Essentialism by Greg McKeown

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Essentialism by Greg McKeown

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Essentialism Summary

The Five Big Ideas

Only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.

Essentialism is about deliberately distinguishing the vital few from the trivial many, eliminating the non-essentials, and then removing obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage.

If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.

The Paradox of Success: the more options we have, the more we feel distracted from what would otherwise be our highest level of contribution.

To embrace the essence of Essentialism requires we replace these false assumptions with three core truths: “I choose to,” “Only a few things really matter,” and “I can do anything but not everything.”

What is Essentialism?

Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.

Essentialism Summary

Chapter 1: The Essentialist              

“Only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.”               

The English translation of “weniger aber besser” is “less is better.”

The way of the Essentialist is the relentless pursuit of less but better.

Essentialism is about pausing constantly to ask, “Am I investing in the right activities?”

“Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at your highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.”

“The way of the Essentialist rejects the idea that we can fit it all in. Instead, it requires us to grapple with real trade-offs and make tough decisions.”         

“The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the non-essentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage.”               

“The way of the Essentialist is the path to being in control of our own choices. It is a path to new levels of success and meaning. It is the path on which we enjoy the journey, not just the destination.”

“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”

The Paradox of Success:

When we really have clarity of purpose, it enables us to succeed at our endeavor.

When we have success, we gain a reputation as a “go to” person. We become “good old

[insert name]

,” who is always there when you need him, and we are presented with increased options and opportunities.

When we have increased options and opportunities, which is actually code for demands upon our time and energies, it leads to diffused efforts. We get spread thinner and thinner.

We become distracted from what would otherwise be our highest level of contribution. The effect of our success has been to undermine the very clarity that led to our success in the first place.

“The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities.”               

“When we don’t purposefully and deliberately choose where to focus our energies and time, other people – our bosses, our colleagues, our clients, and even our families – will choose for us, and before long we’ll have lost sight of everything that is meaningful and important.”

“Once an Australian nurse named Bronnie Ware, who cared for people in the last twelve weeks of their lives, recorded their most often discussed regrets. At the top of the list: ‘I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.’”                

Before saying yes to anything, ask yourself, “Will this activity or effort make the highest possible contribution towards my goal?”               

The three realities without which Essentialist thinking would be neither relevant nor possible.                

Individual choice: We can choose how to spend our energy and time.

The prevalence of noise: Almost everything is noise, and a very few things are exceptionally valuable.

The reality of trade-offs: We can’t have it all or do it all.

“Once we accept the reality of trade-offs we stop asking, ‘How can I make it all work?’ and start asking the more honest question ‘Which problem do I want to solve?’”               

Essentialists ask, “What do I feel deeply inspired by?” and “What am I particularly talented at?” and “What meets a significant need in the world?”

“Essentialists invest the time they have saved into creating a system for removing obstacles and making execution as easy as possible.”

“Essentialism is not a way to do one more thing; it is a different way of doing everything. It is a way of thinking.”               

“There are three deeply entrenched assumptions we must conquer to live the way of the Essentialist: ‘I have to,’ ‘It’s all important,’ and ‘I can do both.’”

To embrace the essence of Essentialism requires we replace these false assumptions with three core truths: “I choose to,” “Only a few things really matter,” and “I can do anything but not everything.”

Chapter 2: Choose—The Invincible Power of Choice               

Ask yourself, “If you could do only one thing with your life right now, what would you do?”               

“While we may not always have control over our options, we always have control over how we choose among them.”               

“The ability to choose cannot be taken away or even given away—it can only be forgotten.”               

“To become an Essentialist requires a heightened awareness of our ability to choose.”               

“When we forget our ability to choose, we learn to be helpless. Drip by drip we allow our power to be taken away until we end up becoming a function of other people’s choices—or even a function of our own past choices.”               

Chapter 3: Discern—The Unimportance of Practically Everything               

“We live in a world where almost everything is worthless and a very few things are exceptionally valuable.”               

A non-Essentialist thinks almost everything is essential. An Essentialist thinks almost everything is non-essential.               

“Many capable people are kept from getting to the next level of contribution because they can’t let go of the belief that everything is important.”

Chapter 4: Trade-Off—Which Problem Do I Want?

Rather than try to fly to every destination, Southwest Airlines deliberately chose to offer only point-to-point flights. Instead of jacking up prices to cover the cost of meals, they decided they would serve none. Instead of assigning seats in advance, they let people choose them as they got on the plane. Instead of upselling their passengers on glitzy first-class service, they offered only economy.

“We can try to avoid the reality of trade-offs, but we can’t escape them.”               

“A non-Essentialist approaches every trade-off by asking, ‘How can I do both?’ Essentialists ask the tougher but ultimately more liberating question, ‘Which problem do I want?’”

Instead of asking, ‘What do I have to give up?’ Essentialists ask, ‘What do I want to go big on?’”

Imagine a four-burner stove. One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work. In order to be successful, you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful, you have to cut off two.               

“To discern what is truly essential we need space to think, time to look and listen, permission to play, wisdom to sleep, and the discipline to apply highly selective criteria to the choices we make.”

Chapter 5: Escape—The Perks of Being Unavailable

“We need space to escape in order to discern the essential few from the trivial many.”               

“In order to have focus, we need to escape to focus.”               

Chapter 6: Look—See What Really Matters

“Being a journalist of your own life will force you to stop hyper-focusing on all the minor details and see the bigger picture.”

“One of the most obvious and yet powerful ways to become a journalist of our own lives is simply to keep a journal.”               

Chapter 7: Play—Embrace the Wisdom of Your Inner Child                

“Play doesn’t just help us to explore what is essential. It is essential in and of itself.”

Chapter 8 Sleep—Protect the Asset              

“The best asset we have for making a contribution to the world is ourselves.”               

Essentialists see sleep as necessary for operating at high levels of contribution more of the time.

Our highest priority is to protect our ability to prioritise.

Chapter 9: Select—The Power of Extreme Criteria

The 90 Percent Rule:

“As you evaluate an option, think about the single most important criterion for that decision, and then simply give the option a score between 0 and 100. If you rate it any lower than 90 percent, then automatically change the rating to 0 and simply reject it.”              

“If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.”

How to Evaluate Opportunities That Come Your Way

First, write down the opportunity.

Second, write down a list of three “minimum criteria” the options would need to “pass” in order to be considered.

Third, write down a list of three ideal or “extreme criteria” the options would need to “pass” in order to be considered. By definition, if the opportunity doesn’t pass the first set of criteria, the answer is obviously no. But if it also doesn’t pass two of your three extreme criteria, the answer is still no.

“It’s not enough to simply determine which activities and efforts don’t make the best possible contribution; you still have to actively eliminate those that do not.”

The killer question when deciding what activities to eliminate is: “If I didn’t have this opportunity, what would I be willing to do to acquire it?”

To uncover your true priorities, ask yourself, “What will I say no to?”

Chapter 10: Clarify—One Decision That Makes a Thousand               

“When there is a serious lack of clarity about what the team stands for and what their goals and roles are, people experience confusion, stress, and frustration.”               

An essential intent is both inspirational and concrete, both meaningful and measurable.                

Chapter 11: Dare—The Power of a Graceful “No”

“Only once we separate the decision from the relationship can we make a clear decision and then separately find the courage and compassion to communicate it.”               

“The more we think about what we are giving up when we say yes to someone, the easier it is to say no.”               

“Essentialists accept they cannot be popular with everyone all of the time.”               

“If your manager comes to you and asks you to do X, you can respond with ‘Yes, I’m happy to make this the priority. Which of these other projects should I deprioritise to pay attention to this new project?’               

Chapter 12: Uncommit—Win Big by Cutting Your Losses               

“Sunk-cost bias is the tendency to continue to invest time, money, or energy into something we know is a losing proposition simply because we have already incurred, or sunk, a cost that cannot be recouped.”               

“An Essentialist has the courage and confidence to admit his or her mistakes and uncommit, no matter the sunk costs.”               

“Tom Stafford describes a simple antidote to the endowment effect. Instead of asking, ‘How much do I value this item?’ we should ask, ‘If I did not own this item, how much would I pay to obtain it?’”

Don’t ask, “How will I feel if I miss out on this opportunity?” but rather, “If I did not have this opportunity, how much would I be willing to sacrifice in order to obtain it?” Similarly, we can ask, “If I wasn’t already involved in this project, how hard would I work to get on it?”               

Chapter 13: Edit—The Invisible Art               

The next stage in the Essentialist process, eliminating the non-essentials, means taking on the role of an editor in your life and leadership.               

The Latin root of the word decision—cis or cid—literally means “to cut” or “to kill.”               

Joke: “I must apologize: if I had more time I would have written a shorter letter.”               

“Alan D. Williams observed in the essay ‘What Is an Editor?’ there are ‘two basic questions the editor should be addressing to the author: Are you saying what you want to say? and, Are you saying it as clearly and concisely as possible?’”               

Chapter 14: Limit—The Freedom of Setting Boundaries               

“Think of one person who frequently pulls you off your most essential path. Make a list of your dealbreakers—the types of requests or activities from that person that you simply refuse to say yes to unless they somehow overlap with your own priorities or agenda.”      

A quick test for finding your deal breakers is to write down any time you feel violated or put upon by someone’s request. It doesn’t have to be in some extreme way for you to notice it.                

Chapter 15: Buffer—The Unfair Advantage               

“Essentialists accept the reality that we can never fully anticipate or prepare for every scenario or eventuality; the future is simply too unpredictable. Instead, they build in buffers to reduce the friction caused by the unexpected.”               

Chapter 16: Subtract—Bring Forth More by Removing Obstacles               

“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.”—Lao-Tzu             

“Instead of looking for the most obvious or immediate obstacles, they look for the ones slowing down progress. They ask, ‘What is getting in the way of achieving what is essential?’”               

“Aristotle talked about three kinds of work, whereas in our modern world we tend to emphasize only two. The first is theoretical work, for which the end goal is truth. The second is practical work, where the objective is action. But there is a third: it is poietical work. The philosopher Martin Heidegger described poiesis as a “bringing-forth.” This third type of work is the Essentialist way of approaching execution.”

“An Essentialist produces more—brings forth more—by removing more instead of doing more.”               

“Instead of focusing on the efforts and resources we need to add, the Essentialist focuses on the constraints or obstacles we need to remove.”               

Instead of just jumping into a project, take a few minutes to think. Ask yourself, “What are all the obstacles standing between me and getting this done?” and “What is keeping me from completing this?” Make a list of these obstacles. They might include: not having the information you need, your energy level, your desire for perfection. Prioritise the list using the question, “What is the obstacle that, if removed, would make the majority of other obstacles disappear?”

Chapter 17: Progress—The Power of Small Wins

“Instead of trying to accomplish it all—and all at once—and flaring out, the Essentialist starts small and celebrates progress. Instead of going for the big, flashy wins that don’t really matter, the Essentialist pursues small and simple wins in areas that are essential.”               

“In his 1968 Harvard Business Review article entitled ‘One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?’ among the most popular Harvard Business Review articles of all time, Frederick Herzberg reveals research showing that the two primary internal motivators for people are achievement and recognition for achievement.”               

“Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer gathered anonymous diary entries from hundreds of people and covering thousands of workdays. On the basis of these hundreds of thousands of reflections, Amabile and Kramer concluded that ‘everyday progress—even a small win’ can make all the difference in how people feel and perform. ‘Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work,’ they said.”               

Adopt a method of “minimal viable progress.” Ask yourself, “What is the smallest amount of progress that will be useful and valuable to the essential task we are trying to get done?”               

Take a goal or deadline you have coming up and ask yourself, “What is the minimal amount I could do right now to prepare?”               

Chapter 18: Flow—The Genius of Routine

“The Essentialist designs a routine that makes achieving what you have identified as essential to the default position.”

Chapter 19: Focus—What’s Important Now?

To operate at your highest level of contribution requires that you deliberately tune in to what is important in the here and now.

“The ancient Greeks had two words for time. The first was chronos. The second was kairos. The Greek god Chronos was imagined as an elderly, grey-haired man, and his name connotes the literal ticking clock, the chronological time, the kind we measure (and race about trying to use efficiently). Kairos is different. While it is difficult to translate precisely, it refers to time that is opportune, right, different. Chronos is quantitative; kairos is qualitative. The latter is experienced only when we are fully in the moment—when we exist in the now.”

“Multi-tasking itself is not the enemy of Essentialism; pretending we can ‘multi-focus’ is.”               

“When faced with so many tasks and obligations that you can’t figure out which to tackle first, stop. Take a deep breath. Get present in the moment and ask yourself what is most important this very second—not what’s most important tomorrow or even an hour from now. If you’re not sure, make a list of everything vying for your attention and cross off anything that is not important right now.”               

Chapter 20: Be—The Essentialist Life               

“If you allow yourself to fully embrace Essentialism—to really live it, in everything you do, whether at home or at work—it can become a part of the way you see and understand the world.”               

“As these ideas become emotionally true, they take on the power to change you.”               

“The Greeks had a word, metanoia, that refers to a transformation of the heart.”               

“In many ways, to live as an Essentialist in our too-many-things-all-the-time society is an act of quiet revolution.”               

“Whatever decision or challenge or crossroads you face in your life, simply ask yourself, “What is essential?” Eliminate everything else.”

Recommended Reading

If you like Essentialism, you may also enjoy the following books:

Deep Work by Cal Newport

The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holiday

The ONE Thing by Gary Keller

Buy this book

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Create or Hate by Dan Norris

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Create or Hate by Dan Norris

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Create or Hate Summary

The Book in Three Sentences

Most of us want to make something, but for any number of reasons haven’t

Hate works against our creativity and stops us from making things

Hate can be controlled and overpowered

The Five Big Ideas

Successful people make things.

The world will be a better place if we create what we want to create.

Hate stops us from making things (this is similar to what Steven Pressfield calls ‘Resistance’ in The War of Art).

Hate can be controlled, managed, and overpowered.

To conquer Hate, accept its presence and recognize it every time it rears its hideous head.

Create or Hate Summary

“Most of us have always wanted to make something, but for any number of reasons haven’t.”

Dan believes that the world will be a better place if we create what we want to create. He believes we will be happier, more fulfilled, and maybe even more successful if we create something.

Timing is a huge factor that is rarely acknowledged when it comes to success and can often be the difference between complete failure and monumental success.

“What a person starts with, who their friends are, and what they have access to are all factors that determine success.”

“I can’t tell you how to be successful. But I can tell you that if you don’t make anything, you won’t be successful.”

“Successful people make things.”

According to Robert Sutton, author and Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford School of Engineering, “Creativity isn’t about wild talent as much as it’s about productivity. To find a few ideas that work, you need to try a lot that don’t. It’s a pure numbers game.”

“Being creative isn’t magic. It’s just a person deciding to create.”

“Don’t write yourself off just because your creations aren’t immediately successful, or aren’t considered great by the people who surround you.”

“If you are creating things, then you are creative.”

“Hate stops you from making things. Hate wasn’t there at the start. It’s been given power over the years and is now equipped with an arsenal of weapons designed to stop your creative self from making things. Hate doesn’t get joy from stopping your creative efforts, it just does its job.”

“Hate wins when you choose not to make things.”

“[Hate] doesn’t happen all of a sudden; it happens gradually, starting out with simple, innocent negativity, which slowly escalates.”

“People don’t want to admit that someone else made something, while they made nothing.”

“Haters don’t create anything, and instead get caught up in a never-ending cycle of Hate feeding Hate and criticism triumphing over creation.”

“Excuses are essentially lies.”

“Hate’s strongest weapon is to convince you of things that aren’t true, in order to stop you from making things.”

“Hate can be controlled, managed, and overpowered if you know how.”

“The first step in conquering Hate is to accept its presence and recognize it every time it rears its hideous head.”

“Listen for that little voice in your head, telling you—in quite reasonable and measured tones—why you can’t do something.”

The Excuses That Hate Comes Up With

1. “I don’t have enough time”

“Research has shown that elite performers don’t necessarily spend more time practicing. They are just more productive when they do practice. Learn how to use your time more productively to free up time for making things.”

“Things like single-tasking, smaller projects, tracking your progress, setting goals, doing timed work sessions free of interruption, and adding accountability are all proven methods for maximizing your productivity in a short amount of time.”

“When you have less time, you become more productive. It’s often then that you really start to see where your priorities lie.”

2. “What if I fail?”

“Failure is just course correction. “If you can fail quickly and without worry, you can correct course quicker, improve quicker, learn more, and achieve more.”

“If you aren’t regularly failing, you aren’t seeking a new destination.”

“Aim to fail at 97% or better, and you will be on par with the world’s smartest and most successful people.”

3. “What if I suck?”

“If you are telling yourself you suck, then what you are really saying is that you suck compared to someone else.”

“Comparison is a major creativity killer.”

“If Hate is telling you that you suck, just take a step back and think: do you actually suck? Probably not, so let’s just move on. If you do, then we can fix that too.”

4. “I should be doing X”

“Hate will try to convince you that you should be doing something other than creating.”

“One of the ways Hate presents this is via guilt.”

“Do more of what you love and you will be more successful.”

5. “It’s too hard”

“Feeling overwhelmed is another effective tactic that Hate uses to stop you from making things.”

“The thing you need to remember about achieving anything significant is that the biggest reason for failure is not starting.”

“Once you start, you are OK.”

6. “It’s probably been done”

“When entrepreneurs think up new ideas, Hate convinces them that someone else has probably done it before.”

“The biggest challenge in business isn’t having the best idea, it’s commanding the most attention. If you can get more attention for your idea than your competitors, you will win.”

“Doing things that have already been done might just be a smart way to go. If it’s already been done, good. Do it again, and do it better.”

7. “I need permission”

“You don’t need approval. You don’t need permission. You aren’t a child anymore.”

Zero Tolerance for Negativity

“Negativity is Hate’s currency.”

How to Avoid Negativity in Other People

Stop being friends with negative people

Spend less time with negative family members

Leave any groups that are dominated by negative people

Avoid friending negative people on social media.

How to Avoid Negativity in Yourself

Completely eliminate negative self-talk

Realize that negativity is boring and people don’t actually care

Listen to yourself next time you are communicating online or in person. Are you being negative about what is going on? Are you listening to what the other person has to say? Or are you only talking about yourself and your so-called ‘problems’?

Practice self-awareness, gratitude, and empathy on a regular basis.

Cultivate Self-Awareness

“Self-awareness is the key to recognizing and managing Hate.”

How to Cultivate a Healthy Level of Self-Awareness

Personality quizzes such as a DiSC Profile, Myers-Briggs types, or the Yohari Window are a good place to start

Avoid assumptions wherever possible, and look for the data

Fail a lot

Get better at reading between the lines

Be More Grateful, Be More Creative

“A lot of Hate stems from a lack of gratitude. Having a lack of gratitude will lead directly to negativity, which is the currency of Hate. If you can become more grateful, you will become less hateful and, therefore, more creative.”

How to Become More Grateful

Practice gratitude daily

Notice when others aren’t being grateful, so you can get constant reminders of the importance of gratitude

Attack a ‘Difficult Gratitude Problem,’ (or DGP). Let difficult circumstances trigger gratitude

Build variety into your life through your routine or with travel or become more observant to variety around you

Change, ‘I have to do x,’ to, ‘I get to do x.’

Helping out people who are less fortunate

Take a week off complaining, or at least a day

Don’t watch the news

Empathy Breeds Creativity

“Empathy is another way to kill negativity.”

“Becoming a more empathic person makes you more understanding, more grateful, less negative, and therefore more creative.”

“The secret to empathy is not imagining what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. Because all that does is put you in their shoes. It’s them in their shoes we need to understand, not you in their shoes.”

“When you prescribe simple solutions to people’s problems, that’s mistakenly putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.”

How to Be More Empathetic

Admit that: “I actually don’t understand anyone unless I make an attempt to understand them.”

Don’t rush into responses and don’t rush to judgment.

Don’t be so quick to assume you know everything about that person and why they are doing it. If you can judge people less, you can understand people better.

Notice empathy in others. If you can notice it when you see it, you are more likely to improve your own skills. Notice people who are curious, who don’t just talk about themselves but eagerly want to hear about others.

Spend more time in person with friends, customers, and business colleagues. Spending more time in person cuts through it all and helps you to remember and really understand the individual.

Don’t talk as much. During a conversation, listen more and ask open questions.

Create more things. The more you create, the more you will understand what people go through while putting their ideas out into the world.

Realize that empathy and sympathy are not the same thing. Take your time and really try to understand how it might feel to be that person. Avoid amplifying the grief of others by dwelling on their suffering.

The next time you are in a conversation, stop yourself from talking unless you absolutely have to. Just ask the occasional question if the silence is unbearable.

Learn to become a better listener and communicator.

Practice reading other people’s emotions. The more you can understand how people express emotions, the more you will understand other people.

“If you are an entrepreneur, empathy is your business.”

Am I Good Enough?

“One of the biggest reasons people don’t make things is because they let Hate convince them that they aren’t good enough.”

“Perfectionism is another trick Hate will use to stop you from making things. If Hate can convince you that everything has to be perfect, it knows you won’t begin, or at least that you won’t finish the task you are striving to complete.”

“If you feel like you aren’t good enough, the first thing to think about is whether or not you have to be good.”

“No matter what you do, it always helps to be as good as you can be. But you don’t always have to be the best in the world to do something successfully.”

“If you really feel like you can’t be good at something, and you are really honest with yourself, you can do something else.”

“There is no magic bullet that will kill Hate off for good. Instead, you need to constantly practice creating more. You can’t just become creative or be creative indefinitely.”

Create More Than You Consume

“Success usually comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it.” —Henry David Thoreau

“Understand that you have two choices: to create something or consume something.”

“If you want to be an actively creative person, you have to create more than you consume.”

“Create so much they can’t ignore you.”

“Make your creative projects simpler, and you’ll be more likely to start.”

“In order for your creativity to thrive, you need to feed it.”

“There’s something about a change of scenery that puts you in the mood to create.”

“The first 12,000 words of my second book, Content Machine, were written on a six-hour flight. I wrote 6,000 words for my third book, Operation Brewery, when we flew to China to inspect our brewing equipment. The last 10,000 words were written on a flight to the U.S., where I also wrote the first 5,000 words of this book.” (Norris refers to Peter Shankman who we learned about in Deep Work)

“Make sure that whether you are in your work space or out and about, you have a creativity toolkit that allows you to spring into action and embrace your creative impulses when they surface.”

“Create with others, help others, and creativity will flourish.”

Other Books by Dan Norris

The 7-Day Startup

Recommended Reading

If you like Create or Hate, you may also like the following books:

The Art of Work by Jeff Goins

Deep Work by Cal Newport

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

Buy The Book: Create or Hate

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Contagious by Jonah Berger

Categories BusinessPosted on

Virality isn’t born, it’s made.

When we care, we share.

Virality is most valuable when the brand or product benefit is integral to the story. When it’s woven so deeply into the narrative that people can’t tell the story without mentioning it.

The Five Big Ideas

“One reason some products and ideas become popular is that they are just plain better”.

“We need to design products and ideas that are frequently triggered by the environment and create new triggers by linking our products and ideas to prevalent cues in that environment”.

“Naturally contagious content usually evokes some sort of emotion”.

“We need to design products and initiatives that advertise themselves and create behavioral residue that sticks around even after people have bought the product or espoused the idea”.

“People don’t just share information, they tell stories”.

Principles of Virality

Social Currency




Practical Value


Contagious Summary

“Wein didn’t create just another cheesesteak, he created a conversation piece”.

“One reason some products and ideas become popular is that they are just plain better”.

“Research by the Keller Fay Group finds that only 7 percent of word of mouth happens online”.

“Virality isn’t born, it’s made”.

“How does it make people look to talk about a product or idea?”

“Triggers are stimuli that prompt people to think about related things”.

“People often talk about whatever comes to mind, so the more often people think about a product or idea, the more it will be talked about”.

“We need to design products and ideas that are frequently triggered by the environment and create new triggers by linking our products and ideas to prevalent cues in that environment”.

“When we care, we share”.

“Naturally contagious content usually evokes some sort of emotion”.

“Can people see when others are using our product or engaging in our desired behavior?”

“We need to design products and initiatives that advertise themselves and create behavioral residue that sticks around even after people have bought the product or espoused the idea”.

“People like to help others, so if we can show them how our products or ideas will save time, improve health, or save money, they’ll spread the word”.

“What broader narrative can we wrap our idea in?”

“People don’t just share information, they tell stories”.

“We need to make our message so integral to the narrative that people can’t tell the story without it”.

“People share things that make them look good to others”.

“Just as people use money to buy products or services, they use social currency to achieve desired positive impressions among their families, friends, and colleagues”.

“Give people a way to make themselves look good while promoting their products and ideas along the way. There are three ways to do that: (1) find inner remarkability; (2) leverage game mechanics; and (3) make people feel like insiders”.

“Remarkable things provide social currency because they make the people who talk about them seem, well, more remarkable”.

“One way to generate surprise is by breaking a pattern people have come to expect”.

“Emphasize what’s remarkable about a product or idea and people will talk”.

“People don’t just care about how they are doing, they care about their performance in relation to others”.

“Game mechanics help generate social currency because doing well makes us look good”.

“People are talking because they want to show off their achievements, but along the way they talk about the brands (Delta or Twitter) or domains (golf or the SAT) where they achieved”.

“Both used scarcity and exclusivity to make customers feel like insiders”.

“People don’t need to be paid to be motivated”.

“People are happy to talk about companies and products they like, and millions of people do it for free every day, without prompting. But as soon as you offer to pay people to refer other customers, any interest they had in doing it for free will disappear”.

“Give people a product they enjoy, and they’ll be happy to spread the word”.

“Interesting products didn’t get any more ongoing word of mouth than boring ones”.

“Triggers are like little environmental reminders for related concepts and ideas”.

“Why does it matter if particular thoughts or ideas are top of mind? Because accessible thoughts and ideas lead to action”.

“Different locations contain different triggers”.

“Could voting in a church lead people to think more negatively about abortion or gay marriage? Could voting in a school lead people to support education funding?”

“Top of mind means tip of tongue”.

“But as we saw in our fruits and vegetable study, a strong trigger can be much more effective than a catchy slogan. Even though they hated the slogan, college students ate more fruits and vegetables when cafeteria trays triggered reminders of the health benefits. Just being exposed to a clever slogan didn’t change behavior at all”.

“Products and ideas also have habitats or sets of triggers that cause people to think about them”.

“Triggers and cues lead people to talk, choose, and use. Social currency gets people talking, but Triggers keep them talking. Top of mind means tip of tongue”.

“Two reasons people might share things are that they are interesting and that they are useful”.

“It turns out that science articles frequently chronicle innovations and discoveries that evoke a particular emotion in readers. That emotion? Awe”.

“Awe is the sense of wonder and amazement that occurs when someone is inspired by great knowledge, beauty, sublimity, or might”.

“Articles that evoked anger or anxiety were more likely to make the Most E-Mailed list”.

“Rather than harping on features or facts, we need to focus on feelings; the underlying emotions that motivate people to action”.

“If situational factors end up making us physiologically aroused, we may end up sharing more than we planned”.

“Observability has a huge impact on whether products and ideas catch on”.

“Designing products that advertise themselves is a particularly powerful strategy for small companies or organizations that don’t have a lot of resources”.

“Behavioral residue is the physical traces or remnants that most actions or behaviors leave in their wake”.

“If something is built to show, it’s built to grow”.

“People like to pass along practical, useful information. News others can use”.

“Offering practical value helps make things contagious”.

“One of the biggest drivers of whether people share promotional offers is whether the offer seems like a good deal”.

“Not surprisingly, the size of the discount influences how good a deal seems.More people said they would purchase the grill in scenario A, even though they would have had to pay a higher price ($250 rather than $240) to get it”.

“The way people actually make decisions often violates standard economic assumptions about how they should make decisions”.

“Judgments and decisions are not always rational or optimal. Instead, they are based on psychological principles of how people perceive and process information”.

“One of the main tenets of prospect theory is that people don’t evaluate things in absolute terms. They evaluate them relative to a comparison standard, or ‘reference point’”.

“Diminishing sensitivity reflects the idea that the same change has a smaller impact the farther it is from the reference point”.

“If the product’s price is less than $100, the Rule of 100 says that percentage discounts will seem larger”.

“Stories, then, can act as vessels, carriers that help transmit information to others”.

“Information travels under the guise of what seems like idle chatter”.

“Virality is most valuable when the brand or product benefit is integral to the story. When it’s woven so deeply into the narrative that people can’t tell the story without mentioning it”.

“Certain characteristics make products and ideas more likely to be talked about and shared”.

Recommended Reading

If you like Contagious, you may also enjoy the following books:

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely

Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by Seth Godin

Buy The Book: Contagious

Print | Hardcover | Audiobook

How Not To Be Wrong Summary

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How Not To Be Wrong shows you that math is really just the science of common sense and that studying a few key mathematical ideas can help you assess risks better, make the right decisions, navigate the world effortlessly and be wrong a lot less.

Over the past few weeks, all roads have led towards math and statistics for me. One of my favorite writers, Nat Eliason, has been dealing a lot with fighting the biases that damage our decision-making, by cataloging mental models on his blog. A lot of the books I’ve read through Blinkist recently were on how to use statistics and math to make your life easier. Finally, three of the classes I attended last week were also about statistics, for example one on Friday explained Bayes’ Theorem.

Because you can never learn enough about navigating the world in a better way, I feel the positive changes from studying these mental biases keep compounding, which is why I’m happy to announce that today’s book “How Not To Be Wrong” falls into the same category.

Renowned mathematician Jordan Ellenberg has been writing about his mathematical research for the general public for over 15 years, which surely helped in making this book a bestseller (and one of Bill Gates’s favorites).

Here are 3 lessons from it to help you be wrong less often:

  • Mathematics is mostly based on common sense, and we use it more than we think.
  • Probability and risk are two different things.
  • The findings of scientific research are often wrong, for three reasons.

I hope you’re ready for yet another software upgrade for your mind, because numbers don’t lie! Let’s go!

Lesson 1: You use mathematics more than you think, because it’s mostly just common sense.

The most beautiful thing about math is that it allows you to determine with 100% certainty whether something is true or not. Of course, the occasions where you apply Pythagoras’s Theorem in daily life are few, but that doesn’t mean you don’t use the underlying principles of math.

Jordan thinks of math as “the science of not being wrong.” This makes solving even common problems by intuitively using logic and reason “math” problems, though you’d never call them that.

For example, in WWII, military advisors looked at all the American planes that returned from Europe, covered in bullet holes. Because the fuselage often had a lot more holes in it than the engine, they suggested better protecting that part of the plane.

However, one mathematician pointed out that those planes were only the ones that survived and returned home, suggesting that the ones who did take lots of shots to the engines were probably those that never made it back.

This is called survivorship bias, which is the mistake of focusing on only the positive results or data points, when analyzing things. It’s the same force at play when you hear about another huge startup exit, because the media always neglect the thousands of companies that fail.

Note: I recently found a great video that explains survivorship bias in even more detail, which you can watch here.

Lesson 2: We often use probability to assess risk, but they’re not the same.

Here’s another mistake we often make: Confusing probability and risk. Because we use probability to assess how risky a bet, an investment, or an action we want to take is, we think that’s all there is to it – but it’s not.

For example, if you went to play roulette at a casino, you could simply calculate the probability of winning vs. losing money in the long run by computing what’s called your expected value. On a French roulette wheel, there are 37 numbers, ranging from 0 to 36.

Half are red, half are black, with the 0 being green, a neutral color, which you can’t bet on. If you bet $1 on red, you have an 18/37 chance of doubling your money (because 18 of the 37 numbers are red) and an 18/37 chance of losing that dollar. However, because there’s an extra 1/37 chance of losing your dollar (because you’ll also lose if the wheel lands on 0), your expected value becomes: 18/37 * 1 (you win) – 19/37 * 1 (you lose) = -$0.027

Knowing that in the long run, you’ll lose money, you can then decide not to take this risk.

But that’s not all the risk a bet entails. Now consider this example. Would you rather…

Get $50,000.

Have a 50:50 chance of losing $100,000 or getting $200,000?

The expected value is the same, $50,000, but because the negative result in the second scenario would be really bad, the risk is a lot higher, even though it’s not reflected in the probability at all.

You can’t use just probability to assess risk, you also have to think about how bad potential negative outcomes really are, if they do occur, and take that into account.

Lesson 3: You should always question the findings of scientific research, because there are several problems with them.

“New study shows milk is related to Alzheimer’s.” “This study reveals how much work you really do while at the office.”

New headlines like these pop up every day, but Jordan says we should always take these with a grain of salt, because of three reasons:

Sometimes even insignificant results can pass statistic tests. For example with a standard significance level of 95%, 5,000 out of 100,000 genes tested for causing schizophrenia will show up as positive by chance – but imagine only 10 really cause schizophrenia, then that result is useless.

Unsuccessful studies are rarely published. This is the exact survivorship bias described above. If 19 studies testing chocolate for causing constipation fail, but one finds a significant correlation, that last, 20th one is usually published, changing your perception of the issue completely.

Researchers fake results. Even though they have great intentions, researchers are humans too, so if they need just one more percentage point in the results to be positive, in order to comply with scientific standards, they might slightly tweak the data, because they’re convinced what they found is true.

As you can see, statistical errors sneak their way all the way up into even the highest circles of scientific research, so it’s normal that they have a tremendous impact on you too. But by becoming aware of them, you’re taking the first step towards avoiding mistakes caused by biases – like a true mathematician.

My personal take-aways

I could’ve cited a every lesson, this book is awesome, it’s an unequivocal YES from me!

Growth Hacker Marketing Summary

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Growth Hacker Marketing uses a 4-step framework to explain how today’s startups remove the barrier between marketing and product development to make the product itself the best way to get new customers.

As announced yesterday, it’s back to basics! I’ve read a lot of great books on Blinkist before starting Four Minute Books, so it’s time for a trip down memory lane.

Growth Hacker Marketing was the first summary I ever read on Blinkist, and it played a big role in drawing me further to the service, because the ideas in it were so fascinating.

Ryan Holiday was only 28 years old when he published Growth Hacker Marketing, yet it was already his second book. Coming off a steep marketing career, where his company helped authors like Tucker Max, Robert Greene and Tim Ferriss turn their books into bestsellers, he now focuses on writing and marketing the heck out of himself.

Here’s what to learn from the book:

  • Marketing for startups today is different than it was 20years ago.
  • Target one small, but focused group of customers first.
  • Make your product go viral by turning customers intomarketers.

Lesson 1: Marketing has changed, especially for startups.

Back in the day when Apple started, they would follow a simple mantra: Build a great product, and then get it in front of as many eyeballs as possible.

That worked in the 70s and 80s, but today, not so much. The world has become so noisy, that even the best products go unnoticed, if not marketed well.

This is why startups focus on growth hacking, a technology-based approach where marketing mechanisms are built into the product itself.

It’s cheap, it’s scalable and done right, it works incredibly well.

Growth hacking is what got Facebook a billion users, Instagram 400 million, Dropbox 300 million, and on and on goes the list.

Instead of orchestrating a perfect launch with a big hype, startups get their product out as fast as possible. It doesn’t matter if version 1 is bad, since the whole point is to make version 2 better.

Once the product is out, startups measure and track every bit of data they can, in order to then improve the product to a point where users can’t help but share it all over the place.

This approach dissolves the line between marketing and product development and usually relies on the power of the internet.

Lesson 2: Target a small group of early adopters first.

So how can you growth hack the heck out of your own product? Simple: Target the right people.

It might sound obvious, but the general approach most people and companies take to marketing is to try to sell to everybody.

However, this leads to a lot less sales, a lot more sales to the wrong kind of customer, and eventually, horrible feedback.

Even if you manage to sell a bunch of lawn mowers to people who live in apartments in the city, what could they possibly tell you that’ll help improve your product?


Instead, just target a very small, but specific group of people who are a perfect fit. For Dropbox, they knew Digg had exactly the right kind of crowd for their service.

So when Drew Houston recorded a demo video to show how Dropbox works, he inserted a bunch of easter eggs, which only the Digg community would recognize.

Within 24 hours the video had 10,000 Diggs (a like on that platform) and drove hundreds of thousands of people to their site, signing up for the private beta.

Only by making access to their product exclusive to their perfect target customers and catering specifically to their needs did they manage to hit critical mass for the product to get traction.

So how powerful is growth hacking?

Dropbox’s video blew up their waiting list from 5,000 to 75,000 people – in one night.

Lesson 3: Make your product go viral by letting customers market it for you.

But even with that initial traction you might not make it. Eventually, your product will have to be everywhere. And this is where the buzzword of the 21st century comes in.


How do you get those early adopters to spread the word to all of their peers? Ryan has 2 dead simple tips:

Make it shareable.

Tell them to share!

By simply giving people an incentive and then telling them to do what’s necessary to get that incentive, your customers will work wonders for you.

To stick with Dropbox, they give you a variety of options to get more space after signing up, one being to invite friends. Is getting 1 GB of free space worth sending a few emails?

It would seem so, given their success.

Your incentive can also be financial, for example Appsumo gives you $10 in referral credit every time someone purchases through your link, which means you can buy awesome software and apps for free, as long as you’re sharing.

Growth hacking requires you to be creative, so in no way is this limited to digital products. Apple turned every single one of their customers into a walking billboard, simply by coloring their headphones in white and putting a lot of focus on them in ads.

Think of creative ways to share and then actually ask people to do it and your product will fly.

My personal take-aways

To me, the most fascinating part of growth hacking was never the money you could make. It’s the phenomenon of seeing something spread like wildfire, reaching hundreds of thousands, even millions of people, all across the world, within a matter of days.

Buy this book

You Are Not Your Brain Summary

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You Are Not Your Brain educates you about the science behind bad habits and breaking them, giving you an actionable 4-step framework you can use to stop listening to your brain’s deceptive messages.

After something that argued the case for mindlessness yesterday, I’m back to the opposite end of the spectrum again. Published in 2012, You Are Not Your Brain is a psychiatrist’s take on how to break bad habits.

Jeffrey Schwartz works at the UCLA School of Medicine, focusing mainly on people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Published in 2011, his latest book combines the newest research around neuroplasticity (a term you’re about to learn more about) with his already known 4-step framework.

Here are my 3 main take-aways:

Self-directed neuroplasticity is your go-to weapon to change your habits.

Hebb’s law and the quantum zeno effect.

There are 4 steps you can take to break a bad habit.

Let’s go!

Lesson 1: To change your habits, use self-directed neuroplasticity.

How cool does that sound? Almost like a weapon from Star Wars VII. But what the hell is it?

If you break down the term, it comes down to this: self-directed means you exert neuroplasticity on yourself. So you’re the one who’s using it, and who it’s being used on.

Neuro– stands for your neurons, or nerve cells, in your brain, which are the pathways where feelings and thoughts flow.

Plasticity means something is like plastic – it is firm initially, but can be formed and changed by using the right tools.

Let’s pull it all together.

You can change the pathways in your own brain – and you can do it yourself.

This means even if you’re stuck with a couple of bad habits right now, you can change them. Just because your brain is wired in a certain way does not mean that this wiring defines you.

By coming to the conclusion that you are not your brain you can start changing the physical structure inside it, so that it works more in your favor and less against you.

This is what happens when you hear stories like the one of Christopher Reeve, famous Superman actor, who changed his mindset after becoming paralyzed until eventually moving again.

Note: I’ve explained the concept of neuroplasticity here, including a great video and a little device to help you remember it.

Lesson 2: Hebb’s law and the quantum zeno effect.

So how do you start to direct some neuroplasticity at yourself? By learning about two more cool concepts with funky names.

Number one is called Hebb’s law and is summed up in one beautiful rhyme: Neurons that fire together, wire together.

The more often one of the neural pathways in your brain is used, the stronger it gets. For example, let’s say you have a new job, and have to catch the bus every morning at 8 am to make it there on time.

You’re doing fine the first week, but on Tuesday in week 2, you arrive at 8:01 am and miss the bus. This causes you stress and anxiety, because you’ll be late and might get yelled at.

While you’re waiting for the next bus, you have a cigarette to combat the stress, and it helps. The nicotine and activity give you a sense of relief and calm you down.

Now you’ve forged a new pathway in your brain, that links stress from missing the bus to the relieve a cigarette offers. This is then reinforced with every time you miss the bus and have a cigarette again. What was a one-time thing becomes a habit and the quick fix becomes a permanent, painful, problem.

The second concept is called the quantum zeno effect. Based on ancient Greek philosopher Zeno’s arrow paradox, this important notion from quantum physics says that a system can be frozen in its state, if continuously observed.

What does that have to do with your brain? If you are mindful of your bad behavior, and observe it as it happens often enough, it will stop Hebb’s law in its tracks and give you enough time to counteract it.

Then, by consciously changing your thoughts and behavior, you can rewire your brain with a better habit.

Lesson 3: Take these 4 steps to break a bad habit.

As much as I love this, enough with the scientific mumbo-jumbo, let’s get to the actionable part. The 4-step framework is the main point of the book and summary, so I’ll only touch on it briefly.

Step 1 is to be aware of your negative thoughts as they occur. This requires mindfulness, which you can learn through meditation, for example.

Step 2 is to relabel those negative thoughts. You have to alienate them to draw a line between you and your brain. I like James Altucher’s take on this: Just label your thoughts into one of two categories: useful or not useful.

Step 3 is to refocus your attention on a positive activity, like writing, talking a walk, or calling a friend, to show you you can proceed as normal, even when the bad thoughts show up.

Step 4 is to revalue your situation from a loving and caring perspective to eventually change your beliefs about yourself.

My personal take-aways

The terminology this book uses is brilliant. If you’re into science, you’ll love this.

Even if not, everything is explained simply enough to understand the ideas behind it, and while the 4-step framework isn’t groundbreaking, it works. I knew Hebb’s law, but the quantum zeno effect was big news.

Buy this book

You Are A Badass Summary

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 You Are A Badass helps you become self-aware, figure out what you want in life and then summon the guts to not worry about the how, kick others’ opinions to the curb and focus your life on the thing that will make you happy.

One thing I like about aging is that with each year, I care less about what people think. I’ve always wondered why old people are so direct and unapologetic, but I believe that’s why. They’ve been around long enough that reality has reassured them countless times: opinions don’t matter. Especially not those of haters.

The sad thing about learning this lesson only late in life is that you might not have the energy or time to still achieve your dream, whatever that may be. So the sooner you learn it, the better. If you’re young and worried about what other people think, this book is for you.

Enter Jen Sincero, who’s seriously rebellious and rebelling seriously against humdrum life. After working for a record label, starting a rock band, failing, and then writing a book about that, she became a lesbian, failed at that too and wrote another book about that, before ultimately coaching people to improve their sex lives and later their lives altogether.

You Are A Badass is the culmination of several years of helping people transform their lives from loser to happy-go-lucky and it comes packed with fun stories and valuable lessons.

My favorite 3? Here you go:

Decide you’ll stop caring what other people think. Right. now.

Figure out what you want but don’t obsess about how you’ll get there.

If your habits, surroundings and friends don’t support you, it’s time to change them.

Ready to discover your inner badass and put him or her in charge? Let’s go!

Lesson 1: Draw a line in the sand. Now.

Do you know how you remember some people for one, distinct thing they taught you? With one girl from high school, the only thing I ever really learned from her came in the form of a status update she posted on Facebook:

If people say they don’t have time for you, it just means that other things are more important to them.

I’ve never forgotten this lesson. How you choose to spend your time is entirely up to you, so how you distribute it reflects your true priorities, no matter what you claim they might be. Naturally, chasing a distant dream of yours infers choosing yourself over others – and that always creates some fallout.

If you’re aspiring to be a writer, like I am, some of the comfort you usually get from hanging out with friends will have to come from appreciating the time you now spend writing. Being serious means putting in days, months, years of work.

You’ll lose some friends. You’ll go to less happy hours and football games. You’ll be laughed at. Ridiculed. Made fun of.

But none of that matters if you’re happy spending time chasing what others don’t dare to: To really go for your dream, you must put your inner badass in charge.

Lesson 2: Know what you want, but be flexible about the how.

Sticking with the example of becoming a writer, here’s how most people go about that particular dream:

Realize they want to be a writer.

Analyze every writer that inspires them in detail, learn about their paths to success and craft a masterplan of which track they can follow.

Give up after six months of analysis paralysis and not writing a single word.

That’s the kind of trap you should try to avoid at all costs. Jen suggests doing so by figuring out what you want, but not obsessing over how you’ll get there. Here’s an updated plan for becoming a writer:

There really isn’t much more to it. Imagine making your way through a poorly trodden forest. You’ll find and shape your own path as you go along. The most reassuring thing you can do to get the confidence to call yourself a writer is write, not seek comfort from other writers.

Over time, with more and more hours of writing practice put in, you’ll get into a virtuous cycle that positively reinforces your attitude – and thus gets you to write even more. This is what actually lets you make progress towards your goal. Not planning, or debating, or strategizing.

Lesson 3: When your environment doesn’t support you, change your environment.

Having the thick skin to deal with the ridicule of friends or shooting down their tempting attempts to distract you is one thing. Making a conscious decision to actually get rid of some of the weights that are dragging you down is another. That’s tough.

If your environment, your habits, your friends, even your family, don’t lift you up in your journey towards a life you’ll be glad to have lived when it’s over, it’s time to make some changes.

Those can be internal and external, as long as they shift the focus of your life towards making your dream the center piece. For example, if playing Bubble Blast for 30 minutes every morning over breakfast is something you enjoy, but that cuts into your writing time, maybe you can shave off the last ten minutes in exchange for recording a voice memo you’ll transcribe later in your day.

Similarly, if an old friend you see once a month spends most of your conversation time mocking your writing attempts, maybe that’s an hour a month you can save and, well, dedicate to writing instead.

I’m not saying these decisions are easy, but I have a hunch Jen is onto something that’ll absolutely minimize the number of regrets we have at the end of our lives – and that’s a good thing.

My personal take-aways

I get why this book is such a massive hit. It’s 90% motivation with 10% tactics and calls to action, thrown in at the very end. You’ll get really revved up and ready to go – and then you’re let off your leash. What a wonderful way of setting other people up for success.

Year Of Yes Summary

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 Year of Yes details famous TV-show creator Shonda Rhimes’s change from introversion to socialite by saying “Yes” to anything for a full year and how she was finally able to face her fears and start loving herself.

In case you’ve never heard of Shonda Rhimes, she’s the mastermind behind blockbuster TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice. Being an introverted workaholic, most of her public image came from the empowering statements she made about minorities (with a focus on women, and black women in particular), for example by finally putting them in the spotlight in her TV shows with lead roles.

On the inside, she wasn’t happy though. A hurtful, but true comment at a Thanksgiving dinner woke her up in late 2013. “You never say yes to anything.”

For the following year, Shonda decided she’d say yes to anything – and what she learned along the way ended up in this book.

Here are 3 lessons from Year of Yes:

Sometimes you need other people to push you, even if you don’t want to.

No (wo)man is an island: say yes to things without asking too many questions.

Just accept compliments, without playing it down.

Hope you’ve been practicing your “yes”, you’ll need it!

Lesson 1: Sometimes the only way to get you going is to have others push you.

Her sister’s comment at Thanksgiving stung Shonda, but the one who finally pushed her over the edge was her publicist. When getting an invitation for a fancy dinner party, to which even the president and his wife would show up, she simply accepted for Shonda.

She made the painful realization afterwards, that, without her publicist, she’d never have had an amazing night, because she herself surely would’ve declined the invitation.

This is what ultimately stopped her from letting life pass her by and the plan to say yes to anything that scared her for a full year, in order to learn what else she’d been missing out on.

What’s the lesson? Sometimes, you simply can’t cross a certain line. And that’s okay, because if you’ve got a few true friends, they’ll push you over the edge – even if it means upsetting you. The best thing you can do is hope for this to happen and don’t get mad at your friends when it does. Wait and see what happens, and then thank your friends for pushing you beyond what you thought you were capable of doing.

Lesson 2: No (wo)man is an island: say yes to things without asking too many questions.

The biggest lesson is of course to say yes to things. I’m a huge fan of focused efforts and quitting lots of things, but in order to know what to focus on and what to quit, you first need to do a bunch of things.

If you’re in that initial, figuring-out-what-to-do-phase, set a period of time in which you’ll say yes to anything that comes your way. Don’t ask questions, don’t complain, don’t deliberate. Just say yes and see what happens.

Once that time is up, take a look back. What new passions have emerged? Which things really were as bad as you’d imagined them? And what will you keep on doing?

This is especially true for introverts. We’re social people too – we just have a hard time admitting it. By running a year-of-yes experiment, you’ll learn a lot more about how social you really are. It’s probably more than you think.

Lesson 3: Just accept compliments as you get them, instead of trying to be too humble.

One valuable lesson Shonda learned about loving herself is to just accept compliments. Before she would react with modesty and play it down every time someone complimented her. Now she realized that it’s okay to take a bath in the sun sometimes.

When Bill Clinton praised Shonda on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, her assistant made a t-shirt for her saying “Bill Clinton loves ANYTHING I do.” She’s usually really shy, but decided to embrace the compliment and wear the shirt all day long.

If a compliment makes you happy, it’s totally fine to just accept it and celebrate it with pride for a little while. Of course you shouldn’t become a show-off and beat on old accomplishments over and over again, but being able to accept compliments is an integral part of a strong self.

It shows you that sometimes, you come first and that if others already love yourself, so should you.

My personal take-aways

I’m not sure if this was just a poorly written set of blinks, or if they reflected the book accurately, but the first word that comes to mind to describe this is shallow. It felt like the blinks were scratching the surface of topics that have been covered over and over, without any real new insights.

However, this is an autobiography, so no summary can do it justice. I’m sure Shonda’s messages are packaged and delivered in a lot clearer way inside the book itself and that I stand 100% behind the big message of the book: figure yourself out by saying yes to things.

Work the System by Sam Carpenter: Notes

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Work The System will fundamentally change the way you view the world, by showing you the systems all around you and giving you the guiding principles to influence the right ones to make your business successful.

Sam Carpenter has been the CEO and president of Centratel, one of the US’s top providers of phone answering services – the ladies and gents who handle your customer service via the phone – for the past 30 years. During those years, he developed what he calls ‘a systems mindset.’ He started spotting systems everywhere, and subsequently, optimizing the ones he could control.

He turned this approach into a business philosophy, taught it to many corporations as a consultant and, in 2008, turned it into this book. Work The System is a wholistic descriptions of the nature of systems, their ubiquity in life and nature, and how you can use systems for yourself to optimize your life.

Here are the 3 key things you should take home from it:

The world runs on systems, and they work in spite of humans, not because of us.

Start focusing on the systems you can control, and stop complaining about the ones you can’t.

To analyze the systems in your life, take a step back.

Ready to oil the machinery? Let’s go!

Lesson 1: The world runs on systems, and they work in spite of humans, not because of us.

Do you sometimes feel like the captain of a tiny sailboat, constantly being thrown around by winds, waves, storms, and other forces outside of your control?

There’s no reason to.

Look at the world. Why doesn’t the entire planet blow up every other day?

Why don’t we have a nuclear war yet, even though there’s been plenty of opportunities for one?

It’s because of systems.

A system is any composition of several components, which work together to accomplish a single goal.

The beauty of systems is that they’re naturally inclined to be both stable and efficient.

There are millions and millions of systems working in the world right this second, and they’re the reason we don’t need a CEO of the world and can still go to bed at night, resting assured that the world won’t end tomorrow.

Now you might think we did a good job in making it so, but actually, we’re not responsible for everything working so well.

In fact, we’re rather responsible when things go wrong, because whenever chaos wrecks a system, there are usually humans at fault.

For example a BMW pricing manager might decide that the US prices for their cars are too cheap, because the cars cost more in Germany, and slap on an extra 30%. That will likely lead to an outrage with US customers, dealers, and sales managers, and they might end the cooperation altogether.

The reasons we humans constantly put errors into perfectly fine systems, is that our view of whether a system runs well is very subjective.

That means to mess up less and make the most of the systems in your life, you first have to see them, and then understand how they work.

Lesson 2: Start focusing on the systems you can control, and stop complaining about the ones you can’t.

Now you might look around and say: “Yeah, yeah, that’s all fine, but there are so many systems I can’t control!”


But then why complain about them?

You can spend all day moaning about the oil price, the stock market, or the political party who’s in charge.

But that won’t make oil cheaper, your stocks go up, or change who’s president.

What you can do is get a car with less fuel consumption, or give it up altogether, buy an investment book and go vote in the election.

The truth is that no one has control over all the systems in their life, which means you’re not especially disadvantaged.

Most of the time, the only reason things don’t go your way is because you don’t even try. Just because their vote doesn’t decide the election, many people don’t vote at all – a huge mistake.

Can I influence how many people sign up for Four Minute Books or get a Blinkist subscription because of me? No.

But I sure can get up in the morning and write another summary.

This is the hand you’ve been dealt. Start playing it.

Lesson 3: Take a step back to analyze the systems in your life.

The way to find out what you can and can’t control is to take a step back and look at the systems in your life from the outside.

A gear inside a machine never knows of anything more than the gears it directly connects with.

But when you take some time to think and reflect, you can see how the individual gears relate to the rest of the machine and how the whole mechanism works.

This will let you break down systems into step-by-step processes (it’s what I do), and help you spot the individual parts that need fixing.

Take some time to step back, look at the systems in your life from outside, and you’ll get a much better grasp of where you need to use your wrench to fix things.

My personal take-aways

Work The System actually has a lot of business advice, but I loved the philosophical aspect of Sam’s systems approach so much, I tried to break it down for the average Joe, like myself. I think it’s more valuable than specific tips and hopefully, this way, you can get the most out of it in your own life.

The Book in Three Sentences

Life is an orderly collection of individual linear systems each of which can be improved and perfected one at a time.

A business’ mechanical functioning is a result of the systems that comprise it.

Getting what you want—in life and work—lies in focusing on ‘working the systems’ that create the results.

The Five Big Ideas

Your life and business are a result of systems you have complete control, systems over which you have no control at all, and systems over which you have some but not complete control.

The Work the System methodology involves (1) documenting your systems, (2) separating, dissection, and repairing your systems, and (3) maintaining your systems on an ongoing basis.

Ninety-eight percent accuracy is “perfect” because trying to achieve that additional 2 percent demands too much additional energy.

“Systems are the invisible threads that hold the fabric of our lives together.”

The Work the System documentation includes (1) a Strategic Objective, (2) General Operating Principles and (3) Working Procedures.

Work the System Summary

“Your life is composed of systems that are yours to control—or not control.”

“The simplest solution is invariably the most correct solution.”

“A life’s mechanical functioning is a result of the systems that compose it.”

“If it is true that ‘a life’s mechanical functioning is a result of the systems that compose it,’ then getting what you want in life does not lie in manipulating outcomes; doing that is a distraction. Rather, getting what you want lies in delving deeper, in focusing on ‘working the systems’ that create the results.”

The Three Steps of the Work the System Method.


Separation, dissection, and repair of systems

Ongoing maintenance of systems

“In the Work the System world, 98 percent accuracy is ‘perfect’ because trying to achieve that additional 2 percent demands too much additional energy. It’s the law of diminishing returns in action, and it’s a catch-22: The enormous energy required for this tiny increment of improvement is in itself imperfection because that energy could have been put to much better use elsewhere.” (Sam: knowing when enough is enough is a crucial part of understanding The Exponential Curve of Excellence.)

“We make things worse in the long term by violating systems in the short term, as we ignore the simple truth that disruption of an efficient system always has its price.”

“There is a direct connection between happiness and the amount of control we attain.” (Sam: Charles Duhigg discusses this at length in Smarter Faster Better.)

“Happiness is not found in the control we have over others. It’s found in the control we have over the moment-to-moment trajectory of our own lives, and more exactly—here we get to the root of things—the control of the personal systems that are ours to adjust and maintain.” (Sam: much of Carpenter’s thinking is influenced by Stoicism and echoes what William B. Irvine writes in A Guide to The Good Life: ““There are things over which we have complete control, things over which we have no control at all, and things over which we have some but not complete control.”)

“Orderliness and attention to detail are the roots of peace.”

“As we focus on the events outside ourselves that we cannot control, we overlook the imperfect aspects of our own lives that we can control.”

“We don’t recognize that recurring personal pain is not often the result of a flawed world, but more usually the result of our own flawed personal systems—systems we can repair.”

“If we don’t overtly take control of the forward flow of our own lives, the mistake of a lifetime is just around the corner, ready to flatten us when we least expect it.”

“Short, quality products or services, a stable staff, and profitability are the result of the quality systems that produce them, not the reverse.”

“As you go through your day, think of systems you can implement that will prevent problems down the line.”

“Is there something you do to your body that is making it less efficient? Are you excelling in system management in some areas while sabotaging yourself in others?”

“Systems want to be efficient.”

“In the systems that compose the world’s workings, there is not a cosmic inclination for chaos. Rather, there is a default propensity toward order and efficiency.”

“By fixing your life’s individual systems—by identifying them one at a time and then rebuilding them one by one—order, control, and peace accumulate incrementally.”

“In the workplace, permanence happens first by creating written descriptions of how systems are to operate, and second by making sure responsible parties follow the steps described in the documentation.”

“Systems are the invisible threads that hold the fabric of our lives together.”

“Whether an outcome is to your liking or not, the underlying system is performing exactly as it was constructed.”

“For any recurring problem, there is a path to sorting things out: Take the inefficient system apart and fix the pieces one by one.”

Ask yourself, “Is there a major problem you are coping with right now? Can you break it down into segments? Can you modify the segments one at a time?”

“The mantra of the Work the System method is to isolate-fix-maintain.”

“It is not enough to know what to do. One must take action.”

A system is “a group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent elements forming a complex whole.”

“Silent and invisible, your systems work without pause. Sometimes they work alone, but often they work together. They support and complement each other—and sometimes they fight each other.”

“The Work the System methodology itself is a system. It’s the controlling management tool used to analyze and maintain your personal systems. It’s the master control mechanism for organizing yourself into an efficient life: a life of serenity, prosperity, and contribution.”

“If the majority of time is spent examining and tweaking systems to perfection, great results will materialize.”

“Stop looking for a sudden hand-of-God solution to problems. Drop the idea that life is convoluted and mysterious, strip away the complexity, and get to work repairing the underlying inefficient mechanisms one by one.”

“Too often we go after a holistic, bumper-sticker solution when it would be more sensible to simply examine the primary system’s context and fix a faulty component.”

“One can compensate for the negative outcome of a recurring problem, but without repairing the errant system that caused the problem, the problem will undoubtedly occur again.”

“The improvement of a system is a system improvement, and the documentation of that system improvement is called a Working Procedure.”

“It’s a beautiful thing, this system-improvement process, because as time passes things improve. Imagine a system that improves with time rather than wears out.”

“Your job is not to be a fire-killer. Your job is to prevent fires.”

“Most problems stem from nonexistent system management and show themselves as errors of omission.”

“Once you get the systems perspective, you will see fire-killing all around you.”

“What is the most important difference between the manager of a large successful business and the manager of a small struggling business? The first manages systems; the second copes with bad results.”

“Each thing we do is a component of a system.”

“First, make the various systems consciously visible. Second, one at a time, bring them to the foreground for examination. Third, adjust them. Fourth, document them. Fifth, maintain them.”

You must stand outside of it if you are to see how you are a part of the larger system.

“Getting things right most of the time is good enough.”

“Once the Work the System methodology is internalized and applied, you will be a different person.”

“The Strategic Objective is your Declaration of Independence, your mandate for a better future. The General Operating Principles document is your Constitution, a set of guidelines for future decision making. The Working Procedures are your laws, the rules of your game.”

“A primary thrust of the Work the System method is to generate extra time so you can better prepare.”

“The largest obstacle to better preparation is the reluctance to invest the necessary time to be better prepared.”

The Work the System Documentation

Strategic Objective. The one-page Strategic Objective document will provide overall direction for your business and your personal life.

General Operating Principles. Just two or three pages long, this condensed “guidelines for decision making” document requires ten to twenty hours to complete, but these hours will be spread over a period of a month or two.

Working Procedures. This documentation is the specific collection of protocols that outline exactly how the systems of your business or your job will operate. Ninety-five percent of your procedures will follow a 1-2-3 step format. The other 5% will follow an open, “narrative” format.

“First you work your systems. Then your systems do the work.”

“Management works in the system; leadership works on the system.” —Stephen Covey

“Avoid becoming caught up in the work. Instead, step outside, look down, and isolate individual systems on paper in a 1-2-3 format. Then, deciding overall what you want the systems to accomplish, identify defects as well as outside changing situations. Then improve the systems, always documenting those improvements.”

“Right this minute, looking around from the space you now occupy, is there a system that can be improved?”

“The successful leader’s job is to keep the wheels of the mechanism turning at full speed, and with enormous efficiency.”

“Without exception, the businesses that are large and successful are ‘working their systems.’ And the ones without thoughtful direction and structured, sensible protocols—most small businesses—are struggling. Very simple.”

“An effective process must be set in concrete, and that means creating it in hard and/or soft copy, distributing it, and then ensuring that it is implemented.”

“If each component of an organization is nearly flawless, the organization as a whole will be nearly flawless.”

“Getting things too perfect is counterproductive and shortsighted.”

“It is a choice not to do something that should be done.”

“Watch the events of your day as they occur, and while they are occurring, ask, ‘What am I not doing right now that is holding me back?’”

“In everything you do, think beyond immediate temptation and stick with the plan as outlined in your critical documents. Your documentation will keep you from sinking as it relentlessly moves you toward your goals.”

“Quantity of communication connects directly to any success or failure.”

“It has been my observation that most people get ahead during the time that others waste time.” —Henry Ford

“Enormous advancement comes from spending the most alert periods of the day doing the most important system-building tasks.’”

“For a given primary system, in order to ensure that the desired result occurs over and over again, the task is to adjust that primary system’s subsystems so the correct components are being used and they are sequenced properly.”

“Focus on the mechanical systems that produce the results, not the other way around, and never doubt that a superb collection of subsystems will produce a superb primary system.”

Recommended Reading

If you like Work the System, you may also enjoy the following books:

How to Write Copy That Sells: The Step-By-Step System for More Sales, to More Customers, More Often by Ray Edwards

The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right by Atul Gawande

The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It by Michael E. Gerber

Buy The Book: Work the System

Print | Kindle | Hardcover

Wonderland Summary

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Wonderland shows you that much of societal and technological progress actually originates from people playing and just following their curiosity, as it takes you on a tour of history’s greatest dabblers and how they helped build the future.

We know that coincidence plays a huge role when it comes to discovery. Penicillin was the result of a petri dish left in the lab over vacation, velcro was the result of a dog full of burrs and the post-it glue was a failed product looking for a use case for 12 years. However, where we’re often mistaken is in seeing these events as lucky breaks for people toiling away behind closed doors.

Steven Johnson suggests that actually, many of our greatest achievements happened precisely because innovative spirits were playing around, hoping to find something interesting. In Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, he takes us on a tour of unlikely origins, shedding light on how some of history’s most important moments really came to be.

Here are 3 of my favorite stories:

The predecessor of the computer was invented in the 9th century.

One of today’s biggest industries, movies, emerged solely from our fascination with optical illusions.

Societal progress is often influenced by the types of games we play in our homes.

Are you ready to discover an entirely new side of innovation? Let’s see how far fun can really get us!

Lesson 1: Three brothers invented a device similar to a computer over 1,000 years ago.

The oldest musical instrument in the world is the Aurignacian flute, which was found quite recently in Germany and is about 40,000 years old. Obviously, we’ve been tinkering with sounds for quite some time. This makes sense, as it was important in our development of language, but when you think of why you listen to music, we mostly do it to enjoy.

In 9th century Persia, the Banū Mūsā brothers, three scientists and scholars, created on one of the world’s greatest inventions for the same reason: to enjoy more music in their lives. In their Book of Ingenious Devices, they describe “the instrument that plays by itself.”

It was a flute with a rotating cylinder inside, which had pins that opened and closed the holes of the flute, thus leading to different notes and, ultimately, melodies. Besides the staggering fact that it was automated, it was also programmable. If you swapped the cylinder for a different one with pins in new places, you’d get a different song. When the first computers came to be, they too had swappable punch cards, which would set the program, so in essence, the brothers had come up with the first algorithmic machine over 1,000 years ago.

Incredible, isn’t it?

Lesson 2: The world’s biggest entertainment industry, films, has its roots in our obsession with optical illusions.

One part of why the brothers were able to come up with so many brilliant discoveries is that our brain is primed to look for innovation when we play. Two reasons:

Every time we are surprised or find something new, we get a little hit of dopamine, which prompts us to want more surprises. Curiosity is addicting, and for once, that’s a good thing.

Our minds are much more open when we play. We’re not as skeptical and put more trust into people and events, which allows our brains to make new connections in unknown ways.

An industry that has benefitted tremendously from these two facts is the show business, specifically, the movie industry, since it developed out of our fascination with one of the many little errors in our brain: persistence of vision. Sometimes, when you stare at an object long enough, you can still see its frame or shadow for a while after it’s been removed.

In the 19th century, the thaumatrope was created with this in mind. It’s a round piece of paper with two pictures that complement each other, one on each side, for example, a bird on the front and a cage on the back. If you attach a piece of string left and right, then wind up the paper by turning it several times, and spin it, the switching images will make it seem like the bird is inside the cage.

Later, this turned into the zoetrope, which has more pictures and spins longer, allowing for bigger sequences, ultimately leading to movie projectors and later, film tapes!

Lesson 3: Societal change can be the result of the types of games we play with friends and family.

In a way, we play games all day long. There’s the family game, the work game, the finance game, the career game, the love game, and so on. In each of these games, we have a certain role to fulfill, certain variables to set and choices to make, which ultimately determine whether we win or lose.

That said, there are also a lot of actual games in our lives. Just think about sports, competitions and the games we play with our friends and family. From a cultural point of view, different games have greatly influenced different nations. For example, in Medieval Europe, chess represented the societal hierarchy in its figures: there’s a king and a queen, a bishop, knights and many pawns, with the king and queen being the most powerful of them all.

However, when chess started spreading, it also disrupted the idea that the king ruled over all the other characters, because all figurines could still move independently, in spite of having to follow certain rules. This may have contributed to the slow rise in upheaval and unrest, which ultimately led to a change from monarchies to more democratized systems.

The next time you play a game with your friends, think it through. How does it affect the way you view the world?

My personal take-aways

This is a fun, out-of-the-box read. It won’t flip your world view upside down, but make for lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs,’ while keeping you curious. A nice project to get familiar with if you’re looking for new creative input.

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