A Retreat, a Walk, SMS Publishing, Advice to a Young Me
Gentle Rodenians —
Hope this finds you covered in cherry blossom petals. Over here, the irrepressible fecundity of spring is blanketing the Japanese landscape like a scene from “Annihilation” — weeds and animals and bugs and pollen are emerging in full force. Green and buzzing. Just like that, everywhere: Life.
(I planted some coriander in my tiny garden at the end of last year and … I think it’s going to beat us humans to the singularity.)
This is a long-ish Roden. Made long, mainly, because I have an essay tacked onto the bottom: “Advice to a Young Me.” Prompted by an email years ago, and then remembered by a tweet. And then revisited for Roden. It wasn’t supposed to be this long, but I didn’t have enough time — as it goes — to make it shorter.
Brew some coffee, settle in, there’s that and more below.
Focus retreat announcement
Once again, I’m co-hosting the Focus retreat here in Japan with Jan Chipchase. It’s our third year doing this. It’s a highlight of the year for me.
Focus will be held October 1-4 in Yoshino, Japan. The theme, as always, is “side projects” and the structure is a mix of small presentations, locally prepared banquet-style meals, hot springs, led mountains walks (that’s some of last year’s crew in the photo above), Japanese history, and amazing company.
It’s not cheap ($3,250) but also not insanely expensive, all considered. The cost covers your meals, lodging, and activities. It’s definitely for the more adventurous of you out there. Sleeping spaces are shared (though split by gender) in the style of Japanese gasshuku retreats.
This year’s Focus was announced first to Explorers Club members last week giving them first dibs on the 15 attendee limit. Spots are filling up. We optimize for maximum diversity across genders, experiences, and ages.
You can apply here, using this form.
Some notes on the location: Yoshino is such a beautiful nook of a village about 80 kilometers south of Kyoto (I know this number because I’m going to be walking it in about two months). It’s true countryside, but it isn’t quite as depopulated as other towns. That said, its future is also not set, and revitalization and support is one of the many reasons we chose towns like this from which to run Focus. (Two years ago Focus was in Hida, and last year, Takigahara.)
Yoshino is the start of an old mountain ascetic training route. It also has some award winning architecture — both new and old — and we’re commandeering a restored farmhouse, and a Hasegawa Go modernist river cedar home.
Most attendees use the retreat as a jumping-off or finishing point to a larger Japan trip. We can help you plan that. Attendance is limited to fifteen people. I’m sending out this message to you all — Roden subscribers — before tweeting or Instagramming it. If you’re interested in attending, you can apply here, on this fabulous Google form.
A long, long walk
From April 15th I’m going on a pretty long walk across a big chunk of Japan. Not the longest walk, but also not the shortest. A good walk length, I think: six planned weeks. Possibly a few more (2? 3? 4?) depending on how I’m faring towards the end. Broadly, I’ll be walking from Tokyo to Kyoto along the historic Nakasendo highway. I wrote about it a bit over on Ridgeline: “Exquisite Boredom and the Long Walk."
(Ridgeline is my other newsletter, the walking-in-Japan newsletter; it’s weekly, I’m having a blast writing it — subscribe here!)
I ask for some advice at the bottom of that letter (and would love your input, too, readers of Roden): How should I “do” the walk, what should I be thinking about, what kind of output is worth considering, etcetera. I’d appreciate your thoughts.
I’m looking to understand the maximally possible version of the walk as to not miss the obvious or interesting. I will then pare the action down to a monastic shell of that extremity.
One thing I do have scheduled is a publishing experiment, which I’d love for you partake in:
SMS is the new email (or something)
The crux of the experiment is threefold:
- I am curious about using the network to publish without being used by it.
- I am curious about fleeting, non-permanent online gatherings.
- I’m curious about drawing “edges” around walks.
Walks are nothing if not rhythmic. Steps, breaths, days, etc. A walk over the course of six weeks is a set of polyrhythms at different scales.
As part of the rhythmic structure of the walk, I want a forcing function to get me to import, cull, select, and broadcast one image each day. That daily aspect is critical. But I don’t want to touch (let alone be within earshot of) the Homeric sirens of a platform like Instagram or YouTube or Twitter. I don’t want the din of breathless news headlines popping up on my phone. I’m just too wimpy. I’ll get sucked in. I want to minimize “intermittent variable rewards.” I want to be in the place in which I’m walking, and that place only.
So I’m going to be largely disconnected while I meander across Japan. I will have almost no apps on my phone, and will use Freedom (affiliate link alert) to block websites.
But if we’re disconnected, how do we publish? We lean on open, decentralized, minimalist technologies. Like SMS.
Some buddies in NYC — Josh Miller, Hursh Agrawal, and Josh Lee — have built me a tool that will be a one-to-many SMS (MMS to be exact) publishing platform. Think: Newsletters over SMS. (Or, think, twttr … but, not twttr.)
Here are the parameters of how this works:
- From April 15th to May 14th I will publish one image each day from my walk.
- You can respond over text to the image BUT …
- I won’t see the texts; they’ll be collated on the server and associated with the image.
- On May 14th, all of your numbers will be removed from the system and the “transmission” will end.
- A book will then be automatically generated with images on verso (left) pages, and your associated responses on recto (right) pages.
- That book will be print-on-demanded to my home in Japan.
- I’ll see it all if I survive the walk and make it back.
You can subscribe to this experiment by texting “walk” to the following number:
Non-US numbers should be able to subscribe. I believe we’ll send links to images (as opposed to image files) to international numbers so data rates shouldn’t be crazy. That said, check with your provider before signing up.
You’ll only get messages from me. It is not a group chat. We will never use your number for anything but this temporary list. You can unsubscribe at any time by texting “stop.” And you will be automatically unsubscribed — expunged from the database! — on May 14th when that section of the walk is completed. (After May 14 I enter the deep mountains, may not have cell reception, will be camping for days, and will be using my laptop to fight bears.)
This is very much experimental, and so I appreciate your patience and understanding ahead of time if anything weird happens or the whole thing breaks midway.
A/B empathy membershipping
We’re about 35 people away from getting to 300 Explorers Club members. So close!
Last Roden, I sent out a call-to-action to get us over that 300 line. But, I was a little sneaky. I ran a test.
I used three variants in the call-to-action text to test click-through / conversion rates. The question being — how much does language gently sway your willingness to click?
Here were the variations:
- “Core Explorers 300” — A neutral variant, the one I was originally going to go with before I thought to A/B test
- “Holy Shit 300” — The breathlessly optimistic, bro-y, obnoxious version
- “Please Shut Up Craig 300 — The self-deprecating, pathetic version
The results were … intriguing! Campaign Monitor doesn’t have the best A/B testing tools, so it was a little tricky figuring out precise percentages but “Core Explorers” did the worst with about 5% engagement. Next up was “Holy Shit” with 6.5%. And the winner, to my shock and dismay, was “Please Shut Up” at 8%. Not a huge variant, but meaningful enough. Considering how many subscriber are here, it adds up to a difference of hundreds of people.
The testing cohort (the cohort used to figure out which variant is most effective) was 6,000 subscribers. Once the winner was obvious, the rest of you (another 5,000 or so subscribers) got the “Please Shut Up” variant. So chances are, that’s the one you saw.
Some folks wrote in: “I hope nobody is telling you to shut up!” Nobody has told me to shut up … explicitly. But based on how you voted with with your wallets, there’s perhaps an implicit desire to see me (all of us newsletterers?) stop harking on about membership programs.
Good news: We’re so close to 300 members that you — yes you — can help me shut up about it by joining. Many, many, many thanks to those of you who helped stuff my horrible maw with your memberships.
(Is it working? Did you click?)
Advice to a young me:
Years ago I received an email from a young designer that said:
Hi Craig, I really admire your work.
Two questions for you:
What were you doing at 23?
What should I be doing at 23?
That was the whole email.
First of all, this isn’t a great email. I wouldn’t recommend emailing anyone this email. It’s too open ended. Feels like it’s been sent to a dozen folks. These are usually ignored. A better version would be more specific, less sweeping, and then — if you got a response — you could maybe wade into grander waters.
BUT. In spite of all that, for some reason — the only reason I can imagine is that I was on a plane when I read it, no internet, brain occupying that misty mind-space known as Plane Mood, a mood with more openness than Sea Level Mood — I responded. And forgot about it.
That very designer then mentioned me on Twitter the other day, out of the blue, saying that my response had had an impact on his decision making. The dread! The shame! I couldn’t remember it at all. But the sadistic mind of Gmail never forgets.
I opened the email with classic hand-over-eyes horror-film trepidation, peeking between fingers. It wasn’t nearly as detestably righteous as I had feared. It’s a bit cringe inducing but … I thought maybe I’d share and expand on a few parts of it.
Here’s what I was doing at 23:
… everything in my power to optimize for:
- Lowest recurring cost of living (living in small apartments, for example)
- Reinvesting all latent capital in making things that I had to make: books or applications or websites that demanded to be out there. Almost none of these projects made money.
- Traveling every chance I could — and spending as little money to do it (traveling in east Asia, staying in hostels, hitchhiking across Japan, etc).
And … drinking too much. Man, I drank a lot in my 20s.
Some caveats: I was lucky enough to not have crippling university debt (although when I went, it wasn’t nearly as expensive as it is now). Were I 18 today, I’d focus on minimizing school debt (this assumes school in the US; going to school outside of the US might be a good hack to skip the whole $200,000+ undergrad thing) to make sure my 23 year old self wouldn’t be working to pay off Philosophy 101 for the next thirty years. But this is essentially a variant on point #1 up above.
At 23 I was obsessed with minimizing recurring costs of living. They felt like poison to me. I managed to live in Tokyo with a baseline cost of about $1100/mo (for rent and food) which provided tremendous freedom. One of the great hacks of Tokyo is that cost of living is drastically cheaper than NYC or SF. True twenty years ago and even truer today as SF and NYC now require absurd salaries to enter much of the market. The corollary, of course, is that average salaries in Tokyo are much lower than NY or SF. So if you can get remote work, and be based in Japan, you’ve won the game.
Obsessing over minimized cost of living has a light-touch hint of Thoreau to it: the calculating, the measuring, the valuing of time.
“House: $28.12 1/2; Farm one year: $14.72 1/2 …” and on and on Thoreau wrote in Walden. “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediate or in the long run.”
Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism devotes a chapter to Thoreau. My favorite quote though is from Frédéric Gros on Thoreau’s processes: “[Thoreau] says: keep calculating, keep weighing. What exactly do I gain or lose?”
But why keep costs low? Why value time?
My email then continued:
By keeping those costs low and removing the necessity to do work that isn’t aligned with your personal goals, you have far fewer excuses not to be doing the work — which may or may not be immediately commercially viable — you feel compelled to do.
Let’s take this out of theory land and into examples. Here’s what I felt compelled to do.
By keeping my costs relatively low, at 23 to 30 I was able to (very broadly):
- Take a fairly low paying job as art director at an indie press
- Spend an inordinately high amount of time crafting some of our books
- Have our Icelandic printer be so enamored by the output that they mailed copies to designers around the world without telling us
- Get invited to be a judge for the Art Director’s Club in NYC
- Level up on connections
- Write about what I was doing (but publish little of that writing)
- Work on personal projects — data visualization, news visualization — that made no money
- Use those projects to form more connections in the computational art world (nothing works better for meeting someone you admire than having something impressive to share)
- Continue minimally hustling in the background with client work to cover my still low recurring cost of living (a month of intense work could cover a year of living)
- Get a Fabrica fellowship in Italy, meet more smart artists
- Keep writing in the background
- Inadvertently develop a bizarro skill set of print designer, web designer, web developer, writer
- Accidentally position myself to get involved with digital publishing when the Kindle/iPad arrived
- Write “Books in the Age of the iPad”
- Suddenly connect with the world at large
- Be invited to have yogurt with the CEO of Flipboard
- Move to Palo Alto two months later
In Palo Alto I turned 30. Worked with the most talented people I’ve ever met. And then a couple years later pulled back from it all.
I’m largely doing, once again, what I was doing at 23: Writing, connecting with curious people, doing things that don’t scale well, building tools, looking for ways to parlay that unscalable work into sustainability.
But the above waterfall of events was predicated on point #1 up above: no debt, and what could arguably be defined as pathological asceticism. Full disclosure: I lived in a 25 square meter box until I was 34. (In California I had roommates … but before moving out there, aside from a short sublet, I had never paid more than $600/mo in rent.)
Had I lived in a bigger apartment, or had an appetite for expensive things. Or measured my success purely on material gains, I couldn’t or wouldn’t have joined that publishing company, and I most certainly couldn’t have experimented as much as I did.
Of course, none of this is new. “You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life?” Marcus Aurelius spouted eons ago. And our buddy Thoreau extolled, “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.” (Which, let’s not forget, included having his mom do his laundry; a mom is a huge advantage!)
And Kevin Kelly puts it nicely: “More time is better than more money."
But is this asceticism useful? Why live in the tiny box? I am happy to acknowledge that perhaps none of it is worth the pain, and we should all just optimize for endless Dionysus-esque bacchanal orgies. (I’ll give that path a try next life.)
For now — here’s the core ’graph from my email (additional notes in s):
… by developing a habit of simplified living / living optimized around experiences or the ephemeral [as opposed to material], you will build up a tremendous super-power, deployable later in life. I didn’t realize until I hit my 30s, but if you don’t start learning how to live simply [(or value your success with metrics outside the standard bucks-in-the-bank model)], if you don’t learn how to travel well [“well” being defined by with depth, empathy, curiosity, and openness, not luxury], if you don’t build up the self-discipline to do the work you want to do in your 20s, it’s much more difficult to do so in your 30s. Almost impossible in your 40s.
Why? Because most of us surround ourselves with others who support our decisions. If you want to be a photographer but keep putting it off, and instead have spent a decade becoming a great banker, chances are you will have subconsciously assembled a cohort of folks who support the non-photographer you. [Not only to do they support the non-photographer you, but it’s likely they won’t get why you’d want to be a photographer. Furthermore, I’ve noticed folks sometimes see you wanting to be something they aren’t as an affront. They may read it as an implicit criticism of their life choices and push back even harder.]
This creates a tremendous conundrum — you are now forced to become a sociopath to become that [other] person you want to be. i.e., you have to leave your friends to stake out that new path.
Maybe it’s not so black and white in the real world (as opposed to airplane armchair philosophy world), which I also acknowledged:
That sounds paranoid. But I’ve seen it happen time and time again. Which leads to — when you’re 23 you should be doing all you can to search out, and bring close, mentors and friends who embody general archetypes of what you want to become. Goofy as it sounds: You are the average of the five people closest to you. I’ve found that the most powerful tool to achieving something is being able to look at someone nearby who has done something similar.
This is why it’s misguided and, quite frankly, stupid, to say to folks who are down on their luck: “Hey, just work harder.” Not only is “working harder” tough in and of itself, but if you don’t have a single archetype of someone nearby to show you how to work smarter (working “harder” is an idiotic thing to say to people that have four jobs) it’s exponentially more difficult to fix your situation. This is also why encouraging inspiring, exceptional people to become public school teachers is so powerful …. It levels the playing field for access to influential archetypes.
“Bringing close mentors and friends who embody archetypes of who you want to become” should be a life-long activity. All the better — like investing in index funds — to start doing so earlier than later. Much like smart, early, financial decisions, the investment in your group will pay greater and greater dividends moving forward. The rich don’t only get richer, but the well-connected and interesting become even more well-connected and increasingly interesting.
In conclusion, I wrote:
It’s OK to prune friends. Be ruthless. Both in getting away from those who bring you down, and in trying to get closer to those who inspire.
I mean, don’t be a jerk, but be smart and self-aware, and recognize when relationships are, as they say, “toxic,” and take a few steps back (you can create distance from people without axing them in the back).
I have two quirky additions to say to the 23 year old me (well, I have about 50 more points, but let’s leave it with these two for now):
- Put a little more of that money you saved by being frugal into the stock market (no-fee index funds, etc). This may seem really dumb and reductive, but it’s foolish and unfair (and speaks to a brokenness of how we structure society, really) that a few smart moves made when you’re 20 — a hundred dollars here or there over the course of years — can completely alter your life when you’re 40. This dovetails with valuing experience over the material. The habit of not feeling the need to buy x or y or z opens up a stream of capital to be placed into the magical “future freedom” index fund box.
- Somewhat counter intuitively: Consider going to work for a big player in your industry. I wish I had joined a publishing house in NYC when I was 25, just for a year or two. Like an apprenticeship. I think it would have leveled me up much more rapidly than I did on my own. The problem here, though, is that as Nassim Nicholas Taleb is oft quoted, ‘The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.’ But sometimes that’s a risk worth taking. I have one friend who every three years or so flip-flops between company-life and the creating-in-solitude-life. It seems to work really well for her.
Does any of this make sense? I realize the above is messy, but this is the fun of Roden.
Life is a bunch of habits. Make good ones early. Try to expunge bad ones quickly. Be self aware. Jerks make you jerky. Smart, creative people make you smarter and more creative.
As I said somewhere up above, I was drinking a lot in my 20s. I didn’t cut that out until I hit 30, and I really wish I had cut it sooner. It was dumb, and definitely a form of self-harm. For some people, moderation isn’t an option. If you’re one of those folks, don’t feel bad about nixing it completely. That’s what I had to do. And I’m glad I did it, even though I wish I had done it sooner.
(Bitters, soda water, and lime is a great bar drink.)
Phew. Lord, that was a lot of stuff.
In summary, some calls to action:
- Apply to join the Focus retreat in Japan in October if that’s your thing
- Text “walk” to +1-424-543-0510 to join my temporary SMS publication connected to my walk across Japan — April 15 to May 14
- Support my work and get me to “shut up” by becoming an Explorers Club member
- Look into opening a brokerage account (Etrade, Schwab, Interactive Brokers) and buying a few index funds (disclaimer: I think I’m supposed to say this is not financial advice, but if you think I’m a financial advisor, or know what I’m talking about, then I would like some of that LSD you’re micro-dosing)
Anyway. Love you folks.
Keep calculating, keep weighing. What do we gain or lose?