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First come, first served

This is the default for allocating something that’s scarce.

It’s also rarely the fairest or most efficient alternative. And it’s sort of lazy.

I called a service provider yesterday and was told that they had a two-year waitlist.

They could sort the list by who needs what they do the most.

They could sort it by which sort of client would be the best fit.

They could even sort it by which client would allocate the most resources to be next in line.

Any of these choices would be more useful to them and to their clients than the semi-random solution of handing out numbers at the deli.

It feels more fair because we’re used to it. But it’s actually less fair to just about everyone involved.

When a luxury good is allocated based on time invested by the purchaser, it may seem that rewarding someone who stayed up all night to wait in line makes sense. After all, they traded the one commodity that everyone has the same amount of to signal their desire to be in the line.

But perhaps there’s someone who would put the item to better use. Or consider the utility of allowing people who want something to trade time spent as a tutor or in a food shelter for priority instead.

The internet allows us to transcend time and space. We can collect information and connect people who aren’t necessarily first in line.

Every time we choose not to, we’ve chosen to ignore the value that could be created.

Seeing the continuum

It’s so much easier to see and process the world if we divide it into discrete bits. This is non-fiction, that’s fiction. This is a good restaurant, that’s a bad one. This person is succesful, that one isn’t.

These distinctions are almost always wrong.

Not just wrong, but unhelpful, because by ignoring the stuff in between, we isolate ideas (and people) instead of seeing them as part of a continuous whole.

Slopes aren’t necessarily slippery, but they’re far more likely to exist than neat staircases. And then we have to make the very difficult decision of where in the messy middle we’re going to place a marker.

The chance you’ve been waiting for

It’s here, right now, today.

The open-source project that needs a contributor.

The community charity that needs a volunteer fundraiser.

The co-worker who needs coaching on a new presentation.

The startup idea that needs someone to go out on a limb and talk about it in public.

The local elected board that needs to be covered now that newspapers don’t do that any more.

The free-to-use courses online that teach everything from language to technology.

The friend who would love to hear from you by phone.

The Wikipedia article that needs editing.

The codebase that needs bugs fixed.

The story that needs to be told…

Opportunity is another word for a problem to be solved. And opportunity is often there, but it rarely knocks.

“But of course!”

That’s the best sort of breakthrough idea.

An idea that after it is seen, can’t be unseen, an idea that changes what comes next.

No need to change the world. A tiny part of the world, even one person, is enough for today.

On doing the reading

It’s essential.

Domain knowledge is a gift. It’s how we advance in our field and in society. The insights and false steps of those that came before us, laid out clearly, there to be learned.

And it’s sort of a trap.

Because you used to be able to do ALL the reading. You could read all the essential science fiction books before you wrote yours. You could watch all the key movies before you directed yours. You could understand all the current thinking in a field of medicine before you prescribed a drug…

No longer.

Some people have responded to the long tail of available “reading” by deciding to do none of it, as if naive beginner’s mind is an appropriate strategy for a professional.

And some have responded by simply freezing in place, demanding perfect knowledge before making an assertion.

Clearly, the successful path lies somewhere on the curve.

There comes a moment in doing your reading where new work begins to rhyme. When you start to see the connections. When you understand who influenced the person you’re engaging with right now.

That’s the moment to begin shipping your work and making your own assertions.

All the answers

In an expert-run industrialized economy, there’s a lot of pressure to be the one who’s sure, the person with all the answers.

Far more valuable is someone who has all the questions. The ability to figure out what hasn’t been figured out and see what hasn’t been seen is a significant advantage.

Rarest of all is the person with the humility (and confidence) to realize that even the list of questions can remain elusive. Finding the right questions might be the very thing we need to do.

The Goldilocks fallacy

One way to tell if the audience is happy is to ask a simple question: “Do you want it spicier?” (or the equivalent).

If half the people want it to go in one direction and the other half want the other, then you know you’re at ‘just right’. You’ve minimized the number of unhappy customers.

Here’s the problem: This assumes that there’s a normal distribution of preferences. In nature, many things are in fact distributed like this. Height, for example, or sensitivity to loud sounds. Most people are in the middle, fewer people are at either end. The goal when making something for everyone, if everyone is distributed normally, is to seek out the middle.


Personal preferences aren’t normally distributed. Most people don’t care at all, some people care a lot.


In any market with choices, you’re no longer going to be able to serve everyone, because given a choice, people will make a choice.

So, seeking the Goldilocks equilibrium is a trap. While it might diminish criticism, it maximizes apathy. While it might increase your appeal to a hypothetical middle-of-the-road consumer, it might be that there aren’t many of these.

For many products and services, the middle is hollowed out. What you’re left with are the people who want a lot more or want a lot less of whatever it is you’re able to adjust.

When in doubt, look for the fear

My friend Amy taught me that “craven” doesn’t mean what I thought it meant. I’ve been using it to mean, “selfish in a particularly short-sighted way.” It actually means fearful and gutless.

But, exploring the thesaurus, I discovered that it also means “dastardly.” I was sure that Snidely Whiplash was a dastardly villain. A dastardly deed must be something bad.

Nope, it means “cowardly.”

But wait!

It turns out that it also means particularly selfish and evil.

When someone is fearful enough, craven enough, they sometimes end up acting in unsocial and even hurtful ways.

While there are definitely some super villains among us, it’s more likely we’re simply dealing with someone who feels like he’s drowning.

[PS I have a brand new short video course on LinkedIn on decision making. It’s free for the next six hours.]

Defending change (or the status quo)

The easy argument to make is that the thing we have now is better than the new thing that’s on offer.

All one has to do is take the thing we have now as a given (ignoring its real costs) and then challenge the defects and question the benefits of the new thing, while also maximizing the potential risk.

“A hand-written letter is more thoughtful, more likely to be a keepsake, and a more permanent record than a simple email.”

On the other hand, the technophile defending change simply has to list all the new features and ignore the benefits we’re used to.

“An email is far faster, cheaper and easier to track than a letter. It is more likely to be saved, and it can be sorted and searched. Not to mention copied and forwarded with no problem.”

What’s truly difficult is being a fair arbiter. I fall into this trap all the time. We begin to develop a point of view, usually around defending the status quo, but sometimes around overturning it, and then the arguments become more and more concrete. While we might pretend to be evenhanded, it’s very hard to do.

Sometimes, we end up simply arguing for or against a given status quo, instead of the issue that’s actually at hand.

And the danger is pretending you’re being fair, when you’re not. In this silly article from the Times, the author (and their editors) are wondering if oat milk and pea milk are a “scam.”

This is a classic case of defending the status quo. Here’s a simple way to tell if that’s what you’re doing: imagine for a second that milk was a new product, designed to take on existing beverages made from hemp, oats or nuts. Defending oat milk against the incursion of cow milk is pretty easy.

The author could point out the often horrific conditions used to create cow milk. “Wait, you’re going to do what to that cow?” They could write about the biological difficulty many people have drinking it. Or they could focus on the significant environmental impact, not to mention how easily it spoils, etc.

Or imagine that solar power was everywhere, and someone invented kerosene, gasoline or whale oil. You get the idea…

There are endless arguments to be had when new ideas arrive. The challenge is in being clear that we’re about to take a side, and to do it on the effects, not on our emotional connection to the change that’s involved.

Messing with Strathern’s Law

“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

Marilyn Strathern expanded on Charles Goodhart’s comment about monetary policy and turned it into a useful law of the universe.

As soon as we try to manipulate behaviors to alter a measure, it’s no longer useful.

That’s why you can’t believe social media metrics. Because they don’t measure anything except whether someone is good at making them go up.