Our Intentions Don't Matter

This is a bit of a departure from my usual writing but it’s a topic that’s been on my mind for years. What finally pushed me over the edge was reading Michael Lewis’ “Going Infinite”; his telling of the rise and fall of FTX and CEO/founder, Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF). There seems to be a bit of drama around the book; many are accusing Lewis of being “duped” by SBF into considering SBF’s actions to be mistakes based on bumbling ignorance rather than nefarious intent.

Perhaps surprisingly: I don’t actually give the tiniest shit whether he was ignorant, malicious or a “good person” and: you shouldn’t either.

Imagine you have two radically different coworkers: Bob and Alice.

  • Bob’s daily ritual includes a heartfelt plea to himself: “Today I’m going to try so hard and, for once, make sure everything goes well and that I don’t upset anyone!”. Alas, Bob, as usual, fucks it all up. He starts the day strong, bringing the team doughnuts. It’s all downhill from there, though: he breaks the CI build, offends several teammates, baptises his boss with hot coffee and orchestrates a massive colossal system outage affecting all paying customers. He apologises profusely but everyone knows: he’ll do it all again tomorrow.
  • Alice starts her day with a sigh: “Work is hard right now and I can’t really be bothered but: gotta pay the bills somehow.”. Alice, as usual, has a sensational day. She completes her project weeks ahead of the deadlines, spends an hour helping the new hire open their first PR, saves the day on Bob’s site outage and fixes his broken CI build. At lunchtime, though, she’s tired so listens to a podcast sitting by herself. She’s invited to a party with a few coworkers at the weekend: she politely passes, her friends are outside of work. She’ll go to the next one but it irks people that she doesn’t seem to care enough about being liked. From this description: Bob is a lovely, if very unlucky, person and Alice is a high-performing antisocial person.

The problem is, though: people like Bob seem to never quite get fired and, too often, people like Alice are labelled as “difficult”, “unfriendly” or, most disgustingly, a “poor culture fit”. We cut Bobs far too much Slack and Alices get insufficient credit.

A brief tangent: I used to be somewhat religious. One thing that struck me in those days was the hostility towards post-modern claims of the absence of “universal truth”. It always seemed a funny thing to get annoyed about; particularly when those who would get annoyed could not confidently state what the “universal truth” was. I could never see much of a difference between:

  • “There is an absolute truth (but I don’t know for sure what it is)”
  • “There is no absolute truth”

It feels like there’s a similar thing going on with judging people’s intentions. Despite my best attempts, I cannot draw a meaningful distinction between:

  • “Bob’s and Alice’s intentions are important (but don’t know for sure what they are)”
  • “Bob’s and Alice’s intentions do not matter (only their outcomes)”

As a result: I no longer care about intentions.

I’ve decided I love working with Alices and have developed an aversion to Bobs. If their actions are incompetent, hurtful and disruptive: that’s what I care about. I don’t care about whether they are trying their best or not. The people they hurt or help certainly don’t. Whether they’re in my personal life, open-source community or at work: I no longer have room for the repeatedly hurtful, even if their hearts are in the right place. If they are over 25 years old, chances are they should have figured out by now how people are hurt and how they can be helped.

Intentions be damned: it’s about doing good work and helping people.