That Was Amazing

How often does this happen to you?

You’re in the middle of a sentence, or are part of the way through sharing an idea and a colleague interjects, barely letting you finish,

“That was absolutely amazing! Yes! Exactly that!”

“The way you described that was so clear and compelling. You totally persuaded me. That was you at your best!”

“Of all the things you’re working on, I really think that has to be your top priority. It will change everything!”

If you’re like most people, I expect you’ll quietly be thinking, “Well, actually, that hasn’t happened to me in a while.”

And that’s the problem.

Because you are amazing, and you have amazing ideas, and there are times each day, or at minimum each week, when you are at your absolute best and someone around you is there to witness it.

Same with your colleagues, I’d expect.

So why aren’t we interrupted with unbridled enthusiasm more often? Why isn’t it obvious what thing we’ve done recently felt, to those around us, like us at our best?

“Feedback” often feels like a dirty word because it’s interpreted as code for “I’m about to share something that didn’t land quite right with me.”

Now, constructive feedback, delivered with generous intent, and focused on behaviors and impact, is essential.

AND energetic, over-the-top, ludicrous praise….it’s not only easy and fun to deliver with enthusiasm, it also promises to be attention-grabbing and unforgettable.

Plus, lest we forget, for people to feel like they’re hearing and equal quantity of positive and negative feedback, they need to hear five times (five times!) as much positive feedback as constructive feedback.

“That’s just fabulous. Please do more of that.”

It’s music to our ears.

Halfway

There are countless tools out there that will help us organize our lives: tips and tricks for managing a to do list; achieving Inbox Zero (aka knowledge worker nirvana); making time for deep work by not scheduling meetings one or two days a week.

There’s also plenty of quality advice about all the professional skills we might want to work on: from how to give and receive more constructive feedback; to what we need to do to become better writers (write shitty first drafts); to how to become great coaches.

But there’s a catch.

The best To Do list approach (and app) won’t work if we also keep, sort of, using our Inbox to track our tasks tasks.

Our Inbox Zero dreams will be dashed if we don’t consistently act on each and every email. Not most of them, all of them.

Our time for deep thinking will evaporate if we make exceptions for “really important” meetings on our supposedly-open day.

We won’t become skilled at giving and receiving effective feedback if we fail to walk towards that discomfort regularly, or if we’re afraid of the awkwardness of structuring our feedback using the Situation-Behavior-Impact framework that might be new to us.

And on and on to our writing, our coaching, and, yes, our, diet, sleep, and exercise.

The doorway from where we are to where we want to be isn’t knowledge or even motivation.

It’s commitment.

And in most cases, halfway is none of the way there.

I Hate the Ivy League

I dropped my eldest son off at college on Friday, which was bittersweet.

Lucky for him, he is focused and passionate in a way I could not have imagined when I was his age.  He’s found his way to a small, specialized school that is uniquely suited to his talents, and I’m hoping that it turns out to be the perfect place for him.

On the drive there and back, my wife and I listened to Malcolm Gladwell’s 9-podcast compilation, “I Hate the Ivy League.”

The thesis is that the U.S. higher ed system is failing miserably at being the great equalizer in a country that calls itself it is a meritocracy. Instead of a higher-ed system that is evolving towards more access for more students for better results, we instead have one that is driving inexorably towards exorbitantly-priced exclusivity…a hyper-capitalist version of education.

I don’t know which episode I liked the best.

It could be the one where Justice Antonin Scalia boasts that he only considers Supreme Court Clerk candidates from the T14 (“top 14”) U.S. law schools, and then goes on to say that the single best Clerk he ever had went to none of those schools. And he fails to see the irony in that.

I also liked the one where Gladwell takes on Stanford’s president and almost blows a gasket explaining why a $400 million gift to a college with a multi-billion dollar endowment is just plain wrong.

But probably the best of all was the one that talks about the U.S. News and World Report college ranking system. While I knew it was flawed, I never fully appreciated how each and every element that drives up college ranking is correlated with exclusion, wealth, and privilege.

I listened from the edge of my seat to Gladwell’s exposition on what it would take for Dillard, an historically black college and university (HBCU) in Louisiana, to climb the US News and World Report rankings: admit fewer students with Pell grants, fewer students who are first-time college-goers, recruit more rich white students, etc. etc. etc. (Oh, and if you’re wondering which college, Harvard or Dillard, graduated more Black physics majors last year, it’s not even close: Dillard wins in a landslide.)

This all got me thinking, again, about the power of data to shape (or mis-shape) a system. While the U.S. News rankings are not the only cause of the perversion of higher education in the U.S., they are a major catalyst that reinforces and accelerates a fundamentally flawed status quo.

I’m sure we can all think of other areas where bad or nonexistent data are either accelerating us towards a bad outcome or holding us back from facing the real, tough questions.

If you’re looking for better data, real data, data from the source, let’s talk.

Not Eating the Apples

For a few weeks this summer, we had no air conditioning in our house. It was fine for some of the time, and then we hit that hot spell when the temperature was in the 90s all day and 80s all night, and it was…sticky.

It was harder to do everything. It all just felt like so much work.

We

just

slowed

down.

A week into this heat, we noticed that the fruit we leave out on our kitchen counter was rotting quickly, so we migrated it to the ‘fridge.

This seemed like a simple way to make sure things stopped spoiling, but it had the opposite effect.

Why? Because I see my counter every time I walk into the kitchen, but I open my refrigerator at most once for every meal.

So, two weeks later, we find ourselves throwing out a pile of refrigerated, rotten fruit, including four perfectly good, now-brown apples. Not because we don’t like fruit — for goodness sake, I love apples! Because they were ‘hidden’ on the top shelf of a refrigerator I open 2-3 times a day.

When we sell, we tell ourselves that we know that the people we are selling to aren’t “purely” rational in their decision-making.

But let’s be honest…we think they’re mostly rational.

That they’ll buy when they’re good and ready.

That they’re thoughtfully deciding about our sales pitch.

That it really is about the budget, and the approvals.

And about how closely the proposal matches their strategy and their current needs.

We think, therefore, that on some level moving the apples won’t matter. That wherever they are, no matter how often (or how not-often) we see them, that people who like apples will eat apples.

The truth is, people who like apples will eat apples that are right in front of them.

Apples that they see often.

Apples that are easier to get to than the crackers or the chocolate or the bread or the cookies.

Being the best is nice.

But showing up at the right moments in the right way, so that it’s as easy as possible to say yes to you…that’s the game changer.

Stroke Rate

In swimming, there’s a natural relationship between cadence, speed, and fatigue.

A higher stroke rate makes you go through the water faster, and you’ll tire more quickly.

Similarly: lower stroke rate, slower pace, easier.

Except not always.

Take a moment to think about why this might be…

Because when your stroke rate is too low, because of the water’s resistance, you start to slow down between each stroke (and sink, a bit).

When this happens, each time you pull through the water you’re fighting this resistance. You’re pushing through a fast-slow-fast cycle which requires expending extra energy.

It’s much more efficient to maintain a constant speed.

Ironically, the very thing we’re doing to avoid fatigue is making us more tired. Worse, the problem can be self-reinforcing: slowing our stroke rate even more because we keep finding ourselves out of breath.

And so it goes with how we approach our throughput in other areas of life.

Task switching, of course, is the most obvious culprit: the ultimate undo-er of pace and flow.

But the point is broader. It’s about seeing that there are moments of optimal flow awaiting us at every turn, ones in which we are producing more with less effort, even though from the outside it might look like we are working harder.

In a similar vein, we can consider that our attempts to insert more breaks and distractions into a day full of an insurmountable pile of work might be helping us and might be contributing to the problem.

The outside world—distractions, worries, the chatter of in our own mind—can all be sources of resistance.

Which means that the solution to our sense of having too much to do might be the exact opposite of what it appears to be.

 

What do you do with an unmarked bag of seeds?

Imagine you are handed, Jack-and-the-beanstalk-style, an unmarked bag of seeds whenever you start a new job.

The seeds, being unmarked, are a mystery to you. And let’s agree, for the sake of the metaphor, that you have no fancy app on your phone that helps you discern which seed is which.

If you want your garden to grow, with productive plants, beautiful flowers, big trees and, if you so choose, a magic beanstalk, what’s the best strategy?

It seems to me there are two real options.

The first is to wonder why in the heck you were given a bag of unmarked seeds, for goodness sake? I mean, it would be a lot more straightforward to know which seed is which, and the instructions you need to follow to make each one thrive. That way you’d also be sure not to invest too much time or effort into the beans that are never going to amount to much, and you can focus your efforts on following the proven instructions for growing a garden.

Another approach is to just start planting and caring for the seeds: preparing the soil, fertilizing, watering regularly, diligently nurturing each one as best you know how. And, to maximize your chances for success in the face of uncertainty, you’ll plant as many seeds as you can care for, and show up every day to take care of them.

If the first approach appeals to you, then you are most likely to be happiest in an organization with clear, well-defined career paths. In each role, you’ll know exactly what it takes to succeed, and you can allocate your time to just those specific seeds that you’re expected to plant this year, next year, and the year after that.

And if the second appeals to you, then you most likely find yourself in a startup or in some other kind of entrepreneurial environment.

In these organizations, the paths are rarely well-worn, the skills required are emergent, and the seed that will lead to the next big breakthrough is unknown.

In these sorts of organizations, senior management probably talks about making your own opportunity and taking initiative, but it can be hard to know what that means today and tomorrow.

But, with the right culture—the right soil in which you’re planting your seeds—your consistent work and excellent attitude will lead to surprisingly fruitful results down the line.

Here’s one way to think about it:

You know that you don’t know what leads to what. Which means that this thing I’m doing today could become something big, or it could not; this client could become huge, or maybe they won’t; this experiment that we’re running might be the future of the business, or it may not.

Like the seeds, we don’t know which activity or idea or client will become the next big thing. So, if we want to maximize our chances of making an impact, of creating a shift in the trajectory both of our company and of our own career trajectory, the best approach is to put more bets on the table (plant more seeds), and cultivate all of them with consistent, diligent professionalism.

This way, more of the things you work on have the chance to become great.

Which means things like…

…being proud of everything you send to every client, because you never know what they might say to the next person.

…paying close attention to the conversations that don’t directly relate to your work today, because that context might lead you to do something differently tomorrow.

…being proactive and attentive whenever you can, and always aiming to make those around you better.

…doing something surprisingly wonderful for someone you’ve not worked with for 6 months, whether a paying client, someone in a peer organization, or a colleague.

These and countless other actions boil down to the daily work of cultivation, of planting and tending to a big garden and working that garden like a professional.

The uncertainty cannot be changed. But if each individual seed is given the greatest chance to grow, in a year or two year’s time there’s no doubt you’ll have a thriving, eclectic, beautiful garden.

 

Good Enough, Fast Enough, The Right Way

Every day, every moment, we’re engaged in a dance with ourselves that revolves around three questions:

  1. What’s the best way to do this?
  2. What speed do I go?
  3. How do I know when it’s finished?

1. What’s the best way to do this?

There’s the way I’ve always done this, the way I did this yesterday, the way I know will work well enough.

Then there’s my ongoing tracking of whether this way is good enough, a dialogue with myself about whether it’s time to upgrade. This conversation is an outgrowth of my intuition, knowledge and research.

Every day, I can ask an answer a simple but important question: is today the day I start learning one small part of a better way to do what I do?

2. What speed do I go?

I know I shouldn’t be rushing; I can’t be if I’m going to do my best work.

At the same time, like a runner, I can, over time, get comfortable with faster, get comfortable with leaning a little more forward, get comfortable with a new pace.

While it might be hard to see our own progress in individual tasks, we also know that there are things we do in a minute today that took us five before. This means that there is a pace we can go tomorrow that feels risky, even dangerous today.

The trick here is to decouple the speed itself—the actual pace we’re going, the essential interplay between quality and throughput—and our experience of speed.

If we feel uncomfortable, that might mean we’re going too fast. Or it might be a barometer of our fear.

If our pace feels “just right” all the time, that might mean we’re not pushing hard enough.

3. How do I know it’s done?

This is hardest one of all, because we could always make it a little bit better, because that last finishing touch might be the difference between good and great.

Or it might be where we hide.

Hide from the fear of putting our work out there in front of a colleague or a client.

Hide from the moment when we say, “I did this, and I stand by this.”

Hide in the safety of knowing that “I’m just making it a little bit better” will rarely be criticized, even though the time I’m taking on this thing is taking away from time on the next thing.

How do I track my progress? 

By remembering to ask myself these questions: Is there a better way? Could I go faster? When is it done?

By learning to switch between the dance floor and the balcony: to be in the action, and to see myself in the action. This is how we gain perspective.

But most of all, by regularly asking honest questions of our colleagues:

“This is my approach, how do you do it? Who’s the best at this? Could you, or they, teach me? Can I find a better answer online, in a course, in a community of practice?”

“Do you feel like I generally go the right pace, too fast, or too slow? Can you give me an example?”

“How good am I at following the 80/20 rule? When you get something from me, does it feel ‘good enough’ or ‘perfected’? This is how long the last 20% took me—does that seem like a good use of my time?” 

We never get better in a vacuum.

 

Oh, and if learning to work in this way interests you, you might want to become part of our amazing team at 60 Decibels. I’m hiring an Inside Sales Associate to work closely with me, based in New York. The job posting just went up today, so spread the word!

The Flag

I just spent some time off, which included a good deal of driving around the U.S.

My obvious observation is how ludicrously big this country is, and how breathtakingly beautiful. It defies hyperbole.

(There is also tremendous amount of monoculture agriculture, or at least that’s what you see from the highways.)

The one thing I found most surprising, though, was the American flag. Very often we’d see it from the road, often on all the posts of one big farm or another.

And every single time, the farms that displayed that flag also displayed a strong, right-wing message of some sort: either about Trump and the “stolen” election, or something really clever like “Biden Sucks” or “Let’s Go Brandon.”

I hate the fact that when I see the American flag now, I increasingly expect to see, next to it, a statement or sentiment that I find profoundly anti-American. A statement that, to me, rings of intolerance and aggression and hatred.

And I can’t help but wonder what the people who feel strongly about the things I think that flag represents—tolerance, women’s rights, welcoming the stranger, openness to new ideas, and seeing difference as the bedrock of what makes this country great—can do to reclaim that flag.

Perhaps most important of all, we need to again be a nation in which the flag is embraced by everyone, a nation that is unified in our patriotism even though we might be divided on our views and the policies we embrace.

The Stories We Can Tell Without Data

A few weeks ago, Bloomberg published two scathing articles about the microfinance industry. The articles asserted that major investors—both public and private—are making massive profits through their investments in microfinance, while the industry systematically hurts borrowers. The article begins:

Suicides, debtors’ prisons and delinquent borrowers forced to sell their land—the grim social costs linked to microfinance a decade ago were supposed to be a relic of the past. But efforts to clean up the industry lost momentum, and today billions of dollars are flooding into a system that promises the world’s poor a better life while often compounding their misery.

As I shared in an article I posted on LinkedIn yesterday, the claims in this article are not supported by the data.

Most Impact Reports Are Nothing More Than Stories

How could this be?

It’s because this article falls into an all-too-common trap: relying on robust, objective data sets to profile the financial returns to microfinance investors; and resorting to a handful of interviews and case studies of borrowers, plus a number of expert interviews, to paint the story of social impact.

The question we must ask is: how can it possibly be that, in 2022, the social impact of an industry that reaches more than 140 million clients can credibly be assessed from a few dozen client interviews?

And the answer is: because this is common, accepted practice for assessing most social impact.

For most investors, even those who have a stated intention to create social impact, the “assessment” of this impact is a storytelling exercise. These stories are often based on a handful of anecdotes or case studies, which might include conversations with a small number of customers.

Indeed, if you pick up an annual social impact report from most investors or companies, what you’ll have in your hands is, most likely, a narrative exercise devoid of first-hand data.

So, it is no great surprise that microfinance—a well-established, well-respected sector in social investment—has fallen victim to this same sort of storytelling exercise…only this time, the individual case studies paint a particularly troubling picture of the industry.

Better Social Data is Available in Microfinance

My response to the Bloomberg article points out that there is, in fact, a massive dataset that captures the lived experience of nearly 18,000 microfinance clients who represent 25 million microfinance customers.

This dataset, gathered by the company I run, 60 Decibels, shows that microfinance is creating positive outcomes for the vast majority of borrowers:

Nearly three in four of the clients we spoke to said that their loan repayments are “not a problem”…. Seven in 10 of these clients credit their microfinance institution with helping them strengthen their financial resilience, meaning that they are better able to face a major expense. Four in five clients told us their lives are improved thanks to access to microfinance, with a subset of these, one in three, saying their lives are ’very much improved.’ Similarly, four in five clients say they are better able to reach their financial goals thanks to microfinance.

The dataset also shows that, for a small subset of microfinance customers, their microfinance loans are indeed a burden, that their repayments are causing major strain on their well-being, and that their lives are worse, not better, because of their microfinance loans.

The point is: like most financial products, microfinance has the potential to create both benefit and harm. How the service is delivered, and, in particular, product design and client protection practices, play major roles in determining the impact of this product on the lives of millions of customers.

Of course, this more nuanced version of the story doesn’t make for flashy headlines. Then again, we shouldn’t be surprised that the microfinance industry, or any industry that aims to create social impact, would be vulnerable to such a story being written.

Until we set a new standard, one in which regularly collected, objective, comparable, quantifiable social impact data is expected for anyone claiming to create social impact, we will remain an industry that relies on storytelling.

You can read my full article here.

A Different Walk Every Day

My 2-year-old dog, Birdie, needs to walk at least five miles a day to be calm, relaxed and happy.

My wife and I have concluded that the best way to make this work is with lots of walking first thing in the morning. I’ve been taking her 3 miles right when I wake up, and my wife takes her another mile or so when she walks our youngest daughter to school.

I’ve chosen to walk the same route nearly every day. This makes the timing predictable, and it also helps for training purposes (especially if I let her off leash).

A lot of days, the walk/run is great: the air is cool, dew is on the grass, it’s quiet and beautiful, and I feel lucky to be out.

And some days it feels like drudgery. Not only the same walk as yesterday, but the same walk I’ll do tomorrow, and the day after that, until forever. And then I’m bummed and a little overwhelmed.

The good news is that this thought—“am I really going to be doing this same walk every morning for the next decade?”—gets obliterated immediately when I find myself, say, in some high grass with Birdie, and I start watching her: nose twitching like crazy, tail wagging, searching each tuft of grass and thicket of plants for a squirrel, chipmunk, bunny, or turtle—or just to figure out what that great smell is.

We walked through this high grass yesterday, and we will tomorrow, of course.

But this smell, right here and right now, is new and fascinating.

Where I’m getting things totally wrong is my “this walk” construct: an artificial mental shorthand that incorrectly equates today’s walk with yesterday’s and with tomorrow’s.

This is nothing less than lazy thinking by my lazy mind. In my effort to simplify the world, I completely disconnect from the present, and completely miss what is really going on.

This mistake is easy to make, and it’s the reason why we lose momentum and enthusiasm around the work we set out to do.

You can see the conundrum: there is literally no task that we can master without long-term, repeated work.

This means that we need a mindset that will allow us to walk the path of mastery.

This mindset doesn’t begin with commitment or work ethic.

It begins with remembering to stay present and curious.

When we are present, when we are curious, we can see our reality anew. We are constantly in a new moment and always exploring. We are forever on the cusp of discovering what is different about this specific thing at this moment of this day.

Even, and especially, if that different thing is us.