The Insidious Shrug

Last week, I went to Spain for work.  I don’t travel a lot, but enough to have some habits around air travel.  One of those is:  I generally fly with a carry on; specifically a soft sided duffel bag.  I’m not super anti-checked bag, but I don’t like waiting at baggage claim, I don’t like the risk of losing my bag in transit, and I do like forcing myself to travel with a bag small enough that I can easily get around with it, should I need to carry it for long distances.

And usually this works great.  But last week, as I landed in Madrid, groggy from several hours of uncomfortable half-sleep in a chair with jeans on, I gathered my backpack, put my headphones in, and left the plane.  Without previously mentioned duffel.

I realized it before I even made it to customs, but it was too late, the plane had closed, and I was definitely not allowed back in to get my bag.

“It will be fine”, I thought.  “I’ll find it.”

I found and talked to the flight crew who had just exited the plane, and yes, they had seen my bag, and it would be in baggage claim.  Great!  So I headed to baggage claim.

Baggage claim did not have my bag.  And after some back and forth with the woman working customer service at baggage claim, it was clear that I was not getting my bag today.  She suggested I use the airline website to file a lost item report, and they’d be able to ship it to me no problem.  I took her at her word, and boarded my next flight.

Over the next couple of days, it became apparent that this was not going to work out.  The airline website was all but useless.  The few phone numbers I found to try to call someone were wrong, or disconnected.  And I shrugged.  I’m never going to see that bag again, and that’s fine.  Total acceptance.  Some clothes, my glasses and toiletries.  There’s no significant loss here, just minor inconvenience.

A few days later, we were hanging out late into the evening, after the work was done for the day.  Free will vs determinism came up.  And, surprisingly, I found myself in the determinist camp.  Life just happens, and we’re all just along for the ride.  There’s no reason to get too worked up over anything, because it’s all going to work out in the end.  The bag was gone.  What can you do?  There’s no use in wringing hands over it, I’ll just accept it and move on.  I’m great at that.

The next day, without my asking, one of my coworkers (undoubtedly annoyed with my response to losing my bag, which, again, was to shrug) took it on himself to figure it out.  And he dug in, started calling numbers and asking questions, and got the host at our accommodations involved.  Together, they got in touch with the office that had the bag (amazingly, they still had it, literally sitting in the office), and told them when my return flight was, and that I’d be through to pick it up.  He showed up later that day and had for me a name, and some very vague directions about where to go.

Monday morning, I land in Madrid, follow the instructions, find the office, and am rewarded with my bag.  It’s a miracle!  I head through security, take the train to the correct terminal, and walk up to the gate just as the flight is starting to board.  And I was excited!  The written-off bag was like a Christmas gift – look at all these clothes that I had again!

But for the rest of the journey home, the correlation between our free will conversation and my bag wouldn’t stop nagging at me. I gave up because I let the idea that I can’t make a difference, that an unfeeling universe can’t be reasoned with, and our lot is our lot.  I’m glad that I wasn’t too attached to the items in the bag, nor particularly worked up by the minor discomfort of having to figure out what to wear for the week after landing.  But the bag was retrievable, and was eventually retrieved because someone else didn’t accept my fate.

What else in my life do I shrug at?  What else have I lost, or never attained in the first place because I wasn’t willing to put forth just a little bit of effort, instead relying on the whims of fate land me where they land me?  Because I’m too lazy to see that while the universe may be unforgiving, it can be swayed?

We make decisions, they make a difference.

 

Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash

Failure

The Fyre Festival is all over the internet today.  I’m not hip, or particularly young, so I didn’t hear anything about it until today, when it failed, spectacularly.  The gist is this:  Ja Rule (the rapper who I presumed dead after the first Fast and Furious, where he played an important role) and some entrepreneur teamed up to make a music festival on an island in the Bahamas.  Then they did some marketing for it on social media, mostly just attractive women in bikinis wandering around beaches.  Then they announced the prices, which were, as you’d expect, not cheap.

And then the time for the actual festival rolled around, and it seems it went… poorly.  Nothing was ready – Luxury villas turned out to be FEMA issued disaster tents, many of which apparently blew away.  Food was bad.  There was no beer. Bahamian customs, at some point stopped allowing people out of the airport, telling them the island was at capacity.  The whole thing has now been essentially cancelled, and they’re working to get everyone back off the island.

And honestly, it’s pretty funny.  Really funny, actually. Twitter is having a field day, because no one is a safer, easier target to mock than young people with money (bonus points if you already vaguely hate them because #millenials).  Also because if you wrote this script as a comedy, it would work, with almost no changes – from Ja Rule being in charge, to the fact that the other guy is apparently a tech entrepreneur, to the terribly dumb promotional videos.  And it actually happened.  As has been said over and over on twitter, it’s Lord of the Flies with rich millenials.  I’m sorry, it is funny.

Anyway, in spite of all that rambling, and the 2 hours I just wasted on twitter following this (seriously, give it a look), it did make me think about more than just laughing at other people’s misfortune (which I’m apparently totally cool with).

This whole deal failed spectacularly – and, by all accounts, it did so because of negligence, laziness, or incompetence on the part of several people in charge of it.  However – from here, in my comfortable chair, in my house, where I’m doing nothing, it’s so easy to mock.  It’s so easy to listen to the internet and see how this was never going to work, and how every single person involved – from the people who came up with the idea, to the people who were paid to promote it, to the officials on the island, all the way down to the people who paid money to fly on a chartered plane to an island for a music festival – are all morons, and deserved what they got.  It’s too easy.

When faced with this kind of situation, deep down, I think most of us are putting ourselves in the shoes of the festival goers, or the organizers, and trying to distance ourselves, to figure out how we’re superior, and we’d never have ended up in the same situation.  We see something going terribly and see, in hindsight, all of the things that went wrong, and how stupid the organizers must have been.  And we internalize it: “They failed, because they’re dumb.  I don’t want to be dumb, I don’t want people to think I’m dumb, I need to avoid this.”

Maybe they were dumb.  Clearly the organizers weren’t prepared, and maybe ignored some pretty solid advice and now they’re paying for it.  But I worry that when I look at this and other high profile failures, what I hear, what I’m told, what I decide deep down is actually to never try, to never do anything big, because I don’t want people to discover that I’m a moron too.    And it’s not just huge public things – it filters all the way down to how I interact with people, how I approach problems at work, how I choose to spend my free time.  The message is always “Just don’t end up announcing to the world that you’re a moron, because look at all these average people that have the good sense to know better”.  And we listen to it – we assume that the average person (who conveniently is working with the advantage of knowledge of the outcome, and hindsight) would not make dumb mistakes, so we shouldn’t either, lest we advertise our below-averageness.

So here’s my part to help:  I’m a moron.  I do dumb things.  I make mistakes that some people can see coming a mile away, and other people can clearly make sense of (and mock) in hindsight.  I’m probably not going to plan an expensive music festival on an island with little to no infrastructure, but I’m sure I’ll do something else obviously stupid, likely on a smaller scale.   And it’s ok.  I hope I never stop doing dumb things and making mistakes.

The Opposite of Dissatisfaction

Today I was introduced to Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theorywhich attempts to help managers improve morale and productivity by clarifying what makes employees dissatisfied, what makes them satisfied, and how to affect both.  Most notably, Herzberg suggests that job dissatisfaction and job satisfaction are distinct, and act independently of each other.  In other words, the opposite of dissatisfaction is just a lack of dissatisfaction, and the opposite of satisfaction is not dissatisfaction, but a lack of satisfaction.

For example: When unhappy workers were asked about what made them unhappy, they answered with specifics like salary and company policies.  However when asking satisfied employees what made them satisfied, they didn’t answer “I’m fulfilled by our great corporate policies”, or even “I love my salary” – the answers funneled into a different set, things like recognition, growth, and the work itself.

This is interesting in the context of work, and I’m already trying to think how I can use it to my team’s advantage there.  But, as is always the case, I think it’s much more interesting in the broader context of life, happiness, motivation.

It’s easy to assume that satisfaction and dissatisfaction are just opposite ends of the same line.  But I dislike this idea, and I’ve always disliked this idea, I just haven’t been quite able to put my finger on why.  Here’s why:

Happiness is not simply the absence of problems.  A life without any problems is not inherently happy, or satisfactory, or fulfilled, it’s just problem free.  The set of actions, behaviors, achievements, possessions, relationships, or issues that bring a person fulfillment and happiness are not necessarily the same ones that cause unhappiness when they’re bad, or missing.

Afición

Aficion means passion. An aficionado is one who is passionate about the bull-fights. All the good bull-fighters stayed at Montoya’s hotel; that is, those with afición stayed there. The commercial bull-fighters stayed once, perhaps, and then did not come back. The good ones came each year. In Montoya’s room were their photographs. The photographs were dedicated to Juanito Montoya or to his sister. The photographs of bull-fighters Montoya had really believed in were framed. Photographs of bull-fighters who had been without aficion Montoya kept in a drawer of his desk. They often had the most flattering inscriptions. But they did not mean anything. One day Montoya took them all out and dropped them in the waste-basket. He did not want them around.

We often talked about bulls and bull-fighters. I had stopped at the Montoya for several years. We never talked for very long at a time. It was simply the pleasure of discovering what we each felt. Men would come in from distant towns and before they left Pamplona stop and talk for a few minutes with Montoya about bulls. These men were aficionados. Those who were aficionados could always get rooms even when the hotel was full. Montoya introduced me to some of them. They were always very polite at first, and it amused them very much that I should be an American. Somehow it was taken for granted that an American could not have afición. He might simulate it or confuse it with excitement, but he could not really have it. **When they saw that I had afición, and there was no password, no set questions that could bring it out, rather it was a sort of oral spiritual examination with the questions always a little on the defensive and never apparent,**

Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises  (p. 115)

This may surprise you, but I’m not particularly into bullfighting.  Even so, I like Hemingway’s description of afición.

There are topics, ideas, and activities that I hold dear. I think the things – ideas, activities, whatever – that a person really associates with, really feels, make up who they are.

Sometimes, when you’re talking with someone about something close to you, something important to you, it’s apparent that they get it too.  And it’s meaningful – it’s meaningful because as Hemingway says, there’s “No password, not set of questions that could bring it out”.  It can’t be faked.  And it’s not about talent, or fame, or money.  A person could be the best in the world at something, or know the most about a topic, and still not really get it.  Not have afición.

So, you know, figure out where your afición lies.  It’s probably not bullfighting.

Instagram and the Brand Ambassador

I’m on Instagram a lot.   I’m not generally prone to getting sucked into social media – I don’t use twitter much, I can honestly acknowledge that I never leave Facebook happier than when I enter it, so I don’t spend too much time there.  But Instagram is a different beast.  I enjoy photography – both taking pictures, and looking at them.  The fact that it’s really difficult to share links, and large amounts of text are pretty unwieldy makes it pretty great in my book – there’s just so little opportunity for you to share your terrible political opinion with me.  People try, sure – but it’s far less common than on other platforms.  I don’t follow anyone who posts anything but photography. Very few memes, or political rants – just original content from people I know, or people I find interesting.

But there’s something insidious to Instagram, if you venture much outside people you actually know.


I like the outdoors.  I like skiing, hiking, mountain biking, and just general exploration and travel.  I’m not alone in this, my tastes are certainly not unique or particularly interesting.  So I follow a smattering of popular instagrammers.  They’re people with at least a reasonably good eye for photography, who spend a lot of their time doing interesting things.

But there are some red flags:  Some people have obvious means of supporting themselves through adventure.  Some are obviously just wealthy – family money, business success, whatever.  Some are professionals doing something interesting – pro skiers, mountain bikers, etc.  Some are photographers or filmmakers, sharing content from their work and adventures.

But some aren’t.  They’re just normal-ish people, who like a lot of the same things I like. And this group has the potential to be the most interesting, because they’re the most relatable.  But with followers come power, an audience – and any time you’ve got an audience, there’s danger.  There’s danger because there’s value in a platform.  And with value comes the opportunity for dishonesty.

So my feed is very often full of brand ambassadors, which is fancy talk for “people who get free stuff, and maybe money, because they’ve got an audience”.  And that’s fine – I’m not really opposed to it, except that it undermines what made these people so great, so enjoyable to follow along and live vicariously through.  Their value, their appeal, is in  the honesty and authenticity of whatever they were doing: having an adventure because it’s exactly what they wanted to do, what they were driven to do.  Coming up with a plan for something – a trip, and adventure, maybe just a particular photograph – simply because they wanted to.  They needed to.

Once there are ulterior motives (money and followers), things aren’t so clear.  Motives are tainted.  Now there’s the question: are they doing this because it was their choice, their plan, a manifestation of their passions?  Or are they doing it because they know people will like it? Because followers mean power?  Because a brand will give them money to do it?  Is it real, or is it a narrative they’re selling?

And I think this is a broader question, just another facet of the question about shoes: Why do we do what we do?  Which motives are real, honest, acceptable, and which are unworthy of praise or attention?  Which motives are acceptable to cultivate, and which do we scorn or hide?

Why should I leave?

I’ve been thinking more about how good employees are willing to quit.  It’s a big topic, and one that’s uncomfortable a lot of the time – most of us like to believe, deep down, that we’ve found a career that will last forever, we’ll always be happy, and we’ll never need or want to leave because we’ve got life figured out now, and nothing will ever change.

So we approach professional life with a couple of assumptions:

  • We should be employed all the time.
  • Outside of egregious offenses, we should stay at a single employer.

I’d argue that both of these are false – or maybe not false in the sense that the opposite is true (That people should actively seek unemployment, and should hop from job to job for no reason), just means that these assumptions are invalid.

Any relationship works best when all parties are on equal footing.  By accepting either or both of these assumptions, the employee starts at a disadvantage – assuming that they should always be employed (as opposed to self employed, or, you know, bummin’ around) and that leaving a job requires valid cause means at our most basic, we assume we need an employer.  This taints the relationship from the start.

 

Working under these assumptions, the question to ask is “Why should I leave”?  I think the correct question to ask is “Why should I stay”?

Obligation is the wrong reason to do almost anything, and assuming that the default is to stay in a job – to stay at an employer because you’ve been there for a while, because you owe them something, etc – is obligation.  It doesn’t get the best work out of anyone, and it breeds resentment, left unchecked.

The beautiful thing is that a shift in perspective here – going from the vague feelings of obligation and guilt that your job conjures because you think you’re supposed to be there, to the acknowledgement that you’re there for a reason: Maybe you really enjoy the work, or the people you work with, or you’re learning a lot, or maybe you just need the money (which is a completely valid reason to stay at a job) – can change your attitude completely, and clarify in your own head what you’re doing.

Alternatively, maybe you realize that there is no good reason to stay – that you really are just staying out of obligation, or because your mom likes to tell her friends that you’re important because of your title.  In which case, you can acknowledge that it’s perfectly acceptable to go figure something else out.  You don’t need a boss who sexually harasses you, or a job offer for twice as much money elsewhere – you just need an acknowledgement that there’s no good reason to stay.

Figure out why you do what you do.  It’s important.  It takes a lot of your time, and you only have so much.  You owe it to yourself to be honest about why you’re spending it the way you are.

 

Restlessness

I’m driving, heading up the highway, into the mountains.  It’s morning, and snow is falling heavily.  It’s cold out – probably about 10 degrees – so the snowflakes are light and dry.  The road ahead is slowly accumulating snow, but only on the edges of the road, and in between the lanes – not where the wheels hit.

I always notice this.  It’s not always snow – maybe it’s dirt blowing across the road from a dust storm.  Maybe it’s debris from a car accident. Maybe it’s gravel that fell off a passing truck.  Whatever it is, by the time I see it, it’s always cleared itself out of the tire tracks.  That always strikes me, because it feels like there’s sentience there.  How did the rocks know to get out of the tire tracks?  Why aren’t the rocks just scattered evenly across the road – surely that’s how they fell?

And it is how they fell.  And it’s how snow falls too – evenly across the road.  But even so, it manages to organize itself outside of the tire tracks.  Why?  How?

The rock that is in the tire tracks, unsurprisingly, gets run over – hit, over and over again.  And every time it gets hit, it moves – thrown forward as though it was kicked.  And as it tumbles forward, it bounces randomly to the left, or to the right.  And it keeps doing this – getting hit, moving forward, bouncing laterally, until eventually, it’s not in the tire tracks anymore.  Not by conscious decision, but because by chance, randomly, it happened to not be in the tire tracks anymore.

So that’s where it stays.  Out of the tracks.  Not getting run over anymore Also not moving. Stuck.

And whenever I notice this, I can’t help but assign some deeper philosophical meaning to it.  Tire tracks are a violent, unpredictable place to be. But as soon as you find yourself outside the tracks, comfortable, settled, you’re no longer moving.

Perspectives

Those who have read some of my former books … find things that seem to be total contradictions of much that I have said before. This, however, is true only in some minor respects. For I have discovered that the essence and crux of what I was trying to say in those books was seldom understood … My intention here is to approach the same meaning from entirely different premises…

Watts, Alan W. The Wisdom of Insecurity

I’m still of the opinion that Alan Watts is mostly crazy, but apparently not so crazy that I’ll stop reading what he wrote.  Also, I found this particular thing interesting.

Code is interesting.  When you write code, you get to build something from nothing, totally out of thin air. Notably, it’s entirely made up.  It has no physical manifestation – the real shape of it, the ideas that it imbues exist only in your head.  But even so, there are rules.  There are patterns that come up, that start to reveal themselves as they are repeated through different problems.

For the uninitiated, when you write code, you talk to the computer in any of a variety of particular languages, each with their own syntax and idiosyncrasies.  There are a lot of them – and much like regular, talking-to-each-other-by-flapping-our-mouths languages, they all attempt to do the same thing – tell the computer what to do.  They all have their own nuance, flavor, quirks and sharp edges.

As a result, any problem or idea that is built in a single, particular programming language is going to pick up that nuance, those quirks, those sharp edges – the ones from the language itself.  Identifying which sharp edges actually belong to your idea, your coding style, what you were trying to build, and which ones come by nature of the programming language you chose can be almost impossible – until you write the same thing in another language.  Getting across the same idea, solving the same problem in another language begins to give the real shape of a thing – which difficulties are inherent in the problem you’re solving, or your approach, and which come from the language you chose.

Back to Watts. Watts wrote a bunch of ideas down, in two books.  But he did so from a particular perspective – at the time, he was an Episcopal priest.  As a result, his ideas got all wrapped up in that – the language he used, the perspective he was writing from – and he felt like what he was really trying to get at, really trying to explain or at least explore, was lost.  The sharp quirks of his perspective and the language he used became indistinguishable from the quirks of his ideas.  So he had to try again, from a new perspective, to get at the truth of what he was actually trying to convey.  Because communication is hard, but maybe it’s worth it.

Ideas and the language, metaphors, or perspective used to describe them are inseparable.  The only way to communicate or understand the real shape of a thing is to come at it repeatedly, from different perspectives.

Communication

A few years ago, I was sitting in the conference room of a resort in Cyprus.  Me and two other guys were sitting around a table, discussing a new development project we were embarking on.  Normally, we don’t get such an opportunity – our conversations about topics like this are done via text, or video calls, from the comfort of our own homes or offices.  This was a special occasion – we were together at just the right time to sit down and figure out how this was going to work, together.  It was exciting – we’ve built our entire business around the idea that you can generally communicate well enough remotely to get things done, so the increased bandwidth of a face to face conversation, with the nuance of body language, tone, and no latency was a special treat.

So we sat, and we talked.  And we misunderstood.  And we talked more.  And we misunderstood more.  After working for several hours through ideas and plans via discussion, hastily drawn diagrams on hotel notepads, and wild hand gestures, we realized that we still didn’t agree on a fundamental, core piece of the project – a piece we thought we all had agreed on hours ago.

We weren’t bad communicators.  We knew each other pretty well.  It didn’t matter.

Communication is hard.

Really hard.  Discussing anything other than concrete objects that can be independently experienced and corroborated through other senses at the time time – like, stuff you see in front of both of you, and can point at, see, touch, smell – is fraught with misunderstanding and miscommunication. Abstract ideas?  Feelings?  Good luck.

Wiio’s Laws

Sometime after that, in a separate conversation about communication, a friend introduced me to Wiio’s laws:

  1. Communication usually fails, except by accident.
    1. If communication can fail, it will.
    2. If communication cannot fail, it still most usually fails.
    3. If communication seems to succeed in the intended way, there’s a misunderstanding.
    4. If you are content with your message, communication certainly fails.
  2. If a message can be interpreted in several ways, it will be interpreted in a manner that maximizes the damage.

(there are more, but these are the ones that most interest me at the moment)

Osmo Anteri Wiio was a Finnish academic, among other things.  He seems to have written the laws facetiously, but it’s hard to avoid the deep, depressing, uncomfortable truths from which they spring.

Good Employees

I used to run a business that handled backups and security, or hack mitigation for websites and small businesses.  It was a good business, and I enjoyed it.  It started from nothing, and slowly grew until it could support me full time, without much extra.  But right around that time, I started running into issues – the business needed to grow, and in order to grow, it needed to change – to be lower touch, and scale better, larger.  We were at the limits of what I (as the only technical staff) could provide.

But that’s not what happened, because I needed money.  And when you need money, you start making the wrong decisions – prioritizing one-off deals that provide short-term cashflow over the slower, steadier work of scaling the business.  So that’s exactly what I did – a lot of individual deals, a lot of individual work that would get us by, month to month, but didn’t provide any lasting benefit, and didn’t really help the business grow.  Because we needed the money, we needed it to work, we stalled, and couldn’t continue growing.

I’ve been an employee now for several years, but I can see that the same concept exists here – with different consequences, different symptoms, but similarly dire outcomes.

Good Employees are not warm bodies

I’m grateful to not be in a business that just needs a warm body in a specified location, following well defined directions.  I’m paid not just to blindly follow instructions to get something from point a to point b – I’m paid because I’m a person with thoughts and ideas, who can offer insight and solutions to problems.  I don’t think I’m particularly unique in this.  My particular field, and employer do a good job of emphasizing autonomy and the idea that everyone is expected to think critically about the business – but I think deep down this is basically universal.  I think good employees, in most positions, and most fields, are hired not just to accomplish tasks, but because they’re smart, driven, and willing to give themselves to the problems and challenges a business faces.  An employee who just does the work asked of them as it’s laid out is a very smart robot, and will soon find themselves replaced with just that.

But I need this job

But there’s a conflict here.  Employers want their employees to be happy and productive.  Employees want to feel secure.  But often employees feel like they are tied to a job, to a company, for whatever reason – maybe they’re living paycheck to paycheck and don’t think they can afford the time it would take to find a new job.  Maybe they’re afraid they can’t find a job with benefits they’ve become accustomed to.  Maybe they’re afraid of starting over somewhere new.  It doesn’t matter.  As soon as someone decides that losing their job is a real risk that they’re unwilling to take, they’ll start acting to protect it – in ways that are often counter to the best interests of themselves and the business.

Honesty

Conflict is difficult for most people, especially conflict with superiors.  However – conflict, used constructively, breeds success.  A workplace without any conflict at all – opposing ideas, heated discussions, impassioned cases – is doomed.  Even smart people have dumb ideas, and if no one is questioning the people making plans, everyone will be worse for it.  If employees aren’t willing to stand up for what they believe in up to the point of leaving a job for it, it’s a loss for them, and for the business.  Passionate people do good work.  Agreeable people have a pleasant, comfortable time making garbage.

Balance

Relationships are subtle things, that require delicate balance.  To achieve full potential, that balance constantly has to be checked and tweaked, making sure that both sides are happy and committed.  The moment one side falls down and admits that they need the other too much, that they’re willing to accept too much compromise, that they’ll do work they don’t believe in as long as they keep getting paid, the balance is lost.  It doesn’t matter if there are good, caring people on both sides of the equation – when one needs the other more than is reciprocated, it’s impossible to work as well as it could.

Good employees are willing to quit

This is not to say good employees should quit jobs often, or early, or that an employee who has been somewhere a long time is bad – rather: in order to maximize productivity and satisfaction for both sides, the employee has to be as ready to quit as the business is ready to fire them.  Part of the employee’s job then, is to make sure that they’re always in a position – financially, emotionally, whatever – to be able to leave, and survive until they can find a new position.

So I don’t know, the least you can do is conspicuously keep a “go-bag”  with a couple of days worth of clothing and some beef jerky in it by your desk.  Just to let everybody know how ready you are.  When your boss gets out of line, just subtly point at it and raise your eyebrows.  Or, I guess, get your finances in order.  Less fun, but probably more effective.