I think hell is something you carry around with you. Not somewhere you go.
– Neil Gaiman

There are three layers of reality in every situation:
1. The base layer is the factual layer, what is mechanically occurring.
2. The second layer is the informational layer, what is occurring from our perspective based on the inputs available to us.
3. The third layer is the ego layer, what we perceive to be occurring based on our world view, sculpted by our life experience and expressed in the fears, desires and beliefs we hold.

What I think Neil Gaiman is speaking to here is this third layer, the ego layer of reality and how much we let this layer rule our experience of life.

If we are experiencing life primarily in this third layer of reality, our decision making becomes extremely flawed because we allow emotion to cloud what is factually occurring and enter a distorted world of one – void of the 360-degree perspective surrounding the situation.

This point is not dismissive of intuition or gut feelings. Intuition and gut feelings can be nudges from our subconscious towards what lies beneath this emotional layer. However, it’s tricky to decipher fear from intuition and desire from gut feeling.

Those who are extremely skilled in making good decisions do so by operating at the factual base layer reality; they have a clear and accurate understanding of what is mechanically occuring, void of emotion and with as close to a 360-degree view as possible.

This does not mean we must ignore our feelings and compassion. It means quite the opposite; we must be hyper aware of emotions. We just choose not to make decisions and act based on those feelings alone. We first seek to understand what is occurring at the factual layer.

Operating from level 1 and 2 realities can be challenging at times because doing so requires honesty, both with ourselves and with others. But this is how we cleanse ourselves of what Gaiman described in the above quote as the hell we carry with us. Whether that hell exists as a small stone in our shoe or a heavy backbreaking load.

With this work comes clarity. With this clarity comes freedom. With this freedom comes the remarkable.

“The majority believes that everything hard to comprehend must be very profound. This is incorrect. What is hard to understand is what is immature, unclear and often false. The highest wisdom is simple and passes through the brain directly into the heart.”

– Viktor Schauberger

Humans are complicated. Truth is not complicated.

As we come to understand and communicate truth, our delivery becomes simple.

The more a brand understands its truth (purpose, path, delivery), the less complicated its message is and the greater its impact becomes.

Wilco Wisdom

What Light | Wilco | Sky Blue Sky
If you feel like singing a song
and you want other people to sing along,
Then just sing what you feel
Don’t let anyone tell you it’s wrong.

In Short
For any brand, or any individual, the only truly unique and defensible position is simply being ourselves. Doing the work of peeling back the layers to truly understand ourselves and having the courage to share it with the world is the hard part.

Are we special? Are we unique? That goes for us as individuals as well as our companies. Jeff Tweety (the song writer, musician and record producer best known as the front man for the band Wilco) believes we are special, but he doesn’t let us off the hook there.

Tweety’s call to action in this song is to put our uniqueness out into the world. He’s calling on us to trust the artistic process. That if we have that fire burning inside -that voice in our head in the middle of the night- we need to listen to it; we need to harness that fire. We need to create and then put that creation out into the world.

He’s not saying we’re going to top the charts. There is no guarantee of fame, fortune or success however we might define it. He’s simply saying there’s only one cure for that itch: we’ve got to scratch it. And if there’s something inside of us we need to get out there into the world, well then start singing.

I find there are three core challenges that companies and individuals (including myself) face when attempting to heed Tweety’s call to action:

  1. Know Thy Self
    This seems obvious. We’ve spent our whole lives with ourselves and have poured our blood, sweat and tears into our company or work. How can we not know ourselves? How can we not be in touch with what makes us unique and valuable to others? The truth is we spend very little time digging into ourselves or our company, trying to get to and understand what’s at the core, what’s been buried by layers of self-protection, social-norms and miseducation. What is it we want to sing and why?
  2. Talent
    It takes talent to write, sing and perform a song that people want to hear. Without the right talent, it’s difficult to break through the noise and reach people; not just get in front of them, but reach them mentally and emotionally. It takes talent to simply express oneself (individually or as a brand). We either need to possess those talents ourselves or pull together a talented team.
  3. Money
    We need to make it. The starving artist is starving because they forgo making money for pursuing their passion and purpose. It’s more popular than ever for companies to do the same, although most of these companies are not starving. However, that doesn’t last forever and starving artists either make it or get sick of starving. The trick is walking that fine line between pursuing our purpose and reaching an audience, often referred to as our Minimum Viable Audience; or as Kevin Kelly famously named it, our 1,000 true fans. By starting narrow, not trying to pursue everyone but only those who share our tastes, our principles, our world view, we can attempt financial sustainability and grow from there.

None of these challenges are insurmountable. In fact, they grow easier to overcome with each advancement of technology. That is if we feel like singing badly enough and we truly want others to sing along.


Weighing Ourselves

“Today I weighed myself. I don’t know why? I’m not using the information. It’s not guiding my behavior. Why am I bothering to find out exactly how much of a piece of shit I am?”
– Louis C.K., Chewed Up

The comedian Louis C.K. is known for his brutal honesty. Most people are not. Most companies are not.

I know Louis can be raw and harshly honest, it’s what has gotten him into trouble a number of times, but I selected this quote for its harshness. Because, when we first start measuring ourselves, the result is often self-inflicted mental wounds. Our view of the world, and the ego that created it, collides with reality. That’s the point. We want that collision. It’s the catalyst for change.

To quote Louis again, “Sadness is poetic. You’re lucky to live sad moments. When you let yourself be sad, your body has antibodies. It has happiness that comes rushing in to meet the sadness.”

While Louis might not be taking any action (yet) when weighing himself, he is being honest with himself. The name-calling is not necessary but the critical self-reflection is.

If we are not pointing out where we, as individuals or a company, are falling short, we don’t have the opportunity to improve and grow. Yes, let’s celebrate the successes, double down on them where we can; but we can’t shy away from the areas we are falling short.

We are a world drowning in data but starving for honesty and action–real honesty and real action. The kind of honesty that scares us, that brings our ego crashing to the ground and back to reality.

Data is so valuable because it allows for informed decision-making and action. If we are not making decisions and acting on the data, we must call ourselves out. We must question why we step on the scale at all.


P.S. This is being written during a project I’m leading that is falling short of its goals. We are making progress, but not as big or as fast as we planned. The data is not pretty, but we keep stepping on the scale, taking action and then repeating. It’s not guess work, it’s the scientific process and it’s never ending – but it’s working.

For those just getting started, here’s a framework we are using:

  1. Deciding what to measure
    We manage what we measure, that is a double-edged sword. We will focus on our weight if the scale provides our only data point. And that pesky ego will try to protect itself, tilting the field in its favor. So, triangulate; measure weight, mile-pace over five miles and pullups.

    Translated into business, try measuring sales, budget and brand loyalty.

  2. Measure regularly and share the results
    Step on the scale every day. So, we went out drinking and had a couple late night slices; let’s step on the scale. We’ve been on the road, sitting on planes and in meeting rooms; let’s measure our mile-pace. No judgement, just evaluation, simply seeing a snapshot of what is.

    Translated into business; start a weekly meeting to review the data, then slowly open the meeting to everyone to remove the stigma of evaluating performance and make improvement a team effort.

  3. ACT!
    There is never an expectation that we will get it right on the first try. The scale will not always move linearly in the direction we want. We will need to change when we workout, or the routine itself, trying to find what works best for us personally. Those are data points that will give us a trend over time, guiding our daily activities and decisions.

    Translated into business; experiment. A/B test to evaluate two paths at once, allowing your customers to decide what works best. Talk to your customers to add qualitative insights to your quantitative data. Follow what’s working by attempting the same principles elsewhere. Then repeat.


In The Present

“Learn from the past. Live in the present. Plan for the future.”
– Anonymous Special Operations Sniper

What worked last year, or at our last job, may not work here.

Here, today, in this moment, we have a unique set of challenges and opportunities. We are working with a different team. We have a different starting point and different objectives. We have different tools at our disposal. We might even have a different title or role to play.

The human brain looks for patterns, using the past to predict the future. It’s how we survived for thousands of years finding food, water, shelter, warmth when it was cold and cool air when it was hot. But today we live and work in a rapidly changing world.

Taking a product to market looks completely different today than it did just a few years ago. Whole markets now transform in less than a decade. More than ever we now need to approach the present as a unique instance. We can’t simply repeat past actions.

Yes, we must learn from the past. Yes, we must apply universal principles. Yes, we must plan for the future to set a clear course of action. However, more important than looking back or looking forward is being present.

How often do we simply sit still, with no screen, just being in the present moment? How often do we take time to step back and just observe what’s going on in our lives, in our office, in our market, in our own head?

Learning from the past and planning for the future are only useful if that knowledge and vision is put into action. We can only act in the present moment. So let’s be present, right here, right now, to take right action.


“The trouble is…”

“The trouble is, you think you have time.”
? Jack Kornfield, Buddha’s Little Instruction Book

This isn’t a call for acting with reckless abandon. This is a call for intentional prioritization; for doing what matters most given the limited time we have on this earth and the fragility of our bodies. For some, this means quitting a job, dropping everything and traveling the world, touring the country in a van or living off the grid. I often admire, through Instagram’s small window, those on that path as they heed Jack’s words. But that is not our path right now.

For those of us on the path of service, the call is to do work that matters most, to us and to the world. No matter where we are in our career, this is a call to take on our daily tasks like today may be our last. If we had one day left, what work would matter most? What could we leave behind for our employees, colleagues or clients so that they can continue to do work that matters most?

This is a call to take on our work from a place of purpose –with focus, discipline and passion– while enjoying the ride with all its ups downs and spinning around– because it may be our last. This is a call to take the time to admire this awe-inspiring world and our ability to create something from nothing, like gods, and watch that creation take flight. Or watch that creation crash and burn, learning valuable life lessons that help to illuminate foundational principles on how this mind-blowing universe works. And while today may be our last, this is a call to always take time to sharpen the saw so the next day may be as purposeful, productive and rewarding if we are lucky enough to have the opportunity again.

Tactically Speaking
At the tactical level this is creating the habits and rituals that structure our days, weeks, months and years. This can be applied personally to design our lifestyle or, organizationally, to design our company culture. The wisest that have ever lived speak of our lives like water: They can take many different shapes and paths. The vessel we put them in is what defines the form and behavior.

So, we must design the structure that best serves us, the individual or collective-organizational us. What is our morning ritual? What gets done first when we sit down to work? How are Mondays different from Wednesdays, or are they the same? Do we have daily scrums or weekly touch-base meetings or both? What do we do at the end of months, or on birthdays, or in the summer?

P.S. This is a message to myself, I’m just sharing it with you.