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Akimbo by Seth Godin. Episode 3

Listen to this episode and read show notes on Akimbo

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It’s the nineteen fifties and California has a problem. Actually, they have three problems.

First, there aren’t enough labors willing to work too cheap enough to harvest all the tomatoes.

Second, the machine they built to harvest the tomatoes crushes them instead.

And third, spherical tomatoes, ripe red round tomatoes, are a pain in the neck. They roll around on the conveyor belt. They’re difficult to slice, to make perfect slices for the fast food nation that was being built.

So, Jack Hanna, at UC Davis got to work. He created VF-145, otherwise known as ‘the square tomato’.

Not a perfect cube but a lot more square than a typical tomato. Easy to harvest, easy to slice, easy to sort.

Who cares that it didn’t taste as good. 

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Hey, it’s Seth. And this is Akimbo.

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Industrialism is sort of a miracle. It’s been around longer than any of us have been alive. And it has transformed our world more than anything else in recorded history.

The idea is simple. A system, a manufacturing system, can be put to work to make things better, faster and cheaper.

So, Henry Ford said you can have a really good car for seven hundred and fifty dollars. Or if you want to you can buy a handmade car, that in many ways isn’t as good, for two thousand dollars.

That, Frederick Taylor, the pioneer of Scientific Management, brought his stopwatch into any factory that would have him. And using the stopwatch he would record how each labor did his job. And using the stopwatch he figured out how to help them do the job faster.

That the assembly line, in its full glory, cut huge amounts of waste and effort and time out the creation of everything.

Of course, it didn’t start with Frederick Taylor or Henry Ford. We have to go back even before that.

Josiah Wedgwood figured out how to do it to pottery. Josiah’s father was an authentic potter, like all potters in England at the time, dicking up clay in the woods and hand fashioning it into a pot that was almost good enough.

What Josiah did was figured out how to do that at scale, in a factory, without skilled labor. One person doing one job, somebody else doing another job, over and over again.

Josiah Wedgwood was so successful at this, that when he died he was one of the richest man in the world. And his heir, his grandson, a guy named Charles Darwin used the money to finance his journeys around the world.

But, back to the topic in hand. The topic in hand is the idea that industrialism demands that people fit in, because people are part of the system.

We are part of the system when we work on the line, we are part of the system when we work in the bureaucracy, and we are part of the system when we are the customer.

I’ve got to tell you the airline doesn’t really like it that that person, that frequent flyer, in seat 3B, insists on an ovo-lacto-vegetarian special meal. A special meal, one that toss the entire system into chaos.

Or 1972, that kid who shows up at the Mcdonald’s and asks for a Filet-O-Fish sandwich without cheese on it. Because if you leave the cheese off, you’ve got to start from scratch. It’s not part of the system.

Or imagine that young woman, the teenager, who goes to buy her prom dress. And the sales person trying to be helpful says: ‘Oh I’m sorry dear, you just don’t fit.’ Not these dresses don’t fit you. But you just don’t fit.

Because the system, the system demands that we fit.

And so we have the paradox. The paradox of what it means to be special.

On one hand, most people who works for an organization or are trying to build something, would really prefer if everything would fit. If the tomatoes were square. If the customers fit into the right bucket.

But at the same time, most of us want to be seen. We want to be understood. We want to be treated with respect and dignity.

We don’t care about fitting in. We want to be served. We want to be part of something. To be individuals. 

There’s a Zulu word: ‘sawubona’. Sawubona means ‘I see you’.

Not just I see you standing here in front of me. But I see you, where you came from, who your ancestors were, what you want, what you need, what’s troubling you. I see you. Welcome. And that’s what many of us crave.

It’s all we crave as a customer, as an employee, as a family member.

To be seen.

At the same time, we willingly and willfully insist that the people who we are supposed to be serving or teaching or connecting with, get to act together and fit in.

In the nineteen fifties, taught road reports, the Air Force faced a real challenge. Pilots were dying, planes were crushing. Accidents that should have been preventable continue to happen.

Lt. Gilbert S. Daniels, from Harvard, a statistician, was assigned a simple problem. Take a look at the Air Force planes and figured out if something in the plane was contributing to all of these accidents. 

Well, what Daniels found was that the cockpit, the seat in the cockpit, hadn’t been redesigned in thirty years. It was optimized to fit a pilot thirty years ago.

But since then, the pilots had gotten bigger and stronger, so Gilbert decided that the solution was to redefine what the average pilot was like.

That if you could make a better seat for the average pilot, the system would work better.

Well, what he found was that there were seventeen key measurements that needed to be made. The distance from a wrist to an elbow, for example.

That if you could find the average from all seventeen of these attributes and design a cockpit that fit the average, you could make the plane much safer and performance go up.

Another triumph of the Industrialism.

But here’s what he found. He found that once you figured out the average from all seventeen, essentially no one fit the average.

That, in fact, it was a jagged circle for all seventeen, fewer than three percent of all the pilots in the Air Force would have fit into that seat properly.

So he pioneered the idea of an adjustable seat. He pioneered the idea against the wishes of the suppliers cuz it was a lot more work for them.

That maybe the system wasn’t right. And maybe we need it to accommodate the pilot, not have the pilot accommodate the system.

Gilbert Daniels approach then was simple. There’s no such thing as average. That when it comes to human, not tomatoes, not nuts involves but humans, average is an illusion.

And as a result, the customization in favor of the skilled pilots has made the entire system performed better.

Alas, the memo didn’t get everyone. This idea that you don’t fit, that you’re getting in the way of the system pervades almost everything.

Especially, school.

School, the home of the number two pencil, the standardized tests, the idea of keeping people back and reprocessing them if at the end of the year they don’t meet the quality standard.

That what we have built, on purpose, is a system that insists that everyone be average.

The author Derrick Jensen asks why is it if so many of us love learning that just about all of us hated school.

Well, one way to understanding it is to listen to the words of Ellwood Cubberley, later Dean of Education at Stanford University: ‘Schools should be factories in which raw products, children, are to be shaped and formed into finished products. Manufactured like nails. And the specifications for manufacturing would come from government and industry.’

It’s all about being part of the system.

And why would a teacher, a caring teacher buy into this? Because it let us off the hook. Because you’re either on the hook or you’re off the hook.

If you believe that there are special snowflakes in the world, if you believe that people deserve to be seen, that they have the right to develop into who they seek to be…

If you believe that your customers, that your suppliers, that your employees have to be independent actors, humans, using their own judgement, then you need to be on the hook.

On the hook to see them, see them for who they are, to hear their voice in their head when you can.

But it might be easier to be off the hook. To be able to say: ‘I’m sorry, you just don’t fit. That you’re not part of the system.’

Because if someone’s in the system, if there’s a cog in the system, not your problem, anymore.

Being seen, of course, brings its own baggage with it. Because if you’re not just part of the system, if you’re not merely a cog, then we need to own that. 

We need to level up. We need to bring a different voice, original thought. We need to take ownership.

When everyone can write or speak or contribute, it raises the bar for each of us. To choose to write or speak or contribute. To raise our hand.

Here’s the thing. The thing is: humans aren’t average. And the system serves almost no one.

But we built it for a reason. We built it so we wouldn’t have to see you. So we wouldn’t have to care about you. So we wouldn’t have to make an exception for somebody who makes our life a little more difficult.

And this idea that we can systematize and standardize, allow us to ignore people. Ignore the ones who are quoted better. Ignore the ones that don’t meet the standard. And we need to do it at scale. 

When I was in Business School years ago we did an experiment about McDonald’s approach to mass production. No sure that is still true, I haven’t done a long time. Go to McDonald’s, buy a milkshake and a Big Mac, eat half the Big Mac, drink half the milkshake, then put the rest of the Big Mac into the rest of the milkshake, walk up to the counter and say to the person behind the counter: I can’t drink this milkshake, there’s a Big Mac in it. And he’ll give you your money back.

And the reason he’ll give you your money back is it’s easier to McDonald’s to give somebody three bucks than that is to train and trust the person at the cash register to act like a manager, to act like an owner. It’s easier to systematize around it.

But more after than that, the system isn’t in favor of the wide size customer or the person who has a special need. The system is in favor of the system.

How can we go forward without actually seeing who the other person is?

A snarky meaning that has been around for a while is about special snowflakes. Others people’s kids who feel entitled, other people’s kids who need a special diet, or a special place to take a test, or a special accomodation, because the system isn’t working for them. And so, with snark, we smiley say: ‘Oh, you’re some sort of special snowflake.’

The thing is you are a special snowflake. Everyone is a special snowflake.

There’s no such thing as average. There’s no average person.

Now, if your special snowflake status turns into entitlement. If it turns you into someone who’s unable to be flexible than your justice bar is the system that can’t see you, that’s not my point.

But my point is the Sawubona. This desire to be seen runs so deep that maybe we can redefine what industrialism is for.

Why did we bother making everything cheaper and faster? What’s the point of all these systems?

Maybe the point is that it gives us a chance to treat different people differently.

Maybe, post the assembly line, the idea of mass customization is that we can treat different people differently. 

That we can learn about them, accept them, see them for who they are, leave enough space for them to tell us who they are, for them to be clear about what it is they would need to become the person they seek to become, and then we can offer to them.

Maybe if we can do that, maybe if we can accept that everyone is on spectrum, a spectrum of height and weight, but also a spectrum of gender and energy and interest. A spectrum of how quick they are to know the answer, or how deep they are willing to go.

And then when we end with these spectrums up there are not seventeen of them, there’s one hundred of them, two hundred of them, and there is no average person.

The Industrial Age, the hundred year run of the triumph of the system, seems to becoming to a close. 

That mass customization, artificial intelligence, the sharing of information across the internet, the ability to outsource manufacturing and other systems means that you no longer gonna ahead by making one flavor of Kétchup. 

It means that there are more than twenty kinds of Oreos. It means that Starbucks has more than eighty thousand combination of beverages.

That the edge cases, the jagged edges are now specialty of more and more organizations.

And that effective schools have discovered that the way to be effective is not to treat people as average, but that the way to be effective is to embrace the fact that no one is average.

That the competitive advantage today is to become the kind of student or teacher that sees  the specialness in every single person that you are able to engage with. To become the kind of boss that works hard to hire someone who doesn’t look or act or believe all of the things that everyone else does.

It turns out that finding customers who care and who want to be seen is significantly more profitable than insisting that everybody fit in.

Normal isn’t the point any more. Weird is. The edges. The edges of interest, the edges of caring, the edges of the human who is special, which in fact is all of us.

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Seth Godin

Transcription: Maya Vázquez

(Corrections are welcome)

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