So thankful for the witty, literary, and passionate Taylor Bruce of Wildsam Field Guides for joining me for Able radio.
Taylor is founder of @Wild Sam Field Guides, the most stylish and curated of American travel brands, built upon telling true stories of place. In developing his unique series, Taylor has learned about business from his own bootstrapping approach and from listening to stories from hundreds of business owners across the country.
I'm so thankful for getting to do what I do; if I had to summarize what I do, it would be something like: meeting with extraordinary people to either convince them to give us money, convince them to join our team, or convince them to take our money. At the core of this is meeting with amazing people with powerful stories. But getting to keep those stories to myself would be selfish--so we decided to do something about that and being telling and producing these stories for everyone to hear.
I listened in a new way to a range of podcasts, took Alex Blumberg's (of Planet Money and Gimlet Media fame) Creative Live course, bought some gear, and turned on a mic. Below is one of our first stories--this one with Greg McEvilly. And all of the audio-wizardly is by the amazing Tripp Johnston.
I'd love your help! Would you give this a listen and then leave me some feedback? We'd looking for ideas for how to make it better.
Greg is the chief equipping officer and founder of Kammok, an innovative outdoor brand that connects people with the adventure of changing lives. “When people buy from a certain brand, they are essentially casting their vote for a product — make them want to cast their vote for you.” - Greg McEvilly
From receiving his startup’s first loan at his parents’ breakfast table, to reaching his Kickstarter goal on the first day, Greg has built a “MOB-like” business around his personal passion, helping others.
I was honored to join the FoxNews Independents show to tell a brief story of Outbox and talk about how regulation stifles entrepreneurship.
On Monday, May 11, 2015, the day of the final, formal hurrah of 1158 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY—the 39-year home of Pam and Richard Scurry—we (their children) hosted a regal affair and presented to the Scurrys a set of letters from their friends and family to celebrate and record the many lives changed and blessed by this family in this home.
May their legacy inspire future generations to practice such radical hospitality.
Kristina and Evan Baehr
Julie and Rich Scurry
Thank you to Sam Decker and Openview partners for having me on their Founder's Corner show. Sam is a remarkable entrepreneur himself and a great interviewer! Original post here.
Before turning 30, Evan Baehr had graduated magna cum laude from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, Yale’s Divinity School, and Harvard’s Business School. He’d worked as a legislative aide for Congressman Frank Wolf, served as an advisor for PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and been offered a full-time job by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg two years before the social network went public. Had Baehr accepted that offer, his financial and professional future would have likely been secure.
But Baehr chose a different path.
In 2011, he called Sandberg to tell her he was turning down her offer to instead found Outbox, an ambitious startup aimed at disrupting the antiquated mail delivery model by building a new, digital version of it. Initially, the company received a lot of hype and attention (as well as investment capital from tech luminaries like Mike Maples and Peter Thiel), but Outbox folded in 2013 after it became obvious that the company’s business model — and its partnership with the government — was untenable.
Like many great entrepreneurs, however, Baehr and his co-founder Will Davis didn’t view that failure as a dead end.
In fact, within a few weeks, they’d taken the company’s team (and what was left of the $5 million it had received in outside funding) and spun it into an entirely new venture — a small business fundraising platform they called Able Lending. Watch the video below to hear Baehr explain when (and why) he realized Outbox needed to pivot, why he still believes turning down Facebook was the right decision, and what he learned from Peter Thiel about embracing irrationality and attacking narrow markets.
I have recently been very inspired and challenged by the work by James K. A. Smith around "cultural liturgies." It has me worried that I have actually bought into a number of narratives - stories, really - that form my preconscious knowledge, something of which I am totally aware. So while I think I control my own actions and those actions come from my thoughts, I am deluding myself. This is terrifying if true. It would be like the puppet for the first time leaning back and noticing a set of strings running up to his master. Here is my quick summary of the core of one of his arguments:
We [modern people in the intellectualist tradition] think that we do what we think - that our actions come from our thoughts. So to change our action we change what we think; so we consume content to increase our knowledge (read: TED Talks). But in reality we do what we love. So to change what we do we must change what we love. Since love is an action that produces a feeling, changing our loves is really about doing actions - doing things that produce love. This attempt to change what we love is called "curating the heart." This is a challenge for intellectualists because, while we know how to consume content and change our mind, we do not really know how to curate the heart. The only hope we have for curating the heart, Smith argues, is gathered worship. While intellectualists see worship and community as a source for content, it is rightly seen as a place where narratives are repeated and experienced through ritual such that the participants internalize those stories in their subconscious. To the non-theist critics who have no "formal liturgical community," you too have liturgies you follow, you simply may not be aware of them. Why do you love what you love? Well, what stories do you believe and where do those come from? There you'll find your narratives, your liturgies, and your loves, which explain all of what you do.
For more, check out Smith's work on How Worship Works.
There is a plethora of books and talks about starting companies; Sam Altman (of YCombinator) offers the BEST around. Seriously worth your listening. Below are my 11 favorite lessons from his first lecture.
Every idea should sound totally crazy but actually be defensible with a short sentence.
If you are not an actual user of the product that you should surround yourself with the customer as much as possible
Initially it should look like your market is extremely small and that you pursue a monopoly of it. The key thing is that there is a huge market for your service and 10 years from now. Great start ups take 10 years.
You must begin with a mission. If you have several ideas that you're working on, should pick the one that you think about most when you try to not think about work.
The purpose of a start up to solve a problem that you're really passionate about.
What's more important than figuring out how to come up with ideas his building relationships with possible cofounders.
It is a great thing when other people don't like your idea. It is a sign that they are not likely to do it.
Better to build something that a few users LOVE than that a lot of users like.
Way easier to go from small number of customers who love it… to lots who love it… than from lots who like it to lots who love it.
Find a small set of customers: understand them extremely well… serve them extremely well.
Companies build what the CEO measures.
Check out his entire lecture series here.
My review of From Zero to One by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters.
We live in the age of the brogrammer--male liberal arts majors that take 12-week crash courses to learn to code so that they can become the next Winklevoss twins. These founders have the only prompt they need for their startup: "Uber for ____." But we ought not only despair about these founders; we should also despair that the world's most talented engineers have devoted themselves to "helping more people click on ads," as founder Jeff Hammerbacher wrote. But into this desert of mimesis (for which the only cure may be aspergers) lands this work by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters, which lays out an orthogonal path for creating businesses that transform markets, countries, and even the human experience.
On first picking up the book it may feel like a light read--perhaps personal stories and rambles like Ben Horowitz's The Hard Thing about Hard Things (which I read in forty minutes). I was mistaken. Each 20 page chapter covers sociology, business theory, global macro economics, history, and Peter's hallmark synthesis: historical pessimism meets prophetic optimism. Each chapter feels like its own book--delivered to the reader in a form so concentrated as to induce an intellectual oversaturation.
As a founder myself, I found the most provocative section to be about the purpose of startups. They write, "A startup is the largest group of people you can convince of a plan to build a different future. A new company's most important strength is new thinking: even more important than nimbleness, small size affords space to think." In our age of mimesis--mere shallow mimicry--Peter calls us to build what I'd call a cult--a small group of believers who, together, can literally usher in a new future. That is an invitation I am excited to accept--and one I hope you will accept as well.
Why isn't there innovation in government? Meet two entrepreneurs who wanted to help the U.S. Postal Service digitize mail. Some local postmasters liked it. Washington didn't.
In my mailbox several days ago was a bill from Time Warner Cable, a West Elm furniture catalog, a coupon for a cleaning service and letters for three previous tenants who moved out years ago. The only piece of mail I didn't throw away or put back in the box with a passive-aggressive note for the postman was the New Yorker.
Like many Americans, I have developed a careful strategy for dealing with the U.S. Postal Service: Use UPS or FedEx whenever possible. A few years ago, Evan Baehr and Will Davis decided to do something moderately more productive: They founded Outbox, a company with a digital solution to simplify—or eliminate—mailboxes across the country.Read More
Recently I had the privilege of spending some time with Glenn Beck over what was a rather epic dinner party, covering topics including life extension, overcoming addiction, and whether or not The Blaze would exist in heaven.
During this visit Glenn gave a very special tour of some of his most prized artifacts and their stories. The picture above is the original map for Disney World, hand illustrated by Walt Disney himself the weekend before he went to pitch his business. Glenn’s deep admiration for and inspiration from Walt Disney comes from what most people today think of as the lamest of the parks: EPCOT. It turns out that Walt had a profound vision for the future and envisioned a place where those visions would be created, shared, and realized. Unfortunately this vision was never realized at EPCOT—and that is where Beck hopes to step in to build the community that never was: a community to celebrate and realize what can be.
Testimony prepared by my cofounder Will Davis to deliver before the House Oversight Committee on May 22, 2014.
Over the past two years, my cofounder, Evan Baehr, and I led a team of extraordinary individuals who each took on incredible personal and financial sacrifices to launch Outbox, an innovative approach to postal mail. We had the support of world-class investors – the same early backers of Twitter, Facebook, SpaceX, and Tesla – who risked millions of dollars to fund our operations.
I assert this to highlight that there are smart and talented individuals who care deeply about our country and the problems we face as a nation. These innovators are smart, passionate, and have already brought about tremendous societal change through new technologies and business models. Yet while their advancements have benefited every person in this committee room, they are too often left out of the governing process.Read More
From a recent interview by Newt Gingrich of Will Davis and Evan Baehr about Outbox. Listen to full interview by clicking play on black button below.
Through our experience and watching that of hundreds of people around the country we learned that with little capital and a really small team you have a chance to validate a good or service that can delight millions of people and literally transform an industry, like Uber or Lyft with transportation or AirBNB with housing. This democratizing of innovation has been enabled by many things; a prime example is cloud computing, which lets two web developers spin up servers to support hundreds of millions of customers. This democratization lets more people more easily pursue innovation.
In the Outbox scenario we wanted to solve a big public problem that obviously has a relationship to the government. And through our experience we learned that there is no Amazon Web Services for public policy. Working with government requires millions of dollars and years of effort. Forging this requires time and money--two assets of which startups have none.
We're back at it again--working to build another disruptive company in a highly regulated space. Alongside this our hope is that more young people who, five years ago, may have wanted to go to law school, run for office, or work at a think tank, would set out instead to create private businesses that can delight customers in a way that improves the services that government has delivered poorly on or stood in the way of.
In launching a venture in a totally new space I have had to ask a lot of stupid questions lately. Early on I felt embarrassed; I thought: they won’t take me seriously; they will expect me to already know; they’ll think I am not smart. But recently I’ve had a change of heart on this and developed a confidence to ask more stupid questions.
By stupid questions I mean ones that have known answers that I might be expected to already know. Someone throws out an acronym and I have a blank stare and ask: what does that mean? Ten seconds on google would return the basic answer. To some, this is a stupid question—you might even say an “ignorant question.”
My change of heart came from developing a right view of “ignorance,” which I see as a "known lack of understanding." For example, "I am ignorant of online payment protocols" means I have not spent time coming to understand them.
I am on a lifelong quest as a learner—it excites and challenges me. This passion comes from inspiration from Charles Eams, about whom this was written, "Sell your expertise and you have a limited repertoire. Sell your ignorance and you have an unlimited repertoire. He was selling his ignorance and his desire to learn about a subject. The journey of not knowing to knowing was his work.”
Traveling on a journey of not knowing used to be one of my greatest fears—I had an idol of wanting to appear to be "in the know." Now I realize that was a wrong view of knowledge—and a wrong view of myself. Along this process I committed something even worse: pretending to know, an offense widely committed that carries huge costs: you undermine the intellectual integrity of the conversation by not knowing what is being said, you deceive others about yourself, and, worst of all, you fail to learn.
I now have the courage to “sell my ignorance” and travel with excitement and courage along a journey of not knowing. If you have not already, I hope you, too, may find that courage.
A very common time management approach today goes something like this: "only answer emails from the 'most important' people that can help you advance your agenda. And only write people or meet with people when you have a specific ask. Similarly, expect the same from others. In sum, don't waste people's time and don't let others waste yours." I assert this because this is exactly what a Silicon Valley billionaire told me.
Two years ago I responded to an intriguing email from a current student of my alma matter. He wanted some advance, but we had basically nothing in common. Fortunately, I was starting to believe in the beauty of "random," "unexpected," and possible "unfocused" meetings. And that was one of them. We talked for an hour about such a huge range of topics about life, law, tech, doctoral programs--the entire gamut.
Recently I got to spend an hour with this really interesting person who wanted something pretty simple--some advice about figuring out what he was passionate about. We walked and talked; we came up with an action plan how to meet the right people and learn the right things; and I made some introductions for him.
Well, he's not figured out exactly what is next, but he's decided to do something radical in his career and dive into technology. He emailed me to say:
This all has been possible because you answered the emails of a total stranger -- who was really confused a few years back on how to pursue his passion.
This kind of fruit most often happens from random encounters--from connecting with people who don't exactly score highly on your "why am I meeting with you meter." But this encounter proved so encouraging to me--that investing in those who can give you nothing back is truly the most rewarding--and may have a role in helping him find his calling.
Would you join me in taking random meetings? I promise it can change your life.
Building an early stage startup is emotionally turbulent. The daily highs and lows are severe--the psychological amplitude includes soaring moments of excitement and deep valleys of darkness. Scott Cannon, cofounder of app Mailbox (acquired by Dropbox), recently shared a helpful visual representation of this process with me.
In the beginning we start optimistic but uninformed--we are passionate, energetic, excited to be pursuing a new idea, yet naive. As Donald Rumsfeld describes, we don't even know the "unknown unknowns." We have figured out only a few things (the known knowns), may have identified what is next up to figure out (the known unknowns), but largely suffer from not even knowing what we don't know yet (the unknown unknowns). Next in our progression we start to encounter pesky "facts" or "feedback"--our product is actually illegal, not a single person will pay us for it, three companies already launched it, etc. This leads us to the state of informed pessimism.
A real test of an entrepreneur is how he reacts at this point: does informed pessimism lead to determined curiosity and perseverance? or does it lead to despair or finality of the idea? There is actually no right answer here: in some situations the right answer at this moment is to say: I collected the right data to learn that my hypothesis was, in fact, negated and given this I will now stop investigating this idea, product, company, etc.
To generalize, however, too many people give up at the moment of informed pessimism--and the truly successful entrepreneur knows how to endure this very tough time of pessimism and pull through to above the x-axis to return to informed optimism.
My first goal as an entrepreneur is to become an informed pessimist as fast as possible--I want to know every reason why my idea is absolutely terrible. Then my second goal is to use every tool I can possibly find to collect information to become an optimist again.
How have you managed to turn this corner and become an optimist again?
Amid unprecedented population, housing, real estate, and startup growth, Austin is in an exciting time for early stage venture capital. Old firms are hemorrhaging. New firms are being founded. From dozens of conversations over the last few years, here are my picks for the people that will redefine this industry by 2020. No question each of these awesome people will help make Austin the best city in which to build a startup.
Josh Baer (@joshbaer) & Bill Boebel (@billboebel) : I group this dynamic duo together as cofounders of Capital Factory, the definitive end all and be all of co-working, collaboration, and startup communities in Austin. It is the go-to space for events, startups, and (increasingly) angel investors. Josh and Bill are both successful serial entrepreneurs, angel investors, and some of the most generous guys in town. Few things will happen in this town without the involvement and support of these guys.
Brian Smith (LinkedIn)- UT finance grad who navigated the elite echelons of private equity at the legendary Greenhill and Tiger investment fund. He jumped to join Bazaar Voice two years ago for what everyone knows was quite the ride. For his age, Brian has done more corporate finance work than anyone else I know in Austin—with higher stakes and more ups and downs. His experience prepares him to lead (or invest in) the fasting growing tech companies in town.
Walt Roloson (@wroloson / LinkedIn) - UT grad who navigated the elite echelons of private equity at the legendary Greenhill and Tiger. Wait, is this Brian? Nope, his alter ego and CS major Walt Roloson. After Tiger, Walt helped lead business operations at LinkedIn in San Francisco. Now back in Austin at Impossible Labs working on a stealth venture with a well financed and very smart team. Walt is a rare breed of a developer with great product savvy who does DCFs in his sleep - for fun.
Evan Loomis (LinkedIn) - a native Austinite, Evan logged years on Wall Street and later as cofounder of TreeHouse, the Whole Foods version of Home Depot, understanding and growing businesses of all sizes. After building a nationwide angel investing network, he’s recently invested deeply in helping build the investor base in Austin. With a deep network of family offices around the country, Evan’s able to bridge traditional investors to exciting, early stage deals. Like no one else I’ve met, Evan is truly in it for long term relationships—and that depth of authenticity is there from your first encounter.
Jeff Harbach (@jeffharbach / LinkedIn) - on first meeting, it’s hard to know if you’d prefer Jeff to be your cofounder, school teacher to your kids, tennis coach, or board member. His generosity is only matched by his curiosity—making a great combo. Jeff is deeply embedded in the Austin tech ecosystem, a McCombs MBA and former head of the Central Texas Angel Network. He’s at the forefront of new fund formation in town and has everything needed to nail it.
Eric Garcia (LinkedIn) - Eric is another just great guy: incredibly generous of spirit, very savvy in advising companies, and just the kind of guy you want to spent time with. Eric remains rather low profile in Austin, from which he runs Harvest Growth Capital, after a stint at Austin Ventures. His thoughtfulness and generosity earns his way into many high growth, pre-IPO companies in San Francisco and New York. As more high growth, Series B and later companies emerge in Austin, Eric has the LP’s to fund them.
Josh Jones Dilworth (@joshdilworth / LinkedIn) - From slick digs above Houndstooth coffee and Uchico, Josh and his team craft and share compelling narratives for some of the most important companies in the country. Josh is the ultimate curator of things that matter in Austin—stories worth telling. With the hustle of a Baltimore youth, urbanity of an NYU grad, glasses of a film producer, and savvy of the best of Madison Ave, Josh makes things matter.
Pat Noonan (@lpnoonan / LinkedIn) - a Harvard College and Stanford MBA finance guy bottled up in quantified-self meets teddy bear. This guy is awesome. Approaching nearly a decade of investing experience, Pat brings the experience of a big fund wit the hustle of the investor everyone wants to work with. With deep ties to Stanford, San Francisco, and Boston, extensive deal experience, and a network to boot, Pat is well poised to launch his own fund.
Blair Silverberg (LinkedIn) - Austin’s own Westlake High School grad Blair Silverberg is currently at historic VC fund Draper Fisher Jurvetson in San Francisco. He’s a Stanford engineer, holds a patent on telescoping snow shoes, and founded his own consumer internet startup. He’s learning “how the big boys do it” but my bet is that he’ll return to Austin--bringing some Sand Hill Road magic back with him.
John Komkov (LinkedIn) - it is rumored that John has the intellectual output of 10 Stanford grads - and I think it’s true. An Austin native, John was Stanford college, in town at Austin Ventures, and is now back at Stanford for an MBA. This town should start a movement to draft John back. Especially refreshing about John is his long term view on Austin’s strategic assets as a city and ecosystem; it’s not about bringing Silicon Valley here, it’s about capitalizing (literally) our strengths. I may actually use John’s return to mark my official declaration that “Austin has made it.”
Who would you add to this list?
About the author: Evan Baehr would be a VC but spent his money on Torchy's tacos and diapers for his 18 month old. Recently he opened people's mail at Outbox and is currently working on a stealth venture. He's currently writing a book (with Evan Loomis) about early stage startups, story telling, and raising venture capital. Learn more here.
In my short time as an entrepreneur so far, I have been amazed by the reality that ideas don't actually matter that much; it's all about the execution.
A false view of the world holds that companies launch with a "big idea," raise money, build a team, roll out stages of that product, and begin marketing and gaining traction.
Right thinking holds that ideas are commonplace and their execution requires millions of combinations of dozens of factors until there is a fit--between founders, investors, product, and customers. That fit is something I have run toward but failed to find. However, little moments of traction along that sprint at least gave me the taste of what fit--traction--alignment--even shalom--can feel like. That alignment begins with an idea but must align the next 4,999 things on top of it. This is entrepreneurship.
Consider these wise words from Steve Job's--a passage dear to my friend and cofounder Will Davis.
You know, one of the things that really hurt Apple was after I left John Sculley got a very serious disease. It’s the disease of thinking that a really great idea is 90% of the work. And if you just tell all these other people “here’s this great idea,” then of course they can go off and make it happen.
And the problem with that is that there’s just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product. And as you evolve that great idea, it changes and grows. It never comes out like it starts because you learn a lot more as you get into the subtleties of it. And you also find there are tremendous tradeoffs that you have to make. There are just certain things you can’t make electrons do. There are certain things you can’t make plastic do. Or glass do. Or factories do. Or robots do.
Designing a product is keeping five thousand things in your brain and fitting them all together in new and different ways to get what you want. And every day you discover something new that is a new problem or a new opportunity to fit these things together a little differently. And it’s that process that is the magic.
One of the greatest inventors and innovators in the last century barely went to school. Where did he find his creative inspiration? How did he devise world-changing machines? He played with toys.
Henry Ford lived a life of extraordinary impact. His company was responsible for more than 50% of the automobile production from 1911 until 1925, and along the way earned dozens of patents on everything from engines to automobile seat coverings. Yet most impressive about Ford is that he actually had no training: he had no laboratory experience, no mathematical background, and no theoretical grounding.
As Joseph Epstein writes of Ford, "What he did have was inexhaustible energy ('No work with interest is ever hard'), perseverance ('the man who has the largest capacity for work and thought is the man who is bound to succeed'), wondrous organization powers ('I never saw Mr. Ford make anything,' a blacksmith who worked for him said. 'He was always directing'), and an insatiable desire to tinker." Technically, Ford inventing nothing, but he tinkered with everything. Recalling his childhood days on his father's farm, Ford said: "My toys were all tools--they still are."
Toys, tools, and tinkering were central to Ford's life and, perhaps, the fuel of his creativity. In preparation to propose to his future wife Clara he built a special sleigh for the purpose, with steelcut wheels and cushioned shocks. As a young married man he moved to a farm so he could build by hand a sawmill. In his spare time he made a copy of the Otto engine, built a double cylinder engine he planned to mount on a bicycle, and built his own designs of steam engines. Over the coming years--1896 to 1903, he built twenty-five cars--dissatisfied with them all. Ford's life was one of relentless, creative expression and learning through curious experimentation.
In the knowledge economy, our tinkering no longer includes metal, blueprints, or physics--now it is about silicon, data, and sociology. For many of us (e.g. those who do not write software), our tinkering has been relegated to introducing a new component to our system of coordinated wireless network devices to livestream a 1080p film to a smart TV, while simultaneously posting comments to twitter, facebook, and ephemerally snapchat--in case we want to say something "crazy." This is a process we used to call: "watching a movie and talking with a friend." Our tools are mostly software and our tinkering is--usually--just about getting things to connect to each other (c.f. IFFT). Amidst a sea of apps and APIs, I am looking for some real tools--something I can touch, use, and maybe even be injured by.
When sitting with this thirst, I discovered a veritable lemonade of satisfaction for my new interest: Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools, A Catalog of Possibilities. It's origin is heartwarming: Kevin wanted to put together the ultimate box of tools for his son to take with him to college; he started with a box of a few dozen items... and years later ended up with a collection of literally thousands of items.
Kelly's inspiration came in part from teh Whole Earth Catalogs, about which Kelly writes, "
The paper books were magical. There is something very powerful at work on large pages of a book. Your brain begins to make naturally associations between tools in a way that it doesn’t on small screens. The juxtapositions of diverse items on the page prods the reader to weave relationships between them, connecting ideas that once seemed far apart. The large real estate of the page opens up the mind, making you more receptive to patterns found in related tools.
I had no idea that a catalog could pull this off--but spend an hour flipping through these pages and you'll actually be learning. When perusing Skymall my reaction is, "who would buy that?" When perusing Cool Tools my reaction is: "I had no idea! I want to try that!"
My reading and purchasing a few items from this book marks the beginning of my journey to find a few cool tools that that let me tinker, which inspires me to create, which enables me to live. Perhaps in Kelly's own foreword I find a beautiful and inspiring case for this approach: "I assembled this collection so that my three children would see a thousand other possibilities in life that are opened when you pick up a tool."
So: what tool are you going to pickup? I'm starting by picking up a pencil and learning to draw from Betty Edwards.
Over the last twenty four hours I read Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, which left me concerned that, despite degrees from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, I am on a path toward a brain that doesn’t work.
The idea. Marshall McLuhan, author of Understanding Media and partly the inspiring philosophy of Carr’s work, argues that our tools end up numbing whatever part of our body they “amplify.” The power loom left weavers without manual dexterity. The mechanical plows left farmers with no tactile understanding of soil. Carr explores the next application of this thesis: if computers and the internet are meant to amplify the brain, do they also numb it?
Previous inventions–the book and the calculator–enabled greater human understanding and materially advanced the cause of mankind, Carr argues. With the book, humans were able to communicate (write) and understand (read) across time and place, eliminating the need to obtain a rare physical copy or, even worse, find someone to recite it. With the calculator, students could stop spending hours on long division and instead devote time to calculus. But the internet is different: it enables us to outsource our brains - or at least the entire set of facts, images, and stories – to external storage. Although this outsourcing might seem efficient because it allows humans to focus on higher order thinking (e.g. combining the images, telling narratives with the facts, etc.), outsourcing actually robs us of the very act that enables us to do the higher order thinking in the first place: the neural process of committing “data” from short term memory to long term memory. While remembering things seems unnecessary and even irrational in an age of cloud storage, failing to do so actually leaves us incapable of doing anything meaningful with that memory.
Hitting home. I seek out technology for nearly everything–especially tasks related to storing and recalling data. I love that ICQ logs my full chat histories. I love that Evernote records the lectures I attend. And I love that Gmail keeps every email–forever. This gives me a sense of freedom–of insurance. I can carry on thinking about “things that matter” while leaving the storage and recall of facts to my devices. And we might image a world in which a full-time Siri listens and acts for us: in a meeting I mention making an email introduction to someone and Siri does it… or I attend a talk on transcendentalism and Siri adds the wiki article to my evernote. This technology assures me that any fact, detail, or even memory is at the tip of my fingertips. But my realization is that I am doing myself a huge disservice by not doing the hard work of committing things to memory. The concern isn’t: is evernote backed up (e.g. might I lose it)? The concern is: by digitally “storing it” have I actually “lost it”? Or perhaps if I digitally store it, I have never actually “had it”?
Getting help. Carr uncovers a gem from the sixteenth century that got me thinking. The Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus taught his students to look for “occurrences of striking words, archaic or novel diction, brilliant flashes of style, adages, examples, and pithy remarks worth memorizing” and to collect them in a notebook organized by subject. This process of transcription and memorizing was not a means of storage but rather “the first step in a process of synthesis, a process that led to a deeper and more personal understanding of one’s reading.” The Roman Seneca said it beautifully:
We should imitate bees and we should keep in separate compartments whatever we have collected from our diverse reading, for things conserved separately keep better. Then, diligently applying all the resources of our native talent, we should mingle all the various nectars we have tasted, and then turn them into a single sweet substance, in such a way that, even if it is apparent where it originated, it appears quite different from what it was in its original state.
This counsel manifested in the 17th century tradition of “commonplaces,” a scrapbook of sorts with clippings and transcribed passages, quotations, and memories. As one linguistics professor said, “a gentleman’s commonplace book” served “both as a vehicle for and chronicle of his own intellectual development.” This was not just our ancestors’ CTRL+C. Rather the act of copying and organizing the content created the mental schema that enabled understanding. On this William James went so far as to say: “the art of remembering is the art of thinking.” We might ask: if we are not remembering, are we not thinking?
Evernote is not a commonplace. I was tempted to laugh at our ancestors; after all today I can capture terabytes of data about my daily experience – an HD video camera can record 1080p and 4 channel sound, recognize every face I encounter, transcribe every word I hear, and soon enough perform tasks and research passively, without my even thinking about it. And that’s the point: today’s evernote and tomorrow’s 24/7 life capturing devices rob us of the act of remembering and, per James, the act of thinking.
The commonplace required manual transcription–a deliberate and time-intensive act that had two critical side effects. First, handwriting requires mental recitation of an idea and creates time to process the idea. Today I can “add to my evernote” and entire novel in one second. Second, the commonplace was a book with a limited number of pages, which forced prioritization of ideas–only the ones that mattered made the cut. Yet today I have no hesitation to record the audio of every lecture I attend and to save all 3,000 photos from my family vacation.
I am on a hunt for a modern commonplace–yes a book of sorts, but also a physical place and even an attitude. Amidst the tumultuous sea of tweets, RSS feeds, and email, I am searching for a way to discover, understand, and remember basic truths. The more places I visit, people I meet, and degrees I obtain, the more I appreciate the beauty and simplicity of a single idea, presented cogently. And it is these basic ideas that I am trying to bring together so that they might mingle and become a “single sweet substance.”
So, what is your commonplace? Have you committed things to memory? How did it go? Any suggestions for me?
Note: nearly all of the quotations above are from The Shallows and are not correctly attributed. I am not intending to reflect those quotations as my own research. In fact, it is clear to me now that I may not even have the capacity to do this kind of research!