Not Boring Newsletter #1
Scenius Out of Coronavirus and Social (Distancing) Studies
|Apr 2, 2020||2|
Hi friends 👋🏻!
Happy Thursday (😮) and welcome to the Not Boring Newsletter!
A bit of housekeeping: If you’re looking for doom and gloom about everything that’s going on, you’ve come to the wrong place. We only do optimistic takes here.
I did not expect to kick off the Not Boring Newsletter with the biggest delay in the history of this newsletter, but I wasn’t feeling well over the weekend and earlier this week. My energy level plummeted, my brain turned to mush for a few days. But we’re back! I feel close to full strength, my brain’s working, and I don’t want to skip a week. So we’ll do a short one this week and get back to normal on Monday.
First things first, a huge thank you to everyone who shared last week’s email. Thanks to you, there are 70 more people receiving this week’s e-mail than last week’s (welcome new folks!), and you are now 544 subscribers strong, more than halfway to 1k.
Y’all are the best. Let’s keep the momentum going!
Scenius Out of Coronavirus
Over the past couple of months, I have been working on an essay about Scenius - the communal genius that emerges in particular places and times throughout history. You’ll be familiar with those places and times by name - Ancient Greece, the Renaissance, the Scottish Enlightenment, the Junto, Silicon Valley - and also by what those scenia created - art, history, literature, forms of government, economic theories, civic organizations, universities, technologies. Collectively, the scenia that I just mentioned along with many others are responsible for such a large portion of the progress humans have made in our time on Earth.
In the essay, I have been trying to figure out what ingredients shaped those scenia, and how we can apply those ingredients to create modern versions that leverage the internet to connect groups of geniuses regardless of physical location. And frankly, I have been stuck. There was something missing, and I couldn’t quite believe that we would be able to create modern scenia with even close to the impact of the Renaissance or the Enlightenment or even the Junto.
Over the weekend, though, Puja and I watched Hitsville: The Making of Motown, an excellent documentary about the early days of what would become Motown in Detroit.
And it was textbook scenius, down to the ingredients from my essay.
Place: Motown was started and grew out of a house in a residential neighborhood in Detroit. If a songwriter had an idea for a song in the middle of the day, he could walk into a room and find Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder to play it right then and there. That allowed for rapid creation and innovation.
Competition. Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, intentionally used competition among his artists to bring out the best in them. He held weekly meetings in which the team voted to release certain artists’ songs while holding others’ back until they got it up to their friendly competitor’s level.
Diversity. Despite protestations, Gordy built a diverse team of artists and management - white or black, male or female, whoever got the job done got the job. That diversity brought new ideas and allowed the right people to play the roles they were best suited for.
It was uncanny, but what knocked me back, and the thing that was missing in my essay, was the fact that Motown was born in the middle of the Civil Rights movement. Some of the greatest musicians in American history came together in a small house in Detroit at a time when many of them couldn’t even share bathrooms with audience members at many of the venues in which they performed. Without the unifying and creative force of something as terrible as racism, Motown wouldn’t have become the cultural force that it did.
After watching the movie, I went back and looked at the historical examples of scenius in my essay, and there it was. In nearly every case, explosions in progress and creativity were preceded by awful situations. Ancient Greece was preceded by a period literally called The Dark Ages. The Renaissance was preceded by the Bubonic Plague and the Fall of the Western Roman Empire. Les Années Folles in Paris came off the heels of World War I. Bell Labs came out of World War II. The list goes on and on.
That’s why I was struggling to see how we could create modern scenius. We hadn’t had anything really bad happen to us collectively in too long. We were too comfortable. We didn’t need to create new ways of doing things because the way we were doing things was working out just fine, thanks.
Obviously, that has changed. Whether the Coronavirus Pandemic ends in 18 days or 18 months, the world will never be the same. Each of the articles and essays linked in Links & Listens speak to that fact. But having studied scenius, I am optimistic that the world will emerge from this tragedy revved up to come together to create and progress. (Fun fact: I almost wrote “emerge from this tragedy like a Phoenix rising from the ashes” but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Welcome inside my creative process.)
Even as we remain locked up, it’s already happening. Teams are working together across the globe to fight the disease, social gatherings are taking on new virtual forms, and we’re even doing audio simulations of NBA games.
A common enemy and shared tragedy will bring out the best in us. I’m optimistic that this is the start of a wildly creative era in human history. Bring on the Greeks.
Social (Distancing) Studies
On Monday, April 13th, we’re launching our first cohort of Social (Distancing) Studies.
I came into the quarantine with high hopes - I would write a lot more, maybe learn to code, build a merch store - but I’ve done so much less than I’d planned. And I don’t think I’m alone. The resources are out there - there is more free and discounted educational content on offer right now than at any other time in human history - but we’re lacking the motivation and accountability.
So we’re starting Social (Distancing) Studies to hold each other accountable to picking up new skills, learning new things, making progress on our projects, or honing our craft. Here’s how it works:
Tell us what you want to learn or accomplish, and we’ll place you in a small group of people with similar interests or goals.
You’ll check in daily and meet on Zoom once per week. You can also schedule more frequent 1-1 sessions with each other to practice and give feedback.
At the end of our 6 weeks together, we will host a Talent Show with our friends & family!
Cost = $100 - this is for accountability in both directions - paying $100 means that people are more likely to stick with it, and receiving $100 lights a fire under me to make sure that everyone involved leaves with new knowledge, new skills, and new friends.
We want everyone to come out of this quarantine better than we came in.
If you have something that you want to learn, or a goal that you’ve been putting off, join us. And as always, feel free to share with friends who might be interested. The more people who apply, the better group matches we can make.
Links & Listens
🔮Premonition | Toby Shorin, Drew Austin, Kara Kittel, Kei Kreutler, Edouard Urcades | Subpixel Space
This article set off quite a conversation after Sam shared it in the Not Boring Slack, saying that it was one of the best “how the world's gonna change in response to COVID” pieces he’s read. Some of the authors’ predictions for the post-Corona world - like experiences surpassing artifacts as the “vehicles of lifestyle performance and participation” - were not controversial. But others, like this one - “The culture war between the East Coast and West Coast, which has been going on for some time, is now all but over. It has self-evidently been lost by the East Coast.” - drew some heat from the New York-based group. Let’s have a little debate - give it a read and share your thoughts in the comments.
Speaking of Post-Pandemic New York, Brian shared this post by economist Tyler Cowen on what the world’s greatest city will look like when this is all said and done. Cowen predicts that New York will become younger, as older residents flee to the suburbs, that rents and land prices are likely to fall, and that businesses will think twice about putting their HQs in NYC (looking at you, Bezos), largely because they are run by older people who are at higher risk. He also predicts that the city will be segregated between those who have had the virus and are immune, and those who haven’t and aren’t. He ends on a slightly positive note, though, predicting that as the country recovers, NYC will adjust and recover some of its natural advantages.
👊🤝👊 Common Enemies | Morgan Housel
If you read one piece in this section, make it this one. Housel compares the current crisis to World War II, and suggests that our unity against a common enemy will have surprisingly positive effects on our abilities, outlooks, and incentives, like it did then. He quotes FDR from one of his fireside chats a year after Pearl Harbor, and while our ranks have more than doubled since then, the sentiment feels the same as today:
This whole nation of one hundred and thirty million free men, women and children is becoming one great fighting force. Whatever our individual circumstances or opportunities – we are all in it, and our spirit is good, and we Americans and our allies are going to win – and do not let anyone tell you anything different.
I’m here for that kind of optimism.
Housel also recently wrote Wounds Heal, Scars Last about the idea that even as we eventually physically recover, which we always do, we will retain psychological scars that may shape our behavior for the rest of our lives.
🎧 Listen to this youtube video with headphones
🎶 Hitsville: The Making of Motown | Showtime
This is the documentary I wrote about above, and it’s excellent. Getting to hear first-hand accounts and see the corresponding clips from Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson’s earliest performances, hearing how Marvin Gaye’s political side came out in What’s Going On?, hearing about the Supremes when they were called “the no-hit Supremes,” all of it was just so cool. You have some time and you’ve probably already watched Tiger King, so give this a watch.
That’s all for today. Thanks for reading and see you in a few short days on Monday. I’ll be on time this time :)
Have a not boring rest of your week!