My Kid Learned More from Mario Maker than I Did from a Marketing Major

Mario Maker teaches marketing
Image courtesy my iPhone. Weird mustache courtesy Nintendo.

I’m not kidding.  I just watched my kid grasp basic marketing truths that took me years in the professional world to get. (I might be a bit daft, but that’s another story).

I didn’t end up graduating with a major in marketing, but it was my major for several semesters of useless university.  The only things I remember from those classes are the words “target market” with no real context.

That’s just it.  I needed a lived context.

So my son builds these levels on the WiiU game Mario Maker.  He’s posted some of his favorites to the network so others can play them and, if they like them, give them a star.  He checked in the other night only to find two of his favorite creations had been removed from the network because they did not get enough stars in a given time span.

Here comes the pain.  And the learning.

I watched him go through all the stages of grief.  “That can’t be right?!”…”How dare they!!”…”Maybe if I tweak it and change the name I can re-upload it?”…”It’s hopeless.  What’s the point of building levels”…and finally, after a long grieving process lasting almost minutes, acceptance.

Unaware of how enthralled I was with watching this unfold (because I pretended to still be reading) he repeated the entire situation to me, making a point to vent his frustration because of how hard he worked.

“The worst part is, that’s the level I worked on the longest and it was my favorite!  Some of my other levels are just silly and were easy to build, and they have more stars than this one.  I wonder why?”

Big Important Marketing Lesson #1: The labor theory is bunk

Karl Marx and a lot of other confused social scientists with bad beards (Adam Smith gets a pass on this one…no beard) like to claim that value is derived from the cost of production – the amount and difficulty of the labor that goes into it.  This is clearly false, and my son now knows it.

Even if you know this from a (rare) good economics teacher, you probably don’t really know it in your gut and know how to plan around it until you’ve experienced it.  Some of my favorite, most labor intensive blog posts get no love, while some silly Haiku I tap into my phone in a few seconds might get…well, a little more love at least (I guess my example isn’t that dramatic after all, since my readership isn’t that huge…Hi mom!).

This is an important lesson.  Sure, content is king.  Yes, build a better mousetrap.  The problem is that what you think great content and better mousetraps look like mightn’t be the same as what customers think.

There are two potential solutions: the product solution and the marketing solution (best used in tandem).  The product solution is to learn from what people do like and make products more like that.  The marketing solution is to learn what feelings people want to experience when using your product and do a better job of attaching those feelings to it, finding the niche of people who will “get it”, and getting the word out to them.

My son, a very stubborn and independent creative type not keen on compromising his design, immediately went with the marketing solution.

Big Important Marketing Lesson #2: 1,000 true fans, social proof, list building…

This is really a lot of lessons piled into one, but it all happened so fast it was like a single epiphany for my son.  It took me a long time to understand the value of building a “tribe” of loyal fans or customers (Hi mom!).  It took me a long time to see the value of capturing leads, doing personal one-on-one outreach to influencers and early adopters, and touting the real stories of happy customers to help draw in the more risk-averse with social proof.

My son had the epiphany less than ten minutes after his teary explosions during the second and fourth stages of grief.  Here’s how it went down.

He jumped onto some sort of chatroom type thing in the game and posted a question asking if anyone else had been frustrated by having a level removed for too few stars.  In minutes he was conversing with three or four others.  He checked out their profiles and levels.  He followed them.  They followed him.  Then they somehow came up with an agreement.  They would give each other the name of their newest levels and all play each others and give them a star, ensuring three quick stars, pushing it nearer the top of the newly added levels, raising the profile and keeping it from getting removed.

It was late and I was going to bed.  He doesn’t like to be the last one up, so he begged me to wait a few minutes while he dutifully played and starred some of their levels.  He double checked and verified that his new coalition had done the same for him.

Damn.

He went out and talked with people, built a tribe around a shared frustration, collaborated to find a solution, and engaged in what MBA douchebags might call “synergistic strategic partnerships” (I don’t know if MBA’s would actually say that, but I imagine they would and this is my article).  He added them to his followers so that there could be accountability, followup, and future collaboration.

As a dad one of my solemn duties is to always think my kid too quickly plays the victim and doesn’t take things into his own hands.  It’s the kind of self-righteous worry a parent feels entitled to.  Except this time he robbed me of the opportunity to start waxing about how in my day we had to pick ourselves up by our bootstraps and mustached plumbers didn’t get any stars from anybody.

After a brief moment of feeling a victim of the system and being angry with idiot consumers who don’t appreciate good product, he saw his frustration as an opportunity.  Surely someone else felt the same?  Surely there was a way to work around it?  And he did.

He realized that intentions don’t matter, value creation does.  But value creation is not just in the product, but the feeling people have about it, the reasons they have to care, the connection you build with them.  Now even before building a level he preps his loyal allies to reduce the risk and boost the ratings when it is released to the network.  This is what authors do with their emails lists (sign up for mine here, I have another book coming out and you can be one of the early reviewers…you too mom!).

Teachers Aren’t Very Good Teachers

My kid isn’t some kind of special genius.  The world we live in is the most resource, information, and opportunity rich in human history.  If kids freely engage the world and follow their curiosity and intrinsic goals they will encounter a more diverse range of ideas and experiences than we can imagine.  When I try to directly teach my kids this stuff they scoff or sigh or roll their eyes or play dead hoping I’ll go for help so they can finally escape my words of wisdom.

In fact, unless we actively work to suppress it our kids urge to learn, experiment, innovate, create, and adapt will blossom.  That suppression often takes well-meaning forms like direct, mandated instruction from adult “experts” who know almost nothing about Mario Maker or other contexts kids actually care about.  It takes the form of classrooms and textbooks and tests and pressure to careerify interests.  It takes the form of parental worry that if their kid doesn’t learn the same bunch of arbitrary, mostly useless facts they were forced to memorize at the same age they did everything will fall apart and society will crumble.

Relax.  Your kid is going to be fine.  Even if they play a lot of video games.

…………………………………………………………….

Here are a few other examples of learning by doing from my own life:

Why LEGO is more valuable than algebra

How my son learned to read when we stopped trying to teach him

78 – Doublethink Jointasode with Jeff Till

Entrepreneur, podcaster, free thinker and good friend Jeff Till joins me to expand on a Facebook post about “doublespeak” or “doublethink” where a policy idea is mistaken for (or purposefully replaced by) a more genuine objective or desire. Here we talk myths about school, the law, the military, welfare, and regulation.

We do a mish-mash of both of our podcasts – even the intro music!  Huge thanks to Jeff for his sleek editing and adding some relevant and fun sound clips.

The post the episode is based on:

Just about every argument for school is actually an argument for the value of education that proves nothing about the value of school.

Just about every argument for law is actually an argument for the value of order that proves nothing about the value of law.

Just about every argument for welfare is actually an argument for the value of compassion that proves nothing about the value of welfare.

Just about every argument for the military is actually an argument for the value of security that proves nothing about the value of the military.

Just about every argument for regulation is actually an argument for the value of safety that proves nothing about the value of regulation.

Doublespeak is alive and well. Those who succeed in making the name of their pet policy linguistically interchangeable with a basic universal value always get to play offense.

This and all episodes are also available on SoundCloud, iTunes, YouTube, and Stitcher.

The More You Risk the More You Learn?

Here’s a relationship I’m exploring right now:

The amount you learn is proportionate to the amount you risk.

I’m not sure if it’s universally valid.  There are probably exceptions.  Still, the more I think about it the more I like it.

It’s important to note that “risk” is subjective.  An increase in risk is an increase in the probability and/or magnitude of a result that forces you to do something you’d prefer not to.  Risk can be material, emotional, physical, or psychological.

If you work for an established, large corporation you will learn things.  If you work for an early stage startup you will learn more things.  If you start your own company you will learn even more.  Each stage ratchets up the risk, in this case financial and social (status loss in event of failure), and the learning goes with it.

Physical risk seems to follow the same pattern.  To learn new moves on the court or field you have to be willing to try them.  Each new move has an increased risk of failure or even injury.  Adventure athletes can probably attest to this at the most extreme, where loss of life is a legitimate risk the physical and mental knowledge gained is likely tremendous.

Even in pure intellectual pursuits I expect this is true.  Sitting and reading or contemplating seems an inherently riskless activity but it’s not.  What you can learn is limited by what you explore, what questions you’re willing to ask, and how far you’re willing to go for answers.  If you safely examine comfortable, socially acceptable ideas you may learn a few things.  But the real learning comes when you push yourself and explore things with potentially risky ramifications.  If your beliefs were to change how uncomfortable would it make you?

This doesn’t mean intellectual risk taking is simply reading people diametrically opposed to your own views.  This is one of the least risky things to do.  More likely it involves reading someone reasonable with a number of foundational beliefs in common but with some unexpected angle or paradigm you’ve never considered.  Imagine a knowledgeable libertarian, for example, reading a radical socialist.  Not very risky.  It’s easy to predict what will be argued and responses are already at hand.  It’s riskier for a libertarian to read an anarchist who builds on the same foundation but extends the ideas into more radical territory – territory that might make one seem “impractical” at cocktail parties.

So what does it mean if the more you risk the more you learn?

The conclusion shouldn’t be that more risk is inherently good.  We all love the word “learning” but there is nothing inherently good about learning either.  Don’t necessarily feel guilt for not risking and therefore learning more.  There are plenty of instances where reducing risk, and therefore learning, is the better path.  I’m sure if I played chicken with an oncoming car I’d learn a lot about myself that couldn’t be learned any other way.  Doesn’t mean I should do it.  I’m not sure knowledge helps if you’re dead (then again, how can I know without trying…)

But I think there are some valuable implications to the risk/learning relationship.  If you know your own goals and are honest about them it can help you make decisions.  If you place a tremendously high value on learning something in particular you might consider higher risk situations that will impart a higher level of knowledge.

This is related but (I think) a little bit different than Nassim Taleb’s powerful concept of “skin in the game“.  Skin in the game is about getting more value out of the decisions you do make by being more invested in the outcome, whereas the risk/learning relationship is perhaps slightly broader and has implications for the kind of decisions you make in the first place.

77 – Slayback to the Future: Technology, Progress, Culture, and Universal Basic Indignity

Praxis colleague, aviation buff, and all around interesting guy Zak Slayback comes back to the show to talk about the future, technology, progress, work, universal basic income, and much more.

We discuss whether there is a “digital divide” between urban and rural populations, whether that has significance culturally or politically, the rate of technological change, how self-driving cars might disrupt the aviation industry, and whether a future of greater wealth and robots means income should be forcibly redistributed (hint: no).

This and all episodes are available on SoundCloud, iTunes, YouTube, and Stitcher.

The Ever Moving Goalposts of Arguments for College

 

You have to go to college to get a good job and make money

Actually, college grads have an average of $35,000 in debt and 60% of them have no job or jobs that don’t require degrees.  Those silly earnings statistics have the causation backwards.

 

But you still need to learn skills for the real world!

Actually, employers report that college grads are completely unprepared for what’s needed in the real world.  You can learn all the skills you need better, faster, and cheaper through an apprenticeship.  College tends to foster all the worst skills; the type that make humans dull rule followers, easily replaceable by machines.

 

You can’t be so one-dimensional and materialistic.  The liberal arts are important to becoming well rounded person.

Precisely why you shouldn’t go to college.  Student knowledge of liberal arts is the same when they exit as when they enter school, and none of them like going to class anyway.  Anyone who is interested can read books and articles or take classes for free or incredibly cheap and get a far better liberal arts education.

 

It’s not about the knowledge, it’s about the network!

College networks are incredibly limited and uniform.  Anyone can build a rich, diverse network through work, travel, social clubs, or any number of ways that don’t cost six figures or take five years.

 

It’s not about the specific job, skills, knowledge, or network, it’s about the glories of the unique campus environment, the parties, the football, the four year escape to live and grow up!

Anyone can move to a college town and have all that and more without ever paying tuition or registering for classes.

 

Employers still need a degree as a signal of hireablility!

Actually, fewer and fewer require it and even those that do care far more about things that actually signal value creation.  A degree is one of the weakest signals on the market and the most expensive.  There are more ways than ever to get great jobs and stand out without wasted time or wasted dime.

 

Some jobs have mandated legal requirements for a degree!

Yes.  Yes they do.  And they shouldn’t.  Of course, many of those jobs are “prestige” careers that students don’t actually enjoy but feel like their parents need them to pursue like law or medicine.  Even there, opportunity to innovate and work in those industries as an entrepreneur without the costly credential exist and are growing rapidly.

 

But old people and parents might look down on you if you don’t do it!

Yep.  They look down on just about everything young people enjoy, create, and do well.  They’ll adjust.

Whether People are Good or Bad…

I posted a quote by C.S. Lewis to Facebook about decentralized power being valuable not because everyone is so good they should have some, but because humans are imperfect and no one should have a lot.

An interesting discussion ensued in the comments.  It’s easy to misunderstand what I take to be the core insight of the quote; that freedom doesn’t depend on the moral goodness of people.

Here’s my own take:

Markets and freedom work and benefit all whether people are good or bad.

Government control, on the other hand, is unnecessary if people are good and deadly if people are not.

Whatever your views on the goodness or badness of human nature, government is an unnecessary evil.

I happen to think people are self-interested, which is neither good nor bad.  When you try to force them to be good, they become worse.  When you let them freely pursue their own self interest, they become better.

76 – FwTK: Politics Sucks, Flexible Schedules are Hard, Fringe Theories are Great

Today we discuss why you have to be free before you expect the world to, not the other way around.  We talk about why politics is disempowering, why it’s so hard to not let your job get in the way of your work, and why fringe theories are great for society.

Recommended in the episode: But What if We’re Wrong, Patterson in Pursuit, Meditations on First Philosophy by Rene Descartes.

This and all episodes are available on SoundCloud, iTunes, YouTube, and Stitcher.

It Took Me Ten Years to Launch…and I Don’t Regret It

My brother and I started a business when I was 19, but is was never the business or anything I was really passionately committed to.  After that failed, I worked for other people for the next decade before Praxis, which had been a rough idea I had since age 17, was actually launched.

This wasn’t a bad thing for me, and there’s no way I would have accumulated the knowledge, network, skills, confidence, and experience needed without it.

Today I share 3 reasons you should work at a company before you launch your own.  Check it out, and relax a little.  As long as you’re not doing stuff you hate, you’re probably moving closer to your dreams.

If You Hate This Post You Hate Truth

Just about every argument for school is actually an argument for the value of education that proves nothing about the value of school.

Just about every argument for law is actually an argument for the value of order that proves nothing about the value of law.

Just about every argument for welfare is actually an argument for the value of compassion that proves nothing about the value of welfare.

Just about every argument for the military is actually an argument for the value of security that proves nothing about the value of the military.

Just about every argument for regulation is actually an argument for the value of safety that proves nothing about the value of regulation.

Doublespeak is alive and well. Those who succeed in making the name of their pet policy linguistically interchangeable with a basic universal value always get to play offense.

Name it and claim it!

Football is Not a Physical Game

If I asked you to describe the essential features of football, I bet you’d say something about the physical, sometimes violent nature of the game.  I think you’d be wrong.

I’m (slowly) reading Chuck Klosterman’s book, “But What If We’re Wrong?” and thoroughly enjoying it.  There is much to say about the book and I hope to get into more of it in the next podcast episode.  But today I’m thinking about football.

I read a chapter last night about the future, or non-future, of football.  It’s a great bit of analysis/speculation by Klosterman vs. Malcolm Gladwell on the probability of football existing 25 years from now.  I don’t pretend to know the fate of football and find it equally likely that it dies off as thrives.  But there was one assumption embedded in the chapter that I think was wrong, and that might affect the way we analyze the future of the sport.

Football is not a physical game.

The book explores the sport’s potential under the assumption that the key ingredient is a physical showcase and that’s what people either love or hate about it.  I have no doubt that’s what people hate about football, but I am highly skeptical that’s what people love about it.

If viewers were in it for the physical aspects of the game then track & field would be hugely popular.  I can’t think of a more purely physical spectacle than a foot race.  But no one watches foot races.  No one really watches power lifting or standing high jump either.  These are neat physical feats that might gain an occasional YouTube breakout if really extraordinary.  If football were essentially about the physical aspect we’d expect these other, often more extreme, physical activities to be equally beloved.  They’re not because the physical is not the essential part of football.

The essential part of football is mental.

It’s mental in two ways.  The most obvious is strategy.  Football fans love the complex, chess-like strategies in each play, possession, game, and season.  Every match-up involves coaches and players trying to outsmart each other with X’s and O’s.  It’s a really nerdy game when you start to get into the strategy of it.

But that’s just the first mental part, and I think the less important.  If this was the only way in which football was a mental game it would be fairly easy for software or robots or chess to replace it.  But strategy is only a small part of the essential mental aspect of football.

The other, less acknowledged way that football is a predominantly mental game is the individual and collective mental strength, emotional control, adaptability, and creativity required.  How to perform under high expectations vs. no expectations.  How to handle off-the-field distractions.  How to play when you’re hated by fans or teammates.  How to succeed on a play after failing at it the previous three times.  How to battle a choker reputation.

That this mental aspect of the game is the essential feature is revealed in the way we talk about football.  Listen to the in-game commentators or sports radio the day after.  We say things like, “How will they respond to that touchdown drive?”  That’s not a question of a physical response.  We know exactly what they’ll do physically.  Run really fast in a slant pattern and put up their hands.  “Respond” is a mental word.  We’re asking how they will handle the emotional toll of a turnover.  We discuss whether the QB has a short enough memory to not let it get to him.  We discuss whether or not a player can “win the locker room” not by physical prowess, but leadership qualities.  We love the game because it is an incredibly rich environment in which every conceivable emotional and mental state is experienced and each player must determine how to navigate the challenges inside their own heads.  We don’t spend hours after the game discussing exactly how many inches a DB jumped to make an interception, but we do spend hours discussing how his constant trash talk got in the head of the slot receiver causing him to pull up short on his route.

As a poster child for the violent physical nature of the sport the book references fanatical coach Jim Harbaugh and his comments about football being the last bastion of masculine physicality.  But even Harbaugh is really all about the mental game.  Whether or not he believes football’s real essence is physical, his success or failure as a coach will not be determined by how much his front line can bench press.  That’s going to be roughly the same as his competitors.  It will be determined by how well they respond to his wild antics and tough guy persona.  Will it inspire them and create the conditions for mental toughness, or will it patronize and annoy them and create mutiny?  That’s what everyone is watching Harbaugh to see.  That’s what his fans and detractors are discussing.

All physical activities have a mental component, but the degree can differ greatly.  We love football because of its astronomically high degree of mental complexity.  This is why soccer, though vastly more accessible, cannot replace football.  It involves strategy (though much less) and mental challenges, but far less diversity and complexity in its situations.  This is why golf is more popular than power-lifting.  The former has a more complex set of mental challenges because it’s not just a single feat repeated, but a series of diverse shots in different conditions with different expectations.

If you accept my argument that football’s essence is mental, not physical, and its core value to consumers is the mental game rather than the speed or violence, what does it mean for the future of the sport?  I’m not sure.  But I think it can help separate the popularity of the sport as a whole from the increasing worry about the violent aspects of it.  It should help us gain clarity as we speculate about what, if anything, might replace football as we know it.  Whatever it is, it can’t just be simulated physical play, or pure strategy.  The demand for a complex combination of strategy and mental agility is large, and if football is to die off some day something equally mentally and emotionally challenging has to fill the void.


PS – The book cites an overall decline in rates of youth participation not just in football, but in all the major organized sports and attributes this to changing values and interests and the emergence of video games.  That may be the cause, but another possible contributor I’ve not heard mentioned is increased specialization.  As these sports grow in money and sophistication, players become more specialized.  That means by age 10 if you’re not pretty serious about a sport it’s harder to join a league than it used to be.  It could be that the casual, recreational participation in sports leagues has fallen while the number of serious specialists has grown.

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