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Beyond posturing, placebos or belief

Statistics, well done, are astounding.

They tell us, clearly and completely, what is actually happening.

Ignaz Semmelweis saved a million lives (eventually) with his approach to statistics, despite the fact that he was arguing for a significant change and was not at all well liked.

There are volumes of detailed and verified statistics about carbon and other emissions. They’re easy to find if we care to look at them and understand them.

More banal but simpler to visualize, it’s easy to dispense with hype and claims from a running shoe company like Nike, but impossible to dismiss this extraordinary report from the Times. They addressed the possible self-selection and placebo effects and still came up with a massive performance shift in an industry where I thought it was impossible to deliver a massive performance shift.

[If you’ve been putting off stats because the math is intimidating, spend thirty minutes with the Nike article and the Semmelweis story. It’s worth learning what they did, because it will help with your work and the way you see the world when you make decisions.]

Every once in a while, we can see a significant effect in the world, one that’s caused by engineering and can be measured. It’s rare, but it’s worth seeking out. Not everything is simply a matter of belief.

Yes, it’s easy to lie with statistics, but quite gratifying and insightful to tell the truth with them.

Statistics never work as well as we might hope. Since we’re humans, statistics don’t change minds. It’s the story we tell ourselves (and others) that do. Statistics are merely a consistent and reliable way to tell yourself a story that’s actually useful and resilient.

Doing it completely and totally wrong

Sriracha hot sauce does it all wrong, of course.

The label contains more than five identifiable typefaces.

The distribution method was sort of odd.

The pricing is way too low.

Trademark protection is non-existent.

Line extensions were avoided.

The market was crowded.

And on and on.

It’s possible to do everything wrong and do very well. In fact, sometimes that’s the only way to do very well.

Avoiding the GIGO trap

“Garbage in, garbage out.”

It has a nice ring to it. And engineers have long embraced it as a mantra. If you don’t put the right stuff in, don’t expect to get good results.

And so, when we banned leaded gasoline, the car industry complained that they’d never be able to make cars run well again.

And when HP started making printers for consumers, they were eager to point out that you needed to use special paper, and definitely not labels.

And if you’re using the command line on a computer, well, don’t spell anything wrong or whatever happens is your fault.

And if you’re a patient, be sure to take the precise amount of medicine, on time, and follow all the doctor’s instructions.

The thing is, “garbage in, garbage out” is lazy.

It’s lazy because it puts all the onus on the user or the environment. It lets the device off the hook, and puts the focus on the system, which, the device creator points out, is out of his control.

It’s one thing to make a sports car that runs beautifully on smooth roads, perfect tires and premium gas, but it’s a triumph of engineering to make one that runs beautifully all the time.

It’s one thing to organize the DMV so it works well when every person reads all the instructions, fills out the forms perfectly and patiently waits their turn, but it’s a generous act of customer service and organization when the system is resilient enough to work with actual human beings.

The extraordinary teacher adds value to every student, no matter what their home is like. She sees possibility and refuses to settle or blame the inputs. Isn’t that the way we’d like every professional to see the world?

You don’t need to measure the flatness of your bread to use a toaster. And the persistence of the car and printer industries means that the type of gas or the paper we use matters a whole lot less than it used to.

The better mantra is, “garbage in, gorgeous out.”

That’s what we hired you for.

Batting average is a trap

Baseball is not an accurate representation of life.

In baseball, batting average matters because the outcome of the game is directly related to the percentage of times each batter gets on base.

But in life, we’re not keeping track of how many times you get up to bat, or how many times you strike out.

We’re keeping track of the impact you make.

If you’re working on a project that needs just one funder, one publisher, one partner, it doesn’t matter how many other people didn’t like your idea.

And there’s no extra credit (zero) for getting a ‘yes’ from the first person you ask.

Of course, it’s foolish to spam the world, to make yourself a glutton for “no”, to hustle and hassle and learn nothing from all the feedback you’ve gotten. Sooner or later, you’ll use up your welcome and run out of at bats.

But that’s an extreme, and it’s probably not your challenge.

The challenge is to find the resolve to bring your work to someone who will benefit from it. To learn from what doesn’t work and then to do the work again.

For the right project, one in a hundred is as good as Ted Williams.

[Hat tip to medical researcher and scholar Dr. Jonathan Sackner-Bernstein. His work saves lives.]

Five ways to make your presentation better

  1. Make it shorter. No extra points for filling your time.
  2. Be really clear about what it’s for. If the presentation works, what will change? Who will be changed? Will people take a different course of action because of your work? If not, then why do you do a presentation?
  3. Don’t use slides as a teleprompter. If you have details, write them up in a short memo and give it to us after the presentation.
  4. Don’t sing, don’t dance, don’t tell jokes. If those three skills are foreign to you, this is not a good time to try them out.
  5. Be here now. The reason you’re giving a presentation and not sending us a memo is that your personal presence, your energy and your humanity add value. Don’t hide them. Don’t use a prescribed format if that format doesn’t match the best version of you.

And a bonus: the best presentation is one you actually give. Don’t hide. Don’t postpone it. We need to hear from you.

A presentation is expensive. It’s many of us, in real time, in sync, all watching you do your thing. If you’re going to do it live, make it worth it. For us and for you.

We’re still clueless about lifetime value

If an Apple upgrade breaks your phone and you switch to Android, it costs Apple more than $10,000.

If you switch supermarkets because a clerk was snide with you, it removes $50,000 from the store’s ongoing revenue.

If a kid has a lousy first grade teacher or is bullied throughout middle school, it might decrease his productivity for the rest of us by a million dollars.

Torrents are made of drips.

The short-term impact (plus or minus) of our work or our errors is dwarfed by the long-term effects. Compounded over time, little things become big things. [I riff on some of this in the new interview I did with Larry King.]


PS Today is the early decision deadline for fall’s session of the altMBA. It’s a thirty-day workshop that will pay dividends.

First annual condiment showcase

Totally off topic, a few condiments most people don’t know about that I’m happy to bring to your attention.

$5 each will buy you a month’s worth of delight. It’s hard to beat.

Here they are with links, but you can find them locally, I hope.

Lao Gan Ma Chili Crisps are numbing and spicy and a simple way to make just about anything taste more zingy than it used to. Tao Huabi, the founder of the company, retired a few years ago, finishing her career as a billionaire–even though she was raised in poverty, without ever going to school.

Al Wadi Pomegranate Molasses has exactly one ingredient, I’ll let you guess what it is. Put it on salad or on ice cream, or rice. Or your finger.

Lime Pickle is a miracle concoction, one that most people who don’t grow up with it will walk on by at the Indian market. I have no idea which brand is the best, they all seem different but equally interesting. How this product could possibly be produced, packaged and brought to your home for so little money is yet another miracle.

Fallot Dijon Mustard is not the mustard that is made by a vast mass marketer. It is the mustard made by someone who truly cares about mustard.

And the last one is the most basic of all. Maldon salt. I don’t know why. I just know it’s way better.

With nothing but these five condiments, I could happily eat beans, kale and rice for the rest of my days.

‘Fountain’ matters now more than ever

A hundred years ago, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, the original punk artist, and also a Baroness, created a work of art that caused a sensation.

Her friend (put that in air quotes, please) Marcel Duchamp came to her rescue when the work was originally rejected by the art show she submitted it to. He got it photographed and the world of visual art changed forever.

Over the ensuing years, Duchamp took ever more credit for the piece. It’s generally considered one of the most influential pieces of art of the 20th century, but until recently, the Baroness has been uncredited.

When Fountain first caused a stir, it represented a shift in art, from handmade to machine-made, from pre-photography to post. In some ways, it was the end of fine art as a craft.

I’ve been talking about Fountain in speeches for years. The combination of commonplace with daring made it a perfect example of what it means to leap. The statement was clear: The first person to install a urinal in a museum was an artist. The second was a plumber.

Fountain represents something more than that now. It also speaks to us about access, about credit and about status.

Who’s entitled to create? When someone contributes, are we open to hearing from them?

And Duchamp? Wrestling with his long hiatus from art (he played chess for decades instead), we can imagine that he was struggling to claim something that mattered, but of course, he wasn’t simply claiming, he was taking. Stealing the magic from someone else.

He lost his nerve, not his talent. Expectations cut both ways.

[If you’re interested, here’s where the original urinal came from. And here’s a picture of Travis with it, taken in July, 2018].


A catastrophe journal

Worth a try if you think it might help the way you talk to yourself (which is worse, certainly, than the way anyone else talks to you).

Every time you’re sure you’ve blown it, completely blown it, that you’re certain you’re going to get disbarred, fired, demoted—becoming friendless, homeless and futureless—write it down in your Catastrophe Journal.

A simple blank book, always use the same one.

Just a few sentences, that’s all you need. Write down:

  • What you did that was so horrible.
  • The consequences you expect since the world as you know it is now coming to an end.

Do this every time a catastrophe occurs.

What you’ll find, pretty certainly, is that two things happen:

  1. You will realize over time that your predictions of doom don’t occur, and
  2. As soon as you begin writing down the details, the cycle we employ of making the details worse and worse over time will slow and stop.

A month of persistence is usually all you need to begin to break the habit.

It’s not really a catastrophe. It simply feels that way.

Shameless vs. shameful

There aren’t many fundamental human emotions, and shame is certainly one of them.

Shame is usually caused by a collision between our behavior and our culture. Society uses shame to enforce norms and set standards. When you’re alone in the forest, there’s not a lot of shame.

Too often, marketers, politicians and others with money and power use shame as a cudgel, as a harsh tool to gain control. And it’s usually directed at those least able to thrive in the face of this sort of onslaught.

I’m not sure we’d want to live in a culture where shameful behavior is completely accepted, where sociopaths and selfish short-term people abuse our trust.

At the same time, I think we need to be really clear about the difference between shameful behavior and shaming a person.

Shaming a person is a senseless shortcut. When we say to someone, “you’re never going to amount to anything,” when we act like we want to lock them up and throw away the key, when we conflate the behavior with the human–we’ve hurt everyone. We’ve killed dreams, eliminated possibility and broken any chance for a connection.

The alternative is to be really clear about which behavior crossed the line. To correct that behavior at the very same time we open the door for our fellow citizen to become the sort of person we’d like to engage with.

“How dare you,” is a fine way to establish that people like us don’t do things like that. It is a norm-setting device, a clear indication that certain behaviors aren’t welcome and demand explanation.

As the media available to each of us turns just about every interaction into a worldwide, hyper-competitive conflict, there’s way too much shameless posturing and division. If you want to “win” in social media or politics, you’re no longer trying to be the class clown among twenty high school students, you’re racing to the bottom among a hundred million teenagers or candidates. Multiply that by every endeavor and you can see why there’s so much shameless posturing.

Racing to the top is far preferable. Because the problem with a race to the bottom is you might win. Or come in second, which is even worse.

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