Even though we've been reporting on AI since our very first newsletter (in September 2020⏱️✈️), writing about developments in AI these days is different. It feels like constantly walking a fine line between sharing enthusiasm for what's unfolding while staying away from the hyped headlines that dominate the news. We want to take a long view, but still stay close to the cutting edge; if only for an amusing look at what we thought was happening when we re-read in a few years time.
Two developments, happening as we speak, feel like the dawn of a new phase: multi-modality and the first research publications on impact on our working lives.
ChatGPT (and its undercover Microsoft sibling Bing Chat) is now able to take in images and voice. Think of showing the contents of your fridge, asking it instructions to cook a meal. Or showing a photo of your bike, asking it how to raise your seat. The other way around now also enters a new phase: image creation will integrate with the chatbot. You will also be able to interact with the model verbally, making a spoken conversation possible. All of these developments will lower friction and barriers to entry, making the tools useful for an even broader audience.
In the research department, the paper that struck me most is a first validation of the claim that AI would improve the speed and quality of knowledge work. You can read the full paper here or read a great overview by one of the authors, Ethan Mollick. Enlisting over 750 knowledge workers from BCG (a management consultancy) and having them complete realistic client engagement exercises with and without the use of GPT-4, both speed and quality increased significantly for the GPT-4 group.
An interesting first answer also formed to the question which worker segment would benefit most from the augmentation. Would AI be a 'kingmaker' (boosting the highest performers), an 'escalator' (boosting all) or a 'leveller' (boosting lower performers, closing the gap). The last option seems to be what the research shows:
"Where previously the gap between the average performances of top and bottom performers was 22%, it shrunk to a mere 4% once the consultants used GPT-4."
Seeing the landscape evolve rapidly before our very eyes, I am constantly surprised by new creative use cases. If AI can turn a conceptual drawing into working software, the proof is building that AI can supercharge our production power, becoming the next incarnation of our bicycle for the mind. Which leads me to the question I am most eager to see answered: if we have magical realisation powers at our fingertips, will we spend more time thinking about what we want to realise in the first place? Will AI lead to even more busywork, or will it lead to more purpose, more intent?
Every now and then, I intuitively reach for a dose of musical feel-good. I fire up my years-old collection of 4+ stars from the iPod days (when I was still obsessively rating every song in my collection) and put in some earphones for a good few hours of emotional rollercoasting.
A musical rabbit hole sometimes forms while spending some time in the tub, increasingly prevalent because I acquired a simple iDevice clamp that I can attach to the faucet. Bumping into a song and its story on YouTube, my associations cascade from song to song, alternating between memories and new discoveries.
Yesterday, my musical travels led me from the birth of Paul McCartney's The Long and Winding Road, via its role in impressing Ed Sheeran in the movie Yesterday to 'Get Back' footage of George Harrison leaving the Beatles while his rejected demo of 'Isn't it a pity' is playing, beautifully illustrating the point he was trying to make in the song.
Just as I jumped to Jacob Collier playing his audience choir, my 9-year old son opened the door to the bathroom -way past his bedtime- to grab a up of water. He approached the tub, asking me what I was listening to. In a whispering voice, I explained what Jacob was doing, and why I thought this video and the moment was so hauntingly beautiful. Transfixed to the music, he leaned on the tub without saying a word.
Reaching the final notes, as on cue, my wife entered the house. Hearing the door slam shut made my son jump up, realising he should be in his bed. He tiptoed out, and commented in a conspiratorial voice on him closing the door. "I'll just close the door so mom does not notice". "Great idea", I whispered back.
It's moments like this when I realise the role we have as parents in offering up the beautiful things life has to offer. Our enthusiasm can act as a form of activation energy, sparking an interest. Some of it will start a chain reaction lasting a lifetime, some of it will fizzle out. I still remember my mom revealing her favourite parts of the Beatles' White Album and demonstrating dance moves to Karen Young's 'Hot Shot' as if it were yesterday.
A few millennia back, Plutarch famously observed how: "Education is not the filling of a vessel, but the lighting of a fire". Grab your opportunities!
Spammy sounding article titles usually make me run for the delete or 'mark as spam' button, but every now and then I am rewarded for taking a second look. Point in case, the article written by Michael Simmons called "Tutorial: How to Package Other People's Video Clips So They Go Viral and People Pay for Them"
For me, the interesting part is what feeling this title evokes. The cheap, tricky sound of the headline is exactly what the myth surrounding creativity is all about. We are somehow raised with the notion that true creativity is about creating something out of thin air, creating a 1 from a 0, so to say. The reality is much more about combining 1's and 1's into something new. Michael quotes researcher Robert Weisberg:
"The basic assumption that it is possible for a truly creative person to produce something that completely breaks with the past is fiction."
What I find especially interesting is how having 'random' and unconnected 'base materials' is a beautiful advantage in creating something new. Intellectual diversity is an asset, as proven on a lot of fronts. People who have worked in multiple industries, for instance, are proven to be much more innovative than people who have been in the same industry their entire career.
We also wrote about 'strange combinations' earlier in a piece called Luck, defining a specific form of 'chance':
"creating a unique opportunity by having a rare combination of behavioural quirks, hobbies and interest"
Even in a more mundane form, skill combinations can be a great way to find your niche, as explained by Dilbert creator Scott Adams in his 2007 career advice:
"If you want something extraordinary [in life], you have two paths: Become the best at one specific thing or become very good (top 25%) at two or more things."
What skills do you consider yourself to be 'very good' at? And are you currently working at the intersection of them? Which combination would be interesting to consider?
We spent some words on 'doing nothing' before, celebrating the virtues of marinating ideas, letting your subconscious do the work while walking, being in nature or just sitting down with a cup of coffee.
Another big benefit of doing nothing is tied to the way we process sensory inputs. As the number of inputs increases, we tend to numb our senses in order to prevent a form of overload. Using this mechanism, we are able to adapt to circumstances that would otherwise render us completely crazy.
This mechanism also works the other way around, as our susceptibility to stimuli increases again if the volume knob is turned down. I personally encounter this whenever I get back from a remote holiday and get into metropolitan traffic once again, being overwhelmed with the busyness around me.
My most beneficial downwards adaptation occurred when I embarked on a meditation retreat back in 2018. Not talking for a few days and being surrounded by simple surroundings had the effect of turning my filtering mechanisms way down, and my susceptibility way up. Once I returned to normal life, I was able to experience phenomena in a wholly different way. Most notably, the way I was able to enjoy conversations and observe my own emotions.
Tying this experience to common wisdom on the value of 'small signals' (that often hold a clue to finding the answer to life's big questions), I realised how much 'tuning out' every once in a while can be instrumental to moving ahead. When was the last time you felt like your 'filtering dials' were turned all the way down? If you have big questions to answer, doing nothing (extensively) might be a good next step!
Increase what you want, decrease what you don't want. That's the formula we discussed a couple of months back. Taking a cue from plants, who add mass where the light is, growing to where the energy can be found. Finding the activities that give you energy can be tricky though, as it requires the ability to notice.
I really like 'behind the scenes' footage of acts of creativity, as they hold clues to pinpointing where the magic happens. It's why I had no problem spending 9 hours watching The Beatles creating 'Get Back' while having fun and playing around with all the inspiration that surrounded them.
A short interview with Vulfpeck guitarist Cory Wong reveals how the band never rehearses before shows. Even guest players join the stage unaware of what's going to happen and get told where to plug their instruments on the spot.
"You get raw instincts, there's nothing but magic", Cory explains, "I don't know what's going to happen, and then that makes for something really fun, but it's not for everybody. Some people would get extreme anxiety over that. I live for those moments"
These high-risk, high-rewards setups only work when you leave the comfort zone, knowing that you can likely handle what's coming. Most of their musical guests are world-class, so their creative confidence is strong.
Cory's explanation made me identify my own unrehearsed highlights. I love being confronted with new business challenges, being part of a team that starts structuring, coming up with new ideas and dreaming big on the spot. The initial 'stage fright' that is always present, quickly turns into energy that fuels the creativity.
Linking back to the theme of this piece, I can only say: more of this, please! What are the moments you feel most alive? What are the moments you 'live for', as Cory put it? And how would you be able to make more of them?
"Notes aren’t just static records of our thinking. Rather, we think with our notes"
This Richard Feynman quote -discussed earlier- turned up immediately upon us deliberating re-starting the newsletter. Both of us missed the habit of writing those 500 words each week on a deadline, forcing us to boil down our musings into condensed prose, leaving us enriched from the mini-conversation between ourselves and our digital artefact.
We also missed the act of creativity, hitting the 'send' button every week. We did not experience withdrawal symptoms as severe as Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk who describes how friends ask him "You're not writing right now, are you?" as he tries to pick fights with them while on the phone in the middle of the night.
No, stopping our 100-episode streak just made us realise how much we missed it, and the 'coming home' feeling is filling me as I'm writing these first words. We considered alternative forms of writing over these past months, but after a few failed experiments, the most obvious path felt like the right one.
Earlier, we shared a tweet stating "no habit is a real habit unless you failed at your streak and re-started it at least once". In my view, this echoes the fine balance between the powerful force of habits and the damning curse of habits. Continuity for its own sake can inhibit growth and change.
This re-start does come with some additional goals in mind. We would love to grow our audience for the sake of more interactivity, more feedback, more follow-up ideas. As with a lot of creative endeavours, the artefact can become a serendipity vehicle which is the cherry on top of our already delicious cake.
The nightmare of some, the muse for others, deadlines bring up mixed reactions. The other day, I had a conversation with an entrepreneur who just finished a multi-week project on a strict deadline. She explained how accepting the project make her anxious at first, cursing her optimism and accepting the job. Once the friction of the first outlines were behind her, she returned to her familiar flow, doing a great job, speeding up last minute before delivering a product she was proud of. With 30 years of practice, this was a familiar pattern, so she was able to experience, but not suffer from the deadline.
I have come to appreciate the value of deadlines more and more over the past years. Since filling my days with work is never a problem, setting deadlines is a wonderful tool to prioritize. I just need one moment of clarity, followed by a small action. Promising a delivery, agreeing on a common result. As I want to keep my promises (also to myself), I then have all the leverage I need to deliver.
This newsletter has been the result of 100 deadlines. 100 times we needed to sit our butts down behind a keyboard to deliver on the promise we made each other and the perceived expectations from our audience. Sometimes this clashed with other commitments and desires, sacrificing an evening on the couch with a book, but I don't remember ever thinking about bailing on the deadline.
Yesterday evening, lacking inspiration & energy, I did bail somewhat. I decided to leave the writing to the very last minute, hours before our all-hands staff meeting where we send out the Q&A. It felt like a fitting experiment, an hommage to the power of the deadline. Would a 2-hour deadline help, or hinder? Would my amygdala kick in, paralysing any form of creativity?
Trusting the results of 99 earlier writing deadlines and knowing there's always a plan B helps. Like the 'comfort zone-stretch-stress' model for growth, creative confidence seems to grow with exercise, which makes me optimistic and hungry for more experiments.
The deadline also solves the 'when is something good enough' dilemma. You need to ship, so you do. I used to see this as greatness' biggest foe; quality matters most, right? Interviews with some great writers made me change my mind though. Most of them work on deadlines and consider their work as snapshots of their ideas and their thinking. They are already thinking about their next projects while finishing up the last. Many quotes on the subject can be summed up in simple terms: It's never finished, you just stop.
As the world of AI is evolving on a daily basis, an interesting landscape unfolds. On the one hand, we see people running with the tools in the most obvious direction, using it as a production facility for -often mediocre- prose, images and code. On the other hand, we can see people starting to discover the slightly more hidden value (as we explored here and here).
A wonderful use case was shared by Nat Eliason this week, who experimented with the use of ChatGPT as a writing coach. He draws a fascinating parallel to the way Benjamin Franklin used 'Spectator magazine' as a tool to improve his own writing:
"I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try’d to compleat the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.”
Nat then takes us by the hand by showing exactly how he uses ChatGPT to enrich and grow in his own writing. Like having great examples (art often starts by emulating what you like!), a thesaurus or a list of synonyms by your side, ChatGPT can be a tool. The story of how we master this tool is just beginning.
Worldwide events and our own lives seem to be full of them: mistakes that we've made before. Most people react to such events in disbelief, "do we ever learn from the past?".
The reason someone or something made a mistake doesn't necessarily mean that the action they took or the course they followed was necessarily wrong. There are so many variables in play that it is hard to get all the causal relationships in the right order. It is therefore not always fair to speak about "mistakes that we've made before" even though the actions or results may look very similar.
Taking this one step further, it might even serve a purpose to try a -seemingly- similar approach to a -seemingly- similar problem again. Who says that this time around it doesn't work? The past can serve as a great inspiration but isn't necessarily leading. One realisation makes this very clear; why is it that we do remember actions and sayings from a certain individual that lived two-three thousand years ago (e.g. Aristoteles) but not from every (wise?!) person living in that time.
This all passed my mind when I read this passage from the book "A Gentleman in Moscow":
"I guess the point I'm trying to make is that as a species we're just no good at writing obituaries. We don't know how a man or his achievements will be perceived three generations from now, nay more than we know what his great-great-grandchildren will be having for breakfast on a Tuesday in March. Because when Fate hands something down to posterity, it does so behind his back."
Which brought me back to entropy and chaos and our deliberation:
"Chaos might therefore indeed be nature's deliberate setting to propel development and create diversity."
Nature itself might be the best at learning from the past. Its most important traits: trial and error, time, patience. Let's be more gentle on ourselves and embrace perhaps yet another reason to go back to our early lives as a child.
Cathedrals have always impressed me, as most of its initiators have not been able to witness their completion. Generations of builders worked on something that they saw progress only marginally over their lifetime, which I think is inspiring for a lot of challenges we have before us.
This morning, I attended an inspiration and brainstorm session, organised by my kids' school, aimed at creating improvement plans. As a speaker to inspire all of us, they asked Daan Quakernaat to kick-off the meeting, which he did using the Cathedral as an example of organic building. Daan got interested in Cathedrals while visiting the one in Reims which inspired him to plan visiting all other French cathedrals and become an expert in what medieval Cathedral-building can teach us.
Building a cathedral often started with a generic plan (how many towers, global size) that changed as time progressed. Competition with adjacent cities and self-esteem generally inspired the level of ambition, while this often led to drastic changes down the line. As an example, the Reims cathedral started out with a sketch of 7 huge towers, ending up with 2 half towers making the facade and 5 structures that can barely be called towers. All the same, the resulting cathedral is considered a masterpiece of gothic architecture. Daan's big take-away is how happy the builders were with results that did not match the original plans, but led to something impressive and beautiful anyway. He asked us to look at our accomplishments and check if we were not overlooking or undervaluing the builds so far.
Switching gears, ignoring sunk cost fallacy and just moving on, can also be seen at the Laon cathedral at its north 'rose window', where new techniques for increasing window size were introduced as the gothic building skills progressed. They just switched plans, leaving the old and the new plan visibly exposed.
As a side-note, he shared how all of the big carved stones, making up the structure without any cement, were 'signed' by their sculptors in places that were not visible to the eye. While also being in line with medieval artistry, these signs did perform a valuable feedback mechanism, as they were the precursors of the 'quality check id' you can find in many products. When walls collapsed, as they often did during building, they could identify the weak parts of the structure and impose disciplinary 'quality measures' to the sculptor responsible.
Illustrating another lesson to be learned from cathedral building, Daan shared imagery of the Notre Dame fire ravaging the wooden roof of Paris' Notre Dame cathedral. As much as this is qualified a 'disaster', it happened several times in the churches lifetime, as has happened to most cathedrals that have been in existence several hundreds of years. His moral here: 'cry, clean debris, collect money, rebuild'. A wonderful illustration of 'this too, shall pass'.
Ever since the Romans perfected the production and use of concrete (the Pantheon being a great case in point), it has become one of the main building materials in our human society. Key ingredient is cement. Given the current production techniques of cement that involve processing lumps of limestone at high temperatures, it also represents ±8% of current man-made CO2 emissions.
An obvious place to start looking for alternatives. The good news is that many people have been doing that over the past decades. One route focuses on replacing cement by other materials, such as graphene (just adding less than 0.1% by weight of graphene to concrete makes it 30% stronger). Another way is to look at how nature builds strong structures, such as coral reefs.
In its 'Simply Science' section, The Economist reported in 2021 on some very promising ideas to essentially produce 'green' cement using natural ingredients and organisms. Organisms such as bacteria that under the influence of sunlight, when placed in a bath of water and calcium, produce calcium carbonate (i.e. stone).
Companies are started around these techniques but the main challenge seems to be speed and scale. How to bring these technologies to the market in large quantities in a short time? One of the examples the article mentions concerns the Dutch company Basilisk. It produces tiny pellets containing dried spores of several bacteria and its nutrients that once water touches the mixture, it will produce calcium carbonate. If you've added these pellet to existing concrete, it will lead to 'self-healing' once the concrete cracks. After all, once a crack occurs, moisture can get into the concrete. However, this technique was already announced back in the time when I studied at university (and, yes, that's a long time ago).
Great news that so many alternatives exist and are being discovered. We should try to find ways to ensure that these techniques get applied and scaled up faster. I wonder how the Romans would approach this?
During the Christmas break, my family was hit with a nasty flu, keeping us inside for multiple days. Low physical energy, no commitments and ample time usually sends me down a rabbit hole of some sorts. The last time this occurred, I bumped into 279 episodes of 'The Big Bang Theory', a series I miraculously managed to miss out on since its inception. Not judging the usefulness of time spent, I managed to take a sizeable bite out of those episodes before I fully recovered.
This time, my rabbit hole probably qualified a bit more as being useful. Since my sons are into chess these days, I spent numerous hours on Reddit, YouTube and Twitch trying to get a feel for how to improve at the game.
I used to play chess when I was young, but I still remember a lot of the theory not sticking. I don't know what caused this back in the day, but I was set on finding out. The couple of days I spent in chessland taught me a few new things and confirmed some others from surprising angles.
First of all, I was reminded again of the magical powers of the internet. It is truly amazing how much faster you can learn when you have access to the best & the brightest teachers. These days, a lot of the world's top players have their own YouTube channel and/or stream their online games on Twitch, commenting on their moves, sharing their strategic thoughts. On top of that, you can select your teachers based on having a personal click with them as well, since this greatly affects your learning. I visited a ton of YouTube channels before settling on a particular one that just resonated best.
The importance of having a feel for your own way of learning was another big take-away for me. This is probably the biggest change from my chess learning as a kid. Having the confidence of knowing what you're looking for, keeping up the search until you find the resources that somehow click. Trusting your intuition on this front is something I wish we could teach in school.
This continuing search also felt like a good example of what life-long-learning means to me, contrary to my formal education. In school, the curriculum is mostly set out for you, while learning these days is about following my interests, gathering material while strolling around, not yet knowing how the dots will connect, which I find infinitely more fun while also having the best track record by far.
Next, a systems thinking approach helps greatly in learning new stuff. When I was young, I never understood how the phases of the game (opening, middle game, endgame) got their meaning, since the separation felt totally artificial for me. Now, seeing the game as a progression with increasing optionality at first and solvable puzzles near the end, I developed an appreciation for the way they are taught. Understanding a ton of scenarios for specific openings helps you steer the trajectory in the beginning, increasing your chances to get a lead. When possibility explodes in the middle game, you switch to tactics and strategies, as they help you make the most of situations you have not seen before. Finally, as complexity decreases near the end of the game, you need to know specific move orders again to be able to seal the deal and win.
Finally, learning new things while knowing a lot already is much easier. Lateral examples from business, philosophy and psychology just help a lot in acquiring learnings. This rabbit hole again proved to me how much fun it is to learn new things, and life-long learning is a long game with compounding interest.
If chess interests you, take a look at some of the videos on Levi Rosenthal's (Gothamchess) channel or challenge me to a game the next time we meet. In any case, next time you're stuck in bed with the flu, think rabbit holes.
How fascinating when you arrive at an insight and realising you have arrived at this insight before, only through a different route. Somehow, that particular insight feels more... insightful. Having more weight. Connecting the dots. Discussing our notion that behaviour is a philosophy, we investigated how your environment influences your behaviour in different ways.
We concluded that it is wise to embrace diversity as a key element to make groups better and more efficient. We shared this insight earlier, in that instance based on academic socio-economic research:
"He [Professor Anil Gaba] shared two important messages for leaders. First, select your team to be a diverse one. This goes beyond nationality and age; you want people that look at the world 'from different windows'. Secondly, reaping the diversity rewards requires process. Foster inclusivity, so people dare to speak up and share their view."
Due to lack of time to do some further research, I'm leaving you with a thought that occurred to us last week while discussing this topic:
"Why is it, when we know diversity has such advantages, that we favour like-minded people when we get to choose our team mates?"
Surely, we do not always choose the path of least-resistance? Or, is that wishful thinking? Perhaps it gets a place on your list of contemplations for the coming Christmas period too.
Ever since Clayton Christensen launched his theories on disruptive innovation back in 1995, the term 'disruption' has come up increasingly in corporate lingo. The Ubers and Airbnbs of this world only added to the allure of the term. If building new businesses isn't sexy enough, rocking the world of existing players is. Finding an opportunity to disrupt a market is the holy grail of innovation, being disrupted by a young up-and-comer is the ultimate nightmare for any CEO.
Any time 'I-win-you-lose' constructs become the norm, I am compelled to look at the alternatives. Testosteron-laden fights in the business sphere might yield 'move fast and break things' kind of progress and make for great stories and headlines, but often at the expense of large groups of people.
This is why I think the ugly duckling in innovation -incremental innovation- deserves a re-evaluation in the hierarchy of corporate goal-setting. Just as 'Lean' or the 'Toyota Production System' have enchanted managers on the production side of things for decades, incremental innovation can do the same on the renewal side of the company.
On the personal development front, the value of tiny changes over large ones has already gone mainstream. Think of tiny changes as interest, compounding over time. If you're up for innovation at your company, project or personal life, consider doubling down on small increments. Not as sexy, just as valuable.
Yesterday, I had a wonderful conversation with my co-author, discussing the balance between taking action and letting opportunities come to you. Both of us expressed a sense of unease with the latter; it feels passive, which collides with the getting-things-done mentality and Christian values we were brought up with.
On closer inspection, however, the main cause of unease was hiding behind a false dichotomy, as is often the case with hurdles like these. Waiting for opportunities to reveal themselves is hardly a passive endeavour.
Erik Smithuis, founder of corporate training powerhouse ICM, once revealed his strategy for success that has stayed with me ever since:
"You warm yourself best when close to the fire"
His message was mainly to move yourself close to where the action is, get your toes in the water and then take it from there.
This ties in to other wisdom we shared earlier on creating luck and not seeing the puzzle looking forward. Following your gut might be the most powerful trick in the book. It's about saying yes to what feels right, no to what does not feel right, and keep moving.
Like the old crocodile that only eats every few weeks, being in the right spot is what matters. Are you creating the surface area for serendipity?
A recent tweet from Naval Ravikant is still processing, as I'm unsure what I actually think of it:
"The only real test of intelligence is if you get what you want out of life."
Measuring something by its results surely has its merits, as long as you measure results the right way. A famous instance of measuring something by its results is the Turing test, proposed by Alan Turing in his 1950 paper 'Computing Machinery and Intelligence'. As the question if machines can 'think' is quite difficult to define, Turing proposed to see if a conversation with a computer could be indistinguishable from a conversation with a human. If the human could not tell he's talking to a computer, it would pass the test.
One wonderful example of AI trying to pass this test is shown with Google Duplex, 4 years old already, but a great illustration of how computers are getting better at conversation. The AI can act as a personal assistant, handling the making of appointments for you.
The other day, Alex Tabarrok shared another great example of next-level AI interaction. Diplomacy is a 7-player game in which players must persuade, cajole, coordinate, strategize, bluff and lie to one another in order to take over the world. For the first time, an AI has achieved success in Diplomacy:
"Over 40 Diplomacy games with 82 human players involving 5,277 messages over 72 hours of gameplay, CICERO achieved more than double the average score of the other players and ranked in the top 10% of players!"
If you want to see the AI in action, check out professional Diplomacy player CaptainMeme commenting on an entire game on YouTube.
As a lot of companies get better at using technology for reaching us through messages and phone calls, I especially look forward to these AI assistants acting as a barrier to entry for all of us, fighting fire with fire while promoting real interaction.
We have been heavy on the AI progress reporting in the past weeks, but it seems like the pace of mindblowing new tool releases is only increasing. For me, the effect of the news coming out in the past few weeks and months can only be compared to the feeling I had when the Internet took off in the 90's. A mix of possibility, uncertainty, re-imagination of the known and some anxiety mixed in for good measure.
OpenAI, the company behind GPT-3, Codex and Dall·E 2 just released 'ChatGPT', a chat-based interaction with the GPT-3.5 model. Any search on Twitter and YouTube will leave you with impressive demonstrations of what the model can do.
Upon release, I immediately became intrigued how the model could be used to support all kind of creativity exercises used in Design Thinking workshops. The first experiment immediately blew my mind.
One particular exercise in re-imagining products and services is called 'Creative Remix'. It's all about mixing up existing ideas to generate (often outlandish) new mixes, that can then inspire innovation.
As a test, I asked ChatGPT "What if going out for a meal was like visiting the car wash?". It responded:
If going out for a meal was like visiting the car wash, the experience of dining at a restaurant would be more automated and streamlined. Customers would likely be given a menu and a choice of meal options, but the food would be prepared and served by machines or automated systems. The restaurant would be set up like a car wash, with customers moving through different stations for different aspects of their meal, such as ordering, eating, and paying. The restaurant might also offer additional services, such as drink refills or dessert, through automated systems or machines. Overall, the experience of going out for a meal at a restaurant would be more efficient and hands-off, with a greater emphasis on automation and convenience.
As a tool for generating a lot of remixed options to get a brainstorm started, this level of creative makes for a great diverging tool. I'm looking forward to explore augmented creativity more in the near future!
Last Monday marked the eve of the birthday of Sinterklaas, the Dutch ancestor of Santa Claus, who has its origins in modern day Turkey.
Part of the Dutch tradition of celebrating Sinterklaas is writing poems for each other, to accompany the gifts that are mixed in big jute bags to cover up its origins. The poems usually have some sort of feedback for the receiver, hidden amongst the humorous rhyming. In my family, when I was younger, we used to have great time using this form of poetic justice to make fun of our siblings' behaviour.
Reflecting on this cultural heritage, I realised how much I appreciate this phenomenon. It is a legitimate way to blow off some steam, and give feedback in a loving manner. Hiding behind the veil of Sinterklaas, while knowing the receiver will well know the origins of the poem, gives you exactly the kind of needed permission to strike the right note.
Think about the heritage you have in your organisation or family that allows for certain rituals to happen more easily. What catalysts are in place to make feedback, ideas and communication in general flow better. Cultural phenomena and traditions can be a critical part of its design.
In crisis we tend to look at one body, one leader to solve the issue at hand. Large groups tend to rally around the person that is able to address their most pressing concerns. Though we may then feel part of a group like-minded people, the solutions proposed are still mostly the idea of one individual.
However, we have seen that especially for complex problems, a group approach is much better; this is the way nature attacks problems, faces challenges; it is the various options tried by many, from which several good solutions evolve.
This 'evolutionary' group approach takes more time, which may exactly be the reason why this is not the go-to strategy for most people. We tend to be a bit impatient. Even though we know that taking time will result in more robust and longer lasting solutions.
At the same time, I observe that current societies seem to become less risk-taking and loss avoidant. Perhaps, exactly because our wealth has grown exponentially. The combination of impatience and risk-avoidance seems to me a potentially dangerous mix.
That said, I remain a solid believer in our ability to survive. There are plenty of self-correcting mechanisms in nature as well as our social cohesion that will ensure us figuring out what to do. Having confidence in such mechanisms and recognising them when they kick in seems to be the most important challenge we need to spend our time on.
The pace of AI-assisted creativity tool developments is clearly picking up these past years. A little over a year ago we explored GPT-3 and Codex as examples of mind-blowing generative models, able to create proza or computer code from simple directions. Half a year ago, OpenAI's Dall·E 2 blew our minds with image generation, driving illustrators worldwide close to madness and starting discussions on the role of human creativity in the future.
Two weeks ago, Google CEO Sundar Pichai demonstrated another major step in generative art; prompt-created video using their Imagen model. A description of a scene ('a blue balloon stuck in the branches of a Redwood tree', 'Camera pans to the zoo entrance') lead to a movie clip showing those exact prompts.
If you want a great overview of generative AI applications, Anne-Laure Le Cunff created a great overview in a NESS labs article. She asks great questions on the limits of AI-generated art, as bonding with artificial life forms does not seem beyond the realm of the possible:
"As a child, I was genuinely concerned about the well-being of my Tamagotchi, and I can imagine how many people will develop such a connection with AI characters who share their own “life” stories."
While my working hypothesis on AI remains in the 'Great Tool' domain, professing Augmented Intelligence instead of Artificial Intelligence, I am intrigued to see where this technology will take us. Why can't something we created have human characteristics after all?
My attention is usually drawn when someone posts a contrarian view and has the guts to go against mainstream thinking. A recent article by Philip Naudus published on Medium claims that most of the productivity improvement advices and books written on the subject, are wrong.
Observing various studies conducted by different researchers, he essentially concludes that various kinds of tricks, tips and tools not only give a false feeling of being able to influence your productivity. They also seem to have a marginal effect on productivity. Even the weather (as unpredictable as it is) is apparently a better productivity predictor; days with heavy fog and rain are sure to negatively influence your productivity.
He does distill one simple advice out of the different studies that he analyzed:
"Whatever makes you happy, do that."
Intuitively, this makes absolute sense. When you're happy, you at least sense you have more energy. You spent your time more effectively and most probably you have far more meaningful conversations. The smile on your face induces the people you interact with to be more positive and willing to cooperate as well.
"But for some twisted reason, our society glorifies creators who work their fingers to the bone, refusing to slow down or take a break."
This is probably the main problem. We feel the need to conform to fulfill our need to be socially accepted and part of a group. We need to build resilience against what our surroundings want us to do or what we believe they want us to do.
Therefore: recharge often, take time off and make sure you spend enough time on things that you love doing. Never waste a good holiday 😉.
In the arena of humour something important is going on. US website 'The Onion' is a known platform for satirical postings on politics and things happening in the world. The usual format is a news article that, on the surface, looks very real but content-wise is a clear parody. It is exploiting the power of parody to the max. This becomes, however, sometimes a problem. Especially, when a part of the population doesn't understand your parody.
Recently, The Onion involved themselves in a legal case about an Ohio man who was arrested and later acquitted for creating a parody Facebook page that looked nearly identical to a local police department’s site. They filed a so-called amicus brief before the US Supreme Court, requesting the court to rule against this conviction as it is 'parody'. US law has something that is called the reasonable-person test that gauges whether a statement can reasonably be interpreted as stating actual facts. The Onion believes that a reasonable person would surely understand that this facebook page was not real.
The Amicus brief is in itself a parody and extremely funny to read. Some examples:
"The Onion’s journalists have garnered a sterling reputation for accurately forecasting future events. One such coup was The Onion’s scoop revealing that a former president kept nuclear secrets strewn around his beach home’s basement three years before it even happened."
"The Onion files this brief to protect its continued ability to create fiction that may ultimately merge into reality. As the globe’s premier parodists, The Onion’s writers also have a self-serving interest in preventing political authorities from imprisoning humorists. This brief is submitted in the interest of at least mitigating their future punishment."
The latter statement is funny, but does contain a message. The Onion is serious about their own future. Parody is their business model.
"Parodists intentionally inhabit the rhetorical form of their target in order to exaggerate or implode it—and by doing so demonstrate the target’s illogic or absurdity."
This also makes clear that an article or text is not always understood as it is meant. It lays bare that communication is more than just a written message. Experiencing the emotion or the body language of someone telling the story is often a necessary component. It's easier to spot parody with a stand-up comedian than from a bunch of words on paper.
Still, I come away, well, simply laughing out loud and having respect for this organisation, making these steps. Please judge for yourself. I hope this world will have (more) room for all kinds of humor, including parodists, and that we enjoy the fun whilst living in it.
One thought that came to mind while reading all of this is that parody could perhaps serve as the ultimate test whether someone is worth to be a public figure:
"The point of all this is not that it is funny when deluded figures of authority mistake satire for the actual news—even though that can be extremely funny. Rather, it’s that the parody allows these figures to puncture their own sense of self-importance by falling for what any reasonable person would recognize as an absurd escalation of their own views."
Events happening do not just affect your opinion, influence also goes the other way around. Your opinion fuels what you tend to see just as much. I am very much aware of this effect in my desire to be optimistic about human progress. Even though democracy has increased in the past century, we are seeing cracks in the veneer and setbacks in countries around the world.
When the trend of increasing democracy in the world is suddenly interrupted, we tend to question what has felt as certainty; would this trend reverse? Isn't the only way up?
One thing to hold on to in times of doubt is Obama's illustration that history does not progress in a straight line. We should look with a blurry, averaging eye at history and see the trend that is definitely there.
Looking a bit deeper at the underlying mechanics, I feel like there are also fundamentals that favour democracies over autocracies. Einstein nicely summed it up:
'Everything truly great and inspiring has been created by an individual that was able to work in freedom.'
On an intuitive level, this makes total sense to me. Following orders is one thing, but being inspired to create something great takes a different environment. As we explored before, creativity is rapidly becoming the dominant characteristic in having an edge in business. Being open to diversity is another important element in this equation.
To sum things up, being a free, open, tolerant and diverse society seems not just to be a choice that a majority of people prefer. It also gives these societies an edge in economical terms. Not a bad choice.
The tools we need to navigate our current world are changing, and this trend has been going on for some time. More than a decade ago, IBM researched required skillsets for leaders. According to the IBM 2010 Global CEO Study, which surveyed 1,500 Chief Executive Officers from 60 countries and 33 industries worldwide, CEOs believe that:
“More than rigor, management discipline, integrity or even vision — successfully navigating an increasing complex world will require creativity.”
In this newsletter, we have often highlighted aspects of creativity, but one of its defining aspects was illustrated beautifully last week when YouTuber and Music Teacher Jeff Schneider published a lesson on jazz chord progressions and reharmonization for one of his favourite Jazz standards.
Even if you're not into music theory or only marginally acquainted (like I am), his explanation of what makes adaptations sound great, immediately hit home for me:
"...why does that chord sound so good? Well, it's because it's unexpected. In music, unexpected is interesting but there's a caveat. If you go too far out into left field, it'll cross over from Super hip to just weird."
Being novel, creative, interesting, requires moving beyond the obvious, beyond the first things that pop into your head. Creativity and Design Thinking professor Manuel Sosa teaches his students a technique to go beyond the obvious by asking them to brainstorm 10 ideas and then classify those as the 'verboten list'. They should then move beyond into the territory of the non-obvious and divergent thinking. Going too far out, he warns, gets you in dangerous territory as it will become unrecognizable.
Another music example was used by Seth Godin in an interview with Tim Ferriss. Seth explained how the successful musical 'Hamilton' crossed borders, while still building on the familiar:
"The things that happen in Hamilton rhyme with the things that came before. If you’re a fan of Broadway, you notice things that fit in, even though you’re surprised that they do. If you’re a fan of rapper hip-hop, you notice things that fit in, even though you might be surprised that they do. He makes references in every single line to some giant who came before. That texture grabs people who have cultural awareness, and then he takes you every few minutes to a place where you’re not sure it’s going to work, and then he relieves the tension and starts the process over again."
This makes enjoyment of cultural phenomena highly personal as well. From music to dining in a fancy restaurant, having the vocabulary to build on defines if you 'get the joke'. It's why musical wizardry from the likes of Jacob Collier can sound weird for some, but heavenly for others.
I think this is why creativity is such a fundamental human endeavour, like it is intertwined with life in general. No coincidence that 'creation' can point to the entirety of our cosmos as well. As wonderfully considered in 'Where good ideas come from', life itself is a cascade of 'Adjacent Possibilities'; possibilities that appear because of what came before, requiring just a little activation energy to emerge.
Playing the game and changing the game have always been battling thoughts for me. In general, I feel quite ok with having a propensity to being anti-authoritarian, but at some points I do feel like an annoying asshole, challenging conventional wisdom or 'the way we've always done it'. Bumping into statements that support this friction-inducing behaviour, therefore, always makes me feel a bit warm and fuzzy. Like Naval Ravikant tweeting:
His tweet echoes the statement Steve Jobs gave in 1994 in an interview with the Santa Clara Valley Historical Association:
"Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact and that is everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it. You can influence it."
I love the relativity worded in these statements. If we want to progress, we should ask ourselves if we're playing the right game, if the ladder is against the right wall. Or if we should shake things up.
If that resonates with you, speak up. And if it doesn't, smile at the person ruffling some feathers. It's just another dimension in the diversity we need to move ahead.
Learning and mastering new skills can be frustrating. The 'learning valley' my kids get explained in school doesn't end when you graduate. Every time you find yourself in a new situation, a new role, a new responsibility, you likely experience the helplessness that comes with it.
While taking up scuba diving again after a very long time, this realisation smacked me right in the face. The first time you're under water, you are so caught up with your own gear and well-being, that you miss out on 99% of what's happening around you. Like a horse with blinkers on, your field of vision collapses to the scope you're able to manage. It also reminded me of the first time I drove a car (with a stick), wondering if there would ever come a time I would be able to handle all these tasks effortlessly. Of course, once you master it, you hardly ever think of it. Changing gears and keeping a good overview comes naturally, the same way eating with a knife and fork requires hardly any effort.
Until now, the fun part for me has always been about the realisation of mastery. Like Neo seeing the Matrix for the first time, you start getting a longer horizon, start seeing trends and patterns, and start feeling confident you can handle what's thrown at you. Your unconscious machine learning model starts taking over a lot of the mundane, so you can move on to seeing the bigger picture. This is your realisation of growth happening before your eyes!
Like the reframing used to re-train your dopamine system, I try to enjoy being a beginner more and more often. Not just because I enjoy the mastery (hopefully) coming later, but just to savour that part of the journey as well. Even the realisation of friction while learning new things can be a great start.
"When you reflect on the last few years of your life, how much has been determined by a few great decisions? To commit to, or separate from, that one person? To start, or quit, that job or business? To focus on, or deprioritize, that area of your life? Four decisions per year might even be too many. I can capture the major inflection points in my life in one or two choices each year."
Like in business, high-leverage decisions can create the most value. Investor Naval Ravikant's dream is even to just be paid for his judgement, as this provides the most rewards:
"I would love to be paid purely for my judgment, not for any work. I want a robot, capital, or computer to do the work, but I want to be paid for my judgment." (link to article)
Unlike the smaller course-corrections, though, bigger decisions don't require a block in your schedule to sit down and reflect in a systematic way. Nat identified two drivers for big decisions; something not working, needing change and opportunities presenting themselves suddenly. Or even better, a combination of the two. At certain points, momentum and opportunity collides:
"None of the major decisions that have shaped my life were lengthy deliberations. They were each slowly building momentum for months or years, and then the decision was suddenly obvious. A certain amount of energy had built up behind it in my subconscious until one day, the dam burst, and the choice was clear."
Giving your subconscious space for processing might be the best strategy here. Keep your mind busy with mundane tasks (walking, gardening,...) and see what happens!
Bringing your key message to an audience is not an easy task. At school and university, we got taught to structure our reports in an almost chronological way. Starting with defining the problem and the way to solve it, and ending it with the results of that approach. The only exception to this order was the executive summary, which was placed all the way upfront.
When I started working, this whole world was instantly turned upside down. We were taught to start with the conclusion followed by all the arguments supporting that conclusion. Our presentations were ruled by the 'Pyramid principle', written by Barbara Minto. It made a lasting impression on me, supported by the fact that I experienced its effectiveness in meetings with business leaders that were juggling their overflowing diaries and multiple tasks.
Over the years, I started juggling myself. Using different storytelling techniques and more importantly, understanding the composition and background of your audience. Finally, I reached the insight that anytime you tell a story, you try to transform your audience. You want them to see things in a different way, change behaviour or simply add another task to their schedule.
The story you tell resonates when it's in harmony with its audience, when any dissonants have been retuned. It's therefore important to be able to tune your story to your audience, along the way and even during the meetings. This means that the most important task in storytelling is to be an absolute master of the subject and be flexible.
This is where the pyramid principle re-enters. It provides an extremely useful framework to structure problems, define concrete analyses and (hypothetical) solutions. A great way to master a topic.
The usefulness of cryptocurrencies and the blockchain technology features often on the Q&A discussion table. Though we see merit in the technology and numerous application, we're concerned about its environmental impact. Most of the current blockchain implementations consume a tremendous amount of energy. Additionally, we believe the technology is still in its early days and you need to be quite tech savvy to understand its workings. With most of its applications focused on creating new financial instruments, these new worlds have a tendency to become crowded with crooks.
However, like with any big innovation, time is required to get it adapted to what society really needs. The Economist recently reported on a seemingly big step forward in blockchain technology that is happening in the so-called 'Ethereum' network. On September 15th, it plans to change its algorithms in such a way that its network will reduce its power usage by 99%. This move, dubbed 'the Merge' (as it entails merging the current network with one that has been running in parallel in testing modus), will reduce Ethereum's energy consumption overnight by almost 100TWh, the energy usage of a small country like The Netherlands or Chile (see graph below from the Economist article).
"It can be surreal to watch this happening in real time. It is as if The Economist started to live stream its editorial meetings and allowed subscribers to commission articles and select covers."
This overhaul of software, that currently represents >$200bn in value, will be done with no downtime, has been tested for more than 2 years and was done by a decentralised group of 122 developers in 30 different countries. That is a huge achievement.
"More important still, the merge will, if successful, suggest that Ethereum has the capacity for self-improvement, opening the door to more sweeping changes."
I also wonder about the impact on power prices and global energy distribution. All in all, a big step forwards for blockchain technology. I'm more curious than before to see what it'll lead to.
Any intervention distorts the 'normal course'. The results of such actions are what is useful to observe and to learn from. We wrote earlier about the usefulness of economic sanctions in the context of the conflict in Ukraine.
"Sanctions seem most effective to take the 'energy' (pun intended) out of a conflict."
They seem to have only partially sorted that effect. Freezing bank accounts and Russian international reserves did not create the intended banking and financial crisis in Russia. Continued sales of energy products (mostly oil and gas) created a stabilizing counterbalance. Therefore, the sanctions did not have a short term effect. Today, we notice that the sanctions seem to be relatively successful in its intended medium to long term effects: ensuring Russia has trouble maintaining its military capacities.
On the other end of the spectrum are subsidies. The Dutch financial times recently featured an interesting article about subsidies on energy, also in the context of the Ukraine conflict. The common denominator in Europe seems to be to compensate for its mistake to become too dependent on Russian energy by subsidizing current energy bills. However, this will undermine the efforts to search for and implement alternatives. Alternatives that are both useful to become more independent as well as to decrease our carbon footprint.
On the effectiveness of subsidies, the article essentially comes to similar conclusions as the effectiveness of sanctions: they could work, but compromises should be minimized and implementation fast.
"Subsidies are only acceptable when they avoid great suffering of vulnerable families and support sectors where otherwise large amounts of jobs would be lost."
Sometimes, interventions are necessary. When doing so, we could take into account the power of the mass and the creativity of human beings to solve and self-correct.
Call me a pensioner, but I love jigsaw puzzles. The bigger, the better. For me, they are the perfect way of spending my downtime. And while enjoying them, I get to practice a set of useful tools.
First of all, busying yourself with a seemingly dull, repetitive task (though I'd contest that 😉) creates downtime to structure your thoughts and process what has happened. It is a form of daytime dreaming and meditation. Next, I often find myself setting goals and breaking the big challenge of a 12,000 pieces puzzle into chewable pieces. It allows me to train concocting new strategies, thinking steps ahead and recognizing patterns.
If anything, every time anew, I learn to appreciate the value of preparation and perseverance. There is trial and error involved, but as long as you're on the move, there will be progress and adjustments to your strategy.
Many things are puzzles, sometimes small, sometimes infinitely large. Does the level of difficulty increase with size of the puzzle? I personally do not think so. Often, the fact that they may look like daunting tasks to solve, scares people to start solving. One thing is certain: there is always a solution. It reminds me a lot of real life.
Time flies when you’re having fun. This Summer holiday I experienced quite the opposite. To be sure, I had a lot of fun, but time seemed to go slower. Better put, we all had the feeling we had been away for much longer than we actually did.
We had a more intense experience of our time. We certainly lived 'in the moment' for many days and it left many impressions. That seemed to have created the feeling of being away from the daily routine for so long. The daily routine which doesn't require as much attention from our senses as new things do.
I usually do not thrive on routines, though I know the value of it. Engaging in new activities and changing the routine is almost like a time compression machine. It gave me a lot of energy.
This doesn't make the popular phrase with which I started this snippet wrong or obsolete. Often, people use it in a way to express that they want the current situation to continue for longer. You're engaged in an interesting discussion, you're enjoying a nice dinner, you're the queen of the dance floor.
Time flies when you're having fun and I want it to continue. Apologies for being a week late with this Q&A.
Elon Musk (as you will know by know my favourite subject for testing my stamina for cognitive dissonance) is fond of bold vision statements for his companies. For SpaceX, it's to make humanity a multi-planetary species. He thinks the future of mankind is beyond this planet.
Now, this does not jibe well with me on all kinds of fronts. Firstly, there's the current environmental problems we have gotten ourselves into. Even the thought of having multiple opportunities for a do-over will likely take our eyes off the ball. Let's fix our presence here first, and not hedge our bets.
Secondly, humans are uniquely built for the environment we originated in. From our general molecular structure to the nourishment and environment we require to thrive, earth is our sweetspot. Everything from our vision & hearing systems to our organs are uniquely tuned to the world around us. Living on a planet like Mars will require tricks up the wazoo, and I have a hard time seeing how we would thrive there.
Still, Musk's statement is also a test of my propensity to change and seeing beyond the present. Linking to the earlier piece on Aboriginals, our 21st century daily environment might not be called natural at all. The chain of adjacent possibilities led us to where we are right now, digital environments and all.
What would be our definition of 'natural', and what's the right balance between 'keeping things as they are' and just creating what's possible? Our answer to this question might reveal a lot about who we are, naturally.
Last week's article on energy optimization of our brains made me see some of my own life's balances in a different light. Disparate stories and facts connected in a new way.
Sleep processes, human biases, pattern recognition and creativity seem to be dancing a choreography that can go in two directions.
Children are still building their mental models and mainly get their sensory information without passing through the 'reduction valve' of human mental models. They look at the world in wonder, seeing details grown-ups take for granted. It's often said that if adults would see the world the way a child does, they would be exhausted. By the same account, children are often measurably more creative. The holy grail of most creative people is to see the world as a 5-year old. Noticing the unnoticed, observing the details that are often filtered out by our energy-saving pattern recognition. As most studied psychedelics seem to take out the 'reduction valve' and cause sensory information to progress in an unfiltered fashion, you can understand their appeal for pattern breaking and creativity.
As a side-note of the famous '10.000 hours' study on mastery of skills, it highlighted the correlation between sleep and performance for top musicians. The top players slept at least 8,5 hours per day and built naps into their system. Further demonstrating energy cost of creativity, there is evidence of this type of work being most sustainable for 3-4 hours a day and the quality being highly correlated with being rested.
If you ever wondered what the impact is of not running on pattern-recognition enabled 'autopilot' in your daily life, consider how you felt when you last changed jobs. You likely felt a lot more tired in the first few weeks. If you have kids, you possibly remember how much they slept when they first went to school.
All of this leaves me with impressions of the balance on both ends of the spectrum. On the one hand, you have human operation in a state of relative certainty. Thinking in a convergent fashion, your brain finds the fastest solution for any problem that arises. You find patterns, ignore what's repeating, find the anomalies. Experiencing mastery of your environment, you feel you're in a flow-like state. You can go for long hours and even tolerate less sleep.
On the other hand, there's the creative side of our human existence. Dealing with change, finding breakthrough ideas, divergent thinking. Since this requires forgetting your assumptions and turning off the autopilot, you are required to switch off your energy-saving mechanisms and wield the powers of 'marinating' ideas while 'not working'. In order to process unfiltered impressions and constantly altering your mental models, you also need more sleep. All in all, this process seems highly inefficient. The value of creative ideas however, make this modus operandi just as valuable, if not more in some situations.
In any state of our society, we need a mix of people in both modes in order to operate to our fullest potential. Which mix is right for us in the foreseeable future, I leave to you as a summer deliberation. On a personal level, though, I can't help but notice the coincidence of a downward trend in sleep duration with an increase in the complexity and pace of change in the world around us. Even autopilots could do with more rest.
When Tim Ferriss started his podcast back in 2014, I became one of its most faithful listeners (and promotors, as those who know me probably can remember...). I often spent commutes listening to one of his (often 2+ hours) episodes. I religiously devoured even the episodes with guests that did not immediately attract me, since even those touched on interesting subjects I knew nothing about. Somewhere around the 220 episode mark, I lost my streak. Episodes started 'piling up' and I felt I was falling short of 'keeping up'. Fast forward 7 years and Tim is now at episode 536. I listen to an episode every once in a while, but feel perfectly comfortable with missing out on tons of possibly wonderful material.
Letting go of the notion that all my selected sources needed to be consumed in full did feel awkward at first, and I still struggle sometimes. A growing pile of old Economist magazines near my tea table is living proof. These days, I feel my consumption of sources comes and goes in waves. I tend to feel ok with that notion, knowing that the ebb and flow of my curiosity is a steadfast phenomenon. I want to bite off what I can really chew on. Only when I've noticed I did not consume anything for longer periods of time, some introspection is warranted. Often this means there is not enough space and downtime.
The same goes for this newsletter. Most of the articles we write are meant to be consumed for introspection purposes. They're not the daily news, it's an invitation to take its value. If you feel like you're not able to chew, it's fine to let go and not feel bad about it. Hit unsubscribe and make room for other joyful activity. We won't be disappointed. Promised!
Adjusted views on inflation, the possibility of large layoffs, new economic forecasts. They have been clogging my mailbox in the past weeks. Every bank, advisor and blogger is trying to make sense of what is happening. With so many pieces moving on the various chessboards, it is extremely difficult to make up your mind.
A logical first inclination would be to sit tight and wait. Almost always a relatively sane and safe strategy. In my opinion, you could use that time wisely. I believe it is more important than ever to secure access to a broad array of knowledge sources and allow yourself to get acquainted with different viewpoints. As ancient Greek writer Aischylos said (I'm paraphrasing): In times of war, truth is the first victim.
In addition to getting different viewpoints, try to train and trust your own thinking. Moreover, what does your gut tell you? As we covered two weeks ago, the crowd may be smarter in recollecting facts, it is certainly not smarter in finding solutions for various potential futures.
By gathering a small group of trusted people (not necessarily like-minded, remember: diversity means creativity), you can make these exercises fun and useful. I have a hunch that learning to deal with (longer periods of) uncertainty is the skill for our immediate future.
Should nothing out of the ordinary happen in the next 6-12 months, these suggestions will not be in vain. It prepares you for 'normal' life as well!
I enjoy challenges and often raise the bar (too high) for myself. If you're up to a serious challenge, I found one for you: try listening to Professor Don Hoffman being interviewed by Tim Ferriss. On purpose, I just wrote 'listening' and not 'understanding'...
The subject of the interview is essentially new insights and theorems about consciousness. Words and concepts like 'panpsychism', 'cosmological polytopes', or whether 'spacetime is fundamental' are not only difficult to hear correctly -certainly for non-native speakers-, they represent by themselves complex ideas that require serious study to comprehend. If you then start using them to explain why reality is not what we think or see what it is, you may get a bit lost.
Still, an interview like this can be highly fascinating. I picked up a couple of gems, like:
"Of course, any proposal that I make is almost surely wrong. It would be a miracle if I was right. In fact, I’ll go even further than that. I’ll say that science can never have a theory of everything."
Challenges are great. Besides providing a goal and energy to a lot of people, they serve another purpose. They can make you feel humble and admire the ingenuity of human curiousness. Above all, the beauty and power of diversity.
Our education system is discussed regularly during our weekly Q&A sessions. We often conclude that we gained a lot, but also lost something during our childhood years. Having kids ourselves now, we try to optimize their experience. More than once, this leads to friction and frustration, losing small battles as we (reluctantly) conform to the system we're in.
We do however not give up. One of our most profound observations is that our education system does not promote nor teach creativity. Don't we all marvel at the inventiveness of our kids? How come, then, that we judge them based on whether they answered a series of questions according to a pre-set model of possible responses?
Looking for ways to innovate the educational system, I came across a 2006 TED Talk called 'Do schools kill creativity? by Sir Ken Robinson. In this presentation, he makes the case for creating an education system in which creativity is as important as literacy and math. He also explains succinctly and rather entertaining why the current system 'kills' creativity. He's quite explicit about it:
"All kids have tremendous talent and we squander it."
Most public education systems came into existence by the end of the 19th century in the era of industrialisation. As a result, language and math got far more attention than arts. That is still the case today. In fact, whenever arts is teached, music and drawing skills get more attention than dancing and drama. The latter two being important part of our storytelling and expression abilities, the main way in which we bring knowledge to a next generation.
Furthermore, mistakes are 'stigmatised' and Sir Robinson gives a couple of examples. Education seems to be focused "from the waist up, to the head, and then to a particular side [left] of it". Children all have extraordinary capacities and each their own specific talent. Additionally, kids have a unique capacity: they will take a chance. When they don't know, they will try, not afraid of being wrong.
Writing the word 'unique' in the previous sentence is exemplary for the message I'm trying to convey. We, as adults view it as unique. However, every child has that capacity, it's not unique at all! By the time you've become an adult, it has become that way. Sir Robinson notes:
"Creativity does not equal to be wrong, but if you're not prepared to be wrong you'll not come up with something original."
We should not punish being wrong. Apart from the fact that you could debate what the truth and therefore the 'right' answer is, there is always a reason why someone gives a particular answer. Trying to understand those reasons is likely to provide far more development and insights to everyone. That will improve our collective intelligence. Our intelligence is diverse, interactive, and distinct. That is what makes humankind unique. These three themes could be an excellent starting point for designing a new education system.
It is time to rethink our systems. Even though you may not agree with us or Sir Ken Robinson, I recommend watching this 20-minutes talk. I guarantee you'll have a laugh and come out full of energy to continue your day. Energy that may ignite your own, specific talents and create new things.
I tend to focus on subjects for a period of time monomaniacally before moving on and letting the subject fade out a little. If I really want to learn, there is no multitasking for me. While I used to think this behaviour was at odds with my convictions about life in general (being consistent over time), I tend to find more and more proof of the utility of this behaviour.
The first part lies in the myth of multitasking. With complex problems and concepts, it can take a while to get the 'wetware' loaded in your brain. Getting knowledge and connections top of mind just takes time. In that sense, it makes sense not to do too much things in parallel, but use all the focus you can on just one subject to get meaningful progress.
Another bit of the puzzle was handed to me in a Tim Ferriss e-mail about a 2010 article by Paul Graham of Y-Combinator. His article, called "The Top Idea in Your Mind" wonderfully links 'top of mind' with finding solutions.
I already knew what the value is of having your 'favourite problems' top of mind, because solutions tend to come spontaneously. Professor Richard Feynman's modus operandi was continuously checking new information against the problems he would like to solve. If problems are top of mind, you're feeding your unconscious with the riddles you would like to get solved.
Paul Graham concurs. While in the shower, you should be thinking about the most important issues you would like to solve. Which is why he found entrepreneurs having 'raising money' or 'solving legal issues' as their priorities, lacking in real progress. What are your thoughts in the shower, and are they the ones you want them to be?
OpenAI continues to amaze. We reported on GPT-3 and Codex, writing human-like prose and functioning programming code. Last week, the internet was flooded with the first examples from Dall·E 2, a version of GPT-3 trained to produce images based on written text. Some examples to give you an impression:
"An astronaut riding a horse"
"Raccoons helping teach rats how to read and write colored pencil illustration"
"The soul leaves the body while someone is dreaming and hovers over the bed, surrealist"
You can likely imagine the reactions of almost the entire illustrator's guild present on Twitter. They expected the creative professions to be the last victims of AI, not one of the first. "Robots coming for our jobs" took on new meaning. But I disagree. I'm a firm advocate of Augmented Intelligence, and I believe that even this demonstration of AI will just teach us about human creativity, art and its essence.
Seth Godin shared his vision of art during a podcast with Tim Ferriss, using the musical 'Hamilton' as an example:
"The things that happen in Hamilton rhyme with the things that came before. If you’re a fan of Broadway, you notice things that fit in, even though you’re surprised that they do. If you’re a fan of rapper hip-hop, you notice things that fit in, even though you might be surprised that they do. He makes references in every single line to some giant who came before. That texture grabs people who have cultural awareness, and then he takes you every few minutes to a place where you’re not sure it’s going to work, and then he relieves the tension and starts the process over again."
Impressive as Dall·E is, it's just our human created art remixed. Intelligently regurgitated stuff we've done before. Sure, more people will be able to create something, which I think is a good thing. But I think the human creative part will remain, if even just in the detailed instructions for the algorithms. AI, like classical instruction based IT continues to be a bicycle for the mind as Steve Jobs once put it. It makes us more efficient, capable of more.
I'm convinced that, stripping some of the barriers, progress in AI art will just prove what art is all about: communication between an artist and an audience.
We often believe that spending time on predicting the future is not worth the effort. Outcomes are not accurate and therefore its utility is debatable. However, Jane McGonical, Director of Games Research & Development at the Institute for the Future, argues that it does make a lot of sense to do forecasting exercises as it cultivates optimism.
In an interview with Tim Ferris, she explains that going through simulations of possible futures trains your mental flexibility and hence your ability to deal with unexpected events. You automatically feel more prepared and your confidence and self-esteem get a boost.
Interestingly -and this explains her job title-, people who often play videogames tend to show a similar mental flexibility.
"[...] there’s a certain neurocircuitry pattern that gets really strengthened [...] that involves the reward system and the learning centers that make us feel like, “I got this.” It’s like the neuroscience of, “I can do this,” and we feel more physical energy, more mental focus, [...] more expectation that we can make something good happen through our own efforts and actions and abilities."
As a result, she and her team developed games and so-called social simulations, involving thousands of people spending several days or weeks in fictional social networks. They are then fed different scenarios. The outcomes of these experiments are stunning. In simulations performed in 2010 for the World Bank, the Covid pandemic was predicted including responses by different countries.
I'm especially intrigued by the optimism part of it. It strikes me that using these methods people can be trained to have a more balanced view, a theme that keeps on returning to us.
Innovation writer Aiden McCullen shares his thoughts on Maslov's Hammer, also known as the 'Einstellung Effect'. It can be summarized like this: when confronted with problems, we tend to look for solutions we are already comfortable with. Using a math problem you can try for yourself, he illustrates how our mind tends to apply the successful first solution 1-on-1 to new problems, limiting us in finding an even better solution.
While this tendency helped us in an evolutionary sense when the world was changing ever so slowly, it can prevent us with coming up with new solutions, limiting our progress in these fast moving times. Our mental record staying 'in the groove' is efficient, but not often effective in the long run.
Our convergent thinking (converging to a solution as fast as possible, often acting on the first one that comes to mind) is even promoted. In our daily jobs, we are rewarded for coming up with a fix and execute as fast as possible, making this a cultural problem. The opposite, divergent thinking, takes crafting a well defined problem and lots of time. Einstein summed it up nicely: "creativity is the residue of wasted time".
Balancing our addiction to the tools we know well, we're also fond of 'bright and shiny new tools'. How often are digitization, blockchains, platforms or AI presented as the cure to every business disease?
While not easy or sexy, the best ingredients for progress seem extensive reflection on the problem, and time. Go slow to go fast.
As we continue to increase the written part of our daily communications (e-mail galore...), the amount of misunderstandings grows accordingly. When I was just starting out in corporate land, my mentor taught me to 'walk over or call when possible, write when necessary' which has been a motto I still try to live by. Stressful situations and busy days, however, got me caught up in nasty e-mail chains or misinterpreted text messages more than I would care to admit.
Evaluating your way of communicating every once in a while, creating a sort of metacognitive loop, seems like a good idea this day and age. If you're interested, Digital Body Language by Erica Dhawan might provide you with tons of examples and solutions to add to your repertoire. She likes to say "we’re all “immigrants” learning a new culture and language, except this time it’s in the digital space" and shares familiar flaws and ways to improve our communication.
A quick tip you might immediately add to the toolbox comes from cultural anthropologist Jitske Kramer. She is on a crusade to undo the childish reputation of emoji, professing the use up to boardroom level. Even CEO's should use them in their mail communication in her opinion. Adding emojis to your written lines can add texture, intention and prevent misunderstanding, leading to better communication. So why are we afraid to come across as frivolous when using them? What if the CEO promoted 'emoji use' as a tool for good?
Most people feel creativity is an elusive, dark art. Something you're born with or not, something you had as a child but lost along the way. Tons of research, however, show that creativity is something you can (re-)learn and practice. It's a skill like any other. But even when you're a seasoned artist, having the equivalent of a sixpack worth of creative muscle, things can get tough. You can get stuck.
Some time ago I bumped into the story of a mythical set of creativity cards, called Oblique Strategies. The idea was born in the 60's and 70's, when musician / producer Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt had independently come up with a set of 'cue cards' to break a deadlock or dilemma situation. In 1975 they combined their efforts and created a deck for sale in a limited edition of 500 sets.
The strategies mentioned include "Honor thy error as a hidden intention", "Look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify", "Not building a wall; making a brick" and "Repetition is a form of change", cryptic advice in some cases.
When hitting a block, a card was drawn and that advice was to be followed in any shape or form. Helping out during several recording sessions in Eno's studio, they can count the likes of R.E.M., Coldplay and David Bowie amongst their fans. "Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy." even made it literally to the lyrics of R.E.M.'s 1994 "What's the frequency, Kenneth?"
Keeping your streak in creative endeavours is a subject that keeps alluring me. Last year I noticed that a lot of my regular activities before the summer break (like making regular YouTube videos or writing blogs) stranded after having a long and relaxing summer Holiday. I still have not revived them.
We earlier wrote about activation energy, and the tricks (chainsmoking!) to start up. Last week I read a great piece of writing from my former piano teacher Jeff Schneider on creating solos, that surprisingly (or unsurprisingly) seemed to hold exactly the same secret.
"You know how writers always complain about staring at the blank page? Well, improvisers deal with the same kind of thing. Sometimes it feels impossible to come up with something meaningful to kick off your solo. But I’ve got good news for you. The first thing you play doesn’t matter. Like, at all. It’s the second phrase that makes all the difference."
Remember the YT Video of the single guy starting a dance party at a festival? In Jeff's eyes, the second guy is the real legend. He validates the first, giving permission to everybody to join in.
"The same principle applies to soloing. Your second phrase is what really matters... Your first phrase could be totally random. Your second phrase has the power to make it anything but."
He advises us to just start with something, anything. And then just repeat.. until inspiration hits you and you move on. Try it!
I've been watching the first part of Peter Jackson's 3 x 3 hours Beatles documentary 'Get Back' last week and I think it's wonderful. It's not just the crisp video and audio which almost make you forget this material is 52 years old. It's also Peter's innate storytelling capacity. By selecting 10% of the available footage, mixing in bare audio and showing relevant media from that day and age, he is making you a spectator of the conception of the Beatles' final album in a way I did not know was possible.
Since the phenomenon 'creativity' is one of my big interests, I also watched the documentary with a keen eye on those aspects of the group working together. So far, two creativity lessons stood out.
I feel the first lesson was best worded by Albert Einstein, who once said 'Creativity is the residue of wasted time'. With no apparent daily schedule other than turning up at the agreed upon time of day (an agreement which Lennon seems to take lightly), the band ostensibly just has fun most of the time, playing classics and covers, fooling around with funny adaptations to well-known themes. Playfully exploring the musical universe without an eye on the clock clearly worked here.
That said, the apparent deadline in their schedule also has a pivotal function, as they realise that in just a few weeks time, they should have an album ready. While having a deadline can cause stress in many business situations, it seems that in creative endeavours, it can work miracles.
Being able to balance these two perspectives on 'time', switching from one to the other, makes it a tool to wield in the creative process.
"Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it (the product) looks like. People think it's this veneer - that the designers are handed this box and told, 'Make it look good!' That's not what we think design is. Design is (also) how it works."
This Steve Jobs quote only started to really resonate with me while on a course improving my Design Thinking skills. One of the cases discussed on the course showed how world-renowned Design firm IDEO handled a one-week project of totally redesigning a shopping cart. ABC's Nightline followed the team for one week, and made a (dated, but fascinating) documentary on the process, should you want to get a great 15-minute introduction to the method.
If you could boil down the whole method into just one word, it would be 'empathy'. Walking a mile in someone's shoes instead of asking what they want. The insights gathered are then transformed into innovation opportunities. In another showcase, IDEO transformed the patient journey in an American hospital. For preparation, one of the team members had himself committed to the hospital, filming the entire process from a first-person viewpoint. The images, 80% of them showing ceilings while hearing strange beeps and medical jargon around him, made it to the hospital's boardroom as evidence how anxiety can be induced by just the standard practices.
Discussing this with my wife the other day, we realised how often this strange customer viewpoint (a ceiling) is neglected. How many ugly blank ceilings have you looked at while at the hairdresser or the dentist? I then recalled how my childhood dentist used to have a wonderful Escher woodcut on his ceiling providing something nice to look at. Apparently, you don't need a Design firm if you empathise, question the status quo and just be a little creative.
When I submerge myself in a subject I’d like to know more of, this interest often does not last. With most infatuations I tend to move on after a few weeks or months. While this prevents me from being a true specialist and master in any of them, I like to think I am honoring mr. Pareto in a sense that I always have a grasp of 80% of the dynamics and structure of the subject.
Even if I leave the active participation, I found that this 80% enables me to enjoy the subject even more as a spectator. Richard Feynman once observed that knowing the intricate biology of a flower made him enjoy it even more, not less.
A remainder of my short dive in music theory is a fondness for YouTube videos where musicians explain why they love specific songs or performances. As a little tasting menu, I would like to offer you:
These tidbits show me that I really love seeing people enjoying something (there's an example of mirror neurons working for ya!). But most of all, I realise that a little background knowledge can boost appreciation, so nothing is lost in dipping your toes in several pools.
We've written before about the perils (and also benefits) of procrastination. There is something about getting started that seems tough for a lot of us. A new way of looking at it come to me in an article by Anne Laure le Cunff (neurochemistry and mindful productivity expert) who drew fascinating parallels using the chemical term 'activation energy'
"In chemistry, activation energy is the energy that must be provided to result in a chemical reaction."
Based on the insights from this chemical process, some useful lessons can be drawn about starting up and defeating procrastination.
One of the first examples is breaking down the activation energy needed into smaller chunks. This can be accomplished by breaking down the task at hand into smaller chunks. Starting with a small task indeed feels a lot easier than starting a huge task, which is why this advice is often given.
Another strategy is called 'Energetic linking', linking the task or habit you are starting to an existing activity. Taking your vitamins every time you brew a pot of coffee is an example of this. Energetic linking immediately reminded me of Austin Kleon's 'chainsmoking' where he advises us to immediately start a new project after successfully completing one. The energy-high from a success makes it easy to get going on the next one.
The easiest hack, though, is making sure you have enough energy in the first place. Being well rested is the best start.
There is a fairly fixed number of avenues I take to get my inspiration, either for writing or general leisure and pleasure. Lately, I've been trying to find new routes but have not been very successful. While this issue moved to the background, I came across a passage in a book I was reading about... inspiration. Love it how framing the mind works!
The passage references Julia Cameron and her book "The Artist's Way".
"Many blocked people are actually very powerful and creative personalities who have been made to feel guilty about their own strengths and gifts."
On a high level, the method described in her book lists 5 guiding principles to find your inspiration:
Note that none of these advices actually contain an active search for something new nor creating pathways to new people or environments. The hardest part is actually making the time and perseverance to keep these habits going.
Much of the inspiration, if not all, is already inside you. You could unlock these yourself by creating the right circumstances to be receptive to inspiration and acknowledge it as such.
I sincerely believe that most people on this planet are trying hard to make the best of their lives. Whatever activity they undertake, they are done with the best intentions and make sense from everyone's own point of view. People feel useful that way, which is major driver to keep going.
In preparing the previous newsletter, we discussed this and tried to take a more holistic view towards all the activities going on in this world. We (unfortunately) came to the conclusion that a debate is possible for several jobs and industries. I am not going to list any examples, because they are highly subjective. Writing a weekly newsletter might not survive the same level of scrutiny!
I guess the main message is that it is useful to question whether it is really necessary what you're doing. Like the intern Asok does in the Dilbert comic:
Scott Adams, the author of Dilbert strips and business books, is a master in highlighting and questioning the norm. He does this in a way that gives both of us tears from laughing. If this is not your type of humour, you could still consider using it as an introduction for workshops or to lighten up the atmosphere at work or at home. There is plenty of choice at the website of Dilbert.
Repeating, rehashing, rewording, rebuilding. Most of the art that we create is in some way inspired by what came before. I don't think this is 'unoriginal' in any way; creativity is about non-conventional combination, not about making things appear from thin air.
Recently I learned how one of my favourite Beatles songs, 'Blackbird' came into existence. Paul McCartney describes how a Baroque dance song, Bach's Bourée in E minor, accidentally turned into the classic:
"As kids, George and I used to show off and try to play it as a party piece, and folks would go, Wow, man, you know classical! Of course we didn’t play it quite right; we left out a few notes, but that mistake became the first line of 'Blackbird.'"
A few years back I visited a concert of Dutch trumpet maestro Eric Vloeimans, accompanied by the Holland Baroque Society. One of the songs he played was a Baroque interpretation of 'Blackbird'. The YouTube recording doesn't do justice to the atmosphere in the room at the time; the timeless beauty and Eric's virtuosity moved me to tears.
I don't know if Eric knew Blackbird's Genesis or if he just felt it worked well in a Baroque setting, but knowing the melody did a full 360 and got reinterpreted in a Baroque fashion feels like art in itself. A little dance, performed in a circle.
This article was supposed to be an entirely different article. And my next one as well. While enjoying some time in the bathtub last Sunday, I figured out exactly what I was going to write about. It nicely tied a few things I had been reading and subjects that had been on my mind for some time. Partially submerged in warm water and bubbles, I looked forward to crafting them. And then the time came to actually write them Yesterday, and I had forgotten all the details that would have made a good story. Two days, and my carefully crafted storyline was gone.
I'm a big proponent of capturing ideas the moment they come up. Making notes on the fly, jotting down ideas, taking time to do some reflection on paper. For years, I had been a librarian-type note-taker. Writing stuff down in notebooks, filing Apple Notes, saving annotated PDF's in clearly organised folder structures. But I almost never took the time to review any of them. Only if I remembered writing stuff down, I could look for it.
Since discovering Roam Research last year, my Personal Knowledgement Management really took off. I write everything I think of in Roam, highlights from articles and books are saved there, and I tag keywords. Whenever I research a subject, notes from the past pop up automagically, so nothing goes to waste. I turned into a gardener-type note taker, sowing randomly, confident it will surface at some future moment.
And still, sometimes I'm on the fence about these forms of crutches. Forgetting has a function in selectivity and renewal. You remember what's truly useful, right? What if hoarding knowledge is actually counterproductive? At least this writing would not have happened.
We often praise the benefits of deep work, being in the zone, flow. The pitfalls of distraction, the dangers of ruining your streak. And while I still consider a great uninterrupted 2-3 hour session of creative work the best ingredient for a successful day, sometimes, just wandering off and letting yourself being drawn to something completely random has its merits.
Boris Veldhuizen van Zanten, CEO of TNW, sings the praises of distraction is his (great, IMO) weekly letter. One particularly interesting insight is his idea of selectivity in being distracted:
"And who knows, maybe there’s a reason you let some things distract you, while you ignore others. Perhaps you let the things through that might help you in the long run?"
In light of the growing insights into our intuition, this does not even seem that strange to me. Following your gut is great advice in any kind of scenario, so why not trust it with distractions as well. Einstein summed it up quite nicely when stating "Creativity is the residue of wasted time". Apparently that formula worked great for him.
Writer and thinker Visa (check him out on Twitter or YouTube) pointed me to a 2007 blogpost by Marc Andreesen, summarizing his favourite book on luck: 'Chase, Chance and Creativity', written in 1978 by Neurologist / Philosopher James Austin. It provides a wonderful analysis of luck, rooted in his neurology background.
Chance type I is all about pure blind luck, like finding a winning lottery ticket on the street or being born into a wealthy family.
For chance type II, motion is introduced. Movement and motion 'stir up the pot', increasing the chances of experiences colliding and providing a breakthrough discovery or idea. It's about the luck Charles Kettering described when saying "I have never heard of anyone stumbling on something sitting down."
Chance type III introduces what Louis Pasteur called "The prepared mind". Chance presents only a faint clue, the potential opportunity exists, but it will be overlooked except by that one person uniquely equipped to observe it, visualize it conceptually, and fully grasp its significance. An example is how Alexander Flemming discovered Pennicilin.
Finally, chance IV is about creating a unique opportunity by having a rare combination of behavioural quirks, hobbies and interest. This allows you to have an unusual approach to problems and challenges, leading to this specific type of luck. Benjamin Disraeli summed this up by noting "We make our fortunes and we call them fate."
Andreesen then translates these into lessons on energy, curiosity, synthesis and personality for entrepreneurs. If you need a roadmap for getting luck on your side, here it is!
You must have found that we're great advocates of seeing all kinds of balance at this newsletter. One of those dynamic balances is the one between chaos and rigidity. Our brains seem to meander between those two extremes at all times, and spending too much time at either shore often has severe downsides to our mental health. Like all balances, the trick does not seem to lie in keeping a perfect straight line, but swaying a bit from side to side based on an assessment where you are and how that makes you feel. If you mastered the art of riding a bike, you know exactly what a dynamic balance can feel like.
I feel this is also something to consider when looking at routines of all sorts. Routines have merits, but breaking them every once in a while is useful too. You're able to evaluate its usefulness since a bit of distance provides a clearer picture.
Since I had a mini-break from work for 4 days here, I decided to do a mini digital detox. I swapped the SIM card in my iPhone to a dumbphone, and set aside my Apple Watch in favour of a classic Casio F-91W. I was amazed (again) how much looking at your screen is ingrained in your routine. Like a phantom limb, I reached for my phone at numerous occasions. It took almost two days for this to stop happening to me.
Looking around while waiting in line, just being aware of myself and my surroundings, I realised how much I loved breaking this specific habit, even for a few days. What habit would you like to break?
Last week, special adviser to the Dutch Government, Mark Frequin, criticized journalists for focusing too much on 'how did this happen?' and 'who did this?' rather than exploring 'what happened'. Preparing for the first kind of questions means most people will often keep information back until absolutely certain its release will do no harm and generally take a defensive position. This does not present an ideal environment for a constructive and open-minded discussion.
It made me (again) realise how much the quality and enjoyment of our interactions are determined by how you start it. Framing the discussion and asking the right questions is key. When you're able to create an atmosphere in which you're jointly trying to solve a problem or explore new areas of interest, most participants will probably tell you this was time well spent.
Exploring the 'what happened' helps to create an open mindset and promotes creativity. It is about the intention with which you ask the questions. It also invokes a listening mode and shows interest in another opinion. It is the curious child inside you.
Being in a reflective mood while discussing the 30th edition of this newsletter, I came to see this as being another example of what makes me tick. If there's anything that I enjoy doing, it's creating something with other people. Looking back, all of the episodes that I really enjoyed were just fun projects with nice people. Making movies in high school, crazy moonshot projects like playing Tetris on a building or travelling the world, that overly ambitious work project with a small but great team.
Starting this newsletter has also been one of them. I love the writing, followed by the constructive feedback we share, the rewriting, the composing, leading up to the moment we have a draft sitting in our bulk e-mail editor. While on a video conference, one of us aks 'Are we happy?' before we press send. Something is created. It's small, but it's a creation anyway.
Apple's former design guru Jonny Ive told people:
“I’ve always thought there are a number of things that you have achieved at the end of a project. There’s the object, the actual product itself, and then there’s all that you learned. What you learned is as tangible as the product itself, but much more valuable because that’s your future."
I'd like to add the people part to this. The result of any project is how the people involved have grown their relationship. And those are the results I remember most.
You just know it when you hear or see it: it resonates so well, you instantly love this song, picture or performance.
A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure to be present at a performance of the Dutch-Belgian Jazz collective Gare du Nord. Their 'We still grow' instantly resonated. Perhaps because of its heartbeat-like rhythm, but the lyrics spoke to my heart as well:
"In moments stolen from the ocean of time
Beyond the everlasting balance of mind
In the flow and field of music and rhyme
As a side effect of passion defying
We grow, oooh we still grow"
Whether something resonates is often time-, place- and situation-specific. Some performances of art, be it music, paintings, ballet or another form, just stick and seem to resonate with your core frequencies. I love it.
This last decade, experimentation has regained its position as the Gold Standard for progress of any kind in innovation. This has prompted all of the Tech Giants to aim for ever-increasing experimentation speed as a goal in and of itself. I came across a great case for more experimentation in a book called Art & Fear, written by David Bayles and Ted Orland:
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.
His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.
Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity.
Doing gets you feedback & learning, making an experiment often the best choice for progress. As with all advice, however, there is nuance to this. Intelligent choices between experimentation steps trump mere speed.
If ever there is a need for walking, it's during this pandemic. Walking is one of the best recipes against the ails caused by our mostly sedentary state, it's a hobby you do not need much tools for, gives you a jolt of fresh air and the only sport you can confidently combine with having a meeting or making a phone call (try other sports and end up at James Bond-villain-style-situations at your own peril).
Dan Pallotta makes the case for not labelling your walks as 'leisure' or 'luxury'. He feels that walks can lead to the most important work you can do. He explains the process of rehearsing for a TED Talk while doing his daily walks:
"Had I stayed home, chained to my desk, where most of us are taught that real serious work happens, the work would have been easier—but far less productive. I’d have gone online every few minutes to check a favorite news site. Grabbed a chocolate chip cookie or a glass of water. Checked my e-mail. Walking affords no such distractions. It’s just you and the work."
He goes on to point at research from Leiden University, proving people who walk at least 4 times per week are able to think more creatively, confirming benefits that artists have been touting for millennia:
Henry David Thoreau said famously, “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”
At my kids' school, several tools are used to indicate whether you can or cannot be disturbed. Teachers use bright traffic lights, students use dices holding traffic-light colors.
Working in open office plans pre-pandemic, I wish grown-ups would have adhered to a same set of rules. Your focus and attention are fair game, from colleagues having animated discussions while sitting on your desk to the common practice of having your outlook schedule wide open for everyone to fill as they see fit. Nurturing the narrative that 'real work has to be done in the evenings', there was not much incentive for change. (If you're up for a more extensive rant on the idiocy of common office culture, may we suggest It doesn't have to be crazy at work by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hanson).
While the amount of colleagues interrupting your flow has probably drastically reduced since working from home, your kids might have easily taken over that responsibility. Funny hats to the rescue! In an interview with Nir Eyal he explains the life-saving invention of the Concentration Crown. The concept is simple: find the silliest piece of head-gear you can find around your house and inform your kids what it means if you're wearing it. Having a clear sign you're doing concentration work is much easier to understand for your little ones. Can't wait to see them pop up at offices worldwide.
I have a somewhat love-hate relationship with chaos. When I enter a kitchen right after supper has been prepared, I can be completely out of balance just by the impression of filthy dishes being everywhere. On the other hand, chaos is often the beginning of something creative and new, like the scattered parts of a complex jigsaw puzzle lying on the floor luring me into piecing them together.
In our weekly deliberations, Quinten triggered me by stating:
"Chaos is human's certificate of incapacity to capture a phenomenon in a model."
The word chaos comes from the Greek word xάος, meaning 'emptiness' or 'void' and refers, in Greek mythology, to the state that preceded the creation of the cosmos (universe). It is also depicted as an endless emptiness in which everything falls continuously in all directions.
This disorder often forms the basis for new creations. Chaos might therefore indeed be nature's deliberate setting to propel development and create diversity. An endless and undescribable generator of new possibilities.
For me personally, mastering chaos is one of the biggest challenges as I often encounter it when I seem least prepared and causes me to almost literally freeze. And perhaps that is exactly where the solution lies: do not be prepared, but embrace it and use its energy to fuel your creativity and development.
One of the main rules for getting great brainstorming results is not to kill grandiose ideas. Even if you think the idea is completely un-realisable, it might provide you with valuable elements that you can incorporate into a solution if you go beyond the obvious way of doing things.
Christian Schoettl, mayor of the French town of Janvry (672 inhabtants), came up with an ecological, glyphosphate- free solution to rid his town of weeds.
I couldn't find any origin story for the idea, but I can vividly imagine the conversation that might have transpired at the small 'Hotel de Ville' of Janvry, with an assistant shouting (read this with heavy french accent) "Ze sheep will go everywhere!". That's how the 'moutondeuse' was born. If you (like most of us) immediately come up with reasons that would limit the usefulness of this invention, bonus points for thinking out of the box and coming up with the next iteration!
In general, artists have never been amongst the best paid people on this planet. You get a skewed image if you focus on the top 0.01% of painters, actors, writers and musicians, but these exceptions cannot hide the fact that the majority of people in the arts struggle to make a living with their craft.
It fascinates me how this contrasts with the way we consider all of our art forms to be uniquely human and invaluable to our well-being. We have gotten solace and comfort from art in our darkest moments and much of what we consider our historic achievements is art.
With modern incarnations of Patrons (like patreon.com) as an example of technology solving this problem, I was therefore quite enthusiastic about the dawn of the NFT. An NFT (Non Fungible Token) is a way to buy digital art based on Blockchain technology, albeit without the formal legal and economic ownership of the piece.
The NFT space has exploded recently, with many investors buying NFT's of everything from digital artwork and writing to videos of NBA action shots. Last week, a collage of work by Beeple was sold at Christies for US$ 69 Mio (not a typo).
My enthusiasm of NFT's took a turn for the worse after being confronted with Seth Godin's view and then reading this more in-depth article. While quite extreme in its conclusion, I have yet to find the fundamental flaw in the reasoning behind it. If NFT's are a modern incarnation of a pyramid scheme, it's not about to end because of a lack of buyers, but because of a clash with our moral and environmental values.