When ordinary fear is enough

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter several weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

I used to think all the great kinds of fear were personal ones. Artisanal fear; handcrafted fear; the kind of things that came with a story worth telling. Being lost a bit too long in Japan; crashing an ATV in Qatar; Running with the bulls. Some real life or death adventure, lest I fall victim to ordinary fear.

Back in late March, when it became increasingly clear that it was altogether conceivable that our healthcare system could collapse under the weight of this pandemic, I recognized I was experiencing a kind of universal fear. Certainly not ordinary, exactly, but something so widespread as to begin to feel ordinary. A universal fear that very nearly every person on the planet was experiencing at the same time.

Perhaps there has never been a time when more people in the world were scared of the same thing at the same time.

Continue reading When ordinary fear is enough

Sometimes you have to go backward

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter several weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

I was hanging a drop ceiling in my basement with my father-in-law a back in November. The materials and approach of suspended drop ceilings haven’t much changed since the 1960s. You run long beams perpendicular to shorter cross beams. Those hang from the structural ceiling to support tiles that serve some aesthetic purpose. It isn’t complicated. 

But a half-day into the project, a series of minor decisions had created a major problem. My precise measurements were thrown out. A crucial structural beam was now blocked by my gas pipe. To maximize ceiling height in my home built in the 1890s, I had ignored the recommended distance between my drop ceiling and the rafters. I had a plan. But to make other accommodations, that plan faltered. We tried a few hacks to correct the issue but it got worse.

It wasn’t square. It wasn’t sound. We had a mess.

Continue reading Sometimes you have to go backward

Opportunity costs: think of the big but not the small

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter several weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

Economists love to review our decisions through the lens of opportunity costs. Each decision we make has the added cost of that which we did not do. 

When a big box-store clerk, paid hourly, volunteers to leave her shift early because foot traffic is particularly slow, she’s making a choice. She values what she does with that time more than the wage she would have earned. 

When an influential academic, evaluated by her published research, agrees to take on another young mentee, she’s making a choice. She values that relationship and the person’s development more than what she perceives to be the potential career gains she could have developed with more time in the lab.

I wrestle with this paradigm more often than I might want to admit.

Continue reading Opportunity costs: think of the big but not the small

What question is your work answering?

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter a couple weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

Every company is an approach to answering some question. (Every nonprofit might be a policy failure.)

Many mistakes are made in choosing that question: it might be too ambitious, or too unambitious. It could be too niche, or not focused enough. The true addressable market might be too small. The question may not be a lasting one. You can ask a question too early or too late, with the wrong leadership, team or product. Some of that can be changed by a good team, so along the company-building journey, you must change your approach.

But don’t change the question.

Continue reading What question is your work answering?

Find the people who give you more energy than take

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter a couple weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

I just got back from a week driving around Campania in Southern Italy, including Naples, the Amalfi Coast and the tiny town of Tufo. I was there to eat and drink but, really, I was there to see the remarkable work my best friend Patrick McNeil is doing there. Patrick, whom I’ve known for 15 years, is a homelessness advocate in Philadelphia and a fiction writer. Meanwhile, with his aunts, he is maintaining his grandfather’s childhood home in the rural Province of Avellino, both by hosting guests and, most interestingly, with an artist’s retreat.

I just got back from a week driving around Campania in Southern Italy, including Naples, the Amalfi Coast and the tiny town of Tufo. I was there to eat and drink but, really, I was there to see the remarkable work my best friend Patrick McNeil is doing there. Patrick, whom I’ve known for 15 years, is a homelessness advocate in Philadelphia and a fiction writer. Meanwhile, with his aunts, he is maintaining his grandfather’s childhood home in the rural Province of Avellino, both by hosting guests and, most interestingly, with an artist’s retreat.

Continue reading Find the people who give you more energy than take

I changed a lot at my company. Here’s why beating a big Q1 revenue goal meant so much

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter a couple weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

Nobody wants to follow someone who made General in peacetime.

I’ve been thinking about that concept a lot lately (Ben Horowitz calls its Peace/War Time CEO). In 2017, after eight years of informally leading the tiny community journalism organization I cofounded, I named myself CEO. Up until that point, my cofounder Brian and I had survived together. We’d always find a way to last a bit longer, growing slowly and thoughtfully as we navigated treacherous waters.

That survival approach was rational for growing a local news company in the early 21st century,  a time in which consumers maintain very high expectations for free and independent journalism but have not yet been fully trained to actually pay or otherwise support its work in a post-advertising world.

But in early 2018, as I was finally feeling the great responsibility of the CEO title, I took stock of where my company was.

Continue reading I changed a lot at my company. Here’s why beating a big Q1 revenue goal meant so much

To be great, you must know how to change speed

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter a couple weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

In high school, my varsity soccer coach would preach: Masters change speed.

The best players aren’t always the fastest. They are the ones who can go fast and then slow. Dribble the ball at a sprint. Stop. Pause. Redirect. Sprint again. Pace. Pace. Pace.

It’s among the lessons from my youth I reflect on most often. It carries through so much of my life. I love speed. It takes mastery to manage on deadline, something I surely learned from newsrooms. Yet, as I age, I’m most proud of how I can find moments of calm to slow down amid my frenetic pace.

Continue reading To be great, you must know how to change speed

Our ‘tranquilizing drug of gradualism’

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter a couple weeks back. In its own way, it commemorates African American History Month. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

Dr. King is likely the American thinker who comes to my mind more than any other. Not the populist who was culturally moderated over time into a convenient character for classroom posters. But the difficult and complicated and tortured man, the leader who was flawed and inspiring and masterful in so many ways.

When a MLK quote rattles in my head, it isn’t his iconic, if tired, classic: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Pulled from its context, that’s always seemed to me to be too universal to stir. Instead, it comforts, and I’ve found always found MLK misunderstood when he’s seen as a comforting.

Continue reading Our ‘tranquilizing drug of gradualism’

What are you working toward?

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter a couple weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

Earlier this year, I took a notecard from my desk and I wrote a short sentence.

It was a reminder, something I look at nearly everyday. This sentence was what I was working toward, in the simplest, most distilled form I could manage then. I then started telling my coworkers what that sentence was, so they knew my motivation, what I stood for.

From my teenage years, I’ve always written these sorts of things, quotes and priorities and reminders. Some are high-minded (I’ve had a Lao Tzu quote in my wallet since undergrad) and others are about working smarter (Your Email Inbox is Not Your To-Do List). I cherish these things. I find they do help transform my mood and habits. They are genuinely for me but, of course, they’re acts of signaling too. I am saying to the world (and therefore reinforcing for me), “Hey, These are my priorities, World!” This comforts me. I have a plan to cope.

Continue reading What are you working toward?

Art tells us we are important. Science reminds us we are not

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter a couple weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

Art elevates the human experience. Science contextualizes it. Art says we are important. Science says we are not.

I think of this tension often — it’s a theme of a lot of the writing I’ve done for years. High culture is the best tool we have against nationalism and provincialism. The best of what we collectively create tends to come from collaboration and gains interest beyond race or country or tribe. Science is a collection of the facts as best we can see them now. Art motivates us to care, to understand, to act. I’m interested in when we seem to deploy the wrong one for a circumstance.

Continue reading Art tells us we are important. Science reminds us we are not