Mandy Brown is co-founder and CEO of Editorially, a new platform for collaborative writing and editing. She is also co-founder of A Book Apart, a former contributing editor for A List Apart, and the editor of many books, including The Shape of Design, by Frank Chimero. She previously served as communications director and product lead at Typekit and as creative director at the independent and employee-owned publisher, W. W. Norton & Company. She lives in Brooklyn, works from Studiomates, and can often be found complaining about things on Twitter.
In a time when telecommunications were primitive and blacks lacked freedom of movement, the parting of black families was a kind of murder. Here we find the roots of American wealth and democracy—in the for-profit destruction of the most important asset available to any people, the family. The destruction was not incidental to America’s rise; it facilitated that rise. By erecting a slave society, America created the economic foundation for its great experiment in democracy.
Nothing I have to say is more important than what Ta-Nehisi Coates has said here.
Do what you love. It’s a seductive little phrase, clear and urgent in its call. It promises a path to happiness, a simple test to run against every decision you make that will guide you to a fulfilling, meaningful life. It’s an imperative — a command, not a request.
It’s also total bullshit.
Now, I believe many of those who preach that you do what you love do so with the best of intentions. But “do what you love” — and it’s cousin, “quit your day job” — presumes many things about you: that you have sufficient wealth, time, and emotional support to single-mindedly pursue a career; that you have access to a network that can and will enable you; that the work you love is valued in today’s capricious and frequently stingy economy. It presumes that you are among the most fortunate people on the planet.
And maybe you are. But imagine how the “do what you love” edict rings to those who are not.
At its best, “do what you love” is a friendly pep-talk to the dissatisfied elite. At its worst, it’s exclusive: the ugly side of the American dream, the one that judges those with the least as being the least deserving. If only they had the will or ethic to pursue their dreams! If only that was all it took.
So here’s some advice that’s considerably less sexy than “do what you love” but ultimately more useful: do what you can. Seek out the roles and skills that both suit you and are sufficiently rewarding in compensation to make your life work. You may find you end up loving part of that work, and if so, grand. But remember there’s plenty more space in your life for love, and your work neither deserves nor is likely to support the most of it.
Your love is bigger than what you do.
The creators of an app fail to consider how it could be used to harm. A founder implements significant changes to community tools with little thought given to the consequences. Thousands of entrepreneurs and investors contribute to the creation of an advertising model that collects enormous quantities of data on users but apparently never imagine how that data could be abused. Organizations declare an end to “structure” without asking themselves how power is exercised absent such systems. Others claim they operate in a meritocracy without, it seems, ever really wondering what such a world would even look like.
Here’s a very simple method: when you set out to make something, whether it be software or policies or mechanisms for organizing information, ask yourself what’s the worst that could happen. Imagine a powerful person, someone endowed with the right circumstances of birth such that the odds are nearly always in their favor; and imagine, also, the reverse—someone for whom discrimination, oppression, violence, and poverty are commonplace. Then optimize to protect the latter, even at the expense of the former. And do it right away: not after you scale, not after the money is rolling in, not after a leak exposes you, but now. Yesterday, even. Go.
In The Comedy of Survival, Joseph Meeker argues that much of Western civilization is modeled after the “tragic mode.” You’ll recognize that mode from the Greek and Renaissance tragedies you read in primary school. In the tragic mode, a larger-than-life character attempts to bend the world to his (and it’s always his) image. He succeeds, in part, by mutilating and murdering and generally dragging a swath of blood behind him. But his success is also his undoing, and at the end of the play, his head is carried off the stage. A eulogy praises his bravery while also issuing a caution against those who would follow in his path.
But Meeker proposes an alternative: the comic mode. As you might suspect, the comic mode takes its cues not from the great tragedies but from comedies. Whereas tragedies follow men who are determined to remake the world to suit them, comic characters remake themselves to fit the world. They are flexible and adaptable; they use their wits to take advantage of opportunities as they arise, rather than using their sword to make such opportunities appear.
Where tragedies end in funerals, comedies end in weddings — less blood, more drink.
The tragic mode is the one we slip into when we talk about men who’ve had an outsized impact on the world. We speak of the many things they’ve accomplished, the obstacles they overcame, their ambition, their disruption. We scoff at the companies or people left in their wake. If they fail, we praise their effort and courage. If they succeed, we eventually conspire to get at their throat, and the cycle begins anew.
But what of the comic mode? The comic mode eschews heroic acts. The comic mode pokes fun at ambition and celebrates leisure. The comic mode trades late nights for weekends off, empty savings accounts for day jobs, bravado for brains.
The comic mode lives beyond the curtain fall.
Less blood. More drink.
I grew up believing I was bad at math. I knew I had a talent for words (I was dictating stories to my parents before I could comfortably and quickly write them down myself), and I assumed — as, I think, many of us do — that a proclivity for language is generally coupled with an equivalent ineptitude for numbers.
In primary school, I passed everything with high grades, but I struggled with the math courses. I was often frustrated and confused; I had to ask frequent questions just to keep up (something I never had to do in English class). I could power my way through a task, but the conceptual underpinnings escaped me. I assumed that struggle meant I just wasn’t good at that kind of thing, that I was meant for more literary aims.
I moved around a lot in high school, so I was often trying to line up a previous school’s curriculum with the new one. Frustrated guidance counselors would put me in one course, only to realize a day or two later that I was ahead or behind the rest of the students and needed to be in a different class. As a result, I found myself in math classes with kids a year (sometimes two) ahead of me; I knew more than they did, but I was shy and certain I didn’t belong.
More than once, I would ask a question, and rather than explain a difficult concept, the teacher would suggest that I belonged in a lower-level class where I could catch up. Maybe they meant well, but the suggestion hurt. I was a good student! I was smart! I did not deserve to be held back. My own certainty that I would never be good at math went face to face with my innate competitiveness, and the latter won out. I was determined to prove them wrong.
So for years I fought and kicked and threw my graphing calculator across the room (they made sturdy electronics those days). I hated every minute of it, but I passed every class. I made plans to go to a liberal arts college and pursue a degree in English, to be done with math forever.
My second semester in college I signed up for a course called “practical physics.” I had a physical science requirement to fulfill, and this class promised to be easy and math-free. But the professor did something I remain suprememly grateful for: during each lecture, he would first talk about the principles of whichever law of physics we were discussing, then — in an offhand way — he’d quickly jot the underlying math onto the blackboard. He’d say, “You don’t need to know this part, but just in case you’re curious, here’s how it looks.”
And there, on the blackboard, there was the math I’d struggled with in primary school — there it was, making sense.
I approached this professor after class and asked a question about the equation he’d shown us. He went back to the blackboard and expanded on it, talked excitedly about how it related to the demonstration he’d made in class. We stood there as the class emptied and students scurried off to other things. I was enthralled; I could see something I’d fought with and hated suddenly show its true, beautiful self.
Then he asked, “You’re really good at this; why are you in this class?”
I’m not really a math person, I’m a writer, I started to say. But before I could mouth the words, I knew they were wrong. “I don't know,” I said. And for the first time in my life I realized that I wasn’t bad at math.
I was fucking great at it.
That semester, with encouragement and support from advisors in both departments, I declared not one but two majors: English and physics. I took some supremely challenging math classes over the following three years — classes where you knew each semester a certain number of kids were going to bail and change their major because they couldn’t get through them. But I walked into those rooms with an entirely different attitude than I’d had all those years before: I believed I could do it.
I handily finished the degree requirements for both majors and graduated with honors.
I don’t use math the same way anymore; differential calculus doesn't have much utility in my day-to-day life. But years after my college days ended, I would pick up another kind of book — on web design — and realize what that math did for me: It didn’t teach me a skill. It taught me a way of thinking. It taught me to critique and engage with the quantifiable world in the same way that my literature education taught me to unravel the cultural one. I’m certain my work — my life — is better for it.
I don’t know if my youthful fear of math originated within me or was a response to external cues and gendered expectations. Likely, it was a combination of the two. But I do know that no one ever challenged that belief; until that moment in that classroom in the spring of my freshman year, no one ever said, “Hey, you’re good at this.”
I suspect this is one of the fundamental differences between the experiences of boys and girls and may explain some of the gender gap, not only in the sciences (where girls lag behind) but also in the “softer” fields like education, which are overwhelmingly female. Consciously or otherwise, we steer young people into the fields in which they seem to fit, and that fit is determined (in part) by expectations about what boys and girls are good at.
And girls almost certainly pick up on the many suggestions, both overt and subtle, that they don’t belong in the lab. This is one of the reasons we argue for things like diversity at conferences: because seeing a stage full of men sends the message that women don’t belong there. It doesn’t matter if the conference organizers believe that or not, or whether they intend for that message to come through. It’s there regardless.
I don’t get angry when I see a conference lineup that’s overwhelmingly male; I feel sad. I think back to the girl I once was — who, despite all the evidence to the contrary, never believed she could do this, who asked questions and was dismissed, who never felt like she belonged — and I imagine how she would interpret that stage. And I worry it would reinforce her worst and most tightly-held fears.
I’ve grown to love the web industry, love it like I never thought I could love a job or a field. And I don’t want even a single girl to look upon it and feel outcast. I want her to know she can be good at this, too.