Clarity. Simplicity. Focus.

I’ve been reminded about the importance of clarity and simplicity by three books in the last week:

  • Don’t Make Me Think, Steve Krug’s classic on web usability.
  • Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath’s great (so far) guide to how to make ideas memorable and impactful.
  • On Writing Well, William Zinsser’s brilliant and very funny book on… writing well. 

They all share a key message for communicators of any kind: be clear about your purpose, and keep things as simple as possible.

These ideas can help us improve any work that we do, and the rest of our lives too. Omit not just needless words, but needless activity, needless calories, needless consumption. Simplify. Focus. You’ll be amazed at how good you feel, and how much more you get done.

But simplicity and focus (like abstinence and diligence) are only virtues if applied to the right things in the right way, so clarity is key:

  • What do I want?
  • What am I trying to achieve?
  • Who is this for?
  • What makes this good?
  • What would make it better?
  • Why do people buy this from us?
  • What makes it worth it?
  • What will make people come back?
  • What is the contribution that only I can make?

A clear vision of what’s most important is the lens that makes it possible for us focus our energy, to decide what to do (what to think, even), and reduce clutter and friction enough that we have the time and the space to do it.

Clarity. Simplicity. Focus.

And now, it’s Friday night, and I have a clear vision of what it’s for: needless activity, needless calories, needless entertainment.

At the right times and in the right places, the needless is the one thing needful.

Small promises

It’s been five whole days since I quoted something from Seth Godin, so here’s something: we build trust by keeping our promises.

Well-placed trust makes everything better.

  • We feel safe with people we trust.
  • So we can relax. We feel better. We do better. We can be better.
  • We can be more honest, and we can share more of ourselves.
  • We’re far happier spending time and money on proven products from brands we trust.
  • And we’re prepared to pay more, because we trust it’s worth it.
  • We can spend far less time managing and supervising people we’ve come to trust – and more time directly contributing.
  • We can try things out and take risks – potentially wonderful risks – with people we trust.

So how do we get people to trust us? By making and keeping lots of small promises, many of them implicit: that we’ll send that email, show up on time, do the little things we say we’re going to do, be consistent, be engaged and committed when it’s easier not to.

I’m all for not sweating the small stuff… but the keeping of small promises helps all do better.

And as someone trusts you, you get to make (and keep) bigger promises.

Update 11/08/18: Another great post from Seth about promises here.

Setting the bar high

You’ve got to set the bar high too.

Set the bar high in the big, important things:

  • What am I working for?
  • Who am I working for?
  • How can I make things better… now?
  • What fruit will this produce in a day, a year, ten years from now?
  • How do I treat the people who have the least in each equation that I or my organisation are part of?
  • If someone joined all the dots of what we do, what picture would they get?

And of course, a great way to clear a high bar is to clear a whole lot of low ones on your way…

Setting the bar low

If a job is too big, if standards are too high, it will never get done. It might never even get started.

Setting the bar low, on the other hand, is a great way to get started. A drop in the bucket, a brick in the wall at a time – sooner or later you’re talking about something concrete.

A blog entirely made up of perfect posts? Impossible.

A single, excellent blog post? Time consuming and very rare.

100 posts of variable quality? That’s easy enough. It’s enough volume to cover over the posts you feel shy about, and enough opportunities that a few will clear that nice low bar with ease.

Being prolific

How many ideas have you lost out of pure inertia?

I don’t just mean all the ideas you’ve had that you never did anything about – you lost those too, but many of them probably weren’t that good anyway. 

Doing something with an idea is often the fastest way to check if it’s important. You might do a bit of research and write down what you do, or seek out the right person for a conversation, or see if you can make something happen. If it turns out not to be important, or if it isn’t for you, that’s fine – you’ve cleared the decks for a new idea which might be a keeper. A stagnant pool of vague ideas costs you new ideas.

But the ideas you really lose, the good ones, are the ones you find down the rabbit hole once you’ve taken action on an idea and confirmed that there’s something to it. Things get more specific on contact with reality (or the customer!), and vague ideas begin to take concrete form, and new vistas of questions and actions open up.

This is what I mean by being prolific: making fast, small, low-cost decisions; taking action; trying things out. I don’t mean mindlessly, throwing proverbial mud on the wall. And of course there’s an equal and opposite principle of focusing and going deep. But you only go deep by diving in.

So if you think you’ve got good idea – why not take it for a test drive?

Why not now?

A small thing that might be useful

Here’s a small thing that might be useful: a link (or better, if I can manage it, an embedded video) from Derek Sivers about getting on with making small things that might be useful to someone and that they’ll actually pay for for, as opposed to waiting for the chance (i.e. money) to build something huge and tremendous.

This blog post falls into this category – it’s small, but it’s what I can do. It’s very useful, and it isn’t free – you’re paying attention. Hope you like it.

Okay, I can’t embed the video (issues with new wordpress editor?) It’s here.

No wait! Maybe I can embed the video…

Possibility: learning to see

This morning one of my sons was trying to put a new water bottle in a bottle holder: “It doesn’t fit.” I laughed at him, because I’d put the same bottle in the same holder a day before. I told him. He tried again. It fitted easily.

We’re often terrible at looking for things unless we know that they’re there. I’ll look for something in a drawer. It’s not there. I double check with my wife, who had it last. She comes to help. And there it is, right where I just looked.

Note: This phenomena has been known to happen with the roles reversed, but the version I’ve described is the default.

This is another angle on seeing the future – our vision is usually constrained by our sense of the possible. Sometimes a thing seems impossible, or we can’t think of it, until we see it done, when suddenly it’s so easy.

So how do we learn to see more?

The Art Of Possibility, which I’m just finishing, lays out a great set of ideas for looking at the world in new ways.

Finite and Infinite Games is a bit tougher on the brain, but very fun, and opens a few new windows.

I’ve found Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Generation an amazing tool for seeing new possibilities for the charity I work for in Jakarta.

There’s a whole book of Kevin Kelly’s available for free on his blog where he wrote almost everything that the internet’s done to date – in 1997. And it’s still relevant for imagining what happens next.

This Econtalk episode with Benedict Evans is a brilliant introduction for how to think about the future too.

Moving to live in a completely different culture has been an amazing eye-opener to new possibilities.

And of course, Seth Godin riffs on this in this blog post, and in this one about the ‘impossible’ four minute mile, and on this episode of The Moment with Brian Koppelman.

All of these will get posts of their own sometime. 

For now, suffice to say that we need to do two things:

  1. Read, watch, listen, socialise, live, do widely. Be omnivorous and voracious. The more we know of what people have done, the more possibilities we can see, and the more pathways begin to open up.
  2. Use these tools – I’d love to hear about others – to learn to see possibilities that haven’t been done before. Then choose some to make happen.

No Guru

I love gurus.

The feeling of hope and promise of new efficiency, productivity and meaning that a good one brings.

Insights. Ideas.

The catch is how easy it is to end up chasing the feeling and not the ideas.  Or to chase the ideas, and not the difference they might make. A weekly in-person meeting with your favourite guru would probably make you feel terrific, but it probably wouldn’t make a revolutionary difference to your project.

Focusing, making a good plan and putting in the hard yards – including the hard work of looking and thinking – and applying what you already know probably will.

Be your own guru.



It’s not for you

It’s so easy to want everyone to love what we do.

When we’re writing, we want everyone to think it’s great.

In our work building a service or product, we want everyone to buy in – to join us, or support us in some way.

This leads to problems:

  1. By trying to make something that pleases everyone, we end up making something boring and lukewarm. We’re not happy with it, and lots of people might think it’s okay… but no-one thinks it’s that great.
  2. Trying to make something that pleases everyone sets the bar impossibly high. Nothing is loved by everyone. And nothing will ever be ready to share if “universally adored” is what we’re aiming for. We’ll be paralysed.

The answer is to be clear in our mind who this is for – even if it’s just for us. Make something for the smallest possible audience, and build from there.

If you don’t like it, why should anyone else?

If no-one likes it – it’s either not very good or you haven’t found the your audience.

If some people like it – and you want to serve that particular “some” – then you’ve got something you can work with. Serve them well. Serve them again. Make it better.

And for everyone else – the people who don’t like it, don’t get it – that’s fine.

Its not for everybody – it can’t be for everybody. So you can smile when you say it: “It’s not for you.”


I’ve absorbed this idea from some of the thinkers I’ve found most helpful in learning how to do what I do well. On the one hand, it’s almost pure Seth Godin. But it’s also Steve Blank, Lean, and the mvp (more on that another time). And Tim Ferris riffs on this too. There are probably others but for now, thanks to the above.

Who is it for?

This is a lesson that I’ve been learning slowly, and for a long time.

When presenting to a group or leading a training it’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing on your own performance: Am I looking good? Am I doing well?

It’s also easy to focus on what you want to get from the people you’re working with – even if it’s just convincing them that you’re great at what you do… Or getting your kid to finish their homework so that you can tick a parenting box.

I’ve found it liberating to bear in mind – during preparation and ‘performance’ – that the thing I’m doing is for them, or for us, but never just for me.

What do I hope the people I am meeting will take away from this time that will help them?

What do I think the group I’m training needs to hear, and how can I communicate it so that they’re open to hearing it?

Even donors are looking for something: someone they can trust with their generosity. Confidence that their gift will have an impact. A story about themselves or their brand.

This is something that some people just get, and others (like me) find hard to do.

But when I focus on what will help the people in front of me I’m far more able to relax, and connect, to have fun – and the better we all do.