Second Degree

Let’s say you know about a hundred people well enough to have a conversation with them within about a week if you requested one. For most people, that’s probably in the ballpark. That’s great! That’s a hundred sources of information, enjoyment, fellowship, or enrichment. Other people know so much that you don’t; there’s some overlap to be sure, but that’s still an order of magnitude or more information that isn’t stored within your own brain.

If that was the end of this post, it would still be a cool thing to reflect on. But there’s an additional element from this that absolutely blows my mind when I pause to think about it.

Each of those people knows about a hundred people, too! That means you’re only one step removed from literally thousands of really great conversations, connections, and relationships. How cool is that?

Most people don’t consider it. They don’t realize how easy it is to ask for one small introduction, and how joyously most people will abide by that request. I know personally that introducing two people into a fruitful interaction makes me feel on top of the world.

And once you’ve made that connection? Now they’re in your original 100 (now 101!), meaning their hundred is within your second degree of connection. Your access to information can grow exponentially with only a few kind words and friendly chats.

Marvel truly at the unique views of other people, but don’t just stop at who you can see. Consider who they can see, and cast your vision out into the ever-widening world. It’s a wonderful place with so much to learn. The fact that the primary tool to gain this information is kindness is icing on the cake.

Try to have a conversation with a new person at least once a week. It will change your life, I promise.

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Pay Attention

I really like the phrase “pay attention.” It’s a nice reminder of just how valuable and limited a resource someone’s attention really is.

People have a shockingly limited capability to give their real, active attention to something. Personally, while I can laser-focus my attention very intently, I have almost zero capability to pay attention to more than one source of information at a time. (This is one of the reasons I don’t watch much television – unlike some people, I’m completely incapable of watching TV while doing something else like laundry.) Even people who can pay attention to more than one thing at once can’t scale that indefinitely. And of course, attention is naturally tied to time, a resource that we all must budget. In fact, attention is even more scarce of a resource than time, since you can’t pay true, active attention even a fraction of the amount of time you’re awake.

So when you’re really engaged with something, you’re paying a hefty opportunity cost. You’re devoting a very scarce resource to something. You should make sure you’re getting an equivalent value out of the exchange.

You should also, to the very best of your ability, give excellent value when someone has chosen to pay you their limited attention. Someone paying attention to you is a tremendous compliment; of all their options for this unit of attention, they chose to spend it on you. Maybe you asked them to – after all, before a sales professional asks for a single penny from someone, they first have to ask for their attention. And anyone who’s done more than a day in sales definitely knows how precious a resource someone’s attention can be; you can’t make money without it.

For whatever reason someone has chosen to pay their attention to you, try to make it worth it. Give value in exchange for the high compliment. Thank people for their decision to engage with you. Check in with people and make sure they were satisfied by the exchange. In other words, give good customer service to everyone who pays attention to you.

That’s especially true for you, my reader! You’ve given your attention to me by reading this, and I thank you most sincerely. I hope the experience of reading this was valuable to you, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to make the attempt. If I can make paying further attention to me more valuable to you in any way, I’d love to do so – so don’t be shy. I’ll pay attention to you.

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Malice, Stupidity, Other

When someone does something you don’t agree with, there are three possible explanations: Either they’re evil, they’re an idiot, or they know something you don’t know.

Most people aren’t evil. Most people aren’t stupid, either, as long as they’re in their general wheelhouse. (Side note: many people uncharitably define “stupid” as “having different information than me.” Try to avoid this!) Because I don’t want to go through life assuming that people who do anything I wouldn’t do are stupid or evil, I find myself very often asking “What do they know that I don’t?”

This leads me down all sorts of fascinating rabbit-holes.

For instance, earlier this evening I stumbled on a Reddit thread of people having arguments over whether or not their witchcraft being used to send rain to Australia was a good thing or not. (If you’re reading this at some point in the future – in 2019/2020, Australia was having a super bad drought and tons of fires, and then they suddenly got a ton of rain which was good except then it was too much rain and there were floods.) This wasn’t a joke; these were people who sincerely believed they had magical powers, and were debating whether too many of them had been irresponsible with their powers and caused flooding, and some other people were saying things like “don’t be silly, the rain was brought by aboriginal shamans, not some dabbling witch halfway around the world.” Oh, of course, how silly of me.

Me dismissing those people as delusional idiots is easy. And in this case, possibly still justified. But my intellectual curiosity won’t let me off that easy – lots of people might make foolish choices or have incorrect information, but not all of them think they’re real witches with the power to flood a continent. It made me wonder what particular set of experiences and information led to this particular style of being wrong, rather than the general case.

Tangent: Intelligence as Moral Worth

I notice a strange thing happens when we talk about how ‘smart’ someone is. First off, intelligence is complex, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t measurable. There are real ways of getting a pretty specific read on how intelligent someone is. Some people will say things like “there are lots of different ways to be smart,” and that’s totally true. But within each of those ways, we can take measurements.

Let’s say two people go to the gym together. One of them can do more reps than the other on a particular machine, but the other person can lift more weight on a different machine, and one can work out for longer, but the other has more intense peaks, and so on. One of them has a better BMI but the other one has a better heart rate and lower blood pressure. Which one of them is “in better shape?” You can make a case, but it’s not clear-cut, since “being in shape” clearly has so many variables. But within each of those variables, you can absolutely measure and compare.

Here’s another weird thing, though: Let’s say those same two people come to the gym, and they’re the same age, height/weight, gender, etc. One of them can lift 20% more than the other on every single machine or technique. So we say, “Person A is physically stronger than Person B.” Virtually no one interprets that as “Person A has more moral worth than Person B.” Most people wouldn’t take a straightforward observation like that as an insult. If you tell me I’m not as strong as someone else, that holds as much emotional weight for me as you telling me my shirt is a different color than theirs.

That’s true of almost every trait, except intelligence. Even though it’s just one trait among many, people get surprisingly emotionally invested when talking about intelligence. To the point where we’re it’s often taboo to even talk about intelligence as a measurable thing. If person A runs faster than person B, we say they’re faster. If person A lifts more than person B, we say they’re stronger. But if person A scores better on an IQ test than person B, we’re very uncomfortable saying they’re smarter. “You’re not as fast as Bob” is seen as a fact of life. “You’re not as smart as Bob” is seen as a vile insult.

My thoughts on this are that one, we’ve bundled way too many concepts under the umbrella term “smart” or “intelligent.” Saying someone is “smart” is as precise as saying they’re “healthy.” It can mean so many things and has so many variables that it becomes immeasurable as a total concept, but that doesn’t mean we can’t (or shouldn’t!) examine the components, especially if that means we could get better at them. Studying health made us healthier. Studying intelligence could make us smarter, if we move away from the taboos surrounding the discussion. And two, for some reason as a society we’ve bundled moral worth and intelligence together in a way that we don’t do with any other trait. Sure, calling someone “dumb” is rightfully seen as an insult – but so is calling someone a “weakling.” In both cases, you’re just deliberately being insulting, so there’s no surprise there. What’s surprising is that people are insulted even when you’re not being a deliberate jerk, as in the examples above.

If someone told you that you aren’t as strong as one of your peers, you might object and want to see the results of the tests, but once you saw them you’d (maybe begrudgingly) accept it. The same isn’t true with intelligence – no matter how many tests, exams, challenges and the like you take and score lower on than Person B, you’ll keep making excuses, saying things like, “well, I’m smarter in other ways.” That might be true, but we can measure those, too. Also, there’s so much knowledge out there that just knowing something that someone else doesn’t know doesn’t make you smarter than them. I’m 99% sure I know more about Kevin Smith’s films than Stephen Hawking did, but that doesn’t mean that I was smarter than he was.

I think a huge part of the cause of this phenomenon is that most Americans (and indeed, most first-worlders in general) spend the first 18-22 years of their life being evaluated exclusively on intelligence. School doesn’t actually test for intelligence as much as they test for memorization skills and obedience, but they tell you they’re testing for intelligence, so that’s the message you get. “Intelligence” as they define it is the sole determinant of your progress through the system – even though a thousand other factors will determine your actual success in the real world, only “book smarts” matters in the primary activity you’re forced to engage with during the entire formative period of your life. If you can run faster or build better birdhouses or are more creative, those are fun “extras,” but only in very rare and exceptional circumstances do they carry even a tiny bit of weight in terms of your evaluations.

So almost everyone gets the message that “intelligence” is the only thing that matters, and only in the strange way it gets defined by K-12 schooling. No wonder people are sensitive about it.

End tangent.

That does bring me back around to my main point – which wasn’t about witches, but about understanding the different information other people have. I try to learn everything someone else knows about an area of disagreement, and only then do I fall back on “stupid” or “evil” as an explanation if I haven’t found another. In 99% of circumstances, I find another, of course. As I said, most people aren’t stupid nor evil.

In fact, my prior belief that people aren’t stupid or evil often leads me to be pretty stubborn. Sometimes I’ll find a lot of information that someone simply acted in an evil way, but I’ll still keep looking for an explanation that makes me say, “Oh, I get it – I’d have done the same, knowing what that person knew.” I know how strong our inclination is to label people as foolish or bad in order to justify our own beliefs, and I don’t ever want to fall into that trap, so I fight it tooth and nail. I seriously want to know if there’s some reasonable set of information that could justify believing that real witches made it rain in Australia, and only once I’m satisfied that I gave genuine effort towards finding that information (and coming up wanting) am I comfortable dismissing the belief as foolish.

Lately I’ve been grappling with a particular belief that my lizard brain really, really wants me to label as “stupid” or “evil” or both, and I’m having a more difficult than usual time combating it. Because I don’t tend to get real political on this blog (for a variety of reasons), I won’t go into the actual debate. I know how easy it is to assume your political position is the only reasonable one and clearly no debate can exist, so I don’t want to fall into that cognitive trap. I want to understand the set of information that would lead someone to agree with the opposite side. So I’ll end this post with an ask: what techniques do you use to find the most reasonable arguments from “the other side” of a debate?

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Notes, January 2020 Edition

I’m going to share some music that I think is really great. As always, there’s no theme; obscure or mainstream, old or new, genre agnostic. Just stuff I like to listen to, so maybe you will too.

Warning, by Green Day. A criminally-underrated album from Green Day’s “middle years.” One of the things I love about Green Day is they’ve had a real evolution and have never tried to go back and duplicate the tone of earlier works. That means that they’re not one consistent sound, and I know a decent number of people who are fans of only one specific era of them. A lot of people pass over the years between the commercial success of the Dookie/Insomniac era and the band’s resurgence with American Idiot, but those years had some real gems, and this album is I think the best from that time.

Heroes From the Future, by Junction 18. One day in the early 2000’s I was in a record store in Delaware, and they had a paper grab bag: 5 CDs for 2 bucks, but you couldn’t look. You just had to trust fate. That seemed like a great deal to me and I spent my last two dollars on a collection that included this album. Over the next several months, I wore it out. When I got my first MP3 player, this was the first thing I put on there, because the band was obscure enough that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find another copy of the CD. It’s poppy alt-rock and isn’t too unique for its time period in that sense, but it always seemed like real pain and experience was dripping out of the speakers when I played this. There’s a hopefulness buried in there too, and that makes it special.

The Resistance: Rise of the Runaways, by Crown The Empire. I just discovered this band this month, and I’m really into them! They’re like a combination of Muse, Dream Theater, System of a Down and My Chemical Romance. The end result is some very weird but very cool metal concept albums and I was really captivated the whole time. This one might push your boundaries some because you might not like anything even adjacent to this, but it’s still worth the experience – as all new music is.

Zoot Suit Riot, by Cherry Poppin’ Daddies. Okay, so just in case you didn’t pay attention to the blink-and-you-missed-it attempt in the late nineties to resurrect swing music into the mainstream, it happened. I mean, the attempt happened, not the actual resurrection. But one good thing to come out of an otherwise not-so-great experiment was this album. Here’s the thing: the main hit single, “Zoot Suit Riot,” was hands-down the worst song on the album. It’s all anybody heard, and it’s not bad, but every other song is a million times better. Even if you heard the single a bunch on the radio, get the album anyway and just skip it (it’s the first track), and listen to the rest.

The Wind, by Warren Zevon. I absolutely love Warren Zevon. He was just so freakin’ weird and great and inspired. In 2002 he found out he was dying of cancer, and he raced into the studio with a bunch of his friends, other musicians, and the support of both his studio and his loved ones and just cranked out this album, wanting to make sure he got in one last record before his end. It is absolutely divine. It rocks, and it’s heartbreaking, and it’s fitting. It was a fantastic sendoff. It was released two weeks before his death, and I first bought it the day it was released. Every song was fresh in my memory, having been listened to on near-repeat for that whole time, when I read the news that one of my favorites had passed. You can’t take it with you, man, but you can sure leave it behind.

Tell me what music you keep in your heart for a while.


My father has a word he likes that he picked up in his own career: “repeatable-ize.” If you accomplish something good, he’ll say: “That was great, but can you repeatable-ize it?” He’s asking if you can turn a project into a process; can you not only repeat it yourself, but can you make it repeatable for others?

Being good at something is easier than teaching other people how to be good at that thing. In fact, the better you are at something, the harder it might be for you to teach it, because so much of your skill might be second nature by now (if it wasn’t natural talent to begin with!).

My grade-school aged daughter went to a robotics class hosted by the Girl Scouts (which like… how cool), and they did a really awesome demonstration for how difficult it is to write instructions as a precursor to explaining the literal nature of coding. They had the girls write down how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and then the instructor followed those directions as a robot might, making zero “common sense” corrections. So if you wrote “put the peanut butter on the bread,” then the instructor put a jar of peanut butter on top of the loaf of bread, still in the bag. If you wrote “put jelly on your knife” without first saying “open the jar of jelly,” guess what happened? You get the idea – and the kids did too, when it was done.

That’s what teaching is like. It’s harder than you think to pass on your skills, because so much of what you do is so integrated into your process that you can’t atomize it anymore. All the sugar has dissolved into the water so you can’t see the individual grains anymore.

So, here are some of my “top tips” for how to repeatable-ize something.

  1. Nested Units are your friend. What do I mean? Let’s say you’re trying to write instructions for lawn care to your teenager who hasn’t done it before. You can make one of the instructions “start the lawnmower,” but that actually might be half a dozen steps on its own that they don’t know how to do (check the fuel? oil? prime the pump? pull cord? etc.) – but if they do know you’re wasting time. So nest down. Write something like “Step 3: Start The Lawnmower (for instructions on how to do this, see Appendix 3).” In general, instructions of the same “level” of complexity belong at the same level.
  2. Know your audience. The instructions for how to drive to Taco Bell are very different for a 15-year-old than for an out-of-town adult friend. Or for a foreigner that isn’t used to America’s highways, for that matter. Find out what they don’t know.
  3. Incorporate Questions and Iterate. If you’re doing the training, you have to assume 100% responsibility for the outcome. You can’t get frustrated if people “don’t get it,” because it’s all on you. If someone asks you a question that seems obvious, remember to leave the frustrated sighs at home and incorporate the answer to that question into your instructions. Keep doing that until no one has any questions more advanced than “how do you breathe?” Remember, if the only people who were going to read these instructions were geniuses who already knew how to do it, you wouldn’t need to write them in the first place.

Good luck, and happy repeatable-izing.

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Keeping things concise is an art form. Anyone can explain any topic given infinite time and infinite attention from the other party, but you don’t have anything close to either.

Being concise isn’t my strong suit. I’m practicing. My boss likes to occasionally say to me, “Tweet.” She’s reminding me to keep my messages short, verbal or written. Fit it in 280 characters. I love the fact that we can get all that across in one word, because it fills her own advice.

When I’m stressed, I construct a haiku about whatever I’m stressed about. I don’t aim for deep poetic impression or anything. I just find that the ten or so breaths it takes me to phrase what’s worrying me in exactly seventeen syllables is a really great meditation. It cuts away extraneous noise, forces me to focus, and takes me out of the bad moment and puts me back in a good one.

Practice brevity. Tweet.

Your Own Best Friend

I know many people who are far harsher on themselves than they are on others. They will treat friends or even strangers with great consideration – giving them the benefit of the doubt, assuming the best intentions by default, and forgiving faults and mistakes easily. Those same people will be terrible to themselves, accepting nothing short of perfection and blaming all mistakes on innate weaknesses of character without solution.

Be as charitable to yourself as you would be to a person you admire. That’s the first step towards admiring yourself, which is something most people should do more of.


Why are there so many bad salespeople? It’s a statistic I see pretty often when I talk to sales leaders, that something like half of sales professionals aren’t hitting their quotas or goals. Now, I could probably write another post on accurate goal-setting (and in fact, I think I will), but for today’s post I’m going to assume that the goals are accurate reflections both of what’s possible and of what’s necessary. If that’s the case, why are so many salespeople seemingly bad at their jobs?

(Spoiler: It’s a very good thing!)

Let’s also not assume that it’s a failure of leadership. It’s not about whether they’re being trained well or managed correctly – while there are definitely systemic problems with sales leadership, that’s actually just a part of the whole “some sales professionals are bad at their jobs” phenomenon, not the cause of it. Sales leaders are very typically just sales reps that got promoted.

No, the reason that many sales professionals are bad at their jobs is because sales is a phenomenal career launch point where huge numbers of people can try out in a live setting. That’s really it, and it’s fantastic.

Think about a heart surgeon. Every heart surgeon had to have a “first time” that they were the primary (not assisting) surgeon, holding a patient’s life in their literal hands. Now think about how much background had to happen to get to that point – years of training, practice runs on cadaver hearts, assisting other surgeons, etc. You can’t just show up on day one and “try out” to be a heart surgeon. But in sales, that’s exactly what happens. Want to see if you’ll be a good sales person? Go sell something today. It’s awesome.

The result is that, naturally, a lot of people try out and aren’t any good. But that same system also produces a lot of people who are great. The stakes in heart surgery are too high to have a similar system, but if we could, we’d end up with more great heart surgeons.

The more things people can try with low risk, the better off we are. There’s no substitute for a tryout, both as an individual (to discover your talents) or as a society (to help people sort themselves into their most productive and joyous roles). The more we take risks and let others do the same, the better off we are.

You can make your own tryouts, any time you like. There are tons of things you can do for a living that you could just start doing for yourself right now, to see if you can. I don’t recommend heart surgery, but there are vast reaches of things you can do for yourself just to see if you’ll like it and be any good at it before someone else offers you the opportunity.

So if you see someone who appears bad at what they’re doing, be happy. Be happy they had the opportunity to try, be respectful of the fact that they’re improving, and be grateful that you live in a society that encourages so many people to test the waters. Try them out yourself.

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A Proactive Life

Endeavor to live a proactive life, not a reactive one.

There are two types of events: those that happen to you, and those you make happen. Life is better when its events are predominantly of the latter variety. The more things you’re actively choosing to do rather than reacting to, the more control you have over your life.

Symptoms of a reactive life are constantly putting out fires or spinning plates. Nothing is ever done. You never have time. You’re always fulfilling requests. You start every day with a to-do list a mile long, all stuff being demanded of you instead of things you want to do.

Have you ever heard someone lament that their paycheck is “spent before they even get it?” That means that before they even have their hands on the money they’ve earned, it’s already been earmarked for various bills, debts, and so on. This isn’t a post about financial health, but consider the analogy as it relates to time.

Every day is like a paycheck. You wake up in the morning with X amount of minutes deposited into your account, depending on when you wake up and when you want to sleep again. A reactive life is one in which most or even all of those minutes are already accounted for, paid towards debts and obligations. A proactive life is one in which most or all of those minutes are yours, to do with as you see fit.

A proactive life can easily become a reactive one. Even if you own all of that time, if you don’t spend it wisely you can quickly find yourself a slave to the demands of others instead of serving your own future self. It’s much harder for a reactive life to become a proactive one. You find yourself dependent on those debts, and it’s difficult to extract yourself.

Be careful what demands you let others make of your time. Like with money, you want to get into the habit of putting a good amount of it away as savings, and that’s true with time. You can’t bank it like you can with money, but you can make sure at least some of it is “reserved” each day for you. The more the better. Spend your time on things you choose, and your life will be better for it.

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Promise & Deliver

There’s some general advice you may have heard before: “Always under-promise and over-deliver.” The idea is that you should commit to less than you’re capable of, and then surprise people by doing more than was expected.

I disagree with the advice.

Now, some parts of that philosophy are sound. You shouldn’t over-promise. You shouldn’t commit to more than you can handle, and then fall short. And you shouldn’t deliver less than you promised in any circumstance, as long as you can avoid it.

But the “under-promise/over-deliver” strategy doesn’t sit well with me. First, it’s inherently dishonest, something I don’t like. You’re not really being an awesome performer at your job or task, you’re just tricking people into thinking you are by artificially lowering their expectations. Second, it can backfire spectacularly – without even realizing it, you can get into a sort of mental arms race with the people who you’re promising to, as they start to realize that you frequently deliver better results than you promised to they adjust their requests accordingly.

In my view, it’s far better to get really good at “calling your shot.” Being very accurate at predicting what you can deliver, how long it will take, what the budget will be, and so on will make you a real rock star. It makes you reliable, trustworthy. Someone that can be counted on. That’s much better than being an unreliable-but-occasional “miracle worker.”

I also prefer to be taken seriously whenever possible. A history of accuracy helps that. If you’ve under-promised and over-delivered a dozen times or more, then when you say you can finish a project in a week, people start pushing back on that. They challenge whether you can get it done in four days, three, two. Can you do it with fewer resources, etc. Now you’re just wasting time and effort defending your predictions instead of being able to let your history do the talking.

Promise what’s reasonable, and then deliver what you promised. Everyone’s better off.

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