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.

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 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.