Success happens in discrete, singular moments

Turning points are everywhere.

You probably don’t know when they’re happening. You see them only in retrospect.

But all the time—every single week—you make decisions that constitute some big turning point in your life.

The mind can never foresee it’s own advance.

F.A. Hayek

Since this is true, it means right now matters. Right now could be the biggest moment in your life. The decision you’ll make after reading this post to push even harder, today, toward your goals, could one day be what you consider the most important decision you ever made.

This post–any post–could be the most impactful thing you ever read. That all depends on what you do with it.

There are some people who believe this—that success is the sum of all small decisions made over the course of many years, even decades. Then there are some people who don’t, and who are wrong about what success looks like.

Until you truly believe, deep down, that success is attainable, and that it’s up to you, and that the first step is pushing harder in this very moment, you’re probably going nowhere fast.

Success happens in discrete, singular moments. One by one by one by one.

A friend and entrepreneur I respect once told me that to begin succeeding in life, I should start by fixing that annoying leak in my bathroom faucet. Forget forecasting, selling, strategizing. Start with things that need to be fixed. Start with the one thing you know you ought to do, but haven’t done yet.

“If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones.”

L

One by one by one by one.

Social media hates your soul?

This Jaron Lanier interview is one of the most fascinating things I've read this year. Thanks to Rod Dreher for pointing it out.

The argument is that social media hates your soul. And it suggests that there’s a whole spiritual, religious belief system along with social media like Facebook that I think people don’t like. And it’s also fucking phony and false. It suggests that life is some kind of optimization, like you’re supposed to be struggling to get more followers and friends. Zuckerberg even talked about how the new goal of Facebook would be to give everybody a meaningful life, as if something about Facebook is where the meaning of life is.

It suggests that you’re just a cog in a giant global brain or something like that. The rhetoric from the companies is often about AI, that what they’re really doing — like YouTube’s parent company, Google, says what they really are is building the giant global brain that’ll inherit the earth and they’ll upload you to that brain and then you won’t have to die. It’s very, very religious in the rhetoric. And so it’s turning into this new religion, and it’s a religion that doesn’t care about you. It’s a religion that’s completely lacking in empathy or any kind of personal acknowledgment. And it’s a bad religion. It’s a nerdy, empty, sterile, ugly, useless religion that’s based on false ideas. And I think that of all of the things, that’s the worst thing about it.

I mean, it’s sort of like a cult of personality. It’s like in North Korea or some regime where the religion is your purpose to serve this one guy. And your purpose is to serve this one system, which happens to be controlled by one guy, in the case of Facebook.

It’s not as blunt and out there, but that is the underlying message of it and it’s ugly and bad. I loathe it, and I think a lot of people have that feeling, but they might not have articulated it or gotten it to the surface because it’s just such a weird and new situation.

School shootings in perspective

Less than .0001% of American kids since 2000 have been injured in a school shooting.

Yes, it's tempting to think that "one is too many." But the fact is, kids are safer at school than almost anywhere else. Certainly safer than they are at home.

Don't buy into the hysteria. It sounds horrible to say, but the fact is, the United States simply does not have a "school shooting problem." Take a look at this map. Then think about the size of America's student population (currently 55 million).

As with anything, this is about percentages. Ratios. Trade-offs. Thinking about gun violence this way will lead to the best outcomes for everyone.

Less than .0001% of students injured in school shooting. Is comprehensive gun control affecting tens of millions of people really a proportionate response? No.

On that note, does the US even have a general (not just school) gun problem? The statistics here are often misleading. In 2013, for example, around 33,000 people were killed by firearms in the US. 2/3 of these were suicides. That leaves 11,000 people killed by firearms that year by someone other than themselves.

That's question #1 to ask when viewing gun stats: Do these figures include suicides?

On to "mass shootings." Since 1980, "mass shootings" represent less than 1% of all gun-related deaths. And that's with a more liberal definition of "mass shooting" than I think most would agree with. It's based purely on numbers, and doesn't account for whether someone killed was involved with illegal activity (i.e. drugs) that, in some way, prompted the violence.

The type of mostly-random mass shooting that took place in Parkland? Almost never happens. "Indiscriminate rampages in public places resulting in more than four victims killed" happens less than a dozen times per year, using almost any definition of "public places."

That's question #2 to ask when viewing gun stats: What percent of these figures comprise "mass shootings" of the sort that sparks our gun control debates?

Mass shootings are rare. Statistically, your kids are in almost no danger of being shot at school. They're far more likely to be shot at home.

Comprehensive gun control legislation is simply a vastly disproportionate response to what's actually going on.

Me in Startup Grind, and some thoughts from X4 Summit

Here's me at Startup Grind on rules for an effective customer feedback survey.

I'm a survey guru. I've designed, programmed, fielded and analyzed more surveys than I can count. As usual, when I feel I've boiled things down enough into a simple formula, I like to codify those guidelines in articles like this one.

Hope this helps someone out there. If your business isn't running customer feedback surveys now, you should be—there's really no excuse.

On that note, I attended X4 Summit in Salt Lake City earlier this month. Great event. Highly recommend it. Qualtrics' (the event host/sponsor) whole spiel is experience management, or XM, as the catch-all concept behind the merging of marketing with brand management with market research with UI design with R&D…you get the picture. Qualtrics' CEO Ryan Smith pitched a binary perspective on business data—operational data vs. experience data. Both have their roles, but experience data is what drives growth—especially for smaller and/or growing firms. Operational data (margins, transactions, etc.) enables arbitrage and "land-grabbing," but experience data opens new doors and drives actual growth in things like brand awareness, market share, and other customer-focused metrics.

That said, the experience management concept itself is a tough sell, in my view. It's a bit overgeneralized (as seen in the wide variety of topics and panels at X4). Good thinking about business, I think, is more particularizing than generalizing. Yes, the role of marketers can overlap big time with the roles of brand managers, market researchers and/or UI designers. But that's obvious. It's knowing how these things differ, and thereby where to laser-focus resources, that gives businesses a leg up.

Synthesizing and aggregating customer "experience" data is great (and fun), but excelling here really only benefits big brands with lots of moving parts. I can't count how many times I've delivered hard-to-get, high-level market research findings to companies who really have no resources to do anything with that kind of data—companies who are better off to hyper-focus (for now) on excelling at just one of the several roles mentioned above.

(In other words, don't worry about synthesizing your customer experience data if you know of obvious, needed improvements in your marketing or branding. Fix those things first with the intuition that got you where you're at today. Then study your meta-data.)

But the event itself was superb. Snapped this panorama of the Warehouse Party (that's Tony Hawk's half-pipe).

X4 Summit – Warehouse Party (2018, Salt Lake City)

As always, I'd love your thoughts on any of this.

We’re losing grasp of how the internet works

This sounds crazy.

You have to think a good bit to even entertain this idea.

But I have a theory. I think most Americans today understand LESS about how the internet works than Americans did 10 years ago.

Of course, internet use is way up. We're online all day. Like 100X more than we were 10 years ago.

But social media and accessing networks (Facebook, in particular) mostly through an app—not a browser—has changed things, I think, more than we realize. It's thrown off our collective movement toward a better understanding of how the internet works. Of how, and what it means when, we connect with other people "online."

Evidence

This is an old-ish piece—published at Quartz in February 2015. But I've thought about it a lot since I first read it back then.

The short version: In 2015 Indonesia, more people reported using Facebook than reported using the internet. This, of course, doesn't make sense.

But the study's methodology was consistent. The simple fact is, many Indonesians were introduced to the Facebook app before they ever used a "browser." They didn't understand which came first—which one gave rise to the other.

I think if we conducted this study today in the United States, worded slightly differently, we'd see similar results. Especially among kids.

I first used the internet in my pre-teens. I remember the phones lines not working as AOL "dialed up." I got my Facebook account in 2007, and watched it (and other networks) grow and evolve over time. I watched apps being developed, and saw users migrate from browser- to app-based network access. The evolution was fast, but it was sensible and fit in line with my very simplistic understanding of how the internet worked.

I remember reading about packets and protocol stacks and routers. I didn't quite know what they were, but I knew the general idea. And that's really all that matters for the average person.

But think about kids today. Young adults today. Do they know which came first? Do they know what "internet" really means?

This isn't just an interesting anecdote. I think there are some serious implications here. I wonder about how this affects the average American's understanding of how to work "with" the internet. What's possible. How to cross the divides between apps. How to understand, fundamentally, the way content spreads online.

For American kids today, the internet is just there. A given. Ubiquitous. That's why they're called "digital natives." But what is lost when an entire generation doesn't really understand how this all works in the first place?

I'm talking about the average user. Non-super-technical. Are kids set up to successfully work in a digital world when they really have no clue what the internet is or how it works?

Generally, I think an "app-first" understanding of internet access confuses new users. Apps are more siloed. Browser-based access is more flexible and fluid, and leaves the "pipes" exposed, showing the universe of what's possible to accomplish on the internet.

Here's a concrete example…

I run a market research firm. Most of what we do are online surveys. We design, program, field and analyze surveys in order to gather valuable consumer perception data for our clients.

To maximize the value of this data, we often append survey datasets with data our clients already possess about the survey respondents. Behavioral or transactional data gathered from, say, the order form they filled out when purchasing a client's product or service.

This can be done after survey data has been collected, given we know the identities of the respondents. But even better is to do it beforehand, such that the survey itself is customized to the respondent, based on what we know about them already.

We do this most often with URL tags. We'll assign "hidden values" to each respondent, based on some unique ID, and we'll tag their unique survey URL with information about them, such that the survey instrument itself can reference those tags as the respondent proceeds through the survey.

Now, respondents sometimes pick up on this. They see their name or email address or some other characteristic about them (gender, ethnicity, etc.) in the URL bar, and they'll delete it. Sometimes a clever respondent might even tweak the URL so that the survey instrument changes, or so they can proceed to pages they know might earn them some reward.

But in an app, this is almost impossible. There is no URL bar exposing the way we are connecting with respondents. That said, if someone who's not super-technical gets a survey in an app, and that survey appears to "know" something about them, they're just going to believe that, somehow, this app knows this or that about them. Perhaps it's pulling this data from elsewhere in their phone (possible). Perhaps it's pulling this data from a form they filled out on Yahoo! Answers 10 years ago (possible).

The bottom line is there's no "seeing" how this all works. There's no understanding what's going on. Further, there's no forthcoming way for curious minds to see "what's possible," such that they might see ways to make things better.

I remember the first time I saw my email address in a URL. I understood, immediately, that the link I'd just clicked was somehow unique to me, and that whatever I did using that URL was going to be tied back to my email address later on (I spent the next several days looking at the URL of every webpage I visited, just to make sure it wasn't "spying" on me).

But kids today don't have this experience as often. Especially if they're accessing networks mostly through a siloed app. The apps works more or less the same way—not with custom URLs, per se, but by "tagging" users to customize their experience.

Don't let my example throw this post off track. I'm writing here about how the average American's understanding of how the internet works has, I think, lagged behind growth in rates of internet use.

Maybe this is just a harmless observation. Maybe all of this just doesn't matter. But I think there's more to consider here—things that we could, for example, think more deeply about in order to build a wholesome, effective curriculum for teaching kids about the internet. Right now, I don't think we have a very intentional way of doing that.

If you're still not convinced there's anything here, then just ask yourself: Do I understand how the internet works? Am I familiar with the words packet, protocol stack, router? If not, start here (thanks Mozilla!). Take 15 minutes to quadruple your knowledge in this area.

I'm going to follow this up later with some thoughts on how I think a failure to comprehend how the internet really works affects the way we consume information on the web. Please message me with any thoughts on this topic, of what I've written above. Thanks!

The Fantasy of Addiction?

An old-ish piece from First Things:

It was the triumph of the Christian religion that for many centuries it managed to become the unreasoning assumption of almost all, built into every spoken and written word, every song, and every building. It was the disaster of the Christian religion that it assumed this triumph would last forever and outlast everything, and so it was ill equipped to resist the challenge of a rival when it came, in this, the century of the self. The Christian religion had no idea that a new power, which I call selfism, would arise. And, having arisen, selfism has easily shouldered its rival aside. In free competition, how can a faith based upon self-restraint and patience compete with one that pardons, unconditionally and in advance, all the self-indulgences you can think of, and some you cannot?

That is what the “addiction” argument is most fundamentally about, and why it is especially distressing to hear Christian voices accepting and promoting it, as if it were merciful to call a man a slave, and treat him as if he had no power to resist. The mass abandonment of cigarettes by a generation of educated people demonstrates that, given responsibility for their actions and blamed for their outcomes, huge numbers of people will give up a bad habit even if it is difficult. Where we have adopted the opposite attitude, and assured abusers that they are not answerable for their actions, we have seen other bad habits grow or remain as common as before. Heroin abuse has not been defeated, the abuse of prescription drugs grows all the time, and heavy drinking is a sad and spreading problem in Britain.

Emphasis on “the abuse of prescription drugs grows all the time.” True in the US as in Britain.

From a population-wide, results-based perspective, where has the “addiction paradigm” brought us? Are we better off for it? Less “addiction” than was before it became a sort-of creed?

Tough subject. And controversial, as this author says, to insinuate anything but the prevailing “addiction” paradigm.

At the very least, what effect does this paradigm have on first-time users? Even if it’s proven helpful for, say, alcoholics to admit that their problem is bigger than their willpower alone (that it is, indeed, a chemical addiction), does that mean it’s automatically helpful also for non-addicts to view problems of drug abuse as problems of addiction? Or might it have the opposite effect? Might it promote a less sinister and less moral setting for (mostly young people) making the decision to use the first time?

Quick review: Bench.co

I'm not super organized.

That's a weakness. Especially when running a business.

But I try to compensate. I like paying experts to do things for me—things I'm not good at—so I don't have to worry about those things.

Mostly, I do it so I can focus on what I'm good at. Focus on what brings the money in, not where the money goes or adding it all up at the end of the month.

That's why I use Bench (bench.co).

Bench is a remote bookkeeping service on steroids. Subscribe, and you get assigned a bookkeeper. You also get access to a cool dashboard that allows you to see how your business is performing from month to month. This works by linking to your bank accounts, and reporting data from there after your bookkeeper has cleaned things up.

What I really like is the way it prompts me to categorize expenses right in the dashboard. I don't have time to take a note of every expense, or photograph every receipt. I'd rather just categorize everything at the end of the month. That's what Bench does. At the end of the month, I get questions about the handful of expenses my bookkeeper doesn't know how to categorize, and it takes me maybe 5 minutes to clear them all at once (rather than having to worry about it for 5 minutes several different times in a given week).

I highly recommend it. Starting a business should be about you hyperfocusing on what you do best. On what brings in money. Not managing your books. Books are a necessary evil. You should not be spending more than an hour a week managing your books. These days, I spend maybe 10 minutes per week, at most. Because of Bench.

Yes, there's a cost. But it's unbelievably low. More than worth it. Anywhere from $100 to $300 per month, depending on your business's monthly expenses.

Of course, Bench isn't perfect, but mostly on account of what it chooses not to do—not because of what it tries, but fails, to do. It's not a full accounting system, and doesn't claim to be. You can't use it to create and send invoices, so tying revenues to particular projects can be a bit of a hassle.

Try it out. Link here.

An odd sort of risk aversion

We’re so risk averse.

I’d bet today’s Americans are more risk-averse than any previous generation.

But it manifests oddly. So oddly.

Young Americans engage in personal behavior that is riddled with risk. Sexually, financially, professionally. Multiple sexual partners, often in rapid succession. Borrowing more than we can earn in 10 years to get degrees in fields with terrible job prospects. Quitting jobs to “tour the world” on credit.

From that perspective, we’re the opposite of risk-averse.

But we simultaneously lend our unwavering support to policies and ideas designed to combat what we believe are systemic, existential threats on our way of life. We fear big things that haven’t happened. We worry so much about the “system” falling apart.

Take universal healthcare. Almost certainly unsustainable. Definitely inefficient. Sure, there might be ways of accomplishing universal healthcare that we’ve yet to try. But to dive into something this wide, this massive, with little or no evidence and almost no possibility of turning back ought to be something few people are willing to do.

But polls show that most young people are willing, because they fear these systemic, existential threats to society enough to justify almost any society-wide action to combat them. Even giving up their own freedoms—their own liberty to live as they wish. If it means we won’t all die of some disease, sure, I’ll give up 1% of my income. If it means no mass genocide, sure, I’ll give up another 2%.

This adds up. Fast.

What’s vexing about this phenomenon is that we really have no ability to curb these things. We can’t predict a Black Swan, and it’s the Black Swans that hurt the worst. But for some reason, we believe that enough resources guards against Black Swans, and that once we’ve set up those new defenses, we couldn’t possibly have been totally wrong, or things couldn’t possibly change so much that the old defenses are literally worthless.

Think Social Security. Medicare. Nuclear weapons. Most literally couldn’t imagine the world without these rather arbitrary defenses against exogenous shocks. Yet they are old programs that have really done little to combat the true, underlying problem. Indeed, the most contentious debates in Washington are perennially the same—how do we solve these “problems” that we’re supposed to have solved a million times before? Poverty. Healthcare. Defense.

These programs, and the miniscule (and shrinking) number of people willing even to consider that they might not work, are evidence of the risk-aversion I mentioned earlier. Big existential fears that literally paralyze our critical thinking, coexisting with lifestyles that seemingly belie a defeatist attitude about our prospects for long, happy lives.

Bottom line is we don’t fear the consequences of our actions as much as we fear exogenous shocks to the “system” that threaten our way of life. But ironically, it’s the former that is statistically proven to be vastly more influential to our well-being.

Our personal choices and their consequences are responsible for most of what happens to us, yet it’s precisely this we, today, do not fear. We fear what others might do. We fear what else might happen. Nuclear war. Worldwide pandemic. A breakdown of the “system.”

This is irrational. Why do we think this way?

Maybe we watch too many movies. Maybe we don’t know our history, or don’t take it seriously.

Whatever it is, it’s the cause of most of our problems. Bad thinking about our problems and what causes them. “Whataboutism” that ends any attempt (not just particular conclusions) to measure how much blame poor or unhappy people might have for their own condition.

But this isn’t doom-and-gloom. Yes, we have it all wrong. But getting this right in your own life will vastly boost your prospects for success—especially in your professional and financial life.

Think more about what you can do to change your circumstances. Think less about things you can’t control. Spend less on insurance, more on improving yourself. Take what you planned to put toward your retirement next year (especially if you’re under 35) and take a class—learn to program, join a gym, take a class in negotiation.

Your choices make the big difference. And they can improve the way you handle exogenous shocks.

Fear yourself the most.

When asked “What’s wrong with the world?”, GK Chesterton replied, “I am.”

Take that seriously, and apply it to your fears. What’s most likely to kill you before your time? Your choices. What’s the fastest way to get rich? Your own hard work on a good business idea.

You get the point.

Rules for writing well

What follows isn’t mine. It’s rules and guidelines from a random website I stumbled across.


Everything you write should be easy to understand. Clarity of writing usually follows clarity of thought. Take time to think about what you’re going to say, then say it as simply as possible. Keep these rules in mind whenever you’re writing on behalf of the studio.

Use small words. Using small words compels you to think about what you are writing. Even difficult ideas can be broken down into small words.

Use short sentences. Keep sentences short and get to the point. Readers might be interested in what you have to say, but don’t have much time to read.

Make clear statements. Every sentence should be a clear statement. If a sentence is incomplete or could easily be misunderstood, rewrite it.

Build clear stories. A good paragraph is a series of clear, linked statements. Make sure every sentence adds to the statement that went before.

Don’t use jargon. Jargon makes writing less accessible. Technical terms should be used in their proper context; do not use them out of it.

Don’t use decoration. Don’t use decorative and flowery language. Focus on using only the words you need to communicate an idea clearly.

The standards for good writing are clarity and efficiency. You can develop good writing by editing with a careful eye to remove unnecessary words, decorative language, and jargon.

Some practical advice for fledgling founders

I hear from startup founders often. Specifically, I get unsolicited (but real/serious) connection requests from one-off entrepreneurs trying to build something from nothing.

Props to them for being aggressive, but I see so many make the same basic mistakes in their approach and personal branding. Here are some practical tips based on the most common mistakes I encounter.

  1. Be concise, always. If you’re sending unsolicited requests to connect, make them just that: requests. Not a sales pitch. Not a long-winded explanation of who you are. Ask for one thing, and make it simple. Less “We’ve set out to change the way people like you do business.” More “Do you have exactly 10 minutes this week for me to show you what my product can do for you?” Let them decide whether you’re “changing the way people do business.” Just get them on the phone first. And when you have them, or anyone, on the phone, remember—no one cares about your story because your story won’t help them. Stick to your product/service and how it solves problems. The second someone feels you’re wasting their time, you’ve lost them forever.
  2. Fix your domain. A huge turn-off for in-the-know potential customers and investors are company URLs that end in .wordpress.com or .wix.com. This signals a company’s unwillingness to invest even a small amount of money to make their online home their own. It yells “lifestyle blogger,” not “professional business services provider.” It’s so cheap and easy to get your own custom domain, like companyname.com. There is no reason not to, unless you truly don’t have $50 to spare (in which case, you need to re-evaluate you’re overall plan).
  3. Keep your site simple. If you’re just starting out, don’t fill your website and/or LinkedIn with pointless fluff. Get to the point. You don’t have testimonials, you don’t have success stories. So instead, put your one-sentence pitch front-and-center, and let the professionalism of your website theme and design do the rest. And link, somehow, to information about you and the team. There are too many fake websites out there selling crappy products. Three sections: What We Do (your one- to two-sentence pitch), Who We Are (about the team), and Contact (how to connect). That’s it. For design tips, just use what works—don’t try to build something from scratch. Pick a top-10 most popular site template from whatever platform you’re using.
  4. Get a real email address. Nothing says “amateur” like companyceo@gmail.com or companyname@yahoo.com. That’s fine for a church or community group, maybe, but not for a company that will be using that email account to send and receive client-confidential information, links to payment gateways, and correspondence with potential investors. Get a real email address. Something like first.last@company.com.
  5. Make it personal. People like doing business with people, not “platforms” or “companies.” This is especially true when you’re first starting out, and your brand/platform has no testimonials or reputation. You absolutely must become the face of your brand. Your “About Me/Us” page will be the most-visited area of your site. It’s vital that you back up the claims of your product or brand with a real name and face—someone customers can trust to answer the phone if anything should go wrong. You can’t afford not to become the face of your product or service.

I realize it’s not always easy to know how to do these things (like, where to get a custom domain). But there are so many possible answers, I can’t really give specific advice to a general audience. So if you have questions like this, message me here.