Jack Uldrich
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Unlearning Lesson #17: Do the Math Until it Doesn’t Add Up

Posted in Unlearning

 Let me see: four times five is twelve, and four times six is thirteen, and four times seven is – oh dear! I shall never get to twenty at that rate.” –Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland

 Question #17: Which is greater: 1 or 2? What about 100 or 10,000?

The correct answer is that it depends upon context. As Shel Silverstein recounts in his famous poem “Smart,” context is everything. The poem tells the story of a young boy who trades one dollar for two quarters because “2 is more than one.” Next, he swaps the two quarters for three dimes because “three is more than two” and then three dimes for four nickels because “four is more than three.” The poem concludes with the boy trading four nickels for five pennies because, as you may have guessed, “five is more than four.”

It would nice to believe Silverstein’s poem is just a cute little ditty about a misguided youth. Unfortunately, many otherwise intelligent adults continue to make comparable mistakes every day and it is a habit worth unlearning.

Consider the recent push among businesses and marketers to get followers on the social media site, Twitter. On its face, it would appear to be better to have 10,000 followers than 100 followers. What matters, though, is not the total number of followers a business or person has but rather those “followers” willingness to spread their ideas, thoughts, and opinions.

As Seth Godin reminds us, if a person begins with 10,000 followers and has a “tweet” that has a net pass-a-long rate of 0.8—implying her 10,000 followers will forward it to 8,000 new people, who will then pass it along to 6,400, etc.—the “tweet” has a relatively short shelf-life and the idea will soon die out. If, however, she has 100 loyal followers and creates a noteworthy “tweet” which is passed along to a net of 1.5 new people, her idea will first reach 150 new people after the first tweet and eventually it will overtake the “tweet” of the person with 10,000 followers after the thirteen generation. (See graph) If her idea was only slightly better—say it had a 1.7 net pass along rate—the effect would be even more dramatic. (See the purple line).

The point is that it is the idea which matters most and not the raw number of followers. Still many people and organizers obsess over the raw number and miss the more important point of providing meaningful, insightful and creative content. Why? Because, like the boy in the Silverstein poem, everyone knows “10,000 is more than 100.”

Alas, this isn’t always so. Less can be more when you concentrate on the right things.

Homework assignment #17: For one week, record the number of phone calls and emails you respond to at work. Also count the number of meetings you attend. Next, make a conscious effort to reduce each category by 25 percent. What is the impact on your productivity?  Did fewer meetings increase productivity?

P.S. If you would like to read 38 additional “unlearning lessons,” consider picking up a copy of my new book, Higher Unlearning: 39 Post-Requisite Lessons for Achieving a Successful Future. The eBook is now only $2.99!

Interested in some other free “unlearning” lessons? Check out these older posts:

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