August 11, 2021

Reader feedback re cogs and keys

Fellow list member Stefan Sava wrote in with new angle on an old post that I think you’ll find thought provoking (shared with permission):


Hey Jonathan,

I like your emails they always get me thinking.

By thinking about ‘to be a key not a cog’, i was reminded of a very different example.

Because I grew up in post-communist Romania everyone aspired to be a key not a cog. But they did not care about producing value they simply cared about being the bottleneck through which you had to go through to get to value. From this point on disinformation and actually working towards producing barriers between people and their needs that you exclusively had access to became some of the more lucrative passtimes of people.

And, I would argue, some under-developed countries psichologically suffer from this hidden collectively-accepted way of ‘creating value’ by restricting access. Most corruption in law-making and politics can be boiled down to this mechanic as well.

A cave-man methaphor for this would be: fencing the lake to create thirst and then charging at the gate.

My question is: How do you differentiate between the two?

Since if you break down the two approaches (positive and negative) they both create value in the mind of the ‘client’, wether the value was there but unrecognized or unvalued because of it’s abundance / consistency or value was created as part of uncovering new and untapped potential.




Thanks for the thoughtful note, Stefan!

To stretch my key/cog analogy, I would say your gatekeeper scenario represents the lock.

The key is still high value, the cog is still low value, and the additional thought is that it’s possible to build a locked door that only you have the key to.

I would say that “building locked doors that only I have the key to” is a very different mentality from wanting to just be the key.

Does building locked doors and then selling keys work? Of course. It’s certainly working for Apple, for example.

Whether this is the kind of business that one wants to build is up to them.

BTW - may I share your excellent message with the list? It’s fine if you’d rather I didn’t.

Either way, thanks for writing in!


Hey Jonathan,

I’m glad you found my note interesting and yes of course feel free to share.

The more I think about it the deeper it goes. I almost wrote up a long and expanded thought-dump on the subject, but ultimately I ended up running in circles.

The conclusion being: locks and keys are ultimately two sides of the same coin and you can’t have one without the other.

And although I always prefer to look on the doors that open than on those that are locked. And I like to imagine the ideal world with no locks at all, I still lock my door when I leave the house.

So there’s no need to take this further unless I plan to throw away all my keys and just walk the earth :D

Good night!



Hi again, Stefan!

About your conclusion:

locks and keys are ultimately two sides of the same coin and you can’t have one without the other.

Yes, this is true... but metaphorically speaking not all locks are the artificial construction of a greedy gatekeeper.

Many (most?) are self-imposed.

Others are the natural outgrowth of a new market.

Still others are the result of technological innovation.


If you don’t want to play the gatekeeper game, then don’t.

You can still be a high value key instead of a low value cog.

If you want to extend Stefan’s point to a logical extreme, you end up with extortion (which is illegal where I live, but not everywhere).

Being the solution to a problem you personally created - e.g., “Nice kneecaps you got there. It’d be a shame if something happened to them. Wanna buy some protection?” while tapping a baseball bat menacingly - is not what I’m talking about with the cogs and keys metaphor.

There are plenty of “organically” locked doors.

There’s really no need to go around locking things in order to sell yourself as a key.



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