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.

Correlation is Not Causation

“Statistics simply tell us the range of what we can expect to happen, not why or how it will happen in any given moment. What we need is understanding.”

Seth Godin shared this on his podcast, Akimbo, as a reminder that when two things are correlated it does not mean that one caused the other.

In a world increasingly driven by data, correlation can be a trap. It’s easy to look at the data and see what we want to, to find correlations that fit our biases and serve our agendas. It’s easy to offload the responsibility of our actions by pointing to the numbers and saying, “I did what they told me to do.”

If your actions are driven by data alone, you’re missing an opportunity to do better.

Your understanding—of others, of systems, and of your own blind spots—makes all the difference.

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.

Four Marketing Skills to Develop

1. Curiosity

Curiosity is meeting the unknown with humility. It’s about asking questions others aren’t willing to, allowing you to do things others aren’t able to. This is how you get attention.

2. Curation

Curation is connecting people with what matters to them. It’s about discernment, taste, and timing. This is how you provide value.

3. Empathy

Empathy is the desire to understand and advocate for an experience that’s not your own. It’s about making people feel seen by helping them make sense of themselves. This is how you earn trust.

4. Ownership

Ownership is taking responsibility for a group of people and leading them to where they want to go. It’s about being in it for the long haul, owning the cause over the product. This is how you create change.

You Can Do Hard Things

Making art is hard.
Doing something people don’t understand is hard.
Therapy is hard.
Lifting weights is hard.
Grieving is hard.
Paying off debt is hard.
Creating work we’re proud of is, almost always, hard.

So many of the worthwhile things in life—the things that ask us to meet ourselves and bring us closer to others—are so very hard.

But we can do hard things. Not all at once, and not perfectly, but bit by bit we can build up our capacity for discomfort.

Here’s the best way I’ve found to do this: If you’re really going through it in one area of your life (your business, your job, your finances, your health, a relationship, etc.) try building up your capacity in a seemingly unrelated area.

Commit to learning how to make great scrambled eggs, learn how to knit, take up an instrument, sign up for an improv class, go hiking, start a writing practice. The skills you develop—curiosity, courage, resilience, tenacity, confidence—aren’t activity-specific. You’ll bring them to everything you do.

This is why I love weight lifting so much. Repeatedly standing in front of a bar you don’t think you can lift and then, somehow, throwing it over your head does wonders for your confidence. As soon as I learned I could do hard things within those gym walls it became easier to embrace that posture in the rest of my life. Skills translate.

And remember:

Life does not have to be easy in order to be beautiful.


This is an excerpt from the newsletter I sent yesterday. To read the full letter and sign up for future ones, click here.

Frustration vs Disorientation

“A video game must frustrate a user, but it must never disorient them.”

That’s Howard Scott Warshaw discussing why E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, a game he developed for Atari, is the worst video game ever.

Frustration in a video game is essential. It’s a motivator to get better, faster, and stronger, which ultimately leads to satisfaction.

Disorientation, on the other hand, is terrible. If you don’t know what’s going on, where you are, or what you’re working towards, there’s no motivation to play the game.

Consider how this applies to whatever it is you sell. Frustration is the tension that exists between where we are and where we want to go. People pay to get rid of that tension.

Disorientation is a result of inconsistent messaging. Confused people don’t become customers.

You Have A Trust Problem

Most brands don’t have an awareness problem—if only we could get in front of more people then we’d get more business!—they have a trust problem.

People know you exist, they just don’t believe you’re right for them.

This is hard to hear and even less fun to talk about in meetings. Trust problems aren’t sexy. They can’t be solved with money and funnels and ad campaigns.

When you’re solving a trust problem, there’s no clear roadmap to follow or metrics to measure. This is about strategy, not tactics, and more than anything it demands empathy. Good ole’ emotional labour.

That said, how do you work on a trust problem?

Be consistent.

Your brand isn’t your logo, it’s the story I tell myself every time I see it. Strong brands are consistent brands—everything they do and every touchpoint they have with their audience reflects everything they’re about.

Consistency means we know exactly who you are, what you stand for, and what we can expect when we buy from you. It makes you a strong yes to the right people and a strong no to the wrong ones. This polarizing reaction is what you want.

Before you layer on new tactics (see the aforementioned funnels and ad campaigns), start with where you are and who you’re already serving. Look for the gaps. Address those first.

It’s tempting to try, but you can’t buy trust. You have to earn it.


Caution! Do not pass go, do not collect $200, do not launch another Facebook ad campaign until you’ve addressed this first.

The Iceberg Theory of Marketing

Behold! The iceberg theory of marketing.

There’s what we see: product, tactics, messaging, etc.

And what we feel: values, strategy, brand, etc.

The tangible versus the intangible. The explicit versus the implicit.

You with me?

The things we can see, we’ll refer to that as “above water”, are what people think they want: a budgeting software, a new mug, etc.

The things we can feel, we’ll refer to that as “below water”, are what people actually want: empowerment, sustainability, etc.

Everything above water requires hard skills, like coding or throwing clay on a wheel, to develop.

Everything below water requires soft skills, like empathy and creativity, to develop.

The tangible stuff scales with money.

The intangible stuff scales with emotional labour.

When you work at the tangible, above water stuff your customer experience will improve. You will see short-term gains.

When you work at the intangible, below water stuff the trust between you and your customer will strengthen. You will lay the foundation for long-term growth.

You can, and must, develop both.

The tip of the iceberg does not a business make. That’s how you get fragile companies and hollow brands that crumble unexpectedly (think of all the VC-backed companies we’ve watched fail in the last year…).

You cannot, no matter how tempting it will be, ignore what’s going on below water. The work is less sexy down here and progress is harder to measure (it’s easy to know when ads are working but how will you measure empathy? Creativity?), however, this is where change lives.

Resilient brands are rooted brands. All the above-water stuff we see as customers (social media profiles, products, advertisements, web copy) is an expression of what’s going on below (strategy and values). Products reflect values. Tactics reflect strategy. Messaging reflects brand. You can mess up the tangibles if you’ve got a strong foundation. If your audience trusts you and is enrolled in the change you represent, they’re going to be a lot more forgiving when your app breaks or you send out the wrong link in your newsletter. It’s not that it makes mistakes okay! It simply means that your audience trusts you to figure it out. They’re not going to seek out alternatives at the first sign of inefficiency or discomfort.

You cannot build a business by writing code or making mugs, by only working above water. That’s how you end up with a commodity.

What we truly want, what we’re actually buying, and the change you seek to make lives below. This is how you build something remarkable.

Start there.

When is doubt, look there.

And remember: marketing is a privilege.

It’s a privilege to be able to show up and advocate for a group of people that trust you to lead the way.

Use that responsibility wisely.


My expert graphic skills at work AGAIN, aren’t you lucky. There are about a zillion ways you can slice and expand on this theory but this feels like a good place to start. And it’s certainly not original to think of it in terms of an “iceberg”, this is simply a take on this theory that makes sense for my brain. See here for iceberg theory and applying the iceberg theory to content marketing.

Your Competitive Advantage

Empathy, your competitive advantage is empathy.

It’s an advantage because few people are willing to put in the hard work to develop it. It requires humility to admit that you don’t know anything about the person sitting across from you. It takes curiosity, compassion, and courage to hold space and advocate for an experience that’s not your own.

Empathy is the only shot you have at getting to know your audience and building something that serves them.

You can’t outsource it. You can’t buy it. And you can’t make the change you’re seeking to make without it.

The best thing about empathy?

It’s a skill all of us can learn.


Taken at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. It’s a journey, a climb, or some such reference?