The Lure of Permanence

Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive.

Pirsig, Robert. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (p. 110)

I’m not very consistent in my habits, particularly long term.  I’m an occasional journaler.  I’m a sporadic budgeter and financial planner.  I exercise regularly for about 2 months at a time.  2 or 3 months on, 6 months off.  Then 4 months on, a year off.

This is not a celebrated approach to life.  We want to be successful. We want for all of our actions to be correct, the be lasting, and to make sense as part of a larger narrative that shows us always headed in a direction that we chose, and can call “good”.  We want to make progress.  Stopping a habit or activity we decided was worth pursuing essentially negates any amount of time we spent sticking to the habit.

News about diets is often reported through the lens of long term success rates.  A diet is “successful” if and only if it facilitates a permanent change in lifestyle, health, weight or all 3.  Relationships that end for any reason are commonly referred to as “wasted time”, unless we can come up with some lifelong lessons learned – things to help us avoid wasting time in the future.

These ideas all circle around a narrative that tells us our efforts in life are cumulative.  We’re constantly striving to further identify who we are, building the steps up a tower of our own accomplishment. We amass money.  We cultivate long term relationships. We progress professionally.  And all of this builds on itself, and we climb higher and higher on this tower of progress, of the evolution of a life.  We’re terrified of backsliding, of taking steps back down, rather than continuing up.  We cling to the foundational building blocks of our lives.  We avoid losing sight of anything we deemed important, as it all contributes to our tower, and we’re always reaching higher, striving further.

And then we die.

And then the funeral happens – the crown of a life well lived,  of constant improvement.  If the goal is to put yourself constantly higher on that tower, then it stands to reason that the funeral is the highest point, the most valuable moment of your life.  Hopefully you’ve accomplished constant, steady progress and improvement, and therefore this final manifestation of your life represents the pinnacle of your existence.

Of course you don’t care, you’re dead.  You can’t enjoy it.  The best you can do is to have envisioned your own funeral in the months, years, decades leading up to it.  “What a great person I’ll have been.”

With this narrative in mind, sporadic journaling is not valuable.  Working out occasionally isn’t valuable.  If in 5 years I’m not more financially stable than I am now, then whatever I did in those intervening years was a waste, at least financially.  If I lose 20 pounds over the next few months, but only keep it off for a couple of years – then we’ll all agree that in the long run, I didn’t really lose the weight at all. If a friendship or relationship is lost, then the time spent with that person was wasted – because they won’t be there forever.

This puts plans, habits, and goal setting in an interesting light:  “I’m not going to change my eating habits unless I can confidently say I’ll be able to do this forever”.  “I need to identify a workout plan that I can stick with long term”.  Some are less comfortable: “I won’t attempt to get to know someone if I don’t think they’ll be around for life”.  “If I don’t think I can make a habit of journaling forever, I may as well not start”.


There’s another style of narrative that one could choose, in which the moment of death is no more important than any other.  Where 6 months spent exercising regularly are valued as 6 months where you felt good, regardless of what the next 6 months, or 6 years are like.  Where a friendship enjoyed for a few months is valuable for months, even if it is completely gone after that, even if it has no lasting effect. Where the goal to be pursued is less about how high a person manages to climb by the end of their life, but instead about how many moments along the way they felt happy, or fulfilled, or satisfied.

This doesn’t exactly let a person off the hook: if feeling healthy for 6 months is valuable, feeling healthy for 10 years is even more valuable.  If a relationship is nice for a month, then it may be even nicer for a lifetime.  The point here is not about avoiding permanence, but about recognizing that permanence is not a requirement to find value.

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Not forever. Just as long as you want them. And that’s ok.

Instagram and Value

Last night, I was running and thinking, a combination that is thrust upon me pretty often.  Specifically, I was thinking about a friend who is traveling someplace beautiful, who happens to be a talented photographer.  And I was thinking to myself that I was looking forward to seeing photos trickle through on Instagram. 

Beautiful pictures are pleasant, but in the era of the internet, they’re not exactly scarce.  I can find beautiful high resolution photos of nearly any location, landscape, or event without effort.  Having a personal connection to beautiful pictures – because the surreal landscape is being experienced firsthand by a friend, because the cute toddler is a niece, because the artfully composed shot is taken by an acquaintance who you know puts great thought into these kinds of things – this is what makes Instagram valuable to me.  I almost universally loathe social media, and I love Instagram, for this reason.

But then I remembered:  I uninstalled instagram 2 days ago.  It wasn’t intended to be a permanent removal from my life – I still find a lot of value in instagram, and I’m sure I’ll re-install it in a day or 2.  But I realized (while sitting on the toilet, for context), that I was spending huge amounts of time on the instagram “Explore” tab.  I have never, ever found anything valuable on the explore tab – I only find endless content expertly catered perfectly to distract me, to suck me in, to waste my time and hawk advertising at me.  It’s not interesting shots from friends, visual updates on lives, it’s a drug.  A personalized drug.  I needed to break my habit of opening Instagram and scrolling through nonsense I don’t care about, then waking up 10 minutes, 30 minutes an hour later with no idea what I was doing, or where the time had gone.

Any time on the explore tab and you can see that it’s purposefully designed to suck you in – eliminating friction to viewing images and videos, algorithmically selected for their stickiness and your preferences.  Tearing yourself away from it can be a challenge.

What strikes me is how disconnected the actual value of a service can become from the success metrics of the business.  How the success metrics can be, in fact, diametrically opposed to what users (or at least some cohort of users) actually find valuable. How we could end up in the baffling situation in which a service that I personally find enormous value in, and am willing to defend, fight for, preach about, has, in a (presumed) attempt to better serve me, convinced me to uninstall it.

I’m not totally sure what the takeaway is here.  It’s easy to mockingly accuse the people driving the future of Instagram of missing the point – of being greedy and stupid and shortsighted. Maybe those accusations are valid.  I’m afraid the truth is probably more nuanced: Platforms need to show growth, they need to show improvement, they need to constantly prove that they’re trending in the right direction – this is the default nature of the tech industry, maybe business as a whole.  Showing improvement can often mean inventing measures, metrics, and then executing to improve those metrics. 

It’s not unreasonable that the folks behind Instagram would assume time spent with the app open is a valid analog for how indispensable I find it, and therefore how well they’re doing catering to my needs.  The reality is harder to parse.  How could they measure success if my ideal interaction with the app is to hop on a couple times a day, scroll through a relatively small feed of new pictures, maybe post something myself, and move on?  How could they measure what my cutoff for time spent in the app is – the imaginary line a la price is right in which – if I go over, I’ll suddenly uninstall the app?  I’m not sure what the metric there is, and I imagine attempts at distilling it are quite a bit harder to justify to investors or a board than “Time spent in app” – an easily understood and communicated idea.

Business is hard.  Business where growth is required to appease investors is even harder.

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I swear they’re not all about Instagram. Sometimes they’re about shoes.

Worry

It’s dark outside.  I’ve been riding all day.  I left Wakeeney, Kansas before 7 this morning, and now it’s after 11.  I finally found a place to camp – at least, I think it’s a place to camp.  It was dark when I pulled up, and there’s no one around.  There’s no camp host, no designated camping spots – I just pulled the bike near some trees in what seemed to be a clearing, in what I am very much hoping is Hoosier National Forest, and pitched my tent.  It’s so hot.  Unbearably hot.

I can’t bring myself to try to go to sleep yet – I’m still wound up from a long day of riding, and really, it’s so hot.  So I sit, sweaty and sticking to my little backpacking camp chair in the dark.  No book, no music, no campfire, I’m too tired for any of that.  Just the dark.  I watch the fireflies flicker.

I’m here now.  I’m comfortable.  I’m fine. I’m on schedule even! Still, I can’t escape the sinking feeling in my stomach – the one that is so insistent that it’s all about to go wrong.  Or worse, that it’s already gone wrong, and I’m too incompetent to realize it.  It’s been with me for the entirety of the 2 days since I left home.  


I’m not a mechanic.  I’m not really even mechanically inclined.  In spite of that, last summer, I bought an old motorcycle, and deemed myself fit to both ride and maintain it.  For the most part, this has been smooth going – stuff stops working, I furiously google until I have a guess for what it is, and manage to fix it.  I read endlessly on motorcycle forums to find new things that might go wrong, and try to decide what needs to be overhauled next.

I buy tools and parts.  I mess things up, then figure out how to fix what I broke.  I break down on occasion.  I read, and read some more.  I put together a toolkit with the things most likely to keep me running on a long trip.

I’m still no mechanic, but slowly, steadily, I’m building a mental model of how the bike works – what happens when I start it, what to check when it feels like the engine is going faster than the wheels, what it means when it feels like the handlebars are bouncing too much.  What the bike should sound like when I’m on the highway, and what it should sound like when I’m pulling away from a stoplight.


I’m a thousand miles from home, sitting peacefully on a quiet Indiana night, and I’m convinced the bike has an oil leak. 

My suspicion started last night, in Kansas.  I had pulled up, let the bike cool down for a while, and checked the oil sight window – and just at the bottom was a hint of an oil line.  It should be right in the middle, maybe even a little over.  If I lost that much oil in the 400 miles that day, I was in real trouble on a 6000 mile trip.  

Tonight, reluctantly, I tap on my phone’s light and walk around to check the sight window.  No oil.  Of course.  What did I expect?

I check around the bottom of the engine for signs of dripping, and don’t find any indication of leaking oil.  I am not comforted, just further convinced of my own incompetence.  Probably all real motorcycle mechanics know that leaking oil shoots out the handlebars or something, I don’t know.  I just know I’m going to be stranded here, lead astray by my own hubris.  I’m sure of it.

There’s nothing to be done but sit in the sticky humidity and ponder where it all went wrong. 

After a bit of good old fashioned wallowing, I look at the bike again, from my chair.  It’s parked on the soft grass, on a slight slant.  it’s leaning slightly to the left.  The oil sight window is on the right side of the engine.  Logically, I know that this means the oil would have settled in a way that would be invisible in the sight window.  To check the oil that way, the bike has to be level.  Not seeing the oil in the sight window is meaningless.  

Now that I think of it, I had this same thought last night, in Kansas.  The bike was leaning left then too, and I knew it.  Logically, the evidence provided by the sight window tells me nothing – and I knew it both nights. but still, I can’t shake the idea that there is an oil leak.

I’m now faced with a discrepancy – between what I can reason, and what I feel.  I’m a rational person.  I know there’s no reason to suspect an oil leak if I have no evidence of an oil leak.  And yet, as I talk myself through this, rationally, logically, the very real feeling rock in the pit of my stomach does not go away.  I’m unwilling to trust logic.  The bike is not going to make it, I just know.

The next morning, is cool, damp, and pleasant.  I pack up the tent, load the bike, and it starts like an anxious toddler who has been told we’re going to the park.  The bike purrs through the misty Indiana hills.  It’s some of the most enjoyable riding I’ve ever experienced. At the first town I come across, I find a gas station to head inside and pick up oil to refill what’s been lost.  Coming back out, I check the sight window.  Here, parked on level ground, I can see what I rationally understood last night – no oil had been lost.  The bike was fine.  It ran for 5500 more miles, and got me home (almost) without issue.


I couldn’t stop thinking about this night for the rest of the trip.  I had no evidence to believe that the bike was not fine, but it wasn’t enough.  I was far more willing to believe my fears than reason.  My brain wanted, needed something to worry about, and it wasn’t about to let a little reason get in the way of that.

Worry is a hell of a drug.

Distraction

I often think of watching TV as a distraction.  

The word itself is important.  Distraction.  It seems like it comes unbidden from somewhere outside of the normal noise of my daily thoughts – below, above, I don’t know – but I don’t think about the activity, and decide on the world “distraction” – it’s already there.

I used to go through long, involved thought exercises, trying to distill out exactly why I was fixated on this idea – distraction – an idea that feels powerful and important to me, but also has been difficult to nail down, to keep in place long enough to actually understand and form an opinion worthy of action on.

Having had difficulty defining what I’m really talking about, all I can do to give it shape is to work backward from practical examples and hope something meaningful appears:

Playing video games?  Distraction.  Eating junk food?  Distraction.  Facebook?  Distraction.  Twitter?  Distraction.

Some things are less clear.  Cleaning the garage? Maybe a distraction.  Reading a book?  Harder to say, but probably not a distraction. Going for a walk?  Watching a good movie?  Somehow, in spite of my judgement of TV, watching a movie often, is not condemned as “distraction”.

Going for a run?  Writing? Working?  Decidedly not distractions.


What about the term I seem to have chosen to describe these things?

distraction

I was reminded of this thought a few days ago when my brother referred to something as “indulgence”.  Indulgence and distraction have something in common – both can only exist in the face of a larger goal.  You indulge in something as a respite from what you’ve identified to be your true goal, your true direction.

Distraction, similarly, can only exist against the backdrop of a larger goal, a greater purpose, or _something_ demanding our attention.


With this in mind, what is the common thread between the activities I deem “distraction”?  Does it even make sense, or is it just an unexamined artifact from youth, or popular culture?  Does it have any value as a concept?

My best guess is that I’ll deem anything a distraction that does not have any benefit beyond the moments that I’m engaged in the activity.  Watching a funny TV show can be enjoyable, but there’s rarely a lasting benefit.  Eating junk food is great in the moments when the food is in your mouth, and terrible immediately after. Facebook… Oh facebook.

On the other hand, cleaning the garage is valuable for a period of time, or at least until it’s messy again.  Going for a run is exercise, and much of the benefit comes after the period you spend in the activity.  Reading a good book can help you understand yourself, or the world, a bit better.  Working  earns money, to be used later.

Essentially, the common thread seems to be delayed gratification.  I’ve decided, on some level, that delayed gratification is good, and instant gratification, at least instant gratification without any lasting (positive) effect, is bad.


Back to the term.  distraction.  If the practical common thread is about lasting benefit, what can be extrapolated from the term _distraction_?  With this criteria, one would call these activities distractions from the _real goal_, which would have to be constant, incessant, improvement.  Or, to take values away, constant, inexorable movement, in _some_ direction.

Humans (or maybe just humans in a similar demographic to me) value constant movement, constant improvement, so deeply, that I don’t think we ever stop to examine it.  Why do we do that?  Is it even what we want?

What if constant movement, constant improvement is just distraction from something else? What if telling ourselves that we value forward motion above all else is a way of distracting from something more uncomfortable?

Forward, ever forward.

Eccentricity

People employed in tech have come to rely on an idea:  Everything can be measured.  Every interaction a user has with a website or application we’ve built – where their cursor goes, how long they last on any given page.  It can all be measured, it can all be tested and compared.

Countless consultants, technologies, entire businesses have sprung up to facilitate the aggregate measure and analysis of this kind of data.  How do users respond to a slight change in verbiage?  Will users react favorably if we change the order of a checkout flow? Does the color of this button matter?

With enough data, with enough users, with enough measured interactions, the shape that materializes is seems to be the average customer, user, human.  The context is often pretty narrow (“How does the average human visiting my site behave?”), but still – people are tirelessly working to distill broad, generic, useful insights into how the average human thinks and behaves from the specific actions of huge swaths of people.


Growing up, I’d classify someone as “eccentric” as a way to put a friendly spin on reality, which is that I thought they were so odd as to deserve to be identified, categorized, as something distinct – outside of the circle of “acceptable social acquaintance”.  I’d willingly interact with them, even be a friend, but all this was done in spite of said eccentricity, certainly not because of it.

People who dressed a little weird – not in a way that demanded attention, just off.  Or who were a little too into something.  Maybe a sport.  Maybe religion.  Or who couldn’t quite get what was acceptable to like, to dislike.

As an adult, I find myself characterizing it by anything that raises an eyebrow.  Or maybe anything that elicits a reaction – a reaction like “That seems like a waste of [time|money|effort]”.  “That seems silly”.  “I can’t believe they did that”. 


I can’t help to start to overlay the same types of big data aggregate analyses onto real life people, people I see and interact with every day.  Why we wear what we wear (shoes!), why we eat what we eat, read what we read, what we choose to spend money, time, and effort on.  How much of what makes me me is really just manifestation of the average human in my demographic?

Against that background, it feels like the only thing that differentiates, that matters in identifying who a person is is where they deviate from the norm.  The scenarios in which one person clicks a link  but very few others do.  Maybe a person’s eccentricities – the collection of behaviors, actions, reactions – which baffle or even concern their peers and acquaintances, are actually the most meaningful things about them.

Most of us manage to fit the norm most of the time – either because we just do naturally, or because where we don’t, we’re trained to avoid sticking out.  As a result, the eccentricities – the rough edges, the pieces that don’t fit – can be identified as being somehow so deeply ingrained in us that we can’t smooth them out, or because we care about them so deeply that we’d prefer to leave them as they are.

And that’s interesting.  That’s all.

The Problem with Blinkist

Alternately: In defense of all those extra words

My brother was in town just after christmas. We were catching up one afternoon, talking about something.  I don’t know what, but it culminated in an epiphany he’d had.  About something.  Again, I don’t remember.  It was important to him, and it had taken a lot of thought, a lot of effort, to get there, and then to present it to me in a way that I could understand and benefit from.

“I guess what I’m saying is: It’s about the journey, not the destination.”

And as he said it, I could see the disappointment in his face.  The annoyance.  The self loathing.  All that effort adequately summarized by a quote we’d both heard a thousand times, and routinely pasted over a stolen picture of a sunset and posted on facebook.

This is not the only time this has happened.


Today I downloaded blinkist, which is an app/service that summarizes books into their main ideas for easy and quick ingestion. I don’t know where I originally heard about Blinkist – I think it’s been quietly infiltrating my subconscious via Instagram ads for weeks, months.  Who knows? Anyway, my friend Ben and I were talking about a book, and he said it wasn’t so great, but the main idea was worth pondering, which lead to the idea of trying blinkist. So I did. And it’s great! Unless it’s not.

As I see it, blinkist as a service rests on a few ideas:

  • Learning is valuable
  • People are busy
  • Books are unnecessarily long

I think that much of the population (at least, the population that I’m familiar with) is pretty on board with those 3 ideas. To add another couple that I think are prevalent:

  • More knowledge makes a person more successful
  • To read or hear an idea is to understand and benefit from it

With this as a platform, the real bottleneck between a person and success is simply how much information they’re able to consume. And in this paradigm, blinkist makes perfect sense. So does Twitter. So does so much of our social media (and regular media) consumption.

We treat words like magic spells that create understanding. Spells that, upon hearing or reading, magically transfer the intent, the expertise, the passion of the author into the reader. All we have to do is hear the right set of words in the right order, and the rest is fluff.

So we can cut out all the extra.  All the fluff that the author put in to stroke his or her  ego.  If we can just get the author to succinctly announce their idea, their reason for writing, everyone would win.

I think that’s garbage. I think understanding takes time. Maybe very long books are the most useful simply because they force the reader to continue thinking about a single idea for long enough to actually start to get it.

I think communication is terribly ineffective. The alchemy of translating feelings and ideas into words, sentences, paragraphs is risky enough – and then you’re less than halfway there! It has to happen again in the other direction, as the reader reverses the process and attempts to turn words into real understanding. To call it “lossy” is an understatement, bordering on the ridiculous. In such an environment, the only hope author or reader have is to talk a lot. To say the same thing in several different ways, over and over again, in hopes that the reader will eventually work out the pattern – put together the bits and pieces they understand from each attempt, into something close to a whole.

So yes, there’s a lot of content out there.  Yes, a lot of it looks interesting.  No, I don’t believe the only thing stopping a person from benefitting from all this content at once is that it hasn’t been appropriately summarized, or that we havent heard the bullet points.  We’ve all heard the bullet points.  The important stuff is what comes in between them.

With all this said, I’m still kind of excited about blinkist. I think its presentation, its message is flawed – but as a way to find out what I might want to learn more about, I still think it sounds pretty interesting.

When I’m famous and this post gets summarized “for busy people”, it will be reduced to “You just have to put in the work”. And somebody will read that, pat themselves on the back for all the time they saved, and move on.

The Fireplace

There's a fireplace in my house.  A wood burning fireplace.  It's not particularly grand.   It sits toward the corner of the living room.  An important piece to the feel of the room, but not exactly the focal point.

I use it often in the winter – at night while we hang out in the living room on a cold night, or in the afternoon while I sit and read a book.

At our last house, there was a gas fireplace.  You flipped a switch and you had fire.

It was easy to use.  It was reliable.  It was more effective at heating the room – utilizing a built-in blower to push warm air out into the room. It was safer.  No sparks or flaming embers could hop out of the flames and onto the carpet, as it was completely enclosed. It was cleaner too.  There was no possibility of getting soot from a fire poker on the carpet, or my pants.  There was no ash to carelessly knock out.

The gas fireplace was a better product by every measure.

And yet, we rarely used it.

A gas fire burns the same way every time.  It never changes.  Its reliability – in theory a great advantage – was the thing it got the most wrong. 

Apparently I don't want a fireplace as a way to heat a room.  The furnace heats the house just fine.  It seems I also don't want a fireplace to set the ambiance of a room – thoughtful lighting and interior design can do a fine job of that.

The value of the wood burning fireplace is in all the things that it gets wrong as a useful household appliance.  It is the opposite of sterile, reliable, or predictable.  I watch logs smoke, light, burn, and turn to ash in ways that I didn't precisely plan out, that may require my attention or intervention.  It revels in change, in ephemerality.  And I enjoy that.

The utility we find in products, experiences, relationships is often completely unrelated to what is advertised or assumed.  It's easy to assume then, at a glance, that there is no utility.

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.