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How to be interviewed

The explosion of media channels and public events means that more people are being interviewed about more topics than ever before. It might even happen to you… and soon.

  1. They call it giving an interview, not taking one, and for good reason. If you're not eager to share your perspective, don't bother showing up.
  2. Questions shouldn't be taken literally. The purpose of the question is to give you a chance to talk about something you care about. The audience wants to hear what you have to say, and if the question isn't right on point, answer a different one instead.
  3. In all but the most formal media settings, it's totally appropriate to talk with the interviewer in advance, to give her some clues about what you're interested in discussing. It makes you both look good.
  4. The interviewer is not your friend, and everything you say is on the record. If you don't want it to be in print, don't say it.
  5. If you get asked the same question from interview to interview, there's probably a good reason. Saying, "I get asked that question all the time," and then grimacing in pain is disrespectful to the interviewer and the audience. See rule 1.
  6. If your answers aren't interesting, exciting or engaging, that's your fault, not the interviewer's. See rule 2.

The hard part (one of them)

A guy asked his friend, the writer David Foster Wallace,

"Say, Dave, how'd y'get t'be so dang smart?"

His answer:

"I did the reading."

No one said the preparation part was fun, but yes, it's important. I wonder why we believe we can skip it and still be so dang smart.


A door is not responsible if it swings and hits you in the nose. Neither is the hand of the guy who punched you.

Philosphers and lawyers talk about agency. Responsibility comes with the capacity to act in the world. If you can decide, if you can act, you have agency.

Life without agency would be a nightmare. Trapped in a box, unable to do anything by choice, nothing but a puppet…

Why then, do organizations and individuals struggle so intently to avoid the responsibility that comes with agency? "It's not my job, my boss won't let me, there's a federal regulation, we're prohibited, it's our supplier, that's our policy…"

It's not something you can turn on or off. Either you have the capacity to act in the world. Or you don't.

All economics is local

The media tries to report on the world economy or the national economy, or even the economy in Detroit or LA. This is easy to talk about, statistically driven and apparently important to everyone.

Alas, this has virtually nothing to do with your day, your job and your approach to the market. That's because geography isn't as important as it used to be, but more than that, it has to do with the fact that you don't sell to everyone, and the economy is unevenly distributed.

If the unemployment rate in your industry doesn't match the national numbers, the national numbers don't matter so much.

At the largest Lexus dealer in New Jersey, they're sold out of many models, with a waiting list. In some towns in Missouri, the unemployment rate is twice what it is in your town. In the tech industry, the rate you can charge for developing killer social apps on a tablet is high and going up.

Economics used to be stuck in town. Now, as markets and industries transcend location, useful economic stats describe the state of the people you're working with and selling to.

If your segment is stuck, it might make sense to stick it out. It also might be worth thinking about the cost of moving to a different economy.

Bar gymnastics

Some people I know work hard to lower the bar at work.

That was my strategy at gym class in high school. Not only did I do the minimum amount permitted, I worked hard to do just a little bit less than that. By the time the semester was over, the teacher was relieved if I even bothered to show up at all.

Most people seek to meet the bar. They figure out what's expected, and do that.

A few people, very few, work to relentlessly raise the bar. She's the one who overdelivers on projects, shows up ahead of schedule, instigates, suggests and pushes.

Raising the bar is exhausting, no doubt about it. I'm not sure the people who engage in this apparently reckless behavior would have it any other way, though. They get to experience a fundamentally different day, a different journey and a different reputation than everyone else.

[Why now? What has changed that makes promoting bar gymnastics more than a selfish effort by the boss to get more labor out of the workforce?

Simple. This is the post-industrial era. Success is not about speeding up the assembly line as much as it relies on individuals able to create leaps forward. The person capable of doing that sort of work is in far higher demand than ever before.]

PS congratulations to my wife Helene on opening her gluten-free and dairy free bakery. For those keeping track, it's also kosher and pareve. Another example of raising the bar.


No organization cares about you. Organizations aren't capable of this.

Your bank, certainly, doesn't care. Neither does your HMO or even your car dealer. It's amazing to me that people are surprised to discover this fact.

People, on the other hand, are perfectly capable of caring. It's part of being a human. It's only when organizational demands and regulations get in the way that the caring fades.

If you want to build a caring organization, you need to fill it with caring people and then get out of their way. When your organization punishes people for caring, don't be surprised when people stop caring.

When you free your employees to act like people (as opposed to cogs in a profit-maximizing efficient machine) then the caring can't help but happen.

Looking for the right excuse

This is the first warning sign that a project is in trouble. Sometimes it even begins before the project does.

Quietly, our subconscious starts looking around for an excuse, deniability and someone to blame. It gives us confidence and peace of mind. [It's much easier to be calm when the police car appears in your rear view mirror if you have an excuse handy.]

Amazingly, we often look for the excuse before we even accept the project. We say to ourselves, "well, I can start this, and if it doesn't work perfectly, I can point out it was the …" Then, as the team ramps up, bosses appear and events occur (or not), we continually add to and refine our excuse list, reminding ourselves of all the factors that were out of our control. Decades ago, when I used to sell by phone, I often found myself describing why I was unable to close this particular sale–and realized I was articulating these reasons while the phone was still ringing.

People who have a built-in all-purpose excuse (middle child syndrom, wrong astrology sign, some slight at the hands of the system long ago) often end up failing–they have an excuse ready to go, so it's easier to back off when the going is rough.

Here's an alternative to the excuse-driven life: What happens if you relentlessly avoid looking for excuses at all?

Instead of seeking excuses, the successful project is filled with people who are obsessed with avoiding excuses. If you relentlessly work to avoid opportunities to use your ability to blame, you may never actually need to blame anyone. If you're not pulled over by the cop, no need to blame the speedometer, right?


Insertkingpin300 Who can make a hit?

Zipf's Law is the inevitable distribution of items into a curve that follows the power law. For example, the letter "e" appears in English far more often than the letter "u". For just about every human thing we look at (record album sales, votes in political campaigns, income) there's a distribution with hits and with non-hits. Click on the picture at right to enlarge.

Chris Anderson helped us understand a huge implication of the power law curve in his classic The Long Tail. The relevant notion follows…

In any physical store, the store owner has to make bets. She needs to buy inventory, to choose this over that, to make decisions in advance about what's going to sell. With Christmas coming, the owner might need to make these decisions five months in advance, with no chance to re-order if there's a hit and nothing but the trash bin available for what doesn't sell.

The relentless physics of the situation, then, means that retailers needed the ability to not just pick hits, but to make them. And so they invented the speed table and the pile of stuff at the checkout. They perfected the end cap display and the free standing insert as well.

Years ago, getting our products on the table next to the check out at Target and Lechmere was enough to make the year at the software company where I worked. Two big retailers picked our product and that was enough.

Retailers want to be kings and they want to annoint kings. They want the lever to decide what sells and what doesn't, because it earns them power of pricing and profit (if the retailer can make your product a hit, she can extract better terms. If all she does is sell what sells, then the manufacturer is in charge).

Thanks to the long tail, the digital world ignored this thinking. The iTunes store, and Netflix, for example, take the position that, "We're going to sell everything, and a lot of it. We don't care which thing, because it's all the same to us. Just put everything in the store and the market will sort it out."

As a result, they have far less promotional power. They didn't build a lever. The app store doesn't make a hit, it contains hits. Most long tail retailers are staffed around this idea and have a culture that reflects it. They'll sell everything/anything, because the longer the tail, the better.

Marketers, of course, want their product to be the hit, and they're always in search of someone who will make that happen. They understand that the long tail sellers will do well because they sell everything, but marketers don't care about everything–they care about their thing.

And so sites like LivingSocial and Woot) built online levers, permission assets that allow them to become the new kingmakers. If they pick your product and alert their audience, you have a hit, at least for a short while (and sometimes at great cost to the marketer, which turns into profit for the kingmaker.)

Seeing the success of retailers who are able to make kings, sites like Netflix are trying to figure out how to transform themselves. Finding the lever, though, isn't trivial. The cultural shift from ubiquity to selection is difficult.

The challenge for online retailers (and perhaps for your company) is to build the attention and trust and leverage you need to make kings, to earn attention and trust and make hits. While it's digitally enticing to be the indifferent-to-choice long-tail retailer, the fact is that marketers will always be willing to pay a premium to someone with the ability to generate a hit.

Legacy issues

What does your organization do with legacy products and services? Things you started that never really caught on, or died out slowly over time?

That's a very easy way to judge the posture and speed of a brand. If there's a one-way track–stuff gets added, but it never gets taken away–then the ship is going to get slower and heavier and become much harder to handle until it eventually sinks.

How long did it take Detroit to take the ashtrays out of cars? The single-sex admission policy at the club? How many people who use your website need to speak up on behalf of a button or a policy for you to persist in keeping it there? How long before you cancel the Sisterhood meetings that are now attended by just three people?

Either you're focused on maintaining the legacy features or you're focused on figuring out how to replace them. Driving with your eyes on the rearview mirror is difficult indeed.

In a world of little competition, legacy features are something worth keeping. No sense alienating loyal customers.

But we don't live in a world of little competition. The faster your industry moves, the more likely others are willing to live without the legacy stuff and create a solution that's going to eclipse what you've got, legacies and all.


There is a lot of fear associated with 'overextended'.

Take too much financial risk, expose yourself to the vagaries of the market and you'll end up stressed, bankrupt and overextended.

Stretch your knee too much in the wrong direction after a long swim and the doctor will tell you that the ligaments are overextended.

Brands that get greedy and put their names in too many places in too many ways (as Tiffany's did a generation ago) get overextended and take a long time to heal.

But what about the more prevalent, more insidious and ultimately more damaging notion of being underextended?

The factory-mindset encourages every worker to protect his time and his effort. Don't volunteer because they'll never give you any slack. Don't push harder because you'll only exhaust yourself. Don't let them speed up the line because it will never slow down again…

It's true: in a commodity business, productivity only increases as the result of more effort, and that effort is rarely compensated.

We see one organization after another, left unchecked, pushing miners or laborers or bureaucrats to exhaustion, all in the name of enhanced productivity.

Here's the thing: creative work seems to be an exception. In fact, the exhaustion from overextending yourself creatively is some of the best exhaustion you will ever feel. An organization that provides a platform for people to push into their fear will produce both better work and a better workforce.

No, we don't need more TPS reports. Yes, we need to figure out how to push ourselves until we're creatively overextended.