What If The Economy Was Built On These Things, Instead?

What would happen if we moved from an economy built on these things *points left* to those *points right*.

  • From “because this is the way we’ve always done it” to something that breathes and evolves alongside us
  • From individual self-interest to collective wellness
  • From systems that serve consumption to ones that empower creation
  • From prescriptive, top-down solutions to engaged co-creation
  • From rigid directions to guiding principles
  • From “how can I make more money?” to “how can I help people more?”
  • From optimized for the short-term to built for the long-term
  • From structures that crumble under adversity to ones that are designed to endure it

Where would we be? What would work look like? Whose voices would we be listening to? What would we measure?

How would a world built on these things change everything? And how can we act as if, right now?

Every day, we have the opportunity to build something better. Every day, we can act as if.

Schedules of Reinforcement and the Systems That Keep Us Stuck

A behavioural psychologist, B. F. Skinner, used the phrase “schedules of reinforcement” to describe the relationship between our actions and the rewards we associate them with.

There are fixed-ratio schedules of reinforcement: rewards that are predictable. I know that every time I press this button, I get a cookie.

And variable-ratio schedules of reinforcement: rewards that are unpredictable. I know that if I keep pressing this button, at some point I’ll get a cookie.

Variable schedules of reinforcement are the most motivating. Think about it in terms of a slot machine: it would be no fun to play if you knew that you’d win every 15 times. That removes the magic and anticipation, and thus our motivation to play the game.

For better, and often, for worse, schedules of reinforcement are embedded in all areas of our lives. Look at social media. We check it obsessively knowing eventually we’ll get something good. Imagine how differently you’d interact with your Instagram account if your feed and notifications were only refreshed once a day. You’d only need to check it once a day!! Think about how that would shift the power from Facebook’s hands to yours.

Under a fixed schedule of motivation when the rewards stop, we stop pressing the button. Under a variable schedule of motivation, we’ll keep pressing the button long after the rewards have stopped, hoping something shiny is just around the corner.

Most of the systems (economic and otherwise) we operate within aren’t designed to help us thrive, they’re designed to keep us dependent on the system. They’re engineered to keep us pressing the button. If we’re not careful, this can separate us from our power and keep us from our work.

Having an awareness of both the systems you live in and the way you behave within them will help you show up and do the work, anyways.

You have agency.

Use it.

If you’re interested in reading more about this, Chapter 7: The Problem of Procrastination and Self-Control in Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational, gives an solid overview.

Don’t Build a Business for a World That Doesn’t Exist

There’s a reason how-to articles are so popular.

We want someone to tell us what to do. We want answers, and we wanted them yesterday. When you’re building something new, the discomfort of the unknown will have you reaching for all kinds of prescriptive advice.

The problem is that we can only know what worked in retrospect. And that’s what worked for a specific business and specific people at a specific point in time. Anyone who’s “figured it out” did so for a reality that isn’t yours.

When you follow someone else’s roadmap, you’re building for a world that doesn’t exist using tools that don’t quite fit you. Things are different because you’re different.

Remember: this is art.

The stuff worth building requires you to find your own answers.

What It Means to Go All In

You don’t have to drop everything.

You don’t have to quit your job, or leap without a net, or take on a bunch of debt, or start a new life.

Going all in is figuring out what matters to you and claiming it. It’s putting a stake in the ground and showing up for the future you’re building. It’s starting where you are with what you have.

Going all in looks different for everyone. It’s easy to hear someone else’s story and tell yourself, “If I do that I’ll get those results”. Much harder to get quiet and listen to what’s right for you, to honour and forge your own path.

Going all in isn’t glamourous. It’s a quiet commitment you make to yourself.

And you don’t have to do it all today, you simply have to start.

Are You Willing To Look Dumb?

We all talk about the importance of taking risks. It’s a common regret (not taking bigger ones) and a common piece of advice (to take more of them).

When it comes to taking risks in our work, we usually think of it in terms of risking time or risking money.

But what about risking your reputation?

Are you willing to look dumb? To have people not understand you or your idea? Are you willing to walk away from something that’s “working” and towards something unproven?

Being widely understood shouldn’t be the metric you hold your idea against because by definition if everyone got it it wouldn’t be new.

Don’t risk your integrity. But do risk being misunderstood.

You’ll often find that the people who matter respect the weird stuff, anyways.

H/t to Erik Torenberg for sharing this idea on this episode of the Click Here To Apply podcast. Don’t ask me what a picture of my boots has to do with this post it just feels right, okay? Path less traveled or some such?

Grit is the New Gatekeeper

“Curiosity, courage, and persistence are the new gatekeepers.”

James Clear shared this in his newsletter recently and ain’t it the truth. He was (in my interpretation, at least) explaining how it’s never been a better time to build something. If you can access the internet you have the education resources of a university and the distribution power of a media company.

However, the easier it is to get in front of people the harder it is to be noticed. The harder it is to get, and keep, people’s attention.

That’s where curiosity, courage, and persistence comes in. This isn’t a game of skill or talent. It’s one of grit.

Lots of people start things. Far fewer have the grit to continue through the dip, to show up when no one’s watching.

Taken in New York last fall. H/t to Stephanie Pellett for sharing this gem.

Create in Context

Here’s a hot Resistance-battling tip: create in context!

I don’t know about you, but when it comes to any sort of writing work the vastness of a fresh document intimidates the heck out of me. It makes me think I need to create something BIG enough, good enough to be worthy of such space.

Much easier, I’ve noticed, to create in context. To write my blog posts in Worpdress, my newsletters in Mailchimp, my Instagram captions right in the app, etc. I also create templates for client articles so that after the research and outline stage I simply have to go in and write it section by section.

Creating in context is easier because I know exactly what amount of space I have to fill. The end is literally within sight, you know? There’s a freedom to that.

As Elise Joy says, sometimes the only way to think outside the box is to give yourself a box.

So, if you’re having trouble getting started, try experimenting with the structure or context that you create within. The idea is to find a way to make whatever it is you create more approachable, to trick your brain into thinking that the stakes are low.

Which, P.S., they usually are.

Graphic by me, obvs.

The Humility Of Art

One of the hardest parts of building something new is having the humility to do things that might not work.

That’s art. And art isn’t linear.

When you’re doing something that hasn’t been done before with the intent of creating change (change in others or in a system) you’re going to face pushback.

They’ll be pushback from others—the people who don’t get it and the people who are profoundly invested in keeping things the way they are—and they’ll be pushback from yourself. You know, good old fashioned Resistance. You will meet corners of yourself that scare you. You will face fear in its many forms and you will be tempted to barter with it, to skirt around the edges of discomfort rather than wade through it.

This is why building is often such lonely work. There are no roadmaps. No guaranteed outcomes. When you’re the first one through the wall, there’s no one on the other side to promise you that it’ll all work out.

But remember: this is art.

This is what you signed up for.

This is how change works.

When you’re just starting, all you can really hope to have is reverence for the work and dedication to the process. More than courage, this requires humility. The humility to start small, without praise, and to do things that might not work.

So here’s to *raises mug* a new year and all the beautiful new things you’ll build, and to cultivating the humility required to do it.

H/T to Rob Bell’s podcast episode A Hymn For the Curve for inspiring this post-walk brain dump. It’s a beautiful listen and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s grappling with the uncertainty, discomfort, and loneliness that comes from following a nudge and starting something new.

If you’re into these kinds of musings on creativity and doing the work, sign up for my newsletter. This is exactly the sort of letter you can expect. 

Bandwidth Management

We often look at our days as a series of time blocks. We think time is the variable to optimize for when, in reality, it’s only one piece of the puzzle.

Planning is about managing your bandwidth. It’s about managing your time, money, and energy. How much or how little of those three things do you have to put towards your life? How do those things impact each other?

Money can be used to buy yourself time and/or energy. Low energy means it will take you more time to get things done. Certain activities will give you energy while others will drain it. Some will affect your mental energy while others will affect your physical energy.

You get the picture…

None of these variables exist in a vacuum. That’s why it’s silly to play Tetris with the time blocks in our calendars and wonder why we can’t do everything. It doesn’t work like that.

If you want to create a life that honours you and where you want to go, it’s useful to get honest with yourself about the resources available to you in this season. Pay attention to how those resources affect each other and how they might change over time.

Make a list of activities that drain your energy and ones that contribute to it. Experiment with putting activities at different times in the day to see if you feel more efficient one way or another. Look at ways you can trade time for money and vice versa.

Learn how to tune into yourself. It’s dangerous to plan your life according to someone else’s bandwidth, but that’s where most productivity advice leads us.

Pay attention. Get curious. And through it all, give yourself grace.