Uncharted Insider - April 2021

Commentary on intelligence, patience, censorship, and our antagonistic relationship with wildfires.

Uncharted Insider - April 2021

Hi everyone,

Welcome to the April edition of the Uncharted Insider. Do you know of someone who would enjoy this monthly letter? Forward this email to them and they can subscribe here.

Uncharted Update

  • Accelerator on sustainable agriculture: Today we launch applications for our next cohort with Chipotle focused on accelerating ventures that are reimagining the food system. Do you know of ventures who should apply? Direct them here.
  • Accelerator on solutions to economic inequality. On May 10th, we're announcing our program focused on radical solutions to economic inequality. Do you know of a venture working on this topic? Direct them here, and they can sign up for notifications.
  • We are hiring for an External Relationships Manager. Forward this email and job description to someone who would be a great fit!

On Patience

Progress is speeding up. We live in an age of going big and going fast; just look at the COVID vaccine: the fastest vaccine ever to come to market. In less than a year, we went from sequencing the disease, developing the vaccine, testing it, producing it, distributing it, and getting it into millions of arms. I received my first vaccine dose on March 12th, 2021, exactly 365 days since the NBA shut down their season and the world changed overnight. But as often is the case, when we dig into the chronology of social, racial, cultural, or scientific change, it becomes clear that change doesn’t just occur overnight, but instead germinates slowly for years before bursting onto the scene in an apparent epiphany of innovation and ingenuity. The story of our COVID vaccine is a story of slow, plodding research, numerous failures, and 40 years of experiments to determine if and how mRNA technology might have the potential to be the base code for vaccines. In fact, the “breakthrough innovation” of our vaccine was the product of the meandering career of Dr. Katalin Kariko, a Hungarian scientist in the US, who struggled to receive research grants, bounced between research labs, and ran into numerous obstacles, dead ends, and the sound of crickets after being published in obscure scientific journals. Her conviction in mRNA technology is decades old, even though the vaccine is brand new and truly innovative. Reading about her story and the immense potential for mRNA technology in future vaccines is inspiring, but it also is instructive: it’s time we stop expecting transformation over night. It’s time we stop holding social impact organizations who are doing big, audacious work to measurable, transformational results within 6 months. Patience is a virtue, they say, but it is also a necessary ingredient if we’re looking beyond incremental change to major breakthroughs. Sometimes the status quo is perpetuated by those in power who reinforce their power, but other times, the status quo marches forward simply because we’re not patient enough with the risky ideas whose time just hasn’t yet come.

On Intelligence

I recently listened to an outstanding podcast featuring Tressie Cottom on the idea of status and how it connects to intelligence. We have been conditioned to believe that intelligence is something intrinsic to us, something we possess in ourselves, something fixed about us. But Cottom takes a different view, suggesting that intelligence is more a correspondence between us and the world around us. A person’s intelligence is not a fixed ability within themselves but rather a relationship between us and the technologies and norms popular at a specific moment in time. We tend to think that a genius in one era would be a genius in the next, but Cottom argues that our intelligence is contextual. By using the example of her grandmother (a Black sharecropper in the South), she reveals how society today is far more able to perceive her, a Black woman, as intelligent than it was to perceive her grandmother as intelligent, despite them being quite similar in intellectual ability and breadth. Perceived intelligence, and, in turn, status, are very much contextual to the mores, norms, and technologies of a given time. Ezra Klein, the podcast host, points out that disabilities are similar: someone’s disability is not something about them, but rather a relationship between a person and the built world they navigate. Klein, a respected public intellectual by many modern standards and someone with extremely poor eyesight since childhood, is perceived as intelligent now because he lives in a world where the technology of reading glasses exists; Klein says “in another context, I am completely useless.” Had he been born 400 years earlier, his status and his intelligence would surely have been less obvious, embraced, and nurtured because, quite plainly, he couldn’t see. When we let go of smart being something about a person and embrace smart being something between a person and the world, we don’t have to rely on the rare once-in-a-lifetime genius who is compatible with that specific moment in time, but instead can nurture intelligence by creating the conditions where more people can interact with the world in a way that makes them intelligent, and therefore confers status (both to them, and to the groups they represent).

On censorship

The company Basecamp recently announced that it is banning all social and political conversations at work. They’ve been regarded as a progressive, well-run tech company making unconventional, human-first decisions for years, but their recent decision has been roundly criticized by employees, by Twitter pundits, and by those of us who believe that becoming a-political is itself a political decision. It’s easy to criticize this decision as tone-deaf, and in a time when it seems like companies are becoming more political and activist, it's surprising and anachronistic, but censorship is simply avoidance with power behind it, and many of us avoid hard conversations because they’re uncomfortable, distracting, and unproductive. In 2021 and beyond, we need more skillful leadership in more conversations, not blanket censorship that produces fewer conversations. If anyone has been a leader or facilitator, they’ve encountered the challenge of trying to align a group of people with different interests, beliefs, stories, and wounds to achieve something together. This is the neverending work of leadership. Censorship (or avoidance) is the blunt tool we use when we are too tired or intimidated to navigate these critical conversations and truly lead. Leadership is the fine scalpel we use when we recognize that leading a team, a company, or a movement requires the delicate work of achieving results and staying focused, while also embracing and creating space for the messy beauty of multiple human lives colliding together in close spaces. We are at a juncture of leadership: either we choose to use the easy-escape, blunt tools of censorship, autocratic decision-making, and progress-at-all-costs relentlessness, or we choose to use the fine scalpels of courageous facilitation, deep listening, and informed, thoughtful decision-making. The future of leadership requires embracing the messiness of bringing our whole selves to work, of understanding that everything is political, of navigating the collapsing of categories, of cultivating the respect for difference, all while moving things forward by aligning teams and people towards common goals. The table stakes are changing, and censorship is folding your hand.

New Section! Compound Insight

What big trends are you seeing? What insights have you had? What are some major learnings in the last month in your work?

One of the most powerful ways we can learn is by 1) gleaning the insights from those around us, and then 2) compounding those learnings over time. And so I’m announcing a new section to the Uncharted Insider called Compound Insight, which will share key learnings, patterns, trends, or insights from the community of readers of this monthly letter. Simply share any big ideas or learning using this link, and I’ll select a few to publish in the next Insider so this community can continue to compound learnings from each other.

Can you help?

  • Can anyone connect us to someone Y Combinator so we can learn how they accelerate both for-profits and nonprofits?
  • Do you know of early-stage organizations (non-profit and for-profit) who are working on addressing wealth gaps, economic inequality, or thinking about the future of economic mobility? We want to know about them!
  • Do you have advice (or know of articles) on how to design a hybrid, equitable working culture that both embraces remote work and also reimagines the purpose of in-office time and space?
  • Does anyone know Elizabeth Warren and would be willing to make an introduction? We would love her to give a fireside chat to our cohort of entrepreneurs working on economic inequality. I can offer that it will be in the top 5% of her working hours in a given week, as measured by impact return / investment of her time.

What I am reading

  • The long fight to take the weekend off. The history of the workweek and the revolution of the 4-day workweek. Here.
  • The fascinating story of the gen-Z revolution in professional sports. How this startup is reinventing basketball, and what other industries can learn from the new laws of the creator economy. Here.
  • The tender humanity and brave poise of Amanda Gorman. Here.
  • Maslow got it wrong. How a true hierarchy of needs is inverted and informed by the Blackfeet Nation’s worldview (from which Maslow developed his pyramid). Here. Written by Teju Ravilochan, Uncharted Co-founder and now Founder of GatherFor.
  • How Crypto billionaires are changing philanthropy: Here.

Something Personal

Earlier this month, I took a four-week online course on wildfires in the American west. Nothing to do with Uncharted, but as a Colorado denizen and western-state enthusiast, I wanted to learn from experts on how our approach to firefighting is evolving in an age of climate change. I learned many things (for example, 1. We put out 98% of fires within 24 hours, and it is the 2% that turn into “major events.” 2. There are actually more wildfires in the Eastern US than in the Western US.). But my biggest takeaway from this course was the idea that our relationship to fire is the biggest problem. Our posture towards wildfire is one of antagonism: we literally call them “firefighters,” and we are in the business of fighting, protecting, and defending against wildfires. Numerous experts advised that we need to reset our relationship to wildfires by embracing fire and using it to our advantage. How might we use the 98% of fires that don’t turn into major events to manage the forest and mitigate larger conflagrations? This mitigation approach borrows from the Indigenous relationship to fire, which didn’t take an antagonistic approach, but instead found cultural and environmental value in letting the forest burn. When fire is respected and embraced, it has the potential to be a positive influence on forest ecology. Fire suppression practices are shifting to embrace a more symbiotic relationship, but we’re still largely stuck in an antagonistic posture. We don’t think of Carl Jung as an expert in wildfires, but his psychological axiom applies to fires too: “Whatever you resist will not only persist, but will grow in size.”


With patience,