New site

I’ve started to migrate this blog to my own website and my own tools.
As of end-of-year 2016, the new site seems relatively complete.

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Ego, the yoyo

What a funny, paradoxical thing, ego. I start to recognize it in places where I had not expected to see it.

A few months ago, talking with a friend about my new job, I commented how surprised I was that people very high up the company responded promptly to my emails, attended my presentations, agreed to calls or meetings. My friend asked if these signs of my high responsibility were intimidating me. I replied that they were not, which was and still is true.

Am I getting a bigger head with age? Well, maybe. But being OK with my big job title has less to do with self-confidence, and more to do with lessening my own burden. My thinking these days is that I was hired and given high responsibility by people who knew what they were doing (maybe). I’m taking the power and the freedom afforded me, and I’m doing what I think should be done. If that turns out not to meet expectations, we will know soon, and then, no worries, we can address the situation, and that could entail ending my job. So what?

I often think of a passage in Terrence Malick’s superb The Thin Red Line:

Does our ruin benefit the Earth? Does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine?

With age, I manage to look at more and more situations from a distance. When thinking about the risks involved, I ask myself if failure would stop the sun from shining.

I know many people who become completely blocked, even panicky, when faced with a challenge, be it a job interview, a race, an exam, a career move. They become panicky enough that they will drop out, cancel, self-sabotage.
The typical response these people get from friends and family is a pep talk about self-confidence, a reminder of all they’ve accomplished, of how well prepared and wonderful and smart they are.

But I’ve started to suspect that those pep talks are awfully mis-directed, and that the problem with these people is excess of ego. So what if you fail that exam? So what if you don’t finish that race? So what if you crash and burn in your new job role? People go through those things all the time, but you can’t? Perhaps you have outsized expectations of yourself. Or perhaps, even more presumptuously, you think other people have outsized expectations of you.

More often than I like, I am one of these people sabotaged by ego. I need to remind myself, again and again, that I need to be humble in order to be bold.

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Common sense and other nonsense

My hard science education has left me many sequels, some of which I like. Mostly, I’m happy it has given me a healthy skepticism of “common sense.” In science, you learn many things that shock you, and that, therefore, you would not have come up with on your own.
Someone had to do the experiments, someone had to go deep into the details, or perhaps, someone had a richer imagination than yours.

After you see your intuition challenged again and again, you learn to distrust it, in yourself as well as in others. When learning about something, I ask myself what the evidence is, how clear the foundations are, how valid the reasoning.

Many people portray themselves as moderate, reasonable, thoughtful. They often invoke common sense, or they claim to see shades of grey where “others” see only black and white. I have come to distrust this type of language, and this type of people. In my experience, appeals to common sense very often mask a lack of evidence or solid reasoning.

Those polite, civilized, moderate people, give me pause. They offer a relaxed demeanor, and dialogue over tea. But when you challenge their beliefs, they start losing their composure, or maybe they keep their manners and ask you “surely you can’t be an extremist? Are you not one of us?”

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A cursed capacity for suffering

There’s another Doctor Zhivago quote on my mind these days.
“Even Comrade Lenin underestimated both the anguish of that nine hundred mile-long front, and our cursed capacity for suffering.”
For a movie I don’t like much, it has left a big footprint. I think I need to read the book.

Returning to Madrid after 11 years abroad, I notice sadly that my compatriots suffer in a very Spanish way that combines pessimism, spinelessness and humor. It’s not just about the economic crisis. It’s workers staying long hours in the office every day. It’s the young and unattached who are still unwilling to leave for a job they don’t hate. It’s the people, allowing massive political corruption, and even voting for the same corrupt parties. It’s that old sense of inevitability taken with pride, as if it were a sign of cleverness.

These are unattractive features, to me at least. And it makes me reflect on how lucky I have been to spend my formative years living and working in the US.
I saw young people with mighty backbones even if they were at the beginning of their careers. I saw people willing to stand up to bosses, and question authority, with a strong (sometimes exaggerated) sense of their own worth.
In Spain, many people seem to grow from weak, compliant, complaining youth to either authoritarian, or resentful, “maturity”.

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with an old boss of mine – to this day, the best boss I’ve had. He has done well here; he manages a large team at a large company, and leads important projects. We talked of the good old days. In our team, back then, we had a spirit of adventure. We were excited, we were always going beyond the call of duty. We were a real team.
His teams now, he told me, just don’t have that spark. I don’t think it’s misty nostalgia speaking; I think it’s a sign of the country and the times.

Spain is in the middle of an election year, and there is great political turmoil. Not enough, if you ask me, but this turmoil is warranted, in a country that has been brought to its knees. I don’t know what the outcome will be, and I fear that not enough will change.
But it comforts me to know that there are large groups of people here who are not content to stare at the ground while they suffer and complain in private.

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Subtle reasons

I’m not a big fan of David Lean’s “Doctor Zhivago”. It does contain, however, a line I love: “He approved of us, but for reasons which were subtle, like his verse.”

I don’t think one needs to be a poet, nor a Zhivago, for subtlety. Depth of knowledge, routine use, a long history, all lead to subtle reasons and preferences.

Every now and then I’m asked about my experience living in different cities. How was living in the US? Seattle vs. New York? Are Luxembourgish people rigid and cold? Did I experience cultural shock when I came back to Spain? My vague answers tend to frustrate some people. I can only offer anecdotes here and there, and I can only justify preferences with back stories. It’s funny to find people who ask big questions and expect them to be answered with a neat little sentence.

I’m coming to hate the spirit behind “hands down” and “all the way”. Luckily, I’m not at all alone in this. I catch up with old friends, and note happily that they don’t expect clean recipes from me. They, too, take me on back stories to explain their choices. I love those stories.

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More and more, I am convinced that narrative is the best way to learn, design, carry out. More and more, I reject books or articles that present information statically, as if it were final, as if there were nowhere to go.

In this brief talk, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, idols of mine and creators of South Park, explain how to tell a good story:

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Lies, damn lies

It’s not news that there are lots of lies in the news. It doesn’t just come from politicians, nor just from journalists manipulating facts.
We live in a world that has vast quantities of research and knowledge, but where everyone wants to fit complex knowledge into bite-sized pills. No room for accuracy or subtlety.

An example: I’ve been following debates in the Spanish media after the rise of left-wing party Podemos. In one debate, its leader defended an increase of the minimum wage. Several of the journalists in the debate protested: “You know, of course, that that will lead to increased unemployment!”. And of course, that’s common sense, right? If the owner of a bar needs to pay more to his employees, he will employ fewer people.
But, from the Wikipedia page for minimum wage:

“A study of U.S. states showed that businesses’ annual and average payrolls grow faster and employment grew at a faster rate in states with a minimum wage.[121] The study showed a correlation, but did not claim to prove causation.”

There are studies, and economists, who favor either side of the debate. Simplifying the matter more than that is lying.

But it’s not just the press or politics. It’s pervasive. Average people lie all the time by stripping detail from their words.

“I love my job” is toxic. It creates a climate in which people who are not gung-ho are frowned upon with suspicion by their managers. It creates feelings of guilt in people who don’t identify.
When I worked at Amazon, I was declared “dangerous”. I had advised a young intern, on a Friday afternoon, to take the train, go to his thesis defense at university on Saturday, celebrate, and forget about work until Monday. The project he was single-handedly working on had become high-profile overnight, and his senior manager had made some promises for the following week to the big-wigs. The manager had told him, half in jest, that he should do “whatever it takes”, even knowing about the thesis defense over the weekend. It was at this point that the intern came to me for advice, and I told him that a weekend spent without sleeping, risking his thesis, worried sick, high on caffeine, was not worth it, for him, and that he owed no allegiance beyond what was on his contract. This came up in my performance review. I was perceived as “too cool for school”, a rebel. Still, since I had done well  in my project, it was left as a comment on character.

“I feel awesome thanks to [running, Crossfit, yoga …]” is also a lie, because detail is missing. No mention is made of the plenty of times where those people don’t feel awesome. My colleagues in my last job were in awe of me for my regular running schedule, and my preparations for marathons. “You are so healthy”, they’d say, and then they’d react with discomfort when I told them I suffer from a chronic intestinal disease diagnosed in 2005, and need to take medicines daily.

As I age, I’m becoming more radical, not more moderate, which I thought was supposed to happen. I reject affirmations as lies even if they are in the vicinity of truth. I can be a stickler, too technical for most. Still, I think that “near truths” have a potential to enslave us, just as lies do.

The truth. It’s all about freedom, you know, man?

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