"Mrs. Blumenthal, it's been awhile since we've seen you," the dentist said.
I shifted uncomfortably in the comfortable leather seat.
"Uh, you've never seen me."
"You've seen Mr. Blumenthal," I said. "You've seen my kids. You've never seen me."
The dentist consulted his chart.
"You're right, Mrs. Blumenthal. We've never seen you."
I cringed. Here it comes.
"Why not? When was the last time you had a cleaning?"
Here comes the confession. Boom!
"I - I think it was - maybe a year ago?"
("You haven't been to the dentist in a year and a half!" my husband said later that evening. "And now it's going to cost us two thousand dollars!")
"Well why haven't you been?" asked the dentist.
He sounded genuinely puzzled.
"Ah - ah - more water, please." I rinsed and spat, embarrassed and buying time.
"I was thinking that if I stayed away from the dentist, then I wouldn't have a cavity."
Had I been able to, I'd have hung my face in shame.
"Let me guess, you don't floss either," the dentist said.
Silence in the small exam room. Complete silence.
"Get me the anesthesia," the dentist said. "She's gonna need a double."
* * *
I've known for years that I need to floss. But frankly it's inconvenient, a little time-consuming, and there's always the bad taste of blood at the end of it.
I don't like the reminder of decay, of death. Of the fact that the graveyard is inevitable.
So instead I brushed my teeth, faithfully.
The toothpaste smells good. The scrubbing-things-clean feels reassuring. And it's the very last thing I do before leaving home in the morning, so it makes me feel accomplished and complete.
* * *
All of this points to the #1 fallacy of our collective thinking. A fallacy that costs us not just money, but misery and even lives.
We get all excited about launching things, a.k.a. "new beginnings." We love to architect, design, tinker. What could be sexier than a year of not shaving, not eating, working round the clock in the garage?
We get our knickers in a twist about the finish line, too. We plan the kickoff, the launch party, the ribbon-cutting, the ceremony: We love to "close the deal."
But we frankly ignore the middle. That unexciting middle. That arid stretch of desert, of plain old work, that nobody really celebrates. That is fraught with lack of motivation, failure, and missteps. That requires building and rebuilding and seemingly invisible maintenance once it's done.
We walk away from infrastructure, and so we build things that cannot stand.
* * *
My daughter is now choosing her college major. There is so much there to choose from; it seems quite overwhelming, in fact; the world before her so open, so full of stuff, so seemingly free.
As we all know a parent cannot tell a teenager anything. But if I could tell her something I would tell her this: No matter what you study, make it your business to gain the technical skills necessary to help a business build its infrastructure.
I read a lot of books in school and wrote critical analyses out the wazoo. And don't get me wrong: all of it has come in handy.
But money is scarce, nowadays. And the skills that are needed have to do with infrastructure. Making things and making them work, behind the scenes, so that the show can go on.
* * *
Why most businesses fail? It's easy: They neglect their brands, they don't know how to build a brand, because branding is essentially infrastructure.
It is not the logo you've so carefully picked out, the color palette that so vividly depicts your corporate identity, not the "messaging" you repeat like a robot again and again.
Your brand is built in all those day-to-day, mostly hidden and hard-to-encapsulate ways that can broadly be described as "infrastructure." How you talk to your staff, how you answer the phone, how you track your projects and how you preserve your institutional knowledge. How you manage risk and how you prepare your enterprise for the future.
Maybe you thought this was boring, interchangeable, outsource-a-ble and the real work has to do with creativity, or "implementation."
If you've failed to understand the value chain, then you're right.
* * *
I'm building a brand right now. It is infrastructure. The brand itself is infrastructure, and the work I do is infrastructure too.
We're working in a very B2B space, which has been loosely defined as "advanced manufacturing." What you need to know, if you're not involved directly, is that it's the science of "making smart things in smarter ways."
Advanced manufacturing isn't a basic invention like the lightbulb. It's not a product you'll buy at the hardware store. It is an enormous, encompassing series of processes that enable you to take an invention you've already prototyped, and scale up its production rapidly and efficiently, so that your company can sell it worldwide.
In the United States, we have neglected our manufacturing infrastructure, woefully so. Unless you're in that sector and recognize that there is a crisis, and that it's hot, you don't really know about this; it's a nearly invisible deterioration. The subject brings up assorted headaches; it's had about as much glamour to the ordinary person as flossing.
But the important thing to know is that manufacturing's got teeth, quite literally. It's the primary building block of our economy. It enables us to take the things we invent and make them usable and sell-able, not just to a few people but to millions of them, billions of them, here at home and around the world. And not only that, but there are things you create when you develop infrastructure that themselves can become the primary inventions of the future.
Other countries know this and they plough money into manufacturing R&D. And over time, their investment has left us at a disadvantage.
* * *
On my way out of the dentist's office I admitted that I hated flossing. "Is there anything else I can use?" I said, my eyes imploring the hygienist to give me some alternative that wouldn't be as unpleasant.
"It's called a dental irrigator," she said. "They invented it about a thousand years ago." And she shoved one in my hand.
Wouldn't you know it? The thing was invented right here in the U.S., more than 50 years ago, by a hydraulic engineer and a dentist.
A little bit of American infrastructure, made perfectly for my mouth.
I use it every day now - and it's great.
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. There is a mention of my professional position in this post, and my understanding of the work that I do is consistent with the outreach I conduct on behalf of the federal government as part of my position. However, my communication here is personal in nature, does not represent a commentary on the management, policies, or budget of my agency or the federal government, and does not represent any attempt to conduct outreach on the government's behalf. Photo credit: 2-Dog-Farm via Flickr (Creative Commons License)