Thursday, 11 October 2012

Making Awesome By Having Impact

What is awesome?

If we want to set it as a shining beacon for people, we need to define and quantify it.

I've observed some attributes, but that's no definition.

To define it, I've looked closer at what creates it.

There are three categories of awesome I've observed people use. There may be more.
Something can be awesome through impact, emotion or quality. Wikipedia, Pink Floyd and Lamborghini, respecitvely.

In many cases, people got there from two or even three directions at once.

I want to explore awesome through impact in this piece.

When we think of something that has positively impacted the world at scale, we say it's awesome.
Fire. The wheel. Electricity.  The Internet. Google. Wikipedia. Cars with internal combustion engines.

Wait, cars? Sure. They allowed us a level of personal mobility we never had before. They allowed us to prosper as a society. Check out the 20th century, at least in that latter half, once we got tired of shooting each other.
But they addicted us to oil on a global scale, propped up petrodictators and contributed meaningfully to trashing our environment. Are cars awesome?

My answer is that in examples like cars, where one lacks a choice, it doesn't matter.
Cars are there and nobody is going to dis-invent them without providing a viable alternative. Nobody really knows how the world would have evolved without them. There's no real choice today, so it's moot, pointless speculation. It only matters at that point in time when you face the choice of inventing the car. And when they were introduced, they were absolutely awesome. Far more awesome than the alternatives none of us actually remember. Alternatives like this.
It is on the day we are faced with choice, that we need to ask "If I make this, will the universe be better?"

For everyone, not just for your narrow interest. This is a qualitative question, easier to answer using simple human intuition. It's often not quantitative. This is because it directly ties into our values.
Lots of slaves may have seemed to make the universe better several centuries ago. So would non-empowered women. This question must be asked with our current moral code in mind.
And it must be asked first of him or those who choose to create something new.

If only Ron Hubbard asked himself that one simple question before he set off.

In some cases, it absolutely becomes quantitative.
A $40bn government project would be a project gained, but $40bn of community money and other projects it could have funded - spent. Is it net gain or net loss? Accountable governments have controls to ensure this debate is had, and that specialists are used to contribute to the discussion. And no, not everyone will always agree.

Note I avoid using the word "welfare". "Welfare" carries too much specific local context. We can increase our welfare by invading another country and stripping it of its resources. Does doing this make the universe better?

This "does it make the universe better" question is just the pre-decision hurdle. It's not the metric by which we actually measure ourselves. Once we decide to act, we should revisit it occasionally, but there are two more concrete ones:

One is "How much inertia do you create acting out your idea?" or in its simpler form, "Will you grow?"
Note I used "inertia", not "money". This is because while money is one form of inertia, it is by no means the only form. An army of free contributors (take the Salvos or Wikipedia as examples) is another form. Non-paying users, say if you're a social network, is yet another. Voters is yet another.

This holds equally true if you're an individual, a company or even a government.

If you're bleeding inertia to do what you do, you're doing it wrong. It's killing you.
Remember they tell you on airplanes to always put your own oxygen mask on first, before helping a child? You're no use to the universe if you're a liability, impaired or dead.

We hope for any vision of ours that it generates inertia, and the more the merrier.

The third and last question is a controversial one. It reads "What does your environment think about you?"

Linkedin have figured this out. They figured that what you think about yourself is biased. Instead, they now ask your mates and past colleagues what they think about you.

Apply this question to a new idea, enterprise, cause or government program.

Group 1 - How many people think what you're doing is awesome?
Group 2 - How many others think that it's not for them but there's nothing wrong with it?
Group 3 - Last, how many think you're outright bad?

Go ahead. Put yourself in the shoes of a board member in Philip Morris. What do your metrics look like?

If that last "bad" percentage is particularly high, especially if it's far higher than the aggregate of the first two... then somewhere, somehow, there's a good chance you're stepping on people. And while they may be conservative bigots with no vision, that doesn't make stepping on them right.

Some of the time, it means you failed at the task of building a rich, multi-faceted value proposition.
If people (other than your competitors) actively oppose your idea, it means you haven't solved for them too. It means someone will mount a campaign against you. It means your idea's value proposition needs more panelbeating.

When the Australian federal government passed the carbon tax, they avoided making lots of ordinary people oppose it by directly compensating them for costs passed down to them by affected providers, like their utility. That's a multi-faceted value proposition right there.

The best way to keep your idea on the tracks of awesome is to make enemies become friends, and engineer a value proposition in advance for those who will otherwise block your path.

But asking the environment is also dangerous. It assumes a shared moral code. It assumes people can think... and actually bother to do so. The movie "The Wave" made a strong point of this.
Asking the environment also assumes nobody has unfair power over the measuring tool (and measuring tool isn't just Putin scoring a 107% election turnout - it's an industry that sells facebook likes and youtube watches).

Gauging public sentiment can yield very healthy warning signals for when something has stopped being awesome. But it has time and again become a killing ground of personal freedoms when satisfying a vague definition was required by law. One must tread carefully, and ensure public sentiment systems, in whichever form they come, have the adequate failsafes.

Most current societies have some tools - from legislators that will draw boundaries around you if you step on too many people, to class action lawsuits that will be thrown at you if you break laws, hurt others or pollute.

The GFC, our deteriorating environment and some unstoppable, abusive multinationals suggest this is not done well enough in our world today.

So the next time you have an idea, ask yourself -
Am I making the universe better? Am I part of the solution or part of the problem?
Can I make my inertia grow? Will I be an asset to the good guys, or a liability?
And ultimately, how can the universe be made to appreciate the idea?

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