Closed Door Policy

The staircase exit at the Church Avenue subway station in Brooklyn, NY. (Photography by Michael Rain)

I wrote this piece over ten years ago and it resonated with a lot people. I’m sharing in this space for the first time publicly.

Every time I come back home from wherever, I notice something interesting at the train station. At the top of the long flight of stairs toward the exit are double doors. The one on the left is held open and the other door on the right is closed, but not locked. All you have to do is push it and walk through.

As the crowd of people walk-up and leave through the exit, everyone walks through the door held open on the left. Even the people who walk up the stairs on the right side cross over (and in front of) the people on the left, to walk through the opened door, rather than push open the door on their side. It’s very rare that anyone pushes open and walks through the closed door.

When the rarity occurs that someone opens the closed door something just as fascinating happens. If the one who opened the door just continues through and lets the door close again — it stays closed, the people on the right just cross over to the left to exit.

However, if the door is held open, the person following behind will walk through, and is likely to hold the door open for the person behind them. Sometimes courtesy is contagious.

For years I’ve wondered why this is. Why step in front of people on the other side? Why not walk through the closer door when all you have to do is push it open? Is it just because the left door is already opened? Do people on the right side just not know the right door is open? Or are they too lazy to push it open? I’m still unsure of the answer.

What I am certain of is this is a microcosm of what goes on in the larger society. The doors can easily represent opportunity. And who among us is not guilty of taking the easy option just because it’s available?

Sometimes the effort to push for something is just more than we would like to exert. So we go for the open option. Even if it means cutting in front of people who are already in line for what is available.

Let’s face it, you’ve traveled a while to get to your destination — now you have to climb up a bunch of stairs? Maybe we just want some part of the journey to be easy. So if we see an exit, we will gladly walk through the door ajar.

Then what about the rare people who push open the door? Unlike the other sheep, they are willing to exert that small effort. Those who are eager to hold the door open for others make it easier for everyone. Now the people on both sides can walk up and through much quicker. A new door has opened, and no one has to cut in front of another.

Yet, we have those selfish people who had someone hold the door open for them, but refuse to keep it open for someone else. Or worse, they run through the door quick enough to cut in front of the person who is holding the door open for them.

I assume you are nodding your head as you think of people in your life that fit these descriptions. We have all encountered the closed door policy. At various times, we can be any of these people. We’ve been cut in front of. We’ve been that person who’s held the door open for others. And even if we don’t like to admit it, we’ve been that person who has walked through an open door, while cutting in front of someone else.

If this analogy has hit home for you, I’m glad it’s at least made you think. And I trust those thoughts will make you approach these situations differently. I’ll cross my fingers that you hold the door open for those who are climbing up behind you. Moving forward, would you please be that one who helps people lift that baby carriage up the stairs? It would be great if you are the one helping another carry all that baggage on their journey up.

But regardless of the role you play, my sincerest wish is that you never be that person who is too lazy to push, or worse, doesn’t believe that the door is open.

Michael Rain leverages storytelling and technology to expand the world’s perception of diverse communities. He is the founder of ENODI, a Stanford Knight Fellow, and a TED Resident & Speaker with a TED Talk that has over 1 million views.



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Michael Rain

Storyteller // ENODI Founder // TED Speaker & Resident // Harvard Grad student // Stanford Knight Fellow // Columbia Alum // Technologist and emerging designer