Where is the Beauty?

There is a quote from one of my favorite authors that illustrates my point nicely:

“Nothing is more important that that you see and love the beauty that is right in front of you, or else you will have no defense against the ugliness that will hem you in and come at you in so many ways.”

Neal Stephenson, Anathem

Live it.

Keats wrote:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

John Keats, Endymion

Just those first five lines (there are many more) are enough for me, ending with ‘quiet breathing.’  Slow down.  Slow.  Down.  Are you fast-paced enough to survive our modern crazy-ass rate of living?  Can you compete? are you tough enough, strong enough, ambitious enough, dedicated enough, persistent enough, merciless enough, to survive?

Darwin described a survival-of-the-fittest theory of evolution.  Since then, scientists have extensively modified his fundamental finding.  It isn’t all about competition and the race to the top.

Why are tribal bands of primates the top competitor in the race to conquer the world?  Why are there 6+ billion hairless monkeys running the Earth’s show?  Is it a sociopathic devil-take-the-hindmost race to the top that’s made us the top competitor, or something else?

My contention is that it’s beauty.  Which, in my mind, is a function of a group of people who have a higher goal.  Who don’t just live to live, but live to aspire to something greater than themselves.

But beauty, like fun, is in the eye of the beholder.  My beauty is no more your beauty than my fun is your fun.  And I’m wary of relativistic measures.  I know murder in cold blood is bad, and no matter what cultural or scientific or whatever justifications you may have for it, I think it’s bad.

But beauty and fun are necessarily relativistic.  Or, more accurately, are humanocentric.  My point is that you need to pay some fucking attention to them.  They’re evanescent, deliquescent, evanescent – they’re like a butterfly’s wing:  beautiful on inspection, delicate upon investigation.  Touch it, and it’s ruined.

Believe in beauty.  I’m no religionist, I espouse no path to redemption, but I believe that everyone should look at the world through the lens of beauty.  Perhaps burning every erg of hydrocarbons we pump up from the depths or scrape up from the earth is the proper way for our economy to prosper . . . but is it beautiful?

Is it beautiful?  Yes, this seems to be a bit flowery, or unrealistic, but . . . why not?  What do you want to leave to your children?  Ugly?

To me, fun is about beauty.  I want beautiful people around me (and that has little to do with their appearance) that are fun and making beauty.  Why not?  Why not make beauty?  What’s holding you back?

My auto mechanic makes beauty.  He is there for me, and shakes hands with me, and tells me the truth, and tries to be a part of my life in a way that I accept and honor.

That’s beauty.  Let’s be beautiful.

I love you,


Why Are You Crying?

Cried recently?  Why?  If you’re an American (or Westerner of most flavors), I doubt that you cry often, or for anything but a major life crisis – the loss of a loved one, the ending of a major relationship, or the end of a significant portion of your life:  your job, your health, your wealth.

My grandparents and parents lived hardscrabble lives:  I remember visiting my maternal grandparents house and going out to the chicken coop to gather eggs on a warm summer’s day, and stepping in a pile of chicken poop with bare feet.  That’s the sort of earthy, down to earth existence they lived, though my grandfather worked a good job with a major utility company that allowed him to own a nice home, and he had inherited a large plot of land that he had deeded to all of his progeny.  I lived in a neighborhood entirely populated with uncles, aunts, and cousins.  It was a good life.

But they had a truck garden (for moderns, this means a big garden that we worked in like dogs to make extra money from selling produce to grocery stores and roadside stands).  And that chicken coop.  And everyone worked hard, most in businesses they’d started themselves.  My dad was a contractor, and so was one of my uncles.  Another uncle was a mason.

And in those simpler times – and they were, no question – crying did happen only when something really tragic came into our lives.  And then it came out freely, was expected, was cherished and supported.

Things have changed.  Our lives are bewildering.  Overwhelming.  Filled with change, and uncertainty, and we’re uprooted from our native earth and planted somewhere strange.  Not bad, but strange.  As Kurt Vonnegut writes in one of my favorite quotes:

“Where’s my good old gang done gone?” I heard a sad man say. I whispered in that sad man’s ear, “Your gang’s done gone away.”

We still cry for the tragic, but I find myself – and I suspect that others of my generation, and of the generations who’ve come after me – cry for something that we cannot define, an absence and emptiness that is harder to encompass and remedy than an obvious intrusion such as a death or loss.

In the midst of a plenty that previous generations would envy, we lack something fundamental.  While buying anything we could imagine on Amazon and searching for anything we’d want to know on Google and sharing everything we’ve ever done on Facebook, there’s something that just isn’t there any more.

I believe that what’s missing is connection.  Connection to other people you know and trust, connection to a greater whole, connection to the natural world, connection to a day to day and a lifetime to lifetime continuity.  We live destinies that are significantly, and often radically, different from those of our parents and grandparents, and we fear that our sons and daughters and nephews and nieces, and the progeny and relatives of those unrelated to us but whom we know and love, will be lost amid an increasingly complex and dissociative social order.  We feel lost, and adrift.

I did.  And I do, though I’ve taken steps to walk back the alienation I’ve been subjected to through my own choices and the pressures of my career choice and the society I live in.  I moved back to my home state, I moved closer to my sons and to my extended family, I reestablished relationships long sundered by distance and busyness.

Because I spent a lot of time crying.  There is a sadness that is the deeper for the distance, a sorrow that increases with every tie that is broken or ignored, a tear that streams down your cheek despite every Facebook reacquaintance or social media connection.  And, so often, there is no one to hold you and let your tears soak into their shoulder as you weep.

Walk it back.  I like that phrase, the steady flow of it, the slowness of walking, the sense of turning away from a path that has led to sorrow.  Walk back your aspirations, turn back towards a life that includes your old friends and is together with family and that feels as if there’s a greater good and that there’s a better place you can only reach in community.

I will briefly describe such a place.  I recently got a job in a lab (my life’s been largely spent in one) that was already a good place, a community, with people who stopped to help one another, who sincerely wanted each other to succeed, who aspired to greater things but weren’t too busy with their ambitions to patiently explain to someone lower on their track how to do what they’d need to do to follow on.  And I’ve worked hard, though it may not appear to be hard work, to keep that spirit alive and to make that small community thrive.  And it’s been rewarding – it’s been fun – to be a part of it, and see every day how talented people can work together and create something new and bigger than themselves without fuss and fighting and a fight for credit.  How they can selflessly help one another.

But let’s not over-emphasize selflessness.  It isn’t.  It’s self-satisfying.  When I help one of my protégés, I get a charge.  I passed something on, and they valued it.  My life-long struggle to kick some ass passed on some kicked ass.

And that is as it should be.  Get your ass out there and kick some ass.  And find some good people who will criticize you, and bitch at you, and support you, and annoy you, and laugh with you, and play with you, and sit around a darkened room and drink beers with you, and laugh some more.  And, if you’re lucky, they’ll cry with you.  But you won’t be alone, and you won’t be crying because you’re alone.

I love you,


Fun at Work is About Your Boss

Who’s Your Boss?

I’m a scientist.  You know, the guy who was off in his own little world when you knew him in high school, doodling in his notebook while not listening to the teacher, finishing his science experiment in ten minutes and then working on his other homework while you suffered through your own only to get a C in the course while I got an A.  The scientist guy who wasn’t that good with people (to say the least) but was as self-contained as a hog on ice when it came to fussy, complicated, intellectual tasks.

Okay, I’m not quite that guy.  I am good with people, though I do like sitting by myself at the bench and doing repetitive, fussy, intellectually difficult tasks.

But now you’re working in a high-tech industry – and what business isn’t high tech now, from a factory making socks to Google?  And who’s your boss?  Me.  Or someone even more like the stereotype than me.

Boss Management 101

You took courses in college, or high school, that you sat through and doodled in your notebook during and wondered what the heck this shite could possibly do for your future.  Advanced algebra?  Shakespeare?  What hey, are you going to integrate areas under curves or recite sonnets in your future career?  Answer:  sometimes you will, and maybe something off the beaten path will be valuable.  But,

You missed the Big Course.  The one your college didn’t offer.  That, as far as I know, no college offers.  Boss Management 101.

Because your boss, your manager, is more important to your job success and satisfaction than any other factor.  Perhaps you got a job cleaning human shit out of reeking, rat-infested sewer pipes, and your boss’ deep concern for your welfare, or entire lack of caring, made no difference to your job satisfaction.  But in any other job your satisfaction with your boss is essentially equal to your own satisfaction with your job.

Doubt it?  Read First, Break All the Rules, a nice piece by authors from the Gallup organization who ran a massive poll of workers (about 1,000,000) and managers (about 100,000) in order to understand what factors make businesses work from the perspective of their employees and managers.  Their take away message:  good managers = success, bad managers = failure.  And success = happy employees, and failure = employees who leave quickly, or who stay and are unhappy and not terribly productive.

So, how do you manage your boss?  First, pick a good one.  Do your homework.  Find out who he or she is, and put your ear to the ground.  During your interview, assess your prospective boss.  Does he seem to care about his employee’s careers?  Because that’s what a manager’s job is:  to develop his employee’s careers.  To build teams that consist of people who feel that their jobs are more than just pieces put together to complete a jigsaw puzzle, but are instead pursuing dynamic, rewarding, creative, and, dare I say it, fun ways for them to make a living and spend the better part of their lives.  And also being pieces that fit into a nuanced, productive jigsaw puzzle.

Second, live with him.  Become a friend, a confidant, a partner.  If you can’t, I suggest that you should move on.  Because, if you don’t know your boss in a fairly intimate way, you don’t know your boss.  I’ve lived that story, assumed that divergent paths just meant divergent interests but still meant convergent paths, and boy!, was I sorely disappointed.  I didn’t know my boss, and I paid the price.

And when you’ve picked a good one, don’t let off the gas pedal.  I’ve had long, successful (and failed) relationships, and it takes constant attention to succeed.  We’d like to think that we can sail forward into the future, the more relaxed and carefree the better, but I beg to differ.  You don’t make a fine sculpture, a great cheese soufflé, or a long-term relationship by sailing and relaxing and being carefree.  Or rather, you do – but it’s in combination with attention to details, awareness of issues and a willingness to deal with them, and some craftiness.

Which is where the great boss managers differ from the merely acceptable.  Be crafty.  Think of yourself as a great martial artist facing their nemesis.  Your subtlety, your fakes and retreats and sudden, unexpected attacks are the key to your ability to win.

Same thing with boss management.  My boss worries about time on the job, sees people coming in comfortably late and leaving comfortably early as an existential issue for his own career.  I see the people, and their real productivity, and I take proactive steps to assuage his anxieties.  Because my workplace is productive, and, more importantly, is fun, and supportive, and collaborative.

And there is the challenge for the middle manager.  There is a balance between hours spent working, and productivity, and the attractiveness of your workplace to high performing people, and fun.  My emphasis is on fun (of course), because I have personally experienced the extremes of both states.  I’ve been in workplaces that were just no fun, and I now work in a lab that’s fun in a very relaxing, forward-looking, collaborative, cooperative, and pleasant way.  I know from verifiable scientific measures which one is more productive.

So boss management is more than simply getting that bad boy off your back.  It’s about helping her tune her organization to accomplish her, and your, and especially your subordinate’s, goals.  To make it all work without directly involving your boss, at least for almost all decisions.  There is an old and pithy saying that goes something like “never involve your boss in a decision he doesn’t need to know about,” that I recommend to you.

Don’t conceal anything.  Don’t play fast and loose.  But do accept the responsibility for the decisions that you could pass up to your boss, but, if you’d just stepped up, could be handled at your level.  Have your subordinate’s backs, protect them from the political flack, and that includes your boss’ moodiness and anxieties.  You deal with them.  You be the one who backs your people and helps them develop.   You look out for the fun, and make sure it increases.

I love you.  Stay the course, and

Have fun!