The Asymmetric Crab

Too many Slack conversations start like this:

8:05 AM    Pesty Coworker: Hi Justin

8:10 AM    Pesty Coworker: How are you? 🙂

8:20 AM    Pesty Coworker: I was hoping you could help me with something…

8:25 AM    Pesty Coworker: Can I ask you a question?

Pesty Coworker then shares an expose on their problem’s sordid history, some half-baked hypotheses, and a slew of questions. Then they’ll offer…

8:30 AM    Pesty Coworker: Quick call to discuss?

No thank you. Pesty Coworker isn’t the only one firing pings. Demanding Coworker is knocking down the door without question marks or emojis. Helpless Coworker is asking the same question they asked yesterday. By 9 AM, it’s time to trade coffee for tequila.

These coworkers aren’t bad people, but they’re doing something I call “Crab Fishing.” They toss some bait—a simple hello or friendly conversation starter. When someone bites, they sink in the hook and make a request.

No Hello is a kickback movement to this problem. Ardent advocates link it in their bio, in lieu of a job title. The idea is to reduce unnecessary notifications by transforming the above messages into something like this:

8:05 AM  Pesty Coworker: Hi Justin, do my work for me.

What a beautiful, direct ask! Instead of fake pleasantries and a half-dozen squirrely pings, the demand is clear and efficient. Love it.

No Hello is merely a band-aide on the severed arm of productivity. Ad hoc back-and-forth messaging is a systemic problem enabled by tools like Slack and email. For many professionals, it’s a world we’re stuck in. That doesn’t mean we have to accept it.

The Polish have a phrase nie mój cyrk, nie moje malpy or “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” The idea has a dark sentiment… “You set your house on fire and want to use my garden hose to stop the flames? Too bad! Your problem, not mine!”The kids’ book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, illustrates the same idea, albeit less bleak. Give people an inch, they’ll take a mile.

Obviously, we should help others. If a neighbor lights their house on fire, drop everything and grab a hose. But if one is never discerning, others will take advantage of them. Humans are inherently lazy creatures, so asking for help is easier than solving a problem on their own. Maybe it’s a by-product of being social creatures? Almost everything humans do—working, raising a family, traveling, eating—involves other people. Unless they live naked in a mud hut somewhere, one can’t be 100% self-sufficient.

True self-sufficiency is a pipedream, but that doesn’t mean people should depend on others for everything. Nor should they target an even 50/50 split, as this entropies into a game of tit-for-tat tally-keeping. What if workers were asymmetrically skewed toward self-sufficiency?

Consider the fiddler crab. Nature gave it certain advantages that wouldn’t be possible with two even-sized claws. The big claw—the Crusher—can break apart mollusk shells for food, fight off other crabs, and dig burrows for eggs. The little claw—the Pincher—is maneuverable and can slice through fish meat.

The crab is an interesting model for knowledge work. Building a large Crusher claw—high self-sufficiency—can lead to professional advantages, such as increased productivity, more autonomy, and a unique skill set. A self-sufficient professional could spend 90% of their time on independent work with direct value: research, writing, designing, coding, etc. Their 10% remaining time and energy could be spent helping others.

To crawl out of Theory Land, here’s how The Asymmetric Crab could work in practice.

8:05 AM Pesty Coworker: Hi Crab, do my work for me.

8:10 AM Crab: Hi Pesty, happy to help! Complete this form so I have the needed info.

See how the Crab conserved energy by blocking an attack with its Crusher claw? The coworker must now complete prerequisites, like supplying data. The Crab avoided several back-and-forth messages by volleying a reasonable ask back to its coworker. This friction could require more effort than the ROI of the ask, so the coworker might reconsider asking altogether.

The Crab could employ other mechanisms to stave off attacks on its attention. It could introduce “office hours” to clump conversations or define structured workflows for common issues.

Through these methods, the Crab teaches its coworkers to become Asymmetric Crabs themselves. However, this isn’t effective unless the Crab practices what it preaches. When making an ask, the Crab must take responsibility for 90% of the work. It should present a succinct problem, relevant research, supporting artifacts, and sufficient time to avoid a fire drill. The Crab respects its coworker’s time and sanity like its own.

This asymmetric give-and-take creates balance. Yin has a bit of yang and yang a bit of yin. For a colony of Asymmetric Crabs to collaborate, this balance is vital. It’s not easy to transform into a Crab, and it’s considerably more difficult to transform coworkers into Crabs. A good starting point is developing self-sufficiency because embracing asymmetry could make one seem like…well, a crab.

But that’s okay. Those with a big Crusher claw can get away with it.