The Last Illusion

Brian Eno, in an interview from 1995:

[INTERVIEWER:] On the [Nerve Net] album jacket you have a number of terms describing the music. One of those terms is “Godless.”

[ENO:] I’m an atheist, and the concept of god for me is all part of what I call the last illusion. The last illusion is someone knows what is going on. That’s the last illusion. Nearly everyone has that illusion somewhere, and it manifests not only in the terms of the idea that there is a god but that knows what’s going on but that the planets know what’s going on. Astrology is part of the last illusion. The obsession with health is part of the last illusion, the idea that there’s that if only we could spend time on it and sit down and stop being unreasonable with each other we’d all find that there was a structure and a solution underlying plan to it all, for most people the short answer to that is God.

Well, what I want to indicate by that word godless is not only god in the religious sense but I am trying to accept and enjoy the idea that we never will reach that condition of agreement of certainty, that actually we’re unanchored, we’re floating around, and we’re actually guessing. That’s what we’re doing. Everyone is making guesses, and trying to make the best of it, watching what happens and being empirical about it. There won’t be a plan, so godless, like most of those words, have a lot of resonance for me.

The last illusion has a lot of resonance for me too. (Although I don’t use the word “godless” — there’s irony in saying that it’s illusory to believe someone knows what’s going on immediately after declaring yourself an atheist.)

The last illusion is alluring. It’s scary to live unmoored, doing our best with what little information we have on hand. It’s scary to accept responsibility for failures — and successes. It’s scary to be uncertain. So much more comforting to buy into an exculpatory narrative — especially when everyone else is buying too.

And yet, the ultimate cost for such comfort is agency. The more we blame the stars, the gods, the Man, the system, [pick your favorite -ism], or whatever external abstract force for how things turn out, the less compelled we are to plumb our personal role in the matter. By surrendering to pre-packaged explanations, we risk atrophying the one thing we can control: our ability to sense and respond, to evolve.

Which isn’t to say those external forces aren’t real. Some are significant factors in how things turn out. Ideologies have a track record of creating horrible suffering in the world. But they’re not real in the same sense that damned table you stubbed your toe on is real. They’re abstractions — models for interpreting reality.

You can choose how to frame your experiences. Few things have a greater impact on the quality of your life (and the lives of people around you) than the models you adopt. And anyone who claims to have the ultimate model is peddling an illusion. A molder, not a dancer. Caveat emptor.

Godless: An Unpublished Interview With Brian Eno

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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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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Design for the Relationship

I’m currently reading Brad Stone’s The Everything Store, a history of Amazon.com. One of the early chapters is about the very early days of the company, which at that point was only selling books. In addition to showing information about products, founder Jeff Bezos wanted the site to include customer reviews of individual books.

Of course, some customer reviews were negative. Mr. Bezos received an angry letter from a book publishing executive, arguing that Amazon was in the business of selling books, not trashing them. But that was not the Amazon way. Per Mr. Bezos,

When I read that letter, I thought, we don’t make money when we sell things. We make money when we help customers make purchase decisions.

These two sentences struck me as a key insight: the particular sale isn’t the ultimate goal of the interaction; building the overall relationship with the customer is.

Long-term thinking is rare in business — especially in a fast-paced environment such as the early web. Nascent Amazon was under a great deal of pressure to prove itself, to grow. Driving more immediate sales would’ve seemed the more prudent approach. And yet, the team chose the long-term relationship. That’s values in action.

In your work, you may sometimes be called to choose between a feature that “drives the needle” in the short term versus one that builds an ongoing relationship. How do you choose? How do you measure the cost either way?

Photo by Steve Jurvetson via Wikimedia

John Cale on Victimhood

The Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale is one of the most influential musicians of the last fifty years. In an interview from 2016, he tells stories from his life and career:

Towards the end of the interview, Mr. Cale recounts a childhood marked by a difficult relationship with his father and sexual abuse from a teacher:

My grandmother made some rules that there was no English to be spoken in the house. So it was very quiet, and any communication with my father was limited because I didn’t speak English and he didn’t speak any Welsh. But there’s this overwhelming feeling that you are inadequate. Between that and the incident with the organ teacher and the abuse there, it made me a victim. And really, one way or another I figured out that being a victim really has repercussions all through your life. And you really do not want to be in your own mind, or in anybody’s mind, as a victim.

His mother helped him change how he thought about himself:

She said, look, always find someone good in somebody. Because everybody does have a good side. You’re a complete person, and you’re not a victim. That’s very important.

I’ve been fortunate to not have to deal with anything as traumatic in my life. Still, I’ve occasionally lapsed into a victim mindset. It’s disempowering. Like Mr. Cale, I’ve found it possible to transcend this mindset, with indispensable help from my wife, by reframing how I think about myself.

How to Compromise a Product Vision

Great products start with a vision. Somebody — perhaps a small group of people — has an idea to change how something works in the world. On its way to becoming a real thing, the team tweaks and adjusts the idea; they make small compromises to the laws of physics, market demands, manufacturing constraints, user feedback, and so on. In the process, the idea goes from a “perfect” imagining of the vision to a pretty good embodiment that can be used by people in the real world.

At least that’s the ideal. However, sometimes a product changes so much that its original vision becomes compromised. One of the best examples I’ve seen of this happened to one of the attractions in the Magic Kingdom theme park at Walt Disney World: Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress. This is one of the few Disney attractions that have Walt’s name on them. There’s a good reason for this. The Carousel was the highest expression of his particular genius: using new technologies to convey big ideas to the masses in ways that they could connect to at an emotional level. Some people say it was his favorite attraction.

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Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview

Yesterday on a cross-country flight I had the opportunity to watch STEVE JOBS: THE LOST INTERVIEW, a documentary recorded in 1995 and released to theaters shortly after Jobs’s death in 2011. As its name implies, the film consists of an interview Robert X. Cringely conducted with Jobs for THE TRIUMPH OF THE NERDS, a PBS documentary about the development of the personal computer. Footage from the interview was lost for a while, but resurfaced after Jobs’s death.

The film shows Jobs at an interesting time in his life. This was before his triumphant return to Apple, which was then at its nadir. At this point, the company Jobs founded after leaving Apple (NeXT) had already transitioned from making computers to making software. It’s fascinating to see him frame this development; when talking about NeXT, he doesn’t mention the company’s computers at all. Instead, he talks about object-oriented programming as one of three major advances he witnessed in a visit to Xerox PARC in the late 1970s; the other two being ethernet networking and the graphical user interface. The latter of these, of course, is what led to the development of the Mac. In this way, Jobs ties his past success with his (then) current endeavor. Jobs is very clear on the lineage of these technologies; he doesn’t claim to have invented any of them. (At one point he even cites Picasso’s famous quote, “good artists copy; great artists steal.”)

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A New Notebook

When I was a child, one of my favorite times of the year was the final few weeks of vacation, just before school started. I loved buying school supplies with my mom — especially new pens and notebooks. (I still love buying pens and notebooks!) It was a great feeling: a chance for a clean start.

Well, not completely clean. I’d still be going to the same school. I had an idea of who my classmates and teachers would be. I knew the schedule, and the topics we’d be studying. But! This was the year I’d make it happen. And for now, I had a blank slate. (Or at least, a blank notebook.) Exciting!

A few weeks after school started, my mood would be different. The notebook now had marks in it, and I had a long list of things I needed to do. The excitement was gone; the sense of possibility replaced with a feeling of being overwhelmed. It would take a while for me to feel comfortable with the new routines and challenges. Then, with time, things would settle: neither open-ended excitement nor pressure from being overwhelmed — just a sense of getting things done.

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.

This energy-of-generating has a particular character of its own, one I’ve grown to relish. Whatever I’ve achieved has been because I’ve found ways of transitioning from the blank notebook to the (messier, less open-ended) notebook-in-progress. I’ve learned to love it for its own sake. It, too, will pass — but for the time being, it makes good things possible.