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The truth about rubylith

Before desktop publishing, the best way to layout a complicated image for printing was to cut a rubylith.

Rubylith is a translucent sheet of thin plastic. A craftsperson would carefully cut the ruby, knowing that the parts it covered would reflect the light when the plate was created. It was difficult and painstaking work.

That’s all obsolete now. An hour of cutting a ruby is replaced by two clicks in Illustrator.

Here’s the truth: images cut by hand with a rubylith weren’t better. They were simply the best available option.

As soon as technology allowed people to skip this step, many of them did. The others fought hard, pointing out that their craft was hard-won and that the old way was the better way.

Defending your particular rubylith skill is not really a winning strategy. Because everyone else doesn’t care.

Defending better, on the other hand, is truly important.

Average is not the same as typical

We know that the median is often not the same as the mean, but in describing a population, it also pays to differentiate between the average person and a typical one.

For example: The average dog owner spends $500 a year on dog food. But the typical dog pamperer spends $5,000 a year (all numbers invented).

The reason the numbers are different is that the samples are different. We chop off the outliers in the second set, homing in on the kind of person we’re talking about.

This is really useful, because it enables us to be clear about the smallest viable audience. “Our typical customer” is a more accurate and useful way to start a sentence than, “the average person.” Because typical implies intent. “The person we are seeking to serve does this…”

Maybe everyone else isn’t faking it

Think about your most deeply-held beliefs. It’s entirely possible that someone who disagrees with you feels just as deeply.

Consider your chronic aches, your devastating pain, your persistent allergy–it’s possible someone else has their own version of this, but different.

And perhaps, your dreams and desires, the ones that keep you up at night, are similar (but different) from the person sitting right next to you.

They’re not making it up. It’s as real as you are.

Stuck on enormity

When a problem appears too large, too intractable and too unspeakable to deal with, it’s easy to give up.

There never seems to be enough time, enough resources or enough money to make the big problems go away.

Perhaps we can start with a very small part of it. One person, one opportunity, one connection.

Drip by drip, with commitment.

Those are the two hard parts. The insight to do it drip by drip and the persistence to commit to it.

I can’t imagine

There’s just no way to be sure what it feels like. Other people, people in our lives or out of it, people who look like us or don’t. Your mileage will vary, your experience will be different. Some started with a huge head start, some with a disadvantage they couldn’t possibly deserve.

Of course, the “I” is really we. No matter who we are, we can’t truly know what it feels like for someone else.

It may be that we can’t imagine what it’s like to be the victim of systemic distrust and profiling. Or what it’s like to worry about putting food on this table for that family. Or what it’s like to be fighting a chronic illness or being unjustly accused of a crime.

We can try. We assume it’s just like what happened to us, but slightly different. We can realize that tragedy is unevenly distributed and in constant rotation, but it’s never going to be the same.

But just because we can’t imagine–it doesn’t mean we can’t care. We can refuse to magnify our differences and focus on maximizing possibility, justice and connection instead. To take action and to dig in.

The leverage we have to see, to speak up and to create long-term change is a difficult weight to carry. Because if we can do something to make things more just, that means that we must.

I wish I was better at it. I wish it were easier.

We’ll make things better by seeing, by speaking, by doing the work. Even if it’s uncomfortable, especially when it is.

Justice and dignity, too often in short supply

[From two years ago, even more relevant right now]

You will never regret offering dignity to others.

We rarely get into trouble because we overdo our sense of justice and fairness. Not just us, but where we work, the others we influence. Organizations and governments are nothing but people, and every day we get a chance to become better versions of ourselves.

And yet… in the moments when we think no one is looking, when the stakes are high, we often forget. It’s worth remembering that justice and dignity aren’t only offered on behalf of others.

Offering people the chance to be treated the way we’d like to be treated benefits us too. It goes around.

The false scarcity is this: we believe that shutting out others, keeping them out of our orbit, our country, our competitive space—that this somehow makes things more easier for us.

And this used to be true. When there are 10 jobs for dockworkers, having 30 dockworkers in the hall doesn’t make it better for anyone but the bosses.

But today, value isn’t created by filling a slot, it’s created by connection. By the combinations created by people. By the magic that comes from diversity of opinion, background and motivation. Connection leads to ideas, to solutions, to breakthroughs.

The false scarcity stated as, “I don’t have enough, you can’t have any,” is more truthfully, “together, we can create something better.”

We know it’s the right thing to do. It’s also the smart thing.

Consider a gap year

Millions of college-age students have to make a difficult decision soon. Spending all that money and time has always been a significant choice, but now it’s more fraught. The accredited institutions that are now suddenly offering students an online education simply haven’t committed the time or effort to actually be good at it. They’re offering something without effectiveness, polish or insight.

The alternative is a gap year. Not just for college students, but for high school students and even adults.

The gap year has a terrible name. It implies that the year is somehow wasted, that it’s a gap snuck in between the stuff that you’re supposed to be doing.

But of course, it’s not that at all. Living is what we’re supposed to be doing. Contributing. Learning. Figuring out how to make things better. The stuff we’re not doing when we’re simply complying–that’s the point. Our compliance years are the gap.

And we should commit our time with intention.

If you can afford it, this is a powerful moment to invest in the next chapter of who you are and what you will become.

For an adult, that’s an expensive commitment. To walk away from your freelance path or your job search to dig in to become the leader and connector and expert you’ve always hoped to become.

But for a student, it’s actually a bargain. It’s a chance to step off the carousel of conformity and lockstep obedience and actually commit to a path of your own choosing. Keep your tuition money and put it to work for you, not for some football team.

A month, a semester, or an entire year. A chance to create a change, to make an impact, to cause a shift in your posture that you’ll have forever.

We’ve become ever more suspicious of the bargain that the industrial world has been offering: compliance in exchange for stability. The alternative is to own your path and to do the incredibly difficult work of choosing with intent and then sticking with it.

The discomfort people feel when they consider a gap year is precisely why we ought to spend more time considering it.

Meeting spec (doing the minimum)

Two ways of saying the same thing.

If the bridge needs to hold 20,000 pound vehicles, the client isn’t interested in paying extra for you to build it to hold 30,000 pound vehicles. The spec is clear–15,000 is unacceptable, and 30,000 isn’t worth a penny extra in steel, concrete or pilings.

But when we’re bringing our human skills to the work, the spec for a job might state that we need to sit at the customer service counter from 9 to 5, but because “be really nice to people,” is hard to quantify it can feel like an extra if we’re seeking to do as little as possible.

Why do extra? After all, the industrial system has squeezed everything it can out of front-line workers. It has taken without offering much in return, stripping people of dignity and respect and treating them like cogs.

But acting like a cog in return is hardly a useful form of revenge.

Showing up with more than the minimum might turn the job into more than a job. When we show up because we can, when we’re extending ourselves as a matter of choice, we create space. The space to own the work, to personalize it, and to turn it into more than getting by.

The current crisis is a vivid reminder of how empty a job focused on getting by really is. Because getting by is a lousy way to spend our days. Playwrights, painters and committed professionals don’t ask, “how little can I get away with?” They view the work as a chance to make a difference instead.

Doing work we’re proud of is a fine alternative to being seen as less than human. And spending our days doing as much human work as we can is far more appealing than hoping to do as little as possible.

Applying effort

How will you spend your resources? If you want to open a can of tomato juice, you can squeeze the sides of the can as hard as you can, for as long as you can, but it’s unlikely to open. You can also focus all of your energy on a very tiny point and perhaps, with the right tools, make a small puncture. But it won’t help you get the juice out. What you’ll need is a can opener, focusing your force at the right sized spot with the right pressure.

The same is true for the way we bring an idea to the world. One thing you could do is spam a billion people, once. Another is to identify a single individual and spend a year bringing this person just the right message, with relentless frequency.

You’re probably better off with something in between.

We can allocate our resources into a portfolio. Even if we don’t know precisely where to put the effort, a focus on the right categories pays off. Too often, we aim too wide (it feels more deniable). And sometimes, more rarely, we aim too narrowly.

Every day, we use our resources to make change happen. Which means that every day we get to choose.

Leaky roofs

In many situations, a leaky roof is worse than no roof at all.

If there’s no roof, we’re not surprised or disappointed if we get hit with some raindrops. But a roof that leaks has raised expectations and then failed to meet them.

Promising us a roof and then breaking that promise might be worse than no roof at all.

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