When I taught teenagers martial arts, I spent a lot of time in San Francisco’s Mission district. A lively Latino neighborhood, it was filled with activity, twelve kinds of chili peppers in outdoor markets, loud music and killer restaurants. It was also home to two gangs: the norteños and sureños. Each wore their designated color (norte=red, sur= blue) and stayed within rigid boundaries of their neighborhood. If you were a young person with any remote affiliation to these groups (desired or not) and ventured past these lines, the consequences were very violent, and sometimes deadly.
This context is important to understand how I could meet a young man named Dennis who had never been outside of the four-square city block he grew up in. He had never seen the Golden Gate Bridge, or Coit Tower, or the ocean. And he was 14 years old.
Many people could look at his situation and think it was absurd. Of course he could have found a way to get out of his neighborhood. But logistics were not the real issue. What had created an imaginary electronic fence around his four-square block was a combination of fear and a false sense of security. He had seen many of his young peers fall to violence and was really terrified of the same thing happening to him. And he believed that if he just followed the rules and stayed within the "safe" boundaries of his neighborhood, everything would be ok. He had everything he needed to get by.
A lot of us get caught in the same mental ghettos with our professional affiliations.
- We huddle in online forums with our peers and convince each other that with a little bit more subject matter expertise or certification that we will be ready to create a successful business
- We attend conferences filled with people that all agree with us, and talk about practices, tools and technologies that excite only us (participating on Twitter for a couple of months has led me to believe that there are more "web 2.0/social media consultants" than there could possibly be businesses to support them. I have been told they are very busy – amazing)
- We spend thousands of dollars in classes and workshops learning the next big coaching technique/marketing trick/SEO optimization that will magically make us successful
What would happen if we just hung out with the people we want to serve?
By "hang out," I don’t mean read a study on their behavior or conduct a structured focus group, I mean pull-up a chair, sit with them in their natural habitat, attend their conferences or pick up the phone and talk to them. Examples:
- If you are an accountant who wants to work with slightly zany, creative people, shred your "Accounting Trends 2008" conference tickets and hop a Volkswagen bus to Burning Man.
- If you are a software developer who wants to create time management software for busy moms, get off the Joel on Software forum and get to the grocery store at 5:00pm and talk to 20 women with kids hanging off of their shopping carts
- If you are a coach who wants to work with leading technology executives, save money you would have spent on your "master double platinum certification training certificate" and attend South by Southwest Conference in Austin, Texas.
It may feel as awkward and scary for you to do these things as it was for Dennis to cross the street at the edge of his "safe" zone.
But, unlike him, you don’t face a death threat. You have just as much to learn and discover outside of your mental ghetto as he did for his.
Go on — get out!