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The anatomy of annoying

Pema Chodron’s story has stuck with me for a decade: At a meditation retreat, the guy sitting near her kept making an annoying clicking sound. Again and again, she was jolted from her practice because he kept clicking his tongue.

During the break, as she gathered up her courage to tell him that he was ruining the day for her and for everyone else, she realized that in fact, it was a nearby radiator that was causing the clicking.

Suddenly, the fact that it was an inanimate object changed everything for her.

It wasn’t about her any longer.

It wasn’t intentional or selfish.

It was simply a radiator.

The rest of the day was fine, because it was simply a radiator.

My biggest takeaway is that the key leap wasn’t in discovering that the sounds came from a radiator. The lesson is that acting like it comes from a radiator completely solves the problem.

Sometimes (often, usually), it’s not about us. It’s simply weather.

Responsibility and the power of ‘could have’

The us/them mindset of most corporate customer service is simple:

  1. When you can, get it over with.
  2. If at all possible, evade responsibility.

Which means that when things go wrong, you’ll likely encounter a legalistic mentality that begins and ends with, “it’s out of our control.”

There’s an alternative.

It begins with understanding the economics of loyalty. Saving a customer is ten times more efficient than finding a new one. If it costs an airline $1,000 of marketing and route development to acquire a first class business traveler, it’s worth at least $10,000 in customer service to keep one. And that means that an extra ten minutes on the phone clocks in at a high value indeed.

And it continues with a simple tactic: Instead of defining the minimal legal requirement, outline the maximum possible action you could have taken.

“You’re right ma’am, that was a terrible situation. And we could have alerted you in advance that the plane was late, and we could have trained the flight attendants to be more aware of situations like this and we could have been significantly more responsive when we saw that the whole thing was going sideways. That’s incredibly frustrating–you’re right.”

Because it’s all true. You could have done all of these things. And it’s true, it was frustrating. If it wasn’t, she wouldn’t have called.

And then, after learning all the things you could have done, send the ideas upstream. It’s free advice, but it’s good advice.

Because the race doesn’t go to organizations that do the minimal legal requirement. The race goes to those that figure out what they could do. And do it.


Leaders create the conditions where people choose new actions.

The choices are voluntary. They’re made by people who see a new landscape, new opportunities and new options.

You can’t make people change. But you can create an environment where they choose to.

Toward full stack

Find the right clients

Earn their attention and trust

Identify the problem

Find their fear, embrace their objectives

Prototype possible solutions

Create an architecture that supports your solution to the problem

Build a minimum viable solution

Test it

Program a well-documented, resilient piece of code

Test it

Debug it

Ship it

It’s easy to get distracted by the part of the stack that we consider to be our job or simply our expertise. But it’s all connected.

The never-ending ratchet of conspicuous consumption

It used to be that a well-tended lawn of 50 by 100 feet was wasteful indeed. Today, it’s in the by-laws of the local housing association. You could impress the neighbors with a new Cadillac, now you not only need a Tesla, but you need a new Tesla. And you could show off by flying first class, but then you needed to charter a plane, then charter a jet, then charter a bigger jet, then buy a fractional share, then own the whole thing, then get a bigger one and on and on.

Conspicuous consumption is not absolute, it’s relative.

It’s sort of a selfish potlatch, in which each person seeks to demonstrate status, at whatever the personal or societal cost, by out-consuming the others.

Social networks have amplified this desire, at the same time they simplified the execution. Now you can waste time and dignity instead of money. Who can you tear down? How much time can you waste? What’s it worth to you to have more followers than the others?

It’s a lousy game, because if you lose, you lose, and if you win, you also lose.

The only way to do well is to refuse to play.

Earning trust outperforms earning envy.

Innovation is guts plus generosity

Guts, because it might not work.

And generosity, because guts without seeking to make things better is merely hustle.

The innovator shows up with something she knows might not work (pause for a second, and contrast that with everyone else, who has been trained to show up with a proven, verified, approved, deniable answer that will get them an A on the test).

If failure is not an option, then, most of the time, neither is success.

It’s pretty common for someone to claim that they’re innovative when actually, all they are is popular, profitable or successful. Nothing wrong with that. But it’s not innovative.

Allow generosity to take the lead and you’ll probably discover that it’s easier to find the guts.

The downside of possibility

Optimists are always a little disappointed.

If you live with possibility, the idea that things can get better, that with consistent generous effort you can make a contribution, then you also end up feeling just a bit let down that it didn’t happen this time.

The alternative is to insist on limits, to be a pessimist, to simply play it as written and only do your job, expecting the worst.

Sure, you could probably avoid a little disappointment that way, but how could it be worth the journey? What’s the point of all this risk, effort and connection if we’re not going to use it in search of better?


Are you hesitant about this new idea because it’s a risky, problematic, defective idea…

or because it’s simply different than you’re used to?

If your current normal is exactly what you need, then different isn’t worth exploring. For the rest of us, it’s worth figuring out where our discomfort with the new idea is coming from.

Words that matter

Discipline, rigor, patience, self-control, dignity, respect, knowledge, curiosity, wisdom, ethics, honor, empathy, resilience, honesty, long-term, possibility, bravery, kindness and awareness.

All of these are real skills, soft skills, learnable skills.

But if they’re skills, that means that they are decisions. A choice we get to make. Even if it’s not easy or satisfying in the short term.

These skills are in short supply sometimes, which makes them even more valuable.

The old media/new media chasm

In every era, traditional media channels will diminish, dismiss and ignore the new ones. They do this at the very same time that they are supplanted by the new ones.

While they will occasionally spend some time or money testing a new medium, they rarely leap.

This is the posture of the business people/publishers, but it also has an impact on their editorial approach.

Radio shows rarely became TV shows. TV networks didn’t embrace cable as they could have. The book industry generally ignores every innovation in tech.

As late as 1994, Bryant Gumbel was spending time on network TV being befuddled by the ‘internet’. And in 1999, Conde Nast bought the print half of Wired but intentionally left the web version behind.

Twenty years ago, newspapers were in a perfect position to establish blog networks—they had their reader’s attention and advertiser’s trust. But they blinked.

New media tends to be adopted by amateurs first. And it rarely has a mass audience in the early days (because it’s new). But professional content for the masses is precisely what old media stands for. As new media gains traction, the old media doubles down on what they believe to be their value, because they no longer have a monopoly on attention.

The editors at Encyclopedia Brittanica were proud of the control they had over every page, so they ignored Wikipedia. The producers and directors of movies love the gloss of film, so they ignored video games. And the editors of newspapers like their local hegemony so they fight against distributed content.

So the Times publishes a snarky, poorly written takedown of podcasts. Not because it’s based on the economic or cultural reality of today, but because their self-esteem requires there to be a chasm between all of these amateur podcasts and the few professional ones that they deign to create and publish.

Businesses make their own choices and suffer the consequences. The Mutual Broadcasting Network was a powerhouse in radio, but no longer. The problem is that these media businesses also narrate our cultural conversation, and that narration is historically wrong and prevents people from seeing what’s possible until it’s already well underway.

There were thousands of newspapers before there were only a few profitable ones. There are millions of YouTube creators, but only hundreds make a great living at it. And the same will be true of podcasts.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start a podcast. You should. Because a podcast is a generous way to share your ideas. Because it gives you a way to clarify your thinking. Because you can assemble a group of people who want to go where you’re going.

The Podcast Fellowship starts this week. Check it out.

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