“I have this wish that more people will come forward to collaborate in building up some infrastructure for what we know, that we might use together to make better sense of the world.”
– Jerry Michalski
About Jerry Michalski
On this episode we learn from the incredible connector Jerry Michalski. His fascinating career is hard to summarise, playing a central role in the emerging digital economy as long time managing editor of Esther Dyson’s Release 1.0 newsletter. He is now leader at the Relation Economy Expedition (REX) as well as an advisor facilitator and speaker at the Institute For The Future with a deep focus on trust and relationships
Medium: Jerry Michalski
LinkedIn: Jerry Michalski
Twitter: Jerry Michalski
YouTube: Jerry Michalski
What you will learn
- How the word consumer started his journey to collaboration (02:21)
- He still uses a 23 year old software called TheBrain (05:45)
- Why he is sharing his brain… (17:47)
- …and it’s the only asset he will pass on. (20:01)
- How and why he’s building a more collaborative brain (21:26)
- Delicious still has no successor (23:54)
- What information sources does Jerry use (27:18)
- In spite of all his information, he feels less overwhelm (31:36)
- On connections and serendipity (33:51)
- His routines and structures (36:01)
- He has a collection of mental models and thinking frameworks (38:54)
- OODA loops and virtous circles (42:12)
- Being a pattern hound (44:04)
- Using dialogue to enhance his and collective models (47:56)
Jerry Michalski: It is a great pleasure to be here, and it’s nice to have a chance to talk with you as well.
Ross: Yes, it’s been too long. I’ve got to say you’re certainly one of the very first people that sprung to mind when I thought about people who are excellent at thriving on overload.
Jerry: I love that. Thank you.
Ross: We’ll try to go through in a little bit of the frame we have around Thriving on Overload; firstly around purpose. In a world of information, how have you developed the clarity of filtering information, or how do you find what’s relevant to you? Where does that come from for you?
Jerry: I can point to two things. One of them is an insight, and the other one is an accident. A long time ago, both of the events happened within a couple of years in the mid-90s, when I was a tech industry trends analyst; not a Wall Street analyst, I don’t care what next quarter’s earnings are going to be, but is AI going to kill us or save us? Or where should we apply neural networks? Those were the things I was looking into back then.
The thing that was an insight was one day, there were a couple of briefings I can point to when I suddenly realized that I didn’t like the word consumer. At the time, I was working for Esther Dyson, who was the doyen of the tech industry. I said, Hey, this word bothers me, and she said it’s just a term of art in the ad business. My little inner voice, which I’ve learned to listen to a lot, said, Hey, no, there’s something much more profound going on here. Word consumer is a symptom of a much deeper problem. This is my advice to young people, pay attention to that little inner voice, because really often it’s giving you a very good clue.
For me, it gave me the clue that we’ve consumerized our world that involved the whole series of breaches of trust, and that whole mission took me deep into the notion of trust. I have a whole bunch of things I’ve thought about, which are weirdly about institutional design around trust. If you wanted to create a high-performance, high-trust team, I can point you to other people; that’s not my issue, but really, why did we design our whole world around mistrust, is the question. That was the insight that led to a quest, to a path of inquiry for me that is rich and live to this day.
Then the accident, the serendipity was that back then I was writing Esther’s newsletter, and I decided to write about bookmark management & mind mapping. I’m not sure why I picked those two things. This was back in the early days of the web, and browsers, and all that. Even back then everybody knew that the bookmark feature in your browser sucks, and nobody uses it, so what else might we do to save the breadcrumbs of where we’ve been. I’m halfway done writing the issue, I’m unhappy with everything I’m seeing, and this little company had booked a visit, the company had a piece of software called TheBrain. I remember making the appointment with a little eye-roll, going, TheBrain? It turns out that this piece of software was exactly how my brain worked.
I wrote about them, I invited them to our conference, and I started using their software, not knowing that 23 years later, I’d still be using their software, really not knowing that 23 years later, I would be curating the same data file that I started the very first day I started using it. My path to being able to cope with information is highly unusual, arguably unique, and has a lot to do with my passion combined with this weird tool that lets me collect up what I see and hang it in the right place, almost like ornaments on a Christmas tree, or pieces of a puzzle. The world’s largest puzzle is how does the world work? I’m busy snapping little pieces in place, which gives me a little oxytocin hit, which causes the lather, rinse, repeat addiction response to kick in. The time that other people would spend maybe putting a link in a spreadsheet or somewhere, I put adding a link to this one curated mind map.
Ross: It’s probably a good time to tell us what is TheBrain?
Jerry: TheBrain is a mind mapping piece of software. The easiest way to show you is to share my screen.
Ross: Some people will just be listening to the podcast, so can you describe that?
Jerry: Okay, I’ll describe it as a football announcer. The mind map has a blue background and words or phrases, mostly phrases, linked by lines. The color scheme that I use is the color scheme that this thing shipped with 23 years ago, a dark blue background with a little bit of fading at each side, a little bit of gradient, words mostly in white on this dark background, lines in a light blue, and occasionally, I use the colors yellow or purple as highlights. I just took us to a thought because it’s called TheBrain, every node is called a thought. I just took us to a thought I called Lessons from my Brain. Under here are a whole bunch of different thoughts, one of my favorites, because it’s an unusual insight, is that we are an amnesic society.
What I mean by this is that, because we’re not storing things in a way that we can refer to them with each other, we’re stupider than we normally would be. We have cultural amnesia. Gore Vidal famously once said that America is an amnesic nation, we have no memory, we don’t care about history, all of that. I’ve got this little tool where, for example, I’ve been tracking the Trumpocalypse, and everything from Trump before he started running for office, all the way through the campaign, his presidency, the January 6 insurrection, and all that, I’m a little bit of a newshound, so all those events are sequenced in this little memory, except everything you’re seeing in this Brain I put in by hand, and it’s just me with this weird little artifact, and I’m dying to be collaborating with other people to create a shared memory, except the tool doesn’t really do shared memory very well.
My passion project right now is called Open Global Mind, and we’ll get into that. Open Global Mind answers the question. What if there was an open collaborative thing like this, but also like Kumu, Miro, and other tools that help you visualize and analyze information? I’ve been hacking this tool a little bit, to do things that are different than unusual, like storytelling, or gathering evidence, or simple things. An easy way to demonstrate it, if you want to go there, is I was a tech industry trends analyst, and I needed to know who competes with whom, who founded what company, who funded what company, what PR companies represented them, and all of that; I can cruise through that information in this tool easier than any database I’ve ever seen, and easier than anything else. It just snapped in place at the right moment for me. Different people have different representational schemes. My wife has a calendric memory. It’s like she’s flipping through the calendar in her head, and I don’t know what I did last week, without the aid of my artificial calendar. This thing happens to really fit how I represent things.
Ross: Would it be accurate to describe this as a mind map where each of the element clicks is a hyperlink to another mind map?
Jerry: This is actually one big mind map. We have an amnesic society. Amnesia is under memory. There’s also elective memory loss, then there’s institutionalized amnesia, organizational amnesia, social amnesia, a whole bunch of different kinds of things. Apparently, Henry Gustav Molaison was studying amnesia. He had students named Brenda Milner and Suzanne Corkin. Molaison wrote about patient H.M. who had a traumatic brain injury, etc. You see that I’m basically making these links. All these little links between the thoughts, I’ve put in by hand, because these things are related to each other.
Ross: This gets to a really fundamental point. Let’s say you have a new piece of information, you find an article or resource, how in your mind do you go through the process of working out where that fits in your Brain?
Jerry: It’s really simple. Before we go forward, I just want to correct myself, Molaison wasn’t a scientist, he, in fact, was an accidental research subject because he had a lobotomy after a traumatic brain injury, and suddenly things happened to his memory that changed everything, so here’s a couple of articles titled “The brain that changed everything”. Sorry about that. Do you see anything in the flow of information in your day that’s worth remembering?
Jerry: Me too. It turns out that I probably see 50 or 60 things every day that are really worth remembering. Then there’s a lot of flotsam and jetsam that I let go by. The first decision is, is this worth remembering? The second decision is where would it go? I’m curious about everything. I was just on YouTube, and right there on the side, there was an explanation and simulation of the ExxonMobil Refinery Explosion in Torrance, California, in 2015. I clicked on it and started going there. Then I decided, that’s interesting. I already had a couple of refinery accidents. One, I had the attack in Saudi Arabia, and then I had a Texas City one, so I added the animation that I just watched. I just dragged it into my Brain, creating this thought in the meantime, under Refinery Accidents and Incidents, which is under Oil Refineries and Types of Accidents.
Just to illustrate, here are types of accidents, which are GPS accidents, ice skating falls, roadkill, satellite accidents, wardrobe malfunctions, remember Janet Jackson? That’s an accident, or maybe not. Then just to show you how absurd this gets when you start doing it for a long time, one day, I realized I had a lot of types of thoughts, so I created an Uber thought called Types. Here are types of abuse, types of accident, types of activism, types of addiction, types of advertising, types of age, aircraft, alcohol, and anarchy. At this level, it’s just fun to wander around. This is not a useful thought for me.
We’ve just gotten to the seas here, types of capital, this is a scroll bar down here, so you can see that there’s an awful lot of collections of types, some of which are really interesting, like, variants of capitalism is really interesting. How many different ways that people titled capitalism, both destructive capitalism and attempts to reform capitalism, I collect all that stuff, which means that later when I find a new article about the same thing, I’m actually putting it into the same context and making that part of my Brain richer and better. I publish my Brain openly online, so anybody can go browse through it.
Ross: Coming back to purpose, what is it that makes something you want to keep in your Brain or not?
Jerry: When I first started using this, I was a tech industry trends analyst. The company Edify, for example, I don’t have much around them because they are all around an interactive voice response, they got some money from Greylock management. Then if I click on Greylock management, we’ll see that they also invested in Dig, Crunch Fund, and Coda. These lists are out of date. I don’t make any claim that these lists are complete. But obviously, there was a purpose for my use of this tool for my job immediately back in 1998,1999, 2000. Then, I was like, I can store everything here.
As I said, I’m on this quest around the word consumer and trust but I’m curious about everything. I then started arranging this slowly over time. You know how when you’re a blogger or a podcaster, you suddenly realize, Oh, I have to have fresh content for the blog. There’s never been a day in my last 23 years, when I was like, Oh, I must add something to my Brain today because there was no reason to, but every day, naturally, 10 to 50 things showed up that were worth remembering.
I would then get into this quick habit of adding something to my Brain, which is really a quick act; it can be under a minute. I can take something, an article worth remembering, and just drop it in. Over time because there’s a part of me that’s trying to digest how the world works, and then transform that into insights, I have a process that I call Design from Trust, that I’m trying to stand up as a practice, where the assumption is we lost trust in humans, but then we went and designed all of our institutions from the basis of mistrust of the average person; if we flip that equation, what does that look like? That’s all here in TheBrain. I’ve got it all cataloged here, I just haven’t written the book about it.
Ross: Do you ever use paper or any other visual tools outside TheBrain?
Jerry: I have next to me a little Squirrel pad. I use it rarely. I can only write on graph paper, on Squirrel paper, only on one side of the page, this is an old habit from 30 years ago, and only with the pen; I can’t use a pencil anymore. I have a little metal clipboard that I love. Then I have an iPad, and I use a drawing app on it. But I use them all occasionally.
Ross: Essentially, this is where you capture and organize your thoughts?
Jerry: Exactly. Now, I don’t do outlining for an article. Let’s say I’m writing a post somewhere, I would have a link to the post here in my Brain but the outline for the post would be in Google Docs, or medium, or wherever it is I’m writing the piece. I don’t use TheBrain for outlining. You easily could and many people do. I just don’t do that, partly because I feel like I’m serving two audiences. One is just me and my idiosyncratic use of this tool to remember stuff, but because I’ve been publishing my Brain online for a really long time, at least 15 years, I have a second audience which is whoever trips across this thing and decides to try to use it, for which, thank you very much, but I want to make this clear enough that people can find their way through and run into stuff that’s actually very useful to them. I have a thought that people are generally more trustworthy than we think they are, which is one of my beliefs. I have a thought called My Beliefs right here.
I think this is really interesting and useful, and I can show you why I think this, and who said it, I’ll let you know. I was at South by Southwest years ago, and Craig Newark and Jimmy Wales interviewed each other. They said this sentence basically twice within the 90 minutes that they were talking because both Craigslist and Wikipedia are designed from the trust. That’s what got me started thinking about how these things all click together. I won’t claim that this curating has given me the different kinds of ideas that I now have, but it sure has helped. It really helped, so when I’m trying to remember what was that article I saw 10 years ago, and chances are that Google has forgotten about the article because Google loves things that have fresh inbound links. PageRank is like who is linking to this piece, and if a piece wasn’t popular, or was long ago, it’s probably fallen off of Google’s memory. Thank God, the Internet Archive has the Wayback Machine, because I use that all the time to basically do CPR on dead web links.
I don’t get rid of broken links in my Brain, partly because as Nassim Taleb tells us, we don’t hear from the graveyard often enough. One of the things I can do is somebody shows up and says, Hey, we have a cool new group calendaring app, and I can say to them, you want to see the couple 100 companies that have died trying to do this? Can I show you who tried and died? Maybe we can talk about what special secret sauce do you have that’s going to make sure you survive?
Ross: Just want a comment on the point of saying, alright, I’m going to open this up for the whole world to see the inside of my Brain.
Jerry: First, there was no reason not to. I can check a little box, so if I click on a link, it gives me a little dialog box. Then over here, there’s a little lock symbol; if I click on the lock, it makes this particular thought private. Now and then as I synchronize to the cloud, to TheBrain’s web servers, whenever I sync, that refreshes, and I do that several times a day, which puts the most up-to-date version on the cloud. Anything I marked as private, nobody else gets to see it. I can protect the things that I care to protect, and I don’t protect very much. I’ll give a speech inside a company that nobody outside the company is meant to know about, that thought is private. But the people I meet who are employees of the company, I attach them to the company, and I make them publicly visible. Nobody needs to know where we met, that linking thought is for me. My notion of the benefits of publishing this publicly has obviously grown over time, as this has become a bigger asset, as I’ve done more thinking about what it means to work like this in public, etc. I’m a little bit vulnerable for doing this, so I do have that thought called My Beliefs.
You can very easily infer my political stance and a bunch of other things from how I arrange things in my Brain. My intentions there are to actually have conversations of other people who’ve done something similar. I’m anxiously looking forward to a conversation with a QAnon fan, who has done some curating not necessarily in TheBrain, but somewhere, to try to build a factual argument for any piece of what they believe. Okay, so pedophiles are in charge of the government, great, where’s your evidence? And how does it fit together? Or anti-vaxxers? Or just conservatives? I’m more on the liberal side but I have plenty of critique of liberal beliefs. I’m using this to sort through what do I believe? And then not just what do I believe, but why?
Ross: That’s wonderful. You have shared extensively on social media at various times in various channels over the years, so this is perhaps the biggest sharing, you’re sharing TheBrain and everything with your Brain marking. How does this relate then to your other social sharing?
Jerry: It’s funny, I’m Twitter user number 509. Ed Williams is a friend, but a different friend of mine basically said, Hey, try this when it was still just an SMS service. I don’t have a zillion followers, but I’ve been on Twitter since it was born, and I’ve used other social media, but I have no large audience anyplace. My wife and I recently were doing our wills, and the only asset I have that matters to me when I pass on is this thing. The only asset I have that matters is my Brain. It’s easy to fund a server still being alive to serve up TheBrain contents frozen on the day of my death. Okay. But a really interesting question is, how might there be other people who then pick up and start using this as a sourdough starter, and then keep going? The project I’m doing now Open Global Mind, one small motive for that project is to get me out into a more open collaborative tool with other humans doing this so that what I’ve done is just a starter for some new layer. Think of this as on top of Wikipedia, but different.
Ross: Tell us about the tool, where that’s at, and where it’s going?
Jerry: OGM, Open Global Mind isn’t actually trying to build a tool, we’re trying to first look around for open source products that exist. There’s a thing called Graphviz, which does visualization; there are a few other bodies of open source code. We’re also trying to motivate existing vendors to write toward each other so that their tools can interoperate, and to separate themselves from their proprietary data formats. Almost everybody has seen Minority Report, and they have that Tom Cruise scene where he’s doing the analysis and flipping things around, isn’t that cool? Some of our geek friends were actually advisors on that movie, so it’s a really good simulation. Although I’m not a huge fan of VR gloves, and all that stuff but imagine a conversation between people using different kinds of tools for memory, and connecting ideas, and building arguments, who weren’t just trapped in little rectangles with a chat on the side but instead were in idea land, and when you showed me something you believed in an argument that I really liked, I could grab it and link it into mine, and say, for this topic, refer to this thing Ross just did.
I already have referred to you in my Brain, I’ve got a bunch of stuff around you and things you’ve written in posts, and that’s an interesting start. But what does this look like at the next level when we’re starting to think together? And when we’re starting to set up experiments or arguments to try to convince other people to do something? So heading down that road.
Ross: I sometimes think that the defining theme of where my life is going is collective intelligence.
Jerry: That’s fabulous. Collective intelligence, collaborative sense-making, hive mind, whatever term you want, that’s the place where we’re aiming. Then there’s a whole bunch of small subgroups. There’s a bunch of people who are fans of subtle custom, which was a system developed by Niklas Luhmann with index cards and a coding scheme, and they’re emulating that in software. Then there’s the cult of Rome research, which is doing backlink key outlines; then there’s a bunch of others, and none of us are connected to each other. Each of these is like its own frothy little cult. I’m really interested in what does it look like when a heavy Rome user, who’s done a lot of this work, and I talked to one another? And what can we build together?
Ross: One of the things that hopped off for me is actually social bookmarking and Delicious, and so on, which was a big loss when that disappeared. Is there anything now that you feel in terms of social bookmarking or other things that are useful?
Jerry: I was not a Delicious user, because I was already a Brain user, but Delicious was the closest thing to TheBrain without any of the visual aspects, but certainly the social side of it was more than TheBrain, the shared links, the hash-tagging, a bunch of other interesting stuff, and I regret the day Yahoo bought them. I, even more, regret the day that they went under, and Joshua Schachter is now driving sports cars. I’m like dude, couldn’t you have just funded this thing to stay up as a server? A lot of old Delicious users wound up on Pinboard, which is a mediocre substitute. Then there are a couple of other tools that are picking up some of that but don’t quite have the magic or the community because, for example, C19, as a hashtag on Delicious, was a rallying cry for historians who cared about the 19th century.
They were using a C19 to share what they knew in a beautiful way. I totally agree, Delicious was a huge loss when it went away. We need a lot more things like that, that can play nicely with things like this Brain tool, with Graphviz, with Kumu, and with other kinds of tools. I don’t know why more people aren’t interested in that space where we can enrich the way we communicate.
Ross: Yes, it does seem that there’s less happening now than there was, unfortunately.
Jerry: Yes and no, because the little cults that I talked about are new. A lot of those are new, frothy, and interesting. Whether it’s personal knowledge management, or personal knowledge graphs, or network knowledge graphs, there’s a whole bunch of subcategories, I’ve got most of them named in my Brain and collected up. They’re all trying hard to figure this thing out, and many of these people are really good bloggers or chroniclers of their activities, on whatever medium you want. If you want to get in those conversations, they’re openly available; but you’re right, in another way, a lot of this stuff has died off, and there isn’t a great deal of interest.
Ross: I will have a look at your Brain to find those references.
Jerry: I’m happy to send you links or whatever. A nice thing is that I can send a shortened link to any particular thought, any specific thought in my Brain to anybody. That’s easier than going to Jerrysbrain.com, clicking on launch Jerry’s Brain, and then trying to use the search function, which is okay, but slow. You can get around that way but it’s so much easier if I send you someplace directly in the middle of TheBrain.
Ross: Actually, that would be awesome to get the direct links for where you were referring to earlier in the podcast so that people can track our conversation and to delve into what we’ve just been chatting about.
Jerry: We can add them to the comments, no problem.
Ross: What are your information sources? The things that you use regularly? How do you choose those sources? How do you find broader sources beyond that? What is your structure for finding and using your sources?
Jerry: I’m no scientist or information technologist about this stuff. It’s been a pretty organic thing. I love the New York Times because I lived in New York for five years and got really used to it and its writing style. For example, there have been plenty of controversies about its agendas and whatnot over the last couple of election cycles, but I have a lot of references there, and that’s the only paper that I will regularly go look at. I only look at it online, I don’t get anything delivered on paper anymore at all. Then I subscribed to a bunch of different newsletters most recently, probably Heather Cox Richardson, the historian, who’s doing political commentary, no opinion. There’s a whole bunch of people, and I’ll turn them off once they’re less relevant for me, so I’ll unsubscribe.
I spend a bunch of time trying to unsubscribe from things because I get way too much mail. I also know way too many humans who are interesting, and every now and then they’ll throw something overboard. But for me, the social network is the source of my best links. I’ve been careful about curating who I follow on Twitter. If you treat Twitter like Facebook, and you just follow your friends, your Twitter feed will be trashy, it’ll be awful, and you’ll be like, God, Twitter’s just terrible. But if you’re careful about who you follow, then I see world news hits first in my Twitter feed before CNN gets it, before I hear it anywhere else. If I happen to be looking over at Twitter, and there’s an earthquake somewhere or an explosion somewhere, or something, it’ll start there.
I rely on Twitter for contemporary newsy stuff. I rely on my social network, that’s just lots of people and a few newsletters for the bulk of things. I don’t really subscribe to many publications, summaries like ZDNet, or The Economist, or whoever, they’ll send out, Hey, here is a bit, and I’m like if there was a good article in your publication today, I will hear about it some other way. I don’t subscribe because every organization is going to send you 20 great things every day, and that’s just way too much, that’s overload. I do get the feeling of overload periodically in doing what I’m doing. In particular, I will add, because I’ve been obsessive about this Brain thing and trying to figure out how to digest the world at the expense of making a normal income, and all those kinds of things, I’m devoting a lot of time to doing this, even though it’s a quick act to add something new to it, and only a couple of times I’ve sat down and thought, Oh, crap, I’m having a feeling of overwhelm.
That’s happened a couple of times during lockdown, but really only twice. At those moments, I’d got way too many tabs open that I wanted to filter into my Brain, I just came up with three great conversations, I’m done, I’m spent. Also this little feeling of maybe I’ve just lost a grip on what’s happening in the world. I don’t usually get to the point of I should just give up. I fall short of just throwing my hands up and deciding to give up, but trying to be a little coral polyp on the reef filtering the nutrients that go by is an ongoing act. You’re always wafting with the current picking up like, oh, that’s good. I wish many more people did this because what I see that’s important, and pick out depends on my filters, my worldview, and how I think the world works, and I’m really interested in other people’s worldview, and the tools like this make it really easy to model, explain, elaborate and then show your worldview. I find that to be really important.
Ross: You’re getting to the essence of what this is all about. I’ve got to say, if you had that feeling of overwhelm only a couple of times, then you’re doing better than most people.
Jerry: I think I feel less overwhelmed than most because I have a very productive way to put things in a place where I know I’ll find them again. David Allen is the Getting Things Done guy; he says, you have a whole bunch of open loops in your head, you need to put them in a system that is reliable, where you know, where you don’t have this worry that you’re going to miss a loop and drop something. He helps you design a reliable system. I’m terrible at GTD, although I took a couple of David’s workshops.
I’m terrible at GTD but I’m really good at knowing that what I’ve put something in TheBrain and then linked it up a little bit thoughtfully, and I failed to go through the rest of my logics for when I put things in TheBrain, that I’ll find that again, that it’s now more useful than it was before, and that it’s in its context. It’s like it has found its little home. Going back a moment ago. First, is it worth remembering? Second, what is it part of? What does it connect to? I’ve got enough things in my Brain that there’s almost always a place I can go to, so I go there. I don’t know if you noticed, but I have my screen always set up where TheBrain is flush right and the browser is flush left, and there’s an inch gap. The only reason I do that is that the easiest way to add something to TheBrain is to grab the URL, the little icon next to the URL, I grab that and I drag it across into the blue background of TheBrain.
TheBrain goes, Oh, you’re adding a thought, under the current thought, I should pick up the name of the file and whatever URL you’ve got, and create a new thought. That’s what it does, and 80% of the time, it does a pretty darn good job of that, and I’m done adding the thought; but the other 20% of the time, I have to go clean it up, edit it, move around the text, which is easy to do. Then I sit down and I think what else should I connect this to? Because this isn’t a hierarchy, TheBrain is not just like top-down. It’s a multi-directed graph of some sort. I know nothing about graph theory, but TheBrain doesn’t care if I make circular references, or if I over link or whatever, so I’m really interested in connecting things to things that are similar. My Brain is a very happy pattern finder. I do lots and lots of patterns over matching and linking up which means then when I come in to find something, I’m like, who was that woman who did the paper on whatever? I can usually find my way to it.
Ross: You mentioned serendipity before. When you’re out exploring or finding, is there any way in which serendipity is more likely to happen in what you discover?
Jerry: Serendipity, curiosity, and innovation are not things that I worry about, I have no scarcity of any of those. There are a lot of reasons why. One of them is that I keep a bunch of open channels, and I have a bunch of friends who will send me stuff. Another one is that I’m curious about everything, and I’m always nosing in corners looking for stuff. Years ago, when I was 35 years old, I finally read my first good history book, and that gave me the nose for Oh, wait a minute, history doesn’t have to be about there was this battle on this date, and here’s who won; you can actually peel back the curtain and see what was going on; isn’t that cool?
That led me to a different form of inquiry that helps me go through and connect things up. One of the big motivators for me was James Burke’s series Connections, which aired on PBS here in the US, but then it was a book as well. It was all about serendipity, and connections. So someone used Limelight, which was made popular in theaters as a way of lighting the stage, and turned it into a signaling system between the semaphore stations. Then suddenly you have the Saturn V rocket, remember that episode? My mind works a lot like that. Also, I have successfully preserved a child’s curiosity and openness to finding new stuff. I’m busy trying to figure out how other people think.
I want to know why people voted for Trump. I don’t think they were all misogynist, racist, homophobic assholes. I think a lot of them, for example, wanted to break the system. They really wanted to shatter a system that was nonfunctional for them. They were like, this guy with his bull in the china shop approach is very likely to break the system enough that we’re going to have to get a new system. That’s a logic to me. That makes a lot of sense because I think the system is broken, too. I just would fix it a different way, but look how far I’ve gotten.
Ross: Do you have any routines or structures during the day or the week? Are there times of day when you scan sources, or think about things, or do deep dives?
Jerry: This is a great and painful question to answer. The thing I should be doing is I should eat the frog, as they say, every morning. The night before, I should set up with the one most important thing I could do the next day, and then just do that and ignore everything else for the first couple of hours, and my life would be very different had I figured out how to do that. Instead, I try to get through my email and I start following things. Before you know it, I’m curating my Brain, adding stuff in, which is beneficial in the sense of these were all little pieces of the puzzle, but not great in the sense of, I probably should have sent that email today.
I think I’m overly in the dig, click, connect, and weave mode. I think of TheBrain as a modern loom. I think of this as me weaving information together because the little lines between thoughts are very much like the warp and weft of a fabric. Weaving is one of the earliest technologies. The only problem is everything that was woven rotted and went away, and the people who made large stone monuments to themselves survived because the stone is more durable than fabric, which is a shame. Because the weaving was really important, it was how we stayed alive to carry stuff, to get dressed, and whatever else. The pyramids served no particular useful purpose I can see.
Metaphorically, similarly, I’m really interested in how we might together weave what we know together, so we don’t have to keep having the same stupid arguments over and over again. I apologize to go back to Trump for a second, but if the American press corps had agreed with some memory device, and said, hey, these six lies that he’s been saying over and over again, let’s all agree that the next time he utters that lie, any one of these six, there’s just 6/3 real things, we will turn off the camera, stand up and walk out of the room together. Can we just agree on that? Okay, good.
I don’t know that that would have solved the problem but it would have been a little bit of animal conditioning, to show Trump that his assumption that the news media could not shut its eye and leave might be wrong. Having a shared memory for journalists might have been a good thing. For me, the idea that we don’t have a shared memory makes us much easier to spend, makes us stupider than we actually are as humans, means that we’re perfectly happy to go watch TikTok videos till the cows come home, because hey, it’s only a minute, and it’s got some cute music, and somebody did something light-hearted. Wait a minute, we have five major crises in front of us. Wouldn’t you do something fruitful toward any of them? Or if you don’t want to try to fend off crises, wouldn’t you do something positive that helps people?
Ross: You’ve been implicitly talking about mental models throughout, about how you’re building your way of seeing the world, to be able to build it and collaborate around that and to refine and make it better. Your repository is TheBrain but it is not in the software literally, it is inside your mind. What’s the relationship between what you are thinking in your mind and the external resource of TheBrain or anything else? How are you continuing refining and developing?
Jerry: Farnam Street famously has published a couple of books about mental models, but I’ve been collecting mental models for years. I see yellow as an attractor that says hey, there’s a lot of stuff under here; so these yellow things are OR tools, dynamic programming, linear programming, Monte Carlo, nonlinear programming, queuing theory, etc. That’s just one little subsection of useful thinking frameworks. The Cynefin framework is in here from Dave Snowden, brainstorming techniques, etc. I have a massive collection of mental models here that aren’t curated toward each other, meaning somebody who took this collection and went down another level with it could actually say, this one is like this one, here’s how they’re different; somebody could front end this collection with, if you’re stuck in this kind of a situation, here’s how to find your way to a useful mental model or thinking framework. I think that it would be terrific work to do.
Then some of these thinking frameworks are proprietary. I don’t like good ideas that are locked behind an IP gate. Apparently, in our culture, smart people write books, and they put their best ideas in books. Then we protect books with digital rights management. We make it really hard to use the information in books, and then we expect culture to move forward. Seriously people? What we want to do is have creative people make a living, let’s solve for that, and let’s solve for that around walking away the content. I’m a huge fan of open source, open content, open as much as you possibly can.
There are business models that are successful, where much of what is done is actually open. Then the secret sauce or the proprietary data is not, and that layer is protected. That’s fine too. But we have way too many people who are over protecting intellectual property, hiding ideas from one another when we actually need to work together.
Ross: Synthesis is one of the key frames through my life. It’s bringing together disparate ideas and making them one. TheBrain shows connections but there’s this vast amount which you cover through your voracious curiosity, what is the process where you synthesize, pull things together to make sense from these things, and coalesce all of this array of different resources you’ve discovered?
Jerry: Let me show you two examples. One is the OODA loop. John Boyd, Air Force Colonel, a crazy guy who used to call his associates at 2 am and say, I’ve got an idea. He invents this brilliant thing, which was used by Dick Cheney. In John Boyd’s biography, the author credits and acknowledges that. Dick Cheney is a big fan of Boyd, so I wrote a piece that I didn’t actually publish. Back when John Kerry was running, I wrote neocons are inside the democrats’ OODA loop. Because everybody on the far right understands OODA, nobody on the left understood it. When there was swiftboating, flip-flopping, and all the things that kept John Kerry off balance were being done because this was political use of OODA. That’s just one little piece of synthesis. This one, I understood by myself and got into it.
Another one is virtuous circles. One day, I was trying to learn more about Brian Arthur and virtuous circles, and all that. In doing so, in my Brain, I suddenly realized that vicious cycles are what happens to everybody else in a virtuous circle. One of the examples of a virtuous circle is Microsoft bundles up Excel, Word, and Access, and sells that as the Office suite. The other vendors don’t really have as good an Office suite, and all of a sudden, everybody decides we have to use Microsoft, and there’s a virtuous cycle that lifts Microsoft to market leadership, which is a vicious cycle for Novell, Lotus, and everybody else. That came to me from sitting here and looking at basically cycle, circles, making these connections in here, feedback loops, positive feedback, negative feedback, all of that.
These insights don’t happen that often directly while using TheBrain but they happen to me all the time because I’m a pattern hound. When I get them, I try to represent them in this Brain. What’s interesting is that this Brain isn’t just a collection of companies that sell products, that have people in them, that were funded by Venture Capital firms, that live under categories, there’s a piece of my Brain where I’m doing that, but I’m also trying to think out loud, think with whoever else wants to play, about all these topics and make sense of the world.
Ross: You’ve mentioned that word pattern hound more than once, what does that mean? How do you sniff out patterns, find them, or articulate them?
Jerry: A big piece of pattern recognition is I curate the world’s largest published Brain with 460,000 thoughts, 850,000 links, and 23 plus years now. This idea that when you look from one place to another, there are things that are really parallel to each other, really works for me. I have a thought that’s really important to me, which is going to look messy, my apologies, but it’s contrarians who make or made sense. Years ago, when I was starting to figure out about trust and all that stuff, I discovered that I had a bunch of heroes, David Bohm, who invented the dialogue process, Alice Miller, who did the unresolved childhood trauma, and a bunch of stuff around family systems thinking, Christopher Alexander, the cranky urban planner, and architect. These people are all on this list.
Then I realized one day that all these people shared something that none of them would have called by this name, that’s when I came up with this idea of design from trust. I saw the pattern that all of these people were saying, in my discipline, education, architecture, urban planning, finance, self-image, health, whatever, we don’t trust humans anymore, so we built these really coercive institutions that control people, and really have screwed up. We screwed up how to do policing, for example. Each of these people also then suggested a positive way to fix that.
Christopher Alexander invents pattern languages, which are a way of distilling wisdom in any discipline so that ordinary muggles can come in and perform much higher levels of design, discussion and make more intelligent choices because they have distilled wisdom at hand, like light from two sides, make small niches for children, and how to cite a home on a lot. How do we do this for every domain? This is one of the major patterns that I’ve found. I think if we all tried to design from trust, a book I need to write, we might actually solve a lot of the world’s problems because design from trust is cheaper, it reconnects us in the community, and it actually seems to solve problems. Design from trust is really scary and counterintuitive.
I wrote an essay called the Two Oh Shits, which is in here, which basically says, when you hit a system designed from trust, like Wikipedia is designed from trust, your first reaction is, Oh, shit, this couldn’t possibly work. What moron invented a system where anyone on earth can come change any page? Then you bounce around in there, try a couple of pages, look at something that you know a lot about, and the second Oh, shit is like, Oh, shit, this seems to be really working. What makes it work? What is the secret sauce here? How do I get more? That process to me is super fascinating because I think that’s the direction we need to go to fix what ails us.
Ross: Just one thread there was David Bohm’s dialogue.
Ross: WikiHow is a wonderful and often neglected resource. This is a little implicit in what you’ve been sharing, but how do you use dialogue? How do you engage in dialogue to be able to enhance your models, or other people’s models, or collective models?
Jerry: It’s funny because I’m a facilitator. I’m a convener; I have meetings that I pull together of different kinds, and Open Global Mind right now is mostly a community of practice that is busy working on these different kinds of things. When I lived in Manhattan, I attended several Bohm dialogue sessions, and I was really struck by how subtle the whole process is because we would show up, we would take our coats off, we would sit down and start talking, and before we knew that there was a special something in between us, that the place we were in, the conversation we were having had grown to feel different. That’s a piece of what dialogue is. It’s not about trying to convince anybody of anything. It’s not for therapy, but it might feel like it.
I try to incorporate some of that in the conversations that I host. I’m trying to listen with care to what people bring to the conversation, and unpack it. I’m probably a little too directive as a facilitator but I feel the safe space in which to say things that matter to you, is really important for civilization to move forward, and also for companies to make good decisions, to make wiser decisions. We don’t have a lot of those safe spaces. We don’t listen well. Another thought I have is that we’re in an epidemic of not listening to each other. We’re all busy ready to say things, and not that ready to stop, sit and actually listen to other people. In fact, one of the safest, easiest ways to bridge the cultural divide is to listen respectfully to other people. It’s crazy how well that works.
Bohm is a small piece of that puzzle for me in the middle here, but he was a super interesting fellow. By the way, Bohm’s ideas were met with silence and derision. It is a thought here in my Brain.
Ross: Not by everyone.
Jerry: Not by everyone; some things come around later, and make a lot of sense later.
Ross: Yes, that’s perennials. You are really an exemplar of thriving on overload. You’ve pointed a path through what you’ve done, a unique path, and you’ve pushed it out further than anyone else. I really hope your project succeeds in being able to provide a more collective frame for this filtering, gathering, and sense-making. Is there anything else to share from your insights and experience on how other people can learn from that to thrive themselves on overload?
Jerry: Yes, many small pieces of advice. One of them is, you can browse my Brain for free at Jerrysbrain.com. I would love for anybody to join the conversation and the actions at Openglobalmind.com, the same sort of thing. A thing for young people, in particular, is to pay attention to your little inner voice, because many people have a lot of trouble finding their purpose in life, like, what is my purpose? Doing stuff without a real purpose is not nearly as much fun as having a purpose. Although sometimes having a purpose is really frustrating because if your purpose is to stop the earth from melting because of climate change, man, we are in a lot of trouble right now around that.
I’m in Portland, Oregon, where we just had the three hottest days on record, the last three days. Today’s normal, it’s still way above normal for June averages, but we just had Portland’s highest temperature ever by a lot, by five or six degrees. Find something that irks you, and chances are that irritation is the source of something the world actually needs. Because younger children are really brutally frank, but they’re actually seeing things as they ought to be. Then we teach them, we basically socialize all that wisdom out of them. One of my beliefs is that we’re born pretty connected to the world, to each other, and to the earth, and we don’t figure out what to do.
I have a lot of things to say to younger people and I have this wish that more people will come forward, to collaborate in building up some infrastructure for what we know, that we might use together to make better sense of the world, to bridge those divides that are being widened intentionally, we weren’t always this far apart on everything, there’s this kind of a wave, where every now and then mostly politicians figure out that if they pump fear and mistrust, and undermine facts in science, they can drive a wedge and win some elections. That’s where we are.
One way to combat that is by sharing what we know. Another way to combat that is just through listening and safety and has nothing to do with technology. I don’t want to say that if we only all curated TheBrain, we would solve the world’s problems. I actually want to say, if we listened respectfully to each other and went out for a beer, we might actually solve more problems, but then we might want to sit down and decide to express what we know, share it better, and build on it. That’s the piece I’ve been working on for a while here.
Ross, thank you for the invitation here. I love your questions. I love your quest. Thriving on overload is important. My wife just finished writing a book Flux: 8 Superpowers for Thriving in Constant Change. Your books are very allied, and we’ll probably see each other on the road on a book tour.
Ross: Oh, fantastic. Thank you so much, Jerry. It’s been really insightful. I look forward to speaking again sometime for long.
Jerry: Thank you very much.
Ross: Take care. Thanks.