Sat 28

I Think I Should Be Braver


I haven’t told many people this, but about 12 years ago, I lost a lot of money. I mean, a LOT of money. Basically everything I’d made from Jennifer Government, plus my inheritance from my father, which was half of everything he’d spent his life scraping together while refusing to spend anything on himself.

The problem was I didn’t understand financial planners: I thought they were like doctors, i.e. experts with your best interest at heart. But it turns out they are actually salespeople operating on commission. So I thought I was prudently deferring to the advice of professionals, but actually I was taking out loans to leverage investments in schemes that instantly turned to smoke when the Global Financial Crisis hit.

Luckily, I also bought a house. But for 18 months or so, I experienced a regular gut-churning fear that I was about to lose it, and my family and I would be turfed out. In practical terms, this wouldn’t have been the end of the world—no-one would have starved. But I had failed hard, really hard, in a way I hadn’t experienced before, that hurt people I cared about. It was terrifying every day.

Since then I have dug myself out. Everything is fine now, thanks. But I was thinking about it this week in the context of my career, and I’m not sure that feeling ever completely went away. I think touching the hot stove and realizing how badly it could burn left me more cautious. And not in a good way, like, hey Max, don’t give your money to salespeople. Although also that. But in a fearful way, like, don’t do anything that might let people down.

For example, I don’t blog as much any more, and part of the reason why is that I wonder whether someone will get my email in their inbox and be like, ughhh, why is Max bothering me about that. And every new book I start—like I’m starting one now—I think about whether it’s the best book I can possibly write. Which sounds noble, but is also maybe a little cowardly.

When I look back at some of my earlier work, I most like its crazy, oblivious energy. It’s not always great from a technical perspective. Some of Jennifer Government is barely readable, to be honest. But it has a wild abandon that works because it doesn’t much care about its missteps.

I used to collect rejection letters and stick them on my study wall. This was before I was published. I would sit down at my PC to write, surrounded by letters telling me my stories weren’t good enough. This sounds pretty masochistic, in retrospect. But I found it inspiring: The letters were evidence that I was a real writer, doing real writer things, getting correspondence from real people in the industry. Not great correspondence, obviously. Correspondence that said no. But I knew every great writer got rejected a bunch of times, so therefore each of mine was a step along the path to eventual success.

I think I should embrace failure a little more. Not a ton. I don’t want to, you know, be bad. But a little more trying things for the hell of it would be good. A little less thinking about how worthy something is.

So anyway, I just wanted to say, get ready for some really stupid blogs.


This is where site members post comments. If you're not a member, you can join here. There are all kinds of benefits, including moral superiority!

Chris (#1228)

Location: London, UK
Posted: 1301 days ago

Damn straight. I can't wait to read some stupid blog posts, and hopefully some recklessly-written books. Not that I haven't liked the recent ones!

Murff (#8231)

Location: Texas
Posted: 1301 days ago

I like your stupid blogs. I first found your work when “Company” was released - and have enjoyed your work ever since. I look forward to more blogs!

Machine Man subscriber Alex (#237)

Location: London, England
Quote: "We're today's scrambled creatures, locked in tomorrow's double feature (Bowie)"
Posted: 1301 days ago

I missed your previously regular blog posts, so do keep them’s not as if you don’t have a fan base :)

Katganistan (#195)

Location: NYC, NY
Quote: "Oh, God... I can't think of any witticisms under pressure...."
Posted: 1301 days ago

It's understandable to be gun-shy after that, but your long blog posts aren't disappointing. I've missed them, tbh. Can't wait to see them again!

Lani (#2982)

Location: San Diego, CA, USA
Posted: 1301 days ago

Wow, I’m so sorry to hear that happened to you. It’s horrible how a so-called failure like that can affect all different parts of your life. I can 100% relate to that effect. And the extra emotional kick of losing your father’s money. Holy guilt spirals, Batman. I teared up reading that. But yes! Write with abandon! Give us as many nonsensical blog posts as your heart desires! I love receiving your emails, especially ones with random topics and weird thought experiments. Bring on the stupid!

Duncan (#1311)

Location: The Free Web
Quote: "One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship."
Posted: 1301 days ago

Hi Max, I've been a fan since JG. Played NationStates from high school through grad school. While I didn't lose anything in the '08 Crash, I flew out of school and into the work force right as it kicked off. I endured almost a decade of misery, insurance-related mayhem, and underemployment. I think everyone has their scars and war stories from that horrible time.

Regardless, I like how you figuratively wrestle with your past self here. I find that when people reach maturity they have a tendency to try and dispose of who they were in the past, and feel they've "overcome" the mistakes that way. I don't think that's the case; if you can't accept who you were, how can you ever come to accept who you are? Some may feel there is no other way to move forward, but at best it only defers that reckoning. Keep those letters, and make sure Jennifer Government retains its place of honor on your shelf. Thanks for posting!

Lynne D Perry (#5100)

Location: Penfield, New York
Quote: "Resistance to Linux is futile. You *will* be assimilated."
Posted: 1301 days ago

Been there, done that. Never fun graduating from the school of hard knocks, but on the up side... it seems to be way more effective than book learning. (Nothing against book learning, it just doesn't have the WHOMP that real life learning has. It's always interesting to see the academic view of real life, lol). You're doing fine, you're in the place you should be, the past is the past, and what will be will be. Embrace it all. <3

chulez (#7994)

Location: Not where I should be
Quote: ""You look up to me like I'm a pizza on the roof!""
Posted: 1301 days ago

I woke up to the notification of this email in my inbox. It's 7AM and I think nothing's better to start the day off with than some advice and a story of failure. I've felt stuck in a constant cycle of never actually making anything, because I was scared to sound stupid or pretentious. This voice in my head is so persistent! It doesn't tire, but I do. Honestly, all you can do is throw abandon to the wind and get a box of crayons and angrily scribble the entire planet with it. This is your craft and only you get to say what it is. And say it's a place to start, and you'll get somewhere, really. I've got two songs now that I actually like and was comfortable enough to share with friends after a while of feeling almost paralyzed at the prospect of sharing my voice with anyone. So it felt good to read this piece and see my struggle validated by the great Bax Marry himself. Mistakes are our bread and butter I guess. They're more like stones that you hop on to take you across a lake. And you might slip and get dunked into the water, and get angry at the stone, when it was really you who got off-balance. Maybe I'm just rambling here. But I think keep hopping from one mistake to the other, like a demented Writer Bunny. And one day it'll be you on the other side of the lake!

Laurie (#127)

Location: Wauconda, IL
Posted: 1301 days ago

Infinite yes to more blogs! Go for it, Max, and I can’t wait to see what comes from your bravery 😊

Will St George (#8217)

Location: U.S.
Quote: "It's like deja vu all over again. - Yogi Berra"
Posted: 1301 days ago

I am looking forward to whatever length blogs you send. It is courageous to admit to a debilitating failure of an experience. I recently made some comprehensive changes to the managing of my life's savings and it was anxiety generating. A resource that helped me was material on choosing money managers and investing from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. They had plenty of downloadable documents online at Other countries should have similar resources.
Back to the topic of writing, I love that you are diving back into the blogging. Your intuition is leading you there. History is filled with instances from Eureka to Einstein where intuition lead intellect to sublime results. Your readers, your fans - we believe in you.

Fractelle (#2998)

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Posted: 1301 days ago

We need to talk about failure. Because there are more of us than there are incredibly successful ppl, such is the pyramid of human endeavour.

Most of us manage to get through, survive. I consider success if you’re doing more than just surviving. Not worrying about a roof over one’s head, food on the table and bills paid. Many of us work too many hours for too little pay and told by too many of the powerful, we’re just not trying hard enough.

I want hear stories where we make mistakes, how we work through it, but not winding up ridiculously wealthy, powerful, just content and able to care for more than oneself.

Some politician, oft repeated “life wasn’t meant to be easy”. OK, to which I reply “life is meant to be lived”. This is not happening for refugees, casual workers, elderly, disabled, wrong skin, wrong look, or just freakin’ unlucky.

Machine Man subscriber M.I.Minter (#347)

Location: Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA
Quote: "When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading."
Posted: 1301 days ago

Just in time to blog about no shave November. Glad you’re back!!

1001.0010.0101 (#925)

Location: Turn left at your CPU
Quote: "How can something be deemed artificial if it is itself. e.g. A.I."
Posted: 1301 days ago


I sometimes deliberately choose the failure option just to have that experience. I feel it contributes to a fuller understanding of the bigger picture. After all, what's the one thing someone with everything doesn't have? Nothing.

The GFC was a hit in this bank account as well but it gave me a consideration as to the value of what I had loss. Instead of lamenting, I sold my property and have whittled away all my numbers since. I have no responsibility as a parent or partner so I was free to make this (crazy) choice. And now, I'm selling off my vast computer collection, built over decades, in preparation for life in my car beginning some time in 2021. I won't be completely poor but I will learn more about the value of comfort than most. Very excited because at some point I'll be faced with the choice of ending it all, or recovering.

So make with the blogs Barrynator. It'll help keep me company.

Machine Man subscriber Bec (#4091)

Posted: 1300 days ago

So glad to see you blogging again. Have loved your work since syrup. Keep at it and know you have a loyal fan base. Personally I would even read a shopping g list written by you. Providence was a surprise as it was different to your other pieces of work but equally enjoyable I hope you can continue to be yourself and produce work that you are proud of.
Please continue to bombard us with blogs as it’s always nice to see what you’re up to.

Machine Man subscriber Hyper (#4612)

Location: Texas, USA
Quote: ""A person who won't read has no advantage over one who can't read. " --Mark Twain"
Posted: 1300 days ago

I, for one, have missed your blogs. I always smile before opening an email from you precisely BECAUSE I never know what it is going to contain. I love how honest you are with us, and I hope that you find some fun with this flirtation with bravery you are beginning. I can’t wait to see what journey you will take us all on next!

Machine Man subscriber Sara Leigh (#4075)

Location: Northern Virginia
Posted: 1300 days ago

I can't wait for more really stupid blogs! I live for stupid! Not really (re living for stupid), but I always enjoy reading your words.

Yvonne (#5991)

Location: New York
Quote: "[ this space intentionally left blank ]"
Posted: 1300 days ago

Very much looking forward to your ramblings.

Machine Man subscriber Adam Willard (#4231)

Location: Madagascar
Quote: "What unseen pen etched eternal things in the hearts of humankind... but never let them in our minds?"
Posted: 1300 days ago

Haha, nice, definitely ready for more blogs! Life certainly has its ups and downs, and I learned the same thing as you about financial planners along the same timeline. I certainly didn't have nearly as much to invest, I'm sure, but it was most of what my wife and I had saved up to that point. We were about to move overseas and decided it was as good of a time as any to open an individual retirement account, so sometime around June 2008 we took most of our savings to a financial planner recommended by a good friend of ours. I even asked him if it was "a good time" to invest, as I'd been reading in Time magazine that there was some sort of bubble that was going to pop and there'd be a recession. I asked, "would it not be better if we made our investment when the value is low instead of when it's high?" I knew little about finances, but figured I'd ask the financial planner, since they're the *experts*, right? He gave typical advice: "it's ALWAYS a good time to invest! Even when the economy is doing well and even when it's doing poorly, you just keep investing little by little!" Of course he was thinking of his commission. So we gave him almost everything we had, and a few months later (just after we moved overseas) we lost more than half of it.

I left it there figuring it had to recover eventually, and it did in about 3 years or so, but that was a LOT of money wasted that would've been MUCH better invested a few months later. Our "lifetime % earned" will never look good because of the incredibly poor timing of our initial and largest investment. So I learned never to trust those guys. Once our initial investment recovered, we just started making our own individual investments a little at a time every year (never as much as our initial investment), and I'd try to time it with a slouch in the market, if I could. This year I put our typical amount in right when the pandemic hit everything hardest (I got lucky on the timing) and now we've earned over 50% on it in less than a year. I say, "forget those small-time financial planners!" I may not be the best at this, but I'm not as bad as they are.

We all learn in life. If your experiences made you a bit too cautious for a while and we all suffered as a result (i.e. not enough new Max Barry books), well, that's life. But you're coming around the other side and maybe you can abandon some caution now, but you'll surely have a bit more nuance to it all than if you'd never gone through that slump. I LOVED Providence and the bizarre determinism at the core of it, and even if it wasn't as well received as Lexicon (which is definitely an incredible book), I imagine it wouldn't be there (or at least wouldn't have the subtle nuances it had) if you haven't known what it's like to live with a weight of despair of the unknown future hanging over your head. ;-) Definitely keep writing, because I, like many others, LOVE to read what you have to say! Including the stupid blog posts!

Machine Man subscriber coolpillows (#3749)

Location: new york general sort of vicinity
Quote: ""It's not working" -- Joseph Clark"
Posted: 1300 days ago

Oh man SO great to hear from ya Max! I remember the days of commenting (contributing?) to “Machine Man” and there was much more Max then. I bet the pandemic is a contributing factor to you ‘putting this out there.’ But let’s face it, to turn a phrase, ‘failure is the only option’ when it comes to creative shite. My whole friggin life is that and if I call that ‘failure’ — attempting greatness and the entire planet not sitting up taking notice — well then that in itself is a failure. I think I can keep undoing failure and its definition enough times recursively to the point of ... success. Jeez ... I better not post this comment. What an idiot I am! Oh what the hell. Fail forward!

FO (#7743)

Posted: 1300 days ago

how can I say that I really liked reading about your past mistake without sounding like a total a*hole?

Not many prominent people do this. I think reading about your mistake and how you grew from it will help people - whether their mistakes are in the past, yet to come or whether they're going through it now. Thank you!

Machine Man subscriber Katie Ellert (#207)

Location: Calgary AB Canada
Quote: "Where's Lola? WHERE'S LOLA?!?!"
Posted: 1300 days ago

Mistakes happen to all of us, and you don't always know they are mistakes until after they happen, hindsight and all that.

2020 has been hard.
I'm happy you're back.

Machine Man subscriber Joel Pearson (#2145)

Location: Canberra, Australia
Posted: 1300 days ago

Hooray for more blog posts.

Whenever some world or notable event would happen, I'd wonder "what does Max think?". Now I will get to wonder less again yay.

You got me into enjoying reading and are still my favourite author, so the more content the better I say!

Brenda (#7217)

Location: Berowra Bushland
Quote: "entering your world via the book portal is awesome"
Posted: 1300 days ago

You have raised a major point about "understanding financial planners". I too was unprepared for "the recession we had to have" in 1991. My natural optimism and belief in my own abilities was severely shaken. What I have learned in hindsight is how remarkably resilient and adaptable I can be. I do think financial education is sadly lacking in schools. Maths and history can teach us about recessions and introduce the concept of caution and back-up planning for when the unexpected, inevitably, bounces us around. My own flirtation with bankruptcy has strengthened my gratitude muscle and taught me to research and question everything (including doctors).

Bring on the blog posts always welcome in my inbox.

heatherly (#6677)

Location: New England, U.S.A.
Quote: "If Plan A fails, remember you still have 25 letters left."
Posted: 1299 days ago

I’m sorry that happened to you. As long as we learn from our mistakes they are worth making, right? Anyway, excited to be reading more blogs from you. Stupid or not. :-)

Machine Man subscriber Toby O (#2900)

Location: Sydney
Quote: "vote with your wallet"
Posted: 1299 days ago

My assessment of Jennifer Government was the same, and Company, and most of your writing. The reason I read your stuff is not because you're a Nabokov, but because you have some wonderfully fun ideas.

Captain Awesomepants (#5009)

Location: South of the River
Quote: "If I didn't flush OR wipe, do I still have to wash my hands?"
Posted: 1298 days ago

Label me a narcissist but one of the ginormous reasons that I love you so freakin' much is because you write and think so much like my own thoughts. It's like if I would just get my thumb out and write, I'd say stuff like this. Hell, I probably have.

Anyway, you're good for me, in all your forms, because it's good for us humans to find each other like that. Good on ya, I owe you a beer.

Two for mirth (#8229)

Quote: "One for sorrow"
Posted: 1298 days ago

Mistakes are lessons that we survive so we may have a better chance of doing so again when we repeat them?

Charlie Cousins (#8235)

Location: A hovel in the US state of Washington
Quote: "Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision. -- Sir Winston Churchill"
Posted: 1297 days ago

Don't be a hero, Max. Heroes get shot and stabbed and beheaded and are otherwise forced to carry baubles attached to ribbons around their necks to mark them forever. I love heroes, but the condition sucks. Besides, a heroes tale is too often tragic. Courage is nice, even if it smacks of elitism and I suspect the old rhyme about sticks and stones runs through your head a lot when you're being courageous in our political environs. I don't know for sure. I am a coward who pokes holes in absurd realities while hiding behind my pen name. This is evidenced by the fact I am 65 and beginning an MFA program in creative writing. They can't do much to me when I'm dead and I'll get there soon enough. In place of courage, and in spite of cowardice, my plan is to just not give a crap about rejection--but do my best to keep things fun for my characters and try to surprise myself once in a while. Just let whatever juices I have left spit and sputter on the grill of my creativity.

I do have a knack for making other people's blog posts all about me, don't I? But, you know, I don't give a crap. But I hope you find your way back to the playpen. It's otherwise like watching the Tom Hanks from "Bosom Buddies" become the Tom Hanks from "Cloud Atlas."

Please don't beat me.

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 1290 days ago

Wow, that's a lot of comments. Thanks so much to everyone who took the time to write in. Really appreciate it.

Machine Man subscriber Alan W (#1427)

Location: Spokane, Washington
Quote: "Corgis are like potato chips"
Posted: 1289 days ago

I think you are right. We have an odd saying in the software industry: Fail Fast. If you are too cautious about failing, it just means it will take you a long time, and you may fail anyway, it's important to get failures behind you as fast as possible to get to the successes. Something like that.

I quite enjoy the Max Musings in my mailbox, they are certainly a highlight when they come through!

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