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Dancing with infinity

If your little bagel shop suddenly had everyone in the world waiting in line to buy a bagel, that would be stressful indeed. You’d need riot police to keep order and you’d run out of sesame seeds in no time.

On the other hand, it’s easy to hope that your YouTube video, your Facebook post or your professionally published book be seen by everyone in the entire world. Because digital scales. Because there’s apparently no useful limit. Because you believe in it and more is better.

But more isn’t always better.

Better is better.

And better might mean more specific. More respected. More exclusive. More trusted. More cherished.

Dancing with infinity isn’t free, and if you do it too long, it’s corrosive. You’re busy being busy, instead of doing what’s important.

Make things better

I’ve come to realize that this is a controversial statement for some people.

Two issues, it seems:

  1. Better implies that what we have right now is imperfect. Better requires change, and change is scary. Better might be in the eye of the beholder. Better is an assertion, one that requires not just the confidence to say it, but the optimism to believe that it’s possible.
  2. Make implies that it’s up to us. Someone needs to make it better, and it might just be you. In fact, if you don’t enlist to produce better, you’re part of the status quo, which is a problem.

I’ve seen that there are pockets of our culture where both of these ideas are difficult to embrace. That authority pushes us to fit in, not to seek improvement, and deniability encourages us to whine instead of doing something about it. Power enjoys passivity in others.

Power doesn’t want you to get uppity, doesn’t enjoy your dissatisfaction, doesn’t want to be on the hook to continually upgrade all of its systems. And so power has sold a cultural norm of acceptance, deniability and ennui.

And yet…

Everything in our built world–the water we drink, the food we eat, the place we live–if it’s good, it’s good because someone, a generation or two ago, decided to make it better. And if it’s not good, or not good enough, only our action is going to make it better.

We can see the world around us, and if we try, we can see it becoming better.

It might be a podcast or a political campaign, an engineering insight or a more inclusive policy. It probably involves finding and organizing others on a similar path. It definitely takes guts.

I’ll reiterate my belief that we each have a chance to assert. To announce our vision, to propose a change, to do the hard work to make things better.

It’s on us, right now.

Make things better by making better things.


Beloved 1,000-year-old buildings disappear in the blink of an eye.

Celebrities we’ve never met die young. Babies are born. Music goes from cutting edge to current to oldies. Technology that was prized becomes obsolete. A medical breakthrough averts certain doom…

Our experience with time keeps changing. The concept of the time machine was only invented in the 1800s, and people who lived when they were building Notre Dame had little concept of what the world was like a thousand years before them, and no imagination at all of what the world might be like today.

We didn’t have time zones until we had clocks, and we didn’t have clocks until we invented cities…

As we’ve learned about history (not the details, simply the concept of it, that someone came before), we’ve also spent time thinking about the future. About our role in it and whether or not it will turn out the way we hope it will.

My hunch is that two things are true:

• We have much less direct control over the future than we hope, and that it will always surprise us.

• We have far more ability to make an impact than we expect. The only people who can change our culture (and thus our future) are us.

We can’t control the future, but we can bend it. And we can’t freeze the world as it is, but we can figure out how to be a part of it.

The work we do every day, the stories we tell, the paths we follow and the connections we make define our culture, and culture determines what’s next.

No guarantees, but yes, urgency.

The gap between ‘have to’ and ‘get to’

Deadlines work. They work because they focus the mind and create urgency. They work to get us to file our taxes or finish an assignment. They’re an external lever for the work we have to do.

On the other hand, dessert works too. You don’t need an external force to encourage you to eat dessert after you’ve finished all your vegetables. It’s something you get to do, not something you have to do.

You can build a work life around deadlines. You can procrastinate, pay the late fines and push through the last minute emergencies because you need all of that in order to get to ‘have to’ mode.

Or, you can follow the path of the most productive and happy people you know. By redefining the work you’ve chosen to do as something you get to do.

And yes, I’ll point out that you can even do that with your taxes. It’s something you get to do because you’re successful and lucky enough to live in a civil society.

“You can hire just about anyone…”

“and you’re in luck, since I’m just about anyone.”

It’s time to start avoiding the Fiverr trap.

You can fill your day as a freelancer taking easily accessible work from clients who simply want you to meet spec.

Or you can build a career as a freelancer by getting better clients.

Websites that offer lowest common denominator jobs for freelancers (like Fiverr, Uber, ZocDoc, Mechanical Turk etc.) are focused on the generic. They intentionally blur the identities of the people doing the work–a simple star rating, a measure of reliability, that’s all.

These are easy jobs to get. If you’re the cheapest, you’ll be busy all day.

But is being cheap and busy the point?

Because that’s a race to the bottom. And the problem is that you might win that race. You’re not generic, so why act that way?

The alternative is to be distinct. To be uniquely you. To bring a point of view to the work, one that is worth seeking out, paying for and remarking on.

It is the difference between, “what do you need me to do?” and “I can offer you this.” It is the difference between being handy and being indispensable.

Why is this so difficult? Two reasons:

The first problem is that the typical client doesn’t want that. The typical client wants cheap and reliable. And you’re not going to persuade the typical client to change his or her mind. Which means that if you’re going to do your best work, you’ll need to send the typical client to someone else.

The second problem is that it takes guts to be specific. To stand for something. To turn down mediocre work for clients that will settle for mediocre. It takes guts to have a point of view, a protocol, and a skill set. It takes guts to make a stand.

Your day is priceless. You only get it once. And then another chance tomorrow. Your career is what you invest in it, and if you spend your days building a career that consists of doing reliable work by being the lowest bidder, you’ve bought yourself a job that’s hardly rewarding or steady.

The alternative, the one you deserve, is to find better clients. Not to resent your ordinary clients, but to focus your energy and your passion earning better ones.

To become the sort of freelancer who can proudly say that you deserve it. Because your clients deserve your best work.

I hope you’ll consider joining our new workshop. It takes guts and support to make these choices, and it helps to find the others on a similar journey. That’s what we do–assemble and connect and inspire the sort of people you want next to you as you go on this journey.

The elegance of nothing

What ever happened to details?

The red sole of a Louboutin shoe, or the elegant tag on a pair of Tom’s? The sweeping fenders of a Porsche 911 or the needless complications of a fancy watch…

Today, a certain kind of customer is using a Muji notebook, or wearing a plain Everlane t-shirt. Is this what we’ve come to? One might come to the conclusion that consumers have rejected all the effort that designers and marketers have produced in a statement that rejects design. Not so fast.

Design is the new marketing. It is the product itself, not the ads or the slogan. Design is the supply chain of Patagonia, the ethics of Purple Carrot and the customer service at Union Square Cafe. It’s design, not advertising, that turned Apple into the most valuable luxury brand (and the most valuable company) in the world.

But design requires a point of view. The confidence to make an assertion. And the skill to turn that assertion into something that resonates with the person you seek to serve.

It’s probably easier to create heavily adorned mash-up than it is to produce a Field Notes notebook. Stripping away the artifice doesn’t always leave something pure. It often creates banality, the simple commodity that’s easy to buy cheaper one click away.

The elegant nothing brands aren’t about nothing. Not all. They merely have a different, more difficult sort of artifice. The artifice of no artifice. The elegance of leading with utility as its own form of style.

And what is a brand? It’s not the logo, certainly. I have no idea what Everlane’s logo is. The brand is our shorthand for the feelings that an experience creates, the promises that a product or service brings with it.

If Nike announced that they were opening a hotel, you’d have a pretty good guess about what it would be like. But if Hyatt announced that they were going to start making shoes, you would have NO IDEA WHATSOEVER what those shoes would be like. That’s because Nike owns a brand and Hyatt simply owns real estate.

For a company that stands for few details to become a brand, then, there needs to be a promise associated with what they make and what you’ll get if you engage with it instead of buying the cheaper commodity.

In most cases where brands have been built, the brand has:

1. Served users who care about origin and elegance. They resist the idea of buying the cheaper commodity, because telling themselves they have the real one creates personal value. Beyond that, these users have the sensitivity (or taste) to be able to tell the difference between the real one and the knock off. Cayce Pollard (the fictional heroine of Gibson’s Pattern Recognition) only wears an authentic MA-1 jacket (you can buy a real life version right here). Her narrative about sensitivity, origin and authenticity makes the jacket worth the $675, even though she knows she could buy the knock off for 10% of that artificially high price.

2. Served users who care about status. The status of ‘people like us do things like this.’ These users know that their peers will recognize the invisible products they’re carrying, and this recognition is worth far more than the product itself costs. Seeing a designer with a genuine Uni-ball Signo UM-151 Gel Pen in her hand (from Japan) is to see someone who is better than you (perhaps). Better in the sense that she cares enough to go to the trouble. That she cares enough to know the difference. That she cared enough to pay a bit extra in time and money, because it matters–to her, and perhaps to you.

3. Found the intestinal fortitude to play a longer game. There are shortcuts everywhere, corners that can be cut, profits that can be taken. Once you get a small head start, you can license your name to others. You can cash out with a vodka or an affiliate deal of what sort or another.

The invisible brands that last, though, realize that the artifact is only an artifact. It’s not the point. It’s a souvenir of the point. The point is that people like us do things like this. Our tribe, our group. That when we see the others, we see ourselves.

Will the momentary mania among a small group who is busy measuring just how invisible they can be in their design fade away? Of course, it will. It always does. The cycle moves because the very people who drive the market, the neophiliacs, are in search of something new. Because something new gives them a new chance to tell a story, to earn status, to engage with that which is scarce.

But the brands that matter are voices that choose to matter. Voices that make assertions on behalf of their users. Who market with people, and for them, not to them or at them.

Work that matters for people who care.

The second bowl

I broke two bowls today.

I was emptying the dishwasher, holding both small clean bowls in one hand. One of them slipped, and I watched, aghast, as it started to fall in slow motion toward the hard kitchen floor.

In a valiant but vain attempt to miraculously catch the bowl, I dropped the second one as well.

Now both were gone.

Often, the best thing to do with a lost cause is to let it go. Because pursuing it gets in the way of the causes you haven’t lost yet.

Workshops are not courses

Traditional courses, online or off, are linear. They’re based on a direct connection between the instructor’s content and the student’s attention. Write this down, memorize this, understand that.

Traditional courses scale in a particular way. They scale even better when the instructor appears on video.

Workshops are different. Workshops are about the cohort. The other students. The people you meet, the people you learn from and the people you teach. Workshops involve work, not the compliance inherent in testing and certification.

If you want to learn to build a boat, take a workshop.

It’s very difficult to run workshops at scale in the real world. The physics of interaction make it awkward. But it turns out that online, a workshop is a powerful way to learn.

A course can be quite effective. Students get a ton of actionable insights from the highly-rated video courses I offer at Udemy. But a course can’t possibly provide the magic of a workshop.

And workshops are the future of online learning.

That’s because in a workshop, you are able to connect, and connection is at the heart of the economy we live in now. Connection means finding the others. Embracing peer support, giving more than you get, engaging with ideas and with other people. Connection is part of the process of growth. Connecting with possibility, with change and with the generosity of new ideas and new approaches.

The Akimbo Workshops aren’t courses.

In the most recent session of one of our seminars, a typical day saw students interacting with each other every three minutes, 7,000 times a day. In a typical course, that number would be zero.

We’re launching two workshops this week. One might be a good fit for you, if that’s the direction you’re headed:

The Freelancer’s Workshop (a short sprint toward finding better clients).

The Bootstrapper’s Workshop (a deeper dive into building an organization without outside funding).

Each of these is specific. They use Akimbo’s customized discussion platform to create large-scale communities built around solving a particular challenge. They are there to help you find the others.

Four times a year, we run the altMBA, our elite flagship, a workshop that’s very different from the others. It has curated small groups, video conferencing, hands-on alumni coaches and focused cohorts that meet every day for a month. It’s designed to help you see more clearly, decide more effectively and most of all, transform into the leader you’re capable of becoming.

I’ve been a teacher my entire career, and the workshops we’re running now are the most effective way I’ve found to help people level up. I hope you can join us.

[also, another new riff on this from me on Medium]

The problem with unicorns…

is that there aren’t any.

That’s precisely what makes them so interesting. The null set. The impossibility of it.

A unicorn is not a black swan, which is a rare bird that proves a point. A unicorn is by its very nature, impossible. That’s actually not a problem. That’s the entire point. That there’s something unavailable.

Instead of aspiring to unicorn status, a pipe dream which is simply a place to hide, we can instead decide to do something useful (and possible) instead.

It’s more challenging to set your sights on something that’s possible. More useful, too.


[HT to Michael, for a tangential unicorn riff. He points out that now that so many companies are called ‘unicorns’, the term is meaningless, a lazy trope used by some in business media who eagerly substitute lazy tropes for insightful analysis and interesting assertions.]

Cognitive load is real

Disneyworld is stressful.

The occasional visitor has far less fun than you might expect. That’s because without habits, every decision requires attention. And attention is exhausting.

And it’s stressful because the choices made appear to be expensive. There’s a significant opportunity cost to doing this not that. You’re leaving tomorrow, what are you going to skip? What if it’s not worth the line? What are you missing?

It’s all fraught. We feel the failure of a bad choice in advance, long before we discover whether or not it was actually bad.

And it’s not just Disneyworld. It’s now the whole world.

Every minute on a website is a minute not spent doing something else. Every decision about what to write in social media is enervating. It’s not like the old days, with just three TV channels and a TV Guide to make that difficult decision even easier.

(The most popular magazine in America, for decades, was devoted to helping people figure out which one of three channels to watch).

Here’s my list, in order, of what drives behavior in the modern, privileged world:

  • Fear
  • Cognitive load (and the desire for habit and ease)
  • Greed (fueled by fear)
  • Curiosity
  • Generosity/connection

The five are in an eternal dance, with capitalist agents regularly using behavioral economics to push us to trade one for the other. We’re never satisfied, of course, which is why our culture isn’t stable. We regularly build systems to create habits that lower the cognitive load, but then, curiosity amplified by greed and fear (plus our search for connection and desire to love) kick in and the whole cycle starts again.

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