Hold firm your beliefs, let your opinions change

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter several weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

Hippasus was a student of the Greek philosopher-mathematician Pythagoras 2,500 years ago.

Pythagoras, whom you may know for popularizing a theorem that is today named for him, taught that all numbers could be expressed as a ratio of two whole numbers. This seems obviously wrong to us today.

Continue reading Hold firm your beliefs, let your opinions change

Will the world be a better place to live in the future?

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter several weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

In 2018, Harvard psychologist and pop intellectual Steven Pinker wrote a book that made a lot of smart people very mad. He argued that, on the global whole, quality of life was continuing its trend of getting better for humans. It was the continuation on a theme from a book he wrote in 2011.

His argument was that we are so (understandably) focused on the immediate pain, suffering and injustice of the day that we feel heartless to zoom out and acknowledge broader trends. Diseases are eradicatedGlobal poverty is downLife expectancy is up. As Pinker often put it: We remember stories about airplane crashes but we ignore stories of airplane takeoffs. (In fact, there’s a movement among journalists to respond to that last point.)

Those aren’t trivial accomplishments for the world. Yet many intellectuals waved Pinker off as an overly-optimistic privileged pollyanna who went beyond his expertise. 

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Either you ride the horse or the horse rides you

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter several weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

For a couple of years in college, I spent a few days a month working at the Belmont Stables in Philadelphia’s West Fairmount Park. It’s just a dozen or so stables built in 1936 to house police horses on perhaps an acre of land.

I was under the tutelage of Ike Johnstone, an imposing, grandfatherly, gregarious kind of man who made you work for his respect. Ike, whose son played in the NFL, effectively ran the stables, which were owned by the City of Philadelphia, and operated his Bill Picket Riding Academy — a summer camp for mostly poorer Black kids from North Philadelphia.

Ike, who is Black, hosted horses for a handful of mostly Black families — offering a kind of opportunity and access that always seemed a point of pride for him. Despite that healthy Black riding community he fostered, Belmont Stables was unrelated to the Fletcher Street Riding Club that is most associated with mixing social justice and Black horse riding in Philadelphia.

“Plenty of Black cowboys if you know where to look,” Ike told me once.

Continue reading Either you ride the horse or the horse rides you

“I want to be the best in the world at something.”

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter several weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

Moments of terror can look purely foolish when the threat is removed.

After you leap in fright, it’s pretty funny that it was just a broom that caught your eye in the dark. Even when the terror was real, after we survive, we usually can eventually joke about being stuck in that elevator. Later on, we have a tendency to laugh about the risks and stress. With doom removed from memory, romance can flourish.

I do find that soothing. When you feel like you can’t survive something, rest assured that afterward either it will be a hell of a story or, as a boss used to remind me, “you’ll be dead, and nobody expects you to show up for you own funeral.”

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When ordinary fear is enough

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter several weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

I used to think all the great kinds of fear were personal ones. Artisanal fear; handcrafted fear; the kind of things that came with a story worth telling. Being lost a bit too long in Japan; crashing an ATV in Qatar; Running with the bulls. Some real life or death adventure, lest I fall victim to ordinary fear.

Back in late March, when it became increasingly clear that it was altogether conceivable that our healthcare system could collapse under the weight of this pandemic, I recognized I was experiencing a kind of universal fear. Certainly not ordinary, exactly, but something so widespread as to begin to feel ordinary. A universal fear that very nearly every person on the planet was experiencing at the same time.

Perhaps there has never been a time when more people in the world were scared of the same thing at the same time.

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Sometimes you have to go backward

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter several weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

I was hanging a drop ceiling in my basement with my father-in-law a back in November. The materials and approach of suspended drop ceilings haven’t much changed since the 1960s. You run long beams perpendicular to shorter cross beams. Those hang from the structural ceiling to support tiles that serve some aesthetic purpose. It isn’t complicated. 

But a half-day into the project, a series of minor decisions had created a major problem. My precise measurements were thrown out. A crucial structural beam was now blocked by my gas pipe. To maximize ceiling height in my home built in the 1890s, I had ignored the recommended distance between my drop ceiling and the rafters. I had a plan. But to make other accommodations, that plan faltered. We tried a few hacks to correct the issue but it got worse.

It wasn’t square. It wasn’t sound. We had a mess.

Continue reading Sometimes you have to go backward

Opportunity costs: think of the big but not the small

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter several weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

Economists love to review our decisions through the lens of opportunity costs. Each decision we make has the added cost of that which we did not do. 

When a big box-store clerk, paid hourly, volunteers to leave her shift early because foot traffic is particularly slow, she’s making a choice. She values what she does with that time more than the wage she would have earned. 

When an influential academic, evaluated by her published research, agrees to take on another young mentee, she’s making a choice. She values that relationship and the person’s development more than what she perceives to be the potential career gains she could have developed with more time in the lab.

I wrestle with this paradigm more often than I might want to admit.

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What question is your work answering?

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter a couple weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

Every company is an approach to answering some question. (Every nonprofit might be a policy failure.)

Many mistakes are made in choosing that question: it might be too ambitious, or too unambitious. It could be too niche, or not focused enough. The true addressable market might be too small. The question may not be a lasting one. You can ask a question too early or too late, with the wrong leadership, team or product. Some of that can be changed by a good team, so along the company-building journey, you must change your approach.

But don’t change the question.

Continue reading What question is your work answering?

Find the people who give you more energy than take

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter a couple weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

I just got back from a week driving around Campania in Southern Italy, including Naples, the Amalfi Coast and the tiny town of Tufo. I was there to eat and drink but, really, I was there to see the remarkable work my best friend Patrick McNeil is doing there. Patrick, whom I’ve known for 15 years, is a homelessness advocate in Philadelphia and a fiction writer. Meanwhile, with his aunts, he is maintaining his grandfather’s childhood home in the rural Province of Avellino, both by hosting guests and, most interestingly, with an artist’s retreat.

I just got back from a week driving around Campania in Southern Italy, including Naples, the Amalfi Coast and the tiny town of Tufo. I was there to eat and drink but, really, I was there to see the remarkable work my best friend Patrick McNeil is doing there. Patrick, whom I’ve known for 15 years, is a homelessness advocate in Philadelphia and a fiction writer. Meanwhile, with his aunts, he is maintaining his grandfather’s childhood home in the rural Province of Avellino, both by hosting guests and, most interestingly, with an artist’s retreat.

Continue reading Find the people who give you more energy than take

I changed a lot at my company. Here’s why beating a big Q1 revenue goal meant so much

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter a couple weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

Nobody wants to follow someone who made General in peacetime.

I’ve been thinking about that concept a lot lately (Ben Horowitz calls its Peace/War Time CEO). In 2017, after eight years of informally leading the tiny community journalism organization I cofounded, I named myself CEO. Up until that point, my cofounder Brian and I had survived together. We’d always find a way to last a bit longer, growing slowly and thoughtfully as we navigated treacherous waters.

That survival approach was rational for growing a local news company in the early 21st century,  a time in which consumers maintain very high expectations for free and independent journalism but have not yet been fully trained to actually pay or otherwise support its work in a post-advertising world.

But in early 2018, as I was finally feeling the great responsibility of the CEO title, I took stock of where my company was.

Continue reading I changed a lot at my company. Here’s why beating a big Q1 revenue goal meant so much