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The truth about give and take
Not a story that anyone enjoys hearing, but one that is true and needs to be told.
One of the things I have been working on lately is my mindset. My life has certainly been at an impasse, and I have been trying to find new ways to break the mould with respect to the many avenues I have already tried which required less introspection. As with most discussions, they are also ones I often have in mind melds with my husband. This morning, I began to come to terms with a brutish kind of reality: the way to get is to take.
If you’ve ever studied salesmanship much, you’ve probably heard of the psychological truism that people enjoy saying ‘no’. It’s true — if you cold open, odds are really high the person you are propositioning will tell you ‘no’. Often this even defies cost-benefit thinking: people enjoy having the privilege of optionality, even if saying ‘no’ means losing out a little. The thing is, that psychology is downstream of a more fundamental one relating to give and take.
The person who takes is the one with the option; the person who gives is the one who is unconditional. Giving has no social prerequisite; no one is going to stop you or question you for giving. Taking, however, is more difficult, and so if you can take at all, it is likely you have a first mover’s advantage that tilts the board in your favour even so. It’s just the tactically smart thing to do.
I was going over this with my husband and really stringing it all together through so many shared personal relationships we are abreast on together. Anecdote after anecdote and it checked out: every person we know owes their successes to taking, in whatever form that manifested. Everyone, from my factory working mother to mobsters like Marc Andreessen and Adam Neumann, succeeded by taking and failed by not taking. Local rents going sky high, multi-family units getting turned into Airbnbs, Neumann’s unpopular comeback with Flow, former employers of mine, you name it. They all took. Pee Marca knows that he owes the public not a single iota in his mafia type dealings, and only impotent fools angrily curse him on Twitter for it.
But one anecdote really drove it home for me because it was something I took. When I was a security guard I once had a post where I was guarding a factory in the process of being decommissioned. Over the course of the clean-up, I noticed that they had a cache of IT equipment marked to be thrown out, and when I dug into it I discovered a storage server with a RAID controller that was worth about $1,000 on eBay, and a stack of about half a dozen network switches that together would probably fetch over a grand additionally. They were going to trash this, and since the trash men told me basically everything was open for taking, I snapped them up. It’s hard to believe, but I guess in the big world of manufacturing and logistics, these kinds of things are small potatoes to them. I took it.
Looking back on the material consequences of my choice made me realise how stupidly simple it all really is. Sure, this kind of opportunity is certainly an IRL rare drop, but that wasn’t the point. The point was I saw this equipment that was really something, I was probably the only person there that instantly knew the value of it, and I took it home for free. It has sat around my house ever since, and it’s mine.
By relating this to the countless other successes and failures of people I know, I realised that this is something of a power law to be respected, because if there is anything I have seen in my career or my industry peers that is coterminous with failure, it has been giving.
At my last job all I did was give. I gave a lot of time for interviewing, all the while not being paid. I gave way more than I should have for my salary’s worth. I took a probationary contract when I should have insisted on actually being hired, as I stare down a $700 tax bill this year since I was self-employed. I gave them a re-negotiation on what my job description was, and I took the fall when that didn’t pan out for them. I tried to work in all of my precious research into their mission by finding space. I gave educated opinions on the mission when all they were there for was to get paid. I gave, and gave, and gave. They took, and took, and took. And when it was all said and done, they were at every liberty, and I was at every loss. I watched them buy a server worth more than what they promised me in a year’s wages not even a week before I was fired. To say I was insulted is to put it kindly.
I am saying goodbye to this mindset, and it is about time considering the motivation for so much of my research has really been self-serving. I found mechanicalism not to prove some point or to earn credentials in an industry that all-but-openly hates people like me, or to gain some kind of grant or sinecure in a field whose proclivities are diametrically opposed to the content of my theories. I found this stuff so that I could be a more effective programmer by saving myself the trouble. I wanted to make it possible to keep the progress of my efforts when I write programs, and I succeeded. Now I must simply reap those benefits. This is the thing I am giving to myself to take.
And as for the bigger picture or the industry, I will keep my mind open. But as I underscored in my article about working at Twitter, the terms are mine. If anything, my asks will only increase from here. I will not give strangers with money the option to nickel me down anymore. You can do the math on whether your tech is deep enough to demand someone like me, and we can deal from there.