Sunday, October 30, 2011

I am a Horse I Can Not Ride

Yesterday morning I took and failed a road test. It was humiliating—in some ways it still would have been so, even if I passed.

I arrived at the testing location and sat around with a couple of teenage boys and their parents. The representative of the driving school chatted with them. I played a balloon-popping game (obsessive and soothing at the same time) on my phone.

I did a terrible job on the test. Afterwards I sat in the car and listened as the guy from the RMV lectured me and explained to me why I’d failed. I remember hoping he’d shut up soon so that I could leave the car and get home before I started crying. By the time he was done with me I was just hoping to get out of the car before I started crying. It was like being 23 and drunk and going from telling myself "I will not throw up", downgrading to "I will not throw up until I get home" and settling for "I will not throw up until I get off the bus."

I settled for crying once I was out of sight of the school and not sobbing out loud until I got home. I walked down Dane Street with water leaking out of my eyes. I pulled out my phone and went back to playing my game on my phone (no-I’m not crying and walking down Dane Street—I’m playing a game on my phone and walking down Dane Street.)

I got home and let the rest of it out. There’s a reason I mentioned vomiting, because the experience was very similar.

Sometimes I feel like there are three layers to my consciousness—there’s the physical layer, which suffers headaches and enjoys salty snacks. The emotional layer reacts to events—sometimes in an irrational way and then there’s the third layer. This is the part of me that’s most logical and is trying to make sense of the data reported by the physical and emotional layers. This is the layer that has to decide if the head cold I have is bad enough that I should stay home from work, whether the soup needs more salt or more ginger and whether or not to heed my emotional layer when it (the emotional part of me) is screaming it’s head off about something. I don’t always feel all three layers, but yesterday morning was an occasion on which all three layers were obvious.

Yesterday morning the emotional layer of my consciousness was throwing up. I wasn’t going to be able to do anything—go out for breakfast, text my sister and tell her how it went or decide what to do next until it was done throwing up.

I must admit that sometimes I don’t like my emotional layer. Yesterday I was upset, but I was surprised that I needed to cry so much. I mean, I expected to fail my road test—I just didn’t expect to fail so…completely.

Part of me, the part of me that’s supposed to be riding/driving the rest of me, had accepted that and was already moving on to figure out where I went from there (get new school? Give up entirely? Get back on the horse that bucked me?). Another part of me was pitching a fit over the situation. This is not the first time this has happened to me. I’ve sat through a panic attack while explaining to other people that really, it was fine (or it would be in a few minutes.) The problem—or part of it—is that I’m not always able to tell when to ignore my emotional layer. I really should ignore it when it’s telling me that I’ve left my door open, or my stove on (but what if it’s right? Maybe I can check—just to be sure I’m not about to burn the building down.) I shouldn’t listen when it tells me that yes it was nice to hang out with those people—but they were only being polite. They don’t really like me. I’m not intellectual enough.

I’d like to counter-balance these examples with something positive—at the very least some instance when my emotional self had lead me to believe I have competencies I do not, but most of the time I sit around worrying that I think I have expertise that I don’t really have. Yesterday’s experience would certainly support that narrative. I thought I had a 50-70% chance of passing the driving test. I figured I’d fail because I got one or two things wrong. In reality I probably had about a 20% chance of passing, and I failed because I got everything wrong. That hurt—a lot. It made me very angry. But I was mad at the driving school for not preparing me properly—not at myself for trying something and failing.

I have a tendency not to be willing to try something unless I’m sure I can do it (partly because I react so badly to failure—see above references to vomiting.) I know that’s no healthier than being a chronic risk taker. So even though I wasn’t sure I was going to pass the road test I didn’t cancel it. I’m proud of myself for that. Obviously, I’d be prouder if I’d passed the test, but if I can’t drive safely, then they really shouldn’t give me a license to operate a motor vehicle.

What dismays my logical brain is the tendency of my emotional layer to seize up. As a consequence I do my best to minimize it’s exposure—since it’s bound to misbehave. This leads to a rather proscribed existence. It’s not that bad though. After failing my driving test I attended a zombie party and then went out on Sunday for breakfast with my fellow zombies.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

It Gets Better

I did something tonight that I’d been meaning to do for a while—I watched a few “It Gets Better” videos. I have two reactions to this project—no I lied—I have three.

The first reaction is that all of these grown-ups have forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager. How well does logic work when you’re sure that the world is out to get you*? More importantly—don’t they remember all the PSAs by baseball stars, Mr T and Webster telling them not to do drugs and to talk to an adult if someone ever touched them in a way that felt icky? How did they react as children to these well-meaning videos?

My second reaction is the complete opposite of the first. It’s not just that Barack Obama made a youtube video telling kids to talk to their parents if they’re bullied—it’s that Barack Obama, Stephen Colbert, Zachary Quinto and everyone else with a web-cam and a heart made a video attempting to explain that it gets better. While individual videos may not be compelling, perhaps the sheer volume of them may be.

My third, and ultimately kind of depressing reaction is “does it really get better?” People are ass-hats. A good friend of mine once said that real life is more like high school than college. I find that statement depressing, but accurate. It’s not what you know it’s who you know (and sometimes how you dress.) And while no one’s threatened to beat me up in about a quarter of a century, I have still encountered bullies since then.

The bullies you meet in your professional life won’t harm you physically. On the other hand, they may be people you have no choice but to deal with (and on their terms.) Dealing with them is always going to be unpleasant.

However, you can bitch about the bullies you encounter to your best friends (while applying alcohol and guacamole to your lacerated nerve endings) and they will be sympathetic. They’ll say “I want to punch him in the nose!” And then you’ll feel better.

Perhaps that’s the point of the project—to tell kids who are isolated by bullying and by being different that they are not alone—they just haven’t found their co-conspirators yet.

*No, I was not a particularly troubled teenager. I went to a geek high school, so no one bullied me. But we should all admit that it’s not fun being an adolescent—even before you add bullies.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Steve Jobs is Dead-Now What?

I hated Apples as a kid. I found the GUI so patronizing--were they implying that their users weren't bright enough to deal with a command line interface?

I continued to hate them (but for different reasons--they crashed all the time) until I got my first real job after college working for a company in France that did PR for a Formula 1 team. True, the Macs still crashed daily, but aside from that, they were so easy to use and to hook up to other things (anyone remember AppleTalk?)

When I bought my first Macintosh computer I had a bit of an existential crisis--I'm a PC desktop support professional--was I going to be okay with using a Mac at home? I wasn't going to be able to tweak it to a faretheewell the way I could a PC. On the other hand it would "just work" and I wouldn't have to do any of the stuff I do at work in order to access the Internet, wordprocess, print and watch movies. This has proved more or less true, and I love my Mac.

I also love my iPhone. I am not gadget-crazy (for example I do not yet own an iPad.) I bought the iPhone because it became apparent to me that I really needed a device that provided the services that an iPhone did. Since then I've watched Droids develop and change, but I've never been tempted to swap my iPhone for one of them. The nicest thing anyone has ever said about one of them is that "this model might be able to give the iPhone some competition." Seriously--"might?"

And then there's the iPad. Yes, it's a giant iPod touch--but it has set the benchmark and other hardware vendors have only attempted to copy it so far. When I go to conferences now I don't see laptops anymore--I see iPads.

This is not a commercial for Apple. Steve Jobs was a control freak's control freak--I've heard stories of him visiting Apple stores to make sure that the white background color was exactly the white color he had in mind.

In business school (or for that matter in real life) I have learned that it's generally not a good idea to have a corporate structure that is so dependent on one individual, in the way that Apple was dependent on Steve Jobs. It's just plain wrong. I could go on about this at great length, but suffice to say that B school and life teach that part of the point of building up a company is so that you can go on vacation and trust that things will run in your absence. In fact, being a control freak is inefficient--because then you are the limiting reagent-the single point of failure for any transaction.

Most of the time when this happens at a company, we roll our eyes and agree that one of the owners has "Master of the Universe" syndrome and that he/she would do best to get over it.

Steve Jobs appears to have been an exception to that rule--or rather maybe he really was a Master of the Universe (as far as development at Apple is concerned.) I joke with my geek-friends that while being a control freak is not generally a good business model it works out well if you're designing hardware.

But where do we all go from here? Our tour guide to the future of mobile gadgetry has departed from this plane. Does this mean that the baton gets passed to Google?

That is somehow...unsatisfying--and not just because I hate Droids. I have learned to love Apple in the past 4 or 5 years because with Steve Jobs back they were back to kicking ass and taking names. Maybe it's because I'm a geek but I love my Apple hardware and I feel saddened that the man who provided the chutzpah to "make it so" is dead now.

I worry about the future though. Someone else needs to step up and be the man or woman who will create and show us the new most awesome thing ever the way Steve Jobs did.