The Problem with Setting Goals (and What to Set Instead)

problem with goals

This is Part II of II. If you missed Part I, read The Foraging Choice: The Choice That Makes or Breaks Our Work

I don't set goals. Not really.

I have an idea of what excites me. I love the work I do and want to constantly improve. I adore the journey most days (though not all days, because that's just reality, even for People Who Say Pithy Things For A Living.)

But this pithy little idea that success requires you to set and reach goals is simply not true. That's too broad, too simplistic, and too universal. There is no "one right way" to do most things in this wonderful work that we do. So instead of set goals, I set something else. It's something I first encountered in hosting Unthinkable and later codified in writing my book thanks to all these wonderful humans whose stories I was grateful to tell. It turns out they replace their goals with something else too. I call them aspirational anchors. But to understand what I mean, you first need to understand the foraging choice.

Yep. The foraging choice. Last week, most people reading this newsletter (perhaps you?) learned about the foraging choice just a few days after I did. (If you missed that, go back and read about it here.)

The foraging choice is the decision between exploiting your existing position and exploring other possibilities. This psychological concept was most recently explored in a research study at NYU which I was lucky enough to get my hands on before publication to the outside world, all thanks to my secret agent planted deep inside the psychology world. (She is also quite pretty and smart and charming and warm and married to me.)

Think back to last week's newsletter. Remember what causes us to exploit our current position rather than explore new and potentially better options? As the study observed, "chronic and acute stress" prompts us to cling more fiercely to options we know and reject the notion of exploring the unknown. As a result, we act like nervous squirrels insisting that there will be just a few more nuts left in this tree and OMG what if those other trees are barren or HOLY WALNUTS what if there are foxes and hawks out there? Let's just stay here. Yup-yup-YUPYUP! Here's good, here's good, here's good...

Oh boy. In the workplace, when we beat the ever-loving crap out of a tactic or do something merely because "that's how we do things around here," we're deciding to exploit rather than explore. So what can prompt us to explore? I don't believe setting goals is the answer.

In fact, I'd argue that goals add to our stress. Goals are like mile markers in a race. We want to reach THAT spot over THERE. But once we reach that goal, there's another, and another, and another. So we can't reach that spot fast enough. Worse, because everybody in our industry seems to be running this same race towards that same spot, it's so tempting to compare and contrast and get stressed out. They make the race look so effortless. They reached that mile marketer so much faster than we did.

I think goals are a way to measure what we did in our work, not how we did it -- and how we do our work makes all the difference between exploitation and exploring. Goals anchor us to a spot in the distance, but they do little to adjust the course we take in the first place. In reality, they encourage us to take ANY course we can in the effort to reach that spot, and so, many of us look for cheats, hacks, tips, tricks, blueprints, and gurus who promise get-there-quick tactics. If we bring our own sensibilities and personalities to our goals, that's great, but they're not automatically a part of our work. I think that's broken. I think setting a goal should somehow incorporate how we operate, not just where we want to go.

That's why I believe in setting aspirational anchors.

Aspirational anchors are personal or team-based mission statements that focus us on the change in our behavior, not the outcome of that behavior. They add in the "how" in a powerful way. For instance, when we set a goal, we might say, "Let's grow our subscribers 50% month over month," and that may encourage us to repeat the old playbook with more urgency or adopt any and all tactics that profess to grow traffic fast. All we focus on is reaching THAT spot over THERE, and we find ourselves in a similar race to everyone else. But what if we set an aspirational anchor like "Let's show the world how fun and relevant we really are" instead? What if we said THAT to ourselves or our teams? We might encourage everyone to consider how we're operating now and what change we'd like to make in ourselves. We're no longer interested in purely the mile marker. We're interested in the course we take. The how. The change. In focusing on that, we can run our own race, too.

Aspirational anchors combine two powerful things about our unique situations: our intent for the future and some kind of hunger we have today. Goals omit the latter, and so we never feel inspired enough to go exploring with confidence. If we're trying to fix a bland and boring blog in order to generate more subscribers, a goal would merely articulate our intent for the future. "We want to grow our subscribers 50% month over month." We're not inspiring anyone, least of all ourselves. But if we add in some hunger, some dissatisfaction with our behavior, our company, or our industry, then suddenly it becomes an aspirational anchor.

What's your intent? To grow subscribers. What's dissatisfying about your work today in trying to do that? We have to dig deeper to answer that. Maybe we realize our tone of voice is too bland, or that we're so focused on results that we're copying too much, or that we're serving "leads" instead of customers. Whatever the case, adding the hunger part makes the anchor aspirational enough to prompt reflection and change.

Intent: Grow our subscribers. Hunger: Our voice is too bland. Aspirational anchor: So let's show the world how fun and relevant we really are!

If our goal was to create the industry's most fun-and-relevant blog, instead of merely to grow our email list, suddenly our behavior might change. We'd stop googling or asking people on social media for tips, tricks, cheats, and hacks, and we'd develop more self-awareness and situational awareness. We'd look more intently at our environment for the answers. This, according to the NYU study, is that precursor to making good foraging choices: knowing our environment enough to make informed, confident decisions to explore, not merely exploit.

Aspirational anchors thus provide a sort of first-filter before we make our choices at work. They help us vet all that information out there more quickly, with more clarity and more confidence. Some ideas or some best practices get through our filter because they make sense for our specific aspiration. Some things get stuck and thus we ignore them, even if they were spoken by an industry expert we admire. But the only way we can make these decisions is if we know what we aspire to do.

These statements are also personal. Aspirational anchors give us a reason to apply who we are in our work, because make no mistake, who we are is the ONE thing competitors can't access. Who we are is our unfair advantage. Are you using that advantage to its full extent in your work?

So if we want to do our best work, and if we believe we can't merely cling to the past precedent or the latest trend, we need to explore rather than exploit. But when we're stressed, we rarely decide to do so. Aspirational anchors provide the necessary inspiration and direction for an individual or group to see their environment more clearly. If we're trying to reach THAT spot over THERE .... AND .... we want to take THAT course forward ... then we need to change our current course. We can make decisions based on what works FOR US rather than the general wisdom or advice. We realize we can stop exploiting and begin to investigate new and better possibilities. This spot's no good! Gotta go!

Ask yourself: "What is my aspirational anchor? What is my intent for the future? And what is the hunger I feel today, some dissatisfaction with my or our work? How does that lead me to create an aspirational anchor?"

What is your personal or team-based mission statement? Can you focus less on the mile-markers and more on the behavior change you need? Best of all, how can you make your work more personal so you're running your own race entirely? Even if a whole pack of competitors races down the same path, you might waltz the other way, because you have the clarity and confidence to know what works best FOR YOU.

What is your aspirational anchor? If you can articulate it, you'll step back from that endless cycle of best practices, conventional thinking, and trendy new tactics. You'll realize just how much you or others get caught in exploitation mode, and with confidence and clarity, you'll inspire yourself and those around you to do something exceptional instead.

Let's go exploring...

To learn more about how to make better decisions in your work (regardless of the “best practice”), explore Break the Wheel. Available everywhere Oct. 16, but readers in the U.S. can pre-order signed copies at

Posted on September 19, 2018 .

The Foraging Choice: The Choice That Makes or Breaks Your Work

Part I of II

I married way, way up.

My wife holds a PhD in psychology, to say nothing of her warmth, her humor, and her beauty both inside and out. As a result of all that, despite her insistence that I stop (oh yeah, she's humble too), I brag about her to everyone who asks and way too many people who didn't.

Because I married way, way up. 

Every so often, I’ll come home from a long day at work (i.e. take the six steps between my office and living room), and I’ll excitedly share a psychological concept with my wife. Because she holds a PhD in psychology and is very smart and funny and pretty and wait where are you going I'm not finished...

I'll share a given concept with her because I'm utterly convinced that the entire business world needs to hear about it. It will transform the way we think about creativity, marketing, or business.

Babe! This idea! It’s so powerful! What do you think?!

A polite smile. A subtle nod. She's known about it since undergrad.

I just broke the news to a master chef that macaroni tastes pretty decent with some cheese...

Fortunately, because my wife is great (have I mentioned that yet?), she doesn't just leave me hanging. When she sees the thread I'm working so hard to pull, she'll casually walk around the corner, gather up the giant friggin' quilt sitting just out of my view, and gently place it in front of me.

Oh. So that's... I mean. Yes. That. This. This is better. Thanks, babe!

Like I said: I married way, way up.

A few weeks ago, she was at it again when she introduced to me to a concept that explains one of the business world's most common behaviors. It was enough to make me go full Wee Bey-from-The-Wire-GIF:

So what's the concept? Turns out psychology could use some marketing help because there was no single name for it, so I made one up. We can call it...

The Foraging Choice

There was also no definition for the concept, so here's my PhD-approved attempt:

The foraging choice is the decision between exploiting your current position and exploring other possibilities.

Oof. Kinda feels like most people in the working world choose the former, no? That word “exploiting” just hits home so hard. If we aren't stuck doing the same old things we've always done, the same way we've always done them ("because that's how we do things around here"), then we're latching onto a new trend or guru-granted technique for dear life. Either way, when we find something we believe works, we enter Exploitation Mode. We cling to it. We obsess over it. We beat. it. to. death.

Though "exploitation" doesn't always mean "gaming systems," this tendency certainly appears most obviously when we look at how some hucksters masquerading as marketers and thought leaders treat the internet:

  • Business bros pose during YouTube pre-roll ads, professing to know the "secret" to making more money, more quickly, in less time, and also unicorns and dragons and Santa are real. 

  • LinkedIn users film walk-and-talk videos sharing profound career lessons, hold the profound, hold the career lessons.

  • People on social media @-mention 25 others in their latest post, claiming to be adding value to them. In reality, they're trying to feign engagement in order to flag to the algorithm that their content is high quality enough to surface higher in the feed.

It all adds up to a bigger pile of crap than even Santa's very-real flying reindeer can produce.

So why do we choose to exploit more often than explore? And why the "foraging" idea in the first place? Let's address that second question first by turning now to the study my wife shared with me, researched and written by Jennifer Lenow (as first author) and her colleagues. (For context, research studies list authors in order based on who did the most work on the project and sometimes seniority.)

“Many decisions that humans make resemble foraging problems in which a currently available, known option must be weighed against an unknown, alternative option."

They continued, "Many of the most biologically relevant decisions we make are foraging-like decisions about whether to stay with a current option or search the environment for a potentially better one.”

So why do we seem to lapse into exploit mode? Why, when something we know (or others claim) delivers results, do we get complacent or stagnate, rather than continually exploring new potentially better possibilities? Easy: Stress.

Said the researchers, "Chronic and acute stress promote overexploitation in serial decision-making.”

Maybe that’s why people love exploiting a tactic when it relates to an algorithm specifically. They depend so much on these third-party channels to do their work, and right when people finally, mercifully understand how to use a platform responsible for all this constant, breakneck change ...  the algorithm changes. So if an expert claims a technique works, it's like finding a bounty of acorns in a tree. The stress of constantly searching through branches and leaves, avoiding predators, trying not to fall, worrying that you picked the wrong tree or maybe forest seems to melt away. In its place, you feel certain that THIS TREE is the place to be.

When you consider that algorithm changes are but one of an endless list of stressors in our work -- stressors that also include bosses, colleagues, family and friends, customers or clients, and our own desire to succeed -- it's no wonder we tend to exploit our current position. We're in a familiar tree.

So what happens when we want to do something better? What if we're sick of redundant, tired approaches or commodity junk? What might cause us and, more importantly, those around us to go exploring?

According to the study, it all starts by understanding your environment first.

"The average reward rate of the environment serves as the optimal leaving threshold because it effectively sets the opportunity cost of time spent exploiting the current option. When the instantaneous reward rate of the currently depleting option falls below this level, an animal's time would be better spent during something else."

You just got Scienced, I know, so let me translate a bit. Basically, we need to spend more time understanding our context as a precursor to the foraging decision. Because we know our existing position so easily, it can be tempting in times of stress to continue to cling to it and explore it. However, if we knew what was happening in the real world around us, we could more accurately and confidently make the decision to try something else.

Here's an easy example: In a world where everyone obsesses over publishing short, snackable content, you realize that both your audience's desires or sensibilities and your own skills allow you to write long-form emails instead.

Another example: If you're not sure whether to leave your job, and you can understand the opportunities available in the broader job market (as one example of your "context"), then that can help you leave your existing position with more confidence.

Okay, kind of obvious, no? But here's the issue: When we experience chronic and acute stress, we don't take the time to understand our environment. We revert back to the current position. In the career example, if you're focused on landing The Ultimate Dream Job Right Now Or Else, or you're so fried from working late or working under a crappy boss, or you're convinced something is wrong with you because your company is supposed to be a great place to work ... then that stress might cause you to stay put, even if your context clearly demands that you go exploring.

Ever wonder why friends can nonchalantly point out solutions to your struggles that seem so obvious to them? We're convinced "it's not that simple," but maybe it is and we're just too stressed to see the world clearly.

Stress clouds our vision and impairs us from making good decisions. We already know this. However, what we don't realize is that this triggers our psychological impulse is to keep hammering away at a current thing (job, tactic, relationship, etc.) when it makes more sense to explore new possibilities.

So how do we gain clarity during all our stress? What might cause us to make better foraging choices and go exploring rather than keep exploiting? Unfortunately, the study doesn't say. In fact, their hypothesis was about the problem, not the solution. They explored whether "subjects under stress would demonstrate greater exploitation of, or lower reward thresholds for leaving, current options." The report was about the downside. For us to make better decisions, however, I think we need to focus on the upside. We need a reason to pick our heads up from our current position every so often to investigate our environment.

In my research for the book, I found the same pattern in people who go exploring -- one that suggests we can use a simple mental heuristic to focus on the upside of our environment, rather than endlessly cling to our existing tree, scared of the downside of leaving. I call this heuristic "aspirational anchors."

So what are they and how do they work? That’s next week in Part II.

Learn more about the 3 psychological barriers that hold us back from making good decisions at work (and how to combat them) in my new book, Break the Wheel: Question Best Practices, Hone Your Intuition, Do Your Best Work

Posted on September 11, 2018 .

Behind the Scenes With InVision: Why the Best B2B Brands Today Become Platforms for Their Customers' Careers


The following post was inspired by my documentary series with Drift called Exceptions, exploring why and how 10 of the best companies in B2B develop their brands. You can listen to the episode below, or read this episode's Big Idea and the 3 Questions To Ask Yourself.

Over the last few months, I've been studying the best brands in B2B. Today, I'm sharing a lesson in great brand-building from the amazing InVision and CMO Manav Khurana, Editor-at-Large Kristin Hillery, plus one of InVision's users. That lesson? Become a platform.

I don’t mean that in the product sense. I mean that in a more definitional sense: "an elevated level surface on which people can stand."

In B2B, top brands like InVision (and Gusto and Wistia, which I also profiled in this docu-series so far) are now that surface that elevates their audience. By calling out what's broken, addressing problems (not just through product, but through community & content), and rallying for a better way, B2B brands (or, said better, PEOPLE who work at B2B brands) provide something far bigger than a set of products and services. They provide a platform.

What if your B2B brand could provide the battle cry, become the rallying point, or create a sort of meeting place for your customers? To do that, you'd have to be ruthlessly customer-centric. You'd need to own customer PROBLEMS that they face... not just sell solutions. You'd also need an "insider" feel for your audience - a sense that you're for THEM, not for everyone.

Here’s what that means for you.

Today’s Big Idea: Become a Platform—Not Just a Solution

All of us in B2B know we live in a world of stiff product competition. Building an amazing product is essential to any good B2B business, as "feature parity" has truly hit every business. But our #Exceptions podcast series isn’t about how to have a good brand. It’s about how to be exceptional. So often, that requires you to figure out what makes you an exception. The best place to start that journey, as always, is your people. The collective behavior of your people, and how others feel about that behavior, creates your brand.

To take your brand from good to exceptional, your company's presence in the market has to transcend your product. Instead of thinking product first, you need to be ruthlessly customer centric; you need to become a platform.

Look, every B2B business exists to solve problems for customers. That's why a B2B company starts, but as it grows, the people can lose sight of that fact. 

Not InVision.

InVision has a blog where they invite others outside of their company to contribute. Almost every post on that much-loved site is from a product designer or design leader who doesn't work at InVision.

They also created the unbelievable design documentary, Design Disruptors. The goal of the documentary wasn't product promotion. It was simply to give a voice to those within the design industry. They recognized that product designers lacked an identity, and that this issue could hurt their customers' careers and ability to get the proverbial "seat at the table." Guess what kinds of companies buy design software? Companies who prioritize product design.

Thus, your goal in becoming a platform is to elevate the entire market, not just yourself. You fight on behalf of customers. You fix what you can, and invite others to contribute as complementary players.

Remember, the point isn’t to profess to have all the answers. You aren't on the mountaintop, passing down your wisdom from on high. Instead, the goal is to raise everyone up from underneath. That's a true platform. In the end, an exceptional B2B brand is an active participant in their community, championing the problems within the industry.

Ask yourself: Are you more than just a solutions provider or a vendor? Are you a platform for your audience, for their career aspirations, their pains, their companies? Do you constantly and loudly articulate that you understand them, that you are them, and that you will work to elevate them?

Become a platform.

3 Questions to Help You Build Your Brand

Question #1: Do You Love to Hate Stuff?

Let’s be crystal clear: I’m not talking about being pessimistic or cynical. I'm talking about being optimistic and supportive. Doing so requires that you call out whatever feels broken in your space, to your customers. Hate the status quo. Fight for a better way. And invite customers along for that journey.

Think about product managers. Many people believe great PMs are phenomenal solutions providers. But that’s not true: What makes a PM great is their unique ability to constantly call out the problem. They sit with customers, understand them, intimately know their problems such that the PMs' colleagues (engineering) know how to build great solutions.

Great PMs don't just own solutions; they own problems. They intimately and truly understand the issues of their position and their department better than anyone.

Exceptional B2B marketers are the same. They understand the problems of their industry better than anyone else, and they passionately and loudly call them out.

So, you have to fall in love with spotting problems and rallying others together to fight against them ... just as much as you love providing solutions yourself.

Do you love to hate stuff?

Question #2 Are You Finding Small, Recurring Pockets Within Your Projects to Build Community?

InVision does this by constantly sending out content with inside jokes only designers would truly understand. In fact, they have an editor-at-large (Kristin Hillery, who appears in the episode) who has owned this for years, first as editor-in-chief, and now in her new role.

I think about SportsCenter on ESPN as a great example thanks to their “Top Plays Countdown” —10 different top moments of the day in sports, shared at the end of the program. They use the same graphic, same intro music . . . you get the idea.

Essentially, that kind of thing rallies people around the show or brand. Viewers look forward to it. They’re "in on it," and it feels good. Why? Because if you watch SportsCenter, you look forward to the countdown as someone who is now part of something larger. You are in the community.

I try to do this in my weekly newsletters. There’s a quick aside I sometimes make about a character who always frustrates me or botches things named Larry. I’ll call him out by saying, “Ah, damn it Larry!” or, "Freakin' Larry..."

Sure, this sounds cheesy, but it was a joke I felt good about once, and I continued to use it in other spots until it felt like an inside joke to all.

It builds community. So does ESPN. So does InVision.

Do you? Find little pockets of your projects and, rather than spending money, spend the time to do so.

Question #3 Are You Collecting Qualitative Feedback?

In today’s world, everyone collects quantitative feedback, and there are numbers on every demographic. That data is helpful, but does it capture the emotional aspect of what your audience says and feels?

First of all, consider what data really "is" in the first place: information stored for future use. Qualitative feedback and quantitative results are both forms of "real" data. If you are not somehow capturing, collecting, and referencing the thoughts and emotions of your customers about your product, the industry, their problems, their joys, their experiences, and so on, then you are completely missing a huge and valuable source of data.

InVision takes this seriously. Before every marketing meeting, they begin by introducing quotes from their customers about a recent project or the industry at large. This drives the meeting and re-focuses the team on their real goal underscoring every project: building a platform for their community. Manav called this the "three Ps" of InVision marketing: people, process, and platform. In any project, like for instance a series of articles or their documentary film, they care about the people first, profiling the designer or design leader as named individuals whenever possible. Then, they address the process of design more generally. Lastly, they relate things back to their platform (meant in the product sense here, i.e. InVision's software). He didn't share the breakdown with me, but I'd guess they focus 97% of their efforts in marketing on the people and process Ps and 3% on their own products.

So, just because your analytics tools don't capture the emotions of your audience, doesn't excuse you from not needing to take that seriously. Collect this data yourself, or risk missing out on valuable information to fuel your marketing.

Are you collecting qualitative feedback?

Listen to the full episode of Exceptions below:

My book, Break the Wheel, also features a story about InVision, diving more deeply into the behind-the-scenes of their craziest project yet, Design Disruptors. Break the Wheel is now available for pre-orders in the United States. I sign each and every one. Get yours at

Posted on August 30, 2018 and filed under EPISODES.

The 2018 Word of the Year

2018 word of the year - try.png

Way too much potential gets wasted not because of some huge barrier but because of a thin little screen. And that's a damn shame.

Think about those moments when you yearn to create your best work, whatever that might mean to you -- a new company, a side project, a pitch, a show, whatever. The very idea of what that work means to you can consume you. And when you don't get it out into the world, it can feel like you're suffocating.

So why don't you get that breath of fresh air? Why do you sit with that awful feeling? A mental barrier stands in your way. In your mind, it's this thick, brick wall, made up of all kinds of immovable stuff. Bosses. Politics. Precedents. Resources.

In those moments, we turn externally. We look for best practices, or even cheats or hacks. We read blog posts, listen to podcasts, and hunt for that next inspiring guru. And yes, we ask our smart friend for her opinion over coffee. Again.

But what if we applied a little pressure up against that wall? I think then we'd learn the truth: There's no wall at all. It's just a thin little screen. In reality, all that separates great work from average is that fleeting moment where they make the decision to do something simple yet powerful:


Trying to Drive the Quad

As a kid, I had two friends down the street who were brothers, and both were more daring than me. Their family owned a few ATVs that we called "the quads," and every so often, I'd get to sit on the back of a quad as we drove into the woods towards a circular dirt track we called The Pits.

This trail was full of sharp turns, surprise branches hanging down or sticking up, and a few boulders covered in dirt and moss -- excellent ramps for use by daring brothers on quads, to the horror of one timid friend who everyone still called Jason.

Each and every time we’d ride the quads, I’d pretend I was super excited to drive one myself, then find a way to “settle” for riding on the back of my friend’s as everyone else took turns driving their own. You see, while I loved playing sports as a kid, my sport of choice was basketball, a game where even the lightest slap on the wrist was forbidden. So hurtling at top speed towards a boulder in between two trees? Hard pass.

Every single time, I refused to drive my own quad.

Except this one time.

This one time, I hemmed and hawed as usual, but for some reason, that internal agony felt too great. So I made up my mind: I would try driving my own quad. Immediately, I felt more confident. More excited. More handsome. No longer would someone else drive me forward. I would be the hero of this story. I was Quadman. I was Harry Quadder, the Boy Who Revved!

I was Jason. And I was ready.

I grabbed a helmet, crammed it tightly onto my head, and marched towards a quad. I mean, sure, the one I chose was the smallest of the three -- the one typically reserved for my friends' younger brother. And sure, he was four or five years our junior, which is a million years in Little Kid Time. But the fact remained: I was gonna drive that thing real good.

I eased onto the cushion. I gripped the handle. I nodded towards my friends. I stared at the track ahead. I hit the gas! And I … drove straight into a tree.



I'd never felt so successful in my life!

I'd maxed out at maybe 3 miles per hour, drove maybe 4 seconds, and immediately needed everyone's help to yank the quad back onto the track. But oh, the glory! VICTORY WAS MINE! A million pounds was suddenly lifted off my shoulders. I could breathe again, after all that suffocating over wanting to do it -- but never actually trying to do it.

I took off my helmet, and I Breakfast Clubbed my way outta there...


Trying Is the Biggest Barrier, Not Succeeding

One moment less than a second long can change everything. When you finally decide to try, everything seems to get better. Years later, in 2014, I remember feeling the same way I did as a little kid, agonizing over not quads but podcasts. Afters months of sitting with that stifled feeling, wishing I could gulp some air, I finally agreed to create a show for my friend's nonprofit.

In total, I produced just three episodes before he left the organization and I decided to end the program. (Here's the first episode. Here's the third.) And yes, three episodes isn't that many. Neither is three miles per hour. But what I’m trying to say, as loudly and directly as I possibly can, is this: The barrier standing in your way is a flimsy little screen, nothing more. It's that fleeting moment where you decide to try. That's all it is.

The barrier isn't "convincing my boss." It's not "finding the time." It's not "getting promoted" or "finding more resources" or "securing a cofounder" or anything swirling in your mind right now. It's deciding to try. Or better yet, it's deciding to be the kind of person who tries.

People who try shrug their shoulders when their attempt doesn't work. They'll just keep trying, getting better each time they do.

People who try aren't seeking success so much as the path towards success. They'll keep trying different things until they feel they've found it, then they'll try their way forward.

People who try push past that barrier between average and exceptional work, not because they possess a secret but because they've made a choice. 

Deciding to NOT try can last forever. Deciding to try takes but a moment.

So, in 2018, what will it be? Will you let someone else drive yet again, or will you get in the driver seat? I'm not asking you to reach top speed or do crazy tricks -- just to get in the driver seat this one time.

I'm not asking you to build a huge business or wildly successful project. I'm not asking you to convince everyone around you or become a master craftsman. I'm not asking you to stare down an industry full of commodity work and build something exceptional.

I'm asking you to try.

Posted on January 1, 2018 and filed under IDEAS.

Evernotes of Note: Unthinkable's Podcast Episode Rundown

Screen Shot 2017-12-21 at 2.21.00 PM.png

ABOUT THIS SERIES: Heading into the New Year, I'm cleaning up my Evernote -- aka my brain, outsourced. It is, um ... chaotic. But every so often, I stumble upon a gem that I either forgot was there or need to use more. I'm sharing those publicly here, because it's my blog and I can if I want to. (Also maybe they're valuable too. Okay, good talk.)

Creating a narrative-style podcast like Unthinkable can be back-breaking. To help ensure story quality stays high but episode production runs smoothly, I created what's called a "rundown." This is a concept stolen from TV writers' rooms -- hat-tip to Andrew Davis for teaching me this approach.

Today (December 21, 2017), I sat in a coffee shop and updated my episode rundown to prepare for Season 4 next year. I used my most popular and, I thought, highest quality story yet: The Man Bun.

Here it is...

    •    Vivid description of something happening with hero

    ◦    Within the above action, establish the larger theme of the episode
    ◦    e.g. he knows, it’s all about putting in those reps

    •    Create a few closed loops
    ◦    Use analogies, and offer incomplete details
    ◦    e.g. it’s a rare craft he pursues in our digital world, but he’s a master craftsman 

    •    Example of their great work, playing out
    ◦    e.g. quote from Scott Stratten’s speech // clip from documentary, etc.

    •    List the what and why it’s exceptional
    ◦    e.g. Scott is a keynote speaker, who has done X talks to Y brands and sold Z books…

    •    BUT…
    ◦    Introduce reasons the hero’s work seems unthinkable
    ◦    Use 3 adjectives over the opening sting/music to drive that point home
    ◦    “I’m Jay Acunzo.” 

A BLOCK: How do they run counter the convention? — 5 MINUTES
    •    Conventional wisdom about the industry or task, delivered in a clever way

    ◦    e.g. Public speaking, biggest fears…not so much

    •    Make it clear: There’s a ton of advice, and there are stakes here — doing this thing matters, so people cling to the convention
    ◦    Combo of VO and quotes

    •    BUT…
    ◦    How is the hero an exception to all that? 
    ◦    Use some examples, Q&A, clips, VO…
    ◦    How do they JUSTIFY that exceptional thing? What does it DO for them?

B BLOCK: Aspirational Anchor: Lead story and reflection on the emotional battle within — 5 MINUTES
    •    STORY — Friction of conventional thinking vs. them

    ◦    Have they struggled with that at all? Why don’t others do it that way? 
    ◦    Stories they can share about what others have said? Self-doubt and feelings?

    •    ANAYSIS & REFLECTION — VO + quotes to make sense of this battle within
    ◦    Go deeper here — find the nuance. It’s not about being a rebel. 
    ◦    What happens in reality? 
    ◦    Get messy! Reality is a mess.

    •    VO: Final framework or quote to stick in your brain about this

C BLOCK: First Principle Insight: Why does this happen? Why best practices in general? What’s the human context? — 5 MINUTES

    ◦    Why does this happen? Is it BAD? GOOD? How do they think about this? How do they FEEL?
    ◦    Find the fundamental reality of this situation. 
    ◦    Strong opinions from the hero are key here. 

    •    VO Call-Back: Bring back the theme of the episode, armed with new First Principle Insights from the discussion
    ◦    Knowing THIS…and knowing the Best Practice…something doesn’t add up, or something new has come to light.
    ◦    Given that…(D BLOCK)

D BLOCK: Doing the Work: Revisit their great work and backstory, now that we know more — 10 MINUTES
    •    Another story of the hero’s great work, now through our new lens

    ◦    Zoom way into it and talk through something specific
    ◦    Get their DETAILS and FEELINGS in their story

    •    Reconstruct the backstory
    ◦    Where this all began
    ◦    Early influences (in life and work)
    ◦    How it grew
    ◦    Conflicts he encountered
    ◦    Results and status today

    •    The craft — Focusing on the process above all else
    ◦    Geek out about the process, what they love about it
    ◦    Where they draw inspiration, anything outside the echo chamber?
    ◦    Looking ahead
    ◦    Embracing the struggle — what’s still hard? What’s hard about doing it DIFFERENTLY? 

    •    What others get wrong about this
    ◦    What do they think is wrong about the usual process? What are they mad at?
    ◦    Why that hurts results…or careers.

E BLOCK: Emotional final punch — 2 MINUTES
    •    Quotes: What kind of meaning do they get in the work that they do?
    •    VO: Wrap it up, challenge them
    •    Final tweetable moment: quote or VO


Posted on December 21, 2017 and filed under IDEAS.

Evernotes of Note: My "Saying No" Email

ABOUT THIS SERIES: Heading into the New Year, I'm cleaning up my Evernote -- aka my brain, outsourced. It is, um ... chaotic. But every so often, I stumble upon a gem that I either forgot was there or need to use more. I'm sharing those publicly here, because it's my blog and I can if I want to. (Also maybe they're valuable too. Okay, good talk.)

I suck at saying no.

Except when I use this handy email. The responses are largely positive, which is my goal and, perhaps, my curse: the need to always be liked and always smooth out any potential conflict. I can't ignore people, I can't say no, but I HAVE TO say no if I'm going to get my work done and have time for family, friends, health, and hobbies.

So I send this instead...

My "saying no" email

UPDATE: I got some very helpful feedback from friends. Below is my older version, and below that, the updated version incorporating that feedback, which mainly focused on being less cheerful. (It sounds more contrived to be cheerful, I suppose. Mostly, that comes from my hypersensitivity towards disappointing others. Hopefully the second version feels better though.)


Hey! I know it can be tricky and even stressful to reach out and request something of others, so I first want to say: totally respect that and thanks!

So…I hate saying no, but this is a moment in time when I have to say no. I’ve made a commitment to myself to build my business with ruthless focus because, well, I suck at that most days 😃  And so part of my own personal policy is to say no to things like this, however awesome they might be. Having tried the opposite approach before, only to derail everything, I’m focusing on only the following priorities right now:

- Making my keynote speeches as good as they can be

- Producing ridiculously entertaining and/or moving podcasts

- Writing my first book

One of the best but hardest lessons I’ve learned is that side commitments, however small or attractive, require not only the time from start to finish, but the ramp-up and ramp-down time for that commitment…plus the same ramps up and down to get back into the rest of my work. To avoid losing that time and to ensure I can build something I feel proud of, I’ve put this personal policy in place.

Wish you a ton of success and hope our paths cross in the future,



Hey! I know it can be tricky and even stressful to reach out and request something of others, so I first want to say: totally respect that and thanks.

So…I’m bad at saying no, but this is an instance where I need to decline. I’ve made a commitment to myself to build my business with ruthless focus because I’m usually not overly focused. For now, I’m focusing on only the following priorities:

- Making my keynote speeches as good as they can be

- Producing entertaining and/or moving podcast episodes for my show and client shows

- Writing my first book

One of the best but hardest lessons I’ve learned is that side commitments, however short they are, require both the time from start to finish and the time to ramp down other work, then ramp back up when I get back to it. To avoid losing that time and to ensure I can build something I feel proud of, I’m really putting my head down. Hoping you’ll understand, and wishing you lots of success.

- Jay

Posted on December 21, 2017 and filed under IDEAS.

Twas the Night Before Launching [A Parody Podcast for Creators]

night before launching

Here's a final treat and sign-off until next season. Thank you SO. FREAKING. MUCH. for supporting for my work, from speaking to podcasting and beyond! So much in store for 2018, and I'm grateful to you for your time, feedback, and love.

If you haven't yet, be sure to subscribe to get my regular Monday emails:

Posted on December 21, 2017 and filed under EPISODES.

UNTHINKABLE: How Tim Urban of Wait But Why Broke the Wheel

wait but why unthinkable tim urban.png

In the Season 3 finale of Unthinkable, it's time for a story and a battle -- a story about a runaway creative success that flies in the face of conventional thinking and a battle that all of us face whenever we aspire to be better than average in our careers.

Finally, at long last, we blame one dastardly demon for our nasty habit of always taking the easy way out, the accepted route forward. Finally, we enter the battle within, and things get hairy. Luckily, Tim Urban from Wait But Why is here to help. Well. Kinda.

It's Unthinkable.

Subscribe to Unthinkable wherever you get your podcasts: 

Apple | Spotify | Stitcher | SoundCloud | Google Play

Posted on December 17, 2017 and filed under EPISODES.

UNTHINKABLE: Why Movements Are So Often Started by People Who Never Wanted to Go Big

heady topper unthinkable podcast.png

How does your intent for your work change your results? If your goal is to build something big, does that increase the odds? Why, then, do so many stories about huge successes start out the same way: with a shrug, and a quick, "I just wanted to brew some beer." ? Today, we explore the story of The Alchemist, makers of the industry sensation, Heady Topper. 

Posted on December 10, 2017 and filed under EPISODES.

UNTHINKABLE: How One Small Graph Is Helping Steve Invent the Future of an Industry

pacific content podcasts unthinkable.png

Most brand-created podcasts are -- how shall I put this? -- IMPRESSIVELY terrible. So, naturally, Steve Pratt finds total creative fulfillment in that industry. Obviously. See, to invent the future of an entire industry and collaborate with some of the world's top brands, Steve gets to crash through one barrier after another. And as he excitedly does so, his weapon of choice isn't massive budget, a bestselling book, or a big "personal brand." No, instead, Steve calmly walks to the board and draws a simple graph for his clients to see. 

From the outside looking in, his work is just so unlikely that you MIGHT call it ... Unthinkable.

Posted on December 3, 2017 and filed under EPISODES.