Always Be An Early Adopter

by Lauren McCabe on October 25, 2012

Tasmania beach

This is one of the first digital photographs I ever took: a desserted beach in Tasmania, Australia.

This is how I grew up: long summers inside reading books. In New Orleans, it is too hot to be outside in the summer. Heat covers you like a second skin. The weight of the humid air is too much; you feel as if you are carrying the burden of the sun and sky and river on your shoulders. Lucky people head to the mountains in North Carolina. I sat in the AC, reading.

I am certain that the first step in becoming a great writer is to be an even greater reader. You must read voraciously as if you cannot get your hands on enough prose. You read books and magazines and the backs of cereal boxes in the morning. You read street signs and billboards and the wild-eyed prose of fundamentalist pamphlets. Words seep into you slowly, imperceptibly, until the cadence of great writing trickles into your pen.

The art of writing is not an art, but a steady march of reading over time.

Here’s something unexpected that came from reading a lot: I began to love old things. I read so many works from the great, old literary cannon of the west: Plato, Descartes, Machiavelli, DH Lawrence, Virgil, Homer, literature from writers dead and gone. I equated musings from another century with greatness. Nostalgia welled inside me for cobbled streets and gas lanterns, horse and buggies and voyages by boat across oceans. In college, I wielded a fluffy feathered quill when taking notes in class.

Old became beautiful, and new? New was something I was unfamiliar with. I read no modern authors in college. I played no jazz on the piano. I took no digital photography classes, darkroom only.

This followed me from my studies in school to my everyday life. Facebook came out my freshmen year of college; my school was the third academic institution to get it. I dragged my heels signing up. My friend Nick rolled his eyes at me. I rolled my eyes at him: I thought Facebook was the demise of intimate connection.

I didn’t sign up until every single person at Columbia was already on Facebook – and in the scheme of early adopter, early majority, late majority, I was the laggard.

This happened with photography. I took darkroom classes in college, refused to dabble in digital. In fact, my school only had darkroom classes; when I went to study abroad in Tasmania, I fought the administration tooth and nail to let me take an advanced color darkroom class, but they refused. So I went digital. And my digital teacher secretly told me that it was the better choice: this was where everything was going.

Columbia University Butler Library

To this day, I still love darkrooms. This is one of my favorite shots. This is Hannah, my friend, strutting through Columbia's lofty Butler Library.

It wasn’t until I started doing business that I realized how fundamentally important it is to be an early adopter. How getting to the game first can be just as important as getting there at all.

I worked for the radio station at my college. But this was no normal college radio station broadcasting to a sleepy-eyed campus; because Columbia was stationed in the heart of New York City, our broadcast range was in the millions – reaching all the way into Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

In fact, when I started as Publicity Director there, we had just regained our12-million listeners. We were off-air for almost five years after the September 11th attacks destroyed our antenna atop the world trade center.

So my first task? Let the world know we were back on air. With zero budget.

I started sending out press releases. PS: A twenty year old sending out press releases with no prior media relationships is like high-fiving a brick wall.

Then I took to online forums.

This was pre-social revolution: Facebook was only open to a handful of Ivy League schools. Twitter didn’t exist. MySpace was still where it was at.

I sought out music forums, jazz forums, anything related to eclectic music. I posted our press release there, with a heads up that we were back on air.

Then something amazing happened: conversation started. People talked. And they didn’t talk to us; they talked to each other about us. They spilled their excitement that we were back, and their angst because they thought we would never return. They told our rich history as one of the oldest FM radio stations in the world, and the iconic jazz programming that was a cornerstone of everything we stood for.

They were doing my job for me.

Something in my head did a 180.

This was the future: the intersection between people and technology.

I looked around me and suddenly I realized that in order to succeed, I had to look forward. Get ahead. That adopting first, early on, was what would make me successful, not lingering in the past.

This was so different to what I was used to doing, to looking at history and events from a safe distance away and analyzing what could have been. Now, I had to forecast what could be, and make that happen.

I look back at my education and it takes my breath away to think of how steeped in the past we all were. How trained we were to reach back millennia for pressing, everlasting truths, but ancient truths all the same.

Reading all of those old authors and histories was like turning an old stone in my hands over and over again: they all become smoothed and different with the weight of hundreds of years of interpretation, but the same, gray weight all the same.

There is a school of thought that purports to understand NOW, you must first comprehend everything that came before. That NOW has context, and this context is just as important as the present moment itself. 

But when do you say the past is the past, and exists primarily to support the future?

I wonder what it’s like to be trained to look forward, instead of back. To anticipate what happens next, instead of to analyze why something happened long ago.

I think of this at work, of the leaders I have known to be great.

They are the people that can rise out of the muck of here and now and look to tomorrow. Where are we going to be next month? Next year? In ten years?

And even better, the leaders that say to those around them, where will you be in five years? Because we are also seeing that the greatest leaders know that it’s never, ever about them, and always and forever about others – the people around them. A single brilliant person is just one person. A person that can bring the brilliance out of 20 people now has formed a brilliant organization.

This is the single greatest mental adjustment I have made in my adult life: looking to where everything is going next and striving to be at the edge of that.

So this is what I try to do every single day: Peer long and far and deep and wide and begin forecasting the future. It’s hard. It’s easy to slip back into monitoring today and wishing we had been at the edge of things yesterday.

But once you have a vision for how things will unravel, you also have the power to mold the future to become just that. And so, maybe early adoption isn’t adoption at all, but blazing the trial for others to adopt.


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