Welcome back.

Have you thought about subscribing? It's free.

Your responsibility preference

When things go wrong, is your instinct to hide in a corner and hope you won’t get noticed–or to lean into the situation and make it clear that this one is on you?

“I’ve got this,” is a phrase that some people will go out of their way to avoid saying. At work, where it’s incredibly valuable, or in personal relationships, where it creates deep connection.

The movies are filled with heroes who take responsibility. Organizations are miserly when it comes to handing out authority, but most of them are eager to pay attention (and give respect) to anyone who is willing to take responsibility.

Like our control preference, responsibility is a learned skill. You might be born with an instinct for it, but mostly it’s something we’re taught or choose to learn.

Sadly, this is a line that’s missing from every resume I’ve ever seen. It seems to be that a bias toward taking responsibility is one of the most important things to look for when hiring an employee, finding a doctor or building a team.

[Part 2 of 3]

Your control preference

Would you rather write the script, read the script, watch the movie or write the review?

When someone commutes by train, they’re giving up control over the journey. On one hand, that means that they can’t actively impact how fast the train arrives. On the other hand, it means that they don’t have to be fully present and in command of all the decisions involved.

There’s a huge diversity of control preference, and it varies across the many areas of our lives. Perhaps you need to be in control over your work, but have no interest in controlling what you eat for dinner–or vice versa.

I remember a restaurant in the Bronx where the waiter would ask you one or two questions about which food you liked, and then walk away and bring you back a series of dishes that you didn’t expect or choose. Some people really enjoy this, others are frustrated by the lack of control it requires.

While it may be that each of us has an inherent bias away or toward control, it’s pretty clear that it is also a skill that can be learned, and that different industries allocate control to people as part of their hierarchies. It’s also true that different cultures have evolved to allocate and teach control preference in different ways. Sometimes it’s based on gender and caste, but there are also cultural mores that have been fueled by industry, the patriarchy and governance.

One of the things we certainly have control over is deciding whether we’ll seek to spend our days in control or not. We might have to make sacrifices along the way, but the feeling is up to us.

[part 1 of a series]

Fear of strangers

Why are we more likely to take off our masks or avoid social distancing with a group of friends at a party instead of strangers on the train?

Why do we drive more carefully in a new neighborhood instead of near our home?

Why trust the advice of a doctor who looks like us, or went to the same school we did?

Our evolved preference for familiarity often backfires. There are many signals that give us useful information about whether a situation is productive or safe. But pre-existing social networks might not be the best one.

The myth about the apples

In settings where sorting is difficult, half a bushel of perfect apples is worth more than a full bushel with a rotten apple in it.

One bad apple can spoil a whole bunch.

We pay a significant premium for pre-selection, confidence and a guarantee.

Sorting adds value.

“The dog ate my homework”

How did the dog become your teacher’s problem?

When we’re actively enrolled in a journey, it’s on us. That’s the requirement once you choose to act professionally. You know the terms, the dates, the structure. It wasn’t even fine print. It’s simply the structure you agreed to be part of.

Of course, enrollment is frightening. Because enrollment confers responsibility. “This is something I’m choosing to do.”

Compulsory education doesn’t often lead to real learning. That’s because compulsory education is coerced. There’s no active enrollment.

For the rest of us, there’s the chance to engage and to move forward. And part of the journey is acknowledging that we have a dog, that life gets in the way, that it’s never the ideal moment or the perfect time. And then doing something about it.

Leaping isn’t easy, but it’s far better and safer than the alternative.

“The way things are”

That’s how culture perpetuates injustice and indignity. Because that’s just the way things are around here.

But the status quo isn’t permanent. The world doesn’t stay the way it was. It changes.

And it’s been changing faster than ever.

It doesn’t change because the status quo sub-committee had a meeting and decided to change it.

It changes when someone decides that the way things are around here needs to change, and simply and bravely begins to do something differently.

And then someone else follows along.

Yes, it bends toward justice. But only if we help. Only if we lead.

Who’s responsible?

Freedom without consequences is a myth.

Our actions always have consequences.

The question is: who will bear them?

Harsh feedback

It often comes from one of two kinds of people:

People who give themselves feedback in the same heartless tone. They don’t hesitate to brutally lash out, because that’s the noise they often hear inside.

And folks who honestly believe that their work is flawless. They can’t understand how anyone else can fail to measure up, because they never seem to.

Of course, each group has a significant (though different) problem. In fact, now that they’re spreading their harshness with others, they have two problems.

When in doubt, look for the fear.

Portfolio thinking

When we’re not certain of the right answer, the best approach is to have a portfolio, a range of bets that reward us with resilience and significant upside.

An example can be something as simple as what to put on the buffet–if you’re not sure who’s coming to the meeting, it makes sense to have a variety of options, because the chances you’ll get it right go way up.

A more important example is in filling a job. If you only interview people from similar backgrounds and with similar skills, you’re eliminating a huge pool of talent that might in fact be a much better fit for the job.

The mistake we often make is in building a choice set (which we mistakenly call a ‘portfolio’) by trying again and again for one guaranteed ideal choice. That’s not a portfolio. Instead, we should focus on going to the edges, not trying to group everything at some imaginary ‘center’.

Back to the simple buffet example. If you have one spicy dish, one vegan dish, one dish without cilantro and one dish from a cuisine that’s out of the ordinary in this setting, your chances of “best lunch ever” are far higher than if you simply put out very slight variations of one theme.

When we can’t be sure of the future, a portfolio that acknowledges this by going to various edges will outperform one where we pretend we know the right answer.

Harder, easier and more convenient

Consider the windows on a car.

First, they were manually clipped into place.

And then they were hand-rolled into position. But that was too difficult.

So the electric window was born.

But holding your finger on the button for 10 seconds was onerous, so now, it’s automatic.

It’s easy to see the trend toward convenience in many areas of our lives. Tim Wu has pointed out that people will trade privacy, money or friendships in exchange for convenience.


There’s a countertrend. Sourdough is far less convenient than buying a loaf of Wonder bread. Running a marathon is less convenient than driving to wherever it is you’d like to go. And the best programmers still code by hand, even though there are plenty of apps that would make it easier to create average user interactions.

The battle for most convenient is fierce. It might be easier to stake out your claim to interactions and products that are less convenient, but worth it.