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The Attention Span. "How To Sell Anything."

There is an incredibly simple concept that has become central to a vast number of successful innovations and some of the most profitable algorithms ever. It also hints at the nature of a meaningful life.

“How to Sell Anything.”

[8 minute read].

This time last year I explored Raymond Loewy’s concept of “MAYA” or “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable.” Essentially, many great inventions have been a delicate balance of incrementally new yet familiar. As the “father of industrial design,” Loewy used it as the central principle behind a vast number of his iconic designs, from the Lucky Strike packaging to Coca-Cola bottles.

Derek Thompson’s book Hit Makers calls MAYA the “four letter code to sell just about anything.” He claims that across several decades of analysis, the most popular work in advertising is “new.” We want surprising, just not too surprising. You can see the MAYA principle in Apple’s world-changing product cadence. Too much innovation too soon and you get the Apple Newton. Too little and you get stuck with a Blackberry. Apple slowly removed buttons from iPod to iTouch to iPhone and now incrementally innovates with each new product release. In fact, we can see this gradual evolution across the whole smartphone ecosystem.

Source: Getty Images.

In algorithms, MAYA closely relates to the concept of recommending things “people like you” bought on Amazon, listened to on Spotify, or watched on Netflix. I love the story that when Netflix users were originally allowed to select their own viewing queues, they went with aspirational, highbrow films. Then they would just watch the kind of shows usually watched. MAYA revealed even more about their desires than they were aware of. Amazon originally introduced these kind of searches to predict readers’ book preferences. Allegedly, the improvement in recommendations was so good that Jeff Bezos got to his knees and shouted, “I’m not worthy!” to the engineer that first introduced them.

But this delicate balance of new and familiar goes much, much deeper.

We find this balance in play; it is so enjoyable because it’s exploration within a safe container. It’s obvious that’s something evolution would want to handsomely reward. The “flow state” of optimal human experience is achieved when challenge is perfectly matched to skill. The three conditions for flow are clear information, tightly coupled feedback and that errors matter. We sense it as being “in the zone.” Video game developers have now ruthlessly weaponized this experience using data derived from billions of hours played in virtual worlds.

The Western conceptualization of flow has often been pitched primarily as a performance enhancer. The idea that learning to get into flow regularly will make you a better trader or tennis player. However the potential implications of flow are much more radical.

The KCP Group's speaker last week, John Vervaeke, has talked insightfully about the nature of flow. People who regularly experience flow report a greater sense of meaning in life. Flow helps us learn important skills faster. When we’re in flow, our unconscious learning accelerates, improving expert intuition.

But Vervaeke also believes that flow produces an “insight cascade.” By taking our cognition right to the edge of its limits, we are more likely to experience “a-ha moments.” Many great geniuses have tended to play across different disciplines. Richard Feynman was a keen drummer. The great mathematician, John Conway, spent much of his time playing games. More time in flow means you generate more insights. In turn that increases your ability to see outside of existing stale structures, including your own life. That idea was completely new to me.

Thus a life where you’re regularly in flow isn’t just more meaningful because flow feels meaningful at the time. The flow state helps generate insights that allow you to orient your whole life in a more meaningful direction.

Vervaeke uses the fascinating example of the shaman to make his point. Flow-generating rituals like drumming and dancing give the shaman an ability to gain a wider framing on an issue. The shaman would experience “soul flight” or the sense that they were seeing the world from above, from a fresh perspective. This is what allowed them to essentially break a rigid old pattern and keep the whole community healthy and evolving.

This is a pretty perfect explanation for the somewhat counterintuitive claim that artists are better at forecasting the future than intellectuals. The same is true of entrepreneurs, visionaries, mystics, sages, and poets. They spend more time in a flow state; therefore are likely to be able to see fresh insights from outside of a stale system.

Yet, in true hypocritical fashion, the only contemporary poet I have the patience for is David Whyte. This is because he talks lucidly about the nature of work and corporate America. Listening to his Yorkshire-Irish hybrid accent is like slipping on a sweater fresh from the dryer on a cold February day. I also think he’s as insightful as anyone I’ve ever heard. I urge you to listen to his conversation (below) with Krista Tippett. He describes the convergence of the MAYA principle, flow and ultimate human flourishing in the kind of perceptive and penetrating way only a visionary can.

He hits on so many critical ideas that are relevant to our current moment. He talks about how vulnerability is an unavoidable precondition for growth. This is something we’ve explored a lot in the contemporary destruction of existing power structures and business models.

He talks about how initial steps into new personal and cultural territory can look irrational. This is exactly the point we’ve been making about how our clumsy stumbling into decentralized systems can be more explicable than they initially appear.

But the idea that’s at the center of all his work is that the nature of reality is “conversational.” The balanced life receives just as much input and guidance from our environment as it does our own deliberate action. The way you then claim your unique flow is by discovering the small part of you that meets what the world needs. Whyte agrees with the Taoists that our principal role in life is to locate our own genius, but not in quite the modern sense we have come to use the word.

“Human genius lies in the geography of the body and its conversation with the world…..
….So it’s really merciful, actually, not to think of genius as something that I’m going to get to by hard work, if I practice the violin 15 hours a day. It’s the innate gift that makes me want to practice the violin, actually. It’s the way everything meets inside me.”
“My feeling is, as I move along through the old great pilgrimage of life, that there is actually just a small contact point for every human being and that we’re mostly diluting our powers in trying to work with life in a way that’s too abstracted.”

Flow helps us find that small point. It’s like we’re swimming in a river. The closer we get to the center of the stream, the more harmonious the relationship we experience with time. We don’t experience time passing because we’re flowing at exactly the same speed as the river. But where we find our flow matters; some rivers may not lead anywhere. As Vervaeke powerfully argued during our interview last week, video games may not provide the same real-world benefits as Tai Chi. Instead he suggests we should: “learn to flow where the meaning is being made.”

Related listening and reading.

  • Read. The Four Letter Code to Selling Just About Anything by Derek Thompson (22 minute read).
  • Why read. If this is all too woo-woo for you, here’s a much more practical examination of the MAYA principle, as well as a fun story about how it directly applied to Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlists.

Have a good weekend.


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