With the holidays upon us and two extraordinarily difficult years behind us, I’ve been reflecting on the impact of long periods of isolation many of us have experienced. Curiously it’s not all bad, because I think we have learned to appreciate the time we have alone as well as with others.
Balance offers us a framework for interpreting our thoughts and actions in a dynamic set of circumstances we can neither predict nor control. Resilience is all about never ceding optimism to defeat, but all of us have a breaking point where too much uncertainty creates doubt in our sense of self and others. I think we need both individual and shared strength to be at our best, and holding onto hope that we can overcome doubt is very much an exercise we pursue separately and together.
As we ready ourselves for another year of daunting and exhausting challenges, here are a few perspectives I’m attempting to balance to better navigate the always unpredictable social landscape:
Separately we study in quiet;
Together we validate the suppositions of that study.
Separately we examine the data collected from our experiments;
Together we wrestle that data into a platform of possible directions.
“Someone has to tell me why we keep allowing social media and our very lives as social creatures to be dictated by the most socially awkward person in history.” — Bill Maher
I have the same nagging question. The self-celebrating visionary Mark Zuckerberg continues to express that he knows something about building human ties that the rest of us can learn from his business mission. I see scant evidence that Zuck can guide us anywhere better than where we are at the moment or have been. There is near zero chance that he is going to stop talking because his determined point of view is driven by a conflicted agenda where he benefits most. I am done listening.
I recently learned a new acronym: IRL. You’re probably ahead of me, but it means In Real Life. That would be the opposite of what we bucket today under the category of virtual. Virtual would be something other than sharing the same physical space. Zoom is virtual. Social media is virtual. Running around in a 3D online game space is virtual. Meta is virtual.
If you already know this, forgive me for catching up late. Here’s something that might irritate you even more: I don’t like Meta. Agreed, I don’t like the company now known as Meta, but I really don’t like the idea of meta.
Said better, if I have a choice to interact with you in person—In Real Life—unless we’ve already established an unrepairable dislike for each other, I would prefer to interact with you in shared physical space over shared electronic space. I believe we get more done in person more quickly. I believe there are fewer errors in interpretation when we are together in person. I believe our relationship has a better chance to improve in person. I believe our manners are better in person.
That doesn’t mean I don’t see a role for virtual, I just prefer IRL. Virtual has proven more accessible, often more practical, certainly more economic. The compromise is that virtual leans toward purely transactional exchange, algorithmic efficiency often at the expense of building emotional intelligence. There’s the rub—a lot can get lost when we eliminate nuance from contact.
Zuck probably doesn’t agree. I don’t think the renaming of Facebook to Meta is simply a PR stunt to get us to see past the failings of the platform called Facebook. I think he saw the early experiment called Second Life as an end, not a means. He lives better in the virtual. He belongs in the virtual. He wants us to join him in the virtual. He can be King of All Data in the virtual.
Count me out.
My sense is much of the unbearable divisiveness we are experiencing results from too many of us coming to the conclusion that virtual, or meta, is a substitute for IRL. I’ll accept virtual as an adjunct to IRL—an extension, enhancement, or convenience to supplement IRL. I also think we need to relearn IRL, and quickly, because human contact is a big part of what makes us human. Creating a machine interface between us does not always extract our best selves.
Regretfully, I am a hypocrite on this. I worked with an innovative team at Disney over a decade ago that created ToonTown Online, the first massively multiplayer universe for kids and families, complete with third-party vetted built-in safety. We never intended this virtual playground to be a substitute for recess or a replacement for after-school outdoor activity. It was meant as an alternative for when that playground wasn’t available, particularly for children dependent on parents for logistics.
I don’t think alternative or supplement is what Zuck has in mind. I think primary platform is what he has in mind, as addictive as Facebook, but even more isolating. We will have less agency in Meta. We will have less freedom. We will behave less well.
Zuck will have more authority. Zuck will have more control over directing our actions. Zuck will revel in even less oversight. Zuck will make more money.
Dystopian fiction usually takes us on a gradual journey into descent. In well-told stories, it doesn’t happen in an instant. We are drawn in slowly. Then we realize we have been had and are trapped. Kind of like Facebook.
I see a revolt on the horizon. It won’t look like January 6. It will be the alternative to getting “Zucked” in. Slowly we will grow tired of Facebook. Meta will fail, because IRL is better.
Several years ago during another public flare-up, I posed this question: Is Facebook the Next AOL? Then as now, I wondered if the voracious beast would devolve into oblivion. Why does that destiny today seem even more possible? Because Meta is fundamentally flawed. It advances a business agenda over a human objective. It presumes addiction is a higher-order force than graciously serving customer needs.
Zuck early on said the purpose of Facebook was to make the world more open and connected. He lied. How do I know that? Because he walked away from that proclamation the same way that Google walked away from don’t be evil. It was too hard to be consistent and authentic. Eliminating the binding pretension made it way easier to generate exponentially more cash.
The purpose of Facebook is to collect vast amounts of personal data and leverage it for advertising value. I’m actually okay with that. It’s a true and understandable business objective. We can resist it. We will resist it.
The purpose of Meta is to head-fake us from the world we need to improve to an alternate reality we can never make better than the one we can experience IRL. Even John Carmack, the technical genius behind Oculus, knows the vast details behind building a metaverse are well beyond the hype of advocating for its imminent commercial deployment.
Here’s a thought, Mr. Meta: Fix some of the nasty problems you’ve already created moving fast and breaking things before you dump another pile of poorly considered conflict on us.
Lest you be readying to drop the Luddite card on me, please know that I remain wildly optimistic about the application of virtual reality and augmented reality to medical and other scientific research. I also bear no grudge toward the gaming community, which gave birth to my career, as long as it approaches immersive gaming in a healthy balance with healthy living.
My gripe is with Zuck and anyone else advocating isolating technologies. Escape is not a viable substitute for learning to develop coping mechanisms that lead to mastery of the highly demanding but uniquely rewarding anything-but-meta real world.
Let’s hear a cheer for evolving our delicate mastery of IRL.
Avoidance of human beings in person is not a strategy for learning how to navigate the human landscape, which is created in a natural state to be physical first, virtual as an adjunct and counterpoint. A little social media now and again probably won’t ruin our lives, everything in moderation. Digital sharing can have its place when it defies obsession. I suggested a better rebranding of Facebook might have been Happy Birthday Central. That would celebrate its finest function.
Focus on the basics as we revisit each other IRL: being polite, making eye contact, actually laughing when something is funny rather than typing LOL. Go outside for walks, and when it’s safe to be maskless, smile at passersby. Feel the sun and the rain on your biological skin and be thankful for the gift of our senses.
We truly are a unique blend of the physical, psychological, and dare I say, spiritual. Productive communities are established in tangible places before they become replicated models. There remains evidence to suggest we can be better together than separate. It takes work to keep producing this evidence, but my experience is that removing an LED screen between us offers a dimension of clarity that is otherwise less satisfying and cannot be replicated.
When we let Zuck know we are out on Meta and all-in on true human connections, the real agenda of living with advanced technology can continue. As I have written so many times, technology is advancing much more quickly than our ability to make sense of it. This is not a secret. It’s why we feel anxiety. It’s why we don’t like Mark Zuckerberg when his answers to the hardest questions are unsatisfactory. His vision will not be our vision.
Bill Maher summarized his point of view in his recent ‘New Rules’ segment on Real Time succinctly: “The more time you spend in the virtual world, the more you suck at engaging in the real world.”
Given too many of my own interactions in the pandemic recovering world, I find that awfully and unfortunately compelling.
I’m not just talking about the quality of customer service. I’m talking about the opportunity a company’s customer service department offers to its employees.
Sure, some call center gigs are dead-end jobs. Let me give you an example of what happens when the people who work in customer service know they are an afterthought to brand loyalty.
I recently had one of the worst experiences ever with a brand I have loved for decades. That brand is Hewlett-Packard, once arguably the single most shining icon in all of Silicon Valley history. The second HP printer I had purchased in three years died. Although I suspected HP had devolved into more of a subscription ink factory than a technology innovator, I bought the second printer with a two-year warranty to make sure it lasted two years. It did not.
When I called for support, I was handed off dozens of times from one failed interaction to another. Their technical training was all over the map, but no one could solve my problem. They put me on hold without setting time parameters. They dropped calls and didn’t call me back as promised. I invested hours in this runaround until my wife asked me what I thought my time might be worth to continue being poorly treated.
My case was escalated with the eventual offer of a “refurbished” printer because they did not have a record of my two-year warranty, even though I sent them documentation supporting their brand promise. The escalation manager had a broken headset and couldn’t complete our phone call, thus redirecting our negotiation to email spread over days. Finally I gave up and now own a competitor’s branded printer. I will never again own an HP printer. The HP Way is no more. That is a customer tragedy.
This got me thinking about all the product managers, software engineers, and information technology professionals I have hired or promoted out of customer service over the years. I don’t think of customer service as a cost center; I think of it as a profit center. Customer service is a place we invest in our brand and invest in our people. When we do that, our customers benefit and our employees benefit. That is the definition of a win-win.
If you are reading this today in an executive marketing role, ask yourself how you categorize the expense of customer service. Is it a necessary evil where unappreciated, low-paid people might be severing ties with your customers? Or is it a gateway for talent to join your company where well-trained people do their best to bond customers for life and in doing so ready themselves for significantly greater career opportunities within your enterprise?
For those of you currently in a customer service job, the question you might ask yourself is how you can transform your current day-to-day, sometimes thankless complaint handling into a launch pad that puts you on a path to be considered for your boss’s job and later your boss’s boss’s job. It happens, I promise you, but only if you position yourself to make it happen. Here’s a simple framework.
Look for an emerging company where promotions are frequent rather than a legacy behemoth where you’ll never got out of the boiler room. Don’t envision the call center where you work as a windowless dungeon, even if you are working at home, but instead see yourself in a trend-setting pool hall where you are setting up your next shot. If you are so remote and isolated from corporate management that no one who can promote you will ever know who you are, then you probably are in an inescapable place. Since you’ve chosen to do the work, do it somewhere where you will be noticed and appreciated.
Learn Every Day
The work you do today answering emails, chatting, or talking to customers on the phone is just that—it doesn’t have to be the work you do forever. Ask yourself: What did you learn from your last customer interaction? What did you learn about the product technology when you searched the database to address a customer’s problem? What insights about the next-generation product features have you gleaned from the thrashings you endure listening to the gripes of unhappy customers? One of these days you are going to bump into a company leader in the hallway who might ask for your opinion on something. Do you have an opinion that is built on valuable learnings that make you unquestionably promotable when that opportunity surprisingly emerges?
Do More Than You’re Asked
You were hired to do a job the person to the left of you and the right of you can do. If you do just that job, you will get paid as promised, rinse and repeat. If you want to do more, ask to do more. Volunteer for special projects. Don’t wait to be asked. Show initiative. Go to your manager and say you’d like to write a white paper on why returns are so high on a current product in market. Maybe your manager says yes, maybe no. If they say no too many times, see the section above labeled Choose Wisely. I tell every manager wanting to be a director and every director wanting to be a VP the same thing: Find a way to start doing the job you want before you have it. Those are the kinds of people companies want to retain. A customer service associate who knows things becomes a company leader who can fix things. Claim your own success.
Gut It Out
When your boss is unhappy with your performance, don’t quit on the spot because your feelings are hurt. Find out why your boss is displeased. If you ask and get a candid answer, listen to the critique calmly and internalize it. If you don’t get an honest answer, see the section above labeled Choose Wisely. If your boss suggests you are dialing it in and not living up to your potential, maybe this is a wildly constructive moment. Accept the feedback, up your game, and try even harder to do the best job you can. Leaders in companies do not give up because they have a bad week, a bad day, a bad hour, or a bad customer interaction. If you can hang tough in customer service, you have a shot at hanging tough when you are promoted. Grit matters, not just because of what it teaches you about resilience, but because of what it says about your commitment to exceeding expectations.
Love your brand, love your customers, love the opportunity hiding behind the door that is not yet open, and when you nudge that door open, your entire life might change in an instant. How sure am I? I’ve seen it happen hundreds of times. I’ve also seen too many times what happens when a company doesn’t get this right and spirals into oblivion. Taking your customers for granted as you grow is a clear path to the dead brand graveyard. A culture of aligned incentives that secures customer engagement is the rocket fuel that resists inertia.
Last month I wrote briefly about the fallacy of the upper hand. The responses I received from people navigating similar bouts of forced will remind me how not normal our lives remain. Over the past year and a half, many employees have learned to work remotely, and to some the routine of working from home is now its own form of normalcy. At the same time, we are increasingly returning to the workplace and trying to adjust to the structure of sharing a space with colleagues and strangers for a third of each day.
To assume everyone can walk back into the workplace and public spaces without some enhanced focus on conduct seems to me naïve. Human beings are certainly adaptable, but I worry that we might be presuming a level of adaptability that confuses the comfort zone of individuals with the smooth functioning of collective interests. You’ve no doubt heard about the outbreaks of passenger rage on commercial flights. They are not as isolated as we might want to believe.
Covid-19 has taken away a lot of daily practice from our interactions. It’s not just that it is easy to forget how different it is to interact in person than it is to communicate through electronic platforms. Talking into screens is not a fully rendered substitute for being together. We have developed habits in our physical solitude that have taught us to be effective in doing what is expected of us, but some of those habits may not make the most of opportunities to emerge with a broader purpose. We may find it easier to behave in certain ways when we are alone than when we are together, and bridging those geographies may not be as simple as flexible switching between environments in what many now label as hybrid work.
There is more to the next generation workplace than where we do what we do. There is a mindset I think we need to share—a set of shared values—that seems to me more traditional than circumstantial. If we want to adapt to new paradigms for interacting, perhaps the rules governing those interactions are agnostic to place. It seems critical with the perpetual noise around us that as we adjust to the new back-to-work standards we insist on a standard of decency in our endeavors.
In recommitting to an extraordinary standard of civility, here are four simple pillars I would expect of myself and others.
Tell the Truth
When I say tell the truth, I mean all the time. It’s easy to tell the truth when it is what others want to hear and it avoids controversy. It is much harder to tell the truth when we have made a mistake, when data is being manipulated by someone in authority, or when the cost of that truth is one’s own popularity. The problem with honesty is that it can’t be a tool of convenience. We must tell the truth not because there is penalty if we don’t, but because we cannot universally insist on it from others if we don’t stand by the promise that it is inarguable. Understand what is empirical and fully embrace integrity. Silence when the truth is known is not a noble dodge, it is another form of mistruth.
Your Name Belongs to You
Unless one’s life is at risk for civil rights abuses, most of what people author anonymously is cowardly. We can argue the difference between old media and new media is the presence of an editor creating an artificial funnel on access to audience, but one of those old school norms was the expectation in authorship of identity. We should write with a by-line, with our name associated with our thoughts, and with our style of verbal and written communication enhanced by our ownership of that expression. You have only one good name. Protect it through accuracy, clarity, absence of pointless invective, and even if eloquence is beyond reach, at least frame the deliberate use of language in a context that is purposeful.
We can stand on our authority, or we can strive to get people on our side. It has never been clearer to me that style is content, that the outcome we are trying to achieve is inextricably linked to the form of our argument. Approach those around you with respect and there is a much higher chance they might be interested in the thought behind the point you are making rather than just the interpretation of their role in the outcome. Avoid the opportunity to build consensus at your own peril, but even when you must deliver the top-down tiebreaker, do it with finesse, restricting the hammer to the impossible sell. The Golden Rule survives the centuries because some ideals do make sense even when we fail ceaselessly to take them seriously. Hear the words you are saying. Would they get you encouraged, inspired, and onboard?
Survivors know that careers can last or not. The yes you got today—the yes that was so important you worked tirelessly for months to hear—is as fleeting as any other decision in the moment. Short-term action without a long-term framework is a high-risk gamble. Telling a half-truth might get you to the end of the week. Cleverly masking your name from an unpopular report might get you through the review cycle. Effectively bullying a coworker might swing a lost debate to your advantage. All of those will cost you. Steve Jobs used to talk about brand deposits and brand withdrawals. You need both in balance to build a lasting brand—to establish and reinforce a credible promise. You can’t make deposits and withdrawals at random and go “up and to the right” repeatedly without a plan. The winning strategy when others are winging it is to think long.
Welcome to the new world. Sounds a lot like the old world, only with less commuting. Count me in.