When I was in high school, my brother’s irresistibly charming girlfriend was in charge of drumming up support for the blood drive, one element of which was convincing me to wear a costume that was supposed to make me look like a blood drop.

It is difficult to properly describe the blood drop costume.  Think of it like a nylon tent with a hoop at the bottom to make the fat bit, tapering up to your neck, then a little red nylon cap.  If you were lucky, the bottom of the drop was long enough to cover your boxers, but even then, you’re still showing rather a lot of scrawny leg.  This is the closest approximation I can find online and it was bad enough to spawn a meme.  And I didn’t have the fancy shirt or socks either.

But of course I did it; how can you say no to a good cause (and your brother’s attractive girlfriend)?  And as I left every shred of my dignity somewhere in that blood drop, I learned something important: there is power in a certain kind of shamelessness.  Plenty of kids laughed at me and it absolutely felt bad while I was doing it, but nobody remembered a day later and it didn’t really matter in even the short run – my embarrassment faded more quickly than I could have possibly estimated.

There are, I think, two lessons in there.  The first is that in most cases, humiliation fades.  Unless it is repeated, prolonged, or from someone who has a lasting importance in your life, embarrassment fades much more quickly than we would ever estimate ahead of time (for some social psych on this, read about the spotlight effect).

The second, and more important, is that even as bad as something feels in the moment, sometimes it is worth it.  Leaving aside the tolerance we build up, the problem with shame and embarrassment is that we mostly let them rule us automatically.  Rather than think about what we stand to gain, we become hyper-focused on the loss.  And that prevents us from engaging in some activities where the juice is actually worth the squeeze.

That last bit is key.  In the movie As Good As It Gets, Greg Kinnear’s character (in a moment of trying to inspire Jack Nicholson’s misanthropic recluse to pursue love) says of impressing the lovely Helen Hunt, “the best thing you have going for you is your willingness to humiliate yourself.”  He’s not suggesting that Jack Nicholson streak at a football game; he’s saying that if he really loves this woman, the most important thing he can risk is himself.

I used to stand in the Philly train station for ten hours a day, trying to get people to fill out a psych survey for an experiment I was running.  And it was desperately humiliating to hear “no” so often, to have so many people who couldn’t even take a second to say “no”.  But I cared about the science and about the results.  And so even as bad as it felt at the time, the outcome was worth it.

These days, it takes a lot to embarrass me: I’ve had enough practice to not feel humiliated about many things that bother others.  I am the ultimate wingman, because I will talk to any girl, in any bar, any time you want and I will give a cold speech to a crowd of my peers without too many butterflies.

But even when I do feel embarrassed, when I go on national and recognize just how bald I actually am (or badly I misjudged the beard-to-bald ratio), I can honestly say it was worth it.  And those are the gifts that we can give to other people, particularly young people: the lessons that embarrassment fades with practice and that the things we are willing to humiliate ourselves for last on.

I generally try not to write about current events, but I’m on a plane and this is my damn blog so you get what you get. Also, I think this is important: stick with me all the way to the end.

This week, I attended the National Spelling Bee, which has to be the single most relentlessly kid-positive event I’ve ever seen. I’ll admit that I went in expecting pageant parents and high pressure, and the latter is certainly true: there is no doubt that after coming from a pool of 11 million participants, making it to the final 250 and being live telecast on ESPN is nerve wracking.

But what was so awesome, and so unexpected, was how aware the adults were and how well they kept the focus on the kids. They hired genuinely funny Hollywood writers to make great “Use it in a sentence” retorts, with the net effect of breaking the tension for kids at the most stressful moments. When kids misspell a word and thus are eliminated, their parents meet their kids at the side of the stage with a hug. Being there, you get the sense that everyone is more focused on making this a successful, supportive experience for the kids than they are on actually having a competition.

I’m sure there are pageant parents in there and that there is plenty of politics and drama and the like. But the Spelling Bee really does feels like geek summer camp. The kids get yearbooks with a page for each of them and run around getting autographs from each other. The older kids and the cool kids are acknowledged, but generally humble and very warm towards the younger and the geekier. I saw at least one crush (and one of the pair was a semifinalist, so even more suspense). There is a dance on Friday night. There is near-constant high fiving.

If anything, the worst thing about the Bee isn’t at the Bee – it is what happens in the outside world. The sports fans who complain about missing a night of punditry on ESPN. The folks who take to Twitter and moan about how none of the finalists are ever Americans (just for reference, every semifinalist but one was an American this year, and they were black, white, brown, asian, and of both genders; just because you’re not white doesn’t mean you aren’t American).

Lameness happens and I can accept that. But one that bothered me in particular was a woman who said it was no longer interesting once the girls got out. I asked her if she would say the same thing if all the white kids got out, trying to point out that statements we make about gender wouldn’t be as acceptable if we translated them to race. Which caused her to try to explain to me the plight of women, particularly gender wage equity (which I found particularly funny, because I actually link to GetRaised.com in my Twitter profile). She even suggested that I would be the kind to use the word misandry on a frequent basis.

And of course, it is a big week for those kind of discussions. Because #YesAllWomen and, to be honest, #YesAllMen. Because everyone has made someone feel uncomfortable at some point. And because we’re all stupid assholes some of the time – that, at least, doesn’t seem to be split along gender lines.

But what always troubles me a bit about tragedies is that they make it difficult to question the prevailing voices. I’m very for cheering on women; I just sponsored prizes for a woman-focused hackathon out of my own pocket. But I’m not for saying they are the only reason to watch something. Not because I’m afraid of creating a bunch of misandrists but because I think that statements like “I’m no longer watching because the girls are out” feed the misogynists.

To me, the way to react to Elliot Rodger’s actions isn’t to emphasize a mental illness or the social forces that affect women. Mental illness and those forces are important, and need to be recognized, and I don’t want to silence women who need to speak out in order to feel better. But for sheer productivity, I can’t help but remember the story of C. P. Ellis, who was 53 when Studs Terkel interviewed him.

Ellis was an exalted cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, who grew up poor and felt shut out of American mainstream. He join the Klan to get a sense of belonging and before long, was rising in the leadership and showing up at town hall meetings with weapons tucked into his belt, hurling violent obscenities at the blacks who were pushing for integration.

That could have been in it; that could have been Ellis’ entire story and his entire life. His rage could have escalated to violence and he could have been Elliot Rodger: someone who felt pushed out and found someone else (importantly, someone also disempowered) to push back on.

But then something interesting happened: Ellis was invited to a working group of people from all walks of life asked to make recommendations on how to deal with racial problems. Instead of shunning him, part of the community reached out and said “even if we don’t agree with your opinions, we respect that you have them and we want to listen and work together to move forward”. Ellis was elected co-chair of the committee, alongside a black woman he hated. And by working with her and talking and moving forward an inch at a time, he left the Klan and became a staunch advocate not only of racial integration but on fighting for the rights of mostly-black union workers who lived in the poverty he knew so well.

Why can’t that be our reaction? Is this a moment where, instead of going to Twitter and saying “I’m not watching because the girls are gone”, we can find the places where misogynists cluster and actually listen to how they feel. Respect, if not their opinions, at least their feelings and their personhood and help them feel a little more included?

When you read Rodger’s writings, he couldn’t have put it more clearly: he felt he was on the outside, looking in. Without excusing his actions, without embracing his beliefs, the challenge is now ours. Can we put aside our own righteous anger in the interest of making progress? Can we take a moment and remember C. P. Ellis?

I admit it: I don’t actually mean the title of this article literally. Risks are great but only when built on a foundation of knowing what the heck you are doing. Yet big bets when the moment is right are not only the only way to beat the house, they’re also critical to human happiness and advancement. And the moment is right far more often than we think.

Take a recent example of a Netflix customer service employee. “Captain” Mike took a risk: instead of offering normal customer service, he went the zany route and answered a customer support chat using a Star Trek roleplay. Which sounds weird but he pulls it off well and clearly the customer was pleased. Point for Mike: take a job where you are free to take the kind of bets you like to take and have a reasonable expectation they might pay off.

But let’s draw the flip side: maybe it didn’t work He could have drawn the sourpuss who just wanted it fixed without the cuteness. Customer could have complained and then it is up to Mike’s boss, who might have decided that customer service reps are a dime a dozen and kicked him to the curb. Which comes to the second point of Mike: work for people who will back the risks you take.

Even with a good boss, though, you can still get fired for a risk that goes badly. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a risk and some jobs are like that – there are times when you really only get one big bet and if the cards don’t go your way, you bust and have to walk away. Which brings us to the third point of Mike: there is a difference between betting your job and betting your career. Let’s say this went the wrong way: customer complains, Mike gets fired from Netflix. He bets his job, he loses.

He wouldn’t, however, have been out of a career. Because there are companies that do appreciate that kind of customer service (like, apparently, Netflix) and while he certainly would have lost wages and had to deal with a transition, Mike still would have ended up on his feet in his chosen field. There is a huge difference between betting your table stakes for today and betting your entire life savings.
And that’s grand master Mike (can you tell I haven’t been sleeping much) point number four: rewards. Because none of that bad stuff actually happened. He was a geek and the customer loved it and so did the internet and now Mike made Netflix shine like grain alcohol. Bonus. Promotion. Boom!

Except that’s not really the boom. The real boom is that in risking your job in pursuit of doing meaningful things, you not only widen the possibility that the bet itself will payoff in customer happiness/salary/title but you also get work worth doing. Meaning is the single most valuable currency in the workplace, and far and away does more to increase individual happiness than wages.

Ernest Hemingway once wrote something that can be imperfectly summarized as “the world is a good place and worth fighting for.” Sometimes, the Mikes get fired; the world isn’t perfect. But it is good and it is worth fighting for. Because if you’re not providing the best service you know how to, if you’re not risking when the moment is there, then you’re suggesting that the world isn’t worth betting big on. And who wants to live in a world like that?

I spend less than two minutes choosing what to wear every morning. And I spend less on clothes in a year than most people in my income bracket do in a quarter. And I do it all by satisficing.

To start, I wear basically the same thing every day. Levi’s 514 33/34 jeans in a dark wash, a Nordstrom Trim Fit 15 34/35 shirt in a neutral color and pattern, a pair of 11.5 D cowboy boots (black or brown) and matching leather belt, and a John Varvatos 40R blazer (or, if it is warm enough, a vest). It works for most any weather, is formal enough that you can go onstage and give a talk but informal enough that you don’t have to worry about dry cleaning. A night on a hanger followed by the shower trick will unwrinkle everything enough to look decent (though that may be because my standards are lax).

But standardization is about more than just not having to pick what to wear every morning. The list above also helps me shop: I have automated searches on eBay that mail me each morning with things that are the right size and the right price. If a John Varvatos 40R blazer sold for less than $40 on eBay in the last year, chance are I bought it. This actually has a variety of benefits. One, its cheap. Two, it makes me less attached to the things I own. Rip a shirt while travelling? Leave it behind – it only cost $10. Third, I’m big on the “reuse” portion of the “reuse-reduce-recycle” triangle, so that’s a bonus. And obviously, it saves me a ton of money.

But the real advantage is in the cognitive savings. The one true limited resource in life is our mental energy: time and money are essentially just proxies for what we are required to spend our cognitive resources on. And for some, clothes may actually be something they want to spend resources on. It may be an important part of their identity or bring them genuine happiness. But for me, skipping out on the mental energy of clothing means I get to spend more mind on things I actually do care about.

And that’s the bit that people most often miss out on. We have a tendency to let social standards tell us what things are worth spending our mental energy on. Wearing the same thing is “boring” and it means that we are boring. But in reality, there is very little more interesting than spending time on your interests. If your interest is fashion, then apply this to whatever part of your life isn’t: food is another area ripe for satisficing (my trick: ask if the other person is deciding between two things, tell them you’ll order whichever they don’t pick so they can get a bit of both). So are electronics: just ask the expert in your life and then take their recommendation. I don’t know about speakers, I don’t want to know about speakers, so I call Sound Man Dave and he says “get those” and I do it. Which frees me to go think about choosing very specific computer parts, a topic I am passionate about and do enjoy maximizing on.

So if you see me at a conference someday, wearing the exact outfit described above, don’t be surprised. I might be a bit frumpy, slightly wrinkled and ill-fitted, but that just means that I spent my mind somewhere else. Feel free to ask me about what I did instead; it might be interesting.

I’m not generally a “fan” kinda guy.  But I’ll admit that Terry Pratchett is kind of a badass.  His prose has that dry humor that actually works really well in light fantasy books and it isn’t often you find somebody who can make you laugh out loud while reading.  And in addition to being funny, Pratchett is also deeply insightful in a way that interests not only the psychologist in me but the person.

Take his answer to the question “Do you believe in God?” in a televised interview (also, marvel at how he sounds like a wizard).  Pratchett starts by noting that he thinks people are basically good, and that we are shaped by the universe we live in.  But where he really gets cracking is when he argues that evolution is a far more interesting story than traditional religion.  At its pinnacle, the argument is “I would much rather be a rising ape than a falling angel.”

Drop the mic.

Religious folks around the world tend to paint science as rather bleak compared to religion.  The folks in the white lab coats are all doom and gloom and take all the magic out of life, where religion inspires us with the meaning that makes life worth meaning.  But what if science really does have the more optimistic view of humankind?

In Christianity, everything starts out perfect and eventually succumbs to decay.  The Bible starts with idyllic garden and ends with fiery rapture, and things as basically a linear decline in between, which a fair bit of raping and pillaging and murder and enslavement to humble us as we get closer to the rise of the Antichrist.

But science, as championed by evolution, suggests that things are always getting better.  That’s essentially what evolution is: improvement. The inherent tendency of man and animal is to gradually adjust to their environments in such a way that they’re constantly improving and adapting.  As Pratchett puts it, science teaches us that stars are common and unimportant, and streetlights are incredibly important, because as far as we know, they exist nowhere else in the universe and they were built by ascendant apes.

In no way am I suggesting that science is better than religion on any factual basis.  But when you think about it, we live life on a hedonic treadmill.  We need to be constantly improving in order to simply stay in the same place, happiness-wise.  But while religion has us standing in the same place until we slide off the back of the treadmill, or even worse, running in the wrong direction towards a catastrophic spill, science seems to suggest that the treadmill is OK.  We hold ground because we evolve and when you look at the data, we may even be inching our way up the treadmill: less children are dying, more people are being fed.

Not only does science present humankind as improving on a global, millennial scale, it also suggests that we improve within just a single lifetime.  The very concept of modern schooling suggests that as we age, we learn more things and gain more responsibility.  Human beings, over the course of their individual life spans, generally feel better off when they’re old than when they’re young.  Sure, a 70-year-old might wish he was 20 again periodically, but survey research shows us that virtually none would go back to being 20 if they had to give up all the knowledge they gained.

Religion brings comfort to millions and that’s awesome.  But I can’t help but feel like science could to, if we could just change the way people look at it.  Like Terry Pratchett, I’d rather be a part of something that’s considered imperfect but working towards betterness than a flawed version of something that was once flawless.  Even if it’s not in my lifetime, I’d like to know that I’m part of a race that’s consistently getting better at stuff.  And that I’m playing some small part in that.

In a way, this ties right back to Robin Williams’ Dead Poets Society monologue.  “‘Life exists, and identity.  The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.’  The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.  What will your verse be?”  Regardless of what my verse ends up being, I like the idea that I get to contribute.  And if the trends of science continue, we’ll be headed towards an entirely different Book of Revelations—one where we rising apes are exponentially better at things than we are now.

It is no great secret that I love my work and working in general.  After all, Churnless‘ motto was taken from a Teddy Roosevelt quote (“Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”) and I come from a family and community where the culture of work is a strong part of our personal identity.

Which is why this recent iPad commercial featuring Robin Williams’ Dead Poets Society speech drives me nuts.  Leaving aside that everything people are doing isn’t unique to the iPad and you could sub in basically any tablet, it is the monologue that really kills me.

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business these are all noble pursuits necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, and love; these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman “Oh me, Oh life of the question of these recurring. of the endless trains of the faithless of cities filled with the foolish. What good amid these? Oh me, Oh life.” “Answer…that you are here and life exists….You are here. Life exists, and identity. The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.” The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

Look, I love Dead Poets Society as much as the next person.  And I think this is a powerful and well-spoken monologue.  But it is meant to inspire a room full of school boys who believe that they will all go on to be business mavens and who need to be reminded of beauty.  And it sets up art and work as separate, with art being the valuable bit.  Art is lovely and beautiful. Work is obligation, labor.

“Medicine, law, business these are all noble pursuits necessary to sustain life.”  Boom!  Drop the mic.  That’s the power of work right there.  And there is a poetry in all those of those things.  I challenge anyone to watch a surgeon perform a complex surgery that saves a life and not tell me that there is art and beauty in that moment.

What we do with our time is a huge part of our identity.  And the science is incredibly clear: people who don’t work, who can’t find meaning and employment, generally aren’t happy.  Sure, people who work in jobs that feel ineffective and boring aren’t as happy as those who find import in their work, but they are generally still better off than the unemployed (psychologically speaking) and that’s not the same as saying that work itself is fundamentally bad, just that those particular work situations are.  Just because some people get divorced or stay in bad relationships doesn’t mean that all marriages are bad, so why would we suggest that because some work is mundane, all work is necessarily less important than art.

And art and poetry are, more off than not when done well, work.  There is a great essay by Barbara Kingsolver in High Tide in Tucson about her muse, which she envisions not as some loving, wispy figure but as a gent with a baseball bat who comes around immediately after she puts her daughter on the bus and reminds her that she now has six or so hours in which to produce the work that puts food on the table.

Think about the magic marker study.  They’ve just come out, they’re awesome, blowing kids’ minds.  So you give them to two different classes and let them play.  And at the end of the day, one class just goes home, and the other class gets a “good player” award before they leave.  Second day, same thing.  Third day, you don’t give the class the “good player” award.  And on day four, suddenly those kids just aren’t as interested in the magic markers.  Because you replaced all the intrinsic motivation of fun with extrinsic motivation of getting an award.

But work doesn’t have to be that.  Just because we receive a paycheck for doing it, it doesn’t have to be devoid of meaning.  Whitman reminded us all to contribute a verse and the truth, for most everyone, is this: the most powerful verse your contribute to the extension of mankind will happen at work.  It will be that which supports necessity of life.  And it will be beautiful.

Edison once said something to the effect of not failing at making a light bulb, but simply finding a bunch of ways of making a light bulb that didn’t work.  What he didn’t point out is that the reason he got to the light bulb and others didn’t is that they didn’t have access to those mistakes.  Which is great in a world where you want to own light bulb making, but not so great if you actually want to advance civilization (note: if you get a chance, read about Edison and his insane capitalist tendencies).

In academia, we call this the “file drawer problem”.  The basic idea is that studies that show a novel effect get published, and studies that don’t get stuck in a file drawer and nobody knows they exist.  And the reason it is a problem is that those failures may be novel in and of themselves; knowing that somebody else tried something and it didn’t work prevents you from wasting a bunch of resources trying the same thing.

Like Edison, people theoretically have the right to hoard their failures as private data.  But I think more often, people do it out of shame.  We see it in business all the time: failed startups, product flops, rebranding gone woefully, woefully awry and people trying to backpedal and spin and hope that nobody notices. It’s not that the people behind these concepts are intentionally making mistakes; mistakes are a natural part of life.  And by failing to document and share them, we slow down our progress by a significant amount.

If every founder of every failed startup penned a candid, introspective blog post a few months after they shut the doors that detailed what went wrong, we’d be opening the file drawer into a world of knowledge that benefits the community at large.  And even if that moves the needle from “nine out of every 10 startups fail” to “eight out of every 10 startups fail,” that’d be a massive win.

But what about the significant inhibiting pressure of the fact that you have to out yourself as a failure?  First, everyone already knows.  The spin rarely works, especially when your startup shutters, so it isn’t like you’re hiding the embarrassing bit.  Second, you’re helping your community (and what’s the point of being in a community if you don’t contribute to it?).  Third, and most importantly, talking about failures shows maturity.  And as any investor will tell you, investing in mature founders is a heck of a lot better than investing in failures who don’t want to share why they failed in an honest way.

Could your post mortem get a little viral? Sure. There are a few currently making the rounds. But that’s not a bad thing: the whole point here is that other people can learn from your mistakes.  Because when we view startups as fundamental to the progress of civilization, you can learn from the mistakes of scientists.  You can fix the file drawer problem that we are still figuring out, and you can do it with a grace that we will likely never achieve, for reasons of academic ego.  And for once, wouldn’t be better to be smarter than the scientists?

So the first guy on the plane can’t get his bag into the overhead bin.  It’s a puddle jumper, so the bins are small, and he’s got one of those backpack with large wheels.  Clearly frustrated.  Only one flight attendant, chooses not to help, just snaps at him: “Next time, check your bag!”  Awesome.  Clearly going to be a fun flight.

Guy says “I can’t check it.”  Why?  No idea.  Filled with gold.  Has his medicine in it.  Not a clue.  But clearly, this is not going well.

And this, ladies and gents, is how I get kicked off the plane.  Since we’re stuck behind this guy, and I’m standing there anyway, and this flight attendant is badgering him, I ask the following question: “Excuse me, ma’am, what’s your name?”  Yes, I really did say ma’am; I actually talk like that.  I didn’t tell her why I was asking, though having just snapped at a customer, I sort of assumed she knew.  She says “Cheryl”.  Or Sheryl, since I don’t have spelling: she might have been wearing a nametag but I didn’t see it at a glance and was trying to politely not look at her chest in close quarters.

That’s it.  That’s the end of the conversation.  Guy eventually gets his bag in overhead bin, I sit down, he sits down, people get on plane.  Another gent sits down (BriefCase guy) and she tells him case has to go in overhead bin (right, because we’re in Row 1!) so I get up and put my backpack in an overhead, settle back with my tablet, start reading.  The Briefcase guy shakes his head at having to put his bag in overhead and I joke “perils of Row 1” and give him a smile.  Back to reading.

I sort of vaguely overheard her ask for the gate agent, but I wasn’t really paying attention.  I think she may have asked BagTrouble guy to put his personal bag in the overhead (again, Row 1) and he may have complained it wasn’t a bag – can’t honestly say, as I was reading.

Next thing I know, gate agent shows up and she point to me and the guy who had trouble with his bag and says “I really don’t want these guys on my flight.  I think they’re going to make trouble, I’m the only flight attendant, I’m not comfortable.”  I’m a little in shock at this point.  Gate agent asks for more info from her, she says “well they’re giving me attitude, and they refuse to put their bags in the overhead bins.”

“My bag’s actually in the overhead bin back there,” I chime in.  “She didn’t even ask me.  I just asked her name because she was rude to him and I was going to report her.”  It occurs to me that I am wearing a lot of black; I consider whether it is wise to say that I am dressed this way for a funeral and not a threat.  Bad idea.  Don’t say “threat”.  Stay calm.

“See?” she said. “He’s going to give me attitude.  We’re not going to get along.  I want him off.”  Gate agent asks me to grab my bag and presto, I’m off the flight.  No idea if the other guy got to stay on – hope so; he looked like he was having a bad enough day already.

From there, it is pretty routine: gate agent says there is nothing he can do about resolving it now, he wasn’t there, offers to put me on later United flight (can’t do it, supposed to be on a key Bing for Schools conference call with engineering, which is why I woke up at 3am to get on this flight) or Alaska Airlines to Oakland (no idea how to get from there to SFO, but timing works).  I’m totally stunned, ask him what I’m supposed to do, and he tells me to call customer service, they’ll get her side of the story and mine and sort it out and in the meantime, pick a flight.

I opt for Oakland, run across the airport (side note: you can make it from one end of SeaTac to the other in about 8 minutes, if you sprint hard and get the train timing right) and presto – I’m writing this from the plane to Oakland.  How I’m getting from Oakland to San Fran?  No clue.  But I’ll do the conference call, figure out how to get to SF to do my talk, then get back on another United flight to head to my grandfather’s funeral.

Tweeted about it when I finally got on the Alaska Airlines flight.  Why?  Not sure.  I was still a little in shock.  Angry.  Social media means when you’re wronged, you get the chance to tell the whole world and I did.  Not sure how I feel about that.

I do think the gate agent had to trust the flight attendant.  In order for a business to function, in a moment where you don’t know exactly what has happened, you have to back your employee’s call.  I’ve done it with my own employees, Microsoft has done it with me, it happens in every business.  And you’ve got a plane full of people waiting to go, who shouldn’t be held up for me, regardless of the actual situation.

I obviously think the flight attendant shouldn’t have booted me.  But I’m trying hard to be fair and put myself in her place: if she really did think I was going to cause problems on the flight, certainly better to get rid of me on the ground.  And life is about social signals: she is a woman, I am a man; she is quite tiny, I am quite tall; it is 5am and nobody is at their best.  I think of myself as polite and generally non-threatening but in that moment, maybe she didn’t perceive me that way.

Or maybe she’s a tyrant who used her ability to get me booted to punish me or potentially even protect herself.  Certainly my complaint against her is going to be colored now, since Just World Bias virtually guarantees that a large portion of people are going to believe I was in the wrong, since I did get kicked off the plane.  It is much more comfortable to believe that I’m a raving lunatic and their own travel plans are safe than it is to believe that someone could get arbitrarily kicked off a plane for asking the flight attendant’s name.

The real problem is: now what?  Obviously, I’m still feeling angry (though laughing on Twitter with people made it substantially better, thanks in particular to @bdsams, who I now owe a drink).  I don’t even know what United could do to make the situation better.  They could refund the flight, Microsoft would get a little money back, and I’d still be pissed.  They could personally give me some free flight but at the moment, I’m not feeling terribly interested in flying United again; I feel crappy about having to fly them again in a few hours but they are really the only way to get to grandpa’s funeral in a reasonable way.  They could fire and publically flog the flight attendant but what is the point of that, unless she really is a tyrant and not just someone who actually felt threatened, which would be impossible to know unless she has some sort of history?

That’s the rub of a situation like this: it feels entirely lose-lose.   I’m trying to take it philosophically.  No one should get fired, nobody should boycott United, bad days happen.  Unless it is a pattern and needs correcting.  And maybe that’s where Twitter is actually useful in this: it helps us understand the patterns of large, disperse things (like airlines) and their effects on individuals.

In theory, as long as the system was big enough to disguise her behavior, this flight attendant could boot people periodically and it would go unnoticed.  There would be individual injustices but the system would still be OK.  Apparently the NYT has done a deep dive into this and it isn’t happening more often.  I am somewhat reassured.

I can only say how it feels in the moment.  How absolutely maddening it is to be booted from a flight, to feel as though you’ve been misperceived, to have no recourse in the moment.  How I’m still all amped up, even though I’m safely seated on another plane.  How my body can’t quite figure out whether it wants to cry or punch something.  How common an injustice is doesn’t change the way you feel when it is happening to you.  Feels weird to go with the race card, but is this how people feel when they are pulled over because they’re black?  If I had been browner, would they have brought an air martial with them?

Landing now.  Going to be a long day.

I really, really want someone else to be writing this blog entry.  I want it so much I’m willing to pay for it, which is why I’ve been trying to hire a ghostwriter for the longest time.  Seems like a pretty decent gig: I’ll pay you a decent wage, and you spend 30 minutes talking to me a week, then 30 minutes writing up a post based on what we talked about.  Sweet.

Quick privilege check.  Yes, it is profoundly bizarre to me that I am now in a place where I can afford to pay someone to do my writing for me.  No, I’m not asking them to do my thinking for me.  But the entire service industry, from restaurants to cleaners, is based on the idea that we can pay other people in order to save time.  Feel free to think I’m an asshole; let’s move to the fun economic/psych theory bit.

So if I want to pay someone actual money to do this job, why the heck am I still the one writing this blog entry?  Because sending kids to college has created a labor model that prays on some of our worst psychological tendencies and results in many open jobs and many unemployed young people, a state that theoretically shouldn’t exist (and an excellent example of why psychology > economics, when viewed in the classical sense).

It all starts with the lovely economic action “to realize a loss”, a shockingly accurate term, though I doubt it was for the reasons economists intended.  The “loss” part is hopefully clear, so to differentiate a realized loss from an unrealized one, imagine I bought a stock yesterday for $100.  Today, they announced some bad news and the stock went down to $80.  Now I’ve lost $20 but until I actually sell the stock, it is unrealized – it is a loss only in the theoretical sense.  It is the moment when I sell the stock that it becomes realized, when the paper loss becomes a tangible one.

This is what makes folks hold on to stocks for way too long, even when they are in sharp decline: they don’t want to convert an unrealized loss into a realized one, because it is psychologically painful.  So they’ll keep holding the stock, even though doing it means they lose money (this, by the way, is why most unsophisticated investors should not pay too much attention to their stock portfolio and just ride the general up-and-to-the-right trend).  And it is why I said economists got it accidentally right: people are, quite literally, trying not to realize that they’ve lost something.  Desperate tricks we play with our brains FTW.

So why am I nattering on about losses when this rant is supposed to be how I can’t pay someone to ghostwrite these blog entries?  Because theoretically, the person I need is a college grad who doesn’t have a job.  And in massive, massive droves, our college graduates are desperately trying not to realize a loss.

I’m not saying college is a loss; far from it.  What I am saying is that in a purely rational world, it is better to be paid something than it is to be paid nothing.  But if your expectation is that you are going to be paid $40K (because you went to college, after all), then anything less feels like a loss.  And taking a job that pays less is precisely that act of realizing a loss, which has cost people so much in so many financial domains.

Now there are some college grads who are living at home and using their unemployed time to do all sorts of wonderful things.  They’re teaching themselves skills like coding or volunteering in interesting and innovative ways that benefit us all.  They are holding on to the stock not out of a fear of realizing a loss but because they can, through hard work, actually make it more valuable.  They can prevent the loss or at least minimize it, not just on paper but in reality.

But having tried to find a ghostwriter and with a number of false starts with various candidates, I’m rapidly realizing that this may not be the case with all, or even most, of our unemployed graduates.  Instead of making choices that are about investing in the future, holding on to a stock because they can work towards its rise, they are inventing excuses not to accept jobs that don’t pay full-time, high dollar salaries simply because they want to avoid that feeling of loss.

The economic downturn, as it is so politely called, hurt a lot of people.  Families lost houses, jobs, hope.  We all know the stories and I don’t have to belabor them.  But in a desperate attempt not to let it hurt them, there are some young people who are going to make it much, much worse.

So if you’re reading this, take my money.  Or someone’s money.  Even if it is less than you believe you deserve, less than the golden promise that you earned your education for, less than you want or need or deserve.  Work worth doing, for pay worth having, is a loss only if you measure it against the expectations you had.  If you measure it against what you are making now, it is a gain.  Not theoretical but realized each and every time you exchange your meaningful work for meaningful money.  Your challenge is not to avoid the loss but to find the meaning.

(Update: As Matt Dyor points out, this also happens with older workers who refuse to take a step down in pay.)

Amazons, not Amazon (although there were certainly people from Amazon there). Warrior women, in legions, with the young huddled around the old seeking advice and peers talking about battle scars. There was even two victorious festivals, complete with drinking and dancing and wild shouting.  I don’t think there was any mead, but it wouldn’t have been inappropriate.

The actual name for the event was the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. Long name for a short conference, but it boils down to thousands of technical women geeking out for several days in Minneapolis. Thousands of women and about twenty guys, mostly recruiters. And one random behavioral scientist, which is really Betsy Aoki‘s fault. Months ago, she sent me a note and told me I should apply for this thing so that I could spread the gender wage equity gospel and talk about GetRaised.com. I applied, got accepted, and then promptly got swallowed by Bing for Schools.

My first inkling that maybe this was a bigger deal that I had previously realized was when I started getting organizer emails from people at Microsoft. Apparently, of the thousands of attendees, hundreds were coming from the mothership. And they were, bar none, the most organized troupe of attendees I’ve ever seen at the company. It was suddenly clear that not only was this a big deal, but that for a tremendous number of women, this was something they were immensely excited about.

It isn’t pretty, but truthfully, I don’t get as excited about conferences anymore. If we’re sticking with the battle theme, I’m some sort of young captain at this point, having seen enough to know that my job is to show up, do my duty, and try not to get killed by a random arrow (or question). But this was something different, something even the veterans were fired up about.

I don’t really want to talk about my speech there, other than to say that it was probably the best audience I’ve ever had. It turns out, when there are no men in the room and spirits are riding high, you can get a crowd of a couple hundred to get really feisty about gender wage equity, which generally isn’t a particularly sexy topic. I’d be more likely to watch TED talks if there was that much cheering and shouting and jeering.

And oh, the dancing. I should have known the talk was going to go well, given the tenor of the dance the night before. It turns out, when there are no men around to impress or feel shamed by or nervous about, women can let loose in a very different way. It was lovely to feel permissioned to be incredibly silly to Stayin’ Alive and Love Shack.

I don’t normally do the “overheard” thing, but there were several moments where just listening at GHC made me incredibly happy. Two in particular stand out. One was the first night, where as I was walking to the dance, a woman was excitedly talking into her cell phone going the opposite direction. “I just danced with a VP from COMPANYNAME!” I don’t think anyone has ever been that excited about dancing with me, ever, and I’m actually a pretty good dancer.  Whoever that VP is, my hat is off to you.  And how wonderful is a conference that makes anybody, even if it was just that one woman, feel that way?

Second, and more socioculturally relevant, was “Do you want to, like, umm, go to the mall later?” GHC had a lot of college students in attendance, and a group happened to sit near me, and this came out of a woman who could probably more properly be called a girl. And it is an awesome, awesome statement that makes me hopeful for the future of tech. Because while I love folks that are as nerdy as I am, if tech is limited to just nerds, we’re screwed. We need mainstream people in computing, and while that has been common in the male population for years, this was my first experience with seeing hypermainstream women in incredibly technical roles. And maybe I’m stupid for celebrating a desire to go to the mall but it really does feel like progress. We need that diversity.

There were a lot of lovely moments at GHC and I have to hand it to the organizers; all the hard work they put into making it an accepting, tolerant place for women seems to have paid off. And honestly, having dramatically more women than men around actually made me relax too. There was no implicit competition, no being bothered by obnoxious crowds of guys crowded around the sexually attractive women and ignoring the less attractive ones. For example, casual seating was a bit limited, so I asked a young woman if I could share a table with her and it was lovely for her to be able to say yes without having to evaluate whether I was actually hitting on her. And it turned out that I could make an introduction that her friend needed. At a normal tech conference, we never even would have drilled down to that layer, because the layers and filters would have made it much harder for her to make that ask across age and gender lines.

To be clear, though, I had some privilege at GHC. As a speaker, it felt like I had a very public reason to be there as a male and I’m not sure it would have felt the same if I had just opted to come as an attendee. I talked about this with some friends and it was a mixed bag of reactions: some felt like it would be entirely acceptable and not all damaging to have men attend in larger numbers, while others felt it would interfere if non-speaker/recruiter men were about. This seemed to break a bit along age lines, with the older more confident women feeling like unidentified male allies were a benefit and the younger women feeling like it would mess with their mojo (this may be because the younger women would likely have to shoulder the burden of any unwanted flirting).

I’m not sure I really have an opinion, other than I know I likely would have felt uncomfortable if I wasn’t speaking or at least there in some sort of official role. But I’ll tell you this: as long as GHC keeps inviting me, I’ll keep coming. Because the future of computing is a gender-balanced one and I intend to be there.