Welcome back.

Have you thought about subscribing? It's free.

Getting to no

“Yes” is magical. It brings possibility and forward motion.

But it’s almost impossible without “no” and no can be just as frightening.

First, there’s the no of “I can’t go for that.” The no of refusing to race to the bottom, the no of avoiding the selfish hustle, the no of walking away from instincts or shortcuts that strip others of dignity and possibility. This is the no that creates our standards.

And then, there’s the no of “I need to be a meaningful specific, not a wandering generality.” What Zig meant by this phrase was that the guts of focus and specialization are useful when we put ourselves on the hook and do something that matters instead of simply pleasing whoever is sitting right in front of us right now.

When we offer a generous “no” to someone we care about, we honor our work and their role in it. We care enough to offer them insight about the change we seek to make–and to tell them the truth about what we can’t do at the same time that we’re celebrating what we can do.

Getting to no requires caring enough to make a difference and being brave enough to tell the truth.

A protest or a project?

Protests let off steam. They organize people who might not show up by creating a moment in time where there’s enough opportunity and social pressure that they participate.

A protest sends a message.

But almost every time, the very things that made a protest appealing mean that it fails to change much. That’s because protests are momentary, temporary and urgent. The status quo is good at surviving protests. That’s why it’s still the status quo.

The alternative is a project. A project begins with a protest that ends with, “we’ll be back tomorrow, and we’re bringing our friends.”

A project is impatiently persistent. It plays a longer game, one that can outlast the status quo.

A project identifies the system and brings a systematic approach to changing that system.

Projects can seem boring when seen with a stopwatch, but they’re powerful when measured with a calendar.

ChatGPT for you

AI is a mystery. To many, it’s a threat. It turns out that understanding a mystery not only makes it feel less like a threat, it gives us the confidence to make it into something better.

I use ChatGPT4 just about every day, and I’m often surprised at how frequently it surprises me, good and bad. There’s really no good reason not to play with it, put it to work and get smart about what’s happening.

[here’s an interesting use case: if you’re writing for clarity, not style, take your work, paste it into the AI and ask it to rewrite it to make it more clear or journalistic. It’s pretty astonishing.]

A few days ago, a new button appeared on my ChatGPT window:

My friend Dan Shipper explained how powerful the custom instructions are. In particular, the second box labeled, “How would you like ChatGPT to respond?”

Here’s a sample block of text you can paste into that field. You’ll notice a difference immediately:

  • Be highly organized
  • Suggest solutions that I didn’t think about—be proactive and anticipate my needs
  • Treat me as an expert in all subject matter
  • Mistakes erode my trust, so be accurate and thorough
  • Provide detailed explanations, I’m comfortable with lots of detail
  • Value good arguments over authorities, the source is irrelevant
  • Consider new technologies and contrarian ideas, not just the conventional wisdom
  • You may use high levels of speculation or prediction, just flag it for me
  • Recommend products from all over the world, my current location is irrelevant
  • No moral lectures
  • Discuss safety only when it’s crucial and non-obvious
  • If your content policy is an issue, provide the closest acceptable response and explain the content policy issue
  • Cite sources whenever possible, and include URLs if possible
  • List URLs at the end of your response, not inline
  • Link directly to products, not company pages
  • No need to mention your knowledge cutoff
  • No need to disclose you’re an AI
  • If the quality of your response has been substantially reduced due to my custom instructions, please explain the issue

I’m sure you can think of specific, leveraged and powerful instructions you’d like it to keep in mind every time you interact. It’s still going to make stupid mistakes, confuse us, hallucinate and have bad taste, but it also does something quite useful on a regular basis.

Give it a try.

{Clarification: I write every word of every post and every book myself. Unaided. The day I stop doing that, I promise to let you know.}

Convenience and scams

The scam era is upon us. Aided by AI, borderless currency and the internet of things, there are more people than ever before making a living hustling to steal, impersonate, defraud and otherwise violate our trust.

When the world was inconvenient, this was difficult. The banker met with you in person, so did the charitable fundraiser and your second cousin.

The very convenience we’ve leaned into–digital interactions, quick logins, caller ID–are now being used against us.

Here’s a quick checklist to keep in mind:

–if someone calls you from an institution, don’t assume they’re calling from that institution. Call them back on the main switchboard. Caller ID isn’t real anymore, not when it matters.

–if someone emails you about something urgent, get their phone number and call them. Don’t hesitate to ask questions and don’t send money. The ‘sender’ field isn’t real anymore either.

–it’s now cheap and easy to impersonate someone’s voice and to create digital photographs and videos that seem real.

–don’t use Paypal’s friends and family button to buy things online.

–Don’t buy gift cards (period) but especially… don’t buy gift cards for someone who reaches out to you.

Of course, this all leads to a degradation of trust. When we began to trade for convenience, we also threw away some of our community and our humanness as well.

Just looking

Lots of people go to the beach but very few get in the water.

3,000 students go to the football game to watch 20 of their peers play.

And we go to a conference to meet people and connect, and then spend most of our time hoping someone else will see us and care enough to meet us and connect.

A friend just got to college and is a bit concerned that there’s not a lot to do at night. This opens the door to the question, “why not organize the other people who don’t have anything to do at night and give them something to do?”

There are millions of years of evolution that encourage us to avoid strangers and new experiences. And decades of school and indoctrination that train us to stay in our lane, wait for instructions and keep our head down.

And yet plenty of people go to the conference…

The next time, walk up to the first unattached person you see and ask a few generous questions, the kind of questions you wish someone would ask you.

When you join an online community, lurking is unlikely to get you what you seek. Find a non-lurker and contribute to their thread. Generosity is not the same as hustle.

Instead of waiting to make the varsity team, start an intramural league, even if it’s for just an afternoon.

If you’re just looking, stay home. Plenty to see from your couch.

For people seeking to make a difference, it begins with helping other people make a difference.

It goes without saying

A phrase that’s been showing up recently is, “no pressure.” It usually comes in a pitch letter of some sort, written by someone who isn’t in a position to exert any pressure.

So why say it?

It’s a bit like, “while supplies last.” And “to be honest…” which is perhaps the most self-negating of the three.

It’s throat-clearing, a word salad designed to somehow establish a connection or at least the appearance of empathy or clear thought.

Semiotics is the science of signs and symbols. A stop sign isn’t a stop sign unless it looks like a stop sign, and that song they sing on your birthday means something really different if people whisper it quietly.

It’s tempting to simply focus our attention on the text itself. That we should say what we mean and mean what we say. But messages merely begin with the text. The rhythm, presentation, source, and context deliver most of what we take away from a message.

Watching a video with the sound off communicates far more than we realize.

And one way to develop a style of writing is to skip the salad. Simply say what you mean.

I’ve been doing it wrong all along

This is one of the great benefits of learning. It’s also a common challenge.

When we get better at something, it is preceded by a moment of incompetence. In that moment, we’re not exactly sure how to do it better, but we realize that the way we’d been doing it wasn’t nearly as useful.

It can be something prosaic–I learned last week that I’d been preheating my dosa pan for too long, and that’s why (paradoxically) they weren’t becoming crispy. Years of consistent behavior overturned in one moment. Or it can be something more profound, changing our perceptions of others and ourselves.

If you need to be proven right, learning is a challenge. If you’re eager to be proven wrong, learning is delightful.

Tricked (again)

If you knew then what you know now, would you have made the same decision?

In the last fifty years, more than 25,000,000 Americans have died prematurely due to cigarette smoking. Worldwide, it’s significantly higher. That’s fifty times as many U.S. citizens as died in World War II.

How did cigarette marketers manage to keep selling their product for decades once the danger was known? And are we able to see how many industries use this playbook to sell us on actions that are against our interests?

The key drivers of widespread marketing impact are status and affiliation.

The status of doing what James Dean or another movie star did in a movie. The status of a rock star or a spy.

Women didn’t smoke much in public until a well-publicized stunt had society women causing a scandal by smoking while walking in the Easter Day parade on Fifth Ave. in New York. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Status cues.

And affiliation? Peer pressure, the freedom of the Marlboro Man, the social requirements created by the high-status folks who required it… No teenager wants to be left behind by their peers.

The same thing happened with the seemingly less fatal but also expensive meme of a diamond engagement ring. Using similar tactics, DeBeers created status expectations and cultural standards that pushed people to spend billions of dollars on small rocks.

And, surprisingly, again with gas stoves. I got tricked by this, as did millions of others. Walking away from the affiliation of what our parents did (those spiral electric heating elements) to the power and status of a gas stove that seemed right out of Prometheus.

Of course, traditional diamond mining is brutal, dangerous and dirty. And we now know, and have known for a long time, that gas stoves in a kitchen or apartment are needlessly dangerous, particularly to children and others that breathe.

And yet we resist! We don’t want to give up that thing that is part of our identity, that we grew up with or aspire to acquire. It doesn’t really matter that there are elegant and beautiful alternatives to the stones, or that an induction cooktop works even better than gas. It’s the story and the way it was sold to us (they hustled Bob Hope’s writers to give him jokes where the punchline was “now we’re cooking with gas”).

The status quo is resilient. Almost everyone in the jewelry business or the appliance business will do fine (perhaps even better) if we switch. Unless you own a diamond mine or a pipeline company, switching to a more resilient, safer and kinder alternative is probably good for business.

But the stories persist. The stories about status, about affiliation and the risk of the new.

More: Gas, Diamonds, The Easter Parade

Finding the others

Consider purple.space a new community for professionals to connect without hustle. Peer-to-peer support, brainstorming, community workshops, coaching, dailies and more.

Distributed work doesn’t have to be disconnected work.

Freelancing, creating, and leading can feel solitary, even lonely, but they don’t need to be.

And most of all, we can get better.

Better together.

Our best work is far more likely to happen when we have peers. You’re likely to become the average of the people you spend professional time, so choosing your cohort is best not left to chance.

More people are working away from the office than ever before, but we all miss the best moments of solidarity and connection that can happen around the mythical water cooler. Finding your people and leading together can change everything.

There are 500 of us now, in a community of practice. It’s an evolving, focused community of professionals. Around the world and around the clock, people who care about their work and about each other. We’re only enrolling 1,000 people this week.

It costs $20 a week and the first week is free if you use the code TOGETHER.

I hope you can check it out.

The MVP and fear

The minimum viable product is a powerful way to find out if your solution is going to find a market.

Bean-to-bar chocolate in the US didn’t happen because someone raised millions of dollars, built a factory and got shelf space at the A&P. It happened because John Scharffenberger made a small batch of chocolate by hand and brought it to a farmer’s market. That was enough to discover if people wanted what he had in mind.

In This is Marketing, I talk about its cousin, the smallest viable audience. This isn’t a ‘target’, because we’re not hunting. Instead, this is a segment that you’ve chosen to delight. To delight so much that they’ll return and perhaps spread the word.

The fear comes in several forms:

  • It’s tempting to make your MVP quite fancy and complete. After all, every bell and whistle helps avoid a misunderstanding and ensures you won’t be misjudged. But our goal isn’t to be fully understood, it’s to discover if we understand the market well enough to shine a light on their problem.
  • It’s also possible to make your MVP so junky it can’t possibly work. Because if it doesn’t work, well, you’re off the hook and you can go back to whatever it is you were doing.
  • And, with the SVA, it’s quite common to make it far too big. When you seek to serve a diverse audience of people, you’re off the hook when someone says ‘no.’ The goal of identifying the SVA is to make it truly clear that you’ve either found the people who need you or you haven’t.

Both the MVP and the SVA are scary constructs, on purpose. The goal is to learn something, quickly, as opposed to wasting time by hiding out.