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THOUGHTS IN PROGRESS

Coming back to New York City from two and a half weeks in Japan, my immediate thought is:

In terms of safety, convenience, comfort, and efficiency, Japan is one of the greatest countries in the world as these are benefits primarily derived from being highly homogeneous.

But if you want to learn how the whole world can coexist peacefully in the future, there is no better city to study than New York City.

When homogeneous countries confront the true face of diversity, as the Europeans are facing now, they show their true colors.

New York with its countless problems is still at the cutting edge of globalization.

One of the advantages of digital publishing is that you can learn a lot about your audience. I’ve noticed, for instance, that a piece that appeals to the people I know does not appeal to complete strangers, and vice versa. I’m not sure if this is just me, but when I get strong reactions from my friends on Facebook, I get nothing publicly, and when I get strong reactions from the general public, I get nothing from my friends.

It’s interesting to think about what this means.

I’m coming around to the idea that reading and writing through physical mediums (books, pen, and paper) is better for learning. I believe it is because of the inefficiency. It is precisely because digital mediums are so efficient that we don’t remember what we learn. How we humans learn is inherently inefficient so we need inefficient ways of learning.

For instance, research has shown that we remember better when a textbook is set with a typeface that is hard to read. We often remember where on the page some piece of information appeared. We also remember what kind of notebook and pen we used to write down something. These types of contextual information have no direct relationship to the actual content we want to retain or retrieve but play a significant role in how we remember.

I think inefficiency in general plays an important role in improving the quality of our lives but we all assume efficiency to be a universally desirable quality. Our relentless pursuit of efficiency has already passed the optimal point for the quality of our lives. It is beginning to decline because of efficiency.

I finally watched “Finding Vivian Maier” after getting recommendations from numerous friends. I agree with one of the people interviewed in the film who said her story is more interesting than her work. In fact, because the story of the discovery is so romantic—a perfect Hollywood story—that it’s hard to look at her work on its own merits. The story distorts the work. A question I have is: Would she have succeeded as an artist without that story? That is, what if she tried to show her work? Would it have stood on its own without the story?

It’s ironic in that the reason the story is so romantic is because it is about artwork having its own merits without a self-promoting and self-aggrandizing artist. Especially in today’s society where nothing seems authentic, we crave for stories of authenticity. But it’s a catch-22 situation. If she had promoted her own work, her work would have to win the audience without this romantic story. Would she have succeeded? I have my doubts. I believe there have been countless photographers of her caliber we haven’t heard of. If you take a hundred thousand photos, some of them will, of course, be good. We are only seeing a small fraction of her work. Curating your own work is a crucial part of being a photographer/artist. Just as photographers must choose what to take pictures of, they also need to select which photos to show. That is a critical part of the art of photography especially in our postmodern era where readymades have artistic value. Maier did not do that.

The director, John Maloof, I think, is a great entrepreneur. He made a very risky investment in Maier’s work. He knew how to negotiate, tell the story, market, and monetize it. In a way, Vivian Maier is his startup.

The problem I see with retirement is that, without work, we would have no compelling reason to connect with other people. In business, we tend to build a network of diverse people. In friendship, we tend to stick to our own kind, which means we would be socializing only with people of our age. Younger people would have no compelling reason to socialize with us. Since our friends will start dying, our network of bingo players will keep shrinking. Our only hope then would be our kids to come visit us if we nag them enough.

Building a network of human connections is time-consuming, so once we let it fall apart, building it back up again would be hard, especially if we are old. In this sense, retirement is social suicide. It’s a sure way to paint ourselves into a corner of loneliness.

What this means to me is that we have to be able to enjoy working. If working is not enjoyable, it might seem natural to assume that not working is better. But that is only an assumption. It could in fact be worse.

What differentiates artists from non-artists, especially in this postmodern era, is the willingness to expose their own neurosis. It’s not about talent or skills. Most people are simply too scared to share such intimate inner selves. But if nobody did what artists did, we would all be more neurotic because our standards of normal behavior would keep going up, which in turn will alienate us further and make us more neurotic.

If you want to develop an audience who consumes your content on a regular basis, your website, YouTube channel, or Facebook Page can’t just be about providing pieces of knowledge. This becomes clear when you study Bob Ross’ painting videos. The vast majority of his audience never painted; they just liked watching him paint. Likewise, a cooking show too has to have value by itself even if the audience never cooks. Regardless of the type of content, there has to be some redeeming quality to the act of reading or watching it.

“Cooking with Dog” has over a million subscribers. I’m pretty sure the vast majority of those subscribers have never cooked anything they saw in the videos. Those videos are just funny to watch. I think this is also true with many popular podcast producers and radio show hosts; the quality of their voice might be a more significant factor in their popularity than what they are saying.

If people want to know how to cook gnocchi, for instance, they would search “gnocchi” on YouTube. Once they learn what they need to know, they would discard it. They wouldn’t care about the other videos you might have in your channel. When people search anything on the Web, it’s about the knowledge they seek. They are not looking to be a regular audience unless the content has something more than just the piece of knowledge they were looking for.

It’s actually worse than that. Searchers have specific goals they want to achieve. Searching is just a step in that process, so even if your website has more than just the answers they seek, they are not in a mental state to check out anything else you have; they need to go back to completing their goals. You are catching them at the wrong time.

If you want to make money from advertising, you would need to build an audience. You cannot just be a destination for search results. Searchers are not loyal. They just get what they want and leave. I think this is why social networking sites are better platforms to promote content.

Today the phrase “living with intention” popped into my head first time in my life. I felt like it conveyed the sentiment that I had recently been feeling and contemplating on.

“Living with intention” is often used interchangeably with “living with a purpose,” but it’s not the same. I’ve never felt that life had a purpose, so the latter never resonated with me.

Most of us live our lives by “going through the motion.” We end up doing many things in our day that we did not intend to do. They just happened. To live with intention is to intend everything we do. Even if we were to watch TV, we do so with an intention not because we happen to feel like it at that moment.

To live with intention does not mean that we should feel bad if we fail. The primary benefit of living with intention is that even when we fail, we can learn something; so we make progress every time. If we did not intend to do anything, we would not know if we failed or succeeded. It could have been sheer luck. Or, we could end up succeeding in something we hate.

When we meditate, we have the intention to observe our own thoughts. Our thoughts just happen. We don’t intend them. But we can intend to observe our thoughts. To live with intention is to live mindfully. Even when we are washing dishes, we do so with intention, as well as we can, not because we have to.

There are two ways by which people are driven to pursue higher standards or taste: curiosity or insecurity. For those motivated by curiosity, achieving a higher standard is a means to discover something about himself or the world. Once this is achieved, the objects that represent their higher standards or taste become disposable. On the other hand, for those motivated by insecurity, those objects are the end that fill the void within themselves. They cannot feel secure without them. This is why they turn into snobs; their lack would trigger existential insecurity or anxiety, which is projected onto others who lack those higher standards.

A healthy economy can always use more labor supply to increase the speed of production (as well as consumption), but no matter how hard we try, we cannot indefinitely increase our speed of learning a new skill, just as we cannot indefinitely increase our speed of running. In both learning and running, I think we have pretty much reached the limit of how fast we can go as a human being. In contrast, the speed of technological innovation can indefinitely increase because we can divide and conquer it. (Since each of us does not need to innovate to use it.)

And, the older we get, the slower we become at learning new skills. Because of this, I think our labor force is getting younger and younger. In the near future, we will reach a point where even young people wouldn’t be able to catch up with the speed of innovation. They would spend four years learning a skill, and it might be useful only for a few years after graduation, requiring them to go back to school and learn something entirely new because some technology would make their skill fundamentally irrelevant. At 25, they would feel old and obsolete.

This situation will eventually reach a point of absurdity where the colleges cannot teach their students fast enough, so by the time they graduate, what they learned would be obsolete. Now there is a trend to skip college and learn how to start a startup. I think it is motivated by this problem; the conventional colleges are too slow for the speed of innovation.

The current economy, even in the US, is very hungry for certain skills. The problem that many companies are facing is a short supply of new skills. If all of us can learn new skills in a month instead of four years, this innovation-hungry economy can easily employ us all. We need to think in terms of supply of skills, not labor. We have a short supply of relevant skills, and an oversupply of obsolete skills.

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