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Which signal?

We have far more than five senses, and people communicate with us using many of them.

You can receive a message via visual inputs, sound, text, smell, taste, touch, temperature, pheromones, sub-sonic rumbling and/or subtle facial gestures. You can feel comforted or jostled, part of a trusted circle or all alone. You can absorb the confidence radiated by a professional or feel the insecurity in someone who is overwhelmed.

You don’t have to know how to read Finnish to be able to make a judgment about the quality of a product or its instructions–all you need to do is glance at it. And you decide if you’re going to like a restaurant long before the food arrives.

Words on paper were a magical interregnum, a low-cost, editable, permanent way to tell a story as completely as we could while limiting ourselves to nothing but a keyboard. But people have always been hungry for more inputs than this, hence the race to deliver content that moves on its own accord, that spreads more quickly and that activates more visceral reactions than a static book or blog post can.

Some overlooked factors to consider when crafting and delivering your message:

  1. How much effort does the recipient have to put into engagement in order to receive this message?
  2. Which overlooked senses are out of sync with the change I’m trying to make?
  3. What would make this easier to share?

Bonus: Check out thisten.co. They’re doing groundbreaking work in turning audio into text in real-time, a boon for conferences, as well as for people who have difficulty hearing. We’re experimenting with transcribing my podcast, Akimbo, and you can check out some recent episodes in text with their free app.

The Google tax

Actually, there are two.

The first is the tax we each pay so that companies can bid against each other to buy traffic from Google. Because their revenue model is (cleverly) built on both direct marketing and an auction, they are able to keep a significant portion of the margin from many industries. They’ve become the internet’s landlord.

The difference between a successful business in New York and an unsuccessful one is just a few percentage points–the successful ones pay 95% of their profit to landlords, while the unsuccessful ones pay 105%.

It doesn’t matter if there are competitors to Google in search: the model of bidding for attention is so economically compelling (because attention is so scarce), that companies are going to be paying ever more to reach people in this way–or allow their competitors to do so.

The second is harder to see: Because Google has made it ever more difficult for sites to be found, previously successful businesses like Groupon, Travelocity and Hipmunk suffer. As a result, new web companies are significantly harder to fund and build. If you’re dependent on being found in a Google search, it’s probably worth rethinking your plan.

The open web (and search… particularly Google) has created huge benefits in access, competitiveness and selection for so many markets. At the same time, there are structural challenges that are making the future less commercially interesting in many ways.

Capitalism is an efficient system for surfacing and addressing the needs of consumers. But once it veers toward control over markets by a single entity, those benefits disappear.

The existence of DuckDuckGo doesn’t significantly change Google’s position as a monopoly able to dictate how most people experience everything on the web.

How do you know when it’s ready?

It’s an important question, one that helps you understand if you have standards and a vision in mind.

A great chef knows when a dish is done. She knows that any changes to the temperature or spices will make it worse, not better.

Miles Davis knew that Kind of Blue was done. Any more takes and tweaks would have made it less, not more.

When I see a mediocre movie, read an unfunny section of Mad Magazine or engage with forgettable services, I wonder if they decided, “well, I’m out of time, so it’s done.”

That’s not a useful standard.


PS Today’s the first day of lessons for the new story skills workshop with bestselling author Bernadette Jiwa. It’s a perfect day to check it out.

This might vs. this better

Most of the time, we approach our tasks with the mantra of, “this better work.”

Far better to say, “this might work.”

If you’re designing a bridge or a pacemaker, I’m begging you to embrace established norms and build something that’s going to work, every single time.

For the rest of us, though, the task is to leap forward, to improve, to explore the next frontier.

“This might work” is the slogan for a scientist, an artist and a linchpin.

Break the lecture

In 1805, if you listened to music, you heard it live. Every time. Today, perhaps 1% of all the music we hear is live, if that.

In 1805, if you listened to a lecture for school or work, you heard it live. Every time. Today, that’s still true.

That’s crazy.

Ten years ago, Sal Khan pointed out that thanks to the internet, we should have students watching best-in-class lectures at home, after school… and doing their homework together, with teachers, during the day. (HT to Alison King who wrote about this 26 years ago). That hasn’t happened yet, but it should.

If we’re going to persist in creating hyper-expensive live lectures for millions of people every day, perhaps it’s time to change the dynamic. Imagine that there’s an app (I’ll call it Backchannel) and that the lecturer or her assistant has a dashboard.

Every student already has a phone. Let’s put them to use.

The Backchannel app begins by blocking all other apps–by reporting student participation. If we’re going to do this expensive lecture process in real-time, at the very least you can stop checking Facebook.

Second, the lecturer can at any time ask for students to answer a simple question about what’s being discussed. If a lot of students can’t answer the question, time to slow down. On the other hand, the Backchannel app can also act as a tool for students to anonymously let the lecturer (and the system) know that they’re bored. It’s hard to embrace how obvious this is, and yet it doesn’t get done.

The app can show via the dashboard how active each student is, by percentage or even by name.

Questions can stream in from the app, so the lecturer can get a quick view of what needs to be covered.

Students can have a discussion with one another (no private chats, though) about the last few minutes of what was covered. It’s asynchronous and can lead to far more airtime for people who might not be brave enough to raise a hand.

And of course, just as the school is rating the students (that’s a core tenet of the education-industrial complex) the students can rate every lecture, every time. What a dramatic shift in power, in attention and in reporting.

If we ended up with a classroom where the lecturers were on their toes, where students were actively engaged at all times and where the interactions were far more in sync, wouldn’t that be worth the hassle of putting our devices to better use? We can build this and start using it right now, not someday.

If we insist on lectures being the way they’ve always been, which is a one-way recitation, then let’s simply have students watch best-in-class recordings instead of the wasteful act of recreating them live, every time. But if we’re going to do it live, then let’s actually do it live.

Compared to what?

Are today’s 50 richest billionaires happier than the 50 richest people who lived twenty years ago?

It’s unlikely.

And yet they control many times as much wealth.

If you take a date to the fanciest, most exclusive restaurant in Portland, you may find the satisfaction that comes from having done something exclusive. On the other hand, if you were at that very same restaurant in Los Angeles, it might feel like a disappointing compromise. Same food, different status.

A 440-foot yacht isn’t better than a 200-foot yacht, unless we’re measuring ‘better’ in terms of status. And of course, once someone has a 445-foot yacht, then the 440-foot model is a lot less attractive, isn’t it?

And that’s why status-seekers need limits.

The Citation X can fly at 711 miles an hour. And no matter how much you spend, you can’t buy a jet that will go 800 miles an hour. Because the laws of physics (combined with the laws on sonic booms) make it impossible with our current technology. As a result, the owner of a Citation X can find the satisfaction that he has reached the limit.

There are two dangers of measuring happiness along just one axis. The first is that you will be easily disappointed, because the unbalanced approach to maximizing a single variable increases the chance that you will end up behind.

And the second is that you might actually succeed in hitting a limit. And then where will you find your happiness?

We (everyone around us) come out ahead when we create positive externalities for people who are competing to win. When folks are seeking to compete on who can build the most libraries, endow the most scholarships, and yes, pay the most taxes, it leads to a positive cycle of better. And we challenge our sports heroes to beat each other senseless as a form of entertainment. But only within the rules.

Life without limits rarely leads to satisfaction. And billionaires who pay taxes aren’t less driven or less happy than billionaires who don’t.

For them, for all single-axis competitors, it’s the game, the hierarchy, the rankings that matter. In fact, that’s true for just about everyone who cares about status. Boundaries are what allow games of status to exist.

Allies and accomplices

To be an ally means that you won’t get in the way, and, if you are able to, you’ll try to help.

To become an accomplice, though, means that you’ve risked something, sacrificed something and put yourself on the hook as well.

We need more allies, in all the work we do. Allies can open doors and help us feel a lot less alone.

But finding an accomplice–that’s an extraordinary leap forward.

Willie Jackson is leading that conversation in an area where we need it urgently: around race. Once you see it there, you’ll see it everywhere.

When do we care enough to lean into the work, the mission or the problem? Even if we think it’s “someone else’s work.” Because it probably belongs to us as well.

Tell a better story

Tell a story that is about the listener, not about you.

Tell a story that is worth sharing.

Tell a story that’s unforgettable.

And tell a story that makes things better.

Storytelling is a skill. It’s not something you’re born with, it’s not based on charisma or authority. It’s more simple than you think, but it takes practice.

Today, Akimbo is launching a new workshop on storytelling skills from bestselling author Bernadette Jiwa (with a little help from me).

If you’re committed to making change happen, I think you’ll find that the skills you learn and practice in this tested workshop will make a difference. We’d love to have you join us. Click the purple circle today to get the blog reader discount.

Busy is a choice, productive is a skill

Anyone can be busy. All you need to do to feel busy is to try to get two things done at once–or seek to beat a deadline that is stressing you out.

Productivity, on the other hand, has little to do with busy. Productivity requires bringing soft skills (real skills) to the table in service of the generous work you seek to do. Productivity is learned. And productivity takes guts.

We just wrapped up the most recent session of the altMBA, and I was thrilled to see the energy and insight each contributor brought to the workshop. The feedback from our thousands of graduates doesn’t vary by country, by profession, by age or by the scale of their project. People are discovering that once they get out of their own way, they can get a huge amount done.

Once you see what’s possible, it’s amazing how much you can contribute.

Learning is not the same as education, and busy is not the same as productive.

Today is the last day to apply for the next session of the altMBA. I hope you’ll check it out.

Off stage

I wonder what Carole King is up to? Did that kid who was in your third-grade class ten years ago get into his first choice of college? How did that couple that had a squabble in your store last week settle their argument?

We don’t notice people when they’re not in front of us. Of the tens of thousands of people, familiar and famous, that we know, we spend precious little time concerned about the ins and outs of their day. And more poignantly, the same is true for the way the world ignores our day to day as well.

Humans’ selfish survival instinct is to be aware of whoever is on stage in front of us, and then to move on to the next urgency. It’s a trap to believe that anyone in the world is as concerned about the noise in your head as you are.

Copernicus was right–the world doesn’t revolve around us. Most of the time, the world doesn’t even notice.

That doesn’t make your narrative less overwhelming, but it’s a useful reminder that just about everyone would appreciate being noticed a little more. Particularly when they’re off stage.

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