Feel-Good Traps

How do the following statements make you feel?

“This feature adds value.”

“We are constantly improving.”

“I am learning new things.”

“Our business is gaining momentum.”

“This project will make us money.”

If your answer is “good!” then you just fell into a feel-good trap. A feel-good trap is a meaningless and even harmful statement disguised as a positive one.

What makes these statements so problematic is that they exist in a vacuum. Does the feature add enough value to prioritize over everything else? Are we improving fast enough to overcome our biggest challenge? Are you learning the right things to stay ahead of the curve? Are we gaining enough momentum to beat our biggest competitor? Will this project make us enough money to survive and thrive or are we still going to go bankrupt?

Progress is not binary and improvement is not absolute. Without the context of effort, impact, and destination, these statements are empty. After all, every startup is building features that “add value”, yet only one becomes the next Airbnb.

The two frameworks for avoiding this trap are opportunity cost and goals.

  • Opportunity cost encourages us to work on the best thing we can be working on. To be the best we can. Building a feature that will sell for $500 is a $100 mistake if a different feature can sell for $600

  • Goals encourage us to work on whatever it is that will get us to our destination. To be pragmatic more than idealistic. If our goal is to make $500, then building a feature that meets this goal is good enough, even if another feature can sell for $600 or much more than that

The problem with opportunity cost is the shiny object syndrome – chasing an ideal that doesn’t exist while repeatedly losing your precious focus. The problem with goals is settling for good enough when there’s always a way to be better and achieve more. The trick is to use goals and opportunity cost in conjunction, which I will write about soon enough.

When someone throws a feel-good statement at you, resist the temptation to feel good and accept it. Instead, challenge them to think of the better opportunities you could pursue, and to assess it all in the context of your goals.

I will leave you with a story I find inspiring:

In a recent interview about racism in the US, the interviewer eloquently presented all the feel-good progress we’ve made towards equality in recent decades. After respectfully listening, the African American interviewee powerfully asked: “how many decades more are we expected to wait?”