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To My Daughter Upon Graduating High School

I have many expectations of you, not the least of which is this: I expect you to fail. A lot, and often.

I don’t say this because I am angry or doubtful of your future. Quite the opposite. I say this because I love you and only want the best for you.

Our models of work and career are no longer relevant. They are no longer capable of feeding us, either literally or spiritually. Let me explain. Your world is the world of revolution and change. It is the world of connectedness and empowerment. It is the world of your own individual making. And you are – if you choose – the leader of this world.

No longer can we (you) depend upon a 40 hour work week with a benefits package and a pension. Those days are gone. At least, they are gone for most of us and certainly the majority of your graduating class. Some of your fellow students will still seek out this path, not understanding that theirs is the more perilous journey. They won’t realize that they are disposable, a throw-away cog in an archaic and humongous machine. The safety they seek is but a mirage in the connection economy.

The old economy told us that finding a job in a big company and putting time in every day by doing as you were told and following the rules would give you everything you wanted, including those benefits and the pension at the end of your service. But those positions, and the people in them, are simply commodities in the connection economy. They can be filled by anyone with a minimum level of competence and education. Commodities lack value and worth other than their cost, which is always being driven lower and lower. And, as you are aware, there is always someone willing to work for less. In the connection economy all of those jobs have gone to places like China and India. They are the low bid winners in the race to the bottom. Besides, unlike you, commodities can’t metamorphose into something new with an idea or thought that has popped into their head, or germinated over years before blossoming. You can do that.

Your world, your personal economy, is based upon the value you can bring to others. Your uniqueness defines that value. So, too, does your ability to connect with others. Read that again. It is important. Make certain you understand it. The value you add to the lives of others will determine your success. Regardless of the product or service you produce you will have to answer two important questions. The first is why are you here? What is your reason for existing? What is unique about you? Answer this with honesty and clarity and you can lead your group. People, like-minded people, are looking for you to lead them. And as their leader you can create your own economy. Your group may begin small – and it should – but it can and will grow with time.

The second question you must answer is how can you transform their lives? How will you – your group and products or services – benefit them? What you need to learn is this: if people can invest emotionally in your group then they will join and, more importantly, they will become an advocate and a recruiter. You have had a taste of this already as a singer-songwriter. You will experience it more going forward.

There are many examples of people and companies going their own way and creating their own products and services to successfully build a group or following – ignoring the masses and speaking directly to their people. Most of them we never know about. You don’t have to become huge to be successful. But some are.

One man began doing it before the connection economy existed. Jimmy Buffett is a musician, writer, businessman and the leader of the Parrotheads, a fiercely loyal group of fans. Buffett has never been at the heart of the music industry. He has always been on the outside looking in because the music industry couldn’t classify or categorize him. His music has been described as rock-n-roll, country, island reggae, blues and folk. Radio shunned him. Big labels stayed away. He wasn’t a cog that neatly fit into their machine.

And yet, there aren’t a lot of artists who can claim to approach his level of success. He has released more than two dozen albums, most of them gold or platinum sellers even though they received little or no radio air-time. Buffett’s albums have consistently ranked in the top 40 of the Hot 100, even though he has rarely had any Top 40 hits. But radio air-time is the old economy, isn’t it. Buffett connected with those on the fringes of the masses and built his own empire, his own way. That’s the new way, the connection economy. An interesting fact about Buffett is this: since the advent of the internet (and the connection economy) he has had more hits than at any time in his career. Others from the fringes have been able to find him and connect more easily.

Buffett has used his fun-loving island escapist perspective to amass a very large group that he has led for nearly forty years. He is authentic. His fans trust him. In truth, he has gone beyond a niche sort of enterprise to something much larger. Almost everyone knows who he is today, even if they aren’t a fan and don’t know much about his music. He built his Parrothead empire slowly, one show, one connection and one record at a time.

There are many others who have done similar things. Apple has built a massive following creating products that are elegant and easy to use. They value style and simplicity. No one could accuse Apple of putting price first (and becoming a commodity). Think their iPad is too expensive? Okay, go buy something else. You aren’t right for their group. You don’t get it. Apple doesn’t sweat it when people say these things. Their concern is focussed on like-minded individuals, not the masses. Even with their massive success they only control around 9 percent of the computer market.

Hank Green built his group on daily video posts on YouTube with his brother John. Their goal at the start was very simple: post a message every day that was no longer than 4 minutes. They did this because they lived in different cities and they were tired of connecting through texts and instant messaging. Eventually, fans began asking questions, which led to Question Tuesday, where they answered questions on any day but Tuesday. There was also Song Wednesday, where Hank launched his music career. Their videos have been watched more than 200 million times. Hank has led his groups in multiple directions over the last seven years, but he has always stayed true to who he is.

We all belong to groups. It’s how we self-identify. Our groups inform our perspectives. You already belong to several groups of your own choosing – musician, performer, artist, to name a few. Of course, we all belong to larger groups but most of them are not by choice, and some of them are meaningless. High School Graduate will become one of those meaningless groups. But being a graduate of your particular high school may hold some value for you.

The larger point is this: graduation is a time of great discovery, it is the launching point of your adult life. You will very soon join new groups that you identify with. Some of them will shape you. Some you will help to shape. Ultimately, as you discover your own inner voice, you will be in a position to create your own group (or groups). You may not succeed in leading it. At least, not at first. Ask any successful writer, singer-songwriter or artist and you will hear the same thing: it takes a long time to develop your own voice. Your voice is your perspective and outlook on life; it is your style when communicating to the world. It takes time to develop in most of us. Hence, my expectations and hopes that you will fail. Eventually, if you listen to your inner voice, develop it and are truthful and authentic, you will find the group or groups you were meant to lead, the ones you truly connect with.

Failure – true failure – isn’t the lack of success. It’s the inability to start. Some like to view this starting point as a leap of faith. But faith has nothing to do with it. Faith is pretending to know something you don’t know. You won’t need to pretend. The knowledge is yours; it is in you already. You will only need to trust yourself.

Trying to do something new and unique and failing to connect with people is the truest form of learning. It is experience that teaches. Becoming a cubicle jockey and collecting a paycheck without a long-term goal is failure. It is very difficult to express your uniqueness within large organizations. They don’t value it, no matter how much they claim to. It is an intrinsic part of their machinations that all of the parts do what is expected. There are exceptions, of course. But the exceptions are few. However, and this is important, taking a job while you fight to find your voice is practical, provided you continue working to discover your uniqueness.

You’ve spent years complaining about “the system” and school. You have said on numerous occasions that the way we are taught is just a method for keeping us in line, never really challenging how we approach or see the world. Conformists and lemmings, you have said, is all that they are training you to be. You were correct. That was the old economy. Factories with production lines produced the same object over and over in the past. It was important that the workers not think or dream while they attached handles to doors, or injected plastic into the machines that produced the miniature super-heroes you and your friends played with. Those jobs are now in China and other parts of the world. You have an innate understanding of the position you are in. The old economy is trying to impose its system upon you and you have seen it for what it is.

So, here is my advice to you. Spend the next few years finding your group and developing your voice. Then lead that group. Lead it well and you can celebrate your success for a long time to come. Lead it well and you will have mattered and added value to the world. And that, of course, is my true expectation for you.


Author note: I spoke at a luncheon recently that was supposed to be for small, local businesses. When I arrived I was told that of the people coming only half would be small businesses. The rest were from larger corporations. So, I decided to change the focus of my talk from small businesses to how to succeed in the connection economy. Most of the talk was the same so it wasn’t too difficult. Except I was asked one other thing: could I speak for 45 minutes instead of 20! That just meant I got to tell more stories.

My daughter’s high school was right next door and I was thinking about the fact that the current crop of seniors were graduating and that she would be graduating soon and what that meant. I realized then, what I teach my clients also applies to her. That’s the genesis of this piece.

in category Life

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