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Easily confused

There are countless arguments about words that we often don’t understand the way someone else might.

Words like education, learning, merit, talent, skill, privilege, smart and successful.

They might not mean what we think they do.

Well-educated isn’t the same thing as smart.

Talents are different than skills.

Learning is not the same as education.

Successful isn’t the same as rich.

Agreeing on what we mean is a great place to begin.

Fresh herbs

Chain restaurants rarely use fresh herbs. They’re uneven, unreliable and expensive, and most diners have been conditioned to want food that’s more processed and bland.

The same is true for most of what we buy and sell. It’s becoming ever more predictable, pre-processed and cost-reduced.

The pressure tends to go in one direction–turn your work into a commodity, smooth over the edges and fit in all the way. That seems hard to argue with, particularly if you want to be popular and profitable.

But the restaurant that makes the best sabich in all of New York City takes a different approach. At Nana, in an obscure shopping mall on the outskirts of an outer borough, they’re serving memorable food that doesn’t match the prevailing industrial model. You can’t get something similar from your grocer’s freezer. It’s distinctive and probably a lot more difficult to produce on a regular basis.

The same could be true for what you choose to do. It might not get you a Fortune 500 company as a client, and probably won’t make you #1 on whatever bestseller list tracks the one that’s for everyone, but it might be exactly the work that you’re proud to do.

Thanks, Gina, for caring. And for anyone who goes out of their way to add fresh herbs when they don’t have to.

“Make the sign bigger!”

Actually, the sign will never be big enough

Make the announcement louder. Make the logo bigger. Yell. Call more people on the phone to sell them an extended warranty. Send more emails. Hustle harder.

None of it works.

The problem with the fountain isn’t that they didn’t make a big enough sign. The problem is that the fountain itself is poorly designed. It’s an attractive nuisance, a dangerous thing to put in the middle of a boring courtyard. The sides invite sitting and standing, and the height beckons people to walk in and around it. And the consistent cues of its design aren’t going to be undone by an ugly, intrusive sign, even one in red with ALL CAPS.

And louder and more persistent PA announcements aren’t going to help if the situation people are in has lulled them into not listening.

And a bigger logo isn’t going to get someone to care about your company if the product and your story don’t resonate with them.

Insisting on a bigger interruption is lazy. It’s lazy because if you really cared about solving the problem, you’d change the situation, not yell about it.

If you get the design right, you can whisper instead.

Progress is a trade

It’s easy to imagine that over there, just a few steps ahead, our problems will disappear.

Pessimists, of course, are sure that instead of disappearing, tomorrow will make things worse.

The truth is pretty simple: All we do, all we ever do, is trade one set of problems for another.

Problems are a feature. They’re the opportunity to see how we can productively move forward. Not to a world with no problems at all, but to a situation with different problems, ones that are worth dancing with.

HT to Gabe.

Narrative and feelings

Which comes first? The feelings, the facts, or the story we tell ourselves that leads to the feelings?

It’s surprising that I ended up at the college I went to.

Back in 1978, there were two ways to visit campus if you were taking a subway from the airport. One route went through Harvard Square, with its magical campus, and then via bus down youth-friendly Mass. Ave., past Steve’s famous ice cream parlor and on to the small school. The other route, the route the admissions office suggested when I called them, went through gritty Lechmere, then by bus past wood-frame houses built in the 1950s, then some more grittiness and then on to the back of the campus.

It would have been easy to use the feelings that the second route created in me, a solo traveler barely 17 years old, to invent a narrative about what was missing from this choice of school.

We like to think we make complicated decisions based on rational analysis, but most of the time, we actually make an emotional decision and then invent a rational analysis to justify it.

That’s why so many kids pick a school based on how it felt to go to a football game there in October. Or why it matters if it’s raining on the day you visit. Feelings first, then they create a story. Facts come in third.

If our goal is to help people make better choices, it helps to first create better feelings.

Bad arithmetic classes persuade people to not like math

Arithmetic is a chore. It’s a ceaseless list of things to be memorized, with few understood. It is easily replaced by an app on a phone.

Math is elegant, magical and breathtaking. Math involves little memorization and a lot of understanding.

If we teach kids math, the arithmetic will take care of itself.

“Let the market fix it”

After all, the marketplace is scalable, independent, self-funding, convenient and persistent.

Except there are problems that the market hasn’t solved, and probably can’t. A century into this worldwide experiment, the market hasn’t solved mass education, it’s made obesity and health problems worse, and it has dumped an enormous amount of long-term toxic waste into the world where we all live.

Patient capital can work wonders, but networked economies are becoming ever more impatient in their race for basis points and shortcuts.

When we hand a chronic problem over to the market, it might be because we can’t bear to look at it or take responsibility for the hard work and sacrifice it will take to solve it.

If the market can solve a problem, it’s a bargain. Markets are effective listening devices and resilient and often self-coordinating. But expecting the market to solve every problem isn’t useful.

Sometimes, the specific tools of the open market aren’t aligned with the problem at hand. Externalities, patience and incentives are all worth considering before we decide the problem will solve itself.

Improving what’s not there

It’s pretty straightforward to grease a squeaky wheel, or repair a broken window.

Far more difficult is to realize that your room would be a lot more pleasant if you added a window in the first place.

“I don’t want to play”

Tactical approaches can undermine useful strategies.

And knowing your goals and the reason for the game are the best way to avoid the problem.

Tactical thinking forces us to think in innings. It says, “here’s a situation, what’s your best reaction/response?”

The strategic approach has a different question, “Does playing this particular tactical game get me closer to the reason I’m here in the first place?”

Strategies don’t change. They’re not a secret. It doesn’t matter if your peers or opponents know your strategy.

Tactics, on the other hand, change often, and are usually best kept quiet.

So why do we get so hung up on tactics?

It begins with: Strategies can be frightening. If we say what we want and how we hope to achieve it, two things could happen: we could fail, and that would disappoint us, or we could succeed, and that would frighten us.

It’s easier to simply react by engaging in another tactical round that the world has presented to us. You can spend your days doing nothing but playing with tactics, and never realize you didn’t even have a strategy.

What do you want? What change do you seek to make, how do you want to spend your days? How will get you there?

Figuring out which games you aren’t going to play is a fine step on the road to figuring out your strategy.

Unrelated but timely: A post from 13 years ago about meetings, and my podcast from this week about the same topic.

“I did the thing that was…”

A simple but difficult fork in the road for the choices we make.

I did the thing that was:




what my boss insisted on





done by everyone else









in sync





the way it’s always been done.