The Heroine’s Journey

What are women afraid of? Why do women matter? How are women useful? Do these questions have gender-specific answers?

In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell says that a hero is “someone who has found or achieved or done something beyond the normal range of achievement and experience. A hero properly is someone who has given his life to something bigger than himself or other than himself.” He goes on to distinguish between physical heroes, those who do deeds, and spiritual heroes, those who “[have] learned or found a mode of experiencing the supernormal range of human spiritual life, and then come back and communicated it.”

This is a grand and beautiful model. And especially when we just leave it at “someone who has achieved something beyond the normal range of achievement and experience,” it works very well for a hero of any gender. But when Campbell gets into the specifics of what counts or is celebrated as an unusual achievement, or how that achievement goes about getting done, I start thinking “well those are pretty unambiguously good achievements, but they’re also pretty male.”

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The Design of Crash-Only Societies

Ryan Tanaka is a resident blogger, visiting us from his home turf at  The improv session that inspired this article can be found here.

Blue Screen of Death Windows 8

Crash-only software: it only stops by crashing, and only starts by recovering.  It formalizes Murphy’s Law and creative-destruction into an applicable practice, where the end-of-things and the worst of outcomes are anticipated as something to be expected as a routine occurrence.  When done well, however, it has the potential to make software more reliable, less erratic, faster and easier to use overall.

But there is also a social component to crash-only designs that has yet to be fully explored: the potential for using these ideas to develop practices for building communities and social applications online.  As the worlds of tech, politics, and culture continue to collide, the demand for alternative modes of communication will likely continue to rise.  Crash-only designs hint at possible new approaches toward community and content moderation on the web, expanding the means and methods by which online content and interactions can be organized more effectively and intuitively.

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Crash-Only Thinking

A few weeks ago, I learned about something called crash-only software  (ht, Robert Greco). This is software that has no normal “start” or “stop” mechanisms. It can only be stopped by crashing it. Often this means unplugging the computer physically. It can only be restarted through some sort of failure-recovery routine, with a hard reboot being the most extreme kind. There’s a whole theory of crash-only software design apparently.

The idea of crash-only design  steelmans a strawman idea of mine that has cropped up in multiple recent posts. In  How To Fall Off the WagonI argued that falling-off-the-wagon is the right focal point for understanding self-improvement efforts.   On the Unraveling of Scripts was about why major life transitions are necessarily messy. In The Adjacency FallacyI argued that career transitions necessarily involve a period of anomie caused by status and value disorientation. Crash-only is the more powerful version of all those ideas. From a crash-only perspective, falling off the wagon (and getting back on) isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.

A self-improvement system, or a management model for a business, that doesn’t solve for crash-only constraints isn’t a solution, because it will cost more in crash-recovery effort than the value it creates. Transition management of any sort has to be entirely about crash-only mechanisms.

Software ideas of crash-only design don’t port well to human lives and businesses. So how do you port the thinking?

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The Adjacency Fallacy

Lately, I’ve been having quite a few conversations with people who are trying to reinvent themselves for the new economy. The most common pattern is MBA-types trying to reinvent themselves as entrepreneurial types. The second most common pattern is mid-career types who would normally be moving into either middle management roles trying to reinvent themselves as online lifestyle business types.

It took me a few data points to spot the pattern, but I eventually realized that most people navigating such moves don’t get stuck trying to acquire new, relevant skills. That is actually not quite as hard to do as people think. In many cases, you barely need any skills retraining at all. Often you need no new skills at all. You might even be able to drop some skills and get by with a subset of the skills you had to use before.

The sticking point tends to be something I call the adjacency fallacy: the idea that the roles that suit your personality and soft-skill strengths are likely to be socially adjacent to the one you are leaving behind. “Nearby” roles in some sense.  What sense precisely, we’ll get to.

Adjacency thinking works poorly even if you stick to the old economy. Over the years, we’ve seen the metaphor get increasingly complicated: from the “career ladder” to “lateral moves” to Sheryl Sandberg’s  notion of a “career jungle gym.” The last is a concept so byzantine, merely thinking of it exhausts me to the point of wanting to take a nap.

But adjacency thinking does not work at all if you’re navigating a path from old economy to new economy.

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The Rhythms of Information: Flow-Pacing and Spacetime

Ryan Tanaka is a blogging resident visiting us from ryan-writer.comFor every article that he writes, Ryan also improvises a live musical piece as means of organizing his ideas. (Below, or here.)

“Flow Pacing” is a phrase used in chemical, sewage, and water facilities in order to describe the treatment methods of its contents, often referring to techniques that inject/extract chemicals and materials into its flow.  Flow pacing can be a very interesting challenge for engineers, because in addition to tracking physical dimensions and working with limitations of resources, you also have to take time into consideration when dealing with its problems and potential solutions.  When the flow of content is non-stop and never ending, you don’t really have the luxury of measuring change in terms of absolutes — it must be introduced gradually, as a series of iterations or applications happening over time.


If today’s improv were to be written down in musical notation, it might look something like this.


Chlorine injections that flow too slowly leaves the water tainted; too fast, poisonous.  But the solution is never to dump chemicals into the flow as a one-time event: the process is always ongoing, constant and never-ending, so long as the mechanism itself exists.

I think that it makes a lot of sense to think of the internet in this way, since we already tend to conceptualize information networks as though they were servicing liquids of some sort.  Information “delivery” was an oft-used phrase in technical fields in the past, but due to the increased reliability and consistency of today’s information networks, it’s more common now to conceptualize information as “flowing” from one point to another.  We have increasingly begun to see information as being fluid rather than solid, in other words.

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A Life with a View

There is a memorable exchange in the Seinfeld episode The Keys, between Kramer and George on the theme of yearning. Unlike much of the show’s humor, which seems dated in the digital era, this little existential joke has improved with age:

Kramer: Do you ever yearn?
George: Yearn? Do I yearn?
Kramer: I yearn.
George: You yearn.
Kramer: Oh, yes. Yes, I yearn. Often, I…I sit…and yearn. Have you yearned?
George: Well, not recently. I craved. I crave all the time, constant craving…but I haven’t yearned.

You can imagine a more poignant version of this conversation over an iPad showing a Facebook feed. The Internet, with its constant parade of lives-that-might-have-been-yours and classmates-not-dated, is a jungle of yearnings. Yearnings that were once confined to fading and static memories of childhood, occasionally awakened by petrichor, now sneak into your life as a steady, colorful stream of living confusion, via windows in present realities. There was no equivalent in the past to being a silent spectator of other lives by default. You either had active, evolving relationships of mutual influence, or mutual invisibility. Like passengers on subways, we only saw people on other routes at stations. There were no relationships of continuous mutual spectatorship.

There was no such thing as a life with a view. 


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The Cactus and the Weasel

The phrase, strong views, weakly held, has crossed my radar multiple times in the last few months.  I didn’t think much about it when I first heard it, beyond noting that it seemed to be almost a tautological piece of good advice. Thinking some more though, I realized two things: the phrase neatly characterizes the first member of my favorite pair of archetypes, the the hedgehog and the fox, and that I am actually much better described by the inverse statement, which describes foxes: weak views, strongly held. 

If this seems counterintuitive or paradoxical to you, chances are it is because your understanding of the archetypes actually maps to more commonplace degenerate versions, which I call the weasel and cactus respectively.


True foxes and hedgehogs are complex and relatively rare individuals, not everyday dilettantes or curmudgeons. A quick look at the examples in Isaiah Berlin’s study of the archetypes is enough to establish that: his hedgehogs include Plato and Nietzsche, and his foxes include Shakespeare and Goethe. So neither foxes, nor hedgehogs, nor conflicted and torn mashups thereof such as Tolstoy, conform to simple archetypes.

The difference is that while foxes and hedgehogs are both capable of changing their minds in meaningful ways, weasels and cacti are not. They represent different forms of degeneracy, where a rich way of thinking collapses into an impoverished way of thinking. 

I seem to have been dancing around these ideas for about a year now, over the course of three fox/hedgehog talks I did last year, and even a positioning for my consulting practice based on it, but I was missing the clue of the strong views, weakly held phrase.

It took a while to think through, but what I have here is a rough and informal, but relatively complete account of the fox-hedgehog philosophy, that covers most of the things that have been bugging me over the past year. So here goes.

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On Staying Grounded

Walks are my main grounding ritual. I used to prefer easy nature hikes, but these days, I prefer semi-urban walks through landscapes that are a blend of the natural and artificial. The Seattle shoreline is a perfect example. Five minutes from my home, there is a waterfront park from where I can watch trains, ships, airplanes, cars and of course, lots of containers. On a recent walk, I took this picture of four ships waiting to dock. A rare sight, since the port of Seattle does not seem to experience many traffic jams.


The interesting thing about walking the same route over and over is that you notice little changes and seasonal patterns. For example, variations in shipping activity. The variations are what create a sense of direct, living connection to the human drama playing out on Planet Earth.

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On the Unraveling of Scripts

I am fascinated by scriptlessness: the state of not having a script telling you what to do. I’ve danced around this question a lot in my writing, mostly with reference to the American middle-class life script. But I’ve never really tackled the phenomenon head-on.

I’ll define scripts as collections of learned patterns of behavior that reliably supply both psychological and material resources for survival.  These lend meaning and sustenance to power the script, respectivelyBoth are necessary, and any loss on one front, if not quickly reversed, usually leads to loss on the other, triggering a vicious cycle of increasingly severe script breakdown.

This is the unraveling of scripts. It is the subjective experience of collapsing social and material realities around you, leading eventually to a state of behavioral collapse: scriptlessness. Along the way you encounter all those demons poets like to talk about.

Scripts can collapse for groups and organizations, not just individuals, but let’s start with individuals.

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So I Shall be Written, So I Shall be Performed

Mike is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog Omniorthogonal.

I want to take it as a starting point the idea that there is a certain fictional quality to our selves. The elusive nature of the self has been a perennial issue for psychologists and philosophers; there are nihilistic and mystical and mechanistic and pluralistic theories of what we mean when we talk about the self, the thing inside of us that defines who we are. But I find that the most useful theories of the self come from literature and drama, and take as their central point the idea that selves are to some extent roles we make up and perform in the dramatic improvisations of daily life. It’s perhaps a trite observation given its presence in one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines; Goffmann turned it into sociology; for now I just want to use it as a jumping off point to talk about Facebook and the way selves are now in the Internet era.

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