Obvious Adams — Quotidian — 386

(Transcript of video originally posted on 13th April 2022)

There was this secure industrial estate. At the entrance to that estate, there was this security guard and for nearly twenty years, every Friday, there will be this man who takes a wheelbarrow filled with something. It is hay. And, hay is allowed to be taken outside. Hay. But, the security guard smelt a rat.. This guy looked sneaky and seemed to be cheating, stealing something hidden inside the hay. For many years, he used laser beams and scanners on the wheelbarrows, he conducted a lie-detector test on the guy, but he was never able to find out what he was stealing in those wheelbarrows. Guess what happened when this guy retired?!


386th episode. And, we are talking about something we have touched upon earlier too. The obviousness of some solutions. Velippadai Vimala. Or, Obvious Adams.

See, THIS was the Declaration of Independence. In 1776, the American Declaration, the key passage starts like this. We hold these truths to be self-evident. That is how it starts. It is self-evident. It goes without saying. It is obvious for anybody with basic common sense.

That phrase — self-evident. I don’t even need to spell it out. It is THAT obvious. But then, why are they putting it up in the Declaration of Independence? Sometimes, the most obvious, the most self-evident things, need to be probably laid out.

This man is Friedrich Gauss. This famous mathematician, even at a very young age, showed a lot of aptitude for mathematics! There is even this apocryphal story about him. The math teacher, as she was busy, as the kids were making too much noise in class, wanting to keep them all engaged, she plans to give them a hard a problem, hoping to keep them busy with calculations for a long period, hoping to do her work during that time. This math teacher gives them a summation problem.

She says — Total the numbers one to hundred. And give me the answer. Less than 30 seconds later, Friedrich comes in and says, “Ma’am, I have finished solving the problem”. “Whaaat”, she exclaims, “Already?”. The teacher is shocked. And, that’s when the OBVIOUS answer comes out from Gauss. What’s the OBVIOUS answer?

Well, Gauss says, “See, I looked at the first and the last. I looked at the second and the second to last. I looked at the third… and so on…! I realised each of them summed up to 101. There were fifty such. And, that’s how I calculated my sum!” And that’s how Gauss shocks the maths teacher. The obvious sometimes stares you in the face.

Virender Sehwag, we know him, the swashbuckling mad genius that he was, in 2017, he was applying for a coach role for the Indian cricket team. Somebody seems to have encouraged him, and it seems he sent two sentences. Just two. I have played for the Indian team. And, I know these boys very well. Just two sentences. He didn’t get selected. And, we are not sure whether that was good or bad for the team, in retrospect! But, two sentences. Stating the obvious.

In Twitter, many people took this viral, and gave some mock responses too. One tweet said, “See ball. Hit ball.” That was his philosophy all along. No respect to the bowler. And, no respect to his own score. The number of centuries that he scored moving from 95 to 101 by smashing a sixer is the story of legend.

Another tweet said, “309. 319.” It is a reference to something that even Sachin couldn’t reach. Two triple centuries in Test matches. Stating the obvious.

This is what I want to talk to you about today. I recently encountered a book titled “Obvious Adams”. It came out during the First World War. A book from 1916. Robert Updegraff is the author. Nice name, don’t you think? If you read him, you will go “up de graph”! It is touted to be the most important marketing book that you haven’t heard of. The best marketing book that you haven’t heard of! Well, wanting to know what on earth such a book contained, I dove in. It is a 65-page book. That’s all. You can finish reading it in probably 25–30 minutes. But, it is about the obvious. And, it is about how hard it is to approach it in the obvious manner. Too often, we make things too hard. We get too cute. We try too much. And we forget… that the approach is basically, identify the essential, state it very clearly, as clearly as possible, and execute it in as straightforward a manner as possible. “Just doing that is enough” is the essence of this book!

It is about a guy, Mr. Adams. He gets the name “Obvious Adams” later. And, Mr. Adams actually sees a very famous advertising agency, sees their output, and falls in love with it. And he decides, this should be my career path. What does he do next? He walks straight to that company. To its headquarters. Meets the person at the frontdesk. And says, “I am here to meet Mr. Oswald”. “Okay, but he is a very busy man.. I don’t know if you have an appointment”, she says. “Well, I will wait till 10:35 AM”, says Adams. He has COME for the interview, and he is declaring how long he would wait… But that was the obvious thing. Because he had something else to do that day, he stated the obvious! Intrigued by this, Mr. Oswald, realises that there is somebody unique and interesting and invites this guy into the room. And, Oswald wants to know what’s up and that guy says:- “I am enamoured by your amazing quality of output. I want to be in this field. I want to work with you. Failing which, I might compete with you.” A kid. Born just yesterday. Declares “Take me into your company, or I might end up a competitor, because I am sold on the idea of advertising, and I would be doing that for my life. So, take me, or… fight me!” Seeing that this boy is unique and unusual, he recruits him.

The second lesson that we learn in the life of Obvious Adams is.. this boy is not immediately given the role of a Creative Director. He is asked to work in the Mail Room. Clean stuff. Move papers. He DOES that. And he comes up with approaches where one could save half an hour if something were optimised. Approaches where one could reduce errors if something were done differently. New and innovative solutions. And then, one day, during a coffee break, he meets Mr. Oswald and says: “Actually you can recruit a girl for half my salary, and she can do the work that I am doing. I think I am capable of doing much more”. He greets the boss with this claim. Up for a challenge, Oswald takes it up, and gives him a better role. But again, the best advertising campaigns don’t come to Mr. Adams. What does Adams do? He does those campaigns in parallel. Even after knowing that there is no chance for Oswald to see the work he is doing in parallel, for the sheer experience, for the exposure, he creates similar, parallel, advertising campaigns, that nobody gets to see. Until, one day, when Oswald comes to Adams’ room for something else, he sees these scratched up notes lying on the table casually. And he sees some gold nuggets there. He takes them up and realises that these are probably better than the campaigns that he has been running. So, the lesson here? Do your work! Today, the trend seems to be automation, optimisation, outsourcing… people are looking to replace people with processes! Just doing what you are asked to do, just being obedient and prompt is not enough! Go the extra mile! Remember the phrase people use in the workplace? “He is such a gem!” — What do you think that gem refers to? G E M. Go the Extra Mile! Did you get it??

The third thing in the Obvious Adams book, in the history, in the story of Obvious Adams, is the way he understands the audience. He goes to a paper mill. He learns how bondpaper is manufactured there. And he writes his copy for the ad. We use the purest of waters. We roll it in the cleanest of environments. The paper we use for it comes from the best of trees. And so on. The paper-mill owner starts laughing. Do you think we called you for this sort of nonsense? Go to any paper mill and you will learn that is how we do it. Every bondpaper is prepared like that. To which, Obvious Adams asks him a question:- Hey, are you selling paper to papermakers or paperusers?? I have been a paperuser for 25 years now. Until I visited your mill today, I didn’t know that this was the process. And I am sure that that is the story with everybody out there! So, do the obvious! And make it synonymous with your brand. And that is how you build a competitive advantage from the others who come and catch up later. So, that is how he promotes the papermill brand and that becomes very famous. We have seen too many campaigns that seem to say the same thing, the thing that everybody else says anyway. But, that stating of the obvious, that repetition a thousand times so the people finally get it? The credit goes to the person who manages to do that!

And finally, he says, Thinking is the hardest thing we all do. The brain is lazy! People need to be reminded much more often than they need to be instructed. Saying things ONCE is NOT enough!

For example, your brain is so lazy that it didn’t read all those Yous.

Not just that! Your brain is SO lazy that it didn’t notice that one of those Yous was a Yoo! Try looking for it!

So, having been cursed with a lazy brain like that, the reality of the matter is.. Everything that needed to be said, has already been said. Yes. But, not everybody was listening, and so, it deserves to be said again!!

I saw a book recently — Psychology of Money — is the title. We will talk a lot about it in future episodes. Morgan Housell is the name of the author. He brings up a beautiful reference from Napoleon. Regarding war strategy. Which Morgan says, is so relevant even in the world of investing. What is that? He says, “Investing genius is all about doing the AVERAGE thing when all those around are going crazy!” It is not about doing special and amazing things! Do the average thing! Do the most obvious thing. Too many people are missing it out. Too many people are getting too cute, overthinking.

Remember that story? What WAS he stealing after all? Finally, on the day of his retirement, he confronts the guy and asks, “I can’t arrest you now. You are retiring. I am retiring soon too. You surely were stealing something, weren’t you?” To which that guy is supposed to have responded with, “I was stealing wheelbarrows!” Isn’t it obvious now?!

We will meet again on the fifteenth. Thank you!



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