I’m convinced that a marketer could learn everything they need to know about their brand just by walking through NYC neighborhoods and listening to peoples’ conversations.  For example, today I heard someone tell someone not to get the iPhone 5 because “the maps suck” and that’s most of what they use their phone for.
I also heard a woman tell another woman that she had to register to vote because it was important.  It was a good day in NYC.

A friend pointed out this quote from a Vanity Fair profile of Obama.

This time he covered a lot more ground and was willing to talk about the mundane details of presidential existence. “You have to exercise,” he said, for instance. “Or at some point you’ll just break down.” You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”

It is hard not to love it when the President of the United States makes your case for you.  I haven’t gone so far as to wear the same clothes every day, but I have done some careful buying so that any two random items from my closet will match each other.  And that, I think is the next step in choice reduction and my main reaction to its critics: it isn’t about not choosing, it is about choosing when to not choose.

I think it is good to have expressions of your personality and selfness in your life.  Johnny Cash went with all black, I picked cowboy boots, and I’m sure one day I’ll raise kids with some equally odd way of going about it.  But even though I sometimes want to wear something distinctive, I’ve setup my life so that I don’t have to if I don’t want to.

Take, for example, the incredibly burdensome decision of “what to eat for dinner”.  Yes yes, first world problems, but a real one none the less; when I was a kid, my mother never minded cooking dinner nearly as much as she did trying to figure out what to cook (resulting in her trying to force my brother and I to plan the menu, which we were smart enough to avoid).  I hate trying to choose what to have when I get home now, which is why I have a default: the Matt Wallaert Salad.  Entire bag of lettuce, peanuts, cheese, fat free honey mustard dressing.  Instant dinner, and I make sure to always have the components in my fridge.

I also have the New York lifestyle down: a standard rotation of four resturants that I know are good, where I can always order the same thing, and I can go to any of them randomly when I feel like outsourcing food choice.  Sure, in some sense, I’m “choosing” but not in the active, cognitive-resource depleting way the President is pointing out.  And when I really care about what I’m eating, when I want to make that choice, I can.

Setting up defaults doesn’t mean you always have to go with them, just that they are there when we need them, and I think that is something we often forget.  Which may be the start of a followup post…

(Thanks to Sarah Duve for pointing out the original article.)

Update: Apparently, Zuck does the same thing.

Here’s the premise: if you’ve set your analytics up properly, it means you know which metrics mean success.  And knowing what success is means that you’ve chosen the goal of your product ahead of time (which, by the way, is a really damn good idea).  And if you can measure success, you know when your product goes from “not working” to “working”.

That’s test-driven design.  Engineers use it all the time, and I’d like to suggest that product people should too.

Engineers face a number of issues with TDD: it takes a bunch of time to write tests in advance, it requires a lot of upfront discipline before you even start coding, and it restricts agility (because you may end up scrapping a bunch of tests as scope changes).  It works well if you can get everyone on board, but it can be murder trying to get there.

Fortunately, these are mostly a non-issue for product because the whole point is that doing this in advance enables agility in meeting the goal.  That is, while engineers are writing many tests for many problems with only one solution, product people are writing a test that they can solve a variety of ways.  So here’s the drill:

1) Decide what is the single most important thing you care about your users doing. For example, sitting down with Estimize recently, the goal that came out of conversation was getting as many estimates from qualified professionals as possible.  Note “qualified professionals” – be careful about tossing out overly simplistic goals like just “user signups”, or you’ll end up like Mint, with plenty of registered users and no active ones.  Be specific in your goal, like “people who register and are continuing to log in at least once a month for three months”.

2) Decide how to measure that behavior. For RentHackr, where the goal is as many leases as possible, it is fairly simple: number of leases with valid data.  That means writing a quick script that counts the leases and then eliminates invalid ones (rents that are bogus, which is pretty easy to tell by looking at market rates in an area).  This measurement step is critical but should be fairly easy if you wrote a specific goal, as mentioned above.  If you didn’t, and you find yourself including a lot of junk data, you need to go back to Step 1.

3) Iterate, test, repeat. Once you’ve got a test in place, you can start building features against it.  Put out a feature, let it run long enough to get a reasonable sample, and see if you actually increased the metric you were trying to increase.  Debug.  Repeat.  This will keep you from releasing features just because your CEO “thinks that would be cool” and instead forces you to release features focused only on what your product is actually supposed to be doing (once again, product viewpoint for the win).

(Thanks to the DataGotham conference for triggering this line of thought.)

My most recent post got made into a Someecard, so I’m feeling pretty good.  Sure, its not something that my parents would understand (being made into a joke on a site that 800K people visit religiously) but it is still a high moment.  I was also on FoxNews, trying to help more women get raises.  Again, not everyone’s idea of having made it in the world, but something that I walked away from with a light step and the urge to crow.

Both of those two moments made me feel successful: good, accomplished, like I had achieved something.  And yet only one of them is also about progress: having actually changed the world for the better in a tangible way.

You could take a flying leap and suggest that if I died tomorrow, my Matt-inspired-Someecard still would have made a few people laugh and that is valuable (because the stick really is that far up my ass and I graduated from Swarthmore, I would be likely to kill a discussion by debating that).  But in reality, the Someecard is really just about me feeling personally validated; it doesn’t really do much for anyone else.  GetRaised, on the other hand, has helped thousands of women earn millions in raises, a feat that few others can say they’ve accomplished and with an undeniable positive impact on society.

What is interesting is how often success and progress don’t full overlap and how rarely we consciously make sure that we’re getting a balance of both.  People love to endlessly complain to me about their lack of work-life balance, but I think what many of them actually may be complaining about is their lack of success-progress balance.

For example, GetRaised wasn’t all that much fun to create.  It was built on the side, outside of our direct line of business, so that it meant it had to be cobbled together in between other projects.  The problem itself wasn’t particularly intellectually challenging, we didn’t get to use any whizbang technology or pyrotechnic tricks, and it is abundantly clear how much better it could be (I still have a wishlist a mile long).  And yet it was still a project worth doing: it made real progress, every day, and even if the high moments of launch and press and helping women aren’t constant, there are enough moments of success to make it maintain a healthy and rosy glow.
And that is what is missing for so many progress-driven projects: there is not nearly enough celebration.  I’m reminded of a quote From Dusk Till Dawn.

Are you such a loser you can’t tell when you’ve won? The entire state of Texas, along with the F.B.I., is looking for you. Did they find you? No. They couldn’t. You’ve won, Seth, enjoy it.

Too often, when working on something that truly matters, work really does feel like work.  The aching, grinding pressure that is doing the 100th wireframe to try to get a particular product point right is not fun, no matter what anyone tells you.  If we don’t look for moments of success, ways to feel good and accomplished, then we will quit long before we finish anything worthwhile.

Equally dangerous (or, given our current culture, perhaps more dangerous) is the feeling of success that comes without any progress at all.  The problem with attention from Someecards is that it can be addictive: it makes you want to get attention, to simply feel good, while removing any responsibility for actually doing anything worthwhile.  Success without progress is the flip side of the coin and it is the ugly underbelly of a lot of American culture right now.

There are plenty of Paris Hilton-like examples but those are too easy.  Even the business and political worlds have plenty of successes without progress.  You know them, people who are constantly telling you how important they are but you can’t figure out a damn thing they’ve done.  Sure, they’re great at promoting themselves within a community and may even feel genuinely good about their success (although most psychologists would suggest they don’t), but when they look back on their accomplishments, they’re still docked on shore while others are quietly sailing away.

We need enough success only to keep us making progress.  But we still need it.  And it is something worth looking around for in people.  Who do you need to congratulate on their progress?  Who do you need to offer a chance to make some?

The lovely and talented Meghan Casserly recently wrote a piece entitled “If Time Is Money, Millennials Are Broke–And They Couldn’t Be Happier“.  The piece is great, but the title is a bit misleading – I’d argue that she does a fairly good job of talking about all the reasons that the millennial race to be “busy” is actually eroding a lot of their satisfaction in life.

At Swarthmore, where people love to brag about how tough the school is (hence the unofficial slogan “Anywhere else, it would have been an A”), what Casserly described was known as “misery poker”, presumably because people were constantly upping the ante.  You’ve got a five page paper to do?  Well I’ve got a ten page paper and an oral.  You get the idea.

My argument is not that young people aren’t playing the “busy” card, but that they are…and it is making them unhappy.  Misery poker is a form of negative busyness: I’m so busy, isn’t it terrible (but not really terrible, because it says I’m productive/smart/etc.)  As Casserly’s experts point out, there are positive versions, like “being busy makes us feel valuable”, but the underlying current is the ways in which busyness is actually an inauthentic remedy for larger troubles, which ultimately only leads to greater dissatisfaction.

For example, if busy = valuable, then more busy = more valuable.  And since the hedonic treadmill means that we will always acclimate to our current level of happiness, that means that in order to stay happy, we will always need to be…wait for it…more busy!  Ditto for suggestions her experts make about feeling needed, self-presentation for social credibility, and other potential theories: the crux of the argument is always that busy replaces actually being needed/popular/etc.  Busy becomes the incredibly poor coping mechanism for not actually accomplishing fulfillment of those needs.

To put it a different way, the perpetually-wise Avi Karnani once pointed out to me that many people confuse motion with progress.  He has some great hand gestures, which you’ll have to imagine, but motion is lateral movement that looks like you’re doing something but isn’t going anywhere, whereas progress is actually moving forward.  Busy may make us feel valuable/needed/popular, but because it doesn’t actually push us forward, the moment we stop moving, we are immediately unhappy because we can look back at the shore and realize that nothing has changed.

The irony is that all this motion of being “busy” is actually doubly costly: not only is the busyness not leading to genuine progress and happiness, but it holds us back from taking advantage of opportunities that would.  In college, it was the equivalent of not going to a party so you could “work on a paper” and ending up just watching TV; in life, it is saying “you are too busy” and then ending up sitting home on a Friday night.  Or worse, not staying home and instead going to a birthday party just to “put in an appearance” and have no genuine interactions of any kind.

In the end, it all comes back to authenticity.  There is such a thing as being truly busy, and it probably does make people fairly happy, provided they are busy with things that they actually want to be doing.  But that’s not what Casserly and I are talking about.  What young people are doing today doesn’t have to do with being truly busy, it has to do with the appearance of busy for busy’s sake.  And as The Shawshank Redemption points out, you can get busy living or get busy dying…busy for busy’s sake is almost certainly the latter.