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Engineer, startup founder, investor, and writer

benwerd

benwerd

benwerd

ben@benwerd.com

werd.eth

 

Fairness Friday: the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women

I’m posting Fairness Fridays: a new community social justice organization each week. I donate to each featured organization. If you feel so inclined, please join me.

This week I’m donating to the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women. Based in Albuquerque, CSVANW advocates for social change in the communities it supports to prevent violence against Native women and children.

It describes its mission as follows:

Organized in 1996 by three founding Native women, Peggy Bird (Kewa), Darlene Correa (Laguna Pueblo) and Genne James (Navajo), the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women (CSVANW) was created to provide support to other Native advocates working in domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, stalking and sex trafficking in New Mexico’s tribal communities. Their single goal: to eliminate violence against Native women and children.

[…] CSVANW is an award winning organization at the forefront to a dynamic approach to the tribal domestic and sexual violence fields that is demonstrating the most effective, creative and innovative ways to address and prevent the cycle of violence within tribal communities.

Its activities include training, technical assistance, advocacy, and direct support. It also sits on statewide taskforces in order to further its justice objectives.

I donated. If you have the means, I encourage you to join me here.

 

How can I be useful to you?

 

AI-based copywriting platforms can never replace human writers. Tell me why I'm wrong.

 

The twin sadnesses

As Ben Werdmuller awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into …

Stress has been a major part of my life this year, for obvious reasons. I’m no longer at the point in the year where I can claim to be ruled by grief with any real conviction, but it’s always there. Call me a high-functioning griever.

But the unhappiness I feel isn’t entirely the effect of losing my mother. It’s hard to compare, because it’s not fair to say there’s something deeper - that grief is already as deep as it gets, a sinkhole to oblivion just behind my eyes. It’s more that there’s another sadness that sits alongside it. They’re two different flavors, or two different entities that sit in two different universes with two different laws of physics. One is grief; the other is depression.

The manifestation of both of these sadnesses is that the world feels fundamentally wrong. In my grief, this is because my universe has lost its most important character, who I continue to reach for, make jokes with, and ask for advice like a kind of phantom limb until I remember. In my depression, it’s because I feel dissatisfied with the rhythms and timbre of my life. I can’t point to anything and say “this is wrong”, but in totality, wrongness pervades everything. There’s nothing to be fixed in either case because, in the case of grief, I can’t bring her back from the dead; in the case of depression, it’s hard to know where to begin.

My dissatisfactions go something like this:

One: my mother is gone, stolen by a terrible illness, which is an unfairness in the universe so profound that nothing is redeemable.

Two: I’ve been forced to play a game that I don’t particularly care for, knowing that the alternative is worse. The templated pattern of participating in regular society feels empty to me. Maybe this is because I was lucky (or unlucky) enough to be raised in a household that didn’t follow these norms. My parents didn’t have regular jobs; we didn’t settle in a single place; one year we traveled so much that I attended less than two thirds of the school year. We didn’t have money, and that was in part by my parents’ choice: my mother came from an upper middle-class family and my dad had a PhD in economics, and a comfortable life would have been easy for them. They opted out of the regular patterns and chose life experiences over wealth and stability, and knowing that there was an abundance of comfort and happiness in this, I don’t know that I can be content doing anything else. I honestly don’t know whether I’ve been ruined or freed.

Wealth is an empty goal. The people who chase it spend their lives gardening a number. What’s meaningful is choosing life: finding the things that spark and inspire you and following them. People talk about there not being reward without risk, but usually they mean in the sense of financial investments. Fine, but it works for life too: to be truly happy and truly yourself, you need to slip off the rails that have been set out for you. By definition, they’re not your rails. They’re someone else’s route: an aspiration that someone else has for the direction of your life.

I quietly admire the people who can feel comfortable following the regular path. Find a stable job, buy a house, start a family, get a dog, etc etc. And don’t get me wrong: I’d love to have a house, a family, a dog, and everything the etc etc implies. I want to do those things. And I think describing them in this way does them a disservice: starting a family, for example, is much more about - or at least, should be much more about - establishing a deep, mutually supportive partnership that becomes the emotional and practical bedrock of your life. I’ve always seen partnerships as being akin to being allies in an adverse world, and there’s nothing superficial about that. (A dog is just a dog, but dogs are great, so.) Still, something is missing, and I admire the people who don’t have that niggling dissatisfaction eating away at the core of them. They can just get on with it.

I wonder if it’s partially this: the traditional path is a deal that asks you to normalize yourself to a mainstream ideal in exchange for financial reward. You are asked to become a piece of a larger machine (both in terms of a business and mainstream society). The extent to which your natural self deviates from the shape of that piece, combined with the proportion of your life spent playing this part, is inversely proportional to your satisfaction in doing so. The more integral the piece you’re willing to play the part of is considered to be by the people who control the reward, the higher that reward will be, but your deviance from that norm remains the biggest deciding factor in how satisfied you are to play it, and therefore how sustainable playing it is for you in the long term.

Only the very lucky can find a place for themselves in the larger machine that is close to their actual shape. Everyone else must contort themselves into the available gaps.

And here’s where grief comes back into play: stress and sadness make you less malleable, less able to contort into the shape you need to be. Breathing requires exhalation into your full form. If you’re hurting, you’ve got to be yourself, whether that full self is considered to be valuable or not (financially and emotionally).

Everyone has expectations for me, in work and in life. The weight of fulfilling those feels heavier than it otherwise might. Mostly this is grief, but my dissatisfaction pre-dates this year’s crisis. I don’t enjoy disappointing people, but if their conception of me is of a high-earning engineer who is eager to follow the mainstream path, it’s wrong. I want to build a life from first principles following my ideals for what’s meaningful and good - fairness, equality, expression of one’s inner self and identity. It’s not clear to me that this is even possible, let alone desirable. (It’s desirable to me, but you’ve got to keep a roof over your head and food on the table. How do you do that well while deviating from the established path? Do I have anything of value to offer?)

And therein lies the true dissatisfaction. It’s inconvenient to other people for me to grieve, but too bad: I’m grieving. It’s inconvenient for me to not be the person other people want me to be, but too bad: that’s who I am. If I can’t have the space to be myself and to breathe in the way I need to, particularly in this moment, give everything that’s happened, then it’s the wrong life. But it’s not clear that I can provide enough value with who I actually am in order to make life sustainable. Am I valuable?

It becomes clear that community is the most important thing. Finding people who value you for you - not financially, but emotionally, and in the context of mutual respect and support. People in startup-land talk about finding smart, successful people to spend your time around, but that isn’t it at all. It’s not about cynically using people to gain points as part of some game. It’s about finding comfort and care. The goal isn’t to be rich. The goal is to find your people in a mutualistic way where you’re their people, too. Finding your place not in a machine but in a group where your true self is valued and welcomed.

These are the things I’ve been thinking about lately, while nurturing my sadnesses, and waking up from vivid dreams.

 

So, uh, episode six, eh?

 

Pretty subtle critique of capitalism you’ve got there, Squid Game.

 

Who are the most successful publicly very left-aligned (i.e., not just liberal) people in the tech industry?

 

"Undo send" doesn't always save my neck, but when it does, it really does.

 

The currency of productivity is focus.

 

Thoughts and actions for the week of October 11, 2021

Thoughts

  1. I recognize today as Indigenous Peoples’ Day rather than Columbus Day: it’s a marker of the importance of the people who were here before Europeans arrived, and their resilience in the face of genocide and generations of oppression. For the first time, the President recognized it too: a major progressive step. I’ve heard some people of European descent make fun of it, which is nothing but ugly.
  2. One of America’s biggest exports these days is technology. The actual hardware we use is largely made in China, but most of the software that connects us is made Stateside. Apple is based in Cupertino; Facebook is based in Menlo Park; Microsoft is based in Redmond. Yes, they have offices all over the world, but the core of their strategy is defined in these places.
  3. The way we build the software that connects us matters. If it’s largely built by affluent white dudes in expensive neighborhoods, no matter the intentions of those people, it will disproportionately reflect their worldview. The lens through which they see the world becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  4. There are methodologies which attempt to correct for this worldview. Design thinking, for example, can be seen as a way to de-risk your product idea by testing with the people who you want to build it for. The lean startup process is a way of doing this that leans more heavily on quantitative, rather than qualitative, analysis.
  5. Notice the conceptual separation between the people you want to build it for and the people doing the building? These methodologies sit somewhere between a colonialist mindset and white saviordom. If you’re experimenting on communities in order to sell something to them more effectively and those communities are not themselves the owners of both the process and solution, you’re strip-mining them of value.
  6. You can most obviously see this in Facebook’s global outreach, including a disastrously self-serving attempt to provide free internet in India that just happened to shape local connectivity around its own services, and its use to promote genocide in Myanmar. These were headline-grabbing stories, but for every one of these, there are likely hundreds more that didn’t receive global scrutiny.
  7. The same goes for American foreign policy, which seeks to export US values without truly working with local communities. It’s nothing short of imperialism that strip-mines other nations of useful value. Companies like Facebook are an example of this ideology, not its limit.
  8. Whether you’re building software or global diplomacy, the only way to ethically build for a community is to build with them in every possible sense. They must be keepers of the platform, the ownership, the process, and the proceeds.

Actions

  1. As always, there’s a lot to do at work - mostly on the process side.
  2. I’m determined to hit my exercise goals every day this week. It’s crazy to me that I hit them for five months in a row at the beginning of this year and that I then let them drop so precipitously. I mean, it’s also easily been the worst year of my life, so it’s not that crazy, but I’d like to get back on the wagon to round out the year.
  3. I ordered a Dyer Dhow a few months ago, and it still hasn’t shown up. Where is it? I need to chase it down and maybe postpone the order until next year. I’m still on Cape Cod, but I won’t be here forever.
  4. As the year comes to a close, I need to do a little financial planning and trimming. Sadly, services like AirTable, which I used to depend on, probably won’t make the cut.