Moving On…

Hey folks,

After quite a bit of thought, I’ve decided to stop writing the blog. It has served me well for the past four years. Hopefully you can say the same. Maybe. But, you know, it’s time for a change. And greater focus. On my end.

You see, I’ve built up quite a following here over the years. And while it’s been nice to interact with you all and exchange great ideas, I’ve come to the recent realization that I was maintaining this blog, and writing articles that I thought others would want to read, instead of writing articles that I wanted to write. Call it a lack of purpose. My bad.


If you’re interested, I’ve launched a new joint at As you can see, it’s much more top-of-mind, less polished, more stream of conscious, constantly in beta. By design. You may also notice a repurposed post or two. Whatever. I’ll be posting things that help me in my own work. Selfishly. It may be useful or relevant to you if you’re an account planner, you work in an ad agency or digital shop, or you are marketer or entrepreneur. I’ll write about business, strategic planning, technology. But more practical, more useful. Like I said, purpose.

And I would be severely remiss if I didn’t thank all of you lovely people for your support and engagement over the years. You’ve chimed in with great conversation, great commentary, and great criticisms. I loved it. And I’ll keep the site public, for now, in case you want to read any older posts or troll me.     :)

Keep in touch,


Hacking Human Behavior


There is an opening passage in Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book Nudge that describes how big change can come from even the smallest, seemingly most insignificant details:

“A good rule of thumb is to assume that “everything matters.” In many cases, the power of these small details comes from focusing the attention of users in a particular direction. A wonderful example of this principle comes from, of all places, the men’s rooms at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. There the authorities have etched the image of a black housefly into each urinal. It seems that men usually do not pay much attention to where they aim, which can create a bit of a mess, but if they see a target, attention and therefore accuracy are much increased. ‘It improves aim,’ says Aad Kieboom. ‘If a man sees a fly, he aims at it.’ Kieboom, an economist, directs Schiphol’s building expansion. His staff conducted fly-in-urinal trials and found that etchings reduce spillage by 80 percent.”

Silly it may seem, but the Schiphol experiment has a better success rate than most million dollar advertising campaigns can claim. A real world effect. It just goes to show that understanding how people behave can be used to create real change. It’s an important principle for how we communicate, design and market to people today, notwithstanding that this particular example is completely full of piss.

The Semmelweis Reflex: an abbreviated history of denial

In the 1840s a physician named Ignaz Semmelweis had been witnessing an alarmingly high incidence of a condition known as childbed fever that caused women to die shortly after giving childbirth.

Semmelweis noticed a correlation between the doctors who were assisting in these childbirths and their frequency of other medical duties — notably, autopsies. Semmelweis hypothesized that their work with cadavers in the morgues were spreading the disease to mothers in the delivery room. He proposed that doctors simply wash their hands with a cleansing solution before each child delivery.

Of course this all took place before the advent of germ theory, a time when most medical science was mired in a medieval paradigm fixated on bodily humors. Semmelweis’ breakthrough was laughed at and rejected by the medical community. Patients continued dying. It eventually drove him insane.

The Semmelweis Reflex would eventually be used to describe the tendency to ignore information simply because it does not fit within one’s world view. It’s been applied to recent controversies surrounding climate change, religious freedom, sexual orientation, gender roles and foreign affairs.

So why do we perpetuate all this madness? Is it stubbornness? Is it ignorance? Is it some sort of cultural conditioning?

In the 1950s, Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger and his colleagues led some fascinating research on why human beings often reject reality. His research suggests that the denial of facts, especially when those facts contradict our existing pre-packaged perception of the world, is just as much a result of neuroscience as it is our own hard-headedness.

Denial is, as Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan describes it, a “basic human survival skill.” It fulfills our psychological needs. As a recent piece from Pacific Standard explains:

“If our desire for security requires us to perceive our society as fair and just, we’re likely to dismiss complaints about economic inequality or police brutality. Entertaining such ideas would mean challenging a comforting premise that fulfills a deep-seated need.”

Interestingly, the emergence of more objective facts doesn’t necessarily mean the emergence of greater understanding and acceptance. New research from the American Psychological Association postulates that, “if options such as relying on biased sources of information prove insufficient, many of us simply rely more heavily on “unfalsifiable” assertions—ones that cannot be definitely proven or disproven.”

On a collective level, widespread denial can lead to some pretty devastating emotional, social, political, economical, spiritual and institutional consequences.

But on an individual level, it’s not only dangerous. It’s also a bit heartbreaking. Denial is a defense mechanism. It’s not so much an irrational rejection of the world as it is a deep-seeded human fear that the world will or is, in some way, rejecting us.

Denial. It’s part of our psyche, it’s part of our species, it’s part of who we are. And it’s something we shouldn’t be in denial about.

By the way, that dude is completely gay. But he doesn’t need to be changed or “saved”. He just needs to be accepted.

The Wald Approach To Insights: why the obvious answers can destroy you


There’s a passage in Andy Stefanovich’s Look At More that brilliantly describes how thinking differently can lead to powerful insights:

At the height of World War II, the British government asked Abraham Wald, a Hungarian-born mathematician, to help assess the damage to planes returning from battle to determine the best places to install additional armor. Through exhaustive number crunching and diagramming, they had identified the areas on the planes that were most likely to be hit, and were ready to reinforce them.

But Wald took a completely different approach, advising them to reinforce the areas that hadn’t been hit instead. Clearly, the planes they studied had made it back with the damage they sustained, which told Wald that the areas that were commonly damaged weren’t critical. The planes that didn’t come back were most likely hit in the other areas, and that took them down.

Wald recognized that truth rarely resides in the most readily obvious explanations. Insight requires a little elbow-grease and some off-centered intellect.

The Overview Effect: the beauty of extraterrestrial perspectives


The Atlantic recently published a piece documenting life on the International Space Station. Since November 2000, there has been a constant rotation of half a dozen astronauts orbiting the earth from above, working and watching as we spin.

“Astronauts never tire of watching the Earth spin below—one wrote of stopping at a window and being so captivated that he watched an entire orbit without even reaching for a camera.”

There is a phenomenon called the Overview Effect, known by astronauts who have experienced first-hand the transcendent experience of staring back at their planet. It’s the ability to finally see the big picture, the interrelatedness of everything, a new cosmic perspective. Earth gazing, they call it.

The film The Overview Effect explains the deep meditative effect that space travel can induce: “to have that experience of awe is, at least for the moment, to let go of yourself. It’s not just that [the astronauts] were experiencing something other than them, but that they were at some deep level integrating, realizing their interconnectedness with that beautiful blue-green ball.”

The Overview Effect reveals the power that unfamiliar perspectives play on people, and how detaching yourself from familiarity can prompt profound human experiences. Space travel creates this cognitive shift. The reality is, we are in outer space already, it’s just that we haven’t brought that into our perspective here on earth.



The Skirky Principle & Why There Will Never Be A Cure For Ebola

In his book Here Comes Everybody, culturalist Clay Shirky introduces the idea that, “institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” It became widely known as the Shirky Principle.

As Kevin Kelly writes on The Technium, the Shirky Principle explains why “complex solutions (like a company, or an industry) can become so dedicated to the problem they are the solution to, that often they inadvertently perpetuate the problem.”

It may also explain why there is no known cure for Ebola.

A Morning Edition story on NPR yesterday mentioned how none of the world’s most powerful private-sector pharmaceutical companies have created a cure for Ebola. And they probably never will.

You see, despite the mounting mainstream interest and the growing media coverage of the past few weeks, there have been less than 3,000 known Ebola deaths around the world since 1976 [1]. There were over 600,000 deaths due to heart disease in the United States last year alone [2].

In any business, regardless of category, investment follows opportunity. Pharmaceutical companies don’t serve patients. They target markets. They segment populations based on consumer needs. And the sad truth of it all is that the there simply isn’t a big enough consumer base for them to invest research and development into a cure for Ebola.

For pharmaceutical companies, there is no financial opportunity in healthy people. And there is no financial opportunity in dead people. The ideal target market is a disease-ridden, increasingly unhealthy and steadily sustained population of sick people.

Pharmaceuticals aren’t meant to make you healthy. They’re meant to preserve the problem. Just long enough to drain you of all hope. And money.


[1] NPR Morning Edition, 2014

[2] U.S. Center for Disease Control, 2014

Committees Are The Cancer Of Creativity


(I believe in lunatics)

“It’s about the struggle between individuals with jagged passion in their work and today’s faceless corporate committees, which claim to understand the needs of the mass audience, and are removing the idiosyncrasies, polishing the jags, creating a thought-free, passion-free, cultural mush that will not be hated nor loved by anyone. By now, virtually all media, architecture, product and graphic design have been freed from ideas, individual passion, and have been relegated to a role of corporate servitude, carrying out corporate strategies and increasing stock prices. Creative people are now working for the bottom line.

Magazine editors have lost their editorial independence, and work for committees of publishers (who work for committees of advertisers). TV scripts are vetted by producers, advertisers, lawyers, research specialists, layers and layers of paid executives who determine whether the scripts are dumb enough to amuse what they call the ‘lowest common denominator’. Film studios out films in front of focus groups to determine whether an ending will please target audiences. All cars look the same. Architectural decisions are made by accountants. Ads are stupid. Theater is dead.

Corporations have become the sole arbiters of cultural ideas and taste in America. Our culture is corporate culture.

Culture used to be the opposite of commerce, not a fast track to ‘content’- derived riches. Not so long ago captains of industry (no angels in the way they acquired wealth) thought that part of their responsibility was to use their millions to support culture. Carnegie built libraries, Rockefeller built art museums, Ford created his global foundation. What do we now get from our billionaires? Gates? Or Eisner? Or Redstone? Sales pitches. Junk mail. Meanwhile, creative people have their work reduced to ‘content’ or ‘intellectual property’. Magazines and films become ‘delivery systems’ for product messages.

But to be fair, the above is only 99 percent true.

I offer a modest solution: Find the cracks in the wall. There are a very few lunatic entrepreneurs who will understand that culture and design are not about fatter wallets, but about creating a future. They will understand that wealth is means, not an end. Under other circumstances they may have turned out to be like you, creative lunatics. Believe me, they’re there and when you find them, treat them well and use their money to change the world.”

Tibor Kalman
New York
June 1998