Code, nerd culture and humor from Greg Knauss.

People — actual human beings, those fleshy things that keep trying to talk to me as I type — confuse and frighten me.

They’re complicated, these “people” things. They don’t follow the rules that I’m used to. Causality — A leads to B leads to C — is something that happens just enough to mess me up, and f(x) — where f is a person and x is any given situation — equals pretty much whatever the hell it wants to. You can play Hunt the Wumpus with the black-box of other people’s personalities all you want, but the arrow is just as likely to hit you in the ass as come out the other side. And as badly as you want to take the top of people’s heads off and root around until you find the bug, you’re only going to get arrested if you try it. Trust me.


Photo courtesy of Eleven Eight.

And so I’ve spent recent years trying to come up with rules of thumb to try to explain and understand human behavior. Not algorithms — nothing so precise — but general theories to go by, pre-calculated crutches that I can lean on when I get in trouble. Which usually happens as soon as I open my mouth. Why is everybody suddenly looking awkward? What I said? It was a joke!

One rule that I use is the Value Proposition. It’s a marketing term that I’ve always dismissed as a marketing term: “Our integrated service-provider solutions offer a premium value proposition.”

But taken in a larger context, meaning can actually be squeezed out of the phrase — a first for a marketing term, as far as I know: A value proposition is the sum of what each party in a relationship brings to an exchange, enumerated to allow for a more precise evaluation than would otherwise be available.

This isn’t just a seller-buyer thing, as it’s usually used. A value proposition can be calculated — in some rough degree — between the participants in any relationship: commercial, emotional, managerial, whatever. I offer A, B and C; you offer D, E and F and if they zero-sum pretty well, hey, we’ve got a deal. Let’s get married!

(For any actual human beings reading this, that shudder that just went up your spine is called “the creeps.” But this article isn’t for you, you socially functioning whole, you. It’s for me and people like me, for whom the ability to quantify something makes it both comprehensible and comfortable. We view the world differently than you and your innate understanding of emotional trade-offs. So you can take your butt and withdraw it 1.56 meters.)

By defining relationships in terms of the value exchanged, you can (again roughly) determine their fairness. By line-iteming what’s exchanged between two parties, it’s easier to tell if that exchange is a good deal for both of you. The whole complicated array of human interaction can be broken down into smaller pieces, evaluated, and then reassembled with a greater understanding of what’s actually going on. Yes, it’s mechanical. Yes, it’s emotionally obtuse. Yes, it attempts to reduce the endless variations of how people deal with each other — in every context — to a small set of easily-digested bullet-points. But that’s why it works with brains that do that same sort of thing all day, every day. Ideally, it’s the less-messy equivalent of taking the tops off of heads. It’s certainly easier than the Sisyphean task of actually trying to figure people out.

So what can you do with a value-proposition-based view of relationships? You can evaluate them is what, and then act on that evaluation.

So, here, an example of how this nonsense can help you better understand a situation: Let’s say that you’ve got some vague notion that your relationship with your employer is unfair. What does that mean? It probably means that you’re grumpy, depressed, less than spectacularly productive. But the reasons are all tied up in the mush of spastic emotional response. How do you evaluate the cause of this feeling, in a way that can actually be used in a discussion? “Unhappy” is not a negotiating position. How do you tell if it’s something you should act on (as your gut says) or if you should shut your pie-hole and get back to your job (as your boss might offer)? How can you quantify the feeling, to do something useful with it?

Put it in terms of a value proposition. Let’s assume that when you were hired, both you and the company figured that each was getting a good deal. That’s why you hooked up in the first place. You were going to get a decent salary, a culture that looked attractive, some solid benefits and a shot at doing work you enjoyed. They were going to get a good programmer who could clean up the mess the previous clowns left and sell the result to fund their endless need for hookers or cocaine or whatever it is they do with all the money. OK, great.

Now, a couple of years later, you’re unhappy. Why? If you’re actually a programmer, the answer to that question is probably “I dunno. Emotions confuse me. I’m going to play some Team Fortress now. Maybe the problem will go away after I’m done.” It’s just a feeling. Things seem… off. Unfair, in a vague, ill-defined way. So let’s re-evaluate the value proposition that got you into this mess in the first place.

In the past couple of years, your value to the company has gone up: You now know the systems, and have been contributing solid code, shipped some good products. You’re better educated in the business, and have good relationships with various contacts in other departments. You do your job more efficiently and more intelligently than the stumbling noob who wandered in the door a while back.

The company’s value to you may have gone up as well: they’re paying you more, presumably. And. Um. What else?

Maybe the business has boomed, but your salary hasn’t. Maybe corporate culture has tightened up, and it’s a much less fun place to work. Maybe you’re now doing work that you don’t enjoy as much. Maybe by making this paragraph in the second person I can pretend that I’m not nearly as self-absorbed as I actually am.

And so maybe the company’s value to you has actually gone down. You’re giving more and getting less. Someone changed to rules while you were busy working. That vague feeling of “unfairness” stems from this now-unequal value proposition. You’ve quantified it, in admittedly crude terms, but at least now you have a list of things that explain the feeling.

This is just one example, of course. But the same rules apply to every relationship — yes, even the bodily-fluid exchanging ones. If you’re putting more into something than you’re getting out — how’s that for a seamless transition from the phrase “bodily fluids”? — at some profound level, you’re going to be unhappy. Don’t be afraid to re-evaluate. It keeps things healthy. It’s a check-up. “Is this actually worth it?” is not a bad question to ask on regular intervals.

Of course, simply re-evaluating a value proposition does nothing to actually fix the situation. It just gives you a tool for pausing and summing things up, for breaking a messy emotion down into coherent, calculable pieces and then building it back up into a course of action. But once you’ve decided that a situation is unfair, you’ve got to actually do something about it.

Ignoring the various shades of gray that are produced by such a messy, non-digital process, there are three possible outcomes of a re-evaluation of a value proposition: fair, unfair in your favor and unfair in the other side’s favor.

If you think things are fair, terrific. You’re probably not having to deal with all those sticky, unhappy emotions that everyone else is mired in, and can go back to what you really enjoy, which is ignoring those confusing and frightening “people” things. Good for you.

If things are unfair in your favor, you may be tempted just to hunker down and enjoy the spoils. But that’s short-sighted, because the other side is re-evaluating, too, in that automatic and on-going way that normal people have. They can process any number of emotional or confrontational situations without any special effort and then inevitably burp up a decision: You’re fired. You’re dumped. You’re — in an admittedly extreme case — trussed up in a burlap sack and dropped out of an airplane. If something has prompted you to re-evaluate a value proposition and you find that you’re not living up to your end of the bargain, you should seriously consider fixing the situation, if the relationship has any value to you. Do your fair share. Everybody really does end up happier that way.

If — as is most likely given that you’ve slogged this far in what’s turning out to be a very long essay — things are unfair in the other guy’s favor, you have a few options, all of which involve further human interaction and are therefore unpleasant.

You can ask the other party — your employer, your significant other, your friend, the counter guy at the deli — to raise their value proposition. It’s easiest in the case of employers because you simply walk into your boss’s office and make the case for a change — a raise, a new position in the company, whatever — but the same general principle applies to all your relationships. I want more, and here is why I think I deserve it. Simple.

If it’s your significant other you’re doing this with, do not do it by e-mail. Seriously.

If the other party isn’t willing to give more — or, more likely, isn’t willing to give enough — then you have two further options: You can either lower your value proposition in response or you can simply end the relationship. I’m not sure which is harder.

It’s tough for geeks to dial back how they work. It’s not natural. The work we do is the reason we exist and to spend the day dawdling is both counter-intuitive and may very well further lower the company’s value to you. “Work less hard, not less smart” is a pretty lame motto. I mean, you can only write so many blog posts on company time.

And so we’re left with ending it, walking away. This is the thing I personally find the hardest to do, but it is ultimately how all bad relationships end up anyway. I’ve stayed at every job I’ve ever had a year too long. I’ve clung to less than optimal personal relationships for fore more time than is healthy. I’ve made the mistake of offering more in situations where I felt I wasn’t getting enough back, and down that roads lies both madness and Dr. Phil, neither of which fits well into my life.

The exercise of breaking things down into a value proposition makes getting past the emotion-clogged hump of actually doing something about gnawing feelings of unfairness a little easier, a little more comprehensible. Sometimes that means the end of the relationship. Sometimes it means coasting a while. Sometimes it means getting more — up to and including what you actually need — back from the other side. Almost always it means moving on from being unhappy, from feeling cheated or treated unfairly, to something, well, different, anyway. Hopefully better.

When all is said and done — and I swear we’re close now — the value proposition is just a tool to help you evaluate your relationships, with your employer, with your mate, with your friends, with your family. These are some of the most important — and therefore difficult — relationships you will have in your life. Having a tool, no matter how crude, to fall back on when things get confusing is essential.

Because, God, those “people” things aren’t going to suddenly start making sense.

Hi there! My name's GREG KNAUSS and I like to make things.

Some of those things are software (like Romantimatic and Buzz Clock), Web sites (like the Webby-nominated Metababy and The American People) and stories (for Web sites like Suck and Fray, print magazines like Worth and Macworld, and books like "Things I Learned About My Dad" and "Rainy Day Fun and Games for Toddler and Total Bastard").

My e-mail address is greg@eod.com. I'd love to hear from you!

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