Let’s conduct a thought experiment. Suppose I’m throwing a party. I enjoy parties, and I enjoy hosting them. But this time, the party is a little different. I don’t just want to invite friends and family, but I want to meet new people too. So instead of inviting just a handful of people, everyone on this planet is invited. 7.8 Billion people, including you.
Now suppose that everyone actually shows up. I’m planning a party for approximately 7.8 billion people and I want to be a good host. So ideally, I want to speak to every single person. I would welcome them, offer them a drink, and exchange some generic pleasantries. I’m sure you can imagine, there are several problems that I will encounter in hosting this party. But the problem I want to discuss here is not about the food or how to get these people in the same room. Rather, let’s discuss how we will communicate at this party; and the problem of a common language.
Dutch, the Universal Party Language
Let’s start with my native tongue, Dutch. If Dutch was the only language I could speak, there would only be around 23 million people around the world I could understand and talk to. That seems like a fair amount, but at this party of 7.8 billion people, those 23 million Dutch speakers are hard to find.
This is particularly difficult when people mingle. And indeed, some time after the party has started (i.e. Pink is in the house), people are randomly mixed. This means that for every 330 people I meet, there is only one I could actually talk to. As the host of the party, this is simply not acceptable. I’ve not found my common language yet; I would only be able to properly welcome 0.3% of all the people there, and from my perspective, it wouldn’t be a great party.
Learning a Second Language
So instead, I learn a second language. Luckily, I’ve had the chance to learn other languages in school, such as French, German, and quite a lot of English.
Particularly English is a good second language to know. We’ve learnt to talk, speak and write in English, of which this blog is a good showcase. Being able to speak English widens my possibilities. It makes traveling easier and makes me more employable.
More importantly English allows me to speak to the 1.5 billion other people who also speak English either natively or non-natively. In other words, around 19% of the people at the party I’ve invited speak the same language as I do. So if I switch from Dutch to English, I can pick 5 random people, and there is a fair chance that I could talk to someone in that group. Quite an improvement!
Acquiring a Lingua Franca
So with this English, I’ve actually learnt a so-called ‘lingua franca’, or ‘bridge language’. As an interesting side note, there was an actual Lingua Franca or ‘Frankish language‘ which was used in the Mediterranean (specifically countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Greece, Cyprus) as a language for commerce. It included words from Italian dialects, Spanish, and even Turkish, Greek and Arabic.
While this specific common language worked in that specific region, we now often use English. And I suppose that, once you’re fluent, English is a relatively good language to use. After all, I’m able to express my thoughts quite well in both written and spoken form. Plus, English has a broad vocabulary, and can be quite descriptive, so it’s not a very bad choice as a lingua franca*.
* Strictly speaking, a lingua franca is a language spoken by two people who each do not speak each other’s native language.
Crashing the Party: English as a Lingua Franca
And yet, when I speak English at the party, there are still four people (out every five) that will not understand a word of what I’m saying.
But more importantly, even when I do speak to a fellow English speaker, there’s a fair chance that we will have a difficult time properly understanding one another. This will lead to complications, and perhaps the guests won’t feel as much at home as I would like them to.
This is because of a few reasons. First and foremost, our accents are most likely different. We tend to use different words, and tend to pronounce them differently. You could say we even may speak a different dialect, though that would not make a whole lot of sense in this context (see an explanation of dialects below).
Secondly, even if we all spoke the Queen’s English, English in itself is a bad lingua franca. The language is filled with exceptions and ways to write and pronounce words that do not make much sense. Although we don’t have to concern ourselves with spelling at the party, our pronunciation (or pronounciation?) may still be different.
Why English is a Bad Common Language
One of my favorite examples of the weird exceptions used in English, is the difference between the meaning of the words horror, terror, and their conjugations. They go as follows:
- Horror (“an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust”)
- Horrible (“causing or likely to cause horror”)
- Horrific (“causing horror”)
- Terror (“extreme fear”)
- Terrible (“extremely bad or serious”)
- …. Terrific? (“of great size, amount, or intensity”, or informally: “extremely good; excellent”)
In other words, when a guest approaches me with the words: “You’ve hosted a terrific party”, should I feel great or take it as criticism?
Another superb example of why English does not make for a good common language is this popular poem which is coincidentally written by a Dutchman, Gerard Nolst Trenité. Named The Chaos, the poem shows why English is such a difficult language to learn. Pronounce these first verses out loud, and you will see what I mean:
Dearest creature in Creation,
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.
It will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye your dress you’ll tear.
So shall I! Oh, hear my prayer,
Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it?
Just compare heart, beard and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word…
A Better Lingua Franca: Spanish or Chinese?
So we’ve concluded that English is a good option, but it definitely won’t always work. It seems that I’m still failing in my career as a party planner.
But if we take into account all speakers of the English language, including those that did not learn it natively, English is the most spoken language in the world. In other words, even though English is not a great solution, there is not one other language I could have learnt, that would allow me to speak with more than 1 in 5 people.
The reason for this, in large part, is because we use English as a lingua franca or common language. Despite its difficulties, we’ve learnt English precisely to be able to speak to the greatest amount of other people.
But let’s suppose that as a host, I don’t want any misunderstandings. I want to be able to speak to my guests freely, so that we understand each other right away. If that’s the case, perhaps I should learn Mandarin Chinese or Spanish instead; after all, these two languages are spoken by most native speakers (specifically, data from 2018 tells us there were 908.7 million Mandarin Chinese, 442.3 million Spanish and 378.2 million English native speakers).
So should I start learning Chinese or Spanish instead? Well, if I’m going for efficiency, probably not. Chinese after all, has a different script than I am used to. Latin is the most popular script in the world, with around 70% of the world’s population using this alphabet. And perhaps I’m not the only person at the party who wants to be able to talk to new people.
Spanish is most likely easier to learn for me and the other attendees used to the latin script. But still, there are vast differences in accents and word use between native speakers of Spanish, so I still will not be certain that I can properly welcome everyone who speaks Spanish.
The Politics of Language
So perhaps I should learn French. It’s the sixth most spoken language in the world (after Mandarin, English, Hindi, Spanish and Arabic), and it would allow me to speak in some shape or form to around 300 million of my guests.
More importantly, French is often considered the language of diplomacy. This is noteworthy, because what I did not consider until now, is the historical and political significance of the language I choose to speak — as host to a party of 7.8 billion people.
Indeed, whatever language I choose, millions of people may feel offended that I did not chose their native tongue as the party’s main language.
An interesting example of this political aspect of language can be found in dialects. From the point of view of linguistics, a dialect is not one well-defined concept. You can’t easily distinguish one language from a dialect, or indicate why language A is a dialect while language B isn’t; both are simply languages. However, often we see the difference between the two as one being the official language of a country or local area with a government, while the other is not.
Russian Jewish sociolinguist Max Weinreich once said: “A language is a dialect with an army and navy“. For a specific example, think of the difference between British English and Scottish English. Or alternatively, the difference between Dutch and (West) Frisian. Why do we call the one just a language and the other a dialect? We define them in this way because of their political importance, not because of any other reason.
A Different Solution: One Common Party Language
So even if I wanted to pick one language to speak as the party’s host, I couldn’t. Even French, as the language of diplomacy, is not diplomatic enough. So what now? It seems that English is still my best choice, even though it’s suboptimal.
But perhaps there is another solution to the problem. Let’s say I have some time to prepare the party. I’ve sent out the invites a year or two in advance, and do not just include the dresscode and location details, but also a request: A request for every attendee to learn the same language in advance.
And in order to not have to deal with the politics of it all, I’ll request my guests to learn a language that not any of them speaks natively: a so-called International Auxiliary Language or IAL.
Getting to an International Auxiliary Language
The idea of an IAL (or informally: an auxlang) is a language that is not already spoken by the two people attempting to communicate and also an ‘additional’ language. In other words, it is a language that does not exist yet, and therefore does not offer (dis)advantages to certain speakers, nor does it come with a political or historical baggage.
And indeed, if we assume that most ‘natural’ languages* are unfit to be a common language, why not create something new?
Certainly, many people have created languages from scratch. From Tolkien’s Elvish languages (such as Quenya) to Wookiee-speak (the language that Star Wars’ Chewbacca speaks; formally known as Shyriiwook), new languages are everywhere if you look for them.
But unfortunately, Quenya, Wookiee-speak or any other of these languages that appear in popular culture are not really fit to be used as an IAL — or this worldly party. The reason for this is that an IAL is designed to be as simple as possible, and therefore easy to learn.
* Languages are only ‘natural’ to an extent; after all, many languages have been subject to ‘language planning’ or ‘language engineering’. If you want to dive further into this rabbit hole, see the Wikipedia page on language planning, which includes an interesting case study of the Peruvian Quechua language.
Too Many Auxlangs
So that seems like a good solution to our problem: Let’s use an auxlang as our common language.
Unfortunately, perhaps there have been too many attempts at creating an IAL, including (but not limited to): Esperanto, Globasa, Ido, Interlingua, Interlingue, Elefen, Lingwa de planeta, Novial, Pandunia, Sambahsa, Kah, Kotava, Mejamey, and Mondlango.
If those all sound like they’re made up, that is because they are. They are truly created for the purpose of making it easy to learn them — and to be used by two people that do not speak the same language. Interestingly, many of them even have their own flags.
Where do all these languages come from? Well, there used to be an International Auxiliary Language Association, but now IAL enthusiasts converge in subreddits, rather old-looking websites, Google Docs (including entire language handbooks), and the auxlang email list.
The Politics of Fake Languages
But if there are so many different auxlangs, how do we choose which one to speak at the party? Again, we could first look at how many speakers there are of every language. Indeed, some IALs have picked up a wider following. For example, Esperanto has its own DuoLingo course, there’s a newsletter and online radio show, and Google Translate even can translate Esperanto.
Nonetheless, it seems not even a hundred thousand people speak the language fluently (see this question on StackExchange). This means that looking at the amount of fluent speakers is not the way to go.
In addition, there is still a problem of non-neutrality. The idea of an IAL is that it provides ‘neutral ground’ for the two speakers that use it. However, most IALs aren’t entirely neutral. Most languages are created based on certain biases, preconceptions and rules provided by their makers; no unrestricted choices took place.
Specifically, most IALs are designed a posteriori (meaning: based on other languages). For instance, Esperanto is quite Euro-centric, because many of the words are based on European languages. Consider these words and you can surely see their English, Russian, Italian and other counterparts: Saluton (Hello), gratulon (congratulations), bieron (beer), nokton (night), pacon (peace), parolas (speaks), nedankinde (you’re welcome, “not worthy of thanks”).
While this makes the language easier to learn for many speakers of European languages, it also makes it more difficult to learn for anyone who currently speaks a non-European language. Chinese or Arabic speakers will find it difficult not just to learn the vocabulary (which does not relate to anything they know), but also to learn the pronunciation (which again, is entirely different from what they know).
Evidently, there is a trade-off here. Esperanto is relatively easy to learn for millions of people from in and around Europe, but this comes with difficulties for non-Europeans. So the alternative is to design an IALs a priori, or in other words: from scratch. An a priori designed language is equally difficult to learn for any learner, making it more equal or neutral, but also making it much more difficult to learn and have the language adopted by a larger community*.
* Note that there are many more arguments in favor and against certain auxlangs, particularly from a linguistic point of view. I won’t share them here, because I found it difficult to make sense of linguistic concepts such as morphology and suprasegmentals; if you’d like to read more on this topic, here’s an excellent essay on auxlang design.
The True Problem with a Common Language
That, in the end, seems the biggest problem. The issue is not which language we choose. Rather, the question is: How do we get so many people to learn one language simultaneously?
In that sense, global institutions like the EU or UN, are the best venues to promote a single common language. As could be expected, these institutions currently do not support Esperanto or other auxlangs. And although they do support natural languages, even the most popular of those (English) isn’t perfect as a common language, which really is a great example of path dependence.
Evidently, the goal of this essay is not to actually host a large party. Rather, it is to understand how and if we can come to a true global language. But as the auxlang community has already realized, to get there, we need a movement that works from the bottom up. This is because global institutions, world leaders, and big corporations simply have too many competing interests to start promoting a global language in and of themselves.
Considering that the movement for a global language (whether English or Esperanto) is small, this is the main problem. So unfortunately, even if I prepare the party years in advance, I would not be able to get everyone in the same room to speak the same language. However, I now do know that if I want to welcome the greatest amount of people there, the way to go, despite all its irregularities, is to learn perfect English.
Billions of people have been affected by the Coronavirus, one way or another. They’ve been quarantined, told to stay at home, or simply socially distanced themselves. In countries around the world, normal life has come to a stop. Where possible we work from home, we home-school our children, events are postponed, and almost all exercise and leisure activities that take place anywhere else than our own home are cancelled.
It really is a weird time. There’s a lot to say about the (negative) effects of Covid-19 on our health and healthcare, economy, and society at large. But to shine a small little light in the darkness that is our current situation (and news intake), this crisis also offers us time to reflect. Specifically, it allows us to consider whether or not we want to change the world we live in, and how. Or in other words: do we want to push the coronavirus reset button?
Before Corona and After Corona
As a friend of mine put it: there is BC and AC — before and after Corona. While he meant it as a joke, there is some truth in this. Specifically, life is very different before and after social distancing and other (governmental) regulations were put into place. After the virus is eradicated, we may well go back exactly to what we were doing before. However, we could also use this opportunity to re-think and re-shape our society AC.
There is BC and AC — Before Corona and After Corona
And that is what I mean with the coronavirus reset button. In a way, this virus has provided us with an opportunity to see what a different life looks like on different levels.
Specifically, we can ask us ourselves a range of questions. In this article, I will cover just four:
- Should we change the way we relate to one another?
- Should we the way we affect the environment?
- Should we change the way we govern?
- And should we change the way we value our economy and specific jobs in it?
Resetting life on a personal level: Bregman’s Humankind
Let’s start with question number one. One book that has made major headlines recently in the Netherlands is Humankind: A New History of Human Nature (in Dutch: De Meeste Mensen Deugen). The book has been a bestseller for several months, and the English version (with this specific title) will be published in May.
In the book, the journalist Rutger Bregman explains that we, as people, are inherently good. Despite fights, feuds, wars, murderers, thieves and people who hurt others, our nature is to do and be good.
In times like these, our nature to do good shows. The amount of people that want to volunteer in this time is incredible. For example, the UK’s National Health Service called for up to 250,000 volunteers, and over 400,000 people signed up in under 24 hours*.
And on a local level, similar projects are taking place. I’ve seen new websites that help consumers buy from local shops; a Dutch company sends flowers to socially distanced elderly; and an online hackathon that intends to kickstart new crisis-fighting companies.
In my own neighborhood, where quite some elderly live, we have a Whatsapp group of over 20 people who can help others with doing groceries or other tasks.
It’s incredible that all these projects and work of people wanting to ‘do good’ takes place on every level and in every country. Often, the supply of help and volunteers is much greater than the demand.
In this way, the crisis presents us with a reset button for how we relate to each other. For how we define being part of a bigger picture: of society. It would be great if we can keep this momentum going, and if we can build a habit out of helping each other. To not just help each other in time of need — but to keep volunteering or doing something for someone else selflessly even After Corona.
* See this Guardian article.
The Coronavirus and the Environment
Arguably, the virus has had an even bigger impact on the environment than on society. The water in Venetian canals is so clear you can actually see fish. The use of coal, oil, and other fossil fuels has dropped, and greenhouse emissions have fallen rapidly.
Nitrogen Dioxide (NO₂) levels in particular have fallen. NO₂ is a gas that is mostly produced by traffic and as such is both an indicator of economic activity as well as greenhouse gas emissions.
Obviously, this is great. It is awesome to see pictures of nature reclaiming human spaces; from the fish in Venice to dolphins coming back to ports; wild mountain lions in the city of Boulder in Colorado; boars in Barcelona; leopards in the Eastern Ghats in India; etc.
But the question is: will we use our reset button opportunity to (continue to) do right by nature? And while we may indeed redefine the way we see relate to each other and help one another, I’m afraid that the answer to this question is ‘no’.
Once we’re in the AC period, we will likely go back to our old ways. Back to consuming coal, oil, gas in a thousand different ways. And at this moment, I don’t have a hopeful message to share here.
If we want to go back to our growing economies, globalised world, and the ease with which we’re used to consume international goods and travel, there’s relatively little hope for the environment in the short-term.
The Virus’ Impact on Governance
Interestingly, the virus also provides us with an opportunity to reset certain aspects of the way we govern. The historian Harari (who wrote the best-sellers Sapiens and Homo Deus) recently published an excellent essay in the Financial Times on the world after coronavirus.
His point is that when it comes to governing, we now face two major choices:
- Totalitarianism or citizen empowerment?
- Nationalism or global solidarity?
Totalitarianism or Citizen Empowerment?
Totalitarianism covers the governmental model of a country such as China, that uses far-reaching surveillance methods to keep an eye on (the health of) its citizens.
The upside of this surveillance is certainly that China has been able to fend off the virus rather quickly. The downside, as Harari points out, is that this is a slippery slope:
The same technology that identifies coughs could also identify laughs
And once a government or party has additional power, it will not relinquish it easily. Even in cases where powers were first temporary (such as in a crisis), these powers may well be extended after the crisis is over.
The alternative to surveilling all aspects of the population is to empower citizens — to give citizens the power and responsibility to work together with governmental agencies to tackle the coronavirus or other systemic threats, by for instance sharing healthcare data voluntarily. Unfortunately, it seems that this is the exception rather than the rule.
Nationalism or Global Solidarity?
The second choice Harari shares relates to how we go about sharing data, defensive strategies and resources globally.
On the one hand, so far, many countries have acted in their self-interest. For instance, the government of the United States is using the 1950 Defense Production Act to ensure that masks and other healthcare equipment produced by American companies abroad (such as 3M*) will not export such masks elsewhere.
Similarly, the Chinese government has been accused of hoarding medical equipment, to sell back to governments around the world against inflated prices or ‘BC prices’ depending on that government’s relation to the country.
Clearly, these are two examples among many. But on the other hand there are also examples of global solidarity: China, Russia, Turkey, and the EU have all (also) provided medical aid to other countries.
Unfortunately, such initiatives may not be so altruistic. Rather, as Foreign Policy notes, often a country provides medical assistance in order to acquire positive PR and strengthen political ties.
This crisis provides a way to share resources with people around the world, who are all facing the same threats. However, governments have certainly not fostered solidarity, so instead it seems to be ‘up to the people’.
* See the New York Times’ Trump Seeks to Block 3M Mask Exports. Plus here’s a fun fact about 3M: the company is also the inventor and parent company of the post-it note.
The Coronavirus & Valuing Vital Professions
An economic crisis, any economic crisis, also gives us time to consider which jobs really are important, and which are less so.
In this particular crisis, we see that health workers are particularly vital to our society and therefore economy. But even in other economic crises (such as the one of 2008), we will find that certain jobs carry more weight, and are vital for a well-functioning society.
Whether you’re working in the healthcare sector, in a supermarket, as a cleaner or in logistics, certain sectors and jobs are inherently more important for society than others.
This relates to David Graeber’s concept, essay and book called Bullshit Jobs. In Bullshit Jobs, Graeber describes the different kinds of jobs that are essentially ‘bullshit’; they offer relatively little and sometimes no value at all to a company, sector or society at large.
Although these bullshit jobs in and of themselves are an issue, more important here is the book’s notion that as society, we provide high salaries for more bullshit jobs, and lower salaries for vital jobs such as the ones mentioned above.
After all, lawyers and bankers make lots of money; but in a crisis like this, we all rely on the (often selfless) work of cleaners, healthcare workers, and teachers.
So in this sense, the coronavirus provides us with a reset button in the way we think about the economy, jobs, and the value that specific jobs create for our society.
Indeed, we need to start providing additional pay to people who work in vital sectors; not as a ‘thank you’ for their current work in these times of need, but as an extra motivator and incentive for the career force of the future.
The Coronavirus Reset Button: Will We Press It?
So the question is: If we have this Big Red Coronavirus Reset Button, will we press it?
- Will we, as society, keep being proper citizens and help each other in times of need?
- Will we see this as an opportunity to cut greenhouse gas emissions drastically and do right by nature?
- Will we empower citizens rather than centralizing power further in the hands of the few, and look beyond our borders to see that people in other places are also simply people in need?
- And will we start valuing vital sectors, and make sure that there is never a shortage of teachers, cleaners, healthcare workers or other vital professions?
….will we press the button?
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Not too long ago, I spoke with a social geographer who is an expert in doing field research. He said that in social geographical research (e.g. research into questions like “What are the current needs of citizens in a specific district of a city?”), there’s a problem with most people with a university education. Specifically, these people, who often work for the university or local government, prefer to stay behind their computer. They want to send out an online survey to citizens, get the answers, and then get into the nitty-gritty details of analyzing those answers. The goal is to write up a report, hand it over to a colleague, and then do it all over again.
The issue, you may see, is that these researchers never come face-to-face with the citizens themselves. They never really talk to the people who they write their reports about. And this conversation made me think of startup founders and entrepreneurs, who often face the exact same issue. Startups fail. And startup founders fail a lot. And although there is a variety of frameworks to mitigate this, one main reason why startups fail is exactly why social geographical research often does not work: just like researchers, startup founders do not speak to their customers; not often enough or not in the right way.
The Problem Statement: Failing Startups
So the problem is clear: Startups fail. Generally, between 80% and 90% of startups do not exist anymore 20 years after their founding. This is not necessarily limited to new businesses alone. Whether it’s startups created by larger companies (intrapreneurship) or startups created by new entrepreneurs, they all often fail.
And you could say that it’s not that big of an issue. After all, entrepreneurs know they face significant risks, and still there seem to be plenty of entrepreneurs willing to take such risks. Although there could be even more entrepreneurs (and we could promote entrepreneurship in Europe particularly), innovation is thriving.
Yet, there could be even more innovation. We could have more innovative new companies disrupting markets and offering new and exciting products. We could have more technologies, more ways to connect, improve our lives and the lives of others and those in need.
And if we focus not just on promoting entrepreneurship, but rather on making sure that those who do take the entrepreneurial plunge fail less often, the result should be exactly that. Very generally, the more we can ensure that startups do not fail, the better it is for society at large.
Why Startups Fail
Although I started this article with pointing to a main reason why startups fail, at first sight it isn’t easy to make this conclusion. After all, there are many varied reasons why startups fail: A company hasn’t figured out the problem space and solution space; it hasn’t found the right market for its product; it runs out of ways to finance itself; the founders can’t decide how to divide the pie; or there’s an entirely different factor at play.
The point is, there are millions of reasons and factors that cause startups to fail. And certainly, many of those factors are outside of the control of policy makers, the founders themselves, or people like myself who try to do a little bit of educating.
But we can make some generalizations. While there are often factors that are outside of the control of a founder, there are also factors that are inside their control and yet cause their startup to fail. So whether it’s the failure of finding the right market — not offering the right product to the right people, or not doing what your customers want, these things all come down to one thing: not talking to customers, and/or not doing so in the right way.
The Build Trap
A lot has been said and written about talking to customers. And it makes sense; just like the social geographer, if we’re trying to improve the lives of a specific group of people — we first need to talk to them. We have to understand their needs, wishes, hopes, dreams, habits, connections, and really get to know who they are.
But it’s so easy to fall in what Melissa Perri calls The Build Trap. Many starting entrepreneurs I speak, don’t start with the customer in mind. Rather, they start with an idea of a product or service. For them (and I’ve also belonged to this group), it’s easy to simply ‘start building’.
Once you have an idea, why not make it true? But before you know it, you’re a year down the road and still haven’t showed your product to anyone who wasn’t a direct friend or relative.
In other words, it’s very easy to get into a working process where you’re focussing on the product: you’re building, building, building — instead of showing, showing, showing (or in Lean Startup lingo: testing, measuring, validating).
Escaping The Build Trap
So how do you escape the Build Trap? Melissa Perri recommends a few different ways in her book. But as stated, there are many frameworks and methodologies to build startups the right way. The Lean Startup is one, working agile is another. By repeated sprints, the idea is that you get more feedback and improve the product over time on the basis of direct feedback rather than delivering everything at the end.
But regardless of what framework you choose, it really comes down to this: Talking to customers. For example, there are plenty of companies who work agile, but still fall into a build trap. They use sprints, review the product every week (at the Sprint Review), and feel that they’re on the right track. But as long as you don’t speak to customers regularly, and speak to customers in the right way*, you could well deliver an expensive product after a year of building agile, and still have no customers to speak of.
So the point is: escaping the Build Trap requires a shift in thinking — and thinking more about your customers. And even though many people (like myself) indeed like to sit in front of their computer, it’s incredibly important to not only start talk to customers at the beginning, but to keep speaking to customers every step of the way.
* Note that there’s much more to say about talking to customers in the right way. If you want a quick pointer, I recommend reading The Mom Test, which shows exactly what questions to (not) ask potential customers.
One Main Reason Why Startups Fail: Not Speaking to Customers
If you ever participate in a Startup Weekend (which I definitely recommend you do), there’s one sentence that gets thrown around a lot. It is this: Get Out of the Building.
The idea is that you have to get out of the building to validate your business idea, product or service. You can’t make sure that people want to buy it by not interacting with potential customers and simply sitting in front of your computer. This is particularly true when working with such a short timeframe as a Startup Weekend, but it holds true for any startup. As founders, we have to get out of the building, and we have to do it regularly.
So if you already have a startup, let this serve as a reminder. Make sure to book those ‘talk-to-customer sessions’ in your agenda. Alternatively, if you’re just starting a business, think about how to best approach your customers, and talk to them regularly. As a result, I’m sure your chance of failure will significantly diminish.
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People are inherently economic creatures. Not ‘economic’ as in ‘cheap’, but ‘economic’ as in ‘taking part in economic transactions’. In this sense, we’re Homo Economicus. Every day we do a number of transactions. We go to the supermarket to buy our groceries, order a new tv on Amazon, or try to sell a new product to one of our customers.
What these transactions all have in common, is that there is a price. There is a price for the groceries you just paid, and there is a price for the TV you just bought, and there is a price for the service you’re selling to your company’s customers.
And prices are super interesting. Because a price is not just an arbitrary number. A price is a signal. A signal entering your brain, providing information you use to make decisions. Whether you’re on the supply or the demand side of the transaction.
But this signal, this information, this data does not stand on its own. And although (some) economists like to say we’re rational beings, we aren’t. The way we see prices, and the way we use price information in our decision process is highly subjective, and it’s dependent on the context of the transaction. So while some may say that we’re homo economicus, we’re a being of a particular irrational kind.
Irrational Pricing: An Example
How can you quickly see that people are irrational when it comes to prices? Well, just start comparing products you don’t usually compare.
Suppose for instance that you’ve found this new great game on your phone. Something like Angry Birds. It’s fun, engaging, slightly addicting, and a great distraction from work when needed. The only downside is — it’s full of advertisements. Do you spend the €10 required to remove the ads and not be annoyed?
“Of course not! €10 is way too much for an app, let alone a simple mobile game”, you say. So instead, you grit your teeth and sit through these annoying ads every few minutes. Over the lifetime of you playing the game, perhaps you’ve watched a total of 3 hours of advertisements, but that’s totally worth it because you saved those 10 euros.
Now it’s two days later and you’re planning to have a drink with some friends. You go out, order a drink and happily spend €20 on a night. Depending on your preference, perhaps you spend €10 for the first cocktail alone, and then a couple of drinks after that.
Why is it that we happily spend this money on one night of drinks, and would strongly hesitate to spend half in order to be less annoyed and have more fun playing Angry Birds? If we were rational beings, we would think of exactly what time or enjoyment benefit each of those would bring, and decide for one or the other (and probably the ‘no-ad Angry Birds’ would be a no-brainer).
But we aren’t, and we usually don’t compare two transactions that would otherwise not be related (other than the money used in paying comes from the same bank account). But if we do, you see that irrational pricing is our modus operandi.
Different Ways to Price Things
So though we are not rational beings, and there is much more context to a transaction than just the price, we do sometimes need to price things. We need to put a price on things we sell, and consider whether we think a price is fair to pay for things we buy.
And there are several ways to price things. Business studies give us a few options. For instance, in competition-based pricing, you price the thing you sell on the basis of competition. Simply look at what others sells the product or service for, and choose the same price or go a bit lower or higher. In cost-based pricing, you look at the costs you make in producing the product and adding a percentage for other costs and profit. Using value-based pricing you would look at not what it costs, but at the perceived value of the product and what the customer is ready to pay. And certainly, there are a number of other pricing strategies (think freemium pricing, penetration pricing, dynamic pricing, etc.)
Whatever strategy you choose, many of these work pretty well if you’re on the selling side. If you’re a freelancer, it’s easiest to take a look at what other freelancers change and base your rate on that. Alternatively, if you manufacture products, cost-based pricing may make more sense.
So these things work well as sellers, but we don’t really explicitly use them as buyers. We never look at what a an app or round of drinks has cost to build — or even what the value we get out of this app or these drinks is worth to us. As such, this is another example of irrational pricing.
Nonetheless, we do use competition-based pricing. Take the app example; we find it expensive because we normally never have to pay for an app. So we do check out the competition and base our decision on that. In fact, we use a reference.
Referencing and Price Anchoring
And perhaps that’s the most interesting aspect of pricing and how we view prices. We simply cannot handle one price on its own. Suppose for instance that you go to another country where you don’t know the local currency. The first thing you do after landing is get a meal, and you soon hear that it costs 50 Rai stones. Now how do you respond? Is that expensive? Cheap? Just the right price?
If we don’t have other prices to use as a reference point, we’re lost. We need reference points to determine whether something is the right price. And from a rational point of view, it makes sense — it’s only when we know what a currency is worth, that we can determine what we want to pay for an item (a meal in this case) in that currency.
However, we really, really like these reference prices. Irrationally so. Take for instance a reference price taken from the same transaction; let’s say that you’re engaged in a transaction where pricing is not fixed, but based on negotiation. Perhaps you need to conduct salary negotiations, you’re buying things on a second-hand market, or you need to haggle for a souvenir in a Moroccan souk.
The party providing the first price sets the reference point: the anchor. Now when the other party does a counter-offer, he/she does that with the first anchor price in mind. And the weird thing is, you cannot undo you taking notice of that first reference point.
This is called anchoring and is in fact a cognitive bias (as also mentioned in the really interesting book Thinking Fast and Slow). But this type of irrational pricing is really difficult to overcome. If you’re selling items on a second-hand market and someone offers €1.50 for your €100 boots, would you still ask for the €50 price you had in mind? Probably not — you can’t undo having heard the €1.50 offer.
Homo Economicus Irrationals
So where does that leave us? Well, perhaps you already knew this, but we really are irrational beings. And it’s easy to see that we are irrational when it comes to pricing things* — whether you compare two unrelated transactions with one another, look at how we value things from a buyer perspective, or consider price anchoring.
On the one hand, that makes pricing slightly more difficult. Because people don’t actually act in according to what economic theory often tells us. Indeed, you could say we’re homo economicus irrationalis**.
But on the other, you can also take advantage of the fact that we’re irrational beings. And make irrational pricing rational.
For example, the next time you buy something, consider the value it will bring you — and whether that value warrants the price asked. Alternatively, use it in a work setting. If you’re pricing yourself as a freelancer, or if you’re in salary negotiations at a new job, and you have to indicate your previous salary, try to bend the truth a little and increase it. That salary will be the reference point for the negotiation; and your new employer will now start the negotiation in reference to that higher price.
* And I didn’t even mention the advantage of prices that end on a 9, like €1.99, which apparently actually really increase sales!
** Note also that in economics, the term ‘homo economicus’ is often used to mean economically rational beings, so perhaps this isn’t the right way of putting it either.
Just like anyone, I want to be happy. But for a long time, I wasn’t actively thinking about what would or would not make me happy. And for some reason, over the last years I’ve grown more interested in the topic. It comes back in some of the books I read and articles I write (e.g. on Strengths and Happiness).
Happiness however, is an elusive concept. It’s not easy to understand, pursue, or ‘have’. And as someone who likes to strive for success, happiness seems to be particularly elusive. Specifically, I found 3 paradoxes of happiness and success that make it difficult for people who strive for success to be happy, and the other way around. So what are these, and how do we manage them?
What is Success?
Suppose that you could be super successful in any area of your life with just one push of a button. Would you do it? You probably would. Success is a positive state, and while not everyone very actively strives for it, you would accept it when it comes to you.
Apparently, success is a positive thing. But if we talk about success, what do we mean? It can be success in your career, success in love, success in friendships, success in life. And success in each of these aspects of our lives (and many more) can again be sub-divided. For instance, what do we mean with success in love? Is it that your partner is beautiful, or that he/she is great with kids? Or perhaps success in love is simply having a lot of people fall in love with you?
So how we define success differs from person to person. For example, every day I strive to learn more, to be a kinder person, to be more extraverted, to grow my income, to become a more loving and positive future husband, to positively impact more people at the meetups that I organize, etc.
For me, these things constitute striving for success. So more generally, I see success an an improvement of the way things currently are. And I suppose that’s something I and many others want.
What is Happiness?
With that out of the way, let’s turn to happiness. We all have an idea of what happiness is. In positive psychology (“the scientific study of the ‘good life’“), happiness can be defined as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile” (Lyubomirsky).
That’s still a rather broad definition. But it’s important to note that happiness is not feeling good all of the time. It’s not the same as pleasure — like the pleasure we may get from sex, food, sugar, or drugs. Rather, happiness is an enduring state of contentment and feeling good; something that occurs over a longer period of time.
Paradox 1: Being Happy and Striving for Success
So if we use these two definitions: an improvement of the way things currently are, and an enduring state of contentment, then it becomes clear how difficult it is to combine happiness and success.
This is where we get to the first paradox: How exactly can we combine happiness and success, or personal development? How can we be content with what we have now, and yet strive to become our better selves?
In my opinion, you can’t really be ‘fully’ happy or perhaps ‘fully’ content, and strive for growth, personal development, and indeed, success. It’s an antithesis, a paradox. Because if you would be truly happy with the current state of affairs, why change them?
Paradox 2: Giving Up Happiness to Become Successful
We find a second paradox if we look at how we reach a state of success. In particular, in order to be successful, you sometimes have to give up your happiness.
Certainly, some people do what they love and get to the top regardless. But in many cases, you first have to be a bit less happy in order to achieve more success.
Obvious examples of this are high-demanding jobs; like lawyers at prestigious law firms, or management consultants at one of the Big Three. People who have these jobs often work for more than 60 hours per week, and do this for 5-15 years in order to get to the final destination: To Become ‘Partner’. Even if you really like your job, I doubt that anyone would be happy working 60+-hour weeks.
This is just one example, but we can think of many more. Suppose you have a baby that cries a lot; this may mean you have to get through several years of sleepless nights, before you can actually build a good bond with your child. Or perhaps you have to suffer at the gym for 100 hours before you really get in shape and can reap the rewards.
These examples may or may not be relevant to you, but it’s clear that sometimes, in order to be more successful, you have to be flexible with how happy you want to be.
Paradox 3: Goals and Buddhist Equanimity
The third and related paradox is found when discussing your goals in life. But first, I have to explain something about Buddhism and the idea of detachment and equanimity.
According to The Positive Psychology of Buddhism and Yoga (Levine), equanimity is “a sublime acceptance of the widest range of life’s alternatives. This attitude of equanimity is another form of the Buddhist ideal of detachment. The Buddhists teach: don’t be attached to winning, to comforts, to particular circumstances of life. Rather, be accepting of a wide range of possibilities.”
So it seems that this equanimity is a very useful tool if you want to become happy. After all, if you can accept and are truly content with any situation, you should be pretty happy, right? So why shouldn’t we try to be more equanimous? Well, if you are somewhat like me and strive for success, you often pick specific goals to reach — and this is where the third paradox comes into play.
Here, the book provides an interesting example: Suppose you’re a great flutist. Your goal is to play professionally, and this seems to be within reach. Detachment then, is to learn to let go, should it be necessary. To understand and acknowledge that your fluting career can be over in a whim — if you break your finger or are not deemed good enough to join the orchestra. To be able to walk away, without hard feelings.
But this seems impossible. Can you really approach life with equanimity while striving for grand goals? Can you dedicate your life to chasing a dream and still be satisfied and happy when it all falls apart? According to the book, devotion to a goal and attachment to it are two different things, but I disagree. In my opinion, you cannot fully devote yourself to something without also becoming attached. Or in other words, you cannot strive for success without becoming less happy if you don’t reach it.
Managing Happiness and Success
Considering these 3 paradoxes, how do we go about reaching a state of happiness and success at the same time? As mentioned, this is difficult to do. Luckily, there are (at least) 3 ways in which we can ‘ease our suffering’ and be happier — even when striving for improvements in our lives and success.
First, we can practice the mentioned equanimity. Being fully accepting of any and all situations is impossible, but we can try and be more accepting than we currently are. Whether it rains or shines, accept it. Try to accept the situation you’re in right now, and the situation you will be in tomorrow.
Second, we can practice gratitude. Practicing gratitude (which has a scientifically-proven positive impact on happiness) is the act of writing down (or thinking about) things you’re thankful for in your life. Practicing gratitude makes you pause for a bit. To not consider future states and the goals or success you hope to reach — but instead to consider the things in your current life you are content and happy with.
And third, we can actively try to live in the present. After all, the more you’re focussed on success, the more your head is in the future. I often think about ‘what will happen when I get rich’, or ‘what will happen when I get married’, or ‘what will happen when…’ But our lives are now. Our lives are now! We can work towards success, wish for it, and do everything to get to a certain place, as if our lives depended on it. But it’s not the goal that we should be happy with, but the road towards it. And after all is said and done, there’s only a limited amount of things we can exercise control over. We might be dead tomorrow. Or as Tyler Durden says in Fight Club:
This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.
We don’t like to talk about finance. We won’t easily share our income publicly, or even privately with those closest to us. And there are a lot of other strange aspects to finance and salary — not just that we don’t disclose it, but also how we handle money (not always rationally or in a way that is in our best interest) and the way we acquire money (by doing jobs we may not like).
One particular thing about acquiring money that has always confused me is the concept of salary progression and the importance of your age. Specifically, the way salaries progress over time at the same employer is broken. Let me tell you why.
Factors in Salary Progression
Salary progression at any employer currently looks a little bit like this. If you get a raise, it is often due to one of four things: 1) increased seniority (basically: you’re getting older), 2) a good performance rating, 3) a good result on an assessment of a specific skill, or 4) getting a new qualification, like a certificate or MBA.
Most of these make sense. After all, the idea is that if one of these variables go up, you must become better at your job which warrants higher pay. This also applies to seniority — the idea that the older you are, the more experience you have, thus the better work you deliver.
However, while performance ratings, assessments and new qualifications are strongly tied to increased output, seniority is not. I believe that except for inflation, there is not a whole lot to say for factoring in seniority in salary progression, as it does not necessarily result in increased output or productivity.
The Case for Output-Based Salary
There is a clear case for basing salaries on output, performance, or ‘how well you do your job’. When I worked as a civil servant a few years ago, one colleague always came in at 10am and left at 4pm. He/she didn’t really do much, and most of our colleagues didn’t even know what he/she was working on. Nonetheless, I’m sure that he/she got paid at least twice as much as me and others who just started their career but were working hard.
And this is no exception. Friends regularly tell me about older colleagues who deliver bad results but get paid much more than them. And it makes sense. If seniority indeed factors into salary progression, and if we consider that previous generations (used to) work for the same employer for 40 years, then it’s no mystery why there are people who get paid a lot but don’t necessarily do their job well.
Certainly, there are some jobs in which seniority does not play a role at all. A while ago I tweeted about this, and someone indicated that the salaries of consultants and sales people are generally not based on seniority. Specifically, in sales you get a base salary plus a bonus for sales made. And consultants often get paid extra based on how well they did last year. But for most professions and employers, how old you are is pretty important in determining your salary.
Why Seniority Matters… Sometimes
Now there are some things to say for factoring seniority in salary decisions. If you have more experience in one job, we can expect you do to better. But if that is the important argument, shouldn’t we directly assess performance instead of indirectly assessing this on the basis of age?
Another reason not to disregard seniority in salaries is that we do usually spend more, the older we get. We may get get children, and want to buy a house and support our family. However, much of our increased spending also comes from lifestyle inflation. If we disregard getting a family and perhaps medical costs, when we get older we don’t necessarily need to spend more. It’s just that we get used to certain luxuries and that ‘downgrading’ our lifestyle is difficult.
Lastly and most importantly, inflation is here to stay. This means that a salary increase of 3% (approximately the same as inflation) leaves you with the exact same purchasing power as last year. So if your salary doesn’t go up with more than 3%, then the amount of things, products or experiences you can buy actually decreases. So it makes sense to increase your salary by at least 3% every year. But we should name this for what it is: an inflation bonus.
So what would this new type of salary progression look like? We could look at how companies that work with remote workers pay salaries. Often, this revolves around a base salary that is multiplied with a number that reflects your local costs of living. Take the social media company Buffer as an example, as it publishes the salaries of its team (and accompanying multipliers) publicly.
In the case of this new merit-based salary progression (or ‘merit pay’), we could do the same. You could have a base salary that is based on your output and how well you do, and then a little bit extra depending on how long you’ve been around. This extra should account for inflation and increased cost of living when you’re older.
Change in Salary Progression = Change in Mindset
If we consider that salary progression is broken, that seniority should not play such a big role, and that merit pay is a good alternative, then we should be able to easily change the way our salaries are determined, right?
Unfortunately, this is not so easy. Because the most difficult obstacle here is that we need to change our mindset. From a company point of view, employers should not just be willing to determine salaries (more) on the basis of output, but should also actively decrease someone’s salary if their output decreased compared to last year.
And if we want this to be accepted by employees, they should also change their mindset and be able to change spending patterns. But we are all so used to seeing our salaries only go up, that it will be incredibly difficult to accept that it can also go down. This again relates to lifestyle inflation; if you get used to a certain lifestyle, it can be very difficult to downgrade. People are simply not so flexible. Even though being able to not just increase, but also decrease salaries and spending, is exactly what we need.
One aspect of the dilemmas of thirty-somethings, which I wrote about in my newsletter a while ago, is a focus on perfectionism and ‘wanting it all’. For example, we want a great and kind partner who is good witih children and meets all our expectations. Or we want a career that is fulfilling, enjoyable, important for the planet, and right in the center of an Ikigai venn diagram.
One cause of this perfectionism can be found in our broad interests. We’re interested in the world and all its different aspects. We’re adventurous and want to experience everyone and everything. This, in itself, is not a bad thing. If we look at our lives and compare them to previous generations, we’re lucky. Our world has become such an interesting place. But broad interests can also have a negative impact — as they can lead to not just perfectionism, but also the so-called Shiny Object Syndrome. This is something I’ve struggled with in the past, so in this article, I’ll discuss what this concept entails, where it comes from, and how essentialism can be a cure.
The Problem of Broad Interests
As an entrepreneur or someone who creates new things, broad interests and wanting (to do) it all can become a problem. Consider for instance that you want to build a new product. Perhaps you really like cooking, so you want to create a great cutting board made out of solid wood.
You start by creating a design, a logo, and creating a pre-order functionality on your new website. After a month or two of hard work, you don’t see any sales. That annoys you, and you don’t know what to do now.
Simultaneously, you’ve been reading a bit about importing products from China and selling these in your home market. This also seems like a very fun concept to pursue. Plus, there is so much information to find online on how to do this — so it might just be easier to start from scratch and build an import-export business instead.
Unfortunately, if you make this choice, it’s likely you end up with no successful business at all. Because soon after you choose to ditch the first project and start working on THE GREAT TRADING COMPANY, chances are, you think of something else to do. An idea that fits your interests even better, or is an even better business opportunity.
Shiny Object Syndrome
This idea of quickly switching focus is also called Shiny Object Syndrome. It’s a syndrome or dilemma that particularly new and aspiring entrepreneurs encounter, though you can also detect it as an employee.
Also called Entrepreneurial ADD, it’s something that you feel when you meet other people working on interesting businesses or ideas. For instance, after an entrepreneurship meetup, you may find yourself thinking about all the great businesses you heard about — and why you should emulate those, instead of continuing to work on your boring same-day-every-day small startup.
It’s easy to see why it’s called Shiny Object Syndrome. Anytime you encounter something new — whether it’s a project, idea or general area that interests you — you view it as a shiny new object. Just like a crow*, this new object is way more interesting than any other object that currently holds your attention.
And that’s an issue. In a meeting at work, it can be slightly disruptive or annoying when someone wants to talk about a new initiative they’re excited about but that isn’t on the agenda. But if your goal is to actually build or make something (whether it’s a business or a piece of art), this kind of Entrepreneurial ADD can be a real pain. That is because you often end up with nothing of value. Instead of 1 successful (but old) business, you now have 2 or more half-finished businesses that don’t work at all.
* Note that the idea that crows collect shiny objects is an urban myth! According to this amazing FAQ about crows.
The Cure: Essentialism and Focussing on Less
If you feel like you are suffering from something, you go look for a cure, right? In this case, the cure to Shiny Object Syndrome is essentialism. Made popular by McKeown’s book by the same name, the idea of essentialism is a focus on what’s important and the ‘disciplined pursuit of less’.
It’s saying ‘no’ to a lot of things, and knowing exactly when and for what to say no (and of course, to say yes). McKeown describes this as ‘becoming the Chief Editing Officer’. It’s asking yourself the question: What’s really important? If you know that, you realize that you have to edit away things of lesser importance for a greater good. Alternatively, in the words of Stephen Covey (of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People fame):
The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.
And that is hard to do. But the reason for focussing on the main thing is not just that it keeps you from being distracted. Rather, it’s the result from this ‘not being distracted-ness’ that’s important. Because by doing so, you can give much more attention to one object, which results in far greater progress. In the book, this idea is simplified by the following picture.
I’ve been thinking about this drawing a lot because it’s so simple and yet so perfectly describes the benefit of focussing on less. Specifically, if we combine all our efforts that we normally use to focus on 10 topics into just 1 topic, our progression increased tenfold. So whether you’re composing piano music, writing a book, building a software product, or baking cookings; if your heart is in it, and you persist in focussing on this one thing, day after day after day, the result will be amazing.
It’s Easier Said Than Done
So with the idea of Essentialism, it should be a piece of cake to deal with Shiny Object Syndrome! Right? Of course, things are often easier said than done, and that’s definitely something we all experience. Even after reading Essentialism, it’s not easy to truly make the right and unrestricted choices. Because if you’re interested in a lot of things, how do you decide which of your pursuits stay and which others have to go?
If I’m honest with myself, I should probably decide to ditch this blog, my newsletter, learning Chinese, learning to program in Python, the Enter Network meetups I organize, or even all of them simultaneously. That would give me much more time to pursue what’s truly important; though I’m not really clear about what that is yet.
But even if I can be this honest with myself and stop working on all these different projects, the difficult thing about essentialism is not that you have to make the right choice once — but that you have to make the right choices every day. To make essentialism not a one-time thing, but to weave it into your life. To keep focussing on the right things, and to keep yourself from pursuing other things you’re interested in. And unfortunately, I don’t think habit tracking will help you here.
Do We Need a Cure for Shiny Object Syndrome?
So essentialism can be a cure for Shiny Object Syndrome, but we should also consider whether we actually need a cure. After all, there are some benefits of this ‘syndrome’; for instance, sometimes it’s good to stop working on a project you don’t believe in.
Specifically, the fact that you want to start working on something new like the import-export business may not be caused by its new-ness, but rather by the fact that deep down you don’t believe in your amazing cutting board product anymore. In other words, sometimes we do need to ditch a project. Not because it’s distracting, but simply because it’s not what we thought it would be.
In addition, there are real benefits to having broad interests. It means that you’re curious about the world around you. And perhaps this results in you learning new languages, engaging in new adventures, new relationships, and new experiences.
So while we can and should give Shiny Object Syndrome and Essentialism all the attention that they deserve, we should consider this: having broad interests makes our world even more intruiging than it already is.
Habit tracking can be immensely valuable. But other blogs often say it’s a cure-all (which it isn’t) or they may promote a (paid-for) habit tracking tool. In my opinion, you don’t need a pricey tool, and you don’t need to go through difficult steps to get started with habit tracking.
I’ve been tracking my habits for over 2 years, and have always used a simple Google Sheet. So in this article, I’m sharing my habit tracker, and my honest experiences with habit tracking.
Do you want to get started right away? Click here to find my simple Google Sheets Habit Tracker, make a copy and get started!
Alternatively, if you want to read my honest guide to habit tracking and find out more about:
- Habit tracking,
- How habit tracking works,
- Which habits you can track, and
- The ‘habit of habit tracking’,
Then read on!
What is Habit Tracking?
So what is habit tracking? Well, the concept is easy. You use a tool (like a spreadsheet) to track whether you did or did not ‘do’ a certain habit. The goal of tracking your habits is to either implement a new habit that you did not have before — or improve or increase an existing habit.
That means that habits like brushing your teeth are probably not worth tracking, because you pretty much do them every day. However, a habit like eating healthy can be interesting to track. After all, most of us find it quite difficult to consistently eat healthy — and perhaps it’s not something you are currently doing.
Whatever habit you choose to track, that at the end of each day or week, you write down in your habit tracking tool whether you did or did not do that particular habit. Over time, you can discern trends in your habit performance and improve on that basis.
How Does Habit Tracking Work?
In my experience, habit tracking works by actively providing you with reminders to do a particular habit. Provided that you can start the habit of tracking your habits, the habit tracker will remind you where you are with regards to your goal.
Suppose for instance that you have set a goal for yourself: To exercise 3 times per week. Diligently, at the end of each day you fill in your habit tracker and whether or not you exercised that day. Now, halfway through the week, you’ve only exercised once. One look at your habit tracker, and you will instantly see you still have to exercise twice if you want to reach your goal.
Or consider a personal example. When I tracked my habits, I wanted to learn a few words of Chinese every day. I did this by using the HelloChinese app (an app similar to Duolingo). Every evening, I would look at and fill in my habit tracker, and see whether or not I learned some new words. If I had a few days in a row that I didn’t learn Chinese, that provided me with not just a reminder, but also a motivator to actually study the next day and the rest of the week.
Which Habits Should You Track?
From learning a language to exercise and eating healthy, there are endless habits to track. In my personal habit tracker (see below for the Google Sheet template), I tracked 10 different habits, plus the food I ate. These habits included daily meditation, exercise, studying corporate finance, meeting friends, learning Chinese, acting confidently, and a few more.
Obviously, this can be a bit much. If you’re planning to start tracking your habits, I suggest to begin with just a couple: perhaps 2 or 3. Which habits these are, are up to you. However, what I found important were these rules, that may help you choose your first habits to-be-tracked:
Guideline 1: You can quantify the habit (e.g. you learnt Chinese: yes (1) or no (0). Or your confidence level today was between 1-10)
Guideline 2: You can set a specific goal (e.g. you want to do the habit every day, every week, three times per year, etc. Or e.g. you want to reach an average confidence level of 7, etc.)
Guideline 3: You’re the only one who can do the tracking (in other words, you don’t have to rely on others, or ask others to rate you)
With these guidelines, you’ll get off to a good start. Whether it’s learning to play the piano, being kind to strangers, meditating, taking time for your family, being grateful, waking up early, working on a side project, giving compliments, not drinking alcohol, or anything other habit. Simply think of two or three, and move on to the next section!
Which Habit Tracking Tool Should You Use?
Once you find some habits to track, it’s time to look for a habit tracker. There are multiple habit trackers that you can use, from elaborate software tools to apps, or even simple notebooks, like the Habit Journal.
The internet can provide you with more information about which tools work for you. However, I’ve always preferred using a simple Google Sheet (Excel) file. Why? Well, because:
- It’s free,
- You can use Google Sheets from any device and any platform (laptop, phone, tablet, etc.), and
- It’s very easy to use; if you know Excel, then you can use Google Sheets.
So for those of you who want to use Google Sheets, I will share an empty habit tracker below.
A Simple Google Sheets Habit Tracker
If you want to use Google Sheets to track your habits, here is a simple Google Sheets habit tracker. To use it, simple go to ‘file’ and then ‘make a copy’. This will allow you to make a copy that is saved on your drive for personal use.
After making a copy for your personal use, follow these steps:
- Determine the habits you want to track (e.g. meditation, studying a certain subject, exercise, eating healthy, etc.)
- Put these habits into the first row (instead of the text ‘Habit A’, ‘Habit B’, etc.)
- Determine a goal for these habits. For instance: 0.7. This should be between 0 and 1 (0 means you never do it, and 1 means you do it every day). Put these in the second row currently marked: ?
- Start tracking your habits in the 0/1 column. Every day, write down whether you did (1) or did not (0) do a certain habit.
Then, over time, you will be able to see your weekly and monthly averages, and compare that to your goal. This makes this Google Sheets habit tracker super easy and simple to use.
Does Habit Tracking Work?
We’ve already discussed how habit tracking works, but not whether it actually works. In the end, the goal is to implement and improve habits; so does habit tracking help you to do that?
I can only talk from personal experience, but would say that habit tracking certainly works. As mentioned before, consistently tracking your habits provides you with a regular nudge or reminder to do those habits. And over time, you will notice that you also want to actually ‘do’ them. That is not to say that you cannot implement new habits without tracking them, but it certainly helps. Now, any time you look at your habit tracker, you will see your progress — and if it’s not to your liking, it’s easy to change course.
The Habit of Tracking Habits
So if we assume that habit tracking works, that we know which habits to track, and that we have a great Google Sheets-based habit tracker, then why would you stop tracking your habits?
Well, the answer is that the ‘meta habit’ of tracking habits is not easy to uphold. In my experience, after five months of habit tracking I found myself getting less interested. Getting my phone out before going to bed, and noting the habits I did that day, became a bit of a chore. And that turned into a slippery slope. Once I didn’t track my habits for one day, it became easier for me to not do it for two days straight, and so on.
Certainly, you could create a habit tracker to track whether you’re tracking your habits, but that’s a bit much, even for Leonardo DiCaprio (didn’t get it?). Nonetheless, anytime is a good time to start a new habit, even if it’s a meta habit like this one. So I’m confident I will start tracking my habits in the new year, and I would urge you to do so too. Simply use this article and my simple google sheets habit tracker, and off you go!
Meetups, or ‘events hosted around a specific topic’, have gained massive popularity over the last years. The company meetup.com popularized the idea and even trademarked the word ‘meetup’. And currently, companies and individuals around the world host more than 12,000 (!) meetups every day*.
One of these 12 thousand meetups is Enter Network. Started by me, Enter Network is a community for entrepreneurs in and around Utrecht, the Netherlands. We come together every month to discuss topics like social media marketing, recruitment, and startup funding, and to learning from and network with one another.
Now I’ve always been interested in event management. So in the course of organizing these meetups, I’ve encountered a few challenges, such as a low attendance rate. This got me thinking: Should we set up a small fee, to boost attendance rate? In this article, you’ll learn about how we handled this low attendance rate and I’ll advise you whether or not to charge for meetups or other types of events.
* While this number makes it look like Meetup is doing well, there are a lot of controversies surrounding this platform. It was bought by the coworking space multinational WeWork in 2017. WeWork has been in bad weather recently, considering its failure to become a publicly-traded company — as such, it had to cut costs/jobs and is reportedly planning to sell Meetup.com, just two years after having acquired the platform. In addition, Meetup intends to significantly raise prices, and we don’t know yet what that will mean for the Enter Network meetups that I host.
The Bane of Event Organizers: No-Shows
If you take a look at the meetup.com website, you’ll see that the vast majority of meetups are free to attend. In my view, this is great because it lowers the barrier for people to learn something new, volunteer, engage with others, or do whatever the meetup is intended for.
However, a low threshold to attendance also means that there is an incredible low threshold to not show up. After all, you don’t have to pay for a ticket, so not showing up doesn’t have any effect on your personal life. And since Meetup is an online platform, you’re relatively anonymous. You probably don’t know the people organizing the meetup, and so will not face any social backlash from those that now have to deal with fewer people actually attending.
This low threshold to not showing up often translates to a significantly low attendance rate, which we see across the board. For example, some meetup events see massive amounts of people registering, up to even 200 people, while just half or less attend. We’ve personally encountered this issue as well at Enter Network. Our previous events often saw 70-100 people register, and just 25-40 people actually attended. In other words, we had an attendance rate of less than 50%.
As an event organizer, this can be difficult to deal with. If you’re counting on one hundred people to show up to your event, you’ll prepare chairs, drinks, snacks and more for each and everyone of those. With such low attendance rates, it can become a costly and wasteful affair. So how do you solve this?
Boosting Attendance Rate: Charging a Small Fee
One way of solving this for Enter Network, we thought, was to charge for meetups. By asking registered attendees for a small fee, we could hopefully decrease the amount of people that registered but didn’t attend — and in this way boost attendance rate.
With that in mind, we started asking attendees for a €5 admission fee. This would weed out those people who registered but didn’t plan to attend, while ensuring that the bar to attend was still very low.
So after three months of meetups, what’s the conclusion? Since we’ve instituted the fee change in our meetup group, we’ve seen a negative effect on the amount of people who register for an event, but a positive effect on attendance rate.
Before asking for a small fee, we had an attendance rate of around 45%. For example, at one of our previous meetups, 33 people attended out of 73 registered attendees. Now however, we see around 30 people attend out of 40 attendees. In other words, our attendance rate has increased to 70%-80%!
Is Asking a Meetup Fee Worth It?
So it’s clear that a meetup fee boosts attendance rate, but reduces the amount of registered people. That begs the question: Is asking a fee worth it?
For Enter Network, it has generally been worth it. We do see slightly fewer actual attendees, but charging the fee really helps us in knowing how many people will actually attend.
In addition, if you organize an event, you will encounter costs. For instance, if you host such an event through meetup.com, you will need to pay the platform a fee of around $120 per year. Plus you may pay for drinks and snacks, a website, speakers, and other fees. So the fact is, that the small fee you charge for meetup attendees to attend can in fact help offset (a small part of) your costs. That can be another good reason to ask attendees for a fee.
Demonstrating Value by Asking For a Fee
Aside from helping you with the costs of organizing an event plus increasing attendance rate, a charge for meetups may also signal value. However small it is, a fee demonstrates to the attendees that attending the event is actually ‘worth’ something.
It’s something that YOU’ve planned, prepared and organized — all with the goal of delivering value. While it is very noble to give away value for free (and perhaps it’s a vital part in the way you run your business), it actually demonstrates all the hard work you’ve put in. Plus, it may have people actually valuing the event you organize more.
Another Solution: Charging Registrants that Didn’t Attend
But if your goal is purely to increase attendance rate, there are other options. An interesting one is to charge people with a fee when they registered for your event, but didn’t attend. With Enter Network, we haven’t yet tried this. However, I’m positive that it will work, as people are often risk averse and do not want to lose money.
Unfortunately though, charging people that didn’t attend is difficult in practice. Everyone who registers for your event, would also need to provide a payment method — ideally, a credit card — that can be charged after the event. In the case of meetup.com, this isn’t possible, especially not when hosting events in a country (like the Netherlands) where creditcards are less common.
Should You Charge for Meetups? It Depends…
So should you charge for meetups or other events? The answer as always: it depends. If your goal is to get as many people as possible familiar with your meetups (and perhaps your business), then charging a small fee might not be the right choice. After all, even if people don’t show up, more potential attendees will register for your event if it’s free.
However, if you want to increase attendance rate, off-set some of the costs associated with organizing an event, and signal value to attendees, then I would recommend you to charge a (small) meetup fee. This fee then should be in accordance with the event and the value you provide. So charging a €100 fee for a one-hour networking session might not be the best approach. But if you organize an event or meetup (for instance, as a side project), take all these aspects into account, and charge a fair fee for your event, then I’m positive it can help you in the long run.
Recently I re-discovered an interesting concept called path dependence. It came to me after reading the following Tweet, by journalist Jon Stone:
Can you imagine the hysterical reaction if someone had suggested the creation of public libraries today. “For free? how are you going to pay for that, STALIN?”
Considering our current governments which are quite conservative, the idea of public libraries can be preposterous. Most of the parties in power (e.g. in the US or the UK) would not consider providing such a non-vital good (books in this case) to people for free. So how is it possible that public libraries do in fact exist, even though the reigning parties would not consider it good policy? One way of explaining this is with the concept of path dependence. There are a number of different definitions of path dependence, but the one I use here is the idea that a specific product, process or even specific beliefs are in place because of historic use.
This is an incredibly interesting concept, because it can illustrate why something is in place today (such as public libraries) even though it goes against what we currently think is a better alternative or even the best option. In this article, I’ll illustrate the concept of path dependence with three examples.
Path Dependence in Hardware: The QWERTY Keyboard
One of the most famous examples of path dependence is the QWERTY keyboard. Chances are, you are reading this article on a device that uses QWERTY; simply look at the first letters on your keyboard.
This keyboard was created specifically to fix certain errors present in earlier keyboards. These earlier typewriters could jam when specific keys were hit quickly after another — the QWERTY design, created at the end of the 19th century, positioned these keys away from one another, so that the jams didn’t occur.
The story goes that the Dvorak layout*, patented in 1936, was much more efficient than QWERTY. Mr. Dvorak specifically designed this layout for efficiency, and typists trained with Dvorak are said to be up to 74% faster than those using QWERTY.
If this is the case, why then do we currently use the QWERTY keyboard? The reason is path dependence. Once a few companies started manufacturing QWERTY keyboards, and a few people started using them, the standard became an actual standard. If you see people in your vicinity use a QWERTY keyboard, and it’s cheaper than a Dvorak one, the choice is clear.
Even if you know that a Dvorak keyboard is more efficient, it’s not just making the switch itself that is difficult. Certainly, learning to type on a new keyboard layout will be a challenge, but it is doable. However, the path dependence here comes more from network effects, i.e. that everyone uses a QWERTY keyboard. This means for instance that anytime you use a device of someone else, you’ll have to go back to your old QWERTY ways, which makes it even more difficult to make a permanent switch to Dvorak.
Interestingly, even though everyone uses QWERTY vs Dvorak as the main example of path dependence, I do want to let you know that it has received a lot of criticism. Already back in the 1990s, two academics published an article named “The Fable of the Keys“, which demonstrated that there were actually very few efficiency differences between the two keyboard lay-outs. But whether or not it is fully accurate, the story is interesting and does a good job at illustrating path dependence.
* Note that Dvorak is not fully capitalized here, because unlike QWERTY, it was named after its inventor August Dvorak.
Path Dependence in Urban Geography: Cotton in Lancashire
Another interesting example of path dependence I found relates to urban geography, and the UK cotton industry. Blooming in the 19th century, the cotton industry was mostly focused around Lancashire, a county near Liverpool and Manchester. There were two reasons for the cotton industry’s presence here: skilled workers and natural resources (water, coal) that were heavily used in the production process.
Interestingly though, according to economists Crafts and Wolf, skilled workers and natural resources could also be found elsewhere. In other words, there was no specific reason for the cotton industry to be in Lancashire. And perhaps other locations would be even better suited for cotton manufacturers and traders, such as those with better access to London and other capitals.
So the reason that cotton was situated in Lancashire, according to these two economists, was again this network effect. Once people started manufacturing and processing cotton in Lancashire, they attracted others. Suppose for instance that you were interested in taking part in the cotton industry, as a worker, a manufacturer or trader. Whatever your job was, it made sense to go to Lancashire and set up shop there — after all, that’s where you could find work.
And so again, just like with the QWERTY keyboard, this example illustrates that even though better potential options exist, a ‘lesser’ option is taken, and it becomes increasingly difficult to from this option to a better one.
Path Dependence in Business: Fossil Fuels
A last example I want to mention is that of fossil fuels. By now you should have a fair idea of what path dependence is, so you’ll probably see how fossil fuels are relevant here.
Over the years, it has become clear that renewable energy is the better choice. There is no end to these energy sources, and pollution is kept to a minimum. Nonetheless, fossil fuels currently still make up between 75% and 80% of our total global fuel consumption.
One reason for this is that fossil fuels were and still are a cheap source of energy. But considering the climate crisis and all the natural and societal effects fossil fuels (and CO2-emissions) have, there are obviously better outcomes. So the reason for the prevailing power of fossil fuels can be found in path dependence; if you’re someone looking for a job, or a company looking for a market to sell to, you’ll simply have better chances in the oil industry than in the wind farm industry. Or in other words, because initial investments in (extracting and using) fossil fuels were made, it has become easier for others to follow the same path.
Breaking Away from a Dependent Path
So what can we do ‘against’ path dependence? As you’ve seen, path dependence often means that there are better potential options, possibilities or outcomes, that we do not or cannot take. And while this may not such be a big issue for our keyboard habits or the location of the cotton industry, in the case of fossil fuel use, we need to find a way to deal with this.
In my view, there are a couple of ways to do so. First, just like when making unrestricted choices, become aware that you’re on a ‘dependent path’. This awareness should come with the realization that change can be incredibly hard. The unfortunate thing of path dependence is that the problem at hand is now ‘nobody’s fault’. After all, it often relates to in-action (e.g. keyboard users didn’t want to start using the DVORAK keyboard, and keyboard manufacturers thus didn’t want to sell them), and the challenges are enormous. So even for those who do want to make a difference, it’s incredibly difficult.
Nonetheless, change is possible. So second, in some cases there is a first-mover advantage. This means that who ever moves first has an advantage over those they are in competition with. Take the fossil fuels example; those who are the first to move to renewables will have an edge over the competition. This applies to business (e.g. Tesla), but also to governments; countries with the right infrastructure for renewable energy will be a step ahead and attract more investments and jobs.
And third, even when there isn’t a first-mover advantage, there may be first-movers. Consumers, governments and companies may take a specific option that is not the cheapest. You may start to drink oat milk, even though it tastes slightly worse and is more expensive. By making this specific choice, you show others what’s possible. Hopefully, this may lead others to follow, and help us break away from the path we’re currently on.