If there’s anything everyone can agree on, it’s that we often miss the nuances of things. Politics, social issues, momentum investing. It seems very black and white, all or nothing. And that’s not entirely a new thing—but it concerns me when it gets applied to individuals who we either lionize or vilify. In a world that’s increasingly complex, we should be increasingly nuanced. Instead, it often seems like we’re becoming less nuanced.
“You should never meet your heroes” is an adage that’s been around for quite a while. But it should go further.
In the film world, some of the most creative auteurs are huge assholes. They treat people like shit. In fact, it can go well beyond that as some of the #metoo saga has shown. It’s true in the classical music world, in the arts (painting, sculpture), and probably in every field. Gandhi, who brought freedom from tyranny to hundreds of millions of people and inspired MLK, participated in freakish experimentation in sexual stoicism.
In tech, the concept of heroes has long been a problem. Of course, there are amazing individuals who are pushing the world forward by being creative, bold, enterprising… by being geniuses in their field. The problem, though, is that we conflate capability or achievement in one sphere with everything else, including being a good person, a good human being, or someone who’s smart about everything else, like the arts. Why do we care what an accomplished CEO or investor thinks about all these other areas that they have nothing to do with? And more importantly, why do we give them the credence of a demigod?
It’s a truism that we only see a sliver of these people’s lives, and often, it’s the sliver they deliberately want us to see. If someone has the image of being infallible, that’s fiction. No one is flawless.
Whatever goes on a pedestal must come off. At minimum, it’s going to come down for cleaning. No pedestal is permanent. Putting people on pedestals doesn’t serve us, and it also doesn’t serve them, because it only makes things worse when they come crashing down.
There are so many smart people in the world. Some of the smartest people I’ve worked with are not even on social media. So they can’t become heroes in a world where followers, controversial hot takes, fragile egos, and pithy one-liners rule the world. My heroes are those who I know well, the people who I respect for their ethics and how they live their lives, not just their public accomplishments. But even then, I try to think of them as heroes in one sphere—in one part of life that I’m aware of.
My friend Sanjay Subrahmanyan is one of the top classical vocalists of India. Before Covid, he regularly performed at South India’s equivalent of Lincoln Center, for crowds of almost 2,000. After countless delayed and cancelled concerts, Sanjay eventually decided to go rogue. In January 2021, he launched a YouTube channel membership—a direct-to-consumer plan.
I thought this was a fascinating move, especially for someone whose audience consists predominantly of Baby Boomers, in the relatively conservative industry of Carnatic music
Sanjay described the change to me like this:
“In the past, the Music Academy and 10-15 other organizations would come together to produce one huge music festival. It’s a 30-day extravaganza with 5 concerts per venue per day. This was like being one flower in a bouquet. People are used to paying for the bouquet. Now, I’m asking them to pay for just one flower.”
Sanjay has three tiers of subscribers, using YouTube memberships. The basic tier is free, and everyone receives access to hundreds of archived recordings that Sanjay and his wife Aarthi have been collecting since the early 2000s. There are thousands of hours of these, and he releases more regularly. The second tier ($1 per month) gets a preview of the new uploads before they’re released to everyone else. The top tier ($10 per month) gets a brand-new concert every month, released to them exclusively. Sanjay gets together his accompanists, heads to a recording studio with a video and audio team, and performs and records a 90 minute concert each month.
Before the pandemic, the online world and business was a hobby for him. From discovering usenets in 1995 on a trip to the US to releasing songs on mp3s in the late nineties, he’s been personally fascinated with using and discovering new technology and exploring what was out there for his profession. But he considers it just dabbling. He never looked at online as a full-time business proposition because he was busy performing 50 to 60 concerts a year, all through inbound invitations. He was an early user of Gumroad and had also been releasing albums on Spotify and making a lot of his performances free on YouTube.
“But over the last three or four years,” Sanjay told me, “I realized the trend was more toward video: people want to see you, especially during the pandemic. I picked YouTube partly for that reason, and partly because it was very simple for subscribers. Most of my fans are in their 60s, so they need something simpler than Patreon or Gumroad. That’s why I use YouTube, even though their cut is 30%.”
A few takeaways from this:
First, ease is important; fans will be more open to paying if it’s really easy for them to sign up and access their stuff, so a platform where they already spend time has an added benefit.
Second, existing networks compound; YouTube is a compounding engine for Sanjay’s subscriber base. He has ~30,000 basic subscribers on YouTube. Converting a few of these people to paying subscribers and providing the rest with fresh content will reap dividends over time.
Third, it’s so important to keep a record of everything, so you have plenty of content to share and choose from. For a performer, it’s obvious how to do so – record everything. But for a visual artist, don’t discard “work in process” or little day-to-day projects. For a writer, even snippets that show how you work can be valuable. It’s not a big, fully wrapped deliverable, but it’s work you still created.
Sanjay realized that he had to share his performances with his audiences to stay relevant. He also realized he deeply missed performing. Performers have to perform!
To go from singing 60 concerts a year—which included planning and preparing, coordinating with accompanists, experiencing the joy of the performance and the gratitude of having an audience appreciate it—down to zero concerts in three months is very hard for someone who performs at the highest levels. And to lose a year of performance revenue in his prime was not easy. But it was a forcing function that made him take the leap into developing a direct relationship with his audience.
Sanjay has had to evolve from a performer focused on his craft to someone who has to focus on the business side of the equation. To use his creativity and apply it to areas like logistics and business operations, to marketing and branding.
This has unlocked new forms of creativity for him. While he’s primarily a performer of existing compositions, he has on occasion arranged new compositions. But these were all still vocal arrangements that were delivered during live concerts. In the past couple of months, he’s explored how to use video more creatively. He recently created a new arrangement of a beautiful poem called “Tamizhan endroru inamundu,” which means “Tamilians are a tribe.” His collaborators filmed it and developed a visual treatment for the poem.
For creators, will the hybrid model will become the default? Will more artists go rogue like Sanjay? Who are the kinds of creators who will be able to do this? Sanjay is typically a performer of music that other people have composed, so it’s been a relatively low-lift for him to produce new content. What about filmmakers, who have to bring a much bigger team together with (almost always) a bigger expenditure/budget? What about writers or composers, where each piece may take months and many drafts before it’s ready to share?
The “creator” economy is a very broad term that covers creators who are so different from each other in terms of frequency of creation, complexity of creation, ability to share work in progress, and so many other dimensions. It’s in the nuance of the differences that opportunities exist for both creators and for the tech solutions that serve them. Where will we go next?
We’ve all been thinking about it: how the pandemic has affected us, which of the changes we’ve experienced will become permanent, and which old ways we will embrace (literally and figuratively) with open arms.
To get another point of view, I read Apollo’s Arrow by Nicholas A. Christakis, a physician and sociologist at Yale. The book covers the first six months of the pandemic, before viable vaccine candidates emerged. It traces the history of prior pandemics and was a useful read to help inform what may come next.
I ended up with a lot of questions.
The Government and self-reliance Many of us thought the federal government (most of the time, but especially from 2016-2020) and state governments are generally incompetent. The pandemic proved us right.
Will people trust government less? Or will trust be limited to certain domains?
If the answer to the first question is “likely”, then will people try to become more self-reliant or reliant on a smaller (perhaps hyperlocal) community? How will this trend manifest?
Have we lost so much faith in government that we will all become preppers in some fashion?
Will we build the capabilities to live off the grid (at least for a few days), grow our own food, know the basics of saving a life (CPR)? Is this progress or is this regression?
What will be the technological advances that helps make sure it’s progress?
Christakis talks about how mutual aid societies sprung up to help people. Volunteers shopping for seniors, stitching masks, staffing food banks, etc. These efforts likely had a material impact on thousands of people. Will this lead to more community self-reliance? In the NY Times last week, there was an opinion piece on mutual aid efforts in Chicago. While the piece has a political bent, this paragraph can stand alone, regardless of your politics:
In these projects we see glimpses of a society where we meet one another’s needs, not with shame but with the sense that contributing is an essential thing we do for one another. These are the practices that keep us safe.
Work and learning Anyone who could work from home did. Those of us in that could are very lucky—those doing manual labor, delivery, medical procedures, basically all “essential workers”, ended up putting their lives in danger in order to get paid and do their jobs. No one believes that we’ll go back to “how it was before”.
Will work become more all-consuming and “always on,” or less? If work becomes truly flexible, for some types of workers (like parents), the flexibility could be invaluable and a competitive advantage to companies that offer this flexibility.
Will people who are capable for self-structuring thrive in this world?
Will more people spend time thinking through and defining the “proper place” of work in their lives?
Will (business) travel be reserved for special occasions versus the grind of “yeah, I’m in NYC twice a month”?
Will business conferences be hybrid, with more experiential attractions to get a small number of people to show up in person?
How will talent-driven globalization reshape companies? My partner Marc wrote about this.
For services that can be provided remotely, will States change licensing rules so that anyone in the country can provide services to others? Christakis talks about how this happened with the pandemic because the availability of doctors was so limited. This is a situation where the pandemic moved us forward faster than any government-led effort could.
Will some medical specializations move entirely online? For example, what’s to say my eye test cannot be completed remotely? And then with remote ordering, glasses and contacts just show up at home.
What will food retail companies do moving forward? Do we need to have grocery stores people can visit? Or can there be very efficient grocery warehouses for areas and robots deliver whatever we want, whenever we want?
Some manufacturing may need to be local again. When countries are rushing to save their citizens, everyone else comes second.
Adults who could work from home during the pandemic, often ended up exploring the world of online learning and courses, filling commuting time with learning instead. Will new models keep emerging as we iterate our way to figuring out what works best for each person?
Many children were forced to be completely remote, with no interaction with their friends, no in-person sports, or entertainment. How will this affect their view of education and what can be done remotely?
The pandemic showed us that despite all the talk about how education will be remote, all parents wanted kids back in school—for socialization, for effective learning (many kids struggle with remote), and yes, for some semblance of sanity for the adults. But now that schools and educators have figured out the benefits and limitations of remote, maybe we can find the most effective ways to deploy a hybrid solution in the future.
Much like learning, the way that work will change will also have nuance and complexity, and not everything will be obvious a priori. We can only see the very tip of the spear, in terms of how work will change.
Human connection & creativity We have certainly separated the introverts from the extroverts! Even the introverts are ready for some socialization. But more fundamentally, we’ve adopted practices and tools as a species in a way that’s more widespread than before. This is bound to affect how we work and play together in the future. The prolonged isolation could also change our priorities in the short or long term, when it comes to connecting with others.
Will in-person / human / analog connections & experiences come roaring back, or will people want a hybrid?
In what ways will people change their perception or belief about what matters or what’s valuable? Will people become more philosophical? Focus on on spirituality? Embark on a quest for truth?
We’ve seen new forms of collaboration. Christakis talks about how the NY Philharmonic Orchestra each recorded their own contributions separately and it was joined together to share with the world. How will people continue to collaborate, perhaps around the world?https://youtu.be/D3UW218_zPo
How might philanthropy evolve, now that we know we can have an impact on every connected person on earth?
There were new forms of dating, and new forms of connecting. People felt more vulnerable since we were all going through the same thing. And that led to people sharing more. How will we maintain the vulnerability, honesty, and compassion as we move past the pandemic?
The roaring twenties, a century ago, were the outcome of a major cataclysm. Will we see that again? I’d argue that while we will see the extreme desire for experiences, I’m not sure we will see as much ostentatious consumption. We have a sustainability crisis on our hands — I’m hopeful that the consumption and excesses will be a bit more restrained this time around, perhaps more focused on human connection and the experiences that enable that.
Sustainability One of the things that stuck with me was Christakis’ definition of cumulative culture:
Human beings endlessly contribute to the accumulated wealth of knowledge that belongs to humanity, and each generation is generally born into greater such wealth.
Part of why we have vaccines so quickly is because of cumulative culture. It has been combined with global collaboration from scientists who focused on sharing data quickly, with everyone who needed it, and global altruism from the armies of volunteers who have tried these vaccines early stages of development so that more vulnerable populations could receive something tested, stable, and safe.
Can we apply this level of collaboration and altruism to the problems of climate and sustainability? Or because it is a less obvious problem than a pandemic that kills hundreds of thousands in few months, will we continue to ignore the problem? How can we bring more urgency to sustainability?
We know that density of living is good for sustainability. How has the pandemic affected this?
Will cities remerge as the way to live after a year where many people moved out of the densest cities? Will cities make public spaces a priority and ensure that their citizens have a cornucopia of delights to experience when they leave their apartment buildings? What new services will emerge if this happens?
Will people pay more attention to the hidden costs of their actions and be willing to sacrifice? Will groups of people collaborate to usher in new norms of climate responsibility?
Much like the pandemic, sustainability needs everyone to collaborate, to look at how we live, and perhaps even sacrifice a little bit.
Christakis recounts that seismologist Thomas Lecocq noticed that at the very start of the pandemic, when almost all travel and industry came to a halt
“…the Earth was suddenly still. Every day, as we humans operate our factories, drive our cars, even simply walk on our sidewalks, we rattle the planet. Incredibly, these rattles can be detected as if they were infinitesimal earthquakes. And they had stopped. […] The coronavirus had changed the way the Earth moved.”
If companies and people change our behavior, just a little, those small changes add up to a bigger impact on our planet. We have to find a more sustainable path forward so that we don’t lead to the most vulnerable populations bearing the brunt of climate change.
While the book was useful in tracing the history of pandemics—the ones we’ve heard of and the less familiar ones—the most useful aspect of it was that it gave me some time and space to think about what comes next. More questions than answers, but perhaps a good place to start.
My writing professor, the incomparable Mick Casale, would ask, “What is your film about?”
Once he got the answer, the follow up question would be, “What is it really about?”
In The Creative Habit, the legendary choreographer Twyla Tharp calls this “the spine.” Take my first short film from NYU for example—In That Moment (5 minutes, embedded below) is about a guy who’s working as a living statue in Central Park and and his encounter with a woman who piques his interest.
But what is the film really about? It’s about the regret chances not taken, moments when fear makes you pick the safe choice, and times when you instantly regret a decision you can’t take back.
If you’re a founder, this question is relevant because you should know what your company is really about. On the face of it, you might be a marketplace—but ask yourself, what is your company really about? You should know that answer.
Nana is “about” helping people get their appliances repaired, but it’s really about providing economic empowerment and agency to blue-collar workers
Uber is “about” getting from point A to point B, but it’s really about changing the way people travel, eat, and work.
eBay is “about” being able to quickly sell something to someone you don’t know, but it’s really about global economic empowerment.
Twitter is “about” sharing what you’re thinking, but it’s really about allowing people to learn, find friends, and challenge their worldview (although it is unclear if that ever happens).
Core is “about” meditation, but it’s really about taking charge of your mental well-being.
What the film is really about is its spine. For a company, the long-term vision is the spine that holds the company up, provides clarity and guides decision making around design, branding, expansion plans, who you’re counting among your competitors.
At the earliest stages, the spine of your company may not be visible to everyone. Tesla’s first expensive sports car was easy to dismiss for both consumers and investors. But what is Tesla’s spine? Making transportation sustainable for the planet while being joyful to the consumer.
The spine is the deeperintent behind what you’re doing. Not every customer needs to understand the spine to use and enjoy the product, but it’s important for everyone at the company to understand the larger vision.
Towards the end of 2020, I had one of those experiences that vaporizes cynicism. In November, I noticed the book The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp on my bookshelf. I had first bought it during film school, as assigned reading—but it occurred to me that I’d like to read it again. On a whim, I asked my friend Ellen if she wanted to read it with me.
We decided to open it up to anyone who wanted to read it. Surprisingly, about 25 people said yes. 18 people showed up. And 16 people stuck it out through the end!
It was a motivating experience for two reasons:
The group of people was awesome
The book and the content was a unique take on creativity, productivity, and habits, from someone outside of the performative productivity cabal
Most remarkably, the participants didn’t know each other at all. It was a group that came together over the interest in the book. For most, it was a way to either start or get back to their creative habit. But outside of that, the group was diverse in gender, geography, and profession. Tech people, yes. But also writers, musicians, entrepreneurs, finance people. Everyone was open, listening, learning. There were no titles, no stars, no celebrities, no name dropping. Everyone was on a level playing field in terms of how we treated each other. Each person had a thoughtful, authentic perspective to contribute.
At Spero Ventures, we think a lot about the ingredients of effective communities. Before the pandemic, each quarter, I brought people together to experience something cultural in San Francisco. I called the effort AliveIRL. The first event was watching The Last Black Man in San Francisco, followed by a dinner with the producer Kimberley Parker. The next was attending the Warhol exhibit at SF MoMA. At each, I met incredible people with whom I continue to have a meaningful connection.
Over the past 12 months, obviously the model had to shift. I’ve spent lots of time in all sorts of groups and learned that:
There are thousands of smart people who are amazing but not (currently) famous. They are, however, very insightful and are key to every community. These people connect authentically – it’s not about who’s in the group or what they can gain from getting to know someone.
Communities which form around a specific goal should aim to be global. The curious, collaborative individuals who are united in their shared love of learning exist everywhere. By forcing everything to be virtual, the connection to globally like-minded people should increase. (but, finding a time that works for all is very hard)
The friction around sourcing, scheduling, and gathering the community is still quite high. Until the enabling tools improve, small gatherings will still need a coordinator.
They will also need a moderator, not just to make sure everyone feels like the gathering is inclusive, but also to ensure that we can learn from the quiet people who often drop gems of wisdom.
Our little reading community decided we wanted to keep going and use the group as a forcing function to read books we’ve all been meaning to read. The next book is Atomic Habits by James Clear (yes, it’s almost unavoidable, the productivity whirlpool). We kick off on February 11th. One of the group members, Josh, split the book up into 6 chunks and we’ll read it over 6 sessions spanning 12 weeks.
Here are the details of how we’ll read Atomic Habits: Feb 11, 9a PST: Intro + The Fundamentals Feb 25, 9a PST: The 1st Law Mar 11, 9a PST: The 2nd Law Mar 25, 9a PST: The 3rd Law Apr 8, 9a PST: The 4th Law Apr 22, 9a PST: Advanced Tactics