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Seth Godin has written 18 bestsellers that have been translated into 35 languages

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All Marketers Tell Stories

Seth's most important book about the art of marketing

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Free Prize Inside

The practical sequel to Purple Cow

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Linchpin

An instant bestseller, the book that brings all of Seth's ideas together.

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Why the internet works (and doesn't) for your business. And vice versa.

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Permission Marketing

The classic Named "Best Business Book" by Fortune.

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Poke The Box

The latest book, Poke The Box is a call to action about the initiative you're taking - in your job or in your life, and Seth once again breaks the traditional publishing model by releasing it through The Domino Project.

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Purple Cow

The worldwide bestseller. Essential reading about remarkable products and services.

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Small is the New Big

A long book filled with short pieces from Fast Company and the blog. Guaranteed to make you think.

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Survival is Not Enough

Seth's worst seller and personal favorite. Change. How it works (and doesn't).

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The Big Moo

All for charity. Includes original work from Malcolm Gladwell, Tom Peters and Promise Phelon.

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The Big Red Fez

Top 5 Amazon ebestseller for a year. All about web sites that work.

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The Dip

A short book about quitting and being the best in the world. It's about life, not just marketing.

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The Icarus Deception

Seth's most personal book, a look at the end of the industrial economy and what happens next.

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Tribes

"Book of the year," a perennial bestseller about leading, connecting and creating movements.

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Unleashing the Ideavirus

More than 3,000,000 copies downloaded, perhaps the most important book to read about creating ideas that spread.

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V Is For Vulnerable

A short, illustrated, kids-like book that takes the last chapter of Icarus and turns it into something worth sharing.

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We Are All Weird

The end of mass and how you can succeed by delighting a niche.

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Whatcha Gonna Do With That Duck?

The sequel to Small is the New Big. More than 600 pages of the best of Seth's blog.

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THE DIP BLOG by Seth Godin




All Marketers Are Liars Blog




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Member since 08/2003

People are real, but the crowd disappoints

Every crowd, sooner or later, will let you down.

The crowd contains a shoplifter, or a heckler, or an anonymous boor who leaves a snarky comment.

The crowd loses interest, the crowd denigrates the work, the crowd isn't serious.

Worst of all, sometimes the crowd turns into a mob, out of control and bloodthirsty.

But people, people are real.

People will look you in the eye.

People will keep their promises. People can grow, can change, can be generous.

When in doubt, ignore the crowd (and forgive them). When possible, look for people instead.

Scale is overrated, again and again.

Demand higher standards

On a long flight a little while ago, I saw two couples watch movies while they let their six kids run around like maniacs from take off to touchdown. A seven-year old actually punched me. (I didn't return the punch).

A few days later, I saw the now-typical sight of kids in a decent restaurant eating french fries and chicken fingers while watching a movie on a tablet.

And it's entirely possible you have a boss that lets you do mediocre work, precisely whenever you feel like it.

I wish those kids had said, "Mom, Dad, raise your standards for me. I deserve it."

And the sooner you find a boss who pushes you right to the edge of your ability to be excellent, the better.

Even if the boss is you.

The freelancer course is here

Each of us gets to choose the sort of freelance work we will do.

This is a profound freedom, and one that we often ignore, wasting the opportunity.

To provoke you to take advantage of this moment, my new course for freelancers is now available on Udemy. [Original discount code has expired, but this one still works.]

In this online, video-based class, I'm daring you to get paid what you're worth and to find a platform where you can do your best work.

When you move up the ladder, step by step, the work gets more rewarding. We each start as a replaceable cog, open to taking whatever is offered. With focus and effort, though, you can go all the way to becoming a remarkable creator with few substitutes. Along the way, you will gain respect, income and freedom.

This is the course I wish I had taken thirty years ago.

If you work on your own, either full time or part time, this mindset of moving up the ladder will fundamentally change your work.

Through the end of April, readers of this blog get a significant discount from Udemy by using the coupon code MOVEUP. Please go ahead and share this automatic link with your colleagues. The course comes with a money-back guarantee.

[Also: Over the last six months, I've been building two courses. This is the first one. In a few weeks, I'll be telling you about the other, which is dramatically different. It's aimed at a far smaller audience, requires a bigger investment and is delivered in a totally different format.] 

Freelancers, this is our chance to move up.

The difference between mass and banality

Something doesn't have to be trite and dreadful to be popular, but often, popular things get this way.

In the 1980s, most of the cars made by General Motors were mediocre, unmemorable and poorly designed. They were also quite popular. By racing to the bottom, GM defended market share but ended up crippling themselves for generations.

Hot Wheels, Spaldinis and the original Monopoly game are classic toys, Platonic ideals of good design and idiosyncratic thought. On the other hand, the hyped toys of the moment fade away fast, because they're designed to shortcut straight to the lowest common denominator of the moment, not to earn their way up the ladder of mass.

Just because bad design and popularity sometimes go hand in hand doesn't mean they're inextricably linked.

The culture of compromise is often accepted as the price of mass. But in fact, this is the crowded road to popular acceptance, and it works far less often than the compromisers believe it will.

Seen, heard, gotten, changed

Most of the news/advice/insight you run into is merely seen. You might acknowledge that something is happening, that something might work, that a new technique is surfacing.

Sometimes, if you work at it, you actually hear what's being said. You engage with the idea and actively roll it around, considering it from a few angles.

But rarely, too rarely, we actually get what's going on, we understand it well enough to embrace it (or reject it). Well enough to teach it. And maybe that leads to a productive change.

It's not clear to me that more stuff seen leads to more ideas gotten and more action taken. We probably don't need more inputs and noise. We certainly need to do a better job of focusing and even more important, doing the frightening work of acting 'as if' to see if we get it.

It starts with more doing, not more seeing.

"What have you got?"

The wrong answer to this question is often, "what do you need?"

When someone asks what you have to offer, when they ask for a menu or a price list or some indication of what they can choose from, it's tempting to ask what they want, because maybe, just maybe, you'll figure out how to make that for them.

When you act like a short-order cook at a diner, people rarely ask you for something interesting. Instead of trying to figure out what will get us picked, we might figure out if there's a way we can sell people on dreaming about what we have instead.

What if you stopped?

What would happen to your audience if you shut the doors tomorrow? (I know what would happen to you, that's not my question... what would happen to them?)

What would happen to your customers and to your prospects if you stopped doing your work?

If you stopped showing up, if you stopped selling them something, would they miss you if you were gone?

If the airline went away, we'd just find another airline. If the cookie cutter politician went away, we'd just vote for someone else. If the typical life insurance agent...

Does it matter if it's you doing the work?

I am 'anti-business', you might be too

A hundred and fifty years ago, when people finally began organizing to eliminate child labor in American factories, they were called anti-business. There was no way, the owners complained, that they could make a living if they couldn’t employ ultra-cheap labor. In retrospect, I think businesses are glad that kids go to school--educated workers make better consumers (and citizens).

Fifty years ago, when people realized how much damage was being done by factories poisoning our rivers, those supporting the regulations to clean up the water supply were called anti-business. Companies argued that they’d never be able to efficiently produce while reducing their effluent. Today, I think most capitalists would agree that the benefits of having clean air and water more than make up for what it costs to create a place people want to live—the places that haven't cleaned up are rushing to catch up, because what destroys health also destroys productivity and markets. (And it's a good idea).

When the bars and restaurants went non-smoking in New York a decade ago, angry trade organizations predicted the death knell of their industry. It turns out the opposite happened.

The term anti-business actually seems to mean, “against short-term waste, harmful side effects and selfish shortcuts.” Direct marketers were aghast when people started speaking out against spam, but of course, in the long run, ethical direct marketers came out ahead. 

If anti-business means supporting a structure that builds a foundation where more people can flourish over time, then sign me up.

A more interesting conversation, given how thoroughly intertwined business and social issues are, is whether someone is short-term or long-term. Not all long-term ideas are good ones, not all of them work, but it makes no sense to confuse them with the label of anti-business.

Successful businesses tend to be in favor of the status quo (they are, after all, successful and change is a threat) perhaps with a few fewer regulations just for kicks. But almost no serious businessperson is suggesting that we roll back the 'anti-business' improvements to the status quo of 1890.

It often seems like standing up for dignity, humanity and respect for those without as much power is called anti-business. And yet it turns out that the long-term benefit for businesses is that they are able to operate in a more stable, civilized, sophisticated marketplace.

It’s pretty easy to go back to a completely self-regulated, selfishly focused, Ayn-Randian cut-throat short-term world. But I don’t think you’d want to live there.

Are you feeling lucky?

Expected value is a powerful concept, easy to understand, often difficult to use in daily life.

It's the value of an outcome multiplied by the chances it will happen.

If there's a one in ten chance you'll get a $50 ticket for parking here, the expected value (the cost) of parking here is $5. Park here enough times, and that's what it's going to cost you.

If there's a one in five chance you'll win that lawsuit for a million dollars, the expected value of the suit is $200,000.

That's not a guess or a vague hunch, it's actually true. If the odds are described properly (and setting those odds is an entirely different discussion) then the value of the opportunity (or the cost of it) is clear.

And yet...

And yet we anchor our risks, often overestimating just how much it's going to cost us to get a ticket.

And we anchor our possible gains, usually overestimating how much that opportunity is worth (which is why so few lawsuits that should settle, do).

Humans are quite bad at dealing with ambiguity, and even worse when there's money on the table. Ellsberg's paradox helps us understand some of the bugs in the system, and perhaps we can take better risks by using a pencil, not our gut, to decide what a chance is worth.

"I'm not the kind of person who..."

We box ourselves in long before the outside world ever gets a chance.

"I'm not the kind of person who watches movies like that."

"I'm not the kind of person who proposes new ideas."

"I'm not the kind of person who reads books for fun."

"I'm not the kind of person who apologizes."

"I'm not the kind of person who gets a promotion."

"I'm not the kind of person who says 'follow me'."

I'm not the kind of person who... is up to you.

Hope and expectation

Hope is fuel, it moves us forward and it amplifies our best work.

Expectation is the killer of joy, the shortest route to disappointment. When we expect that something will happen, we can't help but be let down...

The noise in our head (and artificial intelligence)

One common insightful definition of AI: Artificial Intelligence is everything a computer can't do yet. As soon as it can, we call it obvious.

And so, self-driving cars and devices that can beat us at chess don't really think, they're just doing something by rote (really really fast).

One reason we easily dismiss the astonishing things computers can do is that we know that they don't carry around a narrative, a play by play, the noise in their head that's actually (in our view) 'intelligence.'

It turns out, though, that the narrative is a bug, not a feature. That narrative doesn't help us perform better, it actually makes us less intelligent. Any athlete or world-class performer (in debate, dance or dungeonmastering) will tell you that they do their best work when they are so engaged that the narrative disappears.

I have no idea when our computer overlords will finally enslave us, but it won't happen because we figured out a way to curse them with a chattering monkey. 

Five steps to digital hygiene

Washing your hands helps you avoid getting sick.

Putting fattening foods out of your reach helps you stay slim.

And the provocations and habits you encounter in the digital world keep you productive (or drive you crazy):

  1. Turn off mail and social media alerts on your phone.
  2. Don't read the comments. Not on your posts or on the posts of other people. Not the reviews and not the trolls.
  3. De-escalate the anger in every email exchange.
  4. Put your phone in the glove compartment while driving.
  5. Spend the most creative hour of your day creating, not responding.

Each habit is hard to swallow and easy to maintain. Worth it.

Why not?

If technology gives you the chance to speak up, build a platform and help show the way, why not use it?

If someone offers you a project or a job with more leverage and the chance to both learn and teach, why not take it?

If you can learn something new, more efficiently than ever before, if the opportunity to leap presents itself, why not?

Now is a good time.

Enthusiasm and contempt are both self-fulfilling

Someone who shows up with enthusiasm made a decision before she even encountered what was going on. The same thing is true for the guy who scowls with contempt before the customer opens his mouth.

It's a choice.

This choice is contagious.

This choice changes what will happen next.

This choice is at the heart of what it takes to be successful at making change or performing a service.

More than you imagine, we get what we expect.

Two heads or one?

As a company gets bigger, there's an inevitable split between the people who market what gets made and the people who design what gets made.

At some organizations, it's likely that these two people work in different buildings, and don't spend much time together.

One of the most important decisions made in the early days of JetBlue was that the woman in charge of marketing the airline was also in charge of hiring and training. Amy designed the product and the marketing, both.

This was certainly one of the things Steve Jobs brought to the table as well.

There are a lot of reasons that this is quite difficult to pull off. That doesn't mean it isn't important.

Try before you buy (or buy, then try)

There are two kinds of purchases: Either you are replenishing (you know precisely what you're about to get) or you are exploring.

Books and movies are almost always purchased before they are consumed. A bottle of Coke, or a return visit to a massage therapist, on the other hand, are replenishments of a known quantity. You might buy something for the satisfaction of owning it, or of owning one more, but that's different than buying one to find out what it does.

Neither is better or worse, but they are very much not the same.

If you sell an exploration, your customer is taking a chance. Sometimes magnifying that chance fits the worldview of the purchaser, and sometimes minimizing the risk is precisely what the purchaser is seeking.

On the other hand, in services like software and in recurring purchases, the sampling that leads to people getting hooked on the network effect and in replenishing what they have is what the seller seeks.

This is almost never talked about by marketers, but it's at the core of the strategy choices that follow.

Categories

Are tomatoes a fruit?

The benefit of a category isn't to denigrate something or someone. It's to help us make better decisions with limited information.

If we put someone in the category of, "frequent business traveler," we can apply previous learnings about what people like this might want or need.

Categories are useful tools when they help us find shared worldviews and interests. They're ineffective when they are nothing but surface labels, labels that don't help us serve.

Use categories well and you seem like a well-prepared mindreader, able to provide what people need, sometimes before they even realize it. It means you can treat patients, lead employees and delight customers on a regular basis.

Use them with laziness or ill intent, and you dehumanize the very people you ought to be serving.

A practical definition of reputation

Reputation is what people expect us to do next. It's their expectation of the quality and character of the next thing we produce or say or do.

We control our actions (even when it feels like we don't) and our actions over time (especially when we think no one is looking) earn our reputation.

Customer service and luxury

If your Chanel bag wears out, don't expect the same response you might find if you have trouble with something from LL Bean or Lands End. Luxury brands have long assumed that if you can afford to buy it, you can afford to replace it.

That's changing.

The mass brand leaders in most markets have figured out how to deliver extraordinary promises at scale. Not the high end guys. The mass ones. They do this by realizing that the cost of making the customer happy is tiny compared to the cost of leaving her unhappy.

[Hint: if you think that there's any chance at all that people consider what you sell a luxury good, the answer is, they probably do.]

Go to a McDonalds. Buy a Big Mac and a chocolate milkshake. Drink half the milkshake. Eat half the Big Mac. Put the rest of the Big Mac into the milkshake, walk up to the counter and say, "I can't drink this milkshake, there's a Big Mac in it." You'll get a refund. (Please don't try this, but yes, it works).

It's cheaper to just say, "here's a refund," than it is to start a debate.

How is a luxury brand going to compete? Is part of the story of why you pay extra because of the service you'll get? Lexus did groundbreaking work on this (compare the Lexus service story/truth to the way Porsche or Jaguar owners used to be treated).

Luxury buyers who see that they're getting lesser service feel stupid, and stupid is the brand killer.

If you're going to sell luxury, you probably need to figure out how to use some of the premium you charge to deliver even better service than your lower-priced competition.

The hard part about surfing

Surfing, the conceptual kind, is more essential than ever, it's not optional.

And the hardest part of surfing, by far, is paddling out, not surfing in.

Carrying the board, getting back into the water, paddling through the waves, waiting for the next set...it's exhausting, and surfers spend far more time doing this than they do on the other part.

Having the guts to surf is what change demands. And finding the stamina to paddle back out is a key part of surfing.

The selfish truth about word of mouth (why referrals don't happen)

Of course you will be eagerly and often referring your friends and neighbors to your dentist, insurance broker, lawn mowing guy and that book you just read.

Actually, not so much.

But I thought you liked it?

Well, whether or not we liked it isn't what motivates us to take the risky step of referring something (or someone). Instead, the questions that need to be answered are:

  • Do I want to be responsible if my friend has a bad experience? Will I get credit if it works, blame if it doesn't?
  • Does sending more business in this direction help me, or does it ultimately make my service provider more busy, or overwhelmed, or encourage her to raise her prices?
  • Will the provider be upset with me if the person I recommend acts like a jerk, or doesn't take his meds, or fails to pay his bills?
  • How does it make me look? Do people like me recommend something like this? When I look in the mirror after recommending this, do I stand taller?
  • Is this difficult to explain, complex to understand, filled with pitfalls?
  • Does it look like I'm getting some sort of kickback or special treatment in exchange? Is that a good thing?

Being really good is merely the first step. In order to earn word of mouth, you need to make it safe, fun and worthwhile to overcome the social hurdles to spread the word.

When specialization starts to pay off (and the danger of getting it wrong)

Last week, I got to beta-test a new service called tuber. Tuber is the Uber of food delivery services, with a focus (okay, an obsession) on certain kinds of root vegetables.

Just as some people keep Sidecar, Lyft and Uber on their phones, so they can compare who's got the best price or service in any given moment, Tuber is working to stake out a particular niche. They'll deliver a potato, yam or cassava, usually within twenty minutes of being requested.

In my case, I got three organic Japanese sweet potatoes, delivered to my house in time to roast for dinner. They were perfect specimens, and the price was right. (In case you're interested, the recipe: 450 degree oven for an hour. Done.)

Think about how they can magnify their advantages. Unlike more general food delivery sites, they can dig deep into the entire range of tubers. They can outfit their vehicles and focus their staffing with an eye on delivering exactly what this particular consumer seeks out. If we are indeed all weird, then tuber can get to the root of what we're after.

The interesting battle happens when these specialists start to overlap. Carrots, for example, are a taproot, not technically a tuber, and yet the company appears willing to expand into this area, risking their focus. Spread too thin, there will be pressure on management to expand into green vegetables and even fruits.

On the other hand, they are now saying that legumes (like peanuts) will be handled by their sister company, guber.

Different kinds of magic

A stunning video about what school can mean.

A beautiful book about art and meaning.

A different kind of management tome.

Rethinking your career. Or this way.

And worth thinking hard about: two brilliant social histories by David Graeber. Debt and Bureaucracy.

Direct marketing (and the other kind)

Direct marketing is outbound, measured and designed to pay for itself.

So, the catalog you get in the mail, or the Fuller Brush man. The idea was to buy stamps (or some other form of contacting people) and make enough money on average to buy more stamps.

Before the internet, direct marketing was on a steady growth path. The science of testing and improving offers and the industrialization of systems that lowered costs meant that more and more organizations were using direct marketing to solicit donations, get votes and sell products and services.

One of the key elements that allows direct marketing to grow so fast is that once you know how much an action is worth (a returned phone call, a door opened, an address added) you can buy it from anyone, in any quantity. Because it pays for itself. The media works on commission, for you.

The internet, of course, is fueled by direct marketing thinking. What's a click worth? How much will you bid to have your ad on top? How many visits does this buy create? What's the funnel on our site, and how do we make it more efficient? What's the allowable for a download?

So Amazon grew largely on the basis of its affiliate program (anyone can join, you only get paid when someone clicks and buys--classic direct marketing thinking). And so Google grew without a salesforce, because the direct marketer doesn't wait for someone to show up and sell--instead, the direct marketer eagerly seeks out anything that generates a click for less.

This is the opposite of the other kind, which doesn't really have a name. Brand marketing, or mass marketing, or indirect marketing. The kind the guys at Mad Men do. The full-page ads in magazines, just about all the ads on TV, sponsoring a conference...

[For the purposes of this post, I'm talking about the duality of marketing in the traditional sense. My take for the last 15 years is that marketing is merely storytelling and promise making/keeping, and in fact, everything the organization does is at some level, marketing.]

If you're hoping to build something on the web, then, you're almost certainly required to think like a direct marketer.

That means that if you're searching for traffic or action or sales or word of mouth, you will be offered a hundred ways to measure what happens. And if you improve what you're measuring, the amount you have to spend on each action goes up, and if you earn enough from each action, direct marketing becomes a profit center, not a cost.

That means if you're required to sell ads or sponsorships, the easiest sales to make, and the most likely sales you'll make, will be to a direct marketer, and the offer is probably similar to Amazon's original affiliate offer: We'll pay you when it works. We'll pay for a click or we'll track how many people type in a discount code, or... 

Sometimes eager direct marketers will pay upfront for an ad, but they always measure, and they don't keep running ads that don't measure up. That's at the core of direct marketing.

There are costs to this shift, worth thinking about:

1. While it's tempting to build an organization with direct marketing techniques, just about all the brands that matter to our culture aren't built this way. The subtle and powerful stories behind Starbucks and Apple and Harper Lee don't lend themselves to direct response ads.

If you're trying to build that kind of brand, it's essential that you reject direct-marketing tactics as a shortcut. They will drive you to make decisions that keep you from building the sort of promise you seek to build, and they'll end up not paying for themselves either.

Whether you're a solo entrepreneur or a giant corporation, this is a trap the web sets for you. What you need to sacrifice to make the numbers work might be the very brand you seek to build.

2. Open-system direct marketing (where just about anyone can carry a link or run a banner) inevitably destroys the media that gets hooked on them. If your podcast becomes dependent on getting people to visit a sponsor's site and type in the discount code, you can bet that there will be ever-increasing internal pressure to mention the code louder and more often. Not by the advertiser. He doesn't care, he'll just move on. By your partners and your boss. And so we get popups and popunders and sneaky data tracking. Because people are measuring.

[There is an exception to this, which proves the rule: The Yellow Pages, where responding to the ads is the only function of the medium. Craigslist and eBay understand this.]

In many ways, direct marketing on the web is a self-limiting process, because the more that media companies embrace it, the worse it works. This is precisely the opposite of what happened for a generation to branded ads in Vogue and other magazines. Work too hard at getting clicks on the ads you sold, your audience leaves.

Lester Wunderman, Lillian Vernon and LL Bean built direct marketing businesses at their kitchen table, buying stamps and mailing lists and learning the hard way how to think like direct marketers. The web has turned all of us, if we want to be, into direct marketers. Go in with your eyes open, and do it well, and for the right reasons.

The panic tax

Systems under severe stress degrade.

While individuals might do extraordinary work while pumped with adrenalin (lifting a car, running through a burning building), panic can decrease the efficacy of a system by 30% or more--often completely destroying it.

Compare the typical throughput of a highway during rush hour (when it's filled with seasoned commuters) to a similar road when people are fleeing a natural disaster.... in the first case, the cars naturally keep a safe distance, drivers are sufficiently alert, everyone gets home. In the other, there's a complete standstill.

Or consider how the TSA functions in an environment of stress (like the Orlando airport). A combination of leisure travelers, poor management and bad architecture means that (at least every time I've been there), there's a lot of yelling, invaded space and wasted time. Not to mention frayed nerves among Disney-overdosed parents in need of anything but more hassle.

Here are some thoughts for someone who might want to write a book about the panic tax (or someone who runs a system that shouldn't be degraded):

1. The cost of ameliorating panic in your system is always less than the cost of the lost productivity when panic hits. In other words, all the other steps are worth it.

2. Slack is the enemy of panic. When in doubt, add resources, or even simpler, remove requirements. That's what the gated entry points on crowded freeways do... the entire road goes faster when fewer cars are on it, meaning that gating cars at the entrance is actually far faster than letting them on over the course of the commute.

3. Media voices, politicians and others that create panic for a living need to own responsibility for the way their actions dramatically magnify the cost we all pay.

4. The answer to, "should we panic," is always no. Always. Panic is expensive, panic compounds and panic doesn't solve the problem.

5. Install panic dampers at every opportunity. TSA officers should be trained to talk more softly and slowly when their systems approach capacity. Sound deadening devices should be tuned to be most effective when volume increases. The police should be trained to seek compliance second, after they are able to diffuse panic.

6. They call them panic attacks for a reason. After-action review, an attack-analysis session, ought to be held whenever a system freezes under panic. Find the instigator, the first step, not the last one, and invest in what it takes to ameliorate it next time.

Mostly: Panic averted is far cheaper than panic survived.

Self talk

There's no more important criticism than self criticism.

There's no amount of external validation that can undo the constant drone of internal criticism.

And negative self talk is hungry for external corroboration. One little voice in the ether that agrees with your internal critic is enough to put you in a tailspin.

The remedy for negative self talk, then, is not the search for unanimous praise from the outside world. It's a hopeless journey, and one that destroys the work, because you will water it down in fear of that outside critic that amplifies your internal one.

The remedy is accurate and positive self talk. Endless amounts of it.

Not delusional affirmations or silly metaphysical pronouncements about the universe. No, merely the reassertion of obvious truths, a mantra that drives away the nonsense the lizard brain is selling as truth. 

You cannot reason with negative self talk or somehow persuade it that the world disagrees. All you can do is surround it with positive self talk, drown it out and overwhelm it with concrete building blocks of great work, the combination of expectation, obligation and possibility.

When in doubt, tell yourself the truth. 

'Pick yourself' and taking responsibility

Perhaps you've decided that the idea of Pick Yourself is sort of a new-age mantra, a promise that everyone is entitled to what they want, right now.

What a shortcut it seems to be. A false promise, holding out that illusion that we can get what we want if we just raise our hand. Pick yourself, you win...

It's precisely the opposite.

If you want to be responsible for making music, make music. If you want to be responsible for writing, speaking, making change happen, go do that. Waiting to get picked is a form of hiding, not realism.

No, it’s not always possible for everyone to succeed by being the most popular, the most clicked on, the most liked. In fact, it will never happen. No one is promising that, I hope. What pick yourself means is that it’s never been easier to decide to be responsible for your own work, for your own agenda, for the change you make in the world. To have a chance to matter. Not to be finished right now, but starting now.

Pick yourself means we should stop waiting and whining and stalling.

The outcome is still in doubt, but it’s clear that waiting just doesn’t pay.

[Podcast discussions on this topic: Unmistakable Creative, Sounds Like a MovementThe Lede, Read to Lead]

Hypergrowth

Fast growth comes from overwhelming the smallest possible audience with a product or service that so delights that they insist that their friends and colleagues use it. And hypergrowth is a version of the same thing, except those friends and colleagues quickly become even bigger fans, and tell even more people.

Often, we get sidetracked when we forget about "smallest possible." If you make the audience you're initially serving too big, you will dilute the very thing you set out to make, avoid critical mass, and compromise the magic of what you're building. You'll make average stuff for average people instead of something powerful for the few.

By "smallest possible" I don't mean, "too small." I mean the smallest number that eventually leads to the kernel of conversation that enables you to grow.

[Minimum Viable Audience, a great term, originally coined by Brian Clark.]

Active listening

The kind of listening we're trained to do in school and at work is passive listening. Sit still. Get through it. Figure out what's going to be on the test and ignore the rest. Your eyes can glaze over, but don't let it show. Try not to nod off. People are talking, and they'd like the illusion of listening to accompany that. Don't interrupt. 

Passive listening is letting the other person talk.

Active listening, on the other hand, requires that you interrupt when you need a clarification, and it requires that you ask a truly difficult question when the speaker is finished.

If it's worth listening to, it's worth questioning until you understand it.

What is customer service for?

Customer service is difficult, expensive and unpredictable. But it's a mistake to assume that any particular example is automatically either good or bad. A company might spend almost nothing on customer service but still succeed in reaching its goals.

Customer service succeeds when it accomplishes what the organization sets out to accomplish. Google doesn't have a phone number, doesn't want to engage with most users. McDonald's doesn't give you a linen napkin. Fedex used to answer the phone on one ring, now it takes 81 seconds for them to answer a call. None of these things are necessarily bad, they're merely examples of alignment (or non-alignment).

Organizations don't accidentally run ads, don't mistakenly double (or halve) the amount of cereal they put in the box. They shouldn't deliver customer service that doesn't match their goals either.

Here are some uses of customer service:

To create a significant competitive advantage by engaging with customers in a way that others can't or won't. This is what the over-the-top customer service approach of Zappos did. They went from being a commonplace (you can buy shoes from anyone, we're anyone) to a customer delight company that happens to sell shoes. Rackspace does the same thing with technical support. 

To streamline the delivery of inexpensive goods produced in an industrial way: This is the model of most fast food places. Deal with the exceptions quickly and well, and keep the line moving. Part of this mindset is to not make it easy for people to complain, and to treat every complaint in just about the same way. When you get a bag of rancid nuts from Planters, sure, you can visit the website, click a bunch of times, fill in a form and let them know, but they don't use it as an opportunity to earn your loyalty.  "Here, take four coupons, each good for a dollar off one purchase, thanks, we're done."

To lower expectations and satisfy customers by giving them exactly what you promised, which is not much: This is the model of automated customer service at most big web companies. They'll do just about anything to avoid an interaction with a human, and they're clear about this, meaning that they should only end up with customers who are okay with this.

To raise expectations and delight customers by giving them way more than they hoped for, which was a lot: This is a truly difficult promise to maintain (Apple did it with the Genius bar, but they rarely surprise there any more). The secret is to find a focus, a budget and a scale where you can actually deploy talented individuals to keep this promise.

To dance with customers in an act of co-creation: This is part of 37Signals' secret. From their book to their blog to their clearly stated point of view about platforms and the way they do business, they invite customers to debug with them in an ongoing dialogue about finding a platonic ideal of utility software. They don't promise perfect, they promise engagement. Over-inform. Speak with respect. Be clear about the invitation. This is a very special sort of customer service, and companies often think they're doing this but end up cutting corners and are merely plodding along, disappointing those that would have preferred to engage instead.

To diminish negative word of mouth: Many large organizations resort to this, the last step in a sad journey. As soon as a wheel gets squeaky, they grease it. But that's all they do unless pressed. The problem is that many of your unhappy customers are too busy to get squeaky, they merely go elsewhere, and the ones who you finally do try to help are so pissed off it's too late.

To build extraordinary trust: This is the initiative taken by an institution to do far more than is expected, at a human level, to earn the privilege of serving again. This is the banker who visits you in the hospital, merely because she heard from another customer that you were ill.

To treat different people differently: One way to reward your best customers is to treat the best of them substantially better than others--the word will spread, others will want to join this group, and those in it will be hesitant to switch to a competitor. But if you make that promise, you need to double down on it substantially, continually improving how you treat your favorites.

To race with competitors to lower customer service costs just a bit more than they will: This is the current progression we see among industrial titans who see customer service as a cost, not a profit center. When you measure this, you can't help to want to drive the cost down, and you will do it just a bit faster than your competitors, because to do it too fast is to risk condemnation. Alas, in just about every industry that the internet has sucked the profits out of, we see this cost-cutting race to the bottom. It's not going to end well.

Because you can: This is awfully rare among public companies, but there are many organizations that treat people as they'd like to be treated. Not to grow market share, but because it's the right thing to do.

So it's clear that good customers with urgent problems left on hold by Fedex is a mismatch between what they built customer service for and what they're doing with it. And that a busy startup that doesn't invest as much time as they could in co-creation communication is not serving the goals of the beta fully. On the other hand, the novelist who doesn't invest time in answering reader mail is probably doing good customer service, since reserving her best efforts to write another great novel is precisely the promise she has made.

Every single person who makes budget decisions, staffing decisions and customer service decisions must to be clear about which strategy you picked, needs to be able to state, "we're doing this because it's congruent with what we say customer service is for."

Obviously, you can mix and match among these options, and find new ones. What we must not do, though, is plan to do one thing but then try to save time or money and do something else, hoping for the results that come from the original plan without actually doing it.

Customer service, like everything an effective organization does, changes people. Announce the change you seek, then invest appropriately, in a system that is likely to actually produce the outcomes you just said you wanted.

Make promises and keep them.

Of course it's difficult...

Students choose to attend expensive colleges but don't major in engineering because the courses are killer.

Doing more than the customary amount of customer service is expensive, time-consuming and hard to sustain.

Raising money for short-term urgent projects is easier than finding support for the long, difficult work of changing the culture and the infrastructure.

Finding a new path up the mountain is far more difficult than hiring a sherpa and following the tried and true path. Of course it is. That's precisely why it's scarce and valuable. 

The word economy comes from the Greek and the French, and is based on the concept of scarcity. The only things that are scarce in the world of connection and services and the net are the things that are difficult, and the only things that are valuable are the things that are scarce. When we intentionally seek out the difficult tasks, we're much more likely to actually create value.

Things we don't see that much any more

Wine coolers, Julia Roberts movies, fondue, Geocities pages, baby on board signs, a line at the Krispy Kreme...

Ubiquitous doesn't mean forever, and popular isn't permanent. Someone is going to fade, and someone is going to be next to take their place.

The tyranny of random numbers

Is that iPhone game really conspiring to put blue squares up at the last minute, just to foil your attempt at a perfect score?

Human beings are story-making engines, and when we're confronted with randomness, we make up an egocentric version of what happened, and it involves us.

So when things randomly go well, we give ourselves a pat on the back, a reminder of why we deserved it. And when they don't, we seek out the ghost in whatever machine did us wrong and come up with a reason.

Here's the truth: There is no reason. That's why we define it as random.

All the time we spend inventing reasons is probably better spent responding to what occurs.

Companies don't care about you

Brands don't care about you...

Institutions don't care about you either.

The only people who are able to care about you are people.

The question, then, is this institution owned and organized and run by people who will allow the people who work there to care?

Generally, the answer is 'no', because caring is unpredictable, hard to command and regulate and sometimes expensive in the short run.

What a shame.

How long is your long term?

A simple question with an answer that's difficult to embrace.

What are you willing to give up today in exchange for something better tomorrow? Next week? In ten years?

Your long term is not the sum of your short terms.

The difference between commitment and technique

We spend way too much time teaching people technique. Teaching people to be good at flute, or C++ or soccer. 

It's a waste because the fact is, most people can learn to be good at something, if they only choose to be, if they choose to make the leap and put in the effort and deal with the failure and the frustration and the grind.

But most people don't want to commit until after they've discovered that they can be good at something. So they say, "teach me, while I stand here on one foot, teach me while I gossip with my friends via text, teach me while I wander off to other things. And, sure, if the teaching sticks, then I'll commit."

We'd be a lot more successful if organized schooling was all about creating an atmosphere where we can sell commitment (and where people will buy it). A committed student with access to resources is almost unstoppable.

Great teachers teach commitment.

Spring forward

Sometimes, it takes some prodding to make a leap.

For the next 48 hours (through Friday, March 20), the five-copy pack of my new book is on sale.

Use the discount code spring to save 40% off the discounted price, and get the books for about $8 each plus shipping.

Along for the ride

Like the pilot says, "sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight."

When you're on one of those Disneyland boats, it takes you where Disney wants you to go. That's why you got on. And so you are lulled, a spectator, merely a tourist.

So different, isn't it, from driving yourself, choosing your own route and owning what comes of it?

How long have you been along for the ride? When is your turn to actually drive?

When push comes to hug

This is a much more stable response than pushing coming to shoving, because shoving often leads to something unsustainable.

Hugging is a surprising and difficult response to pushing, but it changes the trajectory, doesn't it?

The one who makes things worse

Every committee or organization has at least one well-meaning person who is pushing to make things more average.

"On behalf of the masses, the uncommitted, the ones who don't care, we need to dumb this down, smooth out the edges and make it more average. We need to oversimplify it, make it a bit banal, stupid even. If we don't, then some people won't get the joke, won't be satisfied, or worse, complain."

And, by amplifying the voice of the lizard brain, he gets under our skin and we back off, at least a little. We make the work a little more average and a little worse.

This is the studio executive who demands a trite plot, with the usual stereotypes and tropes, played by the usual reliable actor types.

This is the record producer who wants the new song to sound a whole lot like the last song.

This is the NGO executive who fears that the new campaign will offend some minor donors...

Yes, it's true that the remarkable, edgy stuff we wanted to make wasn't going to be embraced by everyone. But everyone is rarely the point any more.

In the service of honest communication, perhaps the one who makes things worse should acknowledge that this is what he does for a living. That way, if we want things to be a little more average, we'll know who to ask.

Double and half (freelancer math)

Successful freelancers need to charge at least double the hourly rate that they'd be happy earning doing full time work. (In many fields, it's more like 4 or 5x).

And they need to spend at least half their time getting better at their craft (and helping the market understand and appreciate what they do).

Your mileage may vary, but one sure route to becoming an unhappy freelancer is charging just enough and hoping that the low price will keep you busy all the time. 

[If you're a freelancer with a career or marketing question, I'm recording a course on this topic and will be including reader questions as part of it. The form is open until tomorrow, Monday, at midnight. Thanks.]

Magic and irrational

Today is Pi day, the 14th day of the 3rd month of the fifteenth year... 3.1415

Pi is our most famous irrational number. Not irrational in the sense that it's a foolish argument, a form of wishing for one thing while doing another. No, pi is irrational in a magical, beautiful sense. It can't be cropped off and fit into a box. The closer you look at pi, the more you see, forever.

And that sort of irrational magic is at the heart of our best work. Meeting spec works fine as long as you're the only person who has to meet spec. But in any competitive environment, fitting into a box does us little good.

To be transcendent and irrational is to always have a few more digits to spare, to demand that you not be rounded off and filed away. To be human.

Apologies, owed

Money owed accrues interest. Banks and credit card companies thrive on this. The borrower gets to keep using the money, and the lender ends up with more in the end.

Apologies owed, on the other hand, accrue nothing whatsoever of value, to either side.

Forgiving a financial debt costs your balance sheet. Forgiving an owed apology frees you to be generous again.

Privilege

We really don't understand privilege until we've lost it.

It's pretty easy to criticize or misunderstand those that complain about privilege (of any kind), but in fact, we have no idea what it is to be in those shoes, not right this minute.

Pumpkin seeds

You can do two things with pumpkin seeds. Eat them, an excellent source of protein, or plant them, and watch a successful seed bring back 100 more.

The farmer who plants the seeds aggressively, without regard for, "hey, be careful, I could have eaten that seed," often ends up with many more pumpkins and many more seeds. On the other hand, the person who guards all the seeds and then eats them ends up with not much.

And of course, money works the same way. Time, too.

Avert your eyes

When there’s a wreck on the side of the road, we can’t help it. Despite our best efforts, we look at the accident, sometimes even slow down to get a really good look.

Why?

To remind ourselves it’s not us. To reassure ourselves it’s not someone we know. Phew.

Rubbernecking is our way of reassuring ourselves.

Often, though, we do precisely the opposite when it comes to the apparently unfixable, to the enormity of horrible events, to tragedies.

(Enormity doesn't mean "extra enormous." It refers to the emptiness of something so horrible and large we have trouble comprehending it).

Time magazine produces a cover that we can't bear, so we don't buy that issue. We don't see the billboard. A disease appears uncurable, so we don't talk about it. It's easier to talk about the little stuff, or events with hope.

We also do it with science, to facts about the world around us.

There’s a long history of denialism, defending the status quo and ignoring what others discover. That two balls of different weights fall at the same speed. That the Earth rotates around the Sun. That the world is millions of years old. That we walked on the Moon.

The denials all sound the same. They don’t come from stupidity, from people who aren’t smart enough to understand what’s going on. They come from people who won’t look.

Why deny? It's a way to avert our eyes.

Two related reasons, internal and external.

The external reason is affiliation. What happens to one's standing when you dare to question the accepted status quo? What are the risks to doing your own research, to putting forth a falsifiable theory and being prepared to find it proven wrong? What will you tell your neighbors?

When adherence to the status quo of our faith or organization or social standing looms large, it’s often far easier to just look the other way, to feign ignorance or call yourself a skeptic (n.b. all good scientists are actually skeptics, that’s how they build careers… the difference is that the skeptical scientist does the work to prove to her peers that she’s right, and acknowledges when she’s not). 

There’s more data available to more people than ever before. And the prize for using statistics and insight to contradict the scientific status quo is huge. If a thesis doesn’t sit right with you, look closer, not away. Do the science, including acknowledging when your theory isn’t right.

The internal reason is fear. The fear of having to re-sort what we believe. Of feeling far too small in a universe that’s just too big. Most of all, of engaging in a never-ending cycle of theories and testing, with the world a little shaky under our feet as we live with a cycle that gets us closer to what’s real.

Part of being our best selves is having the guts to not avert our eyes, to look closely at what scares us, what disappoints us, what threatens us. By looking closely we have a chance to make change happen.

More trouble than it's worth

In five words, that's one secret to delight. When you do the work that others can't possibly imagine doing, you set yourself apart.

Seeking out the things that are more trouble than most people think they're worth is a powerful place to be.

The hard part, of course, is actually doing something that appears to be far more trouble than it's worth.

Job creation/job destruction

For years before 1992, experts warned that the fisheries in Eastern Canada were in peril. Industrialized fishing processes (sonar, trawlers, etc.) were pulling dramatically more cod out of the Atlantic, and the fishery was severely threatened.

Insiders ignored the warnings, shouting about job preservation instead. 35,000 workers were directly involved, with more than 100,000 people supported as a result of the fishing trade. Jobs needed to be defended.

In 1992, the catch dropped 99%. Every single job was lost, because the entire system collapsed.

It's easy to defend the status quo, except when the very foundation you've built everything on disappears. Incrementalism ceases to be a good strategy when there's a cliff on the route.

The narcissism of minor differences

Really?

You're arguing about that trivial difference between us?

Substantive disagreement is rarely the issue that splits tribes, destroys thriving groups or wastes time at meetings. Instead, it's our desire to carve out a little space for ourselves in a group that seems to agree on almost everything.

The work is too important to sidetrack about the things we disagree on.

Point out this narcissism when you see it and move on to the important stuff, to amplifying the things we agree on.

[HT to Ernest Crawley who has one of the coolest resumes ever. And then appropriated by Freud.]