Lost Mozarts, Lost Picassos, Lost Teslas

There’s an old joke in which a man inherits a dusty old violin and an aged oil painting from a dearly departed distant relative. Disinterested in these objects for their intrinsic or nostalgic value, he decides to get them appraised by a reputable auction house, with a view to monetising his windfall. The appraiser delivers his evaluation thus: “Sir, what you have here is a very rare Stradivarius and a little-known Rembrandt.” Suddenly enlivened at the prospect of raising an unspeakable return at auction, he timidly asks the appraiser, a renown expert in these matters, what he thinks they might be worth. “Unfortunately,” he responds with deepest regret, “Stradivarius was a lousy painter and Rembrandt couldn’t make a violin to save himself.”

What this story highlights is that, were it not for happenstance, both of these acknowledged masters may have found themselves in occupations that didn’t bring forth their greatest talents. Rembrandt may have had to take a job maintaining web sites, to pay the rent. Stradivarius might have been forced to work as an actuary, leaving his instrument making to his spare time, as a hobby. If this had been their fate, the world would have never had Rembrandt’s fine paintings and Stradivarius’ remarkable instruments. Our culture would have been so much the poorer for it.

A recent article in the New York Times by David Leonhardt, reporting on Stanford University professor Raj Chetty’s work on equality of opportunity, entitled “Lost Einsteins”, outlined the cost to humanity of innovations that never blossomed, due to lack of trust in and support for their innovators. Either these inventors were from a minority group, or grew up in the wrong environment, or were women. In every case, nobody backed their genius and so their ideas, hugely beneficial to humanity, were stillborn. Often, the innovators think their chances of succeeding are so unlikely, they don’t even try to get backing. There is a vacuum of encouragement.

The loss may sound unfortunate, but inconsequential. However, ideas and innovations underpin improvements in humanity’s quality of life. They help us to thrive and enjoy better standards of living. In short, they improve our lot, in life. In the study, researchers concluded that if all the so-called lost Einsteins had been able to bring their inventions to fruition, there would be roughly four times the innovation we benefit from collectively today. Put another way, we are harvesting the benefits of only a quarter of the brilliant ideas and improvements we could be. That represents a tremendous waste of opportunity.

That got me thinking about what else we lose, as a culture, when musicians, artists and assorted visionaries have to ignore their vocation, in order to earn enough to survive in an economy that you must fight tooth and claw within, for your very existence. When the prevailing economic system makes no investment in you at all, but is instead set up to prey upon you, forcing you to earn and pay your way on your own, or die, what else gets killed in the process?

What is the value of the collateral damage? How much does misemployment and underemployment take away from us all, so that a privileged few may appear to win at the current economic game? Why do we pursue a system that, in net terms, impoverishes everybody, so that the inequality between the winners and losers can be accelerated?

This being the run up toward Christmas, it’s interesting to contemplate the message in Charles Dickens’ tale “A Christmas Carol”. In truth, we, as a society, behave like Scrooge, when it comes to backing human potential, especially if the lost Einstein, Mozart, Picasso or Nikola Tesla has the wrong coloured skin, lives in the wrong place, is female, comes from the wrong background, didn’t go to the right schools or otherwise hasn’t networked with and been accepted by the privileged. We woefully underinvest in people with great potential, if they don’t fit the arbitrary criteria. And they know it.

Our collective attitude to those with a spark of artistic or creative originality is one of jealousy and mistrust. We fear losses and begrudge their abilities and chances of success. We feel diminished by their presence and fiercely protective of what we have earned, to date, for fear of losing even a small part of it, in a dog-eat-dog system where failure to pay your way means you perish. Every attitude manifests a desire to elbow competitors aside, to secure a larger slice of the pie, rather than encouraging and supporting others to bake a pie four times as big as the one we so covetously guard. We know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Our miserly, penny-pinching approach to investing in clever, capable people denies us the opportunity to enjoy much better, enriched lives.

This Scroogely cast of mind is baked into the very fabric of capitalism, which will happily eat the geese that lay the golden eggs, if there’s a quick buck in it. It’s hard-wired into the axiomatic rules of the game. To change it will require proven ideas, like universal basic incomes, to become widespread. People will need to realise that fiercely and selfishly guarding your pile guarantees that your pile is much smaller than it could be, as is everybody else’s. For now, our behaviour is evidence of supreme collective stupidity.

Inequality of opportunity and outcomes is damned expensive and needlessly so.

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A Tin of Nuts and Bolts

When you were a child, I bet some of the things you liked to play with most weren’t even toys. I know it was true for me, as it probably was for lots of people. This fact is inconvenient for the makers of those plastic toys that they like to promote so aggressively to parents, around Christmas time, but it doesn’t make it any the less true. Children have a way of finding fascination and wonder in the most curious objects. There is no distinction, in their minds, between an interesting piece of discarded junk and a slickly marketed consumer fad. The one that captures their imagination most is always the winner.

I’m so old, that when you used to buy ice cream, to take home to your freezer, it was packaged in robust tins; tins like chocolate tins used to be, with a pressed lid that slid on and off snuggly. This was long before the ubiquity of moulded plastic containers and just before the less than satisfactory waxed cardboard experiments, which made the ice cream in direct contact with the wax taste slightly funny. Ice cream tins are long extinct now, of course. I found a picture of the exact half gallon tin I mean on the Internet.

Farmland tin

These tins had just enough thermal mass to keep the ice cream from returning fully to its liquid phase, during the ten minute or so car journey back home from the then brand new supermarkets that had begun to appear in my home town, on any blazingly hot Australian summer day. Tins were a practical solution, if perhaps expensive to produce and bulky to transport, to and from the ice cream factory. A full one, falling on your foot from the height of the refrigerator’s freezer compartment, could hurt you a lot, if the edge of the tin became the point of impact.

The wonderful thing about these tins is that they seldom went to waste. An empty ice cream tin could serve for literally decades as a receptacle for all kinds of interesting collections. My dad had an interesting collection. He habitually put stray nuts and bolts (or other miscellaneous fasteners) left over from construction projects, found on the ground while walking around, or from the disassembly of defunct household appliances, electric motors or rusting motor vehicles, into his empty ice cream tin. Over time, the tin became filled to the brim with the most diverse collection of discarded fasteners imaginable. Some were new, but most were used. There were all kinds.

One of my most memorable and very favourite childhood experiences was being allowed to sort through my father’s large tin of stray nuts and bolts. Usually, my dad wanted me to search for a suitable nut or bolt to fix something, or to do an impromptu stock-take, to see what we had. Eventually, though, it became my habit to spontaneously empty the tin out on the polished concrete garage floor, for something to do, just for the sheer fun of sifting through all of these weird and wonderful parts. Having done so, I would methodically put each piece back into the tin, until they were all back where they came from. There was fun to be had in simply handling and examining each different, strange article. Feeling their shape in my hands and looking at them from different angles was actually pleasurable.

I freely admit I found fascination and wonder at all the different kinds in the collection. As a child, I had no understanding of what you’re supposed to like or any real concept of money. I didn’t know or care if each part was outrageously expensive or crazily cheap. All I knew is that these were spare parts, unwanted for their original purpose, but possibly useful in some other context as yet to be encountered. It was cheap fun, based on the appreciation of the intrinsic qualities of these fine, precision-made fasteners.

I loved counting them. I enjoyed sorting them and separating them into different categories. There was special satisfaction in finding parts that mated. What stopped them from coming apart on their own, I wondered? Figuring out what function some strange item or other had was an intellectual challenge that made me wonder who had made the part in the first instance and for what intended purpose. Working out why each was designed thus and not otherwise was another source of endless speculation that exercised my mind. Day-dreaming about what you could make with them led to long, extended flights of imagination. It was interesting to me, trying to fathom how each was made, by what manufacturing process and why the materials used were chosen. Each one had its own history – it came from somewhere or was once a part of something larger. Half the fun was the imaginative speculation about each piece’s back story.

With this ridiculously simple tin of nuts and bolts, I could find hours of enjoyment, lost in the flow of examination and invention. I took delight in their utility and charm. Each piece had its own intrinsic beauty or had acquired an interesting patina, with age. It was impossible to be bored, with such an interesting collection to hand.

Looking back on my childhood with the benefit of adult hindsight, I’m sure there was an aspect of feeling like I was becoming a grown up, through getting to know grown up things. It was a “man tin”, after all. Being familiar with and knowledgeable of all of these objects from my father’s adult world was the gateway to some kind of maturity and credibility, as a developing male. It was a way to be like my dad and to gain his fatherly approval and acceptance. I’d get extra attention from him, if he felt he could teach me things he knew about. Playing childish games didn’t usually engage him as much. Messing with man things, though, like tools or these nuts and bolts, always made him smile indulgently and encouragingly. He wanted me to learn about this stuff. It would help me become self-sufficient and useful to society.

In later years, as a teenager starting to design and build my own projects, discovering just the right part to do the job, from otherwise discarded junk in the tin, was absolutely joyous. That always felt like sticking it to the man, to me. It was a form of rebellious self-determination. I was developing my agency and sense of authority, learning to stand on my own two feet, at the same time. It taught me to have the courage to show what I had made and stand behind my designs. Having the ingenuity to improvise and make something useful out of what were discarded parts always felt good – as if you had gotten something for free.

Consequently, the nail and screw aisle in the hardware store became one of the most interesting places on Earth. There were even more kinds of strange and useful objects available. Each one was shiny and fascinating. Time spent in this section of the store was always filled with curiosity and wonder. Even today, I get the same fascination and satisfaction with tools and tool catalogues. Every art or craft has its specialist tools. These collections of specialised accoutrements, good for little else other than their designated purpose, are sources of endless pleasure. I’m equally enthralled by and at home with the paraphernalia of electronics, luthiery (guitar building), painting, music technology and kitchen gadgets.

They say that materialism is a terrible character weakness, but I contend that if materialism is in the cause of becoming a better, more capable person, who is able to do more to help others, then it’s not such an evil and wicked thing. Learning and knowing are not purely intellectual exercises, divorced from physicality. You have to include your hands and your body in the process. Knowing how to use nuts, bolts and tools, and becoming proficient at applying them to solve problems is not a bad thing and certainly not something to feel ashamed about. Finesse and grace, in using these seemingly prosaic items, is to be admired, not condemned or dismissed.

My favourite indulgence is guitars and I confess I have a few. They all do different things, cause me to play in different ways and inspire different songs to be written. I don’t really know why, but they do. Each one has a character of its own, despite their superficial similarity. I’ve found that having lots of cheaper guitars can be a lot more fun than fewer more expensive ones. I’m not much impressed by their price tags. Price is a very unreliable indicator of value. I’d rather have an instrument that opens up creative possibilities that were previously closed to me, which inspires me in new ways, than pay through the nose for a beautiful piece of what is essentially musical furniture, destined to be a never-played, monumental, museum piece. Untouchable musical instruments are as good as dead.

I don’t understand minimalism. Where is the intellectual and imaginative stimulation in throwing away all the seemingly insignificant, small things that make up a collection of junk? Yes, it’s true that it might look like so much inconvenient clutter and have no appreciable utility, but that’s to miss the point of tins of nuts and bolts entirely. It isn’t only about what good they are as nominal objects. It’s their cultural significance and the thoughts they can give rise to. It’s about seeing how they can work in different contexts. Your intelligence gets a work out and your creativity is appropriately stimulated. If you see these small objects as a cognitive burden and clutter bothers you, rather than inspires you, I think you’re looking at them the wrong way. A barren workspace doesn’t thrill me at all, no matter how white you paint it. I need those little prompts to ideation and innovation around me. Each one nudges my thoughts in its own peculiar direction. They’re invention fuel.

The impressionist artist, Paul Cézanne, painted endless images of humble apples, in every orientation, arrangement, light and state of ripeness imaginable. Why did he do this, when he could have, as the heir of an established banking family, easily painted fine silver table objects, expensive china, jewellery or gold bullion? The suggestion was that he took great pleasure in prosaic objects, usually overlooked by everybody as nearly worthless. With his artist’s eye, he wanted to elevate the superlative apple to the status of something more significant to mankind. This, in his view, is where true beauty lies. I think he was onto something important.

That simple tin of nuts and bolts, from my childhood, taught me to have an appreciation of small but intense pleasures. You could do the same with feathers, or pebbles, or the vast array of different leaves or flowers, for instance. The infinite variety of possibilities is a way of experiencing genuine, existential richness and wealth. I encourage you to make a collection of similar items of your own, whatever they happen to be and to savour each item in your collection for it’s own subtle, intrinsic values. It will change you forever, as a person. I think it’s a change worth making.

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A Journey Without End

I’ve realised something profound (at least to me). My prevailing feeling, asleep or awake, is that I’m in constant transit, on the way to a destination I’m not quite sure of, trying to make my connections on time, without getting lost or missing a flight/ship/bus. I strain to hear the garbled public address announcements telling me where I need to be, to make my departure on time. I squint to read the partially obscured direction signs in the distance.

There are obstacles and frustrations. In my default state of mind, I encounter problems that force me to rethink my travel plans spontaneously, improvising a new solution on the hoof. It never seems possible to sit and think, to work it all out. I’m always in motion to somewhere, with the anxiety of maybe never getting there, but I have no idea where. I just seem to be travelling toward it with great purpose and determination.

Accompanying this feeling is the need to gather information rapidly, process it and act on it. I worry that if I miss a clue, I’ll never get to wherever it is I’m going. Luggage gets lost. Travelling companions disappear without explanation or notification. Should I wait for them, or carry on? Maybe they’ve found their own, better way of getting there and we’ll meet up again at the end of the journey.

When I’ve found myself on the metaphorical bus, or ferry, or have found my seat on the train or plane, I’m never sure I’m on the right one, which is going to where I need to go. There’s no one to ask. As the mode of transport wends its inexorable way, as I’m looking out of the windows, I’m struck by how lost I would be if I ever got off, completely unable to find my way back or to my desired destination.

I’ve described this feeling I have metaphorically, but it’s how I feel, almost all of the time, deep down in my psyche. There have been enough real occurrences in my life where I am travelling alone, to a place I’ve never been, in the dark, armed with too little information or context, on tight deadlines, that I understand how this feeling can be so vivid. I’ve travelled extensively for business where this was the case in reality. It’s also how many of our family holidays to foreign places feels to me.

In a wider sense, though, it’s also an apt summary of how my career has felt, how learning new things feels (I am an insatiable learner of new things) and how the responsibility of fatherhood impacts me. I’m lost, trying my best to get there, thinking on my feet, under pressure and anxious about not making it. The consequences for missing a clue or a connection seem drastic.

I don’t know if anybody else feels this way. For me, the journey, which many people enjoy, feels somewhat stressful to me. I feel obligated to work things out quickly, to develop competence I lack before it’s too late, to be self-sufficient and not to let anyone down. It feels like fighting for your very existence against the terror of being left behind forever.

While I love to learn, it always feels like I never learn enough, fast enough, to put it to a use that will take me significantly further forward toward I don’t know where. Every accomplishment evokes the question, “what next?” There isn’t time to savour where you have gotten to, so far, because you need to move on, before it’s too late.

I never seem to get there. I’m always on the way. Other people appear to have reached their destinations and are enjoying the sights, but I’m never there yet. I’m stuck on the never-ending journey. Life feels like a struggle to keep moving forward while it’s still possible. If I stop moving, everything will turn to catastrophe.

I don’t know what to make of all this. The feelings are recurrent and strong enough to compel me to write them down. I’m sure it has deep psychological meaning and would explain a lot about me, but I’ve no idea what to do about it or how to respond. Intellectually, I know I’m supposed to relax and let the scenery go by, as I’m moving toward somewhere I really want to go, but I don’t feel that peace of mind. I feel beleaguered.

Self-development isn’t easy. If it was, everyone would do it. Maybe they do (of course they do) and I simply don’t know how. What drives the fear of failure? Why do I think I have to be more informed, on the ball and in charge of where I am going? Why does the journey feel so chaotic and out of my control? Why can’t I just relax and let it take me wherever it will?

I have these questions, but no good answers.

How about you?

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I Don’t Get What You Don’t Get

But you don’t get what I don’t get either.

Mutual understanding is insanely difficult to build, mainly because we conflate critiques of our most fervently held beliefs and ideas into insulting, personal attacks on our very core identities. We don’t like to hear we’re wrong. Wrong is for other people.

It’s hard to understand other people’s world view and prevailing mental model – their self-defined constraints, goals, values, inbuilt prejudices, and the bounds of their imaginative possibility. These things are rarely self-evident at a glance. You can know a person for a lifetime and still be surprised.

Do you know why so many people feel lonely, alone, misunderstood and isolated? It’s because no meaningful dialogue can take place until we have established that elusive mutual understanding. The necessary pre-conditions are almost impossible to achieve.

Everyone thinks they’re right and that everyone else is wrong, but that’s almost certainly wrong. Nobody wants their decisions challenged. Their decisions define their identity. Changing them feels like open heart surgery.

Some people, who care about the quality of their thoughts, have ideas of immense value to those that don’t, but because these people don’t care in the least about their own thought quality, they can’t recognise the value. You might as well be placing pearls before swine.

This gulf of misunderstanding happens in professional life all the time. In organisations, you’ll stumble over unstated aims, secret agendas, unknown and often superficial depth of skill sets, a total absence of mind sets for learning, twisted attitudes toward humanity, divergence of what they fervently believe leads to success, and disturbing differences in how they define success and ethics. I’m constantly surprised and wrong-footed. I find it to be a minefield.

In particular, I am often surprised at the things others have ruled out as impossible, when you know, for certain, they are entirely possible. Yet, they’ll fight you to the death to maintain their belief. It’s a decision they’re not prepared to reverse, irrespective of what you know and the evidence you can provide. Their more comfortable rationalisation is that you’re the enemy within; a madman and vandal who must be silenced or excised from the situation.

Here is an illustration of what I mean. I contend that electric guitar design is quite sclerotic, with little deep innovation having gained market acceptance since the 1950s. People think the electric guitar is already perfected. The best possible design features are believed to already exist. Yet, how can that be?

Somebody skilled in design, or guitar playing, could produce a long list of design deficiencies requiring solution, if they thought about it for long enough. But people don’t, so incremental improvements fail to excite the buying public, which increasingly sticks to what they already know. Tastes ossify.

Settled science often turns out not to be. We still have supposedly respected, qualified spokespeople claiming sugar is an essential nutrient, that fat causes raised cholesterol and further, that both fat and cholesterol lead directly to heart disease. Recent evidence suggests strongly that these regurgitated items of pure commercial propaganda are wrong and so badly wrong, that the opposite is closer to the truth.

There is no biological necessity to consume sugar, certainly not in the quantities and frequency we do and it is sugar, in likely fact, that is doing all the damage. Dietary fat and cholesterol can, in ordinary amounts, be protective. This would be an article of interesting intellectual debate, were it not for the fact that getting this advice wrong and doggedly sticking to it for decades has prematurely killed and debilitated millions of people, many of my nearest relatives included. Stellar scientific careers have been destroyed for trying to point out the mistake and yet, this mistake is being repeated even today, irrespective of the mounting solid evidence.

The current climate change talks are, it is reported, deadlocked over money. At what point do you suspend playing the human-made economy game, entrenched in our collective behaviour as if it were some kind of natural law, in order to save our actual living world? At what point does humanity face up to and solve its most egregious, insane errors? We need to solve this problem urgently, or everything dies.

Why should inaction result, due to disagreements over the distribution of paper trading tokens? Surely the conditions necessary for continued existence take precedence. All of humanity’s other achievements and accomplishments, artistic or technological, are worth precisely nothing, if everything alive perishes.

There is a long litany of explanations for events that were once derided as mere conspiracy theories, which have subsequently been documented and confirmed as actual fact. Here’s just one. We were told by the authorities, in report after official report, that there was no plot to assassinate JFK and that the mere suggestion it was anything other than the spontaneous act of a crazed, lone gunman was the product of a fervid, paranoiac, overactive imagination. Classified papers recently released, however, document Jack Ruby inviting an undercover FBI agent to accompany him to Dealey Plaza, to, “watch the fireworks”. Without forethought and planning, how could Ruby have known there would be fireworks to see?

You don’t know what you don’t know and I struggle to perceive what you see as the boundaries of thinkable thoughts. Our horizons differ.

It’s idiotic to double down on your errors, but people do, rather than admit that they and everyone they identify with were wrong. This single behavioural flaw, hard-wired into our neurology, could lead us to extinction. It’s maladaptive. Our tribalism and intransigence could be fatal.

The question, still unanswered, is whether or not our brains are sufficiently plastic and fungible to work around this grievous neurological deficiency. Can we accomplish this as a population? In short, when (if ever) will we become much more agile at changing our minds, when we’re wrong?

The way forward, for me personally, has to be to focus on the avoidance of confrontations with idiocy. I don’t have the time to spare and I’m out of good-natured patience with it.

I hope the rest of humanity wakes up to this gross mistake in its thinking processes soon. Everything depends on it.

See also:


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The Sanctity of Making

I realise, now, that my relationship to making things, whether that be products, art, something useful for the home, or even a piece of writing, is peculiar. I grew up in an environment where the act of making things was special. Makers were special. What they made was significant and meaningful; not disposable and trivial. There was no higher good than to make something for somebody else, to help them out or empower them. Making had a sense of purpose and generosity attached to it.

What was jarring, to me, was entering the commercial world, where making was merely a means to the end of making money. The things that happened in-between were incidental, even inconvenient. It didn’t matter what you made, or for whom, or to what standard, so long as you could get people to part with their cash to have what you produced. The wastefulness this gives rise to was (and persistently remains) somebody else’s problem. In the commercial world of making things, all that counted was cash accumulation.

Within every system, there are people that are playing a different game, by different rules and this is certainly true, when it comes to making things. In every enterprise whose primary aim is financial, there are always people that didn’t get the memo. They make things with care and integrity anyway, for purely self-actualisation and transcendence reasons, because they think it is the right thing to do. Their efforts are frequently unrewarded and unrecognised, but are often the reason the organisation is able to sell their products at all.

These people are my tribe.

The house I grew up in was built by hand, by my father, as was every stick of furniture in it. He built it all with love, in order to keep his family safe, warm and dry. He provided us with comfortable, secure places to sleep, sit, work and eat. In making these things, he made damn sure they were strong, durable, safe and beautiful. Surrounding his most precious loved ones with objects that were an everyday insult to our senses, or a hazard to our well-being, would have been completely unacceptable to him. Indeed, buying manufactures that offered less than best always rankled him. He had a direct sense of how precious and scarce the materials he used were and how hard-won every successful construction was.

Effort was his currency and we, as his kids, learned that effort doesn’t come cheaply. You have to dig it out from the depths of your soul. When you make something worth having, you have to put your heart into it, as well as your sweat. Discouragement and disappointment will dog you, while you’re trying to make things and your resilience and perseverance will be severely tested. Every finished object is evidence that you passed the test. The accomplishment is in not giving up before you finish. Anybody that tells you it’s possible to make anything without putting this much of yourself into it doesn’t understand the first thing about making.

I have objects that he made for me that are nearly fifty years old and they are precious to me, beyond their utility and beauty. I also still have the hammer he used to build our house, which I cherish.

It’s possible to amplify human effort with machinery. The kinds of automation and mechanical effort you can apply to the problem of making something can be one of two types. Either it can cut corners and produce something of a lesser standard, to maximise margins, or else it can embody the heart, soul and care of the engineers that make the machines, to help produce items to a very high standard, consistently and with integrity. The problem is, when you buy machine-made goods, you can never tell how much human content was involved, or how much love and care was captured in the making of the machines and the process. Everything is hand-made at some level of abstraction.

Crappy mass-produced products look similar to machine-made products made with integrity, at first glance. It’s only in long-term use that the differences become obvious. By that time, the manufacturer has your money and there is little you can do about it. For that reason, many makers encourage a culture of ever-changing fashions, so that you discard and replace the product, before its inbuilt shortcomings become painfully obvious. It’s not very honest.

There is a television programme called “How It’s Made”, which produces short, documentary-style segments about how familiar objects are made, usually by filming the production line of a leading manufacturer and adding narration. I watch “How It’s Made” to understand how things should never be made. So many things are made without love. What’s the point of that? Who wants loveless products?

Products made with love take on a significance beyond utility and aesthetics. They represent somebody gifting you an improvement to your lot in life. These products provide some welcome relief from your burdens. They tend to be more durable. They tend to be used with reverence, rather than recklessness. Love changes the very nature of the relationship between the maker, what they made and the recipient of the object.

Loveless products, in contrast, promise much, but deliver little. You and the firm that made it both know the trade is all about money. They try to pass off junk to meet your needs, while you struggle with the object, trying to fit it to your purpose, but never quite succeeding. They don’t care about you and you don’t care about the product or its makers. It’s a mutually antagonistic relationship.

Often, you will use the product to destruction, in sheer frustration at the sub-standard nature of the thing. You quiet your conscience about the sheer waste of money, time, materials, energy, human resources and the need to dispose of it somehow benignly, that all of this involves. Somebody ultimately pays for this folly, but for the time-being, it isn’t you and it isn’t the company that made the crap.

What you have paid, though, is an opportunity cost. You could have spent your money on something durable and had surplus to buy something else, rather than having to buy a replacement. Would you rather have a fridge and a holiday, or have to buy a new fridge to replace the first fridge? If all you do, with your earnings, is periodically replace prematurely failing fridges, it’s not much of an existence, is it?

In software development, making things with love mostly leads to better outcomes than being a perfectly lean or agile (or both) development shop. Agile and lean are in-vogue processes that tend to distort priorities in favour of the firm’s economic performance, at the expense of customers and developers. Product Managers struggle to get people within the company to care about their customers and what they make, yet the systems that these people work within explicitly value speed, profit and an endless stream of marketable features, of dubious actual value to users. The yawning gap between what is needed and what is made is hardly surprising.

When you make something to make somebody else’s life better or easier, you put yourself in a vulnerable position. Saying,”I made this for you,” is a courageous act. You’re open to having the gift you have put so much effort into creating utterly rejected. It’s an expression of esteem toward the recipient of the object that might not be reciprocated.

However, if you say, “I made this for you, but only if you pay”, a different message is conveyed. Now, you’re saying the recipient is nobody special and not valued at all, unless they have money to give. Now, the maker is potentially rejecting the recipient. In saying that the customer is both anonymous and interchangeable, there is also no way the maker can claim he made it especially for them. Money changes everything.

That’s not to say that the love embodied in a product shouldn’t be reciprocated. It absolutely should. Makers have to eat. If somebody makes something helpful especially for you, it is only good grace to respond with appreciative gratitude and to return the favour with whatever you can make for them in return. Money can be a proxy for this communicative expression of mutual benefit, but often it only confuses the messages.

The antiques trade, in particular, heavily discounts and diminishes the amount of love that went into making something, through the pricing mechanism. Yet, the same trade paradoxically demonstrates a marked preference for products made with love and integrity, over those newer wares stamped out in industrial quantities. Most commerce does the same, in fact. The mountains of waste, necessary to keep Capitalism ticking over, are a silent testament to love that lies bleeding. Every broken, or prematurely obsolete appliance, or discarded piece of furniture, has a piece of the maker’s broken heart locked inside of it.

For millennia, the making of things, to raise the living standards of others, was a sacred act. It was not undertaken or received lightly, unless you were the basest sort of person. Love for humanity was an essential ingredient in the things that people made for each other.

It’s only in the recent past that making has been so debased and denuded of its original purpose.

Turning making into an activity that is all about increasing waste, profit and efficiency defiles the very act. That shows contempt for humanity. It’s deceit. It’s disrespectful on so many levels. When somebody cares so little about your life, the use you will get out of what they shoddily make and obviously isn’t concerned about your long term relationship with them, we’ve reached a state of subtle violence. It has become more about the taking, than the giving. With so little mutual respect involved in the transaction, the goods made are collateral damage; unloved, undervalued, underappreciated and unsuited for their purpose.

When a maker makes something for you with love, do you appreciate it, or do you pretend their work has equivalence with cynically-produced, sub-standard, soulless products? Do you value the love the maker put in, or do you try to take advantage of their generosity and vulnerability? Would you steal it, if you could get away with doing so? In the mid 1990s, musicians the world over woke up to the uncomfortable reality that a huge population of music lovers would happily steal music made for them, rather than pay even small amounts of money for it. It was perhaps the biggest collective slap in the face in history.

You can pretend that all products are produced without love and treat them and their makers with contempt universally, so that you can enjoy low prices and being able to throw things away without feeling a pang of conscience, but you’re lying to yourself. Similarly, if you make things, you can pretend that cutting corners and short-changing your customers is a viable, long-term product strategy, but you’re not being honest with yourself either.

Making things ought to be carried out with purpose and meaning, or it becomes just another form of insult. If you believe in humanity and wish to live in a world where humanity remains valued, then you need to start thinking about the sanctity of making a little more deeply.

It isn’t about the money. It never was.

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I Don’t Wanna

Some days, you just don’t feel it.

You wake up with plenty of what ought to be fun things to do, the tools and opportunities to do them, but you just can’t summon up the interest to do any of it.

Maybe it’s a form of temporary burnout, or an internal, rebellious protest. I don’t know and I don’t much care.

Here is a brief list of things I don’t want to do, today. Perhaps I’ll feel different tomorrow.

1. Maximise my productivity

2. Go faster than the competition

3. Outsmart anybody

4. See things from a new perspective

5. Sell myself for a role

6. Evangelise with zeal

7. Take on stretch goals

8. Rise to new heights

9. Discover a better way

10. Work on the backlog

11. Prioritise

12. Agree to disagree

13. Get better at things I’m not as good at as I’d like to be

14. Take on new information

15. Do what they say

16. Deal with bureaucracy

17. Paint a thousand words

18. Try to fit in and belong

19. Perform outstandingly

20. Handle problems brought to me

21. Fix things that are broken

22. Lose myself in any creative flows

23. Interact

24. Exercise

25. Take better care of myself

26. Fake my feelings

27. Make order from chaos

28. Write profoundly

29. Learn something new

30. Go anywhere

31. Build anything

32. Edit

33. Play

34. Talk

35. Do whatever it takes to succeed

36. Impress anybody

37. Work on my career goals

38. Take any small steps forward

39. Make measurable progress

40. Argue with anybody

41. Swallow bull

42. Accept the unacceptable

43. Innovate

44. Yard work

45. Feel the cold

46. Market my offerings

47. Update content that needs updating

48. Wrestle with recalcitrant software

49. Respond to the challenge

50. Dispense wisdom or advice

51. Revise my mental models

52. Make a difference

53. Find purpose

54. Compete for attention

55. Prove my point

56. Convince others

57. Be the change I want to see

58. Read another aphorism or inspiring quote

59. Tolerate ignorance

60. Justify myself

61. Explain myself

62. Defend my existence

63. Be accountable

64. Launch anything

65. Put on my game face

66. Fight for my rights

67. Watch and learn

68. Finish what I’ve started

69. Find a way out of the mess

70. Think outside the box

71. Take massive action

72. Believe the pundits and the gurus

73. Wallow in nostalgia

74. Ask permission

75. Serve

76. Network

77. Give one good reason

Sometimes, you get tired of feeling the obligation and necessity to do any and all of those things. If you don’t bend, you break, but why do you have to be bent, against your will, all the time?

Isn’t it enough to simply exist, without having to demonstrate why you should?

For just one day?

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Learning is Terrifying

We think of learning as a net positive thing and it undoubtedly is, but it’s also a psychological battlefield.

When you learn new things, you put yourself in situations where you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re often completely clueless, at the outset. People may judge you to be arrogant and overly ambitious for your brazen attempt to better yourself, while all you feel is uncertainty and fear, but you have to hold to the line that you can do this thing, even though you really aren’t sure at all. It’s a horrible mixture of emotions.

Mostly, you learn because you need to. Sometimes you do it just because you want to, but often you have no money or no help, so you can’t delegate the learning to somebody else. It’s all on you. You have to figure it out, because there is no practical alternative. People might be depending on you. Nobody else will do the thing for you, so you have to work out how to do the thing yourself.

You can mentally prepare as much as humanly possible, thinking through the problem thoroughly in your mind, but ultimate you have to leap. Theory only gets you so far. You have to try it out in practice. Learning requires practical activity. Just thinking about it usually isn’t enough. There is a physical dimension to acquiring new knowledge. You have to get your hands dirty.

While you’re learning how to do something you’re patently not currently able to do, trying not to screw up is like constant, unrelenting stress you put on yourself. You don’t want to screw up, but you know your ability to avoid screwing up is quite limited, so your vigilance and caution is heightened. That takes considerable sustained mental energy. 

Sometimes, you just can’t figure out how to accomplish what you set out to do. Other people seem to be able to do this thing with ease, but you can’t. You feel clumsy, clueless and like you’ll never learn how.

Inevitably, though, you screw up, no matter how hard you try not to. Consequently, you might hurt yourself, or waste expensive materials or permanently damage a relationship (learning how to be a parent, or being a good partner, are situations where relationships are on the line). Screwing up leads to feelings of guilt and regret. It’s dispiriting and discouraging.

I’ve broken things beyond repair, while learning. My intention was to repair the thing, but I wound up breaking it. The costs were high. The damage to relationships were the worst. That still hurts.

When people see that you’ve messed up, you feel shame, because people thought your overt confidence and self-assurance, which were necessary for you to make the learning leap at all, was a guarantee you knew what you were doing. The incontrovertible evidence is that you didn’t. Now they’re disappointed in you. Your self-confidence is in shreds.

If you get away with it, completing what you set out to do without completely messing up, you’re still frustrated anyway, because you can see all the flaws and mistakes in what you did. You’re painfully aware of all the wrong turns you took and how near you came to screwing up catastrophically. You feel like an amateur and an imposter, even though you got the thing done.

Insidiously, sometimes you’re blissfully unaware of where your efforts fell short, but everybody else can see it glaringly. They struggle to tell you, without hurting your feelings and confidence. Often, it’s easier for them to lie and reassure you that what you did is perfect, when it wasn’t. You may suspect they’re being less than honest, but you can’t tell for sure and you don’t know why. You’re the only one that missed the meeting.

With repeated screw ups or close shaves, which always accompany learning, you develop an overwhelming and worsening aversion to trying again, but you only get better with repetition, so you have to face the failures and consequences over and over again. If they let you. There are times where you inadvertently screw up so badly, that other people gently guide you away from the scene of the crime. You get no opportunity to make amends. They don’t trust you to get it right next time.

Meanwhile, if the learning goes well, some people who witnessed you getting away with it think you’re gifted and amazing, but you can’t agree with them about that. In your mind, you know how close a call it really was. You also can’t buy into the “gifted” thing at all, because it denigrates the considerable effort you’ve put in to get to this point. You know it was much harder work than that. While you’re blinded by all the deficiencies in your work, you lose sight of what was good.

The cycle never ends. You remember every horrible error, rather than the many small successes. You become hard on yourself, listening to your excoriating, self-critical inner voice. Self-compassion flies out the window. You get fatigued. It’s like endless self-flagellation. You can stop at any time, yet you feel compelled to carry on, to avoid admitting to your failure. Staying in the state of not knowing what you set out to learn is unbearable. It’s a self-inflicted torture, with precious few moments of pride in your accomplishments. You’re painfully aware that self-satisfaction can lead to complacency, after all and that can stop learning in its tracks.

But there is no other way to acquire skills. You have to keep trying and failing.

Disequilibrium happens when you begin to see things in the world that don’t make sense to you. The things you thought you knew–the things that helped you feel stable and clear–are now in question. And, boom! You’re on shifting intellectual sand. This state is hard. It’s terrifying. We crave equilibrium. New information threatens to tear down everything we know. Why did we have to learn this thing? What were we thinking?

There are any number of tools and techniques to help us with our productivity and efficiency – To Do lists, pomodoro techniques, agile processes and so on. However, do we ever acknowledge the time and mental effort required to learn something new, reconstructing our entrenched mental models until the “A-hah!” moment when what didn’t make sense before suddenly slots into your revised framework of understanding, like the last puzzle piece? You’ve connected the dots, synthesised a better mental model and reached equilibrium again (for a while). We tend to ludicrously underestimate the cognitive and emotional load required to innovate, understand and think in new ways.

And yet, you’re not only valuable, as a human being, because of what you can do, have done and are capable of doing. That can’t be the sole basis of your identity. You’re valuable because you exist. The ability to learn new things is both secondary and essential.

If you could feel the pain and struggle of your ancestors, just so you could be here today, suffering and struggling to learn, it would overwhelm you. Every one of your ancestors felt the personal pain of grappling with the new and they had to find a way to survive the experience, or you wouldn’t exist at all. You’re a testament to their tenacity, even though you’ll never personally feel the pain they felt, as a concrete, visceral experience. You’re slightly removed and remote, experiencing your own struggles to learn, but not theirs.

Teaching what you’re learned so far can make you feel a little better about what you went through to learn it. However, the tooth-grindingly, excruciating experience of watching somebody ineptly blunder, while learning to do what you’re already practiced in, can lead you to want to push them aside impatiently and do it for them, or else to yell at them, or speak abusively to them, for their clumsiness. But you mustn’t intervene, because that halts learning in its tracks and breeds helplessness. You have to let other people try and fail.

We subject children to this emotional roller coaster of learning at least five days of most weeks. For life long learners, this inner turmoil is their entire existence. Competency is hard-won. Excellence is a rigorous trial. 

Knowledge isn’t acquired; it’s painstakingly constructed, in your own head. You can take in the information, but it only becomes learning once you have internalised it. It isn’t about the consumption of new information. Learning is the process of using our innate abilities to construct–or create–new understandings of the world. Learning, by its very nature, is the supreme creative act.

They tell you that learning is fun, but be prepared: it can be terrifying. You might experience confusion, self-loathing, despair and trepidation in large doses. The pay off is that you become a better person. That’s the struggle that gives existence its purpose.



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