The four Rs

Or the only childhood lesson I keep coming back to.

Hello and welcome to Late, a newsletter about ideas, trends, and events I haven’t stopped thinking about.

This week’s letter is a bit different than most, so let’s get right to it.

This past week was challenging. The weeks ahead will likely prove to be the same. 

What Tuesday’s election result and Wednesday’s insurrection and Friday’s social media bans mean for the future of politics, and regulation, and censorship in this country is beyond the scope of this newsletter. 

But as happens when stressful and shocking events occur, this week I found myself turning inwards and backwards. 

It’s like why investors say you’ve got to know what you really think about whatever you’re investing in before something bad happens. Because when something does, there’s got to be a baseline — a first principle, as it were — to fall back on. This is why coaches talk about fundamentals: when pressure situations come up, you’re going to default to what you’ve practiced most. 

My parents are generic Boomers and, I think, pretty generic parents. These are high compliments. Dad gets up early and is prone to be involved in some sort of not-that-essential-to-get-to yard project by 8:00 on a Saturday morning. Mom is often on about how today might be a good day to clean out a closet. Neither, fortunately, are big Facebook people. 

There is “Live, Laugh, Love” paraphernalia in my parents’ house and a brand new kitchen… that is almost 20 years old. My parents were not particularly strict parents and leaned on the old “we’re not mad, just disappointed” line. It tended to work. The rules in the house were, generally, be nice to other people and stick up for your brothers. There was only one maxim that got repeated with any kind of consistency: my mother’s “four Rs” — Respect, Responsibility, Resiliency, Reputation

Like anything that will be memorable to a child, this guiding principle for being nice to your teachers and classmates, polite to your friends’ parents, and a good kid to have on the travel baseball team has the right mix of obvious and probing. 

A child understands responsibility the moment homework is assigned. Resiliency is a surprisingly simple concept to understand for a kid — don’t give up when things don’t work the first time. Respect is a perfect two-way street. If you are nice to other people they will probably be nice to you. The exceptions are where a child starts to see how and why the world won’t necessarily be a hospitable place. 

But reputation is always the “R” my mother was most focused on. 

Reputation is sticky. Reputation festers. Reputation is like a plaster mold, mostly set the first time, still somewhat pliable for a very brief interval, and then only altered by power tools. Reputation reminds me of the first thing I ever learned about strategy for long distance races: you can’t win a race in the first 100 meters but you can lose it. 

I recently talked with someone professionally who had a personal connection to my hometown. We connected some dots, and later they followed up in an email saying they’d heard the Udland brothers were “nice guys and runners.”

Perhaps with less tact that should’ve been applied, I responded that I’d be putting this on my tombstone. An odd response to someone I don’t really know, sure, but also absolutely true. If I am remembered as a “nice guy and a runner” then my reputation has come through life as well as any parent could ever hope for their child. 

I never got a reply to that email.

And so but reputation seems to have the most to say about the situation we collectively find ourselves in. 

This is about as clear an image as you’ll ever see illustrating what someone’s reputation — in this case, the president’s and all those who have supported and enabled his behavior — has become. 

Four years ago it was all overly-reverant American pageantry. “Mr. President” and so on. Now it’s all tear gas and idolatry. The imagery is lost on few.

And of all the dominoes that have fallen following this week’s events, the one I find least satisfying, least sincere, least reputable, is the slow leak of stories about Trump officials that either have or are considering resigning their positions as result of Wednesday’s events. As if it were only the encouragement of armed citizens to intimidate lawmakers in the Capitol building to reject the results of a free and fair election that were a bridge too far. And as if renouncing your god at the last minute means you’re not still part of the faithful.

The lesson these ass-covering resignations teach us regular citizens, of course, is that nothing you do really matters. You can always wipe your hands of the past, pretend you weren’t an integral part of a political movement that actively worked to foment dissent and encourage violence when the system did not yield your preferred result, and just update your LinkedIn to self-style yourself a “driven, goals-oriented collaborator looking for my next adventure.”

Eugene Wei tweeted Thursday that, “‘History will not look kindly on X’ doesn’t seem to discourage much bad behavior. Maybe that’s rational in that bad actors are betting on lower rates of historical consensus in the future.” 

And perhaps a future consensus discount is being applied to current actions. But Eugene’s assessment also highlights how little so many think about the concept of reputation. The version I grew up learning required continual maintenance and consistent practice, lest you come to find in a moment of need that your standing has been degraded to “there’s nothing I can do for you” status.

And I disagree with Eugene’s view only in that it ascribes a thought process to those driven purely by want and desire. Because contra our prior description of reputation, it’s clear that many people do not think a reputation is either sticky or immutable, but is a temporary state of affairs shifting on how much engagement one garners in person or online from their desired feedback loop. When it comes to how those with or near power think about reputation, in other words, it’s clear they don’t think about it at all.

Perhaps this is not a surprise. After all, our most influential social platform, the platform that inspired and empowered those who found themselves in the Capitol on Wednesday, was started as a site to rank female students at Harvard. From the dawn of the Facebook era, reputation has seen its half-life fall off a cliff.

But there are some signs reputation might still matter, that the principle may be rejuvenated in the next cycle. Over the last few days, I’ve tried to bookmark tweets that outline the crisis of reputation all those associated with Trump or complicit in empowering this administration and the tools it has exploited are purportedly facing or will face. 

We could continue with examples like these. 

The fear, of course, is that none of these reputational assaults promised or desired will amount to anything. 

Those who crafted the social media policies now wreaking havoc on our collective truths will get bigger and better jobs, start new companies meant to exploit new behavioral shifts fostered by new prompts in new mediums at new speeds. 

Trump press shop lackeys will probably get the statements they craft at a Fortune 500 company quoted in the business media uncritically. 

The National Association of Manufacturers doesn’t really care about anything except lower taxes; they’ve already shown their hand, the reputation is cemented. 

And, yes, I know most subscribers signed up for this newsletter for takes about the stock market or crypto or tech or whatever. I am guessing this letter will have a high unsubscribe rate because no one needs or wants to hear more about this week’s events and certainly not from me. My reputation, after all, has not been built on political punditry. 

I’m also sure my childhood lessons can and will be criticized as a kind of bullshit exceptionalism framework taught to three white children who couldn’t just be told things would work out because the system favored them. And I would not try to argue against this critique. It is correct, after all.  

But the Rs are what I know, and when I’ve failed and succeeded at critical moments it has been along one of these lines. A bad column failed my responsibility to readers, a promotion might’ve been built on a reputation, a second chance earned by having garnered someone’s respect.

Cross currents have been relentless over the last several years. I don’t expect the weeks and months and years ahead to feel all that different. High levels of inequality tend to engender such dynamics. I was reluctant to celebrate the beginning of 2021 for this very reason. 

And there is, of course, an “R” for this.

Perhaps you, too, will find these of some use.

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