You Don't Say!

Further reading on Paul Graham’s site has given me a new favorite essayist. Well, let’s be honest: I didn’t really have a "favorite essayist" before, so he’s "new" in the sense that I hadn’t ever read anything he’d written before, not because he replaced someone in my great pantheon of essaydom. Although, now that I think of it, Mark Twain and C.S. Lewis both wrote some rather famous essays, so I guess I did have some other favorites. OK, Paul is now in my Top Three of favorite essayists.

Why do I call him an essayist? Because he calls himself one, right here. After reading that piece, I realized that I, too, have been writing essays ever since I started this infernal blog. So I guess Paul’s really in my Top Four.

One of Paul’s works, What You Can't Say, really challenged me (go ahead, read it. I’ll wait). At heart, I agree with what I think is his common theme: "Question everything," or as he puts it, ABQ -- Always Be Questioning. We can’t improve what we don’t question, and in my job I try every day to ask, "Why are we doing this, and how could it be done better?" So we’re all right there, me and Paul.

As I read, though, I started feeling defensive. Somewhere between the lines, I felt that I could read a hidden message: "It’s people like you that are enforcing these ridiculous taboos. Why can’t you just lighten up and stop forcing your morality down my throat, man?" I mean, I’ve never even met this guy, and now he’s attacking me? Where did he get off, with his relativistic intellectual pseudo-superiority? The nerve!

Well, it passed, but not until I walked away from the computer for a while and, in the interest of being true to my previously stated principles, asked myself some questions? Why did I feel defensive? Was I oppressing anyone or taking away their intellectual independence (my children notwithstanding)? No, not as far as I knew, which is why it felt so unfair. Was I part of a group that Paul identified as actively oppressing freedom of speech? Not directly. Nowhere in the essay did he say, "specifically, all tall white guys with white-collar jobs who lives west of Cambridge, MA, really need to think about what they’ve done." But we were getting warmer. Then it hit me: I am so used to being lumped in with that group that the other side is always accusing of oppressing something or other that I automatically assume, whenever I read something calling for open-minded dissent, that I’ll be demonized. The funny thing is, I get it the right or the left, depending upon which issue we’re talking about. But it doesn’t matter, because, by virtue of my skin color, faith, education level, income, and/or sexual preferences, I must be wrong, at least according to the other white guys leading the debate on the other side of the issue.

This is the main flaw in dealing with people as a group: you inevitably lump someone in based on demographics who really doesn’t match the color of the brush with which you’re painting them, and they get offended. Now, on top of the usual demagoguery and polemics, you have hurt feelings from someone who thought they were on your side. Better to deal with people as individuals, I say, and stop being so lazy. Despite what you may have heard and read over the past (Heaven help us) 13 months or more of campaigning, the world isn’t divided up into groups that all move en masse from one issue to the next. It is made up of individuals, all exhibiting their independence to one degree or another, all making up their minds -- or deciding not to make up their minds -- on their own. I'll admit that I feel a fair level of pity for those who have decided to unquestioningly follow the herd, but it was still their decision and even they can be shaken enough to question the herd mentality when it comes to extremes.

So what have we learned so far?

  1. Paul Graham is a good writer who makes you think.

  2. I don't like being lumped in with other people, especially negatively.

  3. It's better to deal with people as individuals than as members of a group.

  4. It's better to deal with issues in the same way. (I didn't really say that before, but I think it's a good corollary, and I like lists)

Once I got over my knee-jerk reaction and realized that I wasn't being blamed for anything yet, I started thinking about some of the things that we can't say, specifically in business. What heresies are out there, lurking in people's heads every day as they go to work? The company Christmas (oops, Holiday) Party isn't until next week, so rather than listening in on drunken conversations I'll have to make up the answers myself. Here's a few I came up with:

  • Maybe A Better Process isn't the answer. Maybe doing better has something to do with personal responsibility.

  • Maybe our CEO and other executives are fallible, or worse, don't actually know what they're doing.

  • Maybe going into this market, product line, or up against that competitor was a mistake.

  • Maybe we should treat employees like adults and hold them accountable for what they do while they're at work, rather than making up a bunch of rules describing what personal accountability doesn't look like. Could we still succeed as a company?

  • Maybe work really is personal and we should acknowledge that fact in the way we deal with our employees.

  • Maybe the bottom line shouldn't be the most important factor in every decision.

  • Maybe we're getting our butts kicked because we did something wrong, and not because of macro issues in the economy, our industry, or the world at large. Should we try to fix that?

That's a start. If, by some small chance, someone else actually reads this, feel free to add your own in the comments below, so I know that I'm not just entertaining myself. If I know you're out there, I may even try to make future ramblings more coherent and entertaining.

Or, as they say nowhere that I've ever been, "Holla back!"

Oh, one more thing: If you like what you saw on Mr. Graham's site, you should check out his book: Hackers and Painters. It's worth the read.
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