This is a post about Why You Suck. Since this is the rhetorical “you” that refers to a least-assumptions unknown person, it’s also about me and Why I Suck. Or, perhaps I should say that it’s about why all of us tend toward Suck sometimes. What do I mean by Suck? I mean that we’re so terrified of failure and embarrassment that it pushes to mediocrity and, at the extreme, entrenched anti-intellectualism.
Take fine arts, for one topic, because it’s one that draws out a lot of peoples’ insecurities. It’s actually quite hard to get a sophisticated understanding of what makes, say, opera good or bad. I don’t have it. I enjoy opera, but I don’t have the palette to have an informed opinion on the quality of an individual piece. I like it, or I don’t, but there’s nothing I have in terms of sophistication or exposure that gives me an elevated skill at critique. If I pretend to have a deep knowledge of opera, then I’ll sound like a fool. Now, you might be saying: so what? What’s wrong with having a mediocre exposure to opera? Why would anyone be insecure about that? It’s not a sign of a lack of talent. I just haven’t specialized in the appreciation of it. Well, that’s because it’s not a defining part of who I am. However, there are a lot of people who realize how hard it is to become fluent in something, and therefore get discouraged prematurely. It bothers them, because they really want to get good. When it doesn’t happen quickly, a lot of people go the other way and say “it’s esoteric and not worth knowing”. I say, bullshit. You don’t know it, and I don’t know it, but that doesn’t make it “not worth knowing”.
Let’s talk about foreign languages, another place where this attitude emerges. The fear there isn’t that learning a new language is hard (without exposure, it is; with exposure, most people can do it, at any age). It’s about embarrassment. No one wants to look like an idiot by getting words wrong. People would rather use the language they know best. That’s reasonable, but some people take it a step further and decide that some topic in which they lack knowledge just isn’t important. I mean, how much does opera do for us in our daily lives? For fine arts, that’s just passive anti-intellectualism. When it comes to foreign languages and cultures, which have every bit as much validity as our own but are often rejected as “unimportant” by the insecure, it’s being an asshole.
We all end up doing this. We find something we’re not good at and the first thing we want to do is find a reason why it’s not important. That’s why intellectually insecure politicians cut funding for public universities; they hate those “ivory tower” academics who make them feel stupid. It takes a certain awareness to look at the world and say, “this place is so big that, for everything I learn, there will be a billion things worth knowing, that I never will, because there isn’t the time to get good at everything”.
So, many people go off in the opposite direction. They conclude that the things they’ll never get good at (often by choice) are just useless and retrench in their anti-intellectualism. This is especially severe in the software industry (don’t even get me started on anti-intellectualism) where, in many companies, taking an interest in doing things right as opposed to the empty-suit-friendly bastardization of “object-oriented programming” that has been in corporate practice for the past 20 years will often make you a weirdo, a pariah, one who cares too much.
By the way, d’ya want to know why so many of us software engineers have shitty jobs that make us unhappy? Well, we don’t have a strong professional identity. Doctors report to other doctors. Lawyers report to other lawyers (by law) unless directly to the corporate board. Engineers (actual engineers, not “software engineers”) report to engineers. We, on the other hand, report to professional managers who think what we do is “detail-oriented grunt work”. To add to the insult, they often think they could do our jobs, because they’re smarter than us (otherwise, we’d have their jobs). Why is this? Why are we, as software engineers, in such a degraded state? Perhaps it is because we, as a tribe, are anti-intellectual. If we don’t know what functional-reactive programming is, many of us are ready to conclude that it’s “weird” and impractical and “not worth knowing”. (Oh, and I’ve seen hard-core functional programmers take the same attitude toward C and low-level coding and it’s equally ridiculous.) Don’t get me wrong; there are a large number of individual exceptions to that. I enjoy programming– and I don’t identify fully as a programmer; I’m only a 96ish percentile programmer but I’m a fucking murderous problem-solver– and I care so much about keeping up my programming skills because I’m not anti-intellectual. And because it’s fucking cool. I had a boss (a very smart guy, but clueless on technology) once who said he refused to learn programming because he thought it’d kill his creativity. That’s that same anti-intellectualism on the opposing side. Perhaps it’s karma. Perhaps the anti-intellectualism that characterizes the average member of our tribe (defined loosely to include all professional programmers, the average of us being terrible not for a lack of talent, but mediocre drive) makes us a perfect karmic match for that other anti-intellectual tribe: the executives and “big picture” moneymen who boss us around.
Okay, I’m going to get to the source of all this devastating mediocrity.
“A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? Social status.”
Yeah, I know. That sounds ridiculous, no? I’ll explain it.
Some will recognize the quote from The Social Network, in which Justin Timberlake portrays Sean Parker as an ambitious uber-douche who says the above quote, but with “a billion dollars” instead of “social status”. I re-appropriated it, because I’ve wanted for a long time to understand why we as humans are so incompetent at, well, being human, and doing so required me to understand human status hierarchies. So I douche-ified the un-Parker-like quote even further. Wanting to be a billionaire is pretty douchey, but why would one want so much money? It’s social status, the driving ambition of the douchebag (and a lesser ambition, alas, for all of us).
Take unemployment. Why is it that during a three- to six-month stretch of joblessness, the average person (with men being much more sensitive to this effect) will do less housework and perform more poorly on side projects than when that person has a full-time job? Most jobs don’t add much to a person’s life. A monolithic and inflexible obligation, usually toward ingrates, that by explicit design makes diversification of labor investment almost impossible, is hard to call a good thing for a person. Society has actually had to work at it to make the alternative (joblessness) so embarrassing that it’s worse for the vast majority of people. The social status penalty of not having a job must be so severe that people refuse to tolerate joblessness. One boss fires ‘em; they look for another. However, in the long term, this exacerbates the real underlying problem, which is that they’re so job-dependent that they’ve forgotten how to serve others (in trade, and often for personal benefit) in any other context. Anyway, my point here is that the embarrassing nature of joblessness has been made so severe that it’s worse for a typical person’s well-being (and out-of-work completion) than spending 8-10 hours in an office.
Our minds and our bodies are constantly taking signals as to our social standing, and reacting in ways we often can’t control. I’ve often believed that, at the least, mild depression emerged as an adaptive response to survival of transient low social status. Of course, the disease depression is something different: a pathology of that mechanism, which might trigger for no reason. I only mean to suggest that the machinery might be there for an evolutionary purpose. That also, to be, explains why exercise is so effective in treating mild depression. It tells the body that the person is of high social status (invited on the hunt) and causes the brain to perk up a little bit.
People often say, “I don’t give a fuck what other people think about me”. Bullshit. If that were true, you’d never say it– almost by definition, you wouldn’t, because it’s something people say to seem badass. Unfortunately, it misses the point. First, it’s dishonest. We’re biologically programmed to care what others think about us. To be ashamed of it is to be ashamed of our own humanity. Second, there’s good badass and bad badass and insane badass. Insane badasses don’t care what others think of them because they suffer frank mental illness that overrides even the most blunt social signals. Bad badasses generally quite a bit about their own social status; they just don’t have much empathy and therefore only care about others’ opinions when it interferes with them getting what they want. Good badasses, on the other hand, are empathetic but they are also committed to virtue even in the face of unpopularity. All three types have a claim to not caring (as much as normal people do) what others think, but only one of those three is desirable.
Why do people make such a boast about not caring what others think? That’s because we abstractly admire that sort of emotional independence. In practice, it can go either way whether that’s a good trait. If you really don’t care at all about how your actions affect others, then you’re an asshole. Now, I’m generally on-board with a certain virtuous investment in actions over results, for sure. I also take a certain pride (not always to my benefit) in virtuous actions that lead to socially adverse results– because I am morally and intellectually superior to, at least, the dominant forces in our society (I can’t adequately compare myself either way to “the average person” because I don’t know him, but I am demonstrably superior to those running this world and that’s an obvious fact of my life) and I revel in it. I also still think that if you don’t care at all to pick up signals about how your actions are really affecting the world, then you’re just being a dick. You should care– just a little bit, but not zero– what other people think of you, especially as pertains to your effect on others. If you are helping people and suffering social adversity, you might be virtuous and that adversity might exist because the people who fling it at you are the epitome of vice and parasitism. On the other hand, social adversity might also be a sign that you’re doing things wrong. You should at least listen to the signal. If you understand its source and recognize that source as not worth caring about, then fine. Not listening makes you a jerk, however.
So… I hope I’ve shot down the “I don’t care what others think” defense. I’m more badass than most people who say this and I care what other people think about me.
Now, I want to go back to “You know what’s cool?” No one can visualize a billion dollars. People with that much wealth never even see the pile of cash, except for Walter White. That billion-dollar net worth is just a linear combination of a bunch of other numbers about them strewn across the world. What they own, by entity and percentage. Who owes them money. To whom they owe money. That is a kind of social status, but a stable and legally recognized one called “ownership”. So there we are. All of economics is predicated on the idea that people want resources and money; and one of the biggest reasons, I would argue, that they want it is that it’s psychological: they want the social status. If that seems unduly negative, it shouldn’t be. Social status is the only reason I have a computer to write this post on, or a cup of coffee to drink in the morning. I’m able, because I speak certain natural and social languages and have certain skills (that I acquired by being born into the right country family, distinguishing myself early in academics, etc.) to get people to pay me for services that others could perform more cheaply (most of those cheap competitors wouldn’t do it as well, but neither would most of the higher-status, better-paid ones). Gift economies don’t scale. We can interact with the market only if we can prove by certificate (e.g. money) that someone thinks we have some status or value (making us worthy of employment or ownership of an asset) and so all of us need some kind of status, even if it’s just a little bit. It’s horrible that the world works that way, and that a person of merit might fail due to extreme lows of social status, but it’s how things work right now.
Now, a billion dollars isn’t cool. Even the disgusting rich douchebags don’t actually sleep (to quote Don Draper) on “a bed made of money”. Money is paper that would disgust us (because of all the places it has been) were it not for a certain social value. Rather, it’s the social elevation that drives people. “Money” is not the root of all evil; social status is. That’s what most people, and especially douchebags, find “cool”. Green cotton paper, even at the 10-ton level a billion dollars would require, has little to do with it.
In fact, we can tie social status to all of the seven deadly sins:
- wrath: people use threatening emotions, postures, and violent actions to defend social status.
- envy: people covet social status and delight in the destruction of higher-status individuals.
- sloth: unconditional “passive” social status (i.e. that doesn’t require work) is always preferable over kinds that are contingent on productive activity, which one might lose the ability to perform at an acceptable exchange rate (health problems, disinterest, superior competition).
- lust: one of the primary reasons for high-status people to seek even higher levels of status (to the detriment of social and mental health) is the desire to indulge in sexual perversion.
- greed: this one’s obvious. Most of the assets that inspire greed confer social status. People are rarely greedy toward things that don’t.
- pride: also obvious. People create an outsized self-image out of a desire for deserved high status, then expect the world to conform to their grandiose self-perceptions.
- gluttony: defined literally, this is an odd-man-out in modern times because obesity lowers one’s social status, but if we extend the metaphor to material overindulgence, we see it as a form of posturing. Conspicuous consumption enables a person to prove high social status, thus maintaining it.
Of course, all of those sins are also sources of Suck– yours and mine. They blind us, make us do short-sighted and stupid things, and generally leave us bereft of moral courage, curiosity, creativity, and virtue. It turns out that social status is a driving force behind what makes humans horrible. The concern for social status seems, in many people, to be limitless and only more productive of vice and evil as they gain more of it. Satiation in most commodities sets in, and people stop being horrible. It’s rare to see two people fight over a piece of bread in an upscale restaurant, because average Americans are rich enough not to turn to vice over food. With social status, that’s not the case for many people. They don’t reach satiation and revert to virtue, but get worse as they climb and (a) satiation proves elusive, while (b) the competition for status becomes fiercer as they climb the ladder. They go beyond Suck and into outright Vice. Yeshua of Nazareth was right on: you cannot serve God and Mammon.
But back to Suck…
Vice is an interesting topic in its own right, but I’m here to talk about Suck. You and I both Suck. I don’t think I’m a vicious or bad person, and I doubt most of my readers are. However, we do things that are counterproductive. We avoid learning new technologies because “I might not get any good at it, and just embarrass myself.” We might do the right thing despite threat of social unpopularity, but it’s really hard and we spend so many clock cycles convincing ourselves that we’re doing the right thing that it takes the edge off of us. It’s almost impossible to excel at anything in this world. Why? Well, excellence is risky.
Something I read on Hacker News really impressed me. It explained a lot. I think it resonates with all the top-10% programmers out there who are constantly pushing themselves (often despite economic incentives, because there is a point where being a better programmer hurts your job security) to be better. Here it is (link):
No. Burnout is caused when you repeatedly make large amounts of sacrifice and or effort into high-risk problems that fail. It’s the result of a negative prediction error in the nucleus accumbens. You effectively condition your brain to associate work with failure.
Now, on the surface this is true. Failure is extremely demoralizing. However, as I think about it, it’s not project failure itself that brings us down. It’s annoying. It’s a learning experience that doesn’t go the way we hoped. In the discovery process, it usually means we discovered a way not to do things (which has lower information-theoretic value) than a way to do them. However, failure itself I do not think is the major problem. I think people who are used to doing hard things can learn to accept it in stride.
I am constantly trying hard things and attacking high-risk problems. I took difficult proof-based math exams in high school and college where very few people could solve even half of the problems in the allotted time. I’ve tried a great many things with sub-50-percent chances of success, and had some hits… and a lot of misses. Failure is difficult. It’s a struggle. It’s already hard without the world conspiring to make it harder. But it’s the social status damage that comes out of failure that really stops a person. That’s the force that pushes people toward self-protecting careerist mediocrity as they get older. Yes, it’s learned helplessness, but it’s not mere project failure that induces the neurological penalty. A more supportive, R&D-like, environment (as opposed to the mean-spirited caprice of contemporary private-sector social climbing) could mitigate that. (I worked at a think tank once where the unofficial motto was “bad ideas are good; good ideas are great” and that supportiveness motivated people to do some outright excellent work.) Failure isn’t what ruins people. It’s the dogshit heaped on a person by society after a project failure that has that effect. After a while, people get tired of the (transient, but extremely stressful) low social status that follows a failed project, and give up on high-risk excellence.
Awareness of Suck and its causes is the first step toward overcoming it. Denying that one experiences it personally is not generally helpful, because almost everyone Sucks to some degree, and there are powerful neurological and social reasons for that. Admitting vulnerability to it is like admitting physical inferiority to polar bears; none should be ashamed of it, it’s just how nature made us.
Why are people so mediocre, both in moral and creative terms? We now have the tools to answer that question. We know where Suck comes from. And we can work, a little bit each day, on making ourselves not Suck.
More important, however, is finding a way not to induce Suck in other people. I’m going to pull something else from Hacker News that I like a lot, this time from the Hacker School‘s social rules. I’m not going to post all of them; let me just give a flavor:
The first of these rules is no feigning surprise. This means you shouldn’t act surprised when someone says he doesn’t know something. This applies to both technical things (“What?! I can’t believe you don’t know what the stack is!”) and non-technical things (“You don’t know who RMS is?!”).
I’ll admit that I’m guilty of this, too. My eyes glaze over when another programmer mentions Visitor or Factory design patterns and doesn’t seem to be trolling me. Maybe I’m slightly better, in that Visitor usage is a positive symptom of idiocy while not knowing something is a negative symptom, and we all have an infinitude of negative idiocy-signals (because there are infinitely many things we don’t know and, arguably, should). Or maybe not. Maybe I should stop being a dick and assume (despite what Bayes would say) that the programmer who says “Visitor pattern” with a straight face is a talented person who just never learned better.
Other behaviors explicitly discouraged are cosmetic correction (over-cutting someone’s essentially correct statement with an irrelevantly more correct one) and backseat driving. This is good. Hacker School is making an admirable attempt to clear out the social processes that sometimes make intermediate-level programmers embarrassed by the gaps in their knowledge. thus risk-averse. That’s a great thing, because after a while, people who are made to feel insecure about gaps in knowledge tend to fly the other way, and that produces the “that topic isn’t important” anti-intellectualism.
Hacker School’s getting it right. If people aren’t afraid for their own social status, they’re more inclined to take risks, grow faster, and excel. This is an ideology that gets a lot of mouth-honor, but few people follow it.
Even VC-istan claims to “embrace” failure, but the reality is that “fail fast” is often an excuse for impulsive firing (without severance, typically) and “lean startup” often means “we want you to work 90 hours a week and be your own assistant instead of working 60 and hiring one”. The reality is that VC-istan’s collusive reputation economy allows it to be anything but tolerant of business failure, even the good-faith kind.
The only work culture in which project failure is tolerated is the R&D one. Most companies these days have mean-spirited, fast-firing cultures where a project failure results in someone getting fired, demoted, or punished for it. Sometimes there’s no one at fault and someone just gets randomly hit. Or, when there is someone at fault, it might not be that person who suffers (it usually isn’t, as bad managers are great at shifting blame). The result of the mean-spirited, fast-firing, performance-reviews-with-teeth structure of the modern corporate workplace is that competent people rarely invest themselves in efforts that might fail, even if successes will be enormously beneficial. Instead, they strive to put themselves on highly visible projects, but those with enough momentum that they are extremely unlikely to fail. The result of this is that project genesis has almost no ambition in it, and most of the best people aren’t coming up with ideas anyway, but looking to draft on someone else’s. Of course, by the time a project shows sure visible victory, so many people are aware of it that the competition to be “in on it” is cutthroat. (Closed-allocation companies aren’t about doing work, but about holding positions and being “on” important projects.)
If you have the open-allocation, high-autonomy R&D culture where good-faith failure is treated as a learning experience and people can move on gracefully, you get a sharing of knowledge because people are no longer pressed to hide failures. If you have anything else in a white-collar environment, however, you’re likely to end up with a blame-shifting culture. That’s where Suck really starts to assert itself, and take control.