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A year of posts

More than 3,000,000 people visited this blog in 2014, and, noting that popular is not the same as best, here are some of my most clicked on posts of the year. I don't see a pattern, but that's okay, because I'm not looking for one:

It's not about you

Really bad Powerpoint (7 years later, sadly still relevant)

Project management for work that matters

But what if I fail?

Two new videos

Will you share my new book?

The four horsemen of mediocrity

What does it's too expensive mean?

The self-marketing of Ebola

Never eat sushi at the airport

Not even one note

The most important question

The fatal arrogance of tldr

The self driving reset

The stories we tell ourselves

Conference call hygiene

Confidence is a choice, not a symptom

Get rich quick

Treating people with kindness

Sorting for youth meritocracy

No is essential

The right moment

The tyranny of the lowest price

Girl Scout cookies

How do I get rid of the fear

The most important reader of this blog is you. Thanks for taking leaps, for leading by example and for doing work that matters.

Cutting through Singer’s Paradox

Teacher and ethicist Peter Singer shares a puzzle with his students:

I ask them to imagine that their route to the university takes them past a shallow pond. One morning, I say to them, you notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy but it will mean that you get your clothes wet and muddy, and by the time you go home and change you will have missed your first class.

I then ask the students: do you have any obligation to rescue the child? Unanimously, the students say they do. The importance of saving a child so far outweighs the cost of getting one’s clothes muddy and missing a class, that they refuse to consider it any kind of excuse for not saving the child. Does it make a difference, I ask, that there are other people walking past the pond who would equally be able to rescue the child but are not doing so? No, the students reply, the fact that others are not doing what they ought to do is no reason why I should not do what I ought to do.

The paradox comes in when Singer points out that if it’s a moral imperative to save this child at the cost of ruining a pair of shoes, we certainly face that same imperative every day. Using Paypal, we can send $20 somewhere in the world and with certainty, save the life of a child.

What’s the difference? The child is far away, certainly, but she’s still a child and she’s still dying.

Marketing helps us understand the two key differences:

1. CLOSE & NOW: The first child is dying right in front of me. Right now. The shame I feel in walking away is palpable. Many times, we act generously or heroically because to avoid doing so is to risk being shamed. The ALS challenge got many things right, and this is one of them. When someone calls you out in public, it is close and it is now.

2. GRATITUDE: Even though it might not be at the top of mind, the fact is that once we pull someone out of the pond, we anticipate that they will thank us, and so will the community. In fact, if that didn’t happen, if the kid just walked away and no one noticed, I think we’d be perplexed or even angry.

And this is the problem every good cause outside of your current walk to work faces. They are trying to solve a difficult problem far away. They’re working to do something that is neither close nor now. And often, because the work is so hard, there’s no satisfactory thank you, certainly not the thank you of, we’re done, you’re a hero.

The challenge for real philanthropic growth, then, is to either change the culture so our marketing psychology is to donate to things that are neither close nor now, and that offer little in the way of thanks, or to create change that hacks our current perceptions of what’s important.

We’re learning that the most important problems to solve might be the long-term ones, the ones where our cultural instincts don’t lead to emergency donations.

Some options. And here’s a year-end smile.

In search of arrogance

Do you care enough to believe in things that seem unreasonable?

Do you believe in…

your people,

your project,

your endeavor so deeply that others find your belief arrogant now and then?

If your standard is to never be called arrogant, you've probably walked away from your calling.

But what if this was your only job?

Okay, I know you have competing priorities and that your organization has grown and that maybe this isn't the most important thing on your agenda any more…

The thing is, your competition might actually act like the thing that they're doing is their only job. They might believe that in fact, treating this customer as if she's the only person in the world is worth it. That fixing that squeaky door, addressing that two-year old bug in the software, or taking one extra moment to look someone in the eye and talking to her with respect is worth it.

We don't become mediocre all at once, and we rarely do it on purpose. Instead, we start believing that the entire project is our job, not this one thing, this one thing we used to do so brilliantly.

The day the organization installs the, "your call is very important to us…" message is the day that they announce to themselves who they are becoming. Customers rarely care about your priorities.

Getting bigger is supposed to make us more effective and efficient. Alas, the way to get there isn't by doing what you used to do, but less well.

Is your niche too small?

There's no such thing as a niche that's too small if the people care enough.

If you think you need a bigger market, you're actually saying that the market you already have doesn't need you/depend on you/talk about you enough.

You might not need a bigger niche. You might only need to produce more value for those you already serve.

Asking why


And then again.

If we keep asking why all the way to the beginning of the thread, we might come to understand how it is that this is the way we do things around here. And then realize that we might come out ahead if we care enough to change it.


Non-obvious actions taken in obvious moments, difficult decisions that might be easier to avoid, responses instead of reactions, and most of all, the choices we make when it doesn't even seem like we have a choice–all of these, taken together, define who we are and the impact we make.

"I had no choice," actually means, "I had only one path that was easy in the moment."

The agenda we invent and act on defines our organizations, our work, and the people we choose to become.

The alternative gift card

Alert shoppers know that gift cards are a little bit of a scam, and a copout as well.

What to do if the last minute has arrived and all you have is the internet and a printer?

One thought: establish a pattern of giving. You can give a loan to a nascent entrepreneur, buy a cow for a farmer, invest in a new school here or here. Easy to print out, easier to wrap.

It will certainly have far more impact (and less breakage) than something from the iTunes store.

Another thought: order a book that, in January, when it's quieter, will make some serious change. What a great way to say, "I care about you, and I think you're smart."

Print out the cover and share the joy again when it arrives and again after it has done its work. Consider Steve Pressfield, Brene Brown or possibly my new book.

(Here are three more, for designers.)

The meritocracy trap

This recent quote from an early PayPal exec is absurd: “If meritocracy exists anywhere on earth, it is in Silicon Valley.”

It's pretty common for successful people to imagine that their success is solely the result of merit. It's more satisfying than pointing to all the external factors that have contributed to that success. The trap is in being satisfied. Satisfaction in their meritocracy causes companies, industries and cultures to calcify, to harden themselves against new ideas and new people.

CULTURE is something we create, and culture works against pure merit. That's because culture creates insulation and connections and histories that count at least as much as the pure horsepower of merit.

HEAD STARTS get compounded. Early success gives people the resources, confidence and connections that can be used to create later success. 

LOCK IN means that organizations and ideas can succeed far longer than they would without it. You don't give up on a social network or smart phone merely because one element of it isn't the best available one. It's easier to stick than to switch.

And of course, lock in goes way beyond operating systems. It includes worldviews, friendships, momentum of all kinds.

At the philharmonic, the first chair violinist might believe the job came solely as a result of merit, through blind auditions. But the combination of culture (going all the way back to the age of 5, combined with access to teachers, combined with the tenure that comes with many roles) means that even at these rarified heights, merit alone isn't the guiding force. On this day, is this violinist actually the very best violinist in the world? (And defining merit gets super difficult once we mix it together with vague measures of effort and potential).

And so, in Silicon Valley there is a deeply ingrained culture that rewards people who understand it, that play by certain rules and have access to various resources that seem out of reach to many. A great idea, powerful work ethic and good design are rarely sufficient on their own. And lucky people who are bold enough to dig in often find that early effort leads to a head start, that they can choose to compound, which, in the most legendary cases, leads to a lock-in a market that can last for a decade or more. 

And of course, it's not just Silicon Valley. It's the breaks I got along the way, the resources that let me do my work and the ability to post this blog daily, it's the farmer who was born with access to a better piece of land, it's everywhere where we build a culture, a system for creating utility, a network. And it works. Until it doesn't.

For me, the huge hurdle we face is, "seems out of reach." In cultures and economies with rapid change (and the Valley certainly qualifies) there are huge opportunities, but too many people talk themselves out of reaching, aren't thirsty enough to take a leap. Part of that resistance comes from the industry itself proclaiming its meritocracy as opposed to actively opening doors and selling people (hard) on finding the thirst, the desire to leap.

[If someone is looking for a true meritocracy, where the deck is reshuffled and the best weighs in first, check out pumpkin growing].

Festivus (and the airing of grievances)

In order to air your grievances, of course, you first have to list them, prioritize them, amplify them and intensely relive them.

To prepare for the airing of grievances, a ceremony we often partake in but which rarely produces anything of value, we make ourselves unhappy all over again.

Perhaps we could have an airing of privileges instead. Or an airing of good fortune. An airing of times we've been trusted or supported or given a chance. Those lists are much more productive to make.

Other than that, a fabulous holiday. Enjoy.