Welcome back.

Have you thought about subscribing? It's free.

Conspicuous mediocrity

Luxury goods originated as a way for the wealthy to both show off their resources and possess a scarce, coveted item of better functionality.

Over time, as luxury goods have become more competitive (it's a profitable niche if you can find it) a variation is becoming more common: goods and services that aren't better (in fact, in some cases, not even that good). At some level, they're proud of this inferiority.

The thinking is, "If you have to ask if it's any good, you can't afford it."

And so we have cars, hotels and restaurants that are far more expensive and dramatically inferior to what a smart shopper could have chosen instead. What's for sale isn't performance or reliability. Merely exclusivity.

They offer the customer the satisfaction of looking around the room and saying, "yep, I'm here."

But it's a risky strategy, because sooner or later the frequent breakdowns, the lousy service or the poor design communicate to the well-heeled customer, "this merely makes me look stupid."

No one likes looking stupid.

Our software must get better

“That’s good enough, let’s move on”

Lots of things could be better (cars, buildings, candy, etc.) but we understand that the cost of pushing through to the next level is prohibitive. It might be because, as in the case of candy, the mass market just won’t pay for premium ingredients, or, in the case of buildings, the cost of retrofitting the billions of buildings in the world is just too big to fix the stuff that’s already out there.

The building doesn’t fall down, it sort of works, better than good enough, let’s move on.

But software, software is different. Consider:

1. one piece of software can be used by a billion people, no extra cost per person. Unlike candy or anything physical, it doesn’t cost more per user (not a penny more) to have more people use great software instead of settling for good software.


2. fixing software today fixes it for everyone, in the world, going forward (and for connected computers, going backward as well).

Imagine what would happen if this were true for buildings… if the efficiency and style and ambience of every building in the world could be fixed, all at once, in exchange for one investment.

Alas, software tends to be mediocre. There are a few reasons for this:

A. Lock in means that once someone has a success (and the cash flow that comes with it) there’s not much incentive to invest a lot in fixing it (fixing it looks a lot like breaking it, at least at first). Which is why Paypal has had such a miserable user interface for so long. (Do the folks at Paypal know how bad it is? Don't they care?)

B. As software gets more successful, the instinct is to hire more people to work on it (which increases complications and errors dramatically) and to be ever more conservative as well (don’t mess with what’s working).

C. Perhaps the biggest problem: In many markets, especially online, software is free. And free software built by corporations turns us from the user into the product. If you're not paying for it, after all, you must be the bait for the person who is. Which means companies spend time figuring out how to extract value once we're locked in and can't easily switch.

I’ve been developing software on and off since 1984, and empathize with the people who have to make these decisions. But software is too important to be mediocre. 

Compare Roon to iTunes (which has had countless iterations, but never seems to get better, it merely helps Apple sell more of something).

The Roon user experience is fabulous. The only reason they could launch it in the face of a free competitor is that enough people care about music. Which means that software as a service in this area has a shot for a revenue stream that can justify the investment, but even with a demonstrably better product, competing with free, with software installed by default, this is really hard work.

Or compare the heavily promoted (but awful) stamps.com to the elegant but little known alternative, Endicia. It works on the Mac, does tracking, it actually works. Better software, worth it.

Or consider the Address Book built into your Mac, a piece of software that only is used because it's free and hardwired in. It's difficult to import or export data, and it's truly slow. No one, not one person, is happy about how this software helps them work. Without a reasonable business model, though, competing with free is incredibly difficult.

When you can, insist on paying for your software. Our instinct to take the free stuff is often a bad long-term choice—it takes a committed team to keep free software worth the trust we put into it.

Marketing and the economics of an industry don't always lead to the best solution. Sometimes, we need to insist on things getting better.

Going the distance

The distance from can to will keeps getting larger.

You can connect, lead, see, speak, create, encourage, challenge and contribute.

Will you?

The confusion kicks in when we become overwhelmed by all the things we can do, but can’t find the time or the courage to actually commit and follow through.

In the face of all that choice, we often confuse can’t and won’t. One lets us off the hook, the other is a vivid reminder of our power to say yes if we choose.

Choose your role

In many creative endeavors, we encounter:

The producer, the director, the star and the star's assistant.

The producer initiates. The producer says "yes."

The director (and often, the writer, a different version of directing) determines the plot, makes the decisions, owns the quality of what is produced.

The star is a celebrity, the draw, the one we want a selfie with. The star auditions and the star waits to be picked.

And the star's assistant? He gets coffee, copyedits, and generally gets unglamorous stuff done, but gets the satisfaction of steady work plus the chance to say he works for a star.

A survey of high school students found that they'd rather be a star's assistant than a judge, a senator or a CEO when they grew up. Safety near the spotlight.

I've done all of these jobs (sometimes at the same time, on the same project) and, for the right project, you can choose from any of them as well.

The assistant can't do the work without a star. The star needs to be chosen by the director. And the director needs a producer. But the producer–the producer gets to decide.

It's easy to be seduced into believing that you must wait to be picked, and even easier to worship those that have. It's far more interesting and generous, I think, to find the leverage and the guts you need to produce, to become the impresario, the one who says 'go'.

[13 more minutes on this on video.]

None of the above

In a world where nuance, uncertainty and shades of grey are ever more common, becoming comfortable with ambiguity is one of the most valuable skills you can acquire.

If you view your job as taking multiple choice tests, you will never be producing as much value as you are capable of.

Make the agenda, invent the possible paths, tell us where we're going next. Life is an essay, not a Scantron machine.

#2 pencils are overrated.

Free Prize Inside

On being an impresario

Updated in 2021 to include this lost footage, an hour on what it is to be an impresario followed by a one-hour Q&A. Recorded in NYC in 2014.

While it’s dated, I think the ideas hold up. And it’s worth noting that if you had invested in Bitcoin and Tesla, two examples I give, well…

Enjoy. Even better, go start something.

Recorded live in 2014

An interesting alternative to primaries

Presidential primaries in the US have several problems. We do it the way we do it because that's the usual way, not because it works particularly well.

The biggest problem is that the people who vote are usually the most political, which means that winning a primary involves going hard to one edge or another. Instead of electing for consistent productive consensus we nominate for short-term TV sound bytes.

The next is polling. The media plus lack of official information equals tons of guessing, and as the primaries warm up, polling becomes the dominant driver of what happens next. Which would be fine, except the polls are often dramatically incorrect, and polls are not votes.

The media are turning this more and more into a sporting event, and the polls are the play by play, except they’re being done in the dark.

A bigger problem is the uneven influence of voting. Some votes are worth a huge amount (New Hampshire!) while others often don’t have any impact whatsoever. The voting takes many forms—anonymous, public, sorted by party, crossover, etc.

These two problems lead to the biggest one: Parties often don’t nominate their best candidate (where ‘best’ might mean electable or talented, you pick).

Instead of building a growing cohort of excited, committed voters, more often than not the primary process disconnects those that made the 'wrong' commitment early on.

Consider for a moment a party that chose instead to run its primary on Facebook.

Before you list your objections, some of the features:

Everyone would vote six times over six months. Only the last vote would count in the final results, the first five are sort of a live poll, a straw poll for preference.

The voting wouldn’t happen in one day, it would take place over a week, with the results tabulated in real time. So you could see how the tide was moving and choose to either engage your friends to push back, or to join in. True fans would vote early and in public, while the undecided might see what's happening.

Each vote would be for three candidates, in order, from most favorite to ‘I can live with this’. This method of voting has been shown to allow consensus candidates to rise to the top, diminishing the voice of the angry few.

Each vote might also include a chance to vote for your favorite candidate of the other party, further increasing options for consensus.

Votes could either be in public or anonymized. The advantage of public voting (like a caucus) is that it gets to a truer sense of democracy, in that choices are more easily talked about. But for the reluctant citizen, the vote could be tallied but not identified with a specific individual in public.

Because the votes aren’t anonymous in the database, it would be easy to track changes over time. People who supported X are now moving toward Y. When we're talking about a mass phenomenon like voting, it's these shifts that matter. Cultural shift is how pop music works, and it never fails to create a profitable top 40.

The kind of polling we’re used to would become obsolete. Too much good data to worry much about making data up.

On the other hand, actual polling based on data analysis of the detailed Facebook corpus would mean that the public (and their candidates) would have much better insight into what people actually want.

This fits in perfectly with the debate channel.

It seems to me that if one party does this, they end up with a candidate that's less bloodied, more engaged and more connected to the public, putting the other party at a significant disadvantage.

As to the most common objections:

A. This is new. It might not work. Absolutely, agreed. Does what we have now work? It costs more than a billion dollars. It occupies a year of our lives, every four. Do you have a better idea?

For me, this is an okay place to experiment, because the primary is merely the party's chance to figure out how to run a candidate. As a result, it's always been quasi-official and always been a mess.

B. There are all sorts of opportunities for fraud. Yes, absolutely, But almost certainly only on the margins, probably no worse than we have now, particularly when you consider the tiny number of actual voters in the current system.

I'm imagining a public, transparently run app that lives within Facebook. Hard to do, difficult, risky. But probably better than the current alternative.

C. Some people don’t have Facebook. Yes, but in four years, far fewer won't have access, and we still have the library. Spend some of the millions and millions of dollars we spend on elections outfitting libraries with more computers instead. Because the voting takes place over a week, no issue with lines, nor hanging chad. It's worth noting that today, in order to be an effective voter, you need a TV and a car, both of which were new technologies a hundred years ago.

Your mileage may vary. Doesn't it always?

And what else will you lie about?

When did companies start talking about, "unexpectedly high call volume?"

Are they really so inept at planning that the call volume is unexpected? For months at a time? 

Even non-legacy companies like OpenTable are using it to describe their email load.

Once an institution starts glibly lying, it's a slippery slope. A reality distortion field moves from on-hold time to diesel emissions.

On the other hand, consider what happens if you start by telling the truth about little things. "To save money for our customers and investors, we keep our support team lightly staffed. Please wait patiently a few days and we'll get back to you…"

Depth of field

Focus is a choice.

The runner who is concentrating on how much his left toe hurts will be left in the dust by the runner who is focusing on winning.

Even if the winner's toe hurts just as much.

Hurt, of course, is a matter of perception. Most of what we think about is.

We have a choice about where to aim the lens of our attention. We can relive past injustices, settle old grudges and nurse festering sores. We can imagine failure, build up its potential for destruction, calculate its odds. Or, we can imagine the generous outcomes we're working on, feel gratitude for those that got us here and revel in the possibilities of what's next.

The focus that comes automatically, our instinctual or cultural choice, that focus isn't the only one that's available. Of course it's difficult to change it, which is why so few people manage to do so. But there's no work that pays off better in the long run.

Your story is your story. But you don't have to keep reminding yourself of your story, not if it doesn't help you change it or the work you're doing.

More powerful than you know

I think that's always been a little true, but now it's a lot true.

Everyone reading this has an enormous amount of power.

Cultural power, mostly. The ability to speak up, to paint a picture of a different way, to share words and images with those that care to hear them.

But also the power of connection. The power to find people who need to know each other and help make magic happen.

When we combine leadership (the leadership of ideas) with organization (the organization of people) we create the fabric of our culture, and our culture determines our future.

It's far easier to worry and gripe about insufficient authority, about those that would seek to slow us down, disrespect us or silence us.

But we live in a moment where each of us has the power of influence. What will you do with it?