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Lottery thinking

Ironically enough, lottery thinking is a chronic problem.

Lotteries of all sorts grab our attention and change our agenda.

A lottery is an almost random event, a longshot, one that promises to change your life (for the better if it’s a money thing, for the worse if it’s medical, etc.).

The simple and immediate nature of the outcome is an essential part of the lottery’s power.

Getting hit by lightning, finding the perfect job, having a djinni grant three wishes–these are all lotteries.

We spent billions of dollars keeping liquids out of carry-on luggage for no rational reason. It was simply a negative lottery, one that momentarily got the public’s attention and then became part of a narrative about control.

There’s a mismatch between how vivid an outcome is and the odds that make that outcome likely or important to our daily plans. High media attention plus sudden change plus low odds tend to focus our minds more than the opposite.

The problem with lottery thinking is that it takes us away from thinking about the chronic stuff instead. The pervasive, consistent challenge that will respond to committed effort.


PS relevant aside: The other day I was passed by someone who was headed toward me, at high speed, in the middle of the street. He was on an electric skateboard. He had on a face mask, of course, but it was askew. He wasn’t wearing a helmet and he was vaping, all at the same time. Go figure.

Professional wrestling

It’s a theater of status.

Professional wrestling isn’t about wrestling, of course. It’s about who’s up and who’s down. The stated rules are there to be broken by some of the participants, and it’s not professional in any useful sense related to the sport of wrestling.

And the metaphor is powerful in many areas of life.

But we can’t understand the metaphor without understanding the forms of status that are on offer.

There is the status of affiliation. This is about belonging, about knowing and living with the rules. It’s about weaving together the culture and this affiliation leads to a form of popularity.

And then there is the status of dominance. This is about winning at any cost, cheating and subjugating. It’s about unraveling the culture in service of just one aim–victory over the others.

Professional wrestling creates tension between the two forms of status. We know that we all benefit from affiliation, but often are swayed by the avenging dominator if we see ourselves in them.

The theater of status happens in our daily lives. It’s who sits where at the meeting, or who gets to announce that the Zoom session is over. It’s the insurgent and the status quo. It’s the dramatic back and forth between someone who seeks power and someone who is tired of being told what to do.

The successful affiliator doesn’t seek to out-dominate the dominator. Instead, affiliators weave together enough persistent community pressure to get things back on track. And sooner or later, people realize that the triumph of the dominator, while it can be painful, is short-lived.

Here I am

When we say, “here, I made this,” we’re not seeking credit, we’re taking responsibility.

To be seen, to learn, to own it, to do it better next time.

Hiding is too easy. And hiding is a trap.

“What time is your flight?”

Why do cab drivers ask this question?

It’s not like they can get to the airport any faster.

It simply serves to create tension where no tension is helpful.

There are a hundred ways to introduce tension into a conversation. It’s worth doing it with intent, when it serves a function.

The magic of trade-offs

If you make a laptop more powerful, the battery life will suffer and it will get heavier too.


If you make a plane bigger, it won’t land at every airport, and it will cost more to fly, even if you don’t sell all the seats.

Another set of trade-offs.

Good engineers don’t whine about trade-offs, because they realize that they’re the entire point.

If there were no trade-offs, we wouldn’t need their help, there would be no interesting problems worth solving.

In our work and our lives, we can train ourselves to say, “oh, good, an interesting trade-off.”

One at a time, over and over

It’s 2018, a special night out. The restaurant shouldn’t have been as disappointing as it was. The room was beautiful, the staff was trying hard, the menu was ambitious–and yet it fell flat.

I realized that the problem is one that many of us face:

All shift long, there’s a lot to do. Another plate to fire, another customer to serve, another plate to clean. And yet this customer doesn’t care about all of that. For any given diner, this may very well be the only time he or she will ever eat here. For any given diner, this dish, this interaction–that’s the only chance you’re going to get.

It doesn’t matter to them that you have 100 tops to serve in the next hour. It doesn’t matter that the last week’s worth of customers all left happy. To this customer, there’s just this one time.

Over and over.

Just this one time.

Over and over.

When can we talk about our systems?

Your team is down by a few points and the game is almost over. What play should you call?

[When can we talk about the system of drafting and training that got your team to this situation in the first place?]

Your back hurts and you think you need surgery to help with the pain.

[When can we talk about the technique you use when you go running every day?]

Your employee shows up late regularly. How can you get them to care more?

[When can we talk about your hiring and leadership approaches?]

There’s racial injustice and unfairness all around us.

[Can we talk about persistent indoctrination around caste?]

You just had an argument with your brother. What’s the best way for him to see that you’re right?

[When can we talk about the narratives your family has developed for generations?]

Universities and local schools are in crisis with testing in disarray and distant learning ineffective…

[When can we talk about what school is for?]

It’s comfortable to ignore the system, to assume it is as permanent as the water surrounding your goldfish. But the fact that we have these tactical problems is all the evidence we need to see that something is causing them, and that spending time on the underlying structure could make a difference.

In a crisis, there’s maximum attention. And in a crisis, we often discard any pretense of caring about systems and resilience and focus only on how to get back to normal. This is precisely why normal is what normal is, because we fight to get back to it.

Changing the system changes everything. And it might be even less work than pouring water on today’s tactical emergency.

What does “shortly” mean?

When a client or customer asks when a project is going to be done, an answer offered might be, “soon” or “shortly.”

Frustration ensues.

It ensues because “shortly,” means: “I’m not sure” and “I don’t want to be responsible” and “you shouldn’t ask.” It creates little in the way of connection, and doesn’t project confidence, authority or even care.

“Shortly” is a one-word way to say, “go away.”

The alternative is to seek to understand and to work to be understood.

If the customer is double-parked, a better answer might be, “it will definitely be less than ten minutes, give me your phone number and I’ll call you the moment it’s done.”

If the engagement manager is trying to juggle priorities and dependencies, a better response might be, “would it make things easier if we could narrow down the delivery date to a two-or-three day span?”

And if the client is simply curious to understand why she hasn’t heard from you and whether you’ve got this under control, perhaps the answer is, “the dilithium crystals shorted out, the new shipment is promised for Monday and in the past, it has taken two weeks after arrival for us to complete the testing.”

It might not be done, but confidence is restored.

You sell what you sell, but you also sell the story we tell ourselves about your relationship with the work (and with us).

Dancing with belief

All of us believe things that might be inconsistent, not based on how the real world actually works or not shared by others. That’s what makes us human.

There are some questions we can ask ourselves about our beliefs that might help us create the change we seek:

Is it working?

If your belief is working for you, if it’s helping you navigate a crazy world and find solace, and if it’s not hurting anyone else, it’s doing what it’s supposed to do. Often, beliefs are about finding human connection and a way to tell ourselves about our place in the world, not as an accurate predictive insight as to what’s actually happening. And beliefs are almost always about community, about being part of something.

Is it helpful?

Air traffic controllers and meteorologists rarely believe that the earth is flat. It’s a belief that would get in the way of being competent at their work. If your beliefs are getting in the way of your work, of your health or the health of those around you, or of your ability to be a contributing citizen, it might be worth examining why you have them and how they got there. Did you decide to have these beliefs or did someone with an agenda that doesn’t match yours promote them?

Is it true? 

True in the sense that it’s falsifiable, verifiable, testable and predictive. Falsifiable means that the belief is specific enough that something contrary to the belief could be discovered (“there are no orange swans” is a falsifiable belief, because all we need to do is find one orange swan). It’s not necessary for a belief to be scientifically true, in fact, it undermines the very nature of belief to require evidence. Once there’s evidence, then whatever is true is true, whether or not you believe it.

Do you need it to be true?

Which means that much of what we do to somehow prove our beliefs are true is wasted time and effort. If a belief is helping you make your way through the world, if it acts as a placebo and a balm and a rubric, then that’s sufficient. The problems occur when some people use our beliefs to manipulate us, when they prevent us from accomplishing our goals or contributing to the well being of those around us.

What would change your mind?

If we decide that our belief is actually true, we owe it to ourselves to be clear about what would have to happen for us to realize that it’s not. One of the frustrating things about conspiracies and modern memes is that as soon as they’re examined or contradicted, they’re simply replaced with a new variation. It’s one thing to change beliefs because the scientific method shows us a more clear view of what’s happening, it’s totally different to retreat to ever more unrelated stories in the face of reality. Sometimes, it’s easier for people to amend their belief with one more layer of insulation than it is to acknowledge how the world is likely to work.

Crossing from the early adopters to a larger group

I’ve blogged many times about the chasm.

That’s Geoffrey Moore’s term for the gap between the small part of the market populated with people who like to go first, and the larger group of people who want to get involved with something that’s proven, popular and effective.

The early adopters ask, “is it new?”

The early majority ask, “did it work?” and perhaps, “what’s everyone else doing?”

Longtime readers of this blog know that I do my work for early adopters. The smallest viable audience is sufficient to make an impact, and it allows me to focus on the people who are enrolled in the journey forward.

But if you delight the early adopters, they spread the word. That is how the chasm is crossed–not with fancy ads or clever hype, but because the people who are engaged do the generous work of telling the others.

We’re launching the first lessons of the tenth edition of The Marketing Seminar this week. With more than 10,000 alumni, it’s the most popular workshop on the Akimbo platform. And it works. That’s why the 8,000 people who took it after the initial launch decided to join in. Not everyone goes first. Almost no one does. That’s how our culture changes–when the few early adopters tell the others. And so each of us has to persist and continue to show up in the marketplace, doing the work and earning the trust of people who don’t get a thrill out of going first.

People don’t show up when you launch.

They show up when they’re ready.