David Heinemeier Hansson

March 12, 2024

Be less precious

The essence of the book Radical Candor is the concept of ruinous empathy. That by trying your best to couch employee performance feedback in overly gentle language, you end up confusing the message, and cheating the recipient out of the clarity they desperately need to improve – or prepare for what happens if they don't. 
This concept extends to more than just direct employee feedback. It can also seep into other forms of communication, policies, and ultimately the entire culture. At 37signals, we've labeled this broader problem being "overly precious".
Let me give you an example. We used to have official "mental health days" for employees. With an explicit invitation that people really should just take some time off if they felt "overwhelmed" or "mentally fatigued". Here's the old paragraph:
 Basecamp recognizes, too, that your mental health is just as important as your physical health. Consider taking a mental health day every now and again when you're feeling overwhelmed or mentally fatigued. If a day or two won't cut it, we'll work with you to find a way to reduce the burden of your work at Basecamp on your overall mental health. We really do want your work at Basecamp to be the best work you do in your life, and we appreciate that that's not possible if you're uncertain about your health.
That's precious. Overly precious. In fact, I cringe when I now read this. The idea that employees are so mentally fragile that "feeling overwhelmed" is a reason to be absent is bonkers. Everyone feels "overwhelmed" every now and then. That's not an adequate reason not to show up for work!
Could you imagine if the rest of the world ran on something like this? That your trash cans wouldn't get emptied if the truck driver "felt overwhelmed"? No. Just no.
Not every day is going to be magical at work. Some days you really do just have to power through. And if you can't, then use some paid time off to recover. Taking it out of the same allowance that someone else would spend on a holiday.
In fact, I've come to believe that this type of language and expectation setting actually makes people more fragile. That it plants the idea that working in front of a computer is so mentally taxing that almost nobody can bear it without the occasional "mental health day". That's just not true, and it's not helpful.
Getting rid of this nonsense is part of how we've been scrubbing the precious out of the organization. And we've been far better off for it over the past few years.
That doesn't mean scrubbing out caring. It doesn't mean turning into a hard ass. The opposite of precious is not being cruel, but being clear. It's expecting a reasonable baseline from people that anyone out in ThE ReAL wORlD could recognize as fair.
Being too precious is the same as being fragile. That's not a goal to aspire to. We should all be chasing higher resilience instead.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.