Extending

I'm not very fun at Silicon Valley tech parties.

Eric Zhang • February 1, 2023

Amidst languishing, I was thinking about something an artist said to me when presenting some work: “I might be extending too much here, but the way I interpret this is that…” and my mind wandered a little bit to all of the different ways we stretch logic to justify the internal beliefs we hold.

One of the things that appeals to me about creatives is that work can often speak for itself. No one can argue against the utility of a software application that people actually use, the beauty of an artwork that moves someone, the essence of writing that you personally enjoy, even if you can’t necessarily articulate every reason why it’s good. The romantic framing is that while our peers peddle words arguing about what should be, we speak softly yet compellingly demonstrate through our work what is.

As much as I live and love tech, I can’t help but draw a parallel to something unappetizing there. People gravitate toward the same negative idioms to manifest / justify their own worth. The software engineer laments “they just don’t understand what I do;” the systems researcher mentions “web developers have such a banal job;” the ex-academic claims “academia is the realm of the beautiful and the useless;” the product manager asks “how could you do tasks so boring?” and the enterprise CTO exclaims “everyone here is so bad at articulate writing except for myself!”

This is overextending. This is mean.

I really struggle with this and want people to get along better. My favorite interactions are when I can attentively listen to someone talk about what they really love and hopefully get a window into why they appreciate it. People being mean makes this really scary for both the presenter and the listener. Why can’t we share our work more genuinely and be kinder when listening to each other?

It’s so bad that I’ve gradually constructed an internal anti-overextending framework to try and like people’s work more. Described in bullet points:

  • You don’t need to be doing the most impactful, leadership-driven work to be happy.
  • Anyone selling you “impactful careers” is probably overextending.
  • The words “impact” or “success” are vague and overused.
  • Work doesn’t have to be profitable or popular or even seen to be meaningful.
  • The loudest voices in the room are those who amplify their voices the most; not necessarily the people who are the most secure in their own beliefs.
  • Institutions ultimately exist to serve people, not the other way around.
  • Anyone making a moral judgment on you based on work you do for yourself is wrong. You are right. They are wrong.
  • You shouldn’t need to justify yourself to anyone who who doesn’t care to listen.
  • What you want to say is as important as how well you say it.
  • Things that make lots of money aren’t intrinsically better than things that don’t make money. (Except in allowing you to earn money.)

Above all, you don’t have to understand something immediately to eventually appreciate it in the future, and you don’t have to agree with someone to support them as a human and as a friend.