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How much does a mistake cost?

Errors are preventable.

But preventing errors requires an investment. Before committing to an error-free production environment, it’s worth calculating the cost.

A typo on this blog is relatively inexpensive. (Thanks to loyal reader Seth Barnes for graciously emailing me when one slips through).

On the other hand, a mistake in calculating the route of a high-speed rail line might cost a billion dollars… And we probably don’t want any errors on the pacemaker assembly line.

If you’ve decided that errors are too expensive for your project, then build a system that doesn’t depend on heroics to avoid errors. Sure, that costs more than just trying harder, but if trying harder was going to reduce errors, it would have worked already.

The pilot who painstakingly works through the pre-flight checklist might not be a swashbuckling Maverick type, but they are much less likely to be the victim of a careless error. The reason that planes don’t crash is because there are countless layers of redundancy and systems to be sure that they don’t.

Spend the time and spend the money and the errors can be avoided. Or accept that errors are part of wayfinding, and realize that your problem is caused by a systemic situation, not a lack of effort.

The wayfinding premium

The second time you rewire a system after finding a hum, it might take two minutes. The first time, the time you figured out what the problem was, it might have taken two hours.

Typing a book takes a few days at most. Figuring out what to type might take years.

We are either adding value by using our time to do something that’s been done before… or we’re contributing by finding out a way to do something new or create a better path forward.

If you’re simply ‘typing’, the work might still be important, but you’re not fulfilling your potential. You won’t earn as much in the way of respect, compensation or satisfaction, either.

On the other hand, if you’ve signed up for wayfinding, forgive yourself if it takes a little (or a lot) longer. Because if we knew the right answer, we would have found it already. That’s the hard part.

It’s possible that you can earn a wayfinding premium when you’re merely repeating something you discovered a while ago, but that’s hard to maintain. And it’s possible that you could find someone to solve your interesting problem fast and cheap, but that’s unlikely.

Being really clear about what we’re buying (and selling) opens the door to getting serious about whether or not you’re here to solve an interesting problem.


The mirror might not lie, but no one looks at you in the mirror more than you do.

Your business or project or life story is intimately known to you. You have lived it. But the outside world will never see all of it, can never see all of it.

And so we bump into the disconnect. The disconnect between the thing we know so well and what others have decided based on their own agenda, background and limited experience with us and our work.

When they don’t align, we can focus on the quality and consistency of our story, and be sure that our actions are integral with the conception we’re working so hard to share.

Consistency is what people pay attention to, and when it’s not there, they make up a story about why. Because they can’t truly know.

A new decision based on new information

People don’t say yes or change their minds because you persist.

That’s because we don’t like to admit we were wrong.

If we’re going to go forward, it’s because something has changed. It might be that our situation is different, that the story we tell ourselves is different, that the times have changed or that your offering has. It might be that we trust you more.

What’s new?

Busy (and reliable)

The thing that made you busy might have been the reputation you earned for being reliable.

Ironically, that very busy-ness might destroy your reputation. That’s one reason that so many service providers stumble once they begin to gain traction.

There are two things you can do before the crisis hits:

First, say “no.” A lot. The gigs you would have taken when you were struggling might not be the gigs you should take now. Your reputation for reliability earns you more trust, and that trust gets you invited to work with better clients and on better projects. The cost (benefit) of that is that you’ll need to turn down opportunities that you would have been willing to take on just a little while ago.

Second, tell the truth. It’s hard at first, particularly since our self-conception might have been built around independence and invulnerability. But being reliable doesn’t mean being perfect. It means being clear.

Two mottos that might help:

“You’ll pay a lot, but you’ll get more than you paid for.”


“Our secret is that we don’t lie to get the project.”

What do other people deserve?

Perhaps it’s related to what you think you deserve:



A chance to speak up.

A fair shot at achievement.

The benefit of the doubt.

PS today is Juneteenth.

In control

Is this a want or a need?

Do you know anyone who has managed to gain control over things outside of their grasp? Honking at traffic serves no purpose other than to express a need to control the uncontrollable.

Why do we work so hard to try to capture control over things that are clearly not in our control?

And what would happen if we stopped trying and worked on the things we can influence instead?

Non-machinable surcharge

I got a marketing letter from a colleague yesterday. Not a sales pitch, just an update on what they were up to.

I was delighted to discover that this mass mailing had a hand-lettered address on it, with little bits of water color for fun. It was slightly irregularly shaped, requiring an extra stamp because it wasn’t machinable. Inside, in addition to a personal (and personalized) note, there was a gift card for an ice cream cone. But the coolest part was that the card wasn’t from a national chain, it was from the local place down the street.

It obviously cost more in time to create than it was going to take me to read. It obviously didn’t go to a lot of people.

And that imbalance is now rare.

People eager to hustle are busy spamming lists of millions of people with an email that takes two minutes to write and poorly mail merge, giving the hustler a 2,000 to 1 advantage in time spent vs. time consumed. It’s a form of leverage that feels like theft to the recipient, because our time, the irreplaceable thing we all are given, was taken.

Of course, I don’t need an ice cream cone, and a small gift card isn’t a bribe. What it represents is care and respect. The opposite of hustle. It was done with sprezzatura, not with a transaction in mind.

None of it works unless you’ve already earned permission. It doesn’t work if it’s part of a clever hustle. It doesn’t work if it’s seen as spam or creates uncomfortable tension or a need for reciprocity. It simply works because it required a surcharge. Instead of using an asset, you can choose to build one.

[And yes, this is exactly the opposite of the way my bank answers the phone, the way most customer service is grudgingly offered, the way many publicists do their job, the way that organizations make foolish choices about attention and trust…] The question shouldn’t be, “does it scale?” Instead, it might be, “is it worth it?”

Interactions with the people who are enrolled and giving you the benefit of the doubt are a form of avocado time. They shouldn’t be optimized for efficiency or even leverage. Instead, it’s a chance to make a difference.

[Thanks Stephen]

Lucky breaks

Almost every project comes in a little bit late and a little bit over budget.

When things break, the breaks are rarely lucky ones.

Part of the reason is that in proposing the project we made our best guess and predicted the predictable. If we didn’t, the project would probably never get approved.

Optimists bring an expectation of possibility and goodwill. But they’re also aware of the math of coordination. Hiccups multiply.

Betting on lucky isn’t nearly as productive as simply establishing a platform where you can benefit from the occasional arrival of good fortune.

Abstain from abstaining

Even when you’re not completely certain.

Because we can never be certain about the future.

So we show up for the work, do the reading, engage with the problem. The challenge is to find a point of view if we don’t have one yet.

The exception is simple: if, after being well informed, you are willing to accept every outcome, you do us all a favor when you stand down.

Hiding doesn’t help us.

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