This Matters in Life?

The story of an elevator ride

The Elevator Ride

About twelve years ago, I was working as a software engineer at Aviary at an office in midtown Manhattan. The elevator was rickety and unreliable (and, in fact, I got stuck in it twice), and I would ride it to and from the eleventh floor.

One day, I entered at the lobby and pressed the button for 11. A man I’d never seen watched me do so and asked, “What’s on the eleventh floor?”

“It’s a company called Aviary,” I replied.

“And what does Aviary do?”

“We make photo editing technology.”

Without hesitating, he looked at me askance and asked, “This matters in life?”

The First Interpretation

I recall sharing that exchange with my coworkers and us being shocked at the brazen condescension implied by his words. Of course, the man meant what he said as a statement of judgment. “This is how you’re choosing to spend your life? This actually matters?”

I’d been too taken off guard, and the doors had already let him out at his floor, so I never got a chance to ask him what he did for a living, and whether that met his high bar for things worth doing.

Aviary likely never dramatically changed people’s lives as a product, although it was used by millions of people billions of times in its heyday. During those years, I did meet some lifelong friends, colleagues, and mentors, and I did gain the experience needed to eventually start my own company. So yes, I suppose to answer that man’s question, “This matters in life.”

The Second Interpretation

Years after that elevator exchange, when Mike Mignano and I started Anchor, we began recounting the story to each other. (Mike and I both worked at Aviary together, although he never did meet the elevator man.)

At first, it was simply one of those funny memories that we told so many times it must have morphed with each retelling. (There’s some science to suggest that, when we remember an event, we’re not actually thinking about the original event but rather just about the last time we remembered it.)

But eventually, the words of the elevator man took on entirely new meaning. “This matters in life?” was no longer an adjudication of one’s worthiness. As any startup founder can attest, entrepreneurship has occasional highs and a significant amount of lows. And so, when one of us would be stressed or anxious or overwhelmed by the day-to-day, the other would ask, “This matters in life?”

We’d flipped the question on its head. Rather than implying that the topic in question did not matter and that was a bad thing, we took it to mean that the topic in question did not matter and that was a good thing. In other words, it was our way of saying to each other, “Whatever’s stressing you out is probably not going to matter in the long term.”

Bad press coverage? “This matters in life?” Employee turnover? “This matters in life?” Wasted effort on a failed product feature? “This matters in life?”

It was a great framing exercise. As I’ve written about before here, an effective leader must be what I call a Low Pass CEO:

Most of what leaders experience on a day-to-day basis is high frequency noise. It’s the stuff that doesn’t actually matter in the long term. Sometimes these are positive blips. Most often they are negative.

Yet the things that really matter are the slow things, the hard things, the things that require long term focus and dedication. They’re the trends that play out over very long periods of time.

But this extends beyond just startups. It’s a valuable lesson to remember, period.

Framing the Framing

Years after our entrepreneurial journey began and ended, I received an unexpected gift from Mike in the mail. This custom-made framed canvas:

It’s now hung proudly on my office wall, a great reminder to contextualize everything and not let the small stuff get you down.

Mike has one in his office as well:

His is not a question because—he claims—he doesn’t have any tiles with question marks on them. But I wonder if there’s a third interpretation in there somewhere.

And as for the elevator man from twelve years ago—whom I’ll likely never see again nor recognize even if I did: In response to his condescending question, “This matters in life?” I think I’d now shake it off by just saying back, “This matters in life?”

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