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October 20th, 2011

Popular blogs, Amazon reviews, and cults of personality

Watching big-time bloggers put out books really is something else.

Case in point: yesterday, Mark Sisson, a huge paleo blogger, released a book called the 21-Day Total Body Transformation. Naturally, he was trying to hit the New York Times bestseller list, and offering bonuses for buying multiple books, etc, as many people have before. The strategy works, I don’t blame him and I wish we had done it for Trust Agents (we ended up doing “free” speaking deals instead).

So naturally, as an author, I end up looking at the reviews of this book; as an author, reading Amazon reviews is what I do when I should be working. I read other people’s reviews to give me either an inferiority or superiority complex, depending on the situation. I’m sure many of you do the same.

Anyway on Mark’s book, there they are, sitting there, all 5-star reviews, except this lone 1-star review sitting there at the bottom, voted “least useful” of all the reviews (at this point, it’s sitting at 138 “downvotes,” or 93% “unhelpful”). Then there’s the giant comment thread that accompanies it in which the reviewer is put down, insulted, etc.

Now before I continue, I’d like to mention that I read Mark’s last book, liked it, and passed it on. I’m sure this one is fine too, and I hope he hits the list (it’s sitting at #6 overall right now).

But that aside, some of the internet’s superfans are starting to drive me nuts.

I first began to notice this trend a long time ago on Gary Vee’s book Crush It, which I also read when it came out. There’s this crazy comment thread attached to a two-star review over there, which due to its inflammatory nature has been voted up to “most helpful” of all reviews. Gary (who I consider an friend/acquaintance) answers really helpfully in the thread, and then, unbeknownst to him I’m sure, all the devils in Hell are unleashed in his defense.

Here’s how it happens. First, a guy with a huge blog audience puts out a product, book, or what have you. This author probably polarizes quite effectively, leading to a number of zealots who judge him not by the quality of his content (though they could– Gary, Mark, etc. write quite well), but by who they are, leading to anyone who disagrees becoming a kind of enemy of the state, a traitor, or what have you.

The weird thing is that, often enough, the authors themselves have nothing to do with this. They don’t intentionally create cults– they’ve just helped a lot of people, and those people personally identify with the lifestyle or personality who leads them.

Don’t get me wrong. I want to be popular, and I want to hit lists as much as the next guy. But the weird part is, every author I know, even those who would recognize the insanity of this phenomenon, probably also think it’s be the best thing that could ever happen to them.

I don’t have a conclusion to this because there is none. It’s something everyone thinks is nuts, yes, but only as it regards someone else’s audience, and never theirs, because polarizing is good and helps drum up attention. However,

In short, it is a perfect example of the tragedy of the commons.

Have a solution? I’m open to hearing it. I honestly don’t think there is one.

* Filed by Julien at 11:49 am under culture

August 26th, 2011

A Quick Thought About Anti-Social Douchebags

You’ll often notice guys in airports, washrooms, cafés, etc., talking loud on their phones, disrupting conversations everywhere.

You’ll also often notice that these are often powerful-looking guys: business-types, tall maybe, expensive phones, etc. In fact, you might even have a situation in mind. I know I can think of a few.

Sometimes, these scenes go on for a long time– so long that everyone around them starts looking around at each other. Knowing glances pass between tables.

Then, everyone kind of shrugs, thinking “well, what can you do?”

Watch a scene like this sometime– you won’t have to wait long before it happens. Everyone wants to tell these guys to shut up, but nobody does. No one steps up to the plate because no one wants to be “that asshole,” or because they’re embarrassed or don’t want to be told off.

But these scenes aren’t just random acts of social violence. None of it is not a coincidence. The reason these guys have these symbols of success is because they have balls. They’re willing to do what other people aren’t, have extreme confidence, and get by because of it. It’s why these guys get where they are today, why they have the expensive clothes, the phones, and the loud voice.

They flaunt their status and ignore social cues that their behaviour is undesired. Maybe they feel they’ve earned the right to do so, I dunno.

But no one ever told them no.

This happened to me one time on the Camino de Santiago with an old German guy. He was talking on his phone really loud in a dormitory filled with about 50 people. Everyone was looking at him. They wanted to sleep, but he didn’t care.

I walked up to him in my underwear, about 60+ hours of tattoo work in full view, and gestured for him to fucking close his phone immediately.

He left the room. People started laughing. Everyone was grateful.

Please take this story to heart.

Nobody else will ever say anything, ever. It has to be you.

* Filed by Julien at 1:28 pm under community, culture, social hacks

February 1st, 2011

You Cannot Die

Have you ever thought about how difficult it is to actually hurt yourself?

I don’t mean a paper cut. I mean something that’s disgusting to look at, where you’re at risk for death. What would it take?

In this society, it’s very difficult. We are safe. And even if we are hurt, plastic surgery, free medical care (sorry, Americans), and medicine means we’ll recover instead of dying of an infection.

The only injuries we’re accustomed to in today’s society are not acute injuries, but chronic injuries caused by things like food, stress, etc.

Any world where cancer is a serious risk is extremely safe, because it means many people are living for as long as it takes to get cancer.

We’re in an eternal cradle. It’s very difficult to die, or to be seriously injured.

Think of the way we treat children, versus how they were treated 20 years ago. We have all been eternally infantilized.

I thought about this the other week as I spent time in Thailand with Julie Angel, one of the top parkour documentarians in the world. Watch her videos and ask yourself whether anyone would do them in a world where they were in serious danger of dying from an injury. Stunt men are willing to do their jobs because being on fire is now reasonably safe.

Think about that.

Instead, our cultural environment creates other risks. Being broke, dying alone, not fulfilling your potential– these exist because we are no longer concerned with being devoured by predators or afraid of starving. But these are risks that are significantly less severe, and much easy to recover from.

It’s possible to seriously hurt yourself, but only if you’re alone– when people can’t come to your rescue, or won’t, because you fulfill a social role that doesn’t get help. (Drunk Japanese businessmen and the homeless, for example.)

This culture creates media like Fight Club, which is revered because people are looking for authenticity and real risk which they can’t get inside of the system. So, they go looking outside of it.

What happens in a world where you cannot die?

You risk more, because consequences are diminished.

Peaks stay high, but valleys are reduced… for those who use the valleys to their advantage.

If you think this isn’t relevant to you, because physical culture isn’t a part of your life, you’re wrong.

In this world, you cannot die in any environment.

You cannot die socially because the social fabric smoothes over most mistakes with time.

You cannot die on the web because failure is cheap and the worst that happens is obscurity.

We are in a world where the chance of permanent, uncorrectable failure has dropped to zero.

It’s time you started living accordingly.

We think failure is forever. Wrong.

We think embarrassment can’t be recovered from.

We think losing is the end of the world.

Reprogram yourself.

You can cover up a bad tattoo. You can heal a broken bone. You can get into another relationship. You can move to a new city.

Nothing is forever.

You can recover from anything. No mistake is forever and most are easier to recover from than you think they are.

Do this now.

Below, write down the first act you will take as your new self– the one that cannot die and for which failure is insignificant.

Have it be something you are seriously afraid of. Something that makes your heart beat fast.

Then, after you’ve written it down, do it.


* Filed by Julien at 10:31 am under clear thinking, culture, risk, taking action

December 21st, 2010

Future Kings and Paupers: Why Making $1,000,000 is Only the Beginning

This post will probably be ignored. It isn’t about Twitter and it doesn’t include an infographic. It’s complex, not easy, which is why it’s kind of a mess. Skip it if you think you can’t handle it, no problem.

But first, a question.

Do you think you’re a good judge of character?

Most people do. But how would you know if you really were?

Being able to judge someone’s character is a sign of success. But it isn’t all it takes. Properly assessing someone you meet requires more: It requires being a good judge of someone’s potential. It helps you know what kind of relationship you want to have.

But how can you tell if someone can be a leader, or if they’ll be successful? How can you tell if they have initiative, or if you can trust them?

I propose that judging someone’s potential– even someone you’ve just met– is easy. It’s based on one fundamental character trait that you can develop with practice and, with it, change your life. I’ll explain below.

It’s clear to many of us here on the web that there is a new class emerging. Robb Wolf, a research biochemist, blogger, and New York Times bestselling author is a part of it. So are Everett Bogue, Tim Ferriss, Chris Guillebeau, and many more. You may be, too, and if you are, you already know it.

If you don’t, then it’s possible you have no idea what I’m talking about, so here it is.

Almost two years ago, Chris Brogan and I started writing a book called Trust Agents, about a set of people who were taking advantage of digital technology to grow their influence. The book would become pretty popular here on the web, and continues to sell well, which is great. I realize now, though, that the phenomenon is about more than that.

One main aspect of this new generation (who can be young or old, btw) is their understanding of systems and games and how to find workarounds (“gatejumping” or “lifehacking”). It’s clear that they don’t need a million dollars to be happy– so they figure out what they really need and find easy ways to get it.

In other words, these people have built systems around them that faciliates financial and career success. Generally, they aren’t chasing the dream of massive wealth– they know it has very little to do with happiness– so they work on new, more fulfilling goals instead.

Ev Bogue recently decided to become a yoga teacher. Tim Ferriss hacked his own muscle mass and wrote the 4-Hour Body. Guillebeau is exploiting the loopholes in air travel to visit every country in the world. I could name many more of these people, each doing it in their own way.

Whatever you decide to call it, it’s big, and it’s because of access to information and the ability to see others doing it in real time. Still, some people want this and get it– and others do not. Why? Because of this specific character trait.

This brings us back to our first point.

How do you judge someone’s character instantly, find out what kind of person they are and how likely they are to succeed? Easy.

Challenge them.

Ask them to do something unusual (like a bet). Or, question the way they’re doing things and see how they react to a totally different method of thinking.

Their reaction is based in their ability to deal with change and experimentation, and the ability to experiment is directly related to their real-life success.

The basic difference is whether you are willing to test your environment and lead an experimental life. And it is a trait that is taught to us by our environment– by games, by seeing other people doing it, and by seeing inefficient models of reality (such as school=success) that we can choose to avoid.

Here is the simple reality of the situation.

Accept what your parents, your teachers, and your peers say, and you’ll be a slave to what they’ve said. You’ll base your decisions on what they’ve decided, instead of what you have. Your learning will slow down and much of what you want will not come true (unless you shrink your expectations).

Test everything for yourself– assume nothing– and the opposite will happen. Your results will be based in what is real. You’ll become a king. You will accelerate as you learn and your momentum will carry you past obstacles you never thought you could conquer before.

You’ll quickly learn you don’t need a job.

You’ll free up your time.

You’ll find out how boring it is to do nothing. :)

You’ll seek out other things that fascinate you.

You’ll become an expert in them, faster.

Finally, with no one to tell you what to do, you’ll be happier.

Some will say: “That’s not really my style though, I like to take it easy.” Well, I’d argue that you’re thinking too small, and that you’ve chosen that small is ok for you.

This brings me to my final point: if you want to be someone like this, you can be. All that it takes is to transform how you deal with challenges.

Do you see life as a game to experiment with, or do you see it as a series of corridors? This will change what you’re capable of.

For years, we’ve been here on the internet, blogging and talking about “lifehacking,” then returning to our dreary real jobs under the guise of “being more productive.”

I have an idea. Why don’t we apply this to our actual lives?

Some of us do, and the results have been extraordinary. You can too.

Do you live this way, or want to? Let’s talk. Leave a comment. Enter your email in the box below and press enter, we’ll figure out how together.

Oh, one more thing: I think how to do this, and the phenomena that have made up why it’s happening, could make a very interesting book. Do you?

* Filed by Julien at 10:00 am under culture, direction, experiments, systems

October 30th, 2010

The Smiley Becomes the Feeling

A family friend just called me to explain she needed a lesson in text messaging.

“My clients are younger people now,” she said, “and they text all the time. I need to learn how to do this.” She’s getting an iPhone. For communicators, it’s inevitable. They must adapt to all media in order to compete. As a real estate agent, she must learn to use an iPhone (Twitter, fb, and Quora too). More media, more subtleties, more opportunity.

Personally, I’ve been writing “lol” in emails and text messages. It came from my sister, who texts me all the time (and uses SMS like the rest of us use online chat), as well as the comments in reddit. Loling came unnaturally at first, but next thing I knew I used it spontaneously. It has become one with the laugh. If I’m at a keyboard, I write it while laughing. One inevitably follows the other.

We are all a little like Pavlov’s dog. Writing “haha,” laughing, and writing “lol” eventually become one. If you’re on one side of this fence, you find this habit annoying and infantile. On the other, it has become like shaking hands, a normal facet of everyday communication.

Your choice is either to adopt the “status quo,” and communicate in “English,” or communicate the way those who have adapted do. If you choose the former, then which English are you choosing? 20th century, 19th century, 10th or any in between? Why? If you choose the latter, then you know what you’re speaking actually is English. Isn’t it?


(Inspired by MarshallandMe.com. Photo by Tom Coates.)


* Filed by Julien at 6:04 am under culture

September 26th, 2010

The Privatization of Culture and the Illusion of Depth

An MP3 used to be a concert. A Kindle used to be a bookstore.

Is this you? You listen to music personally on your MP3 player. You read books by yourself and watch your TV on your laptop or iPad. You eat alone at least 50% of the time, rarely go to concerts, and watch more movies at home than in theatres.

Do you recognize yourself in this profile? ;)

A side effect of the digitization and portability of cultural artifacts is that they have also been brought from the public to the private. A gramophone used to be expensive, and a community might have had only one, so they shared it. Now we all have iPods, so we have our own music collection. We can download our favourite songs privately, so we don’t have to talk to a record store clerk– or anyone, for that matter.

What was once necessarily public has become private. What used to belong to a community has become private property. This might be a normal process of commodification– food becomes affordable, so we have snack foods or protein shakes instead of feasts. Stuff get cheaper, more portable, and private.

Interestingly enough, this also leeches value out of the public domain and into the pockets of corporations. This may, or may not, be an accident. But that’s not the point. The privatization of culture is a fact, and we have to deal with it. Though it fuels a sense of personal power, if we’re not careful, it also feeds loneliness.

Collective activity is a pillar of connection inside a community, helping people laugh together and share good conversation. It fuels a sense of belonging and happiness. How much of it are you doing?

If this is a normal phase of cultural and technological evolution, then it might be unstoppable. But your personal choice will reflect your priorities and decide the kind of life you live. The more public, the better you are at conversation and the more you feel a sense of kinship with others. The more private, the less conformity, but at the expense of belonging. You are either a wolf or a sheep, but the choice often happens without your consent.

Creative Commons people and programmers tend to get this, and bloggers often do too– the more you give stuff away, the more you get back. But often we live this only in regards to the web, and miss out because of it. Dungeons and Dragons has become World of Warcraft– an impression of being public, but without the actual increase in satisfaction or happiness. It is a trompe-l’oeil that mimics depth.

My strategy to trade favourite books with people, to have weekly ‘dates,’ and to have people over for supper. These are not exciting things.

They are not about technology. They are about people.

But if you’re part of the social web, and all you get excited about is the New Twitter, you do not see the big picture, and you are mistaken about why it matters.

Take a step back and look again.

* Filed by Julien at 11:04 am under culture, random

September 13th, 2010

Where the Poor Go

I was checking out some graffiti in my neighbourhood the other day and thinking about gentrification.

It seems natural that those that are poor would be able to see opportunity in places (neighbourhoods) where the rich are not looking yet. This is how startups get profitable and why artists move into sketchy areas of a city.

As these same areas become profitable, though, big organizations move in and build condos, or Facebook gets into location based social software. This eventually crowds out the poor or small as the rich lean into the problem with their increased resources. Depending on laws (anti-monopoly, rent control, etc.), this may take longer, but it can’t really be stopped entirely. This is “fine” (not really), as long as there are new places to go.

When the poor of Europe took boats to America to have access to new land and to stop oppression of their people, they had to work hard in order to make it livable for their families, but their hard work was rewarded. They had more opportunity and freedom than their class normally allowed. They became rich in a new way by changing the pond they swam in.

This is all fine and good… until you run out of land.

I’m asking myself where settlers go now. When all neighbourhoods become gentrified, when all areas of business become monopolized by larger enterprise, where do the disenfranchised go to seek new opportunity? Do they have to move out to the North of Canada, the wilderness where no one really wants to be, in order to find something new for themselves?

Another question to ask yourself is where you are on the spectrum. Do you seek out opportunity by finding strange, uncomfortable places, or do you look for areas where risk is lower? This is the spectrum from angel investor > venture capitalist > shareholder in a blue chip company. Each has methods of profit but they are based on ability to understand risk. (Of course it all comes back down to this.)

Wherever you are, it seems inevitable that someone bigger will eventually come in and crowd you out. This force exerts its influence wherever you are on the chain.

So, everyone must become a settler again in order to find better land. Best that we adjust to discomfort now and find new ways to increase our liberty and profit– before the tides turn.

* Filed by Julien at 6:02 am under community, culture, random

September 10th, 2010

Choose Your Web Wisely

Voting, food, career, spending, success– all of these and more are political acts.

We don’t realize it while we’re doing them, but all are meaningful in terms of who they help– ourselves, our families and communities, or the world at large. The mere act of paying rent to the stranger who owns your apartment building, for example, is a behaviour that enriches someone you don’t know instead of you and your loved ones. This is the same for every dollar we spend or every minute we pay attention to something.

We all live in a web of relationships and attention that include friends, family, and co-workers, but you also choose the web you live in, and the ones you decide to help. Every time you choose one web over another, it can change your quality of life for the better.

By deciding to optimize your health by eating at home, for example, you are already deciding not to participate in the McDonald’s and Olive Gardens of the world, choose better quality food for yourself, all while increasing your own competence. By taking part in a farmer’s co-op you are enriching your own neighbourhoods instead of the Wallmarts and Carrefours of the world who would rather shut down stores than allow unions.

Every time you take part in a scheme that favours the rich, you also increase their power over the poor. This also happens every time you talk about Twilight over some other (less popular) movie. Even more important: If you are part of the attention- or capital-poor class, you’re also impoverishing yourself.

Making the choice to be healthy only benefits you and those around you. But if you choose not to care, you take part in a massive web of insurance companies, take out restaurants, and doctors who count on your apathy to profit. Then, the choice of what to do is theirs, not yours.

All acts of purposeful ignorance or negligence enrich others instead of yourself. All acts of learning empower you and those you care about. This is why you should learn to read more, be more crafty, and know how to fix your own car and bike. The sense of competence it comes with is like gold, and you will wonder why it took you so long to get it.

I know I did.

* Filed by Julien at 10:43 am under clear thinking, community, culture, random

September 7th, 2010

A story about prisoners and a guard

Imagine a prison with a hundred inmates and one guard.

All the inmates want to escape. Of course the guard does not. He stands up on a wall with a rifle and fires at anyone trying to climb it to take him down. If one prisoner tries it, he fails and dies. If they all do, they win.

This is the essence of web businesses. Low startup costs increase reduce the cost of failure, break down barriers to entry and provide opportunity to many more people than previously possible. This reduction in friction leaves you more of a chance, with your stronger opponent being taken from all sides.

So, all that is required to destroy monopolies and hierarchy is for more people to allowed to try. That’s because it doesn’t matter if YOU succeed, as long as they do not.

You can apply this to any circumstance: social coercion, politics, writing, or art. In all cases low cost of failure reduces risk and makes trying plausible. This distributes success more widely across the population (though outliers will still exist).

Here’s what I’m thinking: the society (or individual) who makes the cost of failure the lowest, while retaining the ability to reap rewards, gets the greatest increase in productivity and living quality. In a sense, this increases the biodiversity of a society and therefore, its ability to survive disasters.

This quality could be defined, by your society or yourself, as a right to play, and it’s probably the most important thing you can allow yourself, as a creative person in the web age. Google does this with their 20% time, paying employees for what may result in nothing but could also result in huge hits. They make this viable by defending their cash cow (defense, or the game of the old) while embracing innovation (offense, or the game of the young).

Strategically, I think this means you’re supposed to look for a big hit, then move it into your portfolio when it’s maxed out and look for another blue ocean.

This is turning into one of those posts where I just seem to be rambling, so I’m just going to stop here. Hope this makes sense to you.

* Filed by Julien at 10:21 am under culture, random

August 27th, 2010

Why We Say "Because"

“Because” is the place where experience ends and faith begins.

Children have two ways of discovering how the universe works: one is to experiment, and the other is to ask “why.” The result is a complex series of if-then conditions that tell a child what can be done, and what can’t, creating flags that are used later to navigate the environment.

We’ve already talked about the first type– now let’s talk about the second.

Children don’t ask why to be careful with a knife if they’ve already cut themselves– they only ask with something that is outside their experience, that is abstract. This is the evolution of because, an if-then condition that is outside of experience, and that we don’t really understand.

The danger of because is that we take things on faith because it comes from an authority. As time goes on and our understanding advances, more of our questions now have actual answers, but the because remains anyway.

God is because. Zeus is why the lightning strikes and good people die but God has a plan for them.

Science can be because. We have faith in doctors who reflexively prescribe medicine instead of get to the root cause, and don’t get second opinions.

Dogma and rules are because. Gay is wrong because it is against nature, and you need to eat breakfast because it’s the most important meal of the day.

Everytime we don’t understand something, because takes its place and we stop there instead of testing. We have faith in the system, even though its purpose is to sustain itself, not to help you.

This is a way that the social system has protected itself since the beginning of time, ensuring that we can work together to build a better world. This works for the system that we live in and can make our lives better, but if you don’t want to be a middle manager, it may leave you feeling incomplete. It isn’t the only way.

You can be outside the system, and you can live well doing it. But your first step will be to ignore because… and to start asking why again.

* Filed by Julien at 6:05 am under clear thinking, culture, random