On Leaving it too Late

In 2012, the leader of the Labour Party in Britain was reflecting on why they'd lost an election two years ago. In a speech about immigration policy, he made the following point:

Quite simply, we became too disconnected from the concerns of working people. We too easily assumed those who worried about immigration were stuck in the past. Unrealistic about how things could be different. Even prejudiced. But Britain was experiencing the largest peacetime migration in recent history. And people's concerns were genuine. Why didn't we listen more? At least by the end of our time in office, we were too dazzled by globalization and too sanguine about its price. By focusing too much on globalization and migration's impact on growth, we lost sight of who was benefiting from that growth – and the people who were being squeezed.

A mea culpa from a political leader is a rare event, and there’s no doubt Ed Miliband was right about this. But where would he go from here? He could:

  • Continue this dialogue, and commit his party to developing and proposing policies at the 2015 election which would thoughtfully address the public’s concerns; OR
  • Never mention it again, allowing public frustration to fester, and leaving people open to being taken advantage of by those offering a blunt instrument with which to vent their feelings.

He chose the second option, and the blunt instrument offered was a referendum reconsidering membership of the European Union in 2016, in which the public duly voted to leave. 

The U.S. went through virtually the same political spasm later in 2016, as neither party offered a scalpel to carefully address the concerns of those who were doing poorly. When they were instead presented with a rock to throw at the greenhouse of society, they took it - people only vote for someone likely to say  something as crass as "this American carnage stops right here and stops right now" after a long period of failing to hear anything more nuanced. That the rock has turned out to be largely inflatable was both obvious at the time and didn’t seem to matter very much to the people voting for it.

I point all of this out because of the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In the era of mass public shootings, the only thing Republicans in this country seem to know how to do is put their fingers in their ears (though thankfully not in a “miming a gunshot” kind of way). By doing this, they may have left it too late for a careful, considered solution. There are all kinds of contributing factors to these tragedies, and people who look to blame family breakdown or SSRIs or social media or whatever else probably do have something useful to contribute to the discussion, but by refusing to engage with the idea of legal restrictions on firearms, that discussion is never going to take place. 

Recent history (indeed all of history) shows that the public do have a tipping point. You can leave it too late. What could have been a sober, thoughtful process of how to balance liberty and safety will be replaced with calls to outlaw anything more powerful than a water pistol (and even those must be made from avocado, so they begin dissolving when you fill them and collapse disgustingly in your hand upon firing). If those on the Right keep stonewalling the gun control debate, the future is shockingly easy to predict. In 2018, and 2020, commercials and events featuring the bright and articulate students from Stoneman will capture the public attention, and a sweeping, radical change to gun ownership will be passed into law. And I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the person signing it spends a few seconds reflecting on the tragic waste of life this country has seen, before saying "this American carnage stops right here and stops right now."

On 2017

Forgive a slightly similar setup from a couple of years ago, but it gives me a way to share the following anecdote:

January 1, 2017, 12:00am

A good friend had invited several of us over to celebrate the new year with a few drinks and some games on a highly sought after NES Classic. A feeling of “thank goodness that’s over” was in the air, and someone thought it would be fun to write down elements of 2016 we hoped would not return, then set them alight at midnight. As we should have realized, setting pieces of paper on fire in a small glass container where oxygen could not easily enter was a near impossible task. Tipping the container out onto the snow-covered sidewalk did not make things easier, and we gave up after two or three of the paper slips flickered for a second or two. Beginning 2017 with a failed gesture of defiance was an amusing political symbol if nothing else.

January 1, 2018, 12:00am

I’ve seen in about half of the new years of the last decade with the same group of friends, and it was a thrill to do so again after being elsewhere last year. This year, everyone was elsewhere, and friends in four cities and three states gathered to ring in three progressively tipsier 2018s, playing party games over video conference. Technology is brilliant. 

So, then, 2017. 

Towards the end of 2016, I was reasonably settled in my job, learning an enormous amount of new things with colleagues I loved and projects I enjoyed. Out of the blue, someone suggested a new opportunity I might be a good fit for, but I fell at the final fence. In January, a much better opportunity with a new organization presented itself, and after several hours of interviews I…didn’t get that either. These two experiences prompted a lot of thinking about where my career was going, and lead me to take a new job I was not very well suited for and at which I did not succeed. I’m sincerely grateful to some very patient coworkers who prevented that from being any worse than it was, and sorry to some employees who deserved far better from me. The collective impact of these episodes meant I jumped at the chance to move to Seattle this summer and do something completely different.

People seem to have all sorts of different expectations about career stability, so I’ve no idea whether the above sounds normal or insane to anyone else. As I’d held the same position technically for four years and practically for closer to six, it felt incredibly strange. Doing the same thing for a long time in an organization develops particular kinds of expertise and levels of influence which are immediately lost in these transitions. On the other hand, as a 29 year old I’ve got another 40 years of work ahead of me, so this is likely going to happen again and again. With that in mind, I wanted to document two things I’ve noticed about changing jobs in the last 12 months. Neither of these are novel, but are things are want to make sure I remember the next time I throw everything up in the air.

Curiosity actually saves the cat.

When I was learning to drive, my parents were appalled to discover I didn’t know my way around anywhere. I’d been driven by them to and from various places for years, but as my only role in the process was to get in the car and get out again, I hadn’t bothered to take any notice of what happened in between. This lead to a handful of frustrated moments realizing far too late that I’d ended up in the wrong lane at a stoplight or highway exit, but it did not instill in me any great change in behavior - in the 8 years I had a license prior to the advent of turn-by-turn directions on phones, the surfaces in my car not covered in Pepsi cans were covered in printed out pages from Mapquest. 

In the office, this lack of curiosity about how to get from A to B leads to death. In many organizations, the first few weeks of a job consist of learning step by step processes and the rhythm of which processes are invoked at which time. The path to being able to meaningfully contribute, though, is in the whys and wherefores and steps in between, in understanding enough about how you got to step 25 to make some reasonable guess at the yet unwritten step 26. If I had any awareness of this before, it’s been turned up x100 this year - it’s good to be bothered by things you don’t understand, and being the new guy is an excellent cover for having a thousand questions about everything. 

Work, not approval.

In Fort Collins, if things would go well at work and I was pleased, I’d immediately fret that I was getting too invested in it. Since moving away, I’ve been surprised by how much less I’m plagued by this feeling now that work genuinely is the only thing I’m doing. In Colorado there were great friends, church, music, comedy, etc., which meant work wasn’t anywhere close to the “only thing” going on. In the six months I’ve been here, I’m mostly working, riding the bus, and sleeping. And the difference, I think, between that being life giving or not, is in where affirmation comes from.  

What makes a day good or bad? That answer will wholly be about work sometimes, and this is ok as long as it’s not wholly wrapped up in pats on the back (I am not sure how someone wraps up a pat).  In a new place, you spend your whole time asking other people for things instead of getting to play the hero who has the answers, and this can be surprisingly draining if you're used to things being the other way around. Finding some measure of “was my work meaningful today?” other than the number of people who said they were pleased by something you did is vital. Which is a terribly silly thing to write just before hitting ‘post’ and anxiously checking for likes.

T

On Various Verts

“Likes good things, dislikes bad things. Not here for hookups despite my incredibly suggestive pictures. ESFP.”

So goes the majority of personal blurbs on any online dating service. If I were a different person entirely, this would be where I’d begin recounting a recent date, carefully disguising the identity of someone who didn’t consent to be written about by changing a letter in their first name. It was nice to meet you, Lundsay. Alternately, this might be the beginning of one of those “hilarious” suggestions of a new name for such a service, along with descriptions of the types of people they might specifically try to attract. Alas, no. Instead, I’m hung up on those four letters at the end. 

It is an interesting ploy, leading with a supposedly objective, scientific classification of your personality.    Sometimes this is done with Myers-Briggs, sometimes with various formulations of “introvert” and “extrovert”, lately expanded to include “extroverted introvert,” “introverted extrovert,” “desiccated coconut,” and so on. To define yourself in this way is an attempt at setting others’ expectations appropriately, and to subtly suggest that any conflicts arising as a result of this predisposition should resolve themselves by other people realizing that’s just who you are. But is this wise?

I stood up from a restaurant table recently during a meal with some friends, and attempted to make my way to the restroom. I was immediately met with loud protests from the group, who assumed I was attempting to sneak home unnoticed. I explained I wouldn’t do that, as it would involve sticking them with my share of the check, but someone quickly jumped in with the suggestion that “if Thom has decided he’s done for the night, he’d probably just pay the whole tab rather than stay until the end.” This was useful as everyone laughed and allowed me to escape to the bathroom, but I couldn’t escape the realization that I had, in fact, done exactly that in the past. I’m quite bad at people, it turns out - selfishness and cowardice combine to produce many ungraceful social interactions, the occasional Irish Goodbye being one of the less harmful examples. 

Many others are, thankfully, much better at people than I am, and as the introvert/extrovert debate rightly points out, some tend toward the opposite extreme and self destruct during any periods of silence. Anyone who has gathered together with friends or families for an extended period of time in the last few years has seen the way we now handle troughs in the conversation by collectively disappearing into our devices for a few minutes. Certain people can’t handle this, and use those moments as an opportunity to read their social media feeds aloud as though the rest of us are interested, often providing an unsettling window into the things they find amusing. The more outgoing have the upper hand in this situation, as my reticence to start a conversation is neatly complimented by my ability to ignore them.

I’ve participated in exactly one Myers Briggs exercise, one of those formal work training days where a dozen colleagues find an excuse to get out of the office together for a few hours. After listening to presentations and completing questionnaires, we were split into groups across the room, introverts and extroverts divided like boys and girls at a junior high dance, or virgins and popular kids at a high school one. After we were settled in our teams, the facilitator asked if anyone had done this before, and something important came to light. A friend in the “extrovert” corner, who those of us who had been around a while knew as someone who didn’t feel especially comfortable around people, but had worked like hell to become good at it to further their career, noted that in a previous course she had been called an introvert. The instructor had a minor mental breakdown, explaining that these are scientifically proven unalterable personality traits. They must have done it wrong the first time.

This is the flaw in the -vert divide, and is why I wish we would stop using the terms altogether. It’s not that I don’t believe we have such predispositions. But classifying them in the way we do hurts all parties involved. When my inept social skills cause me difficulty, I need two things: hope that I can improve to attain a better outcome in future, and encouragement to work at this. Diagnosis as an introvert, as though I have some genetic malfunction, both condemns me to a life of embarrassingly bad interactions with others and relieves me of responsibility for this. Is there a more hopeless place to be? Those impacted by the social failures of others are also not well served by this silly psychologizing. The mental muscle we all need to exercise to hold together a society full of other broken, frail humans is not a bland tolerance which pretends we’re not broken or frail. We only help our fellow creatures move forward by providing the kind of relational safety in which boundless patience and strong admonition to change can work together for good.

I’m bad at people. And you might be bad at silence. We both need to know that we can change, we should change, and we’re loved. Diagnosis a-verted. 

T

On Fading West

To my surprise, I have something in common with Katy Perry (apart from the whole "kissing a girl and liking it" thing). In a recent profile by the New York Times, they announced her current slogan as "i know nothing", uncapitalized in the name of authenticity. There's apparently something in the air - Miley Cyrus also recently caught a bout of restraint, having discovered self righteousness is as powerful a drug as any other on the market.

But where was I? Ah yes, "i know nothing (sic)". I don't wish to have that printed on t-shirts or in my Twitter bio, but it does describe my frame of mind this week. Next Saturday, I'll leave Fort Collins and move to Seattle, to begin a new job with Amazon. Everyone's reaction when I mention this is to ask "are you excited?" And I have no idea. The main thing I am is baffled - when will they realize their mistake? When will Ashton Kutcher jump out and explain I've been Punk'd? There's no false modesty in this, incidentally - I'm not feeling unworthy, just really confused, as if I'd been told I've got a new job as the back of someone's neck. How did this happen?! i know nothing.

To make a list of people and places I will miss is a fool's errand, as I will inevitably forget someone and accidentally upset them. But the fact that I will miss anyone/anything at all has genuinely surprised me over the past few days. Had you asked me a week ago, I'd have thought about it and confidently said that, while I love my friends and family around here, I'm still a single 28 year old, and the only good thing about that is the ability to move anywhere for any opportunity at any time. But as reality has set in, I'm unexpectedly somber. You all have made more of a mark on me than I'd thought, Fort Collins.

In a few weeks, when I'm settled and doing less wandering around in a daze, I'll write something more reflective. But while I'm caught between being elated at a wonderful new opportunity and confused about leaving behind so many people I care about, I'll be honest that I don't have anything more to say than that. I'm super excited about everything that lies ahead, and I wish I could take you all with me. 

One apropos thing was pointed out to me recently - several years ago, after a year and a half on the front lines at ADP, I had the chance to work on upgrading all of our clients to a new product, in a project which put my career on the map in a way it hadn't been previously. It's fitting, then, that the very last thing I've worked on there, 6 years later, is another new product which replaces it. Life very occasionally ties itself in a neat bow.

Here's to the future! i know nothing. 

T

 (p.s. a logistical note - I leave Colorado next Saturday, July 8th. If you're reading this, we should see each other before then.)

On Blue Lake and Beyond

As soon as I got out of the car, I knew the day would go differently than I'd planned. I'd driven up to Blue Lake, a favorite hike of mine 4 miles west of Chambers Lake. Solo hiking is as close as I get to therapy - nothing so far in my life has led me to believe the presence of an expensive judgmental stranger will be useful in unwinding the week, but the sound of a river rushing down the canyon is a pretty reliable path to "calm." I'd spent an excellent morning up here on Labor Day, and was interested to experience the other end of the season. There's plenty of tree cover throughout, and most of the route is marked by blue arrows, pointlessly pointing out that the well trodden bit between the trees is the trail.

Alas, "seasons" are differently defined at 9500 feet, compared to my idyllic foothills city - up there, the snow hasn't cleared by May 13th. Determined to make something of the day, I stumbled ahead, only occasionally ending up groin-deep in slush. For about a quarter mile, I was hopeful that it would get better as I got farther along - that the part under heavier shade from trees would have experienced more snow melt. I went to school in Ault. As with so many areas of life, my optimism remained undimmed until I'd gone far enough that turning around would have constituted significant effort - with the journey back to the car looking equally unpleasant, I conceded it would be a slow, soggy day.

The snow was deceptively firm at first. Like the crispy mashed potato on top of a shepherds pie, it sounds hard when tapped with a fork, but under no circumstances should someone stand on it. Moving tentatively but quickly seemed to be the best strategy. The descriptions of the ground in Lewis' "Great Divorce" came to mind, designed to keep you moving toward the goal by being uncomfortable to stand on for any sustained period. Having no certainty about what precisely was beneath my feet, I rapidly reevaluated the utility of the blue arrows.

And then they ran out. I hadn't noticed last time, not really needing them. Suddenly, I had no more ideas about whether to head north, south, east, or west than I had ideas about which direction actually was north, south, east, or west. Fortunately, snowpack is relatively good at preserving footprints, so I headed off in the direction most feet had printed.  This is a conflicting situation to be in, though - how do I know this person went the right way? Will the footprints lead to a summit, or a corpse? To avoid dwelling on that unpleasant thought, I noticed a dry patch under a tree, and hopped down the bank to rest.

Unable to escape the feeling I was trapped in an overworked metaphor, any energy gained was used in the climb back onto the path. I resumed tracing a stranger's footprints, and felt glad it wasn't possible to confuse a person's shoes with any other animal's paws. One in the eye for all the "dogs are better than humans" people I know. Although a dog  (and a sled) could have pulled me more effectively. Thinking about it, however, so could a car. Which would have had made a far more dependable track.

A discarded Nalgene poked through the snow. This didn't seem like a good sign - no one looking to lighten their load discards their water. On closer inspection, it was full of urine. Why had someone urinated in a container, when the woods are entirely capable of withstanding the deluge? This strikes me as the same sort of person who leaves the plastic film on the screens of their electronic devices. As I pressed forward, I caught an encouraging sight - enough snow had melted to form a viable path. It had been there for a considerable distance, I realized - why hadn't I moved over sooner? Mr. Footsteps hadn't either. Perhaps he, like me, had considered forward progress challenge enough without also looking for better alternatives. Walking on mostly-dry earth was a welcome relief, but the nagging sense it would end soon stopped me from truly relaxing (see "work, why vacations don't" in index).

I've no idea why I assumed summit-or-corpse were the only potential outcomes. Abruptly, halfway from the summit, footprints stopped entirely. It seemed wrong to turn around, at first - I'd been following someone so long, I'd adopted the general direction as my own. One nagging thought crept in as I continued forward, though - If I keep going and this isn't the right direction, what if someone later follows my  steps? 

Out in the woods by myself, thoughts of any impact on my fellow man were far from my mind. Additionally, anyone who has met me would know I come after "spitting into the wind" on the list of reliable navigators. On the other hand, I don't know anything about the footprinter I've been following, either. Any myths we believe about our lives being independent as long as we're "not harming others" vanish when we realize we're imprinting the earth with each forward motion. 

I didn't turn around immediately. On some level, the danger of being an unusually convenient food truck for a bear or mountain lion would at least have spared me the walk back to the car. But it would also have permanently denied me the summit. Retreating back to the blue arrows until the path is more clear felt like defeat, but a summit next month is not a defeat. It's a summit.

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The end of the line (today).