Welcome back.

Have you thought about subscribing? It's free.

Nothing is one thing

“How was your day?”

It’s tempting to answer with just one word.


The same way we try to lump a job, a project or a person into a single emotion. As if there’s a prize for brevity, and pressure to categorize a lifetime of experiences and expectations into just a few words or a single feeling.

Whatever we’re encountering is a combination of experiences and feelings–from extraordinary to banal to absurd.

The real question is, “which part are you focusing on?”

If you’re focusing on the part of your day that was “fine”, then you’re ignoring the parts that were a miracle, or disappointing, or thrilling.

We get what we pay attention to. Our narration determines what we experience and what we remember.

If your narration isn’t helping you, perhaps it pays to focus on something else.

“Which part of your day are you experiencing right now?”


Making your case

Conventional wisdom:

Find a large group of people.

Explain why you’re better.

Prove that you are the right answer.



How it actually works:

Earn attention from precisely the right people.

Gain trust.

Tell a story.

Create tension.

Relieve the tension by gaining commitment.

Deliver work that’s remarkable.

They spread the word.

On writing a spec

Good specs force the difficult conversations to happen before they are expensive.

If you hand a good spec to a builder or a programmer, the chances that you get back the system you’re hoping for are dramatically increased.

For a building, the spec is architectural plans. But give an architect a good spec and she’s much more likely to design a building you’d be happy to live in.

This post is mostly about computers and other complicated systems, but the thinking can be used for just about any project where you and your team are asking a system to solve a problem for you. Unlike buildings, computers and other systems change their state all the time, depending on what just happened and what’s supposed to happen next.

The spec outlines the inputs to the system and the outputs it creates. If it’s simple, it’s easy to write:

Put a quarter into the gumball machine and turn the crank.

A gumball comes out.

So, at the highest level, we have problems and solutions. I need a gumball is the problem, and the solution is to use this machine to turn a quarter into a gumball by releasing one from an inventory.

It gets a bit more complicated when the state of the system might change as the result of previous actions. For example, if the machine is out of gumballs, my spec requires that the quarter be returned. Knowing this, I could also add to the spec that the machine should know how many gumballs are in inventory, and how fast the sales are, so that when it has two or three days of inventory left, it sends a message to headquarters to ask to be refilled.

Inputs and outputs.

It’s worth noting that my spec doesn’t have to include any information about what gumballs are for, or how much it costs us to make gumballs. We’re defining the inputs and outputs of a system.

[It’s totally worth having a different discussion with a different team about your processes, your goals, the people you serve and the problems you seek to solve. Systems work best when they are coherent with what you actually seek to achieve… but we can leave that for another day].

It’s tempting to nail down the precise solutions to each input and output requirement early on. You might decide that the way you’re executing your system should be part of the spec from the beginning. That’s backwards. The system exists for solving problems, and the way the system executes is only there to serve that goal, not the other way around.

Maybe you don’t need a 386 processor or a tin roof to solve your problem. Let’s figure out the problem first, and worry about the way we meet your specs second.

Grab some index cards and simulate your system. Have each user write down precisely what they want to tell/ask the system and have the person running the system hand back index cards with the results that they can expect. Be clear about the state that the system is in before each transaction and after it as well.

The sum total of these interactions is your spec.

Bound this with constraints of time and money and performance and you’ve done the hard part.


Successful creatives

Many of the ones I know are terrible listeners. They don’t actively engage, don’t see the people who are right in front of them, and don’t exercise much in the way of curiosity or empathy.

I think they got successful because the idea they had inside of them somehow resonated with enough people that they get to share what they were thinking.

But the most reliably successful people I know are precisely the opposite. They are desperate to see and know what’s making other people tick. They actively engage, and they do it with empathy and generosity.

The second path is no guarantee, but it’s more likely to work and it’s also a lot more fun.

What if?

What if today, just for today, we didn’t settle?

What if we saw precisely the change we sought to make and sacrificed to make that change?

What if we set aside urgencies and focused simply on what’s important instead?

What if we did the work that matters?

The thing about elephants

They’re not very good at hiding.

If you see an elephant in the room, it’s possible that other people do too.

The best way to get it to leave is to simply mention that it’s there.

Best in category

If you want to please someone with a gift, it’s unlikely that you’ll succeed by buying them a pretty good version of the item in question, even if it’s a great value.

Better, the research suggests that you’ll do better to overpay for something in a cheaper category, where it’s obviously the best in the world.

This might seem like a hack of the irrational nature of humanity, but if we consider what it means to have a gift exchange, it makes perfect sense. A gift is not a transfer of monetary value.

Along the same lines, a monetary Christmas bonus, while rational, might not be as appreciated as something of lower value, precisely because thoughtfulness is difficult to put a price tag on.

“I don’t know how it could fail”

That’s a warning sign.

So is, “I don’t know how it would fail.”

In the first case, you haven’t thought deeply enough (or don’t have enough experience) to imagine how your solution might not work in every case. The best way to make your work better is to get more imaginative about how it could fail to resonate with those you seek to serve.

And in the second, once you can imagine that it might not work, it’s really helpful to imagine what failure actually entails. What breaks? What are the side effects? How will you recover?

The art of solving problems often involves spending time and energy on what you’ll do when you don’t actually solve the problem.

Making fairness convenient

Modernity has caused us to care more about convenience than just about anything. We’ll trade privacy or agency or our ethical standards simply to save a few clicks.

That’s a shame. It’s nothing to be proud of. But it’s true. And so, if we want things to be more fair, it helps to make fairness more convenient. Here, for example, is an endless collection of stock photos from Christina Morillo. They’re free, they’re well done and they feature women of color and other under-represented groups. Suddenly, it’s a lot easier to find a photo that opens doors and sets a wider standard for what’s normal.

Or consider a company that moves its on-campus recruiting to a college with a more diverse student body. Or an orchestra that defaults to auditioning performers behind an opaque screen. Or a job interview process that uses projects instead of live performance in an unnatural setting. Or a library that uses ramps instead of steps…

The well-grooved pathways of habit often cause us to make bad long-term decisions. And often, people run out of energy, time or resolve to do what they know they ought to do, resorting to the easy thing or the practiced thing instead. We know we can do better, but in the meantime, making it more convenient to do work we’re proud of is a good place to start.

Fairness might not be more convenient in the short run, but diversity creates measurable value.

More in this episode of Akimbo.

The gap between good and famous

When there were gatekeepers, the gap was smaller. People who knew that they could create fame were careful (often) to bestow it on things and people that they believed had something to offer.

As the race for fame becomes ever more breakneck, though, that requirement is fading.

While it’s a convenient shortcut, the signal of ‘famous’ is no longer closely related to the desire for ‘good’.