A newsletter on audience research and development for cultural leaders. One reader calls it, "sometimes funny"

You might know David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech, “This is Water.” He begins this way:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

This morning, I’m going to swim by your inbox and ask, “How’s the demographics?"

And maybe you’ll be like, “What the hell is he talking about?”

And then I’ll ask, “How is it working for you — defining people in terms of demographics? You know, demographics rarely influence people’s goals or purposes.”

And maybe then you’ll think, “Huh? How could a person’s age, income, ethnicity, or gender not define their goals and purposes?”

Let me see if I can show you the water.

We’re not chasing problems in the problem space

Today’s letter is the conclusion of an accidental series that started last week. A reader wrote in to share some challenging questions, and they kindly agreed to let me share their comments with you and respond here. The reader writes:

The amount of money in my bank account definitely influences the size and shape of my world, the options I feel are open to me, the exposure I’ve had to new and exciting possibilities. [It] definitely shapes every aspect of my problem-space, as you put it. Rich people have fewer problems, frankly, with cash as the universal solvent.

I want to explore income as a factor that may influence people’s goals and purposes. But first I want to point you to last week’s letter where I tried to clarify that problem-space research isn’t really about uncovering people’s problems — The problem space is more like a “solution-free space”.

The ancient pyramids

Where does Maslow fit in your fundamental goals? If my kids are starving I’m not likely considering visiting a museum to advance my goal of being a successful artist. Not any time soon anyway.

Maslow’s hierarchy is a lot like donor or engagement pyramids. It’s tempting to think people follow some linear path or need to access level x before they can move on to level y. In reality, plenty of people may be motivated to achieve a degree of self-actualization while they’re still struggling to satisfy safety-related needs like employment — just as there are people who will make a donation without becoming members or engaged visitors. (Worth reading: What Maslow’s Hierarchy Won’t Tell You About Motivation)

People with less income may face limitations, but those limitations rarely impact motivations or purposes (life goals).

If someone can’t feed their children, they may not be enrolled in an expensive art school, but that doesn’t mean they may not want to become a successful artist.

Many of us are unable to safely leave our houses right now. Has that limitation or need for safety made us forget our life goals or purposes?


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I’m trying to draw a distinction between limitations and goals. I think when we define people in terms of demographics, we often forget this distinction — We see limitations and divisions rather than possibilities and shared purposes.

Initially, I had a different subject line for this letter that read, “Poor people still have dreams and goals”. I thought I might be provocative and use a line like that to challenge the idea that we are defined by our income, but I couldn’t go through with it. It’s unsettling to suggest that people with less money don’t have life goals or don’t strive for the same purposes that wealthy people want for themselves — But I think that’s where demographics can lead us if we keep swimming in those waters.

Old ideas under new lights

I like the idea of the problem-space and I think innovative visitor experiences arise from finding ways into that space and inspiring ways out of it. I find the idea of progress to be a natural one…

So yes to all of this. I guess I’m trying to figure out where you’re proposing new ideas, and where you’re proposing new names for old ideas.

None of these ideas are new — I don’t even feel like they’re mine. I’m just taking other people’s ideas — Alan Klement, Indi Young, Alan Cooper — and seeing how they work inside museums.

Outside of the walls of the museum, the idea that it’s detrimental to define people in terms of demographics is just the water everyone swims in.

Kyle

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