The Sliding Scale of Giving a Fuck

During my first big project at Etsy, completely overhauling our Item Reviews system, I was paired with Andrew Morrison, an incredibly talented engineer (and now a very good friend). Andy cared a lot about not just the code he wrote, but the product itself - how it was designed, how it worked, how elements on the page lined up together. He never shied away from asking questions about the design directions I proposed, nor about suggesting his own solutions for making the product work.

For the most part, our relationship worked pretty well. At times, however, I’d find myself in endless, circular arguments with Andy on how the product should function. What are the rules for when an item can be reviewed? What about problems with an item? How long should a single review impact the overall average for the shop? Should this flow be two steps, or should we consolidate down to one? Between the two of us, we could easily spend half an hour debating these topics, both advocating for our different points of view and trying to convince the other that we were right. And while most of our topics merited the scrutiny, at times I felt like he was pushing back on something extremely small and inconsequential, which in turn led me to push back even more.

One day, we were going a few rounds over a small detail (I can’t even remember what it was, honestly) when Andy suddenly brought the conversation to a halt:

Hold on a second. I’m like a two-out-of-ten on this. How strongly do you feel?

I’m probably a six-out-of-ten, I replied after a couple moments of consideration.

Cool, then let’s do it your way.

I realized two things at that point. First, sometimes Andy just likes a good, healthy debate (to ensure that we’ve thought through everything). Secondly, I was frequently out of touch with how strongly (or not strongly) I felt about a particular topic of discussion. Regularly, I’d find myself impassioned more towards the ten-out-of-ten side of things, mostly because I wasn’t stopping to think about the scope and importance of those topics.

Ever since then, I’ve found myself more and more rating both my feelings and the importance of any particular decision on that same one-to-ten scale. Is the decision non-critical and I don’t actually care that much one way or another? Then I’ll voice my preference, but follow up with “but I’m a two-out-of-ten on this, so whatever you want to do is fine.” Is the topic mission-critical, with far-reaching effects? My opinion will probably be a bit stronger and I’ll debate a bit harder or longer.

Interestingly, it turns out that many, many of the decisions I’m a part of day-to-day and week-to-week rate pretty low on the scale. It’s rare that I find myself beyond a five, which is probably right. Someone said to me once: if everything is an emergency, then nothing is. Similarly, if I’m a ten-out-of-ten on every single decision I’m ever a part of, how can anyone know or trust me when I say something’s very important to me? Having an internal barometer for what’s important and what’s less critical is incredibly useful for helping others trust your responses to ideas and proposals.

Not only that, but I’ve found myself now reading others’ internal barometers. There have been a few times recently when I could tell someone felt far more strongly about a decision than I did. So, I acquiesced, with the hope that the next time I’m a ten-out-of-ten on a topic with that person involved, they’ll recognize that and hear me out. If you can let go of the things that don’t matter so much to you directly, you can build currency with others and earn their trust when you do wind up pushing back.

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