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.

  2. That’s cute, reminds me of a final stage of sales; purchase justification/packaging of signification. Classically, “I got this for X”. This is normally built in earlier in the process, perhaps because most purchases have some functional core that gives them a coherent reason for existing. In that case the moment of decision is just the moment the last negative consideration disappears.

    On the other hand, for aesthetic purchases, sometimes people do wait to get something until they have that kind of rational they can produce, transforming their intuition into something that can be phrased, even if it later turns out to be false. The scope of the required rational seems to relate to the scope of the object in their lives too, “I needed this after X” works well for things relating to luxury, not for commitments or decisions that could lead to further suffering, despite those being decisions you could still choose to make.

    Not every decision is made with this eye towards marketing, I’ve met more than enough people who got into relationships without creating a narrative of their moments of meeting, more about the present processes of relationships they have. Particularly true when less immediate commitment was required, such as when they could blur from one form of relationship to another. They will still create narratives, but self-consciously weak ones, spreading before and after the supposed “moment”.

    This is in a sense more natural, or at least more fluid, in that they are not holding something back until some line is given to them or they have some revelation that changes the context of their relationship to that other person, they just engage in whatever affordances are opened up by their relationship with that person, slowly developing new layers of mutual commitment until it stabilises into some new pattern. This is a characteristic of a certain kind of mindset, but equally, of not being forced to make some kind of discrete choice, jumping from one category of trade-offs to another.

    Another form of decision, in relationships or other complex systems, is that of the double agent who finally picks a side. This can still have moments, but of a less heroic form; instead of hinging on a line or a revelation, these things hinge on some final point of difficulty, the last straw.

    We think of these usually in the ends of relationships, but they can also occur in their beginnings, such as the process that lead to John Carmack joining Occulus; he expanded his interest into a range of project spaces, from just games to space and VR tech, until he happened to end up jumping companies. A cloud of Intellectual Polyamory whose centre of gravity imperceptibly moved over some transition line of unstable equilibrium that marked a change in relationship status; it was easier to be one or the other, because of some ridge in the state space.

    And it is the external nature of that ridge boundary condition, and it’s ability to reveal itself in some non-negotiable discontinuity, that makes it non-heroic. Or at least, not an expression of a neat flow from conceptualisation of values and goals through to achievements. I think if it was possible, John Carmack would still be working three if not four jobs with multiple different groups.

    So it has the structure of tragedy, of wrestling with the constraints of fate, even if the actual result is something extremely positive. If that moment of transition is something that would make a very good movie about someone else, the clinching moment when their loyalty to their love or company or country is finally decided. But it doesn’t support an image of agency. And in that context, describing your relationship in process terms is far more appealing, despite moments of decision nevertheless existing.