It occurs to me, in the shower, that a lot of my life is preoccupied by this question. It’s a good theme, for Malcolm Ocean. Whose job is this?
My “what if it were good tho?” YouTube series and website is about the role of design: how each day, people are pulling their hair trying to workably interface with systems, wasting hours of their life, and feeling stupid or ashamed because they can’t figure it out, when in many of these cases an extra couple of minutes’ thought on the part of the person who designed it or made it would have made the whole experience so smooth it would have gone as unnoticed as the operation of the differential gearing in your car that makes turns not result in wheels skipping on the ground as the outer one needs to travel further than the inner one. That guy just works! That problem is so solved most people never even realize it was ever a problem.
My app, Intend, is about the question of what you want to do with your life: about consciously choosing what your job is. It’s also about figuring out what to do right now, in light of the larger things you want to do, and differentiating something someone else wants you to do from something you want to do, so you don’t accidentally live somebody else’s vision for your life instead of yours. Moreover, it helps keep you from being saddled with dozens or hundreds of stale tasks merely because past-you vaguely thought they were a good idea or at least worth putting on a list.
My work in communication, trust, and the human meta-protocol, is about teasing apart the nuances of exactly who is responsible for what. Some of that has been focused around creating post-blame cultures, and I’ve recently come to a new impression that what blame is (aside from “the thing that comes before punishment”) that I could summarize as “a type of explanation for why something went wrong that assigns responsibility crudely rather than precisely and accurately-by-all-parties’-accounts”. In other words, it gets the “whose job is this?” question wrong, and people can tell.
My mum told me that as a kid I had a very keen sense for justice and injustice, and this feels related to how I think about the design stuff as well as other questions. My ethical journey over the last years has involved a lot of investigation of questions around what things are my job, and what things are not my job, and how to tell the difference. And how to catch my breath, and how to reconcile the fears I’ve had of not trying hard enough. And how to tell when the messages about how to be a good person are crazy.
A couple weeks later she texted me:
I eventually found the right phone number (extremely hidden on the website) and waited for a callback and I told the guy my problem and he was like “Try putting a C in front of it” and it worked. He apologized at least, like “yeah that fucking sucks I’m sorry”.
This is such a brilliantly hilariously tragically distilled instance of a situation where clearly it was not Jess’s job to know this obscure secret requirement of the form validator. There is no way she could have possibly known that without calling, given the information she had.
It would be one thing if on the doc where the number came from, it was written like C123456789—I’ve seen numbers like that. But it wasn’t. Maybe it used to be, and they changed it without knowing that other brittle infrastructure was depending on it? To this day, we have no idea why it’s even a C and not some other letter! The number was referred to as her “secretary of state” number, so S would make slightly more sense. Is it for California? But all of these sites were related to California, and there are lots of numbers… why would one of the numbers get the C? Her phone number went in fine without a P or an N or a Q in front of it.
Whose job was this? In some sense it was whoever built the form. In some sense it was whoever hired that person. In some sense it was the entire department that made the website. In some sense it was the California government for hiring the people for that department. In some sense it was the people of California for electing that government. But it definitely wasn’t Jess in her role as “innocent person trying to use the form”.
One of the most tragic things about this is that custom form validators don’t just appear by themselves. Someone went to the effort of writing a custom form validator to block the form from submitting unless the input started with C. Probably that person was assigned that task by someone else, perhaps even just implicitly by having been given one or more examples of a valid number where for some mysterious reason now possibly lost to time, the examples started with C. And the builder assumed that whoever was inputting numbers would know to start it with a C, and furthermore assumed that if someone put in a number with no C at the front, it was wrong, and that this was worth taking a few minutes to create a system that would block such input from being submitted altogether—with no explanation as to how to fix it. Someone whose job it was to make a working form put extra effort into making a form that “didn’t work” for most of the people using it.
This is part of what I mean by saying that people don’t realize they’re making design decisions. They think “I’m just implementing someone else’s design” but almost any design spec leaves many details to be filled in (consciously or unconsciously) by whoever is using it. And people don’t actually take others’ perspectives and imagine what it would be like to get certain error messages, or imagine what exactly has to be true in order for the validation error to be net helpful.
You thought you had one job, but your job contained subjobs that you botched without even realizing you were taking them on.
This happens constantly in more and less obvious ways. In some cases it’s genuinely debatable whose job it was. But it seems to me that with enough investigation from everyone involved, it’s possible to get clear on that (including clear on the specifics of our previous unclarity). And sometimes it’s clearly both: it was both your job to ask, and my job to tell you even though you didn’t ask. Sometimes it’s like that but many levels deep of intertwingled assumptions each person made that led to something getting dropped—Feynman interviewed many people involved in the Challenger disaster and found many parts of NASA that weren’t doing their job, that culminated in the rubber O-Rings not doing theirs in the upper atmosphere. In doubles badminton, until someone calls “mine”, it can be both players’ job to hit the birdie back over the net. Redundancy is good. Redundancy is part of resilience and anti-fragility. But also unnecessary redundancy is expensive, and also sometimes there’s a job that can be done by one party and not by another at all, or would take 2 minutes for one party and 2 days for another.
For this particular instance, with the form, I estimate it would take, inside a remotely functional organization, a few minutes of somebody’s time to do just ONE of the following (a) remove the validator, (b) change the validator, (c) add an instruction to the website that says “put a C in front of the number”. This would save not only 5-60 minutes for EACH person filling in the form (plus potentially hours or days of waiting in confusion, if eg they try to fill it out on a weekend when the call centers are closed, or can’t find the number) but also would reduce load on the call centers that are having to handle people calling in about this—including the wrong call centers, like the people from the California Secretary of State office, who provided the number in the first place.
I remarked to Jess:
But of course, the guy who you talked to on the phone is probably not empowered to fix the page. If I were in such a role I would make sure that got fixed or get fired trying. I would refuse to stay in an organization that I knew had such a ridiculous problem… but this is why I don’t have such a job I guess!
I have a keen sense on some structural level of the importance of people and organizations doing their jobs. My sense is that this is part of what makes me a good designer—I don’t shirk this responsibility. When someone gives me feedback on the Intend app, I never try to convince them that bad is good, actually, or that something that’s clearly my job is actually theirs. If the interface is confusing, there was something in principle that I could have done about it. So I say one of the following, depending on the situation:
But this same intent obsession with whose job things are can trip me up really hard when other people aren’t doing their job and this impacts me.
While this wasn’t Jess’s job, it also was. After all, she needed to do this registration, and given that she couldn’t without figuring this out, it was her job to figure it out. And getting stuck on it indefinitely would have been a kind of abandonment of her responsibilities. “Sorry, donors, the organization went under because I couldn’t figure out how to submit this form so I just stopped doing anything.” One way or another, she needed to deal with it. It was not supposed to be her job, but it was her job.
And those sorts of situations have sometimes been a struggle for me.
It turns out that while “this is not supposed to be my job” is sometimes an accurate thing to think, it’s often a disempowering one. If it turns out that my job is blocked on the lack of someone doing this particular job (or doing it well enough, which for the purpose of this post are the same) then it may not be my job but it is my problem. And dealing with that problem is my job, even if I decide to deal with it by:
But I hate the feeling.
Deep in my soul, I long to live on a planet where everyone does their job—which would of course involve people consistently finding their way into jobs that are a good fit for them. To be honest, my suspicion is that we all have this longing, but most people have all but given up on it. And I refuse to.
I have sometimes loved this about myself. I’m proud of my jaws and my neck, that latch onto something absurd and shake it obsessively, refusing to capitulate to others’ insistence that it’s just the way things are. Yes, I might get accustomed to my new MacBook’s abysmal options for window-management with enough time. And I’ll find the best workarounds I can. But I’ll never submit my dignity to the idea that this is an adequate (let alone good) choice on Apple’s part. It’s not just different tradeoffs, it’s not just different taste, it’s worse. (I’ve concluded that the better hardware is worth giving it a serious shot anyway.)
I have sometimes hated this about myself. My ability to get anything done was tanked for a week when I first got the MacBook, not because of the window-management issues but because I could barely focus due to being so furious and not-my-job about them. I’m nearly incapable of doing something if I disagree with the idea that I’m the right person for the job at this moment, and this is often. I’ve debriefed incidents with people to an obsessive degree that has damaged relationships, because I wanted to sort out exactly whose job each little choice was, and why we each did what we did, so that going forward we have a clearer sense of what to expect of each other.
I have sometimes been ashamed that I couldn’t let go of my fixation on the role someone else played in something going the way it did.
“Oooh, I’m gonna make a post-blame culture, I’ll do it any day now, as soon as these idiots get their shit together.”
But eventually I realized that for me, trying to get rid of blame that way just felt like blaming myself for not knowing how to let go of blame. Maybe some people can do it but my constitution doesn’t want to start there. It feels to me like like letting go of the intensity with which which I care about these questions of roles would have meant letting go of this beautiful vision of a social organism (at whatever scale) where we feel a sense of collective agency because we’re all doing our jobs and we’re fluidly self-organizedly re-clarifying these jobs on all fractal scales. This is the point of the post-blame thing in the first place. And it seems increasingly possible to me to get to post-blame not by loosening our grip on the “whose job is this?” question but to go hard at it—for everyone involved to find common ground about exactly who they assumed was taking care of what, and why, and to be with the pain of all of the gaps there.
The other day, I followed a trailhead from some way in which I didn’t want to take responsibility for something, into a sense of “it’s not okay to not know how” and “it’s not okay to make mistakes”, and various feelings of shame associated with that, going waaaayyy back. Back to my childhood, sure, but way further: the pain of the separation from the divine everything going all the way back to the Fall of Man—Adam and Eve’s encounter with the snake, an event so devastatingly disorienting that it got retconned as the biggest act of disobedience of all time, and the resulting pain as a punishment.
The pain, the punishment, that we’re still inflicting on each other… because we’re so utterly confused about where I end and where you begin. We’re slowly untangling it, it seems.
And in the meantime…
I’ve been practicing letting go of the sense that I’m responsible for things, as part of loosening parts of my own grip. Starting from a place of not expecting myself to do anything in particular makes it way more vivid when I am choosing to be responsible for things. What am I choosing to breathe life into?
What am I taking on?
I can tell that there’s this fear of making mistakes, at least of certain kinds. I’m afraid of saying I’m going to do something then discovering that I “can’t”. Failing. Years of being top of the class and investing my identity in being the type of guy who knows how to do things? Being a fast learner in many domains?
I’m thinking about devotion—the word and the phenomena. I’m playing with idea of renaming “goals” inside intend.do to “devotions”.
I have a kind of devotion to my writing, which is currently urging me onwards, has me putting one word in front of the other even as I’m a bit daunted by what I’m trying to say here. This piece is scheduled to go live in a few hours, and I would like to let it do so, even as dancing the dance of coming back to finish and improve it feels like exquisite and illuminating agony.
Part of me is writing to try to expose my thinking to the world, to reveal who I am at this moment and where I’m at in my learning process. Part of me is writing from a place of feeling like I have things figured out and want to share them. These are somewhat at odds!
I can feel a way in which I’m dancing around something. I got some of it out above.
Why do I think I shouldn’t be having the problems that I’m having? Necessarily, we get stuck in exactly the situations we don’t already know how to get out of.
One of my goals, over the last year or two, has been to grow my business. In that time, I’ve done some user interviews, done some tweeting and writing, made a couple of improvements to the site, and done a major rebrand… but the numbers have not gone up and in some sense I’m no closer to knowing how to make them go up. I’ve also done a lot of therapy and coaching on why marketing seems so hard for me, and found various resistances. One of the weird things I’ve been recognizing is that part of me seems a lot more comfortable doing vague flailing things that might plausibly cause the numbers to go up, than actually taking on the mission of learning, of becoming someone with the skill to make the numbers go up. Of treating this like a situation I could understand and strategically act in.
But at the point when I’ve had a goal of growing my business for years and it hasn’t grown, I have to concede that I don’t know how to do the job of growing it. And that either I need to learn, or I need to hire someone else who I trust knows how to do it. I’ve thought about that, but in some ways that doesn’t solve my problem—the skills required to confidently hire someone I think could make growth happen are also skills I don’t have, and a new kind of responsibility I’d have to take.
So I reframed my goal from “Grow Intend” to “Learn how to grow Intend“. Obviously growing it will be part of the feedback loop by which I learn and by which I assess that I’ve learned, but I’m no longer considering it a win if I just get lucky and Tim Ferriss tweets about me. That would be awesome for other reasons, but that’s not the point here. I’m taking responsibility for having agency here at all, without which the idea of taking responsibility for making a change is a bit of a joke.
It’s too soon to say that this has worked—that would be stating precisely the thing that I don’t know right now. Mostly I feel a kind of weird vacant sense where the old joke of a goal used to be, and a nebulous sense of like… am I about to take a growth-hacking course or something? How do I assess who can teach me this skill? How do I assess what skillset I even want to develop here, given that there are multiple approaches? That’s all my job now, and refusing to do that job was definitely part of the source of the flailing. I can say that I don’t feel like I’m flailing anymore, even if I’m not yet moving gracefully or even really at all.
Within today’s lens of “Whose job is this?”, “it’s all my job” could function as a kind of mantra for radical ownership, as an alternative to “it’s all my fault” which sometimes shows up as an entrepreneur mantra. It’s a powerful mindset shift, to refuse to shrug (or complain) and say “it wasn’t my fault” when something goes wrong, particularly as a leader. If someone shirks their duty, and you hired them and didn’t fire them and didn’t notice, then in a very real way, well, that was also up to you!
I think part of what this does is…
…if my attention has shifted from what I’m moving towards and why that matters to me, and instead I’m fixated on avoiding punishment, which seems to be part of what’s going on with the “it’s not okay to make a mistake” schema in me…
…then I’m going to want to somehow excuse myself. That stance would make me desperate to be able to excuse myself. And I’ve felt that energy, wanting to have someone else tell me how to do marketing so that if it doesn’t work I don’t have to acknowledge that I don’t know how. It’s not just marketing—this has come up recently with healing a foot injury, and with making my curly hair nice rather than frizzy.
But if it’s all my job, then the possibility of making excuses goes right out the window. No more victim mindset. No more complaining to innocent bystanders who didn’t sign up for today’s rant.
I’ll be honest, I really don’t think I’m ready to do that, as one big mindset choice.
It’s not somebody else’s job to transform my mindset, but it’s also not a job for one single moment of Malcolm. I’m vast, I contain multitudes, and some of those multitudes are terrified of sincerely trying to do something and failing. And I don’t know how to approach this.
Writing this piece is tripping me up. There’s part of me that wants to be concluding “this piece isn’t as good as I’d like it to be, and that’s okay” or something but that’s actually part of the old pattern that I’m trying to transform here. Winging it and saying “I didn’t give this my all, please don’t judge me, I could do better if I had to.” The new stance looks… more… like…
This piece isn’t as good as I’d like it to be, and it’s the best I can do right now, and that hurts.
I notice that as I say that, I’m like “is this the best I can do right now? what about the other sections I edited out? maybe I should spend another whole day working on this piece of writing and do even better.” But better according to what standard?
Editing is so fucking weird. I write a sentence and it feels alive when I write it, but unless the whole thing gets published as a stream of consciousness, that utterance is now a static object to get moved around and recontextualized and reworded and so on.
Ah. I can be more precise. This writing is not as alive as I would like, and I genuinely don’t know how to make it more alive right now. That’s the standard I’m feeling a gap with. I could stick those other sections in somehow, and it would make me sound clever for having more thoughts, but more than I want to sound clever I want to be real, and this is as real as I know how to be right now.
Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Intend, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.