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An abundance of caution

Lawyers are fond of this.

And sometimes, parents are too.

At least you won’t get blamed if something goes wrong.

It turns out that we don’t need an abundance of caution. We need appropriate caution. They’re different things. Abundant caution is wasted.

Things like ripe avocados and morel mushrooms are terrific to have in abundance. By definition, though, abundant caution is not only more than we need, it’s more than is helpful. Because we get hooked on the feeling.

We can always make a risk ever smaller. But the cost is that we will increase other risks.

Please don’t avoid appropriate caution. It matters to you and to the community. But seeking reassurance and peace of mind by trying to drive risk to zero doesn’t get you either one of them.

Connection, possibility and forward motion are tools for resilience and a healthy life.

Publishers, curation and algorithms

Publishers take two risks to bring new ideas to the world.

(And I’m talking about any middleperson–a gallerist, a TV network, a movie studio, a label–they’re all publishers).

One risk is the time and money spent attracting and supporting the creator/artist.

And the other risk is curatorial. They are risking the trust and attention of the audience by choosing THIS instead of THAT. If they develop a reputation for having good taste (in however the audience defines that) they earn more attention and trust and the benefit of the doubt.

The great publishers might not be famous (Motown was, and The New Yorker is) but they change the culture.

TED takes a risk when they put someone on the main stage or feature a video online. And a podcaster takes a risk when they choose a guest.

The artist gets two benefits. They get the benefit of being picked: cash, editing, the emotional solace of being selected and supported.

And they get the benefit of curation. They reach a scarce audience with help from an organization that’s good at that, and is willing to risk their permission asset to support the artist’s work.

The internet has pockets where all of this is intentionally undermined, often by organizations that adopt the mantle of publisher when it’s convenient.

The Long Tail is Chris Anderson’s term for a library with infinite shelf space, one where the rules of scarcity don’t apply in the same way. The internet platform doesn’t care how many different titles they carry, and in fact, benefits from carrying all of them. Spotify and YouTube and Amazon don’t actually care what you listen to or watch, as long as you come back tomorrow.

Because they have nothing much at stake when it comes to content, and because they are focused on scale, they defer to an algorithm. It’s the mysterious program, by now so complex that no one knows exactly how it works, that decides what works get attention. Even the people who work there guess at what the algorithm wants.

And this has consequences.

Look up a recipe online. It’s a very different experience than finding a recipe in your favorite cookbook. The recipes online offer nearly infinite variety, but they’re largely untested, and they’re formatted in a time-wasting upside-down sort of way because someone decoded that this is what Google’s algorithm would like.

Look at most of the junk in the app store, or most of the content in social media. The algorithm sorts through everything, and when anything can make a buck, anything will.

Of course, there are enormous benefits to the long tail. It gives creators who don’t match an existing editorial paradigm a chance to be heard. It gives readers/listeners/watchers a chance to discover things that would have been unpublished in the old model. And it creates room for discussion and access where it might not have existed.


Publishing to an algorithm is not the same as publishing to an audience. If the creator has no publisher and no permission asset, then being heard is dramatically more difficult. As is getting paid.

And living in a culture that’s driven by profit-seeking algorithm owners is different as well. Because without curation, who is responsible? Who is guiding the culture? Who pushes the boundaries or raises the standards?

Wikipedia has 5,000 curators who work overtime to keep the site from becoming yet another example of Godwin’s Law. Sites that only obey the Long Tail and the primacy of the algorithm have fewer standards. They view curation as a last resort, and if mass is the standard, then mass is all that will be rewarded.

It’s tempting to hope that there’s a hybrid out there. But for that to exist, the algorithms have to work for creators and publishers, not the other way around. The publishers have to embrace the cost of curation, focusing on what they want to promote and paying the price to do so, owning the upside and downside of that intervention.

Culture is almost always improved not by what the masses want tomorrow, but by what a small and dedicated group of people are willing to commit to for the long run. “People like us do things like this” is the recipe for culture.

Creators: It’s possible (perhaps required) to not wait to get picked by a traditional publisher. At the same time, we benefit when we realize that the algorithm isn’t rooting for us and quite probably is working against us. The only winning approach is to earn permission and a direct connection with our fans and then act as curators for ideas (and as our own publishers).

Platforms: It helps to acknowledge that you’re not actually a publisher, that ceding decisions to the crowd and the algorithm and walking away from curation might make you a landlord, but you’re not incrementally improving the culture. Yes, it’s possible to find a middle ground, as Netflix has, but it requires awareness, persistence and discipline.

You probably won’t find this post by searching for it on Google, because they moved my blog down in the results a really long time ago. That’s okay, I’m not writing it for them, I’m writing it for you.

What does it mean to do well in school?

Is it the same as “doing well on some tests”?

Because that’s what we report–that perhaps 240 times in a college career, you sat down for a test and did well on it.

That’s hardly the same as doing well in school.

Where do we look up insight on your resilience, enthusiasm, cooperation, curiosity, collaboration, honesty, generosity and leadership?

Because it seems like that’s far more important than whether or not you remembered something long enough to repeat it back on a test.

The opportunity of the laggards

(There are some fractions here, please persist. It’s worth it.)

Imagine that you have a daily drive. Half of it by distance is on dirt roads where your car can drive 10 miles an hour. And half of it is on a good road where you can drive 50 miles an hour.

Which is a better choice: Trading your car in for one that can drive 22 miles an hour on the dirt road but no better on the highway? Or one that can do no better on the dirt road but 200 miles an hour on the highway?


Imagine that your factory has two kinds of machines, all fully busy. Half of them can process steel with an accuracy rate of 2 in 10. The other half can do it with 80% accuracy. Which is a better investment: Tuning the lousy machines into 30% accuracy or making the newer machines perfect, with no errors at all?

And finally, what’s the best way to improve fleet mileage? To get the 14 mile per gallon Hummers to upgrade to Toyota Camrys, or to get the Camrys to convert to infinite mileage electric cars?

In all three cases, because you can’t average averages, the answer is to improve the laggards.

Here’s the arithmetic if you’re curious.

And we should be curious. Because it feels safer, more productive and easier to go after the devices or systems or people that seem to be so close to getting it right. But it’s the laggards that cost us the most.

March is going to be dark chocolate month around here

March is the perfect time to go on a world tour from your living room. In the Northern Hemisphere, early March offers perfect weather for shipping, and a blissful shortage of Hallmark holidays and cheap chocolate.

Megan Giller and I have put together a series of interviews (and tastings!) of dark chocolate and we’re inviting you to tune in.

Find out all the details here.

The short version:

In March 2021, on my FacebookLinkedIn and Instagram pages, I’ll be posting live interviews and tastings with some of the greatest chocolate makers of our time. And you can pre-order the bars and taste along if you like. If you’ve got chocolate in hand, feel free to join in with comments or live feedback as we go.

Dark chocolate, made by hand, by artisans who start with the bean and take it all the way to the finished product–it’s special. There are tones and notes and flavors that you can learn to taste. It’s fun to share. It’s an affordable luxury–you can buy the equivalent of a $500 bottle of wine in chocolate form for $11 or so. You can even get snobby and talk about trinitario and porcelana beans…

And the people who grow the beans, the farmers, are some of the poorest people in the world, often at the mercy of a heartless industrial food chain. The bars we’ll be tasting are all from producers who pay their farmers significantly more than the clearing price. If we can spread the word about this craft, they’ll all do better.

Thanks to Megan for helping me make this happen, and thanks to everyone who makes things a little more delicious, bringing care and dignity to the world at the same time.

Your big break

Some people get one. Most people don’t.

But, if you’re reading this, it means that you’ve received more than one, perhaps a countless number of, little breaks.

Access to tools, the benefit of the doubt, decent health, occasional peace of mind.

Little breaks. Over and over.

Little breaks get you into a room, but they don’t guarantee your performance. Little breaks get you a glimmer of trust or opportunity, they give you a microphone and a chance to share your dream.

Little breaks don’t always announce themselves the way big breaks do.

Little breaks compound, one often leading to another. Or they don’t, creating false momentum and then disappointment.

Sometimes little breaks pretend to be big ones, and sometimes they’re hiding in plain sight.

Little breaks are easy to ignore and thus are wasted.

Little breaks don’t like being waited for the way big breaks do, because while you’re waiting, you’re wasting the little breaks you’ve already gotten.

Flavors of indies

Independent workers, founders, creators and organizers are often lumped together with a simple term, but that one-size-fits-all model fits no one.

You might be an entrepreneur, building a significant business by borrowing money to buy machines or to develop a market, focused on creating value, improving your leverage and eventually selling the company when it reaches scale.

Or you could be a bootstrapper, focused on avoiding financing while building an organization that pays for itself as it scales. It’s a different discipline from the first moment to the last, one that brings freedom along with responsibility.

Perhaps you’re a freelancer, getting paid when you work, and aware that your labor and your craft is how you make a difference. The only way for a freelancer to make a bigger impact is to have better clients, which is a project unto itself.

And it could be that you are committed to running a small business, the backbone of our culture, a craft that works at the right scale and doesn’t worry a lot about what the business magazines have to say.

I hope you’re not a tech-bro, building a make-believe business that’s somehow valued at a billion dollars even though it has no visible business model.

You could happily be an impresario, someone who produces, arranges and orchestrates an event or a movement. (Just posted, a long lost lecture on this).

Whatever you choose, choose! Being confused, seeking the best of each of these while experiencing the worst of all of them is no way forward.

Indies create possibility, they shape the culture and they make things better. We need you more than ever.

The easy way down

Ski slopes are marked by difficulty. The green circle indicates the easiest slope, the one that will get you to the base of the hill the fastest, with the least amount of risk or drama.

Why would anyone choose to ski down on the difficult black diamond run instead?

Most passionate skiers would ask the question differently: why wouldn’t you?

The point of skiing isn’t to get to the bottom. The point is how it feels on your way there.

I’m wondering why this insight is so hard for us to embrace when it comes to learning or personal engagement or art or the work we do each day?

There are speed bumps along the way, opportunities unevenly distributed, and unforeseen problems. But none of them get better when we decide to always seek the easy way to the end.

Avoid the clown suit

How to get better at graphic design…

There are more amateur and semi-pro graphic designers working today than at any point in human history.

Presentations, instagram posts, websites, the cover of your kindle book or the logo for your podcast–anyone who’s touching a phone or a computer is called upon to do design, and most of us could get better.

  • Understand the difference between good graphic design and simply putting ideas on paper.
  • Acknowledge that you want to get better and realize that you can.
  • Improve the picture in your head.
  • Learn the skills of making that picture real.

Understand the difference: Simply throwing type or a picture up will definitely put the information in front of people, but it won’t carry with it all of the care, insight and professionalism you want and need.

We don’t tolerate typos in commercial products, and the market has the same feeling about design that’s lazy or out of place.

Graphic design represents an emotional commitment to the work. Long before we read the words or understand the images, we see the layout. Kerning and color and weight and form arrive in our brains before we have decided what the words on the page actually mean. You wouldn’t wear a clown suit to a job interview, and yet people dress up their ideas in clown suits all the time.

Getting better: If you are sure that you’re already good enough and that feedback is simply annoying, you’re probably not reading this. For the rest of us, there’s the chance to say, “I’m going to move to a higher level, and that means leaving this level behind.” Don’t defend your work with the generous critic. The entire point of getting better is to eagerly abandon the approaches you were taking on your way to gaining new skills that are more effective.

The picture in your head: This is a huge step. If what you’re designing looks right to you, then it’s never going to improve. The leap here is to go shopping. Find ten websites that succeed by whatever measure matters to you. Go to a bookstore and find ten book covers that represent the level of authority and professionalism you seek. Go to the Dieline and compare 40 package designs. Check out the difference between the photos you’re taking and the ones that are on the most successful online retail sites. Find some heroes. Understand the genre you’re working in.

Make the picture real: And now–copy them. Step by step, learn what you need to learn to make something as good as your heroes. A direct copy is not what you’re going to publish, but at least you’ll understand how to add the level of care and signalling and understanding of genre that’s needed to get the emotional element of your point across.

Once you know how to do good lighting, color choice and typography, you are welcome to abandon it. But it certainly pays to know how and to make it your choice.

Living on the delta

“What’s different?”

Because we rarely notice what’s the same.

It’s not easy to focus on the chronic. In fact, it’s really difficult. Too often we are in organizations that are highly leveraged, living from quarter to quarter, or we’re depending on clients or bosses from day to day. Too often, we don’t have enough in reserve to focus on anything but what’s changing or what’s getting the spotlight.

It’s the chronic issues that end up causing the most pain. Systems at work that never get better, or problems that fester.

For too long, there have been lousy schools, inequitable opportunity and the pain of grinding poverty. There have always been innocent people in prison and unheard voices in need of our help. There has long been graft and inefficiency and the tragedy of preventable illness and discomfort.

But we’ve too often turned away from those issues, from the things we’re accustomed to, because they appear to be the same as they were. The status quo is there because we’ve accepted it. We might have worked hard on some of the issues, but it seems impossible to be on our toes about all of them, all of the time.

And marketers have pushed us to focus on the new movie, the new crisis, the new tech…

When sudden change hits, it’s easy to get focused on it to the exclusion of everything else. It’s the delta, the change, the acceleration–it attracts our gaze. And we can’t turn away, or it feels like we can’t.

The media is in the delta business. That’s all they do, that’s what they get paid for, and they work to maximize our addiction to it.

Not everyone is lucky enough to be able to spend time away from the delta, but if you can, it’s worth the effort.

,The problem with living on the delta is that as we strap into a rollercoaster of external change, we forget to work on the problems we have the opportunity to improve.