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The Importance of Giving a Damn

The most exciting thing I can learn about anyone boils down to this:

They really, truly give a damn about something.

It’s important to calibrate what I mean about this. Being a stickler about Star Trek trivia, parts of speech or state capitals doesn’t count. Affinity for political knee-jerk doesn’t qualify, either.

Giving a damn is about sacrifice and investment. It’s paying with something precious in the service of something you really, truly value.

My favorite leaders, consistently, gave a damn about good leadership. Years ago, during my college internship, I’d stroll into my boss’s office, politely interrupt whatever the hell it was he was doing, and have a conversation. This guy was the director of the department, working on a Master’s degree on the side, and was the busiest guy I’d ever met. But as long as nothing was on fire, he’d give me half an hour to answer my questions about anything. I figured out much later that the reason he did this was that he gave a damn about leadership and helping people grow.

This isn’t something you can half ass. Either you really, trully give a damn about leadership – or you’re just another one of those bosses.

Leadership is a universal one, but this works with anything. I’d rather hire someone green who truly gives a damn about the work than someone with both experience and apathy. Many things can be taught – giving a damn is not one of them.

It goes beyond picking your team or picking your boss, though. The very best companies, large and small prove that they give a damn, too.

In Delivering Happiness, Tony Hsieh explains that Zappos treats their customer service as a marketing expense to be padded instead of an operational expense to be reduced. It’s a very Keanu “whoa” moment when you ponder that. It flips everything around in your head – while being so entirely correct, you can’t imagine anything different. Organizationally, Zappos gives a damn about doing the right thing for people and backs this up with a significant investment.

Down the road from where I live, an immigrant family owns the best damned Chinese restaurant on earth. The food is consistently delicious, but it doesn’t end there. I’m greeted warmly, my picky custom orders are delivered with fastidious accuracy, and every meal is accompanied by a free appetizer or some on-the-house ice cream. These guys truly give a damn about creating an enjoyable restaurant.

If being a good boss is giving a damn about leadership and running a great business is giving a damn about customer service, what about great software?

Great software boils down to giving a damn about user experience. Take a look at your browser history. How much horseshit do you have going on in your digital life? Web applications take the cake for shameless apathy. When an exception turns up – when someone, miraculously, gives a damn about making their software work well, it’s a special moment.

Hipmunk is just such a miracle. Look at this homepage:

The text fields are huge, meaty, clearly-labeled things. Easy to find and click on. Instead of being relegated to a forgotten sidebar, the search activity itself is the focal point of the page. There are no distracting promotions or other crap you don’t care about. “You’re here to search for your flight, so let’s make it happen!” cries Hipmunk, grabbing you by the cheeks and shoving you into search land. Want to leave tomorrow? Type “tomorrow” into the date field.

For reference, let’s compare to another site.

Look at that shit!

From the two examples, which app gives more of a damn about helping you find your flight?

Travelocity can’t even be bothered to make their time of day dropdown fit the default selection.

Meanwhile: Hipmunk’s outstanding search results interface.

There is a sort option called agony. It’s the default. Hipmunk’s creators thought a moment and realized that lengthy flights and layovers are an important detail to make clear from the beginning. The layout lets you see a timeline for your flight date, letting you quickly understand when you’re leaving and when you’re arriving in local time. It’s also a great way to visually compare the lengths of multiple flights. These guys… well, you know what I’m going to say.

No matter what you’re doing, giving a damn matters. The things you do that you don’t give a damn about, I guarantee you’re doing poorly. You can’t give a damn about everything, but please, I beg you, find at least one thing.

And if you do give a damn: I cannot wait to meet you, work with you, be your customer or use your software.

  • I still smile at what an old colleague said once. “I don’t just GIVE a damn, they have to EARN it!”

    jrandom42

    October 4, 2010

  • fudge. i love this.

    John Saddington

    October 4, 2010

  • This is an important message and one worth repeating. I’m thrilled to give my business – and recommend others do the same – to those who genuinely try to provide something great rather than just making a sale. Do something consistently great and those sales will come.

    Stacy C

    October 4, 2010

  • Brilliant! Everything I believe in and strive to install in my own work environment in is in this post.

    It very much reminds me of my favourite quote by Howard Thurman –

    “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

    Linda

    October 4, 2010

  • Danilo, much as I love the idea you put forward, the example is a bad one. If you compare their traffic, sales and business objectives, you’ll realise most of the decisions that travelocity took were in fact revenue driven. In that you are correct to say that what they gave a damn about first was the most important thing but if someone is offering 1 million dollars a year to run ads on your home page, are you going to boldly turn it down when you want money and scale? I think that’s what happened there, being sucker to many people paying a lot of money ends up diverting your attention from what you originally wanted to give a damn about and what you ended up giving a damn about.

    Karthick

    October 5, 2010

  • After pondering for a while on how to hire someone and also reflecting on my own experience as a candidate, I came to the same conclusion that someone who gives a damn is worth more than someone with more skills or experience. Assuming both are intelligent people, then it is not as though the first person can’t go and learn whatever skills he is missing. Giving a damn about what he is doing will drive him to learn those things and to learn them well. Not only that but he will learn new things as the industry progresses.

    So far I’ve only come up with one indirect measurement of this quality and that’s to find out what a person does in his free time.

    Hang

    October 5, 2010

  • @Karthick: Of course they were revenue driven. They didn’t put up the ads for their health.

    The point is that giving a damn means taking a stand for what’s important. The user experience is what earns loyalty and enthusiasm to use the product. If people can’t stand to use your product, your days are numbered as soon as someone turns up with a great product with a less user-hostile means of making money.

    Danilo Campos

    October 5, 2010

  • Well said, Danilo. It always shocks me at how poor the focus really is on companies providing a service for customers (ie, Travelocity).

    Your example with Travelocity is spot-on. It’s like they’ve lost sight of what they’re there for (to help people book travel).

    Sal Conigliaro

    October 12, 2010

  • [...] recently read an interesting blog about “the importance of giving a damn” about what you do. I have to admit that I whole heartedly believed in Danilo [...]

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