I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership lately, for no reason at all connected to the news or the state of social media or the way we’ve constructed an economic sytem that allows petulant man-children to set billions of dollars on metaphorical fire because strangers on the internet made fun of him while simultaneously pretending that homelessness is an intractable inevitability that can only be solved by brutalizing the unhoused rather than taking away those billions of dollars from aforementioned megalomaniacs.

Sorry, where was I.

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labour of love

The concept of “work” is a Rorschach test, an inkblot that you can project pretty much anything onto. There are definitions that speak of a meaningless Sisyphean grind inside an oppressive and cruel economic system designed to extract the maximum possible short-term value from all its constituent parts. There are also definitions that evoke the sincere joy of putting care and attention toward something worth nurturing, and shepherding its growth through consistent, deliberate effort. Your definition of work probably says more about you than the actual concept itself.

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Sometimes it feels like there’s no point to writing unless I have a competely original idea. This is an impossibly high bar to clear—there aren’t no original thoughts left, but they are exceedingly rare. Often I’ll discover while researching that the core of my idea showed up in three thinkpieces within the last two weeks alone, or more likely that Ursula Franklin already figured it all out the year I was born. This mainly means that I’m not immune to the zeitgeist and that no one is immune to Ursula Franklin, but in the moment it always feels like my words are derivative and pointless.

I don’t really have a good answer for why I prize originality above all else, above craft and emotion and consistency, other than ego. Some small part of me still believes in my weakest moments that words are enough to change things, and I want to be the one to find those words.

Of course, that’s not how change actually happens, even with truly revolutionary ideas (and I certainly don’t pretend to have any of those). It’s not like there can be one perfectly constructed essay that will stir hearts and minds and everyone will applaud and think to themselves how cool and smart and pretty the author is before they sally forth to implement her policies. Ideas take careful stewardship and tireless repetition over decades or even centuries to catch on and spur people into action. If I want the things I believe in to flourish, then being one refrain in the chorus matters even if I didn’t compose the song.

Dominant western forms of storytelling don’t do a great job of portraying that kind of collective sensemaking. Most of the stories we’re told from a young age feature one person or a small group of people who made the difference, one act of bravery we’re meant to emulate. This narrative bias is a barrier to progressive social change: it’s easy to become demoralized when individual effort doesn’t have the seismic impact it does in our stories, much harder to keep faith in the immense and diffuse work required to organize and sustain a movement in the real world.

My preoccupation with originality is part of that same problem. Ultimately, I suspect I care about being original because I want to stand out from the crowd, which is the opposite of the politics I try to practice. I believe that individual snowflakes can add up to an avalanche, but that means I have to be okay with being one speck of crystallized ice amongst billions. At least it’ll still be pretty.

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a meta note

At any given point in my life I’ve wanted to be spending more time writing. This includes the tween years in which I wrote and published fanfiction every afternoon after school, undergrad when I studiously scheduled three blog posts a week despite having very little of substance to say, and that year and a half when I ran a daily newsletter that took over my life.

I’m very happy I chose not to pursue writing as a career. I’m very happy with the career that I do have, and I’m very glad that I get to keep writing for no reason other than to write. I have never pitched a publication not because I think my words are in any way precious (I desperately need an editor) but because I didn’t want to worry about anything other than the writing. I can afford not to think about the profit incentives of publishing or the imagined audience of an institution, and so I don’t.

Writing as just a hobby, though, means that I’ve never figured out how to carve out a satisfying amount of time for it. It was a thing I did for myself, which means I could always find a reason why it wasn’t as important as something else I needed to do for someone else. And because writing time was scarce, I didn’t want to spend any of it frivolously, working through anything other than Deep Ideas I’ve already been chewing on in my head for months.

I like that my thoughts come slowly. I think the writing I produce when I’m using it to figure out what I think is leagues better than the writing I do when I’m broadcasting conclusions. But it does mean that there are lots of subjects I want to explore that I discard because they’re not worth 3,000 words wrung out over 8 months, and while that’s not exactly a loss to the world I do think that prevents me from growing as a writer.

Essentially, inside me there are two wolves. One knows that the only way to get better at writing is to write more, and the other doesn’t ever want to publish anything I haven’t obsessively thought through for half a year. The second one has anxiety and should not be listened to, which is to say that I’m going to try and write more short things that may not be fully formed. Please do not yell at the anxious wolf.

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morals in the machine

The first time I took on the role of a lead engineer, a few years ago, I had a really hard time learning how to prioritize and delegate work. For much of my early career, I had simply never needed any planning skills beyond “say yes to everything and work yourself into the ground”. One of the best pieces of professional advice I’ve ever received came during this time, from a mentor who told me to delegate the things I was already good at. If I’m good at something, it means I’m actually equipped to evaluate whether my team is doing a good job. It also means I don’t need the practice as much, so delegating frees me up to improve other skills.

There’s an oft-repeated myth about artificial intelligence that says that since we all know that humans are prone to being racist and sexist, we should figure out how to create moral machines that will treat human beings more equitably than we could. You’ve seen this myth in action if you’ve ever heard someone claim that using automated systems to make sentencing decisions will lead to more fairness in the criminal legal system. But if we all know that humans are racist and sexist and we need the neutrality of machines to save us—in other words, if we should delegate morality to AI—how will we ever know if the machines are doing the job we need them to do? And how will we humans ever get better?

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