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Respect difficult problems

They’re difficult because they resist simple solutions. Glib answers and over-simplication have been tried before, and failed.

People have tried all of the obvious solutions. They haven’t worked. That’s why we’ve resorted to calling them difficult problems.

Difficult problems require emotional labor, approaches that feel risky and methods that might not work. They reward patience, nuance and guts, and they will fight off brute force all day long.

“I didn’t do the reading…”

This is a brave and generous thing to say.

If you’re not able (or committed enough) to do the reading before you give your opinion, please have the guts to point that out.

“I didn’t read the proposal, but my bias is…”

We’re winging it. All of us. The world goes faster and faster, and so people are finding themselves unable to read the bill before they vote on it, listen to the entire album before they review it or keep up with the best in the field before they do their work.

That’s not always a good idea.

Winging it is a fine way to start a conversation or get back to first principles. If you’re clear about your background and your focus, you can add a lot of value without doing the reading.

But doing the reading matters. It’s the shortcut to being better at your craft. And it’s respectful to those you’re working with, the ones who cared enough to allocate the time.

But… if you’re not going to do the reading, at least let us know so we can process your input in a useful way instead of assuming that you’re doing the analysis wrong.

Where’s your Reckless Daughter?

Joni Mitchell was one of a kind. A sensation. A record-selling machine, with legions of fans.

And then she made Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. A personal, idiosyncratic album that marked the final gold record of her bestselling streak.

She knew exactly what she was doing. She knew that the crowd wasn’t going to follow her, just as Dylan knew what would happen when he went electric, then gospel.

She had a choice: to make the records her fans had decided in advance that they wanted to hear, or to make the music that she was proud of.

After this, she was free.

Free to make the music she heard in her head, the music she wanted to share.

In a post-Top 40 world, the irony is clear: your Reckless Daughter might very well be the breakthrough you need to reach your true audience and to do the work you’re most proud to do.

The challenge is in accepting that the masses might not cheer you on.

Topping off the tank

As the fossil fuel era comes to an end, gas station attendants (those few that remain, as well as the unpaid pumpers who are filling their own tanks) persist in topping off the tank.

After the automatic switch senses the tank is full, they add ten or twenty cents more gas, to reach a round number.


It’s not faster. It takes time to manually do this.

It’s not more profitable. The extra ten cents on a $40 tank is hardly worth the time.

It’s not more efficient. The number of miles before the next fill-up as a result is tiny.

It’s not even easier. Most people are paying with a credit card, so rounding up does no good.


It’s way more likely to damage the car (gas on the auto body) and hurt the health of the pumper (fumes).

So, why do it?

Three reasons:

  1. Tradition.
  2. Showing the boss and the customer that you’re working hard.
  3. The appearance of control.

It’s the third that’s the real lesson. Human beings trade enormous amounts of agency in exchange for convenience. But not too much agency. Too much agency makes us feel like automatons. Even (especially) when working with cars, those symbols of freedom and control.

What else are we busy topping off?

Everyone’s got their thing

Their own fears.

Their own narrative.

Their own drama.

You’re not the only one.

On any given day, your thing is smaller than their thing.

And when things aren’t going the way you expect, it’s worth focusing on that.

False limits

You will encounter real limits. You can’t turn yourself invisible, bench press 3,000 pounds or do a heart transplant with a steak knife.

But real limits are easy to identify. We rarely have a problem discovering them.

The false limits, the ones that others put on us, those can be a real problem. Even when the limiter means well–they’re often trying to save us from heartbreak or wasted effort–those limits can become a habit, not something useful.

I got a note from a teacher at York Community College yesterday. He wrote, “Encouraging anyone to become a Linchpin is seriously bad advice for an individual to pursue and for a company to allow….think these things through before you put them out there.”

I’m frustrated and saddened on behalf of the eager students in his class. The ones who are paying out of their pocket, taking time away from work and family, doing the work, pushing themselves to level up… and encountering a teacher who doesn’t believe it’s possible for them to make a difference.

Without a doubt, an industrialist can profit mightily by building jobs that can be done by interchangeable workers at the lowest possible skill and pay. But that doesn’t mean you need to sign up to be one of those interchangeable cogs.

And, without a doubt, there’s work to be done by organizations that simply do what they did yesterday, but perhaps a bit faster or cheaper. But that doesn’t mean that this has to be your work.

The goal of the Linchpin is to make things better by making better things. To dance on an edge, to see what’s possible, to create and contribute, to learn and to ship.

Does it always work? Nope. Hardly. But it’s the path of possibility. And if you’re trusting someone to teach you to make things happen, it helps if they believe it’s possible. That you’re capable of bringing your best self to a problem and doing the difficult work of solving it.

The future is defined by those that change the past. We need you to make a ruckus.

Where are the Linchpin jobs?

[We’re launching a new free project today. Read on for the details…]

Industry offered a deal to the worker:

Here’s a job. We’ll pay you as little as we can get away with while still being able to fill the job. We’ll make sure it’s easy to find people for this job, because we don’t want you to have much in the way of power or influence. We’ll use software to read the resumes, and we’ll do it in huge batches.

In return, you’ll work as little as you can get away with. That’s the only sane way to respond to the role of being a cog. If the system is going to squeeze you, no need to volunteer.

It’s hard to over-estimate the impact that this deal has had. The whole idea of mass advertising for mass jobs. The compliance-based school and resume system. The apparent power of the big companies to dictate the culture of work…

But, over time, the economy has changed. Now, the most cog-like jobs are done by machines. Now, cog-like work doesn’t create nearly as much value as truly human work. Now, if the opportunity is right, the pay is fair and the cause is a good one, it’s possible to create a culture where people choose to contribute as much as they can, not as little as they can.

This requires a shift.

Two shifts, actually.

The first shift is for the employer. It means not only paying more compensation to capture the attention and focus of the people who are willing and able to do Linchpin work, it also means investing in a culture that supports that sort of work. Compliance isn’t as important as contribution. But it’s frightening, because turnover costs more when you’re dependent on people who bring special magic to work.

The second shift is on the employee. It means caring enough to walk away from a cog job. It means being brave enough to make assertions and to lead. It means telling the truth about your background and your future. And it means keeping your end of the bargain, even when the work feels scary.

Here’s our experiment:

A weekly email newsletter with one or two jobs a week in it. That’s all.

Even if you’re not looking for a Linchpin job, you probably have peers who are. After all, that’s the sort of person you are–you know how to spread good ideas. So feel free to forward the email to people when you think it might be a good fit.

When we started working on this project, we reached out to a few possible employers to get us started. We specified that it had to be a special job for a special kind of work, and we insisted that the employer make a personal video, one that described what the job entailed.

I knew we were on to something when one said, “oh, it’s not worth the effort, we just posted the job on a job board and got five people who were good enough.”

That’s precisely the jobs we don’t want to post.

If you’re interested in checking out our first job and signing up for the newsletter, here’s the link.

We’ll never sell you anything or rent or share your information. The newsletter is sponsored by the altMBA. Over time, we hope that our subscribers will also be our best source for the jobs we list.

Inspired by my book Linchpin.

Perfect processes

The first 250 copies of my new book were shipped to bookstores with some of the pages upside down.

How does this happen? It’s a 500-year-old technology… What does it mean to do work in a shop where your clients are pitched on perfect and you are expected to provide it?

Some thoughts to consider:

  1. If you traffic in perfect, it pays to turn your perfect into a system, not simply wing it. In the last fifty years, thanks to Deming and Crosby and others, we’ve gotten significantly better at creating perfect outputs that don’t rely on heroism and luck. Design a better system, you’ll get better outputs.
  2. If those you compete against also promise perfect, perfect is no longer sufficient. That’s one reason why it’s so difficult to be a book printer. Since perfect = all the same, then why not buy the cheapest version of perfect?
  3. I’m grateful every day for the nearly invisible perfect things that I count on. My car starts every single time. The water in my tap doesn’t make me sick, ever. The thing in the jar is the same thing that was in the jar the last time I bought it… but, and I feel spoiled to say this, I take the perfect for granted. I’m way more interested, and spend far more time and money on the imperfect things, the things that might not work, the ideas and services and products that dance around the edges. If you’re going to offer something that’s imperfect, by all means, make it as good as you possibly can, but embrace the fact that you’re not selling perfect. You’re selling interesting. You’re selling possibility. You’re selling connection.

PS if you got one of the 250 books, my publisher is delighted to replace it and include a bonus. Or you could sell it on eBay, who knows, maybe it’s a collectible.

Seeing what’s right in front you

When the people we serve present themselves, when they offer us their attention and their trust, we need to work to see two things:

  1. Who they are. What do they fear, what do they believe, what do they need?
  2. Who they can become. Which doors can we open, how can we support them, what will they leave behind?

Situational spending


You’re on the plane, headed home after a conference. The flight attendant says, “This flight is oversold, and we’re paying people $300 to take the flight that leaves in an hour.” Do you stay in your seat?

You’re at the gate, different city, different flight. The gate agent says, “for $300 more, I can put you on a flight that leaves an hour earlier.” Do you pay the money?

You’re at the car dealer, about to buy a $50,000 car. The salesperson asks if you want the $300 rustproofing. Do you buy it?

What’s the difference between a bank that pays you just a little bit less interest (costing you $300 a year in lost income) and one that slaps on a $300 charge because you didn’t check a box on a form?

Money is a story.

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