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.

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.

Damned Civilized

He was becoming damned civilized; and soon, he suspected, would come acceptance… then complacency… then the death of creativity.

Arthur C. Clarke | Richter 10

Richter 10 is ostensibly about earthquakes, but really it’s about a crazy, broken man.  Totally nuts.  Unreasonable, and driven well beyond the safety of normalcy by his passion.  His eccentricities also drive his greatness – his creativity, his fight.  Unshackled by the confines and expectations of polite, socially acceptable society, he’s free to chase what’s important to him.

It seems to me that those willing to be a little abnormal, or maybe even willing to actively fight against being normal, are the ones who do the most interesting things.

Credit

What do we value in other people’s actions and behaviors?  What are we particularly impressed with, and what do we feel is not worth our attention – and not just our attention, but our praise, our validation? This is the kind of thing we generally take for granted, or assume is universal truth – it just is.  It’s interesting to try to further understand the (often) unspoken rules we apply to human interactions like this.  In Beyond Freedom and Dignity (which, to be fair, seems to be reasonably controversial), B.F. Skinner makes just such an attempt:

 

First, why do we give credit at all?

To give a person credit for winning a game is to emphasize the fact that the victory was contingent on something he did, and the victory may then become more reinforcing to him.

Skinner, B.F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity  (p. 45)

Once we’re giving credit, what are the determining factors in whether, and how much we give?

The amount of credit a person receives is related in a curious way to the visibility of the causes of his behavior. We withhold credit when the causes are conspicuous. We do not, for example, ordinarily commend a person for responding reflexly: we do not give him credit for coughing, sneezing, or vomiting even though the result may be valuable.

Skinner, B.F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity (p. 45)

In other words: how much autonomy has the person shown in taking whatever action they took?  If we can clearly see why they took the action, and it’s an action anyone would have taken, we tend to not give credit.  But if the action had value, and it’s clear that the person was not coerced into doing it – in fact, maybe we can’t see why they did it, we tend to give more credit.

The extent of the credit varies with the magnitude of the opposing conditions. We commend loyalty in proportion to the intensity of the persecution, generosity in proportion to the sacrifices entailed, and celibacy in proportion to a person’s inclination to engage in sexual behavior. As La Rochefoucauld observed, “No man deserves to be praised for his goodness unless he has strength of character to be wicked. All other goodness is generally nothing but indolence or impotence of will.”

Skinner, B.F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity  (p. 47)

“No man deserves to be praised for his goodness unless he has strength of character to be wicked.” We’re not impressed by people doing things (or not doing things) that we know they don’t really have the guts to do anyway.  To receive credit, the person has to actually have made a choice.  This is an interesting philosophical question of its own, and it reminded me of this question from A Clockwork Orange:

Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?

Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange (p. 71)

Finally:

We give … maximal credit if he has discovered how to operate it without help, since he then owes nothing to any instructor at any time; his behavior has been shaped wholly by the relatively inconspicuous contingencies arranged by the equipment, and these are now past history.

Skinner, B.F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity (p. 48)

The less obvious it is how someone arrived somewhere, with some ability, or knowledge, or idea, the more prone we are to give credit for it.

We love magic.

 

Chasing the Wind

We never heard the starter gun, but we were in a new race.  One where the finish line was headed right for us.

ALS has always terrified me.  But as I watch this, and listen to the way he talks about how it affected his dad, it just reinforces the idea that the finish line is headed for us regardless.  It came a little earlier than expected for his dad (in a particularly tortuous way), but nobody is guaranteed the 20 or 30 years he missed.

Plus, you know, beautiful cinematography, windsurfing (apparently I want to be a windsurfer), and motorcycles in the desert.  These people know how to get me.

Bonus quote, from the description:

The proper function of man is to live, not exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them, I shall use my time.

Jack London

 

Adaptation

I’ve been sick for the last few days.  I’m really bad at being sick.  When I have a fever, I have stress dreams and can’t tell the difference between dream and reality.  Then when I’m awake, I mostly just lay around and moan, reveling in misery, and bringing down anyone within earshot.

It’s Friday afternoon, and I’m sitting in the shower.  The hot water is pouring down over me, and it feels good, but also terrible – my fever means that the water is both uncomfortably hot, but I’m shivering because I’m cold.  The fever and accompanied achiness is bad, but what’s worse is my throat – swollen and inflamed, I haven’t really been able to swallow for a day.  So I’m dehydrated and hungry too.  And all I can think is “Normal is going to feel unimaginably good.”

I almost always have this same thought when I’m sick enough to be really inconvenienced, not just mildly uncomfortable.

Today, Sunday morning, I woke up feeling much better.  The fever is gone.  My throat is still sore, but it’s annoying, not debilitating.  And today, every bite – the waffles with peanut butter at breakfast (yes, you heard me.  Try it),  the leftover pizza at lunch – every bite was glorious.  Euphoric.

The difference in quality of life between yesterday and today is palpable.  It’s almost impossible to forget, to miss. But tomorrow or the next day, I’ll be completely back to normal, and the euphoria, the victory over the illness, the acknowledgement of the difference between how poor things were before, and how good they are now will be past its natural expiration date.  I’ll have adapted again, to normal.

Because that’s what normal is:  just whatever has been happening for long enough to kind of forget about what was happening before.  And we’re great at adapting.

What do We Really Know?

The kids and I sat down tonight to watch “Cosmos”, the reboot of Carl Sagan’s acclaimed from the 80s, now hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. I (gasp) never watched the original, and my son Sam, 7, is old enough to actually have it keep his attention, I think. He likes to delay bedtime by asking me questions about space (“Why is the sky blue?” “Tell me that thing about how time changes if you go too fast again.” “I want a new interesting fact about black holes.”). We both know he’s only doing it to delay bedtime, but we also both know it’s going to work every time. Anyway, it seemed like a good time to start the series.

The first episode spends a lot of time focused on the ideas behind the Copernican revolution, in which western civilization traded the older Ptolemaic model of the heavens, in which the Earth is the center, with the Heliocentric model, where the sun is the center. Specifically, the episode delves into the story of Giordano Bruno, an Italian philosopher who lived after Copernicus, but died before Galileo made his first telescope.
Bruno’s real contributions, which apparently he eventually died for, were a few ideas:

  • The stars are, in fact, the same thing as our sun, just very far away.
  • The stars likely have their own planets around them, and therefore, likely their own life.
  • The universe is essentially uniform and infinite – not existing as a very large sphere around our sun.

I’m sure there was more to it than this, but keep in mind, my knowledge of this topic is essentially 45 minutes of television, plus some light skimming of Wikipedia.

Of course, prior to tonight, I was aware of all this, even if I really only had the bullet points down. People though the earth was flat, then maybe they accepted it was round, but still believed it was the center of the universe, then gradually discovered the nature of the universe as we understand it now. What I never had really considered was this: How difficult would it have been to challenge these theories at the time?

I think it’s easy to assume, through our historical glasses, that people of the time period were just waiting around to disprove the existing theories of how the world worked. That if you or I had been there, surely we’d have realized how silly it was to think the earth was the center of the universe. Except that that made perfect sense. What else could anyone have believed, given what we can observe with the naked eye, from the ground? And – bonus – at the time make an assertion that didn’t agree with the church’s ideas of how things worked, and you’d be ridiculed at best, tortured, imprisoned, and burned at the stake at worst.

But still, in the face of all the opposition, in spite of the fact that it would have been exceedingly easy to worry about the challenges of the day, how to get yourself a new carriage or the hottest chaperon, and not give a second thought to the prevailing theories about how the universe turned, people did it. People asked questions. Hard questions. They thought about things. And they did it without technology, or invented technology to help answer their questions. They just looked up, observed, and then thought.

Similarly, I’ve often wondered how I would have behaved had I been born an affluent white male in the south in the early 19th century. It’s easy now to look back and recognize slavery as cruel, unfair, evil. But if it was all you knew, what you had been raised around, raised to believe – would you question it? Would you even think to question it? I like to tell myself I’d never have stood for it, but I’m afraid that’s too generous.

But there’s good news: Our lives, our societies, are literally full of assumptions, of unquestioned prevailing theories. Universal truths that we all agree on without a second thought. Universal truths that we all agree on because we don’t even recognize that we’re agreeing to them, because they’re so deep that we can’t even recognize there’s an argument to be made. I think sometimes finding the answers is actually easier than finding the questions.

What if the universe is just a simulation? Do you actually agree with your supposed views on political issues like abortion, LGBT rights, or do you just accept what people similar to you say on Facebook? Do you really like chocolate milk? (spoiler: I really, really do)

These are lame questions, but the point is that the interesting questions are the ones that are hard to find, because people aren’t asking them. So, try thinking hard about what you take for granted. The things you’ve never even thought to question. It’s hard. If doing so, even in your own head, doesn’t make you uncomfortable, you’re probably not digging deep enough.

 

 

Header image by Bartolomeu Velho – Own work, Public Domain

But Why These Shoes?

I’m back on shoes.  I guess I really like shoes.

I’m really interested in shoes, and what they say about their owners.  In theory, they’re inconspicuous, out of the way – as far away from the head, with its facial expressions and speaking as possible.  We pay attention to faces, to upper bodies.

Down there at the lowly Cape Horn of the body sit the shoes, functionally tasked with keeping our oh-so-tender feet safe.

So as I sit in the park, watching the many people go by, I can’t help but wonder about the choices everyone made.  Why those shoes?  What possessed the wearer to choose this shoe instead of any other?  Why does the market support such a wide variety of footwear?

What do my shoes say about me?

When I buy shoes, it’s an almost unconscious decision.  I’ll browse online, or go to a shoe store (gasp) in person, and see what they have.  If asked what I’m interested in, I’ll say “I don’t know”.  I don’t know.  And yet, I’m guided by an invisible will towards specific styles, brands, and types.

The reality is that I’m very specific about what type of shoe I’ll buy and wear, I just don’t like to admit it, even to myself.  Whether or not I like it, whether or not I’ll admit it openly, I’m buying shoes in large part in order to tell you something about myself.  Yes, I have some baseline requirements that don’t relate to other people (do they fit?  Are they comfortable enough?), but the majority of my shoe buying decision comes down to you, and what I want you to think of me.

What do people’s shoes say about them?

Are they comfortable looking?  Are they inconspicuous?  Are they bright and obnoxious?  Are they so obviously ugly that the wearer is either blind, or making some sort of statement about how little they care about what you think? Do they match the wearer’s shirt? Hat? Are they athletic shoes, in spite of the fact that the wearer is not currently doing anything athletic?  Are they leather? Are they not leather, but brown anyway? Are they very obviously brand new? Are they dirty?  Are they all white, but amazingly not dirty?  Can you imagine how much work it is to keep all white shoes clean?  Seriously, think about it, I’ll wait.

So, I don’t know, go look at your shoes.  How much of the decision to buy that particular pair of shoes was about telling people about yourself?  Are you happy with what they say?

Tune in tomorrow, where I’ll undoubtedly talk more about shoes.