Totems And Rivers

To say 2020 has been an unsettling year would be an understatement. It is not lost on me how this year, the pandemic, the lockdowns, the divisions – it has wreaked havoc on our attention, on our livelihoods. The impact of 2020 has, unfortunately, been uneven and unfair. What happens to the household that runs a restaurant, or that lives on income generated by live events? I don’t have great answers, but having lived both of those lives, I can sense how the erosion of normalcy pains deep.

Before 2020, I didn’t realize how the normal rhythms of life – walking my daughter to school; seeing the same parents each morning; riding the bus into work; and seeing old friends and new faces daily created useful distractions. A household could break apart for the day and live life individually, then return in the evening to rejoin forces. Walks to schools and commutes to meetings were distractions, routines, where the subconscious could play, a time alone where the mind can process information in the background.

2020 abruptly altered that pattern. The old distractions vanished. There was nowhere to go and live life alone for the day. Everything contracted and concentrated into a defined area of square feet. One casualty: The loss of time for background processing. And for an investor, that is a costly loss. The decisions we make are, by nature, long-term oriented, intentional, irreversible. Ironically, technology rushed in to fill the void and solve problems – less commuting, more time; no offices, but more Zooms; physical logistics evaporated, connecting with a global network never been easier.

What was once a craft industry of allocating resources to creators and helping those creators along the way has been made more efficient, quicker, faster, more transactional, at arms-length, and… lightning fast. This is not to say that it will be this way forever. It likely will not. And this is not to say this is a complaint – I think there are real benefits for creators tapping financial resources to make the world a better place.

But as an early-stage investor who wants to partner with these technology creators early, the distractions of the past that created the surface area for that subconscious background processing were critical for me. Sure, many of us can work from home; we can adapt and get outside in our neighborhoods; and we can even meet folks outside, in person (when taking care).

But, I would contend that building new distractions, new pockets of time for daydreaming, for that background processing, is considerably more elusive. For someone like me, that is a considerable challenge. I tend to mull over decisions, big and small, for a while, collecting information, taking my time, talking to friends, letting my subconscious do its magic to help me arrive at an answer.

In particular, as I reflect on this, it is surprising to me how important it was for me to simply walk my kid to school in the neighborhood, every single day. Or, riding the bus or ferry home at the end of the day. It was time to transition and allow my brain to say “Hey, you may want to focus a bit more on *this*.” These patterns, and the people I’d see, were totems for me – markers that helped me orient position in my world. In work, the totems are colleagues and the human connection of meeting new people; in my personal life, the totems are people in the neighborhood, seeing kids and teachers at school. The totems were a useful distraction. Without speaking, the totems said “You belong here.”

As 2020 ends, the old totems are gone. I think many will come back, but we will be changed when we see them again. I will have to create new totems to orient myself in a new world. Distractions are features, or at least bugs. Background processing is critical for how I interact and move forward in my world. Finding these things again will take time and real work. But, as confronting as it is to say “when things get back to normal again,” we all know subconsciously that this may be actually unattainable. It reminds me of one of my favorite lines: “You can never step in the same river twice.