Hans Christian Andersen wrote a short story called the Princess and the Pea. I’d recommend reading it before we continue here because it’s so short.

The TL;DR is that a Prince found his Princess because she was sensitive to a single pea underneath many layers of bedding. The story hasn’t exactly aged well (Is this a criteria for a mate? What’s going on with the gender expectations?) but I think about it often, especially at work.

To me, this story demonstrates the importance of fighting against friction, even if it’s something small. It’s so easy to become accustomed to something working the way it does and not noticing the pain. It’s valuable to stay sensitive to annoying or inconvenient things rather than becoming used to them. I have watched people work around some crazy stuff to the point where they don’t even notice they’re doing it.

A Personal Experience

An aside. I worked in the film industry in post production. We prepared movies to go through color correction, which is like applying Adobe Photoshop to the film. Part of that process required going back to the footage the camera shot to ensure we had as high quality as possible. Bringing the data online involves searching a drive for the right clips selected by the editorial staff and this took a looonnnnggg time. For example, it was common for the process to take 2ish hours per 20 minutes of film to get the footage copied over. This took place in a room that bills out for $500+ an hour and on a purpose-built machine that cost $250K plus. We thought this was normal!

One day, I looked into the application logs to see why it took so long. What I found is that the application spent 45 minutes looking through the drive to find the right clips. The clips had a consistent layout in the clip and it seemed crazy to me that it could take so long.

I made this a pet project. I brought it up to the company that created the application with a recommended fix. After some back and forth, we took the 45 minutes down to 2 minutes, a 22x improvement. It took much less time to prepare movies for color correction, which saved our customers and the business money.

So what can we take away from this? It comes down to remaining sensitive to pain. Instead of working around problems, stop and look at what you’re doing. If this is a repeated task, it’s worth taking a step back and examining if there’s a better way to do it.

Further Reading

If you’re interested in this topic, I have two strong recommendations for you:

  1. The Design of Everyday Things. Donald Norman hates friction in every day life. He hates doors that open the wrong way, items that are not designed with humans in mind, and anything confusing. One of my favorite ideas from his book is that there’s no human error. Human error is machine error - it’s in a system that someone designed shoddily enough to allow for humans to make a mistake. That’s a great example of this concept.
  2. Dan Luu’s Wat post (aka Normalization of Deviance). This covers how we become numb to the bizarre workplace culture we put up with.

If you take anything away from this, I hope it’s to be more sensitive to the pain of little things. We don’t have to accept it. We can change it. It’s worth being more like the Princess.