It’s Not My Fault! Seriously!

Milk Factory Boss

There have been a lot of surveys of career and job satisfaction done over the years by both social scientists and marketing companies. It’s an easy thing to fund, because it lets executives quantitatively examine the productivity of their underlings as if they are the mechanical parts of a vending machine while at the same time pretending to care about them.

The data is messy and variable—that’s how SS rolls—but there are some surprising and useful trends. One of the big ones is that when asked “what do you want more of,” the almighty dollar usually comes in at number 2. A huge blow to its ego, I’m sure, but at least it can afford therapy. The number one slot on what people want more of in at work is recognition. Validation. Reward for their efforts and their successes, not in the form of a company Mercedes, but in the form of the boss saying, “Damn, Susan, you rocked the Peterson v Anderson brief! I’d hate to be Anderson’s family right about now!”

(Side note: a disproportionate number of people interviewed in these studies is named Susan. The social sciences have a serious Susan problem.)

As humans we crave validation the way pandas crave artisinal bamboo. Being told we’re a Good Boy worked in our previous incarnation when we were all dogs, and it still works on us today. Most people can remember a job, or a project or phase within a job if they’re less lucky, that was more satisfying than usual simply because they felt we got the recognition they deserved.

To some extent, managers and supervisors understand this. It’s obvious, right? Most positions have some kind of performance metrics that are rewarded or punished accordingly. Hell, a lot of industries base their entire employment model on this principle. So why is it that so many people, even within the fields that give out the most bonuses and commissions, are so unsatisfied with their jobs?

There are a lot of reasons, including the fact that the carrot and stick model is demonstrably a terrible way to motivate people to effectively perform complex tasks. But there’s another one that doesn’t get as much attention, and causes many of these schemes to produce exactly the opposite effect they are intended to.

It is this: a great many structures designed to measure and recognize performance have a hilariously low correlation to actual performance. A lot of people out there, from vacuum salesmen to CEOs, are getting rewarded for accomplishments that they didn’t really achieve, or punished for failures that are only sort of their fault.

In his excellent book Misbehaving, behavioral economist Richard Thaler describes a consulting gig he did at a high powered company. In the room was the CEO and 22 top executives. He proposed the following hypothetical to the execs: Let’s say you have a potential project you could undertake, and it has a 50% chance of success and a 50% chance of failure. If it succeeds, the company makes 2 million dollars. If it fails, the company loses one million dollars. In economics terms this project has an “expected value” of 1 million dollars. That is, the average amount you are likely to gain if you undertake this project is a million dollars. On any given go you could win or lose, but if you did it enough time one million dollars would be the average. He asked the execs if they would undertake this project. Only three of them said that yes, they would. The others said it would be too risky.

Thaler then turned to the CEO and asked him if he would sign off on 22 projects like this. That is to say, 22 projects run by his executives that would collectively early the company, on average, 11 million dollars.
“Of course,” said the CEO. “That’s a no brainer.”

“But you won’t get 22 of these projects,” said Thaler. “You’ll only get 3.” Because indeed only three of the execs said they would take the project on. Thaler turned to one of the people who said they wouldn’t undertake the project and asked why.

“If it makes money, I get a pat on the back, and maybe a bonus worth three months salary,” said the executive. “If it fails I might very well get fired. I like my job. I’m not willing to risk it for three months salary.”

It’s pretty clear that the fault here does not lie with the executives for being unwilling to take the risk. It lies with the CEO, who wants the risk in aggregate but is doing a terrible making his employees want to take it. But it raises another, more fundamental question. Let’s say all 22 projects go through, and some people get bonuses and some people get canned. You might think that’s good strategy. After all, it separates the wheat from the chaff, right? The good executives who made the project work get to stay on, and the bad ones are shown the door.

Maybe not. In the real world, it’s often very, very difficult to tell how much of these kinds of achievements are down to individual skill and merit and how much they are down to chance. We usually assume that people who succeed are good at what they do and people who fail are bad at it. We are a lot less likely to assume this about ourselves.

The hesitancy of these executives in taking the projects suggests that they feel this in their bones. No matter how smart or talented they are, no matter how hard working, they won’t necessarily be able to pull off a win on the project. Someone who had a completely merit-based worldview would assume that they would be in the 50 percent who made the 2 million. Maybe three of them had that kind of confidence. The others know that sometimes, the souffle is going to collapse no matter how carefully you folded in the egg whites.

On a much smaller scale, the morale at my current job is generally fairly low. There are a lot of reasons for this, but more and more I think the low-correlation effect is a big one. We have stats that track a wide variety of metrics. There are about 12 that matter, and each of them is broken down into another dozen or so sub-metrics. Our stats determine how much money we make, our prospects for promotion, and how well we are regarded by our supervisors. Having low stats is depressing.

When our stats as a site are low there are a lot of messages from management about how we need to get this done, how big a deal it is, how badly we are collectively doing. None of it is particularly harsh or punitive, but it is always there, buzzing in the background. Management tries their best to counter the effect of these messages by buying us pizza and giving out prizes and having funny hat day. But none of that addresses the fundamental problem: many of these stats are out of our hands.

Not completely, of course. And before I’m accused of making excuses for my own performance I should say that right now my stats are very good. I had a slump for a while, but even when I did they were still pretty good for the site. So this isn’t about me. At the same time, I’ve been in a situation where individual metrics spiked in the wrong direction purely because of luck. I got a lot of the wrong sorts of calls within a few days of each other, and my stats plummeted.

When I ask my supervisors about this, they always tell me the same thing. “Just do your best on those calls. You won’t get in trouble for a bad result as long as you handled it well and did everything right.” And on an case-by-case level it’s true. If they listen to a call where I give a customer a large credit and they find that I did everything I could to bring it down and save the company money, they’ll tell me I did a good job. That even though it was a large credit, it was still a good call. Hell, I’ve even gotten compliments on calls like that from management for how well I handled them. Compliments, and a nosedive to my stats.

The lesson is clear: even if you do everything right, the only meaningful measurement of your performance can tank due to bad luck. Sure, it’s not totally out of our hands. The people with the consistently worst stats are usually the worst performers, and there are agents whose stats are consistently higher than average. But everyone on every level is fully aware of how much certain of these elements are out of our hands.

In industries across the spectrum this kind of thing is very, very common, and it is extremely dangerous. If morale matters—and study after study shows how much it affects productivity, even if you don’t think businesses have any responsibility to the psychological well being of their employees—then the incentive structure needs a good, hard look, and probably a serious talking to.

Compelling Evidence for the Nonexistence of the Universe, Chapter 1 Part 4

The Orange Moon

Chapter 1: The Phone Interview

Part 4

I wasn’t sure how this woman had gotten “Dendrite” from “Darius,” but I could count the number of times a customer got my name right on an abacus with only five pegs left. It was five. Five times.

“Hello,” I said in my best Customer Service voice. “Is there something I can help you with?”

“That’s what I intend to determine,” she said. Her voice sounded kind of familiar. Probably a repeat customer. We had few enough representatives that I sometimes dealt with the same customers more than once.

“Okay. Is this about a package you’ve already booked with us, or are you looking for information on a new destination?”

“This is not about vacation packages.”

“Alright.” This was not a good sign. “What can I help you with?”

“I’m going to guide you through a series of cognitive meta-adjustments,” she said. For all its formality, this sentence didn’t come across as rehearsed. It sounded like she actually talked like that. “Call them psychological course corrects, to see if you are have certain capacities, or at least the potential for these capacities.”

Ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves a nutbag. That was exactly what I needed.

“That’s not very a professional assessment,” she said, “but this is only the beginning of our relationship. I won’t take it personally.”

“Holy shit,” I said. Had I just called a customer a nutbag out loud?

“Perhaps I haven’t properly set expectations,” she said. “We are offering you a position in our organizational structure. This is your initial interview.” Now that I heard it more, her voice sounded very familiar, and not like a customer. Could it be her? I hadn’t seen her in a few years. This is exactly the kind of thing she would do.

“D…Dawn? Is that you?” I almost called her by the name she made up for herself, but I stopped myself. It felt too silly coming out of my mouth after all of these years. “Dawnesha Campbell? Is this the Dawnesha Campbell I went to highschool with?”

“We did not attend school together,” she said.

“My name is Darius, ma’am. This is Lucky Travel customer service. Did you intend to call Lucky Travel customer service? Can I help you with information on one of our premiere vacation packages?”

“I intended to reach you, Dendrite,” she said. “We are considering slicing you open, and this is an attempt to determine your suitability.”

“Whoa! Was that a threat? Are you threatening me?”

“Not in the literal sense. However, if we choose to follow through you will likely be put into proximity to semi-extant physical harm.”

“Listen, lady.” I heard the irritation in my voice.. “We take threats very seriously here at Lucky Travel. Now if you’d like to refrain from that kind of talk and keep this professional, I’d be happy to tell you about our vacation packages. Can we do that? Is that something that we can do?” I wanted to hang up. I really did. But I also didn’t want to get fired, and that would get me fired even though I’d just been threatened with evisceration.

“I want you to think about science class,” she said.

“Alright. I’m sorry,” I lied, “but I’m going to have to let you go.”

“I will,” she said. “Once you think about science class.”

“Alright, lady, my supervisor is telling me that I’m going to have to hang up on you if you don’t have actual business. I don’t want to, it pains me to do this, but I’m going to have to press this little button here and drop the call. Have a very nice day.”

“I want you to think about Mrs. Kostelecki’s eighth grade science class.”

“Shit.” That stopped me cold. Who the hell knew the name of my eighth grade science teacher? I didn’t think Dawn did, but she probably could have found out. Who the hell was this?

“Look outside,” the crazy woman continued. “Can you see the moon?”

Before I could stop myself I glanced out the window. It was nighttime, and the moon was full and bright yellow. How did she know that? Was this woman watching me?

“Yes, I can see the moon.” I was letting her direct the conversation. You weren’t supposed to let the customer direct the conversation.

“Good. Now look at it.”

“Listen, I…”

“Look at it and think about the class on April 6th, your eighth grade year, at precisely 10:13 AM. You were sitting with your back to the life-sized resin skeleton. You didn’t want anyone to know that you hated that seat, that you were always afraid the skeleton was going to reach out and grab your face with its cold, bony hands. Can you remember.”

“Fuck.”

“You just drank the kool aid you were supposed to be saving for lunch. You knew you’d regret it later, but you couldn’t resist. It tasted purple. You could still taste the purple on your tongue. Can you taste it?”

I could. Bright and sweet and energetic, like wine from cartoon grapes.

“Mrs. Kostelecky wore the fuzzy red sweater you thought made her look like Santa Claus. She was talking about the moons. Can you see the moons?”

“…was formed along with the earth in a process scientists call ‘co-accretion,’” Mrs. Kostelecki’s deep voice drifted into my ears. She had a thick Eastern European accent, which all of the kids could understand but none of the parents could. “We used to believe that luna secunda formed the same way, but evidence gathered during the Artemis 9 mission confirmed a fringe theory that I myself was very fond of when I was a little girl hoping to grow up to be an eighth grade science teacher.”

The class laughed. We ate out of her hands. How could we not? She was Santa Claus. She continued.

“That is, that our second moon was actually a rock hurtling through space which was caught by earth’s gravity like a ball in a catcher’s mitt. Does anyone know what that process was called? Yes, Annie? That’s right. Extra-solar capture. This also accounts for the fact that unlike lunda prima and most other stellar bodies, it is not a perfect sphere. Where I am from, we used to call it sendvič měsíc. In English that means ‘sandwich moon.’ And doesn’t it look a little bit like a sandwich?”

“It does, doesn’t it?” asked the lady on the phone.

“Yeah,” I said, “I’ve always thought so.” And it did, with that split down the middle. Like a cheeseburger from an Arcturan fast food commercial, with a rounded bun on either side. It was even kind of the same color as a piece of processed cheese, only glowing. Electric space cheese. I remembered how when I was little I asked my mom if that’s what the astronauts ate, when they were up there, and she…

“Ffffuck.” The word seeped out of me, low and slow, like helium draining from a balloon. I had barely noticed what just happened. It didn’t even seem strange, what I was seeing, even though some part of me knew that it might be the strangest thing in the 13 billion year history of the universe. It came on so naturally, so slowly, that I had barely registered that right in front of me, through the window, two different moons hung in the sky.

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The Weird One

Headphones

Another 37, Day 27

The girl who wears the pink jacket. In my head I call her the Weird Girl. She used to sleep in alcove at the bottom of the stairs where they put in a couple of leather couches in an attempt to make our breaks more comfortable. Upstairs in the break room it kind of works. But the alcove is a strange spot; employees are always rushing through there on their way to and from places, and every entrance to the alcove comes from a blind spot.

When I see people there, which I usually do, it always feels like they’ve just jumped out at me. Jumped out and then sat perfectly still. I know it’s not just me. I get the same kind of looks from passersby when I sit there. “Where the hell did you come from?” Adding the couches ramped this effect up, and so it made the alcove, if anything, more uncomfortable.

Weird Girl used to sleep down there before her shift. Her shift is the same as mine: ungodly early. The couches are soft and spacious. They would make a lot more sense in the champagne room of a strip club that wasn’t quite nice enough to have a champagne room. I wonder if that’s where they came from. They look pretty new. She used to sleep in the morning on the couches, and so did I. I still do, sometimes, but I choose the break room. The lighting is better, and the couches are off in a corner. It’s much better.

Weird Girl was always the only one down in the alcove in the morning. There are two couches down there. The other one was always open. I passed it by and slept upstairs. Upstairs was prime real estate, and those couches were sometimes taken by the time I got there. Sometimes someone was sleeping, and sometimes, much, much worse, people were talking loudly. Too early for that. If the upstairs couches were occupied I’d sit at one of the dining tables. But they were uncomfortable, and that early I have no patience for anything.

So one day  I decided to sleep downstairs. In the alcove. With Weird Girl. I went down and there she was, just an enormous, puffy pink jacket covering up her tiny, sleeping form. I laid down on the adjacent couch and closed my eyes. That’s when she started snoring. The moment I laid down, making just enough noise for her to notice. The snores were loud, and inconsistent in that way that makes it impossible to get used to. I stubbornly put it up with it for for about three minutes before I could no longer stand it. I got up and went upstairs. I don’t know for sure if she was doing it deliberately. But I don’t know her, and so I’m free from the burdens of empathy and familiarity that bind me from seeing her as a complete person. And so I decide to believe she did it on purpose, to drive me away. It worked.

That was months ago. Weird Girl doesn’t wear the puffy pink jacket anymore. She ditched it for one much more dignified, even before it got warm. I’ve heard her speak a lot more. She doesn’t sleep in the mornings anymore. Maybe she gets there later. She also doesn’t sit alone in the lunchroom anymore. Not every day, at least. She’s made a group of lunch friends.

I haven’t. I’ve made some friends on the floor, but I don’t eat with any of them. There are a few large groups of people who all eat together and have lively conversations. I don’t know whether or not I’m envious of them. I tell myself I’m not, that I’d rather take time during lunch away from people to do some reading. I do treasure that time. On the other hand, I know myself. I know that I come alive in groups of friends sitting around, discussing nothing, laughing and making them laugh. The time would go too quickly, but maybe I’d treasure it. I haven’t tried to make those friends.

Instead I sit alone, listening to my audiobooks with my enormous headphones. The kind that make you look isolated and ridiculous. And I eat my strange little bowls of meat and veggies from home, and when I’m done I rinse out the ceramic bowls in the sink and plunk them down in my bag. When I walk back to the floor it sounds like I’m carrying dishware around in a reusable grocery bag through the halls, because that’s exactly what I’m doing. And I still sleep on the couch in the morning. For a while I didn’t, but I’m back to it now. I pull my hood over my face and try not to give dirty looks to anyone who comes in and turns on the light. The light needs to be turned on eventually.

I know that these strangers who I see every day but have never spoken to have an impression of me. That’s what people do. It could be anything, free as it is from the restraints of empathy and familiarity that would make them think of me as anything but a feature of the environment. A semi-fictional character in the backdrop of their own story, who can be extrapolated as much as he needs to be from the obvious traits. What’s the harm in that? It’s what we do.

Some of them probably think of me as Headphone Guy. The headphones probably make me look strange, with my sweatshirt full of tissues, and the way that sometimes when I haven’t shaved in a day or two some tissue fibers stick to the bristles under my nose without my realizing they’re there. Maybe some of them think of me as the Weird Guy. The guy who does Tai Chi in the middle of the break room seems to know and say hi to more of them than I do, so if there has to be a Weird Guy, it could certainly be me.

Does that make me uncomfortable? Do I care? Honestly, I have no idea.

Why You Should Get Mad At Customer Service

Customer services

Another 37, Day 26

You just got your bill in the mail, and the company screwed you. I mean, really screwed you. There are hundreds of dollars of charges here that you never made. The bill is complicated, but you’ve spent some time with it and you’re confident it’s the company’s fault. You are mad as hell, and you’re for damn sure going to get to the bottom of this. You call up customer service. A young woman with a pleasant voice answers the phone, and asks how she can help you. You are ready to yell. You don’t want to yell. You hate to yell. But this is a problem, and you’re ready to do it.

Except you don’t. Because she’s so nice. Because she’s doing her best to help you out, within her limited abilities. Because it isn’t her fault that the company screwed you. You shouldn’t be taking it out on her. You’ll feel terrible. It’s the damn company fat cats, the ones who designed the crappy system to screw customers like you. They’re the ones you should be yelling at. That would be fair. That would be just. You should call them up and yell at them directly. So…good luck with that.

I work in customer service myself, and I deal with a lot of what we call “escalated calls.” Plenty of customers call in angry, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes for crazy reasons that only exist in their mind-bubble. If you listen to CS reps talk, it sounds like all of the customers are nuts and just calling in to whine in about invented problems. Some of them are, of course, but not most of them. CS reps talk like that because humans love to bitch in the break room; it’s one of the ways we bond. But there’s another reason. A subtler and more insidious reason: We are trained to think like that. It happens at every level, from initial training, to the company guidelines on how to deal with people, to the way our supervisors guide us to deal with escalations. It is all a way to teach us that, as much as possible, these problems are the customer’s responsibility.

One of the main things we like to bitch about is customers who get angry at us. “Why the hell is this vitriol directed at me?” we ask. Don’t these customers recognize that this is not my fault, that I just work here and I’m just trying to help? I used to feel that way. It’s hard not to, especially when you get the nastier callers who seem to blame you for ruining their lives, and are not afraid to use highly colorful language about your bodily orifices to make this point.

But eventually it hit me. Yes, it’s not fair for customers to the hourly working just trying to pay their bills on the other end of the line for an overcharge by a Fortune 500 megacorp. But on the other hand, we are their point of contact for the company. Who the hell else are they going to blame? The people actually responsible are never, ever going to talk to them. This is not a coincidence.

My particular Customer Service Superpower—and every good rep has one—is that people find it difficult to get or stay mad at me. Even when they are clearly upset or aggravated I can almost always calm them down. I think it’s because I never sound upset or frustrated with them. It stems back to this over-developed set of empathy that, like most things, is an advantage and a disadvantage. Even when a person is clearly in the wrong I’m almost certainly going to sympathize with them, and if comes across in my voice. So many times I’ve heard people say, “I’m angry, but I know this isn’t your fault. I’m not blaming you.”

The thing is, human brains don’t divide things up very well. If you are talking to someone about an issues that upsets you but the person makes you feel calm and comfortable, you can’t help but feel calmer and more comfortable about the issue. It’s a variant on the halo effect, and it’s the same reason attractive people are better at selling real estate. Objectively the 5 bedroom colonial doesn’t have fewer plumbing problems when presented by Sexy Rita than it does with Ugly Joe. But Sexy Rita puts you in a better mood, so the problems won’t seem so bad. This effect has been thoroughly tested both in laboratories and in the field, and is extraordinarily robust. It doesn’t mean that your free will is somehow stripped away. But there’s a measurable influence.

When it comes to customer service, it means that that friend representative who is discussing those nasty charges but whom you don’t want to take it out on is manipulating you. She probably doesn’t mean to. Honestly there’s a good chance she has your best interests at heart, to the extent that she can while also keeping her job and doing her best for her employers. But the very fact that she calms you down, that you recognize her as a human being with feelings who is just a small part of an unfeeling machine, makes you less likely to fight for what you deserve from the company.

Right now, if you consider yourself a good person who is nice to service people, the idea that you should be willing you yell at them might be making you uncomfortable. That’s a good sign as to your humanity. On behalf of customer service representatives everywhere, I assure you that we highly and sincerely appreciate it.

And our bosses? They appreciate it even more.

Compelling Evidence for the Nonexistence of the Universe, Chapter 1 Part 3

Chaos

Chapter 1: The Phone Interview

Part 3

Lucky Travel was a hub for a whole bunch of the kind of low budget cruises and trips to Branson, Missouri you find on the ads in magazines aimed at lonely old people. It was founded in the 1960s and although I could never get management to admit it, judging from the faded promotional materials in the break room I’m pretty sure the name was an attempt to make fun of Chinese people.

The phone beeped again.

“Thank you for calling Lucky Travel, where your luck is only just beginning. My name is Darius, how can I help you?”

“Hi, my name is Sarah. Sarah Longmire.”

“Hi, Sarah. What can I do for you today?”

“Sarah Longmire. Longmire with an L.”

“Sarah Longmire, got it. Thank you for that. What can I do for you.”

“Loooongmire. As in, the word long? Long Island Iced Tea? Are you looking this up?”

I’d been at Lucky Travel for almost two years. I would use the cliché and say they were long years, but in your thirties the useless years aren’t long. The hours on the job are long, and the days stretch in front of you like Olympus Mons on the horizon when you forgot to pack your Martian climbing gear. But the years themselves speed right past you with a bad Mexican accent. You barely notice when they’re gone.

Beep.

“Thank you for calling Lucky Travel, where your luck is only just beginning. My name is Darius, how can I help you?”

“Yeah, you sell boats?”

“No, sir, we arrange travel packages to exotic destinations.” And many, many more boring ones. I didn’t say that.

“Travel packages for boats, right? Boat packages?”

“We offer a variety of cruises, yes.”

“Right. Great. I’m interested in buying a boat. What do you got?”

Lucky Travel had three tiers of customer service. The first tier for the new hires was called the Welcome Wagon. It involved giving general information and setting appointments for sales reps to call prospective customers back. It was a fairly easy and low-stress job. The customers tended to be in a good mood because they hadn’t spent any money and no one had screwed them yet. The third tier was Sales. Sales was pretty high pressure because there were quotas, but there were also commissions. Good sales people could make a lot of money.

The middle tier was Customer Support. They “promoted” employees to CS who had been there a while but who weren’t good enough for sales. It mostly involved listening to the complaints of people who had already bought packages and pretending to do something to fix them. I’d been moved into Customer Support a few months after I started. It took only a few days to realize that I’d been “promoted” to the mail room in Siberia.

“Hey, Darius, you got a break coming up?”

“Hmm?” I took my phone off of available and spun around to look at the speaker. It was Mike from accounting. He wasn’t really from accounting; I have idea why we called him that. “No, I don’t have a break for 45 minutes.”

“Well take one now,” said Mike. “I want to go light up.” He spoke in his usual carrying voice, like he was speaking about something more casual than illicit drug use during work. Like the state of his underwear, which he also spoke about far too loudly in inappropriate places.

I sighed. “Mike, I can’t take a break. And I can’t get high at work.”

“Come on, dog,” he said. “I’m jonesing. And everyone else is busy.”

How flattering. “Sorry. Some of us actually need this job.”

Mike’s father, Adam Prince, was the owner or manager or something of both Ultrafoods supermarkets in Ducksburg. Mike only worked at Lucky because his father was under the delusion that lying to lonely old people about sub-part vacation packages for 8 hours a day would teach him a work ethic. So Mike didn’t care if he got canned. The worst part of it was that he was 19 years old, had been here for about six months, and was already in sales.

“Suit yourself,” said Mike. “If you change your mind I’ll be spliffing it real by the dumpster.”

“Which one?”

“The good one.”

I pretended to know what that meant and got back on the phones.

Beep.

“Thank you for calling Lucky Travel, where your luck is only just beginning. My name is Darius, how can I help you?”

It seems weird, thinking about to that moment, that nothing more dramatic than words followed that beep. Like the water-cooler exploding into pudding. Or a flash of colors in my field of vision that blasted my mind into a torrent of unfathomably beautiful chaos. But that didn’t happen. It was just two words. Two words that I had no idea would both save and ruin my life.

“Hello Dendrite.”

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Good Reasons to Argue With Your Brother

Lightning

 

Another 37, Day 24

“You just love to argue,” my brother yelled at me, his hands in the air. “You don’t even have a fucking point, you just want to be right.”

“No, I really do think exciting is the word to use here,” I said, in a voice that I’m going to assume was exactly as serene and collected as I remember it being.

“You think Lightning Crashes is exciting?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I do.”

We argued a lot, my brother and I. This particular argument was about the song Lightning Crashes, by 90s alternative band Live. I think they were my favorite group at that point, but I might have moved on by then. As you can tell, this was an important argument that was highly worth having. It started because he said something like, “It’s a fine song, but I wouldn’t exactly call it exciting.” I, of course, had to elucidate him just how wrong he was.

“It’s exciting because it starts out so quiet. So small. It implies that something dramatic is going to happen, but it doesn’t let you feel it. Not at first. It’s like the air before a storm, and the tension accumulates. It takes its time, starts to crescendo, and then finally explodes into action and consequence.”

I didn’t phrase any of it that well, of course. I didn’t even know what the word “crescendo” meant except in the broadest sense. This is all filtered through the lenses of both memory and fiction, which work together like a telescope to let you see things that are very far away.

“Fine,” he said. “Whatever. You just can’t let anything drop. You have to just pick apart everything I say.”

“I’m just making the point that you said it wasn’t exciting, and I think that excitement is one of its particular qualities.”

He said something like “argh!” Except people don’t really say that. But it gets the point across. He was getting very angry while I stayed calm. That meant I was winning. That attitude also meant that I was being an asshole, but it took me a long time to learn that particular lesson. I’ve only mostly learned it.

My brother and I had what had to be thousands of arguments over the years. This particular time I was about 18, although when I view it in my mind I’m much older than that. I’m an adult, and so is he. But it happened in his bedroom on the Cedar Avenue house, with its Insane Clown Posse posters and the schizophrenic graffiti from his friends scrawled across the angled ceiling. I was back from college for the summer, and he was still in high school. Roughly 150 million years ago. There may have been a plesiosaur.

We had a lot of arguments, but I remember this one for a very specific reason: I won. Not just then, of course. Not by a long shot. He probably said something like “fuck you” and stormed off. Which lacks verisimilitude because we were in his room, but if you went with me on the plesiosaur I’m going to assume your capitulation here.

It was a couple of years later, when we both really were adults. I was visiting home again. I can’t remember if this was before or after he took his trip travelling around Europe, staying in hostels and hooking up with exotic Swedish women. That’s something I always said I wanted to do, but I never would have. Not really.

“I’ve been listening to your music lately,” he told me. “The old CDs you had. Remember that conversation we had about Lightning Crashes?”

“Sort of.”

“You said it was an exciting song, and I said you were wrong.”

“Oh,” I said. “Right.”

“I’ve realized that you were right. The way it builds up and then launches into the important part. I’m not saying it’s my favorite song, but it is actually pretty exciting.”

My brother comes out the winner here, in this analysis. It’s not me for “winning” the argument. It’s him for allowing his view on something to evolve. And it always makes me think on why I’ve always loved to argue in the first place.

There are a couple of different reasons that people love to argue. Some people argue because they are unyielding in their viewpoints. Some people argue because they love the intellectual back and forth of discussion, and the puzzle-solving nature of debate. There’s definitely some of the latter, for me. But the main reason that I’ve always gotten into a lot of debates with people—and the Lightning Crashes argument is a perfect example—is because I love to examine things from every angle.

My brother and I got into a lot of arguments when we were little. My wife says that’s what we do when we get together, even today. We’re two clones with very different worldviews. His psychological flaw is that his view is too narrow; he sees things from the inside of his perspective and his opinions on the way the world works.

My flaw is exactly the opposite. I see far too many angles and elements of every situation, and I give them all equal weight. Even the irrelevant ones. It muddies up the waters of understanding. But it also means that with almost anything anyone says I can find something wrong. And not only find the mistake, but take it seriously. It will seems significant to me because every angle is significant.

I’ve gotten a lot better in my advancing years. I don’t argue nearly as often. It turns out that people don’t like it. But picking things apart, tearing them up into a million different perspectives that all feel equally valid, that is something that I still do.

I probably always will.

The Stupid Little Things that Define Us

Work ???
Another 37, Day 23

Everything felt fantastic. Everything was fantastic. For the last few months work was a struggle. I didn’t want to go, I called out sick far too often because I knew I could get away with it. My stats suffered. What did I care? I had no motivation, and they were still better than most of my coworkers stats. Then everything changed. Something in me clicked as I sat in bed one evening bemoaning the fact that I had to leave for another day of drudgery in just a few hours.

Just own it, I said to myself. You can look for another job, you can do something else. But until you do, just bloody own it.

I told myself that before. Of course I had. But in that moment my brain was listening. My neurological state was exactly right. I still woke up groggy and distracted the next day, with a passionate desire to flop right back into bed. But I made myself go in and I threw myself into the work. I stepped up. I didn’t let the moments drag from one miserable phone call to another. I applied myself, and everything started to get better.

For the last few weeks I’ve been almost enjoying my crappy job. And I’ve suddenly gotten very, very good at it. We can get up to three customer satisfaction surveys in a given day, and after that they won’t generate. I’ve been getting all of my surveys in the first three hours of work, and all of them positive. All of them glowing. My stats have skyrocketed, and yesterday I walked out of my job feeling fantastic about it, about life, about the universe.

That was yesterday. Today was very, very different. I could tell straight away that I just wasn’t feeling it. That spark wasn’t there. “It’s fine,” I told myself. “It’ll come.” But it didn’t. I had a headache, and felt generally groggy and unmotivated. Maybe I’m sick, and maybe I’m not. But ultimately it doesn’t matter. Even if I am sick, I’ve been to this place before. Full of vigor and motivation and passion, only to see it fade into a grimy haze of anxiety and laziness.

It’s been the story of my life, and it’s the deepest reason that I’ve never stuck to anything long enough to get really good at it. Because no matter how powerful I feel during my up phase, there has always come a time when I will stop caring. And that’s the key. You might be able to choose to work harder, to fight against laziness and temptation. But you can’t choose to want to do these things. You can’t choose to care. That’s why depression is so dangerous. It’s an old maxim that you can’t help someone change unless they want to change. And you can’t want to change unless you want to change.

I am not remotely alone. In fact, I think this might be the biggest factor when it comes to a successful life. Not my precise cycle, or my precise symptoms. But a variety of factors that fall into the same basic categories. When it comes right down to it, some people can make themselves do things they don’t want to do, and some people can’t. That might sound like a cop out, but frankly if you think that you are one of two types: either you are an idealist, or you have never, or very rarely, experienced the prolonged state of zero motivation. The temptation to just give up and do nothing, or distract yourself, that was undeniably stronger than your ability to overcome it.

When it comes down to it, I really am an idealist. I fully believe in the power of an individual to change her circumstances. But it takes a lot more than the desire to do it. It also takes the precursor to that desire. Maybe you can choose to fight against temptation and get up and exercise in the morning. But you can’t choose to have the strength, in that moment, to make the right choose.

Just like you might want to lift a heavy weight off of a trapped friend, but you can’t choose whether or not your muscles have that capacity. Some people can do it because they are naturally strong, or because they’ve worked out for years in preparation for this moment. Sometimes people can do it because, when it counts, adrenaline kicks in and gives them a burst of strength they wouldn’t normally have.

Motivation works the same way. It happened to me a few weeks ago. I sat in bed, whining inside my head, exactly like I had every night for months. But that night something was different. My broad view of the situation hadn’t changed. My abstract desires were no different. But in that moment the conditions were just right. Maybe it’s because the weather has been getting nicer. Maybe it’s because I recently gave up coffee in the mornings and I’m not feeling so shagged out. Maybe it’s because I had gotten a little more sleep than usual the night before. I don’t know, but it was something. Something I could never predict or control or choose. If I get any credit at all, it’s for taking advantage of it when I saw it.

But I’ve spent months without ever feeling that. Without ever being able to make myself care, or to make myself overcome the lethargy and anxiety that clung to my skin like an oily blanket. During those months I wanted to care. I wanted to change, to step up and take control of myself. I wanted it the way an ambitious business man wants more clients, or an aspiring actor wants more parts. But I couldn’t grab it, because at every moment of decision I couldn’t make myself care. Just like, for those people who achieve greatness, in those moments they can’t make themselves not care.

You can’t change your mental state just because you want to. I keep trying, and maybe some day I’ll elevate my state in a lasting and meaningful way. I believe it’s possible. Because despite the dour tone of this post I’m an optimist. And because research shows that believing it is true makes it more likely to be so for you. But I can’t know for sure. No one can. Today I felt crappy, and so I couldn’t reach in and ignite that spark. Maybe tomorrow will be better. If I see even the tiniest flame I will kindle it. But it’s impossible to light a fire when you have no combustibles. And it’s impossible to be other than what you are.