Remembering the styrofoam cup

Trains of thoughts are wonderful things as they link various experiences together and often take us to unexpected places. One such train of thought led me to remember the story of the Styrofoam cup.

I heard a story about a former Under Secretary of Defense who gave a speech at a large conference. He took his place on the stage and began talking, sharing his prepared remarks with the audience. He paused to take a sip of coffee from the Styrofoam cup he’d brought on stage with him. He took another sip, looked down at the cup and smiled.

“You know,” he said, interrupting his own speech, “I spoke here last year. I presented at this same conference on this same stage. But last year, I was still an Under Secretary,” he said.

“I flew here in business class and when I landed, there was someone waiting for me at the airport to take me to my hotel. Upon arriving at my hotel,” he continued, “there was someone else waiting for me. They had already checked me into the hotel, so they handed me my key and escorted me up to my room. The next morning, when I came down, again there was someone waiting for me in the lobby to drive me to this same venue that we are in today. I was taken through a back entrance, shown to the greenroom and handed a cup of coffee in a beautiful ceramic cup.”

“But this year, as I stand here to speak to you, I am no longer the Under Secretary,” he continued. “I flew here coach class and when I arrived at the airport yesterday there was no one there to meet me. I took a taxi to the hotel, and when I got there, I checked myself in and went by myself to my room. This morning, I came down to the lobby and caught another taxi to come here. I came in the front door and found my way backstage. Once there, I asked one of the techs if there was any coffee. He pointed to a coffee machine on a table against the wall. So I walked over and poured myself a cup of coffee into this here Styrofoam cup,” he said as he raised the cup to show the audience.

“It occurs to me,” he continued, “the ceramic cup they gave me last year . . . it was never meant for me at all. It was meant for the position I held. I deserve a Styrofoam cup.”

“This is the most important lesson I can impart to all of you,” he offered.

“All the perks, all the benefits and advantages you may get for the rank or position you hold, they aren’t meant for you. They are meant for the role you fill. And when you leave your role, which eventually you will, they will give the ceramic cup to the person who replaces you. Because you only ever deserved a Styrofoam cup.”

This story is powerful because it is a beautiful and poignant reminder of the fleeting and illusory nature of status, power, or influence of any kind in this life.

The world doesn’t owe us anything. We only ever deserved a Styrofoam cup, if that.

Everything else is upside.

Paid not to understand

“It is impossible to get someone to understand something they’re paid not to understand.”

I was reminded of the power of incentives in a conversation recently.

And as easy as it is to point to an example that involves someone else, the truth is that I have 2 recent examples where I was guilty of not being open to ideas which were counter to my incentives.

Shape incentives, and you shape behavior.

Planning travel with ChatGPT

I’ve been planning some travel for the summer. This would normally involve a bunch of time spent on search engines attempting to come up with possible first draft itineraries.

This time around, it was replaced entirely by time spent on ChatGPT. 30 or so questions later, I had a good idea of what I wanted to do. This replaced hours of time spent reading various travel blogs.

I don’t yet know if conversational search will replace every existing search use case. But it is clear it is a great research tool – especially in cases like this where you don’t have to worry about its propensity to make up facts.

Someone described ChatGPT as a great replacement for an intern. It is a neat way of thinking about its value prop – thanks to its ability to provide a first cut synthesis of a ton of information.

The fence and fire

A small part of one section of our fence started leaning forward the other day. We knew we had to fix it but we figured we’d have a bit of time. The fence had endured for a while – no reason to rush a repair job.

Within a few days, however, the entire section started to fall apart. If you looked at the section now, it’d be unrecognizable. It is hard to believe a fully functional fence stood there just 2 weeks ago.

It is a good reminder of how things fall apart. You see a sign, then things begin to fall apart gradually, and then suddenly. It is a great way to think about dysfunctional cultures too. If you see signs of dysfunction easily, it means the reality is likely much worse.

Every sign of smoke doesn’t require a fire engine / emergency responder. But we’re generally better off taking the signs seriously.

Instant perspective and reminders

At the end of a particularly rough day recently, I wrote to a couple of friends and shared what I was feeling.

One of them wrote back and shared the story of a day that was at least a 100 times tougher than mine.

Instant perspective.

And that’s leaving aside the fact that we all have very good lives.

The conclusion to that exchange was all of us reminding each other of a few truths we often talk about.

You never know if a good day is a good day.

This – both the good and the bad – will pass.

Focus on what you control. Keep plugging away.

I can never have enough reminders of these truths.

You get what you tolerate

A decade or so ago, someone I worked with shared their biggest leadership reflection. It was “you get what you tolerate.”

All these years later, I find my appreciation for the wisdom in that quote has only grown over time.

This is along the lines of the power of standards. First we make them.

Then they make us.

Risk taking and millionaires

“In a textbook case of naive empiricism, the author also looked for traits these millionaires had in common and figured out that they shared a taste for risk taking. Clearly risk taking is necessary for large success—but it is also necessary for failure. Had the author done the same study on bankrupt citizens he would certainly have found a predilection for risk taking.” | Nassim Taleb in Fooled by Randomness.

This quote is classic Nassim Taleb – bringing to life a cognitive bias with an example we can all relate.

A good reminder to look beyond the data shared and to think deeper about the conclusions we draw.

Being hyper aware of what to avoid

One of the fascinating challenges with leading a group is that you quickly become hyper aware of all the things you shouldn’t do. Assuming you’re checking in with the group from time to time, you’re going to soon have a long list of things to avoid.

The challenge, then, is to be aware of that and still focus your time and energy on the things you should do. The stuff that matters. The stuff that helps the team win… and in the long run feel better about the challenges, change, and discomfort everyone is working through.

It is a delicate balance as you have to work through being open to feedback, making changes as needed to the plan, and, yet, resolute in doing the hard things.

You have to be willing to take the criticism and the heat in the short term to ensure you’re doing what you think will be right in the long term.

And you have to resist the temptation to prioritize your time and energy based on avoidance and pain and instead do so based on wholeness and possibility.