Sometimes criticism feels better than a compliment

Wednesday I had an early lunch with my friend Dommie Darko (not his real name). He’s a writer, and he gives amazing compliments. Like when he said a man has to love strong women to be interested in dating me. Or when I said I was insecure about my education and he told me I was extremely clever, by which he meant witty and able to very quickly suss out the meaning and importance of things.

Over fried chicken for me and a scramble for him, he elaborated on the strong women point he’d made days earlier. “You disagree forcefully with me. You don’t hesitate to tell me ‘You’re wrong,’ or ‘No, that’s stupid.’ Men are delicate. They don’t like that.” He is right. I did this to him when we were first dating, when you’d think I’d be on my best, not-castrating behavior. Obviously I still do it now that we’re not having sex and it’s even less important to me that his gonads remain attached.

He is right that men who don’t like strong women don’t tend to do well with me. But I don’t think of myself as a strong woman. I think of myself as shy and retiring and someone who has trouble establishing and maintaining boundaries. Someone who’s had sex she wasn’t jazzed about because saying no would have taken more effort, and made it awkward. But, through both luck and force of will, no one has entered my body who I knew I wanted to not be there.

I’m not strong for the same reason I’m not brave. I regularly publish my most intimate and embarrassing thoughts and feelings online. But that’s not because I’m better at overcoming my fear of doing so than other people. It’s that I feel less fear to begin with. I’m not embarrassed about the same things other people are embarrassed about. I’m not ashamed of the same things.  I don’t even find the same things intimate. I’m not courageous, I’m defective. But I’m broken in a way that I’ve learned how to turn into a strength.

What does it mean to be a “strong woman?” I think to an extent it’s male feminist for “bitch.” It’s disagreeing forcefully because I forget that people don’t like to be corrected. It’s making a face when someone says something interesting about themselves instead of trying to appear neutral because I forget they might feel judged by me.

The last thing he said about me to me, he said as we were wrapping up. It was the most interesting thing. He said he thinks that libertarians often hang out with other libertarians because they find other people hard to read. I’d always joked about “normal” people finding libertarians off-putting. And I’d assumed I socialized exclusively with libertarians in D.C. because there were just so many of them. But being in SF and having to make new friends has demonstrated that I gravitate toward people who are either like me in the way we relate to people or very tolerant toward people like me. It’s not that I can’t get along with people who also don’t remember not to tell people their ideas are stupid when they are. It’s just that it exhausts me.

I’m listening to the audiobook version of American Kingpin right now, about the life and arrest of Ross Ulbricht, the creator of the Silk Road. When I started listening to the story of how he got caught, I knew it was because he made many small mistakes which added up, eventually giving the feds enough clues for them to unravel his identity.

Listening on my walk to lunch I began to see it differently. I realized that if the contest had been Ulbricht vs any one person in law enforcement, he’d still be free right now.

Ross Ulbricht is much smarter than every government employee involved in taking him down. He had access to more money than any of them had access to. He had more to lose than they had to gain.

It wasn’t until multiple departments began looking for him in earnest that they made any real headway. And once the most motivated people from different departments began working together, they found him pretty quickly. Now I am convinced that what brought the rich, brilliant, ruthless Dread Private Roberts down wasn’t sloppiness, but loneliness. The government had pursuers working together as a team because they thought they were saving the country from terrorism. Ulbricht had employees working for him for money. Truth be told, his work life sounded so miserably lonely that I almost wonder if he didn’t subconsciously want to get caught. Some of his decisions, like not immediately going into hiding, ideally abroad, after he knew the police knew his name, seem otherwise inexplicable.

I’m not sure why DPR didn’t amass an army of loyal foot soldiers to help him evade the police. He had paid informants, but those have limits. Ulbricht is a libertarian, and the book describes him as socially very true to type. Less empathetic, more rational. Principle-driven, with a strong sense of justice. He values individualism highly, and is unconcerned about social convention.

Maybe Ulbricht didn’t have a lot of friends on the Silk Road because he wasn’t good at making them. Maybe the feds were able to trick him into believing they weren’t feds and hiring them to work for him because he’s not great at reading people who aren’t like him. Maybe he found relating to people on an emotional level so tiring that was easier to learn how to program from scratch and pay them to work for him instead.

“You need people,” Dommie said to me at lunch. “You need to learn how to read people who aren’t like you.”

Dommie’s assessment of me felt better than his compliments, because it felt more true. I find it easier to accept that I’m socially off-putting than strong or courageous. And when someone says something true about me, I feel known. I feel understood. And when it’s true and negative, I feel trusted. I feel complimented, as if they are saying “I know you want to be better more than you want to protect your image of yourself as already great.”

Dommie is on the Autism spectrum. He likes to practice pattern matching behavior and feelings, so he’ll guess what my expression or behavior means. I wish everyone would do this for me, tell me how they interpret me. But they don’t, and damn if it isn’t tiring to have to guess.

Dommie isn’t wrong about me needing people. But the thing is, I don’t have to win everybody over. Which is good, because I won’t. I just need a team. Whether I’m building the world’s safest drug marketplace or violating people’s right to decide what to put in their bodies, I just need a team to get it done. I need other people who want to accomplish the same goal, who I trust and who trust me. I can continue to be defective and succeed because I’m broken in a way that many people are broken, and together we can turn our brokenness into tremendous strength.

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