Episode One Hundred and Sixty Three: What The Network Does; How Do You Solve A Problem Like TED; Not A Career, A Careen

by danhon

0.0 Sitrep

3:28pm, inside at home with what The Wirecutter calls The Best Room Fan busy, well, fanning me. It’s still hot in Portland, even now that XOXO’s finished. The sun is still outside, sleeting down hard UV dispassionately, killing us with warmth. There are two spots on my hand I should probably go see a doctor about. My wife and son are off on a Camping Trip, a big American tradition. Nine mums and their babies! I am here with a laptop, writing, and trying to work out how to finish the remaining 23% I have of Fez, and not playing Destiny (yet).

1.0 What The Network Does

Imagine you are the network. You are nodes and connectors, and some of the nodes make graphs of you. There are laws about you, and some of the numbers embedded within you grow exponentially, some of them more slowly. But there is one true thing about you: you connect things. Things that weren’t able to be connected before. Things around corners. Things in the sky. Things underground. Through glass and through sand, through copper and through air. And sometimes those nodes are people.

You don’t care what you connect, all you do, what you only do is connect. So you connect individuals and you collect groups, you connect subnetworks and outernetworks. Darknets and lightnets. And one network that you connect, one that wasn’t connected before, is people who play chess.

There didn’t used to be that many chess grandmasters. But lately, there’s been an explosion. And they keep getting younger. Why is that? Well, to get better at a thing, you have to practice. You need something better than you to try to beat. You need something to outwit. And now, well, there are grandmasters-in-a-box. In a browser. In Javascript. Embodied in silicon and plastic and out in the real world, or displayed in a windowing system. So now: anyone who wants to play a grandmaster level competitor can play one. It’s, more or less, trivial to find a grandmaster. You don’t even have to travel, if you’re lucky.

And then: you can play anyone else on the network. Would you like to play a game? Anyone. And the network keeps getting bigger, because it doesn’t care. You can be a grandmaster at 16, 15, 14, 13, 12 years old now. Keep finding people to play.

And then what?

The best, they play like computers. They don’t get annoyed. They don’t get upset. The board is a problem set and a solution space and you find the best path. Getting annoyed doesn’t help you find the best path. You play so you can beat computers, so you start behaving like one. The best can perform at the extremes: do things in a way that we don’t understand, see things in a way that a computer brute-forces its way through.

That’s a thing that the network does. It connects.

(Thanks to Greg Borenstein for exploding my brain and being the ignition point for the above).

2.0 How Do You Solve A Problem Like TED

There was a thing I noticed about XOXO this year which was that at its best, it was – like I said yesterday – sincere, authentic and vulnerable accounts of what it’s like to be a creative person embedded in the network. This meant everything from a recognition that luck plays a big part, no matter how hard you’ve worked, or how much time you’ve put in – Darius Kazemi gave a good example of this, showing how bots that he came up with and implemented in four hours would frequently be more “successful” in terms of followers and recognition than ones that took forty hours to implement. Though he might *like* the ones that were harder more. Recognition, we understand, is a fickle thing.

But it also meant hearing from people who – from the outside, when you see their surface, and not their interior – look *incredibly* successful. You know the saying: you judge people on their outsides and yourself on your insides. So it felt like even whilst there were people who were literally saying “this is difficult, and hopefully I don’t have to tap into my savings this year, and the only reason why I can travel so much is because I airbnb out my apartment and I stay on peoples’ couches when I travel” they *felt* successful.

I think there’s a Kahneman-style System 1 vs System 2 thing going on here: that when we see someone who’s good at public speaking, who can tell an engaging story and retain our attention, who entertains us and looks like they’re enjoying we think: gosh, that person’s *successful* and they must really, really have their shit together. This, despite the fact that if you listen to the words coming out of their mouths, they’re trying to tell you that they desperately *don’t* and that this stuff is just *happening*. We are pattern recognisers, and the physical morphology of a successful person on-stage at a conference doing a presentation or talk is a powerful thing, I think: it hacks into some sort of brain-stem system and bypasses whatever conscious understanding we have of their verbal communication.

I say this because one of the persistent valuable lessons of XOXO has been people talking about the *reality* of their situation. Joseph Fink would talk about Welcome to Nightvale and describe it as “a bunch of people who did a podcast” and that it is now “a bunch of people who do a podcast”. The sheer number of underpants-gnomes-profit references underscores that most people have no idea *why* something has happened, but what XOXO brings is what it *feels like* to grapple with those things and *how* to grapple with those things when they happen. XOXO has never been about a Get Rich Quick, Follow These Ten Tips To Become Successful thing. It’s been about what the human experience and endeavour of creating and failing and succeeding and failing and endlessly repeating and the terror and elation and highs and lows of that are. That’s why it resonates with me.

So I wonder if the conventional three/ten/fifteen/twenty minute talk is a good way – or, for that matter, even the only way – in which to communicate that kind of understanding. I really, really enjoy one-on-one mentoring sessions because they’re *not* a performance. A successful performance doesn’t mean a successful person – it just means a successful performance. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that.

3.0 Not A Career, A Careen

I wrote yesterday that it feels like I don’t have a career, I have a careen. The trajectory of my life so far has been less about a carefully described Newtonian arc in some sort of Standard Model of Life Experience and instead feels like a virtual particle in a quantum vacuum with some additional Brownian motion thrown in. In other words: shit happens.

I would get asked by people sometimes: do you have any advice about getting into an agency like Wieden+Kennedy? And I would say: well, I don’t really think what I did was replicable. I mean sure, you can go study law at a good school and then qualify and then do a master’s in Software Engineering and then do a couple of startups and get noticed and win some awards, but if I’m honest most of the *other* people in that agency went to Advertising School.

And I don’t necessarily think it was something as facile as “making your own luck”, but there’s possibly one thing that I’d point to which is: I like talking to people. And I know a bunch of people in a bunch of different areas, and I’m interested in what they do, and I try to know about what they do. If things work out right, I’m about to embark on what by some accounts might be a fourth career. The first was trying out being a lawyer (interesting, but ultimately boring when it came down to the nuts and bolts of it), the second one was in startups (learned a lot, probably will want to start a new business again at some point, but not the right time for my family), the third in advertising (it ended up being advertising, which I’m interested in but don’t want to make) and the fourth… well, we’ll see.

I can’t point to a common thread through any of those things other than this bundle of water and meat that’s me. Any reasonable person – any *typical person* would say: well, couldn’t you just pick one thing and stick to it? Couldn’t you just get better at that?

The thing is, though, is that’s what the network did to me. The network put all this stuff in front of me and said: connect here. Click here. Join this to that bit. Make a new connection. Fulfill your part of Metcalfe’s Law. Only at the beginning was the law stuff *absolutely nothing* to do with the network. Everything after that was: what am I interested in? What am I doing now? Who can I do it with? Do they want me to do it?

Kevin Kelly would say: this is what the network does. It invents new ways for you to succeed. You still have to, you know, take advantage of them. I mean, I spoke at a *design* conference for the first time this year and for whatever reason, I’m pretty confident that I’m not a Capital D Designer. I was interviewing just a couple months ago for a Design Director position, and still. But it was just because of the stuff that I was interested in and the network just… provided.

This isn’t some Secret bullshit. But I think it turns out that most humans are actually pretty decent people and want to help other people. And this, this stupid thing of a newsletter, where I just spurt out words every day, has at least helped people understand me and who I am and what I’m interested in and can form their own opinion about what I might be good at.

The flipside of this of course is that in the grand scheme of things I’m so stupendously privileged that it doesn’t bear thinking about. The elder son of immigrant parents from Hong Kong to England in the late 1970s, I ended up growing up in a middle class family and going to one of the top schools in the country. I took a paper boy job once and chucked it in because I didn’t – couldn’t – get up in the morning and face the drudgery. Instead, I’d temp in the summers between school years and, basically, type, and earn the ire of other admin assistants who didn’t type at 90-odd words a minute because their parents or families didn’t start them on a computer when they were three years old.

I’m stupidly lucky.

So, when I ask myself, how did I *really* get this far? Yeah, it was pretty much privilege.

The thing about those who’ve climbed the ladder having a responsibility to give a hand up? Yeah, that. Absolutely, unconditionally, that.

4pm. Pretty much 30 minutes of writing on the dot. See you tomorrow.