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Secret conspiracies and public systems

It’s tempting to believe that powerful people and organizations are conspiring in secret to cause mysterious or unfair events to occur. The conspiracies supposedly involve dozens of people working across many time zones in complete secrecy.

That’s unlikely. Unlikely because cooperation of this sort is hard to find, especially among the powerful, and because it’s essentially impossible to keep it a secret.

What’s actually happening, right in front of us, all the time, is that systems are causing uncoordinated actions to occur. When banks, for example, create a cycle of more debt and higher interest rates for students, they didn’t need to have a secret meeting to pull that off. All they did was act within the system that they’ve built for themselves. When companies race offshore to pay ever less in taxes, no one coordinated that. It was a ratchet, a system that rewarded a race to the bottom. And even though the NCAA is an organized entity, it’s the system that has driven up the pay of college head coaches, not a secret conspiracy.

If we’d like the world to work better, more fairly and with more of a long-term view, we have to identify the systems that push participants to do the opposite. And then we need to consistently and persistently work to change the incentives that cause the entities in those systems to act the way they do.

Cultural half-life

Things decay.

We know precisely how many yoctoseconds it takes for half of a given amount of Hydrogen-7 to transform into ordinary hydrogen. And we know how old old things are because Carbon-14 loses half its mass every 5,700 years.

But ideas and cultural impact have a half-life as well.

Einstein wrote a paper 120 years ago that is still being discussed. It certainly had more of a cultural/scientific impact when it first arrived, but it lasted.

To Kill a Mockingbird has more cultural relevance today than a bestseller like The Bridges of Madison County, even though both were bestsellers at their peak. There are ten-year-old posts on this blog that still get a lot of traffic, and ones from a few weeks ago that are unlikely to be seen much in the future.

When marketers or leaders or artists show up to the culture with an idea, the immediate goal is to find traction and to change things. But the choice of medium, message and persistence have a lot to do with how long that impact will last.

Of the half a billion tweets that are tweeted every day on Twitter, perhaps a handful have a half-life of a year or more. Most fade away in a few yoctoseconds.

On the other hand, a peer-reviewed scientific paper probably has a higher average half-life. Darwin is still going strong.

Over the last few decades, there’s been a relentless move toward the yoctosecond–more ideas, lasting a shorter and shorter amount of time.

I’m not sure that we benefit from that, and if there’s a mismatch between how much work and focus an idea requires and its half-life, you’re likely to be disappointed.

Plan accordingly.

The Wizard and the Prophet

This is my book of the year.

It delivers on so many things that we want a book to do–it could never be replicated by a website or even a film.

The audiobook is even better… It’s engaging, powerful and resonates really deeply.

Mann has given us a deeply researched narrative, a book that will change the way you see just about everything in the natural world and its relationship with humanity. It’s about an epic struggle and mostly, about our future.

It seems to be about two obscure characters of the 20th century, but it’s not. It’s about each of us and the tools we can choose to bring with us to the future. I found myself switching camps every few minutes.

I am taking notes on every page, and I mention the book in most of the conversations I have.

Definitely a fine use of your time and attention. I’m glad books like this persist in a world that’s in too much of a hurry to get the tldr.

Do you have a tuner?

Piano tuners have a vital job… and very few pianists do that work themselves.

Who maintains your tools?

Perhaps it’s a computer with all the software that goes with it. Do you have a world-class pro, someone who is up-to-date, skilled, innovative and empathic making sure that they’re working well? Or are you doing it yourself, muddling through?

If we have mediocre tools, why should we expect great work?

Or perhaps it’s not the software or the hardware that needs tuning. Perhaps it’s our attitude, our approach to work, the way we deal with possibility…

A self-representing lawyer might have a fool for a client, but the rest of us are probably suffering from tools that aren’t what they could be.

Accuracy and precision

They’re not the same.

Precision brings granularity to measurement. You can drive around 50 miles an hour, or you can drive 54.7 miles an hour with precision.

But accuracy is how we describe doing what we intended to do. Driving in the wrong direction with precision isn’t much help, when accuracy in describing the goal would have been a better plan.

Most organizations spend their time on meetings about precision, instead of taking a few cycles to choose to be accurate instead.

Very good at a simple game

Outsized rewards go to people who figure out how to master a skill or a point of view, and then commit to doing it again and again.

This insight helps us with two things:

  • if you want a certain kind of success, it will require obsession plus the good luck to find the right thing to obsess about.
  • be careful not to confuse being very good at a simple game with character or wisdom or good judgment. They might go together, but they don’t always.

The pyramid of modern marketing

In most pyramids, the top gets all the attention, but it’s the foundation that truly matters. Marketing is no exception.

The base of the pyramid, the most important layer, is INTENTION.

What change are you seeking to make? Does the team have clarity, measurements and resources to prioritize this?

Intention comes with design thinking. Who’s it for and what’s it for? Have you identified the smallest viable audience and built a product and created and designed a service infrastructure around it that works beautifully for this audience?

Your story is intricately linked with your intention. If you don’t know who it’s for and what it’s for, the story can’t resonate.

A story doesn’t work when it’s your story. It works when it becomes their story.

Then comes RETENTION. Because existing customers are worth far more than new ones. If you are constantly losing the folks you worked so hard to attract, you’ll have to work even harder to find people to replace the ones who just left.

And then comes REMARKABILITY. The conversations that happen as the result of your work. The network effect is the most powerful force for growth that most organizations ever encounter, but people aren’t going to talk about your work unless they believe it will help their goals to do so.

If you’re fortunate and focused, retention and remarkability will earn you PERMISSION. The privilege of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to the people who want to get them. This is the asset of the future, because building and maintaining teams to spam the world is exhausting.

And then, only then, do you have the ability to focus on tactics, words and images. What’s the narrative that engages with people eager to join you on this journey? Where is their status? What sort of affiliation do they seek?

Finally, in tiny print, hardly worth mentioning, are hype and hustle and the rest. Ignore them if you can. By volume, by priority, by effectiveness, this is nearly worthless noise, despite the fact that it gets so much attention from pundits who have rarely successfully marketed much of anything.

Perhaps it’s worth throwing it out today

If you’re considering putting an unmarked key into a drawer filled with keys, you’re better off simply throwing it out instead.

Not only won’t you be able to find that unmarked key when you need it, but you’ve just made it more difficult to sort the other keys as well.

We hesitate to embrace or announce failure right now, preferring to put it off to some indeterminate date in the future. But postponing the announcement isn’t the same as not failing. It simply makes things worse later. And being clear about the failure we’re about to cause someday makes it more likely we’ll do the work to avoid it.

If you don’t have time to do it right, you’re unlikely to have time to do it over.

No sense wasting tomorrow as well.


This is an absolutely terrible acronym for a really important idea.

Use Your Best Judgment.

Don’t wait for someone else to take responsibility. Don’t wait for perfect. Don’t wait to find this exact situation in the manual or in history.

Use your best judgment.

My preferred abbreviation is: Go go go.

Not with a guarantee.

Not with someone to blame.

Simply because we need you to lead us.

Do you feel rich?

It’s not the same as being rich.

Rich is always relative. Compared to your great-grandparents, we’re impossibly, supernaturally rich. We have access to information and technology that was unimagined a century ago. At the same time, compared to someone ten miles away or ten years in the future, we’re way behind.

Two people with precisely the same resources and options might answer the question of ‘rich’ completely differently. Because money is a story.

The neighborhood or industry or peer group you choose has a lot to do with whether you’re relatively rich or not.

After a stock market adjustment, billionaires give less to charity. They still have more money than they can count, but they’re not as rich as they used to be, and not-as-rich is easy to interpret as not rich.

Which means that for many people, feeling rich is a choice.

If that choice encourages us to be imperious, selfish and a bully, it’s probably best to avoid it.

On the other hand, if choosing to see our choices, chances and privileges as a path toward generosity, long-term thinking and connection, then we can do it right now.