Category: Commentary

When to Bring Your ‘A’ Game

You can’t always bring your best game to every task.  In fact, if you tried it’d be wasteful.  Not all tasks are of equal value.

So when to bring your ‘A’ game?  Here’s a rule of thumb that’s been useful for me:

When you expect others to bring their best self, bring yours.

If you’re interviewing someone, you’ll ding them for not bringing their best.  As the interviewer, if you expect them to come on the ball, so should you.  Don’t rush in and lazily conduct the interview.

If you expect someone to do their best editing job on your writing, do your best composing it.

If you are OK with someone doing a B+ for a task, you can do the same.  I don’t expect my wife to summon every one of her culinary powers every time she makes dinner, and I don’t demand of myself my absolute highest spic-and-span cleanup job after.  It’s a B+ environment.  If one of the kids is sick and it’s a crisis, I expect her ‘A’ game and demand my own!

If you want to know when to put in 110%, ask when you expect it of others.

Why The Degree is Dying (and being replaced by something better)

I don’t mean that college degrees are less pervasive, but that the usefulness of the degree is dying, and in many cases, it’s entirely dead.  Most people just don’t realize it yet.

What is a degree?  It purports to be a bundle of goods – knowledge, network, social experience, and a permission slip to compete for certain jobs.  It’s only one of these.  The permission slip, or credential, intended to signal your ability to employers, is the product.  That is the thing being bought and sold.  The rest is window dressing.

It’s easy enough to prove this.  Every other aspect of the college experience could be had for free.  Move to a college town and do it all, even attend classes, except you can’t get the paper without paying tuition.  Everyone does, a clear indication that they’re buying the credential and not the other stuff.

A degree signals some minimum level of ability to an employer.  At least it used to.  It’s easier than ever to signal a higher level of ability in other ways, rendering the degree moot.  If you have something better than a high-school diploma, your diploma doesn’t do much for you.  Likewise, if you have something better than a degree, your degree doesn’t matter much.

More employers are looking for experience, tangible results, giving test projects and trial periods, and fewer are looking at degrees and static resumes with third-party credentials.  Thanks to plunging information costs, your body of work is more demonstrable than ever, which makes an institutional stamp of approval less important than ever.  What’s worth more, a degree in marketing, or proof you built an online store with great conversion rates, marketing copy, and sales numbers?  Will that BA in Communications scream to employers that you have the creativity to create and test marketing campaigns, or the resolve to research, pursue, and track sales leads?  Unlikely.

This is a good thing.  The dying signal power of a degree has many beneficial outcomes.

It’s good for young people.  They don’t need five years and six figures to get started on a great career, and their path from student to professional is more tailored and interesting.  They are not a commodity on a jobs board.

It’s good for employers.  Identifying, recruiting, and training good employees is far more efficient when project and proof based signals are used over institutional stamps.

It’s good for classrooms and genuine intellectuals.  Yes, you heard that right.  There’s a value to classroom learning, but it’s currently endured unhappily by most students (and many professors) as a means to get the paper credential.  This unholy marriage of credential and classroom has done damage to both.  Learning environments without the (supposedly) magic job ticket are of vastly superior quality.  Whether free or paid, online or in person, podcasts, courses, videos, and lectures of all kinds freely chosen by interested learners maintain quality that mandated credentialed classes can’t touch.

This last point smashes a pernicious myth perpetrated by some academics.  That skipping college is anti-intellectual.  Far from it.  Self-driven learning has never fared better, and the conflation of desperation for a job ticket with thirst for knowledge is absurd.

The death of the degree is not because of a rise in skilled trades either.  That is all well and good for those who want it, but the real revolution comes not when more people choose careers that never involved college, but when people realize that they don’t need degrees for most of the jobs they thought did.

It’s still a remnant, but more and more bright young people are opting out of the degree mill and instead building a portfolio of projects and getting early professional experience.  They are, in essence, becoming their own credential instead of buying one from centralized institution.  It’s most prominent for those with more “soft” skills, stepping into roles in sales, marketing, and operations.  It’s most prominent at nimble, fast growing tech startups without big HR bureaucracy.

I have seen dozens of 17, 18, 19, and 20 year olds with no degree gain skills and learn how to prove it, often through apprenticeships or unpaid projects, and land amazing jobs paying more than their peers will earn five years later when they shop their degree around.  This isn’t fantasy, and it isn’t just for rare geniuses.

Were it not for the massive subsidies, artificially cheap credit, and regulatory apparatus favoring degrees, their death would be far more rapid and obvious.  Still, the revolution is here.  The first movers are already taking advantage of it.


The Tighter the (self-imposed) Constraint, the More Freeing

We ran a workshop for Praxis participants and alumni last night on how to write fast.  I had a hunch that one of the reasons many of them had struggled to get blog posts out (participants all take on a daily blogging challenge in the bootcamp) quickly was because of option overload.

You stare at the blank blog editor and think, “What should I write about today?”  That’s a terribly unhelpful question.  It gets you further from hitting publish than if you never ask it at all, because it reminds you of the infinite possibilities.  Of all those things, which is THE one I should pick?  Cognitive overload.

We opened the workshop with a series of exercises I thought might reveal this problem and help overcome it.  First, I told everyone to write as many words as they could in 3 minutes on any subject.  Imposing the time constraint and the goal of word maximization would get things flowing, as urgency would overcome analysis.  People hammered out a range of 30 or so words to 150 or so words, and we read a few.  They weren’t bad either.

Then we added a constraint.  Same exercise, but the topic was chosen for them at random.  I chose ‘baseball’.  This time, the lowest word count was more like 50, and the highest near 200.  We read a few, and they were good!  Participants said having the topic chosen made it easier to crank out content.

Next we tried to write exactly 50 words on the topic of Tortoises, and finally a Haiku on the topic of Outer Space.  Both resulted in rather high quality stuff, and it wasn’t that torturous to do it.

In about 10 minutes, everyone had written four things, any of which could be blog posts.

There are plenty of other ways to improve speed and overcome writer’s block, but few are more effective than the freedom of self-imposed constraints.  Doesn’t even matter what they are.  They can be totally arbitrary.  Something about gamifying and putting limits on the creative process turns up the speed and volume.  To me, speed and quantity matter more than quality, because the best way to improve quality is to do the thing over and over and over.

“I Dropped Out, Now What?”

I see a lot of questions like this on Quora.  It always strikes me as odd to be asking “What should I do” only in light of being a dropout.  As if sitting on the ed conveyor belt doesn’t require you to ask this same question.  What you should do as a dropout is the same thing you should do as a human being.

My recent answer:

  • Create structure for yourself. What it is is less important than that it is.
  • Get a paying job. Anything will do to start.
  • Get really good at the above job. Even if you don’t love it, being good at it will open up more things you like more.
  • Do something every single day to add value to yourself.
  • Ignore everyone who tries to guilt or pressure you.
  • Have an optimistic, playful, yet focused outlook.
  • Learn to tell your own story, and find inspiration in the stories of others.

This was top of the head.  There’s tons of stuff!  It’s sort of sad and sort of scary how hard it is for schooled minds to conceive of any kind of activities outside the system.  It’s also an exciting market opportunity!

Why Most Homeschooling Systems Devolve (you can’t overplan a startup)

I was homeschooled.  My mom began with big dreams, checklists, and curricula.  Each year, the intended structure broke down bit by bit.  This is a common experience for homeschoolers.  It happened to me and my wife too.  We ordered a massive, detailed curriculum for our son, bright 5 year old that he was, and planned every day’s activities.  It fell apart in a few months.  Within a fear years, we were unschooling.

This is a feature of homeschooling, not a bug.

You can think of homeschooling your kid like launching a startup.  You have this wonderful thing with massive potential.  It grows fast.  You craft a detailed business plan, product roadmap, sales and marketing funnel, purchase all the best automation software, and build a stack and procedures for how you’ll schedule weekly department meetings before you even have departments.  You’re ready to scale!

Then you meet the market and a funny thing happens.  Your fancy CRM and all its detailed glory can’t keep up, so you use side spreadsheets and sticky notes for everything.  You tell yourself you’ll eventually integrate it into the CRM.  But by the time you’re large enough to worry about the best process, you’ve learned your original CRM was a bad fit for your model anyway.

Your cobbled patchwork (is that a mixed metaphor?) of systems and activities is the only kind that can survive early growth stage, which requires constant adaptation, experimentation, and flexibility.  This messiness isn’t a problem for startups, it’s the only thing that makes them possible.  It’s why big bureaucratic corporations can’t do rapid innovation.

If you tried to impose corporate structures on startups, or even the same structures on two different startups, you’d stifle them when they were most vulnerable AND when they had the highest potential upside.  They couldn’t create value, but would burn cash and require constant subsidization.  And as information and transaction costs come down, the nimble startup approach of decentralized action is moving up market.  More and more larger and larger companies are trying to do more of it.  It’s the environment good ideas need to realize their potential.

Kids are fundamentally, radically different from each other.  Siblings or not, the individual differences far outweigh similarities.  And kids are very different from their parents, both in fundamental ways and because of the stage each is in.  Your education roadmap is about as useful for their learning as a ten-year plan for how to schedule casual Friday at a startup.  What you and they need are openness, flexibility, constant feedback, experimentation, enough resources to try things (just like in startups, way less than you think), a sense of play, and an acceptance of the fact that you are along for the ride as much as you’re guiding the mission.

The notion of a year-long plan created in an Ivory Tower and imposed on all students of the same age without deviation no matter what market feedback is coming is absurd and tyrannical.  Imagine an incubator like Y-Combinator paying some smarties to come up with The One True Business Model, roll-out schedule, target market, hiring strategy, budget, and action plan, and imposing it upon every one of the startups in their program.  Oh, and demanding every company produce and sell the exact same product.

Of course this is a crude analogy and kids and startups are different in many ways (you don’t own or sell shares of your kids, for example).  Here’s the key insight that’s helped me enjoy the chaos, gained after launching a startup while unschooling my kids: If you’re a homeschooler, don’t feel guilt if your plans crumble around you.  Your kids are relentlessly curious, and even if you abandon formal teaching altogether, they will learn.  They cannot be stopped.  What they learn will be more valuable to them than any imposed plan created in the abstract for and intended to produce, “The average kid”.

Your Curiosity is Your Expertise

I’ve met a lot of people who really want to launch a podcast, blog, book, business or similar project.  Most of them have a kind of sheepish belief that they lack the standing to do so, and if they put themselves out their as a speaker, writer, host, leader, etc. they’d be a fraud.

There are plenty of frauds out there, and even more people who call other people frauds.  Of course you don’t want to be one.  But if you let fear of fraudulence keep you from doing something, you’re likely to be stuck forever.  You’ll never have a level of expertise that shields you 100% from accusations of fraud, or the chance that you might not know what you’re talking about.

The way to combat this isn’t to fake it or project so much bombastic confidence you scare away haters.  Nor is it to shut down and do nothing.  The way to combat this is to completely own your status as a novice.  Don’t present your knowledge to the world, present your curiosity.

People who are best at being curious are most interesting to others.  Why do show hosts have a bigger platform than the narrow experts they bring on?  The hosts are rarely experts in anything…except being curious.  Their unique brand of curiosity, where it leads them, and how they explore it, is a form of expertise.  And one that can’t be fraudulent, because it’s unique to them.  Why do so many people listen to Tim Ferriss or Joe Rogan?  They don’t do much talking in their shows, and they’re rarely expert on the topics at hand.  But they are expert at being curious about the world and their guests in their unique and genuine way.

If you stoke and cultivate your curiosity, it will open up more doors than you can imagine.  Curiosity is your best expertise.  It’s the calling card that lets you do things well above your level of knowledge.  People love journeying with a fellow traveler probably more than they like being talked to by an expert anyway.

You Don’t Have to Talk About Everything

TK Coleman calls it, “The lost art of processing”.  I don’t know if it’s been lost, or if it’s always been rare and the internet makes its absence more apparent.  Whatever the case, keeping your shit to yourself until you’ve worked through it is an unsung skill.

Transparency, failure-porn, mentors, community, and other ways to let it all hang out are uncritically praised.  An open culture is vastly superior to a closed one, and the trend favoring openness is a good thing society-wide.  But that doesn’t mean it’s a universal virtue on the individual level.

In fact, giving it five minutes, not giving up your power for attention, and learning to process your experiences and emotions in solitude may be a more important individual skill.  Real openness is better after you’ve done some inner work to sort through the mess.

You don’t always need immediate and public likes and support for every struggle.

You don’t always need a community with whom to share your innermost feelings.

You don’t always need a mentor or coach or guide.

All of the above are valuable, but their value is severely diminished unless and until you do the hard, quiet, thankless, individual work between you and your feelings.

It’s easy to see how valuable personal processing is when you’re required to do some before you take your struggles to the world.  At Praxis, our advisors do regular office hours, workshops, and sessions with participants on anything from improving websites, projects, pitches, or interviews to personal challenges and struggles of motivation.  When we added, “Send an email detailing the 1-3 specific things you want to cover” as a requirement for booking office hours, their value skyrocketed.  Just a little bit of pre-work before seeking external assistance goes a long way.

The share-it-with-someone knee-jerk reaction to hardship is often counter-productive.  It acts as a release valve, letting us blow off just enough steam and get just enough encouragement to forget the struggle and move on.  Meanwhile, the underlying system failure remains.

If your tendency is to bottle everything up inside and struggle with shame, this post isn’t for you.  Find someone you trust and get it out.  But if you find yourself immediately looking for a place to share every trial and triumph, learn to process first.  It pays dividends.  It’s not a bad thing to have layers to yourself deeper than what can be found on the internet.