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.

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.