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Cross the bridge and join the dragons

53 years ago, early in her career, Joni Mitchell recorded this song.

It’s not something most people will want to listen to often. Shortly after that, she became the one and only Joni Mitchell. But first, she had dues to pay.

That’s the work of practice and discernment and skill. You’re not born with genius, it’s a skill.

You might have to sing more than one song like this before you end up with the art that resonates with your audience.

The limited-edition pre-launch of The Practice

My new book ships in two weeks.

It’s about the human process of shipping creative work, regardless of what sort of job we have. It’s about trusting yourself. Mostly, it’s about getting back to becoming the person you seek to be.

You can find details on the book (and links to pre-order) here.

For the true fans, I’ve put together exactly 400 sets of limited-edition swag. If you order the special 12-copy set of the book from Porchlight, you’ll also get a large handful of cool stuff, including a hand-lasered writer’s block, a set of letterpress hand-printed pages, six (of 12) collectible storage packs and a magical surprise that contains actual magic.

If you’re the sort of person who likes to go first, or wants to share a book with your peers, today’s the day. There aren’t many…

[update 10.21 end of day–now a bestseller on Amazon, thank you. And the 12-packs are sold out…]




“I hate this restaurant”

Back in the old days, I took someone to a local Italian restaurant for dinner.

As we looked over the menu, complete with regional specialties and handmade pastas, he started to sulk. With a sullen look, he said, “I want a hamburger and french fries.”

Somehow, the patient kitchen staff figured out how to produce this out of thin air, and a tantrum was narrowly averted. But I’ve been thinking about that interaction a lot.

In his mind, “restaurant” meant, “a place where I can get a hamburger and french fries.” If you look at many 1 star reviews (of books, of music, of restaurants) this is precisely what you’re going to see. A mismatch of expectations. A mismatch that is blamed, completely, on the person who created the work, not the critic.

It doesn’t matter that the thing was clearly marked. It doesn’t matter that the thing was extraordinarily well-produced. And it doesn’t matter if just about everyone else experiencing it was thoroughly delighted.

Because for this spoiled, under-informed and impatient patron, it failed.

This failure comes from a few contributing factors, all amplified by our culture:

First, you can’t know if you’re going to like an experience until you experience it. All you know is your understanding of what was on offer. And because there are so many choices and there’s so much noise, we rarely take the time to actually read the label, or we get carried away by the coming attractions, or we just don’t care enough to pay attention until we’re already involved.

[And marketers are complicit, because in the face of too much noise, they hype what’s on offer and overpromise…]

Second, because many people are afraid. They’re afraid of the new and even more than that, afraid of change. Most people in our culture would like to be entertained not transformed, lectured at instead of learning.

Third, the double-edged sword of giving everyone a microphone means that we’ve amplified the voices of dissent at the same time we’ve given people a chance to speak up about their desires. This means that mass culture is far more divisive than it ever was before, and it also means that bubbles of interest are more likely to be served.

And so the fork in the road:

You can either turn your operation into a cross between McDonald’s and Disney, selling the regular kind, pandering to the middle, putting everything in exactly the category they hoped for and challenging no expectations…

Or you can do the incredibly hard work of transgressing genres, challenging expectations and seeking out the few people who want to experience something that matters, instead of something that’s merely safe.

Better and cheaper

That’s a pretty powerful combination. Some customers gravitate toward the option that offers ease, quality and convenience, while others prefer low price. If you can do both…

One way we’ve seen that done is with scale. Many people prefer the big box store to the local merchant. Not only is it often cheaper, but the selection might be dramatically better, the parking might be easier and in some rare cases, the service is better as well. How is this possible? Because volume pays off in almost every way that matters to the customer.

Another way is with proprietary insight. If a company has a production process, a patent or some other barrier, they can often deliver something faster and cheaper… a barrier that a competitor without that shortcut can’t overcome.

A third way is with herculean effort. When the people who work on the team simply care more. Caring is work, and caring is in short supply. An organization staffed with smart people who care can often run circles around a lazier competitor.

Most of the time, though, you’re probably unable to rely on one of these approaches. If that’s the case, the next best option is to choose. To actually be better (regardless of price) or to actually be cheaper. But pretending that you have both doesn’t work very well.

It costs a lot but it’s worth more than it costs.


The word has a very specific meaning, which is why it’s so powerful.

If we accept behavior that’s unacceptable, we’re compromising on something that we thought was too important to compromise on.

And that’s how we end up with the unacceptable becoming commonplace.

Two kinds of limbo

Uncomfortable limbo happens when we’re seeking firm footing and there isn’t any. The discomfort comes from not knowing, from our unlimited desire to get through it to the other side.

And comfortable limbo is a place to hide. We lull ourselves into complacency, because the limbo of being in between feels safe, with no responsibilities.

Amazingly, two different people can experience the same limbo in totally different ways. It’s not the limbo that’s different, it’s us.

We like what we choose

Not the other way around.

It feels safer to say that we’re born with talents and gifts, that we have a true calling, that we’re looking for what connects with our passion.

That’s not useful (because it means you spend a lot of time shopping around) but it’s also not true.

New research confirms that random choices lead to preferences, and then it follows that preferences lead to habits and habits lead us to become the person we somehow decide we were born to be.

If you had grown up somewhere else or some time else, there’s little doubt that you’d prefer something else. The things we think we need are simply the things we’re used to.

And if you like what you like simply because you have a pattern, that means that you might be able to like something else if you could develop new patterns.

In short: If we commit to loving what we do, we’re more likely to find engagement and satisfaction. And if what we do changes, we can choose to love that too.

Two kinds of momentum

There’s the unalterable momentum of physical objects as understood by physics: objects in motion tend to remain that way. A fast-moving baseball hitting your head hurts more than a lobbed one.

But usually, momentum is only conceptual, and it’s based on our habits and our difficulty in understanding (and ignoring) sunk costs. We stick with a pattern, a leader, an employee or a project much longer than we should.

The behavior that keeps someone from getting hired is trivial compared to what it takes to get fired. And at some level, that makes sense. When we’re not committed yet, the cost of looking around and switching our choice is small. But once we’ve emotionally committed to a cause or a project or a person, the cost of change is high, partly because it involves feeling as though we made a mistake.

But compounding that initial choice by doubling down on it is the actual mistake.

Digging a deeper hole rarely gets us to the other side.

Show no work

There are two sorts of projects.

In the first, you’ll need to show your work. Show us why the logic holds up. Tell us how this has happened before. Explain the best practices you’ve learned from and the standards you’re following.

In the second, you’re taking a leap. Simply guessing or going on instinct.

Either path can work, the problem is when we confuse them. Perhaps we’re doing something that is based on what’s come before, but we refuse to examine, measure or compare, insisting that history doesn’t apply. Or worse, when we’re going on instinct and assert that it’s actually a reliable, proven path forward.

If the stakes are high and the outcome needs to be reliable, we hope you’ll be able to show your work.

And when it comes to the part of the project that’s yours and yours alone, the part that isn’t based on what’s come before, show no work. And plan accordingly.

The power of community and the trap of opt-out

In Colonial America, they had private fire departments. If you didn’t voluntarily pay your dues, the firemen wouldn’t put out a fire–they’d watch your house burn and make sure it didn’t spread to your neighbor’s house. [or this!]

While this is a vivid way to ensure that everyone pays their dues, it’s such an inefficient way to support the fire department that it was replaced with the smarter alternative: a smaller tax on everyone, automatically collected. Even if a few manage to avoid paying their share, the blanket protection, which also leads to fire inspectors and building codes, clearly makes the case for universal protection.

We don’t let citizens opt out of paying their taxes, because community works better when group consensus leads to group action. It’s more efficient to provide services this way, and far more important, it creates a culture of ‘us’, which changes behavior from selfish to generous.

There’s a balance, neither extreme works. It’s up to us to think hard about where the (unstable, hard to find) balance lies.