It’s the effort that counts

Sometimes, inconvenience adds value.

written by fiona

Closeup of my hands sewing a Fondfolio book, curved needle poking through between the signatures.

published on July 27, 2022

One of the best thing’s I’ve read so far this year is Oliver Burkman’s Four Thousand Weeks. In a section titled “The Efficiency Trap” he proposes that in our relentless drive to rid our lives of friction we’re disposing of things we don’t realize are important, little moments that give our fleeting lives meaning and help us feel less lonely. For example, ordering from a screen rather than talking to a real person.

Burkman says, of Silicon Valley’s mission to eliminate all of life’s so called pain points, “It’s true that everything runs more smoothly this way. But smoothness, it turns out, is a dubious virtue, since it’s often the unsmoothed textures of life that make it livable, helping nurture the relationships that are crucial. For mental and physical. health, and for the resilience of our community.”

I really connected with this insight. Our favourite pizza place here in Berlin, literally a stone’s throw from our apartment, only has the option to call to place an order for takeout. The person on the other end gives you a guesstimated time when your order will be ready for pickup and then you walk there around that time to collect and pay, often waiting 5-10 minutes because we humans are naturally bad at predicting how long something will actually take.

I remember at first feeling frustrated and perplexed by this business decision — how do they even know who I am, I could just not show up and there would be no way for them to hold me accountable?! To add anxiety to my frustration, the ordering is done in German — a language I’m earnestly learning but when it comes to conversing am still, at best, at the level of a 3 year old. Burkman says of these kinds of micro interactions that they “might feel insignificant, but they help make yours the kind of area where people still talk to one another, where tech-induced loneliness doesn’t yet reign supreme.”

After I overcame my initial (stereotypically millennial) nervousness of calling a real human on the phone, I’ve grown to appreciate this friction. I now know that I’ll always be asked if I want the pizza cut and how to respond. There’s a tiny sense of accomplishment I feel when I interact successfully in this language. Plus I think the fact that I’ve spoken to a real person actually makes it far less likely that I’ll abandon my order, even if I sometimes have to wait 45 minutes to collect it — this place is always very busy, despite the inconvenience.

Due to their popularity and the fact that their definitions of success might be different (this pizza place is also a collective without the hierarchical stricture of a typical business), I suspect that the friction is probably intentional — they don’t really want more orders, they sometimes run out of dough before closing time!

I remember reading stories during the height of the pandemic lamenting the loss of those micro interactions as a result of lockdown — the barista at the coffee shop, the bartender at the pub — we didn’t realize how much value those small moments with strangers had in our daily lives. This is all the more reason to be skeptical of products and services that eliminate those sparks of human connection from our lives for the sake of convenience. Convenience, in Burkman’s words, “… makes things easy, but without regard to whether easiness is truly what’s most valuable. In any given context.”

“...contrary to the cliché, it isn’t really the thought that counts, but the effort — which is to say the inconvenience. When you render the process more convenient, you drain it of its meaning.”

That a product or service’s inconvenience could be adding to its value was something I’d never considered. I couldn’t help but think about how this relates to Fondfolio, which in many ways is an inconvenient — albeit deeply meaningful — product.

Burkman continues his proposition that friction adds value by asking us to think about the humble paper birthday card (a topic dear to my own heart) and what is lost when we resort to a more convenient option. “Take those services … that let you design and then remotely mail a birthday card, so you never see or touch the physical item yourself. Better than nothing, perhaps. But sender and recipient both know that it’s a poor substitute for purchasing a card in a shop, writing on it by hand, and then walking to a postbox to post it, because contrary to the cliché, it isn’t really the thought that counts, but the effort — which is to say the inconvenience. When you render the process more convenient, you drain it of its meaning.”

Reading this I felt validation and some weight lifted. My partner and I have had so many discussions about ways to make Fondfolio an easier gift to give, but this made me reevaluate that goal. Would something be lost if, for example, you didn’t have to follow up manually with each contributor to remind them to get their words in? Or if contributors could upload a photo instead of writing words. As it stands the giver often never sees or touches the physical book themselves because it’s shipped directly to the recipient. And while I do make a point to add personal touches like a hand-written gift tag and a personalized postcard explaining the book and how it was created, I do think that part of what makes this gift so meaningful is that it takes some effort to give, as well as contribute to and (for me) to make.

“… the inconvenience involved, which might look like brokenness from the outside, in fact embodies something essentially human.”

Fondfolio’s inconvenience is of course unintentional, this is simply a bootstrapped endeavour. And while there are still many things that could be done to improve the experience without de-valuing the product, I’ll certainly be careful moving forward not to needlessly eliminate meaning for the sake of smoothness.

All quotes are by Oliver Burkman from his excellent book Four Thousand Weeks which I have no affiliation with, I just think it’s an important bit of writing that every human should read.

written by fiona

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