Advice Overload: The 10-Point Case Against Best Practices (And What To Rely On Instead)

case against best practices

Over the last three years, I’ve been telling stories of people who do work that seems crazy from the outside looking in — crazy “man, I wish I could do that” or crazy “wow, they’re nuts to do it that way.” But here’s the thing: Inevitably, whenever I talked to these people, whether they’re an executive at a large company, the founder of a new one, or a creator and tinkerer and experimenter on the side, their explanations NEVER match the outside perception. They don’t see their work as crazy. They describe their decisions as logical, strategic, or even safe. It’s only crazy from the outside looking in.

So what’s the difference between our perception and their reality? And how can we do work that others deem as crazy or innovative or creative but we see as the smart path? That’s just part of what I aim to explore in my new book, Break the Wheel: Question Best Practices, Hone Your Intuition, and Do Your Best Work. And I can give you the answer to the questions above: The difference is always their context.

When we dub someone’s work crazy or innovative, we assume they’re taking giant leaps. They’re rebels, geniuses, or inspiring voices, or maybe they’re just plain weird. And while it’s true that they possess something we don’t possess, it’d be wrong to say they possess something we can’t possess. Inevitably, the reason others’ work seemed logical when we see it as crazy is that they based their decisions on a detail within their own context that we didn’t know about — until we heard their side of the story. It’s not like they possess any kind of mysterious gift or ability that we can’t access. They just make decisions based on what they observe to be true about themselves, their teams, their customers, their resources — their own situation.

From the outside looking in, we lack context, and so we can’t logically explain why they did what they did. We’re running a faulty equation because we lack the variables someone else possesses. That’s what happens when we base our thinking on the general wisdom or the trend — or try to interpret someone else’s seemingly risky or innovative idea from the outside looking in. Now here’s the good news: We can do this too. We can do better work — work that seems innovative or risky or even crazy to others — if we understood our context too.

It’s there that we should start our decision-making process. I believe that’s the path to doing our best work. Because remember: Finding best practices isn't the goal. Finding best practices is.

Unfortunately, we don't admit that enough, nor have we been taught how to execute against that reality. We need to fix that! So here is my 10-point argument for why we shouldn’t begin our decisions with best practices but, instead, our context:

1) We want to do our best work. We usually turn to best practices to do that.

2) But best practices don’t take into account the details of our specific context. They’re either too generalized or too outdated or merely a buzzy trend others glom onto without knowing why. Here’s the thing: Doing whatever is most common or newest doesn't guarantee we're doing what works best for us. We need to orient around that first. Without first considering the variables present in our own unique situations, we’re making decisions that are “close enough,” and that leads to work that is, at best, “good enough.” Not great. Not our best. Just more commodity, average stuff. To do our best, we need to consider our context first.

3) The good news is, we all possess a skill to consider our context: intuition. Intuition isn’t about relying on snap judgments or invoking the mythical Muse. Taken literally, the word stems from the Latin root intueri, meaning “to consider,” and the late middle English intuit, or “to contemplate.” And a quick jaunt into the world of research psychology (actual science, not Greek poetry) reveals that intuition is a very real, very practical ability to vet information, tossing aside what’s relevant and informing our choices using only the most relevant details. Great! We all have a skill baked into our brains for considering and contemplating the world. Unfortunately, despite how very real that skill may be, we don’t know how to use it. So how do you activate and improve your intuition? Simple: Ask better questions. Focus more on asking good questions than seeking the “right” answers of others. That's how you begin to consider or contemplate your environment more critically and thoughtfully. That’s how you can hone your intuition.

4) So what do you ask questions ABOUT? Again, your context, but more specifically, the three most crucial variables of your context at work: you (the person or people doing the work), the audience (the person or people receiving the work -- customers, readers, bosses you're convincing, etc.), and your resources (your means to make the work happen, from the goals and budget you have to the era and area you live in, and more). Asking better questions about these three things helps you build a baseline understanding of your context. These are the most crucial variables that must be taken into account when making decisions. They help you get more specific than the generalized wisdom out there.

5) So what TYPES of questions can we ask? There are two types: Trigger questions and confirmation questions. Trigger questions are open-ended questions about your environment that can only be answered through reflection and/or testing. (The simplest example: “Why?”) Trigger questions launch your investigation into your context. Confirmation questions thus ensure that your investigation is on the right track. They force you to consider whether or not you have sufficient evidence to proceed in that direction — even if that direction doesn’t match the conventional path. (A simple example: “How do you know?”) These two types of questions work in pairs. They help us change our approach to making decisions. Instead of acting like experts who care about absolutes, we act like investigators who care about evidence.

6) And what SPECIFIC questions can we ask? While I encourage you to find your own, I propose six fundamental questions in the book that, if we each answer them, we’ll create work more tailored to our respective situations, i.e., better work. Using science and story (lots and lots of story), we arrive at one pair of questions (a trigger question and a confirmation question) to ask of each of the three major variables of your context.

If we can ask and answer those questions, we can set up a sort of “instant clarity generator” — a filter through which we can funnel any idea or advice in order to quickly know whether or not it makes sense for us, and to what degree. Because, again, the basis of great work isn’t expertise. It’s self- and situational awareness. We shouldn’t obsess over finding “best practices.” We should work hard to understand what works best FOR US.

In the end, that’s what matters most, whether we’re focused on results, fulfillment, or both. We need to get better at making decisions based on our own situation. Then and only then can we grab a list of tips, listen to a podcast, hire an expert, adopt a new trend others are buzzing about — or ignore all of that stuff entirely.

This is not about being a rebel, or a genius, or an inspiring voice, or even a weirdo. This is about doing the most practical, necessary, but overlooked thing in the world, if you truly want to do your best work: In a world overflowing with conventional thinking, think for yourself.

Learn the six fundamental questions to ask to hone your intuition in my new book, Break the Wheel, available now >>

Posted on October 9, 2018 .

The Science of Intuition & Why Business Leaders Fail to Capitalize


The following is an excerpt from my new book, Break the Wheel: Question Best Practices, Hone Your Intuition, and Do Your Best Work. It's available now on Amazon in Kindle, print, and (soon) audiobook formats. The story below has been modified only slightly to make sense in this new context. Enjoy!

Intuition is a touchy subject in the workplace. Some people -- perhaps you and I -- readily embrace its power and practicality. Others view it as a fluffy ideal. Despite those amazing moments when, suddenly, you have clarity, many individuals in business still reject the idea that intuition can be a concrete thing. We might get excited about the idea, but they merely scoff.

Gary Klein and Gerd Gigerenzer would probably scoff back. The two research psychologists have dedicated their lives to understanding this erstwhile squishy phenomenon. 

Klein is famous for his pioneering work in the field of naturalistic decision making. His ideas seem to align with Malcolm Gladwell’s popularized notion of “rapid cognition” from his bestseller Blink, as Klein refers to intuition as instant subconscious reasoning. In psychology, subconscious reasoning is known as “priming”—past experiences that we hardly noticed which then affect how we make decisions later. We rarely recognize when this happens to us. This is essentially pattern matching, done quickly and subconsciously. You can’t say why you know something. You just know.

According to Klein, our ability to recognize patterns in a new situation based on past experiences creates a feeling of instant clarity. In his book Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights, he argues that coincidences inform intuition—literally, things that “coincide.” Intuition helps you identify the details of one situation that coincide with the details of another.

“Coincidences change our understanding, change what we notice, change what excites us, and set us on the path to making a discovery,” Klein writes. “Coincidences can also change our actions. One way they do this is by giving us an idea of what we need to alter to break a pattern we don’t like.”

By the standard definition, “coincidences” are hard to control, and that interpretation of intuition is not overly useful if we’re trying to proactively improve our decision-making skills. If we link intuition and coincidences, it still feels safer, more predictable, and more tangible to rely on a best practice. At first glance, coincidences don’t feel much more helpful than the Muse. However, the ability to identify coincidences requires a subtle mental shift—one that we’d be wise to understand since this shift is quite practical indeed. Namely, we have to be open to the details of the world around us. If we aren’t, we won’t recognize patterns or spot those coincidences in the first place. According to Klein, it’s the lack of openness that plagues so many decisions made in the workplace.

“I still observe executives exhibiting the same lack of courage or knowledge that undercut previous waves of innovation,” he writes. “They declare that they want more innovation but then ask, ‘Who else is doing it?’ They claim to seek new ideas but shoot down every one brought to them.”

Just think about the last time somebody shot down your ideas. There’s an underlying, if unspoken, set of emotions that leads to the rejection. Fear. Stress. Stubbornness. Laziness. Leaders who are all too quick to shoot down unconventional ideas are implicitly scoffing at the notion that we heard about from Charlie Munger -- that it's better to be "vaguely right," and to embrace that you constantly need to update your knowledge of the world to make better decisions as the context changes. Instead, those fearful, stressed, stubborn, or lazy people around us at work prefer to be more precise, but it's a false sense of precision. They want “the” answer in some absolute sense, but that’s about as practical as invoking the mythical Muse to give you creative powers. In the end, they merely wind up being precisely wrong more often than not.

Klein quotes Mark Twain, underscoring this point: “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”

Honing Your Intuition as a Practical, Decision-Making Skill

Unlike Gladwell, and other pop-science authors, Klein moves us one step closer to grasping our intuition as a tangible tool. To use our “most sacred gift” (Einstein's words), we need to remain more open and sensitive to the specific details of each situation we encounter. (This is part of the reason the stereotypical corporate grindstone removes our intuition as a skill: employees become numb to their environments.)

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary—a brand whose hilarious story we’ll explore later—intuition is defined as “a quick and ready insight.” No surprises there, as this aligns with every interpretation we’ve heard thus far. But let’s look beyond the modern definition to the root of the word itself. The word “intuition” comes from the Latin verb intueri which means “to consider,” or from the late middle English translation, intuit, which means “to contemplate.” Intuition is not some mythical Muse. It’s not merely a backstage process. It’s something we can consciously control. As the root of the word suggests, it’s our ability to consider or contemplate the world around us. In a workplace flooded with conventional thinking, intuition is the process of thinking for yourself.

Not only is this a very practical thing to do at work, but it’s something that is in no way reserved for a gifted few. We can all think critically and deeply to consider the world around us (intueri)We can all improve how we contemplate our context (intuit)It’s the remedy to clinging to best practices. It’s the sledgehammer to break the wheel. If best practices lead to average work, then average work is merely the failure to contemplate your environment deeply enough.

The difference between many of us and the exceptional individuals we’ve met so far is their refusal to lapse into autopilot. They remain open to and aware of the details of the world around them. They never stop considering and contemplating things.

Klein's German contemporary Gerd Gigerenzer frames intuition in even more practical terms than his peer. Gigerenzer's work suggests that intuition is our ability to identify the right pathway toward a conclusion, rather than instantly arrive at the conclusion itself. Using our intuition, we’re able to quickly identify which information is useful and which is irrelevant—a profoundly useful skill in the era of Advice Overload, in that we feel a sense of clarity about our environment prior to drawing any conclusions.

As Gigerenzer said in an interview about his book Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, “Gut instincts often rely on simple cues in the environment. In most situations, when people use their instincts, they are heeding these cues and ignoring other unnecessary information.”

The social psychologist is the director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. He’s primarily known by his peers for his research into the nature of intuitive thinking. His work suggests that we can use intuition to draw conclusions about various inputs, which then makes the right decision seem more obvious. Honing and trusting our intuition thus improves our decision-making process by informing all our decisions with the most relevant possible information. Rather than rely on what works in general, we can quickly identify the information that is most relevant to us. This is the exact skill we need to supplement or outright replace our reliance on best practices.

Think of it like going to the eye doctor and being shown different lenses. “Number one or number two? Number three or number four?” Your intuition helps you quickly hold up a possibility—an idea, an answer, a bit of advice—and quickly see which makes sense for you. Which helps you see things most clearly? Which fits best in your unique situation? Intuition is like an instant clarity generator after all.

Still, it can be hard to trust what we see, even if we see it clearly. We’ve suffered from learned helplessness for so long and have spent so much time believing that the best answers in our careers were hidden away in the minds of experts. This can make it difficult to actually implement what we see into our work. However, Gigerenzer’s research suggests we should trust ourselves more, or as he says, it’s often best to “go with what you know.” In one of his most famous studies, he explored “the recognition heuristic.”

In the study, Gigerenzer examined the decision-making process of people who invest in the stock market. He observed that amateur investors typically pick companies they’ve heard about before—the recognition heuristic at work. But is that effective? To figure that out, Gigerenzer’s team surveyed 360 people in Chicago and Munich. They asked these people to create a list of the best-known public companies in both areas. Then the research team created theoretical investment portfolios based on those responses. After six months of tracking their fake investment portfolio, the team found that their theoretical investments gained more value than the Dow and DAX markets, as well as some big-name mutual funds.

Gigerenzer began this exercise in the 1990s, and since then, his team has shown that companies selected at random by uninformed or “ordinary” investors consistently outperformed the predictions of well-informed, professional investors. Ignorance might be bliss, but ignorance of best practices is money.

As with many scientific studies, especially those focused on concepts like intuition, Gigerenzer’s work doesn’t definitely prove anything one way or another. However, it suggests something powerful: focusing on what we know and what we find for ourselves might lead to better ideas and answers.

To paraphrase Gigerenzer, it’s impossible to know all of the variables prior to making a decision, and not all the information from your past is relevant to your future. As a result, I think best practices become incredibly dangerous because of how precise and prescriptive they are. They seem so specific, but in reality, they lack the context that only you can provide. However, when we begin to deploy our intuition, we start considering the variables that best practices miss. We can’t know them all, but we can come a lot closer than industry-wide generalities.

If every decision we make is “close enough,” then our intuition ensures we’re “as close as possible.” In trying to escape the messiness of so many unknown variables in our work, we trust best practices. But Gigerenzer sees this as a mistake. He says that a well-honed intuition is our inherent ability to focus on the most important information—not the most commonly used or the trendiest—in order to make better decisions. In the end, that’s the power of intuition. It’s an instant clarity generator, and clarity comes from having the most relevant information possible. Not for others. Not in general. Not on average. For us.

That’s how we can break this wheel: by asking the right questions.

So what questions can you ask? There are two different types: trigger questions and confirmation questions. What should you question? Your context. As we’ll explore in the coming chapters, your context is the combination of three different aspects of your work. To begin honing your intuition, you can ask one trigger question and one confirmation question about each aspect.

Together, these six questions provide a process we can use to escape the endless cycle of best practices. Because screw the Muse and damn the best practices. By asking the right questions, we can unlock the power of our own intuition. We can make this skill concrete, accessible, and practical. We can escape the endless cycle of average work. Intuition is the sledgehammer we can use to break the wheel. Next, let’s learn how to forge this powerful tool.

Finding best practices isn’t the goal. Finding the best approach for you is. So how does that work? Break the Wheel is a book about making the best possible decisions … regardless of the best practice. In Chapter 3, we go on a journey through history, from ancient Greek poets to the rise of the internet, to see how intuition has been twisted and misinterpreted. Then, we build it back up from first principles to create a process for honing this powerful skill.

Get your copy now >>

Posted on October 8, 2018 .

Why I Asked Readers, Not Experts or Authors, to Blurb My First Book


In 1855, after reading Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Ralph Waldo Emerson sent the young poet a congratulatory letter. “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” he wrote. The following year, when Whitman published a second edition of the same collection, he printed those words in gold leaf along the spine, and thus, “blurbs” were born.

Blurbs are the promotional quotes that authors put on their books (and websites, and social media, and neck get it). Here in my home office just outside New York City, I'm looking at a couple bestselling books on the shelf behind me right now. (Well, I have to turn around to see them. I can't see things that are behind me. That technology hasn’t been invent--ohhh right mirrors exist. Moving on...)

This first book I see is a #1 New York Times bestseller, lists 17 blurbs across two interior pages, as well as one on the cover and a couple on the back. They're written by such notable individuals as Malcolm Gladwell, Sheryl Sandberg, Sir Richard Branson, J.J. Abrams, and Arianna Huffington. The second book I'm holding, a bestseller in Canada, takes it one step further. The very first page is a special, thicker, glossy-kinda paper with a brightly colored border and big, bold blurbs of the same color scheme. These are written by the likes of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, bestselling author Gretchen Rubin, and Seth Godin. 

There's nothing wrong with blurbs per se. I just find them ... a bit gnarled after their journey through time. You see, when Emerson first wrote his letter to Whitman, his words arrived unsolicited. Emerson may have received the collection in the mail from Whitman himself -- that part isn't clear. But what was clear is that Emerson spent meaningful time with Whitman's words. The product spoke for itself, prompting a legendary thinker to pen a full letter to the new author. Then, and only then, did that new author think to lift a select quote from the letter and use it as a promotional statement on his book.

Of course, when something is either proven to work for others or shown to be popular among the smartest smarties, what happens? People try to manufacture something that was previously organic. The value of the thing then starts to decline, as more and more people focus on the letter of the law, not the spirit. Over time, it becomes hollow.

I believe blurbs are heading in that direction. While Whitman’s actual writing was the most important thing to prompt Emerson to write his comments, today, the most important thing seems to be the author's network, or ability to reach someone via email or social media, or perhaps the author’s past writing — to say nothing of whether the blurb creator read the new book. The actual substance of the book becomes secondary. Blurbs are now about optics — a way to grab quick sales to try and leap up the charts.

Blurbs are badges more similar to pieces of flair on a waiter's vest at Chili's than the symbols on boy scout or girl scout sashes--hard-won through hard work.

Like you couldn't tell already, I feel juuuust a bit nauseous when I think about asking others to blurb my book. Most of the people with name recognition that I would want to ask either haven't spent much time with my writing or don't know me from Adam. Even when they're close friends, it still feels like asking for a pat on the back or, worse, extending my hand for a trophy ... before the game has even begun.

What's the point? An ego stroke? A few extra sales because some strangers blindly buy a book because Famous Author #1 said he liked me? I'd prefer that actual readers who spent actual time actually reading my work over the past few weeks, months, or even years share their perspective on my work.

For reasons readers of my book will learn, I decided to break from the convention and ask my email subscribers to blurb my writing. My readers are more qualified to comment on my work than anyone else. My readers are who this book is actually for, too — not any expert with a perch in the industry, and certainly not any influencer with a self-inflated sense of importance due to -- what? -- a bunch of people following them on a social network?

No, my friend, if you’re reading this right now, YOU are far more important to me and to the success of my writing. YOU are who all of this stuff I do — the shows, the newsletter, and now the book — is for.

Maybe this is just a mental hold-up I should get over, a tick of my taste that only serves to cut down my lifetime sales across every book I publish or original series I create and host. But I'd argue that my work-self, which is to say, my self-self (they aren't separate people) is an idealist. That's the role I play in this industry, and I enjoy it. I look at a situation and instead of shrugging and going, "Well, that's how this works," I ask, "Why can't we do this better?"

So let's do this better. If you’re an author, don’t ask other experts or friends with a big name to blurb your book. Ask your readers. Ask the people the book is actually for.

Break the Wheel only exists because people like you read my work here or elsewhere. It only contains great stories because you give me feedback as I workshop them -- in the newsletter, on social media, on my podcast, and on stages. This book only succeeds if people READ it, not if people BUY it. So shouldn't I focus on the reading part? Who has read me and understood me and critiqued me and supported me in this world ... like my actual readers?

Seth Godin likes to say that "design thinking” is about asking three fundamental questions: Who is it for? What is it for? How will we know when it’s working?

Who is it for? You. What is it for? Helping you make better decisions than any best practice can provide, so you can do your best work. How will I know it’s working? Your emotional reactions once you read it, telling me that you loved it, showing me the work you’re capable of now.

That’s why I wrote the book, and that’s why I asked actual readers to write some blurbs.

We can do better. We must do better — that is, if we aspire to be better.

I believe all our careers would be better served if we focused on RESONANCE instead of REACH. The first leads to the latter, but more importantly, it leads to all the things we crave in our work: meaning, relationships, and yes, even revenue. So this is me, taking a dose of my own medicine. (OoOoOoh, cherry!!)

Because you read this far, I have to end by saying: Thank you for supporting my work, for being a true connection of mine in this vanity metric-crazed digital world, and for giving me a ridiculous helping of motivation to keep going and keep improving.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I’d like to thank every subscriber who opted to write a blurb for my book! Only some of you were able to make the final edit with my publisher, but I appreciate each and every one of you so damn much:

Ben H. Rome, Andrew Davis, Danny Denhard, Sherene Strahan, Pratistha Suhasini, Adam P. Newton, Melissa Stevens, Steve Radick, Chris Arnold, Ben Sailer, Haley Neid, Melanie Deziel, John DeMato, Anthony Coppedge, Kathleen Gossman, Stan Dubin, Amber van Moessner, Sue Chehrenegar, Carla Alderson, Chris Cooper, Lee Price, Sandra Garcia, Heather Dollar, Muriel Rosilio, Jessica Kinsey, Andrew Tuckey, and Tammy Duggan-Herd.

Want to read what some of these fine people wrote? Head to my book website and scroll down.

Posted on October 4, 2018 .

ADOBE 99U GUEST POST: The 3 Psychological Reasons We Cling to Conventional Wisdom (and How to Break Free)

Image by Adam Higton, via Adobe’s 99u

Image by Adam Higton, via Adobe’s 99u

The following is an excerpt of my guest column for Adobe’s blog about creativity in business, 99u.

“You need to sit still up there.”

I panicked. It was years ago, and for 30 straight minutes, I’d been listening to a veteran public speaker tear apart a video of my latest performance on stage. As a newer speaker on the circuit, I’d asked him what best practices he could share with me. His biggest and most poignant yet was the idea of “blocking,” or intentional movement.

“Try to establish one side of the stage as the place where bad stuff happens in your stories, and the other side where good stuff happens. Then walk there, stop, and make your point. You need to sit still more.”

Uh oh. Understand: I’m Italian-American. I’m also kinda, let’s just say, “enthusiastic.” (That’s how you’d describe a squirrel after six espressos, right?) “Standing still” ain’t exactly my thing. It may not even be physically possible. I speak so much with my hands that if they stopped moving, I think I’d just stop talking. But I thought, okay, that’s the best practice, and so that’s what I need to do to succeed. As a result, I started doing something awkward and terrible to try my hardest to sit still: I’d stick my hand in my pocket in an effort to stop the movement. It looked sloppy, as my true personality warred against my desire to fit myself into the tried-and-true convention.

Today, I kick myself just thinking back to those moments on stage. Why did I do that? This guy was a TED speaker, and a steady kind of personality. Instead of using my own energy to my advantage, I tried to fit someone else’s mold for what “success” looks like, even though I’m so clearly not him. Why?

I had Pike Syndrome.

Pike Syndrome is just one of three different psychological barriers I uncovered researching for my new book, Break the Wheel. These barriers prevent us from contextualizing a best practice or new idea to make sense given the specific details of each new situation we encounter. In other words, when we fall victim to any of the three, we prioritize conventional thinking instead of thinking for ourselves. Rather than act like investigators who look for evidence to make the right decisions for a given case, we act like, or seek out, experts, preferring absolutes in some theoretical sense. We want to be right rather than try to get it right. Even better if you can quickly search or tap your way to finding “the” answer from an expert.

What if we acted like investigators instead? What if we stopped obsessing over the “right” answers of everyone else and asked ourselves the right questions? We might overcome each of these psychological barriers.

1. Pike Syndrome

Pike Syndrome is a feeling of powerlessness caused by repeated negative events. Maybe you’re a designer whose boss keeps shooting down ideas, or a marketer frustrated by surprise algorithm changes on a social network, or a podcaster whose dream guests just keep ignoring your outreach. Or maybe you’re a young public speaker continually told to “just sit still up there” by someone you admire. Whatever the case, when we suffer from Pike Syndrome, we feel powerless. There are so many “right” answers out there, and so much wisdom bottled up in the minds of experts, that we assume we can’t possibly make any better decisions when left to our own devices.

So why “pike” syndrome? Imagine a pike swimming around an aquarium. He’s a lithe, ruthless hunter. If you drop some minnows into that tank, the pike will immediately snap them up. However, if you lower those minnows into the water surrounded by some glass, the pike can’t see the glass, and so he just starts smashing up against it in a hopeless pursuit of his prey. He’ll do this for hours until he finally decides that minnows aren’t prey.

Then, a funny thing happens: You can remove the glass, set the minnows free, and they can swim all around the tank undisturbed by the pike. Tasty little morsels are swimming right in front of his nose, but this perpetually pissed off predator doesn’t move so much as an inch.

This explains a concept called “learned helplessness,” and I think we all suffer from a degree of learned helplessness in our careers. From the moment we’re taught in school that there’s a “right” and “wrong” answer, we treat every task in our work like we have to find the “right” answers, even the most complicated and creative things we do. Making matters worse, in the era of Advice Overload, everybody on the internet seems to have the “right” answer for us, no matter what we’re doing.

What could we possibly offer or do to find our own path or make our own decisions? And so, there we go again, removing our self-awareness and situational awareness to instead hunt for our answers “out there.” We look for whatever works in general or on average, or, as the business world likes to call them, “best practices.” However, tasty little morsels of detail swim right in front of us everyday, if only we’d use that information to inform our decisions.

As I learned as a speaker, just because something is common, doesn’t make it the best approach for you. (For what it’s worth, I do incorporate blocking techniques into my speeches today, but they’re fast-paced, organic, and not restricted to two points where I stop and sit still. As with anything, there is no “right way” to deliver a great speech.)

How do we combat this feeling of helplessness? We let the customer be the guide. In the face of endless advice of what we should or shouldn’t do, the only thing that matters is we do what works for us and for those we serve with our work. What if we found better, more fundamental insights about our customers? What if little tests that trigger big, emotional responses from them led us down a different path? Would it matter if that path had no precedent or best practice or case study to say it’s the “right” path, if it’s the right path for your customers?

Ask yourself: Are you spending more time talking to customers, or reading about best practices? What if the customer was the guide?

2. The Foraging Choice

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

Read the entire column on Adobe’s 99u blog >>

Posted on October 4, 2018 .

Finding Best Practices Isn't the Goal, Finding the Best Approach For You Is


You don’t need to be a rocket surgeon to know that great work stems not from finding “best practices,” but from finding the best approach for you, your team, your customers — your situation.

But, uh ... how do we do that?

We don’t talk about that enough. We don’t discuss the subtle but crucial differences between “best practices” and “best for us” enough. And we certainly don’t explore how, exactly, we can tailor our decisions and actions to our unique situations … rather than the past precedents or trendy new tactics of our industries, companies, and jobs.

But shouldn’t we be doing just that? Isn’t THAT the goal when picking our path forward?

Today, I’m dance-awkwardly-around-my-office excited to release Break the Wheel: Question Best Practices, Hone Your Intuition, Do Your Best Work.

It’s now available on Amazon in print, Kindle, and audiobook editions. Get your copy now, or email to arrange a bulk order for your team, company, or event.

Break the Wheel is a book about thinking for yourself in the face of endless conventional thinking. Through science and story, we deconstruct why we make decisions the way we do at work, relying on generalized or even outdated best practices or glomming onto trends.

Together, we explore how to make the best possible decisions for our unique situations, regardless of the best practice. In doing so, we'll act less like experts and more like investigators.

In the book, we learn about the psychological barriers to making great decisions in our work — things like pike syndrome and cultural fluency. We’ll then examine the downsides of relying on best practices, as well as consider the upsides, to overcome those barriers. Next, we dive headlong into a rather uncomfortable topic: why “intuition” should be taken more seriously as a skill we can develop to make better decisions in this era of Advice Overload. To do that, we’ll journey through history to see how this powerful but often misunderstood idea gets twisted and tossed aside. There, buried under centuries of pop culture and mythical muses, we’ll find a way to turn intuition into a practical tool we can wield — a sledgehammer to break the wheel.

Throughout the book, you’ll meet people who make exceptional work seem effortless and the unconventional path seem logical — people like…

  • The brash but bright Mike Brown, founder of Death Wish Coffee, who turned a failing coffee shop a thriving brand that sells the world’s strongest coffee — at least until they shot their product into space and became the galaxy’s strongest coffee.

  • The warm and witty marketing team at Merriam-Webster, and their leader Lisa Schneider, whose job is to make the dictionary seem cool in the digital age. (Sounds kinda like teaching Grandma how to twerk, cuz, uh, nope. Nuh-uh. Don’t make me do it…)

  • Paul Butler, “Parrot Man of the Caribbean,” and how he ditched decades of environmental conservation standard practice to save a species by dancing around in a costume and creating a radio soap opera about, of all things, protected sex.

From the eye-opening approach used by Starbucks to turn around 10 years of struggles in China, to the unlikely story of Unsplash, one of the most successful side projects in internet history, we’ll learn how the atypical approach can be the smart one. We’ll get behind-the-scenes stories from inside companies like InVision and Google and from sensational creators like Tim Urban of Wait But Why, Hall of Fame public speaker Scott Stratten, and Finn Dowling, the funniest writer in the pet rescue industry.

To turn inspiration into action, we’ll identify the 3 essential things we must understand in a given situation to find clarity in our work. Rather than over-promised “secrets to success” or any one individual’s supposed blueprint to follow, we’ll walk away with the 6 investigative questions we should ask to make better decisions, faster.


We all want to do our best, but our obsession with best practices is holding us back.

All those expert ideas and supposed “right” approaches bombarding us each day merely mask the truth: Exceptional work isn’t created by the answers others give us, but by the questions we ask ourselves.

In the end, best practices, conventional thinking, and trendy new tactics are spokes on a wheel. First one is on top, then another, and on and on the wheel spins. And this wheel leads straight to the one place we don't want our careers or companies to be: average.

Let’s push beyond commodity work. Let’s escape this endless cycle.

Let’s break the wheel.

Order your copy on Amazon. May you always make the best possible decisions, not for others, but for you.

Posted on October 1, 2018 .

Innovation Requires Seeing the Present (Not the Future) with Greater Clarity


You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

So spoke (spake? spoked? speaked?) Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride. So spaketh I, Jay Acunzo. Of course, Montoya was referring to the word "inconceivable," while I'm referring to that strange notion of "visionary."

We adore "visionaries" in our work culture today, and we use that word to describe people who seem to do work we can't explain. They seem to see the future. But I'd argue that their work is actually built for today, while unfortunately, most of ours is built for the past. That's because our thinking comes from the past. Over the last 6 months, as I pored over all the research and stories for Break the Wheel, I realized:

Visionaries don't see the future. The see the present more clearly than others.

When we dub someone a visionary, we assume they saw something coming that we couldn't. In reality, however, they simply cut through distractions and misconceptions to see the world as it really is today. (Turns out there's a psychological issue which causes most of us to base our thinking on those distractions and misconceptions, rather than see the world clearly. It's called "cultural fluency," and I explore that more fully in Chapter 7 of the book).

Sure, an innovative thinker can more easily extrapolate their ideas from today into the future, but it's only because they start by understanding the present so intimately. Like building a skyscraper, their foundation is strong enough to support the heights they reach. On the other hand, the rest of us are stuck erecting flimsy little huts. Our thinking hasn't caught up to the present quite like the innovators we admire. After all, a best practice or a common approach is a lagging indicator, not a leading one.

Additionally, when a great mind in history was rejected by his or her peers, only to be revered in our society today, we tend to conclude, "Well, they were ahead of their time." But consider that their contemporaries were merely stuck in the past. Only after the rest of society caught up (which may have taken years, decades, or even centuries), did people start to look back and realize, yanno, that fella was really onto something. Maybe the whole "clasp him in chains" thing wasn't the best move.

Weren't people from olden times so silly?

Yes. But we've only gotten goofier today. It's easier and more tempting than ever to base our decisions on the past thanks to the endless amounts of data and documented knowledge we can collect or find. Today's information ubiquity, as well as the removal of any barrier to share an idea, has empowered a lot of great things in our world. But it also comes with a dark side: Advice Overload. That's a huge problem if we want to see things clearly in our unique situations in order to make the best possible decisions. Because make no mistake:

Innovation requires clarity, not prescience.

There's an old quote often attributed to the great investor Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway fame: "I'd rather be vaguely right than precisely wrong." This idea is simple to understand but hard to execute: It's more effective to continually update your knowledge rather than profess to know "the" answer all the time. When you routinely course-correct as you acquire new information, you shape your thinking and thus your work to the present moment. Whereas best practices provide security in their absoluteness, it's dangerous to base a decision on something that precise. With few exceptions (the laws of physics ... maybe), any mandate or blueprint must be contextualized to your unique and present situation to be as relevant and effective as possible. As Munger suggests, we should embrace a more zig-zaggy truth than those best practices offer: To succeed in the real world is to admit that the world changes, every day, and thus we should act like lifelong learners. We should seek to update our knowledge about our present environment, rather than cling to absolutes. That process NEVER ends.

"I'd rather be vaguely right than precisely wrong."

This quote has become somewhat famous in certain business circles thanks to Munger, but he actually wasn't the first to utter those words. The quote can be attributed to the British economist John Maynard Keynes. Either way, if we adopt this idea of being "vaguely right" instead of "precisely wrong," just as Munger later did, we might see visionaries for what they truly are: Investigators. They regularly update their knowledge as the context changes. In this way, I suppose they do possess a kind of "vision," but it's not the kind we usually imagine. It's not foresight at all. It's the ability to see the world around them more clearly.

When we obsess over best practices, we make decisions based on the past, not the present. We rarely pause long enough to investigate our environment, to ask good questions of our context in order to tear down assumptions. Even the latest trends swirling around an industry are only trends because they've been around long enough to become popular. They still lack context.

On the other hand, those "visionaries" we admire refuse to begin their thinking with absolutes pulled from the past. They may have moral principles to help them make trade-offs, but everything else is up for debate. They see the inherent danger in operating with too much absolutism: decisions informed by past precedent don't take into account present day information. And by the way, "present day" is a moving target. As soon as we utter "now," it's in the past. As a result, innovative thinkers know that they'll always be vaguely right. They ditch the need to feel precise, like they have "the" answer, and they busy themselves with updating their knowledge on an ongoing basis. Innovators are investigators, not experts.

Unfortunately, in our quest to do better work, we're fighting against centuries of dogma that prioritizes expertise, not investigative skills.

In generations past, because the goal was to work in factories or farms, uniformity and sameness were actually quite valuable. People learned that the foundation of great work was expertise. Know how to do the work and do it exactly as prescribed, and you’d have a great career. But in most careers today, especially yours and mine, the goal is to solve complex problems and to create and invent. Thus, the foundation of great work is no longer expertise. It’s awareness.

To possess the same “vision” of those innovators is to develop our senses of self-awareness and situational awareness. Now, you don't need to be a rocket surgeon to know the right question to ask next: How, uh ... how do we do that? We've never been taught how to develop our senses of self-awareness and situational awareness. (In fact, that's why I wrote the book.) Instead, we know how to find a "right" and "wrong" answer in some precise way. So consider that the difference between visionaries and others is the ability to ... well ... consider things.

Seeing the world as it really is leads to making better decisions than our past selves and most of our present peers. That level of clarity doesn't require "expertise." That's the kind of absolutism or false sense of precision that must constantly be updated and shaped as the world changes. Instead, clarity is about considering the world around us more often, with more purpose. It's about developing self-awareness and situational awareness to supplement the endless onslaught of best practices, conventional wisdom, and trendy tactics in our work. That is how we, too, can act like visionaries. That's how we can make decisions with confidence. More crucially, that is how we can tailor our thinking to our own unique situations.

Let others place visionaries on a pedestal. Let them agonize over understanding what makes them tick and how they peer into the future. The next time you assume they see something you can't, I hope you'll merely smile and shake your head. It's inconceivable.

"Visionary." Ugh. We keep using that word.

I do not think it means what you think it means.

Posted on September 24, 2018 .

How Help Scout Became a Refreshing Exception in the Customer Service Industry


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.

Customer support is often at the frontline of enabling customers to appreciate your product or service. Often times, customer service agents may be the only face or voice someone can connect directly to the business. Yet these individuals — the very same people marching with the flag of an entire brand — are typically overworked, underpaid, and underserved.

Meet Help Scout.

Help Scout has built a kick-ass SaaS product that enables Customer Support Reps (CSRs) and others to perform faster and better. They’ve also created a culture where these professionals are valued, heard, and understood.

Their clients love the product and the company, because both are built around the user, not the “suits” (in the words of Help Scout CEO Nick Francis).

In crafting this episode of Exceptions, a docu-series about why today’s thriving B2B companies bet on brand, one idea shone through: Help Scout is ruthless about customer-centricity.

This Episode’s Big Idea: Don’t Just Relate to Your Customers—Advocate for Them

Last episode, we discussed becoming a platform for your audience, something upon which a community can relate and loudly proclaim their issues. In this episode, we go one step further. Once you create a platform and build community, every so often, you need to loudly and passionately advocate for change in your industry.

This might mean standing up for something or someone and being the voice that says what the user is thinking, but maybe lacks the clout to say out loud to stakeholders. It’s not enough to create a platform of content and community that feels RELEVANT to the audience. You have to go one step further and turn relevancy into ADVOCACY.

In B2B, we tend to forget something: Our customer’s aren’t commodities, they aren’t MQLs, they aren’t tickets. They aren’t even customers. They’re people. They have real worlds, real lives, real problems. In the case of Help Scout, they recognize that CSRs are often undervalued, and so they regularly create research reports to justify paying these individuals more. That doesn’t always sit well with people who benefit from the status quo — including some executives at Help Scout’s customer companies. But they see this approach as both good for their business and the right thing to do. To them, this level of advocacy on behalf of their end user is a responsibility, not a marketing tactic.

Ask yourself: Can you challenge more than just your competitors? Can you focus on the largest issues facing your customers, even if it’s a direct challenge to the accepted norms that some of those customers prefer?

This is the kind of relevancy-turned-advocacy that Help Scout has accomplished.

In the episode, I talked with the CEO of Help Scout, Nick Francis, about what makes Help Scout stand out from his competitors. Nick didn’t point me to “faster turnaround time,” “more ROI,” or “better reporting on CSR productivity.”

He pointed me toward their unending pursuit to change the dialogue around customer support. It’s not a cost center. It’s the frontline of your brand.

3 Questions to Help You

As we do each episode, we end this edition with three questions to help you build better B2B brands.

Question #1: What Is Blocking Your Customer’s Success?

To advocate for your customers, you must move past the tunnel vision of your product and discover the issues hindering your customers from executing well. Yes, sometimes you solve that with product. Most times, however, you’ll find yourself in the position to push for change even if there is no feature in your product that relates.

Find what’s blocking your customer’s success, address it, and remove it, whether you offer knowledge, community, or product. That is how you can become a true advocate.

Question #2: Are You Vetting New Employees to Immediately Trust Them?

Do you trust your employees to serve your customers? How long does it take before you give them that freedom?

Here’s an idea for your hiring process: Copy Help Scout’s hiring method, and ditch the Q&A portion of your interviews. Start assigning projects during the interview process.

I apply this to my own company, Unthinkable Media. I pay story producers to create anything from a small story to an entire episode as part of the hiring process. It’s fine to see a stellar resume and hear great reviews from former employers. But if you really want to know if someone can do the job, watch them do the job.

Early on, I give them writing assignments to determine their strengths, so if I move forward with an offer, I can immediately trust they will be performing the quality of work necessary for the job. Likewise, Help Scout drops prospective hires into a private queue with tickets about Help Scout’s product and industry. There’s no real customer on the other end, but the stakes feel just as real, and the work is identical to the job they’re hired to do later.

Without gaining trust right away, how can you put employees on the front lines to advocate for and serve your customers? By developing trust right away, you equip each and every individual to carry the banner of your brand … regardless of seniority.

Question #3: Do You Believe Customer Support Is A Cost Center Or The Front Lines of Your Brand?

This question comes directly from Help Scout.

The very language often used to describe customer support professionals and their industry is degrading: “cost center,” “average handle time,” “tickets,” etc.

We have to move away from this misconception and start seeing customer service as the most crucial interaction between customer and brand. They are the epicenter, the new marketing, the provider of a great experience — and today, people pay a premium for great experiences (not features, price, or pithy messages).

Treat customer support agents with that level of respect and importance, and the benefits will reveal themselves over time. The company will reap the rewards of an enhanced brand image in the long run.

You can listen to the entire episode of Exceptions here:

To explore this idea of becoming an exception more, explore the 6 fundamental questions to ask of your specific situation at work in my new book, Break the Wheel: Question Best Practices, Hone Your Intuition, and Do Your Best Work.

Posted on September 21, 2018 .

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 marker 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.