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An anecdote and a statistical analysis walk into a bar

The bar is dark and dingy, well-used, with a bit of danger in the air. The sort of bar that wouldn’t be out of place in a Clint Eastwood movie.

The anecdote has been through a lot. There’s the drama with his family, sure, but also the fight he had with his boss today. He needs this job, what with the payments coming due on the house, not to mention his gambling debts…

A guy walks up to the anecdote and taps him on the shoulder. A bad move at any time, but today, it’s particularly ill-advised. Putting down his beer, the anecdote turns, in a rage, about to punch the stranger in the face.

At the last moment, fist poised to strike out, the anecdote stops. This stranger–he seems somehow familiar. Could it be? Is it his long-lost brother?

The valid statistical analysis, the one that’s correct, useful but hard to believe if you haven’t been trained in statistics? He’s in the corner, being ignored.

The most effective statisticians are the ones who aren’t afraid to tell a story. Because anecdotes are the way we navigate the world.

And your company will pay for it

You might be surprised at your company’s reimbursement policy for education.

Not only can you expense that book that will change the way you do your job, but you can probably take a course on the company’s dime (and perhaps even get some time to work on it).

It’s a great deal for the company. You get paid the same, but now you’re smarter, more engaged and more skilled.

And it’s a great deal for you. Because one day, when you leave the company, you’re going to take the smarter with you.

It’s interesting to consider why so few people take advantage of this extraordinary perk.

One reason is that you might not be aware of it (but now you are).

A second reason is that learning might remind you of school, and alas, school has created bad associations for some people who were hurt by the command and control mindset of industrial education.

The biggest reason I encounter, though, is that people are afraid. Afraid to ask the boss, afraid to assert their desire to learn something and afraid that after they’ve learned it, they won’t be able to live up to the increased expectations.

Even as I type this, I hope you can see how silly this is.

Relentlessly lowering expectations can work in the short run (hello George Costanza) but it’s hardly a strategy worthy of you and your next 10,000 days at work.

Enroll. Engage. Learn. And level up. Ask your boss and give it a try.

The first database rule

If you participate in a database about people or their work, the first rule is simple: it should be as simple to fix an error as it is to make one.

If you mischaracterize something, get a digit wrong, sort it wrong, include a typo, inadvertently leave something out, put someone on a list of privilege or denial… every one of these errors is expensive–to you and to the person you’ve misrepresented.

You make it worse, far worse, when you insist that the database can’t be changed.

It’s bad enough that we’ve reduced people and their work to digits. At least we can be agile in fixing our mistakes.

(And yes, I’m talking about the conceptual databases each of us carry around in our heads, not just the digital ones on our desks).

Snooze is a trap

There’s a button on my email program that allows me to postpone an incoming email to a future day.

Sort of like a snooze button.

The snooze button is a trap. It’s a trap because not only do you have to decide later, but you just expended time and energy to deciding to decide later.

Do it once, move on.

‘Decide once’ is a magical productivity commitment.

There is a certain class of decision that benefits from time. Decisions where more information is in fact useful.

But most of the time, we’re busy making decisions that should be made now or not at all. You end up with a ton of decision debt, a pile of unanswered, undecided, unexplored options. And you’re likely to simply walk away.

If you open an email, you’ve already made the commitment to respond and move on. Not to push it down the road.

In or out, yes or no, on to the next thing.

Snooze is not for you.

A seat at the table

Short-term profits are a lousy way to build a sustainable community.

There’s always a shortcut, a rule to be bent, a way to make some more money now at the expense of the people around us.

The counterbalance to selfish Ayn-Randian greed is cultural belonging.

“No,” the community says, “we’re not proud of what you did, and you’re not welcome here.”

People like us do things like this.

It’s the community’s role to establish what “things like this” are. If you want to hang out with people like us, that’s the price you have to pay. To avoid the short-term and to invest in us instead.

The community might be wrong. The path of the person making change happen is often lonely, because change is frightening. But too often, the act of taking a shortcut or finding a short-term profit is confused with the actual long-term hard work of making things better.

Fortunately, the community often knows better.

[PS today’s the first priority deadline for the next session of the altMBA.]

On finding something to say

The throughline of the last twenty years of tech has been new ways to speak up and connect.

We’ve built platforms for email, video, writing, short fiction, daily updates, chat, discussion, classes…

But what if you don’t have anything to say?

It’s difficult to find a tech solution for this problem.

It might be that instead of spending more time looking for a louder platform, you could profit from digging in and doing the hard work of figuring out the change you seek to make. If you’re unable to influence one person in a face to face meeting, all the tech in the world isn’t going to help you change a million people.

The power (and risk) of charismatic ideas

Charisma is a magical power. It enables humans to hotwire connection and build bridges long before the facts on the ground are clear.

Charisma creates rock stars, powerful scientists and con men, too.

Misused, charisma is often the road to tragedy, because it causes us to suspend disbelief and follow a leader we should have been wary of. On the other hand, charisma in the right hands is the engine that can move us toward better, toward outcomes we might have never achieved if we’d allowed ourselves to be paralyzed by the status quo.

Consider for a moment the charismatic idea. An idea, disconnected from the person who might have conceived it, that spreads from person to person. An idea that’s not only sticky, but viral as well.

I wrote about ideaviruses twenty years ago, but didn’t talk enough there about the very nature of an idea itself. That some ideas, like some people, are more charismatic than others.

When those charismatic ideas contribute to the culture, they create a forward cycle that benefits all of us (I’ll nominate “don’t litter” as an example.) On the other hand, sticky negative ideas (like false fear about vaccination) persist longer than they should.

Our job as marketers is to do the hard work of finding and nurturing charismatic ideas we can be proud of.

One place to start is to look at the ideas you’re trying to spread. Consider whether they’re charismatic enough to earn the effort you’re putting into them–and if not, how to replace them with ideas that are.

HT to the Distance Plan

Rationalizing your project

“I followed the recipe exactly, and it failed.”

That’s how many reviews of online recipes begin. Then the poster explains that he replaced the sour cream with yogurt (it’s what he had in the fridge), that he replaced the wheat flour with rice flour (it’s gluten-free) and he used the toaster oven instead of a real oven…

Once you are deep into a project, it’s yours. It’s underway. You have heart and soul and pride invested in it.

In the face of helpful advice, it’s easy to say, “sure, that’s what I’m already doing,” and then torture your description of the current project to make it sort of, almost, sound like you’re following the suggested new approach.

But you’re not. You’re merely wasting time and effort pretending you’re embracing this new way of doing something.

What if, just for a week or even a day, you acted as if?

What if you re-did your plan, or your perceptions of the world or your approach in a totally new way, the way that respects and embraces the thing you just learned. What if you followed the recipe by following the recipe, simply to learn the technique…

After that, after you’ve seen what it can do, then go ahead and see what happens when you re-adopt the cruft that had you looking for a new recipe in the first place.

In the age of unlimited access to recipes, the hard part about getting good advice isn’t getting it. It’s following it. And then you might be able to turn the recipe into insight.


PS First priority deadline for the August session of the altMBA is this Friday. When you’re ready to level up, we’re ready for you.

Anything you want

The paradox of choice is real, and it gets worse when the choices aren’t even multiple choice.

Confronted with the unlimited selection offered by any music streaming service, people choke. They pick an old favorite, a current hit or something banal. The same is true with the nooks and crannies of Amazon or most pieces of software–when people can have anything they want, suddenly what they want isn’t much at all.

People are good at “a, b or c?”. Not as good at “pick a card, any card.” And terrible at, “think of a number between one and a trillion.”

That’s one reason why writer’s block is far more common than roll-the-dice block.

If you’re on the offering side, it’s on you to be smart about the multiple choice options that can unfold new horizons for us. Curation can do better than “Shuffle”.

And if you’re on the choosing side, you can multiply your impact simply by embracing a method that pushes you toward new (and thus uncomfortable) options.

The compass and the map

Wouldn’t it be great if we always had a map? A set of step-by-step instructions on how to get from here to there, wherever we were and wherever we wanted to go…

Steve Pressfield relates this magical story:

A Gurkha rifleman escaped from a Japanese prison in south Burma and walked six hundred miles alone through the jungles to freedom. The journey took him five months, but he never asked the way and he never lost the way. For one thing he could not speak Burmese and for another he regarded all Burmese as traitors. He used a map and when he reached India he showed it to the Intelligence officers, who wanted to know all about his odyssey. Marked in pencil were all the turns he had taken, all the roads and trail forks he has passed, all the rivers he had crossed. It had served him well, that map. The Intelligence officers did not find it so useful. It was a street map of London.

I love this story.

Happy endings come from an understanding of the compass, not the presence of a useful map.

If you’ve got the wrong map, the right compass will get you home if you know how to use it.

Where are you headed?