As a kid, Jeff Eaton got interested in programming as a way to solve problems using Hypercard on his family’s Mac computer.
After high school, Jeff intended to go to college to study “new media” but a summer job at a marketing agency turned into a longer term job, and Jeff realized he was already doing the things he meant to study.
A growing passion for open source and Drupal led Jeff to Lullabot, where he got to dive deeper into content strategy.
On the side, Jeff co-hosts a podcast called Christian Rightcast, looking at the history and context of the Christian Right in America.
IVAN STEGIC: Hi there! You’re listening to ONE OF 8 BILLION, a podcast about all of us! I’m your host, Ivan Stegic. This podcast is supported by TEN7, a technology studio whose mission is to Make Things That Matter. Online at ten7.com
We all have a story, don’t we? We’ve all had successes and failures, joy and disappointment, love and sadness. And yet, we’ve all made it here… to right now! Our stories are one amongst eight billion others… eight billion other stories, each of them unique, each of them grand in their own way, and each of them a window into the humanity that connects us all. ONE OF 8 BILLION tells the life stories of people from around the world… let’s listen!
Our story today is about Jeff Eaton, Partner at Autogram, where he helps large companies understand and manage their digital content.
Jeff has always been driven to find order in the complex, whether it was teaching himself programming skills as a child or re-evaluating his relationship with faith and religion as he got older.
He has a passion for trying to get things to make sense… which makes him a great guest to help us understand more about the world on ONE OF 8 BILLION.
IVAN STEGIC: Could you please introduce yourself?
JEFF EATON: I'm Jeff Eaton. That's my name. What’s my now? Who am I? I would say probably the easiest way to sum it up is middle age, kind of nerdy tech guy in the midwest of America, which is a very narrow slice of the population. You don't run into those a lot. Right now, I'm one of the partners of a small consulting agency that I founded with a friend Karen McGrane and Ethan Marcotte about a year and a half ago. We do a lot of work in information architecture and large scale content planning for organizations that have big digital publishing efforts.
For a long time before that, I worked in open source software development, CNS stuff, that's how I know a lot of people that I keep in touch with online but beyond just my professional work, I'd say all of the stuff that I'm interested in is about podcasting about religious extremism in American politics, or organizing electronic supplies for my workshop or whatever. I think one of the consistent themes that is there in my work, my study, and my recreational stuff is making sense of things and understanding systems and how they work and how they interact with us and the world around us. That's something that keeps me waking up every morning.
IVAN: I'm fascinated by your tweets and your work on religious extremism in America. And I think we've had a couple of backwards and forwards on Twitter's. So, let's get to that a little later on. But I want to put a pin in it, because it's definitely something I want to talk about. I love how you talked about making sense of things, because that's definitely something that you do in your work with Autogram. Ethan was on the show, and I asked him about the name and the origin of the name and he said that I needed to talk to you about the name because you're the one that actually I think came up with that name. So, could you tell us about Autogram? Why did you choose dot is for the domain name, and tell us a little bit about the word and how that came up.
JEFF: I’d just like to step back a bit. Probably about two years ago or so Karen McGrane and Ethan Marcotte and I started talking about some of the shared challenges that we'd been seeing with clients that we worked with, because we'd all worked in different parts of this general digital stuff in the web industry. And we kept finding certain kinds of problems that each of us was seeing from different angles with different clients. And it was just like an emerging, fuzzy, frustrating muddle that a lot of large clients that were really trying to do the right thing and push forward and build good systems we're still running into.
And a lot of what we wanted to work on with Autogram was helping them solve some of those specific problems that we were seeing in the intersection of design and organizational process and workflow and content architecture and IA and stuff like that. The kind of nerdy stuff that we rant about on Twitter all the time. But when we started talking about names, okay, if we were to put our shingle up and do this, what do we want to call ourselves? And Autogram was one of the names that we came up with just thinking about different kinds of interesting, linguistic, I guess novelties, and Autogram is, I think it was a term coined I think the 1980s by a mathematician. It’s basically a sentence that describes its own contents alphabetically, like this sentence contains five A's, two C's, 10 N’s and so on and so forth.
And it's tricky. It's almost creating a complicated Palindrome, but squared, because as you change the sentence to describe the sentence, it loops back on itself, and it's very difficult to create one without many iterations through of tweaking it and refining it and trying to arrange things so that correctly enumerating all of the letter cues doesn't in fact, ripple off and change something else. And that challenge of describing the thing that's changing, as you describe it, just felt very familiar to us, as we talked about the kinds of problems we were seeing with our clients.
Because with the kinds of things that we tackle at Autogram, and with large digital publishing and digital communications teams, it's rarely a technology problem in and of itself, like, Oh, there's the switch, you need to flip, or ah you just need program X or service Y. It's complicated issues with how different parts of an organization work together and understand each other and communicate both with themselves and the outside world.
And as you learn about that, and describe it, investigate it, you're changing it, too. And yeah, it's catchy. As best as we could tell, it wasn't offensive in any language, and that's all you can really hope for in a domain name these days; it's catchy, and not some sort of horrifying profanity in another language and dot is, the domain, was what we went for just on a whim, in part because, well, obviously, it's available. There didn't seem to be any profound ethical conundrums with Iceland's government at the moment, just a quick due diligence, but it also allowed us to do some fun tricks when building out the URLs for our website, because our bio pages are URLs like autogram.is/jeff, autogram.is/ethan, autogram.is/karen, and we've got new posts under a URL like autogram.is/reading and stuff like that. It's allowed us to do some fun little things like language of speakable URLs, which is pretty far down the nerdy rabbit trail. We follow each other on Twitter, that is nothing new.
IVAN: It’s nothing new. No. I love the complexity and the self-referential idea behind the name. And I know how hard it is to run a company and how complex client problems can be, and we work so hard to solve them. I want to try to take an even bigger picture of just our own little industry and our microcosm of people and clients and take a step back and think about the whole planet, all 8 billion of us. We are each one of those 8 billion, and to me that's both amazing and scary, and allows me to feel both connected and disconnected from people around me and from the people I work with. How does being one of 8 billion make you feel? What thoughts come to mind when you think about that one?
JEFF: Oh boy, one of 8 billion. I will say when we first started chatting that was one of the things that really struck me. I love the concept of the podcast, and just that frame is one that, it's valuable, and it's both instructive and encouraging, not just towards a kind of introspection that I think is really important and easy to lose in the scramble of work and day to day humaning.
I think, how do I see or understand myself in that 8 billion? Today, I would say it's comforting and reassuring in that burden of achieving significance or something like that, that I think it can really drive us or gnaw at us depending on how you experience it. That's always going to be fairly relative. In a world of 8 billion people the odds that I'm going to be the one who shifts things, or I'm going to be the one who changes humanity, is fairly slim.
And there's a comfort in that. I'm not screwing up if I have a an altered life for 4 billion of those people or something like that, but at the same time, thinking about it as 8 billion individual lone folks just interacting with each other and living life, I think there's a responsibility that goes along with that, because, at least now, like where I'm at today, it helps me to remember that the place and the meaning in that big giant pile of humanity is really about the tiny pool of people that I actually touch and connect with and interact with in my actual life. It's not about changing the world or leaving a giant footprint on history or something like that, it’s about making sure that those interactions with that tiny sliver of that 8 billion people that I know and I come in contact with, that those individual interactions are ones that make their little slice of human experience better. Does that make sense?
IVAN: I think so. And while you were talking, and while I was listening, I realized that there's actually more than 8 billion because there are all those people that came before us, and that will come after us. And we are a slice, as you said, not just of 8 billion, but a slice in time of those 8 billion.
JEFF: Yeah. And I realize, too, that take on it, the sort of tension between significance and scale and personal connection. I don't necessarily think that's a universal drive that that’s what everybody takes from it. You've mentioned that you've listened to somebody writing and ranting on let's say, more philosophical and spiritual topics and I think for me, at least, the shift away from feeling that it's my job to change the world has been a process. It's been a slow process of accepting that and coming to believe that it's not giving up, it's not failing to not constantly strive to alter the world. It doesn't mean giving up, it doesn't mean just accepting things that you don't think are okay, but yeah, maybe we'll dig into it a little bit more later. But that concept of a quest for grand significance, it's really easy for that to eat you alive.
IVAN: [laughing] I'm going to try not to let it eat me alive. Because I think I can identify with what you're saying. Let's go back a little bit in time, Jeff. I would love to find out where life started for you. Where were you born? Who was around at the time? When did that happen? What did the early little baby Jeff look like?
JEFF: So, the fun bit of trivia, I was born on August 16, 1977. which coincidentally is the date Elvis died.
IVAN: Supposedly. Supposedly.
JEFF: So, they say. But one of the funny anecdotes is that my mother, going to the hospital, my father and my mother had gone to the hospital and gone through the whole complicated labor and birth process and everything and my mother woke up the next morning to the sounds of nurses sobbing. And it was that they had just got news that Elvis had passed away and all the nurses were just shaken by it. And so that was definitely what heralded my birth, sobbing nurses throughout the hospital. I'm a solidly Midwestern guy.
I grew up in the Chicago area, the Chicago suburbs, bounced around in that general area for a number of years. And my family comes from Indiana, which is not too far away, but for a five, six year old kid, the long trek from the Chicago suburbs to visit relatives in Indiana feels like you're traveling across the world, getting in the back of a car and killing time and wondering, oh, when are we going to get there and stuff like that. That was an iconic experience around holidays or vacations for me. And I look back on that. That was maybe a two hour and 45 minute, maybe three and a half hour drive depending on traffic. I've waited for flights longer than that as an adult. So, it's funny to look back and think about that as remembering the sensation of it being such a sense of an epic journey. But that's about that scale thing again, it's about perspective.
IVAN: Yeah. Time is relatable.
JEFF: Yeah, so probably some of my earliest experiences were just noodling around in the suburban neighborhood and stuff like that when I was a very young kid. I think early on, I was very fortunate in that my parents definitely encouraged me to pursue various creative endeavors and stuff like that. So, I wanted to get a dog when I was a kid so I went door to door and collected aluminum cans in a little red wagon and collected newspapers and took them to the recycling center over two summers, saved up enough money to get a puppy.
I look back, and it's like some deeply iconic, idyllic American suburban life kinds of experiences. And I feel tremendously fortunate to have had that kind of stability and support. My parents weren't rich by any means, it was solidly middle class in the Midwest. My dad was an electrical engineer and had an opportunity to get an old TRS80 computer back in the very early 80s. So, I grew up, not necessarily being neck deep in technology, but with easy ready access to a lot of those things that I think really helped me make a transition into a career that relied on a lot of technology very early.
IVAN: Yeah. TRS80. That was a Tandy product, I think. Was it?
JEFF: Yeah, the Radio Shack, Trash 80. Very happy because he’d gotten the 4K memory upgrade.
IVAN: Oh, my gosh, yeah, that made a big deal, didn't it? [laughing]
JEFF: It did. When you think about it, if you're counting the number of kilobytes you have total to run software, that makes a big difference. My earliest technology memories, I was probably about six, which I was a nerd early, but there was a magazine that he had that had a game, something later, like Excite Bike on the Nintendo would probably be the closest version of it, you get a motorcycle and you're jumping on hills and over barrels.
But there was source code for a game like that in a magazine. These were the days of Byte magazine and Antic magazine for the Apple users where you would get a magazine and you could type all of the source code in from 16 pages of printed code, and execute it, and hope that you had not made typos or that there [laughing] wasn't a problem in what they had published. And then I learned to save things to and load things off of a cassette player to load software. And I look back and it was just I wanted to play games and I learned how to move pixels around on the screen with turtle graphics. But it was super nerdy for a six year old in the early eighties.
IVAN: Jeff, I think we are definitely of the same generation. I have the same memories of my first computer, a Sinclair 48K Spectrum and I remember typing that code out and copying it from the magazine as well. Such cherished memories for me. I know that for myself, it influenced the way I see the world from an open source perspective. I always saw that code early on. And that was just the way it was. Do you think there was any influence there for you? You worked for open source companies.
JEFF: Oh, yeah. I'm a big believer in open source. You would be shocked to discover that I've got some rants on the topic in general. I'll hold those off. But I think probably the biggest influence for me in terms of conceptualizing how we relate to software is probably influenced by those early opportunities to type in stuff and see the computer do things. HyperCard was actually probably the biggest influence for me, because I think probably when I was like 10 or 11 my dad was able to get a loaner like old a Fat Mac, if for the Apple nerds in the house, it’s like a Mac 128 or maybe 512 that had been upgraded with extra memory to be equivalent to a Mac Plus.
IVAN: Oh, I have not heard of a Fat Mac before.
JEFF: Yeah, it existed for a very narrow window of time, but I had a chance to tinker around with Macintosh and then over one extended formative summer we were loaned an actual Mac Plus and I did all kinds of stuff tinkering with that over the course of the summer and ended up writing a lot of weird little HyperCard scripts and stacks and learned how to do a lot of stuff with that. It was really my first experience programming in a way that you would call programming, not just typing in code from a magazine and writing little comments that would print out on the screen, but actually thinking about a problem I wanted to solve and deconstructing it into what I would need to do in order to solve that problem and learning how to make the computer do each one of those things.
HyperCard was where I did that. And for folks who aren’t familiar with it, it was basically a free piece of software that was created around I think 1987. So fairly early in Macintosh's life by an amazing genius named Bill Atkinson. I've been a big fan of his for years. He basically conceived it as cards that were linked together like almost a stack of index cards, but you could put anything you wanted to on those cards, fields of text or buttons.
And then you could make links on the buttons to go from card to card and make them do things. And you could write increasingly more and more complicated little HyperCard scripts that were attached to those buttons or pieces of text or things on those cards. Cards themselves could have scripts, and slowly but surely, you could assemble some fairly sophisticated software, like the game Myst was written in HyperCard.
IVAN: Was it really?
JEFF: It was. It was one of the very early big name HyperCard, public pieces of software. And it was used as some special hacks to allow it to display color graphics instead of black and white graphics. But under the hood, it was just lots of these cards that were chained together with complex internal logic to govern what your state in the world of Myst was and what you had clicked on and where you were going. And so, it was designed with the idea of a stack of index cards that could do complicated things.
But it was almost web like in the complexity that you could achieve by combining those things in different ways. I don't know how accurate it is, but I know a lot of people have said that it was a significant influence on Tim Berners-Lee, when he was first working on the web as a concept. Long ago history, but I've always thought it was a shame that Apple didn't really run with HyperCard once the modern era of Apple began because it feels like it would have been a very interesting compliment from the way that technology and digital publishing went under with the web's influence. But one of the keys was a piece of software he wrote in HyperCard. Anyone who could run it could also open it up and decompose it and look at what all the scripts were.
What are the objects that are sitting around in there? What are buttons? What are icons? What are just a picture that someone painted and put on the background and does it have any logic associated with it? How do the scripts interact with each other? You could go through and learn about that stuff and copy and paste other people's code and it was very web-like in that sense too, that the mechanics of what was going on under the surface to make it do what it did, were discoverable. It wasn't open source in the legal sense, we would say today, but also predated things like the GPL and stuff like that, it was before that time.
But the idea that you could go in and learn from it, and that it was all there to examine and manipulate and customize was a real shaping factor in how I thought about software and how I thought about approaching it. It was a fairly simple programming language so it was a sort of rude awakening when I tried to dive into more complex stuff. But it definitely shaped the way I conceived of software in the world of how we solve problems and how we do stuff.
IVAN: That summer when you had that Mac, and you were tinkering, did you see yourself in computers when you grew up? Or did you think you were going to be doing something else?
JEFF: On the contrary. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write, I wanted to be a journalist. When I was 10, I actually started publishing a Zine and I ended up doing it for I think about six years or so, which is a long run for a solo Zine effort.
IVAN: You were an Indie publisher, right? That’s what you were.
JEFF: I suppose so, yeah. And it's funny because I stopped that. I think I finally ended up, I let that go around ‘91 or ‘92, which when I think about it is just shy of when the web started taking off and a lot of that same energy reappeared but in a very different way, in the form of random, weird webzines, and stuff like that. Yeah, that was really what I saw my future as. I wanted to go into magazine publishing or journalism of some kind. That was what I cared about.
And when you're 12, maybe 13 or so your conceptions of what the future is going to look like and what you're going to be doing are always hazy. Actually using technology and software, and having that as a primary focus really wasn't something I anticipated. But that programming experience and background that I got of just tinkering around with that stuff, and using it to make things that were interesting or to solve problems that I had, or to just mess around because it was an interesting little puzzle to unpack, that ended up helping when I eventually got a job at a local marketing and design company. I ended up being the guy who sat next to the web server where we had home pages for clients in the days when you charged someone to make a homepage.
So, I ended up saying, Oh, I guess I'll read up on how Windows NT works and so on. And a lot of my experience in that world was picking it up as I went and discovering what the next step was to do something more interesting or to stretch and do the next useful thing. Again, I feel tremendously fortunate because the timing of when I was at that spot was really fortunate timing, because nobody really knew what the big picture was, it was all just emerging. So, discovering it piecemeal that way, even though I had no technology or computer science or mathematics background or whatever, I had no credentials to my name, I was able to just work my way into a position where five years later, I looked up and I said, Oh, wow, I guess this is my job doing this stuff like writing, database backends, for complicated websites that we started making, once homepages weren't enough and stuff like that.
I don't think that I'm a fantastic programmer, but I enjoy the work of figuring out how things work, and how they can be used to solve interesting problems and that has served me really well as I grew and did more in different kinds of work in the software and technology industry.
IVAN: Your earlier statement about making sense of things certainly feels like there's a threat of that going through very early years and your first job as well.
JEFF: Yeah, that sense making again, in part because. I'll back up a touch. When I started that zine that I mentioned at age 10 that was also the first year that I was homeschooled. My parents due to concerns about the school district that I was in, in one particular year, nothing dramatic, just the usual parents wondering what the right choice would be due to some combination of those kinds of concerns and also what I can now look back at and see was 100% undiagnosed ADHD. T
hey started homeschooling me in 1987 when I was 10. And that ended up going through the end of high school. So, I was homeschooled basically from fifth grade to the end of high school. And after that, rather than going to college, I just got a summer job at the marketing company that I had mentioned, because I'd been doing Zine for a while so I knew desktop publishing software and design software, and I was a passable copywriter at that point. I don't think I'm stretching things too far by saying that I was a passable copywriter from having done so much of that Zine writing and production stuff for the Zine. And my plan was to use that summer to do some of this work and eventually get a degree in “new media”, which was really what I wanted to go into.
But I just looked up after a couple of years and realized Whoa, hey, time has passed, and I guess I'm doing this web thing now. Again, that was a very fortunate moment to stumble into that kind of a thing because it was just before the dot com crash but there was still this understanding that there was something interesting going on here but there were no courses you could take. There was no majoring in anything that was directly about that. So, you could just blunder and improvise your way into being a professional. And, I’m still humbled and staggered by the fortunate timing of that and how I ended up changing my life.
IVAN: Timing is everything, I think is what I've learned over the last 20 to 40 years. I spent a great deal of time at Lullabot as well. Can you talk about how that originated? What's the origin story that landed you at Lullabot?
JEFF: I’d been working in various software development and web jobs for quite a while since that initial marketing agency job for probably about a decade, maybe a decade and a half or so, I worked my way through various kinds of work, digital publishing. I did a stint in grocery industry supply chain management software. Somebody’s got to make sure Fritos make their way around the country.
IVAN: Fritos are important. Of course.
JEFF: Yeah. So, I worked on different kinds of software development work, and was even a webmaster/kind of software developer for a megachurch in the Chicago area for a while working on one of their websites. I worked my way through a couple of those jobs. But on the side, there were also different projects that I was always kicking around and starting. And one of them was weird, like a cyberpunk webcomic that a friend and I were working on that probably started around ‘97 to 2000 or so.
We kicked around a lot of ideas on what we wanted to do with this. But I wanted to build out this thematic encyclopedia to store all the lore we'd been accumulating for it and also to publish the actual webcomic itself, and I looked around at a bunch of different pieces of software that could do that, the era that it was at zukes, and Django definitely wasn't out yet, but I did end up coming across a piece of software called civic space, which was an outgrowth of the Howard Dean campaign and the software they used to do Dean campaign websites. And I dug closer and found out it was this open source program called Drupal. I didn't know PHP, I was a C sharp guy at the time, but I knew SQ, and we used lots of SQL database stuff involved in this.
And I just dove in and started tinkering with it and logged on to IRC and got in touch with the community, primarily just because I wanted to build out something to store all this information. And what I wanted to do, years earlier I built out a complex database schema to store all the stuff that I had. I wanted to be able to take any kind of information like an event or a person or a place or piece of ephemera from the fictional world that we were creating an article from a fictional magazine that took place in 2032, or something like that. A
nd I wanted to be able to feed it into all of this. And I wanted them to each have their own special kinds of data, like a magazine would have a publishing date, and maybe a byline from a fictional writer or something like that. But an event would have different information associated with it. But I also wanted to be able to treat them as just the same kind of thing in other ways. I wanted to be able to treat them as just like articles, if I wanted to look at the whole pile of information in a different way.
I’d built out a big database schema to do that and then I realized I did not want to write an entire CMS from scratch that did all that stuff. It was one thing to sketch out how the data was going to look but actually all the legwork of writing CMS was a nightmare.
And I found Drupal and just by pure luck and happenstance, the content architecture of Drupal had that approach. It had what they called the node system where every piece of content was a node, and there were different types of nodes that could have different data, but you could still look at them as nodes if you wanted to slice and dice things in different ways. And at the time, a lot of the tools that were easily accessible and available to hack on really siloed things, by type of content, have a plugin for your website that would add products or you could have a plugin that would add forum posts, but products and forum posts never met, they were just two separate universes, essentially. And Drupal’s approach to that sort of cut down the wall that divided those kinds of content and it really clicked with the way that I was thinking about that big sort of swimmy Encyclopedia of knowledge for this fictional world that I was creating. Now ironically, I never ended up publishing that.
My friend and I produced maybe an issue and a half of content for the webcomic but I ended up going deep into the Drupal community and spent probably the next 15 to 16 years working in digital publishing content management, so large scale content management software, and open source and it was probably maybe a year or two after I really got heavily into the Drupal community, that a couple of other very smart folks who were doing independent work, Jeff Robbins and Matt Westgate started a company called Lullabot to do consulting and education and training because Drupal was starting to take off at the time. And there was a lot of interest and people doing interesting things, but there wasn't necessarily a lot of good learning resources.
It wasn't easy to get access to expertise about Drupal unless you two were willing to wade into the software developer world and hang out in IRC and debug SQL calls. For companies that were starting to try to figure out how to use it effectively there were very few resources at the time for that. And that was like Lullabot’s sweet spot when I joined. They wanted to educate and also provide expertise and advice for larger organizations that were trying to make sense of this wild and wooly, open source CMS.
IVAN: And you spent a great career there.
JEFF: About 15 years.
IVAN: Gosh. That's a long time. That's a really long time, especially in this industry. It speaks volumes for what Jeff and Matt built at Lullabot.
JEFF: I can't say enough about the entire team at Lullabot. I think it's 60 plus people now. I think it was maybe seven or eight when I joined and it consistently worked to grow slowly and sustainably and yeah, very carefully, and over time have changed what the focus was, what kind of work they were doing, as needs became apparent for a long time, Lullabot didn't do development of websites.
It was training and advisory consulting. But increasingly, it became clear that it was very hard to do that without being able to be confident that there was a team that you could say, Okay, now here's five people who know how to run with that advice. And so, Lullabot started building the team to be able to do those kinds of things. And that's actually what it does now. Lullabot builds and implements giant sites and things like the addition of Jared Ponchot as head of design at Lullabot. That was another one of those landmarks. It’s a wonderful team.
While I was there, that was when I started sinking my teeth into content strategy, because for one, I can now look back and say it's such a big part of any kind of digital publishing work and a lot of the stuff that seems to go wrong on projects that we were trying to figure out and trying to solve that wasn’t technology, it was just some sort of planning problem that hadn't been accounted for. It’s content strategy, where does the content fit into and who’s producing it? How is this stuff planned? A lot of the stuff that I was drawn to trying to figure out in order to make these projects make sense, I discovered was content strategy and information architecture questions.
IVAN: Yeah. And I'm reminded of this almost on a daily basis that, really, we're not building websites or supporting websites or pushing code, and we're not really dealing with technology. Everything we do every day is people. It's people that use the site. It's people that want the site to be built. It's humans that we interact with at the end of the day, that’s who you're servicing, the humans on the other end of the screen. And it can be so easy to get waylaid by the technology and by the code.
JEFF: It’s a very easy rabbit hole to dive down. There’s always an endless amount of interesting complexity and new vistas in the world like pure technology that you can mess around with. And people are the messy frustrating part that always throws curveballs at you, and you can't pause a person and open up the debugger to figure out what's going on. You just have to work through it in real time as part of the mess.
IVAN: I never thought of opening a debugger up for someone. That would be pretty amazing.
JEFF: I think it’s like getting therapy.
IVAN: Okay. Yeah, okay, I could buy that.
JEFF: It’s Wednesday, got to go see my debugger.
IVAN: [laughing] To change the mood a little, what has been your greatest struggle in life do you think?
JEFF: Boy, I’ll say two. One, the challenge of what and how to dedicate my energy to accomplish some meaningful things. It can be a struggle for I think everybody to a certain extent probably. About two to three years ago, I was diagnosed with adult ADHD. I had always joked about ADHD, but I was very set in the traditional assumption that ADHD looks like a hyperactive kid running around in circles when he should be studying for class. And only very recently, when doing some reading, did I start realizing, oh, no, actually, that's a neurological thing.
There's this thing called executive function, that is literally your brain taking an idea like, oh, man, I should really do my taxes, and turning it into you standing up and going over and getting papers and a pencil and starting work on that. The executive function is what actually does the work of making those tasks happen in your brain and ADHD is a disorder, that basically means you don't have a working executive function.
So, the running joke is that if you meet anybody who's survived to adulthood without their life falling apart and has ADHD, you've met someone who's figured out how to weaponize anxiety as a substitute for executive function. Because that sort of impending deadline panic that we all face sometimes it can kick the brain into a rough equivalent of executive function. I'm not a doctor or a neurologist, so I probably goofed that up a bit.
But the idea is you can use anxiety to kick start and fuel, a kind of focus and drive that can help you power through difficult stuff. But there's a real limit to that. And a lot of people either end up developing fairly sophisticated workarounds, or systems in their life to keep things on the rails so that when they're not in the middle of an anxiety fueled deadline push, everything doesn't fall apart. But a lot of energy can go into that. And ADHD can be very difficult.
Again, I feel fortunate because the world of technology is full of people with ADHD and it's very friendly to them because the idea of either being attracted to shiny things or being hyper focused on a task and blind to the outside world fits very well with the stereotype of a smart coder or a programmer, developer type person. You don't stand out too badly. But trying to figure out how those things have impacted my personal relationships like with my wife, and my friends, and other loved ones, and how to improve the way that I treat them, and the impact the way I live my life has on them that's been difficult. Being diagnosed with ADHD and going on medication for that and learning where to put a lot of my energies, that has been a significant challenge where the payoff for it has been massive.
I'd say that's probably one big thing. I didn't know it was a struggle until a couple of years ago and starting to get treatment for it opened my eyes to Holy cow, other people's brains just do these things naturally. That's amazing. But the other thing I would probably say is a struggle, maybe a long term project, unpacking my own relationship with fundamentalist Christianity, and I'll say like authoritarian ideologies in general, and figuring out how to be a good person in a way that is meaningful to me, and basically bears positive fruit in my life in a way that I believe is healthy and sustainable and good, I guess.
A challenge when you start wrestling with questions about faith and spirituality and religion is that even words like good are tremendously overloaded. What it even means to say that something is good, grappling with some of those questions is significant. It's interesting for me because I spent probably my teen years a huge swath of the population wrestling with what my relationship to this faith that I had been raised in was going to be. I I like to think that I was pretty on fire. I was gung ho. I wanted to go out and change the world and spread the good news. And I also wanted to be right, I wanted to be correct about things, which is always an important quality in both people who are drawn to authoritarian movements, or internet arguments.
But I faced increasing challenges with that, as I got deeper into apologetics and theology, because if this was the right thing, if this was the only way that people should live, and the only way to be truly good than everybody else needed to get on board, and I needed to be able to convince them. And that was I needed to learn apologetics and theology and rhetoric and debate skills and all of this stuff. You can imagine how incredibly insufferable and annoying I was as a 17 year old. It’s mind boggling that I wasn't just curb stomped by our next door neighbor at some point just for being incredibly insufferable. But increasingly, I like to say that I hit the wall eventually. And I think that's very common in fundamentalism, for very idealistic people who are driven to earnestly really do what they ought to do and do the right thing inside of the framework that they've been given fundamentalism in a lot of totalizing ideologies don't allow a lot of flexibility.
They don't allow a lot of room for people to find what their path through something is. And without that ability to flex, breaking is usually the only other option when there are difficult questions that are faced. And I think that's very common, like in fundamentalism and evangelical Christianity, in particular, that flavor of it. I think that's a common thread with a lot of people who grew up there and left at least could be selection bias. My experience is usually that there's more of that than people who just drifted away because they didn't care. And that's my story. I was tremendously passionate about it, but I couldn't figure out how to resolve a lot of the fundamental inconsistencies that I was encountering as I grappled with deeper questions and arguments about what was good. What's the source of goodness, so to speak? Why should we pursue one direction versus the other?
It was like the opposite of some sort of wild teenage rebellion phase because it wasn't like I went off and pursued drugs, sex and rock and roll. It was more that I just got depressed and read Kierkegaard for a while. But I think I came out on the other side of that. It took years. But I, what I think the, and this circles around back to your question of what the struggle was, I think the struggle was figuring out what my values were, in the sense of what I value in the world. What I feel is worth pursuing and protecting. How to articulate those, and how to arrive at them if there wasn't some external authority, dictating what they ought to be. I didn’t realize that was such a significant drive for me until I was stripped of that external framework for it and had to stumble and puzzle through it myself. And I think it's an important exercise. I think all of us have values in the sense of things that we value and prize.
I think one of the most dangerous things about the kind of fundamentalist authoritarianism that I came out of, is that it too has values and ideologies and perspectives, but it launders them through a story about a literal take on the Bible. If we don't have perspective, we're just taking this thing at face value, and everyone else is bringing a perspective that they have to prove. And, we're just the unvarnished version. Like sociology and philosophy wise, it's a primitivist strain, which isn't to say that it is primitive but that it's animated by this desire to return to something pure and simpler before it got complicated. But it launders what is a very specific set of values and set of perspectives as being the original pure thing, rather than what it's bringing to the table. And not to go too deep into the theology and the politics of it, but that tendency to launder our perspectives, as just the facts on the ground or something like that, is very easy to slide into.
You can see the same tendency sometimes when people say, just check the science. And this is just what science says, when the actual truth is a lot more complicated. And what they are really saying is, this is what I've concluded, from what I see in the facts. But I'm not comfortable enough with that. I need science to be on my side, not just something that I'm engaging with. I'm not euphemistically referring to any particular specific controversy right now, or something like that. I am just reflecting on the fact that tendency isn't exclusive to spiritual belief.
But like the world I grew up in evangelical fundamentalism, it's almost a defining characteristic, and wrestling with that and trying to acknowledge perspective and to iron out what my values are, what is important to me, I have to do that. But also, I can do it without universalizing it. I don't have to convince everyone else that my values have to be their values. There may be some things that I think are necessary for everyone to value or are important for everyone to value but that's a different kind of question than what I value. Sorry, that went far afield.
IVAN: No. I quite appreciate the thesis. I can identify with the process of being somewhere and leaving said things and finding one's own values and discovering that what you've been brought up to believe has been essentially passed down by generations and maybe not exactly true.
JEFF: It may not be the bedrock of reality, but in fact, actually just another layer that's been accumulated.
IVAN: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. I really appreciate you sharing that with us. And I would love to know, on the opposite end, what gives you joy these days? Are you reading anything that brings you joy? Are you doing things that make you smile?
JEFF: I would say I'm really enjoying reading more about different fields that do this sensemaking thing. In particular, linguistics, and physical architecture of books, stuff like that. And even things like a museum exhibit design, the attempt to translate the concept of a particular museum collection into space and image. How do you communicate those things? And that's linguistics. I like to joke that if you scratch most structured content problems under the surface, what you've got is a linguistics problem. I really enjoy those things. I wouldn't say they're about work, but they give a lot of useful perspective.
IVAN: I really appreciate the time. Go ahead.
JEFF: Oh, I was just going to say recreationally speaking, my wife and I, there's a lot of films and books that we read and chat about. She’s a big fan of K Dramas and C Dramas, Chinese and Korean series. So, my horizons have been expanded over the last couple of years and that’s been a lot of fun. I enjoy some 3D printing and designs, tinkering around making brackets and tiny little shipping containers to 3D print and learning how to solder and make simple circuits when something breaks. For me, it’s interesting and enjoyable from a creative perspective but it's also a shift from the very high concept abstract, intangible world that a lot of my work lives in. Figuring out how to make a tiny little brass nozzle that's clogged with plastic, how to clear that out so that the 3D printer can keep printing, is a very different kind of problem and it's a really nice change of pace.
IVAN: And you're still making sense of things.
JEFF: Guilty as charged. [laughing]
IVAN: [laughing] Jeff, thank you so much for your time. It's really precious to me. I'm so grateful that you spent the time answering my questions and thinking about the larger picture in life. It's just awesome to be one of 8 billion with you, and thanks for joining us.
JEFF: Likewise, thank you so much for the opportunity. It's been a real pleasure.
IVAN: I hope you’ll join us in the next episode of ONE OF 8 BILLION… when we hear from Tolu Adeleye, co-founder of AJ Tennis Academy, which is working to use tennis to inspire kids around the world and help them achieve their potential.
TOLU ADELEYE: What makes me smile?
It's a connection with humans every day, I'm able to travel here and there. And those moments when I'm able to connect with another human, who speaks a very different language from me. Who has a different experience from me.
To borrow your words, a different story from me. But somehow we're able to find that connection.
Whether it's over tennis on the tennis court, whether it's over travel, or whether it's over food. That's a reason to smile.
This has been ONE OF 8 BILLION, a podcast about all of us... online at 1of8b.com. Join us again next time as we listen to one of eight billion other stories!
This is episode 132 of ONE OF 8 BILLION. It was recorded on January 11, 2022, and first published on April 27, 2022. Audio length is 53 minutes. Transcription by Roxanne Chumacas. Summary, highlights and editing by Brian Lucas. Music by Lexfunk. Produced by Jonathan Freed.