Archive for the generation X Category

Historical moment #1: The Navy?

Now that the NFL season is over, I find myself watching less television again.

About the only thing I watch with anything approaching regularity right now are re-runs of NCIS.  As has often been the case, I find myself discovering TV shows only long after their debut, after they’ve went into syndication.   I have no idea whether new episodes of the show are being released, or even what network the show originally was/is on.  Nor do I much care.  I expect I’ll watch NCIS for a couple more months and start getting bored with it and stop.

But for now, I like the show.  I’m not sure why, but I think it’s probably because has fairly interesting characters and I’m a sucker for “smart ass remarks and by play” done well.  My favorite character, by far, is the goth-ish Abby Sciuto, played perfectly by Pauley Perrette, a young forensic scientist that combines various sensibilities of Gen Y (brilliant nerd, Goth) with the inner-joy sense of humor of Mr. Miyagi, all while working in, of all places, an arm of the Department of the Navy.

Not the place a Boomer like me expects seeing a professional working in a dog collar, multiple tattoos, and black lipstick.  But it works.

And watch the Abby character for a couple episodes and you start to realize that, contrary to the myths about “looking professional” that we Boomers were taught when her age, conforming appearance no longer matters the way it once did (Abby’s age, that is, not Perrette’s.  The actress is actually Gen X, 39, not Gen Y.)  I have no doubt that a real world Abby would be as successful as a fictional one.    This is a woman with both top-of-the-line skills in her field and a personality both her ex-Marine-gunnery-sergeant superior and her politician bosses love.

Moment two:  Wade getting an earring?

I’ve been thinking again about getting my ear pierced.  For some bizarre reason, I like the idea of dangling a jewel from one ear.

It’s probably just part of that never-ending mid-life crisis thing.  But I’ve been playing with a variety of ideas for presenting a different appearance when I return to the classroom.  Partly because I think it would be a valuable way to reinforce that the returning Wade is a far different Wade from the one who left, but doubtless mostly vanity and a desire to reward myself for all the weight I’m going to lose between now and then (down 15.5 pounds since the first of the year, aiming for -55+ by August ).  But whatever the reason, I’ve been considering more flash in the personal appearance.  Longer hair again — so far, its just grown long and shaggy, but been toying with returning to the braided ponytail, or maybe a wave and coloring in silver and/or auburn.

And an earring.

Okay, so maybe my personal plan is a bit whacked. :)

But put that aside, and lets get back to that earring.  Because as I was thinking about that earring the other day, I learned something very interesting.

My thinking about the earring got me to Google.  You see, I hate to admit it, because I’m sure some are going to misinterpret this, but the biggest reason I’ve never had my ear pierced before this is my fear that I’d do the wrong ear and everyone would think me gay.

No, I don’t have a problem with people being homosexual.  Frankly, I don’t care what people do sexually as long as all participants are doing so voluntarily and beyond the age of consent.  And, contrary to many of my fellow evangelicals, I simply can’t see God being as obsessive as we are about what who and what we do with our dangly bits.  However, given that I’m a flaming hetero (and no I’m not into Goths, ahem; Abby’s coolest parts are her cheerful attitude and her mind, not her bizarre fashion sense), I’d prefer not to have to deal with any more of a certain kind of discomfiting moment.  (Such as the time in college when I was approached on a dark Malta beach, or, worse, the surreal Christmas when my mother was asked by a relative whether I was gay and I was asked, by a different relative, over lutefisk and Norwegian meatballs, what it was like to be gay).

So, anyway, I’m farther along this “getting an earring” thing than I’ve been before, and so I went online and googled “which ear signals ‘gay’?”  And I discovered that the question is now at most a matter of historical trivia.  Virtually every response was a variation on “a pierced ear means a pierced ear, nothing more.”  Something on the order of  98% of all comments on three different web sites followed this theme — even though the first site answered my question, I found myself  curious about the cultural dynamic and checked a couple more.  My favorite was the person who typed “OMG that is so 1982.  I haven’t heard such a thing in 20 years.”  Over a year ago.

I was sitting at my desk, alone, but I imagine I still had a really sheepish look on my face. Duh.  And me the guy whose always going on about the Gen Y mindset, and it not just being held by Gen Yers, too.  Oops.

And the point?

Why have I recited these two little historical moments?  (After all, I’m sure most Iterations readers by now have figured out that Wade can be a total whack job Wade from time to time.)

The point:  those of us from generations where “how you dressed” was of critical importance to professional success need to realize something has happened in the last couple of decades.  Something more than our reaching the travails of middle age and a bunch of immature kids abusing their bodies with tattoos and piercings and screwing up their future job prospects.

It isn’t that Gen Yers and those who have adopted their mindset aren’t concerned with fashion.  Of course they are, or so many of them wouldn’t be tattooing and piercing.  (It ain’t all “being me,” any more than black t-shirts for the starving artists of the 90s were all “following the muse.”)  It’s that the world Gen Y has been busy transforming no longer demands excessorizing on conformity.

Success in today’s world?  It’s all about creativity, not about conformity.  And Gen Y, and their imitators, have learned that creative is a lot more fun than climbing ladders.  That work that demands conformity as well as performance isn’t work worth doing.

Look, I’m not that naive about the suits of the world.


I have no doubt that someone making Abby’s clothing and body art choices will have trouble were she to seek a management trainee position with, say, a bank, or a Detroit automaker, or many of the Fortune 100.  Or if she sought a visible position in the campaign of a candidate for the U.S. Senate.  Or if she lived in one of the parts of the USA that time seems to have forgotten, such as the rural Winneshiek County, Iowa, where I make my home.  For people interested in professional careers in those sorts of places — well, I’d advise the men to keep the hair short, the women to keep the earrings simple and small, and everyone to limit piercings and tats to those that can be kept hidden beneath a boring and conservative “business attire.”

Yes, many of the suits who make hiring decisions are still Boomers or Gen Xers who still retain residue of their upbringing by Boomers.  Though the Gen Y mindset is held by a lot more people than just those born between 1978 and 1994, and more of them every day, lots of Boomers and Xers have yet to make the move.

But on the other hand, which companies and geographic areas are the ones that were having problems with the 21st century economy well before the recent troubles became a national obsession?


Ford, Chevy, and the people who drive their trucks through corn fields.

I doubt it’s a coincidence that the places most out of touch with 21st century economic realities are also the places least receptive to the nonconforming appearance choices of Gen Y.   The companies and regions that — surprise, surprise — most Gen Y and Gen Y-mindset types — have little interest in being a part of.

And yes, I also know that letting my hair grow, pulling it back into a tail or a braid, adding a dangling jewel to my ear — these things aren’t going to make me young.  And they certainly aren’t going to make me “cool.”

Short of finding some way to replace my DNA with, say, Nicholas Cage’s, cool isn’t a possibility.   I learned in high school that even the coolest leisure suit and platform heels weren’t going to be enough to make me cool, that I’m one of those people for whom fashion ain’t going to make me look like what I’m not.   And Gen Y has far better bullshit detectors than my high school classmates did.

No, I’m not contemplating a remake of my appearance because I think it’ll impress my future students.  The best I can hope for in that regard is a sort of amused tolerance, chuckling in their dorms about the “fat old guy in econ who’s probably going to be submitting Viagra claims to Medicare soon, too.”

No, if I have a reason other than silly vanity for the contemplated changes, it’s that I think these changes will make it easier for me to adjust my mindset to meet the needs of Gen Y and the 21st century.   Provide physical reminders to me that the world has changed and I need to change.

That if I ever unpack the box, somewhere in my garage, that holds my one-time often-thumbed copy of Dress for Success, I remember that its only value it might have now is as some future historian’s primary source.

Or as an answer in the next edition of Trivial Pursuit.


Look closely at what I have written over the years, online or off, and you’ll discover I’m rather passionate about questions.  About which questions we are asking.  About which questions we should be asking.  About the questions beneath the questions, the questions we think we are asking and about the questions we are really asking.

Whether it’s what I’ve written here since starting Iterations last May, what I’ve written in my scholarly papers, or my comments on computer boards and blogs elsewhere, I’m always going on about “which question?”  And I’ve lost count of the number of mini-lectures I’ve given to students over the years on the importance of getting the questions right.

When it comes to effective listening, getting the questions right is absolutely critical.  You can’t truly listen to someone else if you are not able to understand the question(s) they are purporting to answer.

And if you want to get someone else to change their mind, to get them to agree with you in a way that has the kind of consequences you desire (their choices about purchasing, voting, or religious belief), you need to make sure they are listening.  And making sure *they* are listening means *you* must be sure they care about the same questions you care about.

Yet for all its centrality, “Which question?” is not something people want to think about very often or very deeply.  Because, for most of us, most of the time, the questions are “obvious.”  We don’t even contemplate asking about them, because, well, we already know what *the* questions are.  They’re so obvious that when someone like Wade comes forward and suggests we take a re-look, his suggestion not only gets rejected, it may not even be noticed.

*     *     *     *     *

The need to get people to think about “which question?” is how the educator’s task is typically harder than that of the traditional marketer.  A marketer must plug into the prospect’s core values; but an educator must strive to change those values.

It isn’t that the marketer’s task is easy in any absolute sense.  Far from that.

A marketer still has to identify the questions that matter to his prospects and then provide an answer to those questions.  And that can be very tough.   Potential prospects for the next good or service, or for the last one, rarely run around announcing what they care most deeply about.
Marketers must identify the our deep-seated desires, and then appeal to those core fears, hopes, and aspirations to influence people’s buying behavior.  If it were easy to identify the deep-seated triggering questions of “what makes me happy” and “what makes me sad,” there would be no need to pay top marketers the big bucks they command.  Anyone, ahem, could do it.

No, marketing is not “easy”.

However, speaking as someone with toes in both fields, the educator faces a still bigger task.  Like the marketer, the educator must be able to identify the triggering questions that matter to his students.  But where, having found those questions, the marketer can next proceed to provide answers, the educator’s first persuasive task is finding a way to get the student to change the questions asked.

Education isn’t just “putting things in terms they can understand”.  Education isn’t just appealing to their interests and values.  It’s getting them to ask about new terms and new ways of understanding.  It’s about changing their interests and changing their values.

One task is all about appealing to pre-existing beliefs.  The other is all about subverting and blowing up those beliefs and replacing them with new ones.

*     *     *     *

This difference between “finding the questions” and “changing the questions” is also why the most innovative products often get outsold by less innovative ones.  It’s particularly easy for the innovator to get caught up by the beauty or the excitement or the “revolutionary change” character of her innovation and assume that her customers have the same core emotional triggers.

And it’s made worse by the fact that the innovator cannot simply identify and appeal to core emotions in the usual way of marketers.  The innovator must also convince her customer to ask new questions.

For example, scroll back in time to the iPod moment.  Selling the iPod wasn’t just providing a new answer to the old question of “What’s the best solution to people’s need for portable music listening?”   It was getting people to ask a new question, a “What’s the coolest way to listen to my tunes?”  sort of question.

And jokes about midlife crises aside, “being cool” isn’t always the core emotion for a lot of the 45-year-old suburban men and women who have become a big part of the iPod market.  An appeal to “Cool” might have been sufficient to convince early adopters of Gen Y, but Apple wasn’t going to get all those late Boomers unless they first found a way to convince them that Cool was cool enough.

*     *     *     *

So, if one is an educator or an innovation marketer, how does one get the questions right?  And assuming that one manages to get one’s own questions right, how does one persuade others to do the same?

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Well, for $100 an hour, 5 hour minimum, you can hire the services of Iterative Listening, LLC.  Just drop me an e-mail at, and we can get started.   :)

/end commercial

Seriously, though, what I want to do today and over the next several weeks is explore in some detail how both teachers and innovation marketers can get their “customers” to change the questions they care about.  To explore several particulars of what I call “the listening mindset.”

Today, I want to mention two.

The first key to developing a listening mindset is to truly recognize the problem.  If you want your listener (your student, your customer) to care about your questions, you must first recognize that those questions are not yet the questions they care about.

And I mean really recognize this.   It’s sad to say, but the great majority of college professors, even many otherwise lauded as “great teachers,” fail in this regard.  Because it’s not enough to merely acknowledge the existence of a generation gap or a disciplinary gap or cultural gap.  Like it or not, the teacher must be the one crossing the gap first.

It’s not enough to say, “Here’s my different thing and its what I’m going to be talking about and what you’re going to be tested over.”  Older generations (Boomers and older, even Gen X) may have been willing to defer to experience and give the teacher the benefit of doubt.  Gen Y isn’t.  Gen Y isn’t going to listen and consider the teacher’s new questions unless the teacher first justifies the importance of those new questions.

Personally, it would make my job easier if they didn’t make such a demand.  And so I can dream.   But it isn’t going to happen.  Gen Y can’t be made to listen.  They can only be persuaded to listen.  Stop complaining about it, and deal with it.

Why am I so harsh, even though I greatly admire most teachers as teachers?  I’m so harsh because what teachers have to communicate is so important.   The teacher who says to the student “you need to know this, not because of the exam coming up, but because you need it to be successful and life and be a good citizen” is, much more often than not, absolutely correct.  I’m so harsh on my fellow teachers because their students really do need to listen.

But to get them to listen, to get past the listening gap, requires very different pedagogic choices.  It means the teacher must assume the lion’s share of the costs of listening.

Which brings me to a second key component of the listening mindset:  Assume that the other guy has good reasons for not listening.   Your students, your customers, they are not here on Earth to follow your path through life.  They’re here to follow theirs.  They’re not listening to you because they’re sleeping.  They’re not listening to you because they’re busy listening to someone or something else.  Someone or something that also is valuable.

If you want to get a student or a prospective customer to listen, you need to assume that they almost always have good reasons for not being interested in the questions you’re interested in.

If you’re a teacher, a holder of the “terminal degree” in the discipline you’re teaching, this is often very hard to do.   You’re in the business of correcting the errors of those who haven’t done all the work in the field you have.  You’re the expert, after all, the one with the superior knowledge and experience.

It’s also hard to do when you’re selling innovation.  As the innovator, almost by definition you have unique information and experience with your product’s features.  It’s going to be horribly tempting to go off and talk about the whiz-bang benefits you see Feature A providing.

But in both situations, the temptation must be resisted much longer than you think.  It must be resisted until the student or the customer is well and truly hooked.  Until the student or the customer has been convinced, not only that you are speaking to their questions, but also that your questions are important to them.

And if you don’t start by assuming that their current choices have good reasons, if you don’t start by assuming that those choices aren’t simply ones of ignorance, you’re going to succumb to the temptation far too early.  You need the assumption — even if that ultimately proves unjustified, even if their current decisions actually prove to have been ones of ignorance.  You need to assume they know what they are doing,  because without that assumption you won’t short-circuit your own anti-listening thinking patterns and you won’t have the mental jiu-jitsu techniques to short-circuit theirs.

For everything there is a season, says the Preacher in Ecclesiastes.  And, by inference, there is for everything, a time that is out of season.

When it comes to teaching, there is a time when the teacher must resist the temptation to correct error, and resist it over and over again.

When it comes to the selling of innovative products and ideas, there is a time when the marketer must not be pointing out innovative features.


This is going to be a short posting.  (Yeah, right, says the reader familiar with my tendency to go on and on about anything).

But this one will, primarily because I’m not anywhere near ready to have a coherent opinion on this subject.   But it is something I’ve been wondering a lot about recently.

Here’s the question:  Does the hard sell have a future for people selling products or ideas to Generation Y (the cohort of people roughly aged 18-30 or even Generation X (those aged roughly 31-48).

The hard sell has been pronounced dead before, and lived to prosper at ever greater levels.  But I can’t help thinking that this is part of what the last two generations have changed.  I’m not sure if either generation is truly patient enough to sit through the hyperbole and manipulation that hard sell institutions like direct mail and autoresponders are made for.

I’m interested in anything anyone has to say on the question, be it tight empirical evidence, near-comprehensive scholarly study, an anecdote or two, or just a personal rant.   Because while I’ve been working a fair deal trying to get a handle on the question (and I’ll share some of that research of mine as we go on), I’m not at all convinced that it’s really been examined suffiently as yet.  Certainly I know my own ignorance level on the question is too high.

Thanks in advance.

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