One Attempt XIV: Origin story
Reminder: I’m Josh Rubenoff, a product designer and org culture enthusiast. I use this newsletter to work and think in public. If you’d like to unsubscribe, there’s a link at the bottom.
In 2009, I dropped out of college and started reading media blogs full-time. It wasn't a paid job, but it's how I spent my days. I subscribed to dozens of RSS feeds in Google Reader, and for 8–10 hours a day I caught up on everything they posted.
This is my professional origin story, the one I tell hiring managers. I'd read interviews with execs about their TV Everywhere plans or their digital news initiatives. I'd note the disconnect between their cogent strategies and the mediocre products that would ship six months later. And then I became curious about what it takes to ship good software. How do you design something great? And how do you build a culture that narrows the gap between strategy and execution? I picked up some spec work and hit the ground running from there.
But in this re-telling, I'm leaving out some details. I didn't become a designer out of intellectual curiosity (although it did compel me to keep going.) I just wanted to escape my shitty circumstances. At the time, I'd experienced what felt like a life-defining failure. Not only had I flunked out of college, I'd failed to live independently. I was back at my parents' house, broke and unemployed. It was hard to see a way out of that. But then I went to an IXDA meetup, where someone told me I didn't need a degree to become a good designer. So that's what I did.
Also, I originally hoped to write for a living, but that's not why I read blogs all day. Rather, I felt helpless about my ability to improve or change, so stories of ambition were hilarious to me. Because it seemed so obvious that they'd fail. Because it seemed like that's what most human beings do. So the new CEOs, new ideas, and bold new plans I read about would come off as farce. And unless you're one of the main characters, a farce can be really funny.
Here are some lessons I took from 2020:
So many of our public and private institutions are failing us on a massive scale. They may be ineffective, inequitable, or deprive us of our humanity.
Most of these institutional failures stem from our collective inability to envision and organize around a future without them.
Calls for reform are often misguided. They implicitly assume the institution is worth reforming, and thus worth upholding.
Working towards a radically better future requires we discard those implicit assumptions.
And here are three very disparate examples:
Investments in police reform prevent us from working towards (or even considering) a world where police have less power.
Pressuring social platforms to change their bad content policies distracts us from working to dismantle their absolute influence.
Lobbying cultural gatekeepers to increase their diversity ends up entrenching their position and marginalizing institutions who have been doing the work for decades.
In other words, when you push an institution to improve, you may end up strengthening a fundamentally corrupt entity. You could see this as sad or depressing...
Or you could see it as farcical? A very, very dark farce, but absurd and funny nonetheless.
In 2009, one could interpret my sense of institutional farce as mean-spirited or spiteful. Since I felt like a failure, I was laughing at others for even trying.
Going forward, I'd like to rekindle that awareness of farce, but it no longer needs to come from that place. I'm not the same person I was then: I've built up a decade's worth of self-confidence and agency. Instead, I think it can come from a place of hope and compassion.
Rather than thinking, "I can't believe this person has ambition," I want to think: "I can't believe this person can't imagine something better?"
In other words: I'd like to try developing a more critical, even antagonistic attitude towards existing institutions. I'd like to change how I relate to them in my everyday life, and how I engage with them professionally. I'd also like to spend time and effort in thinking about how we can move beyond the ones that fail to serve us.
But this requires thinking independently of those institutions. Independence is lonely, and loneliness can occasionally be overwhelming.
So laughing at it all seems like as good of a defense mechanism as any.
Three recent first watches
Between the Lines tells a story of 21st-century media consolidation… in 1977. Stacked cast, incredible vibes, and some beautiful photography of 1970s Boston. Directed by Joan Micklin Silver, who passed away on Thursday at 85.
The Maltese Falcon is as good as everyone says it is.
If you like surreal animation, The King and the Mockingbird scared the shit out of me. Here's a summary of its three-decade (!) development process. You can see a frame from it at the top of this newsletter.
Happy new year! As always, thanks for reading.