To Be of Use

I’ve always bristled when I walk into an elevator and someone greets me with, “Only two days until Friday.”  The notion that our weekdays are a hamster wheel counting down to time away from work has never sat right with me.

It’s not that work isn’t sometimes hard, or even a drag. And I too love the weekends.

But, if we are lucky, we are often finding the beauty in our work, the moments of connection and self-expression, the pride what we have created, our own job well done.

It’s clear when a potter or a painter creates something that this thing exists because of them. It is the product of their art, their devotion and their vision.

Why any less so for the rest of us?

Last week, a teammate of mine shared this beautiful poem with me: To Be of Use, by Marge Piercy.

It captures the subtle beauty of a job well done, and the attitude it takes to toil every day, while also seeing that our strain and our sweat, and our time in the muck, is what it takes to create a thing of beauty.

“Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.”

Speaking of which, I recently was on the We Are for Good podcast, speaking with Becky Endicott and Jon McCoy. It was a joyful conversation about philanthropy, nonprofits, and the people who work in them and give to them. At the end I go on a bit of a rant about finding connection and meaning in our work. Enjoy.


To Be of Use, by Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.

They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Longitudinal Learning

Our days are made up of repeating patterns.

The same walk we take, or transportation we ride in. The same elevators we stand in and lunch spots we frequent. The places we take our kids.

Try this: instead of going on auto-pilot in these spaces (or, worse, reflexively taking out your phone), stay present.

Use your eyes, your ears, your nose, to take in your surroundings.

If you do this, in time you’ll discover:

  1. Things you’ve literally never seen before, even if you’ve walked by them hundreds of time
  2. Subtle changes in a seemingly fixed landscape, changes that reveal surprising truths over time

Our brains are wired for pattern recognition, sense-making and storytelling.

This also means that we create shortcuts, losing the nuance of wherever and whenever we are, calling it “this elevator”, “that bus,” “that conference room” as if it’s fixed for eternity.

But our reality is not fixed, it is ever-changing, if only we take the time to notice.

Here’s an experiment: imagine each day in these “same places” is one frame in a movie that plays over time.

Then, imagine yourself watching that movie, with one frame from each day, over weeks, months or years.

What story would unfold?

What surprising changes would you witness?

And how much of what evolves comes from changes in the landscape versus changes in the viewer?

Predicting the Future

More often than not, when we’re predicting the future, we think something along the lines of:

“Because I feel like this now, I’m sure that I’m going to feel like this later.”

 This is the biggest trick our mind plays on us, based on the fallacy that there’s some inexorable link between my today experience and my future experience, whether that future is next week or next month.

The relationship between these two things is almost nonexistent, but this simplistic, misleading thought is the source of countless cycles of stress and worry.

As in:

“I feel stressed and overwhelmed now, and things are only going to get busier, so I will surely feel more stressed and more overwhelmed in a month’s time. And I won’t be able to handle that.”

There’s a reason why every athlete’s post-game/match interview is so unrelentingly boring, when they talk about “I just tried to approach the match one point at a time, and I kept fighting until the end, knowing it wasn’t over until it was over.” The only answer is to have this moment be this moment, and the next moment be the next one.

Today I feel the way I feel today.

Tomorrow I will feel another way.

If a strong pattern emerges that connects these two things, and it’s a pattern we don’t like, then by all means we need to make a structural change.

But a few days when we’re dragging can become an unbearable weight if we convince ourselves that the way we feel now is the way we’ll feel forever.

We’re terrible at predicting the future, so the best thing to do is to stop pretending otherwise.

It Doesn’t Matter if You Have New Ideas

One of the things that holds people back is a false filter: “Is this idea entirely new?”

Of course it’s not. Not entirely.

And that doesn’t matter.

Because your audience came here for you. And the fact that, out of everything out there in the world, today you choose to share this — that is what is meaningful.

It means that you picked this idea because it stands out, because it is useful and insightful and maybe a little bit surprising.

And since your audience trusts and listens to you, they will be more likely to pay attention to, consider, and act on this idea.

Better still, you might explain this idea in a new way—in your voice—and, in so doing, make it more likely that this group of people will hear it.

Importantly, these concepts apply even if you’re not a writer, a blogger, a podcaster.

Your team also needs to hear from you what you find important: what ideas govern how we’re going to show up around here, how we’re going to interact, what is in and out of bounds.

By discovering, filtering through, and sharing the best thinking you can find —whether on OKRs, leadership, feedback, or difficult conversations—you are taking the first steps to defining your unique culture.

Better yet, you and your team can take what you’ve shared and work to apply these ideas in real life: real situations, with real challenges, real people. That’s when things get interesting.

Ideas are wonderful things, and they are nearly infinite.

Their existence alone is just a starting point.

What we do with them, and how we succeed at applying them—that is what really matters.

Structure Beats Effort

I’ve had a running for the train problem for two decades now.

My current house (like my last house) is a brisk 10 minute walk from the train I take in to New York City.

On average, for the last 20 years, I’ve walked out of my house 7 to 8 minutes before the train I’m taking. While I never miss the train, at least half of the days (maybe more) I run some or all of the way there—arriving to the platform panting, sweaty, and stressed.

Once, fifteen years ago, a neighbor stopped my wife and said, “I see your husband running for the train every day. Is everything OK?” At the time I had two kids under the age of five. Today I have no excuse.

This behavior is, of course, totally crazy. If can leave my house 2 to 3 minutes late, every workday, for decades, you’d think it would be blindingly easy to leave my house on time, right?

Apparently not.

In the past couple months, for the first time, things are improving. I’m leaving 10 minutes before the train, and sometimes 11, 12, even 14 minutes early. And when I leave that early, I see other people—strolling, relaxed. Who knew?

The change I’ve made is about structure, not attitude or effort.

I’m not trying any harder, I just bought cereal and milk in the office so I don’t eat breakfast at home any more.

Of course, it’s possible I’ll eventually revert to my old, running late ways. But I don’t think so. Because structural changes are the changes that stick.

This means that if you have any “always” in your life, you need a structural change. As in…

I’m always tired.

I’m always stressed.

I’m always in back-to-back meetings.

I’m always craving something sweet after a meal.

I’m always having a drink or two at the end of a workday.

I’m always under-investing in my friendships, or my marriage, or my kids.

The answers to these “always” will start with things like deleting social media apps from your phone; cutting your default meeting time in half; or taking a two week sugar fast.

Structure beats effort, every time.

Just Listening

Nearly every morning when I’m at home, I take my 55-pound rescue dog, Birdie, for a 45+ minute walk. We typically cover two to three miles.

This is not our typical morning walk, this is at 11,500 feet in Colorado. But you get the idea.

I don’t wear headphones, and I don’t listen to anything. It’s just time for us to walk together, with her on and off the leash searching for squirrels and bunnies, and me just walking.

Near the end of a recent walk, in a patch of woods near our local library, I took a moment to stop and listen.

I realized that the sound of crickets was as loud as it might be in the middle of the night. A few birds chirped. I could hear the hum of the occasional car driving my in the busy street nearby.

My experience of stopping, and noticing, was remarkable. It felt like someone had flipped a switch and turned on all of these sounds that had, of course, been there all along. They had been drowned out, this day and every day, by the endless chatter in my head.

The fact is that we regularly, habitually, separate ourselves from quiet and from being present.

We scan social media and our email. We reflexively pop in headphones whenever we walk anywhere. And, even when we have a chance to experience quiet, we let our heads be filled with an endless cycle of repetitive thoughts.

It can feel difficult to break this pattern, but intentionally listening is actually an easy door to walk through.

Listening gives us something specific to pay attention to, and that something is full of beauty and is ever-changing.

Why not try it, right now?

Wherever and whenever you’re reading this, try this: take 30 seconds, right now to listen.  Give yourself this moment.





Maybe you heard silence, maybe you heard the whir of air conditioning, maybe you heard the bustle around you, maybe you even heard a bird chirping.

This level of connection to the present is available to us every second of every day.

Try not to miss it.

Don’t Just Read about AI, Use AI

I’ve done a pretty good job reading up on AI.

I know, for example, what The Atlantic and The New York Times think about the future of the college essay.

And I played around some with ChatGPT. Most memorable was the essay my son had it write. The output was an 80% approximation of the college essay he’d written last year, terrifyingly similar in structure and tone. I also tried to get it to write a post for this blog. The results were watered-down and uninteresting.

I also made sure to talk to my team members about how they were using it to save massive amounts of time coding qualitative responses to questions—at 60 Decibels, we speak to hundreds of thousands of people each year, and turning their open-ended qualitative responses into quantitative data is a core part of our business model.

But I hadn’t used it to solve any meaningful business problem that I, directly was working on.

Until last week when a team member described a thing she had done, and I decided to do it too.

She kindly outlined the steps and did a short Loom video to explain it.

Then I mucked around some, adjusted what she did, and worked with the output ChatGPT gave me.

The gap between what I thought the tool could do and what it actually does (and does not do) was pretty big. And I’ve just used it once—I’m positive I’m just at the beginning.

If you’re like me—if you haven’t done any real work using ChatGPT or another LMM tool—I’d encourage you to take that next step: find something real that you need to get done, and figure out / have someone help you figure out how to do it.

You’ll learn a lot, and you’ll also start noticing more and more situations where AI might be helpful to you.

Until now, I thought of this as a tool that was out there.


And I wasn’t actively thinking about how I could use it when a new task came along.


That’s a recipe for falling behind if there ever was one.

8 Steps for Successful Crisis Management

Two weeks into my first job as a management consultant, I found myself in São Paulo, Brazil. I was part of a nine-person project team, and two of us were in Brazil for the first six weeks of the project; the rest were in New York.

For the first month of the project, not a single person in New York knew my name. That changed when my colleague’s appendix ruptured.

It was two weeks before our first major client meeting, and this gentleman, my supervisor on the project, was in the hospital. Suddenly, our success depended on whether I—just a few months out of college—could find and share the data we needed, data that was the source material for that all-important first client meeting.

I still remember the teleconference the next day, with the full senior team in New York. During the call, I discovered that they were learning my name for the first time: one person said at the close of the call, “I know it’s a lot to get done, Sasha, but if you need help, I’m sure Alexander can chip in.” (My legal name is Alexander. There was no other person.)

For better or worse, I was now visible. How I managed through next two weeks set me on a trajectory in that job. Because I succeeded in that crisis, I was identified as someone to be trusted when the stakes were high.

You, too, will surely face crises in your professional life.

Here are eight steps you can follow to increase your own effectiveness when these crises arise.

  1. Intensify
  2. Grow the Team
  3. Name the Crisis
  4. Own the mistakes, and own the client’s experience of the mistakes
  5. Move into Crisis Triage
  6. Over-communicate
  7. Get the Work Done—Fast, and With Zero Mistakes
  8. Deliver…and sit tight

1. Intensify

In a crisis, attention is magnified. From the moment the crisis is identified, there’s a sharpening, a concentration of focus, that’s required of every member of the team.

It should feel different: your orientation is different, you’re in a higher gear. You’re working both faster and better: tearing through work, but also triple-checking it because making mistakes is not an option.

To note: it’s possible that the crisis isn’t the only thing you’re working on. If that’s the case, then you must be adept at shifting quickly between ‘normal’ and ‘crisis’ levels of attention and focus.

2. Grow the Team

Inevitably, you’ll need some extra people and skills to get through this. This could mean bringing in someone more senior to run point. But it could just as easily mean adding team members who you know you need to deal with this particular situation.

It’s important to move quickly here and be decisive. And it’s OK to overstaff a bit and then release people from the team if you don’t need them.

3. Name the Crisis

With your team in place, the team leader’s first step is to explain to everyone involved that this is a crisis. This needs to be clear both to the original team and the expanded team.

You must tell the new team members how we got here; why the situation is grave; why, specifically, the client is upset; and why that matters. So, not just, “they’re upset,” but, “they are upset because [x], they are one of the most respected actors in this market, if they end up dissatisfied, that will set us back 6 to 12 months in what we’re trying to do here.”

Importantly, these first three steps—intensify, grow the team, and naming the crisis—should all be completed in a matter of hours and, at most, in a day.

4. Own the mistakes, and own the client’s experience

If you’re in a client-facing situation, it’s essential that you own up to what’s gone wrong. This means giving voice the things you feel were screw-ups and the things your client feels were screw-ups.

This latter point is essential: this is not a moment to nickel-and-dime over whether the client is 100% right. They are disappointed and angry, you’ve agreed that your job is to fix the problem. And “the problem” is not an objective set of facts, it is your client’s subjective experience. At this moment, their narrative is what’s real. Tell them, in your own words, everything that went wrong.

If they don’t feel heard, there’s no way they’ll end up satisfied.

5. Move into Crisis Triage

This is the team operationalizing the “intensify” step. Specifically, this means that any task that is part of addressing the crisis is immediately at the top of each team member’s list.

When new information comes in, you act on it.

When new data comes in that could be analyzed, it’s analyzed immediately.

When any additional step can be taken, it gets taken as soon as possible, regardless of whatever other important work is on each team member’s plate.

In crisis triage, urgent trumps important, and everything crisis-related is, for now, urgent.

Nothing sits on your desk / in your Inbox / as a Slack message for a few hours.


6. Over-communicate

You want the client to see that everything is moving as fast as possible. Because, until the crisis is resolved, this is the only way to demonstrate that you are on it, and that solving this problem is your top priority. Without this, all your pretty words about how you understand the client and are committed to solving the problem ring hollow.

If this is a true crisis, you should, at a minimum, be communicating once a day to the client—more if there are major developments to be shared. And, of course, communicating much more than this internally.

The client should feel that they know everything that is going on, that they never have to chase you for any information.

You can slow down this cadence after the first week (or so) of the crisis, when things have moved from Defcon 5 to Defcon 4, but it’s nearly impossible to communicate too much in a crisis.

7. Get the Work Done—Fast, and With Zero Mistakes

This goes without saying, but the quality of the work, and the speed of the work, must be a 12 out of 10, from everyone. You’re moving as fast as possible and you’re triple-checking, you’re dotting every i and crossing every t, you’re getting a second set of eyes before sending…

Again, remember that this is about solving the problem and changing the narrative, and part of the narrative of any screw-up is the gap between how you promised your team would behave / your service would work and what happened.

Any mistake, no matter how small, will reinforce the narrative you’re trying to dismantle.

8. Deliver…and sit tight

The final step will depend on how big the problem was, and how well it was resolved. In a perfect world, the way you’ve responded, and the successful resolution, will have repaired or even strengthened your relationship with your client.

And that may happen, but it will likely take some time.

While you’re waiting, it always helps to thank the client for identifying the problem in the first place and for their patience, and to articulate your appreciation that they stuck with you.

In nearly all cases, you’ll have learned important things through this process—about how you do your work, and about your team.

And, if you’re one of those team members who worked through the crisis, in whatever role, savor the calm after the storm, relish the chance to have worked through something challenging, the chance you had to shine.

No one wants things to blow up.

But no one should ever let a good crisis go to waste.

How to Heal

I have arrived at the age in life where being physically active coincides with a steady drumbeat of small but manageable injuries.

And I’m learning a lot about how to heal.

Most of all, healing requires finding that Goldilocks sweet spot of consistently engaging the injured part of the body but not overdoing it.

So, not complete rest.

But not so much activity that I make things worse.

It has to be….juuuuuuust….right. For weeks, even months, without a lot of clear feedback that I’m making progress.

Two things occur to me:

First, for better or worse, this is a new lifetime skill. This means that I need to shift my mindset from “now that I’m injured, I’m taking a temporary break from my normal routine” to “recovery and prevention is part of my normal routine.”

And, second, this approach and mindset applies to overcoming our fears or areas where we feel blocked.

If we want to make progress, we can neither ignore the things we find difficult nor go straight at them, full bore.

We need to engage gently, safely, and consistently over time, and keep at it despite not seeing obvious signs of progress.

Change happens slowly, imperceptibly, but it does happen if we keep at it.

One day we wake up and discover that we’re at a different, better place thanks to our consistent attention and commitment.

Check it Twice

About a decade ago, I sent out an important email with a major mistake in it. The blowback was a mess.

Someone I was working with at the time—a former journalist who had both more wisdom and life experience than I had—told me that I was overdue for a practice that she’s employed for decades: any time she had something important to send out, she would hold off on sending it for a few hours or even a day, and come back to it a second time. She said that I needed a structural fix to my process, or I’d make that same sort of awful mistake time and again.

She was right. I’ve employed that tactic ever since and it’s saved me countless similar blunders.

(Aside: the “Schedule Send” feature in Gmail is a nice way to implement this.)

The goal of this extra step isn’t editing—the document is supposed to be finished—it’s simply to ensure there are no important mistakes or inconsistencies.

For the way my mind works, this step is most successful when I look at the “final” draft in a different form factor. So, if I’ve written it in Word or PowerPoint, maybe I read the final PDF instead. Or if I’ve written on my laptop, I reread on my phone (the latter works especially well with my blog posts). And, if it’s really important, I force myself to read the whole document out loud.

I also apply this approach to anything I write when my emotions are high. In these situations, my orientation is different: instead of rereading for content, consistency, and typos, I’m reading for what the content makes me feel, and where the emotional dial is set. More often than not, if the emotional vibe is negative, upon rereading I decide not to send the note at all, and instead to talk to the person directly. Negative things immortalized in writing rarely age well.

One of the deceptions of how we all work today is that all our communications seems quick and impermanent, when they are anything but.

Our words make as much impact as they ever have.

It might be time to build a habit of stopping, taking a breath, and reading what we wrote with fresh eyes.