Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Non-Evident Goals and Unrecognizable Devotions

As a jazz musician, I poured my attention into listening very closely to the musicians I was playing with. No one noticed this, of course. Not even my colleagues, who were rarely listening closely enough to notice they were being listened to. Audiences were consumed with the superficial layer, so while I was giving everything I had to forge a deeper connection with the music, they were mostly just noticing the occasional missed note.

As a food writer, I poured my attention into doing justice to my subjects. They struck me as heroic in their commitment to create sublime deliciousness, so I felt obliged to try to convey the truth of it via words. But readers were paying attention to the most superficial layer, so while I was giving it everything I had to doing justice to my subjects, they were mostly ascertaining whether the restaurant was worth a trip, and what to order.

As an entrepreneur, running Chowhound, I poured my attention into preserving the honesty of the resource. I understood that shilling and self-promotion could undermine the site's value, so I was perpetually at war with characters hoping to use our open microphone for their own ends. Site users had no idea this was going on. Participating at a more superficial layer, they couldn't understand why I was so geared up, and managing in non-transparent ways.

One more example, before I get to my point. As an author, with my last effort ("The Chowhound's Guide" series for Penguin), I decided to present a smorgasbord of chow tips in a manner that would foster serendipity for readers who couldn't decide where or what to eat. I arranged the material not geographically, nor by food type, but in whimsical alphabetical order, compensating for the caprice with nearly 100 pages of clever indexes, cross-referencing venues, neighborhoods, and food types. The series failed, because readers cracked open the books, saw the alphabetical ordering, missed my explanations (which never work anyway), and decided the books sucked. Again, my thoughtful intentions were non-evident.

It's taken me 53 years to notice that this is what I do: I occupy myself with solving problems no one cares about, in ways nobody notices. That's neither a boast nor a lament. It's just the truth.

I've been building a new project for the past few months. And I just realized I'm doing it again. I'm so hellbent on making the product work a certain way for one type of user that the result will perplex everyone else. It will give the impression of sloppy conception, though every detail has been closely examined. It makes sense, but they won't recognize the sense.

So don't say I never learn, or never compromise! I've reversed course, and the team and I will let that one portion of our audience down a little bit. We will leave them hanging...just a little bit. And they won't even blame us. Because this is a problem no one sees as a problem! So no one will realize that we declined to solve it. They'll figure it's "just them". Our asses will be covered.

More importantly, the users we would have confused by our tortured attempts to solve an unrecognized problem won't be confused. And we'll still solve the problem somewhat for the people I was originally hoping to help. But not all the way. I won't pilot the ship into the rocks to fulfill my stubborn vision. I will compromise this time...a little!

Whenever I see people doing something stupid (e.g. crossing a street without looking), I take a moment to reflect. If such carelessness is survivable (every one of these people has successfully reached their current age!), why do I, being so much more heedful, still wind up in mishaps and quagmires? If these mopes are in the game, why haven't I, like, won it?

Now I have the answer. I've spent my life pouring energy into unrecognizable devotions. And the game is won by being blunt and relentless; by never budging from the most superficial level, where victories are registered and rewarded. (So, really, it's a miracle I wasn't run over, in some manner of speaking, years ago.)

And while winning isn't everything (I'm not Donald Trump), it ought to at least be a minor consideration.

In this Slog, I have two goals, neither of them recognizable. The first is to create a Web of my mind disguised as a blog. And the second is to write articles that reward multiple re-readings.

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