Lessons from The Jerk

If you’re not familiar with The Jerk (1978) starring Steve Martin, do yourself (well really, do me a favor) and watch it. It’s streaming on Amazon Video. Just go watch it. I’ll wait.

Now that you’re back, I want to share 3 very important pieces of advice that the star of our story, Maven Johnson, receives from his loving family before he departs on his Hero’s Journey:

  1. The Lord loves a working man
  2. Don’t trust whitey
  3. See a doctor and get rid of it

This is universally good advice.

I may not believe in any higher power, but showing up and being willing to get your hands dirty gives you more advantages than not.

I may not be anything other than an average white american man, but I sure as hell don’t trust any authority figure. It’s a reasonable precautionary measure.

And I may not follow all good advice, but seriously you should see a doctor every once in a while. And call your mom.

I first saw these painted on a plaque in a tattoo shop in Boulder, completely removed from their context in The Jerk, which I had already seen but didn’t connect at the time. I had remembered the signage despite missing the connection to the film. I re-watched it last week and finally noticed, and reveled in the warmth of a pop-culture reference coming full circle: it was a moment of life’s weird interconnected on full display. I spent a lot of time in that tattoo shop.

What difficult-to-ignore advice has influenced you?

Picking up the pieces; or How I learned to stop worrying and embrace weird metaphors

Metaphors are fractals of language: once you start to examine them closely, you end up seeing the same pattern over and over and over again.

I tend to find myself re-using the same (usually tired) metaphors in all sorts of different situations. But let’s not chalk it up to laziness right away. Once I start seeing a particular pattern that’s useful for solving problems, well, as they (I) say, I’ve found my hammer, and everything becomes a nail.1

Helpful Metaphors

Travel metaphors are always useful, bringing in words like eyeline, takeoff, and landing into conversations makes work feel more like a swashbuckling adventure than a boring slog through a checklist.

Eggs rolling towards the edge of a table is a particularly good image I’ve borrowed from Matt Work. It’s so damn useful when you need show how to deal with decision overload. “There are a dozen eggs rolling toward the edge of the table. You can only catch one.”

It’s an argument against micromanagement and interventionism, while offering practical advice for most types of people wrangling problems.


Unhelpful Metaphors

Have you ever found yourself saying the back half of a sentence in which you’ve been using an obtuse or random metaphor to summarize a situation, and you realize that your captive audience is making a face because you are in the middle of a cognitive leap so bizarre it would make an anti-comedian blush? Me too.

I call that an “unhelpful metaphor.” Even if it does make sense without being a stretch, if it makes the poor audience question the sanity of the speaker it’s safe to say it should probably be left out.

Finding balance

Usually when I start employing these colorful turns of phrase it’s because I’m trending to frame a concept, and I’m using roughly hewn idioms in an imprecise language to do it. Like how a charcoal rubbing brings out the detail hidden to the naked eye, an applicable metaphor, however weird, can help drawn out a details that might not be readily apparent.

So these days I just say it, whether or not it’s a weird comparison. I’m lending my point of view, and in a subjective world, the sooner you understand someone’s perspective, the sooner you’l be able to establish empathy.

Making things for fun

This isn’t a blog. It’s a fun side-project done over a couple weekends. There’s a big difference.

It’s not a blog because it’s not using any blogging software, per-se, just some elbow grease and a few scripts that I’ve to cobbled together into a mostly-working, glue–and–popsicle-sticks publishing platform.

Simple products are fashionable these days, especially when it comes to media consumption. Even I’ve been known to write a Medium post upon occasion, but I didn’t set out to build this as a monument to simplicity. This isn’t that type of place and I’m not that type of fella; things are always a bit messier than that in real life.

So as it stands, this is just a barely functioning, loosely coherent website with weird cursor effects1 (unless I’ve gotten bored and removed them) and superfluous footnotes2 (I probably haven’t removed these.)

So why go through all the trouble to build this in the first place? Why not just use Medium?

Isn’t this what all developers inevitably do anyway? Build some crappy knock-off of good software because they’re ego is too big to use anything that’s not been graced to have sprung unbidden from their god-like cheeto-covered fingertips? Yes, let’s all create something second rate instead of using something off-the-shelf in order to scratch the proverbial itch? Why, yes. Yes, it’s probably something like that then.

The question might as well then become, “why build anything at all?”

I made this because it was fun.

It was more fun figuring out how to easily inline all the assets and strip out unused css on this page than it would have been to set up Wordpress again. The first time I ever set up Wordpress in 2008 was a magical and transformative experience, so why am I so quick to shun it now? Am I really that self-important? Wordpress is great software and I can’t make anything that comes close to it in a weekend.

Doing something from scratch, even if it’s not polished, doesn’t deny or invalidate what you’ve done in the past.

For a long time I refused to do any writing on my website because I felt like I didn’t have the time. I was afraid that anything I wrote would be bad and then I’d be committed to it forever, comma splices and all. Paranoia that I would look back on it later with utter embarrassment kept me from committing to much writing since I killed my first blog in 2008. What I guess I means is I’m over that now? Worse is better after all, so why not let the tap start flowing!

In keeping with that spirit, I’ve shoddily rebuild an ode to Jekyll so that I can have reasonable writing experience for myself, which means markdown and not much else to fuss over. I’m unburdened by the need for SEO or any other unspeakable non-sense, but I care about mobile web and I care about pagespeed so I’ve gone and done the aforementioned asset inlining, which I think has come out quite nicely.

Go out and make something, even if it’s a shoddy facsimile of something else.

What are you going to make for yourself?

p.s. And, yes, I do plan on building an HTML guest book some day. But for now a link to twitter will have to suffice ✍️

2016 Reading List

  • In Progress
  • Finished
  • † Audible
  • ▶ Notes
  1. How to Make Sense of Any Mess — Abby Covert
  2. Daemon — Daniel Suarez
  3. Burr – Gore Vidal
  4. Fire in the Valley – Michael Swaine and Paul Freiberger

    I often think about what I missed by not being “in tech” (or rather “in the Bay Area”) when I was a bit younger. I graduated high school in 2004, meaning that if I had my shit together I could have gotten the fuck out of Tampa and high-tailed it to the west coast just in time to be on the ground floor to something cool. I had very little idea how much location factors in to participating in the digital economy.

    Instead I went to college and said “fuck computers.”

    This book isn’t about the years after the first dotcom bubble, it’s about an earlier time when fortunes were made just as quickly, but there was no internet to fuel the personal computer revolution. Just a bunch of hard working, often scheming, nerds and true believers making the hardware and the fabulists selling a dream of a digital future. They created a scene where there was none, and seemed to have fun doing it. They probably weren’t self-aware of that the minutia of their day to day “work stuff” becoming the geeky history of how personal computers helped spawn the modern tech industry.

    I rarely admire or envy baby boomers, but the people and events described in this book make a clear exception to that policy.

    After high school, I knew I was “good” with computers—whatever that means, I’m still trying to find out— but really I just lacked the vision to understand that I could hustle my way into tech if I wanted to. I didn’t manage to do that until 2009, and only then after deciding to at the end of 2008.

    Recently I read the New Yorker profile about Sam Altman and couldn’t help but feel the familiar hot sting of envy even thinking about the scene at Stanford in 2005. Right place at the right time, the way I figure it.

    Like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniack at the Homebrew Computing Club—I can’t read about that and not wish for that type of kismet in my life.

    This book stirs up some strong feels.

  5. Antifragile – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
  6. The Ascent of Money – Niall Feguson
  7. The (Mis)Behavior of Markets – Beniot Mandelbrot
  8. Barbarian Days – William Finnegan

    I didn’t grow up around surfing, despite being somewhat near the beach. The Gulf Coast is known for its calm white-sand, warm-water beaches. Not really a place for good waves. The Atlantic coast of Florida is a little better, but this is just the type of thing that’s elusive for kids in the suburbs. I was lucky enough to have a mom willing to drive me an hour to the skatepark (and I still skate to this day, so it wasn’t for nothing), but driving 2 or 3 hours to the opposite side of the state to try out a new board sport wasn’t in the cards. Surfing was something that only happened in the fictional Saved by the Bell universe of Southern California.

    Continuing on a theme, this feels like another nostalgic take on a subject (and time) that passed me by. It’s too late for me to commit to another brutal, dangerous hobby. My wife agrees with me.

    Sometimes I’m in awe of what a trip books are: it isn’t my expression, but the notion that you stare at a bunch of symbols on a page and experience vivid, emotional, waking hallucinations with zero physical effort or deleterious side-effects is fucking flabbergasting.

    This book places you in the water, on the board. It makes me pine for those types of memories, but I’m happy to share a sliver of the experience without getting wet.

  9. Sapiens – Yuval Harari
  10. Learning to Live Finally: The Last Interview – Jacques Derrida
  11. The Killing Moon – N.K. Jemisin

    I bought this based on an enthusiastic employee recommendation placard at Borderlands Books in San Francisco but set it down less than a quarter of the way into it for reasons I can no longer recall. I decided to pick it up again this year and loved it.

    Jemisin is a creator of vivid universes: they pull you into their orbit until they envelop you completely, at which point you’ll find yourself thumbing back to previous chapters scanning for the precious and minute x devices that do so well to establish an exact tone and setting. There’s just enough narrative white space to contrast with the hyper-detailed emotional awareness of the characters and settings so that the story is framed with elaborate societal backstory that has clear eye-line to the sequel(s). Great sci-fi recommendation.

    Update: also going back and listening to this now on on Audible

  12. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams
  13. Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said – Philip K. Dick
  14. Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut
  15. American Gods – Neil Gaiman

    Finally, finally got around to reading this after letting it languish on my Kindle for several years. Recommended by both my wife and best friend, I was pleased to so quickly become completely immersed in it. Gaiman creates moody settings that feel rich without going into Stephen King–levels of hyper-detail.

    I did have a funny note about Laura, though. Is it just me does she mostly serve as a corpse-ified version a manic pixie dreamgirl?

  16. Influx — Daniel Suarez

    Yet another Daniel Suarez tech thriller that I liked. I listened to this one instead of reading it, and as if this is any sort of compliment, but it made doing the dishes and assembling IKEA furniture thoroughly enjoyable.

  17. The Illuminatus! Trilogy — Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson

    I’ve read this before and I absolutely love it. Pure sci-fi zanyness with enough acid trips, talking dolphins, and fractal structure make it prime re-reading material, allowing for the slow jokes to play out with more more anticipation and certainly with more perspective to better take in the instant shifts betweens characters and timelines.

  18. Kissinger: 1923-1969 The Idealist — Niall Ferguson
  19. Brian Eno: Visual Music — Christopher Scoates
  20. The Three-Body Problem — Cixin Liu
  21. Civilization — Niall Ferguson
  22. Inherent Vice — Thomas Pynchon
  23. 7 Days In Ohio — Nathan Rabin
  24. Time Travel — James Gleick
  25. Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk — Peter L. Bernstein
  26. The Sovereign Individual — James Dale Davidson and Lord William Rees-Mogg
  27. Fooled By Randomness — Nassim Nicholas Taleb
  28. The Black Swan — Nassim Nicholas Taleb
  29. Superforecasting – Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner
  30. Digital Gold – Nathaniel Popper

Related: 2015 reading list