The Peanut Butter Jar Theory of Perfection

Photo credit: Mary Thompson

If you were to open a brand new jar of peanut butter and try to get all the peanut butter out of the jar, how long would it take? You can use any tools you want so long as you bear in mind that the goal is to recover the peanut butter from the jar. So washing it down the drain does not help in accomplishing that goal.

I guess how long it would take largely depends on your definition of “all the peanut butter”.

Surely, within three or four minutes you could get basically all the peanut butter out of the jar. If you looked in the jar you would still see streaks and ribbons of peanut butter all over the inside of the jar but all of it put together wouldn’t add up to enough to make a respectable PB&J.

How much longer would it take to get it so that not one visible streak of peanut butter remained?

I’ve never tried it but my guess is maybe about an hour.

So let’s say you have the patience and determination to get every last bit of peanut butter out of the jar. Did you get it all? Have you done a “perfect” job of getting the peanut butter out?

Smell the jar.

It still smells like peanut butter. That’s a sign that there are still chemical traces of peanut butter left behind.

Remember, our goal was to recover the peanut butter from the jar. Not necessarily to use it for making a sandwich or anything useful, just to recover it and get it out of the jar.

Photo credit: Beau Giles

Now, if your definition of “all” the peanut butter is something like “all the peanut butter that’s useful in making sandwiches”, then you could easily do a perfect job of getting “all” the peanut butter out in three or four minutes.

If your definition is all the visible peanut butter, then you could probably do a perfect job in about an hour. Part of the point here is that you’ll start seeing diminishing returns on your effort after the first three or four minutes.

If your definition of “all” the peanut butter is every last chemical trace of the stuff, it may take considerably longer and require specialized tools or techniques. (Remember, trying to recover the peanut butter implies that we’re not contaminating it.) Again, the longer you keep at it and the closer you get to “perfect”, the more the returns on your effort diminish.

This principle can be applied to almost any area of life. When you do anything, you get about 80% or so of your results with relative ease. After that, each incremental advance you make toward 100% will increase the amount of time, effort and other resources needed to get there. And the rate of increase keeps increasing.

So the real first step toward greater productivity is to decide what perfect means to you for any given task. If you can settle for 80%-85% of “perfect”, you’ll get a lot more done.

Personally, I’d rather have 10 or 15 projects completed but only 85% perfect than to have just one project done to absolute perfection. Even if that one project is so immaculate that it makes angels weep.

 

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A Little Rain Must Fall

I live in Delaware, roughly midway between New York City and Washington, DC. Average rainfall in this part of the country is around 45″ (114cm).

Unless you’re a meteorologist, that probably doesn’t mean all that much to you. Heck, I live here and it doesn’t really mean much to me.

What I do know is that it’s very green here. I couldn’t even begin to guess how many different varieties of trees grow within 100 miles of me. Surely it’s in the thousands. I have ten different kinds in my back yard alone. There are at least twenty more among the other yards on my block.

I’ve read that Delaware is the 16th wettest state in the U.S. So I guess 45″ is quite a bit.

The thing is, how different do you suppose that would be if all 45″ came in a single day and we had no precipitation whatsoever for the remaining 364 days of the year?

It would be a very different place. Likely little or nothing could grow.

Same amount of rain… vastly different results.

The Tie-in

This actually does have something to do with marketing. At least in the roundabout way that I frequently approach things.

Or more precisely, it has to do with grant writing.

If you didn’t know, most non-profit organizations subsist on small individual donations and on large grants given by wealthy donors, philanthropic foundations and government agencies.

Grants aren’t exactly easy to get. You have to apply, go through a rigorous screening process and then even if you get grant money, it often comes with restrictions on how or when it can be used.

Still, the amounts make grants necessary for the survival of most non-profit organizations.

The application process is complex enough that there are professional grant writers to help guide organizations in applying for grant money and increasing their odds of actually getting approved for funding.

The tie-in is that few organizations get more than one or two grants per year. That’s a bit like a tree getting rain only one or two days of the year.

It becomes incumbent on those non-profits to manage their finances in such a way as to make those few infusions of funds last throughout the year. (Hence the reason so many ask for individual donations, which come with fewer strings and can be spread more evenly throughout the year.)

A Cottage Industry

Professional Grant Writing is a small, cottage industry. I suppose it should come as a surprise to no one that I offer grant writing as part of my menu of services offered.

In my mind, it just makes sense. As a professional writer trained in the art of persuasive writing, and as an avowed do-gooder hell-bent on saving the world, helping non-profit organizations get the funds they need to survive is just a natural fit.

Do you belong to or know of a non-profit organization that needs funds? Help me on my mission to save the world by putting us in contact with each other!

(You didn’t really think this article was going to be about rainfall, did you?)

 

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The Dark Side of Ownership

Like most people, when I was young I didn’t own much. Everything I owned could easily be packed up in a pickup truck if I needed to move from Point A to Point B. Now, everything I own can’t even fit into one building.

You might be tempted to envy me or to think that’s a good thing. But lately I’ve been changing my thinking about why we own things.

Almost everything you own is because you needed that thing at one time or anticipated a high likelihood that you would need it in the future. (In this context, pure enjoyment counts as “need”.) Whether it’s a lawnmower, a chainsaw, a microwave oven, a glass knick-knack or even a ball-point pen, you bought that thing so that you would have unfettered use of it when the need arose.

Image courtesy of MoreSatisfyingPhotos.com

Let’s just say that you own a sailboat (we all should be so lucky), but now you live nowhere near the water. Or perhaps it has some mechanical problem that makes it unseaworthy. You still own it but without the benefit of being able to use it.

As it turns out, what we’re really after most of the time is the use of things and not so much the outright ownership of them.

Granted, there are times when frequency of use makes ownership more practical than alternatives like borrowing or renting. Other factors may also be at play. For instance, the “ick-factor” ensures that you would rather own your toothbrush than simply have use of some random toothbrush when you need it.

On the other hand, time-shares continue to be popular because it’s a much cheaper alternative than owning a vacation home. (Or a whole network of them in various places you might like to visit.) On-demand car rental companies like Zipcars have become popular for much the same reason. For that matter, streaming media such as on-demand movies further leverage the use-is-better-than-ownership philosophy.

Where am I going with this?

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. This is a bit of an exploration of the concept.

I’m interested in learning what thoughts others have on the topic. Please feel free to comment below. Perhaps it will help my own thoughts become more coherent and well-formed.

Technology Advantage in the Space Age

Photo Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

The Space Race of the 1950s and 1960s was about establishing technological superiority.

Shortly after entering space, American astronauts discovered that their ball-point pens wouldn’t work in zero gravity. This was awful. Without them, they couldn’t complete checklists or record the results of scientific experiments.

NASA brought its best minds to bear on the problem.

The best and the brightest that America had to offer worked frantically to find a solution before the Russians did. They worked almost around the clock.

After four years and expenditures of over $12 million, NASA engineers finally came up with a pen that had a pressurized ink well.

Photo courtesy of NASA

It could write in zero gravity…

It could write upside down…

It could even write under water!

Meanwhile Russian cosmonauts, who had encountered the very same problem upon their first foray into space, simply used pencils.

The above is a joke but it illustrates an important point.

Too often we make things more complicated than they have to be.

The best solution is often one that’s elegantly simple.

The same applies to your marketing.

Sometimes you need an expensive, complex solution. After all, we couldn’t have made it to the moon without first building a rocketship. For that we needed a team of smart engineers and expenditures of large amounts of resources.

Other times, the solution can be far less complex and still get the job done.

A good marketer is also a guide to help you determine what’s needed and what’s possible.

 

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In Search of the Purple Squirrel

Photo courtesy of University of San Francisco

I read a book review recently for a book about today’s tight job market. If giving a letter grade to the book’s contents, based purely on what I know of the book based on the review alone, I’d say it earned a B+. Perhaps even an A-.

A grade for the title? I will charitably give it a C-.

This book was not written by a dumb guy. He’s a professor at an Ivy League university.

The thing is, in reading the book review, I came across at least two better potential titles. Both of which came from the author himself (and, I believe, from within the book itself!)

The book’s actual title, while descriptive, is such a mouthful as to be a bit off-putting:

Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It

The “better” titles I came across are far less descriptive.

In a way, that’s kind of the point.

I think if you can arouse curiosity, it might attract more readers. Or at least different readers.

One thing I’d really love to see is a test. Publish the exact same book twice, with different covers and different titles. No difference whatsoever in the book’s contents but radically different window dressing to attract would-be “buyers”.

I wonder which version would sell better. Surely they would each attract a different demographic.

If such a test ever were performed, I’d love to see the results.

At any rate, the first of my “better” titles is:

The Home Depot Approach to Hiring

When filling a job is like replacing a part in a washing machine.

Note that this suggested title and subtitle both come from the book review itself but I’ve tweaked them slightly to ramp up the interest factor.

My second suggested “better” title is:

In Search of the Purple Squirrel

Companies in search of employees who don’t exist.

In this case, the title is based on something that was mentioned in the book review but the subtitle is entirely mine. (Though the author should feel free to co-opt it and use it.) I added the subtitle, based on context from the book review, to add clarity. Mainly so potential readers wouldn’t think it was a book about animals.

Why am I going on and on about the title of a book about today’s job market?

At its core, writing is about communication. While I know the author is a very smart guy, and from what I can tell his book communicates some surprising and very valuable new ideas, I just don’t think the title gives it justice. Having the best ideas in the world means little if no one ever learns of them.

And if you can’t spark people’s interest, they will never pick up the book and thus never learn of the ideas inside.

Copywriting and marketing work the same way. You could have a terrific product that would solve people’s problems but if you never arouse enough interest to make them find out about your product then it does neither of you any good.

 

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