One of my earliest memories of the power of information and the hold it can have over people dates all the way back to fourth grade. That was the year for me that two things happened. First, we were required in English class to read Louise Fitzhugh’s book Harriet the Spy, in which a young girl spends most of her time gathering information on her classmates and writing it down in a journal. Our teacher, as part of an assignment to help us encourage writing, asked everyone in the class to do the same.
It turned out that I was particularly good at that assignment, so much so that when we were asked to read our journals to the class by the end of the assignment a month later, the teacher asked me to stop after just a few entries because it was visibly upsetting to the rest of the students. I’d diagrammed out who was friends with whom, who wasn’t, who was pretending to be friends, where people lived, how they got home, who their parents were and what they did, what their school locker combinations were. Those few folks who remember me from way back when probably still look back on that assignment with a mix of dread and annoyance.
The second memory from back then was my first exposure to banned books. There was one particular book that wasn’t supposed to be in our school library, Graham Yost’s Spy Tech, which was a look at the tools and methods of espionage. The first half wasn’t particularly applicable to daily life – after all, there’s limited usefulness in knowing about the SR-71 Blackbird or the KH-11 satellite. No, what got the book banned (but curiously not removed from the shelf), and what captured my mind back then was the second half: tools and tricks of the trade for individual operators on the ground.
In that second half of the book were methods for building traps and snares, lock picking, and a functional set of recipes for improvised munitions and explosives. Our school had a well-stocked chemistry lab typically only used by 7th and 8th graders, and you can imagine the trouble that I got myself into, book in one hand, assorted chemicals in the other. My fondest memory – and the thing I got most in trouble for – back then was following the recipe in the book for creating thermite, which proceeded to burn its way through not only a glass beaker, but part of the lab counter as well. I was thankfully lucky enough not to injure myself or anyone else.
Fast forward a quarter of a century later, and today we’re swimming in information. Amazingly, the lessons learned back then are still very much a part of my life today. Information has incredible power over people, and nowhere is this more true than in the profession of marketing technology. Email marketing systems, search engine optimization, neuromarketing – all of these methods are rooted in understanding people and the information about them. The difference between today and fourth grade is that instead of me having to covertly watch people dial in their locker combinations, we volunteer all of the intimate details of our lives to Facebook and Google. It sure does make things easier for marketers.
The second lesson is that if you know how the recipes work, you can do great – and dangerous – things with them. All you need is a working understanding of how and why things work together. Aluminum and iron oxide (rust) combine at absurdly high temperatures to form thermite. Today, the potent combinations are different tools and technologies in the digital realm. Understanding how MySQL works and how PHP works lets you combine them in powerful ways that result in systems like WordPress. Understanding how APIs work lets you tie different, disparate systems like Salesforce.com and email marketing software together in new, unforeseen ways.
The greater lesson here that wraps all of this up is that there are threads in your life, traits and habits from your very early years, that are still with you today. My innate curiosity about both information and technology may be evident now in digital marketing, but they’re from the same internal drive that caused me to burn through a chemistry lab counter more than 25 years ago. What are the threads in your own life that keep showing up in different forms?
Here’s one of the great secrets I’ve discovered about professional success – if you know what these threads are and you align your career with them, you will be incredibly successful. The reason why is simple: you are being today who you’ve always been. It requires almost no effort on your part to be yourself and simply express those traits and habits from early childhood in a productive, professional context today. The awkward but deeply curious 4th grade boy is still inside of me, still very much a part of me, and the profession of digital marketing caters incredibly well to him.
What were the things that were second-nature to you when you were 10 years old? Is what you’re doing for work today working in tune with or against your nature? I would challenge you to think about that, and if your work and your inner 4th grader are at odds, either find a way to get them to work together, or consider changing work so that you can resume being who you’ve always been, but better.
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