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Affordances and Obstacles: How to navigate through turbulent times

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Someone asked me the other day how as a small business owner (aka: I only eat what I kill) and father of 3, I’m able to stay so calm in spite of the alleged Coronantine.

(Corona + Quarantine, get it?)

Whatever your thoughts about the Corona, the response has had a serious impact on small business owners, with thousands closing their doors (and thousands more pulling out massive loans to cover the shortfall, which they unfortunately might not be able to afford unless the debt is “forgiven” because even “low” compound interest has a nasty habit of destroying what it touches…but that’s a topic for another time).

So I think the real question is:

How can you and I stay calm, cool, and collected….or as Kipling wrote: “keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you” during these turbulent times?

I’ll try to answer that with as few 80’s movie references as possible.

Let’s begin:

Remember that scene from “Big Trouble in Little China” where Egg Shen prepares the “medicine” – right before they go deep into the heart of the beast?

Egg Shen gathers the team, pulls out a mysterious potion, and proceeds to pour a cup for everyone at the table.

Egg Shen: “Time for the medicine!”

Jack Burton: “This does what again, exactly?”

Egg Shen: “See things no one else can see. Do things no one else can do.”

Jack Burton: “Real things?”

Egg Shen: “As real as Lo Pan!”

And then the good guys go on to beat Lo Pan, rescue the princess, and save the day in one of the greatest hero’s journeys of all time.

Classic Jack Burton.

But I digress…

Here’s what I believe:

Everything you may encounter in life is either an affordance or an obstacle.

An affordance is anything that helps you along your way; that moves you in the direction of your aim; that affords you an opportunity to make progress toward your goals.

  • A shovel to dig holes so you can plant in the spring…
  • A fresh water source to sustain life…
  • Family and friends to keep you company during difficult times…

These are affordances.

An obstacle, conversely, is anything that blocks your path. That gets in the way of your goals. That keeps you confused, frozen, or distracted.

Some affordances are obvious.

(the aforementioned shovel, water, and family)

Some obstacles are obvious.

(anything that restricts access to, or removes, the aforementioned shovel, water, and family)

Not all affordances and not all obstacles are created equal.

No line at Chipotle = affordance.

Getting featured on a massive SiriusXM radio station and blowing the lid off a brand new product launch = a much bigger, much more significant affordance.

The store down the street “runs out” of toilet paper = obstacle.

Experiencing a reality where you’re one handshake-from-a-stranger away from death = a much, MUCH bigger obstacle.

So logically, it makes sense that you would want more affordances (ideally the really good ones) and fewer obstacles in your life (especially the really bad ones).

If you’re following my line of reasoning this far, then it follows that the greatest affordance is that which affords MORE of such affordances.

(meta, I know)

For example, the electricity that feeds your devices and machines might be considered a “greater affordance” if those things are then used in the pursuit of your goals (with your site squarely set on your aim).

And it also follows that the greatest obstacle is that which creates more obstacles.

Here’s where I’m going with this:

Information can be either an affordance or an obstacle.

Knowing what’s around the corner can save you time, money and energy.

However, that’s only if the information is correct, relevant, and pertinent.

If the information is incorrect, not relevant, or impertinent, “knowing” said information could actually COST YOU more time, money, and energy.

(and if the information is malicious, well, then it could cost you everything…but maybe a story for another time)

In the physical world – the certifiably real world that’s right in front of you, the one at your finger tips – most of us can figure out what is an affordance or an obstacle from a simple glance (and maybe a step or two and a swivel of the head).

You see the traffic jam and you get it.

You see the strawberries growing and the water flowing and you get it.

But when you’re “online” looking at “the world” through the black mirror in your pocket, discerning between affordance and obstacle becomes a lot more difficult.

That’s because information can be framed, molded, and manipulated to be given the appearance of value, when in fact, it’s an illusion; just ask anyone who bought a ticket to The Fyre Festival, or cheered on Theranos, or thought Bernie Madoff was really onto something with his unorthodox accounting methods.

Not all information is equal.

So don’t treat it like it is.

Be discerning about what you let in. Shut off any inputs that distract you from your aim. Fearlessly exclude anything that does not help you toward your goals.

It’s true, people will stop asking you out for drinks…but then all the bars are closed now anyway.

Get to work. Fight the good fight.

And stay frosty.

Tom “may the wings of liberty never lose a feather” Morkes

p.s. I'd love to hear from you: leave a comment below with your thoughts, questions, or insights.
References:

- James Gibson's "The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception."
- John Carpenter's "Big Trouble in Little China"
- "The Fear Economy"

Started, finished, and shipped from 7,000 feet elevation with my feet planted firmly on the ground | Writing time: 4.5 hrs | Soundtrack: silence (still trending)

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