tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:/posts Stefano Zorzi 2017-11-09T12:42:18Z Stefano Zorzi tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:Post/1196358 2017-10-06T04:48:43Z 2017-10-06T04:49:35Z How to waste an achievement

There is nothing more natural - and well deserved - than celebrating an achievement. Celebrations - rewards, more in general - release dopamine and create the desire to feel those emotions again. Achievements beget more achievements.

But achievements can also induce negative behaviours. Behaviours that - when left unchecked - will make it more difficult to accomplish something the next time around. I know - and have felt - two types of such behaviours.

The first is hubris. Hubris comes when we believe to be stronger, smarter, luckier than what we are. When that happens, we become sloppy. We prepare less. We act carelessly. All conditions that are likely to lead us to failure.

A good antidote is to remind ourselves that what generated our success is not a quality we possess but a behaviour we have shown.

A famous study about children and motivation has shown that children who connect their achievements to talent are more likely to fail afterwards compared to children who connect their achievements to effort. Knowing that success depends on what we do, and how we do it, is both humbling and motivating. It reminds us that we are the masters of our destiny, but also that failure is always around the corner if we stop paying attention.

The second achievement-generated and failure-inducing behaviour is less visible and for this reason - I argue - even more dangerous. In some ways, it is the opposite of hubris: it doesn’t spur from laziness or lowering the bar, but from raising it. Let me explain with a personal example.

I have recently had the fortune to get some editing help on a post I was writing for my favourite blog, Ribbonfarm. The editor did a great job - thanks, Kevin! - and it improved a lot the quality of my writing. Thanks to that, I have now a new bar, a new standard of quality to aim for. The next time I sit down to write something I am motivated to do at least as good a job as I did on that post.

It is difficult to see something wrong in this increased ambition, but here comes the challenge. As I sit here writing this post, I am way more judgemental about what I am typing. I want each sentence to sound well, I want different paragraphs to be linked well together, I want my arguments to come out clearly and in a nice, logical thread. In other words, I am afraid to do a poor job. I am hesitating. I am hitting backspace a lot.

It reminds me of something I have read in Creativity Inc, Ed Catmull’s book about the story of Pixar. Ideas - Catmull argues - are “ugly babies” who require protection.

“Early on, all of our movies suck. That's a blunt assessment, I know, but I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions really are. I'm not trying to be modest or self-effacing. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so—to go, as I say, ‘from suck to not-suck.”

Accepting that everything we produce - even our most successful creations - starts out ugly is a necessary step to avoid feeling paralysed. In The Shape of Design, Frank Chimero talks about “momentum” as a requirement for any creative effort. And momentum is something we can achieve only if we lower the bar of our inner critical voice:

“the weight of the objectives (the quality standard in our case) can crush the seeds of thought necessary to begin down an adventurous path. Momentum is the most important aspect of starting, and rejecting and editing too soon has a tendency to stifle that movement.”

We need to remember that the final output of our work - our achievement - is the product of a carefree ability to start combined with the ambition to reach our highest standards of quality. Not immediately, but eventually.

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Stefano Zorzi
tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:Post/1193861 2017-09-25T20:00:04Z 2017-09-26T06:11:50Z How I think about creating things

Somebody asked me a great question recently: “What’s the single most important thing you have read or learned that profoundly shaped how you think and work?”

On the spot, I hesitated. There is probably no “single thing”, but a combination of influences, experiences and lessons resulting in the way I see the world today.

At a closer look, though, it is more like many small streams flowing into the same larger river. There is one big thread connecting these different sources. It has to do with the realisation that creative acts require the ability to fully abandon oneself to the process.

Action and attachment

Since my Indian studies at university, I have been attracted to the principle of “detachment from the fruits of action”. It is one of the main teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, which I first discovered through Gandhi’s interpretation:

“This is the unmistakable teaching of the Gita. He who gives up action falls. He who gives up only the reward rises. But renunciation of fruit in no way means indifference to the result. In regard to every action one must know the result that is expected to follow, the means thereto, and the capacity for it. He, who, being thus equipped, is without desire for the result and is yet wholly engrossed in the due fulfilment of the task before him is said to have renounced the fruits of his action.” 

As clearly stated in this passage, action without attachment doesn’t mean indifference or apathy. It means a deliberate choice about where to put our focus. Today, we would say: “focus on the journey, not on the destination”. Another sage, Seneca, said:

“Artifici iucundius pingere est quam pinxisse” - painting brings more joy to the artist than to have painted.

To start is to create

Action over results, means over ends, are just one aspect of abandoning oneself to the process.

Even more important - at least for creative endeavours - is the belief in the power of getting started. Talking about this, Pablo Picasso once said:

“To know what you are going to draw, you have to begin drawing.”

From art to science, passing through the philosophy of science, we find an alternative way of saying the same. This one is from Paul Feyerabend in “Against Method”:

"Creation of a thing, and creation plus full understanding of a correct idea of the thing, are very often part of one and the same indivisible process and cannot be separated without bringing the process to a stop.”

Most ideas acquire their final shape while we are working on them. Nothing is created pure in our mind and then executed. Only through that process - the “creation of a thing” - we can discover what we are actually working on.

For Rem Koolhaas and the architects and designers at Office for Metropolitan Architecture, this is the difference between “projects” and “trajectories”:

A project is an enterprise that is carefully planned to achieve a particular aim. A trajectory instead includes the explorations, discoveries, numerous detours and unexpected surprises that occur while creating something.

Paul Graham means something similar when he says that “writing doesn’t just communicate ideas, it generates them.”

Tricks

And yet somehow, starting keeps being difficult. The fear of moving in the wrong direction paralyses us. Tricking ourselves, and our brain, is the only way out.

Some tricks are unconscious: we see clarity where clarity is missing. We believe a project to be easier than it is. We trust assumptions that turn out to be wrong. Surprisingly - or not really - we often end up with results that are better than the ones we, erroneously, expected.

Albert Hirschmann called it “The Hiding Hand”:

”Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be. Or, put differently: since we necessarily underestimate our creativity it is desirable that we underestimate to a roughly similar extent the difficulties of the tasks we face, so as to be tricked by these two offsetting underestimates into undertaking tasks which we can, but otherwise would not dare, tackle.”

Another approach, when unable to unconsciously trick ourselves, is to do it on purpose. Improvisation techniques offer a good way of doing that. In “Impro”, Keith Johnstone writes:

“You have to trick students into believing that content isn’t important and that it looks after itself, or they never get anywhere.(…)You have to misdirect people to absolve them of responsibility. Then, much later, they become strong enough to resume the responsibility themselves.”

Believing that what we are doing is unimportant, that we have no “responsibility”, is also a great way to learn how to throw away things. Nothing of what I quoted here about starting makes sense if we are not able, at the right moment, to throw away whatever we have produced and start from scratch, now under a much better inspiration.

Trick yourself to get started and enjoy the ride.

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Stefano Zorzi
tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:Post/1190287 2017-09-11T06:40:12Z 2017-09-11T06:40:12Z Confidence is a poor judge

I am becoming increasingly convinced that confidence is a poor judge of quality. At least for me. 

A few days ago I had to write a short statement for a group discussion. After a couple of hours of work I had written about 400 words, and felt quite proud of myself. I rehearsed the statement a couple of times in my head and closed my laptop. Job done. 

The same night, I had the chance to try out some of the arguments with a person sitting next to me at dinner. I barely made it though the main point that she had already spotted a big flaw. I ended up throwing away the entire thing. 

The opposite happens as well, with similar frequency. There are times where I have an idea, an hypothesis, or maybe the beginning of a theory and I feel pretty bad about it. It seems unoriginal, weak and poorly formed. In these situations, I tend to shelf my drafts or keep my thoughts to me, but the times when I end up sharing them - reluctantly - I am often surprised about the outcome. 

Why does this happen? It can be that I am simply a very bad judge or my own ideas. But there is probably more to it. It has to do with pushing our boundaries and doing something uncomfortable. 


When we are easily satisfied about something we have done, it is likely because we have uncovered something obvious. It doesn’t matter how original it may seem. Our subconscious recognises a pattern and clicks. 

On the other hand, being unhappy about what we have created doesn’t mean it is all necessarily bad. A possible explanation is that we simply can’t see what we have done. We are far from having a complete picture, and that’s what causes the unhappiness, but we might have uncovered something worth of someone else’s attention. When we share these imperfect yet potentially interesting ideas, other people are able to see through the imperfection and spot the interestingness. 

Overconfidence pollutes all residual points of interest. Insecurity allows the receiver to see through our unfinished work and surface its potential.  

Here is a short "note to self": 

When very confident about an idea or theory, doubt yourself. Test it with someone as soon as possible and be prepared for re-writing. 

When unhappy about an idea or theory, don’t throw it away immediately. Let it linger a bit, share it with a few persons you trust and whose feedback you respect. If it is indeed bad, they will tell you. But you might also discover that under you insecurity there is a diamond in the making. 




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Stefano Zorzi
tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:Post/1187716 2017-08-31T15:50:51Z 2017-08-31T15:50:51Z Don't consider, try

I often catch myself using the verb "consider" when putting down a note on something I am working on or when given feedback on someone else's work. What I mean - following Cambridge Dictionary - is: "spend time thinking about a possibility". 

This may seem an innocent advice, even a good one. What's wrong with pondering an action, mulling over a potential alternative or simply spending time considering the value of a certain proposal? 

To answer this question, compare these two sentences from a note I added while reviewing a presentation I was working on:

a) "Consider moving this slide earlier in the presentation."

b) "Try moving this slide earlier in the presentation."

Sentence a) achieves nothing. It notes that something could be done different but leaves the decision for later. Something didn't feel right, we now know about it, and the thought of it is hanging there in the back of our mind bothering our subconscious without moving anything forward. It's like snooze, but for our brain. 

There are many situations where it is good to postpone a final decision, but even in that case, what will this help me do? If I move on to other things and then get back to this presentation will I have made a better decision? Leaving out something hanging like this adds little value and comports a cognitive load. 

Sentence b) is much better. It maintains all the benefits of an open and delayed decision but eliminates all the negatives. It carries within itself the solution to our doubts. By trying out the change, we can experience how it would feel and we will then be in a much better position to decide what to do. 

There are two interesting aspects to this:

1. The first relates to a shift from scarcity to abundance. The idea of thinking before doing - intended as in this example, not as a prevention of impulsive acts - is part of the legacy of an age of scarcity where actions are very material and often irreversible. On the other hand, in a situation of abundance - like writing (words or code), and digital production in general - the risk, and cost of experimentation is much lower. It is, therefore, preferable to act and test rather than assume we can find the answer to a question through endless debates in a meeting room or by just letting it sink in our head. 

2. The second one is about giving good feedback. If we use "consider", we leave all the weigh of the decision to the other person. Acting from a position of superiority, we instill doubt and then move on. But we don't get our hands dirty, we don't take any risk or expose ourselves to failure - not even the failure of our advice. Good feedback should be direct: "move this slide to the top". Sometimes this is not possible; we just don't know what's best or we don't want to "impose" a decision. In these cases, framing the advice in terms of trying is the best choice. It suggests an action while leaving the door open for evaluation: "try moving the slide, then see how it feels and decide by yourself". 

This achieves the right balance between actionable feedback and leaving the person in charge - as it shold be.

 

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Stefano Zorzi
tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:Post/1183010 2017-08-12T15:47:49Z 2017-08-12T16:22:33Z Sceptical boldness

(Toughts in progress - I plan to turn this into a longer post at a later point)

A couple of days ago I was biking home listening to a podcast. As the guest was going through his vision of the future I couldn’t stop being aware that I wasn’t able to believe. It was not that I didn’t agree with him - after all, it is all pure speculation - just that I simply couldn’t see that vision materialising. 

With this thought stuck in my head, I began thinking of many other similar situations. I generalised on twitter, and went on with my things. 

As I woke up, a small debate had started around my tweet. My friend Stefano commented that “not being able to believe” makes it hard to be an investor. Malcolm Ocean chipped in with a different view. I agree with him. I don’t consider believing a necessary condition for action. 

My point of departure is that of a sceptic. Maybe not always, maybe not in all fields, but I definitely find myself often in situations where I am the sceptic in the room. And yet it would be difficult to argue that I am risk averse, hesitant, indecisive, or that I don’t follow dreams, that I don’t get excited about wild projects.

So, apparently, I am able to reconcile non-believing and acting. But if not a belief, something else must be there to motivate my actions, to give me energy. Actually, I am quite prone to get excited, and if I think about it, I could even be accused of being gullible, at least at first impression. In fact, I am actually a sucker for narratives. 

What makes a narrative different than a belief? A narrative is a logical/plausible argumentation of a hypothetical future 1. You can believe in a narrative but I distinguish a narrative from a belief by the fact that a belief is more intuitive - instinctive even - while a narrative requires at least the appearance of a logical argumentation. 

I say “the appearance” because I am not claiming here that a narrative is necessarily superior from a “truthiness” point of view to a belief. Both can be right and both can be wrong. But a narrative has a superior argumentative content. A narrative will include a concatenation of assumptions which, individually, can be analysed as sub-narratives, until we find simple statements that can be evaluated and, eventually, confirmed or disproven. A belief has inferior argumentative power than a narrative and rests on statements like “that’s inevitable” or “is in the nature of things” and similar. 

There are then situations where forming a narrative is not possible, but we can find nonetheless a reason to act. I can see two of these. The first one is hedging. Hedging happens where situations of low probability - true or perceived - can generate high costs or large missed gains. In these cases, the main motivation is regret minimization or loss avoidance. Hedging, though, is very passive in nature and doesn’t generate sufficient energy for prolonged action. There is simply not enough conviction in a hedging argument to motivate anything more than a one-off effort, for example placing a monetary bet or buying an insurance. Nobody builds a company as part of a hedging strategy2.

A second non-narrative, non-belief form of action is generated by “what-if” statements. This is essentially a matter of curiosity. What-ifs are what side projects are typically based on. Side projects lack belief and/or narrative (depending on which type of person you are) to become full-time projects but have stronger energy than mere hedging activities. Sometimes, side projects generate sufficient conviction - for example by confirming an assumption that can then become the backbone of a new narrative - to become full-time projects. In the interim, the previous full-time project - like a full-time job - moves from being the main narrative to being a pure hedging strategy. When this happens, there is simply too little energy to continue properly. These are the cases where people go to work and end up working on their side project all the time, until either they get caught - and likely fired - or they quit. Eventually, even the hedging is dropped or substituted for another less action-intensive hedging. 

The investing side of what-if actions is optionality. Investors will at times make bets where there is no belief and no narrative if the upside of something realising its hypothetical potential is high enough to justify the bet and the effort - and risk taking - that goes into it. In the investor case, the difference between optionality and hedging is not that pronounced, but it is still a different thing. Optionality is about keeping a door open for future action. It is a bit like procrastinating until stronger conviction kicks in - like in the case of side projects - while hedging is mostly a one-off event to then move on. 

It is often said that the ability to suspend disbelief is a key trait of entrepreneurs and investors, especially the most visionary ones. Suspending disbelief doesn’t necessarily mean believing. For non-believers, it all boils down to our degree of scepticism. St. Thomas had to touch before he could actually believe - he was an absolute sceptic, he could not suspend disbelief. Pascal found a logical trick to justify believing without believing - he was hedging. The scientific method allows us to proceed by series of guesses, as long as we are willing to test their validity by attempting to falsify them. The suspension of disbelief does not require the suspension of reason. A sceptic can also be brave.

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1 It can also be an explanation/rationalisation of present or past events, but this is not so relevant for this discussion.

2 This is why most “cover your ass” corporate innovation/disruption initiatives fail - you basically hope them not to happen.

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Stefano Zorzi
tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:Post/1176634 2017-07-24T17:49:38Z 2017-07-24T17:51:12Z The unbundling of home

I was recently asked, after coming back from a vacation, if I consider "home" to be in Italy or in Copenhagen. 

It is a simple question, but not an easy one to answer for many people in 2017. I have been in Denmark for 9 years, Copenhagen is the city where I live, work, where my kids go to school (2 out of 3 were born here) and where most of my things are. Yet, after all this time, every time I go to Italy I find myself invariably saying that I am going "home". Even when, like in my last visit, the place I am going to is more than 1000 km from the place where I was born and spent most of childhood. Reflecting more about it, I don't recall having used "home" to talk about Denmark even though I am pretty sure to have used the word "casa" which is the Italian equivalent but without the strict separation offered by the English language between the physical place and the emotional one. 

What is "home" then? 

As it happens often these days, it seems a case of a word describing a bundle of concepts which used to be together but are currently being unbundled. We have "home" the cultural place we belong to (Italy in my case), home the place where we live, home the place we grew up, etc. For most people, and most of the time, all these places used to be located in the same place. Today this is less and less the case. 

It will be interesting to see if our language will evolve to describe this new reality or if we will simply go on using one word for many things and many places. I thrive in ambiguity, so count me in on that.


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Stefano Zorzi
tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:Post/1175345 2017-07-20T05:50:30Z 2017-07-20T05:51:14Z Two kinds of contradiction

Most arguments and disagreements stem from using the same word for multiple things. One of these words is "contradiction". 

A person might contradict herself if she says something about a topic which doesn't apply to another one. For example, I can be a staunch defender of freedom of speech when it comes to my political faction, but I might take a more punitive position when the "freedom" to be defended belongs to my antagonist. 

Another form of contradiction is the one that happens over time: I say something today that contradicts with something I used to say, or believe, in the past. There is a famous video out there showing the (many) instances when Steve Jobs contradicted himself. Or rather, his previous self. 

The first type of contradiction is bad. At best it is a glitch. Normally, it is pure hypocrisy. The second one is not only excusable, it is recommended. I hope to be able to learn something as I move along in my life and there is no better way of showing that than contradicting with your previous self. 

I will start using two different expressions going forward: parallel contradiction (bad) and sequential contradiction (good). 

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Stefano Zorzi
tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:Post/1163789 2017-06-14T09:39:40Z 2017-06-15T02:50:41Z In love of hopelessness
“The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.” — Albert Camus, Sisyphus

A few weeks ago I was sitting in a meeting room together with the cofounders of a company we had been working on for almost two years. Despite some promising signs and a lot of effort, the product had failed to show any visibile traction. We had agreed a month earlier to look for alternative directions and there we were, sitting together in the moment of reckoning. The painful conclusion loomed heavy in the room: it was time to throw in the towel.

This is not one of those “why we failed posts”. I am not a big fan of them, but that’s another story[1]. No, what that episode got me thinking about is how hard it is for us to see meaning in our failed attempts. How consuming the act of trying is.

At Founders, we have always stressed the advantage of being able to separate what you are working on from who you are: that companies can fail but people shouldn’t. Four years in, this remains an assumption. In real life, we have noticed that once a company goes down it’s just too difficult to immediately jump back on the saddle.

I was talking to one of the co-founders and suggesting a bunch of other things he could try. From my privileged point of observation, I couldn’t understand what was so difficult in seeing as a “normal” job the process of trial and error until finding something that works. Listening to his replies, I realised that what is daunting is not failing, it is spending a life searching.

The real issue with product market fit

Product market fit is a fickle concept. It can be lost, it keeps moving, and contrary to popular belief, things don’t get magically easier once you get there. Yet, even discounting for its vague definition, it is fair to talk about life before and after product market fit.

Founders who have been through it describe it as an “emotional grind”, telling stories of stress, loss of sleep, loss of weight (and, even worse signs of mental and physical distress). It is more than just the hard work. Hard work itself becomes a relative concept depending on where the company is. Burnout is not a function of time, but one of movement. Forcing something that doesn’t work drives burnout, while the excitement for having (finally) found something that people want pushes everybody to give more.

We have been in this situation multiple times, and watched others doing the same. There is something exhausting about the uncertainty, the lack of positive feedback, the feeling that you are not progressing but endlessly circling back. It is a state of mind worse than the fear of failure, to the point that throwing the towel starts to be seen as a liberation. Not the dreaded moment where the world crumbles on you, but a break from the pain of futility and hopelessness.

The feeling of uncertainty, not the fear of failure, is also what blocks most people from getting started. It shows up as the perceived need to find a good idea, to validate the problem, to eliminate risk — all before jumping in. The big fear is finding out that we are toiling in vain, spending days, weeks, months on something no one wants. It is a vicious cycle: we don’t want to start before we know what will work, but without starting there is little chance to discover what that is.

Successful startups are built by two types of people: those who know how to manage the search and those who are naive enough not to care about it. We can keep relying on the latter, but we would be doing a good job if we could create more of the former. More specifically, we have to build a case for trying.

An economic case for trying

At the individual level, a lucid argumentation for trying comes from Paul Graham. In “After the Ladder”, he makes an important observation about the (micro)economics of a predictable career:

Economic statistics are misleading because they ignore the value of safe jobs. An easy job from which one can’t be fired is worth money…

The near-certainty of a long, uninterrupted career, followed by a generous pension is comparable, in NPV terms, with scoring a big financial win early on in our life. The social pact between employers and employees around the ladder made it rational to forgo the allure of a potential big win for the stability of a steady job. Conversely, if this promise disappears it would be far more rational to attempt reaching long term financial safety by making the most of our wealth early in our life[2].

We are accustomed to see our working life as a linear progression. We start humbly but expect to see our position and wealth grow over time. This approach has multiple implications. Betting our lives on careers means jumping on whatever is most in demand at that point of time. Our only reference to project a career path is to look at others who have been through it. By definition, it means betting on careers that are already 20–30 years old. In addition, our expectation for increased wealth pushes us for upgrades as we climb the ladder. In doing so we commit ourselves to a certain life, entangled in debt and irreversible choices.

Embracing a life of searching can seem irresponsible. Even Paul Graham limits his comparison to the extreme cases: the safe job and the early win. There are lives in between. Careers assumed to be safe are ended abruptly leaving people in shock, unable to stand up again. Others keep searching for that win, but never find it. What choice is better? Trying provides the optionality that careers remove. It allows us the early slack to focus on what’s coming instead of what has been. It keeps options open and burn rate low. As the two tracks progress, the economic value of a career is locked down, the range of outcomes ever narrower. Continuous searching, even the unfruitful kind, leaves that door open for serendipity.

Despite the obvious risks, trying can be a rational economic choice for the individual. Its value, however, becomes even more apparent when we turn our attention to the aggregate, the macro.

We all understand intuitively that an economy of outliers favours a portfolio approach. Over many bets, one will yield disproportionate returns, covering for all the rest and more. We use metaphors like racing and natural selection, pointing to the fact that many attempts are required to produce a winner. But we often fail to appreciate the real meaning of “required”.

Natural selection, in particular, is often misunderstood. When talking about “survival of the fittest” we get the idea that the fittest can exist in isolation, that all other players are background actors in a movie that doesn’t need them. The need for a portfolio is driven by our inability to see through the noise and identify the fittest. We wouldn’t need a portfolio if we could predict the future. That’s an illusion. When we focus all our attention on the outcome of evolution we overlook the process at the core of it. Biological life is a learning machine. Each attempt contributes to the whole, revealing closed paths and indicating open ones for others to pursue.

Learning from biology, we can understand economies as evolutionary systems driven by a process of selection, variation and replication:

“Evolution creates designs, or more appropriately, discovers designs through a process of trial and error. A variety of candiate designs are created and tried out in the environment. Designs that are successful are retained, replicated, and built upon, while those that are unsuccessful are discarded.”
”From the perspective of an entrepreneur or a new entrant starting in the low valley of a new architecture, there are lots of ways up and many new, untried peaks to explore. Most attempts up from the entrepreneurial valley will wind up in dead-end canyons or on disappointing short peaks. But with enough explorers working away, someone will eventually find an attractive route up.
Eric Beinhocker, The Origin of Wealth

This collective climb is not a race between unrelated individuals. It reminds me more of this scene from World War Z where zombies step on top of each other to climb the wall.

The question now is: what’s in it for the zombies at the bottom of the pyramid?

A modern Sisyphus

That’s where Sisyphus come in. There is a meme going around the web comparing a day in the life of corporate to that of a startup. We can skip the corporate guy in his hamster wheel and focus on the startup guy. He is depicted pushing a boulder up the hill, a clear reference to the myth of Sisyphus, condemned by the gods to carry a stone up a mountain just to see it rolling down again soon after.

I have seen these meme many times, recently in this tweet.

The issue with trying lies in the comment: “One gets you somewhere”. The truth is that most of the time it doesn’t. We miss the second half of the image, the downslope. Pretending to find relief from our Sisyphean toil in the hope of a result is perpetuating the same illusion at the root of our discomfort. What makes the search so miserable is precisely the expectation of progress, and the consequent feeling of despair when we realise that our work is without hope.

The solution lies instead in accepting our fundamental condition. For the French philosopher and existentialist Camus, Sisyphus is the ultimate hero. He has mastered the absurdity of a life without purpose and can now face his destiny with joy. As he walks back down the hill to pick up the boulder once again, Sisyphus is perfectly conscious of his fate. He resists despair not because he has hope, “to get somewhere”, but because he knows has not got anywhere.

“Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

You must try.


[1] Rationalisation doesn’t bring me solace from pain and I agree with the position that considers failure an overrated source of learning. Yes, we made errors and we picked the wrong turn in multiple places of the maze, but anything I could write here wouldn’t increase your chances of succeeding in the same space. Graveyard bias is not much better than survivor bias.

[2] This includes both starting a company and joining one very early (before product market fit)

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Stefano Zorzi
tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:Post/1159795 2017-06-01T22:16:48Z 2017-06-01T22:16:48Z The contrarian

The contrarian lives in the twittersphere,

Thousands like truths he alone believes

The contrarian says you should speak your mind,

Bhe is the first to criticize when you get it wrong

If contrarian is a badge that you wear like a pin 

Don't feel ashamed if it feels like a fraud.

But if "contrarian" is a word you don't even know what it means,

It may well be the contrarian is you. 

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Stefano Zorzi
tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:Post/1158448 2017-05-29T08:43:35Z 2017-05-29T09:09:41Z The human virus

In one of those serendipitous encounters that make life more enjoyable, I recently found myself reading "The Rise of Christianity" by Rodney Stark

As an Italian, I studied my good deal of Roman and Christian history at school but I had never grasped how incredible, and totally non-obvious, an achievement was for this "obscure Jesus cult" to take over one of the vastest empires in history in merely 300 years. The question sets the scene for an exciting read, but on top of that, the author does an incredible job in keeping it condensed within 200 pages of clear sociological explanations without tedious enumeration of facts. I recommend the book to everybody interested not only in this specific chapter of human history but in the broader topic of how disruptive social and cultural change happens.

At the core of the book lies a simple yet ofter overlooked fact: any movement or phenomenon that can keep growing at a steady rate for a sufficiently long period of time will become dominant. Compound growth, as noted by Einstein (apocryphally) is the most powerful force in the universe. That's the obvious part. The non-obvious one is how to maintain said growth rate.

In Christianity's case, it was essentially a matter of "fit". Multiple aspects of the emerging faith made it the perfect killer of the incumbent Greek-Roman tradition. From the focus on family and procreation (amidst a largely unmarried and low natality population) to the commitment to charitable endeavours (which made the Christian population more resistant to epidemics), to their openness and ability of assimilation.

History takes often unique turns and we have no guarantee that the outcome would be the same if we could replay it from the start. The history of Christianity shows, however, that certain innovations are simply too powerful to be stopped. It seems like nothing is changing, until it changes forever.


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Stefano Zorzi
tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:Post/1154836 2017-05-18T06:27:08Z 2017-05-18T06:41:20Z The ephemeral pleasure of consistency

Among the many pearls we received from the mountains of Davos, this list of things successful people do in the morning is probably the best one.

Leaving the ridiculous aside, the list points to a growing phenomenon: being it meditation, the five-minute workout, or writing (like in my case), daily rituals are becoming synonymous with living an efficient and successful life.

Since beginning blogging regularly I have struggled with balancing between the painful pleasure of embarking in long posts and the satisfaction in the discipline of daily writing. A couple of months ago I have started my own small ritual: I wake up at 6 am, prepare coffee and start writing. By 6:45, when it is time to wake up the kids, I have to hit "publish". Considering travel, weekends (where I try to focus on longer posts) and the occasional oversleeping, I have done quite well, 32 posts in 60 days.

The original idea was to compartmentalise my writing, short in the morning and long, well, some other time. What seemed to have happened instead is an increase in complacency and a decrease in writing quality. Beyond the natural constraints of time-boxing, imposing a daily habit has given room to a certain complacency that is impacting negatively my ability to embark on longer, more ambitious projects. Is my writing habit - along with all other habits - just another form of instant gratification?

Treacherous pleasure

Daily rituals appeal to our desire to be disciplined and consistent. They also allow us to turn ambitious long-term goals, like getting into better physical shape, into manageable bites. Getting something done every day is a real booster for self-confidence, but the main question remains whether they actually work.

When I started my (semi-)daily writing habit I did it for two reasons. I wanted a place to capture my thoughts and, in turn, develop a better noticing muscle. Twitter is quite good at that but its mechanics make it little rewarding if you don't have a lot of followers. The alternative would be to work through that first, but that's a bigger goal and it will eliminate the purpose of a manageable daily activity. Writing in short form - around 500 words per post - offered me a sweet spot. It is something I can manage do achieve almost every day (discipline) and gives me a strong sense of accomplishment, way more than a tweet. It felt good, for the first few weeks.

Athletes know though that muscles become lazy when you keep repeating the same workout. It is an inevitable drawback of being an amazing learning machine. Every time an exercise is repeated, our body learns how to go through it in a more efficient way. The intensity of the effort diminishes and while the mental benefits persist (you keep patting yourself on then back just for showing up). Progress reaches a plateau.

Writing differs from exercising in that the aim is to create something finite and not "simply" keep the brain active. Sticking to a daily routine is even more treacherous, there is a wide gap between our long-term goals - which might be to use writing for insight generation or more mundanely to create an audience - and the short-term pleasure of hitting "publish" every day. No sequence of short posts can deliver the sort of "insight porn" both readers and writers can attain when pushing the limits of quantity in a non-mechanical way (listicles not allowed).

Ultimately, it is a matter of patience and deferred pleasure. The more we train our brain to its daily shot of accomplishment-induce endorphin, the more we become addicted to it. Daily habits are popular because they deliver on their promise: they make life look simple and us look good, a seven minutes workout is all we need to be in shape. Deeper down, they give us the illusion that we can avoid schlep.

Schlepping through time

All important endeavours have something in common: they involve a lot of schlep. The issue is that most of us (all probably) have an innate tendency to avoid it, to live in the hope that something beautiful can come out by sole act of conceptualising it.

"No one likes schleps, but hackers especially dislike them. Most hackers who start startups wish they could do it by just writing some clever software, putting it on a server somewhere, and watching the money roll in—without ever having to talk to users, or negotiate with other companies, or deal with other people's broken code. Maybe that's possible, but I haven't seen it." Paul Graham

The sad reality is one where no shortcuts exist. You cannot think of a decent long from post by planning it, just in the same way no truly successful startup can be "designed" at the drawing board before actually starting. It is this inevitable uncertainty that blocks us from embarking on long projects. The inability to clearly see the end and defer gratification. It doesn't matter that we have memory of accomplishing something before (although it helps), the fear of wasting time is too strong.

The same is true, in particular, for a lot of complex skills where the learning curve is flat, long and painful. My personal weakness is thinking that I can learn myself out of rookie status, that reading up will make me a better writer, developer (that I have barely started), etc. It is probably an inherited theory-fetish I got from school. "Deliberate practice", the only way to get there, is a much harder and schleppy activity. It's the tedious repetition of sub-skills until you have mastered them and then move to a new one.

How do we then accept "schleppy work"? How do we "defer gratification and accept, even seek out, a degree of pain based on the no-pain-no-gain heuristic."

A random walk in Melee Island

In my case, the answer came from a surprising place: the (almost) forgotten world of adventure games. Adventure games were a big thing in the late 80's and in the 90's but they slowly lost appeal among gratification-starving gamers. Why did it happen?

One school of thought tends to blame the invincible trend of shortening attention spans. Why should we spend hours wandering through an imagined world with basically no direction, poking around, asking questions and trying to solve puzzles just to get ahead in the game? You can find scores of adventure games fans ranting about this online.

"Today all the games act like you have the attention span of a hamster and if shit isn't shooting and you or exploding for longer than 20 seconds you'll fall asleep".

A better explanation blames adventure games themselves (or better designers of adventure games). Many of them simply took the exercise too far, making a fetish out of the complexity of solving puzzles, forgetting that the actual value for the player is in going through a journey, following the plot to the end.

Great adventure games are open-ended and challenging without being frustrating. In its 1989 manifesto, Ron Gilbert (the mind behind Monkey Island and many other memorable adventure games) listed the principles to make adventures games that don't suck. In the opening paragraph he defines the type of games he set out to make:

"I enjoy games in which the pace is slow and the reward is for thinking and figuring, rather than quick reflexes."

A key aspect of that is keeping the user in a state of suspension of disbelief:

"As designers, our job is to keep people in this state for as long as possible. Every time the player has to restore a saved game, or pound his head on the desk in frustration, the suspension of disbelief is gone. At this time he is most likely to shut off the computer and go watch TV, at which point we all have lost."

When you wander through the street of Melee Island, you have an overall awareness of your goals but the rest you discover by poking around, talking to the different characters, picking up stuff. It is fun to watch someone trying playing the game today (I recently introduced it to my 11 years old daughter), the first reaction is to ask "what am I supposed to do?".

Initially, it will be difficult to measure your progress. You visit the SCUMM bar and notice that the cook often comes out from the kitchen and walks into the main room (leaving the door open behind him), the prisoner at the local jail has a terrible breath and a weird looking individual is trying to sell you obviously fake maps. As you play along, some people will help you (let's call it, the muse). You will learn that you need to distract the dogs guarding the governor house, and you will remember about the piece of meat you have seen in the kitchen. You'll be told that one of your trial consists of digging up the famous treasure of Melee Island(TM) and you'll realise that map wasn't so bad after all. The shopkeeper will offer you some mints, and when you give that to the prisoner you'll make a useful friend for later stages in the game.

In a well-made adventure game, progress is the sum of small, apparently meaningless, discoveries. In Steve Jobs' style, connecting the dots can only happen in hindsight. The key is embracing curiosity, let go of short-term rewards and start exploring. Do it every day, that's the antidote for our daily habit mania.

"You're going to get stuck. You're going to be frustrated. Some puzzles will be hard, but all the puzzles will be fair."


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Stefano Zorzi
tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:Post/1152639 2017-05-09T06:39:10Z 2017-05-09T06:39:51Z The rudder effect

Sailing metaphors are a much used - and abused - way to describe the act of running a team or a company. A leader is "firmly at the wheel" and "motivates the crew" to "stay on course" while facing "rough waters". It all reminds me of a set of posters I once saw in some office: large pictures of a sailing boat, people working together on at the winches, waves crashing on the sides, a skipper seriously - but calmly - looking at the horizon, a large "TEAMWORK" printed in large letters just below the image. If you find it cheesy, count me in with you. 

There is one thing though that running a team has truly in common with sailing, and that's the concept of correcting. Rubber is controlled directly, you touch the wheel and your car, bike, truck, turns. A rudder, instead, acts by (re)directing the energy created by the propeller or, in the case of a sailing boat, by the wind. The main implication of this difference is a lag between stimulus (your movement on the wheel) and action (the boat actually changing course). Partially because of that, and partially due to a lower sensibility, the change imposed by the rudder ends up having bigger impact than we originally intended. The result is "correcting", a steering style that consists of seamingly contradicting inputs to maintain a steady course.

I find the same applying to the motion of a team. It is natural for a team, at any point of time, to be erring on one particular side. Too much attention to details or too little, too much self criticism or too little, too much dialogue or too little. Nobody has yet invented a mixer for human interaction: you get tempered water by adding first cold then warm, and viceversa. A good team can recognize the erring and correct  it by opening the other faucet. 

Back to sailing. A poor skipper will apply too much force in each direction, causing confusion to the boat and losing wind. A good one will use her sensibility to delicately adjust course.



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Stefano Zorzi
tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:Post/1152355 2017-05-07T21:05:07Z 2017-05-07T21:05:08Z Finding time for unplanned time

This weekend we held Founders annual offsite. When planning for it, different people made me realise that we had probably underplanned it. "Sounds great", they said as they were telling me about offsites that turn out to be a little more than a long long meeting in a location far from the office. But I started to have my doubts. 

In our busy business life there is a clear bias for efficiency. We want everything to run smoothly, we want to be doers and we want to use every single minute in the most optimised way. Going the opposite direction feels sloppy and it is difficult to kick away that guilty feeling. Then, as the first day unfolds,  you start to see the magic happening. People that would normally barely have time for a quick "good morning" getting together and engaging in deep conversations, lots of side discussions getting to the bottom of past situations not properly closed, plans being made, ambitions being shared. 

I think now that feeling comfortable with unplanned time takes courage and experience. Falling back to filling every moment with an agenda item is the easy thing. Controlling for efficiency can guarantee a safe outcome, but it will never be like optimising for serendipity. It's like engaging in a long dialogue and feeling comfortable with keeping silent. Try it. 

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Stefano Zorzi
tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:Post/1150519 2017-05-01T04:49:00Z 2017-05-01T04:50:27Z Starting is irrational, continuing is delusional, succeeding is obvious

I came across an old post from Sam Gerstenzang which summarises pretty well what I have learnt in four years of starting companies through Founders. 

"Silicon Valley loves the mission-based startup and retroactively constructs a founder mythology. But big companies get started because someone takes the leap, she listens to encouragement, and ignores the haters until the company reaches product-market fit. That part is always the same."

It reminded me of a chapter in "Thinking, fast and slow", dedicated to entrepreneurs' innate, and illogical, optimism. It also reminded me of Indiana Jones and the last Crusade, when Indi is facing the second trial and has to take the "leap of faith" to reach the Graal. Imagine if he had simply fallen down, ending his quest, and the movie, in the most unglamorous way. Celebrating faith is easy when it turned out to be the right choice, yet any rational person should not have attempted that in the first place. 

There are a couple of ways to overcome rationality and take the leap. The first one is to be blind to the challenge, either because we believe so much in ourselves or because we are naive and wholly unprepared. The other one is to trick our mind and push any true probability assessment to a later moment. This is Paul Graham's "questions", and it still the best trick I know to get started. 

Each startup is a journey against sound thinking and probability. It begins with the irrational decision to attempt something that is doomed to fail and it continues through the delusion of persevering when any sane person would quit and do something better with their life. Until one day you make it, and it all becomes obvious.


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Stefano Zorzi
tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:Post/1150003 2017-04-28T11:27:50Z 2017-11-09T12:42:18Z False consciousness in the freelancer age

Every time I walk into a WeWork I can't help thinking about Marx. What do a modern, hipster, co-working space and Das Kapital have in common? After all, WeWork is a symbol of today's entrepreneurial renaissance: scruffy startups and hustling freelancers breaking the yoke of salaried labour to realise their dream. All true. But there is more under the surface. Behind the cosy vintage-looking furniture, the coloured coffee-table books and the free beer, I see an army of hard-working people struggling to make ends meet while happily handing over a large chunk of their income to a multi-billion dollar real estate company in exchange for what is basically a Dilbert-style cubicle. Don't get me wrong here: everybody is just doing their job, no scam, no forcing of anybody to take up the deal. It reminds me, tough, of the discussion around positive externalities and consumer surplus which we are receiving from our ads-driven internet giant. True, we get a lot of stuff for free, but at what real cost? Let's call a spade a spade, free beer and cosy furniture have a price. A certain German philosopher would have a name for that: false consciousness.  


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Stefano Zorzi
tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:Post/1149721 2017-04-27T06:21:37Z 2017-04-27T06:21:37Z My vision or yours

I have opinions on most topics. At time quite strong, often - at least I hope - weekly held. Given that what I do consists in large part in thinking about product ideas, I also have a lot of opinions about what would work, and wouldn't, in a wide range of markets. 

It's both a blessing and a sin. Every time I meet an entrepreneur working on a new product, I fall inevitably in the confirmation trap. Is she working on the angle I think would work? It's a terrible way of judging other people's ideas, and yet a very human one. I understand much better now the difference between a good investor and a rookie: the rookie will pretend - consciously or not - to know more than the entrepreneurs and seek teams that fit in his or her frame, the good one instead will remain objective, and open-minded, and let the entrepreneur show the way. Entrepreneurs are the ones creating the future. 

There is a consequence to this. A good investor will inevitably tend to be sceptical and will try to underpin her judgment by looking for facts. The team's track record, usage metrics, growth, etc. Investors are patient and often prefer to wait precisely because they understand that their judgment - everyone's judgement - is easily biased. 

But what to do when you can't wait? If you are a founder, or a co-founder, or an investor that wants to get in before any solid fact reaches the table, the only thing you have left is vision. Conscious of my bias, I will be happy taking a risk if it means following my vision. Right or wrong, it is at least mine. The only alternative is to buy into someone else's - and thus make it mine. 

So this is my decision criteria in these situations: it's either my vision or yours, in all other cases I'd rather wait. 



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Stefano Zorzi
tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:Post/1149396 2017-04-26T04:43:38Z 2017-04-26T04:43:38Z Battery

Here is a new challenge. I normally write in the morning, before waking up the kids. I never have more than thirty, maybe forty, minutes. Sit down, look at some notes I have typed the day before, anything new on my mind after the night? The clock races. If I am not done by 6:50 we'll be late again. Writing more than 500 words is a painful process, I published something yesterday I wasn't happy about. I should be better at throwing out an entire draft and start from scratch when it just doesn't work. Writing short is different. Open the editor, even the phone is just good enough. The cursor is blinking, what time is it already? Today I wanted to write about visions and narratives. I had this conversation the other night and I realised something about how I tend to make decisions, it would make for a good short post. Not today though. As I am typing these words, my laptop tells me I running out of battery, the charger at work - thank you apple. I will push "save and publish" now, it's 6:42, I am on time, for once. 

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Stefano Zorzi
tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:Post/1148016 2017-04-21T05:01:57Z 2017-04-21T05:01:57Z Netflix and the intermediate step

We see a lot of attempts these days to take us through a new technological leap. Voice computing and AR are two noticeable examples. In these moments, it is easy to follow a linear path: first, something doesn't exist, then you get a crappy version of it, then a better one and then it works. 

From a pure technology point of view this makes sense, nothing is born in its perfect version. Things, however, gets more complicated from a user - or usage - point of view. We are sold dreams that don't exist, and that annoys us. A good example is a few attempts I have seen recently to capture meeting notes by listening to conversations. We are too far today from a sufficiently good version of this, and I am also asking myself whether this is something I would ever want. 

But this is not the point. If we imagine the perfect experience as being one where: you meet with your colleagues, you start talking through the agenda, you agree on next steps, you stand up and leave the room and, magic, all notes are perfectly there - what is then the intermediate step? 

To find the answer, we need to look at Netflix. In its early days they already had a clear idea that streaming would be the future, but where did they start? The didn't offer a crappy streaming product, the sent DVD's to people. Here is what Reed Hastings says about that: 

"We always viewed the DVD by mail as a digital distribution network, and then we knew eventually... that's why we called the company Netflix and not 'DVD by mail'" 

This is the perfect intermediate step. 

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Stefano Zorzi
tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:Post/1146561 2017-04-15T09:31:24Z 2017-04-15T17:25:46Z Digital is getting physical

I look forward to a future where digital and physical mix and where we go back to have a mostly physical life, but digitally enhanced. 

There are a lot of good reasons to worry about that, and I have listed some in a previous post. Leaving this aside for a moment, there are also many reasons why we should be happy that our inescapable digital future that has so far sucked us into two-dimensional glassware will finally spit us back to the three-dimensional world where we belong. The future that awaits us is one where we freely utilise data generated by living in a world of bits to make choices in a world of atoms. 

An interesting example comes, not surprisingly, from Amazon whose CEO is on record saying that there is nothing "new" about opening physical stores and that the focus of the company will always be delighting customers and if customers want - also - physical stores then this is what Amazon will do. 

This recent tweet with photos taken from one of the first Amazon bookstores shows where the potential lies.

Data tracked from our digital interaction with amazon and kindle is used to create innovative classifications and smart in-store signage. Just judging from these photos it seems already a better way than "history", "politics", "fiction" or simple alphabetical sorting. It is worth noticing that Amazon can do this because we have now been buying books on its website for a long time and that, since introducing kindle, it has been also able to track what we read, what we highlight, what we finish and what we don't (and where we stop in those cases). 

Again, forget about how creepy this all sounds when we really think about that - this part will have to be solved, at least I hope [1] - and think about a future where the same level of tracking can be embedded in our physical world. The optimistic view is to see that as the time where digital loses its advantage against physical. I want to be optimistic. 


[1] Every time I think about this I see no alternative to a system where we have private ownership of data combined with the ability to give third parties access to it. 

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Stefano Zorzi
tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:Post/1146342 2017-04-14T06:45:13Z 2017-04-14T06:47:39Z A cultural history of...

There is a type of book or study that I often look for but seldom find. In my imagination it's called "a cultural history of.." and it's a kind of travel guide to the mentality of a place. 

Countries, large regions and even cities, have a distinct mentality. It is more than "traditions" or "cultural events" and it goes beyond a collection of ethnicities, religions and sub-cultures. A place's mentality is a persistent yet invisible fabric that guides the people living there toward a certain type of recognisable macro-behaviour. It transcends individual beliefs and political views, and it applies to the newly settled just as much as to those who have been inhabiting a place for generations. 

When I wrote about California as the "land of dreams" in my previous post, I meant the distinctive DNA that ties together Hollywood with Silicon Valley, going back to the Gold Rush and passing through surfing culture of the South and counterculture of the North. A mentality is the product of a place's history and the history of the people who lived there. However, a traditional history book will only give you the input to understand a mentality. These books are normally a sequence of events and don't spend too much time trying to understand how each event is related to the next (beyond a strict causality) and how they stratify and ossify to produce a place's mentality. 

If you move to Rome today, you will see Roman ruins next to baroque fountains next to churches dating to the beginning of Christianity next to the balcony where Mussolini declared war next to a monument erected for a Piedmontese king which is also the tomb of the "unknown soldier" from the first world war. The innate sensibility of its people, their invincible cynicism, their allergy towards authority, and the sense of tragedy mixed with comedy that pervades every conversation, cannot be grasped without understanding this past. 

I wish there were more books and travel guides that could help the foreign visitor and the occasional expat to a better understanding of this "mentality". You cannot understand a place without grasping how its people think, even when they don't know they think like this. 

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Stefano Zorzi
tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:Post/1145862 2017-04-12T06:09:34Z 2017-04-12T08:05:58Z Land of dreams

Last weekend I watched Empire of Dreams, the 2004 documentary on Star Wars (you can find it on youtube). I was never one of those huge fans of the series - of the two Harrison Fords I loved Indiana Jones [1] more than Han Solo. The documentary though is really great, the epic of Star Wars being even better than the Star Wars epic. 

George Lucas is a Californian entrepreneur, and this is no coincidence. As I was watching pieces of the documentary with my daughter and discussing a future trip to Los Angeles, I couldn't avoid talking about dreams. Everybody has them. We have stories in Italy that are in no way less heroic and dramatic and grand as the story of Star Wars, Apple, Pixar and many other Californian dreams. But our stories follow typically a different trajectory: a young person starts working on the factory floor and goes through a series of hardships, he emerges as a smart fellow with ambitions bigger than working for others, over time he accumulates enough savings to break out and start his own firm, the firm develops from tiny workshop to global giant[2]. 

George Lucas dreamt about making a space movie. He wanted the ability and independence to produce his own story but needed the money to do so. He gets a budget from Fox, gathers a group of unproven, and mostly unknown, actors and special effects makers, bets on innovation that doesn't exist yet. It is a story of vision, near-death failures, last minute sprints and fixes and ultimate overwhelming, unexpected success. A great Californian story. 

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[1] Riders of the Lost Ark is still one of my favourite movies. Nothing can beat archaeology mixed with history mixed with religion mixed with magic. And that soundtrack... 

[2] With few differences, this is the story of Ferrari and Luxottica, among others.

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Stefano Zorzi
tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:Post/1145173 2017-04-09T18:00:51Z 2017-04-09T18:16:15Z Love, shame and The New Yorker

I have never bought a copy of The New Yorker. I have read a number of articles over the years, and mostly liked them, and I have often thought about subscribing, without ever finding the courage to do it. The other day I saw an old issue on the table of a café. For I moment I decided to grab it, put it in my bag and read it on the flight home. Then I thought of what my father would think. 

My father runs a construction company. He has done that for his whole life after taking over from my grandfather who took over from his father in law. When my grandfather died my father was 32, he took over a company with more than 100 workers and a complicated financial situation. Back in those days, employing people was a pride and a responsibility[1]. Construction, like manufacturing, needs people of all kinds. The entrepreneur - in the Italian North-East trained on the shop floor more often than in school - a few engineers and architects, middle managers - if you are big enough, which is rare - and workers[2].

Visiting the construction sites is a daily ritual. Owner and workers know perfectly well about their different roles, and what that means. There is no illusion of equality and yet no tangible feeling of the opposite. As you arrive, the most visible symbol of status is left in the parking lot. Once in, differences fade. Your shoes carry the same mud, your hands are dirty with the same dust. You drink the same coffee - in the old days often mixed with red wine - and the fanciest place you can retreat to is a container turned office, where cigarette butts rest sadly in small plastic cups. 

It is partly the job and party, I guess, the town. I come from a small provincial town in the north of the country where everybody goes to public school and we don't really have an intellectual class. There are lawyers and doctors and other people with a degree. In my family, it is me and my mum - an English teacher. My father started but never finished. Education is not measured in habits or social circles - that's more of a big city thing. It is rather a matter of taste: the books you read, the place you visits, what you know of history and art. 

Contemporary art is where I often draw the line between education and intellectualism[3]. "Education" is the ability to appreciate the beautiful. Intellectualism requires a jump in sophistication, the one required to appreciate most contemporary art. You go to a museum or a gallery - by itself a deliberate act - and walk through art pieces whose meaning is rarely confined to what the eye can see. Classical art is more democratic and more popular, religious art in particular. It is exhibited or directly painted in churches that you can simply visit. Churches themselves are pieces of art meant to be seen and visited by everyone. Even today when most visitors are there more for the frescos than for the mass, churches attract the blue-collar tourists, the one arriving by bus with their home made sandwiches, the ones that don't really care about staying at an Airbnb so that they can experience local cafes at brunch time. 

My love-and-shame relationship with The New Yorker is all here. It is the struggle between what I like and what I fear becoming. I have moved abroad, I live in a city, I have recently been to the cinema to watch a documentary about some Japanese female divers from a remote fishing village. What do I have left in common with the workers in my father's construction company?   

Where the gap between my father and them was more about wealth mine is more about taste. Food and restaurant tastes, wine choices, books, the nearly complete elimination of tv from my life. Maybe all of this is normal and that's just the way it works when you decide to leave your hometown and do something else with your life. 

Maybe. I remember a story I used to listen to when I was a child. It was the story of this boy who is too good and then one day he wakes up with a pair of wings growing out of his back. He is becoming an angel. He then starts doing all kind of bad things, but he overcompensates and he becomes a devil instead, with tail and all. Finally, he manages to get back to normal. From that day he will again be a good boy, but when it is time to go to bed, just once in a while, he will skip brushing his teeth. That subscription can wait.  

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[1] Since we are in 2017, the company doesn't employ that many people anymore. A couple of full-time staff in then office and contractors for the actual work. Since we are in Italy, the company is always on the brink of death. Everything related to the old days is coloured by nostalgia. 

[2]An under-explored topic in the transition from a manufacturing economy to a service and information one is the erosion of social diversity at the company level. In tech companies most people have similar status and education, there is little difference between them. When that exist, like in the case of uber drivers, it's pushed out of the company. 

[3] Not meant in a derogatory way. 

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Stefano Zorzi
tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:Post/1143255 2017-04-02T06:45:57Z 2017-04-02T13:37:57Z What I have been listening to

As a father of one, two, and now three, I find inevitably a bunch of house chores waiting for me every day when I get home. My infovore dna would rather have me reading or writing something and that's when I started to fall more and more into the podcast rabbit hole. 

There is a lot of potential in the medium and I see more and more people waking up to that. There is also a lot of repetition, the typical podcast format is the interview (or dialogue) and the same people get interviewed a lot, especially in tech/VC circle[1]. Some producers are experiencing with new narrative forms (Serial the most famous of them) but I can see in my habits that information/learning still has a preference vs entertainment. 

Discovery and recommendation play a different role for podcasting than blogging. First, there are fewer podcasts produced than posts written on a weekly basis. Podcast are also more resource intensive and the barrier to entry are still higher than "just" writing. A newsletter curating podcasts is less useful that one curating written content (a form of curation that has exploded in the last couple of years). People follow (subscribe) to specific hosts rather than picking and choosing one episode at a time. It is rare that the unknown host produces one memorable episode among many not-so-memorable ones. Consistency is much more in the hands of the host than it is in the hands of the blogger. And so on. 

With this in mind, I decided to start noting down what I listen to every week. It might end up being useful for somebody to discover new content or just for me as a sort of journal stimulating some reflections on where podcasting is going. Let's see. 

Ok, already now this is an issue. Since I listen mostly on my phone (like most people I guess) I don't have an easy way to find links to podcasts I have listened to on my computer. I am now browsing a podcasting app as activity record and wondering how to copy/paste those links into this post. Sounds pretty stupid but here we go, immediately an impediment for podcast curation on the written web. 

Update. I figured that I could just move to editing this post on my phone, copying links from my podcasting app and pasting them into the editor in my mobile browser. Fail again. When I paste the link the url is, obviously, that of the specific app I am listening with. This means if my readers don't have that app they are stuck.

Update 2. Luckily, the people at breaker (the app I am using now) have an open web version where you can listen to the podcast without downloading the app, so the experience of clicking through their link is not that terrible. I'll stick to using their links, they are doing a very good job and you should give it a try.  

So, this week:

a16z: "From Hidden Figure to Sonic BOOM" https://breaker.audio/e/16959840

Funny enough, I listened to this just a couple of days after watching "Hidden Figures", the movie, with my daughter. I didn't know about this story, it's a very good one. 

99% Invisible: "251- Negative Space: Logo Design with Michael Bierut" https://breaker.audio/e/16512648

I listen on and off to 99PI. Roman Mars' voice is the closest I get to guided meditation. This interview is exceptionally good.

The Ezra Klein Show: "David Chang, head of the Momofuku empire" https://breaker.audio/e/4005921

This is another thing about podcasts. Once you discover a new show, you can spend a lot of time going back through old episodes. A good show is likely to have produced consistently good episodes and I like to binge on the once I found one. 

The Ezra Klein Show: "Tyler Cowen explains it all" https://breaker.audio/e/17276142

See above comment. This is one is even more, a cross reference between two shows I like a lot recently. First listen to Cowen interviewing Ezra Klein, then to the reverse. Podcasting is a small circle. There is a passage around 18:58 about weaknesses and strengths that I really loved. Writing more about that soon. 

The Twenty Minute VC: Venture Capital "a16z's Balaji Srinivasan on Why There Is A Financial Incentive For Truth In VC & Why The Best VCs Invest In Founder To Make Them Richer Than Themselves" https://breaker.audio/e/5044338

I must admit I have been "snobbing" the 20m VC for a long time. Mostly because I try to get a break from VC/Tech/Startup stuff when I am back home, but also because of the style of the interviews. Just a matter of taste I guess. I have to concede that guests are great and they very often drop invaluable knowledge. Like in this case. In this episode, Balaji says something extremely interesting about pocket of values in outdated regulations. Regulatory arbitrage has been the source of (at least) 2 multi-billion dollar businesses in the past years (Uber and Airbnb), what else could be there? 

How I Built This: "Power Rangers: Haim Saban" https://breaker.audio/e/17170719

This story is just incredible. Haim Saban is the impersonification of hustling (in the positive sense Haim, don't worry). This quote says it all: "The biggest hits I have had in my life has been always as the result of significant and repeated rejection. So every time i have an idea where people tell me 'don't do that', I think 'ups, I am on to something'".  (please allow quoting sound bites!!)

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[1] Incentives play a role here. Lots of new tech podcasts are coming up since techies are the main early adopters of podcasts. All new podcasts try to interview famous tech people (mostly VCs) and they, in turn, have a strong incentive to be interviewed (ego plays a big role too). We end up with multiple podcast hosts trying to boost their visibility by interviewing a smaller number of successful people. The result is a lot of repetition and also a good number of dull episodes where the status gap between host and guest is so high that the entire thing ends up being more an exercise in adulation instead of a true dialogue. 

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Stefano Zorzi
tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:Post/1141794 2017-03-27T05:06:55Z 2017-03-27T08:27:52Z After us

Homo Sapiens, by Nikolaus Geyrhalter, is an exceptional documentary. If you are lucky enough to catch it, you will find yourself looking at footage of abandoned places for 94 minutes straight. Not a dialogue. No soundtrack. Rain dripping through a broken ceiling, a gust of wind blowing papers around a deserted classroom, flapping of wings when a pigeon flies through an empty warehouse, croaking of a frog in an abandoned mall. 

The goal is to make us feel what earth will look like once we are gone. We are told nothing about the places we see. Not a hint to why they have been abandoned, letting nature regain its ownership. Nothing about the stories, the tragedies, that forced humans away. That's not the point. It is not about the single place. We are left with the feeling that humanity is gone, forever, from everywhere. Nobody seems to bother. There is no one that could. Wind blows, frog croak. Unperturbed by the lack of us - or because of that - nature goes on with its existence. Waves crashing on the shore, birds shrieking in the sky. Who liked these people anyway? 

And yet there is so much of us in the movie.  Without seeing a single living person you can still feel our presence. A symbol in a broken congress hall reminds us of wars, tragedies, broken dreams, people chanting at parades, man enchanting the masses at a rally. Computers, servers, a radio antenna pointed at the sky, tell us about our dream to conquer nature, on this world and on others. Cars, magazines, supermarket trollies, a water slide, a swing - tools for our distraction, for entertainment. You cannot miss our uniqueness, our arrogance, our ambition. Only humans bend nature to their will, at least in this visible way. Once gone, we leave a heavy trail of concrete, steel, broken glass and wires everywhere. It looks ugly, but then, no one is there to care about beauty and ugliness. 

Out of the screen and into the theatre a second experience unfolds. It doesn't happen that often that a group of us is asked to sit quietly for 94 minutes staring at nature. A few fall asleep. It's Saturday afternoon and we are all tired. My mind is left free to go around. I look at the details on the screen, think of thoughts I wrote above. Think of something else, then back to the screen. Where is this place? What happened to all the people? Time is up, light's on. We sit in silence for a while, aware of our presence like rarely before. We are the master of this world, and then again, after us no one will care. 

 


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Stefano Zorzi
tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:Post/1141183 2017-03-24T06:13:13Z 2017-03-24T06:13:13Z The gift of empathy

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom

David Foster Wallace

Empathy is a gift. A hard one to acquire and a difficult one to maintain. Not only does it make us better people towards others, it also helps us overcoming our own challenges: appreciate what we have and who we are, put our own difficulties into perspective. 

We learn empathy through time. Through our own sufferings and those of the people close to us. Stories are great shortcuts into empathy. Can you watch "Grave of the Fireflies" and not feel love for all the children? Can you read Life and Faith and not feel compassion for humanity? If only for this reason, pick up a book, and read. 

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Stefano Zorzi
tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:Post/1140844 2017-03-23T17:06:08Z 2017-03-23T17:07:30Z Protectionism and the internet

My friend David Galbraith talks often about the lack of a meaningful European internet company. He has a point. After all, if the single largest economic area (by GDP) in the world hasn't been able to produce a truly global internet platform almost 30 years into this revolution, it is probably worth asking some questions. 

The reason why we too often avoid the discussion is that it requires to bring up some uncomfortable topics. Protectionism is among those. A taboo word for many people, generally associated with xenophobic sentiment of the new right or old school nostalgia of the left. There is sufficient evidence by now that trade wars don't bring much good. There is less evidence that (some) protectionism is by the default bad. After all, most advanced nations in the industrial world got a chance to develop their own heavy and manufacturing industries at a time where infrastructure itself created some barriers to trade. Low friction means high gravity, and gravity means concentration. 

After WW2, Import-substituting industrialisation became a popular term for emerging countries willing to catch up with more developed nations. The main idea was that by limiting access to foreign manufactured goods you could stimulate the birth and growth of a local industrial economy. The result was mostly disappointing. Not because goods could not be manufactured (or not with sufficient quality) but because "industrialisation" means more than just "manufacturing". We tend to associate it with a large span of social and economic changes which go well beyond what a factory can spit out.

Taken from a pure output point of view, it would be fair to say that China got the internet economy right. Better than Europe at least. By being closed to the US internet giants, it has created the condition for true native platforms to emerge. Europe, on the other hand, has assumed that industrial trade philosophy could be ported to the internet. That fighting excessive concentration could be sufficient to limit the power of internet monopolies. We all know how it went. 

We are left with the question of whether a more protectionist approach to the internet would have benefitted Europe more. I don't know. At the end of the day, the same argument could be made by each European country. "Why doesn't Italy have an internet giant like (insert country of choice)??" I prefer thinking that there is a European way to the information economy. Something that fits more with our value and our heritage. We can still build that, it can be our import-substituting digitalisation. 

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Stefano Zorzi
tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:Post/1140649 2017-03-22T05:57:47Z 2017-03-22T05:58:07Z Judging
"Judge not
Before you judge yourself
Judge not
If you are not ready for judgement"

Bob Marley

There are many things I am not sure about. Many ideas I am working on which are flawed. I accept that as part of what we do. Being too judgmental, too early, doesn't help in the creation of the new. Yet I often envy the clarity of thought I can have when judging others. 

Every time I am listening to somebody else's idea, looking at a deck, discussing a strategy, I find it easy to spot issues, to suggest alternatives, to "show the way". I then turn around and look at my own stuff, always far from perfect. It sounded so easy when I was in the judging seat. A tune in my head: "Who are you to judge me and the life that I live..."  What right do I have to point fingers?

I see where this comes from, things are always easier far from the trenches. Down in the mud, it's about the inches, the small details, the circumstances. "I stumbled". "The rifle jammed". "I couldn't see through the fog". All true. And yet we need perspective. We need someone looking from the hill, observing the entire field, head free from the noise. It's not about being perfect, everybody needs perspective. 

We need this role play. I can judge you. I am ready for judgment. 






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Stefano Zorzi
tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:Post/1140388 2017-03-21T05:54:08Z 2017-03-22T17:37:29Z Becoming yourself

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. 



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Stefano Zorzi
tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:Post/1140109 2017-03-20T06:01:07Z 2017-03-20T06:01:07Z Fabricating time

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

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Stefano Zorzi
tag:stefanozorzi.xyz,2013:Post/1140007 2017-03-19T18:12:19Z 2017-03-19T18:12:19Z Life My children (minus one) and my grandma. 


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Stefano Zorzi