Killing Goldfish

This blog originally appeared on Medium:
Killing Goldfish

I’m a talker. Always have been, and, I suspect, I always will be.

If you know Game of Thrones, I suspect The Hound would hate me.

Being a talker comes with a great sense of productivity and I think this sense is one of the reasons I’m drawn to it.

This sense arises from the fact that speaking makes it easy to manifest thoughts in the real world.

A simple sentence and *poof*, the cerebral is made actual. The idea or thought is now in an external and highly shareable format.

In many respects: something from nothing.

It’s even a piece of cake to move from one discussion point to the next quite swiftly. Take and idea, speak about it, bring it to life, and then move on — your work is done.

It’s easy to see how this can feel like an amazing use of time and energy.
But what, I’m ashamed to say, I’ve only just realised, is how false this sense of productivity is. It’s not speaking that actually brings these thoughts to life. It’s not speaking that manifests these thoughts in the real world — it’s action.

I guess there’s a reason they say “talk is cheap”.

Talking about an idea might present it to the “real world”, but only through action will it achieve any of its potential. Only through action will it start to interact with the system of the world. Only through action will the idea make an impact.

For 36 years I’ve walked around thinking that I’ve been giving birth to ideas and setting them free into the world. What I’ve actually been doing is taking goldfish out of a small, private tank, putting them on a table to show people how marvellous they are, and letting them drown in the air.

Because that’s what happens to ideas without action: they die.

Talking might get the goldfish out of your personal tank so you can show another person or two, but it’s only action which gets it into a larger, more public aquarium, where it can grow and flourish.

It’s not difficult to see why my particular pattern of behaviour was easy to establish — action requires more effort than talking. It requires much more energy to build a public aquarium than it does to just scoop a fish out of water and leave it to flap about on the table.

Action requires energy, focus, resource and intent — but in the end it’s worth it.

So this article is the first aquarium. It’s not particularly well crafted, or beautiful, but hopefully it holds water. Hopefully it holds fish.

Hopefully it stands as a tiny, idea-filled monument to action, and my desire to not spend the next thirty-six years, killing goldfish.

Manufacturing Authenticity (or “Starbucks vs. a Dead Babylonian King”)

At first, I enjoyed giving myself fanciful names because there’s nothing quite like listening to someone yell, “flat white for Nebuchadnezzar,” in a crowded Starbucks.

But the fun fell out of it when the staff began to recognize me, and they’d just ask, “And who are you today?”

This was last April, when Starbucks decided to force/encourage their staff to request the names of customers when taking orders and then announce them when the drinks were ready. It was an attempt to manufacture authenticity — to artificially create the social bond that might naturally grow between a vendor and customer in a bygone era when local customers patronized local shops staffed by local employees where everybody was on a first name basis.

This familiarity and sense of community is a powerful force. It’s one of the key aspects of the past that causes old people to believe that it was a better time to be alive, having conveniently forgotten that the same past was also generally more racist, sexist and homophobic and that domestic violence used to be an Olympic sport.

But you can’t blame Starbucks for having a go at creating this type of atmosphere; after all, they know we’ll all spend more money with them if we forget they’re a corporate behemoth. (Albeit one that doesn’t seem to turn enough of a profit to pay tax in the U.K.)

As a person who viewed this move with naked cynicism and resented its obvious, awkward and clunky nature, you can imagine my surprise when I came to the realization that it had worked.

A few weeks after the new policy was in place, I had forgotten how forced and faked this initiative had felt initially. My local branch was suddenly staffed by people whose names I knew and who (to varying degrees) knew mine as well. Written versions of my name on the cup varied wildly from Ken, Trent, Kenneth and Clint, but there was definitely a connection there. Their names were Peach, Simon, Jura and Luke, and I was the tall, bearded, flat white drinker with the inconsistent, one-syllable name.

As time progressed, our connection grew, and I realized that now we had a relationship that felt authentic. I cared about them, and they cared about me more than we had before the name game started. Starbucks had successfully manufactured authenticity.

Unfortunately for Starbucks’ shareholders, a superior (and genuinely local) coffee shop opened up just down the road, so one morning I sacrificed my sense of community to try the new place. These new kids on the block didn’t give two hoots about my name. In fact, they were almost indifferent to my patronage at all, but damn could they make a good coffee. There was no sense of community, but the warm fuzzy feeling of an excellent flat white trumped the warm fuzzy feeling of a mediocre flat white made by someone who thinks my name is Trent — and so I defected to the new shop.

In the aftermath of the Christmas/New Year break, I returned to work and was shocked to find my new coffee dealer was still closed for the holidays, so I sheepishly returned to Starbucks. I foolishly set my expectations high and fully anticipated to be welcomed back to the store by teary staff overjoyed at my return.

Unfortunately, times had changed at the big green mermaid, and names didn’t seem to carry the currency they once did. Not only did no one recognize me (let alone my name), but no one’s names were being requested or announced. The staff was the same — some of them even sporting the old name badges — but gone was the familiarity, the camaraderie and the community. What remained was authentic, but it was authentic to a corporate giant whose focus had moved on to something else, leaving staff and customers rolled back to their default state: half-arsed greetings from the staff and surly orders from the customers.

I haven’t been back since, and this was only one store, so I wouldn’t consider this a rigorous, scientific appraisal of Starbucks’ customer service policy. However, it did teach me a couple of things:

  • You can manufacture authenticity, and it can work, but it takes effort, focus and consistency.
  • Occasionally you’ll lose out to a superior product, even if you create a better experience.
  • If you’re going to fake it, you have to be willing to keep up the facade if you want to continue to reap the benefits.

My regular coffee shop is back open now, but they seem to have come back from the holidays even more caustic and unwelcoming than they were when they left. They could certainly teach Starbucks about making an absolutely banging flat white, but they could learn a thing or two from Starbucks as well, namely:

  1. Focusing on your customers is never a waste of time, but you have to keep at it, and
  2. Anyone who calls them self Nebuchadnezzar is nothing but trouble.

This article originally appeared on the Agency Post