People often ask me to do strategy, craft a big picture story, or give them advice on a large project. In reply, I overwhelm then with text, ideas, and plans. They rarely reply or follow-up.
I should be sending smaller chunks - a screen’s worth of an email at most, maybe shrewd sounding bullet points in a presentation. I could have a conversation, a phone call, even a white-boarding session! I could launch a work-stream, collaborating with people each week on putting together the plan; I could just participate in a work-stream. Also, I would do well to ask a lot of questions, find out what the person is after and wants. I’m no dullard to consulting.
All of those alternate approaches usually result in the same: much talk, work, thinking, understanding even, but little action taken. Nothing changes, we pick some other random thing off the buffet of strategy and other priorities and “headwinds” blow in, and we move along.
I’m not ignoring the option that my reply is crap, either, and, thus, results in silence once I’ve turned in my homework like a good little boy.
In general, I believe that the person asking the strategy question (or whatever the project is) knows what the answer should be and could explain and justify it in a short meeting - a six page memo even! They’re hesitant to take the risk of trying it out, of even spending the time to discover what they think.
People are very hesitant to run with their intuitions in corporate settings. They spend decades honing and machine learning (so to speak) their intuition and then distrust it - or let other people dismiss it. People don’t trust an action plan without the blown-off exhaust of work-streams and PowerPoints churned over. The efficiency of quick decisions, based on decades of experience and intuition honing are left for those mythical CEOs who send one character replies.
Too often, people asking me to think over something and offer them advice are like a person throwing a chew toy at a dog. “Here, sort this out for me,” they’re saying. I run off, excited with this new squeaking thing. I pull it apart, find out what’s its deal is, experience it in the most genuine way.
Then I come back, tail wagging, to show them my work: I now can explain what this is, how it functions, the joy if the thing. I know it’s essence and how it fits into our live. “Good, huh?” my lolling tongue and wagging tail says.
They’ve forgotten though, or lost interest. And now I’m just an annoying creature that a made mess by ripping out all that cheap stuffing and destroying a chew toy.
These questions I get always seem important. But in replying quickly, and in detail, I discover that they’re not urgent. What I need to realize, more and more, is that they’re not important either.
They are fun though. Perhaps you have a chew toy you’d like me to destroy?
The last time I heard the word “exquisite” was when Andrew asked me what I thought of the first season of West World. With him, I’m always hedging my answers. He’s a clever one, that one: the type who’ll ask you an innocent question with an off-handed tone, drawing you out, and then flip you over like a turtle to examine you.
So I said, “it’s nice,” meekly, just poking my head out of the water.
“I think it’s exquisite,” he said. Ah, flipped again.
That word applies to Short Life in a Strange World, an almost indescribable book because the description sounds so simple, boring. The author goes around, looking at Bruegel paintings, and writes up his journey. Of course, it’s more than that.
This book is fascinating and fantastic. It’s like a happenstantial walk through Bruegel’s paintings, history, and the author’s life. It’s held together with the author’s reflections on “what’s the point of all this?” which amount to a poetic, curated confusion about everything.
That’s like a museum, really: a collection of things meant to be purposeful, but really just the result of a bunch of different days and projects where things just sort of happened. Van Gogh’s sister in law is wise enough - but most importantly, passionate enough - to collect and hold onto his pieces, but some of them get left-over and littered about here and there. A rich person decides to buy up whatever art they can find and pay for, putting them all into a museum in Tulsa. Museums and private collections are bombed, or discovered. Sunk ships are found. Purposeful curation is funded, or funding drops. Over time, decades, the collection comes together, or falls apart.
Strolling through the Rijksmuseum, you see this all play out - a Van Gogh here, many Rembrandts, a small, almost hidden collection of Asian art, sculptures, and (sometimes, literally, to the people who made them centuries ago) divine objects. But you have to pull together a narrative, a structure to fit them all together. There’s chronology, which helps, but doesn’t explain much except that one thing happened before another, then another thing, and so forth.
And, so, you pull back from that and ask what it all means - rather, what do I do with all this. This thing happened, this thing exists, but what’s it in service of - what do I do next because I’ve experienced it?
Well, not much besides see and think about it. Perhaps you can use it as a tool for other endeavors, other ways to pass the time. You could write a whole book on hunting down all the Bruegel!
Short Life in a Strange World is a good book with at least three levels, three utilities:
All of those are trying to make sense of the content, curating the collection of stuff in each level. It’s a sort of applied Art as Therapy, a collection of case studies.
The Rijksmuseum does a good job with the traveling exhibitions - they’ll pair things to show you that this painting is like another. They use the unique assets they have, the Rijks collection to make something new and unique, that exists only in the moment in time of the exhibition.
Here’s how the pitch-black backgrounds and gritty life that Velázquez painted clearly influenced Rembrandt - you can see a side-by-side! Come to think of it, I’m not sure if that was the point: did one influence the other, or were they just strikingly similar? I seem to recall reading about influence somewhere…or speculation.
No matter, it was enjoyable to look at the exhibition, whatever the point of it was.
Cycling back from school on Friday, the kids wanted to stop at a tiny playground along the way. I didn’t have any pressing things to get to. Well, I had a 5pm appointment and then a webinar to give at 8pm. They were far off from 3:40pm. It was a rare time to be, well, normal and stop to smell the roses.
Cormac wanted to look for frogs in the reeds along the canal, which we’d heard croaking as we peddled by on mornings past. Alejandra went to the playground, asking me to sit on a seesaw with her. Soon, no frogs to be found, Cormac came over and bounced up and down with us.
“Swing me!” my daughter said and popped up. Being six, Alejandra was all all giggles and joy, pretending to be scared at how high I was pushing her, but actually loving it.
“Now me!” said the ten year old, Cormac. Miraculously, there was no fighting over the one swing, they took turns happily.
There was a giggling and head-splitting smile on Cormac’s face as he went back and forth - pure glee. I felt something strange in my chest, a sort of arrested excitement and bizarre emotion: feeling good with and because of my children.
I remembered swinging the kids in the past. Like all of the past, those years seem easy, looking back. I regret that I didn’t enjoy them more - I’d rather go back and live in that past than the inchoate field of the present and keep limping and bumping into the totally unknowable future.
I think I was happy for a little bit there.
The time at the tiny playground passed - we had to get going, despite the open window of time - and later I was confused about what to do with that feeling, that experience.
That 5pm appointment was with my therapist, so I asked them. They were confused at first - not least of which because I ramble on and on, long after I’ve asked a simple question, as anyone who listens to my podcasts know.
Finally I asked something like “what do I use this for? How do I store it up to use in the future? It’s like a cucumber that I find and I don’t know how pickle it, and so it just rots away.”
Trying to remember it now, I’m not sure what the therapists’ answer was. We constructively chased another rabbit down a hole, and another rabbit, and so on. But the suggestion of that moment on the tiny playground’s utility was something along the lines of “remember what that felt like, in your body, so that you can train yourself to recognize and feel it again.”
But what is that ability in service of? What do I do with that, and then that, and then when all the that‘s come up again? But, our time was up, and we just discussed what time I was available for the next appointment.
Last week’s episode, “Coté got up at 2am”:
> We dream of video conferencing in Zoom, ask whatever happened to Big Data, discuss how little agile practices are followed despite their proven success, and contemplate the meaninglessness of Apple moving to ARM. Also, how to prioritize those early morning calls with Singapore.
I check out a club chair.
I take a stab at the “X should be boring” framing:
> Digital transformation has been the figurehead for most of the progress seen, but now we’ve had the excitement, we should focus on being boring. Now it’s time to focus on the day job, ensuring the business is running to the required demands, and making sure that software developments are rolled out on a continual basis, rather than in fits and starts.
I’m not sure I’ve ever come across this interview I did back in 2018. It looks good!
> A physical event is a bundle of different kinds of interaction, but it’s also a bundle of people at a certain place at a certain date - as soon as you take these things online, that bundle has no meaning.
Conferences are good excuses to meet with people that you would t spend the effort to meet with otherwise. They also collect leads as people come by your booth. They provide a deadline to target for talks, and a chance for people to speak getting a notch on their belt.
Online conferences are just webinars at best. This is terrible if it’s boring content (mostly, ROI vendor pitch heavy. But if the content is good, the webinar will be good.
In person conferences have plenty of bad content. Most of it is bad and a waste of time. But, the benefits of meeting with people even out that balance. There’s another benefit for most people as well. Going to conferences is a type of vacation, an award even!
> To argue against some of this, James Turrell has said that part of the value of Roden Crater’s remoteness is that you have to really care to go there. Getting a plane and a hotel and a ticket, and taking days of time, has some of the same effect for a conference - it gives a selection filter for people who care. There is value in aggregating people around a professional interest graph, and in doing that in a focused way, perhaps even around a particular time. (There are also, of course, exclusionary effects to this.)
Original source: Solving online events, Benedict Evans
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