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The simple market

If you want something that makes your life better, you can buy it.

If you want to get the money to buy something, you can make something or do something that makes someone’s life better.

It stops being simple when externalities, market failures and greed show up.

Copy design

Copywriting turns words into action.

But which words? And which action?

Often, copywriters take a strategy for granted. They don’t take the time to think about what this sentence or that paragraph might be for. They hesitate to describe the foundations of their method, and instead resort to time-tested tricks and phrases.

We have a word for the strategies involved in creating a product or service that fills a niche and solves a problem. That’s what designers do. The pretty part comes next (and it’s confusingly called design as well, when it should probably be called craft.)

Design leads to leaps and breakthroughs. Craft ensures that great design accomplishes its mission.

Designing effective copy begins with the presumption that you can then craft the sentences that support that strategy.

But beginning with design ensures that good craft won’t go to waste.

[Check out my friend Margo Aaron’s breakthrough Copy Workshop. It’s cohort-based, peer-to-peer and live, and signups begins today. She’s doing it with the folks at Akimbo, and I’ve seen how powerful this work is.]

If it’s worth writing, it’s worth writing effectively.

Appropriate risk

We talk about risk like it’s a bad thing.

But all forward motion involves risk. You can’t find a risk-free way to accomplish much of anything.

Appropriate risk has two elements:

  1. The odds of it working out are commensurate with the benefits.
  2. The consequences of being wrong don’t eliminate your chance to try a different path next time.

We don’t try something simply because there’s no downside. Instead, we intelligently choose projects where the downside is understood and the work is worth doing.

Respecting their time

When we go around the room and have each person introduce themselves, we’re burning time, attention and trust. 40 people: 45 minutes, gone. Worse—the person who goes first spends 43 minutes daydreaming, and the person who goes last spends 44 minutes worrying about what to say.

When we read our powerpoint slides to the audience, we’re sabotaging our message and wasting the attention that we’ve been granted.

When a school fritters away live classroom time requiring lectures instead of answering questions, they’re squandering precious real-time engagement. It’s far more productive to assign the lecture on video to be done at the student’s own pace.

When a conference organizer (remember conferences?) has people wait in a long line to check in instead of using a web-driven smartphone system, they’ve burned a million dollars in time and travel expenses.

One of the little-seen benefits of a networked world is that we’ve re-configured what needs to be done in a queue and what can be done in parallel.

The simple rule is: If this can be done on multiple tracks, at our own pace, it should be. If it creates a benefit when we all do it together, then let’s.

People have already decided that they’d rather watch a movie at home. But people who love the theater can’t wait to get back to it. That’s because only one of them is better together, in real time.

It’s much easier to demonstrate power (and to get a quick result) if we simply demand that people do it when we say. But the effort in creating a platform for interaction, attention and growth pays off.

We’re not just respecting people’s time. We’re respecting their voice and their passion.

Synchronized, real-time interaction is precious. It creates magic. We shouldn’t waste it on bureaucracy or displays of false control–it’s better saved for moments of connection and possibility.

Assume that both are true

Syncretism is the act of integrating new cultural ideas into the ones that already exist.

It’s very common in the evolution of religious practice. Instead of ‘this’ or ‘that’, the answer might be ‘both’.

Sometimes, we’re so eager to fight off a new idea (to protect an old one) that we miss an opportunity to imagine how our world could go forward instead.

It’s much easier to be unequivocal. It’s also not that productive.

It’s possible to be in favor of something without being against something else.

We are not astronomers

Unlike most of the sciences, astronomy is always done at a distance. You can see the stars, but you can’t do anything about them.

Sometimes the media would like us to believe that we’re all astronomers, simply passive witnesses in a world out of our control.

But the world is never out of our influence.

Remembrance, connection, possibility, invention, empathy, insight, correction, care and justice are all up to us.

We not only observe, but we make changes happen. Our participation (or apathy) leads to a different future.

The ocean is made of drops. And the drops are up to us. Who else is going to care enough to make an impact?

Fuzzy type

Digital typography always looks crisp. The words on our screen seem official, because they’re not the victim of sloppy or rushed handwriting.

But sometimes, we might be better off with a little less crispness.

Malka Older points out that polling data and predictions would probably be better understood if the graphs and charts were intentionally fuzzy. The less sure we are of the prediction, the fuzzier it ought to be.

For example:

The weather next Saturday is going to be crisp and clear, with no chance of rain.


And if it’s something we’re quite unsure about, better to set it like this:

The fact that we have to squint a little bit is far more effective than adding a disclaimer about our margin of error. If you’re not willing to make it fuzzy, it might be better to not say it.

Speculation is the new luxury good

A luxury good is one where the price paid is much higher than the apparent utility it offers. We pay extra precisely because it’s not a good value. The utility lies in how we and our peers think about it. The scarcity and bling of a luxury good are used to increase our status (in our own eyes and those in our cohort).

And so, a top-end Mercedes isn’t much better at being a car than a Hyundai is, it simply costs more.

As engineering has improved and knock-offs have increased, though, the two-hundred-year tradition of physical luxury goods is fading away.

One thing that’s taking its place is speculation.

An NFT has zero utility. It’s simply an entry in the blockchain that shows ownership of something that anyone could see for free.

But that in itself is a sort of luxury.

There are now hundreds of digital NFTs each worth more than a million dollars each. Just like Reddit stocks, they change in value dramatically, they come with a story and they’re fun to talk about with your friends and peers.

And one day, every one of them will be owned by someone who is unable to sell it at a profit.

Speculation is a great hobby if you can afford it, but it shouldn’t be confused with investment.

The modern curriculum

We’ve spent 130 years indoctrinating kids with the same structure. Now, as some of us enter a post-lockdown world, I’d like to propose a useful (though some might say radical) way to reimagine the curriculum.

It’s been a century of biology, chemistry, arithmetic, social studies and the rest. So long that the foundational building blocks are seen as a given, unquestioned and unimproved. The very structure of the curriculum actually prevents school from working as it should.

I think that a significant shift is overdue. The one below could work for kids from the age of 6. It doesn’t eliminate the fundamentals of being educated, but it puts them into context. More important, because it’s self-directed and project-based, kids can choose to learn, instead of being forced to.

We’re living in the age of an always-connected universal encyclopedia and instantly updated fact and teaching machine called the Net. This means that it’s more important to want to know the answer and to know how to look it up than it is to have memorized it when we were seven. Given the choice between wasting time and learning, too many people have been brainwashed into thinking that learning is somehow onerous or taxing.

Introducing the modern curriculum

The basic foundation is student-centered, self-directed projects. In service of learning to solve interesting problems and how to lead as well as follow. And to support that, the “courses” are practical tools students can use on their projects.

Statistics–seeing the world around us clearly and understanding nuance, analog results and taxometrics (learning how to sort like with like). Realizing that everyone and everything doesn’t fit into a simple box. Learning to see the danger of false labels and propaganda, and the power of seeing how things are actually distributed.

Games–finite and infinite, poker, algorithms, business structures, interpersonal relationships, negotiation, why they work and when they don’t. We all play them, even when they’re not called games.

Communication–listening and speaking, reading and writing, presentations, critical examination and empathy. Can you read for content? Can you write to be understood? Can you stand up and express yourself, and sit still and listen to someone else who is working to be heard? What happens when we realize that no one is exactly like us?

History and propaganda–what happened and how we talk about it. More why than when. The fundamental currents of human events over time.

Citizenship–Participating, leading, asking and answering good questions. As a voter, but also as a participant in any organization.

Real skills–Hard to measure things like honesty, perseverance, empathy, keeping promises, trust, charisma, curiosity, problem solving and humor.

The scientific method–understanding what we know and figuring out how to discover the next thing. Learning to do the reading and show your work. There’s no point in memorizing the Krebs Cycle.

Programming–thinking in ways that a computer can help you with. From Excel and Photoshop to C++.

Art–expressing yourself with passion and consistency and a point of view. Not because it’s your job, but because you can and because it matters. Appreciating the art that has come before and creating your own, in whatever form that takes.

Decision-making–using the rest of the skills above to make better choices.

Meta-cognition–thinking about thinking, creating habits with intention.

Here’s my question: If you could work for someone who had these skills, developed over the course of a decade or more of public school, would you want to? What about working next to them, or having them work for you? Or dating them? Or living next door or voting for them?

If this is what we need and what we value, why aren’t we teaching it?

Intentional connection in the digital office

The virtual office skeptic says, “we can’t go fully remote, because the serendipity of personal connection is too important.” The theory goes that watercooler conversations and elevator encounters add up to an emotional bond. Add to that the happy coincidence of overhearing a conversation where you have something to add or seeing something on a colleague’s screen, and the case is made for bringing people back to a building.

Of course, what it overlooks is that in any building with more than 200 square feet of space, you’re only bumping into a tiny fraction of the people who work there. If they’re on another floor, or across the street, they might as well be in another country for all the serendipity that happens.

[I recently talked with a CEO who was incensed by the stories (hyped by the media) of people who had finagled their way to two full-time jobs while working remotely. Apparently, if you spend a lot of time managing your calendar, faking your zoom calls and living in fear, you can get away with it for a while. Perhaps one in a thousand workers pulls this off. Better to worry about embezzlers, I think, because if someone is focused enough to pull off the two-job trick, they’re probably aware that all of this energy is better spent in other ways. But I digress…]

The real challenge of remote work isn’t that it somehow erases the mysterious serendipity of magical office collisions. The problem is that making connections digitally requires enrollment and effort. If we do it with intent, it actually works better.

We can collaborate in real-time on shared documents with people we’d never be able to meet face to face.

We can have a six-minute impromptu brainstorming session and have it transcribed to a shared doc–anytime we have the guts to invite the right people to the right platform and say ‘go’.

We can share a screen when we get stuck, and we can share it not with the closest person, but with the best person.

And yes, we can deliberately take five minutes off to have a one on one conversation with someone at work about nothing in particular.

The real magic of connections at the office was that we were having these connections without trying. It’s not that they were better, it’s that they were effortless.

But they didn’t work for everyone in the same way. They often reinforced status roles and privilege. They were unevenly distributed and didn’t usually appear when we needed them. All of which added up to a new layer of stress for many people.

No, we’re not sharing donuts. But if we put in the effort, we can share more than that.