The Little Things

Fish Underwater
Photo: Petr Kratochvil

“Should I buy a dive knife for the lessons?”

“What do we do about the sharks?”

Without a doubt, these were the two questions I was asked the most when I was a scuba instructor. Learning how to scuba dive happens in three places, usually—the classroom, a swimming pool, and in the ocean or a lake. I worked in South Florida, so it was the ocean for me and my students. Most of them were boiling over with questions about sharks and boats and fish. And the knife, always about the knife.

There are lots of little details that can divert your attention along the way from clueless beginner, through “I know enough to be dangerous”, all the way to competent open water diver. But these are not the point. What kind of depth gauge did you get? Is your suit 3mm or 6mm, shorty or full? When I clear my ears, my face feels funny. All relevant at the time, but all very irrelevant to the whole point.

Paying attention to small moments may sound easy, but it takes respect, imagination, and curiosity. —Robert Maurer

People would travel from all over to the generally warm and calm water of South Florida for a relaxing vacation, so it always surprised me to learn how they imagined a scene from James Bond, or a SEAL Team mission. They soon learned that diving is more like a kid blowing bubbles in a bathtub than a soldier swimming with a knife in his teeth. It is fun and exciting to see all the colorful fish and coral, and to visit what seems like another world. But somewhere in their minds they’re thinking fun and adventure means use my knife and choke-hold underwater spies, which of course, it doesn’t.

Scuba diving Indonesia
Photo: Ilse Reijs

After putting some time in, you realize the trick to having a fun and successful dive is to chill out, see cool stuff, and stay safe and comfortable.

Of course, our expectations and preconceptions can paint a picture that’s very different from the reality of any experience. This is one reason why most people don’t like change—for most, they like things their way, the way they expect or imagine.

At all times, the true warrior has to expect nothing, but be ready for anything. —Kato Kiyomasa

When you can breathe under water, there’s no hurry. Of course, there’s no email, no iOS 8 Tweet-nado, and no electronic annoyances either. Nothing to distract from the effortless floating, the colorful coral, the fish, and the sound of your bubbles. The little things are everything. The little things are the whole point.

But the vacationers and new students would sometimes come all loaded down with their expectations - their idea of what should happen, and what they should see, and how it should feel. And the gap, between the reality and the expectation, was usually a disappointment to them. The beautiful scenery and warm water and sunshine just wasn’t quite “what they imagined”, and it often left them wanting.

Others would have an open mind about it all. They focused on the little lessons and the gear and the techniques, and of course, the bubbles. Since they had no set expectations, no agenda (and no thoughts of buying a dive knife), they were free to enjoy the moments as they showed up. They loved learning how to clear water from a mask just because they could blow more bubbles and have more fun.

We could all do with a bit less expectation, a little less premature judgment, and a whole lot more bubbles, sunshine, and fish.

Be Good and Get Better

Web analytics, or digital intelligence as the cool kids say, is a means to an end. Much is written and discussed about the various bits and stuff-we-deal-with as digital data analysts:

  • Technical systems and tool implementations
  • Reports, charts, graphs, dashboards, data visualizations
  • KPIs, metrics, predictive indicators, statistical significance, and more

None of these is really the point though, right? The point is to help our businesses achieve their goals, and most businesses only have three kinds of goals:

  1. Increase sales
  2. Decrease costs
  3. Turn customers into raving fans

If our ditigal intelligence objectives and tactics don’t boil down to supporting one of these three goals, then we need to review and refocus. And we need to stop shaving yaks.

Marketers and Analysts, Venus and Mars

Most salespeople, marketers, merchandisers, copywriters, content owners, managers, and executives have goals that are different than ours. Shocker, right? Our customers have a different focus than we do. Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, in her book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals says, “Psychologists who study achievement have been particularly interested in the differences that arise when people focus on performing well to demonstrate ability (being good) versus focusing on progress, growth, and gaining mastery (getting better).”

“Psychologists refer to the desire to be good—to show that you are smart or talented or capable, or to outperform other people—as having a performance goal. When you pursue performance goals, your energy is directed at achieving a particular outcome…” Most of our customers - the people who need our reports, analysis, insights, and recommendations - have goals that are different than ours because they are focused on being good, on their performance goals.

Web analytics / digital intelligence practitioners are generally focused on getting better - on mastery goals. “Psychologists refer to the desire to get better—to develop or enhance your skills and abilities—as a mastery goal. When people pursue mastery goals, they don’t judge themselves as much by whether they achieve a particular outcome—like getting an A or surpassing a sales goal. Instead, they judge themselves in terms of the progress they are making. Am I improving? Am I learning? Am I moving forward at a good pace? It’s less about any one performance and more about performance over time.”

When a marketer spends six figures in three weeks on paid search campaigns, if you’re the person spending the money, you’re not focused on getting better, you’re focused on being good—you want to make a profit from your investment in paid search—now, not later. You are generally not thinking about the longer-term picture because your job depends on executing effective campaigns now, and not so much on learning how to make your campaigns better over time. Yes, continuous improvement is part of everything on the Web, but the main concern is performing well when they get up to the plate and start swinging.

When we analyze the data from those same campaigns, report on their effectiveness, and provide insights and recommendations to the paid search team, if we remember this difference it can help us tailor our work to our audience, and make it more relevant and specific to their immediate goals. And that makes us more valuable to them - our customers and hopefully, our fans.

There's still the work to be done

The reviews on Amazon can range from interesting to fake, from sad to hysterical, and from useless to very insightful. One review for a book called Art & Fear struck a chord:

“I agree that this is a very clearly, respectfully, and unpretentiously written book that can serve as a companion to any artist. Making art can otherwise be a lonely, daunting undertaking. My concern for readers of this book…is that it can be a pacifier. If it gets you to your work sooner and with greater courage and confidence, all the better. But if it substitutes for the process itself—makes you feel better but does not get you ‘working’—then it’s something to pick up but let go of. There’s a growing genre of books like this out there… The sage advice gets recycled, as do the homilies from famous people. And again, that’s fine, as long as they get us to a place where we are working with more energy and joy, but perhaps not so fine if the internal process becomes more interesting than the art-making. Did you paint today? No. But I reread passages of Art & Fear…”

“Paint” could just as easily be write, or code, or design, or any other productive (creative) endeavor and the point still holds:

Did you write code today? No. But I re-watched two Crockford videos.

Did you write a blog post today? No. But I re-tweeted a ton of cool links.

Did you analyze the data from last week? No. But I found a repo of Sublime Text key bindings and now I’m 64% more efficient with the code I’m not writing.

Did you write code today? No. But I watched @paul_irish school me on the secrets of the dev tools and now I can set breakpoints and use source maps like a ninja.

Did you write that documentation today? No. But I added 5 cool articles to my Read Never Later list.

“If it gets you to your work sooner and with greater courage and confidence, all the better.” People talk about learn-to-code / don’t-learn-to-code, or even learning a complex software package, and when “the internal process becomes more interesting than the art-making”, it’s time to shut off Twitter, close the books and struggle through the code—RTFM and all.

Stack Overflow, blogs, and reference books are convenient and helpful to get started, answer specific questions, and demonstrate examples. But more often than not, I see people get caught up in these resources to the point of distraction. And as the anonymous reviewer says, “there’s still the work to be done…”

Mind the gap. Avoid the rabbit holes. One thing at a time.

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work. — Thomas A. Edison