How I Hired Your Mother

I was once riding in the back of a friend’s car next to an intelligent, beautiful, exciting woman. We’d spent the last few hours talking to each other as though no one else was around. Bar? Jazz band? Where are we now? What language are we speaking? Who cares. Then a pause, and a curious look flashed across her face. I felt my toes curl around the edge of an invisible diving board. She started talking nervously off the top of her head about… something. I said callate mija, a silly thing only old abuelitas say. Then I leaned over and we kissed. Our friends in the front cheered. Three months later we were married.

The stories you tell later about clincher moments are peculiar in both senses of the word: unique and strange. By itself the clincher quip makes little sense, a one-off generated in the moment out of shared context & vulnerability. You had to be there. At the time it’s created it functions like a gavel strike, cueing up a decision. Later, it acts like a bookmark to take one back to a spot in a million-dimensional emotionspace.

The really funny thing is that these stories have the same pattern whether they are about recruiting a key employee, the love of your life, or an enemy spy. They have some elements of a joke but they are not quite jokes. They are also full of purposeful lies. Every clincher story is prepared testimony for a future trial.

Like jokes, the events in a clincher narrative can’t be told backward the way other stories can. The punchline must come last. And like punchlines, the signature quip is the only part that doesn’t mutate over time. The details leading to it, which often get made up or smoothed over in the retelling, are just there to build context and suspense.

Once you’ve heard the story once, clinchers and punchlines are like URLs, a quick method of recall. You had me at hello. They are also interestingly generative. There are thousands of possible joke setups in a big fuzzy cloud anchored at the line Rectum? It nearly killed him! I bet if you sat down for five minutes you could come up with a new one.

Unlike jokes, the clincher moment doesn’t come right at the end. There’s always an epilogue. Clinchers mark a portal between one world and another. On one side is an uncommitted decision. On the other, a new forking in the multiverse. The clincher line becomes a talisman, a kind of shared key used by everyone involved to both identify and explain the decision to others.

Do you want to sell sugarwater for the rest of your life, or come with me and change the world? That’s a sufficiently poetic way (death vs adventure) to justify quitting your CEO position and throw in with an impossibly young & talented asshole. Sculley quit Pepsi and led Apple’s second act until the Greek tragedy caught up with him.

If you’re offered a ride on a rocketship, don’t ask what seat is not a bad way to explain to your parents (and yourself) why you’re taking a business unit manager position at a company with no revenue or actual business units.

Clincher stories are public evidence of a joining of forces. Other types of decision moments have that same irreversible jokelike nature, but are either not public or not a joining.

Public schisms are memorialized in Isaac & Ishmael type stories. They usually have deeds instead of words at the fulcrum. So do secret schisms, which are the origin of narcissistic wounds. It’s astonishing how many famous politicians grew up whipsawed by a cruel father & loving mother, topped by a particular moment of loss or humiliation that drove them ever after.

When spy stories come to light the motivations are almost always a dark slurry of money, ideology, coercion, and ego. But there’s usually also that talismanic moment of decision. Walk-in defectors are treated very skeptically in case they are double agents, and they end up having to reverse-recruit their handlers into believing they are sincere. To do that, they tell the secret story of their conversion. The Soviet defector AG Tolkachev said he was turned to spy for the West by a passage written by Solzhenitsyn.

Was that strictly true? I believe it was, but only as much as I believe in sugarwater rocketships. There are no magic words, only labels placed on magic moments. Eric Schmidt did indeed recruit Sheryl Sandberg to work at Google with his rocketship quip. But only after she had gotten offers from several companies, compared them against her personal criteria, found that the Google job fulfilled none of them, and yet still went to Eric’s office to talk about it. She was already halfway in the bag for gigantically complex personal reasons we will never know. There was more there there than we are told. For her, they are called to mind whenever she talks about the rocketship. You had to be there. What we get is just a good story.


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About Carlos Bueno

Carlos Bueno is a Ribbonfarm editor-at-large. He is a former Facebook engineer, graphic designer, video game repair man, and tattoo artist. His children's novel Lauren Ipsum has the curious distinction of having featured in both academic reviews of theoretical computer science and School Library Journal.


  1. Something deeply profound about sugarwater rocketships to describe the experience of being part of a something that evades your own personal orbit of influence.

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