Don’t Be a Gatekeeper

Julie Zhuo
Oct 1, 2013 · 4 min read

If you are somebody with an incredible amount of passion for high quality, you may be compelled to become a gatekeeper at some point in your life.

I say compelled because it will seem like you have no choice. Every system needs checks and balances. And there will be other people who will be optimizing for other important things—growth and utility and revenue and efficiency—that one day you are going to stand up with your fists clenched and your jaw set and declare, “Enough is enough! we simply cannot put one more widget on the screen, or accept one more diff into this release, or add one more link, or blast one more promotion. We simply cannot if we value what’s good and right by our users.”

And perhaps when you do this, it will have an effect. People will listen, and things will change. And you will feel like you halted a derailed train just in the nick of time before it plummeted off of a cliff.

If this happens, you may feel like a hero. You may even be regarded by some as a hero. And this is how you become a gatekeeper. Because it’s needed. And because you’re damn good at it.

But being a hero means inheriting a hero’s responsibilities, and we all know how that story goes. From that day on, you (and perhaps many others as well) will hold yourself accountable for stopping every train that threatens to derail. You will work yourself to a state of near-death trying to uphold the banner of good, because not doing so would be unacceptable, not doing so would be an unthinkable failure.

You are the last line of defense.


The pressure is tremendous.

The scalability is non-existent.

You are constantly having to say no, having to be pitted against the natural swells of momentum that be, having to summon up massive reserves of energy to correct all the wrongs in your universe.

It is a brutal and exhausting and ultimately inefficient job. And over time, it may turn you bitter and scornful.

Does Batman like being the only guy who stops crime in Gotham? Does Superman relish being called on to deflect every near-meteor? Does Spiderman enjoy being the only freakishly weird web-slinging vigilante?

I’d guess that they would all be pretty excited if there were others like them. If the police could, you know, successfully keep the baddies at bay. A vacation might be nice every once in a while. Even nicer: the idea that you could place trust in something beyond just yourself to avert disaster.

There are three ways to fix this problem.

One way to make this happen is to completely change your environment. Batman could move to some other city. I hear Monaco’s got a pretty low crime rate.

Or, you could get somebody else to take over the problem. Maybe Batman could convince Superman to move to Gotham. Too bad Superman’ll just get saddled with the same issues.

Or: you could figure out how to make Gotham itself do a better job at stopping crime.

Don’t be a gatekeeper. Don’t go into a problem assuming that you can or should be the final line of defense between good and bad. It isn’t enough, and after a while you’ll probably hate it. Strive for a more robust solution. Work to make it so that the organization you are a part of cares about the things you care about. Work so that in the future, even if you’re going to slack a little, you’d still feel confident that nothing too terribly bad was going to happen.

This means instilling the right cultures and values. This means conversing and mentoring and teaching and spending a lot of time with other people so that they can carry your torch. This means speaking up and talking about what matters to you in a way that delivers enough compelling examples that other people can’t help but start to see your point of view.

Changing a single decision for the better is admirable. But collectively, any organization will make ten thousand decisions. No one person’s actions could ever be enough.

If you are a gatekeeper or find yourself thinking we need a gatekeeper, the thing that is broken or missing is trust. So instead of judging yes or no, good or bad, consider this instead: what could I do to make it so that I have more trust in the people around me?

How can the gates be made even a little bit less necessary?

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building…

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