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Productive choices (which?)

When you’re doing scary creative work, or work that requires emotional labor, it’s natural to want to walk away a bit. To distract yourself. To go shave a yak, mindlessly eat or bother someone in the next cube.

This is the main activity online, actually. People avoiding the real work.

One useful practice is to have forced choices that break up the work but that are also productive. Not fun, that would be a mistake, but productive.

Example: For the next hour, we either need to be developing a brand new strategy for your widget rollout or re-filing forty 1099s. One or the other, switch when you want to. If it gets too scary on the brand side, let’s do some mindless filing.

Or perhaps it’s answering HelpScout requests. Or auditing a specific set of financials.

The key is that it be something both important and unfun.

It’s a no-win situation. Unless you want to think of it as a no-lose situation.

It turns every distraction (in either direction) into a contribution.

What if you pretended, just for a little while…

What if you acted as if?

What if you pretended that you were glad to see me, happy to deliver this service, eager for it to be well received?

What if you acted as though you were more charismatic than you feel–more confident, more competent?

What if you demonstrated optimism about what’s about to happen next, even if you’re not sure?

It takes effort, more than most of us can expend day in and day out.

But what if you invested that effort, just for a little while?

It’s entirely possible that acting as if would actually create the very outcome you’re hoping for.

Digital peer pressure

“You’re using it wrong.”

That’s how culture develops, of course. That’s why no one uses ALL CAPS IN THEIR EMAIL ANY MORE.

Culture develops online at the speed of light. Every interaction tool comes with peers to interact with, and quickly, those tools establish the norms of interaction.

As a result, there are a ton of rules and more arriving every day. Culture forms around us, then changes and then forms again.

Often, the peer pressure pushes people to fit in, to go along, to become a bystander.

But the digital peer pressure that pushes us to use social media a certain way can also have more positive effects. It can challenge us to understand the details in that Do lecture or to edit a Wikipedia article to make it better. Digital peer pressure can push us to level up.

Some corners of the internet are getting coarser, crueler and dumber. But others, where the social ratchet turns in the other direction, keep getting better.

The simple rule for these communities is:

If you can make things better, do so. 

Independence brings freedom, but also responsibility.

Because good ideas spread faster than ever, there’s an imperative to listen and learn and then to level up. Because we can see further, there’s a responsibility to do something useful on behalf of those we are now aware of. And because we have more leverage than ever before, there’s the obligation to make big promises and then deliver on them.

It’s easy to see peer pressure as a bad thing, something that only delinquents are subject to. If we let it, though, we can use it to push us forward, to make things better.


The altMBA is built on the idea of positive digital peer pressure. By surrounding you with people intent on leveling up, we normalize the idea that it’s possible to create better outcomes.

Here’s a brand new short film that shares what we’re up to… Our early application deadline for the upcoming session is tomorrow.

Are you being manipulated?

Pundits, politicians, hustlers, unethical marketers, hucksters and grifters seek to manipulate people every day.

Manipulation is pushing for a change that benefits the manipulator, not us. It’s often based on misinformation. Mostly, the test for manipulation is: “if you knew what they know, would you be happy to do what they’re asking?”

It might be something as simple as tricking you into clicking, or as expensive as signing away your house. It might be the daily news cycle or the relentless push to make people feel inadequate or unsafe.

Some simple questions worth asking:

1. How does this announcement/offer/news/pressure make you feel?

2. Is there something about this news that touches a hot button issue or fear? Is the story being told designed to trigger you?

3. Are you surrounded by people who are also engaged with this news? Is it becoming a mob?

4. Is the presenter of the news using external pressure to push you into acting in ways that contradict your self-interest or self-esteem?

5. How would you feel if you discovered that the story you just heard wasn’t actually true?

By the time you’ve asked all five questions, it might be easier to resist what felt irresistible.

The business of food

Everybody eats. Every day.

I’m thrilled to announce a new workshop, one that could change the way you work (and have an impact on the rest of us).

There are few products or services with as universal a demand, or where the side effects are so profound. Too often, there’s insufficient access to food, harmful health impacts, inefficient supply chains, and a reliance on petrochemicals–these are problems and these are opportunities as well.

This year, humans will spend more than seven trillion dollars on food. That food will do more than simply keep us alive, it will make us feel alive, change our culture and impact the planet.

The good news is that there’s more leverage than ever before. More power to more people. More chances to make a difference and to make a living doing it.

This is your chance to understand the ecosystem and to actually do something about it.

We’re inviting you to check out our new workshop. The Business of Food is based on one of the most popular courses at the top-ranked Haas business school at UC Berkeley. And it’s taught by the bestselling author, entrepreneur and ruckus maker Will Rosenzweig.

He’s joined by colleagues from the food industry (including Danny Meyer and Alice Waters), as well as a cohort from his Berkeley course.

Here’s a conversation I had with Will a few weeks ago:

This new seminar sits alongside the others that we’re now calling The Akimbo Workshops. More than 50,000 people have been through one of our online courses and seminars, and now we’re inviting experts to lead some new workshops we’re putting together.

The Business of Food Workshop is, like all of our workshops, a chance for you to develop your own point of view, to try out ideas surrounded by people on a similar journey. Our discussion boards are active 24 hours a day, with the typical participant posting more than 100 essays or projects over time.

Will is focused on the big picture, but he has the experience and passion to help you turn that into practical steps you can take as you seek to build something that matters.

Signups begin today, and the first session starts soon. Will’s work is game-changing and we’d like you to be a part of it.

The Business of Food might be a good fit if:

  • You’re considering an entrepreneurial venture
  • You work in food policy
  • You care about the ecosystems around us
  • You already work in a food-adjacent industry
  • You’re actively considering making a leap and want to understand the systems thinking that can change our culture and our health for the better.

You can find all the details here. If you click on the green leaf that we hid for blog readers, you’ll save some money on tuition–but the discount decreases every day.

I’m eager to have you check this out–change is happening, and we need your contribution.

When you’re over your head

As you gain a reputation for doing projects that work, it’s not unusual for the stakes to go up. For projects to look and feel bigger, with more inputs, more decisions, more pitfalls.

It can be thrilling, but you can also begin to flounder.

Here are two analogies that might help you decode what’s actually going on…

It’s entirely possible that the water is quite deep. The thing is, if you’re used to swimming in water that’s six feet deep, then sixty feet of depth is actually no different. It’s not more dangerous or difficult, it simply feels that way. Giving a speech to 20,000 people isn’t twenty times more difficult than giving one to a thousand.

It’s worth reminding yourself, regularly, that the work hasn’t changed, merely your narrative about the stakes involved.

On the other hand, if you’re used to surfing 6 foot swells and you find yourself on an island in the Indonesian archipelago—where the swells are 25 feet—this is a good moment to sit on the beach for awhile.

Surfing bigger waves is not the same as surfing small waves but with more effort. It’s an entirely different interaction, and it’s not all in your head.

Take a lesson. Take five lessons. Give yourself the room to learn. Don’t jump from 6 to 25 in one day. And don’t assume that just because you’ve figured out how to survive at 25 that you’re ready for 50. Big waves are usually right next to big reefs.

Begin with the question: Is this a deep water problem or a big wave problem?

The internet is filled with deep water moments, and we can get our narrative straight and learn to thrive even when we think the water is too deep.

And our careers often offer us big wave moments. When you see one, don’t walk away right away, but get yourself a coach.

Getting the word out

For some, this is the holy grail of marketing.

If only more people knew what you know.

If only they were aware of what you have to offer, of the work you can share.

Perhaps you can get more people to click on your video, read your tweet or see your Instagram.

Alas, awareness is not action.

Everyone reading this is aware that Peru is a country. But that doesn’t mean you’ve visited recently, or have plans to go soon.

Everyone reading this is aware that turnips are a root vegetable. But knowing they exist doesn’t mean you’re going to have them for dinner.

Awareness is important, but it is insufficient.

Action comes from tension, desire and fear. Action is the hard part.

The honor code

Does introducing an honor code presume that the people involved have honor, or is it designed to create a space where honor can develop?

An honor code: The simple expectation that we trust you, that you call your own fouls, that you act honorably even if you think no one is watching…

As we think about implementing this, we need to decide between, “people are so dishonorable, it makes no sense to trust them” and, “the only way to help people become more honorable is to trust them.”

A similar question: Is it foolish to build a school that relies on students to take responsibility, to learn for the sake of learning, to lead–even though we know that this isn’t what they’ve been trained to do since birth?

The chasm is, “kids only want to do the minimum, what’s on the test…” vs. “if we want students to develop a desire to actually learn, we’re going to have stop rewarding them for just what’s on the test.”

One more:

Should employers say, “the people who apply for jobs are distrustful and are so used to being overworked, manipulated and mistreated that we need to offer work that treats people like cogs, with tests, measurements and demerits,” or do we take a risk and trust them to lead? Perhaps the long-term approach of, “let’s treat people as we’d like to be treated, and trust them to use their best judgment” will actually change things…

And in all three cases, when it doesn’t work the first time, we have the same choice again. And again.

To trust people, to raise the bar, to insist on people finding their best selves.

Because that’s the best way to make things better.

Data is expensive

The iHome alarm clock, common in hotels, shows a small PM when the time is after 12 noon.

I arrived at my hotel at 7 pm, carefully setting the alarm for 6 am the next morning.

Of course, I failed to note that the tiny ‘pm’ wasn’t showing when I set the alarm, which means when I was setting the alarm, the clock thought it was currently 7 am, and the next morning, when 6 am rolled around, it thought the local time was 6 pm and didn’t bother to ring.

That’s as complicated to think through as it is to type, which is my point.

Rule 1: always set two alarms.

But the bigger takeaway is that AM/PM on a hotel clock is not only useless, it’s a problem waiting to happen. There are 2,000 clocks in this hotel. Who’s going to check them all?

The clock would do its job far better if there weren’t an AM/PM data bit.

Data isn’t free.

The microwave in my office also reports AM or PM. If you need the clock in the microwave to tell you whether it’s morning or night, you have bigger problems than a microwave can fix for you.

The metaphor is pretty clear: more data isn’t always better. In fact, in many cases, it’s a costly distraction or even a chance to get the important stuff wrong.

Here are the three principles:

First, don’t collect data unless it has a non-zero chance of changing your actions.

Second, before you seek to collect data, consider the costs of processing that data.

Third, acknowledge that data collected isn’t always accurate, and consider the costs of acting on data that’s incorrect.

Strip away all insignificant digits.


[PS An early in the new year reminder that the ShipIt Journal that moo.com created continues to help people make a ruckus around the world.]