As I’ve often said, I write and collect aphorisms, and proverbs of the professions, and I’ve learned a proverb from computer programmer culture that I love and find myself quoting all the time: “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.” This proverb is invoked by software developers, when they argue that something that might be seen as a mistake or a flaw in their program is actually something useful that it has been purposefully created to do.
This turns out to be surprisingly applicable to everyday life. It’s astonishing how often something that one person describes as a bug can also be claimed as a feature.
For instance, years ago, a writer friend was trying to sub-let an office space that she’d rented. Part of her pitch as that the office had no phone and no internet service, so it was perfect for a writer who needed to focus.
It occurred to me that self-knowledge is another way to apply this proverb: we take an aspect of our nature that might be seen as a flaw or limitation, and figure out how it can be considered a strength.
So I’m going to give some examples from memory—and I wasn’t able to double-check these references, so forgive me if I get any of them wrong.
For instance, I could think of several examples of famous actor/comedians talking about how a bug actually became a feature.
The actor Marc Evan Jackson plays the demon Shawn in The Good Place; he plays Kevin, the husband of Captain Holt on Brooklyn 99; he plays the inscrutable lawyer Trevor Nelson in Parks and Recreation (all shows that I love, by the way). He’s also the host of The Good Place The Podcast, and I think that’s where I heard him make this comment. When he talked about why he didn’t get the part of Detective Charles Boyle in Brooklyn 99, he said off-handedly, “Well, I’m C3PO.” If you know this actor, you know that in all his roles, he does indeed have a very stiff and formal demeanor, just like the droid from the Star Wars movies.
The actor Maya Rudolph was on Saturday Night Live, the movie Bridesmaids, and stars in the TV show Forever. Also, coincidentally for the point I’m making, along with Marc Evan Jackson, she was also in The Good Place, where she played the Judge. In a Vanity Fair profile, she says of herself, “I do have a very, almost dead-calm demeanor. Almost a little too calm.”
And here’s another example, from Susan Cain’s terrific book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Early in her career as a Wall Street lawyer, Susan Cain unexpectedly had to take over negotiations on behalf of a client, to try to help the client renegotiate better loan terms. As a mild-mannered, deliberate, introverted person, she was extremely worried about how to handle a tough negotiation—she didn’t have the kind of loud, aggressive, argumentative personality that we usually associate with negotiation. So she just did what she could. She asked questions, she talked it through, she ignored displays of angers by lawyers on the other side. And by the end, not only did she get a deal, but she got a job offer from the lawyers on both sides of the negotiation. They admired her ability to stay calm and focused on the deal, rather than shout and pound the table.
It’s very easy to get discouraged by our flaws and limitations. But perhaps we can also see those qualities might, in fact, serve us well. It’s Marc Evan Jackson’s C3PO quality that makes him so funny as a demon, and it was Susan Cain’s introverted qualities that allowed her to be a successful negotiator.
For instance, for me, I’m a happiness bully. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.