Burden of the Good Kid

My daughter is a very well-behaved child and that worries me.

I was too, for that matter. So was my wife. Generally speaking, we didn’t get in trouble. We followed the rules. We aggravated our parents from time to time, but that was about the extent of our rebellion.

We heard, over and over again, “you’re so well-behaved.”

“You’re so polite.”

“What a good kid you are.”

These affirmations aren’t the result of doing something special, but because you did nothing special. Nothing remarkable. You were no bother. And that’s the entire point.

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The Billion Times Rule and How to Use It

Suppose you want to launch a startup, or some other world-changing innovation. You want to disrupt the blah blah market or fundamentally transform how people blah blah. Do it well, and maybe you can make a billion dollars. That’s the core of the argument, right?

Whatever you’re trying to do, you’re probably hoping to create dramatically more impact than you do today by launching something that didn’t exist before. And that added impact ought to create added dollars in your bank account. What if I told you that logic is backwards?

Sustainable impact starts with subtraction, not addition. To become a multiplier, you must first learn how to be a simplifier.

What If Being the Exceptional Disruptor is a Bad Thing?

We are pretty important. That is, I’m important to me and you are important to you. Not everyone is equally important. Don’t you agree? You do have ideas of global importance, after all, and most others surely don’t. The typical conceit of all of us startup types is that we think we’re exceptional.

The problem with believing in our own exceptionalism is that it creates a distorted view of the world. It clouds our judgment by applying circular arguments to almost every decision.

They go like this: If I am exceptional, that means I am exempt from the rules and constraints others must endure. It means I can do what I want. Because I’m disrupting shit, I will break things– maybe rules or business models. Whatever it takes. Get out of my way.

Seriously, like, I read Nietzche. At least I did once. In an intro to philosophy class. I’m pretty sure I’m an ubermensch. 

The Golden Rule Just Got Real

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” makes sense in a small social group. If everyone generally assumes the best of each other, you can feel confident that your acts of considerate kindness will be reciprocated.

Of course, diverse groups being what they are, we don’t all want to be treated the same. We want different things from each other. You might say then, “treat others as they want to be treated.” That works a little better, given your own view of the world represents a tiny sliver of perspective. Most of the world does not want to be treated the way you do.

In fact, The Golden Rule breaks down quickly the moment you realize the “others” are mostly people you will never meet. Because we live on a planet with finite resources and interdependent commerce, our actions do affect others, and their actions affect us, too.

Supposing you’re that exceptional disruptor, are you also willing to be “disrupted” by strangers with profit motives and world views that don’t jibe with yours? It doesn’t much matter whether you’re willing. We’re all affected by the actions of others, often in ways we don’t even understand. More importantly, we’re affecting others without even trying to.

The Math is Inescapable

There are 7 billion people on this planet. That’s enough people to say we’ve entered the anthropocene– a geological age in which humans are the greatest influence on the planet. This isn’t a post about environmentalism per se. It isn’t about morality, either. It’s about how the effects of our actions multiply billions of times. We can’t escape that math.

Being indignant, or enlightened or otherwise appropriately self-righteous within your own little team of hackers (or more publicly on Facebook) about whatever issue you choose is not nearly enough. It’s the opposite of enough, in fact. Convincing yourself that you’re on the right side of history, but ignoring the math, is flat out ignorant. In the end, it’s self-defeating.

I’ll use this example:

You don’t sit in traffic, you are the traffic.

When you’re in your car (or Uber or cab) stuck in gridlock, yelling at some stupid driver making some road-clogging maneuver, it’s hard to see how you’re at fault. But traffic is not something that happens to you. It’s something you create, with your own choices, your own car, your own tank full of gas.

You are actively creating traffic. You are making people late for work. You are polluting your own neighborhood. You are killing polar bears. You are the waster-of-resources.

Sure, someone will “not do it right,” and that will be the thing that makes it all worse. But how much worse, really? The problem isn’t that one driver. The problem is all of us drivers.

I create traffic, too, just to be clear. I think of myself as an environmentalist, but I’ll also drive over an hour or fly several states away for a single business meeting. I haven’t squared that contradiction yet.

Not a big deal you say? Depends on your perspective. You can’t pick and choose your impact based on what you pay attention to. Your impact is happening regardless if you recognize it and own it. The math says an entire planet of people cannot behave this way.

If we put more people in more cars around the world, acting like me, would the world be better? And yet the goal of most car companies is to sell more cars to the consumers who share complementary goals of owning cars for independence, convenience and status.

Is that progress? If so, progress toward what?

How to Break the Status Quo without Breaking the Planet

Immanuel Kant was another German philosopher prior to Nietzche. I’ll save you the details, but suffice to say, they didn’t see eye to eye. Nietzche’s idea was that to transcend the ways we sacrifice meaning and value (acting stupidly and hurting our own interests) was to move beyond morality in the name of power. Power is all there is. It’s more subtle than that, but that’s the crux. That’s also the justification many startups, investors, big companies, big governments and others use to rationalize what they do.

It’s not just that I’m the exception, it’s that I have to be, because I’m also the best person or organization, so the rules apply to me differently. Therefore, the negative consequences my choices create are acceptable, because at least they are well-meaning, since I know better.

For ages, we could afford to be blind to the impacts of our choices, beyond what they get us. Not anymore. Now, Kant seems to have had it right. He said,

Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.

This is a fancy way of saying: Imagine everyone on the planet acting just like you do. Would the world be better or worse?

Imagine multiplying your choice by a billion.

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The Behavior Change Hack I Use Every Day

Habits suck.

At least the bad ones do– the ones that take up space and crowd out the good ones. When we’re talking about creating better habits, we’re also talking about getting rid of the ones that allow us to resist the habits we really want, without even thinking about it.

Habits are routines that trigger cognitive autopilot, which feels effortless. So the trillion dollar question is:

How do we make the habits we want to have feel effortless,
while the habits we want to break already feel effortless?

This is where we’ll start: the effortless bad habit. Most habits aren’t painful in the moment. That’s why we do them– they serve us in some way. They feel good.

It’s the habits we fail to form but wish we could that tend to cause more pain. Too often, we want to skip to the making part, when we haven’t adequately handled the breaking part. I’ve been at this for about 20 years now, and I’d like to think I’m finally figuring it out. (I’m a slow learner.)

As with most things it’s taken me so long to learn, I find it’s easier and simpler than I had imagined. Which is why this particular hack I use is, ironically, so easy to resist. In all likelihood, you won’t want to do it.

I’m serious. You won’t want to do it, because fighting your habits is not natural.


Habits are Evolution Doing It’s Job

We’re wired to use habits as a matter of survival, but we don’t tend to live in actual survival mode, which is why our habits fail us. They exist to make a very difficult existence more likely to continue– to keep us safe in an unforgiving world.

Our world today, however, is very forgiving of our faults. Most of us are insulated from life-and-death decisions because we can work and have our needs met in exchange for money. We are protected from the elements. We eat whatever we want, whatever time of the year. There are huge systems in place to ensure our survival, and we don’t even need to know how they work.

Now, rather than having to attend to survival needs in the immediate present, our focus shifts toward longer term goals and outcomes. We have the benefit of being able to plan for the future, but our habits don’t really want us to. Our habits work best in the present, keeping us safe from harm. Across time, future-focused thought and effort is a luxury few humans could ever afford, because most humans never made it to that imagined distant future.

Thinking is Expensive

Our brains consume more energy than any other organ in the body. In the same way your computer heats up as it pulls in more electricity to run lots of applications at once, your brain consumes more glucose the more you think. That’s a problem in a world of limited resources. If you’re always just a few days from potential starvation, or a hyena attack, better save those calories!

Habits make complex situations routine, so we get predictable payouts without paying the price of thought. Think about a hard problem once, try some things, see what works, do more of what works and less of what doesn’t. At it’s essence, this is conditioning: learned behavior patterns.

Repetition locks in the pattern and feels good because it’s predictable. Whew! Thinking phase complete, mindless doing phase initiated.

Your Brain Wants a Return on Investment

Once you have some routines established and you get simple, immediate payoffs for doing what you do, your brain is seeking to replicate that pattern again and again forever. It’s trying to recoup your investment in learning so that life gets just a little easier and more predictable.

Imagine if you had to problem-solve what to eat, where to sleep, how to stay warm every single day from scratch. You’d get nowhere, and fail to mitigate threats. You are literally invested in your habits.

This doesn’t mean they’re good for you. It just means you’ve evolved not to break them. We didn’t evolve to resist scrolling through Facebook– we evolved to keep doing it because it feels good. Thinking isn’t part of the equation.

Your Spotlight of Awareness Defaults to “Off”

Regardless if you want to keep scrolling through Facebook when you have more important things to do and your self-loathing is slowly building, your brain is doing what it can to avoid thinking about what you’re actually doing in the context of your priorities, whatever those are.

Your habits wouldn’t know a priority if it showed up with paparazzi and an entourage.

Habits are non-rational processes. You aren’t supposed to think about them.

When you are in survival mode, anything that feels good likely is good for you, statistically. Eating, sleeping, staying warm, feeling secure, having sex. You aren’t supposed to doubt whether your habits are useful. The world will teach you, one way or another, so that the actual pain from being wrong, or the benefits from being right, cause you to change your habits.

In that case, caveman, the more you can offload into the non-rational realm, the better. Unfortunately, that same calculus doesn’t apply today. Countless habits we carelessly cultivate, neither kill us (right away), nor cause us pain (today), so we don’t think about them. They stay just outside our awareness.

And then there we are, alive for one more day and not happy about it. We imagine the future and it’s not looking good. We consider the future we thought today was going to be and it’s not here yet. Oh, to be a hunter-gatherer. Seems a pack of hyenas would be easier to deal with.

How to Buy a Cheap Habit Spotlight

We lock in simple behavior patterns non-rationally. Our brains are sneaky that way. But as the best problem-solvers this planet has ever seen, we like using our rational faculties. We like constructing elaborate plans. Don’t. Avoid the plan.

Make a Habit of Watching Your Habits

Just watch. Note what you do. It works like this:

  • Pick a habit you want to break.
  • Using a notebook or note app, set up a place to “note” when you feel yourself doing the thing you don’t want to do– the habitual behavior that sneaks up on you.
  • Take note, without explaining it. Note when, where, what happened– but keep it very simple and quick. You only need enough to capture what happened.
  • Review your notes at least a couple times per week.
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    No One Does Anything for YOUR Reasons

    I’d love to be more influential. I’ve read a lot about it, but I can’t seem to figure it out. I’m not the kind of person who oozes charisma. I don’t think I look the part, nor am I much of a smooth talker or extroverted life-of-the-party type. If I’m honest, I’m pretty dorky.

    So why do I get asked to lead new projects? Why have people turned to me to orchestrate change? To run trainings? To grow sales? Why do I end up in positions of authority despite being the least-knowledgable (and never the smartest) person in the room?

    Because it’s not about me.


    Influence Starts with Empathy

    In the beginning of my career, I was pretty certain most people I worked for “didn’t get it.” Never mind I was new in business with 20+ fewer years of experience than they had. I was pretty sure of myself. If only they understood me, I could fix things. If only.

    A Lesson in Self-Awareness

    The status quo was never good enough, in my high-minded approach to the world. So whatever task was assigned to me, my typical MO was to tear it down and design a new one. Sometimes this out-of-the-box attitude earned me praise, often it didn’t.

    There’s the whole matter of being wrong, of course. It happened early and often. And when I was wrong, my ideas were rightfully ignored. Though that didn’t stop me from going home and stewing about it. (Just ask my wife.)

    Then there’s the issue of being right, without having the authority or responsibility to make the change I envisioned. When those things rest with other people, boy howdy, I didn’t just stew. I’d cause a ruckus. Yes, I was a punk. When I was sure I was right, I also thought the world was going to end because no one would listen to me. It was intolerable. The fools!

    That kind of frustration was a major factor in deciding to start and run my own businesses. And while independence benefited my ego, it also forced me to learn faster. A lot faster. I couldn’t go home and stew about anyone. Without a boss to blame, there were only clients. I couldn’t rationally blame clients (though I did).

    Why in the world don’t people do what’s best for them? Since I obviously have the best ideas about what that is, why don’t they listen to me?

    They Didn’t Listen to Me, Because I Didn’t Listen to Them

    I should have known better. I was a trained counselor, after all. I had taught group facilitation. While I had the skills to listen effectively, I hadn’t truly internalized the importance of doing so.

    Yes, I could read a prospect’s cues or my manager’s frustration. But rather than dig into those feelings, I reacted to them like landmines to avoid– problems to overcome. My ego wanted the win, so I’d push, hoping the underlying objections or misunderstandings would melt away, like they always do in magical sales trainings that get to a yes. And when they didn’t, I blamed the other person, because they were probably being stupid.

    Well of course they weren’t. I was. I might have been listening, but I wasn’t really hearing what they said, or what they needed. That was my fault. I was pushing my agenda, not constructing solutions.


    Getting Over Myself

    No one wakes up in the morning wondering how to please a stranger they have yet to meet. We just don’t put a lot of energy into how other people feel. Even if you are trying to do good in the world, you likely have an agenda. You want an outcome. I sure did. And I pushed for my agenda. Hard.

    What I learned, however, was that I couldn’t possibly know what’s best for the person I was talking to. My ego wanted agreement. My ego wanted to help. My ego drove me to get my way.

    I did get my way with regularity, performing well in sales, sometimes very well. I was good at winning arguments, but I also had my failures, and they stuck with me, probably too much. I let my ego get hurt. To do better, I had to be better. I had to get over myself.

    The Discipline of Discovery

    About 15 years ago, I was introduced to the idea of buyer-centered selling. I started letting go of what I wanted, and learning how to forget about my own goals in favor of my prospect’s goals. I stopped caring about winning or losing the sale, and focused intently on learning– about the other person, their viewpoint, their priorities, their worries…

    My performance wasn’t the point. My goals took a back seat. When I could put myself in the other person’s perspective, and they knew I could, everything changed.

    As one of my trainers would say, “He who learns the most, wins.”

    This isn’t just true in sales. It’s also vitally important in managing people effectively, discovering what your customers truly want, and designing new solutions that are meaningful to them and easy to use. As you might expect, I’m a huge advocate of “human-centered design.”

    Discovering more than others do is a powerful advantage, not just because it ensures you make decisions based on fact, but because the people you serve, want your help.

    We are Wired for Socially Constructive Behavior

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    Learning is Destructive

    Often, we think of learning as a purely additive experience. For example, if I read an article about parrot fish living on the Great Barrier Reef, when I previously didn’t know a thing about sea life off the coast of Australia, I gain something. It adds to my collection of facts, like a new piece of furniture in a room.

    The same might go for some new fruit in the grocery store, a new app on my phone, or a handy new way to say “thank you” to a friend in Turkish. Life’s lessons, however, are rarely so simple. They aren’t like adding furniture to a room; they’re like moving walls and replacing doorways. To rebuild the room, something’s gotta feel the business end of a sledgehammer.

    Deep Learning Disorients Us

    We liked things where they were. It was comfortable, if not familiar. Those were our frameworks and assumptions. Whatever our reality, we grow to prefer that certainty because it provides a huge array of answers that we don’t need to think about.

    Look at it this way. If you consider yourself a good person who does good work, and then you learn of a competitor who just invented a way to make your work obsolete, suddenly the world doesn’t make as much sense.

    One moment you had a feeling of efficacy. Your work created a certain result and that was worth something. Then, out of the blue, someone redefined the work and through no fault of your own, whatever you did yesterday is not as useful today.

    How do you work now that your proverbial desk is gone? Maybe your whole office? You had routines! You knew what to do first thing, and next, and then after that… What now?!

    Embrace the confusion. That groundlessness is meaningful. It means you’re growing.

    Learning Teaches Us Who We Are

    You can protest the fact that your office and all the furniture in it is rearranged, or you can find a new way to work. It’s not easy to let go of what you thought you had. It’s not easy to reimagine yourself in your new reality.

    Our egos put us in context. That sense of self we all have is a feeling that’s built up in relation to the people around us and how we interact with them. When we learn something that changes those relationships significantly, it forces us to recalibrate our self image.

    When it turns out you were terribly wrong about something, are you willing to recalibrate who you think you are? Revisiting the notion that a competitor invented a disruptive new technology and swept the world out from under you… did they do that to you? Do you blame them? Do you blame management? Do you say f*ck it and give up?

    Whatever it is you thought you knew that made your world make sense, turns out, you were wrong. No, it’s not the competitor that did it to you, or anyone else. That competitor uncovered an insight that was previously secret. It was already true, you just didn’t know it yet.

    Are you a person who believes true things? I’m reasonably certain you want to be, but confronting truths that are new to you can be more than inconvenient. It can be jarring, even devastating to the image you had of yourself.

    Learning Forces Us to Change

    “Sure, I knew that all along. Totally saw it coming.”

    Did you? Hindsight bias is one of our handy cognitive tricks that preserve ego by rewriting the past. If you didn’t anticipate a change, maybe there was something wrong with you– something lacking. The ego doesn’t like that feeling. So it’ll reach for another: omniscience.

    We can all very easily say we knew whatever did happen would happen. It preserves our feeling of control in a changing landscape and keeps us safely out of helplessness. Trouble is, maybe you were helpless for a moment. Maybe (probably) you had no idea that change was coming.

    Maybe you weren’t just going along to get along– maybe you were actually perpetuating the problem when you should have known better. Are you prepared to own that and change?

    From tiny assumptions (this font on this button will help more users click), to encompassing world views (democratic ideals are responsible for the economic and political power of the West), we build our own worlds– and our selves, our egos— out of ideas. Ideas are flawed. Always have been, always will be.

    Learners, innovators, hyper-adapters know that what we think about the world and our role in it is fraught with ignorance. It’s hiding everywhere, even in plain sight. We don’t make the world better by holding on to things we thought were true. We make it better, one small decision at a time, by discovering what’s really true, and changing ourselves accordingly.

    That’s what real learning does for us. It destroys something, but it makes way for something better in the process, if we let it.

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    Swimming in It (Part 3): Build Your Life Raft

    When there is too much to do, or think, or finish (and there often is), the world won’t stop to wait for you. It won’t let you rest. It won’t let you focus. Only you can do that.


    Many of the most successful people in the world maintain demanding schedules, juggle responsibilities and discover their peak performance by expertly managing their mornings. How I manage my mornings makes all the difference.


    Build Your Life Raft with Routine

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    Swimming in It (Part 2): Mind Like Water

    The previous post was about silencing your critic with action; to flow freely in the context of the moment, rather than the imagined future context that your inner critic is protecting you from.


    This post reveals a powerful reason why getting everything out of your head (letting your ideas, thoughts, feelings, preoccupations… flow onto paper) is more than just an inner critic judo move. It cultivates a ready mind.


    I’ve never heard anyone put this better than David Allen, creator of Getting Things Done:

    In karate, there is an image that’s used to define the position of perfect readiness: “mind like water.” Imagine throwing a pebble into a still pond. How does the water respond? The answer is, totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input; then it returns to calm. It doesn’t overreact or underreact.

    Anything that causes you to overreact or underreact can control you, and often does. Responding inappropriately to your email, your staff, your projects, your unread magazines, your thoughts about what you need to do, your children, or your boss will lead to less effective results than you’d like. Most people give either more or less attention to things than they deserve, simply because they don’t operate with a “mind like water.”

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    Swimming in It (Part 1): Let It Flow

    I listened to three podcasts while at the gym. I came back and discussed them with my wife. Weighted down with juicy fruit ripe for the picking, my head was swimming.


    It’s going to be easy to write in the morning, I thought. That’s what I thought.


    In the space between a creative spark and a public proof of work are layers of evaluation and editing. There’s vague, imagined possibility, and then there’s concrete, specific actuality. To say that translating thinking into doing can be a challenge is a gross understatement.


    We look at all the doing around us– the podcasts, articles and books, products, projects, all the accomplishments of others– and we perceive a kind of instant perfection. The standard is too high. And false.


    How can my idea possibly compete with any of that? It’s not good enough.


    I put myself in the context of completion, but I needed a context of creative flow.


    Let It Flow

    When your head is swimming, or your inner critic edits your ideas and actions before they can actualize, just let the little things flow.


    So I wrote what popped into my head:
    -Notes from the podcasts
    -Chores to do
    -Ideas for six new posts
    -Work tasks
    -A new post in 10 minutes (a la this post)


    Then I made breakfast, did some chores, came back later and started this series. The first post didn’t survive. It wasn’t good enough. But it was good enough to get me going. All I had to do was stop thinking about it; I let it flow.



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    But It’s Only Just Mostly Dead!

    Listen, if you’re trying to get a startup off the ground, learn a new skill, change a habit, or otherwise make rapid, large scale changes in your work or personal life, you need to let things go.


    You can’t accumulate demands on your time and attention and expect anything to go better than it went before. Like when you make a task list that’s too long? You never get it done. So what happens the next day? It’s longer. But Future You is magic, right? Future You can do more shit in less time. Not like lazy Yesterday You. What a loser.


    Highly effective people get more important, higher impact things done not because of all that they do, but because of all they don’t do. They don’t waste time.


    It’s Time for a Funeral

    Get out a piece of paper, or whatever you use to track your growing list of demands on your limited time and attention. List the things you’ve started and haven’t finished, that nag you and occupy headspace, things you wish you finished, you should have finished, you hope to finish one day. Put it all down there.


    Probably, that list is unreasonable. So, what’s really important? What are the few things that are most essential? Not nice-to-haves, essential. Keep those. Kill everything else.


    Not ready for such a housecleaning of headspace? That’s OK. Pick one thing and intentionally stop it. Just one. Kill another thing tomorrow. You have my permission, killer.


    Bring out your dead.

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    The Spaces Between

    What do you do when you’re not working? When you aren’t at your most “productive?”


    What do you do in the spaces between the appointments on your calendar or the tasks on your list?


    Dr. Jim Loehr, world-renowned performance psychologist and author of 16 books, including, The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal, has discovered that the highest performers manage the spaces between the work.


    While coaching some of the best tennis players in the world, Dr. Loehr immersed himself in movement and behavior on the court. What made the best better than the rest? After over 100 hours of study, he couldn’t see it.


    Then he noticed something. The highest performing players had the most scripted, consistent routines between the points. How they return to the baseline, spin their rackets, bounce the ball… these routines helped them reset, lower their heart rates and renew themselves for the next task.


    I’m sure you’re intentional about how you manage your work. Are you equally intentional about how you manage your breaks?


    This podcast with Molly Fletcher is a fantastic intro to Dr. Loehr’s perspective. Hope you enjoy it. Tell me what you think!

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