Ok, so you’ve recently arrived at the conclusion that waking up with a sinking feeling in your chest every morning at the prospect of going to work just isn’t going to cut it anymore. First, pause to appreciate just how important this moment is. There are many reasons why we decide to follow paths other than where our own inspiration would lead us. Reclaiming that inspiration, though sometimes daunting, can be a beautiful and ultimately grounding process.
In March of 2013 I stepped out of the day-to-day operations of the mobile technology company I helped launch 3 years prior in order to look for work that was more deeply meaningful to me. In the months that followed I took the time to reconnect with friends and family, talk to people who were doing things that inspired me, and travel. A year later I’m happily cranking away on my latest startup, UnThink. Looking back, there are a few key lessons that I gleaned along the way.
1. Alignment is more powerful than sacrifice.
As humans we all have myriad desires and needs that contribute to the life decisions we make. For most of us these include things like the desire for positive recognition, the desire to do good, the desire to be happy, and the desire for material wealth, to name only a few. However, we often act as if only a fraction of those desires matter, and often pursue the ones that we think weare supposed to instead of the ones that we naturally gravitate toward. In this sense “doing good” at the expense of other important desires is just as much of a trap as “making money.” Finding meaningful work is less about sacrificing certain life desires in the pursuit of others than it is about using creativity and ingenuity to find the natural alignment that can exist between them.
2. Channel your inner child.
The fact is, people who love what they do now are rarely out of touch with what they loved and dreamed about as children, even if what they’re doing isn’t an exact copy of that. Before we learn to be “realistic,” we are all avid and passionate dreamers, and one of the great opportunities of adulthood lies in harnessing those innate passions to create practical transformation in the real world. Asking yourself what you inherently and irrevocably love to do is a great place to start, and the kid in you already knows.
3. Connect with people who inspire you.
Who are the people out there who are doing things that inspire you? Excite you? Get you so motivated that you’re ready to step out the door with a shovel to help? Reach out to them directly. Invite them to lunch, coffee or a phone call, and listen to what they have to say. This isn’t about getting help finding a job; it’s about enjoying an exchange with someone who is doing something you’re interested in. If they’re anything like the folks I spoke with during my transition, they’ll love the opportunity to speak with someone who’s excited about what they’re doing. Meanwhile, you get to learn more about the thing that inspires you, and connect with another human being who is out there in the world doing something awesome. Depending on the case, you may also end up with a friend, advocate, or colleague.
4. Stop thinking so much.
Most major life decisions aren’t made at the analytical level of our brains; they’re made at the emotional level, and only later justified at the analytical level. Often we create cycles of self-doubt by over analyzing major decisions and treating them much as we would a math problem. Unfortunately (or fortunately), life isn’t a math problem, so when we’re not able to find the “right answer” to a big life question panic can set in. It’s possible to create room for emotion and intuition to come more directly into play by doing things that bring the mind into the present moment and away from future- or past-oriented thinking. Hiking, meditation, mindfulness practices, prayer, physical exercise, and travel (my personal favorite) are all ways of doing this.
5. It’s not about balance, it’s about balancing.
The process of integrating and expressing our desires, passions, and dreams through the work we do is a lifelong process. Don’t expect to make a single job transition and have everything perfectly sorted out. Instead, focus on learning to notice when something important to you is being ignored. One of the most important things I’ve taken away from my own transition is a deeper appreciation for the beauty of a life that, although perhaps never quite in balance, is always in the process of balancing.
- Quote from Martin Amis.
After reading this great interview with David Krieger, I feel I have a much better view of some of the strange/twisted logic we use to justify massive arsenals of nukes. In the words of General George Lee Butler, who once was overseer of all US nuclear weapons, “nuclear deterrence was and remains a slippery intellectual construct that translates very poorly into the real world of spontaneous crises, inexplicable motivations, incomplete intelligence, and fragile human relationships.”
I did this trip in April of 2012 while contemplating my next project. I was stunned by the kindness and beauty I encountered along the way.
Here is the numerical summary:
# of rides: 26
Distance: 2064 miles
Days hitchhiking: 9
Shortest wait: 0 minutes
Longest wait: 4 hours
# of rides with guys: 12
# of rides with gals: 8
# of rides with a mix of guys and gals: 6
Most beautiful couple I got a ride with (see photo)
Random weddings attended: 1
Sketchy nights spent in the woods in Northern Idaho: 1
# of times I was offered a place to stay by someone who gave me a ride: 4
# of times taken as VIP to a hip hop concert: 1
# of times picked up by white supremacists: 1
# of times picked up by drug dealers or former drug dealers: 3
# of Christians who tried to convert me: 3
# of rides turned down due to alarm bells in my head: 1
# of times I was afraid for my life: 0
Favorite quote: “I pick up hitchhikers because you never know when you might miss a blessing.” - Guy with skull tattoos hauling generators in Northern Idaho.
A beautiful couple who carried me a few miles down the road.
“Because we are educated to believe that salvation is found in the doctrines of a single system, we are naively susceptible to dissimulation and cant.”
- Paul Hawken.
Over time I’ve observed that people, including myself at times, have a strong tendency to look for truth in a single source. That tendency carries enormous risks.
A person’s survival is dependent to some extent on how well they’re able to function within the culture in which they live, so it’s no surprise that humans are culture “sponges.” Biologically we are designed to assume that the reality presented to us by our parents and society at an early age is the correct one. During our formative years the question isn’t so much whether the ideas presented to us are true/untrue; they are simply common social definitions that allow us to begin to navigate the world and each other.
The danger is that our basic “sponge” nature leads us to unconsciously assume later in life that we can find a 100% dependable and beneficial reality within the bounds of a single cultural, economic, political, or religious system. The loudest voices within any given system are, almost without exception, more than happy to feed into that assumption for the simple reason that it is entirely in their interest to do so. This is especially apparent in public discourse, where proponents of a particular ideology often don’t hesitate to feed biases in order to solidify support while portraying any competing ideologies as “crazy”. Combined with the human tendency to seek out information that supports preconceptions, the result is that “capitalism,” “socialism,” “the free market,” “democracy,” “small government,” etc. self perpetuate as supposedly complete solutions to all problems. The issue isn’t that the average person consciously thinks that salvation can be found in a single “-ism,” It’s that too often we unconsciously act that way. When we do, we become blind to potential solutions that might lie just outside our comfort zone.
The antidote to big ideologies lies in embracing a values-driven, practical approach over any single system of thought. Pragmatism in social entrepreneurship means developing a sensitivity to “what works” through careful observation and measurement, while loosening one’s grip just a bit on the entrenched “this or that” thought patterns that often dominate public discourse.
Also from Paul Hawken:
“In contrast to the ideological struggles currently dominating global events and personal identity, a broad nonideological movement has come into being that does not invoke the masses’ fantasized will but rather engages citizens’ localized needs. This movement’s key contribution is the rejection of one big idea in order to offer in its place thousands of practical and useful ones.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t agree that “livable” cities are important. I happen to think that they’re critical to creating a future we actually want to be alive for. But the question of what exactly “livable” means is up for debate.
1. Mobility - Packing hundreds of thousands or millions of people into constricted spaces can result in a drastic reduction in ease of movement. Humans need to be able to move through space freely to access goods and services, and to live in a way that feels unrestricted. There are both practical and psychological issues at work here. Transportation infrastructure is obviously critical (including pedestrian infrastructure!), but just as important to mobility are a sense of safety, comfort and confidence. This becomes a massive issue when you consider that over a billion people will move to cities worldwide in the next 20 years, and that 6 of the 7 billion people on earth have never used a street map (digital or otherwise).
2. Community - Humans need to feel close to and supported by other humans in order to thrive. Cities are a double edged sword; they can foster strong communities, but city life can also result in a profound sense of isolation (which can be significantly related to mobility). Humans evolved in small tribal groups, and are neurologically wired to have individualized relationships with no more than 150 or so people. If you were born 10,000 years ago chances are you would have had one community of ~150 people that would have lasted you your entire life (with some turnover, of course). By contrast, the communities that exist in cities today are much more fragmented, temporary and less encompassing. As such, they don’t provide nearly the emotional or psychological “safety net” that tribal communities did at one time in human history.
3. Nature - It’s been shown that people who have access to nature are happier, more optimistic, more productive, heal faster, and experience less stress. That’s no surprise, seeing as how “nature” was where we lived for 95% of our existence as a species. Cities need architecture and urban design that invites nature into buildings and people into nature, and people need to have the tools and knowledge to know how and where to find nature when they want it.
4. Essential Amenities - Fresh food, clean air and water, access to medicine and education. Straightforward to describe, not always so straightforward to implement.
5. Culture and Entertainment - Ultimately life shouldn’t just be about survival, it should be about thriving. Thriving involves having experiences that are rich, exciting and meaningful. Cities need to offer those kinds of experiences.
6. Identity - Some archeologists have speculated that one of the initial forces towards early urbanization (synchronous with the agricultural revolution) was people associating certain places with religious meaning. This led to a strong desire to remain in one place in order to be closer to sacred ground, which in turn led to the agricultural innovations which enabled that lifestyle. In the same vein, people today choose to live in places that reflect and express their own identity and beliefs about the world. Cities need to have strong identities that people can either reject or fall in love with. A bland urban identity, it turns out, is far worse than an identity that alienates some people. It’s very much OK that some people hate New York City but love San Francisco and vice versa. What matters is that a city has a vibe, a feeling, even a meaning, that people can choose (or not choose) to make their own.
The order above isn’t accidental. Mobility is the enabling factor that allows people to experience 2-6, and Identity is in many ways the summation of 1-5. If people can’t move about within a city safely, comfortably and confidently, none of the other factors have a chance to matter, and if they can’t fall in love with the whole of a city it doesn’t matter how good the food is or how well the city performs in any other single category.
Cities are the future. They need to be easier to love.
A beautiful visual comparison of neurons and city lights. I love the way certain patterns appear and reappear at different scales of existence. In this case something that we usually think of as decidedly inorganic (cities) reflect the structure of the brain. It’s a good reminder that even the things humans create are, in the end, products of nature.
See the full set of images here.
Eric Fischer has created some fascinating maps that expose aspects of San Francisco (and many other cities) that are otherwise latent or ignored.
The first map (click for link to full version) shows the geographic concentration of flickr photos taken by tourists (red), locals (blue) and uncertain (yellow). The actual map data comes from openstreemap.
Even more striking is this map below showing racial and ethic distribution using data from the 2010 census. Here Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Gray is Other, and each dot is 25 people. Well known ethnic enclaves like China Town and the Mission are clearly discernable, as well as other areas with strong ethnic and racial concentrations like Bayview, Hunter’s Point, and Oakland.
Eric’s maps are actually quite beautiful, but they’re also challenging (in a good way). A map, it turns out, is an incredibly blunt instrument for representing reality. Perhaps that’s part of what makes them so effective in yanking us out of our everyday human experience to see a bigger picture. That’s not to say that we don’t already experience San Francisco in terms of “touristy or not,” or “asian,” or “black,” or “white.” We do. The point is that because they’re basic categories of how we divide and and delineate places, we often forget that we’re doing it at all. Maps like these help remind us of that, and also help to expose the underlying realities that lead to our experience in the first place.
Jordan Webster, a friend of mine who is studying particle physics at the University of Chicago and who has worked at CERN, recently did a fantastic and very straightforward email write up on the Higgs boson in response to questions from another friend. I’ve made a few small edits, but otherwise all the work is his. Enjoy!
The model does have some flaws (e.g. it assumes that neutrinos have no mass, which we now know not to be the case), but it is still widely used since it has more experimental support than any other model. This is largely because all of the particles in the standard model have been discovered… that is, all except for one. The Higgs boson is the only part of the standard model that has not yet been observed, and this is one of the many reasons the LHC (the particle collider at CERN) was built.
Now for some background on how particle physics works. Experimental particle physics is basically just statistics — the LHC is just a big counting experiment. Protons collide inside a detector at a really high energy, and as a result a bunch of matter is produced (in the form of electrons, muons, photons, quarks, gluons, etc), and the matter is “seen” by the detector. Different events can be categorized based on which particles are produced — e.g. category A might include events with just one electron, category B might include events with an electron and a photon, category C might include events in both categories A and B, etc. Then using the standard model you can make predictions about how many events you would expect to see in each category. For example, one might predict that after a year of running experiments and collecting data at the LHC, we would expect to see 100 events in category A if the Higgs doesn’t exist, or 150 events in category A if it does exist. Now suppose the actual number of observed events in category A is 107. An experimentalist then has to crunch through the statistics to make some sort of statement like “given the number of events observed, there is only a 5% chance that the Higgs exists.”
The result that went public today has a different story. The two detectors at the LHC, ATLAS and CMS, both saw a reasonably large excess in observed events, above what they would expect to see if the Higgs doesn’t exist. ATLAS claimed a 2.3 sigma excess. This just means that the probability of observing the number of events they observed assuming that the Higgs doesn’t exist is ~1% (which comes from integrating a Gaussian distribution from 2.3 sigma to infinity; understanding this isn’t critical to getting the whole story). CMS reported a 1.9 sigma excess, which corresponds to a probability of ~3%. At first glance, this seems like pretty convincing evidence that the Higgs exists. It is especially interesting that both CMS and ATLAS see an excess of events associated with a Higgs of a particular mass, around 125 GeV. However, there are a bunch of little caveats that are probably not worth going into. The short story is that the physics community will not accept thatthe Higgs is discovered until the excess reaches 5 sigma, or until the probability that the Higgs does not exist is around 0.00003%. This requires more data.
Q. Does this have any tangible effect on technology in the near future?
No. The Higgs is responsible for giving other particles mass. Other particles are said to gain mass via their interaction with the “Higgs field.” This is an exciting concept, but even if the Higgs exists we are a looooong ways away from applying this idea to anything outside of fundamental physics.