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What to count

So many choices. So many sorts of metrics, critics and measures.

Perhaps it makes sense to count things where the counting tells us how to do better next time.

And to count things that let us know how much risk we can take next time.

Or to calibrate our judgment about the market.

But it makes no sense at all to count things over which we have no control, and which teach us nothing about the future.

Counting our luck (good or bad) doesn’t make us luckier.


[PS I’ll be doing a free online seminar at the New York Public Library on Monday as part of Carbon Almanac Week there. You’ll need to pre-register to get an invite.]

Also! This is the last best chance to take some of your favorite cohort-based workshops with my friends at Akimbo. These action-based workshops are the single most effective form of learning at scale that I’ve ever seen. The early bird discount now applies:

The Creatives Workshop is for anyone who was influenced by my book The Practice and is seeking a way to put their creative instincts to work.

The Marketing Seminar is the cohort-based course for This is Marketing and is the foundation you’ll need to understand how to bring your ideas to the people you serve.

To find more details on story skills, podcasting, copywriting and writing in community, check this link.

Waiting for a miracle?

Every year, tens of thousands of people get into a famous college of their choice. It’s not unlikely that someone will get in, it’s simply not certain that you will.

But someone will, so getting isn’t a miracle, it’s simply a long shot.

If you add a pound a day to the leg press machine at the gym, it’s possible to have the ability to press 250 pounds within a year.

It’s difficult and grueling, but not a long shot.

Neither of these outcomes requires a miracle. The first might have low odds, and the second requires persistence.

But a miracle is something that’s never happened before, and is not to be counted on.

Time and focus and energy

Sooner or later, they’re all finite. And the way we allocate our time and emotional energy determines what gets done.

If we audited your day in six-minute increments, what would we find?

By the clock, how did you actually spend the time given to you (we each get the same 24 hours). How much was spent on work? And the work time, how is it correlated with what creates the value you seek?

A question that’s harder to measure, but with far more impact, of the time you allocated, what was your focus and emotional drive spent on? What were the crises and highlights of the last day or week?

There’s generally a gulf between what we say we did all day and what we actually did. And there’s an even bigger chasm between the urgencies and emotional moments and the ones we know actually pay off.

When we give away our day, we give away our future.

Unavailable options

“What other colors do you have that are not currently in stock?”

There are always more options.

If exploring them is the goal, please explore. And sometimes, the unavailable can lead to a breakthrough.

But if the job is to simply get the work done, it might be worth pretending that the unexplored options don’t even exist.

How long will this take?

That depends.

Will the spec change after we begin?

Are we depending on supplies or inputs from other people?

Will the budget change?

Is this work that has been done by anyone before?

Is this work that has been done by this team before?

Is finishing it fast more important than doing it well or on budget?

Do you want to participate in the work (see the part about the spec)?

What are the incentives of the people working on the project?

How many different people are involved?

Are all the people, budgets and assets in place already?

Who is choosing the tools?

Pathfinding takes longer than path following. Discussions lead to changes in spec. Dependencies always add time.

A good spec

If you hand a good spec to three providers, you’ll get three variations back in return.

The way you know your spec is worthwhile is that you can live with the differences between them.

If it’s worth caring about, it’s worth writing down.

Strength through resilience

Brittle systems are weak.

Short-term wins feel like a demonstration of will by those that seek to be strong.

But the only run is the long run.

When we embrace flexible, renewable and diverse approaches, we create actual progress.

Our stories are all we really know

Joni wrote,

“Rows and floes of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all”

We’d like to believe that our experiences are aligned with the world as it is.

They can’t be. Everything we encounter is filtered through what we know. And what we know comes from the very human cultures we inhabit.

When someone rejects you for a job, they’re not rejecting you. How could they be? They don’t know you. Instead, they’re rejecting their story of you, the best approximation they had combined with the complicated story they (all of us) tell ourselves about our needs, dreams and fears.

We take these stories and we compound them. We sharpen them, rehearse them and turn them into an augmented version of the world as we see it, not the world as it is.

If it’s not working for us, the best thing we can do is begin to do the very hard work of telling a new story, a better story, one that’s more useful.

The clouds are up to us.

When we need to show our work

If you’re basing your proposal on facts, the scientific method, calculations and effectiveness, please show your work. Eagerly share your reasoning, your sources and how you came to this proposed plan. Even better, adopt a posture that welcomes improvements and corrections to your work, because after all, the purpose of your plan is to make change happen.

If, on the other hand, your proposal is based on belief and opinion, tell us. You’re entitled to both. And the rest of us are allowed to disagree.

When we confuse the two, it causes stress. When we feel the need to provide proof to back up our belief, we’re undermining both.

Management with intent

When Frederic Taylor brought the world Scientific Management a hundred years ago, it changed what it meant to run a factory. Stopwatches and assembly lines dramatically outperformed the traditional piecemeal approach.

Henry Ford wrote a four page article for Encyclopedia Brittanica about how organizations could embrace the new model, and his focus on this lowered the price of a car by 80% or more.

I’m confident that car companies like Dusenberg and Pierce Arrow felt this new approach was beneath them. They probably made thoughtful arguments about esprit de corps and the magic of a hand-built auto. But they’re gone now.

Video conferencing, the pandemic and the powerful shifts that knowledge work and the internet have caused are at least as significant a shift in work as the stopwatch was.

And yet the Washington Post sent a memo to its reporters telling them that if they didn’t come into the office three days a week, they’d be fired.

That’s because an executive there has decided that “the office” and “work” are the same thing. Even though reporters generally report, and reporting is generally done anywhere except in the office.

Was there something special about hanging out over coffee, greeting people in the lobby and gossiping every day at the water cooler? Of course. But these were side effects of good work in the office, not the cause of it.

If a manager says, “the only way I can create connections, loyalty and a sense of purpose is to force people to shlep to an office every day,” they’re being lazy. Surely we can come up with something better than simply taking attendance.

If it’s important to have your brilliant designer review the work of junior architects in person, then do it on purpose. Schedule it and make it worth the focus and effort. If you believe that loyalty and communication increase when people have regular physical interactions without a screen in between them, then build this into the schedule for the work that’s being done, don’t simply wait for it to accidentally happen.

As knowledge work has shifted to a remote-first setting, organizations have generally done an astonishingly bad job of bringing any intent at all to how they will build a culture that they care about. Forcing people to show up so they can hide behind a screen in the office is lazy.

Yes, the old culture happened organically over the course of decades. No, it’s unlikely you’ll end up with a new culture you like if you simply pretend that nothing has changed.