Poke the Box
I saw Seth Godin speak at last year’s Willow Creek Leadership Summit. While all of the speakers were excellent, and several of them challenged me in unexpected ways, he was the one I was anticipating the most. He didn’t disappoint. (Plus, he won the ‘Most Creative Use of PowerPoint’ award hands down.) During the next break, I picked up Poke the Box, because I wanted to go deeper with what he had said.
Human nature is to need a map. If you’re brave enough to draw one, people will follow.
Most of us are great at doing what’s asked of us.
We’re taught how to do it as children. As long as we work hard to understand the material, and complete every assignment that we’re given, we receive excellent marks and praise. So, as we head out into the real world, we try to follow the same pattern. In our jobs and our relationships, we check the required boxes and expect stellar ratings.
That’s when we begin to see the problem, because almost anyone can do what they’re told. That’s nothing special. It’s just average. To become excellent again, we have to do something more. Some vague thing, but we know there’s risk and maybe some sacrifice involved, and we haven’t been taught anything about that. We’ve only been trained in mere competency, and the result is mediocrity.
A mediocre career.
A mediocre marriage.
A mediocre life.
And many of us are willing to accept that. Nothing about living that way is fundamentally broken. It’s just normal. There’s no need to fix it.
We all have dreams. We make resolutions every New Year. We have great ideas. We set goals. We want a better future. So, why do we allow ourselves to stay mediocre?
We’ve stopped poking the box.
Life is a buzzer box. Poke it. […] When you do this, what happens? When you do that, what happens? The box reveals itself through your poking and as you get better at it, you not only get smarter but also gain ownership.
Early in our lives, we discovered new things about our world by trying. Risk wasn’t a factor, because all we could do is try. If we failed, we’d just adjust and try again. In fact, failure taught us how to try better.
As the father of a typical two-year-old, this is so real to me. While my wife and I are proud of our littlest girl, we know that we’ve had little to do with her development thus far other than just being there and responding. Walking. Talking. Playing. Helping. She’s mostly learned them all by simply trying to do these things over and over and over.
Even now, though, a stigma is being attached to failure (because you can’t wear big girl underwear if you still pee your pants). As she gets older, she’ll learn more and more about the word responsibility, and that taking a risk and failing will cost something. The more real that becomes, the more wary she’ll become of trying something and paying that cost.
That’s a problem, but it’s also a huge opportunity.
The formula is simple:
When the cost of poking the box (ptb) is less than the cost of doing nothing (0), then you should poke! [ptb < 0 -> poke]
Understanding risk and cost is important, because it will (and should) inform our desire to try something new. Inform, but not halt. What our culture erects as a wall made from our failures, stacked on top of one another and mortared together by the fear of not being seen as anything but a success, really needs a good bulldozing. The truth is that it’s only just a helpful guideline for our efforts to grow ourselves and improve our world. Oh, we should stack up our failures, but only so we can climb up on top of them and clearly see the next way we’re going to try to move forward.
Poke the Box is excellent. One of the top three books I read in 2011. Godin is a master at putting a lot of content into very few words and this work is no exception. A small book of under 100 pages, and enough white-space to keep it easy on the eyes. Such a quick read, you’ll get through it in no time. Such a good read, you’ll want to go through it twice. I hope I’ve done it justice, here.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got more poking to do.
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