The Year-and-a-Half Ask

Thought Experiment Thursday

Email has been dead for 20 years. Didn’t you know?

Slate reported it in 2002. And again in 2007. First it was spam, then instant messaging. In 2010, TechCrunch said it was Facebook. Even Mark believed it. The New York Times agreed. In 2015, it was Slack. The next year? Chatbots.

And yet, here we are. You and I. In your inbox. If you’ve opened this before noon, it’s one of 120 billion emails sent today. The other half will follow later.

But why? Why? After MySpace and Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat and Instagram and all the others, why is email still here? Here’s my guess:

Email is the most successful, most promising, most cunning way to ask for things.

When you get an email, you feel important. Like someone took your business card and actually followed up. Even if it was you who entered it somewhere.

Email is status. The moment you receive one, you’re elevated. Each mail is a peasant, knocking at the door of your palace, kindly begging for an audience.

But status makes us vulnerable. We’re flattered. Humbled. So we invite the requesters in. “Come, speak!” And it always seems small at first.

Of course. No one falls into a palace by beating down the door. You wade in. You salute. You pitch. And then you go in for the kill.

Does it ever really take five minutes? Is that “all they ask?” Are they respectful of your time as they claim to be? If you ask Seth Godin, they’re actually asking for a lot:

“I get offered something to do, and in the moment, it feels like it’s an easy yes-or-no question. This will take 45 seconds. Right?

Well, it will take 45 seconds to read it, but if I say yes, then it will take me a year and a half to get it done. That’s not a 45-second ask, it’s a year-and-a-half ask.”

Talking about a piece of his called “The World’s Worst Boss,” Seth then explains that today, we have so many options to do free work, little-paid work, even well-paid work, that the number of things we could justify agreeing to is near infinity.

I call it ‘opportunity suffocation.’ They’re all good gigs. Reasonable asks. Well-intended opportunities. But if we keep saying yes to year-and-a-half asks, they’ll eat our entire life.

“The question is, as the CEO of you, is that the commitment that you want to make?”

Email will never die. It’s too good. The perfect medium for requests. But remember: Each one is just a question. You can say “I don’t know” or “no” or not answer at all.

For the next one you get, ponder: How long is this ask? What will this truly take?

Chances are, if your “boss” had your best interest at heart, they wouldn’t let you do it.


About Thought Experiment Thursday: Einstein said we can’t solve our problems with the same thinking that created them. Science estimates we have about 35 thoughts per minute. That’s a lot of chances to change our thinking. So on Thursdays, that’s what we’ll practice.

A question opens the mind. A statement closes it. Let’s keep ours wide open.

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