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Busy (and reliable)

The thing that made you busy might have been the reputation you earned for being reliable.

Ironically, that very busy-ness might destroy your reputation. That’s one reason that so many service providers stumble once they begin to gain traction.

There are two things you can do before the crisis hits:

First, say “no.” A lot. The gigs you would have taken when you were struggling might not be the gigs you should take now. Your reputation for reliability earns you more trust, and that trust gets you invited to work with better clients and on better projects. The cost (benefit) of that is that you’ll need to turn down opportunities that you would have been willing to take on just a little while ago.

Second, tell the truth. It’s hard at first, particularly since our self-conception might have been built around independence and invulnerability. But being reliable doesn’t mean being perfect. It means being clear.

Two mottos that might help:

“You’ll pay a lot, but you’ll get more than you paid for.”


“Our secret is that we don’t lie to get the project.”

What do other people deserve?

Perhaps it’s related to what you think you deserve:



A chance to speak up.

A fair shot at achievement.

The benefit of the doubt.

PS today is Juneteenth.

In control

Is this a want or a need?

Do you know anyone who has managed to gain control over things outside of their grasp? Honking at traffic serves no purpose other than to express a need to control the uncontrollable.

Why do we work so hard to try to capture control over things that are clearly not in our control?

And what would happen if we stopped trying and worked on the things we can influence instead?

Non-machinable surcharge

I got a marketing letter from a colleague yesterday. Not a sales pitch, just an update on what they were up to.

I was delighted to discover that this mass mailing had a hand-lettered address on it, with little bits of water color for fun. It was slightly irregularly shaped, requiring an extra stamp because it wasn’t machinable. Inside, in addition to a personal (and personalized) note, there was a gift card for an ice cream cone. But the coolest part was that the card wasn’t from a national chain, it was from the local place down the street.

It obviously cost more in time to create than it was going to take me to read. It obviously didn’t go to a lot of people.

And that imbalance is now rare.

People eager to hustle are busy spamming lists of millions of people with an email that takes two minutes to write and poorly mail merge, giving the hustler a 2,000 to 1 advantage in time spent vs. time consumed. It’s a form of leverage that feels like theft to the recipient, because our time, the irreplaceable thing we all are given, was taken.

Of course, I don’t need an ice cream cone, and a small gift card isn’t a bribe. What it represents is care and respect. The opposite of hustle. It was done with sprezzatura, not with a transaction in mind.

None of it works unless you’ve already earned permission. It doesn’t work if it’s part of a clever hustle. It doesn’t work if it’s seen as spam or creates uncomfortable tension or a need for reciprocity. It simply works because it required a surcharge. Instead of using an asset, you can choose to build one.

[And yes, this is exactly the opposite of the way my bank answers the phone, the way most customer service is grudgingly offered, the way many publicists do their job, the way that organizations make foolish choices about attention and trust…] The question shouldn’t be, “does it scale?” Instead, it might be, “is it worth it?”

Interactions with the people who are enrolled and giving you the benefit of the doubt are a form of avocado time. They shouldn’t be optimized for efficiency or even leverage. Instead, it’s a chance to make a difference.

[Thanks Stephen]

Lucky breaks

Almost every project comes in a little bit late and a little bit over budget.

When things break, the breaks are rarely lucky ones.

Part of the reason is that in proposing the project we made our best guess and predicted the predictable. If we didn’t, the project would probably never get approved.

Optimists bring an expectation of possibility and goodwill. But they’re also aware of the math of coordination. Hiccups multiply.

Betting on lucky isn’t nearly as productive as simply establishing a platform where you can benefit from the occasional arrival of good fortune.

Abstain from abstaining

Even when you’re not completely certain.

Because we can never be certain about the future.

So we show up for the work, do the reading, engage with the problem. The challenge is to find a point of view if we don’t have one yet.

The exception is simple: if, after being well informed, you are willing to accept every outcome, you do us all a favor when you stand down.

Hiding doesn’t help us.

Five useful questions

They might be difficult to answer, but your project will benefit:

What’s the hard part? Which part of your work, if it suddenly got much better, would have the biggest impact on the outcome you seek?

How are you spending your time? If we took at look at your calendar, how much time is spent reacting or responding to incoming, how much is under your control, and how much is focused on the hard part?

What do you need to know? What are the skills that you don’t have that would make your work more effective?

What is the scary part? Which outcomes or interactions are you trying to avoid thinking about or interacting with? Why?

Is it worth it? After looking at your four answers to these questions, you might have a better idea of what it will take for your project to reach its potential. Does the outcome of the project–for those you serve and for you–justify what it will take to get it there?

False equivalencies

It’s a pointless form of argument.

“This scientist made a careless error in their paper, therefore we need to excuse a con artist who falsified an entire career.”

Or, “that restaurant served fish that got someone sick, therefore, there’s no reason for there to be a health inspection at my restaurant or any other one for that matter.”

Or, “there was a typo in this book from a major publisher, so I’m not going to bother with an editor at all.”

The open-minded respond by trying to defend the original error or the intent behind it. But that simply amplifies the false equivalency argument and leads to a no-standards race to the bottom.

The false equivalency itself is the problem, not the unexpected error.

Perfect is a trap.

The airline mile hoax

First: If you’re a frequent flyer on American and haven’t flown in over a year, it’s possible your miles are going to expire very soon. You can fix this by “donating” 2,500 miles here.

In the US, private lotteries are against the law. A lottery is a random drawing for a prize of value that you have to pay to participate in.

That’s different from a game of skill, in which the best performance wins.

Or a sweepstakes, which doesn’t cost anything to enter (which is why the rules so often say ‘no purchase necessary.’)

The question is: Is it a random/lucky thing to be able to trade in your miles for the prize you were promised? I think it’s pretty clear that as the points economy has gotten into the billions, the answer is yes. There aren’t as many ‘free’ seats per miles as there used to be. The airlines benefit when they offer fewer and fewer seats as a percentage of available points floating around, because then people are pushed to either ignore their miles or settle for something less than they expected.

Some people play with points as a hobby. For the rest of us, they’re worth way less than they appear. But mostly I wanted to remind you not to let yours expire. Thanks for staying safe by staying home.

UPDATE: After I queued up this post, AA and UA extended their deadlines. I’m glad! The rest of my rant still persists.


It originally means, “no longer believing in magic.”

Humans like magic. It gives us solace and energy and hope.

In many ways, the rational era of science and engineering and evidence and proof eliminated any practical belief in magical forces. We know how and why the sun sets every night.

But we still desire magic.

Creating it for your customers and peers is a gift.