Dispatch 15 — Feb 03, 2021

The practice

Although I use various topic names to describe the newsletter, tweaking once in a while, re-framing how I present it, basically it’s always “here’s stuff I found interesting.” And yet I’m also always trying to determine (guess) what readers might enjoy, how each issue can make sense, and to find the overlap of where my curiosity leads and what might be more generally engaging. Part of that selection process usually ends up keeping me from including what might be called “behind the scenes” articles, meaning things like the practice of writing, or ideas relevant to how I think of my work, or the business of newsletters, content, and consultancy. Yet there are always a bunch of articles on those topics in my Instapaper pile, so they definitely fit under the broad label of “things I found interesting.”

And so, in part to give you an idea of where my head’s at in this new year, in part because of my recent poll (where close to 80% of readers said they would be up for something on the topics of “curation, newslettering, blogging, writing, reading, creativity, attention, personal knowledge management”), in this Dispatch I’m going with the same format as the weekly, for a short collection of articles informing my practice.

In closing; please notice the bolded “Thoughts?” In the summary for the “community-curated knowledge networks” piece and be sure to hit reply if this resonates with you or prompts some ideas.

Practical starting points for a polymath

Ok so polymathy is something I include once in a while, and btw I consider myself a generalist, not a polymath. Beyond my interest in the topic, I think this overview of Peter Burke’s book by John V Willshire also connects to various others in a useful way: on the arrangement of knowledge, concentration, imagination, interdisciplinary, and hybrids / centaurs with AI. It’s also one more post which loosely fits, via courts and patronage, with something I mentioned in last Sunday’s No.158, concerning fellowships, projects, communities, and the orthogonal lab.

“Another possible typology distinguishes just two varieties of polymath, the centrifugal type, accumulating knowledge without worrying about connections, and the centripetal scholar, who has a vision of the unity of knowledge and tries to fit its different parts together in a grand system… Most if not all polymaths can be located on a continuum between the two extremes.” […]

Your concentration exists at different levels; not just the momentary ability to focus on something completely, but the unconscious grip you maintain on ideas that you are working on more slowly. […]

A vivid imagination, daydreaming, the ‘linking of facts’ (Darwin), the ‘perception of the similarity in dissimilars’ (Aristotle)… all feature heavily in the polymath’s makeup. Familiarity with many different domains makes it easier, though analogy and metaphor, to frame and explain possibilities in ways previously unthought of. […]

Restlessness seems best characterised by wandering and wondering into the next field along. It’s not about searching for an end destination, a place in which to settle, but learning more about what’s out there. How do you open yourself to these new fields? […]

It feels that advances in supported knowledge, from the centaur approach to AI, to building second brains, means that if anything, we might be in for a resurgence in those we will consider polymaths in the future as they skip gleefully through a hundred fields or more.

Preserving Optionality: Preparing for the Unknown

Adjacent to the above, at Farnam Street, preserving optionality, keeping possible paths open, and not over-specializing. Another one of those things that keeps looping back in my head; how do you focus on things enough to be proficient (i.e. that thing being useful) while leaving room for all the other things one might be interested in? It also relates to skills building on previous learnings. For example, I had a couple of calls last week where I mentioned the same thing: although keeping Sentiers on my own domain is “philosophically” based on what I believe about the open web and not being locked-in to platforms, it is also something I have the option of doing because I know the whole “tech stack” and can (relatively) easily loosely join all the pieces. Not something that all newsletterers can do. The previous skillset gave me options. So it’s not only useful to think of present and upcoming options but realize how one can build on the previous, even when leaving a field behind.

The problem is, it’s bad advice. We live in a world that’s constantly changing, and if we can’t respond effectively to those changes, we become redundant, frustrated, and useless. […]

Keeping our options open means developing generalist skills like creativity, rather than specializing in one area, like a particular technology. The more diverse the knowledge and skills you can draw on, the better positioned you are to take advantage of new opportunities. […]

Ultimately, preserving optionality means paying attention and looking at life from multiple perspectives. It means building a versatile base of foundational knowledge and allowing for serendipity and unexpected connections. We must seek to expand our comfort zone and circle of competence, and we should take minor risks that have potentially large upsides and limited downsides.

Solving for complexity

Douglas Belshaw attaching together a few known topics into a useful frame. The known-known to unknown-unknown quadrants, how they might apply to a community/organisation, including in a consultancy scenario, and he connects it to complexity and Isaiah Berlin’s The Fox and the Hedgehog essay. In my own practice, I’m often at a bit of a loss when trying to present/sell an ROI perspective, I don’t see how knowing more can be quantified, it just makes blinding sense to me that knowing (and understanding) more about what surrounds you enables you to react accordingly, there’s value there for sure but not X percentage of growth or Y savings. The three quotes below aren’t any better at quantifying things, but do present a useful angle on making that value clearer.

This last area, unknown unknowns is the reason that organisations need to employ generalists as well as specialists: people who are interested in lots of things as well as people who spend their time on just one thing. […]

Every organisation needs ‘foxes’ that are aligned with the mission, giving them time to explore and discover things from unusual places that might be beneficial in surfacing unknown unknowns […]

To conclude, this kind of work can seem quite disconnected from the core business of organisations.... What organisations that have been around a while know, however, is that it’s precisely this kind of work that leads to long-term growth and sustainability.

No Meetings, No Deadlines, No Full-Time Employees

Sahil Lavingia, founder and CEO of Gumroad, on how they currently operate in a completely distributed, part-time, self-directed manner, and without deadlines. Not everyone has the benefit of millions in funding and building a platform and community before switching to such a model, so definitely not applicable as is, yet a number of lessons and ideas can be gleaned from the way they function. The purposefully un-synced days, copious writing to communicate and document, and the single metric (are creators making more money?) are certainly replicable, and the first two are core practices for many distributed companies. The fact the company ends up operating a bit like an open source project also aligns for me with the knowledge networks in the next piece.

Instead of having meetings, people “talk” to each other via GitHub, Notion, and (occasionally) Slack, expecting responses within 24 hours. Because there are no standups or “syncs” and some projects can involve expensive feedback loops to collaborate, working this way requires clear and thoughtful communication. … Everyone writes well, and writes a lot. […]

“[T]his way to work is responsible for the highest level of productivity I've ever experienced. The ability to focus on actual work creates a virtuous circle benefiting both the company and the workers: 1) the company does not have to pay expensive engineers to sit around in endless, useless meetings, and 2) the engineers get to do more and learn more, which benefits them in the long term. […]

We also have an “anti-overtime” rate: past twenty hours a week, people can continue to work at an hourly rate of 50 percent. This allows us to have a high hourly rate for the highest leverage work and also allows people to work more per week if they wish.

The rise of community-curated knowledge networks

This was originally going to be the first article in the Dispatch, it’s very much in the “interesting for the running of the Sentiers business” bucket. Sari Azout’s premise: “We are living through the emergence of a new business category that doesn’t even have a name yet, but which I believe will become an important part of our digital lives: online communities at the intersection of content curation and knowledge management.” Curators, especially influenced by feeds, are too focused on the present and people tend to consume information recreationally, there’s a need for greater focus “on the architecture; how we collect, store, augment, and utilize what’s already in our minds.”

Thoughts? → The highlight below is roughly what I’m working on right now with my project for Grant for the Web (I really need to write that up) where I’m turning an archive into a library. People often call Sentiers a magazine (I called it a steaming publication in the original membership copy), if I do something more community like, I’m wondering if the café is a useful metaphor. Magazine, library, café. Some of my very favourite things.

We seem to have forgotten that the goal is not to consume more information. The goal is to think better, so we can achieve our goals. […]

How often have you gone back to read an old issue of your favorite newsletter? Why bother when you’ll have a new one soon? Without an information architecture that supports a longer shelf life for content, we will continue to accumulate mental and behavioral debt. […]

In short, the architecture of digital platforms has made us obsessive documenters and consumers of the present, yet largely indifferent to the archives we create. […]

The conversation around curation thus far has focused too much on reducing the amount of information, and too little on what other architectures might be possible outside of the feeds or newsletters we’ve grown accustomed to.

'I'm Never Far From a Good Idea'

I’m really trying to stay away from productivity talk (nothing necessarily wrong with it, but at some point you’ve gone around the block), but this interview with James Clear is worth a read for his views on never being far from a good idea, choosing your thoughts, and influencing your identity with your habits and behaviours.

So if I am going to be iterating upon previous stuff, then I want the best starting material possible. By having good starting material, I often can build something that's useful, interesting, and valuable, but it's largely because I started with reading something useful, interesting and valuable. […]

Picking what to read and making sure I'm reading consistently is a really important part of my writing and idea-generating process. […]

I'm never far from a good idea. Most of them aren't mine, but they're always there for me to build upon and soak up and think about and iterate on. That's how I think about optimizing my environment for having good ideas.

Further reading

  • Expression is Compression. “[P]eople make sense of the world by making it simpler and more beautiful—by making compression progress. They assert that creators move towards compression progress not by following their rational mind, but by following their intuition for what’s interesting. In doing so, they compress large data sets into elegant deliverables which are easy to share and remember.” And “[w]e should not worry about the productivity of our curiosity. By handing the reins of discovery to the wisdom of instinct and following the path of maximal interestingness, we can find the kinds of unexpected discoveries that yield compression progress.”
  • Why Epicureanism, not Stoicism, is the philosophy we need now “Epicurean ethics reduces to a few simple principles: avoid harming others and live so that others have no motive to harm you. Form agreements with them for mutual aid and protection. The greatest good for a human being, Epicurus thought, is friendship – pleasure in the presence of another individual, and the security of knowing that help will be given if ever it is needed. And “What would an Epicurean world look like? It wouldn’t be based, as our world is, on the value of the speed and efficiency of output – the transformation of raw materials into consumer products and consumer products into rubbish, at whatever human cost. It would be focused on enhancing another form of utility, the creation of good experiences and the minimisation of pain.”
  • Rise of the media artisan. ”I’m not here to speak for all indies, but I had underestimated how much this would matter to me. The rein to speak only for oneself, to decide where the day takes you and what work is worth doing is the true joy of the self-employed. Of course, the consequences of those decisions are yours alone too. But freedom once tasted…”