This is the Dumbest Op Ed I’ve Read in a While

This post is by Mark Suster from Both Sides of the Table - Medium

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I understand that Adam Grant is a fairly popular professor at Wharton and has a book that some people loved called “Originals” (for me it interesting but not mind blowing, and I have some first-hand knowledge of some of its inaccuracies).

Having read his latest op-ed on email I know why I erred towards the side of of not loving his book as much as some did. I think his advice is this op-ed is bananas.

Apparently he’s an “organizational psychologist professor and thinks that it’s rude not to answer email. I’m sure he’s way more versed on the research in corporate psychology than I. I also surmise that perhaps organizational psychologists don’t get as much unsolicited emails as some of us do.

Here’s a quick thought experiment for Adam since I’m assuming somebody will forward this to him and he’ll be annoyed with me. Do you think that the CEO of Google should answer every written letter he receives? Should Jeff Bezos be required to address every written complaint that shows up in Seattle or Satya Nadella at Microsoft? I don’t run one of the world’s largest companies but I can tell you for free that even I get some crazy physical mails because knowing one’s corporate address is quite easy. I have even had to get physical security advice from some of the crazy. No, it’s not fun.

Why does this happen? Being a public figure attracts attention and sometimes rational (and often irrational people) don’t have any concept for how scarce the time of a senior executive can be.

But apparently Adam thinks any email — from any person — must be returned.

Hey, Adam. Must I respond to every LinkedIn request? I get a lot of those, too. I don’t feel like canceling LinkedIn just because occasionally a well-meaning but slightly not-clued-in person from a faraway place wants me to be their personal mentor, answer 3-questions for their high-school entrepreneurship project or take a sales pitch for their recruiting services. Yes, I get completely obscure requests like these but also many rational, nice requests for which I simply don’t have the time to respond. In Adam’s world, I’m rude.

Twitter messages? Must I answer all of those? I actually prefer them because they’re only 140 chars (sometimes 280). But sometimes I get busy. I guess that’s rude.

Quora? I used to spend a bunch of time there. I guess if I don’t delete my account I’m leading people on. And it’s surprising how many people try to DM me on Instagram (I don’t care what Adam says, I’m NOT answering DMs on Insta — that’s where I go to chill out and look at photos of friends. Wow! Your kids are getting huge!). Facebook. Snapchat. Whatsapp. Signal.

. I’m on all of them and they’re all used in some form for business communications.

I’m not an elitist asshole. I know it may feel this way since I’m writing this tongue in cheek. By the way, I don’t spell check my blog posts either. Some people get REALLY annoyed with me for that. I still sleep at night. I just can’t make everybody happy. I’m actually a people pleaser and I hate letting people down. But I hate worse when I let down the people for whom I’ve totally committed my time to: the boards I set on, my limited partners, my colleagues at Upfront, companies that are pitching me and looking for feedback and my family. Yes, my family takes priority over my emails, Adam.

I do occasionally log into LinkedIn and respond to random requests. I do this when I have free time and feel like being helpful to somebody who probably doesn’t expect to hear from me. I’ve met hundreds of people by randomly responding to requests. Sometimes when I speak at conferences I’ll stay and shake hands for 2 hours with anybody who wants to say hello. If I’m out already I sort of view it as my small part in trying to give back and be accessible. I try to speak at universities, high schools, startup accelerators — as much as my schedule will allow.

But it is ABSURD to think that busy people should respond to every email that comes in. Email is a to-do box that others get to add to. Would you recommend that I create an open Trello board and anybody can add tasks for me there? I frequently tell business colleagues, “If I haven’t responded to your email and it’s timely please feel free to resend it or text me and let me know something’s urgent.” I figure if it’s important to the sender it’s not a huge burden to prompt for a quicker response.

Adam tries to argue that there are certain types of emails that are absurd enough to ignore but he makes the ignorable emails absurd enough to be obvious. He believes that any reasonable email must get our attention!

“My inbox is other people’s priorities” bothers me as a social scientist, but also as a human being. Your priorities should include other people and their priorities. It’s common courtesy to engage with people who are thoughtful in reaching out.

I agree it’s common courtesy. It’s why I do my best to respond to as many emails as I can. On some occasions I’m amazing and on others I’m poor. Some days I’m in back-to-back meetings and then I have a late night work dinner and an early morning conference call. Adam’s solution, apparently, is that I should tell my wife when I get home that everybody’s priorities in my email box are more important than trying to create some space for my relationship.

“Not answering emails today is like refusing to take phone calls in the 1990s or ignoring letters in the 1950s.”

Except that it’s not, Adam. Making a phone call required you to have my phone number and to have something sensible to say. It was a sufficient barrier and we developed social graces. The sort of thing I’m guessing you’ve studied for some time. I’d sooner people have my mobile phone number than my email address because as a society we know the social norm that just calling or texting somebody you don’t know isn’t acceptable. It’s why the only rude or unexpected mobile phone calls I get are from telemarketers.

For whatever reason — random emails are acceptable. I think that’s ok but then you can’t be offended when you don’t get random responses. Even work colleagues would think twice about “bugging you” on your mobile phone unless it were really important. There’s a reason for that- they respect that you may be busy. The asynchronous nature of email somehow lets us perceive that it’s ok to send to whomever we please and for whatever reason.

I can’t tell you how many people I know casually send me, “Mark, please meet my friend Bob. He has a startup you’re going to love. You two should meet.” It’s not under the definition of crazy per Adam’s op-ed. The person writing things he or she is doing me a favor. What they’re doing is trying to obligate me to a meeting without even asking for permission.

With physical mail in the 1950’s it required the sender to do some actual work. They had to physically write a letter, address it, put a stamp on it (pay) and then put it in the mailbox. As a result you didn’t get 180 letters / day, you maybe got 3–5 (I’m guessing — I wasn’t born yet).

In the email era you can cut-and-paste your email to 100 people with no additional time. In the email era I can cc: as many people as I like and expect each to respond. In the email era there is no cost and I don’t even have to get up from my seat to email somebody. In the email era I can intro away and create a whole bunch of meeting obligations for people at my whim. And, Adam, try saying “I’m sorry I don’t want meet you — I barely know the person who introduced you” nicely and quickly. And don’t forget about “email spaghetti” because the more people you respond to (even the polite declining of a meeting) comes with a response to which you must respond to which they have a retort.

Adam’s message apparently is that my reactive responsibility in answering emails should take priority to my need to complete spreadsheet analyses, read legal documents, consider investments of my colleagues, help interview executive candidates or the myriad of things that are actually my responsibility and my priority over random emails.

So I do what any sensible, proactive, focused, modern senior executive does. I scan the titles of my emails and the senders to quickly do triage on what is most important, time sensitive and likely specifically for me.

So if you want some real-world, non-Wharton advice it’s this: Practice writing great email titles that are compelling and personal and grab the attention from the person with whom you want an answer:

“Important! I need one quick answer from you.”

“Urgent: I need consent for this by tomorrow.”

“Are you interested in looking at this investment where I’m on the board?”

“Scheduling a group call — as requested”

“Please e-sign: Consent form for debt approval”

Learning how to get your most important emails read is far more valuable than learning how to be a reactive slave to your email box. And while you’re at it — learn how to make the first paragraph of your email compelling enough to get a response. It’s a craft that sincerely should be taught at b-schools.

Finally, if I answered every email I’d never have time to point out how mindless Adam’s advice was.

This is the Dumbest Op Ed I’ve Read in a While was originally published in Both Sides of the Table on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.