How What We Lack Can Serve Us

I remember the cold winter mornings, my dad driving me in the pitch black to the gym at 5 am.

The sound of Fleetwood Mac blaring on the speaker, and the soft squeaks of my shoes hitting the hardwood floor as I ran.

Something about those mornings stick with me still today.

The solace of an empty gym. The clarity to focus before anyone else is awake. The freedom to experiment new shots, new moves, and new drills by virtue of being alone…

I was never tall. So I committed to becoming the strongest. I wasn’t the fastest. So I committed to working the hardest. I knew it was the price of admission if I was ever to see any playing time.

I never became much on the basketball court – other than maybe setting some records for personal or technical fouls. But the many lessons I learned continue to age with time.

There is something interesting about the human condition that inspires me. Particularly in our tendencies to strive for things we don’t have or that seem impossible.

That innate desire to fulfills the parts we lack seems to be one of the best precursors for conditioning us into who we need to be on our path toward who we’re trying to become.

If I was 6′ 6″ and light on my feet, I may never have developed the discipline to commit fully to a vision for myself. The part of me I felt a need to compensate for may have been just the right recipe to push me to work for it.

In many ways, it’s always what I’ve lacked that has served me most.

What UPS & FedEx Can Teach Us About Evaluating Opportunities

Shipping stores live and die by three questions.

How big?

How fast?

How far?

These three questions judge every package through the door. The answers determine the degree of difficulty of a package’s destiny and assign a cost accordingly.

I think these questions provide an equally interesting litmus test for us.

What if we put each opportunity we encounter through the same scrutiny?

How big?

How fast?

How far?

How big is this particular opportunity? What’s the absolute maximum expected upside? What’s the worst downside?

How fast can I achieve return from this opportunity? How long will it take to make this reality?

How far must I go to unlock this opportunity? To what lengths will this opportunity take me? How far away from being ready for it am I, today?

An Agile Model

I love the simplicity of this mental model. It’s not some robust, lengthy analysis. It’s a quick easy gut-check.

For huge opportunities, do more due diligence if necessary. Small opportunities shouldn’t require much more than this. This model provides a quick, yet sturdy enough checklist to get to “No” more efficiently.

Medium-Sized Opportunities

Maybe the most valuable application of this regards the middle-of-the-road-size opportunities.

Medium-sized opportunities can be costly, but not exactly for obvious reasons. For me, the cost usually comes in the form of wasted resources evaluating what to do.

Medium-sized opportunities eat away precious time and mental energy. I say avoid them at all costs.

As Derek Sivers once said, “If you’re not saying “HELL YEAH!” about something, say “no”.

Give it a shot this week.

How big?

How fast?

How far?

Criticize By Creating.

It’s easy to criticize from the stands.

What’s more difficult is stepping into the game.

When you take yourself from spectator to player, you open yourself to vulnerability. To criticism. To the opinion of every casual passerby.

Playing the game allows you to approach problems differently. It grants you a newer, more intimate perspective on the game play.

You don’t have access to the 360 degree view of the guy in the nosebleed section yelling directions at you.

When you’re in the game, you must approach things head on. You must adapt quickly. You must perform and respond according to the limitations of your line of vision and periphery.

You don’t have time to evaluate what happened in other areas of the game. You don’t have time to banter about plays that happened in an earlier quarter.

You must be present in the game as it’s played.

I think this metaphor opens up an interesting thought experiment for life, for business, and for relationships, too.

For the things I’m participating in, what’s my default orientation?

Am I offering up opinions as a spectator? Or am I present, giving the game a competitor’s dedication?

I’ve noticed an interesting observation from my own experience.

It may seem counterintuitive, but spectating exhausts me far more than participating fully in the game of life. Having skin in the game makes it more invigorating.

Both take energy. Actively participating produces positive energy. Criticizing as a spectator yields negative energy.

If you want to live a better life, I say play the game. Don’t shout from the stands how to do it better.

Enter the game. Criticize by creating.

 

The Story You Tell Shapes Your Customer Expectations

You make silent agreements with your customers the day they encounter your brand.

Some brands don’t offer much. They don’t ask for much in return.

But every brand offers something. Beside the products and services they sell, every brand tells a story.

The story manufactures the frame your customers view you in.

Customers flock to good stories. They treat poor stories with indifference.

When you tell a good story, you set the bar high for yourself. Customers bond with this.

People enjoy businesses that enhance their own views of themselves. In a way, your company values help make your customers better people, too.

Think about yourself as a customer. Think of a company you identify with and why.

I think of companies like Apple, Amazon, and Nike.

The stories that introduced me to these companies stuck. The companies helped me see something in myself. Their story resonated with my identity. They also unlocked an aspirational view of myself.

When companies get this right their brand strengthens and they earn enduring customer relationships.

People want to identify with brands that get them. They abandon companies that get them wrong.

As a company, you’re responsible for telling your story. You’re also responsible for holding yourself to the story.

The story you tell also influences people to expect certain kinds of behaviors. When you behave inconsistently with the story you tell, your customers feel it.

Consider two examples:

Whole Foods

When I’m in a hurry and looking for healthy food fast, there are not a ton of options. But Whole Foods has been my go-to for nearly three years. I eat there a lot. It’s quick. Reliable. Delicious. And the people are nice.

But tonight I found out they replaced their entire menu with burgers only. It outraged me.

I asked several employees what they thought. Most seemed upset about the change.

To me, the move felt entirely out of character for Whole Foods.

Chick-Fil-A

A few months ago I swang through Chick-Fil-A for breakfast.

The street adjacent to the store looked like a garbage truck had lost a few bags and raccoons had found them.

It covered most of the road. But none of it was in Chick-Fil-A’s lot.

The trash was not their problem.

I remember immediately thinking, “I bet they send someone out to pick up that trash.”

Sure enough. When I made it around the drive-thru, I saw a girl in a bright red shirt and black pants picking up garbage.

To me, the move perfectly captured my view of Chick-Fil-A’s brand: be good stewards in everything.

Bringing It All Home

Your brand tells a story. Your brand as a person. As a company.

Everything you do becomes part of your brand.

When you behave in ways that align with people’s vision of you, you strengthen your message with them. When you behave in ways that violates their vision of you, it conflicts with their expectations.

Behave however you want. But beware, if your behavior contradicts the story you tell, people feel it.

The world wants an authentic you. Give it to them.

Solve for X

If you want something, go get it.

Don’t get caught up worrying about what other people think. Or what doubts they have.

Whatever you want in this life can be yours. It’s a simple formula, really.

But first you must decide: what do you want?

Priorities change. Circumstances change. You change.

Each change brings new features of the world to life around you.

Getting lost chasing any number of the options around you is easy. Choosing one thing to fixate on is difficult.

Once you choose, the rest becomes easy.

It allows you to remove the distractions of optionality and commit to the experiment.

One experiment. To dedicate your heart and soul to the mission of acquiring that one thing.

Other people pretend to do this. They will nonchalantly dismiss your efforts to obtain whatever you’re after. They’ll casually talk about how they tried and failed in their own half-assed pursuits.

Not you. If you want something, you go get it.

Don’t listen to anyone else. Tune out the doubts.

Focus on your own personal mission. And go get it.

The Enemy of Progress

Someone reminded me this morning of a Harriet Tubman quote:

“I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”

It made me think.

What if the greatest barrier to our own personal freedom is the belief we’re already free?

It’s almost as if once the idea of freedom is acquired, we stop yearning for it. We accept the status quo as the trappings of a free world.

In other words, we don’t go looking for things that aren’t lost. Just like we don’t try to learn things you think you’ve already mastered.

I’m reminded of an alleged quote from Socrates:

“All I know is I know nothing.”

Perhaps it was the intellectual humility with which he approached knowledge that led him to develop such profound ideas during his lifetime.

By refusing to coronate himself king of any particular subject, his admission of still being a learner allowed him to continue yearning for more.

I wonder how radically different our lives could be if we approached everything with the same brazen awareness.

No matter how much progress we make, there will always be mountains left to climb.

The Power of the Double Thank You

The best transactions involve a double thank you.

Maybe you’re at a coffee shop. You place your order and swipe your card. The barista replies, “thank you.” When she delivers your cup of coffee, you echo back, “thank you.”

The barista is better off with your cash. You’re better off with your coffee.

The double thank you isn’t about niceties. It’s about choosing to engage in the world as a positive sum game. Both parties walk away from an exchange improved by the exchange.

The power of a double thank you can be applied to all walks of life. It’s not just about exchanging money for goods or services. The same mindset is powerful for relationships and all human interactions.

Imagine for a moment if every interaction you participated in, both you and the other person walked away better off. Can you truthfully say that’s the case? If yes, then congratulations Mister Holier Than Thou. If not, maybe there’s an opportunity to reevaluate how you engage with the world.

Again, it’s not about niceties. We all have a choice of how we choose to engage with the world and with others. And today, I’m reminding myself to reach for mutually beneficial encounters.

Thank you.

A Degree Won’t Make You Rich(er).

Much like a bottle of water is worth more than a diamond to a thirsty man in the desert, the ability to create value is worth immensely more to an employer than a degree–even an ivy league one.

Across the country right now many students are being duped into believing myths of a causal relationship existing between higher education and upward mobility. It’s long past time purveyors of this perverse notion carefully reassess their commentary.

At best, it is an inaccurate assessment of reality. At worst, it is a fatal error. It’s naive to assume a degree determines equity or value in the marketplace. A degree, much like a driver’s license, is no more than a signal. Just as a license does not indicate ability to drive, a college degree indicates no special aptitude for performing tasks necessary to earn a wage. Each serves as an emblem, neither as a guarantee.

Unfortunately, many young people are marinated in this unhealthy distortion of reality for 15,000+ hours before being released into the great big world to investigate for themselves. It’s hardly a surprise so many choose to pursue a college degree. From a young age, I too heard the fiery sermons about going to college to ensure landing a good job. I heard all about how degree holders, on aggregate, make over $1M more than non-degree holders.

Sadly, I bought into the lies…

I went off and I earned my college degree. Thankfully I only wasted four years. During this prison sentence I realized how inadequate institutions of higher education are at determining a person’s ability to earn an income.

I’m not one who sits still and classrooms are the bane of my existence. So I skipped most of my classes while there. I still did well on the homework and was an ace at examinations, but my poor attendance cost me many top marks.  No skin off my nose. My real education while at college was hard-earned on my own beyond the confines of cinderblock cells. It’s outside the classroom where I learned to create value for others.

My senior year of college, I might as well have dropped out. Looking back I wish I had. I wasted a lot of time trying to skate by as the end neared. My periphery compliance prevented me from giving more attention to my interests. I could’ve gained more from that time.

For instance, I launched my freelance career that year. I also bartered with a handful of other students to complete their assignments or take entire courses for them. Each moment I spent in the classroom withdrew time and effort I could have better spent growing these businesses. I learned far more from both of these activities than I ever did in a classroom.

I also learned from these transactions that many people don’t give a shit about the education element of higher education. Most inherently recognize that it’s only a signal, not an indicator of skill. They’d be content simply purchasing the signal if it was possible. But heaven forbid they forego four years of revelry. What’s sadder yet is that many young people can’t formulate a decent response as to why they’ve chosen to pursue a degree. They’ve never flipped the burden of proof. Many of the reasons, if challenged, would better justify simply moving to a college town for four years, finding a job, and foregoing school altogether.

Challenging the Narrative.

While the reasons for seeking a degree are as many and varied as are the institutions ready to provide one, the number of young people amassing crippling debt burdens is even greater. Young people are being cheated. Not [only] by lenders and the government. But also by a fraudulent education system. The product these institutions market is not what it claims to be. In most cases, I’d even argue the product is harmful to the wellbeing of its consumers. Sadly, it’s more a feature of the system than a flaw of it.

The folklore of the institution of education pretends otherwise: “Attend school as long as possible. Make stellar grades. Listen to the teachers and professors. Get a good job. Don’t worry about what it costs. Your education is the best investment you could ever make.”

This narrative is bullshit.

For one, it’s blanket statement applied gratuitously to every student in every circumstance. Rarely would you ever hear a guidance counselor tell a student he or she should consider making different plans after high school. This isn’t unfair. It’s unrealistic. Some people are not cut out for the classroom–I might even argue that most aren’t.

For those who can manage to learn inside the borders of a class, assuming that college is always the best option is dishonest. In many cases the cost of obtaining a higher degree comes at much too high a toll. The debt can be paralyzing and the incessant ranking against peers demoralizing. Furthermore, the authoritarian exposition in which most formal education is set harmfully stifles creativity and originality of many of its brightest pupils. Some young people would be best to pursue learning on their own terms.

Speaking of learning. The institution of education presumes good grades and obedience to the pedagogy equates to an understanding of subject matter. Again, this is erroneous. In some cases it might be true. But it is certainly not true of every student in every case. Speak not of cheating, but the academic system as structured encourages rote memorization and rewards those who best regurgitate material. This diminishes the incentives of developing sound logic skills, of challenging the status quo, and of discovering answers for oneself.

With all this emphasis on grades and obedience and little demand for providing real social proof of an attained skill or prowess in an area of study, the school releases these young, barren minds into the world on the job hunt. Saturated with lofty ideals and a sense of entitlement cultivated by years of promise that arriving at that this moment would pay dividends, receiving a diploma often marks the pride before the fall.

It’s no wonder many young people walk around jaded and plagued by despair. They’re not much different than many millions who have lost it all in the stock market on speculation. Except in most circumstances every adversary the young people ever had egged them on to push all their chips in on college. At least with the stock market there’s an air of skepticism that goes with the territory.

The narrative of college also fails to critically engage young people in thinking about what they could do instead. This is perhaps the most grotesque error. The advent of technology has put an instruction manual on any possible skill in the pocket of every young person. What young people need instead of college is experience. College takes away time and focus from gaining meaningful experience. It also presumes that the degree is a more valuable signal than the experience that could have been gained in the same amount of time. I caution this thinking.

There are also many other classic arguments like: “You need college because you’re no Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Mark Zuckerberg.”

I say great. The world might not need another Microsoft, Apple, or Facebook. Most people don’t have revolutionary ideas, but they do possess revolutionary points of view. It also might be intellectually lazy to set the status of ‘billionaire mogul’ as a standard of success of foregoing college or dropping out. Their stories still provide useful examples though, even if–especially if–you don’t have a revolutionary idea.

Here’s why. You don’t have to have a revolutionary idea to forego college. You just need to figure out what people want and how to deliver that to them. This is where your revolutionary point of view will come in handy. Whether those people you’re providing value for are potential employers, consumers, customers,  friends, or anyone. Create and sell what people want, and you’ll always have whatever you need. You don’t necessarily have to provide exceptional products. You have to provide products or services that people want, exceptionally. And this doesn’t require a degree.

Some other examples.

There are rappers, musicians, artists, athletes, writers, chefs, business owners, and even eight U.S. presidents who don’t (or didn’t) have college degrees. You don’t need one either. Learn to recognize what people want or could use. Figure out a way to get it to them at a price they’re willing to pay. That’s all. If you can figure that out then all of college and higher education is obsolete.

But what if I’m studying business?

You won’t get business acumen in the classroom. College as a prerequisite to business acumen is a myth MBA-types and elitists cower behind. They lurk behind their lofty suffixes because deep down they’re afraid of the truth. The truth that their time and effort was all for not. That it was wasted. That they could have obtained it better, cheaper, or faster. I pity those who entertain this mindset for their lack of intellectual depth. Somewhere in their pasts, someone must have eradicated their imaginations. They are no longer humans, but computers. They’ve traded in their outside-the-box thinking for algorithms and actuarial science. They’ve given up sentient thought.

If they had any imagination, they could fathom abstract like success and achievement as existing outside a vacuum. They could recognize that income potential and upward mobility are not static ideas, but fluid, ever-changing enigmas with subjectively calculated value. Degrees are no different.

A Degree’s Value is Subjective.

Just because the world says a degree is worth a lot doesn’t mean potential employers will care. It also doesn’t mean it will necessarily make a person feel more successful or happier. Much like a bottle of water is worth more than a diamond to a thirsty man in the desert, the ability to create value is worth immensely more to an employer than a degree–even an ivy league one.

Today, obtaining a college degree is easier than it ever has been. That’s what makes it so dangerous to tout its value and necessity. It’s simple supply and demand, or what I’ll call degree inflation. The more people that have a degree, the less value it holds to differentiate you in the marketplace. 

Because of the massive influx, the signal that a degree once held has dwindled from a flare to an ember. If you want to distinguish yourself, a degree is a poor mechanism for doing so. You could use some social proof or a value proposition instead. You could use experience or a skill set. You could use any number of things as a better signal–even if you want to use these in conjunction with a college education. But don’t fool yourself that the degree alone is sufficient.

So, say you feel like college is not for you. How do you go about creating a better signal?

Simple. Here’s one method I propose:

Make a short list of a handful of things that interest you. Whatever they are, write them down. Don’t be afraid to go big.

Next, make a short list of things you are good at. Not just things your mom tells you you’re good at. What things would everyone you know say you’re good at?

If any of the items on these two lists merge then congratulations. You’ve found a starting point. You are now equipped to find a business owner who has a need for a service that lives at the intersection of your interests and skills. When you find said business owner, ask if you can shadow him or her for a week or more. If this is granted, do it ASAP. Take notes. Learn everything you can and constantly assess ways your skills could add value to the operation.

At the end of the shadowing, first, draft a thank you note to the business owner. Along with it, draft a proposal on how your unique interests and skills could be engaged valuably to the business owner. From what you learned about the business in shadowing, detail what you witnessed. “The following areas could benefit from innovation, and I’m just the person to do it.” Why? Because you want to learn and improve his or her enterprise and at your age you need experience more than money. Do not pitch your skills. Do not pitch your financial situation. Meditate on the business owner’s vision and pitch your desire to help achieve it.

When you’re hired, as you most likely will be and begin working to fulfill this agreement, document your work. Build a portfolio as you go of the projects you create–if the info isn’t sensitive. Start a blog or build a quick website to host the things you learn and to feature the projects you create. Boom. You’ll never have to worry about a degree again.

To all the young people out there who have fallen victim to statistics and the social commentary about college, don’t fret. The same opportunity is open to you. While your limited availability might impact your prospect to gain real experience, openness to ideas, a strong work ethic, a hunger to learn and unswerving dependability can help you overcome that.

Ultimately, it’s your life.

Whether you choose to pursue a college education or not  is entirely up to you. Don’t make a blind decision. Be mindful of the opportunities you’re foregoing and the time, effort, and money you might be wasting. Don’t rely on a degree as a signal of your worth. Create a better one.

 

 

Abstinence & Voting

One day I just got bored.

I started to see the whole thing as one giant circle jerk.

I’m saving myself for a better world.
 
Someday when I find it I don’t want to have to explain how I gave myself up to George Bush. Then John McCain. Then to Donald Trump.
 
I want to be pure for it. So I took a vow of abstinence.
 

I stopped voting years ago. I’ve been frequently challenged to provide lengthy explanations for my decision. It never ceases to amaze me how affected others are by the news. Like I’ve betrayed them. Like I’ve committed some kind of Grand Treason.
 

Sometimes these conversations lead to realization that I share many of the same frustrations as voters. I hate taxes. I’m repulsed by war. I don’t trust politicians. Prohibitions and licensure laws are tyrannical. Government should stay out of ____________ (everything). Blah blah blah.
 
I participated in these conversations for years (as a non-voter and as a voter). I punched my ticket at each election. Which was maybe 3. I stopped voting not long after I was “of age.” One day I just got bored.
 
I started to see the whole thing as one giant circle jerk. A new guy would come up for election. He’d make promises. He’d secure some votes. He’d be stonewalled in office. Nothing would change. Repeat. That’s not progress. It’s madness.
 
When I began reading more broadly into political philosophy and economics I found I wasn’t alone. There were tons of theories about why voting isn’t particularly useful. There were as many about the incentives politicians face for acting in their own interests over the interest of ‘the people.’ None of this surprised me. It simply abhorred me.
 
I never stopped hoping for a better world. I just couldn’t buy into the fairy tale that voting would accomplish this any longer. I had new information. But my experiences and observations had confirmed the same.
 
It inspired me to empower myself to eliminate my frustrations. Voting seemed too passive. I wanted to be active about making my world better.
 
I started by educating myself. I wrote a lot about what I read. I engaged others. I challenged. I argued until I was blue in the face. It didn’t matter. Other people couldn’t envision the world as I saw it. They didn’t want to.
 
That no longer bothers me. Everyone should do what makes them happy I think. If voting has value to you, then vote. If it doesn’t, then don’t.
 
I think a greater issue is at the root. Every person is an individual actor in his or her own universe. We’re all just trying to go out and get what we want according to what we know and believe.
 
This idea was revolutionary to me. It made want to stop changing others and start by changing myself. Hoping 51 percent of people agree with me was disempowering. Voting for that world was just not enough. If there was a better world to be had and I wanted it, then I must take action.
 
A great explanation of this comes from Ludwig von Mises’ Human Action. To summarize he posited three requirements must be present for individuals to take action: 1) unease or dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs, 2) a vision of a better state, and 3) belief that they can reach the better state.
 
The three requirements are contingent upon one another. The first two conditions are nearly always satisfied for me. Yet, in the context of the political establishment the third criteria ceases to be satisfied for me.
 
I abstain from politics not [only] because I hate politics and not because I’m apathetic. One significant reason stems from the third criteria above. It would be illogical for me to cast a ballot knowing I don’t believe it will effect any desired change. Why should the burden of proof be on me anyway? Make the political system prove that it’s invaluable to social progress. It hasn’t yet.
 
My belief that a better state can be reached rests on the creation of that better state. Not by governmental mandates but by individuals who set their vision into motion in the world.
 
It is not through handmaidens of the political establishment with their waving pens and  crummy rhetoric that the standards of living across the globe have ever been raised. It’s by the sweat, blood, and commitment of men with a vision for a better world and a bias for action to create that world.
 
If you’re dissatisfied with the present conditions of the world; and you possess a vision of a better world; and you believe that world can be achieved…it’s time to act.
 
Don’t rely on the ballot box to create a better world. Just go build it.