Friday, November 21, 2008

Why Things Suck

Leff's First Law: Things suck for a reason. Systems maintain a vested interest in preserving their sucky, dysfunctional status quo, and will tenaciously repel efforts toward improvement.

Fwiw, here are my other laws


Kevin Vacca said...

If you mean systems as in processes, then I feel your pain.

Jim Leff said...

I'm not exactly sure what you mean by "systems as in processes", but I don't think that's it.

I'm talking about organizations, institutions, and genres. For example, as a jazz trombonist, I faced a steep uphill battle, because most people in jazz dislike jazz trombone. Jazz trombonists mostly play either glibly fey or vulgarly bombastic, and few play with much subtlety or spontaneity. So I figured I'd be the guy who'd play with lots of subtlety and spontaneity, and I'd get all the gigs! Well, I did have some success, but I found that I'd created more headwind than tailwind. For one thing, I'd made myself uncategorizable. That is, people who hired jazz trombonists looked for either the glibly fey type or the vulgarly bombastic type (how could they be looking for anything else, when there WASN'T anything else?), so they had no slot shaped to fit me. Meanwhile, the glib-feys and the vulgar-bombastics worked nonstop, because while no one much liked what they did, there was an established place for them; the system was built around them, and even though that system is widely acknowledged to be weaker for including them, the system has considerable inertia and built-in filtration. I did a poor job of playing like the sort of lousy trombonist no one really liked. But since that was all there was, that made me a reject. I only managed to successfully find work by building my own scenes outside the established systems. When I did, I found that audiences and open-eared musicians loved me. But the system itself rejected me.

Same thing with food writing, another scene where I didn't much like the prevalent quality level, tried to be a solution, never quite fit in, and wound up creating my own realm.

If you think my conclusion is an expression of pain or bitterness, that's not it at all. Mind you, it was nothing but pain and bitterness to actually live through the experiences which brought me to this conclusion, but the conclusion itself is nothing but giddy liberation. It clearly shows how things are, and how they got that way. It shows that I'd long operated under a fundamental misconception: that flawed systems await and embrace radical improvement. They don't. You can work around them or you can blow them up. If you walk through the front door, you'll be tamed and subverted, violently expelled, or otherwise stopped cold. The system WILL win if you meet it head on.

There are young people out there with new ideas, fresh methods, and lots of energy and ambition. If they'll bear this in mind, they'll save needless frustration. It's the culmination of everything I've learned over the years, and it's the single thing I most wish I could have told my teenaged self.

TomMeg said...

Isn't "The Wire" based entirely on Leff's Law? :)

Jim Leff said...

Very good!

But that was about huge, ominous, institutional sucking, which is something many of us sort of expect. But it also holds true in smaller, friendlier operations; even ones devoted to seemingly fun, idealistic undertakings.

There are extremely few cases of sucking in the world where sucking less is a desire (much less a goal actively pursued).

Per my postings on problem solving, it's an externalization of an internal human compulsion to cling to shitty, problematic status quos, and to repel solutions.

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