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More vs. better

If every building in the shopping district in a big city was owned by one landlord, rents would go up. So would the prices of everything sold. The landlord would keep a significant percentage of each store’s profits and innovation would suffer as well.

Google’s monopoly is real.

They pay Apple more than a million dollars an hour to be the default search engine on phones. It’s more profitable for Apple to threaten to build a search engine than it is for them to actually run one. Google overpays for the default status because their hegemony gives advertisers fewer options. And by controlling the flow of attention across the web, they can dictate how websites work and what our experience is online.

Ever since Adam Smith began writing about capitalism, it’s been understood that monopolies are a defect in the structure of free markets. Locking in an advantage gives the monopolist the power to ignore its customers and we all suffer as a result.

A company grows by getting ever better at serving its customers, its vendors and its employees.

A company becomes a monopoly by becoming ever better at becoming a monopoly.

Few companies have done a better job of marketing the benefits of their monopoly than Google. They rarely charge their users, but offer free software and engaging stories instead. But they have relentlessly grabbed more and more of our attention, and used it to create a sinecure that costs all of us. It’s not just ecosia, duckduckgo and kagi that are paying for this monopoly. When a company can shift the rules and focus on more instead of better, we all pay.

While standing on one foot

Make it easy! they insist.

One of the longest-running direct response ads of all time was for a piano playing course. For more than forty years, people mailed in money for a simple, fast way to impress their friends by playing the piano. They sold a lot of manuals, but I’m guessing not many people actually learned to play.

And every year, there are new electronic devices, pills and procedures that promise to help people lose weight or get fit without trying very hard.

Of course, the one-foot shortcut fails. Almost every time.

Not only don’t we learn anything, but we waste the time and the money we spent standing impatiently on one foot.

A fundamental reason that high-overhead educational settings like med school succeed is that sunk costs and commitment dramatically increase our willingness to stick it out. If the easy thing worked, you would have done it already.

The most successful students insist that the teacher make it difficult. So difficult that we’re tempted to quit (but don’t).

Commitment gets us through the frustration, and frustration is the partner of learning.

High fidelity

It might be the high fidelity of a good LP on a great turntable. It sounds just like the original recording.

It might be the high fidelity of loyalty. No shopping around for a momentarily better deal.

It might be the high fidelity of genre. This is just what you hoped it would be.

And it might be the high fidelity of a simulation, which is sort of a combination of the previous three.

Sometimes, authenticity is overrated. When we make a promise and keep it, we’re creating a fidelity that people are drawn to.

Two sides of “a big deal”

Many businesses thrive by helping people deal with projects that feel like they have high stakes. A kid’s first haircut, the offsite storage of data backup, an upcoming family reunion, a medical procedure or the inscription on a sentimental piece of jewelry or watch.

But, if the inevitable glitch or failure arises, we’re inclined to remind the customer that in the scheme of things, it’s not such a big deal.

Of course it is. You reminded them of that over and over when you were making the sale.

When things don’t work, it’s not helpful to try to minimize the impact. In fact, you’re far more likely to make progress if you remind the customer just how much it mattered to you to get it right, and how you feel about letting them down.

Empathy is a first step toward connection.

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.