Percy Spencer wondered why the candy bar in his pocket had melted.
It was the early 1940s, and as an expert in radar tube design, Spencer was working for Raytheon. During the critical years of WW II his team was responsible for building the magnetrons vital to combat radar equipment. Spencer’s innovations in magnetron production enabled the US to increase magnetron production from 17 per day to 2,600.
In what is now lore, Spencer was standing in front of an active radar set when a candy bar he had in his pocket melted. This insight, and what he did next, led to the microwave ovens that changed the American kitchen.
Here’s the key statement from the Wikipedia article about Spencer: “Spencer was not the first to notice this phenomenon, but he was the first to investigate it.”
He experimented with popcorn kernels (microwave popcorn!) and an egg (which exploded in the face of one of the observing scientists).
I have written earlier about Abraham Lincoln making a similar observation about the importance of observing new phenomena – in that case, about the connection between the fluttering lid of a teapot and harnessing of steam power for trains. The key often isn’t about noticing something, but is about the next step you take after that.
Here are some other interesting tidbits about Percy Spencer that may amaze you as much as they amazed me …
I was driving recently and happened to catch a rebroadcast of an episode of A Prairie Home Companion – Garrison Keillor’s incomparable radio program that somehow always stayed both respectful of the past yet – while a radio show – also relevant for today’s listener. During this episode, he recited a poem that was running through the mind of one of his characters during his “The News from Lake Wobegon” segment:
Somebody said that it couldn’t be done, but he with a smile replied
That maybe he couldn’t, but he would be one who wouldn’t say so ‘til he tried
So he buckled right in, with a bit of a grin, ‘til his screwdriver touched a live wire
And he let out a cry, and rose to the sky, and joined the Lord’s heavenly choir
The people who spoke for the eulogy, spoke of duty and ambition
They spoke well of the dead and nobody said
“Why didn’t he call an electrician?”
Garrison went on to capture something I believe in: each of us do a couple things really well, and “for everything else we should hire”. But he points out that this is a city person’s view of work – the theory of specialization.
A farmer’s view of work, on the other hand, is very different. Farmers are generalists – they can handle anything that comes their way. Work is redemptive for them. “You might be really messed up, and do weird things, but you could redeem yourself” through work and the ability to handle crops, equipment and challenges of all sorts.
We live in the economic times of specialization. We are told – and I believe this – that it is better to do a few things really well than several things in mediocre fashion.
And yet, this doesn’t mean we cannot be well-rounded.
So deepen your appreciation of something from the arts. Read history. In your non-work world, develop something that reflects this fact: we are human beings, not human doings.
In the social media era, the only thing that spreads faster than a wildfire is a company’s reputation. Like individual reputations, corporate reputations can be subject to exaggerations and overblown incidents which unfairly malign the organization with one broad stroke. Recovering can take years.
This isn’t limited to small startups. If you look at the reputations of General Motors and Volkswagen – both of which are embroiled in high profile legal challenges, you see that General Motors has attacked their issues head-on, while Volkswagen has been stonewalling (for a great write-up on this, go here). Chipotle is another example of a company under stress that has lost some of the shine from their reputation.
But some reputational problems can be 100% intentional and self-inflicted, to wit GoDaddy.
What interests me about GoDaddy is my belief that what is true for people is also true for young companies: You never get a second chance to make a first impression.
We all remember GoDaddy’s infamous advertising campaigns a few years ago which caused Super Bowl-watching families to dive for the remote due to the overtly sexual (and female-degrading) nature of the commercials. GoDaddy clearly decided to “go big” as they sought to establish their name.
This tack isn’t a new one. Many companies will happily offend or disgust viewers if it cements the “name”. As the old Hollywood adage goes, “I don’t care what they write about me as long as they spell my name right”. I assume GoDaddy was delighted with the outcry and resulting attention since they continued this strategy for a few years.
Thus I was interested in this interview with Blake Irving, the new CEO of GoDaddy (since 2012). My first impression of Blake is that he is a high-quality, principled leader. Here’s an excerpt from the accompanying article that captures the challenge:
There are a number of classic fables that I enjoy because they are as relevant today as they were centuries ago. They’re classics for a reason. One story that we’re all familiar with is The Emperor’s New Clothes written by Denmark’s Hans Christian Andersen in 1837.
As you recall, the Emperor is tricked by two weavers to believe that the magic clothes they created for him were the finest in the land but could not be seen by anyone unfit for his position or “hopelessly stupid”. For this reason the Emperor can’t admit to himself that he can’t see his clothes, so he proceeds to parade before the townspeople as naked as the day he was born. The townspeople, also not wanting to appear hopelessly stupid, go along with the charade until a child – too young for the artifice and pretense common among adults – points out the obvious: the Emperor is, in fact, naked.
The video below is a snippet of such a moment from the movie Big. The key point is around the :20 mark when Josh Baskin, played by a young Tom Hanks, nervously raises his hand. You remember it:
There are three things I love about this scene:
- I love that Josh is ignoring the blather about market growth and segments and immediately begins touching, turning, and trying to figure out how the toy works. I have a suspicion that many people don’t exhibit curiosity in how their product works in the actual world after they leave the office (or even while they’re in the office). Its good to remember that the financial results are the output, but the product is the input.
- After the pompous marketing executive finishes presenting his business plan to the executive team, they give him a round of applause. It heightens the insular, self-congratulatory nature of the group.
- The real magic of this scene however is when Josh states the four magic words: “I don’t get it”.
Most of us who watched the recent gymnastics competition at the 2016 Olympics in Rio found ourselves stupefied by the talent displayed by the diminutive athletes. To say that the routines seemed to be gravity-defying is an understatement. I mean, how do you even judge these? When the television commentator says that an athlete did a triple-flip with two-and-a-half twists, I can only take her word for it since most of the time I can’t see what’s going in inside the airborne flurry of arms/legs/leotards that ends in a “stuck” landing. The athletes often remind me of the Tasmanian Devil of cartoon fame, who was always winding himself up in a cyclone of indecipherable motion.
If you’re like me, you may start to wonder: how have these performances changed over the years?
Below are two videos. The first is a video of Cathy Rigby – every bit the household name at the time as Simone Biles is today – doing a balance beam routine at the 1970 World Championships in Yugoslavia (a former Soviet “republic”). Viewed through the lens of the 21st century, the commentator’s reaction to some of her moves are at times as amusing as the video itself. The second video is Simone’s balance beam routine at an international event prior to the Olympics in 2016.
When I need some fresh air and a mental break I like to go out on a walk and listen to a podcast (note: I will pull together my favorite podcasts for a future post). I find podcasts to be an excellent way to listen to engaging information on my schedule. Since I spend a lot less time in a car than most people (my commute to work involves walking down some stairs to my home office) I don’t listen to podcasts in the car as many people do. But for me, listening to great content while moving my body is relaxing and engaging at the same time.
On a recent walk I was listening to this episode of Tim Ferriss’s podcast. It was a short recording where Seth Godin answers a number of questions and basically holds forth for thirty minutes or so on a range of topics.
One of the questions Seth addresses is the creation of a “personal brand”. Seth emphasizes that good brands deliver what the customer needs and does so consistently.
Story setup: Seth got started in 1986 selling books to book publishers. According to Seth, in 1986 “book publishers needed more books than they had”. Seth and a team of people created books that Seth tried to sell to the book publishers – who rejected him “again and again and again and again” until he crafted his message “in a way they could hear me”.
Here’s Seth (bold text is for my emphasis):
“Hi Mike. Sorry I couldn’t get back to you sooner. We’re going through a re-organization and things are pretty hectic here. We’re going to need to let the dust settle a bit before we can move ahead with that project we were talking about. Check back with me in a couple months.”
I have heard some variation of the above message too many times to count throughout my career. I’ve heard it so often, I’d probably be better delivering it than the caller.
I am convinced that some companies exist only to reorganize; its their only core competency. It’s almost like when things get too normal, management gets bored. And as we all know, the devil makes use of idle hands.
I state the following unequivocally: I believe that corporate reorganizations destroy billions of dollars of shareholder wealth annually.
It would be interesting to see financial analysts (the people who analyze the value of a firm on behalf of investors) to get wise to this. I remember an investor in the Silicon Valley – where, at the time, building big corporate headquarters was in vogue and rooted in corporate vanity – tell me that his rule was to “short the stock of any company building a new headquarters”.
Similarly, there may be an undiscovered investment strategy tied to shorting the stock of any company going through a reorganization. The only problem with the theory is that so many companies are in a state of perpetual reorganization that it would be hard to limit the fund to only a few.
Below are some points on how to think about re-organizations from the perspective of a leader and a team member. Before that, three cautionary notes:
The exclamation in the title – Reee-jected! – was what my friends and I would yell at each other when one of us, while defending a shot on the basketball court, got “all ball” and denied the shot. When you’re a mediocre basketball player of modest height, the feeling of rejecting a shot borders on euphoria. But real rejection – the kind that all of us have experienced – is no fun at all. But if we get our mind right, we can overcome and prosper in the face of rejection.
Everyone gets rejected. It’s amazing to read rejection letters like the one above. It reminds you that rejection is part of the journey. My favorite line from the rejection letter to U2? “We wish you luck with your future career”. Thanks!
I have written about Cal Newport’s important book Deep Work. I’m a subscriber to Cal’s blog, where he writes about ways to cultivate the habits necessary to ditch the electronic distractions of our age and focus on sustained concentration. One of Cal’s chief recommendations is to dump social media for a period of time (optimally, forever).
In a recent blog post, Cal shared some great (and comic) insights from Aziz Ansari from his interview on the Freakonomics podcast (something I also subscribe and listen to). Here is an interesting thought experiment from Aziz – who is definitely a deep work kind of guy – about why he doesn’t have social media apps on his phone:
“Like, here’s a test, OK. Take, like, your nightly or morning browse of the Internet, right? Your Facebook feed, Instagram feed, Twitter, whatever. OK if someone every morning was like, I’m gonna print this and give you a bound copy of all this stuff you read so you don’t have to use the Internet. You can just get a bound copy of it. Would you read that book? No! You’d be like, this book sucks. There’s a link to some article about a horse that found its owner somehow. It’s not that interesting.”
In a career, reputation is your greatest asset. I’m going to give you two quick and very practical thoughts on how you can enhance your reputation responsibly and gain more influence.
First, a disclaimer about where reputation comes from, courtesy of the 16th US President, Abraham Lincoln:
“Character is like a tree and reputation is like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”
So the disclaimer is that for the advice below, we are not ignoring the tree. Character gives birth to reputation. If you have a lousy character, stop reading and go work on that.
OK. Here’s my first observation about reputation: Don’t wait for applause.
All of us have been around people who resemble a guy I once heard described this way: “after he says something he sits back and waits for applause”.