The Insider - March 2024

On wasting time, removing obstructions, and The Parenthetical.

The Insider - March 2024
Photo by hannah grace / Unsplash

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On wasting time

“The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours,” the psychologist Amos Tversky once said. For those who have built a life relying on the predictable chain connecting productivity to success, such an idea is tempting to dismiss. And yet, it forces the discomfiting question: where in my life have I wasted years because I haven’t been able to waste hours? It is a mistake to expect our achievements and contributions to resemble the smooth graphical lines that gracefully arch up and to the right. The spiritual work of the striving person is to consider life’s notches and blips not as languorous eddies absent of forward progress, but rather as necessary stops and steps in our three-dimensional becoming.

On removing obstructions

In a recently discovered 1949 letter from playwright Arthur Miller, who wrote the play Death of a Salesman, he critiqued the plays of the day as artforms that were over-engineered, maximalist productions, “Thus the means employed actually stand as an obstruction between the vision of the playwright and the emotional receptivity of the audience,” he wrote.

In business, as in art, it is easy to invent unnecessary obstructions that shroud the truth in layers of context. We over-complicate our communication. We over-engineer our strategic plans. We become better at creating systems than speaking truth.

We’ve forgotten that the best art, and often the best leadership, is as much the product of cutting as it is of creating—to cut off, after all, is the etymological root of the word decide.

To remove obstructions requires practicing a style of leadership that resembles the work of an editor. If creative leadership is about exploring many possibilities, editorial leadership is about wayfinding within narrow constraints. This leadership is rarely trumpeted because it is often painstaking and divisive, but the rewards of the editor, when all the reducing and chiseling is done, is the resonance that only comes from the unvarnished truth.

When I saw a rendition of “Death of a Salesman” a few years ago, I wrote at the time, “I think it’s one of the most honest pieces of art I’ve ever seen…When our art conceals nothing, when it doesn’t try to tell us anything other than the raw yet redeemable truth, that’s when it can pierce us, that’s when it can reach us.”

What I am reading

  • Coastal redwoods: This pensive article by Noema offers a portrayal of the mysterious and dignified lives of coastal redwoods. “They can confront us with our frailties, our smallness and our puny life spans, while reassuring us that life can go on, and that if we are part of the living world, we too can go on. I find it reassuring that an entity this extraordinary can live while we live in a sliver of shared time,” Daniel Lewis writes.

  • The ethics of randomized controlled trials: The field of economics focused on poverty alleviation has become obsessed with Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs), raising ethical questions about who gets the intervention and who gets the control. Kenya is ground zero for RCTs and their discontents, according to an article in The Economist. But the question of RCTs goes beyond their ethical implications for communities; it raises an issue I encountered at Uncharted often: what is the burden of proof needed for philanthropic grantmakers to fund initiatives? The rise in popularity of RCTs is indicative of a culture in philanthropy that is both naive to the complexity of how change happens on the ground and fearful of funding anything less than scientifically proven. Pair with this story from the Wall Street Journal on the rise of guaranteed income pilots in the US.

  • Fitbits for wild creatures: Anytime I find research that challenges the supremacy of the human species over other animals, I pay close attention. This story from the MIT Technology Review features the advances in tracking technology that will let other species take the lead in guiding our research and learning about the planet.

  • The new jingoism of startup culture: I’m fascinated by the rise of a new subculture in startups that’s moving away from B2B software to build hardware and technology for the battlefield. In response to China’s rise, wars around the world, and a growing belief in American nationalism, the hub for this spoke of startup culture is not Silicon Valley, according to an article in The Washington Post, but “The Gundo,” short for El Segundo, an industrial town outside of Los Angeles. The community skews male, White, believes in family values, and is building companies rooted in the premise that the US needs to remain on the cutting edge of battlefield technologies, space tech, and robotics. Propelled by icons like Elon Musk and Palmer Luckey and funders like Peter Thiel, the startup thesis of “American dynamism” is here.

  • The smartphone childhood: The harms caused by being glued to our phones have only come into view recently, so perhaps our future selves will forgive us for what looks to be a grave mistake: letting the brains of children be trained on social media during their most formative years. The professor and writer Jonathan Haidt has a new book out on the topic, and this Atlantic article captures the key points. The anti-smartphone era is officially here.

  • How to invent the perfect college applicant: Few articles have prompted more conversation around our dinner parties than this one by New York Magazine about the college counselor for billionaires who charges $120,000 per year to make your child Ivy-League material. Does your child like swimming in the ocean? Then, to appeal to the college admissions officer who wants spiky, unique kids, not well-rounded ones, they should craft an identity of being laser-focused on saving the whales as their life’s work. It’s easy to decry what’s happening here as the insanity that comes from too much privilege and wealth, but what also struck me about a $120,000 per year college counselor was the refreshing, almost egalitarian idea that in America, everything is for sale.

Something personal

Every Saturday, during our weekly sabbath when there is neither work nor chores, and we have given ourselves a reprieve from the responsibilities of adulthood and resisted the dopamine hits of nearly-finished to-do lists, we walk to a coffee shop to have our weekly conversation. The weekly conversation is a meandering and untimed exploration of everything from books we’re reading to reflections on technology, culture, and spirituality. What makes these conversations most enjoyable is that Lisa is a polymath: a data scientist, photographer, multi-instrument musician, and wise soul in domains from religion to biochemistry. I’ve often marveled at the ways she connects principles from data science to observations about culture, or personal finance, or how to effectively and rapidly isolate variables and A/B test the baking of sourdough bread. Lisa has a knack for finding unusual threads that link the books she reads to the life she leads, and she has recently launched her own newsletter, The Parenthetical, to explore just that. It is a periodic reflection on the unexpected lessons from books: on topics like freedom, power, and horizons.