Category Archives: heart

Loyalty and Layoffs

I wanna talk to the fulltimers in the audience today. Huddle up close, gang. This is going to be a tough one. To paraphrase my close personal friend Blaise Pascal, “I write you a long letter because I’m too damn angry to write you a short one.”

But first, let’s start with a happy memory.

DATELINE: Summer 2002

I was happy on the DigiStar team at Evans & Sutherland. I was working at one of the premier graphics companies in the world. Does your team have its own movie theater? We had our own frickin’ planetarium. My teammates were brilliant and great to work with. I’d been promised a fat bonus–about a month’s pay–if I could finish the core of the control system UI in under 12 months, and I was a couple months ahead of schedule–in fact I pretty much already had it in the bag if you didn’t count UI polish and the odd bug or two turned up by QA. Plus did I mention we had our own frickin’ planetarium?

I logged into my computer that morning and there was a message from Jim Oyler, President and CEO, telling all of us that though we were losing still more “team members” today, that he knew he could count on “the rest of the family” to be brave and take up the slack. I was bummed to find out that the company had let more people go, but I was really happy at my job and sure, I’d be glad to help Jim Oyler, President and CEO, take up the slack.

“Hey Dave,” came the voice of Neil, my boss’ boss, from the entrance to my cubicle. “Can I talk to you in the conference room?”

“Sure–” I said, as I turned around and spied the huge stack of papers in Neil’s hand, the topmost sheet of which was boldly titled Exit Checklist.

“Aw, crap, Neil! I’m getting laid off?!?” I blurted out.

We were in a cube farm. Neil had the good grace to look around sheepishly, and in a low voice said, “Yeah. I’m sorry, man. Can we go talk in the conference room?”

“Dang it…” I said, more quietly. “This was the best job I’ve ever had. Yeah, let’s go.”

So just like that, out of the blue, the best job I’d ever had was over with no warning. Neil started the exit interview with “This came down from over my head. I can’t tell you how upset I am about this. Terence (Neil’s boss, our VP) specifically named you because your piece is finished.”

I joked about failing “to commit job security in the code”. Neil laughed, and as we went through the checklist it started to hit me how much I was going to miss everyone on the team. I started on the DigiStar team on Monday, September 10th, 2001–and we had all bonded the next morning as we watched the 9/11 attacks play out on the news. I don’t know if these people were “family” but they were close to me.

The blow was softened by my getting a ridiculous severance package–all my vacation days paid out in cash before I walked out the door that day, plus six weeks of severance pay–all after just 18 months at the company! We’d had 2 rounds of layoffs before in my stint there, and I knew the policy was 1 week of severance per year of employment, so I wasn’t about to argue. As I walked back to my desk to clean it out, my team lead stopped by to tell me that I had her to thank for the severance package.

“I told them they had to pay you your bonus or I’d quit. Legal said that we can’t give a performance bonus and lay someone off at the same time. I told them that you getting laid off was bullshit in the first place, and they agreed to round up your second year and convert your bonus into a month’s extra severance.”

Janet was an amazing team lead. She was a wicked smart programmer but also had a killer instinct for office politics. (In fact, she told me on my first day to do my best to “stay off Terence’s radar”, because he had a nasty habit of laying off contractors and new people.) She also had my psyche dialed in perfectly, and broke me out of my impostor syndrome in my first (and, it would turn out, only) performance review by saying: “The thing that makes you unique on this team is that more than anybody else here you really love this shit. I mean, I go home and read a book, and I can tell you go home and write more code. You are the only employee I have ever managed that I think could get away with giving me a snow job. You could straight up tell me you spent the last two weeks dewarbling the frobblebats in the compiler and I would believe you.”

“Seriously?” I asked.

“Seriously. But don’t ever try it or I will fire your ass.”

I loved Janet, but I also feared her. I also respected her and would go to the mat for her in a heartbeat. I didn’t understand for years later that this was because she regularly went to the mat for her teammates, and when she did, she almost always won. I was too young to really understand how much political capital Janet had just laid on the line for me–a soon-to-be ex-employee that she would probably never see again–but even still I was deeply moved by the gesture.

They could have frogmarched me out of the building, given me squat, and told me I had to like it. Instead, they gave me generous severance, outplacement counseling, free admission to a really good jobhunting seminar, and best of all they let me take all day to clean out my desk and say my goodbyes. I took them up on the offer. It was 4:45pm when I finally walked out the door to go pick up my last check from HR. They had to fish it out of the mail drop because everyone else in the layoff had cleared out before noon, so HR had assumed I must not have come in to work that day and probably didn’t know I’d been laid off.

It didn’t really hit me for about a week that I’d just been screwed out of the best job I’d ever had by an accountant who couldn’t keep the company books straight and an executive team who couldn’t steer the company in any straight direction, let alone a viable one. And that I’d sat at my desk and silently eaten up every word of propaganda spewed out of the mouth of Jim Oyler, President and CEO, about being brave, taking up the slack, and most sickening of all, of “being a family”.

Meanwhile, Back in the Present…

Fast forward to today. A former client of mine held an all-hands meeting today to announce that they had lost their primary revenue stream and that the business was no longer a going concern. As a result, for all 400+ employees of the company, today would be their last day. There would be no severance package. They would not be receiving their last paycheck today, but at the regular payroll time when the accounting department–which was also now unemployed–could be bothered to get around to it. The company had a “Paid Time Off” policy instead of a vacation policy, which is legalese for “we don’t have to pay out any vacation time when we let you go.” In short, 400 people got told they were out in the cold with nothing more than a creepy speech about being proud of what they’d accomplished. He even asked them to not say bad things about the company in the days ahead because it would cheapen and demean them all.

I really, really want to go off on a tangent about all the bad things I have to say about that company and its top management in particular. It wouldn’t cheapen the fine folks that worked there and believed in the company one whit. But I’m not going to, because believe it or not, I have something much more important to talk about right now.

Most of the (now ex-)employees of my (now very ex-)client are in a blind, terrified scramble right now because they made a critical career mistake: They put their loyalty in the company. They put so much loyalty into the company, in fact, that they stopped nurturing themselves and growing and building their careers as a separate entity apart from the company. This was not entirely their fault; the company aggressively encouraged this. But let me be perfectly clear: that was straight-up pure evil.

Loyalty to a Corporation is SICK.

Being struck from the rolls at Evans & Sutherland out of the blue permanently broke me of any notion of job security, but more importantly it broke me of the concept of loyalty to a corporation. I’d been freelancing on and off for a decade, but after that day I went hardcore.

As a freelancer I occasionally experience friction with the full-time employees over tribal identity issues. I get called a mercenary. I’m told I’m not loyal. They say I’m not a company man, a patriot, a true believer. My point is that it gets made known to me, in many ways and forms, that I may work there, but I am NOT “part of the family”. Well, let’s get two things straight right now:

  1. You’re goddamn right I’m not
  2. And neither are you, you dumb shit

A corporation is not a living creature. It has no soul. It has no heart. It has no feelings. It can neither experience towards you nor enjoy from you even the concept of loyalty. It is a legal fiction, and it exists for one purpose only: to make profit. If you assist in this goal in the long term, your ongoing association with the organization is facilitated. If you detract from it consistently, you will be cut. Family is “where they have to take you in no matter what you’ve done.” A corporation is… well, it’s sort of the exact opposite of this.

Being loyal to a corporation is sick. It is genuine madness.

But Isn’t Loyalty a Good Thing?

Sure it is! Just be careful where you place it.

We Have an Awesome CEO…

No! Bad peon! No career enlightenment for you! The CEO of your company is a paid sociopath. I mean that in the nicest way possible, of course, but it is literally their actual job description to place the interests of a soulless legal fiction over the needs and desires of living, breathing, human beings with actual feelings. He or she probably isn’t inherently evil. But if they can find a way to make the company 100% more profitable by firing you, they have to do it. That is exactly what their job is. They are the chief stewards of an intangible set of legal rules comprising an attempt to get money.

I’ve worked with some genuinely charismatic CEO’s, and it’s hard to not feel loyal to them. And that’s okay! I am totally fine with you being loyal to another person! But seriously, out of everybody at your company, the CEO is your worst possible choice. If they don’t fire you when they should, they can be held liable for incompetence by the board of directors. And well they should! Because the board of directors are the circle of acolytes gathered around the altar of the soulless legal fiction, and if the soulless legal fiction needs your blood to survive, the circle makes sure the CEO doesn’t flinch from the knife.

So before you give your loyalty to a CEO, ask yourself this one critical question: would this person still have my respect and admiration if they fired me?

I’ve only been in that situation once, and I thought about it beforehand, and the answer was yes, and the answer is still yes. I would go back to work for him a heartbeat. Though I’m not sure he’d have me back, come to think of it, because I engineered my own termination at that company… and that wasn’t even in like the top five weirdest things that happened between us.

So, yes. You can be loyal to a CEO. But be loyal to them as a person, not as a position, because the day will come when you have to part ways, and it will break your heart how easy it is for your CEO.


What About Being Loyal to The Team?

I’m just gonna say it: Nope.

Surprised? Haven’t you been listening?

Your team is just another organization, a concept, an ideogram on an org chart. The Team is just a story you tell yourself about the collection of people that work in the same room as you. It’s just another fiction. Ask yourself this question: if the CEO replaced everyone on The Team with incompetent nephews (important: their incompetent nephews, not yours; I can see how that would complicate the issue), would your loyalty to The Team remain undimmed when the servers go down at 11pm on a Friday night?

The people that work in the same room as you are real. It is totally okay to love them. In fact, I encourage it! Be loyal to them! Go to the mat for them. But for heaven’s sake, don’t be loyal to “The Team”.

For the buzzword bingo players out there: you are “a team player” if you love your teammates and show them love and loyalty. But anybody claiming to have loyalty to “The Team” is engaging in office politics.

What About Loyalty to the Project?

Um. Let me get back to you on this one. I’m on a good rant here and I want to say no but my pants will just outright burst into flames if I do.

I fall in love with projects. My wife says I get married to them. For hundreds upon hundreds of nights she has known the loneliness of an empty bed as I toil the night away on the latest hot young project to catch my eye, so I guess she’s qualified to make that judgment.

You know, I was about to take this all the way to an adultery metaphor but I’m going to stop here instead and just say it’s probably bad for your relationship. I would tell you not to fall in love with a project but I’ve tried six times and I just can’t do it without making dreamy eyes.

But again, that’s love. Not loyalty. I might discount my rates to work on a really amazing project, but would I charge less because I felt I owed it to the project? Not a cent.

Be Loyal to One Person: You.

I guess I should say “be loyal to one person at your work” because it’s totally fine to be loyal to your family, your friends, your neighbors, your favorite sportsball team, your fellow citizens, and a whole host of other people that for one reason or another, you love.

Be loyal to yourself. Or, if you prefer, be loyal to yourself first. Show your strongest allegiance there. I don’t mean conceit, and I don’t mean selfishness, and I don’t mean be a jerk to other people. You cannot know or show true love until you truly love–and by this I mean proactively care for–yourself.

So if the company wants you to work nights and weekends, you need to ask yourself right now if your job is worth it. If the answer is yes, great! Choose to work late. If it’s not, choose to stand up, grab your coat, and clock out. You’ll either still have a job in the morning, or you’ll have stopped putting off that hunt for a better job that you’ve been cheating yourself out of.

And if you’re not sure? If you’re sitting on the bubble, trying to decide? That little L-word is going to pop up. And when it does? You squash it. Loyalty to a corporation is madness, and any CEO worth their salt will try to get you to buy into it for exactly as long as it suits their needs to keep you around.

Own Your Career. Because This WILL Happen To You.

Your career is yours and yours alone, whether you want it to be or not. The sooner you own it, and take responsibility for all of the consequences of said ownership, the sooner you will find yourself creating your own safety from the corporate predators who pillage and destroy in service to the soulless legal fiction they call your master. Not their master, by the way. Yours.

Anybody who wants to relieve you of the hassles and responsibilities of owning your own career wants to shackle you to an oar. They want the exact opposite of what’s good for you. They want you to toil away blissfully for years–which you will do!–until one day the drumbeat stops. You’ll step out into the sun, blinking tears away in the brightness, and realize that the deck crew is gone, they’ve taken all the rations, pirates are attacking, the boat is sinking, and all you have to show for the last three years of rowing is a pair of sackcloth britches and a piece of rope to hold them up. They didn’t even let you take the time off to get your MCOR (Microciscoware Certified Oar Rower) so you don’t even have that to put on your resume. And also the piece of rope is technically company property so you need to leave that on the boat before you throw yourself to the sharks.


I’d like to think that if the soulless legal fiction at the heart of your company suddenly became sentient, it would also immediately grow a conscience and feel terrible about all the things it’s done and not just automatically be utterly evil.

But it’s not sentient, and it’s not even necessarily evil–as long as its business model isn’t predatory, immoral or illegal. It’s just a collection of rules put down on paper. It is a thing. And not even a physical thing. A real thing, yes, but not a tangible one. Just a logical construct, fit only for one purpose: acquiring profit.

Being loyal to that is mere insanity. But being loyal to that over yourself is sickness.

Please, choose right now: Get medicine. Own your self, and your career.

Start saving yourself.

Remember What’s Important

One day, in 1999, I was furious at my computer. On that day I received some of the best programming advice I’ve ever gotten, courtesy of my good friend SamWibatt: “Dude. If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.” This advice has stuck with me through the years, tried and true. This week, however, I found a law that trumps it:

Remember What’s Important.

Last Tuesday I kissed my wife blearily awake at 6am as I prepared to start my day programming with my remote team, two time zones ahead and already starting their day at 8am. I asked her if she felt like getting me breakfast and she said sure. She pulled on a sweat top, left on her pajama bottoms, and headed into town to buy breakfast from a drive-through.

An hour later my phone rang. “Mister Brady? This is Officer Powell with the Lehi City Police Department. Your wife’s been in a serious accident. She’s okay but she may have hurt her arm. Her car is totaled and we’re going to have to tow it.”

I reacted about how you might think. “Is she okay?” “She’s conscious and alert, and seems okay except for her arm. Paramedics are looking at her right now. But we’re going to have to tow your car.”

“Oh, okay, so I need to come get her?”

“No, the paramedics are going to take her to the hospital, so–”

“Wait, so is she okay?”

Officer Powell had the wisdom to realize that I was going into shock and had started looping. He also knew just how to calm me down. “Here, let me put her on the phone.”

“Hi sweetie,” she said. “I think I broke my arm.”

I guess I *was* still in shock. “But… you’re okay?”

“Yeah. My arm hurts.”

I got back on with Officer Powell. “Do I need to come down there?” “Yes, I think we have your dog*.”

And that began the worst day I’ve had in 16 years of marriage to the finest woman I have ever met.

I’ll spare you the minute-by-minute details, but the short answer is that Liz was driving very sleepy. She was traveling on a highway at 50MPH, saw the light turn red, did not react in time, and barrelled into cross traffic at very nearly full speed. She was traveling westbound, and hit the engine compartment of a northbound vehicle. The airbag went off and saved her life. She knocked that car 45 degrees to the left and sent them sailing through oncoming traffic, miraculously reaching the far corner unscathed and coming to a stop at the street pole. The impact had spun her 90 degrees to the right, straight into oncoming traffic, and she collided head-on with a southbound vehicle entering the intersection. The now deflated airbag was of little use and she shattered her forearm against the steering wheel.

Liz Nightstick Fracture of Left Ulna Against Steering Wheel

All four other victims were uninjured. Our car was totaled and uninsured for collision damage (it was a 2002 Toyota Corolla, not worth covering) but we had full comprehensive insurance which meant Liz’s medical care would be covered. Our State Farm (they are awesome) insurance agent, Sarah Williams (who is even more awesome), notified the other parties that there would be no disputation of fault, that their medical and auto repair bills would be covered, and that they would help the other drivers with anything should their insurance not be cooperative. Because there was no disputation of fault, the case officer, Officer Bateman, did not write Liz a ticket since in his judgment everything was settled fault-wise and given his assessment of injuries, karma had done the justice system’s job. I had a chance to talk with him at length later in the process, and I have to say that he’s the kind of policeman that gives cops everywhere a good name.

The End of Liz's Silver Corolla

50MPH collision followed by a head-on? One broken arm and nobody else hurt? One lost junker car? We are nothing but grateful.

Crushed Frontend - Note headlight (and rest of engine block) Pushed Back a foot from the bumper it should have been aligned with

I took most of last week off work to be a full-time stay-at-home husband and nursemaid. Church members organized a relief party to bring us dinner each night to take at least that piece of stress off of us. Liz had surgery on Friday and now has a 6″ or 7″ titanium plate bolted to her ulna to hold it together while it heals. It’s a permanent plate; they won’t take it back out unless Liz has trouble with it causing pain years down the line.

It’s been a week. Anxiety is now my constant companion. But I can live with that Liz is fine and recovering quickly. I am nothing but grateful.

Sorry if this seems like a no-code kind of post, but it IS related. Remember what’s important. All this programming crap is just numbers and logic and blinky lights on a computer. Narrowly avoiding the loss of your soulmate sort of puts all those project deadlines and looming schedules and tricky technical debt problems so far onto the back burner that I actually heard them fall down behind the stove.

Which is where they belong.

* P.S. For you animal lovers, yes this is important too: Bella is fine. 🙂 She was super freaked-out and excited for a few days but she was laying on the back seat, so all she did was hit the backs of the front seats and then the floor. She was shaken up, but not even tender when examined.

Stop SOPA: An Open Letter

Copy of a letter I have sent to my representative. Similar letters have also been sent to both of my senators.

Dear Representative Chaffetz,

When you campaigned in 2008, you promised to go to Congress and fight for me. As your constituent, I am writing you to ask you to PLEASE do everything in your power to fight SOPA and PIPA.

I create content for the web, and I go out of my way to ensure that everything I create is legitimate, original and worthwhile. I have had that content pirated, and I feel firsthand the frustration of seeing others use and profit from my stolen efforts and being unable to find effective recourse against these people.

I want good anti-piracy legislation. We NEED good anti-piracy legislation. But SOPA and PIPA are NOT good legislation. While I appreciate the effort put into helping web-based businesspeople like myself gain speedy recourse against pirates–and this should be a part of good anti-piracy legislation–I am unsure if the laws will help a small business like myself, and I am genuinely terrified of the breadth and ease with which this recourse may be misapplied to legitimate content created under fair use.

I know this is a tricky issue. Balancing speedy recourse against infringement versus appropriate defense against censorship of free speech will require some clear thinking, tough negotiating, and hard fighting. But that’s what we elected you for.

Please give us good anti-piracy legislation. And please, do it by first stopping SOPA and PIPA.

Thank you,

David Brady
President, Shiny Systems LLC, and active Utah District 3 voter

Two Questions

Recently I was talking with a friend about coaching and specifically the act of helping younger developers improve themselves. I had a sort of microepiphany when I realized that I’ve been improving myself for over two decades with the same pair of questions, originally unconsciously and only recently in my active consciousness. The next time you do something you want to get better at, ask yourself these two questions:

What about this makes me feel good? This is a VERY specific question, and it is NOT “what do I like about this?”. It’s often hard to answer. You are not allowed to say “I don’t know”, and you are not allowed to settle for answering the much easier question “what about this do I like?”—although that can be a great guide into discovering what it is that makes you feel good. If you wrote an elegant passage of code, or did something clever, or shipped a really nasty hack but saved the company (thus buying them time to refactor your nasty hack) by shipping on time, that’s what you like. But go beyond this. What about that makes you feel good? Did it make you feel smart? Did it make you feel artistic? Did it make you feel like a hero? Did it make you feel like somehow, against all the odds, you might just be starting to “get it” as a programmer?

Take a moment and really just let yourself feel good about what you did. If you can find that and tap into it, you have just found a well inside yourself that you will return to again and again in the future. Congratulations, you’ve just found the reason you’re going to spend the rest of your life getting better at this.

If you can’t answer this question, don’t sweat it. But don’t be surprised if your life ends up going a different direction. Find something else that makes you feel good, and do that instead.

What about this could I do better? Most days, you’ll think of something right off. There was some duplication, or a lack of symmetry in the code, or your variable names were kind of awkward.

Other days it’s a bit harder. “Writing this bit felt a bit grindy, like I was pushing out lots of boilerplate. I don’t see how to fix it, but does it really have to hurt this much?”

The best days are the days when you try and try and just can’t answer it. Important: this doesn’t mean you did something perfect. Far from it, and far better: it means you’ve actually managed to see your blind spot. “This”, your brain is telling you, “this empty space, here… is where more knowledge will fit.” Those are the days that herald “getting it” on a whole new level.

So, them’s my questions for you. What made you feel good? What could do better?

Felt any good or done any better recently?

James Edward Gray: Associative Arrays and Ruby Hashes

Yesterday I put out a little screencast showing some ways of Creating Ruby Hashes. James Edward Gray II pinged me on Twitter and basically said “Great screencast! Ooh, but you forgot this! Ooh, and this! And this!” and so of course there was nothing to do for it but invite him to do a pairing screencast with me.

This video is a bit of a weird hybrid. You get 7 minutes of podcall, then 18 minutes of screencast, then another 12 minutes of podcall. James shows off some of the “hot new awesomeness” of Ruby 1.9, and then points out that this awesomeness has been around for a couple of years and nobody’s using it, in spite of it having been in the current Pickaxe for nearly as long. Along the way we talk about regular expressions, testing dogma, and the importance of never squashing creativity in the open source community. All in all, an incredibly fun time for me. James threatened to come back and do another one with me on regular expressions, and I’m mentioning it here in writing so that everybody knows I plan on taking him up on that offer.

No podcast, because half of it is us typing into a shared screen session. But here’s the video. You may need to watch it on Vimeo or download it to see the font clearly.

Associative Arrays with James Edward Gray II from David Brady on Vimeo.

Monkeypatching and the Open-Closed Principle

Ah, the Open-Closed Principle. In static languages like C++ and Java, classes by default are Closed-Closed. In dynamic languages like JavaScript and Ruby, they are Open-Open. In Java you have to add design pattern ceremony in order to open for classes for extension; in Ruby you have to exercise discipline in order to keep them closed for modification. Yesterday Pat Maddox and I spent 80 minutes kicking the can around talking about Monkeypatching versus the Open-Closed Principle. Along the way, we talked about everything from Rebecca Black to RSpec, from Cognitive Load to watching my cat try to claw open my office window.

We’re Starting a Podcast!

Pat and I are gonna start doing this regularly. And we need a cool name for our podcast! Help us out! The giver of the winning suggestion will get something cool. Not sure what yet, but I promise it will be something cool.

But for now, just watch the rest of this post’s space for the video. Because I’m embedding it in 3… 2…

Monkeypatching and the Open-Closed Principle from David Brady on Vimeo.

Intelligence and Prediction

Cleaning my office today, I found a sheet of paper covered in my own handwriting. I had been somewhere without my journal when an epiphany had struck. I’m cleaning office now, and didn’t want to throw it away. Here it is for posterity, such as that may be.

One measure of intelligence is the ability to take a set of observations at varying degrees of confidence and accurately predict outcomes. The greater the intelligence, experience, and capacity for reason, the more detailed the predictions become, the more distant they can be and the fewer and less confident the observations upon which they are based.

When I was the Director of Technology at RESMARK, the president was my good friend and we would spent long hours planning and discussing strategy. One afternoon we were his office, discussing his weekly meeting with our investor. He told me of the struggles and debates in the meeting over our ship date and our budget; over perceived velocity; over staffing and technology requirements. Partway through our discussion, he said that the investor had asked him to produce a line-item budget breakdown.

I jerked upright, startled. Suddenly something was wrong. This request was not in keeping with everything I knew about the relationship between the investor and the president up this point. I reevaluated my assumptions, and nothing fit. Then one assumption change DID fit. I considered it, thought through the range of consequences and they all ended up at the same place. I looked at the president and announced, “You’re going to get fired in the next three months.”

I was right. About 10 weeks later, the president called me in and told me he had been let go.

Peer Ethos: Safety and Doubt

I’ve had some GREAT feedback, online and off, about my Peer Ethos post. Thank you to everyone for the emails, tweets and comments.

Several new epiphanies resulted. The first is that the Peer Ethos is not just a single clique, or even the set of cliques you belong to. It is a universal ecosystem; it has tight niches and broad climes. James Britt rightly pointed out that there are differences between the Peer Ethos of your close friends and everyone on the internet. This triggered the epiphany that I was seeing BOTH close family and everybody on the internet as part of a universal ecosystem, and that practical meaning—the environmental conditions—change as you move around the landscape.

James says that some things that shouldn’t be shared with the Twitterverse can be shared with close family. I agree totally. There are some things that you can share with everybody, other things you should never share, and still more things that you should share only if the conditions in the peer ethos  are favorable.

I see two new dimensions of the peer ethos here: safety and doubt. The safety dimension is how supportive or antagonistic the peer ethos is at this point (“this point” meaning “your current audience”). Family and friends are very supportive because they want you to succeed; trolls and antagonists are destructive because want you to fail. The doubt dimension has nothing to do with the peer ethos and everything to do with yourself: it is simply an internal measure of your confidence that you will complete the task.

Here’s the interplay:

  • If you have high doubt, DO share your hopes and dreams with your family. Their nurturing support and love can encourage you to take that first risk.
  • Do NOT share your dreams with the internet until you’ve made them real: Trolls have a much harder time saying something is not possible when it’s just been done.
  • If you have low doubt, your goals are likely to be quite specific. Keep them to yourself, especially if telling your family won’t help you reach them!
  • You may, however, want to tell the world at large. Throwing your hat in the ring can be a huge motivator to drive you to live up to your word. Trolls may attack, but if you are confident in yourself these attacks do not discourage but rather come off sounding like “Oh yeah? Well, I dare you!

It’s a tradeoff. Family will be forgiving if you fail; this can provide the safety to take the first step, but can also smother your urgency. For this reason I say that some ideas should never be shared until they are reality. If sharing them won’t help you but can definitely hurt you, why would you take the risk? On the other side, trolls will heap scorn upon you if you fall short, but can also stiffen your resolve to be true to your word.

Before talking about your goals, consider your audience and means of delivery. If your intention is a mere ember of hope, protect it. Share it only with those who will blow on it gently to help it grow. But if your intention is already burning fiercely, hold it up for the world to see! All the huffing of your detractors will do is fan the flames brighter. Perhaps spicy food is a better metaphor: you know when you want exciting, racy food and you know when you want filling, hearty fare; you also know what level of spice will ruin your meal and what level of blandness will suck out all the joy. So it is with sharing your intentions with your peer ethos: know when you need to be challenged by your peers and when you need to be supported by them.

The trick, ultimately, is not so much to be aware of the landscape of the peer ethos, but to be aware that the landscape even exists, and to choose to interact with it appropriately. Move around in it, find the appropriate audience, and share when it can help you move forward.

Peer Ethos

I’ve been hit in the head repeatedly with some epiphanic lightning recently.

Recently Giles Bowkett blogged “Right now I’m stuck between two competing ideas. The ideas are superficially opposite, which bothers me a great deal, because I think they both contain some truth.”

The competing ideas come first from Derek Sivers: Shut up! Announcing your plans makes you less motivated to accomplish them.

and second from Dallas Travers: “If you sheepishly talk about your acting career only in safe environments after much poking and prodding, expect your goals to be reached just some of the time and only in safe environments.”

In an offline discussion, Giles wrote: peer pressure is important, although I’m searching for a new term for peer pressure, because it’s not really about pressure—it’s more like peer subconscious feedback.

There is a very clear delineation between these thoughts. What they share in common is a group of peers: people you would tell your intentions to, people you would announce your goals to. But why is one case bad and the other good?

Simple. In the first case, you have this crazy idea. You really need to go do something about it, and it’s ticking away in the back of your head, bugging you to get it done. When you blurt it out to your peer group, you are doing enough of something about it to scratch that itch, and you no longer need to follow through with the actual work. This is especially true of writers; you should never talk about a story idea until it’s written. An untold story fires the mind and drives you to write, but once you tell somebody your clever idea, you no longer have the need to tell your story. I have recently learned that I can’t talk about something on Twitter if I need to blog about it. Twitter is too short to really explore a topic, but once I tweet I no longer have any need to get the idea out there.

The second case is very different, however. When my wife and I decided to start the adoption process, we told everybody we knew. The process is long and discouraging, but every time we see friends they always ask us, “So… how’s the adoption coming along?” In the second case an expectation was created with our peer group that we need to satisfy. At best, outstanding, unmet expectations niggle away at the back of our minds incessantly; at worst they hook into our very tribal identities. We must satisfy or reject the expectations placed on us by others or go mad.

Giles, I have your word for you: Peer Ethos.

In rhetoric, the Greeks used “ethos” to describe “argumentation by character”. It has to do with how much we trust and accept the arguer. It’s very much a tribal identity thing, but here’s the interesting bit: ethos means “accustomed place” or “habitat”. It means psychological or social environment. So ethos, in argumentation, really just means whether or not you meet the cultural expectations of your listener.

I like this concept. It’s succinct, yet loaded with contextual information:

1. Participating in your peer ethos means that you understand that cultural expectations are placed upon you by your peers.

2. Because ethos also means character, the cultural expectations aren’t just about what you do, but about who you are. There is an incredibly strong motivator available to us here.

3. (For intermediate readers) Because you can choose your peers, you can change your peer ethos. You can examine the kind of character demands that your peer ethos places on you, and consciously seek out folks who will help you get where you need.

4. (For advanced readers) Because cultures are living ecosystems, and because you contribute to it as much as you draw from it, you can change the culture of your peers.

Peer ethos. I can’t begin to tell you how excited this makes me.

But wait! There’s more! (I seriously can’t begin to tell you how excited this makes me.)

Ethos is the same word we get “ethics” from. Ethics are the ethos of an entire culture: what is acceptable, what is good, what is right. This has always bothered me, because good and evil, right and wrong are unchanging concepts… yet our culture’s ethics have been continuously shifting and changing. 30 years ago it was ethical to smoke. 50 years ago it was ethical to castrate gays. 150 years ago it was ethical to inject heroin, own blacks, and shoot mormons.

Ethics, then, change over time. But do you see it? Do you SEE it? Our culture’s ethos draws from US as much as we draw from it!

Get busy, guys. Your peer ethos needs you.


I like to synthesize ideas by taking disparate concepts, putting them in a bag and shaking it up. One difficulty that often arises is that in order for me to communicate these synthesized ideas, you need to be up to speed on the underlying concepts.

One big concept bouncing around in my head is the notion of what motivates us. I’m not talking about carrot-and-stick here, I’m talking about things that electrify our souls: things that bounce us out of bed in the morning, engage us joyfully all day and then keep up at night wondering about what the next day will bring.

Dan Pink has a pretty good insight into this. This animation is excellent, but incomplete; if you like it go to YouTube and watch the full version of his talk.