Fables of the Deconstruction

Let me tell you a little something about brass tacks.

Though the origin of the phrase, “Let’s get down to brass tacks” is unclear, there are a couple of theories:

  • It refers to the tacks used both structurally and decoratively in upholstery

  • It refers to the tacks or nails in the soles of boots or shoes

  • It refers to tacks used to accurately measure fabric for cutting

Regardless of which origin is the real one, brass tacks are something you use to build or measure. They’re the things that hold something together, or hold something in place, so you can get a better sense of what you have to work with.

Yet there’s an all-too-common temptation when taking something (or someone) “down to brass tacks”: to think that by laying bare the foundation we’ve done our jobs and can now go home.

That’s unfortunately a very easy thing to do, and is what I think we’re doing when we #FAIL something, or resort to snark, or sit back and judge the actions and beliefs of others. We’re saying, “This is the problem. Deal with it.” Or even worse, “This is your problem. Deal with it.”

But sometimes, when you want to bring about change, how you bring it is as important as what it is. The method by which you’re trying to do something can have a huge amount to do with whether that change happens at all (regardless of how important or how potentially company-, life-, or world-changing that change might be—or how passionate you might be about the potential results).

That’s why it can be helpful, as we go about making things happen, to decide for ourselves what our standards, our values, are for doing so—even more helpful if we turn those values into something we use as both reminder and test for what we do and say. (Here’s mine:)

Be useful. Be passionate. Be thoughtful. Be kind.

The two in the middle are for me, really, and are guides for my inner life. The outer two are guides for how I want to interact with everyone else—and serve as an important balance to one another.

We can be kind, but not useful (unless, of course, being kind is the most useful thing to do in a given situation). But, more importantly, we can be useful without being very kind, especially if we cloak it in a desire to “be helpful.”

Yet if I’ve learned one thing about being helpful, it’s this: “helpfulness” is determined best by the person who needs it. And that’s not you. You can offer help. You can offer change. But the choice of whether or not people take you up on that offer? That’s theirs.

If you truly want to be helpful, then your job—your responsibility—is to figure out how to offer help in a way that’s most likely to be accepted. Pointing a problem out repeatedly, or publicly, or with (at least perceived) vitriol, accomplishes the exact opposite.

Kindness may not be something you value—that’s fine. That’s your right. Kindness is something I value, and I’d say Amber does, too. But not for any hug-it-out, kumbaya reasons: it’s because kindness, more often than not, makes it easier to get things done. It provides a soft landing for hard change.

So the next time you want to tell someone they’re doing it wrong, to take them down and stick ‘em with the ol’ brass tacks, remember what those brass tacks are for.

Give them a moral to the story. Give them something to build on. Show them where to go, and how.

In other words, be useful. And kind.


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