The Wizard and the Prophet

I started reading The Wizard and the Prophet after reading this post on Seth’s blog. An excerpt:

Mann has given us a deeply researched narrative, a book that will change the way you see just about everything in the natural world and its relationship with humanity. It’s about an epic struggle and mostly, about our future.

It seems to be about two obscure characters of the 20th century, but it’s not. It’s about each of us and the tools we can choose to bring with us to the future. I found myself switching camps every few minutes.

Seth called it his book of the year. And while it is still early in 2022, I think it will end up being mine too.

Charles Mann deconstructs some of the most important issues of our time – including food, water, and climate – and contrasts two approaches to tackling these problems.

The first is the school of sustainability built on the work of William Vogt that asserts that we need to consume less and be more mindful of ecological balance.

And the second is the school of innovation built on the work of Norman Borlaug that focuses on innovation as the way out.

The book is incredible thanks to the way Charles Mann interweaves the story of these two men, the tussle between these schools of thought, and the complex challenges ahead of us on issues like food, water, and climate.

But more than ever, the book had me take away 2 things:

(1) There is no perfect strategy – there are only trade-offs. Both approaches bring trade-offs and there never has been or will be a perfect answer.

(2) When we deal with complex problems that don’t have clear answers, the middle path between the two approaches tends to be the way. That’s because taking the middle path helps us find the relative best of both approaches without necessarily attaching our identity to either.

Two strokes of dumb luck

We experienced two strokes of luck of late. Both could have led to a few hours of hassle – but thanks to some dumb luck, we avoided that.

Misfortunes and bad luck have served up some great learning moments over the years. It is easy to dwell on such experiences and curse our bad luck.

But my journey into stoicism last year reminded me that it is equally important to think about misfortunes that * could * have happened. We are overly prone to taking our good luck for granted.

These two strokes of dumb luck reminded me of just that. It could definitely have been worse.

There’s more to be grateful for than we realize.

Reverse parking

I’m a fan of reverse parking – i.e., backing into a parking space so it is easier to drive out when we are done.

It is a small act of generosity to our future self.

Reverse parking is a concept that has applications in other areas of our life too. Starting and/or ending the work week with a bit of buffer so we get the time to ease in/out is one such example.

Similarly, getting all the tickets and necessary reservations done early for a trip we’ve planned is another example.

There are plenty of opportunities to try out some reverse parking in our lives.

Small acts of generosity to our future selves go a long way.

We have a hole in the floor

I came across this meme and chuckled.

I think there is one pertinent question to ask ourselves – which of these reactions did we have the last 3 times we faced a problem with others at work or at home?

The most useful thing we can do is to be constructive, roll up our sleeves, and take action.

The next most useful thing we can do is to shut up and get out of the way.

Every other reaction is best avoided.

Stay on the bus

I came across this passage from a commencement speech by Finnish American photographer Arno Minkkinen.

There is a bus station in Helsinki I want to introduce you to, a bus station just next to Eliel Saarinen’s famous train station. Surrounded by Jugenstil architectural gems like the National Theater and the National Art Museum, the bus station makes a cool backdrop for Magnum wannabees armed with D-SLRs and vintage Leica’s.

You might find yourself there sometime, too.

But getting back to the bus station and what makes it famous, at least among the students I teach at UMass Lowell, the University of Art & Design Helsinki, École d’Art Appliqués in Lausanne, or the many workshops I give in Tuscany, Maine and Santa Fe, is the metaphor it offers students and professionals alike for creative continuity in a life-long journey in photography, the metaphor it provides to young artists seeking to discover their own unique vision one day.

The Helsinki Bus Station: let me describe what happens there.

Some two-dozen platforms are laid out in a square at the heart of the city. At the head of each platform is a sign posting the numbers of the buses that leave from that particular platform. The bus numbers might read as follows: 21, 71, 58, 33, and 19.

Each bus takes the same route out of the city for a least a kilometer stopping at bus stop intervals along the way where the same numbers are again repeated: 21, 71, 58, 33, and 19.

Now let’s say, again metaphorically speaking, that each bus stop represents one year in the life of a photographer, meaning the third bus stop would represent three years of photographic activity.

Ok, so you have been working for three years making platinum studies of nudes. Call it bus #21.

You take those three years of work on the nude to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and the curator asks if you are familiar with the nudes of Irving Penn. His bus, 71, was on the same line. Or you take them to a gallery in Paris and are reminded to check out Bill Brandt, bus 58, and so on.

Shocked, you realize that what you have been doing for three years others have already done.

So you hop off the bus, grab a cab (because life is short) and head straight back to the bus station looking for another platform.

This time you are going to make 8×10 view camera color snapshots of people lying on the beach from a cherry picker crane.

You spend three years at it and three grand and produce a series of works that elicit the same comment: haven’t you seen the work of Richard Misrach? Or, if they are steamy black and white 8×10 camera view of palm trees swaying off a beachfront, haven’t you seen the work of Sally Mann?

So once again, you get off the bus, grab the cab, race back and find a new platform. This goes on all your creative life, always showing new work, always being compared to others.

What to do?

It’s simple. Stay on the bus. Stay on the f*cking bus.

Why, because if you do, in time you will begin to see a difference.

The buses that move out of Helsinki stay on the same line but only for a while, maybe a kilometer or two. Then they begin to separate, each number heading off to its own unique destination. Bus 33 suddenly goes north, bus 19 southwest.

For a time maybe 21 and 71 dovetail one another but soon they split off as well, Irving Penn is headed elsewhere.

It’s the separation that makes all the difference, and once you start to see that difference in your work from the work you so admire (that’s why you chose that platform after all), it’s time to look for your breakthrough.

Suddenly your work starts to get noticed. Now you are working more on your own, making more of the difference between your work and what influenced it.

Your vision takes off.

And as the years mount up and your work takes begins to pile up, it won’t be long before the critics become very intrigued, not just by what separates your work from a Sally Mann or a Ralph Gibson, but by what you did when you first got started!

You regain the whole bus route in fact. The vintage prints made in twenty years ago are suddenly re-evaluated, and for what it is worth, start selling at a premium.

At the end of the line—where the bus comes to rest and the driver can get out for a smoke or better yet a cup of coffee—that’s when the work is done. It could be the end of your career as an artist or the end of your life for that matter, but your total output is now all there before you, the early (so-called) imitations, the breakthroughs, the peaks and valleys, the closing masterpieces, all with the stamp of your unique vision.

Why, because you stayed on the bus.

It resonated.


We were out skiing the other day and saw a sight that blew our minds.

We saw a lady who looked like she might be in her 60s making her way down the slope with a big sign on her bib – “Visually Impaired Skier.” She had a guide ahead of her who was telling her to turn/step, etc. That process was far from perfect of course. She had to make a couple of ungainly stops where she nearly lost her balance.

And yet, she stuck with it.

We assumed she had limited vision… until we heard a conversation with her guide. She was asking the guide where the gondola was, the ski lift was, etc. That blew our minds again.

Spirit is such a powerful thing. When there is a will, there is a way.

Problems money can’t solve

One way of categorizing problems is along the lines of problems that get solved with money and problems that money can’t solve.

A broken pipe at home, a dent on the car, and other such incidental expenses are all problems that go away when we spend money.

The alternatives are problems that no amount of money can fix – a health issue, a problem in a close relationship, or a challenging relationship with a manager.

It always sucks to deal with problems. But they’re also a fact of life. And between the two, problems that money can solve are the best kinds of problems. Assuming we live within our means, these problems may cause temporary hurt – but they’re far better than the alternative.

Career changes and managers

From time to time, I get the opportunity to speak with folks who are considering changes in their career. And in some of these cases (I’d estimate ~20%), the relationship continues long enough for me to track how the change worked out.

Over the years, I’ve observed a consistent pattern that is especially pronounced amongst those making moves within the same company – most folks prioritize factors like scope and advancement opportunities over the manager they’ll report to

Sometimes, this means making an explicit trade-off – “I know x isn’t a great manager. But the scope looks promising.”

It is a trade-off that always makes the “I wish I’d done this differently” regret list later.

It doesn’t matter how amazing the job looks from the outside. Managers make or break the experience.

Eyes on the road

When racing champion Mario Andretti was asked for a tip for success in race car driving, he quipped – “Don’t look at the wall. Your car goes where your eyes go.”

It is fantastic advice when attempting to control a race car.

It turns out to be great advice for life too.