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The market is a listening device

It’s the most resilient, most granular technique available for us to figure out what people want.

When individuals have the freedom to choose, they often do.

At the same time that markets enable choice, large-scale industrial capitalism works overtime to remove it. The main job of most big company CEOs is to figure out how to lock in customers, because customers without choices stick around longer and pay more.

Some organizations exist to satisfy market demand.

Some work hard to create market demand.

And some are focused on capturing demand and then eliminating the market itself.

The internet has created changes in both directions. We have dramatically more choice when it comes to ways to spend/waste our time, but we also have to deal with the natural monopolies created by the network effect and the hidden levers that drive toward lock in.

If we’re not alert, many of the choice-driven markets we depend on will disappear.

Luck is not a strategy

Advice from people who have gotten lucky is a tricky thing.

Perhaps they did x, y and z, and then got lucky. As story telling creatures, it’s natural to assume that x, y or z had something to do with it. Which can lead to bad advice.

Consider the guy who smoked like a chimney, drank like a fish and lived to be 100. It’s not clear that his habits helped him get lucky.

Luck might not be a strategy, but setting yourself up to be lucky might be.

Luck is a tactic. An unpredictable one, sure, but if it works, it works. A useful strategy might be: I’m going to establish a pattern of resilience and apply information and testing to discover what works. And one of the tactics to support that strategy could be showing up in places where luck can help me out. If I can persist long enough, I’ll get lucky.

But that’s very different than the false correlation of past behavior with lucky outcomes.

What’s new?

That’s a fun question, but not nearly as useful as, “what’s effective?”

Pick up a fifteen-year-old copy of Wired, or a business book from 1969 and see what’s still around.

The technology keeps changing, but connection and trust are what still work. Ideas that spread, win. Ideas that stick are worth even more. You can race to be first on a new platform, but it’s far better to be the voice that we would miss if you weren’t there.

Anecdotes are not science

Phrenology was discredited a long time ago. People who should have known better were sure that by studying the bumps on someone’s head, a trained expert could divine insights about their personality. It ended up being used to advance racist and class-based agendas, and was completely debunked. It faded away for decades. And it’s back.

New technology creates the appearance (and sometimes the actual fact) of new insights, new resolution, new certainty.

We might not know what an oscillation overthruster is, or why single photon imaging is better, but it sounds well studied and precise. A chart from Excel seems a lot more certain than one that’s hand drawn.

In our search for anecdotes, particularly about health, behavior or the economy, this apparent increase in accuracy opens the door for more hope, even if it’s not based on widespread results.

The charts used to describe the behavior of stocks and tokens keep getting more complex and refined, but they’re still unable to accurately predict what will happen next week.

The fancy readouts of horoscopes or biorhythms glow with many insignificant digits, but they still tell us nothing about someone’s future, any more than palm reading does.

And an x-ray can tell us with great certainty if your appendix has burst, but a SPECT scan is useless in determining someone’s personality without the aid of an in-person consultation, which is all we’ve ever needed. In fact, that’s precisely how phrenology used to work: meet with someone first, then find validation in the mysterious reading of their bumps.

The standard worth checking for is easy: From the chart or the bumps or the scan alone, without meeting the patient, tell me what you see and what’s going to happen next.

They put Einstein’s brain in a jar, but learned nothing from it.

The folks who ate green coffee beans or swallowed colloidal silver have plenty of anecdotes to support their placebos. And when they move on from pyramids to magnets, the anecdotes will follow them. But anecdotes aren’t science. Like coincidences, they’re by-products of our story-seeking minds, connections we make as we search for solace in a confusing world. And sometimes marketers use the anecdotes to make a sale and hurt the customer.

Very few interventions that involve humans are simple. We need more than a double-blind study, because humans aren’t double-blind. We know what’s on offer, and the story we tell ourselves changes how we behave.

Science is often not the right answer to every question–it often fails to deliver what we need. But hustles pretending to be science are almost always a bad idea.

In fact, stories are too important and worthwhile to need a babble of pseudoscience that some would like put on them.

Placebos are powerful, and if they’re cheap and benign, I’m all for them. My day is filled with placebos of all kinds, because they work. The problems happen when they stop being benign, when they keep us from appropriate treatment and when they’re used against us…

Somehow, we’ve persuaded ourselves that we need to pretend that our anecdotal interventions are actual scientific breakthroughs instead of embracing the fact that we’re humans, and that stories work on us. By wearing the mantle of science, hypesters are not only able to charge more, but they also degrade the reputation of the very methods they purport to use–when we see firsthand that pretend science doesn’t work, we’re tempted to imagine that the same is true for interventions that are actually studied and tested.

We wouldn’t fly on a plane or cross a bridge that was built with the same doublespeak that many folk medicines and soothsayers use. They have their place, they make us who we are, but anecdotes aren’t science.


They rhyme, but they have opposite meanings. It’s very difficult to feel both emotions at the same time, and one is far more productive than the other.

When the objections change

An objection is a useful way to understand what someone wants or needs. “I might buy that, but I need one that comes in red,” helps you learn that the color choice matters to this person.

Sometimes, it’s possible that an objection can be overcome. “I just found a red one in the warehouse,” certainly deals with the color issue.

If that happens, if new information overcomes a previous objection, it’s often followed by a new objection. “The safety issue you said you were worried about is addressed in this peer-reviewed study…” And then there’s another objection, and another…

What’s actually happening is the person is saying, “I’m afraid.”

It might be, “I’m afraid to tell you that I’m not interested.” But it’s more likely that it’s, “I’m afraid of the unknown, I’m afraid about what my friends will think, I’m afraid about money…”

And there are two reasons that people won’t tell you that they’re afraid. First, because our culture has taught us that fear is something to be ashamed of. But far more than that, because we’re concerned that if we share our fear, you’ll push us to go forward, and we’re afraid to do that.

When dealing with someone who’s afraid, when they’re objecting to something that’s important, it’s tempting to imagine that more evidence will make a difference–that it’s the objections that matter. But more studies of efficacy or public health or performance aren’t going to address the real objection.

Money (“it’s too expensive”) is a common objection, but it’s often not the real reason. Price is simply a useful way to end the conversation.

“I’m afraid” is something we don’t want to say, so we search for an objection instead.

And what leads to forward motion? Either a shift in the culture, in peer approval, which lowers fear. Or sometimes, the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of moving forward.

How much does a mistake cost?

Errors are preventable.

But preventing errors requires an investment. Before committing to an error-free production environment, it’s worth calculating the cost.

A typo on this blog is relatively inexpensive. (Thanks to loyal reader Seth Barnes for graciously emailing me when one slips through).

On the other hand, a mistake in calculating the route of a high-speed rail line might cost a billion dollars… And we probably don’t want any errors on the pacemaker assembly line.

If you’ve decided that errors are too expensive for your project, then build a system that doesn’t depend on heroics to avoid errors. Sure, that costs more than just trying harder, but if trying harder was going to reduce errors, it would have worked already.

The pilot who painstakingly works through the pre-flight checklist might not be a swashbuckling Maverick type, but they are much less likely to be the victim of a careless error. The reason that planes don’t crash is because there are countless layers of redundancy and systems to be sure that they don’t.

Spend the time and spend the money and the errors can be avoided. Or accept that errors are part of wayfinding, and realize that your problem is caused by a systemic situation, not a lack of effort.

The wayfinding premium

The second time you rewire a system after finding a hum, it might take two minutes. The first time, the time you figured out what the problem was, it might have taken two hours.

Typing a book takes a few days at most. Figuring out what to type might take years.

We are either adding value by using our time to do something that’s been done before… or we’re contributing by finding out a way to do something new or create a better path forward.

If you’re simply ‘typing’, the work might still be important, but you’re not fulfilling your potential. You won’t earn as much in the way of respect, compensation or satisfaction, either.

On the other hand, if you’ve signed up for wayfinding, forgive yourself if it takes a little (or a lot) longer. Because if we knew the right answer, we would have found it already. That’s the hard part.

It’s possible that you can earn a wayfinding premium when you’re merely repeating something you discovered a while ago, but that’s hard to maintain. And it’s possible that you could find someone to solve your interesting problem fast and cheap, but that’s unlikely.

Being really clear about what we’re buying (and selling) opens the door to getting serious about whether or not you’re here to solve an interesting problem.


The mirror might not lie, but no one looks at you in the mirror more than you do.

Your business or project or life story is intimately known to you. You have lived it. But the outside world will never see all of it, can never see all of it.

And so we bump into the disconnect. The disconnect between the thing we know so well and what others have decided based on their own agenda, background and limited experience with us and our work.

When they don’t align, we can focus on the quality and consistency of our story, and be sure that our actions are integral with the conception we’re working so hard to share.

Consistency is what people pay attention to, and when it’s not there, they make up a story about why. Because they can’t truly know.

A new decision based on new information

People don’t say yes or change their minds because you persist.

That’s because we don’t like to admit we were wrong.

If we’re going to go forward, it’s because something has changed. It might be that our situation is different, that the story we tell ourselves is different, that the times have changed or that your offering has. It might be that we trust you more.

What’s new?