In Praise of Praise

When I talked to my friend Brian about 2-Minute Pep Talks, one theme that kept coming up was knowing your value and standing up for it. Brian mentioned that the Irish have a saying for taking someone down a peg when they’re trying to get credit for something, a saying often used in a derogatory way. In Germany, we have a similar expression: “No criticism is praise enough.”

If you wandered the hallways of nearly any company, however, within a single day, you would see that, clearly, a lack of admonition does not equal inspiration. Long faces in search of a compliment, starved of appreciation for months at a time, do not make for a workforce that likes to come in again on Monday.

Germans often overthink praise. They believe it must be substantial and, therefore, about something substantial. Better to only hand it out once a year, ideally along with a raise. No! The contents of your compliment almost don’t matter. If you tell me I’m wearing nice shoes, that might make my day — and while that has nothing to do with my performance at all, it might inspire me to perform well regardless.

Kindness is the lubricant that makes societal interactions run smoothly. Praise does the same for business. When people run on small doses of positive feedback, they are more inclined to try harder, more likely to tackle challenges with vigor, and more willing to go out of their way to help one another.

Be generous with your praise, and don’t stay silent when you think someone did something good. You never know what your compliment might inspire someone else to do, and you’ll gladly receive the return karma when you next need to hear something better than “no criticism is praise enough.”

The Living Room Inside Your Mind

There’s a great interview with Ryan Leslie that I keep coming back to. The only problem? The interviewer. Ryan wants to talk about technology, about business, and about how young people can do something good with their lives. In other words, Ryan wants to talk about the future.

Host Charlamagne, meanwhile, keeps prodding him about the past. Why did he disappear from the music industry? How does he feel about a love triangle that ended years ago? What exactly “threw him off his game?” To Ryan’s credit, he stays cool as a cucumber. He answers all questions but keeps returning to the topics that matter, like the very thing he is doing: defending his mental space.

When asked whether he feels happy that his former girlfriend broke up with the man she left him for — P. Diddy — Ryan says: “There’s always a cost of everything. There’s a cost of time. There’s a cost of space. If you have a house, and you got a nice living room, and you decide, ‘Hey, I want to put this massive sculpture in the middle,’ there’s a cost of that space.”

“I think of my mind in the same way. I don’t want to put some massive sculpture of pettiness or anything in there. I want to always make sure that I have as much mental space to be a visionary as possible.”

When you’re trying to do something important — and you’re always trying to do something important — you can’t afford to clog your mental attic. You need open space up there. Room to think. Whatever — or whoever — wants to get you to erect a massive sculpture of anything in the middle, they’re the one trying to throw you off your game.

Protect your mental space. Keep your inner living room clean, and you’ll always have headway to deal with the stretch of road that’s most important: the one that lies ahead, not behind.

How Clean Is Your Vest?

Seven years ago, I won a lifetime account for an online course platform. I was extremely happy to use it to sell my writing course, and I have recommended it countless times over the years. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m one of their best “salespeople.”

Some weeks ago, as part of a platform upgrade, my account stopped working. I went back and forth with customer support for a while, until, eventually, someone informed me in their best “corporate speak” that I would soon have to pay like everyone else.

I spent the next few days being angry. “Lifetime, pah! Seven years, and they’re already breaking their promise! I will never recommend this place again! I should pull all my content! What a morally bankrupt company!” The situation still isn’t resolved, and my relationship with the platform has probably changed forever, but a few days into the dilemma, I asked myself: “Am I doing the same thing somewhere?”

As of right now, I haven’t — but one day, I might. On Four Minute Books, we, too, offer a lifetime membership, and I have no idea whether that’ll last forever. What happens if I have to shut down one day? Or sell the company? Those people might also end up in front of a broken promise, and in that case, I’d be the one doing the breaking.

It’s easy to get outraged about something when your vest is squeaky clean, but the truth is we often choose outrage regardless of how our outfit looks. Once we regain our composure, at least enough to straighten our jacket in front of the mirror, we might spot a stain that looks oddly similar, and if we do, we get to offer ourselves several new options, such as forgiveness, compromise, and a more rational way of looking at the situation.

The next time you find yourself pointing at someone’s dirty clothes, take a second to check: How clean is your vest? You might not like what you find, but you may find a way forward you like better because of it.

Say No Before You’re Ready

The word “no” has many benefits: More time, more energy, more attention. Less misery and better focus. It also compounds over time. The more nos we accumulate, the more space for randomness we create — and it’s often in that randomness that we find happiness.

However, since we don’t know what we’ll find in our pockets of freedom, there’s no guaranteed replacement for each thing we say no to, and if there was, well, then we wouldn’t really be saying no, would we? We’d just say yes to something else.

Saying no before you’re ready can be scary. It’s hard to turn down something with no backup plan. Ask anyone who’s ever quit their job without their next gig lined up. Even if it turned out fine, in the moment, it likely felt terrifying. That terror hints at something else we gain from saying no: courage. There is no courage without fear, and where there’s fear, usually, some form of courage is required.

Sometimes, one of the many platforms and software tools I use makes an unacceptable change. Do they ever happen at a convenient time? Rarely. But do I say, “No. This is not okay. I am going to leave and find another solution,” regardless? Absolutely.

Say no before you’re ready. You’re more creative, adaptable, and resilient than you think. Every now and then, it’s nice to use this two-letter word and find out just how much.

The Missing Step in Giving Advice

“Don’t monetize with ads,” he said. “Everybody hates ads. Do affiliate marketing instead! Recommend useful products to your audience, and you’ll do just fine.”

The blogger whose advice I was reading ran a very successful blog. It looked super clean. It got hundreds of thousands of visitors each month. And it made multiple five figures every month.

Running a similar, though not as successful website, I thought I might learn a thing or two, but for some reason, I couldn’t wrap my head around the advice. “I tried all this. So why isn’t it working?”

After some reflection, I realized: The guy missed a step in handing out recommendations. He forgot to take off his glasses, and, as a result, it was your typical, one-size-fits-all kind of advice — and for me, despite running a similar business, it already didn’t fit.

As it happens, he mostly covered finance, an industry in which affiliate payouts are extremely high. Finance companies pay a lot of money for referrals because if even just one out of 1,000 leads invests $10,000 into their product or service, that’s still a great deal for them. Meanwhile, in terms of eroding trust, ads might do more damage on a finance website than any other.

My site, on the other hand, offers free book summaries. We get traffic from all over the world, but a lot of people are students, young professionals, and from lower-income countries. For the first four years or so, we did have affiliate links on every page — yet we only made around $200 per month from hundreds of thousands of visitors. At the same time, ever since we introduced them, ads have done great!

If you have a big audience that doesn’t like to spend money, ads allow you to monetize each visitor, even if only few click the ads. Affiliate links only work when you make a sale, and if not enough people are willing to buy, you can plaster as many links on your site as you want — you won’t make a dime.

Most people give advice in two steps:

  1. “These are the steps I took, and they worked for me.”
  2. “You should take these same steps.”

This framework glosses over the fact that just one little variable change might render the whole template moot. What these people are missing is a crucial second step. Here’s how we should actually give advice:

  1. “These are the steps I took, and they worked for me.”
  2. “This is the situation I was in before I took those steps, and these are some of the reasons why I think those steps worked for me at that time.”
  3. “If you’re in the same situation I was in and want the same outcome, you should try to take these same steps.”

What works for a finance website will be very different from what works for a book summary blog. What works in 2009 is unlikely to work in 2018. And what works for a white woman in her 30s might not be of use to a Black man of 54.

It’s great to share your wisdom. You’ve worked hard for it, and a lot of us will benefit. Just try to give us the full picture instead of a flattened, 2D-version of your story. It’s not just more fun; it’ll also be more helpful — and, graciously, if affiliate marketing doesn’t work for us, it gives us permission to turn on the ads.

Fake It Till You Get Caught

Sometime this year, I set up an email referral program on Four Minute Books. Every subscriber gets a unique referral link which they can use to invite friends and family, in exchange for which they’ll receive a bunch of rewards.

The more people you refer, the better rewards you’ll get. In this case, the ladder begins with a $10 reading guide for four referrals and ends with a full-on lifetime membership worth $80 for 44 successful invitations.

I think it’s a good deal. Our products aren’t that expensive to begin with, but if you can’t afford them, now, you have an alternative path to attain them, not for free but through a different kind of work.

The day I first announced the program, I received a whole bunch of referrals, and the first set of rewards went out. Unfortunately, as soon as I looked at my dashboard, I realized something was off. “Why are all these email addresses weird strings of letters and numbers? Why do none of them sound like names?”

Naturally, within about ten minutes, the first person had figured out they could send a bunch of fake email addresses my way and cash in their reward. As it should, however, that cheat code only worked once — and not for long.

I banned that person and removed them from all lists, including their fake referrals. I put manual approval checks in place for every reward before it goes out. And now, before anyone gets anything, I take a look at all the data.

Sadly, many people still try to cheat. They don’t know they’re not the first, and so instead of doing it the right way, they run right into the embarrassment getting caught red-handed. Today, someone was even so brazen as to ask, “Hey, where’s my reward?” knowing full well they had made zero real referrals.

Fake it till you make it” only works in a limited number of situations. Sometimes, a little boost of confidence can give you the courage you need to level up your game. Usually, however, it is much better to “practice until you make it.” If you know you’ve earned the right to be on a big stage, you’re less likely to implode in public.

Most of the time, faking it is something we can only do until we get caught, and that’s not a good thing. Stay honest. Put in the work. Sooner or later, you’ll get what you deserve.

Forced Focus

Stripe is one of history’s greatest startup success stories. Launched in 2010 by two brothers, the payment processor became a unicorn in just four years, with its valuation peaking at $95 billion in 2021. It also solves just one problem: It allows businesses to accept money online.

At its core, Stripe is a few lines of code, but it’s code anyone can use to get paid from a customer, for anything whatsoever, right on their own website. Stripe has solved this same problem billions of times for millions of people, and that’s why, on top of growing very big very fast, it is — and that’s unusual for startups — also profitable to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Yesterday, I talked to a group of fellow writers. I asked if anyone else struggled in sticking to their plans. Most of them confirmed. “Shiny object syndrome is real,” my friend Ayo said. Jon Brosio related Ship 30 for 30, a 30-day writing challenge that has produced millions in revenue: “They just do the same thing, over and over and over again. ‘Write one post a day for 30 days.’ That’s it. They get you from zero to writing every day for 30 days. Cohort after cohort after cohort. And that’s why it works.”

In theory, I understand that focus works. I’ve understood it since 2015. In practice, like most people, I struggle with it. For almost eight years, I’ve been writing almost every day, but in hopping from platform to platform, I’ve wasted a lot of my audience-building potential. The same with Four Minute Books vs. my other income streams. The thing that I paid the least attention to is the also the one thing that consistently made money.

As I was wondering about what Ayo and Jon had said, about the difference between startups and creators that lets one party focus more easily than the other, I came up with a theory: In growing their teams from one to ten to hundreds, eventually thousands of people, startups must constantly justify their existence to new employees. Every time you hire someone, you have to explain your mission to them — and you better sound convincing. Therefore, each hire is a chance to zone in on that vision. To get clear on it and remember: “Oh, yeah, this is what we’re trying to do.”

Of course, the more employees you have, the more structures you must create to hold everyone accountable to that same mission on an everyday basis as well. But for you as the founder, a constant barrage of new employees and customers will make sure you keep solving that same problem, because that’s what everyone wants you to do.

In the case of Ship 30 for 30, it’s the cohort-based system that does the same thing, Jon pointed out. When you’ve got a group of people chomping at the bit to start writing as soon as you’ve closed the door behind the last one, there’s not a lot of time to think, to brainstorm, to get lost in shiny object syndrome. “Help us write! Here we are!” Nothing keeps your attention in the present like clamoring customers.

Meanwhile, a writer, or any solo creator, really, will forever remain at the whim of their own brain, including its countless biases and fallacies. If you’re selling books on Amazon, you’ll likely never even talk to your customer, let alone do you have any employees. It’s a free-for-all up there, and your mind is more than happy to send you in all kinds of creatively exciting but economically unfruitful directions — and that is our challenge.

Startups have problems too, of course. They might hire too much or too little, fail to get funding or run out of cash, or, like the individual creator, get distracted and lose their customers along with their focus on the problem they initially so brilliantly solved.

But there is something about this forced focus that comes with external accountability that, to me, as someone who’s only ever suffered from distraction, sounds liberating, almost soothing. And I now realize my Trello board with milestones won’t cut it. Paper plans are cheap. My mind has tossed thousands of those out the window.

I don’t yet know what I’ll do about this, but I know it’s worth thinking about. Where are you hurting your progress on your main goal by dedicating too much time and energy to secondary, not-really-necessary endeavors? Where can you do less instead of more? And how can you build some forced focus around the big mission once you’ve settled on it?

I’m not sure it’s as big a problem as online payments, but these questions pose a challenge for many of us. Who knows? If you can solve them for people again and again, perhaps you’ll build the next unicorn — but of course, that’ll require some serious focus.

Your Most Important Skill

What’s your best skill? Are you the life of the party? Can you make people laugh? Perhaps you’re exceptionally good at math or have a knack for design. When it comes to our main feature, there are almost as many answers as there are people on the planet.

Your most important skill, however, is simple, and I daresay it’s the same for every single one of us. If I asked 100 adults what they think it is, I bet I’d get a lot of different answers. “Our ability to speak, to communicate,” someone might say. “Thinking! Without thinking, civilization would never developed,” another might suggest. “The ability to create! To make things.” And so on. What do you think?

Actually, you learned your most important skill before you could do any of these arguably significant things. It was around the time you were one year old. Before you could think consciously, speak your mind, or create anything with your hands, you learned something much easier yet also more fundamental: putting one foot in front of the other. You learned how to walk.

In more than one way, that’s what you’ve been doing ever since. Not always with your feet, of course. But if you think about it, it really doesn’t matter how long your to-do list is 40 years later. Every morning, you wake up, and you keep doing one thing at a time. It’s the only way to move through life, but it’s also the best thing we do.

When life is tough, things aren’t going well, and you don’t want to get out of bed, keep walking. When life is great, money is raining from the sky, and everything magically falls into your lap, keep walking. And when life is so-so, not too exciting but also not too sad, just the humdrum hum of everyday, keep walking.

You’ve had everything you need to find everything you need since you were ten months old. Keep taking those same baby steps you’ve been taking since back then, and the path will always continue to unfold.

Contacts, Then Capital

When he pivoted from being a Grammy-nominated RnB artist to being a tech entrepreneur, Ryan Leslie didn’t know anyone in Silicon Valley. “I didn’t have any investors in my phone. I had only music industry people in my phone. I needed to figure out, ‘Okay, how do I go raise millions of dollars for a platform so I can help people?'”

Since that platform was a tool for SMS marketing and it was 2013, however, none of his music industry contacts wanted to hear anything about it. So Ryan flew down to California, started knocking on doors, and, eventually, managed to collect several million dollars in funding.

“The number one challenge between where someone is today and where they want to be is either contacts or capital. If you can solve for the contacts, you can get to the capital.”

For most people, money is the big problem. That’s why Ryan suggests: Contacts first. “The contacts could be fans. It could be customers. They could be investors.”

Though not its main feature, in some way, this blog is a giant rolodex. It brings people into my life, and with every daily post, its potential to attract more people grows. Who will show up when? I have no idea. But I trust that one is greater than zero, and that the right people will be on my email list at the right time.

In your case, finding the right contacts could mean cold-calling ten people each day. It could mean building a Youtube channel. Or it could mean going to lunch with every single person at your company.

Solve for the contacts, and the capital will follow. Whether it’s literal capital for your next, bigger venture, or simply enough money to live comfortably and do your own thing, you’ll either need enough fans, enough customers, a new boss, or a line of investors to pull it off.

How you increase the number of lines in your phonebook is up to you, but no one succeeds alone. Ultimately, we’re all carrying each other, and so offering something to the community while asking for help in return isn’t just normal, it’s necessary — and, according to Ryan Leslie, “that’s where you should start.”

Strength Is Not For Punching

The first lesson you’ll learn in any kung fu movie is that martial arts are not meant for attack. That’s why, despite starring in some 50 action movies, Jet Li has never used his skills in real life — and yet, he practices every day. Of course, without the practice, without the kung fu moves he could use for attack, Li also wouldn’t have been in any movies, and that hints at the first purpose of strength: Strength is for the spirit.

In developing strength, be it in your muscles or via a versatile skill, you also develop confidence, flexibility, and resilience. You teach yourself to show up, to make the best of the opportunities you are given, and to not give up easily. That’s the kind of spirit it takes to become a Hollywood star, and it’s probably just as important as actual acting skills.

I, too, practice every day. Every morning, I do 50 push-ups. I also work out my shoulders. I simply hold out my arms straight in front of me, move them up, to the sides, and back to the front, then repeat. Plus some butterflies. It prevents my back and shoulders from hurting despite long writing sessions.

Yesterday, however, I used my shoulder strength for something else. As I walked, or rather shuffled, to the bakery amidst a sudden onslaught of black ice in Munich, I slipped. I was already well on my way to the ground when, instinctively, I grabbed a chain hanging between two poles on the side and, albeit with a violent yank, managed to prevent a fall.

The show of strength here was not grabbing the chain. It was that, the next day, my shoulder didn’t hurt in the slightest. Had I not trained it every day, putting such sudden, high stress on it in freezing weather would have given me a very sore joint at the least, if not worse.

That brings me to the second purpose of strength, the one most kung fu masters refer to when they tell their students not to whoop each other’s butts: Strength is for defense.

Even if you pursue martial arts entirely for their spiritual benefits, they still might come in handy. The best martial artist never has to use their skills. The second-best only has to use them a few times in their life. Here, too, it is the daily practice that keeps disaster at bay — not necessarily by keeping it away from you, but by keeping you ready to fend it off whenever it rears its ugly head.

Strength is not for punching. Strength is for the spirit, and strength is for defense. Both of these things, we most intensely rely on only when we truly need to, and by then, you better be ready. So keep training. Practicing. Learning. You might not have a target in front of you that you want to hit, but you never know what your powers might be good for — and a hero is not defined by how much power she has but by the times she chooses to wield it.