How to Use Email

From the Praxis blog.  Amusing note: when originally published, this post probably got more anger and disagreement than any I’ve written.

I don’t care how old-school it may seem to younger people, email remains the dominant form of communication in the business world.  It is absolutely essential that you understand and do it well.  Most young people don’t realize how often they shoot themselves in the foot with poor email use.

Here are ten tips to make you better…

1. Don’t have a ridiculous email address.

Any email address that ends in .edu (unless you’re a professor) or sbcglobal.net, or really almost anything other than Gmail is prone to make you look unprofessional.  Email addresses that use cutesy phrases or words that have nothing to do with your name are annoying.  Yourname@gmail.com or @your own personal or company domain (only if that’s a company you want to be associated with longish term) are best, or the simplest variations thereof.

2. Check it often.

I don’t care how available you are on Twitter, Facebook, or whatever other social platform.  Email is used for business, so check it regularly.  Early in your career, when you need other people more than they need you, it should be checked multiple times a day.  No excuse suffices, not even the common, “My computer crashed”.  Get a new one.  Use a phone.

3. Respond ASAP.

There is no such thing as too quick of a reply to an email.  Again, when you’re at the point in your career when you need people more than they need you it is especially important to respond quickly.  If you’re truly swamped or travelling to a remote jungle with no cell signal or WiFi, email back immediately letting people know when you’ll respond in detail.  Silence is deadly and signals you’re not trustworthy or reliable to get stuff done. Some may disagree, but I think within 24 hours is the target, certainly no more than 48.

4. Don’t use other methods unless you have to.

Never reach out to someone via Facebook message, Tweet, LinkedIn, or other platforms unless you want them to treat it as not that important.  It may be fine for social communiques with your friends, but for business, email people.  The exception is if you have no email address for them.  In this case, it’s fair game but always offer your email address and give them the option to switch the conversation over to email.

5. Don’t call about anything that can be handled over email.

One of the most annoying things in the world for busy business-people is the unnecessary phone call.  If you have a simple question, or a list of ideas, or anything that can be handled via email, use email.  Emails may reveal the need for a phone call to discuss further, but then you can exchange preferred numbers and schedule something.  There are few things worse than an unexpected call from an unrecognized number about something email could have handled.  One of the things that’s worse, however, is getting a text or an email that says, “Hey, can you call me?” only to get on the phone and realize it is a simple question that could have been included in the email.

The only exception to this rule is for people who obviously prefer phone or another method.  Always assume email, but if you email someone two or three times, and each time they respond by calling, texting, or Skyping, try that method first the next time around.  But again, email should be the first and default.

6. Know when to CC.

When someone effects an email introduction between you and another party, CC them in your initial response.  They need to know the loop was closed and the connection made.  They risked social capital on you, so put them at ease that you did your part.  The exception is if they explicitly say something like, “You can take it from here, no need to loop me in.”  In this case, they probably mean they don’t want to be CC’d on a long chain of back and forth with you and your new contact, BUT, they should definitely be informed that you did in fact follow up.  BCC or a separate email to them saying thanks and the connection has been made is in order.

7. Don’t make more than one ask.

Don’t email someone to introduce yourself or your idea for the first time and then ask if they’d be interested in speaking at your event, forwarding an attachment to their friends, talking on the phone, doing a guest blog post, and being part of a brainstorm session all in one email.  They’ll be irritated and are less likely to do any of them.  Boil it down to one ask. If communication is well established, multi-purpose emails may be acceptable, but use with caution.

8. Get to the point.

Easy on the paragraphs, bullet points, attachments, and verbiage.  Avoid special formatting.

9. Follow the lead.

If your correspondent is using shorthand, no salutation, colloquialisms, GIFs, lols or other informal techniques, it’s probably OK for you to do the same.  Never start out this way though, even if writing from a mobile device.  Assume the need for proper punctuation, capitalization, full sentences and good grammar unless it becomes an established norm with your interlocutor.

10. Don’t ask people to email a different address unless absolutely necessary.

This means it’s important to use the email address you want to people to send to when you put contact info on profiles, resumes, business cards and applications.  It will drive people mad to respond to an applicant via the email address listed and get, “Sorry it took me so long to respond, I never check this account.”  This also means you should strive to have only one or two email addresses, and probably ensure they all flow into a single box so nothing is missed.

The Line Between Finding Your Method and Letting Yourself Off the Hook

I listen to a lot of podcasts and read a lot of interviews and articles about the different habits and schedules of successful people.  Some get up at 4:00 AM, some get up at 11:00 AM.  Some work 16 hours in a day, some work two.  Some need people and energy around, some need solitude.  Every one of them is disciplined, but what they discipline themselves to do and how differs tremendously.

The more you learn about habits like this the more pressure you can feel.  I’ve had various phases in life where I felt guilty for not getting up earlier like so many people.  I’ve gotten up at 5 or 6 every day for sometimes long periods.  But honestly, it never helped me.  I feel physically ill early in the morning.  I used to dislike that about myself, but I realized it was only because I had this feeling that I should be more like successful people I know.  Yet none of those people got up early for its own sake.  They did because they found it to be the best schedule for them, given their own rhythm and flow.

It’s hard to shed guilt or pressure to implement the habits of other successful people.  It’s freeing to realize that you have your own methods that work for you, and they might look totally different.  That realization can also be a bit dangerous.  Am I sleeping in because that’s really the best way for me to optimize my day, or am I doing it because I’m lazy or lack the discipline to not drink too much the previous night?

It takes a lot of self-knowledge and self-honesty to find out what works for you and be honest about whether you’re really doing it.  The thing most successful people share in common is not the habits themselves, but how they arrived at them.  Constant seeking of new ideas and information.  Testing out ideas and practices you hear from others.  Being honest about which ones work and then sticking with them.  When you get slack, not pretending you slacked because it didn’t work.  Being honest about which ones don’t work at all and dropping them.

The line between putting unhealthy pressure on yourself based on a desire to imitate others and putting healthy pressure on yourself based on a desire to optimize your life can be a fine one.  Treat it like a game, laugh at yourself, and keep exploring until you find things that work.

The Infantilization of Everyone

Yesterday I saw an article by a teacher in the Bay Area asking NBA MVP Stephan Curry to not visit his school.  The teacher loves Steph’s team and Steph’s game and is happy for his success.  He just doesn’t want him to come visit the kids because he’s afraid the kids will think they can do what Curry has done.  The teacher pointed to Curry’s NBA father and other things he had growing up that helped him better train for a career in basketball than most of these kids will have access to.

The teacher’s concern is not unlike comments and complaints I see every time someone shares a post or article or piece of advice to young people.  Even seemingly simple things like, “Keep your expenses low so you can seize opportunities to do cool stuff even if it doesn’t pay”, or, “Try getting experience before deciding on a career path”, or, “Go after things you really love”,  are met with cries of, “That’s dangerous advice”, and, “Not everyone is privileged like you”, and, “You’re setting people up for failure because that advice doesn’t apply to every situation”.

My question to the teacher and the posers of these objections is the same: who are these people you are so concerned about?

Surely the teacher doesn’t think his students are too stupid to realize that Steph Curry has different physical characteristics than they do.  Surely his pupils aren’t so naive and ignorant of all aspects of the world to think that every person who wants to will be an NBA star.  Who among them will spend all of their time training only to have their life ruined when they discover too late that the Golden State Warriors won’t pay them to play?

And who is going to destroy their own life with no hope of recovery based on a Facebook post?  Who is going to assume every piece of advice they’ve ever heard applies to their every situation?

It’s incredibly demeaning to assume everyone but you is so dumb they must be protected from success stories or inspiration or advice because they’ll be unable to see differences between those giving it and their own lives.  It’s arrogant, unbecoming, and at worst the basis for paternalistic forms of social control.

Kids aren’t dumb.  Neither are poor people.  They know they’re almost certainly not going to be Michael Jordan or Beyoncé or Bill Gates.  Meeting and hearing from successful people – whether “privileged” or not – can be eye-opening, exciting, and challenging.  It can be fun.  Hearing their stories and tips and advice can be useful.

Coddling people and running around policing anyone who talks about their success or says, “You can do great stuff”, or keeping a privilege scorecard doesn’t help anyone.

Being inspired is not dangerous.  Being uninspired is.

Ask Isaac: Grab Bag – Optimism, Failure, Aging, and More

The second installment of “Ask Isaac”, where I respond to listener questions, covers a handful of questions posed on Facebook.  When is quitting smart and when should you push through?  Is aging a disease?  Can you be duped by your own optimism?

Feel free to send along questions of your own on Twitter, Facebook, or email and I’ll try to get to as many as I can on future episodes.  As always, this and all episodes are available on SoundCloud, iTunes, and Stitcher.

How Nike Supports the Arts

The Kobe Bryant ads featuring Kayne West, Jerry Rice, Richard Branson, Tony Robbins, and others are so amazingly good and have provided me with ridiculous entertainment value. It got me thinking…

I have been a consumer of Nike for years, but I can’t remember the last time I paid a dime for it. I’ve been a huge fan of and benefited greatly from their funny, entertaining, inspiring, and beautiful ads and marketing campaigns, but I haven’t brought a product in a long time. People often worry about the negative side effects of profit-seeking behavior, yet how many stop to ponder the positive side-effects? Marketing doesn’t just convey information about products to potential buyers, it provides free entertainment and art – sometimes truly top notch – to the rest of us and makes society so much richer.

Some of the greatest benefactors of the arts and entertainment are companies that produce something totally different to earn money.

Nike, you never fail to impress with your marketing savvy. Thanks for giving us this free gift!

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I’ve written about how marketing creates value here (one of my personal favorite posts of all time, FWIW), and how marketing is a form of voluntary redistribution from the wealthy to the poor.

The Secret Skill That Beats All the Rest

From the Praxis blog

I’m going to tell you a secret. There is a skill you can master which will guarantee everything you do will improve by at least 50%, but probably more like 100%, and more over time.

The best part about this skill is it’s easy. Anyone can obtain it. You don’t need to have any particular natural talent. You don’t need any resources or teachers to master it. Once you have it and it becomes a part of your every operation you will begin to achieve at an accelerating rate. Your success will compound and your reputation will bring you more opportunities.

In the words of Morpheus, “Do you want to know what it is?”

Getting sh*t done.

That’s it. Read it again. Let it sink in.

What does it look like in practice? Responding to emails immediately, and never taking longer than 24 hours to do so. Showing up for everything you’ve said you’d show up for. Finishing everything you’ve said you’d finish and on time. When you say, “I’ll read that book”, or, “I’ll check out that website”, or, “I’ll send my resume”, doing it. Immediately. If you can’t or won’t, don’t say those things. Every time you say you’ll do something and don’t you’ve missed an opportunity to be better than the majority of your peers and build social capital.

In 90% of situations I’d take someone with coherent same-day responses to all communications who always delivers as promised and when promised over someone with mastery over just about any skill I can think of. I’m not alone in this. The desperate need for hard working, reliable people who communicate immediately all the time is off the charts.

If you make people wait for responses or wonder if you’ll ever follow through you’ve cost them, even if only psychologically. People don’t tend to want to work with people who cost them, they want to work with people who they never have to expend any mental energy worrying about. They want to work with people who pleasantly surprise them by over-delivering.

Anyone can be the person who always follows through, always communicates, always delivers, and never leaves anyone hanging or in the dark. It’s only a matter of will and discipline.

Just get stuff done.

Your Lack of Income Can Be an Asset

From the Praxis blog.

Let’s say you want to do something awesome.  Maybe you’re interested in being a part of a startup or an entrepreneurial business.  Maybe you’ve got a creative side, and you’d jump at the chance to work on a movie script.  The less cushy your current life, the higher the chance you’ll be in a position to answer when opportunity knocks.  The lower the cost of exit, the easier exit becomes.

A lot of young people just starting out in their careers feel pressure to scratch and claw for a few thousand more in salary and keep up with friends who are moving into nicer houses, driving nicer cars, eating sushi every Tuesday, and shopping at trendy places.  There’s nothing wrong with any of these things, but if you have a stomach for more risk than the average person, and a desire to do some really cool stuff, you might want to resist the urge to upgrade your lifestyle.  Your relatively low income can be a huge asset.

Even the most frugal and self-controlled among us have a propensity to adopt a standard of living right up to our capacity (sometimes beyond).  It makes sense.  In fact, it’d be a little weird if you were raking in cash and sleeping on a park bench, just waiting for the opportunity to use your capital.  Living in the moment is fine.  The thing is, there are so many ways to happily do this.  I’ve found that, whatever the income level, once it’s above a certain very low baseline, you can organize a pretty happy life around it.  The higher it goes, the more you spend and it is damn-near impossible to go backwards.

I knew a guy once who had a great job, making more than any of his peers, but at a place that pressured employees to upgrade their cars, houses, etc.  He soon found himself in a lifestyle that only that well-paid job could sustain.  Then the job turned sour.  He wanted out.  But how to convince his wife, his kids, and himself to downgrade the car, the monthly budget, the mortgage?  Some of these things couldn’t be done at all on short notice.  His high income was not a source of freedom, but a chain, preventing him from doing what he wanted.

So you’re young and and your income is low.  That’s a huge advantage for you.  That means if your friend tells you she wants you to help launch a new business, but you might not get paid for the first six months, you can probably swing it, since you’re already accustomed to eating Ramen and you have no DirecTV to cancel.  Some of the best and brightest are incapable of jumping on great opportunities because they’ve earned decent money quickly, then hemmed themselves in, unable to ever downgrade their short term quality of life.  If you can, you have a competitive edge.

Obviously, no one wants to stay forever on a diet of canned chicken.  But when you’re young, and at the beginning of the discovery process of what makes you come alive, it’s helpful to be free from a huge list of material needs.  You’d be surprised how much an early high income can stall further progress towards your goals.

So if you think you’re poor compared to your friends, smile.  When you consider all your assets and liabilities – your skills, interests, strengths, weaknesses, capital, time, flexibility, etc. – include on the asset side of the ledger the fact that you don’t really need much money to maintain your current quality of life.  It may come in handy when the chance to do something amazing, and far more rewarding in the long term (materially and otherwise), emerges and you’re ready to jump while your buddies have to turn it down to stay with a job that pays for their $15 “happy hour” cocktails.

Episode 13: Albert Lu on Podcasting, Parenting, and the Patriots

Albert Lu, host of the Power & Market Report, joins me to talk about how he went from engineering to financial management to podcasting.  Albert is the one who convinced me to start a podcast, so the show is really his brainchild!  We also discuss parenting and the free-range education of children, and touch on his favorite NFL team the New England Patriots.

As always, this and all episodes can be found on SoundCloud, iTunes, and Stitcher.

Debt Can Limit Your Options (even when it’s ‘worth it’)

From the Praxis blog.

It’s hard to find a way to combine your career with your passion. It’s much harder if you need to make a lot of money to pay for your lifestyle, loans, etc. I know a number of people who make lots of money – enough to make that law degree a sound financial investment, for example – but hate what they do. The sound financial investment – trading debt for a ticket to a high paying job – turns out to have limited their options to only jobs that pay well enough to service the debt, and they ended up not liking those jobs.

In other words, the lower your wage requirements, the more flexibility you have early on to explore and test and find work you love. Keep that in mind with each step. Ask whether your present decisions are limiting your future options in a way you might regret.

I don’t mean to pick on law students with the above example, but that’s the one I see the most. People get a law degree because they’re smart, and they imagine a law degree as opening up a lot of career options. But after they graduate and have huge debts to pay, the number of jobs that cover it are limited. If you don’t enjoy corporate law, you might feel trapped.

It’s not just education debt that can limit you to jobs you don’t like.  I’ve also met a lot of people who feel stuck with a high paying job they hate because they bought an expensive house or car. If a nicer house and a less enjoyable job is a trade-off you’re happy with, by all means go for it! But it’s hard to undo once you jump in, so be cautious and thoughtful.

I talk a little more here about how low income can be an asset early in life.

Two Weeks on Soylent

I just completed my two week Soylent experiment.  I loved it!

For the past 15 days I had Soylent for breakfast and lunch, with the exception of one day each weekend.  It was fast, easy, filling, and I felt great.  I often skimp or skip breakfast altogether, and lunch is either a barrage of snacks, a frozen burrito, or $12 spent on Pho.  The former are too time-consuming with little payoff in the way of pleasure, and the latter is too expensive to do every day.

Soylent provides a great alternative, and far better than just protein shakes or other supplements.  It doesn’t supplement a meal, it is a meal.  I found that within minutes of drinking a 500 calorie serving, I was full.  And it lasted.  I would be full for 3-4 hours and not even think of food.  For lunch I sometimes needed more like a 600 calorie serving to last longer than 3 hours.

Every other morning I’d pour a 2000 calorie packet into the pitcher they provided free with my order, half full of water.  Seal, shake vigorously, add a bit more water, shake again, pour a glass, and put in the fridge.  Each container would give me two breakfasts and two lunches.  Many people say they wait until it’s chilled to drink it, but I don’t mind it at room temp.

The taste is vaguely nutty and slightly vanilla, but mostly just inoffensive bland cream with some sandy grit.  My wife hated it, my son didn’t like it at first but then liked it, and I honestly enjoy it quite a bit.  I did add a splash of almond milk a few times, which has a natural sweetness.  That definitely made it better, but again, I don’t mind it as is and never got sick of it as I have some flavored protein shakes.

I found in general that I feel slightly better than normal when doing Soylent for both meals.  Nothing amazing, but to just consistently have a decent sized breakfast and lunch helped me feel more energy, and it definitely reduced distraction.  I especially like that it doesn’t get your hands (and hence you laptop, phone, etc.) greasy or get crumbs all over the desk or floor.  I typically eat in the office, so this dramatically improved that experience.

It also made me like dinner more.  You notice taste, smell, and texture more and enjoy them more fully when you save them for the really good stuff that you have time to experience.  Filling up on chips during the day makes taco salad for dinner less exciting, etc.  Soylent is so basic and utilitarian that it allows you to really enjoy the full meal experience when you have time for it.

A few small annoyances include the fact that the pitcher they sent doesn’t always seal, so sometimes when shaking it some would spurt out.  The design of the packets also make it a little hard to get all the powdered contents out with some missing the pitcher, but that’s very minor.  The fact that you can’t keep it in the fridge more than a few days after it’s been mixed is also annoying, but they sent a scoop to make single servings too, so again, a minor inconvenience.

I’d still like to see the price come down.  At around $3/meal it’s not bad, but more than breakfast and some lunches might come out to if you buy largish quantities of lunch meat or frozen meals.

Oh, one final word: if you do Soylent you need to make sure to drink lots of water.  I tend to drink at least 10 full glasses a day anyway, but if you don’t, you’ll want to or you’ll feel a little odd, especially after the first meal or two while you’re adjusting.  I also found that adding more than the recommended amount of water per serving to the mix was not helpful, as it just made the texture less enjoyable and increased the volume you needed to consume.

I wish they were on the shelves of the grocery store, which would make it easier to work in to the grocery rotation.  Still, I plan to keep a supply around and use them somewhat regularly for breakfast and lunch during the week.  It’s great to have a fallback that gets the job done so nicely.

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