The Haiku OOO Email

When I started at Yahoo on the Games team, there was a custom that resonated deeply with me, which was started by Dean Yu.

All “work from home” emails or “out of office” emails had to be sent in the form of a haiku. This rule was not enforced, but it’s the kind of thing that one person does, and then a few others pick up. Once someone starts doing it, they rarely stop.

Here are some examples:

Sick on an airplane.
Second carry-on: virus.
Infect passengers.
Sadly, not writing itself.
Avoid distractions.
Roommate needs his car.
Internet works in new place.
May as well use it!
Nothing in iCal:
Must take advantage of this.
Work in pajamas.
Still not feeling well
Resting and working from home
Please ping or call me
Have suffered relapse
To this weekend's brief illness
So I work from home
Sneezing mightily
Wish not to infect colleagues
Thus working from home

A couplet for my recent vacation:

Been a busy year.
No vacations since ’06
Burnt out: Do not want.

Visit with old friends.
New England trees in autumn.

Having worked on a bunch of teams, I’ve taken this custom with me as much as possible, to the Brand Universe team, and the Buzz team, and most recently the YAP team. There’s no proselytizing involved. I just send a haiku I’m working from home. Some people think it’s fun, and play a round of “speaking in poetry” via email. Some people adopt the custom, and it sticks. Others, for whatever reason, never get involved.

I’m not sure why some seem to instinctively carry it on, and others instead prefer just the subject of “wfh” or “ooo” with no message body. I’ve been told that there are other teams at Yahoo and elsewhere that this custom has spread. In Games, it’s all but gone, now that Dean has moved on.

Like the Twitter of the Edo Period, haiku (then called haikai) used terse imagery to elevate the normal and mundane to the deep and meaningful.

Most people learn in grade school that a haiku is 3 lines, with syllables numbering 5/7/5. While this is the typical standard, it’s not just about fitting into the right number of syllables.

The goal of haiku is to find powerful expression in a small intense dose, to elicit an “AH HA!” experience by virtue of succinctly expressing meaning via simple language and powerful imagery.

Limitation—whether 5/7/5 or 140 characters—is part of the equation. Because the limits are so draconian, the writer is forced to be clear. Squeezing ideas into uncomfortably small packages shaves off the excess. When the excess is removed, enlightenment remains.

Like Twitter, haiku can be terribly inane and useless. That is bad haiku. Truth be told, most WFH emails basically are expressing a single sentiment, and the form adds little to the composition. It’s just fun.

Good programming is like good poetry. The best programmers I’ve known are obsessively minimalist in their code, and do tremendously powerful things with simple logic and short functions. The same can be said for all levels of design: a simple business model, a straightforward user flow, a clean visual treatment.

Less is more. Like the kendō master who practices calligraphy, or the actor who studies yoga, the pursuit of excellence in one area can balance and ready the mind for one’s primary activity.

The next time you have to send an email to your team telling them that you’ll be out of the office for some reason, put it in the form of a haiku. Don’t explain it or call attention to it. It will be your gift. Watch how it is received.

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