On researching SSL-related hacks, I have stumbled upon the website of notable security researcher Moxie Marlinspike.
Marlinspike is also a sailor and working on diverse projects, such as Audio Anarchy – a project for transcribing anarchist books into audio format. On his About page he says:
I like computer security and software development, particularly in the areas of secure protocols, cryptography, privacy, and anonymity. But I also secretly hate technology, am partially horrified with the direction “geek” culture has gone.
In general, I hope to contribute to a world where we value skills and relationships over careers and money, where we know better than to trust cops or politicians, and where we’re passionate about building and creating things in a self-motivated and self-directed way.
I call myself Subversive El(k)ement, Security Consultant, Search Term Poet, and Luddite in Disguise … how could I not relate
So it was not a surprise that I found myself in total agreement with his career advice.
Moxie’s post starts with
What I want to say, more often than not, is something along the lines of don’t do it;
This is reminiscent of Via Negativa I learned about from Nassim Taleb’s writings. I have also found it more helpful to state what I don’t like instead of phrasing so-called SMART goals. When planning positively you try to target a small point in the vast space of options – likely to be missed – in contrast to the negative approach of avoiding a subset of options and keeping a considerable part of them in reach.
From the famous Stanford Prison experiment Moxie draws a simpler lesson as an individual – and it seems more palpable to me than that grand discussions about morals and free will:
… just be careful what job you take, because your job will change you.
You should look at the people working in a certain environment or industry sector and think twice if you want to become like them. This is not self-evident: At times I was dead set to break into a world whose representatives were anti-role-models – but of course I wanted to revolutionize the whole sector. Finally I have found out that it is more rewarding to go where the people are to whom you can relate with.
Moxie talks about choices we all make, and how the first of those, early in our careers, are defined by supporting structures like family, school, or university:
When we arrive at the ends of these funnels, it’s possible that the direction we’re facing is more a reflection of those structures than it is a reflection of ourselves. Self-determination in a moment like that can’t simply be about making a choice, it has to start with transforming the conditions that constitute our choices. It requires challenging the “self” in “self-determination” by stepping as far outside of those supporting structures as possible, for as long as possible.
It is silly to attempt at rushing through our lives, taking conscious decisions as early as possible and trying to cast your perfect CV in stone, as
There’s no rush to get started early on a never-ending task.
Moxie concludes that in relation to the inquiries about career advice, he is:
… likely to respond with something like “if I were you, I’d hitchhike to Alaska this summer instead.”
… doing the absolute minimum amount of work necessary to prevent starvation, and then doing something that’s not about money, completely outside of supporting structures, and not simply a matter of “consuming experience”
I can anticipate objections, and you can also find them in the comments on Moxie’s post. How to pay the bills? How to feed the kids?
Actually I have re-written this post several times because of this – but, alas, I will not be able to avoid all ambiguity. All I want to say is that Moxie’s post struck a chord with me. Though targeted to students it is this classical advice to the younger self that exactly that self might not like. It took me ~20 years to come to that conclusion and act accordingly.
I think the primary target group of articles like this are people who arguably have choices but don’t use them – people who err on the side of caution. I don’t want to downplay the predicament of the single mum working two jobs but rather speak to the unhappy Head Chief Architect Officer of Something Sounding Really Impressive But Actually Doing Unnerving Grunt Work That Just Happens To Be Extremely Well Paid.
I am also not at all trying to evangelize among those who wholeheartedly enjoy their stressful jobs. There is this subtle dance of intriguing yet stressful work and inspiration that makes it enjoyable nonetheless. The big caveat here is that you need to find out on your own what exactly stresses you out in a fatal way – and this is not necessarily straight-forward. It is to be experienced, not to be determined by theorizing.
Based on my experience, anecdotal as it is, I dare hypothesize that there is an impressive percentage of respected middle-class corporate employees who do ponder about an alternative life as that iconic free sailor. My job role had been that of a technical consultant ever since but I had become more of a project psychologist at times. I was to hear surprising confessions – after we had left the formalities of the professional negotiations behind and people started philosophizing over coffee.
Generally speaking, I believe that most of us living in stable democracies are freer than we think. I am saying this as the inhabitant of a country whose primary mentality is not exactly shaped by entrepreneurial spirit and daring. I know how the collective submission to alleged obligations work.
As for using kids as a main counter-argument to a ‘free’ life-style, I was reminded of that most recent controversy about adventurous parents living and rising their kids on boats. – an impossible life for most people. Considering their life-styles too risky gives proof of how warped our sense of risks and probabilities is, and how over-valued spectacular risks of The Uncommon are in comparison to the dull, but near certain health risks of the accepted, sedentary living in a modern civilization.
We do make choices all the way, and be it just choosing the life expected from us by those supporting structures. When we are grown up we don’t have much excuses for not taking accountability – and this does not at all mean a perfectly streamlined career plan.
Quoting Moxie again:
Be careful not to discover a career before you’ve discovered yourself.
The best advice is not to follow any advice (incl. this one), question everything, and decide for yourself.
From a documentary about Kon-Tiki (Wikimedia) – not sure if it is the new movie.
This post will be filed under Life
– a collection that recently struck me as much too serious and solemn.
In any case – if that happened again, I would just like everybody to know that I have never been happier; and I am weighing my words carefully.