On Thursday afternoon I had the great pleasure of attending a talk with Malcolm Gladwell at the National Arts Centre here in Ottawa. It done in a Q and A format and hosted by local journalist Mark Sutcliffe. It was an awe inspiring 90 minutes, to say the least. We laughed, we thought, we even got a little emotional at times. We also supported the United Way/Centraide of Ottawa, so we felt good on many levels.

Gladwell told many stories, but the one that has stuck with me over the past few days was “Million Dollar Murray”. If you aren’t familiar with the story, you can go have a read over here. It’s about a homeless man living on the streets of Reno. Murray was an alcoholic, and spent much of his time in and out of treatment, emergency rooms and jail. One day, someone decided to total up how much it was costing the city of Reno to keep Murray on the streets and “manage” him. It turned out that over 10 years, Murray cost the city of Reno over $1 million. You read that right. $1 million and the end result was that after 10 years, Murray was still homeless. The story goes on to suggest that if the city of Reno was to get Murray off the street, into an apartment, and give him the treatment and counselling and support he needed to stay there, that would only cost them about $15,000 a year. You read that right too. Of course, this type of arrangement isn’t without it’s share of challenges, and you can read the article to find out more about those.

The point is not what Murray does or doesn’t cost the system. The point Gladwell made in his talk was that by making one small change to how society is looking at the problem of homelessness – by solving it instead of managing it…that there’s enormous potential to make a real difference in the lives of the chronically homeless. He suggested to us that experimenting with different methods to achieve this should not be ruled out.

It’s experimentation that I want to talk with you about today.

A pinch of this, a dash of that. The online circles I tend to travel in are mostly made up of a mish mash of PR, advertising, media and marketing types. These folks are for the most part extremely good at what they do. I follow them, read their blogs, converse with them, do business with them, and socialize with them. I do it on many levels, with many different tools. I throw in bits and pieces of my own stuff, and share what I know. In return, I get to learn what they know. It creates a very symbiotic relationship. Sometimes I give more. Sometimes they do. In the end, we both have the opportunity to benefit. This is what works for me. The mish mash. I don’t spend too much time with any one group. I don’t just listen to one or two gurus. I find the people that I’m interested in.

Everyone’s secret recipe is different. Sometimes the recipe changes. Sometimes you need to experiment, try on different hats. Sometimes you need to be totally engaged, sometimes you need to back away. But in the end it’s your secret recipe, to do with what you please.

Lead, follow, or get a life. There are literally thousands of people out here in the social media world that want to give you advice. What’s wonderful is, there are thousands that have extremely good advice to give.

Yet it seems to me that we have a tendency to hang on the every word of a select few. And when we’re not hanging on words, we’re following the same select few around to every conference and meetup  on the continent just to get a sneak peek or the latest insight (or worse, just to “be in their presence”. I’m not kidding. I’ve seen those kinds of tweets, and I know you have too.). I’m not saying that the upper crust of social media are not worth listening to. Quite the contrary. What I am saying is this. You know how certain types of tropical fish will follow your finger across the glass, no matter where you go? I often imagine that a lot of conferences are like this. One finger flits around the outside of the bowl and the rest of the goldfish follow its every move. Original thought gives way to hero worship, seeing and being seen, and suddenly, the intended value gets entirely lost. This is one of the reasons I’m very particular about which conferences and meetups I attend.

The world will always have leaders and followers. If you are a leader, then lead. Be a trailblazer. Nobody’s telling you not to. In fact, we need you. If you are a follower, then that’s great too. A good leader is only as good as the calibre of her following. But there’s following, and there’s just plain silly. Followers, in my book, are there to learn, absorb, then go off and do something real with what their leaders have shown them. The just plain silly aren’t following. They are being silly. Hoping that the leader will notice them, hoping the leader will give them something even though they are offering nothing in return.

And, uh, Suze. You’ve totally lost me. So, you say…what does any of this have to do with Malcolm Gladwell and his philosophy about experimentation? Simple.

We have at our disposal an entire planet’s worth of knowledge. We have the ability to connect with just about anyone, anywhere, anytime. We can build relationships like never before. Yet for some reason, many people in the online space seem intent on trying to make the rules for everyone. They say:

You MUST tweet this way. You MUST choose this Facebook vanity name. You MUST blog this many times per day or week. You MUST always consider your brand, your community, your followers. In that order. You MUST hang on the every word of Mr. Super Blogger.

No. No. NO.

You MUST experience this space the way YOU want to experience it. You MUST try things….experiment. Some stuff will work. Other stuff will fail miserably. This is choose your own adventure time, people! You get to decide what you’re going to do with this remarkable thing called the World Wide Web.

Remember….the thing about being a trailblazer is that there’s nobody ahead of you to fight the tigers.

What’s your grand experiment?

7 Responses

  1. I am a professional. I get paid for what I do. I have years of experience, and IMHO I am good at what I do.
    None of that makes me a pro.

    True professionals learn from their peers mistakes and successes. Conversely they share their knowledge with others freely. Pros mash-up the techniques of others and constantly experiment. Pros only compete against themselves. Pros really do consider imitation the sincerest form of flattery.

    I know pros who will work a nationally broadcast NHL hockey game for CBC one night and get paid several hundred dollars for the day’s work. The next night they will do exactly the same job volunteering at Rogers TV for nothing but the experience, and the thrill of learning from and sharing with others what they know.

    When I got started I had the privilege of learning from some very generous men and women who had seen and done it all. Social media now allows me to learn from and share with people from across the world.

    I agree that a wise professional should pick their mentors carefully, have many of them, and above all always be open to new ideas. Weigh these new ideas against your own experience, experiment and if it is a good fit incorporate them into your “bag of tricks”.

    Now don’t get me wrong: It is perfectly OK for a pro to charge for seminars, training sessions and sell books. I have happily bought and sold many of these services over the years. But I have learned more “talking shop” over coffee or on a blog than I ever did from a book or lecture.

  2. Suze, this article came at just the right time for me. The past few weeks I’ve been thinking to myself, “I’m getting it! I’m finally grasping all of this squirming mass of social media and making headway…”

    And then an acquaintance — who *just* started his own blog — shared an entirely different way of doing things that’s working extremely well for him.

    I felt crushed, and maybe even a little stupid. And while I’ve already been pep-talking myself, your post was exactly the reminder I needed — to learn from others while realizing that my recipe for success will not be like anyone else’s.

    Thank you for sharing the reminder I needed.
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  3. As usual, great call, Suze.

    It’s been interesting over the last few weeks, watching some high-profile names seem to just pad out the numbers and names. Not that there’s anything wrong with this – it’s how they might make their living or reputation. But certainly, it’s beginning to feel slightly jaded.

    I’m more for the voices that don’t care – REALLY don’t care – about the numbers or who they’re hanging with. People that want to discuss something because it benefits others, not because it (possibly) strokes egos.

    Like I say, been interesting to watch – but, looking back over time, maybe not as surprising as I may have initially thought it would be.

    Love the Maxwell story about $1 million vs. $15,000 per year. Of course, like you say, there’s more at stake than just cost – but for such a tangible difference in amounts, why isn’t this happening now?

    Thanks for the thoughts, as ever.
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  4. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU. “Followers, in my book, are there to learn, absorb, then go off and do something real with what their leaders have shown them.” I’m absorbing now. I love that I can sit in my living room in pj’s and learn so much. And I put that together with what I learn in my university classes and come away with the best of both. I have not subscribed to the idea that you must follow everyone that moves. I follow the people who move me. And I don’t follow more people than I can read, and still have a life. If that means I don’t follow every person that follows me, that’s ok. I don’t think it’s arrogant, it’s effective time management. I want to savor the meat, and I can’t always do that if I have to sift through the garnishes.
    I had a great job that got downsized out of existence. I went back to school, researched, wrote and created a video about social media for an art class and realized that the skills that will put me ahead of all the other people in my situation were right there, and could be learned at home, sitting in pj’s.

  5. Ah, Suze, you are such a sensible voice. Just when I start to slip into self-doubt about some social media thing–maybe I am doing it wrong–I read one of your posts and come back to sanity. Thank you for your very distinctive take on this fascinating new medium.

  6. Suze – I can’t agree with you more! Being a new start-up, I immersed myself in the social media world and felt I need to hurry up and play catch up. I read posts about blogging/microblogging etiquettes to make sure I wasn’t breaking any unspoken code in the blogsphere. I was also quite overwhelmed and felt bombarded with information overload. As I had posted in my blog, “Journey into the Social Experience”, over time I’ve been able to discern what’s valuable information vs. hype and clear out the noise and clutter. And during it all, I discovered the playing field is flat…everyone has a voice. Your post just reconfirmed what I’ve been feeling all along. It’s so reassuring and I applaud you!
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