Every so often I do a reset of my teaching habits in order to see if I am in synch with my MBA students. They are mature adults with years and sometimes even decades of international work experience behind them. I want to be sure I am current with their professional realities. It is time again for a reset, so I used the beginning of the new term to ask them how they wished to use technology during our class time together.
I love turning the tables on my students and inviting them to take ownership of their learning process. Many are delighted with the invitation and eagerly embrace the opportunity. Others are unsure, as their previous learning experiences have been largely out of their control. Empowerment takes a bit of getting used to, as a Japanese student reflected to me at the end of the class.
I had expected the discussion of technology in the classroom to take a maximum of 15 minutes. It would be simple, right? Use smart phones or not? Easy. Laptops or not? Easy.
Not so. Each of my three sections of students took over an hour, with one section going to 90 minutes. Clearly, the topic touched on real concerns they had about the use of technology in the classroom and the workplace.
Some fascinating insights emerged:
1. Personal use of technology is now the accepted norm in the workplace.
The old world of separation between work and personal life is over. Not only is it unenforceable, but it is simply impractical. Even just 10 years ago the assumption was that when you were at work you were working. Only emergency personal communication was expected by your employer. You should be focused on your work when at work.
Now? While some old-school dictatorial type managers can still be observed in the wilds of the workplace, they are an endangered species. It is now the socially and professionally accepted norm that you will flow between work and personal smoothly and without significant concern. Only when you are clearly not getting your work done or are disturbing others with your personal interactions will a concern be raised with you.
This is the world of work. Students feel that the classroom should be the same as the workplace: Technology for personal use should be just fine.
2. You are always connected and reachable.
Again, even just 10 years ago when someone in your personal sphere wanted to connect with you they would hesitate if it was during working hours: “Is this important enough for me to ask for your attention?” might go through their subconscious.
Now? Send a text message. Initiate an online chat. Or call. Anytime. You are expected to be reachable 24×7 to friends and family now. For any reason.
3. Everyone must develop their own discipline.
My students were most vocal about this. Do not restrict our use of technology in the classroom or workplace. Let us learn the hard way to discipline ourselves. When we fail in our studies or in meeting our goals in the workplace, we will learn when to put the phone into silent mode and close personal windows on our laptops so that we can focus on what we have to get done.
The Pavlovian urge to check text messages must be overcome by the individual. They need results oriented feedback before they will begin to discipline themselves.
Personally I question this, but mostly for self-preservation reasons as a professor. When a student fails in their studies their first reaction is that it is not their fault. Blame is projected outward and the blame gun is pointed directly at the professor. And in this era of “the student is a customer mindset” of institutions, the student must be placated, if only for institutional marketing reasons.
4. Our classrooms and workplaces are 100 years out of date.
This is my personal favourite. We have “Master” centric classrooms with mechanical layouts that encourage students and workers to think and act like robots being prepared for 19th century factories when they graduate. Desks all lined up in the classroom so the teacher is the authority. In the same way, cubicles in the workplace de-humanize employees in the workplace. Yikes.
We brainstormed what the 21st century classroom and workplace should look like. Tables with wireless charging built into them. Groupings of tables so that teams can work together face-to-face to solve problems and construct things. Wireless projectors so that students can easily project what is on their smartphone to the whole class. Continual, natural, and individual-driven use of technology, all the time. Co-working, an emerging evolution of the workspace, is an example of how positive change is happening in the real world, where technology is fully integrated into the physical place people work.
Ahhh….I love the smell of empowerment in the classroom.
But then I asked them: “May I use my smartphone during class?”
Their reply: “No! Not you. We paid for you to be here and teach us.”
Clearly, there are still some limits on the use of technology in the classroom. Well, limits on my use, anyway. And of course, they don’t see the irony: “Teach us, but we won’t necessarily be listening, engaging, or learning from what you are doing. We might be busy focusing elsewhere with our phones and laptops. But keep going. We paid you to do this, so do it anyway. And make sure that we get good grades, too. Oh, and thank you for doing all that. ”
Musings on Education, Part 1: Why education is not a business and students are not customers
I started teaching my MBA course on business responsibility this term with a case study on the Thunderbird School of Business in AZ and the controversy over their privatization efforts. Thunderbird has joined with a private education company to delivery a new undergrad business degree. They have made their undergrad degree a “business”.
I thought this was a nice fresh case discussion challenge for my students:
“Why isn’t your MBA degree a private business? Wouldn’t it make sense to have an MBA degree delivered by a business…an education business? After all, it seems silly to have a non-profit, government-funded university teaching you how to run a for-profit business, no?”
Well, the discussion didn’t really get very far. My students knew something was wrong with the logic, but couldn’t really make sense of why.
And I started to wonder why it is that education is increasingly being treated like a business and our students increasingly being called “customers”.
Which led me to think about my 22 years of teaching and designing programs in colleges and universities and what I was really doing all those years.
And this led to some rather startling insights. Here they are:
1. The students we have in our classrooms are not our customers. Instead, we have three other customers:
A. The parents, teachers, counselors, and everyone else who encouraged the students to go into higher education.
Many students are in my classroom not because they want to be, but because they know of no other way to a better life than what they have been told. In some cases, pleasing parents is the only reason the students are in my classroom. So, the customer I am to please in many cases is not the student, but their parents.
Government pays for a big part of higher education because it knows that education can create a better society. So, my customer is, at least partly, the government and society in general.
C. The student’s future self: 5-10 years from now.
Students don’t even begin to really understand what they have experienced and gained in higher education until many years in the future. So for a third time, my customer is not the student sitting in front of me right now, but their future self.
So, if the person sitting in my classroom is not my customer, then who is this person? Which led to my next insight:
2. The students in my classroom are the raw material of other stakeholders’ needs. They are the seed that will grow into a tree that others will approve of…including their future self.
And this raw material – this seed – does not even know it is not the customer.
Which led to my next insight:
3. Students are not aware they are the raw material for other people’s wishes.
They are not aware of the system they are going through.
They are not aware of what education is and how it works.
They are not aware of who and what they really are.
They are not aware that they are not my customer.
Which led to my next insight:
4. How can education be a business when the student is treated like a customer but they are not the customer?
Which led me to conclude that if education does become a business, it would be a very, very strange animal indeed.
It would be an organization where the raw material – the seed – is treated like a customer when it is not the customer…but believes that it is the customer.
Musings on Education, Part 2: What my students want is not what I am here to do.
I have just spent 22 years teaching and designing programs at colleges and universities. I have been offering education and crafting programs that offer educations. And in recent years I have even been consulting and speaking on how to do things better in delivering educations at other institutions.
Now I realize that I have got it all wrong:
I haven’t been actually doing what students wanted.
I have been doing what I wanted.
Worse, I didn’t know I was out of synch with reality.
You see, students don’t want an education, they want the outcomes of an education, including:
a degree that tells others something about their status and abilities.
a good job.
lots of money.
a lovely mate.
happy parents (who paid for the education).
And here I thought I was supposed to be educating them.
Part 1: “Education” is increasingly being treated as if it can be a business-able service. Nah. It can’t really. “Training”? Sure: Training can be a business, but not education.
Part 2: I have been designing, staging, and offering educations for 22 years. But 99% of my students don’t want an education . They want the outcomes of an education. Different product. I have been trying to “educate” when I should have simply been “delivering”.
Part 3: Where learning really takes place – a way forward?
I am an educator.
I stand on the side and coach, facilitate, guide, encourage, honour, and stage learning experiences where the students are the actors and the audience at the same time.
I am the director, the playwright, the stage manager, the acting coach, and the usher.
These activities and roles are in my blood. They are what I am, not something I do. I work from the heart in helping others grow as human beings.
I cannot “deliver” education. I cannot lecture or be the “sage on the stage”. To me, education is only about active, engaged, human development. Not about “knowledge acquisition”.
But knowledge acquisition is what the system is designed to do. And for the most part the players in it are comfortable with that design, desire it to be that way, and actively support it being that way.
And the “players” include students.
Oh, the students say they want an education, but they don’t, really (see Part 2). Again, they really only want the desired outcomes of an education. The actual “education” part? Well it is something they will try hard to “game” their way around. Or avoid completely, if possible.
Because simply put, acquiring an education is a messy, non-linear, challenging, emotional, and uncertain experience.
And who wants all that when you can have the nice and tidy opposite?
Well, if students don’t want an “education”, and I really can’t “deliver” the goods they do want – a nice comfy linear mental “knowledge fill-up” process leading to the outcomes they desire, then what role do I have to play from this point forward?
In other words, I am an “educator” and the system wants “delivery men and women”.
And I am tired of twisting myself into a pretzel to try to squeeze an education into a system designed for delivering outcomes rather than educations.
I used to sigh and shake my head every time I would arrange my classroom tables and chairs so that students could work in teams or face each other. In doing so they could engage with each other in learning. These classroom structures are based on all the best principles of adult education – principles that encourage ownership of learning, engagement, responsibility taking, discussion, teamwork, communication skill building, and active learning. Principles that have been clearly documented for 50 years. 100 years. Oh wait, even from earlier than that…
Then, the next teacher in the classroom, or the students themselves, would dutifully put the tables and chairs back into neat rows facing the front, so that delivery could take place. So that they could pass authority, power, and responsibility back to the teacher. Just where it belonged.
But the classroom desk re-arrangement game is not funny anymore. After two decades of trying to educate in a system that wants a linear, mechanical, knowledge-delivery process , this game is just lame.
I don’t want to play this game anymore. Nor the other pretzel games I have had to play to try to educate in the classroom.
In summary, very few students in my classes now want an education.
But educate is what I do.
Where learning really takes place, and a possible way forward…
But wait! Hang on. Enough sucking of my proverbial thumb.
Some tough questions to ask myself:
1. Is it fair to say that all students don’t want an education?
Answer: No. Of course it is unfair. Some small percentage do seem to want an education. And the rest? They will learn in their own way in their own time. If not in the classroom, then in other ways and for many, later in life.
But some small percentage are ready to learn…right now.
2. Does learning actually take place in the classroom?
Answer: Well, it can, in principle. But in practice, given the structure of the higher education system as “delivery” oriented, and given that most people in it want the structure to be that way, then no: “Filling up” at a knowledge level certainly happens, but learning as I understand it does not actually take place in the classroom – not in the traditional lecture based classroom where assessments are designed to test knowledge or designed for students to mimic mechanical processes. And even if you offer rich learning experiences, most students don’t want them. They actually want a delivery mode instead. In my most recent teaching terms, students have actually been rejecting engaging in rich learning experiences. Some even walk out of the classroom and don’t return, skipping some or much of my term in favour of spending their time “studying the really important courses” (read: ones that allow them to learn in a linear, mechanical, knowledge-based manner).
3. Where does learning actually take place, then?
Well if rich learning doesn’t take place in the classroom, where does it take place?
Answer: In a dozen other places! In student reflections – both alone and over coffee with a friend. In work experiences or co-op educations. In social events on campus and off. In late night chats. In office meetings with professors who care. In….
Not in the classroom, but outside of the classroom!
In one-on-one meetings and small group discussions. And with larger groups of students who choose to learn.
Where learning is emotionally safe.
And when learning is on a student’s own schedule and when they decide to learn. Even if this means after they have run into the barriers of their own limits and have come to realize that they need change and grow in ways that simple knowledge acquisition can’t deliver.
And so a possible way forward begins to emerge:
I have been trying to educate in the classroom, where education can’t really take place.
Maybe I should explore how I can help students learn outside of the classroom!
Maybe this is in one-on-one sessions, with small groups, and with larger gatherings of students who want and choose to learn.
Maybe I have simply been in the wrong setting and at the wrong point in their development.
Or maybe I have simply outgrown the classroom setting.
In either case, a way forward begins to emerge for me: a point and new perspective to start exploring from…
I am writing you today because I feel it is time for openness from my perspective on you and your experiences in my recent courses.
I went into teaching in higher education 22 years ago because I loved learning, helping others learn, and to enjoy the intellectually stimulating place that universities and colleges can be. I also thought that I was somehow doing good – helping the world be a better place through education.
The journey over 22 years has been very rewarding to me. I smile when I reflect on the amazing experiences we have had together. Many of you I will remember fondly for the rest of my life. Some have become my dear friends, too!
During these last 2 decades it was not only you who have grown professionally and personally through our experiences together, but me too! We have both gained new skills, awareness, knowledge, and self-confidence. I used to be scared of going into the classroom when I first started teaching. This and many other fears and insecurities have been replaced with confidence and strength. And I have seen the dramatically increased confidence and strength in hundreds of you, too!
Recently, however, I have found myself scared again of teaching. And it surprised and disturbed me when I uncovered the reasons:
1. I love learning and growing intellectually and personally, and always have. Recently, I have found a mismatch between what I love to do and what you are seeking. Most questions I get from you now are either grade related or “tell me what to do” queries, not learning related. As I don’t worry much about grades (and never did) receiving your questions has become increasingly frustrating for me.
2. Further, there has been a lot of emotion attached to your queries recently: Shock, anger, disappointment, and blame pointed at me when your grades do not meet your expectations, or I won’t tell you “what to do”. When I was in university, I knew that my grades generally reflected my effort, understanding, abilities, and skills. Obviously, there were good teachers and bad teachers, great courses and crappy courses. But overall, it was *me* who was responsible for my grades, not my professors. I always knew this. To my recent surprise, apparently many of you think I am responsible for your grades and for your learning!
3. I always knew that I had to change and grow up as a necessary part of my learning. And for most of my 22 years, I think most of my students understood this too. Through mutual trust, engagement, hard work, and opening up our minds and spirits, learning happened through change. Now, I am finding that most of you want to do more of the same things you did before, in the same ways, as if learning is about simply more volume of information intake in the ways you did before. This is so fundamentally opposite to learning as I understand the process that I simply don’t know how to teach in the way you want me to.
4. Mentoring has always been an important part of my learning. When asked at the end of my degree who I held up as a person I respected and wanted to be like right then, It was Professor Jim Erskine, a master teacher and overall amazing person. He represented at that time the person I wanted to be primarily because he was dedicated to crafting the most amazing learning experiences for his students and making it safe for us to learn. I grew tremendously from his teaching, mentorship, and those transformative learning experiences. From building our communication skills to new ways of seeing the world, every class had something to learn, even if I didn’t fully understand at the time all of of what it was I was learning. I knew I was on to something good in Jim’s classes and gave all I could to learning and growing during our time together. I was no perfect student, to be clear, but I really worked hard at changing myself.
Over the last 22 years, I have found myself humbled by the number of my own students who feel I have helped them learn and grow. This alone has made the journey worthwhile for me.
In the last 2 years I have been humbled again. This time, however, it has not been in a happy way. Despite crafting and honing what I thought were my best learning opportunities yet, and looking forward to our time together with all that I have to give, I witnessed very little interest from you in engaging and learning. Oh, we have had the odd fun times in the classroom and a few of you have excelled, but would have despite anything I have done. As a whole, however, I feel little change has happened as any result of my role as your teacher. In other words, I am no longer making a difference.
These last few courses together have been the most difficult experiences of my career and have led me to reconsider why I teach and whether I am able to teach any longer.
“Maybe it is me who is now simply a bad and uncaring teacher”, I have asked myself in reflection. So, how did I go from being a teacher that made a difference to one who students get angry at because they don’t like their grades or I won’t tell them what to do?
After some reflection, I have come to the conclusion that there is no judgement needed. No good or bad conclusions to be made about myself or about you.
There is simply a mismatch.
We now have different purposes. I am here to help others learn and grow because I love to learn and grow.
I sense that you have come to my classroom with different purposes and for different reasons. Not good or bad reasons, to be clear, but simply because you want something other than learning as I understand it and can help you with.
I regret that I did not see this mismatch coming sooner. But that is the nature of learning, isn’t it? You sometimes have to learn by experience.
I now take full responsibility for finding where I can do what I do best. I make this commitment to myself and to any future students I teach. Future students: I will help you to the best of my abilities and with all the care I can for your human development. If, however, you want something other than learning as I understand it and can help you with, I will graciously decline to be your teacher.
In conclusion, I hope this letter helps you understand more about our time together these last few courses, the grades you earned, and why I was not able to deliver what you wanted: Top grades and a simple path to your success in getting those grades. We have a mismatch of purposes, perhaps, that is all.
All the very best to you. May you find the success you seek!
Don Draper: Says who? Just so you know, the people who talk that way think that monkeys can do this [marketing]. They take all this monkey crap and just stick it in a briefcase completely unaware that their success depends on something more than their shoeshine. YOU are the product. You – FEELING something. That’s what sells. Not them. Not sex. They can’t do what we do, and they hate us for it.
I have taught hundreds of students this core marketing principle: “Feelings” – emotions and desired emotional states – are the foundation for all customers needs and wants. And yet, it is the minority who “get it” and seem to integrate it. Some even outright reject the notion! They have clearly stated to my face that they don’t want to see the world that way. They want to believe they make rational, unemotional decisions and that the world is constructed in a rational mechanical way. All my students are really smart people, but the concept doesn’t seem to stick with most of them! Intelligence is not the issue here. Something else is going on that is simply beyond the scope of intelligence to explain.
So why is it, as Don Draper says, that “They can’t do what we do…”?
This primer on emotions and marketing is my attempt to bridge that gap. I believe everyone can understand and use this idea to more fully understand themselves and how they want to participate in our consumer driven society, as a customer or as a marketer. It doesn’t matter if you are marketing professionally or simply marketing yourself into a new job: Emotions are the basis of it all.
Foundation Truth: We really only want to buy emotions
We do not want things, such as shiny new cars, beautiful clothes, delicious food at a restaurant, 4k TV’s, or new iPhone models. We do not want services, such as a car wash, a hair stylist, great service at a restaurant, 150 channel digital HD TV service, or 4g cell phone service.
Instead, we want to experience certain feelings, and we look to the world outside of our mind for some thing, some process, or someone to trigger those feelings in us.
Examples of the things and services we think we want and the emotions we really want:
What we think we want –> What we really want
A shiny new car –> The feelings of personal freedom, having “made it”, starting fresh, hope for the future, being seen by others as wealthy, modern, successful, young, desirable, …
Beautiful clothes –> The feelings of being attractive, confident, sexy, respected, honoured, desired, seen as successful, …
A hair stylist –> Someone who can help make me feel fresh, new, attractive, desired, beautiful, self-confident, …
Delicious food at a restaurant –> The feelings of happiness, treating oneself, pleasure, reward for having worked hard, …
A 4K TV –> The feelings of status, being rewarded for your hard work, feeling modern and up-to-date, feeling proud of your belongings, status because of your wealth, feeling the need to escape into another reality so very clearly available on a 4k TV, …
A new iPhone model –> Feelings of status, control, power, fitting in, empowered to excel, being seen as attractive because you are “with it”, rewarded for your hard work, deserving, excited, delighted, entertained, …
Accepting that you are a bundle of walking and talking desires for emotional states is the first step to understanding how emotions rule marketing…and rule our lives. Ignoring the surface level – the “artifacts” and “manifestations” of our conscious and unconscious desires – and looking for the underlying emotional drivers and causes of these artifacts and manifestations showing up in our lives is a habit worth cultivating.
Why is it so hard to see the world through the lens of emotional desires?
Earlier I noted that some students outright reject the notion that emotions are the driving force in how consumer buying decisions are made. I think there is conditioned thinking happening: Math, logic, and the scientific method are “true”. Emotions and non-linear logic are “false”. Emotions are messy, messy things and perhaps this simply scares a lot of people – and maybe men more than women, if I can be excused for a bit of stereotyping.
And I think it is also because we are scared of ourselves – of what might be lurking under our own illusory logical, rational beliefs about who we are.
Foundation Truth: Most people are not able to see below the surface
We live in a world where personal reflection and the seeking of truth are not valued, appreciated, encouraged, or supported. Instead, they are actively discouraged by parents, teachers, friends, the media, marketing influences, and even our own ego, which fears what the truth might mean. The tiny voice in the back of your mind which is calling you to seek truth is tiny indeed, and very much hidden in the background of our day-to-day thinking.
No, this is not a value judgement where I am shaking a fist at the bad people doing this to you.
No, this is not even something that is necessarily bad.
It just is. It is truth. Most people cannot see below the surface and you cannot make them do so.
However, once someones decides to start digging – once they are good and fed up of being a puppet whose strings are being pulled by their unconscious mind and the current circumstances they find themselves in – all the tools are ready for them to begin deconstructing their minds, lives, and how the world of marketing works.
Are you ready to see below the surface?
(Warning: Once you dig deep enough, you can never go back into the proverbial “Matrix”!)
We all get glimpses of truth now and again. The veil of illusion shifts slightly and we see into the backstage for just a second. This is not good enough. These glimpses are just that: glimpses. Your habitual way of thinking is to focus on the illusions of the world, which are the artifacts and manifestations you think are real. Now you must practice and habituate seeing through the veil – parting it, ripping it down, and walking through it – in order to see your own truths and the layers of truth under the illusions you think are real.
1. Shut off your cell phone. Remove your ear buds.
2. Go to your local grocery store by yourself. No cell phone, no smart phone, no ear buds, no distractions.
3. Pick up a hand basket. Do not put anything into this basket. This basket is a symbol of your free mind – empty and open.
4. Walk through all the aisles of the store, pausing and letting your mind trigger into thoughts and emotions for each item that your eyes rest upon. Allow your mind to fully form these thoughts and fully imagine the scene that plays out. Do not try to close down your thoughts or move on until they are fully formed and played out. If you feel emotions of any kind, “be” with them as best you can. We are not accustomed or encouraged to letting emotions flow through us. It takes bravery and practice to allow them to be a powerful tool we can use.
My real example: “I see the potatoes in a big pile. I think of my father, who loved potatoes. He wanted them every day. They reminded him of the tough times he had during WWII when there wasn’t enough food. Eating potatoes made him feel safe. I remember feeling his hurt when he talked about his experiences of being hungry during the war. My father is dead now. I miss him. I wish I could give him a hug right now. ” (I am feeling a lot of emotion) I pick up a couple of the nicest potatoes and put them into my basket, understanding now that they are not potatoes to me in that moment, but symbols of my love for my father and my honouring of him and the experiences he went through. By buying those potatoes, I am actually buying a bit of a memory of him and triggering my desire to feel loving…
The whole store and this exercise too big and uncertain? Try just wandering by these specific items:
– Lettuce and salad ingredients
– canned soup
– fresh baked bread
5. When you are exhausted mentally and/or emotionally, stop the exercise. If you have been open to the experience, you will likely get tired and emotionally overwhelmed very quickly. This is natural and it means you are doing the exercise correctly. No, this does not mean that seeing below the surface of things is always exhausting and emotionally draining. It only means that you have little practice with doing so and no-one has ever told you that this takes time and practice to build up the strength to allow the undercurrents of your mind to become conscious and to see the truth of how emotions drive your thinking and behavior.
The grocery store and food items were specifically chosen for this exercise because of the powerful role that food plays in our lives and the often very emotional states and stories that are connected to specific food items.
6. Go for a walk or engage in another physical activity immediately after this exercise to let the truths you have exposed settle and clear from your mind. Maybe you need to sit quietly for awhile instead of physical activity. All good. While walking or sitting quietly, embed in your memory the path backwards from the physical item through your “story” and to your underlying emotions. In effect, you are seeing what every artifact you focused on means to you and how your behavior is the result of the emotional drivers as they pass through your “story”.
How does marketing work? It triggers your emotions by guiding you through a story that is presented to you, with an artifact at the end that you are encouraged to buy because you want to connect to and experience the underlying emotions that the marketing story has triggered in you.
Marketing is creation. It is the creation of needs for artifacts and manifestations through the triggering of your largely unconscious emotional needs and a “story”. if you don’t have this story within you, marketers will gladly supply it for you.
Want to do some more of this kind of exercise to see how pervasive emotions and stories are in your life? Try exposing yourself to the following:
– A new car lot (from the sidewalk so that no salespeople interrupt you)
– A 7-11 or other convenience store you have frequented.
– A park with a playground.
– A movie theatre
– A shopping mall.
– A swimming pool
– A natural area that you love – maybe a path beside a lake or in the forest.
If you are brave enough to let the stories and emotions flow, it will literally change who you are. You will “wake up” in a very profound way.
Struggling to understand this? Watch the video clip I quote at the beginning. It might help:
Part 2: How to discover the emotions that others want to experience
Once you see that emotional desires are the foundation of how you generate needs for things, you can make the logical leap that everyone else must also operate the same way (they do). The best businesses do not try to sell you things. First they figure out what your underlying emotional needs are and then carefully construct a story that will engage you into wanting an artifact or manifestation (experience) that will give you those emotions.
The problem? No-one talks this way! You can’t ask someone to share their “emotional desires”. Finding out what people want, so that your marketing efforts can trigger the correct mix and temperature of desired emotions, is actually pretty tricky.
In Part 2, we start to look at how to discover the emotions that individuals and groups of people want to experience…
In Part 1 of this look at what customers want, I made the case that they want to buy a future set of feelings. To prove my point, I sent the willing reader to a grocery store to uncover for themselves how everyday products have deeper underlying meanings with emotional attachments. The logical mind does not want to believe in the emotional reality of our purchasing habits because admitting so triggers feelings of vulnerability and ego responses.
In this Part 2, we answer a “how” question. If customers only want a future set of feelings when they are buying things, how can we figure out what those desired feelings are?
What do customers want to feel?
Principle 1: You must know yourself
We all have subconscious and unconscious beliefs, habits, fears, and dreams. They drive most of our thinking and behavior. As marketers, we see, hear, interpret, analyze, and assess through the lens of this “stuff” that is bubbling constantly under our mental surface.
Want to become excellent at figuring out what customers really want?
Get yourself out of the way.
In other words, by becoming conscious of the engine that is under your own mental hood, you quickly clear the lens of how you see and understand other people.
Is this something you can do in one day or one week? No. Self-inquiry is a process that you start and never end – it takes a lifetime. That said, the fact that you choose to initiate a self-inquiry process instantly puts you into a mental position that you want to see and understand the world they way it is, not the way you think it is. If you are successful at making self-inquiry a daily habit, you actually reap the benefits in the first day and the very first week.
And as times goes by, you become more and more astute with your observations and understandings of human motivations and behavior.
Principle 2: You can’t ask people what they want to feel
Another survey a company wants me to complete. Uggghh…
Surveys don’t work if you are trying to get at what customers really want. Nor does simply asking customers in any form. Oh, asking customers their opinions is good for uncovering some feelings after they have interacted with your product or service. A survey can give you a sense of customer satisfaction. But asking customers cannot actually uncover their true purchase motivations.
Why? Because customers don’t know what they want. I mean this literally: They don’t know the real reasons they want something. By “know” I mean be able to clearly and in detail articulate the emotional underpinnings to their desires.
They think they know why and will defend their position vehemently if you were to press them or challenge them. But they generally can’t and won’t be able to give you the underlying reasons – the real reasons.
To give you the real reasons would be worse for them than stripping physically naked in front of you: It would be stripping emotionally naked in front of you. Most people are afraid to be physically naked in private and look at themselves in a mirror. How many people are strong enough to strip emotionally naked to you, a stranger, when stripping emotionally naked to themselves would be one of the most terrifying things they could do as a human being?
A ridiculous example to make my point:
Researcher: “So, what are the emotional reasons you want to buy the new iPhone?”
Customer: “I want an iPhone because I am afraid of being left behind. If I don’t get a new iPhone, my friends will think I am loser and no-one will like me anymore. Girls will think I am poor and I will end up lonely and worse: I won’t be part of the “normal” people at school. I fear this will lead to me becoming irrelevant and lost in social and work settings, leading to a life living without money or hope for the future. Belonging is extremely important to me, and if I don’t belong to what Apple and the iPhone represent, I will engage in negative habits and behaviors such as addictions, anger, sadness, and ultimately, self-destruction – I will die on the street as a beggar.”
While this is silly example, can you see that almost no-one in this world would allow themselves to uncover true feelings to themselves, much less openly to someone doing marketing research?
Principle 3: You must uncover true customer desires
So, if you can’t ask customers why they really want to buy something, how do you find out?
You have to uncover the deeper truths – the emotions customers desire to feel.
To uncover the truth, you need to use a lot more of yourself than just your logical, rational brain. You need to use a whole host of aspects, skills, and abilities in yourself, including emotional intelligence and some that are innate – they can’t be “learned”, but they can be developed.
Here is a summary PowerPoint slide I use in my MBA marketing course:
Uncovering the truth is a messy business.
It means observing and engaging with your customers and allowing yourself to see deeply into their lives, gaining insights from their lifestyle behaviors, purchasing habits, and thinking.
It takes time, effort, strength of will, and allowing your own vulnerabilities to be exposed.
It means creating a connection to your customer so they will open up to you.
Would you like to see a master at work, someone who isn’t afraid to delve into his own emotions as he figures out what people really want?
Mad Men: Don Draper and the Kodak Slide Carousel:
How do I build the skills and abilities to be like Don Draper?
The best marketers, as exemplified by Don Draper in Mad Men, must learn and develop more of themselves than simply their intellect.
Want to become like Don Draper? Start learning and developing the following:
1. About yourself (as noted earlier)
2. Emotional intelligence – how other people feel, and why.
3. The ability to feel emotions in yourself without pushing them down or getting overwhelmed.
4. The personal strength to interact openly with others so as to engage much more of yourself with them.
These are life skills, really. And perhaps engaging in life is the best way, if not the only way, to learn these.
As in Part 1, here is an exercise that can get you started on the path to expanding your skills and abilities in uncovering the truth about what people and customers really want.
1. Go to a coffee shop by yourself. Starbucks is a good one to begin with.
2. Order your drink and get a seat where you can observe the lineup and at the same time be near other people who are sitting and drinking and chatting.
3. Shut off your cell phone, shut off your laptop, remove your earphones, put down anything you are holding, and sit comfortably with your hands on your lap.
4. Feeling a bit naked and uncomfortable? Good! You are used to being with friends, holding something, and being “plugged in” to your electronics. Now you are alone, with no safety blanket and unplugged. You are a bit naked, no? Sit with this feeling for 5 minutes or so. What happens? Are people looking at you, pointing their fingers and whispering to each other?
No, of course not.
As you come to realize that you are OK just sitting there, you will also begin to notice that your discomfort levels rise and fall, depending on what thoughts flow through your mind. You may also notice that your mind tries to escape by going into stories, fantasies, or memories. Gently return your attention to the coffee shop when this happens.
5. Do a conscious observation: Watch how people enter the coffee shop and line up to buy their drinks. Watch how they stand in line, chat with each other, and how they interact with staff when it is their turn to order.
How do they behave? Where do they look? Do they seem comfortable or nervous? What patterns do you start to see emerging?
6. Do another conscious exercise: Listen to a conversation that is taking place near you. Of course you cannot watch the people as this would be socially unacceptable (staring), but you can listen in. Or can you? Do you feel uncomfortable doing this? Why?
As you listen, sit with any feelings that arise in you. Are they your feelings being triggered by what you hear, or are you simply picking up the feelings of the people who are conversing, just as you pick up the heat of the sun when it shines on your skin?
As you listen to the conversation, can you observe your mind picking up interesting patterns and insights? Can you hear your mind comparing what you are hearing to your own experience of life?
After 20-30 minutes of holding yourself separate from your habits and simply observing, you may find yourself getting mentally tired, emotionally upset , and even stressed. Or you may find yourself in a new and exciting state of being, similar to a meditative state. There is no right or wrong here of what you experience. Be gentle with yourself if you do find this hard. It takes practice to be by yourself and feel safe, strong, and open to hearing and experiencing the realities around you.
Question: How many times in the 20-30 minutes did you pick up your drink? Was it a habitual movement, a nervous reaction, or simply a desire for a drink? Be honest with yourself!
At the end of this exercise, walk out of the coffee shop and observe any feelings you have as you walk out. Relief? Exhilaration? Or feeling nothing?
Walk off the experience to clear your mind and emotions and reflect on what you learned.
Congratulations! You have practiced several skills and abilities that the best marketers have!
Are you ready and willing to do it again in another coffee shop?
There are two verbs in this definition: “organize” and “manage”.
These are active. You organize and manage. You do these things.
And you get good at organizing and managing as an entrepreneur by practicing organizing and managing. By independently daring to do the organizing and managing. No-one gives you permission. You answer to no-one. You initiate and do them yourself.
Like riding a bike, you can’t really study entrepreneurship in a way that makes it passive. Well you, can. And you can study how to ride a bike, can’t you?
But in the end, you learn to ride a bike by…riding a bike.
And you learn entrepreneurship by…organizing and managing a business.
Which leads to the paradox: Can you teach entrepreneurship?
Lorne Fingarson figured out how to teach entrepreneurship.
Homage: Thank you, Lorne Fingarson, for inviting me to develop “curriculum” and “teach” in the Business Incubator Program at BCIT – The British Columbia Institute of Technology – from 1991-1993.
Lorne figured it out. He convinced BCIT to deliver a program where entrepreneurs would get the learning and support they needed to increase their chances of startup success. His stats showed that with incubator support, he could get the success rate of business startups from 10-20% up to 60-70%.
But my “curriculum” and “teaching” in the program were anything but normal “university” lecturing. Instead, at BCIT I supported entrepreneurs in learning the financial and marketing skills they needed for their businesses to be successful. Not by lecturing, but by coaching them during their active “organizing” and “managing” of their businesses.
And that is the key difference: The focus was on the entrepreneur and their business, not on me and my knowledge.
Student centered learning – the “flipped classroom”
When I first took a case-based business course during my undergrad, I was hooked. Cases opened my mind to how the world works and gave me a chance to solve real problems. My MBA was entirely case-based.
And when we actually had to “do” a business in another undergrad course – actually make a business happen – I was ecstatic.
It is no wonder, then, that my teaching these last 23 years has been student centered.
In Dubai I led a team of faculty in creating something unique: An entrepreneurship-based e-business bachelor degree program. With the brilliant Tony Degazon in the co-pilot seat, we pushed and pushed to see how much we could get away with in a post-secondary institution.
Could we create an incubator-style program where students created online businesses?
We did! And what an amazing Program! From laying out their “classroom” (including painting the room and laying out the “office”) to choosing their own businesses that they actually started, our students were at the center of the learning. This was the true student-centered, flipped classroom.
And it worked.
Back in Canada after 6-1/2 year in Dubai, I did two things: Teach business part-time at a university and start my own businesses.
I wanted to organize and manage my own businesses for the sheer joy of being an entrepreneur and I wanted to share my passion for “doing entrepreneurship” in the higher-ed classroom.
The organizing and managing of my own businesses has been a wonderful journey, and often quite profitable.
The entrepreneurship “teaching”?
Kind of “hit and miss”.
Entrepreneurship and universities: An awkward fit
Despite my best intentions, the fit was never a strong one between entrepreneurship – an active way of doing business – and the more passive study of business, as universities are set up to do.
Oh, I write lots of case studies for universities, colleges, and corporate trainers all over the world.
And in years past I got away with teaching an international marketing course primarily through my students creating real international businesses in their 14 weeks in the course. And again, amazing outcomes resulted. One student team created such a successful business that they had to shut it down to finish their studies – it would take too much of their time. In the end, the defacto team leader told me that she wanted to get her MBA because she wanted to work in a corporation, not run her own business.
(Oh the sometimes startling agony in being a teacher: The most successful online venture from all the teams in all the running of the course and the business gets shut down because it was too successful and not what the student wanted to do!)
In the end, universities are set up to study things, not do things. And no slight intended: The world needs things studied. But so does entrepreneurship need a student-centred or “flipped classroom” approach to succeed. Perhaps not something that hundreds of years of history, process, and tradition, called the university model, is designed to support well.
We need more Lorne Fingarsons and more business incubators
When Howard Schultz was building the Starbucks brand, he wanted each location to be “a third place between work and home”. To this day, I tend to spend lots of time socializing, reading, working, and drinking chai lattes in one particular Starbucks location. This one is the most comfortable coffee shop among the several I have to choose from in the urban village that I like to call home. To be clear, not every Starbucks is designed and arranged the way this location is – spacious, warmly lit, comfy seating, and friendly. But there are many locations, like this one, that live up to Howard’s vision and desire for Starbucks to be part of the communities they operate in – a “Third Place”.
Why a “Third Place”?
Every generation needs a place to be. Not home, which is safe and nurtures who we are, and not work which defines other feelings, such as labeling what we do. A third place, then, is a place where we can be in community with others, express ourselves, and transition between work and home so as to not bring one into the other.
“I want to go where everyone knows my name!”
(Cheers: TV – 1982-1993))
“No one drinks anymore!” When I heard this statement , it startled me. To the 50-something year old person who spoke it, local bars, taverns, and pubs were their Third Place. When I was young the television show called Cheers was all the rage, beloved by many. In this sitcom, a group of people make a pub in Boston, MA their place to be. For some reason, the show Cheers never really resonated with me. To this day, I don’t really drink much alcohol and don’t associate it as a social connector between myself and others. I don’t have any particular beliefs or judgements around alcohol, to be clear. Alcohol, and establishments that make it central to the experience, are simply not my Third Place.
“We are going to the [yacht/tennis/golf/curling or whatever] club.” If you have a specific activity, belief, or passion that you want to identify with, and want to spend time with others who like the same thing, these clubs are for you. Once you are “in”, you feel like you belong and can “be” there. Wonderful! I am happy that people can find these feelings from such clubs. But while I do many activities, I don’t really identify myself with any one activity. I am not “a golfer”, for example. In one startling experience, a checkout person at a department store stated to me “You are not a shopper, are you?” when I declined joining the store’s “points club”. No, I am not a “shopper”.
The venerable library, once quite a comfortable place to be for young and old alike, is now an often uncertain mix of internet access terminals, videos, study space, and what feels like oddly outdated books. It is a place to hang out during the day for people in transition, the homeless and semi-homeless, and an eclectic mix of others who are not engaged in a daily 9-5 job. Can you “be” there? Sure. Many people make it their place to be, and the diverse mix of folks in a library make it an interesting place to observe human behavior. But you are watched. Carefully. The central branch that I use has a security guard posted strategically so that you won’t steal videos. And in the end, a library still feels like a library. Despite having visited dozens of libraries around the world, I have only ever found one that didn’t feel like a library, but felt rather like a community “place to be”. It was in Ohio. I don’t live in Ohio.
Ahhh…the Community Center, of course!
What about public community centers? Well, some are really sports clubs. Others are places where seniors hang out and hobby courses are run in the evenings. Some, a rare few, actually have nice space to hang out – places you can “be” without paying to get in. Open lounges, couches, activity rooms that don’t have to booked and paid for – you can simply use them. Nice. I don’t have access to one of those kinds of community centers where I live.
A new realm
Young people have found a new place to be. It is called “online”. I have observed that they can be in your living room, but not “be” there with you. They are elsewhere mentally, socially, and in spirit. The first time I experienced this in an extreme form, it stopped me in my tracks. A young person, who was visiting my son for a couple of weeks, was in my living room alone and in the dark. This person was doing something on their laptop, with earbuds in place.
Said to me in a startled fashion when I said hello upon entering the living room:
“Oh, sorry. I am watching a movie with a friend in Toronto.”
In response to my utterly confused look they hastened to add:
“On this site we both watch the movie and we [text] chat with each other on the same screen. It is like we are in the same room.”
The eyes went back to the laptop, the fingers continued chatting. I ceased to exist to them. I stood there for a minute. I felt like a stranger in my own living room. Then I left the dark room, not quite knowing what to do there if I stayed. In the time that followed during their visit I observed that rarely a live, in-person contact took place between them and myself. However, online interaction seldom ceased, day and night. And it was not that there was any problem between us – it was simply that I didn’t exist in their reality. I was a ghost, floating in and out of their experience and occasionally startling them from their online interactions by speaking at them in-person. And this, despite the fact they were physically in my home for an extended period of time.
The “connected young” make a significant part of of their life online. In the extreme it seems the physical world is only a distraction from their “real” life online. And while I find the online world enjoyable and useful, I don’t live there. It is wonderful to connect and chat online or by text message at times, but then the technology gets put down and I continue what I feel is my “real” life, in the flesh.
So, where can I “be”?
I am not a drinker. I don’t define myself by any particular activity or belief system. I do not see the current form of the library as a place I can be. And I am not a senior who uses community centers – and won’t be for a long time. I don’t live my life online.
So it has been Starbucks for me. And it has worked pretty well.
A new place!
Today I visited a co-working space. Google the term “co-working” if you haven’t heard of what it is. This co-working space is a very cool place to work, hang out with independent peeps like yourself, and really feel comfortable in. It has a coffee lounge complete with couches, “hot desk” areas to work with your laptop, bike storage, lockers, meeting rooms, and more. You pay for your time being in the co-working space, but unlike a commercial transaction, you pay a form of rent by the day or month that covers the cost of the communal space. So you feel more like a citizen than a customer. It is another place to “be” for people like me. Oh, and this co-working space is called The Hive. As in “bee hive”. Or “be” hive! Delightful.
Now I have two “Third Places” I can be in. My favourite Starbucks, and a local co-working space similar to The Hive that I found the next day.
When I was 7 or 8 years old I was running my own gambling game and market stall at my public school. With glass marbles, dozens of us would offer games of skill and chance. If you could hit the tiny ball bearing with a marble, you would get a larger ball bearing or a crystal boulder (a large marble). Sometimes you would amass a bag full of “misses” when people tried to hit your tiny ball bearing. And there was a clear ranking as to the value of all sizes of marbles, boulders, and ball bearings, one that changed regularly, depending on supply and demand. Besides the games, there was a brisk market for trading various types of balls based on these values. Ten marbles might get you a crystal boulder, for example. Or on a good day, you might negotiate a better deal, only to trade it for a higher value deal the next day. Then there were bullies who tried to steal your collection. The school yard was pretty well policed by teachers, but without overt permission for this marketplace to take place, the market was basically unregulated. When the inevitable day came when the games and market were shut down by the powers-that-be, there was a true sense of loss for many of us. But then we moved on to trading hockey cards. One entrepreneurial addiction to another…and just 8 years old.
Living in a town where alcohol was the preferred choice of entertainment, I would ride my bike up and down miles of roads looking for empty beer cans and bottles in ditches. What a great gig for a 10 year old! As soon as the snow had melted in the spring it was bonanza time: A whole winter of drinking and driving throwaways were mine for the taking. That is, if Lou, the retired Hawaiian guy who lived across the street, didn’t get them first. He was a real competitor: Arising at 5 am, Lou would head to the backstreets of the industrial area of town where guys in cars would drink themselves silly, throw away the cans and bottles, and then drive on. I had a secret weapon, however: Lou would walk his dog. I would ride my bike. So I had vast areas to scout for my glass and tin loot that he couldn’t get to. But he was a clever guy: He knew that Saturday and Sunday mornings were the best days, after workers got paid their weekly wages on Friday. I listened to his proudly announced techniques and learned. I loved to learn how to do things smarter and better.
When I was a bit older my brother and I would cut lawns in the summer, rake leaves in the fall, and shovel snow off people’s driveways in the winter. Newspaper routes were, of course, also thrown in there for good measure during those years.
As a teenager I tried buying and selling comic books, which was a real money pit. I learned that the commercial trader bought comics at a pittance for what they sold them to me for. And of course when I tried to sell my collection, I was offered only this pittance. Once rid of that business, I instead learned about the horse racing and horse trading business (literally) from another neighbour. Another summer I worked in his greenhouse business, seeing what an amazing cash cow bedding flowers were. As the teenage years rolled on, I wandered through a handful of businesses, learning how the world worked: Window frames, house painting, furniture manufacturing, building supplies, a department store. Of course, the teenage years meant wanting to socialize with girls, so I often held down 2 or 3 jobs and businesses at the same time. From Burger King to babysitting. I did it all. Money and having an excuse to hang around girls. Perfect.
My adult years meant a dozen more businesses: From importing water filters with my college friend Reiaz to buying bicycles from police auctions, tuning them up, and reselling them at a tidy profit in the spring. Online businesses, consulting businesses, writing, training, buying and renovating properties, selling door lites, distributing infra-red heating panels, keynote speaking, … and the list goes on. All great learning experiences and deepening of my understanding of how the world works.
From 40 years of business successes and failures come 10 principles I base my new business ventures on:
1. Is there any money in it?
Want to help others? Volunteer. I do, and it feels great to give from the heart.
Want to make money? Always be sure to leave your “do gooding” feelings at home. Is there little chance for significant revenues and profits in the short or long run? Immediately and firmly shut down any attention to that idea. Only start businesses where you can clearly make a good profit with reasonable effort.
And context is important here: What is the scale of profit you want to make? Doubling your money on a $50 sale sounds wonderful. But you can’t live on the profits from a $50 sale if you only make one sale a month. Is this a “fun” business or a “pay the bills” business? Being clear on the context of this business opportunity helps to put into perspective your expectations and how those expectations compare to the scale of profitability of the business.
2. Are there enough possible customers who would want your product or service?
No guessing here. Yes, you can prove there are enough customers or no, you can’t. Yes? Take the next step. No? Stop that business idea immediately.
3. Can they actually pay for it? And will they?
“Never try to sell something to someone who can’t afford what you are offering.” This is a paradox, because often in life those in most need can’t afford to pay to have that need met. Even more subtly, many people who can afford what you have to offer say they can’t afford it and want it for free. Then they turn around and spend 10 times the amount of money on some luxury they want. So clearly, there must also be a strong desire for what you have to offer – a desire that is not a nicety, but a “here is my cash: give it to me now” kind of desire.
4. Can you get them to buy your product or service?
Most of my business failures resulted from me not having the confidence, tenacity, acumen, and willpower to promote my products and services properly. I always felt that a great product – one that offered excellent value – would sell itself. True, if you have something unique and differentiated. Or something that people know well and want more of: A Subway franchise, for example. But false if you are just a “me too” business. Another standard offering. Then you have to work hard at promotion.
Marketing has been the most complicated and stressful part of all my efforts. And I know it is for many others.
But now, I have a simple and clear question to guide me: “Can I simply and easily get people to buy what I am selling?” Yes? Proceed. No? Shut down that idea right away. I will not engage in a “me-too” business, unless I can offer significant differentiation or access to a customer group that makes marketing clear and simple.
5. Understand and offer what your customers want to buy, not what you want to sell.
You want to sell lawn cutting services. Your customers don’t want their neighbours thinking bad thoughts about them because of an unkempt lawn.
Two completely different products. Your view is irrelevant. Theirs is always right. Learn how the world works: You are almost never selling a functional product or service. You are always meeting emotional needs. Learn to speak to customers in a way that means something to them, not you.
So, I ask: “What emotional needs am I offering to meet? Will customers pay lots of money to get those emotional needs met? Can I correctly and fully meet those emotional needs so that I can get lots of money in return?”
6. Deliver excellent value, above and beyond what your customers expect.
Giving them everything you can think of? Then find a way to give them more.
7. Fire your worst customers right away.
I hated the guy who demanded his driveway be shoveled right away after it snowed, and then got his expensive car stuck trying to push his way through the snow piles, because he couldn’t wait for us to finish our shoveling work. Instead he had us push him out. And when we were done shoveling, he told us to come back another day for payment because he didn’t have any cash.
Never, never do business with bad customers. Fire them immediately or better still, simply say “no” to selling them your product or service in the first place.
8. Pareto Principle your efforts
80% of your sales and profits will come from 20% of your customers. Give those 20% of your customers your best attention and service.
80% of your work will come from 20% of your customers who make you no profit and give you all the grief. Find out who those 20% are and get rid of them.
9. Buy low and sell high.
If you can’t buy low and sell high right away, don’t start the business. Low profit margins never get better. They just get lower as costs go up.
And the key here is real margins: Not 10%, 20% or even 30%. Never touch a startup business idea without a 50%, 100% or even 200% profit margin. This is not greed, it is simply logical: No real profits and you don’t have a real business. You have a charity. Great, if you are rich. Not great if need money to live on.
10. Start right away and stop right away.
Start up your business at minimal cost and right away while you have hungry customers. Even if you don’t have it all planned and organized perfectly yet. Just do it.
And shut down your business right away when the customers don’t need you any more. The moment your sales look like they are going to drop significantly due to factors beyond your control, shut down that business right away.
I learned this early in my career I pushed for the sale of our first house only 6 months after we bought it and I had done a bunch of renos on it by myself. My wife and all our extended family were shocked at the idea of selling and discouraged the sale. To them, it was a home, something that you didn’t treat as a saleable asset. To me, it was a freshly renovated asset in a market that had just peaked. Further, the cash from the sale of the asset was needed for our Masters degrees, something my wife and I had both just started working on full-time.
One month after we sold, the market plummeted, eventually dropping the value our house 25%.
Business decisions will often be unpopular. But if you know when to start a business and when to stop it, hold firm and make the decisions, despite naysayers. Even if you are occasionally wrong, you establish a pattern of thinking, listening to intuition, and trusting yourself. This is a confidence that is very, very valuable to you in the long run.
11. Fall, get back up, and do something differently.
A bonus principle: Expect to fail. And then learn why you failed. The only real failure is to not learn why you failed. If you do learn, then it is not a real failure, but rather a great learning experience.
And when you do fall down, get up right away and do something differently.
Entrepreneurs are not those who get their businesses right the first time. They are the ones who make 10 mistakes, learn all they can, and then succeed spectacularly the 11th time they try.
A week after I wrote this blog post another question came to mind: “Where did I make the most money from all these ventures?”
Buying houses, renovating them, and reselling them. Hands down the biggest payoff in absolute profit terms.
In relative terms, for the capital and effort involved? Selling myself: Teaching in Dubai on contract was the most spectacular payoff, in cash, personal growth, and the lifestyle “wow” factor.
The most satisfying? Collecting bottles and cans as a kid. Every one you find, pick up, and return feels like a gift. Is there anything more satisfying in business than feeling grateful when you make money?
Why is travel such a deep calling for many people, myself included?
Why does our deepest self resonate with feelings that travel can trigger, including a sense of opening, expansion, learning, connecting meaningfully with others, and freedom?
Many years ago I posted a theory that travel is essential for learning, and particularly for children and teenagers. The theory posited that only travel could deliver certain experiences and learning opportunities, ones you could not get any other way. To my surprise, I got a lot of backlash, particularly from mothers. Clearly not everyone agrees with my theory.
Over the years since I mused about the potential role and power of travel in our lives, I have come to even more strongly believe it is an essential part of a life lived fully. Maybe it is just that my reality has formed from my belief – a self-fulfilling prophecy, so to speak. Or maybe my particular life path includes travel as a planned and useful part of my personal growth – part of my destiny. Regardless, travel is what I am called to do and travel is what I am doing…right now. I am writing this while occasionally glancing out the window at a volcano (actually 3 volcanoes, if you look closely), on the shore of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala:
But eye-candy aside, I am returning to the idea of travel as an essential part of life in order to gain some clarity on how it fits with living and learning my life. I am attempting to form some sort of recipe for my life, with travel as a central ingredient.
In comparison, there are many recipes for cooking food, and many different ingredients. But a few ingredients in cooking food tend to repeat across many or most recipes in a particular culture. But are those ingredients foundation ingredients or simply spices that enhance the experience of life? Hmmmm…interesting question. For the culture I am from (“Western”), my stage in life (“past middle age”), and my personal growth path (“a rushing river”), my recipe for life seems to include a large dollop of travel. But again, did I put that ingredient into my recipe, or it essential?
Case experience: My first 10 days on this trip
The first 10 days of this trip have given me every indication that travel is delivering exactly what I needed and wanted. In just 10 days:
– I have met a dozen interesting people who have expanded my views of the world: Young Israelis who struggle with politics, how they interact with other cultures, and how to love. A crazy-funny gay owner of a hostel who hits on all the male guests – myself included. A Canadian couple constructing a life of travel and remote work (“digital nomads”). A woman from Switzerland who is a distant relative of mine. A lovely young woman building a life for herself and her Guatemalan boyfriend between America and Guatemala. He is working on an organic farm on Long Island and Riley is spending a few months on an organic farm…in Guatemala.
– I have hiked past waterfalls, through vivid forest of flowers, and past banana leaves so vibrantly green that I thought I had never experienced such a color before. I passed Maya women carrying huge loads of concrete blocks on their backs. I greeted children with eyes and smiles so bright I wondered if I had arrived in paradise. I stepped off the path to allow old men to pass, receiving a heartfelt (and sometimes surprised), greeting and thanks.
– I have shopped in traditional markets, buying new and strange foods using my basic Spanish skills, and a smile, and some proverbial scratching of my head. “How am I going to get a dozen loose eggs all the way across the wavy lake on a rickety, crowded, bobbing boat, without breaking them?”
– I swam many times in a beautiful lake surrounded by volcanoes (see photo above). The first swim in the lake likened to “a baptism” by Riley.
Clearly, travel has been an ingredient of my last 10 days that has generated a veritable feast for my life.
The blessing… and the curse
It is so easy to make everything seem so wonderful in reflection. Most of my first 10 days have been wonderful, no doubt. But travel also brings a form of curse, one which must also be acknowledged and honored. Also in the last 10 days:
– I have had the “runs” on and off for 5 of those 10 days. Nothing serious, just adjustment to new food, water, sleep, and energy patterns.
– I woke up in the night with my heart pounding and my arms and legs numb and tingling. This lasted a few hours until it passed and hasn’t returned since. (No, I don’t do drugs).
– I struggled with communication, working to improve my Spanish and feeling humbled once again for those who are learning a second language (read: my students).
– I had to regularly and consciously stay “centred” in order to flow easily through chaos of ever-changing conditions of my life. From moment to moment my life has changed in the last 10 days, something that can be hard on a psyche.
– I have had to put up with noise around me. Being sensitive to noise when I am tired, listening to construction noise from the villa immediately next to ours has been a minor irritant.
– My plans changed. And then they changed again. And then I let go of those and just went with what came up in the moment. Travel forces you to be flexible, whether you are naturally so or not. Resisting change is a quick way to blacken your work. Acceptance of change leads to wonderful new experiences (usually).
Each one of these “curses” I feel safe in saying were not daunting to me. I overcame them pretty easily, flowing into my next moment with more grace than I have every mustered before in life.
Travel: An essential ingredient for life?
Given the aforementioned analogy of the recipe, the last 10 days of travel have delivered me a feast of experiences, learning, and feeling very much alive.
So is travel an essential ingredient in life, such as rice would be in Asia, flour (or sugar) would be in North America, or beans to a Guatemalan? Does travel create a life that is akin to a feast?
We like feasting on food. But we can’t feast on food every day. So, is travel an ingredient like in a food feast? Wonderful to enjoy on occasion, but not something that we would be able to stomach every day nor would be good for us? What balance of stability and travel would be a healthy mix?
Ok, here is one of the toughest and most frustrating parts of my work with university students: Counseling them on how to get a job after graduation. (Really they are alumni, but I still call them my students if they are coming to me for help)
Here is how many of our conversations start:
Student: Sir, I would like your help, please. I am trying to figure out how to get a job.
Me: OK, well, tell me what you have done so far.
Student: I made up a resume, searched Monster.com and check the newspaper every day (the student’s face starts to look quite bleak at this early point in our conversation).
Me: So, what is the problem with your job search?
Student: Well, most of the jobs except telephone sales require relevant experience. And I have sent out 30 resumes to some possibilities that don’t require experience and I have never received one interview (at this point frustration is evident in their voice, facial expressions, and body language).
Me: What other reasons do you think besides experience might be resulting in you not hearing from potential employers? (No, I am not just asking questions to torment the poor student – I use questions as the foundation for most of my teaching and counseling).
Student: Sir, there is SO much competition from graduates at other universities. And I am new to Canada. And I don’t have straight ‘A’ grades. And I don’t know anyone (by now there are even tears peeking out around their eyes, and even possibly a quavering voice)
~~~~~~~~~~~~ TIME OUT ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Why is this so painful for the students, tough on me and so darn frustrating for both of us? Well it is clear why the student is so hurt by the process. For me, it is because I have had the same conversation a zillion times in my teaching career! And seeing the pain the students are in makes me just plain ache inside in sympathy for their unhappiness and feelings of inadequacy, rejection, inability to be part of the great employment machine, be valuable to the world, and be a whole human being.
Why do I feel so strongly for these students? Well for one thing, I really like seeing students energized in life and not beaten down by it. But another reason I feel for them when they are really hurting is because…at one time I was in their exact situation. Yup, I felt the same way when I was a recent grad. I just wanted a chance to succeed at a good job – why wouldn’t anyone give me a chance to do so?
Now, some 20 years later, I can look back with gritted teeth and recall those horrible feelings. And with my eyes closed I can even dredge up remnants of them and relive the intensity of the feelings for a brief time.
So what? Is painful job hunting just something you go through? A rite of passage? A trial by fire?
No way. The terrible gut wrenching pain of feeling beaten, worthless and left out should NOT happen to young people looking for jobs. These people are the future of our organizations. They are the future of our society operating effeciently, effectively, and fairly.
Unfortunately this sad tale will repeat itself as long as students are taught that life is about following processes and not also about building relationships and constructing and focusing on goals. Yup, there I said it: They all have the same problem: They are trying to use their dominant process orientation to get a “job”. And to boot, the world of the 21st century is not even much about “jobs” anymore, either.
“Huh? Not about jobs? Hang on, you are losing me – but I want a job!”
Yup. And that is the problem. Let’s review some of the language going on in the earlier conversation. What success orientation are these words and phrases:
– “…how to get a job”
– “resume” and “…sent out 30 resumes”
– “searched Monster.com”
– “require relevant experience”
– “never received one interview”
– “competition from graduates at other universities”
– “…I don’t have straight ‘A’ grades”
The language is a dead giveaway of their thinking. The student is trying to work through a job hunt process that is at best useless (some ridiculously small number of people become employed by applying to advertised jobs), and at worst degrading and humiliating. But because it is a seemingly normal, recognizable, and logical way for organizations to get their employees (“If I was a manager, I would of course advertise my jobs and hire this way!”), these highly process oriented students want it to work. And they want it to work so badly that they are willing to suffer mental torture and pain until the system finally delivers them into a nice job at a nice organization with nice people and nice instructions to follow and a nice amount of pay that arrives every 2 weeks in their nice bank account.
A friend of mine went 6 months in this manner and chewed through some $20,000 of his savings waiting for the system to deliver him his job. A graduate from a year ago contacted me recently – she had been waiting for over a year now.
What Can Be Done?
Yes, there is hope. Really. Here is how it works: First you get the students to understand that the world is not about jobs, but is about problems and goals. Then you help them understand that they can be part of the team that solves the problems and achieves the goals if they put themselves in contexts where they can present themselves in this way. Then they find themselves gainfully employed.
Simple! Isn’t it? Well no, of course not. But understanding that private companies see “jobs” as expenses is the first step. Then seeing that organizations exist to solve problems and achieve goals (profits in the private sector) is important. Finally, understanding that placing yourself in the appropriate context where you can interact with people whose job it is to solve problems and see that goals get achieved is the last thing you have to do. Assuming you have some shred of confidence, ability, motivation, and sincerity, indicating that you are a catalyst for the solving of problems and achieving of goals will result in you becoming employed. Employed doing just that: helping to solve problems and achieve goals for your organization.
Really, it is that simple. I have job hunt success stories to match each horror story I hear.
Simple it is, but easy it is not.
Because most students have not developed, or been encouraged to develop, abilities in all three of the success orientations. More importantly, they have had their relationship orientations discouraged (“don’t talk in class”) and their goal orientations squashed (tests, bells, assignments, etc.) again and again over their entire educational career. It is no surprise that upon graduation from their post-secondary education they are faced with a new playing field and a lack of skills for playing in it.
So how exactly would many of them know that they had to network at conferences, chat and discuss online, mingle at association and industry meeting and trade shows, shake hands at chamber of commerce meetings, etc.? How would they know that they would have to seek out the goals of individual organizations and find out the exact needs of managers – and then let them know that they could fulfill those needs.
Well, in my role as some form of career counselor, I have to start somewhere helping my students understand these ideas and ways of doing things. So I created a process of my own. One that leads them down a mental path they haven’t been down since they were children and before they had their natural inquisitiveness, sociability, abilities to think, and confidence beaten out of them by process oriented school systems. A path back to being able to figure out for themselves how the world really works.
~~~~~~~~~~~~ END TIME OUT ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Me: So, if you were a manager, what do you think would be the problems you would face in your day to day job?…
I am a foodie. And I love eating at great restaurants. And I love small businesses and the passion that people put into running their own restaurants.
Put all three of these together and you have someone who wants to see people who create wonderful food in great restaurants to be successful in all aspects of their business.
You would think that a restaurant, an institution that has been around for thousands of years, would be pretty easy to get right, wouldn’t you? But no. 60% or more of restaurants close within their first three years. In cities where there is a culinary arts program at a local college or university? Higher failure rates.
Why the high rates of failure of what should be a pretty simple business?
Because getting a restaurant “right” is something that is actually pretty tricky. So I am setting our here to define what makes a perfect restaurant – one that has great food, is a place you want to hang out with, has wonderful people running it. and is successful in all ways. Here it is:
The recipe for a perfect restaurant
1. The perfect restaurant understands its customers really, really well. It knows that there are enough potential customers in the geographic area it serves. The perfect restaurant knows what kind of customer they are – what kinds of food they prefer, at what prices they will pay, in what kind of setting they enjoy being in, and how they like to be served.
– Focusing on what you want to offer, not what the customer wants: “I want to offer really lovely entrees like I learned in culinary arts school.” It is not about you. It is about the customer. Always.
– Wrong price range: “We will serve the highest quality experience, but it will be high priced as the “best” costs more to produce and deliver. ” But are there enough customers willing to pay for the high prices for your meal experiences?
– Wrong process: “We have a cafeteria style restaurant serving high end food with little signage. We will save money on servers. People will figure it out our process on their own.” No, customers won’t figure out the process on their own and the discomfort they go through in trying to figure out your process will be the first emotional impression they have. And it will stick. And if customers want table service? You will be out of business really soon.
2. The perfect restaurant makes their customers feel really, really comfortable in the restaurant. This includes, but is not limited to:
nice warm lighting
clean smelling and looking
fresh appearance (not dated)
enough privacy for each table – specifically psychological privacy and personal space
friendly and welcoming greetings upon arrival
a clear process for being seated
comfortable waiting arrangements if there is no table free
clearly understandable menu and ordering procedures
clear payment processes.
– Uncared for internal and external appearance: An ugly, dirty, dated, smelly, and/or dark and gloomy setting. Enough said.
– Unclear processes: People get really uncomfortable when they walk in and are not greeted, don’t know if they should seat themselves or be seated, what the menu means, how to order, etc. This first emotional impression of discomfort (not wanting to look stupid, being potentially embarrassed, etc.) really sticks. A bad first impression to make.
– Process oriented service: A restaurant meal is not a drive-thru. People want to be promptly greeted immediately upon entry in a warm and friendly manner. All aspects of service should include warmth, friendliness, caring about the meal experience, and appreciation of the customers patronizing the restaurant.
3. The perfect restaurant makes food that meets customer expectations.
Really! You would think this would be a no-brainer!
– small portion sizes. No-where in the world does small portion sizes meet customer expectations, except in a few rare and really fancy places. But those are the very rare exception. Small portion sizes = a focus on taking my money and giving me the least possible for it. Generous portion sizes? “You wish to provide abundance. Thank you!”
– beliefs-driven food that limits the customer’s sense of value. This includes small portion sizes, food that doesn’t satisfy (“But is is low fat and low salt!”), a partial meal that does not offer a complete food experience, freaky dishes that taste weird, and food that is overly expensive “because ingredients are locally sourced.” No, don’t try to argue this. If your values are to promote organic food, and if there are enough customers who will pay for organic food, hurray! If there are not enough customers willing to pay your prices, in your catchment area, don’t offer high priced organic food. Don’t want to run a restaurant unless it is organic but you don’t have enough customers? Don’t run a restaurant at all. Save yourself the bankruptcy costs now. Offer your gift of organic food to your family and friends… only at home. Do something else with your time and passion, but don’t run a restaurant driven by your values if there simply isn’t enough demand for what your values dictate you must offer.
– food that is yucky. Poor tasting, poor appearance, bad ingredients. Enough said.
4. The perfect restaurant is set up for financial success. This includes:
Being in the right location.
Having a manageable overhead (rent)
Having enough tables.
Having enough working capital after the restaurant capital expenses.
Knowing how to advertise and create word-of-mouth awareness.
Having enough staff to run the restaurant properly, but not too many.
Knowing how to manage ingredient ordering to maximize freshness and availability, but limit waste.
– wrong location: “But the rent was cheaper here!”. Yes, but if you have no customers, who cares if your rent was cheaper?
– too high rent for the type of restaurant: It takes a zillion orders to generate enough margin to pay for high rent, if your meals are low-priced.
– cutting corners: Raw materials ordering to maximize savings instead of freshness, small portion sizes, too low staffing, narrow opening hours, cutting out lighting & heating, not cleaning thoroughly, not renovating & updating often.
Does the perfect restaurant really exist?
Absolutely. I frequent many that get it right – they are perfect restaurants.
I just wish that the restaurants that aren’t perfect would frequent the ones that are perfect, and learn from them.
It has been about a month since I returned from my Digital Nomad experiment of working and traveling in Guatemala. I came home from this adventure and did three things all at once:
Moved to a new city
Started a short Christmas contract job at an old employer.
Attempted to adjust from one lifestyle to another.
The move to the new city went ok.
The Christmas contract job was really challenging.
The adjustment from my much freer lifestyle to my new, more fixed lifestyle was largely a failure.
To be fair, trying to adjust from sun, warmth, freedom, and flow to dark, cold, process-driven, and mechanical thinking would be a fairly big challenge for anyone. But for me it was soul crushing because I had made the mistake of really falling in love with my Digital Nomad experience. And I had unconsciously pinned my happiness to this more natural way of life.
All this led to New Year’s reflections where I beat myself up mentally over my choices, got really frustrated at my current situation, and pondered some really juicy “thrashing around” fantasies.
Lessons for a Digital Nomad
Being of generally sound mind and spirit, and a happy soul, I soon came out of my funk. Clarity felt good and so did some resulting insights:
“Once you let the pig out of the pigpen, he will never again be happy in the pigpen and will from then on always try to get out again.”
Yup, the old farmer’s wisdom. Well, I got out of the pigpen and must now work on making the Digital Nomad lifestyle, or some variant, my permanent reality. There is simply no choice for me. Really, the experience of a freely roaming lifestyle with digital connectivity is intoxicating: Breakfast of fresh food grown locally while sitting outside in the warm sun in your sandals is simply better living than breakfast of dead food in a dark, cold kitchen in thick wool socks.
Do you like the winter “nesting” experience? Fill your boots. I will take the warm sun, thank you, as soon as I sort out how to be out of the pigpen permanently.
“The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.”
This lovely farmer saying about grazing animals wanting the grass on the other side of the fence – but that it is not really greener – is so true…and the saying is also very, very dangerously misleading. I feel it has imprisoned so many minds that I am called to challenge it here.
Two important hidden assumptions:
– There is actually grass on both sides of the fence
– You are a grass eater.
The true part: If there is grass on both sides of the fence, and you are a grass eater, then you could quite well be fooling yourself to think that if you get on the other side of the fence the supposedly greener grass will make you happy. It won’t. The grass isn’t really greener because you never really wanted green grass anyway – you wanted happiness. And finding happiness is entirely an “inside job”, as my bumper sticker says. This is a spiritual truism.
Similarly, if you want to be a Digital Nomad and think that being in the warm sun will make you happy, you are fooling yourself. Nothing can make you happy. Not the warm sun, fresh food, …nothing.
BUT, what if the two hidden assumptions are not true, and you are pretty clear and happy already? In other words what happens if:
– There is wheat growing on the other side of the fence and grass on this side of the fence.
– You are a wheat eater?
Does the saying hold true of you? Of course not! If you are a wheat eating animal, grass will never be your “thing”. You might be able to survive by eating grass on this side of the fence, but you would literally be healthier and feel more natural on the other side. Note: I am saying “healthier” and “feel more natural”, not “happier”.
Similarly, then, if you are really a sun-bunny who thrives better on fresh food, go where it is sunny and you can get fresh food.
Your guru, your mother, your best friend, and the smug person in the cubicle next to you all tell you to stay where you are and work on being “happy with what you’ve got”. They are actually all working from a stunted mind frame: They are “inside” a mental box where there is only grass on both sides of the fence, they see themselves as grass eaters, and they are not really free and happy, so neither should you be. If you let yourself out of the pigpen and have sorted out your internal happiness, you are free to go wherever suits you.
Enjoy whatever part of the world and whatever circumstances feels best to you at any point in time.
“A thought is harmless unless we believe it. It’s not our thoughts, but our attachment to our thoughts, that causes suffering. Attaching to a thought means believing that it’s true, without inquiring. A belief is a thought that we’ve been attaching to, often for years.” – Katie Byron
I failed at making the transition to a life back “home” because I had let myself out of the pigpen (and can never go back), I had learned conclusively that I am a wheat eater and there is little wheat on this side of the fence, and lastly, because I had attached to thoughts and that attachment wasn’t healthy for me.
And those thoughts were that I had already made it to the side of the fence that was the most natural and healthy for me. In my mind, life in the warm sun of free-flowing Guatemala right now was my truth. Of course it is not! What is true is that I am a sun bunny and love a free flowing daily existence. But that is not exactly my current life setup. It is where I am going and will hopefully spend most of the rest of my life, but it is not where I am right now. But I believed it was my current truth and that belief made me suffer.
Lesson: The Digital Nomad lifestyle is about freedom, experiencing contrasts, learning from those contrasts, and living your day-to-day life in a way that is natural for you.
But don’t attach to the form of that life. Don’t believe your own thoughts that it must look one way for it to feel a certain way. This is the unhappiness trap. “I was happy in _______. Therefore, since I am experiencing a current reality that is different, I am unhappy.” To stay in my integrity with where I am right now is important as I have responsibilities to see through to their natural end and doors to close before I can be fully free to live the way I want.
I will not stay for long in the cold, dark, process-oriented, mechanical thinking reality I am in right now. But at the same time, the fastest and easiest way to end up where I need to be is to not get attached to, or believe that I know the right place, circumstances, or timing. These will happen if I trust and stay true to who I am. I must simply be happy inside myself, know who I am, and remember what feeds me best. From this place of peace and understanding will come steps and actions I will take that will move me towards the healthiest and most natural circumstances for me.
The Digital Nomad – a lifestyle and a philosophy?
Pig photo: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license, “Chasing the escaped pig”, Flickr user: pauldwaite, accessed January 8, 2013
Goat photo: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, “Goat and Fence, Heritage Vineyard”, Flickr user: Tony Fischer Photography, accessed January 8, 2013.
Breakfast photo: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, “A beautiful and healthy breakfast”, Flickr user: The Sean and Lauren Spectacular, accessed January 8, 2013.
Most people in this world do not get to take a whole month off of their regular life, much less head thousands of kilometres away by plane to another country to be Digital Nomads, explore, write, meet wonderful people, and play.
So I start this final post about our Digital Nomad adventure in Guatemala on a note of appreciation. I am truly thankful for this opportunity to explore the wonderful country called Guatemala, the amazing people who make their lives here, and our fellow travellers, among whom I now count many new friends.
10 things I appreciate about Guatemala and our adventure here:
1. The feeling that you are in a very special place in the world.
2. The amazing vibrancy of life here – flowers, fresh produce, animals, people of all walks of life, and even the air. Yes, even the air feels vibrant.
3. I follow the Buddhist philosophy of greeting everyone who comes into my experience with an open heart. Of the hundreds of souls I have greeted here, a smile and cheerful greeting was returned to me in almost every case. Magic.
4. Food. Eating food made from fresh ingredients and prepared with care from scratch was an amazing culinary experience in Guatemala.
5. Lake Atitlan. The author Aldous Huxley waxed eloquently about it. I echo his sentiments. Lake Atitlan is both visually and spiritually a breathtaking place in this world.
6. The climate. Ahhhh…warm and dry.
7. Ease of doing things here. Whether is freedom from mosquitoes, clearing the airport, shopping for food, or exchanging money at the bank – getting things done is pretty easy here. OK, driving doesn’t look like fun, but buses, boats, and tuk-tuks are available everywhere, and so cheaply, that it doesn’t make sense to drive yourself.
8. The man who brings goats around every day and who will squeeze you a cup of fresh milk on the spot.
9. A human place. A place where human beings seem to fully live their days and connect with each other authentically. People here in Guatemala, whether locals, expatriates, or visitors, aren’t living in a fantasy-land. They are fully engaged in what is important in life.
10. Freedom. You can experience real freedom here. Freedom to have a cat sleeping on your lap while you eat dinner. Freedom to connect with others and get a desire to connect in return. Freedom to live naturally.