Losing Face


When you present yourself in an interview, there’s a strong incentive to stretch your material as far as possible. In fact, in general, in life, you’re encouraged to stretch the truth about yourself as far as it can go, whether it’s professional, romantic, business, or anything else. As the cliche goes, put your best foot forward. The emphasis is on presentation, to amplify the positive side of your gems as many X as you can without tiptoeing into the technical definition of a lie.

This has consequences.

For instance, there’s a kind of arms race that develops between employers and employees as a result, where employees learn to place a gauzy screen over their work, employers try to pierce it, employees parry, employers strike from below, etc.

At some point, everyone has to compromise with the truth, and reality. This can be as easy as acknowledging, in your 30’s, that your professional sports dreams will never come to pass. Or, it can be harder.

For instance, for employees: this is the work you’ll be doing, as this is what needs to be done, as opposed to what you might prefer to do, given full liberty and an unlimited budget.

For employers: this is the kind of candidate you can field for this position, assuming you want the person to stay, have to fit the work within these limiting parameters, and are offering something less than a million annually and 100% equity. But it creates a kind of screen of distortion around the whole process, that people, once in the habit of throwing up, have a hard time dismantling down.

Look at the way we ‘learn’ things. For something that is so critical to what we define as an education and information-based meritocracy (at least in its rhetorical and ideal forms), we spend remarkably little time examining this. When we say we ‘learn’ something, there are several modes for learning swirled up together in this one word, which we contextualize from (what else?) the context.

They are:

1. High school and college learning: the dominant mode. Read something; do an exercise set on it; sprint to the next chapter.

This is the kind of learning which is typically failure-tested by a quiz and a test, and very little else. This tends to be a ‘one-time’ only event, and lends itself to the ‘on sale now!’ language of opportunity (‘you only have one chance to learn this material, take this course, ace this test.’)

Very binary.

2. A musical instrument, a language (human or computer): a more nuanced meaning.

Less binary.

It’s often not clear what the line is here, what it means to have ‘learned’ this thing. It could mean anything from running a ‘hello world’ program (total time to completion: under 4 hours) to writing a book in a foreign language without outside assistance (a year at the minimum for a dedicated adult, I’d guess).

Because the meaning of ‘learning’ is ambiguous, people often feel the need to qualify what they mean by ‘learn’ here (‘I only speak conversationally…’); the fear that ‘learning’ in its early stages will be confused by ‘learning’ in its advanced-to-Ph.D. stages means that every statement of learning comes loaded down with qualifications and provisos.

It’s important to note here that this may only seem to be true (that it’s more like 1 above). This ‘learning’ time here can stretch out seemingly forever, when the underlying subject matter isn’t all that difficult, in situations where the block is ultimately psychological, not mental.

3. Martial arts, meditation, a sport like running: an essentially endless form of learning, the diametric opposite of a ‘one-time only’ opportunity, where each repetition is a tiny, basically unnoticeable addition to a years-long body of learning.

Not binary.

There is no test, no quiz; or if there is, it’s very easily passable, while the real test, so subtle as to be almost intangible, isn’t easily quantifiable. This isn’t the same as saying it’s not quantifiable, just that the kind of test that might be required (‘do this once every day at this time for a year…’) isn’t one that lends itself to our mass-produced testing schedules.

Subtracting one or two sessions means nothing, in the long run (compare this to learning in 1 where that often means the difference between ‘learned’ and ‘failed’ as we conventionally understand it). This it the kind of learning that lends itself to stories of masters who practice repeating a form for 10 years, daily, only to say at the end of it that they’ve just started to explore its depths.

In the book Heat, for instance, a food writer for the NYTimes talks about traveling to Italy to learn to cook pasta, and being given an egg, a roller, water, flour, and told me to make pasta by hand… thousands of times. And by the end of this process that lasted at least 6 months, he was still pretty bad at it, despite having only a few ingredients and very small set of motions to master.

My guess, reading this, is that everyone identifies with 1 as being the ‘correct’ one, and 2) and 3) as being either semantic tricks, or some extremely rarefied definition of learning that isn’t really relevant to our day to day life.

So, consider this.

While 2 and 3 may be somewhat extreme, they are not without merit. In my case, as a runner, it took well over a decade to really develop the determination to run across all conditions, to grapple with all possible day to day objections and build an immunity to them all.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it’s our very inability to talk and quantify these other kinds of learning – our reluctance to really take them seriously – that means so much senior-level experience (say, to invoke the cliche advisedly, Steve Jobs) so hand-wavey and all but new-agey in its descriptors.

Because we don’t really have a mental model or think very deeply about learning subjects more rigorously than 1 test and a few quizzes, we have to invoke this mystical language of ‘genius’ and ‘grit’ and so forth in areas where they don’t properly fit. We’re using those words as ‘fill-in-the-blank’ canvasses for ‘someone who does something we don’t really know to conceptualize, much better than all the other people who are doing it at the same time, judging by their output and relative success.’ We still don’t have a serious way to discuss in-depth knowledge.

I noticed this in the context of running through an exercise set called learnyounode. If asked, I would’ve described myself as being fairly competent with Node, a stretch of the truth, but a not completely ridiculous one, by the 1) definition we commonly use. I’d written a server to listen for webhooks and email them out, another simple server to ping other websites, and could muscle through various other exercises, with a little StackOverflow help. But in doing the learnyounode exercises, I got stuck writing an asynchronous script (problem 5 in the 10-problem set).

It dawned on me that if I struggled to implement this asynchronous example, I couldn’t say I knew Node well.

This wasn’t the revelation, for me; the revelation was how strongly I resisted this, like a student arguing before a teacher who scored a 89 on a test when he needed a 90 to pass. Except there was no student, no teacher, no one grading my exercises, and no one (outside of myself) even aware that I was doing it; I’d just internalized my need To Be Smart About Things that I couldn’t even admit to myself, easily, that I didn’t know.

It amounts to this, then. Normally, in terms of tests, grading and metrics, I’m running a gauntlet, trying to jump and leap and dodge my way to get dinged as little as possible. If possible, I want that 100%, or that high-marks certificate, and to note lose face. That works, quite well, for long stretches of time; it’s also useful if I’m being called upon to defend my work, my professionalism, or my general standing. You can’t go through life without learning proficiency in this mode, on some level.


In other cases, as when learning a new subject, it’s better to strip this down as much as possible. This protective carapace, when the skin is still tender, just gets in the way.

Instead of saying ‘why yes, I can do this: I passed the test,’ there are contexts where it’s more useful to say, ‘this won’t be learned until I’ve implemented it 5 different times, with a week’s break before each reimplementation.’ And even then, rather than rushing to claim the high ground, it would make sense to continue on from there to say, ‘this concept won’t be learned until I’ve had another week to go back to the earlier exercises, and reimplement them in light of this.’

Going back and redoing past exercises is exactly the kind of weakness you see with 1 – if it’s pass/fail and you passed, it’s over, move on. But in a more expansive, less egotistical definition of learning (one which doesn’t need to be presented and defended before other people imminently), it makes more sense to switch to another mode, and then return to 1 if you need it. And if you don’t? Keep implementing, and reimplementing, and reimplementing, with tweaks each time so you are actually learning (not rote repeating), but in a subtle, practical way.

That struck me as an emotionally surprising but interesting result, a kind of hidden damaging side-effect of this self-presentation we’re doing all the time, and while I can’t say I’ve completely overcome or ‘learned’ to beat it by making this one-time observation, being aware of the problem does at least give you the chance to address it before you sink into unawareness, and the same reflexive behaviors, over and over again.

I’ve come to believe that real change is genuinely difficult, but it starts often with getting your hook in the ground and noticing here, this piece – this needs work – and working on that until you’re ready for the next piece, until the mountain, in time, is climbed.


Hercules popcult

Screen Shot 2014-02-09 at 8.52.13 PM

There’s a couple of movies about Hercules coming out. I’ve been reading Greek mythology so I looked up the synopses. In the bigger-budget one, Hercules has finished his feats and become a mercenary. But his people need him, so he suits up one more time, full of sighs, and tries to live up to the legend.

But this isn’t Hercules.

Hercules isn’t tired, or world-weary, because that would put him close to quitting, and he never does. Hercules fights. He doesn’t do it with expensive technology or protective layers. It’s pretty much just him, and an animal skin, and a club: like that, naked, he throws himself into the struggle.

Could he die? Yes. If he’s not ready, he’ll die. Every time he fights, he knows this. And if not? Then he’ll fight again. He won’t be vain about it, or show up and tell the story for days, or twirl his laurels. He’ll prepare for the next test, which will be even harder. He doesn’t care; it doesn’t faze him. He’ll fight just as hard, and beat that one too, if the gods allow it.

In other words, bring on the next one. And so on, to infinity, until his painful, horrible death. And that’s fine too, because he didn’t ask for a nice one. He’s here to struggle, not enjoy himself.

It is, very literally, a story of being forged by adversity; it’s right there in his title. His name comes from Hera, the goddess, and kleos, glory. His name translates to he who was made famous by Hera.

Of course this was not her intention. She hates him. She does more than thwart him; she drives him mad, and as a result, he kills his children and wife. Essentially, this is where his story begins. Her blows harden him. The spirit that he develops through these attacks makes him great.

Persecuted by a goddess, scratched and broken by increasingly impossible situations, he finds a way. He does it over and over again, so many times that even his enemies eventually say, “Enough. You win. We give up. A person this good deserves everything.” After death, his merit elevates him to godhood. He didn’t ask for that either; he earns it.

You’ve surely read stories that go like this. “I thought I was strong, and then it happened: a disaster so great I couldn’t imagine it, something I thought would kill me. But I had no choice; I had to deal with it. I did, and in the end, I beat it – and now I’m stronger because of it.”

That is Hercules.

The Model Professor


I have a friend who’s a professor. For people who know my circle of friends, this is a dead giveaway; if not, it detracts nothing from the story.

So, this professor friend. I knew him in college, met him in my first year there when he lived next door in my dorm. Later, we shared a room for a semester. He would sit at a desk and drill through assignments for hours on end. He didn’t seem to need breaks, or get tired, or seek distraction. He worked, straight.

Always, in the background, he was working. No hour or day seemed to particularly stand out; they all blended together. Hard work, balanced with a heathy social life (to give credit where credit is due), but without disruptive internal conflict. There was no single moment of incredible breakthrough, no “life will always be different after this day.” It was almost anti-dramatic, in its way. When he worked, which was often, it was without fuss.

He sat working at his desk more than anyone I knew, and in longer sessions.

Time passed, years.

In the beginning, he wasn’t seen as particularly noteworthy. Then things started to accrue to him, slowly. An internship, then a better internship, then a gold-plated internship. A reputation for dependability, a student government office. He become known as the glue that brought things together, but without self-promotion to put him in the spotlight, only his record. And always, always, work, which even major relationships and tumultuous friendships couldn’t interrupt.

It paid off.

Today, he teaches at an Ivy League institution, in a top-tier city. He had his choice of job offers, and chose academia. I was going to comment on his happiness, but to be honest, on an inner level, I can’t speak for it. I can say that he’s in a solid relationship, is admired by many in his family, made few if any enemies, and doesn’t need for anything materially.

The point of this story?

Everybody likes to say they love hard work, appreciate hard work, and work hard themselves. In real life, I don’t see nearly as much evidence for this. If you work seriously hard, in the real world, over a period of years, you won’t face that much competition.

Hard work takes a few components, which are not that easy to incorporate. I could say ‘willpower’, but willpower is just circularly synonymous here with ‘that which enables hard work.’ It’s better to define it on the edges, by personality traits: inner equilibrium, patience, a lack of inner resistance (possibly the most important component), and a tolerance for what, by our entertainment standards, is dry material, unspiced up.

I think more now about the traits I want to define me. Mike Rowe wrote a post a short while ago about work (in his case, so-called ‘dirty jobs’), and what was paramount in his description was the bedrock sense of respect for all forms of work. In fact respecting work, for him, is a kind of moral act, and failing to do so is a moral failure.

I agree.

And personally, I aspire to be the guy who works the hardest. I want to be defined by it, as my friend was. As his example shows, it may not look like anything special at any particular moment. In the aggregate, compounded over time, however, it makes you special.

Books On Demand


I was talking to a friend a couple days ago about a Pitchfork for books, a concise pitch if I’ve ever heard one. I told him I couldn’t think of one; I could think of various blogs that covered aspects of lit culture, but I’d never found one that surveyed and then channeled them into a few topical recommendations.

Think of how it works in music. You have a melange of musical styles and artists. So many, in fact, that you can’t possibly cover it all, and you don’t try. No one tries to be an expert in country, rap, jazz, indie rock, and metal, all at the same time. Instead, you specialize in areas that interest you.

It’s hard to be a true expert in even one of these. Metal, for one, is sprawling, and it would take months to work your way through all it’s sub-genres. So instead you drill down to a few specific artists and listen to what you like, even if you know you’re, by necessity, missing a lot you would also like. It’s quality over quantity, the opposite of an all-encompassing search algorithm.

Books don’t have this.

I find the books I like by browsing in bookstores, or inheriting them from friends. The friend above, for instance, had just finished reading Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, I book I’ve also read and enjoyed. It captures the excitement and the dynamic energy behind a poetry movement in a University, and the real-life ways people in those environments live. It’s full of joy and sadness and passion, beautifully woven together through the lives of all the interlocking characters.

I’d like to find books like it and my friend would too, but there’s no site that fills this niche in a way that you find in music.

It’s strange, because books, like music, are so personal and individual. Like music, there’s also just such a sheer huge massive amount of it that you have to start somewhere definite.

There’s always something, of course, some bone for every searchable interest on the Internet you can imagine; for books, there are sites that nonspecifically chain book lists together and then spit out suggestions (example: Goodreads). That’s not good enough, for what I want.

I want an opinionated, sharp-edged sword cutting through the millions of results that clutter every possible literary topic. I want a definite worldview, filtered through one decisive person’s point of view. The problem with too many choices is that there’s no stand, no organizing personality behind it. I want to know that this particular person read it, and liked it, and likes these books, too. Even more than that, I’d like to know the philosophy that this person has cobbled together from those books, and see how it compares to mine. That’s the real part, the human part, of culture, that bonds us closer and brings us together.

In books and music, my rule is opinion first and neutrality second. I knew there are thousands of good bands, just as I know there are thousands of great books. Only some appeal to me. Finding those naturally should come naturally, too.

Red Faced Mistakes


I tried shaving myself with a straight razor today, unsuccessfully. I think I won’t be shaving for a couple of days. Since I need to look presentable, I’ll be needing to buy a disposable razor, to at least to carry me through the learning period. As beautiful as I am (heh), facial scars don’t do much for me.

I get the appeal. You have this one tool. It’s a simple tool: elegant, dangerous. You feel that every time you lift it up towards your face, and that’s even before you press the blade against your skin. It’s a little unnerving, and that’s before you screw up.

Doing this is a tough-love, character-building experience. If you do everything right but then screw up for one second at the end, it wounds the same amount. As a process, it’s not forgiving. Demonstrably, when you see the cuts on your face and dots of blood. I don’t relish that part, but it does focus you on your mistakes.

You know how people sometimes say, failure is not an option? Failure isn’t as simple as this makes it sound, the fate of any catchphrase. If I need to learn Russian by tomorrow, failure is an option; in fact it’s definite, because it’s not possible, under those parameters. Sometimes in life, the parameters we’re given will put success, for certain outcomes, out of our reach.

But those cases are rare, and most often, we know how to steer clear of them. Instead, we’re placed in a situation where we could succeed or fail, partly based on luck, but mostly based on how strongly we apply ourselves. If we apply ourselves to the problem, diligently, we’ll probably succeed; that’s the most we can say about any situation, but it’s true enough to almost be the same as always.

So we apply ourselves, sometimes seriously, sometimes not. When shaving, we do it seriously, because the downside attacks on every mistake.

You learn. Sharpening the blade? Take out your leather strap (the ‘strop’) and do it. Spreading the cream properly? No cutting corners; if you doubt it, it just takes one session to teach you why. And learning how to use the tool while not being impatient – that lesson gets drilled into you very quickly. The pain of doing it wrong is a fast funnel to the right direction.

Everybody has probably heard some life advice (exercise, for instance) that they should do, but blow off. This is one area where you’re forced to become expert or give up. Every single guide says to expect mistakes in the beginning, so it’s best to take your time learning. But learning new things, even physical things, can be pleasurable, and learning to do things right is the best gift we can give ourselves.

The Right Resolution


When someone comes to you with a complaint, there are a few ways to deal with it.

One of them, basically, is to do nothing.

Another one is to punt.

The third way is to resolve it.

Let’s start from the beginning.

Someone comes to you with an issue. If this is face to face, you can talk it out quickly; if this is over email, however, this will take more time.

You ask them about the nature of the problem. Then you go back and forth with them about the precise details of the problem – and this is when you come across your first choice.

Some people rely on the delay in all our communications to put their questioner off. They take a long time to agree on the specifics of the problem; then (out of all proportion to the time spent on the previous step), they dash off a hasty and thoughtless recommendation; then, they go back to stalling mode, again relying on that delay to wear people out.

This is the bad way, realistically speaking.

So let’s say that you’re a responsible person, acting in good faith. You’re willing to help. You ask questions, enough to get the details, but without intentionally dragging it out. It may be a little frustrating for the person on the other end, who might not be able to tell the difference, but you know the difference, and you’re working with them, to sort it out.

Now you understand the problem, and from your unique vantage point, you know your options better than your questions ever could.

If it’s an easy solution, you spell it out. Problem solved.

If it isn’t, you’re faced with a couple of choices. One circles back to the first solution, by basically saying nothing is going to be done about this, sorry. It’s not a very nice way to resolve issues; in fact, it really isn’t a solution at all. It’s doing nothing, in a suit and tie.

The other option is to hack away at it. If someone has taken the time to identify something that’s a problem, and written a long description of it, it’s a fair bet that the solution doesn’t already exist (because if it did, they would have found it).

There’s often a real insight there into the way that you’re approaching the problem, and an opportunity to reframe it from a more helpful perspective. Some people choose to double down on their implementation and get defensive about it: my product, right or wrong; or if you have a problem here, maybe you’re the problem. That’s another way to address the issue. It’s also another bad one.

In my experience, most people who come to you with a complaint have identified a genuine issue. They’re not asking you to re-invent the Internet, or spoon-feed them a solution that costs hundreds of man-hours. They know what they want and they’d settle for a practical but imperfect solution, if they could find it.

If they haven’t solved it, it’s often because the documentation isn’t clear, or the UI is making assumptions you haven’t considered, or (just as likely) the UI is trying to force you into a choice that’s impractical or just too long-winded for their needs. At other times it just hasn’t been implemented, even though anyone who thinks about it from their perspective can immediately see the need. So they’re right, in a way, and they know it, and once you understand the issue, you do, too.

So you roll your shirtsleeves up, and you work to resolve it. Either you or your team get to work on a  solution, or you pass it on to people with the expertise to do it.

This takes commitment, and some plain dealing, too. It’s one thing to drop it into a bottomless wish-list bucket and say ‘it’s getting resolved,’ the working equivalent of a wish and a prayer. It’s something else to have a workflow that guarantees that people will see it and take appropriate action. People on the outside might not be able to tell the difference (not immediately), but you can.

You can choose to be part of a culture that makes the right choice here. Or you can blow people off, and hope that the number of people you blow off is small enough to not really matter, to not hurt your prospects. But of course, it does, and it will.

Some problems in life require complicated solutions. Other ones are fairly easy. This one is closer to the easy side: dealing plainly with people, taking the time to listen to their complaints, and then budgeting the time and the resources to address them.

Because people generally aren’t being unreasonable when they’re complaining; they’re trying to open your eyes to something you didn’t see, something that requires some higher-level help. You can be that help.

And if you decide to take that step, to help and not stonewall when called upon to deliver, you’ll find that it benefits you, also. Because shooting the messenger doesn’t make the message go away. Acting on the message, does.

Towards Ripeness


Since this blog is named after a particular type of vine, I’ll dedicate this post to my favorite one.

I’m visiting my parents now. On their property, I planted a grapevine, a couple years ago. This year, it’s fruiting. It’s a glorious plant, sending out tendrils everywhere, a living symbol of fertility. Just the sight of it is enough to make me stop, admire it, and smile.

One reason I like growing plants is that you can find all kinds of life lessons embedded there. They have a metaphorical dimension you come across naturally, while tending to them. No one has to beat you over the head with the point, or test you on it. It arises organically, out of your cultivation.

One of them, when it comes to growing your own fruit, is the importance of ripeness. When we go to the supermarket everything seems uniformly ripe (if bland). We don’t give that moment of ripeness any thought.

On your own, though? It’s everything.

When your grapes start ripening, it’s tempting to go by this color-coded system – green=unripe, purple=ripe. So you pick them, and pop them in your mouth. For muscadine grapes, I’d had them in the wild. They have a storied history, the Texas natives that rejuvenated the European wine industry when a grape blight nearly wiped it out in the late 1800’s.

I used to run on running trails where they grow naturally. The dirt underneath them would be littered with crushed, fallen grapes; look up, and you’d see the woody vine, thick with leaves and curling around a trunk. I’d pick a few, and recognize that lush, almost alcoholic taste. (Interesting trivia: it is thought that our tolerance to alcohol evolved so that we could enjoy very ripe fruits, since it’s worth processing out the bad ones to digest the good ones).

I knew what to expect, I had a baseline. The ones that my parents had picked in their bowls on the kitchen table were much too bitter, and made your mouth pucker up. They tasted healthy, but no one would call them delicious – and wild grapes are, in point of truth, delicious. So I persuaded my parents to wait a little, even if it meant some of the songbirds might pick off a few, and eat them when they’re ripe.

For muscadine grapes, you can tell by color, but even more, by firmness; if you squeeze  them and they bounce right back, they’re not ready. This is how you tell, on the vine; when you’ve picked them, the best ones are also clearly the darkest, the most purple. From the first bite you know which ones have that luscious ripe taste, and which ones needed to be left out longer.

Because fruits which are unripe aren’t ready to be picked yet. They have to ripen on the vine, before they’re ready to go out into the world.