It is April in Chicago. Sunlight has taken the opportunity to remind me that it has the capacity to bring warmth. I have been back living in the city for close to three months now and the vibrancy of urban life is now amplified ten-fold thanks to above-freezing temperatures. A few months back, I was asked to give a talk by the wonderful Sarah Drasner at the Trulia San Francisco CodePen meetup a few weeks ago. Having done that, and in the spirit of the freshness with which I am greeted on April mornings, I decided I would write about why I spoke about two things I love — CodePen and Community.
Not being good enough.
I had a really hard time with opinions as a kid. I had the hardest time answering basic questions about what I wanted. There is a fascinating family video clip from our prolific sticker-ed VHS collection. It is my 8th birthday and my father is interviewing me on camera with a vacuum extension “micro-faux-n”. The interview proceeds as follows:
Dad: Anything you want to do other than open gifts?
Jake: I don’t know
Dad: Any places you want to go for your birthday?
(generally accepted by my peers)
Dad: Any people you want to be sure you see this year?
Jake: Everybody on our street
(a nice, vague answer)
Dad: Any guesses about what you’re going to get this year?
Lil Bro Eric: Maybe a gumball.
It is a brilliant exhibition of parenting as well as a fantastic archive of my parents’ attempts towards getting into my head as a child. I can just imagine my parents having the following conversation:
Dad: Has Jake expressed anything about his birthday?
Mom: No. I asked him what he wants to do and he said he didn’t know.
Dad: I got an idea...
Dad (from downstairs): Hey honey?
Dad: Where’s the vacuum?
In the decades following that birthday, I have had multiple conversations with my parents about how hard it was for them to gauge my desires. I recently re-watched that video with fresh eyes and everything suddenly became potent. Here I was, staring at undeniable proof that I have always been clinically silent about my desires whether it was sports, girls, or birthday gifts. So silent that my parents actively schemed about how to suck the truth out of me.
Where did it come from?
There’s an aspect of confidence that accompanies the commitment to desire which when absent, makes desire near impossible. For me, this lack of confidence came from the pressure of comparison via the throes of competition. I oscillated between 5th and 6th coolest boy in my 16 boy/18 girl middle school class (actual figures). My life was a daily practice of comparison. What would it take to climb the chain? How could I be more like #1 (Steve), #2 (Sam), #3 (Ross), #4 (Ryan) and keep the pressure on Alex?
Ultimately, the answer was about what sports team I supported, whether or not I wore said team’s official apparel, or at the very least wore the right colors. There was also whether or not I dressed like a Backstreet Boy for Halloween.
What a better way to shut a kid’s desires and dreams down than to make them think that they need to be more like other people? This isn’t any one person’s fault. Kids are kids. They have their own set of priorities. I can’t help but notice that this sense of competition proliferates mankind; most likely due to some distortion of survival of the fittest. Perhaps it makes eating a raw deer easier, but I can’t think of any reason how being a solid #5 or even a #4 would help me in any bit of my life now. All I had to gain from increasing coolness at that age was more awkwardly sitting next to girls in silence.
After making it through high school, dropping out of college a few times, working in a restaurant and a car wash, then getting a 2-year design degree, then working in a horse barn, then deciding to learn code, I was presented with a shocking reality: the adult world is the exact same stinking thing. We are still obsessing over 1 and 5 and 6 and 7,399,999,999 and having the latest integer of NOW That’s What I Call Music. Who the hell cares?
I should have seen it coming.
I grew up in arguably the best combination of era and suburb to be a child and enjoy watching basketball. The Chicago Bulls of the 90's were the most dominant team to play the game. Michael Jordan was everything. You know this. There isn’t a single person reading this in 2016 that does not realize this. I idolized his airness (people actually called him this are you kidding me).
Upon revisiting this bovine narrative that consumed my entire adolescence, I realized that my role model MJ was basically feeding me and other kids false promises throughout his entire career. The essence of his dramatic voice-overs laid atop Gatorade and Nike commercials was as follows:
The passion I have for beating people in a game is what drives me. I don’t settle for less than being the best. That’s why I’m basically the most amazing person to play the game and basically the best person who ever lived tbh...
One way I steeped myself in the nostalgia of that era was watching Our Lord and Saviour MJ’s Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement speech. It’s 23 minutes and 23 seconds of Michael recalling how he overcame obstacles by beating other people—how his competitive nature propelled him to be the best. It’s notably cocky and lacking in gratitude.
Michael Jordan was the best. No one is denying that. Everyone loved him because he was the best. He was so stinking good.
As a child, I took away two things from Michael Jordan. First of all, I assumed that he must be right because he’s clearly amazing. Therefore in order to succeed, I needed to be the best. The next take away was that I was clearly never going to be the best, because I didn’t have whatever it was that drove Michael Jordan to dominate the game. I determined that I was therefore a lesser human being and had zero airness.
How terrible is that?
While we’re on the topic of deflated airness (err-ness?), I should mention that Michael Jordan tried playing baseball. After his brief stint with some minor league White Sox clubs, and after batting a whopping career .202, he returned to the game he knew he was the god of.
A new hope.
After Jordan returned, before the ‘95-96 season, the Bulls traded for Dennis Rodman who was notoriously a bad guy. If Dennis wasn’t on your team, you hated him. The ‘95-96 Bulls ended up being arguably the greatest basketball team of all time and a lot of it had to do with how Dennis Rodman treated the game of basketball and how he respected his teammates.
I have about 50 full-length games on a hard drive from that record-setting ‘95-96 72 win season. I have watched all of them twice. Once for nostalgia, once for Dennis. Dennis Rodman is by far the most enthusiastic, honest, and passionate basketball player to have played the game. I’d watch these games and get goosebumps when he tries for the same rebound six times before pulling it down and passing it out to the top of the key to reset the play and give his team a second chance. Here’s how he celebrates, nine times out of ten:
He knew he could play his part on the team better than anyone else could. He loved playing basketball. He knew he couldn’t shoot, he knew he was often out-sized, he knew his primary job was to get rebounds and give the Bulls second chances. Although I should mention, he hit three three-pointers in a row and that video makes me happier than anything. Dennis Rodman had passion, he knew his limits, and he visibly had more fun playing basketball than anyone else. He ended up becoming “arguably the best rebounding forward in NBA history” by enjoying basketball.
This passion is evident in his Hall of Fame enshrinement Speech which is one of the most heart-wrenching things I’ve witnessed. When comparing this speech to the one from our tongue-dangling messiah, it is undeniable who found more meaning in the game of basketball. It is most striking when you observe the humility of the most eccentric Rodman and that of the role model Jordan. I’m not going to do the injustice of describing it here. Watch it.
Why I’m speaking now
I’m doing things like speaking about code and community because I’m sick of worrying about being right. I’ve been burnt out trying to keep up with the best. I am not of the essence of air, nor can I get enough hangtime to acquire a nickname. I want to do things well, but I am not going to stress about failure. I want to commit to birthday gift wishes. I want to recognize that I couldn’t make a three-pointer if my life depended on it and embrace the damn rebound. There’s not enough time to worry about what other people think. If you’re worried about how people see you, then you’re going to be worried for the rest of your life. Everyone can see you all the time.
You and I are ready to speak because we are capable of writing down an idea, opening our mouth, and saying it in the forms of English words.
We may need to get a tattoo though.
If you’re interested in the talk I gave at Trulia, I wrote a CodePen post based on it.