Sincere and genuine appreciation goes a long, long way.

If you want a solid tip to make your life much better along nearly every metric, here it is: Say thank you. Say it often, mean it when you say it, and make sure you make the recipient of that statement feel genuinely appreciated.

It brightens any day, smooths over most disagreements, and makes people want to interact with you more. Be truly appreciative of everyone, whether they made you a coffee or built your house.

And by the way – thanks for reading this. I hope it made your day a little brighter.

Story Time

Once upon a time…

I’m nowhere near an expert in the field of evolutionary psychology, so I don’t know exactly the mechanism or cause of this, but we remember things better if they’re packaged as stories. We remember fables better than facts. We retain the moral lessons better if we get them wrapped in a parable. Maybe it just makes it easier for us to connect the lesson to our lives at the right time, or maybe we’re just programmed to remember things that may have happened better than abstract facts.

Remember the movie “Slumdog Millionaire?” The protagonist gets every answer correct on the show “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire,” and over the course of the movie it’s revealed that he’s not particularly smart and isn’t educated, he just (by a series of crazy coincidences) has a personal story that has led to the exact pieces of knowledge he needed to win.

You can use this particular trait to your advantage. People remember stories. They relate to them, they absorb them. So if you want some particular piece of information to really work its way into someone else’s memory, make it a story.

If you’re in sales, don’t just list features and benefits. Tell a story about a customer that faced a problem, and how your product or service saved the day for them. Make it a parable; make it real. If you’re trying to polish up your resume, don’t just write abstract facts. Frame it as a series of events – things you did to overcome challenges. Make it a Hero’s Journey. If you’re leading a team and you need to teach them something, don’t just give a boring PowerPoint presentation and list the facts. Tell a story that uses that knowledge.

A client of mine was working with one of his own clients, who ran a fashion brand. She felt like her social media posts weren’t getting as much engagement as her competitors despite similar follower numbers. My client pointed out her problem: All her posts were just pictures of models in her clothes. They weren’t doing anything. They were facts, not stories. He advised her to create shots where the models were active – out at a party, drinking tea with a cat, anything that puts the clothes in a context the audience can relate to.

Maybe that’s the core of why stories are important. Context allows us to connect the abstract facts to our own lives, not just so we can apply them, but so we can decide if they’re applicable. Not every piece of information you learn will be relevant, and a story helps you decide if it is.

Learning to tell a good story makes you a better communicator. It’s a good skill, and worth paying attention to.

The End.

Second Chances

Whoever said “there are no second chances” was full of it. There are second chances everywhere.

You can make them. There’s nothing stopping you except for the belief that you can’t. I’ll give you a classic example – you’ve interviewed for a job and been turned down. Game over, door’s closed, right?

No way! There is absolutely a chance to turn that into something that moves you forward in some way. 99% of people won’t do it, but it literally costs you nothing except a little ego.

So you’ve been rejected for a job you interviewed for. Email the person you interviewed with, as politely as humanly possible, and thank them. This absolutely does not work if you’re even the slightest bit argumentative, snarky, or petty. You’re not writing this email to contest their decision. You’re writing this email to genuinely thank them for their time and the opportunity. And you’re going to show some humility and say that you’re eager to learn and improve. And then, with tremendous politeness, you’re going to ask if they could possibly give you some feedback as to what you could have improved as far as your skills or interview technique.

Worst case scenario: They don’t respond. You’ve lost nothing. Since they’ve already said “no,” you’re not risking anything here. You have nothing to lose.

But the other possibilities are all upside! You might get genuine feedback and advice that you can use to improve. You might impress someone enough to get a reference for another role or similar help on your journey. Or you might even impress someone enough to reconsider their initial decision! Even if any of these cases are unlikely, it costs absolutely nothing to try.

Let’s say you could spin a wheel, and 99.99% of the time nothing happens, but 0.01% of the time you win a hundred dollars. Even though the chances are very slim, it’s worth spinning the wheel if it’s free, right?

Don’t worry about odds of success. Worry about odds of success versus cost. If the cost is zero, even a very unlikely “Hail Mary” is worth throwing.

Did you lose that competition? Enter again and change your approach. Did that cake turn out terrible? You can bake another. There’s no cosmic rule that says you only get one shot at anything. There are second chances all over the place. Yes, sometimes there are truly pivotal moments, decision points, or once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. But those are incredibly rare, and most things you do will absolutely not fall into that category. Most of the time, you can try again. You don’t fail until you quit.

Where Have You Been?

You’ve probably been asked more than once, “what do you do?”

I want to ask you that, too. But I’m looking for a different kind of answer than most. I really want to know, “What else do you do?”

Let me give you a challenge. Let’s say you’re a real estate agent. I want you to describe your professional skill set, but make absolutely zero mention of being a real estate agent.

Take away the “primary” thing you do. Describe everything else. Fill a resume, but you can’t say the main thing. It’s challenging! But there’s a ton of value in it. People tend to box themselves in – they label themselves as a particular thing, and then they commit to that label, hard.

You’re so much more than that one thing. You have a dozen different skills nested under that first broad skill set. Here’s a healthy exercise: Write down every skill set you have that you learned in your “primary” vocation, without writing down the actual vocation or anything that would give it away. If you’re a doctor, you could write “interviewing people who want my help but might have reason to lie to me; finding the correct solution to complex problems that have dozens of potential solutions; working under deadlines of extreme importance,” and so on. Once you have that list, take a look at it and consider: How many other professions would find those skills useful?

Then take a look at your journey. How did you get where you are? What else did you do along the way? Where have you been? For each of those, add to that list of skills and competencies. By the time you’re done, you’ll have a very long list of things you’re good at, and no particular job they have to be tied to.

Now understand how free you are. You aren’t locked into that one label.

Imagine your neighbor is a professional rock climber. She’s one of the best in the world; she can scale nearly any cliff like a mountain goat with minimal effort. Then one day her kite gets stuck in a tree and she calls the fire department to get it out. When you ask her why she doesn’t just climb up there and get it herself, she hangs her head sadly and says “I’d love to, but I’ve never climbed a tree before. I’m a professional rock climber.”

Absurd, right? Sure, they’re not exactly the same, but there must be a huge transference of the skills there, right? Of course!

It may not seem like it, but it’s almost as absurd when a graphic designer says “I could never be an architect.” Stop defining yourself so narrowly. Don’t file yourself under a specific label. You have skills, and it’s worth taking the time to really evaluate what they are.


People will listen to, optimistically, about 20% of the advice that they directly ask for. They’ll listen to precisely 0% of advice they don’t ask for.

People told me I needed to lose weight for many years. They were right, but my response was to tell them to mind their own business with various levels of politeness. When I finally decided for myself that it needed to happen, it did.

You shouldn’t take 100% of anyone’s advice, and no one should take 100% of yours. Every life is different, and you can’t possibly know all the exact specifics of another person’s circumstances to the degree that you would need to in order for 100% of your advice to be good for that person. Heck, you’re not flawless yourself, so 100% of your advice probably isn’t even good for you.

How do you maximize the value of the advice you both give and get?

Here’s some advice on that!

  1. Don’t give any advice at all unless asked. (I’m giving myself a pass for this advice being in blog form – if you don’t want it, you’re safe to ignore it. What I mean by this is don’t give advice to a specific person unless they ask. It’s fine to leave advice “laying around” for someone to pick up if they’re interested.) People have to be ready to hear advice, and you can’t make that happen. Contrary to the popular wisdom, I think you can make the horse drink – it’s leading it to water that’s the hard part.
  2. Keep it specific, singular, and focused. If we stick with my assumption that, at best, someone will listen to 20% of what you tell them, then you’re better off telling them the same thing five times than trying to give them five different pieces of advice. If someone has actually come to you with an issue and wants your counsel, then give it to them – on that topic, that specific problem, only. Don’t use it as an opportunity to tell them everything you think they should do – not only won’t they listen, but they probably won’t ask you again.
  3. When you want advice, ask for specific help with a particular issue. Consider your source, and ask the advice of multiple sources if you can. Use the advice to learn from your mistakes when you make them anyway.

That’s it. I’d tell you more, but I’ll wait for you to ask.

Be The Right Answer

Don’t tell people what they want to hear. Very often, they don’t want to hear it.

I’ve conducted thousands of interviews in my career. I’ve been a team leader or manager for many years of that career as well. There is a habit that many people have when speaking to anyone in a position of professional authority, whether it’s a hiring manager, a boss, or even a customer. The habit of trying to tell them what you think they want to hear.

It’s a terrible habit. I have a theory about where it comes from; I think we learn it in school. Imagine yourself back in you junior year of high school (nightmarish as the thought may be). Your teacher asks you a question. Your natural instinct is not to think critically about what you believe the answer to be. What’s been drilled into you is that you should be reciting what you’ve already been told the correct answer is.

If your teacher asks you “what were the results of the Stamp Act of 1765,” they’ve definitely already told you at some earlier point what they want to hear in response to this question. If you give the answer that matches what they’re looking for, you’re “correct.” If you say anything else, you’re not.

This is, of course, a ludicrous way to approach the acquisition and application of knowledge. And in the real world, it doesn’t work anything like that.

In the real world, in a professional context, when someone asks you a question it is almost always because they don’t know the answer. It’s almost never a trick or a trap. But time after time, when I interview someone and ask something like “How would you handle a customer that wants a full refund on a package you sold them, but production has already begun,” I can see the wheels turning in their head, the hesitation in their voice, as they try to figure out what I want to hear.

What I want to hear is how they’d handle it!

Here is a huge secret from a hiring manager: If I’m hiring a new marketing associate, and I ask how they’d approach our next marketing campaign, it’s because I don’t know. If I did, I wouldn’t need to hire someone. Hiring managers often have to hire for positions well outside their own particular area of expertise – I’ve hired software engineers and journalists and carpenters. I don’t have any specific expertise in those fields, but I made great hires regardless. Because I do know how to recruit, how to conduct interviews, how to tap industry experts when I need industry-specific knowledge, and how to extract the right information from department heads to build a candidate profile (it’s like pulling teeth from herded cats, by the way, but I get there).

So when a hiring manager asks you a question, don’t worry about having the right answer. If you’re the right person for the job, you ARE the answer, and that will come through if you abandon the idea of trying to sniff out their preconceived “right” response and realize that there isn’t one. Just speak to your expertise, your character, and your intelligence.

Your relationship to your teacher in high school is absolutely not a model you should emulate in your professional career. Knock yourself out of the sheepish fear of getting a “wrong” answer and having points knocked off of an imaginary grade that will never come. Just go in and accomplish something – because I promise you, with all the sincerity in the world, that you can.

Maybe You’re Great

Which list do you think is longer: the list of things you’ve tried or the list of things you haven’t?

If you ate a new dish at every meal for the rest of your life, you’d never run out. You could go your whole life and never repeat a meal if you wanted. You could listen to music 24/7/365 for the rest of your life and never repeat a song. You could talk to a different person every day and never come close to talking to everyone.

The world is wonderful like that. There’s nothing wrong with the comfort of the familiar if it makes you happy. I’ve read my favorite book and watched my favorite movie dozens of times each; I’ve listened to my favorite song hundreds of times. I talk to my favorite people every day. (One of them only squeals, giggles, or cries, but it’s great conversation anyway.) Despite the solace we find in the old familiar places, variety is the spice of life.

Variety doesn’t have to be radical. When people hear “try new things,” they often think they’re being pushed to trade their knitting needles for a hang glider, but it can be as simple as trading in your blue yarn for some green one day.

Take your job. You may have had anywhere from a handful to two dozen jobs in your life – out of potentially thousands upon thousands. There might be other things out there that you would enjoy! And hey, maybe you’re great at them, too. Again, I’m not saying that you should quit your job at the law firm and run off and be a dance instructor.

But maybe be a dance instructor one Saturday a month, and see what happens.

Heck, maybe just branch out into a new field of legal work. No matter what your job is – walk into another department and see what they do. Have lunch with them. Read a trade magazine for an industry you’re not in. Just browse; window shop a little.

The worst that can happen is you get a good experience and decide that some new experience isn’t for you after all. The best that can happen is a radical, bright new life takes shape in front of you. Everything on that spectrum is good. So try!

Maybe you’re great!


Yesterday I made my 100th post on The Opportunity Machine.

Neat! Putting my thoughts into public words has been rewarding and I’ve enjoyed it. I have no plans to stop – I think it’s healthy for me. The blog has taken a particular kind of shape, and while I never had any grand designs or plans for exactly what kind of blog this would be, I think it’s taken its shape according to the character of its author.

I definitely think this blog has helped me see the kind of person I want to be. I won’t lie and say that I bare my soul or anything like that here. It’s a public space, and I put my best self forward into it. I share my positive thoughts, the ones I think will be of the greatest help to anyone that might read them.

This blog represents, therefore, a very positive space for me. When I’m thinking about what to write, my thoughts are always in a good, healthy place. Even if there were no other benefit, that alone would be a great reason to continue writing – and reason for me to recommend it to anyone else.

I’ve noticed a few other benefits as well, however. I’ve noticed that I’m more mindful during my days, more attentive to little things that happen around me. I’m always looking for little lessons or anecdotes that can become good blog posts, and that makes me look at things from new angles or be inspired by what might appear to be the mundane. More than once now a co-worker has said something to me and had me say back, “ooh, that’s tomorrow’s blog post…”

It’s also been great as a sort of index of my own thoughts. Often when an idea pops into my head, it’s not at a time when it’s convenient for me to really explore that idea fully. Maybe it’s during a conversation that naturally moves in another direction, or maybe it’s simply while I’m busy with another task. So the seed of an idea will come to me, but it won’t really germinate, instead languishing with a thousand others in the unswept corners of my mind. But here, I can take that idea and really explore it, writing out my thoughts uninterrupted and then bundling them in a package I can find later. In turn, when that idea becomes relevant to another conversation later, I have an easy link to find.

Though the one benefit that I hope for the most is also the one that’s hardest to measure. While this blog has been a great help to me, I also hope it helps someone else, at least a little. No single post or blog will necessarily change someone else’s life, but I hope I’m a positive part of your movement. If you’ve chosen this blog to be a part of your River, I certainly hope I’m part of the push in the best direction for you. Whatever you choose to do in order to be happy, I hope you do a hundred of it, and are deeply satisfied, and keep going.

Inputs versus Outputs

There’s a time to measure both. But how do you know?

There’s plenty of “folk wisdom” (read: hogwash) to push you towards either side. “The ends justify the means” or “if it works, it ain’t stupid” or any number of other sayings can push you to the idea that only the end result matters, not how you got there. Meanwhile, “one step at a time” and “trust the process” and sayings like those will tell you that you don’t have to worry about the destination at all, just the journey.

Which is the better philosophy?

I’m a big believer in “action goals,” but there’s a HUGE caveat that I’ll get to at the end. When you’re trying to produce tangible results of any kind, whether that’s a personal goal, business product, or anything else with measurable results, in many ways it really is just the end product that counts. Success is measured in those outputs, and people rarely see behind the curtain anyway. So why does the journey itself matter so much, as long as we get where we’re going?

The First Reason: Health. Not just your physical health, but the health of your overall project. Using physical health as an example, though: Let’s say you were 40 pounds overweight, and you drop those 40 pounds. Great, right? But it matters how you got there! If you dropped 40 pounds because you started using cocaine and throwing up your meals, that’s not good. Not only are the negative side effects worse than the positive impact of losing the weight, but even the weight loss isn’t sustainable unless you maintain activities that are killing you. If you have to deliver a software solution for a client, who cares if the code is horrible and you cut corners on process documentation as long as the end result works for the client? No one… until something breaks, and it’s impossible to fix. Outputs are good, but a house of cards always tumbles eventually.

The Second Reason: Scaling. When tinkering with a problem and finding a solution, my father would always ask, “Okay, but can we repeatabilize it?” That funny made-up word carried immediate meaning, though: Is this solution something we can do again, easily? Have we discovered a stable solution to the problem, or have we just slapped duct tape on it? The ability to take a process and scale it up or adapt it to slightly different scenarios is very powerful, and creates a significantly more valuable success than just the one short-term output.

The Third Reason: Sharing. I don’t believe in “secret knowledge.” If I can do something, I want other people to learn it. Most of my career has been centered around sharing techniques in one way or another, and I love doing it. So if I figure out a way to do something that works well, I’m not trying to horde that knowledge. The world gets better as we learn from each other. But in order to share my knowledge of how to solve a particular problem, I have to actually know how I solved it. That introspection is key.

Those are my big three reasons why I care deeply about the “how” and not just the end result. It can be easy to mock buzzwords like “metrics” and “KPIs” but they’re important. As long as

(Here’s the aforementioned HUGE caveat!)

you know that they actually get you where you want to go.

When you’re setting Action Goals, I subscribe to the idea that it’s best to decide the steps that take you towards your goal, but then ignore the end goal and focus on the individual steps. But that only works if the steps are correct! If I say, “I want to lose 40 pounds, so every day I’m going to drink a chocolate milkshake,” then focusing on the action steps isn’t going to get me where I want to go. I’ve set bad steps.

You do have to start with the goal in mind, and you have to do your homework – serious consideration of how you can break that action goal down into real steps that will get you there. You have to have reasonable confidence, either from your own experience or consulting with experts, that your steps will get you to your goal.

Here’s the nice thing: If you succeed once, and you cared about the process, then you have information that will give you even better action steps next time. You’ll have an iterative process that can improve over time. But if you have no idea how you got there, then… well, then you can’t repeatabilize your success.

One to Five

I heard some interesting advice today: “When you’re evaluating reviews, ignore anything that’s 1 or 5 stars. Read the 2-, 3- and 4-star reviews.”

I think that’s good advice. 1- and 5-star reviews tend to be impulsive; they can often be the result of a single positive or negative interaction (at best; at worst they’re just fake). But those middle-star comments are much more likely to be thoughtful and considered.

We’re all prone to hyperbole, which makes us exaggerate our interactions to the extreme. Was a slightly cold coffee in an otherwise pleasant setting at a fair price REALLY worth a 1-star review? There’s nothing else that could have been worse? Likewise, the cashier smiled pleasantly at me when handing me my change – worth five stars? No room for improvement at all?

Compounding this problem is the fact that there’s no universally-accepted definition of those kinds of ratings. For some people, 5-stars is the default; that’s what you get if you do your job competently and I don’t have any complaints. For others, the default is the middle – 3 – and you work your way up or down from there with your actions. But since no one discusses, much less agrees to, a universal standard, many star-rated reviews are meaningless. Certainly it’s meaningless to average them.

So most ratings are useless, but at least a 2-4 star rating with a comment is less likely to be hyperbole-driven and contain some mix of pros and cons. So if you really want to know what it’s like to buy a product or work for a company, those are good ones to check out.

And there’s a larger lesson – be wary of people with extreme claims, in either direction, on any topic. Pay more attention to the middle.