Podcast cover image featuring an older woman peering into a crystal ball. Background two solid blocks of white and red. Aboard text and logo in white; title "Controlled Chaos" in black.

Men will literally record a podcast about their anxiety rather than go to therapy. How do you run a business when the world is on fire in so many ways? Paul and Rich talk about the state of things—including whether their perceptions of said things are even accurate—and how they should work, what to consider as they grow their company, and when to turn off. Gotta keep going.

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E12

Controlled Chaos

January 23, 2024

Paul Ford: Hi, I’m Paul Ford.

Rich Ziade: And I’m Rich Ziade.

Paul: We’re the co-founders of Aboard. What’s Aboard, Rich?

Rich: Aboard is a world-class piece of software that lets you collect, organize, and collaborate. It will do that forever. And we’re about to push out a really exciting new version of it. Very excited.

Paul: Yep. But let’s not, let’s not like, I can wait—let’s show it to people when it’s ready. Not—

Rich: Fine.

Paul: Not teasing.

Rich: Fine!

Paul: So. All right, Rich—

Rich: You’re listening to the Aboard Podcast.

Paul: Yes. Where we talk about business, life, and things that matter to people who are trying to figure things out.

Rich: Ooooh.

Paul: Yeah, exactly. I don’t know. We’ll try—we’ll workshop that.

​​Rich: Do it.

[intro music]

Paul: Okay. So I would say the world is generally pretty chaotic.

Rich: Always.

Paul: And I’m going to come to you, um, I’m going to come to you as the leader of a small company, which I am. And I’m going to ask for your advice. We’re going to workshop this. We’ll call me, um…Paul. Okay? And here’s what I’m going to say to you. Rich. I ran a company during the last Trump presidency. There was a pandemic.

Rich: Okay.

Paul: There was a national protest movement. And it was stressful. It was stressful doing business. It was messy. And I got to tell you, I’m out there watching, and we are about to head into a profound election cycle in America, where each side is saying that unless you elect their person, that’s it for America.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And I’m trying to build a company. I’m trying to build a startup, as this is going on.

Rich: While this is going on.

Paul: While this is going on.

Rich: Okay.

Paul: And I got to tell you, it just feels tough. Feels hard. And I’m real worried about the right way to—I don’t know how to deal with this. I don’t know how to get ready for it. I don’t know how to prepare for it. You know, let me throw a few more things on the fire, because this is all I think about. I got climate change. I got, it just snowed in New York City for the first time in 2 billion years. You know?

Rich: Okay.

Paul: It’s cold all around America. You got a war in the Middle East, and people are kind of not talking about it—or talking about it. WhatsApps are blowing up all over the place.

Rich: Yep. Yep.

Paul: Social media is imploding. People—I see ideas presented as mainstream that used to be something that you would associate with a cult member.

Rich: Yep.

Paul: And now I got to go out there and I got to tell everybody, “Put on a happy face and let’s get our work done.” Now, I got a five-person company right now. Or it’s bigger, actually, when you count our remote team and so on. But let’s say that I want to grow it. I want to spend some money. I want to grow it. How am I going to handle all this mess in the world and build a good company?

Rich: It sounds like you shouldn’t be running a company.

Paul: Yeah?

Rich: It does sound like that.

Paul: Yeah?

Rich: Because one of the jobs of running a company is that you are a source of calm and stability—and I think you can do that. I think you’re actually capable of doing that because I’ve worked with you for a long time.

Paul: Well no—I know that I have to.

Rich: Yeah, but you’re bottling up a bunch of stuff, and that’s clear. And you’re going home, and instead of kicking your shoes off and just relaxing and grabbing the Xbox controller—

Paul: Scrolling. Scrolling.

Rich: You’re scrolling.

Paul: And let’s be clear. We went out for drinks the other day with somebody—

Rich, joined by Paul: [singing in the tune of the Rawhide theme] Scrollin’, scrollin’, scrollin’.

Paul: We went out for drinks the other day with somebody and we’re having this nice conversation, and this is like a very—relatively mainstream human being.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: I was talking about how this stuff is in my head and he’s like, “Oh, yeah, I’m ready for armed revolution.” [laughter]

Rich: That’s a bit much.

Paul: It was bananas, right?

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Because I was like, “Yeah, I think people are going to—you can’t just have people talking about guns and killing liberals all the time.” He’s like, “No, no, I’ll get a gun. I’m ready.” And I was like, “Whoa, are we there? Are we crossing that threshold as a culture now? Is that the conversation we’re going to have all next year?”

Rich: Uh, look, I mean, your sample size is small.

Paul: It is.

Rich: Look, I think we can look back on history to sort of gain some perspective here.

Paul: Mmm hmmm.

Rich: Let me go back, way back in history. I think as humans, seeing chaos in the context of the last 50 years, is a little, it kind of scrambles you, because it’s been an absolutely unusual stretch of global stability.

Paul: In the United States.

Rich: No, around the world—

Paul: No, but globally—

Rich: There hasn’t been a world war in 70 years.

Paul: I know, but—

Rich: Europe has been stable.

Paul: Sure.

Rich: Even the Cold War, calling it a war—lowercase w here, right? Like, it was essentially like, you do your thing, we’ll do ours. We’ll just keep making bombs. But we’ll never shoot them at each other. Off we go.

Paul: I mean, you and I lived through, like, the 90s in New York City, pre-dot-com crash.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: It was a good time.

Rich: I lived through the 70s in New York City.

Paul: Not as good.

Rich: Not as good!

Paul: [laughing] In any way.

Rich: And so, I think having that context is super helpful. I mean, finding out your president is resigning in shame after you killed a bunch of your boys by sending them off to a war in the far east.

Paul: And you had assassinations just backing up behind that. You had, like, before that, you’d had JFK, you’d had MLK—

Rich: Martin Luther King. Exactly. And you had lines, and I remember this, I was a little boy. Lines of cars wrapping around streets in New York City to get gas because there was a gas crisis. It looked apocalyptic. But I’ll tell you what. Here’s the difference. The difference was, I went home, I had an Atari 2600.

Paul: Mmm hmmm.

Rich: And we just went about our lives. And then once a night, like Tom Brokaw would come on and catch us up on things.

Paul: And then in the morning, if you were really engaged, you might go read a paper.

Rich: You might go read a paper.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: And I didn’t read a paper. A lot of people don’t read papers.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich:My family didn’t speak English at first—

Paul: The New York Times, which is my hometown paper, publishes maybe eight articles a day, which might as well just be called “Panic.”

Rich: Yes. And so I think we have this ability to peer into the chaos at any given moment. And I’m not saying don’t be up on things.

Paul: Mmm hmmm.

Rich: I think the challenge you run into is it is extremely engaging content. It’s really hard to look away from something that’s deeply polarizing, that is kind of grabbing your attention.

Paul: When I moved to New York City, I’ve told this story before, I called my dad, and I was like, “Man, I don’t know what. I like the city. I like being here, but I’ve been here a couple of months, and it just seems like the world’s just going to hell.” And he went, “Just relax. You’re reading the Times. You’ve never read an international newspaper before.”

Rich: That’s it. That’s it.

Paul: “You’ve never paid attention.” And my dad was, like, a veteran who was really aware of stuff.

Rich: And look, the world is in a tense place. There’s terrible things going on in the world. And I’ve said this on the podcast before. Before the crisis in the Middle East flared up in October of 2023, I would throw on Al Jazeera, and Al Jazeera, bless their hearts, they have, like, two dozen reporters, like, in Africa?

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: And they would just essentially travel around to the latest revolution or coup.

Paul: To Al Jazeera’s enormous credit, it sees that the actions of large groups of poor people is really worthwhile news. And for the most part, the U.S. news coverage does not. Like, we don’t care too much about what folks are doing.

Rich: I’m also Lebanese.

Paul: Yeah, it comes up. I’ve heard of this before.

Rich: It’s constant. Chaos is a low hum in the background.

Paul: Well, the Lebanese reaction—and I think this is different. We’ve talked about this. So first of all, I kind of know that I know when I get into a panic like this, that doesn’t do me any good. Not as a leader, not as a person, and so on and so forth.

Rich: Your health. Yes.

Paul: Yeah. So you have to look—you do, objectively, like, you might feel panic and as a leader you might be, like, how am I going to lead through this? Well, the number one actual advice I would give here is you have to shorten your time horizon. Right? Because what happens is you go, because you can actually sit here, you can freak yourself out. You can be like, the universe is going to die in a heat death 2 trillion years from now.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And if you think to yourself, well, how bad will it get next week?

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Well, you can figure that out now. You can keep your eyes on—look out the window, see what’s going on. But you don’t actually, you don’t have to sit there and anticipate everything that is going to collapse in the next X years and then come up with a plan about that. You’re not a government agency.

Rich: There’s another reason you are—and you are not the exception. There’s a lot of stressed-out people out there.

Paul: Well, no, that’s why I’m bringing this up.

Rich: Having a phone that lets you check on the news alone won’t put you in a panic. Do you know what else is necessary to put you in a panic? Being really freaking comfortable and not worrying about your crop.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: If your days are consumed with a productive path that means you and your family will get food and be warm.

Paul: Mmm hmmm.

Rich: Even if you had that phone, you’re going to be real busy. And the truth is it’s a double hit. It’s actually a double hit. One is we have this incredible information device in our pocket. The other is we’ve become so productive, and New York—and the United States, and New York, that was a Freudian slip—has become so comfortable and so wealthy that we have so much time.

Paul: We have too much time.

Rich: I’m on my toilet like 40 minutes a day and I don’t need to be on there.

Paul: Well, you are getting older.

Rich: [laughing] Those two things at once is a recipe for bad things.

Paul: I mean, you know, idle hands make the devil’s work. We, humans need—we’re really bad. Especially, it seems, as we get older, at choosing productive hobbies.

Rich: Yeah, we are bad at it.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: What’s good about it. We never used to have to do that to be healthy, because our jobs did it for us.

Paul: Oh, yeah.

Rich: We were slammed. We just had a pile. There’s like, the inbox and the outbox. I’m talking about the physical one.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: It was like a pile of things that we had to go—

Paul: I read an article once. I think it was in The New Yorker. I won’t be able to find it, but I remember this part very specifically. It was an American doctor who was serving in Afghanistan during the war.

Rich: Okay.

Paul: And when you are a medical doctor, ah, serving the U.S. army, you actually operate on the opposition forces as well. If someone comes in, you patch them.

Rich: Yeah. Sure, sure, sure.

Paul: And what he described, he’s like, all of the bodies that I’m dealing with of the Afghan soldiers look like the medical textbook. You go into an American, and it’s like Italian wedding soup. It’s just meatballs and stuff flying all over the place. Right?

Rich: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s just zero fat.

Paul: Yeah, no. He was like, these bodies look like the textbook. Like they’ve been illustrated because they’re just purely functional.

Rich: Exactly.

Paul: And I always remember that because you could tell he was just like, man, uh, we’ve gone to hell.

Rich: Yeah. And that’s prosperity.

Paul: It is. We have unlimited access to grain.

Rich: It makes me think of the old Renaissance paintings of nude women across the couch.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: And they were always kind of curvy…

Paul: Oh, the Rubens painting. Sure.

Rich: Yeah. What that signaled was comfort and wealth.

Paul: Extra calories,

Rich: Extra calories.

Paul: We’re having a good time.

Rich: Whereas the rest of the world probably at that time was, like, fighting for a bushel of wheat.

Paul: Uh, you poor people are—I’m about to have a grape. Look at that.

Rich: Exactly. Exactly.

Paul: Do you know one of the greatest signs of wealth in the, I think it was like the 1700s? Pineapples. They were so sweet. Nobody had ever had anything like this.

Rich: And they’re shipped in, it’d take you three weeks on a vessel to get in.

Paul: If you go wander around, like, Amsterdam and old houses from that era will have pineapples carved into them as a symbol.

Rich: No kidding.

Paul: Yeah. Because it’s a symbol of, like, I could have this thing brought from far away. That is utterly delicious.

Rich: Yeah. When we’re too comfortable, we go to dark places. I want to give you an example, and this is also a shout-out.

Paul: Mmm.

Rich: There is a preacher who sells buckets of end-time—of food for end times.

Paul: Wow.

Rich: And I’m not joking.

Paul: Okay.

Rich: He actually sells, like, six months’ supply of pancake batter and six months’ supply of rice.

Paul: So it’s Costco, but for the apocalypse.

Rich: For the apocalypse.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: And he’s built a business out of it. And what’s fascinating about it is that there are people who buy it. And the reason they buy it, I think, is because their job as an insurance adjuster takes about four hours a week.

Paul: And then they do their preppin’.

Rich: They do their preppin’.

Paul: They got too much time, and it’s social order, right? You go to church and there’s other preppers in the church. I have certain kinds of empathy for a lot of this stuff, because when I grew up, I went to evangelical churches. I kind of know how some of this world works. It doesn’t always freak me out, I think, as bad as it freaks out your typical New Yorker.

Rich: Well, it’s so alien.

Paul: It’s so alien, right? But yeah, no, that’s right. I mean, I get prepping. I really do. It’s like—

Rich: When you started this podcast, it sounded like you’re like, “Uh, should I build the safe room?”

Paul: Well—

Rich: You sounded like that. Because I have a website for you to go to if you need to get canned tomatoes—

Paul: For the next five years.

Rich: And rice, yeah.

Paul: I think that if you are a father, and you feel vulnerable and out of control.

Rich: That’s right. I think that’s right.

Paul: And I think that’s what’s going on here, people feel out of control. And one of the reasons I brought this back to leading the company is that, I’ll tell you what, we weren’t allowed to talk about it during the time, but as the pandemic’s hitting, I felt very out of control. I needed to sell services to keep the fire lit, right? And I didn’t know if anyone was ever going to want to build another website ever again.

Rich: Yep.

Paul: We’re applying for PPP loans. We’re trying to just like—

Rich: We took bad clients on because we didn’t know…if there’d be another one… [laughs]

Paul: Grisly stuff. Because you’re just like, I’ll build you a website. I’ll do whatever.

Rich: Yeah, that’s right.

Paul: I’ll dig you a ditch. Because I need to keep people employed and I could not, and it’s complicated when you’re running something, right? Because I couldn’t look at that company and think to myself, I’m going to have to let these people go.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: That was horrible, because where—

Rich: You felt the burden, the responsibility—

Paul: There was nowhere to go. It was a pandemic. We’d never seen this before. And it kept getting worse and worse and worse and worse. So I think what happens is, and then I’m watching—and I do not want, I gotta just be very plain. It will not be good for this country for another year of Donald Trump-Joe Biden dialogue.

Rich: It’s going to be ugly.

Paul: We’re going to have it, and we need to be ready for it because it will be ugly, and it will be lots of little January 6ths running around and people saying stuff and people saying other stuff, and it will feel kind of endless and relentless.

Rich: Yeah. And my advice is check in on it, but for the most part, tune it out.

Paul: Well—

Rich: I know it’s hard because, boy, it’s entertaining.

Paul: Can I give you the actual piece of advice that I gave myself?

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: You don’t have any power. And you think you do. I think I do because I have a Twitter following and I write, and we have a podcast. Right?

Rich: Yup.

Paul: And I think there’s a lot of voices out there who are, like, you need to use your power and authority to make a change right now. Okay? You need to do—whatever platform you have, you need to apply it.

Rich: Get out there. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Paul: But it doesn’t actually work that way. Everybody knows what I believe. I’m really clear about it. But that’s the thing. I can’t affect change. I can’t actually make this different. I can give some money.

Rich: You’re also not going to pick up the weapons that actually work to get people’s attention.

Paul: What are the weapons that work?

Rich: Incendiary, insane, polarizing signals. This is what has happened—

Paul: Well, this is the thing. My friend has the fantasy that he’s going to get a gun to protect his family…

Rich: That’s banana-cakes.

Paul: …in Brooklyn.

Rich: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Exactly.

Paul: And I get that fantasy because I have it, too. He wasn’t dead serious, but he was sort of processing.

Rich: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Paul: And I think that those ideas, what actually, what worries me more than a lot of things in some ways, is, like, we’re about to enter a world where those fantasies will come to the surface. And I feel that my obligation as a human is to be like, “Hold on, let’s talk about that.”

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: I think they are gonna—we talked to one company where the people were like, I would love to close this company down and not deal with another election.

Rich: Yes. Yes. They had offices in the northeast and the southeast. Is just, without naming the company.

Paul: I mean, this is real, right? Okay, so what you’re saying, the Rich Ziade—the Paul Ford advice is you have less power than you think, you should be aware of where you can make positive change, it’s a good time to write some checks, try to keep everybody on an even keel. The stakes are going to start to feel higher and higher every single day, because that’s the way the media works and that’s the way our political system works.

Rich: That’s right.

Paul: So talk about that, like, get people ready for that, because it’s not like you can say, “Hey, we’re just going to remain calm until 2024, and then we’ll see where things go.” That’s not how humans work.

Rich: No. And, and look, I have two thoughts here. One is, I feel very lucky and very blessed that I have work that is becoming more intense for me right now.

Paul: Mmm hmmm. Yeah, me, too.

Rich: The team is, like, humming, and we’re working harder than we’ve ever worked. It’s a little pressure cooker. People are tired of us, a little bit.

Paul: Fair.

Rich: Because we’re asserting a lot of pressure here. But I will say, it does feel good to use my brain cycles that way?

Paul: Mmm hmmm.

Rich: Rather than sitting on articles from here and there and sitting on social media.

Paul: This is very real. If we have a busy day at work, I’m less likely to feel anxious about the world.

Rich: That’s right. And then, I want to end this with a piece of advice someone gave me once. I had relatively major surgery, like, five years ago.

Paul: Mmm hmmm.

Rich: I was visiting the surgeon who performed the surgery for, like, a post-op check-up. It was like, a month later.

Paul: Mmm hmmm.

Rich: And I had a list. Like, can I swim? Can I climb mountains? Can I lift weights? Can I this? Can I that? He heard me out, and then he turned to me and he goes, “You’re doing fine. Go live your life.” And when he said it, essentially, what he was saying was, don’t go—not necessarily go do all those things. What he was saying was, get out of your head.

Paul: Stop testing yourself against this parameter and go be a person.

Rich: Just go live.

Paul: Go do something that isn’t being—

Rich: Exactly. Exactly. And he meant it equally, not just because he had confidence in my physical recovery, but he understood the importance of it psychologically for me.

Paul: Sure.

Rich: And so he said it. And I have to tell you, it was like somebody snapped their fingers, and then all of a sudden, I went and lived my life. It was incre—well, he was a voice of authority for me in that moment, which just makes sense.

Paul: There’s a thing here, and I think this is important. There’s two things I want to say. One is the entire structure around social media and how we interact and how we talk today tells people that they have this intense power and voice and this ability to affect change that they don’t really have.

Rich: They don’t. By the way, even the billionaires who own the platforms and the ones that are friends with the ones that own the platforms, they can’t even do it.

Paul: No. And we put.

Rich: So if you think you can do it?

Paul: And we jam this intense moral pressure on everyone. It’s like, if you don’t try hard enough to change the world, you have failed everyone.

Rich: Yeah. You can’t do it.

Paul: You can’t. You have to accept that you might have less power than you’ve been told, and that that is actually a little bit of a narcissistic insult. It doesn’t feel good to acknowledge that, yes, you can do some stuff, but not—you can’t actually change the world. You can’t. And the other thing I will say, and it’s weird, because this is a marketing podcast for a product, but the thing we’re working on is about helping small groups get things done.

Rich: Well, getting things done.

Paul: Small, resilient—

Rich: Not writing protests and essays. Getting things done.

Paul: No, and it’s optimized—well, protests and essays have value, Richard. But doing things where, like, seven, eight people, we built something for small teams to coordinate and think together, and—

Rich: Be volunteers, could be a nonprofit, could be a company, could be a business, could be anything.

Paul: Exactly. And so I actually think if you’re looking at the world that we’re heading into, and let’s say that we kind of get a nice, there’s continuity in the world, and everything calms down. And I don’t know if that’s going to happen, but let’s say it does. It’s still going to be a really chaotic world. And I think building a tool, if I could be doing one thing right now, I think building a tool that makes things less chaotic and talking about that tool and helping people use it is probably the best use of my skills. That’s the best way for me to change the world that I can think of.

Rich: I think that’s right. And it’s also the healthiest thing for you as a person.

Paul: And taking this all the way back to the original case, I think if you’re leading, you can’t have this ambiguous conversation with every interaction, which is actually what people want. They want to actually come in and be like, “Everything’s crazy. Let’s take it bit by bit.”

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: What the story that I’m going to end up telling. I think as we’re growing this company, and probably you will, too, is that is real. It is really difficult. It is tough out there, but let’s keep working on a tool and sharing it with people to help them kind of get their lives under control, because I think that’s the best thing we can do.

Rich: Well, the tool is agnostic and doesn’t have a strong opinion and doesn’t want to lecture you about anything.

Paul: That’s right. And I think—

Rich: There are people who can disagree with our views who might like this tool.

Paul: There already are, actually.

Rich: There already are. Right, exactly.

Paul: But I’ve also seen people who are utterly aligned with my views using it in beautiful ways. So you got to take it as it comes. But I think what I’m going to be doing in the future is when I feel that panic go, okay, let’s double down on where we are and focus on the fact that we’re going to help people make sense of things. Even if the world itself is going to remain chaotic.

Rich: It’s going to remain chaotic.

Paul: All right.

Rich: Live your life, Paul Ford.

Paul: Okay, well, I mean, I can’t really, because we have to build this company.

Rich: That is living your life.

Paul: Well, I thought I would just play a lot of piano.

Rich: You could do that, too. Hobbies are good. Hobbies are good.

Paul: I know, I know. Well, until you try to play scales two-handed. Yeah, that’s a nightmare. It’s a bastard instrument. Anyway, everyone aboard.com. Check it out. We love you. We’re trying to figure all this stuff out just like you are. I know that a large portion of this audience—a small portion of this audience is like, oh, come off it. And a large portion of this audience is like, I, too, am feeling that the reality is slipping away. So we’re all here together, and we’re just going to keep doing our stuff, and—yeah.

Rich: Reach out. Send us a note at hello@aboard.com.

Paul: Bye!

Rich: Have a lovely week.

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