Self-Congratulation

December 10, 2009 — 38 Comments

When I read this, I am stuck by the extraordinary lengths that someone will go to avoid ordinary work. I see a young man congratulating himself for exploiting other people’s labor. Economically efficient, sure. Laudatory? Hardly. Consider the irony in protecting the “value” of your time while you brag about how cheaply it can be replaced.

The same goes for most of you auto-responders, automators, travelers and remote workers. How much pride you take in skirting the effort of everyday life. How elaborate the systems you’ve designed to facilitate it. I’m impressed, recently, to see that this force was enough to propel two friends in a boat around the world. Literally.

I think the same when I read this. Now, I know Charlie and he is a great person (Jeff too). He does not, however, have a career. In no way is that a failure, but it is important to look at these things honestly. What he has done is manage to land a series of internships and freelance work that show incredible potential. He’s young (like myself), ambitious and promising. But then again, this is what we should expect from intelligent, affluent, white college graduates.

What is it, then, that motivates us to be so quick to the trigger? Quick to reflect and congratulate ourselves? To wave the all-clear to those behind us when we are only in waist-deep? I’m not sure. All I know is that when I look back and find myself guilty of it I feel ashamed and disappointed. I am discouraged further when I see it incentivized by attention and emulation.

Let’s be frank: life is defined by how much you do, how often you took the difficult road and were rewarded for it. It is not, and will never be, improved by how much you avoid and scheme and congratulate.

Cursory Genius

December 1, 2009 — 9 Comments

A while back a designer posted an unsolicited redesign of the American Airlines website. He wrote “I spent a couple hours redesigning your front page. This is what I settled on. Imagine what you could do with a full, totally competent design team.”

The implication of the whole project, of course, is that American Airlines, a multi-billion dollar, multi-national corporation, didn’t have a designer who could spend a day messing around with the buttons on their website. Of course they do. They probably have 50 of them. That is not the problem.

Naturally he missed many of the systemic issues in favor of aesthetics. For instance, the confirmation time after purchasing a ticket online from American Airlines is north of 45 minutes to an hour – a ridiculous lag for any real time transaction processor. Or, should their website even be a priority when they have old planes that could be made to feel new again with small changes to the entertainment consoles or their archaic overhead storage?

You leave the analysis struck not by its value but by the bitter, obnoxious condescension. American Airlines was never the issue, only ego. It does not come as a shock to find that the author is 22 years old.

Here’s what I’ve learned: separate yourselves from these low-level Others by resisting the temptation to assume it is all very simple and straightforward. It is not. Don’t fool yourself. The problem is rarely the fact that they didn’t have you there to think about it for two seconds. What comes to mind after a cursory glance is an illusion – your young brain baiting over-extension. Deny this impulse and the attention it may offer. Focus on real strategy. On truly understanding what you’re talking about. Leave the bullshit attitude alone because it doesn’t get you anything but alienation.

A Pass on Real Life

November 24, 2009 — 13 Comments

Back in 2004, Demetri Martin wrote a week-long journal for Slate and briefly mentioned the time he decided to grow a mustache. What he admits is that despite really wanting to try one and hoping it would be well received, he’d walk up to co-workers and say, “I’m growing a mustache. Looks pretty ridiculous, doesn’t it?” He was so uncomfortable with the thought of people not liking it that he went around and convinced them that they shouldn’t.

It struck me that benign examples like this belie how powerful that emotion can be. This deep, churning insecurity propels people toward incredible ends. Afraid of what prying eyes may turn up, the mind exhibits unparalleled skill in delegitimizing, preempting and fending off judgment. But regardless of how it is channeled, disingeneousness leads to tainted, meaningless results.

It’s a similar strategy used by a kid we all knew in high school, the one who grew his hair out funny. Maybe it was a mullet or an afro or dyed strangely. While everyone else is worried about their appearance, he stands alone because the issue is no longer on the table. See, it’s meant to be funny. If he wanted to, he could do it like everyone else, he’s choosing not to. But if he gets attention for it, say girls like to play with it, naturally he doesn’t tell himself it’s because of the joke and therefore not him. All of the upside, none of the risk.

What this really is, of course, is the ideal intellectual position. The idea of defending yourself against criticism while simultaneously declaring that it has no jurisdiction over you. The idea that “Hey, we don’t care what you think about our personal lives, but there are tribes in New Guinea that have a totally different concept of gender.”

It is a reaction that is deeply rooted in fear. It is what children do. As they develop into their teens, they “strike a pose that is simultaneously rebellious and lackadaisical.” They’ve looked backwards and forwards and noticed a disturbing trend, that their responsibilities are increasing at a dramatic rate while the amount of fun, which seemed to be endless just a few years back, is showing signs of slowing down. At this point of optimal freedom and diminished accountability, they’d like to freeze, to “stay in place.”

In a way, you could think of Lady Gaga as the queen of this movement. Self-discomfort is such a motive, driving force that it is what transports a person from here to here. Take away the trappings and the costumes, is there really any difference between her and someone like Britney Spears? She’s part of the same machine. She uses the same songwriters, the same marketing, exploits the same stereotypes. But for some reason, she wants us to know that it’s different. For her, it is ironic. You see, she used to do Iron Maiden covers at bars in the East Village. Does this mean something? Maybe it’s avant-garde and provocative instead of trite and artificial. Or maybe it’s all too confusing and we’ll never know.

In any uncomfortable situation – of which, deciding the type of life you’re to live is one of the most stressful – our doubts can push us to do anything, anything that creates certainty. Irony and absurdity can be ultimate diffusions of this tension, and so can aggression, posturing and non-engagement. Deciding to grow a mustache? Make fun of it while secretly hoping someone will tell you they like. Better yet, grow a comical mustache that nobody gets. If they can’t tell if you like it, then they can’t judge it. Crisis averted.

We now see this writ large. Instead of outgrowing it, we’ve embraced it. Think about the prevalence of irony in hipster culture. At the root of that irony is loathing. Loathing comes from ignorance and fear, two powerful feelings that associated with entering a new era. It is responsible for so much of what is wrong with internet culture. People yell and scream and rant on blogs because they’re filled with doubts which they hope to god will never be illuminated. They follow this band for three months and drop it for another because loyalty requires sincerity and sincerity depends on honesty – risks with too much downside.

But where does this transference of insecurity take us? The result is a pass on the burdens of real life. It becomes easier to dig at the tenets of evolution and the human nature in order to concoct some scientific justification for a decision than to take a stand and deal with it. Of course individual choice can be judged. What a masturbatory discussion to even be having. In fact, in asserting that it cannot be, you’re admitting that it often is and will continue to be but that you happen to not like it.

The solution is to not be so fucking hard on yourself. You become afraid of what people will see when they look at you only if you think their conclusions can change things. This is false. Ease up and look internally with calmness and dispassion. Think about your flaws as burrs or splinters that have been unnecessarily affecting your walk. Discard them and move on. Don’t pick at them shamefully in the dark and overcompensate during the day. There’s no need to use every issue as a cat’s paw to scratch at yourself or some vague insecurity. It’s okay. The only thing that’s truly embarrassing is to become some preposterous douche you hardly recognize because you can’t stand the prospect of being genuine and hated for it.

Life As One of Them

November 16, 2009 — 10 Comments

Look at the crap you tolerate from other people. For so many reasons: because they don’t know any better, because they’re a friend, because it’s not worth making an issue. Now subtract out the offenses you’ve been guilty of yourself. Take what is left over and consider it equity you’ve stored up, what the world would let you get away with if you felt so inclined.

How much easier would it be going through life taking advantage of this buffer? We would have so much less to worry about with that sword cleared out from above our head. To live life like a profligate who understands they’d never let him starve.

Why don’t we do this? Because we know that what he has coming to him is rarely poetic, rather everyday “a disease..a plague…a cancer,” that eats away at them by giving them everything they’ve ever wanted. The torture of being awful but unaware of it. The butt of an unsaid joke. The silent example of what not to be.

When you look at what people do, how they act and take advantage of others, see what it does to them as people. Don’t wait for karmic justice. It isn’t coming. It’s already there. You didn’t choose this path because of the deterrents to the alternative. It was the remunerative incentives, the first of which was the capability for this introspection.

Self-Taught

November 9, 2009 — Leave a comment

The most common type of email I get is pretty simple. It’s normally a kid with a plan to be something – say, a journalist – but they look at it like it is only a matter of being crowned with that title. And they want to know what I think they should do.

The answer is to try to break it all down. If they stopped and looked at the histories of the people hoped to be, they’d see more than a long history of writing employment. They’d find a variety of jobs and intermissions and activities and experiences, many of which have nothing to do with writing but had everything to do with getting them to where they are. Rarely is the path to something paved in rote emulation of the end you have in mind; you don’t write your way into a writing career, it is the child of having something to say.

Being a journalist, or whatever you hope to become, is a sum made up of many parts. Realize that the conglomeration of those parts is a long way down the road and focus on the pieces – the ones that you can do now despite lacking resources and access. A place to start? Judgment.