The Culture Formula

Why do some environments where people gather become bastions of trust and cooperation while others devolve into shark tanks? So many things can seem similar from the outside, and yet crucial differences will sway the balance in enormous ways. No matter what kind of purpose for which you’ve gathered your fellow humans together, this insight matters.

People will often describe good environments (workplaces, clubs, fraternities/sororities, etc.) by highlighting how supportive people are of one another, how safe they feel even in their vulnerabilities, or how collaborative the creative environment is. These are important things, but I actually think they’re second-order effects. Their presence (or absence!) is a symptom of something more important, more fundamental.

Here is what I think that is: An environment of individual success, yet not zero-sum success, where the rewards are drawn from a pool that grows larger as the environment grows stronger as a whole and yet are still distributed based on personal contribution in a clear and transparent way.

Okay, that was kind of a complicated phrase, so let me break it down bit by bit. First, we have to remember that incentives matter. In the most basic sense, people will be awesome when they’re incentivized to be awesome and they’ll be lousy when they’re incentivized to be lousy. So if you want a great working environment, people have to be rewarded when that happens. Also, crucially, they have to be able to recognize the reward structure for what it is; if you create an incentive structure that’s too complicated, people won’t be motivated by it.

So let’s talk about incentives a little. Imagine a company that gives out bonuses once per year, and those bonuses go to every employee in an exactly equal amount no matter what anyone does individually. That’s nice and all (who doesn’t love a year-end bonus?), but it isn’t really a motivational tool, because nobody individually can change the amount they’ll get. So it’s a nice gesture, but a weak culture-building tool.

Okay, let’s go the opposite route. Let’s say the company has a $50K “bonus pool” each year, and it’s portioned out based on a ranking of individual performances. Individuals are now seriously motivated to improve their own performance, but – critically – this is zero-sum. One employee’s gain is another employee’s loss. They’re fighting, essentially. People are improving at the expense of their own team. Sure, people will be motivated to improve their own performance, but how motivated will you be to help your colleague? (Incidentally, this is the culture in about 99% of sales offices, and explains why there’s so little mentorship in many of those environments.)

So, a big flat bonus isn’t that helpful because there’s no connection to improvement. And a competitive bonus pool is often actively harmful because everyone is stabbing each other to get it, and the individual performance gains don’t outweigh the long-term harm to your whole team and operation.

Okay, so what’s the best way? Imagine a policy that says something like: “Every employee gets a gold star for each good thing they do, and at the end of the year each gold star is worth half a percent of our total profit for the year as a year-end bonus.”

What’s good about this? Everyone individually can work harder for more rewards. No one’s reward is coming at the expense of another and helping someone else get more reward doesn’t lessen yours any. And the total reward scales up as the organization does better. So people are incentivized to help themselves, their peers, and the whole team. No shark tank.

But that isn’t perfect! You see, I slipped in a landmine. There’s something else that can kill a culture quickly: arbitrariness.

“A gold star for each good thing” is just about as arbitrary as you can get. Remember when I said people needed to be able to picture a clear line between their behavior and the incentive? You absolutely ruin that when the things that give rewards are vague or whimsical, even if the reward itself is structured perfectly.

People like clear rules to play by, and they don’t like feeling at the mercy of someone else. People like fairness, transparency, and honor. These are things within your control.

So this is the formula for good culture – the kind that fosters trust, collaboration, happiness. Make sure the rewards are based on individual contributions but are not drawn from another person’s pocket. (And by the way, I used the simple example of a year-end bonus above, but “rewards” can mean a lot of things – just make sure you’re sticking to this rule!) Be incredibly transparent about what those rewards are, how they’re attained, and how they grow when the organization succeeds. Continue to support the growth of this culture by making it more important than any individual – make everyone accountable to trust, staying true to promises, and staying away from arbitrary whims.

If you make these things a priority and make them visible, then every individual within the group will be strongly incentivized to maintain them. They’re good things that don’t require much in the way of top-down imposition. People want to collaborate, trust & be trusted, help other people succeed. The reason they sometimes don’t is often that they’ve been incentivized not to by someone who didn’t understand the harm they were doing.

Minimize your harm and maximize your beneficial incentives, and then good people will take care of the rest.


You can’t measure intelligence by how much you know, so don’t lament the fact that you only know a little. The answer to “how much do we know” is always “not nearly enough.” And so much of what we know is so specific, so situational. That cannot be the measure.

And you certainly can’t measure intelligence by how much you don’t know. Heaven help us if that were the measure! Just the amount of information that you know you don’t know is staggering, and imagine the orders of magnitude more that lie beyond that.

(Once, as a young child of around seven or eight, I told my father: “I think I know everything, because I can’t think of anything I don’t know.” His laughter was tremendous.)

So how then, can we measure – if measure we must? The same trusty measure that helps us in so many situations: rate of change.

Learn well and never stop. As long as the rate of change never hits zero, you’re doing okay. And you can always grab another book, attend another seminar, watch another video, have another conversation. Leave the gates open, and you’re as smart as you need to be.


How many things have I forgotten that, in the moment, I claimed I would never forget? It is vanishingly unlikely that the number is “zero,” given the mercurial nature of our memories. What then, causes the seemingly smallest of moments to stand as edifices for our mind’s entire earthly duration?

The small moments matter, because you cannot know how memory will weigh each moment in its fullness. Once or twice in a lifetime might you stand in the monumental fullness of a pivotal fork in destiny’s path and yet be fully aware of it. The rest of the time, you either think you are or think you aren’t, and are wrong in both cases.

The sense that any moment you occupy might in fact be your sole avatar in the memories of others may seem like a crushing burden, but it need not be. It’s simply a reminder to be consistent in your honor. You need live up only to yourself to have the full arc of memory curve in your favor. Much may be forgotten, but you never know in advance exactly what. Act accordingly.


A story from my childhood:

I was about six or seven years old. My father had taken me with him to a get-together with several other of his friends, most of whom had kids in a similar age range. So while he and his buddies hung out inside, the kids were naturally banished outside to play together.

One of the older kids suggested we play a game called “Jailbreak.” “Jailbreak” was essentially a cooler re-theme of “hide and seek” (which was for babies, obviously, not cool kids like us) and involved one person being the “warden” and everyone else breaking out of an imaginary jail and scattering while the warden hunted us down and returned us to our cells.

Normally fine, but this was an unfamiliar city to me, not my home neighborhood. So when we all scattered, I soon realized that I had run a bit far and had absolutely no idea how to return to where I was. For that matter, I didn’t even know where we were, really – it was a house I’d never been to, belonging to a friend of my dad’s that I’d never met before that day and definitely couldn’t recall the name of. I didn’t actually know what city I was in (remember, I’m like 6 or 7 in this story). It was getting dark.

So, I started wandering around looking for people. I figured that as long as I found people, I’d be fine. It didn’t take long obviously – within a block or so I found a pair of siblings, slightly older than me, playing ball in front of their house. I joined them – I didn’t even mention my predicament at first (I remember not wanting to seem rude). Their mom came out a few minutes later with a casual “oh, who’s your new friend?” Only then did I explain to the adult woman my situation, at which point she naturally became concerned and ushered me into the house to use the phone.

Of course, I had no idea what the phone number was to where my dad was, but I knew my own phone number, so I called that. Thankfully, my mom was home and picked up, and then was able to both talk to the friendly mom who took me in to get my location and call my dad’s friend to send them over to get me.

Now, look at this story from my dad’s perspective for a bit. In an unfamiliar city (to me), his son had gone to play outside and then vanished. The other kids came back from a quick game and told the adults that they had lost me and had no idea where I was. A casual search turned into a panicked one. Police had been called. Cars were driving all over looking for me. When eventually my location was given to my dad, he arrived in a police car that he’d been riding around in calling my name.

Because of all this (in my youthful opinion, unnecessary) fuss, I really expected to be read the riot act. I thought I was in huge trouble. But I wasn’t, at all. My father hugged me very tightly and prayed for a minute, thanking the Lord that I was okay. But after that, he was just interested in my story. Where had I gone, how had I decided which way to go, who I picked to talk to, all the parts of my decision-making process. After, when we were driving home, he started pointing out things to me like landmarks, street signs, and how to take note of such things so I wouldn’t get lost again.

He never punished me for making mistakes. Even mistakes that inconvenienced him or frightened him or troubled him in some other way. Everything was a learning opportunity, and a chance to increase the trust between us. To forge me and teach me.

A mistake, a challenge, a disaster – these are the very best times to learn, to grow. To grow closer, even. Don’t ruin such a beautiful moment with fear or guilt, whether for yourself or imposed on others. That’s the real jail, and something beautiful is out there when you break out.

Positive Feedback

As a general rule, you should look for self-sustaining virtuous systems in your life. That’s a fancy way of saying that you should look for relationships, whether with people or activities, that give you back what you put in.

One way of looking at this is the way my father often looked at hobbies. Whenever he had a hobby, he liked to find a way to make just a little bit of money off of it. Not enough to turn it into a job, but just enough to fund the money that people typically put into hobbies. In this way, the hobby “paid for itself” indefinitely. So when my father first started really getting into photography, he also started shooting weddings and events a little on the side – enough to pay for the new toys he wanted.

Another way of looking at this is to make sure that the things you’re putting your heart into are also filling up your heart. Giving 100% of yourself to something is a wonderful way to care about it, an expression of love. You can do that if you also get 100% back. You can do it forever. But if you put more in than you get back, eventually you’re just feeding leeches for the sake of feeding leeches. Some people will be a part of the self-sustaining virtuous system, and you should give them your whole heart. Other people are leeches, and you should pull them off of you and cast them away.

All this is to say – love what loves you back.

Go Be Terrible

In order to be terrible at something, you’d have to actually try.

Most of the things you do every day are things that (by now) you’re effortlessly decent at. If you drive a car, you’re probably not crashing into things every day by now. Whatever your job is, you probably perform it at least competently. Any hobbies you have, you’ve likely held onto because you’ve enjoyed the process of gaining some skill at them.

So if I told you that today’s challenge was to go be really, really bad at something, you’d have to put some real effort in. You’d basically have two options:

  1. Take something you already do and deliberately do it poorly. Since you already do most of your normal things competently, it would take a decent amount of effort, concentration and strategy to do it really really badly.
  2. Find a new thing you don’t already do well and just do it. You’ll probably be terrible because you’ve never done it before.

Well look, don’t do the first one. Don’t crash your car or tank your job. But that second one – that’s great! If you set out to go be terrible at something, then you’ll pick up a new thing and you’ll have succeeded at your goal. Which is better than what happens to most people: they set a daily goal of “Don’t Be Terrible At Anything” and they succeed… by never doing anything new.

Two Trees

If you plant two trees, they will diverge in their growth almost immediately. The same species of tree, watered the same way, planted in the same soil, will still diverge. This is not a failing of the trees nor their environment; this is simply the nature of growth.

All growth comes from discomfort. All discomfort is unique. Therefore, all growth must be your own. As you become more of who you are, you do it alone.

Context Clues

It’s fascinating to me how the surrounding context can change the meaning of a piece of information. Even context added well after the initial information was transmitted.

This is why it’s worthwhile to take note of the world around you, to be observant even in your day-to-day minutiae. It may not seem relevant at the time, but a future context could make that information very valuable.

Practicing a certain level of “observational discipline,” whether in the form of note-taking, daily reflection, or even just sharing the details of your day in conversation can help make the future make more sense when you get there.

Work Habits

My oldest daughter just brought home her report card. It was straight A’s, along with a note: “work habits need developing.”

Um… do they?

Generally speaking, I don’t think “straight A’s” is a laudable goal. Since the actual impact on your life is exactly the same if you sprinkle in a few B’s or even a C here and there, if you worked hard enough to get straight A’s you probably wasted a good bit of effort on overkill.

That is, unless you managed to get those grades without having to work very hard. In that case, I think your work habits are pretty much exactly correct for the task, don’t you?

There are all sorts of problems with the scenario, of course. If she’s getting straight A’s while visibly slacking off, then clearly she needs more challenge. And in the real world, she could seek it – it’s only in the strangely arbitrary world of grade school that people feel the need to control your work habits without actually matching them to an appropriate task.

You see, I know my daughter. She’s an incredibly hard (and diligent, and intelligent) worker when those are the things required for success. Watch her painting, practicing karate, or selling Girl Scout cookies and you’ll see a very disciplined and fastidious person. But she’s also savvy – savvy enough to recognize that a “work habits need developing” note on her report card counts for exactly nothing and can be safely ignored.

The idea that she should practice better work habits so that she can be prepared for some potential future challenge is ludicrous. That’s not how it works. You have to give her the challenge now, and everything it takes to beat that challenge will manifest as she faces it. So it’s time to up her challenge level, not keep her in the kiddie pool but have her pretend to swim.


Imagine that you had a vehicle, and you didn’t know what kind of fuel it took. So every day you use the vehicle, and then you just guess what you have to put in the tank. Gasoline? Biofuels? Diesel? Electricity? You have no idea. In order to even keep the vehicle moving at all, maybe you just throw a little bit of everything in there and hope for the best. Even if the vehicle limps along, you’re certainly getting nowhere near maximum efficiency. And you’re probably damaging it.

Lots of vehicles actually work like this – did you know you can put vegetable oil in a diesel engine and it’ll run? It’ll also, you know… really destroy the engine over time, but it’ll run.

Do you know what else works like this?


You do a lot of work! All day, every day you’re doing stuff. But that engine needs fuel, my friend. And I don’t just mean food and water and sleep. I mean you need to get something back to make it all worth it. You need joy. Something to fill up your tank. Now answer honestly: do you know what your perfect fuel mix is?

Most people don’t. Most people are behaving like that top example; they’re throwing a mix of random stuff and hope into the tank. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t, they don’t know which is which, and they move along.

You deserve more. You can have more! You just need a little tracking. Get some paper, and every day write down what your first happy thought was that day. Write down your last happy thought before you went to bed. Write down the thing you looked forward to when you were waiting for something unpleasant to end. Write it all down.

In a month, look at all your answers. Pattens will emerge. You’ll have looked forward to the same things multiple times. The same happy thought would be what you woke to more than once. Once you have an idea of what those things are, you can deliberately seek more of them.

And maybe certain things you thought energized you… won’t. Maybe you’ll look back at a month’s writing and realize that “television” or “alcohol” never appear on your list. If they aren’t filling your tank… why are you doing them?