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Ben Werdmuller

Open morning pages: let's be more than computers

5 min read

I'm sitting on the trans-bay bus as it careens down University Ave. It's drizzling outside, just a little, so the number of riders has gone up exponentially. I was lucky to get a seat. It's about time we got some rain, although I don't know if this really qualifies: when I lived in Edinburgh, for example, I became used to the torrential, horizontal rain that would stab through my clothes like daggers. In Oxford, where I grew up, it would come down in fat, satisfying drops. Here it's a tease, almost as if someone had turned the fog up to eleven.

This week a piece of the fog has also been living in my head. While I've been worried that something deeper is wrong, because I always do, I think it's more likely that I picked up a cold while I was exhausted from traveling last week. I've been tired, with cold or flu symptoms, and occasionally a stabbing headache that goes as quickly as it comes. I'm sure I'll feel better next week, but I'm taking it easy for now.

I want to do better at having people in my life. I moved to California because my mother was sick; thankfully, after a double lung transplant, she isn't sick any longer. Then I moved into running a startup (from a position as remote CTO at another startup) as part of an accelerator. None of these things have led to as much social activity as I would like. I've always had a lot of friends, and while there are certainly people I value and count as friends here, I've been more reclusive than I've ever been in my life. I'm sure that part of that is just part of the startup lifestyle - so much of my life is necessarily spent working - but I've come to what I think is a relatively common conclusion, that is important to acknowledge: I'm lonely.

There are plenty of technical events that I can and do go to. But, despite living the Internet, I'm keen for the conversations I have to go far beyond it. Moving to a new city is hard, particularly when you're leaving behind friendships that you've forged across decades and through multiple phases of your life. If you're starting from scratch and mostly making friends from your industry, your conversations tend to naturally be about that industry. That's great, and I highly value the friendships connections I've made, but I need more interactions that don't involve computers. I don't make friendships because I want to be around people I professionally respect; I make friendships because I find people and conversations emotionally nourishing.

There are certainly people who live their lives in that deliberate fashion, making connections solely to better themselves, but, and forgive me for saying this, I think it's borderline sociopathic. And self-defeating. If you go through life connecting with people just because you want something out of them, (1) you miss out on the serendipitous connections that are really the heart of being a social human being, and (2) they're sure to find out at some point. Nobody wants to feel like they're being leveraged.

Which isn't to say that your friendships don't make you a better person. Of course they do, but the things that you learn aren't necessarily things you might set out to learn. The more people you have in your life, the wider your social genepool, and the more ideas, personalities and other people you'll be exposed to. The more hugs, too, and that doesn't count for nothing.

I'm still having trouble figuring out where the social center of American life is. Back home, it would be simple: the pub. Unlike bars, the purpose of a pub is to be your outboard living room. It's a mutually safe, but welcoming, space to meet people in. Over here, a pub either seems to be a bar (get those drinks in) or a place to eat. So far I've found one real pub, on Solano Ave in Albany, but it's about as big as the bus I'm writing this in.

I've also heard that San Francisco is inherently difficult, as a place, to meet people in, perhaps for all the same reasons I've individually found it hard. At the same time, I've been lucky because I've plugged into a built-in community at Matter, and maybe that's the secret. I'm secretly a little jealous of people who have churches or other communities of faith, because they automatically have a disparate set of people to plug into. I've always been attracted to humanism, but uniting around another, non-technical interest may be a more direct way to meet more people. Volunteering at a non-profit, for example a soup kitchen or a local ACLU chapter, could be a better way.

At any rate, I think it's a healthy thing to acknowledge that I need more people in my life, and that the Internet is not in any way the same as having real, face to face contact with real people on a human level.

In the meantime, I'll focus on shifting this cold.

Ben Werdmuller

Open morning pages: starting a new routine

5 min read

There's an artist's technique called morning pages, where you clear your head every morning by writing three pages of free-associative text. It doesn't matter what you write down - wherever you go is where your head wanted to go. I've found it a valuable technique, but finding a quiet, safe space to take out a notebook is sometimes hard.

There's a service that lets you do this online called 750words.com - but I'm all about what product developers call "eating your own dogfood". Use the product you've built yourself for the purpose it was intended. We've built this great tool for self-reflection, so this is the first post on my free-associative 750 words a day Known site. (I'm keeping it separate from my main site at werd.io because I don't want to feel the pressure to write about technology or my business. I just want to write.)

I think I'll up the ante a little bit by also posting a selfie wherever I am every day. So here I am in my open-face kitchen. You're welcome.

I've been thinking a lot about music lately. There are a few bands I viscerally dislike, and I've been trying to figure out why: bands like U2 and Coldplay. It's easy to dismiss them as corporate blandwave, which is of course their musical genre, but there's something more primal to it. On the other end of the spectrum, I really like the Moldy Peaches, a band whose only album mostly consists of one-take songs. The phone rings in the middle of one, and somehow this is additive. I mean, it's sloppy, but the sloppiness becomes part of the package, and makes it feel real (because it is real). The heart is on show, whereas in Coldplay, and U2 and a thousand other big-label bands it's been forced away from the surface by production. And unlike pop, which is also produced within an inch of its life, it's not up-front about what it is. It's pretending to be rock music.

I feel that way about lots of things. My friend Owen coined the word "blandwave" years ago, specifically to describe Coldplay, and I think it's a great term for middle-of-the-road culture as a whole. Mainstream culture was created to sell us things - we're easier to market to if we're all part of a monolithic demographic. But that's not what we are as human beings, and to break us up into demographic averages is to erase our individuality, and gloss over the amazing cultural diversity we see across people. Homogeneity is inherently uninteresting.

I really object to the homogeneity we see in software interfaces (uh oh, I'm talking about technology again) - I'm not sure I want to see a blandwave web. It's not awesome to see over a billion Facebook profiles that, at their core, all look the same. That doesn't represent us as people, and it falls far short of what a network of everyone on earth should look like. Designers were not amused, but I really liked the glitter amateurness of Geocities and MySpace pages. It's okay that they didn't look perfect - in fact, it's better that way. It's more human. Granted, it's a much harder problem to empower people to own their own spaces (really own them, visually and structurally as well as legally) when everything is an app, because the web is far more personal. Nonetheless, a bunch of very well-off twentysomethings in Menlo Park shouldn't be the ones who get to decide how the world conveys themselves and communicates with each other.

I like it when people take risks with what they make. I feel the same way about cooking: I think it's far more interesting to use the kitchen as a kind of experimental lab than to intricately follow instructions set out in some recipe. I mean, sometimes that's important too, but I think mostly to help you learn the base skills that let you experiment more freely.

Of course, going wild in the kitchen, or on the web, or in your art (or all three) requires that you either have people who are receptive to your experimentation, or that you have a finely honed sense of not caring what other people think. Maybe it's a little bit of both: you need to have people around you that will be supportive (or, okay, let's bring this home: I need people around me who will be supportive) and you need to not dilute your intention in order to try and appeal to a wide audience. If it's interesting, and you want it, the wide audience can come later.

And I think that comes to the meat of what I really think: being perfect is far less important than being interesting.

This has been refreshing. More tomorrow, then.