Possibilities for Greatness

I’m starting a new project. It’s exciting and a little scary. I’ve written before about the rush of energy I get from starting something new:

The beginning of every new undertaking has a particular type of energy. An open-ended sense of possibility. This energy allows us to step into an uncertain future. There’s a challenge ahead and we don’t know exactly how things will turn out — but we have wits, some knowledge, some structure, and tools.

The energy-of-beginning is important to getting things rolling, but we can’t linger in it. We need to get to work; to become productive. For me this means establishing near-term goals, work practices to achieve them, and habits that allow the work to become part of my daily routine. The quicker this happens, the easier it is to replace the energy-of-beginning with the energy-of-generating.

These paragraphs capture a key aspect of the beginning phase of projects, namely, the exciting release of energy. But they miss something just as important: how scary the beginning can be.

Where does the fear come from? I can name several aspects of the anxiety I feel right now. However, as I think about it, the fear comes down to a single word: insecurity.

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Conformism ↔ Independent-mindedness

From an insightful essay by Paul Graham:

There are some kinds of work that you can’t do well without thinking differently from your peers. To be a successful scientist, for example, it’s not enough just to be correct. Your ideas have to be both correct and novel. You can’t publish papers saying things other people already know. You need to say things no one else has realized yet.


There’s room for a little novelty in most kinds of work, but in practice there’s a fairly sharp distinction between the kinds of work where it’s essential to be independent-minded, and the kinds where it’s not.

The essay delineates the distinctions between conformism and independent-mindedness and spells out some things you can do to develop independent thinking. (Mr. Graham is a fine thinker and writer; his essays are well worth your attention.)

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Beginner’s Mind

As you progress in your career, you’ll get better at what you do. At first, you’ll bumble around. After a while, you’ll become (merely) competent. Eventually, you’ll be an expert in a few things. Finally — if you persist — you’ll develop mastery. You’ll face different challenges at each stage. (Of course, there’s no guarantee for any of this. Among other things, you’ll need ability, focus, persistence, and luck.)

Early on, a lack of real-world experience is a problem. This inexperience may be aggravated by a head full of ideas you’ve picked up from books or professors (such as myself.) Inexperience + certitude = bad decisions. When you’ve achieved some level of competence, distractions become a challenge. You may grow disenchanted with your original path or enticed to switch tracks for extraneous reasons. You start to long for a change. Perhaps a management track seems the most viable way to advance. And you may be right — but then you’ll have to develop different skills.

Let’s say you stay on track and become an expert. Then you’ll face a different challenge: experience + certitude. In some ways, this is more dangerous than not knowing what you’re doing. Now other people listen to you, and it’s harder to admit you’re wrong. You have a reputation, which you feel compelled to defend. You stop paying attention to particulars. You find it harder to empathize with less knowledgeable people. What’s worse, new projects start to look like “another one of those” — so you’re tempted by shortcuts. Work becomes repetitive; practice becomes mindless or a chore. Quality suffers.

What to do?

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Reevaluating How We Use Social Networks

Home-bound for three weeks, I’ve come to rely on the internet for social interactions with anyone except my family. Now more than ever, I’m thinking about the role information environments play in my life. Some are helping make things better, and others, not so much.

Among the helpful ones, I count the information environments that are essential to my work: Zoom for synchronous communications and Slack for asynchronous ones. I’m a longtime user of Zoom, but the lockdown has nudged me to learn somewhat obscure features that make it more valuable to me. I have some concerns about Zoom’s privacy and security policies, but overall I’m satisfied with the system. Slack is something of a mess (I often have trouble finding older stuff or orienting myself within threads,) but the company is working to make it better. And in many ways, it’s an improvement over the most obvious alternative, email.

Both Slack and Zoom are environments that enable private social networks. They make it possible for people to collaborate remotely in (relatively) small groups. These days, most of my interpersonal interactions happen in either of the two. But not all; I’m also spending more time on three big, public social networks: Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. I’ve been using these places for a long time, but the lockdown is leading me to reevaluate how I use them.

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Relief in Philosophy

We are living in a period of VUCA — volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. There is tremendous suffering in the world as a result of the coronavirus epidemic. People are ill, some terminally. Many of us have been working from home for over two weeks now, with all the stress that implies. Some haven’t been working at all, which is even more stressful. Nobody knows when the situation will change for the better.

I’m fortunate to be healthy and busy at the moment, but that doesn’t relieve my anxiety about the future. Spurred by my conversation with Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz, I decided to revisit Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. As I’ve noted before, I give priority to sources that have stood the test of time. Few are as timely in our current crisis as Meditations, which was written almost two thousand years ago. Towards the end of the second book, Marcus Aurelius makes the following observation:

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Real Mastery

Yesterday, as I was winding down from a busy week, I learned of the death of someone who influenced me greatly: Rush drummer and lyricist Neil Peart. As with so many other nerds of my vintage, Rush’s songs — and especially their lyrics, most of which were written by Mr. Peart — are key to the soundscape of my formative years. I never met Mr. Peart, although I did have the privilege of seeing him play live. Nevertheless, I consider him a model of integrity and mastery, someone to emulate.

It’s clichéd to highlight the geeky teen appeal of Rush’s (early) sci-fi themes. Instead, what drew me to their songs was their advocacy of self-agency. For someone brought up as Catholic, this stance — exemplified by the song Freewill — was shocking and refreshing:

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The Golden Age of Learning Anything

Last weekend I did something I’d never done before: I reupholstered a chair. Here’s a photo of the final result:

Unfortunately, I don’t have a “before” photo to share. But take my word for it: my efforts improved this chair’s condition significantly. Before this weekend, it was unpresentable. Little fingers love to tug on tiny tears in vinyl until they become large, unsightly tears. Alas, it’s cheaper to buy new reproductions such as this one than to have them professionally reupholstered. But my conscience doesn’t let me throw away an otherwise good piece of furniture because of a fixable imperfection.

I’m sharing my weekend project here not to seek your approbation. Instead, I want to highlight that we live in a time when we can learn almost any skill on the internet. I learned to reupholster in a couple of hours through a combination of websites and YouTube videos. I researched and ordered the required materials on Amazon. It took some effort on my part, but it was worth it. I’m surprised at how well the chair worked out, given it was my first time.

As we head into a new year, I keep seeing pundits on Twitter claiming “big tech” is ruining everything. Of course, the real world isn’t as simple as these folks render it. Sure, there are negative aspects to our current large tech platforms — but there are positive ones too. The ability to pick up new knowledge and skills anytime at our own pace very cheaply is among the positives.

Mind Your Manners Online

In case you haven’t seen it, The New York Times has a new-ish section called Smarter Living that offers pointers on how to be effective in our hybrid physical-digital world. A recent article by Victoria Turk is representative; it highlights the importance of good manners online:

As more of our lives moves online, good digital etiquette is critical. Just as we judge people by their behavior IRL — in real life — so we take note when a person’s manners in the digital sphere leave something to be desired.

The article addresses some of the challenges of operating in contexts made of (written) language:

Both the content of your message and its tone will live or die based on what you type on your keyboard, so the gap between, say, landing a joke and causing mortal offense can be perilously fine.

It goes on to suggest ways in which you can be mindful about your online etiquette; all good reminders.

I’m glad to see major publications like the Times acknowledging the contextual nature of our digital environments. Being effective in today’s world requires that we become adept at operating in places made of text. Minding our manners in these places is perhaps more important than in physical environments since written language is so easy to misinterpret. It also sticks around: spoken words are evanescent, but your online posts will be there for a long time.

While the NYT article doesn’t mention it, for me, an important part of minding my manners online is reminding myself that I’m dealing with other people, not just collections of pixels and metadata. These people — different though their positions may be from mine — also experience joy and suffering and all the tribulations of being human. I’m often reminded of this beautiful admonition from Kurt Vonnegut:

Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’

You Live Your Life Online. Don’t Forget Your Manners

Back Friday

Yesterday was Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year in the U.S. Thanksgiving — a holiday centered on gratitude and sharing with family — always falls on a Thursday, and many people also have the following day off. Given the nearness of the year-end gift-giving season, this “free” Friday is the perfect day for many to go shopping. Having long recognized the opportunity, retailers offer attractive discounts to spur buyers.

The result is a potent mix of three things I dislike: short-term thinking, mindless consumption, and crowds. So I avoid stores on Black Friday. But this year, my family and I went one better: we took something we’d set aside but hadn’t yet discarded and brought it back to life. We did it as a group and had a lot of fun. I’d love for this to become a new tradition for us, so I’m giving it a name: Back Friday.

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