In the beginning, people were mostly unhappy, but not too unhappy about being unhappy. They hunted, they gathered, and when unpleasant things (such as having a leg bitten off by a lion) happened, they shrugged their shoulders and said, “what are you gonna to do, huh?” And they spent as much time as they could being idle, because that seemed to help them not be unhappy for a while. This worked particularly well when there were temporarily no lions around trying to eat them.
Then history began to happen.
The people who first noticed there was history going on — they were called poets — also discovered that it ruined idleness for them (this effect would later be named ‘the frame problem’). This made them very angry, so they decided to tell everybody about history. If they couldn’t have any fun, why should anybody else? They also decided to write some of it down, just in case their children, and their children’s children, tried to forget the discovery. Future generations, they figured, had a right to remain innocent of unnecessary and burdensome knowledge of events past. Perhaps some pleasure could be found in denying them this right.
There was nothing much they could do about the fact that their ancestors in their graves, unlike their descendants, were beyond the reach of their words. But in a stroke of genius, they realized they could make their descendants more miserable by pretending that their pre-historic ancestors had actually been continuously happy, instead of just free of unhappiness about unhappiness.
That made it look like it was all going downhill, which made the poets happy about being unhappy about being unhappy. Because at least those who came after would feel like they were even worse off.
The writing down of history turned out to be a self-perpetuating activity. Anytime kids asked questions, adults would yell, “READ THE FUCKING MANUAL!” (later shortened to “BECAUSE I SAID SO”). These kids, when they grew up, tended to reproduce this behavior. This was called culture.
Since idle play had now been effectively ruined for everybody, the discovery of history was widely regarded as a very serious development. Some perceptive people tried to point out that this was backwards, and that the discovery of history in fact marked the development of seriousness. But they were told to stop making idle observations and start pretending to be serious and grown-up like everybody else.
The important thing about this development was that writing history down accidentally created the future, and with it, anxiety. This mix of impotent anger about the past and fruitless anxiety about the future — today we call it a ‘sense of history’ — allowed people to be reliably, continuously, unhappy about being unhappy.
Another unintended consequence of the discovery of history was the invention of intentions, which, as both the history of the future and the future of history would prove, was a terrible thing.
An intention, as physicists now know, is a device powered by unhappiness about unhappiness that allows you to:
- Fail to see some shit
- Itch to do some other shit
- Deny responsibility for all other shit
Intentions are now the most widely used technology for creating unintended consequences, having disrupted older technologies like madness and stupidity. The intention industry now accounts for about 78% of world GDP by some estimates.
Some imaginative philosophers have speculated that intentions can also be used to cause intended consequences other than death and unhappiness, though they were never designed for the purpose. But this possibility has not yet been properly verified experimentally beyond an anecdotal level. These philosophers are optimistic that once the existence of the Higgs Boson is confirmed and the equations governing dark matter and dark energy are worked out, this possibility will become a reliable reality.
The invention of intentions did not immediately cause much trouble.
For a long time, the only use people could figure out for intentions was to declare, whenever somebody pissed them off, that they would murder that sonofabitch like the dog he was. Then they would use that intention to not see the many good reasons why they should not murder that somebody, and use the itch to maintain a sustained effort until that somebody was dead. The murderers came to be known as “good people,” and the murderees came to be known as “bad people.” Back then, these terms did not have the pejorative connotations they do today. They were just names, like “George” or “Trayvon.”
So for a while, a lot of murder went on, and people continued to get madder and madder about history (which had been accumulating all this time; it was the global warming of its time) and more and more anxious about the future. It become clear that merely writing down history to load-balance unhappiness about unhappiness in space and time was not a scalable solution.
Then a few people figured out that if, instead of calling it all “murder,” you called some of it “honorable acts,” and if you carefully forgot some bits of history, made some stuff up to fill the holes, and called it “legends,” something very interesting happened. Assuming you did this delicate surgery correctly, the future would sometimes turn into something that caused pleasant anticipation instead of anxiety.
If you figured out, in addition, the right set of people to do honorable acts to — simply for visibly existing outside your legends this time, not for pissing you off — not only could you make the future something to look forward to, you could make the present look like it was actually going there.
If you squinted a bit.
This meant you could intend to go there. And intending to go there could actually, for the first time in the history of history, temporarily make you happy, rather than angry and anxious, about the existence of the past and the future. The key trick was to die before the promised future failed to materialize. Poets of the future could then safely retcon whatever actually happened to make it look like they were where they intended to be all along. This was called “planning” and created some merge conflicts, but using a technique called incoherent interpolated rationalization, they managed to make the retcons work.
The people who did these honorable acts better than others were called “heroes.” They were rewarded for their prowess by being given something called “glory.” Which had to be invented about that time. Mo’ history, mo’ problems.
The poets of the early days graduated from simply recording history to make future generations miserable, to performing the delicate tactical forgetting surgeries that created legends, honorable acts, and heroes. These were the first true historians. Poets who had forgotten the original mission of spreading unhappiness about unhappiness, and had taken to phoning it in by merely recording genealogies in rhyme, generally failed to pivot to new careers as historians. They were marginalized, and have since gone on to become acutely sensitive observers of reality whom nobody listens to (a fact they find bittersweet and write poignant poems about these days).
Unfortunately, the people who figured out this cunning use of intentions to manufacture happiness — as best as we can estimate there were about a dozen who figured it out at around the same time — lived in widely separated parts of the world. And since, at the time, they did not have Reddit to debate which bits of history to forget and which kinds of killing to call “honorable acts,” they ended up with highly incompatible happiness-manufacturing legends. Though debating on Reddit would likely not have produced a consensus, arguably, things wouldn’t have gotten as out of hand as they did.
So the result was that as they fruitlessly multiplied and spread across the earth, led by their heroes, the peoples of the world increasingly began running into each other. And they learned that others had a tendency to talk about non-interoperable legends that really kinda ruined their legends and killed their happiness buzz.
Back to square one.
The only solution was to start doing lots more honorable acts efficiently, at scale. This was the invention of war.
The invention of war had yet another unfortunate consequence: the discovery of peace. Peace was what happened when two warring sides happened to stop between bouts of honorable acts for a breather, snacks, and wine.
Everybody kinda disliked peace, because while it prevailed, people could not forget the unfinished backlog of honorable acts. They could not enjoy their legends, or dream about their futures, while the Others still lived, believing in their incompatible legends. But most of the time, if it was a pleasant sunny day, and the snacks were good, most could temporarily get past their dislike and learn to tolerate the peace.
Except for some people who didn’t just kinda dislike peace, but absolutely hated it. These particularly honorable people, who were selfless enough to let fellow believers in their legends do most of the honorable acts, were called “leaders.” It was around this time that the terms “good people” and “bad people” acquired their modern connotations. The people who believed in the right legends were called “good people” and the people who believed in the incompatible legends were called “bad people.” Since everybody thought they believed in the right legends, this had potential for confusion, but fortunately, war (technically known as goodspace collisions) tended to sort out these ambiguities reasonably well for practical purposes.
We do not know much about these early leaders and the good people who followed them, but we do have some anecdata. For instance, we know that one particularly selfless leader named Cato was so unhappy with peace that wherever he went, and no matter what he was talking about, he would throw in the phrase, Delenda est Carthago! Which roughly translates to Let’s Do Honorable Acts to Bad People!
So for a while, things got a little confusing around Cato.
Guy on Street: Hey Cato, what day is it?
Cato: Tuesday. Delenda est Carthago!
Guy on Street: Huh?
Cato: How much for this used iPhone?
Used phone seller: 12 sestertii
Cato: I’ll take it. Delenda est Carthago!
Cato’s Neighbor, Ducato: Hey Cato, wanna come over for some snacks and wine?
Cato: Sure, I’ll be right over. Delenda est Carthago!
Ducato: Uh, on second thoughts, raincheck. I just remembered, I am out of wine and snacks.
Cato was not an exception. Others went on to do far more than merely insert non sequiturs into peaceful everyday conversations. Some hired the more enterprising among the historians to manufacture compelling justifications for the necessity of ceaselessly doing honorable acts to bad people, hoping to do away with peace altogether.
This was no easy task. Falsifiable elements in the old histories had to be carefully excised. Heroes had to be hardened for enterprise use into demigods. Entirely new characters, with no distinguishing features, and unencumbered by over-defined personalities and inconvenient backstories (and therefore able to play unanticipated roles in the future), had to be written in. This kind of character, called ‘God’, represented the invention of narrative surge capacity, capable of handling any kind of existential interrogative load, as in:
Person A: What the hell…?!
Person B: God knows!
The specialized backend historians who got skilled at deploying these new narrative technologies became known as priests.
The weaponized, enterprise-grade history created by these priests, which was called religion, differed from the poetry and history of olden times in one critical way. Instead of one flavor, it came in two flavors: defensive and offensive. The process of creating defensive enterprise-grade history was called sacralization. The process of creating offensive enterprise-grade history was called desecration (though sometimes it was called “justice”).
Sacralization was straightforward. It was the process of hardening old legends for enterprise use. Besides upgrading heroes to demigods and gods to God, sacralization involved adding single-sign on capability, 256-bit encryption, IE6 support, and so on. In other words, your basic scaling challenge after achieving legendary product-market fit.
The new bit was desecration. This was the art of systematically weakening the legends of bad people (i.e. the ones who needed honorable acts done to them for believing in the wrong legends), so that they would either fail to harden into religion, or harden into weaker religion.
The need to create history in two flavors posed a genuine challenge. As early priests discovered, rigorous use of abstractions like “God” and “good” tended to lead to unhelpful conclusions like “everybody is good” or “nobody is good.” It proved harder than expected to engineer the intended conclusion, “we are the chosen people.”
Even if you managed to engineer things very carefully, using technologies like MapReduce (the term was originally used to describe the process of carving up embarrassingly parallel social geographies into zones of “good people” and “bad people”), it was very difficult to make sure that the people who believed in the right legends were consistently labeled “good” and the ones who believed in the wrong labels were consistently labeled “bad.”
After some thought, the priests and leaders came up with a very cunning solution: the priests would decide what it meant to be good, and the leaders would decide who counted as people. This marked the separation of religion and state, and the invention of politics, proper. Now people could have honorable acts done to them for either not being good, or not counting as people, or frequently, both. This allowed well-formed phrases that followed certain rules, like “we the people,” to work only for good people. It was the first use of the design principle of separation of presentation and content. This also marked the invention of crippleware.
Armed with priestly justifications, and supported by good people, political leaders could finally begin going beyond mere intentions and retcons and actually begin inventing history. They were no longer limited to merely encountering it in the form of unpleasant surprises, and reacting to it on an improvised case-by-case basis. The ability to separately define “good” and “people” allowed history writing to become truly predictable, proactive, scalable and deployable to large populations. Sometimes history could even be written before it happened.
Not surprisingly, with the invention of history invention, the rate of creation of history sharply accelerated, and along with it, the rate of future creation. So much history was created, it resulted in a glut of histories and futures.
Around the world, for centuries, more histories and futures piled up, in the form of a global tapestry of glorious wars and miserable peaces. Over mountains and across oceans, armed with varied glorious religions, the good people of the world spread, led by their leaders, doing unspeakably honorable acts to each other.
In the process they acquired vast amounts of historical baggage, and mortgaged away increasing quantities of their descendants’ time to an impossible number of futures. Everybody knew things were getting unsustainable.
Something had to give.
Here we must pause to note a small but crucial detail.
An unintended consequence of the invention of politics divided the world into two broad kinds of good people in the world. There were those whose legends required them to develop farms, hoard grain, and build cities to live in that were densely packed, disease-ridden, and dramatically unequal. And then there were those whose legends required them to range thinly over vast territories, riding horses, herding meat, and living healthy, egalitarian lives in tents and sharing equally in honorable acts.
The first kind of good people were called settlers. The second kind of good people were called nomads. Both were proud peoples, with long histories of honorable acts.
The nomads though, were just a little bit better at honorable acts than the settlers.
Which is why all the poets, historians, and priests on both sides were unpleasantly surprised to discover that in general, the settlers tended to prevail over the nomads.
Though this was overall rather nice for the settler crowd, it was unexpected. And since the invention of history and the future, all good people around the world had shared at least one preference across their varied, and otherwise wildly conflicting legends and religions: they did not like surprises.
And this was definitely a surprise. Clearly, the leaders and priests concluded, there was more history going on than they knew about. Narrative dark matter that was not represented in their legends.
Leaders and priests around the world secretly sent spies to learn about enemy legends and religions, and learned that none could explain the narrative dark matter.
It was clear that there was a hidden, dark enemy around, absent from the legends, yet subtly shaping history and the outcomes of honorable acts.
As word spread among the good people of the existence of this dark matter, some, more courageous than others, and more willing to do honorable acts to unknown, invisible enemies, stepped up and declared themselves protectors of all that was good.
They began a ceaseless vigil against this new, unknown enemy, detectable only through unexpected turns in history. This had the effect of infecting even peacetime with the anxieties and threats of honorable acts associated with wartime. It was called the dawn of civilization.
Due to an unfortunate transcription error in an early version of the history of these protectors, they came to be known as the guardians of peace. This has created a great deal of confusion, but it doesn’t matter now that they were in fact the guardians of war.
The guardians did not have to wait very long, because the invisible dark matter of history began to take on a visible form.
To understand what happened, we have to switch from what we in the entertainment business call the A-plot, the story of the good people, to what we call the B-plot, which in this case is the story of the kinda-okay-I-guess people.
The kinda-okay-I-guess people were those who were not entirely unhappy with the invention of peace. They had existed all along, around the world, alongside heroes, leaders, poets, historians, and priests. They tended to be pleasant and plump people, like Cato’s neighbor Ducato, who like many kinda-okay-I-guess people, had grown rather fond of good snacks and wine.
What’s more, while they vigorously shouted “Yeah! Woohoo!” when their poets recounted their legends, they couldn’t help but notice that the bad people (who of course deserved to have honorable acts done to them, no question, delenda est carthago baby), had some rather good snacks and wine of their own.
So in periods of peace, they sneakily began swapping wine and snacks with the bad people who seemed to be okay-I-guess.
These were the first traders, and though they did not know bother to give a name to what they were doing — they tended to avoid words and let their very reasonable prices do the talking, which was one reason their story had remained dark matter — they had just invented trade.
Traders generally had no cunning plans besides buying low and selling high. They had a healthy indifference to history, but they did have the good sense not to talk too much about the history-agnostic things they were doing. Instead, they went about quietly introducing the good people, including the heroes, the leaders, the poets, the historians, and the priests, to the pleasures of foreign wines and snacks. This was a tricky business. The guardians were always on hair-trigger alert, ready to go do honorable acts at a moment’s notice. Conversations often went like this:
Trader: Here, try some of this new wine, and you’ll love these new snacks.
Guardian: Whoa, this is some good stuff. Where did you get it?
Trader: Oh, I can’t recall. I think it fell off the back of a truck somewhere.
Guardian: Hmm. That seems suspiciously…
Trader: Have you tried this drink? It’s called tea.
This went on for a while. Sometimes the guardians would figure out what was going on, declare the foreign wine and snacks profane, go delenda est carthago-ing, and steal a whole bunch of it. Then they would declare it sacred loot by virtue of having been won through honorable acts, and declare that it was now honorable to drink or eat it, even though it was the exact same thing they had declared profane a week ago.
This sort of honorable behavior of course set trade relationships back by decades each time it happened, but nevertheless, the traders persevered patiently. And gradually the peaces grew longer, and the wars shorter. Eventually, some of the traders gained enough confidence in their abilities to hire some of the poets and historians away from the heroes and leaders, and even some of the priests. Not many listened, but a few, who had gotten rather sick of honorable acts, did.
With the help of the new recruits, the traders slowly began to suggest, first via whispered rumors, then in increasingly aggressive ways, that perhaps there were no good or bad people. Perhaps everyone was merely kinda okay-I-guess. Perhaps if they traded enough wine and snacks among themselves, it would be worth everybody’s while to put up with everybody else without the need for honorable acts. Perhaps if everybody stopped trying to be so good all the time, and remained content at “slightly evil,” there would be fewer wars.
But this marketing campaign was just extra insurance. Mostly, they hoped low prices would do the trick.
It was a tough sell. Not many liked snacks and wine enough to allow themselves to be demoted from good person to kinda-okay-I-guess person.
But by 1800, a great realization began to dawn on guardians around the world: the reason settlers had gradually overwhelmed nomads everywhere, even though nomads were slightly better at honorable acts, was simple: settler traders were slightly better than nomad traders.
You’d think the two slight advantages would cancel out, but as everybody realized around that time, they do not. Because trader advantages, unlike guardian advantages, tend to compound over time. A small initial edge in trading had a tendency to quickly turn into an absolutely crushing, overwhelming advantage.
As the last of the nomads were rudely shoveled into reservations and other unpleasant places, guardians around the world came to a horrifying conclusion.
The epic struggles between good and evil had ended.
The epic struggle between good and neutral was just beginning.
People began to realize this around 1800. One good person, the well-known guardian priest Hegel, even picked a specific date and identified the nature of the event.
The date was October 14, 1806, when two groups of particularly good people, highly skilled at honorable acts, fought the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt.
The event that happened that day, argued Hegel, was nothing less than the the End of History.
As it turned out, history did not actually end on October 14, 1806. Hegel’s was an understandable mistake caused by the sort of sampling error that would get you fired from a survey research job. What actually happened on that date was that history ended for a specific group: white males.
This caused a good deal of confusion for a while. As is now known, one of the effects of history ending is that you die. Or more precisely, you die as a good person and are resurrected, a nanosecond later, as a slightly evil kinda-okay-I-guess person. If you aren’t paying attention, there is a very good chance you won’t even notice it.
Most white males in fact, did not notice that history had ended for them on October 14, 1806. They continued about their business, doing honorable acts, leading, writing poetry and history, and making religion, for quite a while after. The last few still haven’t figured it out.
Not that the non-white-male types were any more perceptive. It took them a good century and a half to notice that white males seemed to be acting dead, like zombie versions of the good people their ancestors before 1806 used to be. So they called them Dead White Males, and for a while, alternated between making really funny jokes about them, and being really angry about them.
These people were called Social Justice Warriors, and history ended for them too around 1980 (they are now known as Dead Social Justice Warriors). That’s a zombie-versus-zombie story for another time.
Then there was a period of confusion after that where nobody knew precisely what was going on, and a lot of people were frantically urging everybody else to keep calm and carry on like nothing was happening. It was called “the eighties.”
Then history actually ended for everybody, with unceremonious, unseemly quickness. This happened in 1993, when the neutral finally prevailed over the good by gently persuading most guardians to go play video games instead of committing honorable acts, largely leaving the running of the world to traders. The transition is not yet complete, but it is mostly a done deal.
Not everybody has caught on, and history still appears to be going on in many parts of the world, but trader philosophers — there are no trader historians — assure us that this is a mix of several factors: delays in deploying the end of history, some people acting dead, other people larping continuations of history on the Internet, and something like a widespread, collective, phantom-limb effect. It’s all noise and fury signifying nothing.
There is a review scheduled for 2050 to monitor the ending of history (it’s going to take a few decades to bring this thing to a dead stop; it has a lot of inertia). Though interesting, surprising, and unexpected things will no doubt continue to happen, no new history or future is expected to happen between then and now. The forecast is for partly cloudy atemporality, with scattered showers of future nausea.
Though they make no promises and definitely harbor no intentions regarding the matter, many traders suspect that we can soon stop being unhappy about being unhappy, and go back to being mostly just unhappy, with breaks for idleness.
This time though, without the lions. So that’s some progress at least.
It was a big month. I was leading product for a Los Angeles-based SaaS company in the HR space. Our team had released five big new features and was starting to see engagement with the product. We armed our sales team with the features they needed to close some of the biggest deals we had seen all year.
The company was on a roll. Revenue numbers were through the roof — what else could one hope for?
And yet it felt like something was missing. I couldn’t quite place it. Heads down on day-to-day execution, I had lost touch with why I was doing my job. I was buried in the technical details of my product and jumping from meeting to meeting. This is not a bad thing — any product manager will tell you that each day can be a roller coaster.
The problem? I was missing the bigger picture. Every action that I took each day had become a means to its own end. And I got so busy doing the work that I didn’t feel a sense of mission anymore.
Luckily that feeling changed for the better. I was reminded why my work mattered when I got this email from a customer:
“Thank you for an amazing product. It has enabled us to completely revamp our internal processes for recognizing employee achievements and our team has been raving about it. We can’t wait to see what comes out next!”
I needed that email. It made me proud of my effort and what the team accomplished. We had built a product that customers wanted and needed — a huge end goal in itself. But more important, our product helped our customers accomplish something meaningful to them. This is a much harder goal to achieve. And when I realized that we had hit it, I was a happy product manager.
With that tangible sense of purpose, I gained:
Understanding how our product improved customers’ lives helped me become even more connected — to our customers, team, and product. It made me realize that my frustration was a result of feeling disconnected. This experience taught me that being busy each day was no excuse for forgetting why we all showed up — to build a meaningful product for customers we cared about with a team that was invested in each other’s success.
Knowing that my work had true value and was solving real problems gave me the confidence to lead with conviction. Being disconnected often led to second-guessing my decisions — even when I believed they were the right ones. It is always good to gut-check your choices, since doing so might reveal a better way. But when you check for blind spots and are assured you are leading down the right path, that is the time to watch your work speak for itself.
Understanding and being able to articulate the value we brought to customers gave me credibility with internal teams. I had a specific use case and testimonial that showed what we aimed to achieve in market. This proof that our product was on the right track gave the rest of my team the same confidence I had.
Every product manager makes tough decisions daily. And those decisions are not always easy or popular. But one customer email was all it took for me to see that every tough decision I had made enabled us to build a helpful product.
That customer email was what I needed: Creating a product that improves people’s lives is proof that my work has higher purpose. That lesson made me a happy product manager.
What’s the moment that made you a happy product manager?
Find out what’s involved in running a solid beta test from Emily Hossellman, director of marketing at Centercode. You’ll learn how to recruit the right testers to ensure that they reflect your target market. You’ll also learn about the importance of thanking testers for the significant role they play in improving your product. And finally, you’ll learn about the most common mistakes people make when they set up their first beta test, and how to avoid them. Discover what your market really wants and start improving your products today.
Find detailed resources on beta testing on Centercode’s website.