This is the third in my six-part podcast/newsletter miniseries on friends, allies, and now, reciprocity. Read the full version here, watch it on YouTube with all the graphics, or listen on iTunes or find 'The McFuture' on your favorite podcast app.
We consider those who chase wealth and power selfish narcissists, who’d sacrifice kittens in the back of a pizzeria with Hillary and The Illuminati Lizards (worst do-wop group, ever!). Yet we revere altruists. People who give ‘til it hurts.
In life, there are few unconditional givers, especially in positions of power or influence. We see this with countless activist organizations that outlive their mission, then expand scope, exaggerate problems, or conjure new enemies. They fight for resources, relevance, and survival.
When survival trumps the cause, it’s selfishness.
Climate is a perfect example. A Washington Post survey found those who claim to care about climate change, oppose any taxes needed to pay for it. They’re altruists-in-law.
Turns out, altruists need sugar daddies. Without innovation and growth, there’s nothing to redistribute. And sugar daddies need absolution…and tax write-offs. Both are equally ambitious – and selfish.
Selfishness makes every exchange transactional. All parties must believe they’ll benefit. That’s obvious in business. Those transactions are tangible. But as our lives become more virtual, exchanges turn intangible. So to attract and motivate allies, we must master the art of Intangible Reciprocity.
Proliferation makes any kind of reciprocity harder.
As we’ve blown past the 150 relationships Dunbar said we can handle, each useless new “friend” is also a threat – to demand a favor, a reply, recommendation, or donation.
At the same time, we now have Superman’s hearing, deafened by the digital whimpers of every global struggle, with none of Superman’s power to do anything about it.
Then there’s Instagram, mowing us down with hollow-point FOMO.
We shouldn’t know 98% of it. It makes us feel powerless and depressed. And amounts to voyeurism and distraction. It’s crippling our capacity to care.
But reciprocity demands care.
How do you get someone to care about your issue, when they’re under siege, their circuits fried? When everything is surplus, everything is disposable, including you.
The 4A’s of Reciprocity
When our senses are under siege and problems become psychological, everyone must become a psychologist or sociologist. It’s the only way to attract and motivate allies to get what we want. That’s why everyone’s a marketer, laying tech-enabled mind traps.
Most people we want things from are more powerful and desirable than us. Politicians, executives, celebrities, and so on. Or, they might be colleagues who don’t report to us, but stand between our cubicle and…a more luxurious cubicle. Sometimes, it seems like we have little to offer them, but I came up with a formula that can help.
Reciprocity starts by understanding what your prospective allies value. Clues are everywhere.
Hobbies: A smattering of skiing photos on the bookshelf or signed guitar on the wall.
Priorities and values: What they list first in their Twitter profile. Is it “husband” “mother” or “CEO”? What is their joie de vivre?
Personality/identity: Do they ever joke around or always stoic in those YouTube or podcast interviews? Are they bombastic? Braggadocious? Shy? Technical? Detail oriented or big picture?
Extroversion: Do they have social media accounts? Do they look like they post themselves?
Essentially, all the research a future employer will do on us, is available to us. Use it. Build a profile, just don’t be creepy about it. Don’t start a fanclub or get one of those cork boards with newspaper clippings serial killers use.
The second part of analysis is introspection. What do you want from this person? The more specific your ask, the easier it will be to focus their attention. Niches are magnets.
Also, how big is your ask? Do you need an hour of time, $10,000, or a fulltime job? The bigger the ask, the more work you must do. If the world only had two people – a builder and a farmer, the farmer would need to supply a lot of carrots, over time, to get that new barn.
At the overlap of your needs and theirs, lies your mission.
The next step is assimilation – inhabiting the style, language, mentality, values, expertise, and interests of a prospective ally.
If I’m a writer who wants to attract the attention of Elon Musk, I’d start blogging about space, science and curiosity. That’s exactly how Tim Urban, creator of the popular Wait But Why blog, got an exclusive series of interviews with Elon. Tim spoke his language. Elon listened.
While Tim didn’t set out to meet with Elon, he inhabited a space that would eventually attract him.
The same goes for knowing industry’s buzzwords, history, even PowerPoint style (or lack thereof in Jeff Bezos’s case). I saw this firsthand with the startup industry. Everyone who wanted in, went to every event, read every article, inhaled every ego.
The goal of assimilation is to become an expert at framing your needs in terms of another’s interests. It’s how Tom Sawyer convinced his friends to paint his fence – by making it look so fun his friends didn’t want to miss out.
When you earn a college degree, a promotion, or your study passes peer review, you get “accredited”. An official bullet-point materializes on your resume.
Today, informal accreditation is becoming even more powerful. You can become a top YouTuber, podcaster, writer, musician or entrepreneur by mastering cheap, abundant tools that once required institutional access, snooty gatekeepers and lots of cocaine. We can now self-accredit in fields we couldn’t explain to grandma. And we don’t have to get her high.
But self-accreditation takes time. Sometimes, years of thankless, unpaid toil for an uncertain payoff. A large audience, body of work, expertise, or quality app builds awareness and indirect leverage. With perseverance, audiences – and prospective allies – eventually find quality.
In Econovation, I wrote that the future is auditioning. That future is here.
Tim Urban didn’t do it all with one blog post. He had a body of work, a growing audience. By the time Elon found him, he was accredited in things Elon valued. Elon also likely got Tim’s work forwarded to him by others he respects.
Relationships are the best kind of accreditation. Building direct trust with a prospective ally is great, but not always possible. A warm introduction or enthusiastic endorsement from someone they respect can be as good, worth months or years of trust-building.
Activation is the tactical manifestation of all your hard work. By the time you’re at this step, you’re an object of desire. And just one win – one ally, one act of reciprocity, can quickly become two, three and more. Wins generate personal momentum and attract other prospective allies.
Activation exchanges can be tangible or intangible, positive or negative.
Let’s break it down.
Tangible exchanges are the most obvious. It’s basically business: exchanging money, goods, services, equipment or property. The same applies to relationships.
Want Seth Godin to speak at your conference? Just pay him and he’ll show up, unless it’s something weird or kinky. Even then, offer him more! He might still show up…in that leather duck outfit. I’m kidding. Leather is murder. You might even develop a good working relationship with Seth over time. But it’s still commerce, as are most work-related transactions.
I once contacted a guy who changed careers to become a comedian. I was toying with returning to something I started at 13 on a cruise ship talent show and continued into my 20’s, until 9/11. (That story in the next episode.) Without spelling it out, he made it clear he wanted payment. Fair. He doesn’t owe me anything. But knowing what I know now – what’s in this post – I think I might be able to sway him, without cash.
That’s the point – as our physical needs shrink, more exchanges will become intangible. They’re far more interesting, but unnervingly infinite, like a girlfriend who’s into Bitcoin and mushrooms.
Lots of positive intangibles can generate reciprocity. By “positive”, I mean positive to you or your prospective ally, not society. For example, it’s great to help someone feel accepted, but not to the Aryan Brotherhood.
Positive intangibles include giving someone access to a trusted audience you’ve built (at the Accredit stage). It’s one reason I’ve been able to attract guests like comedian Jim Jefferies, Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, Governor Jesse Ventura, and the late Larry King. They want access to the nearly 800K+ professionals and executives who follow me across LinkedIn, newsletter and other social networks.
Common causes and affiliations can attract allies. Maybe you share their passion for the environment or gaming or wellness. Or, you went to the same university. It can at least open the door to dialogue.
Forty-something year old media personality and wealthy founder of Barstool Sports Dave Portnoy does a podcast with teenage TikTok star Josh Richards. Do they have much in common? Not much more than attraction to the same girls… But Dave recognizes his business relies on his relevance to Gen Z. So there he is, listening to teenagers bicker, like he’s driving a minivan to Thanksgiving with the grandparents.
Asking for advice – and making a killer case for ‘why you?’, can work. But it must be done in bite-sized pieces. Youth can cut you much-needed slack, as can demonstrated diligence and progress towards your goal. Successful people help those who help themselves. Of course, aren’t cut out or ready to be mentors, but you’d know that from the Analyze stage. Here’s a clip where I explain who makes for a good or bad mentor.
Maybe the most powerful intangible is acceptance. Anyone who expresses their ideas publicly craves appreciation and validation of their life’s work. Their status and identity depend on it. This is their legacy. Effective appeals must reflect how they see themselves.
You thought only Gen Z could be non-binary? Au contraire. Some intangibles alternate between positive and negative.
Urgency is one. Few things are truly urgent. But empires have been built on falsifying urgency. Companies like Gilt were once valued at billions for running “flash sales” for items that weren’t especially scarce or valuable. In corporate, we called this creating a “Burning Platform” – simulating urgency, without necessity. One common trick is, “Competitor X is doing Y, we better respond with Z!” Be careful deploying urgency. It’s a grenade that can explode in your hands.
Righteousness borders on religiosity, but people with a passion for or against something love opportunities to prosthelytize. As we’ve seen over the last six years, this button is easy to press with the right stimulus. Being right isn’t enough. It’s the joy of lording it over others. This is the lifeblood of social media “engagement” and hopefully not foreplay for real blood on a battlefield.
I mentioned relationships in the Accredit stage. This is where you use them as leverage…or a weapon. Having a mutual contact whose opinion matters is a tremendous asset. It’s also easy to abuse by asking too much of a mutual connection. It strains both relationships. I’ve seen people casually name-drop for access to people and places. Use with discretion. It’s easy to nuke both relationships after they compare notes.
Negative intangibles can get dark quickly.
At their most innocuous, I’ve witnessed beautiful twenty-something year old women in tight dresses halt conversations among accomplished middle-aged men, whose names you’d know. I don’t begrudge anyone their powers. I’ve got my luscious hair and sparkling personality. We have to use what we’ve got. But used too often or brazenly, beauty can build resentment among peers and other orbiting prospective allies, eventually sabotaging long-term success.
Narcissism, vanity and ego are on the rise, as the world runs out of problems and tangible ways to solve them. For those who did their homework in Analyze and Assimilate, this is where it pays off – if you can find that one thing your target is most proud of. Then, press that button. Genuine flattery can get you everywhere, if it’s genuine. I get emails all the time about how much someone loves my podcast and would make a great guest. But if I can instantly tell they’ve never heard it, it’s better not to say nothing than look phony.
Shame is a powerful tools – and a lab-made virus. There must’ve been a meeting where everyone decided that shaming people into apologies or unemployment is a great way to fix them and punish their sins, no matter how trivial. In reality, it’s a way to mobilize opposition to the oppressive environment this creates. Shame works best as a collective action, like stopping a corporation from polluting a river, using slave labor, or letting Roseanne mean-tweet.
Guilt is a close cousin of shame, but pointing inward. It’s regulated by self-judgement, not judgement by others. It weaponizes a person’s insecurities, sense of privilege, immutable characteristics, or lifestyle to change, feel bad, or shame others to change. Some activism thrives on guilt narratives. “Catholic guilt” gave way to guilt for eating meat, being black or white, or having kids before Greta can save Earth. This tactic only works on the meek and unsuccessful. Those with high self-worth can’t be made to feel guilty, but they will use guilt as a tool to align with their chosen tribe. Ultimately, guilt is a weak power source. Real reciprocity must be powered by value. Value perseveres where charity fails.
Coercion can scare people into compliance. Jeff Bezos famously – and allegedly – threatened Mark Lore, founder of Diapers.com/Quibi, with underselling him and crushing his business. This bitterness motivated Lore to start Jet.com (acquired by Walmart) to try to take down Amazon. You can see how fast this can become unethical or illegal.
I’ve been surprised by how much fuel fear puts in the tank. In the woke witch hunt era, doctors and academics are afraid to speak basic scientific truths, in fear of being fired or scorned by peers. I’d like to believe this is a temporary moral panic that subsides as more people speak up, de-risking it for others.
Lies are the most interesting negative intangible. There’s a charming fake-it-till-you-make-it version some successful people have used – fancy offices, misleading websites, exaggerated projections. But once you’re faking blood tests or financials, you’ve exited the Charm Zone. Even the greatest liars eventually crumble, as their conflicting tales collide beyond their control.
Few relationships are one-to-one. Most pay off over time. Some, never at all. It’s not 1:1. Relationships are a portfolio, where one or two Microsofts absorb the losses for lots of Pets.coms. And with good judgment, we should get better at anticipating which is which.
Periodically, it’s worth taking stock of our deeper relationships with friends, lovers, spouses, colleagues. (Especially if you have both a spouse and a lover.) Take that Marie Kondo moment to ask, ‘Does this relationship bring me joy?’ If not, end it. If it does, invest, especially, if you’re the one slacking. Worthy relationships can’t stay lopsided forever.
This is a work in progress. My thoughts on this are still evolving. Stay tuned for Part 4 in this mini-series: Trust.
Even on an ongoing basis, it’s healthy to take stock of our deeper relationships with friends, lovers, spouses, colleagues. Take that Marie Kondo moment to ask, ‘Does this relationship bring me joy?’ If not, end it. If it does, invest in it, especially if you’re the one slacking.
This is a work in progress. My thoughts on this are still evolving. Stay tuned for Part 4 in this mini-series: Trust.