One of the biggest fights my wife and I ever had was about engagement rings. Specifically, her engagement ring. My position was that engagement rings were gendered (notifying other men that women were sexually claimed), expensive (relative to other things we were saving for), and not consistent with our values as a couple. Her position was that I was an idiot and she wanted one.

Predictably, I bought my wife the ring she wanted. And in the process, I learned a few things about myself and, given the number of my friends who have had the same fight, probably other people as well.

Rings are a unique problem. My wife is a fairly reasonable person and doesn’t advocate the spending of large amounts of money on non-functional things. We’re not at the same place on the spectrum of frugal (I buy my clothes on eBay, which I recognize is pretty close to the endpoint), but we’re at least in vaguely the same quadrant. So for her to advocate spending a pretty large sum on a ring isn’t consistent with her other values. The ring was a special case for her.

It was also a special case for me. Generally speaking, when my wife wants to spend money on something, I’m willing to go along with it. The budgeter in me moans and groans about it, but ultimately, we usually do it without a full-on fight. Something about the ring was triggering for me in a way that other purchases weren’t and I was willing to fight to the death over it.

Part of getting past it was accepting that we were fighting over symbolic meaning and nothing else. My wife needed a symbol of the stage that is engagement, without going directly from couple to married. She recognized that the value of the ring was socially imposed but as a member of society, she also felt how she felt and no amount of reasoning was going to make her feel differently. By that same token, I needed to know that our marriage would start from a place of reason and logic, free of traditions and values that were imposed on us rather than chosen.

To that end, it helped when I stopped thinking about it as a ring and started thinking about it like a couch. That is, I needed to get past the symbol and start thinking about my wife. If the argument had been over whether we should buy a couch, I might hem and haw a bit about it, but we’d get the couch. Because logically speaking, I love my wife and if a couch is really important to her, then it is important to me too.

And just like the couch, the ring actually has utility. You can’t sit on it but it still made my wife feel a certain way, predictably and reliably. I could rage against why it made her feel that way and I do: I don’t think we should socialize young women to respond to shiny baubles and when I eventually have a daughter, I hope to teach her other values. But the issue isn’t whether it should make her feel a particular way. No matter what else was said, the fact is that it did make her feel that way.

Now you could argue that I had to compromise my values here and she didn’t; after all, she did get the ring in the end. She also could have stepped back and thought of the ring as a couch, decided to let it go, and I’m sure there will be times when she will. All arguments require someone to compromise to move past them: either you buy the ring or you don’t. But compromising doesn’t have to mean win-lose. Buying her a ring was consistent with my values because I value my wife. The ring is just a couch for me and a whole lot more for her. In the end, I’m glad I bought it. We both won.

Side note: One of the reasons people love personalization so much is that it substitutes meaning for expense. That is, you can take something not that expensive and make it meaningful by making it personal. For example, my wedding ring has a design element called a “river”. And since they are made one at a time to size, designer Todd Pownell made my river match a topographical map I sent him of the river I grew up with (the Clackamas River in Oregon). It should be easy to do this with almost anything; engraving should be one of the most standard free services around.

I love talking to people as a way of designing products. At Thrive, I used to put a little note at the bottom of every weekly email that invited users in the New York City area to let me buy them lunch in return for just sitting down and talking about the day-to-day of how they related to their finances. With Avi Karnani, I’d chat up people in bars and collect stories about the best and worst of their money moments. Some of the most successful features we ever created came from just listening and watching.

In general, the tech industry has been moving in the same direction, trying to be more user-centric and responsive to their needs. But somewhere along the line, many companies made a critical mistake: they started listening only to their existing users. An emphasis on social media has made it the era of the “fan”, with products chasing the needs of the most passionate users.

The reason I call that a mistake is that I think it trades understanding for mere description. That is, focusing on fans tends to result in a list of directives, of favorite features and requests rather than insights into the process. Much like bad data science, it describes rather than explores, and it means features that ignore the needs that unite non-vocal users/non-users with super users.

As an example, let me use some real data from (special thanks to Jason Shah for agreeing to let me share it). helps people run productive meetings, by setting agendas, documenting action items, and auto-summarizing. And prior to March, you had to either create an account directly or use Google to sign up. Their conversion rates were good, they were growing, and all was right with the world.

Like many companies listening to their existing customers, used UserVoice to collect user feedback and vote for new features, and while a few people had asked for Office 365 integration, it hadn’t risen to the top of the stack. Which isn’t surprising: if Google is your primary login, you’re going to end up with a big crowd of Google users, simply via homophile.

This is where Jason bucked the trend. Instead of simply relying on his existing users, he started talking to people who weren’t using Do. And a clear theme emerged: productivity-oriented users overwhelmingly used Office 365. So he got in touch with me, I set him up with some Office 365 API engineers, and Do ended up integrating Office 365 into their platform.

Two things happened. First, their conversion rates from the signup page went up significantly (7%). Because the only options had been creating an account or using Google, had been unknowingly turning away many new customers.   And because those customers abandoned pre-signup, their voice was almost never heard.

7% is a huge number, especially as far down the funnel as signup. If you imagine the amount of marketing money you would need to spend to drive a corresponding change by running people over the top of the funnel, considering what barriers you are putting in the way of signup seems dramatically more efficient.

The second thing that happened was that 25% of their existing userbase connected O365 accounts. Previously, because the only option was to hook up to Google calendar, all of their active users connected to Google. Once Office 365 was an option, Do saw an immediate reaction from their community and a corresponding rise in utility.

This is particularly important because it illustrates the limitations of passive user listening. If you only rely on users motivated enough to vote on features, etc. you ignore the fact that there may be a large group of people who want a feature but simply are too busy to tell you about it. Passive data collection relies on fans and fans have a myopic few of features. And in a world where there are an increasing number of options available for common tasks, you can’t simply live off early adopters and the passionate – you must also reach those who are seeking the path of least resistance.

I don’t want this to come across as decrying user research; I’m all for listening to users. And non-users. It is important that, as those concerned with creating behavior change in the world, we are not just passive listeners but active participants in the world that we want to change. It isn’t just good product, its good business – I’ll take 7% and 25% any day of the week.

Side note: Forget MOOCs; if you want to rapidly increase your knowledge about a topic, take a grad student to lunch. Most grad students are living off $25K or less and are eager for a good free meal – if you make it work on their time, you can find out virtually anything in 1:1 format, from someone who has more passion about the topic than the average online facilitator. Plus, you might just make a new friend.

As a kid, I was obsessed with entropy. Partially because of my obsession with science and in particular all of the special properties of ice, most notably freezing as a local reversal of entropy. And partially because of the Young Wizards book series, in which the antagonist is a personification of entropy and the protagonist wizards are those actively working to aid in helping the universe maintain itself in an orderly way.

I recognize now that worrying about the heat death of the universe was a bit unusual for a ten year old; I was sort of a weird kid. But even now, I feel an ache in my chest when I think about the fact that no matter how hard we struggle, chaos will eventually win and all we can really do is work hard to maximize the order of our local systems.

Two recent exposures to entropy in literature have brought it to the top of my mind. The first is the Mars Trilogy, which is so painfully full of science that it makes me want to go back to college. In it, the economic system the Martians develop has an entropic component, in which low-entropy goods are considered more desirable than high-entropy goods. The second is a quote from Dragon Age: Inquisition, uttered by a relatively minor character in non-essential dialogue: “My life is a debt I intend to repay, however I can.”

I was raised with strong values of service. My father was fond of saying that my brother and I were his chance to change the world, which I have always carried with me as the best sort of burden. And small towns always have this pervading sense that resources are limited, that you have been invested in, and that you damn well better make something of yourself to pay it all back to the community.

But musing on entropy, I wonder if we can’t take those values a little farther, as implied by the science itself. That is, the creation of a human life is an exercise in entropic (and yes, I am using the term broadly here) reduction: immense calories are burned and heat is generated, raising the overall entropy of the universe, but the local result is this beautifully organized system, a human life.

If we imagine entropy as a giant economic system, this implies that we literally take on an entropic debt to the universe when we are born. Resources are expended and without them, we wouldn’t exist. And it is only through work – specifically anti-entropic work – that we repay that debt. Just like the wizards in those childhood books, we can work to promote life, minimize our entropic waste, and help create a better, more efficient system for others.

I don’t mean this to imply that everyone should be forced into a life that is oriented towards service. But in a world where many people seem to think that the world owes them something, it feels as though in teaching the science of entropy, we could remind them that the precise opposite is true. After all, the universe died a little bit to make you, so you damn well better contribute.

Side note: An important quote in today’s article game from a video game. And it isn’t a nostalgia piece, like “all your base are belong to us”, but rather a serious expression of literary merit. If there is any doubt that video games will eventually surpass movies/books, let this stand as evidence that eventually, all fiction will be interactive.

Originally, this blog post was simply about the fact that nobody was saying “net neutrality” and “zero rating” in the same sentence. But then I found out that somebody was and far more eloquently than I, so go read this as a primer.

Given that Jon Healey made the argument so well, I am going to try to make a slightly different point. Not “Why doesn’t anyone object to zero rating?” but rather “How is it that people can both support zero rating and net neutrality?” After all, that is a fairly complicated mental gymnastics routine: “I am unwilling for networks to decide what content should be fast or slow, but I am entirely willing for them to decide whether it should be free or not.”

Brief recap of the argument: zero rating is actually a form of preferential traffic handling that is exactly analogous to the speed discussion that is dominating the net neutrality debate. It just subs cost for speed. In the same way that Comcast could choose to make Netflix faster or slower, they could choose to make you pay for the actual bandwidth to deliver Netflix or not, either by specifically charging you for Netflix traffic (which consumers would rebel against) or by making other types of traffic free (which consumers are celebrating in the form of zero rating on mobile carriers).

From a psych perspective, this is all about framing. Zero rating is framed as a gain: you would normally have to pay for this content but due to the benevolence of networks, it is free. Traffic shaping is framed as a loss: you would normally get this content fast but due to the evil of networks, it is slow.

You could, however, switch the frame on either statement. For zero rating: you would normally get this content for free but due to the evil of networks, you have to pay. For traffic shaping: you would normally get this content slow but due to the benevolence of the networks, it is fast.

And those statements are actually true. Right now, zero rate services are a marketing tactic simply because most services don’t zero rate and you do have to pay for the data they use. To put it differently, there is a contrast effect, where paying is the norm and free is different. If zero rating became the new norm, however, paying for bandwidth would feel exactly like slow services – a loss.

It would have the same market effects as well. Pandora and T-Mobile are big enough to have bizdev folks and lawyers and finance that make zero rating possible; your average startup can’t zero rate. Thus, if zero rating becomes rampant, big companies will win and small companies will lose, because they don’t have easy access to the machinery that allows for zero rating. Middlemen like Syntonic may fill in that market gap, but that will come at a price.

I’m not advocating for or against net neutrality, at least not here. But I do believe that that discussion should include zero rating. Whether it is cost or speed, gain or loss, it is important that we don’t let our framing biases keep us from making guidelines that are based not the internet as we use it today but the internet that will exist tomorrow. For every scenario we consider, we must consciously resist our biases and posit its opposite in frame, in concept, and in execution. It is only then that we can build an internet for the future.

Side note: If we made connectivity free, the price of hardware would go up steeply. Is it possible that we’re going to return to a world where the ability to afford the phone is going to be the gating factor, not affording the data?

When I was a kid, I rode the bus for an hour and a half to get home because they wouldn’t let an eight-year-old cross rural highways, so I had to go clear to the end of the route and come back.  I spent that entire time reading and consequently, as an adult,  I am an inhumanly fast reader.  My superpower is as geeky as I am.  But after watching me devour material, most people who ask me what I generally read are surprised, for two very simple reasons.

One: I don’t read nonfiction.  That’s a bit of a lie, as I read a ton of primary source material (psych journals, academic papers), but what I mean is that I don’t read what most people think of when they talk about non-fiction: New York Times best-selling books that are serious history, science, etc. written for a popular audience.

Two: I don’t really read blogs or websites.  Again, it is a bit of a lie; more accurate would be that I read hardly any blogs regularly or deeply.  I skim Anandtech and BGR, mostly for straight news announcements about technology.  I’ll binge on RockPaperShotgun when I have an hour to just indulge in the weird games people are building.  And I read a lot of articles sent to me by friends I trust, though these aren’t from any one source particularly.  If Betsy or Dave or Julie says “thought of you when reading this”, I’ll certainly check it out.

When I read for pleasure, it is fiction (everything from sci-fi to serious literature) and only fiction.  That’s why they call it “reading for pleasure”.

And more importantly, if the latest Gawker article or pop science book is really that interesting, I’m sure someone will tell me about it.  I can always tell you what the book of the moment is because people have summarized it for me over drinks or dinner – they’ve done the hard part of reading it, they’ve applied an intelligent analysis, and summarized.

Think of it this way: It is important that someone reads this blog post.  But it is not important that everyone reads this blog post.  You could succinctly summarize much of what I’m saying to someone after reading and for the spread of an idea, that’s probably good enough.  Even better if you’ve made it your own, put your twist on it, made it even better.

We have to stop reading for self-presentation, going after the book of the moment simply to appear well-educated or well-informed.  Instead, we need a system that allows you to read the books that are interesting to you, meet for a drink to tell me the good bits, and then we can spend more of our time talking about why you find it important and what may or may not be true about it and how it intersects with everything else we’ve read.  You tell me all about The Omnivores Dilemma and I’ll tell you about how I see that reflected in the Mars Trilogy and we’ll both be better off.

In other words, there is more than enough interesting material in the world for us all to have read different things and bring different opinions.  I think I’m talking about some sort of reading material version of the Nash Equilibrium.  And if that’s a wrong use of Nash Equilibrium, some friend that has read his papers will correct me and I’ll have learned something new.

Side note: You see how I did that there at the end?  Even if you prove I’m wrong, I’ll still be right about something.  And let’s be honest: the only reason I write this blog is to feel like I’m right.  Also, non-fiction is essentially defined by not suffering from summation (since non-fiction is itself a summation of reality), whereas fiction, like all art, is definitionally reduced by summation.

One of the most common questions I get from young people is “How do I know what I want to do with my life?” By which they generally mean “What job should I take?” or “What career should I have?”. And that’s a reasonable question, especially given how important work is to happiness.

My answer, unsurprisingly, is fairly psych based. And honestly, it is a pretty direct reference to one of my favorite books, the highly underrated Strangers to Ourselves by social psychologist Tim Wilson. One of Wilson’s key points is that trying to logic our way to what we want or feel is incredibly hard, because we often don’t have full insight in our unconscious. Instead, Wilson argues that we should look at our behaviors – what we do is, in a very real way, what we feel and think.

My favorite example is a friend of mine from college who always insisted that he liked Caucasian blonde girls, of the Baywatch variety. And yet in my many years of knowing him, I’ve never seen him date anyone but brunette Asians. Why? Because in reality, that’s what he likes: his true preferences are expressed over long period of choice.

Now you could argue that it is really just that brunette Asians are the ones who want to date him, and that’s actually why I love this example. Many people look at their current job as reflective of what they could get, rather than their actual preferences. And that may indeed be true. So go a layer deeper.

The way I always phrase the advice is this: try to think of a project at work where it felt like the time flew by. If you have trouble concentrating on a task, it is often because you don’t like it. But if you are in love with something, you can often find yourself doing it for long, uninterrupted periods.

For me, I give the example of data analysis. I can spend a good six hours wallowing about in a rich data set, look up, and realize that I really should eat, go to the bathroom, and blink – I’m that deeply into it. So if you look for moments when it feels like time flies by, you can then look for careers and jobs that have that as a central responsibility. Astronauts have written extensively about how they took essentially awful jobs in order to get to space (and lied on every psych exam), because space was their bliss.

Another trick is to look at where you are willing to spend your cognitive resources more broadly. For example, I’m willing to spend incredibly long amounts of time on planes in order to go and talk with people, particularly young people, about how to use psych to design a better world. So when I look for a job, I make sure that is a key component – that I am willing to sacrifice for it tells me how important it is for me.

And note that I didn’t just sit back and think about theoretical sacrifice. I’m looking at my actual behavior: what I am actually willing to spend my cognitive resources on. Trying to logic your way into your passions only works if logic is your passion. Look at where you spend your time, where you are happiest, and where you can work for a long time without feeling burdened by it. Then look for jobs that have those characteristics.

Side note: Adam Grant (who is a good dude) just basically gave a version of my TED Talk at Davos. Love that the “work worth doing” idea is spreading – maybe I should finally get the tattoo. Opinions?

Earlier this year, we discovered that Tinder is/was seemingly run by terrible men.  Ditto Snapchat.  And it prompted a conversation with a friend about moral hazards, modern tech investing, and the increasing problem that the current investment environment is bringing to light.

Basically, to paraphrase the conversation, imagine you were a VC who was approached by Tinder early on (yes, I know, they haven’t raised 3rd party money but that’s why this is a hypothetical question).  Because you’re a smart VC, you do your due diligence and spend enough time with the founding team to recognize that they have some rather serious problems, most prominent being that they don’t understand that sexual harassment is against the law.  But their app has promise and is gaining early traction.  What do you do?

First, let’s review the basic outcomes of all deals: investing/not investing and going big/going bust.  If you invest and they don’t go big, it is at worst a C-: VCs have to eventually invest in winners but they’re expected to back some losers along the way.  Don’t invest and they go big, you get some social ribbing for having missed the boat but probably don’t get fired; C- at worst.  Don’t invest and they bust, you don’t really get credit for having dodged a bullet because most things bust anyway, but we’ll give you a straight B anyway.

The problem is in the invest/go big condition.  If you invest and they go big, you are rewarded professionally, personally, financially, and socially: A+ doesn’t even begin to describe it.  Picking a winner is like winning the lottery, except instead of just a one-time payout, you get the gift that keeps on giving.  Other hot startups now want you in their deals.  You can leave and become an angel or even a super angel, or stay at your firm and ride that big win.  Or retire.

And when the companies are good and do good things, that isn’t terrible.  We can make an “absolute power corrupts absolutely” argument but that isn’t so much the Tinder dilemma.  The problem with Tinder is that you know that by investing, you are putting money in the hands of people who clearly aren’t ready to handle it.  You’ve seen them in action and you know that eventually these clowns will be sued and settle for an undisclosed amount of money because writing threatening texts and calling an employee a whore in meetings is more important to them than getting work done.

That is a real financial considerations: if the suit happens too early, before other people put in money and they gain traction, then the company will fold and you will lose your money.  But the mild ding you get for backing a failed company is going to be just that: mild.  You won’t be hounded by the press for investing in sexual harassers and nobody at your firm is going to caution you against the dangers of giving money to criminals – the biggest problem is the lost investment, not the reason it got lost.

And if you win, like Tinder has, then nobody is going to blame you for doing it in a morally bankrupt way.  Because Tinder has a valuation of $1B, early investors would be getting all of the glory without paying any of the costs.  I have yet to see an article calling out IAC for backing the folks that threatened to fire a female employee because of who she was dating and I’m not expecting to see it happen anytime soon.

And therein lies the issue.  Because we expect VCs to invest only based on financial returns, then the people with the most insight into the actual founding team of a company are the ones who are explicitly commanded not to pay attention whether investing in them is moral or not.  In the case of both Snapchat and Tinder, it is impossible to reasonably argue that the CEOs have acted with sound moral judgment.  And yet there is a sense in which it doesn’t matter.  Users, if they know, are unlikely to stop using the service in sufficient numbers to cause a ripple effect that would hurt the bottom line.  And even if they do, it is only the failure itself that matters, not the reason for it: you undergo no additional penalty as a VC for having backed the morally bankrupt.

This is a profoundly bizarre state of affairs.  Time and time again, very smart VCs write about how important founding teams are and how they are really investing in people and their ability to execute, rather than the quality of the idea itself.  So how is it that when a company fails because of the moral turpitude of their founders, we don’t hold both founders and VCs to task?  After all, if the sole job of VCs is to evaluate quality of a team, shouldn’t they be held accountable for bad teams?

One might argue that there is no way a VC could have known that Justin Mateen and Sean Rad would sexually harass Whitney Wolfe.  But I call bullshit.  If you’re investing in something, you’re spending enough time in the office to see the tone and tenor and you’re a part of that tone and tenor yourself.  If you’re not creating an environment where Wolfe can come to you with her concerns, you are failing as an investor and should have been named as an additional party in her lawsuit.

But that’s not the current state of affairs.  As long as VCs are known only for their financial wins and not the manner in which those wins occur, and those who pass for good moral reasons are not rewarded with social applause and professional accommodation, then it will continue to be irrelevant if startup founders behave in despicable ways.  Unless the penalty is that no one will invest in their success, there will be no reason to quit.

Side note: How ridiculous it is that Sean Rad thinks that the important issue with Wolfe is whether or not she is called a cofounder, not the fact that she was absolutely sexually harassed in a public and amazingly awful way within the company?  Also, don’t say that Justin Matten was and continues to be your best friend and that he voluntarily resigned.  Read the texts.

This year, for the first time, the Grace Hopper Celebration is actively asking for men to join the Women in Computing conversation.  Though the plans were announced months ago, the timing couldn’t be better: Emma Watson recently made an impassioned plea at the UN for men to become feminists, other celebs piled on, and for at least a moment, men needing to be a part of gender equity made national news.

Obviously, as a long-time male advocate, this is a welcome change.  For years, male advocacy has been a “nice to have” part of the women’s movement and not a necessity.  An invitation to be at the table always makes it easier to join and hey, guys want to celebrate women in computing too.

But I am also cautious.  Because while it is true that equality requires the willful relinquishment of power by the hegemony, it is imperative that inviting men into the conversation doesn’t overshadow the importance of celebrating the voices of women.

In less academic language: the conversation for women shouldn’t become a chance for men to do all the talking.  We do enough of that already.

Case in point: at GHC this year, there will be two male advocate-focused sessions – a focus group and a panel.  And while the focus group has received little attention, the panel has become a maelstrom of controversy because it features the CEO of Godaddy,  a company with an abysmal record of highly sexualized advertising and a GHC14 sponsor.  Some people, both men and women, are justifiably concerned about the ethics of  accepting money from companies with a troubled past and with the potential endorsement implied by putting them on stage.

It isn’t my intention to comment on the controversy itself, because I don’t think GoDaddy needs me to defend them.  They should be clear and direct about their policies and initiatives, and engage thoughtfully with the criticisms of the community at GHC.  What concerns me is that of all the things happening at GHC, this is the one that has generated the most discussion so far.

GHC is one of the few conferences that I really look forward to attending (rather than speaking at).  I am going to be insanely angry if the subject of male advocacy or the role of men in the feminist conversation overshadows the fact that 8,000 technical women in one place is an opportunity for a much larger, much more important conversation about the power and support of women in tech.

Especially because this year is so important.  Satya Nadella is a featured speaker this year and as the CEO of the world’s largest tech company, it is a sign of how serious the topic of women in computing is being taken at the highest levels of computing leadership.  Leave aside his gender for a second: this is a big deal.  There are some incredibly important things to talk about at GHC this year that shouldn’t be drowned out by male advocacy panels.

And it may be that the issues around the male advocacy panel aren’t actually about male advocacy and just about GoDaddy.  They may have been present if the CEO of GoDaddy were a woman who was invited to speak.  But the language being used on social media is gendered and strong and it feels as though this is becoming about something more than just a company with a troubled past.

Hence my concern.  At GHC, there will be talks from many incredibly women on topics ranging from the explicitly feminist to the unarguably gender-neutral.  If the net effect of adding men to the conversation is that their participation in two events overshadows the rest of GHC, then we all will have missed the point entirely.  The fact that I am a male advocate should never be more important than what I am advocating for.

I hope it doesn’t happen.  I hope that there is intelligent discussion about male advocacy but that it remains a very small part of a much larger, much more important goal: celebrating, admiring, emulating, and learning from and with women in computing.  Because that’s why I’m coming and it is the reason that I’m a male advocate.  Women like my friends Hilary Mason and Charna Parkey and Anna Roth are worth celebrating and I intend to come celebrate them.

Side note: Can we talk about how much I love this shirt?

Yes, this is another one of those posts about the problems of gamification.  Because I like games that grind. Give me eight hours of strategic, deliberate decision making and I’m there. For this, I blame my mother, who restricted how much time we could play video games, except for one game that we were allowed to play as much as we wanted: SimCity.

SimCity is the ultimate grind game. Seasons take forever (even if you turn the game speed up to max) and you often have to wait multiple seasons before you really have enough money to build something new and interesting. But that, it turns out, can be really fun, hence the enduring popularity of the game. To watch something develop slowly and carefully, to make strategic decisions that feel truly consequential, and to do it just for the sheer joy of building your thing – before there was Minecraft, there was SimCity.

Sadly, as much as I like grind games, I don’t have much time in front of my PC at home these days. Which made me start looking on my phone to see what was available. And after several months of playing different games, I’m convinced that the strategic casual gaming available on phones has fundamentally broken the pleasure of the grind. So much so that I’ve sworn off them entirely.

The problem is opportunity cost. In playing SimCity, there is in theory some opportunity cost built in to other activities: any second I’m eating dinner or doing some work is a moment I could be building my city. But because my city doesn’t get worse when I’m gone and because the game itself is infinite, the opportunity cost is relatively low: it is simply that I am not making forward progress.

With casual gaming, however, this is dramatically untrue. First, there is the F2P (free-to-play) mechanic of limited resources. Essentially, I get food/gold/whatever every X amount of time with a Y cap. So if I don’t log in every two hours and spend the X, I can’t restart the clock and get anymore because I’ve hit Y. So now the opportunity of not playing is not only that I’m not spending X (the SimCity non-advancement cost), it is that I’m not gaining the next X, which may be essential.

Now in theory, that’s not so terrible. The opportunity is somewhat the same as in SimCity, it is now just made incredibly more obvious (and stressful) by the fact that the game world persists when I’m not around. Imagine leaving SimCity on while you ate dinner; now you constantly want to run back and accept the season passing so you can get started earning the tax revenue for the next season.

But the real problem is when you start to layer in PVP. Because now, it isn’t just that you need to constantly check-in but that if you don’t, your game is going to actively get worse. By introducing other players who are playing and growing when I’m not, you’ve created a gameworld that is constantly pulling away from me.

With SimCity, if I don’t play for a month, I’m not in any worse shape than if I played the next day. Sure, I didn’t get that intervening month of building the city up but it isn’t like the city was actively self-destructing while I was off doing other things. But with the F2P/PVP combo, I not only have to log in every two hours to make sure that the timer resets, but I have to compete against a bunch of other people who did. My city may stay the same size, but because everyone else is getting bigger, it is now comparatively smaller. Which means instead of competing against the game to build the best city, I’m now competing with everyone else to see who can be most obsessive about logging in every two hours.

Or I can pay money. That’s the whole point of F2P – if you are any less successful of a grinder (read as: less obsessive or busier) than the other players, the only way to catch up is to pay money. And what that means is that if you are are trying to pay for free, you end up being more obsessive in order to avoid having to pay. Which means less talking to other people, less taking a month off, less relaxing.

And it’s a true shame, because game makers have become so obsessed with this continual bleed business model that I can’t even pay them a one-time fee to avoid it. That is, originally casual games wanted you to pay once to do something like remove ads. But the model is now predicated on getting you to pay over and over and over again. Which is a terrible business model, by the way, because eventually people are going to become so busy playing your game that they aren’t going to be able to do the things that support them playing your game. Their relationships will break down or they’ll lose their jobs and because you hit the breaking point, they’ll no longer play your game.

Like I did (though before losing job or relationship).  This is just another of those problems with gamification: when you set your metric to be “get people to play as often as possible” instead of “get people to keep playing over time”, you start incentivizing the wrong behaviors.  When I get the time, I’m going to figure out how to make SimCity run on my phone. All because, in greed, we broke the grinding mechanic that was the basis of enjoying the games in the first place.

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.