Do you really want serenity? Or do you want to solve problems?

My time is my most precious asset. Not because my time is any more important than anyone else’s. It is certainly not. Just as Steve Miller’s time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping, into the future, I know that my finite time on Earth is steadily slipping away too. Like sand through an hourglass. Literally. Yet, it is this scarcity of time that is the major motivating force in my life.

My Increasing Impatience

More and more, I find myself interrupting others as they recount their disappointments in the past. I often crash pity parties to point out that time spent dwelling on the things that went wrong will not make them go right.

Spending Your Time Wisely

I am a problem solver, both by nature and by profession. As an entrepreneur and as a professional creative thinker, I view the limitations of any given situation simply as the rules that govern the solution. I have no time to relive something that went wrong in the past. All I care about is what I can do moving forward.

The Serenity Prayer

I find great value in the Serenity Prayer. If you don’t know it, or don’t know it by name, here it is:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.  –Reinhold Niebuhr

Serenity Now!

Many see this statement as a path to Serenity. But I would have named this The Problem Solver’s Prayer. Because what Reinhold is praying for is the essence of problem solving.

Problem solving is like conducting a science experiment. To find a great solution to the challenges you face, you must accept the constants, and vary the variables until you get the results you are looking for.

Focus On The Possible

I don’t spend any time lamenting the constants. I accept the things I cannot change. I pour all of my time, energy and thought into the things I can change. You could say I focus on the positive. But I say I focus on the possible. Mine is not a rose-colored glasses outlook. I focus on reality. Because reality is full of positive possibilities.

Key Takeaway

Memorize the Serenity Prayer. Accept the cold hard realities of life. And spend all of your valuable, and constantly diminishing time focusing on the amazing opportunities and possibilities that exist anyway.

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Why Wheel Of Fortune is the perfect interview game.

I like watching Wheel of Fortune. It’s not because of Pat Sajak’s perma-tan, perfect hair or witty commentary. And it’s not because of Vanna White and her seemingly irreplaceable skills at touching lighted rectangles. Although 30 years ago that was a compelling draw.

The best part about Wheel of Fortune is trying to solve the puzzles. In case you hadn’t noticed, life is one big puzzle. As the Founder of the advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, I am constantly trying to solve client problems. That’s why I am hunting for world-class problem solvers the way Imelda Marcos hunted for footwear.

The Interview

Lately I’ve been thinking about introducing WOF into the interview process. Because the game show offers valuable insights into a candidate’s approach to solving real world puzzles. Not only is this kind of problem solving valuable in marketing, it translates to success in business, finance, medicine, auto repair, courtship and just about every career Sally Struthers might mention.

The 3 kinds of contestants on The Wheel of Fortune.

Early Solvers.

My WOF heroes are the people who solve the puzzle in the least amount of time with the  least amount of information. I’m always impressed by those who find the answer well before I do. They are the see-ers of the unseen. These people are clever, insightful and daring. You should hire as many of these types as you can get your hands on (in an HR appropriate way).

Middle Solvers

The majority of the puzzle solvers take a crack at the answer somewhere in the middle of the fill. They offer an answer once many letters are exposed, and the puzzle is relatively easy to solve. At this point the viewer at home either has the answer or has several of the words figured out, but still fails to see a couple of un-purchased vowels. These are your average people. If you fill your organization with these average people you can build an average company. I would rather go bankrupt.

The Reader

At the tail end of the spectrum are the readers. These are the people who don’t attempt to solve the puzzle until every letter is filled in, and they can literally read the entire answer. These are the types that only bet on a sure thing. They are the belt and suspenders types. But Wheel Of Fortune favors the bold.

Please don’t be the reader. When you wait until the answer is obvious you have lost all competitive advantage. Because when there is no risk there is no reward.

Key Takeaway

The further upstream you can solve a problem the move valuable you are. There is a significant market for those who can see the unseen, forecast a trend, or alert a team to an opportunity or catastrophe hiding in the shadows.

In business development, you can’t wait until the account you want goes into review and invites you and every Tom, Dick and Mary to pitch. To offer value you have to be able to solve a problem before the answer is flashing in the middle of Times Square. Or before Vanna has flipped her final consonant.

Who helps you see the invisible?

Business is hard. Unlike the natural world of plants, animals, water and minerals, business is not visible. Business is an abstract concept. Sure, a business is officially formed when you file articles of incorporation. But those are just documents. You don’t invite clients to come and look at your filings. You can’t recruit great talent by showing them your government forms. Except maybe the lawyers. God help the lawyers.

Building, focusing and polishing a great business is a conceptual task. It requires things like missions and visions. It requires strategy, positioning and branding. You can’t just throw these items in your cart at Office Depot. You have to create them. You have to pull them out of the ether (or out of your butt), and breathe life into them to make them real.

Whose job is that?

I work with clients on challenges like this every week. I don’t expect our clients to have all the answers. Quite the opposite. I expect them to have a problem that needs to be solved. I expect them to have questions. I expect them to be a little lost and confused. You know, the way you felt on the first day of high school.

Making the invisible visible.

The greatest value my business offers is our ability to see the unseen. We paint pictures and draw maps so that others can see too. We build structure, we articulate thoughts and create unifying stories. The more answers we find the more valuable we become. But the kind of answers we are looking for can’t be googled. We have to create them ourselves.

The Paradox

Many would-be-collaborators want their clients to clearly articulate what they are looking for. The problem is, clients don’t often know what they are looking for. In fact, that’s why they need to hire outside help in the first place.

 IWKIWISI

Professionals often loathe IWKIWISI clients. Those are the people who say I Will Know It When I See It. They can’t tell you exactly what they want. They can’t offer you a great brief. They can’t narrow the options down to 1 or 2.  They need someone else to find the perfect option for them.

I love these types. They need the most help. Like a Sudoku puzzle with very few initial clues, they offer the greatest challenge. But when you solve those most difficult of puzzles, you experience the most satisfying rewards.

Think of young Helen Keller, who couldn’t see or hear. Then along came Anne Sullivan, who developed a system to teach the blind and deaf to learn language and communicate. She unlocked and unleashed the infinite power in Helen Keller’s mind. Who enjoyed the greatest reward as a result, Helen or Anne?

If you have the kind of skills to make the invisible visible or to make the intangible tangible, you can help transform organizations, people and places. If you need those type of people, take comfort in knowing they are out there. And someone knows where you should look to find them.

Why I embrace last-minute requests and ridiculous deadlines.

Wouldn’t it be nice if everything in life worked according to your schedule?  You simply set the amount of time you need to handle anything, personal or professional. Then nothing ever challenged your pre-established timeline. That would be pleasant. And it would bore me to tears.

The world doesn’t conform to your schedule. Business, and life, are far too unpredictable. As Nationwide Insurance used to say, life comes at you fast. Really fast. Opportunities and threats appear in a blink. In the social era you need to respond before your opportunities become yesterday’s tweets. You must be able to thwart threats before they become Napa-sized wildfires, engulfing your home and vineyard.

Get Creative

But opportunities abound in the imperfect schedule. As the Founder of the Advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, I am always thrilled by quick deadlines. They add excitement to the work. They test our abilities. They push us to learn what we can do without.

Ridiculous deadlines present favorable conditions for creativity too. When time is short the approval process is also short. You run through fewer approvers, who tend to be more accepting of really great creative solutions. So better ideas are often produced under tight timelines, because the client has less time for second guessing.

Walt Disney’s Magic

Recently I read about a crazy request Walt Disney received from Pepsi in 1963. Pepsi had been working on a collaboration with UNICEF for the World’s Fair, but had failed to come up with a worthwhile idea. So they approached Disney with the daunting task of creating an exhibit to fill their 94,000 square foot exhibit space. But they had far too little time and far too little money for the challenge. So Joe Fowler, the supervisor at Disneyland, turned down their request.

When Walt Disney heard this he was furious. He said, ‘I’ll make those decisions,’ and then informed his team that they would indeed take on the Pepsi project. To solve for the time, space and money challenges, Disney devised a boat ride through a canal, surrounded by animated dolls from around the world. The dolls sang a song that Disney commissioned the Sherman brothers to write. As Disney described the concept of the exhibit to the Shermans, he explained ‘It’s a small world after all.’  That, of course, became the name of the song, and the ride itself.

The World’s Fair exhibit was a resounding success for Pepsi and UNICEF. Today, almost 55 years later, that boat ride is still one of the most popular attractions at Disney World.  And its theme song is known around the world.

Conclusion

Your next great opportunity may show up at your doorstep wearing a really short deadline. But don’t be too quick to shoo it away. Don’t focus on all the reasons you can’t take on the challenge. Focus on the possibilities. That opportunity just may turn into the greatest thing you’ve ever done. But if you truly can’t find a way to make it work, send it my way. I love a short deadline after all.

What’s even better than saying ‘No!’

Ever since I started the advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, the comment I hear most often is:

It must be nice to be in a position to say “No”.

As employees, most of us feel we don’t have the right to say things like:

  • No, I don’t want to work on that project.
  • No, I don’t want to work those hours.
  • No, I don’t want to work with that client.
  • No, I don’t want to go on that business trip to Newark, again.
  • No, I don’t want to partner with Stinky Frank the close-talker.

There are plenty of benefits to being an employee. But you have to do what the job requires.

However, now that I am a business owner, the ability to say ‘No’ never crosses my mind.  Sure, I’ve heard in-demand artists, actors and musicians talk about being able to say no to opportunities. I know doctors that no longer take new patients (and I kind of hate them for it).

I like having more control over the work my team does. But I approach the opportunity from the opposite direction.

Saying YES!

The best thing about owning your own business is being able to say ‘Yes!’  I like to help people as much as I can. So now I say Yes! more than Meg Ryan in the diner scene in When Harry Met Sally. (I’ll have what she’s having).

When-Harry-Met-Sally-LB2-1

  1. I  get to say Yes! to obscure requests.
  2. I get to say Yes! to small projects.
  3. I get to say Yes! to huge projects.
  4. I get to say Yes! to ultra-fast turnaround projects.
  5. I get to say Yes! to demanding celebrities who have unique pet projects.
  6. I get to say Yes! to startups who don’t yet have the money our work is truly worth.
  7. I get to say Yes! to novel partnerships with other agencies and organizations so that we can both take on bigger challenges together.
  8. I get to say Yes! to clients who have never worked with a team like The Weaponry and have no idea how to get started.
  9. I get to say Yes! when The Weaponry is the mistress agency that gets involved when the client’s lead agency can’t or won’t do what they need.
  10. I get to say yes to projects that are less that $2 million, less that $200,000, less than $20,000 and less than $2000.

Saying Yes! makes me happy. It makes me feel empowered to help. It allows me to work with the people I want to work with, and make decisions that are not driven first and foremost by the income I receive today.  It allows me to think about long-term benefits. It allows me to find creative ways to get important work made. It forces me to think creatively. Which is what people come to The Weaponry for in the first place.

If you are looking for more happiness, find more ways to say yes. Help more. Enable more. Get creative more. The world looks better when you are looking for possibilities.

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My life-altering first lesson in professional problem solving.

When I was in college I spent my summers at home in Vermont working for a party rental company. I set up huge party tents with other college athletes, a few rugged high schoolers and a handful of experienced veterans who had real jobs, but would help set tents on the weekends for extra income (and presumably to show us what brands of jeans were cool a decade ago).

There was lot of beef on that crew. You had to be strong because the job entailed lugging tents that weighed more than you did and carrying all the tables, chairs and dance floors needed to get your party on.  You also had to be able to hammer 40-inch steel spikes into the granite of Vermont and New Hampshire.  This was not a job for the chess club.

Learning the ropes.

The first few tents I set up were in idyllic settings on lush, sprawling lawns. The tents were erected (snicker) in textbook fashion.  You laid the tent out flat. Pulled the ropes straight out from the tent. At each rope you drove a spike into the ground four feet from the tent. You tied the ropes to the spikes. Then you set up a side pole at each rope to support the perimeter of the tent. Finally, you set up the tall center poles in the (surprise…) center of the tent.  I was a pretty smart kid. I caught on quickly.

Then I went on what I thought would be a really easy assignment.  I was sent to set a small 20 foot by 20 foot square tent in a woman’s front yard with one of the veterans. I thought we would be done in twenty minutes.

Then came the problems.

When we got to the house I immediately began to worry.  There was no large field of green. There was what amounted to a small rug-sized lawn squeezed in front of a small house.  There was no 20′ X 20′ space to be found. There was no way to place the spikes back 4 feet from the tent so we could tie the tent down and anchor them properly. In one corner of the yard the porch of the house prevented us from driving any spike at all.

This was not good. A woman was expecting a tent for her party, but we weren’t going to be able to set it up in this space. The backyard had even less lawn. So that wasn’t an option either. I turned to Dave, the veteran, and said, ‘This is bad! We can’t set the tent. It doesn’t fit here.’ Dave was completely unfazed. He said, “Come on Greenhorn.  Let me show you how it’s done.’

The Eye-Opening Transformation

What happened next changed me in ways that will impact my clients for the rest of my career.  Dave found solutions for every single problem. Instead of setting the tent in the standard, follow-the-manual way, he set it in the way the situation allowed.  Dave mapped out a plan that I had completely missed.  He tied the tent ropes, that normally get tied to spikes in the ground, to anything that would hold them.  We tied ropes to the fence. We tied ropes to trees.  We tied ropes to the railing on the front porch of the house. The bushes and flower beds I thought prevented us from setting the tent in the front yard simply ended up under the tent, adding ambiance. And everything looked perfect.  The tent pulled straight and tight and clean, despite the fact that half of the anchor points had been improvised to accommodate for the environment.

It felt like my brain grew 500% that day. I quickly learned to love the challenges of compromised conditions. Over the next three years I became so adept at problem solving I believed there was no problem I couldn’t overcome.

 

Putting the lessons to work.

Today I use the mindset I developed setting tents in my advertising career. At my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, we deeply believe there is a solution to every problem. We don’t focus on what we would have done in the best case scenario.  We explore what can be done given the reality. What can be done with the hand we have been dealt.  That means no excuses. We always work to maximize the outcomes given the current situation. Because the key to life is a good plan B or C or D.

Don’t spend a moment thinking about how things should have been done if the situation were different. Focus on how to bake the best cake with the ingredients you have right now. It’s the only way.  Put all of your time, thought and energy into solving the problem in front of you. Recognize your assets. Make them work for you. Just like Dave showed me how to make that tent work in that small yard back when I was just a Greenhorn.

 

How Mark Zuckerberg helped me put my life back together.

Some people live their entire lives in one nest. You know the type. You can see the hospital where they were born, their high school, their first job, their bowling alley and their nursing home all from the highest point in town. That’s not me. Life has been an exciting adventure of change from the jump. I lived in five states by the time I started 7th grade. I went to college 1000 miles from home. And I have traded license plates many times since graduation. #WitnessProtectionProgram.

I love my nomadic lifestyle. I have been exposed to traditions, foods, history, religion, weather and sports from a wide variety of angles. This has been a blessing for a creative professional. The one oddity, is that for a very long time, when I changed chapters, I would never see or hear from people in the previous chapter again.

But in 2007 that all changed. Because of Facebook. That thing that we so often take for granted as a silly time waster, quite literally changed my life. It allowed me to reconnect with childhood friends and neighbors from New Jersey, Wisconsin, Missouri, Vermont and New Hampshire.  Then I was able to find classmates from The University of Wisconsin. And coworkers from Cramer Krasselt, and Engauge. (Ohio, Georgia and Moxie/Publicis Groupe were added later).

I reconnected with clients and vendors. Neighbors and distant relatives. And people I’ve met at parties and on planes (I’ve met a lot of people on planes). Suddenly, I stopped losing track of people. As a people collector and connector I no longer have to box friends up and store them on a shelf every time I move or change jobs. Now I can play with them whenever I want.

Of course there is LinkedIn too. Which I love. The great Link-A-Roo has allowed me to reconnect and collect people in another, more quasi professional way. (The quasi is all me LinkedIn. You have been nothing but professional). I recently discovered that my friend Nissa Kubly (UW Track) and Cher Fesenmaier (cousin) both work at the same high school in Phoenix.  One of the craziest connections that I discovered through LinkedIn is that three of my friends, Neil Miklusak (college buddy from Wisconsin), Audrey Lowder (former co-worker at Engauge in Atlanta) and Erika O’Toole (we met on a flight to NYC) all work together, in the Empire State Building, at LinkedIn!

The simple fact is that if it were not for Facebook and other social platforms I would likely never see, or have any interactions with the majority of my friends and Linkys ever again. (I don’t know what you actually call a person on LinkedIn. Linkletters? Linkins? Linklings?

As I have started The Perfect Agency Project, my connections have become even more important. I am always looking for ideas, support and people to join the project.  Over the past few months, thanks to my online network, I have reconnected in person with dozens of people I hadn’t seen in 10 to 30 years. That’s cray.

So thank you to Mark Zuckerberg for allowing me to have my personal “This is your life’ moments every day. It is absolutely mind-blowing to think I may never lose a friend again. Except maybe Alex ‘Big Drawz’ Mautz, my college track teammate who moved to San Diego and must enjoy such perfect weather that he never needs to connect to the rest of us.

As a fun demonstration of the topic of this post, and to see who, if any of my people read this all the way to the end, I would love for you to share a word or a sentence about how we know each other. Thanks for playing.