(Something to think about before you read this: Watch a few moments of the above video and get a sense of who these three people are. We will come back to that at the end of this post.)
Instagram is currently targeting your humble author with advertisements for something called Wonderdads. It tells me that “91% of Dad-Kid bonding happens between the ages of 0-12.” What a bizarrely specific way to state such a shapeless fact! Yet it’s not specific enough to guide any further action. My son has just rounded the corner towards his twelfth birthday. So we have six months left. What percentage of Dad-Kid Bonding(tm) is still available to us? Five percent? Fifty? Ninety point nine? I’m not going to piss away real money on Wonderdads if we’re looking at a minor uptick in bonding here. If you could give me twenty percent more bonding, I’d think about the product, which apparently is a pre-written routine for “dad-kid traditions” and whatnot. Every day you wake up and the Wonderdads app will tell you how to be a more wonderful dad. Thus the name of the app. I’m not against it. But I need a better sense of the cost/benefit ratio here.
How much bonding my son and I have done is debatable. Possibly none, since I don’t yet have the app.
That being said, the choices his mother and I made in the past few years are now coming into sharper relief as he passes the five-foot-tall mark. In 2015 I got John his first 50cc kart. Just short of four years ago, he and I started riding bikes together on a constant basis. Almost three years ago, we started playing music on various instruments. At the same time, his mother was offering him kind of a serial look at various potential hobbies. They tried flag football, at which he was very good. They tried fencing, and he won a tournament after just a few months. There was a 90-day stint of tae kwon do, as well.
I don’t know why none of Mom’s ideas stuck while all of mine did, but I think it has something to do with my ex-wife’s admirable sense of balance, restraint, and normalcy. She didn’t force him to keep working on things, she didn’t undergo tremendous inconvenience or hassle or expense when it was necessary to continue with those activities. That mindset is not necessarily compatible with young boys. You have to be unstinting about the money you put in — but the time is even more important. In the long run, my persistence and stubbornness appear to have paid off, because my ideas of his preferred hobbies “took” and hers didn’t. This was solely because I didn’t lay off or give up. I’m not interested in balance, restraint, or normalcy.
So in this, my son’s twelfth year, his mom has waved a sort of white flag and she now mostly has him do the stuff he does with me — slightly differently, and more sensibly, of course. He has a single $900 mountain bike at her house instead of the six-bike stable totaling the purchase price of a new Honda Civic we have here. He’s allowed to have one bass guitar at her place, so he has a fretted four-string; at Casa Baruth there’s a five-string, a custom short-scale with active EQ, and a fretless short-scale Jaco replica, plus a few other musical toys.
Having given up the viola after high school, my son’s mother doesn’t have any way to play music with him. To her considerable credit, she recently addressed this by signing him up for “Rock School”, in which he will learn then perform four tunes with a band made up of other children. Due to an accident of scheduling I was the one to take him for the first session. I promptly went home afterwards, picked up all four tunes myself, and prepared to play them with John when it was time for him to learn them.
Which leads, finally, to today’s dilemma. Whenever John and I do anything — work on a bike jump, build a bike jump, play a tune, clean a car — we are task-oriented. His mom, on the other hand, is time-oriented. I’ll suggest to my son that we sit down and learn a song. It might take us twenty minutes to get it right-ish, at which point we will quit. Or it might take ninety minutes. Every once in a while he will hear a song and be able to play it back almost immediately, at which point we high-five, unplug the amps, and go back to playing Counter-Strike.
His mom, on the other hand, thinks in terms of time spent to learn. So she will suggest that he spend half an hour, or an hour, on his Rock School stuff. This is immensely frustrating for my son, because he doesn’t ever see the need of practicing based on time. Every musician, of course, knows that time-based practice is part of the game. You sit down and play scales for an hour. You don’t play scales until you get them “right”, because that’s not something you can easily define. Instead, you just improve as much as you can in the time you have.
If I wanted John to be a world-class musician, I’d force him to practice based on time. I don’t want that. My goal is him to be task-and-accomplishment focused. I never want him to say “I have to put in ten hours at the office/restaurant/shop/skatepark/bandstand today.” My experience is that highly successful people don’t think like that, and they don’t create (or, where possible, accept) those kinds of situations for themselves. Most successful people think in terms of tasks and goals. Time is irrelevant. I’ve written dozens and dozens of 3,000-word feature stories in the past decade. Sometimes it takes me a week or more to get one together. Other times I’ve sat down and written the whole thing in ninety minutes then submitted it without so much as a look-over. Never has there been a correlation between the time I spent and how much I got paid. The same is true for every commercial program I’ve ever written, and for every technical architecture I’ve ever created. Results are not a factor of time.
In Winning Through Intimidation, Robert Ringer talks about his Uncle George Theory. (It’s on page 13 of the linked PDF). This theory states that there is almost never any direct correlation between how “hard” you work and how much you earn. I can confirm this from my own experience. I’ve worked construction-site cleanup at five dollars an hour; I’ve also done deals for five-figure personal profit in three-minute phone calls. The former is hard work. The latter is real money.
Similarly, Mike Gancarz notes in The Unix Philosophy that the best sysadmins are lazy: they will take the shortest and more efficient route to a given outcome. That’s not the same as being sloppy or neglectful; those qualities doesn’t get you the right outcome. A first-rate sysadmin will look at a task and say, “Instead of doing this by rote, can I think a little harder and automate it?” A very long time ago, I took a gig doing some basic data analysis for an online contest. The client used Excel spreadsheets and they wanted some operations performed on them. It was about a three-hour job and didn’t pay much. Yet I had an inkling of future possibilities so I wrote a bunch of Perl routines to automate the import and manipulation of these spreadsheets. It took me the better part of a day to learn the modules involved, to test my scripts, and then to confirm that they worked by doing the original hand work myself to compare the results. I made something like $250 for that; basically fast-food money since I’d stayed up overnight to dpo the work and test the first results. The next time I also got $250, but it took me a total of five minutes to run my routines.
Yes, I was smart enough to wait a day before sending the results back.
Looking back at the total amount of money I earned on those spreadsheet deals, the work I did building those initial routines was probably compensated at well over a thousand bucks an hour. More importantly than that, it confirmed for 27-year-old me that there was no actual link between time and money, unless you work on an assembly line somewhere. There’s a negative correlation to that lesson, of course. If you’re paid on goals/results rather than time, you’re not guaranteed to get a penny out of it. The assembly-line worker walks away at the end of the night knowing he’s earned money; the self-employed coder or writer cannot say the same. Higher risk, higher reward.
Here’s the toughest part. This week I’ll sit down with my son and ask him to play through his four songs. He’s been doing his time-based practicing for about ten days now. Chances are that we’ll have one of two scenarios. In Scenario Zero, he doesn’t have the songs correct, at which point I will have no trouble forcing him to drill through them with me until they are correct. I will have some trouble with Scenario One, in which he’s perfect on them from the jump. Will I have the courage of my convictions then? Will I be able to immediately unplug the amps and tell him he’s free to go? The problem with the time-for-labor mentality is that once you’ve learned it, really learned it through years spent in fast-food restaurants and in call centers, you can never really shake it. I continue to struggle with guilt when I make real money doing something that isn’t difficult for me. I don’t want my son to have that unprofitable attitude.
My long-departed grandmother on my mother’s side once walked into a room where I was struggling to build a working two-speed transmission using parts from the LEGO 853 Expert Builder set. I was no more than seven years old. She watched me for about five minutes, then suggested in her flawless Main Line Philly enunciation that “Oh well, the world needs ditch-diggers, too.” An hour or so later I got the thing to work, at which point she asked me if it took other children that long.
“The box,” I replied, “says it’s for kids twelve and over.”
“It doesn’t matter what the box says,” she snapped, and she was right. The world works on what we call deliverables nowadays. No credit is given for trying hard. Not for people like me and my son, anyway. Which means that I have just one deliverable left before I die, and it is: accurately convey this truth to him. Doesn’t matter if we do it the hard way, via philosophy and instruction, or through the instant lesson of unplugging an amplifier when a song is right. Note to the makers of “Wonderdads”: I won’t pay you a penny in the cause of “bonding” with my son. But I’d pay you everything I have if you can teach me how to break our bond, to make him self-sufficient without his wonderful dad, to give him the confidence to accomplish the tasks at hand and the nerve to demand the appropriate payment, to send him into the world needing nothing but what he carries in his own head and heart.
(So, if you watched the video that starts this article, apropos of nothing… Did you see that as three old white guys playing jazz? If you did, take a look into their backgrounds, and have a laugh at your own expense. None of the three identifies as “white”.)
For Hagerty, I wrote about some really terrible Land Rovers.