Are you a normal thinker in a power-law world?

Along with celebrating the holidays, eating cookies, catching up on sleep, eating cookies, and doing fun projects with the kids (did I mention the cookies?), one reason I enjoy the year-end is the chance to chip away at the stack of unread books piling up in my house. A particularly thought-provoking book in this year’s batch is Peter Thiel’s Zero to One, which has earned a spot on my recently revised Essential Reading List.

This post is not a book review, but rather a highlight of an idea Thiel introduces early in the book and has appeared in my daily thoughts since reading it. He reminds us that conventional Western thought trains us to think of outcomes as following a normal (random) distribution, but in fact both the natural and business world follow a power law distribution. Accepting this re-framing of the world around us is easy in theory, and changing our choices in life as a result can be very difficult.

Some are mean, some have no mean
Some are mean, some have no mean

The idea itself is not original – from the application of mathematical theories to the emerging computer science field in the 1950s, to Malcolm Gladwell’s 2006 New Yorker article, to Taleb’s Black Swan – but Thiel’s framing of the concept, and its implications, is novel.

Many of us are taught to value breadth over depth, and to avoid “placing all of our eggs in the same basket.” We are coached to believe that well-roundedness is a virtue but hyper-specialization is “weird.” The entire premise of the liberal arts education system, from classical to modern times, is to provide foundational knowledge in a broad range of topics. [Personal note: not all institutions follow this mantra. The feedback I heard after being rejected from MIT’s undergraduate engineering program was that I was “too well rounded.”] As students and professionals, we are graded on a curve (the normal distribution). We are advised that portfolio diversification is the safest and most profitable theory of investment.

But strategy is about trade-offs. A business must choose to specialize in a certain market, geography, or product domain in order to reduce competition and increase profit. We cannot diversify our professional lives by being partially invested in many careers. At some point, we must choose to specialize in a function, industry, or growth stage in order to excel.

Sure, it’s interesting to think about whether phenomena like marathon finishing times, portfolio company performance, emissions, or health care spending follow a normal or power law distribution (at least for a few moments). But how can we apply this new way of framing the world? Here are a few ways to put this theory to action in life:

  • Think, plan, and go deep – from an early age. Find out what you (and your kids) are passionate and talented in, and build expertise. The most knowledgeable and talented people in any discipline are always in demand, regardless of market cycles.
  • Take risks with definite outcomes. Be certain, which means being certainly right or wrong, not indefinitely indeterminate. Too many of us hide behind a fear of failure and instead drift along in the middle of the pack without achieving much.
  • Concentrate your investments in a much smaller number of areas: in your professional pursuits, and your personal interests. As the new year begins, instead of asking yourself “what else can I start doing?” think about what you can stop, in order to focus your mental and physical energy on the few things you do best and enjoy most.

Does this resonate with you? Sound completely crazy? Leave a comment and let me know! Regardless, have a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2015.

Adding “No” to your professional vocabulary: three strategies

It looks backwards to this guy but he still picked the right box.
It looks backwards to this guy but he still picked the right box.

Last time we took a peek behind the green curtain to learn that the word I struggle to use in a professional setting is “no.” From the amount of feedback I heard about the post, this seems to be a fairly common affliction in the professional population.

So let’s look at a few strategies to turn down requests at work without damaging professional relationships or credibility (and without sounding like Consuela).

  1. Redirect the resource: Rather than leaving the requester scrambling for help, your “no” can be followed with suggestions of people in the team with related skills who could help complete parts of the assignment. Of course your unique skills were sought out for a reason, so your redirection will boost your image as a connector (in Gladwell’s definition) rather than a work-dodger.
  2. Change the choice: Everyone is already busy. So when you face a new request for help, the choice you are making is not “will I do this or do nothing?” but “what would I stop doing to do this?” So why not make this choice transparent to the requester? Let him or her know what you are currently working on (especially if it is a familiar project), and shift the discussion to a professionally appropriate version of “would you rather.”
  3. Yes, but not now: Some requests are genuinely urgent, but many have flexible deadlines. Give the requester a sense of when some daylight will creep into your schedule, and offer to help then instead of a flat-out “sorry, I can’t.”

It’s great to be needed at work, and by continuing to deliver great results, that will continue, especially if you have the resolve to say no when you can’t deliver. Try one of these strategies above and leave a comment about how it works! Have other strategies that have helped? Let the leadertainment community know!


Giving: 4 ways it will help you get a better job

As I referenced in a previous post, it is never to early to start building your network and (re)discovering your career strategy. One way to do this, as Peter Bregman suggests also, is by giving away your time and effort through volunteering. Recently, and somewhat unexpectedly, I followed this advice by meeting with some folks who are leading a start-up food business called Beer Bites.
Coming soon: The Ultimate Bar Snack ™

As the beautiful and virtually content free-website suggests, we are in the very early stages of product and business development and there is lots to do. At the end of my first meeting, I joined the ops team and will be helping secure the ~50 Boston area bars and lounges who will pilot the launch of Beer Bites. Shameless plug: email me at to learn more or get involved!

This experience helped clarify four specific ways that giving can help anyone get a better job, no matter how soon:

  1. You will learn quickly by being out of your comfort zone. Regardless of the size of the organization you help, or the specific work that you do, you will be learning quickly. Everyone you volunteer with will have more knowledge or experience (or both) than you in some regard, which will help you grow and become a more attractive candidate for your next role.
  2. You will build more weak ties quickly — the most important links in your network. This is a core principle of Gladwell’s as well as anyone else who understands networking, because you will gain access to more unique contacts.
  3. You will demonstrate the depth of your character, which goes well beyond any online interaction. Beyond getting a few hours of sunshine and fresh air, getting away from the computer screen will show the people you meet about your values, your work ethic, and your capabilities in a much more genuine way.
  4. You will get a bunch of new ideas about what you do (and do not) want in your next role. Simply talking to the other folks you’re volunteering with about their experiences will provide a lot of food for thought. The extent to which you enjoy your volunteer work will also become a source of feedback. My experience with Beer Bites so far has affirmed that I want business development and marketing to be a part of what I do next: I don’t care what you say, cold calling is just plain fun!

What have you gained from a recent volunteer experience? Or maybe it went horribly wrong? Leave a comment and let me know.