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Evanescent boundaries

If you want to make the Olympic soccer team, join a symphony orchestra or get into medical school, the path is well lit. It's not easy, but the goals are clear and the boundaries are obvious.

Day by day, achievement by achievement, it's a linear race. You know the rules, you can see the competitive landscape and you can train. It's rare that the rules change along the way.

This is irresistible for some people, and if it ends, or they don't make it, they're often lost in the wilderness.

That's because real life doesn't have clear goals and obvious boundaries.

Real life is not organized around an 800 on the SATs, or a FGA average that's the highest in the league.

Instead, real life has changing rules, hidden rules, rules that aren't fair. Real life often doesn't reveal itself to us all at once, the way the rules of baseball are clearly written down.

And so, the first challenge of real life is: find some goals. And the second: figure out some boundaries.

It doesn't pay to get stressed out that these goals and these boundaries aren't the same as everyone else's. It doesn't pay to mourn the loss of the rigid structures that worked in the world you used to be in.

You're in real life now.

So, find some goals and find some boundaries.

Then you can get back to work.

Just enough

There are two paths, really:

"I will serve just enough to make the maximum profit"


"I will profit just enough to provide the maximum service."

Making it political

The difference between an actual discussion (where we seek the right answer) and a political one is simple:

In a political discussion, people don’t care about what’s correct or effective or true. Facts aren’t the point.

The honest answer to, “if it could be demonstrated that there’s a more effective or just solution to this problem, would you change your mind?” is, for a political question, “no.”

It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the the local water tower, the death penalty, labor unions, euthanasia, fair trade, organic food, the EPA or carbon. In political discussions, we don’t have enrollment in the scientific method. We’re not open to effectiveness or proof. We’re engaged in a tribal conflict.

The problem with the fencing in of one topic after another as political is that it gives us less and less space to learn and grow and understand.

Think tanks in DC call themselves non-partisan. But of course, that’s not true, because they’ve already made up their minds. They’re not thinking at all. Merely arguing.

Transactions without conflict

It’s only been 140 years since the price tag first appeared.

Before that, most every transaction was a negotiation. The seller tried to win by charging more, the buyer by paying less.

In many ways, that’s a good thing–treating different people differently, rewarding good customers, adding fluidity to transactions.

But for most buyers, most of the time, the certainty and convenience of transacting without fear, without conflict and without a hassle makes it worth it.

This idea is spreading.

It’s possible to negotiate a substantial contract in a few minutes by email—if both sides care more about forward motion than they care about the last decimal point. Or, to be more honest about it, if they care more about the benefits of the future than they care about the narrative of treating their partner like an opponent.

In an economy based on connection instead of scarcity, the ease of those connections, the reliability built into them, our confidence that the future will match promises made–all of these benefits dwarf the narcissistic narrative of the deal maker who simply seeks to win today, at all costs.

The essential first step is not waiting for ‘the other guy’ to go first. Each of us can go first if we care enough about getting there.

Ringing vs wringing

Ringing is resonant. A small force causes sympathetic vibrations, and magic happens.

Wringing requires significant effort and can even destroy the object it is applied to.

When you ring a bell for your clients, you’ve delivered with care and empathy.

But when you seek to wring every dollar out of a transaction, you’ve probably engaged for the last time.

The problem with coming attractions

“Knock, knock…”

That’s not a coming attraction. It’s an invitation. An opening. A bit of tension in terms of closure.

A coming attraction, on the other hand, gives it all away. It says, “here’s a bit of what we’ve got, and the rest of it is just like this, but almost as loud and almost as shiny.”

In the short run, coming attractions work faster. They get you a certain kind of audience and they lead to less disappointment.

But the alternative, the hard work of creating tension and then delivering on it–that’s where our best path lies. It requires trust, not proof, and the patience to find an audience that cares enough to work with you to get to where they’d like to go.

If someone insists on experiencing your experience before you give them the experience, it’s really unlikely you’re going to be able to delight them.

Community rank

You’re probably familiar with class rank. Among all the kids in this high school, compared to everyone else’s GPA, where do you stand?

And you’ve heard about sports rank, #1 in the world at tennis or golf or chess.

But somehow, we don’t bother with community rank.

Of all the contributions that have been made to this community, all the selfless acts, events organized, people connected–where do you stand?

Maybe we don’t have to measure it. But it might be nice if we acted as if we did.

All other things being equal (simple contribution analysis for pricing)

If you make a product that costs $5 to produce and package, how much should you charge for it?

I don’t know.

But there’s a simple bit of arithmetic you can do to understand sensitivity in pricing.

Should you charge $7 or $9?

Well, if you charge $7, you make $2 a unit.

If you charge $9, you make $4 a unit, or twice as much.

Which means, all other things being equal, you’ll need to sell twice as many at $7 as you’ll need to sell at $9.

It doesn’t feel that way, but it’s true. 100 sold at $9 is more profitable than 180 sold at $7. And to take it a step further, you’ll need to sell 800 at $5.50 to make as much as you would have made at $9. Eight times as many.

No one knows what your demand curve is going to be like, no one is sure what impact your pricing will have on all the other items you sell.

But be honest with yourself about contribution.

Price is a story, it’s a story we tell ourselves and others about what we have to offer. But price is also the path to being able to stay in business.


[Unrelated helpful tip: A significant bug exists in Word, one that just cost me two hours. If someone sends you a Word file as an attachment in Gmail and then you drag that to Word to start editing it (without formally downloading it first), Word will let you work on it, save it, work on it some more, close it–and then your work is gone forever. Don’t do that.]

Update! Thanks to Justin, Alan, Matt, Luis and other loyal and talented readers, I’ve put together a method that got the file back. My deep searching yesterday didn’t find it, so here it is for the next shmo who gets stuck:

  1. Repeat the process that opened in the file in the first place. In my case, drag it from Gmail to the Word icon in the dock on my Mac. The original opens.
  2. Hit ‘save as’.
  3. You’ll see the usual save window, and you can hit the name of the folder to see the location of the hidden file. In my case, the letter “T
  4. Then, you’ll need to be able to see the invisible files on your Mac. In my case, the easiest thing was to go to Terminal and turn that on.
  5. And then, folder by folder, I found my way to the magical “T” folder and there it was, gloating at me, just waiting to be re-opened and saved properly.

Thanks, team!

The exaggeration of small differences without a difference

“What should we do with all the left-handed people?”

“There are far too many people in this organization who wear glasses. It’s hurting our ability to compete.”

Here’s a simple trick: Every time you consider identifying a group to exclude, overlook or fear, every time you consider naming your football team after an ethnic or cultural group, or wonder about how a group makes you feel…

Substitute a label or perhaps a slur that’s been used against a group you belong to instead.

It sounds ridiculous when you say that out loud, doesn’t it?

The two “Harvard problems”

In many fields, there’s a big name. The exclusive slot. The top ranking or badge. This is being a top 10 podcast, or on a certain bestseller list or working at a specific sort of company…

The first Harvard problem is erroneously believing that you deserve it. This is the kid who has neither the attitude nor the skills to thrive at a famous private college. But the culture he’s surrounded with will view anything else as a failure, and so he’ll go into debt and contort himself to get the label, wasting years of his life, tons of money and most of all, his spirit.

The second Harvard problem is not believing that you deserve it. This is the young woman I met a year ago who had a fantastic work ethic and excellent grades but came from a community where the local community college was seen as a stretch, and she didn’t believe she could or should abandon those around her.

Here’s a simple clue that you might have a Harvard problem: If the label you’re seeking comes instantly to mind, or is prompted by those around you, it may be that we haven’t thought hard enough about which label we want.

The famous outcome isn’t often the right one, and often, neither is the common outcome. Being clear about where we’re going and why is a useful place to start.