How to Reduce Event Attendance

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The mistakes of the fool are known to the world, but not to himself. — Charles Caleb Colton

Most of us go to events from time to time — festivals, concerts, conventions, street fairs — and many of these get promoted by email. If you’re on a list for, say, a monthly swap meet, you’ll receive a notice in your Inbox from the promoter, and it’s often written in a breezy, upbeat and chatty style that’s sure to charm and attract customers.

Yes, making money is probably one of the main purposes of the promoter. No problem with that, of course. The trouble lies elsewhere. Here’s an example of what you might get:

“Okay, our regular meet is all set up for the end of the month! Get ready, because it’s gonna be a great one. Usual start time, but we’ll have some extra-special guest vendors that you’ll love. Admission is $20 this month because of extra expenses, but rest assured you’ll think it was worth more. We look forward to seeing all of you. Do come to the main tent and say hi.”

What’s wrong with it? … Yes, you in the back.

“There’s no date listed.”

Exactly. I’ve lost count of how many announcements I’ve received that bubbled with excitement about an event but forgot to mention the date. Or the time. Or the address. Or the price.

The above sample omits nearly every particular. This is surprisingly common. Promoters seem to assume that their list members already know the recurring stuff, so why bore them with the same details?

Here’s a why: List members themselves often need the basic information. Your regulars are a motley bunch, some of whom have not been with the group long, or have poor memories, or have always caught a ride with someone else until now. Etc etc.

Here’s another why: Your regulars may want to forward the email to friends and new recruits, but they won’t if it’s an embarrassment of non-information.

If the promoter fails to list everything anyone might need to know about the event, attendance will suffer — not merely from missed opportunities for marketing to newbies, but from regulars unsure about the date or time or address or cost. Instead of the hoped-for increase in patronage, the turnout drops.

A big difference between professionals and amateurs is that pros tend to be methodical and detail-oriented, whereas amateurs are in it for the fun, confusing enthusiasm for competence. If there’s money involved, the event organizer needs to behave like a professional. But if thoroughness makes them impatient, they’ll hit “Send” too early … and prove they’re an amateur.

When it’s a one-person operation, that person will write the announcement, and then proof-read it … if she or he has time. The problem is that most amateur writers think if they understand what they’re writing, so will everyone else. They believe they’re communicating simply because they’re typing.

I’ve received unclear or incomplete email announcements, replied asking for clarification, and been scolded for not reading the email. This tells me the promoter sincerely believes all the info is included even when it isn’t. This illusion can be very persistent; amateurs fall prey to it all the time.

Also, it’s extremely poor practice for promoters to get huffy with their customers about anything, especially communication problems, which could easily be the promoter’s fault.

If organizers simply assume they’ve announced events properly, they’ll never connect the dots between incompetent emails and lost gate. Besides, with so many variables — weather, time of year, competition, economic conditions — who can prove that it was the weak email announcement that put the brakes on attendance?

The announcement is one of the variables you can control. It is, after all, a part of marketing, which is critical to the success of your event. It’s hard to imagine it not affecting attendance.

SOLUTIONS:

Always include the basic details:

—Date and time (“Saturday, March 12, 8:00 a.m.”)

—Event and location (“Monthly Swap Meet, 123 Main St, Anytown”)

—Cost and benefits (“$20 gets you admission and a free raffle ticket.”)

—Any special notes (“Be sure to bring a warm jacket” / sunscreen / bug spray / box lunch / etc)

If you must issue an update or correction, be sure to include the basic details again, revised as appropriate. Do these things and it becomes easy for people to pop the event into their calendars … and forward the message, with its complete event info, to those they want to invite.

Always write for the first-timer. Read your own writing as if you were a newbie who doesn’t know the least thing about your event. This exercise can show you what you’re omitting that you’ve assumed everyone else knows. (And you’d be surprised how much the regular attendees don’t know about what’s going on.) Assume that your list members are like students in a classroom, where most of them aren’t paying attention. Be clear, and always include complete event information, so a beginner — and any regular who’s unsure about the latest event particulars — will have no doubts or hesitations about when and where to attend, what to bring, etc.

Always have someone else check your writing. Well-constructed sentences give off a professional air, while goofs and awkward phrases reek of amateurism. It’s easy to scan your own work and see no problems: you wrote it, it looks good to you, it must be getting the point across. We’re all a bit blinded by the majesty of our own verbiage. But be warned: our writing, unchecked, can and will rise up to humiliate us, the lovely words betraying confused or embarrassing meanings we never intended. Meanwhile, punctuation and spelling mistakes can slip past the best of us. A second pair of eyes will catch a lot of potential problems.

Don’t be the one left standing in the middle of a sparsely attended event, shrugging his shoulders — “But I told them about it!” — oblivious to the amateur mistakes he made. Let somebody else make those errors. Get your email promotions in hand … and watch your gate improve.

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Four Things Governments Do that Your Business Shouldn’t

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The free market punishes irresponsibility. Government rewards it. – Harry Browne

I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further. — Darth Vader

Business owners and government officials work in diametrically opposite ways. Companies make offers to trade with you; governments use force to compel you to give resources to them. A corporation increases its product quality, then advertises the fact and improves revenues; an official agency delivers shoddy service, blames the problem, and cajoles the legislature into raising its budget. A firm that lies to its customers gets punished severely in the marketplace; a politician who lies to the public can point to political opposition and get re-elected.

Sometimes a business owner, under pressure in the marketplace — and perhaps impressed with how pols can get away with so much — may be tempted to take the path of Lying, Cheating, and Stealing. This is expected behavior from a politician but a horrific mistake in a CEO. Companies thrive on efficiency and customer satisfaction but deteriorate with bad behavior; governments burgeon with every problem they can create. 

Here are four ways politicos and bureaucrats do bad things that you should avoid at all cost:

— Use force: We the People have seen fit to delegate police powers to the State, on the grounds that some of society’s problems must be resolved with the threat or use of violence. This affords government stupendous power, which breeds arrogance and a sense of entitlement and veiled contempt for the citizenry.

Your firm, on the other hand, must never, ever use or appear to condone coercion against your customers. This may seem obvious and trite, but companies sometimes think they’re clever to lure patrons with tempting offers, cajole them into contracts, and then corner them with fine print or sudden changes to benefits. For customers, that behavior looks like force, even if technically it isn’t. And it’s a chief reason citizens demand bureaucratic intervention into the concerns of companies.

— Be incompetent: The bottom line for a business is profits, which tend to evaporate when processes become inefficient. Bureaucrats, on the other hand, increase their power and influence by screwing up and then blaming the problems they’re charged with solving. Legislators already have signaled that the issue is important enough to warrant laws backed by the threat of force. They’re rarely in a hurry to punish, much less dismantle, the very departments they’ve staked their reputations on. This means bureaucrats have wide latitude to argue that their departments haven’t been adequately funded. As with Lucy and the Football, most legislatures succumb annually to this game. 

Businesses aren’t immune, either. Large corporations subdivide into departments with separate budgets, and divisions that fail to spend all their allotments may find funding cut back the following year. This creates an incentive to waste money simply to keep the department at its current size. Only at the top of the organization chart can this process be kept in check. Corporate leaders save themselves a lot of financial grief by inspecting closely those year-end weird purchases. Why does the IT department suddenly need a bunch of folding tables and chairs? And accounting can do without those fancy window treatments; simple shades will suffice.

— Renege: Like Darth Vader, politicians can change their promises almost on a whim, and citizens have few short-term remedies. Worse, in the long term, voters tend to re-elect liars: it’s hard to find candidates who don’t bend the truth, so dishonesty gets rewarded. Meanwhile, laws and enforcement can change overnight, leaving companies in the lurch. For example, hotels and taxi companies — that depend on regulations banning unlicensed room rentals and gypsy cabs — are left holding the bag as local agencies dump them and, instead, flirt with high-tech hotties Airbnb and Uber. 

Companies that lack integrity, on the other hand, can suffer marketplace death penalties when word of mouth condemns them. Happily, if an enterprise screws up and then goes to the trouble of reimbursing its victims, those patrons often morph into evangelists who sing the praises of the company. (Not that business should therefore make big mistakes just to fix them.)

— Spy: Americans, lately having learned that their government has engaged in wholesale spying on their phones and computer accounts, are touchy about the topic. But because of the “Blame Outside Forces” principle — in this case, possible enemy sleeper cells inside the U.S. — most citizens are less upset with Federal bulk snooping than they are with corporations collecting information on them. 

Big Data can be useful, but it’s easy to mishandle the process and alienate your patrons. By now, most people are cynical about promises that “We will never give away your information”, since any company in financial trouble (read: every company, eventually) will be tempted to monetize all that data in a desperate try to save itself from ruin. Suddenly customers’ private information is being passed around like a stolen doobie, and trust goes up in smoke. One workaround is to anonymize as much of the information as possible, so when temptation strikes, you’ll be able, at least in part, to live up to that original promise of data security.

… It’s one of those eternal mysteries, that people can disdain companies that serve them while acting worshipfully toward governments that shake them down. But imitating political bad behavior on the grounds that “They can get away with it, so why can’t we?” will probably blow up in your face. A business simply can’t pull off actions the State can do with impunity. Owners dwell in the marketplace, where trust is vital; government officials live in the realm of coercion, where power trumps all other considerations. They involve completely different sets of incentives. Mix them at your peril.

In an age when an avowed socialist can win presidential primaries, companies would do well not to alienate customers who might rise up and vote to dismantle businesses altogether and hand the remains to government management.

In a word, cultivate integrity. Governments don’t have to be honest, but successful businesses thrive on it. And their customers love them for it.

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How Positive Thinking Works … and Doesn’t

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Once you get past physics, reality is entirely negotiable. Taylor Pearson

Positive thinking — or visualizations, or affirmations, or “imaging”, as they call it in sports — is an approach to problem-solving where the user imagines, or envisions, the successful outcome of a project. 

It’s widely used in athletics, hypnosis, psychological counseling, and in some religions. Professions with payoffs that are hard to predict — sales, sports, the arts — often dabble in this approach. Business, where results really matter, is an arena where visualization techniques might offer great potential.

The theory is that outcomes — both good and bad — are controlled by our thoughts rather than merely by environment or genetics. You may have a difficult boss or co-worker, but you could imagine yourself getting along smoothly with this person — and, if you do it correctly, your mental pictures would result in an improved relationship. If your sales numbers are poor, you might visualize future reports with strong numbers, and somehow that would translate into better results down the line. Or you might “see yourself” as a slender and fit person, and this would cause excess weight to melt away and a rack of abs to appear.

At the simplest level, this process has been called “skull practice” — you’re simply rehearsing in your mind the behaviors and/or results you want so that, in real life, your nervous system automatically seeks out resources and performs actions that lead to your objective, and good results follow.

The most important assertion is that this kind of mental rehearsal can affect a much wider variety of outcomes than we normally believe can be altered — personality, health, financial situation, friendships, love life, etc etc. Sure, you can rehearse a speech in your head, but can you rehearse a change in your personality or bank account? The theory says yes.

Really? Can this stuff work? Can we use positive imaging to improve our results in the workplace and elsewhere? Or is it all a bunch of malarkey? 

In America, visualization descends from a late-19th-century philosophy called New Thought, which taught that the spirit of God is in everything, and that failure to understand this leads to wrong thinking and illness. New Thought also asserted that “thoughts are things” that can generate new matter out of imagination. In the 20th century, several popular books moved the conversation along: Think and Grow Rich, The Power of Positive Thinking, Psycho-Cybernetics, Creative Visualization, and, recently, The Secret.

You can guess that there might be a certain amount of baggage and confusion accompanying these ideas. The entire field has an aura of magic, of the miraculous, that can turn off practical people. On one side we find enthusiasts making extraordinary claims, and on the other we have skeptics who believe the whole movement is a bunch of charlatans spouting unscientific rubbish. 

True, there are plenty of visualization coaches out there who are overweight. And studies have suggested that career criminals have strong self-esteem. On the other hand, formal research points to something useful:

  1. Science hints at benefits from “positive thinking”: “ . . . some evidence suggests positive thinking might have a strictly biological impact as well.” And it can improve health through stress reduction
  2. Emotional stress can influence gene expression: Soldiers with PTSD showed changes in the way their DNA controlled cellular activity. This opens the door for the possibility of changing ourselves at the genetic level through stress reduction and/or positive thinking. “ . . . it may be possible that positive thinking, through some physiological byproducts that, let’s say, reduce stress or lower blood pressure levels, could impact gene expression.” Your very DNA, then, may be malleable, and thinking might be the tool.
  3. Optimism boosts health: “ . . . people who are optimistic about their health tend to do better.

To add to the confusion, the literature on visualization and positive thinking is a mishmash of prescriptions, and some books contradict others. Here are a few of the many ways positive thinking has been presented:

–Imagine what you want, one time, and it will come to you

–Imagine what you want, over and over, until you get it

–Imagine what you want and make it intensely attractive

–Imagine what you want, then imagine the opposite, then choose what you want

–Imagine what you desire, then want, believe, and expect that it is true

–Imagine what you want and never allow bad thoughts to enter your mind

–Imagine what you want and then resolve any contradictions that arise in your feelings

At least they all involve imagining what you want. That’s a starting point.

Let’s try to remove the chaff. Then maybe we can get to the wheat.

First, there is what I call the “Stupid Brain Theory” of positive thinking. Basically, the theory is that “whatever we dwell upon we draw to ourselves,” so that if we focus on the problems we’re having, the problems get bigger. This is based on the idea that the mind is attracted to anything with strong emotional content. Why else would we fuss and worry about some issue, only to have it turn out badly? We must, perversely, have been attracted to the very thing that causes us pain. Therefore we should counteract all negative thoughts with positive ones. (This notion carries weight with evangelicals — many of whom are drawn to positive thinking — since it can be explained as “tests from God”.) 

More likely, we wallow in failures because we don’t realize there are better options. We try to make the best of a bad situation, and end up with … a modified bad situation. We’re not stupid; we’re just ignorant of the possibilities.

Then there’s “The Secret Theory”, which basically states that the great people of history all practiced positive thinking, but for some reason this tremendous power has been kept away from the mass of humanity. (That is, until the book The Secret came out, of course.) But the idea that billions of people have been so foolish and limited as to have failed after all this time (and access to the Internet) to find for themselves this wonderful tool … well, it beggars belief. 

It’s much more probable that we’re simply brought up from birth to “know our place” and to refrain from daring to imagine more. As well, many difficult roadblocks crop up in our lives where it’s hard to imagine workarounds, so that we sometimes adopt the stance that “it can’t be helped”, and we give up.

Also there’s the “Try Hard Theory” that says you’ll get everything you want if you just want it badly enough and are willing to work super-hard (and do your affirmations every day for 30 minutes). It’s possible this is true, but it’s also a distressingly difficult method. The whole point of visualizations is to get what we want, and it kind of cancels the benefit if we must suffer and struggle endlessly in the process.

Now let’s see if we can distill the core principles — the useful stuff:

The evidence:

  • Stresses of life sometimes leave us with pessimistic attitudes about our potential
  • Parents and authority figures often straitjacket us into their systems of struggle
  • Modern technology opens up possibilities for solving nearly every human problem
  • Optimistic attitudes are correlated with good outcomes
  • Sports stars, business leaders, and great artists often swear to the benefits of visualizing

The process:

  • See in your mind the outcome you desire
  • Choose and expect that outcome
  • Allow the outcome to arrive as it will
  • Refine the process to suit you

All you need see in your mind’s eye is the result you want. (If, instead of visualizing “I am worth four million dollars”, you focus on the process — i.e., “First I get a job, then I make money to invest, then I peel some off to start a business, then I hire an accountant …” — you’ll become lost in details and never get to the result.) 

Then you make what you desire into a choice, not a wish; this will charge your mind with the expectation of obtaining the result. You’ll start to notice yourself taking an interest in things you previously ignored; this is your mind running its search for the contents of the result you’ve chosen.

In fact, the act of daring to choose what you want, despite the apparent odds, may be key to the entire process. We yearn for what isn’t ours, but we choose what belongs to us. Perhaps it’s the simple act of choosing that makes things possible, that brings our desires to fruition.

It’s important not to limit yourself to what you think is practical or logical. This kind of worry will cause you to edit your desires until they resemble what you merely assume is available, and you’ll be back where you started. There’s a big difference between “It can’t be done” and “I don’t yet know how to do it”. You’ll be surprised at what is attainable.

By the way, if you imagine “I’m great at sales” or “I’m a terrific administrator” but you still have an old belief like “I’m not allowed to have my own success” or “I’m a bad person”, the old attitude will sabotage the new one. So address the deepest concerns first, then work your way down the list to the smaller items (like that Tesla roadster you have your eye on).

As you practice, you’ll find that some approaches work better than others. Perhaps bedtime is a good moment for you to do visualizing, or maybe the morning is better; it could be that reciting aloud your affirmations works well — or, instead, silence is golden. Try various ways and see what works for you. Every brain is different, so tailor the process to fit yours. And there is a TON of literature on the topic, so there’s plenty of counsel. (See above for links to the most famous works.)

The great lesson of modernity is that nearly anything is possible. The old days of restrictive tribal loyalties and self-abnegation are gone, replaced by endless possibilities opening up for us in the future. Rather than staying trapped in the old attitudes of scarcity and impossibility, our task now is to engage that future. And this is the moment when visualization — affirmations, “positive thinking”, call it what you will — can serve us as we create wonders. 

A wise person said, “When you take a stand [for something in your life], the world will arrange itself to agree with you.” You might as well try it and see.

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UPDATE: “We can make ourselves more or less vulnerable by how we think about things.

UPDATE: Choose your role in life

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How to Deal with a Minimum Wage

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If $10 is so great, why not $20 or $50 an hour? — Matt Palumbo

Not long ago, I sat with friends in the patio of a fast-food restaurant, munching on desserts and enjoying gentle conversation. One of the servers, whom lately we’d befriended, joined us. We discussed his experiences there, and at one point he mentioned a raise he’d just received due to an uptick in the state’s minimum wage. “It’s ten bucks an hour now,” he said. “So when things get slow, the manager sends me home early.” 

…Oh. 

Apparently the new minimum wage costs the restaurant money, and the manager sidles around it by reducing work hours. Our friend the server got a raise in name only. In fact, if he loses enough hours, he could end up making less money.

The political Left insists a minimum wage is (1) just, (2) affordable, and (3) not a factor in unemployment rates. Why, then, are businesses trying to wiggle around it? Are they simply greedy and heartless?

Poke a Progressive and you open a deep well of resentment against the affluent. You also find a reservoir of outdated ideas about economics. Left-wingers tend not to be the most financially successful among their fellow citizens, and they often find it hard to imagine how anyone can get rich without stealing it. (Once, as an experiment at a gathering, I recited the old saw, “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime,” and a left-wing acquaintance practically jumped up and cheered.) 

What’s more, most liberals seem to believe the gilded gentry stash their wealth in huge piles of doubloons in their basements … and the rich should jolly-well share it, as they must have hijacked it from the rest of us, who could sure use some of that coin, especially when it isn’t doing any good down in the cellar.

Liberals fail to understand, or ignore, the fact that finance has come a long way since the Middle Ages, and that most wealth today is held in the form of investments — stocks, bonds, etc. — that help firms raise money so they can hire workers. Taxing those resources and handing them out to the poor may give the less fortunate some spending cash, but it extracts that money from businesses, which must then reduce worker hours or lay them off altogether. Society as a whole isn’t exactly coming out ahead.

The other thing the Left fails to grasp is scale, another trait that modernity brings to the marketplace. When someone comes up with a great product or service, and people scramble to buy it, that someone uses the profits to scale up the business so it can sell to larger and larger numbers of patrons. The first sale multiplies into tens, hundreds, thousands, even millions of further sales. That is how most wealthy people get rich, not by holding up banks or pulling a Bernie Madoff. They made money because they earned it by scaling up a successful product. 

And (unless they received special advantages from government regulators) they didn’t get wealthy by forcing patrons to pay a higher figure; they got rich because they offered an attractive product at a competitive price.

Which brings us back to the minimum wage. If you push up the price of anything, customers will go away. This is just as true of labor as it is of autos or TV sets or candy bars. Every worker who benefits from an increase in the minimum wage has gotten a windfall profit at the expense of her company. The cost of doing business went up but there’s no improvement in productivity or product. Companies respond by laying off workers (or, in the case of our friend the server, shortening his hours), or raising prices. This results in fewer customers, which further increases layoffs. And that doesn’t work out well for anyone.

The Left will argue that the stinking-rich business owner has restricted the worker’s natural right to a certain amount of pay, and he ought to shell out from his ill-gotten gains to provide that “just wage”– Say what? Is there a gigantic piece of parchment floating above the Earth with the exact pay rate scratched into it by God? And who’s gonna pay for it? The most garishly overcompensated CEOs receive teensy fractions of the total value of their corporations. Massive wage increases would dig huge holes in company revenues. Layoffs and bankruptcies would ensue.

Meanwhile, most businesses are run, not by fat cats, but by hard-working middle-income owners. Sure, the boss drives a Mercedes, but he bought it seven years ago and it badly needs detailing.

“Fine, but minimum wages don’t hamper employment!” It turns out research shows the opposite: minimum wages do hobble hiring: “ . . . after one or two years, fewer businesses will open, existing businesses will close faster, and fewer jobs will be available.” Worse, minimum wage increases hit minorities harder, thwarting their job search. White supremacists would applaud. 

In fact, the first minimum wage campaigns, a century ago, were explicitly for the purpose of keeping people of color out of the job market. The ideas was that no one would hire them at an artificially inflated wage, leaving the field clear for the more experienced and costly white workers. Back then, Progressives understood enough economics to know that a minimum wage was tantamount to a hiring freeze on the lower classes. And they supported this crusade as a form of eugenics! Liberals hadn’t yet heard the news about racism, and many promoted minimum wages as a form of slow genocide. Amazing, but true. (Woodrow Wilson, get back in line.)

Anyway, how can a business adapt to upward surges in the minimum wage?

  • Hold off on new hires. Instead, increase the hours for your better employees.
  • Send workers home early on slow days. (Sorry, my server friend! But the boss is trying to keep the doors open for everyone.)
  • Hire part-timers instead of full-timers. This sidesteps paying overtime, healthcare, pensions, etc. Your employees will compensate by finding second jobs, which can make work schedules a headache. But it offsets, to some degree, the forced wage increase.
  • Hire robots. Software, 3-D printers, robot vacuums, etc, don’t require healthcare or vacations … or minimum wages.
  • Hire sales and marketing people. Your costs just went up; it’s time to reach out to new customers.
  • Improve your products. You can charge a premium for specialty items. Roll up your sleeves and get creative.
  • Raise prices. Do this gently! You don’t want sticker shock to chase away your customers.

(Before trying any of the above, check to be sure you don’t run afoul of local statutes. Your mileage may vary.)

In case some of you are working for The Man at minimum wage — and think I’m a heartless bastard — I have great ideas for you, too. And they’re much bigger than a one-dollar pay boost. Check them out here and here.

The minimum wage isn’t really helping, but it is costing businesses — and their customers — money. Still, there are workarounds. 

And the next time somebody buttonholes you about supporting a minimum wage increase, simply thank them politely, tip your hat, and run away.

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UPDATE: Funny if it weren’t true: DC activists now want minimum wage raised to $35-$50/hr

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A Robot Took My Job

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If you are getting paid in excess of the value you create, you are either (a) a bureaucrat or (b) soon to find yourself replaced by a machine. — Adam C. Smith & Stewart Dompe

Back when ebooks first became popular and everyone bought tablet computers to read them, a magazine carried a cartoon in which two men, garbed in Renaissance clothing, were standing next to an early printing press, and before them on a table lay a brand-new book. One of the men said, “These are nice, but there’ll always be scrolls.”

Over the centuries, people have invented countless labor-saving devices, and today we reap enormous benefits from them: vehicles to transport us, washing machines for our clothes, indoor plumbing for fresh water at the turn of a tap, electricity to light our homes and refrigerate our food and power our TVs. 

Most of these devices have substituted for human effort and thrown people out of work. Most of us who are employed tend to avert our eyes from this problem. After all, it’s something that has happened slowly over the decades, and people managed to adapt and find new work. But times have changed. Jobs are becoming obsolete at an alarming rate. We need to rethink this challenge.

At the dawn of the Industrial Age, the Jacquard Loom took work from weavers, who responded with the first labor action: they destroyed looms and demanded the machines be banned. A century and a half later, a story circulated that Henry Ford Jr and labor leader Walter Reuther were inspecting a new car factory, and Ford pointed to the fancy automated machinery on the floor, chiding Reuther, “How will you get those to join your union?” Reuther snapped back with, “How will you get them to buy your cars?”

Each invention has created markets for new kinds of work, and today most people are still working hard. We haven’t yet been obsoleted. But in recent decades, after recessions, businesses have failed to re-hire with the usual robustness. Economists now talk about “jobless recoveries”. The arrival of robotics, computing, and information technology has allowed for large-scale automation of routine tasks. Mid-level jobs (factory workers, office clerks) have succumbed to computerization, while low-skill labor (janitors, home healthcare workers) and high-skill work (attorneys, bankers, scientists) continue apace.

No wonder it seems as if there are more poor and rich people, while the middle class dwindles.

On close inspection, all this makes perfect, if discouraging, sense. Low-wage routine jobs involve the kind of motor skills anyone can do: vacuuming, making beds, taking out the trash. Yet these abilities are daunting for robotics.

At the other end of the spectrum sit computer programmers and researchers and financial managers and attorneys and doctors, all endowed with high-end technical expertise. These tasks involve a great deal of intuition and pattern recognition, abilities tough to program digitally.

What’s common about both groups is that their skills are hard to automate. It’s more difficult for a robot to pick up a glass of water than for a computer to play chess. Thus janitors and high-status professionals are safe. For now.

Soon enough, though, there will come a moment in history — the Singularity — when machine intelligence exceeds in all respects that of people. At that moment all bets are off about the future of humanity. Assuming we survive the lethal dangers of such a juncture, what then will become of us as workers, as employees, as money earners? Will we be tossed from our jobs because machines can do everything better? Will robots and automation act like Jacquard looms on steroids, laying waste to entire marketplaces of employment? How will people buy food, pay the rent, and maintain their vehicles if they no longer receive their regular income checks? 

Nay-sayers argue that there’ll always be jobs because, no matter how many robots can provide stuff, there are ever more things people desire, and therefore there’ll always be a demand for an extra pair of hands. The problem is that, in the Singularity future, automatons will likely reproduce themselves quickly, as needed, in anticipation of desires. In other words, robots will also out-compete us in job creation.

How might societies respond?

• Riots — It happened in the early 1800s with textile workers; why wouldn’t it happen again this time, when most jobs suddenly disappear?

• Transfer payments — There’ll be calls for minimum personal incomes, essentially welfare for all, paid by the rich, to give consumers cash so they can buy products and keep production churning along.

• Nationalization of ownership — Governments might be tempted — along the lines of third-world “land reform” transfers of acreage to the poor — to force a partial allocation of stock ownership to the masses, so that everyone owns a minimal stake in the machines of production and the income that flows from it.

• Collectives of the unemployed — Groups locked out of robotic prosperity will develop what resources they have and trade among themselves until they accumulate enough material wealth to buy their own robots.

• A paradise of freebies — The same cost efficiencies that allow automatons to displace human workers will make products so cheap that anyone with pocket change can buy them. A TV for a dollar. A car for a hundred bucks. Dinner for a dime. Combined with a national wage, this will create a society where everyone — employed or not — is, in effect, independently wealthy.

Until that happens: those of us who need jobs will want to adapt to the shifting work environment. Here are some ideas:

Be useful — Automation is as yet poorly developed in areas requiring complex human movement, which can be anything from house cleaning to fine arts. Robots are still basically clumsy and autistic. The last jobs to fall will likely involve simple labor and/or strong social skills. If you can jump in and help with a variety of tasks, and if you play well with others on a team, you’ll likely keep your job longer. 

Strengthen your technical skills — Anything technical can be automated, but that process is by no means complete. Your know-how can serve you for a number of years hence, so keep it polished.

Work on your marketing skills — Sales require a human touch — who wants to get a pitch from a machine? — and we’re all to some extent marketing ourselves at work. Don’t assume your job is safe simply because you got hired. Layoffs will be rampant, but those who can make clear their value to employers will last longer.

Work multiple jobs — Even full-timers need to keep their options open in the current climate. Side jobs can expand into full-time work, or at the very least can backstop you if things go bad at your regular job.

Develop multiple streams of income — Any side job you can automate will provide cash with little effort, so you’ll have time to concentrate on the work that needs your full attention. Also keep a close watch on your retirement accounts and other investments, with an eye to growing them enough to support you before your expected retirement age. Forty years from now the world will be a very different place, so don’t assume Social Security will be there to prop you up, especially if you’re young.

Stay loose and adaptive — The world will change in surprising ways, and you’ll want to be ready to take advantage of it. If you rest on your laurels, or if you depend too much on one source of income, you may find yourself on the receiving end of a financial butt-kicking. It’s better to prepare so you can take advantage of changing circumstances.

None of this is bad news, not really. It’s different news. It may look like misfortune, but it’s simply a new set of conditions that contain opportunities. To quote an old sage: the prepared person is one who takes life as “an endless challenge, and challenges cannot possibly be good or bad. Challenges are simply challenges.”

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UPDATE: Robots will replace workers, reduce costs by 90%

UPDATE: Robots will take half of British jobs

UPDATE: Book The Future of the Professions

UPDATE: The job search as a full-time job

UPDATE: Automation will replace half of the world’s jobs in 30 years

UPDATE: A national income for the Post-Employment Age

UPDATE: Get ready to work alongside robots

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The End of Job Security

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If your job description isn’t already changing, it probably will in the near future. You can’t afford to stand still in your career. — Daniel Burrus

Today, a tap on your smartphone brings a clean, quiet, inexpensive taxi service to your door in less than five minutes. Another tap on your phone brings up a list of private rooms you can stay in while on a trip. Tap again and you get a roster of assistants who will bid to help you with nearly any type of project.

Meanwhile, workers grouse because they must labor at two part-time jobs instead of one full-time. They grouse because businesses are hiring help from overseas instead of locally. They grouse because corporations use robots instead of humans. They grouse because suddenly their work lives aren’t secure anymore.

What’s going on? Clearly employment is shifting and changing. Advances in technology bring conveniences to our lives while threatening our jobs.

Yet there’s more to it. The time of the corporate worker may be coming to an end, and we’re not ready for it. We are challenged, not merely to get a second job or write protest letters to our legislators, but to change our attitude.

Most of our great-great grandparents worked on farms. They had to bring in the crops, slop the pigs, milk Bossy, and batten down the barn against storms. If they got kicked by a horse, there was no emergency vehicle to rescue them. If the crops failed, they could starve.

The post-Civil War Industrial Revolution put huge factories in the cities, and people flocked there to find steady, if dull, work. Over the decades, factories and office buildings became the centers of our work lives. The entire culture shifted to adapt. It’s taken decades to get to this point, and it’s proven to be a tremendously prosperous way of life.

We’re raised to be workers in this corporate world. We start in families where Mom and Dad are the bosses who hand us chores and give us allowances. We grouse about them but depend on them. For school, we must get up to an alarm on weekdays, show up on time, do our studies, and receive our grades. We grouse about the teachers but depend on them. When we graduate, we find jobs where we must get up to an alarm on weekdays, show up on time, do our work and receive our pay. We grouse about the bosses but depend on them.

Today, most of us do as we’re told and receive our paychecks, all in a safe locale. We’re supported and protected by the institutions in which we toil. And now the rug’s being pulled out from under us.

High-speed advances in technology make for high-speed changes in the work world. Products and services get taken over by computerized processes. It’s no longer the age of “forty years and a gold watch” — it’s the age of the contractor and the entrepreneur. And most people aren’t ready for it at all.

In a corporate culture our work incentives are similar to what they were back at home and in school: do what you’re told, don’t make trouble, get your grades— er, pay. We’re rewarded for behaving like obedient children. It’s a tidal pull, and most of us succumb to it. We’re juvenilized by society. 

Just because we’re over 21 doesn’t mean we’ve grown up. We think, “Well, I finished school, got a job and a car and a place to live, and I’m dating a great person and we’re gonna get married and raise kids. I must be a grown-up.” But that’s a child’s idea of adulthood!

If you’re waiting in the placement office for someone to pick you, you will be consistently undervalued. — Seth Godin

There’s almost no conversation about what it means to be an adult. There’s no percentage in doing so for our elders, teachers, employers, and leaders. We’re easier to manage if we’re docile and well behaved. 

That we feel entitled — especially to various goodies from the government — explains why so many of us, in our work and civic lives, talk like we’re spoiled children. That we often spend our nights and weekends in front of TVs — or getting drunk — speaks to the paucity of our courage (and the drudgery of our safe jobs). Succumbing to childlike fears, we replace the great and ennobling quests of our dreams with mere recreation.

Most of us sleep-walk our way through our careers, and now many of those careers lie in tatters. For the rest of us, it’s only a matter of time before the same fate befalls us. It’s not safe anymore. And we can’t go back.  

Something fell by the wayside as the farming past morphed into the corporate present. Those farmers had an advantage we lack.

Back then, you had to be responsible for your outcomes in an often dangerous environment. In the corporate culture, you can stay a child forever, but on the farm you had to grow up or die. 

The good news is that we can reclaim what the farmers knew. And we can use that wisdom to help us deal with an uncertain future.

That wisdom is responsibility.

In today’s uncertain, unstable work environment, we need to find within ourselves the responsible and adaptive person our forbears could invoke in troubled times. We need, once again, to become adults.

Responsibility involves being able and willing to take care of oneself, to take charge of one’s life. If we accept the challenge and take responsibility for our work lives, we will find, not danger and insecurity, but challenge and opportunity.

We need, especially, to be able to adapt to changing conditions, to roll with the punches. We need to “surf the wave we’re on.” The technology that threatens our job security also offers ways to improve our situation.

What we’ve got, today, is tremendous opportunities disguised as troubling shifts in workplace stability.

The information revolution is reversing the industrial revolution. What the industrial age did was it allowed individuals to team up in mechanized hierarchical ways to create factories and production. . . . In the future it’s all headed towards individual brands. . . . We’re all founders. We are all meant to work for ourselves. — Naval Ravikant

Here, then, are some starter ideas for navigating the roiling seas of the changing work environment:

• The career middle path: Computers and robots tend to replace human workers in areas where the task can be calculated and calibrated mathematically. Oddly, the simplest jobs are often the hardest to automate. (It’s more difficult for a machine to lift a glass of water than to play a game of chess.) Meanwhile, some of the most challenging and prestigious jobs — data analysis, disease diagnosis, factory management — are straightforward tasks for computing. Recruiters no longer prize MBA grads as much as good salespeople and entrepreneurial self-starters. Some of the highest-skill careers are disappearing, while many of the low-paying, low-skill, high-touch jobs still thrive. Safest, for now, are those mid-level careers — craftspeople, tradespeople (plumbers, electricians), sales — that require several skill sets or advanced people skills. Plan accordingly.

The 10 most difficult roles to fill are: skilled trade workers (eg. electricians, chefs, butchers, mechanics), sales representatives, mechanical and civil engineers, technicians, drivers, management/executives, accounting or otherwise financial professionals, office support staff, IT staff, and production or machine operations workers. — Daniel Burrus

• Multiple career identities: We often define ourselves by our jobs: “I’m a doctor” … “I’m a salesperson” … “I’m an artist” … “I’m a scientist”. Today it may be better to regard ourselves as people who juggle several opportunities at once. At the very least, don’t let the work define you:

• “I’m a sales person” — Instead: “I do sales work, and I’m developing some new product ideas.”

• “I’m an office worker” — Instead: “I do work for the [so-and-so] company, and I’m taking night classes and developing a home-based project.”

• “I’m a doctor” – Instead: “I treat patients at the local hospital and teach a class at the university, and I’m writing a book about medicine.” 

Think for yourself as a free agent, responsible for your own security and always on the lookout for the next great job. — Stephen Pollan

• Two part-time jobs: Many companies have responded to government demands for more full-time benefits by hiring part-time workers. We can bitch and moan about this, but we’d be behaving like kids who grouse about their unfair parents. Instead, we can invoke our inner adult and grab the opportunities at hand: 

• Two part-time jobs can add up to more money than one full-time job in the same field. 

• A couple of part-time jobs often allow for flexible scheduling, so a worker can arrange for a free day to visit the doctor (or Disneyland). 

• Workers can receive ObamaCare, so this part of the benefits is covered. Meanwhile, other bennies are effectively paid for by lowering salaries. (There’s no free lunch, kiddies. Remember: we need to grow up.)

• If you lose one part-time job, you still have the other, which is better than losing all of it at once. 

• It’s easier to replace one of the part-time jobs (if, say, you hate it) than replace a full-time bad one.

• Multiple jobs reduce boredom, not to mention the all-too-common feeling of being trapped in a 40-hour quagmire. 

Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are. — Theodore Roosevelt

• Multiple streams of income: It’s been said that the wealthy tend to have several sources of money. And several is much more secure than only one. The list might include:

• A main job

• A side job (instructor, sales rep, consultant, craftsperson)

• Investments: 401Ks, IRAs, savings, inheritance, etc 

• A percentage of a business you helped start

• A unique product for sale online or at stores

• A “long tail” older product that still generates a trickle of sales

• A group project — perhaps with friends, family, or co-workers — that’s growing into a money-making enterprise

I’m always looking for people who have created successful side businesses that ultimately bloomed into multiple sources of income for themselves. You can do this whether or not you are an employee, an entrepreneur, or anywhere in between. — James Altucher

• Multiple online sources of work and pay: It’s those smartphones that started all this, so you might as well take full advantage of them:

jobs.monster.com and similar websites offer clearinghouses for your job search.

Kickstarter and others provide a chance — for those of us without venture capitalists on speed dial — to raise short-term funds for start-up businesses.

WordPress.com offers free and paid web services so you can create a site to sell your products or services. WordPress claims to have over twenty percent of all the web pages on the planet. With an audience that big, it’s worth looking into.

TaskRabbit: Here you can bid to do contract work in many fields. (The website accepts only ten percent of applicants, so fill out the form carefully.) Also look into Angie’s List and Thumbtack.

Fiverr: Kind of a “TaskRabbit Lite”, this site offers quick cash for short jobs.

Craigslist: Not only can you sell all sorts of items here — your obsolete cellphone, that old desk you don’t use anymore — but you can find and make job offers, too.

Flickr.com: Here you can vend your own photos to a gigantic audience. Look also at photo-and-art sale sites such as fineartamerica.com.

Amazon Flex is hiring Uber-type drivers to deliver packages.

Handmade at Amazon: This new entrant in the home-craft marketplace will bring its huge consumer base to compete with the current leader, Etsy.

Amazon bookstore: Here it’s easy to produce your own books in electronic and print formats (I’ve published two) and present them to the world’s largest audience of book lovers. Plus there’s an in-house printing company that can produce your paperback (or music CD). Amazon also owns Audible.com, where you can sell spoken versions of your written works (I’ve produced four). [Amazon keeps getting mentions because its customer base is huge, so any product or service you post there will be seen by a zillion eyeballs.]

I should be used as a mercenary, not a lifer. – Timothy Ferriss

• Reading list for early adopters:

The End of Jobs by Taylor Pearson — “Those that don’t adapt are becoming trapped in the downward spiral of a dying middle class – working harder and earning less. . . . a shift into the Fourth Economy has made entrepreneurship the highest-leveraged career path . . . ”

The Rich Employee by James Altucher: “Participating in the Idea Economy will allow you to succeed and become wealthy right there on the job instead of thrashing in the startup slaughterhouse.”

The 4-Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss — “Forget the old concept of retirement and the rest of the deferred-life plan — there is no need to wait and every reason not to, especially in unpredictable economic times.”

Robots Will Steal Your Job but That’s OK by Federico Pistono — “ . . . the displacement of labour by machines and computer intelligence will increase dramatically over the next few decades . . . ”

The Black Swan and Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb — The author made a killing in 2008 by anticipating the big downturn. “In The Black Swan, Taleb showed us that highly improbable and unpredictable events underlie almost everything about our world. In Antifragile, Taleb stands uncertainty on its head, making it desirable, even necessary . . . ”

Purple Cow by Seth Godin — How to “remarkabalize” your product so it stands out from the crowd and generates its own word of mouth.

The Education of Millionaires by Michael Ellsberg — “Most of what you’ll need to learn to be successful you’ll have to learn on your own, outside of school . . . how to find great mentors, build a world-class network, make your work meaningful (and your meaning work), build the brand of you, and more.” Read a summary here.

Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner — These engaging books on “the hidden side of everything” will help you look at economic and financial trends with fresh eyes.

“You want to be continuously learning new things and evolving what you do . . . ” — Pedro Domingos

…The disruptive business model symbolized by Uber is still in its infancy, but it can mature quickly into an adult-sized opportunity for you … if you take advantage of the changes. 

There are plenty of big problems out there that need solving, and people will pay you for results. Don’t wait for the boss to hand you an assignment; take the challenge and find some to solve. If you own the process, you’ll reap the rewards.

Our working society’s childhood is rapidly coming to an end. Most employees will resist this and try to remain in the comfortable corporate crib. You, on the other hand, can access your inner adult, zoom ahead of the competition, and move toward greater prosperity, freedom … and security.

Besides: it’ll be a grand adventure.

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UPDATE: Employment growth largest in careers that require strong social skills

UPDATE: The contingent economy rises from the ashes of unemployment

UPDATE: Corporations are still hiring

UPDATE: Where are all the young entrepreneurs?

UPDATE: Marc Andreesson on how to plan your career

UPDATE: The job search as a full-time job

UPDATE: Watson computer replaces workers

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Great Product, Not-so-Great Marketing

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Ever been in a conversation with several people and you remember a story that’s perfect for the topic at hand? And you can’t wait to tell it? The group is lively, people are chiming in one after another, and by the time you can get a word in, the talk has moved on to other topics. Still, you insist on telling the story. And it falls flat.

It’s Spring 1977, and I’m in a movie theatre. A commercial for an upcoming film — a “trailer” — appears onscreen. It’s all explosions and weapons fire and hurtling spaceships and strange alien creatures and weird robots. I was totally hooked. I had to see it. When it opened I was among the first in line. The movie was “Star Wars”, and it was everything the trailer had promised and more. I saw it five times in the first week and many times thereafter. That first trailer, with its invitation to hyperactive adventure — not to mention vivid images drawn from the many sci-fi books I’d read as a kid — totally captivated me. As history shows, I was but one in a ravenous audience of millions.

Decades later I saw another trailer for the latest sci-fi flick, and it, too, was jam-packed with the same rush of action and quick cuts. This time, though, I had a completely different response: “Yeah, we’ve seen this a hundred times. But what the hell is the movie about?” 

The film was “John Carter”, and apparently it was based on the old Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure novels about a man who’s transported to Mars, where he gets caught up in a civil war. But the trailer was a dizzy mess that left me with “Huh?” I decided to wait for the DVD.

The film flopped so badly it shook the Disney studio and caused a storm of criticism and second guessing in the media. CEO Robert Iger had to issue strict directives to his staff not to start pointing fingers in public at each other.

Months later, not sure what to expect, I screened “John Carter” for myself. To my surprise, I was delighted with it. The story was a classic rollicking adventure. The actors performed ably, and there was strong chemistry — and comic banter — between the two leads. (The heroine, played by Lynne Collins, might have sashayed out of a sizzling Boris Vallejo fantasy painting.) Effects and animation were top-notch. Production values were high: “The money was up on the screen,” as they say. The music was gorgeous and compelling. In short, the film carried me away to a romantic fantasy adventure on the Martian plains. 

This movie should have been a huge hit. What went wrong? Fingers pointed at everything from the film itself (“a bit cheesy”) to the lead, Taylor Kitsch (“stolid and dull”). Those accusations rang false to me, given my experience viewing it. And others suggested the problem lay in the marketing.

For one thing, the working title had been “John Carter of Mars”, but the Disney brass — stung by the recent flop of their animated feature “Mars Needs Moms” — renamed it simply “John Carter”. This took away much of the huge sci-fi audience, especially those who knew and admired the famous source material.

Recently I chatted with someone who’d been involved in distribution of “John Carter”, and he said flatly, “The marketing director didn’t know what she was doing.” Interesting. 

I kept looking. Turns out both the marketing chief and the studio head were new, and neither had ever before worked in film. Uh-oh. Meanwhile the director, Andrew Stanton, had lately moved across the hall from a hugely successful career directing animated features for Pixar. “John Carter” was his first essay in live action. Hmm.

Granted, “Carter” required more than a thousand animation shots, so Stanton wasn’t exactly the wrong choice. And, judging from my own experience, the resulting movie was well made and entertaining. But Stanton’s was the biggest name in the production, and he encountered a studio power vacuum. He ended up calling the marketing shots.

His idea for advertising was to revive the fast-action flurry of quick cuts like those game-changing “Star Wars” theatre trailers. He wanted the audience to relive his own youthful excitement — and that of anyone else who could remember back thirty-five years — or discover it anew if they were young enough. He wanted the thrill of the “Star Wars” promos to waft over his own film.

There were three problems with this idea: (1) anyone old enough to relive that thrill was now probably too old for the film’s demographic; (2) anyone young enough had already seen hours of such action sequences (*yawn*) in movie trailers; and (3) the film suffered from pre-release bad press, but Stanton plowed ahead, his marketing strategy unchanged. Disaster ensued.

In other words, the movie’s promotional campaign was like a great old story Stanton just had to tell, but the crowd had moved on. 

There’s talk of rebooting the John Carter series under another production team. That’s kind of sad, since the first film was terrific, while its biggest problem was the promotion. 

Let’s review:

• DON’T let a strong department push around a weak department

• DON’T hire inexperienced people to run marketing

• DON’T let your artists, even the superstars, make business decisions

• DO step in when staff is squabbling

• DO let everyone have input

• DO let department heads win arguments involving their own turf

Of course, it’s easy to Monday-morning quarterback a failed launch. And, as Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman said about predicting Hollywood hits, “Nobody knows anything.” There’s no good way, with any given film, to tell exactly which part of the moviemaking process — the story, the acting, the directing, the cinematography, and of course the marketing — will make the biggest contribution to success or failure. In a print ad you can alter a single word and response rates may change enormously. How much more tenuous must be the decisions made in promoting a film via its trailer?

And there’s always that ineffable something that can empower a work of art to capture the public’s imagination. Besides, many things happen to a movie offstage, things that can change everything, things we never find out about.

But, people! There’s no sense in spending hundreds of millions on a movie production if the marketing department is on vacation. Let the director direct, and let marketing market.

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