WESTERN UNITED STATES
“What if I had an idea so great, we would receive death threats?”
His wife was seated at the raised kitchen counter, focused on her laptop. She didn’t look away from the screen, didn’t stop typing. Still, she didn’t skip a beat. “Sounds like a bad idea.”
“Perhaps.” He stood behind her, his look vacant as his mind gnawed on the plan, working through the moving parts, processing the probabilities. How would this play out? What would be the impact of people’s reflexive reactions, their more thoughtful responses, and eventually, meaningful outcomes?
Distracted by his thoughts, he slowly rotated the barstool next to his wife’s. A faint clunk and steadfast resistance marked the stop in the clockwise direction. A few seconds later, he bumped into the counterclockwise limit.
After reaching each of the stops a few times, he sat and swiveled to face her. “I think I have to do this,” he said. For a serial entrepreneur, the founder of three moderately successful social media startups, his reticence was unusual. The vast potential of this great idea barely outweighed his reservations.
She finished typing and turned to meet his gaze. Most weekday mornings, when he came to the kitchen for his second cup of coffee, he enthusiastically presented an update on his most recent project, his unique take on current events, or a new theory he was researching. Since they had begun working from home two years ago, this interlude had become their standard routine. She had always been his favorite sounding board. A five-minute chat over coffee would often help clarify his thinking. Today, he sat silently, his mind deliberating, distilling his thoughts.
She touched his hand. “Whatever this is, you’re serious? Death threats?”
“Yeah. But if it succeeds, the president himself will have to protect me.” After a moment of consideration, he motioned to encompass the entire house. “Well, us.”
Concern crept into her ordinarily cheerful features. “Then why are you smiling?”
“Because I believe it will work.”
She sighed and closed her laptop. “You’re usually right. I’m listening.”
“The idea is simple yet powerful,” he said.
“Aren’t they all?”
He chuckled, shrugging modestly. Though she still took consulting jobs as a software engineer, he was typically the target of the geek shaming in their family. Her jabs were often subtle, but their two teenagers could be merciless, though always in the spirit of good fun. He cherished the reputation. “To my way of thinking,” he said, “it’s conceptual Darwinism. No other ideas survive.”
She retained a wan smile. Still seated and facing each other, their knees touched. She took his left hand with her right and interlaced their fingers. “You do know you’re acting peculiar, right? I’m not sure what to think.”
“Me neither.” Any remaining playfulness dissipated. “Let me spill my thoughts. Jump in anytime. We can collaborate.”
“Works for me.”
“Good. Let’s start with a summary. I’m going to apply some Twitter jujitsu with the hope of improving the president’s behavior. Should get the media back on track, too.”
“Sounds ambitious.” In response to any other person, this comment would have been loaded with sarcasm. But over the past twenty years, she had heard plenty of ambitious ideas. A few had become startup companies, consuming their lives for years at a stretch and making them modestly wealthy. She sat up straight, extended both arms behind her back, and rolled her neck in a slow circular motion. Subtle clicks and cracks punctuated the silence of her standard preparation for an extended discussion. Should the conversation take too long, he would be required to massage her shoulders and upper back within the triangle of tension that plagued many computer programmers. While finishing her routine, she said, “I get it, though. You’re going to leverage the president’s use of Twitter to your advantage.”
“To everyone’s advantage,” he said. “Wait, do I overuse ‘jujitsu?’ You know, conceptually?”
“Not really. I’m just smart.” She patted his knee. “Go on.”
“Okay. The president uses Twitter a lot, right?”
She nodded, exaggerated a frown, and inhaled slowly through her nose.
He waited for her to exhale. “Like it or not, the president has tens of millions of followers, both on his named account and on the official @POTUS account—people who love him, people who find him entertaining, and people who can’t stand the guy. And every journalist with any responsibility for covering politics follows the president on Twitter. You with me?”
“No surprises yet. Still a gaping hole, though.”
He raised an open hand as a request for patience. “I should clarify my mission. I want to curtail the president’s ability to derail proper journalism with his diversionary tweets.”
“And now I’m lost.”
He nodded. “I know. Hang in there. I want you to understand the problem before I propose the solution.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Instead of patting his knee, she pushed into it with her index finger.
He loved having an engineer for a wife, someone who valued the setup of a problem as much as the resolution. She trusted him enough to listen patiently to wild ideas and explanations, to challenge and refine them. And then she would invariably provide the encouragement to proceed. He couldn’t imagine a better partner to share life’s great opportunities and memories. He leaned into the gap between their barstools and kissed her, first gently and then with a bit more zest.
As he pulled away from her, she laughed. “Wow. Not sure what I did to deserve that! But, please, tell me more.”
“As you wish,” he said with a bow. “Let’s start with the relentless global assessment of our president. People—journalists especially—always question whether he is smart. Or they suggest that he’s mentally unstable, deficient of character, or otherwise unfit for office. Assertions like these are overly specific and intentionally inflammatory. Realistically, given how little we know about the guy, they’re impossible to answer. Nonetheless, people can’t resist sharing their opinions.”
“The president is not fit for office,” she said without hesitation.
“And so, you prove my point. But let’s not rehash that debate now. The president won the election, and he has the job. Before we can discuss morality, intelligence, skills, experience, or fitness, we must agree on the larger problem. We need a consensus understanding of what kind of person we need to lead the country, if not the free world.”
“Pretty much anyone else would be an improvement.”
He chuckled. “We can do better than that. Americans can’t lower their standards for the Presidency. The bar must remain high, even as we struggle to hoist somebody over it. If nothing else, the job requires world-class leadership skills. Literally, world-class.”
“Seems obvious. We do have world-class leaders in this country. So, how did we devolve into this mess?”
“It could be a matter of who’s willing to run. Or maybe it’s the systemic constraints of the two-party election process. I don’t know. What I do know is that we, as a country, don’t discuss and prioritize key leadership qualities. Even in my tiny part of the world, whenever I hired a CEO to replace me, I relentlessly focused on two traits. Not only would I discuss these attributes directly with candidates, but I would also research their pasts. When I spoke with their references—and, even more enlightening, the references of their references—what I needed to hear were genuine stories of other-centeredness and long-term thinking. These two characteristics are the hallmarks of great leadership. Without them, all other considerations become irrelevant.”
“That’s just like you,” she said. “Everything condensed into one simple yet powerful declaration of truth.”
“Because it works. I’m quite confident the president is neither other-centered nor a long-term thinker. Ignoring all the other obvious shortcomings, this is why he’s struggling as a leader.”
“I’m not sure it’s so simple.”
“Make it simple. Keep it simple. Otherwise, it’s too easy to become mean-spirited and petty. It’s unnecessary to convince yourself or anybody else this president is a clown. He’s the wrong person for the job, period, end of sentence. But he’s not necessarily the wrong person for any job. Personalities who focus on themselves in the short term have their place in this world. They’re the warriors, the people who fight to win—and whatever the coin of the realm, they demand payment. A couple of years ago, the payoff was the presidency. Today, the currency is attention. With amazing consistency, this president keeps getting paid.”
“You make it sound like he’s winning.”
“He believes so. His voter base does, too. The rest of us, not so much. Here’s the problem. All media, traditional and social, thrives in an attention economy. The shorter the publishing cycle, the more the media resembles the warrior class, fighting for payment, oblivious to the greater good—”
“Yeah, yeah,” she said, interrupting with a wave of her hand, “I know all about your greater good.” She rested her chin on her fist, elbow on the counter, to wait through the rest of his speech. “So you know, my back is getting sore.”
He tapped her supporting elbow and said, “Sit up.” He spun her barstool 180 degrees and pressed his thumbs into her upper back.
She purred. After a couple of minutes, she said, “You may continue.”
“In a sec,” he said, giving extra attention to her neck and the base of her head.
Another quiet minute passed. She repeated her stretching routine.
“You good?” he asked.
“Work on me some more while you talk.” She slumped forward on her barstool, providing easy access to her lower back.
“I was explaining how the media is part of the problem,” he said, leaning into the massage. “They must consistently win minds, win ratings, and win advertisers. Unfortunately, people are hardwired to fixate on insults, provocations, and threats. Thus, the media feeds us stories intended to stoke negative emotions like humiliation, anger, and fear. Our immediate survival instincts naturally override our longer-term sensibilities. The media have always known this.”
“Uh-huh.” She melted a few degrees forward.
He took a few seconds to knead the length of her spine. “We all fall victim to the media’s hyperbolic headlines and the bleeding leads. Our warrior president is also a provocateur. Whenever and however media attention shifts and wanes, one controversial or combative tweet from POTUS and the media is back in the palm of his hand. So, too, is the public. Any possibility of strategic altruism is lost.”
“Strategic altruism?” She stiffened and turned her seat to face him, displaying a full-faced scrunch that made her look forty years older. “Our country can’t even figure out how to be nice to each other today. And you know this president isn’t thinking of anybody but himself. Plus, taking the long view is unnatural—not for you, maybe, but people rarely look that far ahead. Taking the long view on behalf of others? That’s entirely out of reach.”
“For this president, I agree, but not for our country. How can we help him, or maybe guide him, to be more of a leader? Provided a powerful platform, people will rally, and not only US citizens. No reason this can’t be global.”
“I thought you said your idea was simple.”
“It is. The point I’m trying to make is that neither the president nor the media are evil, lazy, or dumb. They’re doing their jobs the best they know how. To some extent, in ways they measure themselves, it's working. As a result, they’ve developed an attention-seeking codependency unlikely to reverse course on its own.”
Her features relaxed but the look of skepticism remained. “How can we do anything to change that?”
“If we can manage to stifle the president’s tweets, re-energize innovative leaders, and give the media better material to cover, we might have the solution. It costs almost nothing to try.”
“Aside from those death threats.” Her eyes and a wry smile were again teasing. But as the weight of her comment settled between them, her features dulled with concern. “Do you really believe anybody will take this idea of yours so seriously?”
“Depends on the president’s reaction.”
“So, yeah,” she said, deliberately, “then death threats need to be considered.” She now shared the same dazed demeanor with which he had started this conversation.
“Kind of disturbing, huh, how that’s a real possibility?”
“Actually, it’s downright scary. Ironically, though, it’s the strongest argument for doing your jujitsu.” Despite the room’s cozy temperature, she crossed her arms over her chest and shivered. “So, now you’ll be getting to the point? I still have no idea how you’ll be doing any jujitsu using Twitter.”
“Sorry. One last thing. I’m a nobody, right? No presence, no power, nobody.”
She cocked her head and gave it some thought before responding. “On the level we’re contemplating, sure.”
“That’s imperative. Here’s the idea. You have to let this marinate. Give it time. Let the idea sink in. Remember, simple yet powerful. Okay?”
“Fine, yes,” she said. “I’m going to have to pee soon.”
“This will be fast. Hear me out, then think about it while peeing.”
She had to laugh. “All right.”
“Okay, here goes. Twitter Jujitsu. For the sake of consistency, I’ve created a brand-new Twitter handle, @SYPlify, with no followers as of today.”
“You didn’t already have @SYPlify?”
“Not until this morning. Couldn’t believe it was available. Anyway, a day or two from now, I’m going to issue a challenge using highly targeted social media ads with a message something like ‘Do you think the president knows about Twitter Jujitsu?’ The ads will direct people to a no-frills website at TwitterJujitsu.com. That's where I’ll explain the rules, issue any updates, and maybe give the contest some coverage if it takes off.”
“You own TwitterJujitsu.com?”
“Yep. Still need to build the site, though.” He stood, no longer able to sit as he considered all the work he needed to finish.
“Sorry, I’ll stop interrupting.”
He waved away the apology, his mind focused on the execution plan now evolving into reality as he spoke it aloud for the first time. “Here’s how it works. All participants must start a new Twitter handle from scratch . . .” He went on to explain the contest guidelines and finished with the goal: “First to be insulted wins. Only one of the president’s stereotypically childish, playground-bully zingers will qualify.” Rubbing his hands together, he said, “That’s it.”
He waited silently, fending off her challenging eyes with upraised hands.
“Let it marinate.”
She smirked, stood, and walked down the hall to the bathroom.
A couple of minutes later, she returned to her seat. He was standing right where she’d left him, hands behind his back, gazing slightly upward, deep in thought.
“I don’t get it,” she said. “Why would the president insult a nobody?”
“So, why make everyone start from scratch?”
“Otherwise, it wouldn’t be fair.” He smiled. “And it wouldn’t be jujitsu.”
>>> Chapter 2 >>>