5 Keys to Success in a Hot, Flat, Crowded World…Or, what Tom Friedman wants us to tell our kids

Nothing’s worse than someone telling you how scary the future is going to be. Especially if you feel like there’s nothing you can do about it. If you have kids who are going to grow up in that future, multiply that unpleasant sensation by about a hundred.

That’s how I felt as I sat in Atlanta’s Symphony Hall two weeks ago during New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s keynote talk at (co)lab, a two-day regional leadership summit hosted by Leadership Atlanta (check out our other post inspired by (co)lab here). If you’ve read Friedman’s best-sellers “The World is Flat” or “Hot, Flat & Crowded,” you already know what a change we’re all in for over the coming decades. And a lot of it ain’t pretty.

One of the communications lessons we always try to share with our clients is to go beyond sharing information – about your brand, your organization, your issue – and make sure your audience knows what you want them to do with that information.

I squirmed uncomfortably in my otherwise plush, comfy seat as Friedman spent more than an hour building a tower of facts that left us all dizzy about the implications of technology, environmental degradation and global competition on America’s place in the world. Come on, Tom, I thought. You’re ending an inspiring conference on a doomsday note. Give us something we can use.

Friedman’s no rookie. He finished his talk by “pre-empting the first question” he suspected he’d get from the audience: If this is the future, Tom, what do we tell our kids?

Here are his five simple instructions.

1.     Think like an immigrant. When the world’s changing this fast, at some point we’re all going to be strangers in a strange land. Successful immigrants are hungry, opportunistic and entrepreneurial. If Americans want to succeed, we have to ditch the cocky, winner’s mindset bred by too many years at the top. We have to become scrappy underdogs again and be ready to adapt to anything, because we have no choice. That’s the immigrant’s mindset.

2.      Think like an artisan. Pre-Industrial Revolution, manufactured goods didn’t come off production lines, they were made one at a time. By hand. The best makers put so much of themselves into their products that they would carve their initials into each piece. The jobs of the future are creative and non-routine. Jobs that can’t be digitized, commoditized or sent off-shore. Keep that in mind, and put such a big dose of your unique skills into everything you touch that you’d be happy to carve your initials into each piece.

3.      Think like a startup. If you’ve ever worked at a start-up, the product is never really “ready.” It’s constantly evolving. Products are shipped, apps are launched, services are sold long before they’re perfect. They’re always “in beta,” a constant state of refinement and re-tooling to make them better, more marketable and more relevant. We can’t ever think of ourselves as finished products, ready for workplace relevance forever. Those days are over. We have to be constant works-in-progress, adapting, learning and refining our abilities. You have to stay in beta forever.

4.      (PQ + CQ) > IQ. PQ = passion quotient. CQ = curiosity quotient. In a world where innovation is economic oxygen, smarts alone won’t win the day. Passion and curiosity will be more important because they drive 1) new ideas and 2) stick-to-it-iveness, both of the keys to real innovation. Keep this formula in mind as you approach your work every day, or as you look for your next hire.

5.      And finally, think like the waitress at Perkins Pancakes. Friedman’s favorite restaurant is Perkins Pancakes, or at least one of the chain’s many locations, somewhere in Minnesota. He tells the story of going there and ordering with a friend. When the waitress delivered the food, she said simply, “I gave you extra fruit.” Those five words earned her a 50 percent tip. While she didn’t control much in that restaurant, Friedman points out, she controlled the fruit ladle. The point? No matter where you are in your organization, think like that waitress. Look at everything you touch – no matter how small – like an opportunity to make the organization better and your customers happier. At Jackson Spalding, we call this the “+1.”

Feel better? I sure did. That’s the power of giving your audience something to do with what you’re telling them. Now think about this: are you following these five instructions in your work today? If not, start now. Then, go tell your kids.