How to Build Social Capital

Not enough saving, way too much spending.  Willingness to go deep into debt, a demand for instant gratification, and the inability to defer consumption.  I think these problems are real, and far too common.  But I’m not talking about money.  I’m talking about social capital.

A lot of young people, eager to carve out a career and life path, burst onto the social/professional scene looking for favors.  Every new person they meet might be able to help them get a gig, a contract, an interview, or a check.  I don’t think most realize that approaching people with a, “What can you do for me and my career?” mindset is the fastest way to burn through social currency and end up broke.

Every time we interact cordially with another person we generate some good will.  It’s like putting a deposit into a social bank account with their name on it.  A simple smile and a handshake is worth a little.  A interesting conversation is worth more.  Connecting them to an idea or person of value to their goals, offering insightful feedback, or helping them achieve something can be worth quite a bit.  Being reliable, and doing these things consistently over time can build up a massive balance.  When you consider all the people you know and meet, it’s easy to see how a diverse portfolio of social capital can accumulate.  In the long-term, this social capital is more valuable than money, education, or credentials.

I’ve observed a lot of ambitious types meet a new person, and two minutes after shaking their hand, try to withdraw the tiny amount of capital they accumulated.  Indeed, many try to take out a massive loan without even a down-payment.  Every time you ask something of someone, you’re withdrawing some currency.  If all you’ve done is say hi and tell them where you work, you’ve deposited the minimum balance to establish an account.  When you follow this by immediately asking them to introduce you to someone, or read your manuscript, it’s like setting up a free checking account, dropping five bucks in, then hitting up the ATM for ten grand.  When nothing comes out, you shouldn’t be surprised.  The next move should not be to see a loan officer and beg for credit.

Don’t misunderstand; allowing others to help you can also be a way to accumulate social capital.  If someone really wants to help you, or if part of their job is to help you, or if they want to offer advice on something they are more experienced in than you, let them.  People love to be helpful, and especially love to give their opinion.  If you think of creating social capital only as you helping others, it may come off as condescending.  Often the best way is to ask people about their own life, work, and success.  Tell them your dreams and ask them what advice they’d offer, then really listen and try to take something from it.  Being an eager and grateful recipient of things that others enjoy giving is one of the best ways to achieve a positive balance in their account.

If you spend social capital before you’ve earned it, you probably will get ahead faster than your peers.  If you push and pester every new contact and drop business cards faster than Bernanke prints bank-notes, you will eventually get some interviews and make a little headway.  You’ll have the debt-fueled illusion of prosperity.  But you’ll owe so much to so many.  Your reputation, like a credit score, will scare away the prudent, who are those you’ll most need in the long run.  If you tap your Rolodex for social capital for every new pursuit, you’ll have nowhere to go when the really good idea comes along.  You’ll be a short term prodigy and a mid-long term failure.

Create a relational reserve.  See every person as another place to deposit some social cash, let it earn interest and be accessible when something really worthwhile pops up.  Ask yourself what you can do for people.  Don’t over-strategize how much help to offer based on how much you might value their help later.  It comes off as sketchy, and you’re probably not smart enough to figure out ahead of time who will generate the best return.  Keep a diverse portfolio, but deposit more where returns are consistent and solid over time.  Think about people that you would be eager to do a favor for, ask yourself what it is about them that earned your willingness, and emulate it.

If you spend your professional life building up social capital by being generally helpful, resourceful, reliable, and likable, you’ll soon have tremendous net social worth.  That pool of social capital can provide more knowledge, skill, counsel, connection, and even cash than any amount of paper money you could save.  There will come a time to withdraw and spend social capital.  There may even be a time to borrow some on credit, but you’ll need a good credit score and a down-payment in the very least.

Make it your goal to help people, listen to people, generate goodwill, and deposit a little more each day in your social bank accounts.  Someday soon, you’ll be glad you did.

Check out the Praxis blog for why social capital is more important than mentorship.


Originally published June 14, 2013.

If You’re Flaky, Be Good Flaky

Some people are flaky.  Always flitting from thing to thing, idea to idea.  By the time others get on board they’ve already moved on.

If this is you don’t fear.  You don’t need to curb your curiosity or appetite for change in order to be successful.

Flaky can be a good thing.  I know people who channel this ADD tendency into amazing productivity.  They get excited by a lot of different things and their attention shifts rapidly, but they act on that excitement immediately.  These are people who no sooner get excited by an idea and they’re blogging about it or buying three books on Amazon.  They read the subject, launch the club, have the conversations, and start the project.  They may leave loose ends and sometimes move too quickly, but they leave a beneficial surplus of ideas and energy in their wake that gets picked up by others.

Good flaky shifts attention rapidly but “ships” just as rapidly.

Flaky can be a bad thing too.  I know people who have the same ADD tendencies but with each new interest it’s only talk.  They constantly talk about what they’re going to do, what new thing they’ve discovered, the newest solutions, movements, cures.  They always have something in progress or “almost ready”.  Articles they want to write, websites about to launch, events they are planning with their friend, some new thing or another.  They get you excited but don’t deliver.

Bad flaky shifts attention rapidly and never “ships” anything.

Productive flakes are fun and can be a boon to a team or cause.  It’s pretty easy for people to know their strengths and limitations.  They don’t do well in long-term managerial roles, but they are great for creative projects and rallying people around short-term visions.  They are the kind of people who get away with breaking rules.  People accommodate them and don’t demand as much predictability and consistency.  They can be late.  They can drop communication sometimes.  They can forget things.  These are annoying but known traits that become tolerable given the constant production.  Just when you’re about to get mad that a ball was dropped, a brilliant piece of work you never expected emerges.  Getting sh*t done covers a multitude of eccentricities.

Unproductive flakes are frustrating and drag projects and people down.  They have the same exciting energy and stream of ideas at first, which makes the failure to deliver all the worse.  The roller-coaster of expectations and disappointments gets old fast.  They get ignored.  They burn through social capital.  Their emails don’t get responses.  Ideas and a fun attitude are not enough.  If you’re not shipping they become annoying.  The bad flake turns their greatest asset into a liability.

It’s pretty simple.

If you know you have ADD tendencies, be a good flake.  Immediately act.  Don’t let the moment of inspiration go.  Your lack of long-term focus doesn’t have to ruin you.  But overcome the fear or insecurity or laziness or whatever holds you back and act on your inspiration immediately, always, every time.  You’ll amass a great body of work, gain a solid reputation, and have a lot of fun.

Whatever you do, don’t talk about your latest passion unless and until you’ve shipped something to show for it.

(If you’re not at all prone to flakiness, this post isn’t for you.  Sorry.  You have a different challenge with too much cost-benefit analysis or an obsession over options.)

What I Learned from Writing Every Day

A few years ago I started blogging every day.  Then I stopped to focus my energy on launching Praxis (so I told myself).  My productivity and happiness began to lag so I started daily blogging again.  Then I stopped again because I wanted to take the time to write more long-form pieces (so I told myself).  My productivity and happiness began to lag again so I started again.

The first stint was six months of unbroken daily blogging.  The second stint, after a six-month hiatus, was a year of unbroken daily blogging.  I just started up again after less than a month off because I couldn’t stand it any longer.

A few of the more valuable things I’ve learned from the practice of daily blogging…


Seems like it would be impossible to have something to write every day.  In fact, it almost feels arrogant to try.  The voices inside began to mock, “Oh sure, everyone really wants to hear what you have to say every single day!”  If I get stuck asking what everyone (or anyone) else wants I’ll never produce anything.  Not happiness either.

I shut out the voices by reminding myself that I write because it changes me.  I don’t write as a mission to the world or a gift to humanity or a calling card for business or to impress my wife (lord knows that doesn’t work) or to prove my point to anyone.  I write for me.  I write because doing so every day makes me more of the person I want to be.


Writing for me might overcome the internal objection to posting my ideas daily, but it doesn’t solve the need for content.  Every day blogging means I’ve got to have something you want to say every day.  It’s not as hard as you might imagine.

I think everyone has plenty to say.  Most of us just don’t know what’s in our own heads until we’re forced to get it out.  How many thoughts go through your head every day?  Brain researchers claim upwards of 50,000, plus all the things you dream.  You make observations, form theories, develop insights, and share many of them in conversation.  You just don’t know it.

Writing every day has taught me more about myself and what ideas are bouncing around in the attic of my skull than any practice I can imagine by forcing me to give them voice.

Killing the Critic

Something weird happened when I started writing every day.  My capacity for lazy criticism damn-near dried up.  When I read articles or watched movies I rarely found myself tossing out unbacked claims like, “That was lame”, or, “What a weak argument”.

The casual signaling of disapproval that passes for commentary is a brain-rotting, happiness-and-creativity-killing habit.  I was good at it.  Daily writing put wrench in my call-outs.

This happened for two reasons.  First, I need content!  Watching a movie I don’t like and sharing my reaction in a simple Facebook post declaring, “Meh” is like washing your hands with the last liter of water in the canteen while crossing the desert.  I need fuel to feed the daily writing and my brain just processed an entire two-hour spectacle full of ideas and implications.  Surely there is something in there that can be turned into a post!

The second reason the critic in me got neutered was simply perspective, or if you wish, empathy.  I know what it means to create something and ship it out to the world, how many or few they may be.  It’s hard.  It’s brutal some days.  And everything I create is not my best stuff.  But the pride I feel when I churn out a post on a bad day, even if I know it’s a weak post, is amazing.  When I see other people create I can’t help but internally cast a knowing nod their way.  Who cares about the flaws?  They’re doing something.  Plus, if they’re like me, they’re probably already…

On to the Next One

I don’t have comments enabled on this blog.  I never read the comments on Medium or other outlets where my stuff is published.  I rarely read or engage Facebook comments on my articles.

Before you think I’m a total condescending jerk let me just say it’s not you, it’s me.

I have nothing against comments or commenters.  I love that people want to engage some of the ideas I produce.  But I’m a pretty weak-willed person in many ways.  It’s hard enough to blog every day as it is, without the backward-looking draw of yesterday’s work.  If I get caught up reading comments I will not be able to do it dispassionately.  It’s my writing, so it’s close to me.  I’ll become vested in the outcome of the conversation, which is like being vested in Sisyphus getting that boulder to stay up there.

It also runs the risk of getting me hooked on the quick dopamine hit of a “like” or positive comment, which is the beginning of the end if I want to maintain my goal of writing for me.

I’ve learned to immediately distance myself mentally from my writing the minute I click “publish”.  Blog for the day is done.  Great.  Let’s move on.  What’s on the agenda?

This practice has been so necessary for my mental health it’s hard to overemphasize it.

Not only that, when you don’t treat your writing as so precious it deserves a week of fawning after completion it frees you up to produce lots of other things and allows you to improve as a creator much faster.  If I’m totally wrapped up in the fate of yesterday’s piece it will be harder for me to see its flaws and improve.  Or, worse yet, I might become overwhelmed and embarrassed by its flaws and never want to write again.

Instead, I tell myself to shut up and ship it.  Don’t look back, look ahead.

OK I’m done.  See you tomorrow.

The Quantity of Stuff in Your Life is More Important than Your System

Praxis grad James Walpole blogged today about the problems of too much focus on optimization and “life hacking”.

It got me thinking about those I know who struggle to keep their head above water.  People who are creative and productive, but perpetually behind and stressed and overwhelmed.  If you’re in that position, I’m going to share a belief that might be depressing, but it might also be heartening: there is no system that can fix it.

You can’t implement a new schedule, or tool, or plugin, or diet, or any other new way of organizing and executing on your stuff that will save you.  These systems may be better or worse, but they can’t address the fundamental thing keeping you buried.  It’s the quantity of stuff in your life that’s the problem.

I don’t mean physical possessions, though that can be part of it, I mean stuff that’s not core to your mission but that you do or pay attention to or simply keep around anyway.  It’s open tabs on your browser that you don’t need to read.  It’s emails in your inbox you don’t need to keep.  It’s events and engagements you can do without.

If your day is a pipeline transforming inputs to outcomes, no re-arrangement of the pipes can handle the fact that you’re flooding the system with three times the volume it can handle.  Or, to use another water analogy, if your progress is a body of water, compare the power of a highly concentrated, pressurized stream like a fire hose, vs. a flood plain sloppily sloshing around.

Cut the stuff out.  Focus only on the things that give and create energy.  That’s when your systems and life-hacks will begin to work.  Then they can improve things at the margin.  But until you reduce the overwhelming quantity of stuff in your life, no system can save you.

Sometimes You Have to Create a Chip on Your Own Shoulder

NBA great Stephen Curry has a chip on his shoulder.  It’s clear when you watch him play.  Even as he’s gotten better, it’s grown bigger.  This is what great performers do.  They play with a chip.

Steph is a great example of how the factual truth of a situation by itself does not dictate what kind of orientation we have toward it.  There are two stories about Steph Curry, both true.

In one story he was born with great genes to an NBA star dad and volleyball playing mom.  He grew up with plenty of money and access to basketball training facilities, coaches, mentors, and opportunities galore.  He honed his skills, went to a good school, played well, got drafted for good money, and continued excel with a great team and organization around him.

By this account, which is factually correct, he is one of the most fortunate people on earth.  How could this gifted athlete have a chip on his shoulder?

In another story Steph grew up with more pressure than most people could imagine.  His star athlete parents had done more than most kids could ever hope to in sports.  He lived under their shadow.  He didn’t grow as tall as he should have for basketball, and was too skinny.  Despite practicing the sport almost from birth, not a single major college was interested in him.  He ended up at a tiny liberal arts school.  He played well, but he was not fortunate enough to be on a team with any hope of a national title.  Despite his amazing shooting ability and NCAA tournament performance, Steph was questioned as an NBA talent.  He was seen as too small, and mostly just a shooter without a full range of skills.  He entered the league with virtually no hype compared to most future MVP’s.  He had to scratch and claw through a historically great Western Conference for the first several years of his career before making it to the finals.  When there, even though the team he led won, he did not get finals MVP.

By this account, which is factually correct, he is one of the biggest underdog greats in sports history.  How could this constantly overlooked late-bloomer not have a chip on his shoulder?

Steph can choose which set of facts to focus on and which narrative to tell himself.  Off the court, Steph is likely aware of the great life he’s had and thankful for it.  Remembering the best facts about ourselves is a powerful defense against self-pity.  Yet it seems pretty clear that, come game day, he’s thinking about the second story.  He’s not just happy to be there.  He’s got something to prove.

At Praxis we like to tell the participants at the start of the program these two bits of professional advice:

  1. Don’t take anything personally
  2. Take everything personally

The first is a reminder to think in terms of rational choice theory.  Deciding someone is wrong or out to get you is unhelpful for determining how to work around them.

The second is a reminder to stay sharp because no one cares about your success.  In fact, if you’re doing your own thing, they probably doubt you.  Good.  Use that.  Not with malice toward them in real life, but as fuel for the narrative you weave of your own hero’s journey.

See, we can all be like Steph Curry after all!  Now go watch some amazing highlight videos.

Being Liked vs. Being Respected

It’s nice to be liked.  Early in life, it’s the best social currency for collaborating with others.  If people don’t like you, they won’t invite you to their birthday parties.

As you progress and enter the productive world being liked is still nice, but it fades further into the background as the primary metric for who will collaborate with you.  It gets overshadowed in importance by being respected.

I’ve worked with people everyone loved but had little respect for and people everyone respected but didn’t like.  Everyone would rather have a beer with the former, but everyone would rather work with the latter.

People you work with do not need to like you.

In fact, if you feel great about how they all love you it may be a good time to think critically about how they see you.  The most liked people aren’t often the most respected.  If you’re worried about whether they like you, you may be failing to ensure you’ve earned their respect.  If you stress about whether they make fun of you behind your back, you’ve got the wrong focus.

People you work with need to respect you.

Ask yourself if they do.  Do they want you to have ownership over projects?  Do they trust you implicitly?  Would they speak highly of your work, even if they made fun of your personality?  If so, they probably respect you.

I don’t mean to imply it’s a complete trade-off.  You can be liked and respected, which is an amazing combo.  The challenge is the more you are liked, the better it feels in the short term and the more incentive there is to protect it.  When you start worrying about protecting your reputation as “fun” or “nice” you can stray from what you actually do best and slip in the respect department.

The most effective teammates and certainly the most effective leaders are liked and respected.  I would argue, however, that one of the primary reasons they are liked is because of how respectable they are.  The likeability can grow on people.  But if you lead with being liked it doesn’t tend to morph into respect over time.

Respect must be earned through a reputation of value creation.  It doesn’t come with titles or business cards or corner offices or degrees or years of experience.  If they don’t respect you now, they’ll respect you less when you get the promotion.  To them, you’re the same person but in even further over your head.

Focus on value creation and stay above petty stuff and popularity contests.  Be kind to everyone, deliver above and beyond expectations.  You’ll get the respect anchored down.  Then you can work on the likeability part.

*Oh, and being disliked is not the same as being respected.  Don’t assume you are respected just because everyone is afraid of you or thinks you’re an a**hole.  Yes, people thought Steve Jobs was an a**hole, but the causality doesn’t run that way.  Most a**holes are not value-creating highly respected leaders.  Never take pride in being disliked by those you work with.

Coffee Is Killing Your Productivity

“Let’s grab coffee and chat.”

Those five words are far more dangerous than you may realize.  When you begin to create, start a business, write a blog, or generally do interesting stuff a funny thing happens.  Lots of people want to have coffee with you.  Most of the time it’s a bad idea.

Face to face meetings can be valuable.  There’s an energy that you don’t get any other way.  But the cost is very high, and it’s extremely rare to gain that energy with a stranger.  Unless you know from interactions over email, social media, or phone that you and this person have mutual interests and will both be spurred to beneficial action by a coffee meeting, avoid it.

It’s not that coffee isn’t fun.  That’s the problem.  It is fun.  Waxing about how much you love innovation or art is a blast.  But that’s not scarce.  There are more opportunities to talk about cool things than ever before.  What’s scarce is conversation that leads directly to productivity.

There are professional coffee drinkers.  People who spend all day asking others to coffee to talk.  They keep talking, meeting, discussing, exploring, plotting, networking, devising, gaining input, seeking inspiration, building consensus, creating boards and backers and teams for non-existent organizations or efforts.  These people will consume you.

(One of my theories is that they are actually robots placed by an alien race that feels threatened by creative action on the part of humans.  They sent a host of coffee-sipping droids disguised as cool people who love your idea as a way to slow you down.  They are fueled by caffeine and lack of follow through.  Just a theory.)

It’s easy to emulate this behavior.  You get a quick high from talking about big ideas with cool people over hot drinks.  Hammering out the next steps and taking them is no fun.  The coffee grinds taste better than the work grind. (See what I did there?).  It’s easy to seek the next quick inspiring hit via another quick coffee or phone meeting.  Then again.  And again.

Working for a non-profit increases susceptibility.  Absent profit and loss it can be hard to measure success.  As a result, many non-profiters report activities as a proxy for outcomes.  If you’re a program manager and you report that you had an amazing meeting with a really cool person who runs similar program X, your superiors are likely to think, “This gal is really going out there and doing a lot of stuff!”.  (In fact, non-profits are so predictably prone to the meeting-as-work conflation that I can tell without looking when someone works for one.  They send meeting requests not for a 15 or 20-minute phone call, but a full hour with an open-ended, “Can I pick your brain?”)

None of us are above it.  It’s flattering to be asked to coffee by someone who thinks your stuff is great.  But it almost always eats away a huge chunk of your time and energy with very little in the way of a tangible outcome.  You can feel like you’re doing something because your calendar is booked with coffee and conversation and you don’t have time for stuff.  But busyness is not business.

Don’t let flattery or a quick high or the open-ended hope that some synergy just might magically appear let you fall into the perpetual coffee meeting malaise.

And be on the lookout for the people who ask you for coffee the first time they meet you.  They might be evil alien robots trying to stop your progress.

Knowing What You Don’t Need to Know

It’s not that important to know things.

Two things are far more important than what you know.  What you can learn, and what you know you don’t need to know.  Maybe I’ll write a bit more about the importance of being able to learn another time, but today’s post is about knowing what you don’t need to know.

We’re surrounded by information.  Every new environment is jam-packed with people, assumptions, objects, ideas, processes, rules (written and unwritten), and data.  The vast majority of it is not necessary for you to achieve what you want to achieve in that environment.  But a handful of things are absolutely indispensable.  That is why the most valuable skill for success in diverse circumstances might be the ability to quickly identify what doesn’t matter.  Discern what is not of fundamental importance and ignore it.

Nearly everything taught in schools can be ignored.  So can nearly everything in a government or HR training video.  These are the easy ones.  Most people can intuitively gather from a young age that these things are unnecessary to successfully navigating the world (though harsh punishments may induce them to pay just enough attention to avoid manufactured pain).  It gets harder when you enter a social scene, family party, or workplace.  It’s harder still if you want to be an entrepreneur and enter the vast market with no blueprint.

The most successful and contented people I know are brilliant at being ignorant.  They are not stupid people nor are they unable to learn almost anything of interest or value to them.  But they are conscious of their chosen ignorance of the vast majority of facts and subjects and skills.  They know what they don’t need to know and they don’t waste effort trying to learn it.

This typically requires genuine humility and self-confidence.  Most people feel pressure to know a lot of useless stuff because it will save them the embarrassment of ever appearing to not know something.  This is ridiculous and sad.  Someone without broad swaths of conscious ignorance in many areas is usually wasting a lot of time and stressing over people-pleasing without ever gaining much self-knowledge.

There is no inherent value in knowledge of a fact.  When you enter a new situation the limiting factor to getting the most value out of it is not how much you can learn, but how much you can identify that you don’t need to learn.

This is the other side of the 80/20 rule.  Sometimes figuring out your 20% – what activities you will get the vast majority of your return on – is too hard.  It’s sometimes easier and no less important to identify the 80% of things not bringing you sufficient value and stop learning and doing them.

How to Ensure Your Professional Mistakes Are Always Forgiven

You’re going to tell me I shouldn’t advocate making mistakes in the first place.  Don’t be silly.  I’m not advocating mistakes.

The reality of life is that you’ll make mistakes and deliver sub-excellent results sometimes.  In fact, the more you push yourself and venture into new territory (good), the more common imperfection will be (not good).  Beyond the obvious, “Just try harder to be perfect”, there’s something you can do that will give you the leeway you need to get away with imperfection and recover quickly.

Here’s the thing.  You’re not gonna like it.  Especially those of you who are perfectionists and understand the tremendous value of high-quality work.

But remember, this is not a way to reduce mistakes and come closer to flawless.  This is just a way to earn the respect, trust, and grace that will keep your mistakes from killing your professional relationships.  This is a way to earn a second or third chance.


Never be late for anything ever and respond to all emails within 24 hours.

Some of you are mad, some of you are laughing, and some of you are nodding your head and patting yourself on the back as you gaze at your inbox tab that says (0).

Let me defend my claim.

Imagine you’re new at a job.  Think of the hardest, scariest, riskiest part of your role.  The part you are most likely to screw up a little bit.  The part that makes you worry you could lose trust and maybe your job if you don’t learn to master pretty quickly.

There’s a whole lot that goes into what your coworkers or customers feel about you and how much grace they’ll have for you as you learn through trial and error.  It’s not just a matter of whether you do that thing well.  It’s not about what you do right now as much as what they believe you are capable of doing in time and what kind of person they think you are.

To earn maximum room for error and correction you’ve got to have a pretty decent deposit of ‘social capital‘ in your account.  You’ll need to draw down without going into the red.

The easiest way to do this – a way that not a single person is incapable of – is to completely crush it on the simplest parts of your job.  Consider that again for a minute.

Earn the freedom to make mistakes in the hardest parts of your job by being perfect in the easiest parts.

What are the easiest parts?  Always being on time and responding to all emails within 24 hours.  It requires no special knowledge, skill, or experience.

If you’ve been somewhere for a month and everyone has come to rely on your punctuality and lightening fast response time, they’ll feel a glow just thinking of you (Somewhere there’s a crooner inside me, struggling to escape).  They’ll never have to dedicate mental space worrying about you, and they’ll have a default belief in your ability to handle things.

When you respond to 10 emails perfectly on time every time and meet your deadlines, people will want you to win.  When one of those 10 responses has a mistake, they’ll cut you a break and give you a chance to improve for next time.

Contrast this to the perfectionist who is sometimes late (‘I was putting on the finishing touches!’), even if just a few minutes, and makes people wait around to get a meeting started or causes mental stress because no one is positive when they’ll reply to an important email.  When they come back with a mistake the already thin ice gets thinner.  Tension mounts, the pressure to be perfect increases.  If you’re at all unreliable with the small, easy things, you’d better be damn-near perfect quality with the big, hard things.

Don’t put yourself under that much pressure.  Give yourself some wiggle room so you can learn by making and fixing errors.

Never be late.  Always respond within 24 hours.  You’ll be glad you did next time you make a mistake and someone says, “No problem, let’s improve for next time.”

How to Offer to Help Someone

If you’ve ever been moved to help someone, whether by sympathy for their hardship or excitement for their success, you probably did what most of us do.  Made a well-meaning general offer.

“Hey, I’m so sorry for what you’re going through.  Let me know what I can do to help.”


“I love what you’re doing!  I’m here to help in any way.”

These are not bad offers.  They successfully signal comradery and provide a little bump in mood to the recipient.  But they don’t deliver the kind of help that sticks.  If you really want to do more than signal your sympathy (you are not obligated to do more, so only do if you really want to) you’ve got to get specific.

My nephew passed away two years ago.  Our entire family was in shock and mourning.  Sympathy cards and thoughts flowed in to my sister and her husband.  It was overwhelming to see the support, and it did them good.  Many offered to help and meant it, but it’s just too hard while grieving to think of something a friend or neighbor or stranger can do for you, and it feels weird to ask.  The greatest help came from those who didn’t ask what they could do.  They just noticed something and did it.  They bought dinner.  They took the kids out to get new shoes.  They cleaned the house.

It’s the same for support with exciting projects.  I get a lot of emails from people saying they’re excited about Praxis and want to help.  I love these emails.  It’s great to know people share my excitement for our vision and progress.  There are a rare few who do more than signal.  They don’t ask, they offer or do something specific.  I’ll never forget just after launch when Zak Slayback contacted me and said, “I want to help.  Let me manage your social media pages.”  He had a good reputation and I needed help so I let him.  Then he started doing other things like setting up email newsletters, improving the website, writing blog posts, going to events, and creating marketing material.  Pretty soon we couldn’t live without him and he was hired.  Others help without asking how by making an email introduction to a business partner or potential participant.

It’s perfectly fine and in many cases preferable to let people know you care.  But for those times when you’re really moved to provide support or help a project move forward challenge yourself to not give any open-ended offers.  Before saying, “I’m with you and here to help”, think long and hard about what needs to be done and what you are able to do.  The more specific the better, even if it’s a rather mundane task.  You might have to get creative, but if you learn to offer help in practical solutions instead of generic words you will change people’s lives forever.  They won’t forget.

A lot of what we do in life is signaling.  That’s OK so far as it goes, but it often muddies our ability to identify cause and effect.  Pretty soon we start to believe bumper stickers and ribbons equal change or progress.  It’s the same on the individual level and society at large.  If you push yourself to figure out what will really help, instead of what will signal your desire to help, you’ll begin to see the world anew.


Guest Post: Here’s How I Work, Levi Morehouse Edition

So my brother Levi was asked to do this and he emailed me saying, “I’d like to, but how would I even share it?  I’m like a grandpa when it comes to online platforms.”  I told him I’d share it on my blog because it’s interesting and entertaining to me and, I suspect, my readers, half of which are our mother.

Levi is the hardest working person I’ve ever met, and also (paradoxically) one of the most laid back in some weird way.  I’ll let him take it from here.


(This is Levi)

My former employee James “J-Train” Walpole recently answered the Life Hacker “How I Work” challenge. Now I’ve been called to give an account of how I get things done. Here goes:


Location: Charleston, South Carolina
Current Gig(s): Founder of Ceterus
Current Mobile Device: iPhone 6
Current Computer: Surface Pro
One Word That Best Describes Your Work: Passion (I love what I do)


For work: Google Apps, Asana, Zoho CRM.
For clients: QuickBooks Online,, ZenPayroll (now Gusto).
For me: Fanduel, Yahoo Fantasy Football, Voxer


We have an open office environment, where I often work while walking around outside taking phone calls (I have been told I am too loud to stay inside). The environment is 100% flexible, in that staff can work from the office, their home, or anywhere they can be valuable. For me, this is almost always the office itself.


Inbox management. There is no one way (although mine is pretty awesome and simple), but owning your inbox leads to major time saved.


Gmail inbox/labels.


My iPhone wallet case. I hate “things”, and until the phone itself replaces my Amex and drivers license, having these affixed to my phone is ideal.


No one empowers entrepreneurs with innovative financial reporting and on-time bookkeeping better than I do with my team at Ceterus. Note to the reader: asking an accountant this questions will lead to a very lame and boring answer, see mine above. Sorry.


I’m currently reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, and Venture Deals by Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson, and I am always re-reading Zero to One by Peter Thiel.


One of the first tasks for my newer employees is to setup a station for me on Pandora. This ranges from hip-hop, to folk and as long as it is loud it works for me.


I enjoy people, but am an introvert at the core.


I get up at 4:48 on weekdays. I try to sleep 5-8 hours per night, but do not have a set bed time. I wake with an iPhone alarm in the adjacent room. I am currently working to never use snooze (results are mixed to-date).


Isaac Morehouse, as he is so kind to post this for me (a social media neophyte).

[It just so happens, I beat him to it and answered yesterday.]


My longtime youth basketball coach, friend and father figure once told me “I only remember the shots that go in”. As a confidence-lacking young athlete who was more focused on not messing up than on being great, this advise was instrumental in my hoops game at the time and in all life decisions since. Play to make the shot, don’t play to not miss.



Here’s How I Work

My colleagues at Praxis and I found this exercise to be fun and useful, so now it’s my turn to answer.


Location: Mount Pleasant, SC
Current gig: CEO of Praxis
Current mobile device: iPhone 6
Current computer: ASUS Zenbook. It’s gorgeous and wonderful.
One word that best describes how you work: Fast.

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?

Gmail, Google Drive, Google Calendar, Voxer, WordPress, the Scrabble app, fantasy football apps, and Momentum.

What’s your workspace like?

Tiny.  I purposely have a ridiculously small, clear desk.  I don’t want space for anything on it.  It contains my beautiful sleek laptop, and usually a giant stein of water, and sometimes a few books I’m reading.  I move around and work from different places in the house sometimes too.  My office is actually just a small section of the bedroom, since I got kicked out of my designated office room.  I work from home and as my kids grow they take up more space.  Since I travel a lot and don’t really care where I work, I moved.  I could work in a broom closet as long as it wasn’t cluttered and I got to take walks outside.

What’s your best time-saving trick?

Delete, shred, destroy.  I get rid of absolutely everything nonessential.  Immediately.  I am ruthless with throwing away paper mail, physical notes, business cards, receipts, and other odds and ends.  I am also a strict zero inbox guy, keeping on top of my emails frees my time, but more importantly my mind, to create.

Also saying no.  Often.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager?

I’ve tried Asana, Google Tasks, Slack, and several others.  None of them end up being that valuable.  I use Google Calendar and the native Sticky Notes app on Windows, or if I’m not at my computer the native Notes app on the iPhone.  I leave myself Voxer messages in the My Notes thread sometimes too.  Everything else gets too complicated.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without?

Since I just bought a Kindle Paperwhite so I don’t overflow my room with more books, I’m hoping it will become indispensable.  I’m still a lover of physical books, so we’ll see.  Otherwise no particular gadgets really matter much.  I did just get a waterproof mp3 player from a friend that lets me listen to podcasts while swimming, so that might become a necessity too.  Until the weather gets too cold to swim.

What everyday thing are you better at than anyone else?

Mornings.  I’m awesome when I wake up.  I’m happy, eager, productive, and full of energy and optimism…even before coffee.

I’m also pretty solid at writing good, concise emails.

What are you currently reading?

Siddartha by Herman Hesse, Mimesis by Erich Auerbach, The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss, Outwitting the Devil by Napolean Hill (rereading), and Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse (rereading).

What do you listen to while you work?

While writing I either listen to a playlist on Spotify of Moby songs, or a station on Pandora called “Yoga music”.  While doing less creative stuff I might listen to some Led Zeppelin, or ’90’s era hip hop, or 80’s New Wave, or anything sappy with vocals I can belt out.  If I’m not writing, I mix it up quite a bit.  When I’m writing, it’s only ethereal mood music.

Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?

I’m definitely an extrovert based on any personality test or technical definition.  However, in the last 5 years my ratio of time I need to be with people and time I need to be alone has reversed.  Now for every one hour I spend “on” and around people I need four hours alone.  It used to be the opposite.  I can go mix it up or give a talk or be at an event and enjoy it, but I really, desperately need to get out and be alone for long periods of time afterwards, and I am (no longer) ever the last one at the party, but more likely one of the first to leave.  I’d rather be alone writing or reading or watching a Sci-Fi with my wife than anything else.

What’s your sleep routine like?

It’s not always like this, especially with travel, but my ideal routine is: go to sleep when my mind wants to, wake up when my body wants to.

My mind is typically very active in the late evening until around midnight or 1 AM.  I often feel physically ill if I get up earlier than 7:30 or so, and I much prefer getting up at around 8 or 8:30.  I used to feel guilty for that and make myself get up earlier no matter what, but I found my mornings far less productive because I felt too out of whack physically.  I now try not to schedule anything before 9 or 10 so I can wake up, lay in bed gathering my thoughts for a bit, get some food and coffee, and write a blog post before the hustle and bustle begins.

Fill in the blank: I’d love to see ______ answer these same questions.

My good friend and colleague TK Coleman.  I’ve known him for over 15 years, and I still find his work and life habits a total mystery.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

“If it doesn’t affect bowel movements or erections, don’t worry about it.”  True story.  A wise man actually gave me this advice once.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

If you’re not having fun (even if sometimes intense or stressful fun) you’re doing it wrong.

Working Hard Doesn’t Have to Mean Burnout

I often write about how you can succeed by working your butt off to be the most reliable, consistent, effective person in whatever work setting you find yourself.  I talk about the need to be so good and so reliable that those you work with never have to worry about you.  I had an interesting response from a reader who said that these ideas seemed to lay the groundwork for suffering a terrible work environment.  If all your focus is on working hard and making sure you don’t cause stress to your colleagues, you might end up burned out and unhappy.

It’s a fair criticism because I don’t always make explicit an assumption that precedes the work hard advice: don’t stay someplace that sucks.

Don’t do things that make you dead inside.  Don’t stay anywhere – home, school, job, relationship – where you feel devalued or depressed every day.  Don’t settle or compromise.  You may not know what makes you come alive, and that’s OK, but as soon as you find things that make you die, quit.  Exit.  Leave.

Your professional life is too valuable to find some kind of middle ground or happy medium where you kind of like it OK, therefore you kind of sort of do a decent job.  No.  If you’re not kicking ass and being your best self day in and day out, why be there at all?  If grinding it out at 100% results in your being abused or burned out, the solution is not to work less hard, it’s to find new work.

If you’re unhappy, slacking off a bit more will not improve the root problem.  If doing your best work doesn’t bring you joy, you need to find work that does.

Forget Long Term Strategic Planning

We serious adult types really value planning and prepping and researching and approaching problems in a well-considered manner.  We also overestimate our own ability to plan and predict the future, and our efforts to do so can be a big hindrance on living a good life.

When you’re thinking not just of the next move, but a long sequence of moves and counter moves based on the probability of how others will respond, you get into some pretty dicey territory.  If you are an expert chess player, this is exactly how you want to play (or so I’ve heard).  It works because chess is bounded.  There are only so many moves, and when you’ve mastered the game you can quickly narrow down the variables and predict the set of options several moves out.  The squares, pieces, and rules of movement are the same, move after move, game after game.

Imagine a chess board that, as you were pondering and planning a long sequence of moves, changed shape?  Then a third player joined with her own pieces, and those pieces didn’t move by the same rules.  Then the pieces started talking to each other and your Rook quit and joined the white Queen to form an independent alliance.  Then the black Pawns invented machine guns…you get the point.  This is more like life.  There are way too many variables and complexities to plan many steps ahead.

There are some big benefits to taking a more modest approach.  I was recently reminded of a great TED talk about the spaghetti and marshmallow tower challenge.  Teams are given some sticks of dry pasta, a bit of tape and string, and a marshmallow and have a time limit within which to build the tallest tower with a marshmallow on top.  Apparently, MBA’s are pretty bad at the challenge, and little kids are pretty good at it.  The MBA’s spend all their time working on the single perfect plan, then build it and place the marshmallow on top just as time expires.  Then it collapses.  They have so much discussion and prep and detailed delegation of tasks that the plan becomes very rigid, and every single part has to work perfectly or the whole thing will (literally) crumble.

The kids take a different approach.  They just started building immediately.  The throw together small structures and put the marshmallow on top.  Then they take it apart and make a bigger one.  They are rapidly prototyping.  They just start learning about the pieces and possibilities in front of them by directly engaging with them.  They plan no further than the first idea that comes to mind.

I heard a podcaster say she always loses to her young daughter in Jenga for the same reason.  She’s so focused on the position of the blocks five moves from now that she doesn’t always make the best decision in the moment.  Her daughter keeps it simple and lives in the moment, always plucking the safest possible piece on every turn.

That’s how I manage to survive playing tennis with my wife, who actually knows how to play the game.  I know I lack the technique and strategy she has, so I simply go all out to return every shot and just keep it in play.  I figure at some point she’ll make a mistake.  Plus, when I try to get tricky and set up a sequence of shots, it usually goes wrong.

There is overlooked value in the novice approach.  Just taking in the resources currently before you and fully diving in to the problem at hand has major advantages over long deliberation and planning.  When you’re a kid or a novice with nothing to lose, why not take a stab?

We may gain expertise in many things and develop the ability to plan into the future with greater detail, but we shouldn’t mistake expertise at a single thing like chess or tennis for expertise at life.  In life, we are all novices.  We’ve never (as far as we know) lived before, and we have no idea what will happen at any moment.  The way you might plan a single, solitary event like the construction of a house (if you’ve ever done that, you know that never goes as planned either!) doesn’t translate to the span of your life.

Take some pressure off of yourself and don’t stress about what Job A or School B next fall will mean for your retirement account 40 years down the road.  You have no idea.  No one does.  Take stock of your loves and hates, do more of the former and less of the latter, and seize on the best opportunities before you.  If it’s not working, take a lesson from the prototyping kids.  Adapt, grab the sticks, and try a different approach.