Where the Wild Thoughts Are

For the last week, John Muir quotes have been floating into my head. Uninvited, but not unwelcome. This one in particular has been gently tugging at my attention:

“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

Some of you already know why my thoughts have been drifting in this direction. Starting today, I am a free agent, with Ribbonfarm as my base of operations. Some have asked me about the personal story behind this move, but that is frankly too mundane to share. Some have also asked about my business model. I’d share that if I actually had one.

So in lieu of either, let me tell you about the one thing I have sort of worked out: a business philosophy. I call it my “Wild Thoughts” business philosophy, and it was put to the test the very week I sketched it out on the proverbial paper-napkin: two friends independently sent me the same provocative article that’s been doing the rounds, Julien Smith’s The Future of Blogs is Paid Access. Reading it, I immediately realized that this was one decision about the future of Ribbonfarm that I could not postpone. For a variety of reasons, if I was going to consider paid access, I’d have to decide now.

I won’t keep you guessing: I decided against paid access or walled gardens of any sort. Ribbonfarm and the Be Slightly Evil email list are going to remain free.  There will be no paywalls, no premium content and no paid members-only communities.

What’s more, Ribbonfarm will not be morphing into a content-marketing vehicle, with its performance measured in terms of landing page conversion percentages for book sales or consulting leads.

The blog is not about supporting the business and keeping it profitable. The business is about supporting the blog and keeping it free.

In short, Ribbonfarm will continue on its current quixotic quest, seeking its own Ribbonfarmesque Buddha-nature. Maybe one day it will attain enlightenment and you will notice a halo around the logo. The day that happens, the entries will go from 3000-word epic posts to 140-character nuggets of Zen wisdom.

Paid access in Julien’s sense is also about monetizing access to your personal attention (his argument is roughly, “weak links should be monetized”). I now get enough comments and inbound email through the blog that this is in fact a very tempting thought.

I reached the same conclusion there. Except for a basic spam filter, I am not going to gate-keep access to my attention using any mechanism other than my own head. Whether you are a weak link, stranger or childhood friend, if you can hijack my attention, you can have it. No Google Priority Inbox, no whitelist, no a priori comment moderation. As a far more interesting man than I will ever be liked to say, my brain is open. For a blogger whose raison d’etre is unusual perspectives, automated attention allocation is far too dangerous. I cannot outsource my core competency.

If GTD can’t keep up, keep me human, and bring me back to Inbox Zero every few weeks, I’d rather quit blogging than let an algorithm decide for me what is interesting and what is not.

I am not being nice or altruistic. The decision is a natural consequence of the Wild Thoughts business philosophy.

Reconstructing Wildness

“Wildness” I suppose, is an idea that has never been far from my consciousness. When I migrated from a traditional corporate office to a remote home office, I wrote about the experience in a post I titled On Going Feral. So perhaps it is not surprising that I am framing this bigger move, at least for myself, as another step towards my barbarian self.

My thoughts on the subject of wildness though, are complicated.

I am simultaneously wary of, and attracted to, the atavistic neo-primitivism latent in the writings of naturalist-philosophers like Muir. Where I find it in unreconstructed forms, such as the Paleo diet movement, Sedona vortex spirituality, or even in my own older, more naive thinking, I am inclined to make fun of it. But you cannot really argue with the idea that there is such a thing as the call of the wild. Here’s another eloquent Muir quote that describes the urge better than I could:

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountain is going home; that wildness is necessity; that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

This is less a thought about nature, and more a thought about wildness, whether you find it in a bleak cyberpunk landscape or deep inside Yosemite National Park. Certainly, the Muir Woods outside San Francisco set a high threshold for what it means for something to be wild, but you can find that same sense of wildness in container shipping terminals and railroad classification yards. The truly worthwhile things that humans create are wild things; things that channel, rather than tame, the wildness of nature; generative things that reshape our world in its own image.

The lure of the illegible, the mysterious, the organically creative-destructive, is more fundamental than a mere attraction to “nature,” simplistically defined. Nature includes human beings and the things humans create, which means Muir’s idea that “none of Nature’s landscapes are ugly so long as they are wild” applies to human-created wildnernesses as well.

Ribbonfarm, I like to think in my more romantic moments, is one such human-created wilderness. If you ever find that it is getting less wild (wild as in woods, not as in “crazy”), warn me.

The Faith of the Gnomes

I suppose I am a bit of an exception among people who go down the free-agency road. I had no really compelling reasons to leave my job, and many excellent reasons to stay. Unlike many who go down this route, the job I just left afforded me plenty of autonomy, no pointy-haired bosses, rewarding work with exceptionally interesting colleagues, and all the benefits of the free-agent lifestyle with none of the risks. I have no early retirement stash squirreled away. Just enough saved to last me a few months. The closest thing I have to a business model is the famous Underpants Gnomes business model.

  1. Publish Tempo
  2. ?????
  3. Profit

I do have a modest freelance writing gig lined up at a new site to be launched in March, The Brain Yard, and a first consulting engagement lined up with an intriguing startup, allthis, for a few hours a week. But don’t let that fool you.  The first was a shot in the dark that landed in an unexpected place, and the second was an instance of unsolicited inbound serendipity on Quora. Together, they’ll help stretch out my resources a little longer, but they aren’t going to replace the steady income I am walking away from.

You are not listening to a Man with a Plan.

About the only thing rational about this move is that the timing was right. My work at Xerox, with Trailmeme, was at a stage where I could gracefully hand over the reins, without too much disruption. My book nearing completion provided me with something with which to make the leap (a wise mentor once told me that you can’t just make abstract leaps; every significant leap is made with something). That’s the sum total of the due deliberation that’s gone into this move. Of course, I have toyed with tons of ideas, but for perhaps the first time in my life, I find that I am not attached enough to any of them to make it the plan. Which means I am truly open to possibilities for the first time in my life. It is a funny feeling.

So you are listening to someone who is taking a ready-fire-aim leap into wildness, motivated by little more than sheer bloody-mindedness; a “let’s make this interesting” impulse. This sort of move is not exactly new for me. “Sheer bloody-mindedness” is actually the best explanation for every major career move in my life.

But after nearly 18 years of such moves, I am finally beginning to understand where these bloody-minded urges arise. They arise in the call of the wild, a call that somehow, deep down, you know you can trust. Another John Muir quote captures the thought:

“Take a course in good water and air; and in the eternal youth of Nature you may renew your own. Go quietly, alone; no harm will befall you.”

For some balance, lest you think I am endorsing the vacuous philosophies in  The Secret, let me also add this quote from Apocalypse Now, for your consideration:

“I love the smell of napalm in the morning… The smell, you know that gasoline smell…”

Elsewhere, in Muir’s thoughts about death, you find evidence that he does not mean “no harm” in a literal sense. He recognized that the wild is not about safety in the sense of avoidance of physical harm or risk of death (I mean, come on, there are grizzlies and things out there, and people have to cut off their own arms with machetes sometimes). It is about existential safety in a place where death and injury somehow manage to appear beautiful. In the wild, the stark inevitability of death is inseparable from the potential for renewal and rebirth that it offers.

Business Philosophies vs. Business Models

There are many who write eloquently about lifestyle businesses, and practice what they preach. A few such bloggers have been thoughtful commenters here or have posted responses to my posts on their own blogs: I find Jacob Fisker,  Dan AndrewsSebastian Marshall, Erik Marcus, Xianhang Zhang and Zachary Burt to be consistently insightful on the subject, and I have been endlessly stimulated by my conversations with them. Even though I don’t always agree with them, I definitely plan on stealing from their playbooks.

One advantage to being relatively late to the party is that you get to study what others have done before you. It strikes me that every interesting lifestyle business appears to be driven by a business philosophy rather than a business model.

So what exactly is the difference?

The difference is this:

A business model is about how to make money.

A business philosophy is about redefining money.

This distinction also explains why the whole area of business philosophies has been mostly restricted to one-person lifestyle businesses (or at best, married couples). Defining money is something only countries get to do. Individuals and couples can get away with it only because their actions are too inconsequential for governments to worry about. In that respect, lifestyle businesses are more like nations than businesses; they are founded on the basis of social contracts with yourself that include a definition of money. The term “lifestyle business” has stuck, but keep this analogy to nations in mind.

For larger groups though, especially where external investors are involved, not only is it intellectually harder  to get everybody to agree to the same non-standard definition of money, it is also somewhere between unethical and illegal to attempt to create one. You don’t get much legal freedom to define “maximize shareholder value” unless you are the only shareholder.

With hindsight, this seems completely obvious. Ever since Tim Ferriss first explained his micro-global time-money arbitrage equation in The Four-Hour Work Week, every third lifestyle business I encounter seems to be based on redefining time and money in some interesting way. You don’t have to attempt this though. There are many lifestyle businesses that don’t bother with such redefinition and simply adopt the business philosophy of traditional businesses. That is in fact what Julien Smith did in his post. If you define money in the usual way, the conclusion that “the future of blogging is paid access,” is almost inevitable.

A lifestyle business offers you the option (but not the obligation) to redefine money for yourself, and your relationship to it.

Exercising the redefinition option involves real risk. A business philosophy is a falsifiable construct. I am placing certain bets by eschewing paid access when it is all the rage, for instance.

A business philosophy is not what I characterized as “loser delusions” in Part IV of the Gervais Principle series (yes, yes, the finale is on its way; I’ll post it before Will Ferrell replaces Steve Carell, I promise). Choosing economic exile by redefining money is not a nominal move. It is a substantive one.

“I am not going to sell my soul” is not a business philosophy. It is petulance waiting to grow up into resentment.

“So what if I am not making six figures, I have a great family and amazing friends” is not a business philosophy. It is rationalization.

“Starving artist” is only a compliment if starvation as a spectacle is part of your performance-art act.

So a business philosophy really only has teeth if it redefines money in an interesting and sound way that actually works. This means making and testing falsifiable assertions about the interplay of time and money in your individual life. But the actual macro-economics and micro-economics of this idea are a subject for another day.

Finally, a business philosophy is also not a normative construct like a mission or vision. It is about viewing the economic realities of life in a way that helps you make financial choices.

So a business philosophy, at its simplest, is a motto about money that actually works. Possibly you have one too.

For me, the motto is “Wild Thoughts.” So what does that mean, and what kind of view of money is implied by it?

Where the Wild Thoughts Are

The simplest explanation of Wild Thoughts philosophy is in the children’s book,  Where the Wild Things Are. Max the little boy in the book, gets called “wild thing” by his busy mother one day, and retreats in anger to an imaginary land where he meets and stares down Wild Things.

But he gets lonely, and comes back, to find his supper waiting for him.

Ribbonfarm is where my Wild Thoughts are. The book, Tempo, was born here. Even Trailmeme was born here, as an idea for a plugin to make this jungle navigable (the name should be a hint).  I suspect every interesting thing that happens to me for the rest of my life will somehow trace its ancestry to Ribbonfarm.

Wild Thoughts philosophy, I’ll be the first to admit, isn’t for everybody. It works for me because I mainly make a living by offering people ideas to gamble with.

But that’s the whole point of lifestyle businesses and lifestyle design. You get to make up your own philosophy, succeed or fail, and either try again or go back to work for somebody who has a better philosophy of business than you do.

Fortunately, my time in paycheck-land has been rewarding enough that I’ll have no problems calling this a mini-retirement and going back to it, if I have to. I’d like this free agent thing to work out, but I harbor no deep resentments towards the paycheck lifestyle.

But why and how does Wild Thoughts philosophy work for me?

You see, the Wild Thoughts that can hijack your attention in interesting ways only appear if access to your attention is fundamentally open and wild. They can’t cross paywalls, toll booths and velvet ropes. They can’t get past secretaries and agents. Most of all, they have no idea how to get inside echo chambers. Or to put it another way, to restrict access to attention is to deliberately blinker yourself.

Finding Wild Thoughts is one end of things. Putting them somewhere is the other piece of the puzzle. For me, Ribbonfarm is where I put Wild Thoughts once I find them, and before I decide what, if anything to do with them.

In most cases the answer is “nothing.” It is not the Life Purpose of every Wild Thought to create economic wealth for humans. So Ribbonfarm is not really a farm, but a sort of protected nature preserve for Wild Thoughts. To charge for access, I’d have to turn it into a zoo, and put the Wild Thoughts into miserable little cages. The Wild Thoughts that want to self-domesticate and earn a living outside the nature preserve can go ahead and do that. They’ll make their way in the wider world as best they can. That’s the path the Tempo is on. It began as a Wild Thought on Ribbonfarm that wanted to do more with its life, outside the nature preserve. We’ll see how it fares.

To go back to the analogy to nations, restricting access to your attention in arbitrary ways (or worse, with entry fees) is like maintaining a tight immigration policy for ideas that can ultimately kill your thinking through a lack of incoming diversity. You never know where the next interesting Wild Thought will come from. It might come from a beggar, it might come from a celebrity. It might come from a bestselling book, or it might come from the sun glinting off a trash can. It might even be buried in the spam in your spam folder. Sometimes I look through the spam folder at the actual spam, not for misclassified things.

Everybody finds Wild Thoughts to the extent that they remain open, but not everybody blogs them. And not every blog is a Wild Thoughts blog.

But if you do blog your Wild Thoughts in a Wild Thoughts blog, restricting access is like restricting access to a National Park.

Governments do usually charge for that, but that’s only because the kinds that occupy real estate are so darn expensive to protect. I can’t pretend that’s true for the blog: as I’ve said elsewhere at some point, I have more free publishing power at my fingertips today than the entire world did, during the time of Gutenberg (if WordPress dies as an open-source product, all bets are off).

The catch is, a Wild Thoughts blog can only be a source of renewal and rebirth if it remains wild. For that, it must remain free. In a way, I am like Max, and I’ve decided not to go back for my supper from the land of Wild Thoughts. Instead, I’ve pitched a tent inside, and put up a trading post at the periphery. Visiting me in the woods is free. Stuff at the trading post costs money.

This Wild Thoughts metaphor also provides a good heuristic for pricing creative work. The things I do are going to be priced in proportion to how civilized and domesticated they are. Ideas, fortunately, do not need protection of the “take only pictures, leave only footprints” variety. An idea that you find in a Wild Thoughts blog, unlike an interesting leaf or twig in the forest, is still there for others if you pick it up for yourself.

And that’s as far as I’ve gotten with my Wild Thoughts philosophy of business. It’s turning out to be quite fertile for me, and making every decision easy. I’ll post updates as I evolve it.

Where to Now?

So where does that leave me? How do I pay the rent? In my Underpants Gnomes, business model, what is ?????.

I don’t know, but if you like the Wild Thoughts philosophy, and would like to support me in pursuing it, there are several things you can do.

  1. Continue reading, sharing and adding to (via comments, response blogs and emails) the Wild Thoughts I find and put on Ribbonfarm. Warn me if things start getting too civilized.
  2. If you like protecting wild places, and you’d like to contribute above buy-me-a-coffee levels, consider sponsoring Ribbonfarm as a micro-patron for 2011. But only if you can afford it. I’ll send every sponsor a signed copy of Tempo. You absolutely do NOT need to feel guilty about reading without paying. On other blogs, perhaps you should, but not on this one. Remember, free access is a necessary condition for a true Wild Thoughts blog to exist, not an act of benevolence on my part.
  3. The book is done, as far as the writing goes, and has weathered its first encounters with beta readers. Final production chores remain. Buy it when it comes out, and do some interesting ????? things with it. A rudimentary book site is up, check out the blurbs I’ve received so far, do the Like/Share/Save thing, and join the mailing list.
  4. Hire me, or recommend me for consulting gigs, especially for projects where I might find more Wild Thoughts to put on Ribbonfarm (remember, the business is about supporting the blog, not the other way around).
  5. Send me your ideas and thoughts for how I can complete the ????? part of the business model and get to “Profit.” I have my own ideas, but I am pretty sure there are better Wild Thoughts out there.

And finally, wish me luck.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Congratulations! I cannot wait for your book :)

  2. Good luck Mr. Venkat!

  3. 1. Congratulations and good luck. This is a very gutsy move, so hats off to you for taking the leap, and for the others in your life to allow you to do so. I am on my wild thoughts journey, immensely enjoying every step, but I took the leap with more than ‘a few months’ of savings, so yours is much wilder
    2. I completely agree with the rationale of leaving the blog free and open. In addition to severely restricting the flow of diverse ideas, there is also the significant danger that “make money from blogging” might become the primary focus of your activities – and that is such a tiny, tiny sliver of all the possibilities out there.
    3. One warning – The wild thoughts way of life can be addictive. Which can be a problem if it does not work out financially. In spite of your stated non-resentment towards a salaried job, you might find it profoundly disappointing to consider that option once you’ve tasted the freedom. In my experience, having a very flexible job that allows you lots of freedom to do various things is still no substitute for the real thing.
    4. Your biggest challenge will be in choosing which wild thoughts to pursue and which ones to drop. The essential conflict here will be between the “interestingness” scale on the one side (“I will only work on the most interesting ideas”) and the “cashflow” scale on the other side (“This idea as a higher chance of being monetizable”). It’s a non-trivial and fun challenge even if the only scale you consider is interestingness, because there are so many facets to interestingness – but can get tricky when you add the other scale.

    I think ribbonfarm is going to get even more interesting now…

    • I think I am already seeing signs of the interestingness/cash flow trade off. On the one hand, I want to spend time building a couple of small fun products that may never pay off, just because they seem like fun. On the other hand, there are a couple of dull things I could probably do today that would have an immediate impact on cash flow.

      We’ll see if this is psychologically a one-way street. I suspect you are right. I am already enjoying the feel of a mostly empty calendar.

      • > I am already enjoying the feel of a mostly empty calendar.

        Hahahaha! No.

        I’m going to predict that within months, you’ll be far more busy that you ever were when you had a full time job.

        • Yes, that’s one thing I am afraid of. Which is why I am not rushing to commit to projects immediately.

          • The answer to the interestingness/cash flow conflict is Macleod’s sex and cash theory. I wouldn’t hazard a guess on whether you will find the independent gig addictive or not considering what happened with me and later my wife.

            I quit my job when the company was in a growth phase and I was a consistent top performer, simply because an opportunity came up where I could set up something on my own. Did that for 2 years, things were going reasonably well in terms of both money and exciting work but I was not sure if I would continue enjoying it if it didn’t scale up. (Skipping a lot of interesting happenstances in all this) I went back to the corporate job mode. No regrets/resentment on either of the moves.

            My wife left her corporate job and has been independent ever since. Within a few weeks of quitting she used to say often, “Why did I take so long to experience this freedom?” and this feeling only grew stronger over time for her.

            The key challenge in the solo model is marketing.

            I know many couples who have smartly and profitably adopted an alternating model of monthly paycheck + uncertain revenue stream. So if it is not already the case, one of your first assignments could be to coach and cajole you-know-who :-)

            Wish you great success.

            (And we like the running commentary.)

  4. ilya lehrman says:

    Congratulations on the move. I’m an ex-Xerox person myself, having quit this past fall after almost 11 years to pursue my own wild thoughts :). I look forward to reading your book and observing the wild life at the preserve!

  5. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YInfr0hm4A

    That was all I knew about John Muir before this post. I still like him.

  6. Luck! I’m very excited about this switch. I feel I can really relate to a lot of the emotions you must be feeling, and I feel them often… it was thrilling to read the article. I agree with Navin’s warning about addictive thoughts, however, you can’t really resist…. and why would we want to? :) When you need to get down to business you will, and you’ll be better for having strayed.

    I really enjoyed your discussion of lifestyle business. In my business it’s come to me jumping off in these odd spaces where there are resonences between what I think could make some sense eventually for a marketplace and where my passions are… everyone can agree what would make our business the most money, and we are very rarely doing those things… I think it might even make more sense financially for our business in the long run because we are taking these interesting sorts of risk, but it would be difficult to convince any kind of board, and the results remain to be seen. Anyway, sounds similar to what you are up to hear ?????????? looking forward to comparing notes.

    Also….. thanks for writing this blog. It’s weird despite all the talk of the proliferation of publishing I still have a hard time finding blogs I really love, and this is one of them.

  7. PS, you can delete this comment but I would vote for a small improvement: installing disqus, you can see they are getting incredible traction:

    http://thisweekin.com/thisweekin-startups/this-week-in-startups-116-with-daniel-ha-founder-of-disqus/

    and I think it improves communities on sites like this one a lot. I’d also like to edit the errors I made above :) and it also can be a new source of traffic as Disqus itself is becoming a social network so people can track where people they enjoy are commenting…. so people at my blog, for example, can see that I’m active in the RibbonFarm community etc.

    ALSO: donations to Ribbonfarm could be considered tax deductible as a marketing expense since you are offering backlinks. That’s my slightly evil take on it. :)

    • Hmm.. you’re right. They aren’t donations so much as they are sponsorships in the sense of TV and events. Not even slightly evil I think. It’s just not a donation in the nonprofit sense, but a legit business expense.

      Re: Disqus, I like the concept, and am fine with commenters having control of their comments. I just am not sure I want a 3rd party company to have hosting control. There also seem to be known performance slowdown issues with the plugin. I’ll take another look though.

      • Quick note on Disqus,
        Comments are now saved back to your local wordpress server so you can revert back or switch to another platform without losing anything. I find it very useful that all comments through the platform are linked to common user profile that can be accessed independently of sites they were left on. Makes it much easier to find old comments.

  8. One lifestyle business that kept coming to mind as I read this is Polyface Farm.

    Most of that farm acreage is devoted to forest land. Only some of the timber can be milled into lumber; the rest is encouraged to rot in various ways, and in so doing, allows the remaining acreage to be more profitable (by far) than the entire acreage would be if it were all devoted to conventional agriculture.

    I would say that Ribbonfarm is to you like Joel Salatin’s woodlots are to him. Tempo might be a herd of beeves to you. Salatin observes that grazing animals form a natural symbiosis with insectivorous birds, so he has set up a relationship between his beeves and a large group of laying hens. What tends to go well with books, in the wild? Classes? Book clubs? Salons? I haven’t read the book yet, but online software for training or self-discovery might be worth exploring.

    You might get a kick out of “You Can Farm.” Rather than a primer on entrepreneur-scale sustainable agribusiness, you might read it as a case study in turning a business philosophy into a going concern. I haven’t read all of it, but what I did read was fascinating.

  9. Joel:

    Thanks for the pointer. This looks fascinating, and since it is only a couple of hours drive away from where I am, I might actually go check it out for inspiration.

    http://www.polyfacefarms.com

    Venkat

  10. Go west, old man! Brilliant and sweeping post, as always, Venkat.

  11. @Venkat,
    “Welcome to the party, pal!” Good Luck with your venture!

    Joel Salatin was featured in “Food, Inc.”, as I remember. Check that out for more if you’re interested.

    Oh, and this line caught my eye.
    > I’d like this free agent thing to work out, but I harbour no deep
    > resentments towards the paycheque lifestyle
    Sounds Good! Next time you walk past a shrine, light an incense as thanks to the universe for such small mercies ;-)

    I mean this as a compliment, but in parts, the piece reads somewhat like “The snake should die and the club shouldn’t break”. :-)

    Best,
    Surio.

    • Oh thanks, I can connect the dots now. I did watch Food Inc. and I remember the farm.

      Thanks for the pointer to the Kannada proverbs page, takes me back.

  12. Venkat, very excited to see what comes out of this experiment. Around the beginning of this year I made my own transition to something in between feral and wild – quit my permanent employment and signed back on as a part time consultant. So far my experience is a mixed bag. Having more time to explore my own projects is definitely welcome but at the same time I feel the inertia of my part-time work is still a drag on my creativity and focus. I suspect this is the urge for true wildness that you are describing.

    I wish you luck in your efforts to balance wildness vs financial viability. I definitely agree with Navin’s comment above that there is often a tension between the two. The more wild ideas are generally the more abstract, less well developed, less practical, and therefore less salable. An important question I think is, can one person (or a very small business) do both – be a thought leader and help people with the more salable details and specifics. I am optimistic that it can be done but it is a tricky equilibrium to find.

    • Interesting. I almost did that too. I think there a dozen or so major “design patterns” emerging here, in terms of how people go feral/wild.

      Let’s see how to balancing act works out. And yes, the thought leader/practicality distinction is just as important as the wildness vs. money-making. In fact it suggests a 2×2 matrix.

      thought-leader+wild = blog
      thought-leader+money-maker=book
      practical+wild=???
      practical+money-making=bread-and-butter consulting.

      Am wondering if there are interesting items in the practical+wild quadrant. Possibly the whole “work as performance art” subculture that’s emerging (Morgan Spurlock’s TV shows about 30 days doing various things like being very poor, living with redneck gun-nuts etc.) I guess that’s not a good example since he’d make a lot more money at the meta-level from the TV show than from whatever he’s actually doing as an experiment, but a lot of people are doing that sort of thing and living on that income, without TV shows attached.

      Interestingly, David Allen says he worked at 30+ professions before becoming an effectiveness coach, including things like magician and bartender… possible that diverse sampling is what led to his cross-domain GTD idea.

      Hmm… might blog this idea.

      Venkat

      • Interesting stuff. I want to question the appropriateness of the 2×2 matrix because I’m not sure the two spectrums are sufficiently distinct…I will have to mull that over. Can wild also be practical? I suppose to some extent you can be original and still practical though generally by the time a wild idea has become practical it is no longer wild…it has been tamed by the consultants and the wild thought leader has moved on.

        The framework I am considering now is the “thought leader + practical implications for specific contexts”. Maintain focus on the big picture (wild) while applying those conclusions to specific problems. This clearly works in larger organizations – a Deloitte consulting has their John Hagel types. He maintains his wildness while the rank and file apply his insights to specific engagements. I’m sure the same thing can work in a solopreneur or small business format, though allocating one person’s time between the two functions is certainly more challenging than simply allocating head count in a larger organization.

      • A couple more thoughts…

        The Hagel/Deloitte example is very similar to Allen/GTD. I am only superficially familiar with GTD but my understanding is that it is really based on some rather fundamental psychological insights (wild thoughts) that Allen has developed into a practical system that he can adapt to various contexts.

        Critical to both examples is having a consistent worldview or outlook. I remember in a previous post you mentioned finding a consistent voice, even if not a consistent subject matter. If you at least have that level of consistency then perhaps the practical stuff can be ad hoc’d on demand when opportunity or need for revenue necessitates.

      • Wild and practical? Open source coding! Instructables! Or more generally, building tools for no known solution/problem pairs.

  13. Isaac Lewis says:

    Thank you for keeping this blog free. I’m a university student, and so can’t really afford to pay for access, but I wanted to say that ribbonfarm.com is quickly becoming one of my favourite places on the internet.

    Your idea about “wild thoughts” reminds me of an image Nietzsche used in one of his writings (it’s a shame I can’t find the exact quote, but I think it was from Thus Spoke Zarathustra). He says that his mind is like an aviary, and his thoughts are birds that come and go as they please. Sometimes he goes looking for an old thought and finds it has flown away; sometimes a new strange thought has appeared without notice.

    Anyway, since I’m not able to express my appreciation in cash, I hope you’ll accept this revenue-generating idea – I think it’s one that encourages diversity in incoming thoughts.

    Basically, people pay you to research and blog about a topic of their choice. Which aspects of the topic you focus on, the perceptual lens you use to look at it, and your evaluation of it is all up to you; they just get to tell you the starting point. I think that if I was wealthy, I would happily pay a few hundred dollars (or a few thousand for a long-form piece) to get Venkat’s thoughts on certain questions or subjects.

    Also, I think lots of startups would happily pay for the kind of press you gave Quora for free (I signed up AND made an extra effort to find value in the site after reading your article about it). Of course, no-one wants you to turn into a one-man mini-TechCrunch PR machine; but I think it could work if you made it clear that you were free to be entirely negative, and that you would write more about a startup’s business area than the startup itself (in the same way that your Quora article focused a lot on Q&A sites in general, not just Quora).

    Best of luck anyway!

  14. About the middle of last year I made the same kind of choice.

    One of your earlier commenters is right though – you do end up much busier than ever!

    And far more energized.

  15. All the best for your journey, Venkat. I will be watching this space closely.

  16. Hey Venkat,
    I’ve been following your work for months now, and here’s my first comment:

    Do you feel like your thought process has changed as you’ve grown older?
    Like your thoughts were more random and unfocussed whilst in your 20’s, and then more distilled and isolated in the next decade?

    I wonder about this a lot, since I feel like there is a veritable light at the end of tunnel; your blogs inspire so much creative thinking and debate, and makes the mind race, but to such an extent that I feel like I’m not the only person who is inundated with so many varied ideas. I know I need to focus on one item, and see it through. And that day will come… I hope… when I hit the big 3-0:)
    That studyhacks site was clever in one aspect: make a plan, and stick to it.

    In the meanwhile, thanks for the idea factory! Keep writing for free, and you will recieve monitization anyway. Ad-traffic, and personal appearances/lectures are worth more than a paltry $15 per person per year.

    • “Thought process changing” is pretty much my definition of getting older. Otherwise you are just watching time pass by. Unfortunately it is not a linear march from unfocused to focused for me at least. Perhaps it is for some. I have a few thoughts on this in the book.

      I’ll leave you to navigate your big 3-0 by yourself though. Glad what I write seems to fuel the process for you.

      And thanks for getting active in the comments, the more the merrier.

  17. >practical+wild=???

    Hm. One such job description would be “permaculturist.”

    You might, for example, check out Ernie Wisner’s work on appropriate/intermediate combustion technologies. He’s doing great work on rocket mass heaters: built of dirt and scrap metal, fueled by stick wood or cordwood, and with a notable departure from the assumptions that have limited heating technology up to now. Two important examples are an exhaust temperature below the dew point, and radiant heat from a thermal mass sitting after the convection column; the total system is reported to use a fraction of the fuel vs. a wood stove.

    Here’s him talking about oven design:

  18. RG:
    Thanks for the additional data point. I just found another person who’s “going back.”

    Even my 10 days in this gear has given me a much deeper appreciation for the relative strengths of the paycheck and free agent worlds.

    I think McLeod’s “sex and cash” theory is too simple though. But as a cartoonist making things provocative by making them too simple is the whole point. Also, the data points he uses are people who have extreme single-point appeal strengths (in his video about his new book, he cites people like Godin, Ferriss, Brogan etc…. all are similar in that they do ONE thing very well). They are all also close to “art” in some way. Something in me resists the idea of becoming a pure “artist” (though I suppose I could steer that way; there are messier, more practical things on this blog, and cleaner, less practical “artsy” things as well).

    My own framework is less pretty but I think a little more comprehensive: it’s the model I proposed last year in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor.

    Partly I think I am wary of romanticizing some types of work over others, because I think all types of work — from garbage collection to surgery to cartooning — are essential.

    • > because I think all types of work — from garbage collection to surgery
      > to cartooning — are essential
      Are you talking about the “Renaissance Man”? ;-) Oh, and that remark of yours reminded me of this:

      A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
      -Robert A. Heinlein

  19. It’s absurd to me when I see posts like this; full of links to previous work, how little I have been able to comment on those ideas of yours that most interest me! And how connected most of those ideas seem to be to your own core interests!

    There’s some kind of editing stage that my comments are not getting through, where the insights are there, and I just have to guide it through flow-checking and analogy improvement before losing it in the flood of new stimuli and pressing concerns.

    There seems to be some kind of way of cultivating ideas so that they get just enough “work” to be useful and critic-proof (to some safety factor), but don’t start wasting resources, and I think it relates in some way to a decay function of playfulness; if an idea can stay restful/energising longer into it’s characterisation, the more likely you are to stick with it to the point of basic coherence.

    Now that’s me working on stuff in my “leisure time”, not for my “job” but I suspect your mental state in this new project will match that side of the classical divide better than the other.

  20. I think you’re making the right decision on the pay-wall issue. I imagine a lot of your readers (anyone’s readers) aren’t engaged enough to pay for access to your (anyone’s) content. But, I do enjoy reading your posts when I am reminded that they exist, generally by an email alerting me to a comment on a post I’ve commented on. If the price was low enough ,comparable to the cost of a gum-drop from a gumball machine, then I would probably make an impulse purchase. If I never read another post I haven’t really lost anything. In the end it comes down to value. Words are pretty cheap on the interwebs and people are used to getting them for free.

  21. ThomasD says:

    Hi, a little late to the party, but your thoughts on ‘wildness’ are intersting.

    If you enjoyed Muir, you might want to check out some Horace Kephart, who was instrumental in establishing Great Smoky Mountains NP.

    “Your thoroughbred camper likes not the attentions of a landlord, nor will he suffer himself to be rooted to the soil by cares of ownership or lease. It is not possession of the land, but of the landscape, that enjoys; and as for that, all the wild parts of the earth are his, by a title that carries with it no obligation but that he shall not desecrate nor lay them waste.”

    Itw would seem that for many of us, at least on the internet, we are nothing more than campers.

    cheers