Faruk Ateş

Faruk Ateş is a designer, developer, and entreprenerd. He created the popular JavaScript library Modernizr to help adoption of new web technologies, and co-founded Presentate to fix glaring problems with presentation software and sharing tools. Faruk also co-founded One Web For All, a non-profit dedicated to facilitating technology companies, communities and events with the knowledge and resources they need to create inclusive, welcoming spaces wherein everyone can perform to the best of their abilities. “Activist for justice” is his middle name.

Faruk tweets at @KuraFire, and when he’s not writing here at the Pastry Box Project you can find his work at farukat.es and on Medium. He thinks you’re great. Especially if you’re a cat.

Published Thoughts

“Homosexuals”

“Females”

“Islamists”

“Thug”

These words represent biases.

Biases that I have, against the people who say those words.

The use of these words by someone I don’t personally know frequently and quickly triggers a series of alerts in my brain that make me instantly question the motivations of the person speaking or writing. I start to question how well they understand the issues they’re talking about.

These biases formed out of repeated exposure to people who use those words pejoratively, whether it’s deliberately malicious or indifferently bigoted. And as a result of repeated experiences with and observations of such examples, I am now biased against people who use those words.

I identify them as biases precisely because they are bad biases I should strive to avoid. These words, by themselves, do not a bigot make.

Perhaps the person saying “homosexuals” is talking about it more clinically rather than personally, or maybe I’m reading the statement out of context.

It’s possible the person saying “females” instead of women is a non-native English speaker who just hasn’t mastered the language well enough to also be aware of the linguistic connotations that exist (mostly in progressive spaces) around using “females” instead of “women”.

Maybe when someone says “Islamists”, they simply don’t know that the word is actually “Muslims”, but they weren’t intending their statement to come across as bigoted at all.

And someone saying “thug” could, theoretically, be discussing a person who was actually a violent criminal (or they could be talking about the original thugs in India).

The truth is that as much as I can jump to conclusions based on people’s use of such words, what they lead to is me getting defensive more quickly, and being more eager to respond harshly, even aggressively. These biases, even when they prove to be justified, encourage behaviors and attitudes that I consider downright unproductive.

I won’t get homophobic people to get their heads out of their asses and see non-straight people as people by being angry with them.

I won’t get sexist people to stop seeing women as a separate species by harshly criticizing every single misstep they make.

I won’t get Islamophobes to realize that 1.6 Billion Muslims are exactly as friendly and peaceful as Atheists and Christians are, on average, by condescending back to them.

And I won’t get racist people to stop using dog whistles by badgering them about how racist they are.

The anger may be completely justified, but how I channel that anger remains a choice, a decision, for me to make on my own.

My choice does not have to be your choice, absolutely not. But there is a certain calm, a sense of peace and hope, in consciously avoiding the anger, hate, resentment and harshness I’m so eager to throw at people who diminish and discriminate. Even if for no other reason than to avoid falling into the habit of such reactionary behavior and aiming it at someone who truly does not deserve it, who was using such a term unintentionally, or unawares of its loaded contexts.

With our global communication networks so entrenched into people’s lives, there is a new form of social learning we have to undergo — regardless of our age — to make sure our communication behaviors are inclusive and respectful online.

The online realm has often little more than a name and static photo to represent another person, and it creates a disconnect that disconnects us from the normal human social behaviors that we have (hopefully) cultivated in our lives when dealing with people face to face. When we can see the pain or conflict on their faces when we say or do something awful.

There needs to be room for people to make mistakes, to learn and not feel immediately attacked at any mishap. Establishing that room for mistakes requires a concerted effort on all our parts, for there is no such thing as a moral purity. We are flawed, imperfect and beautiful, and that’s what makes us human.

All of us have the capacity to learn and grow and overcome our biases and bigotries, however deeply ingrained on us they might be as a result of our societal education rife with systems of oppression and subtle messaging that wants us to tear each other apart.

Every step of the way is one where we must choose not to. For that is the most humane thing a human could do.

From Paris to Beirut: Look For The Humanity

The attacks in three different nations’ capitals last Thursday and Friday were terrorist attacks. Their respective motivations and goals vary, but the underlying reasons why these repugnant crimes were committed by cowardly, violent extremists are largely similar: people are afraid, people are angry, people want a kind of freedom they don’t currently possess.

These sentiments have manifested as violence time and time again, and are found in the history of any religion, and that of the non-religious. The reason for that is simple: we may have built a civilization, but humankind is not quite yet civilized. Taken as a whole species, we’re very much just in the process of getting there, and extremists have a much longer way to go, still.

Violent extremism tends to breed violent reactions — whether defensive or reactionary — and often there are only two ways of breaking that cycle. The first is where one party demonstrates a disproportionate and unbalancing display of power. Given the past 70 years of technological advances in weaponry, no one wants to open that door. The alternative is when diplomacy succeeds in convincing people (however begrudgingly) that violence is not a real solution.

As a mediating effort, there is nothing we can do for the victims, but there is value in supporting the victims’ families, and in preventing subsequent violence from taking even more lives.

There are many avenues that open up after a terrorist attack for people to go down and end up at violence: anger, gravely misplaced, at people who in some minor way are similar to the attackers. Anger at the establishment causing the problem to exist, or failing to prevent it from existing. Fear of others. Feeling like you have nothing left to lose. Feeling resentment and wanting to punish someone, feeling oppressed, and so on.

All of these avenues don’t close on their own. It takes a huge, loving and dedicated support network between people of all stripes coming together to do that. And that’s hard to do when you’re filled with shock, rage, fear, unhappiness, anguish or sorrow. Still, together we do stand stronger, and we are increasingly seeing people coming together in this manner.

Violence is a characteristic found in almost all animal species. What sets us apart is our great capacity for humanity, our humaneness. But for people to demonstrate their humaneness, it is important that they see and consider other humans to be exactly as human as they are themselves. That may sound painfully obvious, but unfortunately it is not so commonplace.

Parisians do not need to be humanized; they are not particularly mocked in diminishing manners across large parts of the world. Muslims, on the other hand, are routinely dehumanized in Europe and North America, to the point that we need more effective rebalancing against it. (Collaterally, so too are Sikh people, and atheists and others with Muslim-sounding names; bigotry is, after all, intrinsically undiscerning about directing its anger appropriately.)

In our effort to stop those who are walking down one of the avenues towards violence, it is all too easy for us to lose our own humanity (in a smaller way, but still). If we go by the rule that it’ll take whatever it takes to stop people from being violent against others, we have failed at excluding violence from our available methods.

We should not treat too harshly those who react to terror attacks with bigotry; they may traverse the avenue towards violence, but they originate from a place of fear. They react with anger and hatred because they either do not understand the complexity of our world, or wish to deny it out of a lack of faith in their ability to show the courage and compassion needed to differentiate between those who merely look like the enemy, and those who actually are.

It takes great humanity to accept that the problem is not simple, the enemy is not a clear-cut demographic we can label as “evil”, and that we all have a culpability in shaping the climate wherein these acts of terror occur. It takes great humanity to accept that the humans who committed such atrocities have gone through a terrible series of life experiences, and that, were we ourselves to go through those same experience, we might not have come out as morally superior as we may think.

We all carry that humanity inside us; we all have that capacity. Even those among us who, through environment or psychological or physical reasons, may not come across as if they do. It is there. In all of us. Human.

It’s who we are.

So look to the humanity in the aftermath of terror. Look to the humanity within yourself. And if you do it right, you’ll be part of the safety net spanning across all those avenues, keeping people from reaching that endpoint of violence, and embracing them with a more compassionate, humane message for the future.

It’s going to be okay.

The Customer Is Always Write

One of the most famous mantras of the retail and service industries is “The customer is always right.” Like with many, this bite-sized mantra works because there is a kernel of insight and truth to it. That said, anyone who’s ever worked in either industry can attest to it not being always true.

As a product designer your job is to entertain the customer’s requests or demands; your responsibility is to not simply do as they wish, but to suss out what they truly need, and then design a solution for them that also takes into consideration the myriad other requirements you have to comply with.

Whether you design physical or digital products, and whether you’re part of the retail, service or some other industry, balancing customer requests is rarely easy. Often, the easy solution is neglecting to take any action at all. Inaction is a form of action, in that you’re choosing not to do something. In a designer’s case it’s a decision not to add or address a product feature.

There is a parallel to this that writers are all too familiar with.

A long time ago a friend of mine showed me her work room, a simple study with a desk covered with notepads, various sheets of paper, the odd pen. An old iMac adorned it; her primary writing instrument. We’d been discussing the challenges a writer faces; a title she held professionally, and one that I aspired to hold one day as well. I had brought up writer’s block, something I faced as a blogger all the same, and in response she took me to her study. Behind the iMac, directly in her line of sight if she looked up, was a printed sheet of paper with a scant two words, bold but not overbearing: “Just write.”

The common advice for writers is to just write, write, write, because you can always rewrite a sentence once you know what’s wrong with it. So write terrible prose with imagined splendor. Screw up grammar with delight. Typo liek there’s no tomorrow. You can fix it in post.

The same holds true with product design, but the impact of it is much greater. If you just design a feature, you still impose very real work on the project and/or product managers, the developers, the Q&A team, and so forth. Plus, you don’t generally “just design” anyway: you want your UX team to research and understand the real user needs first, so there’s already the barrier of someone else having to do work before you even get to yours.

It becomes so, so much easier to choose inaction over going down a path you don’t know the destination of, just because the customer is asking for it.

This is where I want to propose a slightly tweaked version of the mantra I mentioned at the start:

The customer is always right about asking.

Much like “the customer is always right,” the web & software design industries have long had a mantra that was equally incomplete: “the customer doesn’t know what they need.” It goes back to the much older adage of the not-quite Ford quote: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

It’s true that customers will often ask for something they don’t actually need, and in the spirit of staying focused your job as designer (or founder, or responsible party of any kind) is to always bring it back to what the customer needs.

But there are times when we dismiss customers’ requests for reasons not quite sound. Whether it’s falling prey to the belief the customer “doesn’t know what they need,” choosing inaction due to it being the easiest path, or simply deciding not to prioritize something because you can’t quite figure out how to address the problem without impeding on other (business) concerns, there will be times where that decision was the wrong one.

There are times you should just write. Try, fail, get it all wrong. Then: fix it in post.

A Shift in the Night

This month’s entry has been updated to contain the full length of my first proper fantasy short story (first draft, too). It’s ~5900 words, ~25 min. reading time. I hope you enjoy it!

A flicker of light from the distant campfire let Renn and Mikel know that they were on the right track in their journey. Renn considered how remarkably accurate Mikel’s sense of direction was. Or, perhaps it was just his great tracking skills. She wondered briefly if Mikel had any special gifts he had been withholding.

Throughout the past several months that they’d traveled together, Mikel had taught Renn many things, but told her little about himself. She didn’t mind; Mikel was the first adult person in her life that had respected her and taken her seriously from the moment they’d met, and that was enough for her. It made her feel grown up, which wandering the lands on her own had never quite managed to do.

The horses trod with a slow pace in the dark, fatigued from the long, hot and humid day spent crossing the Ologon Desert. All four living minds were grateful for the chill of night that had fallen upon them, as well as the gentle breeze relieving them of sweaty skin and heat-dulled senses.

As they drew nearer the camp, Mikel brought his horse closer in to Renn’s.

“Keep alert,” Mikel said to Renn. “People alone in the desert are not always the most welcoming to strangers.”

“Do you think it’ll be dangerous?” Renn asked.

“Not unless we become foolish,” Mikel said. Renn felt a pang of disappointment, then told herself off over that.

Mikel pulled his hood up over his graying hair. It was best not to let strangers know who you were before you knew who they were. That was one of Mikel’s rules of the wild, at least. He managed to survive long enough with it, so it must’ve had some validity.

Renn pulled her hood a little closer around her face, although her attempt to shroud it fully fell short. She bought the hood back in Abarran, with the help of Mikel to ensure she wasn’t getting played by the merchant for being young and naive. It was a highly suitable hood for protecting nose and mouth against desert sand storms. It worked less well for providing cover from prying eyes.

After fidgeting with the hood, Renn gingerly slid her fingers across her belt and pulled her dagger out slightly. Just in case, she thought to herself.

As the two rode in close to the campfire, they saw just one person sitting by the fire. The figure seemed to be male, based on size, build and posture, but Renn had a hard time discerning anything more than that. Their face was completely invisible, hidden in the shadow of a large hood pulled so far over the head that even the dancing flames of the campfire couldn’t reveal any features.

“May Jintu shine on you this eve, kind stranger,” Mikel greeted the figure as they halted by the edge of the light. With no return greeting, Mikel continued.

“Would it be possible for us to join you at your campfire for the night? We’ve come all the way from Abarran at the Sea, crossing the plains of Omoreci and the Ologon Desert. Our horses need rest. We have food and water aplenty, even enough to share some with you.”

The figure remained still and cross-legged on the ground. A short sword lay within quick reach next to them, and Renn eyed it with caution.

Several more moments passed, and the figure remained so motionless that Renn was starting to wonder if they were even alive at all. She clutched her dagger and prepared her mind, when…

“Ezaryu? Is that you?” Mikel asked, with uncharacteristic bluntness and a touch of surprise in his voice. He tilted his head calmly, but Renn noticed his hand was on his hilt.

The figure looked up, and for the first time Renn could identify a facial feature—a stubbled and chiseled chin, and a strong-looking jaw. 

“It is you, isn’t it?!” Mikel sounded more enthusiastic than anything at this point, and he pulled back his hood and dismounted his horse.

“Mikel…” the man said, mulling the name of Renn’s friend and mentor over in his mouth like a strange and distant word.

“I am glad to see you still remember me, Ezaryu! How fortuitous to find you here.” 

Mikel unloaded his bags from his horse, then walked it over to a nearby bush and kneeled to tie down the reins. He pulled out some hay from a saddle bag and threw it amidst the scant population of desert foliage. Ezaryu, meanwhile, sat still and kept looking ahead. Or possibly at Renn. It was hard to tell.

“Mikel,” Ezaryu began. Mikel looked up.

“Yes?”

“Do you intend to let your companion here know that she can exhale? And sheathe her dagger?” Renn froze and clung harder to her dagger. She hadn’t even noticed that she’d been holding her breath ever since Mikel recognized the man.

“Or is it I who should be concerned?” Ezaryu asked.

Mikel sprung to his feet and held out his hands reassuringly.

“No, no, nothing of the sort. Ezaryu, this is my friend Renn,” Mikel said, emphasizing the word ‘friend’ just enough to make clear there was nothing more to it. “And Renn,” he paused, contemplating his next words carefully. “Ezaryu… is someone I knew quite well, a long time ago. Now we are old friends. We are all friends here, in fact, and so it is time for us all to relax together.”

Renn breathed out and slid her dagger back into its sheath. She couldn’t tell if this Ezaryu person had actually considered her as a potential threat or not, but something told her she was better off not knowing.

With the tension gone from the scene, Renn dismounted as well and unloaded her belongings. She kept her dagger on her belt; less so out of caution towards Ezaryu, she told herself, and more for the ever-present threats of the Ologon desert.

“So tell me, Ezaryu, what have you been up to all these years?” Mikel asked casually, ignoring the fact—or perhaps not being surprised by it—that Ezaryu had still not moved almost at all: hadn’t greeted them, hadn’t even looked up to face them.

It would’ve creeped Renn out had she not seen far, far more troubling things.

“Meditating,” Ezaryu answered curtly.

“You don’t strike me as the calm and peaceful type,” Renn joked. Mikel frowned at her, but she ignored it.

“So she does speak,” Ezaryu said. “I’d almost thought you’d gotten yourself a mute child, Mikel.”

“Hey!” Renn interjected. “I’ve seen 19 winters, I’m not a child.”

Ezaryu, for the first time, turned his head to face Renn, instead of the flames, although still no more than his jaw was visible from under the hood.

“And how many times did you blink for that effort?”

Renn opened her mouth to respond, but Mikel hastily interrupted. “Actually, Renn found me more than I found her, really.”

Ezaryu’s hooded head now turned towards Mikel.

“Oh? Have you finally grown old, Mikel, or did you just become so rusty you let a child of 17 catch you off guard?”

“Hey!” Renn repeated.

“It wasn’t anything like that,” Mikel began. “I had gotten myself into a bit of trouble on my own, and she came and helped me out. I returned the favor by taking her along on my travels.”

Ezaryu paused. He seemed to be considering the possible aspects of this scenario, though for what, Renn couldn’t tell.

“In that case,” Ezaryu turned back to Renn, “I should thank you for saving the life of my friend, little one. It’s quite a feat for someone barely 16 to help the great Mikel. You must’ve been lucky.“

“I’ve had enough of this,” Renn said abruptly, jumping to her feet. “If you think I’m such an incapable child, why don’t you try and take me on? I can show you just how capable I am.”

Ezaryu faced Mikel, who remained silent while staring intently at the other two. Whether it was because Mikel was trying to figure out how to de-escalate the situation, or simply concerned for his own well-being in what might unfold next, Renn couldn’t tell. But she didn’t have very long to think about it.

Ezaryu sighed audibly, then swung his arms wide, one tossing his cloak up into the air, the other throwing something at the campfire. A giant fireball suddenly flashed into existence over the fire, blinding Renn and Mikel who both shot back defensively. Mikel tripped and fell backwards. The horses, tied down and still eating, started shrieking in fear and attempting to run off, but were unsuccessful.

Renn composed herself. In the midst of the burst of fire she had reflexively pulled out her dagger, and was now holding it firmly, aiming it at… no one. Ezaryu was nowhere to be seen.

And then, in what seemed to be only the blink of an eye, Ezaryu had gone from nowhere to be found to standing right behind her, his short sword held steady a mere inch from her throat.

“Because it is unnecessary to kill innocent life,” Ezaryu answered into Renn’s ear. She remained still instead of responding, her mind focusing intently. Mikel, meanwhile, was slowly pulling himself back upright to see what was going on.

Renn focused her mind some more and phase-shifted to about two feet behind Ezaryu, whose grip did not anticipate the sudden disappearance of Renn and fumbled into empty air. She lunged forward, flung her arm around him and thrust her dagger against Ezaryu’s throat.

“So how innocent are you, then?” Renn said.

Ezaryu smiled, and started laughing; a fatalistic yet strangely satisfied laugh. Renn was taken aback but did not loosen her threatening hold, even though Ezaryu seemed completely unfazed by his suddenly precarious situation.

Mikel gathered himself, dusting dirt and grass off his garb before calming the horses down. “Are you both done jumping at each other’s throats yet? I was hoping we could make it through the night without bloodshed,” he said.

“So you picked yourself up a Shifter, huh?” Ezaryu said back to Mikel. “Is that how she helped you as well?” Renn strengthened her grip on his shoulder, but her dagger hand started to relax.

Mikel nodded and sat back down by the fire.

“I was cornered by a pack of spearwolves in the Galacan forest. It was my own fault, I was careless and took my chance crossing it after nightfall. The first three I managed to take on, but then the whole pack showed up at once. They had me surrounded.”

Renn decided to let Ezaryu go, though remained curious whether he had felt threatened at all. There was something about his incessantly calm and composed manner that made it feel as if, even when she held her knife to his throat, he was still completely in control of the situation.

She secretly wished for that gift, if it was one.

“I shouted out for help,” Mikel continued. “Wasn’t really expecting any, but there wasn’t much else for me to do, the wolves were drawing nearer and I had nowhere to go.”

Ezaryu and Renn both sat down, but as they did, she finally saw his face uncovered and properly lit, and it took her by surprise enough that she stumbled and fell the last few inches while sitting down. Ezaryu had two scars on his cheeks, one underneath each eye. Under his right eye was a small tear-shaped scar; under his left eye, a much larger one, the full shape of it scarred by what seemed like a thousand tiny, meticulous cuts, cris-crossed across the skin. Renn couldn’t imagine who or what had caused that, but it must’ve been hellish to endure, she thought to herself.

Mikel noticed Renn’s reaction to seeing Ezaryu’s scars, but ignored it.

“Renn heard my cries for help,” he continued, “and she shifted into the circle with me. This surprised the wolves, but did not scare them off. However, she then shifted around from wolf to wolf, killing several of them while they scrambled into increasing chaos. I managed to take out two on one side; Renn killed seven, –“

“Eight,” Renn said indifferently, just not enough.

“Eight,” Mikel said with a smile. “The remaining wolves took off after figuring out that what they had cornered was something a lot more dangerous than them.”

Ezaryu turned to face Renn. “What made you decide to help him?” he asked her. “Surely that situation was still incredibly dangerous, even for someone with your gift.”

“He didn’t deserve to die at the dirty claws of spearwolves,” Renn said, and shrugged. “Besides, I didn’t think it was particularly dangerous for me. They didn’t seem that hard to kill.” Renn postured; she knew spearwolves were tough as nails and some of the fiercest predators, but she was also not terrible with her dagger.

“I took her in after that; offered to teach her how to travel and survive in the wild. Plus it was pleasant having someone to talk to.” Mikel said.

They sat in silence for a moment, staring at the campfire.

“Now Ezaryu, if you’re done provoking Renn about being young and immature, and Renn, if you’re done proving him right, I will cook us all some dinner. And then, with his blessing, I will tell you about Ezaryu’s scars. You seem quite curious to know how he got them.”


Renn’s green eyes were staring into the embers as Mikel cooked, trying hard to avoid looking at Ezaryu, or more precisely, at his scars.

After the dust had settled from her and Ezaryu’s minor altercation she had put her hood down and let her red and black hair flow down her shoulders. She rested against one of the larger boulders around the fire, gazing at the few lingering flames and thinking about how they reflected the current atmosphere of the campsite. She was still unsure of how to feel about Ezaryu, but she at least respected his calm and confident demeanor.

“When Ezaryu was born, or so the stories go,” Mikel began telling as he stirred the pot, “he did not cry as a babe, but he was wide awake. His parents were understandably concerned, but were told that this happens sometimes and it’s nothing to worry about.”

“But as he grew up and lived to his first winter, he still never cried. He expressed all the emotions you might expect of an infant, all except the crying. He would be angry,” Mikel said, “but he wouldn’t cry. He would be sad, but he wouldn’t cry.”

Renn looked over at Ezaryu, who stared solemnly at the fire. His facial scars gave him a look so worn and ragged he seemed almost Mikel’s age, but Renn estimated him much more in the middle between herself and Mikel. Even with his hood and cloak off and his face clearly visible, it was hard to figure him out in any way.

“Again and again, Ezaryu’s parents would seek advice from a healer or midwife about his lack of crying. Was he sick? Did he have an obscure illness? His eyes worked fine, everything else about him seemed perfectly normal in fact.”

Mikel stirred the pot some more, decided it was as good as it was going to get, grabbed a couple of cups and poured them each some root, bean, and desert toad stew. As he passed Ezaryu and Renn their cups, he went on.

“Eventually, his parents accepted their son’s peculiar nature, and learned to live without worrying about it. Ezaryu never expressed unhappiness about it, and grew up a happy, healthy and energetic child.

“The tribe he was part of lived in the area of the Bakerri river headwaters, not far from the plains of Omoreci. That whole region was, back then, suffering from ongoing turmoil.”

Mikel paused to eat some, but his appetite for storytelling around a campfire proved greater, continuing enthusiastically after barely a single spoonful.

“It was during this time that a lot of tribal territories shifted and were merged, most often due to violent conflict. Ezaryu’s tribe was part of that, having killed competing tribes’ members and having lost some of their own.

“Then one day, one tribe decided to take revenge for the loss of some of their warriors. They snuck into the settlement of Ezaryu’s tribe at night, and quietly killed the tribe leader as well as several other members of the tribe. Among those killed were Ezaryu’s parents, who were part of the tribe’s council. The assassins then snuck out as quietly as they had snuck in, undetected.

“After the alarm was raised in the morning when the first body was found, people quickly learned of the severity of the attack. Most the entire tribe leadership had been murdered, and no one knew by who. Not at first, at least.

“Ezaryu, who was about twelve winters old at that time, was heartbroken and furious. Yet for the first time in his life, he was also angry at his body’s inability to cry, and in a fit of rage, he carved the small tear into his own cheek, and with the blood he swore to avenge his parents. But it would be years before he would have his way.”

Mikel slurped some of his stew, deliberately pausing to provide dramatic effect. Renn was so engrossed that it wasn’t until now that she realized she’d been holding her cup without eating any. She quickly had some before it cooled down, as Mikel continued.

“Pledging to himself that he would personally avenge his parents’ death, Ezaryu started practicing his swordmanship every day, all day long, skirting much of his old responsibilities. He grew cold and distant, participating less and less in what remained of the tribe’s activities. It took a number of years, but the tribe eventually accepted the loss of its leadership. Having failed to recover successfully while constantly under threat of other tribes, they disbanded.“

Renn looked at Ezaryu, whose face showed no emotion, no reaction to this recanting of any kind. Aside of the occasional sip from his stew, Ezaryu remained motionless. Mikel went on.

“Now mostly living on his own, Ezaryu continued practicing his deadly skills, his life increasingly fueled by his need for finding out who killed his parents and exacting revenge. If you ever get him to tell you about this himself, he will tell you he did not see it as revenge, but as enacting justice and restoring balance.“

Mikel paused, and contemplated this. “I guess you could see it that way. His tribe did disband, and all of what they had built as a community had effectively been killed alongside its leaders.”

“Either way,” Mikel continued, “Ezaryu was now on his own. He grew up in isolation, bittered by these events, and became resentful of anyone who attempted to ameliorate his life. He started to piece together which competing tribe had been responsible for the killings, but he wouldn’t let himself act unless he was absolutely sure.”

Renn decided to like Ezaryu just a little bit more.

“The key bit of information came when Ezaryu befriended a man from the tribe he suspected. This man, whose name Ezaryu will not tell anyone to this day, confirmed to him that what he suspected was true, that this was indeed the tribe responsible for the nightly assassinations. Ezaryu questioned him about it further, but after some probing the man asked why he was so intent on this topic. Ezaryu then told the man everything, from how his parents were among those killed, to the tribe disbanding in the aftermath of the deaths of its leaders. He even told the man of his plans to avenge the deaths by killing those responsible.”

Renn’s eyes grew wide with anticipation, the cup of stew in her hands completely forgotten. “How did he respond?” she asked Mikel.

“That was the unexpected part,” Mikel said. “Instead of being alarmed, the man agreed to help Ezaryu achieve his goals. He was, it turns out, a traitor.”

“This man had been wanting to leave the tribe, but its structure and rules forbid it, and he would have been hunted down if he had tried to run away. To him, Ezaryu was his chance to escape. To Ezaryu, the man was his path to redemption. They became good friends, and practiced their swordplay together almost every day.“

Renn looked at Ezaryu again, who had a faint, melancholic smile glinting in his eyes, but otherwise his expression had not changed. The intensity in his eyes betrayed the idea that he was meditating and not paying attention to Mikel’s story, but the rest of his posture and face remained frustratingly unrevealing.

“One day, Ezaryu decided that it was time to confront the tribe, but something had warmed in his heart. This man had stirred something loose inside of Ezaryu, for instead of going in quietly to kill all of the tribe’s warriors for their crimes, he approached the tribe’s settlement in broad daylight and requested that those involved in the killing of his parents and his tribe’s leaders, many years prior, stepped forward to reveal themselves to him. He wanted to fight them with honor and give them a chance, rather than kill them in the dishonest way that they had killed his parents. But before that, he wanted them to admit to their crimes.”

“So what happened?” Renn asked.

“Nothing.”

“What?!”

Mikel held up his hands. “Nothing happened right then and there. No men came forward, no one admitted to anything. No one exactly denied that the tribe had been responsible for those deaths, but they would not acknowledge responsibility. So, Ezaryu told them he would return the next day, and warned that if no one stepped forward then, he would hold them all accountable.”

“However, when he returned the next day, something was different. All of the women and children were nowhere to be seen anymore, and instead, what seemed to be all of the tribe’s men had come out and started forming a circle around Ezaryu.”

“The tribe leader, Toric, walked out among the crowd. He told Ezaryu to ‘leave and never come back, or he would regret it with more than his life.’”

“Ezaryu refused to leave, so Toric called forward the very man Ezaryu had befriended. And then, without pausing a beat, he thrust his sword through the man’s chest.”

A small tear welled up in Renn’s eye, and a quiet gasp escaped her. Mikel continued steadfastly.

“Ezaryu screamed out, but it was too late. His friend was without a doubt mortally wounded, perhaps dead before he even fell to the ground. That’s when Ezaryu’s rage, all the years of built-up anger, resentment and bitterness, all came out at once.“

“Ezaryu almost exploded all over the group, moving with such swiftness and precision that the men, despite their much greater numbers, did not stand a chance against him. As dangerous as they were, Ezaryu was, quite simply put, a serious degree more dangerous. His sword quickly glistened with the blood of his enemies as he cut hands, arms, chests and throats while maneuvering through the throng of foes. He was the lone man with a clear mission amidst the chaos, and often managed a swift kill before someone had even figured out where he was.“

Renn stared at Ezaryu, and listened to Mikel with rapt attention.

“The most they managed to harm him was a couple of cuts across his arms and chest, but none so deep as to seriously wound him. Before too long, only Toric was still standing opposite Ezaryu. His eyes were bewildered, but he attempted to make use of the few paces of distance between him and Ezaryu to perform a targeted attack. Something that all the others had not been able to do as it had all happened too fast.“

“It didn’t matter,” Mikel said solemnly. “Ezaryu killed Toric with a single strike, his sword piercing Toric’s chest in much the same way that Toric had killed Ezaryu’s friend.”

“When it was all over, Ezaryu rushed over to his friend’s body, but it was too late for final words. He sank to the ground, broken by loss and regret, and… still could not cry.

“Ezaryu took a knife from one of his enemies and carved the larger tear into his own cheek, filling it in with one cut for each of the men he had just brutally slain.“

Renn stared at Ezaryu’s face, but quickly abandoned her attempt to quantify the lines in his scar. There were far too many to count, perhaps even if seen up close.

“As he sat there, he heard the cries of a woman returning to the settlement and seeing the blood bath. Ezaryu rushed away, his face still bleeding, his heart filled with sorrow and regret.”

Renn wiped the small tear away, and finished her stew. It somehow tasted worse.

“And that is the story of how Ezaryu got his scars,” Mikel concluded, then sipped some more. His stew had gone cold, but he didn’t seem to care.

The three of them sat there in silence for a while, each staring at the fire as tiny flames slowly lost their strength.

Renn looked pensive for a bit, before breaking the silence.

“That abandoned settlement where we stopped… did that belong to Ezaryu’s old tribe?” she asked Mikel.

Mikel turned to Renn, his face a mixture of surprise and confusion.

“Hmm, I don’t… I don’t know,” Mikel said hesitantly.

Ezaryu’s face remained stoically fixated on the red-hot logs of the campfire.

For a while, the quiet was broken only by the sounds of slurping stew and the occasional fire crack.

“So how do you two know each other?” Renn asked.

Mikel threw a small glance at Ezaryu before he answered.

“It was much less eventful. I was traveling, like I usually am, and came across Ezaryu not long after these events. His larger tear was still scabbing and, unsurprisingly, had gotten infected.”

Ezaryu finished his stew and put his cup down.

“I offered to help him with it,“ Mikel said, “and eventually he accepted, as reluctantly as you might imagine. But after staying with him for a few days to ensure the wound would stay clean and heal, I had gotten Ezaryu to open up a little, and had found him quite fascinating. So I asked him if it was okay if I stayed a while longer, which he agreed to.”

“Eventually we started traveling around together for some time. Ezaryu helped me improve my swordplay, I helped him heal his wounds, both physical and emotional. To the best of my abilities, at least.“

“But our joint travel was never meant to last for very long. So one day, we went our own separate directions, and that was the last I saw of him. Until tonight, that is.”

Mikel finished his stew and got up.

“I will wash this up,” Renn said, getting up as well and gathering the cups before Mikel could object.

“Oh thank you, Renn,” Mikel said. “Then I will prepare the horses for the night. Ezaryu, my friend, would you mind helping me tie them to that tree over there?“

Ezaryu looked up, and in one fluid motion got up on his feet. “Gladly,” he said, and took Renn’s horse by the reins and walked it over to the tree behind the camp. Mikel gathered his horse and followed behind.

“I hope you don’t mind that I went into so much detail,” Mikel said to Ezaryu, who was tying reins to a tree branch. “I just wanted you to know.”

“Know what?” Ezaryu asked, but just as he turned around to face Mikel, a crossbow dart plowed into Ezaryu’s right shoulder and pinned him to the tree behind him. A second dart struck his lower right arm a moment later.

Renn, after hearing the loud snaps of a crossbow firing, looked up from washing the cups and saw Mikel, standing in front of Ezaryu and holding a crossbow aimed at him. She dropped the cups and ran over, pulling out her dagger.

“I wanted you to know how much I knew before you saw your end,” Mikel said, his cordial demeanor completely gone.

“What is this?” Renn asked as she drew near, staring at the two men whose eyes were affixed at one another.

“This man,” Mikel said gravely, “brutally murdered all of the men in a tribe, most of whom were innocent. Their wives all widowed, their children half-orphaned. He does not deserve to live.“

Renn clung fiercely to her dagger, anger rising inside of her. Ezaryu, despite bleeding and being pinned to a tree, stared quietly at Mikel, whose crossbow remained aimed at Ezaryu’s chest.

“Renn,” Mikel said, without taking his gaze off Ezaryu even for a moment. “You want to be recognized and respected? This is your chance. Ezaryu is known in these parts as dangerous and a menace. Kill him, and no one will ever cross or disrespect you again.”

“But he’s pinned down and can’t defend himself. That’s not much of a kill,” Renn said.

“Oh, he may be pinned down, but do not for a second think that he is any less dangerous. It’s just his main swordhand that he cannot use.”

Ezaryu said nothing, staring back at Mikel without even flinching from the pain. Renn stood there, shaking and hesitating.

“Renn, there’s something else you should know,” Mikel said. “I believe the tribe that Ezaryu killed is the one your father belonged to.”

Renn swallowed and fought back tears, accepting what she had already suspected, and started walking towards Ezaryu. Mikel lowered his crossbow.

As Renn walked up to Ezaryu her hand firmly clasped her dagger. She knew he would remain calm, no matter what, but she did not know whether or not he would have some kind of trick up his sleeve, a quick move out of nowhere to respond with. She remained cautious as she approached.

“You know, Ezaryu,” Renn said, as she stood right in front of him and readied her dagger. “You and I have something in common.” She raised her hand, slowly and carefully preparing her dagger to stab it down into Ezaryu’s chest for a swift and honorable death. Mikel smiled.

Ezaryu stayed quiet, but now stared Renn directly in her eyes. His expression remained calm, his eyes at peace; he showed no signs of fear or panic. Renn stared straight back into those calm eyes.

“We both consider it unnecessary to kill innocent life,” Renn said coldly. She then swung her arm down hard…

…and phase-shifted herself right behind Mikel, landing her dagger directly into Mikel’s back with the full force of her swing, piercing his heart and forcing him to drop to his knees. The crossbow clattered to the ground.

Mikel’s smile turned into shock and surprise, while Ezaryu’s face showed some emotion—for the first time, Renn realized. He had a faint grin on his face.

Renn walked over to help Ezaryu as Mikel fell to the ground, but Ezaryu waved her off and grabbed the darts with his free hand and, without flinching, pulled each one out. He tossed them to the ground while walking over to Mikel, who was gasping his last few breaths.

“His name was Arkan,” Ezaryu said to Mikel as he kicked him over to look him straight into his eyes, “He was not my friend, but my lover.“ Mikel’s eyes widened in surprise, but Ezaryu continued.

“And now I want you to know something,” he said, as Mikel’s eyes grew even wider. “I know you’re Toric’s father. And I’ve always known.”

With a final strain Mikel looked at Renn, the question burning in his eyes, hoping to understand before his dying breath. But Renn just stared back at him in silence, her face almost as emotionless as Ezaryu’s.

Ezaryu and Renn stood around Mikel’s lifeless body in silence for a few minutes. Eventually Renn kneeled down beside him and pulled her dagger out of his back, then wiped it clean with a cloth she pulled from one of Mikel’s pockets.

“Mikel said that I carved the larger tear out of remorse for killing so many people,” Ezaryu said calmly. “The truth is that I did it for the loss of Arkan. He had returned love into my life, and I will always be grateful for that. And always mourn him.”

Renn got up and started heading back to the camp site, but stopped in her tracks when Ezaryu spoke again.

“What made you decide to kill Mikel instead of me?” he asked her.

Renn paused before answering, still facing away from him. “Some people are less innocent than others,” she just said.

“Mikel never told me about you, but he led us directly here and pretended it was a coincidence. I trusted him because he was the first person in my life to be honest with me in a long, long time, but when it became clear he came here to kill you, hiding from me that you killed my father’s tribe… Well, his honesty proved to be a lie. Perhaps all of it had been all along.”

“Harsh punishment for betrayed trust,” Ezaryu said.

Renn picked up a branch that lay by her feet. “There was more to it,” she said.

Ezaryu stayed quiet.

“The man you befriended,” Renn said hesitantly. “Your lover. Did he… have a family with the tribe?” Renn looked up at the stars in the night sky, feeling Ezaryu’s gaze in her back.

“He may have,” Ezaryu said.

Renn sighed. “I’d like to think he did,” she said wistfully.

Ezaryu walked up to her and rested his hand on her shoulder.

“I think he did, as well.”

They walked back to the camp together and sat down. Renn used the stick to poke the glowing embers for some last bit of heat.

“If you decide to sleep at my camp, you do not have to fear any danger in the night. I will keep us safe,” Ezaryu said.

“Even with your wounded sword hand?”

Ezaryu smiled. A full, real smile this time. Renn liked the sight of it.

“Mikel thought I’d finally trusted him with everything, that he knew everything he needed to know about me.” Ezaryu said as he picked up his sword with his unharmed hand. “He didn’t know… I’m actually left-handed.”

Renn grinned, but the grin could not hide her despondent feeling as she stared solemnly at the last glowing ember. Ezaryu got up and sat down next to her, putting his sword on the other side.

“I’ll tell you something else I’ve never mentioned to anyone,” Ezaryu said, and Renn looked up at him. “The first time after Arkan and I shared our bed, he felt really bad. I asked him what was wrong, and he told me he felt bad because he had a family. I asked him to tell me about them, and he did. He told me all about his wife, and all about his little daughter.”

Renn’s body froze, and she started tearing up, overcome with emotion. She looked at Ezaryu, her eyes full of tears.

“His daughter named Renn, who he said had a gift. She would’ve been born, oh, somewhere around 19 winters ago,” Ezaryu said.

Renn smiled through her tears, nodded quietly, and sobbed her way into a long and comforting sleep.

~ FIN ~

A Traveler’s Diary

“Most 11-year olds never get such an opportunity,” my teacher said. “I want you to write a daily journal of everything you experience.”

When a pre-teen travels to an exciting new and far-away continent for four whole weeks, “everything” might be a bit too much to chronicle.

I still tried.

In the cold early spring of 1994, I had the incredible fortune to be given the opportunity to accompany my mother on her month-long voyage across the U.S.A., to meet with friends she knew from coast to coast.

Her father, my grandfather, had been a journalist who’d taught her from a young age the importance and value of travel, and that if you had the means, you should always go. My mother embraced his lessons to a tee.

English fluency. Multiculturalism. An interest in other countries. Things you take for granted growing up in The Netherlands; less so as you actually travel beyond its borders.

Mayonnaise on fries.

From Amsterdam to New York to Washington D.C. on day one. The City will still be awake on our way back. We were not.

You could do worse for a first real stop on your first trip to the new frontier than Greensboro, North Carolina. Also better.

We were there for the people, and the people were great. They took us places.

I broke his heart by refusing to eat his homemade cornbread in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I was going through an I-hate-corn phase (too much of it in Turkey with the other side of the family), and thought it was going to taste exactly like that, but as a lot of it.

Perhaps one day I get to tell my future kids never to break your host’s heart by refusing the delicious food they cooked for you. And then the karmic guilt will be gone.

They introduced me to my first museum with interactive elements to keep the kids more engaged. Or at least kids like me. It worked. I didn’t want to leave.

We flew to Chicago only to continue directly to San Francisco. One of the best pizzas we ever had was a silly little Chicago airport pizza. I’m ashamed but, at the same time, Chicago knows pizza.

The memory might be better than the pizza was.

We would return to the windy city proper in 2009, as we embarked on a Route 66 road trip together. Shiny Bean shots were taken first.

My first time in San Francisco was spent driving through it to Santa Rosa where our next friends lived. The bridge is bright orange.

You still can’t get a cell signal in their house on the hilltop. Back then I couldn’t have imagined ever caring about that knowledge.

Again, we trekked to the nearby Mountains for some days in a cabin. The Rocky took place of the Blue Ridge, but all I could think of was how insignificant our hills in the Netherlands really are. Flat, flat, flat.

I still feel that Swedish pancakes are inferior to Dutch.

Boarding down a snowy slope in an oversized frisbee makes anyone feel like an 11-year old.

Take that, sorry patches of snow we saw on the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Skiing was, and is, not my thing. Vancouver, much later, would teach me snowshoeing. It’s the wintersport I can appreciate; just combine snow with my favorite regular sport, Tennis.

And stomp around on fake rackets.

Did you know the San Andreas fault from the ground looks nothing like a great big gorge of epic proportions? My expressive sulking on the way home made abundantly clear that I did not.

We watched Full House religiously back at home; the real San Francisco was both better and also less exciting than that.

I still want to have a picnic in front of the Painted Ladies and have the camera zoom away in a cross-pan. I could achieve it with a drone and a GoPro, nowadays, but the vaguely overprivileged hipster nostalgia of it all would do my head in.

The third major part of our trip was to Phoenix. Heat. Swimming pools. Jacuzzi. Biking around a 1950’s American Dream of suburbs.

And one day, a Grand Canyon. Four hours away.

Other than that, Phoenix is pretty much just hot, sun, and swimming pools.

Staying with Dutch friends was a welcome change. I’d been losing interest in my diary, and while capable enough for a Dutch boy far from home, speaking English all the time was starting to wear me out.

There’s some irony there, in retrospect.

Another stopover trip via Denver brought us back, to the other Big Apple in my life.

You can see so much from the top of the Empire State Building; it’s dazzling, but in a good way.

Even when seen from afar, she exudes a sense of Liberty. Sometimes it’s your distant cousin who gives you the best gifts.

My daily writing had started to slow to a crawl, with many page filled with chronicles-to-be. The I.O.U. to a future self.

Four weeks flashed by in the blink of an eye, yet also lasted a lifetime. I treasure those experiences; the friends I met, the canyons and the mountains, the missed opportunity of cornbread. It was life-altering in ways I still may yet unearth more understanding of as time goes by, and I am immensely grateful for having had the privilege of that opportunity. I never wrote about it as an adult, but part of me wishes I had those journals with me today.

It’s okay, though. A new blank page awaits.

Extending The Professional Skill Set

The technology industry is always evolving, and your skill set of yesteryear decreases in value like the inherent decay of all things in life and the universe. Thankfully, you have a quenchless thirst for new and exciting developments; an unbridled desire to innovate and be cutting edge; or, at least, you want to know about useful new things that will help you get your work done easier, better, and/or faster. Lucky for you, the web always delivers.

If you’re just starting out (e.g. <2 years of professional experience), don’t fret about the magnitude of information, skills, technologies, methods, principles and patterns to know. If you’re more experienced: don’t fret either, but you probably know by now that it’s impossible to keep up with everything, and that it’s okay. There are curators and aggregation articles (sort of like this one) to help you separate the wheat from the chaff.

When it comes to being an engineer working with Web technologies, articles like Rebecca Murphey’s Baseline for Front-end Developers in 2015 are a great starting point to learn all about what tools and techniques you should be at least somewhat familiar with at this point in time.

Designers always have an abundance of articles and listicles about “Web Design Trends of {insert year here}” they can consume. With the rising popularity of UI libraries and frameworks like Bootstrap and Material Design, it’s impossible not to be exposed to the idea of structured blueprints to plan your work with.

There are resources like Write the Docs, for learning more about writing documentation (Open Source enthusiasts should pay close attention to that), or North, which is “a set of standards and best practices for developing modern web based properties.” It’s so full of fantastic advice that I recommend it to anyone working in our industry, designers, developers, QA people, managers, you name it.

But you can know everything there is to know about web design, development, or content writing, and still lack a crucial professional skill: empathy. Fortunately, more and more these resources and education materials are identifying this important skill.

Empathy makes the world go round better

Two years ago I spoke at the first Dare Conference, taglined People skills for digital workers. It was a brand new type of tech conference, one focused entirely on the human (and social) aspect of our work, with the talks and sessions explaining why those aspects were just as, or perhaps even more, important to master than the technical details of our work alone. Dare Conference remains one of my favorite conferences I’ve ever attended, and have found most valuable.

This look at our work through the human lens is rarely part of events, meetups or conferences. I’ve asked organizers to add such sessions since 2011, with sadly little success. Hopefully, Dare’s growing success and popularity and the recent crop of great new events like Alterconf will inspire more event organizers and tech conferences to add talks and panels of this kind. We deserve it, and there clearly is growing interest.

Empathy helps you be more aware of where trends may go

Empathy is not just a great life skill to have that permeates and enriches every part of your (personal) life; it also offers very clear and applicable benefits to your professional work.

Having a strong sense of empathy—especially if paired with a good sense of (social) justice—helps you better understand what new technology changes can help people at large scale, versus those that would only favor the most privileged few. Strong empathy helps you determine what technologies would be fair and beneficial to more people, and more customers. These perspectives help you not cling to tradition for the sake of tradition, carving out mental room for innovative exploration, and helping you focus instead on the most effective and the right new products or features to work on.

It helps you understand customers better

A keen intuition for, and understanding of, the very real needs and wants of many different demographics will help you make better, more well-rounded and well-informed decisions about product categories, features, and design. It keeps you from considering your users as a more homogeneous group than they are, and it helps fight against unconscious biases you’re remiss to admit to having (but we all have them).

One of the Kaizen ideas is seeing your coworkers and the teams you work with as your customers, and the work you pass on to them as the product you’re “selling.” It’s worth understanding all of your “customers” better.

It helps you construct more effective team environments

Creating an environment for people to feel welcome, comfortable and empowered in is just the first step to making more effective, inclusive environments. It still takes ongoing, continuous effort to teach people better practices in understanding one another, in dealing with criticism in healthy ways, in being able to help them with whatever they need. Empathy helps with each of these activities.

And you can’t forcibly teach people new things using just whatever method you prefer; teaching any new thing to someone is best done in a way that resonates with them, a way they’re most receptive to. Those differ from person to person, and empathy is what helps you to not stick to one approach and force others to adopt your way of thinking.

It’s all about the empathy, really

Karen McGrane said it perfectly at the closing panel of Dare Conf 2013:

Our work is people. Technology is people. Our focus on the nuts and bolts of how we do what we do is inadequate if we are not spending more time talking about the human and the emotional and the relationship side of everything that we do.

Technology is going through a volatile and polarizing phase. There are many growing pains we are observing as the industry matures and grows out of its angsty teenage years. Now, more than ever, we need to take these moments to breathe in deep, look at our work, and ask ourselves how we are impacting the lives of people, exactly. And whether that is our intended effect.

How we care for people, from our employees to our local community, from peers to our wider industry, should be a significant and real part of our daily professional conversations. Not something hidden from public discourse, only discussed over private dinners or Slack channels. These things will feel uncomfortable at times, but remember: it’s okay to feel uncomfortable. You’ll get out of it so much better.

We’re not in the business of making mindless products for soulless robots to consume; we’re crafting experiences carefully tailored to support humans in their needs, to surprise and delight, and to inspire and empower those who honor our work by using or buying it.

Let’s make displays of empathy a very real part of the professional skill set, together. For everyone’s benefit.

Two Phrases Your Professional Vocabulary Should Contain

I’ve been professionally employed in the web industry for about 15 years, and in all that time I’ve worked in different capacities and disciplines with enough depth to know a thing or two about them. A generalist with heavily focused experience, if you will, rather than simply a jack of all trades.

Whether it was as a back-end programmer working on Content Management Systems in PHP and PostgreSQL, a front-end developer on some of the world’s largest ecommerce stores and web applications, or as a product designer at both startups and enterprise software companies, there are two universally valuable phrases that I have found to be important to know and use at the appropriate time, no matter your chosen or pursued discipline.

These two phrases, when used genuinely, will both define your character in positive ways to others, as well was encourage you to bring out the best in yourself as much as possible.

The first phrase is of use when you are exposed to new information, confronted about certain mistakes, and so forth:

“I did not know that.”

You’re a human being. It is of crucial importance that you accept, for yourself, that you cannot and will not know everything there is to know about everything relevant to your professional life. The only person who is a complete and wholesome expert about a certain subject matter or discipline, is a liar.

But oh is it a common thing to pretend that you already know something. And that’s not even necessarily a bad thing; there are plenty of situations where it’s okay to say yes and then figure out what the hell you’re supposed to know. It’s not some intrinsic evil.

There will be many times you encounter something new, whether it’s simply new information or a technique you did not know of. This can be anything, from a programming method to a design pattern; from keyboard shortcuts to marketing principles. Our lives are full of pressures, and among them is the pressure to appear fully skilled, experienced, and knowledged about whatever pertains to our job.

Don’t constantly give in to that pressure. Sometimes is okay; often is not, and always is a really bad idea. There is a part to “fake it ‘till you make it” that people often neglect to acknowledge, and that’s that, with few exceptions, you can only fake it for so long, and at some point you’ll have to start paying attention and learn something useful to get somewhere new. You generally make it by doing that learning thing.

This phrase, however, is also useful when you are confronted about something you did. Whether it’s unintentionally violating a company rule or principle, stepping out of line somehow, or saying or doing something considered offensive.

Our natural inclination is to not appear weak, even if purely intellectually, and it is this inclination that drives us to be defensive against confrontation. But be warned: defensiveness leads you to come up with excuses; it does not encourage you to own up to mistakes.

Excuses may defuse the anger, but accountability is how you learn to do better. A healthy work environment will always value the latter over the former.

By admitting that you did not know a certain thing, you briefly admit that you are a flawed human being. It’s okay, though: just remember that everyone is a flawed human being, and your natural inclination to be defensive should subside.

It was merely the case that for this particular moment, you were the flawed one. Perhaps tomorrow it will be them.

By admitting a mistake, or simply not knowing something, you create the opportunity for you to learn something new, or become better at something. It establishes professional growth, and your admission indicates a stronger desire for that growth to take place than for you to appear perfect. (The latter will never be true, so as a goal it is rather unattainable.)

It suggests both strength of character and self-awareness, and it doesn’t matter what kind of work you do: those are two traits all good employers will look for.

The second phrase is similar, and can often follow directly after the first:

“I’m sorry.”

Remember how I said that these phrases were important “when used genuinely”? This is particularly true with this second phrase.

Owning up to mistakes, and apologizing for them, has somehow ended up an undervalued skill in our field.

Perhaps it is the young nature of our industry, being culturally dominated by a rather privileged, young demographic, that drives this ever-so-common behavior of not acknowledging our own mistakes. But it doesn’t matter what the cause is, because it is a terrible practice.

You’re going to make mistakes. The first step is to admit this to yourself (and, thankfully, we’ve been seeing a lot of intellectual growth towards this in recent years). The second step is to own it.

That means: learning how to apologize appropriately.

The skill of identifying, understanding, accepting, and apologizing for mistakes is generally not taught in schools. Unfortunately for you, the onus is on you to address that shortcoming.

I mentioned pressures in our field. Well, when you properly and genuinely apologize, you put the pressure on yourself to prevent whatever mistake you made from occuring again in the future. If you fail to be genuine, or fail to be convincing in your apology, the pressure is left on the other person(s) to not get burned by you making the same mistake twice. They probably have enough pressures to deal with already, so they’d rather not have this one as well.

A good apology not only resolves the matter at hand, it also brings you closer to the other person. (This is why apologizing for mistakes, and healthy communication in general, is important in all facets of life, not just your professional one.) The other parties now know that, hey, you may not be perfect (but no one is), but you have the capacity and the courage to accept and admit when you make mistakes. That makes you more accountable.

Not admitting mistakes does not make you appear perfect; it makes you appear evasive.

Hopefully you can master these two phrases as part of your professional toolbelt, and use them accordingly when the situation calls for it. Practice them as disciplines, and you’ll find that your instinctive defensiveness will take second place to a new sense of maturity and professionalism you may not have experienced before.

The best thing about that? We all benefit from it, and no one loses.

Your Comfort Zone Is Overrated

You’re probably familiar with the maxim-turned-image-meme about Your Comfort Zone and Where the magic happens. It’s true that the biggest adventures and successes will generally only happen to you when you step out of your comfort zone, and immerse yourself in the boundary-pushing environment of the unknown and unfamiliar.

But that’s only half the story, focusing on the active role you play in it yourself. What about the forces attempting to pull you out of your comfort zone? What maxim do we have for that?

With the advent of democratized publishing platforms giving everyone a voice, activism became increasingly less dependent on existing mainstream publishers to get their messages out to people. Now, more than ever, activist voices are reaching us from everywhere, attempting to better us, and it often feels like being pulled out of your comfort zone.

That’s where, as individuals, we can sometimes be… resistant.

We’re resistant because being uncomfortable is unpleasant—it’s literally right there in the word itself—and so we naturally work to avoid it. But sometimes it is inevitable, especially with outside forces. For instance, when you get called out for a mistake you made.

When you say something offensive, like a racist joke or a remark that punches down instead of up, you may get called out for it and find yourself in an uncomfortable position.

This is the moment you have a choice. You’re outside of your comfort zone, and how you deal with that situation says everything about what kind of person you strive to be. (This is true regardless of how fair or aggressively the calling out was, which is a topic worth discussing all by itself.)

Our natural defensiveness to accusations or uncomfortable situations is understandable, but we often cling to it too strenuously. And I say the following to myself as strongly as I could address it to anyone else:

It’s okay to be uncomfortable for a while.

We often take things well beyond mere defensiveness, and spend much time and energy fighting aggressively to stay within our comfort zone, so as to not even acknowledge that small thing that would make us uncomfortable.

It took me a lot of years in life to respond better to this kind of experience, and even still I have areas in my life where I like it a bit too much in my comfort zone. But as I’ve unlearned this behavior when it comes to the more social justice-oriented criticisms, I know it can be unlearned for everything—and by everyone, for that matter.

An example of this: the other day I got called out for using ableist language. The calling out was done in a fairly kind tone, which helped my fragile male ego not to react too defensively to it, but more importantly I already understood these two important rules of thumb about it:

  1. It’s not meant as a personal attack just to make me feel guilty; it’s a form of criticism meant to hold me to a higher standard, to help me be a better person than that;
  2. How I react to the experience of being called out is significantly more important than whatever offense it was I got called out for.

In the past, a younger me no doubt would’ve reacted with angry defensiveness to some of these experiences. Nowadays, I am armed with the above two rules, so I let myself be uncomfortable about my mistake. I then asked for an alternative that wasn’t ableist. I accepted it and thanked my critic for keeping me sharp.

I was uncomfortable about it for all of a few minutes.

Our feelings of discomfort in such scenarios is often only brief, found at its greatest intensity right after it happens. That moment is when our response to it will be most visceral, most defensive. And it is that moment wherein you have a choice to decide how to react.

I recommend taking a deep breath and thinking about the two rules above. Because even when the first one, for some unusual circumstance, doesn’t apply to the situation, the second one remains useful advice.

There is also a third one you can keep in mind, something which I’ve personally found to be true even in the cases where a confrontation with an uncomfortable truth about myself left me in a prolonged state of reassessing and re-evaluating a lot of things in my life:

  • Your being uncomfortable, however long it may last (and often it will only be very brief), is something you’ll get over.

You will get through it, and hopefully, you’ll learn from it. You will be fine.

It’s entirely okay to feel uncomfortable, even when you’re not the one taking the steps to put you there.

Your comfort zone is overrated.

The Professional Gap Of Privilege

There is an aspect to my professional life that has bothered me for a long time, yet I’ve not been able to articulate it appropriately until recently. Because of that, it’s a topic that I’ve handled poorly in the past, and that has sometimes alienated (albeit to a small degree) friends and followers alike. This topic is privilege privilege, and no, that is not a typo or error.

Like probably many of you reading this, I often spend some moments of my day scanning my Twitter feed for major topics of discussion taking place. Originally, those discussions were all about design, technology, development, and the sandwiches people were having for lunch. Eventually that started bothering me, because there were important social issues our industry was facing that weren’t adequately being discussed—the nice way of saying they generally were being routinely ignored completely.

As someone who got into tech for the sake of creating things that, hopefully, would help people lead better lives or do their work better, the widespread indifference to people’s concerns about their unfair or awful treatment by other people in our industry both baffled and enraged me. It wasn’t callousness, of course, but a combination of ignorance (whether about the issues’ existence or how to help combat them) and privilege (if it doesn’t directly affect you or someone close to you, it’s understandable you may not want to make it your problem).

In any case, I’m a lot calmer about it now.

A big part of that is because in the past 5 years that I’ve been dedicating more and more of my life to these issues, I’ve seen many a person who I used to argue with as ideological opponents, later stand beside me fighting for justice and equal treatment and opportunity for all people.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Another contributing factor is the realization that a lot of people simply don’t know what to do or say to combat systemic inequalities and discriminations in our industry or society. Speaking out is one of the most powerful and effective methods, all the more so when you are an industry leader or widely respected figure, but while saying words is easy, saying the right words can be a good deal trickier.

People, by and large, are good, well-meaning individuals with no malicious intent or callous indifference towards other people per se. The bigotries and biases instilled in us by our sociocultural environments aside, people generally see themselves as good. The problem, often, is a complex tangled web of privileges and power dynamics—something I’ll spare you the examination of today.

One such privilege, however, is the aforementioned one that had bothered me for so long but which I couldn’t articulate: the privilege of privilege itself. Technically, it’s simply privilege itself, no redundant linguistics, but specifically I’m describing the privilege of being so privileged in a variety of ways that you can go about furthering your work and personal lives without obstacles or distractions.

Over the past few years, there has been a cultural shift happening towards liberal, progressive ideals: same-sex marriage, better representation of underrepresented demographics in our politics and media culture, and so forth. This steady march of progress has come with the predictable backlash of people who see it as change for change’s sake, or as unnatural change; it is backlash of people who are uncomfortable with the speed in which their world is changing, in which the status quo is shifting and taking away some of their privileges (even when it does so for the better of everyone, the feeling of being ‘limited’ may seem arbitrary and, thus, unnecessary or unnatural to some).

But what hasn’t always changed is what people talk about on their blogs, Twitter, or wherever. That’s fine, of course; I’m not writing this to wag a finger at anyone. I just want to point out what that privilege leads to.

One common counter-argument often made against things like diversity quotas or efforts is that we should just hire for the best skills and talents, not attributes. But how do you hone your skills? You practice them. You make things, you try out new things, and you learn new things in the process and you get better, more skilled.

There are only 24 hours to a day for each and every one of us. So if you have to dedicate time each and every day to fight for your right to exist in a space or industry, or spend time fighting off harassment or threats and reporting them, then that is time you cannot spend on honing your skills. That is time you cannot spend asking your mentors for advice or trying out a new programming language.

This is how the system is rigged: by making it harder for the disenfranchised to rise up and join the privileged on an equal level, it actively tries to maintain and widen the gap between the demographics.

You’re not as good a programmer? Well, practice some more, then. You’re getting abuse and threats sent to you? Sorry to hear that, can’t help. Wait, why aren’t you practicing programming? I guess you just aren’t that into programming after all.

One question job interviews never ask is: How much time do you spend each day fighting for your right to be here and receive basic human respect from others? It may seem like a strange question, but if that answer is “zero” for you it may come as a surprise to hear that it can be as high as “most of the day” for others.

It is that gap that can naturally widen if we do not take corrective measure as a whole that bothers me, but it is a symptom, not a cause. The cause is people not being equipped with the right knowledge and tools and awareness, and that’s generally not their fault.

Again, since we’re all complicit in creating the society we live in, I’m not wagging a finger or criticizing those who dedicate their time to their passion of learning new skills. That’s how it should be, for all of us. But now that I know how to articulate this, I know how I plan to tackle it as a problem, and hopefully my work will contribute in some small way to the solution.

By writing it out for you, I hope that I get to do this with your support, perhaps even your collaboration. The intersection of technology and our culture is large and complicated, but it is a place where real solutions to our collective problems can emerge from. I’m planning to do some work there.