The Flow of Risk Management’s Black Swans

Safety Boxes

We’ve all experienced catastrophic endpoints. If you were in New York on 9/11, if you’ve ever had a relative you’ve hunted deer, drank whisky, and traded bad jokes with who suddenly and unexpectedly committed suicide (I did), if you’ve ever even gotten into a fender-bender on the way to work (we all have), you’ve been there. You’ve experienced a discontinuity.

My favorite anecdote from Nassim Talib’s The Black Swan was in the form of a graph of a domesticated turkey’s life. Fed, watered, and comfortably housed every day, that turkey’s confidence in his future got greater and greater, and reached it’s maximum in the week before Thanksgiving. And then he was prepped (to use a mild term) for someone’s holiday dinner.

The point of Talib’s graph was to point out the inadequacy of extrapolating from a steady and seemingly predictable past into the future. And to point out the power of the discontinuity, the point in time where the present deviates dramatically from the past. For risk managers, this graph holds a fundamental lesson in what’s important in staving off disaster, but it falls short of providing a prescription for success. Indeed, one of Talib’s points is that trying to predict this sort of event is fruitless. The best you can do is protect yourself as much as possible from them.

Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi’s seminal work, Flow, gives us clues to what a solution may look like. He studied flow states, originally defined by his studies of surgeons, mountain climbers, chess players, and dancers. He was looking for the basis of the intense states of concentration that allow these people to lose their self-consciousness and perform at a very primal level. His work is worth a read by anyone who cares about enjoying their work, but the pertinent part for this discussion is boxes. I call them safety boxes.

Safety boxes?

Csiksentmihalyi defined a number of parameters that must be satisfied in order for flow to occur. He used a box metaphor, since borders were critical to flow. The goal of the endeavor must be well defined, as well as the path to the goal, and both must be perceived to be within immediate reach. And the person seeking flow must feel safe.

Safety in a box. That’s the intersection between flow and black swans.

Safety in a box means that the consequences of a risk are available as immediate feedback (another critical factor in flow), and the adverse outcomes lie within defined borders. Safety boxes are nested like Chinese puzzle boxes or Russian Matryoshka dolls, each with a slightly greater potential for adverse consequences.

This discussion flows from my previous post about safety being paramount for successful management, but it extends into a more important concept for both your professional and personal life.  Limiting exposure.

What does this mean?  Is it biz-speak for something that could be better expressed more simply?  Perhaps yes.  What it means is that you don’t want to rail and piss off your anger at a subordinate when the upside is a limited prospect of getting her to work harder while the downside is losing your job for being a harasser.  It’s about making a sincere effort to explore the potential barriers and pitfalls of committing to an approach when other options exist that may have less risk, or more potential for gain.

It’s about keeping your legs inside the bus when it’s hurtling down the road past trucks hauling poorly tied-down lumber.  Simply, it’s about being conservative about actions you may take that open you to big, big losses.  Tragic consequences.

And, conversely, it’s about opening your life to opportunities that are unlikely but have the potential to transcend every other aspect of your life.  Who cares about your 401k when you’ve just won the $230 million dollar MegaMillions prize?  Buy a MegaMillions ticket whenever the jackpot reaches the $100 million point – you’ll never win, but if you do all your other investments become moot.  Open yourself to the big wins.

And close off the big losses.  Don’t rob liquor stores, even if you have a great system for knocking them off and reaping thousands with little effort.  The downside is too compelling.  You may end up in prison for a long, long time.  You may end up murdering someone, with real life consequences along with a karmic debt that I’m frankly loathe to pay.

Stay in the middle of the road, with occasional positive forays.

Feel the power of your beauty.  You are beautiful.  Play on it, play with it, but don’t ever get ugly.

I love you,


Everything you need to know to make your own workplace fun – Part I: The Most Important Thing

Here are all the secrets I’ve gathered up over the years that you can apply to your own workplace.  I care about fun, and, by extension, about your fun.  Let me help.

First, foremost, and most importantly – safety.  A safe space.  You must have a safe space in order to have fun.

I worked for many years for a man whom I believed had my back.  He didn’t.  When the chips were in the pot, he chose to back his own play at my expense.  He didn’t have my back.

Once I was unemployed, due in large part to my former boss’s lack of confidence in my work, I worked through the exercises in a book I can wholeheartedly recommend:  What Color is Your Parachute?  I needed a job, and this book truly helps you find one.  The section I was working through was directed towards finding the right people to work with.  It made you list the things you really wanted to have in your coworkers, and then prioritize that list so you understood what was really important.  I did this exercise with my son, who is also looking for better employment.

When I finished, read through my list, and gave it some thought, I realized that the first four –the most important – items on my list could be translated as, “I have your back.”  I admit that I was traumatized, but there are other, independent researches supporting my tender feelings. In Csikszentmihályi’s formative work on flow (the psychology of optimal experience), one of the four basic requirements for the sort of deep involvement with your own work (he studied chess players, surgeons, dancers, and mountain climbers) is a safe space.  He discovered that you can’t truly integrate with your work unless you feel safe.

You know this already, at least if you’ve ever worked in crappy conditions for a boss who didn’t understand this concept.  He, or she, most likely subscribed to the dominance theory of management, where the most important thing is to keep your worker bees under control and compliant. They believe in a state where management equals keeping track of your workers performance and holding them to their promises, rather than giving underlings authority to exert their own judgement.  These managers believe that exerting their own judgement into every aspect of the organization is important for keeping their people on track.

How crippling.  How pathetic.  How micromanagerial.  Control, control, control.  Let go of your futile grip on the lives of your subordinates.  They want to please you.  They live for the moment that you give them a compliment.  Is it truly that hard for you to stop being the bitch and start being the enabler?  Why not help instead of criticize?

I admit that I was both a villain and a victim of the system.  I managed badly.  I suffered in my career from it.  I criticized and failed to compliment.  I failed.

Why not let the Dark Side go, and give a chance to the Light Side?  Feel the Force, Luke!  Walk out into your cubicle cluster and give a sincere compliment to everyone who works for you.  Or everyone who works with you.  Let them know that you have a real human connection with them, that you actually give a shit.  Be human, and be vulnerable, and be real.

Make them feel safe.  MAKE THEM FEEL SAFE!

You may have tried punishment management, based on fear and fear of loss.  How has it worked for you?  How have you felt when it was used on you?  Are you simply echoing the bad management you’ve received rather than rejecting the abuse and trying for something better?

Why not try the management of safety, of caring, of love and appreciation and respect?

I love you,


Fun after the Edge has Crumbled

14 03-23 No Fun Man

The Cliff’s Edge

Think back to a time you stood at the edge of a cliff, whether real or metaphorical. A moment when your life was behind you, and the only thing in front was a lot of very thin air. And a high, cold wind that tugged at you unexpectedly, leaving you dancing and waving your arms. Scary, yes?

But was it fun? Did you feel as if a heavy backpack had fallen away so you stood straighter? Did the prospect of diving off – not falling, but diving – sweep away the cobwebs and leave you trembling with expectation? Didn’t the fatal edge hold a strange attraction? Wasn’t it fun to be at risk, to imagine putting it all at risk?  Isn’t this why the Grand Canyon gets so many visitors?

The Cookie’s Crumbles

I was over the edge before I knew there was a cliff. My nearly 30-year career as an academic researcher, culminating in a tenure-track faculty position, ended in seconds in a brief-but-pointed meeting with my estranged boss. No chance of appeal (though I tried), no helpful rope thrown to swing me down to a lower ledge. I was already falling by the time I realized there was an edge.

It was a long way down, but a short fall. Strangely, it was also fun. One advantage of academic positions is that they can’t simply show you the door. I had a full year to wrap up my affairs, and being one of the walking dead was very liberating. I had one of my favorite meetings of all time with my estranged boss, full of humor and completely positive and upbeat. The poor man had no idea what hit him. I know he expected me to rant and rave, but instead I could reflect on all the ways we had done good things together (we’d worked together for almost 20 years). I walked out whistling. The looks on his face had been priceless.

I certainly couldn’t feel the backpack filled with stones I’d been carrying around. I was in free fall. I hit hard when the last day came rolling around, but walking out the door of a place where so much good had developed, so many mistakes made, so much stress suffered, and so many dreams realized (and shattered) really felt like flying. I left the backpack on the threshold and almost drifted away on the breeze.

Fun at the Bottom

Putting my life together afterwards has been fun – as well as stressful, disappointing, depressing, and exhilarating. I’ve made a serious study, much more serious than any of my academic researches, on why my work hadn’t been much fun, and what it would take to keep it fun. Fun as in fun work, not a staff party at work.

Much of what I’ve discovered – some from the literature (I especially recommend Csikezentmihalyi’s Flow and Fried & Hansson’s Rework for the beginning student of fun), some from observation, and the rest from my own research and practice – highlights preparation. Contrary to what we might expect from parties, vacations, and screwing around, fun work requires careful preparation and is rarely spontaneous. Fun work comes out of expertise, inspired management, carefully designed systems, and lovingly nurtured teams. It is also often spontaneous and creative and playful, but these qualities don’t arise from the dust.

It took a fall to shake me out of my difficult and mostly unfun career and allow me to focus on what really matters in my work. I can’t say I’d recommend it as a method for reorganizing your life, if only because of the economic uncertainty, but I wouldn’t go back to my old life. Better to be at the bottom with a clear vision of your goals than be lost at the top. Cliffs are everywhere, and often the edges crumble further back than you’d expect.

Walk with care – or run forward full tilt. Either way, I offer you these conclusions from my own descent:  Fun work is your best work. Fun is the best measure of your work. And fun is what makes success feel like success. So, whether warily or carefully . . . make it fun.

Fun with Money. Money. Money.

You Can’t Take It With You – But Can You Give It Away?

Money.  Wealth, and its distribution.  It’s the root of the world’s problems, it’s what the fighting’s all about.  If you don’t think so, listen to Pink Floyd’s Money – or, better yet, watch the capuchin monkeys and the grapes and cucumbers.

Really.  Watch the monkeys.  It’s perhaps the most important (and amusing) video ever filmed.

I’m absolutely fascinated by giving and receiving, especially when the exchange involves money. I’ve been paying focused attention to all of the transactions I am party to, or witness, particularly people’s emotional states.  For example, I recently asked a friend for some money. He’s quite well to do – his admitted net worth is in the range of 100x as great as mine, even including my retirement plans – and I wasn’t asking for much, but the transfer of actual money was fraught with intense emotions.  Shame and disgust, anger and sadness, guilt and remorse. Perhaps this isn’t a big surprise to anyone, but, at least in the Western world, we don’t spend much time questioning these feelings.

Should I feel guilty for being in a place that required me to ask for money? Ashamed? Both my friend and I have PhDs in biochemistry, both of us worked like dogs to succeed, and he succeeded vastly more than I did. And I ran into a bad patch. Does my lack of success despite similar efforts make me worthy of disgust, and should I feel shame?

Whether I should or not, I felt a real sense of shame, a visceral guilt. And I know I went down several notches in my friend’s esteem. I’ll pay him back in less than a month, and tack on 5% (better return on investment than anything legal I’m aware of) – but the feelings won’t just evaporate.

I always give beggars a buck. I know many are shiftless, or professionals, but I respect what they do. You don’t? Here’s a little test:  go out on the street and stop a stranger and ask him for money. Try it. Most people would rather piss their pants in public than ask a stranger for cash. Perhaps this will make you think the next time you walk past a beggar with your nose in the air.

I’m hoping to have time to develop another business, one based on exploring this fundamental activity and how we can manipulate it for good. My concept is a sort of non-charity charitable organization, or a non-charitable charity – essentially, an organization that collects money and gives it away randomly. Not to the poor, not based on need, just to anyone we run across. To rich old ladies driving Cadillacs, harried middle-class moms toting kids, teenagers wandering the mall, grumpy convenience store clerks (and happy ones too). I see it as a research project, a way to understand why some people will gratefully accept, some will reject a no-strings gift no matter their need, and everything in between. I want to understand why, especially when money is involved, that it’s so difficult for most of us to easily give and receive. And why receiving is so difficult.

I think I know the answers before I will get the data to confirm or deny them.  Money is a measure of your life, the currency we use to define our productivity.  We wield it like a bludgeon in our capitalist society to define our relative worth, looking down on those who fall between the cracks and revering those who either excel in playing the capitalist system for their own gain or who inherited great wealth from their ancestors.

What.  A.  Crock.  Of.  Shit.  Some of the best people I’ve ever known have no sense of how to make money off their creativity, nor any desire to learn it for their own benefit.  They fumble through a world that forces them to eat ramen noodles for sustenance and get no retirement benefits nor any health, dental, vision, legal, or any other employment-based extras that many of us take for granted.  They can’t play the capitalist game, yet most of them would be better dinner-party company than those who can.

I’m not a communist, nor a socialist, nor an any old -ist.  I just know my social equals, and those who can bang out a decent black-smithed item, paint a charming picture with oil paints, sing a decent song that they’ve created themselves, or just sit down with me and kill a bottle of fine red wine while making exciting conversation simply blow away people who see money as a way to make more money.  Because they always see their money not as a way to buy a bottle of fine cognac, but as a potential investment that will get them two bottles of fine cognac if they just invest it.  Yet they never seem to have two bottles of fine cognac, nor would they share it with you if they did.

So – give it the fuck away.  Recent studies of people who won big money in our lotteries has shown that those who are happy (vs. those who piss all that money away, and often end up perversely in debt), are those who give most of their money away.

Let’s say you’re rich.  You have millions and bazillions of dollars.  Let’s say that our human population is reduced to 100 people, and you are the rich guy.  You own 99.999% of the village that is humanity.

Are you happy?  Will you stay happy when everyone around you is destitute compared to you?

Give it away.  Don’t do it to people you know.  Don’t keep control.  Let.  It.  Go.

I love you,





Most of us . . . almost all of us . . . live close to nature. We may live in places that have intruded on nature, pushed most of it away. But it’s still there, unless you live in central Manhattan. In fact, it’s intruded on us as we’ve intruded on it.

If you don’t live close enough, go there. If you are close enough – and I am, living in suburban Ohio, even though you might not say so if you saw my house – go outside.  Turn off your lights. Sit comfortably. Shut up. And listen.

Pretend you’re a conductor listening to his orchestra while he conducts. Picking out every voice, thinking, adjusting, gesturing for what he wants to hear. But don’t be the conductor, be the listener. Hear everything.

The crickets cricking. Cars passing, semis whooshing on a nearby highway, the snarl of motorcycles racing idiotically a mile away. The glurp glurp glurp of frogs. Your world. Listen.

We think with our eyes, and blind our ears. Our judgements are visual, our filters are audio. We can hold up a conversation in a noisy bar, but a flash of motion draws our eyes. Use that. Listen.

And smell. Listening helps us bypass the dominance of our eyes, smelling goes direct to our old brain. Light a fire, if you can. Play with it, and get your clothes all stinky with woodsmoke. Smell.

Listen. And smell. Taste, and touch. Close your eyes, and settle down into yourself.



What is Fun? and Why it’s Fun-damental

Why are we so passionate about keeping fun out of work?

What do you think of when you think of fun?  Do you think of deep, philosophical meaning?  Or frivolous, meaningless entertainment?

My parents grew up in tough times.  My mom lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s under primitive conditions, where getting enough to eat was a real issue.  Her family worked hard to get food from dirt, from stinky, messy chickens, from hard work, dawn to dusk – enjoying only the entertainment they could make for themselves.

My dad grew up in only slightly better circumstances.  His dad worked as a handyman for a boy’s school in Northern Michigan, and this connection allowed my dad to attend that school and move up.  But he didn’t attend college, and worked, like his brothers, in the hard work of construction.  It wasn’t easy.

My parents taught me a lot about fun.  They didn’t have it easy, and the way they grew up changed them in fundamental ways.  They always worked hard, even when they didn’t really need to, and didn’t have much respect for slackers.  But they had fun.  And respected fun.

They built their lives around improving their lot, and providing better opportunities for their kids (me and my two brothers).  They helped their neighbors (my aunts and uncles), and worked hard to keep up the neighborhood.  But there was always time for a party, and they lived for the gatherings of relatives and friends, even as they worked like dogs to make sure those gatherings were filled with food and fun, were held in a scrupulously clean home, and ended well for everyone that attended.

They lived for fun.

And despite growing up in difficult times, they had fun living. And working. They didn’t talk about fun work, or (I believe) even think about their work as fun. But I worked with my Mom and Dad, and I know they cared deeply about fun, and not just when the chores were done.

The Western world, and especially the United States with its Puritanical roots, has a deep mistrust of fun. There’s a big wall between serious and fun. Serious is important, and fun is silly. It’s not uncommon for Americans to put words like foolishcarefreesilly, and pointless in sentences together with fun – and rare to associate fun with seriousimportantessential, and fundamental.

And yet there’s a curiously intense, even frantic, feeling to our fun. Those rare vacations, the few hours on the weekend or after work when we aren’t busy with chores, or homework, or work we took home, have all the light-hearted delicacy of a giant, smoke-belching chainsaw. When we do fun, we do it. All balls to the wall, full-tilt boogie.

We live for fun, but we squeeze it into such a small space that the pressure is incredible. You’ve heard your colleagues (or your wife, or yourself) complain that it took them almost their entire vacation to decompress enough to relax. That’s one symptom of the way we’ve pushed fun out of our ‘regular’ lives and into a walled, gated reservation.

Corporations are one of the culprits. One of my favorite authors, Neal Stephenson, wrote that corporations have stolen all of our good stories. They’ve turned them into procedures entombed in three-ring binders, put them in service to the quarterly report, shareholder value, and the bottom line. We’re interchangeable cogs in a faceless machine, and the only stories left over are the bad ones. The server crash that killed everyone’s email, the dork who spilled his coffee into the copy machine. Fun is banished – because it can’t be turned into a procedure.

This leftover of the assembly-line era is changing – think of Google with it’s gaily painted ‘offices,’ the free massages and foosball tables and gourmet lunches. We’re groping back to fun work, but mostly it’s fun as a coat of paint. The office is ‘fun,’ but the work is the same old drudgery. Adding a foosball table doesn’t free you from soulless rote work, or turn a bad boss into less of a jerk.

Let’s reclaim fun. Fun work. Work that’s fun because fun work is our best work. Let’s measure our work by fun because fun captures the whole, not the part. And because fun is what makes our success feel like success.

But what is fun?

Short answer:  I don’t know.  However, we as a race of thinking beings don’t know what anything really is.  We have descriptions of behavior, not knowledge of what is.  We don’t know what space is, or what an electron is, or what time is. We can only describe. Define.

My definition of fun is simple:  Fun is what’s happening when you know you’re having fun.

That puts fun on an entirely different plane from most feel-good measures.  Happiness, satisfaction, wellness – they’re all states of being.  Fun happens.  It’s an action, a verb, though we don’t typically use it as one.  You don’t be fun, you have fun.  Okay, you can be fun too, but that really means that fun happens around you.  A fun person has fun.  A happy person is happy.

I believe that fun is also a synonym for creativity.  Fun is inherently creative, a creative act, even if the creation is ‘just’ a great conversation, or an exciting party.  Like fun, creativity is really a verb, an action.  Yes, we say someone is creative, but that really means that person creates.  I believe that fun is functional creativity – creativity that’s working – and the better it works, the more fun it is.

Defining fun as equal to creativity excludes a lot of what most people would call fun. Specifically, non-participatory entertainment. Watching a sporting event, or a concert, or your favorite TV show. I think that’s right, because the absence of creativity makes these activities enjoyable rather than fun. If they’re truly fun, there is creativity involved, even if it’s ‘just’ having far-ranging conversations about your favorite team, or doing the wave.

There are people who have fun – what I call fun – in ways that aren’t typically creative. I see through my filter, and I live to create. To create new things, objects or ideas or processes that never existed before. You may have a different filter, and have fun that doesn’t create anything new.

A better definition of fun may be:  Fun is what’s happening when you’re doing what you do best. You may have fun innovating, while your colleague has fun using your innovation to make her spreadsheet balance perfectly. I call this putting your personal stamp on your work.

Through my filter, that means making something new. For you it may be about being in control, or doing your work with style. Either way, it’s essential for fun. The corporate world may want you to become an interchangeable cog in a faceless machine, but if you get stamped out rather than doing the stamping, you won’t be having fun.

You may think you’re not the ‘creative type,’ but I still believe that fun = creativity. You may have to look beneath the surface to see it. At the lowest level, you’re different than your co-workers, and so you must be creative just to adapt your working style to a common workplace. And when you’re doing what you do best and feel appreciated for doing it, you have fun – and when you don’t, it’s not.

And that’s why fun is fundamental

Whether we think we’re creative or not, we must create to survive.  Perhaps there are people who do nothing their whole lives but consume without creation.  If so, I doubt they’re having fun.  For the vast majority of humanity, creation is as essential as breathing, even if it’s rote and by-the-numbers.  Hunting howler monkeys in the Amazon rain forest with blowguns, or being a clerk at a rural gas station – both (can) create.

Fun is the best part of that creative spectrum.  Creation of something new, or novel, creation of something that has your special stamp on it.  Fun is what puts your mark on the world, for good or bad, for posterity or only until the tide comes in and washes it away.

That’s the paradox, and power, of fun.  Fun isn’t ambition, or a legacy, or a conquest.  It’s doing what you do best for its own sake – not for advantage, or posterity.  It’s the spark of invention, the feeling that the Universe would be different, and poorer, if you hadn’t had your fun.

Please. Please. Go have fun. Insist on it. Hold yourself to it. Ask yourself every time you aren’t having fun, “Why not?” It’s a merciless metric, a tough taskmaster, but you’ll have some great stories when you do. How you made paying your bills fun. How you created a fun way to clean the toilets (I did). How fun drew out the best of you and helped you enjoy it – even when you didn’t think you could.

Have fun!


Why a Fun Survey is the Best Survey

Fun Surveys are (at least) 100 times better

Because people want to have fun – so they want to take your survey

When did you last take a survey willingly? I shop on Amazon, and after each purchase I get a pop-up and a follow-up email asking for my opinion. I never take their surveys.

Why?  Because those surveys suck. Most people would rather do dull and tedious work than take a typical survey. Because they’re boring.

Funshop makes fun surveys. Fun both ways. They measure fun, and they’re fun to take. That makes them (at least) 100 times better. Why?

Boring surveys ignore your core customers

Here’s a familiar graph – a bell curve. It plots how much fun your customers had (the bottom, or x-axis) versus the number of customers (the side, or y-axis). The shape of the curve is like a bell. Many things in life, when plotted this way, would have the same bell-like distribution:  height of men (or women, or boys), attractiveness of faces, how long your commute takes, &etc.

Typical Boring Survey Bell Curve
How a typical (boring) survey covers the customer bell curve.

The arrows pointing down show the sampling you’d get from a typical (boring) survey. The red arrows are responses from customers who took your survey because they were really unhappy with something. They needed to tell you how bad their experience was.

The green arrows are responses from customers who loved their experience, and wanted to share that with you. And the gray arrows are responses from people who just love to take surveys, no matter how boring.

The gray part of the bell curve in the middle are your core customers. Most of them got what they expected (the middle of the bell curve), and quite a few had a significantly better or worse experience. Boring surveys miss these customers, because they only get responses from the tiny fraction who love taking surveys.

Your total response from a typical survey is, at maximum, 15%. You’ll only hear from the 5% at the extremes, and the 5% who love taking surveys. And you won’t even hear from all of them. You’ll hear from about 10% of them.  That means 10% x 15% = 1.5%.

And the responses will be very, very biased. Most responses will be either love or hate. You’ll never be able to cut the bad end off the bell curve – and why waste all your efforts on the 5% of customers who hated your business? Why not focus on your core?

Why a fun survey covers the whole bell curve

Now check out the next graph:

Fun Surveys Cover the Whole Bell Curve
Fun surveys sample your entire customer base because they’re fun to take

We broke the bell curve into more sections, each showing a different customer experience. The purple arrows are the responses you can expect from a fun survey. They cover the whole bell curve. You’ll hear from a representative sample of your customers, not just the extremes.

Why? Because people love to have fun. They’ll take a fun survey willingly. And even if the survey isn’t much fun for them – we know everyone has fun in different ways – they’ll take it because they hope for fun.  And they’ll still appreciate the effort you made.

Fun surveys are great marketing – they leave a great last impression

Most surveys are offered to customers after they’ve had their experience. It’s their last impression of your business.

A large body of psychological research has explored how we remember experiences.  (I suggest reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow for it’s clear summaries of this research) Boiled down to the basics, we remember three things:  1) the initial condition (our first impression), 2) the peak experience (the best or worst part, whichever is greater), and 3) the final condition (our last impression). Most of the experience is not part of our memory.

In one experiment, researchers had subjects put their hands in painfully cold water. One group had to suffer for 60 seconds, and the other group suffered for 90 seconds. For the 90-second sufferers, researchers added just enough warm water to make participants feel slightly less pain for the last 30 seconds. The last 30 seconds were still painful – just a tiny bit less painful.

The researchers had the subjects do both the 60- and 90-second tests, and asked subjects to rate the two experiences.

The vast majority preferred the 90-second treatment. Even though it was 50% longer, and painful all the way through, the slightly better experience at the end was enough to make their memory of it more attractive (or less repulsive).

Now think of that survey. Do you want your customer’s last impression to be a boring survey? Or paying their bill and then being invited to take a boring survey online?

Fun surveys market your business in two important ways: they invoke fun, and they are fun.

First, our fun surveys ask your customer to remember the most fun part of their experience. Fun becomes the last thing they remember about you. They may still remember things that are less pleasant, but at least that all-important last impression is of fun.

Second, even if your customer’s best experience with your business wasn’t that great, a fun survey means that the last thing they did was fun. Fun is the best last impression you can make. And they’ll remember it.

Fun surveys lead to opportunities, not problems

Fun surveys measure fun. Unlike positive states of being such as happiness, satisfaction, comfort, and contentment, fun is an action. Sometimes ‘fun’ is used to describe a state – she’s a fun person, or this restaurant is fun – but what we really mean is that fun happens when she is around, or when we go to that restaurant.  Fun is a verb.

That’s why measuring fun is different, and more effective. A fun survey defines what your customers are doing that brings them back. And that’s the memory you want to create. We remember having fun, not being happy, or contented. Try it. Remember a time when you were happy – we’ll bet that what you picture in your mind is having fun, and that fun was what made you happy.

Focusing on creating fun guides you to new creative opportunities. Rather than stooping to the bottom to deal with the problems, fun is about starting at the top and climbing higher. People come back to your business because of what you do best – not what you fail to do worst.

And it’s surprising how many businesses don’t know what they do best. Is it the food? or the service? The price? or the quality? Or is it something you’d never thought of?

The motto of a business I once worked for is, “Everything Matters.” The business is a children’s hospital, so I’m sure that motto is reassuring to worried parents of sick children. But does everything matter? Is the decor critical? The quality of the cafeteria food? Does trying to solve every problem lift the whole enterprise higher, or does it suck all the oxygen out of moving forward and innovation?

Fun matters, because fun is what you’re doing right. Fun guides you to why people love you, and invites you to do more of it. Be a problem solver, and all you’ll do is deal with problems. Have fun, and you will create.

Of course, fun surveys also find out where it’s no fun. In fact, measuring fun is an incredibly potent method for finding serious problems, even problems no one is willing to talk about. If you ask what’s the most fun, and no one points in a particular direction, in that direction lies a problem. People have fun in many different ways, so if none of them think something is fun, it’s no fun. If fun work is your best work, what is work that’s no fun? Measuring fun leads you forward, and can also tell you what’s holding you back.

Just caring about fun is huge

People really care about fun. What do you spend your money on after you’ve paid the bills? We believe your business must care about fun.

Just showing you care about your customer’s (or employee’s) fun is huge. It shows you care about one of the most desirable things in life. If you say it, and mean it, and show that you’re trying, it will make a difference. A tangible, bottom-line difference.

Try it. Tell your customers that you care about their fun, and do something you think will make your business more fun for them. Even if it doesn’t work, your profit (or however else you measure your success) will be greater. Just showing that you care about fun will increase your productivity.

> 100 times better

Fun surveys get more responses. The responses are less biased.

Fun surveys are great marketing. They focus your customers on the best part of their experience, and leave one as a last impression.

Fun surveys identify opportunities, the part of your business that brings in the customers. Fun surveys guide you in building up, not drilling down – though they tell you where to drill if you need to.

And fun surveys show you care about fun. Your customer cares, your employees do too – shouldn’t you?

Let’s be conservative. Our surveys get responses from more than 50% of people offered one. Most surveys get less than 5%, unless they’re mandatory or offer a direct reward. Let’s call that 10 times better. Our surveys are less biased, so call it 20 times better.

Most surveys have zero marketing value (or even a negative value). That means a fun survey is infinitely better. But let’s just say 10 times better.

We’re already at 20 x 10 = 200 times better.

Try one.  It’s fun.

The Five Reasons Why Fun is Essential to Business Success

If you pay attention, you’ll often hear “fun” used to describe why something was so successful. However, if you read books on how to make your business succeed (I’ve read at least a hundred), you won’t find any chapters on fun. Here are five reasons why this is such a terrible omission:


Fun 1: Fun work is your best work.

This is the motto of Funshop, and for good reason.

Think of a time when you were having fun doing work. Having fun doing the work you get paid for. Were you doing better or worse than average? My guess, based on hundreds of interviews, is better. Much better. Most people say they’re doing their best work when they’re having fun doing it.

It’s hard to understand why fun is so often rejected in the workplace if fun work is our best work. Were you having fun when you did your best work?

Fun 2: Fun is the best motivation.

Perhaps you disagree – when I ask, many say that money is the best motivator in business. Cold, hard cash.

In the developed world, we no longer work simply to feed our families and put a roof over their heads. The vast majority of us could work at the most menial, poorly paid job and still have money for cable TV. Why do we want more money?

In my interviews, the answer boils down to fun. From game consoles to yachts, once we’ve paid the rent and for the new riding lawnmower, the rest of the cash is for fun.

It’s sad that so many of us work to live, and that so many employers settle for workers who do their jobs without having any fun. The fantastic power of fun to motivate is ignored, or sublimated to the dream of having fun after work, on weekends, or on the (rare) vacation. What a hideous waste of human potential!

If you have fun while working, you’ll have a lot more fun. And more energy for having fun when you’re not at work. You’ll be motivated to kick some ass, not wait wearily for five o’clock (or whenever you finally get to leave). Fun work is work you want to do for its own sake.

Fun 3: Fun work inspires teams.

We’ve all been to one of those meetings. A meeting where the only contribution was to global warming: hot air, and oxygen turned to carbon dioxide. A meeting that’s no fun.

Besides wasting time and contributing to coastal erosion, how did you feel after one of these meetings? Inspired, or exhausted? What was the effect on your team, and its morale? How much damage was done in that hour?

I’ve held many meetings that were fun, though few of them were formal meetings. You could tell they were fun because everyone walked away inspired. Filled with fresh energy, scheming and dreaming new possibilities, eager to get back to work.

No fun drains your team, and kills morale. I’ve been to meetings that lasted less than an hour, yet put my team the equivalent of a month behind. And meetings that lasted just a few minutes, yet doubled our productivity. Because they were fun.

Fun 4: Fun work inspires customers.

I used to blacksmith at a 17th century historical recreation, and one of the smiths in our group was a crusty curmudgeon. He was gruff, curt, with hardly a good comment or compliment for anyone. But you could tell he was having fun pounding iron.

And despite the prickly crust, people could smell that from a mile away. He always drew a crowd. People are drawn to fun. They hope some will rub off on them. And this blacksmith was proof it worked. He was almost the opposite of a “fun guy,” but when he was having fun, people wanted to see, and connect, and be involved. To be part of the fun.

That smith was the last person you’d want to have selling iron directly to customers, but he sold a lot of iron just by being there and having fun. People have very sensitive fun detectors. When you walk into a fun business, you can smell it. Immediately. And it smells like quality products, and friendly, fast service.

Your mouth would water if you entered a restaurant that smelled like fresh-baked bread, savory grilled meat, and fragrant spices (or their equivalent, if you like other food). Don’t let your business be the one that smells stale, dirty, or rotten.

Fun 5: Fun keeps it human.

The famous mathematician, and one of the fathers of the computer revolution, Alan Turing, devised a simple test to determine whether a computer was conscious (self-aware). A computer was conscious when a human being couldn’t tell the difference between the computer and another human being in a conversation. If you could talk on the phone with the computer for an hour (Turing actually said five minutes), and it sounded just like a person, it was a person. A conscious being.

Not bad, but there are computers that can do just that, or almost. I have a better test. Perhaps it will become famous, and be called the Ransom Test. It’s simple. When a computer has fun, it’s conscious.

I don’t think ants are conscious, or honey bees. They aren’t self-aware. But squirrels are. I watch squirrels every day off my porch, and they certainly have fun. That means they’re conscious.

Everyone hates being an interchangeable cog in a faceless, soulless machine. And the only way you can be treated that way is if no one cares about fun. The central hypothesis at Funshop is that putting your personal stamp on your work is the basis of fun work. Cogs don’t put their stamp on things – they get stamped.

If the people in your business have fun work, and that fun work is spread out to everyone from the CEO to the after-hours custodian, no one will feel like a cog. I think it will be a long time until a computer has fun, but I bet the first thing it will say is, “Why are you treating me like a machine?” Because machines don’t have fun.

So why model your business on one?

Why Fun Work is Being a Hero in Your Story

It’s been a month since I last posted, and that’s because it’s been a busy time for Funshop. We tested a new survey, and I’ve worked a lot on making fun surveys a successful product. I believe it’s revolutionary (have you ever had fun taking a survey?), and we’re out to prove it. But here’s a month’s worth of Fun Thoughts in one long post:

Why Fun Work is Being a Hero in Your Story

. . . and how to make cleaning the toilets fun.

You want fun work. If you don’t think so, turn it around. Do you want work that’s no fun? Are you more productive when you’re having fun working, or when you’re not?

Our paradigm for fun work is a story. Fun work has characters with individual and necessary roles, goals to strive for, obstacles to overcome, accomplishments (and failures, if you take our advice) to celebrate, plot twists, and sometimes a surprise ending.

One important insight of the story paradigm is that fun work is meaningful. Fun work has meaning that motivates and makes you part of a greater community, just as stories are driven by the meaning that supports the plotline. Frodo in The Lord of the Rings works to destroy the Ring of Power – is there something meaningful driving your work?

For many of us, the complexity and dissociation of the modern corporate world has separated us from the deeper meaning of our professional lives. Your duty is to higher productivity, greater efficiency, zero errors, or a similar abstraction. Monthly progress meetings are no substitute for meaningful work, for a plotline that features you in a starring role.

However, it’s hard to see a path to meaning when your work is finishing this month’s TP reports by Monday (nod to Office Space) or cleaning the toilets. How do you make the mercilessly mundane meaningful?

Let me tell you a story.

The Woman Who Got Lost in the (Middle) Distance

Once upon a time . . .

. . . there was a woman walking through the foothills toward a mountain pass. Beyond the pass there was a beautiful lodge, where she expected to spend the evening having cocktails while soaking in the outdoor jacuzzi.

It was mid-morning under a hot sun, and the woman struggled up a steep slope to the crest of a ridgeline. She was almost on hands-and-knees until she noticed an easier path leading around a boulder, giving her a chance to hike normally. As she climbed, all around her tiny golden flowers were blooming in the short turf, and she stopped a moment to catch her breath and admire them.

As she neared the top, she could see another line of foothills ahead. The hills on the left were higher than those to the right, and she assumed that the path would lead her over the easier slopes.

As she proceeded over the crest and down, she saw what appeared to be the path, as expected, cutting across the foothills to her right. Suddenly she tripped over a stone, hitting her knee on a boulder as she fell. Her pants were ripped, and she had to stop to clean and bandage the cuts on her knee. Luckily, though stiff, she could still walk.

She stepped carefully down the slope, looking ahead to the path across the next foothill. When she looked down, the path she followed had dwindled to a meager trail. Still believing that the path led over the hills to the right, she hiked on, angling towards its beginning in the valley below.

When she reached the bottom of the hill, even the meager trail had disappeared, and what she’d believed was the path up the rightward foothhill was revealed to be a dry streambed, a gully filled with jagged boulders.   She could no longer see the mountain pass , or any trace of a path – and, high above her, gray clouds had appeared, moving swiftly on a freshening breeze.

The Middle-Distance Fantasy

. . . and how it kills your story (and the fun).

I tell you this story to illustrate the middle-distance fantasy. It’s a common fallacy that can keep us from finding meaning in our work – and, when addressed, gives us a method to find the path to meaning again.

In my career as a academic researcher, the middle-distance fantasy was the rule. While our work had profound meaning – my group did research on the mechanism of action of glucocorticoid hormones, with huge potential benefits for the many patients with diseases treated with synthetic versions of these molecules – that meaning was obscured behind the middle distance goals of publishing manuscripts and successfully applying for grant funding.

Just as in my story of the woman hiking in the foothills, both our day-to-day research and the greater meaning behind it was lost in the quest for middle-distance objectives. And those objectives, like the trail across the rightward foothill, were always fantasies! Of course we produced manuscripts and grants, but they never turned out the way we’d planned. An experiment we expected to work one way gave an entirely unexpected result, or a tool we needed wasn’t available or didn’t work. We ended up on the equivalent of the higher leftward foothill, following a path we’d never expected to take.

And pursuing middle-distance fantasies often led us to the same sort of disaster that the woman in my story experienced. Lost, in danger, and with no guide to moving forward. I saw it again and again – results that were bent to support a fantasy hypothesis, or discarded because they didn’t. Alternative approaches to the same problem taken despite clear evidence that the original approach led nowhere. Countless hours and dollars spent in pursuit of a mirage.

The lesson from my experience is not rocket science, and perhaps that’s why it’s so often ignored in favor of more sophisticated (and less effective) approaches. The lesson is to keep your eyes on your feet and on the destination, and to largely ignore the middle distance.

I’ve illustrated this metaphorically in my story, where the woman scrabbling on hands-and-knees finds a shortcut to the top of the hill. Keeping your eyes on the trail keeps you in the present, aware of the opportunities that pop up right in front of you. In case you missed it in your education, the present is the only time that exists. The past is dead, and the future is a fantasy. Don’t let your focus on the middle distance blind you to the shortcuts, or keep you going right when the trail turns to the left.

Keeping your eyes on your footing also gives you a series of little victories, short-term and immediate accomplishments that are essential to morale and motivation. Waiting until you climb a whole mountain to celebrate makes the climb difficult and daunting, as each step or little slope climbed is only a miniscule fraction of the whole.

And those little victories include the victory that is being alive in a beautiful world. The woman in my story never noticed the beauty around her after she took her eyes off her immediate surroundings, and that’s true for us too, no matter what setting we’re in. Most of us spend almost all our time in comfortable settings surrounded by beauty – how often do you notice them on your way to work, much less at work? Eyes on the trail means you see the trail.

Your destination is in the far future, and so it’s a fantasy. You may never get there. If you do, no one may care. However, unlike the middle-distance fantasy, it gives your life meaning, and even failing to get to your dream is a victory. You tried, and the goal was important enough that it kept you moving in a positive direction. That’s a win.

And you never know whether your failure may later turn into a victory. History is filled with people whose accomplishments were laughed at during their lives, only to be recognized later as fundamental. That’s another reason to both pursue the fantasy of a destination and to celebrate failure. I’ll discuss celebrating failure and its important role in fun work in another post.

We can’t avoid looking into the middle distance. But we can recognize it for what it is, rather than puffing it up into something it isn’t. Building a successful company is real – meeting a quarterly budget target as a means to that end is almost always a fantasy.

The middle distance is actually most useful in the negative. Pausing in your hike to check the weather may save you from a soaking, or hypothermia. Pausing in your day-to-day work to reassess may show you’re on the wrong path, and help you find another. But spending too much time with your eyes away from the task at hand or the prize you are working for is likely to lead to wasted effort, low morale, and even disaster.

How do you make cleaning toilets fun?

. . . it’s spelled out in a song by Otis Redding.

How does all this sophomoric-sounding philosophy help us with fun work? With making cleaning the toilets, or the equivalent, fun?

Let’s call the work we doubt will be fun cleaning the toilets. You (even if you’re a custodian) likely see toilet cleaning as the bottom rung on the ladder, the most menial of menial labor. From our story example, in order to make it fun you need to keep your eyes on the work at hand and on the prize.

There’s a seeming paradox that lurks in the gulf between you cleaning a toilet and you as Superman, flying through the skies in pursuit of lofty goals. The Fun Paradox here is that it’s actually easier to give greater meaning to a custodian’s job than to Superman. A custodian is starved for meaning (or for quitting time so he can go home), while Superman is filled to the top and probably overflowing. Superman’s life is all about meaning, and the slightest slip is catastrophic. The custodians have probably given up on meaningful work, and punch the clock so they can find meaning in the outside world.

How do you give meaning to toilet cleaning? You could hire Superman, who probably assumes his alter ego as mild-mannered Clark Kent to get away from all the respect and meaning he’s normally burdened with. Failing a superhero hire, you must give toilet cleaning respect. As in R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

How do you feel when you enter a stall and the toilet has – poop particles? Is that meaningful? How much would it affect your day-to-day experience at work? Your respect for your workplace? How would the star recruit feel when she stopped off between interviews to use the restroom? You don’t think of the importance of clean bathrooms until they aren’t – or until they’re exceptionally nice.

One of the custodians at the research institute I worked at brought in a large dried-flower arrangement in a tall, attractive vase, and a wicker basket filled with towels and bars of herbal soap. This was a men’s restroom, remember. This little gesture had a significant effect on how I felt about my workplace, and my work. It was a big gesture. A demonstration of how focusing on the immediate can build greater meaning.

Greater meaning is a result of the three R’s:  recognition, respect, and reward. In the case of the custodian, toiling away cleaning toilets, we typically fail on all three. Custodial work is rarely recognized, except in the negative, and thus is hardly respected and meagerly rewarded. How can you give meaning to toilet cleaning without paying the custodians huge salaries and convening feel-good meetings where false smiles and forced applause ‘recognize’ the their accomplishments?

First, please tear those plexiglas panels off the back of the restroom doors, the ones that hold a (usually outdated) calendar of boxes to be checked to confirm that the custodians, well, checked the boxes. These devices stifle and reduce meaning to the lowest possible denominator – checking off boxes. Can you imagine going home to tell the story of how proud you are to have checked every box right on time all week?

Next, set the current standards as a baseline, a given. And make that given a real priority in your organization. Falling below the baseline should be an emergency. An alarm should sound, and tangible measures should be taken immediately to solve the problem.

As part of that, give the people who do the work both the authority and the responsibility for meeting the baseline and for monitoring. They should be responsible for sounding the alarm if necessary, and central to deciding how to solve the problem.

And that autonomy should be harnessed to exceed the baseline. Not by top-down plans and demands, but by giving the front-line workers the authority to change, improve, and innovate. Does glass cleaner work just as well on porcelain as a stronger, more toxic toilet cleaner? Does a jury-rigged sponge on a stick work better than a mop to clean floors? What is the quickest way to clean a urinal without an increase in microbe counts? What would make people who use this restroom happier?

Recognize the importance of the tasks, and support and encourage efforts to change, improve, and innovate. Give inexpensive digital cameras to custodians, and time for them to take pictures in the area that illustrate other organization’s innovations, and time to discuss how to incorporate them into their own work. Distribute an occasional survey to other staff, and have them rate the work of the custodians on their floor. Have custodians from one floor rate the work on another. Limit the critiques to compliments only. Remember, dropping below the baseline is an emergency.

How about partnering with a research group to study cleaning effectiveness? Microbe counts, levels of toxic cleaning residues, effectiveness studies of alternative cleaners. Treat your custodians with the same respect you’d give a famous scientist, and they may become famous scientists. Your organization could be famous and build a new revenue stream – from the work of your custodians.

And even if you don’t, your workplace will be cleaner, more attractive, and your custodians will have stories to take home. Meaningful stories that build pride in their work and motivation to do better tomorrow. Because their work will be more fun.

The Bottom Line of Fun . . .

. . . isn’t.

I use that phrase (‘the bottom line’) because it’s familiar, but I dislike the image it brings to mind. In my work, which is fun (in both senses), I’m not concerned about the bottom line. The bottom line, the cash in hand, the outcome – they all derive from the top. The meaning. The passion. The fun. Fun isn’t the bottom line, it’s the whole picture. When your crew is having fun – all of you, from CEO to custodian, worker bee to top-level manager – your organization is rockin’. There’s no need to measure other metrics.

The nature of my work has mixed meaningful and fun. The meaning of my work is fun. Fun is the reason I get out of bed, the metric I measure my work by, the goal I aspire to professionally and personally. I’m biased by the nature of my work, but I believe that fun may be the unrecognized Meaning of Life. What do you work so hard for?

In this post I’ve emphasized the importance of story to making work fun. One of my favorite authors, Neal Stephenson, wrote that corporations have stolen all of our good stories. In a properly functioning corporate world, the good stories are all gathered up by the corporation and turned into the quarterly budget, the production target, the efficiency mark. No one goes home to tell the spouse and kids about meeting the quarterly budget target.

In this world, we go home and tell the bad stories. The story of Steve spilling his latte into the copier, or how the IT people screwed up email. We hunger for meaning in our lives, and we’re left with the dregs.

But even corporations have discovered that this doesn’t work. Not in the new world where innovation isn’t optional, where staying one step ahead means getting the best from your people. Even Microsoft is discovering that no fun means bad business.

I’ve told you how we would approach making something as mundane and beneath our notice as cleaning toilets fun. Not by adding foosball tables for the custodians, or painting their break room in bright primary colors. By making the work itself fun.

I’ve mixed up story and the middle distance fantasy. I did it because the middle distance fantasy is a story (and fun) killer. The concepts behind the middle-distance fantasy seem obvious, but examine your own work and tell me you’ve taken them to heart. If you think I’m making too much of the fantasy, tell me how many of your six-month (or six-week, or six-day) plans came off the way you expected – versus how many went straight off the rails.

In the end, story is a unifying principle for fun work. At Funshop, we measure fun by gathering people’s stories. We know we’re succeeding when they take home good ones. We market our business when those good stories spread.

When was the last time you took home a good story from work?