Should you work on your weaknesses?

I recently listened to an episode of Adam Grant’s “WorkLife” called “When Strength Becomes Weakness.”

This got me thinking about how much – if any – time we should spend working on our weaknesses.

CrossFitters pride themselves on the amount of time that they spend working on their weaknesses – doing endless rowing intervals to try to improve their engine, constant EMOMs of strict handstand push-ups, and accessory sessions of banded pull-aparts and seated external rotations to try to improve their shoulder muscle endurance.

Lots of business advice, however, recommends the exact opposite.

Here’s a quote from Paul Brown’s Forbes article “Forget about working on your weakness, play to your strengths!”:

Yes, I got marginally better at all those things. But, I was still really bad and putting in all that effort for so little gain made me extremely cranky. And worse, I wasn’t having any fun.  Spending every day being reminded of what you are awful at is enough to make anyone depressed.

Eventually, I realized I would be far better off doing what I do well–solving business puzzles–and NEVER managing again.

So, how do you decide which advice is correct? How do you know when to work on your weaknesses vs work on your strengths? Am I talking about fitness or business?

Who can really say?

Anyway, I have some thoughts on how to decide whether it’s best to spend your time on doubling down on your strengths or shoring up your weaknesses.

To figure out where our time is best spent, we have to consider three things:

  1. What is the “unit of competition” or “unit of action”?

  2. Are playing a bounded or an unbounded game?

  3. What is your current limiting factor?

What do I mean by “unit of competition”?

In business, organizations compete with each other. So, while it may not make sense for an individual to spend significant amounts working on his or her weaknesses, the organization as a whole may need to do so.

What does this mean?

Well, if your organization struggles with management, it may not make sense to try to train a bunch of impatient people with poor social skills to manage. It ‘s obviously better to put those people in roles that require less interaction with others and allow them to play to their specific strengths (maybe something like strategic thinking or creating systems).

The organization as a whole will probably benefit from individuals within it focusing on their specific strengths and staying away from their weaknesses.

What about the “unit of action”?

However, roles within an organization don’t always allow for an individual to fully stay away from their weaknesses – and there are many situations where someone will need to improve a weakness since it becomes a limiting factor for them relative to their ability to execute on their strengths.

In some cases, it can make sense to simply delegate all of the tasks that an individual struggles with – I know several entrepreneurs, CEOs, law firm partners, etc. who are seemingly incapable of keeping a calendar or handling e-mail in a reasonable way, but they have assistants who essentially keep them on track.

But, what about a CrossFit coach who struggles with providing feedback without sounding judgmental? It doesn’t make sense for that coach to “delegate” giving feedback on movement to an assistant coach while they focus on their strength of providing clear explanations and demonstrating movements correctly.

In this case, the coach is a self-contained “unit of action” and will see the biggest gains in his or her capabilities as a coach through improving the ability to give feedback without triggering defensiveness in clients.

Are you playing a bounded or an unbounded game?

The possibilities of significantly outsized results can completely change the incentive structure for whether or not you should work on your strengths or work on your weaknesses.

We may as well use CrossFit competition as an example here, since I think this is a particularly salient example of this phenomenon.

In most competitions, one of two scoring structures is typically used.

You either receive a point total relative to your placing on an event (1st place gets 1 point, 2nd place gets 2 points, 3rd place gets 3 points, etc.) and the lowest point total wins. This is the scoring system used in the Open.

Or, you get points relative to your placing with some scaling in the interval between places (1st place gets 100 points, 2nd place gets 95 points, 3rd place…28th gets 24 points, 29th gets 22 points, etc.) and the highest point total wins.

This is a bounded game – meaning that you don’t get an advantage by winning an event by 10 minutes compared to winning an event by 10 seconds.

And, based upon the way the scoring works out, it’s much more important to not have weaknesses than it is to have significant strengths. For example, someone who finishes in 5th place across five events will beat someone who finishes, 1st/30th/1st/30th/1st.

So, CrossFit athletes respond rationally to the incentive structure and work hard to eliminate weaknesses.

But, what if you’re playing an unbounded game? (Or at least a game that allows for totally outsized results).

In that, case it would make a lot more sense to double down on your strengths. If, for example, the margin of victory mattered in CrossFit, we would see a totally different incentive structure for training. It would be possible to have people competing who would push the extremes on strength events and endurance events far past the middling numbers that CrossFitters currently put up relative to elite powerlifters or runners.

If we take an example from business, PayPal left millions of customer support e-mails unanswered while they were rapidly scaling in the online payments industry. Did that hurt them? Probably a bit – but they still sold to eBay for 1.5 billion.

Would they have been better served by focusing on their weaknesses in customer support or by doubling down on their strengths in fraud prevention and detection and serving the eBay users that provided their initial case of product market fit?

The answer seems obvious to me.

What is your current limiting factor?

If we think about the above factors, we should be able to come up with an understanding of what your current limiting factor is.

Is it possible that – by developing your strengths – you can achieve a significant and outsized reward? Are you playing a “winner-take-all” game?

Can you delegate your weaknesses? Or come up with a creative solution to get around them?

Or, are you yourself the unit of competition and your weaknesses are either holding you back (by preventing you from accomplishing a key and irreplaceable aspect of the task that you’re trying to complete) or they are potentially creating the possibility of a significant negative event in the future that could derail your success even if it is outsized (significant accrual of technical, management or cultural debt).

It’s not always obvious where the highest leverage activities lie, but it’s clear that blanket advice to “focus on strengths” or “fix weaknesses” doesn’t take into account the variability in the types of games that people are playing or the ways that they compete in those games.

Four Tendencies + Five Factors

I recently had an error with my Dropbox account that caused me to go through a bunch of my files in order to clean up a bunch of trash on my hard drive.

I found this little drawing that I made with the intention of creating a blog post, but I don’t think I ever actually wrote this thing up.

If you’ve been on this newsletter for a few years, you may remember me writing about Gretchen Rubin’s “Four Tendencies” framework.

Gretchen Rubin's Four Tendencies Framework

I’ve personally found a lot of personality psychology to be extremely helpful in working with clients and running a business since – well – most people are not like me and I don’t understand what the hell they’re thinking.

While there’s a lot of pseudoscience and frameworks that are really just about one step above a shoddy Buzzfeed quiz (“You know you’re a [INSERT TYPE OF PERSON] if you [INSERT SHARED GROUP EXPERIENCE]”), I’ve found it helpful to understand a variety of different frameworks and attempt to relate them back to the more evidence-based big five model of personality.

The big five model of personality is based upon the idea of five independent personality “knobs” that can be dialed up or down in individuals – these knobs are:

Openness to experience: Openness reflects the degree of intellectual curiosity, creativity and a preference for novelty and variety a person has

Conscientiousness: Tendency to be organized and dependable, show self-discipline, act dutifully, aim for achievement, and prefer planned rather than spontaneous behavior

Extraversion: Energetic, surgency, assertiveness, sociability and the tendency to seek stimulation in the company of others, and talkativeness

Agreeableness: The six facets of agreeableness are: Trust, straightforwardness, sycophancy, AltruismComplianceModesty, and Tender-Mindedness

Neurotocisim: The tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as angeranxiety, depression, and vulnerability.

Gretchen’s model of four tendencies seems to be built one layer up  from the big five model.

She phrases things in terms of “meeting your own expectations” and “meeting the expectations of others” – which I view as proxies for traits conscientiousness and agreeableness, respectively.

I drew my own version of the Four Tendencies model below with the axes of the graph representing the percentile of conscientiousness and agreeableness.

Four Tendencies + Five Factors

So, what’s going on here?

I think that anyone above a certain percentile of conscientiousness would be an “upholder” in Gretchen’s model – someone who views tasks and expectations as duties that must be completed. These systematic people live to complete the tasks laid out before them – whether assigned by themselves or assigned by others.

I can personally speak to the Upholder mindset as someone who tests as very high on conscientiousness and very low on agreeableness in the Big Five model.

People below a certain conscientiousness threshold tend to be either Questioners (meet their own expectations but struggle to meet the expectations of others) or Obligers (meet the expectations of others but struggle to meet their own expectations).

These people don’t necessarily feel the overwhelming compulsion to complete tasks regardless of source that the high conscientiousness Upholder does, but they will either relentlessly pursue things that make sense to them and their own priorities (Questioners) or fight to never let anyone down who they care about (Obligers).

Below a certain threshold of both conscientiousness and agreeableness, we have the Rebel. These individuals struggle both to meet their own expectations and the expectations of others. “You can’t tell me what to do, and neither can I.” Rebels are interesting, since they often frustrate those around them as well as themselves with their seeming capriciousness and lack of follow-through.

I would also posit that we could include a Z-axis on the above graph with “% Openness” as the axis. I think the structure of the above diagram would remain similar, but the line of conscientiousness above which someone becomes an Upholder moves higher up the lower someone is in trait openness.

If I compare myself (very high openness and exceptionally high conscientiousness) with my mother (exceptionally low openness and very high conscientiousness), I think that openness also serves as a filter to which tasks we will “accept.” I can be too open to new ideas and new projects and allow myself to agree to too many different things or spread myself thin, while my mother behaves much more like a “Questioner” despite her very high conscientiousness since she is often mistrustful of new information and can seem “stubborn and set in her ways.”

Anyway, I read this Gretchen Rubin book kind of awhile ago and I still think about the practical takeaways from it consistently when working with clients and staff – so I would highly recommend it even if it may not be a perfectly evidence-based iteration of personality psychology.

A return to trust in expertise

I had some good responses to my last e-mail about finding the balance between critical thinking and a blanket mistrust of expert opinion.

As someone with a history of rebellious opinions and clashes with authority, I find it strange that I’ve found myself in the position of defending “expertise” and establishment.

However, I am currently much more concerned with the rise of crackpotism than I am with mindless obedience to authority.

By removing gatekeepers and democratizing the ability to spread information (especially through algorithmically curated social feeds), we seem to have accelerated the rate at which both autodidacts can take in and filter huge amounts of information as well as the percentage of potential crackpots that can be exposed to conspiracy theory.

I’m trying to parse out the difference between what I would consider to be healthy and appropriate skepticism versus what I would consider to be dangerous and foolhardy crackpotism.

If we use the example of CrossFit HQ sharing articles regularly calling into question the expertise of medical professionals, conflicts of interest in science, and potential corruption through pharmaceutical money that I discussed last week, I think I can clarify what I mean.

Let’s think through a rough Bayesian framework for trusting expert consensus on medical matters.

We can kind of bastardize the the details for the purpose of conversation without getting too into the weeds in defining our question appropriately, and say something like:

“The probability that expert consensus on matters related to health, wellness and prevention of long-term disease is largely correct is X%”

Or – to rephrase – “Of 100 consensus expert opinions on health and wellness topics, X of those opinions are largely correct.”

To list some specific examples, we can think of things like the following examples making up our list of expert consensuses:

•Recommend dosing of creatine supplementation

•Recommended daily allowances of various micronutrients

•Recommendations on total sleep

Then, if we happen to have additional information about a topic or reason to doubt expert consensus, then we can engage in Bayesian updating.

From the link:

Situation # 1:

Given: The median height of an average American Male is 5’10”.  (I don’t know if this is accurate; that’s not the point.)  You are on a business trip and are scheduled to spend the night at a nice hotel downtown.

Wanted:  Estimate the probability that the first male guest you see in the hotel lobby is over 5’10”.

Solution:  50%  (Well, that’s certainly self-evident.)

Situation # 2:

On your way to the hotel you discover that the National Basketball Player’s Association is having a convention in town and the official hotel is the one where you are to stay, and furthermore, they have reserved all the rooms but yours.

Wanted:  Now, estimate the probability that the first male guest you see in the hotel lobby is over 5’10”.

Solution:  More than 50%   Maybe even much more, and that’s obvious too.

I have no issues with updating off of expert consensus based upon new or more nuanced information.

However, I have a concern that a lot of the information that CrossFit is putting out is not intended just as information for updating a Bayesian prior, but as an attempt to downgrade our trust in expert consensus as a whole.

Meaning that – rather than clarifying the nuance on a specific issue – it’s meant to change our belief in whether or not we can trust expert consensus in general

My 17-year old punk self probably can’t believe I’m saying this, but I actually think that most people don’t trust experts enough.

Or, they potentially miscategorize experts and put someone like Dr. Oz on the same footing as lipidologists who have been studying the metabolism of cholesterol for decades.

Here’s to a return to true expertise!

Healthy skepticism or iconoclastic and populist muckraking

In the process of a partial rebranding, CrossFit HQ has pulled away from their promotion of the CrossFit Games as a primary focus for CrossFit’s media department and doubled down on the promotion of CrossFit as a program for people to regain their health and wellness.

They’ve also pivoted the focus of the company toward CrossFit Health – which seems to be an attempt to disrupt the entrenched healthcare industry in much the same way that CrossFit disrupted the entrenched fitness industry.

Given that CrossFit HQ has often been at-odds with conventional medical recommendations with regards to things like dietary fat intake while simultaneously waging war with entrenched soda interests who are financially tied to other fitness licensing organizations like the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), it’s not surprising that CrossFit has maintained the iconoclastic drive to take on the structure of institutions that they see as rotten.

And, given how effective they were at taking a huge chunk of marketshare in the fitness industry, I can see why HQ think that they can and should take on healthcare as well.

But, is taking on conventional wisdom in medicine the same thing as taking on conventional wisdom in fitness?

Much of the content shared on recently has been some pretty in the weeds articles on a lot of scientific studies related to things like hyponatremia relative to hydration guidelines, the effects of statins on heart disease prevention, and the metabolic machinery of the progression of cancer.

As someone who is somewhat skeptical myself, I certainly support the idea of challenging conventional wisdom and making sure that the evidence for widely accepted claims is well-supported.

However, I think there’s a difference between skeptical exploration and truth-seeking, and creating general confusion and mistrust of experts.

I mentioned the phenomenon in a previous post of geniuses like Isaac Newton spending significant amounts of time searching for numerical codes in scripture and Linus Pauling exalting the benefits of Vitamin C for just about anything. This is likely due to an overly active and highly-tuned “pattern matching” circuit in their brains. While this can result in absolute genius, it can also result in chasing down a bunch of spurious correlations. As such, geniuses should not be judged for having several kooky ideas, since that is probably part of the same wiring that also allowed them to have deep insight.

Similarly, CrossFit exposed a rotten fitness industry that was failing many of the people that it was supposed to serve. A lot of this disruption was based upon iconoclasm and distrust of expert opinion. However, much in the way that some individuals have their “pattern-matching” setting dialed too high, I imagine that others can have their “contrarian challenging of established expertise” setting dialed too high.

And, much as that can sometimes result in massive disruption and paradigm-shifting innovation – especially relative to sagging and bloated industries, it can also result in chaos and tilting at windmills.

If we take something like the lipid hypothesis of heart disease, we are attempting to unravel a deeply messy knot of complexity in terms of mechanistic causes of heart disease, genetic susceptibility to certain outcomes, manipulation of biology through pharmaceuticals, and lifestyle choices of individuals.

And, while there are certainly entrenched interests and misaligned incentives relative to scientific publication, I am concerned that painting this narrative as a failing health system full of know-nothing experts may cause more harm than good.

Most people reading the CrossFit site are not knowledgable enough in areas related to lipid and cancer metabolism to understand the detailed and nuanced arguments surrounding the validity of different studies, and promoting alternative hypotheses seemingly with the purpose of being disruptive gives me some concern.

I’m not exactly sure where the line is between “healthy academic skepticism,” “iconoclastic and populist muckraking,” and “Russian-style confusion-creating propaganda.”

The latter two carry much better on social media, but I have concerns with the long-term health of our information economy based upon those kinds of tactics.

Another frustrating podcast on low carb diets

I had a bunch of other stuff written for this week…but then I heard another frustrating podcast on low carb diets and felt compelled to act! By writing a newsletter!

This time, we’ve got Ben Bergeron talking about foods to avoid.

Now, to be fair, I did a business course that Ben lead and found it very valuable and I usually run into him a few times per year at various competitive fitness related activities. So there’s no bad blood there.

While I fully support Ben in recommending avoiding sugar, flour and vegetable oil in most people’s diets, I was upset by some of the factual errors in his explanations (ie salad dressing is not made from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil – that’s reserved for things like peanut butter, margarine and baked good; both white bread and wheat bread have gluten; weight loss is not based upon carbohydrate balance).

This brings me back to a concept that I’ve discussed before in this newsletter:

Metaphorical vs Literal Truth

In this case, if you follow Ben’s recommendations of avoiding sugar, flour and vegetable oil in your diet – as well as being skeptical of “health-washed” foods like wraps and smoothies, you will probably have good results from your nutrition program.

So, his recommendations are “metaphorically true” in that they achieve the ends that they intend to produce. 

And, they may actually achieve these ends more effectively than more rigorous explanations which would potentially confuse and overwhelm people with too much density and conditionality since the real world rarely has a tight narrative of causality that translates into easily memorable rules.

In this case, literal truth may be less “true” than the metaphorical truth because it may not produce results as effectively.

Sounds a lot like some debates about religion amongst popular contemporary public intellectuals. (This is also very frustrating to listen to and I do not recommend it).

From my general disposition as well as the fact that I’m in two death metal bands, you can probably guess what my religious beliefs are.

However, I have been teetering on being convinced that religion is actually a net positive for society.

This doesn’t mean that I think that religion is “true” per say, but I think that it achieves a group organizing impulse that is fundamental to human biology and that it creates a framework that allows many people to more effectively pursue their goals.

While I used to rail against anything that I thought was inaccurate by doing things like arguing inappropriately with authority figures or writing polemical articles in my high school zine, I suppose my perspective has tempered with age – and I’m much more willing to allow people to be inaccurate as a trade-off for better long-term outcomes.

Still, there is a negative side to some metaphorical truths.

Religion begets fundamentalism.

And the insulin hypothesis of obesity begets CrossFitters who train at high intensity several times per week cutting carbs in an attempt to lose body fat – and ending up messed up and overtrained.

So, if you want the literal truth of how the body regulates appetite and weight gain, check out this page abundant with studies laying out a framework for understanding body fat regulation from my man Stephan Guyenet.

If you just want to look good, feel good, and improve long-term health – avoid sugar, flour and vegetable oil and explain it to yourself however you fancy.

A frustrating podcast on low carb diets

I was super excited to listen to the debate on the Joe Rogan Experience between Stephan Guyenet and Gary Tabues. But, as anyone who has listened to the episode knows, it got pretty bogged down in personal animosity and didn’t have a lot of great content.

Taubes is a science journalist known for his tome “Good Calories, Bad Calories” and is a low carb diet advocate.

He posits that obesity is caused by dysfunction of the storage process of body fat – which is mediated through excess insulin secretion. He also argues that energy is “partitioned” more favorably to body fat in high carbohydrate diets. Through these arguments, Taubes also attempts to discredit the current science of obesity research, which has settled on a largely “brain-based” model for regulation of body fat stores.

Stephan Guyenet is a neuroscientist, researcher and author of “The Hungry Brain” – as well as a former guest on my podcast.

Guyenet’s model of body fat regulation focuses on the brain – with a hormone called leptin being the primary modulator of energy intake and expenditure through interaction with the hypothalamus. 

While both Taubes and Guyenet agree that body fat storage is a complicated interplay between central regulation (through the brain) and peripheral regulation (through the actual mechanics by which flux is mediated in and out of fat cells), they come to different conclusions surrounding which of these is the dominant player in terms of controlling body fat stores in individuals.

While this may seem like an academic debate or like something that’s “deep in the weeds,” I find that this type of information is surprisingly impactful on the actions of every day folks trying to lean out, look good and feel good.

If my biases aren’t clear, I’m very firmly in the same camp as Guyenet and I think that the carbohydrate model of obesity has been pretty thoroughly discredited.

But, as a CrossFit gym owner and a coach, I am regularly interacting with people who are eating carbohydrate-restricted diets while engaging in high intensity training – which I think is not just a potential impediment to their progression over time, but also a health hazard based upon the demands on the system of a difficult training program.

So, the vague notions floating around about insulin, carbs and keto do have an effect on real people, and I think it’s important that the conversation in the fitness subculture change to recognize the actual state of the science. 

Insulin is obviously a key aspect of body fat storage – no one who has read a text book on metabloism would dispute that.

However, the key aspect of body fat regulation is not just the mechanism by which energy is either stored or released from body fat.

Instead, it’s the entire flux of energy relative to the organism. This flux is controlled by our hunger – which is modulated by a complex series of factors including leptin signaling, NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis), inflammation in the hypothalamus, sleep (which has a direct effect on impulse control), and the reward/palatability of the food in our environment.

This is not to say that low carbohydrate diets are ineffective. For many individuals, low carbohydrate diets result in significant body composition changes. These changes, however, are probably not due to the exact mechanics of insulin signaling. Instead, they work by:

•eliminating a huge percentage of hyperpalatable and highly rewarding foods (aka “junk food”)

•creating rules and awareness surrounding food consumption (almost any intervention that brings awareness and accountability to consumption results in body composition change)

•causing a reduction in overall calorie intake by restricting significant numbers of commonly consumed foods

•increased satiety through increased protein intake

And, in individuals with significant insulin sensitivity issues or altered glucose metabolism, restricting carbohydrates can be a crucial aspect of regaining blood sugar control.

So, as a coach, it’s not that I’m opposed to low carbohydrate diets. I am opposed to a lot of the mythology that surrounds them, though, since I think it pushes a lot of people toward unsustainable attempts at lifestyle change.

For more info from Dr. Guyenet, I wouldn’t recommend listening to the Rogan show, but I would recommend checking out these resources:

Why the carbohydrate-insulin model of obesity is probably wrong

The Carbohydrate Hypothesis of Obesity: a Critical Examination

Appearance on my podcast

Appearance on the Brute Strength Podcast

The Hungry Brain

What problem does your product actually solve?

In saturated markets with a lot of high social proof players, many people are confused about what game they are actually playing.

Coaches can get easily frustrated when they see people following stupid programs pushed by Instagram celebrities (who got famous by an understanding of how to manipulate social media algorithms and a deep intuitive understanding of signaling behavior) or famous athletes (whose athletic success has everything to do with freakish genetic potential and almost nothing to do with their actual training program).

Musicians can get easily frustrated when the most popular bands in a genre rarely write the “best” songs.

People think that these things should be a meritocracy, and that consumers are looking to find the highest quality goods and services to meet their coaching and music listening needs.

Instead, think about what “problem” a product solves.

In online fitness coaching, the problem that people want solved is something like:
“I want to do the same thing that my Instagram idol does”

Note that it’s not:
“I want to follow the best and most appropriately designed program for my fitness goals, training history and genetic potential.”

Nor is it:
“I want to look and feel my best without sacrificing too many other aspects of my lifestyle that are important to me.”

Nor is it:
“I want to maximize my performance relative to my own potential.”

“I want to do the same thing that my Instagram idol does.”

Or it’s:
“I want to get my ass kicked every day by training and be able to signal to my own followers on Instagram that I am a certain type of athlete.”

If you’re confused about the actual problems that people are trying to solve through their purchases and their behavior, the world can be a very confusing place.

But when you realize that the problems that people are solving through their behavior may not be the problems that you think they should be solving, things make a lot more sense.

Punk Brands

I got a few pretty interesting responses on my recent e-mail on branding and marketing.

I was discussing some of the differences between “branding” and “direct response marketing” as it relates to small businesses and some of the misconceptions that occur when people attempt to take principles of branding that apply to large corporations and apply them to their small businesses.

In thinking through this further, I think it’s important to distinguish another layer of signaling behavior that may be very relevant to “success” for entities operating in smaller markets or subcultures where identity becomes a massive part of how consumers interact with an entity.

I’m thinking of things like music subculture, tattoo subculture, or competitive CrossFit subculture.

In each of these arenas, identifying as “the type of person who [listens to Rudimentary Peni (see below)][gets tattooed by Tim Biedron][follows Invictus programming]” is a significant component of why someone may choose to engage with a specific entity.

These environments are a bit tricky in that the degree to which a punk band or a tattoo artist is engaging in conscious “branding” behavior may not be significant, but – within the larger subculture – fans create an environment in which it means something to wear certain t-shirts or to have certain types of traditional flash tattoos.

Is this a branding environment, persay? I’m having a hard time parsing this out, but it seems to me that success in creating a “brand” in these environments has something to do with capturing a latent swell of enthusiasts in a given subculture (ie people tired of the overblown theatrics of 80s hair metal -> cut off t-shirts, blue jeans, and big sneakers for late 80s death metal) as well as a sound or iconography that these individuals can use within that subculture to identify themselves as belonging to a specific group (ie Misfit Athletics’ distinct purple gear at CrossFit competitions).

So, rather than attempting to globally create a signaling environment in which you can say something about yourself through the shoes that you wear or the beer that you bring to a party – which is the game that Nike and Corona are playing – entities in subcultures instead seek to create symbols and ideology that appeal to a specific “in group” within that subculture.

Then, the acolytes and enthusiasts then use those specific symbols to identify themselves since they want to express that “people like us think things like this and wear these kinds of symbols” – which then creates the larger environment within the subculture such that others start to recognize that they too can say something about the type of person that they are by wearing a Bolt Thrower shirt to a hardcore show, having safety pins covering their denim jacket, or painting their fingernails black.

So, rather than a top-down attempt to create a signaling environment as done by large brands and corporations who have already created distribution for their products and are fighting at the margins for marketshare, smaller entities operating in subcultures are instead creating symbolism and ideology that is ideally picked up by a latent group who then latches onto that symbolism to further their movement. Or, there is a group looking for a leader and they then rally around a specific focal point or individual – which can than result in some top down prescription in terms of the types of symbols that a group should use or how they behave.

As Seth Godin says, “The Beatles didn’t invent teenagers.”

Drinking Corona means you’re chill AF

Marketing is one of those things like fighting that elicits bizarre, overconfident behavior from people who have no idea what they’re talking about.

Imagine the machismo spewing forth from a huffing and puffing bro as he says something like “Man, if that guy had said one more thing to me, I would have knocked him out.”

How often do these huffers and puffers actually have experience knocking anyone out?

Do they have any conception of how difficult it is to knock someone out? Or the potential consequences they themselves would be exposed to in the process of attempting to knock someone out?

As an owner of some small businesses, I often get marketing advice from people that is just absolutely horrible.

And it seems to come from a similar place as the huffer and puffer claiming that he was “this close” to knocking someone out.

There are some things that are very challenging – like marketing or fighting – that most people have very little experience with. But, they assume that, if they were put in the situation where they had to engage in that activity, they would be successful based upon a bunch of half-baked ideas in their heads.

In the sphere of marketing, the common bad advice seems to fall into three buckets:

•Needing to “get the word out” – potentially through advertising, billboards, etc.

•Having a social media presence – since that’s the future and that’s where everyone spends their time

•Having a recognizable brand – since people respond to branding and slogans

Obviously, each of those things has a time and a place – and for many businesses, one of those pieces is the main element of a hugely successful strategy.

However, for a lot of small business owners, each of those pieces is a huge distraction and will at best have marginal returns as far as bringing in new clients.

As a skeptical person, I’ve never been quite able to square why advertising is so effective for major brands.

Conventional wisdom has it that implicit association with positive imagery and feelings created through advertising and sponsorships will nudge a consumer – staring indecisively at the shelves of Powerade and Gatorade – in one direction or another.

And, for large-scale products where consumers are making impulsive selections between similar offerings (Gatorade or Powerade, Michelin vs Goodyear, etc.), the marginal nudging through advertising is well worth the investment.

Contrast this to the school of direct response marketing, where hyper-niche audiences are spoken to in ways that demonstrate a deep, intimate understanding of their problem and are offered a solution – all while building trust and handling objections through long copy, testimonials, and storytelling.

(For what it’s worth, I think the direct response school is much more helpful for most small businesses, and everyone on this e-mail list has experienced it probably at least once from me.)

I recently read an article that transformed how I think about advertising – and it’s right here if you want to read the whole thing.

The thesis is essentially that advertising works to create a signaling environment in which you can say something about who you are as a person through your use of certain products.

You may identify as the “type of person who wears Nikes, drinks Corona and drives a Ford” – but that doesn’t actually do much good unless the cultural environment as a whole has some recognition of what one may be hoping to signal by wearing Nikes, drinking Corona, and driving a Ford.

So, does advertising potentially create marginal nudges in purchasing of consumer products? Probably.

But, the main lessons from massively successful global brands have to do with creating a cultural landscape in which you can signal something about yourself through which shoes you wear, which car you drive, which soft drinks you drink, which laptop you have, etc.

It’s not simply about creating an implicit association in a consumer’s mind between a product and fun, athletic success, attractive people partying, or suave, risk-taking behavior. It’s about making sure that the entire cultural landscape knows that the type of people who drink Corona are chill AF (or something). This is why it’s important to reach such large-scale audiences through advertising – the fact that everyone is exposed to the message is a key component of creating the environment in which one can signal something about themselves through product choice.

As such, small businesses need to be very careful about which lessons they draw from the advertising, branding and sloganeering of large, mainstream organizations – since the goals are often very different.

Having your ideas rudely smacked around

I just spent the last several days at OPEX in Scottsdale as part of an “apprenticeship” that felt a bit more like a “mastermind.”

There were 6 coaches along with OPEX founder James FitzGerald discussing the finer details and ins and outs of coaching athletes to compete in mixed modal sport – aka the CrossFit Games and similar competitions.

James has both won the CrossFit Games (in the early days, just saying…) and coached several elite competitors like Marcus Filly, Mike McGoldrick, Nate Schrader, Amanda Goodman, and others.

Mike Lee has been the head coach at Big Dawgs (the rebranded remote coaching and competitive fitness arm of OPEX) and also coached elite competitors like Marcus Filly (taking over for James), Tennil Reed, Colleen Fotsch, and others.

So, through the experiences of James and Mike as well as the backgrounds of the other coaches present (myself, Ian Kaplan, Carl Hardwick, Whitney Welsch and Kyle Livak), we were able to challenge our minds quite a bit to really clarify our thinking surrounding how to best train athletes for sport.
I’ve made no secrets of how much I dislike social media and the negative incentives it creates for engaging in challenging, long-form content and having nuanced disagreements (without resorting to tribalism and ad hominem).

But, this experience reminded me how much I value detailed discussions with people who can challenge me on my thinking and my ideas.

Back in the early 2000s, the internet was this kind of place for me.

Through involvement in a variety of forums and communities, I was exposed to a lot of people who were a lot smarter, more worldly, quicker witted, and more tasteful than myself.

In this case, the instinct to rank myself in social hierarchies and attempt to impress my superiors resulted in accelerated growth and forced me to get funnier and more insightful, to offer clearer thinking, to be exposed to more music and culture, etc.

Which I am eternally quite grateful for.

My recent experience at OPEX felt similar in that I had to quickly bucket and clarify my thinking on topics that have been a bit half-formed in my head – since anything I said was going to be picked apart and examined by people with a lot more reference experiences and successes than I’ve personally had.
I found this to be hugely valuable in terms of pushing me to level up my own thought processes – and to avoid anything sloppy in my mental models.

Now, I’m thinking about if/how humanity can take the internet back from the algorithm-driven aggregator models of places like Facebook and Instagram which incentivize lazy appeals to “revealed preferences” through catering to our worst instincts – rather than incentivizing deep discussion and fighting to keep up with people who are, quite frankly, just a lot better than you.

I’m not sure if aggregators will ever be displaced due to the robust network effects that they capitalize upon, but is there some way to instead push folks into distributed networks where the incentives are to impress clear-thinking, highly judgmental people who are going to hold everyone to a ridiculous standard of thought?

That would be nice – even if it’s only for a corner of the internet that enjoys such intellectual sparring.

Punk Brands

I got a few pretty interesting responses on my recent e-mail on branding and marketing. I was discussing some of the differences between “branding” and

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