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Should we assume rational goodwill?

There’s often a choice between following the cultural dictates of a given group or seeking out demonstrable facts and the scientific method. Which do you expect most people would choose?

Which would you choose?

When we revert to a testable analysis of what works, we’re relying on the one thing that all humans share: reality. But cultural connection, peer pressure and the power of affiliation and status often short-circuit that analysis.

This happens so often that arguing about facts might not be the best way to make your point.

“Rational goodwill” is shorthand for, “If the analysis is testable, are you prepared to change your mind and accept the alternative that works?”

And yet, more often than we might expect, NASA engineers, doctors, political leaders and households would have to honestly answer that with a ‘no’.

It might be that culture isn’t something we awkwardly laid atop rational analysis. It might be the other way around.

Pavlonian coincidence

There are two kinds of coincidences.

The first is the one that we often talk about. It’s the make-believe magic of two things occurring that we didn’t expect to occur. When you and your long-lost college roommate end up randomly sharing adjacent bowling lanes when you’re 72–that’s a coincidence. When the world expert on the obscure Discs of Tron videogame finds a pristine example abandoned at the end of a driveway near his mom’s house We invent all sorts of reasons for these events, but they’re simply random.

The other kind matters far more. This is when we get two unrelated incidents confused because they happened nearby in time. If you were drinking your first ever kombucha when you heard that your cat died, it might be that in the future, seeing a can of kombucha prompts you to be sad. The events are co-incident.

As our lives speed up and the number of inputs increases, it’s easier than ever to have events in proximity prompt instincts or expectations that are unrelated to what they actually created.

That’s one reason why marketers work so hard to have their products or ads show up in times of our lives when we’re likely to associate them with feelings that lead to consumption. It’s not a random coincidence, it’s simply an incident that was planned in advance.

Ring a bell?

The social media lottery

Someone is going to end up with 10,000,000 followers. Someone is going to post the next viral TikTok. Someone is going to build a meme that spreads around the world.

But it probably won’t be me and it probably won’t be you.

Buying lottery tickets might be fun, but they’re a lousy investment.

It’s simple (it’s complicated)

It’s simple: This surgery will fix your problem and you’ll be better.

It’s complicated: Changes in lifestyle, diet and attitude will, over time, help you feel better.


Our enemies are bad, and we’re good. Vote for me.

The world is a big place that is filled with nuance, shifting alliances and constant change. It’s worth taking a minute to look for what works. Vote for me.


Search is simple. Type what you want in the box and click the first match.

Information is vast. Look over our taxonomy of the world’s information and start to winnow the results in search of what you’re looking for.

The easiest thing to sell is a simple solution to a problem someone knows they have.

It’s a lot more difficult to bring nuance, understanding and resilience to a complex situation.

More difficult but honest.

Good businesses solve real problems

But not all real problems lead to good businesses.

There are problems all around us. People need housing, health care and food. They want delight, belonging and status.

When a company shows up in the marketplace with a product or service that people eagerly choose to buy, it’s possible to make a profit. If there are assets and other ways to offer something at a premium, a business can actually thrive.

But sometimes, a problem doesn’t lend itself to a private solution. Or, a private solution might simply be a low-cost commodity, something we need, but because it’s available from many sources, it might not actually be a good business for any given entity.

We are unlikely to run out of problems. And finding a business that solves a problem is a great first step. But it also helps (a lot) if it’s also a good business.

Product and process

What do we get in exchange for our work? There’s pay, of course, and the satisfaction of a job well done. There’s stress and human interaction, learning and physical exertion. We get the drama of what might happen next and the delight of actually pulling it off. And mostly we get the day to day.

I haven’t seen any data that says that working in accounting for a candy company is more fun or more satisfying than working in accounting for an insurance company.

And even circus clowns get bored at work.

It’s easy to be excited about what the company seems to do… to choose our path based on the public’s perception of the output. But once the company has more than one person in it, most of our day is about satisfying the customer, meeting supplier requirements and dancing with the tension of doing our jobs.

Often, we use the product we make as a reason to tolerate the process we don’t enjoy.

Perhaps it makes sense to outline the sort of process you’d like to fill your days with instead of being drawn to the product that caught your eye in the first place.

But what if we’re wrong?

Of course, we think we’re right. That’s why we’re sharing our opinion.

But when there’s a disagreement, or we’re predicting the future, it’s likely that someone will turn out to be incorrect.

Sometimes, being wrong is a minor embarrassment, with very little real cost.

And sometimes, it leads to significant cost, a one-way choice we can’t undo.

It turns out that considering the downside of confidence might be a worthwhile investment. Resilience is an asset.

The early adopter (and the dilettante)

The early adopter bought an iPhone in 2008 and never looked back. They played a few games of pickleball and then joined a club and bought the equipment. They picked up a new magazine on the newsstand and then subscribed, and they bought the new bestseller and then read the author’s other works.

The dilettante shows up early and often, but then moves on.

The early adopter and the dilettante both try out the new tech, but only one sticks around through the dip, learning from the hard parts.

The dilettante seeks out new experiences, but the early adopter adopts.

Culture needs both.

Marketers need to be aware of the different personas, and plan accordingly.

If you push for trial but don’t create the conditions for subscription and persistence, don’t be surprised if only the dilettantes show up. That might be enough, but we need to choose the audience we seek.

There’s always a placebo switch

The trick is knowing where it is and using it well.

Wanting control doesn’t always mean needing to have control. Sometimes it is simply a desire to be acknowledged.

HT to Brian.

Chasing cool

The cool thing is always a little out of reach.

And for most of us, once we get it, it’s not seen as cool any more.

This is not an accident.

One definition of cool are things that are just out of reach.