Mediocrity, gravity and automation

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? 


Inspirations and recommendations

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

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. 

Combining languages

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

The most exciting technology of our time

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. 

Fun-to-work-on effect

I was listening to Andreas Mattsson presenting how Spotify's uses machine learning to recommend music. A fascinating topic, but what struck me was how interesting and challenging and rewarding must have been for Andreas and the team to work on this problem. Successful companies are made successful in large part by the people who work there. In many cases, employees-led initiatives result in the biggest breakthrough for a company. Just let people follow their curiosity and see magic happen. 

Sergei Brin pointed to the same magic when he told the story about how Google's Brain team became a fundamental part of the company: "Jeff Dean would periodically come up to me and say, 'Look, the computer made a picture of a cat,' and I said 'OK that's very nice, Jeff' … and fast forward a few years and now Brain probably touches every single one of our main projects."

I think of this as the fun-to-work-on effect. Similar to other types of network effects, it is a self-reinforcing loop that makes companies and teams stronger. A small group of people starts working on something. That something grows and begins touching more and more interesting problems. The volume of data available increases and even more problems can now be solved and explored. People start joining your team because they want to solve interesting problems. Once they are there, their curiosity leads them to uncover even more possibilities, and so on.  

The biggest part of any company's success comes from the drive, curiosity and ingenuity of the people working there. Create a company where it is not only fun to work IN, but where there are enough problems that are fun to work ON. The rest will probably take care of itself. 

Considering the future

Tyler Cowen has an unpublished book out there called Stubborn Attachment. In it, he makes the case for the "imperative of growth". No, it is not about startups, it is about the economy.  

Economic growth is a powerful force which has shown incredible healing properties in human history. Nothing cures inequality, poverty, unemployment, more than growth. In lack of growth we are destined to a troublesome epoch, with people and nations fighting over limited resources. I must add that growth here is attached to a broader concept of wealth, defined as "wealth plus": the total amount of value produced over some period, including leisure time, household production and environmental amenities. Growth should be our first and main objective, subordinated only to few universal human rights. 

What I like the most about this thesis is the moral principle that sustains it. Namely that we should care about the future at least as much as we care about the present. In the business world we are used to discounting the future. To compare present benefits and future ones we apply a rate of discount that puts an extra burden on our future gains. In traditional business accounting (and often in our private lifes) we procrastinate long term investments in favour of short term results. This leads to a dangerous way of thinking: 

"Why should costs and benefits receive less weight, simply because they are further in the future? When the future comes, these benefits and costs will be no less real. Imagine finding out that you, having just reached your twenty-first birthday, must soon die of cancer because one evening Cleopatra wanted an extra helping of dessert. How could this be justified?"

In politics, this is reflected by the fact that people of the future are not represented. They are a silent constituency. While political choices (at least we would hope) have a great impact on the people who will come after us, nothing of their preferences and agenda is included in the political debate. As recent electoral results have shown, older age groups have the power to basically fuck up the future for younger generations. 

I like the idea that we should challenge this principle. Why should the present be as valued as the future (when not more)? Why should someone who is only going to live on a fraction of the consequences have the ability to decide for everyone else? Shouldn't we weigh our votes in a way that better represents who is going to stick around longer? 

It sounds like blasphemy. Many will jump off their chairs, pointing fingers at the disrespect for the elders, and maybe bringing the example of traditional societies. Well, traditional societies have always had mechanisms to give formal power and status to the elders, very often as an illusion of power. Our electoral democracies have made this into an a false absolute, "one head one vote", which implicitly assigns more value to the present than the future. It might be time to consider a change. It is time to consider the future.

The right kind of ambition

We talk a lot about ambition in our business. Having some is a prerequisite to start something. To do anything, really. But how much should you have?

Investors often pass on founders for lack of ambition. Entire businesses are considered "low-ambition" or, to use a word that I hate, "lifestyle". 

I consider myslef ambitious, and I do look for ambition in others. But of a specific kind. 

I don't care about world domination, about market size (in general), about power. The ambition I like is the ambition of doing something that wasn't possibile before. What can you do today that you couldn't do yesterday ? What is uniquely possible on the internet that wasn't possible in an analog world? 

 I meet often people that have seen a business opportunity, an idea to make money of something. I respect that,  but excuse me if I am not excited. 

I started thinking about this while listening to Jan Erik from Mapillary. What they are doing is the type of ambition I am taking about. The right kind.

Letting the score take care of itself

"Focus on the journey" is an old idea that can be found in most ancient philosophies. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna exhorts Arjuna to focus on his action, not on the fruits:

"You have a right to perform your prescribed duties, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your actions. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, nor be attached to inaction."

Seneca says something similar in on of his letters when he writes: 

"Attalus philosophus dicere solebat iucundius esse amicum facere quam habere, quomodo artifici iucundius pingere est quam pinxisse" - The phylosopher Attalus used to say that making friends is as enjoyable than having them, just like for the painter, painting is more important than having painted. 

More recently, Bill Walsh, the famous 49ers coach, used to say that "the score takes care of itself", referring to the importance of daily practice and attitude in achieving results in the field when game-time came. 

I have always liked this way of thinking, to the point of making the Seneca one my motto. It is important however to understand it correctly. The right interpretation is about mental energy and focus. Once you have established your goal, all you have to do is making sure that you put in the right behaviour. That's the only variable you really control. Are you performing, day after day, week after week, the actions that are most likely to eventually lead to your goal? Or are you stressing about not being able to achieve it and looking for shortcuts? 

Every writer knows that the only way to complete a book is to sit down in front of the blank paper or screen everyday and write. Putting in the hours is the only true way writing gets done. So does the football player. Come to practice, perform, live a healthy life, the score will take care of itself. 

The wrong interpretation is to believe that process alone will tell you what to do. That you can apply a rational step-by-step process to define your goal and to live your life. In sports the goal is given. It's the championship, the super bowl, whatever your sport has. In life and business it is less clear. Our first step should be to define our goal, who do we want to be? what do we want to achieve? The next one is to understand what actions are needed to get there. Can you achieve your goal without putting in the right amount of hours? Can you do it without sleeping well, eating well, letting your mind wander around sometime? The right actions will ofter feel to have the least short term impact on the goal. That's the difficult part, to put the goal aside once we have defined it. To forget any form of short term thinking and optimisation. 

Every day, do what you are supposed to do, and enjoy the ride.