Fads

Divide Your Attention Into Fads, Trends, or Principles

When looking around your world with an eye towards the future, try to divide what you see into a fad, a trend, or a principle. A simple way of having that sense of that division between them is to play with fads, work with trends, and live by principles. Of course, that’s easier said than done because too often we’re seduced by fads, ignorant of trends and resistant to principles. Related to a sense of time, fads are momentary, trends are transforming, and principles are eternal.

FADS

Fads are like spice. You just need just enough to add flavor and flair to life. Fads are about being in the moment, particularly to enjoy that moment. In that sense, fads are very nice because they are very human. Fads can ruin things if they take too much of your time and attention, are seen as truth, or if a fad is embraced as a lifestyle. When fads are put in their proper perspective with trends and principles, fads are great.

Because of our economic and social obsession with trends, it’s not really surprising that there’s an almost equal and opposite reaction in our current obsession with fads. Too much of anything will cause a reaction towards the opposite direction. Even worse, we often are fooled into thinking that fads are really trends. Fads are marketed as the next trend of the future, oddly one right after another. Fads like to tell you’re they’re trends, so you’ll pay more attention. But fads don’t last.

You can never get enough of what you really don’t need. Eric Hoffer

Fads are about attention, which is the most valuable resource in the economy today. If your attention can be captured and held, everything else will follow. People who start or lead fads are all about capturing that attention for profit or power. Why would you embrace a fad if no one else notices? In an attention-based economy, fads are lucrative because of the constant turnover of what’s cool. If you’re selling what’s cool, you can’t rely on old inventory, it has to move fast and be replaced just as quickly. Fads often go with adolescence– to do something different, to be bored with the same old thing, especially when the culture and economy join forces to help convince you that new is better, and old is, well, old. Fads help adolescents challenge authority.

There is nothing culturally more subversive than the modern commerce of quick turnover in ideas. Philip Rieff

Fads can give the illusion of progress. They’re anchors that stop movement, except when it’s to move away from whatever is expected of you and rejecting what’s already in place. Fads are less about creativity than they are about reaction. Art and artists are often quick to reject the traditional in favor of their new visions because nowadays that’s what sells as good art. That attitude has spread into business and culture, though they would be the first to deny it. Fads pretend to be trends.

To do just the opposite is also a form of imitation. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

We should play with fads because they can be fun and help us to enjoy life. From styles of clothing to styles of culture, they are about being in the moment of life and reveling in being alive. Just keep them in perspective.

We should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of either. G. K. Chesterton

Do you have enough fads in your life so that you’re not boring? Do you have so many fads in your life that you’re irrelevant? Just like with spice, enjoy them but if you use too much, you might spoil things.

TRENDS

Trends are about movement and transformation over time. Fads are like the waves on the water, they rock the boat and thereby capture our immediate attention. Trends are like the currents which move the boat. Currents are more difficult to perceive, but are far more powerful. One is able to navigate by learning more about the depth and direction of currents and stop obsessing about what just on the surface.

Trends are more adult-like because they take longer-term attention to notice. They often involve a sense of investment, whether that is with a long-term stock, the growth or decline of a company or even the way that we invest in the rearing of children. They take time and if we reacted to every little change with our investments, we cause more harm than good. There’s also a sense of delayed gratification with investment in trends. Fads are about today, trends are all about what comes after today.

We work with trends because that’s where our efforts will do the most good – long-term thinking applied to the notion of leveraging our resources and efforts to multiply the outcome. If you can pull some fads in to help achieve this goal, trends can work even better.

I don’t set trends. I just find out what they are and I exploit them. Dick Clark

PRINCIPLES

Principles are about the eternal. Things that don’t change, shouldn’t change, can’t change. These are difficult to defend in an age where too many loud people insist that there are no eternals, there are no truths. I believe it is truth to say that they are wrong.

Those are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others. Groucho Marx

This is not to say that principles are absolute. The fact is that they ebb and flow and interact with other principles. In some eras, some principles are more regarded than in other eras. For instance, ask yourself which is more important, freedom or equality? You’ll probably have an answer, but you can easily find someone who will disagree with you. This is because freedom and equality are both principles. They are both true at the same time and yet they are opposites. It’s a paradox, and a delightful one at that.

There are times when freedom is more important and other times when equality is favored. Freedom without equality would be a jungle, equality without freedom would be tyranny. Both sides are equally important even if they do ebb and flow over time, mostly because we as flawed, imperfect humans can’t quite grasp how to keep them in balance. The graphic above showing the scales of justice support that notion that an equilibrium must be found in the midst of all the contending forces.

For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails, the other dies. Will & Ariel Durant

Just as fads anchor you to a moment in time and trends cross time, principles free you from time. Principles are not simply about this time, they are about all time, they transcend time. We can have the sense of principles being more elder-oriented because for too many of us, we don’t seem to appreciate them until we’ve grown tired of everything else that competes with them.

We grow conservative as we grow old it is true. But we do not grow conservative because we find so many new things spurious. We grow conservative because we find so many old things genuine. G. K. Chesterton

FADS, TRENDS AND PRINCIPLES IN THE MODERN WORLD

Fads are about attention.

Given the vague statistic that the average person today encounters several thousand advertising messages a day, your ability to get your message through depends a lot on knowing which fads are capturing attention in this moment. When you’re trying to gain the attention of a younger person, be that your child or your new worker, are you able to use the right words, images and metaphors that work with them, without trying to be just like them? It’s not a fad that younger generations easily see and reject older generations efforts to manipulate.

Trends are about intention.

Which trends do you follow? Which do you ignore? Once you know about a trend, you need to form an opinion about whether it is useful. Which fads can you use to pull others into either supporting or resisting a trend? In navigating current trends, have a sense of direction and endurance so you can anticipate how to use it in your favor.

Have an understanding of both investment and delayed gratification with trends. Because trends take time, one has to have a sense of the endgame — where is this trend likely to lead us five, ten, even fifty years into the future? In the advanced economies, we have been so seduced by the short-term and quarterly results that we are quite fad-like in our planning. Older cultures might teach us about having a much longer sense of time. Our own history, in terms of what we have forgotten or choose to ignore, can also teach about the value of long-term trends.

Principles are about truth.

Imagine that you were asked to begin a document with the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…“ how might you finish that sentence? How might you finish the entire document to declare what it is that you believe? Do you believe that anything is true– that truth even exists– or do you believe that everything is relative and one so-called truth is as good as another?

In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principles, stand like a rock.  Thomas Jefferson

Unlike fads, which have tremendous marketing budgets behind them, principles are often left on their own and are not as easy to understand such that we easily are distracted from them in the day-to-day, busy world. In this world, the spoils go to the distractors— those best able to grab and hold your attention, and thereby gain access to your money— are the ones who get the gold and get to rule.

Only intuition can protect us from the most dangerous individual of all, the articulate incompetent. Robert Bernstein

Not all principles are to be equally valued, just like not all change is forward. The great struggle of our age is to define what should change and what should stay the same. It’s often said that in the future we’ll need more science and math in order to compete in the global economy. That’s true. What is even more true is that if we are to thrive in the future, we will need to study more philosophy, theology, history and biography. Science cannot tell us why we are here and what is the purpose of life. These four subjects may not be able to answer such questions either, but at least they lead us in that direction and that’s a good foundation from which to start.

Knowledge is power, but only wisdom is liberty. Will Durant

Fads, trends and principles can be used as lenses through which to look at what’s going on around you. They are not always distinct from each other, as there’s often a little bit of principle inside of a fad. Trends are often revealed first through the fads that show up in a culture or an economy. Principles are often obscured by the modern obsession with both fads and trends, and the popular naiveté that say principles either don’t exist or shouldn’t…

Simply put, we should play with fads, work with trends and live by principles.

Photo of David Zach Futurist with wall of books

A Futurist?

tl;dr version:

  1. One of the few professionally-trained Futurists on the planet. I can’t predict the future, but knew you might have wondered.
  2. Degree in Futures Research from the University of Houston-Clear Lake. BA, Political Science from University of Wisconsin.
  3. Given over 1500 keynote presentations throughout North America and Europe.
  4. Talks focus on the cultural and social (often humorous) implications of technological and demographic trends.
  5. Design has become a central theme running through my talks.

About David Zach, Futurist:

  1. I’m one of the few professionally-trained Futurists on this planet, having earned an M.S. in Futures Research from the University of Houston-Clear Lake. Then again, I got that degree way back in 1981 so it’s pretty much history at this point. (B.A. was in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin, though I had more credits in Philosophy and almost as many in Communications.) My introduction to futurists was from a course called The Future, taught by Alan Stauffacher at Monroe High School. But, even before that I first fell in love with the future by watching Star Trek. I was only allowed one hour of TV a week on school nights, but my smarty-pants brother Jim had all As, so he didn’t have any restrictions. He got to legally watch Star Trek. I had to sneak down to the rec room, hide behind the sofa and lay on the floor. My introduction to the future was sideways, and it pretty much has remained at off angles ever since.
  2. To finish the futures degree, I got an internship at Johnson Controls in downtown Milwaukee, WI. This was rather lucky as not only did I not have to write a thesis, but they paid me too. Because HR didn’t know quite how to classify or rank a “futurist,” they figured my skill set was equivalent to that of an accountant. When I asked my dad what I was going to do with all of that extra money from a real full time job, he just laughed. One of the first adult-level unlocked lessons is that earning money can be quite expensive.
  3. Three days after moving to Milwaukee, I got invited to attend the inaugural meeting of Goals for Milwaukee 2000. Then they invited me on some sub-committees and because I spoke up a few times, I was named chair of the subcommittee on the future of education. This was a mistake. I was 23. Fortunately there was stronger leadership throughout and with lots of guidance, our report turned out just fine. Along the way, I met a lot of other civic-minded people, who upon meeting someone fresh out of college, would typically ask: So what did you major in? The answer of “Futures Research!” either got a blank look or questions like “Could you talk to my Rotary Club about that?” I did probably about ten talks to such clubs when someone unexpectedly gave me a $40 honorarium. My career is the result of a hobby that got out of control.
  4. Since 1981, I’ve given over 1500 talks throughout North America and Europe. My largest audience was over 7000 with the The Critical Care Nurses Association, who gave me a rare standing ovation. You cannot buy drugs that feel that good. At the same event, I also learned about one of the lows of speaking. My talk ended just before lunch. Quite a few people came up to chat and say thanks, but by the time I had put all my slides and materials away – I was standing alone in a empty auditorium. I remembered thinking, “Not one of you wondered if I was free for lunch?” Speaking professionals have sometimes described it as one of the loneliest jobs on the planet, especially when you do a great job. People are often intimidated or assume that of course you already have plans. I soon learned to book a second night and always try to have dinner with the client before or after the event. Before the event you get better insights on the audience and create allies in that audience. The evening after we share stories and great wine. The dinners after were often the most memorable parts of the gigs because I had already had my say and now it was my turn to listen.
  5. The smallest audience was just three people, for Farmer’s Insurance. I was told to expect one hundred, but they might have exaggerated. Still, I got paid a lot more for that talk than for the nursing talk – and I got invited to lunch after the talk.
  6. My talks were often described by my agents as “light, but thought-provoking.”  I had thought that was a cool description but soon realized that a lot of speakers also described their talks as “thought-provoking,” but what they really meant was that they didn’t quite know how to describe their talks. Mine really were thought-provoking because I would hide philosophy inside the trends, often in the form of humor. My reasoning was that the future felt threatening to too many people, but anything they can laugh at isn’t quite as threatening. It’s a bit like the child pointing at the pompous future and saying, “But he doesn’t have any clothes on!” Helping people to see what the future for what it really was, not just fascinating forecasts of change, but also enough timeless traditions and ideas that people still had hope for some continuity and connection. That’s deep, so being able to laugh does indeed make it seem lighter and more approachable.
  7. The talks would always start with technology because that’s the obvious, heavily marketed driver in terms of future change. This would evolve into a fun discussion about the social and cultural implications of the technology. And, as the talk curved around toward the finish line, it got more personal. What would begin with such ideas as nanotechnology or how that tech could lead to factories returning closer to the points of consumption, would connect into the world of children, protecting their sense of wonder and even to the importance of grandparents. I have this photo showing my niece Rachel as an infant being held by her great-grandmother Myrtle, showing not only the vast distance in age, but also that there really was no distance, no separation. Rather than falling into the clutches of technology as the future, we also need to see the future as something we can hold in our arms. When holding an infant, we see that children really are the message we send to the future. What are we trying to say? What will be heard?
  8. In the last ten years of my speaking, the dominant theme became design. Design determines value and the better design, the more value. Learning to think a bit like designers and having some process by which we look at the ways the future is made but also that we consider the longer-term implications of what choices today might be down the line. This focus created a bit of a niche for me, and I’ve probably keynoted over 100 design conferences. For some reason, architecture always fascinated me, though never as a possible occupation as I don’t have those sorts of technical skills. But I do have an aesthetic sensibility to recognize good design and a bit of how it works. This eventually led to my being on the AIA-WI board of directors and from 2010-13 as a public director on the American Institute of Architects national board. While on the board, I had the particular honor to be a keynote speaker for AIAS (American Institute of Architecture Students) four years in a row, twice almost by accident as I filled in twice for speakers who missed their planes. (The last of those speeches from 2013 can be viewed elsewhere on this website.) My favorite story from those talks was in 2010, freshly on the AIA board and in the midst of a very enthusiastic and slightly rowdy audience, I got towards the end in which I extol the virtues of smoking and drinking– as metaphors for talking with strangers and breaking bread with them– but I set them up in the joke and of course, they’re very young adults and they’re roaring with laughter. And then I see that in an earlier skit that evening, someone had left a Smirnoff Ice on stage. I stopped, looked at the audience, looked over at the bottle, walked across the stage, popped the top and took a drink. This caused a screaming, laughing, cheering standing ovation. This eventually got back to the board of the AIA. In a series of emails between members of the board, I was told by one of the more serious members that despite the fun, I had to understand that I was represented the board and should comport myself thusly. Harumph! Thankfully, the AIAS executive director was in on the email stream and replied that it was perhaps not quite one would expect professionally…, but for the first time, the students of the AIAS actually think that the AIA might be cool. Over the years, I was a keynote speakers five times and was given a rare Presidential Citation by AIAS. That was cool. (You can see one of those talks here.)
  9. My interest in architecture has two origin stories. The first is that the house I grew up in was designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright (Edmund Howe) and my dad used to take me to the meetings with the architect. This did not result in my wanting to be an architect, it resulted in me being fascinated with architecture and how ideas can be made into real buildings.
  10. The second origin has to do with the design style of Art Deco and my fascination for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. In many ways, the future as we know it started at this fair. It was slowly dawning on the world that the future could be different from the past. From suburbs and freeways to home refrigerators and other time-saving appliances, many of the ideas we now take for granted began there on display. Running through it all was a sense of streamlined design and speed. We were going to make the future better than before. And, along the way, we realized that innovation brings its own problems. We didn’t realize that our philosophy mattered more than our plans, but failing at philosophy we just continue to plan. Sometimes we even come up with college degrees that are all about planning out the future.
  11. Since leaving the AIA board in 2013, I have lost a bit of my optimism about the future. Some of that came from getting older and being less enamored of constant change and part came from observing what got attention and praise from the AIA. While I was on the Golden Awards committee, they settled on an architect who does these concrete office monstrosities. The committee also considered another modernist architect and although I praised this person’s cleverness, I wondered out loud at its lack of beauty and if its facade which was already fading after only a couple of decades, would endure. This cause another rather prestigious committee member to bluntly explain how much I didn’t know about architects, architecture and probably even life itself. If you haven’t been lectured by an actual Lord of the Realm, your bucket list is not as cool as mine. I was struck by the elitism backed up by technology. As Churchill has said, “First we shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us.” Too often, the elites have spoiled the future for the rest of us.
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