Ep. #82 Black and Blue Skies with Vice Chief

Words That Move Me with Dana Wilson
Ep. #82 Black and Blue Skies with Vice Chief
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Listening to this episode is the podcast equivalent of stargazing with someone who loves you… and happens to be thoughtful, technical, experienced, and wildly creative.  This week, my husband Daniel, the CEO and Founder of ViceChief , examines the role of light and darkness in the world of a performer… and a prototyper.  He cracks into “uncertainty” like a pinata and king size brain candy falls out.  His thoughts on asymmetry and the difference between action and reaction will have you thinking twice before you brag about your IG following… or praise someone else for theirs. And as if all that wasn’t eye (and ear) opening enough, Daniel talks directly to the posture and stance that can help you position yourself to deal with challenges and to deliver great work.  For Daniel, this posture is not a physical one, it is a conceptual one, and he calls it “Black Sky Thinking”.  When you look up what do you see? Where do you stand… and how?  What do you move, and why?  By the end of this episode, if you still don’t know, you’ll have a great idea of how to find out. 

Quicklinks:

More of Vice Chief here: https://www.instagram.com/vice_chief/

Transcript:

Intro:  This is words that move me, the podcast where movers and shakers, like you get the information and inspiration. You need to navigate your creative career with clarity and confidence. I am your host master mover, Dana Wilson. And if you’re someone that loves to learn, laugh and is looking to rewrite the starving artist story, then sit tight, but don’t stop moving because you’re in the right place.  

Daniel: Hey movers, Dana asks everyone to introduce themselves. I’m Daniel and I do prototyping, opto mechanical prototyping. That means designing and building the first version of some new idea. In my case, ideas that have to do with light, optics and mechanical stuff. Think cameras, microscopes, anything with a lens. I’m not here to tell you about prototyping or my path through life, but rather to tell you what I’ve learned in the practice of prototyping, about three ideas that come together in kind of an interesting way. Uncertainty, posture, and asymmetry in that order. Prototyping is a long way from dance. About as far as you can get, actually. If I move something, I move it with motors, not muscle. I choreograph deliverables, not bodies. When I tumble I’m usually tumbling around a CAD model on screen. Prototyping is all about uncertainty and especially reducing uncertainty. I mean, if you knew exactly what to do, you just wouldn’t make a prototype.  You would never need one. This is a particular problem in my mind for creatives, because by definition, you can imagine doing lots and lots of different things for any challenge. So what’s the right thing to do. If you were like a simpleton and you could think of only one thing to do, you wouldn’t need a prototype. You just do the one thing that you could think of. So having a creative vision, seeing a hundred possibilities in every challenge means that the odds are actually stacked against you like a hundred to one. This is one of those clear and kind of contradictory cases of every strength also being a weakness, a hundred great ideas as at least 99 nos or even thousands If you consider combinations of ideas. Uncertainty, doesn’t just come from having too many choices. It can also be from having too few. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in engineering, it’s that at any time, if someone tells you that you must choose between A or B two things, they are deliberately not telling you all the choices. For example, simplest thing, you can just say no to both or often better, you can say yes to both. That’s four choices in every dichotomy, minimum. Prototyping as a practice, clumsy, as it is, is about keeping an open mind. And particularly it is about finding reasons that things can and should work and then getting down and doing the work, being close to the work. So you can learn from it directly. I am always looking for people who can honestly search for ways that things can happen. And I’m always looking to banish, corrosive people who find problems with every single solution. Another aspect of uncertainty that really faces prototypers and dancers both is that each project, each team, each new shoot is just different enough that you really can’t rely on familiarity. This constant newness is like, it’s a double-edged sword. It keeps your life super interesting, but it also creates tons of uncertainty. Something that I learned from Dana is that in dance, there’s also a personalizing aspect because dance is an act of the body and in the body, the uncertainty ends up landing on you. Were you the right shape, the right color or the right look, did you try too hard to be what they wanted or didn’t you try hard enough? Were you under skilled or over skilled too street or too studio? Either way the uncertainty lives in you, even when let’s be fucking real about this, the people holding the audition don’t really know exactly what they want and what they want is mostly things that can’t be measured. Pizazz, charisma, these things, something inexplicable. So uncertainty from an optical perspective, uncertainty is darkness. When there is not enough light measurements get noisy, edges become indistinct shapes and paths unclear. In a way, not enough light becomes too much information because noise overwhelms the signal. Darkness manifests as dizzying arrays of choices or the swirling confusion of trying to optimize too many things at once. Darkness. This special uncertainty is one of those rare things that you can always rely on. It is a really consistent source of anxiety and frustration, and it can drive a control freak fucking crazy as they try to manage a situation sometimes even through what are probably unconscious destructive acts that reduce the possibilities, right? Break up with someone, delete something, trash something. So you don’t have to deal with it anymore. As someone who loves control, I know all too well that uncertainty and not knowing can drive all kinds of really creative malignant behavior and poor decisions.  So look, people who shine a little light on your dark side and keep a little copy of them on your shoulder. 

Now, since you’re listening to this podcast, I will assume that you are the kind of person who wants to develop an expansive creative view of life. Unfortunately, this means that uncertainty is going to be a big part of your life, but you can develop something that I think of as a posture, a stance, a stance like this has two purposes to help you tumble and get up right again. And so you have a default state when new things come at you, you are positioned well to deal with them. I call it posture, but it’s a conceptual position, not a physical one. And it starts with something, I call black sky thinking. In my life as a research and development engineer, as a creative, as a, as all kinds of things, there’s a notion of blue sky thinking, blue sky thinking, is this idea like, what would you do if you could do anything? And I have labored for years under this broken metaphor. Now, first off we just talked about how the idea of like anything is possible is as much a curse as it is a blessing. The other thing about blue sky thinking though, is that blue sky assumes way too much. For example, that the sun will shine. That we’re going to work during the day that we know even which way is up, that we will be able to see what is happening. Those are all base assumptions in blue sky, and they are not things you can take for granted. I embrace something that I call black sky thinking. Stop what you’re doing. And picture with me a night sky full of stars, do the following position yourself mentally so that there are many destinations, most of them are unknown, but they are full of possibility. That we want to be there among the stars, but we don’t know exactly where that choosing any one path necessarily excludes other paths that we will often labor in darkness and tumble our way to insight. That things right in front of us can take a long time to see. That there are nearly infinite outcomes for each life and crucially that we can have lives within lives. That individually we can shine, but collectively we can illuminate also that we can assemble great constellations of people and be among our own stars. What I am saying is, it is possible to squint hard at the noisy darkness of uncertainty. And instead of seeing uncertainty see a blurry field of sparkling possibilities. Think fireflies in a field at night. It is possible to assume a posture where uncertainty is not so much a threat as it is a field to navigate or a set of problems to solve or a path to find.  

Now, I want to be really clear here. This is really important to me. This is not some toxic positivity telling you that all misfortunes have a silver lining, that everything ends up for the better that everything is fate or part of some larger design. I think that’s bullshit. This is in fact, a stance in which you at the base level recognize that nothing is for certain. The only certain thing is that you will have to face uncertainty. So you might as well grapple. You might as well get down with uncertainty. In prototyping, this is just the default. If you want to make new things, you have to face new problems. I’m going to go through some principles that can help you develop a posture. These are mine. First recognize that even at our best, we are never going to be perfect and there’s no one right way, that it’s mistakes all the way down. Accepting this means making the easy mistakes quickly and with as little effort as possible. It also means taking notes and remembering your answers so you don’t pay twice for everything.  The next thing to think about is to embrace degrees of fucking up. Fuck absolutes. What I mean by this is even the best choices are in some way mistakes. The next thing is be relentlessly creative and a little bit mercurial so that nothing can stop you. But the creative part on this is so important. I can’t overstate this. Don’t be a single-minded idiot and bang on the same door forever. The next thing about posture, the right thing for a project changes from minute to minute, the right thing for a person from year to year, the right thing for a planet who knows. So don’t corrupt this week’s opportunity with your 10 years from now fears and vice versa. When planning always keep this sense of scale in mind, a simple example, my company never signs a contract that lasts for longer than I’ve been in business. This implies that the longer you go on and the more experienced you are, the longer you can plan for now. 

Another thing to think about is information. Action produces information. If you’re in the dark cloud of uncertainty, move in any sensible direction. After moving, you will know more than you did, and you will be better off than when you were stuck stressing out about it. Moving has a cost, but the cost is not as high as drowning in your own anxiety. Again, if you’re in this uncertain situation and you don’t know the right thing to do, one way to approach this is to think of what is the worst thing I could possibly do. How could I absolutely ruin this and then base your next decisions on avoiding that as much as possible. Now you have to be a little bit careful about this because in prototyping, anyway, it’s often my job to like quickly identify the wrong path or many wrong paths so we don’t waste time on them. Because executing really hard on the wrong thing is one of the worst things you could possibly do. So that means that sometimes you have to try out things that look impossible or might seem like obvious mistakes, because there might be some hidden gold there. Another way to think about this is what was a terrible mistake 20 years ago might be exactly the right thing today. So often you have to take a moment and go against the way things were always done. You have to ask yourself, why were they done that way? Or don’t ask that at all. Just try them. Often, There’s no good answer to the question. Why were they done the way they were done? In fact, the best thing you could possibly do in some uncertain situations is burn the whole thing down and start over.  Baggage is super expensive, never forget the cost of baggage, your own baggage and other people’s baggage, technical baggage, the baggage of a discipline. You might, without your conscious knowledge, be optimizing for your own hidden assumptions, which are actually noise. Like how much you think something should cost. Um, for example, like, uh, your cultural background, what you think your audience expects, what you think real ballet is, you know, instead of fighting with your own internal baggage and noisy assumptions, ask yourself the following question. What is right for the project? What is the right thing to do? Considering nothing else, What is the right thing to do? And if you combine this with working your ass off to not do the worst possible thing, you can usually come up with a really powerful approach. 

Now, another thing you can do in terms of posture is to think about repeats. Always have confidence that you will have another chance tomorrow or the next day or the next week. Basically you have a chance until you don’t. If you get another chance, you can try it again. But if you don’t, you’re not going to be around to care. Now, another posture thing, Dana would call this curiosity, but I would call it something else. Remember the world is full of secrets that are visible in full view of everyone. Few people are looking, but most of these things are easy to see. If you’re swimming in your own darkness and your own uncertainty. You’re almost guaranteed to miss these things. So be observant. Look for the obvious. Now, perhaps the most important thing I can share with you is no matter how sunny or how disastrous you are, you can’t predict the future. So you’re just not going to how good or how bad things are going to be. So prepare yourself whether you’re bright-eyed or a shadow like me, for the possibility that an unknown or unimaginable outcome might be way more interesting than you can think of. And if you are certain that your current situation sucks, then uncertainty itself is a huge step up. A simple and poignant example for me personally, is I didn’t know a company like Vice Chief could work. When I left for California. I didn’t know that I could spend my days building new things for interesting people. All I knew was that I needed to leave North Dakota and that I was ready to tackle whatever came and I am still ready. And my sky still sparkles. So that’s my best posture for dealing with uncertainty. But that was pretty damn abstract, right? Like how would you decide what to actually do? When would you decide to do it and how should you act?  And this is where the third idea comes in, right? We went over uncertainty, posture. Now I want you to consider a single word asymmetry. 

Sometimes the easiest thing to do is not to learn how to be, but to learn how not to be. I personally have always been way better at learning what not to be than I have the opposite. So in that spirit to start this section, I’m going to talk about some really dark examples of asymmetry. First one, it is 10 times easier to lie about something than it is to debunk a lie. Sometimes people call this Brandolini’s principle and when they call it that they call it, they say it like this. The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude larger than it is to produce it. I can make up lies right now, but for you to prove me wrong, it takes work. Another example of asymmetry. It is 10 times easier to choose one dancer from a group of auditioning dancers who are all trying to please you than to actually articulate what you need for the project. Some people make whole careers out of this asymmetry, finding that certain something without ever being able to say what it is. Now, there’s another form of asymmetry. That’s even more insidious. And that is action. Having a bias toward action. And when I talk about this, I’m going to quote a pretty evil person. I’m not even going to say their name. The whole quote is in a political context. So it may sound a little funny when I say it, here we go. 

“The aide said that guys like me, we’re in what we call the reality-based community, which he defined as people who believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. Well, that’s not the way the world really works anymore. We are an empire now. And when we act, we create our own reality. And while you are studying that reality judiciously, as you will, we will act again creating other new realities, which you can study too. And that’s how things will sort out. We are histories actors, and you, all of you will be left to just study what we do.” 

Woof. This is why our current culture of reaction on Instagram or whatever. We’ll always be hopelessly behind people who actually make change in the world good or bad by the time you’ve posted it, liked it, reacted to it. It’s already happened. It’s already the new reality. Now with that in mind, think about clout. Another form of asymmetry, but not as you imagine it, I imagine. And there are people listening to this podcast who have a million followers on Instagram, and you should be proud about that. You may feel very powerful with your huge followship. You may have a lot of clout, but think about this for a minute. Real power is owning Instagram. Even with your million followers, you are the one being farmed. That is the definition of asymmetry. Asymmetry is a very important principle and it’s widely applicable. It’s not just evil. It’s not just darkness. The point is to use asymmetry to your advantage whenever you can. So what I’m going to follow up with here are a bunch of simple examples of asymmetry that can profoundly change the course of your life and the way you may decisions a single match costs like one penny, right? But a single match can burn down a million dollar mansion or a rainforest. Think about that for a minute, carefully and clearly. What is a match in your world? A match defines a cemetery. Another form of asymmetry is being the first to do something. When you are the first to do something you aren’t competing against nobody because nobody else has done it before. So for the first little while after you do something brand new, you have a hugely asymmetric situation. Now asymmetry comes in many forms. We talked a minute ago about having millions of followers. A simple thing you can do is ask them for help. They can help you with many, many things. And there are lots of things you can do when you have people all over the world that you can’t do by yourself. Another example probably applicable to this audience. At least some of you, if your parents are paying for rent or college, you actually have some built-in asymmetry. Don’t waste that privilege. Use it to the fullest and use it to elevate the folks around you. Another more subtle form of asymmetry is that you can do things and get help for cheap or free because you are an individual and not a company. That no one would do free for a big company that they might do free for you. Or you can do things that would be unprofitable for a big company, but you don’t care because your first motive is not necessarily profit. In fact, one of the best places to look for asymmetric ideas or neglected asymmetry is in unprofitable stuff, stuff that makes no money, but leads to other things. If everyone and everything has to make a buck, lots and lots of great ideas are being left behind those same ideas can make you notorious. Likewise. If everyone in your situation faces the same problems and delays, then solve those problems and delays or yourself. In my case, doing prototypes, everyone designed stuff on that computer and then they wait weeks or months for machine shops to come back back with parts. So my solution was to buy my own machines and learn to program them. Now I not only can make my own parts faster than any of my competitors, but I can also sell that machine time to my competitors. And this one is a little bit shady, but it’s a fact, there are a lot of things you can do as an individual that are questionable or possibly borderline illegal. And they will go unnoticed because you’re not big enough to be an interesting target in short, when you’re small, there’s a lot you can get away with. Likewise, you can think of it this way. Forget the illegality. You can take big artistic risks the beginning because you don’t have a profile to screw up with no history. Risk is not risk. Another way that things get done, that’s asymmetric is fighting your competitors in a space where they are weak. And a great example of this. As a company, a tech company like Uber, Uber was really an illegal company. They changed the laws to make themselves possible. Now, another thing then you can do as a little entity starting out is use the wake of a giant corporation to power your little ship. You can ride their wave. There’s some mega tech corporation doing something interesting. For example, you can ride that wave to get your own motion started. Now, conversely, if everyone is going one way, go the other way. I have an example in music, there’s a kind of soft, sentimental piano music called felt piano and felt is a market that is getting really saturated. Like every cute Diddy in A minor has been written. So now is the time to start developing hard, complicated, like full metal piano because the world is cyclic. Anyone doing the opposite of what’s popular. Now we’ll be ready to catch the pendulum when it swings back the other way, this works in dance, in music, in art, in architecture, pretty much any creative practice ask yourself right now, where is the pendulum in my industry or my creative practice and who is being celebrated? The answers to those questions, will tell you what is coming next. Another form of asymmetry. And this is one that individuals get wrong all the time. It’s one that I’m very guilty of is that you can hire hardcore experts to solve specific problems for very little money. So rather than letting your project die or taking on the responsibility of learning all of calculus, you just pay someone to solve the problem and move on. For whatever reason, like all big companies understand this and all project managers understand this, but many individuals just cannot understand this. Especially high performing individuals. Now, something to think about is that if you are successful and what you want is to be big and you become big, then most of the advice I just gave actually works against you. So another thing to think about is as you grow, how do you use asymmetry? And there are actually a million examples of this apple computer. It started in the seventies, early eighties, because at that time you could buy open parts on the open market and build a computer and program a computer from scratch. I mean, anyone could do it. Now apple charges developers a hundred dollars, a yearly fee to even be able to write code for their closed computers. And they’re way more complicated than anybody could ever build. This is called pulling up the ladder and you find it in an enormous variety of forms in every single industry and creative industries and tech industries everywhere.  What happens is people start out in a green field environment where like everything is open and all things are possible. And most things work with other things. And then once they have success, they pull the ladder up behind them to prevent other people from doing the same thing. It is a dark, but very real form of asymmetry. Now there’s another form of asymmetry that is particular to creatives. More that is particularly effective on creatives. And that’s what I call controlling the carrot. I’m going to give you a quote from the founder of the Academy Awards. He said, “I found that the best way to handle filmmakers was to hang metals all over them. If I got them cups and awards, they’d kill themselves to produce whatever I wanted. That’s why I created the Academy Award.” – Louis Meyer. 

Now think about this for a minute award towards accolades partnerships, prestigious jobs and affiliations are not just what they seem. They are also a means of control of directing the industry. And if you accept that, then think about this. What kind of value you personally place on an award that was intended to manipulate people? And how do you think about people who were decorated with those awards. 

So to sum up this giant wandering piece, adopt a posture, find a stance that suits you and always be looking for, for, and leaning in to asymmetry. A few final quotes that move me. We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. That’s Oscar Wilde. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to think they’re original Donnie Miller. Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face, Mike Tyson and every dance is your last dance until it isn’t me,  

Me again, wondering if you ever noticed that one more time. Almost never means one more time. Well, here on the podcast, one more thing actually means two more things. Number one thing. If you’re digging the pod, if these words are moving you, please don’t forget to download, subscribe and leave a rating or review because your words move me too. Number two things I make more than weekly podcasts. So please visit thedanawilson.com for links to free workshops. And so, so much more. All right, that’s it now for real talk to you soon. Bye.