may have THOUGHT that those Pilgrims were nice folks yearning for religious freedom in funny hats but in reality they were communist, collectivist, fascist zealots that were only saved when unshackled from their socialist roots and given a heavy dose of capitalism and an across-the-board tax cut.)

Seems we have to work hard just to keep history the same.

Doesn’t leave much time to make for a better future.

Fact is, what we THINK happened in the past likely did not … at least not in the way we think.  We didn’t party as much (or as little) as we think we did in high school and college.   We weren’t as cool (or dopey) as we thought we were in our twenties.  And that road trip wasn’t as fun and bizarre (or mind stultingly boring) as we imagined.

Indeed … the road trip may not have even happened!

Past, Present and Future – What is most relevant to you?

So here’s a question for you.  What time zone do you live in.  Which is most relevant to you?

I’ll outline three.  And you have to pick one.  That’s right.  Only one.  The one that is most relevant for you.

Note:  there is NO right or wrong answer.  Just an answer.

Here are your choices.

Traditionalists – History is important – personal, familial, cultural.  What has gone before should not be forgotten.  Traditions matter.  They are there for a reason.  Anchors.  Guideposts.  They hold both family and society together.  They are precious gifts from one generation to the next.  By reflecting on and understanding the past we can best adapt and enjoy what’s ahead.

Existentialists – What is most important is today; what is happening now.  Carpe diem.  Seize the day.  By focusing on the moment we give energy and meaning to every breath and every experience.  It is not that yesterday or tomorrow do not matter.  They do.  But we create yesterdays and tomorrows by living every day – right now – to its fullest.

Utopians – We live today in hope for tomorrow.  Things have and will get better.  And that is because people have great visions and take great risks.  We have an indefatigable confidence in what tomorrow can be.  We have the dream and the discipline to cross the next frontier and make the next advancement.  We want and are building what is next.

So there it is.  Which time zone floats your boat?  Which makes you most comfortable.  Where (rather, when) do you spend most of your time?  Are you the Traditionalist who lives in the past, the Existentialist who  lives in the present, or the Utopian who lives in the future?

Could it be that brands also live in a particular time zone?  Some relate to us by tradition.  Others by experience.  Others through hope.

There is no right or wrong choice.

Just a way of anchoring that helps us relate to each other and the things around us.

Is social media small change?

The latest kerfuffle in social media circles has been Malcolm Gladwell’s recent piece in the New Yorker headlined “Small Change.”

In it Gladwell has the temerity of asserting that social media’s impact on social change is not all that it is cracked up to be.  Some of his jabs are sharp.   Like calling innovators ‘solipsists’ and saying that ‘they’ – that is the vaunted social media futurist gurus – ‘often want to cram every stray fact and experience into their new model.’


Gladwell’s argument is characteristically simple and trenchant – that online social networks do not engender either the strong commitment (and risk!) nor the organizational structure that make for social change.  Using the civil rights movement as an example, he notes that real change – substantive action in the face of entrenched power – is not social media or social networking’s strong suit.  Social media, Gladwell writes:

“is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that “give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo. If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause.” (my emphasis added)

This bold assertion – that social media is just window dressing and doesn’t represent any fundamental change in how social change is achieved – has got the preachers of social media gospel in a tizzy.

One writer on MediaPost blasted back with an article eloquently entitled, “Malcolm Gladwell is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong.”

Clearly Mr. Gladwell has hit a nerve.

And in my view rightly so.  It is still early in the social media revolution.  But what we have seen to date doesn’t appear to have prompted many fundamental changes in attitudes, behavior, norms, or even public policy.

One of the better rebuttals comes from Brendan Smith and Jeremy Brecher.  In it they quibble with many of the characteristics that Gladwell attributes to past social movements.  But their main point is to remind Gladwell (and all of us) to keep a clear distinction between social media as a tool and social media as an end in itself.

“Gladwell is surely right when he says social media ‘are not a natural enemy of the status quo.’ But that is only the beginning of the discussion. The pertinent question is whether social media can contribute to the process of forming social movements and effective social action, not whether social media can substitute for that process. (A telephone system is not a PTA, but it can sure as heck be useful for getting a few hundred people out to confront the school board or vote in the school board election.)”

That is — in the JuiceBar’s view — the better way to look at this.  Social media and social networks are tools.  They are to the 21st century what the telegraph was to the 20th (although I must say that better stories came out of the events around the Pony Express than out of the building of the telegraph network.

But Gladwell’s most damning criticism is the inherent conflict that arises when information and content are ‘free’.  And that is the simple fact that sustaining value and relevance is difficult when everything is free and no one has a price to pay.