The Insider - February 2024

On exceptional newsletters, when to avoid the corner office, freeing the mind, and nordic ski racing.

The Insider - February 2024
Photo by Mercvrie / Unsplash

Hi everyone,

Welcome to the February edition of the Insider. Do you know someone who would enjoy the Insider? Forward this email to them and they can subscribe here.

Making exceptional newsletters effortless

In the last seven years of writing this newsletter, I've learned three things:

  1. Great newsletters build trust at scale.
  2. Consistently great newsletters compound trust over time.
  3. Everything follows trust (customers, revenue, influence, press, followers).

This is why I believe in the power of exceptional, consistent newsletters, and why I’m launching a newsletter studio to write and produce newsletters for organizations that want to build trust with their audience in the inbox, but don’t have the time to do it 1) at an exceptional level of quality and 2) on a consistent basis. I am teaming up with my friend and fellow newsletter writer Kyle Westaway to make exceptional newsletters effortless. If you want to elevate your newsletter and build trust with your audience, let’s chat.

When to avoid the corner office

It is almost an unquestioned assumption that the ambitious should aspire to positions of leadership. In hiring over the last decade, I encountered many who described themselves as leaders, eager to step into positions where they could test their mettle. I, myself, was one. From an early age, I found myself believing that positions of leadership were stations in life endowed with honor and status.

Our well-worn career tracks often guide people into destinations of leadership. As an individual contributor, the reward for exemplary work is first more work, and then it is leadership.

And yet, Arthur Brooks, in an article in The Atlantic, suggests that one of the under-acknowledged reasons that leaders fail is that they actually hate being in positions of leadership. They may be ambitious and even skilled leaders, but the role of a leader doesn’t suit them; it might make them not just lonely, according to research he cites, but also angrier.

I loved being the CEO of Uncharted. It was a platform for creativity and care like never before, but the dominant emotional experience of the role was that of a burden. It coincided with the loneliest periods of my life, when I felt most mentally fragile and most encumbered by the tension between leading a company and doing right by its people.

To choose to be a leader, but not seek the positions of leadership, invites a more expansive definition. It asks us to explore the conditions that contribute to our thriving and the ones that do not. It requires unraveling the connections we’ve made between positional leadership and status, ambition, or reputation. Perhaps most of all, it nudges us to take an honest look at ourselves; to ask, what do we want our days to be like? What do we want our lives to look like? And then, who are we becoming as we go about our work? In those questions, there are the glimmers of a brave and tender self-leadership.

Freeing the mind for poetic surprises

In an exploration of how he structures and writes his novels, the author Amor Towles explained that before he sits down to write, he has outlined every chapter, every scene, and every character. This rational, methodical planning frees up the creative side of his brain to take over in the actual writing process and “create poetic surprises” within the narrative scaffolding that’s been established. If he is staring at a blank page—without having figured out the scene progression, the narrative arc, or the character development—his mind is too busy solving all the administrative problems of building a story and figuring out who does what, when. This mental clutter leads to a “dampening of the poetic side of the consciousness,” he said in an interview.

What an eloquent reflection of the costs of living a fast-paced life—where the poetic side of our consciousness has been dampened by the clutter of our back-to-back schedules, by all the administrative tasks, by our inexorable busyness. Often the cognitive load I carry to juggle everything I attempt to do leaves little room for me to discover life’s poetic surprises. Yes, it’s easier for an omniscient author who controls every twist and turn of a novel to plan it all out and be free to write in the moment, but maybe there is a lesson for us too: to design our days to leave room for the poetic surprises, to set in motion the bigger plans and intentional plots, letting the current carry us forward so that we are not dulled by life’s logistics, but available to glimpse its hidden magic.

What I am reading

  • Though sound is invisible, it’s worth thinking of it as physical pollution. Earth’s acoustic environment and its species have been altered by noise. An article in Noema Magazine explores the chronic stress of noise pollution, and what can be done.
  • As someone who finds small delights in avoiding waste of any kind, I’m always startled to understand how much waste exists in our global supply chains. An article in The New York Times investigated the great train heists of the 21st-century and how it’s often too much hassle to reclaim plundered goods. Consider pairing with this article on the return economy and “reverse logistics.”
  • To me, the hallmark of excellent journalism is when you change your mind on a topic 2-3 times throughout an article. This is what happened to me when reading Jamie Thompson’s article in The Atlantic about why an armed officer would stand by as a school shooting unfolds. In the Parkland shooting, was it the cowardice of the police officer that held him back? His lack of training? And are we asking too much of police officers?
  • To watch: My eye is often not tuned to a show’s cinematography, but the series Expats is so stunningly shot that it awakened me to the art form of cinematography. Each scene is set in unique geometric and architectural frames with warm amber hues contrasted with dark and brooding shadows. It's a cinematographic marvel, with a complex, nuanced plot.

Something personal

To the observer, nordic skiing appears elegant and peaceful; a full-body gliding motion on groomed snow over gentle hills. How hard could it be? I decided to find out by entering a nordic ski half-marathon earlier this month in the mountains of Colorado.

Elegant and gliding it was not. No amount of last-minute watching of Nordic ski race videos on YouTube was enough to save me. Where others optimized their aerodynamics and skated by with a sense of smug nonchalance, I realized early on that I needed to dedicate 60-80% of my attention to not falling over. Where others easily propelled themselves up the hills, I was forced to employ a halting crab-walk that looked like the ski version of the dance move associated with the 2006 song “Walk it Out” by Unk the rapper. The whole experience was exhausting, and I spent more time on the course than most, finishing 214 out of 244, and 17 out of 20 for my age division. It goes without saying that I didn’t buy any of the official race photos they took of me, but I did study them long enough to spot an elderly woman who appeared to be in her late 70s finishing around the same time as I. 

There is something vivifying about any attempts, however amateur, at being a weekend warrior: the chance to explore a subculture of a sport like nordic ski racing, the humbling experience of being so bad at it, and that momentary jolt of adrenaline when the starting gun fires and you're off.