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Intricate systems

Over time, every system becomes increasingly complex. That’s because in order to make it better, we tweak it. We add exceptions. We do things that are urgent, essential or smart for a particular use case. We learn from what’s broken and we fix that broken spot.

New projects can’t possibly be as intricate as old ones. And so the campus at Oxford is going to be very different than a vocational school in a new building.

When we start a new system, it doesn’t pay to comment on the lack of patina, elegance or special case handling. Of course a new system can’t do any of those things. The part that’s worth noticing is the efficiency and design of the structure itself. Is it extensible? How will it respond to the need to become more customized, resilient or user friendly?

A clean sheet of paper is a wonderful sight, but it’s not nearly as useful as a dog-eared notebook. The only way to get to a dog-eared bit of utility, though, is to start with something fresh.

When the future arrives

It used to be easy to put off the future until after you retired or died. We could live with the world we had long enough to avoid dealing with significant cultural or technical change. Sure, teenagers might listen to loud music or have long hair, but that didn’t mean you had to.

And there were parts of the world where the future would arrive five years after it had reached California or Kenya. Plenty of time to prepare.

But now, thanks to the network and to wired culture, that insulation is gone.

The future is here. It’s not going away. And a new future is going to be here tomorrow.

Cobbled together

I knew someone who bought skis to match their outfit–the entire set was coordinated, and it ended up being used once or twice.

And when you register for an old-fashioned wedding, they might try to persuade you to make sure your plates match your furniture…

For everything else, the coordination of a matched set is almost always replaced by the utility of things cobbled together over time.

Our career doesn’t follow a perfect arc.

The font on the website doesn’t match the one on the package.

The management team doesn’t look precisely like the stock photos would have us believe.

It turns out that acute angles, rough edges and the imperfect matches of diversity actually make things work better. Especially when we’re dealing with humans.

All the stuff

Markets often persuade us that we don’t have enough.

Communities remind us that we do.

Novacula Occami

Ockham’s razor is really useful: Generally, the simple explanation is the most likely to be true. Don’t invent complicating factors when none are necessary.

“It’s simple” is probably correct when describing how any individual mechanism works.

[For example, UFOs are unlikely to be piloted by aliens from light-years away, who just happened to show up in that period in between our invention of airplanes and the widespread use of digital cameras. It’s far more likely that they’re simply unexpected events that we turn into complicated stories.]

On the other hand, systems–where there are multiple mechanisms at work–are almost never simple. In those cases, it might be more useful to understand that, “it’s complicated.”

When an unexpected event occurs, we look for stories, coincidences, supernatural causes and other forms of solace to explain something that frightens or surprises us. But unexpected events are usually caused by simple mechanisms.

How we react and respond to these events as a culture, on the other hand, is complicated indeed.

And when is the shift over?

If you sell your time as the measure of the work you do, the work is over when the shift ends. Clock in, clock out.

If you sell your output as the measure of the work, your work is over when the inbox is empty. Once you’ve made all the pizzas that were ordered, you’re done.

But more and more, our work can be endless. One more sales call might lead to one more sale. One more cycle of innovation might lead to the breakthrough we’ve been looking for. One more post might get you the traffic you’re on the hook for.

In a competitive marketplace, self-regulating the length of our shift is a lot to ask. Given that the list of things to do is intentionally endless, it’s on each of us to decide what ‘enough’ looks like. Because more time isn’t always the answer.

Blaming the weather is a trap

“If it were only nicer out, I’d be happier.”

That’s just a step away from, “If the current world crisis would abate, then I’d be able to concentrate.”

Which is not that far from, “If you would simply behave, I wouldn’t be upset.”

When we focus on external forces and tie them directly to our state of mind, we’re giving up agency.

The hard-won privilege of being in control of our own status and peace of mind.

Without a doubt, there are situations that are unfair, abusive or dangerous. And we should work to fix them or walk away if we possibly can. However, we don’t have to link these external forces to the way we choose to talk to ourselves. We can decide to claim possibility and take action instead.

Roz Zander teaches us to avoid, “I’m on vacation but it’s raining.” It’s far more powerful and useful to think, “I’m on vacation and it’s raining… what should I do with this moment?”

The story we tell ourselves belongs to us and only us. It’s entirely possible that someone selfishly or thoughtlessly put a story there. It’s possible that there isn’t enough empathy or fairness or opportunity. But once we see that we’re able to own our story, we gain a huge amount of power. And we retain that power for as long as we refuse to hand it over to someone else.

If the blame and the anger isn’t going to change the situation, better to reclaim our agency instead.

Akimbo updates

Alert readers know that about a year ago, the Akimbo Workshops became an independent B corp, owned and run by the team that I worked with for years. They’ve been doing great work, and tens of thousands of people have benefited from the extraordinary learning that happens when you’re part of a committed cohort.

I’m thrilled that Bernadette Jiwa, Alex DiPalma, Ramon Ray, Kristin Hatcher and Margo Aaron run workshops with them as well.

I’ll be joining the other teachers for an online free-for-all and jamboree on January 11th. Hosted by Ramon Ray, I’m looking forward to joining my friends online. I hope you can come. It’s free and you can sign up for it here.

All of the workshops Akimbo offers will launch at the same time next month. If you’re interested in beginning the new year with more energy and insight, I hope you’ll check them out. You can see the details and choose the one that works for you right here.

And of course, the altMBA, flagship of Akimbo, continues to establish the foundation for a new crop of leaders. Their first session begins soon, the next application deadline is January 4, and you can find the details here as well.

In addition, I’ll be doing a live event with Chip Conley, bestselling author, impresario and big thinker (and my first co-author, from 1986!) in a live chat (with QA) about the Modern Elder Academy on January 8th. I’ll post the details here in a few weeks.

(And, to confuse things, my podcast is also called Akimbo, and we just passed 200 episodes. You can find show notes and subscribe here.)

Write a better spec

If you’re asking someone to work for you, help you or advise you, it turns out that being specific about what success looks like is an obvious way to get better results.

If everyone can agree on what success looks like, you’re more likely to achieve it.

And yet…

And yet we prefer to say, “I’ll know it when I see it.” We’re vague, murky or even contradictory about what we want.

The reason is simple: If you write a great spec, we get to blame you if it doesn’t work out.

The vagueness is a way to hide.

If you don’t know what you want now, what makes you think you’ll know what you want later?

On the hook. That’s the most effective place to be.

Someone to take care of it

“If I could just find someone to handle all the sales, I could get back to work.”

“Do you know someone who can do all of the investments, accounting, taxes and strategies around money?”

“Why do I have to spend time managing people, I want to get back to creating.”

I hear this from busy creative entrepreneurs, soloists and creators often.

If someone who cared as much as they did, but was focused and good at something like accounting or sales or management could just join in, life would be so much better.

A consigliere!

A proven partner who is not only trustworthy and skilled, but works cheap and is available to work at the scale of a small team’s operations. Someone able to work full time, or at least focus their full energy, the way you do.

Well, when you put it that way, it’s pretty clear why this is a tough role to fill.

If that superstar salesperson is so good, why on Earth would they want to drop everything and work to build your fledgling operation? Part of being a superstar salesperson is being smart about what you sell–and most of the time, that means picking things that are easier, more obvious and at a larger scale.

The same goes for the money folks. Money is money, and if you’re good at managing it, managing more of it is probably on your agenda.

There are two takeaways from these sobering truths:

  1. It probably doesn’t pay to spend a lot of your day wishing someone magical will take over for you. If it’s important, you might need to get good at it.
  2. The person you eventually find to work on these tasks is most likely to be like you, someone who is learning and growing as they go. They’re on their way to being a superstar, but they’re not there yet. You can get there together.