Indies, Institutions and the Wanderer's Cafe
There are two types of thinking. Neither is wrong. Yet, each exerts different forces onto the world. Each responds differently to change.
First, we have institutional thinking.
Institutional thinking begins with taking a map from the shelf of maps that the world gives you. Maybe your map is “becoming a scientist” or the map is “becoming an architect”. Kids are nudged into this way of thinking when they are asked when they are young: what would you like to be? That question is actually translated as: the world has these maps available for you, and no other maps. Which map would you like to pick and follow from now on?
In a world that is predictable, these maps tend to work. It’s not a bad way to think. You follow a path and you get to an outcome with relatively low risk.
You take the map, you figure out where you want to go on that map and you chart your course. You achieve things in the current paradigm.
So you start off at point A and pick one of the points B that you see on the horizon. You set out a five year plan with milestones along the way. You tick off those milestones towards a beautiful culmination when you reach to point B.
Maybe in going there, you encounter a mountain in the way. But you persevere and achieve great things through this perseverance despite of the challenges. You tell to yourself the obstacle is the way. You climb mountains for the sheer pleasure of climbing. You probably read a lot of stoic literature and see the world as it is, in its pure rawness. But despite that rawness, you achieve great things.
Maybe instead of persevering, you explore a bit at the start. You question whether the first route you took is the right one. Maybe you found another route around the mountain to point B. Through your exploration, you have expanded your map meaning that you did not need to persevere this hard. You are an explorer, who likes to diverge towards the goal. You find the paths others did not take and get to point B faster. You file a patent for the new route and the world rewards you for discovering a faster way to get to B.
Or maybe you are an innovator. You see the the mountain as an obstacle that can be achieved with improved technology. You don’t start climbing. You don’t even explore. But you sit quietly while others persevere and explore and you build a plane. After everyone is exhausted from exploring and from climbing, you fire up the plane and go over the mountain.
When you are in a paradigm that is new and fertile, you need these type of thinkers. The paradigm has just been discovered. There are new maps of the world on the shelf which reveal so many challenges ahead. Christopher Columbus gave the world a new paradigm - a new continent and the discovery of the very idea of discovery. With this, he started the Age of Discovery by giving the world a map - of the globe - and a conceptual map of the very nature of knowledge.
With those two maps, people picked their favourite weapons: perseverance, exploration or innovation, to get to the newly revealed points B.
Once America was explored, the useful points B dried up. People who tired to reach a point B on that map faced increasing challenge.
This is our world right now.
Our maps, the ones we got so nicely from the shelf when we were kids can no longer help us navigate the waters that we are facing right now. We are entering new paradigms defined by pandemics, climate change, software and AI. All of these are shards of new maps ready to piece together and explore. These paradigms are creating jobs that did not exist 10 years ago and are slowly displacing the old ways of thinking with new ones.
Here’s a litmus test: the current paradigm is stale when you need to put a huge amount of effort to simply get to the same starting point. Basically - the gripe of the young generation.
In this time of shifting paradigms we need a new kind of thinking.
I call this indie thinking.
Indie thinking thrives on flying blind. Indie thinkers are, at core improvisational. They are the artists, the creators, the scientists - those who don’t only want to achieve a goal but to find completely new goals to pursue. Einstein was an indie thinker. Feynman was an indie thinker.
What unites indie thinkers is that they thrive in mess and chaos and refactor that chaos into something beautiful.
As an indie thinker, you see the mess not as something that needs controlling, but a playground of possibilities. You are not necessarily disorganised, but you go through phases of routine and execution and chaos and disorder. You can tick tasks of a checklist, but it’s not the most natural thing to you. You are always on the lookout for the next thing. You are driven by curiosity and creativity rather than a penchant for rules and regulation.
The pandemic has shown us how indie thinking is powerful - one of the best indie thinkers out there, Zeynep Tufekci was consistently ahead of the curve. In Kasparov versus the World, indie thinkers coordinating through a forum matched Gary Kasparov at his best. The Polymath Project showed how indie thinkers could come together and solve a maths problem. And the Good Judgement Project showed how indie thinkers are better at predicting the future as institutions.
Time and time again - a loose network of indie thinkers are better at navigating today’s world than large institutions. And it makes sense. Indie thinkers are masters of flying blind, while institutions rely on outdated maps.
A key word here is network. Indie thinkers thrive when connected through the power of communication at the speed of the internet.
I am moderately certain that, in order to solve the challenges that we have today we need to nurture indies in a way that is systematic and caring. We don’t just need venture capital. We need venture nourishment.
You see, the indies who think deepest are likely going to be the ones who are the shyest to raise their voice, to speak their crazy ideas. What if they are wrong? They are the master critics of their own beautiful ideas. But those are exactly the ideas that we need most - the crazy ideas from those who have likely criticised those ideas 100 times in their head.
I mean systematic, because the goal is not only to just have very different thoughts. But to have very different thoughts which stand a chance of being right. Ray Dalio’s Principles is the map for the mapmaker - how to fly blind while still having a chance to succeed by trying things out and formalising what you have found out as a set of principles with which you operate. You experiment and synthesise the experimentation into sharable wisdom. My use of map correlates with Ray’s use of principles.
This post in itself is a sort of loosely sketched back of the envelope map for the mapmaker.
I also mean caring because indie thinking is fragile. By definition, indie thinking looks crazy in the current paradigm since it looks for points on maps that don’t yet exist. The intuition of the institutional thinker is to dismiss this as “you can’t go there - it’s not on the map”. To dismiss the indie thinker as crazy. Further, indie thinkers themselves can sometimes be their own harshest critics.
But, you see, the best indie thinker has already started to piece together another map that sees the other point as a valid place to go. The institutional thinker can either dismiss the thought and cling on to their map, or they can be curious and edit their map.
Ray Dalio calls this radical open mindedness. You don’t dismiss a fellow sailor. You ask them for their part of the map.
Interestingly, indie thinking and institutional thinking both exist in our heads. Some people call is growth mindset versus fixed mindset. The belief that the maps you have been handed down as a kid are the right maps, or that there are new maps that can exist in this world. Our own institutional brain can sometimes be the harshest critic of our indie brain.
Also interestingly, there is a whole industry whose whole raison d’etre is to give people reasons to rationalise why their map is the right map and is the only map that is always going to be right. This is basically the opinion section of every newspaper which all reads as “here are all the reasons you are right, have always been right, and you will always be right”. Cue confirmation bias and endemic conflict. Cue people shouting at each other “my map is the One True Map”. “No, my map is the One True Map”.
The map is not the territory and we all have to edit our maps to move forward in this world. If I had a billboard, I’d probably stick this sentence on it.
Instead of dismissing an indie thought, once can nurture it in a caring and systematic kind of way. Not all indies are adept at making maps. I can feel my own journey going from “a chaotic jumble of loosely connected thoughts” to “hey, this is actually starting to make sense”. This happened as I started to piece together maps of what I saw from my vantage point of the world.
This is the essence of caring. Starting to piece together these maps and puzzle pieces and in the process realise - hey, there is actually another point C that we did not see. There is a whole other thing out there and now I actually have a word for that thing.
To care is to nurture the thought in a way that leads indies to start piecing together a map of what they see from their vantage point of the world. And then starting to piece together those maps to start to realise - hey - there actually is another point C over there that we did not see. There is a whole other thing that there is in the world.
So - venture nourishment for indie thoughts needs to be systematic and caring. How do we do this?
Here’s a low confidence take, a very loose sketch. I’m putting it out there for the nuggets of half-truth that it might contain.
Start with a collective of people who nurture each other and stitch each others’ maps into a beautiful tapestry of thought. The collective can hand over the maps to explorers and wanderers who are looking for new goals to achieve, for rich perspective and a glimpse of free thinking.
People who lean towards institutional thinking need indie thinking to make a map. Indie thinkers need institutional thinkers to actually go to those new places.
Sometimes these two modes are in the same mind. Sometimes, they are multiple people. But, if we want to get anywhere like point C, institutionals and indies need to actually work together. Both with the conflicting parts of our personalities and with people who think differently.
Resolve conflict in a generative way that leads to everyone playing to their strengths. Resolve conflict by moving a level up the hierarchy of abstraction and recognising there is a higher-level framework that includes both things that are in conflict. Both inside our minds and bewteen each other.
So here we are. Indies and institutions. Venture nourishment. And a loose playbook.
The pandemic has completely blown our maps out of the air. Everyone during the pandemic was flying blind, and got a taste of indie thinking.
Once we reset, there will be a choice facing us.
We could retreat hard, back into institutional life. Cling even harder to existing maps. I’m sure many will do so, unfamiliar and unused to the reality of ever-changing maps. When someone thinks there is a One True Map ™️, they can only retreat back into institutional life and cling on ever harder.
Others will start building new maps by flying blind for a while. Some will go full indie by flying blind in all areas of life (like, digital nomads). Others, fly blind in some specific parts of their lives, expressing their indie thinking as side-projects to their side-projects. Which one we chose depends on circumstances and of personality. There is no One True Right Answer ™️.
But at least I’ve tried to give a sketch. Some parts of this sketch will be wrong. But I think the general contours are starting to be right.
Let me end with a story of the future.
What I am fairly certain is that the this decade will see many beautiful maps emerging, with many more point C-s that we can achieve. More and more people will start to fly blind. They will share puzzle pieces at the speed of the internet as they build their maps.
Some of us have seen a glimpse of a new world of possibilities. Once you’ve seen it, it changes your world forever.
See - we don’t yet know whether the America of thought awaits us out there. But at least we know the direction to set sail in. Plus, we believe that, if we do so, we will find something out there.
Columbus sailed to find India. Instead, he found a new continent.
And many of us will set sail. Especially the younger generations. They will start taking seriously the little glimpses they saw during the pandemic.
New land, new potential, new ideas, abundance of possibilities.
So we set sail.
Some of us will pilot ships. Some of us will load the docks. Some of us will simply cheer the sailors away.
And maybe some of us will open up a little cafe at the docks welcoming weary travellers.
That cafes will look small at the start.
But they will be the engines of innovation of the new generation. Like London’s Cafes during the Enlightenment, they will spark new ideas, new projects and new institutions. They will be the place where wanderers can compare maps and start stitching them together.
With this, I welcome you to the Wanderer’s Cafe.
Right now, the only thing we serve is this newsletter posted on a door in the cloud. Vicetone’s Nevada is playing in the background.
If we open, we will let you in. With warmth and with kindness, we will stitch maps together from all the pieces of the puzzle that we have discovered during the pandemic.
No one knows what will come out. But I’m fairly certain it’s going to be wonderful.
PS: If you like the idea please like the post or leave a small comment!
In the meantime, here’s some major intellectual inspirations for this piece.
Going from A to C was inspired by Living organisms can’t live in their own waste products and Why truly innovative science demands a leap into the unknown.
Feynman’s indie thinking is perfectly reflected in this story from Surely You’re not Joking Mr Feynman
MIT had built a new cyclotron while I was a student there, and it was just beautiful! The cyclotron itself was in one room, with the controls in another room. It was beautifully engineered. The wires ran from the control room to the cyclotron underneath in conduits, and there was a whole console of buttons and meters. It was what I would call a gold-plated cyclotron.
Now I had read a lot of papers on cyclotron experiments, and there weren’t many from MIT. Maybe they were just starting. But there were lots of results from places like Cornell, and Berkeley, and above all, Princeton. Therefore what I really wanted to see, what I was looking forward to, was the PRINCETON CYCLOTRON. That must be something!
So first thing on Monday, I go into the physics building and ask, “Where is the cyclotron–which building?”
“It’s downstairs, in the basement–at the end of the hall.”
In the basement? It was an old building. There was no room in the basement for a cyclotron. I walked down to the end of the hall, went through the door, and in ten seconds I learned why Princeton was right for me – the best place for me to go to school. In this room there were wires strung all over the place! Switches were hanging from the wires, cooling water was dripping from the valves, the room was full of stuff, all out in the open. Tables piled with tools were everywhere; it was the most godawful mess you ever saw. The whole cyclotron was there in one room, and it was complete, absolute chaos!”
It reminded me of my lab at home. Nothing at MIT had ever reminded me of my lab at home. I suddenly realized why Princeton was getting results. They were working with the instrument. They built the instrument; they knew where everything was, they knew how everything worked, there was no engineer involved, except maybe he was working there too. It was much smaller than the cyclotron at MIT, and “gold-plated”?–it was the exact opposite. When they wanted to fix a vacuum, they’d drip glyptal on it, so there were drops of glyptal on the floor. It was wonderful! Because they worked with it. They didn’t have to sit in another room and push buttons! (Incidentally, they had a fire in that room, because of all the chaotic mess that they had–too many wires–and it destroyed the cyclotron. But I’d better not tell about that!)
(When I got to Cornell I went to look at the cyclotron there. This cyclotron hardly required a room: It was about a yard across – the diameter of the whole thing. It was the world’s smallest cyclotron, but they had got fantastic results. They had all kinds of special techniques and tricks. If they wanted to change something in the “D’s” – the D-shaped half circles that the particles go around – they’d take a screwdriver, and remove the D’s by hand, fix them, and put them back. At Princeton it was a lot harder, and at MIT you had to take a crane that came rolling across the ceiling, lower the hooks, and it was a hellllll of a job.)”