And the truth (or at least, an attempt at redressing the balance)

A resolution: breaking a very British curse

I’m not usually the type for new year’s resolutions: generally my attitude for self-improvement (when I can be bothered) is to just get on with it rather than wait around for arbitrary periods. At the end of 2011, though, I decided to make my first real “resolution”, which turned out to be more of a mantra or aphorism: less talk; more action.

This came about in part because of my personal anxiety relating to my life and its meaning. At the time I’d just finished reading the recently-published Steve Jobs biography, and had just begun a work project where we worked closely with Facebook on a new product they were developing. The images of these two founders, Jobs and Zuckerberg, were constantly in my mind. Not that I saw myself as an arsehole-but-genius product person or a billionaire social media zealot, but I couldn’t get away from thinking they were both younger than me when they started their dreams. I don’t want to create the “next Facebook” and I don’t want to build a controlled empire like Apple, but I do want to leave a legacy when I’m gone (whenever that happens) which is more than just “browsing reddit and messing about with facial hair”.

For a period, mostly around the start of 2012, I consumed book after book about startup culture and transitioning from developer-in-a-permanent-role to founder-on-a-budget. I whiled away the hours on transatlantic flights feverishly scribbling down startup ideas in notebooks and wandering San Francisco in a kind of technology-fuelled high. So much was possible. Time is so short. What could I do, rather than just talk about things?

Well, it’s the end of 2012 and I’m still at that developer-in-a-permanent-role stage: and that’s by choice — mostly because I never did come up with a convincing idea for something I could create and build. I’m still working on it. But I don’t think that means my “resolution” was a failure.

By spending a year living with those words constantly in the back of my mind, it forced me to think more creatively and focus more sharply on the things I was capable of doing, all while trying to reach for things I was probably incapable of doing. I knuckled down and got involved with new things in my job, taking ownership of our developer team’s external communications (blogs, tweets, etc) and recruitment — I wanted to build a team I was proud to work with and I did. I spent a month of “no consumption“, aiming to literally live out my “less talk; more action” mantra, and produced a third edition of my university-days print zine, filled with my writing, design and ideas. I rebuilt my long-running personal website and started cycling longer distances. I started making my own beer (rather than just boring people in pubs talking about which ales I liked). Just last week I purchased a new instrument, the banjo, with the goal of challenging myself to do something new rather than continually picking the same chords on the same guitar. I worked hard with a new team at work to launch an experimental and future-aiming product for our business. I taught a month-long class on creating things for the web. Less talk; more action.

None of these things set the world on fire: indeed, most of them were just personal things for myself. But I think that if I hadn’t bothered choosing a mantra at the start of the year, it would’ve been much easier to just carry on watching Netflix, reading reddit, and generally squandering the limited time I’ve been given. The unexpected loss of a family member in late 2010 taught me that life might end at any moment. It’s a cliché but it’s valuable to learn: life is short. Time is, for me, my most valuable currency.

So, for 2013, what next? I’m aiming to keep the “less talk; more action” mantra as a constant, even if it’s no longer “official”. Like last year, though, another “resolution” occurred to me in the closing weeks of this year.

Cynicism and pessimism. Sneering and denigration. They’re almost uniquely British traits, though that’s not to say they’re not found elsewhere. They’re part of a peculiar system of British self-deprecation and desire to avoid being “earnest”. Complaining about trains; passively-aggressively outing others online for their rude behaviour; mocking the attempts of third parties to do things that are considered beyond them. It’s an ugly character trait and one that I find myself using too often.

This isn’t to say that negativity and criticism aren’t valid tools. Of course they are. Nothing and nobody is immune to criticism, nor should they be. But of late I’ve found that the internet in particular is becoming a sea of these things. Twitter alone is filled with hateful — or just bored — statements of spite, dislike and bile, often rallied against unsuspecting targets. This isn’t an observation about internet trolls or teenage Anonymous members wreaking havoc. It’s about recognising the default perspective on events which causes us to react with world-weary grumbles and automatic-pilot cynicism.

At work we recently launched a product I’d worked pretty hard on for the past six months or so. We got mostly good feedback despite some internal battles and we were really excited to put it out to launch. We got some brilliant feedback from around the web — the creators of the design techniques we’d used were really excited to see us using them, promoting us and congratulating us. Closer to home, though, we saw strangers online heavily criticising our work and one wag even accusing us of building “a gimmick“. I even found former colleagues joining the chorus of criticism, unable, presumably, to find any good in the work we’d done. Almost exclusively, this reaction was from British people.

I’m trying not to couch this concept in terms of “oh no, somebody didn’t like my website, so I’m going to write a huffy blogpost about it”. Do you know why that’s difficult? It’s precisely because of this attitude that I’m forced to defend my argument from these imaginary blowhards. These attitudes are so prevalent in our modern “internet society” that people everywhere are afraid to offer their opinions or creative output because of the imagined responses from the army of armchair cynics ready to deconstruct it for nothing. Why should it be like this?

What I am saying is that I think there should be a rule with these things: output must always equal input. If you’re choosing to use up some of your limited time on earth to denigrate others’ efforts and rubbish something (however deserving), you need to balance that by putting your own things into the world, too. This isn’t a rehash of that ludicrous argument thrown at music critics by rock dinosaurs: “if you think it’s such a bad record, then write a better one yourself!”. You don’t need to be demonstrably better than the thing you’re criticising before you can criticise it. No, this is much simpler than that: take a step back and ask why you’re using your energy to put out negativity instead of creativity.

It’s not new-age hippie bullshit. It’s a stance that I hope will force me to reconsider before writing a kneejerk reaction and slagging something off because it’s popular. Earlier this year I wrote a couple of blogposts criticising Menshn, Louise Mensch’s mostly-failed Twitter rival. After giving it a bit of a kicking, though, I did acknowledge that the very fact that Louise and team had bothered to even attempt the task already gained them points, despite the failings of the product itself.

There’s something profoundly valuable about creativity and sharing in it. It can be of help or even necessity to point out the errors of others and discuss the issues involved: I want to make sure I’m doing that for the right reasons, and not getting bogged down in arguing the toss about trivialities instead.

Output must always equal input.

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  • http://www.stuartwitts.com/ Stuart Witts

    Well said Matt! The British uniqueness for immediate criticism is something that I find universally distasteful. Personally I blame soap operas and their relentless spewing forth of bile and hatred. Where’s the love? Where is the kindness?

  • Rob

    Yeah, I get it. Nice article. As Bill Hicks said, “you know it takes more energy to frown, than to smile. Yeah, but it takes more energy to tell me that than to get out of my face” HNY

  • nottRobin

    A good point. It would be nice to live in that world of positive feedback.

    I think the intention of many of these “armchair cynics” is to offer constructive criticism. Even if it isn’t, it could be turned to this. If you could take all the criticism that the internet affords and spin it constructively, so improve your product, it could be a really useful resource.

    Unfortunately I think the wealth of criticism that the internet offers can be hard to take positively. You need a mountain of self-esteem. How do we change it?