“Once you become a life designing person and are living the ongoing creative process of life design, you can’t fail; you can only be making progress and learning from the different kinds of experiences that failure and success both have to offer.” –Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, Designing Your Life
Is the progress movement a movement? – Silicon Valley Examined 34
In this episode of Silicon Valley Examined, Don Watkins asks Yaron Brook about his participation in a workshop on the moral foundations of progress, and what lessons can be learned about the state of the progress movement.
Designing your life
“What people need is a process—a design process—for figuring out what they want, whom they want to grow into, and how to create a life they love.” –Bill Burnett and Dave Evans
A while back we talked about how Ingenuist principles don’t just apply to startups—they can also be harnessed to help each of us flourish as individuals. To live as an Ingenuist, we said, was to become the entrepreneur of your own life:
Approaching your life as an entrepreneur may mean literally starting new companies . . . but it need not. What it always means is that you focus on looking for opportunities to exercise your ingenuity. That you engage in exploration and experimentation to find where you can create the most value and attain the most joy. That you connect with others to learn, to build, to share insights and ideas.
But what would that mean in practice? A large part of the answer can be found in Burnett and Evans’ bestselling book, Designing Your Life. The basic premise of the book is that life isn’t an engineering problem but a design problem.
With an engineering problem, you know the precise outcome you want, and then you seek out the data to arrive at an ideal solution. A design problem is altogether different.
When you have a desired outcome (a truly portable laptop computer, a sexy-looking sports car, or a well-designed life) but no clear solution in sight, that’s when you brainstorm, try crazy stuff, improvise, and keep “building your way forward” until you come up with something that works. You know it when you see it, whether it’s the harmonious lines of a Ferrari or the ultra-portable MacBook Air. A great design comes together in a way that can’t be solved with equations and spreadsheets and data analysis. It has a look and feel all of its own—a beautiful aesthetic that speaks to you.
The real achievement of the book is to translate that insight into a useable process for improving your life.
That process starts with a few key mindsets—mindsets that overlap with many of the key principles of Ingenuism:
Curiosity—It makes everything new; invites exploration. Curiosity helps us “get good at getting lucky.”
Bias to action—Being committed to building your way forward; not sitting on the bench thinking about what you are going to do with your life. Designers try things, test things out, create prototype after prototype until they find what works, and sometimes they find that the problem is entirely different from what they first thought it was. Designers embrace change. They are not attached to a particular outcome, because they are always curious about what will happen next—not what the final result will be . . .
Reframing—How designers get unstuck. It isn’t figuring out what to do with the rest of your life; it’s just whatever you need to do next. Life design involves key reframes that allow us to step back, examine biases, and move toward a solution.
Radical collaboration—You are not alone. You do not have to come up with a brilliant life design all on your own. Design is a collaborative process, and many of the best ideas are going to come from other people.
So take one of the central problems people wrestle with in life: what do I want to do?
The conventional wisdom is: sit down, decide what you’re passionate about, and then go after it. But as I talked about in my review of Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, most people don’t have a single well-defined passion.
Burnett and Evans suggest a different approach. It starts with what they call wayfinding.
Wayfinding is the ancient art of figuring out where you are going when you don’t actually know your destination. For wayfinding, you need a compass and you need a direction. Not a map—a direction.
You don’t need to try to figure out your dream job. Instead, you want to figure out the direction that will bring you closer to a job you love. And that starts by identifying clues about what you love. Not what you might love, what you actually love.
They recommend an exercise called the Good Time Journal. At the end of each day, write down when you felt engaged (and when you didn’t) and when you felt energized (and when you didn’t). You can also mine your past: what were peak experiences where you felt engaged and energized?
This exercise provides the raw data that can help you envision different potential career directions.
But just because you feel engaged and energized reading history books doesn’t mean it’s time to jump into pursuing a PhD in history. That’s a huge investment. Instead what you want is to engage in prototyping.
Prototypes should be designed to ask a question and get some data about something that you’re interested in. Good prototypes isolate one aspect of a problem and design an experience that allows you to “try out” some version of a potentially interesting future. Prototypes help you visualize alternatives in a very experiential way. That allows you to imagine your future as if you are already living it. Creating new experiences through prototyping will give you an opportunity to understand what a new career path might feel like, even if only for an hour or a day. And prototyping helps you involve others early and helps build a community of folks who are interested in your journey and your life design. . . . Finally, prototypes allow you to try and fail rapidly without overinvesting in a path before you have any data.
They suggest two main kinds of career prototypes. First, Life Design Interviews. You should talk to people who are doing the job you think you want to do and find out how they got there, and what their day-to-day work is like. What do they enjoy? What don’t they enjoy?
But that’s not enough. Next you want to prototype experiences. You think you want to teach history? Start a history podcast.
There’s much more of value in this book—from how to make yourself “immune to failure” to how to generate creative ideas to how to build a team of mentors and supporters. If you want to live like an Ingenuist, Designing Your Life is a good place to start.
Funding scientific progress
We’ve talked about a few of the experimental approaches to funding science that have popped up in the last year or so, such as Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison’s Fast Grants COVID project.
Nadia Eghbal recently penned a tour de force essay looking at science funding coming out of the tech world over the last decade. The whole thing is worth reading, but here’s some insight into the connection between science funding and the progress movement.
While today’s practitioners in science are not formally affiliated with progress studies (and most would probably say they are not), and while progress studies is concerned with many other questions beyond science, my sense is that the formation of such a [progress] community helped:
1. Serve as a Schelling point for likeminded people, attracting more talent to the [science funding] space, and
2. Legitimize the work of practitioners.
The piece ends with some insightful coverage of the role crypto could play in funding science going forward. It will be interesting to revisit all this in a few years to see what the results have been.
One of the best illustrations of the value of connection is what happens when a country becomes disconnected. We’re seeing that right now in Russia, thanks to international sanctions, internal Russian policy, and the private actions of global companies.
As Mr. Putin has waged war on Ukraine, a digital barricade went up between Russia and the world. Both Russian authorities and multinational internet companies built the wall with breathtaking speed. And the moves have ruptured an open internet that was once seen as helping to integrate Russia into the global community. . . .
So as it is cordoned off into its own digital ecosystem, the fallout may be severe. In addition to access to independent information, the future reliability of internet and telecommunications networks, as well as the availability of basic software and services used by businesses and government, is at risk.
Of course, all of this comes on top of Russia being largely disconnected from the global financial system. The results have been swift and catastrophic.
Oxford Economics, an analytical company, estimates the Russian economy could shrink by as much as much as 7% as a result of the sanctions. For comparison, that's almost double the amount the U.S. economy contracted during the Great Recession. Expect business failures, skyrocketing unemployment and countless miseries for the Russian people.
In a world where progress and prosperity depend on connection, disconnection is devastating.
Don’t call it a breakthrough
One challenge I struggle with sharing tech news is that there is a tendency to overhype unproven technologies. A company makes a widget that will “change everything.” But they fail to mention (and the media fails to report) that they’ve created something that maybe works in a lab and is totally uneconomic.
One area where I’ve seen this happen time and time again is in the energy space. Here, for example, is a Wall Street Journal piece on why we can read about breakthroughs in batteries every other week only to see the save incremental progress that’s taken place for more than a decade.
“When we started Tesla in 2003, the batteries were just good enough, but what we had noticed was that they got better at about 7% to 8% a year, and had for a long time,” says Marc Tarpenning, a co-founder of the company. “It’s been 19 years, and we still haven’t had a step change in battery capacity—it just ticks along at 7% to 8% per year.”
Why has battery progress been so slow? Because cost-effective energy storage is a really, really, really hard problem to solve.
The reasons progress has been more evolutionary than revolutionary are myriad, but they boil down to the inherent complexity of high-capacity batteries. It’s easy to take them for granted, seeing how they’re in practically every gizmo we buy nowadays. But at the molecular level, what goes on inside the average lithium-ion battery is a complex cascade of chemical reactions that—and this is the really tough part—unfold one way when the cell is charged, do the reverse when it is discharged, and must repeat the process countless times.
To recharge an iPhone is to unscramble the proverbial egg of its battery. This process is never perfect, and is the primary reason the capacity of even the best batteries degrades over time.
Many approaches that in theory could double or triple the capacity of existing batteries haven’t been made to work beyond a few charge cycles. A prime example are lithium-sulfur batteries, which on paper could have nearly 10 times the capacity of current cells. The only problem: If you make one the same way you make current batteries, it breaks down almost completely after just one or two charge cycles.
The point isn’t that we should become pessimistic. It’s just that we should take triumphant media reports of breakthroughs with a grain of lithium.
Scientists at the Salk Institute report that they’ve a therapy that can reverse the aging process.
Scientists from the Salk Institute say the safe and effective technique works by partially resetting cells that impact skin, eyesight, muscles, and the brain. The breakthrough may be able to extend life and help people gain the ability to become more resistant to stress, injury, and disease.
And, yes, I remember the whole “be skeptical of these kinds of claims” thing I just wrote. But, come on. How cool is that? Salk’s scientists do warn against getting too excited just yet, however.
While it may appear to be the Holy Grail of anti-aging research, promising eternal youth, the team cautions that they’ve only successfully tested the treatment on mice so far. Animals at the late stage of their lives treated with cellular rejuvenation therapy started to show signs of getting younger after just seven months.
A good incentive for all of us to put off dying for as long as possible.
On Tuesday, Apple announced a bunch of ways it intends to make me spend money.
Yes, yes, it includes cool new computers, iPads, and iPhones. But most important, at least for the Watkins household budget: Friday night baseball on Apple TV.
Looks like I will no longer be able to unsubscribe between seasons of Ted Lasso.
Until next time,
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> Looks like I will no longer be able to unsubscribe between seasons of Ted Lasso.
A shared dilemma!