Before you judge yourself
If you are not ready for judgement"
Too many people have been telling me about Chef's Table, the Netflix series, so I ended up watching a couple of episodes. What I like about stories of artists is the progression. Every artist - painter, chef, architect, writer - follows a personal path to discover her true self. Some artists are self-taught. The majority starts by being an apprentice to another artist. Chefs work in other chefs' restaurant, architects in other architects' studios.
We tend to be surprised by stories of self-taught artists, Tadao Ando formed himself on books and observations, Jeong Kwan through the daily practice of cooking in her monastery. I am even more fascinated by those who broke out from their masters. Imagine being a young artist learning from Alain Ducasse, or Rem Koolhaas. How strong their influence, how easy to be shaped in their mould. And yet they find a way to become themselves. They start by taking their master's style in their own direction, drifting slightly away from the traced path. Sometimes the rupture is violent, a total rejection. More often, it is a gradual, painful, progression: adulation, imitation, deviation, realisation.
Our life is a journey of becoming ourselves. As soon as we are there someone else is just starting.
Every football fan knows that time is relative. If you are desperately defending your one-goal lead, every second seems an eternity. If you are trying to catch up, seconds keep gobbling minutes down. As a patological procrastinator, I should know that ten minutes never last enough when I am in a hurry. The more I speed up, the more time accelerates.
The flip side is that you can fabricate time. If you are short of it, all you need to do it is slowing down. It is one of those rules that should be easy to remember: think of the logical answer, then do the opposite.
The saying goes like this:
“You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes everyday - unless you're too busy; then you should sit for an hour.”*
Easier said than done. Yet true.
I found a similar example in the Upside of Stress. When people feel overwhelmed by their tasks, and can't seem to find time for anything, the best remedy is to stop what they are doing and go help someone else. It sounds like the dumbest thing to do if we are up against a tight deadline. Until we remember that time is relative, and we can simply fabricate more.
*I have never picked up meditating btw
Is there a role for mediocrity? and should we protect it? In a recent interview, Malcom Gladwell makes an interesting point:
GLADWELL: I wonder whether making the world safe for mediocrity is not a very worthy goal of teaching, not only because the people who’ll one day be good need to pass through mediocrity on their way to being good, but also that, like I said, it’s the gateway to experimentation.
I have been thinking about this a lot. When friction is removed, gravity starts working. Everything is attracted to the centre, to a few people, institutions, and companies. Their mass increases further and so does their gravitational pull. Tech's "network effects" are one manifestation of gravity.
Take the local college professor. When everybody can access the best content and lectures from the best professors in the world, who will care to listen to the local college professor? Gravity kills "average". This example displays clearly the gravity dilemma: access to the best professor is undeniably a good thing, but what about the local guy? When gravity can work unfettered there can only be a few winners.
Automation is another factor contributing to the "end of mediocrity". Jobs based on simple, repetitive tasks are the easiest to automate, but also the ones people usually start their career with. How many times have you heard about somebody starting out making copies, delivering mail, bringing coffee or arranging boxes in the warehouse? This effect will have a big impact in professions where expertise acquired through time matters. Legal associates, for example, slave on menial tasks for their all-mighty partners while earning a right to sit at the client table and learn the trade. Today, however, clients are increasingly unwilling to pay for law school grads checking spelling mistakes in contracts. And they shouldn't, a machine can do that. Associates jobs are being slashed, but this leaves a question on how firms will train the lawyer of the future (the ones required to do "human-level" jobs).
There is then a pet dilemma of mine: the supermarket self-checkout machine. We all hate it, but that's not the point. We know it is just a step towards an amazon go future. The point is the job it replaces. Every time I go to the supermarket I can't see the social utility in replacing the cashier. It is a simple job that lends perfectly to high school students and people that would find it difficult to do anything else. I might save time (eventually) checking out by myself and the supermarket will save money (probably, and there is surely other places where more waste is allowed) but what about the high school student? what's left for them? A friend of mine pointed, rightly, to the arbitrariness of my rant. After all, how many jobs I am I trying to replace in my work at Founders? Why should the task of saving mediocrity fall on the supermarket chain? It is like reading Bill Gates arguing for a tax on robots. I mean, the man that automated more white collar tasks in the last century and, notably, created way more jobs in the process.
There are no simple answers to these questions. I definitely don't have one. I am left with the thought that there is beauty and utility in mediocrity, and we should at least consider the risk we run but killing it. I am probably sliding into nostalgia, but I cheer my memory of the summer spent licking envelopes for my uncle. It paid my interrail ticket, will basic income provide for that as well?
I am always fascinated by the trail of inspiration leading from one idea to the other. The invisible thread that weaves books with articles with podcasts with experiences with travels with exhibitions with presentations. Even with business ideas.
Considering how much I read and how long I have been using amazon, I am often surprised how ineffective its recommendation engine is on me. It might help that I have been sharing account with my wife for 15 years, and now with my daughter - I guess it confuses the hell out of it - but it is more than that.
Recommendation engines try to infer what I will read next looking at my history and at what people like me have been reading. Even for data monsters like Amazon, they rely on internal knowledge: me and my reading habits, other people and their reading habits. It is better than nothing, and obviously quite effective looking at the success of these players, but incomplete. Most inspirations come from external sources: a friend's recommendation, an article you have read, a cue within one of the previous book, a movie you have watched. Looking at books alone, you can trace a path from one to the other and you can maybe try to anticipate what the next one will be based on the trajectory. But you will always be blind to what happened in between.
I have always wanted to keep a log of this path. A sort of Ariadne's thread on which to weave the pearls I find along my life. I have begun working on it, starting from what I am currently reading and going backwards until my memory assists me. I ll post a link to it soon.
Welcome to this world. You were born on the 27th of February 2017, just as darkness was making room for the day. You are a son of Europe. Italian father, Icelandic mother, born in Denmark. You still have no documents, no "papers". You will get a passport soon, so you can travel. Actually, you will get two, just not the one from the country you live in. It will seem stupid to have 2, maybe 3, passports. Aren't you just a boy, with a mother a father and living in a place?
This is not how things used to be, and we don't know if it is how things will be as you grow up. Your great grandmother was born in one of those turf houses you see in the tourist brochures about Iceland. Animals living on the ground floor, to warm the house. They read a lot even back then, she went on being a writer of children books, and giving birth to two sons.
My granddad was born in the Austro-Hungarian empire. There is no empire today, but the city he was born in is the same where I grew up. He was 11 when the first war ended, and fought in the second one. It took him six months to come back from the Baltic sea, big part on foot. He walked in a town of rubble, just to learn his twin brother had died the year before. It's quite a lucky event that I exist, and you too. These are the kind of stories you hear today if you are from China, India and a few other places. These are good stories.
We live well today and we owe most of it to those who came before us. I am before you, and I'll do all I can to not fuck it up.
When you learn a new language you gain more than the ability to communicate with people from a different place. Languages do not overlap 1 to 1, each word on one side corresponding to one on the other. They stack on top of each other irregularly, leaving you with a larger vocabulary made of new words and new idioms. Your sensorial surface grows, you can feel new things.
Families speaking multiple languages at once often seems to be mixing them regularly. We do it all the time. It is not a symptom of confusion, of incomplete knowledge. It is the advantage of pulling from multiple sources to convey a message. Each language has a number of critical expressions that you don't find in the other. They exist in your mind, in your perception, but you can't truly feel them before you learn that new word.
I read this paragraph last night:
"Perhaps a writer would think of the monosyllables and lack of grammatical inflection in Chinese, and of how this would sound next to lovely long Finnish words all double letters & long vowels in 14 cases or lovely Hungarian all prefixes suffixes, & having first thought of that would then think of some story about Hungarians or Finns with Chinese."*
That's how my life often feels. That's also what life at Founders office feels.
Languages are also more than words. Danish, for example, is extremely phonetical. Every person who has tried to learn it has felt the pain of having more knowledge in our head than what we can get understood. You think you know that word, but they keep not getting what you are trying to say. It frustrated the hell out of me. Couldn't they at least try?! Truth is they just don't understand what you say. Mispronounced words are non-words.
It's interesting how this affects how the language itself is thought to young children. My daughter has just started school and she learning to read. But you can't read Danish as you would read Italian, stringing together the sounds of each letter into a full word. You need to know what an entire word sounds like before you can read it. You need to spot it on the page, recollect what word it is (by it signs) and then say it as it is pronounced, in one go. The way to do it is to start with very short words. So she comes home with these short books written entirely with two-letter words. It is a funny constraint if you think about it. How does the writer come up with a story written only combining two-letter words? That's when you get a cow (kø) drinking beer (øl). Creativity is also about that.
* In "The last samurai", by Helen DeWitt
In a famous leaked email from 2014 Evan Spiegel wrote: "I remember growing up wishing I had been a part of PC revolution - and I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to watch smartphones take off".
People working in technology live in the constant search for the "next big thing" while regretting not having been part of the previous one "where all those opportunities were still open". Today, there is a lot of talk about what this thing could be, the usual suspects being AI, voice, AR/VR and blockchain, in its various shapes and forms.
I was very happy when I met two young guys, barely out of their bachelor, this weekend. With pure excitement in their eyes, they were explaining to me why they are working on ethereum: "This is by far the most interesting technology of our times". I agree.
I am no future teller, and this is a wish as much as it is a prediction, but there are too many reasons why young people should be looking in this direction. We need a new architecture of the web. We need to re-distribute ownership to the nodes. We need to improve security and create better opportunities for capturing value at the edge. Blockchain, bitcoin, ethereum and all their syblings are our best bet in this direction. Flawed, for sure. Exciting, you bet it.
I was watching some x-factor with my daughter which led us to some Elvis videos which then made me think of Johnny Cash. I had a mess to clean up in the kitchen and I decided to put "I walk the line", the movie, in the background. What a story.
The first thing you'll notice is Memphis. Why Memphis? At every turn in history, there are cities that count more than others. Paris was like that for painting between mid 19th century until right after WWII. Memphis was it for music in the 50' and 60'. Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and many others. Some cities are just the place where things happen.
You'll also see Johnny's first wife, Vivian, worrying about her husband's fantasies. Difficult to blame her, nine out of ten she would be right. He should take that job in San Antonio and stop wasting time on his band, with those "two mechanics that can hardly play". He should have. But he didn't.
There is then the scene when Johnny Cash does his first audition. At first, he does what many do: playing someone else's tune. He wants to fit in, he wants to conform. Luckily Sam Philips was there. The kind of guy who knows how to push people to do what they are meant to. Johnny was not meant to play the usual gospel, he was meant to play his thing: "I got a couple of songs I wrote in the Air Force. You got anything against the Air Force?.. I do". And so it starts.
If you have watched the movie you know the rest. If you haven't, go watch it now.