That little dancing smile of satisfaction

Over the past twenty years, thousands of people from around the world have reached out to tell me that my nametag experiment has been featured as a case study in their business book, college course, company newsletters, training seminar, student project, trivia archive, teaching resource or documentary film. 

My personal favorite was when my seminude picture wound up on one of those media roundups of the worst tattoos of all time, and a producer from a reality show called to see if I wanted to be a contestant on an upcoming episode of Tattoo Nightmares, a show about chronicling the horror stories behind people’s unfortunate tattoos and their attempts to fix them.

You couldn’t make this stuff up if you wanted to. 

But this experience, call it a moment of exemplarity, has become a constant for over half of my life now. And every time it happens, that little dancing smile of satisfaction still comes across my face. 

Because what an absolute privilege to be an example for something meaningful. What a delight to know that something as simple and absurd as wearing a nametag everyday could actually have a broader impact beyond just getting weird looks on the subway. 

In a noisy world where everyone is trying to do something worth noticing, remembering, sharing, spreading, it’s quite a relief to already have that box checked. 

And interestingly enough, my aspirations for wearing a nametag were never even that ambitious. 

I just wanted to make friends and meet girls. 

But as my mentor once warned me, a river reaches places its source never knows. 


What will you do that emanates out like ripples and laps onto the shores of the world?

Fear is a song with only two notes

Jaws was such a terrifying film because you barely ever saw the shark. 

After all, what we don’t see is scarier than what we do. Spielberg knew this. 

And so, he advertised the shark’s presence and attitude with the two most terrifying musical notes in history. 

Dah dum. 

Not surprisingly, the summer his movie was released, beach goers nationwide started seeing phantom sharks every time they waded into the water. Jaws officially cemented a perception in the minds of millions of people. 

Myself included. That movie scared me out of the ocean until my twenties. 

More than four decades later, an issue of marine policyjournalused the infamous shark film as case study on something called fear conditioning. It’s the state in which certain features stimulate the human fear response. Pictures of sharks, seeing the word shark, people calling out shark, the notion of swimming in the ocean, even the musical score, they all triggered the response. 

Researchers even found that this type of conditioning can be so impactful that people have been habituated to fear sharks, even when on land. 

Isn’t it fascinating how fear works? 

Not unlike the movie poster itself, it convinces us not to go into the water. 

But the one thing fear doesn’t want to know is, each time we confront it, grows smaller. Every time we bravely step into the circle of our fear and face it down and endure it long enough to break its hold on us, we grow stronger. 

The world might still eat us alive, of course, but at least we don’t have to go through life knotted by fear’s tensions every second of the day. 

Just remember, there is nothing that exists beyond ourselves to make us fearful. 

Fear is a song with only one note. Or in this case, two notes. 

And the music is coming from inside the house. 

If you feel drowned out by the litany of worries continually roaring within your mind, try going into the water. 

And know that it’s only a movie. 

Dah dum. 


What story is robbing you of the very energy you need to directly and potently face your fear?

People want affirmation, not information

Schein’s research on helping professions reminds us that not everyone who asks for help is actually seeking it, but help may be a convenient word for whatever is being sought. 

Sometimes the person already defined the problem and worked out a solution, but still wants confirmation and affirmation. 

Businesses ignore this fundamental human need on a daily basis. 

In fact, one of the most common complaints on customer review sites is a lack of confirmation in some form. Which is sad for a few reasons. 

First of all, when customers don’t get confirmation immediately, they assume something’s gone wrong. They make a giant leap to global negativity. And before they even know it, they’re exhausted from fighting back all the worst case scenarios in their head. Not a positive first impression. 

The other issue is, confirmation communications are not only easy and simple to automate, but they’re also missed opportunities to express gratitude, provide great customer service, educate customers, reinforce your brand message and even do something memorable while the customer is already paying attention. 

During my stint as brand manager at a travel startup, our product team asked me to record educational videos about specific flight disruption scenarios. Everything from delays, cancellations, denied boarding and lost luggage. That way, when a disrupted passenger was stuck at the airport with the hangries, filing a claim with the airlines, we could include one of my videos in their confirmation email. 

According to our focus groups, these videos not only empowered customers take action on their air passenger rights, but made them feel less alone in their struggle. And even laugh a little. 

Which is not an insignificant achievement for someone who has been sleeping at the airport for two days. 

Lesson learned, most people want affirmation, not information. 

If you want to reduce friction, start by giving clarity. 


How are you taking risks to serve the customer better?

Rendering ourselves at once obsolete and helplessly dependent

Every organism must keep changing just to stay competitive. 

If we are not ready to adapt and remake ourselves as we grow and as the environment changes, then world will evolve and leave us behind. Time waits for no man. Evolution has zero interest in our being happy. 

The good news is, as humans, our greatest tool for survival is our ability to change. 

Certainly, we fear change, but we are also remarkably quick to adapt to just about anything that doesn’t kill us. Whyte calls this the internal and secret marriage to the tricky and movable frontier called the self. It’s where we continuously improve what is, but we also make evolutionary leaps to what’s possible. 

Instead of pretending ourselves beyond our own evolution, we take a good look in the mirror, asking questions like this:

What weaknesses have we been running from that it’s finally time to embrace? 

What edges have we been resisting for years that we must now make friends with? 

Hoffman, my favorite venture capitalist and tech entrepreneur, writes about this in his bestselling book about the startup of you:

Keeping yourself in permanent beta forces you to acknowledge that you have bugs, that there’s new development to do on yourself, that you will need to adapt and evolve. 

Sound painful? It is. 

Letting go of outdated parts of ourselves can feel like a death. 

Then again, what hurts even more is pretending that we’re more evolved than we really are, and then unexpectedly getting chewed into a bloody pulp by some unexpected flying creature that breathes fire and knows how to write code. 

May as well pick the path with the highest growth potential. Because evolution does not favor the strong, only the most adaptable to change. 

If we want to avoid rendering ourselves obsolete and helplessly dependent, we must figure out which parts of our self the world is finally asking us to outgrow. 


Which of the loyal dogs that you can’t afford to keep anymore do you need to shoot?

There is nothing wrong with the pain that you are experiencing

Cooke famously sang that change was gonna come. 

We just didn’t realize it would come so suddenly. 

That’s often how change works. Everything is gradual until it falls off a cliff. Our world is at a standstill, and then all of the sudden, it’s not. 

Sociologists would call this a point of instability. It’s when life gives us no choice but to rapidly and dramatically change our behavior. 

Illness and injury are the perfect example. They strike unfairly and without warning. And dealing with our recovery can be quite taxing and gloomy. Not only physically, but also psychologically. 

Especially as we get older. Every ailment seems to last longer a bit longer than we’d like. 

Whyte advises us, on the other hand, to experience these depths of sorrow in ways that do not overwhelm and debilitate us, but put us in a proper, more generous relationship with the future. 

Pain teaches us a fine economy in what we ask of ourselves, he says. 

Which means we can use pain to trigger quality reflections. We can view our changes not as painful problems, but as potential improvements that are yelling at us. Ultimately comforting ourselves with the knowledge that there is nothing wrong with the pain that we are experiencing, and whatever we are experiencing will go away eventually. 

Or not. Maybe we actually can’t eradicate our pain, and we will have to learn to integrate it. Fine. 

Point being, the average human is highly resilient. Events that disgust us one day become infinitely acceptable the next. 

Cooke’s lyrics come to mind again:

There have been times that we thought we couldn’t last for long, but now we think we’re able to carry on. 

Not a bad song to have ringing in our ears as we fall off the cliff. 


Does your impatience distorts your growth by not allowing it proper timing?

Dreams live or die on what you did this morning

Our loss of innocence can come from any source of heartbreak.

And when it happens, when we are a young person standing at the threshold of a new maturity, there is a shedding of an outdated pair of eyes and ears. Our comprehension of the world is revolutionized. 

The change or loss or disappointment pulls the rug out from under us, and all of the sudden, we are not the same people we were one year or even one month ago. 

It’s chilling. Our souls often find themselves moping and mourning about. After all, changing of any kind requires letting go of a portion of our identity. This process of grieving can make us want to throw in the towel. 

But the light in our eyes does not have to fade and die. 

Ashley, a veteran startup executive and former coworker of mine, had a practical but profound way of approaching this moment:

As an adult, your dreams just have a shorter shelf life. There isn’t an opportunity to wait five years to be the next you. It’s today. Dreams cost more because they last less long. And they mature into market value sooner. And so, adults have not abandoned their dreams, they just have to work harder to have a dream, because tomorrow is today and dreams don’t come cheap. They live or die on what you did this morning. 

Are you in the midst of losing your innocence? If so, you’re not alone. You are not the first disillusioned one the world has encountered. 

However, consider treating disillusionment not as a problem, but as an awakening force. 

It doesn’t have to be the best thing that ever happened to you, it’s just part of the journey. 

Whyte, perhaps our greatest living poet, writes about this in his book about the three marriage:

Heartbreak may be the very essence of being human, of being on the journey from here to there, and of coming to care deeply for what we find along the way. 

Proving, that the refusal to be disillusioned can only lead to more suffering. 

To use my favorite album title, think of it as a heartbreakthrough. 


Have you grown up enough to know that you were never innocent?

Negative imagination is frightening your heart

Every day, we are tempted to binge on negativity. 

It is our society’s most seductive attention magnet. Whether it comes through our screens, in our ear buds, on physical media, our out of the mouths of other people, it has grown more and more difficult to see past the downpour of pessimistic thoughts. 

According to the definitive study on negativity bias from a psychophysiology journey, participants would not only spend more time viewing negative words and images, but they also registered more eye blinks during the process. 

Meaning there was more cognitive activity. They simply couldn’t avert their gaze. It was wired into them evolutionarily. 

It reminds me of a short but hilarious scene from the animated movie about a bug’s life:

Harry is a mosquito who gets attracted to a deadly bug zapper lantern under the roof of a porch. Don’t look at the light, his friend warns. But he is so entranced by the light that he is rendered powerless. 

I can’t help it, it’s so beautiful. 

Harry touches it, gets zapped, screams waaaahoooooow, and then falls to his death into a rusty tin can. 

That’s us. Every single day. We are the bugs drifting into the zapper light. 

But despite this highly salient feature of human nature, it is still possible for us to interrupt the spiral of negativity before it gets out of control. We can take back the power. 

Instead of watching the news like zombies and seeing a reflection of our lives in imminent danger, we can choose to do a media fast. We can actually turn off the goddamn television for once and actually reconnect to the person sitting next to us instead. 

Simpsons did a great episode about this years ago:

Your cable television is experiencing difficulties. Please do not panic. Resist the temptation to read or talk to loved ones. Do not attempt sexual relations, as years of television radiation have left your genitals withered and useless.

But the real warning should sound something more like this:

This is not the moment to pore over the ills of the world. Do not mistake our pessimistic despair for wisdom. Free yourself from the tyranny of negativity. And over time, as you increase your ability to deliberately keep yourself out of the conversation, the drama will be outgrown and left behind. 

Your fears will fade as you focus on the many positive resources available to you. 


What drains your optimism?

Slap a little redemption on this mess and call it good

My old startup founder had a mantra for all our company leaders:

Be soft on the person, hard on the problem. 

Which is wonderful advice in the world of management, but it’s also profoundly useful in the conversation we have inside our heads. 

Because that’s leadership too. How we choose to be with ourselves. Even when nobody is watching. Especially when nobody else is watching. This determines how we are with everyone else. 

The problem is, many of us have the wrong story in circulation. 

For decades, we have been slowly drifting into superstitions about ourselves, practicing unhealthy patterns of behavior based on irrational assumptions. 

In short, we aren’t soft on the person. 

Consider several examples. 

We assume that by criticizing our choices, we will be in control of ourselves. 

We assume that by beating ourselves up, we will change who we are. 

We assume that by making things as hard on ourselves as possible, we will meet our high standards without compromise. 

We assume that if we give the punishing voice inside our heads free reign, we will alleviate our guilt and increase our humility. 

We assume that if we act unkind and impatiently towards our work, we will create enough anger to catalyze ourselves into taking action. 

We assume that if we unfairly compare our career with someone else’s, we will get our life back on track. 

Each of these assumptions becomes a lash with which we punish ourselves. But we have no idea that paying rent in blood just to be allowed to go on living is not a healthy approach to life. 

That’s the work. Acceptance, forgiveness and surrender. 

Being hard on the problem, but more importantly, being soft on ourselves. 


Are you still using tools you built around assumptions that don’t work anymore?

Emotionally mature enough to put things where they belong

Human beings prefer that our thoughts and feelings are in in harmony with each other at all times. 

It makes us feel safe, controlled, competent and satisfied in this chaotic chamber of horrors called life. 

That’s why, when our inner planets fail to align, we go to great lengths to restore the balance. The internal inconsistency is too psychologically uncomfortable. 

Unfortunately, the cash value of cognitive dissonance rarely pays out in real life. 

We live in a world where control is an illusion, consistency is a fantasy, and uncertainty is the constant. And considering the madness that awaits around every corner, our willingness and ability to compartmentalize is a priceless asset. 

Fitzgerald famously wrote that the test of a first rate intelligence was the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. 

But it’s more than just intelligence, it’s also a key part of having healthy boundaries. People who can deal with conflicting internal standpoints simultaneously, people who can choose not to let one thing blur into another, and people who refuse to stay frozen in the purgatory between bloody armies of true believers, they are the least stressed. 

Consider, for example, the ancient argument about separating the art from the artist. Like when a celebrity gets busted for illicit, unethical and unconscionable behavior. And their scandal complicates the world’s reception of their art. 

Some of us are able compartmentalize that. Instead of tossing that artist’s records into a fire, patting ourselves on the back for being offended and congratulating our friends on how upset we all are, we choose to experience the work as purer than the tainted soul that produced it. 

But sadly, this raises some questions. 

Does that mean we’re in denial, or does it mean we are emotionally mature enough to put things where they belong and not let them get in the way of the rest of our life? 

Does it mean we’re robotic, delusional sociopaths who are complicit in the problem and deserve to be shamed in public, or does it mean our minds simply know how to deal with conflicting internal standpoints simultaneously? 

Does mean we are fugitives from our feelings whose black hearts are slowly atrophying, or does it mean that we have mentally healthy, compartmentalized minds and diversified personalities that enable us to behave differently in a variety of situations? 

Seneca, the legendary stoic philosopher, wrote:

Begin at once to live, and count each separate day as a separate life

What he was trying to tell us was, ambivalence is an intrinsic part of the human condition. And so, compartmentalizing is a valid and necessary mode for comprehending this messed up universe we live in. 

We all do what we have to do. We all remember the past the way we need to. 

Next time you develop a brain cramp because every single one of your thoughts doesn’t get along with each other perfectly, take a deep breath. Inhale for five, pause for two, exhale for five. And then, close that compartment and open the next one. 

Or better yet, say no to things that don’t deserve a compartment in the first place. 

Decide not to invest emotionally. Isolate the issue from all the other challenges you are dealing with. And move on with your life. 


Are you getting dragged down in the depressive mire of people who can’t compartmentalize?

We take ourselves with us, everywhere we go

There is a great saying the recovery community. 

Addicts are like pickles, they can never become cucumbers again. 

Meaning, certain predilections are never out of our lives completely. We take ourselves with us everywhere we go. Genetics combined with environment says that any one of us could relapse into old patterns that diminish what we are in our best moments. 

Here is a morbid way to think about it. 

It’s like an old stalker who doesn’t know that you changed your address. And so, you think you’re in the clear, until one day, years later, the doorbell rings, and he’s standing there saying, remember me? 

But this experience is not specific to addicts. Nobody is immune from the things that frighten, tempt or bully them into their lesser selves. We all have our own version of relapse. 

The scary part is, it’s very insidious. Our seeds of relapse are planted long before the actual event. And because we overestimate our strengths and underestimate our weaknesses, it’s often too late before we realize just how much we have backslid to old habits, outdated patterns, unhealthy coping mechanisms. 

Occasionally my workaholic tendencies will resurface during times of loneliness, which leads to drowning myself in tasks without stopping, isolating, resenting loved ones who interrupt me, and distorting work by impatiently demanding it gets completely immediately. It’s scary. 

What’s your version of relapse? 

Look, everyone has their own addictions and weaknesses and unhealthy behaviors. But no matter how much work we do on ourselves, sometimes it still feels like that stubborn candle on the birthday cake that never goes out no matter how much we blow on it. 

And that’s okay. Some things never go away. 

But what we can do is plan for relapse in advance. We can anticipate our lesser moments when we’re in a calm, cool state, and that way we can execute when the pressure is on. 

Even if that means setting a timer to go off every sixty minutes to prevent you from overworking until your jaw hurts. 


What unhealthy actions do you revert to in a state of fear?

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