Thoughts about the beautiful serenity of not giving a damn

I read something on Twitter the other morning that made enough of an impression on me that I felt compelled to break my read-only rule1Just temporarily, Twitter is still garbage and comment on how false it was. It was from game developer Rami Ismail:

A reminder that being a terrible person that “loves crunch”, “yells at people”, and “says things they don’t mean” will eventually end your industry career, even if you manage to grow your tiny studio from just a few people all the way up to AAA size. Being a team player matters.

To be clear, I’m not trying to call out Ismail or anything. It’s an idea that I would’ve agreed with to some degree at several points over my career. And that is why I want to stress that it’s not true, but more importantly, it doesn’t really matter that it’s not true.

So let me stress first: it’s demonstrably false. I’ve worked for or with quite a few terrible people over the past 25+ years, and most of them have just kept failing upwards. Unless by “eventually end your industry career,” he meant, “you’ll at worst retire comfortably,” then I’ve never seen any evidence of the kind of cosmic justice that he’s describing.

I spent quite a bit of time in my 30s and early 40s holding out expectation for resolutions that were never going to come. First hoping for reconciliation, then vindication, then even schadenfreude, so I’d feel that there’d been some kind of justice. It almost never actually happens, and on the rare occasion it does, it almost never actually makes anything better.

So when I say that terrible people almost never face any real consequences for treating people badly, it’s not just empty cynicism or bitterness. Just the opposite, in fact: I’m saying stop wasting any time thinking about what may happen to other people some day, and just live your damn life.

“Live in the moment” is advice that I’ve heard hundreds of times over the years, but maybe it’s one of those ideas that only sinks in with experience. When I think back on all the different jobs I’ve had, my satisfaction with them has had less to do with the project itself than I would’ve expected. Instead, it’s more directly tied to my mindset at the time.

When I’ve been concentrated on something that will happen later — this is a good stepping stone until my big break, or this is a contract that will lead to a full-time position, or as soon as this game is finished I can escape this waking nightmare — it’s been ultimately a disappointment. But when I’ve been focused on what’s happening at the moment — learning new stuff, meeting new people, contributing to something I know is going to be cool — I’ve been a lot more satisfied, even if the project itself was less appealing on the surface.

It’s hard enough keeping focused on the present, so it makes even less sense to be concerned about what might happen to other people someday. Most of us have zero control over whether our shitty ex-bosses ever turn their shit around, or face the consequences of being shitty — of course, barring lawsuits, or whistle-blowing, or anything else that’s more significant than what I’m talking about here. It makes zero sense for us to devote any energy to thinking about it.

Easier said than done, I know. You can lie in bed at night stressing over whether you came across as too arrogant or curt earlier in the day, while an openly abusive boss will be praised for being outspoken. You can try to focus completely on meeting deadlines, while your bosses and coworkers act as if they’re irrelevant. You can do what you believe is focusing on the quality of the project above all else, while the people more concerned with bonuses and raises and royalties end up having a shitload more money than you have. It seems unfair, because it is unfair.

The serenity comes from saying, “Yeah, it’s unfair. So what?” If you’re making mistakes, like being too assertive or not assertive enough, getting preoccupied with the wrong thing, or undervaluing yourself and your work, that can be fixed. But even if you could transform yourself into the shitty person who’s getting the unfair advantage, you wouldn’t be happy with it.

If you’re the type of person who lies awake at night stressing over whether you came across the wrong way, you’d be miserable if you were an abusive bully. If you’re conscientious about deadlines, you’d be perpetually stressed out if you tried just shrugging and saying that deadlines are beneath you. And if you’re the type of person who doesn’t concentrate on money, you’re going to be stressed out if you have to make it a priority.

A year or two ago, one of my aforementioned terrible ex-bosses sent me an email out of the blue, trying to recruit me for some project. My first reaction was to think this is exactly what I’ve been waiting for. Here was the perfect example for me to explain exactly why that would never happen, to list all of my grievances, to summarize various shitty things they’d done and left me to deal with in silence, to describe how and why they’d betrayed my trust and repeatedly disappointed me, to demonstrate how much better off I was now that I was no longer working for them, and to assert that I deserved so much better than how they’d treated me.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was pointless. There was no friendship or even working relationship left to salvage, it wouldn’t do a damn thing to change their behavior, and it wasn’t making me feel any better. More significantly: I was putting all of this energy into the reply, far more than went into the original message by orders magnitude, far more than I felt the relationship was worth. I realized that I was imbuing it with the weight of multiple shitty bosses and coworkers I’d dealt with over the years, but was never able to feel the catharsis of telling them off. Finally, I’d be able to put decades’ worth of resentment into one mega-Kamehameha blast of righteous fury.

Instead, I just thought, “Nah.

And I could almost see the weight of decades fluttering away like beautiful psychic butterflies.

So ultimately, being a team player is its own reward. And the only real punishment for being a shitty person is having to be a shitty person. When you encounter one, make a mental note of how they’re shitty, so you know how to detect and avoid it in the future. But that’s all that most of us have any control over, so it’s a waste to pretend otherwise.

Or, a different person on Twitter (sorry I can’t remember who!) put it a lot more succinctly: “the best closure is to stop giving a fuck about getting closure.”