As of late, I've been practicing giving up control of my story and instead let it unfold as it wants to. Like Jobs said at Stanford in 2005, you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in the future.
I make a mean investor pitch deck, I think design products, think about brands in terms of the people they're for, I program and love algorithms, I've read most of Carl Jung's books, I visualize information, make art, enjoy learning about pretty much anything—i.e. economics, biology, art, code, design, or architecture. These are my dots.
Ballet is beautiful because of the opposing tension in a contorting body. It seems as if the leg is twisting to the left, but it is also, in fact, moving toward the right. A comedian's joke is funniest when delivered with deadpan seriousness; it's her seriousness that makes it funny. A piece of art is captivating when it's both familiar and foreign. We're drawn by what seems almost like...but not quite.
This ambiguity also exists in our interior reality; we have contradicting personality traits, our interests are at odds, our goals collide. Some days we wake up painters, on other days, poets and scientists. My intuition tells me that these nonsensical contradictions might be what makes life beautiful—as it does ballet, a joke, or a piece of art. I find this possibility invigorating. When my day feels confusing and my interests unruly, I tell myself: embrace ambiguity.
What is it about being alone at a coffee shop—about being alone in public, anonymous amidst an audience of strangers? Perhaps, between the anonymity and exposure, we're free to lose a little of who we are and invent a little of what we can become.
There’s usually a next step encoded in my mind in the form of an intuition or a hunch. Maybe there's a couple, but I venture to say one is usually the optimal. Sometimes I wonder what would happen to life, as I know it, if I lived only from that small and intimate space of knowing. No grandeur, no being this or that type of person, just a continuous dialogue with that intuition. What’s the next step… and after that, what’s the step after that?
As children, we learn what to do and not do through parental approval, and unless we grew up with a a parent aware of the subtle value of mistakes, most of us might not know how to be bad, and therefore good at something. It is virtually impossible to become good at something without first being bad at it.
My intuition is that grit, hustle, persistence, are qualities rooted in our ability to override the primal instinct to want to be accepted, validated, and a good child. Overriding it with a new kind of ability of being embarrassingly bad, asking dumb questions, seeming unintelligent, until—little by little, step by step, bird by bird—it all starts to come together.
We’re all desperate to be recognized for the things we have to offer. Everyone around you is looking for the invitation you are making to them. Quite often, we’re existentially disappointed because there is no invitation. The greatest invitation is for you to say to them that they have gifts that you do not have; and therefore you need their help. That is the most powerful leadership invitation you can make. — David Whyte on on Leadership, Making Sense podcast.
How beautifully paradoxical that good leadership is the ability to recognize the humanity in the other to the same extent that I recognize my own. To step out of my own need for recognition and allow others to come forth with their own gifts. To gift them, in return, the recognition they, too, seek. Every moment, an opportunity to invite as much as I want to be invited; to recognize as much as I want to be recognized, to lead even though at times it's easier to let myself be led.
If I had to choose a philosopher I'd choose Socrates—even if he is a fictional character created by Plato. His death is a stark example of how flawed we can be in group-mind. True two thousand years ago as much as it is today in the current social climate.
Yes, there are things I find him guilty of. Most critically, of being so hellbent on educating others through ridicule. In aiming toward an ideal, Socrates failed to find the compromise that could have led his contemporaries to recognize their own limitations without it being at the cost of his own life. But, in aiming toward this ideal, he left us a sharp example of what to be both as individuals and as a people.
I thought Philosophy was a field of study like chemistry or physics; and it is, by virtue of its history. But there's also something deeply personal about it. The questions at the heart of Philosophy are questions fundamental to human life. Who am I? Who are we? What is my purpose? Am I living a good life? Philosophy is rooted in disquiet; by examining ourselves, we inevitably touch on ideas that pertain to all of us. How do we live together? How can we be fair and just to each other? How do we continuously improve as a people?
Philosophy has as much to do with legendary names like Plato and Aristotle as it does with me or you. It emerges out of the same unrest and curiosity at the heart of wisdom traditions like Zen, Buddhism, or Christianity. The questions, prayers, and koans we carry with us are the same questions that live at the heart of an entire field of study.
Where Philosophy is unique is that it asks these very fundamental questions in a scientific way—nothing is taken for granted and all knowledge it generates is rooted in human discovery. Philosophy is unique because, in being a method, it examines these perennial questions in such a way that can be poked at by others. Those same questions we carry with us every days are also a two-to-five thousand year old field of study. As relevant then as it is today.
I feel under-represented when I say I’m a designer—not because I’m not, but because it’s not an accurate description of what I do. My upbringing was shaped by a white MacBook with round edges and an internet connection. Like many, I acquired a plethora of digital skills and emulated from worldly people who did many interesting things. I have, as a result, turned myself into a Minotaur of sorts: head of a polymath, hands of designer, heart of a hacker, torso of a communicator.
When I start a new job, no one can define what I do. Two months in, I'm deep in the company story, making company pitch decks, re-designing the product, and hacking the website from scratch. The magic seems to happen at the margins. I'm a better communicator when I design the messaging, a better entrepreneur when I hack the product, a better hacker if I’m making the pitch deck. I'm no exception, my most talented friends are in a similar predicament.
Job titles make us one dimensional, but when we explore what we’re curious about and, as a result, acquire new skills and sensibilities, we end up becoming something akin of an indescribable Minotaur. When I level with people and, to paraphrase Judd Appatow, tell them I'm figuring it out and patching it up to make it look like I have a clue, that's when I get the most interesting responses. Turns out there's a polymath inside most of us.
My classmates stared at me, perplexedly, as I tried to read aloud. It was like a balloon had inflated in my throat; no sound came. My mum says the stuttering began in kindergarten, but this moment is the first I remember. My dad stuttered too, but unlike me, only occasionally and without shame. For my parents stuttering wasn't a problem, and speech therapy was of no use. Yet, it was always there: when I introduced myself, when called on in class, when ordering at a restaurant, when answering the phone, and worst of all, when strangers finished my sentences. This was a battle I had to fight on my own, and I was convinced speaking would one day be my superpower.
So I searched, in books and on the internet, for other people's experiences that could help me with my own. I discovered Demosthenes, one of ancient Greece's greatest orators, who stuttered. I studied the work of Jill Bottle Taylor, a neuroanatomist who documented her recovery from a severe stroke. I learned about Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, a pioneer in neuro-plasticity who taught her learning-impaired brain how to tell time and went on to become a renowned psychologist. My bedroom became my laboratory, filled with ideas and schematics on yellow sticky notes. As I learned about others, their discoveries became my own. I filled my mouth with pebbles to connect with the physical experience of speech, I read aloud in front of the mirror, I learned breath work—all with the discipline of an athlete.
At 19, I had my first breakthrough. While settling in eye contact during a conversation, I entered a state of flow—much like that of athletes—and the figment of an image appeared in my mind, an abstract representation of what I wanted to say. As I focused on it, words started to come out. That was the first time I spoke without interruption. In the years that followed, I took every opportunity to harness this flow—with friends, family, and even strangers. A decade later and I'm still puzzled by how it all works. A hiccup here, a stumble there, but today these are part of my manner of speech.
My stutter shaped me greatly. It taught me to challenge the way things are, to seek knowledge in unordinary places, and most importantly, it taught me the value in seeing the world through someone else's eyes.
Today, I see that we are shaped by the stories we carry with us; who we are, what we believe, and what we think we can and cannot do. These stories are like software for the brain—we run on them—software that can help us rediscover who we are in new and empowering ways. It were stories, after all—of an orator, a neuroanatomist, or a psychologist—that gave a young stuttering boy the means to transcend his own.