CW: suicide. Further CW: If you are reading this and you used to work with me at a certain place at a certain time, it's not just any suicide, it's that one.
I just started a new job. I’m now the VP of Engineering at ConvertKit. So far it is awesome. Of course, as with any new role, I’m immediately beset by challenges, the solutions to which are not obvious. There are constraints. There are circumstances outside my control that I nevertheless have to respond to in the best way I can. I gather information about the realities of the situation at hand, I generate options, I seek counsel. And then I try to play the best hand I can. Then, whatever happens, whether I ‘win’ that round or lose it, I know I’ve done my best to play.
This isn’t any different from how the rest of life works. I think it’s a little easier to see it in the context of a business, for two reasons: the first is that when you start a new job, especially, perhaps, in a leadership role, you are dealt A LOT of new cards all at once. And the second reason is that it’s relatively easy to step back from a business context and see that you’re sitting at a table playing a strategy game. The stakes are not low — I don’t meant that — when you are part of leading a business you feel the responsibility to lead it well, for the sake of the business, for the sake of the people who work there, and the people who buy the product, and all the beings who might be affected by the product whether or not they buy it (I include here all life on earth). It’s a big responsibility, but also, we’re not running a nuclear reactor, or making an airplane, or starting a war.
If you step back from the rest of your life too, though, you see the same thing. We’re here mostly for reasons we don’t understand or that may not exist. This role of being a human doesn’t come with obvious instructions; while there are plenty of wise people and wisdom traditions on hand to offer instructions, we are often not able to take the advice offered. Sometimes we have to do a stupid thing for reasons we don’t understand and it hurts us and/or others and then we have learned something in our bodies that yes, we were perhaps told, but mostly we learn by living, not by being told. What’s the goal? How do you win? Is there even such a thing as winning, or is the point simply to play? To enter into the dance that is Creation and do our best to be part of it.
Well, that’s what I think the point is, anyway. To keep on talking to one another, to keep on dancing together in a pattern we can’t discern, to keep on playing till, one day, the deck of cards is exhausted and we’re dealt no more cards to play.
I first learned this metaphor, this idea that we must play the hand we are dealt, from a stint I did in group therapy, around 2013 or so. The kind of therapy was something called Dialectical Behavior Therapy, which was the brainchild of one Marsha Linehan, who developed it in order to treat people with Borderline Personality Disorder, which had previously been considered to be basically untreatable. That’s not my diagnosis but the skills she outlines in her book Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder (a masterful entry in the “the title tells you exactly what the book is about in as simple a manner as possible”) are useful for anyone who struggles with strong emotions that they find hard to regulate. Which is to say that DBT as a mode of therapy is chock-full of excellent tips for basically anyone, so you certainly shouldn’t let the title scare you off just because you don’t have a particular diagnosis. (This is true for all kinds of therapy, by the way. If you want help with your mind or your behavior, check into all kinds of different therapies. You never know what might work for you).
Anyways, Linehan spends some time on the importance of accepting reality. Accepting reality doesn’t mean we don’t work to change it, it means we are willing to see what the reality is and do our best to move forward based on a full acceptance of what the reality is. She calls this skill “willingness”: “accepting what is, together with responding to what is, in an effective or appropriate way. It is doing what works.” The opposite of willingness is willfulness: “imposing one’s will on reality—trying to fix everything, or refusing to do what is needed.”
(Willfulness is a hard word for me because it makes me think reality is a parent who is mad at me for stubbornly not doing what I’m told. But the point is not that we should do what we are told, but that if we are grownups and life is giving us some hard things to deal with, acting like a teenager and just slamming the door on life’s challenges and turning up the music is not exactly helpful. )
Here we get to the cards metaphor:
It makes no difference to a good card player what cards she gets. The object is to play whatever hand she gets as well as possible. As soon as one hand is played, another hand is dealt. The last game is over and the current game is on. The idea is to be mindful of the current hand, play it as skillfully as possible, and then let go and focus on the next hand of cards.
(All quotes from p. 103 of the Skills Training Manual…)
A line from a poem I wrote about the suicide of a friend. “I learned in Group once that you must play the hand you’re dealt, but you threw all your cards down, dealt me a game of 52 pickup.”
I was angry with my friend when I wrote that poem, and I’m especially angry with him again right now because at my new job I have an open role that would be perfect for him. ConvertKit sends a lot of emails. My dead friend built a significant part of the original infrastructure for emails. In fact, he sent his suicide note via email, using some bespoke delayed-send technique in a time before email clients let you schedule sends, the way they do today. In his desk drawer after his death there was found a slip of paper that said “Quote of the Day: ‘Ordinary mortals are not allowed to work on Mail.’” I was given the slip of paper by our office manager at the time, and it’s been tucked up into the frame of the mirror in my bedroom ever since. The quote was attributed to a person, and not long ago I went on LinkedIn and messaged the person looking for more context about the quote, but he didn’t have much to tell. This is a long story about the dead man that I didn’t realize I was going to tell until I started telling it. I already wrote an entire book of poems about this dead man. The book is called “Death by Asphyxiation” and it is unpublished. You’d think I’d be done telling you about this dead man, it’s been a long time now and I only knew him for a very short time, in fact. But I am not done. I think I will never be done. If you are thinking about becoming a dead man yourself, I hope you keep that in mind.
Anyways. The extremity of refusing to play the hand you’re dealt is what he did. If you are not familiar with the game of 52 pickup, it’s a game in which one person says “Do you want to play 52 pickup? It’s a card game.” and the other person, the fool who believes and trusts them, says “sure, how does it work?” and the first person takes a deck of cards and throws them all up in the air and they all come down every which way, and they say “I throw all the cards in the air, and you, you pick them up.” And then they walk away.
Play your cards, folks. Some of them might suck. Some of us get dealt worse cards than others and no, that is not fair, and yes, we should work to make the dealing of cards more fair. I am not saying otherwise. The dealer gave me some good cards and also, like the evil fairy in the Sleeping Beauty story, gave me a card that means that sometimes all my other cards look bad, even when they’re not. But still. We have one job.
We are here at the table to play the hand we are dealt. Punch the dealer in the face and grab better cards, sure. Hand some good cards to other people who need them. Keep an ace up your sleeve. But think very carefully before you simply flip the table over and walk away from the game, because, I assure you, when you do that, a whole lot of other people are left behind, still in the game, and now with no other choice than to pick up the damn cards.