We live in a world of Invisible Lines that we don’t cross because it’s much easier to pretend the Lines are real.
Photo (and vibes) by Kevin Mak on Unsplash
Day 4 SOC Essay TIMESTAMP START 0722 EST
We live in a world of Invisible Lines.
We usually cross the street at crosswalks. We don’t play our music through cell phone speakers on the train (or we glare at those we do). We don’t talk about paychecks with coworkers except obliquely and we (generally) don’t stand too close to people or cough in public now in the age of mutating pandemics.
Some of these Lines are implicitly supported by the promise of reasonable and sustained societal benefit and some are explicitly supported by actual laws (and underpinned by the perpetual threat of legitimate violence). Some of these Lines are silly and some of these lines are instantiated by incumbent power systems that benefit in some way from you not crossing them.
Some of these Invisible Lines are real and imposed on others in a pernicious, persistent, and destructive way like the Redlining of predominantly African-American districts in neighborhoods across the U.S. and others we impose on ourselves as a result of our learned and perceived experiences.
This last type of Invisible Line is the most interesting to me because it’s the type we have the most control over in our day to day lives and is surprisingly often the type that stops us from doing perfectly achievable things.
These Lines aren’t objective moral codes or frameworks handed down by leaders of our communities, yet we’re learning about and defining and following and not crossing new Invisible Lines every day.
This is a strange and fascinating thing and starts way earlier than we think.
Kids Don’t Know They’re Not in Jail
Remember when you were small. You probably had a crib (my current audience has disproportionately won the geographic lottery so I feel pretty good about assuming this) and you probably stayed in the crib, but at some point your parents probably took a video of you “breaking out” of your crib to go about your other toddlery business somewhere else. It was a cute video and it is always a hit at gatherings and wait what the fuck did we just watch?
We just watched the moment you realized you were in a kids meal version of Plato’s Cave. You received a data packet that updated your perception of your entire universe (hey baby you’re not actually trapped in this crib) and your subsequent rejection of that false reality and the resultant changes in your decision making.
That’s an absolutely insane thing for a brain to comprehend and for kids that happens all the time!
And it continues. Repeatedly. Your parents let you just play in the yard when you’re a little bigger. Then you’re allowed to play down the street. The world didn’t change, but YOUR world just 10X-ed. Then you get a bike and holy crap another 10X. Then you can borrow the car and your world 10X or MORE again! And it continues continues continues as you go out of state for school or take international trips or meet people from other parts of the world or read books about other places or even just think a little bit about something you haven’t thought of before. The limits of our world go through bursty super-exponential growth over and over and over again, but often with declining frequency as we get older and older.
As we get older and establish patterns of thinking, the Invisible Lines don’t just stay geographic, but become sensory and connected to our mental and emotional processing.
Adults Don’t Know They’re Not in Jail
When we landed in Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan we joked that we had actually just flown around the air in circles for 30 hours and landed back where we came from at Fort Bliss in El Paso, TX.
Tarin Kowt, Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan - Credit vs El Paso, TX, USA - Credit
For me, this instilled an immediate sense of familiarity in a place that could’ve (maybe should’ve) felt like an alien planet. It established a strange connection to a place that normally might’ve taken years to feel. This random chance similarity in geography grounded my brain with a presence I was truly unprepared for as I stepped out of the Chinook. It fundamentally changed how I perceived the location and people around me.
Throughout the course of foreign wars and deployments throughout history, it’s been a common theme that military personnel eventually start to reflect upon the human aspects of their adversaries while abroad. The training and focus put into the dehumanization of an enemy (generally thought to be needed in order to be a good Soldier) starts buckle under the mounting evidence that people are…people no matter where they are born. You see personal effects on slain enemies or allied forces, you hear intercepted radio transmissions of conversations, you see their encampments where they live and hide.
I mean you know that they mean you harm, just like you do to them, but you start to actually grapple with the fact that people are doing bad stuff to other people. It’s weird and surreal and uncomfortable and real and it changes how you see the world.
It also 10Xs your world, but in a more quieting way.
It makes you see that the only Invisible Line separating downtown Kabul and downtown Manhattan is some civilizational luck and one person’s intent to do harm.
Intellectually, I always “knew” that, but feeling it this viscerally was life altering. It was a powerful Line to cross because it let me see people more clearly, more honestly, and think of people as the foundation for all the things that happen. ever. It’s not an “other”, it’s just a “you” with different luck and experiences. It’s made me much more empathetic and inspires a lot of how I think about orgs and systems and teams.
It also helped me better see the Invisible Lines that I put around myself
I Didn’t Know I’m Not in Jail
If other people are just me with different luck and experiences, the opposite is true too. Impressive people are impressive, but they’re also people. We all “know” that, but we don’t feel that. We don’t let ourselves feel that. We don’t incorporate that data into our First Principles.
We let ourselves do less because we see those that do more and think that can’t be us.
Sometimes that’s right and they have genetic or societal or resource advantages that we don’t have or whatever, but I think that a degree of honesty reveals that we sometimes don’t like doing hard things like focusing on research papers deeply for 6 hours in a row or cold calling 100 people or writing blog posts for other people to read and critique or study complex contract law or other things like that because they’re hard. and we’re people. and that’s ok. but pretending it’s never that isn’t ok. That stops us from doing the things we actually want to do. Triply so in highly autonomous roles.
For example, the Invisible Lines abound in startup land.
I can’t design the UX because I’m not a designer. I don’t know how to interview and hire people. I can’t put together a business strategy. I can’t code this feature. That isn’t something that I do or have done before or can do.
Yet the reality is that the great UX designer you just hired probably has only designed like two actual user interfaces in her career so far and the articulate manager who hired you for your last job probably has no context on your previous industry so they have no idea how to understand your last job’s responsibilities and the brilliant person who wrote the current business strategy you’re following crammed it together the morning of the presentation because they forgot they had to do it until that day.
Also All of this can be true and those people are the best in their field or something.
So thinking about that and accepting the First Principles mentioned above implies that for the median new task in a median new environment with a median requirement of quality in all likelihood I’ll probably do it reasonably well…or at least good enough for the required purpose.
That’s a hell of an Invisible Line to cross and tbh it’s terrifying to realize that your internal rationalization of “I probably couldn’t do that” doesn’t really pass the sniff test. Other people do it and you’re other people so you can do it.
Let’s cross the Invisible Lines to do cool shit.
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TIMESTAMP BREAK : 0827 EST - TIMESTAMP RESUME : 1422 EST - BREAK 1456 - RESUME 1655 - COMPLETE 1724 - EDIT COMPLETE 1731 - This one was tougher as I had some calls in the morning so I had to start/stop/start/stop. It was interesting trying to pick up the thread over time and I’m not sure if it affected the final outcome.
"It’s not an “other”, it’s just a “you” with different luck and experiences." - That is power.