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New problems, old problems

Most of the challenges we face are things we’ve faced before. It might be a personal situation or a business one, but it’s not new.

If what you’ve done before works, it’s not a problem any more.

If you need to stick it out because there’s no other way through it, it’s not a problem, it’s a situation.

But if you think it’s a problem, then the hard work is deciding to try something new, as opposed to the predictable but unsuccessful path of doing what you did before.

That’s not the same as the challenge we face when a new problem arises.

A new problem doesn’t need fresh thinking, it needs clear awareness. We can begin by acknowledging we have a problem, identifying the constraints, the boundaries and the assets involved.

And then we can go to work to solve it.

Because ultimately, that’s our job. To solve interesting problems.

The simple but difficult marketing flip

From, “Pay attention, I want you to buy what I made.”


“I’ve been paying attention, and I think I can offer you what you want.”

The point of maximum leverage

The best way for a movie studio to outperform is to attract and encourage creators with vision, drive and commitment.

And yet, the key executives might be spending their time and focus and effort on micro-managing the end credits on the next movie or setting up a press junket.

The best way for a marketing team to grow sales and market share is to help design a product that uses a network effect and builds remarkability and engagement right into the item itself.

And yet, the team just spent three hours arguing about where to shoot the next commercial.

That small business will probably be most transformed by creating sell-through and market demand for their new product, But it’s overwhelmingly urgent to focus on a shipment that’s delayed, even though the supply chain can’t be fixed.

It goes on and on. For a job search, fixing your resume isn’t nearly as important as shipping a personal project. For a restaurant, creating a reason to come back with friends is more important than getting all the normal things right…

We can’t fix this problem until we see it, and then we need to be clear with ourselves and with our colleagues about where that leverage point is.

Fill before empty

When the cost of topping off your battery is less than the catastrophic risk of running out of juice, it pays to add to your reserves.

That’s the entire point of having a tank. Going near empty isn’t nearly as effective as building up a cushion. Have your emergency on your own schedule.

Effort toward quality

Quality is defined as consistently meeting spec. A measurable promise made and kept.

Effort is what happens when we go beyond our normal speed. When we dig deep and exert physical or emotional labor and focus on something that is out of the ordinary. Effort is the opposite of coasting.

Often we’re taught that quality is the result of effort. That if you simply tried harder, you’d come closer to meeting spec.

And yet, when we look at organizations or brands or individuals with a reputation for quality, it’s not at all clear that they accomplish this with more effort. Because that’s simply not sustainable.

The people who work at a Lexus plant aren’t more tired at the end of the day than those that make the Cadillac Escalade. It’s not about effort. The same is true for the Dabbawalla who never misses a delivery. In fact, focusing on effort (and the effort of your team) is almost guaranteed to ensure that your quality problem will persist.

Persistent quality problems are a systemic issue, and if you’re not working on your system, you’re not going to improve it.

“How do we do this work?” is a much better question than, “who isn’t trying hard enough?”


A feeling of entitlement is hard won.

You suffered to get to this spot. You were mistreated. You worked hard. You paid your dues. You were treated unfairly. It’s your turn. Justice demands it. You’re aggrieved. Or perhaps the thing you’ve worked so hard on is magical, special and totally worth people’s attention.

Like I said, you’re entitled. To your grievance or the meeting or even simply, the benefit of the doubt.

Alas: Our entitlement isn’t helpful.

Feeling entitled doesn’t make it more likely that others will listen to you, do what you ask or respect you. Feeling entitled doesn’t get you a sale or make it easier to merge into moving traffic, no matter how long you’ve been waiting.

So yes, you’re entitled. We all are, sooner or later.

But feeling that we’re entitled and demanding that others realize that we’re entitled is completely useless and might even get in the way of the work we hope to do.

Customer service is free

(Customer service is expensive)

Of course it’s expensive. You’ll need to hire people inclined to be empathic and kind. You’ll need to provide systems and training and support. You’ll need to avoid shortcuts and treat people better than the minimum required to get through the day. And you’ll need to trust your people to do what’s right.

But all of that expense–it’s the cheapest way to spread the word about what you do.

Great customer service pays for itself.

There are many situations where no customer service at all also pays for itself. Google spends not a nickel on helping people with many of the services they offer… and the money they save is spent on something else that permits them to grow.

It’s the in-between spots, the choice of low customer service, or nearly enough–that’s when it’s simply a waste of time and money.

The single biggest marketing bargain remains a customer who chooses to recruit new customers.

Sunday driver

There’s a road near my house that was built early in the automobile era. It was built so that early adopter car owners would have something to do with their cars–a parkway that went nowhere in particular, perfect for a Sunday drive.

Along the way, the term “Sunday driver” has become a criticism. It describes a meandering, purposeless driver. A driver who might be watching the scenery instead of paying attention to the road–someone who rarely yields the right of way and probably causes more than a small number of accidents when surrounded by drivers who are in a hurry.

We went from Sunday driving being the point to it being a hindrance, because the road is hard to share.

The digital world we live in was created and populated for Sunday drivers. It’s only in the last two decades that, like expressways, it has become a center of commerce and industry.

But unlike the scarcity of the road, the digital world has lots of space.

There are several internets. One is filled with hobbies and connection and possibility. And sometimes we confuse it with the other one, the one that’s at the center of our commercial life.

Most of the time, internet Sunday drivers don’t bother anyone, and perhaps we can all learn a lesson from their desire and ability to make the journey worth the effort.

Art with intent

Art (movies, plays, fiction, paintings, poetry…) exists to create a change. Often, that’s a change in the viewer, and sometimes, powerful art changes the culture.

Art with no intent can entertain us, and it can also reinforce stereotypes and simply help what is in our world persist.

Art with selfish intent exists to manipulate the viewer to serve the needs of the artist. It doesn’t often spread, but when it does, it can have a corrosive effect on the world around us.

But art with generous intent is different. It might not address an issue the way you would (in fact, that’s precisely why we need it) and it creates tension as it helps us look at things in a new way.

The plays of Sarah Jones, or a book by Sinclair Lewis or music by Charles Wilson or a movie by Amy Koppelman exist to make us think hard. To think about what we’ve taken for granted and to think about what might be different if we cared enough.

I’m not sure it even matters what the artist thought they wanted when they sat down to create the work. The art itself seems to want something, to make a change in the world. And the ability to create art like that belongs to each of us.

Afraid of afraid

We’d probably be better off if we could simply say, “I’m afraid.”

Our culture has persistently reminded us that the only thing to fear is fear itself, that confessing fear is a failure and that it’s better to lie than to appear un-brave.

And so we pretend to be experts in public health and epidemiology instead of simply saying, “I’m afraid.”

We fight possible change from the start instead of examining it on the merits.

And we make uninformed assertions about the causes and implications of global phenomena instead of acknowledging that change is scary.

Fear of being afraid keeps things on our to-do list forever, keeps important conversations from happening and shifts how we see our agency and leverage in the world.

The bravest leaders and contributors aren’t worried about appearing afraid. It allows them to see the world more clearly.