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Weekly 3: Useful paradox

Summary: Focus on needs more than wants. Copy your heroes to find your own voice. Think like a bronze

Idea Journal Weekly 3

March 3 · Issue #76 · View online
We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Focus on needs more than wants. Copy your heroes to find your own voice. Think like a bronze medalist. (~6 min read)
Note: Idea #2 is taken from a previous issue, and we’ve included it here because it fits well with the core theme: useful paradox.

#1. The customer isn't always right
Entrepreneur and investor Paul Graham writes in his essay Design and Research that effective design starts with the question, Who is this for and what do they need from it?
For example, a good architect doesn’t begin by creating a design that she then imposes on the users. Instead, she studies the intended users to figure out what they need.
As Graham points out, there’s a crucial difference between designing for what people want versus what they need.
Working as a designer doesn’t mean simply making whatever the client asks for: “This varies from field to field in the arts, but I don’t think there is any field in which the best work is done by the people who just make exactly what the customers tell them to.”
But isn’t the customer always right?
Not necessarily.
The customer is always right in the sense that the measure of good design is how well it works for the user. For example, if you write a novel that everyone finds boring, or make a chair that’s uncomfortable to sit in, then you’ve failed.
But in order to make something that works well for the user, you can’t just make what the user tells you to because users don’t know what all the choices are, and they’re often mistaken about what they really want.
So what should you do?
For Graham, the answer to this paradox is that you have to design for the user, but you have to design for what the user needs, and not just what he says he wants.
How a doctor works is a helpful analogy. As a doctor, you can’t just treat a patient’s symptoms. When a patient tells you his symptoms, it’s your job to figure out what’s actually wrong with him, and then treat that.
#2. An unexpected path to originality
Artist and writer Austin Kleon writes in his book Steal Like an Artist that we’re not born with a style or voice. Instead, “We learn by copying.”
But copying is different than plagiarism. Plagiarism is “trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own.”
Copying, however, is about reverse-engineering, “like a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works.”
Kleon suggests answering the below 2 questions to copy effectively:
1. Whom should you copy? Your heroes. He references the paradoxical phenomenon that if you’re seen as being influenced by one person, then you’re considered the next version of that person. But if you’re influenced by 100 people, then you’re considered original.
2. What should you copy? Kleon writes that you want to go beyond copying the style of your heroes, and get to the thinking behind their work: “You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.”
To make your own unique contribution to the world, as you’re copying your heroes, pay close attention to where you fall short, and ask yourself, What makes me different?
#3. Compare down as well as up
Writing on his blog, entrepreneur Derek Sivers suggests that in a competition, the person who comes in third place should be happier than the one who comes in second place.
Picture the end of a race in the Olympics, where the 3 winners are standing on the podium: the gold, the silver, and the bronze.
Now imagine what it feels like to be the silver medalist: if you were a second faster, you could have won the gold. Filled with envy, you would keep comparing yourself to the gold winner.
But as the bronze medalist, you would have a completely different perspective: if you were a second slower, you wouldn’t have won anything. You would be thrilled that you were an Olympic medalist, and got to stand on the podium at all.
The lesson is that if you find yourself burning with envy or resentment, it’s better to think like a bronze medalist than silver: “Instead of comparing up to the next-higher situation, compare down to the next-lower.”
Sivers borrows the medalist metaphor from psychologist Barry Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice, and suggests that it can be applied to a range of everyday situations.
Take any marketplace where things vary according to price – for example, real estate, the stock market, or even salaries.
If you find yourself comparing the deal you received to the best possible deal, and being upset at the difference, try instead to compare your deal to the worst possible one, and feel grateful for that difference.
Sivers acknowledges that the bronze-medalist perspective may not apply to every competitive scenario.
When you’re ambitious and trying to be the best at some specific skill, it’s useful to be dissatisfied, like the silver medalist comparing up to the gold. You can use that feeling as motivation to practice and improve.
But, as Sivers puts it, “most of the time, you need to be more grateful for what you’ve got, for how much worse it could have been, and how nice it is to have anything at all.”
Quote of the Week
“How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.”
- Attributed to physicist Niels Bohr in the biography Niels Bohr, by author Ruth Moore
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