Saturday, August 8, 2009

The power of a lever

Some dictionary definitions really say it all, giving you exactly the inspiration you need in an official quote to take on the world. Others may leave you a bit disappointed, like this one, from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, New College Edition, copyright 1978 (that happens to be the one on my shelf):

"Lever, n. 1. a simple machine consisting of a rigid body, typically a metal bar, pivoted on a fixed fulcrum. 2. a projecting handle used to adjust or operate a mechanism. 3. a means of accomplishment."

Why did they stop with #3? I get the importance of the concreteness of the first two definitions - if I see the physical lever, I have a better understanding of how it might work. But it's the third one that really interests me. To be fair to American Heritage, there is a neat little diagram in the margin, too, that shows how the weights and forces work in three types of levers. And, I will admit, the definition a few words down for leverage gets closer to what I'm looking for: "Positional advantage; power to act effectively." And, I guess I have to also admit that the primary mission of the dictionary is probably not to provide catchy quotes for a consultant's blog. Granted, all of the above. But let's get to the point.

The power of a lever starts with this concept of "positional advantage." Very concretely, where you place the lever does determine its effectiveness. That's true.

I'd also like to suggest that in today's all-at-once, everywhere, global-everything society, that advantage has been de-coupled from physical position. In other words, you can get the power of a lever, or at least, power analogous to the way a lever works ("leverage") in lots of different ways. Physical position is only one of them.

As soon as you can conceive of a "position" that is not physical, you can take this discussion of leverage in lots of different directions. Without even checking the Oxford English Dictionary, we can guess that the use of position as a verb might have started at least by the first quarter of the last century, when sports of all types became livelihoods, and people were hired to position the players (among other things). In marketing, for example (one of the fields in which I have some work experience), position became a metaphor a couple of decades ago, thanks to Al Ries and Jack Trout. And a discussion of leverage in business can easily become a seminar series.

But I'm calling this blog "non-random," so I probably ought to stick to the point. The purpose of this oddly named blog is to explore mental leverage; specifically, what it might mean to leverage the built-in power of the human brain. That's where we're headed (pun intended).

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