A Priceless Pause

A Priceless Pause
Photo by Brett Jordan / Unsplash

David Marquet, author of Turn the Ship Around, which is one of my favorite books on leadership, is writing a new book coming out soon called “Coach.”

It’s about how to coach yourself and the questions, tools, and playbooks that can help us all see what is hard to see inside ourselves.

David called me a few months ago to see if I’d write a story to be included in the book about a time I was blind to making a bad decision. Behaviors that I wish I could change looking back. A situation where I wish I could have stepped outside of myself and been my own coach.

I hope you enjoy the story and I would love some honest feedback. Without further ado, here’s a story about sending the worst text message of my life.

How expensive is a pause?

“I’ll never forget the text.”

After months of building a relationship with the CTO of a public company, sharing inspired texts about the future. Personal stories about our families. And doing the work to establish trust in the biggest partnership of our company’s life… 5 months in, it all started to unravel.

The partnership went from great to break, and fast.

The teams started to blame each other. My team would tell me how the partner failed on their commitments and the CTO’s team would tell him how we failed on our commitments. For a while the CTO and I would control those complaints – trusting in the partnership, telling our team to focus on our side of the project, and be open with the partner about where we stood. But it was wearing thin. I felt increasingly drawn into the emotional state of my team, agreeing with them. “Yeah, those guys are fucking this up.” I started telling myself.

So I sent the text.

Frustrated about our upcoming launch, I took it as a direct attack on our team. The “no they on Santa Fe” mantra of one team went away completely. I channeled all the frustrations my team had shared with me over months directly through my fingertips to let him know how I felt. I’ll never forget that moment.

My ego was triggered. My insecurities and anger took hold. My ability to think rationally was hijacked. I was locked into my “here-and-now self.” It’s almost like you black out in the moment and end up in a typing 💬 deleting typing deleting typing edit deleting type type type delete copy paste delete trance.

A feeling familiar to many of us.

The overwhelming feeling of I have to say how I feel. Now.

Then, 10 minutes later…

Ping. I stopped what I was doing and grabbed my phone. Aha! Response from the CTO.

“I'll be blunt. I'm not very much digging the blame by from your team like very much, not because they were to blame in this whole thing, but it shouldn't have been that way. That would be my lesson. All the professing responsibility doesn't erase the language I'm seeing from you and your team. Expletives, arrogance, claims referring to platforms and people as shit. It's just not cool. I've been nothing but admitting our faults, and they are plenty. I've referred to them specifically and talk to ways we're addressing them.”

This should have been like a flagman waving a giant caution flag as I barreled down the highway. But no, I did not process it like that. Hit the gas hard, double down, pedal to the metal, and all that.

And then… in the time it took me to type on my phone, I texted back:

“I'll be blunt. I'm not very much digging the blame by from any of you. All the professing responsibility doesn't erase the language I'm seeing from you and your team. This was the most painful partnership we've ever done. You and I are not represented of how we were treated. So don't speak out of context until Wednesday when we share how we were treated. Because we are not like this. We weren't treated like this. We don't, partner like this. You weren't even there. So don't come at me.”

Immediate. Easy. Sent. Take that, fucker!

Yes, I had the gall to quote his words back to him and tell the CTO of our most important partner, to back off, sit down and shut up.

I was lost in defending my ego. But I was telling myself that I was defending my team and our good name. The dark irony is that my reactive behavior hurt both my team and my relationships.

That was the text that cost us 50 million dollars. We were months into an M&A deal that was valuing the company at $50M or more. This wasn’t just a partnership; it would have been a home run for our team and investors.

But with that text, it was dead. How expensive is being locked in your own head, and how expensive is the burden of defending something that isn’t even real? Well, let me tell you. Very expensive.

The instant I see a message like that, unless I step away and check in with myself, there’s nothing else I can think about until I respond. It’s the doom loop.

My inability to see that I needed to step back, pause, and consider the consequences of my actions blew up a whole string of deals. The most hurtful thing to this day – I don’t remember writing that text.

What I've learned since then is that when our frontal cortex is triggered, our memory and decision-making ability actually shut down.

Today, I take the need to pause very seriously. The stopgap that I’ve learned to rely on is checking in with myself and asking,

“Do I have an overwhelming feeling that I must send this message?” that’s the trigger.

The more I feel the urgency to send another message the more I need to stop. It's that simple. I have to take an honest look at myself and see if I’m being driven by an urgency to act, or if I feel calm and able to select the right time to send. Wait to become my future self.

If the voice in my head is saying “I need to let them know what I think, I gotta send this right fucking now” that’s a bright red light that I should not send it. That’s a sign that I must pause and do a check-in. I find that when I do that check-in, my body is agitated, my guts are churning, and I’m twitching, racing. The body keeps the score and watching for those signals has become a game changer.

If I feel I must send it now, don’t. If I’m ambivalent about sending it now or later, it could be ok to send it now.

That’s when I know I’m in a place where I’m calling the shots, not being driven by the reactive, fear-driven stories.  That feeling of calm clarity and having options can’t be confused with that frantic urgency.

That’s the framework I use today. If the voice in my head and the urgency in my body is saying “I have to send it,” then that’s when I absolutely do not respond. If I can honestly say “I could do it now, or later, and it doesn’t really matter,” that’s when I’m safe and on solid ground.”

Back to David…

In the military we have 4 categories of messages. I’m talking about official message traffic sent over military communication networks. Flash, Immediate, Priority and Routine. Each message is preceded by a letter. A flash message starts with ZZZZZ. In the old days where bandwidth was limited and messages printed out on a teletype while the submarine was submerged when the teletype started banging out a series of Z the radioman would announce “Incoming flash traffic.” everyone would sit up and the captain would run to radio and stare at the teletype as each letter printed out. Nuclear attack? Flash message!
But in our worlds we are not dealing with reporting nuclear attacks. We should have a checklist for things that do need a now response but that still starts with a pause, check the list. If you did think about labeling your messages with priorities and you think it is a flash message – you might want to trigger a pause. “Mom fell down” flash message, fine. “I have some feedback for you, now!” hmmm.


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Jamie Larson