Resilience in the Face of Tragedy?

I’ve always found it off the mark – in places like Pakistan or Israel or anywhere there is repeated violence as part of civilian life – to laud the “resilience” of everyday people in continuing to live their lives in the face of tragedies.

The day before yesterday, on Tuesday night at 6:20pm, seven people died when an MTA commuter train slammed into a Mercedes SUV that was inexplicably stopped on the train tracks, even though the guard gates were down. The woman driving the car, Ellen Brody, was killed as were five passengers in the front car of the train.

The accident happened on the train line I take every day, around the time I usually ride home, about five miles north of where I get off the train.

Yesterday, thirteen hours after the accident, I trudged to my train stop to go to work. People are mostly silent on the platform on winter mornings, and it was as quiet as ever. Eerily, though no one was saying anything, about 2/3rds of the people who usually wait for the first car of the train weren’t standing in their everyday spots.

Once on the train, I talked with some of the passengers around me about what had happened.  Mostly, though, people were quiet, reading their papers or their books, maybe shaken on the inside, but having what appeared to be a normal morning.

When I got to Grand Central Station, the only indication that anything had happened was this announcement on the train’s schedule board. No acknowledgment of what had happened, no words of condolences or solidarity with the victims.



Even when things are this close to home, we can block them out and avoid the proximity. I’d been shaken by this tragedy, but it took this description in a New York Times article to make my stomach clench up and allow me to see myself in that front car of the train.

One witness, Chris Gross, appearing on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” said that he had been watching a Mel Brooks movie in the front car when suddenly the train was jolted.

“People started falling over each other,” he said. He was tossed into the aisle and saw flames, and he heard a man in front of him screaming.

“I turned over and looked,” Mr. Gross said. The man in front of him “lost his leg below his knee.”

In the chaos, he said, a man who had burns on his hands managed to pull the emergency latch so they could escape.

The man with the burns, Mr. Gross said, plunged his hands in the snow, hoping for some relief.

Today, on the train home, the same group of guys is playing bridge like they do every day in this car. As they wrap up their game, they talk about the twist in the road, what happened with the driver of the Jeep, how such a thing could have happened. But the conversations are clipped, and there aren’t many of them. People might be thinking about the victim’s families, or feeling especially grateful for good health, safety, and the chance to hug their kids tonight.

But resilient? No, I’m not feeling or seeing resiliance. I feel shaken and a little bit numb, like going on with my day and my life was at best a neutral choice, not a display of courage.

Death by a thousand (or 5) screens

At one of the entrances to Grand Central station, the MTA has erected a new screen with track times for upcoming trains. It’s great – brightly lit, easy to read from far away, it saves people from rushing and crowding around the miniscule 11 inch screen down the hall that must have been set up 30 years ago.

MTA 1_small


Oh, just one tiny problem. The screen also shows service updates for the subway, including for lines that are a 10 minute walk away.  Fine.

And it shows ads for Game of Thrones, presumably to pay the bills.

MTA 2_smallPlus, while they were at it, they threw in two public service announcements.

MTA 3 and 4

It’s easy to chuckle at this sort of thing, but only because it’s an extreme example of what happens every day – watering down the purpose of what we’re doing until it is unrecognizable and virtually useless.

In this case, the need the MTA is trying to meet is to to provide information to a person walking by a sign – she has 5 seconds to take in information.  What they ended up with is a sign that only displays the information she wants 20% of the time, and it takes 60 seconds to scroll through the five screens.

Sure, it might be harder for you to define the need you’re trying to meet (what could be simpler than getting a commuter her track information quickly?).  But how often do we refuse to hang on tight to the most important thing we are doing, letting a thousand well-wishers, plus a few folks with a totally different agenda, hijack our project and our message until it completely fails to deliver on its core promise?

Decide who you’re trying to please, where they will encounter your message, and what your non-negotiables are. And then have the courage and the conviction not to negotiate, and not to ask for input or approvals, on things that are non-negotiable.

What I care about, what you care about

Having beat up on the MTA once before for its ads, it only seems right now to sing their praises.

I liked this subway ad a lot.

3.2 million minutes saved every day (80,000 riders x 40 minutes saved) seems like the kind of thing sensible people would be in favor of.

The typical nonprofit message here would have been: $6 billion project approved!


What I care about (if I work at the MTA): declaring victory on is budget approvals, the size of the project, contractors getting hired, etc.  The $6 billion budget.

What you care about, as a citizen: 40 minutes saved a day for 80,000 people.

Simple, but easy to forget.


Things that work

Here’s post #3 in a connected series of events.

First, I wrote a post about trust which, from what I saw and heard (traffic, comments, feedback) was well-received.  Then, connected to that post, I received a totally unexpected gift from a friend, which itself generated another post about delight, and I spent most of Friday on a real high thanks to this delightful gift and the real generosity it showed.

At the end of the day Friday, just as the skies opened up with yet another downpour, a little something brought me down a notch:  I discovered that I (boneheadedly) left my coat on the train that morning, and it was lost.

So here’s post #3 in the series, because I just got my coat back.

Yes, it’s true.  I was sure I had left my coat on the train on Friday morning, so I called up the MTA on Saturday to register the lost coat.  I figured it was long gone.  A medium black Banana Republic coat on the commuter train on a Friday morning…seemed like it would quickly find another home, and my faith in the MTA lost and found system wasn’t too great either.

Imagine my surprise when I got a phone call today from the MTA Lost and Found department.  “I believe we have your coat, sir.  We just need you to come in before 6pm to verify and pick it up.” Boy was I wrong about the MTA and their lost and found.

I rushed to Grand Central at the end of the day, and, lo and behold, Jason who mans the MTA lost and found went in the back and returned with my coat.   I filled out a short form, gave a copy of my driver’s license, and I was on my way.  I feel like I won the karmic lottery.

My only choice, then, is to put something positive back out into the world, but I need your help to create it: we need a blog or a community that holds up wonderful, daily, surprising, delightful, surprising examples of things that works.  We need more things that works and need to celebrate these small and big daily victories, and for Jason at the MTA Lost and Found Department, we need a space to celebrate the people on the front lines who create delightful customer experiences (but who, ironically, often find themselves buried somewhere deep in the org chart).  Unfortunately, the thingsthatwork URLs seem to be taken, but I’m sure there’s a blog waiting for someone to make this happen.  For example:

  • That cellphone rep who helped you sort out international calling plans.   Things that work.
  • Amazon giving a guarantee on price drops on items bought from their store, and getting $300 back a month after buying a TV.   Things that work.
  • The airline check-in agent who talked the gate agent into keeping the flight open for another 10 minutes so you wouldn’t miss a wedding abroad.  Things that work.

(oh, those are all real examples).

Please, start here in the comments section with your ideas.  But wouldn’t it be fun to create a crowdsourced conversation celebrating things that are so positive, unexpected, and important?  Go ahead, kick it off.

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Ideas or action?

The NYC Police and the Metropolitan Transit Association have run a catchy public service campaign for the last few years whose tagline is, “If you see something, say something.”

If you see something, say something

The ad on the train I’m on has these words is big letters, with a picture of an abandoned bag.  The message is to keep an eye out for suspect or abandoned packages.

I’ve probably seen this ad two or three times a week for the past few years, and only this morning I paid enough attention to notice the words underneath the tagline: “Tell us, a cop, or call 1-888-NYC-SAFE.”

I bet if you asked 50 people who had seen this ad what phone number to call, 49 of them wouldn’t remember.

It’s easy to make an example of this ad because it so clearly separates out the IDEA (“if you see something…”) from the ACTION (call this number).  It could be that they figure “say something” is self-explanatory, but couldn’t they have traded catchy for memorable and said, “See something?  Tell a cop or call 888-NYC-SAFE.”

The point is, most of the time we write or speak with the goal of convincing people of an idea rather than convincing them to take an action.

It’s actually much harder to get people to act.  You only need to convince them of an idea while you’re talking.  But to get them to act, they have to remember what you said long after you’re done .  You’ll probably have to come at the idea from a number of different angles, getting people to work through their barriers and their internal conversation about why they should do nothing.  You’ll have to be a lot less elegant and a lot more explicit.  You’ll have to give examples and be motivational and inspirational and pound the table some.

You’ll have to sell.

And you absolutely, positively, definitely wouldn’t get stuck at a conceptual level if what you cared the most about was action.

If you see something, say something that will get me to act.

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