• On productivity, complexity and living in London

    by  • February 23, 2009 • Personal • 0 Comments

    In Iceland I would typically work about 60 to 80 hours a week. Much of that work was pretty invisible – it was long days spent away from all personal contact (except chatting online with friends from time to time) really thinking through incredibly fundamental assumptions. My working habits while in high output mode are odd – I skip breakfast and work until about 9PM, then eat and sleep. It’s not a particularly good way of life from a physical perspective, but I’ve found it to roughly double my intellectual output.

    I did that probably eight months of 2007 and a good bit of 2008. Long stretches, short breaks, long stretches. I’d see maybe five people in a week.

    My output was incredible: CheapID, Six Ways To Die, Global Swadeshi, my bits of STAR-TIDES including arrangements for the first Pentagon demo, Severe Pandemic Flu Strategies, the State in a Box concept, a ton of work on commercializing the hexayurt with some US guys, a ton of other small consulting and activism stuff… it was really a white hot couple of years. I probably put on 40 lbs hahahah.

    Still, it did lay a foundation that I expect to be operating off for some years to come. But it was a fundamentally out of balance lifestyle for all that it produced a sort of mental clarity more associated with long meditation retreats more than policy work.

    Now I’m at the opposite extreme in London. I’m swimming in people. I see people three or four days a week. Sometimes every day. There’s an office with people I get to know, rather than me, my trees outside the window, and a laptop. And a city, that isn’t the manageable Reykjavik, but the utterly unruly and beyond-knowing expanse of London. And the local network is made up of people with vast models and deep perspectives. I’ve gone from being able to spend six weeks figuring out precise relationships between entities in what amounted to total stillness to being part of cultural movements and tides, shifts as ideas roll through my social sphere and either find support or scorn. It’s a totally different way of life and work.

    I feel deeply unproductive here on a simple intellectual capital level. There are certainly breakthroughs, but they’re conversational model synchronization and forming shared plans of action, rather than Deep Thought (tm.) It’s not unsatisfying, particularly given that I was out about as far on the limb in the other direction as I was going to get, but it’s not the same as having an ivory tower from which to survey the world and make my own personal plans. Being part of a society and a culture is very different from getting as far outside the culture as I could to get some real survey-level perspective.

    Anyway, the bottom line is that joining up the pieces I built with the pieces other people have spent their 10 or 30 years building produces working machines far faster than further mapping and comprehension efforts will. I’m now confident enough that I know what I’m doing and what my fundamental statement is (“it’s all about infrastructure financing”) that I’m happy enough to push and pull the world in the direction I think it should go with minimal fear that I’m making profound mistakes and guiding it the wrong way. Enough of the people around me have arrived at similar conclusions in their own areas of expertise that we can seriously look at assembling whole systems to address society-wide problems with mutual support between the various facets of a general-case solve.

    Am I serious? Yes. We’re at a point where Victorian-style infrastructure and Mediaeval-style government structure are wholly unable to handle the international and global challenges to healthy society and civil order, and even worse, they cannot effectively address the borough-by-borough concerns of citizens at large.

    Getting the garbage pickup wrong everywhere or nearly everywhere is a symptom. Inability to get a doctor’s appointment when you need one is a symptom. These are mismatches between the services provided by the system, and the needs of the individual, and the system stomps on alternative strategies. Try and imagine what it takes to get a private garbage pickup service licensed in London.

    So, a new kind of productivity for me: not beavering away in obscurity in my beloved ivory tower producing components and building social networks, but close partnerships and collaborations to combine those components with other people’s systems and the real ground situation to ship solutions at a national and international level.

    Who wants to play ball?

    hexayurt at gmail.com

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    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


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