Can you leap from the ledge and bridge the two halves of the world

Thoughts on Liminality, Monsters, and Ubuntu.

Hey everyone,

I have some actual things to share with you this week. I’m slowly—very slowly—getting my reading groove back, along with the desire to share some of it with y’all. I don’t completely have my writing groove back, so I appreciate you sticking with me as I make my way back there.

Stay safe,
Rian


COVID-19

First, a couple of articles on the pandemic that I found useful and interesting. Derek Thompson’s succinct answer to the question COVID-19 Cases Are Rising, So Why Are Deaths Flatlining? was super helpful to me. There is even (finally) some good news in there:

The hospitalization and death data that we have aren’t good enough or timely enough to say anything definitive. But the chart suggests some good news (finally): Patients at hospitals are dying less.

Indeed, other countries have seen the same. One study from a hospital in Milan found that from March to May, the mortality rate of its COVID-19 patients declined from 24 percent to 2 percent—"without significant changes in patients’ age.” British hospitals found that their hospital mortality rate has declined every month since April.

So what’s going on? Maybe doctors are just getting smarter about the disease.

Next up, I have long been fascinated with the concept of liminality—that transition period between one state and the next, like a trapeze artist in mid-air. Devon Powers has a really interesting look at the liminality of quarantine in Liminal Space:

Quarantine did not suspend the normal so much as expose it as both fierce and vulnerable, all sharp teeth and soft underbelly. These months have been beautiful, with their hand-sewn masks and rainbow drawings and the indefatigable yearn for companionship, community, and change. These months have been horrifying, with their needless death and unending loss and the ignorant selfishness that masquerades as liberty, or individualism, or courage. Quarantine taught us that it is never one or the other but always both. Quarantine reminded us that as much as we might care to, we cannot get along without each other. Everyone is connected. It took the solitude of quarantine to remember that we are the connection, we are the guts of the network, who will live and die as one.

That last sentence reminds me of something I discussed in depth in one of the last issues of this newsletter before taking a break—the African concept of Ubuntu:

If you’re not familiar, a loose translation of this philosophy would be “I am because we are.” It is an acknowledgment that we are not islands, that who we are affects the people around us, and every interaction we have with them affects us as well. Another definition I like is “A person is only a person through other people.” 

Michael Onyebuchi Eze beautifully describes the concept as follows in the book Intellectual History in Contemporary South Africa

‘A person is a person through other people’ strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference. It is a demand for a creative intersubjective formation in which the ‘other’ becomes a mirror (but only a mirror) for my subjectivity. This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am. The ‘I am’ is not a rigid subject, but a dynamic self-constitution dependent on this otherness creation of relation and distance.

I love this so much. Here’s a thought experiment: What would happen if we followed the Ubuntu philosophy everywhere we go and interact with people? Our work, discussions with customers, even (gasp!) our interactions on the internet. No really, don’t move on. Think about it for a little bit. How would your interactions with the people around you change if you acknowledged the fact that you are because they are?

My guess is that if we had a little more Ubuntu thinking in America, more people would be wearing masks…

Racial justice

This profile by Bonsu Thompson about Rashad West, The Man Whose Surveillance Camera Sparked a National Uprising, is very good:

He didn’t know that Frazier’s video started long into the encounter, and that his own surveillance camera would be the first to directly contradict the officers’ statement that Floyd had physically resisted. Regardless, he felt it was his duty to make his findings public. “I didn’t want people throwing dirt on this man’s name about what he might have been doing,” says West. “For once, I had an opportunity to put a stop to the BS.”

Technology and the internet

Many of us are familiar with the Amazon way of “working backward”, which involves writing a press release about a new product before you start working on it as a way to guide the development process. I like Jeff Gothelf’s update to that process in his article Working Backwards: A New Version Of Amazon’s “Press Release” Approach To Plan Customer-Centric Projects.

I also really liked this long article by Fareed Mosavat and Casey Winters on doing Product Work Beyond Product-Market Fit. Their framework for breaking down different types of product work into Feature Work, Growth Work, Scaling Work, and Product-Market Fit Expansion is something I have already started incorporating in my own work. A must-read for all product managers.

Music

Last week saw the release of my most anticipated album of the year so far, The Midnight’s Monsters. I know I am super biased because they’re one of my favorite synthwave bands, but I think this is one of the best albums of the year—in any genre. The production on songs like the title track is just so incredible:

Lyrically, lead singer Tyler Lyle is also a master:

Picture of a sunset above a turquoise tide
The beauty of a just world and the convenience of a lie
I tore down that picture, there is no other perfect life
But in the dirt under my fingers, maybe something will survive

Some other things that caught my eye over the past couple of weeks:

My final recommendation for this week is the new Khruangbin album Mordechai. It is the perfect soundtrack to the Summer of Coronavirus.


That’s it for this one. Thanks again for sticking around, friends. Talk soon…