Year: 2021

Reading Notes: March 2021

Each month’s reading leaves me with scattered notes that don’t quite, by themselves, make up a blog post. I hope to gather these and give them some sort of shape as a thinking out loud exercise.

In March I read 8 books, from young adult fiction to academic history (which is pretty typical for my eclectic tastes). I find genre shifts help me stay more engaged and read with closer attention (though it could just be I’m easily distracted by new avenues of thought). I keep my reading list up to date in case you’re curious for the full list.


One thin, practical book I tried to absorb as much as possible was How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens.

Ahrens’ premise is that notes are the starting point for writing and it’s through writing that we learn. The system he describes draws from the work of Niklas Luhmann, a German sociologist who wrote at a prolific pace. The basic idea is to write short, individual notes, review them daily, and file them into a system (analog or digital) that creates connections between notes. Those connections help us deepen our understanding and explore topics in greater depth.

This inverts the typical writing process, or at least how it’s taught. Instead of starting with a topic and constructing a reading list and questions from there, you start with reading and out of that generate topics and questions to explore. If you do this well you shift from not knowing what to write about to having too many topics to choose from.

Ahrens’ also suggests that writing creates distance between us and a book. He describes how this distance is required in order to think about an argument instead of just within that argument. Notes and the writing they lead to become not a record of our thought but our thinking itself.

It’s a book I wish I read while still in college. Even outside an academic context, though, I found it valuable and have been tinkering with Obsidian to see how I can implement its core ideas.


In a different genre, Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy is a delightful set of books. His Chronicles of Prydain holds fond childhood memories. But, somehow, I never got to Westmark.

What I find so enjoyable about the series is its constrained ambition. It’s not a story of existential struggle for humanity; it’s just fun, with well-developed characters and a concise plot. The trilogy has this lightheartedness that lets you enjoy its world for a moment.


I also read two in-depth history books: David Abulafia’s The Great Sea and Peter Turchin’s War and Peace and War. It’s fun to pick up small anecdotes within these larger histories. I often imagine the author’s joy at unearthing some obscure, humorous detail in their research.

The Great Sea is a history of the Mediterranean through what took place on its seas. Among impeccable research and detail is this gem:

In 1599 the Venetians were so exasperated by the Uskoks that they sent a cargo of poisoned wine into Uskok-infested waters, let it be captured, and hoped to hear that the Uskoks had all died from drinking it. Since they remained full of life, however, the ruse obviously failed.1

Imagine being assigned to crew that ship. You wonder what happened to all the poisoned wine and what Uskok conversations were like as they headed back to port.

Or, from War and Peace and War, there’s this description of Elizabeth I’s creative taxation (slash rebellion suppression) system:

When one of her subjects became too wealthy, she invited herself to his castle along with her whole court. After some weeks of dining and wining the queen and hundreds of her followers, the unfortunate host was financially ruined for many years to come, and was too busy paying off his debts to contemplate rebellion.2

That sounds like a gentler approach than Elizabeth’s predecessors, Henry VII and Henry VIII, who would simply kill landowners who got too wealthy.


My reading lists3 remain a mess, but I did add 4 books in particular that I look forward to reading. Through The Long Now’s excellent Seminars About Long-term Thinking I found The Optimist’s Telescope and More From Less. Both Bina Venkataraman and Andrew McAfee gave excellent talks as part of the seminar series. And from Marginal Revolution I added Walter Isaacson’s The Code Breaker and Tom Zoellner’s Island on Fire, which covers an episode in Jamaica’s history that I know nothing about.

  1. Abulafia, David. The Great Sea. Oxford University Press, 2013, pg. 457.
  2. Turchin, Peter. War and Peace and War. Plume, 2007, pg. 272.
  3. Lists are one of the least-functional aspects of Amazon’s empire. They’re so basic and, at times, illogical it merits its own post.

Worthwhile Documentation

Detailed support docs are not enough. If they were, our queues would be emptier. A good doc builds a customer’s confidence and helps them find clear, approachable answers. They won’t find that, though, if we don’t make documentation seem worthwhile.

Any customer who contacts support is motivated to solve their problem, but that doesn’t mean a simple link will be enough to draw their attention. A support doc still has to sound compelling. And yet too often our replies tack on a link to documentation as an afterthought.

To make a doc sound worthwhile, focus on the words right before a link. I know I’ve sent many a reply like, “You can read more about this here…” with a link. That sounds superficial and ignores important context and direction. My job is to give the customer a look at what’s inside the doc and how it can help them—but a minimal reply like that does neither.

It helps to think about what the doc contains that I couldn’t just copy and paste into an email response. Here’s an example that makes it sound more worthwhile:

There’s a lot more you can do with this feature and our support doc covers all the details. That link takes you through everything and includes screenshots to help you find each step and get it set up exactly how you want.

That reply is longer, but it puts more energy behind the link. The customer gets a thorough nudge and greater confidence this is information they need to know. They can see documentation as more than just a dry manual and have a hint that it will help them be more effective. Manuals are off-putting while a good support doc helps someone learn and build confidence.

It’s extra special if you can include tidbits into some docs. If a feature’s key to the product, document a couple (brief) case studies or next-level steps. With those included you can add something like,

And check out the bottom of the page for tips from some of our largest customers about how they use this feature. There’s good advice in there that can help you avoid common mistakes.

This takes a support doc from simple help material to something more like educational marketing. It shows a customer not just how to configure a feature but how to thrive. That may save you another email from the customer later on once they’ve mastered the basics.

There’s, of course, much more that can be done with documentation. To overhaul a set of support docs can be a mountain of work that takes weeks or months while improving our own replies is work we can start today. There’s no development time required nor any software to integrate. It’s something each team member can tinker with and learn. Customers are willing to spend more time with docs once they know it’ll be worth their while.

Not Everyone Contacts You

Only some customers ask for help. Many love the product, find it intuitive, and go about their merry way while others are so lost they give up and never bother to get in touch. No matter how busy the ticket queue gets, it doesn’t represent all customers.

This makes any support-driven definition of customer sentiment only one (important!) piece of a larger puzzle. Without a reference point it’s difficult to make meaningful.

If you lead a team, you want them to understand their work in context. The most important thing from support’s perspective may be minor in the overall customer experience. Alternately, what can feel like a flood in the queue may indicate a deep fault line that needs repair. The key is to provide balance, and there are three steps you can take.

Track the percentage of customers who contact support

The size of a queue or a given week’s volume isn’t inherently useful. A backed up queue could be the sign of a growing business. Hundreds of complaints could be a tiny portion of customers. It helps to compare support interactions with the wider customer base. This provides a reference point for understanding the nuance of support load.

To start, track the percentage of new customers who contact support 1, 7, 14, 21, and 28 days after signing up. A multi-stage timeline indicates how often new customers have immediate questions and how those build over time.

As one example, maybe 10% of customers contact support but 90% of those contacts come within the first 24 hours of signing up. That’s a good indicator you need better onboarding and new user help. Alternately, perhaps only 3% of customers contact support but the company has a real issue with churn. That suggests a need to connect with more customers and, at the very least, figure out what’s lacking about the product.

As a nice side effect, this can act as a planning framework. Not only will you understand the current balance of customers who need help, but you’ll be better able to plan for future changes in the business. This kind of data shows roughly how many new customers lead to how many new support interactions, which helps you anticipate hiring needs and more.

Invite the product team to highlight all that new features can do

Support teams can focus on bugs and lose sight of what’s improved. After all, the queue is not usually full of customers who just want to say they liked a change. Over time this focus on all that’s broken can drain morale.

It helps to give product leadership a space to showcase the positives, especially when that comes prior to launch. A town hall or demo session creates a balanced relationship and focuses the team’s energy on progress rather than problems. It’s also an opportunity to ask questions ahead of time, which prepares the team to support things post-launch. Shortly after any launch you want to remember what’s improved, and without a reference point back to the product’s wider progress it’s easy to get stuck thinking nothing ever changes.

Celebrate what customers accomplish

Some customers who need help nonetheless make stellar use of a product. Often that success comes after they contact support, which makes it hard to see the connection between their support interactions and later accomplishments. But it’s that connection which reaffirms the value of each interaction; any one email may be the key that helps a customer reach their goal.

When possible, highlight these customers for the support team and wider company and focus on what each achieved through the product. What’s valuable is less about how they used certain features and more about the overall aims they accomplished. These are a good reminder of why the support team’s help matters and the type of impact it has on people. Even when a queue is full, good things arise through solving those problems.

A reminder

At any point, some portion of customers will need help as a result of poor design, engineering bugs, or marketing confusion. The ability to resolve those questions with grace is both the job description and job security of a great support team.

It’s all too easy for a team to overly focus on those problems and lose sight of accomplishments. It helps to add perspective, showcase the positives, and find the success stories. These strategies restore balance to the daily work of support which makes the work sustainable. That balance is a reminder that there’s more to how customers use the product than just what comes into the queue.

Stormy Feature Rollouts

Ever change a design or launch a new feature that your customers just hated? It’s not fun! It pushes you back on your heels and makes you rush to justify the decision. Customer after customer complains about the same thing and in response you churn out rote explanations of how they can adapt and why the new way is better.

The problem is that those formulaic replies prevent your team from learning more about where customers struggle. It’s better to restrain your desire to explain the new feature or change in design and instead keep a curious mindset. Use that curiosity to ask about how the customer used to work and what they now find difficult. Lean on cues they mentioned in their message (or rant!). As one brief example:

I realize the editor’s new line spacing is frustrating for poets like yourself. Could you tell me more about how you used the old editor? I’d love to better understand your writing process as it may help our team reconsider how this works.

Your phrasing needs to give the customer an opening to talk about their positive experiences in times past. Not everyone will take that opening, of course, but it helps to make them feel heard right away. Echo their language back to them. Show that you’re listening and curious. And then ask open-ended, inquisitive questions that get them to share more about how they used the product in the past.

The goal is to not get bogged down in their frustration with the new design. You can always detail what their options are once you better understand how they expect things to work. You want to encourage a conversation about why this change made things difficult. You want to learn not just what the customer dislikes about the new version but what they loved about the old version. This will help you relay customer feedback back to your product team because the best products are those people love to use, not those they don’t hate.

As with so many things, this is easier said than done. And, yes, some customers are just going to vent. That’s okay. That’s where those formulaic responses can lend a hand, especially if you are swamped under a growing backlog. It’s still worth the effort to find those handful of customers who give you an opening. When you find them, it’s worth investing in some individualized conversations to understand your customers’ point of view.

As you talk with more customers, you build a model of how this particular change impacted them. That understanding is crucial for your product team. Knowing that many customers are unhappy isn’t actionable. Knowing that many customers are struggling to adapt because this new design complicates a common workflow is actionable, insightful gold. That’s fertile ground for the next design iteration.

Match the Situation

Years ago I emailed Zappos support because I made a mistake in a product review and wanted to correct it, which wasn’t possible on the website. My email was two quick sentences. The response was 5 paragraphs, most of which were unrelated to my question, and it buried the answer within a middle sentence of the third paragraph.

This approach can ruin a customer experience. A great support interaction matches the customer’s situation and mindset. Great support is tuned to a customer’s particular context and avoids relying on a simplistic routine since routines, while efficient, can often miss what’s really happening. There are three common examples I like to think about that help make this idea concrete: simple questions, rambling stories, and lists of questions.

Simple questions

Plenty of support interactions don’t require deep, careful investigation nor a precise tone. Some customers just have a simple question that you know the answer to. They’re in search of the missing puzzle piece and it’s your responsibility to provide as clear an answer as possible.

Yes, you may want to build rapport, prove you’re not a bot, or draw the customer’s attention to something which benefits them. That’s all fine, but it’s not what the customer asked. Leading with any of that information puts the focus on what you want, not what they need.

When confronted with a simple question I make sure the answer is the very first thing in my email. This builds trust as the customer knows their needs are my priority. Plus, it can diffuse a customer’s confusion or frustration since the first thing they read solves their problem. Once you solve their problem they’ll be a lot more inclined to listen to what else you have to share. No customer should have to read through a multi-paragraph email to find the part that answers their straightforward question.

Rambling stories

Eventually every inbox gets a rambling email that takes you on a journey. These are those stream-of-consciousness recreations of what the customer was doing whenever they ran into trouble. For better and for worse you have all the details; your goal, no matter the story, is to zero in on what’s relevant.

Often what starts as a long story only gets longer with each reply, so focus is important. It also helps to be patient; don’t pressure yourself to engage with each plot twist. Just find where the customer is stuck and reinforce the next steps they can take. Their story is also an opening to be personable. Don’t force it, but often you can find a nugget within the stream that helps humanize your service.

One way to approach these long-winded messages is to selectively quote from the email. Maybe the full note is 2,000 words. That’s ok. Pull out the three or four sentences that get to the heart of their question and either echo that language back to the customer or quote it inline in your response. It’s a gentle way to bring order to their rambling and indicate where you’re focusing your attention.

Lists of questions

Every once in a while you get an email that’s just a long list of questions. Often they’re numbered but sometimes they just run one right after the other in a big, epic paragraph. These are tough. No one wants to write out answers to 20+ questions and I’d bet few people truly want to read such a lengthy response.

When confronted with a long list of questions the challenge is to guide the customer to what will best help them, even if that doesn’t fully address each question in their list. Think of the themes that connect all their questions and find a way to start them on a path toward confidence and self-sufficiency. Their questions likely tell you a lot about their goals and you just have to nudge them along.

This is where guides and getting started tutorials are useful. It’s best when you can help the customer enough to get started while connecting them to a resource that will carry them the rest of the way. If you can’t help them make that step you’re bound to get another list of questions next week.

Wrapping up

The last thing you want is to slip into autopilot and churn out replies based in nothing more than habit. Sure, macros and predefined replies have their place but even those are best when they’re flexible enough to be customized to the situation. Guidelines like what I describe above help avoid the tendency to fall into routine and keep the focus on the customer.

Each of the three approaches above come from a common theme: the best support is tailored to the individual customer. No individual response is the categorical Best Response for every interaction. It’s all about how you gauge the customer’s own situation and deliver them a response that best matches what they need.

A Case for Text Interviews

Companies often rely on hiring processes that don’t evaluate the skills a job requires. This disconnect is particularly damaging for customer support because phone interviews and panel presentations are a poor way to evaluate candidates whose expertise lies in the written word.

You can best evaluate candidates when the hiring environment matches the job; you need success in the interview and the role to require the same skills. This is why phone interviews for customer support roles are so confounding. Team members spend dozens of hours every week writing yet you form a first impression based on how they can present themselves through voice. That’s the mismatch that text-based interviews solve.

Among other things, text-based interviews teach you three things about a candidate.

  • Can they write high-quality responses quickly? Customer support requires writing clear answers in short amounts of time. While speed and clarity often feel in tension with one another, success happens when you balance each and achieve both. If a candidate keeps the interview flowing and still conveys depth it’s likely their customer interactions will be prompt and thorough. That’s the kind of team member you want to find.
  • Can they communicate ideas well under stress? Interviews are stressful, even when they push candidates on topics they know inside and out. But stress can often throw us off track and cause us to forget important, routine information. If a candidate can withstand the stress of an interview and still relate clear ideas it bodes well for how they’ll handle a frustrated or stressful customer. You want team members who can handle those customers with ease.
  • Can their writing convey a voice? Text-based conversations, especially when distributed, are a huge part of how teams form and bond. All those Slack chats may feel like an all-day meeting but they’re also important to how many teams share ideas, help one another, and build relationships. If a candidate’s answers carry personality then it’s likely they can more effectively integrate with and, as importantly, add to your team.

Each one of those is relevant to how someone performs the core responsibilities of a job in support. There’s more to it than just those traits, of course. But if you form a first impression based on those factors you are much closer to making a fair, informed hiring decision about how someone will perform in the job.

And, not to be overlooked, text interviews help you find candidates you could otherwise (subconsciously) bias yourself against and lose. In a text interview it doesn’t matter if a candidate’s not the most confident speaker, if they have an accent, or if they need 30 seconds to compose their thoughts. Any (or all!) of those things can be true and you, just like your customers on the other end of an email, won’t even notice.

Great customer support requires clear writing. How well your team writes is what defines the relationship between your company and its customers. Next time you hire a team member try a text-based interview. If you put candidates in a position most similar to the work itself then you can better evaluate how they’ll really do in the role.

Avoid the Apologies

Work in customer support for any stretch of time and you know customer disappointment is part of the job. The customer signed up with inflated expectations, wants a feature that isn’t built yet, or has needs that your product simply isn’t built to serve. Your team typically isn’t at fault in these scenarios. It’s the side effect of customers bringing their myriad hopes and dreams to a product that is never quite as expansive as their imagination. But even without being at fault we still feel an impulse to apologize.

Our quick apologies are often a proxy for what we really mean. When we rush to apologize we lose sight of what helps a customer feel heard. We can still impart a positive experience, even when we cannot resolve their request, but too often we leave out important context that helps a customer understand why we’re unable to help. Take these two brief examples:

I’m sorry, unfortunately there isn’t a way to do that in the product today.

I’ve heard that so often as a customer. It’s…fine. But it leaves me wondering, “Well, gosh, if you feel so bad why don’t you do something to fix it?” If we add just a little more context we create a world of difference in tone:

There isn’t a way to do that in the product today. I made a note so our team can revisit the idea since I can see how this would be useful. Thank you for taking the time to ask as finding these gaps helps us improve the product!

That’s better! While it stays general and doesn’t promise a resolution it does convey an appreciative tone instead of an apologetic one. Since no one made a mistake there’s no need to apologize, the product just can’t do a certain thing. That’s okay.

There a few guidelines that I use to avoid impulse apologies:

  • Stay matter of fact. It’s okay to convey the limitations of your product or service in a straightforward way that’s free from apologies.
  • Keep the tone appreciative. The urge to say sorry comes, in part, from a recognition that you may lose this customer. Be appreciative for what you learned about your business rather than apologetic about imperfections.
  • Find a constructive next step. This may be sharing feedback with your team or recommending a competitor that better matches the customer’s needs. In either case, focus on a sense of progress rather than one of regret.

Combine these and you convey confidence and competence to a customer, even when they’re disappointed. Sure, they might leave for a competitor. But that’s okay because they’re leaving with a positive, strong impression of your company. This may grant you a future opportunity to win their business.

I like to reserve apologies for when I or my team make a mistake that negatively impacts the customer; that way it’s sure to sound meaningful. When I feel that impulse to apologize I remind myself to take an extra moment and write what I really want to convey. Sometimes it helps to just ask myself: what is it I want this customer to understand? Once I write that out I’m often most of the way to a better response.

Great customer support is built upon kind and clear communication. An apology we make out of habit is neither. It’s through clear context that we leave even a disappointed customer with a positive impression of our work and our company.

Lessons from Mayo Clinic

I first read Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic after an advisor recommended it to me a few years ago. I was somewhat skeptical about learning from a massive healthcare institution, but Mayo Clinic is not just any healthcare system. The book describes what makes the institution unique and how it excels for its patients.

If you don’t already know the name, Mayo Clinic is a US-based hospital system founded all the way back in 1864 and remains renowned today. Many of its core values connect to the founder’s two sons, who ran the practice in the late 1800s. These brothers were serious about healthcare; one even spent his honeymoon touring hospitals and clinics.

The book has lots of great detail about Mayo’s operations. For the purposes of this post, though, I want to detail the clinic’s careful attention to how their facilities, staff, and behavior send patients clues about healthcare quality. Even small concerns can influence how patients—or customers—view an organization. Below I outline 3 types of clues the authors describe and offer some ideas for how you can apply these to your own customer service.

About Clues

When customers interact with an organization they take mental notes. As the authors write, “Customers act like ‘detectives’ in the way they process and organize experience clues into a set of impressions that evoke feelings.” They tune into all sorts of things and the more variable, complex, or personal the service you provide the more important these clues become.

The authors outline 3 types of clues: functional, mechanic, and humanic, which connect and have their greatest impact when they align with one another. While functional clues influence our rational perspective, it’s the mechanic and humanic clues that build our emotional perceptions.

Functional Clues

The primary role of a functional clue is to strengthen a customer’s confidence in the reliability of what you deliver. Another way to think of them is that they signal your competence. We can often get lost thinking that these are the only clues that matter; if the answer is correct, what else matters? The answer is a lot, because customers often aren’t adept at evaluating technical competency.

Here Mayo’s team-based approach to medicine is its greatest advantage. By coordinating resources they give patients a clear sense that they’re getting the best possible care. Patients aren’t bounced between 3 different doctors with contradictory recommendations. They’re given 3 doctors who work together to figure out the single best course of treatment.

Each support team requires similar teamwork; your training material and best practices all have a role to play. Your answers need to be consistent, thorough, and well-researched. Customers may turn to you as the expert, but help them trust that’s the case and followthrough with clear, relatable answers. There’s a lot of repetitive work in support, but great team performance comes from doing those routine things in an outstanding manner.1

Mechanic Clues

These often define a customer’s first impression as they’re the sensory clues (physical, visual, auditory, etc.) that tell a customer what they can expect. What matters most is that their design both fits and supports the type of service an organization can (and will!) deliver. For Mayo Clinic, they know healthcare is stressful and work to create a reassuring first impression.

They place such an emphasis on mechanic clues that they travel to marble quarries to ensure stones have no natural patterns that would suggest disquieting human forms or disease. In their pediatric wing are 3 different heights of water fountains, rivers and animal tracks that guide children to exam rooms, and exam rooms that are free from 90-degree corners. Individually any of these things are relatively small, but collectively they make it clear Mayo pays careful thought to how children experience their clinic.

There are many analogues for mechanic clues within online customer support. Your contact form, email templates, documentation design, and more all send a customer certain signals. Do they fit together cohesively and imply a level of service you effectively deliver? Each element of your service can reinforce the values you want a customer to understand. But as Mayo shows, doing that well requires care, attention, and creativity.

Humanic Clues

Humanic clues range from dress to appearance, tone of voice, and more. While they’re subjective, they nonetheless have an emotional impact on people. And if you work within a labor-intensive or interactive service profession it’s these clues that are most important in exceeding customer expectations.

At Mayo Clinic this means that physicians wear business attire, nurses wear white uniforms, and the organization has clear standards for how staff act and communicate with patients. The structure is designed to put patients at ease and while some may find it rigid it’s all done with a purpose.

While we don’t all show up to an email conversation in business attire, there are lessons for us in this framework. It’s worth thinking about the clues your writing sends a customer. Things both large (style guide and tone) to small (email signatures and emoji usage) play a role in the customer’s experience and each is an opportunity to influence how they perceive your service. Think about what impact you want to have with customers and then how you can best convey those standards to team members.

Connection to Support

There’s clearly a ton that Mayo Clinic does right. And while we’re not all running massive healthcare institutions I do think there’s much we can learn from how they approach service. With that in mind, this was my favorite line from the book:

A service can be functional and still create negative feelings in customers because of how it is delivered.

That’s such a good reminder. Our responsibility in support doesn’t end at the technical accuracy of an answer as there are so many other pieces that we have to get right. But it’s often that technical accuracy that we spend the most time thinking about, training people in, and evaluating in CSAT scores and the like. Reading Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic is a reminder to step back and look at things holistically. To really understand each part of what builds into your customer experience.

As we start this new year, take a moment to go through each step of your customer experience. How does your contact form greet a customer? Does the confirmation email they get match the tone you strive for in replies? How does your team use greetings, email signatures, and more to create a consistent vibe? Just like the pattern in a slab of marble, these small details can be easy to overlook, but they’re clues that influence each customer’s experience.

  1. Hat tip to Ann Dunwoody for that sentiment. Read her excellent book, A Higher Standard.

2020 in Review

In 2018 and 2019 my annual recap focused on the books I read. Books still occupied a large space in 2020, but with so much change I wanted to widen the lens for a year-in-review.

The year’s biggest change was a sharp drop in travel due to the pandemic. Over the last 3 years, annual work and personal travel spanned 80+ days and 75k+ miles. In 2020 I stayed in Portland from late February on, which was a welcome change. It’s my longest work travel gap in a decade.

Morning light coming into Sagrada Família.
Sagrada Família, from a trip in January.

Prior to the pandemic, 2020 was on pace to be an even busier year and January and February meant trips to Barcelona, California, Washington D.C., and India. Staying closer to home left more time for local activity, with hikes on Mt. Hood and Kings Mountain, along with salmon fishing on the Columbia. It was also nice to have more time for cooking, from pot roast to cinnamon rolls and cake.

This lack of travel meant vast amounts of time for reading as I read 103 books across 2020, which is about twice my pace in 2018 or 2019. Most of those were print copies, a change from last year’s Kindle focus. Without needing the portability of a Kindle my long-standing preference for print won out (though shelf space is a concern at this rate).

In fiction I particularly appreciated rereading books, which brought a sense of the familiar back into a strange year. Of new novels I read, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future was my favorite, partly because it’s the first science fiction book I’ve read that directly deals with a near future driven by climate change. It was also fun to read Jane Austen’s work, in part for the reminder that people led rich lives in comparatively simpler and more geographically-constrained times.

Of the non-fiction I read, two books stood out. Chris Arnade’s Dignity is deeply compelling and uses a journalistic eye to bring moving stories of people to the forefront. If you add one book to your list I recommend Dignity. Bob Moesta’s Demand-Side Sales, which I shared notes from, is a clear handbook for how to keep the customer at the center of your company. I highly recommend it to anyone working in a for-profit business.

On this site I wrote more regularly about the craft of customer support and started a twice-monthly newsletter in late September. Posts go to both this blog and an email list, for which Buttondown provides just the right level of detail. I like the ability to add to my home on the open web and publish to a known group of readers. But it’s the act of writing and giving shape to ideas that I most enjoy.

2021 seems, more than most, like a year that will laugh at grand plans. My plans are simple: more reading, writing, and time close to home.