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Shady Illuminations

Things You Already Know

by John Shade

Generic image illustrating the article
  John devotes this month’s column to telling you things you already know.  

Around this time of year, columnists like to take time off. That’s why you get creampuff retrospectives and best of the year summaries. That’s why I’m devoting this month’s column to telling you things you already know. Like why we read and the trouble with work.

Why We Read

A list is a data structure.

I know you know that, but I think it explains why titles of news stories and blog posts that follow the pattern “20 Great Winter Sports Destinations” or "Top 10 Reasons Bill Gates Should Return to Microsoft” or “The 11 Most Unintentionally Creepy Christmas Ornaments” are so effective. It’s because they promise that the article or post will at least have some kind of structure.

We’re sure not reading “The 11 Most Unintentionally Creepy Christmas Ornaments” for the wisdom it promises to impart, and an article titled “The Reason Bill Gates Should Return to Microsoft” probably wouldn’t rate a click. But 10 reasons, that’s different.

Reading is work, and we’d like some evidence that the author put some work into the writing. That he made a list doesn’t mean much, but it does mean that.

Everything you know is wrong.

I know that’s not news to you, either. But it’s still provocative. If I tell you that everything you know is wrong, you immediately think that I’m about to tell you something you don’t know. It’s a clue that I’m about to offer some contrarian information or advice. We like that. We especially like contrarian advice.

Programmer Patrick McKenzie advises programmers, “Don’t Call Yourself a Programmer,” and the post goes viral. Contrarian advice. He must be going to tell us something we don’t know.

Contrarian advice is effective advice, because it’s the kind of advice we’re open to. We want to believe that we’re independent thinkers, so we’re resistant to doing what someone else says unless they’re telling us not to do what someone else says. “Be independent,” is how the contrarian advice begins and, “just follow these simple steps” is how it ends.

Because contrarian advice is what we want to hear, we’re more likely to pay attention to it and understand it and follow it. So it’s effective, whether or not it’s good.

The Trouble with Work

Them that’s got shall get.

I’m sure you know that. But then I would have thought that my friend Dave did, too. Dave’s an engineer who recently decided he’d retired too soon and told me he had applied for work at the new HomeDepot. I asked, “What position?” and he said, “All 74 of them.” He’s a pretty capable guy. He might get them. Surely getting one would raise the odds on his getting the other 73.

Not only is it easier for the rich to get richer, but most of the gigs get offered to people who already have work. So the Bible says. While the old get older, scrolling to the bottom of Year-of-Birth form popups. God bless the child.

I want the job of making up jobs. I keep seeing ads for “Senior User Experience Designers.” Is that something like a Senior Moment Event Planner? That would be an easy job. You could say, “Anyone for shuffleboard?” and five minutes later say, “Did everyone enjoy the shuffleboard? Who’s up for Bingo?” So what would a Senior User Experience Designer do? Eliminate the “Save As” command?

Jobs are owned by the company, you own your career.

I know, I know: You know that. But it’s easy to overlook the fact that the sentence, “I want to work for myself” means two things. Yes, it means that you don’t want to work for someone else. But it also means that you think you would be a good person to work for. One does not imply the other. It could be that you are just about the last person any sensible person would want to work for.

I know I am.

Be careful what you wish for.

Oh, yeah: happy new year.

John Shade was born under a cloud in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1962. Subsequent internment in a series of obscure institutions of ostensibly higher learning did nothing to brighten his outlook. He has managed to get people to do his job for him on occasion. It was Earl Nightingale who said, “Jobs are owned by the company, you own your career.” “God Bless the Child” was written by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog, Jr. Send the author your feedback or discuss the article in the magazine forum.