Women’s March

Today is Women’s March day.

It is hard not to think of anything else today. And, it is hard not to write about anything else today.

Seth Godin had a powerful post yesterday on rights that I thought I’d share in full –

Human rights might be our species’ greatest invention.

More than phones or trains or Milky Way bars, our incremental progress toward dignity, opportunity and equality is a miracle.

Rights aren’t a decision we make when we’re in the mood or it’s easy. They’re the bedrock of our culture, our economy and our way of life.

Of course, they’re inconvenient sometimes. That’s precisely why we have to work so hard to defend them.

Deep down, I think each of us understands how much a culture based on dignity is worth. But sometimes, we need to remind each other to stay vigilant, and to keep what our mothers and grandfathers worked so hard for.

I think the most important word in that post is invention. Just as we invented human rights, we also invented nations, religions, races and creeds.

It is wonderful to see folks around the world demonstrate that we all have more in common than we often recognize.

Mistake free

The point of engagement isn’t to be mistake free and perfect. There is no such thing as being perfect as long as we’re alive and learning.

To learn, we experiment. And, as long as we experiment by trying and testing new things, mistakes are inevitable.

Instead, a consequence of engagement is that we spot our mistakes quicker – often right after we make them. That means we get the opportunity to craft a creative, constructive and corrective response. And, once we do that and understand what triggered it, we can aim to keep the benefits of that experiment and move on to different experiments and different mistakes.

Besides, it isn’t mistakes we should fear. It is the absence of a creative, constructive and corrective response that is the real problem.

An engaged life is a wonderfully human life. It is what being alive is all about.

And, making mistakes is an important part of being alive and human.


A friend, who is a restauranteur, once joked – “If a restaurant brands itself as “authentic x cuisine,” it is probably not authentic.” Like a lot of good humor, there is some truth to it.

Most companies, regardless of size, describe themselves as entrepreneurial, transparent and all about work-life balance. Many resumes use words like “self starters” and “lifelong learners.”

This is similar to the authentic cuisine problem. It makes sense that we throw these words out in the hopes of influencing people who’re searching for folks like us. But, how long before we’re found out?

A crazy idea – stick to simple words that you know to be true. In the long run, they do better than some aspirational marketing strategy that’s just not real. As a bonus, you’ll also learn to see things as they are instead of how you’d like them to be.

We need to be able to understand reality before we’re able to influence it.

Earn your stripes

It may not be ideal work. But, we have to earn our stripes.

There are rare moments in time when we can bypass concepts like expertise and tenure. A one-of-a-kind opportunity might come your way. Or, you just might find yourself in the right place, at the right time, and create one for yourself.

But, lucky moments aside, most of us have to do things via the long route. We just have to put in the time and demonstrate our ability to do consistent good work.

But, that’s how it is done. The best investment strategy is to invest in lines, not dots or track records, not one-off achievements.

As Denzel Washington said – “Do what you gotta do so you can do what you wanna do.”

We have to earn our stripes.

No deal

There are many fundamental requirements for a win-win deal to work. We need to take the time to listen to what the opposite side are really saying. That, in turn, will help us understand their key priorities (and ignore their “positions”). But, for them to work, we have to be willing to accept the risk of not doing a deal at all. The wonderful rewards that come from win-win can only work when we’re willing to take that risk.

If you are imagining complex business deal negotiations here, “win-win or no deal” is about a lot more than that. It could be negotiating something with your kids or friends or manager. Great negotiations have the same characteristics – regardless of who we’re negotiating with. Lest we forget, we are negotiating more often than we think.

And, win-win agreements are the best kinds of agreements. They’re typically win-win-win, when executed well, with the third “win” coming for all stakeholders involved.

But, they require us to walk in with a mindset that accepts “Win-win or no deal.”

That’s the overlooked part of the idea of pursuing win-win agreements. They don’t always work. They can’t always work – because it requires both sides to be able to buy into assumptions of abundance.

But, much too often, we give up on them without giving the other side a chance.

As with many great things, we have to start with “this might not work” to give it a shot at actually working.


In 1906, Lee De Forest invented the first amplifier. Until amplifiers were discovered, performers relied on the acoustics of a given space to amplify their voices. Opera artists were expert proponents of this performance genre.

One of the more powerful uses of amplifiers was a political rally. Suddenly, a powerful speaker could command the attention of thousands of people, live. Every great technology has seen uses that are good and evil – the amplifier was no different.

On the one hand, amplifiers were a critical aide in Adolf Hitler’s rise to power.

And, on the other hand, they also helped Martin Luther King Jr. create change that enabled better lives for millions of African American in following generations.

Similarly, all the technology around us can be used to make things better… or worse.

As always, it is our choice.

What to do versus who to be

A close friend emailed Hunter Thompson’s letter “On Finding Your Purpose.” I’d read this a while back but I’d forgotten about it. And, it resonated very deeply this time around. The part that resonated was his distinction between what we want to do and who we want to be. I picked out my favorite notes below.

As I said, to put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.

But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that we can’t BE firemen, bankers, or doctors — but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal.

Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life. But you say, “I don’t know where to look; I don’t know what to look for.”

And there’s the crux. Is it worth giving up what I have to look for something better? I don’t know — is it? Who can make that decision but you? But even by DECIDING TO LOOK, you go a long way toward making the choice.

I feel I’ve been stumbling at the fringes of this idea in my years writing here without ever explaining it with such clarity. Its beauty lies in its simplicity. The conventional approach to life is to focus on what we want to do. We, then, shape who we want to be in accordance. If we end up in a job that requires us to work 90 hours a week, so be it. We’ll give up those dreams of valuing health or family. It assumes no thought or intention.

Instead, decide who we want to be and seek to find a career that conforms. This is hard. Who knows what we want to be?

It turns out we don’t really know what we want to do either. For the most part, we just start with an unconscious hypothesis and keep moving forward. The only difference is that we seem to be following millions of others who are doing the same thing. It is easier.

And, as always, let’s not confuse easier with better.

Germ theory and gender equality

In “How We Got To Now,” Steven Johnson makes an interesting connection between germ theory and gender equality. In the epidemic ridden early 1800s, few made the connection between bad water and disease.

Many advances helped our ancestors make that connection. And, prime among them was germ theory. Thanks to scientists like Ignaz Semmelwies, Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur, we connected germs with disease. Once we did that, the next step was to rid water of germs. And, in one of the riskiest experiments in history, John Leal tested the effects of adding small amounts of Chlorine on the New Jersey water supply without asking anyone for permission. John Leal was a Health Officer at the time. As a physician trained in bacteriology, he was sure a small amount of Chlorine would help eliminate germs. But, it was still a huge risk. And, it paid off.

In one of the most wonderful displays of magnanimity, Leal didn’t patent his idea or attempt to commercialize it in anyway. It was free to spread around the world and it ended up saving millions of lives over time.

A side effect of these steps forward was the creation of swimming pools. And, with the creation of swimming pools came bathing suits. This, in turn, led to a reinvention of attitudes toward the female body. There were multiple other factors that contributed to these change in attitudes – hollywood, mid century feminism, etc. – but few consider the massive effect that clean drinking water had on gender equality.

I’ve been reflecting on this flow of events as it is one I find very powerful. First, I think this is a great illustration of how progress is often so non-linear. It is very hard to make the connection between gender equality and clean drinking water. And, yet, there exists one. It illustrates why progress at a societal level is so hard. After all, there are so many hidden variables that we don’t really understand or control. And, suggesting that we might solve tough societal problems by pulling one or two big levers is naive.

Second, when we look back at human history, we celebrate the likes of the Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein. As we should. But, we should also make space to celebrate the many human beings who, for various reasons, didn’t become immortalized despite their incredible work. Leal, Semmelweiss, Koch, Pasteur and co., combined probably saved more lives than any other human team. Here’s to their incredible work.

We really do walk on the shoulders of giants.

Fifteen steps backwards

There are many things that make changing personal habits very hard. But, one that makes this process supremely frustrating is the fact that, after some initial success, you start by taking fifteen step backwards for every one step forward.

We’ve all been there. The first week of our new exercise routine goes great. And, then comes the lull. Two weeks go by. We’re struggling. Should we just give up?

Maybe that’s why personal change is the hardest kind of change there is. Dealing with the obvious conflict between our rational and emotional selves can drive us nuts. And, try as we might, there really isn’t an easy solution. There are no hacks that can solve the problem. There is only awareness, thought, patience and consistent effort.

Take one step forward and fifteen steps back. Then, try again. And, again – maybe it will be fourteen steps back this time. And, yet, you’ll continue to feel that stubborn force pushing you back.

Steven Pressfield called this force the resistance – the force that acts against all personal change, progress and creativity.

You know, Hitler wanted to be an artist. At eighteen he took his inheritance, seven hundred kronen, and moved to Vienna to live and study… Ever see one of his paintings? Neither have I. Resistance beat him. Call it overstatement but I’ll say it anyway: it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.

Overstatement or not, we often find it easier to conquer environments, nations and organizations than to conquer ourselves.