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Since dawn of the industrial age, tighter has been the goal.

A tighter system, with less slack.

Tighter connection with customers.

Even plastic surgeons deliver tighter skin. No one ever goes seeking more folds and flab.

The thing is, tighter is fine when you're trimming a sail or optimizing a production system.

But many things in our lives need to be looser. More room for innovation. More slack for peace of mind. More spaces for surprise.

The placebo ratchet

A placebo that works becomes more powerful.

Which makes it more likely to work next time.

It's that simple, but it's magic.

Placebos work for two reasons:

  1. The confidence they create makes it more likely our body will respond, our work will improve, that something will go better.
  2. Things might get better on their own, but if the placebo was around when it happened, it gets the credit.

And so, we end up with medicines or horoscopes or mantras or methods or devices that help us. Without a lot of expense, without side effects, without a hassle.

The positive ratchet of reinforcement can help us if we let it.


Free Prize Inside

Unleashing the Ideavirus

It's hard to believe that I wrote this book in three frenzied weeks in 2000, almost twenty years ago.

You can buy the paperback here.

But the free version, at one time the most popular ebook ever, is still here, unedited, but newly reformatted for students in The Marketing Seminar, a glimpse into the moment.

Special thanks to Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote the foreword. I don't think either of us knew how big a deal he was about to become.

A slow motion trainwreck

We like the flawed hero, bad behavior, tragedy and drama in our fictional characters.

Batman and Deadpool sell far more tickets than Superman does.

If we use social media to attract a crowd, we will, at some level, become a fictional character. Reality shows aren't about reality–they're shows.

Which means that it's tempting to become the sort of trainwreck that people like to watch and jeer and root for.

Personally, and for our brand as well.

Every time DC tries to make Superman more popular, they create drama that isn't inherent in who he is. Brands fall into this trap all the time.

For a long time, people would confirm that they'd rather watch a flawed character, but deep down, they'd like to be Superman. Because his humility, kindness and resilient mental health are a perfect match for his unlimited powers. Unfortunately, as we've turned our lives into a reality show, more people seem happier emphasizing their mess.

It's probably a bad idea to vote for, work for or marry a trainwreck. They belong on screen, not in real life.

Everyone has some Superman in them. But it takes emotional labor and hard work to reclaim it.

The words that work

We're bad at empathy. As a result, when we're arguing a point with someone, we tend to use words and images that work on us, not necessarily that help the other person.

So, if you want to understand how to persuade someone, listen to how they try to persuade you.

For example, one partner in a conversation might use concepts like power and tradition and authority to make a case, while the other might rely on science, statistics or fairness. One person might argue with tons of emotional insight, while someone else might bring up studies and peer reviews.

What they're actually doing is talking about things in the way they like to hear them.

Powerful metrics with hidden variables

What factors lead to a search result showing up on page 1 or page 5 of Google?

What about the popularity bar in iTunes? How does it work?

Who decides what your salary is compared to the person down the hall?

On this road, in this town, what's the threshold before you'll get a speeding ticket?

In that magazine article, what's the methodology for ranking these semi-famous people?

How did this image show up in recommended?

There are ratings and rankings that ostensibly exist to give us information (and we are supposed to use that information to change our behavior).

But if we don't know what variables matter, how is it supposed to be useful?

Just because it can be easily measured with two digits doesn't mean that it's accurate, important or useful.

[Marketers learned a long time ago that people love rankings and daily specials. The best way to boost sales is to put something in a little box on the menu, and, when in doubt, rank things. And sometimes people even make up the rankings.]

You’ll pay a lot, but you’ll get more than you pay for

That's as useful a freelancer marketing strategy as you can fit in a single sentence.

How to give a five-minute presentation

Give a four-minute presentation and take your time.

The alternative is to try to give a six or seven-minute long talk in five minutes. To rush. To get flustered. To go over your time. To act in a way that belies your professional nature.

Nope. Better to stick with the four-minute approach.

The thing is, you’ll never have enough time to tell us every single thing in enough detail. It would take you years.

Portion control is your friend. Figure out how big the plate is and serve just the right amount.

Character matters (if you let it)

Choosing to develop character is difficult, because it requires avoiding the shorter, more direct path. It can be slow, expensive and difficult work.

And rewarding character is difficult as well, because someone is probably offering you an alternative that's cheaper or faster. A sure road to a quick payday.


Every time we avoid the easy in favor of what's right, we create ripples. Character begets more character, weaving together the fabric of our culture, the kind of world we'd rather live in.

What happened and what will you add?

Is it outside of the canon?

The internet, with instant access to all known history and science, was supposed to help us all get in sync, to understand what we knew for sure.

But of course, when everyone has a keyboard and a camera, it's up for grabs.

Some people get frustrated when others use the word "enormity" to mean, "very very enormous." That's because they know that enormity means "unspeakably horrible," and they're worried that if enough people use it the wrong way, they'll no longer be able to use it the right way, and a nuanced word will disappear.

Language is plastic, it changes over time. Who knows what 'dap' used to mean, or what it will mean tomorrow? What happens to the serial comma or the other refined elements of punctuation? Language is a reflection of who we are and how we speak and it's foolish to insist that it stay the same as it always was.

Work that alters the canon, that begins outside of it but then is incorporated into it, is how our culture grows.

Facts and history, though, fade away if we let them become plastic.

It probably took Descartes 50 years to reach half a million people with his ideas about philosophy and the mind-body problem. The School of Life, with millions of viewers on its YouTube channel, was able to reach half a million people with its video on the mind body problem in just a year. The issue, as dozens of folks have pointed out, is that the video has nothing at all to do with the actual mind body problem, and simply makes up new stuff.

Descartes isn't here to defend himself, and I'm not sure he should count on me to stand up for him, but it points to a bigger problem: Everyone has the authority to have a media channel, but responsibility is in short supply.

We need new ideas, but if it's not in the canon, it's worth labeling properly–a new idea to consider, not an accurate version of what came before.

If you want to earn trust, it helps to either get it right or to fix it once you've discovered that you've gotten it wrong.

"Your mileage may vary" is a useful way to think about our experiences, but sometimes we don't want our mileage to vary. Sometimes we want to know what actually happened, how to compute acceleration or decode a cultural artifact. Sometimes we want to know about the work that came before.

PS friggatriskaidekaphobia, or the more popular term, Triskaidekaphobia, was first used in print by Isador Coriat about a hundred years ago. Be safe today.