The Hidden Force Causing Teams to Stagnate (And How to Break Free)


The following is an excerpt from my book, Break the Wheel: Question Best Practices, Hone Your Intuition, and Do Your Best Work. It's available on Amazon in print, Kindle, and audiobook formats.

Jim Mourey is an assistant professor of marketing at DePaul University in Chicago and holds a PhD in marketing and psychology from the University of Michigan. He’s spent his career studying how subtle cues in influence our choices and behaviors. When we spoke, he recalled a pivotal moment in his career that, on the surface, seemed rather innocuous.

In his mid-twenties, as he was exploring the city of Paris, he noticed a woman take a cigarette out of her purse and start smoking. That seems simple enough, but Jim couldn’t stop wondering: why do we constantly make mindless decisions? 

“I’d grown up in a generation in the states where smoking is this horrible, abhorrent thing that nobody should do,” Jim said. “Here was a woman who was non-consciously going through the motions and smoking a cigarette.” 

When something feels easy and familiar to us, why do we seem to abandon critical thinking, even if what we’re doing isn’t a good decision?

It turns out the culprit is a phenomenon known as cultural fluency. 

“In every culture, there are expectations of what’s accept- able and what’s not acceptable,” Jim said. “If something is unfolding in a way that we’d predict it would, that would be an experience that’s culturallyuent. And when some- thing is uent, we don’t have to think very hard about it because the world is happening as it should.” 

On the other hand, when something seems unexpected or different or even counter to conventional norms, that experience is considered culturally “disfluent.” Unfortunately for those who want to think critically for themselves, culture operates in the background. We don’t often notice its effects but are influenced by them when we make decisions. Something that feels culturally fluent becomes more like an automatic behavior than a conscious choice, and that can be incredibly dangerous if our goal is to make the best possible decision in a given situation. 

“Culture guides our behavior on a very subconscious level, so when things feel culturally fluent, we go with the ow, and when they feel culturally disfluent, we stop, hesitate, and think a little bit harder.” This was Jim’s hypothesis. To snap out of any pattern of mindless decision making, you can introduce some cultural disfluency. 

Unfortunately, that might feel rather uncomfortable. Since moments of cultural fluency happen so organically that we hardly notice, moments that are culturally disfluent create some discomfort. In the workplace, that can feel nearly impossible to tolerate. Jim understood this, and he set out to test just how much disfluency a person needs to experience to make better decisions. Naturally, he decided to run a test at his mom’s Fourth of July party, experimenting on unsuspecting friends and family. You know, typical picnic stuff. 

As guests approached the buffet table full of hot dogs, hamburgers, and sides, Jim handed them plates. Half of the group received festive plates covered in American flags and fireworks, while the other half received plain white plates. Without knowing it, these guests had just been enlisted in a psychological test. Because picnic stuff.

Waiting at the end of the buffet, Jim then weighed each of their plates. The results revealed the unseen power of cultural fluency.

“What we found was that people with the Fourth of July plates took significantly more food than the people who got the white plates.” 

Jim surmised that, since the Fourth is an American holiday based on gorging yourself, it felt natural to those guests with festive plates to take more food. Those with white plates, however, were disrupted ever so slightly and subconsciously from the mindless ow of the holiday enough to consider what they were doing. 

Later that year, Jim ran the test again, experimenting once more on his friends and family, this time at a Labor Day picnic. In this iteration of the test, half the guests received white plates while the other half got plates intended for Halloween. As he predicted, people with the starkly out- of-place pumpkins and ghosts on their plates took less food than people with white plates. 

“So taken together, we get at least initial support for this idea that, when there’s a cultural fit, when things are as they should be, people don’t really think. They tend to go with the ow. But when there’s a disconnect, suddenly things are strange. They’re not so strange that consciously we think, ‘Oh, I should take less food.’ It’s just that, for automatic behaviors, we do them less. We hesitate a bit.” 

We hesitate a bit—that line really stood out to me. When our minds urge us to follow a best practice, what if we hesitated just a bit? That would create the necessary space we need to think more critically. According to Jim Mourey, when our minds notice a disconnect between what we expect and what actually happens, even if that disconnect is small, we tend to make more informed deci- sions. Those moments of cultural disfluency awaken our brains to the reality right in front of our faces that we’d otherwise miss as we follow the ow of familiar behavior. In that way, small moments that are uncomfortable can trigger the use of our intuition, i.e., that ability we have to contemplate our environment. Now here’s my question:

What if we could proactively create moments of cultural disfluency? What if we could awaken our intuition on demand?

I think we can, if we’d only master one skill above all others: asking better questions.

By asking great questions of the world around us, we can create some small but necessary distance between us and an expected behavior or flow. That helps us begin to form a more thoughtful answer. In other words, when we act like investigators, we break from cultural fluency to begin thinking more critically. 

“There are people who subsist in the status quo,” Jim said. “These are the people who see the numbers, they’re meet- ing the numbers, and life is good, so they don’t need to change anything. But if you want to be truly innovative, what my research suggests is that this is not the correct approach. If you truly want to innovate and change, you need to break up that ow. This can be something as crazy as redesigning the workspace so it creates an experience of dis uency, or it can be something as simple as traveling.” 

We don’t need to make ourselves unbearably uncomfortable to think more critically about our work. Sure, overhauling your entire workspace could do the trick, but so could a quick trip to a new location, or maybe a plate that looks slightly out of place at the family picnic. Yes, quitting your job to try to build something entirely new and different removes you from the daily flow, but so does simply asking good questions to better understand and test things around you. We need only experience some slight discomfort, and suddenly, we’re paying more attention. Our intuition has been activated. It can really be that simple and small. What matters is that we can see things more clearly, think for ourselves, and make the best decisions for us.

We don’t need to do anything radical to achieve that.

As we established earlier, intuition is the act of considering the world. Thanks to Jim Mourey, we’ve identified what appears to be the biggest barrier to doing so: cultural fluency. However, I actually think that cultural fluency is a symptom. It’s not the illness. Yes, it prevents us from thinking for ourselves, but we aren’t trying to merely think for ourselves. The entire purpose of this journey we’ve taken is to act in better ways. We want to create better work. That may start with making better decisions, but we’re not making these decisions in our heads. They have to inform and change our work each day. So if cultural fluency is the symptom, the blocker to better thinking, then what’s the illness? What is the final barrier between you and taking action?

That's what we explore next...

*   *   *   *

(It's me again. Blog Post Jay.) Knowing about cultural fluency has changed my life. Seriously. I'm in love with the work that I do, and therefore, I can let my aspirations run wild on me. At times, I can let blind aspiration take over for critical thinking. "Blind aspiration," it turns out, can lead to the work equivalent of gorging yourself on the Fourth of July.

Because I'm hungry, and excited, and excitable, and adore creating, and get dopamine hits when people say nice things or when I earn that next show, or speech, or check ... well, I sometimes eschew mindful decision-making for moments of going with the flow based on what one is supposed to do in that situation.

Recently, for example, I was scoping my plans for Unthinkable Media for 2019 in a way that would have been truly detrimental to my happiness if I didn't catch myself. I was setting these aggressive financial goals, which runs exactly opposite to my OWN thinking on how to set goals.

And why? Because driven, ambitious people do such things? Because annual planning means setting huge growth goals? Because "success" means building a staff of people and passive revenue and becoming a zillionaire? 

Yep. Because of that. Because of cultural fluency. 

Instead, I've reverted back to my aspirational anchor. That means thinking about the craft and the process. It means focusing on RIGHT partners (growth-stage startups and challenger brands) instead of the BIGGEST partners (because I find the way most leaders act when they work for massive organizations to be insufferable). I scheduled video chats with subscribers (I'll do more again soon). I switched from mindlessly reacting to what "one should do" to a more proactive, mindful approach to figure out what I should do.

Look, I know this excerpt above wasn't the emotional gut-punch or inspiring story you might have come to expect from me. Maybe you loved it, maybe you didn't, but I am down on my knees (or, at least, reclined on my couch on a Friday night) and I'm BEGGING you: Take cultural fluency seriously. Don't make mindless decisions. All it takes it asking a few more open-ended questions about the working world around you. That's enough to create that necessary cultural DISfluency to the situation to think more critically and make better decisions. (If you need more guidance, that's why I wrote the book.)

I PROMISE you, if you do this, you'll avoid doing things because that's what "someone" in your situation should do, and you'll start down the path towards what YOU should do.

Because that's what matters.

Posted on November 9, 2018 .

Their Work Seems Crazy, Until You Hear Their Side of the Story: Unthinkable Season 3


Season 3 of Unthinkable saw us exploring a wide range of moving, hilarious, and surprising new stories across all kinds of industries: public speaking, consumer electronics, nonprofit and public transportation, software design, CPG, podcasting, beer, blogging, and more. We met a speaker with a man bun and a CEO who prefers PEO — that’s “Poo Executive Officer.” From a safety message the world couldn’t stop singing, to the Procrastination Monkey who couldn’t stop getting in the way, we ventured to the far corners of the business world to dig up stories you’ve never heard and extract insights you’ve never considered.

With each episode, we pushed forward in our journey. As a community, we’re bothered by suck, hellbent on doing our best, and can’t wait to think for ourselves when we’re surrounded by conventional thinking.

These stories inspire us, and their insights empower us.

I’ve been writing, speaking, and creating podcasts for years. Without question, Season 3 is the greatest collection of stories I’ve ever told. I hope you enjoy!

You can also find these stories in the Unthinkable backlogs on your podcast player of choice: Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you listen.

Posted on November 1, 2018 .

Perfect Isn't the Enemy of Done: Where the Desire for Perfection Really Fits in a Thriving Workplace


This was originally written for my newsletter, Damn the Best Practices. Each week, I share one idea about thinking for yourself at work. The newsletter is for people bothered by all the awful commodity crap out there. You'll find no "hacks" or "secrets," only stories for people who love quality and craft -- like you! 💛 Join free right here.

This week, I'm torn about something we all face. Maybe we can work through it together. I suspect that since you're bothered by commodity work and hellbent on making quality stuff, you struggle with this too.

Here's the deal: When someone says, "Perfect is the enemy of good," or, "Perfect is the enemy of done," this is me:

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Burn .... BURN! Thou bringest SHAME upon the House of Creativity! I cast ye out, evil spirits! Be gone, and take thou laziness and thou shoddy craftsmanship with thee, foul beasts! 

(I am nothing if not passionate, thank you very much.)

See, too many people in the business world hide behind pithy phrases like "Perfect is the enemy of good" to justify shipping stuff that's so unbelievably NOT good. And when I see that happen, well, yanno ... fire and brimstone and while we're at it what even IS brimstone?

But last week, one reader helped me realize this stuff's way more nuanced and difficult to parse. Our brief email exchange then unearthed a new thread I wanted to yank on today. 

Last week, in an edition of my newsletter titled "Now what?", I wrote about resetting to first principles to continue this journey we're all on together. A huge part of my writing, and the subject of several email entries including last week's, revolves around this idea that we're battling commodity crap and fighting for better, more exceptional work in our careers, companies, and industries. Naturally, when someone scoffs at the idea of perfect and suggests that "good" or "done" is a superior end goal, I tend to clap back. 

But then Sherene Strahan emailed me from Perth, Australia. Sherene's is a longtime reader and supporter and someone I'm grateful to have gotten to know through this newsletter. (Thanks and hi, Sherene! ) Here's what she wrote me that made me lower my arms and cease all fire and brimstone (whatever that is)...

I'm still developing my own voice in this area [content marketing and business more broadly - Sherene's from journalism and communications] and where you talk in this email about the dross on the internet right now, I felt like you were looking straight at me!!! I'm not where I want to be writing wise, but the only way I can get there is to be bad first. So here's my question: How can we who believe what you believe still push ourselves to get better when we know that, right now, we're probably contributing to more of that sucky stuff?

I mean...

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How much do you love that question?!

How can we aspire to be exceptional but still embrace the only path towards it? Not to mix children's shows too much here, but to quote Jake from Adventure Time: 

"Suckin' at something is the first step to becoming sorta good at something!"

(Adventure Time isn't REALLY a children's show, but I digress...) 

Alright, so: We want to do great work, and the only way to go from where we begin to “great” is to be bad for awhile. Then how are we any different from all that sucky stuff out there? Are we part of the problem?

Well, let's revisit that pithy phrase: "Perfect is the enemy of good (or done)." Why am I constantly calling down fire and brimstone, also known as sulfur? It's because this phrase lacks nuance. It implies that we can't aspire to be perfect AND ALSO ship our work. So, as the saying implies, to motivate ourselves to take action in our careers, we must first remove the desire for perfection.

Pffft. PFFFT!

Then again ... we DO need to ship our work, even if it's bad. We can’t let a desire to be great cripple us to the point of paralysis.

So how can we aspire to perfection (even if it's never something we reach) while still moving forward without delay (even if we aren't creating amazing work yet)? Well, I think the key is to place perfection where it belongs: away in the distance. Then, we can busy ourselves with marching towards it. And the only way to march towards it? Yep. Gotta suck. That’s the first step to being sorta good. And THAT is the first step to being legitimately good. And THAT is the first towards … you get it.

Thus, the real focus shoudn’t be on perfection or action. That’s a false choice. Instead, our focus should be squarely on the driving force behind any thriving career or team: constant improvement.

So, Sherene, the answer is slowly codifying in my mind. Why are you different? Because you took time out of your day to write that email. Why are you any different? Because you were willing to be vulnerable with me, basically a stranger. Why are you different? Because you clearly care. You care about constantly improving. That's what separates you ... and me ... and YOU (yes, you, reading this right now). That's what separates all of us. We may not be doing great work just yet, but we care about getting there. 

Perfection drives us forward. We'll never reach it, but we care about doing the best possible work we can. On the other hand, others who willingly create so-so stuff because “Eh, it works” don't care much at all. Whereas you and I want to maximize the upside, they’re focused on mitigating the downside. They want to put in the least possible effort for the most possible gain.

So, what's the difference between us and them? Intent.

What WE intend to happen is far different than what THEY intend, especially over the long arc of time. As for those receiving our work? I think there are clues they can spot that help them think, “Okay, this project may not be great yet, but it’s trying to be and I appreciate that.”

Take my work in podcasting and public speaking. When someone tries to start their episodes with a cold open instead of droning housekeeping or a glut of calls-to-action ... or when a speaker tries to tell a meaningful story instead of push their "simple secrets for success" … it shows. Both people may execute those things poorly right now, but the signs are there. Like a cook with delicious produce and a prime cut of meat, they started with high quality raw ingredients. They just haven't figured out how to turn that into a great meal yet. But make no mistake: This next dish is gonna be so much tastier than their last.

Outside the working world, as a child, I experienced this in basketball all the time. I was a scrawny, slower player. When you looked at the stats at the end of a game, I wasn’t likely to stand out. I looked so-so at best. But if you watched me play, you could tell I hustled. You could see my jumpshot’s form. You could watch a few moments here and there on defense where I ran to the right places and did the right things. Those all eventually added up to a starting spot on the varsity team in high school. Sure, early on, a fan or two may have thought, “Meh, he’s not so great.” I had to be okay with that, just as you have to be okay with a few others NOT noticing the signs that you have potential in your work. But more often than not, people do notice. Our work offers clues. The narrative that everyone is judging us harshly is in our heads. It’s up to us to ensure that we bring with that terrible thought a better one: I don’t care if they judge me now, because my intent isn’t to be good now. My intent is to be great tomorrow. My focus is constant improvement.

Perfect isn't the enemy of good, nor is it the barrier to done. I just think we're framing the idea all wrong. Aspire to perfection over time, but make sure you're taking one step forward today.

Make the goal constant improvement. Bring the right intent to your work.

"Perfect is the enemy of good" the enemy of great. Keep trying to be great.

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If you enjoyed this entry, you’ll love Break the Wheel: Question Best Practices, Hone Your Intuition, and Do Your Best Work. BTW is my first book, released this past October. Remember: Finding “best practices” isn’t the goal. Finding the best approach for YOU is. We’ve never explored how to do that, which is why I wrote the book. It’s available in print, ebook, and audiobook versions now >>

Posted on October 29, 2018 .

5 Promises to Myself (And You) After My Third Year as a Professional Keynote Speaker


In my third annual installment of keeping myself accountable — and trying both to be transparent and to rally others to do so — I’m continuing my personal battle against BS in my industry. But first, my annual confession, because the nature of this post makes me truly uncomfortable: I realize this post is largely about me. While I write personal stories often, my goal is to do just that with my writing: Tell stories, not laud my work. If I talk about myself, I have to earn that right over time with you, and sharing stories (when they aren’t about others) seems like a good way to do that. So, I’ve given myself permission to write this one article each year to refer to myself almost exclusively.

This post provides the space for me to be introspective about the bigger picture when so much of my time is spent just trying to push the boulder forward. It keeps me centered, and it helps me remember the first principles of why I do this job and what I stand for. 

I’d also encourage other speakers and creators to try this since, let’s face it, this job can warp your sense of self and inflate your ego in a dangerous way. 

Last year, I added a fifth promise to my original four, then graded my progress against each. Now that Year Three is coming to a close, here’s a look at how I’m doing across all five.

2018 Grades

#1: I promise that my Personal Attitude Dial will always be set to “Grateful.”

Public speakers tend to separate into two camps: those who remember this job is a privilege and those who have forgotten. I realized that (and wrote that) last year. But I’ve changed my perspective slightly this year. See, I used to think ego and selfishness caused a speaker to forget just how grateful we should feel to do this work. Now I think it’s more nuanced. Sure, there are those ridiculous speakers you meet who make you go, “Okay, pal. Please just be a human.” But as you slog through endless flights, hotel rooms, and “grip and grin” photo opportunities, it can definitely cause even the most gracious and warm of individuals to forget just how AMAZING this job really is.

Resetting your attitude to Grateful is paramount. It not only makes the work and the speaker more enjoyable for all people involved, it grows the business! Ever hear of the word “heliotropic”? I hadn’t either, until I started to research for my next book. Then I uncovered this notion that organisms tend to move towards the light. So, be the light. Be GRATEFUL. Always.

2017: B-

2018: A

I started by giving myself a B+ but, screw it, I’ve been all-in on gratitude the entire year. Events outside my work actually inspired this: Several friends endured hardships like the loss of a parent or trying times as parents themselves. On the positive end of the spectrum, my parents both turned 60 this year, and while my dad underwent successful surgery, they’re both in good health. My wife and I celebrated 5 years of marriage and 10 years together, and this December, we will welcome our first child, a baby girl. Whether through big moments like these or the small moments like an old friend visiting or the dog deciding, yanno, I’d be more comfortable on dad’s lap right now … I became more aware of good things and more focused on gratitude in 2018. I’m proud of that.

As a speaker, I realize each moment I’m introduced before a talk that, holy crap, this is so much fun. I also recognize that millions of people work their entire lives without so much as a thank you from a customer, colleague, or boss. Then there’s us performers. We do 45 minutes to an hour on stage and people literally applaud — TWICE if you count your introduction! I know there are always frustrating things about every job, but given that clap-happy reality, I think most speakers need to keep a lid on it. Be grateful, always. Stay humble, forever. You’re at an event to serve others, and in doing so, your business will be better served too.

Still, even with an A grade here, I can do better. Last year, I committed to scheduling more 1:1 calls with listeners and subscribers. I did a ton of that this year, but I can be more consistent still. Additionally, I have two ideas to set my Personal Attitude Dial to Gratitude … and then break the lever clean off so it remains stuck there. 

What I’m doing to improve: Celebrate great work, and give away more things more often.

Celebrating and giving: Those are my two tenets when trying to improve this promise to myself to remain grateful.

Celebrate great work: Three years ago, I launched a public journey to explore why there’s so much commodity or crappy work being created out there. I set my personal crosshairs on all the hollow tips and tricks, cheats and hacks, and gurus and get-rich-quick-schemes. I railed against all that stuff, trying hard to build the case for a better way of making decisions than clinging to conventional wisdom or trend-hopping. The culmination of that journey was supposed to be my book, Break the Wheel, published earlier this month. (More info | Amazon)

However, as I wrote to my subscribers this week, this journey is far from over. I’m still “bothered by suck.” But I’m now focused more on celebrating people who do great work.

If my first book was about identifying problems, breaking from old patterns, and enacting change, then my next book (and all content leading up to it) should be about what happens when you enact that change. In other words, in my journey to both remain grateful and continue my ORIGINAL journey, I plan to celebrate great work more often. I’m not just fighting AGAINST something. I’m fighting FOR something.

Then, there’s this idea of giving away more things, more often. This includes my time, but that’s such a finite and precious resource to me, so I’m also announcing things like the Break the Wheel Book Scholarship, whereby I give away a book for free to people whose financial circumstances preclude them from buying nice-to-have things like books (email me for details:, and my Buy One, Give One program, exclusively for newsletter subscribers, which I plan to announce soon.

Promise #2: I promise to wedge my brain’s loading dock permanently open.

2017: A

2018: C

I really slacked off on this one, my friend. Hoo boy…

After working really hard last year to attend other speeches at my gigs, as well as to read more and to ask great questions of what I assume I know or assume I’m good at … I lapsed on all that.

I can try to explain why: I wanted to get my non-speaking revenue engine running more smoothly, i.e., building docuseries with B2B clients. Plus, I felt burnt out towards the end of September and into most of October, and I’d attended one too many talks with an open mind, only to leave disappointed at events past.

But those are excuses. My goal is to be a lifelong learner, to always question my own biases and assumptions, and to focus my work on building a thriving BODY of work. To do that, I need to focus on improvement and learning, not simply rest easy knowing I am good at a few things. That’s the path to stagnation. Honestly? It’s lazy. I was lazy.

What I’m doing to improve: Systemizing how I learn

When something feels hard, our choices are simple: Don’t do it, or find a way to do it (which usually means, make it easier). I’ve been trying to make other areas of my business run more easily without my needing to work up tons of energy, like hiring Meg, my Manager of Awesome, and working with Annie, Daniela, Stephanie, and Jordan as editors and producers of my episodes at various times this year. I’ve been looking at how I spend my time, documenting my processes and goals, and trying to hire smart, creative people to assist where I need it. 

I can do the same with my personal development. 

In my case, that means trying two things, one at events, and one in the content I create. (I’m concocting this on the fly right now, so bear with me. I mean that figuratively, as I’m just thinking through this mid-stream, but also literally, as I’m 35,962 feet above Nebraska right now according to this screen on JetBlue.)

  1. At events: I commit to attending one speech at each event that seems like it will push me to be better, either a keynote with a big idea that can change me, or a breakout session about something I know very little about. 

  2. In my content: I promise to get back to publishing Unthinkable episodes. My podcast took a back seat to client work and writing the book all year long, but it was the main vehicle for exploring new stories and aerating/improving my ideas prior to 2018. I need to get back to that, and I think have a system in place for doing so sustainably. I make no direct revenue from this show, but in a very concrete way, everything I do on that show forms the basis of every dollar I earn.

Promise #3: I promise that being impressively nice is the only time I’ll actively try to be impressive.

2017: A

2018: A-

Yes, it’s another A(ish) grade, but mama didn’t raise no jerk. I’m a nice guy. I know that about myself. I struggled with being the “nice guy” in high school and college perhaps, but since entering the workplace, it turns out that being nice is a distinct advantage. (Sad, but true.) So I genuinely love this about myself (and, hey, you gotta love yourself!).

If I’m in danger of being not-so-nice in any way, it’s when I reply to people sending spammy DMs or emails to try and sell me on something. When it’s laughably terrible or super aggressive or feigns saying the right things to trigger a result, not build a relationship … I tend to clap back. But I should have more empathy. We’re all struggling with something. We’ve all learned to do our work a certain way. If I do reply (and maybe I shouldn’t), I should just explain how their obnoxious tactic made me feel and leave it at that. No need to berate or make fun. 

What I’m doing to improve: Remembering my work’s raisin deeter. (Hashtag French?)

The driving impulse behind my work is “make ’em feel.” In a world of superficial content and surface-level interactions, I want to trigger big emotions and big questions in the hearts and minds of others. This could be sappy and cheesy or funny and exciting. This could create questions about your work or questions about your life. I love consuming content that makes you feel, and I love creating it even more. So if I can remind myself of that mantra every day, I’ll be just about the nicest person ever. After all, it’s really hard to be a douchebag when you have a goofy smile on your face at all times 🙂

Promise #4: I promise to never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever (times infinity) promise others any “secrets.”

2017: B+

2018: B

In my first inaugural Promise post, I wrote the following: 

“Let’s rip the bandaid right off, leaving the hairless red rash of truth behind: THERE ARE NO SECRETS! There’s only hard work done with the right intent. I can’t teach you to be rich. I can’t give you the one thing every successful person knows. I can’t impart THE steps you must follow, no matter who you are or what you’re doing.”

I’ve upheld this in every thing I’ve said or done over the past 12 months. So why did I take a step back from a B+ to a B? Because not only did I make the same mistake I did last year, I literally promised that I wouldn’t do so.

That mistake? I let others package my work as “secrets.” 

Look, it’s not like I’m going to scrunch up my nose, wag an index finger, and whine to a journalist or podcaster kind enough to interview me, “Ah, actually: You can’t call what I’m sharing a ‘secret,’ mmkay?” But I could try two subtle things…

What I’m doing to improve: These two things…

  1. Never share a link to my guest appearances wherein they call anything I said a “secret” in the headline without first writing my own version of that headline. Rather than simply tweet the link as is, I should write something original to qualify what was said.

  2. Bring up this idea more frequently in the interviews I give. When I’m a guest, I can address this notion that there are no secrets in my answers. I shouldn’t correct an interviewer — that’s condescending. But I could espouse my belief that there are no secrets a bit more loudly in my answers.

Promise #5: I promise to always treat my speech like a product.

2017: n/a (new promise I introduced last year)

2018: B+

Great product managers and designers intimately understand the problems facing their audiences, then build their products in iterative fashion to solve those problems. They test, launch and learn. Similarly, great speakers constantly talk to their audiences when they’re NOT on a stage to investigate the problems they want to solve in the world. The key is to own the problem, not profess to have “the” solution. In my world, that means incrementally evolving the same speech constantly based on new insights and feedback, as well as customizing larger parts to fit a given event. 

Essentially, I’ve created a talk that's “modular.” That’s pretty standard practice for regularly touring speakers. I’m hired to address the same problem and share the same insights with each event, but it must be customized to land with a given audience. As a result, my speech has the same spine every time, but I'm able to build an original body around it according to the needs of that specific room. 

“Modular” speeches enable you to unplug a given story or lesson and plug in another one from your research that feels more relevant for those specific attendees. One easy example is my section about finding first-principle insights about your customers to inform your thinking, instead of leaning on generalized advice or ideas from an internal boardroom or industry expert. The “big” module in that section is the story itself. I alternate between two, using the software company InVision for B2B-heavy audiences or attendees from large corporations, and a construction business from Oklahoma for consumer-focused events, nonprofits, SMBs, or other groups with limited budgets or small teams.

The “beats” of both stories are similar: the set-up, the moment I introduce conflict, and so on. But the content itself is different. So that’s the “big” module: the story itself.

But there are also smaller sub-modules contained in this section. It could be as small as a single word I change. For instance, if I were to say “customer” at an A/E/C marketing event (architecture, engineering, and construction), it wouldn’t make as much sense as saying “homeowner” or “client.”

In addition to this idea of iterative improvement and flexible “use cases,” speeches are similar to products in that both improve when they’re receiving regular use. The more you can analyze what works and doesn’t from real-world delivery of a speech, the better it becomes and the quicker you improve. If I only give a speech once, drafting it in my office and delivering it to ZERO attendees ever, I’m actually not serving the attendees in the room as well as I could. I haven’t refined my product for them at all. (So, yes, there’s such a thing as over-customization. IMHO, you owe it to audiences to practice alone and, more crucially, improve your material by pressure-testing it with real audiences. In this way, it’s like being a standup comedian at smaller clubs working to perfect your Netflix special.)

Lastly, products create compounding value for their users, just as speeches should for attendees. The audience should get more value out of a speaker’s big idea and methodology the more they use them. That means speakers shouldn’t share a one-time fix or promise a (gasp) “secret,” nor should the attendee’s exploration of a speaker’s ideas stop when they leave the room.

Great speakers offer (A) additional content to continue the journey with attendees, and (B) the ideas or frameworks from a speech should also contain a certain level of depth. Attendees can constantly revisit and explore and use them in new ways.

When you achieve that level of depth as a speaker, you write the book. There’s enough meat on the bone. When a speaker’s book sucks, I think it’s because they tried to stretch a talk or a series of blog posts too far, and it becomes thin and flimsy. The object was for the author to write a book, not serve the reader by exploring something worthy of exploring in more detail.

So why the B+ for me under this promise to build my speech as a product?

I think I have a ways to go to improve, but I’m reasonably proud of how much I remixed and refreshed my talk this year compared to last year. In 2017, I didn’t change much gig to gig. In 2018, I did fewer gigs. That lower volume helped give me the time I needed to think critically about each talk and customize more material more of the time. (I still grew my speaking business to six figures this year, but I did so by raising my fee and reaching bigger events, not by churning out more talks.)

Writing the book was also an ENORMOUS boost to my “product," because I now have all these extra research and stories and, crucially, a consistent language to speak more clearly and concisely. The book also gives me the confidence to improvise new moments that weren’t part of the usual “talk track” in a speech. That’s because all the material is to top-of-mind for me. Even if I didn’t rehearse a small moment here and there, I can move and change with the room in real-time, which creates a stronger bond and makes me a better servant to those attendees. 

What I’m doing to improve: More of the same

Sometimes, I think the best thing you can do to succeed is keep doing what you’re doing. As my friend Andy Cook, founder of the software startup Tettra, likes to say, “Most of success is just being disciplined and not getting bored.”

Being a public speaker is amazing. 

It’s rewarding. It’s nuanced. It’s hard. But above all else, it’s FUN. And dammit, I want this fun to continue for years and years. 

Whenever I walk into my home office, I’m greeted by a sign on the wall. When I switch the light on, I see a simple idea: “Always do the right thing, even when no one is watching.” 

Whenever I walk onto a stage, I’m greeted by an audience. When they switch the spotlights on, I remember a simple idea: Always do the right thing, especially for the people watching.

THANKS FOR READING! I welcome your comments and ideas. If you want to learn more about my speaking, visit You can also email me at

Posted on October 23, 2018 .

Exceptions: An Original Series Going Inside the World's Most Creative B2B Brands

exceptions cover.png

“Brand.” What the hell does that even mean?

Is your brand a logo, a tagline, or an ad campaign? Is it the design and color scheme of your website and marketing collateral? Is it that funny YouTube video featuring your employees? (Hashtag CULTURE!)

If you’re like me and have only ever worked in B2B marketing, then “brand” is … complicated. See, for generations, B2B companies ignored the need to proactively build strong brands, preferring instead to win on product competency and by building a big sales and marketing engine. But that’s changing. In today’s world, the buyer has all the power because the buyer faces insane amounts of choice — even in the case of B2B niches. And what do we as humans choose to spend both time and money on? Great experiences.

That’s what brand is: how others experience your company. And since “companies” don’t exist but collections of PEOPLE do, then brand is the emotional response others have to the behavior of your people.

No longer can brand be a dirty word or overlooked idea in B2B. Brand is the moat that you build around the company. Arguably, as more and more products get commoditized and copied (just ask any SaaS business), brand is THE approach to building a thriving company today. Building a people-powered, customer-centric brand is the one defensible thing in B2B today. It makes you exceptional by making you an exception.

So, um … how does that actually work?

Welcome to Exceptions, an audio documentary series that goes inside some of the world’s best B2B companies to understand how and why they’re building exceptional brands. I’m partnering with Drift to bring you this show, because they’re all about putting the human element back into B2B sales and marketing.

Below, you’ll find episodes in a running log for each season of the show. In each episode — which are highly produced with narration, music, and sweet-sounding editing — we review a few things:

  1. What makes the brand exceptional?

  2. What do actual customers have to say? (We talk about being customer-centric in business today, but we never hear from the actual customer. That changes with this show.)

  3. What’s our Big Idea of the week for building our brands?

  4. How does the work of each brand we profile illustrate that Big Idea? (I typically talk to an executive and a practitioner from each company to get two types of perspectives).

  5. What three questions can we ask ourselves, inspired by that particular episode, to create exceptional brands ourselves?

It’s a simple question to ask, really: Do you want to be a commodity in your industry, or will you find and follow what makes your brand … the exception?

Welcome to the show…

Season 1

first round capital exceptions


Posted on October 19, 2018 .

Marketing Has a Best Practices Problem

marketing best practices problem

The following is an excerpt from my book, Break the Wheel: Question Best Practices, Hone Your Intuition, and Do Your Best Work. It’s now available on Amazon.

How often do you step back from your work as a marketer to judge whether you’re truly doing your absolute best? What do you think you’d find if you did?

I think we’d all encounter a gap. It’s a gap between the work we aspire to do … and the work we’re actually doing; the results we’d like to see … and the results we’re really seeing. Few things can feel more frustrating than that, especially when you consider how hard we’re working.

So what does it really take to do our best work?

If we examine our normal behavior when we try to close that gap, I think we’ll find our answers. Because what do we normally do when we need better results as content marketers? We look for best practices.

That makes sense at first glance. We believe best practices will help our work look something like this:

what we think happens with best practices

The reality looks a lot more like this:

what best practices are really like

Over and over, we find another best practice, try the latest trend, or follow the smartest guru, and we just keep hoping and praying that one of them, one time, will finally deliver as promised. Worse, in the internet age, this process has gotten insane. However, our problem isn’t the volume of information; it’s how we make sense of it all. Our biggest issue is how we make decisions in our work as content marketers.

We tend to make our decisions in one of three ways, each of which can be rather troublesome.

Sometimes, we make decisions based on the best practice that carries the most weight in our minds. This is the path of conventional wisdom. But just because something is the most common approach doesn’t mean it’s the best approach for us. The newspaper industry learned this the hard way.

The problem with conventional wisdom

In an article for Fast CompanyContently co-founder Shane Snow shares the hilarious yet horrifying story that reveals the problem with conventional wisdom. In the newspaper business, it’s common to print your issues on something called “broadsheets,” which are 22-inch sheets of paper. However, in the early 2000s, The Independent decided to shrink their pages to something called tabloid pages, and they were criticized by their peers. Unfortunately for those peers, they clearly didn’t realize where broadsheets came from in the first place.

In 1712, the British government imposed a tax on newspapers based on the number of pages that they published. In response, most publishers began using larger pages. They could print the same number of words on fewer sheets and thus avoid the tax. That is how broadsheets were born.

In the 1800s, the tax was repealed, but by then it didn’t matter: Broadsheets had become the conventional wisdom. As a result, when The Independent decided to break from that tradition, they were ridiculed. But what’s more ridiculous? Relying on a best practice established centuries ago, based on a law that no longer applies, or questioning that notion to think for yourself instead? When the Harvard Business Review spoke with the publishers of The Independent, they learned that not only did the paper save money after the switch, they sold more print editions.
Snow’s article is appropriately titled “The Problem With Best Practices,” and he cuts to the core of this ridiculousness when he writes, “The ‘best practice’ is one of the business world’s most common conventions, but it’s often arbitrary and based mainly on habit—the result of conditions that no longer apply.”

Conditions may change, but too often, we don’t. As a result, our knowledge can grow stale. Let this story be a warning to us all: We shouldn’t let a false sense of certainty about knowing “the” answer prevent us from seizing new opportunities. In our efforts to close the gap between average and exceptional work, we shouldn’t base our decisions on whatever feels most common.

Google’s new feature and starting with your context

On the other hand, we shouldn’t base our decisions on whatever seems newest, either. This is the second way we often look for best practices: We obsess over trendy tactics. We herald the arrival of a new technology or technique as the latest and greatest approach. We love when a marketing leader can tell us what 2019 will be “The Year Of” in our industry.

Quick, do you remember what 2017 was the year of? Nope! But we still crave the new, and that can be dangerous too.

For example, in 2010, Google introduced SiteLinks, a new feature of its AdWords product that would allow marketers to append four additional links just below their search ads. They look something like this:


As long as I live, I will never forget SiteLinks, or the number Google used to convince advertisers to adopt this feature: 30 percent. That stat is burned into my brain forever. See, I was part of the sales team at Google that helped launch SiteLinks to advertisers. During beta testing, Google found that ad clicks increased by “30 percent on average” using SiteLinks—a line I used thousands of times in emails, phone calls, and meetings. As an account manager, I had over 1,000 small business clients, all of which received “scalable sales initiatives” from me and my teammates. Since my clients were small businesses, Google didn’t invest in one-on-one or in-person support. Instead, I’d receive spreadsheets and training modules from Mothership Googs, instructing me to send batch emails or pitch decks, or to call a certain subset of accounts to prescribe the same change. In 2010, that change was to enable SiteLinks.

The logic was simple: “We’ve seen advertisers get 30 percent more clicks on average. If you enable them, you’ll also get more clicks. More clicks means more sales on your website.” But this was faulty logic, especially considering that small business websites are typically a mess. There’s no guarantee they’d see more sales, despite additional traffic. However, there was one thing that was a guarantee: Google would generate more revenue.

Conditions may change, but too often, we don’t.

Despite being in my early twenties, marketing executives and practitioners thought I knew something, and I suppose I did know something: I knew what worked on average.As for what might work for my specific clients? That was something I couldn’t tell them. I just prayed those questions never came. When they didn’t, I was grateful at the time, but now I wonder, why didn’t they? Why didn’t my clients start their thinking by considering their context first, and then make sense of this new trend, given what they knew to be true about their own businesses?

Instead, history repeated with SiteLinks, just as it had with every sale we made. Clients conflated what works in general with what works for them. In under a year, millions of businesses had adopted SiteLinks. Google had activated its massive reach and unleashed legions of charismatic salespeople (and also me) upon their clients, and they simply brute-forced a new trend into existence.

Why are SiteLinks a best practice? Because Google wants them to be.

Months later, when clients complained that their budgets were drained without seeing corresponding sales, I was told to ask if they’d tried Google Analytics on their sites. Google laughed all the way to the bank while I stared at my sales quota and felt sick to my stomach: 104 percent to target. (Hurray, me. Ugh.)

Just because we’re doing what seems newest doesn’t guarantee we’re doing what works best for us.

Like the newspaper publishers that doubted The Independent or my clients who trusted my advice as a Google sales rep, in our efforts to get better results, we often seek best practices through conventional wisdom or trendy new tactics. This merely biases our thinking toward whatever is most common or newest. But there’s a third, equally dangerous way we sometimes conduct ourselves at work: we thrash.

It’s never been easier to be average

All too often, our behavior reveals that we have no idea what we’re trying to do. We send or receive panicked emails. (What’s our Snapchat strategy?!) We slap more logos on our website and add more skills to our LinkedIn profiles. We run reports to show others all the projects we finished or “pieces” we published or campaigns we planned. In this frenetic and exhausting race for better results, we try lots and lots of stuff without really knowing why.

There’s just one problem here. (Actually, no, there are at least twenty-three problems here.) Just because we’re doing lots of stuff doesn’t mean any of it is the best stuff for us. Additionally, the more stuff we do, the harder it becomes to identify what’s working and what needs fixing. In our desire to see better results, we can get so overwhelmed, stressed, or confused that we simply churn out more. In doing so, we bias our work toward activities, not results or fulfillment. We prioritize tactics over strategy. This rarely, if ever, leads to exceptional work.

Unfortunately, this lack of clarity is enabled by the very things supposed to deliver clarity in the first place. Who hasn’t gone down a rabbit hole of searches, videos, podcasts, and posts? The internet age has a dark side in our work: Advice Overload. It’s just so tempting and easy to seek our answers elsewhere that we find ourselves with far too many of them, far too quickly.

For example, maybe you’re a big brand executive and want to capitalize on a new trend—something like predictive analytics. To get your team up to speed, you can simply visit YouTube and pull up tens of thousands of videos from experts. In seconds, you’ve accessed millions of hours of advice that you and your team can use.

Maybe you’re not an executive. Maybe you’re just entering the workforce looking for a marketing job, or you’re trying to switch career paths, or you’re seeking that next promotion. If that’s you, why not visit Amazon and buy any of the 47,046 books offering career advice, many from the world’s biggest names in business and self-help?

Maybe you love your current job, but you’re trying to grow your company’s Twitter following. Well, when should you send out your tweets? Quick, can you tell me the best time for a business to tweet? Time’s up, but it doesn’t matter if you knew the answer anyway, because in under a second, you can get 35 million results on Google. Even better, you won’t need to read any of those pages. You can just glance at the little box at the top that Google uses to share the most popular answers on their search results pages. (Apparently, you should tweet at 3 p.m. local time.)

My friend, this world is flooded with advice and ideas for our work, all of which we can access in an instant—but so can everyone else. Guess what happens when I tell readers that the best time to tweet is 3 p.m.? That is no longer the best time to tweet!

My point is this: It has never been easier to be average. If we don’t have an answer or an idea, we can find and follow everyone else’s. As a result, much of our work is derivative. We may not aspire to build average careers or companies, but when we purely rely on the ideas and answers of others, we wind up creating commodity work.

It’s like we’re trapped. We’re trapped in this never-ending cycle of best practices. It’s like this constantly spinning wheel. The character Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones nails it when she says the ruling families of her world, Westeros, are all “just spokes on a wheel.” First one is on top, then another’s on top, and on and on this wheel spins. We might not live in Westeros (thank God—it’s pretty murdery there), but we’re similarly caught on our own version of that ever-spinning wheel. First one best practice is on top, then another, and another. We just keep hoping and praying that we’ll find one to save us. But they’re merely spokes on a wheel.

When we base our decisions on conventional wisdom, we’re just clinging to one spoke and risk getting crushed as the world turns. When we rely too much on new trends, we stretch ourselves thin, reaching across the wheel to grab the next spoke, then the next, never fully grasping anything, constantly reacting to everything we see coming. When we lack clarity, our work devolves into chaos as the wheel spins out of control.
On and on this wheel spins, taking us to the one place we don’t want our careers or companies to be: average.

In my decade as a marketer, I’ve watched as my peers and leaders obsessed over banner advertising, then organic search (SEO), then paid search. Before long, it was all about social media, then content marketing, then influencer marketing. As I write these very words, the industry is abuzz about account-based marketing and artificial intelligence. Every year, we write predictions of what the next twelve months will bring, and every year, I wait for someone to admit, “It depends.” It depends on your unique situation. Instead, people claim to know “the” answer in some general sense.

It’s time we got specific. We’re told best practices work best for others, but the question we need to ask more often is, “What works best for us?” Better yet, what works for you? Admittedly, it’s not an easy question to answer, especially when we’re constantly pressured to deliver results. But we shouldn’t make decisions based on whatever is most common or newest. There’s a certain clarity and subsequent power that comes with better self-awareness and situational awareness.

Today more than ever, it’s so incredibly easy to be average. But I know you want something more. It’s my fiercest belief that exceptional work only happens when we find and follow what makes our situation an exception. So how do we do that? And can we make it as simple as finding and following the most common, the latest, or the easiest best practice?

I believe we can. It all starts with a single mentality shift. We have to ask better questions. We have to stop obsessing over everyone else’s “right answers,” and start asking ourselves the right questions.

Will you continue relying on answers from experts or start asking yourself better questions? Will you blindly trust the next influencer who hands you an idea, or will you try to craft your own? If we start our process there, we’d see the wheel for what it is. We’d make better decisions than any best practice can provide. In the end, exceptional work isn’t created by the answers others give us, but by the questions we ask ourselves.


Finding best practices isn’t the goal. Finding the best approach for you is.

Learn more about how to make the best possible decisions in each unique situation at work: Get your copy of Break the Wheel >>

Posted on October 19, 2018 .

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 .