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Very good at a simple game

Outsized rewards go to people who figure out how to master a skill or a point of view, and then commit to doing it again and again.

This insight helps us with two things:

  • if you want a certain kind of success, it will require obsession plus the good luck to find the right thing to obsess about.
  • be careful not to confuse being very good at a simple game with character or wisdom or good judgment. They might go together, but they don’t always.

The pyramid of modern marketing

In most pyramids, the top gets all the attention, but it’s the foundation that truly matters. Marketing is no exception.

The base of the pyramid, the most important layer, is INTENTION.

What change are you seeking to make? Does the team have clarity, measurements and resources to prioritize this?

Intention comes with design thinking. Who’s it for and what’s it for? Have you identified the smallest viable audience and built a product and created and designed a service infrastructure around it that works beautifully for this audience?

Your story is intricately linked with your intention. If you don’t know who it’s for and what it’s for, the story can’t resonate.

A story doesn’t work when it’s your story. It works when it becomes their story.

Then comes RETENTION. Because existing customers are worth far more than new ones. If you are constantly losing the folks you worked so hard to attract, you’ll have to work even harder to find people to replace the ones who just left.

And then comes REMARKABILITY. The conversations that happen as the result of your work. The network effect is the most powerful force for growth that most organizations ever encounter, but people aren’t going to talk about your work unless they believe it will help their goals to do so.

If you’re fortunate and focused, retention and remarkability will earn you PERMISSION. The privilege of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to the people who want to get them. This is the asset of the future, because building and maintaining teams to spam the world is exhausting.

And then, only then, do you have the ability to focus on tactics, words and images. What’s the narrative that engages with people eager to join you on this journey? Where is their status? What sort of affiliation do they seek?

Finally, in tiny print, hardly worth mentioning, are hype and hustle and the rest. Ignore them if you can. By volume, by priority, by effectiveness, this is nearly worthless noise, despite the fact that it gets so much attention from pundits who have rarely successfully marketed much of anything.

Perhaps it’s worth throwing it out today

If you’re considering putting an unmarked key into a drawer filled with keys, you’re better off simply throwing it out instead.

Not only won’t you be able to find that unmarked key when you need it, but you’ve just made it more difficult to sort the other keys as well.

We hesitate to embrace or announce failure right now, preferring to put it off to some indeterminate date in the future. But postponing the announcement isn’t the same as not failing. It simply makes things worse later. And being clear about the failure we’re about to cause someday makes it more likely we’ll do the work to avoid it.

If you don’t have time to do it right, you’re unlikely to have time to do it over.

No sense wasting tomorrow as well.


This is an absolutely terrible acronym for a really important idea.

Use Your Best Judgment.

Don’t wait for someone else to take responsibility. Don’t wait for perfect. Don’t wait to find this exact situation in the manual or in history.

Use your best judgment.

My preferred abbreviation is: Go go go.

Not with a guarantee.

Not with someone to blame.

Simply because we need you to lead us.

Do you feel rich?

It’s not the same as being rich.

Rich is always relative. Compared to your great-grandparents, we’re impossibly, supernaturally rich. We have access to information and technology that was unimagined a century ago. At the same time, compared to someone ten miles away or ten years in the future, we’re way behind.

Two people with precisely the same resources and options might answer the question of ‘rich’ completely differently. Because money is a story.

The neighborhood or industry or peer group you choose has a lot to do with whether you’re relatively rich or not.

After a stock market adjustment, billionaires give less to charity. They still have more money than they can count, but they’re not as rich as they used to be, and not-as-rich is easy to interpret as not rich.

Which means that for many people, feeling rich is a choice.

If that choice encourages us to be imperious, selfish and a bully, it’s probably best to avoid it.

On the other hand, if choosing to see our choices, chances and privileges as a path toward generosity, long-term thinking and connection, then we can do it right now.

Customer service is free

Most large organizations would disagree.

They hire cheap labor to answer the phone. They install recordings to mollify people who are on hold for hours. They measure the cost of the call center and put loopholes in the warranty.

When you see customer service as a cost center, all of these steps make sense. Any money spent lowering costs seems to raise profits.

But customer service is actually a profit center, for four reasons:

First, because the customer who calls you or shows up at the adjustments window is fully enrolled. Unlike just about every other moment you’ve had with them, in this moment, they are paying attention, leaning into the situation and on high alert. Everything you do here, unlike just about every other marketing interaction you have, will go on your permanent record.

Second, because your competitors have foolishly decided to treat this interaction as a cost, the chances that you can dramatically overdeliver are pretty good. You can’t make a car that’s ten times better, but you can easily produce customer service for your car customers that’s ten times better than what most manufacturers deliver.

And third, because in our industrialized economy, people love to tell stories about service. And so the word spreads (or doesn’t) based on what you’re about to do.

Finally, it’s been demonstrated again and again that the most valuable customers are the loyal ones. While your promotional team is out there making noise to get you new customers, you’d be much better off turning your existing customers into repeat customers and ambassadors.

And so, the money you spend on customer service isn’t simply free. It actually repays you many times over.

Chief Apology Officer

Companies are discovering that hiring people to mollify critics and disappointed customers is cheaper (in the short run) than changing things, learning from the feedback or even wasting the time of people who do the ‘real work.’

The CAO doesn’t participate in tactical or strategic discussions, and probably can’t explain the dynamics that led to a given policy, or why it’s difficult to change. That’s not their job.

Their job is to make the customer or critic feel heard enough that they’ll accept the status quo without further fuss.

This is the tech support person who’s not allowed to acknowledge that the software has a bug, or the gate agent who is unable to report to the home office that the scheduling system is causing real problems for loyal customers.

In addition to eating away at the mollifier’s well-being, the work of the Chief Apology Officer is also ultimately doomed. By insulating the industrial system from the feedback loop that would improve it, these organizations doom themselves to a slow fade.

“Do you have any influence on how the organization is going to respond to this?” is a fair question. And the CAO can only honestly answer, “no.”

It’s a tough gig.

The lifeguard hack

Who am I to walk up to someone at a party and introduce myself?

Who are you to start a new project?

Who are they to give a talk on the main stage?

Don’t raise your hand–someone else might have a better question. Don’t ship that work, it’s not ready…

There are endless excuses, comparisons and reasons to hold back.


Unless you’re on lifeguard duty and someone is drowning. In that situation, even if you’re not the best lifeguard in the world, and even if the water isn’t the perfect temperature, and even if you don’t quite remember how to do the latest version of the cross-chest carry… you jump in the water.

Because it’s not for you. It’s for them.

Generosity unlocks doors inside of us.

The oracle

Resistance often shows up insisting that it can predict the future.

The voice in our head, the one that knows everything, also knows that you will be rejected, that the work will be misunderstood, that you’ll end up shamed.

Not just the voice, but the circle around us can do this as well if we choose to listen. Wearing the hat of the ardent supporter, they will try to protect you by predicting the demise of that next thing you were pinning your hopes on.

And it’s easy (and tempting) to give them credit for soothsaying because they know so many other things. They (“we” if we count the voice) know all about the failures and disappointments of the past. They know all about the hard work and all about how others have stumbled. And so, of course, they must also know about the future.

A lesson from a koan is really valuable here. Voices that purport to know the future–whether they are psychics, astrologers, family or the noise in our head–are pretty effective when it’s vague enough, but terrible when it comes to specifics. That’s because when it’s vague, we complete the story on our own, creating our own fact patterns after things happen.

The simple question to ask the oracle is: I have a handful of beans. How many are there?

As much as we might want an oracle, there aren’t any. What we need, it turns out, are supporters who trust us and have our back.

A Scrabble hack

It’s definitely a regular pastime of mine, and one of my favorite games. I usually play solo with the Word Master app.

The structure of the game rewards knowledge of really short words like qi and aa, but the exciting part happens when you find a seven-letter word…

The hack that would work if you’re playing in real life, with other people and actual tiles: On every turn, each player is allowed to turn one of the letters in their rack over and treat it as a blank, which could be any letter of the alphabet.

Suddenly, possibilities multiply! The number of 7 letter bingo words explodes. Instead of wrestling with 7 dependent variables, you have 6 and a wildcard.

The metaphor, as you’ve already guessed, is that every day we may have a chance to turn over one of our ‘letters’ and make it into something else, if we are brave enough.