Knowledge is a rumour until it lives in the bones

Hiya!

It’s indeed true what they say about how nice it feels when someone misses your writing. Not that i’ve had loads of fan mail this past month or anything like that, but i did have a couple of people asking about the latest on Salmon Theory… so thank you.

All is good. I’ve been feeling great about myself and the things around me, a beautiful sense of luxury and appreciation. So in some sense, the newsletter has been lower on the priority list, as something i need to do (which has definitely been the psychological driver for the majority of this project’s life), more something i like to do for its sake.

But truth be told, the irregularity and spontaneity is… kinda the point? Although i’m a fan of consistency, something monthly-ish feels right, but as for specific dates, it’s more of a feeling thing. And on that note, let’s go into the first slice…


I. Knowledge

I’ve had this clunky saying for a while now about two types of knowing. The knowing in your head, and the knowing in your heart. But i like this old proverb better:

“Knowledge is only a rumour until it lives in the bones.”

It’s so powerful in so many ways. At work, it helps explain that classic dynamic of you-tell-someone-something-and-they-nod-and-agree-but-then-do-nothing-about-it. It explain why we’re better at giving advice than following advice. And it creates a feeling of compassion (at least in me, towards myself and others) that a lot of the wisest things we can think, feel, say and do are a product of repeat exposure.

I guess this is also why people are a fan of re-reading certain books. Which i never really got (surely the variety is the point?) but now i kinda do more. The things you read today will feel fundamentally different ten years from now, and would have felt different ten years ago. The words haven’t changed… but the way you frame them has.

There must be a lesson about planning in here somewhere too. Maybe it’s something about how you get a much richer understanding of the problem to solve when you actually speak to customers, or prospects, and get some good knowledge from the horse’s mouth. Why does this matter? Because without this, it’s all a process of second hand information and ‘my opinion vs your opinion’. But when you can quote what a real person told you about a product and use that to frame a problem? I’ve seen very few episodes where people countered it with ‘but i don’t agree’. And your level of confidence – of really knowing something in your bones – goes up, which makes you more at ease with arguing your case and not doubt yourself so much.

First hand knowledge can become strategy on steroids.

Though don’t inject that stuff in your body, that’s just weird.


II. Self

There’s an interesting undercurrent i am exploring in therapy about new selves vs old selves. The working hypothesis is that the work i’ve been doing, and the results i’ve been getting through a combination of therapy, meditation, exercise and medication are not creating anything new in me. I’m not a new person, though i certainly feel very different from how i did two or three months ago. If anything, i’m back to the old me.

I’ve always been against medication because i thought it changed you, and i was too arrogant to think i needed external help – surely it’s all within my own power? Alas, there’s a lesson in humility in here. Someone recently told me the best thing about medication is that you feel more like yourself, and now i see what they meant. I don’t feel i am a new person, i feel i am going back to the person i was before i started experiencing a range of traumatic episodes in my life, which shaped who i had to become in order to cope with them and effectively feel i could survive them.

But once some of those traumas get acknowledge and resolved… you don’t necessarily get a revelation, you just get an unveiling of all the fog that was getting in the way of who, deep down, you really are. I know this might be a bit much for a sunday morning, but have come to 100% believe what Brian Cox (the actor, not the science dude) says about “who you are as a child is your real self, the rest is propaganda”. This is probably paraphrased because i’m too much in a flow (whether good or not, time will tell) to open a new tab and look up the actual quote. Let’s just keep going. Or pause for a bit and think about this. But i’ll keep going, so see you in a second.


III. 4D chess

It’s probably a cliche to compare the process of planning (as in brand / comms planning, not so much life planning, though there are similarities) to chess. So in an attempt to be a bit distinct and feel a bit cleverer, i don’t compare the entire process to a game of chess. However, i like to compare a particular moment of the process to none other than 4D chess.

What is 4D chess? Well, it’s surely something above 3D chess, which is already pretty difficult. It’s not meant to be a literal thing. And it’s not meant to necessarily denote that the person in the process is particularly smart or ten steps above everyone else. It’s just that if you think chess is complex, and 3D chess even more, then 4D chess is my euphemism for the process of total panic before simplicity starts sinking in.

You see, the thing about simplicity is that you don’t get it on step 1 of the process (though that can happen with experience), you get it in step 10. But until you get to step 10, the laws of the universe dictate you probably need to go through the chaos of steps 2 to 9, with the 4D chess phase probably happening around steps 6 or 7, where you feel stuck in a black hole, time and space are bent beyond all recognition, and quite frankly you wish you could time travel at this point. That’s a lot of cosmos references, but see above regarding just going with where my brain is going.

Of course, the point of the 4D chess stage is not to give up, but to appreciate that any good project has it, and that the only way out is through. With a lot of patience, resilience, understanding (first and foremost towards yourself) and possibly some camomile tea or another cup of coffee – your mileage may vary.

So next time you think you’re freaking out with a project, perhaps consider an exercise in labelling. You’re not freaking out, you’re playing 4D chess. Just sounds so much better on your timesheets too.


IV. Habits

Repeat after me:

✅ Too much of a positive habit can turn into a prison.

✅ Too much of a positive habit can turn into a prison.

✅ Too much of a positive habit can turn into a prison.

✅ Too much of a positive habit can turn into a prison.

✅ Too much of a positive habit can turn into a prison.

What does it mean? Only your soul can tell.

But it certainly feels true to me, and my inner child.

Sorry bud. We’ll work more together from now on.

Love ya.


V. Anger

You know how most people advise you write a gratitude journal? For some it works, for others it doesn’t – you do what works for you. I find i have phases with it. Sometimes i like to expressly practice gratitude, other times it feels contrived to have to do it when i can just bake it into everyday moments, as opposed to creating it as its own thing. In that sense, i’m probably more often on the camp of ‘meh’ than ‘yeah’.

However, i was recently advised to try something else instead. Not a gratitude journal, but an anger journal. Not a place to reflect on all the good that has happened, but rather to acknowledge all the bad i never had a chance to process for whatever reason. It’s an interesting idea, though incredibly hard for me, because the most significant chapters of my life have programmed me to bury my own emotional needs so i can put those of others ahead of them. Which is fine and all that, but the body keeps the score and sooner or later the tax man comes to collect. Or as Gabor Mate says:

“I’ve always said that I’m not worried my kids will be angry with me, I’m worried they won’t be angry enough.”

Or even more aptly:

“Sometimes the biggest impetus to healing can come from jump-starting the immune system with a burst of long-suppressed anger.”

So i’m exploring ways into this. It could be through writing. It could be through a rage room (which i’d love to do). But also… could it be through memes? After all, at their best memes can express feelings we otherwise can’t quite put into words, and effectively act as what i very wankily described the other day as ‘snackable feelings’.

So if there’s such a thing as art therapy, could there be a thing around meme therapy? Does it already exist? I don’t know but i’m gonna toy around with the concept.

“Meme”: actually, an acronym for “mighty emotions manifested exquisitely”.

Sorry.


Stay reasonably angry but definitely healthy.

Rob

PS: I’m curious about Mirror so also published this there. I have no idea if that will make any different in exposure, but i love what the platform stands for. If you have experience with it, or know someone who does, i’d love to talk to you / them. Ta! x

You can't control things, only channel them

Hiya!

For the better part of my adult life, I’ve struggled with a c-c-c-combo of anxiety and depression. The hard thing, I’ve been learning, isn’t to admit they exist within you. It’s to recognise how much help you need to ask for, if you want to live well with them.

Because, you see, admitting they exist is a good way to rationalise your choices. Why you are the way you are. But from there to saying “I have an illness and I need more help than I originally thought”… that’s more than your brain speaking. It’s your body taking the reigns and saying its piece. The body keeps the score, but also dictates it.

With that (somewhat weighty) backdrop, let’s get into some of the bites, shall we?


I. Performance

I read somewhere – I can’t remember, as although I take lots of notes, they’re never thorough, more like soundbites to help me remember the core lessons – that what you want in a good team is high performance but low maintenance. Let’s unpack that a bit.

High performance and high maintenance is the classic talented asshole. They’re great on paper, they get stuff done, but boy are they hard to deal with and keep happy, or whatever version of happiness they aspire to. Think Dr House. Or Rick Sanchez.

Low performance and high maintenance is more of a Dunning-Kruger person. They’re not very good, but on top of that create more problems than they help solve. I’ve met a few people like this over the years. I hope I was never this person, but you never know.

Low performance and low maintenance… well, bless them. They might be lovely people, and broadly don’t get in the way, but also you question if there’s a role when everyone is working their butt to deliver. I hope I was also never this person.

And finally high performance with low maintenance. That’s the sweet spot to be in. You deliver stuff (not to be confused with being performative, AKA being seen to deliver stuff), and you’re easy to work with. I’ve never had much patience for the asshole genius trope, and was never talented enough to claim that quality for myself. But if someone says they like my work and working with me… that’s the dream.

But then again, I have massive people pleasing syndrome. Your mileage may vary.

(By the way, the above was from Gareth Southgate. I remembered while editing. But I got too lazy to re-write the whole thing accordingly. That’s ok. This is more authentic.)


II. Channelling

A simple thought. You can’t control things, but you can channel them.

This works with sadness, anger, happiness, contentment, and many other emotions.

Also works with management, mentoring, planning, feedback, client relationships and plenty of other work-related things.

And the more senior you get, the more it becomes true.

The job becomes less about trying and create a river, and more about letting the water flow as freely as it can. Hopefully taking pleasure in the process along the way.

On a possibly unrelated note, this Chinese proverb feels apt (via @Zen_Moments):

“Water and words... Easy to pour - impossible to recover.”

I think when Tina Turner sings “you’re simply the best”, she’s talking about water metaphors. They’re great. Don’t @ me, it’s true enough in my version of the facts.


III. Soul

It’s come to my attention (lol as if people are whispering this sort of stuff in my ear while I do ~global business~ or something) that “psyche” means “soul” in Greek.

Why does this matter? Because when we’re talking about mental health, we know it’s far more than stuff that’s in your head. There’s loads of evidence out there that the stuff in our head directly affects what happens in our body (Dr. Gabor Maté is great on this). But this little trickery of words takes it one step further. The stuff in our psyche is more than our mind, it’s a function of whatever’s happening with our soul.

Is this shoddy science? Yeah. Does it help reinforce the argument that our mental health is more fundamental to all levels of our very existence than what most of contemporary history and traditional male codes have led us to believe? Hell yeah.

Ignore the false splits of mind vs body vs soul. It’s all one thing. It’s called a ‘me’.

Backed by science, etymology, and some planner post-rationalisation. 🤡


IV. Learning

I’ve slowly gotten back to using social platforms in a very private way. I don’t think that will change anytime soon. What I love about social – the access to infinite information and endless niche pockets of culture – trumps what I dislike about it – the social status game. And yes, I know, that’s a feature not a bug (clue’s in the name), but you do what works for you. The tool serves me, not the other way around, etc.

One thing I’ve been curious about (again) is the crazy pace at which the crypto, DAO, blockchain, NFT et al space has been moving around certain Twitter circles. Yes, yes, it’s all full of hype and environmental concerns and things. And yet, I can’t help but wonder this is what the internet felt like in 1998 and lots of people thought it was all a bunch of dudes living in a bubble. And sooner or later, someone was gonna lose their mortgage. Or be the next unicorn. You couldn’t really know until after the fact.

Which it was. But also it wasn’t. It depends on your time horizon, and as with anything there were (dotcom) / will be (crypto) winners and losers. The crazy thing is, I don’t understand half of what I am reading or following and how even any of these new NFT-backed games or community challenges actually work (yet), but you can bet your buttons I am curious about whatever happens next.

Like a good old mystery novel. Except instead of the butler, the bored apes did it.

(This is my attempt at doing a crypto dad joke. Like and subscribe for more content!)

The point is, this is how learning happens. You never go in with 100%. Hell, nothing in life presumes you can go in at 100%. The only certainty is death and taxes (and reply guys). But if you are able to go in at 50%, 40%, sometimes even 10%, knowing that:

  1. You can entertain various conflicting feelings and thoughts about the thing

  2. You can preserve your sense of sanity and hope despite all that inner turmoil

  3. You can focus on trying to explain what you see in the simplest possible terms to someone who knows less about it than you

Then this feels like a recipe for a successful intellectual and/or creative life.

I can talk planning at maybe 50%. I can talk crypto at 5%. I can talk meme culture at perhaps 70%. This sounds like a fun way to gauge how much you think you know. Keeps you humble, while staying hungry, knowing you will never reach 100% and that’s by design. It’s like trying to read all the world’s books or watch all the world’s movies or read the entire archive of TVtropes.org, when in fact an unfinished library is the point. It’s a historical artefact of someone who gave a shit with their brain.

(This metaphor may not work as well as I originally thought it did.)


V. Winning

I spotted somewhere ~on the internet~ this Hindu proverb, on the many ways to win:

"There are hundreds of paths up the mountain, all leading in the same direction, so it doesn't matter which path you take. The only one wasting time is the one who runs around and around the mountain, telling everyone that his or her path is wrong."

Which makes me think of a couple of things:

  1. There are many, many, many ways to do marketing, build brands, and stand out. Yes, trust the evidence. If there’s anything you worship, it’s that. But also recognise that the point of evidence, and science, is disprovability over time. What worked until now, may not work next. Sometimes you need to do the opposite of the best practice to get noticed. And that’s the gig: to thoughtfully navigate the crazy, weird, beautiful dance between following what the evidence says, and taking a bet on what the evidence could not possibly predict. What works for Nike will not work for Glossier will not work for Dash Water. In what John V Willshire aptly described as quantum markets, big brands probably work differently from small brands. Until small brands work like big brands (e.g. startups start doing TV and hey, it works too!). And the cycle starts all over.

  2. The same principle applies to our own careers and lives. There are many ways to claim success, but my way will be different from your way, and that’s ok. If that weren’t the case, who could claim such a thing as freedom or free will, right? So while I can’t claim to own any absolute certainties here (anyone who does claim those, you have my permission to mute or block them), I can try and devise models to help making career decisions less maddening. That’s exactly the point (or the attempt) of my talk at the first Sweathead Do-Together, where my brief was, er, a c̶h̶a̶l̶l̶e̶n̶g̶e̶ opportunity?: You Work In Advertising But You Have Doubts About Capitalism–Now What?. I have a 8-minute talk thing that has been professionally edited (for a hot second, I thought I could truly make it as a YouTuber). Followed by a 22-minute exercise to try and get people (including me) to navigate the tight spot between capitalism and advertising, and squeeze some juicy bits out of it. Again, questionable metaphor. But if you’re really into this sort of stuff, I have one (1) free ticket to give away! Just need your email address so I can send to the team, and boom. I’ll see you there, on September 22nd. Hit me up if you’d like it. First come first served, unless you send me your favourite 2021 meme, in which case you may possibly hack the system!


Oh, and here’s a useful tweet if you too are in the middle of an anxiety/depression cocktail like yours truly. Sometimes it’s all about remembering what’s enough, instead of aiming for more. Now I just need to convince my primal brain to believe this too.

If that fails, here’s an emergency moon moon.

A post shared by @thekiffness

Lots of love x

Rob

Work solutions don’t fix emotional problems

Hiya!

Every morning, I now try to wake up and reflect on what I want for that day, but also what I feel I have enough of. I guess that’s why others like to do gratitude journalling. But for me it’s more about feeling ok with the idea that this – whatever this is – is probably enough right now. The rest is a bonus, a happy happenstance.

But anyway, let’s get fishy and talk planning and philosophical things.


I. Hoarding

I’ve always defined my brain as a bit of a hoarder. Sometimes in negative ways, but often it comes from a positive place. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. However, on the subject of choosing to believe in neuroplasticity (which I do), I wonder if there are more useful analogies that don’t feel as judgemental.

One that came to mind is the brain as hunter-gatherer instead. The point is that much like once we behaved like hunter-gatherers, it’s a useful analogy for how an over-thinking planner-y brain might work. We hunt for good info. We gather it. We make sense of it in simple and evocative ways. That’s the plan anyway.

But the difference between a hunter-gatherer and a hoarder is that one acts with intent (we hunt and gather in context, based on current needs), the other doesn’t (hoarding can be a very irrational thing we do, when we feel loss of control). Simple tweak, but the right framing can change everything. Not right away, but over time.


II. Doubt

The things I love about remote working are also the things that are detrimental to my mental health. I’ll let you interpret that however you want. But I do notice that the promise of having more time for yourself (which I’m lucky to say I do) is also the greatest danger when you’re facing complex situations where a chat might help loads.

My deepest instincts are still about trying to control the things I am working on, even if I am getting better at delegating and directing people and asking for help. But there’s always a point in a project when what you really need is not more time in front of your notes, it’s a good and honest 15-minute chat with someone sitting next to you.

And sure, they play complementary roles. Ideally you have enough ‘me’ time to wrap your head around something, and then ‘we’ time to test your thinking in the wild (as wild as an office can be, but you know what I mean). But the more time we spend in our heads, the more doubt can take over, and we spin more than perhaps we should.

Which makes me wonder: if perception is reality, then being surrounded by your own doubts (is this good enough? Am I good enough? Etc.), with few ways to casually talk it out, can be worse than facing the reality of your doubts ever coming true. I’d much rather have someone tell me directly that something is unclear, than struggling with my own doubts about that in the first place. Because we always judge ourselves 9,000 times more harshly than any other decent human being ever would.


III. Respect

Nothing in business – or indeed in life – is achieved without respect. Sure, not everyone deserves it and some people can be defined as bona fide bad actors, but apart from extreme situations I don’t see how a lack of respect can do us any good.

Specifically to this little thing called planning, I tend to bucket respect into three broad areas. Your client, your team and the people you intend to communicate to.

Without respect for your client, you will never feel compelled to do the very best possible job to solve a problem for them. Without respect for your team, you will always fall on the trap of thinking that you – The Almighty Planner™ – are the truly smart one in the room (instead of a midwife to everyone else’s smart thoughts). And without respect for people (yes, we can call them consumers too), then your work will be irrelevant at best, ineffective at worst.

Imagination is the trade of any good agency or creative company. But respect is the tool that ensures you get sustainable results for everyone, instead of one-off fireworks. I’ve heard enough horror stories where fear was more used than respect to get people to do the best things they can possibly do. But that usually tells us more about those actively aiming to provoke fear than those on the receiving end of it.

TL;DR: Hurt managers hurt managees.


IV. Work

Work solutions don’t fix emotional problems.

Work solutions don’t fix emotional problems.

Work solutions don’t fix emotional problems.

Work solutions don’t fix emotional problems.

Work solutions don’t fix emotional problems.

That’s it, that’s the t̶w̶e̶e̶t̶ newsletter section.


V. Resilience

I saw this the other day from John Maeda and it’s just too bloody good not to quote.

“There are two definitions of resilience surfacing today. ‘Protective’ resilience is about shielding an organization from something bad. Whereas ‘proactive’ resilience implies being ready for anything bad that could happen. Both are good. The latter lets you compete globally.”

Interestingly, about a year ago I got introduced to the idea that some ad spend is as much about playing a defensive position in the market, as it is about attacking it. In other words, a lot of advertising can be predominantly about protecting existing market share, as it can be about trying to gain new share instead.

I know this won’t be news among the more academically-minded planners I know, but for some reason it clicked with me when it was put this way. Sometimes the role of a leading brand is to be more present than others to deter new entrants from having a shot in the first place. Which can make a whole lot of planning debates simpler too.

How are these two things connected? The Maeda stuff and the advertising stuff?

I like to think that most of our decisions are as much about avoiding something as they are about gaining something. Which is a pretty good mental model to think about our own life choices, but also how we position work for clients and evaluate success. An experiment that failed but still got talked about might be more worth than never having tried the experiment in the first place. Especially if we’re talking about the high risk/high reward game of keeping a brand feeling fresh and innovative over time.

Or as I recently overheard, you don’t do a transformation. You just keep transforming.


So that’s where my brain’s been, among other things. But I gotta call it a day sometime.

In other news…

  • Having just finished watching The Sopranos, I find this TikTok oddly hilarious.

  • This YouTube channel on the best Roblox videos on TikTok (imagine saying this 3 years ago to your boss) is great fun.

  • And this ‘Karen reviewer check’ tool is a smart idea, though I am genuinely sorry for all the nice people named Karen in the world right now. Lots of hugs to them/you, if you happen to be one of them.

Take care out there,

Rob

The difference between responding and reacting

👋 Hello!

It’s… been a while, hasn’t it? A short break for vacation turned into a longer break post-vacation, but there are reasons. Mainly, being comfortable with not doing this for a while. It may sound silly, because I don’t resent writing Salmon Theory. But what I noticed I was resenting was the need to always do it, with no exception, ever.

Like a good habit (consistency) becoming a prison (do it or else).

Which is something I now realise I often do across pretty much everything.

Fun.

Anywho. The writing bug has been biting me for a while, so here we are again. And the rules bug… well, let’s just say it has less voting power in the board of directors of this little institution called my mind. Enough shenanigans, let’s just get to it.


I. Drama

I love good planning turns of phrase, and this one struck me the other week.

“Simplify, then dramatise.”

That’s what good planning does, and that’s what a good idea does.

It keeps something really simple, really pure, but then expresses it in a way that feels a bit much, over the top or just plain weird. Except in this case going too far is a feature, not a bug. Good comms should have some good old fashioned drama in them.

A good life, less so. Let’s just keep the simplicity part, remove the drama. Which I guess is the danger of taking this at face value. “Simplify, then dramatise” works well when your job is to get someone’s attention. But in everyday life, the game isn’t so much to get attention and take risks, but to learn how to make fewer dumb mistakes.

Your mileage, of course, may vary. Be there to solve the dramas. Just don’t aim to go and create them yourself, unless they’re genuinely urgent, important or necessary.

(Looking at you, reply guys.)


II. Seeds

Over my holiday period (which, travel stresses aside, was wonderful), I finished Pema Chödrön’s book Start Where You Are. And in it, she has this nice analogy.

She talks about wisdom as seeds, and water as practice.

Meaning? That you can have all the seeds in the world, but without water nothing’s gonna bloom. In other words, the bulking up on wisdom (by reading more books, listening to more podcasts, watching more talks, having more references) won’t get us far, if we don’t actually start practising those teachings in a sustainable way.

I feel this is a danger many of us in planning – or general over-thinking types – fall into. I certainly do. That if only I had more knowledge, I could fix what I feel is wrong or inadequate in me. That sort of vibe.

When in reality, knowledge – or its posh cousin, wisdom – becomes a game of diminishing returns unless we actually start the practice bit too.

So this means less time on YouTube talks, more time on the yoga mat.

Fewer reminders of how much we don’t know, more practising what we do know now.

Less holding on to mega tons of information, more releasing through small actions.

In other words, simply start where you are. But do start.

Clever title indeed. Gonna paste it on my forehead.


III. Knowledge

A small one on this, but one I consistently see myself tripping over.

The job of planning isn’t to know more than other people do.

It’s to make knowledge simple and useful in context.

Sure, cultivating a wide repertoire of knowledge bits maximises your odds of getting to fresh thinking.

But much like the job of a client services person isn’t to do email (it’s to lead the client), the job of planning isn’t to know stuff (it’s to help guide towards better work).

Means and ends, dear friends. Means and ends.

This can take a lifetime to properly learn.

But then again, most worthwhile things do.


IV. Context

I’ve not read Ian Leslie’s Conflicted yet, but based on his newsletter and this podcast interview, I’m sure I’ll enjoy the book. In due time I will buy it and read it.

(My tsundoku game is a bit level 9,000 at the moment, so I need to take it easy.)

Until then, one of the highlights from the interview is this idea of high context vs low context culture. Namely, that a high context culture is where the rules of engagement are shared and known, while in a low context culture this tends to happen less, if at all.

A clear hierarchy at work produces a high context culture, because you know who reports to who. Same with your family setting, there’s enough shared history for things to feel familiar enough. A discussion with a stranger on Facebook, less so, because you get a lot of direct inputs (what they say) but not much else (for example, tonal cues).

Diving a bit deeper, I saw on the podcast discussion link this interesting take:

“From my perspective, I see the high-context culture (i.e., traditions, norms, implicit rules, nonverbal signals) as a “knowledge-preserving” media. The upside is consolidation of values, safety, community-building; the downside is tribalism and an echo-chamber of ignorance.

In contrast, the low-context culture (i.e., cosmopolitan, formative, liberal, explicit) as a “knowledge-distributing” media. The upside is exploration, innovation, learning; the downside is alienation, specious propagation of knowledge, and a retreat to high-context environs.”

This is important and useful to help us diagnose the situation we’re in, and adjust our expectations and plans accordingly. Go to the extreme of too much context, and you get laziness or inertia. Go to the extreme of too little context, you may alienate people in the process. The secret, of course, is to be able to manage the balance as you go.

This changes how I see all environments for debate. And confirms my belief that a good phone call is worth 50 Twitter discussions. Or why Roblox feels like they have a more decent shot at creating positive social media environments than Facebook ever could. There’s just more cues that create a high context, either through visuals or sound or fun challenges, a mix of all these and many more. And as a result, it feels like there’s less chaos all over the place, resulting in a healthier relationship with tech.

For all these things, one can hope and hypothesise.

But that’s the fun bit anyway.

(I don’t know where hopes and hypotheses go on my timesheets, though.)


V. Response

There’s a huge difference between responding to something and reacting to it.

A reaction presumes you do it with little criteria, you just let your instincts take over.

A response is a bit more measured, thought through, and usually more productive.

One is shorter-term and snappy, the other is longer-term and significant.

It’s fun to think about ‘reactive social’ for brands through this lens. Especially because it positions 90% of it as a blunt object that brands do because others do too.

It’s also fun to think about this difference around everyday life. Are we spending more time reacting to things, or properly responding to them? What’s the energy drain of one vs the other? And which one tends to be more effective in the long run?

Reacting is saying the feedback is dumb; responding means understanding where that feedback comes from. You’d be surprised what happens when you probe this stuff.

Small change. Big difference.

And with an alliteration attached to it, so extra brownie points all around.


That’s where my head’s been this last month! I don’t know if I move these to monthly, or more sporadic than that, but it feels right to keep it instinctive and relatively un-edited. Life’s already so full of rules and limitations and responsibilities, no need to create even more prisons of our own doing.

Take it easy out there.

Rob

PS: I’m 100% here for more video game commentary like this.

PPS: Peanut is just the best.

The space between sharp and soft

👋 Sup.

Welcome to another weekly edition of Salmon Theory.

Let’s take a deep breath. And here we go.


I. Excuses

It’s helpful to see the world through heuristics. It makes our thinking process clearer. Which in turn can lead to better decisions, and less unnecessary anxiety. One that I’m a fan of? Believing that most bad things are good things taken too far.

It’s easy to assume the worst. Too damn easy. And we have more tools than ever to express our reaction to that worstness (is that a word?) in the world. The reality – the one I choose to adopt, anyway – is that people and systems lose control. And often, they don’t realise they lost control until everything is spinning.

The proverbial shit in the fan.

This is how we end up with things like:

  • Disorganisation as a need for agility that’s taken too far

  • Bullying as a need for control that’s taken too far

  • Hubris as a need for innovation that’s taken too far

  • Indecisiveness as a need to collaboration that’s taken too far

  • Workaholism as a need to feel valued that’s taken too far

All of these feel bad. But really they’re often good things taken too far.

Another heuristic I find helpful: assume everyone thinks they’re the hero of the story. No one wakes up thinking they will bully their staff today once again. They might label it as ‘radical candour’, no matter how toxic it ends up being for everyone else. But in their mind, it’s coming from a fair place. Even if we can argue how fair that place is.

Does this mean there are not people who have bad intentions? Nope. Does this mean we should condone other people’s abusive behaviour? Of course not. Does it justify all the bad shit we see around workplaces? Not by a long shot. But it helps us understand why things are the way they are. And labelling the problem can be a first step to understand how to solve it. As in therapy, so too in workplace relationships.


II. Softness

I’ve come to admire people who speak by mixing sharpness and softness.

Does this feel like a paradox? It might be. But hear me out. One of our most basic instincts is to try and be the loudest person in the room. (Speak up!) It’s a cultural thing. It’s hard to avoid when conversations escalate. But sometimes the loudest person isn’t the clearest. Which means you get a lot of heat, but not a lot of direction. Let’s call them the “we need to be more disruptive” Chief Visionary Officers.

Okey dokey, cheers buddy!

Elsewhere on the spectrum, you have people who show authority in a different way. They are the people I see as being both sharp and soft. They produce sharp words, but keep the tone soft. They don’t raise their voice, but when they speak it’s clear where they’re heading. And how we can go there with them. At their best, they lower their voice even more to force everyone to shut up and listen.

I’ve seen this happen. When it works, it’s one hell of a sight.

As a planning director, this is one thing I aspire to. To be able to give teams and clients clear direction, without getting into a ‘who can speak louder’ game. To play in that strange wonderful place of sharp words, with a soft tone. Like most things worth their salt, it’s not something you learn once and done. You gotta practise it every day.


III. Conditionality

I’ve been reading Pema Chödrön’s book Start Where You Are for a couple of weeks now. It’s not a long book, but it’s one you gotta savour as you go. The fact I am not rushing to finish it suggests I may be growing up. And not hoping that if only I finished that book, and do it fast, finally I will be a calmer person.

That’s one of the main points of the book, as suggested in the title. It’s about spirituality, meditation, practising Buddhist teachings in everyday life. But above all, it’s about not thinking you need a full transformation to do any of this. In fact, she argues you want to start from the imperfect state you are in right now.

(Spoiler alert: that’s the state any of us will ever be, until the very end.)

This, in turn, takes me back to what my therapist once said. She noted I used a lot of ‘if only, then’ articulations to try and solve my problems. A few classic ones:

  • If only I read X books a year, then I would feel smarter

  • If only I got that new job, then I would finally feel like I belong

  • If only I learned that skill, then I wouldn’t feel like an impostor all the time

Notice a pattern? I notice a few.

First, they are all conditional statements. If this happens, then finally that happens. Second, they are all external things to try and solve internal problems. Third, they are all about playing catch up so we can finally be at the same level as others.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with any of the above milestones. Books are good. Career aspirations are good. Upgrading your skills is good. But every time I’ve hit some of these milestones, I felt happy for a hot second. And then I got back into the loop of feeling like I wasn’t good enough, or that people were out to get me.

And this is exactly what Pema Chödrön advises us against. Aspirations are good. But don’t let them become the conditional state after which you will finally be free. Or calmer. Or happier. Or loved. Granted, I should acknowledge my own privilege in having a good life. I have few ‘real problems’ that I know other people have. This isn’t to belittle that, not one bit. But anxiety latches on to whatever is around it. And good lives can be led by miserable people.

(Not that I am miserable either. But I am thinking of the Succession family.)

(What a fucking awesome show that is. Come on Season 3, do your thing!)

I sometimes do a mental exercise of imagining my life had nothing else to offer. Whatever I have now, is all I will ever have. Would I be ok with that? It’s not an easy exercise, but it’s a way to practise contentment by starting where I am right now. And sitting with it, seeing how it feels. And breathing around that feeling. It removes the expectation that I just need this other hit to finally get there. Wherever ‘there’ is.

It’s not always effective, but sometimes it is.

And that’s good enough for me.


xoxo

Rob

PS: I will be off the next 3 weeks. See you back in July!

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