Should You Get That Certification?

Online Certifications are an example of costly signaling.

Costly signaling theory tells us that “the meaning and significance attached to a something is in direct proportion to the expense with which it is communicated.” (Sutherland, p. 178)

I’ve spent a lot of time recently pondering the motivations behind all these certifications. Why are so many companies releasing them? And why is everybody paying for them?

In thinking about this, I’ve found no better analogy than the behavior of bullfrogs during mating season.

Let’s hear from Rory Sutherland:

Bullfrogs advertise their size and health by croaking, the deepness of the croak indicating size and its duration indicating fitness. Females which randomly developed a preference for deeper-throated, more persistently croaking frogs would on balance produce better-adapted offspring, since the trait was reliably correlated with quality. The two traits, deep-throatedness in males and a preference for it in females, will then grow in lockstep, since the genes for both will be increasingly found together.

Sutherland, Rory. Alchemy (p. 200). William Morrow. Kindle Edition.

Female bullfrogs have discovered over many years that their male counterparts signal reproductive fitness through the deepness of their croak and its duration. Therefore, females look for males who display these two traits when picking a mate. It’s simple. If you’re a female, listen for the male with the deepest and longest croak and cozy up to him. This gives you the best chance to reproduce your genes.

The problem is that these signals of fitness can often turn into an arms race. Here’s how Sutherland put it:

If you are a fit bullfrog, how long should you keep up your mating call? The only safe answer to this question is ‘for a bit longer than any other bullfrog nearby’. As a result, a quality that starts off being prized as a useful proxy for fitness becomes exaggerated to an absurd degree, a process sometimes known as Fisherian runaway selection.

Sutherland, Rory. Alchemy (p. 200). William Morrow. Kindle Edition.

When I read about the croaks of bullfrogs, I didn’t dwell on what was going on in nature. I immediately thought about the implications of Fisherian Runaway selection in the coaching world.

Certifications as a Fisherian Runaway

Let me explain.

By spending hundreds or thousands of dollars and investing time and energy into a course and passing the tests, certified coaches signal commitment, trustworthiness, and knowledge.

This is often necessary to get a job in the sports world. In a globalized talent pool, you need to pay the table stakes and find ways to signal your unique value to potential employers.

The problem is that certifications can easily take on Fisherian Runaway properties. If one was good, two is better. Even better than two? Three.

You look on Twitter and see that coach you admire posting about his third completed certification this year and it’s only May.

Well, I guess it’s time to get your fourth.

Our natural tendency is to compete by mimicking what others are doing, but slightly better. Not only is this difficult, but it’s also draining.

If you attempt to signal your value as a coach by getting every certification under the sun, you’re like the bullfrog who tries to croak just a little bit longer than every other bullfrog nearby.

In a world where everyone’s competing by doing the same thing, the only option is to do more; or do it cheaper or faster.

But as Benjamin Franklin once said:

“If everybody is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.”

I may be a bit Utopian in my thinking, but I believe there’s a better way.


I want to make this clear, I don’t think certifications are bad. If a certification will make you better, by all means, get the certification. What I am warning against is getting certifications as a means of competing and signaling instead of learning.

Weeds, Flowers, Bees, and the Signaling In-Between

Consider the following quote by Rory Sutherland in Alchemy:

When signalling their enthusiasm for a potential nesting site, bees waggle about in an exponential relationship to its quality; the amount of energy they expend in the signalling of a potential nest site is proportional to their enthusiasm for it. But they also make use of expensive ‘advertising’, in order to decide where to devote their time and attention.

The advertisements which bees find useful are flowers – and if you think about it, a flower is simply a weed with an advertising budget.

Flowers spend a great deal of their resources convincing customers that they are worth visiting. Their target audience is bees, or other insects, birds or animals that may help to pollinate the flower – a process that dates back at least to the time of the dinosaurs. For the pollination process to be effective, the flower needs to convince the customers of its worth. To borrow the language of the Michelin Guide, a flower can be ‘vaut l’étape’, ‘vaut le détour’ or ‘vaut le voyage’; ‘worth stopping at’, ‘worth going out of your way for’ or ‘a destination in itself’. To do this, the flower places a costly bet, offering a generous source of nectar that rewards bees for their visit, and encourages them to stay at the flower for long enough to collect pollen on their bodies for dispersal elsewhere. But this nectar is kept out of sight – how can the flower, at a distance, convince the bee of the existence of a reward which it cannot verify until it has already exerted time and effort?

The answer is that they use ‘advertising and branding’ – they produce distinctive, hard-to-copy scents and large, brightly coloured petals. These are noticeable, but producing them is risky, as they may attract the attention of herbivores that might eat them. The distinctive scent and petals act as a reliable (though not infallible) proxy for the presence of nectar, which a bee can use to help decide whether the visit is worth it or not.

A plant which has sufficient resources to produce petals and scent is clearly healthy enough to produce nectar, but using its resources for distinctive display will only really pay off if bees visit more than once, or if they encourage other bees to join them – there is no point in advertising heavily up front if you only make one sale. When you come here, the display says, I’m betting that you’re going to come back, or all my effort will have been wasted.

The system of information-sharing between the two species is also reliable – there is often a correlation between the size of petals and the supply of nectar. This saves a lot of wasted visits, because it means that a bee can tell from some distance away whether a plant is ‘a destination in itself’. It also requires that the plant use their resources on being distinctive as well as noticeable. If any type of flower is a better source of nectar, this generosity will only be rewarded with ‘customer loyalty’ if bees can learn to recognise it and so choose to make repeat visits. If all flowers looked and smelled alike, any incentive they offered to the bee – more nectar, perhaps – would be ineffective, because the bee might not be able to distinguish between that kind of flower and other less rewarding plants. It is only by having a recognisable identity that a flower is able to improve the value exchange and increase the chance of repeat visits.

Sutherland, Rory. Alchemy (pp. 190-192). William Morrow. Kindle Edition.

We often think of signaling as a negative aspect of human behavior. We don’t need to think this way. As Sutherland points out, signaling is responsible for thousands of years of reproduction in nature.

Remember, a flower is simply a weed with an advertising budget.

The False Dichotomy of Signaling

Signaling does not exist in the dichotomy that is good or bad.

Signaling can be both good and bad. Whether it’s good or bad entirely depends on context and meaning. And while it’s neither good nor bad, it is undeniably necessary. 

Signaling is, as Rory Sutherland writes in Alchemy, the need to send reliable indications of commitment and intent, which can inspire confidence and trust. Signaling is a mechanism used by humans, birds, frogs, bees, and flowers to inspire trust and generate commitment.

Much has been made about the negative sides of signaling. The affluent New York finance employee driving a fancy red car to signal his wealth to potential mates comes to mind. Our mental model of signaling is skewed by always thinking of the negative extremes shown in Hollywood films.

While the negative examples easily come to our mind, there are plenty of positive examples that bear this out.

Have you ever had a pleasant customer service experience? Customer service is interesting because usually, you’ve already purchased the product. The company already got value from you, so what’s their motivation for now helping you solve the problem? You guessed it. Companies know that it’s cheaper to keep an existing customer than to acquire a new one, so they go above and beyond to keep and inspire additional trust and commitment in you towards them by helping you with your problem. Your repeat business is what they’re after, and they’ll help you with service and a smile to signal they’re worth it.

We’d do well to scale down our understanding of signaling to the everyday actions we take. As an example, let’s think about me making my wife coffee in the morning before we start our work days. By doing this, I’m signaling. But what am I signaling, exactly? Perhaps that I’m caring, able to provide for her, and attentive to her. Is that bad? Am I evil for having these subconscious motivations underpinning my actions? I think not.

Commitment and trust are two-way streets, and signaling helps people establish the roads to get there.

We must stop having a knee-jerk negative reaction to signaling. Signaling in and of itself is a false dichotomy. It’s neither inherently good nor bad. It just is, and its meaning depends on context.

Costliness and sacrifice are the prices of trust. Signaling is the mechanism we use to get there. Let’s not be afraid of signaling, and instead embrace it for the necessary part of our lives that it is.

The Price of Trust

In nature, a flower’s vibrant petals and pleasing aroma are signals that the flower has nectar to share. These signals attract bees and lets them know that they are a stop in which the bee can be a frequent customer. Just like flowers, we too are sending signals to others all day long to inspire long-term confidence and trust.

Life is signaling.

We all feel an intrinsic need to get other people to trust us. That’s what signaling is all about.

Here’s the thing about signaling: it isn’t cheap. Every signal we send comes with a cost.

Trust-building is hard work. Building trust requires the long-game.

The mom and pop shop on Main Street with an “Est. 1954” sign above the door frame helps us believe that we can trust the owners. They have reputational skin in the game and therefore have something to lose if they play the short game and rip us off.

Signals are effective when they inspire trust.

When bees visit a vibrant, pleasantly-smelling flower, you know that trust has been built. If that flower emitted the scent without any nectar available, the bees would quickly discover that flower to be a fraud and would not return. That’s why flowers play the long game. They need the bees’ continual pollination for their survival, so they’re not going to rip off the bees in a one-time deal.

The Costliness of Meaning

According to Rory Sutherland, meaning and significance are directly proportional to the expense with which a message is communicated. Said more succinctly, “costliness carries meaning.”

The lengths to which we go to deliver a message often help the recipient determine if they should trust us. This is the idea behind Costly Signaling Theory.

This principle can be seen in the way a man conveys an interest in a woman.


Types of Costly Signaling

There are many types of costly signaling, only limited by the creativity of your mind.

Here’s a brief list, given to us by Rory Sutherland in Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life.

  • Creativity
  • Effort
  • Cost ($)
  • Talent
  • Time
  • Skill
  • Humor
  • Bravery

Sacrifice is the Price of Trust

The extent to which you sacrifice and absorb costs in the short-term convey long-term cooperation. A commitment to long-term cooperation is better known as a reputation. The best way to build a good reputation among others is to continually sacrifice your present good for a cooperative future great.

Costliness is the price of trust. To build trust, you must be willing to sacrifice something. Sutherland points this out:

“Quite simply, all powerful messages must contain an element of absurdity, illogicality, costliness, disproportion, inefficiency, scarcity, difficulty or extravagance – because rational behaviour and talk, for all their strengths, convey no meaning.”

Rory Sutherland

To make this more concrete, here’s a brilliant example of creativity, humor, and bravery in a wedding invitation from Alchemy:

Costly signals come in many forms, and they can all be effective. But which one you choose can convey a lot about what you’re trying to say.


Thanks to Rory Sutherland for his book, Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life. Most of the ideas in this post came from that book. It’s wonderful. You should consider reading it.

Building a DIY Second Brain

The way you’ve been taught to write is wrong.

Mannon continues the thread with the following suggestion:

“It’s better to write first, then research second.”

But, you ask, how can I write without researching? Don’t I need to gather information before I even know what I can write about?

You’d be right, but that thinking is a mistake of modern-day writers.

David Perell and Tiago Forte have revolutionized my relationship to information. Through them, I’ve learned a system for capturing the best information I find and then turning it into published works (like this blog post).

Forte teaches an online course called Building a Second Brain (BASB) where he teaches students how to create a note-taking system that transforms their productivity. Perell built a follow-up course called Write of Passage that is BASB applied to help students become prolific writers.

These courses sound amazing. In fact, I want to enroll in both. The only problem? They’re beyond my price range for now.

Fortunately, you can build a “DIY” version for very cheap using information freely/cheaply available online.

I created a Twitter thread on how to do that.

For your convenience, I have expanded on those steps below.

Best wishes to you as you build your second brain!

The Seven Steps to a DIY Second Brain

  1. Sign up for Evernote, Instapaper, and LINER.
  2. Watch the Smart Sync Workshop and build out what they talk about
  3. Sign up for ($10)
  4. Read the PARA, Progressive Summarization, and Just-in-Time Project Management Series
  5. (As you read, build out your system)
  6. Extra credit: Read the Theory of Constraints series
  7. Continue to iterate

Sign up for Evernote, Instapaper, and LINER.

Personally, I pay for Evernote‘s yearly subscription (and always will) and Instapaper’s $3/month plan. I use the free version of LINER.

Watch the Smart Sync Workshop and build out what they talk about

Sign up for ($10)

Tiago Forte has spent a TON of time going into insane detail on building a second brain on his blog that can be accessed for the price of the two Starbucks lattes. The first step is to pay $10 to get access for a month. Then, it’s time to start reading.

Read the PARA, Progressive Summarization, and Just-in-Time Project Management Series

Your curiosity may take you to other articles on the site, but these are the ones you NEED to read. Read these in Instapaper and export your highlights into Evernote since you know how to do that now.

(As you read, build out your system)

Not every post will give you something that you can do immediately. Many of them will. Iterate with each piece of relevant information.

Extra credit: Read the Theory of Constraints series

If you like to read, this is a good one. It’s probably worth your time, but not necessary.

Continue to iterate

Your system can only improve if it breaks down.

Tiago Forte (paraphrase)

Your second brain is going to fail you. You’re going to want it to do something that it’s not built to do yet. That’s not a problem, it’s an opportunity to iterate and improve.

It’s not too different from your real brain.

I hope this article proved helpful for you.

If it did, you will love my Tanner Talks email newsletter. It comes out monthly (bi-weekly during the off-season) and is full of the most interesting things I’ve learned. I draw on my second brain to write it, and I hope you’ll consider joining the 119 others who have subscribed.